Story The Dreamer

Discussion in 'Terraria Literature' started by Garneac, Oct 7, 2012.

  1. Garneac The Red God

    T h e
    D r e a m e r

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    Artwork (acrylic on canvas) done by the multi-talented squidipus. Shower her with likes and oaths of eternal loyalty.
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  2. Garneac The Red God

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    Table of Contents



    Part One
    Chapter Three (Incomplete)



    .........This story makes use of anchors, as supplied by the mathematician and TV connoisseur, Chokladkakan. To make use of this navigation, you'll need his Augmented Terraria Online extension. If you don't want to navigate by anchors, still get the extension, because it makes this site less broken.

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  3. Garneac The Red God

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    Artwork

    F a e d r a
    S a v i e r a n i


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    ........."It's actually how I envision Faedra. I imagine her as being distant, if not austere, with dark, animalian eyes - ageless eyes, in fact.
    ........."High cheekbones, dark eyes, full lips, and a certain exotic cast to her face. It's all I see when I think of Faedra. Oh, and eyes that say, 'I might eat your heart as soon as look at you.'"
    .........—squidipus

  4. Garneac The Red God

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    Prologue

    ........When the Dreamers filed onto the terrace to arrest him, he considered deconstructing their bodies at a molecular level. It pleased him to know he was now capable of this. Instead, he turned and watched her closely to see how she would react: on her face flickered first surprise, then outrage.
    ........(What is the meaning of this?) She stood up when they gave no reply. (This is a private meeting between Advocates. By whose authority do you trespass?)
    ........He spoke: (Yours, of course.)
    ........The hurt look she turned on him was a masterful performance. (How can you say that?)
    ........(It's the truth.)
    ........(I love you.)
    ........(Is that an apology?)
    ........She went still. (I've done nothing wrong.)
    ........(Such careful wording.) He smiled, and then was taken away to the Hall of Principle Axioms where he stood immobile on the courthouse floor for days while around him his former colleagues debated how best to proceed. There was no precedence in place for punishing a Dreamer. It was an honor of sorts.
    ........At one point it was suggested he be put to death; to which he replied in an amused voice, (I cannot be killed.)
    ........The silence that followed was revelatory: not one of them was his equal. The distance between accused and Advocate would now be measured in godhood.
    ........She sat in the fifth tier. Her assault, when it came, was almost casual: (Our role is to observe. We do not interfere. But he's compromised us. We're all agreed there can be no forgiveness.) A slight nod of her head. (For his crimes, the abomination should have both his consciousnesses suspended.)
    ........(I am not afraid to sleep.)
    ........(That's not the point.) She paused, as if to savour the moment. (We will erase you from history. A day will come when you're no longer remembered.)
    ........(Perhaps you will forget.) He studied their faces. (But I will not.)


    ........
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  5. Garneac The Red God

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    Part One

    Chapter One


    ........The god-killer ran across fresh-fallen snow, dragging his prisoner behind.
    ........They came to a frozen stream and crossed, boots hammering the surface. The noise was loud and erratic, intruding into the watch of trees standing sentinel and armoured in snow. Once they’d reached the opposite bank the captor turned to his captive. A brief pause as they stared at one another.
    ........“You have to know this isn’t going to work out.” The ragged merchant tugged at the chain looped around his neck, an act of minor rebellion long since rendered meaningless. “Doesn’t matter what happens now. They won’t let you reach the dungeon.” His lips formed what might have once been a wry smile; instead it was a savage grin revealing shattered teeth and bloodied gums.
    ........The god-killer shrugged. "Let them come."
    ........“You can’t kill all of us.”
    ........Silence, and then: “I seem to be doing all right.” He jerked the chain hard, causing the merchant to stumble.
    ........Another savage pull. He watched the merchant's head snap back, the mouth widen in a silent scream.
    ........When it was finished he looked up at the night sky and saw the stars gazing back. On earth as in the heavens, reflections of the other: distant and implacable, patient and cruel. He wondered if the old man knew he was coming. Query: what use is power if you can’t even save yourself?
    ........In the far distance a horn sounded. The hunters were closing in.
    ........He spared a glance at the cooling corpse before walking off into the woods.

    ........It was some time before the trees began to thin and finally disappear but he had arrived before the hunters at the dungeon. It sprawled across the nighttime fields, a hulking titan with blue-black skin. At its wooden mouth sat a huddled shape. As if by some silent cue the mass of tattered cloth rose to its feet and slowly dusted itself. Eyes like hellfire burned in that wasted face. The old man approached, calling out a greeting.
    ........The god-killer drew his sword in response. The blade ran the length of his arm from shoulder to fingertips, a natural extension of the body.
    ........“Must we do this?” asked the old man.
    ........“Yes.”
    ........“You know what will happen.”
    ........“You’ll die.” He slid his right foot back and leaned forward, sword point raised.
    ........The old man continued walking. Stopped only when the blade pricked his throat. He smiled. “My body might die. My master will not.”
    ........“Then fuck your master.”
    ........The old man opened his mouth to laugh—
    ........—and out crawled the skeletal arm of a god.

    *

    ........Horse’s hooves trampling gently packed snow. Breath pluming in frigid air. The bounty-hunters crested the next rise and slowed their mounts as the god-killer’s corpse came into view.
    ........The men stopped at the top of the stony hill, instinctively reaching for sheathed swords. They looked down at the scene of destruction before them and found it difficult to take its measure. But the Empress had been explicit: I want to know what happens. Remember everything. So they bore witness.
    ........There were furrows in stone hundreds of feet long where a colossal hand had gouged the rock. Dirtied snow was still melting into small pools from the fury of some unimaginable furnace heat. Slabs of earth stood upright like sticks in mud; their casual lean only emphasized the inhuman strength that had wrenched them from the earth. And then there was the dungeon framing the violence: sprawling and sinister. Timeless.
    ........“Red God save us,” one of the hunters muttered as the horses shied from the carnage.
    ........God and god-killer: the collision between the divine entering human space and the mortal attempting to eradicate the holy. Impossible events made possible by the hubris of the man they’d hunted for months now, whipped onward by the Empress’ rising fury: dead or alive, bring him to me.
    ........They slid off the horses and led them down the ravaged slope warily. Like slaves called to appear before the judgment of their master.
    ........The traitor lay on his back, a sword jutting from his chest. The ground around him had been splintered into fragments so fine that as the men and horses neared, dust rose into the air on moonbeams. They looked down into the god-killer’s sightless eyes.
    ........“What was his name?” one of the hunters asked suddenly, and was met with silence. Not that it mattered.
    ........Rope was fetched out of the saddlebags while another man eased the sword from the body. The blade was blue-black and gleamed. They heaved the body onto one of the horses, bound it tight, got back into their saddles. Not one of them was disappointed at not having been able to fight the dead man. What could they have done to stop someone mad enough to battle a god?
    ........A final look across the lifeless ground. The old man was gone for now but he would return in his own time to resume his watch, waiting as the land’s fallen people came forward as they always did in their ones and twos, hoping to master the dungeon's secrets. And here, at the end of the world, the god of bones would correct them of their erroneous thinking.
    ........His punishment would be swift and terrifying.

    ........They retraced the trail out of the frozen waste, arriving where the chained merchant had been murdered. The god-killer had been a silver-tongued fox, cunning as he was deadly, manipulating innocent and damned alike only to brutally dispose of them when their usefulness had run its course. The merchant, they’d learned during the course of the hunt, had dreamed of escaping from under the empire-spanning Guild. Which meant escaping from the Empress. If that kind of attitude was allowed to spread, she’d explained, then other similarly stupid people might get it into their heads to do the same, especially if the wealthy merchant succeeded.
    ........“But he won’t, of course.” She had leaned forward on her Rosewood throne to hold them captive in her gaze. Weighing them. “I will not permit it to happen.”
    ........The bounty-hunters made camp near the corpse, rifling through its satchel and pockets for anything of use. As the sun rose they prepared to go to sleep. In the heart of the Badlands, they slept during the day and traveled quickly at night; reversing the order would be to invite death.
    ........The first man on watch settled down and looked at the others. When they’d fallen asleep he stood up and looked around at the thinning trees and grey skies and over at their prize tied down and strung out on the back of a horse.
    ........He frowned.
    ........Moving closer he saw the blood still flowing from the gaping wound in the chest cavity. Except the hole didn’t look as large as it had before. In fact—he leaned close, ignoring the pungent smell of unwashed skin and sweat and shit—yes, no doubt about it: the hole had shrunk.
    ........The hunter turned his head look at the corpse's face and saw the god-killer smiling back.
    ........“Red God save us,” said the hunter quietly.
    ........“No,” the dead man said, “I don’t think he will.” His smile widened. “That’s the thing about gods. They’re all so unreliable.”
    ........“How?” the hunter managed. His right hand crossed over to his sheathed sword.
    ........“Death is also unreliable.” And in the same light-hearted tone he continued: “I will kill you the second you touch the hilt.” Bound and bleeding he looked calmly at his captor.
    ........The hunter grabbed his sword.
    ........He had time to wonder on the impossible become possible, the divine wearing human skin, before the other man’s foot lashed out and crushed his windpipe. The heavy sound of meat hitting trampled snow woke some of the sleepers; the sound of cold laughter woke the rest.
    ........A moment’s confusion and then they began to move. As they fumbled for their swords the god-killer snapped his restraints. As the hunters rose and began to draw, their prisoner slid down off the horse. Even as they leveled the blades in the other man’s direction it was too late.
    ........The god-killer knelt and drew the dead bounty-hunter’s sword and rose back up to wait. Sword-tip pointing at the snow, a casual stance. He smiled.
    ........They came at him, thinking to overpower by their numbers, realizing their mistake at the last moment as they remembered that this was a man who had survived the assault from a god. Whose appearance now meant he had killed that god. Momentum faltering. Eyes widening.
    ........One man was out of sync with the others, moving forward too far, and it was a weakness brutally exploited: he fell, blood gushing from his neck.
    ........The blade was caught in the collar-bone. The god-killer wrenched it free, then with a sharp turn of the wrist snapped the sword into middle guard; enough power behind the movement to send an arc of blood across the other men's slack faces as they back-pedaled before his advance. He batted away their unsure strikes, answered questioning thrusts with savage cuts. A hunter slid to the right, trying to trip up the god-killer's feet in the cross-over—
    ........—and cried out as his face was cleaved in two.
    ........Some of the men threw away their swords and knelt, calling out for mercy, but none was shown.
    ........
    ........The last hunter was long in dying. His arms ended in stumps and his face was a mass of deep incisions and blood that congealed in the grey light. The god-killer asked his questions.
    ........“Who sent you?”
    ........“The Empress.”
    ........Impossible; then he corrected himself: not so, because these men were proof. But it was too soon. He closed his eyes. Sucked in cold air. Considered where he might have slipped up but found no error in anything he had done so far. Irritation; then he opened his eyes to watch the kneeling man again. "What does she want with me?” he asked.
    ........“Don’t know. Just told to bring you back.”
    ........He thought about that. "Alive?”
    ........“Doesn’t matter to her.” The man tried to swallow, failed. Drool slipped past his lips. “Please,” he begged.
    ........The god-killer ignored him. “Pay attention.” He twisted the blade deeper into the man’s shoulder. “Is Dasgreil still with her?”
    ........“The sorcerer? Yes.” The man groaned. “Oh Red God, it hurts.”
    ........“That's the point.”
    ........“I have a wife. A daughter.”
    ........The god-killer looked at him, puzzled. “Why should the dead care about the living?”
    ........This is the power of a man who murders gods: the blade was pulled from the hunter’s shoulder and severed his neck before the weeping man could register the movement.

    ........He stepped over the bodies and rummaged through the camp before finding his sword tucked away among the satchels. Picked it up and ran a critical hand down the blade’s length; the dark metal felt unnatural and cold, even in daylight. Satisfied it hadn’t been abused he sheathed and turned to look at the bodies. Anyone who came upon them would put it down to the various creatures that lived in the Badlands. Then again, they might not. He realized he didn’t much care.
    ........The pain in his chest was a slow burn. Pulling a face, he lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky. Clouds the colour of sheet metal piled one atop the other and choked out the sun. Everything has an end, living or otherwise. Query: were the bounty-hunter’s deaths also inevitable? Perhaps the moment they’d decided to ride out from Janramak their fate had been to end face down in snow. (How neatly that line of reasoning absolved him of fault: he was simply the means by which the bounty-hunters could meet fate. Yet that made him a tool, and that was something he could never agree to. So be it: he had killed the men because that was the most efficient way to ensure they couldn’t interfere later on. Like a sword drawn and swung and sheathed in one smooth motion, he would remove all opposition.)
    ........He bit down hard on sudden rage. The Empress. Half a world away and she had him in her sights. It was almost enough to make him believe that she was meant to be his end. Almost.
    ........Suitably chilled and soaked clean through, he got up from the snow and pulled down a hooded cloak resting on a low hanging branch. He put it on and gathered what coins he could find in pockets and hidden purses and saddled a horse and rode out.
    ........He reviewed what he knew about the Empress. By all accounts there had never been a woman as beautiful. Or as dangerous. Ever since he’d first woken alone and terrified in this land, stories of her rise to power—and more importantly, her efforts to hold onto power—had been on every tongue of each city he visited. Scholars and common-folk agreed that she was centuries old, appearing as if from myth. Through her Unification Wars she had subjugated all contending territories and forged a nation: Terraria. Armies fell under her hammer, beaten into submission and turned against their former generals. Self-styled kings and queens and lesser nobility bent the knee.
    ........And those who did not bend, she broke.
    ........That was the sole message to her subjects: I will suffer no disobedience. So long as the newly made Terrarians did not resist she sheltered them from both their own destructive desires and from the goblin-raiders across the sea. Titles of rank were restored. Freely elected councils assembled to counter the nobility’s influence, and guilds formed to restrict the councils. She blessed crops and farmers harvested triple their usual returns come fall. Abundance, prosperity, peace—but defiance was rooted out. Witness, she commanded, and her people came to understand that there were fates worse than death.
    ........Now she stood against him.
    ........He snapped the horse’s reins and sped across an eroded trail winding through white fields and clusters of grey and black stone. Even though the Empress was not the target he would have to remove her. The sword at his side, a secret prised from the dungeon’s clutches, would see to that.
    ........Late afternoon found horse and rider cutting across the fields, the faint trail long since disappeared. Weak light filtered down through the clouds. The god-killer arranged in his thoughts the pieces necessary for his next move; variables deemed unimportant took on new significance (and those once important were either set aside or further elevated in their priority). There was a storm of possible outcomes but he saw through the chaos to arrive at the next component in the mechanism that would ensure his escape from Terraria and see the Red God dead.
    ........Stinging kisses from freezing rain jerked him away from his designs and matted his black hair. He pulled up his hood and slowed the horse’s gait but its hooves still scrabbled for purchase on the blanket of snow now become a dangerously slick crust. In the distance sat a house and behind it a couple of spindly purple trees with leaves of darker hue. Wind-lashed branches like gnarled fingers clawed at the sky. He frowned. The frozen Badlands falling behind and a patch of corruption ahead. There was a lesson in this somewhere if he could only tease it out.
    ........When he hammered on the door a giant of a man answered, and the god-killer had to step back from under the porch’s covering into the rain in order to look up at the heavily lined face. “I was hoping for a place to stay the night. Maybe a meal too, if that’s not asking too much.”
    ........The large man blinked. “This look like an inn to you?” His voice was gravel tumbling down a mountain.
    ........“It’s good enough.” Wrong thing to say, judging by the way the man’s jaw clenched, and so he reached into his pocket and dug out a fistful of coins. “Look, I’d really appreciate some help.”
    ........“Not much use for money up here.” And yet he took a gold piece and three silvers, shaking off the rainwater. The god-killer resisted the urge to draw his blade. Instead, he pulled back the left side of his cloak to reveal the sword’s hilt.
    ........The other man wasn’t impressed. “That’s the going rate, take it or leave it. And no weapons in the house.”
    ........The god-killer smiled. “But I’m harmless.”
    ........“I don’t doubt that at all, skinny guy like you”—the god-killer’s smile vanished—“Still, rules are rules.” He crossed his massive arms and waited.
    ........“This is extortion.”
    ........“We ain’t running a charity here.”
    ........The lesson of the Badlands and the corruption made itself clear: he was caught between a rock and a hard place. “Alright,” he said.
    ........The other man nodded as if that were a given and stuck out his hand. “Name’s Jacob.”
    ........“Adam,” he replied, gripping the proffered hand and delighting in Jacob’s surprised grunt. Handing over the sword he kicked off his boots and stepped inside the home and was immediately accosted by a sharp-nosed woman. She took in his wet, dirty clothing and her snort of disapproval rivaled a noblewoman’s scorn.
    ........Jacob came forward. “He’s paid good money.”
    ........“He’s filth,” she said. There was a world of difference between that and filthy.
    ........“He’ll be staying the night, Mara.” His voice brooked no argument.
    ........She took no notice. “We look like an inn to you?” she snapped.
    ........“That’s what I told him.”
    ........Adam made a polite noise and the other two looked over. “A place to clean up. Food. Sleep. It doesn’t even have to be in that order.” As an afterthought he added, “Please.”
    ........Jacob nodded. “The wife will see to your clothes.”
    ........Mara smiled sweetly. “Like hell I will.” She turned and started down the hallway, talking over her shoulder: “Supper’s not for a couple of hours. You can clean up outside at the back of the house.” And then she started screaming for the children to come down because she’d be damned if she was going to do all the cooking herself.
    ........Neither she nor Jacob had mentioned the chest wound.

    ........When it came time to eat, supper was a busy affair, hands reaching across the chipped table for boiled potatoes and crumbling cheese and pieces of the two slightly charred pheasants. Adam watched husband and wife and their children, two boys and a girl, heap their plates with the food and did the same. He lifted a potato to dip into some of the gravy when Mara stopped him.
    ........“We say grace first.”
    ........“Alright.”
    ........“You can lead the prayer.”
    ........He looked at her. “That’s not going to happen.”
    ........Filth, she mouthed at him and assigned the task to the oldest boy. Soon afterwards they were eating.
    ........“So,” Jacob said, “You finish with your business up at the dungeon?”
    ........“Sorry?”
    ........The other man looked smug. “Oh, come off it. Only reason people come this far north is to visit the dungeon.”
    ........“Oh. Right. You get a lot of people through here?”
    ........“Sure. Doesn’t matter what time of year, they all come. People thinking they have it in them to best the old man.”
    ........“Of course they never do,” Mara said pointedly, and stabbed a potato with her fork. “You can’t beat a god.”
    ........Adam’s smile was downright cheeky. “I’m sure you’re right,” he agreed. That irritated her even more; she scolded the girl to sit up straight.
    ........“At least you came back alive,” Jacob said.
    ........“Guess I did.” He nodded. “Found what I was looking for.” He ignored their curious looks and continued eating.
    ........Though small and sparsely furnished the room was warm and in the corners were torches that gave off no smoke. Planes of seasoned wood smoothed and interlocked tight to become the floor and walls and roofing, the table and chairs and even the cutlery. The house was less a home and more a mark of human will imposing some measure of order in this northern wilderness. A life could be lived here. Demanding and thankless, to be sure, but a life all the same: a large man and his sharp-tongued wife and their three healthy looking children.
    ........Jacob had been saying something and Adam turned his attention away from the ice water drowning the world outside.
    ........“The patch of corruption’s been a blessing of sorts, really. Wood is wood wherever you go, that’s what I say, and the trees grow back in no time. Only trouble is trying to keep it contained. If it grows too much, we'd have to pack up and leave.”
    ........“Evil stuff,” Adam said half-heartedly.
    ........Jacob nodded. “Ain’t that the truth. Still, travellers passing through to the dungeon always seem to fancy a bit of vile powder. Doesn’t do them much good though, does it?” He laughed.
    ........A flash of lightning threw their faces into warring light and shadow, and they all paused to look out the window.
    ........“God’s own wrath,” Mara murmured.
    ........Her husband shook his head. “God ain’t got nothing to do with this. Still, didn’t think it’d storm like this.” Soon the couple were debating the finer points of whether or not the divine had a right to interfere so noisily in the workings of the natural world. The bickering had a rote sound to it, husband and wife repeating arguments and counter-arguments that had long since lost any heat.
    ........Adam ignored them and sat still, head cocked. Listening. He switched the carving knife in his left hand over to his right and tightened his grip.
    ........“My sword,” he said, softly, “where did you put it?”
    ........The other man grunted. “Told you no weapons in the house.”
    ........“This is important.” But it was too late.
    ........He sensed someone enter the room from behind and watched the family’s faces slacken with confusion.
    ........Jacob stood up. “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded.
    ........Patiently, as if a parent speaking to a slow child, a voice answered: “In the name of the Red God and the Empress who serves Him, you and your family are ordered to leave this room. Refuse, and you will be subject to the full force of both ecclesiastical and civil law.” A pause, and then: “I doubt you know who this man you’ve invited to your table actually is.” Another pause. “Or maybe you do. We can sort that out later.”
    ........“Like hell we will.” Jacob kicked back his chair but his wife grabbed him.
    ........“No,” she said, her voice flat. Jacob looked at her. “Believe me,” she warned him, “you don’t want to.” If the threat of violence wasn’t suddenly hovering above them all, the two would have looked ridiculous, a stick of a woman restraining a giant. She patted her husband’s thick arm and clucked at his confusion. “Best we do as the Father says.”
    ........They filed out, shooting looks of curiosity and apprehension at their seated guest (whereas Mara looked quite pleased with herself). He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them a bald, lean man draped in silver robes sat across from him at the head of the table.
    ........Dasgreil. High Priest of the Church of the Red God. Called Veratos in the Old Tongue which loosely translated as “seeker of truth.” And arguably the most powerful sorcerer in all of Terraria.
    ........The holy man spoke Adam’s name, brown eyes crinkling with amusement at the visible shock the word elicited. Yes, his eyes seemed to say, I know you. There is no place you can hide from me. “I would have thought you long gone by now,” he said aloud. His voice was cultured and crisp with no trace of an accent.
    ........“Freezing rain changed my mind.”
    ........“I thought nothing could stop you.” The sorcerer lifted Jacob’s cup and drank deeply. His throat was exposed as he swallowed and Adam nearly acted. But then he caught sight of the armour beneath the robes untouched by rain and stopped cold. Metal the colour of dusk, fringed with rose highlights. Shadow armour.
    ........Dasgreil lowered the pewter cup and smiled. Black juice trickled down his chin and he wiped it away.
    ........He said: “I, too, have murdered gods.”
    ........Adam breathed deep to fight off sudden dizziness. And then again. He had made a terrible mistake. Previous calculations were suddenly useless. He fumbled for the next move and came up with nothing.
    ........Dasgreil continued speaking: “You see, to stand before the Eye and the Worm is a blessing. To witness their fall is nothing short of divine. Because even though they are facets of the one true God they are bound like us and so must fall.” His face was a mass of angles and chiseled planes. “Everything has an end, living or otherwise.”
    ........Adam recognized the phrase. “Stay out of my head,” he said with a calm he did not feel.
    ........“No need to read your thoughts.” The man who commanded the hearts of every religious person in the land leaned forward, suddenly intense. “You shared those same words with me once. A long time ago.” He gave a knowing smile. “Memory isn’t what it used to be, is it?”
    ........“Fuck you.” Tantamount to an admission of failure, and it rankled. He looked out the window and then back. “How did you find me?” he asked finally.
    ........“Where else would you be?” A meaningless response and still it was the truth.
    ........Truth. He frowned. Maybe there was a way out after all.
    ........Dasgreil misread the silence. “There was no other outcome. It had to end. The Empress cannot afford instability now when the goblins are raiding in numbers greater than ever before. Imagine a war on two fronts: the savages across the sea and malcontent subjects across the continent.”
    ........Vincent had said as much last week. He considered incorporating the goblins into the design. The mechanism thus far had withstood smaller loads. Mercenaries. Armies. Even the son of an Imperator. But could he harness the power of an entire nation? Somehow, he thought Vincent would disapprove; he smoothed away a grin. “So she sent you.” A tentative thrust, checking for weakness. “Like a dog.”
    ........Dasgreil parried. “Do not test me,” he said, amused. “You haven’t the intelligence.”
    ........“Oh, I seriously doubt that.” Adam shifted in his seat, altering his center of gravity in a slight forward lean. The wind howled and the torchlight guttered, sending the room into brief darkness. Another minor adjustment, this time to his right hand. “But like you said, it had to end.”
    ........“So you’ll come quietly?”
    ........A shrug. “Never been one to make a big scene.”
    ........Dasgreil clapped his hands. “Excellent.” But he sounded unsure. He sensed the trap, even if its exact content was unknown. “Excellent,” he repeated.
    ........“Quite.” And then as if he’d only just remembered Adam asked, “But you’ll want to talk to the old man, right?”
    ........“Pardon?”
    ........“The dungeon’s keeper.”
    ........Silence, and then: “I see.”
    ........“Actually, no, you don’t, but you will.” He tsked. “Only one problem. Minor really.”
    ........Dasgreil’s smile was fading. “Explain."
    ........“I killed the god of bones.” And then Adam snapped his right arm out and let fly the knife.
    ........Shadow armour’s inhuman speed allowed the sorcerer to dodge the blade with a twist of his head. His eyes had hardened to nails.
    ........“I didn’t miss,” Adam said, and the other man spun around.
    ........He kicked his chair back, simultaneously whipping his heaped plate at the exposed skull while leaping backwards out of the room. Not waiting to see if the blow had connected, he started running down the hallway towards the cramped foyer, where Jacob and his family turned at his approach. In Jacob’s hands was the sword.
    ........Adam stepped spider-quick, one arm extended as if in an embrace—
    ........—and punched the large man in the throat. He followed with a knee to the groin and another savage punch and took back his sword. Jacob fell to the floor and didn’t move. Mara screamed. Ignoring her, he weighed the children. It would have to be the girl: innocence and youth and vulnerability.
    ........One of the boys saw this and shouted.

    *

    ........Back in the dining room, the sorcerer had recovered from the feint. He uttered a phrase and the world erupted into chaos.

    *
    ........
    ........Blinding light filled the hallway in a solid wave, and on its heels, agony.
    ........Adam was thrown into the boy who’d shouted and they fell to the floor in a heap.
    ........He grabbed the hand shoved into his face. Bent the fingers back until they snapped.
    ........The boy’s howl was lost in the golden tempest.

    *

    ........Another string of unintelligible words was barked into existence, and the walls of the house bowed and then cracked under the violence.

    *

    ........Splinters and spears of wood whistled through the air. Mara was impaled to the door, a mother’s horror stretching her thin face.
    ........Adam was on his feet in an instant. He grabbed the girl and maneuvered himself into a corner. When her brothers moved close he drew his blade with one hand, laid the dark metal across her throat. The boys stopped—
    ........—and then they exploded into shards of light.
    ........Through their smoldering remains walked Dasgreil. His silver robes were on fire but the heat did not touch him, for in his eyes was the fury of the sun. He spoke Adam’s name, and it was a name filled with the promise of an eternity of suffering.
    ........“Do you know what you’ve done?”
    ........“I killed the old man.” The girl struggled in his arm but he shook her, hard. “Seems we’re not the same after all.”
    ........The house groaned under the tidal stresses of sorcerery. Dasgreil stared. “You stupid man,” he breathed, disbelieving, “If the god of bones falls, the world falls with him.”
    ........“Exactly.” Dasgreil reeled as if struck. “It's you who doesn't understand,” Adam snarled. “This is not a game. I will bring this entire fucking world crashing down if that’s what it takes.”
    ........The sorcerer said: “You will never leave Terraria.” But then he noticed the sword in the other man’s hands and for a moment the brilliance that raged around them grew dim.
    ........“Muramasa,” he said, face twisting with understanding. Mage-killer. “You mustn’t. You cannot.” He stepped back, and the light retreated.
    ........“I will never stop.” And then Adam slit the girl’s throat.
    ........She choked. She tried to push the blade away and cut her fingers to the bone instead. Her mouth widened and so did the second pair of lips on her neck. Blood flowed down the skin and onto the blade.
    ........The sword drank the liquid and grew darker.
    ........Dasgreil spun, fleeing deeper into the house, his sorcerous light dissipating.
    ........Adam let go of the girl’s body. He followed the holy man.

    *

    ........Sunlight reflecting off of muddied snow. The land beaten into submission.
    ........The dungeon’s door swinging open to reveal a black maw—
    ........—and a tall white shape peeling away from the darkness to step out into the light.
    ........A legion trickled out from the dungeon’s innards, skeletons and hooded figures and flaming wheels that roared at the sky and set the air itself on fire.
    ........An unending procession of the dungeon’s secrets made known after an eternity, bringing with them the end of the world.


    anchor::ch2
    Chapter Two


    ........The students staggered around in a circle, shouting praises and singing hymns up at the full moon. One young man raised a square of paper and snorted deep. The square was passed until all the white powder was gone, and then another was pulled out and unwrapped with the respect of worshippers before an altar. Bright eyes, bright stars. The night sky fell around them like a shroud.
    ........As close to the campfire as she dared for warmth, Anya clapped her hands in encouragement. The others yelled back, and increased their feverish movement. For non-believers, they had the intensity of the faithful. The pixie dust has more to do with that than anything, she thought, shaking her head ruefully. It was the same on all the expeditions she led. This final stop in fringes of the Badlands, explaining the rituals that had taken place here since time immemorial (“before the Empress sat the Rosewood Throne,” she always remarked, and watched as the more gullible of the clients raised brows appreciatively) and the slow reveal of the packet of dust. Authentic ancient herbs, she would say. Meant to lift the soul to join with the Red God’s up in the sky (or down below them in the earth, or in a running stream; she was at her best when she improvised).
    ........And always the same result: clothes discarded, wondering faces, a cacophony of words approximating bits and pieces remembered from weekly sermons at a local church. And these were supposed to be top students from Lodicus University. So much for that.
    ........At her side, Landon shifted. “Idiots,” he muttered. “Just look at them.” He tossed another log onto the fire.
    ........“That’s the beauty of it.” Anya leaned over to peck his cheek. “Also, they want this.”
    ........“Only because you tell them they should.”
    ........“Well, yes, that’s the whole point.” She pulled away from him slightly. “Smile. Someone’s always watching, remember?”
    ........“Let them watch.” He leaned close. “I want you.”
    ........“Now?”
    ........“Yes.” He waved at the naked clients. “Let our love be an offering to God. Or some such bullshit.” His smile was greedy.
    ........Anya paused. There was a time when she would’ve agreed immediately—and why not? He was good looking. But that’s where she always stopped now: she couldn’t be bothered to look beyond the winning smile and dancing green eyes. Once it had pained her to admit it, but now there was no hesitation: a pretty face isn’t everything. And he’s not that good of a fuck, either. It was like waking up in the morning and looking around the room, knowing something was missing; a knowledge puzzling in its certainty because at first glance everything seemed to be in order. (“Something’s changed between us,” he had said, “I’m sure of it. Last night was the best we’d ever had.” Landon reaching across the rumpled bed sheets to place both hands on her shoulders, gazing at her with a need so desperate that all she could do was nod mutely, so startled by his clumsy plea of I love you and realizing for the first time she felt no desire to speak those words to him.)
    ........Still, she’d said so herself: someone was always watching. Even if they happened to be a bunch of glassy-eyed academics. And the thought of doing it not just out in the open but in a place as forsaken as the Badlands was kind of kinky. She gave a slow nod.
    ........He was already pulling at his pants. “Good. You’ll be singing, too, when I—” he fell silent, and then, frowning, asked, “Where did he come from?”
    ........Anya turned and saw an old man approaching. He greeted them with a wave. After a moment’s hesitation, they returned it.
    ........“Mind if I join you?” he asked. He glanced at Landon’s lowered pants and a corner of his lips turned up. “For the fire, that is.” Amusement in the lines around his eyes; no harm done, they seemed to say.
    ........Anya nodded, slightly taken aback by the bloodshot eyes. As the old man lowered himself to the ground, tucking his tattered rags around him with the sort of care reserved for cloth-of-gold, she glanced at Landon and saw him arch a brow.
    ........“You alright?” he asked the old man, fully dressed now.
    ........“Never better.” A wan smile. “I just need to rest for a bit.”
    ........Landon blinked. “I see,” he managed, and mouthed at Anya: senile.
    ........Anya ignored him. “What’re you doing out here all alone?”
    ........“I am not alone.”
    ........“Of course,” muttered Landon, “He’s crazy.” He grunted when Anya elbowed him in the side.
    ........She tried again. “It’s not safe out here at night.”
    ........“Agreed.” He fell quiet, the lines of his face deepening into grooves. The student’s drug-induced revelry filled the silence: hoots and slurred song and the offbeat rhythm of feet stamping snow-crusted earth. Just when she’d begun to think he had fallen asleep he spoke: “I'm looking for someone.”
    ........Now we’re getting somewhere. “What for?”
    ........“He stole from me.”
    ........“You’re chasing a thief?” Landon asked, incredulous.
    ........“Among other things.”
    ........Curious, Anya asked what had been taken.
    ........“A sword.”
    ........She froze, remembering.
    ........“Blue eyed, tall fellow. All serious looking?” Landon said quietly.
    ........The old man looked at him. “Where is he now?”
    ........“No clue.”
    ........“Was the sword moving?”
    ........Landon threw up his hands. “Okay, you’ve lost me.”
    ........“Humour an old man, if you will.” He laughed; but there was sadness in the sound.
    ........Anya thought back. There had been a moment, hadn’t there, after the initial scare at turning and seeing the stranger behind them, when she had known there was something not quite right? Although the feeling quickly faded as they tried to answer his sudden slew of questions. Where did you come from? Where are you going? How far is it until El Matar? Has there been news of Dasgreil? And still more questions, all voiced in a smooth, sure voice; the hypnotic gaze that saw her, saw who she really was; and a thrill of excitement as a fantasy took her: to lie down in the snow and kiss this man; to hold and be held by someone other than Landon. Someone outside of the grinding, repetitive work of the touring business she’d entered into what felt a thousand years ago.
    ........Flustered, she looked down and saw in his hand a sword the colour of night.
    ........(And it had moved. She was sure of it. A slight rippling, like metal seen through the haze of furnace heat. The image hardened, clarified, refusing to be tucked away at the back of her mind again, as if it were the result of having accidentally inhaled pixie dust.)
    ........She looked at the old man. He must have seen the truth in her face because he nodded his thanks and slowly stood.
    ........“Look. It’s none of our business, but that guy looked like he could take care of himself.” Anya got up, Landon following. “Forget the sword,” she urged. “He didn’t look like the sort to play around.”
    ........“But he is. He just doesn't know it's him being played, like all the others before him.” Weariness pulled at his face; he had set himself to a task he did not much enjoy. “It will end the way it always has. The Dreamer cannot be allowed to wake up.”
    ........Landon, loud and exasperated: “What in the Red God’s name are you talking about?”
    ........“There are no gods. Only Dreamers. And we are nothing more than tools in their hands.” He closed his eyes, lips moving silently in a conversation neither of them were privy too—
    ........—then he opened his eyes. “I am sorry I couldn't save you.”
    ........Anya smiled to mask her unease. “Landon’s not so bad,” she joked. A gentle punch on his shoulder to complete the facsimile.
    ........“Oh, lay off it,” groaned Landon before turning to shout at the others. When that didn’t work he yelled at them to get dressed. They were leaving.
    ........“It’s not morning yet,” she reminded him, but that wasn’t true: the night was brightening around them.
    ........She turned around, looked up, saw the rising sun break free of clouds—
    ........(but it only just got dark; and then, following abruptly, she thought, this is not the life I wanted; she was filled with a regret so deep she almost wept)
    ........—and then the sun began to fall.
    ........ At her back came the old man’s voice: “I cannot save everyone. If I intervene and spare your lives, all that would accomplish is another group of people dead in your place. Maybe another town this time. The horde will not stop killing until I find Muramasa and restore it to the dungeon." Pause. "A paradox: in order for life to continue, I must allow you all to die.”
    ........The sun split in half, and then once more; endless divisions until the sky was a sheet of flame descending to silence Anya’s screams.

