THE SWORD OF THE ARCHON
The whole world reduced to a point between the eyes of his opponent. The roaring of the crowd keeping beat with the pounding of blood in his veins. His sword dancing the tune of the flesh without the buffer of thought. Shader revelled in the ecstasy of combat but couldn't wait to see the back of it.
Galen's eyes flicked to the right as he feigned a thrust, turned his wrist and struck at Shader's unprotected left-just as he was meant to. Shader parried and touched the tip of his blade to Galen's chin. The big man fell back, wiping the blood from his dimple and muttering beneath his moustache. First nick he'd had, Shader reckoned. Had to hurt his pride. Shouldn't have boasted, then he wouldn't have so far to fall.
He waited, sword loose at his side, as Galen tugged his uniform straight and puffed out his chest. The red jacket of the Templum Dragoons could get a whole lot redder yet if the bluff old sod didn't yield. Galen frowned, raised his sabre and eyed Shader like he meant to hack the head from his shoulders. Some people never learn.
The attack was sudden-a flurry of jabs, an eviscerating slash, a butcher's hack, all deftly blocked or slicing air.
'Stay still you ruddy blackguard!'
The crowd laughed. Galen scowled. Shader lifted his blade in salute.
Scratching his whiskers, Galen began to circle him, thin strands of hair standing to attention over his great pink head. Shader had to give him credit: he was no coward and no mean fighter too. He'd watched him come up through the rounds, bashing aside the competition with a combination of skill and brute force. Good qualities for a swordsman; the kind that led to fame. Shame he was horribly outclassed.
Galen bellowed and charged. Shader swayed aside and scratched the back of his thighs as he passed. Could have hamstringed the idiot, but that would have been taking the contest a little too seriously. Galen spun and swiped, kicking, stabbing, spitting his frustration. Shader gave ground, rode out the storm and then broke off, resuming the en garde stance. Galen sucked in air, mopped sweat from his brow, and advanced. Shader stamped his lead foot, half-stepped, and then jump-lunged, jabbing him below an epaulette. Galen roared. His sabre arced down and Shader ducked, coming up straight into the path of a fist. His sword thrust on instinct and exited through the back of Galen's hand. The big man yelped and then squealed as the blade tore free.
'Forgive me.' Shader put up his sword and took a step towards him.
Galen screamed and hacked with all his might. Shader deflected the blow but numbness shot through his arm. He switched the sword to his left hand, the blade twirling and glittering, sliding between Galen's basket-hilt and fingers to send his sabre clattering to the floor. Shader pressed the point of his sword into Galen's nostril.
'I think you're beaten.'
Galen went rigid, scarcely daring to breathe. His eyes flicked from Shader's blade to his own.
'You fought well, Galen, but it's over.'
The big man's chest heaved, threatening to pop the polished buttons from his jacket and rip the brocading. His head pulled carefully away from the tip of Shader's sword, a finger probing inside his nostril to gauge the damage. Blood pooled from his pierced hand, dripping down his fingers and spattering his boots.
'Do you yield?'
The crowd had gone deathly quiet. Galen scanned the Coliseum, face flushing as he acknowledged his supporters.
'Yes, I bloody yield!' He snatched up his sabre and stormed from the arena.
Shader spotted a dash of purple hurrying through the crowd and smiled. Adeptus Ludo scurried down the concourse, one hand flapping, the other holding his spectacles on his nose as he chased after Galen. Shaking his head with a mixture of amusement and affection, Shader bowed to the crowd, only now becoming aware of their sheer numbers. They filled tier upon tier of bleachers set between fluted columns and gaping arches. The applause fuddled his thoughts, burying them like an avalanche. He swayed as the sky lurched, stumbled, and would have fallen had strong hands not steadied him.
'A disorienting feeling-giving up the focus of combat for the baying of the mob.' A clipped voice, measured and familiar. Ignatius Grymm.
The Grand Master led him by the shoulder towards the clerical enclosure, ramrod straight, one hand resting on the pommel of his dress-sword. Ignatius was everything the Elect were created to be: immaculate, efficient, and utterly obedient to the Ipsissimus. The old knight genuflected, bald patch an island amidst iron-grey hair as clipped as his voice. He lifted one arm to receive the benediction, sunlight glinting from mailed sleeves, the Monas symbol bleeding from his surcoat like a mortal wound.
'Who do you present to the First of the Servants of Ain?' asked Exemptus Cane, trembling with infirmity, clutching tight to the handle of his stick, a thin line of spittle glistening in the crease of his chin.
'I present,' Ignatius declaimed for the entire crowd to hear, 'Deacon Shader, former Captain of the Seventh Horse, leader of the charge that broke the Verusian line at Trajinot, and now Keeper,' he turned to take in the Coliseum, 'of the Sword of the Archon.'
Give a blade a legendary name, Shader thought, and men would do anything to win it. Men like Galen. Men like all the others he'd beaten on his way to the final. If the Archon wasn't just a myth, the last thing he'd need was a sword, and it wasn't very likely he'd approve of such a brutal display in order to claim it. The Templum was many things to many people, but for Shader it was consistent only in one: the paradox of a brotherhood of love, born from the ashes of the Old World and enforced by the legions.
Exemptus Cane nodded, licking his lips, wet and rheumy eyes sliding to appraise Shader.
'Are you consecrated?'
'I am, your Eminence.' Had the senile old fool forgotten that he'd been the one doing the anointing? That was the sad truth about the Templum, Shader thought: all that talk about the uniqueness of each and every Nousian, but in reality they were just numbers drifting down the stream of obscurity.
'Good, good.' The Exemptus seemed to have run out of things to say, his tongue clicking as he looked over his shoulder towards the supreme ruler of the Nousian Theocracy.
Ipsissimus Theodore was seated like a god, white robes perfectly contiguous with the gleaming throne, a huge leather bound Liber open on his lap, giving the impression he continually meditated upon the scriptures, that he was in fact their human embodiment. He was a small man, gaunt and deathly pale, the white biretta perched perilously too far to one side of his head. Bright eyes stabbed at Shader from within sunken sockets. Eyes full of vitality and the rumour of a quick mind.
The Ipsissimus lifted his hand and Shader knelt to kiss his ring. A glint of gold caught his eye: a pendant hanging from a heavy chain. The Monas, the symbol of Ain the Infinitely Concealed. It was comprised of a horned circle surmounting a cruciform body. Two conjoined curves formed the legs, and an amber stone glinted within the head-a single all-seeing eye.
'You accept the Sword of the Archon?' The Ipsissimus's voice was thin and rasping. He gave a delicate cough, the merest hint of a wince.
'If that is your will, Divinity.'
The Ipsissimus nodded to Exemptus Cane who wagged his stick at the two Exempti standing to the right of the throne. They held a velvet cushion between them, upon which was a covering of white silk. They bowed and held out the cushion to the Ipsissimus, who whisked away the cloth to reveal a dull blade: a double-edged shortsword with a tapered tip for thrusting, a knobbed hilt and ridges for the grip. The Ipsissimus passed the sword to Shader, etchings on the blade shimmering in the sun's rays. Hands shaking, Shader mouthed the words as he read them: 'Vade in pace?' He glanced at the Ipsissimus.
'Go in peace. Beautiful irony, don't you think?' He gave a little wave of his hand and Shader backed away. 'Vade in pace!' Shader could almost hear Adeptus Ludo's voice drilling the point home: Imperative sense. A command not a noun. Some things you never forget, no matter how dull and pointless. Maybe it had all been in preparation for understanding the Ipsissimus's jokes.
'Show the crowd,' Ignatius whispered in his ear.
Walking back to the centre of the arena, Shader held the sword aloft, the cheers deafening like cascading water. The sword seemed to like it, odd as it sounded. He shifted his grip on the handle, momentarily shocked. He was certain the thing had trembled. No, more than that: the sword was purring.
'Gladius,' Ignatius said, filling Shader's glass. 'A weapon of the finest pedigree, old before even the time of the Ancients.'
Shader spun the sword on the tabletop, light from the oil lamps dancing along the blade and picking out the inscription. It read like an invitation to return to Sahul, to put away the trappings of the Elect and enter the contemplative life of Pardes. He wondered what the Ipsissimus would think of that. Leaving the consecrated knighthood was not exactly encouraged, and the Keeper of the Archon's Sword setting foot outside the city of Aeterna-that didn't bear thinking about.
'Our illustrious founders used them.' Ignatius waved a hand around. 'Aeterna was built on the strength of weapons like this. Quick, efficient stabs between a wall of advancing shields. Whole empires swept aside. Brutal men. Clever men. Ruthless.'
The Grand Master was obviously quite taken with them, which wasn't exactly a surprise.
'It's yours, if you want it.'
Ignatius spluttered into his wine and nearly choked. 'You can't give it away. You swore to serve.'
'You accepted, remember. Just as Erlstein did, and Baladin before him.'
An unbroken line of champions serving unto death; bound to the heart of the Templum, the last guardians against an imaginary threat. If the Archon's brother, the Demiurgos, was such a menace, what was keeping him?
'You know I didn't come back for this.'
Ignatius frowned and set down his glass. 'Then why? Surely you knew no one could beat you, least of all that oaf Galen.'
Shader laughed. 'He was pretty good. He'd have given you a run for your money.'
'If I had no arms, perhaps,' Ignatius picked up his wine, 'and was blind, and sitting on a field chair.' His expression became suddenly serious. 'Still torn?'
Shader let out a long sigh. Ignatius couldn't possibly know about the conflict that had sent him running for cover back to the abbey: the disarming feelings that he'd felt for Rhiannon ever since he'd found her mauled by mawgs on the edge of Oakendale. He'd been under no illusions about her. She was your typical Sahulian lass-coarse and feisty and more than a match for the men; but her appearance had never quite fitted her manner. She was wan and willowy, the sheen of her long black hair off-setting her milky skin. Not at all the bronzed look you'd expect of a rancher's daughter from Western Sahul. Her eyes were a little too deep-set, her lips slightly curled, sneering at the absurdity of things. Shader had been fascinated by her; reckoned he knew her better than she knew herself. Thought she was one step through the veil between the world and the eternal paradise of Araboth. He had to laugh now, though. Distance put a different hue on things. The otherworldly appearance could just as easily have been consumption, and the sneering was most likely aimed at him. He suspected, not for the first time, that Rhiannon Kwane was an enigma of his own making.
He studied his glass for a moment, twisting the stem on the table. 'Am I really sworn? The Grey Abbot's expecting me back.'
'If I were caught between two masters, I know which one I'd be obeying,' Ignatius said.
'The one all in white and with the biggest army in Nousia to back him?'
Ignatius' brows knitted and he leaned across the table.
'Sorry, Grand Master.' Shader lowered his eyes and flinched.
The silence hung heavy between them. The waiting was excruciating. Couldn't he just get on with it? The usual dressing down for irreverence? The speech about faith and duty?
Ignatius seemed to catch his thoughts and chuckled. 'What would be the point?' He sat back and clasped his hands behind his head. 'Even when you were under my command you never took a blind bit of notice of anything I said.'
'Deacon, I've known you a long time. I consider you my friend. You don't need me to tell you the right thing to do. Think about it. All that training, all that prayer, the battles-don't forget the battles. How else can Ain test us in the world? You've proven yourself a hundred times over. Except to one person.' Ignatius rocked forward and touched his palm to Shader's chest.
'But Verusia ...' Shader pinched the bridge of his nose.
'I know,' Ignatius' voice had softened. 'I was there. The things we saw in those forests would have corroded the faith of lesser men, but not you. Ain's blood, Deacon, you led the charge that won the day.'
Shader shook his head, bit the tip of his thumb. 'It's not just-'
'Faith, my friend. Faith. It's all you need. Ain loves you. All He asks is that you do your duty. No more than that.'
The docks were deserted, dark as pitch and silent but for the lapping of waves on the jetties, the creaking of yards.
Shader pulled his coat tighter, tugged down the brim of his hat and ducked into the salty wind.
'Perfick time fer stowin' away.' An old man hobbled from the boathouse, wheezing and hacking up phlegm, shaggy hat pulled low, thick cloak draped around his shoulders.
