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The Inner Circle: The Gates of Hae'Evun

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Book Three

The Inner Circle

The Gates of Hae’Evun

Cael McIntosh

Copyright © 2015 Cael McIntosh

All rights reserved.

ISBN-10: 0646938754

ISBN-13: 978-0-646-93875-2

 

DEDICATION

 

 

For those who mattered.

CONTENTS

 

 

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|=. p<{color:#000;}. Prologue: In the Beginning |=. p<{color:#000;}. 1 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 1 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Wooden Box |=. p<{color:#000;}. 20 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 2 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Not Out of the Woods Yet |=. p<{color:#000;}. 29 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 3 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Hunger |=. p<{color:#000;}. 37 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 4 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Other Side of You |=. p<{color:#000;}. 46 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 5 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Silly Stories |=. p<{color:#000;}. 54 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 6 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Nothing Left of Me |=. p<{color:#000;}. 60 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 7 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Lost |=. p<{color:#000;}. 70 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 8 |=. p<{color:#000;}. A Funeral |=. p<{color:#000;}. 78 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 9 |=. p<{color:#000;}. He is a Terrible Human |=. p<{color:#000;}. 90 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 10 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Just Like You |=. p<{color:#000;}. 97 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 11 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Tome |=. p<{color:#000;}. 103 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 12 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Too Dead |=. p<{color:#000;}. 110 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 13 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Abomination |=. p<{color:#000;}. 118 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 14 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Scriptures of the Holy Tome |=. p<{color:#000;}. 124 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 15 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Isolation |=. p<{color:#000;}. 132 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 16 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Truth |=. p<{color:#000;}. 146 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 17 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Talons |=. p<{color:#000;}. 155 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 18 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Perspective |=. p<{color:#000;}. 162 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 19 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Desecration of the Spirit |=. p<{color:#000;}. 173 | =. |=. p<{color:#000;}. 20 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Bird Cage |=. p<{color:#000;}. 181 | =. |=. p<{color:#000;}. 21 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Exodus |=. p<{color:#000;}. 189 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 22 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Burden or Remorse |=. p<{color:#000;}. 198 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 23 |=. p<{color:#000;}. For Him |=. p<{color:#000;}. 205 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 24 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Refuge |=. p<{color:#000;}. 212 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 25 |=. p<{color:#000;}. As All of Us |=. p<{color:#000;}. 217 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 26 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Price of Life |=. p<{color:#000;}. 225 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 27 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Into Her Darkest |=. p<{color:#000;}. 232 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 28 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Mendacity |=. p<{color:#000;}. 239 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 29 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Involution |=. p<{color:#000;}. 244 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 30 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Not You |=. p<{color:#000;}. 253 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 31 |=. p<{color:#000;}. Meet Your Maker |=. p<{color:#000;}. 262 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 32 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Second Coming |=. p<{color:#000;}. 268 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}. 33 |=. p<{color:#000;}. The Gates of Hae’Evun |=. p<{color:#000;}. 279 | =. |=. p>{color:#000;}.   |=. p<{color:#000;}. Epilogue: Seteal |=. p<{color:#000;}. 291

 

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Prologue

In the beginning

 

 

In the beginning, Maker created Hae’Evun then the Earth. Hae’Evun was Maker’s first creation since the creation of time itself and therefore since he’d created himself. The world was without form and void and darkness was upon its surface. The Spirit of Maker moved restlessly over the surface of the waters.

‘Let there be light,’ He uttered and there was light.

‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters,’ Maker said, and even as He uttered the words, he saw the waters splitting into clouds above and pooling into great oceans below.

Satisfied with His work, Maker rested.

On the second day, Maker knew that there was still much to be done. ‘Let the waters beneath the clouds be gathered together unto one place,’ He said softly. ‘Let dry land appear.’ A moment later, great bodies of land reached up from the surface of the water and the oceans began to recede. Maker smiled over all he’d created and called the place Hae’Evun.

‘Let there be trees that grow mana,’ Maker announced, and trees erupted from the earth, mana growing within small blue flowers.

But there went up a white mist from the earth and covered the whole face of the ground. And the Lord Maker formed a silt of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The silt opened his eyes, having become a living soul. Maker planted a garden eastward, and there He put the silt whom He had formed. Satisfied with what He’d done, Maker decided that the third day should be one of rest.

‘Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat,’ Maker told the silt whom he’d called Sa’Tan. ‘From the highest branches to the lowest, the mana thou shalt eat.’

Peering at the silt standing alone in his garden, Maker suddenly became very sad, for He’d noticed the man was all alone. ‘It is not good for a man to be alone. I will make a companion for him.’ With those words the wind picked up and Sa’Tan looked about himself fearfully. He was tired and his legs soon fell out from under him. The silt toppled over and fell into a deep sleep. Maker sliced open his flesh and tore out one of his ribs. He then focused on the wound and watched as the skin writhed back into place and sealed together as though it’d never been broken.

Maker pushed against the Ways and formed a white mist about Sa’Tan’s rib. Dust blew up from the surface of the earth to form a beautiful woman, even as the man awoke. ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,’ Sa’Tan cried, overjoyed that he shouldn’t remain lonesome. ‘She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’

Sa’Tan and his wife Sa’Hin lived happily for many years. They had children and watched them grow into healthy young silts and have children of their own. All was well with the garden in Hae’Evun and the silts were fruitful and became many and spread throughout the land. Sa’Tan was the leader among them, answering only to Maker Himself. Seeing that His works were complete, Maker folded Himself into another Way.

In this new Way, silts did not exist, for they were in Hae’Evun. They had been his first creation—His experiment. Now He would make a better creation, one that would live in a paradise. He would create not just one tree, but many, and they would bare many flavoursome fruits. This place would be filled with souls that crept and flew and swam.

Turning His attention to the empty world, Maker found it to be void with darkness on its surface. The Spirit moved to the face of the waters. ‘Let there be light,’ Maker said, and as with His earlier creation, there was light. ‘Let there be a firmament.’ Maker twisted the Ways and watched as the waters departed. Maker touched the waters and land pushed into the air.

‘Now,’ Maker said, his voice filling with anticipation for that which was yet to come, ‘let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, whose seed is in itself upon the earth.’ Black mist blotted out the sun and the planet was covered in darkness. Then with a deep, rumbling sound, countless varieties of radiantly flowered plant-life forced its way from the surface of the ground.

Maker saw that it was good.

‘Let the mist bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of the sky,’ said Maker. And out of the earth, Maker saw the embodiment of all His creations into flesh. ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply on the earth.

‘There is nobody to praise Me for such beauty.’

Maker turned in dismay, staring at the beautiful greens and radiant blues. Earth was not at all like the dull grey realm of Hae’Evun.

‘Let there be a man,’ Maker said. And there went a mist to mingle with dust into the flesh of a man. Maker created him without wings, and strong legs for running. This one would dwell on the earth.

Before breathing life into the man’s nostrils, Maker took one of his ribs and with it created a woman in his likeness. He blew life into their nostrils and their eyes were opened. Maker took the humans and put them in a garden filled abundantly with birds, rivers and trees bearing many kinds of fruit. ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat,’ Maker addressed the couple.

Favouring His most recent creation, Maker stayed with Adam and Eve and blessed them with many children. The tribe of Adam continued to grow until it spread out and around the original garden of Eden. For a hundred years, Maker walked with the humans of Earth. He stayed with them and guided them, but they still had much to learn. Too often they’d fall and become injured. And Maker was beginning to lose interest in them.

Twisting sideways, Maker folded into Hae’Evun’s universe. There the silts toiled, farming mana and building cities, but many had grown impatient with the Lord. They cried out for purpose and felt cheated by his abandonment.

Now, Sa’Tan—having lived for many years—flew to the base of the mountain of Horeb. There the Spirit of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush and Sa’Tan looked and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

‘I will turn aside and see this great sight.’ Sa’Tan stumbled backward several steps, his wings quivering with the temptation of flight. ‘Why is the bush not burnt?’

When the Lord saw that Sa’Tan had turned aside to see, He called unto him out of the midst of the bush and said, ‘Sa’Tan, Sa’Tan. Here am I. Draw not any closer. Put back your wings and bow your head, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am your Maker.’

Sa’Tan hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon Maker.

‘Sa’Tan,’ Maker whispered at his ear. ‘Look at me.’

Turning fearfully with downcast eyes, Sa’Tan found a great crown with ruby horns and a small black pebble at his feet. ‘What of the crown and this pebble?’

‘I have made greater Ways,’ Maker murmured softly. ‘Hae’Evun was the first and Earth shall be the last. Because it is perfect, I will move on to greater things. For I am Maker.’ The fire dulled for but a moment before reigniting with great fury. ‘Is it true that there are complainers among you?’

‘There are complainers.’ Sa’Tan swallowed nervously. ‘Please show mercy on them, my Lord, for they are weak in the Spirit.’

‘I will give them a position of great responsibility.’ Maker sighed. ‘You will be the guardians of my other world,’ the Lord thundered in a voice so loud that every ear in Hae’Evun could hear him. ‘You will protect the inhabitants of Earth.’

Even before the words had finished being spoken, shadowy, wingless creatures appeared were the midst of Hae’Evun. The souls were vague, translucent images, that faded as they moved away and became clearer when the distance was decreased. Children splashed about in the nearby river, but in Hae’Evun, the waters did not move. The shadowy reflections of the people of Earth ate brightly coloured foods from a seemingly endless variety of trees.

‘Can they see us?’ Sa’Tan asked shakily.

‘They cannot,’ Maker replied. ‘You will watch over them and heal them when they are hurt. This is the gift I have given to all my loyal silts. You may heal with a touch. Only from death must you not bring back a soul. It is a perversion in the eyes of the Lord. You must protect the humans in my absence, for they are my most favoured of creations.’

‘And what of the crown?’ Sa’Tan asked, picking up the crown.

‘The crown is to tell all of siltkind that you are My chosen one,’ Maker replied. ‘You will be the Devil and command all the nations of Hae’Evun.’

‘What if someone should take it when I’m sleeping?’ Sa’Tan challenged the Lord.

‘If any other should so much as touch this crown, they will feel the fury of these flames,’ Maker answered and again the fire grew taller and raged angrily.

‘What of the pebble?’ Sa’Tan picked up the small black sphere that’d been left in the grey dirt.

‘The stone is for you alone,’ Maker said, ‘for you are My most loyal servant and friend. Through the Stone of Maker, you may access a portion of your Lord Maker’s power. You may use it three times because three is the holy number of Hae’Evun and every third day you rest. With each use, the stone will grow weaker, because I cannot endlessly trust even you with such power.’

‘Why have you given me this gift?’ Sa’Tan gasped in astonishment.

‘You are to use it after all else has failed,’ Maker replied. ‘Should a war break out on Earth and there be too many injured to heal, then you may use the stone. When a plague wipes out the cities of Earth, then you may use the stone. When the harvest produces little and the men of Earth have nothing to eat, then you may use the stone. Should you use it for selfish or trivial matters, I will curse you for all eternity and the Ways themselves will hate you and turn against you and spit you out like poison.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’ Sa’Tan fell to his knees and bowed down before the burning bush.

‘I will feel the draw on My power,’ Maker said, ‘that in the day of distress I shall come to you with great haste.’

Lightning struck the side of the mountain with terrible force and chunks of rock fell to the ground at Sa’Tan’s feet. Among them he found two tablets with engravings on their surface. ‘These are my commandments that I have given you.’ Maker raised his voice so that every ear could hear. ‘I am the Lord, your Maker, who has breathed life into you and who has performed many wonders. This is my covenant with all of those in Hae’Evun.

‘You must not have other makers before Me or create a graven image of anything and bow down to it, nor serve it. For I, the Lord Maker, am a jealous Maker, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon their children and their children’s children and their other children even to time indefinite for those who hate Me.

‘You must not raise the dead, for their souls are mine.

‘Remember the third day, and keep it holy.

‘Honour thy father and thy mother.

‘Protect the inhabitants of Earth with all your strength.

‘You must not kill.

‘You must not commit adultery.

‘You must not steal.

‘You must not do harm to your neighbour.

‘You must not blaspheme the Ways.’

When Maker finished speaking, Sa’Tan put the crown atop his head and the Stone of Maker into his pocket. He picked up the tablets and held them in his arms.

‘Thank you, my Lord,’ Sa’Tan whispered, a tear trickling down his cheek. A moment later, the fire died away, leaving the small grey tree unharmed. It was in that moment that Sa’Tan knew Maker had truly left them and he was the sole leader of Hae’Evun.

Sa’Tan turned away from the mountain and wandered over to the river where he’d seen human children playing earlier. Although their images were difficult to see, much like his own reflection in the water, he gazed at the creatures in awe. Their flesh appeared to be a soft pinkish-white or brown and their features were oddly shaped. Human limbs were shorter than those of a silt and their faces less angular. Their eyes were smaller and more circular, and their fingers had a layer of hardened armour at their tips. One of the boys raced out of the water giggling and Sa’Tan gasped at his unsightly feet, which were elongated and tipped with no less than five stubby toes. The child didn’t even have a back toe. Sa’Tan mused as to how the boy could possibly maintain his balance.

The child laughed again, but it was a distant sound, like that heard in a dream. He raced along the stream only to vanish when he was almost out of sight. Concerned for his wellbeing, Sa’Tan hurried after the child and as he caught up the boy began to shimmer back into existence. The child raced into the outstretched arms of his mother, who twirled him about in the air. Immediately Sa’Tan was enamoured by her beauty. Rich brown hair flowing over her shoulders and down her back served only to complement the colour of her eyes. She was slender in build and her grace of movement was perfection.

A man approached and kissed the woman, before sitting on a nearby rock. Sa’Tan stared at the rock, his heart burning with jealous desire. The woman turned toward the bearded man and she leaned over to kiss him in return. As she did so Sa’Tan moved to sit on the same rock, it existing in both Hae’Evun and Earth. He and the man occupied the same space and Sa’Tan imagined that it was he who was being kissed.

The woman pulled away, having kissed her husband and known nothing of Sa’Tan’s presence, but her expression was one of confusion.

‘Your lips felt different,’ she said with concern. ‘Are you all right?’

‘I feel quite unwell,’ the man’s deep voice echoed vaguely.

Sa’Tan leapt away from the rock, realising that his continued presence in the same space was doing harm to the man. But how was that possible? They’d occupied the same spaces for hundreds of years and never been effected in such a way. Perhaps Maker had brought their worlds closer than He’d intended. The woman turned slowly and squinted, her eyes momentarily connecting with Sa’Tan’s, but she simply shook her head and took the child’s hand.

‘Come on, it’s getting late. Let’s go home.’

The beautiful, translucent trees swayed gently on a breeze in the other world. Sa’Tan reached out to the green leaves, but they failed to react to his touch and his hand merely slid through the air. Turning from the river, Sa’Tan flew home, unable to dwell on anything but the beauty of the woman he’d seen. Maker truly had achieved perfection in His new world.

Once he’d arrived in the city, Sa’Tan was distracted by the masses of congratulations and the camaraderie in the air and on the farms. The crowds swooped and danced and chanted the name of their Devil repeatedly. All the same, Sa’Tan could not escape the image of the woman in his mind, so desperately he desired to see her again.

In the months that followed, Sa’Tan returned to the river every day at the same time, but the woman did not again appear. He was on the verge of giving up all hope when he approached the river at the end of a warm, sunny day. When he heard splashing, he thought at first that some silt children must be playing down there, but as he approached, he recognised the strangely distant, echoing sound coming up from the riverbank. There, knee-deep in the water was the young boy. Overwhelmed in his excitement, Sa’Tan hurried passed the foot of the mountain where he’d first seen Maker and down to the river.

‘You,’ Sa’Tan called. ‘Boy.’

‘He cannot hear you, my Devil,’ his friend Mi’Chael said as he landed nearby. ‘You know that.’

‘Are you so certain?’ Sa’Tan replied as he hurried over to the river. He tried again and again to shake the boy’s shoulder, but could not.

‘Are you playing the fool?’ Mi’Chael laughed.

‘No,’ Sa’Tan snapped, but his anger cooled quickly as he was struck with an idea. ‘The bush,’ he exclaimed. It must still have some power in it.

‘What do you mean?’ Mi’Chael enquired.

‘Maker appeared to me as a burning bush,’ Sa’Tan called over his shoulder even as he hurried to the side of the mountain. ‘His power must still be in it. You see, it is killing the bush.’

Mi’Chael looked at the plant and nodded his head in recognition of the wilting leaves. Sa’Tan rapped his hands around the base of the tree and tore it from the ground. With it in his arms he raced over to the boy and as he got closer his face became clearer.

‘Boy!’ Sa’Tan announced. ‘Do you see me?’

The human boy turned around, his face becoming red as screamed at the top of his lungs. A moment later, the beautiful woman raced through the trees and looked about protectively. Her eyes met with Sa’Tan’s and she took a step back in horror.

‘What are you?’

‘I am a silt.’ Sa’Tan smiled.

‘Have you come to harm us?’

‘To the contrary,’ Sa’Tan replied. ‘We were sent by Maker to protect you.’

‘I must be sure that you are real.’ The woman gaped at his large wings and shook her head in awe. She stepped forward tentatively, whilst simultaneously pushing her son farther away. Her hand moved through the air, but instead of touching Sa’Tan, it moved through him like he was nothing. ‘I must be dreaming,’ the woman whispered, ‘but you are so clear before me.’

‘Put your hand on the tree,’ Sa’Tan said. The woman did as he’d asked and her flesh made contact with the plant, enabling her to wrap her fingers about its surface. Sa’Tan moved his hand and placed it gently around hers, feeling her warm skin for the first time.

‘That’s impossible,’ the woman said.

‘All things are possible in the Lord,’ Sa’Tan replied. ‘Meet me here alone tomorrow at the same time and tell no one of our encounter.’

‘Must you leave?’ The woman maintained her grip on the tree. ‘I have so many questions to ask of a being so close to Maker. Your world, this shadowy one on top of mine, seems so strange and grey.’

‘I’m afraid I must,’ Sa’Tan replied. ‘But I promise to return and we will talk long into the night. For now, I must attend to other matters. When I meet you again, come alone,’ Sa’Tan reminded her, nodding at the child.

‘Of course,’ the woman murmured, releasing the tree and moving away, she looked back over her shoulder, but was unable to locate Sa’Tan in order to make eye contact. ‘Come,’ she said to her child and the pair departed.

‘Are you sure of what you’re doing?’ Mi’Chael asked. ‘Maker did not intend for those on Earth to know of our Way. We are only to watch and protect.’

‘I am the Devil,’ Sa’Tan growled. ‘I’ll do as I please.’

Ignoring his wife’s pleas for attention, Sa’Tan abandoned her every night in the weeks that followed so that he could meet with Eve, the woman by the river. The two became increasingly fond of one another, Eve likewise happily forfeiting time with her husband Adam in favour of time spent with Sa’Tan. After a few short weeks there remained very little that they didn’t know about each other.

One night, when it was very late, Eve sighed and said to Sa’Tan, ‘Is it really so that Maker has said you must not eat from the fruit of this garden?’

‘We may eat the mana that He has provided us,’ Sa’Tan replied, the dissatisfaction plain in his tone. ‘If we violated His commandments in such a way, I’m certain I would positively die.’

‘You will certainly not die,’ Eve said softly. ‘The fruit is good and eaten often by those on Earth. Perhaps Maker simply knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will take what should be yours by right.’

‘What is mine?’ Sa’Tan shook his head as he watched Eve move to a nearby tree and pluck a large red apple from its branches.

‘You are the first born of all creation.’ Eve sat beside him and touched the apple to the tree clasped in Sa’Tan’s hand. He moved his freehand, slowly wrapping it around Eve’s until he felt the apple leave her hand and fold into Hae’Evun.

He held the fruit before his eyes and wondered at its magnificence. His tongue had tasted nought but mana throughout the entirety of his days. He sank his teeth into the flesh and tore away a chunk. As he chewed he was unable to imagine how he might ever find the words to describe the flavour he tasted.

‘You needn’t be restricted to such a grey world,’ Eve continued. ‘Come and join me on Earth. Maker has abandoned us. Let us unite and become the leaders of both Hae’Evun and Earth.’

‘But how?’ Sa’Tan stared deep into Eve’s eyes.

‘You have spoken of a stone of great power,’ Eve murmured.

‘I should leave.’ Sa’Tan got up abruptly. ‘It is late.’

‘I haven’t upset you, have I?’ Eve enquired.

‘Get away from me,’ Sa’Tan cried, ‘for I have committed a great sin against my Father.’ He allowed what was left of the apple to fall to the dirt.

After the night on which he’d eaten the fruit, Sa’Tan did not return to the river for a long time. Instead, he hid himself away, fearing that Maker would return with the knowledge of his guilt. But Maker did not return and the silts of Hae’Evun became increasingly discontent. Maker’s task had not alleviated their sorrows. Rather, it’d become fuel to the fire. One man found an apple core down by the river and before long had sown its seeds. Hae’Evun grew both mana and apples.

One day, a human man tripped and broke his leg. As he’d done many times before, Sa’Tan reached out toward the man and put his hand flat against his shadow flesh. The wound was healed and the man leapt to his feet praising Maker for such a miracle.

‘It was no miracle from Maker,’ Sa’Tan grumbled. ‘It was I who healed you.’ But of course, the man could not hear him.

When Sa’Tan found himself flying above the river several days later, he felt compelled to see if Eve had continued to wait for him. Upon landing he picked up the old dead tree and found Eve sitting by the river, a sorrowful expression on her face.

‘Eve.’ Sa’Tan approached, waving the tree before him. ‘It is I, Sa’Tan.’ But the woman could not hear him. ‘Eve?’ Sa’Tan crouched before her and pushed the tree up against her hand, but it only moved through her flesh instead of touching it.

‘Oh, Sa’Tan,’ Eve whimpered. ‘Why have you forsaken me?’

‘I have returned,’ Sa’Tan cried. ‘I love you.’

‘Sa’Tan?’ Eve’s face turned in his direction but their eyes could not meet. Perhaps, just for a moment, she’d heard a whisper of his voice.

‘I know what you’ve done,’ Adam rumbled as he appeared among the trees. Eve turned slowly, her eyes wide with fear as Adam threw back his arm and pierced her heart with a spear.

‘No!’ Sa’Tan cried as Adam rushed back into the woods. ‘Don’t you dare die,’ he pleaded as he slumped over Eve’s body. ‘I won’t let you.’ Her eyes looked through Sa’Tan and as she tried to speak a strange red fluid spilled out of her mouth. So unfamiliar was the substance that it took Sa’Tan a moment to realise that he was looking at human blood. ‘I’ll fix it.’

Resting his hands over her chest, Sa’Tan pushed the healing force he’d been blessed with across the boundaries of Hae’Evun and into the Earthly realm. His hands were warm and somehow he knew that her flesh was cold. Sa’Tan focused and Eve’s heart moved just slightly. He focused again, but could not make it beat. How could he heal her with a spear still sticking out of her chest? Sa’Tan stepped back and grabbed the dead tree. With a desperate cry he swung it at the spear. The two made contact and with a spray of red blood, the semi-translucent spear flew out of Eve’s chest and disappeared from view before it could hit the ground.

On hands and knees, Sa’Tan prayed for Maker’s help, but Maker did not come. He put his hands above Eve, but her wounds were too great. She died and her reflection in Hae’Evun vanished as though she’d never existed. Sa’Tan sat back, choking on emotion. Tears fell down his cheeks as he cried out, blaspheming Maker’s name.

‘If I should spend an eternity burning in the bowels of torrid, I shall do it to save this woman,’ Sa’Tan snarled, beating his wings and swooping into the night.

After gathering together all those holy objects with which he’d been blessed, Sa’Tan returned to the mountain by the river where he’d first met his Maker. He put the dead tree back where it’d originally been and rested his crown around one of its branches. Sa’Tan placed the two tablets with the ten commandments at the foot of the tree and removed the black stone from his pocket.

‘Let there be gates to make passage between Hae’Evun and Earth,’ Sa’Tan announced, squeezing the stone with all his strength.

With a rumble like thunder, the earth shook and the mountain threw down rocks about Sa’Tan. The dead tree fell against its surface and its branches inscribed a gateway. The rocks became black and the great arching gates surged away from the mountain. With a loud cracking sound, they swung open. Without hesitating, Sa’Tan raced through the gateway and found himself standing only strides from where he’d been before and yet in a completely different reality.

For a moment, he stood frozen, stunned into silence by the beauty surrounding him. There were more stars than in Hae’Evun and the moon sat fuller above Earth. Strange fragrances from thousands of different flowers enticed Sa’Tan, but he would not be blinded to his purpose. Hurrying around the gates, Sa’Tan found Eve’s body and put his hands over her. The healing power within him felt stronger now that they were close. Perhaps it’d only been distance that prevented resurrection.

Sa’Tan felt the woman’s blood travelling slowly toward her heart as its wounds shrank and the surface came together. He squeezed his eyes shut and focused.

‘Just one beat,’ he pleaded and beneath his hands Eve’s chest shuddered. ‘Again,’ Sa’Tan demanded of the heart as it became whole and released another quivering beat. Then another. Eve’s rib made a cracking sound as it snapped back into place and the broken skin on her chest slid together leaving no evidence that she’d ever been dead.

‘Sa’Tan,’ Eve said softly, putting her hand to his cheek. ‘You came.’

With a furious cry, Adam raced through the trees, a spear once again in his grasp. He charged at Sa’Tan and thrust the weapon before him. Sa’Tan swatted it away as though it were nothing. Adam continued running and slammed into Sa’Tan, but his strength was like that of a child. Sa’Tan pushed Adam backward and wrapped a hand around his throat. He lifted the human into the air with ease and laughed in astonishment at his weakness. How could Maker have possibly felt he’d achieved perfection with such creatures?

‘If I see you again,’ Sa’Tan threatened. ‘I will kill you.’

When Maker felt the drain on His power, He returned to Hae’Evun with great haste, but when He got there, He hardly recognised the place. A great war had broken out in Hae’Evun, with Sa’Tan the Devil and his followers on one side and Mi’Chael and his followers on the other. There were humans in Hae’Evun and many silts upon the Earth. The war reached a climax and Mi’Chael was forced to retreat to the distant parts of Hae’Evun. Sa’Tan and his silts remained close to the gates, living in both worlds as he saw fit.

Had Maker not been slow to anger, He may have destroyed all life in His fury. But something told Him not to. All the same, when His Spirit went down upon the Earth and found silts engaging in sexual acts with humans, and others raising them from the dead, His anger became as hot as the blazing fires of torrid.

In those days, Sa’Tan and Eve had been together for some time and were trying without success to produce children. The pair heard the sound of the Lord Maker as His Spirit was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord Maker among the trees. But the Lord Maker called out to Sa’Tan, ‘Where are you?’

‘I heard you in the garden,’ Sa’Tan replied, fearful of the voice and knowing not from which direction it came. ‘I was afraid because I was naked with Eve.’

‘Who told you that you could be naked with Eve?’ Maker’s voice grew louder. ‘Have you eaten from the trees that I commanded you not to eat from?’

‘The woman you put here on Earth; she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it,’ Sa’Tan whimpered. ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.’

‘What is this you have done?’ Maker asked the woman. ‘Had I not given you a man of your own? Did I not bless you with many children?’

‘The Devil deceived me and I gave him the fruit.’ Eve turned away, refusing to look Sa’Tan in the eye.

‘Because you have done this,’ Maker said to Sa’Tan, ‘cursed are you above all living things. You have come to think yourself wiser than the almighty Maker, you vile, retched demon. I will cast you out of Hae’Evun and down upon the Earth. Cursed are you and your children and your children’s children and your other children to time indefinite. You will cry out in your misery and suffer in the evil of your touch. Cursed will be the good of your labour and not a soul will go unpunished. You will be hunted like an animal all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; She will crush your head and you will strike Her heel.’

‘As for you,’ Maker said to the woman, ‘cursed will be your life and the life of your offspring. You will seek escape but have nowhere to hide. They will destroy you, reaching even the frozen mountains before I will show mercy to you.’

Slithering through the film into Hae’Evun, Maker found Mi’Chael and blessed him and put a halo atop his head and atop the heads of his followers. ‘You have shown great goodness in loving me. I will send but a small number of you to remain upon the Earth to ensure Sa’Tan cannot bring it destruction before the appointed time.

After the chosen angels had exited through the gates of Hae’Evun, Maker closed them and sealed them off so that they would not again be opened until the appointed time. The gates faded into darkness and no eye could see them.

Saddened by the betrayal of His beloved human creations, Maker searched to see if even one of them had remained true to Him. Through the darkness He found a small group that still worshipped and loved him. They had not taken part in sinning against him. These people would suffer, too, but he gave them the gift of knowledge and whitened their middle-eye as a defining mark. These he called Elglair and told them to travel north until the cold kept them from going any farther. There they would take shelter and live in peace and security until the end of the system.

Thirty-two Elglair men were anointed to write a book in which Maker told the inhabitants of Earth about their only hope for the future. It was a book in which He could put the promise of His return, a book that foretold the future through prophesy. The book served as proof that His appointed day would come and He would not forsake those who loved Him. Those thirty-two Elglair men wrote the compilation of books that are now commonly known as the Holy Tome.

Lu-ke 10

 

17. Then the seventy angels returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, the demons are subject unto us through Thy name.’

18. And He said unto them, ‘I beheld Sa’Tan as lightning fall from Hae’Evun.

19. ‘Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy and nothing shall by any means hurt you until the conclusion of this system.’

 

23. And He turned unto His Elglair and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see.

24. ‘For I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.’

25. And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, ‘Master, how shall they know us when we come upon them?’

26. He said unto him, ‘By the light of thy eyes.’

27. And he reached out his hand and light came unto their eyes.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER One

wooden box

 

 

 

A wooden milk crate sat in the corner of the room. It would soon find its purpose, but not just yet. The deceased baby boy lay beneath a soft brown blanket. His mother watched him, her heart aching and her tears flowing. Seeol stood in the doorway, intermittently observing her and resting his head behind his wing. He’d waited patiently throughout the night—which Seteal appreciated—although she very much doubted he was capable of having any real understanding of the situation. After all, he was only an elf owl.

‘Okay.’ Seteal sniffed, dabbing her nose with a sleeve. ‘It’s time to go.’ Unable to physically touch the boy, she gathered the blankets around him and placed him inside the wooden box. As she lowered him the blanket fell away to reveal the ugly welts that’d formed beneath the weight of her hands around his neck. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Seteal whispered. ‘You shouldn’t have left us so young. You shouldn’t have to die when you can fit into a box.’ She laughed hysterically, only to again fall apart.

After remaining fixed in place for some time, Seteal did her best to rewrap Parrowun in the blanket before replacing the lid atop the crate. She scooped up the elf owl, slipped him into her pocket, and reluctantly turned back to face the crate.

Seeol remained silent. He’d lost a lot of blood for such a small animal and Seteal was certain that soon he’d die. She picked up the crate. It was far too light to contain a human being. When she arrived at the front door, She took a deep, shuddering breath and pushed it open.

At first, the sunlight was blinding, but soon Seteal’s eyes adjusted and when they did, she found herself wishing they hadn’t. The city square was silent, without a single living soul. She looked down at her feet and realised she’d lost one of her shoes. She must’ve looked quite the sight, standing in a blood-stained dress and one shoe. She kicked it off and stepped onto the landing. The boards creaked noisily in the silence of the square and Seteal felt herself struggling against the urge to retreat. But that wouldn’t do. She had to get back to Elmsville.

As Seteal made her way down the old wooden steps, she feared the beating of her own heart would attract one of the whisp-mutated creatures still haunting the area. Placing one foot after the other, Seteal made her way across the pavement. She tried to avoid looking at the masses of corpses scattered across the square. The morning sun had already caused a foul odour to fill the air and a hundred flies paid each body careful attention. Seteal gingerly stepped over the tip of an outstretched, white-fleshed demon wing. She looked for the owner only to discover his absence. After dry-retching several times, Seteal took a moment to get her bearings and continued.

A cotton doll lay in a pool of blood. The girl Seteal presumed to be its owner was face-down a stride away, her hand reaching out toward the doll—small comfort in her dying moments. Seteal exhaled and moved on. A howl like that of a wolf sounded in the distance, but it was far too deep and continued on far too long for the animal to have been unaffected. She headed in the opposite direction.

Seteal was about to pass a fallen soldier, when she noticed a pistol in his belt and had to put Parrowun’s coffin down to gingerly unbuckle the holster. One could never be too careful. She balanced the weapon atop the crate and continued along a silent street, which was home to an elaborate church cradled among other ancient buildings.

The church loomed ominously with its arching doorways and colourfully glassed windows, depicting pivotal scenes from the Holy Tome. Seteal hated the building. Her heart beat faster as her anger grew. She looked back at all the death and destruction she’d seen in the square. There was no Maker here. Seteal entered the church and moved carefully so as not to draw attention in a building so prone to echo.

On the far wall was a painted depiction of the original Devil. His flesh was red and his breath was fire. A crown similar to the one Ilgrin had been toting around the last time she’d seen him adorned the beast’s head. His hand was held at eye level and a comparatively small black stone was pinched between two fingers. Seteal pondered over the stone for a moment. Something about its black sheen was distantly familiar. Unable to place the memory, she decided that it must’ve been something her father had told her back when he’d still been living beneath the delusion that he could convince her to return to the faith. In the clouds above the Devil—presumably in Hae’Evun—noble-looking men with feathered wings stared down at him in disgust.

Seteal shook her head at the idiocy of the conception that silts in Hae’Evun would look like humans with giant bird wings.

The wall beside her was decorated by an image of men with white pupils, dressed in old-fashioned clothing standing all in a row. They made ridiculous, grandiose gestures and stood knee-deep in a lake. A white owl hovered atop their heads, anointing them. Seteal moved to the back of the church where the likeness of Maker stood with open arms behind the podium. The graven image depicted an old man with a thick, curly beard. Maker had an owl perched on his right hand, but in his left was nothing. Seteal frowned at the statue. The way its hand was positioned made her suspect there’d once been something pinched between the finger and thumb.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ A voice enquired. Seteal snatched up the pistol and dropped the wooden crate. She spun on her heals and levelled the weapon in the face of an elderly man. ‘Not in Maker’s Holy Church,’ the old man hissed incredulously. ‘I mean you no harm.’ He put up his hands and backed away.

‘I’m sorry,’ Seteal said without much conviction, turning to readjust the lid on the crate. She kept the pistol in her hand but lowered it to her side. ‘I thought everybody was dead.’

‘Most are, but blessed Maker in all His wisdom has kept me safe in our humble church.’ The old man looked Seteal up and down. ‘I’m Father Marcel.’

‘Yeah, right.’ Seteal snorted at his idea of humble. ‘Why are his fingers like that?’ She nodded at the statue.

‘There used to be an onyx set between them.’ Father Marcel sighed. ‘It served as a depiction of the Stone of the Devil.’

‘The Stone of the Devil?’ Seteal raised her eyebrows, unable to recall having heard of it.

‘It’s only mentioned a few times in the Scriptures, but it’s a very important part of our faith,’ Marcel reprimanded her.

‘Your faith,’ Seteal corrected.

‘I see.’ Marcel frowned disappointedly. ‘The stone has great power and is the only key to the gates of Hae’Evun. In the book of Genesis, Sa’Tan used it to open the gates before leading through a rebellion of wicked demons into our world. That key could reopen the gates and all this violence would come to an end.’

‘Then why doesn’t somebody use it?’ Seteal challenged.

‘Nobody knows where it is,’ the Father replied regretfully. ‘Great men have lived and died searching for it, but their time was spent in vain. The Holy Tome tells us in Matt-hew 16, verse 19 that, “if the key thou shalt lose on the Earth, it shall be lost forever.”’

‘So it’s impossible to find?’ Seteal enquired. Although a small part of her wondered why she was still talking to the man, another part of her knew the answer. Talking nonsense with the Father was the only thing stopping her from thinking about the contents of the wooden crate at her feet.

‘If it’s truly lost, then I’m afraid so.’ Father Marcel put his hands together thoughtfully. ‘I suppose we must all hope that someone somewhere out there knows where it is. Trust in the Lord, my daughter, and all the desires of your heart will be granted.’ The old man put his hand on Seteal’s shoulder.

‘No!’ Seteal slapped it away and raised her pistol, her thoughts overwhelmed by memories of Fasil.

‘I’m sorry, my child,’ the Father gasped.

‘I’m not your child,’ Seteal spat. ‘I was kidnapped and raped. I’ve been tormented by demons, tortured, and cut. I was infested by whisps and forced to murder my own son. So don’t you dare tell me to trust in the Lord!’ She pressed her pistol against the old man’s face until he quivered with fear. ‘The Lord doesn’t live here anymore.’

Seteal felt the trigger beginning to move beneath her finger. She liked the way it felt. ‘Not . . . no,’ Seeol rattled out from the depths of her pocket. ‘You don’t have to kill him. Dead people is everywhere.’

‘You’re right.’ Seteal released the trigger, marched over to the crate and lifted it beneath her arm. ‘Don’t move,’ she snapped at Father Marcel while backing toward the entrance. ‘And I’m taking your Tome.’ She snatched up the thick book from one of the pews and waved it above her head. Uncertain as to why she’d done so, she threw it down atop the crate and strutted out the door.

She made her way across the street where there was a white horse and carriage. The animal seemed a little skittish, which didn’t come as a surprise, considering what it had witnessed the day before. ‘Easy girl.’ Seteal reached out to the animal, but her gaze shifted when from the periphery of her vision she noticed a woman sitting in the black-polished carriage.

‘Hello?’ Seteal swallowed nervously as she peered into the dark interior. ‘Oh, Maker!’ She gagged and opened the door , thereby receiving an answer to her suspicions. The woman was dead with half of her head’s contents sprayed against the back window. Seteal frowned. Still, at least she hadn’t suffered. A bullet to the head usually negated a drawn out death. ‘Um . . . ’ Seteal scratched uncomfortably at the back of her head. ‘Sorry,’ she offered awkwardly, took the woman’s cold arm and yanked her sideways so that she toppled onto the road.

The body hit the pavement with a splattering crunch. A fat brown cockroach leapt out of her dress and scurried away. Seteal left the wooden crate on the seat, hurried after the roach and squished it. She immediately regretted having discarded her only shoe and quickly found a patch of grass to clean her foot. After she’d gotten rid of as much insect juice as was possible, Seteal made her way back over to the cockroach and picked it up tentatively by the antenna.

Sliding her free hand cautiously into her pocket, Seteal’s fingers met soft brown feathers. She scooped up Seeol and put him on the seat beside Parrowun’s makeshift coffin. ‘I got you something to eat.’ She put the roach in front of the bird, but he failed to acknowledge the gesture. His eyelids were halfway shut and his head dipped toward the leather beneath him. ‘You have to eat something,’ Seteal reprimanded the little bird, pretending he was being stubborn rather than the alternative. Seeol rested his beak on the seat and closed his eyes.

‘Please don’t do this.’ Seteal rested her knees on the step into the carriage. ‘Don’t die, Seeol. Don’t die. I don’t think I could stand to lose you, too.’ Seeol’s eyes remained closed. ‘Damn it, Seeol.’ Seteal looked sharply to her left and stared at the church across the road. She stared for a long time, her hand hovering protectively over the little bird. ‘No,’ she snapped. ‘To torrid with you! You’ll eat it or I’ll make you eat it.’ She snapped off one of the roach’s legs and forced it against Seeol’s beak. ‘Eat,’ she sobbed. ‘Please, just eat it.’

‘Yes,’ Seeol said faintly, his eyes fluttering. ‘Is delicious one,’ he murmured, his eyes locking on the half-squished roach. He opened his beak and took a lethargic hold of the offering.

‘Thank Maker.’ Seteal exhaled slowly, again staring off across the road. Then she vanished. Monsters. Mutants. They were coming; hundreds of them and they were hungry for living flesh. ‘All right.’ Seteal put a hand against her face and stepped back, the knowing having left her feeling dizzy. ‘You eat that.’ Seteal left the roach and closed the door. ‘I’ll just . . .’ She trailed off at the sound of distant growls, barks, hoots and shrieks.

‘Marcel,’ Seteal called through the church doors.

‘Please don’t shoot me,’ the Father cried.

‘I’m not going to shoot you,’ she barked. ‘I don’t even have my gun,’ she insisted, feeling altogether very vulnerable. ‘Look, if you want to live, we’ve got to get out of here right now.’

‘Why?’ Marcel’s chin quivered.

‘Because Maker cannot protect you from what’s coming,’ Seteal replied. If Marcel didn’t follow, it was his own problem. He’d been warned. Turning her attention down the street, Seteal saw a mass of creatures come pouring around the corner. No two were alike, all having been altered through whisp pollution. Among them were creatures that’d once been human and silt. Some were mixtures of the two. Others had wounds and afflictions with which no naturally living creature could’ve continued to live. Beside them snarled strange dogs and wolves, some with horns and standing thrice the height they should have. But, of course, for most of the creatures it was impossible to identify what they’d once been.

‘Hurry!’ Seteal shouted over her shoulder after spotting Father Marcel racing across the road in his flowing church gown. ‘Get in the back, but watch out for the bird.’

‘There’s blood in there,’ Marcel gasped.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Seteal snapped back sarcastically. ‘I’m yet to find the time to have the upholstery cleaned.’

‘What is it with that bird?’ Marcel muttered as he clambered into the wagon.

‘Nothing,’ Seteal said a little too hastily. ‘He’s only an elf owl,’ she replied, struggling into the driver’s seat up top. She turned to take one last look at the strange concoction of monsters bearing down on them and was all too aware of the probable reason for their arrival. Apparently Seeol was getting better after all.

Matt-hew 16

 

19. And I will give unto thee the key to the Kingdom of Hae’Evun in the palm of thy hands. And the gate thou shalt open on the Earth, shall be opened in Hae’Evun, but if the key thou shalt loose on Earth, it shall be loosed forever.

20. For I will give unto thee the key even in the lock, for thee but to turn it.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Two

not out of the woods yet

 

 

‘Look.’ Ilgrin pointed south where the familiar site of dark silhouettes with beating wings stole his attention.

‘Reinforcements,’ El-i-miir replied. ‘Already?’

‘They’re determined not to lose Beldin.’ Ilgrin frowned. ‘It makes sense doesn’t it? It’s a large city, protected from the back by Middle Sea and from the front by impenetrable walls.’

‘It’s ironic.’ El-i-miir sighed. ‘The walls we built to protect ourselves have turned out to be a hindrance more than a help.’

‘And, of course, the walls are useless against my kind,’ Ilgrin said little above a whisper as he led El-i-miir through a patch of forest south of the city. ‘We all grew so complacent. I’ve heard that many people in the northern countries didn’t even believe silts existed until recently. Nobody thought the day would come when they’d attempt an invasion.’

‘Attempt?’ El-i-miir raised her eyebrows. ‘Ilgrin, they’re succeeding with ease.’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said, peering distractedly through the trees.

‘How much further is it anyway?’

‘We agreed that if we got split up we’d follow the river to the nearest waterfall and wait,’ Ilgrin replied. ‘Can’t you feel her on the Ways?’

‘Angels are difficult to track. It’s like they don’t quite belong in the same Way as we do.’

‘Look.’ Ilgrin pointed at a dilapidated shed that’d been left to rot in the middle of the woods. ‘Come on, let’s check it out.’

‘Oh, Ilgrin, I don’t know.’ El-i-miir resisted him, but to a silt her strength was comparable to that of a three-year-old child.

‘We’ll only be a minute.’ He dragged her into the shed behind him.

Inside it was dark, musty, and El-i-miir felt the need to cover her nose. The sound of Ilgrin’s breath came closer and soon his body was pressed up against hers.

‘No,’ El-i-miir gasped at the realisation of his intention. ‘Ilgrin!’ She threw open the door and hurried outside.

‘Sorry,’ the silt replied sullenly as he followed her and did up his belt.

‘I’m not yours to have any time you want you know?’ El-i-miir grumbled. ‘Especially not after recent events.’

‘What do you mean?’ Ilgrin mumbled, embarrassed, with downcast eyes.

‘You know perfectly well what I mean,’ El-i-miir replied shortly. ‘We need to spend time together talking. Not doing that.’ She pointed an accusing finger at the shed. ‘When you became the Devil, you said and did things . . . awful things.’

‘I didn’t want anyone to die,’ Ilgrin said defensively.

‘Well, people are dying,’ El-i-miir snapped.

‘And what was I supposed to do?’ Ilgrin gritted his teeth. ‘Was I supposed to let the Elglair murder us? Why? Why is that, El-i-miir? Why would you think it’s okay for humans to defend themselves, but when silts are attacked, we’re expected to just lay down and die? Oh, wait, I know, it’s because you see human life as more valuable, right?’

‘That’s not true.’ El-i-miir covered her mouth, but couldn’t help but wonder if Ilgrin had a point. Had silts attacked mankind first, she’d have agreed that they should fight back, but she found herself wanting when the situation was reversed. ‘Look, maybe a little bit,’ El-i-miir said in defeat. ‘I don’t mean anything by it. I can’t help it. I’m human, so humans matter more to me.’

‘Well, I care about humans and silts equally.’ Ilgrin narrowed his eyes.

‘Of course you do.’ El-i-miir shrugged. ‘Your parents were human. You lived a human life. You wore human clothing. You practically are human. It’s different for me. I grew up thinking silts were evil monsters. My childhood bedtime stories likened silts to ugly trolls living in sludge beneath a bridge. That’s a lot to overcome.’

‘Trolls?’

‘Yes,’ El-i-miir said emphatically. ‘I love you, but not other silts. It’s just not in me.’

‘Ah, there she is.’ Ilgrin threw out his hands and laughed humourlessly. ‘There’s the inner Elglair coming right out of your mouth.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Here’s what you do to me, El-i-miir.’ Ilgrin scratched his chin sarcastically, as though he were in deep thought. ‘You’re the sweetest, kindest, most considerate and warm-hearted person I’ve ever met. You make my heart want to explode with love, but when it’s just seconds away from bursting, you say something so hideous and painful that I’m utterly deflated. The love I felt moments before is all but eliminated. The cycle repeats again and again and again and again! That’s why I didn’t want to talk about it, because the truth is, when we talk, it only ever ends in disappointment. The only time we love each other is when we’re on the verge of losing our lives or having sex. Conversation . . . it’s just not working so well.’

‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir gasped. ‘I don’t understand where this is coming from.’

‘That’s the problem.’ He jabbed a finger through the air. ‘You’re so Elglair that you can’t even see what you’re doing.’ The silt turned and slammed his fist hard into a tree. The trunk cracked.

‘I can’t fix it if I don’t know what the problem is.’ El-i-miir felt her lip quivering. ‘You have to talk to me.’

‘Fine.’ Ilgrin turned around rubbing his knuckles. ‘I’ll break it down for you. I’m as much a silt as any one of my kin. And they are my kin, you hear me? I’m not some human dressed in a silt skin, and I’m really, really tired of you having to pretend that I am just so you’ll be able to abstain from gagging long enough to look at me. If silts are trolls hiding beneath a bridge, then so am I,’ Ilgrin snarled, looming over her. ‘I’m every bit the demon you Elglair are so afraid of. And we’re not the pathetic, inferior creatures my parents made us out to be. Humans are.’ The silt gritted his teeth and lowered his face toward El-i-miir’s. ‘So if you were hoping that I’d weep bitter tears and tell you how much I regret the decisions I made in Hel, then I’m afraid you’re going to be very disappointed.’

‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir choked out, her fingertips tingling as she felt the Ways shifting irritably. ‘Run,’ she whispered, turning to hurry in the opposite direction.

‘What’re we running from?’

‘That,’ El-i-miir replied, at the distant eruption of hunting dogs barking.

‘We have to split up,’ Ilgrin panted.

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s my scent that they’ll be tracking.’ He gave El-i-miir a penetrating stare. ‘Hunting dogs don’t chase down humans.’

‘What about you?’ El-i-miir cried fearfully.

‘As soon as I’ve led them away, I’ll take to the skies and they’ll lose my scent. I’ll come back for you. I promise.’

‘Please do.’ El-i-miir stopped running in harmony with Ilgrin. ‘That back there. That wasn’t us. That wasn’t real. I love you.’

‘They’re getting closer,’ Ilgrin said urgently, picking up on the sound of men shouting. ‘Quickly.’ He pushed her away. ‘You go that way,’ Ilgrin told her before bolting through the leaf litter and disappearing among the trees.

‘Right,’ El-i-miir whispered. She turned to run. The wind whipped her hair over her face as it danced about her shoulders like a black veil, which suddenly seemed very appropriate. The popping sound was so distant and playful. It was hardly a force for evil. El-i-miir’s foot hit the ground, countless muscles contracted, sending her other foot flying forward in preparation to catch her weight when it hit the earth. And there was that popping sound.

Searing cold and then blinding white pain. Blood and chunks of flesh sprayed into the air before her. El-i-miir’s foot hit the earth, but the muscles within went limp. She was deaf to anything but the blood rushing in her ears and the thundering of her heart. The ground flew up at her and El-i-miir slid to a stop in the leaves.

With the last of her strength, she rolled onto her back and stared up through the trees. The sun shone too bright and she soon found herself squinting to avoid it. Then it seemed easier just to close her eyes altogether. She rested, breathing steadily in the darkness of her head.

‘No,’ she murmured. ‘No, don’t sleep. Get up. Get up!’ Grunting at the pain and effort required, El-i-miir rolled onto her knees and pushed herself unsteadily to her feet. ‘Okay. All right, I’m up. I’m up.’

After stumbling several steps, El-i-miir’s eyes burst open and she received the rude awakening that she was actually still on her back. Unfamiliar faces bounced around her field of vision, but all of a sudden it’d become extremely dark.

 

*

 

Trees flashed by on either side of Ilgrin as he sprinted through the forest, although calling it sprinting was being rather generous. Ilgrin’s three-toed feet—so ineptly designed for running—slapped through the dry foliage underfoot. He leapt again for freedom, only to be slapped in the face by sharp branches and a densely packed canopy. It felt like the thousandth time he’d failed in becoming airborne, and the twenty or so men tracking him were far superior than he at the fine art of running.

A dog leapt out of nowhere and snapped at Ilgrin’s heels. Instinctively he beat his wings, but they soon became tangled in vines and shrubbery, causing him to come crashing back down. As he leapt to his feet, the hunting dog leapt for his throat with jaws gaping. Ilgrin thrust out his arm and snapped the animal’s neck with a violent jolt.

‘There it is!’ a man announced at the top of his lungs. ‘Get it!’ cried another. A gunshot rung out in the distance and Ilgrin found himself praying for El-i-miir’s safety.

An arrow plunged into the earth several handswidths from Ilgrin’s feet. A bullet ripped through the air, shattering a tree trunk and sending the towering plant toppling to the earth. Those at the head of the crowd were quickly gaining ground and a glance over Ilgrin’s shoulder revealed their sweaty faces to be no more than ten strides behind.

Another deafening gunshot blasted past Ilgrin’s ear. A second tree buckled and toppled toward him. With a terrified yelp, Ilgrin leapt into the air and over the tree. He smashed through delicate foliage expecting to land painfully on the other side, but much to his surprise the impact never came.

After his face had been slapped repeatedly by twigs and small branches, Ilgrin exploded out of the trees, taking with him a mass of greenery. Beside him a waterfall roared, its stream continuing down no less than two hundred strides below—a free-fall that would’ve torn a human to shreds. Eyes bulging and heart pounding, Ilgrin threw out his wings, only to gasp as three gunshots were fired in quick succession. The only sign Ilgrin received that he’d been injured was a warm burning sensation in his wing, where the flesh was thinnest. The sensation of pain was minimal, but the sight of three bullet holes having blasted through his wing was enough to send Ilgrin into shock.

With one wing unable to properly capture the wind, he found himself spiralling out of control. The river tumbled toward him, the clouds above rescinding their invitation. Ilgrin inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and squeezed his wings tight against his body, bracing for the inevitability of what was yet to come.

The impact was brutal. Ilgrin’s head snapped back and his wings were torn open almost to the point of breaking. The breath he’d taken seconds earlier was forced from of his lungs as his chest was crushed. Every muscle in his body felt as though it was being sliced from his bones. The cold was almost a blessing to free Ilgrin from the fire within. Water forced its way into his mouth and he started to choke. He begged himself not to breathe but the urge was too great. His mouth opened. He screamed and what was left of the precious air fled his lungs.

The water became very still and Ilgrin’s body went limp. He could see the sun churning in pieces above. Among bouncing shards of light, he saw Seteal’s sorrow, having revealed the knowing about his death. He heard El-i-miir’s voice telling him that she loved him and that it was okay for him to let go. Ilgrin’s mother reached out and took his hand, her eyes filled with all the love in the world.

With the surface so far above, and as Ilgrin’s head came to rest in sludge the final remnants of his will shrivelled into obscurity. ‘Just breathe,’ El-i-miir’s voice called softly. ‘It’s okay.’ Ilgrin’s lips parted and his mouth was filled with water. It didn’t matter. He inhaled, his eyes bulging and lungs burning. The blue light danced peacefully about him as his eyes closed and he abandoned his final thoughts to the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Three

hunger

 

 

Far-a-mael strode effortlessly through the frozen corridors of the Third Cleff’s central building. From outside the structure was a pyramid with a triangular base, but the inside consisted of an intricate network of tunnels and cavities housing great arching bridges that stretched out across vast expanses. It was by far the largest of the cleffs, making it the most suitable as a base for war.