    ........She was slammed into the snow but couldn’t feel the cold. There was just the fire. On her clothes, her skin; in her lungs and mind. The simple act of rolling onto her side took years, and she blacked out halfway; when she woke, the world was still burning, and running in the flames were a legion of skeletons.
    ........One slowed and peered down at her. Its ribs were coated in sizzling chunks of fat and hanging meat. She closed her eyes. When she opened them it was gone.
    ........But she was not alone. Bare feet crossed in front of her before stopping. She rolled her eyes up and saw the old man—and stared.
    ........He was wreathed in flame; a living candle. And where there should have been hissing blood and charred flesh only steel remained.

    *

    ........The sounds of the city waking up dragged him out of sleep, although it was the damned seagulls that did him in. Screeches like broken glass dragged across a chalkboard. (There was another noise nearby, of metal clanking, which after more than a month now seemed so commonplace.) He opened his eyes to the shadows of his room, debating the sense in getting up when lying in bed, lumpy though it might be, was infinitely preferable to another wasted day. Slight irritation; at his momentary weakness, and at the realization that it was justified. Biting back a grunt he got out of bed. His body protested even the slightest of movements; he noted the complaints and promptly forgot them—except for the slight twinge in his right arm. Apparently, last night’s sword exercises had been performed more out of frustration than calm.
    ........With the cries of seagulls far-off, and the muffled movement of The Unjust Queen’s tenants through the walls, Adam stretched. He was naked except for the darkness against his skin. Measured breaths. Sharp exhalations. The monotony of the day’s agenda set aside as weakness was located and purged until he had only the almost sweet soreness of muscles when finished.
    ........He made his way around the bed to the shuttered windows by memory and threw them open.
    ........A magician’s trick: El Matar hidden by fog except for patches where the rising sun burned through, offering glimpses of the Cold Iron district’s tightly packed buildings across the street. Tall and smooth-faced; man-made mountains. Down below on black and white cobblestone, figures moving at a brisk pace, like ant-sized soldiers off to do battle in the banks and Guildhall, the docks and market. (Or it could very well be these buyers and traders hadn’t slept at all, and had been about their business of breeding coins since last night. Perhaps for these prospectors, rest was too precious a commodity to be freely indulged.) Out of the fog stretched black cables, past balconies and brightly painted brick, as if El Matar were a spider’s web writ large. (One such thread was embedded to the left of the window. During his first night at the inn, he had reached out to take hold of it and frowned at the vibrations. A starless sky above, the boisterous, almost defiant, racket of people below. And in full dark, the cables like scars of a wounded reality.) Cupping it all in a grey hand, though he couldn’t see it now, the Oradano Ocean. He could smell the salt spray.
    ........Rustling from behind. He turned, leaning on the windowsill.
    ........By the foot of the door a cloth-and-chain bundle squirmed. It strained against the constraints, forming a parabola before straightening out into a sword. More violent contortions, as if Muramasa chafed under his gaze; metal bending without the aid of forge and hammer, obeying laws foreign to reason.
    ........Feed me, it said.
    ........The command came as a slurry of hatred and hunger sliding in his thoughts, and he shook his head, hard, to clear the compulsion. For a moment there, he’d wanted nothing more than to free the sword and descend to the first floor of the inn where he could slaughter anyone he laid eyes on. He’d even drawn closer to it without realizing.
    ........That Muramasa would need a constant supply of blood he hadn’t expected. An unfortunate, nearly fatal side-effect learned firsthand during his travel to the city down from the Badlands when it slipped its sheath and tried to skewer him. From that point on he’d begun each day by killing a snow fox or rabbit, a sacrifice meant to appease. But it wasn’t satiated; it craved human blood.
    ........Of course, that wasn’t possible. He suspected once he gave in or was forced to use the sword once more, whichever came first, he would have more luck moving mountains than sheathing it again. Besides, it could project into his thoughts all it wanted, he would be daft to unleash the weapon here in a city home to the Agraiman assassins. (Adam thought then of Faedra and her rare smiles and, with less enthusiasm, Vincent; wondered what they would be doing now in Janramak. It was possible they were executing the plan without him. Also, just as likely, they might have begun to question his commitment.)
    ........He padded over to the warped sword, so much like a rabid animal. Knelt beside it. Bits of blue-black metal poked through the package, glinting.
    ........As if suddenly remembering it was supposed to be inanimate, Muramasa stopped moving. It occurred to him that snakes had a similar way of behaving before striking.
    ........Adam gave a slow count to five—
    ........—and on three, the sword lashed out.
    ........He was faster, but only just: he snapped his hand out and clamped down on the bundle. It shook in his grip, chains clanking, eager to carve and rend.
    ........“You,” he said patiently, “are almost more trouble than you’re worth.”
    ........He crouched there until he’d begun to feel a bit foolish, then tossed the bundle back down. The sword arched before slowing to a standstill.
    ........Adam frowned. Where was the frustrated thrashing? He looked at his hand and saw a dribble of blood where he’d clenched an exposed edge.
    ........“Oh,” he managed; and then, “That’s cheating.” There was no pain, just the slight split in skin. No need for the spurt of anger he felt all of a sudden. Even as he watched, the cut was knitting itself closed until there was only the trickle of red to suggest there’d been an injury.
    ........About to wipe his hand on his pants, he realized he wasn’t wearing any, and so brought hand to mouth, licking away the blood. Turning his back on the sword, he got to his feet and looked around the room for clothes and found them piled atop the table by the open window. (A stupid place to put a table. He’d sat there one afternoon writing letters while somehow trying to ignore the wind swatting the stationery. And the rain sneaking past the shutters. That he could have simply moved the table hadn’t escaped him. Stubbornness kept him there until he’d finished, after which he then decided keeping in touch with the others wasn’t worth going through all that hassle again.) He got dressed, fetched the second, properly lifeless sword on the floor by the bed—always in easy reach if he woke in the dark and in danger—buckled it on his left hip and left the room, locking door and pocketing key. There was no one waiting by the lift, so he was alone as he stepped inside, the enameled double doors sliding shut.
    ........“First floor,” he said. A brief hesitation, as if the wooden cage was debating whether or not to comply, and then he was moving.
    ........On the way down he considered the problem of dependencies. Such as the innkeeper’s dependency on the continued patronage of El Matar’s wealthiest, even as those Cold Iron residents frequented The Unjust Queen in smaller and smaller numbers. And the further case of the lift’s reliance upon the thaumaturgy that powered it. Except now the innkeeper’s gimmick, a pseudo-automated elevator, had cost him a dear chunk of what profit the inn generated, so that the fruits of his labour went not into his own pockets but that of the sorcerer who arrived each day in the basement, Aqua Scepter in hand, and who ran the series of gears and pulleys and chains manipulating the water that raised or lowered the patrons paying ridiculous prices for the brief ride. A destructive relationship which would see the owner bankrupt in a few more years and left with no choice but to abandon his livelihood. Broaden the scope to include filial ties, wherein children follow parents who in their old age then turn to their offspring, their legacies, for help. Wider. A king and his people, an Empress and her nation: obedience rewarded with safety; rebellion, with annihilation.
    ........And, finally, him and the Red God; fallen acolyte and former master. A dependency that became domination, love and hate blurring into the other, bringing the moment of his deviation and the subsequent punishment. Expulsion from the dream and the years spent searching for a way back, so as to return in kind the agony he had endured (until he hadn’t been able to endure any longer, and the screams that the god’s flayed fingers had ripped from his throat had been a long piercing note in an ode to suffering). Dependency: everything that happened, the lives lost and those still to die, all of it hinging on the fulcrum of the faceless god torturing a man who decided to believe no more. The effrontery of the task balanced with a need to return home, even if he had no idea where it was or who he had been before. How many nights had he woken up in a cold sweat and looked at the walls of his surroundings, or the ceiling of the star-strewn sky, and hated them for substituting what he’d forgotten? For what had been taken from him? There were other worlds than these. Places where gods had no more authority than what was allowed by their followers.
    ........(A chill passed over him as he remembered the faceless god striding towards him in the distance, a blood-soaked vision crossing the sands as the sun fell into the ocean, knowing with a singular terror that was almost sensuous in the way that it slowly brought him to his knees that there could be no escape.)
    ........When the lift came to a stop he walked out into the common room where Bartholomew the innkeep saw him and barked at another man sitting at a table by one of the windows. The man, wearing a satchel with the strap across his chest and a blue cap atop his head, got up and approached. Stitched onto a purple square on his shirt with yellow thread were the words Divine Deliverance.
    ........“Adam Nalicai?” he asked. Before waiting for an answer he reached into the satchel and brought out two envelopes. “These are for you.”
    ........He took the envelopes and turned one over, hesitating when he saw who had written him. When he opened the letter enclosed the page was blank. He ran the paper’s edge across his thumb and there was a flare of pain followed by blood. The seal broken, words filled the page.

    ........Vincent Ariston to Adam Nalicai, greetings.

    ........You are becoming a nuisance.
    ........Before heading off to our assigned tasks we agreed to reconvene in Janramak. That was a month ago. Now you write to us from El Matar.
    ........I have a map at hand, one of Gabidon's latest gifts. Quite exquisite, if a bit unorthodox; the material is antlion skin beaten soft and stretched to transparency. It shows the entire known civilized world. It also shows that El Matar is nowhere near Janramak. As such, if you leave now, it will take the better part of two weeks to arrive here. Considerably less if you manage to hire a coach. While I shouldn't have to say this, it's always better to be explicit when you're involved: do nothing to raise suspicion on your way back here.
    ........Let me be clear. I neither know, nor care to know, what prompted your detour on route from the dungeon to the capital. Whatever your business in El Matar, end it. Nothing is as important as waking the Dreamer.
    ........Onto business. No news regarding the Great-sword or Blade of Grass. As for Bane, the Empress has it.
    ........How or why the dryad should come to have it, I don't know. One possibility suggests she, like us, is a disciple. There is, however, one flaw which makes further speculation moot: the tension between herself and Dasgreil. It makes no sense for her to be at odds with the head of the Church of the Red God, with the Dreamer who made us.
    ........A final note, something to consider. Janramak is slowly being overrun by a steady stream of refugees from the northern territories. I have heard talk of the refugees claiming they were driven out by skeletons and flaming wheels. Ridiculous, of course; these country folk are just as susceptible to mob hysteria as anyone else. Or so I thought, until I recalled the dungeon you visited was in the north. I can't help but feel there is a connection—even though there should be none. Especially since all you were supposed to do was talk with the old man. In fact, I specifically—and repeatedly—told you not to do anything that might offend him.
    ........As ever, you remain a stubborn man.

    ........Had he not known better, he could be forgiven for believing Vincent was next in line to sit the throne, so thick was the arrogance in his looping, slanted handwriting. “Becoming a nuisance my ass,” he muttered. The son of a bitch thought too highly of himself.
    ........Faedra’s letter, on the other hand, was much shorter, bordering on cryptic: two sentences sharp as the stilettos she always carried hidden about her body.

    ........Faedra Savierani to Adam Nalicai, greetings.

    ........The disciples of god are not gods themselves.
    ........We are immortal, not invincible.

    ........A hand stretched out in welcome, moving too quickly for the uninitiated to notice the blade pressed against palm. That she was threatening him there could be no doubt. Knowing her, she’d make good on the threat, too. He grinned.
    ........“Thanks,” he said looking up but the postman had already left. Folding the letters away into a pocket he nodded at Bartholomew’s glum face and walked out of The Unjust Queen.
    ........The fog was on him immediately, thick and clammy like a drunken uncle’s unwanted embrace. Breathing deep drew in watered down, familiar smells: old stone and salt spray; spiced cakes and ambition. People passed on either side while he walked, appearing suddenly through the grey veil and disappearing as if the city were populated by ghosts. There would be disorder in the streets until the fog lifted; he could hear muffled sounds of polite arguments and, where genteel restraint gave way, pitched battles of shouts and scorn. (Over in the lower districts and further still in the Ashfall slums, the day had started with bruised knuckles and ended with blood. Then again, observers from the wealthier parts of El Matar would comment, how much more different was this low-brow violence than any other day? Not realizing that as spectators to violence they were not unlike its participants.)
    ........He turned down a street and collided with a woman in long, pale blue dress with nose inches away from a section of creased parchment. She looked up, startled.
    ........“I think I’m lost.” Panic in those widening eyes. “Do you know where Guild headquarters are?”
    ........He pointed behind her. “Outskirts of the city, off of where the Imperial road ends. Or begins, depending on which way you’re going.”
    ........She stared at him. “What?”
    ........“Exactly.” He let his hand fall. “That a map?”
    ........“This?” She lifted it as she would a hateful thing. “I suppose it is.” She tore it into strips, then into pieces (not without a certain amount of relish, he noted). “I swear, the streets change when I’m not looking,” she said, exasperated. Then she thanked him and was gone.
    ........He had been like her his first week here, vaguely stunned at the often recursive cityscape; and like her, he had decided to buy a map. To his annoyance he realized soon enough how inaccurate and hopelessly worthless it was. A gathering of blotches, supposedly a cluster of buildings, turned out instead to be a vacant lot. And the map insisted there were no banks in the upper district, defying reality in the cramped, tiny scrawl that stated the Fisherman’s Club occupied that block. Or when he decided, against his better judgement, seeing as how the map had been wrong in everything else, to visit a large park only to find himself standing on the docks looking out onto the ocean. “This is a magical place,” the map-maker had told him sagely, handing over the tightly rolled sheet; and later, when pressed to explain what the hell that meant, added, “No refunds.”
    ........So he had decided to create his own map, an imposition of mind upon surrounding landscape: dividing into grids what moments before was a stone accretion; walking a section each morning, the shipbuilder’s quarters one day, the apothecary complexes the next; collating physical information until he could close his eyes and see an unfolding of lines running parallel and crossing, rising and then falling as straight edges turned into curves. Reducing the world to imaginary markings.
    ........Stopping for a breakfast of seared shark-steak and sweet butter-bread, he stepped back out onto the street—and stumbled as someone ran into him.
    ........He looked around but the man was already out of reach. Shouting after him only got him the middle finger in response.
    ........It was a short walk from the store down some more streets before the jewelry shop’s stained glass windows came into sight. He pulled the door open and entered.
    ........“You’re late,” the merchant said, with a faint air of barely restrained disapproval. “Again.” A gold coin walked back and forth across his knuckles. He tossed it into the air before folding a hand around it (all without looking, of course; his eyes, grey and sharp as fish-hooks, were fixed on Adam).
    ........“This might surprise you, Cormac, but some people actually like sleeping.” He shrugged out of his coat and hung it off a peg on the back of the door. Then he looked the other man full in the face. “It does wonders for the body.”
    ........“So I’ve heard. Don’t bother sitting down,” said Cormac, getting to his feet. “We’re heading out.”
    ........“Oh.” He tried not to look out the coloured windows at the fog. “Don’t you have something that needs doing inside?” He flapped a hand at the gems on display. “Go count some sapphires or something. That always seems to cheer you up.”
    ........Inexplicably, Cormac did smile. “I am going to a meeting,” he said slowly, as if speaking to an imbecile, “which means you are coming with me. Today, you work.”
    ........“Have them come here.” A last ditch attempt which, as it turned out, wasn’t even worth the effort: the merchant was already walking past him, pulling on coat and leather cap. Then he was out the door and there was nothing else to do but bite back a curse and follow.
    ........“You didn’t mention this yesterday,” he pointed out, closing the gap.
    ........Cormac snorted. “I don’t have to tell you everything.”
    ........“Your prerogative, I get it. But I can’t do my job if I don’t know what’s going on.”
    ........“What is going on,” he said, stopping abruptly and turning with lips thinned, “is that certain people have gotten the rather silly idea in their heads that important decisions can be made without my approval.”
    ........He understood now. “You weren’t invited to this meeting.”
    ........“No.” He looked away, annoyed.
    ........A mock bow. “My condolences.”
    ........“What I want from you is obedience, not sympathy.” He made to walk off—
    ........—but Adam held him back.
    ........“It seems to me,” he said after a moment, “that you still don’t understand the arrangement between us.”
    ........Cormac bristled. “I don’t have time for this.”
    ........“Then make some. Or don’t. I don’t particularly care.” He released the sleeve. “Just don’t make the mistake of thinking yourself my superior.”
    ........“I sometimes question the point of keeping you around.”
    ........“That’s funny,” said Adam. “I feel the same way about you.”
    ........Cormac was silent. “If I thought you were playing me,” he said finally, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
    ........He laughed at the threat, the melodrama behind it. “I’ve died before. It’s not a big deal.”
    ........A flicker of fear in the merchant’s eyes, gone as quickly as it had come. “You’re using that pixie dust, aren’t you?” he accused, a bit too loudly. “Why am I not surprised.” An evasion to recover his ground.
    ........He didn’t give him the chance. “Back when I used to dream—back when, like you, I thought myself better than my superior—the Red God would disassemble me in the same way an engineer takes apart a faulty machine. I died and was remade so many times that I didn’t know what those words meant anymore. Of course, that was the point. Or one of them, anyways. A lesson on how treacherous the parts which make up our bodies are. Flesh, blood, bone. Nothing more than elaborate lies masking the mind’s truths. Here, let me show you,” and he marshalled his will; he looked at the other man’s face, and then into his face, past the ruddy appearance to where muscles flexed, animating the confused expression; he saw the steady pulse of veins beneath skin; he saw the truth.
    ........He spoke: “You’re playing the cost-benefit analysis, wondering if it might not have been better to turn me over when those Agraiman assassins approached you asking after me. You’re surprised; you weren’t aware I knew. The point is I know now.” A pause here as Cormac’s thoughts, like an animal’s frantic thrashing, beat against the inside of his skull. He tracked the echoing struggles until he knew their shape and genesis. “This meeting will be held—no, you can’t hide from me, don’t you get it? The meeting will be held less than an hour from now at a building marked for demolition. You find the setting ridiculous, indulgent even, like they’re children playing at spies. Full of yourself, aren’t you? You remind me of someone I know. Except Vincent would look down on you the same way he does everyone else, even if the bastard doesn’t admit it: you are irrelevant.” He was losing control and stopped, realizing he’d backed the other man into an alley and had him cornered. Still, there was enough light here to see the face, and that was all that mattered. The link would stay open. He honed his intent, saying: “The councillor will be there. Who’s the councillor?” He delved deeper. “He’s from the south, but you don’t know where. A newcomer. Influential.” Surprise; then confusion. “You’re scared of him.”
    ........“Enough.” Cormac closed his eyes.
    ........ Adam severed the connection, gratefully pulling back into himself, the sense of dual, conflicting identities ebbing. (How Vincent claimed he could do this for hours beggared the mind; to almost lose yourself to another person in ways love never could.)
    ........“What just happened?” Cormac sounded shaken, but even so, his composure was commendable: already he was standing straighter, the calculating look returning to his eyes, as if he would find a way to turn such a trick to his advantage. “You never told me you were a thaumaturge.”
    ........“I’m not.”
    ........“Don’t lie to me.” He took off his cap, running a hand through white hair. “Fine. What do you want? A raise?”
    ........“You don’t pay me.”
    ........“Then what?”
    ........“Passage across the ocean.”
    ........“What for?”
    ........“To meet the raiders.”
    ........A beat of nothing. “And what makes you think,” said the merchant slowly, “I could ever arrange something like that?”
    ........“There are a lot of things you can do.”
    ........“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    ........“No? Then let me explain.” Adam looked down, considering his reply, before meeting the merchant’s wariness. “I am tired of this city and I am tired of you. No, listen—listen to me. It took a while when I first got here, but once I realized who you were it made sense to fit you into the plan. The problem was getting your attention. The answer, of course, was money, although owning it wasn’t the point. The point was to show I knew how to get a large amount as quickly as possible. To make a man with your wealth and influence stop and consider the usefulness of an individual able to correctly predict and win at the gambling houses. At the stock markets. At the fighting pits. I made myself so remarkable you believed it unforgivable to allow someone else to snatch me up. And that’s where the difficulty started.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Instead of acting like a good little cog, you’ve done nothing but fuck up my designs with your Guild power plays and secrecy. I couldn’t just take from you what I wanted, because I wasn’t sure you knew a way to the raiders. Forcing the issue would bring the Agraimans down on me and maybe the Empress, and I’m not ready to deal with her just yet. So I’ve had to finesse you. It almost got to the point I was beginning to regret having involved you at all.
    ........“Until now, when I looked inside you. Thinking about the councillor drew several associations, foremost being the raiders. You’re worried he’s going to find out you’ve figured out a way across the ocean to the goblins. Actually, that was a guess. Your twitching just now confirmed it.
    ........“This is what we are going to do. We go to the meeting and I do my bit. Afterwards, you take me to the raiders. If you don’t, if you think you can brush me aside or try to run, I swear, Cormac, I will do such things to you—” he checked himself, breathing once, twice.
    ........Then he smiled. A stark reminder that it was no more than the peeling back of lips to reveal bared teeth.

    ........They crossed a bronze bridge wrought in the curves of the extinct wyvern, while below them coursed waters separating El Matar into its many districts; the silvered surface was so reminiscent of lightning that it was possible to believe it came down not from the sky but surged up from wet earth in shimmering silver streams. On the other bank, the wyvern’s snarling mouth seemed to protest the grime masking it like a second face. That life was cruel indeed if such a feral beauty could be left to rust on a bed of ash so thick that the grass beneath grew and died in darkness. The contrast, while startling, was standard El Mataran cheek and excessiveness: a mastery of thaumaturgic-metallurgy diminished to little more than a marker announcing the awful stench of Ashfall and its residents. (A moment of amused clarity as newcomers realized the currents were natural barricades for enclosing the sprawling slums in the same way plague victims were quarantined.) Soot-stained factories belched a permanent haze of coal into windowless buildings rising like tumors. Torch-topped poles jutted from street and trash and roof like small, smudged suns. People here did not walk, they trudged.
    ........He followed Cormac into a building which leaned on another for support, up stairs that fossilized their passing, so thick was the coating of dust over years of abandonment. On this level were rooms with missing doors, each one dark and quiet as they walked past. Except for the room at the end of the hallway, where light and voices spilled out. When they entered, people stopped what they’d been doing to look—and then stare. Their expressions were universal in meaning: oh shit.
    ........“Cormac?” a woman asked, voice unsteady. “What are you doing here?” She took a long swallow from a fluted glass of blue liquid before setting it down hurriedly on a side-table where it shattered. She winced. Then, as if struck by inspiration, busied herself with inspecting the shards as if they were exquisite jewels suddenly requiring her utmost scrutiny.
    ........“Usually, between friends, it starts off more like, ‘what a pleasant surprise.’” He walked past her, briefly resting a hand on the nape of her neck. “Between friends, of course.” She gave the slightest of shudders at his touch but made no other move.
    ........Another man chimed in: “I know what this looks like, but isn’t what you think it is.”
    ........Cormac rounded on him. “What you know, or think you know, is of little use to me.” The man stumbled before his anger. “If I ever need a worthless opinion,” Cormac went on, “I’ll be sure to ask you. Until then, keep your mouth shut. That goes for the rest of you as well.”
    ........He stamped out resistance with hard words and brisk gestures. Adam leaned against the doorframe, looking on with admiration while smog drifted wraith-like past warped windows.
    ........“We were asked to come here,” a portly man explained (and his fervent hand-wringing made Adam grin), “you have to understand that. We’d never go behind your back.”
    ........“What would you call this then?” Cormac’s raised hand cut off the blubbering reply. “Don’t waste my time.”
    ........Adam looked up at the sagging ceiling where holes like open sores marred the wood. There was a flapping noise coming from above. Some bird stuck on the next floor. He dropped his gaze back to the fray.
    ........“You don’t own us, Cormac.” This from a furiously blushing woman clutching at her shawl for reassurance.
    ........He laughed. “Go on.”
    ........“We have every right to meet with who we want.”
    ........“That is debatable.”
    ........“You can’t stop us.”
    ........He stopped laughing. “Yes, I can.”
    ........“We’re just as much a part of the Guild as you.”
    ........Head cocked. “Am I to understand then that you’re all here in your capacity as full members?”
    ........A long pause while they tried to decipher the too-sweet lilt of his question. “Yes?” they answered, the word polysyllabic in their uncertainty, as if it could be taken back at the last instant if they changed their mind.
    ........ “Fine. Let me remind you—all of you—of how this works.” He raked them with pale eyes. “You all belong to the Guild. Therefore, you all belong to me.”
    ........The trapped bird was getting louder. Adam frowned. None of the others seemed to notice. It could be they were too rattled by Cormac; if possible, they would’ve fled if not for the knowledge the man would follow. That was the entire point of this little act: to teach them the meaning of fear. He thought about the Guild. Centuries old, it couldn’t have lasted so long without keeping its various short-lived parts in check. There were acceptable margins for error when it came to business, yes, but wilful error, such as the thought of striking out independently, was intolerable. Blasphemous even, where the Guild’s deity was burnished coin and not the Red God—although no one would admit to that, of course. Discretion in all matters. Even when ruthlessly plucking from garden all offending weeds.
    ........The only one missing in this drama was the councillor. There had been genuine terror in Cormac’s mind earlier. Although judging from his relaxed stance, the other man wasn’t present. Inevitable query: where was he?
    ........At that moment, Adam realized two things: the sound of flapping wings had stopped; and there was someone standing behind him.
    ........He whirled around, sword-hand reaching for hilt—
    ........—and an iron vise clamped down on his wrist.
    ........“There will be blood.” Looking down on him a tall man in form-fitting blacks and reds. “But not now.” The dark-eyed stranger waited a moment before releasing his grip.
    ........“Who the hell are you?”
    ........“Councillor Hasvatos Encagra.” A cursory nod. “Did I hurt you?”
    ........“I’m fine,” lied Adam; his wrist throbbed at his side. “Just startled. It’s not everyday someone gets the drop on me.”
    ........“You should be more careful.”
    ........“Thanks. I think.” He frowned, taking a closer look at Hasvatos. It took him a moment to understand what he was seeing, but when he did, he had to fight the urge to reach for his sword again.
    ........The councillor’s face was all wrong.
    ........He was handsome, striking even. Unblemished skin and high cheekbones. A steady, direct gaze. Smile lazily unfurling. But that was where it ended. Behind it all, where Adam should’ve been able to track muscles and the cues they betrayed, there was emptiness. A hollow human; a living lie.
    ........(He thought about the Red God: the featureless face behind which had nonetheless been eyes that saw eternal; the absent mouth which had consumed with equal measure his obedience and love, his fear and hate; the mind that had dreamed a world into existence.)
    ........Here was a man whose face held secrets he could not read, possessing the strength and speed to stop him drawing.
    ........He stepped aside to allow the councillor space and looking inward found something he hadn’t come across in a long time: uncertainty, that close cousin to fear. He examined it, tested its depth and, displeased, discarded the aberration before following the councillor into a room which had gone uncomfortably silent.
    ........Where Cormac had been a wolf disciplining a wayward pack, Hasvatos was a king among subjects. His stride was stately as he made his way over to a table at the front of the room and sat on its edge. He offered an explanation for his being late which upon reflection actually explained nothing at all. He made no apologies.
    ........“Sit down,” he said. His smile charmed away all resistance.
    ........Shaking his head, Adam took a seat beside Cormac and, leaning over, whispered, “All that work for nothing.”
    ........It was true. The councillor’s presence strengthened the others, confidence creeping back into their voices until they were relaxed once more. They weren’t ignoring Cormac—they’d forgotten about him.
    ........Except for Hasvatos. He glanced over at them. It was like watching the sky darken. “Neither of you belongs here,” he remarked, as if surprised they hadn’t left.
    ........Cormac raised his chin. “I could say the same thing about you.”
    ........“I called this meeting.” His hands were pale spiders resting on top of the table; he walked them over to the edge where they crawled into his lap. “I have every reason to be here.” He stopped. “But that’s not what you meant.”
    ........“No, it’s not,” Cormac drawled (but when Adam looked at him, he saw behind the bravado a quickening pulse). “When I found out what these fine men and women were up to, I decided to ask some questions.”
    ........“About?”
    ........“You.”
    ........“I see.” The councillor’s eyes drank the light. “Tell me what you learned.”
    ........“Very little, as it turns out. No one seems to know much about you.”
    ........“I have family all across Terraria.”
    ........“Interesting you should say that,” replied Cormac, leaning forward. “I had a friend of mine check with Imperial records. No member of the Encagra line has ever been registered.”
    ........“I never said my family was worth noticing.”
    ........“The anonymity works in your favour then.”
    ........A faint smile. “Most things do.”
    ........Cormac laughed; there was irritation in the sound. “Well then.” He repeated himself. “Well then.” His own attempt at a smile was still-born. “I suppose the next stop is the Rosewood Throne? Don’t think the Empress would appreciate that.” Nervous chuckles at the weak joke, like animals catching scent of an impending, violent storm.
    ........That was when Hasvatos informed them the Empress was missing.

    *

    ........The last time she had been seen was when the throne had been hearing petitions. Praetan Juris, a middling lord with some estates in the miles long expanse marking where the north ended and the Badlands began, had asked for a private audience and, when denied, got down on his knees to beg. Northerners, inhabitants of the lands of ice and snow, well known for their stubborn refusal to curl up and die on those frozen fields; yet there had been Praetan weeping in full view of the court.
    ........He won his audience in the end, once the day’s requests had come to a close—and was subsequently never seen or heard from again. His retinue still came each day to the Citadel asking after him; the imperial staff’s response remained the same vague but hopeful apology.
    ........Gossip became rumour became full-blown make-believe: he had offended Vercona with his tears; he was financially ruined and seeking help; he was a Devotee of the Dryad come to die in her Garden. Speculation eventually entertained the idea that perhaps it was the news he’d shared with her, and nothing to do with him, which was the reason for his disappearance. Latching onto this theory, the curious had swarmed with eerily unanimous resolve to inquire after, then forcefully interrogate, Praetan’s retinue who, still shaken by his absence, responded first with confusion, then with sternly worded warnings and finally with swords, sending the city into a spiraling political nightmare with those powerful northerners still in Janramak at the time—the Averiss and Raikon families, the Voltarine Consul—clamouring for the heads of the gutless, instigating southerners or, failing that, their not inconsiderable wealth. The insulted parties stated they had no intention of giving recompense, other than to suggest the representatives go back to their frigid hells and continue fucking the polar bears or whatever it was that passed for pleasure there. The requisite months, perhaps even weeks, needed for the utter unraveling of already tenuous relations between the north-south cultural divide happened in a matter of days. The speed with which both camps readied themselves for slaughter alarmed those who could legitimately call themselves neutral in the entire debacle, leaving them to wonder why the Empress did not intervene.
    ........After a week of relative peace—the sort which only presaged the violence to come—in a tavern near to closing its doors for the night, an imperial staffer deep in her cups let slip to barkeep and few remaining patrons that if Vercona were still around, the dispute would have been settled, by force if necessary.
    ........Understandably, her considerably less drunk audience wanted confirmation she was, in fact, saying the Empress was not in Janramak.
    ........“Of course she isn’t,” the staffer said much too loudly. “The crazy bitch has been missing for almost two weeks.”
    ........She then proceeded to throw up. When she could again count to ten without fear of passing out, she noticed there was one less person in the room. Another cup later, she astutely observed everyone but the wide-eyed barkeep and she had left. Getting unsteadily to her feet, the staffer wondered if she hadn’t just done something terribly stupid.

    ........When the sun came up the next day, it dawned on a city about to implode.

    *

    ........For a while there was no sound save for the muffled drumming of factories far off, a slow counterpoint to their racing minds. Scenes of ships struggling to stay afloat a wrathful Oradano sea peeled away in listless strips; behind the wallpaper the surface was pockmarked, as if silent, eyeless beings watched from within a cage of crumbling brick and thin baseboard.
    ........A narrow-faced Guildswoman wearing a silver-slashed coal-coloured dress spoke first. “Praetan Juris,” she muttered. “Why does he sound so familiar?” Out came a weathered brown notebook which she flipped through until she stabbed a page triumphantly. “Figures.” She looked up at the others. “Praetan is related to Mondo Juris, the man responsible for the daybloom fiasco.” A breath of ahs around the room followed by disappointed, but amused, head shaking.
    ........Adam cleared his throat. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
    ........“What? How do you not know…” She stared at him. “Hold on now. Who the hell are you?”
    ........“A new partner I’ve been doing business with lately,” Cormac interjected smoothly. The far too pleasant look he shot at Adam made it clear that no further noises were to leave his mouth.
    ........Adam ignored him. “You were saying about Mondo.”
    ........“I was saying he was an idiot. Let me see.” She scanned a page before continuing. “Prior to Unification, he was one of the first to realize both the Empress’s campaign and her existence would change everything. He made his way down to Janramak, only a string of villages back then, swearing full support to her cause. Once established years later, he decided in all his wisdom to take out a loan from the Silver Sons and finance what he called a small gardening project up north. That decision,” she added, with unmistakeable disdain, “is the point from which he lost everything. Apparently, the bank was also run by idiots, because no one thought to ask what, exactly, he would be growing. So Mondo takes a sizeable loan, makes all necessary preparations and, not surprisingly, isn’t able to get a single daybloom to survive in the cold. He is also unable to repay the loan. Since he’s a northerner, which is shorthand for ‘a fucking fool’”—there was a startled, offended noise from someone to which the woman made a flippant gesture—“the lands, and the estates enclosed within, which he put up as collateral are seized and sold. Enter right a bloated bank; exit left a destitute dimwit.” Another cry of protest; she gently responded with a colourful expletive.
    ........“Maybe I’m missing something,” Adam said, “but I don’t see anything particularly frightening about that.”
    ........“Mondo believed he could grow dayblooms in a frozen climate where they have never before thrived. I find his brand of stupidity bone-chilling.” She shrugged. “Of course, things became considerably worse when the sorcerers found out.”
    ........“How so?” Then he winced, understanding. “Oh.”
    ........“Exactly. I suppose he consoled himself by thinking they wouldn’t do anything since the project never worked out. Like I said, an idiot.” She shut the book. "Demanithro. Vaccaneli, Majira, Ferasere. The Krusata.” Each academy was punctuated with a raised finger; then the fingers closed into a fist. “Do you know the Juris family used to be a Great House? Of course you don’t. Not many do, it’s been so long. The only reason why any of them are still alive is because the sorcerers thought it would be much more enlightening to stretch out their punishment throughout generations. As opposed to, say, just wiping them out.” She paused. “Like they did the Silver Sons.”