'Perfect time for sleeping.'
The old man coughed into his hand, hunkered down by the door. 'Sleep's fer the dead. Ample time fer that when I gets t' the Abyss.'
Shader reached into his pocket, jangled some coins. 'What's it going to cost for you to keep quiet about this?'
The old man gave an innocent look. 'Quiet about what? 'Less ya mean a knight o' the Elect, champ o' the tourney, bearer o' the Sword o' the Archon, slinking off at night lookin' fer a ship t' take 'im t' the other side o' the world-maybe e'en as far as Sahul.'
'Who are you?' A chill crept beneath Shader's skin. No one but the Grey Abbot knew of his plans, and he'd not set foot outside of Sahul in decades.
'Pacts 'tween lovers outweigh oaths t' hierophants. That's just the way o' things: human nature in a nutshell.'
Shader's hand instinctively went to the hilt of his sword.
'I'd use the other one if I was you. It's got a much keener edge.'
'If you insist.' There was a soft rasp as Shader drew the gladius. 'Now cut the acting. You with the Judiciary? Where are the others?'
The old man chuckled. He pulled his hat off and straightened up, the cloak falling away.
Moonlight bounced from his bald head, etched deep grooves in his face. The philosopher rubbed his white beard between thumb and forefinger, as he always did when pleased with himself.
'How the Abyss did you find me?'
'Oh, the advantages of age and wisdom. Mind you, who says I was looking for you? I do have other things to attend to, you know. Always hopping about like one of those kangaroos you have in Sahul. Here one minute, goodness knows where the next. Must admit, though, I was hoping you'd head back. Well, actually, I knew you would.'
'I promised the Grey Abbot.'
Aristodeus stuck out his bottom lip. 'Yes, the noviciate. Round two, eh?' Aristodeus threw a few shadow punches, bobbing and weaving.
'Not this time. No more fights. This is the end of it.'
'I don't doubt it,' Aristodeus said. 'Good idea, if you ask me. Prove yourself the best and then pack it all in for a life of prayer. The sort of thing I'd have done myself, only you know my thoughts on Nousians.'
Shader knew them only too well. The philosopher always seemed to move in Nousian circles, though, teaching, advising, debating. He'd even schooled Shader to enter the Templum all those years ago back home in Britannia. Ever since Shader was a child, he'd had Aristodeus to guide him, first as a tutor hired by his father, who'd insisted on the best, and then as a friend. He'd missed the old man's advice since he'd left Nousia for Sahul, and even that decision had been encouraged.
'Fancy a trip to Sahul?' Shader said. 'It'd be good to have some company. Six weeks at sea's enough to rot your soul if all you have to talk to are drunken sailors and the ship's cat.'
'I'm afraid I must disappoint. Business with the Templum.' Aristodeus raised his eyes along with his hands.
'Then perhaps you'll return the sword for me.'
The philosopher leaned in for a theatrical whisper. 'Don't suppose they'll notice if you keep it. I won't say anything if you don't.'
Shader knew they'd have his blood if they found out what he was doing. A knight of the Elect-no matter how former-reneging on his duties to the Ipsissimus. That would be the kind of excuse they needed to bring back the stake. If the Templum Judiciary wasn't already on his tail, it would be come morning. With any luck he'd be half way to Rujala by then, and well on the fringes of Nousian territory.
'Sword and man are bonded.' Aristodeus adopted that look of grim seriousness he saved for making his strongest points. 'It is a matter beyond ceremony and the tinpot power of Ipsissimi. Unlike so much that is to be found in the Templum, the Sword of the Archon is much more than smoke and mirrors. Much more.'
Shader's eyes narrowed. The disparagement of religion was nothing new. Aristodeus had always considered himself above such superstitious nonsense. Nevertheless he'd indulged Shader's mother by arranging for the boy to join the Templum Elect in Aeterna. Under his father's tutelage he was already an accomplished swordsman, and Mother's piety had been such a huge part of his childhood that he had the makings of a Luminary. As Ignatius Grymm had told him at the time, it was the perfect combination for a consecrated knight. Probably would have been if not for the third influence. Aristodeus's ideas had begun nipping at his faith like termites in wood the minute tuition had been handed over to Adeptus Ludo. But years later it was Ludo's holiness that had won the day. Under his guidance Shader had set sail for the Abbey of Pardes, leaving the world of warfare behind him.
When Aristodeus had been informed, he'd frowned a lot, taken his time formulating his reply. Once he'd done so, he'd been so encouraging you'd have been forgiven for thinking it was his idea all along. Maybe he'd known the religious life wouldn't work out.
Shader had proven too restless at the abbey, too frustrated with the stillness, too tormented by the parts of his nature that wouldn't settle down and die. He'd grown critical of the other monks' aloofness, their indifference to the world outside. The Grey Abbot had warned him about where such thoughts would lead, but he'd continued to indulge them. How could Ain be a just god if he did nothing about suffering? If Nous was his manifestation in the cosmos, his followers the hands and feet that carried out his work, why did the Templum tolerate evil? Why did it suppress the knowledge of the Ancients-knowledge that could cure disease, avert famine, and even make possible travel between the stars? That's if what Aristodeus said about such things could be trusted. After all these years, Shader was no longer sure.
When the mawgs came and the brothers did nothing his true nature reasserted itself. He'd hunted the beasts all the way to Oakendale and led the villagers against them. It had been an epiphany, a finding of another way. Whilst others might sit in selfish contemplation, he would truly lend his hands to Nous for the meting out of justice, the slaying of evil. He'd founded his own Order, imbued it with the same ideals. He trained local recruits in the spirit and the sword, and then fell prey to the same flaws that had hindered him at Pardes. His feelings for Rhiannon had smothered his dying faith. He'd been convinced she felt the same. Her rejection had almost proven fatal, sending him back to the abbey, the only home he'd known in Sahul.
He'd returned to Aeterna for the tournament on the advice of the Grey Abbot, who'd told him these issues with fighting, with being the best, needed to be worked out before he could continue the noviciate. Shader wondered now if Aristodeus hadn't been behind that as well. It wasn't beyond him to pop up in Sahul for a quick word. Nothing the old man did surprised him anymore. He'd always had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Aristodeus was watching him with that pretend questioning raise of the eyebrows that said he was reading you like a book.
'The sword is yours, my friend. Take it with you to Sahul. Shove it under your bed at the abbey if you like, but take it.'
The flesh on Shader's back began to crawl. The wind whipped up, spraying salt water in his face. He sheathed the gladius and put one hand on his hat to stop it blowing away.
'Don't worry about the Ipsissimus,' Aristodeus said, heading off down the gangway. 'I'll sort things out with him. All the best with the noviciate.'
Shader turned and started out along the jetty.
'Oh,' called Aristodeus over his shoulder. 'Give my love to Rhiannon.'
Shader spun. 'How do you ...?'
But the old man was gone.
VISITS IN THE NIGHT
Ernst Cadman flipped open his pocket-watch and squinted at the digital display. It took a moment for his sleep-dulled mind to register that he wasn't wearing his pince-nez. His bedroom was blacker than he'd known it. He couldn't even see his hand in front of his face. Couldn't see the pocket watch now either-which seemed a little odd. He reached out and patted the hard wood of his bedside table with tremulous fingers. Precisely four reassuring dull taps, not the sharp raps he'd feared. Not that it was a reasonable fear, he told himself. He'd worn the illusion of fatness for so long now it had the familiarity of an old coat, the comfort some children glean from a favourite blanket. He brushed against the frames of his pince-nez, felt them skid away from him, but managed to snag them before they could fall.
He fumbled and squeezed the pince-nez into place on the bridge of his nose and saw clearly that the time was 3.33 a.m. and 55 seconds exactly. He gulped-more out of habit than necessity. The two number fives danced around his mind, taunting, warning, predicting. Just my rotten luck, Cadman grimaced, his mind already permutating to make them into anything but what they really were. 5+5=10, the ritual began. And 1+0=1, which is 4 less than 5, but added to 5 makes 9. That was where he needed to stop, he reminded himself. 9 was a good number-it was 3x3 after all. But if you added it to the original 5 ... He groaned. That made 14, and 1+4 ...
How the deuce can I see the watch when I can't even see my own sausages? Cadman wiggled his fingers in front of his eyes. It struck him as odd, too, that the pince-nez had made a difference. It was a matter of illumination, not of focus, and he'd never really needed them for that. Like so much about him, they were merely for show, and not a little comfort.
Gosh it's cold. Not that that was anything new. Even Sahul's scorching summers had done nothing for the chills. But it was a darned sight colder than normal. Freezing even. He expected to see his breath misting before him-well more of a death-rattle than actual breath-but couldn't see anything in the pitch blackness. It was becoming rather worrisome, not being able to see. He tugged at the end of his moustache as if it could ward off evil. The evil of the Void. Cadman began to run the numbers through his mind, adding, subtracting, dividing, as the panic began to rise. If only he could get to the curtains without tripping over and breaking his neck. He tugged aside the blankets and rolled his great bulk to the edge of the bed.
A voice like the rustling of paper. He froze, black heart thumping against his ribs and threatening to shatter the illusion of flesh. Someone's in the room. Someone's in the room. Someone's-
The blackness darkened at the foot of the bed. It was all Cadman could do to turn his head, his hands clenching around the covers ready to tug them back over. A sliver of shadow curled towards him as if it were going to stroke his cheek. Cadman drew back, pulled the blankets up to his nose. Tentacles sprouted from the heavy dark, bobbing and undulating, poking and retracting. A series of pustules erupted from the central mass, lumps of twisting blackness that could have been heads, lolling, nodding, shaking. It was still too dark to see any more than the outline of black on black, and Cadman was grateful for that.
He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Both hands were on his moustache and the number seven raced around his mind. Damn those fives. Curse them. Now look what they've done.
'I come in answer to your call.' A Cheyne-Stoking rasp.
'I bring what you seek.' A malign susurrus.
Call? Seek? 'I called no one. Please go away.' Unless ...
'You read books of knowledge.' The first voice rippled and crunched.
Blightey's grimoire? Indecipherable poppycock. All sigils and wards, pious sounding words and a bunch of warnings meant to frighten the ignorant. He shouldn't have read it again-nor any of the other works of his one-time master, but when you'd lived as long as Cadman, you had to refresh your memory by rote-every last bit of it. Systematically. Some might even say slavishly. It didn't pay to forget.
'I came to Otto Blightey as I now come to you. I offer knowledge of things that can ease your suffering.'
'What do you know of my suffering?' The fear was turning to anger now, as he'd hoped it would. Seven was great for that. A strong number. Very resolute.
'Every time you feed your needs I feel it.' A voice thick with pity, as if it considered him less than the smokers of narcotics whose every waking moment was consumed with the desire for more. Which is not so far from the truth. Perhaps, if there were another way. It was all very well clinging onto existence, but there had to be more dignified ways of doing it. Ways that didn't involve guzzling down the gory remains of others. All these centuries he'd been nothing more than a parasite, but what other choice did he have? It was either that or ... He squeezed his eyes shut. He never liked to think about oblivion.
'What are you? What can you offer me?' Almost immediately, Cadman wished he hadn't asked. He'd learnt all he could stomach of the dark paths from Blightey back in Verusia. There was a limit to how far he was willing to go. He knew Blightey had taken things much further-he'd seen the fruits of it in the mutilated victims, the impaled corpses outside the castle walls: white and rigid, the stench of faeces and putrescence. Some of them had continued to gurgle and gasp around the stakes protruding from their gaping mouths for hours. Days even. If that's what knowledge of the Abyss did to a man, Cadman wanted none of it. It's why he'd fled. Why he'd come to this accursed backwater on the other side of the world.
Another head plopped from the black mass and swayed towards him on a sinuous neck. 'You know of Eingana?'
One of the Aeonic Triad who fell from the Void with the Archon and the Demiurgos, if the myth's to be believed. 'The serpent goddess of the Dreamers?'
The black mass gurgled and hissed, its appendages lashing the floor, dark heads rolling. 'The mother of life, they say.' There was a note of irony in the voice this time. 'Keeps the creatures of Aethir in being by the slenderest of threads.'
