First Light – Chapter 3

Written By: Paul Toth - Jun• 28•14

 

This is the third chapter of my fantasy novella First Light. I’m posted each chapter to my blog, with accompanying art depicting a scene from the chapter. So far, Nick Deligaris has been kind enough to pen three of the illustrations. Though First Light features a young protagonist, it is not YA.

 

Prilya hated crutches. She hated the way they dug into her armpits. She hated the weird, uneven gait they imposed. But she reserved her heartiest, deep-down-in-the gut species of spite for the way they made her feel like a burden. Even Chancellor Benis, who looked old enough to have dandled the gods themselves on his knees, moved at a pace she couldn’t match.

He halted a half dozen paces in front of Prilya, peering at her with rheumy eyes. “Take your time.” The priest’s voice possessed smooth, resonant depths that belied both his age and his diminutive stature. “They aren’t expecting us for a bit. Getting there sooner will only mean waiting there longer.” He stood at the junction of the priory’s residential wing and the covered walkway connecting it to the cathedral. Polished stone arches soared overhead, making him look even shorter than he already did—a midget burglar at large in the home of a giant.

The muscles behind her knee cramped, and Prilya slowed, then stopped. She trembled as epoúlo magiks racked her limbs, and bit her lip to keep from crying out. It was the fifth—no, sixth—time the spasms had struck since she broke her fast. Each throe carried more pain than the one before, but when it passed, she found herself able to stand straighter and put more weight on her legs.

Benis made an annoying tutting sound that reminded Prilya of her first nanny—a snippy De’Sulto tribeswoman with skin the color of old teak. “I know it hurts, Lady Prilya. We had to heal you fast. To mend so many wounds in such a short time, one must marshal unforgiving forces.”

She shrugged—no easy task for someone wobbling atop knobby sticks. “Don’t care.” It wasn’t quite true. In private, she cursed the cadre of monks who hovered over her for several hours a day, uttering incantations so complex she couldn’t begin to fathom them. She’d been in plenty of discomfort to begin with, and everything they did made it worse. Sometimes she ended up writhing on her cot, a rawhide strap between her teeth, and at one point a crooked rib snapped into place with so much vigor that she’d screamed herself hoarse. Still, if the monks could get her back on her feet in days instead of months, she wouldn’t hold a grudge.

Bring me the pain. Bring it by the cartload, the wagon load, the barge load, for all I care. Just get me out of bed and off these thrice-damned crutches.

By the time she and Benis reached the High Sanctum, her wish had come true. She found herself able to put the crutches aside. A half hour passed before an attendant called them in, and when Prilya entered the chamber, she managed to set a normal pace. She smiled, reveling in the knowledge that her status as one of Alhennha’s Favored meant the goddess’s majiks worked twice as well on her as they did on others. A familiar swell of pride transformed her smile into a broad grin. Favored. Prilya attempted to put the emotion aside—hubris was a sin, after all—but didn’t try very hard. Why shouldn’t she enjoy being special? Perhaps those most eager to counsel against feelings of self-worth had little reason to experience them.

The sanctum extended around them like the interior of some enormous, gilded egg. Seamless layers of plaster hid every corner and edge, and the room’s walls reached for one another as they rose, congregating in the form of a dome blooming with ivory and gold. Elaborate pilasters separated portraits of saints—Grenich of Woolbaum, Gil the Learned, and more. The place had a freshly-scrubbed smell—lye with a touch of chalk dust—and its dome reflected so much light from the surrounding candelabras that it was difficult to look at head-on. Tiers of curved benches dominated the sanctum, rising along its far wall. Except where they parted to make space for a lectern, their edges flowed along the chamber’s contours in an eerily precise manner, as if the room and everything in it had been carved from a single stone.

Nearly a dozen clerics awaited her. When she noticed that several wore bishop’s raiments, her jaw dropped. A crimson biretta perched atop one woman’s head, and the sight of it almost stopped Prilya in her tracks.

A cardinal! Why’s she here? What could someone like that want with me?

Prilya had come to the city prepared to meet personages such as these, but had expected to do so at her mistress’s side—anonymous, at first. She would have treated with them on increasingly equal footing as her stature grew. Her heart stuttered like a maiden being invited to dance by a prince, and her breath came in shallow, forced gulps.

Benis’s hand settled on the back of Prilya’s arm. As he led her to the seven-pointed star at the Sanctum’s center, his head inclined, and he spoke to her in personal tones. “Still your heart. They don their robes one arm at a time, just like you or I. If it helps, imagine them sitting on their chamber pots.”

She stifled an amused snort. I did help, a little.

A balding, hawk-nosed man approached the lectern. Prilya recognized him as Bishop Malda, the priest who coordinated the church’s activities throughout the imperial seat. He set down a sheet of vellum, sniffed, and eyed her. “Prilya of House Inferness.”