    *

    ........Though it seemed unlikely, so firmly entrenched in memory was her centuries-spanning rule, there had been a time before the Empress—Lady Everlasting, Mother of the Earth, sole successor to the Rosewood Throne—had yet to descend upon and bind to her will all the contending Great Houses during the War of the Nine Kingdoms; a time when if anyone was asked who among the competing factions stood out as an undisputed authority, the answer given every time without hesitation would have been the five schools of sorcery.
    ........ Most historians, whether from the prestigious Lodicus University, the Sodratha Collegium in far west Quindai, or lesser but still respected academies throughout the continent, seemed bent on explaining to whoever would listen that pre-Empire was man in a fallen state, no better than a beast of burden—said burden being man’s lust for power after undeserved power (at this point, the hapless victims would nod and smile vaguely at the lecturer; less patient individuals gave the finger and moved on). Yet even the scholars could not deny the influence of the thaumaturges who fashioned instruments designed to ply the arcane.
    ........Regardless of social standing, those with Talent made their way into one of the five divisions. There they trained in the arts until they mastered their gift or were killed by it. Unworthy or unlucky initiates who could not pass that year’s comprehensive exams had their Talent taken away; no tears, no prayers, no amount of bribery or screaming could stop the older practitioners from culling out the failures. Rogue sorcerers or self-trained wizards and witches were hunted down and executed.
    ........Few things distracted them from their studies, aside from summons requiring they stand before the Throne, or if a war broke out between the schools.
    ........Or if some unfortunate soul made the mistake of stealing from them.
    ........Moonglow and waterleaf. Blinkroot and deathweed. Ubiquitous daybloom. All magically attuned flora and artifacts belonged to them in perpetuity. Theirs was a monopoly established not by cunning or trade but by the spectacle of fear.
    ........For these were thaumaturges who spoke spells shaping cities out of stone and wood and glass. Or with a single word could set those cities ablaze with never-ending fire.

    *

    ........“Am I the only one here,” Adam said suddenly, “who thinks this is bullshit?”
    ........Beside him, Cormac choked; from the others, considering looks cooling into contempt.
    ........Not that they mattered. He locked eyes with Hasvatos. “People don’t just up and decide it’s a good idea to torture aides for curiosity’s sake.”
    ........“Some people,” Hasvatos replied, “are naturally violent.”
    ........Adam decided he didn’t much like him. “What’s next?”
    ........“There is a power vacuum now. If the Imperials stall, Dasgreil will fill it. There’s always—”
    ........“No.” Was it just him or did Hasvatos sound satisfied with the mess? “I mean this meeting.”
    ........“Pardon?”
    ........He made sure to enunciate. “Her disappearance is incidental. Wouldn’t have come up if Cormac hadn’t given you the opening.” There: a slight wrinkling of the councillor’s brow. Adam was absurdly pleased. Vercona’s mystique like a bubble popped, taking with it the councillor’s hold on the room—even though, of course, she was far from incidental. But that wasn’t the point: the others straightened in their seats; he looked into their faces, saw embarrassment at being so easily distracted become a hardening of resolve in tightening muscles. Control. Adam would have control.
    ........Hasvatos took from pocket a folded brown cloth and lifted one corner at a time, at the center of which lay a nugget, violet and fissured. “The secret sorcerers have killed to keep.” But he was openly annoyed now, inscrutable face or no. “Demonite.” Another cloth taken out which flooded the room with red and orange light when opened; a shimmering flower. “And this the secret that will make sorcerers obsolete.” A long stare. “Fireblossom.”
    ........It seemed he was going to say more but then he looked up at Adam. His face perfectly still except for the light in his eyes like flames.

    ........“That was pretty pointless,” said Cormac after the meeting had ended. “His presentation, I mean.”
    ........“I ruined it for him.”
    ........“My heart weeps.”
    ........They walked through Ashfall, god-killer relaying observations on whose loyalties were true and whose in flux, other hidden knowledge, the merchant nodding brusquely. They passed a building surrounded by a ring of onlookers with heads craned. Motionless, they blended into the scenery; tall shrubbery that just so happened to have faces.
    ........“What do you know about fireblossoms?”
    ........Adam shrugged. “Never heard of it.” He was disappointed. Hasvatos had turned out to be little more than a false-faced oddity, the meeting a waste of time. If anything, it might make it easier for Vincent and Faedra to steal Bane. (In his mind a machine was trundling along, suddenly unencumbered, its speed fractionally increased but a gain regardless, and he had to make sure the next section of track was laid down or else it would derail.)
    ........He soon lost patience with the merchant’s questioning and broke off down a street with an abrupt goodbye. When Cormac caught up to him and took hold of one arm Adam turned. “Move away, little man,” he said, quietly, and Cormac did, falling behind into the grey and desperation and wheezing noise of the dying district.
    ........So busy was Adam with forecasting and organizing motives and consequences that he didn’t notice he was being followed.
    ........Those denizens who saw gave pause, unable to make sense of this man with ice for eyes and the footprints in ash shadowing his own.

    ........In his room he took out a length of paper and began to write. When the letter was finished he went down into the common room and asked of Bartholomew an envelope. As payment, he was forced to listen to the man’s middling conversation about the shrinking business and the Red God’s black humour and had he heard about the Empress up and leaving court, just like that, as if she didn’t have any responsibilities, no obligations, no people to protect and keep safe, even if, sure, no one could ever say that to her face, especially now, since she was nowhere to be found and wasn’t the entire matter just bizarre?
    ........At the table again, writing Vincent's address on the envelope and sealing within the letter. Finished, he left it alone, then undressed and took a shower. Before closing the shutters, one last look at the city both magnificent and malignant; the image imprinted, it accompanied him as slept through the afternoon and late into the night until he woke with a start.
    ........He slid out of bed across the room to his clothes and rifled through the pockets; at first careful, then hurried; but he finally stopped and accepted that Faedra's and Vincent’s letters had gone missing.

    *

    ........This is how the city with no walls defends itself: the dangers threatening its existence, both the realities and the ideas behind them, are sold to the masses like any other commodity. A professional transaction in which each person receives a thrill commensurate with the price paid. The drug trade is regulated and taxed by the Guild (as almost all things are) so that a tourist can purchase a narcotic from a selection ranging in intensity from gentle numbness to dementia. Political protests become instead opportunities for each party’s grievances to be sampled and discarded by the curious but too-busy public. Subversive literature is never censored, just expensive. Nothing is taboo because all pleasure is sacred.
    ........And there is little more revered than the opportunity to murder. Where a small payment allows admission onto the killing grounds that are the wide open plains surrounding El Matar’s western face. An attraction calling to arms the disturbed, the normal, the inquisitive and the patriotic. Each night slaughtering the dead who walk the earth as stars shimmer behind moving screens of floating eyes.
    ........Folly turned profit. Nowhere else in Terraria are people charged a fee for doing what in any other place is mandatory for survival. But in El Matar, the cyclical struggle between humanity and nighttime horrors is promoted as sport, as game, as an event free of risk (and when some competitors die their deaths are spun until they serve as further enticement to join).
    ........“Everything is fine,” proclaim the people, “everyone is safe. Nothing is wrong and no one can hurt us.”
    ........The mantra is repeated often enough that they have forgotten it is a lie.

    *

    ........The next day the Divine Deliverance’s manager unlocked the front doors of the three-storey building straddling the district divide between Cold Iron and Lover’s Lane. Inside, she took off her coat and slung it over one arm, humming as her eyes adjusted to the gloom; so she was badly startled when she finally noticed the man sitting behind the front desk. A familiar face, although she could not figure where from.
    ........He nodded, stood up, came around to her. “Right. I have a letter for some people in Janramak. What’s the fastest way to get it there?”
    ........She blinked. “Who’re you?”
    ........He shook his head. “No one important.”
    ........“That so?” She frowned. “And how’d you get in here?”
    ........“Through a window in the back. Although, again, not that it matters. Now,” he added, taking a step closer, “about the letter.”
    ........“Look,” she said, “I’ll be nice and give you three seconds to get off the premises and I’ll conveniently forget to report the break-in to the Watch.”
    ........“I see.” He shrugged. “Well, if it helps, the window was open. So, technically, I didn’t break anything.”
    ........“One,” she said, and that was as far as she got because he was suddenly in front of her, as if the intervening space between them had been an illusion.
    ........He grabbed her by the arm; then his grip tightened.
    ........This had gone far enough. She was a big woman, and drew herself to full height. “Let go of me,” she snapped.
    ........“No.” He pulled her despite her struggles. Away from the door and prying eyes. She realized this and swung at him, but then his fingers dug into the flabbiness of her arm and it was all she could do not to collapse. How could so much pain come from so little movement? He dragged her along with alternating clenches of firm and agonizing; across the empty sorting floor where stacks of envelopes and parcels waited in the glow of torches. She heard a low keening, like a small animal dying. A moment before she understood she was making the sounds. There would be bruising. An ugly dark purple by the afternoon shift. Then a thought occurred to her, so absurd she was genuinely unable to comprehend it until they’d reached her office at the back of the building: I might not live that long.
    ........“I’ll scream,” she warned, trying to mask the waver in her voice. “I will.”
    ........“Be my guest.”
    ........She did, until all the air rushed out her lungs and her ears were ringing. Coughing now, throat raw. Silence.
    ........He looked back at her. “Finished?”
    ........She stared. Knowing that if she screamed again, he would never let her stop.
    ........“Much better.” The smallest of nods as a show of appreciation, like one of the undead mimicking human actions.
    ........Nervous, she licked her lips. “What do you want?”
    ........“I told you. There’s a letter that needs delivering.” He smiled. “Cormac asked me to, you see.”
    ........A piece slotted itself into the puzzle; she recognized him now. Cormac’s bodyguard, or something like that. She sometimes saw them at the end of the work day on her way to the bank, crossing through one of the few scattered parks throughout the city: the merchant with his trademark cap and coat; and this man with his long strides and watchful gaze. But she also knew Cormac was possessive of his letters, trusting their delivery to none other than himself when he showed up at the post office, messages in hand, to be turned over to a particular employee with explicit and often changing instructions. Conclusion: this man was lying. (Or, a hopeful, still naïve voice in her head said, maybe he really does have Cormac’s letter. Do you really want to risk offending him of all people? And even if he doesn’t have his letter, it’s a small enough lie meant to comfort you. She thought about that and discarded it. If he’d cared one bit about her well-being, he wouldn’t have hurt her. Or come outside of business hours.)
    ........“Alright.” She took the offered letter. Then hesitation; confusion. “If this is so important, why not get a sorcerer to translocate it?” A brief pause to calm her nerves. “It’d get there today, although, what with trying to get one of them to even notice you, it’ll be more expensive.” She realized then that there’d been no talk of payment from him so far.
    ........“I’m not a fan of sorcerers at the moment,” he explained before pulling out a substantial amount of gold coins, counting them, digging back into his purse for more and dropping them into her palm.“Deliver the message,” he said, “or I’ll be back to visit.”
    ........After he left she went into her office, lit a couple of torches, sat there in the smokeless light until her shaking stopped. By the time she could hitch on a semblance of a smile she heard the noise of the morning shift coming in after the long weekend. Snippets of stories and short bursts of laughter.
    ........She walked out to them and grabbed a worker at random. “I want you on a horse and on the road to Janramak within the hour.” She pressed the letter against his chest. “Stop only to replace your mount. Well,” she barked as he gaped at her, “what’re you waiting for?”
    ........“I work in cataloguing, actually.” He fell silent. “Also, I’ve never been on a horse in my life. I hate the damned animals.”
    ........She was luckier with the next poor soul; and before the sun had cleared the horizon an irritated courier from Divine Deliverance was galloping across the Imperial Road on route to the capital. He slowed the horse to a light trot once he rounded a rise of hills and El Matar was safely hidden away, but kept at it until late in the afternoon when he reached the first outpost and changed to a new mount. Before him, the Imperial Road ran arrow-straight through grass plains and copses of spruce and fir in the distance. Further still, smudges of terrain blurring up into clear skies. He set out again, this time urging the horse on faster, having gaged the likelihood of reaching the next outpost before evening and determined enough to get the bizarre assignment over with as quickly as possible. He raced against the sun until it veered off and down into sleep and the moon rose next to keep him company. Thundering past the undead that stumbled into view; crowing at the whirling red eyes falling behind.
    ........Cockiness blinded him to the mass of darkness ahead where the road curved between low hills. It wasn’t until he passed the bend that he realized something was wrong. The horse reared at the moving shapes. He sawed at the reins to turn around but the goblin-raiders were behind as well. As insubstantial as shadows yet the hands that pulled him down out of the saddle were hard and powerful. Afterwards, his body was dropped in a ditch and the horse beheaded before the scouting party allowed the night to fold around them once more.
    ........They loped easily alongside the road with measured strides carrying their amorphous group strung out in a line—until without warning they turned as one to the right and struck off across trimmed plains and rolling hills which, in the dark, became an endless chain forged by titans. At a hidden signal the raiders moved quicker, and quicker still; each scissoring of legs thrusting them forward like sleek shadows suddenly separated from the land below, flitting through air for the span of heartbeats and then descending to press against earth before leaping again. A synchronized series of movements, each unit making the smallest of adjustments to horizontal lean or angle of knees or tilt of head. Whatever sentient, living things crossed their path they killed in silence; as if they were less a scouting party than some punishment loosed upon a moonlit slumbering land. Their path described a massive spiral on the earth, whereupon each successfully completed loop would contain the start of a new track; progressions within progressions; almost full circles narrowing one within the other until the final ring would bring them to the continent’s center: Janramak.
    ........On the fourth day of reconnaissance the raiders rested. Dawn revealed their diamond-shaped eyes and slits for noses. One of them rifled through the items picked up so far and came upon the dead man’s letter and read it. He sat there for a long time, sunshine and milkweed sliding across smooth, grey skin, considering the message meant for the two immortals hundreds of miles away in the capital who were waiting for a reply from Adam which would never arrive.

    *

    ........Vincent watched mounted Averiss and Raikon in the streets below, their armour catching sunlight in bright banners. Proud to a fault: their ice giant and winter wolf standards raised for no one save the first disciple to witness, as if they rode for him. But he did not know them. Lately, he’d begun to feel as if he didn’t know Janramak either. It had become a stranger, turning to him a face wide-eyed with terror yet grinning, as if the fear and hate unravelling the city was welcomed.
    ........Unblinking, he looked on as they turned a far corner, in their wake dust rising from baked sandstone, until across his vision drifted serrated green petals. Pressing his forehead against warm glass he could just about make out the jade oak in the courtyard. An emerald cloud appeared around the black-bark hybrid; dissipated; the Empress was breathing, so the stories went. Except she wasn’t in the city and the jade oaks were increasing their activity. Whatever that meant.
    ........Vincent turned away from the window and looked at her. “Now do you believe me?”
    ........Faedra shrugged; a delicate, economical movement. “Adam could still be on his way. Maybe he ran into some trouble.”
    ........“Two weeks. That’s how long he’s had our letters for now. And not one word from him. Apparently, he has more important business to attend.” He frowned. “I don’t trust him. If I’m being honest with myself, I never have. And if he can’t be trusted,” he continued, when she gave no reply, “he becomes a liability. We’re at a stage where even the slightest disturbance and everything we’ve worked will have been for nothing. Have you any idea the pieces I have to look after in order to make this work? No, you don’t. That’s alright, though. We all have our parts. You can appreciate that, I’m sure. The necessity of us three using in full what gifts the Dreamer gave us.”
    ........She said, “I’ve only now realized how much you must love the sound of your voice. You never seem to stop talking.”
    ........“Faedra, he’s dangerous.”
    ........“We all are.” She looked away. “You made sure of that.”
    ........He gave a small nod, even though she couldn’t see it. “Adam needs to be dealt with.” A pause. “Understand you have no choice. Consider this warning a courtesy.”
    ........She was silent for a long time. “Leave me out of this,” she said in a flat tone.
    ........He called her name. When she didn’t respond he crossed the room to where she was sitting, knelt before her (and drank in her profile: the lines of her pale neck, her raised cheekbones and arched brows. The soft lips at times so quick to smile and at others curling into a sneer). Still she ignored him, gazing at a portrait of aristocratic hunter and stag frozen in midair on the far wall as if it was the most fascinating painting in the world.
    ........Vincent reached out and took hold of her chin. Turned her face to mirror his.
    ........“Listen carefully.” His voice, distant and implacable, as if spoken from a great height. “I will not allow anyone to interfere with waking the Dreamer. Again, this is not a matter of choice.”
    ........“Yet you just made one.” She moved his hand away and studied him. Finally: “Well, what are you going to do about him?”
    ........He told her. And when he’d finished, he smiled in a way that left his eyes cold.

    *

    ........The Agraiman school of assassins: a stone kraken, its tentacles the black cables shooting out every hour from pitted, limestone skin, attaching and detaching sucker-like to the streets and architecture of El Matar hunched below—as if the city is cowering.
    ........Or maybe the city turns away to better hide its feverish actions: the ceaseless negotiations of a people divided neatly into two categories, buyer and seller (even the destitute play their part: purchasing in bulk the years spent huddled away in alleys and decrepit shelters; fading into obscurity as they sell their dignity).
    ........They believe themselves sly creatures. Nudging the person beside them and with a knowing smile pointing at the school in the distance. “What do they know?” a banker demands of her colleague; “what can they do?” says the fisherman to his partner. They serve no purpose in our city is the common reply.
    ........Not once do the masses suspect they have been invaded. That the assassins ride the cables down into their numbers and walk unseen. Even in the hushed underground markets, where slaves are sold and sun forgotten, the Agraimans wait. Observe. Punish.
    ........As for those select few aware that they are being watched: they pray the invisible men and women do not notice them; that a gust of wind or creaking step is not, in fact, an assassin nearby.

    *

    ........Salt-encrusted wooden quays marked where the Oradano Ocean kissed El Matar’s eastern-most docks. This courtship continued as the star-lit sea ran fingers across the city’s wide curves, reaching around ships berthed for the night to press firmly once more against land. Water withdrawing, earth eroding; the sounds of a hundred-year-long conversation—but further north a dark shape interrupted the exchange like an argument.
    ........Bodies fish-belly white and broken fused with one another and calcified. Beneath this shell sagged a tangle of massive, desiccated limbs; the carcass rested in a channel cutting across the boardwalk far into the district, where the buildings there fell under its shadow.
    ........These were the remains of the Merfolk’s Rebellion. This was the price of their pride.

    ........They had dared rise out of their submerged kingdom onto territory forbidden them.
    ........We fear no man, they cried, riding into city atop giant red-shelled crabs. Scaled faces stretched into sneers; webbed fingers grasping trident and buckler. We fear no man, the Merfolk sang, and cut down those frightened who did not flee at their approach.
    ........But the Empress was not a man.
    ........This was the first year after her Unification Wars, and Terraria’s newly conquered watched to see how she would respond to resistance. Her answer, they soon learned, would be without mercy.
    ........When the Merfolk understood this they turned to their zeutarim, and the shamans in turn looked to the ocean. They called out to the deep. Made blood-offerings. Waited.
    ........So it was that when the Empress reached the fallen city, she found there waiting for her a leviathan.
    ........Arrayed to either side of the colossus stood the Merfolk in their strength. The warriors mounted with weapons leveled. Zeutarim chanting their water-spells. At their backs the sea taking on silver-grey forms which shimmered in the light.

    ........She devoured them all.

    ........When El Matar was rebuilt, the district in which the Merfolk’s ossified remains were gathered became known as Leviathan Wept. It was here, during a dinner of roasted rabbit and greens in a private room at The Iron King, that Adam learned how he would make contact with the goblins.
    ........“A ship will arrive at the docks as the final stop on its route along the coast,” explained Cormac. Beside him dined a black man who at the start of the meal had set down a flintlock pistol on the table. “The rights to the shipping lane,” the merchant continued, “belong exclusively to the Guild, maintained through force by mercenaries hired to patrol the waters and escort our cargo.”
    ........“Why bother with a guard?” asked Adam, frowning. “Can’t imagine anyone in their right mind attacking Imperial goods.”
    ........“You mean Guild goods.”
    ........“No, I don’t.” He gave Cormac a level look. “In any case, the Empress kills all pirates.” A pause. “Doesn’t she?”
    ........“If she catches them. But she can’t be everywhere at once. Besides,” Cormac added, waving a hand in dismissal, “her strength is linked to the continent.” He shrugged. “Trade by sea is our concern, not hers.
    ........“Once docked and unloaded, the Stratagem will rest there until Karam here can secure some cargo—which, by the way, will not appear on the manifest. What will show up are chests, furniture, some silks and statues. You get on the morning it departs, no sooner. All goods will be offloaded in Nevariim.” He raised a hand to forestall the coming question. “The Guild has little interest in whether or not those we trade with are a part of the Empire. Citizens, foreigners, enemies—we’ll take their coin gladly.
    ........“The ship will swing around Nevariim’s shores and out on a north-east heading. Eventually you’ll sight a small island and there be dropped off to wait for the goblins’ arrival.”
    ........He stopped there, taking out a pipe to tamp it down before lighting it. Smoke purple and heavy curled between the three men.
    ........“You still haven’t told me what this is all about,” Cormac said after a while. Another long, deep drag on the pipe. “I think it’s about time you explained yourself.”
    ........“I disagree.”
    ........“That’s not how I do business.”
    ........“I don’t care how you do business.” Adam kept his voice casual. He turned to the other man who had yet to say a word throughout the evening. “Explain why a gunsmith is partnering up with the Guild.”
    ........Karam arched a brow. “That’s racist.”
    ........“How so?”
    ........“Not every black person comes from the desert or is a gun-toting fanatic.”
    ........“Gunsmiths are actually pretty restrained.” He should know: he’d killed one. (Well, Faedra had. The gunsmith had been pivoting for the kill when she darted forward and sunk a stiletto in his arm and another up into his throat. Afterwards, the Agraiman had shaken her head in disgust. “Keep fooling around and you’re going to wind up dead,” she warned; to which he wryly replied, “Been there, done that. One of the perks of being immortal.” For that he’d received a cool, lingering look.) He shrugged. “What is it you do then?”
    ........Karam was silent before grating out: “I’m an arms dealer.” A muscle flexed in his jaw.
    ........“Well then.” Adam tried not to smile. “Not much difference, is there? But look,” he added smoothly when Karam stiffened, “Let’s just chalk this up to a misunderstanding.”
    ........“No, I think we understand each other perfectly.” He swallowed the last of his drink and stood up, holstering pistol and nodding at Cormac. “We’ll talk later,” he said before leaving the dining room.
    ........“Was it something I said?”
    ........Cormac resumed eating.
    ........“No. Really. What does he do for you?”
    ........“Drop it.”
    ........“Not a chance.”
    ........The merchant let out a vexed sigh. “He represents my interests overseas.”
    ........“What interests?” Then a thought occurred to him. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” he said slowly, eyebrows raised, “but you’re supplying them, aren’t you? You’re giving the raiders weapons.”
    ........“Keep your voice down, damn it.”
    ........“So it’s true. He is an arms dealer, after all. Fine. But why? What do you get—” Remnants were surfacing from when he’d peeled back the merchant’s mind weeks ago, oddities he’d ignored at the time but now possessed of meaning as he slotted them together. The Sanragan deserts, the furthest south the raiders had ever reached, where they’d wiped out a string of villages—along with the seeds of a promising community-driven farming initiative. Terraria’s west coast, where it was rumoured that along with the fishing-dependent towns, warehouses for a newly created naval trading company had also been set on fire. More pieces, greater clarity. He could better appreciate the Stratagem’s title. “Interesting how some of the goblin’s targets seem to coincide nicely with any group posing a threat to the Guild’s trade monopoly.”
    ........Cormac put down his fork.
    ........“Aiding known enemies as they murder your fellow citizens. There’s a name for that, isn’t there?” He snapped his fingers. “Oh yes. Treason.”
    ........Cormac paled.
    ........“And now,” said Adam quietly, “you belong to me.”
    ........He could see the change in the merchant. The too-wide stare of a man informed of the day and hour he would meet his end.

    ........In his mind the design shifted to incorporate this new piece without which the entire mechanism would still have functioned, but now by its inclusion offered a measure of efficiency (which was so important, after all. What he had set in motion, his construction comprising human-shaped gears driven by historical forces and reinforced with alloyed rods of the real and the imagined, the black oil of his retribution coating the parts against the corrosiveness of chance—this continent-spanning machine could endure only so much stress for so short a time before it buckled beneath its own weight. Efficiency was key). The merchant was simply another addition among so many others carefully collected from the idea’s inception, those necessary and sometimes unexpected components integrated by his aggression at certain points or his acumen elsewhere.

    *

    ........Tomorrow would be the first day of summer in the 784th year of the Lady Everlasting’s rule. The official celebrations for the Festival of Light would begin at noon when Guild members in their mercy sent runners throughout the city throwing fistfuls of copper and silver at citizenry. (Not to be undone, the pleasure houses of Lover’s Lane requested of clients only half payment in order to lie with the oiled men and women.) Green and yellow streamers draped across newly scrubbed fountains and shop faces. Bushels of snow-lilies upended throughout Ashfall to blanket the grime. In the Blessed District, priests and novices alike would take up their vows once more. A time of fresh beginnings.
    ........Tonight, however, the city could not care less about renewal; tonight, people would drink, fight, fuck; tonight, screams joyous and pained would fill the streets.

    ........“Like what you see?” asked a redhead. She sashayed up to Adam but stayed just outside his reach, holding up her arms as she twirled for his approval. He did, as a matter of fact, like what he saw. Although his enthusiasm died when she lifted her skirts to reveal she was actually a he. That would explain the bold jaw.
    ........The cross-dresser’s shrill laughter was still in his ears as he turned down an avenue lined with barrels of burning pitch. Out of the leaping shadows darted faces leering, fearful. There was a sigh off to his left that was either intense satisfaction or someone’s last breath. Catcalls and shouts. A naked woman burst out of a building weeping—only to be stopped by the many hands that grabbed and drew her back in.
    ........She was almost through the doorway when she noticed him. “Help me,” she begged. A hand snaked around her right breast up to her throat and squeezed. Adam kept moving.
    ........Not a word from Cormac except for a brief message by courier explaining the Stratagem would be arriving. That had been three days ago (the last he’d seen of the letter before his determined search turned it up in a coat pocket where he must’ve forgotten it). But it had arrived as promised at dawn: a thing of planked beauty, and it was this memory he carried in his head as for the rest of the day and into the night he walked the city. The impulse was sudden, unexplainable; he had indulged in it.
    ........Crossing into Cold Iron, where the midnight revelry had yet to infect, he felt a mosquito bite and slapped at it. Another precursor to the changing seasons. The city thrummed with blood-suckers.
    ........In the common room of The Unjust Queen. He nodded at a bent Bartholomew wiping already clean tables.
    ........“Good night,” he called.
    ........“Is it really?” The innkeeper straightened with audible cracking. “I hadn’t noticed.”
    ........But Adam was gone before the onslaught of complaining could begin. He stepped into the lift, requested the twenty-fifth floor. It was a moment before he remembered the lift wouldn’t be working this late. He frowned, stepped out, took the stairs.
    ........He had to rest twice on his way up, and once more when he stood in front of his door. (The decision to stop for evening drinks had been a bad idea then.) He fished key from pocket and stooped to retrieve it when it slipped his hand. Inside the room, he tossed his sword on the bed and stood by the open window with eyes closed, grateful even for what little breeze there was. He loosened his collar.
    ........All he would be taking with him was Muramasa. He made a slow turn, spied the sword beside the dresser, went over to kneel and pick it up.
    ........“Tomorrow,” he told the weighted bundle, “we leave this place.”
    ........Behind him, the door clicked shut.
    ........“You are mistaken.” A woman’s voice from nowhere. “No one gave you permission to leave.”

    ........Adam stood up slowly.
    ........A second voice now, clipped and precise: “Our reports indicate you are a violent man. As such, you will likely try to assault us. I advise against such action.” He paused. “Simply put, you will not succeed.”
    ........The room was empty. He scanned from left to right and still his eyes relayed the same message. The room was empty.
    ........He blinked. Of course.
    ........A man’s voice. Deep. Assured. “You know who we are.” The Agraiman sounded calm. “The Grand Master would like to see you.”
    ........“I don’t want to see him.”
    ........“What you want is immaterial.”
    ........“Ever the gentleman.” Door locked. Three Agraimans in the room. He was starting to wheeze. What the hell had been in those drinks? No, not the drinks. His body repaired itself too quickly to become inebriated. This was something else. What then? What was—
    ........The mosquito. He swore. It must have been carrying something.
    ........Or maybe he hadn’t been stung by a mosquito at all.
    ........The female assassin spoke: “Paralysis is taking longer than expected.” She sounded puzzled.
    ........There was confirmation. He took a deep breath to prepare himself.
    ........“Take him.”
    ........But he was already moving, pressing Muramasa to chest—
    ........—and sprinting across the room out the open window.
    ........Immediately his left hand reached out to take hold of the black cable embedded in brick.
    ........Except it wasn’t there anymore; his fingers closed on spiteful air. And though he wished otherwise, his forward momentum transitioned into a plummet.
    ........The city tilted. Tumbled. It played hide-and-seek as he considered the impending twenty-five storey drop.
    ........(Black and white cobblestone rushing up reminded him more than ever of a checkerboard. El Matar’s blue-black smears gave way to warm browns and creams of an estate in Janramak, where a reclining Vincent waved at a game board and in the corner Faedra stood looking out the parlour window as olive-crested birds flittered by at the sound of bells tolling. “Do you know how to play?” asked the first disciple; and he did, as a matter of fact. Except in place of ivory and obsidian pieces he used flesh and blood, the same as them. Theirs was a game not of will but fate, with more than just two sides opposed; the alliances and counter-alliances were as multifaceted as the amethyst agelet on Faedra’s wrist. And of course the three immortal disciples, each using the other two until every one of them carried out multiple functions. The issue then becoming what purpose these functions served. All this in the time it took for the people below to notice there was something queer about the expanding shadow on the ground and look up to see the falling figure and stare.)
    ........He’d come too far to die now. Resurrection would place him hundreds of miles away from El Matar, the Stratagem and the goblins.
    ........A quick prayer to the Red God for intervention. Then he recalled he was trying to murder the god. Wild laughter slipped past his lips.
    ........Multiple somethings slapped him in the back. His fall came to an abrupt stop as he slammed face first into The Unjust Queen’s side.
    ........“Oh hell,” he groaned, swinging from side to side.
    ........He’d had enough sense to hold tight onto Muramasa, which was now speaking nonsensical blood-lust into his throbbing skull: Feed me. Loose me release me set me free. Cut chains break body sever skin from flesh—
    ........He twisted to see what had caught him and saw by the light of a half-moon gossamer strands translucent and taut.
    ........The strands shook; he jerked upwards. Nothing for a moment while he stared skyward in slack-jawed befuddlement. The next pull raised him two stories high. Back towards the Agraimans.
    ........He looked below him. Still too far a drop.
    ........The next jerk brought him level with a shuttered window. He dug his feet into the bottom corners of the windowsill; his left hand went into the top. With his other hand he shook Muramasa until he could see metal through the bind. Then he brought the blade up and sawed through the threads that were pulling at him.
    ........He made himself rigid to better brace himself, brought Muramasa level and stabbed the shutters open.
    ........Too much force. For one horrible moment he felt himself falling backwards.
    ........He quickly hooked the sword in and up around the window’s upper ledge. Just enough of a hold to ease himself forward and crash into the dark room.
    ........Rustling. A scream. Why wouldn’t there be people in the room? Perfectly normal and wholly problematic.
    ........“I’ll be out of your way shortly,” he said. Trying to stand up revealed his legs were no longer interested in co-operating. “Actually, this will take a bit longer than expected.” He could move his arms at least, and pushed himself into a sitting position beneath the window. A tired wave at the staring couple. “Go back to sleep.”
    ........“We weren’t sleeping,” answered the woman after an awkward silence, drawing the blankets higher.
    ........“Duly noted.”
    ........“We’re thirteen stories up. How are you even in here at all?”
    ........He spread his arms. “I’m an angel of God.”
    ........“Minus the wings.”
    ........“Well, yes.”
    ........She nodded. “I think I’m going to scream again.”
    ........“You’ve been remarkably calm so far. Let’s continue that trend, alright?”
    ........“This is stupid.” Her lover slid naked out of bed and stalked closer.
    ........“Ah.” He let go of Muramasa. “I can appreciate the need to seem all protective and alpha-male in front of the lady but, really, there’s no need.”
    ........“Shut up.” The young man walked over to a coat hanging on a chair and pulled out a knife.
    ........“Oh.” Adam frowned. “Not a good idea.”
    ........“Don’t move.”
    ........“I would if I could but I can’t, so there.”
    ........“What?”
    ........He flexed his hands. “Do not come any closer.”
    ........“Jessica,” said the young man, “go down and tell Bartholomew to fetch an officer from the Watch.”
    ........“Actually, Jessica, I’d prefer you stay right where you are.”
    ........“I told you to shut up.”
    ........Adam looked at him. “You’re not very smart, are you?”
    ........The knife came whistling down.
    ........He slapped the hand away. With his own he yanked the young man to his knees and brought palm heel-first into the surprised face.
    ........“Listen to me—” but the knife was coming back around.
    ........This time he caught the other man’s wrist and squeezed until he heard bone break. The knife clattered to the floor.
    ........“Much better.”
    ........“You broke my wrist.” The man was in shock. “You broke my fucking wrist.”
    ........“Nothing gets past you.” He applied pressure to his hold, eliciting a shriek. “Now, I accept your offer to help me up.”