'Ah, the funiculus umbilicalis. I'm not entirely ignorant of Sahulian mythology.' Always paid to study the native culture. Might make all the difference in a tight spot. You could never be too careful. 'Cords of her own flesh invisibly sustaining all life in the world of the Dreaming. Once severed, so the Dreamers believe, the creature ceases to be.' Cadman shuddered. Such a graphic description of the precariousness of existence. Every moment a tightrope walk over the Void. 'Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't she also the bringer of death?'
The creature roiled towards him, tentacles rearing and coiling like vipers in heat. 'All things have two natures,' one of the heads hissed. 'You of all people should know that.'
Cadman felt it could see through him, through his corpulent disguise and right down to the bone. He backed up against the headboard, dragging the covers with him.
'I know what you fear.' Another head spoke now, its voice soft and empathetic. 'I too have endured on the threshold of existence, a dweller of the space between dreams and the Abyss. I, who have seen so much, felt so much. I can help you.'
'Why?' What's in it for you? Nothing good ever came free.
'Because we are fellow sufferers. Because what I have I would share with you.'
That didn't sound at all appealing, judging by the look of the thing. 'You would have me become like you?'
All the heads laughed in unison, a loathsome cacophony that rattled the windows. 'There can be no others like me. My creation was ... unique. What I offer is the knowledge to endure, the fullness of the life of Eingana.'
'And that's yours to give?'
The tentacles settled to the floor, the heads turning as one to glare at him with eyes blacker than the darkness.
'It is yours to take.'
That would involve action, and action never came without risks. 'I've survived this long without your help, thank you very much. If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer to keep things just as they are.' Lurking like a spider at the heart of its web, with an unsuspecting city my larder. Oh, joy! An eternity of feasting on the corpses of peasants.
The creature surged towards him, limbs flailing and agitated. 'You cannot refuse,' hissed one of the heads. 'It is in your nature. You will not refuse.'
Cadman pressed his back into the headboard, wishing he could pass right through it, through the wall and out into the street beyond. The creature squelched over the foot of the bed, its tentacles bashing against the floor.
'You will not refuse.' Thud, crash, bang. 'You cannot refuse.' Thud, crash, bang ...
Thud, crash, bang.
Cadman sat bolt upright in bed, patting his face to make sure it was still there. Cheeks and jowls, bushy moustache, great mop of hair. All present and correct.
'Hold on,' he called out to whoever was knocking at the door. What time is it? He snatched up his pocket-watch from the bedside table and flipped open the lid. 3.34 and 16 seconds precisely. Who the hell's bashing at my door at this infernal hour?
Dirty light from the street lanterns spilled through a gap in the curtains. He rolled out of bed, eyes adjusting to the gloom, and found his pince-nez atop the book he'd been reading himself to sleep with: Otto Blightey's Voices from the Abyss. He shoved it onto the floor. Damned nonsense had fired his imagination a bit too much for comfort.
The knocking from downstairs grew louder and more urgent.
'All right, I'm coming. Give me a chance, would you.'
He lumbered across the room and threw on his dressing gown. Shuffling out onto the landing, he turned up the gas lamp he always left burning at night. A dangerous business, but better than the darkness. Someone was still hammering at the door as if all the creatures of the Abyss were coming for them. Cadman skipped nimbly down the stairs, feet clattering on the tiles by the door.
He took a peek at his reflection in the entrance hall mirror. More of a skull, than a head-just the merest strips of parchment thin flesh clinging to mottled bone. His hands were rotten, black with mildew. Skeletal fingers cracked and groaned, joints barely articulated by decaying ligaments. He frowned at his bony toes, tapping them on the floor.
Careless, Cadman. Very careless. Caution, caution, and caution again. He watched the fleshiness re-form in the mirror-great rolls of fat dripping from his jaw, waistline ballooning beneath the dressing-gown, fingers swelling until they resembled bloated slugs.
Another flurry of thumps and the door rattled like the lid of a restless sinner's coffin.
'One moment!' Uncouth bloody Sahulians. No manners. Absolutely none whatsoever. Cadman stroked his rapidly returning moustache. Better. Now then, let's see what this racket's all about.
He pulled back the three heavy bolts, twisted the key in the uppermost lock, fumbled in his dressing gown pocket for the big key for the deadlock and then inched open the door until it caught on the chain. A small pallid hand flopped through the gap, blood staining the fingers. Oh, my giddy aunt! Cadman took a step back and threw up his hands.
'Open up,' a voice wheezed from the other side. 'I'm a Sicarii.'
An assassin. Another one of Master Frayn's paid killers. This is getting beyond a joke. The fifth in as many weeks. Cadman entertained the idea of slamming the door on the hand and crushing it until it either fell off or withdrew. Not really an option, despite the appeal. It didn't pay to mess with the Sicarii.
'Name?' he demanded through the gap in the door.
'Shadrak.' Pain in the voice. Breathing laboured.
'One moment.' Cadman waddled into his study and snatched up the list Master Frayn had made for him-in the unlikely event that any of his cutthroats should require discreet medical attention. Unlikely, my foot. If Cadman had done what any other self-respecting doctor would have, and charged them through the nose for his services, he'd have been a rich man by now. But he'd never been one for the pursuit of money. It always brought too much attention and risk.
He ambled back to the door and peered through the gap. His visitor was surprisingly small for a hit-man. Exceedingly small. Couldn't have been an inch over three foot. He was dressed like all the others in dark leather, a billowing black cloak trailing over his shoulders. His face was as white as his hand-and it wasn't just from loss of blood. He was clutching at his chest, a misty look passing across the most unnerving eyes: pink irises and pin-prick pupils. Eyes that flitted this way and that as if expecting danger from every direction. Something we may well have in common. Even his stubbly hair and neat box-beard were white.
'You're not on the list.'
'Frayn gave you a list?' When he spoke there was a flash of pearly teeth. Quite the perfectionist, aren't we? 'Course I ain't on it. I'm Shadrak ... the Unseen.'
But not any longer, I fear. 'That hardly makes me want to let you in. If your reputation depends on invisibility and anonymity, what will you do once I've sewn you up?' He started to close the door, gently enough to let the fellow get his fingers out of the way, but the albino wedged a boot into the opening instead.
'Open the shogging door or I'll put a hole in your fat head.' The hand returned clutching a pistol.
Now there's a surprise. I've not seen anything like that for a while. Not since the Reckoning, and that was a very long time ago. Nine hundred and eight years, four months and sixteen days, to be precise.
'You sure you know what that thing is?' Cadman stepped back from the door.
'Know what it does.'
Yes, quite. I'm sure you do.
'Don't worry, Doc.' A pink eye pressed into the crack, took everything in. 'I won't do you, you're far too useful to Master Frayn, and I reckon I can trust you with my little secret, don't you?'
Cadman didn't miss the threat. He never missed a threat-even when he was told he'd got it wrong. Oh, there were some fine actors out there, but Cadman could always smell a rat. He had a knack for it.
He slid back the chain and opened the door. Shadrak stumbled into the hallway, pitched to his knees and moaned, a trickle of blood dripping through the fingers covering his chest wound and spattering the tiles.
'Follow me.' If you can. Hopefully the little runt will drop dead before he can bleed all over the carpet as well.
He led Shadrak along the corridor and opened the surgery door for him. All beautifully white and clinical. Pristine. Sturdy shutters locked against prying eyes; shelves of gleaming instruments, all perfectly stowed in their alphabetised trays. Not a speck of dust to be seen. Immaculate. The midget might as well have been in a sewer for all the appreciation he showed.
Cadman beckoned him to sit on the edge of the treatment table then flicked the switch on the angle-lamp, one of his few surviving Old World artefacts. Shadrak cocked his head but said nothing as the lamp hummed and flickered to life, casting its stark glow over the table.
'Don't make 'em like they used to, eh?' Never hurt to talk in the patient's vernacular. Always paid to put them at ease. 'Regenerating plasma cells. Keep it powered till doomsday. Seems you have some knowledge of the Ancients' technology yourself.' Cadman nodded at the gun. 'Might I ask where you came by such a relic?'
Shadrak winced as he holstered it then fell back on the table. 'No.'
Thought as much. 'I'm something of a collector, but alas, technology's not all it's cracked up to be. It's fine one minute,' he grabbed some latex gloves from the vacuum store and snapped them on. 'And the next it's useless junk. Now tell me,' he lifted Shadrak's hand away from the chest wound. 'What seems to be the problem? Ah ...' He pressed down on the edges of the puncture, causing Shadrak to whimper and bright blood to gush over the gloves. 'Bullet wound. You really shouldn't play with such dangerous toys.'
'Weren't ... playing,' Shadrak croaked. 'On a job. Bastard made me just 'fore I had 'im. Struggled. Thunder-shot went off.'
'Nasty.' Cadman shoved a gauze square over the hole. 'Press on this, would you.' He scurried around the table and rolled Shadrak groaning onto his side. 'No exit wound, which means a spot of digging in the dark.' At least it had missed the lung, otherwise Shadrak would most likely be spewing blood. As long as there's no cavitation or fragmentation he should be all right. Assuming the shock doesn't kill him, which would be a crying shame.
Cadman pulled over his trolley and ripped open some packets. Supplies were getting low. Soon he'd be reduced to the same barbaric butchery as his competitors, unless a miracle happened and the Templum opened its archives. All that knowledge shut up for the supposed good of the world, to prevent a return to the evils of the past. It hadn't been that bad, Cadman mused. It all depended whose side you were on.
Pinching a wad of gauze with some forceps, he dunked it in saline and swabbed the wound. Shadrak gave a pathetic cry, tears welling from his pink eyes.
'Stings a bit, I'm afraid. Would you like something for the pain?'
'Just get on with it,' the assassin growled through clenched teeth.
'As you wish.' Cadman angled the light so that it shone directly on the wound. He pushed his pince-nez further down his nose and squinted over the top. 'A touch of laudanum? A tincture of lignocaine? No? Very well.' Don't say I didn't warn you.
He picked up some shiny tweezers and stabbed them into the hole. Shadrak screamed and thrashed about on the table. Cadman forced him down with a meaty hand and continued to push and twist with the tweezers until he touched something hard. Shadrak had gone still, his jaw slack, a snail's trail of dribble oozing down one side of his chin.
'Nighty night.' Cadman patted his cheek and then reached behind to grab his magnifying glass from the trolley. Peering through the lens, he could see nothing but blood washing over the tweezers. Sometimes he wished he had a third hand so that he could rinse away the gore and see what he was doing. The aperture widened as he forced the tweezers against soft flesh. For an instant he glimpsed the dark shell of the bullet before the blood rushed back in. With one last push he had it, whipped it out clean as a whistle and dropped it clattering onto the trolley. He swabbed around the wound with iodine, leaving yellow stains on the skin, and then took up a curved needle and began to stitch it up. Shadrak shuddered, his chest rising and falling erratically. Breaking off the thread, Cadman bent to inspect his work, dabbing at the seepage with a cotton wool ball and allowing himself a satisfied nod. Splendid job, Cadman. Splendid.
He took down an antibiotic solution from its box on the shelf, drew it up with a syringe, and injected it into Shadrak's vein.
That was all he could do for now. Either he'd live or he'd die. It was all the same to Cadman.
THE BARD OF BROKEN BRIDGE
Rhiannon closed her eyes, loving the breeze playing through her hair, cooling her skin. It beat the blazing sun, but it wouldn't last. That's why you had to stand there and lap it up. The "Breath of Nous", Soror Agna called it, and right now Rhiannon reckoned she had a point. Nous might've been the "Ground of Being", the "Mind of the Universe" and all that baloney, but when you were frying in your own sweat he was a damned sight more useful as a gentle wind. The locals had another name for it, course. The figjams up in the smoke knew it as the "Doctor", but down in the villages it was the "Oakendale Fart."
Sammy pulled on her hand, hot and greasy, mousy hair stuck to his forehead below the brim of Dad's straw hat. 'Can we go now?' He looked up at her through squinty eyes, freckles shouting from the bridge of his nose.
