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The Broken Everything

 

THE BROKEN EVERYTHING

 

by

 

Sven Venus

 

 

COPYRIGHT

The Broken Everything by Sven Venus. Self-published by Sven Venus.

Copyright 2016 Sven Venus. Shakespir Edition. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. Thank you for downloading this free eBook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. Thank you for your support.

For any questions contact the publisher at: [email protected]

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblances are entirely coincidental.

Cover and Map design by Filip Felbar.

ISBN 978-953-59260-0-9

Slatina, 2016.

 

 

DEDICATION

To my friend Filip, for his support and assistance during the creation of this novel

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

TITLE PAGE

COPYRIGHT

DEDICATION

 

MAP

 

PROLOGUETHE CONCEPTION

 

PART I – THE HEAD IS PULVERISED

CHAPTER I – SANCTUARY REMOVAL

CHAPTER II – THE PRICE OF POWDER

CHAPTER IIIFOOTSTEPS IN THE ASHES

CHAPTER IV – SUNLIT ROAD, SPOT, CITY, PAST

CHAPTER V – A DEAL IN DUST

CHAPTER VI – THE BLOOD AT THE ALTAR

CHAPTER VIITEARS

CHAPTER VIIIHARVEST LAKE

CHAPTER IX – THE PATH OF BLOODIED GRASS

CHAPTER X – THE PIETY SPREAD

CHAPTER XI – A NEW HOME

CHAPTER XIITHE COLD VYS

CHAPTER XIII – A RETURN TO HABIT

CHAPTER XIVFUNERAL PYRE

CHAPTER XV – THE FOURTH HEARTBEAT

 

PART II – AN ARM ALONE

CHAPTER XVI – TO RETURN SO SOON

CHAPTER XVIISEPARATED BROTHERS

CHAPTER XVIIIBACK IN THE TOMB

CHAPTER XIX – TO GIVE UP

CHAPTER XX – EGENTU’S PULSE

CHAPTER XXI – A HEART’S FINAL BEAT

CHAPTER XXII – A MONSTER AND A MAN

 

EPILOGUETHE REBIRTH

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

MAP

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

THE CONCEPTION

 

Its silent screams no one sees; some seldom hear the sounds.

He had heard them well that day, while unbeknownst to him blessed darkness boiled in its inured womb, spreading tendrils inside, free of the heart’s nail and its lingering rust. What it desired would not come to fruition for a long time, but what was that inside the roots of all? The first fragment was undone. Now came time for the second.

The destruction of Udium, the Domed City of the South, and the events it would start like a thunderous strike were, simply put, all a mistake. Domelord Adeolatus—the most wise and esteemed man amongst many—had received in his mansion news from one of his servants. His father had been seen entering the City, weak on his horse and with blood on his mouth. As soon as Adeolatus had heard the news, he had rushed from his bath, shamelessly standing naked before the servant. Warm water dripped from his body upon the cool stone floor.

Iemelus the servant, as considerate as ever, had not looked down and had quickly handed his master a towel and a robe that were stashed near a jar of ashes. Adeolatus’ thoughts had instantly gone to the inevitable; his father was soon to die and had chosen to come to his most beloved son. There were only two ways to stop the death, one method profane and the other sacred.

He had offered a short prayer to his Nightgod Caerus, heard a whispery response, and in a simple robe, in a moment that he could not had possibly known would decide everything to come, had chosen to flee Udium with his dying father, hoping that the Nightgod would show mercy in his true shrine. He had chosen so, despite knowing that the City was doomed without him. But before he had left, he had made sure that Iemelus would send a message via birds to his two brothers. “Tell them,” Adeolatus had said, “that if I do not return, to find me where the true heart of ours rests. After that, take whatever you wish from the mansion and lead a better life somewhere else, without a master. Do not put your faith in the spare. There is a phial of my blood on the desk, for your consumption and protection. Goodbye, my good servant.”

Iemelus had nodded in silence and sat down on a cold bench by the bathroom’s window as his master left. He had been confused, watching the open night sky, starless and black, like an old wound that was visible without the City’s Dome. Soon through the wound blood would flow, light and bright, but how could a simple man had known that?

It was on his deathbed—decades later in a southern stone house he had built himself—garbed in green robes, that this singular moment came to mind, despite the many joys and sorrows that came after, the peaks and pits of his life. He had been one of the few survivors, one of the few not touched by sunlight.

 

 

 

It was also three hundred years after the fatal decision that a similar event happened, borne by the same force. This fall was to the northwest of Udium, at the City of Aelus, one of the last three standing.

Near Aelus, on a green meadow by a quiet river, illuminated by the pale moonlight, a young girl sat upon her mother’s lap. All around them there were empty homes, built of stone in a rectangular shape, long and windowless.

Past the grass and on the river stood Aelus, the Domed City of the West. The river split the City in half, a bridge crossing it was the centre. It was oddly calm, in the presence of the great round monstrosity, even though it was domeless yet.

The lonely air suited the girl; her mother rarely had time when others were around, men and their wives coming for taxes in sunpowder. She giggled and hugged her smiling mother and for a moment forgot about dawn.

The girl had always wondered why sunlight meant death. To her it seemed so beautiful from her mother’s descriptions, but even at her young age she knew that words couldn’t substitute the feeling of gentle warmth on skin and azure skies that carried white clouds. Ever since she could grasp and perceive she wanted to know those feelings, not just the words. Spending days in impervious stone houses was lonely. She had no siblings that she knew of.

Her mother kissed her on the cheek and then put her on the blades of grass that swayed in the gentle wind. The stars above gleamed and the girl wondered about them while her mother did her work.

“Is it as pretty as the stars, mama?”

The mother was busy at her table; a dozen rocks were scattered on the wood. She picked one and held it at eyelevel. After a swallow and a heavy breath she licked it, then grimaced as she spat at the grass. “What did you say, my love?” she asked as she threw the licked stone in a bucket.

“Is it as pretty as the stars?”

“It is, love, it is.”

“Tell me about it, please.”

“All right, but just for a little bit. Mama has to work.” She stood from her table and sat next to her daughter. She took her tiny hands in hers and smiled to her the way only a mother could.

“It’s very pretty, love. It’s golden like your hair. Long, yellow, shining strands.”

The girl had heard that one before. She had heard all of her mother’s tales about sunlight, but it didn’t matter. These were moments that were precious like nothing else would ever be.

“When the Moon leaves the sky the Sun comes and when it appears it is so very pretty. You can see everything for miles and miles and the sky is so blue and the air so warm.”

The girl tried to imagine it. She could picture the skies of day, but to see miles away? It seemed hardly possible. The mother kissed her child again and then went back to her table, “I won’t be long now. I promise.”

The stars still shined and the girl looked at the fields and Aelus in front. She thought about how it might look during day, how far she could see. Her mother said that soon she would be old enough to see sunlight. The girl knew that her mother was being overprotective; children half the girl’s age had been exposed to light. But perhaps, in a year or two, if they can afford the sunpowder for themselves and not just for taxpaying, they could walk at day together. It was hardly an expensive substance, but every coin mattered.

A couple of more sunpowder rocks found their way into the bucket and the girl’s sight turned from the stars to them. She decided she would be a good girl and wait for mother to finish her work, and then she would hear all about sunlight again. But, as something seemed to occur in Aelus, a small part of her realised that this would never happen.

On the river a loud tremor shook the ground and upset the faint, cool breeze. Aelus was one of the three of its kind, she knew, and the Dome covered the whole City from dawn till dusk, as long as sunlight lingered in the air. During night-time the Dome would rest inside the ground and the circular walls, built around its base, and when the time was right the three triangles of the City’s Dome would emerge and creep towards the centred great Pillar—that pierced the bridge and had its root in the riverbed—where they would connect, high in the sky. The same event that she had seen multiple times began, yet something felt different. The Dome was up over Aelus and the loud tremor was gone, the fields of the quiet river called Riphium were calm again.

“Bedtime is coming, mama.”

“Seems early,” she said. “You can go inside if you want to.”

The Dome in the distance began shimmering. “Look, mama,” the girl said, “It’s like a star!”

The mother placed a few stones in a separate empty bucket and with it followed a sigh of relief; they would have enough to meet the monthly tax. “Now what did you want to hear—” Her eyes went wide and then sank. “Go inside.”

“Bedtime?” The girl stared upwards inquiringly.

The Dome stopped shimmering and both of them stood side by side, hand in hand. A moment of utter silence and then the Dome began crumbling, pulverised by an invisible force. The sides scrapped against each other as they fell and the faint breeze turned into a wild gust. The girl screamed and cried, and yanked her hand out of her mother’s to cover her ears. The walls and everything between them became dust and shrapnel that violently spread across the meadow, spread by the gust. With the desolation was done, the only thing that remained standing, alone in the pile of rubble and hundreds of thousands of corpses, was the towering and imposing Pillar.

The girl saw blood leave her mother’s neck and felt a sharp pain in her own left leg. She heard a semblance of words but the grinding was still fresh in her own ears. Her mother collapsed to her knees and at the same moment the Pillar succumbed and fell. It cracked to pieces as it descended and most of them fell into the river, splashing the water to all sides and almost as close as the daughter and the mother.

The buzzing and grinding were gone and the girl knelt down, wincing, and shook her mother’s shoulders. Through tears she said, “Please, get up, please, it’s bedtime.”

The mother gave no response. A faint bundle of yellows and reds began peering at the horizon. The girl stood up and grabbed her mother’s ankle. “Get up! Get up!” She dragged and dragged but mother was just too heavy. Sunlight slowly crept through the grass, like a snake ready to attack. She gave all of her strength but she was barely an inch closer to the house.

The yellow and red snake finally reached them and it bit fiercely. The girl felt one last tear roll down her cheek. She looked at her mother’s dead face, at the stars still faintly visible above, at the ruined city and at the calmness of the river as it clogged and carried heavy ashes to the Lake. Her tears dried instantly and like burning parchment her skin blackened and smoked and fell apart.

The breeze in the sunlight swept the ashes.

 

 

PART I

THE HEAD IS PULVERISED

 

CHAPTER I

SANCTUARY REMOVAL

 

It was true that most lived in the cities (two, as of late). However, that did not mean that the towns were all abandoned. Some would be emptier soon, Byton thought, knowing the man, whose rule here was tenuous and almost symbolic, but was still in charge, away from the closeness of his domain.

Byton and his child and everyone else had been awoken at dawn, just as they had gone to sleep. Nothing was destroyed or broken. Nothing was disturbed. But everyone felt it. A convulsion in the earth itself, a great movement from both far away and very near, followed by the smell of mud and rain. Primal scents.

Tales had been carried through generations. He was reminded of a story his father had told him, a long time ago. The people of the past had felt something similar, three hundred years ago. Few even remembered where exactly Udium had been, or what had happened. It made sense that a river had passed through it, like with the other three cities. Some people went looking, and no river was found, instead a deep trench filled with mud and dust, cutting through a level field.

Wherever it had been, the result was the same nonetheless. A place forever gone.

Those who had elected to stay after the Domelord’s (his name was not remembered) vanishing died; others fled. Elders of other cities spoke of the most likely cause: the Domelord was gone, and something had likely happened to the spares. It was a terrible thought, like some others he had, which Byton always carried. So many lives relied on essentially one or two or three persons, born with something special.

Two days after the awakening would be of equal importance. He had received taxes in sunpowder the day before (a favour from long ago, he was not of higher class) so he had enough to spare. When the quake had awoken him he took some, just in case, to protect himself from the coming sunlight, and quickly left the house, after telling his daughter to stay inside. There were many people outside as well, inquiring about what had happened. He had remembered the story of Udium and told them so. They frowned as he spoke; the cause the teller and not the tale. Not long after everyone went back to sleep. It would be another two days before the messenger came.

Dusk came, and with it the horse rider. During twilight, whether from dawn to sunrise or dusk to sunset, it was rather safe outside for adults, especially in the shadowed parts of the town, made so by different kinds of trees, awnings and sunbreakers. A child could still die, but as a man or woman grew in age the skin hardened. Some people even trained themselves, exposing their bodies to faint light in hopes of developing immunity. No one did; the effect was limited at best, making only direct sunlight on skin deadly, and all other contacts, be it during twilight or through a thick sheet annoying at best. No one but the Domelords, of course, who could stay in the full light of a high Sun (but only after coming in contact with one of the Pillars first) and not even have their skin become red, or feel abnormal heat.

Before going outside, Byton had talked to his nine-year-old—soon to be ten—daughter named Daira. The short conversation did not occur spontaneously, but was instead triggered by him, thinking it was his duty as a father to explain what was happening.

“Come here, Daira,” he had said, sitting on a chair by the table, an expensive candelabrum on it, with all three branches holding burning candles. It had been mostly dark inside the house, which was of common construction, built from stone in the shape of a long rectangle. The fire had illuminated his bearded face.

Obediently she came forward and sat on an empty chair, however improper it was for a child to sit while conversing with an adult. Some norms were best left outside the household, where the father was as sovereign as a domelord was in the City of his own.

“The quake which awoke us both?”

She nodded. It was impolite to respond in a nonverbal way, but he let that pass too. It was the way he had sometimes responded to his father, and he still learned how to properly behave in public. A child did not have to be a simpleton simply by being young.

“We are not sure what occurred, or where. Some believe, and I am one of them, that one of the three cities fell, like Udium had long ago. Can you tell me how long ago that was?” He had discovered from personal experience that the school in Fonten, which was what this town was called, was hardly a worthy establishment. Byton would not have his child grow up knowledge-free.

“Around three hundred years ago?” Daira had not been afraid, or concerned. It would be hard still to grasp the magnitude of the event if it were true; Byton was not sure he himself could grasp it.

He didn’t let the intonation of a question bother him. “Yes, three hundred. It couldn’t have been Dancus, we would have known by now, seen it at least. That means either Aelus or Regisum.” And he hoped and prayed it was not Regisum. “Which would you prefer it to be?” No one had been around to call such a question unusual, cold, cruel, or unfit for a child. Byton did not think much of such people, and they thought little of him. He would not call himself a conceited man, but he believed that with some questions of life, his own method was correct, as correct as any man or woman could claim.

“Your childhood home is in Regisum, father…” She had said those words in a more hushed tone than he had expected.

He had made a grimace born from slight discomfort, perhaps he had asked too much. “Are you finished with your daily duties?”

Daira had nodded, her sight downwards.

“Good. You may go outside to the yard in half an hour, when it is dark enough. Bring a candle with you, and be careful. I will send for Tomeus’ daughter, if he allows, to join you. You may play together.” With a smile she had stood and kissed him on the right cheek.

The time came for him to join the grown men and women in the town hall. One did not have to be rich to attend, only own land, which here meant almost all could attend. The one benefit of living in a town as opposed to the cities was a greater deal of influence a regular person could exert. Reining in a domelord’s power was a tricky matter. Some gave up their power willingly, serving only as operators of the Dome, placing their hand upon the Pillar before dawn to shield the lives from sunlight, and doing so again after dusk to remove the Dome from the skies, safely storing it in the earth and the circular walls. If only that had not been necessary, and the Dome could stay up forever, then living in a city would be Byton’s choice. But the Dome collects the raw power of sunlight, and it cracks, slowly. Resetting it was a requirement. After all, negligence caused Udium to fall.

Other domelords were men of ambition (most were men, though sometimes a woman occupied the role), weighing their worth against the value given to them by the City’s Council. The Domelord Loterus of Dancus was a man of ambition, and his messenger arrived on horse, and entered the crowded town hall.

He was given a seat of respect in the centre, next to the Governor, Byton noticed, taking his own seat. As Byton had entered the hall he found that he no longer paid much attention to the looks of others. He knew what they spoke of him, of all the rumours circulating of his past. At best they thought him a recluse; they were correct, he supposed. He barely knew anyone’s name here, except for his friend’s.

Governor Tomeus had been appointed by Domelord Loterus personally, and he held the power in Fonten. When a question rose it was up to him to decide the answer. The townsfolk would make their will known—those in attendance knew their worth—and then it was up to Tomeus to decide. A governor who wished to keep his role followed the vote.

All of the others (about forty men were present) sat in rising circles around the centre, each above the other and further back. An elegant chandelier illuminated the windowless room, making the hot air carry a heavy, orange light.

Once order was established, Governor Tomeus stood and said, “I am glad we have gathered in large numbers. I will not speak much. It is not my word you have come to hear.” He gestured for the messenger to rise, who did so.

The man spoke, in a theatrical fashion. He had a dagger by his hip. “By way of birds from Domelord Khoras we have discovered what the quake from two days ago was. A rambling man had run all night to Regisum, coming from Aelus, surviving by jumping in the Riphium. He spoke of three beings of fiery light, in the shape of men. He claimed Aelus is destroyed, like Udium had been. Its surface is flat. The Riphium is dry and ash-filled, as if a callous hand swept the City into oblivion.”

Byton supressed a scoff; Loterus received means to scare them. It was not hard to predict what the words of advice would be. All townsfolk were to come to Dancus, to enjoy the protection of a city… and leave a percentage of their ownership in his hands. Fools, Byton thought, would rally to the cities now. Those desiring protection in masses. There was only one way Loterus could force him and his daughter to enter Dancus, and Byton hoped that this undeniable prerogative would not be used.

“Domelord Khoras was sceptical,” the messenger continued, “so his own riders were dispatched to witness the place of calamity. One has returned, of the many sent. He told the same tale of the beings of light.”

Some in attendance gasped. A heavy, bald man sat in front of Byton and scoffed, his arms crossed. This one in particular didn’t like him, he knew. Bug bites causing annoyance. In the meantime, Byton was getting ready for what would soon be said, and stood up to pose a question.

“And the cause?” he asked, naturally turning heads towards him. “No people fled? Noticing negligence? Three men somehow brought the Dome of Aelus down?”

The messenger looked towards Tomeus, whose nod approved an answer. “These have not been spotted. The first witness described them as beings of light, in the shape of men, but not human.”

Byton was a man of faith, believing in the old god of night, Caerus, whose popularity waned with time. But in none of the allegorical tales, whose meaning was surely not to be taken literally, were there any beings of light. “And we only have the word of one man to confirm this?”

“I only carry the news, my good man. I do not make them. Besides, my time here is short, I must soon leave. I only have one more thing to say. All those who wish protection are free to enter Dancus.”

Allowing himself a small smile, Byton felt good knowing that he could still manage to predict certain things. He was only sorry that he also predicted what came next.

The messenger said, “And all those whose children will soon turn ten years are required to present them to Domelord Loterus, to determine their potential as possible spares to the Domelord.”

And there it was, Byton thought. Predicting this too carried some comfort. The duty would be done and then he would return. There was no point in feeling sorry for oneself. The one thing he did not predict was that he would be returning alone.

 

 

 

Daira had indeed waited for it to be night-time before entering the yard while carrying a lit candle, then sitting on a bench. It was summer, and the nights were short and bright. Starlight and moonlight made the candle’s light seem small, insignificant. When she had been in the town’s temple with her father yesterday the priestess had spoken of how starlight and moonlight were nothing but sunlight made benevolent. The priestesses were kind, never ignoring them or sending them away. “We protect ourselves during the day and Caerus gives us protection during the night, free of Domes and savage light, but not leaving us in the dark either,” the priestess would often say. The Night God was neither all-powerful nor perfect; how could he be, when the light of his twin carried so much more danger. Caerus would send winter every year and rainclouds when he could, in an attempt to block his brother’s light. He was loving and loved.

Daira heard the yard gate creak, and looked towards it and her friend. Past the fence Fonten was lit by torches hanging on stone buildings, and men and women walking and sitting outside taverns, candles everywhere. A lot of people were in the hall too. Clae greeted her friend with a warm smile, waving from the distance.

“Hello, Clae,” Daira said, when Clae was close. Tomeus’ daughter came without her father. Her dog was with her, following her without a leash, its tongue and tail flopping rapidly.

Clae, a bit older than Daira, closed the gate and then sat next to her. “I brought a stick with me. We could throw it and have Powder catch it.”

“He can do it in the dark?”

“It’s not that dark. Anyways, I think he uses his nose.”

“All right then.”

For longer than Daira thought it would be fun they threw the stick and had had Powder bring it back. The yard was not large but there was enough room to challenge him. In the meantime they spoke a little bit about the teacher they shared and what they think happened with the quake, as well as the scary fat man who lived nearby, always grumping and alone. Clae said she was not afraid, of neither the quake nor the man, and barely felt anything, but had heard from her father that something very bad happened west, like something out of a theatre play about the evil Daygod. It was probably nothing, they both agreed.

On about the fifteenth throw the stick landed somewhere close to the wooden shed. Daira’s father asked her kindly to not go in there, saying there were dangerous tools inside. She was a curious child, but not a disobedient or foolish one. A child did what its father told it to.

Powder, nonetheless, returned carrying a longbow, barely holding it in his mouth. It was beautifully crafted, graceful without being opulent. It was then that their fathers returned.

 

 

 

Byton sighed with light annoyance, hoping the dog’s teeth didn’t damage the bow. Tomeus instantly rushed to the happy Powder and knelt to gently extract it.

“I am sorry, my friend. If the bow is damaged I will be glad to pay the repair costs.” Tomeus handed it to Byton, without shifting his sight to his daughter or dog.

Byton inspected it and concluded that all was fine. “No need, Tomeus. I will come to say goodbye tomorrow. Come Daira, we need to talk.”

“Tomorrow then.” The Governor nodded, and with a quick wave of the hand called Clae forward and began talking with her as they left the yard, with Powder right behind them.

When father and daughter were inside the house, Daira quickly said, “I am very sorry, father. I did not think Powder would go into the shed. There must have been a hole somewhere in the wood.”

“It is fine. This bow is the least of our worries now, Daira.”

“What do you mean?”

“We will have to leave soon,” Byton said.

Daira gasped. “Is it Posiol? The fat man? Is he making us leave?”

Byton shook his head, confused. “Fat man? What fat man? We are making a trip to Dancus. You will be ten soon, and the Domelord has made a call of all children your age to approach for the confirmation. Just a slight obligation, nothing to worry about.” It was his intention to be as comforting as possible. He had done his best to shield her from sunlight as best he could, but he would not dare travel the road to Dancus by night. Night-time was the time of man, but bandits were men too. Some, who were willing to risk their own lives attacked at day, hoping to find valuable targets. Despicable people was what Byton considered them to be. Each and every life was sacred, and he knew he was a hypocrite for thinking so, considering his own past actions, but he truly did believe it. Some twisted the truth to support their own view—everyone does so, he supposed—saying that life was worthless when so easily lost. The common response was the obvious one, somewhat sentimental, but that did not make it false. Because of how easily lost it is, it is sacred.

“What… what if I am a spare?” Daira tried to not sound surprised or worried by the news, but he knew his daughter.

“They say it runs in the family, and no one of ours ever was. You need not worry.”

“What about mother’s family?”

He gave her a grave look. Saw her reaction. Quickly rescinded it. “We leave in the morning. Try to get some sleep now if you can.” He rose from his chair and with a lit candle left the house. If she was hungry she could find something to eat in the storage; she could manage. What he wanted to do was pray, not knowing why and what for, but the subconscious yearned for judgement, and punishment which came with it.

The pathway from his house to the forest was not a quick one. Most people prayed in their homes or the temples; few did it the way their ancestors did, at oaken altars in the forests. A natural place for it. Some woods were so dark and dense that even at noon light barely penetrated the treetops.

When he had passed all the people in the streets, not giving them attention, and all the houses, and then walked the narrow path into the woods, past the trees and through the darkness, he found the altar, and he was not alone.

A young man was there, sitting with his back to the altar, which was shaped like one of the Pillars. Most people would likely imagine them as being of perfect, circular proportions, rising from the riverbed, cutting through the centre of the bridge of the City, and its top being the final space where the parts of the Dome connected.

It was not of that appearance. Man-made objects strived for a look of perfection, with everything in the right place. The Pillars were there since time immemorial, and were so jagged, rough, curved at times, like a great, bent thorn or nail that was jabbed into the ground. Not an iron sword (which were very rare), but a damaged branch, a poet had once written. It looked like it might crash under its own weight at any time, but at the same time it also looked imposing and powerful. Men were humbled under its presence; it was not uncommon to pray there. This altar was a very good resemblance, Byton judged. Made by an artisan who carefully shaped a tree, like a sculptor would a mass of stone.

“Oh. Hello, there,” the man said, in a sullen tone.

“You have come to pray?” Byton asked. He did not recognise this dishevelled man as being from Fonten, and it was not a large town, though he kept out of view most of the time. The man had blonde hair. It was uncommon.

“I will be going now.” His eyes refused to make contact, his sight fixed to the ground, shoulders slouched, neck bent.

“Is there something wrong? Do you need help?”

“You can’t help.”

“Do I know you?” Byton gazed at him curiously.

“I don’t know you. I don’t see why you would know me.” He stood up then, and began walking towards Byton, and passed him like a spirit. “Be careful with your prayers. Mine came true.” The man disappeared into the dark forest, going past the beaten path. He had no candle.

A dagger was on the forest floor. Byton picked it by the blade, offering the hilt for the man to take, but he was already gone. Suddenly, he was no longer wishing to stay near the altar, so he offered a short, generic prayer. The health of his loved ones, their happiness too. He left the dagger, thinking the man would come back for it. Then he returned home, trying to get some sleep, if he could. Dawn meant departure, but not before a goodbye. After resting uneasily he joined Tomeus at an inn.

“It was exactly a year ago I took Clae to Loterus,” Tomeus said, enjoying a pre-dawn glass of wine with Byton. Rarely was it drunk, even the more powerful domelords of old drank water mostly. The tavern was almost empty by now, only the two of them remained sitting outside, watching as the Sun almost rose. “If you remember I had that meeting in Dancus and I thought it was appropriate to see if she had the potential. Thankfully, not.”

“It would save you the costs on sunpowder,” Byton said, half in jest.

“Ah, yes. Even being a governor doesn’t have the perks of being like old Regisan nobility, despite that City being far away,” Tomeus said, teasing in return.

“I’m not the one to refuse an obvious boon,” Byton said, “especially considering the benefactor.”

“No one would refuse such a thing.” There was a brief silence for a moment, as both men took their sips of wine. It was white and of a comfortable taste, but still powerful.

“I still clearly remember my confirmation,” Byton said. “I had gone together with Khoras. You’ve never met him, have you?”

“I’ve met a few domelords, but never him, no. Strange… not to have at least seen him by accident.”

“He was always a bit of a recluse. We haven’t talked since Daira was born. If there’s something I miss from home it’s him. One night, at around midnight, when no one was around, we snuck past some guards to the Pillar and we sat there, drinking wine he had taken from somewhere. No one caught us.” He smiled, remembering that. He tried to remember more of Khoras but strangely couldn’t. It was, after all, a long time ago, in a different life. “A good man. Clever.”

“Loterus is clever too,” Tomeus said, after another sip. “Doesn’t make him less obnoxious.”

“Careful there, wouldn’t want anyone to hear you speaking ill of your superior.”

Tomeus, looking around comically, said, “I don’t see anyone.”

Byton chuckled. “What do you think happened in Aelus?” Before the conversation even began, Byton knew that eventually he would have the need to ask that question.

“I believe Khoras, and I believe Loterus. No reason why they would lie about this. Aelus is destroyed. But it couldn’t have been an accident. The Dome wouldn’t have cracked in just a day, simply by being too heated. And no refugees made it to Regisum, so it must have been sudden. Relion never struck me as a negligent lord, not to mention that he must have had spares. Those… beings of light? I’m not sure what to think of those, but Aelus is not Udium. I am certain of that.”

“How could have someone caused the Dome to fall?” Byton asked.

“Why does sunlight harm us but not our dogs? We don’t know all the answers, my friend. Some things we will never know, and there is no point in bemoaning our own imperfection. Even Caerus is not all-powerful.”

There was a lot to think about. He knew the answers would not come easy, but he hoped and prayed at least some understanding would make its way to them. “Do you think it can happen again? So many lives lost in Aelus… I don’t think we can even comprehend that.”

“That old irony of tragedy… when your pet dies you cry for a day, when a million people from far away do… you drink wine instead of water and contemplate existence,” Tomeus said, smiling heartily in jest.

Byton noted the evasion, but he let it go. “The Sun is almost up, Tomeus. Time for me to wake Daira and leave.” He stood up and prepared to offer payment, but Tomeus interfered with a gesture of the hand. Byton noticed the innkeeper’s look of relief at what happened.

“I’ll pay for the wine. A small parting gift.” He stood as well, and they hugged. “I hope I’ll see you soon.”

“I hope so too.”

 

 

 

Daira had already prepared the things she wanted to take with herself to Dancus. Her father told her not to pack much, only a few articles of clothing and an emergency supply of sunpowder. She knew that he would take care of almost everything, but it was a kind offering to allow her some autonomy.

She did not sleep at all, being nervous before the trip. Sometimes she would pretend to be asleep, when father checked on her. She would keep her eyes closed, but somehow she knew she wasn’t fooling him; he knew she was awake. What gave her away, she thought, was the shift from lying on the back to lying on the side.

This would be the first time she left Fonten since she came here as a toddler. Her mother had given birth in Dancus, and soon after she was taken here. If there was one thing she hated doing it was disappointing her father, but she thought, at least for now, that if there was some way to visit mother in Dancus, she would take it. A bond existed there, even though Daira had only seen her a few times.

“We can leave now, if you are ready,” her father said after entering the house, while checking his own bag. “But of course, first this.” He put on the table two cups of water and poured in one cup a large and in another a small dose of the powder. “Come, Daira.” He quickly drank his own and then gave her the other cup.

She hated it, despite only taking it a few times. In water it was almost bearable; she could hardly imagine how awful the taste and the scratchiness in the throat would be if taken without. Some people took it by snorting it, she had heard somewhere. Disgusting, really.

“You get used to the taste, Daira. Now drink.”

She looked at her cup for a moment. The water was thick and grey, almost viscous. Frowning throughout and wincing after, she drank it still. It tasted like meat, but rotten and bloody. There was a feeling in her mouth and throat as if there was blood in it, as if a wound opened up somewhere, but the water helped.

Regardless, they left Fonten soon after, with the proper papers held. Walking on a straight road, and bathed in sunlight.

 

 

CHAPTER II

THE PRICE OF POWDER

 

Leyra was working that day in the sunpowder section of the Central Regisan market. Since of late it was her son Elecaius who worked instead of her. This marketplace was by the Pillar, right at the centre of Regisum, and here the filtered light of the Dome was felt the most. It was not a comfortable place for a woman that was seventy years old.

Some swore that since Aelus fell that the Pillar of Regisum itself exuded an irony scent, followed by a wave of heat. The same people claimed they saw blood in the river below, the cold Vys. As if the riverbed bled.

She could not say that she experienced the same, but her senses were not as sharp as they had been before. It was hardly arrogant, she thought, to have a proper opinion about oneself, and if she were to be true, she would have to say that not only was her eyesight great before, but that she was pleasing to the eyes as well. But she was also not one of those old women who were steeped in nostalgia and yearned for nothing but the past. She rather disliked those. Not many reached her age; that was rather unique about her. Leyra knew not for sure, but she would bet that one could count Regisans older than her on one hand.

A young man approached her stall. “A pound, please,” he said. Sweat dripped down his forehead. He had blonde hair.

“Of course,” she said. “Right away.” After so many years of work it came across mechanically. The one pound weight, the balance scale, the scoop in the jar of powder, packed in the jar carried by the buyer. Some had none, so she offered for sale elegant wooden boxes carved by her son. This one had a jar.

He handed her a handful of coins and as she began counting he was already gone in the crowd. It was around noon, and the Pillar space was awash with people, praying, purchasing, going north or south. The powder business in itself would hardly make one wealthy, especially in Regisum, where the nobles still existed and satisfied their needs for powder from taxes. They would eschew a certain sum of money in exchange for the powder itself.

Most of the people who bought powder were either merchants themselves who would travel all year from a town to a city and back again and make their supplies last a long time, or the few farmers who had no choice but to work the fields outside the cities and so sweat away in the light.

That was the one thing that always puzzled her. Why did the ancestors not find some way to cultivate crops by night? It was impossible, she guessed. In any case, bread was hardly a dietary staple. Meat from pigs and cows inside the City itself was hardly enough. Some fished on Lake Caerus (though this was frowned upon by the priestesses), others had a diet of mostly picked roots and berries from the nearby forests.

And there of course was the sunpowder. The clerics were divided on it. Some called it a gift from Caerus himself, a way to survive. Others, an insult from his brother, who gave mankind a way to prolong their toiling under the Sun. Whatever the correct assumption was, it was undeniable that sunpowder would mysteriously fill a stomach, and not cause illness. At least the immediately obvious kind. Those who ate it regularly did not seem to lead long lives. Leyra herself only used it when time came to scavenge for sunrocks by the Lake. But beggars cannot choose.

The blonde man had given her too much coinage. She looked around to see if he could be spotted, looking for yellow in a mass of black, and shouted for him, but no one came back. She did spot the tiny, old man who always lingered at the marketplace; whenever she looked there he was. Using the back of her hand she wiped the sweat from her forehead, and then stashed the coins.

If she were to see him again she would return the money. He was not pale at all; this was a young man who had learned what it was to work or live under sunlight or domelight. The people who never or rarely left the cities had tanned skin, unlike their domelords. Some claimed they could spot a child with potential as a spare purely by looking at its complexion, but it was commonly refuted. After all, the powers only came after touching the Pillar. She wondered if he had the potential. Regardless, spotting him again would be easy.

She spent the rest of the day making the sales, and not earning much come night. The Council and Domelord Khoras had slighted the nobility a few months ago, and this made her life easier. Looking at the examples of Aelus and Dancus, they decided to use tax money to benefit the lives of the elderly. Of course, most of the councilmen were elders themselves, so, a cynic would say, they mostly went ahead to benefit no one but themselves, as they were ones of the few wealthy enough to live long. It still helped others.

Some of the old philosophers had argued that the only measure of success for governing was a happy population. Not healthy or affluent, nor powerful. Simply content with their lives. A bit simplistic, Leyra thought, but elegant. A pretty thought.

And so some of the tax money was distributed directly to people like her. An incentive to lead healthy lives to make it to an elder age, thus working for longer and in turn paying more in taxes? Most likely, she thought. Nothing was free, and in the end it all comes around, and down to who has more. Not always more money, but usually.

She packed away in a lockbox what money she had earned, and in the jars the rest of the powder and closed the stall. Leaving it locked in the stall was safe, at least in the marketplace. The most secure spot in the world, it was not uncommonly said, was by the Pillar of Regisum. Domelord Khoras had his own loyal, private guard, and being a man who made few enemies (because he almost always agreed with the Council) he would use his own guard as a police force, to ensure order in the heart of the City.

It was not yet the time she would regularly leave work, but this summer heat was unbearable. The most beautiful and comforting times came at winter, when during night snow would fill the streets and at day the domelight would offer warmth. Once it had caused flooding, since so much snow melted so quickly, the cold water spreading throughout. Mostly it was fine.

Which was a reminder of what she needed: a cold bath. It had been a few days since the last. Luckily, her home was not far. Her late husband Ridael had left it to her in his will. Not that he had too, because legally the wife and children would inherit the husband’s household whatever he writes (or has a scribe write) in the will, but he was the type of man who made sure everything was done twice, to be proper that way, or improper, if the scribes were asked.

Cutting through the masses to make her way home was the aspect she hated. There seemed to be some people who had an other sense to make walking the roads and alleys of Regisum an annoying part of her daily routine. Whenever she would try to circle around them they would uncannily shift their great, big bodies (always men and women of impressive girth of the waist) to block her passage. She would just sigh and find a way to move along. Weighty people were obviously rare, but in big crowds easily noticeable.

Nevertheless, she made her way home, passing from the Optea—which was the name of a city’s main road cutting through and being perpendicular with the river—to the smaller alleys. It was slightly uphill from there, where the cobblestones gave way to grass and dirt. The houses were all made of stone, though unlike the town houses these had windows and balconies and back doors. A temple was along the pathway too.

She greeted some neighbours in return as she passed them by, but most of them she didn’t really know. Most of her friends were dead, when she thought about it. Perhaps all? She wasn’t sure at first glance.

The one person who mattered was her son Elecaius. To him she would devote her last years (hopefully) and leave him with what she had.

 

 

 

He stood in front of their house, atop the seven stairs leading to the door. It reminded him of when his parents were away working, and his grandmother would take care of him. He would peer through the window and try so hard not to cry, to not yell for them to stay. He had to have known that they were not leaving, despite his young age, only going to their stall, or to Lake Caerus. They always came back. Until his father one day did not.

Now he had made the habit of waiting for his mother by the door. Simply standing, leaning on his cane. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do. Carving wooden boxes became stale quickly. He had given thought to carving shapes of fruit instead. It was a simple pleasure, seeing a loved one’s face, and their smile when they saw you back.

“Don’t you dare come down those stairs, Elec!”

“I’ve had this cane for long enough to know how to use it, mother.” But he took her obvious advice. The last thing he would want is more pity from her. Falling down again would be nothing but embarrassing.

She climbed the stairs quickly and embraced him by the door. His mother was quite sprightly for her age. At times it felt like a divine mockery. A woman of seventy years possessing more agility than a man of forty-five. But he was far from the age where it made him bitter. Old diseases, and what they bring, became habits.

He smelled her sweat when she left the embrace. These indeed were the hottest days of the year. The Dome felt a brighter spot than the Sun itself. Life in towns must be better, he thought. Kinder and relaxed.

“Let’s go inside, son, or I’m going to melt.”

“It is not that hot. One would have thought you’d have gotten used to it.” He locked the door behind them and sat on the brown rug that covered a portion of the main room’s wooden floor. Chairs made his back ache.

As his mother walked to a basin, in which the water was lukewarm but still clean, to wash her face, she said, “Have you done any carvings today? I think your boxes are one of the reasons customers still come to our stall. That and the quality of powder, perhaps.”

No, he thought. No carvings today. “A little, nothing much, though. I’m sorry you had to go today instead of me.” She couldn’t reply while washing her face, and he did dislike talking loudly from across the house’s other end, so he waited for her to come back before he offered to brew some tea.

When she was done she sat by him on the rug, beneath an oil painting, a portrait of Ridael. He wasn’t sure if it was her way of showing affection or if she also felt more comfortable, but he knew he wouldn’t ask. “Would you like some tea, mother?”

“Yes, I would.”

 

 

 

When Elec brought her the steaming teacup she drank it greedily. She could clearly see in his face that some question was barely being contained in his mouth, rushing to be let out. He had always been an awkward child. Never married, either. Some of their neighbours thought that their relationship was somewhat strange, or at the very least strange for their age. But then again, there hardly was a point of reference.

“So, what is it? Ask, before you chew your own lips off.” She smiled.

“Is the tea good?”

It was fine, she thought. He had begun making them for her a month or so ago, one or two cups every day. She didn’t know where he got the herbs from, or what they even were, but it was tasty and sweet and the sweat it induced in a calm situation helped with the heat.

“It’s good. But that’s not what you want to ask, is it?”

He made a slight grimace and shifted his eyes to somewhere else in the room. She kept looking at him. “I was just thinking about what happened in Aelus. I know we had no family there, or even knew anyone, but… just so horrible. I am afraid here. What if it happens again?”

Leyra understood him. Elecaius was not a man to whom self-expression came easily, but words were not the only way to read thoughts. “Domelord Khoras is the best of his kind. Maybe ever. I would know, I’ve lived through many Domelords and their Councils and spares, and I know some history, son. Nothing will happen to Regisum.”

“Two days ago, at the stall, I heard people say that he was making emergency plans with the Council, and that they say that what happened in Aelus wasn’t negligence, but that someone destroyed the City.”

She scoffed. “Nonsense, son.”

“But what if it’s not?”

She was done with the tea, and so stood up to put the cup away, turning her back to Elec. “We are not leaving Regisum. This is the best we can do, and let me tell you, almost everyone would trade with us if they could, to live here. There are no thieves here, we are close to everything we would ever need. The house is in a good condition and it is furnished. We have access to water and we have our own sunpowder supply. It is cool inside, despite the Dome. And we—” She turned to look at the carpet, but Elec was not there. She heard faint footsteps upstairs and then the closing of a door.

Suddenly a great sorrow overtook her, and she felt truly old and alone. A stomach ache came, and tiredness with it. It had been a long day. The light of the Dome slowly faded as night-time arrived, and far across the many houses, where the Pillar stood one man touched it gently and the Dome retracted to the walls and the earth, its sound being like the tolling of an iron bell. Visibly, the house slowly crept into darkness.

She knew her way around perfectly well, and lit a lone candle with a match, and went to her own bed. These stomach aches had been an almost nightly occurrence. She had heard that it came with age. Fresh air of towns was said to be helpful, and water from the Lake.

The next day was a day of routine, like all were. The Dome was returned, and at first was black, until slowly shining spots appeared, as if they were stars on a nightly sky, milk drops on black canvas. She remembered that as a child her father would sometimes take her to the Pillar very early, to see the Domelord enact his ritual. Some were nonchalant about it, simply going there and a few seconds later going back. Some would on special days orchestrate ceremonies, like the Winter or Summer Festivals. The Winter one was the biggest. A season of hope and salvation, and an easier leaving. She felt that the winter of this year she wouldn’t see.

As she left the house she heard a small sound up above. A rumbling, like rocks being shifted. The Dome was not an invincible device. The priestesses all urged that sooner or later all of the remaining ones would fall. It is an armour, and light the needle which makes fatal wounds. These rumblings were a reminder of that. It was said that if the Dome remained unreset for three days that it would simply fall down. That’s what happened with Udium, the story went. And Aelus, too, she supposed.

The temple doors by the street were open and prayer could be heard from within, a faint background sound of a lyre and a flute accompanying it. Opening the stall half an hour after wouldn’t hurt much, she thought, and entered the temple to Caerus.

It was mostly empty. A priestess sung the prayers, standing in the middle of the temple, while the two instrumentalists sat behind her. The temples looked the same as the Council chambers by the Pillar. A circular construction with a flat roof, where the floors rose in stairs towards the entrance, and the middle of the room was like a pit from which the priestess would offer her haunting songs. It was all unadorned. White stones and sconces for candles.