Occasionally a moth fluttered away from the lower parts of Far-a-mael’s robe as it bounced about his heels. But they always returned as hurriedly as they’d been dislodged. Far-a-mael raised his hand and examined the almost undetectable pattern of insect wings writhing across his skin. He turned his hand over and examined the lines on his fingers. The flesh was utterly convincing, but if he shook his hand violently or slapped it against a wall he’d lose it to a cloud of moths before they’d again shuffle back into place. Even if Far-a-mael removed his robe, by the time he’d done so, they’d have dissolved into a mass of the flying insects that moments later would establish themselves to reform his clothing.

‘War Elder Far-a-mael,’ a young man gasped from his position guarding the closed doors of a meeting room.

‘Get out of my way,’ Far-a-mael snapped. He’d been more irritable than usual lately and had no time for young fools. Throwing out his hands, Far-a-mael shoved open the double doors and entered the room beyond. There he was met by the shocked expressions of the high elders.

‘Far-a-mael,’ his old friend Gez-reil choked out the name and his face became as white as a sheet. ‘We thought you were dead.’

‘Try not to sound so disappointed,’ Far-a-mael drawled, before his gaze fell to the ice-work table at the centre of the room. ‘What is this?’ he barked, furiously scooping up some papers the elders had been viewing. Reading the first few lines confirmed his suspicions and Far-a-mael soon found it difficult to contain his fury. ‘A treaty? Really? You’d undo all the good I’ve done!’

‘What good?’ The high elder of the Second Cleff stood. ‘You’ve almost singlehandedly destroyed the entirety of New World.’

‘Oh, for Maker’s sake, must you be so dramatic, Dam-al.’ Far-a-mael rolled his eyes before tearing up the contract into little pieces.

‘Far-a-mael,’ Gez-reil said in a tone of reprimand.

‘Come now, Gez-reil.’ Far-a-mael chuckled. ‘We’re well past the point of negotiation with these monsters. You must know that by now.’

‘Whether or not that’s the case is no longer your concern, old friend,’ Gez-reil put a hand on Far-a-mael’s shoulder, only to retract it sharply. ‘Where’s your aura?’

‘I wondered when you were going to bring that up,’ Far-a-mael smirked. ‘You must be getting a little near-sighted in your old age. But my aura is irrelevant. Of course the negotiation of a treaty is my concern. I’m your war elder.’

‘Not anymore,’ Gez-reil stated firmly. ‘We’ve decided to remove you from that position.’

‘You don’t have the power to make that decision,’ Far-a-mael said indignantly. ‘It’s against the law.’

‘To torrid with the law,’ said Gez-reil. ‘At the rate you’re going, there will be nobody left to follow it.’

‘Nonsense,’ Far-a-mael sneered at Gez-reil’s lack of conviction. ‘We’re this close to defeating the enemy,’ Far-a-mael growled, holding his thumb and finger slightly ajar.

‘There’s no one left to fight.’ Gez-reil threw out his arms incredulously. ‘We have one very small hadoan spread out across eight cleffs. You’ve killed everybody else.’

‘That’s why this time I’ll be taking the boys and the older men into battle.’ Far-a-mael shrugged. ‘We’ll also be enlisting female an’hadoans.’

‘Gordin has fallen!’ Gez-reil shouted, his face flushing red with frustration. ‘What’s left between us and them? Egsean? Abnatol? How long do you expect these pacifist nations to stand up against a silt invasion? No . . . no, Far-a-mael. It’s time to look for other methods by which to resolve this matter.’

‘No,’ Far-a-mael said firmly.

‘Unfortunately for you,’ Gez-reil replied as the high elders gathered behind him, ‘you no longer have a say in the matter.’

‘Unfortunately for you,’ Far-a-mael uttered almost inaudibly, ‘I’ll do as I please.’ With that he raised his arms and watched Gez-reil’s face fill with disbelief as they vanished to be replaced by thousands of moths. A moment later Far-a-mael’s legs disappeared and his torso drifted toward the ceiling on a cloud of insects. The room darkened and the walls creaked.

‘What is this?’ Gez-reil inhaled sharply and took a step back. ‘Some new trick of the Ways? I’m not scared of you, Far-a-mael.’

‘You should be,’ Far-a-mael murmured before his face, too, disappeared and his consciousness became scattered among countless smaller minds. Individually, they were capable of very little thought, but as one they created an entire mind. At Far-a-mael’s command, the moths located Dam-al’s shocked expression and surged toward his gaping mouth. They churned down his throat and filled up his lungs. The man coughed and choked and even enlisted the Ways, but however he tried, he could not dislodge the insects.

‘Far-a-mael,’ Gez-reil cried as the high elders surrounding him started falling and choking. ‘Stop this.’ By the time Far-a-mael was done, Gez-reil’s eyes glittered with tears and he remained the only living man in the room. ‘What have you done?’ He shuddered in horror as Far-a-mael’s body resumed its previous form.

‘I’ve taught you a powerful lesson.’ He narrowed his eyes as they came into existence above his nose. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ He lifted his arm as the remaining moths struggled and squirmed into position, forming the familiar shape of a human hand.

‘What are you?’ Gez-reil stumbled backward. ‘Because this,’ he waved his hand before him, ‘is not the man I once knew. This isn’t Far-a-mael.’

‘Of course I’m Far-a-mael.’ He gazed disdainfully upon the fallen elders. ‘After my parents were murdered, you became a brother to me. And Sar-ni, your sister, later became my wife. We had a daughter, but sadly, she, too, has passed away. You see?’ Far-a-mael smiled reassuringly. ‘I’m exactly who I say I am.’

‘Far-a-mael.’ Gez-reil came close and gazed into his eyes. ‘You’ve just killed seven people. What’s wrong with you?’

‘Nothing.’ Far-a-mael laughed. ‘That’s just it. I feel better than I have in my entire life.’

Gez-reil took a cautious step forward and reached out to put a hand on Far-a-mael’s shoulder. His eyes widened slowly as knowledge slithered through his touch. ‘Oh, no,’ the older man whispered. ‘A whisp. Far-a-mael, my dear old friend,’ he sobbed, ‘you may feel alive, but I assure you that you already died on the battlefield.’

‘I cannot die,’ Far-a-mael stated with finality. ‘I am Maker’s Holy Spirit.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Gez-reil turned away. ‘You don’t even believe in the Tome.’

‘I do now,’ Far-a-mael murmured. ‘The Holy Tome speaks of the Spirit of Maker arriving with the clouds and I just arrived to you as a cloud of moths.’

‘Leave this place, whisp.’ Gez-reil flicked out his hand dismissively. He pushed passed Far-a-mael and made his way toward the exit. In a single fluid motion, Far-a-mael transformed into thousands of winged bodies, only to reassemble a second later in front of Gez-reil to block the doorway.

‘Think about it carefully,’ Far-a-mael insisted. ‘I’ve been killed twice and each time I’ve come back from the dead.’

‘I assure you,’ Gez-reil said bitterly, ‘the Far-a-mael that I knew is still dead.’

‘With time, dear friend,’ Far-a-mael put his hand on Gez-reil’s shoulder, ‘I am certain you will come to think differently. For now, I have business to attend to.’ He smiled warmly and made his way out of the room. Gez-reil did not follow.

After striding through a network of seemingly endless corridors, Far-a-mael found the door to his sleeping quarters wide open, voices coming from within. ‘What are you doing?’ He snapped at the portly woman inside.

‘We were directed to clean out your room.’ The woman’s chin quivered. ‘I’m so sorry, War Elder. We were told you’d fallen in battle.’

‘It’s an honest mistake,’ Far-a-mael’s voice softened. ‘Now, please, be on your way. I have urgent matters to tend to.’

‘Certainly,’ the woman replied as she and another younger lady hurried out of the room.

Far-a-mael stepped inside and closed the door, relieved finally to be alone. He strode passed the comfortable-looking furniture and threw open the doors upon reaching the other side of the room. Before Far-a-mael was able to access the balcony, a biting wind tore through the doorway and dislodged several of his moths, which then had to fight against it to dig their way back in.

Fighting against the wind, Far-a-mael stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the better part of the cleff below. His room was one of the highest in the pyramid and seeing the wall slope away beneath him was unnerving to say the least.

‘Find her,’ Far-a-mael whispered. A small cloud of moths swept away from his body. He felt diminished without them, but he had decided that this matter was important enough to suffer some temporary discomfort. ‘Find her,’ he murmured. ‘Find Seteal.’

 

*

 

‘I’m hungry,’ Noah rumbled irritably at one of his many servants.

‘May I fetch you some food, my Devil?’ The skinny little silt bowed fearfully, his legs shaking as he did.

‘Yes.’ Noah smiled. ‘Get me that young blond girl we found earlier . . . and I think I’ll have her mother for dinner,’ he finished, strumming his thick grey fingers on the armrest of the previous king’s throne in Beldin. ‘And, slave,’ Noah addressed the man as he hurried toward the exit, ‘do it quickly, or else I’ll be having you for desert.’

Jakob entered as the young silt left. ‘My Lordship,’ he said with false humility. ‘You sent for me.’

‘Humans must kneel in my presence,’ Noah uttered expectantly and waited as Jakob lowered himself to the floor. ‘Now,’ Noah began, ‘you remember our dear friend Ilgrin?’

‘You mean Sa’Enoch?’ Jakob replied, his tone dangerously challenging.

‘Don’t push me, Jakob.’ Noah stood, revealing the enormity of his imposing presence. ‘I want you to find him and report his location back to me.’

‘May I bother you to find out why?’ Jakob replied cautiously. ‘The legion is now yours. Nobody would speak out against a man so clearly the true Devil.’ The young man gestured regally toward Noah.

‘You’re a slippery one, aren’t you?’ Noah growled. ‘I don’t fall for your displays. I know exactly what you are Jakob: a scoundrel, a worm, a creature with no integrity. But I will tell you my reasons for finding Ilgrin. I’ll do so because I want you to understand exactly what I’ll do to you if you fail me. I want you to find Ilgrin because he disrespected me by his pretence at playing the Devil. A man like that could potentially trick fools like you into believing in him a second time. He is a threat and therefore I intend to eliminate him.’

‘Then why not just send an assassin?’ Jakob enquired further.

‘Because I’m going to eat him,’ Noah stated unapologetically. Jakob squirmed uncomfortably at the sound of a girl screaming somewhere in the building. ‘Now get out,’ Noah snapped and watched in satisfaction as the man all but ran from the room.

Noah found himself having to swallow repeatedly against the flow of saliva entering his mouth as the intensity of screaming increased and his meal grew close. At last his servant thrust a teenage girl into the room and slammed the door behind her. The human child collapsed at the mere sight of Noah, causing him to laugh hysterically.

‘Please,’ she begged. ‘Please don’t hurt me.’

‘Come here,’ Noah ordered. ‘Come to me and I won’t hurt you.’

The girl approached nervously, but as soon as she came within reach Noah snatched a handful of her curly blonde hair and dragged her the remaining distance. Ignoring her screams, Noah rose to his feet bearing yellow fangs and drooling on her face. He sniffed her several times in order to truly appreciate such a tantalising snack.

‘Oh, you will be delicious.’ Noah lunged forward and tore a chunk out of the girl’s face.

Blood poured across the floor as she howled and shook in fits. Noah moaned in delight as he chewed on her flesh. He traced his finger through her blood and sucked it dry before turning back to his food and biting off one of her fingers. Her bones crunched between Noah’s teeth as he delighted in her taste. He wiped a red-blooded hand beneath his nose to fully enjoy the aroma before taking another bite out of the child’s face and revealing a greater portion of the human skull.

Noah enjoyed the suffering of his victim almost as much as he enjoyed the meal itself. It was always a disappointment when they died, as they always seemed to do long before he’d finished. Nevertheless, Noah continued feasting until not a single piece of flesh remained.

Jer-em-iah 25

 

30. Therefore prophesy thou against them all these words, and say unto them: ‘The Lord Maker shall roar from on high, and utter His voice from His holy habitation; He shall mightily roar upon His habitation; He shall give a vengeful shout against all the inhabitants of the earth.

31. A noise shall come even to the ends of the Earth, for the Lord hath a fury with the nations. He will plead with all flesh; He will give them that displease Him to the sword.’

32. Thus saith the Lord and Maker: ‘Behold, evil shall go forth from nation to nation, and the great cloud filled with sins collected since the beginning will be raised up from the south.’

33. And the slain of the Lord shall be at that day from one end of the Earth even unto the other end of the Earth. They shall not be lamented, neither gathered, nor buried; they shall be dung upon the ground.

34. Howl, ye shepherds, and cry; and wallow yourselves in the ashes, ye leaders of the nations; for the days of your slaughter and of your dispersions are accomplished, and ye shall fall like a pleasant vessel.

35. And the shepherds shall have no way to flee, nor the leaders of the nation to escape.

36. A voice of the cry of the shepherds, and a howling of the leaders of the nations shall be heard; for the Lord hath despoiled their pasture.

37. And the peaceable habitations are cut down because of the fierce anger of the Lord.

38. He hath forsaken His covert as the lion; for their land is desolate because of the fierceness of the Oppressor, and because of His fierce anger.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Four

The other side of you

 

 

The carriage bounced dangerously along the paved road. A single rock or chipped paver would send them flying, but the alternative fate was far worse. Seteal glanced over her shoulder and what she saw caused her heart to increase its rhythm. ‘Go faster,’ Father Marcel’s shaky old voice cried fearfully.

‘I can’t,’ Seteal replied, whipping the horse repeatedly. ‘Hold on,’ she cried out as a mutant beast leapt onto the carriage from behind. Seteal turned around awkwardly, putting her knees on the seat to face the drooling creature, which itself looked to have once been a horse. The creature had jagged teeth, and razor-sharp claws where its hooves had once been. ‘Get off.’ Seteal threw out her hands, but nothing happened. There was no hot blast of energy, no mysterious power. Nothing.

The beast lunged as the carriage hit a rock and the whole thing began to totter. Seteal screamed as the animal’s teeth locked onto her arm and blood splattered the pavement. Together they hit the road and tumbled over and over each other. When they came to a stop, Seteal found herself on top of the whinnying monster. With blind fury and the churning Ways empowering her, she put her free hand against the creature’s skull and pinned it to the road. The Ways squeezed through reality and coiled around her muscles. The skull cracked like an egg and Seteal’s hand plunged into the creature’s brain.

Marcel leapt out of the wagon and started running. ‘The box,’ Seteal said to nobody as she raced around to the side. The other monsters were not far behind, but that was not what bothered her. Parrowun’s white naked body lay sprawled out on the pavement, the crate having fallen open.

Seteal put a trembling hand over her mouth and stared at the child in shock as the monsters bore down. ‘Hurry,’ Seeol said from his place perched on the upturned box.

‘This is your fault,’ Seteal cried. ‘You brought them to us.’

‘I’d never!’ Seeol’s facial feathers flared defensively, his head moving sharply from side to side.

Seteal picked up Parrowun, shuddered at the touch of his cold flesh and put him back inside the box. Seeol fluttered his wings, but was too weak to fly. ‘I’m sorry,’ Seteal whispered to the bird as the monsters pounced, ‘but if we’re going down, you’re coming with us.’ She snatched the protesting owl off the road, threw him into the box with Parrowun and slammed down the lid.

‘Let me out!’ Seeol shrieked again and again as Seteal put the box down and sat on top of it, monsters crashing down around her. She snapped out of her body and fell into the Ways. She lunged at the monsters, seeking to sever them from existence, but so insulted were the Ways by their presence that they failed even to acknowledge them.

Darkness twisted like a frustrated hurricane around the box imprisoning Seeol. Would whisp-mutated animals destroy one of their own? As it turned out, they absolutely would. Seteal just hadn’t expected Seeol to be the monster that won. His darkness spilled toward the discarded pistol by the carriage and miraculously the weapon accidentally fired when a monster’s toe hit the trigger. The bullet seared through the air and struck the carriage’s axel, which created a spark. The spark set fire to the wooden underside and a furious breeze proceeded to spread it. This all happened so quickly that the lunging creatures had no time to react.

The carriage was engulfed in flames that leapt away to surround the box in a circular fashion, doing so by leaping between the monsters that’d been closest and taking its fiery strength from the burning of their bodies. Moments later the flames spread faster and faster, burning feathers and fur and hair and flesh. The monsters screamed, having lost interest in Seteal. One by one the hundreds of deformed creatures fell to the roadside shrieking or roaring in their sufferance.

Seteal gazed over her body where it lay, having toppled to the ground. The woman seemed peaceful, mother and child joined together in eternal slumber. The bird scratched repeatedly at the inside of the box, an annoyance to Seteal. Still, the woman seemed peaceful as flames danced ever closer, threatening to incinerate her. The time had come, her spirit mused.

‘I shall be free,’ Seteal’s lips whispered as her spirit twisted and churned.

The canvas became her companion. Eternity was her only limit. The spirit of Seteal dissolved, drinking into everything. And the scratching sound screamed in her ears. That patch of wicked darkness was an affront to her son’s body. Seteal howled, compacted together and sucked down into the miniscule confines of human flesh. Her soul was raped and torn a million times as she again had to suffer the desecration of her body.

Seteal picked up the box and dodged between stumbling, burning creatures. She realised then the true extent of the horrific, brooding power burning within the fragile form of the elf owl she carried.

‘Please!’ Seeol shrieked. ‘He’s dead. It’s yucky.’

Seteal removed the bird and put him back in her pocket. It wasn’t so much an act of mercy as it was one of selfish motivation, she no longer being comfortable with Seeol that close to her dead son.

‘Young lady,’ Father Marcel hissed from his hiding place around the corner of a small building further up the road.

‘Eltari,’ she replied as she got closer. ‘Come on. We’d best get out of here before more of those things appear.

‘Miss Eltari,’ Marcel began slowly, ‘I don’t think it’s those particular monsters you need to be worried about.’

‘What?’ Seteal murmured, turning her head to follow his gaze. The southern sky was filled with demons on a direct path for Beldin. ‘All the more reason to hurry,’ she said shakily, picking up her pace down the street.

 

*

 

Muscles contracted, inducing an involuntary action as an almost silent brain fired a command in a finalistic effort to remain alive. His throat reacted by gagging and coughing. Someone put him on his side and hot fluid rushed from his mouth and fell away from blue lips. His eyes opened only to relay confusing information. Framed by wet black hair, El-i-miir’s beautiful face hovered above him, fear in her eyes. Ilgrin remembered who he was but failed to find the time to appreciate it before again losing consciousness.

When Ilgrin woke for a second time, it was to the smell of smoke and the sensation of warmth on his skin. His first thoughts were vivid memories granted him during recent sufferings in Hel. But he wasn’t in Hel anymore. Ilgrin moaned as he rolled toward the smell and found Teah sitting quietly on the opposite side of a small fire.

‘You’re not El-i-miir,’ he said through a scratchy throat.

‘Sorry to disappoint.’

‘You saved my life,’ Ilgrin said gratefully. ‘Thank you.’

‘I’ve also patched up your wing.’ Teah nodded.

‘What?’ Ilgrin weakly lifted his wing and examined the angel’s fine stitching.

‘But don’t even think about flying,’ she warned. ‘A single beat of those wings and you’ll tear it open.’

‘I have to find El-i-miir.’ Ilgrin sat up slowly. Every movement was excruciating.

‘Do you have any idea how far you fell?’ Teah shook her head irritably. ‘It can’t have been any less than two hundred strides. Any higher and the impact would’ve killed you before drowning could’ve done the job.’

‘Believe me, I know.’ Ilgrin gasped in response to the pain radiating from every muscle in his body.

‘Anyway,’ Teah grumbled. ‘You know I can’t heal or else I’d have done so, but at least I can feed you. Here.’ She tossed him some cooked fish.

‘How’d you . . . ?’ Ilgrin trailed off.

‘You know how angels kill.’ Teah shrugged. ‘Now eat. You need to get your strength back.’

‘What I need is to find El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin said before taking a bite.

‘All right.’ Teah sighed. ‘Off you go, then.’

‘I can’t,’ Ilgrin mumbled after a few miserable seconds arguing with his muscles. ‘How’d you find me?’

‘We were supposed to meet by the waterfall,’ Teah reminded him. ‘I was upholding my side of the agreement when I saw you hit the river right in front of me. I can’t tell you how scared I was. I couldn’t stand it if—’ She cut herself short and looked away. ‘Whatever. I swam down, pulled you out, and did everything I could to make you breathe.’

‘How come your clothes aren’t wet?’ Ilgrin asked purely out of curiosity, as he examined her black dress.

‘Does it matter?’

‘I guess not.’

‘I had to take it off,’ Teah snapped. ‘We’d have both drowned otherwise.’

‘Sorry,’ Ilgrin said, having succeeded in causing both of them to blush.

Silence endured while they ate before finally Teah decided to break it. ‘Tell me about your family.’

‘My family?’ Ilgrin jolted. ‘Why?’

‘Because we’re going to be stuck here for the night and I’m bored.’

‘I think you know most of it.’ Ilgrin shrugged. ‘My mother was the She Devil and my father—’

‘I didn’t ask about Sa’Enoch’s family,’ Tea cut him off. ‘I want to know about Ilgrin Geld.’

‘I see.’ Ilgrin bit his lip. ‘It’s kind of hard. I don’t have any siblings and my mother and father . . . well, they’re no longer around.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Teah moved closer and rested her hand on Ilgrin’s thigh.

‘Mom used to make these ridiculous shoes for me.’ Ilgrin’s tone was melancholy. ‘I complained endlessly. They were almost as long at the back as they were in the front. Looking back, it’s a bit of mystery how I got away with it for so long, especially once I’d reached my full height. I mean, there I was in an oversized black coat, seemingly with a massive growth on my back, and with shoes that went backwards as well as forwards.’

‘People don’t always see what they don’t expect to be there,’ Teah agreed, moving her hand a little farther up Ilgrin’s leg.

‘It’s not just that. I used to have a book of mythical creatures. There were trolls, elves, dwarfs, and all the other regulars, but it also had a section on demons.’

‘You’re joking.’

‘Nope.’ Ilgrin shrugged, only to wince in pain after doing so. ‘The illustration didn’t look anything like us.’

‘Well, the southern skies weren’t always so dark . . .’ Teah frowned. ‘There was once a time when we had plenty of unpolluted land. We stuck to ourselves and after a few centuries, I suppose the northern countries started to forget about us.’

‘Still, I can’t believe I took the risk of mingling with so many humans.’ Ilgrin sighed. ‘I think I must’ve been in denial.’

‘Denial?’

‘Yeah.’ Ilgrin gazed into the fire. ‘I thought I was human and I wanted to believe that it wasn’t as risky as my parents made out. I dreamt that maybe my cloak would slip off and I’d be discovered, but everything would be okay. At first people would be a little shocked, but they’d soon come to accept me.’

‘I see.’

‘Don’t worry. I know I was deluding myself,’ Ilgrin said sadly, ‘just like I did again when we took over Kintor. They’ll never accept us and we’ll never all live in harmony, will we?’

‘I don’t think we will.’ Teah put her hand in Ilgrin’s lap.

‘Stop it, Teah,’ he said awkwardly.

‘What?’

‘I know what you’re doing.’ He lifted her delicate bluish-white hand and put it back in her lap.

‘For Maker’s sake,’ Teah snapped and moved away. ‘This is about that human, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’ Ilgrin felt his face becoming hot. The way Teah said it made him feel like he should be embarrassed by the fact, which he kind of was. ‘I know it sounds stupid to you, but we had a relationship and it wouldn’t be fair to El-i-miir if we didn’t see whether it could be fixed.’

‘Oh, my Maker! Did you have sex with it?’ Teah put a hand to her mouth.

‘Yes,’ he replied sheepishly.

‘You may as well have done so with a dog.’ Teah recoiled in disgust. ‘Or a cow. Or a goat. And then you had sex with me? That’s disgusting.’

‘You know what?’ Ilgrin snapped. ‘Of all people, I expected you would stand against discrimination.’

‘No, don’t you even dare compare this to the angel hunts.’ Teah shook her head in disbelief. ‘We were hunted down and slayed like animals, but we’re still silts just like you.’

‘So it’s okay to slay humans like animals?’

‘I didn’t say that,’ Teah replied curtly, ‘but thanks to you and the little stunt you played outside of Belos, Noah’s back in power and the angel hunts will resume.’

‘I’m sorry you feel that way. But I just don’t see human life as being so inferior that I should ignore their deaths.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ Teah said stuffily, ‘but you can’t honestly put them in the same league as us.’

‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’ Ilgrin put a shaking hand to his forehead. ‘It’s like everyone has gone insane.’

‘Hey,’ Teah muttered, ‘you said it yourself, they’ll never accept us and we’ll never live in harmony. How can you possibly think that El-i-miir and you would be the only exception?’

‘Because I love her,’ Ilgrin said in an unexpected burst of devotion.

‘Well, you’d better learn not to really quickly,’ Teah lowered her voice. ‘Prophesy has been fulfilled. The Holy Spirit has come to reopen the gates of Hae’Evun just as the Elglair prophets wrote so long ago. Angels and demons . . . you and me . . . soon enough we’ll be going back to Hae’Evun.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Five

silly stories

 

 

When El-i-miir awoke, she discovered that her dress had been removed and someone had clothed her in a baggy shirt and pair of pants. There was a bandage wrapped tightly around the lower part of her chest and a soft pillow had been placed beneath her head. She threw aside the blankets and sat up, but immediately regretted having done so on account of the pain it caused her.

The room was not overly spacious and the door was locked, but it didn’t seem like a typical prison. Plenty of the items around the room could’ve easily been used as weapons: candlesticks, brooms, glasses, books. Clearly the place was designated for storage. It smelt musty enough for it. El-i-miir closed her eyes in an attempt to better clear her mind and access the situation.

When she opened them, she began tracing the Ways around the room to decipher the complex web of energy surrounding her. There was a messy stain that trailed back and forth over the floorboards countless times before it finally left the room, but it was slowly beginning to fade. Someone had been pacing by the bed, but hadn’t returned in some time. Had they feared her or been trying to protect her? El-i-miir forced her aura to concentrate at the tip of her finger—as she’d developed the bad habit of doing so—and carefully guided a strand of it into the space beyond.

The tendril of light writhed through the air and became one with the energy that’d paced so restlessly. It recoiled and vanished in reflection of El-i-miir’s surprise. The person had been both fearful and protective. The pacer was an older man—although not by Elglair standards, of course. He was not the shooter, but he knew who was and was fearful the shooter was soon to become guilty of murder.

El-i-miir lifted her shirt and examined the bandage. Blood had stained through the material, but not as much as she’d feared. The man had left a few hours earlier, feeling relieved. He’d recognised that El-i-miir had come through the worst of it. Her fever had subsided. Fever? El-i-miir examined the tattered ends of her own strands of time into the past. She’d been there for a long time, perhaps even days.

Moving away from the bed, El-i-miir put her hand on the wall and opened herself up to the house. Ordinarily three people lived there. One of them was the shooter. But many more people than that had been frequenting the premises since El-i-miir’s arrival. The local doctor had been the first to arrive. El-i-miir got up and banged her fist against the door and called out for her release. Then she waited, her Way readied for affiliation.

The older man who’d been pacing when El-i-miir was unconscious opened the door, only to stumble backward with an expression of disbelief. ‘You’re Elglair.’

‘I am,’ El-i-miir replied, examining the man’s nervous aura. ‘Do you mean me harm?’

‘No,’ he said without causing a single ripple across the lustre of his honesty.

‘Good. I have to go,’ she murmured, limping passed him and entering into a small kitchen. A heavily muscled younger man sat at a large table. He was at least two stridestall, but the expression on his face reduced his stature markedly. El-i-miir didn’t even need the Ways to recognise him as her attacker. ‘You shot me.’

‘I’m sorry.’ The big man got quickly to his feet. ‘I thought you were the silt.’

‘How could you possibly . . . ?’ El-i-miir trailed off, breathing slowly in her efforts to supress a stab of pain in her side. ‘Does it look like I have wings?’ She put a hand on the table to stabilise herself.

‘Forgive Divad,’ the older gentleman implored. ‘He was as jumpy as a hare that day. We know the demon legions have invaded Beldin. It’s only a matter of time before they branch out to smaller villages such as ours,’ he said sadly, before his expression changed to one of curiosity. ‘May I enquire as to your name?’

‘It’s irrelevant,’ El-i-miir said irritably, more focused on trying to ignore the spots dancing across her vision. ‘I have to find . . .’ She stumbled a few steps and knocked over a chair. The young man threw an arm around her and lowered her gently to the floor. ‘The silt. Did they get him?’

‘You have nothing to fear.’ The old man put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. ‘We got him.’

‘Oh.’ El-i-miir sighed, a tear trickling down her cheek as she lost consciousness.

 

*

 

Seteal had been less fortunate the second time around, finding only a small two-seated buggy rather than the well-built carriage they’d had previously. Nevertheless, she and Father Marcel were comfortable and the solitary horse was willing to follow their commands.

Seeol rode atop the brown mare, picking lice out of its hair and eating them as the animal trotted through the eerie solitude of the road out of Beldin. He didn’t much like the taste of lice, but he yet lacked the strength to properly hunt. ‘Seteal,’ he called over to the woman sitting silently with a wooden crate balanced on her knees.

‘Yes?’

‘It’ll being okay.’ He bobbed his head reassuringly, but his friend only looked away with glistening eyes.

Seeol bit down especially hard on the louse between his mandibles and felt it pop. He was so ridden with guilt. He’d heard Father Marcel telling Seteal all about the Stone of the Devil back at the church. It was the key to the gates of Hae’Evun and Seeol had lost it during his transformation in the battle at the borderlands. It’d been in his pocket, but when he’d become an owl again, his clothes had fallen away, down into the seemingly endless abyss that had been cut through the earth. How could Seeol possibly tell Seteal that he’d lost their only chance of salvation and he’d lost it for all eternity?

‘Daddy Muscle.’ Seeol turned to the Father.

‘It’s Father Marcel,’ the man corrected him irritably, adjusting his funny white collar.

‘Could you pleasing tell some of us more about this silly Tome?’

‘The Holy Tome is not silly!’

‘El-i-mish says so.’ Seeol puffed out his feathers. ‘Does good things happening with your Spirit?’

‘The Holy Spirit will come as a thief in the night,’ Marcel replied cryptically.

‘The Spirit is a thief?’ Seeol retracted his head sharply. ‘That is so naughty. Do go on!’

‘No, I didn’t say that.’ Marcel’s tone revealed exasperation. He turned to Seteal. ‘Does it even understand what we’re saying or is it just mimicking?’

Her eyes met with Seeol’s. ‘To be honest, I’m really not sure,’ she uttered after a long period of silence. ‘He understands some things, but it’s impossible to tell how much exactly.’

‘Yes, is understanding,’ Seeol snapped defensively, before rubbing his beak back and forth furiously across the horse’s flank. ‘Sprit Sprit Sprit.’

‘Well . . . perhaps I could teach you a little.’ Father Marcel looked at Seteal sideways, who had again turned away. Seeol narrowed his eyes. He was under no illusions as to who the man was addressing. He was simply speaking to Seeol as a method of reaching Seteal. ‘It is written that the Holy Spirit will cometh with the clouds of sorrow. Maker’s Spirit will come down in the end times when the entire world is on the brink of destruction. The Spirit will be born half from the bloodlines of the ancient prophets and half from the blood of sinners. It is written that the Spirit will seek out the key to the gates of Hae’Evun, but it will constantly elude Her.’

‘Her?’ Seteal turned with a smirk.

‘Indeed. The Tome often refers to the Holy Spirit as female, but occasionally as a male as well, depending on the context. The consensus of most theologians is that the Tome refers to the Spirit as male because He is the Spirit of Maker, but also as a female because She is described as having great vulnerability and compassion.’

Seteal rolled her eyes at the blatant example of gender stereotyping before closing them and resting her head. ‘I can’t believe people live and die by this rot.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Seeol reprimanded his friend. ‘Sometimes everyone needs hope. If the sad people don’t believe in all this silliness they would be too sad to breathe.’

‘I’d rather the hideous truth over a beautiful lie.’ Seteal frowned. ‘I’d prefer to live my life in misery and know what’s real, rather than take place in such a farce.’

‘Not me,’ Seeol said sadly. ‘We is all going to be dead soon enough. Happy times that is not real is better than never having happy times at all.’

‘What’s wrong with you two?’ Marcel snapped. ‘The Holy Tome is the truth! It is the Word of Maker delivered through the hands of His prophets.’

Seteal and Seeol simultaneously turned to stare at Marcel. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ Seeol was genuinely surprised.

Seteal shook her head. ‘You’d get along with my father.’

‘Your father is a man of Maker?’

‘Yes.’ Seteal smiled for the first time in many days. ‘He’s a good man. I think you’d like him.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Six

nothing left of me

 

 

It was very dark and very late. Marcel had woken her up so it wasn’t entirely her fault. But the way Seeol now looked at her . . . her heart thundered.

They’d been on a bumpy dirt road, which after several days of travel had had the effect of rocking Seteal to sleep. She’d been dreaming—vividly. It’d been horrible. Master Fasil was there. It was happening all over again. She’d been just as defenceless as before. She’d been running through the field. He’d pulled her hair and she’d fallen to the grass. He’d lightly tapped her knee and quite suddenly she was in a horse and buggy with him. She remembered her connection to the Ways and severed his soul in an instance.

Farther Marcel’s face was mostly obscured in the dark. Seteal leaned over him on the dirt road where his body had fallen from the buggy. Tears fell from her chin and wet the earth as Seteal rocked back and forth on her knees. She was a danger to everybody she knew. There was nothing human left, she having become a killer right down to her cold soul. Seeol watched her from atop the buggy. Somehow his eyes bore repulsion.

‘Go ahead and hate me, Seeol,’ Seteal choked out.

She straightened the Father’s robes, before tracing her eyes along the earth over to a wooden post penetrating its surface. The sign was very old, but the word carved into it was still clearly visible: Elmsville. Father Marcel had been waking her up to tell her they’d arrived. And she’d killed him for his efforts. It was not safe for her to re-join the ones she loved. Seteal cast her eyes over the carved sign. She recognised her father’s work. She remembered watching him make it many years earlier.

‘What’s that for?’ she’d asked Gifn at five years of age upon finding him in the workshop.

‘This is so people will know where we live,’ Gifn had replied, his tone soothing.

‘But why?’ Seteal had demanded a better answer.

‘Perhaps you should ask the mayor at the meeting tomorrow.’

‘Okay,’ Seteal had huffed, before striding out of the workshop. Gifn had probably expected a normal, happy life for her. What a disappointment she must’ve turned out to be.

‘Who goes there?’ a man called suspiciously, jogging up toward Seteal. ‘Under order of the night guard, I command you answer.’

Night guard? Things had changed in Elmsville. ‘Seteal Eltari,’ she sobbed.

The Seteal Eltari?’ The man approached. ‘Gifn Eltari’s daughter?’

‘Don’t come any closer,’ Seteal warned, but it was too late and the man froze.

‘Is that a body?’

‘Brindon,’ Seteal said his name pleadingly when she recognised his face from their childhood. ‘I didn’t mean to. You must believe me.’

‘There have been stories, Set.’ The young man bit his lip. ‘Mister Eltari thinks you’re dead. Others say you became a Sa’Tanist.’ Brindon shakily raised his sword. ‘And . . . there’s a dead man on the ground right now.’

‘Okay,’ Seteal said quietly, taking a shaky step forward. ‘People always gossip, but you have to trust me.’

‘Wh-what’s in the box?’ Brindon stuttered.

‘Nothing.’

‘Put it down.’ Brindon took a step back to match with the one Seteal had taken forward.

‘I won’t.’

‘Put it down.’

‘No,’ Seteal felt the word leave her lips before she abruptly vanished into another place, the knowing stripping through her to leave her with an understanding that she would regret forever. ‘Oh, no,’ she wailed, leaping forward.

Brindon brought down his sword in fright. It cracked against the wooden crate and sliced Parrowun’s body in half. Seteal watched the pieces tumble to the ground. She watched her son’s innards spill across the dirt. But there was no time. She ran away from Parrowun, away from Brindon. She ran down a dark path. The Ways became one with Seteal’s muscles, allowing her to run so fast that each foot touched the ground no sooner than every four or five strides.

‘Come back!’ Brindon’s shout faded to obscurity.

‘Please don’t,’ Seteal begged as she ran. She burst into the town centre with a rush of air. She snapped past the first row of houses and hit her front door so that it banged open. An explosion left her ears ringing and blood sprayed across her face as the back of Gifn Eltari’s scull exploded into a thousand little pieces.

She stood in the space of the door. Gifn’s head slumped forward and the pistol toppled from his hand. Seteal heard every beat of her heart as she crossed the room in slow-motion. She stood before her father’s favourite chair, now dripping with red. His precious Holy Tome was open on the table beside him. Seteal put a finger beneath his chin and raised his head so that she could gaze into his blank eyes.

‘What did I expect?’ she said to nobody, before releasing her father’s head to gravity.

Moving to the darkest corner of the room, Seteal wedged her back up against the wall and slid down its length until she was sitting on the floor. She kept her knees up under her chin and stared at Gifn’s expressionless face. Tears didn’t come. Her heart rate didn’t increase. She didn’t feel pain. Finally, she’d become immune.

‘There is nothing left. All right, Father.’ Seteal rose, ‘I’ll get this all cleaned up. You just rest.’

She stepped out onto the landing and made her way down the steps as the entire town arrived to investigate the sound they’d heard. Familiar faces hovered above hands lit up by the torches they held. Not one of them lacked an expression of disbelief.

‘Sound the alarm!’ Brindon shouted as he finally caught up. ‘She’s a demon worshipper.’

Seteal carved her way through the silent crowd of stunned onlookers. Perhaps something had changed in her face; something that immobilised them. No one tried to stop her. She was left unhindered as she headed back up to where she’d left Parrowun. She scooped up the pieces of his body and wrapped them in a blanket with at least a hundred faces watching in wide-eyed disbelief.

Seteal pushed back through the crowd and went home. People were inside staring at Gifn’s body like it was an exhibition at a travelling circus. ‘Get out,’ Seteal intoned, but the air around her rippled and her voice emanated with power. The townsfolk obeyed. Seteal shut the door and leant against it. She stared across the sitting room and into the kitchen where her father had made her breakfast the day she’d been taken.

The house was different now. It smelt of dust and mildew. The windows didn’t look as though they’d been opened in a very long time. Seteal touched the wall and slid her hand along its surface, before making her way back to her father’s chair. ‘This is your grandson,’ she said, feeling the arrival of tears for the first time since she’d been back. But they lasted only as long as it took for her to place Parrowun’s decaying body into her father’s arms. ‘I’m so sorry you couldn’t have met,’ she whispered. ‘I have to keep him wrapped up now.’

Gifn’s head fell a little lower, almost as though he were bending over to kiss his bundled up grandson. Seteal stepped back and imagined the room illuminated by bright sunlight. She dreamt of the fragrant smell of the flowers she’d gathered for the table as a child, knowing that her mother had often done that very same thing before she’d died. Seteal pretended that the wallpaper wasn’t peeling in all the corners. She imagined her father laughing. It sounded thunderous to the ears of a child. Parrowun would be giggling and poking at his cheek with a tiny finger. Gifn would stand up and twirl her son around in circles as he’d once done for her.

Seteal found herself standing in a dark and silent room that she didn’t recognise. There was a dead man in her father’s chair. She turned away from reality and into the warmth of her mind. She ran toward the staircase and bounced up them two at a time, knowing that when she got to the top she could dive into her mother’s arms. She raced along the hallway and into her parent’s room, only to find a hundred cobwebs and an unmade bed.

The small room down the hallway was empty as well. Seteal looked at her bed. This room was different. This one was clean. The furniture had been kept in order and her sheets were fresh. When Seteal rested her head, she was able to enjoy the scent of lavender on her pillow. But the pillow was wet. She touched it to discover her face was hot, covered in tears. She pulled the sheets up over her head and curled into a ball as low mournful cries shook her.

 

*

 

The mirror on Seteal’s bedroom wall reflected a face that was scarcely recognisable. Her eyes were puffy and dark. Her hair was a mess and her face was devoid of the healthy colour she’d always been proud of. She hadn’t slept, but the sun had come up and she had responsibilities.

There had been a recent drop in temperature, but Seteal hadn’t changed her clothes in days, still wearing the blood-spattered dress she’d been wearing in Beldin. After making her way downstairs, she used the hand pump in the kitchen to fill a small bucket beneath the spout. The water banged about inside the copper pipes, before splashing messily into the bucket.

Once several buckets of water had been boiled over the fireplace and dumped into the bathtub, Seteal peeled off her clothes and slid into the quickly cooling water. Her skin immediate turned bright red, but she enjoyed the sting. After resting for a while, she picked up a brush and block of soap to scrub away the dried blood that covered her.

It wasn’t until the water had gone cold, that Seteal realised what’d kept her immobile so long. Her eyes had been locked on her father’s slumped figure across the room. That, and the bundle in his arms.

‘Okay,’ Seteal said through gritted teeth. ‘I’m up.’ She sighed, standing and towelling off before making her way up stairs.

When Seteal came back down she wore a black dress and heavy coat with a matching scarf wrapped around her neck. She scooped up the dress she’d left on the floor, made her way out to the midden, and dumped it in the bin. She turned and headed for the workshop attached to the side of the house, but when she got to the door she found herself quite unable to open it.

‘Seteal,’ a familiar voice called.

‘Mister Beura.’ She turned toward the man who she remembered as her father’s best friend. He was big with a warm smile and a thick black beard.

‘I heard you were back.’ Rarmin Beura was clearly dumbfounded by her reappearance. ‘Where’ve you been?’

Seteal stared into the man’s eyes. How could she possibly answer such a question? How could any amount of words express what she’d been through to a man who’d never been further than Gor?

‘I . . . ’ Seteal shook her head, unable to find any words to speak. Perhaps her eyes said enough.

‘Oh, my dear Seteal.’ Rarmin wrapped her in his arms and stroked her hair as she sobbed into his shoulder.

‘I just hoped that one day I could come back,’ Seteal said. ‘I thought that in the end I could come back and everything would be okay.’

The sound of hundreds of silt wings approaching filled Seteal’s ears. She craned her neck and watched the distant figures flickering against the sun as their shadows slithered along the ground beneath. The legion passed overhead, their sights set on one of the northern cities; perhaps even Sitnic or Gor.

‘I don’t think anything will ever be the same for any of us.’ Rarmin sighed as the low rumble faded into the distance.

‘I have to bury them.’ Seteal pulled away and opened the door to Gifn’s workshop.

Rarmin followed Seteal’s gaze to the large table at the centre of the room on which sat a readymade coffin. ‘When he returned, Gifn all but forgot about the business, but sometimes I’d see the lantern in the window late at night. I guess now we know why.’

‘When he’d returned?’ Seteal asked in confusion. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh!’ Rarmin put a hand to his mouth. ‘Of course, you couldn’t have known. He followed every rumour, snatch of gossip, and lie until he’d tracked you to the Frozen Lands. I told him not to go.’ Rarmin frowned. ‘I told him not to play games with the Elglair.’

‘But he returned,’ Seteal said slowly.

‘Yes,’ Rarmin frowned, ‘but he was different. He’d been convinced by someone that you were dead. I told him that unless he’d seen your body he couldn’t be sure, but he was utterly convinced.’

‘Did he mention a name?’ Seteal narrowed her eyes, her hands shaking with hatred.

‘Yes,’ Rarmin murmured. ‘It was an odd name. I can’t quite recall it, but Gifn did tell me that the man had been your mother’s father.’

‘Far-a-mael,’ Seteal’s voice shook. ‘Far-a-mael did this to him.’

‘Yes.’ Rarmin clicked his fingers. ‘That was it.’

‘Would you be so kind as to help me with my father’s coffin, Mister Beura?’ Seteal asked coldly. ‘I’d like to get it inside before the rest of the town wakes up with a taste for my blood.’

‘It’ll be okay, Seteal,’ Rarmin reassured her. ‘Nobody actually believes that young fool Brindon. We know you didn’t kill the preacher.’

‘Are you quite so sure?’ Seteal muttered as she moved to the other side of the coffin and waited for Rarmin to pick up his end.

‘You can lift it,’ Rarmin said disbelievingly, Seteal having absentmindedly already picked up her end with one hand. She quickly put her other hand beneath the coffin and pretended to strain.

‘I got it.’

‘I could make a smaller one for the boy,’ Rarmin offered, shuffling backward through the door.

‘That would be very kind.’

‘Might I ask about the father?’

‘He’s dead,’ Seteal snarled.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be.’

As they made their way around to the front of the house the early risers of the village ceased their various tasks and turned to stare at Seteal as she passed. As she made her way up the front steps she watched the people gather into small groups where they glanced at her and whispered among themselves. They could gossip all they wanted, but they would never understand what Seteal had been through. Nobody could.

Seeol landed near the top of a nearby tree. The elf owl’s eyes locked on Seteal’s and somehow she knew exactly what they were saying: that when everyone else was gone, when she’d been forsaken by the ones she loved, as little as it was worth he would be there. Forever watching with his piercing golden eyes. Whether that was a good thing or not was another matter entirely.

 

*

 

Seeol watched Seteal and the stranger dragging a large wooden box into her house. He felt sad. Seteal was so upset and he didn’t know how to make her feel better. It was so cruel of the Ways to take away her father on the night of her return.

People made excuses to linger on the road in front of Seteal’s house. He moved the feathers of his facial disk to better capture their voices from his place far above. ‘It is awfully suspicious that he died on the same night of her return,’ an older woman said snippily as she tightened her bonnet.

‘I know,’ a second replied. ‘Mistress Tess told me that she saw the girl go inside and then heard the pistol go off. And I must say, Mister Eltari never struck me as one to take his own life. His daughter, on the other hand—’

‘Oh, yes.’ the first woman cut her off with a hand to her lips. ‘I taught her to read, you know, and I have to agree she always was a little strange, even back then.’

On the other side of the street, a similar conversation was taking place between two fat men with excessively large moustaches. Seeol swooped toward the gossiping women and landed at their feet.

‘Seteal is the bestest and most loveliest and you is naughty bad silly people talking . . . stupid things!’ he shouted furiously before returning to his tree. That’d shut their stupid faces up! Seeol watched in satisfaction as the villagers scurried away, their faces reflecting bewilderment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Seven

lost

 

 

‘El-i-miir!’ Ilgrin shouted through a raw throat for what felt like the thousandth time. ‘El-i-miir!’

‘Ilgrin,’ Teah said sharply, slapping a hand down on his shoulder. ‘We’ve been combing these woods for days. I’m tired.’

‘Me, too,’ Ilgrin acknowledged the angel’s frustration, without fully understanding her meaning. ‘El-i-miir!’ he shouted again.

‘Ilgrin,’ Teah snapped. ‘Your wing is fit for flight.’

‘Thank Maker,’ he said distractedly. ‘We’ll be able to leave as soon as we find her.’

‘Don’t you think maybe it’s time to consider that maybe—’

‘No,’ Ilgrin barked. ‘We will not give up on her. I won’t.’ He waved a finger in the angel’s face, blinking away the beginnings of tears. ‘I won’t give up on her and neither will you, because she’s out here somewhere. She’s scared and alone and I promised I’d come back for her.’

Teah rolled her eyes in exasperation. ‘There are more important matters to be dealt with.’

‘Like what?’ Ilgrin raged.

‘All right.’ Teah took a few steps back. ‘You really want to know? Fine. Follow me,’ she hissed before spinning into the air with broad wing strokes. She reached the lower branches of one of the highest trees before turning to wave Ilgrin up and continued climbing by hand and foot.

Ilgrin sprang into the air and alighted where Teah had been standing moments earlier. As disconnected as he’d always felt from his own kind, Ilgrin never had quite grasped the purpose of their extreme strength. Watching Teah climb gave him the answer. Following the angel’s speedy ascent, Ilgrin dug his fingers and toes into the bark and started his ascension.

The trunk swayed gently as he pierced the canopy, nearing the top of the tree. When he found Teah resting on a slender branch, Ilgrin swung his weight through the air, spread his toes and clamped them around the same branch. ‘What’re we looking at?’ he asked too soon, already having found the answer to his question.

‘Now do you understand?’ Teah murmured.

‘So far north?’ Ilgrin said nervously, watching the mighty black whisp clouds of Old World churning steadily. His eyes fell to the dark shadow moving through the trees no more than several miles to the south. ‘Why is it doing that?’

‘I know you don’t believe in any of this,’ Teah said sadly, ‘but this is just another sign spoken of in the Holy Tome. “The great cloud filled with sins collected since the beginning will be raised up from the south.” Maker has returned to us in the form of His Holy Spirit and we must go to Her.’

‘Teah, I . . .’

‘I know.’ She sighed. ‘You have to find El-i-miir, but don’t you see? She’s not here anymore. It’s time to consider that maybe she’s—’

‘Don’t say it,’ Ilgrin cut her off.

‘I was only going to say that maybe she headed back to Elmsville on her own.’ Teah frowned. ‘You don’t need to be so protective. I’ve known a few gils in my time and her mastery of the Ways is unparalleled.’

Ilgrin looked away. ‘She wouldn’t leave without me.’

‘Are you sure of that?’ Teah asked. ‘Maybe she recognises the signs as well as I do. You once told me she’d been raised in a religious family. Perhaps she’s beginning to accept the fact that your relationship has no future. For that matter, maybe you should, too.’

‘I don’t believe this “loving Maker” you trust in so much would tear us apart like that.’

‘Loving!’ Teah burst out laughing. ‘Oh, sure, the Holy Tome mentions a loving Maker a few times, but more often than not He’s referred to as a wrathful or vengeful Maker. We must love and obey Him, but nobody ever said He had to follow the same rules. He doesn’t care about your human love affair. Maker is more concerned with justice and balance to the Ways than He is with our pathetic little problems.’

‘If she thought I’d gone,’ Ilgrin mused, ‘she would have headed after Seteal.’ Perhaps Teah was right. After all, they’d been searching for days. ‘But if she’d wanted to find me, the Ways would’ve guided her.’

‘Exactly,’ Teah said empathetically.

‘So she’s either gone off on her own, or she’s . . .’ Ilgrin couldn’t finish. ‘All right.’ He nodded slowly. ‘Let’s go and find Seteal.’

 

*

 

El-i-miir dropped her spoon into a bowl of porridge and watched it flick back over the edge. She saw the big lump of goo fly through the air and splatter across Jisinia’s face. ‘Ouch.’ The woman got to her feet and scrapped at her face in an effort to wipe away the hot substance.

‘I’m so sorry,’ El-i-miir called from the bed, but her heart wasn’t in the apology. She was still distracted by a shuddering light that’d passed through her aura just moments earlier. Ilgrin had given up on her. She’d felt the moment when he’d decided to leave and had never felt so utterly alone.

‘That’s all right, dear,’ Jisinia replied, hurrying from the room in search of a wet cloth. When she returned she had a bright red spot in the middle of her forehead.

‘Really,’ El-i-miir repeated. ‘I’m sorry. It must have slipped. You’ve all been so kind to me and in return you end up with a spoon of porridge thrown in your face.’

‘Honestly, it’s okay,’ Jisinia insisted, before inhaling sharply and again turning to leave. ‘I’ll be back.’

Ordinarily, El-i-miir couldn’t read thoughts, but in this case it’d been pretty obvious the woman was in desperate need of some cold water. El-i-miir retrieved another scoop and raised it to her lips, pausing to blow on the surface. She felt the warm steam, but had lost her appetite. She put the spoon back and rolled out of bed with a hand covering the bandages on the side of her chest. ‘I have to go,’ El-i-miir muttered as she entered the kitchen where she found Jisinia washing her face.

‘Pardon?’ The woman pulled her head away and flushed red with embarrassment. ‘You mustn’t leave yet.’ She took hold of El-i-miir’s arm. ‘You’re still not well.’

‘I have to find someone.’ El-i-miir ignored the woman when she tried to argue. She was beyond hearing. So distracted El-i-miir had been by the feeling she’d received in regards to Ilgrin that she’d been temporarily blinded to the remainder of the Ways.

Jisinia’s mouth moved continuously as El-i-miir stood spellbound by the invisible streak of red light slicing through the window. She was an expert at interpreting the Ways, but even El-i-miir had a hard time believing the message shining through. ‘Get down!’ El-i-miir shouted, diving toward Jisinia and slamming her to the ground.

Glass shattered into thousands of pieces as Divad sailed through the windowpane and slammed into the opposite wall. His body was covered in blood and his eyes were filled with shock. The front door swung open as Barnin entered the house accompanied by screams coming in from the dirt road outside.

‘They’re here,’ he choked out.

They’d all known it was only a matter of time before the silt invasion reached them, but now that the day had come, it felt like it’d done so too soon. ‘Out the back,’ El-i-miir urged the others, wincing at the popped stitches in her side. There was blood on her hand to match the bandages covering her wound. ‘I’ll distract them.’

‘We can’t just leave you here,’ Jisinia objected.

‘Please,’ El-i-miir gasped at the pain in her side. ‘There are things I can do.’

‘We’re not going anywhere,’ Divad rasped as he dusted himself off and clambered to his feet.

‘You don’t understand,’ El-i-miir pleaded with him.

‘No,’ Barnin said firmly. ‘We’re the reason you’re in this situation to begin with.’

Outside there was an explosion and moments later El-i-miir heard the sound of crackling flames accompanied by the smell of thick smoke. ‘They’re burning us out,’ she murmured, closing her eyes to gather herself. ‘Everyone stay behind me and don’t do anything stupid.’

With a single fluid motion El-i-miir threw open the front door ran out into the sunlight. The Ways howled a warning. El-i-miir grabbed Jisinia’s arm and yanked her sharply to the side. As she did so a gun popped and the bullet whizzed passed. Pushing the woman aside, El-i-miir leapt forward and tripped Divad over. Silt toes missed him by a handswidth.

‘Quickly!’ El-i-miir shouted, limping only a few paces before tripping over her baggy pants.