'Brothers.' Rhiannon pinched his cheek. 'Good for only one thing.'
Sammy frowned and cocked his head. 'What?'
He screamed and scarpered, glancing over his shoulder to make sure she was chasing him.
The breeze died a quick death, leaving it a scorcher all the way to Delling Creek at the border with Broken Bridge. The two halves of the limestone bridge that had given the village its name made a "V" beneath the sparkling waters. Silver minnows shot between the reeds, passed amongst the copper coins glinting in the mud at the bottom. The farmers still tossed them in every summer, but it was a waste of time. It was hard to remember when it last rained.
Rhiannon had once seen a shark stuck in the shallows, one of the big bronze whalers that must've swum up the estuary. She'd run home to tell her dad and he'd brought his mates back with forks and spades. She could still picture the creek running red, the shark's thrashing sending weaker and weaker ripples through its own blood. Even now she wished she'd never mentioned it, but Dad said she'd done good.
'Broke by funder.' Sammy stuck his fists into his hips and puffed out his cheeks. He said the same thing every time, as if he'd just made a discovery.
'Lightning, Sammy. Thunder is the noisy bit.' Rhiannon fixed a smile as he gave his old man look, knitting his brows and puckering his mouth. Hard to believe he was six only yesterday.
Soror Agna said a mawg shaman had blasted the bridge five hundred years ago when its swarm had been driven from the Abbey of Pardes. Then there was the story of a demon from the Abyss that tried to cross over to Oakendale to eat a wannabe wizard who'd failed to honour a pact. When the wizard wasn't wearing pointy hats, his day job had been farming wheat. Poor bugger lost his whole crop to locusts the previous year. Must've thought a bit of black magic would keep them off. Elias had sung about it a few times at the Griffin, although Rhiannon suspected he'd made it up. She'd never seen demons, and those who claimed to be wizards were generally impotent geeks without any friends. Swanning about in robes and talking mumbo jumbo apparently gave you an instant personality. Elias's song had Brannos the Brave, whoever he was, striking the bridge with his club and the demon plunging to the swelling waters below. It was hard to imagine now, as the long drought had dried the creek to the point that it was little more than a trickle above the silt. Dried up and wasted. Soror Agna would no doubt approve. Isn't that what the Templum did? What it would do to Rhiannon? All that self-denial in the name of the greater good.
Rhiannon bit down on her lip, told herself to stop whinging. She was half way to being a flaming Luminary already. She'd be all right.
So why did she feel such loss? Wasn't sacrifice meant to pave the way for the life of Nous? Crock of shit if you asked her. The only thing she felt from her rejection of Deacon Shader was emptiness.
And what if Huntsman had been wrong? What if he was just a charlatan, the Dreamers' bodgy excuse for a juju man? He'd asked her to give up so much and she still wasn't sure she could bear it. 'Nous will give you the strength,' Soror would say. Course he flaming well would, and a fat lot of good it seemed to be doing. Maybe Agna was right. Maybe it would be easier once she'd entered the Templum of the Knot, given herself up to service.
She tried to capture the creek: the spray of gum trees jutting from the ruddy soil, the air sweet with their scent; she felt the heat prickling her skin, blinked up at the cloudless blue, let the songs of lorikeets and galahs play over her. All her senses melded into a memory that would linger. She told herself to savour her last days in the villages before she joined the priests in Sarum.
'When are we going?'
Rhiannon smiled down at her little brother, his face glistening with a rosy sheen.
She felt bad about marring his birthday with the news she was leaving. Maybe she was no better than Shader. He'd had his moment of drama, abandoning the lads of Oakendale so that he could bugger off back to Aeterna like a jilted kid. Maybe now she wanted hers. No one had shown the least surprise. She'd been meeting with Soror Agna for years and probably would have entered the Templum anyway. Even if she'd not met Shader; if he'd not saved her from the mawgs. She winced and shut the memory down before it could take hold.
'Where'd you wanna go, soldier?'
'You wanna play guitar?'
'Don't you reckon it's a bit hot to walk all that way?'
'All right then,' she sighed. 'Let's just hope Elias is in.'
She knew he would be. The bard never went out these days unless it was to perform, and that was always at the Griffin. Elias had told her all about his wander years, his adventures amongst the Dreamers, but Rhiannon had never known him to set foot outside of the village.
Sammy ran ahead of her to the cleft bridge, still passable if you slid down the slanting stone a ways and leapt to the other side.
'Me first.' Sammy spread his arms for balance and crept to the brink. Rhiannon pulled her sandals off and threw them across.
'Here, give me your hand.' She paddled into the stream, guiding him down one half of the "V" till his feet were just above the water. Sammy bent his knees and gathered himself, then straightened up shaking his head.
'Come on, Sammy, jump.'
'No.' He slipped as he tried to turn, but Rhiannon caught him under the arms and hoisted him over her shoulder.
'I can do it.' He thumped her back as she waded to the far side and dumped him on the bank.
'I know you can, so there's no need to show me, is there?'
She walked barefoot on the hard-baked road, Sammy pouting and dragging his feet until they reached the Griffin at the edge of Broken Bridge, brilliant sunbursts reflecting from its latticed windows. The sign, a faded painting of a ferocious hybrid, part lion, part eagle, creaked gently back and forth.
A group of lads in the white surcoat and red Monas of Shader's Order sat at the tables outside, pitchers of beer in front of them. She hesitated as she spotted Justin Salace, ginger hair plastered to his scalp. She knew he'd seen her, but he tried not to show it, glugging his pint then leaning towards Barek Thomas, whispering in his ear. Barek peered over Justin's shoulder, one half of his mouth curling into a smile. The pub door opened and Sheriff Halligan stepped out, flipping his notepad shut and slipping it into his pocket. Sneaky Nigel followed him as far as the doorway, drying a glass with his apron, looking grimmer than normal, which was saying something. Wasn't surprising, though, considering what had happened last night. The way the boy-knights were staring at Rhiannon you'd have thought she'd been the one to murder Bovis Rayn; only the lads' problem with her went back further than that. They'd been pissy with her since Shader had buggered off and left them to their own devices.
Gripping Sammy's hand tight, Rhiannon put her head down and walked past, feeling their eyes burning into her back.
'Ouch, you're hurting me.' Sammy pulled away, wriggling his fingers as they passed the diggers' shacks, flaky paint peeling from rotted timbers, shutters closed against the heat. They took the narrow track that wended up into the hills and followed it until they came to a rough stone hovel with a tin roof.
Elias Wolf was rocking in his chair on the porch, rubbing at the neck of a mandola with a dirty rag. He was dressed in a motley outfit of patches sewn over threadbare strides and a matching jacket of faded blue, studded with a hundred badges that glinted like armour. They were painted with pictures, symbols and words, some funny, some political-slogans from yesteryear. Lank, unwashed hair hung in greasy disarray about his shoulders. His sharp face was all crows' feet and furrows, softened by a smudge of stubble.
Elias looked up as they approached and let out an exaggerated sigh.
'Suppose you want tea,' he moaned, working oil between the frets. 'Linseed.' He held up the rag. 'If it worked for cricketers ...'
Rhiannon rolled her eyes and pretended to yawn.
'Have I told you about cricket?'
'Nope and I don't wanna know, before you ask.' She shot him her sweetest smile and he wrinkled his nose back at her.
'I'll boil some water then,' Elias groaned as he balanced the mandola against the wall and rocked himself out of the chair. 'Unless, of course, you'd rather taste some home-brew.' He indicated the bubbling distillery just inside the doorway. 'Cider,' he beamed. 'Can't beat a bit of the ol' scrumpy.'
'Yes!' Sammy hopped from foot to foot.
'Tea'll be right,' Rhiannon said, shoving him inside.
Sammy clapped his hands in front of the assorted acoustic instruments hanging on the rear wall of the studio. Antique mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and guitars. Six-strings, twelve-strings, round holes, f-holes, resonators and solid bodies. Plain wood or lacquered, chrome and brass; maple necks, or rosewood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Elias had pointed out every detail of every instrument to her over the years, so much so that Rhiannon considered herself an authority, except for the fact that she couldn't even whistle in tune. Pride of place was afforded to a solid body with twin cut-aways and painted a kind of pastel orange, which Elias had always insisted was salmon pink.
The rest of the oak-panelled room served as a workshop-a clutter of benches strewn with head-stocks, nuts, bridges and strings. There were boxes overflowing with spare parts, some of which came in brightly lettered packaging.
'Ah, no, no, no!' Elias winced as Sammy started towards the orange-pink guitar. 'I think we'll adjourn to the kitchen, if you don't mind.'
Sammy whined in protest but dutifully followed them out of the studio. Elias handed him a battered ukulele, which he proceeded to thrash whilst the bard heated some water in a rusty pan.
'Bit hot to be out an' about,' he said over his shoulder as he hunted for the teapot. 'Don't want ol' Sammy getting sunstroke.'
Rhiannon felt her lips trembling, tears welling up from nowhere.
Elias frowned at her. 'Not still missing him?'
'Heck, no. Just something that happened on the way over. It's stupid, really. Don't know why it bothered me.' Justin and Barek had been childhood friends, but ever since Shader had left, they'd been cold with her. Hostile even. 'We ran into some lads from the White Order, that's all.'
'Ah.' Elias gave a knowing nod. 'Shader's abandoned boys still looking for someone to blame. Thought they'd have got over it by now, realized what a prat he is. I mean, just 'cause the bloke gets dumped by the most gorgeous gal in Oakendale doesn't mean he has to run off back to the holy bleedin' city. I reckon you made the right choice. Sounds a bit immature to me.'
'But why go? He wanted to give up fighting.'
'Wounded pride, my dear. I'll bet you a brass monkey he couldn't take no for an answer so he's off trying to prove his manhood. He won't forgive and forget, though. He'll carry his tawdry little image of you in his noddle,' he tapped his temple, 'and his imagination will embellish it until you become a mixture of the Dark Mother of Ain and the lascivious Annie Marchant.'
'He thinks I'm a slut?'
'No, no, no. You miss my point. You see, Shader wants a Luminary to complement his own self image. Only he's a geezer, just like any other geezer, so what he needs is a composite: a pious companion during the day and a wanton strumpet at night. Man, it's gone awfully quiet in here.'
He was right. Rhiannon hadn't noticed that Sammy's strumming had stopped. She had a moment's panic when she couldn't see him and then smiled. The boy was curled up on the floor, snoring quietly, one arm draped over the ukulele.
'Stick him in the bedroom, if you like,' Elias said. 'I reckon it's time for a drink and a smoke, don't you?'
THE AURA PLACIDA
The ship lurched and Shader was tipped back into the cabin, clutching the doorframe with rigid fingers. His stomach heaved again, even though it was beyond empty. With a desperate surge he rebounded through the doorway and stumbled onto the deck.
The clouds were thinning and the rain had slowed to a spit. The storm-head was roiling off the stern back towards Latia. The tail end of the gale bloated the great square sails on the main-mast and set them snapping. The yards groaned and creaked as he slipped and skidded his way below them and bent into the wind to climb the steps to the forecastle.
Captain Amidio Podesta was leaning on the prow railings, black hair streaming like wet seaweed behind him, his gaudy finery looking like the cheap rags they really were, all sodden, clinging, drooping about his stout frame. He seemed to sense Shader's approach even above the din of the passing storm, turning and cramming his tricorn tightly onto his head. The man had an unnatural link with the ship that alerted him to every shift of the sea, every step upon the deck.
'You see, I told you.' Podesta gave a gap-toothed grin, his usually sleek moustache dangling limply, jowls hidden by a braided trident beard. 'Some storms you run before, eh? And others,' he flicked his hand after the dark mass fleeing from the aft, 'you take head on. It's just like the great Nicolau Rama said, eh? A ship has a bowsprit for two reasons.' He rubbed affectionately at the base of the pole projecting from the prow, loops of rope hanging carelessly, jibs creased and furled along the length. 'An anchor for the forestays,' he indicated the standing rigging in front of the closest mast, where a couple of mangy sailors still hung like spiders challenging the wind to dislodge them. 'Everyone knows that, uh?'