Leyra sat alone and listened with her eyes closed, and remembered the many happy memories of this temple, where she had been so many times before. There were some sad memories too, like that of Ridael’s funeral. A body was nothing but a vessel, the teachings went, and when the soul—the person—departed, then the vessel was pointless, like a cup without water, which gave the water shape, but only that. Water is what is loved.

A body is put during night in a white shroud and taken outside to an empty meadow. Three witnesses remain throughout the night and before dawn they ingest sunpowder, remove the shroud and turn away. When they are certain the body is gone they turn back around, and see the ashes. What is not dispersed by the wind is gathered, and given rest on the surface of Lake Caerus, named after the Nightgod himself, who found shelter in those waters (his own blood) before sacrificing parts of him to heal the world.

Tears began forming in her eyes while the music carried on, ethereal. She wiped them away with a swift backhand and left. Many years ago at this time of day the temples would have so many more people. She had heard rumours of some sort of owls, but did not hear it very well. Burning sunpowder, worshipping beneath the Moon. Faith in Caerus done truthfully was waning, this she knew. Long ago the clerics offered prophecies of salvation, how Caerus would return after battling the Daygod and diminishing the Sun. None of it yet happened.

Clearing her head of these thoughts, Leyra walked to her stall to begin another day of work. Shortly after the blonde man from yesterday came, and she recognised him, and saw that he was here for her and not the powder.

“You gave me too much of the coins yesterday. I have them here for you.”

She was already reaching into the lockbox when he said, “I have an offer to make. It would be best for you to accept.”

 

 

CHAPTER III

FOOTSTEPS IN THE ASHES

 

The Sun was at its highest and its hot rays cut through sparse wisps of white clouds. Egentu wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and after a short prayer to Caerus, looked up, his small, black eyes quivering. “Are you satisfied?” he asked, a hidden anger in his deep voice, emanating from deep within, through the slithering light that was his form.

“Not yet,” the Pale Herald said. “Soon you will meet deceived men, and you will regard the lies they think as true to be true yourselves, but you will know them to be false.” The body was then eaten by light, leaving dust in the air and dust on the ground. As the dust touched the ruins a pulse began. It was akin to a soft drumbeat and Egentu could hear it in his throat and heart, it vanished and then returned, almost unpalatable, but unmistakably there.

A year after the awakening the first of his day of days had come. For a year after the three hundred he honed his mind and body, preparing for this, and for just two more. He was an ignorant child, doing as he was told, but he told himself that ignorant children can be rewarded just the same. His reward was release, an unbinding and unchaining, and the sweet promise of a returned father. He disliked what he was doing, but he was also numbed by time. None of it mattered, really. Only two more.

 

 

 

Three hundred years before he had destroyed Aelus, and immediately after departing from Udium, which would be destroyed through negligence by him as well, halfway done with his journey he had found himself on a small boat with his unconscious father. Adeolatus, which had been his name then, had thought that perhaps a servant could come with them, to row the boat, but in the end he had decided he would do it himself.

As his paddle had hit the calm waters of Lake Caerus, a thought had come to him that he had forgotten to sound the evacuation of the City. Clearly in his mind he could have seen the deadly sunlight touch the Dome of Udium, cracking it like a bone and collapsing it, and without him to control it, every single fellow man and woman and child obliterated and melted by the sunlight. They would find a way, he had thought. He had obviously not been worried for himself since his immunity was a blessing from Caerus, but he had taken enough sunpowder (taken from a servant) to feed it to his father so he could survive the journey.

After his father had come he had in no less than an hour taken him to the outside of the City where the dark Elsat flowed into the Lake, had stolen a fisherman’s rickety boat, and had prayed that it would last till they arrived to the island in the centre of the Lake. Since time immemorial its name had been Gormal Ard, where the true shrine always lay. Through the cool morning mist he had seen the small island, and his prayers were answered. He had only hoped the grander prayer would be answered as well. Some dozens of feet before the gravely shore Caerus must had decided to test his faith, so water started entering and leaving the boat, and in a few moments, only entering. Adeolatus had found it rather funny that he had looked as old as his father, the process of controlling the protective Dome over the City had that effect, but though he looked as old he still had his strength. He had embraced his father and swam to the shore with all his might.

The birds above had been lively, and their song had seemed almost teasing. Sweet water had entered his ears and mouth and nose and had clouded his eyes, but he had somehow made it to the shore. He had put his father down and he had laid himself beside him, trying to regain composure. A few raggedy breaths had passed and he had begun carrying his father through the trees to the centre of the thankfully small island. In the centre had been a pool of water, the size of a house perhaps, and in it a pile of grassy dirt, large enough for five men to stand abreast. Adeolatus had been here once before, long before his reign, and it had been a massive trouble to return to the mainland. He hadn’t thought of that before the journey. Shaking his head to disperse the negative thoughts, he had walked across the knee-deep pool, near which were various piles of curious, jagged stones, and he had laid his father on the ground, on the very middle of the world they knew. He had begun praying to Caerus, to give his father life, even if it meant forfeiting his own, to show mercy, and not let a simple illness take away such a great man. He had even cried as he prayed, deep inside realising that it was all for naught, that there was no Caerus and his father would die right now and that he had let his people die for nothing. As if to taunt him, the grey clouds above had released their rain.

His father coughed then, and blood came out of his nose and mouth and eyes. Adeolatus tried to say something, but then father’s hand fell heavy and stiff on the ground.

He remained there with the corpse for hours, hiding it in shadows, feeding it powder. Somehow it worked. There were no last words, no conversation that could have given him rest. No words of love or wisdom from the dying father. But he couldn’t leave; all he could do was pray.

Adeolatus had believed in Caerus since as far back as he could remember, a virtue instilled upon him by his father. He would always remember the many cheerful lessons of faith his father had given him and his two brothers, the twins, and the great advice that had come with it. He had been crying so much that he couldn’t even think anymore, only feel the sadness and the cold rain as it had whipped his skin.

But then, blood began pouring again, coalescing with the rain. He saw his father’s lips twitch, and he felt a pulsating beat in the ground, like a rotten heartbeat that awoke, and one more, a deafening silence to the south. He sensed the outside beat in his heart and then just his own inner drumming. His father stood up, almost effortlessly, and opened his bloody mouth, and through it came a horrible sound.

A wild gust of wind appeared out of nowhere and it scourged them both as hard as the rain. Adeolatus saw it wipe away his father’s head, like water with paint, until all that remained was a smooth pale face, with no features but monstrous black lips, thick like dark worms.

Adeolatus’ breathing stopped, like the wind; the rain had continued. The corpse in front of him then spoke, a queer sound as any he had ever heard, a mesh of depth and height. It sounded like the voice was by his ear and then like it was a mile away. It was garbled like pebbles and as fluid as the dark Elsat.

“My saviour,” the corpse said. “My sweet, sweet harbinger and champion.” The voice became oddly sorrowful, and it seemed to carry a great burden. “I have waited for a day such as this for so long that I became certain I would remain in these shackles forever. Be the one, I beg you.” The frail corpse moved lightning fast and it planted a wet kiss on Adeolatus’ forehead. He didn’t know why, but his body hadn’t flinched in the slightest, as if it were expecting the kiss and welcomed it.

A warmth spread from his head through his body. He felt a light within, like when touching the Pillar. “What… what are you?” Adeolatus had asked, lowering his head and staring at the wet mud.

“You may call me the Pale Herald, for that is what I had been called a long time ago by your kind. I have other names as well.”

Adeolatus had heard of that moniker before. It had been the name of the five prophets of Caerus. “What have you done with my father?”

The corpse’s neck lurched. “I am sorry, my child, for your loss, but it is the only way. Come now. Help me, so I may help you.”

“Help you with what?”

“I am in great pain, will you not help me? I will ease your pain as well. Gather those slivers you see scattered around this pool and make yourself a chair here, where I stand. You will have to help me for a long time. Oh, if you only had friends, to ease your burden.”

Adeolatus remembered his message; he chose to keep it for himself. “Are you Caerus?”

“Yes, my dear child. You may call me that, too.”

“Are you a god?”

Even before the words came Adeolatus had sensed a hesitation in the figure before him. “I am, perhaps, to some. To your kind it had been hundreds of years ago when my whispering began. Some heard, and turned it into faith. But no faith is required, dear child. I am here, and so are you, to help me end this. If it is your wish to know, then know you shall, but at the very end of your slumber, and not before. Know only, that what you do, leads to salvation.”

“Will you give me my father back?” Adeolatus asked. “If I help you.”

“I can try, but first I need the assistance.”

Adeolatus gravely nodded and gathered the boulders of Gormal Ard, to fashion himself a seat, a throne almost. When he finished he heard the corpse say, “Good, my child. Now sit.”

He had done so and as he sat the control of his body left him. Even his mind went away, and the world before him became pale and then disappeared; the last thing he saw were the black lips, and a rising mist around the island, and in a deep, earthen chamber. A vague consciousness remained and through it he heard the whispers, and even though he couldn’t move an inch he felt a change take over his body. He also knew of two new presences beside him.

The whispers were like honey and milk and he had tasted a renewed strength in him. His sense of time never left him and he was aware of almost everything. During one fleeting moment there had been a scream in the ground, the pulse of the land increased and the earth shook. It had all been a haze through which he had seen what he was shown and had heard what he was told.

Then, it all passed in an instant. As if it had been a moment, and not such a long time.

Three hundred years later he had woken up and when he had seen his two brothers beside him and what their bodies had become, he had let out a scream.

 

 

 

Once the mists had left Gormal Ard like a sheath from a knife he had swum towards the ground of his life with his two brothers. Egentu and the two in front of him were Gormaloth, so named after an old, old word that only the Herald knew, its meaning hidden, like with their new names: Egentu, Zaloth, Thros. He had had a hard time remembering their real names, given to them by their father. His had been Adeolatus, and the brothers had been Nikheparus and Taedalus, old names that were no longer of any use.

Their form was monstrous, tall and slender and slithering, and gripping and strong and clawed. Made of white and golden light, dispersing white heat. Disgustingly symmetrical and like nothing on the ground. But it was incredibly functional, they could walk and talk and do better than before.

The three walked on ash through where the Aelian Optea had been, the main street, towards the ruins of the Pillar on the clogged river. Aelus had indeed been so mighty and now it made such a magnificent ruin, with grey ash all around and white stone crumbling, choking the Lake.

It had been a day ago that the collapse had happened. The luminosity of their form appeared diminished, as if a portion shot through the Pillar of Aelus into its Dome, and never returned. Egentu with Zaloth and Thros had walked towards Aelus, and they had broken the necks of the few guards in front and then placed their hands on the gates to open them. They had walked down the Optea towards the Pillar. The Dome had been in the walls and arrows and slashes had flown towards them. It hadn’t—nor would ever (until one event)—be of any matter; each hit was unimportant. As rock or iron touched them the surface of their bodies had glowed faintly red and hardened like stone on impact. Such was the gift of the Pale Herald. But it was powered by sunlight and the only light in the City was the moonlight and starlight, and such weak lights did little, but still enough remained in their bodies for the walk and surprise attack.

They had finally reached the Pillar and placed their monstrous hands on it and then the Dome emerged from the walls and it climbed towards the skies. It bit and began shimmering and then it collapsed, killing all within and some outside; a mother and a daughter, and many like them.

The Gormaloth had then taken their sunpowder and stood immobile as the calamity occurred. When they had awoken they had been greeted by the Pale Herald, who had not yet been satisfied.

 

 

 

The two memories finished passing through his head, crumbling in the skull like escaping dust. One three hundred years old, and the other a day.

And so they stood at the flat ruins, waiting through the night for the sunlight to reinvigorate them. All that remained was a field of ashes; it filled the quiet Riphium and killed it.

Egentu and his brothers made his way outside the ruins, to the place where the buried Riphium had flowed into Aelus and through it into the Lake. In the green grass valley half a dozen men armed with rock spears sat upon horses and watched them.

“Are they scouts?” Zaloth asked.

“Most likely,” Egentu said.

“Kill them?” Thros asked.

“Wait.” Egentu lifted his arm, a clawed spear of light.

The men galloped their horses through the meadow and in a quick formation surrounded the three Gormaloth that let them do so. They brought down their spears, the tips a few inches away from their skin. The horses were unnerved, they wanted to back away but the leash forbade them.

“What are you?” one of the men asked. A captain, the garb revealed. The horses tried backing away but the brave men decided to face the unknown. Egentu could see the confusion and horror in their eyes. What the horsemen saw was of a human shape, but not human. Thros and Zaloth were smart to remain quiet, and Egentu bid his next move. Regisum was next and death for the horsemen was easy and unnecessary.

“Speak, beast,” the captain said. He seemed very afraid.

“What is your decision?” Egentu asked.

“Kill them,” one of the men said. “They’re monsters.”

“We don’t know what they are,” the captain said. He turned to one man and whispered something. The other man rode away, northeast.

The Sun felt good on Egentu’s skin. He thought about how much sunpowder the scouts took, how weak they were. He knew how horrifying the ashfield looked.

The captain, attempting to calm his horse and the men around him, asked, “What happened here? Was this your doing!?”

“Yes,” Egentu said.

Instantly, the Gormaloth roared, a deep thunder that terrified both men and horses. They extended their claws and in a fury of a wave slashed at the horses’ exposed necks. The animals spun and shook all around as they dropped to the ground, their blood colouring the ashes and the grass. The Gormaloth each picked their men to kill, a cut to the neck and it was done. The instant passed and the blood of men and horses was everywhere.

“A waste,” Egentu said.

Zaloth and Thros wiped their bloody claws on the cloth of the men and Egentu licked his. The blood was bitter and disgusting and it gave him no pleasure. It seemed to sizzle on the heat of their light.

“Regisum, now?” Thros asked.

“Yes,” Egentu said.

“What about these?” Zaloth asked.

“Leave it to the Daygod,” Egentu said.

The blades of grass brushed against their legs, and they walked through the meadow, leaving footprints in the ashes. They avoided the roads, towards the next sanctuary. Regisum would be harder, Dancus even more so. The promise was worth it; let it all end.

 

 

CHAPTER IV

SUNLIT ROAD, SPOT, CITY, PAST

 

Byton and his daughter walked side by side, heading north to Dancus. Looking at her full cheeks, framed by the black hair, he saw some obvious discomfort on her skin. Redness and sweat, but mild. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“I’m fine, father. It’s only a small sense. A bit like a gentle slap, I think.”

Lake Caerus was clearly visible to their left, a sprawling body of standing water. It looked somewhat diminished, as if it were a heart and one of its blood vessels had been severed. He saw some gravel and rocks by the shore, but these were not the potent sunrocks; most were found alongside the shore at Regisum. No one really knew why and how these rocks were made, only that—they were not actual rocks, more of a hardened powder inside a wet membrane—when they were struck against something sturdy the powder poured. His wife had been proficient at collection.

To their right were the mighty forests, dense in summer and long since forgotten. None of Fonten or Dancus ventured there, for fear of wild animals and bandits. Some men claimed that past the forests there was another lake that stretched on into the forever, and its water was of salt. A curious discovery, if true, but rather pointless.

Byton enjoyed unearthing the mysteries of life as much as anyone else, but when time came to choose between the practical and the arcane, well, the answer would be obvious to all. The old philosophers would disagree, he knew. Back in the Regisan schools, where these men were the teachers, the subjects of the metaphysical were to him always the most boring and difficult ones. It was without a doubt humbling, to contemplate existence and the orders in life, but again, not of any use.

“We’ll be there in about an hour, I’d say. I told you it’s not far.” In the corners of his sight he noticed movement in the woods. Birds, likely. He took her hand in his. “Do you have any memories of those days? This isn’t your first time in Dancus, but you were very young.”

She slightly flinched when he took her hand; all of her skin would be irritable. “I know the stories you told me, father. Sometimes I’m not sure if I have memories or it’s just those stories.”

“Well, you’ll see soon enough. It is a marvellous sight at least. Standing on the hill overlooking Dancus, seeing the beauty of the Dome from outside, it shining so brightly like a new star. And the strong Ulico as it enters and exits the City, into the Lake.” He talked about Dancus; what he saw in his mind was Regisum, and for a brief moment he realised he missed his place of birth, and would like to return one day. “But don’t let the appearances fool you, Daira. Always remember this. People and places are rarely what they seem to be.”

“Are you what you seem to be?”

He saw her look away from the road and stare up at him. She had been getting rather insolent lately, he thought. It would do no good to hit a child any more (not to mention that the priestesses had developed an unfavourable view on beatings).

“If there is one person, other than yourself, in your entire life that you can always put your faith into, it is your father. No matter what happens that will never change.”

Then she looked away from him, and back at the road. She was smiling. The hill was near. “I love you, Daira.”

“I love you, too, father.”

 

 

 

Ralus had never left Dancus; all twenty years inside. The past three as a guardsman. He had made it, no matter what others had said about his left-handedness. He always knew that if properly trained it was no different from a right hand. His grandmother, for the few years she had been alive during his life, had given her best attempt at making him change. His sister did it still. It didn’t work, and he still did become, in the end, a guardsman.

Domelord Loterus had kept the City guard operating. Even he, in his infinite self-will, Ralus thought, wouldn’t dare to object the Council of Dancus on something such as this. Some things needed to be outside a domelord’s control, even though their power waned with each generation. Previous would-be tyrants had been imprisoned for less. For the direst of offences some were executed even, despite the eternal preaching of the Nightgod’s priestesses and clerics, begging for the preservation of all blood.

Loterus had his own, private guard as well. It was proper, most agreed. If any demented terror-monger had any inclinations of ruining the lives in the City then striking its Domelord would be the obvious choice. Those guards had always been separate from the City-wide guards, who kept peace. And handled papers.

Quite a few people had lined up in front the open gates of Dancus, where Ralus stood with some colleagues. A summons had been issued for confirmation. The incentive was quite good; fools would refuse. Having a child as a spare meant it living in the mansion domelords themselves used, right next to the Pillar.

The place near which the guards stood—clad in leather and with stone tip spears as weapons—was called a city’s Sunspot. When the gates were opened some light naturally fell through the opening, depending on the angle. A portion of the wall above the gates still stood, and somehow the Dome found its way inside, despite the smaller space. Some said it could be seen resting above, jutting upwards, barely hidden, before it embarked like an eyelid to cover them all. Others said that long ago the first settlers demolished a part of the Dome and from this opening the gates were made.

This work by it was all about routine, checking the proper papers and identifications. All of the people processed were rather red and sweating. Those who had been standing at the end of the line at noon finally came by the gates at dusk, all the time standing near the food fields outside the City. The Moon was visible; it reminded Ralus to keep his appointment with Vindel.

A little girl, who had black hair and blue eyes and was scarcely awake, stood next to what had to be her father, a man of about thirty-five years. He was well-built, and with a dark beard and cropped hair.

“Your documents, please,” Ralus said. His mother had made him take this job, urging him to not take after his father as a basket weaver. He accepted after some deliberation, and grew to appreciate the challenge. The money was fine, and it was a respected job. It might also mean finding a way inside the personal guard of the Domelord, and living in the barracks by his mansion.

“Here you go,” the father said kindly.

Ralus examined; all was in order. Byton Saros and Daira Saros. But then he remembered a separate list he had been given, and those names did sound familiar.

“One second, good sir,” Ralus said.

“Everything should be proper,” the man called Byton said.

“I have your names on this list here. It says you are to be escorted straight to the Domelord himself. You must be an important man.”

Byton scoffed, and then took a breath.

“Welcome to Dancus,” Ralus said. “These two men will take you the Pillar.”

After the father and daughter had been sent away into the City, Ralus executed the second part of the order, to send another man directly to the Domelord himself.

 

 

 

Loterus sat on his bed, in the Domelord’s mansion by the Pillar. The room was built in such a way, that when the doors of the room were open, and the doors of the house too, that if one peered their eyes closely they could, from the bed, see the Pillar outside, in the distance, provided no crowd was there, or anything in the way. The whole house was built around a narrow, long hallway; at one end was the bedroom of the Domelord, at the other the entrance to the house. It was an impractical design, considering that the City could not be expanded horizontally, but only vertically; nevertheless, Loterus understood the purpose in the mind of the long gone architects.

The Pillar always loomed, as did the Dome. It lingered, not only in the dreams and nightmares (too frequent), but outside as well, its jagged, malformed construction beckoning forever, like a bell inaudible to all but the ones doomed to hear it, and obey its call till they died. He was not foolish, and knew that many would commit the most hideous of crimes to be in his position, to hear the cursed nocturnal whispers. But he had had enough of all, and the news of Aelus was at first liberating.

His first thought: why had it not been Dancus? Why start west, and not east? Chance or plan? He did not know the answers, but what he knew was that it would happen again.

Domelord Loterus let go of the child’s doll he had been cradling gently (sometimes he went to her empty room and stared blankly, knowing it would be forever empty), and then the doors of the mansion opened, and he saw a guardsman run down the straight hallway towards him. A crimson carpet was laid in his room, passing between the two columns that were in the centre; the crimson led to his bed.

The heavy footfall of the man was enough to wake him from his thoughts. The child was gone. The doll he put away.

“My lord, I have urgent news.” The guard was doing his best to regain composure and breath, short of kneeling and catching his knees with open fists.

“Speak.”

“Byton Saros is here, with his daughter.”

Loterus’ hand fell to the doll and his thoughts fell to the Nightgod. It felt as if Caerus mocked him with destiny, and chance. “Have them brought to the mansion.”

“They are on their way. They will be here very soon.”

“Good. Good. On your way out tell the servant to prepare a meal. Tell him it’s for a reunion.” His neck was no longer bent. His eyes no longer sunken. “I have some sad, sad news.”

 

 

 

“May we know where you are taking us?” Her father’s words to the guardsmen were not said gently.

Suddenly, Daira was afraid, and she knew nothing of what was happening. It was not a good time to ask; it would be improper, so she went along with her father.

They did not divert their path from the Optea, staying on it all the time, walking for an hour before they reached the Pillar. The houses progressively became bigger and of better making as they came closer. It was nearly night-time and the Dome was losing its shine, so not many people were outside. The air was hideously hot, and it smelled of sweat and filth.

Dancus was exactly as she had imagined it to be, but now she was almost anxious to see the Pillar from up-close, even though it could clearly be seen from the gates, from so far away it still made its presence felt.

Some of the people that had been outside were giving them queer looks, just like in Fonten. She hoped it would be different. It must be rare that guardsmen escort people, she thought. She hoped nothing bad would happen to her father.

“You are not going to answer my question?”

“You will know soon enough, sir,” one of the men said. “We have orders, and we want to keep our position.”

“Orders directly from the Domelord?” her father asked, seemingly with insight into the situation.

“You will know everything soon,” the other guard said.

She heard, for the first time she could remember, the strange murmur of the strong Ulico. And then, passing unto the bridge over the river, which housed the centre itself (and in the centre of the centre the Pillar). It was ugly, she thought. And scary. It looked like a twisted spine, not standing straight and not made of beautiful stone like the buildings and the bridge here. It was nightmarish, and it made her feel a deep terror.

“Daddy, I want to go back.”

He looked downwards, and clutched her hand even tighter. “All will be fine, my love. Nothing to fear here.”

Then they saw, as they stood a few dozen feet from the Pillar, in Dancus at dusk, the Dome’s light dissipate fully, and turn it into a black shroud above them all, and a man with the posture and mien of someone her father’s age, but the face of someone who was as old as the shrines in woods, walk outside the long, elegant mansion. That was the Domelord, she knew instantly, and he was walking straight towards them, looking at her eyes, his own deep-set and young, in a wrinkly, pale face.

Daira noticed that the massive bridge was seemingly empty and dark. The only sounds were the flow of the strong Ulico below, and her father’s breathing. The two guardsmen and the approaching man were the only others there.

The Domelord signalled with a swift hand for the guardsmen to take hold of her father, not taking his eyes off of her. She felt ice in them, and also sadness.

The men did as they were commanded. “No!” father shouted. “No! Let go of me. Loterus, no, we had agreed! You had let it go!”

Daira didn’t know what to do, and when the Domelord was right beside her, her own father’s hand slipping away, Loterus took her by the empty hand and in a rushing step almost dragged her to the Pillar. She tried to resist and scream, but did not. Somehow, and she couldn’t explain why, she didn’t feel threatened. This man did not mean her harm.

“Let go of her!”

She was taken to the Pillar, and he put her hand on it. The guardsmen behind them dragged her father towards them.

“Nothing will happen,” Loterus whispered to her.

The Pillar felt wet, and filthy to the touch, but she felt nothing, and nothing did happen.

“She is not a spare, my old friend.” The Domelord let go of her hand and then brought his own together, clasping them. The guards released his father and he rushed towards her, knelt and hugged.

“Are you all right, Daira?”

“I am, father. I am no longer scared.”

Loterus then placed his own hand on the Pillar, and she looked up above and saw the Dome split into three parts and retract from the Pillar’s top, and slip away slowly, with a loud grind, to the walls of Dancus.

“Take these two,” Loterus said, “to my mansion, and hand them to the servant.” He then slipped away like a ghost, going away.

“All will be fine, Daira,” father said. “Trust me, please.”

 

 

 

The three of them were seated in a fine dining room, at a round table. Loterus watched them as they ate an exquisite meal. A roasted lamb with onions and baked potatoes. Fresh, icy water in cups next to the plates. A lit chandelier hung above, giving the room a subdued, washed gleam.

After their bags were taken, they had been escorted straight to the room, Byton and his daughter, and had been sat down. Sometime later Loterus entered and sat at his own seat and was silent since then. Byton felt completely lost, and even awkward and embarrassed. The only sounds that penetrated the silence were the noise of cutlery against meat and plate, and the placing down of cups after watery slurps.

“I hope the meal was satisfactory,” Loterus said after they were done eating.

“We thank you, of course,” Byton said politely, “for this good meal.” He was glad that Daira had not said anything after, and followed his lead.

Loterus looked to the chandelier for a moment, at its light, and then at Daira’s eyes. “Did you know that a long time ago a domelord carried a much greater deal of power, ruling these places as gods, almost?”

Byton looked at his daughter, too, and what he read was awkwardness in her as well, but he did see in her eyes a preparation for a response.

“I did know that,” Daira said quietly. “I learned some history in the schools in Fonten, and at the temple, from the priestess.”

“Good,” Loterus said. “It’s something that should be known. Myself… I don’t wield that much power. Some, but nowhere near as much as my kind had before. It was also a religious position too, the Domelord appointed by the Nightgod and the Council by the people, as one philosopher had said, but with time the role between domelord and high priest became separated, and then later the high priests disappeared entirely, leaving only us domelords… in a profane position.”

“I knew that too, Domelord.”

“Very good,” he said with a smile.

Thinking back, Byton rarely remembered seeing genuine expressions of kindness or pleasure on his face.

“Lastly,” Loterus said, “and this is something you definitely did not learn in a temple or school, do you know how your father knows me? And how I know him?”

For a slight moment the Domelord looked at Byton, whose face revealed fear. Do not do this, or say this, it seemed to say, silently through a stone mask. Powerless, here.

“I don’t,” she said. “How do—”

“Enough, Loterus.” Byton said. “What do you want?”

“Your daughter’s mother is dead,” he said. “And the child she had kept secret from Daira, her sister. Both had gone to Aelus sometime before it was destroyed, and they hadn’t returned, nor had I received any confirmation from Khoras that they had entered Regisum. I do not know the details, of course. I think it is safe to assume they died.”

The Domelord stood up then, and before he left, he said, “The servant will show you to your rooms. We will talk more tomorrow, Daira. Good night. It is time you get used to the rhythm of a city. You will be here for a while.”

 

 

CHAPTER V

A DEAL IN DUST

 

“And why is that?” Leyra asked the blonde man who stood in front of her stall, in the domelit centre of Regisum. “I am an old woman, young man, and I have no time nor do I care for your petty, subtle threats. Tell me what you want or go jump in the river, you impolite brat.” It was clear that she had startled him, and his face showed both surprise and perhaps some humility. Anger, too. She had not spoken so loud as to make a scene in the marketplace, but she was willing to. With age came a disregard for some of the folkways in parlance. The young attributed it to an old coot’s crankiness; it was more of a constantly developing view on the amount of falseness in the world, and a diminishing level of tolerance for it.

“I have an offer to make,” he said, sweating like the pigs near the City walls.

“Can I at the very least know your name?”

“I am Domicus. You wouldn’t know me, I am not from Regisum.”

“Oh, so because I am ancient you expect me to know everyone living here? As if this is a town of a hundred people?” Might as well have some fun, at the expense of the young man, she thought.

“No, no, no, that is not what I meant. What I meant was that… I… am from a town nearby Dancus, my brothers are too.”

“I am joking, Domicus. Whatever deal you have to offer, now is not the time, you are scaring away my customers with your sweat. If you care enough for this deal, learn where I live and come tomorrow with your offer, at daytime, all right?”

“I will. Thank you. Thank you.”

He seemed like a good man, she thought. Of perhaps twenty years. And now she was rather curious as to what this deal was. If she had to guess she would say it involved sunpowder somehow; he did approach her at her business place and it’s not as if she had anything else to offer.

After Domicus went away the workday continued as usual; one of the customers gave her a hefty tip, citing her long-standing value as a sunpowder merchant. When the Dome’s light began waning, as the Sun waned too, she locked up the money and powder and went home.

 

 

 

Elecaius had left in the morning as well, locking the house behind him. His walk was slow, and the cane sometimes proved difficult to wield on the irregular pathways and roads in Regisum, but he managed; this was an old affliction. He had taken enough coins to last throughout the day, since he had decided this would be a long day of leisure. There would be enjoyment here, he knew, but what he wished was the quiet and the calm of town life.

He began in a tavern on the left bank of the cold Vys, where the buildings were less cluttered. The river here seemed to be cleaner than usual, but not by much. It all flowed into Lake Caerus, which was still considered sacred, despite the unstoppable movement of secularism throughout the history of it all. But sewage had to flow somewhere.

Since he could remember he contemplated the existence of the four cities. His teacher had talked about how there were five cities in the beginning, the fifth being on the forgotten island in the Lake. No one journeyed there anymore, because city and town temples were the common places of worship, and not the pillar-like wooden shrines deep in woods.

The legend (or history, if the clerics were asked) went that during the battle between the nameless Daygod and the Nightgod Caerus their spilled blood fell unto fertile land on Gormal Ard, from which humanity arose. The Nightgod emerged victorious, but at a cost. He had managed to banish the Daygod to hide his shame behind the Sun (since neither could die), but the Nightgod was wounded too.

In his last act of evil the Daygod embraced the Sun, and focused his hate through the hot rays to seek his enemy’s children, and destroy them when touched. But the Nightgod would not allow his own to be defenceless, so he constructed from his bones the Pillars and from his skin the Domes, and his blood became the water which nurtured it all. And then he was diminished and spent, until one day, far into the future when he would recuperate, as would his enemy, and they would battle once more. Who would be victorious? This the clerics could not say; that had not been whispered.

Another legend (or history) went that there had been, however, five prophets many hundreds of years ago, who each, individually, without any links to one other, had at the same time while praying at a wooden forest altar heard a faint whisper, calling for help, to bring a corpse to the first city in Gormal Ard. Nothing happened, and no one knew why. But that was how the words were spread of Caerus and his foe, and so the faith began.

History was not always well-recorded, and many tales were covered in lies and fiction, to the point where anyone with any respect for the human inability to not have knowledge of everything dared to presume the truth. Some did, and sometimes they were believed.

Elecaius had without any doubt believed in it all as a child, but now he was not sure. The cities were mysterious, that was without ambiguity; no one really knew how the Domes and Pillars operated or why they heeded the call of the special individuals. Blessed by Caerus? Too simple of an answer, he thought, and some domelords were vile and hardly worthy of a divine blessing.

And where did the sunpowder come from? He knew, of course, it being his family profession, how sunpowder was gained. But why the Lake? And was the supply unlimited? Will there be a day when future generations no longer needed it, or had it? The answer, which he could not, nor ever would possibly know, was the obsoleting of his trade.

The innkeeper brought him an herbal tea, and Elecaius sipped it with pleasure, overlooking the Vys. For a moment he saw a streak of blood in the water, like a single red thread on a blue dress, but then it disappeared, and he was no longer sure if it had been there in the first place.

“Would you require anything else, sir?” the innkeeper who was also now a waiter, it seemed, asked.

“No, it’s fine,” Elecaius said, not taking his eyes off the cold Vys, fishing for another red streak.

After he finished the tea he paid for it and then decided the next stop would be one of his favourites as a child: the open-air theatre. A play was scheduled for noon-time. It didn’t take long for city denizens to utilise domelight as a rudimentary measurement of time. Looking up (noticing he would be late if he didn’t hurry), after some practice one could reasonably guess the proper hour by noticing how much light was left. Not all could, of course; others relied on temple bells to tell them, while some used simple water or sand clocks.

The play for today was an old story, a comedy about a domelord’s servant who, on the behest of his master, made pranks on the esteemed guests in the mansion; removing the sheets from the beds, or damaging the frames so the beds would collapse when lied upon. It was rather funny, if farcical, Elecaius thought. But of course, the servant would have his proper punishment in the end, as would the Domelord. It depended on who was in charge of the production. Sometimes the end would be violent, and sometimes a firm lecture to show them the errors in their ways. Elecaius preferred the more violent resolution; it felt just and deserved. Who didn’t like to see the villains given punishment, at the hands of the heroes? It made him yearn for strength, and a stance. The ability to stand by those he loved, and protect them from harm, even if it meant harm to himself.

He had made it in time, passing through the narrow alleys he knew well, in the shadows of tall houses which were constantly being built-upon and changed. The theatre was an old one, too, built in the classical style of the first constructions.

Most people attended during festival days and weeks, like the Winter Festival, when the Sun was weak and living comfortable, or the Summer Festival, which was to occur in a few weeks. However, plays were still scheduled regularly, for those who wanted them.

Sitting on a stone bench, above the stage, he saw the actors perform and it was joyous to him, to revisit old laughter. After it was done he showered them with what money he had left and decided that the last stop of the day would be the temple near their house.

When he arrived, passing through the large gates (a man came forward to help him walk through and find a seat), he immediately heard ethereal music and sat down. The mind meandered slowly, from thought to thought, until it came to Ridael, his long gone father.

The priestesses rarely spoke of an afterlife, but it was safe to assume the souls went to Caerus, to help him heal, whereas the evil ones were banished to linger behind the Sun, with the Daygod.

He heard two men speak quietly, not far from him, about owls and powder, the Moon too, and some sort of protests in Dancus; a new religion. They were young he saw, but he didn’t hear much, and soon after that he left, going back home.

 

 

 

Leyra had stopped by the temple after finishing her workday. Lately she had felt drawn to it, to the strings and air, which shaped aural beauty. It must play a large role, she thought, in the importance of religion. How much of it was just tales they told themselves, to feign wisdom and dismiss ignorance, and if that aspect even matters? If it brought them together, and made them happy, who can complain?

If there was a place proper for public displays of sadness it was the temples, and again it was impossible to not be reminded of her late husband. It gave her some comfort thinking that he waited for her, at the Nightgod’s side, and she knew she would join him soon. No matter what were to happen, she was old.

Then she went home, climbing the short stairs (feeling some pain in her knees and hips), and entering the house, seeing Elecaius and two other men in the main room. Her son sat on the carpet, while the other two (one she recognised) sat on the hard, wooden chairs.

“Good evening to you, Leyra,” Domicus said, a cup of water in hand.

“Good day,” the other one echoed, smiling.

A surprise was sometimes met with affection, but this situation was not one of those. She looked at her son, who was calm and silent. “You’ve come about your deal? I thought we agreed to tomorrow.”

“Yes, about that,” Domicus said. “Let me introduce my friend here, first. This is Sicreo. He is here about the deal too.”

Sicreo stood up and bowed, as was polite to do in front of an elder. He was young as well, a bit older than Domicus, and with dark hair and eyes. A somewhat disturbing smile, too. “I am glad to meet you, Madame Leyra.”

“I am glad too,” she said, and then sat opposite them in the room, a small table between them, and Elecaius on the floor next to them.

“So, can we talk?” Domicus asked.

“Since it appears to be so urgent,” Leyra said, “that you couldn’t wait one more day, then go ahead… talk.”

“We are willing to offer you a hefty sum for all the sunpowder in your possession, as well as for you to go tomorrow to harvest more, and give us all you harvest. We promise, this sum will be more than enough to last you a lifetime.”

Oh, she thought. At first she was slightly shocked, and didn’t immediately know what her response would be, but this sounded good. “And how hefty is this sum?”

“Three times your standard price,” Domicus said. “Per pound… of course.”

Domicus talked clumsily, she noticed. This Sicreo didn’t appear to be the mind behind this, but she was sure it wasn’t Domicus either; he was just a foolish young man, she would say, if one could allow oneself to make snap judgements.

“What do you think, Elec?” she asked.

“Take it,” he said, scratching his face, “and we can sell this house. And move south to Regevus, and finally live outside.”

“Can you come to my stall tomorrow, in the morning?” Leyra asked, looking at Domicus. “I can’t decide immediately.”

“Why not?” he asked. “You can sell it all and earn three times the money. You’ll never have to work again, and your son will have enough for a decade.”

“Wait…” she said, “I forgot to ask. What do you want with all this powder?”

“A personal reason,” he said. “None of your business.”

She scoffed. “Come to my stall tomorrow for your answer. I would like you to leave now.”

Domicus and his friend stood (Sicreo bowed) and then left, with Leyra closing the door behind them, and then turning to her son, who still sat on the carpet. The domelight was almost gone, and what remained fell through the window in a cloudy haze, giving a slowly disappearing glow to the room.

“You let them in? Just like that?”

“I did, mother. They said they had agreed to meet you here.”

“By the gods, Elec, what if they had been thieves, or murderers!? You would’ve just let them in because they said so? You are not a child, you are a grown man! Twice the age of these two, so start acting like one.” She took a breath and sat down on the carpet next to him, feeling sorry already.

He was silent and looking downwards, to the wooden floor.

“I… I’m sorry, son, I didn’t mean to yell. You just have to… understand that this situation of ours is not usual. You are still not looking for a wife?”

“I don’t want a wife, mother. The only person I need is you, and when I am alone I will be alone. I will not be sad.”

“And what of your father’s legacy? Our profession, and ownership?”

Elecaius slanted his head and rested it on Leyra’s shoulder, and they embraced. He was silent for a moment. “I don’t know. Do you care? Or do you just think you should care?”

She was silent for longer. “You want to live south, in Regevus?”

“I do.”

“I will ask a council clerk if there is a house for sale there. If yes, we will go, then.”

The light of the Dome was gone, replaced by an open night sky of summer, giving way to stars and the Moon. The house was bathed in subtle darkness, and from the darkness Leyra said, still in the embrace, “But tomorrow we will go to the Lake. For the final harvest, it seems.”

 

 

CHAPTER VI

THE BLOOD AT THE ALTAR

 

The chosen of the Pale Herald looked up to the stars and the Moon, and his own hand that was suspended in the darkness between his lightless body and the celestial lights. He held it there for a long time, looking at its shape and trying to remember what his own, human arm had been like, with pale flesh and blue veins visible, like the rivers themselves.

It had been a long time ago, yet the clouded memories felt as if they had occurred yesterday. Yesterday it had been the bathtub and the boat, and the dying father and the throne on the island, the rain and the mist and the slumber. And all the Herald needed, to release his sons from these immortal chains, was the ruination of two more slivers that pierced the ground through the flowing blood that fed the Lake.

The Sun came up, its spears cutting through tree tops, and the light landing on the body of the Gormaloth, giving them strength and making their form full. Fed by light. Smaller however, than before Aelus.

Egentu did not understand it, nor had he any hopes that the answers would be easy. But one of the promises had been answers. And yet the Herald said he was Caerus, but sunlight was the domain of his foe. Had this all been a deception, Egentu wondered; did it even matter? In the end, when the rest is eternal, who cares what gods rule over the living?

Egentu’s two brothers had been domelords as well. Zaloth had held reign over Aelus and Thros over Regisum. Udium had, of course been Egentu’s, and an ally of theirs was the Domelord of Dancus; in this time, three hundred years ago (when they had more sway over the Council than the other way around) Gormal Ard had been a ruin already.

The Brother Domelords they had been called; it was an almost impossible level of luck that brought them to their stations. All three had been born in Dancus, where they lived until Egentu was twelve and Zaloth and Thros, the twins, ten. Then their potential was discovered, and since Dancus already had plenty of spares, and the other three cities were lacking, they had been sent each in their own direction to serve under the Domelords.

They had been close as children, playing and working with their father together. The separation was difficult, but with the use of messenger birds they made communication once in a while (it was not good practice to flood essential discussion between cities with private chatter). So a code had been developed, to hide personal thoughts between the political. And once a year, they agreed to all meet in Aelus, halfway through. Egentu and Thros left their position vacant for three days, in the charge of a spare. Never a good decision, but one that lent them humanity, and made them less of a target in the eyes of potential enemies (and potential domelords).

In time, the Domelords under which they had been spares passed away, their life drained by the Pillars fully (their faces became so old they looked dead). And so the three brothers reigned themselves.

“We should not rest,” Thros said, as the Sun dispelled the night in the forest.

“We do what… elder brother says.” Zaloth had almost said Adeolatus, Egentu sensed. The letting go of their old names was something that the Herald had encouraged, and was one of the few things that couldn’t have been permanently erased from their minds. Their knowledge of the cities he had kept, and some of the identity. It would do no good to fool themselves, Egentu thought. The Herald wanted obedient slaves, not sons.

“We are not invincible,” Egentu said. “The light is what we need, and if we fight at night again we could easily be sent back.”

 

 

 

Adeolatus woke up from the centuries’ long slumber, his arms on the armrests of the throne, and his two brothers beside him, one to the left and the other to the right. The three ramshackle thrones were in the very centre of their world. Through the mist—as his eyesight became new—that slowly coiled away as Adeolatus awoke, he could see the body of his father, in the grasp of the Herald.