    ........Paralysis easing as body repaired damage. Muramasa writhing. Pulse quickening.
    ........In the stairwell down landings through a common room emptied of life and light. Running through the doors.
    ........Breathe.

    ........Narrow streets so often busy seemed vast now in a silence broken only by his flapping sleeves and sandaled feet. He had to reach a populated area. The only problem was making it out of Cold Iron before they caught him. It wasn’t until he heard distant bells chime the hour that the beginnings of a plan formed.
    ........He ducked into an alley, jumped at the wall to his left and leapt up to snag a hanging fire escape. At the top he looked around and saw at the far side of the roof’s edge a cable. It stretched across open space marking district’s end over to the pearlstone buildings and swaying lanterns of Blessed District. Looming behind it, the Agraiman school haloed by countless black threads.
    ........The halo contracted.
    ........He ran and caught the cable as it pulled away and was sent flying through air. Grinning now.
    ........Chance a look back at Cold Iron receding; and that was when he saw the pair of crossbows floating above a rooftop.
    ........Disbelieving stare. He assured himself they couldn’t make the shot. That they would want him alive. He was moving too fast for them to track—
    ........A bolt slammed into his left shoulder; another into the forearm.
    ........Simple geometry: the quarry moves in a straight line; therefore, the hunter lets loose where it will be, not where it was.
    ........Pain so bright it blinded him. When he could see again he saw the shrinking crossbows go down the side of the building and disappear.
    ........Above Blessed District he let go of the cable. The fall to rooftop was short and he was running as soon as he landed. Startled birds exploded upwards at his passing. Church bells sounded the call to midnight devotion. Something moved in his injured hand. He looked down to see Muramasa buckling; where blood dripped down through the binds, the sword had gone dark.
    ........He switched the blade to his right and ran faster.
    ........Blurred glimpses of people below as he leaped the gaps between buildings. Air filling lungs; frustration expelled in tight bursts.
    ........Street level. That was where he needed to be, where he could lose himself among the milling faithful.
    ........It was while hanging partway down the side of a temple, judging the distance until the next ledge, that his left arm seized up. The rest of his body followed suit. Muramasa, along with the ledge, fell away from nerveless fingers.
    ........(Cross-bolts dipped in paralyzing agent. He couldn’t help but admire the foresight; the hunter allows his prey to flee safe in the knowledge that escape is illusory.)

    ........He had landed on his side in a puddle. Water trickled into his mouth, foul, granular. He could still move his eyes. Saw the crowd gather. Alarmed looks. Muffled talk.
    ........Then a space opened in their midst. Onlookers staggering with the force of having been shoved.
    ........Muramasa, just beyond his reach, rising. As if someone had knelt to pick it up.
    ........Against his neck a needle’s cold kiss. The world slipping into shadow.
    ........Soft lips brushing ear; a voice from the void.
    ........“No one gave you permission to leave.”

    *

    ........Sometimes, when he closes his eyes, he can still see the Dreamer’s flayed finger engrave a circle in damp sand. A few feet away, white-capped waves lap at the deserted beachfront. A wind cold and sharp as knives slashes at charcoal-coloured clouds. The sun is a ring-shaped blood mark imprinted on dark sky.
    ........Now the hand rises almost imperceptibly while day bleeds into night, and night smears into day; until time slows to a stop and this dream-spun landscape hangs suspended in silence. Excoriated fingers take a pose of command: (tell me what this means.)
    ........Vincent claims to know. The furrow curves endlessly to encompass itself, as the mythical serpent is said to have swallowed its tail. Motionless movement; a contradiction become paradox. Future and past converge in the infinite present of those limitless turns. Here is an invitation, the first disciple proclaims, to share in the same godhood come the day of Awakening.
    ........Faedra thinks otherwise: the circle is symbolic of balance perfected; each point on its golden-grained circumference no different than any other. Order, she says, is their goal. Together they will restore and maintain the Dreamer’s rule.
    ........(Tell me what this means.)
    ........Sometimes, he can still see the arm much larger than his own reach down into honey-hued sand and trace a groove which ends where it begins. Each movement is deliberate, instructive. In the sliding of muscles atop gleaming bone are wonders and horrors.
    ........Adam sees neither invite nor mandate. He knows better.
    ........The circle is joined, its seam soldered shut. No breach, no relief.
    ........It is a prison.

    *

    ........When he opened his eyes he was still immobilized. Before him in a large room was a square table on which rested Muramasa unchained. On the other side sat a bespectacled man in a loose blue shirt whose eyes hid behind the glare of light striking lens. On his lapel the triple half-mask insignia signifying Grand Master.
    ........“Mr. Nalicai!” A clap of delight. “How wonderful to finally meet you.”
    ........Adam found he could move his head and gave a slight nod.
    ........“How do you feel?”
    ........“Something tells me you don’t care,” he replied.
    ........“Even so.” The Grand Master laid his hands on the table. “I asked you a question.”
    ........He glanced at the sword. “Have you claimed it?”
    ........“I don’t follow.”
    ........“It’s a simple enough question. Do you claim it as yours?”
    ........Adam didn’t see him move but felt the backhand all the same. His head rocked back. The ceiling was sectioned into mirrors which threw his reflections down at him. Startled faces trapped in glass. He lowered his head. Worked his jaw.
    ........The Grand Master lifted a finger. “I don’t think you understand what’s happening here. You have been operating under the rather false assumption that you are in control. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
    ........Adam fabricated a smile. “Give me a sword and we’ll see who’s in control.”
    ........Genuine laughter. “Oh, I like you.”
    ........“The feeling isn’t mutual.”
    ........“You wound me.”
    ........“Deeply, I hope.”
    ........ An open handed slap this time. The Grand Master settled back in his seat and waited.
    ........He licked blood from his lips. “Touch me again,” he said softly. “Go on.”
    ........“You must be disciplined.”
    ........(Echoes of violence. He closed his eyes and saw the Dreamer reaching for him. Sharp, swift pain as the god’s nails slit open his belly. Then the hand reaching elbow-deep up into his chest. Fingers wrapping with a lover’s grace around his heart. Everything has an end, living or otherwise. Body arched in agony from the obscenity. His heart, horrified, beat slowing. The Dreamer sliding arm back out and holding in his palm the shuddering organ.)
    ........He opened his eyes and spoke: “Understand this. One of us isn’t leaving this room.”
    ........The Grand Master nodded. “My only problem is that you refuse to stay dead.”
    ........Silence. Too late he realized his blunder and tried to laugh. The noise choked in his throat.
    ........From underneath the table the Grand Master took out and placed down a faded, yellow sheet. “Year 296 of Our Lady Most Graceful’s rule. Tarsem Bavarat, a historian, witnesses the fall of Kasterro. His accounts describe a man who looks like you.” Another document. “Twenty years later, another city falls. Survivors recall a blue-eyed, dark-haired man arriving the day before the slaughter.” Another. “Year 355. You turn mercenary and join the Sepharrim Syndicate for close to a decade.” Another. “Grissant, year 370. You appear and plague follows.” An array of papers framing the sword. “A summer of killings in 400. Rebellion in the north in 410. The west coast razed a decade later. 436, you form the Blackguard mercenaries and support the Usurper’s Uprising.” A further litany of dates and offenses rattled off in vague amusement. “I have as many accounts detailing your supposed deaths.”
    ........“Oh.”
    ........“Quite. Wherever you go, destruction follows.”
    ........“Unfortunate bit of business, I agree.”
    ........The Grand Master studied him over steepled fingers. “Why are you here, Mr. Nalicai?” His voice was spider-soft.
    ........“How the hell should I know?” he replied. “Or should I remind you that it was your people who broke into my room and chased me through two districts. After drugging me, too. Let’s not forget that.”
    ........“I meant El Matar.”
    ........“Ah.” He raised his chin. “Why I’m here is none of your goddamned concern.”
    ........“You will tell me your reasons—”
    ........“I will do no such fucking thing.”
    ........“You will tell me your reasons,” he repeated firmly. “After you do—and believe me, Mr. Nalicai, you will tell me everything—I must find a way to permanently dispose of you.” An arched brow. “I imagine beheading an immortal would be a waste of resources and patience.”
    ........So he didn’t know everything then. “I thought you liked me.”
    ........“I make a point of not mixing business with pleasure.”
    ........Adam grinned. “You know what they say. All work and no play will leave you dead when I’m done with you.”
    ........“More empty threats.”
    ........“That one’s a promise.” He looked away, a minor brush-off. The walls were bare save for bright flames in sconces and the oddly morose portraits of men and women, presumably deceased members from the Order. He didn’t see Faedra. He thought about that. How had she faked her death? A Grand Master in her own right and not once did he ask for details. To be fair, the need had never arisen. Although she had warned him about El Matar—not that either of them had ever known he would set foot in the city of commerce. During those periods of idleness in their efforts to bring about awakening she would speak with guarded reservation about the city within the city; a government of military-aristocrats elected without public consent because the public was never allowed to understand the depths to which their lives were held hostage by hidden powers.
    ........Something in his peripheral vision. He looked down and saw the cross-bolts were still in his arm. Surprise; then unease. The blood around both wounds was black and flaky.
    ........“About that.” The other man’s voice was steel against whetstone. “So much has happened that I’ve been too busy to remove them.”
    ........Faint alarm. “Exactly how busy?”
    ........“Let’s see.” He collected the documents. Stacked them in a pile. Squared them off and folded his hands on top. “Your rather public takedown has caused some problems for us. In the end, after some persuasive instruction, we’ve managed to dissuade witnesses from coming forward. Not to mention the uproar over the Empress’ disappearance.” He frowned. “To think I trusted the public to remain calm. No matter. The situation is well in hand.” A pause. “You did say exact, right?”
    ........Adam said nothing.
    ........“If I were to judge by the Stratagem’s departure four days ago, I would say I’ve been busy indeed.” He took up the papers and left the room without another word.

    ........There were no clocks in the room so he measured time by needle pricks.
    ........Just when the numbness was beginning to wear off and he could curl his little finger or slide a foot forward, the door at the far end would open and with ear cocked he would listen to the footsteps growing louder until he heard breathing at his back and the inevitable jab at the base of his neck. Sometimes the needles brought sleep as well; he would open his eyes and see the glass of water had been refilled. No food though. Just the constant pricking, both physical and verbal.
    ........“How old are you?” asked the Grand Master.
    ........“Old.”
    ........“Try to be a bit more specific.”
    ........“Very old.”
    ........Pause. “What business do you have with Guildsman Cormac Isparo?”
    ........“Had. No need for him any longer.”
    ........“You mean the Stratagem.” He penciled something down. Looked up again. “What was so important about the ship, Mr. Nalicai?”
    ........Laughing cracked his dry lips. So they hadn’t been at The Iron King. Thank the Dreamer for small favours. (He grimaced at the thought; he was weakening in this place.) “Here I was thinking invisibility would make your lot great eavesdroppers.”
    ........“We have our limits.”
    ........Adam nodded. “Yes, you do.”
    ........The implication didn’t go unnoticed: the corners of the Grand Master’s mouth wrinkled into a slight frown. “And yet here you are.”
    ........“Sounds like you’re trying to reassure yourself.”
    ........“Do I seem worried?”
    ........That was the rub of it. He didn’t. Each session he arrived and left composed. As if he had all the leisure in the world to pick at the details of his life with a gentle humour which, if Adam had been a lesser man, would have left him feeling cold and small before the contemplative expression. Like a hog brought to market and hung by its hind legs. How succulent the flesh, cries butcher to crowd, right before cutting its throat and quartering the meat.

    ........Eventually, the cross-bolts were taken out. At regular intervals, hands practiced and firm would pry open his mouth and force down a green paste which started bowel movements and caused him to urinate. Afterwards, they did not clean him. In the following days (or weeks, or months, because this was a place where time could not enter and in its absence all things turned stale, even the water poured down his throat ever so infrequently) he peered down at his stained pants and watched as tiny maggots appeared and gorged. Before long they matured into flies and took to the air only to die and dot table and floor like specks of black snow.
    ........He ignored the stench. The humiliation and thirst. He had done worse. Had suffered far worse.

    ........They came to take Muramasa when it started to writhe; when returned, it lay still. He wondered what they were doing with the bodies, and pictured the building’s foundations made up of the dead. It was a strangely cheerful sight, the sword lifting then floating away and out the room before returning at a later point to rest on the table, but after the first dozen or so times it stopped being funny. Segue into an altogether far more interesting phenomenon: the Agraimans still wouldn’t reveal themselves to him, despite his uncanny rag-doll mimicry. Did they fear reprisal? Conveniently forgetting he had better chances of spontaneously shifting into, say, a tortoise, than he did of escaping (aside from dying, of course, although he shied away from that most final of options like a fawn before the wolf). Am I so petty that I’d hunt them down? A loaded question. Fine. Would I hurt them if someone walked in right now and said I was free to go? The answer, unsurprisingly, was an emphatic yes. He distracted himself with fancies of sword-play and screams.
    ........He was in the middle of decapitating the Grand Master when the man himself strode into the room with head still firmly attached. Trailing him, the noise of marching boots; he guessed there were five, maybe six others.
    ........No preamble or verbal fencing: “Explain the nature of your relationship to the Phoenix.”
    ........Adam blinked. “What’s this now?”
    ........“It’s what the more excitable among her followers are calling her.”
    ........“Can she fly or something?”
    ........“She has severe burns from head to toe,” the Grand Master snapped. “And a remarkable talent for eluding my agents.”
    ........He grinned. “Nice to hear someone had better luck than me.” He could almost see the other man count to ten.
    ........“Her supporters in Janramak are growing and I want to know how, exactly, you’re involved.”
    ........“But I’m not.”
    ........“Mr. Nalicai.” There was an edge to his tone.
    ........“I’m telling the truth.” He would’ve shrugged if it was possible. “I have no clue who you’re talking about.”
    ........He moved closer. “How is she able to heal people?”
    ........“I don’t know.”
    ........“She’s a blasphemer.”
    ........“That’s news to me.”
    ........“Why target members of the faith?”
    ........His mouth worked soundlessly for a couple of seconds. “Did you not just hear what I said?” he asked, incredulous.
    ........“What do you know about these riots she’s started in Janramak?”
    ........“Maybe it’s just me,” said Adam, staring, “but I think you’re telling me more than you intended.”
    ........The Grand Master stopped his advance so suddenly it was as if he’d stumbled into an invisible wall.
    ........Then he nodded.
    ........Not agreement, but a signal: Adam’s face was shoved against the table. He wrenched his head to the side and saw his left arm being straightened out. Unnerving, knowing that hands were restraining him but unable to feel them. For all his struggling not even a finger moved.
    ........When he looked up the Grand Master was holding a sword.
    ........“The Phoenix,” he said in a flat tone.
    ........“I already told—”
    ........It was almost too quick to see: the ghost trail of the sword descending to sever his hand from outstretched arm.

    *

    ........After nearly two weeks of celebration the Festival of Light was finally winding down. A crowd had gathered dockside in Leviathan Wept to begin the closing ceremony of the city-wide procession, a clockwise journey meant to form a circle, albeit one raggedly formed by faces both ecstatic and exhausted.
    ........To their left the Oradano Ocean was ablaze with the setting sun, as if the Red God was offering a glimpse of His divine riches in the waves so much like cascading gold coins. El Matar draped itself in evening shade and soft carmine light, and for once the disparate districts seemed less a madman’s fancy as the glow smoothed away the chaotic skyline of buildings and clashing designs. Wheeling above, seagulls in repose.
    ........Cormac knuckle-walked a coin absently while looking down on the crowd from his vantage point atop the Merfolk’s hardened remains. Beside him, the presence of the captain of the City Watch ensured those who looked up at them with envy could do little else.
    ........“Maybe now you’d like to explain why I’m not down there with the rest of them,” said Isaac hopefully.
    ........“I told you. We need to talk.” He scanned the people below but his eyes weren’t what they used to be. Even still, no sign of Adam’s irreverent face in the mass. He gave another small prayer to the Red God for the man’s continued absence. Another week or so and he could forget the entire unsettling ordeal.
    ........“A bit much, don’t you think?” Isaac gestured at the carcass beneath them. “The Guildhall would’ve worked just as well. My office, too. This…” He trailed off, shrugged.
    ........“One thing you’ve never managed to grasp,” Cormac said not unkindly, “is the need for theatre.”
    ........“I don’t go in for that kind of stuff.”
    ........“Stuff,” Cormac repeated, as if the word was a rare species of animal. “That stuff is partly what keeps this city running smoothly. Appearances and angles.” He looked at the captain. “Your badge, for instance.”
    ........“What about it?”
    ........Cormac tapped it. “Black hawk embossed on red-dyed sheet metal. The artistry and cost exceeds its utility. When the city looks at you they see both police and performer. A legitimate lie.” Like a certain man who claimed to dream of God and could ferret out lies and read minds. He felt embarrassed all over again at how he easily he’d been taken in by Adam’s offer of advice. “In return for staying at your side just for a chance to see you at work,” the bright-eyed terror had said the first time, and each time after, persistent, almost relentless, until Cormac, feigning wearied reluctance when in truth he felt close to turning a caper at his sudden good luck, had agreed. How could he have refused, when Adam, a nobody, inconsequential in the larger scheme and at the time seemingly normal, had within weeks sent the business stratum into a frenzy as he methodically turned a profit in every prospect he touched?
    ........What was it the man had said? Flesh, blood, bone. Nothing more than elaborate lies masking the mind’s truths. Whatever else Cormac had been about to say escaped him, so he simply stood there.
    ........Isaac, ever so perceptive, despite his gruff look and heavy build: “Is this about that associate of yours? As long as he’s still in the city, we’ll find him.”
    ........“Eventually.”
    ........Isaac gave a lop-sided grin. “Eventually.”
    ........“I must commend the Watch for its tireless efforts on my behalf.” He couldn’t quite keep the bite out of his voice, but the captain only laughed.
    ........Down past limb-ridges and flattened faces of Merfolk he saw the mayor addressing the crowd. The little man kept shifting his head up; presumably seeking Cormac’s approval. He nodded, and could almost hear the reed-thin voice continue with its banalities and place-holders. As if this festival was any different than those that had come before. Although, he considered after a moment, there was a change: a ribbon of discomfort running throughout those assembled like the green and yellow streamers teased by wind. How to celebrate the light without the Empress’ shadow, within which they’d lived for so long? There was a philosophical cant to that thought, and he was about to put it to his old friend when Isaac spoke first.
    ........“If you’d just tell me what you want him for.”
    ........I want him dead; instead: “You still haven’t heard anything new from Janramak.”
    ........Not a question, but the captain answered with a nod. “No news is good news.”
    ........“Whoever came up with that particular bit of fluff,” Cormac snapped, “should be shot.”
    ........“Person’s most likely dead by now.”
    ........“Good.”
    ........“You’re drifting.”
    ........“I know.”
    ........A flare of trumpets, followed by spelled fireworks that burst bright blue and white into outlines of animals and abstractions, their afterimages fading to cries and applause.
    ........“Look.” Isaac slid his large hands into the front pockets of his uniform. “Everyone knows the Empress will turn up again. That’s a given. Only question is when.”
    ........No, the question is why she disappeared to begin with. Deductive reasoning: begin with the thesis, the cause, and all further supporting arguments and effects will reveal themselves in neat order. He found it interesting scholars never thought to mention how frustrating it could be to discover the reasoning in the first place.
    ........Like the actions of councillor Hasvatos Encagra, for example. “Does your contact in Imperial records have access to files on sorcery?”
    ........“Yes and no.”
    ........“Meaning?”
    ........“It’s a matter of incentive.” When Cormac shot him a look he raised a brow. “For my contact, not me. Thaumaturgy is mostly hands off stuff. As in, you’re likely to have your hands cut off for being nosy. They’re a sensitive bunch, or so I hear.”
    ........“Demonite,” Cormac said tersely. “I want to know more about it.”
    ........“That’s easy. It’s the most expensive thing in the Empire and no one, and I mean no one, has any clue why.”
    ........“Except sorcerers.”
    ........“Naturally.”
    ........“Consider it a challenge.”
    ........“I’ll have to decline,” replied Isaac cheerfully. “I’m rather fond of my hands.”
    ........“Fireblossom, too,” he continued, ignoring him. “And soon.”
    ........No reply.
    ........Cormac looked at him.
    ........Isaac was frowning. “What do you think that’s about?”
    ........The merchant turned where he was pointing. The sun was a crescent above piled clouds. Below it, the sea, mirroring a sky gone the colour of blood.
    ........Then he saw the black ships waiting on the horizon.

    *

    ........On the table under a blanket of flies was his left arm in chunks, where the Grand Master had placed them.
    ........He was breathing through his mouth now, careful not to swallow any of the insects. (Although he’d considered the merits, however briefly. A small crunch of skin between teeth, then a spurt of ichor. Brief sustenance; and he could even inhale them, so thick was their cluster that rose and broke and fell to feed.)
    ........“We’ll start on the other arm tomorrow,” the Agraiman had said before leaving.
    ........That was fine with him. Let them come.
    ........Adam looked at his right hand resting in his lap and moved the fingers.

    *

    ........“Damn it, Cormac, slow down, will you?”
    ........He didn’t want to but the crowd pressing in on all sides tugged him back. Someone grabbed his arm and spun him around. It was Isaac, cheeks flushed. Around them flowed a human sea, arms like flotsam raised with torches in hand.
    ........“Where are you going?” demanded Isaac.
    ........“I need to talk with whoever’s in charge at the Shipping Exchange.” He yanked his arm away and started off, but Isaac snagged his sleeve.
    ........“What for?”
    ........“I’m not sure.”
    ........“What?”
    ........“Listen.” He wanted to shout. “I only want to have to explain this once.”
    ........“At the exchange office.”
    ........Nod.
    ........“Because of those ships.”
    ........He nodded again. Was jostled by a passing elbow. Their faces flickering in flame, eyes filled with shadow and a dark smear for lips.
    ........Isaac was looking at him. “How bad is this?” he said quietly.
    ........“Like I said, I’m not sure.” He plucked out the hawk badge and held it between them. “We need to move.”
    ........Isaac hesitated before taking the badge. Shouldering ahead he bellowed for people to move aside, to make way for the Captain of the City Watch, their co-operation would be greatly appreciated and their reluctance rewarded with a kick if they didn’t step to fast enough, thank you very much for understanding.
    ........Wood teak and cypress came into view, the building’s oiled surfaces catching the dying light. A quick glance over to see the ships were closer and then they were inside.
    ........To their right by a window looking out was a man in blue shirt. When he didn’t move they made their way to a desk behind which another man, barrel-shaped and brawny, gave them a cursory appraisal. When he saw the embossed hawk, though, he scowled.
    ........“Look, I already told you, it’s a warrant or nothing, smuggling allegations be damned.” He set down a sheaf of papers and took up a mug. It was steaming but he took a long swallow, head turned and watching them with one eye.
    ........“I’m Isaac Telashan.” Nothing. “Captain of the Watch.” That got him a grunt.
    ........Cormac stepped forward and rapped the desk hard. The man took one look at his face and seemed to deflate somewhat. “Guildsman Isparo.”
    ........“Good.” Beside him, Issac muttered while affixing badge to chest. “Who’s in charge here?”
    ........“That’d be me.” Then quickly afterwards, “Sir.”
    ........“Oh, come on,” Isaac protested. “I’m an officer of the law.”
    ........Cormac leaned close. “What ships are scheduled to dock tonight?”
    ........“None, sir.”
    ........He gave his head a very small shake. “Let me rephrase that. What ships, legal or otherwise, will be coming in?”
    ........It was distressing to see a face so ugly blushing. He made a mental note to ask later whose idea it’d been to make the man head of Shipping Exchange. He was better suited, build and mind, to the shipyards. That was, of course, if there was a later. His hands started to shake and he took them off the desk.
    ........“A vessel with some sandguns up from a Sanragan outpost.”
    ........“At least you have the decency to look embarrassed,” sniped Isaac. “Sandguns. How wonderfully overpowered.” A pause. “But there are three ships out there.”
    ........Now the man look confused. “Can’t be.”
    ........Cormac’s mouth was dry. So he’d been right after all. He closed his eyes and saw planks of ebon witchwood ribbed with shanks of white bone.
    ........“Did you hear me?” Isaac was saying. “There’s more than one ship out there.” He turned Cormac by the shoulders and peered into his face. “We’re here, like you wanted, and now you’re going to tell me what’s going on. Who is on those ships?”
    ........So he told them.

    *

    ........His reflections in the ceiling of mirrors were smiling. He watched himself roll his shoulders, lift the arm, lean forward.
    ........The paralysis was a code his physiology had finally solved. Grudging thanks to the Red God for one of the many gifts to his disciples, even if it was too little, too late. At the very least, he wouldn’t have to worry about needles anymore. When they returned he’d—
    ........A sharp pain in the eyes. He cried out. Blinked. Noticed there was someone else in the reflections.
    ........He looked down, and sitting across from him was the Dreamer.

    *

    ........“Oh God,” said the barrel-shaped man. His mug fell away and spilled across the papers on his desk. “Oh my sweet God, have mercy.”
    ........Isaac took a step back. “You’re sure of this?”
    ........The shake in his hands wouldn’t go away. “Almost certain. I’ve only seen the ships from a distance, but I think it’s them.”
    ........“You think.”
    ........He didn’t look away. “Where are your men right now?”
    ........“Most of them are with the procession, but I’ve got patrols in the rest of the city.” He ran a hand through his hair, and said as an afterthought, “End of the festival is a perfect opportunity for thieves to make their pickings.” His eyes were unfocused.
    ........“How soon can you round most of them up?”
    ........Isaac reached for a sphere on his belt. “This will bring them running.”
    ........“Do it.” The captain stepped outside and after a moment there was a bright red light followed by a piercing shriek. The man in blue shirt had left at some point, Cormac noticed. A sound policy in other circumstances, when escape was possible. (But he wasn’t sure if he was right. Prayed that he wasn’t.)
    ........“Bows and fire-arrows,” Isaac said, steeping back in. “We’ll sink them if we have to.”
    ........Cormac heard himself ask: “Are there any sorcerers in the city at this moment?”
    ........The exchange manager began to cry.
    ........Isaac winced. “Good call. There’s the man who works the lift at The Unjust Queen. A Vaccaneli.”
    ........“Krusata would be better.”
    ........“Yeah, well, Dasgreil has his own troubles in Janramak right now. I’ll see if I can interest the sorcerer and we’ll meet up by the docks.” Yet he stood there. “Damn it. The procession. Timing couldn’t be worse.”
    ........But the timing is perfect, he thought, don’t you see? All these bodies crowding the streets. It’ll make killing them so much easier.

    *

    ........“I’m not dreaming.”
    ........(If you were, then you would have both arms.)
    ........“No, I mean.” His difficulty in swallowing had nothing to do with a dry throat. “I mean I don’t dream anymore. So please tell me,” he went on, as flies crawled over the table, as his heart hammered, “what is happening right now.”
    ........Everything about the Red God was massive. His size, his degradation. The heavy weight of his eyeless scrutiny.
    ........(You failed.)
    ........He went cold at those words. “But you’re here.” Lingering paralysis slowed his hand underneath the table touching a wooden leg. “This is real.” Awe, at first; then terror so immense at knowing he had, indeed, failed. “So they found the center.”
    ........(They?)
    ........“Vincent and Faedra.”
    ........The Red God was still. Then: (What do you mean by center?)
    ........“Down in the earth. In lava. Where your body is.” No response. “You told us to go there.”
    ........(After collecting the swords.)
    ........“Right. But they’d still need Muramasa.”
    ........(For what?)
    ........He smoothed away a frown. “To kill you.”
    ........(Is that so?) Adam heard something in that voice he wouldn’t have thought possible: surprise.
    ........“The only way to awaken you is to destroy the body. Like you told us.”
    ........The Red God tensed under the light. As if preparing to strike a blow.
    ........He looked away—and froze when he saw Faedra’s portrait on a wall. Sharp breath. Discernment.
    ........In one fluid movement he picked up Muramasa and thrust the sword into the Red God’s chest.
    ........A subtle skewering of perception, like walking into a spider’s web. The flies buzzed away. He let go of the blade and rubbed his eyes, and when he could see clearly again it wasn’t the Dreamer but Hasvatos slumped in front of him. In his right hand a book of deep purple. His left tapped spastically at the metal pinning him to seat.
    ........Adam spared a glance at the wall for confirmation; as he’d suspected, Faedra had disappeared. Had never been there to begin with. He looked back at Hasvatos and stood up. In his ear the thrum of a hundred insect wings. He was around the table and closing his hand around the man’s throat. “You’d better start talking,” he breathed into Hasvatos’ face—
    ........—and it melted away, like a lie exposed. Beneath was fused bone pulled into a rictus of pain.
    ........“We’re not so different,” gasped the councillor. “From one disciple to another.”
    ........Immediately Adam let go, stepping back while drawing out Muramasa. Arm raised to level sword. A moment to eye the curving horns and wings which seemed cramped even in the large room. They beat the air, thrashing distortions: one moment visible; the next, vanished; now multiplied and frenzied.
    ........“Let’s say you’re a disciple.”
    ........“I am.” Hasvatos raised an arm to the wound in tattooed chest. “How else would I know about the swords?”
    ........True. Except: “You stole the letter,” he realized.
    ........No denial. Instead: “I’m sorry about your arm.”
    ........Adam said nothing for a long time. A perfect riposte: so subtle it left the victim reeling from the complexities behind the seemingly simple move. He allowed himself one question: what sort of influence was required to involve the Agraimans?
    ........Hasvatos again. “My brother would like the sword back.”
    ........In a duel, that would’ve ended the match. He had the distinct impression that he should be grateful Hasvatos hadn’t come with steel in hand. “But I killed the god of bones,” he heard himself say, and didn’t care for the lost quality in his voice.
    ........“He’s not divine, though he might act the part.” Hasvatos sank a finger into his wound. Probed around; satisfactory sound. Adam could see the flesh trying to knit itself. “Unfortunately, I need his horde to run free a bit longer before I can hand Muramasa over.”
    ........Vincent’s skeletons and flames. If the old man had come back then he was a disciple too. His arm faltered. Lowered. The councillor was telling the truth. He looked at those white eyes crinkled in amusement. “Was imitating the Dreamer supposed to put me at ease? He can’t wake until we have all the swords—”
    ........“And reach the center. Of Hell.” His hand fell away. “So that’s how he intends to deal with the Sentry.”
    ........“Start making sense.” Yet he could see the face, absolute, tangible, and there was no lie there to be found.
    ........“Your so-called Red God.” He turned and spat out blood. “He’s playing you all for fools.” A wheezing meant as laughter—then it stopped. “You don’t know, do you?”
    ........“Know what?” He stood still. Watched for a sign.
    ........“That there’s another Dreamer.” The book in his hand flared bright.
    ........Adam kicked the table. It crashed into Hasvatos, knocking the book free. He lunged for it but Adam closed the distance between them with a stride, jabbing Muramasa into his neck.
    ........He stayed that way for a moment, supporting the councillor’s weight on sword, then pulled out to cleave head from torso before the body struck the floor.