Shader only knew because Captain Diaz had bored him senseless with endless nautical lessons on the voyage from Sahul. Diaz's point had been that every able-bodied passenger needed to be a sailor just in case. The sea was a capricious beast who gave no mercy, listened to no excuses. When the crisis came, as it would, either you stood up and did your part, or you went down with the ship along with everyone else.
Podesta frowned, forcing his chin into his neck and giving Shader a look that was at once confused and worried, like the one a father might give a child who had not grasped the most elementary point about playing with fire. 'You don't want the foremast falling into the main, uh? You understand? Good, good. Two points, he says, and the second you will like, you being a pious man.'
There was no hint of mockery. Indeed, Podesta gave the slightest of bows and touched his finger-tips together.
'It is like,' the Captain swept his arm along the line of the bowsprit thrusting out over the waves, 'the point of a spear piercing a wall of shields, uh? You understand these things, no?'
Shader did, but quite how Podesta knew that he did was beyond him.
'It is like the horn of a charging unicorn. It is like ...' and here he paused, gazing into the grey distance. '... a needle-point of love piercing the heart of Ain. You like, eh? You see, us Quilonians are not so ignorant as you think.'
They might have punched their way through the storm, but the carrack still reared and fell heavily in the troughs, and off of the starboard side white horses frothed and spat. Podesta followed Shader's gaze and slapped him on the shoulder.
'The Narala Reef, my friend. We are closer to Numosia than Latia now, you know. Didn't I tell you I knew a fast route? Faster than that charlatan Diaz, eh? And the Aura Placida,' he swept a hand out to encompass the ship. 'She might not be as swift as Diaz's caravel, but she is bigger, no? And she has comfort, strength and soul.' He thumped his chest and stuck his chin out as if the superiority of his vessel were plain to see.
Shader agreed about the comfort. The Dolphin had indeed been fast, but her quarters were cramped and she'd had scant space for cargo. Diaz had taken the long route to Aeterna, skirting the coast of Britannia and sailing through the channel between Quilonia and Gallia. They'd not landed at Britannia, and Shader couldn't say he minded. The feel of the place had altered since his father's death, and he suspected he now saw it as it really was. The dappled sunlight piercing the leaves of Friston Forest, the scent of fresh-cut grass, the comforting presence of the Downs: the world seen through a child's eyes; but when Jarl had rotted, when the wasting had transformed him from a titan into a repugnant sack of meat and shit, the child had died with him. There was a joke in Aeterna that Shader had been the butt of as he rose through the ranks: Britannia was the bowel of Nousia, the cesspit of the Templum's empire. The Latians had made no attempt to conceal their scorn for Shader's heritage. Britannia, for them, had more in common with the barbaric forests of Verusia than with Nousian culture.
'No,' Podesta continued to blather on as he stared out to sea, 'your friend Diaz would not have the guts to take this route. He'd never navigate the reef, and even if he did, he lacks the stomach for the Anglesh Isles.'
Podesta's route would take them past the mawg homeland. Shader was in no hurry to reacquaint himself with the beasts that had fallen upon the Abbey of Pardes, showing up his contemplative dream for what it was. He'd been the only one with the skills to oppose them, the only one to track them as they rampaged south to Oakendale.
Podesta pulled a metal flask from his boot and unscrewed it. 'Don't you worry, my friend. The Aura Placida will look after us, and my crew are as ferocious as any mawg, eh?'
Shader doubted that, although they looked a hard bunch: the sort of men who'd stick you for a bronze dupondii. Podesta caught him observing the sailors spilling over the deck, shouting to each other and striking up a shanty that seemed to be composed mainly of expletives.
'They're good boys, eh?' Podesta rubbed his beard and frowned. 'If you know how to treat them. Rum?'
Shader declined and looked away as the Captain took a swig and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
'Looks like you need something to put the colour back in your cheeks, eh? The worst of the rough is past us now. Go and see Sabas. Tell him you need melted cheese and bread. Say the Captain sent you.'
The Aurora Placida bobbed contentedly, the calls of sailors, the creaking of yards a muffled reminder of the world outside the galley. The salty scent of grilled cheese set Shader's stomach rumbling, his tongue moistening his lips. Sabas set the plate before him with meaty black hands and lowered his bulk onto a stool, watching Shader intently as he sniffed the bread-base and lifted it to his mouth. It was an effort not to wolf it down to fill the void in his guts. Under the expectant eyes of the chef, Shader nibbled a corner, savoured its tanginess and made appreciative grunts as he swallowed.
'You like how we eat in Numosia? Cheese of the goat and sourdough.' Sabas opened his hands, thick lips chewing the words languidly rolling from his mouth with a lisp. 'A touch of mustard from Verusia,' he gave Shader a sideways look with wide eyes, 'and a sprinkling of black pepper. How do you think I got so fat?' He slapped his paunch, double-chin rippling as he gave a deep belly-laugh. 'Oh, Mr Sabas,' he rumbled like a passing storm, 'you one big blubbery man.'
A red-faced lad stuck his head through the door, more acne than skin, hair a greasy mop of ginger, eyes darting over his shoulder and then at Shader's plate.
'Got any spare, Chef?' he whined, rubbing his stomach. 'I'm 'alf starved.'
Sabas slapped a big hand down on the table, belly rolling with mirth.
'Ah, Elpidio. Always hungry. You sit down and don't you breathe none. Maybe you won't be missed.'
The youth slid through the crack of the door and crept to a stool, offering Shader a nervous smile.
'Elpidio is like a son to me,' the black man said as he sliced some bread and started to top it with shavings of cheese. 'Ain't that right, boy? You been eating that grub I send you? You sure don't look like it.'
Elpidio's eyes didn't lift from the table, his fingers fiddling with a fork.
'It eat it right enough. When it don't get took from me.'
'Cleto?' Sabas closed the lid of the pan and thrust it into the flames.
'Don't you go messing with that fork, boy. That's a clean one. Don't want to wash it for no good reason.'
Sabas dropped onto the stool beside him and lowered his head to look up at the lad.
'Don't go being sorry now. Everything all right?'
Shader took a bite of cheesy bread and chewed vigorously. 'Who's Cleto?'
'Nothing I can't handle. Ain't that so, boy?'
Elpidio nodded, face breaking into a smile. 'That's right, Chef. Is it done yet?'
Sabas rolled his eyes and went to check on the pan.
Elpidio's gaze flicked to Shader and then back down at the table. 'You a priest?'
'No. Not yet in any case.'
'What, a soldier then?'
'You ask a lot of questions, Elpidio.' Shader took another bite and poured himself some water from the jug.
'It's just the lads. They been wondering. Say you're a bloody Nousian, and you wear that symbol thing on your tunic, but Cleto says you brought a sword on board.'
Shader swallowed and set his bread down. 'There's a lot of Nousians outside Quilonia. Pretty much the rest of the world, save for Sahul and parts of Numosia.' Sabas grunted at that. 'Not forgetting Verusia, of course.'
Elpidio lifted his head, eyes wide, mouth rounded like a guppy's, then looked back down at his fingers drumming on the table-top. Sabas set some cheese-bread before him and he snatched it up and tore a great bite out of it, spitting crumbs as he spoke.
'Lads ain't got no time for Nousians, begging your pardon. Reckon we'll stick to our own ways.'
Besides Verusia, which was more a scattering of tribes than a country, Quilonia was the only northern land to resist Templum protection. Nousia spread from the Islands of Ice above Britannia, across Gallia and Latia, to the lands east of Graecia, and the mighty continent of the Great West. Most of Numosia had converted too, except for the southernmost tip which was now in Sahulian hands. The world split in two, although by far the biggest portion belonged to the Ipsissimus ruling from Aeterna. The Sahulian Emperor Hagalle's inroads into Numosia had come to an abrupt halt when war had broken out with his own eastern kingdoms. Nousia, the combined lands of the Templum, had absolute hegemony elsewhere, and yet Quilonia, right on Aeterna's doorstep, remained proudly independent.
'Do you Quilonians still vote for your leaders?' The idea had always struck Shader as bizarre: entrusting the governance of a country to the whims of an uneducated mob. No sense in it. No continuity. Not to mention that a canny would-be tyrant could easily hoodwink the masses into electing him. It was one small step from freedom to dictatorship.
'Don't know about that. No interest in politics.'
Just as Shader thought. If that was the general attitude then he'd much rather stick with the Ipsissimal succession. At least that way there was order, everyone knowing their place in the greater scheme of things.
'Elpidio's a country boy, from a hard-working family, ain't that right, son?'
'Vintners.' The lad grinned proudly in mid-chew.
'As good a trade as any. What made you leave?' Shader asked.
'You ask a lot of questions.' Elpidio pushed his plate away and stood. 'Some of us have work to do. Thanks for the food, Chef.' Without meeting Shader's gaze he stalked from the galley.
Sabas leaned forward on the table, big fingers interlaced. He kept his voice to a low rumble.
'The vines were burned to the ground. His folks and sister killed. The boy was in town at the time, delivering wine. Captain was a customer. Took the news real bad and went after the folk that did it. Killed them all real bad too, no messing. Good man, the Captain, but a hard one. Has the crew's respect, and with these dogs that's saying something.'
Shader started as light spilled through the open door and Captain Podesta poked his head in.
'Nousians value people over profit. Regrettably, in Quilonia it's the other way round. Elpidio's family had the misfortune of being too successful. Shame for the boy. Shame for my wine rack, eh? Down to my last dozen, but I'm willing to open one if you'd join me, uh?'
'Maybe some other time.' Shader lifted the prayer-cord from his neck, picking at a largish knot. He'd been meditating on that one for days and almost had it.
'I see,' Podesta said. 'Prayer ahead of wine. Very good, eh Sabas? A holy man on board bodes well for our voyage.'
Funny, Shader thought. One of the oldest stories in the Liber, involving a very big fish, made it seem like the worst possible luck.
THE SCENT OF IMMORTALITY
A cock crew way off in the suburbs causing Cadman to look up from his book. Something about the sound always startled and reassured him at the same time: an intrusion upon his peace and the death of the night and all its terrors.
He'd given up on Blightey's grimoire. There was only so much mumbo jumbo he could take, and what he'd read had unsettled his sleep. It was bad enough surrendering to the little death, as he called it, without being frightened out of his wits by nightmares from the Abyss. He patted his breast pocket and plucked out his cigarette case, all shiny silver and engraved with his initials. A parting gift from Mama before he'd set off for Verusia. He frowned and thought of some numbers to drive away the memories. Sixes and sevens mostly, with the odd nine thrown in for good measure.
He lit a cigarette with his ancient Zippo and relaxed against the leather back-rest of his chair, chunky legs stretched out beneath the desk. He spent a moment eyeing the faded sepia pictures in their tarnished frames. What had happened to the proud young man in the gown and mortar-board clutching the scroll? The boy all in white with the cricket bat kneeling at the front of the team? He knew where the others were-his teammates, his family, his friends. Dust and ashes, like I should be. Back to the elements or lost in the Void. Why did he go through this ritual every morning, clinging onto the memories of the dead? Because I must remember. Because that's all I am; all that stands between the last wispy threads of my being and oblivion.
He took a long drag on the cigarette, imagining the smoke burning his lungs. They'd long since rotted along with the rest of him, now no more than emphysemic sacks that made every breath a dying gasp. His chin slumped against his chest. All that remained was a crumbling skeleton housing a shrivelled heart and the blackened embers of his spirit, if that's what you could call it. "Will" was a better word, he fancied. The will to endure at all costs.
He puffed out his illusory cheeks and turned his attention back to the book: Meditations on Plenitude by Alphonse La Roche. Funny how it came round so quickly. It seemed only yesterday he'd read the pre-Nousian classic and yet, judging by the hundreds of completed books he'd returned to their precise locations on the shelves, it must have been a century. The eternal ritual, cycling through the entire library, re-reading every word in an effort to preserve more memories than the mind could hold.