He could not move; his body felt fastened to the chair. Then he finally saw what he was, and what his appearance had become, and he screamed. Suddenly, the grip of the throne loosened and he stood up, as if he were released from a maw, and the Herald was gone. His brothers slumbered still. He could see their eyes shift wildly behind their shut eyelids.

In the few days that passed, the Herald returned once in a while, to guide them and give them their mission. There was no escape. Suicide was one of the first things that all three brothers attempted, but when they cut their own throats, or drowned themselves in the Lake, after feeling deep pain in bases of their spines, they always woke up once more on the chair. The Herald had words of solace to offer. If all succeeds, then perhaps he would find a way to end all suffering.

Two days after, they destroyed Aelus, and then found themselves in a forest on their way to Regisum.

Adeolatus was dead. Taedalus was dead. Nikheparus was dead.

The Gormaloth would succeed, and their new names would never be known or remembered, for nothing will remain, and everything will end.

But until that moment, actions had to be taken, and time had to pass. Unstoppable time that stood like the impassable mountains to the west and was as swift and merciless as the rivers.

 

 

 

Bodenar woke up at night with his wife sleeping at his arm, on the straw inside the stone house. The air inside was hot, and thick like ice. It had been a day since he arrived with fifty other people, the most devout of those who had joined their cause. What had been presented to the others by him and his two brothers had no need for secrecy. The law allowed for all faiths to be practised, no matter the fact that the vast majority were either indifferent to the divine or held faith with the Nightgod.

What had to be kept secret from the others, rather paradoxically when Bodenar thought about it, was the progenitor of these news. He and his brothers had been praying at an altar to the Nightgod a year ago, near a town south of Dancus where their father lived (an old, blind man who had been a spare a long time ago; a man near death whose most prized possessions were a dagger and a horse).

Bodenar had after the prayer been instructed to journey to where he was now and meet the harbingers, while Domicus, the youngest had been told to search for sunpowder and men in Regisum, while the middle brother Vindel had gone to Dancus, to spread their faith and prepare the denizens for the harbingers’ arrival.

The pillar-like altar had started exuding a primal scent of rotten dirt and rain when they had prayed a year ago, and from the dirt of the forest, the mud itself that was wet without rain, a hand had sprung forth, as if a man had been buried there a long time ago and had been undisturbed by the Sun.

The three brothers fell on their behinds and Bodenar could say that without any doubt he had never been more frightened (it was hard to imagine a later event superseding that emotion). An entire man had come out, as if birthed from the ground, and where his flesh and skin were gone and eyes and bones missing, the dirt took the shapes and forms and functions, and completed the body.

The night had been quiet in the forest; the silence sometimes punctuated by the hoots and wing flutter of owls. The brothers had been stunned, and the dead man had spoken. It had told them of the lies of Nightgod and Daygod, how no such entities had ever existed and how the true deity is the Moon itself, and it now demands a sacrifice. The Domes are not instruments that filter light, they are instruments of attractions. Destruction had to be caused, for humanity to start anew, and free from the tyranny of light, which when it had no lures on the ground, would no longer cause death.

The body had then fallen apart, and was gone in the ground, but not before the dead lips had planted a kiss on the right-hand palm of the middle brother. If any of them had been alone and without a witness they would have sworn they had gone mad, but with each other there, it seemed unmistakably true.

The following day they had discussed the night, and though the being hadn’t said much aside from its introduction as a herald and the mission it had in mind for them, they had agreed that it was no nightmare or illusion. But why should they have accepted the assignment simply because it came from a preternatural force?

They had chosen not to, and spent the next week with their father.

And then the dream whispers had come; the tones of waves and the humming of a breeze across summer leaves, and in those sounds of nature a voice that spoke of promises of rewards, if only obedience had been met. Vindel had almost cut his hand on a knife one day, during his preparation of apples (Bodenar’s favourite fruit), and where the cut should have been, and blood pouring, was a red gleam, which then had disappeared and no scar or pain remained.

Bodenar’s brother had remembered the kiss from the corpse, and so, with that memory and the possibility of an endless life the brothers set out to do what they had been kindly asked to.

“You aren’t sleeping?” Fiena asked, in that forest house in summer, at night.

“I can’t,” Bodenar said. “Here we are. Vindel in Dancus, and Domicus in Regisum. I think I got the hardest job. What are we even to expect? The harbingers… that’s all we had been told. And the sacrifice… I’m not sure if I have the stomach for it.”

“We can do it, my love. Did the Nightgod not tell you anything else?”

It would be easier, the brothers had agreed, to outsource the talking corpse to the accepted faith; a pragmatic decision that would hasten the desired outcome. No need to complicate their desired narrative with new faith, despite what they had been told about the Nightgod and the Daygod by the Herald.

When asked, why does the Nightgod desire the destruction of the Domes? It is the god’s desire, and that is all a devout man needs to know, they would say. Who are you, they would point, to question him? Do you not see the proof of his gift? A reincarnation of the five prophets from long ago, some had said. No one knew what had happened in the end to them, though Bodenar supposed, that there can only be one end.

“Simply that three harbingers will come, and we are to present ourselves.”

“What will they look like?”

“I don’t know,” Bodenar said, and turned to lie on his side, away from Fiena. “Go to sleep. We will see at dawn.”

 

 

 

As they ventured deeper into the forests, to avoid the road from Aelus to Regisum as instructed by the Herald, they came across a collection of seemingly empty stone houses in a clearing, arranged almost in a circle, at the centre of which was an altar for the Nightgod, pillar-shaped.

It had been daytime long enough for the light to pierce the long branches which carried bright, green leaves, thick like leather. The Gormaloth had their strength renewed, after being sapped away by the night.

It was not possible to see—standing by the edge of the clearing, their hands on the trees—into the town centre. The view was blocked by the houses and the only object visible was the upper portion of the altar.

Their feet treading the dense grass, the sound quiet like a prowling wolf’s gait, they passed between the houses to see a mass of fifty people kneeling by the altar, upon which a naked man was bound. And as soon as he saw them Egentu remembered the Herald’s words in the ash fields of Aelus.

The naked man was the only one whose eyes faced their direction, and so he cried out in a pain, not of the body, nor the mind. A pain of knowledge of what was to come. “No! No! I beg you, please. I beg you… Don’t do this, this is blasphemy, it is murder! Let me go, please! I beg you!”

At the sound of his cries the kneeling men and women stood, and turned to face the Gormaloth. Egentu would not say that he was confident or assured in this situation; confusion loomed like a sunblocking cloud, but he knew what this was.

One man singled himself out from the group. All this time the sacrifice screamed for help. “Welcome, harbingers.” His voice was frail and his breathing quick. Egentu could feel the rushing tempo of this man’s heart, though he tried his best to remain level and hold his head high.

“You are the people the Herald has sent.” Egentu’s deep voice—as deep as the depths of the dirt the Pillars pierced, and as booming as the rising of the Domes—framed it not as a question but as answer. Thros and Zaloth stood silent by his side, their light-filled eyes scanning the group.

“We are… we are. I am Bodenar, harbingers, and these are the people… and this is the sacrifice.” He pointed a finger to the bound man, who would not stop screaming.

Egentu walked quickly, cutting through the group like an iron knife, standing in front of the bound man, close enough for the poor soul to rest his head on the Gormaloth’s chest. The man’s cries were even more horrible then, seeing the slithering, beclawed monstrosity in front, from which light emanated as if from a torch.

“Your life has no more worth than any other,” Egentu said, only for the ears of the two of them. “Nor any less. All death is pointless, no matter what they say. Yet in death there is peace. Peace you will now know. Stop these cries and die with your head held high.”

It looked for a moment like he would stop the tears, looking up into Egentu’s eyes, but then he only cried more, and his head sank and sobbed. With a single claw, in the speed of a ray of light, Egentu cut the throat of the bound man, and the bright red blood bathed them both, as well as the ground on which they stood; it soaked it in like water, spreading to the altar. Then the blood boiled, but the body still remained.

Its neck and fingers twitched, as did the eyes and lips. A faint voice came from within the corpse, “Bring him closer… the kiss… cut his palm.”

Egentu turned, and saw fear in everyone’s eyes. Urging Bodenar to come forward with the bloodied claw he felt terrifying standing there, and it reminded him of one moment in his past, during a revolt in Udium.

Bodenar walked, his gait unsteady and slow. The corpse’s neck lurched up when he approached and Egentu grabbed this leader of men by the arm. Brought it to the corpse’s lips, which kissed the open palm like a father would a child’s cheek.

The people behind them were silent and stunned. It all must seem uncanny and wrong, Egentu thought, but all would soon be over. As the corpse turned to dust Egentu turned to face the crowd and holding Bodenar’s arm, turned him as well.

“You have seen what happens to those who disobey. Observe now, what happens if you serve!” With the same bloodied claw he ran a line across the palm of Bodenar, and no scar remained or pain was felt by the man. “This awaits all of you. After Regisum and Dancus are gone.” Egentu then licked the claw clean.

The kneelers stood; behind them the twins were like statues of light. Cheers came, like the sound of the beating hooves of horse herds approaching, steady and rising, until deafening.

 

 

CHAPTER VII

TEARS

 

The dining room was plunged into utter silence when the Domelord left, leaving Byton and his daughter Daira inside. Then she began crying; heavy, bitter tears rolled down her cheeks and she sobbed like an infant. Her father rushed to his feet to console her, embrace her, and make her stop, but she strongly pushed him away—an act which was unacceptable—so she would be alone on the chair.

“Did you know this?” Her words came out sloppily and slowly; her whole face was a wet mess. “Is mama dead?”

He had almost never talked about her, and had made it clear that his past wife was an unsuitable topic of discussion, but of course Daira asked, and at times he had no heart to tell her nothing but rejections. So he would talk brief, empty tales of her mother… but this? This came as a shock to him too, unless Loterus lied. Byton had no knowledge of Senya’s pregnancy. He hadn’t seen her in years.

“I don’t know, love, I don’t know. Please, stop crying. Please,” he kept on pleading. Seeing her like that made it difficult for him to resist his own tears that should have fallen as easily as hers. However, now was neither the time, nor place. “Daira, look at me. Look at me.” He tried to take hold of her cheeks, and turn her head towards him, but she pushed his hands away again. If he had wanted to truly take hold he would have, but now he felt weak, and so he fell to the floor to sit with his back to the table, his head resting against the soft table curtain.

Daira got up from her chair and ran towards the exit, still crying. Byton followed her into the hallway and saw her stand there, unmoving. To their right were the closed gates of the mansion, and two guardsmen. And to their left stood Loterus, watching them like a sentient sculpture, by his own chamber doors. All of the other entrances to the rooms along the narrow, long hallways were closed. And it was dark inside, windowless and with only a few lit candles.

He clearly saw the confusion and dread in her face as she turned her head left and right and left and right and knew not where to run or escape to, and so she simply stood there with her back to him, crying. A powerless child, Byton thought. Trying to escape from the truth never worked; it is not behind you or in front but all around. No man can escape the light; no matter the density of darkness, nothing is impenetrable, and all fades away into white, eventually. For some these realisations came sooner, as it had for him, when his own father died in a forest. He had hoped that Daira would be a grown woman before she knew real tragedy, but in a sad way he was glad. Now she would know what being human is, to appreciate the rare moments of joy as they peer through the sorrow and fatigue. In the end—and this he truly hoped to be true—these were not empty words of an ignorant mind.

Byton approached her slowly, as if to the deer he had hunted a long time ago with his father (the bow had remained in Fonten, he now realised), and hugged her. “Daira, please. Let it be. Nothing can be done now, and though not all tears are a waste, these are.”

One of the guards came to them, his feet heavy on the cold, tiled floor. “I am to take the girl to her room. Let go of her.”

Byton released her, and took a step back. There was nothing he could do now, and so she was taken away, and Byton stood alone in the dark hallway, half way between the exit and the enemy.

 

 

 

Loterus was alone in his room, unable to sleep and waiting for that half hour before sunrise. A candle always stood lit on the stand by the bed (the doll was there too, close to the fire). Darkness was something he had never found comfort in, unlike some others. It scared him as a child, and he remembered that it had scared his daughter too, those ten years ago.

Some nights he felt like never leaving the comfort of the bed, no matter the beckoning of the Pillar. Some scholars from long ago put all the power and worth into the Dome, but he knew what the source was, or at least the conduit from which the power travelled. It was his duty as a human, through sheer solidarity, to regulate the Dome, and yet what if he had stayed in bed? Would a spare have rushed to fulfil the duty, or would the people have simply stayed inside, under the shadows of their roofs, until their Domelord came back to his senses? This had only happened once, in all of recorded history, that a domelord simply did not show up, and what it lead to was the destruction of a city.

There was more to it than solidarity, he knew. An almost irresistible force, like a chain or a tether, allured forever for the man or woman who held the power to touch the Pillar with their palm, those jagged, malformed rocks. More to it than pure human morality, that was certain in his mind. No one else could understand. People claimed empathy and said they could see themselves in someone else’s skin. However, seeing is not being, and few knew what it was like. Not even the spares had the full extent of knowledge, for the title itself carried a boulder of responsibility and power, even if the abilities were the same. His daughter would understand him; Robera would know.

And now the murderer was in his house, his friend from long ago. He stood from the bed and dressed himself properly, and washed his face with cool water from a basin. The doors of his room were hard to open and they made an ominous sound as they screeched deeply when the iron (a very rare, unique door) dragged itself across the tiles and the hinges screamed together with the base of the door.

He entered Daira’s room, and saw her sobbing into her pillow. Was there any need for some dramatic reveal, he asked himself. To tell her of whom her father really was, and what sins he had committed to his soul for all eternity? He had already ruined a part of her life tonight with a single sentence. Why cause such pain? Loterus would comfort her, and so he went back for the doll.

When he returned he saw that she still sobbed, and hadn’t noticed him. He announced himself with heavy footsteps and then sat on the bed. “I am very sorry for the loss of your mother, Daira.”

She turned to look at him, straight into his eyes, and what he saw was hatred through tears. “Why would you say it like that? Do you hate us?”

“No, I do not. Never hate anyone, Daira, it is a waste of time. Either love or reject.”

She said nothing in return, but simply stared at his old-looking face, the skin of an ancient man. “Do you want me to tell you about your mother?” he asked, cradling the doll out of her sight.

Daira nodded, and the tears slowly ceased.

“I met your father about fifteen years ago, when he had changed his place of living. Regisum was no longer good for him, and his friend Khoras had grown too distant, through no desire of either of them. They were the best of friends, from what your father told me. On his first day in Dancus he met your mother, and he met me. You see, your father had all of the spare time in the world. He has enough funds to last him a lifetime, and always had been a frugal, distant man. I was still a spare then, but a year later I became what I am now. Your mother though, she was very clever, and always honest. This didn’t always help,” he said this last with a smile, seeing her focus grow.

He continued, “Your father and I became friends, and he and your mother lovers. Their love was not always pure, or without issues, but love it was. He had spent the next few years working for me, doing the tasks I deemed needed a strong hand to be seen through, and he always accomplished the tasks. I’ve been here in the mansion since, and your father and mother had a house nearby, one of the best in all of Dancus; he left it to your mother before they separated. Did you know that I was the one who divorced them? Usually it would be a councilman’s clerk, but they wanted only the people they knew themselves to know about the separation. Then she stayed, and you and your father left for Fonten.”

Loterus stood and handed the doll to her. “I must leave now, but this is for you. We may talk more later.” He saw in her eyes the desire to ask for more, to have him stay and talk and talk and talk, but he also saw Byton’s eyes, and that foolish pride of not admitting wrongdoing. “Sleep later, during night. The rhythm of Dancus is different from the towns south. You will learn quickly. Goodbye, Daira.”

With those last words he left, closing the door of her room behind and then walking through the dark, narrow hallways to see the two men guarding the mansion gates quickly wake up from a soft slumber as they heard his echoing steps. They unlocked the gates for him and that familiar image that was embedded in his mind opened up before him.

It was time to summon the Dome, and be the protector of this City for one more day. He prayed for resolution as he walked to touch the Pillar, not knowing all the resolution needed was in his own hands, in his own mind.

 

 

 

Byton’s room in the mansion was spacious, but not extravagant. The tiles looked cold to the touch, despite the fact that it was summer and he was still in his boots. There was a bed to the left from the entrance and to the right a chest for clothes and a fireplace with a mirror above it; a window stood directly opposite the door. From it moonlight fell in beige shafts. The whole room had a blue hue to it.

The dinner had just ended, and his daughter was in her own room. Now would not be the time to interfere, some emotions needed to be processed by a person alone. His fatherly instinct was hard to fight, but the mind should override the soul, he thought. Tomorrow should have been the day they went home, but now he had no knowledge of what this all was. If Loterus intended to hold them here against their will he would find out in first-hand experience this time of what skills Byton possessed those ten years ago. One became rusted without use, but never forgotten.

So what was he to do now, he wondered. Sleep would not come, and he truly did not wish to spend the night lost in his thoughts. There were some places in there he would rather not go. Senya was his past, and though their separation was hardly amicable, it was definitely not in a tone of animosity. Indifference mostly, of people growing apart. Having Daira remain with him was the obvious choice. The money was his, and legally he was not required to leave Senya with anything, but he gave her the house and a significant amount of money.

None of this was the issue that plagued him, knowing that she had passed away made him sad and nostalgic but not devastated. The issue was this: had she been pregnant when he left? That was the only logical conclusion to draw from what Loterus had said. That man’s intention was to hurt, and the truth hurts more than lies. It wouldn’t be above him to stoop so low, but Byton didn’t doubt in the Domelord’s words.

A hard scoff was all he could express vocally, as he lay on his bed and closed his eyes, remembering what being in a city was like. The change was pleasant. In Fonten all knew him, but not here; too many people for such a thing. He could walk undiscovered and unknown, no squinting eyes. A few days ago, back in Fonten, a seller had refused to serve him, saying he heard rumours of Byton’s past. A fool, Byton had thought. If he had heard the correct rumours would a wise man really wish to antagonise those they were about? Byton, passing through the thoughts, fell asleep.

To his surprise as he later awoke, the sleep had rested him well. Some of his dream he remembered, of soft pillows and splintered bows next to bear claws as broken bodies lied in pools of blood, upon bed or flowers. Loterus had forgiven him before he had departed seven years ago.

“Are you awake?”

Domelight, bursting through the windows as Byton opened his eyes, was of an almost red colour.

“I am, Loterus.” He heard the door close as the man set foot in the room.

“We have some things to discuss, if you want to leave this place.” The Domelord moved to the window, and stared at the outside, holding a dagger, its hilt a silver bear’s head. Was it all just mockery of his past? Byton had never seen such a well-made weapon. This was a unique tool.

Byton, as he made himself sit up from his ended sleep, said, “What do you want?”

“I have a problem, a similar one to the many you solved for me those ten years ago. I now have different methods of solving it, but I would like it to be you. If you do this for me, you are free to spend the rest of your life in a prison cell, and Daira can live here, with all the comforts of life at her disposal.”

“You want me to kill someone?”

“What else would I require of a dagger? It is only fit for one purpose…”

“And if I say no, if I get up now and take my daughter with me and leave?”

“You can certainly try.” Loterus now looked at Byton, and said, his eyes a dark brown, “I would not advise it.”

“Just speak of what you want,” Byton said, “and be gone from our lives. We came here to fulfil our duty, as is right of any man or woman to do. For you to subject us to your juvenile torture is the act of an old, desperate man.”

“That is exactly what I am, my old friend. How kind of you to know me so well, even after all this time. You took something from me and now I will take something from you, but I could never imagine being as cruel as you had been. So do me this service and you are gone. You will not see her again but she will be alive, I think.”

At those words Byton sprung like a feral cat and launched himself at Loterus, running and pinning him to the wall. “You think I wouldn’t kill you now, old man? I can snap your neck without even a blink or a drop of sweat.”

His voice hoarse and hard, Loterus muttered, “If I die so does she.”

“Your guards wouldn’t kill a child,” he said as he lifted him up high by the collar of the Domelord’s robes.

“I have more than guards at my disposal. Do not test my mind, I have nothing to lose. All I want is brief pleasure before all die.”

Byton let go, and turned his back, his arms crossed. “Tell me what you want, and after I do it Daira and I are gone, together.” He heard from behind the ragged breath a soft laughter.

“There is a man here, in Dancus. Vindel is his name. He and his followers have been a nuisance to me and the Council. He gathers sunpowder to burn it or store it away, in massive amounts. He incites protests and has the masses in uproar. It is all a part of his cult, of worshiping Caerus beneath the Moon, the imbeciles. If he is dead, they will disperse, I think. His charisma holds them together. They sometimes call themselves by the moniker of Owls.”

“Why not have him arrested? Byton asked. “The Council has that power, if he is deemed a danger.”

“His people wouldn’t stand for it. Vindel would be extracted from a prison within a day. More riots then. I need an outsider to do it, without sanction from us rulers.”

“An outsider? People will link me to you.”

“Eventually, yes, but by then it won’t matter. You may not believe me but I want what is best for Dancus, as my parting gift. What happens in a month doesn’t matter, and what happens now does, as a final consolidation. This would ease these dying pains, before the final blow.”

“What in Caerus’ name are you talking about? What death?” Loterus had always been strange, Byton thought, but never incoherent.

“I heard voices. Voices I know now to be true. All things must pass, and so will we. All I want before the end is comfort.”

Byton didn’t understand him; he felt unease in this room. “Is this related to what happened in Aelus? You think those rumours are true?”

“Are our reactions not strange, don’t you think? One of the only three cities of the world, populated with hundreds of thousands of people, is gone in a day, out of nowhere and forever, and we are merely shocked for a day, nothing more… because it is far away? Strange…”

Byton gave him an odd look, not sure what to think.

“In two days,” Loterus said, “Vindel will be holding a confirmation into his cult, not far from here. He is blonde. Do what I said, that is all.” Loterus passed him by and left, leaving Byton standing there alone, in the almost red of the room’s heavy light.

 

 

CHAPTER VIII

HARVEST LAKE

 

Sicreo was the one to come to the stall in the late morning, and not Domicus. After a polite bow, during which his body made a jingling sound, he asked, “Have you accepted?”

“I have,” Leyra said, hoping that there would be no regrets tied to this.

“Good.” This was a man who smiled with his mouth but not his eyes. “Here is half the money.” He gathered from his pockets five string purses and put them on the stall. “You may count, of course. The other half will be given to you after you give us the powder.”

She was astonished at the amount of money, and immediately suspicious. How did one get so much? Neither Sicreo nor Domicus had the air of old Regisan nobility around them. These were not men of old money.

“I assume I can trust you,” she said. “Meet me by the western gate tomorrow morning for the powder.”

“I trust you, Leyra. It would be very, very foolish to cheat on us. So we will meet tomorrow, be at the western gate, and all is good,” he said, and bowed again. “We will see each other soon. Goodbye.”

There was something oozy about him, she thought, and as she worked the rest of the day (not that she needed to, but it was a habit, and a goodbye in a way), she thought mostly about this Sicreo. When dusk was near, but not quite there yet, she closed the stall. The last time she would work here, it seemed. In the morning, before work, she had handed all of the proper forms and notes to a council clerk (who had also confirmed there were houses on sale in Regevus) on duty for this marketplace, to absolve her position, and did the same for the house, which was now the City’s to sell. She had also hired help to move their valuables with them in the morning. A goodbye from Regisum, she thought, and hardly premature. With this money they could live comfortably in a place like Regevus for a long time.

Then she went to the temple, taking everything with her after she gave the stall one last look. She sat on the cold temple bench, not far from her house. It was very odd, with so much money on her. She had not come to pray or to even listen to the music this time. She only wanted to be alone, away from Elecaius for a moment. In no way was this something bad to do, she thought. All men and women craved privacy, even if the people they were constantly surrounded by meant everything to them. At this old age of hers—when some thought that the best recourse was to be selfish, since they had lived through so much and now deserve the comfort of bitterness and bile—it was Leyra’s intention to do what she could for her son.

He had attempted to take his own life once, when his illness was at its peak. He got better, but if living south in the town of Regevus, away from the heat and noise of the City was all he wanted, then what good argument would she have to refuse? The breaking of the established life was not so bad. Change can be welcomed. It would help her stomach aches too.

The music stopped, and below in the centre of the temple, at the bottom of the pit, a priestess came to prominence and began her preaching. This was Leyra’s cue to leave; there was only so much that could be drained from a story, only so much morality to be milked, that she hadn’t heard it all a thousand times before. This one even looked a bit like a cow.

It would be night-time soon. The Dome had its dusk aesthetic, the glaucoma of an eye, fading away until black remained. Elecaius would go with her to the Lake, to harvest the powder for Domicus. Going during daytime was an option, obviously, but at night one needed not to waste powder, nor was the harvesting a purely visual exercise. More than fifty years of expertise was all the credentials she needed.

When she had gone before with Ridael it was always a romantic trip. Elecaius was even conceived on one such excursion, but even now, so many years later, merely thinking about it made her slightly blush.

The house stood before her, and the wheelbarrow was prepared. Elecaius stepped outside and smiled when he saw her. “We can go now,” he said. “I took some powder with me in case we stay there all night.”

She nodded silently, and after a moment said, “Take some more. We go, then.”

After he returned they descended the hill down to the Optea in silence, slowly to fit Elec’s tempo, and when they emerged unto the great street that was still bustling with people like ants going to the anthill, the Dome descended; in the nearby centre Domelord Khoras placed his hand on the stone beast.

“I started having some second thoughts about this,” Elec said.

“About what?” On this night she was hardly interested in conversation, but she would, of course, reply.

“About what these people will do with the powder. This isn’t just about money for us, we help people when we sell to them.”

“I thought you had no qualms about this.”

“I don’t think I do, but there is something odd about them. I spent the night thinking.”

“And what did you discover?” she asked almost mockingly, jingling as she walked, and now Elecaius noticed.

“What is that sound?”

“Half the money they gave us. I have it in my pockets. After the harvest I will return alone for the rest and I want you to go Regevus immediately. Use this for buying a house, it should come cheap.”

His smile was child-like, and filled with joy. “Really? Already?”

“Yes, I have prepared everything. After the trade I will come too and then… well… I guess we live in Regevus. A man I hired will help me bring the items we need from the house. So, when you step outside the gate say your goodbyes, if you no longer wish to live here, or see this place.”

Elecaius was stunned, and completely silent for a long time, as they passed through many people, cutting through the crowd with their wheelbarrow.

“That is a lot of money to give us at once. Where do you think they got it from?”

“I don’t know, son. They obviously really want this powder.”

“And the money? You don’t think that is a great sum to spend?”

“It is, but their choice is their choice.”

With that the conversation ended, as Elecaius had made no reply. Soon after they reached the Sunspot, though it was night-time, so moonlight fell everywhere in any case, now that Regisum was unshielded. Stepping out was no matter of pomp or procedure; the mother and son simply left the City.

 

 

 

Elecaius was still confounded as to how quickly everything was proceeding. It was hard to believe that this would be the last time in Nightgod knows how many days to come for him to pass through these massive city gates, and the thick wall in which the Dome rested. Regisum was his place of birth, his childhood city, the place where he worked and was educated and spent his whole life. And now the calm, quiet outside beckoned. As a child he dreamt of the open green fields, and playing in them and running, and though there was grass and greenery inside Regisum, it had always to him carried a scent and tone of falseness. He would never run, of course, but the slow gait and the assistance of the cane were good enough.

What he saw outside was a wide road, stretching to the southeast. It passed through Regevus, and would culminate in Aelus, and continue further south. And since both Aelus and Udium were no more… this road led to only one place, he thought. By the roadside were fields of grain and Lake Caerus was visible in the distance, a soft mist resting above it. The Lake looked diminished, in a way, as a fountain would, with stuffed pipes.

Elecaius and Leyra cut between fields to make their way to the Lake shore, and by then it was fully a light summer night. He washed his hands and feet in the cold waters and far away, across the body of water, through the mist he saw a hint of an island, appearing and disappearing from sight like an ancient ghost. Gormal Ard was its name, he remembered from a school lesson. Nobody knew much about it, and no one went there. Why anyone would even attempt—he remembered thinking this in the school, those decades ago—was beyond him.

He had been here many times, but one event was the singular candidate for the most memorable, in an unfortunate way. Once someone died, and their body was cremated properly in the funeral rites, most chose to spread the ashes of their loved one across the Lake, to have them be in contact with Caerus himself, after the body was reduced to dust by the Daygod’s rays. In the past this had been mandatory, as a proper way to induce the afterlife, but the practice had become less popular recently.

“We should get to work, son,” Leyra said, standing on the gravelly shore.

“Yes, let’s.”

The work was simple in the idea of it; the execution took a long time to master. Most merchants had their own suppliers whom they paid, but in this family the two jobs had always been kept in unison. Some suppliers would gather as many rocks as possible and attempt to reduce them to the powder in an imprecise, brutal way. Rarely did this yield good results, his mother and father had taught him. It is best, they would say, to develop a feeling in the fingers for the proper texture of the sunrocks.

The difference between actual stone and the condensed powder was at first hard to notice, but after training an expert supplier could feel the difference in a heartbeat, and discard the stone while looking for the prize. But fingers could be fooled, and some powder was simply not potent enough. The true test came with the tongue; a simple lick and it could be discerned. If the rock carried a taste of old meat, and left a bitter aftertaste, then this was the appropriate one. Some said that drinking a domelord’s blood was enough to protect you against the light, and that it was like old meat itself, the taste of blood. It was, for clear reasons, not something many had a chance to test, so it remained in legend.

Always be careful to not cut your tongue, mother would tell him. Elecaius had gotten quite adept at these procedures, and so their work was done quickly, efficiently, and in silence.

“I swear,” Leyra said, “when I was young there were so many more of the rocks. Looks like we might have spent these shores, unless there is another reason.”

“We are done, then?” Elecaius asked, gathering himself up while observing the wheelbarrow, powder-filled.

“Yes, we are.”

He saw trouble in her rising. For a woman of seventy years she had great strength still, he thought, but these were treacherous shores. Elecaius walked towards her steadily with his cane, and looking downwards to her eyes, seeing her smile as she smiled in turn, he helped his mother stand up. They embraced, for a few brief, already gone moments. He felt the coin purses on her as he pulled backwards.

“All right then, I’ll take the powder back to Regisum, you go to Regevus with the money, and meet me by the town hall.”

“I will, mother. I will see you soon.” As he turned away and began the long walk he heard a yell from behind.

“Don’t forget to take the powder you brought! It will be dawn soon!”

He smiled at that, walking through the night.

 

 

 

The powder-filled wheelbarrow was not as heavy as it looked from an outsider’s perspective, and so she had almost no trouble wheeling it back to the City, and waiting for Sicreo. It had dawned a few moments after she passed the Sunspot, so no consumption was necessary. At times like these she always thought of how convenient it was for all of the Domelords and spares that have ever been, never worrying about these dusts.

There were not many people at this western edge of the Optea; a few guardsmen keeping peace, some people in passing, some making their way home after drunken nights, without a care in the world. A couple of young men, of a healthy and virile look, talked to the guards and were handed weapons.

Then she saw Sicreo, before he saw her. It surprised her, slightly, to see him already there, and he was alone this time too. The man she had hired to help her with the items was not here still.

Waving to Sicreo to catch his attention, she noticed that the Dome above had attained its glow from the sunrise. This was one aspect she would miss in the town. The lights were beautiful, she thought. Living outside would be a hassle without the Dome, but if there was one thing they would never miss it would be the powder. Regevus was close to the Lake, and with this amount of money they could simply buy it if they had to.

Sicreo noticed finally and approached her, bowing and evaluating the wheelbarrow. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much powder in one place, Leyra. This is… astounding.”

“It is all yours. After the other half, of course.”

The man’s grin which followed her sentence was a cold one, but he did produce the purses. “Out of curiosity, where is the money I gave you the previous morning?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Like I said… curiosity.”

“I don’t see why you would care,” Leyra said, taking the purses and letting go of the wheelbarrow. “I think our transaction is done. I hope you use this powder wisely.”

“The transaction is done, but… who knows, perhaps we will run into each other again. Goodbye, Leyra.”

The look he gave was enough to chill water into ice, yet she wasn’t sure how to take it. She decided, in the end, that this Sicreo was not a man she liked. After he left, the helper arrived on horse, a cart at the back filled with what she had told him to take from the house. Everything had been written in a contract, officialised, and now the time came to leave Regisum.

All the ties had been cut. Her son was south, the house was sold and the marketplace stall relinquished. The possessions were with her and the money too, the other half with Elecaius. The helper took a serving of sunpowder before they approached the Sunspot, and Leyra did the same, swallowing the scratchy bitterness without any water.

Goodbye, Regisum, she thought, as the sunlight touched her face and evaporated the tears.

 

 

CHAPTER IX

THE PATH OF BLOODIED GRASS

 

After the sacrifice was done, Egentu, all alone, entered one empty house and closed the doors, sitting there in the rectangular darkness. The mind and the body were what, in unison, made a man; that was what the philosophers of his time had taught. He hadn’t the faintest idea of how much the world had changed in these three hundred years of dark slumber. The education in Dancus he had received had been purely funded by his father. All of the knowledge accumulated inside his brain came from the free time he had as the Domelord of Udium, reading and reading and reading, and listening to the old, wise men and women.

When the mind and the body were separate, or when a dissonance existed, then the man was ill, one way or another. This body of his was a harbinger of death. A force of nature without rhyme or reason. Unstoppable like a tidal wave or a quake in the earthen core. Still, the mind was not blank or empty. He thought, in that moment, that if he wanted to (and his brothers, of course) abandon this task, that they could. But then what? Immortality? A lifetime of suffering and hatred was not his thought of life. It was better, he decided, to combust in a deathly joy and cause harm along the way, then to fade like a teardrop in sunlight, inessential and signifying nothing. He wondered if Adeolatus would agree with Egentu.

The doors opened; it was Bodenar, and a woman loomed behind. “We are ready to march…” he paused for a moment, obviously not knowing what honorific or name or title to bestow.

“Egentu is the name I was given.” The daylight fell narrowly and diagonally through the open doors, framing Egentu on the chair as the sole of light in a dark chamber. “March? Are you an army? No such thing exists, only in theory, and that is not existence. If it is your intention to aid the three of us then you would do best to not disturb us. Is there a town south of Regisum called Regevus still?”

“Yes, Egentu, it exists.” Bodenar’s tone aimed to please.

“Then wait there, and take shelter. An element of surprise is still on our side. By Dancus’ turn they will know, of course… they will know. But with Regisum we will see if they are prepared. I think not.”

Bodenar swallowed and said, “The Domelord of Regisum is a man called Khoras, and his Council has the reputation of containing the cleverest men. I think they have maybe prepared somehow, outside of the knowledge of others. They are not fools.”

“And can you confirm this?”

“I can arrange a meeting with my brother in Regevus, and ask him.”

“My brothers will go with you,” Egentu said, “and cause death in this town. Once it is empty the guardsmen of Regisum will be sent and I will be north already, at where the cold Vys flows into the City. By the river I will enter, and reach the Pillar. That is all.”

“Is that the plan, then?”

“Yes. Call for my brothers to join me here.”

Bodenar nodded jerkily. It reminded Egentu of… what was the servant’s name? The one who was kind and helpful, always there to assist. Egentu shook his head, left to right. These were unimportant thoughts, the ones that the Herald had tried to have extracted. In his mind’s eye, at a faraway distance, as if through fog and ice, Egentu could see the face, standing in a cold bathroom, with a towel in hand and ready to help. The memories came and went.

“What are we to do, then?” It was Thros, and Zaloth was behind him.

Egentu looked to them. “Use the roads, with these people,” he said, “to enter Regevus. Kill any who oppose you and let the others run to the City, to spread panic and fear. You will then go to the western gate and serve as a distraction, for me to circle around to the northern hatch for the Vys, or if I have already succeeded you will stay in Regevus and then come to the ruins.”

“And if we are killed?” Zaloth asked.

“You will not be,” Egentu said. “Noon will be the time of your attack.”

“And you think all the attention will be on us?” Thros asked.

“Of course not,” Egentu said. “A city is not a town. But all it takes for the City to fall is one of us, and from what this Bodenar told me we might be expected. Not personally us, but the horsemen we killed outside Aelus must have been noticed to be amiss, and something had to kill them, and the one was sent north by the captain. If they expect what we are, then I will be impressed. But they do not. Do what I said… I need solitude.”

“Are we to leave immediately?” Thros asked.

“Yes…” Egentu said, in a voice more frail than his common might.

“We will see each other then,” Zaloth said, “on the fields of ash.”

Egentu slowly nodded, as the twins left and all that remained inside the darkness of the house was a lone body, sitting and thinking, as some memories came rushing back. Memories never truly lost, but buried under dirt of three hundred years.

 

 

 

“I will have order here!” Adeolatus yelled in the Council chamber of Udium, quelling the cacophony, standing in the bottom place of prominence of the room’s hemicycle. The stone benches that spread out in rising crescents above and in front were not all filled. Rarely all fifty (here there were about forty) of the councilmen came, but when needed they would come, under grave threats if refusal was the response. “You forget yourselves, my dear advisors, as to what your function is. Both the power and the rule rest with me, and if it is my desire to leave for Aelus, then that will happen.”

“Your position is to rule, not to plunge the City into danger because of your sentimental whims! And you forget yourself, Domelord, as to who we are. You are not some God, or an embodiment of one, and we are not your servants. Those thoughts are fortunately gone now, and it took long enough. Our approval is what you need to leave, and when we say that you are needed here, then that is final.”

“We will see, councilman.” Adeolatus was not in the mood to be refused. “The spares are more than adequate. You may vote now.”

The time came for the room’s shuffle, as he liked to call it. Those who voted yes were to stand and sit on the right side of the benches (from the Domelord’s perspective), and those for negation to the left. The time came to count… and the answer was no. He was to stay.

He let out an obvious, uncontained scoff and sigh, and said, “Very well, if that is your decision. This session is adjourned. Farewell.”

Leaving by his own, private exit, Adeolatus’ first thought was to disobey, but that would be unwise, he knew. A domelord was certainly of more importance than a town governor, but no one was important enough to not be removed when considered a threat or a danger.

Before the session he had considered appealing to emotion, but who were these men for him to share his private troubles? His whole family was gathered in Aelus, where Nikheparus ruled. Taedalus had come from Regisum and his mother and father were there as well; she was ill, and the physicians did not give a favourable prognosis. This could be the last time all five were together, he thought.

A few days later he discovered from a letter that, unfortunately, that though was the truth. She had died peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by her family, but not in its entirety. A courier had brought with the letter a jar of ashes. It was the decision of their father to not spread them on the Lake all at once, but for each to contain a jar of their own. An urn… is what this was, not a jar, he thought, correcting himself. She was gone.

He placed it on a mantelpiece inside the bathroom of his noble mansion, and every time he bathed, the tears merged with water and were hidden. Some months later his father came to Udium, ill as well.

Adeolatus had left that urn when he fled with his father, not being content to stay and rot inside this time. When Udium fell, during his slumber, the urn was destroyed, and the ashes of his mother were nothing more than dust inside a lake of dust, forever gone.

 

 

 

A summer night of shining stars and a full Moon awaited him as he left the house, their light bypassing dark clouds. The altar was abandoned, as were the houses. His form was at this time diminished, the slithering light coiled and chained. Nevertheless, light was light, be it silver or gold. Another memory came to him, of reading a treatise on the nature of sunlight, a view on it through the prism of nature, not mysticism.

The author had stipulated that, though both the Moon and the Sun revolved around the world, only one of the two celestial bodies was a source of light, and that was the Sun. The Moon was merely a white mirror, from which sunlight was reflected and shined. That was in accordance with the teachings of the priestesses, but the reason was, of course, supernatural. They said that Caerus enchanted the Moon before his demise, so that the Daygod’s rays would cause health and not harm when falling during night. This author, on the other hand, pondered and pondered as to why that was; what sort of natural reason would there be for that? The best he had come up with was that the white surface of the Moon resembled the appearance of sunpowder. The light was changed when striking and rendered harmless on its way to humanity. He had not been satisfied with his own theories and later recanted them, but refused to go with the mystical teachings of religion. It was better, he had said, to admit ignorance then to pretend the lies are truth. Not short after he was found dead, but the investigation found no correlation between the murder and his writings. Apparently the man was a gambler, and he had lost one too many times.

It saddened Egentu that he could remember all that, and not his mother’s face.

He left the forest town, and kept passing thick trees on his way north, amidst primordial silence, rarely punctuated by the fluttering of birdwing and melody of birdsong. Rain began shortly after. The scents it awoke were raw and fresh; cleansing, in a way. His footsteps were embedded in the mud.

The thoughts meandered restlessly through the night walk, as more and more pointless memories came back. There was no one to talk to, and that suited him well. Then at dawn he heard screams, animal and human both.

Egentu saw blood dripping from blades of grass, and a lone bear approaching a man who lay on the earth, breathing desperately and clutching his wounds and a knife. A hunter becoming prey.

The lone Gormaloth rushed forward and, picking the bear up by the neck fur with his left, turned the beast towards himself and ripped out the throat of the wild animal. Its eyes became dead and the gnawing maw silent. He discarded the carcass with a lazy throw to the side.

The hunter screamed in pain and shock as the Sun revealed its full might and the Gormaloth’s body became one with the light. Creeping towards the prone man, each step trampling the bloody grass, Egentu felt something akin to sorrow.

“W… wha—” Each sound from the dying hunter was preceded by blood and dying pains.

“Do not speak.” Egentu’s sonorous speech filled the silence of the woods. “Each breath is a pain not necessary for you to feel.”

“I—I… he—”

Egentu knelt by the dying man and saw the resistance in the man’s body and eyes stop. They all, he thought, after the initial struggle, succumb to the realisation, that all must end and be broken, and never mended again. Small or large, young or old; it is the truth best accepted quickly and early.