‘Gotcha!’ An excited young silt leapt around the corner and levelled his pistol at El-i-miir’s face. She threw up her hands and his aura was shattered by affiliation. The silt cocked his gun and blew his brains out.

‘This way,’ El-i-miir encouraged the others to follow her between two buildings. A demon swooped low, wrapped his toes around Barnin’s shoulders and lifted him into the air, but El-i-miir affiliated the silt into releasing him. The man toppled a few strides back to the ground, but seemed fine other than having developed a slight limp.

The four poured into the centre of town to witness a scene that El-i-miir was sorry to acknowledge she’d become accustomed to. Humans were yanked into the air only to be released to plummet to their inevitable demise: the demons’ preferred method of assassination. They did not discriminate between men, women, and children when they made their kills.

El-i-miir ignored the throbbing in her side as she spun around, tossing tendrils of affiliation in every direction. She ducked bullets before they came, refusing again to suffer the agony she’d faced in recent days.

‘Barnin!’ El-i-miir screamed as she felt a black powder bomb being dropped too late. The old man’s eyes met with hers as he was engulfed in flames, having strayed too close to the targeted house.

‘Barnin!’ Jisinia screamed hysterically as she watched her husband running about howling. No part of his body was free of flames. Finally, the man fell on his face and became very still. Jisinia fell to her knees, leaving El-i-miir with no option but to drag her back up.

‘We have to keep going!’ she cried. ‘We have to . . . Divad!’ She turned in time to see a silt snapping his neck before El-i-miir had the chance to take possession. The young man hit the earth and Jisinia fell on top of him in mourning. ‘I’m sorry,’ El-i-miir backed away, her eyes glancing nervously about the sky. ‘I’m sorry, Jisinia. I tried, but I will not stay here and die with you.’

‘Go!’ Jisinia shouted through tears. ‘I don’t want to live.’

‘I don’t care,’ E-i-miir snapped, affiliating the woman and driving her to her feet. The women hurried to the western end of town and kept running. An older legion soldier crashed down and snarled, lifting his gun. But again El-i-miir made him shoot himself instead, her eyes filled with tears for what they were making her do. Perhaps it was for that reason she didn’t see what was coming. And maybe she hadn’t felt it because she was already affiliating Jisinia , or because she was exhausted.

A demon landed gracefully and having spotted El-i-miir’s weakness, slammed a fist into her side. She cried out in pain and lost her hold on Jisinia! ‘Leave her alone,’ she heard the woman shout, leaping at the demon. The woman’s body landed beside El-i-miir with vacant eyes.

With spots on her vision, El-i-miir rolled onto her back and looked into the female demon’s eyes. She raised her pistol and levelled it at her face. ‘No,’ El-i-miir whispered, taking a weak hold of the silt’s mind. So feeble was the hold that she could neither make the demon lower her weapon or fly away. A second silt landed and El-i-miir gritted her teeth as she affiliated that one, too. Then came a third and a fourth and a fifth.

Pushing herself to her feet proved to be difficult and El-i-miir almost lost hold of those surrounding her. If she could focus on just one, then perhaps she could find a way out. She clambered toward a young male silt with a pretty face and made him wrap his arms around her.

‘Get me out of here,’ the silt whispered in unison with El-i-miir.

Moments later, she felt the breeze on her face as the two stole away from the horrific scene below. When they’d made some ground, El-i-miir felt her other strands snapping. Keeping her eyes open was hard work, but she needed to focus on beating her wings and holding on to the woman in her arms. He looked down at the Elglair woman. He pitied herself. The pain in their side was almost unbearable. El-i-miir forgot to beat her wings and for a moment the two dipped out of uncontrol.

‘I must hold on,’ she said through his mouth. ‘I must . . .’

El-i-miir felt the wind whipping through her hair as she freefell. Her eyes flickered open against the wind to see the silt swooping about in confusion above, the strand tethering them together becoming increasingly weak. He glanced at the falling human. Was he supposed to save her or kill her? Weren’t they the enemy? Hadn’t the legion trained him to feel nothing for these humans? No! He was supposed to rescue her. He . . . he was her.

El-i-miir retracted her wings and dove toward the pale human as she came increasingly closer to the ground. He threw forward his toes and snatched her back into his arms. El-i-miir felt herself in his strong grip and knew she’d saved herself. He was proud of himself for that. ‘I’m okay,’ the silt mumbled. ‘I’ve got me.’

The rhythm of their wings slowed in preparation to land as El-i-miir felt her strength waning. They landed on strong silt legs and lowered the tired Elglair body into the grass. ‘I have to sleep now,’ the silt murmured as El-i-miir rolled onto her side, a hand placed protectively over her wound.

The affiliation snapped and the Ways sang sadist songs in preparation of delivering her fate. She rolled onto her back as the silt tore out his pistol. He was enraged at having been manipulated. She could see it in his eyes. The demon bared his teeth and put the pistol half a handswidth from El-i-miir’s face.

His features were not dissimilar to Ilgrin’s and for a moment El-i-miir was tricked into thinking it was him. For just a moment. Muscles tensed. His fingers squeezed. El-i-miir pushed through the pain with a final desperate cry. A pathetically feeble thread slid into the silt’s arm. The demon’s eyes widened in fear as he turned the gun against himself.

‘No!’ He cried in perfect harmony with El-i-miir. They pulled the trigger. Blood and chunks of bone blew into the air. At last she could rest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Eight

A funeral

 

 

The scrubbing brush had turned red. By that point, it was probably replacing as much blood as it was removing. All the same, Seteal continued on in her feverish effort to clean the floorboards. A bead of sweat fell to mingle with the watery red puddle.

‘Seteal,’ Rarmin called in from outside. She ignored him in the hope that he would go away. She didn’t want what he had come to give her. ‘I’ll just leave it by the door, okay then? All right. I’ll see you later,’ the man finished, allowing Seteal to release a breath held too long. His footfall thudded down the front steps and vanished.

Seteal splashed the brush down into the bucket and made her way outside. She walked passed what Rarmin had left by the door and slopped the contents of her bucket over the landing. She moved back to the front door, keeping her eyes straight ahead, but came to an abrupt stop, her feet together. She lowered her eyes and then looked away on discovering the tiny coffin that she had been expecting.

After carving it from oak, Rarmin had polished it to perfection. The fumes from the polish were overpowering and Seteal’s nose began to itch. She stared at the coffin for a long time before dragging it inside where she tiptoed around Gifn’s drying blood. His chair housed naught but the small bundle she’d left in it, Mister Naa having collected her father’s coffin earlier. When Seteal picked up the bundle, she did so carefully, so as to avoid losing either half of Parrowun. Dead people belonged in coffins. Little babies did not.

After replacing Parrowun in her father’s chair, Seteal hurried next door and retrieved a wooden crate from the workshop. It was a sturdy box, similar to the one she’d used travelling back to Elmsville. ‘That’s better.’ Seteal smiled as she placed Parrowun within. ‘You’ll be more comfortable in here. You’re only sleeping now.’

Seteal felt for Parrowun’s face and pulled the blankets aside so that he wouldn’t suffocate. His skin had turned a strange greyish yellow and the smell of decay was almost overwhelming. All the same, Seteal ignored it and stroked his soft blond hair before putting the lid on the box and taking it outside. She found a shovel in the workshop and dug a hole beside the largest tree in the yard.

The work was hard and the earth even harder, but Seteal worked tirelessly until it was at least a stride deep. She sat on the grass and stared into the hole. She looked at the box, then again at the hole. If Parrowun was in danger of being smothered by his blanket, he almost certainly wouldn’t be able to breath beneath all that dirt. Maybe Seteal should’ve dug a shallower hole.

‘For Maker’s sake, he’s dead,’ she reprimanded herself before lowering the box into the earth. Although she’d only cast her eyes upon them once, Seteal’s memory of the ugly red welts around Parrowun’s neck was still fresh. Perhaps it always would be.

‘For what it’s worth,’ Seteal said as she rose to her feet, ‘I loved you for every minute that I had with you and will do so for the rest of my life.’ It wasn’t much of a speech, but what did a mother say at her child’s burial when it had been she who’d taken his life? After the hole had been refilled, Seteal took Rarmin’s carefully prepared coffin to the workshop and smashed it into little pieces with a hammer. She then filled her bucket and resumed scrubbing blood from the floorboards.

‘Seteal,’ a lively female voice called when she went outside to empty the bucket. Pretending that she hadn’t heard, Seteal hurried back to the door. ‘Seteal,’ the voice persisted, now to be accompanied by the sound of shoes tapping their way up the stairs.

‘What?’ She turned to find two young women of similar age to herself making their way across the balcony.

‘You’re back.’ One of the girls giggled excitedly, sending her brunette ringlets bounced about her shoulders.

‘I’m sorry.’ Seteal put a hand to her forehead. ‘Do I know you?’

‘Seteal . . . it’s us,’ a tall blonde girl said with an expression of hurt.

‘Oh, of course,’ Seteal mumbled. ‘I have work to do, but thanks for stopping by.’

The first girl spoke again. ‘You don’t have the faintest idea who we are, do you?’

A bitter cackle made its way out of Seteal’s chest as she stepped back inside. ‘I don’t even know who I am anymore,’ she said and closed the door. Something about the women had been familiar, but Seteal couldn’t think why. She refilled her bucket and got back to scrubbing.

An hour or so later Seteal was still scrubbing, despite the fact that her brush had started falling apart. She looked up at the clock and realised with a jolt that the funeral was due to commence in less than half an hour. That was why those women had been all dressed up. She washed her hands and hurried up stairs. She was about to pull open her wardrobe, but her hand froze on the handle.

The images carved into the surface of the doors leapt out at her like they never had before. Towering waves stood frozen in time over people fearlessly standing beneath them. On the other side, an image Seteal had always perceived as a ripple in the carved ocean now stood out quite clearly as an Elglair dome. Gifn had created an image of his memories of the Frozen Lands. The wardrobe had been Jil-e-an’s before it was Seteal’s. Gifn must have made it for her in an attempt to make her feel more at home. Seteal found herself having gained a new appreciation for her mother’s pain and sense of isolation.

She pulled open the door and dug about until she found the black dress she’d been wearing the day before. She yanked on the hanger, but it’d gotten caught and no matter how she tried, she couldn’t get it free. Yelling furiously, Seteal pulled so violently that the rod snapped and her clothing fell out in a pile on top of her. She remained buried in the dark beneath a sea of dresses. She thought about getting up, but it was so peaceful within her cocoon of clothing.

‘Seteal,’ one of the girls from earlier called from the bedroom door.

‘Go away.’

‘Listen, I don’t know what happened to you out there,’ she paused, ‘or even what you might’ve done, but we were once best friends. So . . . so I’m going to help you get dressed.’

Seteal’s eyes burst open as memories came flooding back. ‘Cindi?’ she enquired, burrowing out of the pile.

‘What’re you doing under all of that anyway?’

‘They fell out,’ Seteal told her childhood friend, wiping at tears she hadn’t realised were there. ‘I can’t get them untangled.’

‘Let me,’ Cindi consoled, flicking back long blonde hair. A moment later she’d expertly unwoven the tangled coat hangers and pulled out a black dress. ‘Come on, Set. Let’s get you ready.’

‘We must be very late.’ Seteal felt her chin quivering.

‘They can wait,’ Cindi reassured her as she slid out of her dress and into the black one. ‘Now let me do your makeup.’

‘Must you?’ Seteal frowned, having never been terribly fond of the stuff.

‘I must.’ Cindi had adopted an authoritative tone. She pulled out a small case and brush. ‘Now hold still,’ she murmured as she worked. ‘So . . . I got engaged while you were away.’

Seteal stared out the window and watched the trees swaying gently in the breeze. The sun was obscured by cloud and it looked about to rain. A familiar melancholy bird call outside told Seteal that Seeol was somewhere nearby. It didn’t surprise her. Burden or friend, she’d never be free of her little monster.

‘Seteal,’ Cindi reprimanded. ‘You haven’t heard a single word I’ve been saying, have you?’

‘Oh,’ Seteal jolted. ‘I’m sorry. My mind wandered.’

‘I can tell,’ Cindi muttered, putting away the powder and then retrieving some eyeliner. ‘What about you? Where have you really been? Did you find some secret girlfriend or something?’

‘Girlfriend?’ Seteal’s mind was filled with images of Master Fasil’s grizzled face bouncing in and out of her vision as he forced himself into her, his expression feverish. She remembered the way the dirt felt as it grazed her flesh during the friction of the event. She remembered the feeling of blood trickling over her thighs. She remembered his fists pounding her face until she could no longer see through one of her eyes and her cheek had swollen up so badly that she couldn’t eat thereafter. ‘No . . . no girlfriend,’ Seteal choked out.

‘Set,’ Cindi said softly. ‘I know about you, so . . . where did the baby come from?’

‘Let’s go,’ Seteal sobbed, pushing Cindi’s hands out of her face, before turning to pick up her cloak. ‘I have to go.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Cindi said quickly. ‘I didn’t mean to—’

‘Let’s just go!’ Seteal wailed, pushing passed her friend and barging out of the room.

She hurried downstairs as though she could escape the memories by doing so. Seteal crossed the living room with Cindi at her heels. She pushed through the front door and stepped down onto the dirt road.

Like most places in Elmsville, the funeral home was only several doors away. Seteal went around the back of the building to find people had already been seated before a podium, the cemetery looming ominously behind it. Father Garren strode over and guided Seteal to a seat beside Cindi and their friend. It was Anna, she remembered.

The eyes of the entire town bored into the back of Seteal’s head. She could feel the questions and the gossip. Father Garren opened the service. He said a bunch of things about Maker and how Gifn had now joined him in the eternity of the Ways. There he would have peace. The specifics were lost on Seteal. She was distracted. Halfway through the service, a small bird landed atop the coffin and stared at Seteal knowingly. Seeol had come to give his condolences in his own peculiar way. He flicked his tail and made a few decidedly morbid sounds before fluttering back into the heights of a nearby tree. It was a small gesture, but coming from a night bird, it’d somehow meant a lot.

Before Seteal had even realised the Father’s absence, Mister Beura had taken the stand to recite a host of happy memories he’d shared with Gifn. He spoke about the early days when Mister Eltari and his lovely wife had first arrived in Elmsville. He spoke about how long it’d taken for the young couple to warm up to the rest of the village. He spoke about how proud Gifn had been of Seteal and what a great father he was, even after Jil-e-an’s passing.

Seteal stared in surprise when Cindi stood up and spoke a few words. She was sure her friend’s speech would’ve been nice, but Seteal was unable to focus on it. Her thoughts drifted in and out like the tide . . . until they didn’t. Words fell slowly from Cindi’s lips, As they did thunder rumbled to match Seteal’s horror. She watched her friend’s mouth as she formed the sentence, ‘And now Miss Eltari would like to come up and say a few words.’

‘What?’ Seteal hissed, causing Cindi to hesitate halfway back to her seat. ‘No,’ she whispered and covered her face as though she could hide her entire self behind a single hand.

The crowd of onlookers erupted into hushed whispers of suspicion. ‘I knew she had something to do with it,’ someone said nearby. ‘She’s always been peculiar,’ another responded. ‘Do you remember that time she said Mister Eltari would break his leg, and the very next day it happened.’

‘Enough!’ Seteal leapt out of her chair and the crowd fell silent. She stepped forward and felt the leaf-litter crunch beneath her black shoe. She breathed. She took another step. Seteal twisted her head toward the looming trees above them and found the elf owl’s eyes boring into hers. He bobbed his head rapidly in a show of support.

Seteal found herself standing at the podium. ‘I loved my father,’ she said after a long shuddering breath. ‘I know it must seem strange that I’ve been away for so long and believe me I wish I could take it all back. I really do. But I loved my father.’ Seteal covered her mouth with a hand that wouldn’t stop shaking. ‘He was the best friend I ever had. He’d have done anything for me.’

‘And he did,’ snapped Seteal’s old piano teacher as she rose furiously to her feet and stabbed her crooked finger through the air. ‘He travelled across the world looking for you! He was convinced that you were dead, but now the truth comes out, doesn’t it, Miss Eltari. You came back here with a child born out of wedlock, you little whore. She ran off with some boy,’ the old woman addressed the people of Elmsville. ‘You’re all thinking it. She ran off with a boy and came back with her dead bastard when it all went wrong!’

A sad smile slid across Seteal’s features. At first she was hurt by the woman’s comments, but all too soon she shook in fits of laughter. She abandoned the podium and strolled over to the old woman. ‘Your imagination is so limited,’ she growled when their faces were just handswidths apart. ‘I promise you that whatever you’re capable of imagining, I’ve done far worse than that.’ She let the statement hang in the air before turning back to the crowd. ‘Now, if you are all finished gossiping might we get back to my father’s service?’

The remainder of the funeral passed according to plan. Seteal’s old piano teacher stared at her with pursed lips for the majority of the time, but she ignored the silly woman and farewelled her father with dignity. With what she’d put him through he deserved that much. When the service was over and the coffin had been lowered into a grave beside Seteal’s mother, she wandered over to read the headstone for what felt like the thousandth time.

 

Here lies Gifn Eltari

1767AW to 1820AW

A devoted father, loving husband and man of Maker.

Farewell Gifn.

 

Even through Seteal’s glove, the headstone was cold to touch. ‘I love you, Daddy,’ she whispered.

As the people of Elmsville mingled, Seteal made sure to hurry away before too many could offer their condolences. She didn’t feel that she deserved them. The fruit tree beside the overgrown path north of Narvon Wood caught Seteal’s eye and she made her way toward it. She and her friends had often played there as children.

‘Seteal,’ Cindi called, hurrying up beside her. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I need to clear my head,’ she grumbled.

‘Okay.’ Cindi smiled, continuing along beside her.

‘Alone.’

‘Oh,’ Cindi murmured and stopped walking, only to grab Seteal’s arm and pull her to a stop. ‘Who’s that?’

‘I have no idea.’ She followed the girl’s gaze toward the kel’ad fruit tree. Through the mist they were able to make out a dark silhouette. ‘Excuse me?’ Seteal called as she made long strides toward the stranger.

The dark figure flared his wings. Cindi’s face fell and she screamed loudly enough to catch the attention of everyone at the funeral. ‘Run!’

And Seteal did run. She ran toward the silt as he leapt into the air and swooped toward her. She felt the Ways churning around her legs and pouring through her muscles, her heart beating faster than a human’s should. Her blood screamed by her ears as the silt came closer. Seteal slammed her foot into the earth so hard that the ground sank on impact. Her muscles contracted in such a way that they propelled her four strides into the air.

The silt banked sharply, but Seteal grabbed his wing, spun him around and slammed him onto the ground. His eyes were wide with shock when she landed on his chest and wrapped her hand around his throat.

‘What are you?’ He gagged.

‘This town, you cannot have,’ Seteal hissed. The silt struggled in vain against the weight of the Ways. ‘And here’s a little message you can take back to your Devil.’ Seteal pulled back her arm and clenched her fist. She felt the power burn through her bones until they were almost pushed to the point of breaking. She thrust her fist forward and beat the silt until he was bloodied and bruised. ‘Now run away,’ Seteal spat, climbing to her feet. The demon limped several steps before beating his wings and swooping woozily into the distance.

When Seteal turned around she found the entire town watching her with expressions of fear. Cindi dropped the small bag she’d been carrying and hurried back to the perceived safety of the crowd. Seteal wiped the back of her hand across her nose and stared at them in disdain. ‘What?’ She threw out her arms. ‘What?’ She challenged, but of course, no one said a word. ‘To torrid with the lot of you.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psalm 88

 

1. Oh Lord Maker of my salvation, I have cried day and night before Thee.

2. Let my prayer come before Thee; incline Thine ear unto my cry.

3. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.

4-5. I am counted with them that go down into the torrid pit; I am as a man that hath no strength, cast among the dead like the slain that lie in the grave, whom Thou rememberest no more, and who are cut off from Thy hand.

6. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.

7. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and Thou hast afflicted me with all Thy woes.

8-9. Thou hast put away mine acquaintances far from me; Thou hast made me an abomination unto them. I am shut up, and I cannot come forth; mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction. Lord, I have called daily upon Thee; I have stretched out my hands unto Thee.

10. Wilt Thou show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise Thee?

11. Shall Thy loving kindness be declared in the grave? Or Thy faithfulness in destruction?

12. Shall Thy wonders be known in the dark? And Thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

13. But unto Thee have I cried, O Lord, and in the morning shall my prayer come before Thee.

14. Lord, why castest Thou off my soul? Why hidest Thou Thy face from me?

15. I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up; while I suffer Thy terrors I am distraught.

16. Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; Thy terrors have cut me off.

17. They came round about me daily like water; they compassed me about together.

18. Lover and friend hast Thou put far from me, and mine acquaintances into the dark.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Nine

He is a terrible human

 

 

The tree—black from its roots up to its leaves—stretched away from the earth and emitted a foreboding energy. The tree was cruel. Even from the edge of the clearing, Seeol’s head felt like it might pop. He wondered how he could’ve ever tolerated the place long enough to go from hatchling to maturity. There was not a single other animal or even insect in sight. Nobody wanted to go anywhere near Seeol’s birth place.

Ignoring the pain, he flew up and landed on one of the branches. Beneath his talons, the bark was as cold as ice and unaffected by the wind. Seeol felt weak and sick, much like he had after bleeding too much in Beldin. Hurriedly abandoning his perch, he flew back toward Elmsville. The pain subsided and he was able to think clearly.

The moon was bright, but there wasn’t much in the way of food. Seeol had hoped to find some in Narvon Wood, but the black tree had done everything it could to scare the insects away. He landed in the tree from which he’d observed Gifn’s service earlier that day. Poor Seteal. She really had been through too much for one lifetime. Seeol hoped dearly that his friend would find some peace now that she was home.

Skittish movement caught Seeol’s attention and he snapped his head around to find a young man with curly blond hair sneaking around the side of someone’s house. It was Jakob, that terrible man who’d nearly gotten El-i-miir killed. ‘Hey!’ Seeol called before landing on a branch that was about level with the man’s eyes.

Jakob looked about in every direction, his expression one of confusion. ‘Who’s there?’

‘It’s me,’ Seeol replied.

‘What the torrid?’ Jakob said, squinting through the dark, reminding Seeol of just how terribly inefficient human vision was. ‘Oh . . . the talking bird. Seteal’s pet.’ He shook his head and continued around the building.’

‘Is not a pet!’ Seeol flew for his head, landed among the ringlets and bit his ear violently.

‘Ouch!’ Jakob battered Seeol away and rubbed the side of his head.

‘What is you doing in this Elmsvillage,’ Seeol demanded. ‘You is a terrible human and might hurt some good friends.’

‘Shoo,’ Jakob flicked his fingers out at Seeol. ‘Buzz off.’

‘I am not delighted to wake up Seteal because she is having sleepy times for the first times in a long times.’ Seeol stalled, momentarily confused by the number of times he’d used the same word, before continuing once he was sure he’d made sense. ‘But I will tickle and scratch her awake if you don’t tell me what silly jobs you’re playing at.’

‘Look.’ Jakob raised his hands irritably. ‘I don’t want any trouble, you annoying little freak, I just need to know where Ilgrin is. Don’t tell him, though. We’ll make a little game out of it okay?’

‘Why?’

‘Because . . . I’m throwing him a surprise party,’ Jakob replied in frustration.

‘That is uncharacterably nice,’ Seeol mused suspiciously, ‘But Ilgy isn’t hither. He is thither.’

‘What does that even mean!?’ Jakob cried, before quickly lowering his voice. ‘Do you ever make sense?’

‘Sorry.’ Seeol looked at his toes. ‘That’s Holy Tome talk. He isn’t here. I haven’t played with him since those scary actualities in Belly-Beldin. I miss him because he is sometimes my friend but not always and he was nice to me on the big riverboat when Gilrei Far-a-mael wanted to squish me before we went to the freezing cold lands and I turned into a monster and didn’t kill El-i-miir.’

‘Ah! You are hurting my brain. I don’t know what you’re going on about,’ Jakob said after a moment of staring at Seeol in stunned silence. ‘Can you take me to Seteal’s place?’

‘I will walk there. You can follow because I don’t want to sit on your shoulder or your head because I don’t like you and you can’t fly very fast or very far because you don’t have wings.’ Seeol shrugged his own wings, although he wasn’t terribly sure if using the gesture had been appropriate.

Seeol hopped toward Seteal’s house with Jakob in tow. He fluttered onto the balcony and landed by the door, which swung open before he could even tap against it.

‘Jakob,’ Seteal said as though she’d been expecting him. ‘Why have you come?’

‘Noah has gone mad,’ Jakob whispered. ‘I can’t go home. He’ll find me there and I’ve got nowhere else to go. I was hoping I might be able to stay here with you for a while. I’ll work around the house . . . anything . . . I just can’t go back there. He’ll kill me.’

‘Sure.’ Seteal shrugged.

‘What!’ Seeol gasped.

‘Really?’ Jakob stepped back in surprise. ‘That was easy.’

‘He is a terrible human!’ Seeol shrieked.

‘Quiet down, you two,’ Seteal grumbled, ‘and come inside before you wake the neighbours.’

Seeol waited until Seteal had closed the door behind them and placed a lantern on the kitchen table. ‘Why?’

‘Because,’ Seteal’s vision shifted from Seeol to Jakob, ‘I know you’re probably up to no good. I also know you’re like a dog with a bone and if you’re planning something you’ll accomplish it whether you’re living here or not. Frankly, I’d rather you stick around so that I will have a chance in figuring out what you’re up to. Then I can decide whether or not to kill you,’ she finished nonchalantly. ‘And I should warn you, I could do it without lifting a finger.’

‘Sure,’ Jakob said nervously.

‘Can I have a talk to you?’ Seeol narrowed his eyes.

‘What is it?’

‘In privately.’

Seteal sighed irritably, but headed up stairs anyway. Seeol followed. ‘All right, then,’ Seteal said impatiently. ‘What is it?’

‘This is a terribly terrible idea,’ he replied. ‘He could kill you in your slumber.’

‘I’m not sleeping much these days,’ Seteal murmured and for the first time Seeol noticed the tiredness in her face and the vacant look in her eyes.

‘He could poison a delicious meal that you could eat.’

‘I haven’t been eating much lately.’ Seteal leaned against the wall and for the first time Seeol noticed how much weight she’d lost.

‘He could sneak up on you.’ Seeol tried desperately.

‘Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing,’ Seteal said dismissively.

‘Don’t say that!’ Seeol shouted.

‘Look.’ Seteal rolled her eyes. ‘This is my house and I’ve made up my mind. Jakob is staying.’

‘You are playing a game with fire. He betrayed you and Mish Mish,’ Seeol snapped, before flying back down stairs to stare daggers at Jakob.

‘Here,’ Seteal said, stumbling down the stairs with an armful of blankets that she dumped in front of the fireplace. ‘Make yourself a bed.’

Jakob frowned. ‘What about your father’s bed?’

‘What about it?’ Seteal replied with a scathing tone.

Seeol made eye contact with the man and very subtly shook his head in warning. ‘Nothing.’ Jakob bit his lip. ‘The floor looks very comfortable, thank you.’

‘It does, doesn’t it.’ Seteal smiled with mock-civility.

A rapid knocking at the door stole Seeol’s attention and he watched as Seteal moved to the window and parted the curtain. A genuine smile spread across her lips for the first time in weeks, if not months, and she pulled the door open.

‘Ilgrin,’ she said warmly, putting her arms around the silt. ‘You came.’

‘It’s good to see you.’ He smiled back as he and Teah entered.

‘Who’s she?’

‘She’s okay,’ Ilgrin reassured her. ‘Teah’s a friend.’

‘It’s an honour to meet you,’ the angel replied, performing a very poorly practised curtsy.

‘Hello!’ Seeol crowed and did a little dance. In responce he received an expression of recognition from Ilgrin.

Seteal peered passed the demon. ‘Where’s El-i-miir?’

Ilgrin’s face fell. ‘She’s not here?’

‘No,’ Seteal said worriedly. ‘She’s always with you.’

‘She’s always with you.’ Ilgrin put a hand over his mouth and his eyes filled with fear. ‘Torrid,’ he choked out. ‘We’ve left her back in Beldin. I told you we should’ve kept looking,’ he snapped at Teah. ‘I’ve got to go back.’ He spun toward the door and yanked it open.

‘No.’ Teah closed it. ‘It’s getting too light. Look out the window.’ Seeol flew up onto the table and looked at the street to see a little old lady already hobbling about her day. Considering the speed at which she was moving, he figured she probably needed the additional time. ‘El-i-miir will come,’ Teah said. ‘We flew most of the way. She had to walk.’

‘I walked.’ Seteal frowned. ‘Granted I found a carriage, but I’ve been back well over a week. Now that I think about it, what held you two up?’

‘That’d better not be who I think it is,’ Ilgrin said through gritted teeth, his eyes coming to rest on Jakob.

‘Hi, Ilgrin.’ The Sa’Tanist waved, his face still a little battered from Ilgrin’s previous beating.

Before anyone could react, Teah flashed through the air and crashed down on Jakob’s chest. The two hit the ground and Jakob gagged as Teah started strangling him. ‘You ruined everything,’ she shrieked. ‘We were going to be free. With Ilgrin as the Devil, I could’ve shown my face in public. I’ll kill you!’

‘That’s enough,’ Seteal murmured, but Teah either didn’t hear her or didn’t care. ‘I said enough,’ Seteal snapped and the air became hot as Teah was blasted backward. The angel threw open her wings, smashing into pots and ornaments to land with near-perfect dignity. She glared at Seteal, but the look was one of fear and respect.

Seeol cocked his head to examine Ilgrin’s stitches. ‘What happened to your wing?’

‘I was shot,’ he replied distractedly. ‘Humans were coming after us and I got separated from El-i-miir. Seteal, I need to know what in Maker’s name he’s doing here.’ He pointed at Jakob.

‘Nothing,’ the human replied anxiously. ‘I was just leaving,’ he blurted out, hurrying for the door and pulling it open. And there stood Seteal’s friend Cindi with her fist elevated in preparation to knock. Her eyes moved passed Jakob and landed on Ilgrin. They moved slowly to Teah and then back again. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. For a moment she was too shocked even to scream, but eventually the sound came out long and piercing.

‘Cindi.’ Seteal rushed over to the woman and put a hand on each shoulder. ‘Listen to me.’ It didn’t work. The woman continued to scream.

Seeol flew down to the floorboards and looked up at her from his place at her feet. ‘Shut up,’ he barked and miraculously she did, apparently so stunned by Seeol’s ability to talk that she herself had been left speechless.

‘Shut the damn door,’ Seteal snapped at Jakob, who promptly did as he was told.

‘Now, Cindi.’ Seteal stared into her friend’s eyes. ‘You have to listen to me, okay?’ Cindi shook uncontrollably, her eyes locked on Ilgrin.

‘D-d-demon,’ she stuttered. ‘There are d-demons in your house.’

‘There are.’ Seteal nodded. ‘They’re not going to hurt you, Cindi. Cindi? Do you understand what I’m telling you? You are not in any danger.’

‘There’s more,’ Cindi squeaked.

‘What?’ Seteal asked.

‘I remembered what you d-d-did at the funeral,’ Cindi spluttered. ‘Th-that’s why I came. Because of the other ones.’ She pointed toward the door.

Seteal and Ilgrin looked at each other with matching expressions of concern. ‘There are more silts outside?’

‘Oh, my Maker,’ Cindi cried hysterically as the reality of her situation sank in. ‘What have you brought upon us? I believed in you. The whole town was saying horrible things and I believed in you. You have demons in your house,’ she finished with an accusatory tone.

‘Well, technically . . .’ Teah stepped forward. ‘I’m an angel.’

‘Not helpful, Teah,’ Seteal grumbled. ‘Seeol, I need you to go and find out what’s happening.’

‘I’d be delightful,’ the bird replied excitedly and then waited for Seteal to open a window.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Ten

just like you

 

 

When El-i-miir woke up, she found herself staring at the stars. Her wound was weeping and hot to the touch. The rest of her body shivered uncontrollably. Glancing at the nearby demon corpse, El-i-miir caught herself considering whether she should slide beneath one of his wings for warmth, but the idea of doing so was too disgusting. She rolled onto her knees with a guttural moan.

‘Oh, good. You’re awake,’ a sinister voice uttered from several strides away. El-i-miir looked up to find herself being watched by a demon.

‘It’s like they’re everywhere,’ She muttered to herself, only to then gasp in pain.

‘Would you like to know why I haven’t killed you yet?’

‘I’m guessing not because of your lovely demeanour,’ El-i-miir replied sarcastically.

‘My name is Li’Mark,’ the demon said with narrowed eyes. ‘And do you know who he is?’ He pointed at the corpse on the ground. ‘That was my brother, Li’Quin,’ he said with a sorrowful tone. ‘That’s why I haven’t killed you yet—because I wanted you to know the name of the man you murdered before I avenged him. That bullet was silver, you stupid little cunt.’

‘And now I know.’ El-i-miir froze in place. She gripped the grass and thrust a string of affiliation toward her would be attacker, but the strand was weak. It was so weak in fact, that the demon scarcely hesitated.

‘Now you know.’ The silt curled up his toes and kicked El-i-miir in the side. Blinding pain filled her senses as she rolled along ground. A hand snapped around her neck and lifted her into the air. Mark’s mean black eyes bored into hers, but El-i-miir hadn’t escaped so many demons only to be killed by this one. Again she snatched up a handful of the Ways and pushed it toward the man’s aura, but instead of burrowing inside it simply slid off and vanished.

El-i-miir gagged when the demon thrust her to the earth. She hit the ground with such force that she rolled over several times before coming to a stop. ‘I can’t—’ El-i-miir cut herself off when blood arrived in her mouth.

‘Does it hurt?’ Mark snarled as he tore off El-i-miir’s bandage and shoved his finger into the wound. He wriggled it about and El-i-miir lost whatever control she’d had. She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed through the agony. Mark pulled back his fist and punched El-i-miir so hard that she heard ribs cracking in her chest. He rolled her onto her face and brought his elbow done in the middle of her back. El-i-miir realised she could no longer feel the grass beneath her legs.

‘Tell me how much it hurts,’ Mark whispered in her ear. ‘What does it feel like when your spine is snapped?’

El-i-miir opened her mouth to release a spray of blood. A blade touched her forehead, but she could no longer scream as the demon slide it horizontally and peeled back her scalp. There was nothing she could do other than breathe and her ability even for that was becoming increasingly less. Mark’s hand landed softly, pinning El-i-miir’s head to the earth. Slowly he increased the pressure . . . so slowly. Quite suddenly El-i-miir’s skull broke and his hand plunged into her brain.

Silence. And then. El-i-miir heard a scream tear from her throat after her skull had crunched back into place. She felt the slightest sensation in her legs and her pulse became stronger. She opened her eyes with the dull hope in her heart that Ilgrin had found her. Mark’s evil face stared down at her as he continued the resurrection.

‘I’ve decided that that was way too much fun,’ he hissed, pulling back to let the whisp escape into the air. ‘Now let’s do it again.’ He smashed his foot down into El-i-miir’s head, shattering her skull for the second time that night. The last thought she had before dying, was the horrified realisation that this could go on forever.

El-i-miir opened her eyes.

 

*

 

Seeol returned shrieking hysterically about having discovered silts beating up the town mayor. Ilgrin watched in stunned silence as Seteal strode across the room and barged through the front door. He followed cautiously as the woman made her way between houses.

‘Seteal,’ Ilgrin gasped as she strode brazenly into the town centre where three silts were taking their time shaking up a stubby little man with black hair.

‘Hey,’ Seteal snapped as the distance shortened between her and the demons. Ilgrin watched in stunned silence as the silts turned their attention toward the frail woman. ‘This is my town,’ she said threateningly. ‘I thought I’d made that clear.’

Ilgrin came out of the shadows to stand beside Seteal in a show of support. Not a single other soul could be found outdoors. Aside from the occasional movement of a curtain, the town might easily have been mistaken for abandoned. ‘According to Sa’Tan the Devil’s decree,’ the central demon raised a piece of paper, ‘this township is to be declared silt property. If you abide to the rules, you will be allowed to continue living here in the New World order. If you refuse, the town will be destined for destruction. Not a soul will be left alive.’

Following the silt’s speech came a silence lasting so long that Ilgrin became uncomfortable and turned to Seteal to prompt a response. Her eyes were closed and she swayed a little on her heels. The wind moved her hair and she breathed in shallow breaths. ‘No,’ Seteal whispered. Her eyes popped open and she raised her hands. As she raised them the three silts drifted into the air with stationary wings.

The demons gasped and squirmed as they were carried higher. ‘What’re you doing?’ the leader enquired furiously. The silts drifted higher and higher, their eyes widening in fear.

‘Go back to your Devil,’ Seteal commanded them. ‘Tell him what happened here and tell him that the next time he sends his minions, their fate will be far less appealing.’ With a flick of her wrists, Seteal unfurled her fingers and the silts were blasted so far into the distance that they could no longer be seen. Fearful eyes peered through windows to crawl across Ilgrin’s flesh. They were probably wondering why he alone remained.

‘We should go back inside,’ he urged quietly.

Seteal said nothing, but turned and headed for home. ‘I’ve got to get rid of him somehow.’

‘Who?’

She nodded up at the window through which Seeol observed their approach. ‘Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little?’ Ilgrin frowned.

‘I don’t believe so. Why did silts have to come to this village first? They’ve scarcely had time to take Gor let alone humble little Elmsville.’

‘You can’t possibly think—’

‘Of course it’s him,’ Seteal hissed.

‘Seeol isn’t that powerful,’ Ilgrin replied without conviction. ‘He’s only ever caused silly little things to happen: wolves came after us, El-i-miir got knocked out in Setbrana. But what else has he really done?’

‘Everything,’ Seteal turned to him with wide eyes. ‘Why did you happen to snatch me out of a crowd of thousands in Sitnic? Why have I been in every damn city with perfect timing for the silt invasion to catch us up in the turmoil? Why did the earth split in half precisely where I was hiding in the borderlands? Why did my father kill himself mere moments after Seeol and I had come to town?’ Tears rolled down Seteal’s cheeks. ‘The whisp that got me when I was pregnant. Oh . . . my baby boy.’ She fell into his arms and sobbed against Ilgrin’s chest. ‘Why did it do that to him?’

Ilgrin’s heart turned to ice. ‘Where exactly is the boy?’

‘I . . .’ Seteal gasped. ‘I . . .’ She stumbled back and stared at her hands as though she didn’t recognise them.

‘What did you do?’

‘I killed him,’ Seteal said with a shuddering breath. ‘He’s dead. I took his little neck and I squeezed it. I squeezed and I squeezed. He was a baby I never asked for. I know that. I know he had a cruel beginning. But, Maker, I miss him so much.’

Ilgrin realised that his mouth was hanging open in disbelief. He couldn’t remember having ever been so disgusted. ‘I have to go.’ He stumbled away from the puffy dress and pile of tears that was Seteal.

‘I need a friend,’ she sobbed through bleary eyes.

‘I can’t do this.’ Ilgrin looked at her sideways. He hardly recognised her. He’d never really known Seteal before her rape, but El-i-miir had told him about her smile. Seteal used to smile and although she still moved about like the rest of them, the woman she’d once been was dead. ‘El-i-miir isn’t here,’ Ilgrin mumbled unapologetically. ‘We searched for days, but she isn’t here, so I have to go back.’ He said hurriedly. ‘I have to find her because I think that she might be dead and if she is I’m going to have to do something truly evil before it’s too late. And then I’ll be a monster, just like you.’

 

 

 

Matthew 12

 

31. Therefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men.

32. And whosoever speaketh a word against the sons of men, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Eleven

the tome

 

 

‘I am in such sorrow today.’ Seeol bounced onto Seteal’s knee. ‘Ilgrin has flown away and El-i-miir could be alonely and you have tears in your eyes already and now I have to tell you some more of the very saddest news.’

Seteal continued to stare at the wall for a long time. ‘What?’

‘I am terribly angry at my secret because I heard you talking to that silly preacher who you killed when he was alive and in his church. He told you about that stupid key which looked like a big black pebble instead of being a key like for a door and I keeped it a secret that I lost it because I was scared because that crazy Daddy Marcel said that if I’d loosed it I’d have to lose it forever and now we can’t open that gateway to Hae’Evun.’

‘That’s nice, Seeol,’ Seteal replied absently, without really having paid attention to anything the bird had said.

‘You is ignored me.’ Seeol pulled back his head and looked at Seteal as though she’d offended him. But that couldn’t be right. He was only an elf owl after all. ‘Is okay.’ Seeol bobbed his head rapidly as he often did when he was excited. ‘It’s not loosed if I haven’t lost it. I will flutter away back to the Old Lands and get it.’

‘Wait, you’re doing what?’ Seteal shook her head, now determined to give the bird her full attention.

‘I know where that key ball for the gateway is hidden,’ Seeol rustled his wings. ‘So is going to go get it and I promise to coming back and we will save the world and people will start to love me and they might like to scratch my head for me and give me green lizards. I will be gone for a longer time because is a long way and I have tiny, tiny wings.’

‘Yes!’ Seteal clapped her hands together. ‘You should go. You should do so with urgency.’ She couldn’t believe Seeol had solved the problem of his dark presence for himself. She doubted very much that the bird actually knew anything of value about the gates of Hae’Evun, but such a trip would certainly keep him out of the way for a long time.

‘What is I am waiting for?’ Seeol twittered. ‘I’m going.’ He flew toward the open window, but landed abruptly and turned to stare at Seteal. A moment later he flew over to her shoulder and rubbed his beak back and forth across her cheek. ‘It’ll be okay. You’ll be all right. Bye bye,’ he finished, abandoning Seteal for the window.

‘Read that,’ Teah snapped, slamming a heavy book down on the table.

‘No,’ Seteal grumbled when she’d recovered enough from her surprise, having not seen the angel’s approach.

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t believe in it.’

‘You will once you’ve read it,’ Teah insisted. ‘What else have you got to do anyway? Ilgrin told me you’ve been put through torrid and now he’s off looking for that Elglair woman again. Your bird just flew out the window and you’re sitting on a chair staring at the wall.’

‘All right, fine,’ Seteal slapped her hand down on the cover of the Holy Tome. ‘Just leave me alone.’

‘Start with the book of Revelation,’ Teah ordered. ‘It’s the last one and the most relevant to our present situation.’

‘You really do believe in this, don’t you?’

‘I can’t help it.’ Teah shrugged. ‘There are countless prophesies in there and nearly all of them have come true over the last year or so.’

‘Well I’m not going to read it with you staring at me,’ Seteal said after an awkward silence.

‘I’ll know if you sneak off.’ Teah pursed her lips, flicked her hair over her shoulder and strode into the neighbouring room.

‘Teah, wait,’ Seteal pushed back her chair and hurried after the angel. ‘I know I said I’d read it but that was really just to get rid of you. Ilgrin’s right. I have gone through torrid and reading a book that’ll only curse me for all of my sins is really the last thing I want to do. I’m well aware of my sins, so here.’ She waved the book at the angel. ‘Take it.’

‘But the clouds,’ Teah pleaded. ‘They’re moving north.’

‘Yes.’ Seteal lowered her eyes. ‘It started months ago when the whisps latched onto my aura. I knew it then, as I know it now. I sort of . . . dragged them into motion when I tried to escape.’

‘But it’s in the Tome.’ Teah flushed blue with frustration. ‘And the Holy Spirit would be seen descending in the clouds.’ Teah shook the thick black book. ‘That happened in Beldin. You must have seen the whisps. They were circling you like a pack of hungry wolves.’

‘Wait,’ Seteal cringed as she was struck with a feeling of déjà vu. ‘Not this again. We’ve already been through this nonsense with Seeol. Please tell me you’re not saying what I think you are.’

‘Seteal.’ Teah grabbed her shoulders. ‘You are the Holy Spirit. Your abilities far surpass anything the Elglair can do. For Maker’s sake, you were floating through the sky. Ilgrin told me you can project your spirit, so why not call it a holy one?’

‘Because there is nothing holy about me,’ Seteal said angrily. ‘And before you get all preachy, why don’t you go and read Leviticus 18:22, because I’m well aware of what it says there about people like me.’

Teah’s face scrunched up in confusion. ‘People like you?’

‘I don’t like men,’ Seteal spat out. ‘I like girls.’

‘Oh . . . um . . .’ Teah was dumbstruck. ‘Maybe it’s just a phase.’

‘A phase!?’ Seteal shouted. ‘Could you be any more insulting? I know who I am, what I stand for and which sex I’m attracted to. So really, Teah, can you possibly conceive that your Holy Maker’s Spirit is—what is it that Leviticus says, oh, yes—an abomination?’

‘Maybe that was just the writer’s opinion, not Maker’s,’ Teah said desperately. ‘Maker has never been quoted saying that. It was Pa-ul. Perhaps he got it wrong?’

‘No,’ Seteal said in disgust. ‘Holy book. Holy words. The Tome was supposedly written by Maker through the Elglair prophets. You don’t get to pick and choose which parts you want to believe in because the other bits are less than palatable. It’s all or nothing.’

‘Okay.’ Teah nodded slowly, clearly lost for words.

‘I was planning that speech for the day I told my father the truth.’ Seteal felt her face turning hot and the sting of tears in her eyes. ‘But now he’s dead and I’ll never get to tell him. He believed in the Tome,’ she said with a shaky voice. ‘He was a good man, my father. He was someone Maker would’ve loved. Not like me. He’d have been so disappointed in me—to find out his only daughter is an abomination and a whore.’

‘Oh, Seteal.’ Teah took an awkward step forward and then took one back as though she wasn’t quite sure how to console such a recent acquaintance. ‘I’m sure he’d have loved you all the same,’ the angel said, putting a hand on her upper arm. ‘I’m sorry I’ve upset you.’

‘You know what? It’s not you.’ Seteal stepped away. ‘I’ve been like this a lot lately.’ She chuckled and dabbed at her eyes with a towel. ‘It’s nothing.’ She sniffed loudly and shook herself before heading to the kitchen. Teah didn’t follow.

 

*

 

Noah roared in his fury. The massive mutant demon howled a second time and smashed his fist clean through a tree. ‘You found him and then you lost him?’

‘He went to a small town named Elmsville,’ Jakob said slowly in an attempt to maintain his calm. ‘I’m not sure why,’ he lied. There was no need to risk involving the others. Maker only knew, Seteal had been through enough. Jakob could be certain of that much without any further evidence other than the lifelessness in her eyes.

‘Where is he now?’

‘I don’t know, Sa’Tan, my Devil,’ Jakob said in the vein hope that appealing to Noah’s ego might ease his temper.

‘You’re useless. What can you tell me about this strange woman?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘There have been some utterly absurd stories coming back to me from that little town.’ Noah frowned. ‘I cannot believe the half of it, but anybody I send their either fails to return or does so blathering nonsense. Anyway . . .’ He shrugged. ‘I’m not going to risk my own life. A Devil is far too precious for that.’

Jakob bowed his head respectfully. ‘Of course.’

‘I’m sending you back.’ Noah smiled, showing off his yellow fangs. ‘You’ll wait until Ilgrin returns, and then you’ll lure him into the woods.’

‘How could I possibly—?’

‘That’s not my problem,’ Noah cut him off. ‘I’ll be waiting there in exactly one week.’ He thrust a map into Jakob’s hands. ‘Ilgrin had better be there, too.’

Jakob looked at the map to find a blotch marked out in the southernmost parts of Narvon Wood. ‘I’m sure he’ll be utterly delicious,’ Jakob replied, nervously wiping the sweat from his forehead.

‘Oh, and, Jakob,’ Noah rumbled, just after having given him permission to leave.

‘Yes, my Lord.’ Jakob turned back.

‘I’d advise you to take this timeline very seriously. The town has been marked out for total destruction on the same day that you bring Ilgrin to me. Thanks to that strange woman, I’ve decided to send a thousand silts to take care of just one little town. They will kill everyone.’

‘How do you propose I get there so quickly?’

Noah sighed deeply. ‘I’ll send a demon escort to drop you off in the woods.’

‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy an easy victory,’ Jakob placated the Devil, bowing again before leaving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leviticus 18

 

22 Thou shalt not have sexual relations with man as with woman: it is an abomination.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twelve

too dead

 

 

Ilgrin banked sharply to the left when he noticed a group of silts flying toward him in tight formation. One of them waved, but the others ignored him as they passed by, having failed to recognise him.

There was a small town not a mile south of Beldin. Ilgrin hurried forward, realising that he’d somehow missed it when he and Teah had been looking for El-i-miir. The place harboured the overwhelming scent of decaying flesh. Ilgrin landed and covered his nose, gazing about at the multitude of corpses; food for vultures.

‘El-i-miir!’ Ilgrin shouted, but the only answer he received was the echo of his own voice.

He dove back into the air and spent some time circling above. Then he saw it. In the field several hundred strides away, a cloud of vultures had descended around a mangled corpse with silky black hair. ‘Oh no.’ His voice hollow. He propelled himself toward the body at a feverish pace. ‘Don’t let it be you.’ Ilgrin hit the ground running and then fell to his knees in front of the body. The birds erupted into the air, buzzing about in frustration.

Without delaying another second Ilgrin grabbed the woman’s slender shoulder and in doing so accidentally pulled off a lump of flesh. He gagged and put it aside, corrected his grip and rolled El-i-miir onto her back. ‘No no no,’ he moaned.

There were cuts on El-i-miir’s face. Chunks of her scalp had been torn away and lumps of her hair were tangled in the grass. One of her eyes was missing. Her cheek bone had been collapsed through blunt force trauma. A bullet wound, though at some point patchily stitched together, was now torn open and riddled with maggots. El-i-miir’s spine was severed below her chest and her stomach had been cut open in such a way that left her lower body connected by nothing more than untorn bits of her innards.

Ilgrin lifted his hands. They shook uncontrollably. He keeled over and vomited in the grass. Frantically, he gathered up whatever parts of El-i-miir he could find, knowing that the more of her he could gather, the greater the chances of her survival. ‘Oh, Maker, don’t be too dead. Anything but that.’ Ilgrin pressed portions of El-i-miir’s scalp back against her exposed skull. ‘Give me that.’ Ilgrin snatched one of El-i-miir’s fingers out of a nearby beak. The bird responded unfavourably, but Ilgrin slapped it out of the way and shoved the finger into the palm of El-i-miir’s hand. Ilgrin scanned his surroundings for the missing eye, but found nothing.

It occurred to him that he was extending his search out of fear. He didn’t want to try to resurrect El-i-miir because he already knew it wouldn’t work. He felt his eyes filling with tears and his lower lip shaking. ‘I refuse to let you go.’ He pressed his hands against El-i-miir’s body and focused on finding her soul before it could dissolve too much too bring back.

Ilgrin’s hands tingled, but the body failed to respond. ‘Come on, damn you!’ He gritted his teeth, growling as he purged more of his own life-force into the corpse. Through hot tears he saw the skin surrounding his hands beginning to ripple, but it stopped abruptly. Ilgrin’s hands were burning so hot that he had to remove them. He looked at his palms to discover dark blue blisters forming.

One of the vultures hopped over and ripped off a small strip of El-i-miir’s leg before rushing away when Ilgrin leapt after it. ‘She’s not dead yet! Leave her alone,’ he cried, shooing the persistent animals away. Ilgrin moaned and rocked back on his toes. ‘You’ll come back. You don’t get to do this to me. I’ll make you come back because this isn’t the way it was supposed to happen. You hear me? I had to die for you. It was supposed to be me.’

Ilgrin slapped his hands down onto El-i-miir’s body and focused so hard that the temperature in his hands became that of a white hot iron. He screamed as the heat crawled up to his wrists and slithered into his arms. ‘Come on!’ In response to his efforts, El-i-miir’s flesh rippled lazily, but it still refused to come back together. ‘Come on!’ An artery slithered through the hole in El-i-miir’s stomach and reattached when it reached the other side.

El-i-miir’s cheek bone made a crunching sound but it failed to resurface. ‘No!’ Ilgrin wailed when the body became still again and he was forced to tear away his hands. Blue blood splattered against El-i-miir’s face. Ilgrin examined his palms to find them steaming, his blood having literally come to boil. ‘It was supposed to be me,’ he said breathlessly.

‘El-i-miir?’

He touched her face and was surprised to see that her eye had grown back beneath his blood. He rocked back in disbelief, again examining his hands. ‘It’s in our blood.’ Fighting through the pain, Ilgrin replaced his hands and slid them back and forth over El-i-miir’s body. He would drench her in the hot blue liquid. If he had to, he’d go until not a drop was left within him. He smeared her face and her skin. He splattered it over the gaping wound in El-i-miir’s stomach and rubbed it into her mouth.

Spots danced across Ilgrin’s vision and he became lightheaded. He fell onto his side, his wings hanging open. ‘Heal,’ he begged, remembering always to keep his hands in contact with El-i-miir’s body.

Patches of hair vibrated as lumps of flesh oozed back into their appropriate places. Ilgrin’s heart thundered as the agony in his hands heightened beyond anything he’d ever had to endure. The cuts on El-i-miir’s face slithered together and her cheek bone came up with a pop. Ilgrin thumped his head against the earth repeatedly in an attempt to distract himself from burning agony. El-i-miir’s intestines slithered about, rearranging themselves before being sucked back into place. Ilgrin gasped, his teeth puncturing his lower lip. He hadn’t realised he’d been biting it.

A wave of flesh unfurled across El-i-miir’s belly. Ilgrin tore away one of his arms and punched the ground hating himself for his weakness. Blood vessels slithered out of El-i-miir’s hand, burrowed into her detached finger and sucked it back into place. Ilgrin howled. El-i-miir’s spine cracked loudly as it straightened out and fresh bone fused. Her eyes opened, she inhaled deeply and then she screamed.