It would probably take another century to wade through LaRoche's turgid prose and metaphysical balderdash. It never got any easier, but it was one of those arduous tasks one simply had to get on with. He just wished the man hadn't written so much. LaRoche had been writing up until the Reckoning, a sort of last champion of the old superstition that passed for religion until Sektis Gandaw's technocracy had all but eradicated it. Bloody good job too, Cadman thought, although the human capacity for self-deception doesn't die easily. LaRoche had sat out the cataclysm at his Abbey of Pardes in Sahul. His name had vanished over the years, but Cadman had read that he'd reinvented himself as the mysterious Grey Abbot. He'd reputedly helped the Templum drive Otto Blightey back into Verusia, seventy years after the Liche Lord had steered its rebirth from the ashes of the Old World. Blightey had a way of upsetting his allies, it had to be said. Apparently he'd got his claws on some ancient artefact that belonged to the Ipsissimus. It wasn't the first time he'd clashed with the religious authorities either. The first time they'd burned him for it.
A rustling noise followed by a clash roused him from his brown-study. A bit early for the morning post, surely. Cadman squeezed out of his chair and plodded down the hallway. Someone had shoved a piece of paper through his letter-box. Bloody junk mail. Of all the things that had to survive the Reckoning. If Governor Gen didn't put a stop to the damned Merchant's Guild and their intrusive activities soon, Cadman would be voting for the other side come next election. His knees clicked as he stooped to pick it up, a creased and stained flyer announcing some sorry sounding recital at an even sorrier sounding pub out beyond the black stump, as the locals would no doubt say. He was about to screw it up when a word caught his eye: "Eingana".
Ash dropped off the cigarette hanging limply from his lips as he read the flyer more carefully:
The Epic of The Reckoning
by Elias Wolf
Venue: The Griffin, Broken Bridge
Hear how the world of the Ancients was destroyed by beasts from the Dreaming. Relive the death of the machines at the hands of the shaman Huntsman wielding the magic of the serpent goddess Eingana.
Performance starts at sundown.
No formal dress required.
Broken Bridge ... Broken Bridge ... Now where the deuce is that? And Elias Wolf ... I'd swear on Mama's grave I've heard that name before? Cadman flicked the flyer with one fat finger and hurried back towards his study-and straight into Shadrak.
'Awake so soon?'
'I heal quick.'
Cadman didn't doubt it. There was something about the assassin's appearance that nagged at his overburdened mind. It was in there somewhere; just needed to be dredged up from the depths, filtered out from all the dross and scum of the centuries.
'What do I owe you?'
More than you can afford. Cadman tried not to sneer as Shadrak searched through a pouch for some loose change. He was adorned with pouches, replete with them, all the way around his belt, and two strapped over his shoulders, running alongside the twin baldrics with their gleaming blades and razor stars. The pistol was holstered at one hip, a stiletto sheathed at the other. All kitted out for killing and looking just the part with his deathly complexion and eyes like diluted blood.
'Do you know a place called Broken Bridge?' Cadman made a show of scrutinising the flyer.
'Shit hole twenty miles south. Why?' Shadrak gave him a look that could have been mistaken for nonchalant by anyone other than Cadman.
'You've been there?'
'What's it to you?'
'Quite, quite.' Twenty miles might not have seemed far, but to Cadman that was the end of the Earth. He'd not left Sarum in decades and got into a panic if he had to go further than the city centre. Travel was not something he did anymore, if he could help it, and that created something of a dilemma.
'May I see the wound?' He took a step towards Shadrak but stopped when he caught the look in his eye, the tension in his tiny body.
'Told you I heal quick. Just needed you to get the ...'
'Whatever. To get the bullet out.'
It came to Cadman like an aneurysm. 'Homunculus!'
He was sure that was the word. He'd come across it in one of Blightey's books. The little folk, denizens of Aethir, wasn't it? The world of the Dreaming. He would have loved to ask questions but doubted Shadrak would be very forthcoming.
'Just thinking aloud. Put the purse away, there are other ways to settle a debt. Do you have any urgent engagements?'
He could see Shadrak didn't like it. His eyes were darting all over the place, fingers stroking the tops of pouches.
'What you got in mind?'
'Oh, nothing too strenuous. Wouldn't want to impede your recovery.' Actually, the albino already looked fully healed, and that wasn't natural. Whatever Shadrak was, Cadman very much doubted he was human. 'How do you fancy a trip to Broken Bridge?'
'Who d'you want dead?'
Now there's a thought. 'No one.' At least not right now. 'Think of it as more of a reconnaissance; information gathering.' Cadman handed him the flyer. 'Go to this recital and come back with everything you can glean about Eingana.'
'That'll pay for your treatment. If it leads to any more work, I'm sure I could rustle up a denarius or two.'
Shadrak's pink eyes widened at that. Avaricious barbarian. Just like the rest of these Sahulian cow-herders and sheep-shaggers: despising everything about Nousia, except for the value of its currency.
'Excellent,' Cadman said. 'Every last detail about Eingana, remember. I don't want you to miss a jot.'
Elias Wolf had never been a nervous performer. Man, he was too wasted for nerves most of the time. He'd been gigging for so long he reckoned his memories of the old shows must have passed down the crapper of history along with the world of the Ancients.
'I wouldn't say it's nerves as such.' He flicked ash into the mouth of the Statue of Eingana, a black and toothless snake, staring at him like she would have bitten his hand off for the offence; if she'd had anything to bite with. 'Reckon it's more separation anxiety.'
Rhiannon was pissed but doing a good job trying to disguise it, face all pale and serious, eyes with that glazed-over look that turned Elias on. Turned him on with any other woman, that's to say.
'Do you want a glass with that?'
'Think I'm right.' She took another swig from the bottle, wine staining her lips, giving her the look of a raven-haired queen of the Abyss. She had a sort of undead-ish quality, freshly risen from the grave to sup on the flesh of men.
The thought sent sparrows' claws hopping up and down Elias's spine. Cold sparrows, that is, the sort you might find in an arctic tundra, feet all frozen in ice. Wow, he was stoned. Stonedy stone stoned. But the vampire tart thing was cool, though. 'Chuck us my notepad.' Bloody good image for a song, that. The sort of thing that needed to be jotted down before it faded like a dream on waking.
Rhiannon swayed as she stood, and for one moment he thought she was going to topple into the rows of instruments standing on display against the peeling, crumbling wall of the studio-his babies.
She threw him his pad and he scribbled some notes about blood-sucking strumpets.
'Now don't go getting too wrecked on me, gal. This is an historic occasion.' He did the regal voice thing and accompanying flourish. 'And finally,' he announced to the invisible crowd, 'after year upon year of sweat, toil and ... Sweat, toil and what?'
'A ton of bloody weed.' Rhiannon gave him that grin-the broad one that said she was a comedian, and your best friend, and a bitch all at the same time. Elias dug the economy of the girl; reckoned she was a natural. Shame to see her wasted on the Templum. Still, give it time, she'd screw it up. Couldn't see her cow-towing to Nousian rules of obedience. And chastity-there was just no way.
'Weed. I like that.' He took another drag to emphasise the point. 'Once did a gig-years ago,' centuries even. 'Geezer chucks me a joint, someone else hands me a beer, and this crazy chick dumps a baby on my lap. Thank Ain for guitar stands, I says. Well actually I didn't-don't thank Ain for much really. You know my thoughts on that.'
Rhiannon brushed the hair out of her face and rolled her eyes. 'Don't start.'
Elias wagged his finger at her. 'For you, my darling, I would praise Ain to the heights of Araboth.' But not for anyone else. 'Like I was saying, baby, beer and spliff. I says: "What am I supposed to do now?"-meaning, like, how can the gig go on?-when the chick hands me her purse. It's like she was saying "Take the money, it'll pay for the baby's keep." And no, it wasn't mine. You have one hell of a smutty mind for a postulant. Anyhow, I open the purse, look inside, turn it upside down and shake it. "Empty," I says. "Like society." '
Rhiannon didn't look much like she was listening. He'd probably told that one before. The grin fell off her face.
'Shit.' She slapped her head, spilling some wine as she set the bottle down. 'I bloody swore.'
'I think, my girl, you might have bitten off more than you can chew with this religious thing.'
'It's the drink, I swear it is. You're a bad influence.'
'Shit!' Elias jumped up from his stool and stubbed the butt out in Eingana's mouth. 'My scrumpy!'
He tripped over a guitar stand and hurtled into the door, bowling through and landing in a heap next to the stove. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of cinnamon and cloves.
'Pan's boiled dry,' Rhiannon said, lifting it from the heat and scraping around in the ashes with a spoon. 'That's what I meant by gently heat. No mulled cider for you tonight. Still, there's plenty of wine.'
'You know me and the ol' vino.' Elias climbed to his feet and dusted himself down. 'Don't agree with my guts. Bad omen, that-the cider. Doesn't augur well for the opening night.'
'You'll be right. Long as you don't forget your lines like last time.'
'That was hardly the same.' He ushered her back into the studio. 'This, my dear, is a masterpiece. Centuries in the making, and every last lyric burned into the ol' noddle like ... like ...'
'Like cider into a pan?'
'Funny that. Cider in a pan. Remind me to hug myself in case my sides split. Bugger, what's the first frickin' line? Pass me Old Mr Spud, will you.'
Rhiannon reverently lifted the guitar and blew dust from the headstock. Elias rested it on his lap and gave it a quick tune. 'The ol' mother-o'-pearl's a little lack lustre. Bit of spit and polish'll sort that out. Sounds beautiful, though, with the new strings.' He strummed an open G and looked up expectantly.
'Lovely.' Rhiannon obviously had no appreciation for the subtle tones of the ol' phosphor bronzes. She wasn't alone in that. Backward bleeding world-in a forward sort of a way.
He struck up an alternating bass line with his thumb and plucked away with his fingers, the notes crisp and ringing with the clarity only new strings had-and then only for a day or two, if you were lucky. He closed his eyes, picked out the melody, took in a breath and sang:
'A gift of the Void or a fool's prophecy,
A tumbling of stars came the Aeonic Three.
The Archon, his sister and brother ...'
The worst thing that can happen to a bard. His mind was a blank. He tried again, strummed the intro to see if that helped. It didn't.
Rhiannon squatted down in front of him. 'Is it the weed?'
Elias was as close to panic as he'd ever been. This was not cool. Not cool at all. 'Course it's not the weed. Might have blamed it if I'd not had any-withdrawals an' all. No, it's not the bloody weed. Song's cursed, that's what.'
'Whole frickin' epic's cursed. Always has been. Reckon that's why it took so long to pen.' What had Huntsman said? This one's not for the world? Something like that, all dressed up with Dreamer heebie jeebies and interspersed with "fellah" and "Sahul says." Someone might hear, he'd said. Apparently that wasn't such a good thing. Certainly wasn't if "someone" was Sektis bleeding Gandaw, who the Dreamers seemed to think of as a dark and vengeful god. The last thing Elias wanted was a return to the Global Technocracy that had screwed the world up big time before the Reckoning. Machines telling you when to wake up, spouting shit at you all day long, cooking your dinner, wiping your arse. They even had machines that played guitar, which was the straw that broke the camel's back as far as he was concerned. No, the world was better off without Sektis Gandaw and his bloodless utopia. If the shogger hadn't been killed during the Reckoning, he'd have snuffed it centuries ago in any case, despite what Huntsman seemed to believe. And even if he were still alive, Elias suspected the Technocrat of the Old World had more in common with a cockroach surviving a nuclear winter than with an immortal deity.
'He's put the signs on me,' Elias said with mock horror. 'Doomed me with stage fright.'
'Who do you think? Huntsman, the scary witch doctor geezer. Can't miss him: bloke with bones and things through his nose and a stinking cloak of feathers. What's up?'
Rhiannon had one hand covering her lips as if she were going to be sick. She raised the other hand to say she'd be all right, shook her head and lowered herself to a stool.
'Need some more to drink?'
He headed back to the kitchen. 'Tea? Sober you up?'
'You gotta be kidding.' As quickly as it had come, the change was gone. That big complicated grin slid back across her face. 'Beer will see me right, then I'm outta here. Got to see someone before the show.'
'Anyone I know.'