    *

    ........“Tell me who you are or prepare to be sunk!” hollered the young Vaccaneli.
    ........“You’ll have to speak up,” suggested Isaac with a neutral expression. “What with them out on the ocean and unable to hear you. Just a thought,” he added, when the sorcerer scowled.
    ........They stood on a pier watching the ships draw near. At their backs officers of the Watch with bows lowered while further still the procession wound down the street, urged on by other officers when the crowds spotted the gathering and slowed.
    ........Cormac fumbled his knuckle-walking and bent to retrieve the coin but it slipped through the floorboards into cold water. He chose not to read anything into that and straightened up.
    ........Beside the red-faced Vaccaneli—Tomas, a third-year apprentice dispatched to El Matar on what he called an educational posting but to Cormac felt more like punishment for some unspecified wrong, he seemed like the sort prone to mouthing off—was a woman eyeing Tomas with distaste usually reserved for trash. One of the Majira, Old Tongue for sorceress, the only female school. She had a flower with glass flames for petals in one hand and impatience in her stance as the Vaccaneli resumed yelling.
    ........“Be quiet,” she snapped finally and Tomas, surprised, closed his mouth—for a moment. Then he puffed up his chest, saying, “You don’t get to talk to me—”
    ........Be quiet.” Her voice was thunder in the air, staggering them all. Cormac clapped his hands to his ears, backing away. The others quickly followed.
    ........The Majira turned her back to them. Cormac felt a chill at the sight of her cerulean robes and shawl moved by non-existent winds. She was channeling; it was a pressure on his eyes, his skull, on his soul which he suddenly became aware of in his mind’s eye as a grey-spotted ring bending under thaumaturgic currents slow-moving and deep.
    ........Identify yourselves.” Her voice boomed across the waters. “Or everyone on board will burn.”
    ........“Still want Dasgreil?” Isaac shouted beside him.
    ........He’d asked for a Krusata in general but it made no difference now. From this angle he could see the high sweep of cheekbone, her lips pressed into a thin line. She would do it, he was certain. Either rain fire from night skies or cause them to combust, innocent or not. It was the demand that mattered: she, like her peers, wanted obedience. (That sort of power should belong only to God and Empress. There was a sourness on his tongue, narrowing his eyes, hardening his heart.)
    ........“Guess there was no need to bring my people along!”
    ........“Why are you yelling?”
    ........“Oh.” He glanced at the Majira, waiting now, clothes hanging undisturbed. “I was saying—”
    ........“I know.” They lowered their hands. “You should’ve sent the civilians home.”
    ........Isaac gave him a strange look. “That’d include you too.”
    ........“I’ve just saved the city.”
    ........“If you’re right.” A brittle grin. “Otherwise, we’re all going to end up looking like proper fools. And we’re paying a steep price for those two’s services.”
    ........Cormac saw the coin slip through the floorboards again and made no reply.
    ........The middle ship was lowering a boat with three figures which, as it approached, resolved into two men rowing while a panicked third waved hands back and forth, not letting up until the craft bumped pier.
    ........“Ah.” Isaac craned his head up at the stars coming out. “Cormac. Dear friend. I do hope the city’s surplus this year was substantial.”
    ........“What in the ever-loving fuck,” cried the third man, clambering onto pier, “is wrong with you people?” There was a stud in his right ear—diamond, Cormac noticed—to complement fine-cut black vest and pants and a white silk shirt so sheer he could see his abdomen tighten as the Watch seized him. “Let go of me. I said let the fuck go.” He regarded them with irritation.
    ........Isaac waved his men off and stepped forward, a smile on his face so wide it was anything but credible. “Apologies, my good man.”
    ........“I’m not your anything.”
    ........“Oh, I agree, but it was either that or smash my fist into your face for the scare you gave us.”
    ........“What?”
    ........“Accept my apology.”
    ........“No.” His face spasmed with emotion. “No,” he repeated.
    ........“Well.” Isaac shrugged. “See, some of us may have confused your ships for raiders.”
    ........The man’s face went blank. Then: “Again, I ask, what is wrong with you people?”
    ........“I’d like to know as well.” A side-long glance at Cormac.
    ........“Do I look like a goblin?”
    ........“Of course not.”
    ........He pointed at the two men still in the boat, gawking up at them with disbelief. “How about them? Do they look like goblins?”
    ........Isaac looked pensive. “They’re ugly enough to pass.”
    ........The man opened his mouth. Closed it. A wetness in his eyes which might’ve been mirth but was probably harassment.
    ........“What’s your business in El Matar?”
    ........“I want to lodge a complaint.” He raised his voice. “Do you hear me? You can’t be threatening to put people on fire for no reason!”
    ........“For the record, she was the one doing all the threatening. Me? I’m just an oaf with large hands and a badge. Prone to abusing my powers and so on.” Isaac winked. “Although I have every right to detain any unscheduled suspicious arrivals, especially tonight. Emergency powers and whatnot.”
    ........Cormac was sure the studded man was shrinking. “I’m a vintner.”
    ........“I do like a fine red now and again. More of a beer man though.” He nodded at the ships out in the water. “You planning to sell your stock?”
    ........“Give it away, actually. For the Festival.”
    ........Isaac looked at him. “Give it away.”
    ........“It’s my first time coming here. Thought I’d make an impression.”
    ........Isaac eyed the ships. “No need to worry on that account.”
    ........“It’s supposed to attract attention.”
    ........“Mind if I take a look inside?”
    ........“Not as if I can stop you.”
    ........Isaac smiled. “There’s the spirit.” He walked over to the Majira, who relayed the message to the ships. As they came in and docked Cormac tried to stay as still as possible, as if the absence of motion would stop the embarrassment from continuing. But he saw the looks the officers were giving him. Even Isaac couldn’t meet his eyes. Hot needles pricked his armpits; he imagined his cheeks taking on a rosy shade of shame. A thought like lightning struck him: his mind was dull, not sharp; he was measuring repeatedly, mistaking uncertainty for prudence, and when he did make the cut it was crooked and shallow, raw at the edges as if he was newly come to the business of carving compliance out of people like blocks of wood in his hands.
    ........ Men appeared at the first ship’s bulwark and let down a gangplank for the Watch to climb. The vintner was talking with the Majira; she looked surprised at her own tentative smile. The two men in the boat stepped onto pier and stretched. One of them asked where the Vaccaneli was and the other pointed. Cormac saw Isaac glance over at them.
    ........He looked at the ships, his gaze skittering away as if it pained him—and then froze. Looked back again.
    ........Ribbed bones appearing to break out of dark wood. This close up he could see a pattern in their arrangement. A face in profile. He edged nearer. Saw a rusted metal patch whose placement doubled as a red eye. Hard to make out unless you knew what to look for. He couldn’t breathe.
    ........Slow quarter turn and there was Isaac at his side, the big man looking down at him. “Tomas has been in the city less than a month.” Confusion hardening into accusation. “How would those two know who he is if they’ve never been here before?”
    ........Cormac backed away. “It’s them.” His voice barely a whisper but his old friend heard and his eyes widened.
    ........A moan from behind and they turned to see the Majira leaning on the vintner, folding around him like friends long parted now reunited, chin nestled at his neck before he stepped away with wet dagger in hand, pushing her with a stiff arm, saying in a voice emptied of earlier fear and helplessness that it was finished and looking over as Tomas struggled, frantic, mouth trying to form words, a plea perhaps, or spell, instead only letting blood drip as the vintner’s partners let him fall and as one the three strangers spinning to face the remaining Watch who were nocking arrows to bows which should never have been lowered, should have loosed burning arrows the moment the ships came in reach, and it was too late now, even for the men reaching for swords, and for those turning to flee, because the killers were a whirlwind they could not escape.
    ........Shouting. Cormac and Isaac turned, looked up, saw a goblin grey and sleek approach bulwark with an officer held almost casually in the air with one hand clasped around neck. The goblin brought the man close. Kissed him slow and deep. Opened his mouth wide and sank teeth into the officer’s face. The veins in the goblin’s neck tautened as he wrenched his head to side, tearing away flesh in a spray of blood.
    ........He let the man fall over the side of the ship into water, a coin slipping through floorboards, and then the screaming began.

    *

    ........No assault when he’d opened the door. A look back at Hasvatos’ smoking remains from when he’d tried to pick up the book, his fingers closing on spine and a brilliance filling the room, bright even against the veined darkness of closed eyes, opening them to see book gone to ash and a charred skeleton for councillor.
    ........Making his way out of the underground levels had been a tense affair, but no one had stopped him. He soon gave up stealth for speed.
    ........Outside. He made his way down the wide steps at the front of the building, Muramasa in hand and babbling content.
    ........The building sat on the highest hill in the city, giving him an unobstructed view of the harbour ablaze. Smoke billowing. Snatches of cries from all points of the city. He frowned.
    ........In the streets now, nothing for a time as he ran, then around a corner and before him humanity running at him, pursued by fast shapes. He got a good look at them and his skin crawled. He ducked into an alley. Took stock. Jogged through the corridor into another street.
    ........The goblins were here. There was still a chance to make it work.

    *

    ........Cormac lost sight of Isaac when the raiders leapt overboard onto pier, unharmed and moving as soon as they landed. He saw sabres and bows but none of them touched him. Even if they had reneged on their deal, there was this last grace. Meaningless, when he thought about it, but he sank to his knees, weeping.
    ........The procession was scattering, whistles piercing air and red lights flashing for the Watch to assemble, and in the glow the raiders moved with purpose. They were corralling the citizens, he realized. Loping around them with gruesome grins. Pushing them back towards the ships. But then he saw others killing wholesale, goblins falling on the frightened with fists and maw and blade. It made no sense. Madness.
    ........A burning arrow struck the hull of a ship. He looked around, dazed, saw an officer atop a building. He was taking aim once more when something slammed into his chest. He staggered back, bow falling, and then a raider grappled up onto the roof and tore out his throat. Cormac closed his eyes—
    ........—and opened them when a voice spoke in his ear.
    ........In my robes. Restorative. Quickly now.
    ........He shuffled around. The Majira grimaced at him. Her lips fluttered.
    ........Do as I say, Guildsman, or all is lost.
    ........It already was. The rush of raiders had slowed to a trickle. Most of them had gone after the procession and further into the city. The city which he had argued for a lessening of the police force, a long debate in Guildhall following which Isaac had sworn to make him pay when the restrictions passed but he had soothed his old friend, saying the money could be better used elsewhere. And what about goblins? he had asked; to which Cormac had replied in ignorant arrogance, “They will never come to El Matar.”
    ........How curious that what was once truth became lie. It tasted like blood from where he’d bitten down on a cheek.
    ........Guildsman.” She shuddered, tried to hide it. “Help me.
    ........He got to his feet. Made eyes with a goblin who opened his mouth and laughed silently. He looked away and found Isaac on his side, half his face missing.
    ........He searched through her clothes and now there was laughter from behind. He knew what they were thinking. All to the better then. A sob in his throat turned to a snarl. Fingers fumbling. Her life seeping warm through fabric. Then he pulled out a number of vials, stared at the blood on his hands.
    ........“Red,” she whispered. He huddled close, as if to kiss her, shielding her from view as he pulled the cork and spilled its content down her mouth. Hesitation; then with his other hand he pulled at her robes and rested it on the inside of her thigh. He glanced back. The raiders were either doubled over or leering. He fixed what he hoped was a passing imitation onto his face and looked at her. She nodded her understanding. Colour was returning to her cheeks.
    ........“Light purple.” He obeyed.
    ........A horn sounded. A squadron of the Watch had arrived, these few he allowed to carry flintlocks (“the Watch has performed well in the past without guns and I see no reason to change now,” he had told the committee, and they had listened to him, the fools, but there was no time for regret now; the Majira’s thigh was growing warm) and they raised them now with a shout and fired. Those constrained citizens ducked, the bullets dropping their captors behind.
    ........It wasn’t enough. The raiders closed in even as they were hit. An arrow shot into the squadron’s midst, followed by an explosion. Humans and goblins flew apart in chunks. He looked back and saw the goblin that had first appeared at the bulwark calmly nocking another arrow.
    ........Their eyes met. Understanding. The goblin shouted. Raised his bow.
    ........Beneath him, she took a deep breath.
    ........He saw the arrow fly and it was death loosed but then the Majira was standing, pushing him aside. In her hand the glass flower. A swirl of crimson in its confines—
    ........—and a torrent of flame leapt out to burn the arrow.

    ........She rose into the air.
    ........Her hair was alive, the flower an inferno. Each shift of figurine razed grey figures below in fire.
    ........Cormac saw on her face serenity and he went cold, even as the floorboards beneath him burned.
    ........The Majira went higher. Turned towards a raider ship. Engulfed it in flames that licked hundreds of feet into the air. As if they hungered for darkness and sky.
    ........Witchwood cracking like gunshots. Cormac got up, lumbered away onto solid ground and turned with the others to watch chaos. The ship’s black sails were smoke and the entire thing was falling in on itself. A groan went up from it, a titan’s bellow.
    ........She spun, hem flaring, describing an arc with the flower which descended and devoured.
    ........You will burn.” Her voice was a dirge. “Oh, how you all will burn.”
    ........More raiders leaping from the second ship. She caught them up in mid-air and they were nothing more than ash. Hot winds blew the remains into Cormac’s face; he could taste them turning to sludge on his tongue. He swallowed.
    ........Then he saw him in the flames. Couldn’t quite believe it.
    ........Cormac watched as he bent down to retrieve a grappling hook. Watched him glance up.
    ........No. He screamed his name. Red God, no.
    ........Adam turned. Saw him. Smiled.

    ........Adam let go of Muramasa and placed the hook between his legs before sliding his hand into the liquefying metal. The glove seared his hand but he was able to press the switch inside which shot the hook into the ground. He flicked it again, reclaiming it. Took up the sword once more in glove.
    ........Then he took aim at the sorceress and fired.
    ........The hook sank into her belly. Her mouth was a circle of pain but before she could react he pressed the switch.
    ........Sight blurring as he rose to meet her and she fell to him, the chain their bond, uniting them in an impact of flesh striking flesh.
    ........He looked into her face and read the agony there. Then the muscles grew slack. Shriveled. Cracks formed in darkening skin and he looked down at where Muramasa was hilt-deep in her body, the mage-killer deconstructing her, negating her existence until there was nothing left of the woman but robes which kept the shape of her absence for a moment before sagging.
    ........As he fell he took aim at a raider ship and reeled himself in. He struck the deck, rolling until he was stopped by the mainmast and lay there as smoke and screams drifted up past him.
    anchor::ch3.1



    Chapter Three


    .........The deviation was corrected; his mechanism on track. El Matar sacrificed so that the raiders might escape and carry him along to wherever it was they came from; his very own Stratagem, to better instruct the raiders on the seduction of violence and shape them into an instrument of war.
    .........He thought about that. It sounded familiar, though he couldn’t say why. Frowning, he sat up, back to mainmast, and watched as the dockside buildings burned up, the distance between himself and the city only a deck’s length but for all that forbidden to him.
    .........There were fewer screams. El Matarans fleeing deeper into the city, he supposed, trying to escape the goblins; that, or they weren’t putting up much of a fight. The sounds of battle, too: either the Watch had fallen back or the flames had swallowed up the noise like they had most everything else. A moment, then, to reflect on the short-sightedness of building in wood: a plentiful resource and quite cheap to procure, that couldn’t be denied, considering the land west of city limits was forested spruce and fir; but when kissed by fire and nibbled at by small red teeth, not very smart after all. Except El Matarans had never had a reason to believe their industrious city would be set alight. The last time they’d been attacked, both time and Empress had shown the fatal flaw in that approach.
    .........No. Sensible communities, the reasoning went, would have nothing to fear from similar societies. There was an ordering to life, once the brutality of setting up home and law and institution was seen to, and any challenge to that generation-spanning effort was an affront. Inconceivable, really. Who in their right mind would want to disrupt the neatness of craftwork and agriculture and inter-city commerce? Only mad men and women. But if that was the case, what did that say about war? The great undertaking which churned up lives and steel and coin and more often than not had very little worthwhile to show for the labour.
    .........(There was a time, before he had awakened, when he was only a sword instructor and still uneasy with his newfound immortality, that he had attended a debate in an amphitheater in Grissant in the company of one of his students who, having decided he’d had enough of being smacked about by practice swords, had insisted they get around to sharpening their intellects, too.
    .........“It only makes sense,” Bentas explained, as they made their way through arch-filled streets and packed squares. “My father wants me to be more than a brute armed with some steel.”
    .........Adam looked at him sideways. “You fancy yourself good as that, do you?” he said evenly.
    .........The young nobleman made a face. “Goddess only knows I’ve been at it long enough.”
    .........“A sandbag, perhaps.”
    .........Bentas stopped, looking perplexed. “Pardon?”
    .........Adam nodded curtly. “And a cheap one at that. You don’t even fight back.”
    .........“Well, what else is a sandbag supposed to—” He closed his mouth. “Ah,” Bentas said finally, and Adam grinned.
    .........Through a tunnel with coloured silks for a roof and out again into the bright afternoon sun with the tiered steps of the amphitheater before them. All the seats at the bottom of the bowled arena were taken, and while looking around for a place Adam saw he’d been given the slip.
    .........Well then. He perched uncomfortably on the end of a stone bench before turning to ask his neighbour to move over a bit. Getting no reply, he looked back to center stage, where academics in tri-pronged hats and billowing brown robes shouted themselves red in the face.
    .........“Tachlimedes says in his Third Tractate—”
    .........“Never mind what that fool said,” interrupted another, “and he was a necrophiliac, besides.”
    .........The first man jumped to his feet, an impressive act considering his bulk, and raised a book threateningly. “Of all the stupid things to say,” he began.
    .........“Oh, I agree.” The second scholar took off his hat and examined it. “Tachlimedes was a pacifist—though not a very good one, the histories suggest—so what relevance you think he has on war is beyond me. I suggest you look to Lepiro,” he went on, apparently oblivious to his colleague’s eloquent death threats, “and his sublime Assertions. Third chapter, sixth verse: ‘War is the Province of Good and Just Men.’ He should know. His ancestors—did I mention I’m a direct descendant?—have been about that business long enough that Lepiro University offers doctorates on the matter. I mean, I am a co-lecturer on Combative Studies.” He shoved the hat back onto his head, pushing aside one of the drooping prongs. “Though, really, there’s no need for degrees in knowing people are stupid and that if you poke another person with three feet of steel, blood and other nasty stuff will spill out.” He batted away another low-hanging prong. “Well, chainmail might make a difference. Actually, that’s a good point,” he went on, ducking out of the way as his large colleague threw the book he’d been holding. “The stress load of armour. I’ll remind you of the quite insightful essay I penned last month on the varying stresses of metals through traditional forge work versus thaumaturgy.”
    .........On and on they went, circular arguments and esoteric defenses, all of it largely useless and laughably misinformed, though Adam hadn’t been smiling by the time the debate had ended. He looked at the audience, saw how pleased they were, believing they’d learned something vital about war, talking points they might take away to an inn or perhaps the marketplace and discuss in their newfound wisdom.
    .........He still remembered the scene the next time he visited Grissant, now a disciple of the Red God; and for a time he questioned their observations on battle, correcting their inaccurate responses with the slow death which accompanies being besieged by a superior army, before setting upon them a final examination of plague.
    .........Afterwards, walking through avenues littered with bloated bodies and under the black wings of crows circling to feed, he asked the dead city why its people with all their knowledge of war hadn’t been able to save it.)
    .........Wherever you go, the Grand Master had said, destruction follows. But even he couldn’t have known just how prophetic those words would be. Not unlike casting a curse only to have it turned on you threefold. Or—and here Adam gave a slight nod of approval—like a fencer too clever by half who lowers his guard as a ploy, only to comprehend a half second before dying that the opponent is faster, less arrogant, and there are times when stupidity is synonymous with suicide.
    .........He grinned. Found it didn’t quite fit. Tried again to shrug off the weight of what he’d just done; began to breathe quickly when the guilt announced it rather preferred to stay. Except he didn’t feel bad about killing the sorceress. There was something else, a detail he wasn’t seeing, a maddening itch which if he could only just reach would be satisfied.
    .........Two dockside warehouses caved in, throwing up smoke and sparks. The buildings adjacent stretched out in a necklace of burning pearls, so white was the wood before it was reduced to ash.
    .........A suppressed twinge warned him he couldn’t go on ignoring the injury, he should at the very least look; so he did, reluctantly, down at his lap where the grappling glove had first seared, then fused, with both his hand and Muramasa’s hilt, the flat of the blade across his thighs. The pain was a constant, deep stabbing sensation; or he knew it was, in a remote corner of his mind, the reality divorced—thankfully—of conscious attention and delegated to the repairs of regeneration. A useful safeguard, if not without drawbacks. He tried opening the fist and, unsurprisingly, failed; then turned it over gingerly, catching his darkened, misshapen reflection in the melted mass. He wasn’t much for omens but figured this was easy enough to interpret: metal, flesh and blade become one; he had acquired a taste for violence.
    .........Something along those lines. And he hadn’t even had to pay off one of the city’s thieving soothsayers. Speaking of: a great many of those con-artists would probably die tonight.
    .........Right, then. Adam stood up and looked around. To his left, mizzenmast and quarter deck (which, he mused, almost exhausted his knowledge of nautical terms); above, through the smoke, red-lit sails stirred by hot air; and turning his head, gaze sliding over El Matar’s distress, a view of the ascending bowsprit and jibboom, interrupted by other parts of the ship he had no name for and a head, followed by a torso, making its way up from below deck.
    .........Hard to make out but the head was facing away. Broad shoulders. Smooth grey skin, natural camouflage in the haze.
    .........The goblin had a hooked blade. Difference being his weapon hung from the hip.
    .........Yes, Muramasa sighed.
    .........In the time it took the raider to turn and see he wasn’t alone, Adam was close enough to lunge, pushing Muramasa’s point deep into his right eye.
    .........(He was his own spectator: right knee bent at textbook angle, body low to deck, left leg long and straight; more force than strictly necessary, since he had to jiggle the blade free of the socket, but that could be explained away by the missing balance his left arm used to provide.)
    .........Perfect example of what’s wrong with this world: can’t even come up for air without catching a little death. He straightened up, laughing. Longer than he should have, if he was being honest, which shut him up finally. (Muramasa, on the other hand—he smiled at that; what other hand?—was still echoing in his head.) He examined the outcome (not a person anymore, pointless to go on thinking so. He searched for the words and found them: warm meat. How subtle the divide between life and its shadow). The body was on its back but with one cheek resting on floorboard, allowing fluids to run free from the ruptured eye. Adam nudged a shoulder with his shoe tip; next the face, so he could watch as under the skin muscles twitched in delayed death; then he set about the chore of maneuvering the body overboard.
    .........A one-armed god-killer, as it turned out several minutes later, was no match for a body twice his size. Breathing hard, Adam stepped back and swore. He’d managed to half-roll, half-kick the body starboard and sit it upright against the bulwark, at which point gravity and welded Muramasa had argued against further progress and won out. It wouldn’t do, though, to have more raiders come up the companionway and stumble upon the failed negotiation. Hardly the way to go about gaining their trust.
    .........So why the hell had he gone and killed him for?
    .........Flies, said Muramasa, like the filing of a rasp on wood. So small and noisy and how bitter and brief the spurt of their insides against the inside of your mouth when you trapped them just like the not-theres trapped you in the small and noisy room below the kraken and your teeth and tongue were a web and you fed on the little black bodies because you were hungry and they were food and that was the way of things.
    .........“If it’s all the same to you,” Adam muttered, “I’d rather you spoke sense. Otherwise, shut up.”
    .........On the edge of hearing, more strained screams. There was only so long a body could keep that up before it all became a bit embarrassing, if not counter-productive: the noise would only hasten the goblin’s efforts to locate and silence them. A snatch of verse came to him: “Fear makes a beast of men.” (Thadduch, if he remembered correctly. Post-Unification philosopher-poet. Surprisingly readable despite being an academic.) Fright narrowed vision, jumbling priorities, turning immediate desires into downfalls.
    .........He paused. Snagged that last thought before it could fade and turned it over. What he found underneath wasn’t to his liking.
    .........So he closed his eyes and extrapolated.
    .........A certain amount of time and effort had been allocated to finding a way to reach the raiders. In a sense, he had succeeded: Cormac’s Stratagem. Except Agraimans had interfered and cut off that possibility. In more ways than one.
    .........Was it just coincidence, then, that the raiders should come here, of all places? As if important pieces in the design could be brought closer to hand by his will alone?
    .........He frowned. Wrong on two counts: first, the Cormac-raider compact, meant to ensure, in part, El Matar’s unmolested existence, or else the merchant would never have agreed; second, he pre-supposed the raiders’ importance, when all he had to go on, what had begun this months’ long tangent, was Dasgreil’s mention that they had become more than just a hindrance to the Empress. Not equivalent to a destabilising force, but enough of a spark which he had decided could carefully be fanned into a flame.
    .........He resisted the urge to open his eyes; to turn around and witness. There was chaos, yes. But not entirely his doing.
    .........Slow down. Go back.
    .........Dasgreil. Sent to capture him at the Empress’ request. Or so the man had said.
    .........Specifically: he had spoken about the eye and the worm; pseudo-deities; theological matters.
    .........Nothing about why the Empress wants me. Maybe Dasgreil’s vagueness could have been evasion; doubtful, though, because plain fact was the Empress would not have wanted news of what Adam had done to spread. Undeniable truth: what was known about her and her affairs were what she allowed to be known. What he had done was more than just a crime. His offense had been a legitimate threat to her, an action she would want buried from view.
    .........Adam could almost see it. Her informing the holy father that there was a blasphemer in the Badlands who went by the moniker of god-killer. Dasgreil reluctant to accede but obeying in the end. And the Empress stepping aside to watch as the thaumaturge set out to mete punishment for the quite real sin against the faith—while her own concern was simultaneously seen to, with no one the wiser.
    .........He tested its resistance. Found it possessed minimal flex.
    .........Some part of all this went back to Janramak and what he had done there; which had prompted the other disciples, knowing he had committed a crime but not the specifics, to accelerate their plans; so they had sent him to speak to the old man; and in the end, he now had the sword, which suited his own plans just fine. A success story if ever there was one. In keeping with his efforts at always making the best of a bad hand.
    .........Hilarious.
    .........All of that was verifiable, within acceptable margins of error so as to make no difference. He could—and just had—traced a section of the path that had led him to this moment and found nothing on the way he hadn’t consciously or otherwise determined. A mental exercise, at most, to prepare him for the rigours of what he’d encountered underneath the Agraiman halls.
    .........There is a second Dreamer, Councilor Hasvatos had said. And you’re all being played for fools.
    .........The prerequisite to acknowledging so large a horror meant admitting his—and Vincent’s, and Faedra’s—own vast ignorance.
    .........Quite simply, it was impossible.
    .........Because the Red God had always intimated he was without equal. Wholly unique, a deity of dream; and in Adam’s case a nightmare without relent.
    .........They had believed their master. How could they not?
    .........How could I? he thought, and felt something he hadn’t experienced for some time: bitterness. I knew what he was capable of. I knew—
    .........—the answer to the riddle.
    .........(A ghost of a dream: a perfect circle drawn in sand; the Dreamer’s bloodied hand raised in invitation; tell me what this means.)
    .........Vincent interpreted it as shared godhood; Faedra, as a mandate to maintain order; and for him, it was a prison.
    .........Their responses had been irrelevant. Utterly beside the point. The riddle spoke to the Dreamer’s confinement.
    .........How the god must have laughed, to see his disciples grasp for meaning they could never hold. An examination failed because they were all too servile and besotted—or in his case, so taken by terror and rage—to see.
    .........A god would never choose to sleep.
    .........Not choice, then, but made to—by Hasvatos’ Dreamer, perhaps. Otherwise, the Red God would have woken up of his own volition. (If there was a second, why not a third? He drew in a sharp breath at the thought of a race of Dreamers. Each with a host of disciples as proxies.)
    .........What scared him—and he paused to verify that it was there, souring his stomach, and he had allowed it to narrow his vision—what terrified him was this: the Red God had committed a crime whose punishment was imprisonment. And he hadn’t told his disciples.
    .........What else was he keeping from them?
    .........It came to him then, too quick to be avoided: how much of what I’ve done is of my choosing?
    .........(A hairline crack formed in the mechanism, and he saw it grow until the fault tore apart the various gears and interlocking lives, exposing the hatred that lay at its center. Just another emotion in the end, to be manipulated; and there would be no one more intimate with the nature of that emotion, with its stresses and limits and blind spots, than the one who had made him draw on it as strength in his suffering.)
    .........Yet the purpose of his actions was to destroy the Red God. His life would culminate in that single event. It followed that it could not be made into another’s tool: the prisoner could not escape if he was killed.
    .........His choices were his own. He was safe.
    .........(He picked up a fallen component; reassembled the machine; secured it against tampering and watched it shudder into life again to resume its advance.)
    .........Adam opened his eyes. Looked down at the raider’s corpse.
    .........Staggered under a massive blow to the back of his head.
    .........He hit the bulwark, bounced backwards, tried to dart to the side but was dazed. The next blow caught him high in the face and dropped him to one knee.
    .........A second to curse all goblins to hell; then Adam slashed at the legs. The goblin cried out and fell. Too close for sword work, so Adam lowered his chin and head-butted the goblin, forehead to nose, promptly breaking it with a satisfying crunch.
    .........He drew back for a second strike when someone else kicked him in the head.
    .........When he could see again, he was lying on his back with a goblin’s weight crushing his chest. Another was helping the injured one off while two more lifted their dead companion and threw him overboard.
    .........“So you’re not the sensitive types,” he said. Or would have, but what came out was slurred. (Still sluggish from the Agraiman’s care, he reasoned, and the fused hand to deal with; the various hurts were beginning to clamour for attention, and there was only so much he could ignore.)
    .........“Hello, Adam,” the goblin said quietly.
    .........Adam stared. Opened his mouth as if to say something then thought better of it.
    .........The goblin reached down and took hold of the metal glove.
    .........“I think I’m supposed to keep you alive. Only,” he went on in that thick voice, with a shake of his head, “you went and killed one of ours.” He bent Adam’s elbow, angled the attached blade. “I understand, though. Sometimes these things happen.” He shrugged, as if to say what’s done is done.
    .........Then he eased the sword into Adam’s belly, before turning him onto his side and continuing until it came out his back.
    .........(Fair enough, Adam reflected, seeing Hasvatos pinned in a chair.)
    .........He couldn’t keep the pain in its corner any longer. It crashed through mind and body, a great black boar spearing him with its tusks and dragging him off into darkness.
    .........
    .........*
    .........
    .........Any mention of goblin-raiders eventually ran into a singular overwhelming problem; namely, that very little was known about them. Even professors of the subject, teaching classes such as “Goblin Ethics,” “Pre-Empire to Modernity: A Study of Raider History,” “Symbiosis Renewed: The Co-dependence of Civilization and Barbarity” and “The Rhetoric of Rivalry” came to that moment mid-lecture when a student stood up in the seats and asked a question to which there was no conceivable answer other than to admit ignorance and move on. (This adherence to honesty was not an issue for Gernund Kettar, author of cross-genre novels on goblin life, in which many facets of the barbarians’ lives were scrutinized and commented upon, despite the impossibility of his ever have been the bastard child of a forbidden human-goblin affair with which he prefaced each book; his made-up accounts were, strangely enough, widely read best-sellers, such that university syllabi and government meetings drew upon Kettar’s work, with the result that, unwittingly or no, what scant truth there was about the warriors-across-the-sea was further lost among exaggerated popular fiction.) The reason behind their mystique was simple: anyone who came into contact with the raiders did not survive. For the general public, this policy of leaving no witnesses framed the killers as blood-lusting horrors who snuck into town, butchered to their wicked heart’s delight all night long, then melted away with the dawn (not unlike how Kettar described them in his stories); for officials, on the other hand, the dearth of witnesses was a perpetual headache, such that a Junior-Secretary of Internal Imperial Defense was recorded in the minutes of an emergency meeting following an attack on coastal port-of-call saying that he hoped no one else took it the wrong way, but he’d be damned before he started believing in the tales of goblins his mother had used to scare him into bed. For crying out loud, he insisted. It was a joke and in rather poor taste.
    .........There were, of course, those instances of a peddler returning to his village or a conveniently timed incoming merchant ship from the Islands or Territories who happened to see the raider’s in the thick of it; and after making good their escape, these men and women would recount what they’d seen in a suitably distant inn—until word reached the appropriate authorities, who then swooped down and snatched away the vital first-hand observers.
    .........To wit, there was information on raiders. Contradictory, meagre and often hysterical, but it existed and was made available to every ruling party or figure in the Empire’s ridings by way of reports and profiles. A remarkable achievement, that. Data filtered through Council’s bureaucratic agencies and processed in such a way that the tenuous threads of truth were disseminated as hundreds of pages of obfuscated excretion. All to keep up appearances of being on top of the problem.
    .........It came as little surprise, then, to the surviving senior Guild department heads who had made it back to quarters that night, that for all their frantic rifling of Council’s reports on the matter, the papers were useless.
    .........“Amazing,” Ariesse said, clapping her hands loudly. “Centuries’ worth of encounters with the enemy and every single dispatch has nothing better to offer than ‘they’re dangerous’.” She looked up at the others, a cut on her cheek oozing blood. Someone pointed it out and handed her a handkerchief to staunch the flow. She took the cloth, gave her thanks and burst into tears.
    .........Hunched over a sheaf of pages by the doors, another member nodded. “That’s it, I suppose,” he said, rather jovially, letting the pages fall as he crossed over to the liquor cabinet and pulled out a decanter. Seeing the looks shot his way, he smiled; when the looks hardened, he raised the crystal and shook it. “I think better when I’m drunk,” he explained, pouring himself a finger; then he pursed his lips, adding two more generous splashes. “And I’m sorry,” he added, matter-of-factly, “but you’re all idiots if you think I’m going to die sober.”
    .........Zaena shut her small brown notebook and pinched the bridge of her nose. “No one is going to die, Evandrus,” she said tiredly. Her wig was askew, but they knew better than to comment. “So long as we stay here, we’re safe.” She put the notebook away in a side satchel. Hesitated. “As safe as anyone can be in a time like this.”
    .........“Spare me the level approach,” a department head snapped. “Or do you think six walls and some token guard at the entrance will make everything fine again?”
    .........Evandrus looked curious. “Define ‘fine,’ please.”
    .........“Well.” The department head winced, grabbing her side where through the torn dress an exquisitely purple bruise was well on its way to black. “For one thing, that would involve the immediate and complete disappearance of raiders.”
    .........“Hmm.” Evandrus took a quick swallow. “My God, this is fantastic stuff.” Another appreciative taste. “But I thought you were referring to the greater problem.”
    .........“Do share,” the department head said acidly, “how raiders are not our biggest concern.”
    .........Cormac raised his head. “Fire,” he said.
    .........“Point?”
    .........“It’s source,” Cormac replied, returning to a paper on enemy tactics. There really was nothing useful in it. He set it aside and picked up another pile. “Have you forgotten who started it?”
    .........“A witch was mentioned.”
    .........“Oh, no,” Evandrus admonished. “No, you mustn’t call them that. Ever. Rather rude. Implies fringe status. Unless it’s true, of course. And as for you.” He whirled around, startling a man reaching for the decanter. “Back in your corner, you grubby bastard. The brandy is mine.” He reclaimed his property and continued. “Cormac’s got the right of it, though. Thaumaturgically-charged flames. More quaintly known as hellfire. The stuff will burn anything.”
    .........“Now hold on, what’s to say it isn’t just normal fire?”
    .........“It’s not,” Cormac replied. “On my way here, I had to pass by Ashfall. You know the wyvern bridge? It’s burning.”
    .........Ariessa sat up. “But Ashfall’s almost mid-city,” she said, horrified.
    .........“Remarkably fast moving,” Evandrus agreed cheerfully. “Dangerous stuff, obviously. A bannable offense under Imperial law and statutes of sorcery. Excepting emergency situations.” He smiled, wiping at the sweat on his brow. “Which I’ll hazard a guess to say we’re currently in.”
    .........“But there must be some way to stop it.” Ariessa stood up. “Some simple solution. I mean, it’s still fire, isn’t it?”
    .........Evandrus shrugged. “How the hell should I know?” And with that he walked over to the bookshelves and ignored them for the rest of the night.
    .........“I’ve a man out there,” Cormac offered.
    .........Ariessa turned. “What for?”
    .........It’s alright, he told himself. They’re rattled and can’t think straight. “To keep us appraised. He’s an arms dealer.”
    .........“My dear,” she said (Cormac raised a brow at the sudden birdlike warble in her voice), “the magic words I’m looking for are he’s a gunsmith, and even then, one man can’t do anything against all of that.” A flippant wave up at the ceiling, beyond which the world was noise and smoke.
    .........“One man did do this,” he muttered.
    .........“Come again?” He looked up and saw Zaena studying him. She nodded, a quick dip of the head. “You were saying,” she said.
    .........Cormac stared at her. Dredged up a smile. “It’s the shock,” he answered.
    .........She didn’t blink. Then she took out her notebook again, turned to a new page and began to write. After a while she stopped and looked up at him. “Shock,” she repeated, as if to test the word.
    .........“The Watch will do for them,” someone said confidently.
    .........“Enough.” Cormac looked them all in turn until they were silent. “The goblins will leave. We know this. It’s happened before.”
    .........“Not to us, it hasn’t.”
    .........He locked eyes with the interrupter. “Why do you insist on speaking?” A pause, to ensure no further outbursts. “The goblins will leave,” he repeated. “True, they’ve never attacked a city so large, but before the night’s over they’ll have had their fill and shipped off and then we can start to make sense of this mess.”
    .........“Assuming, of course,” said a thin man with both eyes swollen shut, “the city isn’t reduced to cinders first.”
    .........“Fucking magic,” spat another voice from the back.
    .........A sentiment which began a round of betting as to what calamity would hypothetically topple the city. The heads of victuallers and manufacturing backed the goblins (though, Cormac reflected, dropping ten gold coins into the circulating mug, they would pull something like that as a matter of principle, to always stand opposite him and the merchants, who had chosen to support extinction by hellfire). Services split themselves evenly among the choices—save one, who loudly proclaimed it would be a popular uprising that did for them, though everyone else agreed her choice had more to do with being a lady of a Great House, with all the paranoia of inbreeding attendant. Heads of lesser funded departments were denied play. Evandrus had passed out. Zaena abstained.
    .........There was nothing left to do afterwards but wait; yet that was too much like punishment, so they drifted apart, not quite meeting each other’s eyes, and went to sleep.
    .........Cormac chose the monstrous chair of petrified wood. The way its arms lashed out before doubling back in like hooks had always struck him as violent, and as he eased himself into the hard embrace he felt the ridges of the rough skin dig into his side.
    .........Why would anyone create something so damnably uncomfortable? The effort of shifting your ass about in the hopes of finding a position that didn’t hurt only aggravated the situation, and the back leaned forward in such a way that your chin just about touched your chest, guaranteeing a headache within half an hour. Yet someone in the Guild ages ago had seen fit to buy it, and they’d all sat in it at one point, despite the impracticalities. A unique kind of irrationality: to look upon an object whose explicit purpose was to inflict maximum discomfort; then ignore the warnings, thinking the twisted frame, tangled legs and ill design were flaws somehow complimenting the chair’s strangeness. As if belief could make something other than what it truly was.
    .........Then there was Adam, another who was anything but what he seemed, whose purpose had been woefully misinterpreted. Cormac saw clearly now, or sufficiently, but it was too late, because he and the rest had fallen into the man’s embrace, eased into his arms that closed snug, at first, then choked. Touched by the same hand that in the act of killing one sorcerer had killed them all.
    .........Cormac dreamed. Charred bodies crumbled underfoot as he ran. It was noon; he was certain of this, but the sky was black, the sun a myth. Looking back, he saw the inferno.
    .........It spoke to him.
    .........He woke with a start. Began to panic, because the fire had escaped his dream and filled everything he saw.
    .........The voice sounded familiar. Puzzlement; then he made out someone behind the fire. Saw an arm holding a shuttered lantern up to his face.
    .........“Waiting is the hardest part,” said Zaena.
    .........“The hell do you think you’re playing at?” Cormac said angrily. “Get that out of my face.”
    .........She did, and he regretted it. Now the shadows had stolen her face.
    .........Zaena went on: “When you’ve been kept down for so long you begin to think that’s the way things were meant to be.” An uncomfortable silence, in which Cormac knew he should get up and leave. “Imagine that. A person owning someone else. Slavery is supposed to be outlawed. A lot of things that aren’t supposed to happen in El Matar still happen. Like what’s going on out there.”
    .........The lantern was shaking. He couldn’t tell if it was from fear or anger.
    .........“Is there a point to this?” he asked.
    .........“No denial, then.”
    .........“If I was responsible, I would offer one.” He decided on an arched brow. “I’m not.”
    .........“Forgive me for not believing you.”
    .........He clamped down on irritation. “I don’t much care what you think.”
    .........“Pity.”
    .........“Not particularly.” His mouth was dry and his head pounded. A poor choice, sleeping in this torturer’s contraption, but he’d be damned if he let on. “There’s no sense in caring about unimportant things.”
    .........She shifted the lantern to her left hand. “I don’t understand.”
    .........“Of course you wouldn’t.”
    .........Maybe she hadn’t heard him. “There’s nothing gained by loosing raiders on the city,” she said. “I can see why you did that to other places”—he managed to hide his surprise, barely—“but not here. There’s no point. Too steep a price.”
    .........“Zaena, I’m tired. Go away.”
    .........So of course she moved closer. “About your man.”
    .........“Karam?”
    .........“The other one.”
    .........He kept quiet—a mistake, he realized. Just thinking about Adam was a kind of affliction.
    .........“That was a neat bit of business.” Barely above a whisper, but he was alert now, verging on alarm. “The thaumaturge, I mean. There are any number of barbarians to blame for her death but, again, it’s illogical.”
    .........(When he was younger, he had begged his uncle if he could go along with him to see the nearby slime colony. A rarity and contradiction both: nomads roosting. His uncle had relented and they had left the farm one day before dawn and ridden across plains until the land dipped; and arriving, they dismounted and looked down into the combe where, at the bottom, unmoving perfect spheres of colour slept.
    .........They made a small fire for warmth. He had assumed his uncle brought along the longbow for game. He watched, confused, as the older man reached down, fitting one end of the string’s loop into the bottom nock, then stood up partway and bent the top limb down, his forearms flexing with the strain, the belly of the bow compressing under the careful force, until his uncle managed to slip the loop into the nock and relax. Next, he took an arrow with an oiled sheen to the head and dipped it in the fire; raised the bow, nocked, took aim and loosed; then he unstrung, walked to his horse and told Cormac to follow.
    .........They rode back in silence most of the way. When Cormac gathered enough courage to ask why his uncle had murdered them, he was told there was no reason, that he should shut up and keep moving.
    .........He obeyed. Watched the older man’s back sway in saddle. When he closed his eyes he saw them burning, bright green and ruby and the blue of a lake frozen in winter and more, every one of them incapable of speech, victims to violence so sudden and incomprehensible it made his mind close in on itself or else risk being lost in the images of suffering.
    .........From then on, a scrupulous management of force, of conscious coercion, to distance himself as much as possible from the man. Yet here he was, caught up in senselessness once more; Zaena, who must share his uncle’s disorder, that she would confront him in this manner, without considering consequences or self-preservation.)
    .........“So you were at the docks,” he said quietly.
    .........“Yes.”
    .........“I didn’t kill her.”
    .........“No, your man did. And you watched him do it. Interesting it never came up earlier.”
    .........Smile. He tried. It felt wrong. “I’m guilty of many things,” he said, “but stupidity isn’t one of them.” Gentle laughter. He hated having to pretend. “Not always, at least.”
    .........“Sloppiness is. And we’ve noticed.” Zaena extinguished the light, moved away.
    .........His fingers found her wrist. “We?” he asked into the dark, the quiet, the deep breathing of sleepers.
    .........“My mother had a saying.” She did something with her hand and freed herself. “Not a terribly bright woman. Not many people in the village were.” Inches away, he was sure, but for all that she might as well have disappeared—except the voice. “She used to say I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The opposite’s true for you, Cormac. Seeing the whole picture, but not the details. It’s the details that tripped you up.”
    .........But he hadn’t fallen yet. He waited until he was sure she had gone, before thinking back to the meeting, casting it in new light. Easy enough to imagine Zaena and the rest had gathered to inform a Councillor they’d discovered treason in their midst. She’d good as confirmed it moments before. And their mingled looks of horror and surprise when he entered the room: no need for that if they’d come only to hear out Hasvatos’ strange proposal.
    .........If it were happening to anyone else, he would have admired the multipurpose intent: the charges leading to his arrest and death; his removal freeing them of a longstanding obstacle to shifting Guild control.
    .........Cormac broke into a cold sweat. Shivered at how close he’d come to exposure.
    .........It was close. The snakes hadn’t made contact with the Councillor since then, otherwise he’d already be in chains and halfway to the capital.
    .........Once more, he recalled the startled expressions. Made sure of the memory. Started putting names to faces.