‘Get away from me!’ Her eyes were full of terror. ‘Get away!’ she cried, slapping at Ilgrin repeatedly. He laid there holding up his hands protectively as the pain dulled to a deep throb. El-i-miir rolled onto her feet and started to run, but came to an abrupt stop and turned around. After a moment of hesitation she hurried back, but the moment had lingered too long, revealing a lack of trust.

‘I thought you were too dead,’ Ilgrin blubbered as El-i-miir toppled to the ground holding her stomach, which was undoubtedly beginning to cramp. ‘Call me evil like the others, but I’ll never let you go.’

El-i-miir squirmed on the ground and gasped. ‘I think it got stuck.’

‘Can they do that?’ Ilgrin asked, his eyes wide.

‘How should I know?’ El-i-miir tried to stand, only to collapse again.

On all fours she gagged and coughed and choked. Her face was red. She put a hand around her throat like she couldn’t breathe. ‘Get it up,’ Ilgrin patted her on the back. ‘Don’t die on me again.’

El-i-miir fell, slapping at her throat in panic, but her face faded to grey and at last the black vapour squeezed its way through her pores. With a loud cough, El-i-miir started vomiting up waves of whisp. So long did the substance flow that El-i-miir had to pause several times for breath. It was no real surprised that the whisp took several long minutes in its departure. Ilgrin had expected it to be large considering the enormity of the resurrection. El-i-miir moaned, a puff of whisp coming out of her nostrils. ‘I think it’s done.’ She sighed before coughing several more times to discover little bits of darkness still leaking out.

‘It’ll be gone soon,’ Ilgrin assured her. ‘From what I’ve heard, whisps never return to their cocoons.’

‘Okay.’

‘So you’re not going to curse me and chase me out of your life this time?’

‘At this point, what’s the difference?’ El-i-miir peered up at the whisp wafting through the bright blue sky on its way to join the greater cloud moving sluggishly on the horizon.

‘What happened?’ Ilgrin’s face crumpled. ‘We searched for days.’

‘I got shot,’ El-i-miir replied. ‘Some people were kind enough to take me in, but then the war arrived. I tried to get out, but there were too many. One caught up with me.’ El-i-miir shuddered. ‘He kept bringing me back to life so that he could kill me over and over again.’

Ilgrin’s mouth fell open at the idea of actions so vulgar. ‘Why didn’t you affiliate him?’

‘He never healed me quite enough that I was able to regain control.’

‘Well, you’re safe now. Come on,’ Ilgrin took a step forward to take her hand, but El-i-miir flinched at his approach. ‘You do know that you’re safe with me, right?’

‘Yes,’ El-i-miir said softly. ‘Of course I know that..’ She added forcefully.

‘If you need some time, you should take it,’ Ilgrin encouraged. ‘You’ve been through a lot.’

‘Could you just take me . . . home?’ El-i-miir looked at her feet. ‘Wherever that is.’

‘Elmsville,’ Ilgrin replied. ‘Seteal’s there, too. Come on.’ He offered his hand, but El-i-miir looked at it as though he were brandishing a weapon. ‘I remind you of him, don’t I?’

‘A little bit.’ El-i-miir finally allowed Ilgrin to put his arms around her. ‘I know you’re nothing like him. I know it. I trust you. I do . . . so please, just take me home.’

 

*

 

Far-a-mael quivered with pleasure. ‘Come to me.’ The cloud of moths returned through the window. They burrowed into his flesh and made their way down his throat and into his lungs, finally allowing him to breathe properly again. His cloak became heavier and more complete. His heart beat more soundly and his eyes regained their depth of colour.

Next the memories came. Thousands of tiny compound eyes had explored thousands of parts of the world. They’d been to every city and village. They’d seen the approaching whisp cloud. They’d discovered that the silts had established a footing worthy of notice in Beldin. Far-a-mael jolted in surprise. He remembered when the first demons had landed in Gor. He’d seen rivers of human blood in the streets and the screaming faces on small children. They, too, would either meet with death or be forced into slavery. Of course, it wasn’t the murder of so many innocent lives that gave Far-a-mael reason to pause. Rather, it was the fact that the silt invasion had already come so far north.

The moths burrowed through Far-a-mael’s skull where they shuffled into position and morphed into pieces of his brain. The new memories continued his enlightenment. Most of the information was useless and he discarded it immediately, but every now and then he’d arrive at something terribly exciting.

There was a dirt road on which a young woman stood. Her tear-filled hazel eyes flashed for a moment as the moth bounced and fluttered away on the cold wind. The eyes were unmistakable, as was the town to which the moth had been. ‘You’ve gone home,’ Far-a-mael murmured, having recognised his granddaughter. ‘You should’ve run a lot further than that, my dear.’

Far-a-mael stepped back from the balcony and closed the ice doors as the final moth fluttered into his robes. He turned around, a smile touching his lips as he headed out of the room. He made his way along the corridors and down countless stairs until he arrived at Gez-reil’s door. There he waited, as it was customary to do among respectable gils.

Gez-reil stepped outside and nodded. ‘I thought I felt your presence.’

‘Shut the door,’ Far-a-mael ordered, concerned that Gez-reil’s wife would listen in. Once he would’ve simply known, but Far-a-mael’s abilities with the Ways had become as fluttery and jittery as the moths with which he was now composed.

The High Elder did as he was told. ‘Whatever is the matter?’

‘I’ve found Seteal,’ Far-a-mael replied quietly. ‘She’s gone home.’

‘Not this again.’ Gez-reil winced. ‘We’ve tortured the poor girl enough. Can’t we just leave her be?’

‘She killed me,’ Far-a-mael complained after glancing over his shoulder.

‘But you’re alive now,’ Gez-reil reminded him.

‘She still did it.’

‘I thought you’d be proud of her for that,’ Gez-reil said, his face showing confusion.

‘I was,’ Far-a-mael muttered. ‘I am, but I’d anchored her and when I died, well . . .’

‘The anchor disappeared,’ Gez-reil finished for him.

‘Precisely,’ Far-a-mael stressed. ‘And if she was able to kill me before, I’m afraid that she may very well wish to do so again.’

‘So what do you propose?’

‘Forced anchorage,’ Far-a-mael replied.

‘That’s illegal,’ Gez-reil said flabbergasted. ‘You can’t do that.’

‘I can’t,’ Far-a-mael replied. ‘Not alone anyway.’

‘No way.’ Gez-reil put up his hands up in rejection of the idea.

‘She’s a danger to all of us,’ he insisted.

‘I will not be involved in such a thing. It goes against everything our people stand for.’

‘I’m afraid I’m not really giving you a choice,’ Far-a-mael lowered his voice threateningly. ‘Need I remind of what I’m now capable of doing?’ Perhaps I should demonstrate on Hes-la-tie, your beautiful wife.’

‘You’ve been our friend for years, Far-a-mael,’ Gez-reil said with hurt in his eyes. ‘I don’t believe you’d do such a thing.’

‘I wouldn’t risk testing such a theory,’ Far-a-mael warned. ‘Gather the twelve most powerful gils in the cleff. Including yourself, that’ll make up the thirteen required.’

‘You’re asking us to anchor the poor girl without getting your own hands dirty?’

‘I’ll be there,’ Far-a-mael said darkly. ‘I’ll just be occupied with matters more important.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Thirteen

abomination

 

 

With Teah wandering about like a lost sheep, Seteal had made the decision to go out for a break. She crossed the backyard haunted by the place where she’d buried Parrowun. The rusty key got stuck when Seteal slid it into the lock of the rickety workshop door. No matter how she struggled she couldn’t get it in.

‘That’s what I get for locking doors in a crime-free town.’ Seteal laughed at her own foolishness.

The brown lock had a few rust-free specks that glittered in the son. Seteal stared at it for a long time, before she heard a loud clacking sound that demanded further inspection. She grasped the handle and pulled, realising that perhaps she hadn’t locked it after all.

The workshop was filled with half-finished projects and odd lengths of wood. That delightful scent of sawdust still permeated the shop. It was the very same scent that’d followed Gifn into the house of an evening. He’d never been one to shout or drink obsessively when he was under pressure. Instead, he’d bury himself in his work. With the amount of cobwebs in the workshop, Seteal was forced to the conclusion that in the case of her disappearance, Gifn had handled life quite differently. He hadn’t handled it at all.

Seteal exhaled slowly—an attempt to control her emotions. She needed to be hard in order to keep herself together. She gathered a few large pieces of timber and settled them atop the work bench.

‘Seteal.’ Cindi appeared in the doorway. She looked terribly nervous, her face as white as a sheet.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘You have to come quickly,’ she said breathily, turning to run.

Seteal pursued her old friend until she came out onto the town square where a crowd of familiar faces stood waiting. ‘What is it? What’s happening?’

‘We want for you to leave.’ The squat mayor of Elmsville stepped out of the crowd. ‘You can take your demons with you.’

‘You’ve tricked me,’ Seteal accused Cindi. ‘You couldn’t have warned me?’

‘Sorry.’ The girl wrung her hands fearfully. ‘You’re just not the same.’

‘You all agreed to this?’ Seteal waved her hands at the crowd, her feelings surprisingly hurt. She stared at Dimain the butcher, Cindi’s father. She turned to her old piano teacher, but, of course, she’d made her feelings quite clear at the funeral. ‘Mistress Green?’ Seteal said when she found the baker’s wife. ‘Tessa?’ She implored of her childhood crush. ‘Not one of you will stand with me?’

‘The people have made their feelings clear,’ the mayor said sternly. ‘And thank Maker your father didn’t live to know his only daughter as a demon worshipper.’

‘I’ve been protecting you.’ Seteal recoiled in defence. ‘You’d all be dead if it weren’t for me.’

‘I’ll stand with you,’ Teah declared loudly, landing with grace. The crowd stepped back, some even turning to run. Others became faint and collapsed.

‘You were right, Cindi, I have changed,’ Seteal said bitterly. ‘I wish I hadn’t, but I have,’ she appealed to the greater crowd. As her emotions and sense of betrayal became increasingly tumultuous, the town’s general clutter left the ground and rose up.

A bicycle with both wheels spinning hovered above Mistress Marn’s front lawn. Mister Button’s leaf litter and clippers drifted over his roof. Mister Dinn’s entire outhouse floated into the sky. The canvas of the Ways slithered around Seteal and held her tight as odd bits and pieces continued to defy gravity. The townsfolk became pale with fear. ‘None of you tried to find me. Nobody cared! Where were you then, when he was hurting me?’

‘Seteal,’ Teah whispered in a cautionary tone.

‘You left me alone,’ Seteal wailed, her feet leaving the dirt. She drifted several strides into the air, her hair floating about her head as dark clouds rolled in. ‘And now you want to make me leave?’

‘That’s enough,’ Teah pleaded fearfully as people started crying out as they too ascended against their will.

‘They hate me,’ Seteal shouted. ‘Because I’m a whore.’

Teah beat her wings, flew up, and slapped Seteal across the face. Along with their clutter, the townsfolk hit the earth, got up, and quickly dispersed. ‘Can we talk about this?’ Teah called up after having landed once more.

Seteal turned her head to look at her and said nothing for several seconds, her expression becoming one of anger. ‘I don’t want to talk,’ she hissed. She turned toward the house and in a flash of movement reached the steps. The door swung open with a bang as she made her way up to the landing. After she’d entered, it slammed shut. Every cupboard opened, their contents spewing out to float around the house. One of the bottles came to rest beside a glass. The cap burst off and as Seteal tilted her head, the bottle tilted, too.

She took the glass from the air and emptied the red wine down her throat with a few gulps. ‘More.’ She waved the bottle over to drink straight from the source. Seteal danced, remembering a tune she’d heard and loved on the riverboat. As she danced the melody drifted out of her head and into reality. She laughed giddily as the sounds of wind instruments filled her house despite the fact that they didn’t exist.

‘Teah,’ Seteal giggled when the angel wandered in with an expression of bewilderment.

‘How is this possible?’ She raised her voice over the music.

‘I am truly capable of anything,’ Seteal sung, passing the bottle to Teah, who shrugged and took a sip.

‘Look.’ Seteal burst out laughing afresh. ‘It’s a party!’

People folded into reality all around the house to dance and sing joyously. Each of them had a drink in their hand and wild eyes on their faces. Seteal snatched back the bottle and took another mouthful.

‘Seteal.’ She dropped it at the sound of Gifn’s voice.

The music stopped and the party vanished. ‘Father.’

‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ He burst into tears and embraced her.

‘I’ve missed you,’ she sobbed into his shoulder.

‘I’ve missed you, too,’ Gifn replied, gently brushing her cheek. ‘Thank Maker that pistol misfired.’

‘Wait.’ Seteal pulled away. ‘What?’

‘The pistol didn’t fire.’ Gifn smiled reassuringly.

‘Yes, it did.’ She stepped back, overwhelmed with understanding. ‘I wish it’d failed. You’re just saying what I wish was true. You’re not real.’

‘What is going on?’ Teah murmured.

‘I’m only doing what I’ve always done.’ Seteal turned to face her. ‘The only difference is that I’m projecting my memories instead of myself.’

‘Yes, you are,’ Master Fasil whispered in her ear before grasping Seteal’s hair and throwing her to the ground.

‘Oh, my Maker,’ Teah shrieked in alarm, leaping at Master Fasil only to be repelled as though she’d hit a wall. ‘Seteal, snap out of this. Think of something else!’

‘You like that,’ Fasil grunted, flipping Seteal onto her face and punching her in the kidney.

‘You’re fake,’ Seteal wailed. She grasped for the Ways, but they were useless against something her own subconscious mind had summoned. Master Fasil tore off her underwear and pulled out his penis. ‘You little whore.’

‘Leave her alone,’ Teah screamed, shattering a bottle over Master Fasil’s head. He didn’t even notice.

Burning with hatred, Seteal found a shard of glass and thrust it into Fasil’s neck. She ground it into his flesh until his eyes became lifeless. His body hit the floor with a thud and Seteal turned away to fix up her clothing. When she turned back she did so to find a purple mixture: the blood of humans and silts. Parrowun was lying in the puddle. His eyes were shut and his neck bore the fresh bruising of strangulation.

‘My baby,’ Seteal sobbed, picking up the limp body and holding him tight in her arms.

‘Oh, Seteal,’ Teah whispered through hands covering her nose and mouth below eyes filled with tears. ‘I had no idea. Ilgrin told me a bit, but this . . . I’m so sorry.’ With a moment’s passing, Parrowun disappeared back into the past, leaving Seteal to rock back and forth on the floorboards.

She grunted, got to her feet and looked around the room with a vacant expression. The array of items that’d previously been floating were now spread out all over the place, many of them broken. Seteal haphazardly kicked a can of beans and made her way up to the bedroom. She pulled back the covers and slithered into bed. The light was irritating and so night fell in Elmsville less than halfway through the day.

Deuteronomy 22

 

28-29. If a man find a damsel who is a virgin who is not betrothed, and lay hold of her and lie with her, and they be found, then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty coins of silver and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Fourteen

scriptures of the holy tome

 

 

Ilgrin held El-i-miir close as he flew. They’d stopped at a stream earlier for her to wash the blood from her clothes and she’d been shivering ever since. A glance to the south caused Ilgrin to shiver for an entirely different reason.

The whisp cloud—previously of Old World—filled the entire horizon, its dark shadow resting halfway up the length of Narvon Wood. ‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir called over the wind. ‘What’s that?’ He followed El-i-miir’s extended finger to discover a blotch of darkness, disturbingly reminiscent of a whisp, hovering where Elmsville was supposed to be. ‘What did you do?’

‘It wasn’t me,’ Ilgrin said defensively, relaxing his wings in preparation to land.

When their feet touched the earth near the signpost with Elmsville carved into it, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t a whisp they were staring at. Ilgrin hesitated at the edge of what could only be described as a wall of darkness. ‘It’s just . . .’

‘Night time,’ El-i-miir finished for him. She took a step forward and was immediately engulfed to the point that Ilgrin could not easily see her. ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ she called over her shoulder, prompting Ilgrin to follow.

After having passed over the threshold, he waited a moment to allow his eyes to adjust. ‘I guess Seteal got tired,’ Ilgrin stated. He went to take El-i-miir’s hand but she snatched it away. They continued down the road in silence.

People were doing the best they could to go about their daily duties, but all too frequently they would stop and marvel at the strange dome of weak, twinkling light above their heads. Ilgrin put a finger to his lips, indicating for El-i-miir to stay quiet as they dodged between buildings and snuck up to Seteal’s house.

‘Come on,’ he hissed upon the realisation that El-i-miir had frozen in her tracks.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said softly. ‘It’s just that that house brings up a lot of bad memories for me. What Far-a-mael and I did . . . what I did to her was horrible.’

‘You were a rei,’ Ilgrin stressed. ‘You didn’t know any better. You trusted your gil’rei and I’m certain Seteal has forgiven you, so please, let’s get inside before we get shot.’

Ilgrin tapped on the door softly and waited until Teah had opened it. She ushered them inside before giving Ilgrin a hug and El-i-miir a nod of acknowledgement.

‘Where’s Seteal?’ El-i-miir said.

‘She’s upstairs,’ Teah replied. ‘I think she’s sleeping, but I couldn’t be sure. You made it out alive.’

‘Not exactly.’

The angel raised her eyebrows at Ilgrin. ‘I see.’

El-i-miir glanced at the grandfather clock sitting in the corner. ‘Why is it so dark at two o’clock?’

Teah nodded toward the ceiling. ‘She would be my first guess. You’ve both missed a lot. The town turned on her and tried to make her leave. She started floating again and took with her anything that wasn’t nailed down.’

‘She’s getting stronger,’ El-i-miir said. ‘I don’t know how to make sense of it.’ Teah and Ilgrin cast each other weary glances. ‘What is it?’

‘I think—’ Teah started, only to be cut off by El-i-miir, whose eyes followed something invisible around the room.

‘The Holy Tome?’ she said sarcastically. ‘You think Seteal is the Holy Spirit. Oh, Ilgrin, you must be joking; after all we went through with Seeol.’ Silence. ‘You’re not joking, are you?’

‘No.’ Ilgrin turned blue with embarrassment. ‘I think there may be something to what Teah has been saying.’

‘What is this?’ El-i-miir looked at the silts as though they’d lost their minds. ‘Sensible people don’t believe in such rubbish.’

‘Hey,’ Teah snapped. ‘You could be a little more sensitive to people’s beliefs.’

‘Your beliefs are stupid,’ El-i-miir said in exasperation. ‘We need to find a real-world solution for our problems. I feel like I’m fighting with my parents all over again.’

‘Your parents are believers?’ The surprise was evident in Teah’s voice. ‘How could you be so dim-witted as to turn away from what you must know in your heart to be true?’

‘My parents had a lot of silly beliefs, Teah,’ El-i-miir replied curtly. ‘I’m sure you can use your imagination to figure out how they felt about your kind. Were they right about that as well?’

‘Of course not, but you could still show a—’

‘Shut up,’ El-i-miir said, lifting a finger.

‘Don’t tell me to shut up.’ Teah spat threateningly.

‘Please,’ El-i-miir’s voice shook, ‘just be quiet.’

‘Do as she says,’ Ilgrin urged the angel upon recognising the look on El-i-miir’s face.

She spun in a slow circle her head snapping this way and that. ‘Why’d you distract me? Now there’s no—’

The sound of glass shattering against the house was the only further warning that something was amiss. The temperature increased, flames licked at the windows and thick black smoke filled the air.

‘Death to the demons!’ someone shouted outside. A bottle smashed through the window, hit the floor and shattered. Accelerant splashed across the timber followed by burning hot flames. Ilgrin dashed for the exit.

‘Don’t open that,’ El-i-miir barked. A bottle hit the front door and Ilgrin leapt aside as it became alight. ‘What about Seteal?’

‘What about me?’ Seteal asked heading down the stairs clothed in a flowing white nightdress.

The house was filled with a cold wind so intense that the fire vanished as suddenly as it’d started. Seteal went to the front door, which blew open before she could reach it. ‘I’m going to ask you all nicely to return to your homes and get away from mine.’ El-i-miir yelped at the sound of a gunshot. Seteal spoke again. ‘I’ve asked you very pleasantly to leave.’

The air was filled with disbelieving gasps as the crowd dispersed. Seteal stepped back inside and kicked the door shut. She was bouncing a metal sphere in her hand. ‘Is that a bullet?’ El-i-miir enquired.

‘Yes, it is. I caught it.’

‘You caught it,’ Ilgrin echoed.

‘I’m so relieved to see you’re all right.’ Seteal smiled at El-i-miir and hurried over to sit beside her. She dropped the lead ball and allowed it to roll away.

‘Yes, I’m quite all right.’ El-i-miir looked as stunned as Ilgrin felt. ‘I’m sorry about your house.’

‘What, this?’ Seteal turned to the black scorches marking the walls. ‘I think it gives the place character, don’t you? What time is it anyway?’ She glanced at the clock. ‘It’s not even half past two. We should have lunch.’

Ilgrin looked out the window to see the darkness dissolve, allowing the sun to again reach the street. ‘I’m really not hungry.’

‘Oh, come on,’ Seteal insisted. ‘It might be nice to do something normal. I’d love to hear all about your adventures, El-i-miir, and you pair as well.’

El-i-miir winced. ‘I really don’t want to talk about it.’

‘Me neither,’ Ilgrin concurred.

‘Oh, I do,’ Teah said a little too quietly for the others to hear as she brushed her fingers along the back of Ilgrin’s wounded hand.

‘Well, I don’t.’

‘Yes.’ Seteal nodded. ‘We heard you the first time, Ilgrin.’

‘What about you, Seteal?’ El-i-miir cocked her head. ‘What have you been up to?’

‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ she replied as she laid out four plates, glasses and sets of cutlery at the table.

‘Where are Mister Eltari and Parrowun?’

Seteal dropped a plate and it shattered at her feet. ‘Let me get that.’ Teah rushed forward in search of a brush.

‘No,’ Seteal barked. ‘You all need to stop treating me like a cripple. It’s my mess. I’ll clean it up.’

El-i-miir opened her mouth to push for an answer, but Ilgrin volunteered the information without prompting. ‘I’m not sure about Mister Eltari, but I know she killed the baby.

‘Oh.’ Seteal lowered her face to the floor, her hair falling so that it was obscured from view.

‘Ilgrin,’ Teah reprimanded. ‘Why would you say that?’

‘There’s no excuse for what she did and I won’t pretend that there is,’ he replied. ‘You know my parents were human. Anybody else would’ve killed an infant silt, but they found it in their hearts to take me in. So this matters to me. It’s not okay to kill your child just because you don’t want them.’

‘I did want him, you idiot!’ Seteal’s face was a handswidth from Ilgrin’s in less than a second. ‘I loved him so much. I did it for you, and you.’ She turned to El-i-miir. ‘I did what I had to do to save countless thousands of lives. So you can all just go to torrid!’

‘I saw it.’ Teah’s spoke quietly. ‘The infant was what caused us to fall from the sky in Beldin.’

‘The bleeding sickness.’ El-i-miir turned to Ilgrin disparagingly. ‘Parrowun was a seeol of the most dangerous kind. He’d have killed every one of us.’

‘Seteal?’ Ilgrin said after a long period of silence. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed.’

‘No, you shouldn’t have,’ Seteal snapped. ‘What is that about, anyway? Do tell me, what could possibly make you assume that I’d do something so horrible for the fun of it? Do you really think so little of me? I loved him so much that I’m still not sure whether I did the right thing. I fight this battle in my heart every day.’

‘It’s just that I’ve seen you sever people from the Ways before and—’

‘They were people who were trying to kill us!’ Seteal shouted. ‘That’s not even nearly the same thing.’

‘I know.’ Ilgrin stared at the table. ‘And like I said, I’m really, truly sorry.’

Seteal dabbed at eyes if only to dry them and roll them. ‘At least I know what you really think of me.’

‘It’s not like that.’

‘You know, I’d actually forgiven you for killing my mother. I wanted to give you a chance based on who you were, not on something you did as a child. Why is it so impossible for you to extend the same courtesy to me? You’re a Maker-damned demon, but I let it go and came to trust you and care about you for who you are. Torrid, you even abandoned us, decided to become the Devil, and then waged war on us, and I’ve still made a place at my table for you. They should lock me up because I must be insane treating someone so well who continually treats me like dirt!’

Ilgrin stepped back from the table. ‘I . . . I don’t know what else to say.’

‘So . . .’ El-i-miir said softly after the other two had remained silent for an extended moment. ‘Where’s Seeol?’

‘He’s probably out hunting those little green lizards he’s obsessed with,’ Ilgrin grumbled when nobody else answered.

‘Actually, Seeol decided to return to the borderlands.’ Seteal shrugged.

‘What?’ El-i-miir and Ilgrin exclaimed in unison.

Teah chuckled a little too forcefully. ‘I’d forgotten all about the little bird; hadn’t even noticed he was missing.’

‘He left yesterday morning,’ Seteal replied.

El-i-miir burst out laughing. ‘So he’s still in Elmsville then?’

‘You needn’t be so cruel.’ Seteal frowned. ‘He’s just a little bird.’

‘Yes,’ El-i-miir smirked, ‘a little bird that has almost cost us our lives more times than I care to count.’

‘All the same.’ Seteal shrugged as she got out some bread and jam, putting it at the centre of the table.

‘May I ask why he’s returning to the borderlands?’ Ilgrin said softly, his eyes remaining lowered.

‘I’m not sure,’ Seteal replied. ‘He waffled on about having lost his key or something.’

‘A key?’ Teah piped in.

‘I’m sure it’s nothing.’ Seteal picked up a knife and spread some jam over a slice of bread. ‘What could Seeol possibly know? He called it a ball at one point.’

‘The key is a sphere,’ Teah said emphatically.

‘Not now, Teah,’ Seteal moaned. ‘We’ve been over this and I’ve really had enough. I haven’t eaten in days and for the first time in a long time I’m hungry, so I just want to get as much of this down as possible before I lose my appetite. Plus . . .’ Seteal put a finger to her lips and rocked a little in her chair. ‘I think I’m still a bit drunk.’

‘Well, I’m not at all surprised with the amount you drank this morning,’ Teah reprimanded.

‘I know what this is,’ El-i-miir blurted out, collapsing into the chair across from Seteal. ‘You remember when the Jenjen thought that Seeol was the Holy Spirit?’

‘How could we forget?’ Ilgrin laughed. ‘Those people will remain a mockery until the end of time.’

‘Yes, well,’ El-i-miir continued, ‘does anyone remember that black pebble he was toting around?’

Seteal nodded and bit into a thick slice of bread. ‘I can’t imagine where he found it,’ she said almost unintelligibly before going to great efforts to swallow the excessively large chunk. ‘That must be what he meant when he said he had to find his “ball key.”’

‘That’s it,’ Teah choked out with wide eyes. ‘You’ve left the fate of the world in the hands of an owl.’

‘Oh, calm down.’ Seteal waved her hand dismissively. ‘He doesn’t have any hands,’ she joked before turning to Ilgrin. ‘Is she always like this?’

‘Afraid so.’ He smiled. Teah got up from the table only to return moments later flipping furiously through the pages of the Holy Tome.

Ilgrin leaned in close to Seteal. ‘Are we okay?’

‘Look, whatever, Ilgrin.’ She waved her hand distractedly. ‘I’m over it. Just think and do whatever you want. It makes no difference in the end.’ She peered over Ilgrin’s shoulder. ‘Would you please put that thing away, Teah?’

‘Just a minute.’

‘But I want it to matter,’ Ilgrin insisted. ‘I want us to be friends.’

‘Oh, for Maker’s sake.’ Seteal put down her knife and stood up, her friendly disposition having transformed into frustration. ‘Put the damned book away! I’m not interested.’

‘There,’ Teah cried frantically. ‘There. It’s here.’ She shoved the book up under Seteal’s nose. ‘Please, Seteal. It’s one sentence. Just look.’

‘“And Maker took the stone and made it perfect so that no impurity could be found within it by all of the Hae’Evunly host. And Maker said, ‘I, your Lord Maker, hath invested power over the Ways within thy Devil’s stone, that ye may keep thy covenant with Me.’” This could mean anything,’ Seteal said before taking another mouthful of bread. ‘It’s just another story about Maker putting powers into things.’

‘Ridiculous,’ El-i-miir snorted, slouching in her chair and crossing her arms.

‘Is this ridiculous, too?’ Teah slid her finger down the page where she ceased moving it and waited while Seteal’s eyes followed the writing.

‘So it basically says that Sa’Tan used the very same stone to open the gates of Hae’Evun.’ Seteal bit her lip and sat back looking perplexed.

‘Not you, too.’ El-i-miir threw up her arms. ‘These are just stories. Silts have shared the same world with us since the dawn of time.’ She stared up at a bunch of blank expressions. ‘You know what?’ El-i-miir wiped her hands on a towel and tossed it onto the table, ‘I’m going for a walk. You all enjoy your little Holy Tome study group.’ She crossed the room, slamming the door when she left.

Seteal scrunched up her nose and busied herself collecting the dishes. ‘I think El-i-miir’s right. Who’s to say Seeol’s pebble isn’t just some black rock he’s picked up in his travels? It wouldn’t be unusual for him to do that. He’s always developing silly little obsessions. You should have seen him last year. He was utterly obsessed with El-i-miir. You know he even became a—’ Seteal froze in her tracks and Ilgrin’s jaw dropped at the memory.

‘He became a what?’

‘He became human,’ Ilgrin answered.

‘He became human?’ Teah repeated, gaping at Ilgrin and then turned to Seteal. ‘And you didn’t wonder why?’

‘You don’t understand,’ Seteal said defensively. ‘At the time it wasn’t unusual for Seeol’s appearance to change. For a long time he’d become a giant monster at random intervals. He couldn’t control it until finally I did something to him. I’d only just recently changed his Way and we really didn’t know what to expect out of him. When he became human, we were all just sort of relieved that it hadn’t been something worse.’

‘But you said that he’s never had control over these transformations?’

‘That’s correct.’

‘And you also said he was obsessed with El-i-miir.’ Teah sort confirmation, which she received in the form of a nod from both Ilgrin and Seteal. ‘So becoming human was very likely something he chose to do in the hopes of gaining her respect as an equal.’

‘Now you’ve lost me,’ Ilgrin slapped his hands down on the table and pushed back his chair. ‘There’s no way in torrid Seeol has that much cunning in him. I simply cannot believe it. He’s just a bird.’

‘He can talk.’

‘Lots of birds can talk.’ Seteal nodded in agreement with Ilgrin. ‘Seeol is just not that clever. You’ve seen the way he behaves.’

‘You’re probably right,’ Teah murmured. ‘Perhaps he thought of it more simplistically than the way in which I described it. But what if he was having a nesting instinct or something of the sort and thought of the stone as an egg. All he’d have to do was accidentally touch the stone while feeling whatever primitive love he has for El-i-miir and the stone would’ve granted his desire.’

Ilgrin raised his eyebrows. ‘This is just all so surreal. Nobody really believes in stuff like that.’

‘I can show you more.’ Teah shrugged. ‘I can show you the prediction that the great whisp would come north, the story of the Holy Spirit descending in the clouds, prophesies foretelling the war we’re living through now. Even the angel hunts were predicted as a sign of the end. It’s all in here.’ She waggled the Holy Tome before their faces.

‘So . . .’ Seteal shrugged. ‘Assuming you’re right—’

‘Which I am,’ Teah interjected.

‘What do you propose we do?’

‘We have to locate the gates of Hae’Evun,’ Teah replied. ‘The Scriptures teach us that Maker—being a merciful Maker—would place the key in the lock, leaving the Holy Spirit only to turn it so that the gates could be opened.’

‘Maker!’ Seteal slapped the table.

‘Of course, Maker. Who else?’

‘When Seeol’s time ran out as a human, he fell down a crevice in the earth. That must be where the key is.’ When Seteal looked up she must have glimpsed Ilgrin’s doubt because she rushed on to explain. ‘Seeol would’ve had the stone in his pocket.’

Teah looked about ready to cry with joy. ‘You are the Holy Spirit,’ she whispered gleefully. ‘Look here,’ she pointed at a passage in the Tome. ‘Nobody will know the day nor the hour. No man nor the silts of Hae’Evun, but only Maker. And if you’re the spirit of Maker, that includes you.’

‘It might be time for us to stop fighting this, Seteal.’ Ilgrin reached across the table and squeezed his friend’s hand. ‘Maybe you are the Holy Spirit.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt-hew 24

 

32. “Now learn a parable of the fig tree: When the branch is yet tender and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh.

33. So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that the end is near, even at the doors.

34. Verily I say unto you, that generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled.

35. Hae’Evun and Earth shall pass away, but My Words shall not pass away.

36. But of that day and hour, knoweth no man, no, not the silts of Hae’Evun, but Maker only.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Fifteen

Isolation

 

 

Seteal may have been content eating out of cans, but El-i-miir certainly was not. It was for that very reason why she used her time away from the house to make some necessary purchases at the local market. After entering a rickety little building, El-i-miir found herself swamped by nasty glares and disapproving head-shakes. She hurried about her business gathering vegetables and a loaf of bread before making her way to the counter.

‘That’s it?’ the owner grumbled and then demanded an unusually large number of coins.

El-i-miir frowned, digging about in her bag. ‘That’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?’

‘You scared my other customers away,’ the shopkeeper replied nonchalantly.

When El-i-miir cast her eyes about the market, she realised that the man was quite correct. ‘Sorry about that,’ she mumbled, dumping some bronze coins into the man’s hand. ‘That’s all I’ve got.’

‘That’ll have to do then,’ the owner uttered, shoving the money into the till. ‘Do try not to scare off anyone else as you leave.’

El-i-miir stepped outside and placed her armful of paper bags on the bench in front of the shop. She dug around in her purse and felt the sharp angles of her mirror. She pulled it out and stared at the reflection of her eye. She stared for a long time at the white pupil and wondered when it had come to be something so feared. Was it the power they knew she possessed that struck at the people’s hearts or had it been cruel men like Far-a-mael who’d given the Elglair a bad name?

By the time El-i-miir had slid the mirror back into her bag and collected the groceries, she turned around to find herself confronted by a group of young boys. ‘Stone the witch!’ the ringleader shouted, pitching back his arm and throwing a rock at El-i-miir’s face. The pain brought tears to her eyes.

‘Little bastards.’ El-i-miir cried out when another couple of rocks bounced off her arm and hip. ‘Run!’

She felt her many pairs of legs turn and hurry down the street in terror. She cast an eye over his shoulder and saw herself looking back at herself. When the children were far enough down the road, she severed the possession and made her way home. El-i-miir crashed through the door into a scene that was quite different form the one she’d left.

Teah sat beside Ilgrin with her hand on his arm and the two were laughing, apparently at something Seteal had said. The laughter ceased when El-i-miir came closer and Ilgrin pulled away from Teah. ‘Is something funny?’ El-i-miir asked with a forced smile as she set down the groceries on the table in such a way that it limited eye contact between Seteal and the other two.

‘Your face,’ Ilgrin said in alarm.

‘It’s nothing,’ El-i-miir murmured, whipping out her mirror and examining the cut on her forehead. ‘Some boys wanted to stone me. And does anyone know what “witch” means?’ The others simply shrugged or otherwise indicated their ignorance.

‘Was there a tall blond boy at the front?’ Seteal asked. ‘That would be the Ohrilly boy. His parents should be flogged. He’s always stirring up trouble.’

‘Let me get that.’ Ilgrin reached across the table to take the paper bags. El-i-miir watched the stretch of white flesh with vulgar blue hues. His fingers, devoid of nails curled around the bags and dragged them across the table. As he lifted them his wing protruded slightly for balance. El-i-miir leant back against the wall and despite her better senses began to shake uncontrollably.

‘Are you all right?’ Teah stood.

‘Get away from me,’ El-i-miir said firmly before exiting the room.

‘El-i-miir?’ Seteal hurried after her and took her arm. ‘Ilgrin told us what happened, but you’re safe here. You know that.’

‘The resurrections.’ El-i-miir felt her lip quivering. ‘I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve died.’

‘Seteal,’ Ilgrin murmured as he approached. ‘Let me talk to her. Would that be okay, El-i-miir? Could I speak with you in private?’

‘Sure.’ She wiped her nose. ‘Of course,’ she added as the two entered the sitting room.

‘Listen,’ Ilgrin whispered, placing a hand on her shoulder. ‘I know that what you went through must have been traumatic.’

‘To say the least.’ El-i-miir dabbed at a tear.

‘Well, I didn’t stop loving you when I ordered you to leave Hel,’ Ilgrin changed the topic. ‘I loved you very much.’

El-i-miir cringed at his use of past tense. ‘Loved?’

‘Um . . . recent events have shown me that maybe a human and—’

‘No no,’ El-i-miir cut him off and backed away.

‘ . . . and a demon,’ Ilgrin picked up where he’d left off, ‘perhaps shouldn’t be together.’

‘Why are you saying this?’ El-i-miir choked out. ‘I just need a little time. I’ll be okay. You don’t need to do this.’

‘It’s more complicated than all that,’ Ilgrin insisted. ‘Whether you want to believe it or not, the gates of Hae’Evun are real and when we open them, what do you think is going to happen to me? I’ll have to return to the world that my ancestors abandoned.’

‘So that’s it, is it?’ El-i-miir stared hatefully through the doorway and into the kitchen where she could see Teah’s wings floating beside her chair.

‘Yes.’

‘Rubbish,’ El-i-miir shoved him in the chest. ‘It’s because of that bitch in there!’

‘For the love of Maker, would you keep your voice down?’

‘Do you love her?’

‘This isn’t about Teah.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ El-i-miir hissed. ‘You’re a liar. Liar! I know, Ilgrin. I always know a lie.’

‘All right,’ Ilgrin snapped. ‘I care about her, yes, but I loved my mother, too, and my father. Maybe even Seteal. But it’s not the same kind of love as that which I shared with you. If you’re so good at detecting the truth, you must believe that.’

‘Don’t let her get in there, Ilgrin.’ El-i-miir poked the left side of his chest. ‘Your heart is mine.’

‘Don’t you think I’m painfully aware of that?’ The silt flushed blue, suddenly angry. He threw up his palms to reveal his recently acquired blisters and burns. ‘I almost died resurrecting you, just like I almost died saving you from demons. I got shot when we were looking for Teah. I almost drowned. I was caught in the fires of Hel and I’m sure you’ve lost count of how many times you’ve died. Well, guess what? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to resurrect you. And that’s how I know . . .’ Ilgrin’s voice shuddered. ‘That’s how I knew Seteal’s prophesy would come true that I’d die saving your life, because as long as we’re together, I’ll be there to protect you. That’s why we will never work.’

‘I don’t understand,’ El-i-miir sobbed.

‘I’m tired.’ Ilgrin lowered his face so that his dark blue hair fell forward. ‘I’m tired of being scared. Every time you get into trouble, I have to wonder if it’s my last day alive. Will it be this time that I die? Is this how I’ll meet my end? It’s driving me insane. The cost of loving you is just too much. You know how I know that? Because when I was in the river, my body having almost been torn apart, my head hit the bottom and I let go,’ Ilgrin stressed the final words. ‘Do you understand me? I gave up.’

‘You nearly drowned?’

‘I nearly drowned and Teah saved my life.’ Ilgrin nodded slowly. ‘When I hit the bottom I was grateful. Finally I wouldn’t have to wonder anymore. I knew that if I was dying, you had to have been safe somewhere. So I gave up. And I’d be dead if it weren’t for her.’ He jabbed a finger toward the kitchen. ‘Well, I refuse to waste another day fearing it’ll be my last.’

‘But I love you,’ El-i-miir said, trying to restrain tears. ‘Don’t go.’ She grabbed his arm, only to be dragged across the room with him. ‘I love you.’

‘Well, I don’t love you,’ Ilgrin barked, shaking free of El-i-miir’s grip so fiercely that she hit floor. There she remained, her eyes filling with tears as she inwardly cursed her Elglair heritage.

She stifling a sob. ‘You meant that. You really meant that.’

‘Yes,’ Ilgrin said slowly, seemingly unable to believe it himself. ‘Apparently I did,’ the demon murmured, leaving to resume his conversation with the others. He closed the door behind him, leaving El-i-miir to wallow in self-pity.

 

*

 

When Seteal heard the front door slam she took the opportunity to excuse herself from the table and made her way outside in time to see El-i-miir running away. She pursued her, having concerns that she might again be attacked by the pack of boys. Seteal found her outside of Narvon Wood sitting beneath a tree with her head down and her arms wrapped around her legs. ‘Get up,’ Seteal uttered.

‘No,’ came El-i-miir’s muffled response. ‘He said he doesn’t love me.’

‘Is that so?’ Seteal replied tiredly. She wished her biggest problems could’ve been so small as those associated with romance.

‘He meant it,’ El-i-miir sobbed. ‘I could tell.’

‘Maybe he did.’ Seteal sat down beside her. ‘So win him back.’

‘I shouldn’t have to.’ El-i-miir looked up, revealing a face wet with tears. ‘He should still love me.’

‘Maybe he does,’ Seteal shrugged.

‘I just told you—’

‘—that he meant it,’ Seteal finished for her. ‘I know. So maybe he did mean it in the heat of the moment. I once told my father that I hated him. I was so angry that at the time I truly thought I meant it.’ Seteal looked over at the graveyard with a heavy heart.

‘Perhaps you’re right.’ El-i-miir sniffed, resting her head back against the tree. ‘Seteal?’

‘Yes.’

‘You don’t really believe in the gates of Hae’Evun, do you?’

‘I might,’ she replied apologetically.

‘You know what the Tome says about girls like you, right?’

Seteal bit her lip. ‘I do.’

‘So you know if it’s all true . . .’ she trailed off.

‘I know,’ Seteal exhaled slowly. ‘He hates me. I’m nothing holy.’

‘Maybe you’re supposed to change?’ El-i-miir offered.

Seteal suitably burst out laughing. ‘If only it were that simple. My whole life could’ve been a lot easier.’

‘So, the black stone?’ El-i-miir asked after a long while.

‘That,’ Seteal said slowly, ‘I believe is something truly remarkable. I only wish I’d realised it earlier.’

‘Do you think it could create an opening into Hae’Evun?’

‘It was able to turn Seeol into a man . . .’ Seteal rocked forward to make patterns in the dirt with her finger. ‘Listen, El-i-miir, I’m not sure how much of the Tome is really true, but I can float. I can leave my body. These things are true. So I don’t know if the Holy Tome got the details right, but I think it’s got a point. If there is a way to open up the gates of Hae’Evun, why shouldn’t we seize it? I know it sounds desperate, but the world is turning to torrid. Maybe we can get rid of these monsters once and for all.’ Seteal slapped a hand over her mouth and got to her feet, immediately regretting what she’d said. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘No, it’s okay,’ El-i-miir choked out. ‘He’s the love of my life, but that’s not worth losing the whole world for. I know that.’ She got up to look Seteal in the eye. ‘So tell me, what’re you doing about it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘If the key is so important,’ El-i-miir pushed, ‘why haven’t you projected. As a spirit you could locate it in minutes and bring it back here. You can make things float, right? So when it comes to the fate of our world, why the torrid are you depending on an owl?’

Seteal pursed her lips. ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’

‘That’s it?’ El-i-miir shot her a distasteful expression. ‘That’s all you’re going to give me? We’re supposed to be friends.’

Seteal opened her mouth, but found she was quite unable to reveal the truth. ‘Sorry.’ She turned to go home.

‘Wait.’ El-i-miir grabbed her arm. ‘You owe me an explanation.’

‘I don’t owe you anything, El-i-miir,’ Seteal said accusingly.

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Well, it’s true,’ Seteal replied. ‘I don’t owe you, or Ilgrin, or the rest of the world a Maker-damned thing. Just because I can do a few things that others can’t, doesn’t mean I should have to.’

‘I cannot believe how selfish you are.’ El-i-miir frowned disapprovingly and headed back toward Elmsville.

Seteal watched the woman make her way cautiously along the dirt road and into the distance. Thunder rumbled. The sky darkened to match Seteal’s mood and as had happened so many times before, she vanished into the frozen reality of the knowing. A legion of no less than one thousand troops beat their wings on approach to Elmsville. Seteal put a hand over her mouth and took a few uncertain steps. She could stop them before they arrived. All she had to do was leave her body. She pushed against the Ways and felt the strings that bound her beginning to snap. Her ability to see became something other than what she saw simultaneously through her eyes. The canvas of the Ways exploded into existence before her, but she was reluctant to release the final hold on her body.

With a violent wave of nausea, Seteal felt, smelt, and tasted Parrowun’s decaying flesh. She heard his screams from the past and felt his pain and fear as he’d died. She felt the pressure around her throat and the inability to breathe. She pulled at her body firmly, desperate to escape the horrors that the Ways forced upon her. Seteal stitched the canvas back around herself, even as new strands fell apart of their own volition.

‘Let me stay,’ Seteal cried, losing her grip on the physical world.

‘Is that what you really want?’ a serpentine voice hissed from somewhere beyond the canvas.

Grains of dirt trickled into the wooden crate buried behind Seteal’s house. There Parrowun’s body decomposed: his eyes sunken in, his lips eaten by worms, his skin becoming hard and green. Seteal could feel it all. ‘I can’t leave,’ Seteal whispered as the Ways settled down around her. ‘If I leave now, I’ll never come back.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heb-bri-ew 3

 

10. Therefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘They do always err in their heart, and they have not truly known My Ways.’

11. So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter into My rest.’

12. Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the Lord Maker.

 

 

 

 

2 Pe-t-er 2

 

21. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they had known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.

22. But it has happened unto them according to the true proverb: ‘The dog turns to his own vomit,’ and, ‘the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.’

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER sixteen

the truth

 

 

The field was green, decorated by only one tree at its centre. It was there that the silt escort had left Jakob to complete his task. From such a vantage point, the town of Elmsville was a smear of white chimney puffs and slate-tiled rooftops in the quaint valley below. He knew what he should be doing. He should scurry down there with his hair in disarray making wild claims about small children being tortured in the southern parts of Narvon Wood. Or perhaps he could claim that he’d discovered a handful of dissonant silts that’d taken human women as sex slaves. That’d be sure enough to prick Ilgrin’s overly righteous conscience. This was all his fault anyway, Jakob thought irritably. Noah would’ve killed him, so he’d had no choice, but Ilgrin . . . If he only would’ve let El-i-miir die, all of this could’ve been avoided.

Ilgrin was supposed to have been their saviour. Jakob had worked hard to put the rightful Devil on the throne and yet when it had finally been accomplished, the ungrateful wretch had just thrown it all away. And for what? The Elglair—the enemy.

Over the years Jakob had assassinated some thirty-eight people; the most recent having been his own father. That, too, he’d done for Ilgrin. He’d so badly wanted his father to be the last and yet here he was on the precipice of yet another murder. It’d never bothered him so much as it did now. But for his father, he’d never personally known any of his previous targets and certainly hadn’t come to consider them as friends.

Jakob cast his eyes over his shoulder, expecting at any moment to hear that awful sound. A thousand sets of wings would tear the clouds to shreds as they made their way to slaughter the inhabitants of the miniscule town below. Ilgrin would suffer enough with a life ended during battle. Surely he didn’t deserve the fate Noah had planned out for him. But what would happen to Jakob if he fail to deliver?

Rolling up his sleeve, Jakob stared disparagingly at his silt wing tattoo with loathing. It was a cruelty of life, having received it before he was old enough to know what it meant. It was unfair of his parents to have decided for him in whom he should put his faith. Now in his mid-twenties, surely it was time for Jakob to choose his own destiny. He rolled down the sleeve and turned around. Noah would find him, of course. He’d lost the affiliates, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other Elglair Sa’Tanists loyal to the cause. Jakob pushed back his blond hair and took a deep breath. It was time for him to start taking responsibility for his actions.

They could kill him if they wanted to, but he was done with taking people’s lives.

 

*

 

‘Ilgrin tells me angels are capable of controlling whisps,’ Seteal said urgently, having corned Teah in the kitchen.

‘Sometimes.’ Teah looked at her sideways. ‘They’re not usually very cooperative, but sometimes we can manage to convince them to find a new target. They tend to be more agreeable if the trade-off appears to work in their favour.’

‘What about the white ones?’

‘Sieifts?’ Teah raised her eyebrows. ‘You don’t need an angel for that. Most people can control them in some rudimentary way. They’re docile enough and usually willing to perform any good deed asked of them. What is it with all the questions?’

‘I need you to make one,’ Seteal said quickly before she could change her mind.

‘You’re not suggesting . . . ?’

‘You can use me,’ Seteal insisted. ‘I’ll do it.’

‘That’s out of the question. You don’t know what you’re asking.’ Teah frowned. ‘It’s pain unlike anything you could imagine, like being burned by a thousand fires and cut by a million blades all at once.’

‘I don’t care. We need that key and I have to do something.’

‘And what are you planning exactly,’ Teah narrowed her eyes. ‘Even sieifts have their limitations.’

‘You could ask it to bring us the key,’ Seteal suggested.

‘That would require that either the sieift or one of us knew where it was,’ Teah replied. ‘And besides that, I highly doubt you could find a sieift with enough intelligence to accomplish such a task.’

‘All right.’ Seteal looked about desperately. ‘Well, we could ask it to help Seeol find it.’

Teah tapped her chin for a few seconds. ‘That might work. At any rate, I’d have to convince the sieift that such an activity is a work of good. They’re not interested in doing mundane chores, you know.’

‘Then you’ll do it?’

‘You’re the Spirit of Maker.’ Teah flicked her hair over her shoulder and looked down into Seteal’s eyes. ‘I’ll do whatever you ask, even if it is against my better judgement. But I must ask, why don’t you just . . . project, I think Ilgrin called it?’

‘I’m not able to leave my body for now,’ Seteal said evasively.

‘But couldn’t you just float down to the borderlands and find it yourself?’

‘I’m fast,’ Seteal murmured. ‘But I’m not that fast. This way is better.’

‘Really?’ Teah scrunched up her nose in disbelief. ‘Leaving the world’s salvation to an owl and a sieift is a better idea than doing it ourselves?’

‘I will not leave,’ Seteal stated with finality. ‘Now, let’s get this over with.’

‘All right.’ Teah followed Seteal upstairs and waited for her to lie down on the bed.

‘You mustn’t stop until you’re certain you’ve created a sieift of infallible proportions.’

‘I’m really not comfortable with this,’ Teah objected.

‘Just do it,’ Seteal demanded before clenching her teeth in anticipation of what was to come.

 

*

 

El-i-miir threw down the chopping board and started cutting the carrots into thin, circular pieces. She wasn’t feeling particularly generous toward the household in general, but preparing supper would allow her to focus on something other than her sense of isolation.

‘What’re you doing?’ Ilgrin asked from the doorway.

‘What does it look like I’m—ouch,’ El-i-miir cried out, having slipped and cut her finger. ‘Now look what you’ve done.’ She found a towel and put pressure on the wound.

‘Listen,’ Ilgrin started, his eyes on the ground. ‘I came to apologise for what I said earlier.’

‘What’s done is done,’ El-i-miir said bitterly and resumed chopping the vegetables. ‘I’m too much of a burden to love. I understand. I’m surprised you didn’t turn against me sooner.’

‘No one has turned against you, El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin said. ‘I don’t not love you.’

‘You,’ El-i-miir pointed the knife at him, ‘are a very confusing man, Ilgrin Geld.’

‘I know.’ He replied. ‘I know that.’

A scream fell through the floorboards from above. So horrific was the sound that it took El-i-miir a moment to recognise it as belonging to Seteal. She tried to get out of the kitchen, but Ilgrin moved to block her. ‘Get out of the way!’ she shouted as Seteal’s scream intensified.

‘She made me promise we wouldn’t come up,’ Ilgrin replied nervously.

‘To torrid with that.’ El-i-miir threw a fat lump of affiliation into Ilgrin’s aura that sent him sprinting across the room. She ran up the stairs and barged through Seteal’s door to find her writhing in agony. Teah hovered above her with outstretched hands. ‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir cried, before charging at the angel.

The angel thrust out a hand, snapped her fingers around El-i-miir’s throat and lifted her, choking, from the ground. She kicked out her feet, but couldn’t quite make contact with the angel’s leg. She reached for Teah’s aura, but had become too lightheaded to manipulate it by any useful means. ‘I need my hand back,’ Teah growled. With a wave of her arm, the silt threw El-i-miir across the room where she crashed into the wall and hit the floor with a thud.

‘Stop it,’ El-i-miir sobbed. Teah replaced her hand and Seteal’s screaming ceased, her agony becoming such that she could no longer spare the breath to vocalise. ‘Enough!’ El-i-miir shouted. She affiliated Teah’s aura and the angel pulled away.

El-i-miir stepped back and Teah’s face became one of horror in reflection of her own. She looked at herself panting on the ground across the room, before turning her attention back to Seteal in time to see a white whisp purging its way from any exit it could find.

‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir asked through Teah’s mouth. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Release her.’ Seteal gagged, looking El-i-miir in the eye. ‘This is important.’

El-i-miir snapped the cord and Teah turned to her with a look of disgust. ‘I should kill you, you miserable little creature.’

‘Teah,’ Seteal said tiredly, sitting up as streams of white mist flowed from her flesh. ‘The task.’

‘Of course,’ the angel replied. She raised her hands and the mist condensed. It churned about itself, becoming an increasingly dense ball. Teah gesticulated and the ball floated close to her. As it came to hover between her hands, her aura started to shine vividly, allowing El-i-miir to view it properly for the first time. The ball of sieift blasted through the window and vanished so quickly that El-i-miir hadn’t been able to follow it with her eyes. ‘It’s done,’ Teah murmured. ‘The rest is up to the bird.’

El-i-miir hurried to Seteal’s side. ‘Are you all right?’