'Just Gaston. Last chance I'll get before I go.'
'Gaston Rayn? The sorry little shit back for another bite of the cherry now Shader's out of the way?'
'It's not like that.' She caught his look. 'Didn't you hear? His dad was killed last night, in the Griffin.'
'No way.' Now that was a seriously bad omen; worse than the cider. Not to mention it might frighten the crowds away. 'What happened?'
'Sheriff's just finished up at the pub, by the looks of things. Expect we'll know soon enough. They're saying it was the Sicarii. I heard ...' Rhiannon closed her eyes and swallowed. 'Heard it was like those murders they had in Sarum way back, you know, just a hole in the head and no sign of what made it.'
'Shadrak the Unseen?' That's the last thing he needed. The slipperiest, most feared assassin in Western Sahul going about his business just before the debut of the most important performance since Sergeant Sunshine's gig at the Crypt. On the other hand, there were bound to be hordes of ghoulish thrill-seekers sniffing around the scene of the latest Shadrak murder. Every cloud ...
Rhiannon nodded, and then her eyes snapped open. 'And besides, I thought you knew me better.'
'I'm saying nothing. I'm sure it's just a sisterly goodbye before you swan off into the riveting world of contemplation and wiping the arses of the sick.'
They'd been childhood sweethearts. Nothing ever came of it as far as Elias knew, but that wasn't due to a lack of trying on Gaston's part. 'Is he still playing knights with Barek Thomas and Justin Salace?'
'What do you think?' Rhiannon sighed and shook the empty bottle at him. 'They've got the whole Order down at the barn. Been there for a week, practising like mad.'
Elias grabbed a couple of beers, opened them with his teeth, gave one to her and sipped on the other.
'Hoping Shader'll change his mind?'
Rhiannon shook her head, momentarily letting the mask slip. 'No. He's gone all right. Guess that's something we have in common. Once we make up our minds, there's no stopping us.'
'And so the twain will burn for each other with heroic mortifications, he enclosed in Pardes whilst she prays for her soul in Sarum.' It reminded him of something he'd read years ago, way back before the Reckoning. Some bland tale of unrequited love, all for the sake of an imaginary friend in the sky.
'Damn!' The lyrics sailed past on the misty river of his mind. 'Almost had it.'
'What's it about? Besides the Void and the Anal Three, I mean.'
'Aeonic. The Triad of powers that dropped from the Void to grace our dull little cosmos with their divine presence.'
Maybe the prose form was still in there. Might jog his memory of the song. 'The Aeonic Triad: the Archon, Eingana,' he cocked a thumb at the statue, 'and their brother, the Demiurgos, tumbled out of the darkness, from Ain knows where-or most likely from nowhere.'
Rhiannon mimed a yawn. She'd heard it all before, back when he used to teach her and the rest of the kids of the villages; back before Huntsman had told him to put a sock in it. He was gonna be mightily pissed Elias was going ahead with the performance, not that it was any of his business. It was a free world, with free speech--even if it was sadly lacking in free love these days. He wrinkled his nose at Rhiannon and pressed on.
'They fell, still fighting, the Demiurgos tearing at his sister with tooth and claw, the Archon stabbing at him with a sword. Three gods tussling. The Archon all radiant light, Eingana in the form of a serpent, and their brother, blacker than the Void and just as empty.
'It's said Eingana fled into the constellations, but the Demiurgos pursued and ravished her. She swelled with his spawn, but couldn't give birth. The Dreamers say she had a very small ...' He indicated his crotch and then flapped his hands at Rhiannon, guessing she'd get his meaning. 'The Archon slit her open with his sword and plucked the child from her womb, a monstrous hybrid, part ape, part dog.'
'You're singing about this tonight? In the Griffin?'
'You better hope they've got a free run on the liquor, mate.'
'You don't want to hear about the Cynocephalus then?'
She gave him a blank look.
'Eingana's son-the dog-headed ape.'
'Oh, him.' Rhiannon rose and rubbed her eyes. 'Listen, I've got to go. Best wake Sammy.'
'One more thing before you leave.' Elias opened his arms. 'What do I look like?'
She sucked in her cheeks and chewed on them a minute. 'Straggly haired ragamuffin with more patches than trousers on some crazy-arsed fabric called ... What'd you call it?'
'Right. And a jacket of the same stuff spattered with badges saying who knows the heck what? Is that the look you're shooting for?'
Elias winked and gave a toothy grin. 'Groovy, huh?'
She gulped down the last of her beer and flashed him her winningest smile. 'Good luck tonight, Elias. Or should I say break a leg?'
Now there was a phrase from the past. She must have got that one from him.
'See you later, Missy Kwane, and don't be late.'
He swept up Old Mr Spud again as the door shut behind her, thrashed some chords to clear out the cobwebs, gave a little cough, and tried again.
'A gift of the Void or a fool's prophecy;
A tumbling of stars came the ...'
Blank as a Dreamer's gaze. He knew it was in there somewhere, clawing at the back of his mind. Something beginning with "A", and it sure as hell wasn't "Anal"!
Rujala spewed from the Numosian coast in a slurry of rotting seaweed. A wall of roughly mortared boulders hemmed the bay and sprawled across the harbour mouth parallel with the shore. Timber jetties bristled with doggers, barks, dories, and dugouts unloading their catches or preparing to set out to sea. A high-prowed galleon loomed above them, white sails furled upon three massive masts, bowsprit jabbing at the harbour village like an accusation.
Shader squinted at the crumbling buildings standing back from the shoreline, crowds of dark-skinned Numosians teeming around them, voices a muffled wall of sound punctuated by the talking of drums.
The crew of the Aura Placida were throwing their packs to the jetty and jostling to be the first to join the rancid carnival beyond the life of the ship. Coins were counted, and swiftly thrust from sight, curses exchanged and backs slapped as they moved off like rats after refuse.
'Want me to bring you one back?' Sabas's face was all teeth and jowls as he waddled backwards down the jetty, waving up at Shader. 'Numosian whores have the biggest buttocks.' He shook his cheeks and blew air through pursed lips. 'And their boobies,' he cupped his own sizeable breasts. 'Oh, I can't wait.'
'Same as the Dolphin, uh?' Captain Podesta leaned on the rail beside Shader, smiling at his men like a doting father.
'Oh, no. That was worse.' Podesta's crew might have been coarse and hard men, but Diaz's had been killers, the whole lot of them. The absolute dregs of the world, the scum of virtually every country he'd heard of. All drunkards, gamblers, cutthroats and libertines. The Dolphin had been the only ship leaving Sahul for Nousia at the time; Shader probably would have foregone the tournament had he known she was a privateer.
A trio of white-cloaked soldiers were pushing their way through the throng, chainmail shirts dazzling in the breaking sunshine. Their hands never left the hilts of their longswords, and each bore a kite shield emblazoned with a complex red knot.
'Ahoy there, gentlemen,' Podesta called down to them. 'It brings joy to my heart to see Nousian law and order in this pit of depravity. You want to come aboard, uh?'
The soldiers stopped at the foot of the gangplank and touched their foreheads. The man in the middle took a stiff step forwards and clicked the heels of his polished boots together.
'You are the captain of this vessel?'
'Indeed I am. Captain Amidio Podesta at your service, and,' Podesta produced a letter from his inside pocket with a flourish, 'in the employ of His Divinity.'
Shader's eyes flicked to Podesta and back to the soldiers. If he was bluffing, it was a dangerous game. Pretending to a Templum commission could well get them arrested. The last thing he needed was to have the sword come to light. Ipsissimus Theodore might be a moderate, but the desertion of his newly appointed Keeper might be just what was needed to sway him to the tougher stance advocated by Exemptus Silvanus and the traditionalists.
The lead soldier came closer and Podesta leaned over the side to hand him the document.
'What are you doing?' Shader whispered, but Podesta's eyes never left the soldier's, his face fixed in a broad grin, blood-shot eyes twinkling.
'All in order, Captain.' The soldier handed back the letter. 'We are with the Pleroma.' He indicated the galleon, as if there were any possibility of doubting where they had come from. I'm Lieutenant Scorm, serving under Captain Harkyl. I'm obliged to ask, Captain, whether you've had sight of a caravel flying the flag of Sahul.'
'Not this far north, surely?' Podesta looked flummoxed.
'Six days we've been following reports of it. If there's any truth in the matter, captain's a devil of a navigator. Not seen hide nor hair of it, yet we have it on good information she's been spotted in Nousian waters.'
'Sounds like she's given you quite the runabout, eh?'
'The men are calling her the Ghost.'
'That's sailors for you, eh? I'm sorry to disappoint. We've seen nothing.'
'Thank you for your time, Captain. Ain be with you.'
Podesta's arm draped over Shader's shoulder as he watched the soldiers march back down the jetty.
'Bad times coming, eh, my friend? Hagalle is getting bolder, I think.'
Shader doubted that. The Emperor scarcely had control of his own lands. He wasn't likely to ruffle the Templum's feathers. 'Probably a hoax. Either that or mistaken identity.'
'Stranger things have happened.' Podesta raised his eyebrows in a manner that suggested agreement or a private joke.
'Seems you have friends in high places, Captain.'
Podesta patted his jacket pocket and opened his mouth in mock astonishment. 'Even men as blessed as his Divinity sometimes require the services of simple men of fortune. Our business is in Gladelvi, but you will disembark before that and so need not worry yourself further, eh?'
The Emperor Hagalle was famously suspicious of the Nousian community at Gladelvi in the north of Sahul. In fact, he had a reputation for paranoia regarding supposed Aeternam plots. Shader wondered if he'd been too hasty a judge, and if Hagalle had a point after all.
'Now,' Podesta said, making a sweeping gesture towards his cabin. 'I am too old for wenching, and I've no desire for another case of the pox. You, my friend, are too holy to succumb to the temptations of the flesh, am I right? In which case, I insist that you join me in a bottle of Quilonian red, and who knows, we may even get Elpidio to pour it for us. After all, it's his family label; a brand soon to pass through my bladder into the piss-pot of history.'
The flickering of the hanging lantern lent a stuttering animation to Podesta's bow scraping across the strings of the battered violin. The screeching and grating had softened to a muted melody behind Shader's muddied thoughts as he lolled in the captain's chair, vaguely aware he was smiling, the pleasant warmth of wine prickling at his skin.
Elpidio's head was on the table, one hand idly squeezing the wax of a guttering candle, the other tapping out a rhythm with a spoon. Three empty bottles of the family label stood amongst the orange-smeared bowls and crusts of bread left over from their meal.
Shaking the grogginess from his head, Shader rolled himself out of the chair and took a stumbling step towards the walnut bookcase, running his fingers along the perfectly planed edges whilst squinting at the spines of the books. You could tell a lot about a man from his library, but in Podesta's case the clues were somewhat conflicting. Nicolau Rama's Science of the Navigators, and Carracks, Caravels, and Galleons; DuMelo's Roots of Quilonian Democracy: A Graecian Legacy; Cuello's Wonders of the Ancients, a somewhat speculative work Shader had read in Aeterna. Cuello had claimed that the Templum jealously guarded the scientific secrets of the Ancients, from time to time opening its archives to keep ahead of its dwindling rivals. If Sahul produced chainmail, it would manufacture plate; if Quilonia had carracks, it would make Galleons. The Templum had never denied holding the repository of Ancient knowledge, but it had always spelled out the dangers of releasing it. The world was not ready for such power; the Ancients had proven that and they had been duly punished. Cuello claimed that the Ancients' science had not been solely destructive. They had developed cures for many diseases, answers to famine, feats of construction that had enriched people's lives. He accused the Templum of depriving the world of the good along with the bad, an accusation that had neither been affirmed nor denied.
'What's this?' He pulled out a dog-eared tome, boards visible through the frayed cloth cover. 'Some Early Contemplatives by Alphonse LaRoche.' A pre-Nousian spiritual classic that had been mandatory reading for all new Elect.
Podesta set down his violin, took a swig from his empty wine glass, frowned, and banged it on the table until Elpidio took the hint and got up to open another bottle.