With a single protracted claw, Egentu cut the man’s throat deeply and swiftly. The bleeding was done in an instant, and the body was dead. Moments later the light turned the body, burning the skin like fire with a parchment, and leaving ashes on the grass. Grey on reddened green.

A shape caught his attention, in the corner of his sight. It was an altar, one of the old wooden ones, shaped like the Pillars. Perhaps this man had come to pray instead of hunt, and the bear had grown clever enough to wait for meat.

It was his instinct to offer a prayer to Caerus, whatever he was, wherever he was. One of the promises had been answers and the truth. This was one of the driving forces behind Egentu, the whip at his back. A thirst for knowledge, a curiosity for the arcane was a trait shared by all, but some had a hunger that overshadowed that of other men. The Herald must know, Egentu thought. In the end, would it really be neither the promise of rest and peace, nor the return of a father, but instead simply the offered facts and truths—solutions to mysteries—that shall be the conclusion to all this dread, the given love at the very end? It calmed him, thinking about the very end, which would come without hesitation or disbelief, and fast. All who doubted what was about to happen in the coming days, Egentu thought, were best to prepare for disappointment.

The time came to continue the walk, disregarding these petty distractions. After some more hours he reached the edge of the woods. What remained were hills of clear grass, dense and tall and solitary, but no City of Regisum still in sight.

It had been Thros’ domain. Zaloth had shown no regret or grief when Aelus fell, despite it being filled with what should be cherished memories, no matter their dispersal amongst uncherished ones. The Herald’s cutting into their brains had not caused so much damage for them to forget it all, nor would that benefit the Herald, and yet Zaloth was not sad. Egentu doubted Thros would feel anything after Regisum.

When he regarded his past, Egentu didn’t remember feeling sorrow for Udium on Gormal Ard, when all of this was started. Was that because of the memory or was there truly no sorrow?

And when the three brothers come to Dancus, where they were born and raised and where each found childhood love and joy of life, what then? Just another target doomed to fall, Egentu said to himself, as he climbed the hills.

Then, standing on the hilltop, he saw in the distance the shine of the Dome, as it spread itself like a burning shroud to cover the City of Regisum. A second Sun, now to be extinguished.

 

 

CHAPTER X

THE PIETY SPREAD

 

It was the day before the assassination was to take place, and the ritual was to be held at night, under the moonlight which they adored. During the day Byton had decided to do what he could to prepare, and to understand these men and women, where they came from and what their goal was. He talked to a priestess in a temple not far from Loterus’ mansion, from which he was allowed to enter and exit freely. The Domelord knew his assassin wouldn’t run away, not with Daira inside and alone.

The priestess’ attitude towards these cultists was brimming with expected negativity, though her obvious attempts at niceties were welcome. “About two or three months ago they appeared, first in Dancus and from what I heard a bit later in Regisum as well, but in much fewer numbers. Never in Aelus, though. I suppose, considering what happened, they might have been blessed with that. The Nightgod Caerus blesses even those who oppose him. It is known that it is never too late to return to comfort and piety.”

“And what is it exactly that they do?” Byton asked, standing in the pit of the temple, the centre devoid of stone benches. He had waited until after the mass for the people to clear out and the music to stop.

“I don’t know for sure. I think… that they are gathering sunpowder and money and sending it to Regisum? But I don’t know for a certainty, that. On days of the full Moon they hold ceremonies of initiation, and when they deem a crescent Moon especially beautiful I hear they indulge in… Oh, I shouldn’t say this. I can’t even tell if this is really the truth.”

Seeing the redness of the young woman’s cheeks Byton had a thought of what she might be talking of, but, he still said, “Every bit of knowledge helps, priestess.”

She said in a hushed voice, “Weird… lovemaking affairs, and great indulgences of food and wine.”

“I see,” Byton said, stern and steadfast. “May I ask how you know all of this?”

“I have a younger brother. He is a fool, really, does what he can to shame me. He told me these things after he joined them, tried to have me join too.” She scoffed.

“And do you know where exactly this ritual will take place, and will Vindel be there?”

“I don’t know that, I am sorry. As for Vindel, he has to be there, what else is that poor soul to do but waste his time?”

“Would your brother know?” Byton asked.

“Perhaps. Are you willing to make a donation to this Nightgod’s temple?”

He almost burst out in laughter, but managed to contain it. “Of course I would.” Byton drew from a pocket a handful of coins and handed it to her.

As the priestess rummaged through the coins in her open palm, counting them with the fingers of the other hand, she said, “His name is Ralus, and he works as a guardsman at the southern gate, at night now. He has a bit of a dumb look on his face and is left-handed.”

“Thank you for your help,” Byton said. “Caerus bless you, good priestess.”

“Caerus bless you as well,” she said, in a more sombre tone, as Byton left the temple.

 

 

 

No more people were coming or going to and from Dancus, outside of the usual. The travelling merchants and judges and farmers for market sales still kept the regular flow. The parents who had come with children, or children alone by themselves, to be tested by the Domelord, ceased to arrive. A rumour Ralus had heard said that Loterus had only inspected one girl, and was refusing to see the others, advising all to have a joyous few days, and not worry about what was to come. That was one dangerous man, Ralus thought. Unpredictable and possibly mad.

He had been given the night-time shifts, and because of lessened activity in both crime near the gates and the flow of people, the daytime quota of guards had been decreased. It was accepted policy to issue sunpowder to the guards who held watch near the active Sunspot, for simple measures of protection and safety. At night no such money had to be spent.

It was Ralus’ idea to put in some sort of stone chamber, from which the guards could operate while under sunlight, but without being exposed to it. A colleague had laughed at the idea, saying that guardsmen are not council clerks, and are there to give the sense of security and power through more than just their skills, but through their appearance. He was right, Ralus supposed.

He breathed in the air, adjusting the grip of his left hand on the wooden spear shaft, and the strap of the leather-covered shield. The night sky was beautiful with the Moon almost at its full form.

Was it just rebellion from his family, he asked himself, or is there something more to it? Vindel was charismatic without being aloof and distant. Not one of those types who would promise the world and make you believe it, but then always stay away from you, standing on a dais and at a hiding curtain’s reach.

A man was approaching from the distance, his walk confident. He had asked another guard something. Ralus could not hear, but he did see his friend point at him, and then the man came.

“I remember you,” the man said. “You were here when I came with my daughter.”

“I am not at liberty to chat, sir.” Ralus sized the man with his look; though he seemed familiar he couldn’t say he fully remembered him. Who would? All of those people that came and went like ants. “You’ll have to wait until my work is through.”

“When will that be?”

“At dawn.”

“Could you not just answer a single question?”

Ralus looked left and right, and it seemed no one was there to judge. “One, and then you leave.”

“Where will the ritual be held tomorrow night?”

Oh, he thought. A friend. “Why, by the Pillar. Don’t you know?” He saw the man almost laugh. “Is something funny, sir?”

“Is Vindel trying to start a riot, get us arrested? That is taunting Loterus literally at his front door.”

“Vindel is a brave man.”

“We’ll see… Thank you for your help. Goodbye now.”

“Goodbye, sir,” Ralus said. What a strange man, he thought, wondering what he was up to.

 

 

 

Domelord Loterus had been having dinner with the three spares that resided in his mansion, and afterwards was to inspect the children who had arrived for their testing. He had thought about putting it off for longer, but the parents were getting annoyed, and the City Centre crowded. Apparently, it would be here that the cultists—the Owls—would be holding the ceremony, right outside his house. Either arrogance or idiocy; he couldn’t decide which.

He had a servant call for Daira to join him, and to bring him a phial of greytooth solution; a mushroom found at forest edges, closest to any of the cities. Some said the best grew at the ruins of Udium, but no one ventured there. A couple of drops were enough to induce sleep, and a full phial would cause death.

When the girl was brought Loterus couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She would survive, though. “Are you hungry, Daira?”

“I am, Domelord,” she said, sitting on the chair opposite him.

“Is there something particular you would like to eat?”

“I… would like bread with butter and honey… and a cup of iced milk, if I may.”

“An odd choice for dinner,” Loterus said, “but it is what you will get. I understand, of course. My daughter had strange cravings when it came to food. At night she would drink tea and milk, but not together in one cup.”

Daira kept staring at her empty plate, not lifting her head at all. She would grow up into a beautiful woman, Loterus thought. Now she appeared to him as a marble statue of great craftsmanship. Something to be admired, but never loved; it was not flesh of his possession.

“Where is she now?”

He plainly said, “She died, around the time you were born. Slightly before.”

“Oh…”

It was apparent, despite her lowered head, that the girl was becoming uncomfortable and red. “I will go get your food, Daira. Stay here.”

Loterus left her in the room, alone, and went to the kitchens to tell the cook what to make. After the man prepared the meal Loterus brought it back himself, and set it in front of her, but not before dropping into the milk two drops of the solution.

“Do you want to know what happened to my daughter?”

Her eyes shyly went from bread to him and back down. In hopes of refuge she sipped the milk.

“She was very ill, you see. Close to death, the physician had said. Your father had pain in his past. He needed to let go of his own father, causing a final pain to induce death. He did this to my daughter. Killed her. Said she told him to, that that was something she had wanted to happen but was afraid to ask me, her own father, because she thought I would refuse! Your father will pay for what happened, but not with death.”

Daira’s eyes had been growing dimmer and dimmer as the Domelord spoke until finally she succumbed and fell into a sleep, and Loterus walked over and picked her up, carrying her like a corpse unto grass; the funeral pyre.

 

 

 

After Byton had finished talking with the guard he decided that no, he would not play into Loterus’ hands, no matter what was at stake. Loterus would not harm Daira, he knew. The man had sorrow and fear, akin to anger, but not hate. The most likely plan of the Domelord would be this: for Byton to kill Vindel publicly, get arrested and sent to prison for the rest of his days, and to have Daira remain living within the mansion as a sick substitute.

But then Byton remembered the talks of the ending days, of Aelus and destruction. Was there really intelligence behind it, he wondered, and what had Loterus truly heard? In any case, Vindel would die. Byton had learned a long time ago to remove his conscience from the actions he undertook. A dagger is not to blame, he would tell himself, if the wielder had malicious intent. And if a man was used as a tool by another man, that the assassin was a dagger personified, and merely a tool. At night, back when this had been his vocation, before sleep, the obvious flaws of the thinking came to him, and haunted him.

It had not been something he had started for money or love, but as a favour. A man needed to be beaten, to remain in line. It grew from there, beatings to beatings until someone had died. A clumsy kill, filled with blood and pain and evidence, but he hadn’t been caught. For a long time after no one had died by his hand, until afterwards a few more people did.

He had kept count. Vindel would be the sixth man. None of the men killed had been good, he thought, and though all life was sacred and not to be harmed, it was hard to argue that sometimes the lives of others improve when an evil man is removed. But Vindel was not evil, it seemed. Just a man who found new faith. What harm was he doing? What evil was he bringing?

Another thought struck him then; not all who were killed were men. Robera had been deeply ill and was begging for release. That was not an act of evil, but one of mercy. Pointless suffering was not a virtue, merely pain.

Iron weapons could not be bought without a special permit from the Council itself. Loterus had given him the silver bear’s head dagger with which the deed was to be done. That required proximity, and ultimately capture. At a public ceremony like that Vindel would never be unobserved.

And so the dilemma gnawed. Perform the kill as instructed and be captured, kill in another way and risk Daira’s life, or not kill at all. The priestesses taught that the middle path was usually the best. What lies between recklessness and cowardice was courage, and between finality and chance a possibility.

It was too late for him to leave Dancus and bring his hunting bow, stored outside the house. Buying one illegally—or legally—would take too much time. The only hope was to kill Vindel after the ceremony. There would have to be a moment when the man is alone, Byton thought.

The time came to return to his room and sleep through the rest of the night, and be prepared for the morning to come. The guards in front of the mansion let him in without question, parting their spears to permit entrance.

It would be too late to wish Daira a good night. When he thought of it, he realised that she had slept only through days during the years of her life which she could remember. Perhaps that meant she would be awake. Knocking softly on the doors of her room revealed nothing, so he attempted to open, only to learn they were locked. In the morning then, he decided.

Seeing the soft bed in his room made his body thirst for sleep. Sleep he would need if the bloody affair of tomorrow was to be successful. He fell into the dreams as soon as he hit the sheets and it had only felt like a moment lost when the morning domelight passed through the glass window to wake him up, putting light on his eyes, seeing white through shuttered eyelids.

The dream he had mostly forgotten, remembering some tesserae, but never the whole mosaic. His father again, dying in the woods. Robera too, this time. And the pillow.

He got up and readied himself with water and new clothes to start the day. Daira’s door was still locked, so he walked down the whole of the hallway to ask for Loterus. A few steps before he reached the Domelord’s room, the doors of it opened, and Loterus stepped outside.

“Good morning, Byton. Are you ready for today?” He wore his robes, which fitted his position.

“I am, but don’t expect me to play into your hands.”

Loterus smirked. “We had this conversation already. Is there something you want?”

“I want to see my daughter. Her room is locked.” The air carried the voices of the two men far.

“You can see her after the deed.”

“Where is she, Loterus?”

“Safe. Someplace safe… No harm will reach her, you have my word.”

In that moment it took great strength for Byton to keep his composure. He wouldn’t snap, of course, but remaining calm was not what he wanted. Even a fist clench would be undesirable.

“If you harm her—”

“Oh, shut up. You are becoming tiresome. Yes, you love her and want to protect her. I understand, for I had a daughter once as well. All will be well, you will see. Now, if you want to have some breakfast talk to the cook. And leave early. From what I understand there will be quite a crowd outside my house. Scaffolding is being constructed.”

“You are allowing this?”

“Yes, I’ve decided so. Let all the people have their fun and distraction. It will also make the kill more theatrical.” Loterus wasn’t even trying to make his voice hushed in the mansion hallway.

He is losing his mind, Byton thought, and prayed he wouldn’t lose it himself.

 

 

CHAPTER XI

A NEW HOME

 

The horse’s trot as it pulled the carriage made a pleasant sound of interchanging wheel rattling and hoof beats, like soft drums in the background of temple music. The road was straight and narrow, and Regevus was near. If it were to grow for a hundred years more it would reach the gates of Regisum.

Apparently, as the elders told it, it had started a long time ago as two separate towns, with a distance of a three hour walk from the western gate. There had been an inn on the road which served as a resting point for all the merchants and travellers journeying from Aelus. In this inn the leaders of the two towns would come to meet and trade, one from the Lake and the other from the forest. Fish for meat and meat for fish.

Eventually the population grew, as people concluded that life outside the dim depression of the cities, though more dangerous, offered liberties and a primal comfort. Some found it an adequate switch to exchange daytime leisure for nightly gatherings and life, and using sunpowder regularly. It was said that the descendants of the founders of Regevus, after the two towns came together, developed a natural defence to sunlight.

Nothing to prevent death, of course. But after a dozen generations the children who had never known the filter of the Dome but only the beatings and whipping of natural light, while shielded by the powder, became resistant. Their children even more so.

This led to the belief that if enough time passed, there might be a future where the Sun no longer offered harm. There were families who encouraged this behaviour, opting to neither work the nights nor rest the days, but live as those in the cities, and consume a daily share of sunpowder.

The man driving the cart was from Regevus, Leyra knew. It showed on the skin. In a somewhat paradoxical manner, those from outside generally had a more pale complexion, like the Domelords. The people of the cities were tanned and darker.

A beautiful summer morning, with a gentle breeze and birdsong, made the day seem welcoming. It was odd, Leyra thought, for all of them to still find beauty in light. If she hadn’t consumed sunpowder she would be ash on wind. Yet, the light was still beautiful.

In an hour, or so it felt like, they arrived at the edges of Regevus, seeing a collection of different types of houses, most of them stone constructions of a windowless, rectangular shape. These town houses always reminded her of sarcophagi. She had only seen an actual one once, though. Since domelords cannot be burned by light, some chose to be buried in the dirt. A ruler from her childhood had chosen that. Some, from long ago, were buried in the forests.

The ground around the road was no longer grass, only buildings now. The town was mostly empty as of yet, until some chose to brave the daylight. Most would stay inside and sleep. She told the driver to stop the carriage at the town hall. Elecaius was standing there, outside, in the shadow of the building.

Leyra asked the driver, “Could you wait here till we are finished?”

“Will it be long?”

“There is an inn nearby. It doesn’t close.” She handed him a coin. “Have a drink.” He smiled and nodded, and went his way.

Elecaius hugged her when she approached him by the door of the hall. “You’ve made it.”

“Have you waited long?” she asked.

“Less than an hour, I think. The walk to here was pleasant. It cleared my thoughts.”

“And have you been inside already?”

“No,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”

She entered first. The hallway was small and it led to three doors. One was for town meetings, the other the Governor’s office and the third a clerk’s room. It was locked.

“I suppose he hasn’t come yet,” she said, sitting on a wooden bench inside. “We’ll have to wait.”

When Elec sat beside her he sat close. “Thank you for this. I truly appreciate it.”

“You are a grown man, son. You could have done all this without me.”

“And have you stay by yourself in Regisum? And me alone in here?”

“Would have helped you find a wife,” she said, only half in jest.

“Are you mad about that? Do you care if this family continues?” He visibly squirmed, not sitting on a carpet.

Leyra didn’t answer immediately. “It would have been good… Yes, good, I suppose. But you still have time. Girls will look past your age and limp if you have money, and now we do.”

He had made no sound, but from the corner of her sight she saw him slightly wince. “Oh, please, son. I meant nothing bad by that. It is good to know yourself, as the priestesses teach. There is no shame in being a cripple.”

“There is certainly less shame in being whole.”

“Elecaius, you are whole. You are handsome and clever. Educated, kind, gentle and with good money and a good name. You have a respectable profession at which you are adept. And you are not past your prime, in terms of age. Forty-five is still good. There is time.”

He took her hand in his. “I love you, mother.”

“You’d better, after everything I’ve done for you.” After a moment she said, “I love you too.”

The next half hour was mostly spent with regular chatter, and silence between the conversations. Then a man entered the building, and stopped by the entrance inside when he saw them waiting.

“Already someone here? I apologise if you waited long. Usually the business of administration is dealt at night, even if by custom we are here at all times. Nevertheless, please, step inside my chamber.” The man was unusually tall and had a clean-shaven face. His clothes were all new and pristine, of a blue colour. He entered the Governor’s office.

The mother and son got up and followed him inside, sitting on chairs opposite his desk after he sat on his own. The room was small but cosy, devoid of personal items and kept clean and simple.

“I am Governor Corien,” he said, looking at Elecaius. “What is it that you need?”

“Thank you for seeing us,” Leyra said, “but what we need is more of a clerk’s job, not something worthy of a governor himself.”

He smiled, shifting his gaze to Leyra. “As luck would have it, everyone working here is ill. Except for me, of course. It is my job for Regevus to behave like an intricate device, without problem or stoppage. So, what do you require?”

“All right, then,” Leyra said. “We are buying a house here, and I have been told that there are some for sale.”

“Only one, actually. One that is owned by the town, that is. It had been a criminal’s.”

“We are fine with that,” she said.

“This is a simple transaction. I need the money and we need to make a contract in front of two witnesses, that is all. Are you a widow?”

“I am. I can make the contract myself.”

“Very well. And you are?” With his sight, and his fingers in a steeple, his pointed to Elecaius.

“I am her son,” Elecaius said, with a small pout.

The Governor turned back to look at Leyra. “May I ask why you are deciding to live here? You are coming from Regisum, I presume.”

“We are,” she said. “We simply want to. Isn’t that reason enough?”

“It is, of course. It is. I am merely being curious. It has been the trend this past week for people to leave Regevus for Regisum, and not the other way around. You’re making the right choice, I think. The Domes are always dangerous. Forces of nature… can’t control the wind with a fingertip.”

Leyra gave the man a polite smile, devoid of mirth. “The contract, then?”

“A verbal one will do, followed by the monetary exchange.”

“Fine,” she said.

 

 

 

Elecaius had stayed outside, resting in the shadows and observing the town while his mother dealt with the legal matters. Obviously he couldn’t be a witness as the purchase was his as well, since by law the house was also to become his.

It was a summer noon already. The rays of the Sun were at their most lethal. Luckily the powder he had taken was of their making and so was incredibly potent and long-lasting. It had been a large dose, too, enough to last throughout the entire day.

Only a few men walked outside the shadows, which were almost everywhere. Simple outdoors stoae were common, as were sunbreakers and pergolas. Trees were planted in all possible locations, to give shade where it was possible. Each building had an awning, as well. It would take a great deal of effort, Elecaius thought, to put oneself in direct sunlight’s way in this town.

A fountain was the centrepiece of Regevus, in the shape of an unbent column, an image of a perfected Pillar, from which all of the jagged and crooked shapes were corrected. This was all quite beautiful, Elecaius decided, as he kept gazing at everything. Beautiful and orderly, with everything in its right place.

Nature could not be ruled. One of the first things children would be told, whether from parents or teachers or both. A road may be built, but grass will overtake the beaten path, sooner or later. In a way, he thought, this was true, but not if mankind doesn’t allow it. Nature couldn’t be ruled, but it could be tamed and soothed.

The deadly light would always be the biggest threat, even if at times all felt safe. He imagined the people of Aelus thought it would be just another day. Had it really been only a week? Much changed quickly. Being outside alone had put him in a contemplative mood, the type of which it was hard to break from. The doors of the town hall opened, and his mother stepped outside.

“Everything is done,” she said. “The house is ours and it is furnished, of course. Wait for me here and I’ll go get the carriage driver from the inn.”

He looked very pleased as he watched her go, and then took in a large breath, forcing his lungs to their fullest capacity. The air felt amazing; brisk and fresh despite the summer heat.

She came back quickly with the driver (who appeared to be slightly tipsy), and they came to him with the carriage unto which she helped him get aboard. During the talks of brief directions his mother had fed to the driver he happily gazed around even more, admiring the beautiful craftsmanship of the houses and the constant, ever-present verdant foliage.

To contrast this natural beauty, of white stone and green leaves intermingling, all under natural light beneath blue skies, with the grey and filtered light of Regisum, where living meant being in a house inside a bigger one, was an easy task; the winner being an easy pick.

The house at which they stopped was not very near the centre, but in terms of distances in a place such as this truly all was close. The driver left them with their goods and turned to make his leave, his horse appearing no less tired than he had been in the early morning.

“Do you wish to unlock the door?” Leyra’s right fist was shut. She opened it to reveal the key.

Not taking his eyes off of hers, and carrying a look of joy, he took it. A melancholy feeling took over, and he wanted to cry. Some tears did emerge, falling down his cheeks and to the grass by the doorstep.

“Elec… are you crying?”

He said nothing. Only a kiss on the cheek and then a tight embrace. It would be easy for her to make some remark, he thought, or to pull away quickly. But she didn’t, and in that moment he had no need to tell her that he loved her again today. The love was felt, without being uttered.

 

 

 

For the duration of the day the two of them had spent rearranging the fine furniture to their liking, and spreading out their personal items, of which there weren’t many, only mere reminders of Ridael, like the oil portrait. It was a good house, and living would be comfortable.

“I will be going to pray outside,” she said standing by the door, “if you don’t mind. I’ll come back quickly.”

“Is there something you are praying for?” He was leaning on a wall, the cane lifted from the ground.

“I… don’t know. I will tell you when I get home.” That word hadn’t even given her pause. Taking a lit candle with herself she left the house to her son and went outside.

Regevus was not a new place to her, but one she had visited many times, especially as a child when her mother would take her to swim in the Lake. That was a very long time ago, almost outside of memory, and a very easy way to make her feel ancient, but those concerns were something she had made peace with already.

She knew where the shrine was. From what was understood of Regevus, back in the City, was that the townsfolk mostly prayed by the fountain; some even threw coins inside as a means of attaining favour with Caerus. A stupid thing, she thought. Bribing the Nightgod was a concept so ridiculous it almost made her laugh.

She would go to the old shrine. It was outside the City—almost in the woods—but not very far. Slowly the stones of Regevus and the sound of a vibrant town (it was night-time) were replaced by silence and trees. The shrine was easy to spot, and in the manner of a wooden representation of the Pillar.

She sat on the grass and closed her eyes. There were no generic prayers she wanted to offer, or anything to request. Only thanks to give. Gratitude for making her son happy, and through his happiness for making her happy as well. All was so arbitrary, the timing and the location of everything. What mattered was if one was content with their life; once that was achieved, perhaps other things would fall into place.

A rustle made her open her eyes. As she looked to the woods for a moment she could swear she saw faint light, in a strange shape, as it moved at quick speeds to the north. A trick of moonlight on a beast, she decided.

She resumed the prayers, and felt a noticeable lack of the ethereal music. A couple of birds exchanged musical notes, and some others fluttered their wings, flying from treetop to treetop. A fine replacement, she thought, smiling with her eyes now again closed. For almost a quarter of an hour she sat there, all alone amidst the silence. Everything was good.

On her way back to the house she saw someone familiar, but couldn’t quite place the face amongst the other people. Back inside the house Elecaius was already sleeping. It would take time to get adjusted to a different rhythm. She kissed him on the forehead and went to sleep herself.

The great sums of money she had stored in a hidden place.

 

 

CHAPTER XII

THE COLD VYS

 

From where Egentu stood on the grassy mound the cold Vys was now visible, flowing into the City from the north, like an open pipe carrying fresh blood. There had been fishers at the dark Elsat, near the southern opening in Udium, in his time. These were men and women who would not go to fish at the Lake, for religious reasons, but instead would collect fish at the rivers themselves.

Some were clever enough to remove the religious coating over the rationale, saying that the Lake fish were uncouth, tainted by the sewer water which was essentially what the rivers became inside the cities. For that reason many refused to drink the water straight, that originated from inside, instead opting for various techniques of purification, such as boiling or using sunpowder as a cleanser, which they believed was capable of removing the blemishes. The richest would have private wells on the outside, and receive steady supplies. In the end, not many fell to illness, outside of a few isolated incidents. Egentu wondered if much had changed on this front. When he had been in Aelus it looked almost exactly as it had three hundred years prior.

The fish in the Lake were in a constant state of small numbers, since the grates would not allow the river fish to pass through the cities to the Lake. Sometimes fish eggs made it, but it rarely gave birth to living specimens. So Egentu imagined that when he reached the northern opening, he would not be the only one there. The grate itself would be easy to remove, through sheer, brute strength. He supposed that waiting for night-time and then scaling the walls was another possibility, but not something he felt a need to wait for.

He thought of where his brothers were now, if they had already reached Regevus. He had been there once, from what he remembered. A small place, of a few houses and many paths of light. Undeveloped, but possibly a large town by now.

To the far west he could see hints of mountains, as their snow-capped peaks reached the clouds, the different whites encompassed by a strong sheen of light. The walls of Regisum were a few feet to his right. He walked by the City, circling it to reach the cold Vys.

He wondered if the Herald knew what lay past those mountains, and what lay to the far, far north and south and east. No one had enough sunpowder to walk so far and make it back; no one other than domelords, who would not need it. Maybe after Dancus is gone, he thought, maybe it would be a fine trip to make, to walk as far east as it was possible, and delay the return to Gormal Ard. There would always be so many things left to learn and experience, and though he truly wished for this to end and for peace to be given, perhaps a change of heart could occur, at the very end. But it was unlikely.

The circling of the walls to his right curved away to reveal the cold Vys, its flow strong and quick, the river itself wide and with a grouping of tiny river islands, patches of dirt and grass. Indeed there were some fishers, on the other river bank. Egentu stood with his feet in the water, feeling the chill. Across the wide stretch, the fishers noticed him, and dropped their baskets and nets and poles and simply stared.

Egentu thought that under the right circumstance, he and his brothers might appear beautiful, in a way, as light often does. He yelled, his voice spreading above the water like a furious wind. “Flee if you wish to live, as far from these walls and the Dome as you can. In mere hours this will be a field of ashes.”

He submerged himself, and did not stay to see what the fishers’ faces and bodies revealed. The underwater was already murky and dense, but desolate as well. The current carried him to the grate, this big, iron hatch. The sounds were muted and dull.

Egentu wrapped his fingers around it and pulled. The muscles strained and popped; the iron bended and screamed, even underwater. His breath was running out, and he had no intention of finding his body and consciousness on the Gormal Ard throne.

With all his strength and desire, he wrecked the iron in his hands and the ebb and flow of the river carried him through, inside the City, entering like a parasitic worm, through the blood and into the brain, to burry himself there and kill.

 

 

 

It was not an easy thing for him to admit, but the two harbingers unnerved Bodenar greatly. Zaloth and Thros were their names; twins supposedly. All three looked the same to him. Like someone took a tall man, built like a bull, and stripped away the skin and put in its place golden fire. They spoke rarely, even when asked something.

He had mostly kept close to his love, Fiena, clutching her arm and leading the group. The twins were right behind them, close enough to hear, and the fifty of their fellow members briskly walked at their heels.

“Do you think we made a mistake?” Bodenar asked his wife, in hushed tones. It sounded odd, whispering outside in broad daylight, on the open road leading north.

“No, my love, no mistakes were made.” She always spoke, no matter the circumstances, in a loving, caring voice, that of a mother. “This is an opportunity that strikes once in forever, like with the five prophets of long ago. They had brought us tales of the Nightgod and his evil brother, and look how much was changed by their words. Think of how life would be better when our message is embraced. Fonten is a sanctuary compared to the cesspools of Dancus, no?” She didn’t give him an opportunity to respond. “Will some die? I am afraid yes, but if they were clever they would have left the cities after what happened with Aelus. And no one is saying we don’t have to give warning.”

“What do you mean by that?” He could listen to her talk for hours.

“After the Nightgod’s harbinger deals with Regisum, I thought we could ride to Dancus with the horses your brother will prepare, and warn them to not be fools. They will run, you will see, to Fonten. It can be the new City, and we their heroes, who saved them with our words.”

“And you think they will listen to us?”

She brought herself closer to him, and the whisper became almost inaudible. “They will, especially if Vindel does well. But he is no longer the special one, your palm is blessed now too.” It was the palm she held, and she squeezed it tight.

When Regevus was in sight they stopped, and the twins moved to the front. “You, Bodenar, are to go alone, and meet with your brother. He will be there?”

Bodenar was not sure which one spoke, but he did respond. “He should be outside the town, to the north, with his fellows and the horses. And the sunpowder, of course.”

“Go and meet him. We others will wait here. In two hours we will enter, and do what we came to do.”

He nodded discontentedly, but he did comply. After kissing Fiena he told her, “Be safe, and stay outside of harm’s way.”

“You too.” Her eyes were gorgeous, round and shining like the Domes.

The fifty of them remained behind, standing by and on the road, and he went forward alone, entering Regevus. There were few people outside, mostly doing business. It was a relief to walk through shadows and feel the impact of the Sun lessened. Taking another dose of the sunpowder soon would be wise. Hopefully, Domicus acquired a superb batch.

In the middle of the shadowed town, next to the fountain, he saw a familiar face, one he hadn’t seen in a while. He did nothing to hide his surprise, and immediately hugged the man, who was clearly taken aback.

“Sicreo!” Bodenar yelled.

Sicreo had almost pushed Bodenar to the ground. It seemed that he recognised the man hugging him in the last possible moment.

“Bodenar, my friend, it is a great pleasure and surprise to see you.” Always polite, that was how Bodenar remembered him.

“It is so good to see a familiar face,” Bodenar said. “The men and women I am with are like strangers to me. Please, tell me how you are doing.”

“I am fine, Bodenar, but I am here on some unsavoury work. Nothing to worry about, though. Just that.” He pointed to a distant house. “Your brother waits outside the town, towards Regisum.” His voice became quieter.

“Anything I should know?”

“Everything is handled, and we will get our money back.” He paused, and took a breath. “Have you… have you seen the harbingers?”

Bodenar brought his head closer, to an almost intimate distance. “Two of them are outside, to the south. The third I don’t know. He had stayed behind. Could be that he is already in Regisum, or in the woods to the west, or still where we had been. We are supposed to cause terror here, make the guardsmen of Regisum come. But I don’t think we have to.”

“You mean… kill the people here?” Sicreo’s eyes darted around the town.

“He didn’t say it like that, just to divert attention. If everything turns out well I don’t think we’ll have to. Maybe we can talk to these people, turn them to our side.”

“Are you prepared to kill?” His question came out like a dagger, piercing the skin and flesh.

“I… I had tied a man to a wooden pole, and watched him be murdered by their leader. It was…”

“Necessary. Some of these things are necessary, my friend. Necessary, if we wish to see a better tomorrow.”

“I understand, but it can be avoided, especially here.”

“We’ll see.”

Through his body language Bodenar could see that Sicreo had a desire to leave. “You have to go now?”

“Best if I take care of what I came to do quickly, and silently.”

“Fine, then,” Bodenar said. “I will find Domicus. Good luck, with whatever you have to do.”

The following quarter-hour he walked beneath the greenery which provided a shield from light, until he left Regevus. He had seen a couple of guardsmen, relaxed and playing card games beneath an awning of a house.

Outside the town, Domicus sat beneath a tree, his hands clasped and relaxed on his belly. A couple of horses were grazing by the thick oak. Next to Domicus were three wooden barrels on a cart, their lids open and the contents examined by half a dozen men.

Bodenar waved when he was close. The men by the barrels he didn’t recognise. All six were young, but muscular and bearded. One of them whistled and Domicus clumsily jerked his head and looked as his oldest brother approached.

“Were you sleeping, brother?” Bodenar waited for him to gather himself up and as soon as he did, almost before even, he embraced him tightly and kissed him on the cheeks.

“You’ve made it!” Domicus’ voice sounded slightly different than when last they had seen each other, a month or so ago. It was deeper; a man’s voice now.

“You doubted?”

“I realised we hadn’t organised very well. We would have come to the town in an hour and waited there, for days if we had to. It must be the Nightgod’s will that all worked so well.”

For a moment Bodenar feared that Domicus would utter a wrong deity’s name. Good, he thought, that they had chosen to use Caerus as the source of this faith. In the end, they had still managed to be devout to the Moon, by worshipping and praying beneath it. There was a chance that eventually these truths could be revealed, when the time was right. Not yet, though. A step at a time; that was the method to changing people’s minds.

“It must be,” Bodenar said, his tone warm. “Will you introduce me to these men?” The six were barely out of earshot.

“No need, really. Some people I’ve met in Regisum through Sicreo and turned to our cause. By the way, have you seen him in Regevus?”

“I have, actually. What is he doing there? He wouldn’t tell me.”

“We spent a lot of money on this sunpowder. It is of great quality, but we need the money back so he is getting it.”

“I understand. I hope it turns out peacefully.”

Bodenar then briefed Domicus on what was to be done, and how and when. Half an hour later the six men went to Regevus, armed with stone daggers.

 

 

 

Once Egentu re-emerged from within the water the domelight fell upon his body and changed the colour of his light. Three hundred years had passed since the last time such light touched his skin. Aelus had been destroyed at night, and Udium was so long ago he had almost forgotten the sensation. But here it was, unmistakable. As warm as true sunlight, but odd, in a way, like the difference between a face and a mask.

He swam along the current and attempted to remain underwater, amongst the filth and bile. To his wonder no one seemed to notice the source of incandescence, carried to the Lake. When he felt enough of the cold Vys was traversed he gripped the stones with his claws and pulled himself upwards, to stand dripping on the floor of Regisum.

He saw a brief flash of memory, of a bathtub and a servant. Warm towels and a jar of ashes. A scream shook him, and fingers pointed to his form. The Pillar was nearby, and the Optea accessible past some houses and shops. Then the path to the bridge and the City Centre would be clear. The Pillar was within reach.

There would be no stopping.

A trio of guardsmen circled around the corner of the street, their stone spears and leather shields at the front. They looked at him with terror and eyes blank of knowledge. The worst fear.

He rushed towards them, to see them disperse. But they didn’t. The men held their spears to anticipate his run but with one stroke Egentu’s claws decapitated the sharpened stones from the shafts and he brought the three men down with the momentum of his charge.

Letting them live would be a nuisance, for them to stay at his back like leeches. A sudden cut to their throats is what he gave them. He didn’t stay to see the blood erupt from the neck or to see them choke till death. He didn’t lick the claws, either.

Egentu’s walk towards the Optea was filled with purpose, his shoulders broad and arms steady. An arrow caught him in the back, but he paid it to no mind. The goal was so close. To shatter that scoliotic spine.

 

 

CHAPTER XIII

A RETURN TO HABIT

 

Byton had spent most (but not all) of the day in bed, dreaming and thinking and gauging the passage of time by the dispersal and fading of domelight through the window. After eating breakfast, consisting of freshly baked bread with slices of cheese and dried sausage, he had returned to rest. Loterus would still not tell him where Daira was, or allow him to see her. He had assured him, however, that the girl was in the safest place in the world.

The dreams had been vague and unimportant. The usual imagery came and went, not etching itself into his mind, but merely annoying him with its faint importance of days long past. The common teachings surrounding dreams were that of a religious background. Beneath the conscious mind lay our true selves, like how the Pillar regulated the Dome and was seen on the surface, but it passed through the bridge of its city and into the riverbed. A fragment of Caerus lay in all, but also the Daygod’s presence was there.

Not all persons could be held accountable for their actions, and where the intent was malicious the Daygod held sway, and beneficial, Caerus. Byton didn’t like that line of thinking, of removing the self from… well, the self. He did think that not all that was done by someone was entirely within their control. Sometimes the man was carried by emotion too strong for the rational thoughts to regulate, and sometimes a man was given no choice, like he was now. But to think that preternatural forces made battles within the mind itself… that was a step too far. At times it was a comfortable belief, but not for him.

Loterus had given him a dagger with which to carry out the kill, but Byton had decided that while he would agree with the tool, he would not follow the method. Only the biggest of fools would make the kill during the ceremony, and get, most likely, torn apart by the mob. He would oversee, and then follow. Everyone was alone sometimes.

Byton slept some more, and ate and relieved himself then. Afterwards he washed himself and put on loose clothes. It was getting hotter every passing day. Standing by the window, looking at the strong Ulico, he observed the weapon in the dying light. The dagger was small and thin, of great craftsmanship. The hilt a silver head of a bear. The iron carrying no rust and being still incredibly sharp. He had been given a sheath for it, and it barely fit into the white tunic’s pocket.

In a way he was ready, and could hear the noises from outside. People were gathering and where many people stood the cacophony was inevitable. Scantily he saw his reflection in the glass. The beard was now full. Some grey hairs appeared in a few places. Black lines and bags jutted beneath his eyes.

This would be farewell, for a while. The few hours he hadn’t rested he had talked to a stable master by the southern gate, securing a horse and a small batch of sunpowder for tonight, to await him and be ready at all times. Some more money was spent than expected, but in the end, it would turn out well.

 

 

 

Loterus sat on his chair. He put the sleeping child on his lap and let her head rest on his left forearm while her legs patted the knee of his right leg. He sang to her in quiet melodies, lullabies he had heard himself as a child, and the same ones he had sung to Robera.

It was dark in his locked room. All of the windows were shuttered and the drapes were pulled. A solitary candle stood, burning away and releasing odd, satisfying scents. The girl’s skin was smooth and warm, her hair soft and dark. He had bathed her just moments before.

What made him immensely sad was the cursed knowledge that this wouldn’t last. None of it would. It would be fine if pleasure was fleeting if the same could be said of pain. Those hurts hovered, occasionally so far away that they felt gone, until a memory incited by a sight our sound or smell brought them with alarming alacrity to the forefront, where they caused so much ache.

With her in his arms he felt safe and removed from the world. Solely a presence in darkness, isolated from trouble, though he knew what he was doing could lead to more, for both him and her, and that was not a part of his desire. When the time came for an ending it would be met with compliance, he told himself. Even if the ending was that of blood.

He had been hearing whispers in his sleep, as of late. The same types of whispers which beckoned all domelords to touch the Pillar. That same voice, distant and near, high and deep. Crystal as the summer sky and squalid as the winter clouds. It had spoken to him in platitudes and threats, never making certain of what was its intention. Possibly a figment of imagination, but he thought not. It had become more voluminous since the fall of Aelus, mightier with each night.

With Daira close to him, the whispers were, at least for the moment, forgotten.

 

 

 

The mansion doors were open—and guarded well—and long before Byton saw the full extent of the crowd he heard their shuffling. Stepping outside revealed to him the size; there were about a thousand people by the Pillar, and the wooden platform at its base. It was two hours past the dark. Two hours past the moment when Domelord Loterus made Dancus domeless for the night.

The people had gathered here quickly. Cutting through them to reach the platform was a mess, but Byton, after half an hour of pushing back and forth, made it in time before Vindel spoke, to stand so close to be able to touch the man, were he not elevated.

The men and women around Byton were shouting with their arms raised, calling for the man to speak. Vindel was alone up there, with his back turned to them and kneeling. Byton only saw his blonde hair.

And when he turned he recognised him instantly, in a flash of memory striking like lightning. Before he had departed for Dancus he had prayed at the forest shrine near Fonten, and this was the man there, the one who had disappeared into the woods at night. As hard as he tried Byton could not remember what Vindel had said.

“I welcome all of you,” Vindel said, turning to face the thousand hungry faces, “whether your intentions are kind and pure, or evil, all are cherished by the Nightgod. Yet, what the Nightgod wants is not what we have been told! Look, all of you! Look at that beauty above. That full Moon and those beautiful stars. And the night sky like a comforting blanket. Is life not better outside, away from these unnatural devices?” His gestures were grand, and he pointed to the Pillar and the missing Dome, shaping its outline.

He continued, “The Ulico flows with filth, these streets are made of dirt. The filtered light taps you of your strength, sucking it out like a leech. If life is to be good, and protection given, we must abandon the cities! All saw and felt, in the ground itself, all know, what happened in Aelus to the west. And every child and woman and man knows that to the south lies nothing but dust. This will happen in the north! This will happen in the east! Spread these words. Spread them if you wish goodness to all. When the moment falls, we all will know. Then the time has come to live a better life.”

Hand clapped like hooves. The applause erupted. Those at the very back, though it was very hard to tell, were not as enthusiastic. Only here to observe, Byton thought. A morbid curiosity.