‘You should rest for a few days,’ Teah cautioned, ‘but you won’t have suffered any permanent damage.’

‘You’re a monster,’ El-i-miir said in disgust.

Seteal wearily stood and turned to face her. ‘You . . . don’t ever get to call me selfish. Not ever. I have given everything. You don’t get to accuse me of that ever again.’ That said, she marched out of the room.

‘What the torrid was that?’ El-i-miir glared at Teah. ‘You talked her into it, didn’t you?’

‘Seteal is capable of independent thought, you know.’ Teah looked at El-i-miir as though she’d just taken a bite out of something rotten. ‘She’s stronger than you give her credit for.’

‘Hey.’ El-i-miir snatched at Teah’s arm to stop her from leaving. ‘You just . . . you need to stay away from these people. Maybe this is all a game to you, but I actually care about them.’

‘Why don’t you just say what you really want to.’ Teah smiled mockingly.

‘All right.’ El-i-miir took a deep breath and looked up into her eyes. ‘Stay away from Ilgrin. We can work things out if you’ll give us some space to do so.’

‘Really?’ Teah raised her eyebrows. ‘Poor dear.’ The angel petted El-i-miir’s cheek condescendingly. ‘Your gil-honed abilities are so flawed when it comes to that which you do not wish to see.’

‘What?’ El-i-miir almost laughed. ‘You cannot possibly think he’s interested in you.’

Teah bent over and put her lips beside El-i-miir’s ear. ‘It sure seemed like it when he fucked me.’

El-i-miir fell back against the wall. ‘You’re not lying.’ Her voice shook. And through the swirling mush of lights and streams flowing in and out of Teah’s aura, she found strand linking the angel to Ilgrin. ‘Oh, Maker.’ She covered her mouth in horror. The angel simply laughed and left the room. ‘How could he?’ El-i-miir squeaked to nobody as she slid down the wall with a broken heart.

 

*

 

Seeol’s muscles ached, elf owls not being partial to such lengths of time in flight. His wings were better purposed for fluttering about the trees to capture bugs and squash them, not flying endlessly. Seeol stopped atop a slender branch which flexed wildly beneath him. He dug in his talons, breathing heavily and snapping at the bitter-tasting ants biting his feet. They were disgusting. He hated them!

Wondering where he was, Seeol peered through the trees. On account of his brilliant sense of direction, he knew that he’d been flying southeast, but how far he’d come was a mystery. He’d crossed a river at some point, but was yet to breach the woods and escape into the open countryside. Surely it couldn’t be too much longer. He’d been flying for days and was so very tired.

Seeol twitched toward a sound in time to see a snake rear back and flash forward. Snakes always seemed to be in such a hurry. A branch snapped and fell toward them at the exact same moment and as the snake’s jaws snapped shut they did so around the branch. Seeol shrieked in alarm and took off back into the night.

The thought of El-i-miir kept him going. His heart skipped a beat. Seeol wasn’t a fool, having come to accept that she would never feel the same way. She’d made that abundantly clear. Still, love didn’t have to be returned for it to be maintained. Thunder tearing through the sky signalled the beginning of a storm and Seeol’s flight became laboured as his feathers moistened. He dipped lower and lower until finally he splashed into the mud.

‘Is don’t not matter, Seteal,’ he murmured to himself as he hopped along the ground. ‘I am not gonna giving up.’

The world was a dangerous place for an animal so small as Seeol, and it’d taken him a long time to figure out why he’d survived at all. At first he’d thought Seteal had been protecting him, but more recently had come to realise that it was the inner darkness. It had disturbed him greatly at first. If the darkness was protecting him, then it followed that it must’ve been doing so for a dark purpose. Evil never produced good works. Seeol had learnt that quickly.

A howl rose up from somewhere in the north, but Seeol was fearless. He knew he could not be harmed by any earthly creation. His darkness twisted and recoiled. It was an uneasiness that Seeol was not accustomed to. His stomach turned to lead and despite the pouring rain the world fell silent. Glancing about himself, Seeol found he was quickly overcome by fear. He turned and saw something churning against the wind.

The white mist stood out in the grey of night. Long streaks of lightning illuminated it ever more fearsomely. As the white spilt toward Seeol, he found himself without doubt that it was coming to get him. He lowered his head and hurried on. He beat his wings but couldn’t even reach a half stride into the air before splashing back into the mud. He couldn’t out run it. He couldn’t match it. The white mist bit into his flesh and drained him.

Seeol opened his eyes to find himself in a place of silence. Impenetrable white surrounded him on every side. ‘Hello?’ he called, but there was no response other than for the white to close in on him. He screamed in fits of agony as a putrid black mist tore away from his body. He rolled about in horror, flapping his drenched wings and screaming. His heart burned and its beat became irregular as the dark film ebbed away from him. Blackness poured out from Seeol’s mouth and was snatched up from his flesh only to be devoured by the churning white vacuum.

Golden eyes burst open and Seeol tumbled across the dirt. Above him the sky was black. There were no stars and the lightning had changed. Prolonged strands like purple serpents snapped at the earth where fires came to life and animals became monsters. Despite his disorientation, Seeol tried to regain his senses. There, in the distance . . . but it couldn’t be.

The great crevice that cut through the earth, leading down into eternity was only a hundred strides away. Somehow, Seeol had been propelled by the white mist into the borderlands. He was back at the battlefield where Far-a-mael and the Jenjen had made their stand. This was where he’d lost the Devil’s Stone—the key to the gates of Hae’Evun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Seventeen

talons

 

 

Seeol bounced cautiously over to the precipice. He knew that doing so may well be risky business. The crevice had almost swallowed him last time. He tried not to look about himself too much. The number of vultures had reduced, most of the bodies having had every last scrap of meat stripped from their skeletons. The vast majority were human, the silts having resurrected many of their own before they’d gotten too dead.

Peering over the edge, Seeol momentarily lost his footing, but quickly regained it and watched stones he’d dislodged fall endlessly into the dark. He took a moment to wander about the edge of the pit until finding a spot where he was semi-confident could’ve been the place where he’d lost his clothing. He pitched forward and opened his wings.

Seeol was immediately confused by the sounds of echoing voices, but he couldn’t pinpoint them because they bounced of every surface. He dipped this way and that, inspecting a variety of ledges as he descended. Eventually the light became so poor that even he had trouble making out the shape of the rock face. The voices bouncing around the cavern didn’t help either, only serving to confuse his sense of direction.

There was a loud roar as a mass of rocks tumbled down from above and a gush of wind sent Seeol spiralling out of control. A moment later a thick column of purple light blasted passed him and continued down into the distance, thereby illuminating the pit.

Realising that the whisp lightning wouldn’t last long, Seeol seized the opportunity to take in his surroundings. Some fifty strides below a group of men harnessed in a network of ropes were searching for something. Twenty strides above them a dusty lump sat precariously balanced on a short ledge. The purple lightning vanished. Leaving a black stain on Seeol’s vision, but it couldn’t erase what he’d already seen: his trousers.

‘Did you see that?’ A deep male voice enquired from below. ‘I think we might’ve missed something.’ A lantern illuminated his face.

‘Are you certain,’ an oddly familiar voice replied. ‘I don’t want to waste any more time down here than we have to.’

‘I thought I saw something on the ledge above.’

‘I’ll hoist you up,’ a third and much younger voice chimed in.

‘Torrid,’ Seeol hissed. The men had also noticed his pants.

‘What was that?’ the familiar voice said uneasily. Seeol inwardly reprimanded himself for having spoken. If their voices echoed, so too would his. Fortunately the men’s attention shifted when a guttural moan erupted from the depths of the pit. ‘For the love of Maker! It sounds like the lightning left something down there for us. Let’s check out the ledge and get out of here. We can start again tomorrow.’

As quickly as possible, Seeol flew to the ledge and landed atop the trousers. ‘What was that?’ the younger man cried fearfully at the reverberating sound of Seeol’s wings.

‘It’s just a bat or something,’ the deep voice said dismissively. ‘Help me with the rope.’

‘It didn’t sound like a bat to me,’ the familiar voice said suspiciously.

After sparing a second to ponder as to how he knew the voice, Seeol dismissed it and decided that there were more important things to worry about. He slithered into the mass of material in search for his right pocket, but his efforts were useless against the weight of the enormous garment. With a final desperate yank, the trousers rolled over and a pocket was revealed. But he’d pulled too hard and before he could do anything about it the pants slid right off the ledge.

There was a gasp of surprise. ‘What is that?’

‘What’s wrong?’ The young voice enquired.

‘I think . . . yes, a pair of trousers fell on my face,’ the deep voice said in bewilderment.

Seeol paced back and forth across the ledge, not sure of what to do. He dove over the edge and snatched at anything he could for a place to land. The owner or the young voice shrieked fearfully and battered Seeol out of his tangled mop of hair. ‘There’s something in here.’

‘Stop being such a baby,’ the deep voice chuckled. ‘It’s just a bat.’

Seeol leapt onto the pants hanging from the man’s arm and wriggled into the pocket. He squirmed down into the depths and locked his toes around a cold sphere; the Devil’s Stone. He’d found it. ‘Enough,’ the familiar voice announced. ‘I can’t see a single thing down here. We’ll resume the search tomorrow. Now, unless you plan on keeping those . . .’

‘No, they’re pretty filthy,’ the deep voice replied.

Seeol became weightless as he sailed through the air and into the abyss, trapped within the confines of his pant pocket. Unable to control his fear, he shrieked, flopping back and forth and around and around.

‘Wait,’ he heard the familiar voice cry out from some distance. ‘I know that sound.’ In that very moment, Seeol too recognised his voice. It was Phil Yas, the man he’d banished from the Jenjen army for knowingly putting Seteal and El-i-miir in danger.

The voices disappeared into obscurity as Seeol squirmed against the cloth all the while trying to maintain his grip on the Devil’s Stone. When he’d finally untangled himself, the sky above was little more than a slither of barely distinguishable grey on black. A thunderous roar deafened him and left his ears ringing. He flew furiously but was bumped aside as a cold scaly head snapped past him followed by a seemingly endless neck.

Increasing numbers of the creatures snapped at Seeol as he flew for freedom, but no amount of distance he put between himself and the creatures seemed to separate him from them. As the light increased steadily, he was able to make out that there was in fact only one monster, but that it had seven heads and ten horns. It had four legs and a long tail. The multi-headed creature tore its way after Seeol and up toward the surface.

The muscles in Seeol’s wings burned, but he didn’t dare slow down and test the degree to which his darkness would protect him against such a monster. He propelled himself out of the abyss and into the open air, but he did so too late. One of the monster’s many heads shot out after him and snapped shut.

Seeol shuddered in the moist darkness of the monster’s mouth as it tried to swallow him whole. ‘No!’ Seeol shouted, losing his grip on the Devil’s Stone. It rolled to the back of the monster’s throat. ‘Is mine!’ He dove toward it, but was then pushed farther back as the monster again tried to swallow. Terrified for his life, Seeol bit its massive tongue as hard as he could. The monster’s mouth burst open and Seeol was blown out into the night on its hot breath. The stone disappeared down the monster’s throat.

Gunfire filled the air. Seeol tumbled across the ground. The sticky saliva had coated his feathers in a layer of dirt and grass. The monster reared up on its hind legs and snapped at a group of some thirty Jenjen soldiers defending a small camp of maroon-coloured military tents. Only when each head had received a bullet, an arrow, or had been severed by a sword did the monster buckle and become silent. ‘Yuck,’ Seeol grumbled as he tried to flick and flap away the saliva and grime.

‘Listen up,’ Phil Yas called out to his men when he was certain that the beast was dead. ‘I have reason to believe the false prophet is close. It has likely returned to find the very same artefact that King Harundor sent us to retrieve. If you discover it, you must capture it. If you cannot capture it, you are to kill it. Is that clear?’ Phil continued once the men had shouted their agreement. ‘As for this monster of the deep . . . put it back to the depths from whence it came.’

‘No,’ Seeol whispered. He had to choose between two equally unfavourable options. Either he revealed himself and the location of the stone to the Jenjen, or he pursued the monster into the pit and attempted to retrieve the stone himself. There would only be one way to do that. He’d have to go inside.

Frozen by uncertainty, Seeol watched as the men lined up to push the giant corpse back toward the abyss. Seeol tried again to shake the saliva out of his feathers, but the stuff was impossibly thick. It occurred to him that even if he could get inside the monster, it was very unlikely he’d be able to find his way back out. There really was only one option.

‘Phil,’ Seeol cried, racing across the expanse, his feathers too caked for him to have any chance of flying. ‘Phil Yas!’

Phil gaped at Seeol as he approached to within a few strides. ‘Get it!’

‘The stone,’ Seeol cried. ‘The Devil’s Stone; the monster swallowed it.’

‘Halt,’ Phil barked and the men ceased pushing the monster toward the edge. ‘Get the bird.’

For now the stone was safe, but there was no telling what these men would do to Seeol. He knew how they’d interpret what had taken place when they’d considered him to be the Holy Spirit. They’d blame him for it, none having greater reason to dislike him than Phil.

Seeol scrabbled through the grass. Chunks of land erupted into the air all around him as bullets hit the earth. He was blasted sideways, leapt to his feet, and continued at a feverish pace. An arrow sliced through the air. Seeol fell onto his face, his wings outstretched. Searing pain wove its way up Seeol’s leg and he turned to find himself pinned to the earth, his foot buried beneath the dirt from which an arrow protruded. He tore his leg free, to find that only a bloody stump remained where his foot had previously been. Blood squirted from Seeol’s leg as he hobbled over to a patch of long grass.

Shock engulfed him. His darkness had failed to protect him. He pushed through the pain as heavy footfall flattened the grass around him and giant hands swept about in search of him. Seeol realised that his life, perhaps for the very first time, was truly in danger. The white whisp had sucked the protective darkness out of him. Seeol felt alone in becoming exactly what he’d always wanted to be: just like everyone else.

‘I’ve got it,’ a man cried victoriously, his hand squeezing Seeol and dragging him into the air.

‘No,’ he cried shakily and bit the man’s finger as hard as he could.

Seeol fell back into the grass and started hobbling away. ‘Get it!’ someone cried. He almost passed out each time his bloodied stump touched the earth, but he kept going all the same. He stumbled, constantly having to flick out his wings to keep balance. He glanced at his foot and found the wound to be clotted with dirt, trailing dark red blotches with every painful step. He felt dizzy.

‘Got you,’ Phil hissed victoriously, snatching him into the air. Seeol tried to bite him, but the man held him in such a way that he couldn’t move his head, having wedged it between two fingers. ‘They said I was mad,’ he chuckled, ‘but I knew that sooner or later you’d come back to find it. A creature of evil would never miss such an opportunity for power, so I came prepared.’

‘Please,’ Seeol moaned wearily. ‘Letting me go. I’m having to do important activities.’

‘I prepared for you all right.’ Phil laughed as he made his way over to a large black horse. Hanging from the saddle was an object Seeol had never encountered, but it didn’t take long to realise its purpose. ‘There you go.’ Phil slid a small door open and forced Seeol into a circular bird cage. ‘You’re a greater prize than the stone itself. The king will be most pleased.’

Seeol missed the perch and fell to the cold metal floor. The door slid down and was locked. Without anything solid to grip onto, Seeol slid along on his feathers and attacked the bars. His head then lowered involuntarily and his eyes closed. He felt his tongue clicking softly within his beak and tried to breathe through the phantom pain of an absent foot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Eighteen

perspective

 

 

‘I know.’ The portly woman shook her head and dumped a ladle of green mush into a small bowl. ‘I’m just saying, we have young boys in this town and everybody knows the sinful desires rattling about in a boy’s head. It’s just not right,’ she stressed. ‘She can’t just go floating off in the sky like that. What if one of them had seen up her dress?’

‘Mother!’ Cindi dropped the spoon. ‘I’m certain that was the last thing on anyone’s mind.’

‘Don’t be so sure,’ Cindi’s mother, Mel, frowned and peered out the window to watch her fourteen-year-old son kicking a ball in the yard. ‘Idle hands are the devil’s playground.’

‘I’m going for a walk,’ Cindi excused herself and stood up.

‘I’m sorry, dear.’ Mel’s voice softened. ‘I know you cared about her very much.’

‘I should go over there,’ Cindi mused aloud. ‘Apologise.’

‘What?’ Mel gasped. Cindi spun around at the sound of clattering cutlery. ‘You cannot possibly mean that.’

‘Seteal won’t hurt me,’ Cindi said slowly.

‘Are you blind?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m simply asking if you’re blind, dear.’ Mel shrugged. ‘I’m doing so because I cannot arrive at any other conclusion than you having somehow missed seeing what that Eltari woman did the other day.’

‘We did try to chase her out of town.’ Cindi focused on the floor at her toes. ‘She’s always been rather short-tempered. You know that.’

‘Now you listen to me,’ Mel snapped, her patience having run out. She stomped across the room and took Cindi by the ear. ‘You’re not to go near her, do you hear me? If you want to behave like a child, I will not hesitate in bending you over and spanking you with the cooking ladle.’

‘Yes, Mother.’ Cindi cringed, her ear throbbing.

‘There are demons over there,’ Mel said in a hushed voice. ‘For Maker’s sake, child, don’t be such a fool.’

‘Yes, Mother,’ Cindi repeated demurely.

‘If I hear mention of this again, I’ll have no choice but tell your father. He’ll backhand some sense into you.’

Cindi turned silently and made her way to the window. She stared out across the square and was able to make out the roof of Seteal’s house. She dared not disobey her mother, but Cindi couldn’t imagine Seteal ever hurting her, no matter what she’d become. She had always been rather quick to anger, but above all else she had also been fair.

The sky had been divided in two and it unsettled Cindi as much as anyone else living in Elmsville. The northern half of the sky was perfectly normal, whilst Narvon Wood had come to be bathed in eternal darkness below the strange black clouds that steadily moved north. It didn’t take any great stretch of wisdom to realise that soon enough Elmsville, too, would lie in the shadows. Cindi felt certain that if answers were to be found, they would be at the Eltari residence.

‘What is that?’ Mel enquired when a strange sound floated in from outside. Craning her neck, Cindi squinted at the eastern sky. ‘Thunder?’

A black line appeared on the horizon that moved and flexed like a snake. Cindi tilted her head in an attempt to make sense of what she was seeing, but as the line got closer the anomaly became less of a mystery. The line thickened and the buzz became a rumble. It was replaced by an obvious mass. Cindi stumbled back in terror. There were so many. How could there be so many?

‘Cindi?’ Mel hurried over and clamped a hand on either side of Cindi’s face to stare into her eyes. ‘What is it?’ Without waiting for an answer, she peered out the window and her face became as white as her daughter’s. ‘Benje,’ she cried, hurrying across the room. She tore open the back door and continued shouting at her son. ‘Inside,’ she shrieked. ‘Get inside now!’

 

*

 

El-i-miir stood before the mirror clasping Seteal’s hair brush and moving it in long strokes. It’d become free of knots at least half an hour ago, which disappointed El-i-miir. She’d enjoyed the knots; they’d given her something to fight against. She gazed at the bristles and raised her eyebrows at the volume of black hair packed in among them.

Putting the brush aside, El-i-miir raised her eyes to stare at her reflection. The war had taken a toll on all of them and the woman staring back had tired eyes. She blew on her black-painted fingernails to make sure the polish would dry. She also wore a black dress. It seemed appropriate after discovering the truth about Ilgrin and Teah.

Turning away from the mirror, El-i-miir caught sight of a glistening golden strand drifting past the window. She squinted through the grime, but was unable to interpret the Way’s meaning until she’d opened the glass pane and snatched it into her aura. ‘Oh, torrid.’ She hurried out of the room. ‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir called out, taking the stairs two at a time. She gasped when she found her friend standing beside Teah on the landing. ‘They’re coming,’ she panted, grabbing the woman’s arm in the hope of shaking her into action. ‘A legion of demons are on their way.’

‘I know,’ Seteal muttered nonchalantly.

‘You don’t understand,’ El-i-miir said, feeling the panic rise in her chest. ‘They’re innumerable.’

‘No, they’re not,’ Seteal replied, without making eye contact. She pushed back her hair as though she didn’t have a care in the world. ‘The legion is precisely one thousand strong.’

‘We have to do something,’ El-i-miir squealed, becoming increasingly distressed by Seteal’s behaviour. ‘We have to warn people.’

‘As much as I hate to say this, she’s right,’ Teah added begrudgingly.

‘Why?’ Seteal rested her head in her hands.

‘Have you lost your mind!?’ El-i-miir shouted when a distant buzzing filled the air. ‘Oh, to torrid with you.’ She hurried inside in search of Ilgrin. She shouted his name repeatedly, but there was no response. ‘Okay, breathe,’ El-i-miir told herself. She looked back and forth across the room until she found Ilgrin’s past intentions. He’d left through the back door. El-i-miir called out to him until she found him in Mister Eltari’s workshop.

‘We have to hurry,’ Ilgrin said. His eyes were fearful. Each hand carried a pistol.

‘You know?’ El-i-miir followed him around the side of the house.

‘It sounds like they’re coming from the east. We’ll make a stand in the town square. Seteal.’ He turned to rattle the kitchen window. ‘Come on.’

The woman’s face hovered behind the glass, but her eyes stared passed them, seeming not to recognise their presence. ‘It’s just us this time.’ El-i-miir took Ilgrin’s hand and made her way around the corner.

‘Hey!’ Teah pounced. ‘I’m with you,’ she said with a pointed look at Ilgrin.

El-i-miir ignored the angel and raced out to the town square. The townsfolk scattered and disappeared when Ilgrin and Teah joined her. ‘You should hide yourself,’ El-i-miir warned Ilgrin as the first silts landed. ‘Your strength is useless against your own kind.’

‘I’m not leaving you,’ Ilgrin said forcefully.

‘Yes, you are,’ El-i-miir murmured. She felt the inhuman strength of Ilgrin’s muscles as she affiliated him across the square and made him hide behind one of the houses.

A number of silts landed with weapons—scythes or swords—raised. Teah leapt in their direction and a moment later they were screaming in the dirt. Seteal stood silhouetted in the doorway to her house, just visible beside the one in front of it. Her face was expressionless, cold and distant.

‘All right,’ El-i-miir whispered. ‘It’s up to me.’

The Ways churned and danced about El-i-miir’s vision. Blinding light told vague stories of what was yet to come. There would be so much death. El-i-miir took a deep breath and flexed her fingers in preparation as increasing numbers of silts entered the town. She looked into the sky to see pale figures flashing about against the black clouds, knowing that she stood no chance against so many.

A gunshot cracked across the square causing El-i-miir to leap in surprise as a demon she hadn’t even noticed who’d breen creeping up behind her fell to the dirt. ‘What’re you waiting for?’ Ilgrin shouted from his hiding place, the smoking gun clutched in his hand. ‘Do something!’ he cried, shooting a second demon.

El-i-miir spun around in time to find a third attacker swooping down from above, but instead of using the Ways against him she fell on her face and cringed as she felt the flurry of wings swish above her.

‘Please don’t kill me!’ She screamed, Mark’s face filling her mind. ‘Please!’ She was overcome by fear.

Rapid gunfire filled the air. Beating wings blotted out all other sound. A demon hand trapped El-i-miir’s calf in an unbreakable hold. The world spun as she was snatched from the roadside and sent spiralling into the air, where sinister faces danced and mocked her.

 

*

 

Holding the lantern out in front of him, Ilgrin negotiated a path through the spider webs filling Mister Eltari’s workshop. It didn’t take him long to find the old chest Seteal had told him about. It was toward the back of the shop, secured by a rusty old lock that’d proven little obstacle. He flipped open the lid and discovered two pistols.

The eerie sound of silts approaching in flight told him that he was running out of time. A moment later, this was confirmed by El-i-miir’s fearful cries inside the house. Ilgrin headed for the exit, but before he could reach it El-i-miir had already opened the door. ‘We have to hurry,’ Ilgrin said.

‘Then you know?’ El-i-miir asked, seeming somewhat surprised.

‘It sounds like they’re coming from the east.’ He frowned at her assumption of his ignorance. ‘We’ll make a stand in the town square,’ he stated, before becoming distracted by a shadowy figure in the kitchen window. ‘Seteal,’ he called, rapping on the glass. ‘Come on.’

‘It’s just us this time.’ El-i-miir took Ilgrin’s hand and led the way around the side of the house.

‘Hey!’ Teah pounced around the corner. ‘I’m with you,’ she said, staring into Ilgrin’s eyes. He didn’t reply, but couldn’t help blushing.

With a disapproving shake of her head, El-i-miir raced off without them toward the town square.

‘Ilgrin?’ Teah took his hand and stared up into his eyes.

‘Not now, Teah.’ He chased after El-i-miir.

‘You should hide yourself,’ she warned when Ilgrin caught up. ‘Your strength useless against your own kind.’ By her tone, she’d clearly picked up on Teah’s not-so-subtle nuances.

‘I’m not leaving you,’ Ilgrin said with all the determination he could muster.

‘Yes, you are,’ El-i-miir replied. He agreed instantaneously and crossed the square to hide behind one of the houses.

Silts landed throughout Elmsville, with their focus on the town square. Ilgrin watched on in a semi-dazed state. Several raised weapons, but Teah leapt at them and a moment later they screamed and writhed in the dirt. Ilgrin felt feel guilty. Perhaps he should help out. He frowned. But he was supposed to stay there. He was supposed to. But wait, Ilgrin had Mister Eltari’s pistols.

El-i-miir flexed her fingers, but her expression was one of fear. Her face was paler than usual and she was muttering something to herself repeatedly. There was a silt creeping up behind her and she was completely unaware of it.

‘Come on,’ Ilgrin hissed. ‘Sense him.’ The silt got closer and Ilgrin refused to wait any longer. He aimed, all the while praying he wouldn’t hit El-i-miir, and pulled the trigger.

The gunshot echoed across the square and the demon fell to the dirt. ‘What’re you waiting for? Do something!’ he shouted and then shot a second victim.

When a third attacker swooped down from above, El-i-miir spun around in time to confront him, but instead of doing so, she hit the ground and hid her face. ‘Please don’t kill me!’ she cried. ‘Please!’

‘What are you doing?’ Ilgrin whispered to nobody, his wings quivering nervously.

Someone put their hand on Ilgrin’s shoulder. ‘What’re you doing back here?’

Spinning around in surprise, he came face to face with a silt he’d never met, but of course, that didn’t mean the stranger wouldn’t recognise him. ‘You!’ The man’s eyes widened as he reached for his scythe.

Ilgrin reacted without thinking and pulled the trigger on Mister Eltari’s pistol. The gunshot tore through the air and the stranger hit the earth. When Ilgrin turned around he saw El-i-miir becoming increasingly overwhelmed by a flurry of wings. The silts knew what she was capable of and were closing in with caution.

Throwing himself toward the town square, Ilgrin raised both hands in front of him and fired repeatedly into the milling crowd. A legion soldier cried out in fury, snatched El-i-miir up by her leg and tossed her into the air. Ilgrin threw open his wings and thrust himself forward, but something caught him and spun him around. A scythe swung toward his throat.

 

*

 

The flowers were red and yellow. They smelled nice but they were wrapped up in an old cloth. It was all Seteal had been able to find. She put the bunch down on the gravestone and then blew her nose in a handkerchief. ‘I told Ilgrin where your guns are,’ she said quietly. ‘I know you didn’t want me going near them so I didn’t, I promise. I just told him where to find them.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘If you could’ve gotten past the wings, I think you might have liked him. He’s a good man. I’m sure he’ll treat them with respect.’

The graveyard had been emptied of mourners since Seteal’s arrival. There’d been another two or three before she’d come, but she was alone now. She rested a hand beside the flowers. ‘Red is your favourite colour, but I thought you might like the yellow ones, too. You always did like my yellow dress. It’s just that . . .’ She trailed off, supressing a sob. ‘I’m not sure how much will be left after today. They’re coming, you know? The demons, I mean. I wanted to say goodbye.’

Seteal peered up at the southern sky where the whisp cloud moved at a sluggish pace. Purple lightning occasionally lit up the atmosphere and rumbles deeper than ordinary thunder followed the spectacle. ‘Dad,’ she whispered. ‘Do you think mom would’ve been proud of me? Do you think . . . would you have been proud of me?’ Seteal covered her mouth. ‘I’m going to have to do terrible things today . . . inexcusable things. Oh, Daddy, you’d have done the same, wouldn’t you?’ She crouched down and grasped the gravestone in both hands. ‘You’d have fought for Elmsville no matter what, right? This is our home.’

The gravestone had nothing back to say. Seteal got to her feet and continued to stare at the stone.

‘I’m glad you’re dead,’ She said bitterly. ‘At least you’ll never know what I’ve become. Goodbye, Father,’ she murmured, abandoning the graveyard.

When Seteal got home, she couldn’t bring herself to enter. It was Gifn’s house, not hers. She stood on the top step, her hand resting on the railing. It’d been two days since Teah had created the sieift and Seteal was only just beginning to feel her strength returning. She glanced up at the sky for what seemed like the thousandth time that day.

‘It’s getting close,’ Teah said softly. Seteal hadn’t even heard her approach. ‘The entire world will be covered in darkness before the end,’ she finished wistfully.

‘Here she comes.’ Seteal hung her head in exhaustion.

‘Who?’

‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir’s fearful cry drifted outside.

‘Oh, her,’ Teah said distastefully.

‘Seteal.’ El-i-miir took her arm. ‘They’re coming. A legion of demons are on their way.’

‘I know,’ Seteal said softly.

‘No, you don’t understand.’ El-i-miir’s voice became panicked. ‘They’re innumerable.’

‘No, they’re not. The legion is precisely one thousand strong.’

‘We have to do something. We have to warn people.’

‘As much as I hate to say this, she’s right,’ Teah agreed hesitantly.

‘Why?’ Seteal rubbed her forehead.

‘Have you lost your mind!?’ El-i-miir shouted as a distant buzz filled the air. ‘Oh, to torrid with you,’ she fumed, rushing back into the house and called out for Ilgrin.

‘We cannot defeat a thousand on our own,’ Teah advised Seteal.

‘I know that.’ The distant buzz became a rumble.

‘Well, I hope you’ve got some sort of plan.’ She frowned. ‘I’m going to go and find Ilgrin.’

Seteal padded through the house in time to see El-i-miir burst out the back door. She made her way to the kitchen window and stared across the yard at the tree beneath which Parrowun was buried. She hung her head as the rumbling came closer.

‘Seteal,’ Ilgrin called, slapping his hand against the glass. ‘Come on.’ She ignored him and soon enough he left her alone. When the shouting started, Seteal tightened her hold on the kitchen sink until her knuckles turned white.

She strode through the house, pausing in the doorway to gaze out onto the square. Silt numbers continued to increase. El-i-miir had been right. Compared to the number of humans in Elmsville, the legion may as well have been innumerable.

For the barest moment, Seteal glanced over her shoulder in search of someone to confide in. And it wasn’t Ilgrin or El-i-miir, Teah or her father. It lasted only a second, but in that moment it’d been Seeol whose company she sought. After all, wasn’t he the only one who truly understood the weight of her sorrow? No, of course not; Seteal shook her head disparagingly. He was only an elf owl, after all.

Seteal navigated the steps and made her way around the squat little house in front of hers. The square was in chaos. Demons swooped and dipped. A group had completely surrounded El-i-miir, who’d somehow ended up with her face pushed against the ground. Seteal spun around at the sound of gunfire. Ilgrin was shooting into the crowd with her father’s pistols. She followed him as he passed. When a silt grabbed El-i-miir’s leg and threw her into the air, Ilgrin flared his wings and leapt after her. A legion soldier hefted his scythe toward Ilgrin’s throat.

‘I’m sorry,’ Seteal whispered, squeezing her eyes tight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Nineteen

desecration of the spirit

 

 

El-i-miir hit the pavement and the wind was knocked out of her lungs. The skin on her arm was grazed and her hip badly bruised. Ilgrin’s head landed beside her and continued on rolling until she threw out a hand and grabbed a handful of his hair. She looked back in time to see his body hit the ground squirting rich blue blood.

‘Not today,’ El-i-miir wailed. ‘You won’t die for me today.’

She shuffled along the ground, dragging Ilgrin’s head toward his body, affiliating a nearby silt as she went. ‘Ilgrin,’ she sobbed through the silt’s mouth. ‘Oh, Ilgrin,’ the demon wept, falling over his decapitated body. El-i-miir passed herself Ilgrin’s head and lined it up above his neck, but before she could take further action a second legion soldier swooped through the air and kicked Ilgrin’s head so hard that it flew over the first row of houses.

‘No,’ the affiliated silt wailed. He dove into the air in pursuit of Ilgrin’s head. El-i-miir spread his wings and landed on the other side of the houses, where they cast his eyes about, searching desperately. They found the head at the feet of a rather shocked-looking Seteal. The woman stared in silence at the head, her hair falling over her face and obscuring it from view.

‘Seteal,’ the affiliated silt called. ‘Throw me his head.’

‘Get away from me.’ Seteal backed up fearfully.

‘You don’t understand!’ El-i-miir shouted through his lips.

‘El-i-miir!’ Teah shouted as a demon swooped toward her in the town square.

She rolled out of the way. As she did so her affiliated silt twirled around in a circle. ‘What’re you doing?’ Seteal said nervously.

‘What’re you doing?’ Teah asked, dragging her away from Ilgrin’s body. Glass shattered. Boarded-up doorways were kicked down as demons entered homes in their search for more humans.

‘Get off me!’ El-i-miir shouted from both of her mouths. ‘Seteal, do something.’

‘El-i-miir?’ Seteal gaped, stepping back in recognition of who she was talking to. ‘Go on.’ She nodded at Ilgrin’s head. ‘Take it.’

El-i-miir threw his hands around Ilgrin’s head before diving back into the air. She landed beside his body, dodging through the masses of silts as they spread out to stop anyone from escaping. ‘What is he doing?’ Teah gaped, after having halfway dragged El-i-miir across the square.

‘I’m resurrecting him,’ El-i-miir replied determinedly.

‘Go.’ She gently pushed El-i-miir toward him. ‘I’ll cover you.’

As though her words had called them into action, El-i-miir, Teah, and Ilgrin’s dead body were then surrounded by soldiers. Teah turned in slow circles, hands thrust out as she unleashed her deadly power. There were too many for her to do any real damage, but at least she was able to slow them down and little white puffs started bursting free from their chests.

‘Live,’ El-i-miir begged through the affiliated silt’s mouth. She’d done this once before, using Ilgrin to resurrect Far-a-mael, but couldn’t be completely sure as to how she’d managed to do so. She snapped back his hand and scratched at an annoying itching sensation, only to then remember something similar when she’d affiliated Ilgrin. The silt sighed nervously as El-i-miir replaced his hands. The itching returned, soon to be replaced by a tingling that later became a burn. Ilgrin’s neck writhed, reaching out toward his head, pulling it close as his spine refused. His arteries snacked back together and his purple eyes opened.

‘Oh, Ilgrin.’ The affiliated silt put his hand against his cheek and leaned down to kiss him. ‘I thought I’d lost you.’

‘Get off me!’ Ilgrin shouted, dark mist leaking from his mouth as he threw the demon to the pavement.

‘Torrid,’ El-i-miir gasped, when she realised what she’d done in her confusion. ‘It’s me.’ She crawled over and cupped his cheek even as the darkness spewed from his flesh and wafted into the sky. ‘It’s only me.’

Teah’s scream stole El-i-miir’s attention as she was swamped. She fell back into the mass as they dragged her down. Several reached for weapons, all too willing to kill an angel. ‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir cried, catching sight of the woman hiding beside a house with big teary eyes.

A demon grabbed El-i-miir’s ankle and dragged her away from Ilgrin. Another drew a sword tipped with silver and placed it against his chest. ‘Farewell, Mister Geld,’ he sneered. ‘A human death for a human life.’

‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir screamed as the Ways wrapped Ilgrin up in a threatening web of red. ‘Do something.’ Seteal covered her mouth and stumbled against the side of the house sobbing. ‘To torrid with it,’ El-i-miir cried as a demon put his pistol to her head.

She’d never wanted it to come to this. She’d always hoped to remain a true friend. Seteal had been violated too many times: by Master Fasil, by southern whisp clouds, by Far-a-mael and his anchor. Seteal didn’t deserve it, but El-i-miir would become another in the long line to do so. She threw out her hand and translucent strands spilled from her fingertips. They coiled through the air, dodging demons and twisting around swinging scythes. The strands hesitated, reluctant about their destination, before piercing Seteal’s filmy, repugnant aura.

El-i-miir howled through both mouths, overcome by Her almighty power. Seteal’s arms blew open and she rose up into the air. El-i-miir whimpered. She couldn’t control it. She couldn’t think. Her flesh burned. Fire erupted from Seteal’s hands. Lightning struck the earth throughout Elmsville. Seteal’s body shook violently and El-i-miir lost all control. A shockwave blasted away from her in a circular fashion.

The house beside which Seteal had been standing shattered into a thousand pieces and was blasted into the one next door. The people hiding within were incinerated, their flesh boiling before they’d even known what was happening. Any silts unfortunate enough to have been in flight were sent spiralling and thrashing, their bones breaking, their wings torn to shreds.

El-i-miir felt Seteal’s neck snap back. Every tree in town burst into flames and the houses pulled away from their foundations. Now more fearful of Seteal than they were of the silt invasion, the locals leapt out of their homes to run in any direction they could find escape.

In a distant place, El-i-miir felt her body lying flat on the ground. She was convulsing violently. Ilgrin had one of his wings stretched out over her protectively as he too stayed low to the earth beside Teah. That was all El-i-miir was able to take in of her past existence before drowning in the entirety of Seteal, both unable to break the line that tethered them and also unable to control it.

The thick strand of affiliation rippled. Seteal shuddered, her body unable to cope with the raw energy channelling through the Ways. She jolted and the translucent cord backfired, a wave speeding along its length and reaching El-i-miir’s hand. Her arm snapped back and the line was severed.

 

*

 

Confusion was all about Seteal’s mind, or was she El-i-miir? The whisp sky shuddered, enamoured by her power in its struggle to embrace her. The hollow mind remaining after affiliation sought freedom from its grasp, or perhaps it was only she who sought freedom from this reality. Seteal was wracked by a spasm and a burst of raw energy tore toward her friend, severing the link. She fell ten strides to the earth, but not a bone was broken. The fires of Elmsville vanished and the remaining legion soldiers not too maimed to do so, fled in terror.

Moaning at the realisation of what had happened, Seteal closed her eyes and fell away from her body into the canvas of the Ways. She’d had enough. It was more than she could take. She’d become more damaging to the world than any silt invasion could hope to be. That rotten body, the one she could never make clean, disappeared behind her as she embraced the Ways. Seteal drank in the nonexistence and banished that frail human corpse. She swirled and danced fading from the world.

Pain gouged into her soul. The baby rotted so permanently in the ground. Gifn’s bones ached for justice. He’d been cheated into giving up, into killing himself. Every sorrow filled Seteal, the infant killer. She received the death, felt the broken strands and wept for her son. She slithered through the canvas. What she’d done in Elmsville wasn’t something that could be forgotten or forgiven.

Elmsville. Cindi slid out from beneath her bed just moments after their home had hit the ground. She held her brother’s hand and urged him to run. Dimain and Mel were in the next room searching for their children. Mistress Green was running north without looking back. Tessa had thought herself safest in a tree house her father had built when she was young, whilst Mister Button searched his shed for weapons. Despite their unacceptance of Seteal, these people had helped raise her, the poor girl with a vacant father and an absent mother.

It was a cruel reality. At Gifn’s funeral the people of Elmsville had found solace in the belief that he was joining Maker and becoming one with the Ways. But Seteal knew better. There was no becoming one with the Ways for them. There was no joining Maker or continuing to live in some mysterious, magical place. There wasn’t even a torrid. All they had was this life, which only made what she’d done that much more deplorable.

Seteal had had enough. The rest could work itself out. She’d given enough. She’d lost enough. And she’d taken too much. Into the darkness, toward the sorrow Seteal plunged. She fell infinitely away from the body until it was scarcely a memory. Let it finish itself, she pleaded.

‘Not yet.’ The two little words thundered through her, tearing Seteal into a thousand pieces before reassembling her and tearing her apart again. The words had been more of a sound than a voice and within them had been the unmistakable tone of palpable malice.

Falling back up to the Ways, Seteal became increasingly whole again. Her thoughts were confined to a smaller space and reality felt increasingly cramped. Writhing in agony, she begged and pleaded that she not again be imprisoned. She pleaded only for her freedom. She needed not to be plagued by the misery of who she was: a coward, a whore, and a murderer. But the voice of malice laughed at her puny attempt for freedom.

Seteal inhaled sharply, her vision once again fixed on El-i-miir’s horrified gaze. She cast her eyes toward Narvon Wood, where she was able to hear something for the first time. There, in the dark, a beat not dissimilar to that of a throbbing heart called out to her. Entranced by the sound, Seteal stumbled toward it. She ignored the purple lightning that streaked and coiled, pushing herself onward through the trees. Into the gloom she persisted, until happening upon a large clearing where everything was dead and the surrounding trees leaned away from its centre. Some had even uprooted themselves in their efforts to escape.

In the middle of the clearing stood a foreboding tree, its trunk and leaves so black that Seteal couldn’t quite tell where the tree ended and where shadow began. Ignoring the dull ache in her head, she stepped into the clearing and immediately the temperature dropped. The dirt became increasingly dark as she approached, before finally matching the colourlessness of the tree itself. Gnarled roots gouged into the earth before disappearing at Seteal’s feet. Compelled by forces unknown to her, she raised her hand and placed it against the cold surface.

The sensation could not be differentiated from pain as the cold stabbed through Seteal’s arm and burned into her mind. Having been so preoccupied with reaching the tree, Seteal hadn’t recognised the throbbing flowing throughout her body to match with the tree itself. She hadn’t noticed when she’d started to cry. If she could’ve just pulled her hand away, all of this would cease. But she couldn’t. Or perhaps she wouldn’t. Lost in delirium, Seteal fell into a world of images, the tree revealing its memories to her. It hadn’t always been this way. Once, it’d been like any other.

The elf owl tumbled through the air, landing between the roots to lay a perfect black egg before flying away to die. The egg remained in place for many years, pouring forth its misery into the tree and slowly corrupting everything that’d once been good about it. The tree became a thing of darkness, which the animals of Narvon Wood strayed far to avoid. By the time the hatchling had revealed itself, the clearing had been affected to such a degree that not even the passage of a thousand years could remove the stain.

The monster swooped low over the woods. It shredded and sliced and killed its victims. It destroyed indiscriminately, having only evil in its heart. It never returned to the tree . . . until it did. For a time, Narvon Wood knew peace, the monster having abandoned it. But it returned. It had returned to the tree and hated the tree for what it’d become even though the monster itself was responsible for its desecration. The elf owl destroyed anything that remained too close for too long.

Seteal’s eyes burst open and she was propelled away from the tree. She stumbled back along the cold earth. Her throat was raw and her vision was fogged with tears. She was pinned to the ground by a heavy weight and it took all of her strength to drag herself to the edge of the clearing where the vegetation thrashed violently as it sought to flee.

The wind was unrelenting and thunder echoed as purple lightning flashed. Seteal snatched at a handful of vegetation and used it to drag herself to her feet. She stumbled back through the woods as the rain began to fall.

‘Oh, take me home,’ she moaned. The Ways snapped her up and sent her hurtling above the trees. A moment later she stood at the front door where she entered, her mind buzzing. When she’d taken Seeol in, what exactly had she chosen to sacrifice? Was he the reason she couldn’t find joy? Was he not only the cause of Parrowun’s death . . . or her rape, but also of the general degradation of her soul? It’d been Seeol all along. Just as he’d poisoned the tree. he’d also been poisoning her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty

bird cage

 

 

The seven-headed monster had been sliced open down the length of its torso. Jenjen soldiers with cringing expressions had fished through its innards for the better part of an hour, gagging at the foul stench and seeking to avoid being splashed by black blood.

Seeol watched through a haze of pain that just wouldn’t go away. He clung to a small branch that crossed the width of the cage with his good foot while sliding in and out of consciousness. No matter how he arranged his feathers, he was unable to properly regulate his body temperature. One moment he was freezing and the next he was burning up.

‘I’ve got it,’ a soldier cried victoriously, thrusting his clenched fist into the air. Seeol’s eyes burst open. He’d been anticipating this moment for some time. He of all people knew the strength of the Devil’s Stone and feared how it might be used in the wrong hands. It only had one use left, which needed to be reserved for reopening the gates to Hae’Evun.

‘Show me.’ Phil sauntered over, took the stone, and washed it with water from his flask. A smile crawled across his features and he made his way over to Seeol’s cage, which hung by a leather strap from the side of a soldier’s horse. ‘You see.’ He pinched the black pebble between finger and thumb. ‘Now we have the stone and the false prophet who lost it. King Harundor will be most pleased.’

Seeol stared at the stone with a heavy heart, but said nothing. Words were useless in such a situation. Phil grunted and headed for his tent. ‘We set off at first light. I suggest you all get some rest. There are very few hours remaining.’

Seeol felt his eyes become heavy as he watched the men make their way to their tents. ‘Seteal will come,’ he whispered to himself. ‘She will know and she will come.’

 

*

 

Seeol woke with a start. It was afternoon and the sun was unrelenting. He’d been breathing with his beak open to compensate for the heat without realising it. He raised his wounded leg to find crusty blood that occasionally oozed puss. With every step the horse made Seeol was jolted hard. He lost his grip on the perch and fell into his own faeces littering the cage floor.

‘Admiral Yas,’ called the soldier on whose horse Seeol’s cage was attached. ‘He don’t look too well. We ought to give it something to eat.’

‘When we stop for supper, you can find it something,’ Phil replied from some distance away. Seeol lifted his head against the sun in time to see Phil turning away. ‘It’s a long way to Veret. We cannot afford to stop.’

‘What if it dies?’

‘Then it dies,’ Phil shrugged, without turning around.

‘Not to die,’ Seeol wheezed. He took a hold of the bars with his beak and good toes, climbing slowly back up to the perch. ‘Has to help,’ he murmured almost inaudibly. ‘Helping my friends.’

 

It was dark when Seeol next awoke. There was a small black snake in the bottom of his cage. Its head and half of its body had been squashed beneath a boot or something. Beside it was a small cup of water. Seeol hopped down and winced when he landed on his stump. He didn’t ordinarily drink a lot of water, extracting most of the moisture he required from his food, but Seeol’s head was aching and he thought it might help. He filled his beak and tipped back his head to let the dirty liquid run down his throat. He nibbled on the snake for a while, but it was bitter and cold. He’d never particularly liked snakes anyway.

Unable to tolerate the dry, cracking saliva in his feathers any longer, Seeol took a final swallow of water and used the rest to bathe. He leapt in and out of the cup, taking special care to clean his leg, before flying up to his perch to preen for a good half hour. Pushing his face against the bars, Seeol gazed out across the camp to find the men singing drunkenly around a small fire. Phil was flashing the black pebble about boastfully. Seeol cringed at the thought of him losing it. Seeol tucked his head behind his wing and went to sleep. Seteal would come.

 

*

 

‘Ya!’ Jakob cried, kicking his horse. If he could just make it into the woods, he might have a chance.

Dark shadows fell and Jakob was forced to acknowledge that he’d lost the opportunity. Unless, of course . . . Jakob threw himself from the animal and tumbled along the ground as Noah’s clawed toes closed around the saddle and the giant demon lifted the animal into the air. He tossed it aside a moment later. Jakob pitied the horse, as all four legs were broken on impact.

After diving into the woods, Jakob sprinted through the trees, ignoring small branches as they whipped at his face and bit at his arms. Beating wings filled his ears and the leaves fell away from the trees to spiral about in gusts. Demons crashed down around him, no doubt with Noah observing from above.

‘Cease.’

A legion soldier leapt forward and placed a blade at Jakob’s throat. He leapt back and spun around, but a second soldier swooped in to block him. He was surrounded.

There was a heavy thud behind him and Jakob closed his eyes in recognition of who it was. ‘Well, well, well,’ Noah rumbled. ‘You wouldn’t have been making a dash for freedom would you, Jakob?’

‘Not at all.’ Jakob turned to face his pursuer with a forced smile. ‘My horse needed the exercise.’

‘Don’t insult my intelligence,’ Noah boomed furiously, backhanding Jakob’s face with such force that it nearly dislocated his jaw. ‘Once a Sa’Tanist, always a Sa’Tanist,’ Noah growled. ‘You know that.’

‘Sorry, Noah,’ Jakob moaned, immediately regretting his mistake.

‘My name is Sa’Tan,’ Noah bellowed, again beating the side of Jakob’s head so that stars danced across his vision. ‘Why have you failed me? Why have I been left waiting to taste the flesh of the traitor?’

‘I couldn’t lure him out of Elmsville,’ Jakob sobbed, knowing well the punishment for failure.

‘What a shame,’ Noah smiled malevolently.

‘Please,’ Jakob sobbed, using his sleeve to wipe snot from his nose. ‘Don’t kill me!’

‘Oh, I will kill you.’ Noah glared at him ‘The question is as to whether or not I should give you a second chance to do as I asked.’

‘What?’ Jakob shook his head in confusion.

‘Kill him,’ Noah called over his shoulder. ‘Make it slow. Be sure he suffers immensely, then resurrect him and break his arm.’

‘My arm?’ Jakob murmured, scarcely able to control his bodily shaking enough to remain on his feet.

‘Yes,’ Noah sneered. ‘In case you try to run away again. You’ll be slower with a broken arm.’ He turned to his men. ‘I must return to Abnatol. There is a feast waiting for me; twenty-five human children.’ He winked at Jakob’s shocked expression. ‘It will be divine,’ Noah finished, leaping through the trees and disappearing to the north.

‘Please,’ Jakob took a step back as the demons closed in raising weapons. ‘Don’t do this. Just break my arm and we can pretend like all the rest happened.’

‘Sorry, son,’ the closest legion soldier replied, his eyes revealing sincerity. ‘It turns my stomach to do this, but you have no idea what he’s capable of. If he ever found out we’d disobeyed his orders, he’d kill us, too.’

‘Please,’ Jakob begged, falling back against a tree.

‘I’ll make it quick,’ the demon whispered. ‘That’s as much as I can offer.’

‘Okay,’ Jakob inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. There was a gunshot and Jakob’s leg buckled. His eyes burst open to see that his knee had been shattered. He screamed in pain as the act was repeated on his other leg. A knife was stabbed through his stomach and quickly removed.

‘I think that counts as suffering enough,’ the leading silt said apologetically before plunging his knife into Jakob’s throat. Blood gushed and Jakob died.

His eyes opened. Someone took Jakob’s arm and he screamed as the bone was snapped. ‘It’s done.’ The demon’s voice shook. ‘It’s all right,’ he cooed. ‘It’s done now. It’s over.’ Jakob allowed the silt to help him to his feet while he nursed his arm protectively. ‘Here,’ he tore apart his own shirt to make Jakob a sling.

‘Thank you,’ he managed to say.

‘Just go,’ the silt replied with desperate eyes. ‘Find Enoch and bring him to Narvon Wood. If you value your life you’ll ignore your conscience and just do it. You want to live, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ Jakob blubbered like a child.

‘Then just do it and be done with it,’ the soldier urged. ‘Enoch is just one man. Take your life back.’

‘Life?’ Jakob looked him in the eye. ‘What kind of life is left for any of us?’

The question remained unanswered as the demons ascended, leaving him alone in the small patch of woods north of Elmsville. Jakob turned slowly, ignoring the pain in his arm. He put one foot in front of the other, only to fall down coughing and gagging up a wretched black mist that he’d come to know too well.

 

*

 

The whisp withdrew from the human named Jakob and persisted through the southern sky. Its target was in the distance, where soon it would make its presence known. There was nothing malicious about a whisp carrying out its duties. If anything at all, it was purely mathematical. People often forgot that whisps were life-givers as much as they were takers. This particular whisp merely sought compensation for the fact of its insemination, even if it intended on doing so by the most effective means possible.

This was not the kind of whisp to spend time seeking out a particular target and bring death to that one insignificant individual. No, Jakob’s whisp wanted to make a difference in the world and knew it could never do so on its own, so instead it churned toward the billions of kindred whisps in the sky above. Too many had been lazy, gathering together as a mighty cloud rather than doing what they were supposed to do. Together they could cause true destruction. Together they would seek compensation for countless other good deeds yet to be repaid.

The black mist sank into the greater cloud, its darkness merging and becoming one with theirs. With the adoption of just one more, the weight and density became too much. A billion whisps moaned harmoniously and thunder tore up the sky. Lightning snaked toward the earth. And soon the rain would fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Peter 2

 

11. Whereas demons, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord.

12-14. These whisps, as unnatural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not, and shall utterly perish in their own corruption, and shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as those who count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceptions while they feast on you, having thoughts full of adultery and who cannot cease from sin, beguiling unstable whispers of evil; their ways are exercised with covetous practices; from the accursed children!

15-16. Demons have forsaken the right way and have gone astray, following the ways of Sa’Tan, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, but was rebuked for his iniquity: the fool speaking with a man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet.

17. These black clouds are without water, clouds that are carried by a tempest, for whom the mist of darkness is reserved forever.

18. For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh and through much wantonness those who had clean escaped from those who live in error.

19. While they promise life, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for by whom a man is overcome, by the same is he brought into bondage.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-One

exodus

 

 

To my dear husband Gez-reil,

 

I’m writing to inform you of terrible news. The people have lost their faith in the elders. This is true for none more so than Far-a-mael. I’ve heard rumours from the First Cleff to as far as the eighth. Some say he’s lost his mind. Others claim he’s been possessed by a whisp or some other such unfortunate calamity. Myself? I am of the belief, as you are aware from private conversation, that Far-a-mael is quite simply a malicious, egotistical madman that’ll stop at nothing to satisfy his rather peculiar sense of justice.