    *

    .........The Church of the Red God distinguished itself from all other religions, be they opposing, resurgent or fringe, in two remarkable aspects: it alone enjoyed the status of being the official Terrarian faith; and its believers, the Faithful, eagerly professed a desire to never meet God, in this life or the next. The reluctance on the part of the Faithful to embrace their chosen deity would appear strange to the uninitiated, and rightly so, but a review of the Church’s first three Articles revealed the source of the anxiety ingrained since childhood: the Red God slumbered; He would awaken if the violent engagements of His creation reached a critical level; and the clamour of creation weeping as He doled out fatal retribution would signal the end of the Age and the beginning of Silence. Unsurprisingly, theologians disagreed (in journals, letters and, where proximity allowed and patience absconded, in loud shouts and chest-jabs) on what, precisely, constituted a critical level: the gradual escalation of the kobold-human conflict to global proportions, perhaps (a notion which was gaining traction); or a war between the five schools (unlikely; thaumaturges had no reason to quarrel); or a war between sorcery and Empire (too horrifying to seriously contemplate); or a return to the strife that characterized pre-Empire civilization (impossible, given the Empress’ firm reign; then again, her disappearance, and the various conflicts it had set off in the capital, had prompted a not inconsiderable number of debaters to quickly turn atheist, in the hopes their non-belief would somehow delay Armageddon, if not outright cancel it).
    .........Running counter to this crippling fear of the Red God was the prestige, influence and wealth the Church possessed in abundance. This was never more evident than in the magnificent cathedral which roosted in the Hallowed Ward in Janramak’s north-east quarter, a spectacular specimen of soaring pearlstone arches that dipped towards a crown of towers whose peaks rose hundreds of feet into the sky (rivaled only by the Empress’ Citadel, as was proper). The wings to either side of cathedral spanned acres; manicured lawns artfully decorated with tableaux from scripture and sectioned by smooth pathways and small woods; the territory flowing outwards and sweeping aside the lesser faith establishments that were unfortunate enough to stand in the way of the Church’s incremental (and inevitable) expansion. Edifice, grounds, flourishes—all artfully adorned by crystal shards, a second sun to banish the night as effectively as the doubts of the Faithful were banished by clergy.
    .........And yet, Faedra thought (not for the first time), standing to the side of the main path, despite all the brilliance there still remained pockets of shadow; stubborn stains elongating and shrinking and flickering. She watched as the congregants late to midnight mass trailed dark doubles. It would be safe to assume the implications weren’t lost on the great minds of theology; strangely enough, she’d yet to hear any insights on the issue, not in all the centuries she had lived. Evasion perfected; where else but in religion?
    .........The building swallowed up the stragglers in its large metal mouth and in the closing gap she spied the bas-relief of God’s Judgment on a wall: divine retribution against mortality hammered in steel screams and gold garishness. Then the doors shut and she was alone.
    .........Atop steeple, the most prevalent symbol of faith: an iron circle. Moonlight picked out the perfection of its craft.
    .........She supposed her life must fall under irony. Most committed of the Faithful, yet she’d never entered this particular holy place. Tonight would change that, and she wasn’t sure she approved. As if some part of her identity would now be irrevocably changed. Into what, she hadn’t a clue. The courses that character ran were varied.
    .........She was stalling and knew it. The homily would have started.
    .........She sat in the pew furthest back as the other churchgoers crowded before the pulpit. Crystal shards glowed from insets, hazing the air a scarlet which turned deeper near a towering statue of God. A diadem rested upon His forehead as He stood triumphant in full regalia, holding aloft in His right hand a large iron band while His left leveled a blood-hued sword at the heads of the congregation. It was a likeness of the Dreamer she found disquieting (because it was untrue), and averted her gaze.
    .........Dasgreil wasn’t presiding. (She allowed her lips to thin briefly; far too easy, had he been.) It was a younger priest standing on the altar. His red vestments were too big. Each step he took threatened to end in serious injury, lending a stiffness to his pacing across the altar with arms flailing.
    .........“Make no mistake,” projected the priest, “we’re in the end times—but are any of you really surprised? Terraria has been in a state of suspension ever since the Empress took power. And she took it, there’s no getting around it.” He flicked sweat off his brow. “The historians will natter on about the peace she’s brought us. They tend to do that; natter, that is. (I was in a relationship with one before entering the Studium; all he did was go on and on.) And they like to confuse terrified complacency for peace.” His lips blossomed into a rigid smile. “Because let’s be honest, any opposition to her tyranny is an invitation to the Gardens.
    .........“So like grey shamblemen we’ve scurried about under her eye. For centuries. Not once daring to look up, lest we catch her attention and invite her anger. Mice do that. Flee before the housecat, feeding on crumbs and flinching at candlelight.” (An overly long silence; Faedra docked marks for the blatant theatrics.) “Aimless ambling. Never forward. Only sideways progression.
    .........We have been denied the power of choice. Look to the records before Unification. We were inventors. Creators of things wondrous and terrifying. Those works belonged to us. They were signs of progress.”
    .........A strange thing happened: he seemed to deflate, alone up there on the spacious altar, as if only then realizing he was addressing a large number of people. His face closed up somehow; and, feeling disappointed, Faedra listened as he resumed in a far more restrained tone.
    .........“The Empress didn’t leave willingly. She fled. As if she could escape the storm.” The look on his face, Faedra realized, was irritation. “Listen to me. God is in that storm. And God will not suffer a witch to live.”
    .........Commotion in the pews. More incisive than the usual charges of tyrant and blasphemer, but the same scene was being repeated in other holy places in the Hallowed Ward: various faiths heaping anger disguised as righteous rhetoric upon faithful masses, newly repentant and holdouts alike. She made mental notes the duration of the sermon and had a rough update for Isaiah by closing hymns. Almost an afterthought, she decided to include Vincent as well.
    .........She looked once more at the statue of divinity while everyone else in nervous couplings darted off ahead of curfew.
    .........Except for one woman. She looked at Faedra coolly, the way you did upon running into an enemy you’d gone to some trouble to avoid. Ridiculous, for two reasons: Faedra had no idea who she was; and Faedra was currently invisible. (Ever mindful not to linger in the public’s eye. No doubt Vincent would have a proverb regarding the importance of secrecy.)
    .........The woman pushed back her braids behind one ear and spoke a couple of words.
    .........Immediate nausea. Faedra was still seated. The cathedral, however, broke apart as the austere, underground walls of the Agraiman school pushed through. She wore novice’s blue and had just finished her fifth-year final. The examiner was saying something; she broke in and asked him to start over.
    .........“Finally,” he said with a wide smile, “I have you all to myself.” Seeing her sudden concern, he raised a hand in apology. “Poorly worded. I only meant that I have long been an admirer.”
    .........“Thank you.” A rare feeling, having an Agraiman address her as if she were human. She treasured the moment.
    .........He nodded. “It’s not often a student is awarded full marks.”
    .........“No one has ever gotten a perfect score. Before me, that is.” She paused. “And I earned it.”
    ......... “The assessments finished some time ago. Relax.” But he was still smiling. He poured them both a cup and set the pitcher down and looked at her expectantly.
    .........A tiny sip. Brandy. She raised her eyebrows, and quickly downed the rest before he decided to change his mind.
    .........“The other instructors are at a loss as how to proceed with you.” He refilled her cup. “It should go without saying that you will be raised to an Agraiman.”
    .........She masked a smile, failed, drank deep. “Thank you.”
    .........He looked at her. “Don’t do that.”
    .........“I’m sorry?”
    .........“You’re too easily pleased.”
    .........Slightly confused, she said, “but becoming an Agraiman—”
    .........“—is worth less than a sack of shit. Especially,” he added, dipping his chin in modest deference, “if you consider you and I will still be alive when the walls of this school are dust and its founders forgotten.”
    .........Faedra kept quiet. The examiner’s eyes were a light blue, bordering on luminous. She reached a hand out shakily; he obliged her thirst.
    .........Odd; there was a faint aftertaste. Bitter, almost. She blinked. Put the cup down. Like deathweed, main ingredient in the draught used for meditation—
    .........(My fingers, I can’t feel my fingers—)
    .........—or for the purpose of paralyzing the extremities of an overexcited or otherwise endangered person; substitute numb-root where deathweed supplies run low. Jacinth, thirty-second chapter, The Pitfalls of Relying on Sorcerous Means. She called out for help, but what came out was a pathetic mewling.
    .........“I couldn’t have you running away.” He leaned back in his chair. “Like I said, I’ve long been an admirer. Your response to being found out is always to vanish. As far as defense mechanisms go, I suppose it has its uses.”
    .........Eyes like twin moons. Vast. Alluring. Bereft of humanity.
    .........“I prefer changing the situation to my advantage.” His smile was a blend of pink flesh and white bone. “I will teach you how to take control, Faedra. I will show you how easy it is.” He frowned. “After you’ve awakened, that is. To be honest, I don’t know why you haven’t already.”
    .........I am awake, she thought; and was further alarmed when he responded.
    .........“You’re asleep. Your other half—the only half I’m interested in—is still being shaped by the Dreamer and—oh.” He sat up. “She’s there.” He pressed a finger to her forehead. “Remote, but there. And she will overwhelm you.” The examiner let his hand fall. “So many lives you’ve led,” he said softly, “and each of them inconsequential.”
    .........(His eyes saw her; they saw everything.)
    .........“This school of pacifists will be put to better use now. I have decided monasticism will have no place in the events unfolding.”
    .........You mean the dryad.
    .........“Please.” He drank from his own cup. Then poured some more and swallowed that, too. “She’s made camp in Janramak, last I heard. What, a small town and some overworked fields? She’s welcome to that. She’ll never pose a threat, now or in the future.
    .........“But the Agraimans could. And you will lead them. The skills this lot spend so many years honing are easily transferrable to employment in, say, contract killing.”
    .........Hitmen.
    .........“Assassins, actually.”
    .........No.
    .........“I understand why you would be reluctant.” Said in a tone which made it clear he did not care what she thought of his proposition.
    .........He called her by her true name. Three syllables she had never uttered aloud.
    .........“There is nothing you can hide from me.” Paralysis had no effect on him. “It is crucial to our relationship that you keep that in mind.”
    .........He waited; and when she gave no argument, told her his name.
    .........“You may call me Vincent,” he said—
    .........—and she was still seated; the flatweave carpet, however, crumbled into warm sand which spread away in all directions to form a deserted beachfront. The ceiling shattered, falling plaster becoming a summer rain to stipple her upturned face. There was no end to the sea. She took the Dreamer’s proffered hand and was raised up.
    .........“Tell me what I’ve done wrong,” she asked. “Why would you send me away?”
    .........(You knew this time would come.)
    .........“So soon!”
    .........This seemed to amuse the faceless god; as if time had meaning here.
    .........“I love you,” she blurted out.
    .........Silence.
    .........(You love me.) He did not sound surprised. (Why?)
    .........She lowered her head.
    .........(Will you betray me as well?)
    .........“Never.” It was unthinkable. She paused. “There have been others?”
    .........(Failures.)
    .........She understood. He was warning her.
    .........(If you wish to please me,) said the Dreamer, (then hear my voice and obey. That is all I require of you.)
    .........“I will. I do.”
    .........Raindrops trickling down the ruined canvas of His face. (A final lesson.) His flayed fingers cupped her cheeks. (I will teach you to see as I do.)
    .........And she wept joyfully as His thumbs sank into her sockets and—
    .........—she was still seated; the sand, however, strained up to form walls upon which hung exquisite tapestries with scenes of dancers mid-leap among fields of white-leaf willow trees and sun-kissed grass. Sweet-smelling candles burned in all four corners. The duchess of Bresk stepped out from behind a chequered folding screen and struck a pose. “Well?”
    .........“Horrible,” Faedra teased, even as she found it altogether impossible to look away from the close-fitting dress. “That’s last year’s fashion.”
    .........“As if you would know,” the duchess scoffed; then she pulled down a shoulder band. “And now?”
    .........Faedra’s mouth was dry. “Better.”
    .........“Good.” She tugged at the left side. Looked over knowingly.
    .........“Almost presentable.”
    .........The duchess laughed. In short order she had discarded the dress and stood naked, a tall and brown beauty.
    .........“Perfect,” Faedra remarked quietly.
    .........“I would hope so.” She walked over and motioned for her to move; and when Faedra did not, promptly sat in her lap. “About this problem of yours.”
    .........“It’s your headache, too, so you had better—” Faedra sucked in air. “Stop that.”
    .........“Stop what.”
    .........That.” Faedra looked at the ceiling. “Keep your hands off me. For now,” she relented.
    .........“Mm.” She folded her arms. “Go on.”
    .........There was no way of saying this gently. “Two days from now at the summit you will be murdered.”
    .........A twitch of her lips. “This is a new one.”
    .........“I’m serious.”
    .........The duchess searched Faedra’s face. “Oh.” A change of demeanor. “And who’s responsible?”
    .........“Draved.”
    .........Pause. “My brother?”
    .........“Yes.”
    .........Another pause, much longer this time; then: “the fucking bastard,” she raged, standing up.
    .........“I agree wholeheartedly.”
    .........“Quiet.” She rubbed at her forehead. “I don’t need this right now.”
    .........“Really? I can’t think of a situation when you would want this.”
    .........“It would depend on context and timing.” She bent down to retrieve the dress and with a brief look of deep regret began to put it on. Halfway through the green ribbons gave her difficulty and she let loose a long string of invective.
    .........Faedra went over to help. “What will you do?”
    .........“I had a sick dog once.”
    .........“You never said.”
    .........“It wasn’t a faithful animal.”
    .........Faedra put her arms around her and drew her in close. “Calm down.”
    .........“What?”
    .........“Please.”
    .........“Have you ever,” the duchess snapped, “been informed someone wants you dead?”
    .........“Plenty of times.” She laid a kiss on the back of her neck. “And yet here I am.”
    .........“How fortunate.”
    .........“I like to think so.”
    .........“He only wants to please the Sudacean lot, of course. Probably thinks if we choose to decline the contract for moonglow that they’ll offer up that bitch of theirs for marriage.”
    .........Faedra frowned. “You don’t mean that.”
    .........“She is horrible! Needy and wasteful and—”
    .........“I mean you aren’t contemplating the contract.” She spun the duchess round. Was appalled at the certainty she found. “So many of your people would die in the process. The jungles are unforgiving and sorcerers even moreso.”
    .........“As am I.”
    .........“Delightful. There are other places—much better equipped places—where sorcerers can go to get moonglow, you know. They don’t need you.”
    .........“I know.” She jerked her head. “They could always turn to my Sudacean neighbours and I’ll have missed out on the prestige.”
    .........“Prestige,” Faedra repeated. “You would pointlessly sacrifice—”
    .........“There is a reason for everything I do—”
    .........“—pointlessly sacrifice hundreds,” said Faedra, raising her voice, “for something so temporary?”
    .........“It would give us an advantage on the Sudaceans,” the duchess said coldly, taking a step back, “and would put us in the sorcerers’ good books for a favour down the line.”
    .........“Their kind don’t do favours.”
    .........“I would make a convincing argument.” An attempt at levity.
    .........Faedra saw it then: the divide. Not just between her and the duchess, but between her and mortality. How narrow the band these people occupied, repeating mistake after mistake, the years into decades that took swathes of lives as material for the foundation of countries, each believing itself a pioneer, blind to the follies that had both manufactured their existence and decided their futures—
    .........—but the Dreamer knew.
    .........(And who is the Dreamer?
    .........It was as if a light shone through in her mind; as if she had woken from a prolonged slumber; as if she was alive for the first time.)
    .........The Dreamer stood beyond it all. And she glimpsed the vision that caused Him so much pain: the hollowness of His creation’s attempts for relevance, the chaos they engendered; and the tools He would require to impose order against all the upheaval.
    .........Faedra snapped her right hand down and felt no remorse when the stiletto slid into her palm and—
    .........—she was still seated; the room, however, took on cathedral splendor and volume once more. The young priest’s concerned face was hovering above her eyes, asking if there was anything he could do to help.
    .........“I only just noticed you sitting there,” he began, “and it must be almost an hour since mass finished. And I couldn’t very well ignore you. Deeply uncharacteristic.” He stared at her uncertainly. “Is there something the matter?”
    .........She looked around. “Where did she go?”
    .........“I’m sorry?”
    .........“Woman with braids. Black shawl.” Minor hesitation. “A sorceress.”
    .........“The only connection the Church has with magic is with the Holy Father.”
    .........“Fine. I need to speak with him.”
    .........Faedra hadn’t known it was possible to sigh and swear simultaneously. The priest sat in the pew in front of her and put down the papers he was holding. “Because of the crisis,” he said patiently, “the Holy Father can’t afford unscheduled meetings. I’m sorry, but that’s how it’ll have to be for the meantime.”
    .........The echoes still had her shaken, but not enough that she couldn’t recognize a barrier. “That sounds rehearsed.”
    .........“There’s been plenty of occasion.”
    .........“I want to know who else has approached you. Besides regular citizens,” she amended. “Anyone out of the ordinary.”
    .........He scratched his chin. “Well. Three members on Council, though the second one tried to pretend he wasn’t one. Some harpy dignitaries from the Islands. Southern and northern nobility, obviously. The Watch captain.” He rubbed at the bags under his eyes. “I suppose the army will send someone, too.”
    .........Faedra smiled.
    .........“Of course.” A small shrug. “But that doesn’t change anything. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
    .........“I haven’t.”
    .........His chuckle was plainly forced. “If you’re bent on wasting both our time, the least I can do is make it somewhat pleasant. Join me for a cup of coffee?”
    .........
    .........At the back of the cathedral were lodgings. He led her into a cramped room and apologized for what would be a brief delay.
    .........Faedra grabbed hold of a chair when he stepped out, the swarm of immortal memories compressing her thoughts. (Some duchess of Bresk whom she had assassinated; already specifics faded into generalities; patterns in history.) The echoes had been mercifully brief—she shuddered, remembering an episode that had lasted nearly a week—but this sorceress, and not the eventual drawback of long life, had been the cause this time.
    .........She closed her eyes. Black attire would mean Krusata. Dasgreil’s school.
    .........Hardly a coincidence, then, coming under attack after she’d been searching for the man for weeks now. Still no reason for the assault, not when the City—public and authorities both—had been asking after him as well. Not when she was careful to avoid drawing attention to her activities.
    .........It made no sense.
    .........Troubling; but out of her control for the moment. Faedra examined the walls. There were degrees from Sodratha Collegium for one Naeman Orsivos in history, theology and statecraft. Framed behind glass, a certificate of distinction from a preceptor at the Studium (I am quite certain, read a note at the bottom, that your decision to turn down tenure is proof of mental illness. I wish you luck all the same, my friend). Conventional maps. Debated maps. Maps which described no known reality. A painting of warm colours and blurred lines depicting what she assumed was the artist’s rendition of Justice: blindfolded, naked, a scale in each hand.
    .........She stayed with the painting for a while, before moving over to a desk and scanning the documents that lay there haphazardly.
    .........A closed letter caught her attention. She picked it up; confirmed the sender’s name; placed it back precisely where she’d found it. Faedra shifted the chair so it faced the open door at an angle and sat down to wait.
    .........Naeman appeared shortly thereafter and handed her a mug. She thanked him and set it down without tasting. “The painting.”
    .........He looked over. “My niece.”
    .........“She’s talented.”
    .........“I meant she’s the subject.” He took a tentative sip. “A friend of hers drew it during last year’s arraknoi protests.”
    .........“Your kind are always trying to upset the natural order of things.”
    .........“My kind?” he remarked politely.
    .........Mortals, she thought; but said: “Civilians.”
    .........“I’m partial to balance myself, actually.”
    .........“Not the same as order,” she corrected.
    .........Naeman shrugged. “True; but it’s a hell of a lot fairer.”
    .........“And what you said about the Empress earlier.” She glanced past him out of the room. “That was fair?”
    .........He looked thoughtful. “You know,” he said slowly, “I don’t know what that was about.”
    .........Maybe he’d misspoken.
    .........“Funny, I know.” Coffee spilled onto his red vestments.
    .........“Not particularly.” She watched him dab ineffectually at the spreading stain. “You seem nervous.”
    .........“An officer or God knows what from the Imperial army is in my room the same night I went on a tirade about its employer, the Empress.” Conceding defeat, he took off the cassock, threw it onto the bed and sat down on the mattress. “No, I don’t see why I’d be out of sorts. Look,” he added, one hand raised in defeat, “I honestly don’t know why I said those things.”
    .........He seemed to be debating something. Faedra waited.
    .........“I believed it, though,” he said. “All of it. The Empress has brought progress to a halt.”
    .........“But you didn’t mean to say it out loud.”
    .........“Of course not.” Bewilderment. “I was angry, and couldn’t tell you why.”
    .........“Entire City feels that way,” she conceded.
    .........Naeman shook his head. “It’s more than that. There is something very wrong here in Janramak. The general negativity to the Empress leaving is disproportionate. Give it enough time and it’ll be more than just a couple of fights here and there.” He looked worried. “There is going to be a lot more violence.”
    .........(Faedra agreed.)
    .........“We’re damned if she stays, damned if she goes.” He brightened up. “Which is why I’m heading to El Matar. I have family there. A change of scene would be nice.”
    .........She decided against mentioning the letter and catching him in a lie. “Spring by the coast is beautiful,” she said, getting up. “I suggest you run while you still can.”
    .........Tilted stare. “Why do you do that?”
    .........“Do what?”
    .........“Make everything you say sound like a threat.”
    .........She ignored that. “Let Dasgreil know I stopped by.”
    .........“I didn’t get your name. That, and I don’t know if he’s even in the City to begin—” Guilt; then his mouth snapped shut.
    .........She gave a nod of thanks. “That temper again.”
    .........She left his room and made her way back to the atrium and its empty pews. Shining in the stone rafters were clouds of green spores. There were jade oaks planted in the upper wings along with a brown creature that wore a mask.
    .........It was about the size of a clenched fist. The eyes peering out from behind the wooden mask were wide and red-rimmed. It watched Faedra leave and did not lower its small spear until the doors clanged shut.
    .........The minion chittered rapidly. Its needlepoint teeth and thin tongue produced clicks, whistles, trills.
    .........Then it scampered up a wall, a blur of motion, darted out of a stained glass window and ran through moonlight.
    .........
    .........
    .........As the cathedral grounds fell behind, Faedra sank into prolepsis.
    .........Alt-reality sprung up around her in pale phantoms preceding lingering tense Janramaki. Only a minor tear in the future. Just enough for her to navigate the thinning crowd’s possibilities without coming into contact with them or their increasing volatility.
    .........For once no riot-fires charred the horizon, although jade oaks full bloom kept the City in perpetual twilight. She walked through emissions of fluorescent spores and falling leaves, while sandstone streets and buildings similarly dusted gleamed ghost green. There was an undead, helpless against the alien lights, snared within the tendril embrace of the black-bark hybrids and dying a second death. On this side of the street she saw a lone watchmen’s alt-self draw near the struggling corpse and kick in its mouth; then she saw it happen in real-time seconds later, the soldier shaking with laughter. Faedra widened the interval: his future-self telegraphed a startled salute upon seeing her, so she made an abrupt turn down an alley onto another street before the present could assert itself.
    .........There was a team of botanii about their silent work. One plucked yarrow and geraniums from its eye-sockets and while moving bent down to plant them. Another with ivy for limbs stepped up to a burn mark on a building and unraveled itself onto the blemish. Further expressions of the Empress’ biothurgy tending the City in her absence.
    .........Not enough. Irritation swept over her, warm as the wind, startling.
    .........The neat roads of Hallowed Ward emptied out onto the Divide, one of two long avenues quartering the capital. Looking south, she saw where they crossed; and there rose the Citadel.
    .........Like some divine relic it speared earth and sky, though the Empress worshipped no god save herself. Clusters of jade oaks grew out of the Citadel’s curved walls so that in sunlight or moonshade all eyes were drawn to the mark of empire. Even vacant, its incandescence demanded respect.
    .........Faedra turned away and headed north on the Divide. Sleep was a dull ache behind her eyes but there was one last thing to check on. There always was.
    .........
    .........Janramak’s boundaries were charted by a ring of tall black-bark hybrids: here at Queen’s Gate, as with the other three entrances, stood companies of tired Watchmen; on the other side of the glowing tree barricade, rank after impossible rank of the undead.
    .........Faedra watched as a buzzing red mass high above the dead wheeled about and crashed down onto the lights, entranced demon eyes that were either rebuffed by tendrils or flensed instantly. These skinless bodies dropped like sandbags to the ground in agony. And still they came on, mesmerized. The undead shuffled forward, grinding their front ranks into oblivion against the bark.
    .........From the cover of a doorway she inspected the Watchmen. Their swords and truncheons, armour and shields. On each tense face the depressing truth. Pale alt-realities flinching backwards; the present shifting accordingly.
    .........She tried to convince herself these terrified officers would suffice. The City was all they had ever known, after all. It was in their interest to defend their homes.
    .........And yet. She surveyed the monsters. Each night saw them arrive in record numbers. And numbers, unlike Council propaganda, could not lie.
    .........
    .........The first of spring’s many storms passed through that night.
    .........Rain and winds had transformed the City’s sandstone skin. Buildings leaned forward in frozen beige waves, or had been blown together and joined into uneven groupings. Architecture rose and fell unpredictably. To citizens’ eyes, the world had changed and they walked now through queer landscapes.
    .........Teams of botanii up since dawn darted about returning the City to its former design; almost as quick were the artists attempting to capture the changes in paint or prose or musical pipe. There were arguments over contested territory (one watchmaker, furiously sketching out inspired designs for a new grandfather clock, was accosted by a pair of statue-carvers and told in no uncertain terms to get away from the fountain; the watchmaker declined; a short but brutal fight swiftly followed which saw the watchmaker victorious but blind in the right eye). Officers of the Watch scrambled to patch up differences or, where the effort was too much, haul away the more hysterical offenders.
    .........In the Market-square, vendors were setting up shop. Tarps were pulled down off stalls and wares of all sorts soon appeared with military efficiency: axe, hammer, pail and rake; spears, bows, throwing stars and shortswords; metal work and trinkets; unpolished chairs and tables; multi-coloured candles; bushels of warm bread and red-spotted mushrooms; stone effigies of animals, historical figures and stomach-souring abstractions. There were also a host of magical items on display.
    .........These items, normally the purview of illegal trade, had begun to tentatively appear in the Market-square a few days after Veracona’s disappearance. Knickknacks and oddities nervously hawked in whispers and sidelong glances. When relevant authorities over at the Board of Magic failed to make their disapproval known, the items spread through Market-square with the inelegance of a summer rash. There was a brisk business to be made in assuring anxious citizens that shadewood emblems were a perfect defense against the escalating City-wide burglaries (“all the schools of sorcery,” insisted the various sales pitches, “make use of these emblems”), or that a bottle filled with clouds would be just the emergency tool to leap away from immediate harm should one find oneself embroiled in the frequent street brawls.
    .........(All counterfeits, of course. While unable to turn a blind eye to such opportunity, no vendor was so greedy—or stupid—to risk selling unlicensed, genuine artifacts, lest the Board awaken from its peculiar slumber; or, far worse, invite the wrath of a thaumaturge. Profit was no safeguard against the latter’s ire.
    .........Fortunately for the vendors, the Watch received no reports of the useless forgeries; the stall-holders assumed the buyers’ embarrassment at having been so blatantly defrauded was keeping them quiet, which was all to the good.)
    .........Further ahead, where the streets wound uphill, larger business owners looked down on the square and its feverish activity with scorn—though that did not stop them from setting aside in a corner of their shop a similar offering of much higher quality and far more expensive enchanted fakes.
    .........In one such shop a metalsmith’s son by the name of Envel sat hunched in the backroom trying to make headway of the accounts when the bell atop the front entrance sounded. He looked up, hardly daring to hope; yes, those were voices. Grateful, he stepped fairly quick to see who had arrived to save him from further mental anguish.
    .........There were five men. Northerners, he hazarded: tall with almond shaped eyes and long straight hair a striking colour somewhere between snow white and liquid gold. They were well-dressed—other than the great white cloaks that clung to their backs as if wolf, bear or fox were still alive; rather cumbersome to walk with, Envel decided—and wore those slim silver swords low on their hips that had become so fashionable among nobility lately. (He’d looked into making one of them, hoping to gain the shop notice if successful; the exorbitant price of the materials involved, however, had turned him off the idea, to his family’s relief.)
    .........One of the northerners was holding a large bag; another, leaning on a side beam, pushed off and came forward. “Fetch the shopkeeper, boy,” he said.
    .........Bookkeeping had left Envel feeling belligerent. Pity. “Why would I want to do something like that?”
    .........“Because I am a lord.”
    .........“That’s not a reason.”
    .........The northerner was clearly surprised the conversation was continuing. “Pardon?”
    .........“I said that’s not a reason.” He went behind the counter and rested his hands on the surface the way his father always did when met with prickly customers, though the effect was ruined by the nobleman being a head taller. “But maybe I can help.”
    .........“And you are?”
    .........“The metalsmith’s son.”
    .........The northerner’s lips curled. Without looking away, he held a hand out and the man holding the bag passed it over. The northerner pulled open the drawstrings and took from within a burnished mirror and let it clatter onto the counter.
    .........Envel pursed his lips.
    .........“You recognize it.”
    .........“No,” he lied. He tapped the fat metal petals framing the face. The weld joints were barely noticeable. Fine work. “Should I?”
    .........“Your father made this.”
    .........“I doubt that.”
    .........“He made this,” said the lord evenly, “and sold it to me under false pretenses.”
    .........“False what?”
    .........“That is a magic mirror.”
    .........Envel held it up to the light. Squinted at it suspiciously. “How, uh, does it work?”
    .........The muscles in the northerner’s jaw flexed. “I was told I need only gaze at my reflection and the magical vapours trapped in the metal transport me home.”
    .........“Magical vapours.” Trying not to laugh at Father’s apparent wicked streak, Envel set it down gingerly, and compromised with a sudden fit of coughing. “That’s a new one,” he wheezed shortly. “So what’s the problem?”
    .........“It doesn’t work.”
    .........“Are you a sorcerer? Do you have the Talent?”
    .........“No.”
    .........“Ah,” he said sagely. (His cheeks were beginning to ache from the strain of seeming sympathetic.) “There’s your problem. Everyone knows you can’t work an enchanted artifact if you don’t have an ounce of magic in you. In fact,” he added, feigning thoughtfulness, “some might say there’s ground for punishment for being in possession of a sorcerer’s plaything. Especially something as serious as—what was it you called it?”
    .........“Magical vapours.”
    .........“Yes. That. Serious stuff.”
    .........Silence; then: “I see,” came the cool reply.
    .........“Splendid.” This was rather more fun than bookkeeping. “Sorry to have been the bearer of bad news. However, I can direct you to an old woman not more than a couple shops over who does a brisk business in decidedly plain, sorcery-free mirrors. Or could I interest you in some fine metalwork?” Envel gestured at the various functional or stylish pieces crowding a tendril from a jade-oak pushing through the wall; part flair, part concealment. “Not to worry,” he said confidently, “Nothing here’s been ensorcelled.”
    .........“What I want,” said the northern lord quietly, “is the money I paid for this travesty.”
    .........“It’s a beautiful piece.”
    .........“Which your father made.”
    .........“No.”
    .........“I bought it here.”
    .........“Again, no.”
    .........“I will be reimbursed, boy, one way or another.”
    .........Envel paused. Perhaps it hadn’t been wise to annoy the man (and a wealthy one, too. He was, quite frankly, perplexed at the way he’d been acting). He made a show of pondering before pointing at the door. “I’ll have to ask you all to leave.”
    .........It came as an unpleasant surprise when one of the men by the door reached out to slide home the bolt. Another walked over and blocked the exit.
    .........When Envel looked back, the northern lord was holding a knife.
    .........“One way or another,” the man repeated, hopping over the counter.
    .........
    .........Perched on a high wall across the street was a harpy. Her breathing was labored. She clacked her beak twice as the door of the metalsmith shop swung open. Out filed the five northerners who walked away from the secluded area. She waited a little longer before spreading her wings for descent. The aroma of blood was intoxicating.
    .........After she had eaten some of the dead boy’s flesh, she shook her large wings, took to the skies.
    .........There was a snarling metalwork dog in one corner of the room. From behind it a minion stepped out. Its skull was broken up by green nubs and its body marked by red whorls and helixes. It skittered across the floor to the body, keening. Once it had taken the measure of the scene the minion hastened away to make a report.
    .........
    .........Similar moments of violence occurred all across the City.
    .........A woodcarver walked in on his wife and after greeting her raised his chisel and dug out her judgmental eyes. An employee sitting on the steps of the Central Bank got up upon seeing a familiar face; after catching up, the banker jabbed a letter-opener into the rival’s ear. A governess turned her back on the breeze coming in through the study room’s open windows, walked past the bookcase and, ignoring the questions of her annoying young charge, locked it; then she picked up the poker from the fireplace and advanced on the child.
    .........At many of these locations were minions, hidden from view, expressions lost behind wooden masks, tiny hands clutching spears. When it was safe to do so, they left their cubbyholes and desks and tree branches to go and describe what they had witnessed.
    .........But there were far more crimes that went unnoticed. Places in the City where budding anger unfurled into action, and the only observers to the flowering of violence were the ones who committed the act, standing there shaken afterwards, wondering what had come over them, what had possessed them to act in such a reprehensible manner.
    .........
    .........Over at the embassy a secretary stared glumly at the mountain of backlogged inquiries threatening to tumble down across his desk. He tugged out one missive, saw an arraknoi’s delicate hand. The spiderling wished to know when the Empress intended to return, making multiple references throughout to a contract between Empress and arraknoi that the civil servant had never heard of. He put it aside; only arrived two days ago, so it could keep. A weaving of dried kelp at the bottom of the pile came away after some careful manipulation. He grimaced. One of the Merfolk from the Eastern Marches asking after Veracona’s well being, and when would the Lady Everlasting find it appropriate to resume talks with the zeutarim. (He burned that one. The stench coming off of the kelp was unholy.) To either side, pinching his elbows, were stacks of charred inscriptions in jagged stone from the bolides. (It made no sense: how could this be called an embassy and yet they had let go the meteor-head interpreters? True, the bolides rarely made contact, but they were citizens all the same.)
    .........He kept at it, sorting through the letters, the earliest ones far politer than the newer, these last little more than a tersely worded demand: tell us where Veracona is. He wanted to know the same thing, as it turned out; everyone did. He paused frequently to hope the diplomats all sorts of difficulty when they got around to replying. That made him smile. Along the way he burnt some more stinking kelp. God damn the fishy freaks.
    .........The door swung open. The secretary blinked as a harpy stooped coming forward, blue feathers pushed down by the doorframe before springing up in wide fan once she was inside the room (which seemed much smaller now). She stalked over to the desk. The secretary craned his head back until it started to hurt.
    .........(Brief insight: he realized there had been no letters from the harpies on their Islands. Not quite understanding why, this worried him.)
    .........“I am Untarri,” said the harpy, “and I would like to report a murder.” She turned her head and coughed. Streamers of mucus struck the floor.
    .........“Okay.” He had goosebumps, was trying his best not to shrink down into his chair. Then he noticed the flecks of blood on her beak. “Are you alright?”
    .........“I fed recently.” Untarri’s narrow tongue darted out, dabbing away politely.
    .........He pictured a heap of raw meat: rabbits; deer; and human. It took him a moment to recover and pay attention as she relayed what she had seen and heard, so it came as a shock as he understood that she wasn’t describing a murder, but a crisis. Murder would have been acceptable. Preferable, honestly.
    .........This, though. (Another picture, this time of northerners and the south clashing in the streets.) He couldn’t help it: he shivered. This was what the diplomats with all their experience referred to as a total fuck-up.
    .........Finished, Untarri announced she would return to the shop and keep watch until the Watch was alerted. She turned around, a ponderous act of long feathers and flexing muscles, and started to walk away.
    .........Her talons flattened out when they touched the carpet; then curled into cages as they were lifted up.
    .........He thanked her. She gave no reply.
    .........Once she was gone, the secretary sat down and covered his face with his hands. Next, he reached for a quill and several sheets of paper and began to write quickly. He stopped often to allow the trembling in his hands to pass.
    .........
    .........Half an hour later, there was an officer of the Watch at Faedra’s door.
    .........She listened as he recited the summons from Council. “Wait here,” Faedra said, and went back inside to retrieve her tools.
    .........The room she entered had six walls. Hanging from each wall was a mirror that threw her reflection back. In this manner, wherever she looked, she saw herself repeated without end, an infinite number of disciples, a reminder that in all of eternity there would be no future where she did not exist.
    .........She stripped. From one of three chests in the room she claimed her agility: aglets she clasped around wrist, zephyr-charms and red annulars around her ankles. (There lay nestled at the bottom of the chest a pair of amber boots threaded with the design of lightning. She did not take them.) From the second chest she took out amat, a flowing bundle of semi-transparent material. Registering body heat, the composite fabric shrunk tight around her skin as she drew on the various parts. She stood back, looked at a mirror, made some adjustments. All that remained of her was a floating head and hair. She twisted; the composite became barely discernible, a blurred aspect. From the last chest she took out stilettoes and their spring mechanisms, strapping them around the inside of her forearms; then knives and their sheathes; vials of liquid; slim smoke canisters; pellets; an oiled leather belt; a light mythril undershirt. A second layering of the composite. Then she got dressed; distinguished neutrals and clean lines; she was now an unassuming citizen.