“If there are those that doubt my words, hear that I have been told these very things by a herald of Caerus himself, who had appeared to my brothers and I in a moment of piety.” With his left hand, Vindel drew from his belt a precious-looking dagger. A family heirloom is what it looked like. He cut his right-hand palm in a slow motion, cutting deep and open, showing it to all.

There was no blood, nor any scar. The blonde man’s eyes showed no pain or shock. His body was as still as the Pillar. Only a red gleam showed and quickly dispersed. The crowd was wild. And happy. They wanted more.

“These gifts show that I speak the truth. And all of these gifts can be yours, if you follow my words. No longer need we live in these cramped anthills, squatting like bugs. Life outside is possible. Sunlight, no longer a threat. Sunpowder, no longer a necessity! Join me now, up here, one by one, to receive a true blessing of the Nightgod!”

The sounds of the masses became muted to Byton. He wasn’t sure what to think or believe, but what this man up there showed was the truth. It had to be. Since forever the clerics preached and preached, and since the message was a good one Byton believed, but this man showed proof. And he was to kill him? Why? He meant well. Life in Fonten was good, better than in these pits. If Loterus wanted to ease the pain, as he had said, why would he be against this man?

Confusion loomed over him, and he was not sure of anything anymore.

 

 

 

Ralus hadn’t been given a shift that night of the ceremony. He had convinced his captain to let him work in the noon, so that for the night he would be free to attend, at a special position, as Vindel’s personal guard. The captain was sympathetic and understood, despite the way he framed his answer to Ralus’ intent. He had made it clear that he took the request as some sort of childlike fancy. One that would pass when Ralus was older and wiser.

What would be unwise would be to scoff or refuse in that situation, so Ralus had thanked his captain and worked at day, looking forward to the night-time. During the ceremony Ralus had stood near Vindel. Not too near as to arouse thinking that Vindel was afraid for his safety, but close enough to be of use if something were to happen.

Nothing did.

After Vindel gave a palm-kiss and words of favour to each of the people who climbed the platform, he had departed with his wife Haecinta to an inn far away from the Pillar, to celebrate this successful night. Ralus had tagged along, and drank beer (which wasn’t very good) with them. The three of them sat at a wooden, circular table, in an almost empty inn. The only sounds were their tipsy chatter and an old innkeeper grumbling to himself and snoring in half-sleep.

“Did you anticipate so many?” Ralus asked, taking a sip of beer from the wooden tankard he held with his left.

“Honestly, I did,” Vindel said. “What we have to say has meaning, more meaning than the priestesses can say to the old who go to temples. And I have evidence of my words. I speak the truth, as interpreted by Caerus himself. What they speak has truth to it, of course. But they see it with their own eyes, and speak it with their own words.”

Ralus only looked at him for a moment, not saying anything. He became afraid he showed too much admiration and… respect? So he looked at his drink. In the corner of his sight he saw Haecinta—who drank water—looking at him with amusement, containing a laugh.

“Have you had too much already, guardsman?” Her voice was monotonous if one paid no attention, but her beauty made you listen and then you heard the nuances of intelligence and meaning in it.

“What? No. I… I am just getting started. Why are you drinking water anyways?”

Haecinta began her answer but Vindel cut her response and said, “I forbade her. She is pregnant, and only water will do from now on.”

Ralus suppressed a burp. “The Nightgod told you that as well?” After a moment he laughed a bit, finding his own words amusing.

Vindel was serious. “He didn’t. This is common sense, I think. If too much kills the mind of an adult, what can it do to an unborn?”

“I’ve yet to hear,” Ralus said, “of someone dying from drinking beer.”

Haecinta moved her hand, and though Ralus couldn’t clearly see where she put it, he imagined it was on her husband’s knee. “It is fine,” she said. “In any case, neither beer nor wine suits me.”

A man entered the inn. In the low candlelight and the inner solitude it would be hard not to notice him. Ralus felt as if he had seen him before, but now he wasn’t so sure. The man took a corner table, sitting with his back to them.

“See that man?” Ralus asked, speaking slower and quieter. “The one who just entered?”

“Yes,” Vindel said. “What of him?”

“I think I’ve seen him before somewhere.”

“So? Dancus is big, much bigger than Fonten, but not that big. Highly unlikely that you would never recognise someone you randomly notice. Especially considering your job.”

Ralus knew not what to say to that, so he kept quiet and drank more.

“I think I recognise him too,” Haecinta said. “He was in the front rows of the ceremony.”

Vindel grinned. “And how come you remember him?”

“Why,” she said, “he is so tall and handsome.”

Looking at them Ralus wanted a woman for himself. He had been with a whore once, and it was dreadful. She had worked very hard to not laugh at him after all of his fumbling and irresolute behaviour. It had done enough damage to his confidence to not seek another woman for a while. His mother and sister kept pestering him as to when he would find a wife. All of his peer friends and colleagues were married. Most had gotten married two or three years ago, when they were seventeen.

For the next hour or two—he couldn’t be sure—they drank and talked more. Periodically Ralus checked on his dagger to see if it were there. Vindel had his own with him, the one he had used during the ceremony. But that one was more of an artefact than a weapon.

 

 

 

The trio left and Byton followed them outside, to the dark, narrow alley lit only by the Moon and the stars. The houses and shops were piled on each other in all directions, including the heights. It was so cramped three men couldn’t stand abreast.

During his seclusion inside he ran all the thoughts he could of everyone and everything, thinking of what was right and what wrong. He had considered talking to his target, but he realised he didn’t know what to ask. To ask him if what he did was real would be foolish, and to ask him to consider running would not end with Daira free.

Loterus held him by his neck, and those old-looking fingers would only release when his will was served. Byton told himself that he had no choice, but he was old and clever enough to see through his own lies. It bothered him immensely. Pre-emptively he asked Caerus for forgiveness. And in a way he hoped that the man’s stomach was as impervious as his palm.

The woman walked in front. Some guardsman walked at the back. And Vindel was between them. No one else was there. Byton wasn’t sure, but he thought the guardsman looked familiar. He was the first to die, unfortunately. He could afford no mistake. Not with this.

With the dagger Loterus had given to him Byton cut the guard’s throat, quickly approaching him from behind and grabbing his face with his left palm. He threw the man to the side and heard him crash and break. The blood from his throat had sprayed forward and Vindel quickly turned to see Byton standing there.

The young prophet’s eyes were blank. There was no fear, only confusion.

“I do remember you,” Vindel said, standing like a statue. When he saw the dagger flash forward he yelled, “Haecinta, ru—”

Byton deftly moved his arm and wrist to stab him in the belly. He had tried to intercede with his palm, to move the blade away. But Byton foresaw it and attacked at an odd angle, piercing the belly from upwards with his left hand.

The woman screamed and sobbed and began running, calling for help and help and help. Blood bubbled from Vindel’s mouth, as he fell to the ground. He wanted to speak but couldn’t.

“I am sorry for this,” Byton said. “Your death buys a life. Forgive me.” He stabbed Vindel twice again, in the heart and the stomach artery.

Life seeped out of his eyes, like blood did from his body. Byton had no time to think. He took the dagger with him, and ran as fast as he could to the southern gate, where the horse awaited him. He had managed to not get much blood on his hands or clothes, though enough to be noticed.

The narrow alleys were thankfully dark and deserted. After some minutes of running the alleys became streets and then the Optea. The stables and the horse—already paid for—were close to the gate, but far enough to not be seen by the gate guards.

“Ah!” the stable master shouted, holding a pouch of sunpowder in his hands. “Finally! For the money you paid I would have stayed till morning, but finally here you are!” His eyes narrowed. “Is that blood?”

Byton grabbed the pouch, pushed the man to the side, and climbed onto the saddled horse.

“What are you doing!?”

Giving the horse a kick it galloped south, stirring dust along the Optea and cutting through the empty night air. The few guards at the gate did nothing to stop him, as they only saw him in the distance as he already left the City of Dancus.

Wind rustled by his ears, and he thought of nothing, and saw nothing. It was almost morning when he left, and past noon when he had reached Fonten and entered his house, all alone. Thankfully the denizens of Fonten slept at day, so no one saw him, he thought, in his bloodied clothes.

Before he closed the doors of the house he felt a quake in the earth, and heard a terrible, inhuman scream in the air.

 

 

CHAPTER XIV

FUNERAL PYRE

 

In the early morning, still not accustomed to the way of life in a domeless town, she had woken up and left the house while Elecaius still slept. The air was colder than she expected it to be. The reason, she assumed, was the open spaces and the wind. For all her life she had grown fond, in some unusual way, of the cramped and stuffy atmosphere of Regisum, no matter that their house had been in a relatively open part of the City, close to the Pillar. She wondered if that house was already sold, or if it would remain empty for quite some time. Whatever family moved in there she wished them luck and good life, and happiness inside Regisum.

The sunpowder she had taken before leaving was the batch that remained from their journey here; it reminded her to buy some more or go on a private harvest. Walking beneath shadows of trees and awnings felt quite like walking through the alleys of Regisum, with the stones replaced by branches and cloth. When she closed her eyes she could imagine herself back home. But she whisked those images away. This was the new home, and its sights were theirs now.

The sounds were all different, though. Here was a deep silence, made sometimes disturbed by noises of outdoors ambience, like the breeze shifting the leaves and dogs’ barks while they chased the cats.

It would be hard to disagree with her son’s notion that life here was more… natural? She wasn’t sure if that was the word she was looking for, since by her thoughts there was nothing unnatural about the Dome and the Pillar. Yet Regevus did have an aura of what maybe human life was meant to be. The priestesses did preach that the only reason sunlight caused death was because of the Daygod’s vengeance against the favourite children of the Nightgod. The cities being a shield, not merely ordinary homes. Sometimes comfort had to be removed, because dangerous comfort is poorer than safe discomfort. Or maybe not. She wasn’t so assured anymore.

The occasion of her trip outside was to buy food for the next few days. Elecaius and she would resume their profession, selling here where sunpowder was of an actual use, or trade it for meats gathered by hunters or milk and cheeses produced by farmers or the different fruits and vegetables and grain they grew. With all the money they still had they could not work and still be well for quite some time, but then life became pointless and boring, she thought, when one was jobless and didn’t have to be. It wouldn’t be long either, she knew, when she would be too old and weak to work, and only Elecaius would carry them, and a wife by then, hopefully.

The wife could grow herbs in the small garden behind their house, untended but seemingly of decent qualities. She knew nothing about gardening, actually, but how hard could it really be? An apple tree also stood there, serving as a marker for the property lines.

She entered a general store, which had a sign outside saying it worked throughout the entire day. Most other shops were open for only a few hours per day, mostly at night, and only selling the majority of their wares on market days.

The store was lightly furnished, with a long, wooden counter opposite the entrance and on it different items someone might find useful for various jobs. At the right end of it were some not so freshly picked tomatoes, small bags of potatoes, and… that was it. No other food.

“Is this all the food you have at the moment?” Leyra asked. The heavy-looking elderly woman sitting behind the counter was doing her best not to sleep. This really did seem like a poorly thought-out shop.

“What?” She jabbed a finger in her ear and rotated it and scrubbed.

Judging by her looks Leyra would guess that the shopkeeper was older than her, but that was very unlikely. “How much is this sack of potatoes?”

The woman named the sum, which was rather cheap. Leyra paid for it and left, looking for a place to buy some fresh fish. After some initial wondering she came across a fisher who was just returning from his fishing trip, carrying a net of dozens of small perches.

“Excuse me,” she said, walking hurriedly behind the old fisher, passing by a few guardsmen. “Are you selling these already?”

He stopped and turned. “I am. Looking to buy?”

“Yes, please.”

“Fine, then,” he said. “Follow me to my place. I’d wager you’re the earliest buyer I’ve ever had. Most of these are sold north in Regisum, where we preserve them with rock salt.”

“I know. I’ve just arrived here yesterday with my son from there.”

“Figures,” he said. “Haven’t seen you here before. You’re here for good?”

“Yes, of course,” she said, trying to keep up with his brisk pace. “We live here.”

“Then, welcome. Regevus is a fine town.”

“Thank you.”

When they came to his shop he sold her six of the small fish and she bade him farewell with a smile. Then she returned home.

 

 

 

Elecaius had woken up right when Leyra left; he heard her close the house door. He had gotten up immediately, and after relieving himself, went to work on carving the wooden boxes in which he or his mother stored the sunpowder they sold. He had neglected this work for the past week, staying at home for not feeling well and having her go and do the selling. He was fine now, and would do well, he told himself.

The knife and the material they had brought along with them. It was dark inside, and he did not feel like lighting candles, so he took some of the remaining sunpowder, without water, and went to the garden to work under real light. The tree gave him protection, but it would be the action of an imbecile to not take a precaution before going outside.

As he carved the unshaped wood he gazed upon the tree, and felt a wave of inspiration hit him. No, it wouldn’t be the usual boxes he would carve, but instead an apple. That was a challenge, and he knew it, but why not try? It would make a fine gift.

He carefully moved the knife around, and worked for half an hour when he heard footsteps outside, and the door opening. He stood, leaning on his cane, and walked around the corner of the house to see that the door was still closed. Opening it revealed nothing but darkness. Telling himself that it was just imagination or the wind, he went back to carving the apple. If most days in Regevus consisted of activities such as these, then he would be as happy as one can be. Work could rest for a while. There was a lot of money they still had.

Half an hour later he heard footsteps again, and the door again, and this time his mother’s voice. “Elec? Are you up?” Then a scream of surprise.

He quickly grabbed the cane and wheeled around the corner of the rectangular house, leaving the garden and the unfinished apple, and rushing as fast as he could through the entrance to see his mother standing still and at the end of the hallway the silhouette of a man. It was impossible to see who it was. There were two sacks on the floor. The smell of raw fish.

“A thief!” she yelled. “Get out! Now! I will call for the guards!”

The thief had nowhere to turn or run, aside from the side rooms. It was forward and outside or nowhere. Elecaius stood by his mother’s side, his hands shaking, and his legs.

“I have come for our money, old friends. We need it more.”

The voice sounded familiar to him, and when the man took a few steps forward Elecaius saw that it was Sicreo. Looking at his mother’s face for her reaction he saw in it confusion and fear.

“What money?” she asked, frenziedly. “It is ours, we sold you the powder!”

“Don’t be stupid, old woman. The money we gave you was a far greater sum than any powder is worth. We want it back, now.”

“I knew it,” she said, “I knew it. I knew you were vile and wrong from the moment I saw you. Leave! Now! Or the guards will come for you!”

Sicreo scoffed with annoyance. “Tell me where it is, give it to me, and I will leave.”

This was a moment, Elecaius concluded, a moment to make a stand. To no longer be a cripple or to sit beside his mother, an old and frail woman, while she took charge and directed danger and harm to herself. He gently pushed her to the side and took a stance in front of her, shielding her from the intruder.

“You will leave,” he said, his voice resolute. “Now, and leave empty-handed.”

“I don’t think so, broken man.”

“Mother,” Elecaius said, turning his head to the right, “go outside, and bring guards.”

She looked at him silently for a moment, seemingly measuring him, and then hurriedly left after a series of quick nods.

At the same time Elecaius saw nervousness creep into Sicreo, and then the man took a dagger out of his pocket and said, in a voice more desperate, “Don’t be a fool! Tell me right now where the money is!”

Now Elecaius was truly afraid, and he knew not what to say or do.

Sicreo’s eyes shuffled in agitation. “There’s no time for this.” He took three rapid strides forward and attacked.

Elec was twice his age, and was a cripple, and it was dark inside. But he managed to hit the thief with his cane across the arm, hearing a sickening crunch. The dagger dropped to the floor and both men tried to grab it.

A frenetic brawl ensued, one of sweaty hands and reachings for the dagger. It all happened so quickly, and an involuntary spirit took over Elecaius. He was not fully aware of what he was doing, but he did feel a stab in his chest and the wetness of hot blood pouring out. Thoughts seceded, and were then gone.

 

 

 

Leyra ran and ran with all her strength and breath. No thoughts rushed through her mind, neither thoughts of death nor life. Simple, animalistic instincts took over, and she screamed at the top of her voice for help and for guards, not even sure of where she was running and yelling.

A guard appeared out of nowhere. She thought it was the one she had seen before buying fish. “Help me,” she whispered to him weakly, having run out of breath.

“What is it?” he asked. He was lightly armoured, and carried a stone spear.

“There is a thief inside my house, quickly, please… come with me.” She pointed to where the house was, and began walking to it as fast as she could. She was tired now, and weak. It was so hot outside, no longer the cool morning.

The guard made it to the house before she could, and when she finally reached it she heard him yell for the man inside to stand and be still, and when she was close enough to see she saw Sicreo attack the guard. But the guard had reach in that narrow hallway. He ran his spear through Sicreo’s belly, killing him instantly.

Then, as her eyes followed the thief’s body as it fell to the floor, she saw her son lying there too, in a pool of blood that was his own. She fell to her knees and crawled to him, muttering through tears.

“Elec… Elec, my son, my son, are you hurt? What is wrong? Speak to me…”

A small crowd had gathered by then outside the house, trying to peer inside.

There was still life inside his eyes, but it was fleeting, dispersing like mist on the Lake. Melting like snow. He tried to talk; no words came out, only blood. And tears in his eyes.

They were matched by her own. “Don’t go… please, I beg you, don’t go.” She whimpered. “Son… don’t leave me alone.”

His fingers twitched, but there was no strength in him. Life finally poured out of his vessel. A cup of water overflowing and evaporating.

Her head fell to his bloodied chest and she cried and cried, hearing and feeling no heartbeat. The guard tried to speak to her, to tear her away, but no sounds could penetrate the air, and make themselves audible to her, in that moment.

Until one did, and it was a collective screech of terror and death, coming from the crowd outside. Wails and sounds of footsteps and battle, of furious weapons and blood spilt, of spears swaying and being broken.

She felt nothing anymore, and that body on the ground was just that, a body. Elecaius was dead and gone, and this she understood. No funerals, no pyres, nothing for him. Only for herself. The strength of the sunpowder in her was trickling.

Outside, under the noon Sun, she saw carnage, and Regevus transformed. It looked as if the hand of the Daygod had crushed it, all in a manner of minutes. Trees were on fire, burning like torches. A crowd of fifty people stood by the southern entrance to the town, standing in hesitation and merely looking while two large beings, made of light and fire, massacred their way through the guards of the town, killing in a matter of seconds. Their claws were fashioned out of livid ire, and it made her feel nothing. They hadn’t noticed her—not that it would matter—so she retreated to her garden, out of sight and mind.

On a table there she saw an unfinished wooden apple. She took it, and sat beneath the apple tree. By its trunk and the shaping of the branches it offered no protection to where she sat. Sunlight fell on her in its full force. From her position she had a small view, of seeing what was happening to the rest of Regevus, as if peering through a tiny slit, its outlines blurred by the darkness.

Goodbye, she thought. The monsters ignored her. She had no idea what was happening, and she found she couldn’t care anymore. There was nothing binding her to this world anymore, so a goodbye was all she had. The strength of the powder was gone and the intensity of sunlight made its presence known.

In that lone, desolate garden, with her back to the apple tree, as Regevus burned and died, so did she. She never screamed, nor felt any external pain greater than the one inside. No memories of her life appeared before her. No memories of regrets or hopes. Only an image of Ridael, holding a young, crippled boy.

The light simply erased her, and the wind spread no ashes. In them was nested an unfulfilled token.

 

 

CHAPTER XV

THE FOURTH HEARTBEAT

 

A second arrow hit him, not embedding itself into his mass of light, but breaking on impact. The first stairs of the massive bridge—which housed the Domelord’s mansion and through which the Pillar went upwards from the riverbed, cutting through it and reaching the closed Dome—were mere feet away. The rush of the cold Vys became a stronger sound with every footstep.

Images of Dancus and Udium and Aelus superimposed themselves into his eyesight, the vast sameness of these approaches. The same looks of the bridge and the deformed Pillar and the heat and luminosity of the air made possible by domelight. When all was so copied and artificial, why bother with preservation?

A third arrow hit, and this time he turned to see five archers with aghast faces nocking arrows with jittery hands. The arrows broke as they flew, as if glassware was thrown against a rock wall.

With clear precision he saw their lips shake and their mouths mutter to each other, their feet, possessed by an instinct for survival, backing ever so slightly away, despite the attempts of courage. Killing them now would be meaningless; if they had horses they might still escape in time, though with Aelus even the nearby villages were obliterated by the blast.

Marketplaces of sunpowder could always be found by the City Centre, and there he hoped of acquiring some to survive the collapse; if none were to be found he would simply awake far away, halfway done with the journey.

Arrows still flew from behind, and through one by one he began feeling their impact. A soft pain, not worthy of a mention. Then he saw a line of a dozen men block his way unto the bridge, forming a living wall. These had armour of chainmail, and swords. Throughout it all ordinary men and women and children who were close enough to witness ran west, as warned by guards, who told all to flee. Temple bells rung.

“Stop, villain!” One man out of the dozen singled himself out of the line, drawing his sword and raising his voice. He looked to be the eldest; a captain most likely. “You will not accomplish what you have come to do, evil scum.”

“It would be better of you and your Domelord to depart this dead place, and not throw lives away. I have no patience any more, and with Dancus I will be merciless. But now I see your bravery, and I offer you a chance. Run while you can. This Pillar is mine to pulverise.”

“The great Domelord Khoras is already gone, as is a great force of his men.” This man’s tone was adamant. If he carried fear he was not showing it.

“And he left you here to die? With all his people?” Egentu had a long time ago done something similar. He had owned a different name then. “Enough of this…” He pushed forward with raging onslaught, assaulting like a wild beast.

Blood sprayed unto the stones of the bridge, and into the river below, colouring the bile crimson. The dozen men gave their best, swinging swords not with reckless abandon, but with precision and skill. But no dexterity could be a match for something nigh invulnerable. Swords broke after few hits, wrists did so too when too much force went into a swing.

Egentu clawed at their exposed necks and bellies, pushing them into the cold Vys and throwing them down the bridge stairs, breaking their necks. One man had tried to stab Egentu’s eyes. His blade was caught and broken with a left-hand parry, and then with his right Egentu lacerated the face of the man, who stumbled and screamed and fell backwards into the water.

When the butchery was done, only one man remained standing, amidst a pile of corpses, slowly backing forward, as if being in proximity to the Pillar would offer protection. Behind him sellers and customers in the market ran east, leaving the bridge; some were so desperate and headless they plunged themselves below.

“Please…” the dying guard grunted, “don’t do this… thi—think of all th—”

Egentu grabbed the man by the neck, lifting him into the air, his booted legs dangling two feet above the ground. With his free right hand Egentu tore the guard’s helmet off and discarded it lazily. He engulfed his head, the claws piercing the back of the neck and the top of the spine, crushing the skull and splitting the bones. The guard’s howl of anguish sent shivers through the air. With a flick he broke the man’s neck and let him slump down, like wet clothing.

When he looked around he saw that no living thing stood in his way. He was all alone. All alone on the bridge, the Pillar so near, its malformations beckoning him. A dying child wanting release. A thorn to be plucked from a wounded paw.

Half a hundred stalls were stacked with powder, no one there to sell it. He approached one and grabbed a fistful; it wept through his fingers, leaving behind a grey trail.

“Wh—why are you doing… this?”

Egentu turned his head to see an old man, tiny in stature, on his hands and knees by the stall, hiding and weeping. He regarded that sorry appearance, not sure what to think. He said nothing, and only walked forward, his head held high.

The Pillar was within reach. All it needed was a domelord’s hand.

 

 

 

Bodenar dared not enter Regevus. He observed it from afar with his brother Domicus. The men and women he had come with were doing the same, only on the southern side. Only the twins and the six men Domicus had sent were there… and Sicreo, he supposed. They couldn’t see and hear very well what was happening. The hazy fires and shouts painted a clear enough picture.

Why? Why was this happening? These people had lives that were like those in Fonten, why did these have to die? Was it just the savagery of Egentu’s brothers, could they not wait and do nothing while their eldest carried out the important part? Would others—in hopes of being included, not left out, to fit in and contribute—kill? Not with Fonten, he told himself. Not with Fonten. Fonten is where the civilisation of humanity will grow, after Dancus falls. At least they would approach Dancus from the west.

“This is… not what I thought would happen,” Domicus said.

“And yet,” Bodenar said, “those six men you came with, their daggers were for show only?”

“I… it was intimidation, and protection. No one said anything about causing a massacre. Brother, they are erasing lives one place at a time.”

Bodenar didn’t know what to say, so he kept silent, watching the fires grow, and trying not to cry. He prayed—not to the Nightgod, of course, who was a fabrication as the Herald had said—but to some force of the Moon, that Fiena was unharmed and away from the deaths.

After an hour or two (he couldn’t quite clearly trace the flow of time) they went into Regevus, because the shouting had stopped and the trees had burned down. The place was a field of ash. Ash amidst the openings of stone houses.

“We need to find Sicreo,” Domicus said.

Then they saw a man kneeling by the fountain with his hands raised like a beggar’s; Bodenar had no idea who this was, but the twins stood by him, observing him. They appeared less immovable; they had been wounded.

“Governor Corien,” one of the twins said, “would you desire life?”

He muttered inaudibly and prostrated and merely shook his weak hands in solicitation.

“Get up,” the other twin said. “Get up and take a horse and go to Dancus. Tell them of what happened here, and what is about to happen to Regisum. You will hear it or see it soon enough. Tell them to run from the City and to the south if they have a desire for life. Like you did, here. Tell them of our mercy, if those who need it comply. What happens if they do not.” Then the twin turned to Bodenar. “Secure this man a horse.”

“Do it, Domicus,” Bodenar said, “I’ll look for Sicreo.”

Nods were exchanged and every man went his way. The twins stood immobile, observing the far distance to the north, to wait what they knew was to come.

Bodenar remembered which house Sicreo had pointed to when they had talked in the morning, and so he made his way there, through the devastation of Regevus. What remained of it, rather.

Inside the house were two corpses, and one of them was Sicreo’s; the other he didn’t recognise. Bodenar yelped impotently when he saw his friend’s corpse and he shook his shoulders, but the friend was dead. A friend he hadn’t known for long, but who had become back in Fonten reliable and always there to help, a polite smile never leaving his face.

“Oh Caerus… oh, what have we put ourselves into…”

He thought of his brothers and his friends, of what the twins had just said and done. Maybe this was just a warning, and not needless murder. Deaths here to prevent deaths in Dancus. A dead town to make a city empty, to have it live. A place was only its population, nothing more. He truly hoped for it.

Still, Sicreo here was dead, and Bodenar went into a room and took the linen sheets from a bed and wrapped the body into it and carried it outside, to the garden. He laid the cloaked figure onto the ground and pulled the shroud away. Though the body had already begun dispersing as the sunlight penetrated the cloth, this made it full, and the funeral rites at least observed in a small measure. The remains of a life, he thought.

A peculiar sight then caught his eye, a pile of ashes beneath a tree, and on it a piece of wood in some circular shape. He grabbed it and ran it through his fingers, trying to puzzle out what it was.

It was an apple. Bodenar remembered Vindel, and the day on which he had cut himself on the knife. Should have cut himself, that is. But didn’t. He wondered where Vindel was, if being in Dancus was good for him. Bodenar wept then, clutching the token in his hands. He didn’t find the money; he never even looked for it.

 

 

 

Egentu placed his hand on the Pillar, feeling that special intensity through the touch, and in the distance the voice of the Herald. The Dome above suddenly acquired a strange glow, as if the light of Egentu’s body was channelled through the touch and the Pillar and went upwards.

A moment of complete silence took over. Not even the river below could he hear. He swallowed the sunpowder to make himself immobile and rigid, and then the calamity began.

The Dome of Regisum cracked at the seams, like a split brain cage. It plummeted downwards and all around, scattered by a tempestuous wind into shrapnel. The cold Vys was choked and all the houses and homes and shops and temples and theatres crushed beneath the immense weight. The walls and the gates and the bridge disintegrated and all that remained standing was the Pillar.

Egentu’s body thrashed around like a ragdoll, falling unto debris that clogged the river fully. The Pillar then vibrated and let out a screech. And then it too fell. First as a whole but during its long spiral down it broke into pieces, and those pieces turned to dust.

The City of Regisum was no more, abolished from the world by an uncaring hand that swept it away like dirt. Fine, grey dust of peoples and construction was all that remained. A field of it, stretching across the entirety of where once a city had been. The cold Vys was fully buried.

Egentu woke from his conscious slumber and dug out of the dust which had fallen on him too, enshrouding him. A pulse spread out from the death caused here to all the places of this world. Egentu was confident all felt it. But this heartbeat was much mightier than the faint one he heard in his slumber on Gormal Ard, and as mighty, if not more so, than the one after Aelus.

A high-pitched whisper flew from the wound of where the Pillar had been, and a golden fluid escaped. Ichor, from deep below. Egentu stared at it and almost didn’t even notice a solitary breeze behind him, isolated from the wild gust which now stopped. The ashes were shaped into a figure, that of the Pale Herald.

Egentu stood and greeted his father. “Only one more, and then we are done with this. You will keep your promise?”

The Herald flexed his throat left and right; it creaked like hinges. “My promise will be kept, without compromise and fault. The burden falls on you, my son, and your brothers, to fulfil the ultimate task. They will know now, and be ready for you.”

“I know.”

The black lips on the featureless face of the Herald smiled, somewhat sourly. “With each of your steps taken I feel closer to renewal and freedom, and soon I will be. You will never be forgotten.”

“Perhaps it would be best if we were.”

“Do not speak uncouth thoughts, my son.”

Egentu grunted, too tired and weary to argue with what was patently not his father. He felt pain now. The mending of the sunlight helped, but he was weakened, and would need time to recuperate.

The Herald continued, “I must leave now. This form here is unsustainable. Once the last nail is plucked, come to where we were formed, and there all will end.” The body decomposed, becoming nothing more than dust on dust.

Egentu sat on that field for an hour before the others came from Regevus. He was not thinking or imagining, wondering or hoping. A dread took over, one of knowledge of finality and endings. This would all be over before a blink of an eye, arriving and ending quicker than he anticipated. Effective immortality thrown away like a teardrop in the Lake.

A voice came from behind. It was Zaloth’s. “You succeeded, brother.”

“I did,” Egentu said. He turned to see the twins, and behind them about fifty people, a couple of them on horses. “Bodenar,” he shouted, and the man made himself visible. “The Domelord of Regisum lives. You and your brother will take the horses and go to Dancus, and arrive as quickly as you can. To the horses’ death, if necessary. Convene with your other brother and spread panic and have the people abandon Dancus. Do not mistake our intentions as mercy or pity. We do this to make the kill easier. Go now.”

The two brothers were already on the horses, and a woman was behind Bodenar. Together they galloped east, towards the last City in the world. “The others,” Egentu said, “you are to come with us. Onwards.” The cultists of Bodenar and the Gormaloth walked through the desolation, leaving footprints that were by the wind eliminated immediately.

 

 

PART II

AN ARM ALONE

 

CHAPTER XVI

TO RETURN SO SOON

 

Governor Tomeus had fallen to his knees, leaving their shapes in grass and dirt, during the vibrations of the earth, and the scream in the air, like the sky exploding invisibly. Powder barked in the distance at nothing in particular and Clae slept as usual, since it was daytime. This would wake her. He had been reading in the garden under natural light, protected by the sunpowder and the shadows. The quake came as he stood to walk to the outhouse to relieve himself. His knees crashed into the mud and grass and his ears rang and through his head a vast numbness spread. The pain was mild, but annoying. The pain in his soul was greater, because the Governor was logical enough to assume what happened to the far northwest. What was coming to the nearby north.

As he gathered himself up and wiped the mud off his naked knees he saw past the fences an old friend in bloody clothes enter his house, passing through the empty doorframe like a ghost, pale and withered. Byton had returned, but Daira was not with him. Tomeus knew not whether to smile or wince. Why was his friend alone, and why did he walk slouched and weak? He had tied a horse to his fence before entering. They had left Fonten on foot those few days ago. At that thought another horror washed over him, and he sweated in the sunlight. It was less than a week ago that Aelus fell. Was Byton returning from a gone Dancus, a lone survivor? No, Tomeus decided, they would know had it been Dancus. So, it must be Regisum then, he thought.

His knees buckled, the joints vibrating like the mud had. So many souls. He remembered the conversation he had had with Byton before the departure. How after so much death and destruction the mind numbs, perhaps unable to comprehend the voluminosity, perhaps unwilling to accept what it meant. At a certain point the vast numbers effectively became a zero. Prayers will be offered, he knew. The priestesses will offer guidance and console the sad, and this will never be forgotten by the mind. But the heart? It will heal quickly, because it must. If its muscles splintered and its blood dropped for every distant tragedy there would be no more material to be undone. What remained was a faint hope, for it to remain distant. If it were to come near, it would be undone just the same.

After making sure Clae was safe and telling her to remain inside and that he would return shortly, Tomeus, in an uncharacteristic move, hopped the fence and walked beneath the tree shadows and the awnings made of leaves to Byton’s home. He wasn’t going to continue reading anyway, and in a matter of minutes the crowds would spontaneously form outside as a response to the tremble. It was his job as Governor of Fonten to lead, but a friend needed help, or so it seemed.

 

 

 

As soon as he furiously slammed the door behind him Byton weakly shuffled to a chair and collapsed into it. He slammed the desk with his open palms and then cried into his forearms. It was pitch black inside, but he knew his way around. A knock came. Three short taps on the door.

Before Byton could even lift his head and wipe his tears a friendly voice said, “Byton, it’s me. Let me in.”

He took the dagger with which he had done the kill and put it in the chest in his bedroom. Coming back, clearing his throat he said, “It’s open, Tomeus.”

With the door opened, clear light fell inside. Not directly upon him but enough to illuminate him. He regarded Tomeus with a quick glance and then returned to rest his head on his forearms. His thighs ached from riding. This was all so improper. In a way, he felt immense shame and then guilt for acknowledging that at a time such as this his own soul would conjure up such feelings to haunt him. Who tormented themselves this way? Alas, he felt no strength in him to stand and usher in the guest and offer food and water and comfort and light. But he did do his best to not show the tears.

After shutting the door, Tomeus stood by the doorframe, not moving in the darkness. “Will you let me stand here helpless, friend?” he asked calmly. “Or will you have the courtesy to animate yourself and light a candle for me?”

Byton lifted his head like a dog from rest and stared through the darkness to where the voice came from. They were near enough to see each other’s contours and the eyes grew adjusted quickly enough. No candle was lit.

“Has Loterus ripped your tongue out, Byton?” Judging by his tone that was in no way a jest, but an earnest question.

“Is my home city destroyed? Or is my daughter dead behind me?”

Tomeus was silent for long enough to make Byton weak in the supressing of his tears, but finally he said. “I do not know. I think it is Regisum. Or maybe nothing happened, and it was all just a coincidence.”

“You do not think that. No one does.” He rarely thought of his elders, since none of his ancestors lived. At times a memory would be triggered at the unlikeliest of moments. Now, the housing of those memories was gone and that wasn’t what made him sad. All were taught at young ages not to cry for ashes, in alignment with the teachings of vessels and souls. Khoras had been alive though, and now it seemed that he was dead. Byton had never been a man to dwell on the past, actively supressing memories of both pain and pleasure; they always danced together. When they reached the surface, emotions surfaced too, and when was that not a hindrance?

But if Khoras was truly gone, then everything about his past was obliterated. Senya, his gone wife, was dead, as was the child she had been carrying, if Loterus was to be believed. Khoras was dead. Regisum was undone, and his home and Khoras’ home where he spent his years of early adulthood gone as well. One thing did remain: the bow. A memento of a father, and a hunt.

Noises of voices emanated from outside. “We will talk about what happened to you later. Change out of your clothing, Byton, and then come with me. This is something we have to deal with and then will talk of everything.” Tomeus stepped outside, leaving Byton alone in the darkness.

Byton sulked for a few more breaths until he took another dose of sunpowder and then opened his doors, in blood-stained clothes still, to see beyond his fence a crowd of woken townsfolk, all shuffling towards the town hall. The men, that is. One neighbour shooed his wife away as she tried following him outside their house; the sunlight would have stopped her regardless. She remained motionless by their open door, clutching a dust cloth.

Beneath the dancing shadows and lights of Fonten he cut his way through his neighbours to enter the town hall. No one seemed to pay attention to the blood on him. It was as if everyone suffered from narrow vision and their only point of focus was their seat inside, where the air was wet and hot.

Tomeus had already been standing at his place. His eyes showed fear, but Byton knew him well, and saw excitement there too. Why wouldn’t there be some, Byton thought. Dramatic events of far away had the benefit of exciting but not harming.

When Byton sat he saw those next to him giving quick looks at him, quickly rescinding them. The man in front of him (who’d memorise all their names?) slowly turned his head and looked Byton straight in the eyes, not even lowering his gaze to peer at the dried, black blood. His look was full of cold contempt. Byton wasn’t even sure if he had seen this man before, so he paid it no mind, but he didn’t back down with his own gaze. Eventually the man turned his head towards Tomeus.

Who said, “We have all gathered, it seems.” He swallowed, the insides of his neck shuffling visibly. “All felt it, I assume. The same… event, as after Aelus fell, but more intense. I will say immediately that I do not know what happened, or where it happened. No birds came, and no messengers.”

“So what now, then?” one man asked.

“Nothing, it would seem,” Tomeus said. “As soon as any news arrives all will be announced. Till then, we can wait.”

“Wait for the same thing to happen here?” another one said.

“I repeat,” Tomeus said, “we do not know what happened.”

“Maybe you don’t,” the same one said, his tone undeniably rude for meetings such as this. “I really doubt an apple fell somewhere! Either one dome fell or the other!”

“Watch your tongue!” Tomeus yelled, as loudly as Byton had ever heard him. “I am the Governor here, and as long as that is the truth speaking order shall be maintained, as well as the courtesies accompanying it!” That did more than enough for make him quiet. “If that is all—”

“What about this one?” The man in front of Byton—bald, heavy and in common clothes—jabbed his thumb jerkily, pointing behind him.

“Byton Saros?” Tomeus asked. “What of him?”

Byton took a deep breath, not knowing where this was going, but he had no strength in him after all that happened the previous night and morning to have outbursts of rage. A memory of a conversation appeared to him, of talking to Daira before departing, but he couldn’t say why.

“Well,” the bald man said, “his tunic is all bloody and it looks fresh enough to me. I’ve seen him riding on a horse into town not two hours ago. He’s no butcher or hunter but I have heard tales of him, of what he was, or maybe still is!”

“What are you implying, Posiol?” Tomeus asked.

Posiol gasped. “What does it look like? He killed someone! The gravest sin! Didn’t even have the humanity to change out of the proof of his crime, against the murdered, us and Caerus!”

“Now is not the time—” Tomeus began to say, until interrupted.

By Posiol, who said, “Isn’t that why we are here, what this is for?”

Byton saw Tomeus clench his fist and shout, in controlled fury, “Any one of you ever again interrupt me or raise your voice one more time and there will be consequences!” That last word he pointed towards Posiol like a dagger, stabbing cleanly. “Everyone out! Now!”

But Byton did not move. In fact, he remained as he was. Those seated left of him had to squeeze themselves between his knees and the seats in front. They did so quickly, passing him by, avoiding the locking of eyes. He felt oddly drained and was definitely tired. His eyelids weighed a ton.

Once the room was empty, bar Tomeus and himself, the air was significantly more enjoyable. He took another breath and shook his head, trying to keep himself calm and awake. Tomeus sat next to him.

“Tell me precisely what happened. And why you didn’t change out of your clothes.”

“My friend,” Byton said calmly, “it is hardly in your best interest to know what happened. Much more so if he comes after me, and I suspect he will. I think I will have to leave soon, and I doubt I’ll return.”

“What happened?” Tomeus asked once more, his request resolute and not invasive. He looked straight at the downcast Byton.

“Loterus had me kill a man, in exchange for Daira’s safety. He wanted me to get caught, but I disobeyed his plan and got out of the City.”

Tomeus let out a breath, then cleared his throat. “The blood then?”

“From the man I killed. Actually…” Byton rubbed his temple. “I killed two men. One was in the way. A woman was there too, but she ran away. I had almost forgotten about them.” In the corner of his sight Byton saw that Tomeus began fidgeting.

“That is… not good, for you or me. The townsfolk will hear about this, and this woman will go to Loterus, and he will come. She gives him an excuse to find you, and when his men arrive in Fonten I won’t be able to defend you here, from them or the others. Not good… not good at all.”

“You’re not angry?” Byton asked. “You are not judging me for the murders?”

Tomeus clasped his hands. “I believe you, and I know Loterus.” The candles of the town hall flickered and the flames made tiny roars, the only sounds in the brief silence of two men talking. Tomeus then said, “You say you will return to Dancus?”

“I am not leaving the last of my family with that man. Whether my death or hers comes out of it, I will fight.”

“And when did you plan on leaving?” Tomeus spoke more eagerly; it was obvious his mind was at work, spinning and planning.

“As soon as possible. The day after tomorrow. I would leave this instant if I could but I have to rest. And think about all. Recklessness will amount to nothing.”

“There hasn’t been a known murderer in this town as far as I can remember, Byton. The people here will not look kindly upon you. Posiol will talk, and the men all saw the blood and surely some will make nothing out of it but some will condemn you, and if you are guilty in their minds you are in danger here. Pressure will be put on me to send you to Dancus, to have Loterus put you in a cell, or worse, to banish you to the south. I can protect you for a day or two but then I have to… succumb. I am so sorry, my friend.” He put his hand on Byton’s shoulder.

Byton smiled, but he doubted Tomeus saw it. “That is all right, Tomeus. I too am sorry and I have no intention of causing damage to your position here. In fact, let me do you a favour. Send me to Dancus, so that my wish is fulfilled and so that the people are pleased and so that you remain a strong leader.”

“Are you sure?”