'Interesting man, LaRoche, no? Makes you wonder how he knows such things, eh? All those characters from before the Reckoning. Hundreds of years before. Either he's making it up or he has sources that are lost to the rest of us. You see this one?' Podesta swayed from his stool and thumbed along the spines until he found what he was looking for. 'LaRoche's Fall of Otto Blightey. You heard of him? The holy man turned devil. Burned at the stake by the religious authorities of his day.'
'Every Nousian has. It's a morality story, designed to encourage the virtues and steer clear of the vices.'
'Just a myth, eh?' Podesta tapped the side of his nose with a finger. Lamp light glinted from his eyes, threw wavering shadows across his face.
'More than that,' Shader said. 'But don't tell anyone I told you.' He imitated Podesta's nose tapping. 'You're not meant to know about the dark secret at the heart of the Templum.'
Podesta shot a look at Elpidio, who was struggling with the corkscrew 'You all right, boy?'
The Captain leaned towards Shader. 'What makes a man so, eh? Born bad? Bad choices? Bad friends? Maybe just bad chroniclers. You know, the victors writing history.'
Shader rolled his head from side to side. It was hard to think with all the wine flooding his brain. Aristodeus had said something similar about the Templum's bogeyman. In the times before the Reckoning, Blightey had been an exemplary contemplative, largely recognized as the holiest man of his generation. 'Some people say he was the conscience of the world.' Hard to believe, having seen what Blightey was capable of at Trajinot.
'A conscience, eh? Good thing we have the Templum to separate out right from wrong, uh? What a mess the world would be in if we were free to act as we pleased; free to choose our leaders and think our own thoughts.'
Elpidio popped the cork from the bottle and filled Podesta's glass. 'We are free in Quilonia. Don't see why anyone else puts up with it. Don't know why we don't just get rid of the bloody Nousians.'
And replace it with what? Mob rule and the elevation of wealth above people? There were always free-thinkers praising the Quilonian model, but Shader felt they were only free-thinkers because the Templum taught them to be so.
'Elpidio, my boy,' Podesta said, 'there is a simple reason these things will never come to pass: power.'
'But we've got the best navy, the hardest soldiers.'
'Blah, blah, blah. Doesn't every country say that? Clear the table and I'll show you.' Podesta reached up to a shelf and pulled down a rolled chart. Elpidio stacked the bowls, but before he could collect the wine bottles Podesta swept them to the floor with a loud crash. Shader helped him unfurl the map and hold down the edges.
'This,' Podesta put an arm around Elpidio's neck, drawing him close, 'is the whole sphere of the Earth. Flattened out, of course, but you get my meaning, uh?'
'I know what a map is.'
Podesta pointed to a large land mass south of Gallia. 'This is Quilonia.'
The lad smiled, clearly missing the point.
'And this is Nousia.' Podesta stabbed at points all over the surface of the map: 'Britannia, Gallia, Latia, Graecia in the middle. The Great West, too.' He traced the outline of the huge continent. 'And most of Numosia,' the sprawling land south of Latia.
Elpidio's face fell.
'Little Quilonia is like a lamb hemmed in by wolves, you see?'
That's hardly how the Templum would have put it, and neither would Shader. Without the glue of Nousia binding the nations together there would be nothing but petty rivalry and war. You only needed to look at Quilonia's internal wrangling to see that.
'Whose is this?' Elpidio pointed to a cluster of islands in the far south.
'The big one is Sahul, bigger than Quilonia and even more independent. This,' Podesta indicated a smaller island to the east, is New Ithaka, Sahul's bitterest enemy, and these,' to the west, 'are the Anglesh Isles. We will pass between them on our way to Sahul, and if we are lucky,' he gave a look of feigned horror, 'we'll not be eaten by the mawgs.'
'Mawgs? Thought you knew a safe route, Captain.'
Podesta let go the boy's neck and plonked himself on a stool. Wine dripped onto the map as he took a gulp, looked up at the ceiling, and sighed.
'We will be quite safe, my boy.' He caught Shader's eyes and gave a good impression of a sober look. 'The mawgs only raid west, off of Ashanta, these days; ever since Governor Gen built up the Sarum fleet.'
'You ever seen a mawg, Captain?'
'Oh, yes, Elpidio.'
'Me too,' Shader said, seating himself once more.
Podesta shot Shader a look that was part surprise, part respect.
'Tracked a large band of them from Pardes.' The catalyst that led him to abandon the abbey. You could hardly be a contemplative and then grab a sword at the first sign of trouble. Of course, the Grey Abbot had tried to dissuade him from leaving. It seemed to Shader the old monk liked having a sword to hand.
'They were sniffing around the abbey for days, as if they were looking for something; then they seemed to pick up another trail and headed south. The Grey Abbot was worried about what they were doing on Sahulian soil and, knowing my background, sent me after them.'
He'd protested, but that was one of the drawbacks with vows of obedience. No matter how much he tried to be a better man, he'd never been able to outrun the shadows of the past.
'I came upon them outside the village of Oakendale.' He could still feel the jolt along his arm as his sword thudded into a leathery carapace, the beast falling on top of Rhiannon, snarling and aroused. He'd learnt quickly where to aim: a soft patch beneath the jaw where the blade had slid in effortlessly, the mawg's black blood spilling on the half-naked woman beneath.
'You fought them?' Podesta sat bolt upright, staring straight at him, beads of sweat glistening on his brow.
'Killed them.' He'd been particularly adept at it. That was his problem. He had an aptitude for killing; a gift for all that was opposed to Nous.
Shader lowered his eyes to his wine glass, let the images play across his mind: mawgs engorged on the flesh of the villagers, victims stripped to the bone-right down to the marrow. Row upon row of needle-sharp teeth; feral eyes and spraying blood as he hacked into them. Images of slaughter. There was no point trying to suppress them. Once the seed was planted they took on a life of their own. He doubted he'd sleep much tonight, and the wine only seemed to make the flashbacks stronger.
'What were they like?' Elpidio asked in a voice hushed with awe.
Podesta scratched at his flaking scalp and drew in a deep breath. 'Scabrous monsters, all bunched up and knotted. Fur like a wolf's; scaly hide. Unnatural. Trust me, boy, not something you want to see, eh, my friend?'
Shader continued to stare into his wine. Podesta raised an eyebrow and went on.
'I ran into them, too, a long time ago. I was about your age at the time, Elpidio. It was off the southern coast of Sahul, when I crewed on the Crucible. We were hunting sharks-the big ones that can take a man, eat him whole. The Ashantans pay a fortune for their fins. Make them into soup.
'A mist came up with the dawn, so the captain had us stay put in case we ran into the reef. I was scrubbing the deck ...' Elpidio frowned at that. 'Oh, I've not always been a captain, my boy, so there's hope for you yet, uh? The men started muttering and staring out into the fog, so I gets to my feet and I see this great black ship coming at us out of the gloom. A galleon, by the size of her, fully square-rigged and with a bowsprit set too low in the water. Wasn't till she hit us that we realized why: big iron ram that cut through our hull and caught us firm.'
Podesta's eyes seemed focused elsewhere as he blindly poured another drink, most of it running down his fingers and onto the map. Shader was watching him now, pulled in by the rasping timbre of his voice, his stillness upon the stool.
'Captain sent me below and I went, but not before I saw one. Grey it was, all shaggy but for its torso, which was like a moulded breast-plate, ridged and leathery. The legs were bent backwards, ending in claws like a bird's. They had three long fingers, and opposing thumbs that scraped the deck as they loped towards us. Their eyes were like the crescent moon, but the colour of piss. Their mouths, though, that was the worst of it.'
Shader grunted his assent. He'd seen what they could do to flesh, muscle, bone; seen how even if you smashed a sword into their teeth, another row slid forward to replace them.
'They are like the teeth of a plant,' Podesta continued. 'You know, the ones that eat insects.' He shivered and gulped down his wine.
'I lingered too long on deck. You should always follow the captain's orders promptly, eh? Got this scar from a claw.' He stuck his boot on the table and rolled up his trouser-leg, twisting the knee to afford them a view of his hamstring. Three puckered white lines crossed the flesh.
'I was lucky. The mawg slipped on blood, and I made it to the hatch. I guess the man behind me wasn't so lucky.' Podesta winced. 'Not judging by his screams, and the ripping, crunching sound that followed me below.'
'How did you beat them?' Shader reached for the bottle and poured himself another.
Podesta sat staring into space, his moustache quivering, the skin beneath his left eye twitching.
Elpidio's mouth dropped open. 'But ...'
'The screaming went on for hours. I found a space in the hold, tucked under some nets, and held my breath. I heard men hitting the water. Must have leapt from the decks to get away from the mawgs, but then they started screaming, too. Expect the sharks got them. Doesn't bear thinking about, eh? Trapped between mawgs and sharks. Reckon I'd take my chances with the mawgs, eh? Especially with our friend Mr Shader here to protect us.'
'But the crew,' Elpidio's voice was growing shrill. 'Why didn't they fight back?'
'They did.' Podesta eyed Shader. 'But it takes an exceptional fighter to take down a mawg, eh, my friend?'
Shader sipped his wine. He'd not considered himself exceptional at the time. He'd assumed anything he could do, others could do equally as well. The mawgs had been ferocious, rabid even, and that had been their weakness. Creatures of rage and instinct in the heat of battle. He'd always found an enraged enemy the easiest to conquer. It was the cold ones you had to watch. They'd been powerful, true enough, and terrifying in a way that would have paralysed most men. Not Shader, though. When it came to danger, he'd always been blissfully at ease. The difficulties only came when he wasn't fighting.
Podesta shrugged and rubbed at the wine stains on the map.
'I hid below for days, long after the screaming had stopped. Don't tell the crew, but I pissed myself. Shit myself even, and just lay there in my own mess. When the coastal patrol found me they put a sack over my head so I couldn't see the remains of my crewmates on deck. The mawgs hadn't even taken the ship. Just ate everyone on board and took off again. Like sharks, they are: eating and disgorging so they can kill and eat some more. Evil shoggers, eh?'
Shader set down his glass. His head was swimming, the room starting to shift around him. 'You still think we're taking the best route? Diaz's might've been longer, but it was a sight safer.'
'Trust me, my friend. I know the Anglesh Isles like the back of my hand, and even if we did see a reaver, the Aura Placida isn't just an old wreck like the Crucible. She can outrun any mawg ship, and besides, if they catch us, our crew is mostly Quilonian.' He slapped Elpidio on the back so hard that the boy almost threw up. 'None tougher, eh, my boy?'
'Well, gentlemen, I'm about ready for bed.' Shader pushed his way out of the chair and fell face down on the table, the map creasing up beneath him and his wine glass shattering on the floor. He groaned and felt bile rising in his throat, swallowed it back down and tried to stand. He lurched and spread his arms to steady himself. 'Have we put back out to sea?'
'I fear it is the strength of Quilonia.' Podesta scrutinized the label on the wine. 'Why do you suppose it is, my friend, that you Nousians forego so many of the pleasures of the world, yet make alcohol your bedfellow?'
Shader swooned and would have fallen if Elpidio hadn't caught him.
'I never drink.' Not strictly true, but near enough for it not to warrant confession.
'Ah, a virgin of the vine. Then I am impressed. We'll make a sailor of you yet, eh? Elpidio, would you show our guest to his cabin, there's a good lad.'
The deck was a pitching blur, Shader's feet disconnected and tripping over each other. He anchored himself on Elpidio's shoulder, fighting down the urge to vomit. A door bashed against his head as Elpidio bundled him through an opening, sounds of clashing and banging following in their wake. The lad went in front as they stumbled down below to the cool dark and bounced from wall to wall of the corridor until they reached Shader's cabin door.
'You shouldn't leave it open,' Elpidio said as he shouldered his way through, half carrying Shader. 'Some of the lads ain't too honest.'
Shader didn't care right at that moment. He didn't even mind the clothes and books strewn around the base of the bed, the scabbarded Sword of the Archon poking out from under them. He shook off Elpidio's grip and took a lunging step towards the bed. There was a rush of sound, the smell of old sweat, and then a hand clamped over his mouth, another holding a blade to his throat.
... continued ...