    .........The Watchman had gone to wait by two coaches. Seeing Faedra come out of the house, he called out and a footman stepped down from the box of the first and opened the door. Faedra got in, froze imperceptibly at seeing who already occupied the coach and took a seat opposite.
    .........“You’ve been avoiding me,” said Vincent. He wore black and grey as easily as he did calm. No wrinkles, only precise creases. He was reading through letters and hadn’t looked up. “Should I be worried?”
    .........“I’ve been busy.” A gap had opened up between her glove and sleeve, showing the amat’s invisibility instead of skin. She pulled the glove on tighter, flexed the hand. “You and I aren’t supposed to make contact.”
    .........“In public.”
    .........“And this is…?”
    .........“The inside of one of the many expensive coaches I own.”
    .........Faedra narrowed her eyes. He could evade all he wanted: the officers would know they’d met. Why would he want that known, after so long insisting on secrecy and clandestine meetings?
    .........(He had to be making a move. The specifics eluded her but it was enough to set her on edge knowing that Vincent was about to practice his expertise at maneuvering. A single encounter and already she could sense the foundations of their partnership shifting.)
    .........“No sign of Dasgreil,” she said, still watching him for some clue. It was in times like these that she felt a twinge of envy for not sharing Vincent and Adam’s ability to read minds.
    .........“He’ll show up,” Vincent said absently. He folded the letter, put it down on the seat beside him and didn’t move for a while.
    .........“Problem?” asked Faedra.
    .........“I’m handling it.” He reached for another letter, and then seemed to think better of it, picking up a thin, leather-bound book instead. Its spine showed cracks. “Tell me about Dasgreil.”
    .........“I was attacked by one of his people.”
    .........Vincent rubbed at his face. “Interesting,” he said after a moment.
    .........“Meaning?”
    .........“I don’t know.”
    .........He was practically giving her an opening: “But you can do magic,” she said.
    .........“Barely.” Faint annoyance at having to make the admission. “Small enough the schools wouldn’t bother to pursue me if they knew.”
    .........“Pity.” She rested her head, smiled at him. “For a second I thought you might have actually been useful.”
    .........He ignored that. “If you happen to cross paths again—”
    .........“I’ll take care of it.”
    .........“You’ve failed once already,” he said curtly. “We can’t go up against thaumaturges. I thought it was obvious by now.”
    .........Faedra made a decision: “What does the name Naeman Orsivo mean to you?”
    .........Vincent opened his book. Orange and green brushwork decorated the cover, depicting an empty field surrounded by a ring of trees with nightmare faces in the bark.
    .........In the Court of the Pumpking,” she read. “You’re a little old for fairy tales.”
    .........“I could say the same about the god-killer.”
    .........“Except Adam is real,” Faedra pointed out. “And there’s nothing silly about him.”
    .........“That’s debatable. He’s stirred up a lot of nonsense by not taking the time to think.” He paused. “What do you want with Orsivo?”
    .........“You’ve written to him before.” She looked for a tell, found nothing. “Maybe more than once.”
    .........“You went to the cathedral.” Almost an accusation.
    .........“What business do you have with a priest?”
    .........For a moment, it looked as if he wasn’t going to answer. He flipped through some pages, made notations in the margins. “Like you, I wanted to know if Orsivo was aware of the Holy Father’s whereabouts. He hasn’t replied.”
    .........She waited, but that was the end of it. The ride continued in silence.
    .........Faedra considered what he was doing here. She had her ties with the Imperial army; it made sense, her being summoned by Council.
    .........Then again, that was what he did, wasn’t it? Insinuate himself into situations where he might be needed, providing a favour here and there, holding in vast stock all the promises of repayment, turning himself into an integral tool in the apparatus of power, influencing its motion.
    .........The coach rode through Paragon Plaza. Heroes of rain-etched marble and weathered alabaster marked their passing with blind eyes. Regal Justice, kneeling Charity, Wisdom reading from a massive tome. There was a group of children darting around the statues, quick on their feet, faces split into grins, wide mouthed yells ringing off of stone and building and into empty space. They ran through bands of shadow cast down by a series of white arches high above; the arches joined opposite-facing towers running the length of the plaza.
    .........A warm breeze; and when Faedra looked at the children again, they had fallen to fighting among themselves. A twig of a girl placed her hands firmly on a shorter boy no older than seven and smashed his skull into the pommel of Justice’s sword.
    .........(Such violence, and so senseless—Faedra clamped down on anger.)
    .........Silhouetted by the sun, the white arches had become black bars caging the sky.
    .........
    .........They arrived to a number of the Watch surrounding the shop. A small crowd had gathered up the street, out of earshot and held back by officers. A trio of Councilors turned at Faedra and Vincent’s approach.
    .........“There you are.” Councillor Cilia Tabeni kissed Faedra on the cheek. “It’s a proper mess,” she said with an apologetic half-smile.
    .........“The boy?” Faedra asked.
    .........“Still in the shop.”
    .........Faedra frowned. “Reanimation—”
    .........“First responders already severed limbs and head from the body. He’ll be cremated before nightfall anyways.” She gestured with her chin. “What’s that about?”
    .........Faedra turned. The other two Councilors, Esmail Savrone and Domas Culiadred, had moved away and were huddled close with Vincent. He laid a hand on their shoulders, said something inaudible. Reassuringly, as it turned out; the other two men looked less anxious now.
    .........“Not my concern,” Faedra said.
    .........“Though possibly mine,” said Cilia slowly. “It’s been madness,” she added, “without the Empress to mediate. Everyone’s showing their true colours.”
    .........Faedra examined her closely. “You’re enjoying yourself.”
    .........“Immensely.” Cilia laughed. “Janramaki politicking at its finest.”
    .........“Backstabbing and threats.”
    .........“Semantics,” she scoffed, waving a hand. “So long as the job gets done.”
    .........“That’s my cue.” Faedra squeezed her arm gently and walked toward the shop.
    .........There was an ungodly amount of blood inside. She was so intrigued by the splatters on the ceiling forming a kind of sunburst that she almost didn’t realize that the blue-crested bulk of feathers and mass wasn’t decorated metalwork but a living harpy.
    .........Faedra sank into prolepsis immediately. Pale alt-reality revealed itself.
    .........“Officers of the Watch.” Vincent had come up beside her. His future self pointed to the door; his flesh and blood arm followed suit seconds later. “My apologies,” he announced, voice silky smooth, “but we require privacy. Please step outside.”
    .........The Watch captain nodded. (And what, thought Faedra, does Vincent have on you?) The officers filed out, trailed by an irritated medical examiner who slammed the door.
    .........Vincent facing the exit for a couple seconds more; and then he turned around, the expression on his face inscrutable.
    .........“Your kind,” he said, “don’t belong here.”
    .........Here being outside of their designated embassy. There was, understandably, very little trust from humans towards the blue winged cannibals. Too long had harpies hunted humanity for food, or sport if their meat farms up on the Floating Islands were running at full production. The Empress had ended the predation with her arrival, of course, relegated the harpies to their aerial asylums after her show of breaking the Merfolk rebellion.
    .........Faedra felt a twinge of embarrassment; more a memory of the emotion than anything, but it was there. Had Council considered how non-humans would react to Vercona’s absence? (She was only actually displeased with herself, though, for not having asked the question at the onset of all the unrest. She’d grown complacent, and it rankled.)
    .........The harpy spread her wings carelessly, knocking over a small steel sculpture. “You say that as if I should care.” She coughed.
    .........“There are rules.”
    .........“They no longer apply.”
    .........Faedra took a small step forward, arms by her sides, spring launchers on the edge of release. “Explain yourself.”
    .........“I thought you were here to learn about the boy.” She pointed with a pinion at the carcass with slashed throat and punctured chest.
    .........“Don’t tell me you think he matters.” Faedra stepped to the left of the body; Vincent, to the right. “He doesn’t. He has no consequence.”
    .........“So few people do,” agreed Vincent, pulling off his scarf. He put it down on the back of a chair and moved closer. “Do you matter, Untarri?”
    .........The harpy snapped her head around to stare at him. “How—”
    .........“No, I don’t think you matter at all,” decided Vincent smoothly.
    .........Untarri coughed again, longer this time, and stalked backwards. She seemed shorter now. Weaker.
    .........“What rules no longer apply, Untarri?”
    .........“The Empress reneged on our contract,” said the harpy. She had backed into the shuttered window, and the clatter of wood shaking was loud in the quiet room.
    .........Faedra killed her frown. “Go on.”
    .........Untarri let out a rasping laugh. “Don’t pretend as if you know about it.”
    .........Wouldn’t do to have her reclaim her nerve now. “Assume we do.”
    .........She was supposed to protect us!” the harpy shrieked. Gone was the intruder, outnumbered and succumbing to some illness; now stood a predator of old, erect and proud, whose wings when stretched would fill half the room in an instant and snap necks just as quickly.
    .........At the same instant Vincent drew back, Faedra stepped forward. The future was hers to see: she would not be harmed. She stood inches from Untarri’s heaving chest. Looking up into the wild face, she could see that a red film was spreading across Untarri’s eyes, had nearly covered the irises. (She filed the detail for later; this was a symptom she’d never come across.)
    .........“Protect you from what?” asked Faedra; and the answer she received was a shriek whose source was millennial rage, a sound that had sent humans running for cover whenever the shadows of death darkened the skies or swept across a field.
    .........“You disgust me.” Untarri let her beak hang open; something loosely resembling laughter tumbled out. “The priest has it wrong. Mice should not be allowed to breed unchecked. Their population must be kept controlled.”
    .........Faedra stared.
    .........“One thing your kind never does,” said the harpy, enjoying herself now, “is think to look up.” She cleared her throat of phlegm, turned her head and spat a red-flecked yellow glob. “Strange how your lot has never gotten the hang of spotting us in the dark.”
    .........“At one time, that would have mattered.” Vincent, his voice measured now; signs of uncertainty. “But that’s all in the past. The Night Hunts are outlawed.”
    .........“You haven’t been listening. The rules have changed. The wyvern will feed again.”
    .........Their advantage was slipping away. “What is Vercona supposed to protect the harpies from?” Faedra insisted.
    .........Untarri’s head swiveled lazily around. “I know what you are,” she said, beak clacking. “The both of you.”
    .........The advantage hadn’t escaped so much as it had probably never existed. Prescient or not, it was now Faedra’s turn to back away to stand beside Vincent.
    .........“We have an Old One of our own.” A moment to let that sink in. “She has been watching you two for some time.”
    .........“You’re lying,” said Vincent. A weak rejoinder; it hung between them, plain to see in all its incredible ineptitude.
    .........“She has instructed me to warn you about Azren.”
    .........Faedra looked at Vincent, saw him shake his head. “Who?”
    .........“The Old One did not say.” Untarri paused. “Only this: that he is the reason why the city of Grissant is no more. Grissant is the key to understanding what—”
    .........She stopped. And then her face began to eat itself.
    .........Then she was flying backwards through the closed shutters, sending broken slats of wood smashing against the brick wall outside; there was the unmistakeable noise of hundreds of bone breaking upon impact—and yet, impossibly, she was beating her wings, misshapen as they were now; she was hovering above the ground; and then was gone from sight, bolting upward—
    .........(like she’d been pulled, Faedra thought; instantly her mind went to a salmon trapped on a fisher’s hook and reeled up to the surface of a lake)
    .........—leaving behind an impression of dust and blood and feathers in the cracked brick wall.
    .........The immortals hurried to the window, looked up and saw that Untarri was already a distant speck over the city, still moving unbelievably fast.
    .........Faedra turned, saw Vincent cursing silently.
    .........“What just happened?” she asked, rising out of prolepsis.
    .........“I don’t...” He was surprised, verging on alarm. “Okay.” He squeezed his eyes shut; a motion for respite. “Okay.”
    .........“It’s anything but.”
    .........“I’m aware.” The Watch officers had returned, hands on weapons, surveying the room and asking to know what the noise had been about. “The harpy had an engagement to keep,” he explained to them. Turning to Faedra again, voice lowered: “I’ve never heard of an agreement between Vercona and the harpies.”
    .........“Neither have I.” She thought on what she’d just said and laughed.
    .........“If you’re going to breakdown—”
    .........“Hardly.” She followed him out the door, saw that the Councillors were gone. “But it’s usually us making people feel oblivious, not the other way around.” She put a hand up against the afternoon sun—then counted to make sure what she was seeing was actually there.
    .........“First time for everything.”
    .........“I don’t like it.” She did another count to be sure, noted that the aggregates of stone and hanging vines had changed their position. “Vincent.”
    .........He looked up. Judging from the sudden lack of expression on his face, he understood clearly.
    .........The dictates of Imperial law were statements of absolute truth. They had the Empress’ authority and were drawn up in Council. It was never wise to flout those laws, not here in a city that woke and slept in the shade of the Citadel, the mark of empire.
    .........But as the disciples had been informed moments ago, Vercona was longer present.
    .........As if to underscore the fact, the number of Floating Islands above the capital had exceeded its maximum of two. The five Islands had drifted into the sun’s centre; it was as if the sky had acquired an unblinking eye, steadfast in its dispassionate examination.
    .........
    .........They were the unwanted, the lost and the scorned. Even at the centre of Imperial power, poverty existed. The only difference here was that the ragged clothes and sad eyes were kept well out of sight. It wouldn’t do to have beggars and invalids and panhandlers out in plain view as if the city was some mass market selling off its downtrodden wares.
    .........Janramak had two faces: one above ground, blessed by sunlight, breathing in pure air, beaming with prosperity; and the other below surface, surrounded by hovels and constant gloom, choking on dust, blind to fortune.
    .........A false dichotomy, as it turned out: citizens of the underground city, of Urab’janra, had existed long before and chosen to live separate from the capital. It pleased them to have this myth of total poverty spun out over the centuries; stories had freed them from the influence of topside aristocracy—excepting the Empress, since it was by her sufferance that they were allowed tenancy on her land after she had driven them away from the sun.
    .........Life here was hard. But life without difficulty, went the Urabi saying, was an apple gone to rot; the hardships gave meaning to the pleasures, and life was made all the sweeter for it.
    .........The founders of this second city had fashioned their own sun and moon, hewing the massive ruby and silver crystal shards from rock and attaching to them chains pulled by teams of criminals sentenced to lifelong labour. The dirt roof was broken up by alchemical torches: one night, the sky might be home to stars of light green flames; the next, it would be brightened by cold blue fires. Countless blinkroot herbs, their yellow-bulbs growing out of homes and streets and untamed frontier, bloomed in and out of existence.
    .........There was glamour to this subterranean metropolis, yes; but it was not enough.
    .........Tonight, a number of men and women left their beds and went out on the long roads which ran into the wilderness, where the great worms churned the earth and still other beasts prowled. But the Urabi were given safe passage. The path they walked was guarded on either side by the dark bloodfire of the Phoenix.
    .........She was waiting for them in a silent clearing, seated atop a broken column, the vestige of some forgotten people, perhaps. She wore scarlet, grey and gold in long ribbons that fell to the cracked ground. In her lap was a ceramic jar. Seven hooded figures wearing her colours formed a protective circle.
    .........“A boy was murdered today,” rasped the Phoenix with lips shriveled and blackened. “His killers roam free and the Council will do its best to cover it up. They are afraid of repercussions. They are afraid of being hurt.
    .........“So I will hurt them.” She paused here, lifting the jar to her lips and drinking. Water trickled down the melted ruin of her face. “I know what it means to feel pain. And so do you. Your ancestors settled here before topside existed. Before the Empress trespassed.”
    .........Her cheeks split open as she spoke, runnels of blood and pus seeping out. Her eyes were red and her head bare.
    .........“So I drove the Empress out,” said the Phoenix. “just as promised.”
    .........She stretched out her legs, got down from the column. She was lithe. She was tragedy and marvel both. This was a woman who had suffered; this was a woman of consequence.
    .........“I drove her out, and now the city turns on itself. But Urab’janra remains whole. This, I promised as well. You will not suffer their fate. I have come to raise you high.
    .........“Prove yourselves false, however, and I will smash you.” She threw the jug to the floor, and the crowd cried out as not water but an inferno leapt up from the shattered ceramic.
    .........She walked through the smoke, through the heat and light, and did not burn.
    .........But her clothes went up like tinder. She stood naked before them, her skin as damaged as her face. She knelt, retrieving a pair of gauntlets; while bent over, the Urabi had a clear view as in her back two slits formed, and from each pushed out a feather the colour of embers. Then more pushed through, tearing at the flesh, shoving out into air, dispelling gloom.
    .........“We will do great things together,” said the woman of fire and blood. “But you must remain loyal. And you must convince the others to join me.”
    .........She had put on the gauntlets. Every gesture of her hands trailed cinders.
    .........“We will break their city.” She arched her wings above their heads, searing away the darkness. “And from the rubble you will make a new home.”
    .........The Urabi moaned. There were smatterings of shouts. Louder now.
    .........
    .........Three figures that had stayed at the back of the crowd left. The first, a spear-wielding minion, scampered off of the safe roads and through the barren fields. It used darkness as cover and slipped unseen past the nameless creatures of the frontier. As a result, the minion reached a tunnel leading back to the surface within an hour, and made its way to Nazar Street, where ailing buildings and bankrupt businesses fell further into disrepair.
    .........The minion entered a grimy theatre, racing through torn curtains and squalid conditions, past walls adorned with minor accolades, further into the belly of the rundown establishment; and it leapt up onto a table and repeated what it had witnessed to the magician of Nazar Street who, at the moment, was enjoying tepid midnight tea.
    .........“Break my city, will she?” He adjusted his half mask, peered into a broken mirror; his reflection grinned back. “Before I’ve had my fun? That is not the plan. No, that is not the plan at all.” He swallowed the last of his tea; and then he picked up the minion and swallowed it, too, spear and all.
    .........He left the dressing room, sauntering out into the torch lit belly of the rundown theatre and onto the stage.
    .........There was nothing particularly memorable about him (ignoring, for the moment, his bizarre costume). He had a correct number of teeth, ears and eyes. His nose worked as well as anyone else’s. Perhaps his mouth twitched more often than it should, as if the magician was trying to suppress a smile stemming from a joke of which he, and he alone, was aware. (Then again, the jerkiness could be attributed to the ever present smattering of pixie dust around his lips and under his nose.) He reacted to shadows as logic demanded, his hands or feet becoming momentarily occluded; and when he stepped out into view once more, he was again whole and illuminated as was proper.
    .........But the magician of Nazar Street had established a career in misdirection, legerdemain and deceit; a conjurer’s indispensable tools. Or the essential skillset of a con-artist, if looked at a certain way—and, indeed, the meagre audience comprising the two heads of Janramak’s crime families were looking at the magician with furrowed brows.
    .........The upper half of his face was hidden by a mask. He wore what could be generously called a cape, but was closer to an assortment of rags he might have picked up in his sojourns in the streets: here was a grass-stained shirt, there a hole-eaten table spread, that patch of fur a goat’s unwashed pelt and the bunches of wilted stalks the ragged feathers of various fowl—bright red, ocean blue, stone grey and shit brown. His shirt was untucked and its armpits rimed with sweat-stain; his pants were false silver and his shoes the colour of pitch.
    .........He raised his hands, showed they were empty; and then he began his performance.
    .........There was mild applause after each trick—interlocking circles, never-ending handkerchiefs, coins into confetti and the like—and they watched as the magician walked and ran and twirled on stage. They smiled thinly when he made a jest, called out in support when he completed an act—and yet there was no joy on their faces.
    .........Finally: “Enough of this bullshit,” shouted Tarsemy of the ToxicS, who had claimed an entire row at the back for himself and his consigil. “Where the fuck is my money?”
    .........Our money.” This from Patros, leader of the Illuminant. He took the proffered letter from his consigil and raised it up between thumb and forefinger. “I admit, magician, I’m still confused as to why anyone would be so…clearly lacking in self-preservation as to offend one of the major crime families, let alone both.”
    .........The magician, who had been stuffing a clearly frightened bunny into a top hat, dropped both and took a deep bow. “Call me Nazar.”
    .........“After the street.”
    .........“If you like.” He stuck out his tongue, wiped his upper lip clean of pixie dust. “Do you like?”
    .........Patros frowned. “I would like our funds returned.”
    .........“Or we’ll cut out your eyes and balls,” snarled Tarsemy, “and make them switch places.”
    .........“Sounds like a lovely trick.” Nazar strutted to the end of the stage and sat down with a lavish twirl of his cape. “I would love to see you try it.”
    .........“You assume,” said Patros loudly over Tarsemy’s swearing, “that we won’t hurt you.”
    .........“Exactly.”
    .........“Because if we kill you for stealing from us, we won’t know where you’ve hidden it.”
    .........“Borrowed, actually. And no.”
    .........“No?”
    .........Nazar shrugged. “I’m not interested in dying, so that’s not going to happen.”
    .........Tarsemy’s face was turning an alarming shade of red. “You cocksucking prick—”
    .........“Is that possible?” asked Nazar, tapping a finger against his chin. “Can a cock suck on another cock? Does it have lips? A tongue? Maybe even little teeth just around the slit.” He smiled suddenly. “Maybe I’ve got a little face on my cock. I’d really have two heads then!”
    .........A stretch of silence; and then Patros turned in his seat to look back at Tarsemy in exasperation.
    .........“If it helps.” Nazar squinted suspiciously. “I only took your money to get your attention, you understand.”
    .........“You have.”
    .........“There was never any doubt of that.” The smile returned; it was downright ravenous. “My employer told me where you both had hidden your loot, so it was as simple as walking into the buildings and strolling out with full bags.”
    .........“That simple.” Patros looked decidedly distant. “How fortunate.”
    .........“It took a couple of trips. Try the banks next time. Not that they could’ve done anything. And it’s nothing to do with luck. The plan dictates everything. Follow the plan and everything works out.”
    .........Tarsemy again: “What does he want?”
    .........“Who?”
    .........“Whoever hired you, you taint-licking piece of shit.”
    .........“You have such a way with words.” It didn’t seem possible, but his smile grew wider. “But I never said my employer was a man.”
    .........“Very well,” said Patros. “What does she want with us?”
    .........“First, to assuage any fears of lost property. I have been instructed to return the wealth—paltry as it is—after you agree to the terms of service, with a handsome retainer to be paid out during the tasks.”
    .........There was no way around it. The masked crazy had robbed them—and a fine piece of thievery, too, they had to admit. As far as Tarsemy and Patros could see, yeseterday’s thefts had been simultaneous, which meant Nazar wasn’t alone. (This talk of having walked in and out was nonsense. One man couldn’t pull off something like this.) And they couldn’t bloody well come clean to their respective gangs that they were as good as penniless, not unless both bosses had taken a keen interest in finding out the colour of their own intestines. Bringing their seconds along, the consigils, had been risky enough.
    .........So: “Describe the job,” said Patros through clenched teeth.
    .........“Part of it’s to do with running interference.” They nodded; a familiar concept. “The other bit involves locating a weapon.”
    .........“Where’d you lose it?”
    .........They had walked up to the stage. Nazar reached out and tapped Tarsemy on the nose. “Three things,” he said while the leader’s eyes went flat with hate, “I didn’t lose it; it’s never been found in the first place; and it’s not a thing, but a person.”
    .........
    ......... The second to leave the clearing was a poor bastard by the name of Eleus Ravent. He was a member of the Mimics, a small gang of out of work actors-turned-misfits which was routinely kicked around by the bigger crews. The sizeable dues paid to the Illuminants (Patros Descanti held absolute sway over both the Lower Nine ward and everything from the edges of Hallowed District and south up until Founder’s Gate), and what was seized by other crews who regularly trespassed on the lone Mimic holding with impunity, left Eleus and his troupe siblings with embarrassingly little on which to survive. It was a blessing in disguise, then, that their brief employment at a fourth-rate theatre had imparted some useful techniques with which to separate unwitting Janramaki humanitarians from their purses. “No good deed goes unpunished” was the gang’s slogan; a sentiment they often philosophized about after squandering most of their leftover coin on passable imitations of beer.
    .........Eleus knew he was in for a shitty time when he managed to take the wrong path on the fork back to Urab’janra. He’d assumed the witchy fires would still be there, easily identifiable. They hadn’t been. Of course. And so, cursing his inability to refrain from satisfying his curiosity (it was the reason why he’d woken up in the alley in Urab’janra he’d called home for a week now, seeing the Urabi heading toward city limits and deciding Faedra might pay extra for this bit of strangeness), he’d struck out, trusting in the mercy of the slumbering Red God.
    .........That had been two days ago. He was, as of this moment, amazingly lost; not exactly an impressive feat, having never gone beyond settled land, but rather than turn back the first dozen or so times like the reasonable voice at the back of his head had suggested, he’d decided he had to eventually join up with a tunnel leading topside. Everyone knew Janramak and its shadow city were riddled by the shafts. At least, that was what Everyone said they knew. Claims to knowledge; how damnably fickle.
    .........So: fuck Everyone; fuck the Red God (in whom he never actually believed, to be fair); fuck dehydration and hunger; fuck the exhaustion that had settled into his bones until he was sure he was sleep-walking; and fuck the glowing pond water which, at first, had been a miracle, but after having drunk it down to the dregs, had lit him up like New Year’s Eve fireworks, making him a weeping target for whatever clawed or horned or slobbering things kept pace in the dark.
    .........He’d stopped shining some time ago. The last bit had drained right out of him while he pissed down on the face of a fallen gargoyle statue. A small victory: he’d finally experienced what it felt like to urinate on an enemy. Not that he’d ever met a real gargoyle. It was a stand in for all the nameless creatures that had stalked him in the Urabi wild, never attacking, only baiting with shrieks and grunts and hard feet slapping stone. There was no comfort from the action: he’d only needed to void his bladder; and after a short, quiet sob, Eleus pulled up his mud-caked breeches and staggered onward.
    .........Singing helped. There was the bit of rhyme from the last play he’d been in (god, that was ages ago), the one about the myth of the god-killer. Good fun, if a bit too violent for the stage. Eleus lost himself in a memory of what it felt to be decently clothed, and with a relatively full belly. The highest form of suffering, back then, but he would have strangled a basket of day old kittens right that instant if it meant giving up the dark underworld for a bit part in a laughing stock performance. He recited the rhyme again:
    .........
    .........Chaos his lover, his mistress Great Luck
    .........Blasphemer, killer and charmer makes three
    .........To further his needs, there’s none he won’t fuck
    .........He is a liar and friend to nobody
    .........
    .........Crude; but that was Yaffer, hack director through and through. Even so: Eleus wept tears of fond reminiscence. And then he marvelled at having any liquid in him to spare so thoughtlessly.
    .........“I’m going to die here,” he muttered, picking at a bug bite on his forearm. “How the hell is this fair?”
    .........Urab’janra gave no response; the silence was as succinct a goddamn right you are as there had ever been.
    .........He was startled, then, to find that the imperfect gloom was lightening. After engaging in the tiring exercise of recollection, he realized that the degrees of brightness, though faint, had probably started back after he’d tripped into the river and gone over the edge of a waterfall. (He mostly remembered pissing his pants from fear, and the strange calm of accepting he would die by drowning, like the palm reader had predicted during the Festival of Lights; “only two coppa to learn what death’s brought ya!”) The air had seemed off, but he’d been too busy celebrating another near-escape in this the undisputed rectum of all Terraria.
    .........Light; now elevation, the path becoming a shaft; and then he was eventually spat out into a bright afternoon, in the middle of what looked like an abandoned compost site.
    .........Eleus beat his clothes clean as possible, before walking out in search of civilization. Upon spotting a crowd, he chose a likely target and picked his pockets (if only to make certain this was real); and after the man knocked him onto his ass for failing so miserably, he scrambled to his feet and fled to the two-storey, white washed affair that the stingy military woman called home.
    .........
    .........“So.” Faedra thought it odd she didn’t have a headache. This seemed the sort of situation where she ought to have one. “Not only do I have to deal with the city’s unrest,” she said, lifting a finger to stop Eleus from tracking filth onto her carpet, “or the apparent blood feud between north and south nobility, or where Dasgreil has disappeared to, or why that Krusata sorceress caught me up in that spell, or why Adam’s not turned up, or where the the Dreamer’s tools are, and a slew of other things that just make me tired thinking about them, you’re telling me this Phoenix woman is looking to stir up trouble for the Council?”
    .........“Dunh no bout enee o dat.” Eleus was trying to stuff another pastry into his already bulging mouth and looked vexed that he was having no success. He chewed, drank from a large mug. “All I know,” he gasped, crumbs around his lips, “is what I heard her telling those freaky lot.” He took the opportunity to shovel an entire sandwich inside.
    ......... “And the harpies,” Faedra went on. She had yet to drink her tea. “And if this Azren business means anything.”
    .........“Gibberish,” Eleus replied. He was sucking on a honey cube now. “You might as well be talking goblin.”
    .........“And I suppose you and I speak human?”
    .........“We speak sensible shit. That woman, though”—a downward pointing finger for emphasis—“is clearly a fucking psychopath.” Another honey cube. “She was all, like, ‘break Janramak!’ and the little shits got wet just hearing her.”
    .........She had always…appreciated the skinny young man. From her wide-backed mahogany chair, she peered at him over the rim of her cup and suppressed a sigh. The stirrings of empathy, like leaves in the wind, were already quieting; she would do her duty.
    .........“It makes sense, the Urabi wanting revenge.” She put the cup on the side table, walked over to the window and drew the curtains apart. “This used to be their home.”
    .........“And then Vercona drove the mud-eaters down into the earth. Amen to that.”
    .........Faedra counted: eleven Islands above the city, and still more were arriving.
    .........It wasn’t unnatural now to see people stop midstride or pause their work to peek up at the sky, almost nervous in these furtive glimpses, as if staring for too long might push the massing harpies to whatever action they intended.
    .........There might not be anyone alive who remembered the Night Hunts, but there were records. Booksellers, realizing this, introduced a markup of nearly two hundred percent to any pre-Empire works having even the most tenuous relation with harpies. They sold their entire inventory regardless. The more inventive booksellers hired scribes and bought antlion vellum wholesale and from dawn to dusk churned out clearly fake histories; once the amber tea dyes had taken and the ink dried, these, too, were sold almost immediately at the impressive markup of four hundred and fifty percent. It was a lucrative business in the proliferation of fear and rumours up until Council got wind and put a stop to it.
    .........And the wyverns. If Untarri had been telling the truth, the white reptiles would be unleashed against Janramak.
    .........(The truth. Faedra wondered: what contract did the Empress have with the Floating Islands? From what threat was she supposed to have been protecting the harpies?)
    .........“You will be going back.” When there was no response, she turned around to see Eleus looking aghast.
    .........“I…” He put down the platter of food. “Hold on.”
    .........“You’ve brought me something important. My other informants bring only scraps. You’re useful now. I want to keep that going.”
    .........“So you send me back into what’ll probably be the death of me?” He leaned against a wall for support, the very image of a man about to faint. “What happened to us speaking sensibly?” he said weakly.
    .........“There is no us, Eleus Ravent.” She crossed the room and cupped his cheeks. She was looking down at him. “There is you,” the immortal announced, “and then there is me.”
    .........“What if”—slight trembling; a break in his voice—“what if I say no?”
    .........Faedra smiled.
    .........
    .........*
    .........
    .........A man approaches the city from the west. He is carrying two slings, one over each shoulder, both bags sewn shut. When asked by a guard at the Rose Gate what he is carrying, his answer is a small but weighty bag of coins to dissuade further questions. Once through, he looks back at the thorny vines and deep red flowers which give the gate its name. If there had been more time, he would have entered the city by other means; but his window of opportunity is small, his instructions specific.
    .........Coaches line this side of the jade-oak wall. He walks up to one, pays, gives his destination.
    .........They travel the west-east corridor of the Divide until the sandstone buildings are replaced by taller, blue-and-white spotted homes of the Truffle district. The roofs of the gigantic mushroom towers filter the light; here at ground level, the air seems a muted blue, and flittering about in this false evening are fireflies and glow bugs, star-swallows and moon-moths.
    .........Agarics stroll the shaded streets: holes for faces, lanky and yellow skinned, skulls flaring out into dotted mushroom domes of every colour. He is unsettled, seeing so many non-humans, and feels an intense longing for his home in the desert.
    .........By pantomime and patience, he is eventually led in the direction of the tallest tower. He climbs the steps spiraling up on the outside, keeping one hand on the warm, spongy wall since there is no railing. At the top, he walks through a hole in the roof and is welcomed once more by the sun; then he turns, lifting the door off the floor and swinging it closed on the entrance.
    .........He moves over to the edge, kneels, begins to set up.
    .........Cutting apart the brown threads on both bags, he takes out four vials. He drinks them; grimaces; and then comes the familiar heightening of senses, the deepening perception, the quickening of movement, his consciousness expanding until his thoughts mingle with reality. He exists at multiple points in space.
    .........He removes the monopod and bipod; the cheek pad, upper band and band axle pin; the barrel, stock and scope; the demonite bullets.
    .........It takes less than a minute to assemble the sniper rifle. He puts the empty vials away, takes out another four. Stands up to double-check the direction. He gets down on his stomach and puts the vials in easy reach; chambers the bullets; sights down the scope and adjusts for wind; increases the zoom until he can see into a tastefully furnished room in another district.
    .........There is nothing left for the gunsmith to do but wait.
    .........
    .........The targets appear hours later: a man and three women, two in black, the others blue.
    .........They sit down at the round table. The gunsmith kills the man first.
    .........A slight adjustment to the barrel’s direction; the next bullet shatters two skulls. There is blood on the walls, bits of grey matter and bone.
    .........The last woman lunges back out of her chair, but not before he puts a bullet in her right bicep.
    .........
    .........He waits.
    .........She is in pain. Panic will do the rest.
    .........
    .........It does not take long: she is moving; she is on the floor, crawling toward the closed door.
    .........He allows her to reach up and turn the knob before squeezing the trigger.
    .........
    .........*
    .........
    .........He stood on his balcony, shivering, while the sun descended behind rose clouds and electricity poles, behind clusters of vents and antennas atop building rooftops. On the opposite balcony, a woman stepped out, followed by a young boy; the woman said something and they both laughed. He watched as they faded with the light, features smudging into suggestions, and only the glow spilling out from the apartment at their backs to define their outlines in silhouette.
    .........(On some level Adam understood that this was a dream. Interesting; since Awakening, he’d been incapable of dreaming. A momentary struggle; then he decided to settle down and simply observe. Looked at another way, this could be something special.)
    .........Hidden among the concrete sprawl but no less affecting, a street musician at work even now; the staccato drumming joined with car horns and blaring televisions, dogs barking, children’s high voices, the oscillating sirens of fire trucks. The city conversing with itself in a language of rhythm and noise and the silences between. Each person a dialect, every life an accent.
    .........He looked south and saw a train cough up ragged ribbons of smoke. Its tracks were aligned with the horizon so that its passing seemed to bind sky to earth.
    .........(Adam paused. He had no idea what any of those things were. Yet he had named them, was familiar with them.)
    .........Unsettled, he went inside, slid the door shut. Corners had given birth to shadows stretching across the living room in pursuit of the sun. He walked to the kitchen, turned on the lights and sat at the table, hands clasped beneath.
    .........He was on edge and didn’t know why.
    .........The fridge hummed away noisily without regard to decorum. Over there the open cupboards with bared shelves and the dirty dishes heaped until they had successfully invaded the adjacent sink.
    .........Natalie entered the room. She had on the red dress. He watched her walk around the table, pull out a chair and sit opposite him with an effortless grace which made him want to clap appreciatively.
    .........The moment was spoiled when she smiled; a harmless enough gesture, but he didn’t much like the way she was looking at him. As if he were a puzzle she didn’t particularly care to solve, but would because at the moment there was nothing better to do.
    .........(I don’t know this woman, Adam thought.
    .........Of course you do, said someone abruptly. That’s Natalie.
    .........Adam fell silent. Whoever had spoken had used his voice.)
    .........“We need to talk,” said Natalie. Her hands were palm down on the table, arms tense with the strain of pushing down so hard. “It won’t solve anything, but we’re going to do it anyways.”
    .........“In a sec.” He looked past her; then twisted in his seat, searching the room. No one there; and yet: “Is there someone else in the apartment?” he asked.
    .........“Funny.” She had stopped smiling. “I already said I’m sorry.”
    .........“What for?” He shook his head. Worked his jaw. His head felt—crowded.
    .........“Come on,” she said. “It’s unfair you had to find out the way you did but I said I’m sorry and I won’t have him over again.”
    .........Him; Lincoln. He snapped his teeth shut. Right, he’d caught them sleeping together. How could he have forgotten that?
    .........“It’s why we need to talk,” Natalie said. “We can’t go on like this. I can’t go on like this.” She clasped her hands together; beseeching. “Aren’t you tired of this, Joshua?”
    .........(Joshua? Adam thought slowly. Who’s Joshua?
    .........I am. The stranger again. I’m Joshua.)
    .........“I am,” he repeated, raising a hand to his forehead. A headache was coming on.
    .........(Adam laughed. But that’s not my name.
    .........Why do you sound like me? asked Joshua.
    .........Other way around, I’m afraid, replied Adam lightly—but he didn’t like what was happening here, not at all.)
    .........“Good. So we both want this to be over.” She got up and took out the pitcher from the fridge and poured herself a glass; then she took a long swallow, lowered the glass, watched him. “Where do we start?”
    .........(What’s a fridge? Adam thought.
    .........I’m losing my mind, said Joshua wonderingly.
    .........No, Adam snapped, you’re not, because this is my mind. This is—look, whatever you’re doing, I’d appreciate it if you just fucking stopped already.)
    .........“You know what?” he croaked out. The headache drove red spikes through his skull. “I don’t feel so good.”
    .........“No,” she said after a moment.
    .........By some herculean effort, he was able to fix his eyes on her. She had crossed her arms, was looking decidedly irritated. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, confused.
    .........“I mean cut the bullshit. Either you act your age for once or I’m leaving. Tonight. I told you,” she added, letting out an angry laugh, “I’m tired of this.”
    .........(I guess this could all be some kind of goblin magic, Adam mused.)
    .........“Oh God.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Natalie, I think you should call an ambulance.”
    .........“Melodramatic son of a—”
    .........“Ambulance!” he shouted; and then in a lower, more fervent voice: “My name is Joshua Callahan. Not Adam. Joshua Callahan.” A mantra; a prayer. “My name is Joshua goddamned Callahan.”
    .........(Adam listened a while longer, hoping to get a word in edgewise, but the man was clearly having a crisis of some sorts; so with nothing else to do, Adam woke up.)
    .........
    .........First impressions: it was dark, wherever he was; and everything smelled of shit.
    .........(He had just been dreaming. Which wasn’t supposed to be possible. He tried to hold onto the memory but like some cunning animal it jack-knifed away and burrowed deep, leaving behind a scrap, strong and syllabic: Callahan.)
    .........He was alive, at least. A pleasant outcome, considering the last thing he could remember was being gutted with Muramasa by a goblin that spoke flawless Standard.
    .........Adam pawed at the air in front of his face, realized he was using his missing right hand, switched to his left and frowned when his arm wasn’t able to rise up all the way. The clinking noises meant metal. An iron chain around his wrist (and both ankles and right elbow, now that he knew what to feel for) and greasy links that continued on beyond his reach, somewhere up and behind his head. He stood up, wincing from leg cramps.
    .........“Aren’t you a lucky bastard?” came a shaky sigh to his left. “Lucky being extremely dependent on whether or not you think being on a slave ship is better than dying.”
    .........“Who’re you talking to?” This from a tired sounding woman.
    .........“The idiot stepping on my foot.”
    .........Adam shuffled aside. “Sorry.”
    .........“It’s okay.” Another long trembling sigh. There was fluid in the man’s lungs. “Not much use for walking down here.”
    .........“Here?”
    .........“Raider ship,” said the woman. “Now kindly shut up before they hear us.”
    .........Adam crouched, facing what he hoped was the direction of the man with dramatic breathing. “We’re in the hold.”
    .........“Excellent deduction, my friend.”
    .........“I’m not your friend.” Adam tugged at the chain; then he pulled with all his Dreamer-given strength. No go. Figured. “How long have I been down here?” he asked.
    .........“A couple of days, judging by the infrequent meals.” A long pause; then: “Erielle figures a week. Women generally take a worse view of things, though.”
    .........“Fuck you, Desero,” muttered the tired woman. Erielle, presumably. “All that matters is that we’re still alive.”
    .........“See, that’s not true,” protested Desero. Movement in the dark, chains clinking. “What matters most to me is that I be comfortable. And free of lice. And disease. And a number of other things our hosts have denied us.”
    .........Adam had been listening to the noises. “Desero?”
    .........“Yes?”
    .........“How many of us are down here?”
    .........“Don’t know. Around forty. I wasn’t exactly keeping track when they beat me with a club and tied—”
    .........Adam turned his head. “Erielle?”
    .........“Closer to twenty.”
    .........“Must you oppose me in everything?” asked Desero plaintively.
    .........Adam sat back down. “There’s just the three of us now.” When they didn’t say anything, he went on. “We’re the only ones still breathing. Listen.”
    .........“All I hear is the ship,” said Erielle.
    .........“You’re not me.”
    .........“And we should trust you because…?”
    .........“This has nothing to do with trust.”
    .........“And then there were three,” wheezed Desero, a note of forced cheer in his voice. “The wretched bank woman, the crooked officer—and you.”
    .........Adam felt the ship’s movement, the rise and fall as it carried the living and the dead into strange waters; he smelled the decay of bloated bodies in the dark hold; he heard his heart, steady, unhurried, and the beat of the other two, quickening, arrhythmic . There were voices, faint and far off; a language unknown to him.
    .........“Neither of you are going to survive this journey,” Adam said, closing his eyes. “If you believe in a god, I suggest you start praying.”
    .........
    .........Erielle died two days later.
    .........“She was the bank director at Amber and Marigold,” said Desero. “I know this because she’s the one who rejected my loan. I’ve never”—weak coughing; the raiders had stopped tossing down buckets of stale bread and water—“I’ve never been so angry and admirable of a woman at the same time. I suppose that’s what they mean by love at first sight. Only it wasn’t that. Not love. Respect. Not mutual. I could tell she saw me as lower than low. Lower than a digger-worm, and that’s saying something. Maybe she was playing hard to get, eh? I’m not bad looking. I’ve also been told I’m conceited, but I don’t buy into that. Makes you wonder, being this close to her for how long now, and not even getting a chance to say anything worthwhile because there’s no point. Although I guess that is the point: each moment matters. Each and every last one of them matters.”
    .........(Adam heard this; and he heard the unseen rats coupling fiercely, their squeaks and rustling, their mouths gnawing rapidly on the disordered buffet of limbs and jellied white eyes.)
    .........“Who are you?” whispered the other man at one point. “I want to know.”
    .........“Does it matter?”
    .........“It’s the polite thing to do, introducing yourself.” Low laughter. Crazed laughter. “It’s what civilized people do.”
    .........“But I am not civilized. I am unlike anyone you have ever met.”
    .........He was about to say more when the darkness was washed away by sunlight and bright skies, and the planked wood beneath his bare feet replaced by the tiered seats of Grissant’s amphitheatre.
    .........
    .........(Oh, come on, Adam thought exasperated. An Echo, now, of all times?
    .........Except this was different: he was separate from his past self; he was an observer. There was his second-self, the other Adam, two rows down; between the god-killers was an elderly man with bandages around half his face.)
    .........The scholars’ nonsense discussion of war had ended, thankfully. Adam watched people leave in clumps of busy conversation while the scholars down on the stage congratulated one another, tucking tri-pronged hats under one arm and walking away.
    .........Counter-productive to have come here: now he was irritated.
    .........He knew war. It was a brutal, relentless, many headed beast, devouring adults and children with equal appetite. It was also the greatest transformative experience in history; there was no other event in Terraria that could wipe out an entire people from existence, or elide belief systems from common knowledge, or begin the process of deconstruction which reverted a village to its constituent stone blocks, wood slats and metal fixings—until even those remnants were reclaimed by the wild, by creeping vines and cascading rains eroding all signs of purposeful design into oblivion.
    .........Too easy to go on. He stood up and stretched, uttering a mild oath for Bentas having brought him along.
    .........There was the young nobleman now, striding up with a dissatisfied look on his face. “So that happened.”
    .........“A waste of time.” Adam was surprised; maybe he was finally beginning to rub off on him. Whether that was a good thing was debatable. “And on your father’s coin.”
    .........“I told you it’s fine,” replied Bentas, sitting beside him. “He wanted me to come. Which reminds me,” he added, “he wants to meet with you today.”
    .........Adam thought for a moment. “This is a good thing, right? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
    .........“It’s telling that that’s your first reaction.” Bentas shrugged. “Routine matter, most likely. Probably noticed how well I’m doing and wants to hire you to teach my brothers. Brats, the lot of them.”
    .........“Speaking from experience?”
    .........“I am the perfect example of elegance.” Bentas raised both middle fingers. “Don’t you agree?”
    .........“General Nalicai.”
    .........(Should’ve pretended not to hear, Adam thought ruefully, as his second-self turned around. It was a strange feeling, seeing the past like this, knowing what was about to happen. Was this what Faedra’s prescience felt like?)
    .........It was the old man who’d spoken. Only the right side of his face could be seen, the rest kept behind bandages. The linen was yellow in spots, and the skin at the border was raised, like white pebbles.
    .........“It is you.” The old man pointed a finger.
    .........Accusatory, or just reinforcement? An important distinction. Adam glanced at Bentas, saw him frowning.
    .........“You look the same.” The old man shook his head. “How is that possible?”
    .........“I’m sorry,” interrupted Bentas, “but ‘general’?”
    .........“You shut up, and you”—Adam looked at the man—“have me mistaken, sorry.”
    .........“But he knows your name.”
    .........Adam had hoped that would slide. “Popular surname,” he explained after a moment.
    .........“I guess.” Still that frown; then: “Is he a war veteran, do you think?”
    .........Adam nodded, relieved. “Probably what’s got him confused.”
    .........“My mind’s fine,” said the old man slowly. “My face isn’t but my memory’s fine. I remember you. I remember Lantera.”
    .........Shit. Adam understood now. There would most likely be fungus growing underneath those bandages. A common skin disease from coming into contact with the glowing spores in Lantera’s underground jungles. He knew he was staring, couldn’t help it. That had been so long ago. A failed mission.
    .........The finger again—definitely accusatory. “You abandoned us.”
    .........“I don’t know you.” Adam motioned to Bentas. “We’re leaving,” he said.
    .........“The Snatchers were coming, you didn’t expect that.” The old man’s voice was getting louder. “You figured you could make it alone, the Snatchers would do for the rest of us.” His right eye bulged. “You abandoned an entire fucking army.”
    .........(Untrue; they’d been a company at most. Adam watched his second-self and Bentas climb past on the steps. And the entire ordeal had been suicidal. It made no sense, trying to go up against Lantera; how were they supposed to fight a jungle, let alone the non-humans that inhabited it?)
    .........“They kept us alive!” shouted the old man in the empty amphitheatre. “They kept us alive because they wanted to learn about the man who could live forever!”
    .........Adam slowed his walk. Turned round.
    .........(Mistake, Adam sighed. He got up, tried to spin his second-self around; no surprise when his hands passed through, this was a memory after all. You’re looking the wrong way.)
    .........“Everything has an end,” Adam said, making his voice even, “living or otherwise. No one lives forever.”
    .........“Wish that it were true,” muttered Bentas. “Imagine the women I could sleep with.”
    .........“Imagine my shock, seeing you here.” The old man stood up. “Couple of weeks ago, that was. I had to make sure it was you. When I was certain, I send word for them to come as quick as possible.”
    .........“Them,” Adam repeated.
    .........“Yes.” The old man pointed. “Them.”
    .........Screams. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Adam turned.
    .........There was a Snatcher astride a drepin at the top of the amphitheatre steps. Another long legged insect-mount dropped down from the sky; then two more. The Snatchers gave some silent signal and the drepin, dinner-plate blue eyes spinning in their sockets, began to advance down the steps.
    .........“What. The Actual. Fuck.” Bentas’ face was a study in acute alarm.
    .........Each Snatcher held in one of their four hands thorn chakrams; the stinger-tipped throwing disks were connected to their wrists by retractable cords. Their faces had opened up: flaps of green skin and ropes of yellow muscle arrayed like a blossoming flower, at the centre of which lay a circular bud of razor teeth and whiplike tongues savouring the terror of fleeing Grissanti.
    .........Lantera soldiers. Each of them trained to break a prisoner’s loyalties, to convert invaders over to a life underground where the air was hot and the dark pricked by jewel fragments and luminescent creatures that swam in black lakes or burrowed through mud cliffs.
    .........Adam guessed it’d been about seventy years, about that long since the failed offensive. Time in abundance to strip away the old man’s defenses, then a young man, and make him a creature to their will.
    .........“Get out of here, Bentas,” Adam said, as the old man’s arms wrapped around him. Warm breath against his right ear; a strange clicking noise from deep inside that aged throat. “Get somewhere safe.”
    .........(Adam found this concern for another’s well-being curious. As Bentas ran off, he studied himself. Just there under the surface of that furrowed brow, short hair and brown eyes, the god-killer was being shaped in dream, moving ever closer to one day breaking through into consciousness.
    .........An inward look: this version of himself, this softer personality, had been crushed during his awakening, evicted from the house of memory as there could be only one occupying history. Had this Adam, on that fateful day, recognized the sudden intrusion in his mind as someone familiar? Or had his end been one of confusion and panic as Adam assumed control, substituting one reality for another, getting up off that silent clearing in the woods and striding off into evening shade?
    .........Irrelevant, really. This all stank of philosophy and he had no patience for pointless reflections.)
    .........Moments. That was all he would have.
    .........He needed to distance himself from the Snatchers; so he bent at the knees and jumped backwards off the steps as hard as he could. The old man clung tighter—and then they were tumbling down the steps, and Adam heard a wordless noise as the old man’s head struck the stone repeatedly.
    .........They came to rest near the base of the steps. He got up quickly, spared a look for his human buffer—split skull; blood everywhere—and was sprinting over and across the stage, keeping an eye out for anything to use as a weapon. A couple of chairs, too heavy to use deftly. Glass cups, scraps of paper.
    .........He reached the other end of the stage and instantly fell onto his back and into a short slide.
    .........A thorn chakram flashed past where his head had been, spun in the air with a high screeching noise for a few seconds, before being yanked back.
    .........That would’ve been a killing blow. So at least he knew the score.
    .........Rolling off the stage; now he was running up the opposite flight of steps.
    .........Instincts and heightened senses worked in concert, conducting multiple scenarios with each heartbeat, discarding all but one in the space it took him to draw his next breath.
    .........He bunched his legs and pushed off the ground at the same time a drepin landed a few feet ahead; the Snatcher was taken aback, couldn’t bring arms up in time as Adam slammed into it.
    .........They fell to the other side of the drepin, Adam on top. The soldier brought up the chakram with frightening speed—
    .........—and Adam clapped his hands together, caught the flat sides of the disc in his palms and drove it down into the misshapen face.
    .........He didn’t linger, was back on his feet and leaping up into the drepin’s saddle and sawing on the reins and digging his right heel into its side—
    .........—above and to his left: the other three Snatchers descending from the sky, arms thrown forward, slinging the chakrams around in a green arc and—
    .........—Adam was airborne, the drepin catapulting them both over the rim of the amphitheatre and onto grey rooftops. He dug into its side again; they leapt through the air, in his ears only the sound of wind rushing past.
    .........They moved in parabolas across the cityscape, over upraised faces made small at his apex before they grew into startled expressions as the drepin slammed back down to earth.
    .........He chose erratically; on the fifth landing, he slid off the saddle, kicked at the mount while falling, hit the ground and watched the drepin spring away into the distance.
    .........Stalls and awnings surrounded him. Adam stepped under a cream covering, started counting, reached seven before the Snatcher’s shadows swept across the ground and moved on.
    .........The soldiers would catch on soon enough. Apologizing to the stall owner who’d been pushing at his back, threatening him to shove off, he snatched up a bolt of cloth—sky blue streaked with gold—and wore it around his shoulders. Three stalls down, he waited until the woman was busy with a customer before pilfering a wide brimmed hat.
    .........He took alleys and walked under bridges, moving steadily west, mindful of any activity above. Brisk walk; a slightly eccentric man late for a meeting. Which, he realized, was possibly true.
    .........Bentas did say his father, Lord Azren, wanted a word.