“You’ve said it yourself. No other option.” He wasn’t a fool to not see that this outcome for all three parties was what Tomeus was aiming at ever since he sat down next to him, so why not have everyone pleased, if possible. There was no such thing as a selfless act, Byton thought. All men and women were selfish creatures. For most, parsimony and egotism were obvious; why do something which doesn’t benefit the self? There are those who did acts of kindness and charity, who brought people together and not apart, but even they did so for the benefit of the self, be it a cynical or a spiritual benefit. Like what sunlight did to flesh, life did to the soul: all falls apart to the most basic of elements, what makes the human feel good, no matter its consequence, beneficial or maleficent.

“Stay in my home, please, where it will be safe. They wouldn’t dare to kill you, of course, such hypocrisy is here non-existent, but you know what the priestesses here preach about life and the Nightgod, what our daughters learn from teachers and hear in the temple. The ilk of Posiol will do their best to harass, but not in my home. They do not understand Loterus. The day after tomorrow then, I will send you under guard to Dancus.”

Byton smiled once more. “Thank you.” He stood, and Tomeus did the same. They embraced, and Byton felt the tiredness take over. “We should go,” he said, trying not to yawn, “before I fall asleep on your shoulder.”

 

 

 

Young Clae had awoken an hour before dusk, to the sound of a closing door. Powder was resting by her bed, immediately springing up with joy as she got out of it. He licked her bare feet while she looked for the slippers in the candlelit room, giggling and feeling the cold of the stones beneath her. She had wanted to ask father for a carpet but he was quite busy with work.

These few days were lonely without Daira. There was really no one else to play with. Except for Powder, she supposed. There weren’t many children in Fonten and those that were here were either much older (basically adults) or younger, or not adequate, father said.

She entered the dining room and saw Daira’s father and her own sitting by the round table, ale mugs in each man’s hand. Most of the room’s light fell on them and the rest was murky and dark. In a few years she would be old enough for marriage, and if the Nightgod was kind she would find a city husband. These darknesses of stone, uncomfortable rooms were no match for the brightness of Dancus. She had been once there when father took her to see the Domelord. What a strange man, she had thought then. With very sad eyes.

“You’re up,” father said. “Are you hungry?”

“Not yet, father,” she said. “Should I go back to my room?”

“You can stay, Clae.” Tomeus turned and quietly asked Byton, “If that is all right with you, my friend?”

“Of course, Tomeus. Your house and your daughter.”

She wasn’t sure what to think of Daira’s father. He was somewhat scary looking, especially now with his beard unkempt and greying. His hair was oily and dirty, but his clothes looked new. Her father had much smaller shoulders and arms, and was shorter, but more handsome, of course, and with clearer, wiser eyes. She didn’t like looking into Byton’s eyes. They were intense and dark, and they seemed to trail away but still linger long enough to carefully observe.

One time a boy in town had interrupted Daira and Clae as they played with Powder. He wasn’t being rude, or anything of the sort, but he asked Daira if she knew why her father was always so lonely and rarely outside their house. All the other parents were friends, he said. She didn’t quite remember what Daira had said, but she did remember that boy.

Then, for what seemed like a long time, Daira’s father sank his face into his open palms, the elbows propped on the table. Clae began to ask a question, permission, that is, but didn’t get the chance.

 

 

 

He hadn’t closed his eyes before letting them fall into the palms but the outcome was still utter darkness. His fingers felt dirty, as did the face and the beard. The nails needed trimming.

He thought of Posiol and he thought of anger. An idea struck at him, at first horrible to imagine but quickly, frighteningly so, he had discovered that he had made up his mind. A man like Posiol was a piece of a puzzle, by himself irrelevant and doubtlessly a passable element of his life. Yet after enough tiny bug bites that irritation turns palpable and annoyance becomes hindrance. He had killed two men. Very recently. After the killings of long ago stopped he felt as if a gate were sealed, that part of his life shut under a stone house of a village, in which sunlight will never peer. But its door was cracked, opened by Vindel and the guardsman. Brought down by Loterus. Removed by him, himself.

Why not succumb, he asked himself. If everyone thought you were something, as was evidently the case, judging by the meeting and the looks of before, was that not what you were? If you were treated by others as what they thought you were, why not simply become what their expectation was, and have it be all oh so simple.

He wouldn’t wait. It was true, he had rarely spoken with others in Fonten, no one really but Tomeus. Before he had left Dancus with his daughter he never even considered of saying quick goodbyes to anyone else, or talking to anyone else, or interacting in any way but for baseless posturing in the town hall.

There was no way out. Perhaps Daira would live, but he saw no future for himself. Or a future for Dancus. It would be best, if she were with Tomeus. He felt tears forming silently, but not falling since there was nowhere to fall. His palms were now wet.

It wasn’t just sadness, but catharsis also. He realised now, in a moment he wasn’t expecting or thinking would arrive, that it need not be convoluted, no more than he wanted it to be. Simple actions leading into simple actions, and then rest. Happiness for progeny.

He turned his palms to their backside and wiped the tears away. “Tell me, friend. Where does Posiol live?”

 

 

 

Clae knew of whom he spoke. It was the fat man, the unkind one.

“Go to your room,” father said. “Close your door.” He said so patiently, but she had known him for enough to see that beneath it was nervousness. He scratched his face and said, “Go on. To your room.”

She did walk away, and she did enter the room, and she did close the door. But not fully. Enough to barely hear what they talked of. There was giddiness in such mischief, but she did it not for its own sake but because she did want to hear what they had to say of the fat man. She remembered speaking to Daira about him the night before they left. Apart from the distance and the door ajar, they whispered so faintly she wasn’t sure who spoke what.

“What do you want to do, Byton?”

“I will show him who I am and then I’m gone.”

“What? What are you talking about? We had made a plan, agreed on everything.”

“I know what there is to do. I only ask of you one thing. Daira, would you… take her into your family, if the need arises? She is not a son, I know. Another daughter, but please, for me.”

“I know not of what you’re planning but please, think. Do as we had agreed.”

“Tell me, Tomeus. Will you?”

A silence. Then, “Yes.”

After that she heard no more. Later father had come to get her. They played in the yard with Powder. A couple of days later she saw Daira again, but she never again saw her friend’s father.

 

 

 

Posiol had never met any of his grandparents; all died prior to his birth. His mother had died when he was seven, walking precariously through the nearby woods, searching for mushrooms. She had fallen and broken a leg. By the time she crawled to Fonten, writhing in agony, the sunpowder had worn off and allowed for the Sun to take chunks of flesh, the luminosity falling in intervals and fragments through treetops. The sight of her was sickening when the townsfolk saw what remained of the body. A mangled monstrosity.

His father died of a cancer a few years after. The growths took over the lungs and at his deathbed his coughs were more blood than air. A month later, Posiol’s brother disappeared at Lake Caerus, fishing there, despite the frowning of the clerics. Most assumed he drowned, though a body was, naturally, never recovered. His twin sisters’ deaths came from a grotesque tragedy. One’s lover had been overtaken by rage at learning the news of infidelity. He had accidently killed not his love, but her sister. He killed himself out of sorrow and shame, as did the other twin, unable to cope without her mirror. The only cousin he liked was murdered by a bandit’s robbery gone wrong; his parents died before Posiol’s own birth.

He had three children. A daughter and two sons. The daughter was a spare, the pride of the family. A beautiful girl, with fiery hair and fierce eyes. She was sixteen at the time of her death, of which he never fully learned the circumstances. Some said Loterus poisoned her, or had one of his men do it. All working for that monster, Posiol had decided then, were as awful as he. The eldest son lived in Aelus, where he had been assigned as a cleric, deciding to forgo inheritance and a town life. Of course, he hadn’t lived through the collapse. A week after that, being the day before today, the other son passed away. He, a merchant, had been making sales in Regisum, and was about to return.

Who had such misfortune, Posiol wondered. Who dared call him bitter or vile after all the losses he endured? He concluded it was no excuse, or justification. A pious man, a good man, lived past his tragedies, not until them. So he stayed alive, but no life was worth living if it allowed for murder to go by. Apathy towards it was not only sacrilege and the worst sin, short of being the actor of murder itself, but it was evil at its core. A stranger’s loss could under the tiniest differentiation in circumstance become one’s own.

He had spent the day after the town hall meeting not doing much, short of sleeping, eating, resting, and taking a cold bath. He would swim in the Lake if he hadn’t considered it improper. A thought did occur of meeting with the Governor to ask that the matter of the murderer be handled swiftly and in accordance with justice. However, he felt some reluctance. Fear, if he were being honest with himself. At midnight, he decided, he would go pray to Caerus at the wooden shrine, seeking guidance. The right thing needed to be done. Most would agree with him, he hoped, though there would always be some who would characterise him as annoying and a busybody, always sticking his fat nose into others’ affairs because he had none of his own. One time, a child threw a branch at him while he was returning from prayers. What was the wretched spawn even doing outside so late at night? It hit him in the shoulder, and while it didn’t hurt it was humiliating. Luckily, no one was there to see, except the one neighbour, who remained silent. But he also didn’t see who the child was. Likely a little cretin looking for approval from malicious parents, he thought.

It left him awestruck how close he was to tears when the branch hit. They didn’t emerge, obviously, but he had felt the sensation approaching so had cleared his throat, shouted an insult towards wherever the child in the darkness could be, and returned home.

Now, carrying a burning candle, he left the house once more at night, making his way to Caerus’ shrine, waving to a fellow townsman on his way, the one who was always outside. Circling around his house he walked the dirt pathway to the woods and once inside the thick darkness of brown branches and verdant treetops he continued till he reached the carved wood, shaped like the Pillar.

An owl hooted, then a great pain, before he could even offer a single prayer or kneel or feel anything close to comfort or relief, emanated from the base of his neck to the rest of his body and consciousness and he felt it all slip away.

He awoke. Couldn’t tell how much time had passed or where he was but it was still dark. Then he understood it was a sash tied against his eyes. His hands and feet were bound, and a wet cloth was in his mouth. Breathing was hard. A panic took over. He thrashed like a caught deer but all he managed to do was sweat profusely and wet himself.

Posiol spent what seemed like hours in that position, lying on the grass. He was unable to tell if it was the panic or not, but it gradually became hotter and hotter. Then a violent hand removed the sash with a jerky movement; a nail scratched deep into his face. Five heartbeats later he could see clearly again and saw a monster before him, in a clearing past the forest, far away from Fonten. The murderer, as he regarded him from above, stood heavy and imposing like the Pillar, his shadow in the darkness falling over and judging him, hiding him. He had never been so afraid in his life. His voice was a series of pained sounds, no clear words; the now-dry cloth in the mouth remained.

“I had decided well before I came to the shrine what I was to do, but I hadn’t known clearly what the specifics were. Life or death, great pain or small pain, fear or terror.” The monster spoke with relentless precision and calm. The voice of a man who knew what he was doing, and was confident in his abilities.

“The blood on my clothes? Yes, it came from murder, and I was the perpetrator. But you, Posiol, whose name I didn’t even know until a day ago, were so quick to judge, and so ignorant of context and circumstance, that you would brand me guilty because in your head I was, and that was enough. Well, it was enough for me too now, because I’ve had enough. After a while, it becomes more than I can handle. Unfortunately for you, you are the one I chose to demonstrate to who exactly I am, since you so desperately want to see the real me.” The monster took something out of his pocket. It was a pouch. He emptied the contents in his mouth.

Then Posiol discovered what was to happen, and to his surprise he swiftly resigned to his fate, thinking of what his own blood had went through, this seemed perversely appropriate.

The monster retreated to the shadows of the trees, as sunlight made its climb over the horizon and then its descent unto the lives of men and women, and Posiol, lying helplessly on grass, tied and silenced, but not blind, so he could see the approaching horror, unable to act but only to wiggle like a worm.

The world became warmer and brighter, until the monster in the woods was invisible for the glare of the light. Posiol gave a prayer in his mind, and he let go of all feelings and thoughts but one. Pride, in how he acted now, unexpected to him, and, he hoped, offering some foil to the monster’s plan. Posiol lay stiff as a trunk, and he never screamed.

The rays took away the feet first, burning them like firewood in a steel furnace, leaving ash on the grass. Then the rest of the body went, little by little. He had lost consciousness after the knees went, and so he couldn’t feel any more anguish.

But Byton was there to see, and he looked until the head was ash and the eyes vapour in the morning air. There was no wind to sweep the ashes. The silhouette of the body remained.

 

 

CHAPTER XVII

SEPARATED BROTHERS

 

Two of his guardsmen sat on the barrels—the younger, one of the few with swords, setting aside the sturdy scabbard—after they had finished digging and setting the stakes and supports, preparing arrows and oils and fuses. Their hands still filthy from the dirt and green from grass and leaves, they talked of what had happened not hours before.

“Did your wife get out?” the officer called Gedeas asked.

His most trusted fighter, who truly never saw actual combat for he always found clever ways to prevent it but was still adept at fighting and never bested by his fellows when it came to swords or spears or bows, said, “I don’t think so.” Crying in front of other men, especially for guards, in a situation which was strange but still work, was not something he was about to do. He scratched his stubble and continued, “I don’t think anyone but us got out. I don’t think they would envy us.”

The officer, an older man of greying hair and deteriorating prowess (though as his fighting skills waned with age the respect he commanded grew through experience and veterancy) sighed. “What makes you think that?” He rubbed his hands to relieve the soreness. His greatsword was by his side.

From the balcony of the abandoned inn, around the many hovels, the young fighter had a clear view of the road as it stretched from east to west and the pits around it and on it, and the dead tree in the centre. “What are we to do, sir?” he asked. “If we manage to do some good here, if we succeed, are we just supposed to follow the Domelord to Dancus and go on with our lives? As if nothing happened?”

“No,” Gedeas simply said. “That can never be. Doesn’t mean we can’t stay amongst the living. Look to the truth, son. This is all we get. I am in no hurry to rush to my sunlight pyre. When you get older you will look at this with different eyes.”

“You think we’ll survive this?” the fighter asked. The other men were still working. Around fifteen of them the Domelord left. The leaving was an unspoken sacrifice, but he told them they were under no obligation to die for him. If they could make it out they were to do so, and follow along. It surprised the young fighter that still they all, including himself, had faith in the Domelord. He realised he would die for him. Was it really in their nature, he asked himself, to die for those who treated you well and as equals, to protect those not of your blood or love? In a way, he loved his fellows here, and he loved the Domelord. The young fighter was the first who saw the enemy and lived, riding back after being sent by his old captain at the ruins of Aelus.

“We will,” Gedeas said. “We will survive if we’re clever.”

“I don’t think we’re any cleverer than the thousands who died in Regisum… or in Aelus.” He almost didn’t believe that what he was saying was the simple truth. “For the name of Caerus, the whole world is almost gone! Why am I the only one panicking?”

“Relax,” Gedeas said, not as an offer but as an order. “We cope. We live. The world is brutal and you can die any moment just be peering through your door but we are alive and have survived, and our ancestors survived hundreds of years ago and our descendants will survive hundreds of years from now. What are a few weeks in that all?”

Descendants. That world clung in his brain, like a tiny hook. He won’t be having any, not after Regisum. She was now forever gone, and no other could replace her. The two of them were special in a way. She was the only one with fair hair between her colleague tailors and he between his fellow fighters. He replied, “Everything, if all ends up broken in these few weeks.”

“Then,” Gedeas said, “let’s make sure it doesn’t end up broken.”

A third guardsman joined them both on the balcony. Soon would come time to hide. An hour or so ago (keeping track of time was becoming hard with all the unrest and lack of sleep), the Governor of Regevus, a man named Corien, had ridden through, almost destroying the hard work. He told them of what happened in Regevus, of the slaughter of ash and blood. Two monsters of golden fire. Immortal, he had named them. Invincible. All should run, he said to them, to towns south of Dancus, where they could be untouched. Gedeas had urged the man to ride fast and join with the Domelord, to bring him the news, if none of them made it out of these hovels alive. Soon after two men and a woman rode through too. They were tense (how couldn’t they be?) but they named themselves survivors and they were allowed passage.

“Sir,” the third man said, “we judge everything to be done.” He eyed the barrels they sat upon.

Gedeas said, “These will be deployed from here. Hopefully it will work.”

“It’s our best shot, sir,” the third man said, saluted, and after Gedeas’ casual nod, left.

The young fighter saw Gedeas overlooking the world around them, especially the dying Lake, and what might lie at its core. “Are you a man of faith?” Gedeas asked.

“Of course,” the young fighter said. His behind was becoming uncomfortable from sitting, so he stood, as was in any case appropriate considering he was in the presence of a superior. He didn’t really know why he had been so relaxed physically. “I don’t stop praying. After Aelus fell it was all I could do for a day.”

“You don’t find conflicts in your faith, considering all these occurrences?”

“I do… I do, but no priestess I ever listen to claimed Caerus was perfection. We have to do some work ourselves.”

“Hmm… I’ve heard some make that claim. In any case, I agree. We have to do some work ourselves, which now means to fight what comes our way.”

“But we don’t know what’s coming, I’ve only seen them from a distance,” the young fighter said. “We’ve heard the tales, yes… but if have to fight that? Fire in the shape of flesh? How will we fight that?”

Gedeas smiled sourly and stood, leaning on the balcony railing and looking down. “It seems with fire.”

 

 

 

Long before their new monikers, the three brothers who were to bring doom to life on this land (except the one in, bathed in gold and light) convened one day in Aelus, during their lording over each one’s respective Dome. Via birds the meeting had been agreed upon, despite the reluctance of Adeolatus, without whom the evening wouldn’t have been organised. Mother and father were there too, the five of them in the mansion of Nikheparus, their host.

Taedalus had journeyed from the northeast, passing through the small town of Regevus, riding a steady steed and protected by seven guards. Adeolatus had done the same from the southeast, though with him were twelve guards. The councilmen of Aelus had made sure of that, using it not as a sign of worth but mistrust. They would be correct, in the end. Spares would spell the fall of Udium, precipitated by their master.

Mother was to begin showing the first signs of her illness soon after. Father sat by her side, holding her hand and never letting it go, even to the detriment of easy dining. Nikheparus was at the head of the table, as was expected and proper, despite being the youngest person in the room, even though Taedalus was only moments older. Adeolatus sat at the opposite, the other head. Due to the workings of the Domes, the sons looked older than the parents.

For the longest time no one spoke in that white room, of marble floors and walls and decorations, with the monotony broken by the redness of candle fire and crimson carpets, their warmth reflected upon the silverware of the dining table of dark oak. The servants had come and gone, bringing course after course. From spicy soups to salads with all the colours of the rainbow—an inappropriate and mixed message, Adeolatus thought, considering the rainbow’s symbolism as a bridge of souls between life and death, rain and sunlight—to cold meats then lamb and potatoes and at the end iced fruits like apples, grapes and melons. Actually, Egentu thought, remembering all of these details on the road to Dancus, perhaps the rainbow was appropriate considering all that happened afterwards; a good omen.

Once the meals were over with, Nikheparus the host was first to speak, saying, “I am glad, and how fortunate we are, that we could all come together, considering all of our circumstances.” He raised a cup of wine. “To, dare I say, the most important family to ever have lived.” He sipped first, then the others did so. Mother drank water, Egentu remembered.

“It is rather curious,” father said, “how all of our sons the Domelords are.” He squeezed his wife’s hand. “Perhaps if we had one more than Dancus would be a piece of the puzzle too.”

“There is no inheritance,” Adeolatus said, drinking the wine. “No children of ours get the City, father, even if we had them.”

“Oh,” father said, “I know, son, I know. But it is a nice thought, isn’t it? It feels grand and important. You know there are no coincidences,” he gently said, smiling throughout. “Everything leads to something.”

Two days day after the dinner, already back in Udium, Iemelus the servant came to speak to his master Adeolatus. “Come in,” he said, responding to the knock at the door, setting aside his quill and parchments to the side of the working desk. Had anyone else come he would have kept writing, but Iemelus never interrupted without reason, or importance. “Yes?” he asked.

“It is some… tragic news, my lord.”

“Sit down, Iemelus.” Adeolatus gestured to a chair in the mansion’s office. “Tell me everything.”

“The supply of water during your dinner in Aelus had been… tempered with.” He spoke softly, and Adeolatus knew whenever there were gaps in the man’s speech that the news was not good. “An enemy of your youngest brother’s, the esteemed Domelord Nikheparus, had paid a servant to poison the water for your family gathering. Both have been exiled to the west, powderless, of course. Apparently, your mother isn’t feeling… well.”

Adeolatus muttered something under his breath and then quickly said, maintaining courtesy, “Get out, Iemelus.” He bowed and left, closing the doors behind him. The Domelord walked to the window of the room, overlooking the dark Elsat from the elevated, massive bridge, and the many houses along the bank, culminating in the mouth of the river, feeding the Lake. He spotted many tiny people in the distance, doing whatever it was ordinary people did.

It looked all so much like Dancus, where the family was from, dispersed throughout the whole of the world by winds of fate. And Aelus. And Regisum, where he had been once before, and would many years later be again, a different man, a different name.

He did not cry. If he’d had the knowledge then that he had now—on the road to Dancus, the family returning to its birthplace—he would have, knowing what would happen to mother, and later father, and then the three of them. He went back to work, which never stopped. An hour later he closed the Dome, and then slept. Egentu did not yet remember what happened later, but at the moment he had no desire to do so, for in the end it would all lead into one event, which was him, now.

A new thought came to him then, one that was a painful thought to have. If he had declined to go, if he had accepted the scrutiny of his councilmen and remained, then perhaps none of this would happen. He did not know, and never learned, how exactly father became ill, so soon after mother, riding on that horse into Udium. He did have doubts, and knowing father it was likely related to mother’s poisoning and subsequent illness. But then he shook his head, discarding the thought as if it were a buzzing fly nesting itself on his brain. Such thinking was pointless. Introspection lead to nowhere. One more, hometown or not, then release.

 

 

 

The bodies of the three brothers looked to them lesser than they had been before the fall of Regisum, and when Egentu remembered how he glowed after awakening on Gormal Ard, he now appeared positively dimmed. He thought of it, and arrived at a logical conclusion, of how the change wasn’t to make them stronger (that was incidental), but to be conduits of sunlight. After Dancus, he wondered, would he appear a normal man?

The road that lay before them, bent and dusty, stretched along the shore of the godnamed lake. A black cloud slowly crept towards the Sun. Gormal Ard couldn’t be seen, yet with the way things were going, soon one could walk towards it; Lake Caerus was a pale shadow of its former self. When Egentu remembered rowing father on that rickety boat when all four rivers fed the waters fully, the Lake now in comparison was shallow and dying.

The fifty cultists marched behind them, panting like tired dogs. If some died from lack of powder, then nothing for it. Zaloth and Thros were by his side. Their light in the afternoon Sun was hushed more than his was. He assumed it were for the injuries they might had sustained in Regevus. Though Egentu too took hits of arrows and swords and lost a part of his light to Aelus and Regisum. The twins had fought many foes, he concluded.

“Is your strength available?” he asked them, not turning his head off of the road before him. A village was in the distance, one that looked old and lonely.

Zaloth replied, “It is returning, yet I had never felt this weak. By Dancus we will recuperate.”

“Until then?” Egentu asked.

“Until then…” Thros said curtly, “we will manage.”

Egentu noted the passivity of the vocal aggression. “We are now equal, brothers. None of us have our cities anymore.”

“Anymore?” Zaloth asked. “We had them in nothing but our minds, gone long ago. You seem to remember more than Thros or I, elder brother. This is nothing but utilisation. Work. I, for one, cannot wait to be dead, like my memories.”

Egentu sighed, and said nothing.

But Thros spoke, “One thing remains, which might invoke emotion in me. We journey to our City. In a way, I imagine, the least of ours, for the time spent. Still, Dancus is where we were born and where we grew into men.”

“I agree,” Egentu said. “I imagine too there will be reluctance before my hand falls unto the Pillar of Dancus. But think none of it. What must be done, will be—”

“Stop!” a cultist yelled from behind, simultaneously a demand and a plea.

Egentu did stop, and turned his head to see them from the corner of his eye. One of the men had fallen, and appeared to be dying from exhaustion, judging by his skin and breath. “Is it the heat?” he asked.

Another knelt by the fallen men and said in panic, after muttering, “I… don’t know, I don’t know. Help us.”

“Carry him to the village we see in front of us,” Egentu said authoritatively, channelling his old days, “and leave him there in the indoor shadows. Or leave him here, if it is trouble. Nevertheless, we go on. This stops for no one, least of all one of you.” The face of the cultists revealed fear and anger. They were already, Egentu saw, beginning to falter. Before any of them could say or do anything, he pre-emptively said—before trouble could start as it so inevitably broke out in situations like these—facing the many faces, on that road between lake and forest. “We are not here to motivate you. We are not here to assist you or make your lives better or easier or to lend them meaning if you are lost or disappointed in living. We are not gods for you to follow. We are not your moon.” He took in a heavy breath. Birds of prey circled above. One screeched. “All you need to know, all you need to understand, is what was told to you by your three leader brothers, and by us south of Regisum. None of you are bound to us. Stay. Leave. It matters not. Follow if you have courage and wish to serve. Nest yourselves in Dancus while it falls, or wait outside, or go to towns south of it and live as if nothing happened. What you are not to do, here, there and everywhere, is to delay. Now walk.”

As Egentu turned to do as he had said one of the men asked, “Can’t you give us your strength? Can’t you make us immortal?”

“That power is not mine.” He kept walking. Zaloth and Thros did so immediately. The rest joined in soon enough.

“Was it your desire to grant them incentive, brother?” Thros asked. The three of them were well out of earshot of the slow men.

“I do not fully understand why the Herald had even bothered with these,” Egentu said. “Are the three of us not enough? It seems he begs for every assurance he can get, no matter how minor. Could it be fear? Or just preparedness?”

“We cannot know, of course,” Zaloth said. “We do not know his ultimate goal. What all leads to.”

“He said he would tell us,” Thros said with a note of disbelief.

Another thought struck Egentu, something he now saw he never asked. “Tell me, brothers. How and why did you come to the thrones?”

Zaloth replied, evidently for both of them. “This I remember. It was near the end. A servant of yours sent us letters, via the fastest of the birds. We knew it to be important. That father was ill and our prayers were needed, at the oldest shrines. I met with Thros in Aelus and off we went, on a boat rowed by men of ours. When we reached the centre of the island with them they… choked, as if invisible dust clogged their throats. We saw you on the centre throne, and I remember a force beckoning me to sit, like the Pillars do to signal the beginnings and ends of light. We couldn’t resist. We sat. Here we are now.”

Egentu grunted, trying to avoid the introspection once more, to not lead all of the events that now occur back to his person. “Do you regret that you listened to me? Do you wish you died those many years ago?”

“No,” they said in unison.

“Besides,” Zaloth said. “We will die soon. Now with father.”

None said anything else, so they continued their walk into the village. Egentu couldn’t recall if it had existed during his old days. From this distance it was obvious the village was abandoned. The path descended slightly, offering a clear view from an elevation. There was no longer a point in going through woods. Avoiding roads would only waste time. Now they were known.

He saw a collection of ramshackle wooden constructions. An odd choice, he thought. Less sturdy and more prone to cracks but the buildings still stood, most of them more or less the same size, with only one standing out. An inn, it seemed. The hovels were oriented around a central pylon-like tree, tall, leafless and grey, long dead yet still standing; it looked ready to fall. It was all an imitation of a city, he thought. Two entrances or two exits. That triggered something he had heard long ago, of exiles building their own villages in a simulacrum of the true cities, though this was close to Regisum, and not far from Dancus. He wasn’t certain, in any way, but this tiny outpost was circular, as if the edges of the hovels served as walls and the tree was a shrine.

When they approached its entrance he could hear the breeze become a wind and blow through the houses and make echoes. Moist collected into droplets and they dripped inside, louder than one would reasonably expect. The wind itself sounded ominous, warm but cutting into the ears, carrying the sounds which shaped in his mind the hovels and with it the aromas of rotten wood. Something was wrong here. The creeping black cloud almost covered the Sun. There would be rain soon.

He lifted his hand, making all behind him stop. It pained him that he wasn’t sure if it was paranoid caution, of wanting the last step to be flawless, so as not to tumble down the staircase and begin anew, or if something honestly presented itself here a danger.

“What is it?” Thros asked.

“Nothing.” Egentu let out a slow breath. “We continue.”

Tall grass had overtaken the village. It brushed against his and his brothers’ knees as they walked, and against the cultists’ hips. What path did merchants of Dancus and Regisum take when they traded amongst themselves? Had they gone astray, he wondered. He then saw a defined pathway, where the road between Dancus and Regisum continued through the village, but lessened, hidden in the grass to those who had no knowledge of it.

The cultists behind began talking louder between them, some he heard clearly. They spoke of how when they had passed through it, some of them going from Dancus to Regisum with one of the brothers, that the village appeared different, as if now it had been altered.

The ground beneath Egentu’s feet felt lighter with each step. Then wet and slick. It hadn’t rained yet. Then he saw the dirt had been overturned. The black cloud hid the Sun. The light of the brothers became weaker. Someone nearby yelled. A soldier’s shout. An order. Not one of his men. He felt a fool, since now he saw what this was.

A soft rain began. Everything happened instantly. Operated by shadowy hands.

In the corner of his sight he saw two barrels plummet from the balcony of the inn, lit fuses on their tops. They crashed like boulders into the grass. The wetness on the ground and blades of grass was oil. As the barrels fell they exploded to a deafening roar, sending a wave of fire, spreading like frenzied snakes, along the floor, rushing to their feet, meeting them quickly.

The dead tree crashed into the ground. Hidden supports had been placed around it and once the fire caught up it fell, smashing into a group of the cultists. Their blood splattered across their friends. Others rushed to run but they fell into pits and impaled themselves on wooden stakes. Arrows came flying from over the buildings, embedding into them all.

Feeling the fire’s strength, close to feeling true pain, Egentu looked around the chaos. The chaos of the abandoned village, which was all fire and rain and corpses and descending arrows. He did what he could, rush outside the eastern exist. He saw as he ran, avoiding the pits, his brothers follow (an arrow was inside Zaloth’s neck) and the cultists ran behind them, scared like they had never been in their lives.

Exiting the fire, feeling the pain subside, pain he hadn’t felt in hundreds of years, he dove into the dirt, his feet caught into tripwires and shards of sharpened wood. More than a dozen men, some on horses, armed with spears and swords held high, charged through the woods unto the road outside the village, yelling death to them. Egentu gathered himself up, thinking his body bled, though it couldn’t. Zaloth and Thros were next to him, breathing like men on their deathbeds. Less than ten cultists made it outside, standing behind them, cowering like pups.

Having only time to say a few words before the wave of enemies broke upon them, Egentu said, the soft rain extinguishing itself on his form, beneath the black cloud, “Fight to death. We can live anew. They cannot.”

The five men on horses mowed down the remaining cultists, like they were cutting through butter with burning blades. Egentu placed himself in front of one horse and grabbed it by the head. The momentum pushed him back and his feet dug into the dirt but he was stronger. The rider poked at him with the stone tip spear. Egentu disregarded it and twisted the horse’s head, bringing it to the ground. The rider fell beneath it and Egentu stomped on his face three quick times till the man’s face was fragments and paste.

Zaloth and Thros fought the footmen, blocking sword blow with their bodies and cutting through necks with claws revealed. Zaloth pulled the arrow out of his neck and stuck it into an enemy’s eye. They fought viciously, like starved wolves denied their last meal. But they were surrounded, and though no single man was a match for the Gormaloth, damage accumulated, like bug bites did.

In a moment Egentu truly never thought would happen, the light of Zaloth and Thros subsided, made so by the fire, by the arrows, spears and swords, by the black cloud which blanketed the sky. His two brothers fell to their knees, lightless and broken, nothing but tall men, darker than in night’s darkness when light was nothing but the Moon’s. An enemy put all his strength in a horizontal slash, and their heads fell clean off their shoulders, rolling into the ground. Egentu screamed and threw himself on the killer. He pinned him to the ground and stared into his face as the living few stabbed his exposed back. He felt nothing of it. The killer was young and with fair hair, now made red from blood. Egentu bore his claws into the man’s neck and slashed until he clawed through bone and dirt. Two of the men stabbing him died next. He tore open their bellies. One man still remained, a rider. Egentu chased after him with all his remaining, weak strength, but the man rode away.

Egentu’s shoulders like the Lake’s shore shifted up and down with exhaustion and torment. To his left the village was nothing but abating fire, ashes of men and places. The rain turned harder and the fire weakened. His brothers were gone, their bodies not turned into ash but transported to the distant thrones, like it had been long ago when their powers first formed and the many suicides were tried.

The dead guardsmen littered the floor of the road, around them the cultists. One was still alive, the only movement in a pile of corpses. One by one, with the black cloud diminishing and revealing the Sun, and the powder in their blood dissipating, the corpses became ash, so near the shore of Lake Caerus. In the pile of weapons and armour and bloodied clothes was that one living cultist. All that remained.

Egentu walked to him to pick him up. This one, he decided, will live.

 

 

 

Gedeas, the one of the three survivors from the massacre of the abandoned village, rode hard and fast, disregarding the horse’s stamina and health, ignoring the rain and not minding the heat. He saw it. He saw it with his own eyes. When his good friend and commander Domelord Khoras left him in the village with the other fourteen men, he thought it at first a death sentence, and true, it was that for his subordinates. But they did it! Two of the monsters were killed!

“Dancus can be saved,” he mumbled aloud, the never-changing landscape of forests and shores continuing along his journey. One of them remained, one monster for one city. This is revenge for Aelus and Regisum, he thought. How good it felt.

But between that feeling of pride and revenge was a level of shame. A part of him thought he should had remained to die, but no, he decided, that was foolish. Someone had to live to deliver these tidings, to show that there was still hope. Now they knew the enemy, now they knew how to fight. But there was a disturbing thread running through it all. There were men with them.

They were not slaves or food. They fought alongside the monsters. How could they do that? Gedeas hoped they had been forced into servitude, he hoped for that above all. To think that some of his fellow men—some doubtlessly from his now destroyed Regisum too, some could have been neighbours—were willing to help the obliterators of life, who sought nothing else but to destroy what sustained them… The thought was too much.

In any way, the Domelord would be pleased. None could call them cowards for fleeing Regisum and now this village. Khoras always had plans, he always knew what to do. The ambush was entirely of his design. Gedeas rarely left his lord’s side, more bodyguard than ordinary guardsman or officer, and when they heard from scouts what was occurring in Regevus they knew that death had come from Aelus to Regisum. Khoras had gathered what guards he could and issued to couriers to spread news, to tell people to flee but not cause panic and chaos. Few it seemed survived, despite the best efforts. The Governor of Regevus still lived, which was good, he would provide a good mind for Dancus, and those two men and that woman who rode through could convince people of what happened. There were now too many eyewitnesses to ignore, to call these news tales of fools.

The men Khoras had managed to gather fled to the village, and there Khoras left them to their duty and told them what to do. The rest he took with himself to Dancus. Gedeas had met the City’s Domelord Loterus once. His newest hope now, ever so slightly approaching that place under a rainbow in the sky, was that no issue would come from the heads of men themselves. The enemy was singular, and now there was hope. Hope for Dancus and hope for all who lived.

 

 

CHAPTER XVIII

BACK IN THE TOMB

 

Byton’s pace through the woods gradually shifted from walking to running, as if ghosts chased him. He rushed by the dense trees and the sunlight they allowed, shielded by the powder he took. Most should be asleep in the town, and the horse was still in his yard. He only had one item to take, and to cast his farewells.

A feeling akin to guilt, but definitely not it, gnawed on him. It was only natural, he told himself. In this world upon birth the soul was imprinted with the instincts, promises and thoughts all men and women carried through life, and for one to break such a promise meant mental pain. The first of his killings had made him vomit his guts out. Now it was just a sensation of the mind. It would stay with him, but the pleasure he took and the relief he felt in no longer cowering down or being passive would overpower the negatives.

His thoughts went to Loterus then, nearing the edge of the woods, passing by the shrine. Perhaps the two of them being rather alike was what pained him about the man, never mind what was happening with Daira. He thought too of Robera, Loterus’ child, who had been ill and in great pain, and had that pain removed and mercy given by Byton. When he looked at it that way, was what Loterus was doing with Daira so unjustified?

Yes, he answered to himself. It was. Byton could live with the evil in his soul, and he knew he would pay for his wrongdoings, but Daira wasn’t part of the equation of himself and Loterus. An innocent suffering for the evils of two men, no matter how related, was never justified. Getting to Loterus wouldn’t be difficult, he hoped. All it would take is being in the same room.

Leaving the forest he saw his house nearby. Very few townsfolk still lingered outside. Tomeus wasn’t in the town’s centre and no one was by Byton’s house. Maybe without Posiol to incite a mob no one would make demands of the Governor to exile Byton, or maybe when news of his disappearance spreads the mob would have its martyr. No one really liked Byton here, and that he knew, but by night-time they would gather, and by then he will be long gone.

He entered his house and quickly ate and drank what remained, and took powder that was still there, in case it was needed. Looking around, he noticed no mementoes or items which could impart emotions. The lack of it was what made him emotional. He walked by Daira’s room and peaked inside. The empty bed was perfectly made; she must have done it before they left. It made him more resolute. There was no way he would let what was supposed to be a brief excursion into the City turn into death for them both. She would sleep again in that bed. His house was larger than Tomeus’ (another boon of the benefits of money and powder he received from Regisum, which now he realised would cease forever), and with Daira being his own legal successor, the house would go to her. It had no one else to go to, and he never wrote any wills. Tomeus, Clae and Daira could live happily here, he thought, and that dog with them.

Which reminded him of why he returned in the first place. To go into the shed outside and retrieve the bow. Touching its old frame, plucking the new string, he could clearly again see in his mind his father on the hunt, and the bear, how it all went into doom. Byton picked the quiver and the arrows by the bow and jumped upon the horse which had been grazing in the yard. Steering it through the gate and through the centre (some yelled behind him, telling him to stop, emerging from their doors) he left Fonten, leaving all behind, riding north on the road to Dancus.

He arrived on the hill that stood before Dancus quicker than he had anticipated. It made him think the horse understood his haste. The strong Ulico that passed through the City bore filth into the Lake. He remembered when he had stood on this hill with Daira not ten days ago. The Dome still shone as bright as ever, but the river was dirtier and the Lake looked like a god had drunk half of it. By the southern gate crowds of people emerged, passing through the Sunspot, leaving the City. He wasn’t sure what was going on.

Descending the hill, steering the horse carefully and holding the reins so as not tumble down, he saw more and more people emerge, going his way, eventually reaching him and cluttering the road before he came to the gate. He got out of their way, riding through the grass, alongside them and in the opposite direction.

One woman, around whom many children lingered (one seemingly pregnant), he asked, stopping the horse, “Tell me, please, where are all of you going? What is happening in the City?”

The faces in the crowd were downcast and sorrowful. They looked like men and women disturbed from a long sleep. Most had animals with them, cows and pigs they trotted along, and dogs too. Others pulled carts loaded with goods. “We’ve been made to leave, sir,” she said. A man stopped next to her, and small children too, wrapped in cloths to shield from light as best it could.

“Made to leave?” he asked. “By whom?” On that horse he sat upright and rigid.

“There’s a new lord in the City, says if we want to live and not die in the City that we’d be good to leave.” The woman’s eyes were full of regret and sadness. She was old, and leaving all she ever knew behind hurt like something Byton could now easily imagine.

A man, the husband most likely, said, “He put it forward as an option, but he’s forcing us out! Had his guards beat and throw out those who refused to leave. Gave us so little time. The guards of Loterus joined up with him and helped.” The man sighed, and then spat at the grass. “Maybe for the best, we don’t want to end up like Regisum.”

“Thank you for the news,” Byton said. He handed them a small pouch of sunpowder he took with him. “I wish you luck on the road.” They bowed, expressing many thanks for the powder, and continued their journey south.

He managed to squeeze past those who fled, them making way for the trotting horse. Passing by the Sunspot and being fully under domelight the nervousness and redness which outdoors light caused left his body, and he took in a deep breath. The Optea was filled with people like he had never seen it before. No guards stood by the gate to regulate entrances. All were going out. Was it Khoras who was here, he wondered. Who else could it be?

People, like tributary streams, flowed from the alleys into the Optea to flee out of the southern gate. From the windows of houses along the Optea men were throwing for their family members to catch items which they could carry, items of worth. A thought of irony made him smile, not really for a reason he understood. The poorest of the City would have the carts and animals on which they could load their belongings, but not any belongings worthy of carrying. The rich, on the other hand, had no cows or carts, but had the many expensive goods like silverware and rich fabrics. Work together, he told himself.

The few guards he saw, riding to the bridge, not having to leave his horse behind in the stables near the gate, were helping people pack their belongings. The air inside Dancus was stuffy and hot, filled with dust from the constant shuffling of feet. Some were sure to refuse Khoras’ (if it were his) orders, but it looked like most valued their lives sure enough, and all felt the earth and air after Aelus and Regisum. If nothing were to happen, they could return either way.

He left the horse before the bridge, not trusting it to climb those stairs. The last thing he wanted now was to die in an accident. He made no effort to tie it; without walking mere feet a man behind him had already taken the horse and, looking around with panicky eyes and a tense neck, took it away.

The bridge was as packed with people as the Optea still was. Pushing his way through the masses—like he had when he saw Vindel speak at night by the Pillar—he finally reached the mansion.

“Halt!” a guardsman ordered. This was, and hadn’t been, no man of Loterus, Byton thought. He was better garbed and armed, and more disciplined and stronger. “Citizen, you are to leave the City immediately! Take what you can carry and proceed outside. In a town south of here called Fonten tents will be secured in the days to come.”

“I seek the Domelord,” Byton said.

“The old lord is indisposed.”

“Khoras,” Byton said. “I want to talk to him.”

At the mention of the name the guard’s eyebrows arched. “What is your business with the Domelord?”

“My daughter is inside, and he is a friend. Tell him Byton Saros wishes to speak to him, and he will let me inside.”