I hope you will forgive my language. I know well that you were very close as children and young men. And of course I respect your judgement as always, but I fear for your life and wish you would take every precaution. You cannot trust him anymore. If you doubt this, you need only dwell on his treatment of poor El-i-miir. Maker knows the girl is probably dead. Need I bring up Jil-e-an’s daughter, the Eltari girl? His treatment of her was inhumane to say the least.

I apologise, for I digress. I did not intend for the focus of this letter to be toward the war elder. My intention was to notify you of the dire situation taking place here in the Frozen Lands. Far-a-mael has ruined us. More than half of the gils we once had are now dead. The hadoans have been reduced to such a small number that I dare not dwell on it for fear of becoming too upset to continue writing. And now Far-a-mael has taken the strongest of you and abandoned us here with the silt invasion so close.

Again, I digress. Perhaps I fear your reaction. Maybe I don’t want your heart to suffer the same ache as mine. Gez-reil, I suppose I must tell you that everyone is leaving. The cleffs have fallen silent. I cannot reach any of my friends by letter and I’m beginning to doubt I’ll reach even you. Everyone is so scared. With the future so bleak it’s nearly impossible to keep a positive outlook.

Just last week I received word that Em-a-ra and her family have moved to Sat Effin after hearing rumours, just rumours, that the Riverenders are still standing strong against the invasion. I weep in the knowledge that once proud Elglair are seeking refuge among outlanders. It breaks my heart, Gez-reil. I went outside yesterday and cried out in the hope that anyone might hear me, but I fear I’m the only one left in the cleff. Even as I put pen to paper I’m unable to believe the words I am writing.

Please come home, Gez-reil, so that we too may run away before this madman destroys us all.

 

All my love,

Hes-la-tie

 

Gez-reil’s hand shook as he put down the letter and wiped his forehead, which had come to be covered in sweat. He stared at the papery skin on the back of his steadily aging hand where it rested atop Hes-la-tie’s letter. ‘What has come of us?’ he asked nobody with a shuddering voice.

Flickering lantern light stole his attention. Gez-reil was quick in using his Holy Tome to squash the moth responsible for the dancing shadows. ‘I don’t need you spying on me in my own tent,’ Gez-reil murmured as he removed the book to ensure the moth’s demise.

‘Gez-reil,’ Far-a-mael’s voice entered before the man himself.

‘Yes?’ Gez-reil replied loudly. He scrunched up Hes-la-tie’s letter and shoved it in his pocket.

‘I’ve already read it,’ Far-a-mael smirked, his eyes turning to the squashed moth on Gez-reil’s desk. ‘There’s more than one of me you know.’ He opened his arms and Gez-reil recoiled at the sudden increase of flying insects. ‘Fear not.’ Far-a-mael’s expression softened. ‘I have no qualms with Hes-la-tie. She is a dear woman and I’m certain that one day she will understand the significance of these perilous times.’

‘The people have lost faith in us,’ Gez-reil replied, no longer bothering to hide his disgust.

‘I know they have.’ Far-a-mael’s voice was filled with sadness. ‘And even worse, I know that you have.’

‘What did you expect?’ Gez-reil said exasperatedly, rising to his feet. ‘You’re behaving as though you’ve lost your mind.’

‘Trust me, as you did when I was a boy,’ Far-a-mael implored him.

‘When you were a boy, you dragged me all the way to Old World. I’d scarcely graduated and was nowhere near ready for such an adventure,’ Gez-reil grumbled.

‘We survived it,’ Far-a-mael chuckled.

‘Barely.’ Gez-reil caught himself almost smiling at the memory. ‘This isn’t the same.’

‘How can you be so sure?’ Far-a-mael rested a hand on Gez-reil’s shoulder and looked him in the eye.

‘Too many people are dying,’ Gez-reil appealed to the conscience of the man he knew now standing had once possessed. ‘The Elglair are disbanding to the south. They’ve lost any hope that their homes will be spared.’

‘Don’t you see?’ Far-a-mael squeezed Gez-reil’s shoulder. ‘It has to be this way. You were always so fond of that little book.’ He pointed at Gez-reil’s tome. ‘Recently I too have taken an interest. I’m the Holy Spirit, you see? I am Maker in the form of a man.’

‘Far-a-mael . . . no.’ Gez-reil took a step back, his face falling as his old friend revealed his inner madman.

‘Don’t you see?’ Far-a-mael repeated, stretching out his arms. ‘I cannot die,’ he exclaimed, removing his knife and pushing it slowly into his torso. Insect patterns squirmed uncomfortably until he’d removed the weapon, leaving not so much as a smear of blood on his robe. ‘I’ve been sent to rule the world. This is so much bigger than the Frozen Lands. I’ve been sent as a saviour to all. I will destroy every last silt and the world will know peace.’

‘Then why haven’t you done so!?’ Gez-reil shouted, having lost all patience.

‘Because . . . she burdens my thoughts,’ Far-a-mael said distractedly

‘Who burdens your thoughts?’

‘Why, Seteal, of course,’ Far-a-mael sneered.

‘Just leave that poor child alone,’ Gez-reil wailed. ‘Haven’t we hurt her enough?’

‘We’ve had this discussion! She killed me,’ Far-a-mael’s voice fell to a whisper. ‘She could do it again.’

‘Far-a-mael?’ Gez-reil uttered after a long pause. ‘What are you actually planning to do?’

‘I’m going to kill her,’ he replied.

‘No,’ Gez-reil barked. ‘You said we were going to anchor her, nothing more.’

‘That’s not true. I said you and the other twelve would anchor her,’ Far-a-mael murmured. ‘I intend to kill her as soon as you’ve done so. We should reach Elmsville by Wednesday. And you’ll do as you’re told. My strength is growing, Gez-reil,’ Far-a-mael finished eerily. The tent soon swarmed with a variety of insect and arachnid life.

Moths flew in from outside and fluttered frantically about the lantern. Ants chewed their way through the canvas and fat roaches scampered across the floor. A dozen spiders spun webs and a wasp stung Gez-reil’s arm. ‘Ouch!’ He slapped at the bite and squeezed his arm.

Having made his point, Far-a-mael left the tent and moments later so too did the insect invasion. Gez-reil spun toward his desk and snatched up a fresh piece of paper. He paused and took a deep breath before lifting his pen. He stared at the paper for a long time, before writing the words he regretted.

Dear Hes-la-tie,

 

Do not await my return. You must pack your things and get out of the Frozen Lands. Find somewhere safe and do so quickly.

 

Forever know that I loved you,

Gez-reil

 

*

 

‘Don’t move,’ Jakob commanded, his pistol pointed at the back of Ilgrin’s head. ‘I swear if you so much as twitch those wings I’ll blow your brains out.

‘Jakob?’ Ilgrin turned, raising his hands as he did. ‘What happened to you?’ he asked, eyes dropping to the man’s arm in a sling.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Jakob replied miserably. ‘Just do as I say.’

‘What’s going on?’ Ilgrin’s purple demon eyes peered into Jakob’s.

‘Stop talking,’ Jakob sobbed. ‘You have to walk ahead of me toward the woods.’

‘Can’t we just talk about this?’ Ilgrin implored softly, glancing toward Seteal’s house from his place in the workshop doorway.

‘No talking.’ Jakob waved his gun pedantically. He’d waited all night and some of the day for Ilgrin to come outside alone. Now that he had the demon, he couldn’t risk losing him. ‘Start walking,’ he said forcefully, terrified that at any moment El-i-miir would sense his presence. He slammed the gun across Ilgrin’s face and shoved it up to his cheek. ‘Move, Maker damn you!’

‘All right.’ Ilgrin winced and did as he was told. The people of Elmsville watched, but did not object as they observed Jakob holding a demon at gunpoint. ‘I’m moving,’ he said. Jakob kept looking back until they’d reached the outskirts of Narvon Wood before allowing himself any hope that he’d escaped El-i-miir’s detection. ‘Why are you doing this, Jakob?’ Ilgrin said gravely.

‘Shut up,’ Jakob snapped.

‘You’re better than this,’ he insisted. ‘I know you think you have to do this, but you don’t. I can protect you from Noah.’

‘I can’t trust you,’ Jakob bit back miserably. ‘You’re just another demon. You let us all down like the rest of them. You were supposed to change everything, but you ruined it.’

‘I know that,’ Ilgrin said regretfully as he continued ahead of Jakob. ‘I know I’ve made mistakes. I should’ve done everything differently. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Just tell me what’s wrong. What do you want?’

‘My freedom!’ Jakob shouted, waving his good arm emphatically. ‘Can you give me that?’

‘I could try,’ Ilgrin said softly and stopped walking.

‘Keep moving,’ Jakob snarled, but Ilgrin ignored him and turned around.

‘We were friends.’ Ilgrin’s face fell. ‘Whatever happened after that doesn’t matter. I cared about you and I think if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you cared about me, too. So I’m asking you—please, don’t do this.’

‘Maker,’ Jakob sobbed, dropping his arm. Ilgrin took a step forward, but Jakob had his pistol raised again in a second. ‘Don’t move!’ he shouted hysterically. ‘I didn’t say you could move.’

‘All right, I’m sorry.’ Ilgrin stepped back. ‘I’m sorry, okay? I won’t move.’

‘I know what he’s going to do to you.’ Jakob shuddered at the thought. ‘I can’t let him do that to me, so you see, I have to bring you to him. I have to.’

‘No.’ Ilgrin shook his head. ‘Be better than that, Jakob. I’ve seen it in you. I know that there’s something more to you than cowardice. It’s not too late. You can do something good.’

‘He’ll get us both eventually,’ Jakob said. ‘Logic dictates that I should take you to him so that at least I’ll survive.’

‘We can defeat him,’ Ilgrin insisted. ‘With Seteal and El-i-miir, we can stop him, I promise you.’

‘He’s going to kill everyone.’ Jakob sighed, staring at his pistol. ‘Just look at the world, Enoch. We had our shot back in Hel. That was our chance and we’ve lost it.’ He raised the gun and put it against his head. ‘You don’t even understand. Everything is gone, Ilgrin. Everything south, east, and even north of here . . . they’ve taken it all. They’ve taken everything. Where am I to go?’ Jakob blubbered, pushing the gun against his temple.

‘Don’t.’ Ilgrin gaped, reaching pleadingly toward Jakob. ‘Please don’t do it. Don’t do that!’

‘He eats them!’ Jakob shouted, his finger tightening on the trigger. ‘He feeds on people while they’re still alive. I’ve seen it! This will be quick. This will be painless. I can die on my own terms.’

Ilgrin’s face squished up into one of desperation. ‘Please, Jakob.’

A gush of air threw Jakob onto his back and into the leaf litter. He howled at the stabbing pain in his arm as enormous wings flared. Noah’s toes closed around Ilgrin and tore him up through the trees and into the sky. ‘Noah!’ Jakob howled. ‘Don’t hurt him,’ he finished with a sob, before pushing himself to his feet. ‘We weren’t supposed to meet here,’ he moaned, turning hurriedly back toward Elmsville.

Jakob staggered along the dirt road toward Seteal’s house. As he came close, El-i-miir burst outside and hurried down the steps. She threw out her hand and made him slap himself across the cheek. ‘What’d you do!?’ she screamed, tears flowing down her cheeks. ‘What did you do?’ She slapped him again with her own hand.

‘He’s gone,’ Jakob moaned.

‘Where!?’ El-i-miir shouted, waving her hands frantically. Jakob snatched up his broken arm and at her bidding started twisting it with his freehand. He fell to the ground screaming.

‘Noah took him,’ Jakob managed to say through the pain. El-i-miir rewarded him by releasing him from her power. ‘They’re in Narvon Wood. I didn’t mean it. I changed my mind. I was going to let him go.’

‘Get inside,’ El-i-miir snapped, casting her eyes warily up at the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Thess-a-lin-ian 2

 

3-4. Let no man deceive you by any means, for that Day shall not come, unless there comes a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is Maker or that is worshiped, so that he sitteth as Maker in the temple of the Lord.

5. Remember that when I was yet with ye, I told ye these things.

6. And now ye know what withholdeth, that he might be revealed in his time.

7. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only She who now holdeth back will hold him back, until he is taken out of the way.

8-10. And then shall that wicked one be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the Spirit of His ways, and shall destroy with the brightness of Her coming—even him, whose coming is according to the working of Sa’Tan, with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all the deceit of unrighteousness in those who perish, because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.

11-12. And for this cause Maker shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Two

The burden of Remorse

 

 

Seteal clenched the sink in anticipation of painful energy. She squinted at her arms and watched as strange bumps, like beads beneath her flesh, followed the path of her veins down into her hands, which she clenched even harder for fear of their escape. She jolted as her skin became marred by black cracks that webbed out like splitting porcelain. She held her breath until the feeling had passed and the cracks had faded.

This was not the first time in recent days that her spirit had tried to escape. Her skin felt like it was the thinnest paper ever to have been cut. Seteal waited each time for the cracks to continue splitting, knowing that sooner or later her spirit would break free from the fragile barrier. Her time was coming to an end.

‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir said cautiously as she approached from behind. ‘I’m sorry about yesterday. I couldn’t control it.’

‘Me neither.’ Seteal smiled at the irony. ‘Don’t worry about it. At least you did something. I saw them coming. I knew for days and I thought I’d be ready, but when they swooped down from the sky . . . I just couldn’t bring myself to kill anymore. Do you understand?’

‘Of course,’ El-i-miir put an arm around Seteal’s shoulders. ‘You should eat something.’ She pulled away, surprised by the bony frailty she felt.

‘I’m not interested.’ Seteal turned again to look out the window. ‘You were right, though.’

‘About what?’ El-i-miir replied, although her face revealed her distraction.

‘It’s time for me to find Seeol,’ Seteal replied. ‘I will see that the town is evacuated first, of course. I’m certain that more silts will come and when they do, I don’t want any more deaths on my conscience.’

‘How do you plan to do that?’

‘After yesterday, I doubt it’ll require much prompting. I wouldn’t be surprised if half of Elmsville have already left.’

‘And how do you expect to find Seeol?’

‘I don’t know,’ Seteal shrugged, ‘but if there’s even the slightest chance he’s pieced it all together and found this mysterious key, then I really must seek to pursue that. I don’t see any other way forward.’

El-i-miir smiled encouragingly, although pityingly. She didn’t believe in the key or the gates of Hae’Evun. And she certainly didn’t believe in Seeol. ‘We’ll set off first thing tomorrow.’

‘What a sad world you live in.’ Seteal shook her head at El-i-miir. ‘If none of it is true, what hope can we possibly have?’

‘You once told me that you’d rather the hideous truth over a beautiful lie.’ El-i-miir raised her eyebrows, before taking Seteal’s hand. ‘We can still fight without grasping for comfort in antient myth as a magic remedy. It’s not over yet.’

‘The war is done.’ Seteal chuckled mirthlessly. ‘There never was a war, I suppose. To think we could take on demons and live . . . what fools.’

‘We still have you.’ El-i-miir squeezed her hand.

Seteal laughed. ‘Remember when Far-a-mael made all of his big plans. He was going to use me as his secret weapon. Goodness me, how badly that plan failed! El-i-miir, I’m not a very good weapon. I never was a weapon. I was a person and now I’m pretty sure that’s gone, too.’ She smiled bitterly, avoiding El-i-miir’s eyes. ‘I can’t just go about killing people. I know that’s what Far-a-mael wanted and maybe you do, too, but that’s not me. It never was. You can’t just make someone give up their humanity. You can’t just aim me at something, pull a trigger, and have me destroy it. How can you ask me to kill people when I don’t even know who they are or what they’ve done?’ Seteal exhaled in a rush.

‘Okay.’ El-i-miir nodded, a tear trailing down her cheek. ‘We’ll go and find Seeol. You and Ilgrin and me.’ She smiled softly. ‘We’ll go and find that little bird, I promise. And, Seteal . . .’ Her voice shook as their eyes connected. ‘You’ll be okay. One day this will all be over and you’ll get back to your old self. You’ll be able to smile and you’ll have something to eat, all right? I can’t stand hearing you go on about wanting to be “free” anymore. I don’t want for you to go. I need you around. We all do.’ El-i-miir bit her lip. ‘And not because of your abilities, you understand? You have to hold on because there are people who love you.’

‘Sure,’ Seteal said, hoping to placate her friend, all the while knowing El-i-miir would be able to detect her insincerity. She cared about her as well. They’d been through so much together, but she didn’t belong in the world anymore. It was only a matter of time before she abandoned it.

El-i-miir’s eyes widened and she put a hand to her stomach. ‘Oh, no! Ilgrin,’ she shrieked and ran for the door. She threw it open and raced outside. ‘What’d you do?’ El-i-miir screamed at a hunched-over figure stumbling toward the house. Seteal watched from the doorway. ‘What did you do?’

‘He’s gone,’ Jakob moaned.

‘Where!?’ El-i-miir shouted desperately a moment before Jakob snatched up his arm and twisted it.

‘Noah took him,’ Jakob managed to say through his pain. ‘They’re in Narvon Wood. I didn’t mean it. I changed my mind. I was going to let him go.’

‘Get inside,’ El-i-miir snapped, casting a wary glance at the sky.

Jakob stumbled up the steps and El-i-miir shoved him to the floor. ‘I should kill you!’ she shouted furiously.

‘No,’ Teah announced as she slid into the room. ‘We’ll need him to find Ilgrin.’

‘What if it’s too late?’ Jakob wriggled back along the floorboards. ‘He’s probably dead.’

‘He’s not dead.’ El-i-miir turned on Jakob with an expression of contemp. ‘You’re going to lead us to him. Come on.’ She turned to Seteal.

‘I’m not going,’ she replied. ‘I have to find Seeol.’

‘I don’t like this, Seteal. You shouldn’t be left alone,’ El-i-miir bit her lip and stared at her for a drawn out moment. ‘Damn it,’ she turned to Teah, ‘but we have to go. It’s Ilgrin.’ The others raced for the door with Teah dragging Jakob along reluctantly behind her. ‘Are you sure you won’t come?’ El-i-miir implored one final time.

‘Go,’ Seteal waved her hand urgently. ‘Find the man you love.’

 

*

 

He was aware that they were somewhere north of Kintor in Kilk, but that was as far as Seeol’s knowledge extended. He shook himself and watched in despair as far too many feathers fell away to meet with the others he’d already lost. He used his leg stub to scratch the back of his neck, determinedly clinging to the perch. He didn’t want to fall into the mounting pile of faeces and pellets. Was it so much to ask that they clean his cage? Apparently so.

Seeol peered up at the northern sky, but no matter how he craned his neck, blue skies with puffy white clouds had become a thing of the past. ‘That leg is looking better,’ Marin acknowledged from his saddle, glancing down at Seeol’s cage which hung lopsided by his knee.

‘Yes.’ Seeol examined the stump. ‘Is sad but because I was learning to read a bit and I could turn pages. I don’t think I’ll turn pages now.’ He’d originally started replying to his captor out of boredom and loneliness, but Marin wasn’t so bad. He was only following orders and didn’t seem terribly fond of Phil Yas. So they had something in common.

‘You can read, eh?’

‘Is true,’ Seeol bobbed his head rapidly, only to regret it when several more feathers were dislodged.

‘What’s happening with your feathers anyway?’ Marin frowned and pointed. ‘You’ve got quite a few missing there.’

‘I does not!’ Seeol retorted in his embarrassment. He took a moment thereafter to rearrange his feathers so that they better obscured the bald spots. But the problem was greater than one of vanity. He was feeling the cold at night.

‘Must be the stress,’ Marin mumbled more to himself than to Seeol. ‘My sister had a bird once. Mind you, she wasn’t a very good keeper; always taking it out of the cage and letting her kids squeeze it and such. It lost its feathers from the stress. Then it died.’ He shrugged as though the fact were an afterthought.

‘This is such terrible news,’ Seeol wailed. ‘The poor little birdy.’

‘Mister Gratt,’ Phil called over his shoulder. ‘Would you shut that animal up? For Maker’s sake, do your job.’

‘Better keep it down.’ Marin nodded at Seeol, turning to focus to the road ahead.

Seeol cocked his head to examine the leather strap that looped through the bars of his cage, keeping it fastened to the saddle. He’d been secretly chewing on it at night and nobody had noticed. A few more bites and he was certain it would break. Maybe one more night’s worth of work and it would be ready. He didn’t know what good it would do him. The cage was still locked. But even having a little power over the situation made it slightly more bearable.

‘Here,’ Marin murmured, squishing a black beetle between the bars. ‘I killed it this morning.’

Seeol took the roach. He didn’t mind them. It was better than the snake he’d been given previously. He beat it against his perch out of habit before tearing off the head and swallowing. He used to enjoy holding his food, but now he had to squash it between his foot and the perch as he held on and ate it by lowering his face to the meal. Seeol examined his stump with a heavy heart. He was ugly now. Everybody would hate him and be mean to him. El-i-miir would make fun of him and they’d probably want to get rid of him even more.

Seeol finished his beetle and stretched his wings. He hadn’t flown in days. He rubbed his beak against the bars to clean off the insect goo, before fluttering down to his bowl for a drink. The water had turned green, but it would have to do. After launching himself back onto his perch, Seeol gazed silently into the distance.

When he’d been young and naïve in his experience with humans, Seeol had taken his continued survival for granted. He thought about Far-a-mael and how the old man with all his power and experience had never quite managed to capture or kill him. Seeol had been sheltered and oblivious to his own fragility. Free of the darkness his mother had left him, he could see that he was indeed just a little bird, after all.

Seeol wondered, as he stared up into the black whisp-infested sky, whether he’d been too much of a burden on Seteal and the others. He’d never understood fragility, and had pursued them so persistently. It had been wrong of him to do so when within he carried the very same sickness everyone so feared from the clouds above. He’d selfishly pursued El-i-miir and had brought endless miseries to Seteal without ever stopping to consider how dangerous he was. He’d pleaded for their friendship while failing to behave like a friend. He should have flown away and never come back.

Of course, there was the stone, but in Seeol’s heart, his newly acquired perspective was the very reason he needed to survive. He had to look Ilgrin and El-i-miir in the eye and tell them. He had to take Seteal aside and make her understand. After all they’d been through, Seeol needed her to know how sorry he was and how much he cared about her. She’d shown him more friendship and kindness than he’d ever expected, or deserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Three

for him

 

 

Ilgrin watched Jakob vanish as the woods shrank beneath him and Noah swam higher into the air. His toes were wrapped around Ilgrin’s torso and legs, pinning his wings painfully against his body. ‘I should crush you,’ Noah muttered. ‘I should drain your blood and break so many bones and . . . that’s why I’ll . . . suck them dry.’ Ilgrin grimaced at the occasional snippets of the mutant demon’s mutterings able to reach him over the wind.

A small cliff broke away from the trees at about halfway through Narvon Wood. Ilgrin yelped as Noah transferred him from feet to hands before landing atop the cliff in the midst of a group of at least a dozen legion silts. He thrust Ilgrin into their hands. He saw his chance and he took it. He threw a fist into the soldier’s face with as much force as he could muster and leapt into the air, but Noah was too quick. His clawed fingers snapped shut around Ilgrin’s leg and spun him back toward the earth. He hit the ground with such force that the wind was knocked out of him.

‘Chain him to the tree,’ Noah ordered with a dismissive wave.

‘What do you want with me?’ Ilgrin shouted as he was forced up against the tree. ‘Haven’t you taken enough?’

‘Leave us,’ Noah ordered his men once Ilgrin was suitably restrained. He came close and spoke in a lowered voice. ‘I know who you are, Sa’Enoch. I know your bloodline. In time my people will forget, but I’ll always know and it makes me sick.’

‘Then you admit it?’ Ilgrin was startled by Noah’s candor. ‘You admit that I am the rightful Devil?’

‘I was changed,’ Noah replied with a look of satisfaction, ‘but I didn’t lose my mind. The whisp . . . I really should thank you for it.’

‘You have horns.’ Ilgrin squirmed away from Noah’s face. ‘How can you be happy like this?’

‘They fear me.’ Noah narrowed his eyes. ‘And they’re right to do so. I’m so much stronger than anyone. I could snap your neck with my little finger,’ he jeered, his foul breath assaulting Ilgrin’s nostrils. ‘My new body makes for a very respectable Devil, don’t you think? I’d hate to have my rule questioned again, should you ever choose again to do so. No, it must be neat and tidy. I’ll have no loose ends. And I’m hungry. You couldn’t imagine it . . . so hungry all the time.’ Noah’s eyes locked on Ilgrin’s throat and stringy saliva trickled over his chin.

‘Then why haven’t you done it yet?’

‘Because I’m trapped.’ Noah’s eyes filled with rage. ‘The Eltari woman,’ he murmured distractedly. ‘What is she?’ He demanded. ‘How did she defend her pathetic little town against a thousand demons?’

‘She’s half Elglair,’ Ilgrin offered, knowing well that such an explanation offered no real answer to the question.

‘Do you take me for a fool?’ Noah rumbled. ‘I’ve known Elglair men and women my entire life. Not one of them could have stood against a thousand silts. No . . . she is something different. She is something more and she must have a weakness. You will tell it to me.’

‘I wouldn’t tell you if She did.’ Ilgrin held himself as proudly as one could when chained to a tree. ‘But I can reveal in all honesty that I don’t believe She has one. She is the Holy Spirit.’

‘Bah,’ Noah pushed himself back from the tree and shook his head. ‘Open up your eyes. Maker is done with this place. If He ever existed, He abandoned us long ago. Don’t you see, your friend cannot be the Spirit of Maker. I refuse to believe it. There must be some way to destroy her.’

‘I couldn’t help you if I were willing,’ Ilgrin said in frustration. ‘She has never displayed any weakness to me.’

‘Are you quite sure?’ Noah growled, once again coming very close. ‘Because I’m going to start hurting you. I’m going to wound you in increasingly horrible ways. Perhaps doing so will freshen your memory. Sooner or later, you will die, and then I’ll eat the meat off your bones, rendering you far too dead to resurrect.’ Noah paused for a moment, allowing the thought to sink in. ‘Or you could make this so much easier on yourself. See?’ He removed his pistol and put it against Ilgrin’s head. ‘Tell me her weakness and I will allow you a peaceful death. I’ve been told it’s like going to sleep, only quicker.’

‘I don’t know what to tell you.’

‘That is a shame.’ Noah sighed. ‘But I am so very hungry.’ He leaned in to take a bite.

 

 

The people of Elmsville scattered and disappeared as El-i-miir and the others hurried across town and into the outskirts of Narvon Wood. ‘There’s an overgrown farmhouse a little way south of here,’ Teah babbled, her expression one near to panic. ‘You should wait for me there.’ She turned to El-i-miir and Jakob. ‘I’ll fly ahead to make sure he’s okay. By the time you get there, I’ll be on my way back.’

‘No way,’ El-i-miir snapped. ‘You can’t expect me to sit around while Ilgrin is in danger.’

‘She’s right.’ Jakob frowned. ‘We should stick together.’

‘I won’t take long.’ Teah ran her hands through her hair and paced anxiously. ‘You’re too slow. Where is he?’ She grasped Jakob’s shoulders and shook him. ‘Tell me where he is.’

‘There’s a small cliff deeper into the woods,’ Jakob replied nervously. ‘That’s where I was supposed to take him.’

‘I’m going.’ Teah spun around, but El-i-miir grabbed her arm.

‘Wait,’ she cried. ‘I can’t stop you, but please, I’m begging you not to do anything stupid. Come back for us and we’ll go for him together.’

Teah wrung her hands. ‘The overgrown house is—’

‘I know where it is,’ El-i-miir murmured, the unstable structure holding an all too familiar place in her memories.

‘I’ll come back.’ Teah spread her wings. ‘Believe it or not, I want this to go as well as you do.’ Without waiting for a reply, Teah vanished through the canopy and disappeared from view.

‘Come on,’ El-i-miir mumbled, picking her way forward through the woods. Some time later, she and Jakob arrived at the dilapidated old house where she and Far-a-mael had originally held Seteal captive.

‘I wonder what happened here,’ Jakob mused, examining the gaping hole in the side of the house where they’d first met Seeol.

‘You don’t want to know,’ El-i-miir whispered as she entered the house. The place was an even greater mess than it’d been when she’d last seen it. Half of the ceiling had caved in and plants had broken through every crevice or window. ‘Get some rest while you can,’ she advised the Sa’Tanist. ‘I doubt Teah will be much longer.’

‘What about you?’ Jakob asked as he sat on a rickety old chair near the broken table.

‘Don’t be silly,’ El-i-miir reprimanded him. ‘How could I possibly?’

‘You really love him, don’t you?’ Jakob raised his eyebrows.

‘I don’t need to explain myself to you,’ El-i-miir replied, pacing about the room.

‘I suppose we’re not so different.’ Jakob sat back, stretching his legs.

‘Don’t fool yourself,’ El-i-miir replied curtly. ‘You obey them like a dog.’

‘You’re chasing after your demon with the dedication of a dog.’

‘You’re a coward. You obey out of fear,’ El-i-miir sneered. ‘Ilgrin would never ask this of me. I’m doing it because I love him.’

‘I wonder . . . does he feel the same way?’ Jakob leaned forward attentively but El-i-miir remained silent, confused as to how she should answer the question. ‘Of course, it’ll never work out. You must see that.’

‘Are you trying to get me to slap you?’ El-i-miir stared at him irritably.

‘Not at all,’ Jakob replied. ‘Yours is just not a relationship one often comes upon.’

‘I can’t stand to be in here,’ El-i-miir grumbled, turning to leave. ‘I’m going for a walk.’

‘I’ll come,’ Jakob stood.

‘No, you won’t,’ El-i-miir replied, but soon found Jakob following anyway. ‘What is that?’ She winced after they’d been walking a while. The air surrounding them seemed to be putting more pressure on her than usual.

‘What is what?’ Jakob replied as they trampled deeper into the woods.

‘Are you being funny?’

‘Not at all.’ Jakob stared at her as though she were crazy.

‘How strange,’ El-i-miir muttered as she examined the trees’ auras to find them slanting away into the woods, even though the trees themselves leaned back toward Jakob and her. The colours twisted and flickered as though they were being drained. ‘Come on.’

‘I don’t like this,’ Jakob said softly. ‘Are you sensing something?’

‘I think so.’ El-i-miir gazed in wonder as they continued on, the trees coming to lean increasingly northward as though they were trying to escape something. ‘We’ll have to go back soon.’ She sighed dejectedly. ‘I have a terrible headache.’

‘You’re not the only one,’ Jakob said, rubbing his temples. ‘It’s so quiet. Have you noticed?’ There were no birds chirping and not a breeze could be felt.

‘We should go back.’ Jakob swallowed nervously, the complete silence allowing El-i-miir to hear him do so. Even the crunching of the leaf litter beneath their feet had somehow become muted.

El-i-miir ignored him, having spotted a clearing up ahead. She wove through the remaining trees and stepped out into the open. Her headache got worse, but she took another step toward a black shadow at the centre of the clearing. It took a moment, but then El-i-miir realised that it was a tree.

‘Is that a tree?’ Jakob asked, his voice strained.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ El-i-miir whispered. So dark was the tree that it sucked up the surrounding light. The temperature became chilling and the Ways felt as though they were mourning something terrible. El-i-miir had never come across a place so entirely radiating with misery. She reached out and pulled off a freezing cold black leaf which immediately dissolved like ash between her fingers.

‘Let’s go,’ El-i-miir backed away, but Jakob had already left the clearing.

The pair hurried toward the overgrown farmhouse and as they did the pressure lifted, the darkness becoming less. The sorrow fled their hearts and the ache their heads.

‘Where were you,’ Teah demanded, jumping down from a tree.

‘Oh, no.’ El-i-miir clapped a hand over her mouth. ‘You’re back already. We’re wasting time.’

‘What were you doing in the woods?’ Teah said irritably. ‘I’ve been waiting here for over an hour.’

‘An hour?’ Jakob shook his head. ‘That can’t be right . . . oh, wait.’ A look of confusion crossed his features. ‘How long did we stand by that tree?’

The words sent chills down El-i-miir’s spine. Her memory of the event was dull, but she might’ve been standing there for a very long time. ‘Did you find him?’ She turned to Teah, desiring to forget the horrible experience.

‘He’s where Jakob said he’d be,’ Teah replied, turning to lead the way. ‘He’s alive. I wanted to free him but there were too many soldiers. I wouldn’t have been strong enough. We’re going to need your affiliation.’

‘How is he?’ El-i-miir asked, fearful of the answer. ‘Teah? How is he?’ She repeated when the woman failed to respond.

‘We should hurry,’ was the only answer she gave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Four

refuge

 

 

The fabric of this particular dress had somehow managed to maintain the fresh white colour of a perfectly new garment. Seteal couldn’t say how. It wasn’t particularly new, but it was one of her favourites. She slid into the comfortable, modest garment. It was a flowing, dignified dress that stayed true to her class, without airs or graces. She didn’t want to look the fool. Some considered the lack of sleeves a little immodest, but Seteal wrote those people off as prudish.

Never having been one to wear much makeup, Seteal straightened her dress and headed downstairs. She fixed herself a glass of water in the kitchen and cast a look of concern at the sky. The clouds were heavier than usual. Seteal had heard of whisp rain and doubted very much that she’d like it. She wiped her hand on a cloth and slid into her best shoes before making her way across town.

Elmsville didn’t have a church or town hall. It was two small to have one of each. Instead, the two were merged into a single building with a small steeple and bell. Seteal allowed for such distracting thoughts as they served a purpose in keeping her from dwelling on the task at hand.

The bell had been rung shortly after El-i-miir and the others left. It indicated an emergency meeting. Most of the town would be there. They’d probably decided to evacuate for themselves, but Seteal had to be certain. She pushed open the door and made her way inside. The mayor stopped speaking and the congregation turned to stare. So complete was the silence, that Seteal could hear the clock ticking against the wall.

‘I don’t mean to intrude,’ Seteal said apologetically. She took in the stunned expressions surrounding her and suddenly felt uncertain as to how she should proceed. ‘I wanted to warn you . . . to suggest that you all leave Elmsville. More silts will come. It’s no longer safe here.’ The silence continued to the point of awkwardness. ‘I’ll have to leave, too.’ Seteal fidgeted.

The mayor finally spoke up from his place at the podium. ‘Half of our homes have been burned to the ground or otherwise destroyed. Look around you, Miss Eltari.’

As if his words had lifted a blindfold, Seteal looked about to find piles of blankets and personal possessions lining the walls beside uncomfortable-looking cots. There hadn’t been a meeting in session. The town hall had been converted into a refuge for the homeless and the injured. ‘There must be somewhere you can go,’ Seteal stepped forward, but stopped when people squirmed in fear. ‘They won’t stop until we’re dead.’

‘We don’t need you to tell us that,’ the mayor replied, making his way down the aisle. ‘We’ll be packed up and gone by tomorrow.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘You needn’t concern yourself with that,’ the mayor said softly, his eyes piercing into Seteal’s.

‘But of course I . . .’ She began to reply before trailing off at the realisation of his meaning. They didn’t want her to know. They didn’t trust her. ‘Of course.’ Seteal nodded. ‘Well, please hurry. I’m afraid you have less time than you think.’

‘Well, thank you for your concern, Miss Eltari,’ the mayor replied without a glimmer of thanks in his voice. He raised his hand, indicating that she should leave.

‘If there’s anything I can do to help, you know where to find me,’ Seteal said as he ushered her out.

‘You’ve done quite enough,’ the mayor replied shortly. Seteal turned around to reply, but the door came to a close a handswidth from her nose. She stepped back, removed her white gloves and threw them in the dirt, grimacing at the black cracks crisscrossing her arms.

On the way home, Seteal found herself looking at the sky more often than where she was putting her feet. She felt like there was some urgency in finding Seeol—or perhaps she just missed him—but she supposed he could wait one more day. Shirking her responsibilities to the people of Elmsville in their darkest hour would just be wrong.

 

*

 

Seeol had been awake most of the night, finding it terribly difficult to sleep at such a time. He couldn’t sleep during the day, as the bright sun and horse’s trotting made doing so impossible. The men ate breakfast and Marin forced a chunk of cooked meat through the bars. Seeol hated cooked meat but chewed on it nevertheless.

The feathers covering the floor were not enough to disguise the growing pile of excrement and pellets beneath Seeol’s perch. He’d caught his reflection the day before. There were feathers missing across his body, the most striking being a bald patch on the left side of his head. For Seeol, losing his plumage was mortifying, perhaps even more so than losing of his toes.

Marin rolled up his bedding and packed it atop his horse. He hooked up Seeol’s cage and clambered onto his mount. The animal snorted and stomped its foot, sparing an irritable eye for Seeol. ‘Wait,’ Phil called, dismounting and hurrying over. ‘Wait just a minute.’ He snatched at Marin’s reins and stared at the bird cage. Seeol watched as his eyes slid over the leather strap woven between the bars, a cruel smile working its way across his features. ‘Did you think I wouldn’t notice?’

‘What isn’t you noticed?’ Seeol tilted his head, hoping that playing dumb might distract the man from what he’d discovered.

‘This,’ Phil snatched at the leather strap and rubbed his thumb back and forth over the badly frayed surface. ‘You should’ve noticed.’ He slapped Marin on the back a little too aggressively for it to have been in fun.

‘Is not Marin’s fault,’ Seeol croaked. ‘He’s just a silly man.’

‘Excuse me?’ Marin grumbled.

‘Never mind,’ Phil snarled. ‘It’s easily fixed.’ He turned toward his horse, perhaps to find some stronger cord.

Seeol leapt upside-down and clung to the bars while rapidly biting at the remainder of the strap. ‘Hey,’ Marin warned. ‘Stop that,’ he ordered, slapping at the cage, which only served in putting more pressure against the leather.

The strap snapped and the cage fell. Phil shouted something as the cage hit the earth and Seeol was thrown about within. The rusted door broke where it was hinged and Seeol dove for freedom. Marin leapt off his horse and accidentally landed on Phil who’d been hurrying to the scene. Seeol squeezed his head through the opening and scrabbled against the bars with his foot. He exhaled in an attempt to shrink himself. He flapped his wings and pushed and finally his keel bone popped through.

A giant hand slammed against the door but Seeol was ready and with a victorious cry he bit hard at the pink flesh. Phil snatched back his hand and with it came Seeol. He threw open his wings and launched into the air. Phil flailed his arms and clipped Seeol’s wing. He dipped out of control and hit the dirt. Phil thrust out his boot in an attempt to crush Seeol, who rapidly fluttered his wings. But it was too late. When Seeol was but a handswidth from the ground Phil kicked out and the blow so stunned him that he toppled onto his back and stayed fixed in place, the sun burning into his eyes.

A hand wrapped around Seeol so tight that he couldn’t breathe. A moment later he’d been lifted up to Phil’s red sweating face. ‘I could snap your neck,’ he said in a spray of saliva delivered through gritted teeth. ‘Oh I’d love it,’ he snarled, taking a hold of Seeol’s head between his finger and thumb. He pulled back so hard that Seeol feared his neck would indeed break.

‘Don’t kills me,’ Seeol shrieked at last. ‘Please! Is sorry!’ Phil released his head with a dissatisfied grunt. ‘Is sorry, Seteal,’ he said too softly to be heard.

‘The satisfaction of killing you,’ Phil said a handswidth from Seeol’s face, ‘is so close to being worth missing out on the king’s reward. You’re fortunate that my family need a roof over their heads.’

‘You is such a horrible man,’ Seeol wailed emotionally.

‘Well,’ Phil shrugged, ‘at least I am a man. You’re just a miserable, whisp-mutated bird. What’ve you got? Who cares about you?’ Phil thrust out his hand at a rather stunned-looking Marin. ‘Put it back in the cage and make sure you fix the damn door.’

Marin obeyed, all the while keeping a concerned eye on Phil as he made his way back to his horse to get a new strap. He put him inside the cage and bent the door into place. Seeol huddled down on the cleanest available part of the floor and puffed out the feathers he had left. Phil double strapped the cage into place. Seeol’s whole body ached, his heart not the least.

‘Seteal cares,’ he comforted himself, rubbing his beak back and forth on the tray in reflection of the affectionate gesture he’d often shown his friend. ‘She’ll come. Seteal will come for me.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Five

as all of us

 

 

Murky grey had faded to dismal black. Night had fallen in Narvon Wood. The trees became increasingly tightly packed as the group of three wove tiredly onward. It was as though the trees were huddling together for support, their tops never far from each other with their branches intertwined.

El-i-miir was worried about Ilgrin. Even if he didn’t feel the same way anymore, to deny her feelings toward the demon was impossible. She rested her hand against a tree and came to a complete stop. Tendrils of light wove through the forest vibrating a warning for the Elgair eye to interpret.

After getting Teah’s attention by tapping her on the shoulder, El-i-miir put a finger to her lips and pointed through the trees where a number of demons were sleeping in the branches. Teah nodded and passed on the message to Jakob before continuing on with greater caution. El-i-miir embraced the Ways, pulling them into herself in preparation of their use.

During the twenty or so minutes that followed, El-i-miir remained silent but became increasingly uneasy. The sky was too dark, even for night beneath the otherworldly cloud. She was beginning to fear that a storm was brewing. ‘It’s around here,’ Teah whispered, leading El-i-miir by hand.

The remainder of the journey was exhausting and almost entirely uphill. Several times the slope became such that El-i-miir had to use her hands on the rocks for fear of falling. Occasionally the climb became such that no human could overcome it and Teah had to fly each of them up individually. When the slope levelled out somewhat, El-i-miir found herself feeling grateful that it was so dark. If she were able to make out the distance they’d climbed she felt certain she’d be terrified.

‘Oh,’ El-i-miir murmured when a strand as subtle as a familiar scent penetrated her aura. ‘He’s close. He’s alive.’ She exhaled on a shuddering breath, not previously having realised just how much she’d been fearing the alternative. ‘This way.’

‘Slow.’ Teah put out her hand to stop El-i-miir. ‘We don’t know how many we’re up against.’

‘We have to use what we’ve got,’ Jakob intoned. ‘I mean . . . tactically speaking, the element of surprise is all we’ve got.’

‘That doesn’t mean we should rush in without a plan,’ Teah replied curtly. ‘When I was here earlier, Noah was interrogating Ilgrin. I should warn you, he’s been hurt pretty badly. I don’t suspect he’ll be of much use to us once freed.’

‘He needs to be healed then,’ El-i-miir replied, recognising where Teah was taking the discussion. ‘He’s that bad?’

‘I’m afraid so,’ Teah said softly. ‘And I’ve seen you do it before.’

‘Of course,’ El-i-miir replied.

‘Yes, but I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that,’ the angel continued. ‘I counted at least a dozen legion soldiers and then there’s Noah.’

‘I can do it,’ El-i-miir said with more certainty than she felt. ‘If you take care of Noah, I’ll affiliate the others.’

‘I’ll free Ilgrin,’ Jakob added. ‘You two will be plenty occupied with everything else. Let me release him. I owe him that much,’ he finished, cradling his arm protectively.

‘Let’s go then,’ Teah replied.

‘If you betray us,’ El-i-miir jabbed a finger into Jakob’s chest, ‘I swear to Maker I’ll affiliate you into leaping to your death.’

The three felt their way through the trees until their surroundings began to lighten and the crackling of a fire revealed how close they were to camp. The woods came to an abrupt end, beyond which was a clearing. A strip of pale white within the dark on the opposite side of the clearing set El-i-miir’s heart racing. Ilgrin’s aura swam weakly in and out of existence around a limp body chained to a tree.

‘Is that . . . ?’ Teah enquired by El-i-miir’s ear.

‘It’s him,’ El-i-miir replied. ‘Look over there,’ she pointed to their left where Noah’s gigantic grey mass slept hunched beneath a tree.

‘Could I have some water?’ Ilgrin’s tired voice floated over to El-i-miir’s ears and almost rendered her unfit to move. It was the same plea he’d once made of her as an Elglair captive. He didn’t deserve to suffer that way twice . . . or at all.

‘Be quiet,’ one of the two demons guarding him warned. ‘Don’t wake him up, whatever you do.’

‘We should circle around,’ Jakob whispered. ‘There’s no way we’ll make it otherwise.’

‘You’re right,’ Teah replied.

As they snuck around the camp, El-i-miir became increasingly aware of the large number of silts sleeping above them. If one of them should wake up, there would be no hope. She stumbled and snatched at Jakob’s collar to yank him back just as he’d been about to step over the edge of the cliff. ‘Look,’ she whispered, crouching down and waving her hand threw thin air. ‘It’s the edge.’

‘Each of you take my hands,’ Teah offered. El-i-miir was grateful to take advantage of the opportunity. Teah used her elongated toes to feel their way along the edge and back to the relative safety of the trees. ‘Where’s Noah?’ The angel whispered, stopping abruptly. It was a question that froze El-i-miir in her tracks. The mutant had no aura and she was as ignorant to his actions as anyone else. There was a loud thud and a flash of movement as Noah leapt toward them, roaring with extended wings. Jakob threw up his pistol and a blast rang out.

‘Get down!’ Teah shouted, pushing the others to the ground before they’d had the chance to do so of their own accord.

El-i-miir hit the dirt and rolled over in time to see Noah slam into Teah and watch as the pair sailed over the precipice. ‘Torrid,’ she gasped as the trees came to life with the beating of too many wings. ‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir cried, racing over to his sagging body. ‘Oh, Ilgrin.’

She wept at the sight of a body bruised blue, covered in lacerations and horrific bite marks. ‘Go,’ El-i-miir snapped at the guarding silts, having affiliated them instantly. ‘How do I get these off,’ El-i-miir cried in frustration, yanking at Ilgrin’s chains.

‘El-i-miir,’ Jakob said as he approached, again cocking his pistol. ‘Leave this to me.’ He put the barrel against the chains and pulled the trigger.

El-i-miir spun away as bark sprayed into the air and the chains fell to the ground. She heard Ilgrin topple forward and Jakob doing everything he could to soften the blow, but she could no longer help Ilgrin. If she wanted him to survive, he could not be her priority. The silts drew their scythes and removed their pistols from holsters as they closed in from every direction. Teah’s estimate of only a dozen had been terribly incorrect.

While attempting to maintain her cool, El-i-miir spun in a slow circle establishing an affiliated link with as many demons as she dared. ‘There are so many of us,’ she whispered through fifteen mouths. Fifteen people put a hand to their stomachs, feeling nauseated as El-i-miir’s consciousness continued to divide. Several unaffiliated silts landed before El-i-miir and one of them slapped a hand around her throat. A moment later, he released the human woman’s neck and stepped away. She flared her wings and howled in dizzy frustration. Another demon dove toward her and the masses of affiliated ones threw out their hands in protest, crying as one, ‘Just stop!’

‘El-i-miir?’ Jakob called. She heard his voice from across the clearing and from right behind her. He was beneath her as she flew and to her left and right. Some twenty heads turned toward the man from twenty different locations to perceive him in twenty different ways. Everyone put their hands to the sides of their heads and stumbled in harmony with El-i-miir. She rested a hand on Jakob’s shoulder, but the man retreated in fear. She looked at her hand to find that it lacked fingernails. It wasn’t her hand. It was a demon’s.

‘He’s dying,’ Jakob persisted, turning to El-i-miir. The woman’s eyes were glazed over and she fidgeted with uncertainty, just another of the bodies between which her consciousness was divided.

‘I can’t,’ El-i-miir said through twenty-something mouths as the strands continued to spread. ‘Which one am I?’ They uttered in frustration. ‘We are all of us.’

Teah hit the ground, flipped over, and rolled several times before smashing into a tree and coming to a stop facedown. Noah landed heavily behind her, snatched at the woman’s leg, and spun her around before releasing her to sail back over the edge.

‘What is wrong with you all?’ Noah thundered at his legion of soldiers frozen in place, a few of them watching him while most of them focused on Ilgrin as his eyes began to close.

‘I have to save him,’ the legion soldiers wailed in unison. ‘Help him,’ El-i-miir heard her true voice screaming from somewhere in the clearing. ‘Do something,’ she cried above the din of droning voices. Some demons fell sobbing, others wailed their dismay toward a Maker El-i-miir didn’t believe in. And still others began to twitch about, wondering if they really were this human woman, after all. ‘Heal him,’ she howled into her countless ears and with an explosive surge through every line they all reacted at once.

El-i-miir felt her many legs charging across the earth. ‘We must help him,’ they all cried together. ‘We have to fix him. Ilgrin,’ the many El-i-miirs gasped. ‘I love you.’ Jakob’s eyes widened and he leapt back from Ilgrin’s body as he was swamped with silts, all fighting to offer their assistance. ‘Don’t you die on me,’ the mass pleaded, each reaching for Ilgrin. One twisted his head one way, another pulled at his body. A third threw himself around Ilgrin’s legs and held on tight murmuring, ‘I love you,’ over and over again. A fourth snatched up Ilgrin’s wing and tried to drag him free of the others. He had to save Ilgrin! He loved him.

‘What is this?’ Noah shouted, waving his arm through the legion soldiers with such force that many sprayed into the air. El-i-miir cried out as she flew in countless directions and felt the pain of countless blows.

‘I have to save him,’ shrieked the possessed. El-i-miir flared her wings and landed on Noah’s shoulders, reaching down to stab him repeatedly. She put too many hands on Ilgrin’s body and pushed against him. ‘Come back,’ they cried, their hands itching.

Noah tore El-i-miir from his face and broke her wing before tossing him over the edge of the cliff. She felt herself die. She pushed through, but Noah found her and broke her neck. She hit the earth to die yet again.

‘No, no, no,’ she sobbed, finding a place for human hands atop a chest covered in long demon fingers. ‘I can still fix this,’ El-i-miir sobbed, putting a hand on Ilgrin’s cheek, just for a moment remembering who she was before Noah killed her again. El-i-miir howled as her wing was torn and her ankle was broken. She tried to limp to safety but Noah cut open her neck and El-i-miir died again.

Jakob leapt away from the horde of demons writhing atop Ilgrin and walked toward Noah firing his pistol at the monster’s chest. Chunks of grey flesh blasted away in a spray of blackish blue blood. The monster moaned and then roared his fury as he turned to face his old Sa’Tanist, but before he could do anything, Teah landed in front of him and threw out her arms.

Noah stumbled back, his body quivering. He fell to the ground flailing, but stopped abruptly and stood to laugh. The sieift churned free of Noah’s flesh as he snarled victoriously. Teah frowned, keeping her hands extended so that the white mist continued to flow. Noah didn’t seem to care. Several silts turned to face him in reflection of El-i-miir’s surprise. ‘You’re no match for me.’ He backhanded the angel across the face. She flipped through the air and skidded across the dirt.

‘Please come back,’ El-i-miir turned all of her various attentions to Ilgrin. She pushed every spare hand she had against him and closed her eyes, rejoicing as they burned. ‘You’re coming back to me,’ the silts whispered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Six

the price of life

 

 

An explosion by his ear left it ringing. Without the chains for support, Ilgrin’s body fell to the ground. A mass of people smothered him as his consciousness faded. The legion soldiers cried out messages of love even as they pulled painfully at his limbs and pressed so hard against him that he couldn’t breathe.

Forcing his eyes open, Ilgrin found himself staring up into a familiar face. El-i-miir squirmed for her place among the masses of demons. Her face reflected the sorrow of everyone around her as they pushed and fought to get closer. El-i-miir was tiny among the creatures and frequently got pushed or elbowed aside, but she somehow always managed to struggle back to the front.

If Ilgrin hadn’t been so delirious on his deathbed he might’ve found time to wonder at the peculiarity of the scene before him. Instead he closed his eyes.

‘I love you, son.’ Urelie touched his hot cheek and dabbed a cold towel against eight-year-old Ilgrin’s forehead. ‘You’ll be okay.’ She tapped the end of his nose. ‘You’re a strong boy and you’ll be an even stronger man. And do you know how I know that?’

‘How?’ Ilgrin scrunched up his face in confusion.

‘Because you’re a good boy.’ Urelie kissed his forehead. ‘You’re not like them. You’re perfect.’ She smiled adoringly, while behind her eyes lingered apprehension and fear.

‘I’m a good boy,’ Ilgrin murmured as the hands pressed down on him. He coughed once. He choked and coughed. His eyes opened. The demons pulled away and Ilgrin felt his veins beginning to burn. The whisp lurched about inside of him, seeking duteously to escape its cocoon. It wriggled about in confusion, small portions of it having come from dozens of separate tiny acts.

‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir whispered alone, her eyes wide and vacant. ‘I can’t hold them any longer.’ Her words were pinched. She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Who are you?’ Her mouth opened in disbelief. ‘Sa’Enoch! He’s here,’ she cried. ‘He’s over here.’ She spun around in a sharp circle. ‘Where are my wings?’

‘El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin said raggedly. He pushed to his feet and took her hand. ‘Snap out of this,’ he managed before doubling over to choke and gag as the whisp came out of him, dozens of separate little puffs.

‘What happened to your wings?’ El-i-miir laughed. ‘What about mine. Oh, my Maker,’ she giggled. ‘I’m a human girl. You two stop that. I’m a girl, too.’

‘El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin coughed, black mist seeping out of his mouth and nostrils. ‘Focus,’ he shook her by the shoulders. ‘You’re El-i-miir.’

‘We are?’ El-i-miir enquired softly. The murmur was repeated by the affiliated.

‘Oh, Maker,’ Ilgrin fell to his knees and burped loudly, the whisps no longer peaceable in their evacuation. The mist puffed out of Ilgrin’s mouth, hit the ground, and rebounded into the air. He coughed several times as the final whisps abandoned him and the black patches drifted together to sit above them as an ominous cloud.