    anchor::r
    ......
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  6. Garneac The Red God

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  7. iNfiniTe Se7eNz Official Terraria Online Post Whore

    OOOOOH YOU MULTIPOSTED, I'M REPORTING YOU!!!!!!

    I'm going to read this thread and the old version too... eventually. Damn it's already long (twss), but I'm confident it will be an enjoyable read.
    (If you need me to delete this, just ask and I'll do it.)
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  8. Garneac The Red God

    I did say to wait until the second chapter was up but it's fine. XD

    To old readers: the prologue is new. You should read it. Seriously. Also, I've dispensed with not calling GK Adam. The "suspense/secret" wasn't worth repeating "the god-killer" over and over. Plus, now that I'm writing (mostly) in chronological order -- GK's storyline first, then Adam's -- it just seems to make more sense, since now there's a shift away from my poorly executed "what's his real identity???" to "how did GK become Adam?"
  9. Mercenary Lord Corruptor

    Dear god that is a lot of text.
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  10. King Toad Cursed Skull

    His original one was 50k words long, and he removed several of the chapters, so...
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  11. nababoo Dark Caster

    Really love the new prologue. But just asking, is the information from the previous chapters canon?

    Also, I'll be making a PDF for this one too, pretty soon.
    Garneac likes this.
  12. King Toad Cursed Skull

    The funny part is that I never actually read his first one, I just felt like figuring out how long it was compared to all my stories combined, and mine were about 14k... I do have the PDF version of the old version on my comp so I can read it sometime, though.
  13. Garneac The Red God

    Quite. :]
    I had no idea it was that long. >_< Thanks!

    I really love the new prologue, too. =P It feels...right. And it's how I should've started the story in the first place.

    Regarding the other two storylines. The Dreamer interludes will remain unchanged (maybe I'll add a bit more information). Present-Adam's storyline I intend to fucking eviscerate. But, I'm realistic, so it might just amount to a general "tightening up" where prose is concerned and a rewrite for certain things.

    For now, consider it canon... But at the same time, forget anything related to present-Adam. >_< By the time I finish past-Adam's storyline, I'll be able to say with more certainty.

    And thanks for the PDF. You're awesome like that. ^_^
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  14. AyeAye12 Anomura Fungus

    In my opinion it was fine with the inclusion if Adam, but hey if you want to change it fire ahead :p

    Strangely enough the prologue reminds me of two characters in my W.I.P book/series/epic I'm writing, Sands of Ruin. two of the characters (The Tentacled Son and The Tentacled Father) sound a bit like the Dreamers of yours :eek:
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  15. iNfiniTe Se7eNz Official Terraria Online Post Whore

    I've seen enough hentai to know where this is going...
    /joke

    ~Insert generic complaint about lack of updates to provide something vaguely on topic to the actual story~
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  16. nababoo Dark Caster

    Well, I finished the PDF version.
    Still don't know how to get the page number off of the table of contents and title page though -.-

    And good job, 30,000 words so far.

    And also, the optimum viewing zoom-out is at 100% as, one may expect. This, however, may change due to monitor sizes or personal preference.

    Attached Files:

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  17. Garneac The Red God

    For old readers, if you're interested, I thought I'd point out an edit to Ch.1:

    Dasgreil misread the silence. “There was no other outcome. It had to end. The Empress cannot afford instability now when the goblins are raiding in numbers greater than ever before. Imagine a war on two fronts: the savages across the sea and malcontent subjects across the continent.”

    Vincent had said as much last week. He considered incorporating the goblins into the design. The mechanism thus far had withstood smaller loads. Mercenaries. Armies. Even the son of an Imperator. But could he harness the power of an entire nation? Somehow, he thought Vincent would disapprove; he grinned.

    Nothing special. Without it, I thought it would be disorienting to new readers to have the sudden scene change between the two chapters (we went from Adam being in the north to...this city?). Also, it explains why the hell Adam ends up going to El Mater in Ch.2 in the first place. I realize Ch.2 on its own doesn't hint at his purpose until well into the chapter and only confirms it right at the end. That's a needless wait for an explanation.

    Also. The son of an Imperator bit. For a little short story on that, you can check this out. It's by no means mandatory, though. And it explains less than it should. XD Thought I should provide the link in case you're wondering where I was going with that. Anywho, regardless, it's one of those things that I mention now and expand on in later chapters.

    There are both possible and definite issues with present-Adam's storyline. From time to time, I'll pick at them to see how serious the flaws are. Thankfully, I won't have to make a decision until either Book Two or Three. In any case, thanks.

    Ooh. I like the title. Best of luck with the endeavor.

    XD

    And lack of updates. Right. I haven't written more than a couple paragraphs of scrap stuff. Still planning in my head. Although I haven't given much effort to the planning because I feel oddly tired from writing for the meantime. That said, I'm hoping that when I do get around to writing the next chapter, it'll range between 5000 to 10000 words (if that. Could be much less). Since Book One focuses only on past-Adam and the various other characters involved, I don't feel pressured to stuff everything into one massive chapter.

    Much thanks!

    And I smiled, realizing that I will easily reach 100 000 words for TDatG. I don't mean that as a boast. It's just that, prior to this story, I'd never written anything so extensive. It's cool knowing that I can gradually learn to go the distance for future works. Anywho, thanks again. Really appreciate it.
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  18. Garneac The Red God

    Psst! The title itself, The Dreamer and the God. I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean. I mean, "The Dreamer" bit is correct. As for "and the God"... There are days when I frown at that, wondering what the hell game I thought I was playing when I thought it up. The title sounds cool to me, I guess? :0 And do all titles have to make sense? They should be relevant, though.

    Should it be changed? I don't know. Probably. Maybe once I get far enough into the story.

    Although... Yeah. The Dreamer on its own would make more sense. Maybe not as, uh, cool sounding without "and the God," but it's a) concise and b) aptly-named.

    So. Erm. I think I'll put in a request... If I'm taken by whimsy again, I'll just change it again.

    (I'm not quite sure if with this post I'm asking for permission or apologizing or something. XD)
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  19. Chokladkakan Corrupt Bunny

    For what it's worth, if you mean to make a few PDF's in your life, I would recommend you learn LaTeX. If what you produce is to be longer than a few pages it is the de facto best way to typeset anything. For demonstration purposes I drafted a version of the Dreamer in LaTeX, which is linked below, both the PDF and the .tex source file:


    Or, for the adventurous, a typesetting made for print, with margins adjusted for the presence of a book spine:


    It should be noted that I am not used to typesetting anything but mathematics in LaTeX, which is to say that a more seasoned person could make a much, much better job. I would like to think it shows some of the beauty of the language, though.

  20. nababoo Dark Caster

    Is it free to use? And is it downloadable?

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