The guardsman nodded and after ordering a man to do as Byton said he remained motionless by the doors of the mansion. For a moment Byton had been afraid that the guard would play a fool and not wish to disturb his lord. They had been trained, it looked like, to treat requests of the people seriously.

Byton waited outside, in the rising heat, for what felt like a long time. Finally a man came outside, and said. “Byton Saros?”

“It is I,” he said.

“Come inside, though I will take that bow and those arrows. The Domelord wishes to see you.”

Reluctantly, Byton handed the bow and arrows away. Walking the lengthy hallway, he approached an open room. “Khoras?” Byton stood by the doorway, a guard behind him. The old friend was inside, his sleeves rolled up, showing his thin, withered arms. He leaned on the table with the open palm of his left hand and in his right he held a cane, his back turned to the room’s entrance. A large man stood by his side.

Domelord Khoras, once of Regisum and now of Dancus, who had been an old friend, seldom seen and talked to in the past few years, turned around. Byton felt something curious then, not entirely sure what the feeling was. The face of Khoras was old. His skin wrinkled and decayed. His mind was the age of Byton and Loterus, and even though Loterus looked much older than his years, this was something else. The Domelord’s whole frame was bent and gaunt, tall as he had ever been, easily a head taller than Byton, but skinny as a needle. Even his domelord’s robe was washed out and pale.

“Byton,” he said. The voice was unchanged, sonorous and loud, commanding the attention of the room. Hearing that speech emanate from such a frail figure brought a tear to Byton’s eye. This all felt very wrong. “You look as I expected you to,” the Domelord continued. “And I expected you might appear, considering the circumstances inside this house.” Before Byton could reply, Khoras said to his man, “Gedeas, bring us the fool and the girl. Tear the door down, if needed.” With a gesture of the head he showed to a set of two nearby chairs. Sitting on one, Byton followed and sat on the other. “Think the thoughts you wish to share with me, Byton, and remember them. You will tell them to me later, but now is not the time.”

Sitting there speechless, Byton stared at the frame of the door. After some noise from the hallway and assurance from Khoras of a wish to be fulfilled, death came.

 

 

 

Locked in his bedroom, Domelord Loterus—recently relieved of his position, but wishing not to go into death without the inherent dignity of power—knew that his time was over. When Regisum was removed from the world he felt the whispers’ magnitude increase, and he could tell the usurper heard them too. He had arrived the same day, entering the City at night with a cavalry of his guards, almost a hundred of them (if no exaggeration was made by the report), before they arrived to the mansion under the guise of peace.

Loterus, knowing himself not a fool, found no surprise in the outcome of events. The men who served him abandoned their loyalties, which already were tenuous at best, and rallied behind the newcomer. The usurper had apparently motivated them with hopes of survival and safety, and had learned that the murder of their fellow guardsman went largely uninvestigated. He even turned the Council against their own Domelord. All that in the span of one long night, under the bright summer night sky. In the morning he began the evacuations. Naturally, the councilmen were the first one out, leaving on horseback, believing tales of beings who ruined Aelus and Regisum. The clerics and the spares left next, and by the time the Dome went up, not by the hand of its rightful lord, the rest of the people were flowing out.

Loterus had been dining with little Daira when the mansion gates swung open, their loudness spreading through the hall and into the open room where they had been. He had expected, based on a report submitted that Khoras would camp his men by the northern Sunspot and come by himself. Not half an hour later, cutting into a piece of meat, the usurpation began. Loterus had taken the girl by the hand, who resisted but was still lulled by a few drops of the (in that dosage safe) greytooth solution.

Entering the hallway, Loterus had seen at the other end men with swords drawn marching towards him. He ran as quickly as he could to his bedchamber and inside he locked himself with the girl. What little communication that transpired after that were either attempts of getting him out or news fed to him in the form of boasts.

The first thing Loterus had done locked inside was to force Daira to drink another drop of the mushroom’s solution. She had fallen asleep quickly, and now rested on his bed. He paced around the room, not sure what to do. He knew, however, that this was the end. Those doors could be brought down if necessary. Or he could stay inside till Dancus was no more, if such a thing was to happen. Or he could leave on his own will, and face what was to happen. Perhaps nothing perilous; perhaps the usurper only wanted the opposition outside.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but he made his decision. Though when he loudly knocked on the door to make his will known, an old friend soon answered. Three voices came from outside his bedroom. One he recognised as the usurper, one as his dog, and the other as Byton. They asked him to come out.

“Your daughter is inside, Byton,” Loterus said. He looked back from the door to the bed to see her sleeping calmly. “By the basis of all the primal instincts of ours who could deny me rights of revenge?”

“Loterus,” Byton said. “If you harm her you will die the most horrible death a man can imagine. Let her go. She is not Robera and you are not me.”

Loterus said nothing at that, but he did think. These night-time lullabies had offered him a level of peace he hadn’t known in a long time, and the whispers seceded at least slightly. He asked, “Tell me, usurper, what whispers do you hear? From the Pillar, in the night.”

“Death is coming for us,” the usurper Khoras said. “My friend Gedeas here had seen it not a day ago, not a dozen feet away. It will come, and it will be relentless and quick. The whispers increased after Aelus for you, yes? And after Regisum too? Well, I have news for you, and we have much to discuss. But we need you to come outside.”

“Tell me everything,” Loterus said. “Now.” Faintly, he heard a sigh from beyond the door.

“You seem to misunderstand,” Khoras said. “It might be hours until it comes. It might be a day. Or it could be entering Dancus as we speak. You have to go. Now.”

Loterus’ breathing became heavier. She would wake soon. He walked to the bed to pick up the sleeping child, to carry it in his arms like a corpse to a sunlight pyre. By the girl’s head the doll he had given her lay beside her. Seeing them side by side, he cried. Why did it all have to end in death? He knew now how pointless he had been. This was not Robera nor could she ever be her, and the doll was just cloth. A smile was just a smile and laughter was just laughter, but from whom it came mattered, and all who mattered were gone. He wished himself gone. He wished the whispers to stop. Now he heard them again, like a ceaseless tapping upon the drums of his ears. Now they couldn’t bear any more impact; the membrane ruptured, and deafness lead to death.

When he reached the door he moved to unlock it, being careful to maintain a firm hold of Daira. It wasn’t he who opened it when the clicking of the key made it clear for all in the hallway to hear that Loterus, once the Domelord of Dancus for many years, had come outside.

The three men stood side by side, the usurper in the middle, the long hallway stretching behind them, and the Pillar looming behind the closed mansion doors. Loterus’ body was angled towards Khoras, but his face stared at Byton, whose eyes and open mouth silently screamed at the motionless girl. Acting quickly, expecting the reactions of all to be natural, and they were, he handed the girl to the usurper’s dog, and before Byton could react with naught but the movement of his face to demand she be handed to him, Loterus said, “She is dead, old friend.”

Byton moved like a rabid beast, catching Loterus by the throat and pushing him against the hallway wall. Before all of his vision was overtaken by the rage on Byton’s face, Loterus saw Khoras lift his cane to prevent action from his dog.

With his left Byton choked and dug his nails into the flesh of Loterus’ neck and with his right he struck and struck and struck, till jaws and teeth and nose became broken, red, and blue. This was, after all, what the old friend was bred to do. It seemed (this being the last thought of Loterus) that there was no escape from what you birth. A part of it remains within you, and later it consumes you.

 

 

 

Daira, feeling strange and ill like she had constantly been feeling for the past two days, woke in the arms of a stranger, his bearded face looking resolutely at something nearby, and not her. Before her eyes turned to see what the man holding her was looking at, she heard quick and horrible sounds. Flesh and bone being broken against stone. Blood splashing across the floor.

It was her father. He was breaking the Domelord’s skull, holding it in his hands like a ball and slamming it into the wall without rest. She screamed, and began crying, her eyes and mind clouded in confusion and horror. The man holding her looked at his arms. Reacting as quickly as he could, he turned away to shield her from the view, but as he turned she caught the eye of her father, who turned as well, having stopped his bloody murder. Inside his eye, she saw nothing but hate.

Hearing footsteps coming towards them, and thrashing around, trying to be released from the strong grip of the man, father stood before her, and the man holding her faced him. Closing her eyes not to see (the tears still flowing nonetheless), she felt an exchange, and now she stood, her bare feet touching the cold floor. Something was wet and slick on it. She feared she knew what it was.

Her head was brought down upon a shoulder. Trying as hard as she could to be let go of, she couldn’t fight her father’s arms. But then she heard him crying and his tears wetted her clothes. Why was he crying?

“Oh you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive…”

She had never heard his voice break like that, and she kept on crying too. Moments like these turned into awkwardness quickly. In the tales father told her before sleep there would always be transitions between two moments of emotion, like two paintings on a wall, next to each other but connected by nothing but proximity. This, on the other hand, flowed like time did, and she remained crying in his arms for long enough.

Eventually he picked her up and carried her to a nearby room, sitting her on the bed and sitting next to her. His eyes shuffled around in the domelit chamber, being red and dark, and unfocused. The only thing she wished for was for all of this to end, for her to wake up in a distant place. Home, in Fonten. She wanted to play with Clae and Powder, go talk to teachers and priestesses. Sleep in her own bed, eat on their table.

Finally, father said, “What you saw, Daira… I thought he had killed you. I am so sorry, my daughter. I have never been sorrier in my life.” Tears began again. She wondered then, do tears never end? Was there inside all of us an unending supply? He continued, “You see, my existence is a life of loss and escape. My father and my home. Your mother. My friends. My soul.”

He never talked of her… She closed her eyes, and listened. He said, “I think I finally found myself today, and I don’t think that can ever change. I am not going to lose you now, whatever it takes. You do not have to love me, you do not even have to respect me. You can fear me and you can hate me, but I am your father, and you are all I have left. Please, Daira, I beg you. Allow me this, please, for at least a while.”

It took a few long moments before she spoke, and she had no idea if in the air of the silence she thought of anything. She considered it impossible to not think of anything, surely. Even nothing is something, she guessed, and that is a thought too. But now, between father’s speaking and her own, truly nothing sparked inside her mind.

“I want to leave. I want to go home.” She swallowed. Her throat hurt. “You killed someone, father. The Domelord told me you have killed many people… a girl my age. How can there be anything worse? How can you do that? How can you ask me to accept this…”

He walked away from the bed then, as if a distance of a few feet was a shield from truth. “What did Loterus tell you?”

She knew now what she wanted, and what was there to lose anyways? Her entire life now looked broken and remoulded in this past week. “Father, I want to go home. Without you.”

 

 

 

Before Byton turned from the window of the room to look at his daughter, he realised he had lost. He could yell now, he knew, scream for all of Dancus to hear. She was his blood, she was his daughter and no matter how much hate she could harbour she would have to obey, because the world worked that way. Who would stop him from dragging her by her arm all the way to Fonten?

He knew who, so he let go. “All right,” he said. “I understand. Tomeus will take care of you. I hope,” his voice breaking again, “that when you are older you might find somewhere in your soul forgiveness for me. All I did, I did for us.” He knelt by her, as she sat on the bed.

She didn’t flinch. At all. He felt pride in her. He kissed her on the cheek and said, “I love you, Daira. Goodbye.” He walked outside the room, and she did not follow. Inside the hallway he looked to where he had killed Loterus. The body was already gone, the floor and wall cleaned of blood and gore.

“Byton?” It was that man of Khoras. Gedeas was his name, if he remembered correctly. “Follow me.”

He did as he was told, not taking his eyes off of the cold tiles. Once in the room where he had been with Khoras before the killing began, he sat back on the same chair, as if nothing happened. Khoras stood, leaning on his cane by the table of the room. Upon it was a map of the City, scribbled on with ink. By the map was Byton’s bow.

“It is yours,” Khoras said, noticing Byton’s gaze.

Byton rubbed his eyes. He was tired again, and hungry and sweaty. He stared at Khoras and then asked, “Was I always like this?”

Khoras smiled. “No. You were not. You changed. Going to Dancus had made you into a different man. It has been close to a dozen years since last we spoke, yes?”

“I’d say so.” He paused for a moment, then said, “I feel like there once existed this great connection between us, but seeing you now I… feel as if I had never seen you in my life before. A stranger stands before me, and I think a stranger sits before you. As hard as I try, I can’t remember much from our childhoods, not the events in any case, or the details. I remember the idea of you, but not you. Do you understand?”

“The wrinkles have taken my face, and they have taken your soul.” Khoras cleared his throat. “Time does this, Byton. What do you want to do now?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I feel… ”

“Yes?” Khoras asked. “Tell me.” The light of the Dome was past its peak, slowly it diminished, falling through the window in the little room of the mansion.

“As if I have nothing to live for. Daira… she… She doesn’t want me, and thinking of it now, it is for the best. Khoras, what should I do?”

“Let me tell you, Byton, what will soon happen, and then, if it colours your opinions and I think it will, you can give me your reply.” Slowly, using the weight of the cane to walk, Khoras sat next to Byton, took a ragged breath and said, “Listen. Most will be outside the City come night. Some fools will fight hard to stay, but their deaths at my hand interest me none. Salvation was offered, and refused. All must leave. They have had help, these three beings of light.” Byton saw Khoras clutch the head of his cane tighter. “They will come then, and I say it will happen at noon. Gedeas has seen them, those who destroyed Aelus and our Regisum. Two of them were killed, through immense effort, which means the third one can die as well. Yet all it takes for them to ruin us is to come to us. We do not know how they do it, but if I had to place a bet I would say with utter confidence that it involves the Pillar. From a distance I saw Regisum die. The Dome shimmers like the Sun and then it implodes. The Pillar is the key, and we will guard it.”

“Guard it?” Byton asked. “Why not simply kill this third being?”

“Gedeas reported that they took blows of iron and fire that would kill a thousand men. Sunlight seems to feed them, and so the one remaining will choose noon. It could be invincible then, for all we know, so I do not wish the risk. When it comes inside all it needs is to rush the Pillar, and we are all dead. No, we have tried force, and though limited its effect was it served us to a point, but now I wish to try something else. Gedeas heard them speak. The Governor of Regevus, who had seen their might too, was here as well. He reported they sent him as an envoy, to make us leave for Fonten. So others will leave, and I will stay, and I will try to reason.”

“You will stay inside?” Byton asked. All of this felt surreal, like an impending doom looming over personal tragedy. He had no doubt as to what Khoras was saying was the truth. It humbled him somehow. Made his problems seem lesser.

“By then all will be gone,” Khoras said. “I will wait by the Pillar, and what happens will happen.”

Byton looked at his old friend, who now avoided eye contact. “No, there is something you’re not telling me.”

Khoras smiled once more. “I am fulfilled, Byton. This is the culmination of my calling, and whether I fail or succeed this is my end.” The smile disappeared, and Khoras paused. Then, “There is grief and pain in my work. Every sunrise and sunset in Regisum for the past few years I wondered what it would mean if I chose not to place my hand. The Pillar wrecks you, Byton. Just look at me. Would it truly be so bad, for humanity to start anew? Who is to say, that years from now, we will not be tolerant to the Sun? Then resistant. Then immune. What I have done, I have done to save us. If all goes well, all can return, and life will go on, but I will not. If it does not go well, then we fight, and if we lose, then perhaps we deserve such a loss.”

“And you intend,” Byton said, “to stay by the Pillar and talk to what comes? You will let it destroy the City?”

“Let it?” Khoras asked with a level of disbelief. “I will do all I can to prevent it. If I cannot, I will try to survive, of course, I have no wish for death, but if Dancus falls, then so be it.”

“You’ve given this much thought,” Byton said. “Are you sure, then?”

“I am. Gedeas said he will stay with me, and fight if he must. I cannot ask that of any other man.”

“I will stay with you too,” Byton said. He surprised himself a bit when those words came out of his mouth, the tongue working quicker than the mind, but when he thought about it, he knew that there was nothing else to do. “After all, what is there to lose anymore?”

 

 

CHAPTER XIX

TO GIVE UP

 

Brothers Bodenar and Domicus, with the former’s wife behind him, rode on two horses into Dancus, having hours ago been stopped and questioned by armed men, who had to be none other than guards of the Domelord Khoras. They had galloped through an abandoned village, the one both brothers recognised as being the same one they had come through after they had gone to Regisum, in which Domicus had stayed and from which Bodenar had departed towards another village, where the Gormaloth were to be awaited. It was Bodenar’s wife Fiena who had noticed first how something was odd. How the grass was overthrown and different, how the scent in the windless air was that of unmasked oil.

A spearman had stopped them, emerging out of nowhere, spooking the horses. Fiena had almost fallen to the ground. It was Bodenar who had spoken, thinking quicker than his younger brother, feigning the status of survivors, fleeing gone Regisum and Regevus. For a heartbeat, and not for longer, Bodenar had contemplated telling them all, and begging for forgiveness. What he had seen in Regevus stayed inside his eyes, etched like a carving, and the carved apple was in his pocket still. But it all leads to something, he told himself. Villages and cities were nothing if it led to a life without the penalty of light. Fonten was the goal; saving these guardsmen’s lives was not.

The three of them were let go, and off they went along the road to Dancus. Once inside the City, passing the Sunspot and feeling sunlight replaced by domelight, feeling the workings of powder in their blood waning, they rode towards Vindel’s house. Along the ride Bodenar had hardly contained his excitement; as much as he had felt grim for what had happened, he also felt that Vindel would be proud of his two brothers. What they had set out to do was a success. Now they were to, under orders of Egentu himself, to spread tales of what was coming, to make people flee. It all worked out, Bodenar thought. Less people for the harbingers to kill, more souls to live in Fonten.

But when they saw what the Optea was, all three understood that their work was being done for them. Bodenar concluded that the Domelord was having people evacuated, and when he heard guardsmen shout orders and names, he learned that Khoras was indeed here. It didn’t matter really, he told himself, who the Domelord was, as long as thing went according to plan, and by all measurements they were.

Changing direction from the Optea to enter an alley, finally the river of people subsided slightly. Vindel’s house was nearby. Now that the noise was lessened, Bodenar said, “Brother, I think we have nothing to do here. Everyone is leaving.”

Bodenar couldn’t see Domicus, since in the narrow alley the younger brother rode from behind, but he clearly heard a smile in his voice. “Is it truly over then? Are we just to collect Vindel and leave as well?”

Bodenar chuckled. “Yes. Yes it is.” He let go of the rein with his left, still keeping the right, and put it behind his back. Fiena took it and held it tight. When he had told her back in Fonten about most of the things that happened in the woods with the Herald—his brothers had urged him not to tell, being afraid she wouldn’t understand; that was when they settled on keeping the truth of the Moon a secret, telling it through a prism of the false Caerus—she was there to reassure him. There was nary a doubt in her eyes and her voice kept steady. He remembered her being confused at first, but then confusion turned into acceptance, her head nodding up and down as he spoke, like both of them did now on the back of the horse.

He held the rein tightly, his nails digging into flesh. That hand was like Vindel’s now, made invulnerable by Egentu. That too had been a promise. And now all of it was actually going to happen.

They dismounted by the doors of the house. Bodenar knocked, expecting Haecinta, Vindel’s wife, to open, but after more knocks nothing happened. He turned to look at Domicus and Fiena. “Could they have left with the others?” Before they answered he knocked once more.

From across the narrow alley (three men couldn’t stand abreast), an old woman opened the shutters of an upstairs room and yelled into the outdoors, “Stop the knocking, will you! No one here! Go spread your noise elsewhere.”

She began to pull the wooden frame, to close, but Bodenar spoke. “Wait! The man from this house, did he leave like the others are leaving?”

The old woman grinned. Most of her teeth were missing, and Bodenar already was growing to dislike her, not really knowing why. “Gone? Yes, the man from that house is gone like the others. Gone is his soul. Had it coming, too, what with all his rituals and pogroms while good people sleep!” She spat below, to the street. “He was killed last night!”

Bodenar blinked. He moved to stand in front of his brother and wife, between them and the elevated, windowsill-leaning hag, as if his body would protect. Dead? But… “How did he die?” he asked sternly.

“What I’ve heard is someone shanked him outside an inn. Killed a guard too. His sobbing widow was with them, but she survived. Left like the others did. Guards came this morning. Had an interest, of course, one of theirs was killed. Then, well… look around you, boy! Other things took over. I don’t see anyone searching for the killer any time soon. But I’m staying! No one going to kick me out of my house.”

“Who… who killed him?”

“Some do-gooder, I say. Fled in the night, however. Wasn’t found. And who’s going to be found in this mess?”

“And you?” Bodenar asked, his voice rising in intensity. “Will you come down? So I can show you how to speak to others!? How to talk of the dead!?”

She waved her hand dismissively, and closed the shutters. Bodenar felt rage, squeezing his fists as hard as he could. He felt blood in his left hand; he felt invincibility in his right. He made to move, but a hand fell on his shoulder.

It was Fiena. “Bodenar, Domicus… I am… I don’t know what to say.” Bodenar shrugged, to move her hand away. He turned to see Domicus sitting by the house door, leaning on it, crying into his forearm. He lifted his head when he heard Bodenar approach.

“Sicreo is dead. Vindel is dead…” Domicus said. “The one thing that was promised to us! The one thing we were promised wouldn’t happen!”

Bodenar too was speechless. He was now the eldest. Domicus was without a wife, still in their family, and what the eldest man gave was protection. Strange, he thought, what those around you do to your feelings, and your tears. What happened to Vindel could never happen to his younger brother. “Domicus, listen to me.” He grabbed him by the shoulders, ignoring the resistance, till Domicus looked up into his eyes. Bodenar said, his face dry, “I know how you are feeling, believe me, I am heartbroken too, but we mustn’t fall into fear now. We will look for Haecinta in Fonten. We will leave Dancus. We have done well, brother. It is over. We can leave. Think, just think. Remember when we were at the shrine at Fonten. All of this looked like fantasy, like a child’s imagination, but here we are. We just have to pass through the gate. We are a foot away from victory. Do not fall apart now. Please.”

Domicus fitfully nodded, sniffling and swallowing. “All right,” he said. But then, “The killer? What of him?”

“I swear to you,” Bodenar said, with great intent the like of which he had never spoken in his life, “I will find the man who killed him.”

In silence they mounted. Fiena tried to stay close to him, to hold him, but he shrugged her away, not knowing why. He supposed that in times of stress, he liked being alone, though she was constantly behind him. Riding down the Optea, towards the Pillar and the bridge, past all that to continue down the street, reach the southern Sunspot and its gate, through a mass of faces fleeing like them… He internally sighed. There was great reprieve in being free of burdens that came with work, with responsibility. No matter how hot the air was and how much heat exuded from the bodies of people, his wife, the horse, the world felt all that much colder. Searching for Vindel’s body would be foolish, obviously. So the teachings and beliefs went. The body was a vessel, and nothing more. Though they had been told about the falsehood of Caerus and his brother the Daygod by the Herald himself, and though those teachings of souls and shapes were tied with the gods, he still carried them. It was hard to get rid of what one was taught as a child, and what one perceived as the only truth. What would replace it? The only substitute available was ignorance, so even a shoddy answer was better, he supposed.

By the Sunspot guardsmen were handing out pouches of sunpowder. A pouch per family member. Rare families of more than five were to divide among themselves three pouches. Bodenar saw merchants arguing with guards. It looked like their provisions were forcibly taken.

The trio still had some powder from Regevus, but happily they accepted a pouch each, after giving names and being struck off a list. Many guards stood around, keeping watch so that none took more than was available to a person.

All three ingested, and the two horses cantered through the light, leaving Dancus behind them like a ruin, never returning.

 

 

 

In the days to come they settled in Fonten, at their house which their father left them, along with a dagger and a horse. Happily they took in refugees and hosted them as the town was being expanded with great effort. Digging was all that they did. Building foundations, searching for wells due to lack of water.

Domicus, taking the trade of a carpenter, stayed with them till a year later he found a wife of his own. A priestess from Dancus he met in the town’s temple became a source of great affection. Lovingly they kissed on moonlit blades of grass. However, their topic of bonding was deemed morbid by all. Both Domicus and the girl had murdered brothers, killed by the same man. Through support for each other they fell in love. She birthed him two sons, whom they named Vindel and Ralus. When the sons were both grown (one the town’s blacksmith and the other a carpenter like his father) she died of an illness. Domicus, though he would never admit, never recovered, being absent from his home most of the days, wandering the woods all alone. He lived to be the oldest man in town, even outliving his children. One night, he wandered too far and was never seen again. Some said he saw in the distance a vision of his family. His dead brothers and his father, his sons and his wife, all standing by each other’s side, beckoning him to follow them into the night. Others said that with the family were an old merchant woman and her crippled son; of them as years passed Domicus spoke with great respect. No one ever learned who they were, but for some reason (everyone agreed), they resurfaced as a memory and never left him. His grandchildren inherited his home. None discovered the transgressions of his youth.

When the brothers came to Fonten they looked for Vindel’s widow Haecinta. She had hanged herself in the woods, near the shrine. Parts of her body were preserved due to dense shadows; her arms were not, and to the horror of all her pregnant belly was. Effectively, so ended the search for Vindel’s killer, at least for a while. Bodenar tried at first as hard as he could, more so because of a promise than a wish, to continue the search, but all trails led into nothingness. A woman in Fonten told Bodenar of how Haecinta said she saw the killer armed with a rich man’s dagger, its hilt a silver bear’s head; Bodenar couldn’t find it. With time he grew to accept that not all chapters of a life would be given closure. Domicus didn’t.

The lack of finality became a rift between brothers, expanding as time grew. Eventually the rift was so large that even passing in the street they would not greet each other. Bodenar’s life became tragedy after tragedy. Fiena divorced him due to his increasing drunkenness and brawls. In inns it was said that he looked to bodily pleasures to replace what was missing in his soul. Others would nod wisely at that, and then return to ale.

Bodenar admitted to himself later in life that even though so many people died and that he had never and would never again be as scared as he was watching the twin harbingers turn Regevus into a fiery tomb, that there was something about such danger and excitement he liked. Domicus managed to settle; Bodenar had not.

His right fist he managed to keep secret from others, fearing what would be done if others knew it could never be harmed. He had his doubts that parallels would be drawn between the harbingers and he; who made no appearance anymore, and neither did the fellow men and women with whom he awaited them, and left behind in the ash ruins of Regisum. In the end, he did get some of his wishes.

Finding work proved to be difficult. The town was still small and others were simply more competent. He turned to petty theft, and spent a year in house arrest, for lack of a prison, which Fonten never had. One day, later in his life, a brawl turned into a murder. He never ran, and faced judgement as a man. Though it was, due to the new abyss, no longer the severe punishment it had been before, he was still exiled to the south, like that one man a decade ago.

On the day of departure he had managed to find courage to say goodbye to Domicus, but he wasn’t allowed inside the home. Nevertheless, he said to none, “Farewell.” An hour later he left Fonten forever.

When he had been packing the goods, supplies and necessities to take with him he found in a pile of clutter something he had forgotten about, but to his own surprise something he had never discarded. An unfinished carving of an apple. Touching it made distant memories pass through his mind, of many years ago. Regevus, Vindel cutting his hand, the ashes beneath a tree and the token in it. His own hand and the sacrificed man. The Gormaloth…

On a southern hill he gave Fonten one last look and then descended. He had made up his mind as far back as the brawl, when the other drunkard was killed, of what he would do with the rest of his life.

Using a map he found where Udium once had been. What lay before him was a level field of tall grass, swaying gently in the breeze, lit by yellow sunlight. No remnants of a City, no remnants of a river. The sight made him cry. How is it, he asked himself, that they are all so unimportant. That it only takes little time for all trace to be erased.

No, he thought. He had planned on ending his life there, having the apple carving be nested in his remains like it had been on the pile of ash in Regevus. He used that sight of death as nourishment, as a loaf of bread for the soul. For as long as he held it he would strive for life.

Not yet an old man, but a decade older than he had been when his brother was taken away, he looked further south. Before him lay endless grass, and after that he did not know what. No one had ever gone and returned.

He made the first footfall, digging his boots into the dirt, wishing it to be a marker of his life. Bodenar continued, step after step, walking away from all the destruction. What he found others did not learn, but he was satisfied, and alone and static till death, but for one day.

 

 

CHAPTER XX

EGENTU’S PULSE

 

To Egentu’s surprise the cultist was not a man. He had never truly paid much attention to them, regarding them as an amorphous mass that clung to his and his brother’s heels like rope-tied sacks. He put his forearm for the rag-wearing woman to grab and as she did she screamed. He hadn’t retracted his claws. The sharpness dug into her arm and drew blood. Not sure if something needed to be said (deciding not to), he simply lifted her from the ground till she stood.

“Will you live?” he asked her.

Her eyes looked through him, grey as the Lake to his left. The woman looked down; her feet stood on ashes. Her mouth agape, she said nothing. So Egentu asked once more, “Will you live?”

“All dead… We are all dead.” The voice was hoarse and dry, like water hadn’t flown through her throat in years.

“They are. You are not. Will you join them now? Or will you live?” He was growing impatient, having what he considered his altruism ignored.

The woman fell to her knees, embedding them in the ashes, dispersing them through the air. The wind picked up and the black clouds were departing. Sunlight burst through them like a torrent through stonework. Egentu felt his strength slowly returning, but with it a great dose of fatigue. Suddenly he felt like taking a knee as well.

“Please,” the woman said, speaking quickly. “Do… do… kill me not, I beg you. I am very sorry. Please. Hurt. Sunpowder. Or your blood… for me…” Sluggishly she lowered her head and put her open palms forward in supplication. Her eyes were hidden, the whole face covered by filthy, black hair.

He found no chance to speak. In his mind out of nowhere, he felt a sharp pain at the base of his spine. Egentu fell to his knees and then fully to the ground, his burning form planting itself into the dirt and dust. Breathing became difficult, eyelids became heavy. It was just the fatigue, he told himself. Nothing but exhaustion. Still, he lost consciousness.

Yet somehow his consciousness remained. At first he heard nothing and saw nothing, but while sound still escaped him, vision slowly came. He saw what looked like a dark room, carved of stone, as if the impenetrable mountains to the east contained natural chambers within them. But this was larger, much larger. There was no direction and no air, only black tendrils swimming in a void, digging upwards, clawing. From above water dripped, with it came crumbles of earth. The smell was that of the ichor, like breathing honey in which corpses rot.

This was no memory or dream. He was there, and his body wasn’t. Far away, the black tendrils like sculptor’s hands shaped the nothingness into forms of men. Where they passed the dark outlines fire sparked and engulfed the two bodies. They remained standing, a burning orb behind them. Beneath them two chairs rose and when they sat Egentu drifted away.

He found himself in a bathtub, not one in his Udium mansion, which he remembered. This one was shoddy and wooden, the water lukewarm. Horror crept up his neck; he had no knowledge of what was happening. His inquisitive mind speculated instantly, still aware of everything, yet feeling as if body and mind were not one, like everything was in a pile. A mess of a centuries old brain.

In the bathtub was a little boy. A woman came into the room, her pale head featureless; only smiling black lips, and no eyes or face or hair. The boy looked at her with no doubt or terror. She asked him if he was feeling better. He nodded. She wrapped him into towels and took him to his bed, putting him beneath the many layers. After giving him a sip of water, she placed a wet cloth on his forehead, then held his hands, promising good health. A heartbeat later she sang lullabies and the boy fell asleep. While he slept the woman kept speaking of how much love she had for her little son. When he woke she was gone. An urn fell from its shelf. The tub overflowed, the water endlessly seeping into the dining room, ruining the scrolls and then the whole City, and the chambers of the Council. Blank faces drowned, lifelessly floating with the backs exposed to the Sun. It ate everything in its path, erasing without mercy, like a comb scraping the scalp and impaling the bugs. Everything but the awoken boy.

Egentu woke, back where he was on the road to Dancus. Pushing himself off the ground he lifted his whole body to stand. The woman was nowhere in sight. When he looked down he saw the rags she wore, among the many others. Looking to the Sun, he saw it was early afternoon. The sight confused him greatly. Thinking as best in the situation as he could, he concluded a day had passed. Perhaps two days.

His strength was fully returned. The light of his body burned as mightily as ever. Then he tried to make sense of what he had seen while he slept. The pain in the spine before the unconsciousness seemed like an invisible dagger was plunged, like his life was shut down. Something similar happened when the many suicides were tried back when the awakening took place a year ago. But then all three brothers died simultaneously. Egentu wandered, if all that had been a result of the twins’ dying, and what his mind had conjured were images of life, desperately trying to make sense of the nonsensical, while life and light returned to its bodies.

Then he glimpsed in the corner of his sight approaching white light, coming from the Lake. Out of it swam Zaloth and Thros, alive and well. Egentu looked at them steadily, regarding every facet of their shape. Their light burned as bright as his, if not brighter.

He allowed himself a hint of a smile, though on the illuminated face of a Gormaloth such a thing was hard to notice. “You are back, and so soon.”

No greeting of departed brothers, no joy or celebration at the defeat of death, only words and the mission. It was Thros who spoke. “The Herald wishes us together. He had you incapacitated, so that we would know where to reunite.”

Zaloth looked to the ashes. “All are dead?”

“All,” Egentu said. “It is the three of us, as was planned, as it should be. The cultists of Bodenar were a waste.” Egentu thought so doubtlessly, and as he thought of it more, the more he saw those men as a reflection of the Herald’s fear. Was there truly doubt in them, and doubt of the self? “Come,” Egentu said. “We go on.”

Three brothers resumed their journey along the road to Dancus, now wary of all traps and ambushes. No villages should stand in the way anymore, in any case. Dancus was within grasp, now barely an hour away. The silence of the walk gave Egentu plenty of time to think, and to remember. Something about this mute odyssey was dreamlike, the three of them encroaching upon Dancus. The end was almost here. Reluctance was not something he thought he would feel, and honestly thinking he didn’t feel any, but coming close to the end felt sorrowful, in a way. It wasn’t even half a month ago that they swam towards Aelus, and then this was distant, yet it came so quickly. No point in delaying it, he thought. The inevitable must happen, and sometimes there is greater joy in accepting it, than in prolonging the suffering so that one may feel misery for a breath longer.

Nearby, the shimmer of the Dome of Dancus became brighter and brighter with each step. There would be no waiting, Egentu decided; the attack will happen before night and no waiting will occur till the morning. What assistance was given was to be given by Bodenar and his brother; if they were inside or had failed, Egentu cared not.

The plain road after the curve of the Lake kept going straight to the northern gate. The City and its imposing walls appeared large now. The gate in the distance was open, to Egentu’s surprise. He lifted his hand for the twins to stop.

“Do you see something?” Thros asked.

“It is what I do not see,” Egentu said. “The gate is not closed, and there is no mass of men to guard it. The occurrence in the abandoned village makes me suspect another trap. Walk slowly and carefully.”

A hundred feet from the Sunspot Egentu saw that three men sat languidly. One carried a greatsword and was sharpening it with a whetstone. He quickly stood as he looked to the incoming Gormaloth, who maintained a slow walk. He gestured with his head and one man took a horse and rode it along to the Optea. He said something to two other men, who rode off as well, but neither down the main street.

There was no noise in the air. No longer a breeze and no birds circling above. The only overpowering sensation was heat, both from the Sun and the Dome. These were suspicious men, Egentu decided. Coming close he recognised the one with the greatsword. It was the man who rode off from the village.

Standing some thirty feet away, Egentu shouted. “I applaud your trap, guardsman. But as you can see, it only affects your kind.” Egentu showed with his arms his living brothers, and the negative space of dead cultists. He saw horror in the old guard’s eyes, as he looked to the three distinct shapes. Egentu imagined, that coming from a distance, the three Gormaloth’s bodies appeared an amalgam of fluorescence, slowly becoming separated into three forms by the decrease in space.

The guard took a step back into the Sunspot, as did the few men behind him. He said something quietly, and then the light of the Sunspot diminished, and the gates turned to close. As Egentu saw the two huge blocks of the gate coming closer together, he turned to run. With all his might and swiftness he sprinted to enter Dancus, but the gate closed in front of his face. He cursed the Daygod under his breath. Screaming into the air would be weakness, he thought. This only bought them time, not life.

Zaloth said, the twins having sprinted with him, “Do we wait?”

“Something was odd,” Egentu said “It looked to me as if they were expecting us, and were not making a trap or planning for a combat. It seems they only felt I would come, and when the guard saw you two, my brothers, he felt true fear. But yes, now we wait. I imagine the entrance by the river is blocked.” He took a breath. “Two options we have. Wait for the Dome to descend come night-time, and risk great weakness to our bodies, or wait further for the day and strike then. We have no means of entrance now.”

“We should strike past midnight,” Zaloth said. “This gate will remain shut, and if we scale the walls at night, we could hide in the City and wait for day, but I see no need. They are already beaten. It only takes one of us to touch the Pillar.”

“I agree,” Thros said. “A moonlit attack. We will be strong enough. If the worst is to happen, we are still alive to return.”

“Yes,” Egentu said. “Yes, no delays. We wait for the Dome to descend, as it must, lest they wish to do our work for us.”

Nothing else was said. The brothers sat with their backs to the City walls, biding their time, till the moment came for their claws to pierce into the stone and lift them upwards and inside.

When the Sun disappeared and the Moon was turned fully visible (a sharp crescent), two other things disappeared as well. The light of the Gormaloth’s bodies diminished, and the burning fire became softer and lighter. The Dome disappeared into the walls and the ground.

Some hours later, certain of no attack, they readied themselves. “Our childhoods’ City,” Egentu said. “If it were not shaped like the others I would not remember anything about it.”

Zaloth stood first. He put forward his hand—now looking more human under the silver light—for Egentu to take it. He did so, and stood to face the walls. Thros then took Zaloth’s hand, and said, “All of our homes are gone. This was only the cradle.”

Egentu nodded. The trio dug their claws into the spaces between the wall’s stones, propelling themselves upwards and catching the empty spaces and then the top. They jumped from the height into where the Sunspot would be during daytime, feeling only slight pain in the bones and muscles of their legs.

No one was there but them. It came time to make an end.

 

 

CHAPTER XXI

A HEART’S FINAL BEAT

 

After a moment of reluctance, standing on the bridge at noon under harmless domelight, Byton placed his hand on the Pillar of Dancus. The feel of it was slimy, prickly, and wet, as if the material was flesh or scales and not what it appeared to be, simply stone and iron.

Nothing happened, of course. Everyone was forbidden from touching it, and guards would patrol and safekeep it diligently. But there was no one there. The Dome high above still shimmered and the air was heated, yet it felt fresh with no one around. Looking left and right, Byton saw nothing but emptiness. No people, abandoned houses, no activity by the loud and strong Ulico. Khoras had managed to pull it all off, Byton thought. The whole City was abandoned, short of himself and Khoras, and the few guards who elected to stay, citing loyalty and duty as the only thing remaining in their lives. They were dispersed as scouts with horses by the Sunspots and the river openings, from which apparently the being of light entered Regisum silently. The likely entrance was the northern gate; Gedeas was there.

Daira had left in the morning. Byton made sure to see her leave through the southern gate, escorted by a guardsman, to be given to Tomeus, along with the will Byton had written in the mansion, signed by four guards and Khoras himself as witnesses. Tomeus was to be her guardian, till she turned sixteen, and from that point on a source of support, should it be necessary. Byton did have to die, for that to be binding. Khoras had assured him that should the City fall, the conclusion of death was the obvious one. And if not… Byton didn’t know what to do. Deep inside he felt Daira was forever lost to him. He had stood by the shadows as she left, hoping she would turn and spot him in the distance, to look into his eyes once more and see regret, and he forgiveness in hers. But she didn’t.

Byton sat by the Pillar then, trying not to lean on it. Imposing and amazing all it was, still it felt as something not to be touched. He had his bow with him, and the arrows were in a quiver by his side. Taking the bow to his lap he gently plucked the string to pass the time, waiting for Khoras to come out of the mansion, where he was tidying up some last things, as he had said. Waiting for death to come, actually, when he thought about it.

The sound of the rushing river below eventually faded, as all familiar sounds do. Byton pulled out an arrow and inspected its tip. Still sharp-looking, despite the age. He imagined that pressing his thumb on it would draw blood easily. According to Gedeas, arrows pricked the enemy as hard as toothpicks would.

He heard footsteps then. The only true sound that remained on the bridge. It was Khoras, approaching from the mansion, and in his left hand was a jug, filled to the brim with what looked like red wine, dripping along the wood and onto the ground. Byton remained sitting, and Khoras stood, maintaining a distance from the Pillar.

“Is that wine?” Byton asked.

“It is,” Khoras said. “For you, to help with the nerves, and as an offering to our past.” He handed it to Byton, who noticed the Domelord’s hands were shivering. “I remembered something from our childhood.”

Byton smiled, knowing of what Khoras was talking about. After a sip (the taste was strong), he said, “I do too.” He placed the jug by the quiver and the bow. Then he asked, “Are you afraid?”

“Anxious, I would say, but not afraid.” The hands kept shivering. “What about you, Byton? Are you having regrets about staying with me? I have not chained you to the Pillar. There is still time for you to leave.”

“I am afraid,” Byton said. “I don’t know what is going to happen, and no outcome I predict seems a happy one, for any of us, but nevertheless… I am staying. My mind is made up.”

“Very well,” Khoras said. “Where would the world be without stubbornness?”

Byton chuckled lightly. After a pause he asked, “Tell me, Khoras, how did you escape Regisum? How are you and your men alive, when all the rest are dead? If I had been there, would I have died?”