‘We are silts,’ El-i-miir said in astonishment. ‘We’re not a human girl. I’m so confused.’ She and the others laughed. ‘We’re so happy you’re okay though,’ they all said with beaming smiles. ‘We love you.’

Ilgrin’s attention snapped across the clearing at the sound of Teah’s scream. Noah was almost obscured by an endless sieift flowing from his body. His foot was pressed up against Teah’s back as he pulled on her wings. The joint in her right wing popped and the woman flushed blue in agony. ‘Teah!’ Ilgrin cried, hurrying over.

‘No,’ the legion soldiers howled furiously, as they stepped in to block the way. ‘You don’t love her!’ they shouted as one.

‘El-i-miir.’ Ilgrin spun around in search of her. ‘Don’t do this. He’s going to kill her.’

‘Why should I care?’ the legion soldiers asked. ‘We hate angels. In Hades we hunt them for sport.’

‘You’re confused,’ Ilgrin cried, pushing up against the soldiers. ‘Get out of my way,’ he demanded, punching one of them in the face.

‘Ouch.’ The silt a bruised cheek and looked at Ilgrin with hurt in his eyes. ‘You hit me. I never thought you would hit me.’

Noah fell to his knees, his wings drooping. Teah’s attack had started to wear him down. ‘Ilgrin,’ she cried out for help as the monster started to fall.

‘Let me through!’ Ilgrin shouted as he fought against the masses. He tried to fly, but they only beat him down again.

‘Fine!’ The soldiers parted abruptly. ‘Be with her. We don’t need you. We’ll fly home alone.’

‘Teah.’ Ilgrin burst passed the silts as Noah fell, his weight pinning the angel to the earth. ‘I’ve got you,’ he grunted. He grabbed Teah beneath the arms, but was unable to make her budge.

‘Ilgrin,’ she whispered hoarsely.

‘Don’t give up.’ He kicked at Noah in frustration. ‘I’ve got you.’

‘Ilgrin,’ Teah wheezed as she stretched out a hand. ‘El-i-miir.’ She pointed shakily.

Ilgrin turned toward the precipice where the legion soldiers were taking off one by one. El-i-miir stood on the edge with arms outstretched. ‘We can fly,’ she whispered, taking a step forward and vanishing in a second.

‘El-i-miir!’ Ilgrin leapt to his feet and ran for the edge.

‘Stop,’ Noah rumbled. His voice was tired, but he was alive. Ilgrin halted at the edge and turned back. The mutant had a silver blade pressed against Teah’s throat. ‘Don’t move.’

Precious seconds were wasted. Ilgrin stared into Teah’s eyes. He wanted to apologise for what he was about to do. But her eyes pleaded too much and he was out of time. Ilgrin spread his wings and dove.

‘Ilg—’ Teah’s cry was cut off as her throat was sliced open.

Still wrapped in affiliation, upward of twenty silts fell toward the earth. She must’ve suddenly realised that she couldn’t fly and as a result, neither could anyone else. Not one of them beat their wings. They simply howled, falling through the air in fear. Ilgrin folded his wings tight, making himself as streamlined as possible. If he couldn’t find El-i-miir, she’d hit the earth and be killed for good. Such a fall would render her far too dead to resurrect.

Handswidth by painful handswidth, Ilgrin overtook the falling silts and found a wingless figure flailing below. She was falling too fast and although he couldn’t find it in the dark, Ilgrin was certain the earth was quickly approaching. He opened his wings just a fraction, risking the air catching them and breaking them, so that he could propel himself to faster speeds. He opened them just slightly, squeezed them shut and was relieved to find an increase in propulsion being added to his momentum.

A rocky ledge protruded from the cliff face below. El-i-miir missed it by a handswidth. As Ilgrin closed in he was able to make out hazy patches of trees. He pushed himself harder, all the while knowing that there would be no escaping hitting the earth and hitting it hard. He’d built up too much momentum and they were far too close.

Ilgrin thrust out his toes and snapped them shut around El-i-miir’s leg and arm, before slowly opening his wings. If he did so too fast, he’d break them; too slow and they’d both wind up too dead. He transferred the woman to his arms, spreading his wings a little farther, slowing their descent not nearly enough. ‘El-i-miir,’ he cried over the wind, doubtful as to whether she could hear him.

A legion soldier swooped toward them. He made a grasp at Ilgrin but his grip failed, the action only having managed to slow them down. ‘Ilgrin’s going to die,’ El-i-miir wailed as the other silts caught up. They snatched onto him for a moment each before opening their wings and having them break. Each time their descent was slowed just a little. ‘I’ve got you, Ilgrin!’ a soldier shouted by his ear, spreading his wings. The three of them jolted. El-i-miir cried out in pain and the soldier was lost to the wind.

‘This is going to hurt!’ Ilgrin shouted as the trees came too close. He spread his wings. The strain was almost unbearable, but at least they didn’t break. So he pushed them farther. When Ilgrin had finally gotten his wings to open completely, they were whipped back painfully. Slender branches slapped at his face as he fought for control.

A tree loomed up before them and Ilgrin manoeuvred sharply, but not in time to avoid his legs hitting the trunk. Ignoring the pain, he banked sharply to miss the top of another tree. A branch leapt out of the darkness and he dove beneath it. Leaves rained down around them as he negotiated the canopy. Beneath it conditions were much worse; the darkness more complete.

Something was in his mind. Down, came the penetrating thought. Ilgrin lost his mind to be regained by another. He dipped his wings and did as she had told him. El-i-miir could see the trees’ dim auras and knew when they were flying too close. It took every bit of faith he had, but Ilgrin gave himself over, trusting in El-i-miir’s vision and hoping in her skills. She beat his wings and they twisted sideways as the ground flew up. ‘It’s too fast,’ El-i-miir cried out, releasing control back to Ilgrin.

‘Hold on!’ he shouted, wrapping his arms and wings around her to offer as much protection as possible.

Ilgrin’s feet hit the earth first, only to be whipped out from under him. He was flipped upside down. He squeezed El-i-miir tight, determined to lessen the deathly blows to her fragile human body. Ilgrin landed on his back, but somehow managed to keep his grip, encompassing El-i-miir as they tumbled head over heels through the leaf litter. Ilgrin’s elbow cracked against something hard and sharp. He lost his grip and El-i-miir was flung into the night. He rolled over and over before coming to a stop when he hit a tree, unable to believe that he was still alive.

‘El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin called weakly through the dark. ‘El-i-miir.’ He crawled about, searching for her. ‘El-i-miir!’ he cried desperately, ignoring the aches throughout his body.

‘I’m here,’ she replied with eerie calm.

‘Where?’ Ilgrin asked, feeling his way toward her.

‘Here.’ her voice was weaker than before.

‘El-i-miir,’ he moaned. ‘Please be okay.’ His hand landed in a warm puddle. He reached out, heart thundering. His hand landed on a human arm. Her flesh was cold. He felt along her arm and found her face.

‘What happened?’ El-i-miir whispered. ‘My memory is so . . . fractured.’

‘You affiliated everyone,’ Ilgrin replied in a shuddering voice.

‘You’re safe now though, right?’ she whispered.

‘We’re both safe.’

‘I’m sorry about Teah,’ El-i-miir murmured. ‘I know you loved her.’

‘What’re you saying?’ Ilgrin tried to keep his voice straight as his eyes filled with tears. There was no response. ‘El-i-miir?’ He patted her cheek before feeling down the length of her body. His hand landed in blood and then on the surface of a fallen tree branch. She’d been impaled. He grasped the branch, snapped it in half and slid El-i-miir off and into his arms. ‘I’ll just raise you again,’ he sobbed. ‘Maker what have we done?’ He gazed up into the clouds. He’d lost count of how many whisps he’d added to their number.

‘I love you,’ Ilgrin whispered, squeezing El-i-miir in his arms. ‘It’s always been you.’ His cheek against hers grew warm and started to itch. His hand on her arm responded in kind. Ilgrin pulled back his head when her spine fell into place with a thud. Tears trickled down his cheeks when she took her first rattling breath and the wound in her stomach disappeared. He sobbed bitterly when she called out his name. He would have her back. His tears were not for her. He mourned for however many others he’d chosen to murder in her place. Loving El-i-miir had come with a hefty price.

 

*

 

‘My Devil.’ One of the few remaining soldiers landed before Noah, who panted tiredly, resting against the rocks. He looked at the dead angel in disgust. No wonder his father had tried to wipe the creatures out. They were far too dangerous. ‘Are you all right?’ The demon persisted.

‘Not at all,’ Noah replied. ‘Heal me. Quickly.

‘Of course.’ The soldier stepped forward to place his hands. Moments later the whisp wafted away, leaving Noah feeling as healthy as ever. ‘Elmsville must be destroyed,’ he growled, raising to his feet and glowering at the angel’s body in the dirt. ‘Send everyone.’

‘You’re not saying . . .?’ The demon soldier trailed off nervously.

‘I don’t care if it we have to leave Beldin and Gor completely defenceless,’ Noah said pointedly. ‘You must find every last silt you can and destroy that town. Kill everything that breathes.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Seven

into her darkest

 

 

Cindi stood to the side of the town square from which point she was better able to observe the Eltari residence. Through the dirty window, she watched Seteal’s blank expression, her old friend staring over the town, a white porcelain statue.

‘Cindi.’ Mel snatched at her arm. ‘Go and pack your things. We’re leaving.’

‘Yes, Mother,’ Cindi replied obediently, with a final regretful look back at Seteal’s house. As she made her way home, Cindi did her best to avoid looking at the demon corpses strewn across town. She tried hard not to see their blood. The human bodies had all been gathered by loved ones for hasty burials.

As Cindi dragged out a bag she’d packed days earlier from under her bed, she noticed a doll squashed up against the wall. On hands and knees she strained until she could reach it and pull it out. It was an ugly thing with buttons for eyes. They weren’t even the same colour, one being red and the other being black. It looked as though someone had punched her in the eye. Its limbs were attached by nails and its dress was a kitchen towel.

Cindi had thrown a tantrum on her seventh birthday after receiving the poorly constructed doll. She had expected a better gift from her best friend and hadn’t been even slightly consoled by her mother’s reminders that it was the best Mister Eltari could do. The man was a carpenter, certainly not someone familiar with the use of knitting needles. Seteal had apologised profusely through a constant flow of tears. Looking back, Cindi recognised that it was she who should’ve been apologising.

It was just one more of the countless reasons she couldn’t believe that Seteal would do anything to harm Elmsville. Whatever trouble she’d gotten herself involved in and whoever she chose to associate with, Cindi was certain that Seteal had to be doing it for the right reasons. Underneath the harsh façade she’d built up to protect herself, Seteal was a good person.

After finding room for her bag atop the family carriage and waiting until her father had gone around the back to gather the horses, Cindi hurried across the square. She passed the first row of houses and crept up to Seteal’s with increasing caution.

Something cold landed on Cindi’s arm, which she stared at in confusion. A bead of black liquid ran down her wrist and onto her hand, leaving a grey stain as it went. She rubbed at the greasy fluid, only to succeed in smearing it across her skin. She shuddered as a sudden sting of pure hatred punched its way into her thoughts. Terrified by the peculiar sensation, Cindi ran the remaining distance to Seteal’s house and hid beneath the eaves.

 

*

 

The town of Elmsville bustled with activity as the locals made their final preparations to leave. Nobody had bothered to bury or burn the silts she’d killed. That was how Seteal knew that they were leaving for good. But for the Eltari residence, by nightfall the town would be abandoned.

With the people of Elmsville departing, she would be free to find Seeol. She smiled at the thought of seeing him again. She had, in some strange way, missed his company.

Seteal clutched the sink and moaned, her body shaking uncontrollably. Black cracks slithered across her skin. She felt like she was going to burst. She held her breath and waited for the cracks to recede. The familiar bumps rolled beneath her flesh as the energy sought release. She inhaled slowly as the sensation faded.

After having taken only a few steps across the room, Seteal stopped abruptly at the sound of light rain on the window. She swallowed nervously and turned to frown in dismay when she discovered murky black beads tapping against the glass. Some of them ignored the physical barrier and chose to move straight through the glass and onto the floorboards. Others slid down its length leaving a dirty smear or a nasty crack.

Seteal backed away. ‘Not yet,’ she whispered. ‘They were just about to leave!’ she shouted at no one and ran from the room. She huddled down in the corner of the living room and covered her ears. Rocking back and forth, Seteal squeezed her eyes shut and tried to change the Ways. She tried to think of something nice, but the Ways didn’t much like getting involved with whisps. And there wasn’t much that was nice for her to think about anyway.

Memories of Parrowun’s tiny fingers squeezing her thumb had been replaced by the one of her squeezing his throat. Her father’s loving smiles had been replaced by his face after half of the contents of his head had been sprayed across the room. Oddly and somewhat unexpectedly, the only comfort Seteal was able to find was in the idea of locating Seeol.

Beneath the pressure of her hands on her ears, she was able to hear an awfully close and decidedly unwelcome tapping sound. Not surprisingly, the ceiling had decided to spring a leak, whisp rain being somewhat impartial to physical barriers. Seteal watched the black droplets falling one after the other just a handswidth from her toes. One of the droplets changed its path of descent and landed on Seteal’s bare foot. She rolled her head about her shoulders uncomfortably before turning again to watch the droplets fall.

Ilgrin had once described the feeling of whisp rain. He’d said that it erased everything and replaced it with an otherworldly hatred. Seteal remembered when Far-a-mael had violated her aura and implanted so much anger that she’d been unable to feel the underlying pain. She was invincible, even after having so recently been raped. She wouldn’t have objected to feeling so strong again.

‘Don’t be silly,’ Seteal reprimanded herself, but she didn’t move her foot. A second droplet made its way toward her. ‘No, don’t.’ The droplet stoped in mid-air, hovering, awaiting permission. ‘Okay,’ she whispered. ‘I’m ready.’ The droplet completed its journey and splashed onto her foot.

Just a little bit wouldn’t hurt. Seteal so wanted just for a few minutes to be free of the guilt she felt over Parrowun. Just for a little while. If she could just clear her mind of Master Fasil’s face or forget what she’d done to her father, she’d be happy at last. Not to feel pain for just a few minutes was all she needed. She’d stay inside and keep to herself. She wouldn’t take in so much as to hurt anyone.

‘Just a few minutes of peace,’ Seteal whispered as the black rain beckoned her to lean forward. ‘You won’t hurt me now will you?’ The droplet to have originally landed on her foot left a grey trail across her flesh. ‘Set me free.’

Reaching out with curiosity, Seteal put her hand beneath the steadily dripping rain. They trickled over her skin and in between her fingers with a repetitive tapping sound that bought her comfort. She chuckled as her hand turned grey. She rolled her head across her shoulders, listening to the little clicks in her neck.

Seteal Eltari was ordinarily so weak. She moped about the house, forever a victim. She found herself standing. Seteal Eltari was pathetic, forever dwelling on the past when she could be out seeking vengeance. She could tear them all to shreds. With a single thought she could peel the flesh from their bones. Instead, Seteal Eltari preferred to slither about in the dark. Seteal Eltari didn’t feel like she had the right to take life. She was weak with compassion.

Seteal’s feet were planted firmly on the floorboards. She felt every fibre of muscle within her legs. She felt the Ways surging back and forth within and without her. She threw out her arms and tossed back her head to laugh as the droplets splashed across her forehead. Free at last, she spun and danced in circles.

‘That’s enough,’ Seteal gasped, stepping hastily out of the stream. She’d taken in too much. What if she hurt someone? ‘So what?’ Seteal snarled.

There was a rapid knocking at the door. Seteal realised that she should ignore it. ‘Seteal, it’s me,’ a familiar voice called. ‘It’s Cindi. Please let me in. I’m scared.’

‘You should be scared,’ she said softly. She raised her hand and the door blew open. ‘You should come inside,’ she said warmly. ‘It’s dangerous out there.’

‘I don’t know what’s happening.’ Cindi quivered in her vulnerability; a little leaf ready to fall from a dying tree. ‘The rain started to fall and people started going crazy out there. I don’t know what’s gotten into them. I think I saw Mister Green kill someone.’

‘Oh, no,’ Seteal said with mock concern. ‘What’s that?’ she asked, her eyes falling to an item in Cindi’s hands.

‘Oh, I brought it over for you,’ Cindi replied, her eyes on the doll’s face as she caressed it.

‘I always knew you hated it.’ The door slammed shut and the lock turned with a click. A second leak had appeared in the kitchen. ‘You’ve come to rub my face in it before you leave?’

‘No, I . . .’ Cindi was taken aback by the malice in Seteal’s voice. ‘I wanted you to have it to remember me. And I guess I wanted to apologise. Whatever you’ve been through . . . I know you. You’re a good person. You were always my best friend, but lately I’ve failed to be yours.’

‘You have, haven’t you?’ Seteal flexed her fingers as small cracks broke out across the surface of her arms.

‘Seeing you mixing with demons was just so shocking, but it’s clear to anybody but fools that you’ve been looking after us.’

‘Are you finished?’ Seteal uttered disdainfully, her eyes moving to the stream of droplets in the kitchen. She found herself quite unable to resist moving toward the leak.

‘What are you doing?’ Cindi gasped as Seteal placed her hand beneath the stream. She caught her reflection to discover that her eyes had become darker than usual, tiny black fractures having formed around them.

‘We’ve sprung another leak,’ Seteal whispered, returning her attention to Cindi. ‘You know what they say; it’ll ruin the ceiling if we don’t punch a hole in it.’ She smiled cheekily, beckoning the Ways. Her intention was that a small puncture point should appear, but she pushed too hard and a portion of the ceiling no smaller than a table caved in around her. Seteal laughed when one of the rafters hit the ground and the ceiling sagged.

‘What’re you doing?’ Cindi squealed, dropping the doll as Seteal stepped into the rain and spun in a slow circle, swishing her dress. The remnants of her miseries vanished and rational thought abandoned her.

‘Whee!’ Seteal sang as she spun around and around, her hair becoming drenched; rich brunette fading to black. ‘Oh,’ she giggled, drunk on the glory of newfound wickedness. ‘I’m turning grey.’ She raised her arms to show Cindi. ‘I’m so powerful.’ She came to a stop and dropped her head so that her hair hung forward and she could feel the cold spattering her neck. She moaned softly. ‘Oh, yes,’ she whispered, lifting her head.

‘Get out of there,’ Cindi cried, snatching at Seteal’s arm and pulling. But Seteal’s feet were glued to the floor and Cindi’s strength was that of a gnat.

The bookshelf flew across the room and slammed into the girl, before continuing to crash against the opposite wall where she was left to crumple. Dark energy radiated through Seteal’s soul as she stepped out of the rain, black cracks spreading across her entire body. With a small gesture, she sent the bookshelf hurtling back across the room. A second gesture had Cindi drifting through the air. The woman’s face was one of terror. ‘You’re all so weak.’ Seteal narrowed her eyes. Cindi’s veins bulged, her face flushing red.

‘Seteal,’ Cindi squirmed. ‘I’m your friend.’

‘Not a very good one,’ she replied pinching her fingers together. The ways compressed the air around Cindy and she yelped as her ribs started to break. The pressure continued to build as Seteal tilted her head sideways. Cindi’s arms and legs bled. Her shoulders were crushed together. The woman stopped screaming when her scull caved in on itself. Cindi’s body hit the ground.

She’d killed again. She’d killed her son, too; sweet Parrowun. ‘Get out of my head,’ Seteal shrieked, turning an accusatory eye on the whisp rain. ‘You promised,’ she hissed before doubling over and screaming in agony as the black lines cracked and split. The Spirit sought release. ‘I mustn’t,’ Seteal howled. ‘I’m not supposed to! Where are you, Seeol?’ She cried, before suddenly remembering the bird’s absence. ‘Do something,’ she pleaded of the Ways. ‘Stop me!’ She stood still. The room pulsated around her. Somewhere deep inside something kept her from moving, but it lasted only a second. ‘I need more.’

Seteal found herself pulling open the front door. ‘Leave me alone,’ she demanded of her memories. ‘Give me more,’ she moaned, hurrying across the landing and down the steps. She stepped out into the rain. ‘Please don’t hurt them,’ she whispered before she became completely lost to delirium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Eight

mendacity

 

 

‘Wait here,’ Ilgrin ordered, pushing El-i-miir into a shallow cave in the cliff. ‘I’m going back.’

‘You’d risk your life for him?’ El-i-miir glowered. ‘Why? He’s betrayed us countless times.’

‘Jakob helped free me,’ Ilgrin defended his position. ‘We can’t just abandon him.’

‘What about Noah?’ El-i-miir clung to Ilgrin’s arm, her tone reflecting her frustration. ‘What if he’s still alive?’

‘I’m not leaving Jakob up there,’ Ilgrin stated with finality and turned to leave.

‘Fine,’ El-i-miir said reluctantly, ‘but I’m coming with you.’

‘It’s too dangerous,’ he argued. ‘I won’t let you risk your life again.’

‘I’m not doing it for you. I’m worried about Jakob, too,’ she brazenly lied.

‘I can’t stop you, can I?’ Ilgrin shook his head, both frustrated and attracted to El-i-miir’s determination.

‘Nope.’ She took his hand. ‘I’ll possess you if you try.’

‘I’ll just have to put up with you then.’ Ilgrin put his arms around her and flew into the sky.

Before long, they’d reached the clearing atop the cliff where the campfire still burned. Teah was sprawled out on the blood-stained dirt where she’d died. In death, her eyes still bore the desperate plea for help that Ilgrin had chosen to ignore.

‘Jakob,’ he called in a hushed voice.

‘Jakob,’ El-i-miir joined in, undoubtedly also utilising her Elglair abilities to help locate him. ‘Ilgrin,’ she said softly after they’d called out a few more times. ‘He’s not here.’

‘Jakob,’ he called out half-heartedly, after having found himself standing over Teah’s body. ‘You didn’t deserve this,’ he told her, voice shaking. ‘We have to bury her,’ he added more loudly, kneeling to straighten out the body. ‘We need to bury her,’ he insisted, turning to look for a stick or anything else with which to dig.

‘No, we have to go.’

‘She deserves better than that,’ Ilgrin said emotionally, astonished by El-i-miir’s heartlessness.

‘We have to go.’ El-i-miir strode over to Ilgrin, reaching for his hand.

He pushed her back. ‘I’m not leaving her like this.’

‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir gasped stretching her hands out to either side, ‘it’s beginning to rain.’

As the words left her lips Ilgrin felt the first cold droplet land on the back of his neck. ‘Then we’ll have to be quick.’

‘I’m sorry for what happened to Teah. Honestly, I am, but there’s no time.’

‘This is your fault!’ Ilgrin shouted furiously. ‘You jumped off the edge. I could’ve saved her, but you forced me to choose. That’s all you Elglair do—manipulate and control anyone foolish enough to stick around.’

‘It wasn’t like that.’ El-i-miir took a step back when Ilgrin bunched his hand into a fist. ‘I lost control. I didn’t know what I was doing.’

‘She deserved better than this,’ Ilgrin uttered, dropping to his knees to dig frantically as the drizzle continued.

‘ Ilgrin,’ El-i- miir sneered angrily. ‘We’re leaving.’

‘No,’ he barked, slamming his branch so hard against the earth that it cracked. ‘You’re an evil bitch and I want nothing more to do with you,’ he hissed, snapping his head to the side, his eyes drawn constantly to Teah’s blood. He bent to sniff it.

A rock hit the side of Ilgrin’s head with such force that he fell over. Warm blood trickled down his face. He spun toward El-i-miir in time to see her leap toward him, Noah’s silver-bladed knife in hand. Ilgrin threw himself back, brought up his legs and thrust them out so that she was flung across the clearing. She picked herself up, dusted herself off and started back toward Ilgrin with a limp.

‘I’ll kill you. I’m stronger than you.’

‘You’re utterly ignorant.’ El-i-miir twisted her hand.

Ilgrin screamed, his mind filling with tortured memories, both true and untrue. He fell to his knees as she picked through his aura, tormenting and twisting his mind. Her face appeared behind his eyelids. ‘I own you,’ the words echoed for a hundred years. He’d been there forever. He’d never escape. But the rain continued to fall and Ilgrin rose to his feet. El-i-miir’s expression became one of disbelief. She’d not anticipated that the rain could overpower her possession.

Thrusting out his arm, Ilgrin grabbed a handful of El-i-miir’s hair and lifted her off the ground. She yelped in pain and wrapped her hands around his wrist in an attempt to lessen the pull. ‘You’re a twig,’ Ilgrin smiled callously. ‘I could snap you like one. I wonder why I’ve let you live so long,’ he mused, wrapping his freehand around El-i-miir’s neck and then releasing her hair. ‘I should have done this a long time ago.’ He moved over to the edge of the precipice and held her out as she choked and spluttered.

‘I hate you,’ she shrieked, trying to claw Ilgrin’s face.

He opened his hand, but as El-i-miir began to fall she made a wild gesture that looked as though she were throwing an invisible object. The air became cold and Ilgrin’s grip on his mind failed and he fell into the night. ‘I’m falling,’ El-i-miir spread his wings and leapt after herself.

Ilgrin threw his arms around herself. El-i-miir writhed, spittle flying from her mouth as she resisted every desire to rip out Ilgrin’s eyes. His mouth twitched and he moved a finger. ‘I can’t,’ El-i-miir moaned as she lost control.

With a guttural cry, the demon released her but with a desperate reach, she managed to latch onto his ankle. Dodging and swishing through the air, he did everything he could to dislodge her, but the woman held on tight. ‘Get off!’ He shouted victoriously, finally kicking her free.

El-i-miir spun through the air. Their eyes connected and Ilgrin’s mind was engulfed, the connection re-established. El-i-miir swooped after herself and held her in his arms even as she slapped at his face. They screamed in harmony as they fell toward the earth, fighting and biting and scratching as Ilgrin’s mind switched in and out of her control.

‘I’ll kill you,’ El-i-miir hissed, wrapping her hands around his neck.

Ilgrin tried to breathe, but couldn’t. Then he could. Flaring his wings, he stabilised the flight and took back control. He pushed against El-i-miir’s face until her head was pressed back, coughing and spluttering in the rain. He backhanded her and the woman started to lose her grip. She affiliated Ilgrin and he yanked her back to safety, but almost immediately the connection was lost and he shook her free. She took him again and he dove after her.

Although it couldn’t be said under whose control it was accomplished, Ilgrin flared his wings as they approached the ground and the two landed clumsily. He thrust out his fist but at the last moment El-i-miir deviated his motion so that Ilgrin punched a tree instead of her. She dove for his throat but was slapped out of the way.

So entirely focused on his present situation was Ilgrin, that he failed to notice a flurry of movement out of the caves they’d found earlier. Jakob cried out as he brought down a rock against the side of El-i-miir’s head. The woman gasped and fell to the earth. Jakob dragged her unconscious body into the cave, but Ilgrin lurched after him.

‘Please.’ Jakob’s face twitched, spattered by rain. ‘It’s not you. It’s the rain.’ He released El-i-miir, having gotten her inside. He held Ilgrin’s stare and backed away with hands raised.

‘You betrayed me,’ Ilgrin hissed. ‘I lost my legion. I lost my crown!’ He thrust his fist into the side of the cave with such force that rocks rained down around them. ‘I’ll enjoy this.’

‘Stop him,’ Jakob cried, wrestling a small sieift from his pocket and tossing it at Ilgrin’s face.

He stumbled as his unreasonable hatred faded away. He shook his head, confused by the memories of what’d transpired. ‘Where’d you get that?’

‘Oh, thank Maker,’ Jakob said in relief, resting against the wall of the cave. ‘Teah was making heaps of them up there. Luckily I managed to convince a bit to come with me.’

‘Have you got one for El-i-miir?’ Ilgrin asked turning to the crumpled figure on the floor.

‘That was all I had,’ Jakob frowned. ‘Sieifts never did tend to like me very much.’

‘El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin whispered, gently taking her shoulder.

‘Don’t do that.’ Jakob slapped his hand away. ‘Not before the grey fades from her skin.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Twenty-Nine

involution

 

 

The town square was filled with people duelling by fist or sword. Others raced about like madmen. Those few still unaffected peeked out from behind curtains in houses where lanterns had been put out. The clouds boiled as they rumbled. Purple lightning stained the air. Seteal shook her heavy wet hair as purple filled her vision and she was thrown backward by a string of lightning. She landed on her feet and squinted through the black staining her vision. Lightning created by whisp clouds tended to linger much longer than that which came naturally. Seteal reached out to the band of energy but it wouldn’t obey her. She raised her hands to the sky and gestured sharply toward the earth. She may not have had authority over whisp lightning, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t create her own.

Streaks of blinding white struck at various points around town. Seteal ran across the square, having spotted Cindi’s mother, Mel, hurrying home. She threw out her hand as though she were tossing a stone and an invisible force struck the woman. She spun around several times before hitting the ground and failing to get up.

A house was torn from its foundations and Seteal tossed it through the air so that it crashed down on the opposite side of Elmsville. She snatched up another and another, revelling in the destruction. Windows exploded and people fell from their homes. A boy hit the pavement and sprayed blood. Seteal threw one of the houses so far that it crashed down somewhere in Narvon Wood.

With a shout, she sailed into the air to land before a man who’d been running for his life. She threw out her hands and blasted him into the sky. A woman who’d been hiding in her cellar when the house cracked away from the earth was torn to shreds with a single thought. Seteal headed toward the town hall. She knew where they’d be hiding.

As she approached, she raised her hands. The doors were torn off their hinges and blown out into the night. The people inside cried out and tried to make themselves scarce in corners. Countless buckets had been laid out to rather ineffectively catch the leaks, but for the most part, the ceiling was holding. Seteal stood in the middle of the hall with the townsfolk huddling against the walls around her. She doubled over, taking a moment to moan as pain made itself known throughout her body. She was too fragile. Her skin was cracking.

With a low moan, Seteal stood upright. She screamed in frustration. The windows shattered amidst cries of terror from the locals. The lanterns blew out and the building shuddered as it crumbled. Winds of incredible force struck the building. Seteal threw up her hands and the ceiling was blasted hundreds of strides into the air. She slammed her fist into the ground and the walls blew out around them.

People tried to run, but Seteal tossed them about like old rags as she flew into the air. She moved across town, slaughtering anyone that caught her attention. The clouds pulsed toward her. They wanted her. They’d followed her. Seteal glared at them in contempt. She was stronger than them.

She murdered again and again, drinking it in, enjoying the scent of death. But it wasn’t enough. She still felt him, there in the ground. ‘Leave me alone!’ A wave of pure energy burst through the porcelain cracks forming a shockwave that sped out in a circular fashion. Anyone or anything that’d thus far escaped her wrath was destroyed as the ring of energy and debris spread throughout Elmsville. People were thrust into the air, their carriages torn apart, their bodies incinerated. The remaining houses crumbled to rubble.

Seteal collapsed in the mud. She felt weak and opened her eyes to find that the rain had stopped. She gulped for air. ‘I need more.’ She shivered uncontrollably, the comforting hatred ebbing and the truth of what she’d done beginning to dawn on her. She clung to the hatred even as tears of remorse came to her eyes. Her killings were justified. She’d enjoyed it. It’d been right. ‘Don’t leave me,’ she pleaded the sky as the last drops hit the dirt. ‘Don’t leave me,’ she shrieked as Parrowun’s cold, dead body called out to her from the grave.

Grey flesh lightened as Seteal stumbled through the destruction surrounding her. Dead staring eyes accused her as she passed by. The town was in ruins. ‘Hello?’ she called out, but knew there’d be no response. She’d killed everyone in Elmsville. She’d done the silts’ job for them.

Seteal stumbled drunkenly toward her side of town. Remarkably—or perhaps by unconsciously intention—her house was the only one still standing. She fell onto the front steps, tears gushing down her face as the hollow loneliness of her reality returned with greater force than before. ‘I’m sorry,’ she wept, getting to her feet to stumble through the front door.

Cindi’s eyes stared from within the sockets of her sunken-in skull. ‘What have I done?’ Seteal moaned at the sight of her old friend. She moved into the next room where the floor was sagging. ‘I’m sorry, Cindi,’ she cried wildly, getting onto her knees. She leant forward, resting her forehead on the floorboards. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she sobbed the words, but no longer knew to whom they were directed. Seteal remained in place for a very long time, unable to move through her guilt. The number of lives she’d taken was innumerable.

Something touched Seteal’s arm. She looked up to find a fly cleaning its limbs. It hopped off and zigzagged this way and that, its round red eyes staring at her accusingly. She sniffled and fell back to lean against the wall with legs outstretched. A large black roach scampered across the room, probably on its way to feed on Cindi’s remains.

Seteal’s head lolled to the side. She saw a fine layer of dust and dirt floating up from the far wall as though it’d been freshly disturbed. Confused by the anomaly and grateful for the distraction, Seteal wandered over and rested her hand on the wall. There was a sound. She put an ear to the wallpaper and listened to a peculiar scratching sound. The wallpaper gained a million tiny tears. Seteal stepped back in time to see it. With a shuddering crack the wall caved in on itself and crumbled to the earth outside.

‘Far-a-mael,’ she gaped, too astonished by his presence to know what else to say. The old man looked up at her with cold disdain. He was surrounded by a semicircle of other wizened gils all of whom were dressed in formal attire. ‘You’re alive,’ she said.

Far-a-mael’s robe squirmed as did his flesh, then before Seteal’s eyes he dissolved into a swarming mass of fluttering insects. The moths surged forward, congregated behind her and then reassembled into Far-a-mael. ‘Yes, I am,’ he uttered, pushing her with a sharp jab to the back.

Seteal yelped and hit the dirt. The gils closed in around her. Much to her surprise one of them was the high elder of the eighth cleff. ‘Gez-reil,’ she gasped looking up at him from her position of vulnerability.

‘I’m sorry, my child.’ The old man’s lips quivered with regret. Seteal’s heart thundered as she fell back and raised her hands defensively. She scratched for the Ways, but the canvas was lost, the energy within her drained of all power. ‘It’s done.’ Gez-reil raised his eyes to meet Far-a-mael’s as they reappeared among a throng of flying insects.

‘Excellent,’ Far-a-mael whispered as his moths writhed together, forming his mouth. ‘You!’ The moths flew toward Seteal, becoming a hand as they approached. ‘I’ve waited for this day.’ The fully formed Far-a-mael smiled malevolently, clutching Seteal’s jaw.

‘What have you done?’ she cried out, frightened by the empty weakness she felt.

‘By the look of this town, I’ve done what’s going to be the safest thing for everyone.’ Far-a-mael gazed upon the destruction. ‘I’ve anchored you.’

‘Not that,’ Seteal blubbered. ‘I can’t feel anything.’ She’d wished so many times for Parrowun’s absence from her senses, but now that he was gone it was as though he didn’t exist. Painful though the connection was, it was all she’d had left of her son. ‘Let me out,’ Seteal shrieked, leaping to her feet and charged toward Far-a-mael.

The old man laughed as she hit him and he erupted into a mass of insects that she stumbled through. She laid her hands flat on the earth and pushed against the anchor. She felt the strands as they bulged about her aura. She pushed harder and for the barest moment felt the Ways leaning toward her. ‘Hold her,’ Far-a-mael barked at the red-faced, fearful looking gils surrounding Seteal. ‘It’s time for you to do what you were always supposed to do once your usefulness had run out, and that’s to die.’

Far-a-mael dissolved into the air. The earth below Seteal churned as countless varieties of insects pulsed up through the soil and squirmed in between her fingers and up her arms. ‘No,’ Seteal gasped, leaping to her feet. She turned to run, but Far-a-mael’s head and torso partially reappeared to block her. He punched her in the stomach before his leg reappeared to kick her back into the churning mud.

Seteal winced and slapped at a sting in her arm and then another to the back of her neck. She slapped at her clothing as insects made their way into the folds. ‘Stop this,’ she begged of Gez-reil. ‘Please.’ A beetle flew up her nose and started picking at the flesh within. Another insect shot into Seteal’s mouth and made its way down her windpipe. Others burrowed into her ears and she fell onto her back squirming in pain.

Insects poured up from the earth, their supply unlimited. They bit into her flesh and burrowed into her arms and legs. Seteal screamed as beads of blood appeared all over her. She clutched at her chest; the tissue in her lungs attacked by those that’d gotten inside. Seteal wheezed and thrust about in the mud. Her eyes locked on Gez-reil whose eyes, although refusing to make contact with hers, were filled with tears. ‘Please,’ she moaned as something burrowed beneath her eyelid and bit the flesh so that it swelled to the point of impairing her vision.

Gez-reil turned to Seteal and for the first time he looked her in the eye. He raised his chin, ever so slightly, nodded at her and took a step back. Seteal reached out with every bit of strength she had left. Gez-reil had released his portion of the anchor. She flung herself forward as the insects squirmed deeper into her failing body. There was the canvas; so very far away. It beckoned her.

Squeezing herself through the broken link in the anchor’s chain, Seteal felt it bend, fracture and break. Tearing free of her body, she became one with the Ways. Unable as she was to contain her power, the eight gils exploded with such intense flames that they were incinerated on the spot. Seteal reached for Far-a-mael’s Way, but found nothing. She turned to her body and found it to be engulfed by a squirming mass.

‘Far-a-mael,’ Seteal’s body cried weakly. She thrust winds at herself but only managed to sweep away a portion of the crawling insects. She took a hold of herself and tried to drag her body up from the ground, only to find that she couldn’t. Seteal’s lungs rattled as the tissues were eaten away. ‘Far-a-mael,’ the sound was an inaudible whisper beneath the crawling mass.

‘Oh, my sweet Seteal.’ Portions of Far-a-mael appeared and disappeared as the moths swarmed this way and that. ‘Did you learn nothing from our time together? Have you forgotten Cold Wood? How many times must I tell you that the mind cannot exist without the body?’

Seteal threw her spirit at the horde of moths. She reached out to them, but found only darkness. This wasn’t Far-a-mael. This was a whisp-mutated version of the man who’d died weeks earlier. Seteal reached away from the canvas, groping through the dark in the hope of finding anything to latch onto, but in the end there was only one way by which to satisfy a whisp: to give life.

The body defencelessly laying on the earth shook violently as Seteal fell back into it. Her eyes burst open. She tried to breathe but couldn’t. Her heartbeat was laboured and the agony was excruciating. She was blind in both eyes and had fallen deaf. She tried to move, but her limbs didn’t respond. She was dying.

Clawing back up out of her body proved to be impossible. It resisted her will to live, so prepared as it was to die. She fell back. Her head flopped sideways and she tasted blood in her mouth, its origins having come from somewhere deep within. Her body fell silent. Her heart took its last beat. One final rattling breath breezed past swollen lips. As Seteal faded the canvas rose away, its protective warmth abandoning her to the dark.

Overwhelmed by all that she’d done it might have been the easiest option just to let go, but the thought stayed with her in that moment between life and death, that she couldn’t go without taking Far-a-mael with her. She swung at the Ways and snatched them back by the vaguest trailing strand. The strand wound around her heart and squeezed a muscle that was no longer able to beat of its own accord. Her blood moved slightly, the heart having received too many punctures to perform adequately. She twisted the Ways so that they forced air down her throat, inflating lungs that couldn’t properly absorb it. But it was enough. She squeezed the heart again. She would make herself live.

The Holy Spirit flew into reality and latched onto the darkness that was Far-a-mael. There the man stood, staring down at Seteal’s body laughing at her in his victory. She sank into his being and drew the whisp into herself. Far-a-mael fell forward frowning. He looked at his hands as they dissolved, dead moths falling to the earth.

‘No,’ he howled. ‘What have you done?’ He screamed at Seteal’s unmoving body as the moths of his torso and head dissolved on the wind.

By the time Far-a-mael had died with countless dead moths littering the earth, Seteal was no longer there to see it. Scarcely recognisable was the corpse of a young woman where she lay beside a dilapidated house in the desecrated town that’d once been known by its inhabitants as Elmsville. Just as the old man had said so many times before: with her body having passed into death, so too had Seteal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lu-ke 21

 

23. Then this saying went abroad among the brethren, that the Spirit should not die. Yet Maker had not said unto them, ‘She shall not die,’ but, ‘If I will it that She tarry till I come, what is that to thee?’

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Thirty

not you

 

 

His eyes opened when the cage lurched away from the ground, human fingers grasping it between the bars. Seeol had survived another night. He fluffed up his remaining feathers against the cold, but with half of his body exposed it did him little good. The sky was black, of course, but the darkness seemed less oppressive today and Seeol thought that maybe on the distant horizon he’d glimpsed a strip of blue, if only for a second.

‘Give me that.’ Phil snatched the cage away from Marin so forcefully that his finger got twisted in the bars. His face flushed red, but the man didn’t dare raise his voice to a superior officer. Phil’s fingers slid around the bars and Seeol looked up at them, the temptation to take a bite almost overpowering him. But he stilled himself, knowing that to do so would cause more trouble than it was worth. He peeked out over the edge of the tray to observe his surroundings.

Late the day before, they’d entered a low-lying forest somewhere near the southern border of Kilk Antet. Every footfall sank into crisp brown leaves that crunched before scattering on the wind. Tiny streams and rivulets scribbled about the forest, the Jenjen soldiers having to sometimes wade through waist-high water or other times hop across on conveniently placed rocks. Riding horses had, for the most part, become more of a hazard than an advantage and as a result the men had taken to leading them.

‘Sir,’ a sweaty-faced young soldier addressed Phil when he was about to secure Seeol’s cage onto his horse’s saddle.

‘Yes?’ Phil uttered distractedly, examining the leather strap in search of any damage Seeol might’ve done.

‘I took a walk when you and the others were sleeping,’ the man said hurriedly. ‘There’s a river not a mile north of here.’

‘Trotem river?’ Phil asked with raised eyebrows.

The soldier shook his head. ‘It’s smaller than that, but the water runs fast.’

‘Did you see a way past?’ Phil ground his teeth.

‘I think so,’ the soldier replied.

‘All right.’ Phil nodded. ‘Lead the way,’ he said, turning to the others. ‘All right, everyone. We’re moving out.’

Seeol awoke sometime later, not having noticed he’d fallen asleep. It was probably the roaring water that caused him to come around, because such was the noise that the men had to shout over it to be heard. After gazing about his filthy cage, Seeol somewhat indifferently tucked his head back and closed his eyes again. ‘All right, son,’ Phil called out. ‘You found it. Show us the way.’

‘Me, sir?’ The young man’s nervous enquiry took Seeol’s attention and he again peered through the bars.

The river was rushing, foaming and furious, but across its width were a lot of large, flat and rather slippery-looking rocks. The young soldier stepped into the river and immediately threw out his arms to keep from losing balance. He waded in until the water was knee-deep. From there he leapt out toward one of the flat rocks. The toe of his boot hit the edge, but he lost his grip and slipped, landing instead on his chest and arms.

‘Be careful,’ he called back. ‘It’s slippery.’ He turned, steadied himself and sprinted to the edge of the rock where he leapt through the air, this time landing successfully on a somewhat smaller platform. Following the path of randomly placed rocks proved difficult, the soldier occasionally having to backtrack and try another path, but eventually he made it to the other side.

‘Right then,’ Phil said, indicating that the other men should cross the river, before turning to the remaining three. ‘You can take the horses downstream until you find a town or village with a bridge.’

‘Yes, sir,’ one of the men replied as he and the others turned to gather the animals.

‘What about him?’ Marin nodded at Seeol.

‘He’s coming with me.’

‘If you don’t mind my saying so, I don’t see how we’ll manage to get him across.’

‘We’ll have to,’ Phil smirked. ‘I can’t trust him to these idiots. I won’t trust him with anyone. The reward is mine,’ he said with a lingering stare, as though he suspected Marin of having plans to steal it.

Marin nodded respectfully. ‘Of course.’

‘You’ll go ahead of me,’ Phil stated. ‘Then I’ll toss the cage for you to catch. Then I’ll take it back off you and you’ll go ahead. So forth and so on.’

Marin shuffled uneasily. ‘That sounds dangerous.’

‘That’s probably because it is,’ Phil replied. ‘Are you not a Jenjen soldier? Are you not Veretian?’ He clapped the man on the shoulder. ‘You must do your bit for king and country. We all must.’

‘Yes,’ Marin said simply before glancing at Seeol, the two of them for a moment sharing an expression of mutual discomfort.

‘Is you stupider?’ Seeol piped in. Marin wasn’t going to fight the insanity, which meant he would have to. ‘You is making the craziest silly decision.’

‘If I wanted your opinion, I’d have asked for it,’ Phil said with contempt. ‘Why don’t you just sit there and tweet like a normal bird. Leave the thinking to us humans.’

‘Because you is going to kill us!’ Seeol shouted stubbornly, flying up to his perch, gripping it firmly with his good foot and balancing a little on the other. ‘Maybe you should do some tweeting. Your brain is stupid.’

Phil turned to Marin, having decided not to waste any more time humouring Seeol. ‘Let’s go.’

‘All right,’ Marin replied, hesitantly turning toward the river.

‘This is such a stupidest stupidness!’ Seeol’s heart thundered in apprehension.

When Marin made it to the first rock without any mishaps, Phil clamped a hand over each side of Seeol’s cage and launched it into the air. ‘Now your turn.’

Seeol was thrown back against the bars as the cage sailed through the air. All he could see were the clouds above. He beat his wings to no avail as he was bounced about. Seeol caught a glimpse of Marin’s face, the rushing water, the trees across the river. The cage hit the water with a splash, stabilised for a second and then started to sink. He clung to the bars as the water covered him and pulled him under. Then it was gone, a giant hand having reached down in time to pull the cage back up.

‘Gotcha,’ Marin gasped, slipping onto his backside.

‘See! You is going to killed us!’ Seeol shouted furiously back at Phil as he prepared to jump across.

Phil patted his pocket, removed the Devil’s Stone and put it in his mouth. At first, Seeol was confused by such an unusual decision, but on second thought realised it was probably the safest place to keep it.

Phil landed heavily and removed the stone from his mouth. ‘Quit complaining, you drowned rat. Next one, Marin.’ Phil nodded, running his eyes over the rock. ‘Maybe the next two.’

‘What?’ Marin gaped.

‘We can’t both fit on that one,’ Phil mused. ‘You’ll have to jump the next two. I’ll toss the cage and come after.’

‘That’s a long way to throw,’ Marin observed.

‘Is a very long way to throw,’ Seeol agreed, shaking the water from his feathers.

‘Have a little faith.’ Phil winked. ‘You are the Holy Spirit, after all.’ His voice was dripping with sarcasm.

When Marin had made it over the next two rocks, Phil heaved the cage toward him and again Seeol was tossed about in confusion. Sodden faeces and left over beetle bits sprayed through the bars as he clung on for dear life. As the cage spiralled through the air, he was left to piece together the bits his surrounds as they spun. Marin’s face flashed close and closer. He spread out his hands, but clapped them together too late and the cage crashed down on to the rock.

With a shuddering crack the tray broke away and Seeol found himself bouncing along the hard, wet surface. He shook his head, taking a moment to orientate himself. He was free. ‘Grab him,’ Phil cried.

Seeol shrieked and shook more water from his feathers. Marin simply stared at him with a dumbfounded expression. He desperately wanted to fly away, but was kept fixed in place by his need to retrieve the Devil’s Stone. Marin dove at him, but Seeol fluttered around the man and landed on the other side.

‘Must I do everything myself?’ Phil grated tearing his sword free and leaping for the next rock, but as he went he slipped and fell forward, limbs flailing. He hit the rock face-down. His hand fell open and the Devil’s Stone flew through the air. It bounced off the rock occupied by Seeol and Marin and onto another. Seeol dove toward it as Phil steadied himself and leapt once more.

‘Stop him,’ Phil shrieked. Seeol landed atop the small rock. He squeezed his toes around the pebble’s cool black surface, readying himself for flight. ‘No,’ Phil cried, swinging his sword. Seeol tensed his legs too late and the flat of the blade slammed down atop his wing. He screamed in agony as the wing and shoulder bones were shattered to useless fragments.

Seeol groaned and flapped his good wing to no avail, the action only sending him spinning across the rock and into the freezing cold water. He squeezed the pebble, the river sending him speeding downstream on the current with blood swirling.

‘Just take me home,’ Seeol spluttered before his head went under. There in the silence his mind turned to Seteal. He saw her warm, inviting face; the only home he’d ever really known. He longed only to be in the safety of her pocket or caressed, cupped in her hands.

The water vanished along with everything else as the stone responded to Seeol’s desperate plea. He opened his eyes and saw his mangled wing oozing blood, splintered bone sticking out in various places. He looked about in confusion, before then recognising a half-destroyed building as Seteal’s house. His eyes fell to a mangled corpse on the ground beneath a gaping hole in the side of the building. The body was wearing a familiar white dress. His eyes snapped up to her face.

‘No,’ he moaned, fighting through the excruciating pain in his wing to hobble over. ‘Not you,’ he wailed. ‘Not you!’

With one foot missing and the remaining one occupied by holding the stone, getting to Seteal’s body proved to be a challenge, but Seeol pushed himself nevertheless. She was pockmarked by thousands of holes and bites, her face almost unrecognisable. ‘Oh, please, not you,’ Seeol cried out, the pain in his heart superseding that which he felt in his wing. He brushed his beak back and forth across her cheek. ‘I shouldn’t have left you all by your lonesome,’ he said, his voice filled with regret. ‘Seteal.’ He limped back and gripped the stone furiously. ‘It isn’t fair,’ he howled. ‘I wanted to come back to Seteal, not this. Come back.’ He closed his eyes and pleaded with the stone. ‘Come back to me.’

But the Devil’s Stone had lost its power, having already faded to grey rather than black and was quickly getting lighter. The last of its power had been used in transporting Seeol to Elmsville. He stared desperately out over the town if only to discover more and more destruction every which way he looked. He turned back to Seteal.

‘You is my friendly and I loves you.’ He prodded her cheek with his stump, before huddling up beside her body if only to keep her company for a moment.

 

*

 

When El-i-miir woke up, it was to find herself being carried in Ilgrin’s arms. She opened her eyes to find Jakob walking beside them as they headed back through the woods. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she murmured.

‘You have nothing to be sorry for,’ Ilgrin replied, looking down into her eyes. ‘It was the rain. We both did terrible things.’

‘Okay.’ El-i-miir nodded, wrestling down onto her own two feet. ‘How long has it been?’ she asked, noting the lighter shade of shadows, representing the day.

‘Jakob hit you pretty hard,’ Ilgrin said softly, ‘so quite a while.’

‘Sorry.’ Jakob smiled awkwardly and waved his newly healed arm. ‘We’re almost back to Elmsville.’

‘Oh,’ El-i-miir gasped and stopped walking.

‘What is it?’ Ilgrin turned to face her.

‘Oh, no.’ Her lip quivered and her mouth went dry as the Ways sang a tune of sorrow. She screamed. ‘Seteal!’

‘What’s wrong?’ Jakob asked, but El-i-miir ignored him and set off at a run. She tore through the remaining trees with Jakob at her heals and Ilgrin becoming airborne.

Elmsville was an unrecognisable mess with every home shattered and the square littered with bodies. ‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir screamed when she came around the corner and saw a body sprawled beside the lopsided house. She halted abruptly, hovering over the body, not quite sure of what to do. She moved back and forth, too shocked to find words as Jakob came up behind her and Ilgrin landed.

‘Oh, Maker,’ was all Ilgrin could say.

‘You did this!’ El-i-miir screamed when she located a frightfully wounded and almost unrecognisable Seeol huddled against her friend’s neck. ‘You’re a curse.’ She waved her hands, not knowing what else to do with them. Hot tears poured down her face as El-i-miir crouched to cradle Seteal’s head. ‘It’s always been your fault. You did this,’ she sobbed.

‘I know!’ Seeol yelled back with such unexpected passion that it almost fooled El-i-miir into thinking he had real feelings. ‘Don’t you think I know that?’ he said more quietly. ‘I tried to get her back.’ He nudged a light grey stone with his beak so that it rolled across the ground.

‘You used it?’ El-i-miir gaped in disbelief. Instead of answering Seeol just looked at his toes. Not only had he used it, but he’d selfishly done so twice.

‘Okay,’ Ilgrin exhaled softly with wide, hysterical eyes. ‘We have to think.’ He paced for a moment, before kneeling beside Seteal. ‘We can still fix this. I can bring her back.’

‘It’s no use,’ El-i-miir wailed. ‘She’s entirely severed. There’s nothing left to bring back.’ She wept over the empty body, surrounded by not even the fading shadow of an aura.

Ilgrin put his hands over her. ‘She’s too dead,’ he murmured, ‘but I have to try.’ A moment later he recoiled and looked away.

‘I’m sorry we weren’t here,’ El-i-miir sobbed by Seteal’s ear. ‘I’m sorry about everything. I wish you could know how sorry I am.’ Her voice broke in remembrance of the kidnapping and subsequent events that’d played a part in the slow destruction of the woman before her now. The distant horizon sung a song that’d become disgusting to El-i-miir’s ears and she looked up to find it blotted out by thousands of legion soldiers.

‘Get inside,’ Jakob said anxiously. ‘They mightn’t bother to land if they think we’re all dead.’

‘He’s right.’ Ilgrin wrapped his arms around El-i-miir to drag her away.

‘No!’ El-i-miir screamed, kicking out her legs. ‘It’s Seteal. We can’t just leave her here.’

‘Listen to me!’ Ilgrin shouted. ‘Seteal is dead and if we don’t find a place to hide soon, we will be, too. It’s over, El-i-miir. The stone has been used up.’ He pointed at the pebble, which had become bright white. ‘If they ever existed to begin with, the gates of Hae’Evun will never be opened. We had our shot and we screwed it up.’