“After Aelus fell, I sent scouts. One came back alive.” Khoras sat on the ground, then. Close to Byton, but farther from the Pillar. He didn’t let go of the cane. “I do not imagine anyone alive can know what it feels like to lord over the Dome and its Pillar. Not even the spares do. In sleep you hear whispers in your head, and after a while you are no longer sure if it is mere dreams or if your mind is fading away. Later they appear while you are awake. The first time I heard one I was in the Council chambers, back in Regisum. I had honestly thought a councilman was speaking to me, until I noticed their gaze, staring at me after my reply, like I was a madman.” He released a deep sigh, one that was bottled up for long. “The scout came back to report, and he told me the first news we ever received. News of the enemy. He is dead now, being in the ambush from which Gedeas came alive.” Khoras hadn’t taken his eyes off of the cane on his lap, not until now. “You might have asked yourself, Byton, as to why I did not force every man and woman and child who can carry a stick to rally around the Pillar and defended it until the moment all are dead. It is because of the weight of it all. A city is a sanctuary, but sanctuaries can be built and rebuilt. Lives cannot. Every order I made for the past week ended so many lives. There was just not enough time in Regisum. So to answer your question… yes, you would probably have died. A whisper had come to me, and it told me to flee. The alarm bells had been sounded, but it was too late. It is not too late for the lives that had been in Dancus. All of them are alive. Dancus itself is not important, when the choice is between a house without people, and a people without a house. I know what I chose was right.”

“I see,” Byton said. “And do you think you can succeed here? Preserve Dancus?”

“No,” Khoras calmly said. “I do not think so, but why not try. As you said, what is there to lose?”

“Other than your life?” Byton asked, pointing at the obvious, and looking away from Khoras’ eyes.

“No more a loss than yours would be. Besides, we have talked of this. There is little else for me to do before death. I feel tired, and ancient.”

After that, Byton chose not to speak, and Khoras said nothing as well. Though they hadn’t talked in a decade Byton found little to talk of, yet there was no awkwardness from the dead silence, just patience in the air, an unmoving view. After knowing someone for long, the silence becomes an emblem of affection, more so than unease, Byton thought. Being comfortable in such a situation meant trust, and strangely he had no doubts in Khoras.

Quietly, he took another sip of the wine and offered the jug to his friend, who declined with a hand gesture. For what felt like an hour or two they remained by the Pillar, waiting and waiting. Until Gedeas came.

Byton saw the guard riding at immense speed, even up the stairs of the bridge, which the horse did with ease. He dismounted as Byton stood, helping Khoras off the ground. The look on Gedeas’ face was concealed panic, his eyes darting and his face sweating. On his back a scabbard was hung, in it a greatsword, something Byton had never seen before. He tried to imagine how much iron and work went into making such a weapon, but then he found there was no time for such thoughts.

“Are they here, Gedeas?” Khoras asked. “What is it?”

“Domelord…” Gedeas said, catching his breath. “There are three of them. I don’t understand. I saw two die with my own eyes! Their heads went clean off.”

Byton looked to Khoras, who was by his side. The Domelord remained patient, and said, “I see. Are they immortal as well as invincible then? Was it the same two?”

Gedeas said, “They appear the same. The one larger was at the front and the two twin-like we killed were with him. What are we to do?”

“The other guards know their orders,” Khoras said. “You sent riders to warn the scouts at other entrances?”

“I did,” Gedeas said. “We closed the northern gate. All should be here within half an hour.”

“Then we have time still,” Khoras said. “They cannot enter the City till nightfall. Even if they try to circle around or go through the river it will give enough time for all of you to leave.”

“Leave?” Byton said.

“You’ve heard the man, Byton,” Khoras said. “Immortal. I will send the guards away. Gedeas, when the others are here, I will officially relieve all of you.”

Byton lowered his head, to not look at the old guard’s face unsubtly, but still he saw the man’s face filled with conflict. He wanted to stay, Byton discerned. There would be shame in leaving now.

And just as he had thought, Gedeas said, “I will stay here.”

Khoras nodded, and then came time to wait for other guards to converge by the Pillar. Quicker than Byton had anticipated they all came, two men per horse. When the two dozen were by their Domelord, Khoras said, his voice loud, “The enemy is at the gate, and come night they will be inside. You have served all of us well, more than anyone could have with reason asked. Now the reason is gone, and you are ordered to leave Dancus by the southern gate. The sunpowder you were given will suffice. I imagine some still remained by the gates. I thank you.” The Domelord bowed his head, and his guards kept stern faces. “Leave.”

To Byton’s surprise, all but Gedeas left, remaining on horseback and saluting their Domelord, yet leaving still. He expected them to stay, but he supposed orders were orders, even when they were made only for your benefit.

“Is your wish final, Gedeas?” Khoras asked.

“Yes, Domelord,” he said. “Like you, this is where I end.”

The Domelord smirked at that. “Always a companion.”

“It is us three then,” Gedeas said. “Now we wait?”

“Nothing else to do,” Khoras said.

Byton agreed, and sat back to pluck the string of his bow.

 

 

 

The Gormaloth burned with silver light; the gold was gone and the fire was decreased in the moonlit, domeless Dancus. If one were to stand close to them and peer through their shine an elongated human body would be perceptible beneath the coat of flames.

Egentu knew that he was weaker, more susceptible to damage. His spirit, however, never felt stronger. The finality of the act gave comfort and might. No more ambushes or delays, tactics of hidden entrances and groups of weak men to cling to the heels, no more waiting or surprise. They were inside. And there was no one there.

A box of powder was placed by the walls. A faint amount remained, a single pouch. He had almost forgotten about it. Dying as a result of the collapse was no trouble, since the destination was the same. Egentu took it nonetheless, after conferring with his brothers that they had no qualms with another quick, temporary death.

He looked around, clear of suspicions. This was no trap. The buildings were closed and no sounds emerged from them. The Optea was empty like it never was, not during the childhoods and not during the reign in Udium. Even at night-time the drunks and vagabonds clung to the paths which lead to tributary alleys. Not a single soul. Different from the abandoned village, where lack of rest and light led to death. Here his perception was clear, and there was no danger present. Had they fled? Did reason prevail before the third strike?

He couldn’t remember where their home had been, whether it was on this side of the strong Ulico or on the other. Unimportant. Even if he could recall he wouldn’t venture to an empty building to reminisce about days long gone. He moved forward, his heavy footfall leaving the blank Sunspot and crossing onto the Optea, walking towards the distant Pillar, visible from everywhere, standing like a curved spine.

In silence the three brothers reached the bridge above the river. Nothing happened. No arrows from above, no pits in the ground or barricades to block them. Each step brought them closer, and when they were on level ground of the bridge they saw three men sitting by the Pillar. They stood, when the light of the Gormaloth appeared in their vision. Stood, not swiftly like a resting deer brought to stand, after hearing an approaching wolf, but slowly, like elder men from a bed of sickness, ready to depart.

In the middle was what Egentu immediately understood to be the Domelord. His face was aged like Adeolatus’ had been, and his back was bent and he leaned on his cane. By his left was a man for whom this was a third sighting for Egentu; in his right was a greatsword, and in his left a lit torch. The only lights in the City: the stars, the Moon, the torch, the bodies.

And by the Domelord’s right was a stranger, though his face woke images of familiar men. One of the masses, Egentu thought. He held a bow and on his shoulder hung a filled quiver. The first to speak, from the two groups separated by twenty five feet of empty air, was Egentu himself. He said, “Are you here to stop us?” Zaloth and Thros stood quietly by their elder brother.

The Domelord spoke, the potency of his voice matching Egentu’s. “We are.” His companions said nothing.

“How will that happen, Domelord? I see nothing but a temporary obstacle.” Egentu never took his eyes off of them, staring at all three, observing them patiently. In the dark stillness between speech only the strong Ulico screeched as it rubbed against stone and dirt beneath.

“We seek to understood,” the Domelord said, “and to beg you to leave us be.”

“There is nothing for you to understand,” Egentu said. “Only to accept, be it alive or dead.”

“Why are you doing this?” The Domelord’s voice showed in its loudness a first crack. “I have to understand. Please.”

Egentu said, seeing the hollow wrinkles of the face as a mirror for the past, “We three were once domelords of long ago. My brothers here,” Egentu gestured to his sides, “of Aelus and Regisum, and I of a city long gone. Do you hear voices, Domelord? We heard them too. In them is the reason.”

The Domelord’s face attempted to remain an iron mask, but Egentu saw in the skin understanding and fear that came with it. The Domelord said, “Whose voice is it?”

“The God’s.” Egentu moved a step ahead, readying the end, but so did the Domelord, and along with him his men. Egentu stopped; the Domelord’s face was wracked with mental pain.

“The Daygod?” the Domelord asked. “He exists? It is him you serve?”

Egentu feared to admit that even he knew not all the answers, and was only promised them by the Herald at the end. “Caerus,” Egentu said. “We are only the harbingers, Domelord, doing as we are told. The knowledge we possess is not final or fulfilled, nor is our understanding much greater than yours. Know, only, that benefit was promised. Not only for us, who will be given rest, but for all of you. The pain you have twice received and are about to again may feel like a fatal wound, but it is only a gentle slap.” That last Egentu did not know why he said; it felt, however, true to him, from what long ago the Herald spoke.

“You have killed hundreds of thousands,” the Domelord said. “You say it was all for us?”

If this kept going for much longer, Egentu thought, the Sun would rise. “I do not care at all for you,” he said. “My belief is in myself and my kin, and we deserve the calm of death. Step aside now, or we will grant it to you personally.”

The greatsword-wielding guard stepped in front of his lord, and the bowman nocked an arrow. The Domelord said, “I beg you.” He let go of his cane and fell to his knees. “Do not do this. Is there anything else that would soothe your thirst?”

One word penetrated the dark silence. “No.”

The Gormaloth walked forward, their claws emerging at the second step. The guard swung his sword, while the bowman panicked and helped the Domelord up. Egentu kept walking. The Pillar was so near. In the corner of his sight he saw his brothers make quick work of the guard, Thros parrying the blade, causing the momentum of the swing to bring the man to the ground, allowing Zaloth to disembowel him. The bowman helped the Domelord up and together they ran towards the edge of the bridge; the brothers followed.

Egentu stood in front of the Pillar of Dancus, over which no Dome resided. He looked at his clawed hand, the silver fire burning low. Putting it in front of the Pillar a faint shadow appeared on its ugly form. For a blink of an eye it looked as the back of a normal man’s hand, of a man from centuries past. He shook his head. This was it. The culmination of an old plan.

He pressed his palm against the Pillar.

Light seeped from Egentu’s body, transferring through the arm into the Pillar, which beget about it a bright glow. From the distant walls, an old, familiar sound emerged, and with that scraping the Dome itself. Slowly it climbed and cut through the air to reach the Pillar’s top, and there connect. Once its shadow fell over the City fully, immersing it as if under water, light shot up from the Pillar. The Dome glowed, like it did at day. The light in it pulsated, each pulse stronger than the one before; the glow was both fiery and silver; the Sun of Egentu’s blood and the Moon of the sky. After the fifth pulse the Dome’s gleam stopped, and then followed by a violent sound it returned, brighter than ever. Another sound came. An explosion of air.

Egentu took the powder from the pouch he had taken by the gates and stood still, waiting for it to turn to stone his form as it does turn the skin of men into shields. The Dome fragmented as it fell, crushing the houses and theatres and halls, turning all to dust by its weight, turning into dust itself. Parts fell into the Ulico, its water splashing so high it reached the bridge. The walls themselves succumbed and were gone, and all that remained was the bridge and the Pillar, and on it, for all Egentu could feel, himself alone. A statue.

The Pillar’s light died. It was only a nail in the dirt, a nail so tall it looked like it could touch the stars. Fissures showed themselves along its outstretched form, like links breaking in a chain, like threads being pulled from cloth. Five parts of it fell, all at once, all from different parts of the Pillar complete, which now was nothing but descending boulders.

Egentu closed his eyes. If he could smile he would, but his face was due to powder unmoving. If a tear could fall it would, but now his eyes were petrified as well. He saw nothing, but he felt reprieve. It was done. The ground beneath his feet crumpled and was gone. It was truly done.

 

 

 

“Come. Quickly!” Byton let go of the bow and crouched and propped Khoras up. The other two were right behind them, walking.

“The Ulico,” Khoras said. “Run.”

Byton didn’t let go of his friend, but the bow had to stay. As they ran, trying to reach to edge of the bridge, Khoras said, looking up and then ahead, “Break an arrowhead. Keep it with you.”

Byton found no time to ask why, but he did as he was told, clutching the sharp edge in his hand. The monsters were a dozen feet away. They killed Gedeas with so much ease like he was a ragdoll. No fighting would help. Standing at the edge of the bridge, the river below looked deeper and farther away than ever. Half of his right foot was already over the edge. He looked Khoras in the eye, and without a word spoken, both understood the only way out. They jumped.

Then the sounds came, so horrid like none before. To Byton it sounded like a million animals dying in his mind, their screams pressing and pounding his eardrums. The fall took long, and the surface of the filthy river felt like bricks. Pain spread to his legs and ribs, but he held the arrowhead.

He couldn’t see where Khoras was. The current of the river disoriented his sight, and the sounds in the air and the water in his mouth and ears made everything a blur. Faintly he saw bright light in the sky, and the Pillar glowing, and everything becoming nothing. The river carried them downwards to the Lake. He could no longer see, for the filth and water and light. All of it was quick and painful, and his consciousness disappeared.

When he woke it felt like no time had passed, but the environment he was in was alien. He coughed and found it hard to breath. Something was on his face, and torso and limbs. His lips were dry and a fine substance seeped from his face.

With his right hand he rubbed at his face and managed to open his eyes. The eyelids lifted slowly, like the effort was gargantuan. The whole of his body was buried under a thin layer of ash. He shuffled and spun till he freed himself, hurryingly gathering up and attempting to stand. With weak legs and wounds that seemed to be everywhere, he stood.

Then he felt in his left palm tremendous anguish; the arrowhead had embedded itself. Around the stone was blood. He pulled it out with effort but kept it held. Khoras knew something, to have told him to keep it.

He looked around, ash falling from his hair and beard and lashes. Everything was white and grey, and level and endless. There was no river and no city, no waters of the Lake either. Even the sky was nothing but an infinite cloud. The only colour was the green of the distant woods, barely seen through ashes the wind spun in the air.

And then he realised. It was dawning, the Sun cutting through the cloud. Losing his mind, alarmed and scared, he looked for Khoras. Nearby he heard heavy coughs, and the shape of a man he saw in ashes. Rushing to it, running wildly and clumsily, he fell to his knees. It was Khoras, and he looked barely alive.

“Khoras! Khoras! Wake up! The Sun is rising! What do I do? What do I do!?” As he spoke the ashes began absorbing an orange glow.

Soft, muted words came from Khoras’ lips, grey from the dust. “Cut… flesh… my blood. Use…”

“I don’t understand, Khoras. Quickly! Help me!”

A single, loudly spoken word, and an outstretched forearm with the wrist bent downwards, preceded by all the power that remained in his body. “Drink!”

Byton inspected the arrowhead in his possession—and as the mind worked swiftly in panic, disregarding everything irrelevant and doing all it could to preserve itself—he did the only thing that made sense. He pulled from the air Khoras’ thin forearm, and cut with the stone into the vein. The Sun was almost up, the horizon on fire.

Blood poured and Byton brought his mouth down on the open wound, licking and slurping and sucking the bitter redness. And then sunlight hit, both the whole of his world and the whole of his flesh.

And nothing happened. It wasn’t like when sunpowder was taken, and the skin felt hardened. This was different. He felt nothing, like he was standing in utter darkness. And the world was filled with light.

“Work… did it work?”

“Yes,” Byton said, beginning to cry. Tear fell on the dust and evaporated.

“Dancus? We failed?”

“We are alive, Khoras. We did not fail. You saved everyone you could.” The Domelord closed his eyes following Byton’s words. His mouth opened one more time. All of the remaining strength he had was spent.

“Byton,” Khoras said. “Do not let this be your end. Not all circles must remain intact, no matter what you have convinced yourself. Face them.”

Byton had seen many men die, even a little girl. When they did, there was always that moment at the edge of life, when it felt like the soul might continue its existence in this world, but then the moment passed and it would plummet over the edge, forever gone. Khoras was no longer here. His body lingered, but the soul had departed. Byton lied down, next to the corpse.

The tears soon stopped, but the pain didn’t. He knew not what was going to happen next, what he was going to do, or even if he would survive. Maybe his mind was fooling itself into thinking he was not dying, not close to that edge. And maybe not.

All he did was remain prone, under the Sun that posed no harm.

 

 

CHAPTER XXII

A MONSTER AND A MAN

 

He had fallen asleep on the ashes, and had dreamt nothing. In that moment between dream and existence he felt as if there really was nothing, as if he had been killed by the Sun in his sleep. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed but the Sun was high and he felt no pain from it yet.

The wounds on his body were beginning to show their true pain, but he could stand and walk. Khoras’ corpse was still there, and he didn’t know what to do with it. The corpses of domelords didn’t become undone, even in death. The tradition was pyre or burial. Without fire or shovels, he dug into the ground.

So with ashes seeping through his fingers, Byton did the best he could to make his dead friend’s body unseen and gone. Better for it, to be the ashes of stone that couldn’t be preserved, than the ashes of men which he had. He stopped when the blood-stained dust was no longer visible, and neither the semblance of a man’s body beneath it.

And then he stood to look clearly. No one around. None at all. It was disorienting. He couldn’t tell where the strong Ulico had been, or the Pillar, or the Optea, or the mansion. No Lake anymore either, like it had evaporated fully.

What was there to do even? His mind instantly thought of how all would be interpreted. The blood on his mouth, and no water to wash it off. Guards of Khoras knew the beings of light had help. Khoras was dead. Gedeas was dead. And he himself the only survivor. Not to mention what he had done in Fonten before he left.

Coming this close to death, to see it not as a giver in the dying eyes of targets, but in his friend, and to have death made corporeal to come for him and life itself… He thought some more of his supposed death wish, and Khoras’ words. Then he decided, like he always did, for the only option available. It was hard to question destiny in such situations, he thought. All paths became one, eventually.

Orienting himself by the Sun and the distant trees, he found a way south, and the hill. Climbing it slowly and weakly, clutching the side of his stomach and stopping every few feet for a breath, he finally ascended, and then on its top saw below him to the south horses and he heard the beating of their hooves.

It was five men, and he recognised all of them. One was Tomeus, and the other four were Khoras’ guards. Byton couldn’t stand anymore, so he sat on the hill, and waited for them to come to him. Looking at his palm, moving it from his stomach, he saw blood spread over it. The pain was becoming larger, with the imminent threat removed. The monsters were nowhere to be seen, and the world still lived.

All of the cities gone, he thought. All three truly gone. What was the point? His eyelids were heavy again. The pain growing and growing. Tears appeared. Sweat too. Blood flowed. And the heart pulsated.

The horsemen and Tomeus were in front of him, coming out of the light, arriving in an instant, the hooves thundering in the rhythm of his heart, mightier and mightier. Deafening. He could barely hear any more, or see. Only when the vibrations in the earth ceased so did he feel his heartbeat stop, or at the very least consciousness escape once more. A shard of light and air in the guise of his friend’s face and tears, and the voice beckoning him, came through. Then nothing.

Then once again everything. Before it more shards pierced the darkness; a treading horse and masses in a town. Departure of sunlight and the sound of wind behind closed doors. His thoughts weren’t making themselves known or apparent. Only senses remained and they took in the little they could. The pain finally stopped. His eyelids ascended.

“Are you awake Byton?”

He heard the voice before he could see the face. It was Tomeus, leaning on a table in a small room. Byton lay on a bed, shirtless and under blankets. It was hot, and also freezing. A few candles were the only light, and no one else was there. “I am.”

“What do you remember?”

“How long has it been, Tomeus?”

“Please, Byton.” The Governor, whose hands had been behind his back, level on the table, pushed himself to stand firmly, unleaning, matching his tone. “Answer me.”

Byton nodded. “Khoras, his guard, and I remained in Dancus. We waited for the beings of light to come. They did. Khoras wanted to reason with them, but I think he really wanted only to understand them before death. He had made up his mind. I had too, and so we talked. And they attacked. They killed his guard on the spot, while Khoras and I jumped into the Ulico. He died from the wounds. I thought I would too, or from sunlight. He told me to drink his blood. It saved me, and I climbed the hill. At the top I thought I was dead, and then you came. Dancus is gone.”

Tomeus remained calm, the muscles of his face still. He was quiet.

“Where are we, Tomeus? Is Daira safe? Your daughter, too?”

“This is your house, Byton. Yours still, of course. You are alive, your last will is not yet realised. As for Clae, when we heard the screams in the air yesterday, before dawn I made her stay inside my house, with a guard of Khoras, who was kind enough to look after her. Daira is in the next room.”

“Can I see her?” Byton asked.

“She doesn’t want to see you. But if you want to, I will bring her.”

“No,” Byton said. “No need.” Breathing hurt. The shallower the more comfortable. “Has she seen me? When I was brought in?”

“No,” Tomeus said. “None but me was allowed inside this room, past the guard.”

“I am under guard?” Byton asked.

“Yes, friend. You are. I am afraid we’ve circled back to our original plan.” He paused. Then, “Did you have to do it, Byton? Was it worth it, in the end?”

To Byton’s own surprise, this time he really didn’t know what Tomeus was talking about, so he shrugged.

“Posiol. Remember him, Byton? He disappeared. A hunter found a pile of ashes in the woods, his clothes with them. A man saw him go pray at night, and he never returned. This was the eve on which you left for Dancus, but you didn’t leave immediately, correct? Did you kill him, Byton? Don’t lie to me now. Please.”

He wouldn’t lie. A shallow breath and then, “Yes. I killed him.”

Tomeus slowly nodded, his face blank. “For the sake of friendship now gone, I will do my best to prevent an execution. The best you will get is exile. I will care for your daughter.” He left before Byton could respond. By the open door, before it closed, Byton saw a glimpse of a guard, who looked to the bed and the killer on it from the corner of his sight, contemptuously.

He rested for a few more days, not leaving the bed but to stretch and relieve himself. Daira wasn’t allowed inside, and the guards changed frequently. A week later, he was rested and well enough to leave. Healers had made many visits. A large bag was given to him, and enough sunpowder to last a fortnight. After that was depleted, he was to look for his own, or as was expected, face death.

During noon, while Daira slept in the next room, guarded as well, Byton packed his belongings. The bow was no longer there to be taken, destroyed in Dancus, another fragment of the past gone forever. All were gone, he thought. All the places, souls and items. He only had himself.

He took little. Food and water, the powder. There were really no mementoes to take. All was worthless or destroyed. But he came across a dagger, which he had left in a hurry when he had returned, when Tomeus came in the house after Regisum was destroyed. A well-made blade. The hilt a silver bear’s head. He debated whether to take it or not, but in the end he took it with him. A worthy tool; a last reminder.

He asked the guard if he might give his daughter one last look. To his surprise, the guard (a man inside Byton’s own house, giving permission to the owner) nodded. Byton looked through the crack in space made by the door ajar. Candlelight fell on Daira’s face, but not her eyelids. She was sleeping, as the other children at this time would, and was at peace. She shifted then, from lying on her back to lie on her side. Not even whispering it, but saying it in his mind, he uttered a farewell, and left.

Taking powder before the door, waterless, he stepped outside. Fonten wasn’t asleep. Crowds were gathered, refugees of Dancus and the locals both. All looking at him, but he felt no shame. He understood, with no pity for the self, that though men ran fast they weren’t swifter than the Sun, and its light, and its bite.

Tomeus singled himself out of the crowd and silently looked at Byton, who was equally speechless. There was remorse in the Governor’s eyes, and disappointment and resolution. Or it could have just been the angle, and the light and shadows beneath the awnings and sunbreakers and leaves.

An event, Byton thought. Not every day that a murderer was exiled. None in the crowd yelled or threw, and the guards weren’t there either to prevent such things. Byton simply walked south, past houses and men, south and south and south, till Fonten was far behind him. He didn’t turn, but he was sorrowful.

The road was straight and endless. There was nothing south, and no more lakes or rivers, only fields and forests. But he wasn’t done with life yet, not done until it gave up on him. He walked. The Sun seemed weaker. Perhaps it was all the distractions in his mind, or maybe the blood of Khoras worked still.

The journey felt like it lasted forever. The same sights, and the same road becoming less dirt and more grass the more he walked it. He did, however, walk the curve of the gone Lake Caerus. The being of light spoke of Caerus, of how it was the God. He supposed that now he had all the time in the world to contemplate. To think about all the strange and—if he were being honest with himself—amazing events of the past month. So much death and loss, and disappearance, and breaking of links. There was no way to understand it but with the benefit of hindsight.

Eventually he came to where he figured Udium had been, that long gone City. Nothing but blades of grass in the wind. So he walked farther south, to the woods. Sunpowder was running out.

In the woods, in departing night, owls were the only sound. Moonlight was barely there. But then he saw a clearing, and in the clearing a house. Decrepit, but still standing. He was wary at first to explore it further, but the ever depleting food and water and powder offered no choice.

Walking through knee-high grass, after eating powder, through the broken door he came inside, as it dawned behind him. Inside, after minutes, sunlight offered just enough vision, coming from above treetops. His eyes grew accustomed too.

No animals were in there, which was good. Broken furniture, scattered around, not by violence of men but by time and rodents. A skeleton in a green robe, a broken phial beneath his skeletal arm, ungnawed and attached.

Whoever this was, Byton thought, he was dead for a long, long time. This was no village, but a lone house. Another exile? Or a hermit? He would never learn, of course. No writings or clues, none at all.

And Byton never left either; never learning of the goings on and new occurrences of outside the woods, never exploring distant noises. The stone offered good protection, and with sunpowder gone, he could no longer leave at day. He managed to hunt at eve some slow, small animals, find berries, and amend a well and garden he found behind the house, as well as a small shrine to Caerus. The food was little, but enough for a man to survive. He did grow thin, and lose the mass of muscles, and his beard and hair grew long and grey, and he found no reason to cut them after a few years. At first he kept to his appearances, hoping like a fool that someone might come, hoping to find courage to return home.

His days he spent inside, closed in darkness, thinking and sleeping. Reminiscing about the broken chain, and all its links. Crying sometimes, thinking of his daughter, and how everything was gone. Nothing tying him to his past anymore, nothing but a single blade. At night he did the best he could to hunt and gather and scavenge and pray. One night he prayed for change, and for restoration.

Years passed, in monotony and inside his own head. After a while he started speaking to himself, at first only as vocalisation of thoughts, and later as conversations. But his mind stayed, he thought. He was sane.

On the last night, he was outside with a fire, roasting a forest rat, carving it with his dagger, clutching the silver bear’s head. And then he thought he had lost his mind, for he saw a man come out of the woods and towards the fire.

Flame reflected in and illuminated the silver of the weapon. The man who stepped into the clearing stopped in his tracks, some feet away, as silent as Byton. Something wooden and round fell from his hands. His eyes darted towards the weapon, and in them Byton saw time pass, going back and back and back, the soul gathering the past and putting it forward for all to see. Then Byton noticed the hair of the man, the colour blonde, and a similar-looking face. His soul spun memories too. A man leaving a shrine, disappearing into the woods. A man out of the woods. Regisum, Khoras, and the bear on the hunt and the father and the bow, Dancus and Loterus and Robera and Senya, targets all, Fonten and Tomeus. And Daira; a grown woman now, he hoped. And Vindel, and a night-time prayer outside Fonten.

Byton Saros smiled, and there were no tears. He shifted the dagger in his hands, holding the bloodied blade and putting forward the hilt as an offering. He closed his eyes, breathed out a sigh of final relief, and heard the footsteps’ fast approach.

 

 

 

Egentu woke in the field of ash, the powder’s petrification having ended. He gathered himself up, it still being dark, some half an hour before dawn, some half an hour since Dancus was gone. His brothers were nowhere in sight, no silver glow anywhere but on him and in the night sky, and his own was running out, a portion taken by the destroyed Dome.

And so the last City fell; the childhood home as gone as the place of reign centuries ago. To his own surprise (though perhaps not), he didn’t find sadness within himself, only comfort. It was unambiguously done. Only one more journey to Gormal Ard… Something beckoned him then, with the knowledge that the end was within reach. He would die in a day. So he asked himself, if there was anything else that needed to be done, and he found one last thing he wanted to see before the end: Udium, which he hadn’t seen since the boat and the father, since leaving it to die for his own needs. There would be nothing there, he knew, but he wanted to see nonetheless. A dying man’s final wish.

Then ichor spewed from the ashes, spitted out by the wound where the Pillar had been. Golden and viscous, more so than in Regisum. It coloured the ashes and became absorbed in them. But the Herald never came. Egentu waited for the wind to come, and the dust to materialise into the shape of the Herald, to offer the final guidance. But nothing. Egentu supposed, that no guidance was needed. He knew what needed to be done.

He journeyed east, into the woods, to walk hidden from the eyes of men. To be seen, to offer a target for vengeance, would do none any good. As it dawned in the forest, light hit his form, like a torrent of water, but it was weak. The density of the trees and the shadows of the treetops did their part, though that wasn’t it. As the Lake was, so was he; diminished and dying, the light of his body having fulfilled its purpose, with only a sliver remaining for Gormal Ard.

He did feel weaker, and his back was bent and his walk slower. Eventually, walking through the woods, no beasts harassing him, he came across a wooden pillar, a shrine for Caerus. Standing by its side, he extended his claws, and sharpened them across the shrine. Carving till it was undone, falling to the ground, and his claws were covered by sap.

He licked them, for the last time. He realised he had forgotten to do it, in the plentiful opportunities, in Regisum and the village. Instinct had taken over then, and the approach to humanity was forgotten. So he licked the dead sap, to taste the bile and bitterness, and remind himself of the end. The shrine being destroyed, he thought, was a gesture to the living. He had no strength and faith to have it be done before Regisum, but after Dancus was a different story.

He kept on walking, stopping for nothing else, avoiding the town and finding the disappearing road to Udium. It led from dirt to grass which reached his shins. Grass and nothing else. He knew the spot, he knew he was there, after reaching it half a day after the shrine.

There was nothing to distinguish it from any field anywhere in the world, but somehow he knew. The wound of Udium’s pillar was long gone but weakly it whispered. He walked over to where the riverbed had been, and the mansion, and the bathtub and the jar of ashes. He sat for a moment, breathing it with eyes closed.

Three hundred years. And it all felt like a heartbeat. He now clearly remembered Iemelus the servant telling of the father, the mistake he had done, which started all. No, he thought, shaking his head. Time to end, and no longer contemplate the done and the undone.

He stood and walked, north and north and north, to Gormal Ard. A hill in a valley of a dead lake, named after a god. There was no sweet water to enter his ears and mouth and nose, and no one to row, and no mist to cloud his view. A clear, beautiful day, cloudless and bright, but for a small one shielding the Sun.

The mud beneath his feet was still wet, having drunk up the water. He didn’t fully understand what happened, but he supposed with the rivers dead and no longer there to feed, something drank it all up. The hill was in sight, and he stepped onto its grass from the lake’s mud.

He made the short climb to its top, and saw the three thrones, each next to the other, on the patch of dirt in the water. Zaloth and Thros were sitting on the grass by it, waiting. They lifted their heads when Egentu was near, and when he stepped next to them, the wind appeared.

Behind the Gormaloth, the wind shaped the emptiness into a man, followed by a soft scream of air. A tall, naked body, and a pale face, empty and featureless, but for dark lips. They smiled.

Egentu, with his brothers standing by his side, the thrones behind them and the Herald to the front, said, “We have done it. It is over.”

The Herald’s voice, quick and slow and deep and high, said, “But for one more thing. Undo the fragments behind you, for the first nail to be plucked once more.”

“Then you will grant us peace?” Egentu asked.

“Peace,” the Herald said, “and more. You were promised answers, and I will give you that comfort.”

“So tell us then,” Egentu said. “Tell us everything. Let it be over.”

The lips’ smile remained, and the Herald walked forward. This was a weak body, gaunt and broken, the body of a dead man, which Egentu saw for what it was in the end, no longer a father, yet as it walked forward Egentu was afraid, and he flinched.

“I will offer more, my good sons,” the Herald said. “I will not tell. I will show.” He pointed a finger to the thrones. “First, the fragments.”

The Gormaloth nodded, all three. They each picked their thrones, dismantling them piece by piece, the curved slivers and shards, and with each part being removed Egentu’s light weakened, and disappeared, leaving only a spark in his form. The same happened with the brothers.

Gradually he became weaker, and shorter, and more and more frail. Egentu realised then, when the three thrones were no more than boulders on dirt, like they had been when first he arrived, that he was no longer himself, but an old man, naked and pale, just like long ago, just like his brothers now too.

He fell to the ground, too old to stand, to support his weight. Every muscle hurt, every inch of the skin was dry and falling apart. He could see his brothers’ eyes, tears in them, of pleasure and pain. They were unable to speak, as was he, but they understood each other, and found comfort. No need for a vocal farewell.

He looked to the sky, and the burning Sun. The Herald’s face took over his vision, and he said, “Back at the start, my sons. My expression of gratitude can be nothing else than the truth, and nothing smaller than an unshackling and a benefit for all alive. They will praise your lives, when they learn. Oh, how I wish it could have been easier, but no… Resistance would always be given, better for them to be given assistance in their ignorance.” The Herald’s hand wiped away the brothers’ tears, and the other touched his own heart. “I am finally to be free, within years for you, but for me it was all a breath. Now learn, and see.”

The Herald touched with a single finger Adeolatus’ forehead, and his other arm fell over the twins. Adeolatus felt the pain go away, the years of toiling too. A spark of sunlight travelled through his blood from the heart to the mind, and then he saw.

He saw black tendrils coiled in the earth, in a water-filled cave beneath the dirt. Ichor everywhere, overflowing the black form with rotten gold. A crucified body, two nails through arms and a nail through the throat and a nail through feet, and where he was a nail through the heart. Eyelids of the nails, closing when the splinter was touched, disturbed by men through whom sunlight flowed, through water which was godsblood—mixed with ashes of the deceased to protect; a gift—through rivers and the splinter and the hand into the soul. Another coil trapping the other, licking the Sun, vomiting on it and adding death to its rays. Anguish and screaming in the ground, bursting forth through wounds of grass and dust. The Sun and the Moon, a battle which was truth. A good faith. Then nothing but darkness.

Adeolatus smiled; he understood. The hurting was gone, the tears were gone. His brothers smiled too.

“I thank you once more,” the Pale Herald said; Caerus, the truth. “Rest now, and be glad.”

The Herald lifted his hands. High above, the small cloud drifted away. Sunlight bit into the flesh of the three brothers, erasing it, and with it the body of the father. Adeolatus had one last thought, not of intellect but of emotion. He was content.

The wind picked up once more, and the ashes were nothing more than dust.

 

 

EPILOGUE

THE REBIRTH

 

The boy’s birth and the following anniversaries of the event were peculiarly marked by important happenings. He was born on the day a city called Dancus fell. The boy wasn’t quite certain what that city was, having never known anything larger than Fonten. His father talked to him of how the city looked; how it had a roof and walls thousand times the size of their house, and how a large column was in the centre, and a river too, which flowed into a lake. The boy wasn’t quite certain what a river and a lake were either. All the denizens could find were wells, and some streams and ponds in the woods.

Water was a scarcity, and Lords Tomeus and Corien worked hard to limit the population growth and dole out everyone their necessities. The two men were chosen unanimously due to their experience. Corien was supported by the living guards, now keepers of peace, of the last domelord (who were, the boy was taught, like lords but special; all of them were gone); they regarded him as his successor, and Tomeus already ruled Fonten before all the refugees came.

One of the refugees was the boy’s mother. Apparently, when they were fleeing Dancus, a stranger offered them sunpowder. It—being some strange dust that protected people from daylight—saved the life of the boy’s mother. She had been hesitant to take it while pregnant, but the boy’s father talked her into it. She died in childbirth.

The greatest sorrow of the boy was not that he never could learn with his eyes what the rivers and lake were, or the Domes and Pillars, but what his mother looked like, and who she was. He imagined her as beautiful and kind, loving and calm. Going to sleep at night, sometimes crying into his pillow, he liked to imagine her lying by his side, holding him close and tell him to have no fear; everything was beautiful, everyone at peace.

The boy’s father worked as a hunter. At dawn, the boy would wake and help his father fletch the arrows and sharpen the rocks. They even bought an iron knife. Father would tell him of his grandfather, who worked as a sunpowder collector, grinding up rocks and selling them for others to keep on selling. Another surprise to the boy, who was too young to remember what light had been like, except for a single day. He remembered the abyss. His first memory.

On his fourth birthday, he had been playing before dawn with a ball near where the Lake used to be. The division line was clearly marked; no grass grew on that mud. Then he had accidentally kicked the ball into the mud. He had hesitated at first to go for it. It was cursed ground. They said that though once the waters had been considered sacred, now they were seen as a symbol of all the death which came. Whatever that meant, the boy thought. Caerus was still worshiped by some, including the boy’s family, but few spoke of the Daygod, who with time became forgotten. Most townsfolk turned to ancestor worship, and the philosophies which came with it. Some said they discovered spirits of trees and rocks. The boy’s father said faith was fractured, but none brought any problems out of it; all made connecting points with the cities.

As hard as he tried he really could never grasp the fall of the cities, and the many deaths which came with it. All the death he had been alive long enough to have known himself was a grandmother’s.

So he hadn’t gone for the ball. A heartbeat later, he couldn’t have gone for it in any case, since the mud looked like it was boiling. Brown bubbles burst from it, and then all the mud silently fell, revealing an abyss of thousands of feet. A massive hole in the earth, and nothing at the bottom but darkness. The boy had slowly walked towards the edge, going down to his knees so not to fall, while behind him he heard his father (who had fallen asleep watching his son play) running and yelling for him to run. The boy, clutching the grassy edge with his palms, peered his head over it. He glimpsed a golden glow at the bottom, which then disappeared.

It dawned. Sunlight came over the horizon. It moved like a snake through grass. The boy’s father wasn’t quick enough. Not quick enough to give his son powder, nor quick enough to hide him from the deadly beams. It engulfed in light his body.

But nothing happened.

The abyss glowed like a gem of ice. On that day and forever after, sunlight killed no one. The abyss turned into a place of worship. It spanned the whole of the ground where once the Lake had been. On the day of its conception the father hugged his little boy and cried, and thanked all the forces that could be thanked that the boy was alive due to luck. The boy never got that ball back, but he had more important things to be hopeful for.

Until his twelfth birthday he did what the other children did. Helped their parents with their work, learned from priestesses of Caerus who with each passing day became less and less women of worship and more and more of education. The awnings and sunbreakers and leaves of Fonten remained, more so as monuments to the past than as protection.

The boy met a girl his age during one lesson about history, or little of it they knew. In the evening they kissed. It would have marked his birthday, which was the following day. But something more important happened.

Today, the boy’s birthday came. The twelfth year since Dancus fell. He had asked his father for one wish, for them to play ball near the abyss. Of course, far enough to prevent danger or accidents. The father agreed, and so they played. They played at night, per the boys wishes, on that beautiful and bright summer night, with the full Moon and the thousand stars.

But the ball fell into the abyss.

The boy wished to run for it, more as an instinct than a real wish. His father took him by the hand. Then, it dawned. The two of them stood hand in hand, looking at the beautiful Sun over the awaking Fonten, now so large, the abyss at their backs. The boy heard a scream, like none he had before. An explosion of air, like a rupture of the eardrums. It came from the abyss. The boy turned, and his father turned as well.

A mass of tendrils, black and oily, shot out of the abyss like burning hands, crawling and emerging. Thousands upon thousands, each the width of an oak. The boy looked in wonder; somehow, he wasn’t scared, but at peace. As sunlight hit the mass, the oil evaporated and turned to golden ichor. The size of the mass, whatever it was, was that of the lakebed.

It hovered for a moment in air, so large it caused the boy’s knees to shake, so large to cast its shadow over all. If it weren’t for his father he would have fallen to the ground. But the boy could pay no attention to his father now. All of his focus was fixated on the being of light in the air. A coil of golden tendrils; shapeless and graceful. It disappeared into the sky, cutting through clouds, flowing ever higher and higher, till it was gone.

None ever learned what it was; none ever could, but all speculated. Some drew connections between the light of its body to the supposed form of the reviled harbingers who brought with them destruction. The boy didn’t know what to think. He supposed it didn’t matter in the end. Never again in his life, which turned out to be filled with joy, had he felt such wonder and confusion, as on his twelfth birthday.

Many things inevitably ended up broken, and there was nothing to be done but to accept, yet standing there, with his father’s hand holding his, and the light of the Sun warming them, and the being in the sky floating upwards for all to see, the boy was glad.

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Seeing as how this is my first novel there are many people I would like to thank, simply for helping me with the mentality that had to be created for my writing to begin.

At the start, I feel the need to thank my family. My father Miroslav, mother Željka, and sister Tena have always been supportive, for which I am grateful. I remember telling my mother (I was about 15 then) that I wanted to write books. It would have been easy, and somewhat understandable, for her as a parent to lovingly tell me to abandon such fantasies and focus on ‘real’ work. However, she smiled and simply said, “Ok.” My father never counter argued and helped me with the logistics of publishing, even coming forward with an offer for physical publishing. My sister was the one in my family who first read the prologue back when the novel was in its infancy, and who at the time of publishing is the novel’s second reader, and the first in its finished form.

Which brings me to my best friend Filip, whom you might be familiar with from the dedication, or if you are the type of person who diligently scans through the copyright section. He is the first person who ever read the trappings of this story (as far back as parts of the second draft), and the first to read the finished third draft, though I had given it to him in parts. Aside from that he helped me greatly with the post-writing—pre-publishing aspects of the book. He designed the cover, the map, as well as serving as a form of editor and proof-reader while he read the manuscript. And all of that for free! So thank you, Filip. He is himself (obviously) a graphic designer and you can check out his work here.

Finally, I would like to collectively thank all the people in my life such as professors and friends who in some way inspired me or the writing itself, as well as all the people who made such self-publishing a possibility, but also all of you who’ve managed to read to the very end.

Without any of you this novel would be either worse or non-existent. Thank you.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sven Venus was born in the April of 1997 in the small Croatian town of Slatina, where he also grew up. He is currently studying law in the nation’s capital at the University of Zagreb. His first and so far only published work is the fantasy novel The Broken Everything.

 


The Broken Everything

  • ISBN: 9789535926009
  • Author: Sven Venus
  • Published: 2016-10-04 15:05:15
  • Words: 76168
The Broken Everything The Broken Everything