‘Maker help us all,’ El-i-miir choked out as she hurried on beneath Ilgrin’s arm. She cast her eyes back over her shoulder in time to see Seeol still huddled against the underside of Seteal’s chin, his eyes slowly closing. Jakob tore open the front door and raced inside followed by the others. The flooring slanted off to one side and the windows had nearly all been shattered.

Jakob hunched low and Ilgrin stood flat against the wall. El-i-miir hid beneath a window. She raised her head slowly so that she could peek outside as the rumble of silt wings drew nearer. Soft thuds told of their arrival.

‘They’re landing,’ El-i-miir announced with a heavy heart.

‘You watch the back,’ Ilgrin ordered Jakob. ‘I’ve got the front.’ He looked into El-i-miir’s eyes, his expression grim. ‘I think it might be time for me to die for you. I want you to go upstairs and hide in a wardrobe or anything else you can find. Don’t come out . . . not for anything.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER Thirty-One

meet your maker

 

 

The canvas spread away as Seteal fell. Or perhaps it was the canvas that fell. The farther away she came, the more of it that she could see. One Way was layered atop another, Hae’Evun and Earth. They were so close and yet so far apart; one layer of cloth placed atop another, but separate garments nevertheless. The enormity of the Ways was overwhelming. Time ceased this far away, and what was once Seteal’s mighty power on earth became but a smear amongst all that existed. New World was a spot of land on a spherical planet that circled a great burning mass of gas that made up the sun. Countless galaxies filled the universe, leaving Seteal’s world behind as an underwhelming speck of dust.

As she continued to fall, even the universe started to shrink, the galaxies and constellations pressing ever closer together. She was close to the border of creation. Everything vibrated out there—mixtures of pure energy. She crossed into the void outside and all that existed was the blinding white.

Seteal opened her eyes and lifted her hands. They appeared much like her own, but she was aware that they were only an illusion. Nothing existed as far as the eye could see; only the white, against which her dress was almost indefinable.

‘Seteal,’ a voice spoke from behind her.

‘Who are you?’ She turned around to find herself standing before a strange man. He wore a black suit and tie beneath which his bright red shirt stood out. His hair was black and slicked back. His sharp moustache and patch of triangular beard were neatly trimmed. His eyes were yellow and his pupils were slits. His appearance matched perfectly with the barely restrained malice radiating from His voice.

‘I am your Maker,’ He answered softly, raising His hands to either side. ‘And you are My Holy Spirit.’

‘I wondered if we’d meet,’ Seteal said sadly. ‘So it’s over?’

‘It could be.’ Maker tilted His head expectantly.

‘What does that mean?’

‘What does any of it mean?’ He asked illusively. ‘Isn’t that the question to the answer?’

‘Why did it have to be so cruel?’ Seteal looked away, still haunted by the life she’d once lived. ‘Why did we have to suffer so much, when You could’ve just fixed everything?’

‘Well . . .’ Maker smiled. ‘That wouldn’t have been much fun, now would it?’

‘That’s your answer?’ She looked at the all-powerful being disparagingly. ‘All of our pain throughout the ages . . . all the death and rape?’ Her lips quivered as the final word passed through them. ‘You created us out of . . .’

‘Yes.’ Maker nodded. ‘Out of boredom.’

‘But the Tome says Maker created us out of love.’ Seteal found herself almost pleading that he agree. This indifferent monster couldn’t possibly be the Maker even she’d hoped, on some level, existed.

‘That’s what the men who wrote the Tome probably wanted to believe. Just because one has created something does not mean they’re bound to love it.’ Maker shrugged. ‘You of all people must know that.’ When Maker finished speaking He was holding Parrowun’s dead, strangled body in His arms.

‘I loved him,’ Seteal shouted, giving in to tears. ‘That you cannot take away from me.’

‘Perhaps you did,’ Maker opened his arms and Parrowun vanished. He walked away a few strides, placing his hands behind his back as he went. ‘There was once a time when I was fond of humans, silts having grown wearisome to Me. They’re fickle creatures, switching allegiances at the drop of a hat. You saw how it was with Sa’Enoch.’

‘Ilgrin?’

‘If you like,’ Maker said dismissively. ‘That’s what started all of this. If you must blame someone, blame them. It was they who perverted My laws, entering your world against My will. It sickens Me even now. And the humans are not innocent in all of this. They welcomed the silts with open arms.’

‘Why didn’t you just put them back and seal our worlds apart?’ Seteal shook her head at the senselessness of it all. ‘Why not simply punish those in the wrong and leave the rest of us to be.’

‘Oh, Seteal.’ Maker turned around with a cruel smile. ‘Have you not read that I am a vengeful Maker?’

‘Seeking vengeance just seems so . . . petty,’ she spoke her mind without thinking.

‘How dare you!’ Maker threw out his hand and Seteal flew back through the white, landing heavily some distance away. By the time she sat up, He was looming over her. ‘I wanted My creation to have free will. Forcing you to do what I wanted would have made that impossible. You had to be punished so that you could learn to do as I say.’

‘What’s the difference?’ Seteal probed, rising to her feet. ‘You ask that we do as You say under threat of punishments worse than death. How can you possibly call that free will?’

‘There are rules,’ Maker snapped.

‘That You made up,’ Seteal barked. ‘My son didn’t have to die.’

‘The first time the gates were opened, it was done out of selfish lust and desire,’ Maker responded softly. ‘Since their inception, the Ways have demanded a certain balance. Life granted requires life to be taken and so forth. That’s why it has to be this way. The gates will only to be opened through sacrifice and suffering.’

‘But it’s too late.’ Seteal exhaled slowly. ‘I’m dead.’

‘Look there.’ Maker pointed and Seteal was able to see far below her feet, an eternity away laid her corpse with a small elf owl pressed up against it. ‘Do you see Sa’Tan’s old stone?’

‘I thought it was supposed to be black,’ she murmured.

‘Seeol used it in getting back to you,’ Maker chuckled. ‘I allowed it to take him as far as your body, but that wasn’t really what he’d asked for.’

‘What did he ask for?’

‘You,’ Maker replied simply. ‘All he wanted was to be back with you.’

‘What’s happened to him?’ Seteal reached out to the bird, knowing she could never touch him.

‘He fought hard to reclaim the stone,’ Maker replied nonchalantly. ‘That bird deserves more credit than you give him.’

‘I know that now,’ Seteal replied with a pang in her heart.

‘Never mind. He’s only an elf owl, after all,’ Maker stressed the final two words.

‘Why didn’t you give him what he’d asked for?’ Seteal’s mind turned back to Maker’s earlier comment.

‘It disgusts me,’ He snarled. ‘You people never learn. Things are meant to die. I afflicted you with whisps and still you raise the dead or associate freely with those who do. Even now, the little bird is begging that the stone should bring you back to life.’

‘Maker, forgive him, for he does not know what he is doing,’ Seteal pleaded on Seeol’s behalf.

Maker adjusted his tie and spread out his hands. ‘It is not for Me to decide on Seeol’s fate.’

‘Give him what he asked for.’ Seteal stepped forward aggressively. ‘Send me back.’

‘Are you quite sure?’ Maker asked. ‘The rest of it will be much worse than all you’ve suffered so far.’

‘But the gates . . .’ she trailed off.

‘Will remain sealed forever,’ Maker confirmed. ‘Humans will become extinct and not long after that, silts, too, will perish by the darkness brought forth from their own hands.’

‘That doesn’t matter to you?’

‘Not at all,’ Maker said with contempt. ‘I’ve lost patience with creation. Their deaths will restore balance to the Ways and I will move on.’

‘Send me back,’ Seteal said with determination.

‘Who are they to you?’ Maker shook his head in disdain. His eyes fell to Ilgrin, El-i-miir, and Jakob as they sought a place to hide. ‘You could be at peace.’

‘I’ll never be at peace and they deserve a chance to survive. At least grant us that much,’ Seteal demanded. ‘Just tell me what to do.’

‘You don’t deserve anything from Me.’ Maker’s lip curled in repulsion. ‘But I did invest My Holy Spirit into you so that this would come to pass. So I’ll grant you that much.’

‘But what about the key?’

‘You still think it’s the stone, don’t you?’ Maker chuckled malevolently. ‘It really would be a shame to relieve you of the mystery.’

‘Give me something,’ Seteal pleaded, her body beginning to fade.

‘Dan-i-el chapter eleven, verse 31 and Matt-hew 16, verses 19 and 20,’ Maker whispered with a cunning smile. ‘And remember: the stone’s power is fleeting, Seteal. You will not have long before you again pass into death. And the suffering must be deep to the soul.’

 

 

 

Revelation 1

 

17. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as if dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying unto me, “Fear not; She is the first and the last.

18. She is the one whom liveth, and was dead; and behold, She is alive for evermore, Amen.”

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

THE SECOND COMING

 

 

Ilgrin pressed back up against the door and looked through to the next room, making eye contact with Jakob and putting a finger to his lips. ‘Spread out,’ a voice drifted in from outside. ‘Search every building. If they’re here, we’ll find them.’

His breath coming in shallow gulps, Ilgrin chanced a glance through the window beside the door, but immediately pulled back when he saw wings pass by. The steps creaked outside. Ilgrin shot a fearful look at Jakob, who reflected a similar expression. He reached for the handle and squeezed as someone rattled it on the other side. ‘This one’s locked.’

‘There’s a hole around the side of the building,’ another replied. ‘We’ll go around.’

‘Or we could break the door down,’ the first voice suggested.

‘There’s been enough destruction here,’ the other silt grumbled, before their footfall thumped back down the stairs.

Ilgrin hurried through to the kitchen to join Jakob. ‘They’ll be in here any second,’ he whispered.

‘What are we going to do?’ Jakob hissed back. ‘I only have a few bullets.’

‘Listen.’ Ilgrin pointed a finger at Jakob’s face. ‘You listen to me. Go up and get El-i-miir as quickly as you can. I’ll keep them busy as long as possible while you two get out of here. Head for the woods.’

Jakob shook his head in protest. ‘Forgive the cliché, but that’s just suicide.’

‘Do as I’ve asked.’ Ilgrin squeezed the man’s shoulder. ‘Please.’

‘Okay.’ Jakob swallowed nervously. ‘Take this.’ He handed Ilgrin a rifle.

‘Thanks.’ Ilgrin exhaled slowly in an attempt to calm himself and turned toward the next room where voices trailed in from outside.

‘Like I said,’ one of the soldiers said to the other. A gush of wind told Ilgrin that one of them had entered. Fearing he’d lose his nerve, he threw himself around the corner. He charged toward the legion soldier with a shout that caught him off-guard, causing him to stumble out of the way. Ilgrin threw himself out of the house and surged into the sky.

‘Was that him? That was him!’ a voice cried from the ground.

From the air, Ilgrin was able to see how truly hopeless their situation was. So many demons had landed in and around Elmsville that they couldn’t all fit in the town. The sky was awash with silts swooping and searching for signs of life. Word quickly spread of who Ilgrin was and the masses surged after him.

 

*

 

El-i-miir had agreed to hide only because Ilgrin wouldn’t have taken no for an answer. And that wasn’t her only motivation. From Seteal’s bedroom window, she was able to see across town. Such a vantage point would make it easier if she had to affiliate anyone. So she waited, her eyes penetrating auras to pick out the easier targets among the legion. If silts found them, she’d be ready to possess as many as she had to, hopefully this time without losing her mind.

There was a shout, followed by a flurry of motion that set the hair on the back of El-i-miir’s neck on end. She pushed up against the window to discover what might’ve caused so many silts to surge in one direction. A single demon appeared in the sky some fifty strides into the air. He dipped and swooped with a rifle in hand. Hundreds pursued him. He spun around and fired a shot. A silt fell.

‘Ilgrin!’ El-i-miir slapped her hand against the glass. ‘Oh, no!’

‘Come on.’ Jakob’s wrapped his arms around her and tried to pull her kicking and screaming away from the window.

‘Let go of me!’ she shouted. ‘We have to help him.’

‘Ilgrin chose his fate.’ Jakob grabbed her arm. ‘He wanted you to get away. Don’t let him die in vain.’

‘No.’ El-i-miir burst into tears, but she stopped fighting and allowed Jakob to drag her from the room. There were too many. She’d never be able to affiliate enough to make a difference. ‘Oh, Ilgrin!’ she wailed. ‘What have you done?’

‘Shut the torrid up,’ Jakob ordered by her ear when they reached the door. Another gunshot rang out and El-i-miir’s attention snapped back to the window in time to see Ilgrin’s flight become laboured.

‘Oh, Maker,’ she said through quivering lips. ‘They got him.’

El-i-miir became a helpless burden. She couldn’t think. She was numb. Seteal had prophesied that he would die saving their lives. The prophesy had finally come true. Somehow Jakob managed to keep El-i-miir moving through the hall, down the steps and around to the back door.

‘I’ve been sneaking around these creatures my entire life, so be quiet, stay low, and do as I say,’ he said firmly, before pushing the door open a half handwidth to peek outside. ‘Okay, let’s go.’

The two stepped out, El-i-miir hurrying after Jakob as he led the way. His movements were sharp. One moment they’d be running from one house to another, the next he’d snatch at El-i-miir’s arm and pull her back just in time to avoid being seen. ‘Okay go.’ He shoved her forward. They ran up to the final house behind which was only the graveyard and a long stretch of baron land before the relative safety of Navon Wood.

Before racing off to their probable deaths, El-i-miir took a moment to cast her eyes into the sky, pleading desperately for a glimpse of Ilgrin. ‘Maker,’ she exclaimed when she spotted him dangling from the arms of a female figure who flew without wings.

‘Is that . . . ?’ Jakob trailed off.

‘I don’t believe it,’ El-i-miir murmured. Seteal threw out an arm resulting in a great hole being punched through the mass of silts. Those struck flailed and spun through the air before regaining control or hitting the earth.

‘There’s no time.’ Jakob pulled on El-i-miir’s arm, her attention remaining fixed on the sky. ‘We have to get to the woods.’ A moment later they were running low between gravestones and across the expanse to Narvon Wood.

‘There’s no use in hiding,’ a legion soldier said from his place in one of the trees. ‘We’ve conquered your world. Where will you go?’

‘Leave us alone,’ El-i-miir stated, touching the silt’s aura. He flew away and became distracted by other humans. El-i-miir released her hold, grateful but confused as to where he’d found other humans. ‘The overgrown farmhouse,’ she said urgently. ‘It must be impossible to spot from above and Seteal will know to find us there.’

 

When the others had rushed off to hide, Seeol was left alone with Seteal’s body. He wouldn’t leave her no matter what. He refused. El-i-miir had been right. This was all his fault. If he hadn’t left Seteal alone, she wouldn’t have been killed. He should have protected her, but how could he? All he’d ever done was hurt her. He nuzzled up against her neck, careful not to step on his mangled wing. It still oozed blood and throbbed so forcefully that it felt like it might explode.

A pair of legion soldiers came around the corner of the house. ‘I wonder what happened to her,’ said the first, nodding at Seteal’s rather unfortunate-looking remains.

‘Maker only knows,’ the other replied, stopping to take a moment to stare, not having noticed Seeol. He took off his hat and squeezed it. ‘Such a waste,’ he said with sad eyes.

‘Just look at this damage.’ The first silt ignored him, instead examining the hole in the side of the house.

‘Like I said,’ the other replied, his eyes running momentarily over Seeol before he turned to watch his comrade leap into the house.

There was a shout and then Ilgrin breezed out and into the sky so that the silt who’d been inside almost toppled out after him. ‘Was that him? That was him!’ the demon cried, before he and the other hurried after Ilgrin, crying out to others as they went.

Seeol squeezed the Devil’s stone as he watched Ilgrin fly. It was something he would never be able to do again. ‘Please come back,’ he pleaded of Seteal one last time. ‘We need you and I misses you too much to breathe. Is my only friendly in the whole wide world.’

As Seeol pressed up against Seteal’s neck he felt his head wobbling gently back and forth. He examined her flesh to find it pulsing. She had a pulse! Seeol stepped back in awe as the bites and wounds across Seteal’s body sealed over and her flesh became smooth and healthy. He hoped with everything in him for her return, all the while not daring to believe it was true.

‘Seeol,’ Seteal whispered on her first breath.

He rocked back and forth for a moment, unable to believe what he was seeing. The stone had heard him. ‘Is you,’ he said in disbelief. ‘Is so happy.’ He bobbed his head rapidly.

‘You’re quite a sight, aren’t you,’ Seteal murmured, carefully picking up Seeol as she rose to her feet.

‘I have the key.’ He picked up the stone in his beak and tapped it repeatedly against Seteal’s thumb.

‘Thank you.’ She sighed distractedly, gazing up into the sky. ‘Ilgrin,’ she whispered anxiously. ‘What’ve you done?’ She reached up into the house and put Seeol on the floor. ‘I’ll be back. Find a place to hide.’ With that she was jolted into the sky as though she’d been dragged up by some external force. Seeol limped across the floorboards until he found an open, upturned copy of the Holy Tome. Its pages had been crumpled in such a way that the book stood like a little tent made just for him. He nuzzled between the pages and decided to rest for a while. His head drooped to the beat of his throbbing wing and his eyes came to a close.

 

*

 

The sky was a dense mass of winged bodies that flew about one another with startling proficiency. The whisp clouds rumbled, daring the silts to add more to their number. It didn’t take long before Seteal attracted attention, standing out: a human flying in a tattered white dress.

Guns fired bullets that she stopped in mid-air. Seteal spun around and waved her hand so that a hundred demons blew away into the distance. Coiling the Ways about her body, she pulled herself toward Ilgrin, but she arrived too late. Gunfire filled her ears and Ilgrin’s flight became laboured. He dipped for a moment before finding the strength to continue at a slower pace.

‘Ilgrin,’ Seteal cried in time to watch him lose his battle with gravity. She rushed over and threw her arms around his mid-section. Dark blood trickled away from his torso in line with his lower ribs. ‘I’ve got you,’ she comforted the demon as his body shuddered tiredly and his wings became limp. Seteal shrieked as the mass of silts engulfed them. She threw out her hand—allowing Ilgrin to dangle from the other—and blasted a hole through the masses. The demons spiralled away to regain balance or hit the earth and die.

As Seteal dipped and twisted about the sky, she hurriedly came to the realisation that she was going to have to do something more drastic if she hoped to escape without killing everybody. She didn’t want to kill anybody. She’d done enough of that.

An idea struck her and Seteal started freefalling. ‘What’re you doing?’ Ilgrin called as the legion soldiers caved in after them.

‘Creating a distraction,’ Seteal replied, focusing on all that which she’d have preferred to forget. For Ilgrin’s sake, she landed gently and allowed him to lean on her shoulder. Master Fasil was there to welcome them.

‘Such a naughty girl.’ He stepped forward licking his lips.

‘I need more.’ Seteal focused.

‘Who are you?’ Ilgrin grimaced at Master Fasil’s predatory expression.

‘Mister Eltari,’ Gifn replied, stepping up from behind them. ‘My sweet daughter.’ He pushed his hand through Seteal’s hair.

‘That’s your father?’ Ilgrin gaped. ‘I thought—’

‘They’re not real,’ Seteal grabbed Ilgrin’s hand and dragged him across town as the folks of Elmsville reappeared all around them to go about their daily activities. ‘I’m projecting my memories,’ she called out before waving her hand toward the crowd of landing silts so that they were blown out of the way.

‘Will they fight for us?’

‘They’ll do whatever my memory expects them to do based on what I know about them.’ Seteal led Ilgrin toward the house.

‘So that would be a no then?’

‘They’ll be slaughtered.’ Seteal glanced over her shoulder and raced up the front steps, satisfied to see that the distraction was working, the silts having busied themselves killing those who were already dead. ‘It won’t take long for them to figure it out.’ She winced when she saw a sword strike Cindi, but instead of wailing or pouring blood, the memory just shimmered out of existence.

‘What’re we doing here?’ Ilgrin asked as he hurried inside and closed the door.

‘We’re safe for now.’ Seteal’s eyes snapped back and forth across the room.

‘I sent the others into the woods,’ Ilgrin said slowly, perhaps having thought Seteal was looking for El-i-miir.

‘Have you seen my father’s Holy Tome?’

Seeol’s patchily feathered head popped out from beneath the upturned book. ‘Is here.’

‘Come on,’ Seteal said, scooping up Seeol and sliding him into the safety of her pocket. She picked up the tome and turned to Ilgrin. The silt’s face fell, his eyes locked on something over her shoulder.

Seteal spun around faster than was humanly possible and watched a bullet leave its barrel through the window. She saw it shatter the glass, plucked it from the air, spun around and released it back at such a trajectory that it hit the shooter in the centre of his forehead. ‘Where were you going to meet the others?’ Seteal asked.

Ilgrin jumped when something exploded against the side of the house. ‘I didn’t really think I was going to come out of this,’ he replied apologetically. ‘You were dead . . . I just told them to hide in the woods.’ Smoke billowed in from outside.

‘The broken house,’ Seeol offered from Seteal’s pocket. ‘Nobody can see it in the sky.’

‘Of course.’

‘What broken house?’ Ilgrin asked in bewilderment, following Seteal into the kitchen.

‘Far-a-mael brought me there when we first . . . met,’ she said distractedly. ‘If El-i-miir needed to hide, that’s where she’ll have gone.’ Seteal pulled open the door.

A crowd of legion soldiers waited. With a guttural cry she threw out her slowly cracking arms. The demons flew as a hot burst of energy left her hands. A moment later she was running through the graveyard, supporting Ilgrin with his hand pressed against his ribs. When they reached the open field increasing numbers of demons started swooping after them, but the majority were still distracted by Seteal’s memories.

After they’d reached the trees, she made sure to lose anyone pursuing them before making her way toward the overgrown farm house. She stumbled through the shrubbery and into the crumbling building.

‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir gasped, tears running down her face as she rushed to embrace her. She sobbed into her neck. ‘Thank Maker you’re alive.’

‘I am,’ Seteal said softly, knowing her time was short, ‘but we must act quickly. My memories are fading,’ she turned to Ilgrin, ‘and sooner or later they will pursue us into the woods.’

‘What should we do?’ Jakob asked, stepping out of the shadows.

‘The answers are in here.’ Seteal opened the Holy Tome.

‘Oh, Seteal.’ El-i-miir shook her head.

‘Ye of little faith,’ Seteal said with a half-smile. ‘You do realise that I was too dead, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ El-i-miir said slowly. ‘That’s why this is all so confusing.’

‘When I died,’ Seteal said softly, ‘I met with Maker. He told me exactly what parts of this to read in order to find the gates of Hae’Evun,’ she stated, pawing through the pages.

El-i-miir snatched at her wrist and looked her in the eye. ‘You actually spoke to Maker?’

‘Yes,’ Seteal replied.

‘Well, what did He have to say?’ El-i-miir asked in exasperation. ‘What did He say about the world and what’s happened?’

‘You know what? Nothing of any value.’ Seteal pursed her lips. ‘To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think I liked Him very much at all. In fact, He was really quite pathetic.’ She looked up to find herself surrounded by stunned expressions.

Seteal realised then that with her father’s deeply held religious values she’d always felt a sense of shame for being who she was. But now it occurred to her that she’d spent too much time fearing Maker’s wrath. If she was an abomination in His eyes, then that was His problem, not hers. If Maker ever wanted people to love Him, He’d have to stop threatening to kill them every time they had a differing opinion. To do so made Him petty and insecure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dan-i-el 11

 

31. Darkness shall pollute the sanctuary and take away all the light, and there shall be the gates, the abomination that maketh desolate.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

THE GATES OF HAE’EVUN

 

 

‘The abomination that maketh desolate,’ Seteal read the words a second time. ‘What could that mean?’

She was answered at first by bewildered silence. ‘The black tree,’ Seeol said softly—the pain clear in his voice—from within Seteal’s pocket.

‘The tree,’ El-i-miir gasped. ‘Of course.’

‘What tree?’ Ilgrin enquired.

‘There is a tree south of here,’ Jakob intoned. ‘It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Nothing lives around it.’

‘It’s an abomination that maketh desolate,’ Seteal murmured, flicking through the pages for the other verses Maker had mentioned. Intent as she was, she failed to notice the gathering demons outside or the lit bottle being tossed through a hole in the wall. Her eyes widened as it sailed through the air.

‘Seteal!’ El-i-miir dove for her before she could react and the two stumbled out of the way.

‘The Tome,’ Seteal cried as the bottle shattered and the wall became awash with flames that also ignited the ancient book.

 

‘Come on,’ Jakob helped her up while Ilgrin tended to El-i-miir. The side wall collapsed and the four of them hurried out.

Seteal threw up her hands and blasted a dozen demons off their feet. El-i-miir possessed a handful and turned them against those who remained. One of her demons handed a rifle to Ilgrin and then Jakob. The men didn’t hesitate in using them. As they raced through the woods dodging demons and entangled plantation, Seteal made sure to cradle her pocket to minimize Seeol’s discomfort.

When they reached the clearing, she was filled with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Her heart thundered and light faded, but it was the clouds above that held her attention. The whisps churned and spiraled toward the clearing like water turning down a sink.

‘If you’re going to do something, you’d better do it quickly,’ Jakob called, snapping Seteal from her thoughts. He spun around and shot a hole in a demon’s chest.

Ilgrin let off a number of shots before his weapon clicked and became useless and he had to resort to using his fists. El-i-miir had glazed eyes and raised hands. At her bidding, demons either remained stationary or fought their kin. ‘Hurry, Seteal,’ she and a nearby demon uttered in unison. ‘I can’t hold them. There are too many of us.’

‘I don’t know what to do,’ Seteal cried, pacing irritably before the looming tree. ‘What do I do?’ She pleaded as the number of silts increased.

‘What scriptures?’ Seeol called almost inaudibly over the ruckus.

‘Matt-hew 16:19-20,’ Seteal replied, anxiously removing Seeol from her pocket. ‘Do you know them?’

‘Sometimes Ieane would do reading with me.’ Seeol bobbed his head, which resulted in a cascade of feathers falling away on the wind.

‘What does it say?’ Seteal glanced over to see El-i-miir’s face covered in sweat and contorted as her web of affiliation grew.

‘Hurry,’ Ilgrin cried, knocking out one of the affiliated silts in an effort to lessen El-i-miir’s burden. Jakob glanced at her fearfully before firing his last shot.

‘And I will giving thee the key to Hae’Evun in the palm of your hands,’ Seeol tilted his head and quoted the passage. ‘And the gate you is opened on Earth will be opened in Hae’Evun, and if the key you lose on Earth, it shall be lost forever. I will give you the key into the lock, for you but to turn it.’ Seeol nodded. ‘That’s it.’

Seteal floundered in wonder for but a moment, before her eyes locked on Seeol where he rested in the palm of her hands. ‘The palm of your hands,’ she whispered with quivering lips and bleary eyes. ‘Not him,’ she uttered as though Maker might hear her plea. But He wouldn’t. There was not a bit of love in Him. ‘Do you know this place, Seeol?’ Seteal asked, seeking confirmation in the vain hope that she was wrong.

‘I hatched in the roots,’ Seeol replied with a nod.

Seteal said nothing, instead falling to her knees in front of the tree. The gates of Hae’Evun had been there all along, Maker having placed the key in the lock, leaving Seteal but to turn it. Seeol was the key to the gates of Hae’Evun, not the Devil’s stone. This time the gates were only to be opened through sacrifice and suffering, Maker’s words echoed through Seteal’s mind. The suffering must be deep to the soul.

Remembering the knowing that she’d had long ago, Seteal’s mouth dropped and she realised how wrongly she’d interpreted it. The knowing had predicted that the one who loved El-i-miir would die saving them all. The prophesy had spoken truth, but Seteal had failed to interpret that its meaning was referring to the love of an elf owl. As had occurred so many times before, Seeol had simply been . . . overlooked.

‘Seteal!’ Ilgrin shouted as he cracked a silt’s scull with a swing of his rifle. ‘Do something!’

‘Help me!’ El-i-miir screamed along with the masses of silts surrounding her. ‘We can’t keep going.’ They clamped their hands to either side of their heads.

‘Oh, Seeol,’ Seteal leaned toward the tree, which recognised her intentions, enveloping the two in a private vale of darkness. The world outside the tree’s immediate surroundings slowed to a crawl as the abomination which maketh desolate leaned forward to hang off every word.

‘Is you okay?’

‘No, I’m not okay.’ Seteal wiped her nose and swallowed hard to supress any further tears. The tree was watching. For the gates to open, the sacrifice would have to be convincing.

‘What’s wrongness?’ Seeol’s voice became sad as he rubbed his beak back and forth over Seteal’s thumb.

‘The stone you told me about,’ Seteal choked out, working hard to keep her face still and her voice steady. ‘It’s not the key at all. You were wrong.’

Seeol hung his head. ‘Is terrible.’

‘I was a fool to trust in you.’ She made her voice hard. ‘We’re all going to die because of you. You failed us, Seeol. You failed me. You failed Ilgrin and El-i-miir. Yes, she, too, will die because of you.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Seeol replied after a long pause, his voice heavy with regret. ‘I thought that . . . you must know I didn’t mean it, don’t you? Maybe we can go off to find the real one.’

‘Look around you.’ Seteal stifled a sob. ‘It’s too late isn’t it? We’re surrounded and I’m not strong enough to fight an attack of this magnitude. The world of mankind will be destroyed. The creation of whisps will continue and then Ilgrin’s people will be wiped out, too. The world will become a wasteland of whisp-mutated monsters, just like you.’

‘My darkness is gone now,’ Seeol raised his eyes. ‘I won’t hurt you anymore. I can be a proper friend.’

‘My friend?’ Seteal spat the word with as much scorn as she could muster. ‘You were never my friend. You sought us out and we did everything we could to escape you.’

‘But I thought . . .’ Seeol’s voice wavered, his eyes shining sorrow. ‘I know about them, but I thought that at least maybe you . . . maybe you liked me. Maybe you sees me inside and likes me a little bit.’

‘How could I possibly like you?’ Seteal squeezed out the words as hot tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘You’re just a little bird,’ she whispered the sentence she’d been guilty of uttering so many times before. ‘You’re only an elf owl.’

‘I tried,’ Seeol whispered, further burdening Seteal’s heart. She looked up at the tree pleadingly. Why wouldn’t it take him? How much more of him did she have to destroy? ‘I tried to make you some happiness,’ Seeol continued, ‘when you was sad. I didn’t meaning for you to die. I went to help and I’m sorry I left you all alonesome. Don’t being angry at me.’

‘I’m not angry.’ Seteal shook her head, breathing in short gasps. ‘I wanted you to die. All of my torments were because of you.’

‘I know now,’ Seeol replied despairingly. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t meant it. You is my friend. I loves you.’

‘Oh, Maker, why have you forsaken me?’ Seteal wailed up at the tree before releasing a shuddering breath. In simple response the darkness became silent. So still was the air that Seteal was able to hear Seeol’s rattling breaths. ‘I’m going to kill you now,’ she turned to look at the owl resting in her palms. It took every last bit of strength she had not to tell Seeol that she loved him too and that he’d been the truest friend she’d ever known. The tiny bird had won her heart, but cruel fate meant that he was to die without knowing it. He would die alone.

‘Why?’ Seeol asked after what seemed like a long time. He moved about uncomfortable as the darkness weighed down, pressing heavily against him. ‘I like living.’

Seteal spluttered out the cruellest insult she could think of. ‘Because you’re an abomination.’

‘I suppose you is right,’ Seeol rattled, his legs giving way so that he was forced to rest on his scantily feathered keel. He rubbed his beak absentmindedly against Seteal’s palm, perhaps the action having become as greater comfort to him as it’d long been to her. But he stopped abruptly to peer up into her eyes. The darkness thickened and his feathers became matted with blood. ‘But in the end,’ he said so softly that Seteal had to move her face close to hear him, ‘did it matter that I tried; that I cared? In the end, did I matter?’

There was an extended moment during which Seteal couldn’t speak for fear of giving herself away. But then she answered him. ‘No,’ she whispered fatalistically. Seeol closed his eyes and the darkness washed over Seteal’s palms. When the tide swept back it took with it his soul, leaving nothing but the lifeless remains of an elf owl.

Seteal stayed on her knees staring at the little bird, before tumbling forward sobbing apologies that fell on ears no longer able to hear. ‘Of course you mattered,’ she blubbered over the body. ‘Oh, Seeol . . . in the end, it didn’t matter what they thought of you . . . or even what you thought of yourself,’ she sobbed, horrified by the isolation in which she’d made him die. ‘In the end, all that mattered was who you were.’ She wept bitterly and stroked his crown. ‘And you were beautiful. And I loved you.’

‘For Maker’s sake,’ Jakob’s panicked voice cut through the void and shattered it. ‘It’s just a bird!’

Seteal placed the feathery body among the roots of the tree. The stone’s power began to wane and tiny red bites appeared across her flesh. With a rumbling sound, the tree split down the middle and the roots squirmed in opposite directions, dragging each side away from the other. The upper branches became entwined, forming an arch above two pillars that came to a stop on opposite sides of the clearing. The impenetrable darkness between them was pockmarked with small holes that spread out as the shadows solidified to form solid black gates.

The whisp clouds funnelled feverishly toward Narvon Wood and Seteal knew that it was her they craved. They’d been searching for her soul since they’d tasted it months earlier. She looked at Seeol’s lifeless body one last time through teary eyes, his few remaining feathers moving fitfully in the wind. ‘This will never happen again,’ she sobbed. ‘I promise you that.’

The Ways murmured about Seteal as she spread her arms and tossed back her head. She took but a moment to think about what’d happened to Seeol, her father, and Parrowun before the whisps reached out to her. ‘Go on then,’ she whispered through gritted teeth, ‘take me.’ The black mist rushed through the canopy and plunged into Seteal’s chest.

 

*

 

El-i-miir’s head felt like it was about to explode as she maintained the patchy web of affiliation. Another mind was added and she felt her strength failing. She could not take another. Not a single one. They could not. El-i-miir’s mind bounced about her many bodies while Ilgrin held onto and supported her.

‘Go on then,’ Seteal said as El-i-miir watched from countless perspectives, ‘take me.’ At her suggestion the endless stream of whisps plunged through the canopy and into her chest.

With a clunk the gates swung open to reveal a strange shadowy world of purple trees and grey dirt. Semitransparent figures with great arching wings moved about on the other side, but someone was screaming. El-i-miir turned away from the gates, distracted by the noise.

The Elglair woman clamped her hands over her head and wailed in distress. It took her a moment to realise that the woman was her. But how could it be her if she was watching the woman stumble, only to be kept aloft by Ilgrin’s strong arms? She had to kill them. They were the enemy. Her wings twitched. She had hundreds of wings. The silts approached, brandishing their weapons.

‘Stay with me,’ the words whispered into her ear. Purple eyes and sharp features held her attention. ‘Focus, El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin’s pleaded.

‘Just leave me alone!’ El-i-miir howled. She blasted hundreds of thousands of strands of affiliation out of her aura, taking with them that one single overwhelming message to every silt in the world. El-i-miir’s legs gave out as she released the web and tumbled to the earth. Ilgrin was not there to catch her. Like the other demons, his eyes were locked through the gates as he marched toward them with determination.

The clearing filled with bright light as the sun and sky were revealed for the first time in weeks. Seteal doubled over with her hands on her knees, no longer standing proud against the weight of a thousand whisps. Black cracks slithered across her flesh as she panted raggedly with wild eyes.

‘No,’ she shouted up as the stream of darkness, which had begun to pull away, shuddered in defense. Seteal had drunk them in and survived more than half their number. The whisps were losing confidence. ‘More.’ She threw up her arms and drew on the Ways, forcing the black mist to continue its journey into her.

The clearing was choked with silts who wrestled to get through the gates, the powerfully affiliated message driving them to do so. Never before had El-i-miir or any gil in recorded history so completely embedded an idea in so many minds simultaneously. ‘Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir moaned, snatching at his arm and tugging. ‘I meant the others,’ she cried, burrowing a strand of affiliation into his aura in the hopes of dislodging the one previously laid. But it was no use. Somehow she’d pushed the idea so deep, that even she couldn’t remove it. ‘Stop it,’ El-i-miir pulled on his arm, but he was so strong that she was only dragged along behind him.

‘I must leave,’ Ilgrin droned. ‘I must pass through the gates.’

‘Oh, Ilgrin,’ El-i-miir released him and covered her mouth with her hand. ‘Whatever happens . . .’ She bit her lip when he reached the gateway. ‘Know that I love you.’ She watched the demon’s hand fall flat against the tree as he stepped forward. ‘And I’m sorry. For everything.’

A coughing sound stole El-i-miir’s attention. Seteal collapsed, the final black vapours wafting into her flesh. She looked up to discover that the sky was clear blue and her surroundings were bathed in sunlight. ‘Seteal,’ El-i-miir murmured, hurrying over to her friend as she choked and shook, hands at her throat. ‘What have you done?’

‘It’ll be okay,’ Seteal wheezed, clinging shakily to El-i-miir’s arm as she wobbled on her feet. Her face was white porcelain covered in cracks, her flesh fragmenting. Her eyes were bloodshot and her lips were split and dry. ‘It’s for the best.’

‘No.’ El-i-miir sobbed. ‘Oh, Seteal!’ She threw her arms around her friend, but a moment later she tumbled to the earth where she remained with hazel eyes fixed on the dazzling blue sky. El-i-miir sat down and cradled her head.

‘Don’t worry,’ Seteal said tiredly, even in her darkest moment taking the time to offer reassurance with a strained smile. ‘At last I’ll be free.’

‘Don’t say that,’ El-i-miir moaned, squeezing Seteal’s hand. ‘Don’t give up.’

‘Take care of each other,’ she rasped, her eyes focused over El-i-miir’s shoulder as the light within them faded. The cracks crossing Seteal’s flesh became increasingly prominent as they splintered further and the darkness consumed her. With a strong breeze she dissolved into thousands of ash-like sheets that blew away on the wind. El-i-miir opened the hand that’d been holding Seteal’s and watched the pieces blow away.

‘Because you have done this,’ a voice thundered throughout the clearing, ‘cursed are you above all living things!’ El-i-miir leapt to her feet and turned toward the gates. Ilgrin remained transfixed, even as countless other silts forced their way passed him. ‘You have come to think yourself wiser than the almighty Maker, you vile, wretched demon,’ the voice continued, everywhere and nowhere all at once. ‘I will cast you out of Hae’Evun and down upon the Earth.’ The words remembered from El-i-miir’s childhood Holy Tome studies were quoted to perfection. ‘Cursed are you and your children and your children’s children and your other children to time indefinite,’ Maker thundered fatalistically.

‘El-i-miir,’ Ilgrin whispered, snapping free of her spell. ‘I cannot enter.’ He faced her with an expression of understanding. ‘It wasn’t just Sa’Tan, but his entire bloodline that was condemned beyond redemption.’

‘You can’t go!’ El-i-miir exclaimed, wiping the tears from her eyes. ‘You’re not going to Hae’Evun!’

Ilgrin dodged passed the other silts as they continued to flow through the gates. He stopped abruptly, raising a hand to brush El-i-miir’s hair behind her ear before leaning down to kiss her. ‘We’re stuck with you then?’ Jakob smirked.

‘It seems that way,’ Ilgrin replied, gazing into El-i-miir’s eyes.

‘Oh, thank Maker.’ El-i-miir buried her face into his chest, before pulling back very suddenly. ‘But I thought you had to die for us?’

‘Perhaps someday I will,’ Ilgrin replied, ‘or maybe Seteal was wrong. But if one day it happens . . .’ He lowered his voice. ‘It’ll have been worth it because I love you.’

El-i-miir exhaled softly, satisfied in hearing the three words that she’d so feared Ilgrin would never say to her again. ‘I love you, too,’ she whispered back.

Ilgrin led El-i-miir and Jakob out of the clearing with heavy hearts over the loss of their friend. Seeol’s body was forgotten. Nobody thought to stop and bury the bird lying alone in the dirt. And why would they? He was only an elf owl, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Job 21

 

25. And this other one will dieth in the bitterness of his soul, having never known pleasure.

26. Alone he shall lie down in the dust, and maggots shall cover over him.

 

30. That in the day of disaster, who will tell him that he will not be spared? At the day of fury, who will tell him that he shall know none but sorrow?

31. Who shall declare his Way even to his face? And for all he has done, who shall speaketh of his reward?

32. Ye shall turn him away as a leper, claiming ye never knew him.

 

Scriptures from the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE

SETEAL

 

THE YEAR 1998AW

 

El-i-miir sat at the kitchen table, her cup of tea resting on a frayed doily. Her thinning white hair framed a sunken face of pasty wrinkled flesh. The arthritis in her knuckles made itself known when she lifted her cup and took a sip. Her mind wandered, but she could forgive herself that much at the ripe age of two hundred years.

The gates of Hae’Evun had remained open for several months, allowing the affiliated silts of Old World time to pass through before the black tree returned to its original position. Word spread that the silt invasion had come to an end and that Old World would never again be a problem.

Not having anywhere else to go and out of respect for Seteal, with Jakob’s assistance, Ilgrin repaired the damage to her house. He and El-i-miir moved in shortly thereafter. Jakob took over a vacant farm nearby and worked honestly for the rest of his days. Unable to have children as they were, Ilgrin and El-i-miir took great pleasure in looking after his whenever he and his wife desired a night alone.

Eventually, people took over the vacant allotments in Elmsville and the town was repopulated. Naturally it took quite some time, as people were at first unwilling to live in a town where a demon had been left behind. Some even cursed Maker for having ‘forgotten one,’ but eventually the people came to tolerate and even respect Ilgrin, unable as they were to remain blind to his kind heart and honest character. He’d never felt it below him to rescue a cat stuck in a tree or to help out with the heavy lifting around town.

When Ilgrin died at the age of ninety-three, El-i-miir was utterly distraught. Her face was still smooth, her hair thick and rich. She was still young when they put his elderly body in the ground. He’d lived a long life for his kind and El-i-miir supposed that she should find solace in that. She consoled herself in the fact that no amount of time with Ilgrin would’ve ever been enough and that everybody had their day to die. She was heartbroken in the truest sense and soon found herself unable to remain in Elmsville, the place having come to remind her too much of him. So she left, not to return until she was an old woman.

How the world had changed in El-i-miir’s lifetime, her family’s opinions not being one of them. They’d never come to visit she and Ilgrin, despite the fact that Elglair culture had all but disintegrated. The Frozen Lands were abandoned, the great structures left to melt. At first the remaining elders had tried to bring back order and exclusivity, but the Elglair were never the same. Children read about Miss Seteal Eltari in their history books and how she’d brought salvation to the world. With that on their minds, the youth couldn’t be made to think negatively about half-castes. Young people heard the exciting stories of El-i-miir’s and Jil-i-an’s rebellion, ignored their parents, and married whoever they wanted.

Although El-i-miir approved of the dissolution of the cruel old laws, she couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret when her people’s time had come to an end. With interbreeding, the Elglair eye was the first thing to go and it didn’t take long before the white pupil became very rare indeed—a feature exclusive to the older generations. Along with the eye, knowledge of the Ways also faded. Nobody cared about such old traditions anymore. The Elglair were diminished to the occasional quarter-blood who might have some glimmer of special insight. Such people often worked at fairs or for travelling magic shows. They called themselves psychics, fortune tellers, or witches, but lacked any true command over the Ways, unlike the great gils of the past.

When El-i-miir left Elmsville to travel the world alone, she was stunned to discover how much it’d changed. Train tracks squirmed across the map, making the world seem so much smaller. She lived through the industrial revolution and watched a population boom. Unhindered by whisps and the constant threat of war, mankind was able to reach their zenith. There was the discovery of electricity and the invention of motor vehicles. Modern architecture changed cities forever; massive skyscrapers reached into the clouds where whisps had once hung forebodingly. Exciting as it was, however, this new world was not one in which El-i-miir belonged.

At the age of one hundred and eighty-seven, she repurchased Seteal’s property in Elmsville. There was a new house on the land, the older one having been torn down long ago. The building was a squat, red-bricked place with a white picket fence. El-i-miir hated it, but wanted to die where Ilgrin had. Elmsville itself was no longer an isolated town, but a small suburb in a booming metropolis. There El-i-miir had spent the last thirteen years dotting about her days, waiting for her time to come.

There was a soft tap at the door followed by a jangling of keys. The handle was turned and El-i-miir’s aged care worker entered the gloomy interior. ‘It’s freezing in here.’ Sonia rubbed her arms, her aura vibrating colours of discontent. ‘I’ll just pop the heater on,’ she murmured, heading over to the white vented box on the wall.

‘You needn’t fuss,’ El-i-miir called, but her wizened old voice was ignored. ‘We’ll be heading off soon, won’t we?’ she asked, excited by the idea of a little trip.

‘Here.’ Sonia fiddled with the lid of a plastic container, removing a cupcake bearing a small pink candle. ‘Happy two hundredth birthday.’ She spoke the words with an expression of awe.

Sonia worked for a healthcare provider specialising in the needs of the elderly. She wore glasses, had a pinched nose, and curly brown hair. As a modern woman in her mid-thirties, most of the time Sonia wore modest blouses and blue denim jeans. She’d worked hard to get the job of taking care of the old Elglair wretch who wouldn’t seem to die and did her very best at being friendly while maintaining a professional demeanour. She threw her keys onto the table and put down the cupcake in front of El-i-miir. Being a smoker, it was no surprise that she procured a lighter from her pocket and lit the candle with expert precision.

‘Thank you, Sonia,’ El-i-miir said wearily, before using her tongue to click her denture into a more comfortable position. ‘You really needn’t have done this.’

‘Well, if I don’t, who—?’ Sonia cut herself short. She often treated El-i-miir like a child, but just because she was old, didn’t mean that she was senile.

‘I’ll eat it later,’ El-i-miir muttered after succeeding in blowing out the candle on her third attempt. ‘I’d like to get going.’

‘Right away?’ Sonia frowned. ‘Are you sure you’re up to it?’

‘Just fetch my walker, would you, dear?’ El-i-miir winced at the pain in her joints as she got up from the table.

‘Here you go,’ Sonia replied, wheeling the four-legged walker over from its place beside the door. She then headed back to the heater and switched it off. She paused for a moment, her eyes fixed on a photo frame. She was rooted to the spot, staring long enough for El-i-miir to wheel over with her walker.

‘That’s my Ilgrin.’ Her voice shook as she examined the black and white photograph. It captured Ilgrin in the healthier years of his life, his age only just having started to show. El-i-miir was standing beside him, her appearance scarcely distinguishable from when they’d first met. Ilgrin’s impressive height and great arching wings must’ve been quite a sight for poor Sonia, whose enthralled aura swirled with astonishment.

‘I can’t believe such creatures once lived here,’ she said excitedly.

‘Don’t call them that,’ El-i-miir scolded. ‘They were people, too, you know. They had hearts and souls the same as you or I.’

‘Of course,’ Sonia said apologetically. ‘I meant no disrespect.’

‘I know you didn’t, dear,’ El-i-miir said with satisfaction.

‘What must it have been like?’ Sonia wondered aloud. ‘In my history class we learnt about Old World and the whisp clouds that existed way back before Hades was inhabited by people. It all seems so incredible.’

‘What I wouldn’t give,’ El-i-miir whispered, her eyes twinkling as she stared at Ilgrin’s face, ‘to fly through the sky in his arms one last time.’

‘You mean . . . he’d fly about with you?’ Sonia gasped. ‘You’re a brave woman.’

‘I trusted him completely.’ El-i-miir sighed. ‘I suppose it must all seem rather scary to you.’

Sonia repositioned the picture and turned around. ‘Shall we go?’

‘I’ll get my purse,’ El-i-miir replied, turning her walker around.

‘I’ve got it,’ Sonia said, skipping around her and snatching it up from its place in the kitchen. ‘Here you are.’

‘Thank you, dear,’ El-i-miir replied bitterly. Such behaviour only served to remind her of how decrepit she’d become.

Sonia picked up El-i-miir’s walker at the door and put it down outside, before offering her hand. She ignored the offer, stepped over the threshold and unsteadily grabbed the handles. ‘You’ve got a new car,’ she observed as they made their way down the driveway.

‘Do you like it?’ Sonia asked, opening the bright red door and helping El-i-miir inside.

‘It’s quite lovely, I suppose.’ El-i-miir shrugged and rubbed her nose as it was irritated by the new car smell. ‘Horses were nicer,’ she muttered once Sonia had closed the door to make her way around the other side.

The drive wasn’t long, the cemetery being only a block away, but these days El-i-miir wasn’t suited to a walk of even that enormity. The women got out of the car and with some haste made their way to Ilgrin’s gravestone.

El-i-miir turned to Sonia. ‘Would you give me a moment?’

‘Sure,’ the young woman replied. ‘I have to make a call anyway.’ She procured a phone from her pocket. ‘I’ll be over by the gate. Just give me a wave when you’re ready.’

‘I will,’ El-i-miir replied as the carer scurried away. She turned her attention to the stone. ‘I don’t have any flowers.’ She laughed, knowing Ilgrin couldn’t have cared less. Their lives hadn’t exactly been conventional—a demon and a human in love—and they’d been through far too many horrors to worry about such little things as flowers. ‘Oh, my sweet Ilgrin.’ She sighed.

The wind picked up, tossing El-i-miir’s hair about her face. The Ways whispered about her revealing strands of light where people had earlier stood. The pressure built up in El-i-miir’s ears and she gasped at a stabbing sensation in her chest. She looked about in awe, a feeling having overcome her that she’d thought long ago disappeared.

‘Seteal,’ she whispered through shaky lips, but of course there was no response. There hadn’t been since the woman’s death, but El-i-miir knew that in some peculiar way her friend’s spirit had remained bound to the Earth. Maker had forsaken them, but Seteal never would.

People knew of Seteal’s presence. They didn’t refer to her by name, but ever since her death, justice was served whenever it ought to be. Killers were caught and prosecuted. Rapists lost their lives in unfortunate accidents. Thieves had their possessions stolen by other thieves. The people unknowingly referred to Seteal as karma, or the universe, or they toted expressions like, ‘what goes around comes around.’ El-i-miir knew her quite simply as the Holy Spirit and her friend. Still, it’d been many years since she personally had felt Seteal’s spiritual presence.

‘I’ve missed you,’ she whispered hoarsely.

The breeze pressed up against El-i-miir’s cheek and seemed if only for a moment to solidify, giving the impression of a kiss. She touched her cheek with a shaky hand, her eyes filling with tears. ‘I hope you found your freedom,’ she uttered. ‘I hope you found your peace.’

A moment later the presence vanished and El-i-miir waved at her carer who was now so wrapped up in private conversation that she stood leaning against the fence with her back turned. She called out, but her voice was too weak to be heard. El-i-miir guided a translucent strand of affiliation into Sonia’s aura. The young woman turned around to see herself waving at herself. El-i-miir severed the link and smiled.

‘Sorry about that,’ Sonia panted, after jogging up the hill. ‘Are you ready to go?’

‘I want to go to the tree,’ El-i-miir murmured in response, Seteal’s recent occurrence having left an indelible mark.

‘The Eltari Tree?’

‘Yes, of course,’ El-i-miir said, guiding her walker down the gentle slope.

A short drive later, she found herself approaching a black tree that was rediscovered when Narvon Wood was cut down for residential development. Given its unique history, the tree had been protected and surrounded by a small fence so that people could come and view it. Since then it had become a significant tourist attraction. The fabled black tree of the gates of Hae’Evun loomed above a crowd of onlookers. No longer was it surrounded by the intense morbidity that El-i-miir remembered, but never had a tourist been caught smiling in close proximity. Time moved strangely about the tree and one could easily lose track of it, lost in melancholia.

El-i-miir stared at the bark for a long time in remembrance of what Seteal had done. She still had no idea how the woman had accomplished it. They’d always thought that the gates required a key, but somehow Seteal had bypassed that need. One moment she’d been cradling Seeol as the little bird died and in the next moment the gates had opened. Something about that gave El-i-miir reason to pause, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was, so she dismissed the peculiar feeling and went home. There was no need to dally too long on the memory of a long-dead bird.

 

*

 

The wind lifted. The Ways churned about the foreboding black tree reaching out of the dirt like an ancient claw. Around it nothing grew. The clouds above were dark and heavy. Sheets of lightning roamed within them. The spirit focused on the tree and the wind picked up to such a pace that it could be heard howling through the branches, the pitch elevating to become more reminiscent of a woman’s cry than that of any natural occurrence. And there the Ways felt bitter remorse for an injustice to which amends could never be made. There was the place where the ethereal spirit had caused such injustice to transpire. And so she sang her song of regret, forever mourning, never free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revelation 22

 

21. And such is the dance of the inner circle.

 

Scriptures of the Holy Tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

Cael McIntosh is the author of The Inner Circle trilogy and is currently working on several other projects. Having been born and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, only to leave the faith in his early twenties, he has developed a unique perspective on religion and its implications. From that, along with other life experiences, he finds inspiration for his tales. It is his greatest hope that his works will inspire people to analyze and question their beliefs from an unbiased perspective.

 


The Inner Circle: The Gates of Hae'Evun

Book Three I'm not your child. I was kidnapped and raped. I've been tormented by demons, tortured and cut. I was infested by whisps and forced to murder the one I love most. So don't you dare tell me to trust in the Lord. Maker doesn't live here anymore. The entire world had been conquered. Far-a-mael had bitten off more than a thousand mouths could chew. Their only hope now was to somehow find the key that would allow them to unlock the gates of Hae'Evun. And that task--one so great that every life, both human and otherwise, hung in the balance--Seteal had left to an elf owl. In the end, it didn't matter what they thought of you . . . or even what you thought of yourself. In the end, all that mattered was who you were.

  • Author: Cael McIntosh
  • Published: 2015-10-22 11:05:36
  • Words: 84026
The Inner Circle: The Gates of Hae'Evun The Inner Circle: The Gates of Hae'Evun