A pinch from Benis roused her from her stupor. “Um, yes. Your… um, your honor. That’s me.” Her voice came out a wobbly squeak, and heat spread across her cheeks.

Malda smiled—a small turning of the lips that appeared kind rather than sardonic—and some of the gravity left his voice. “You’re not on trial, Lady Prilya. This is just an audience, albeit one focused on matters of some importance. Think of this as a conversation about your immediate future.”

Prilya nodded. “I understand, sirrah.”

“‘Bishop’ will be fine. I’ve no noble blood.”

A thin priestess with a harelip rose, and Malda nodded in her direction.

The priestess peered at Prilya. She had a sad, gentle look. “Our hearts, they weep for your loss. High Priestess Laszis was an extraordinary woman. Well-loved, and possessing blinding power and generosity of spirit in equal measure. Because of her travels, we rarely saw the great lady, but when her presence graced these halls, it enriched us to no end.” She looked around the room, meeting the gaze of one cleric after another, and her lips pursed. “I think you all know, as well as I, that harsh words have circulated, over the years—rumors and half-truths about Laszis, and self-serving predictions that her passions would prove her downfall. As if someone like her could have come into being without developing a passionate nature. I thank the gods for every aspect of who she was, and what she gave us, and urge everyone here to do the same.” As she returned to her seat, the woman’s eyes locked on Prilya’s, and she declined her upper body in the tiniest of bows.

This brought on nods and murmurs of assent, and Prilya felt her lip tremble. She tightened her mouth, refusing to let her eyes grow moist. She’d only known the high priestess for a few months, after all, and an outpouring of grief would look absurd. Most of those present had probably known Laszis far better than she. Still, she looked away, afraid that doing otherwise would give tears permission to flow.

Benis squeezed her shoulder. “No need to be prideful. We all understand.”

The priestess returned to her seat, and Malda nodded again—this time in Prilya’s direction. “Councilwoman Alsidis of Mandropoor speaks for us all. Laszis will be missed.”

Prilya laced her fingers together in front of her, doing her best to address the group in a clear, dignified voice. “I thank you. When she took me into her service, the high priestess did me an honor beyond what I ever could have imagined.”

Malda yielded the lectern to Bishop Fullbrace de’ Lena—the man representing the Entrienne Order in imperial councils. Despite failing health, de’ Lena wielded more influence with the senate than any other clergyman. When conversations turned to politics, Prilya’s parents mentioned him often.

“Lady Prilya.” His voice had a subdued, halting quality, with each word preceded by a tiny breath.

Prilya cocked her head, straining to hear.

“I’m sure the situation has been explained. The one. That lead. To Laszis challenging our foe by imperial writ. In the arena.” He coughed, and traces of blood appeared on his lips.

She straightened, rolling her shoulders back. Perhaps an improved posture would lend her voice additional weight. “Yes, bishop. My mistress told me what’s going on. The coastal duchies are about to go to war, and settling things in the arena is the only way to stop them. She wasn’t afraid of Fit’tak-noir!”

De’ Lena expelled a phlegmy sigh. “Young lady, we’re all afraid of the man. We’d be. Fools. Otherwise.” He staggered, but when the nun at his side reached for his arm, de’ Lena shook her off. “You understand, then. How Laszis’s death. Puts us in a precarious. Position.”

“There’s going to be war. It’s too late to pick someone else to fight in the arena, so we can’t settle things that way. Pretty soon, news of my mistress’s murder will get to the coast. Then they’ll go and muster their armies.” Prilya had often neglected her studies, running off to spar with the Tavori children or visit the Skyborne, but she knew enough of politics to understand how bad things might get. A half-dozen kingdoms would be drawn into the conflict, along with scores of city states and principalities. “It’ll be awful.”

De’Lena bent toward her, putting his weight on the lectern, and coughed. He wasn’t all that old, but deep lines crisscrossed the bishop’s face, and the skin at the base of his jaws hung loose. “Well said. Awful. Diplomacy is the only way, now. And we must purchase time. Time for it to work.”

Prilya’s brow knotted. Buy time, how? And what did it have to do with her? As a member of a minor house, one with little influence on the affairs of far-flung realms, her involvement made no sense. And if anyone from the family were to take on a diplomatic role, it would be her father. “I’m very sorry, Bishop. I’m afraid I don’t understand.” She made a small bow. “Forgive my ignorance.”

“Not at all, young lady. It is why. We are here. To help you understand, after all.”

He sagged, clinging to the lectern’s supporting column, and a heavyset woman replaced him. Prilya didn’t recognize her.

“Lady Prilya, you’ll be knowin’ me as Priestess Dutta. I serve as the order’s envoy to King Bartholomew’s court. I’ll be explainin’ what we have planned, and tellin’ you about yer place in those plans.” The woman’s voice carried brusque Ettin Islander inflections—an accent Prilya hadn’t heard before leaving home a few weeks before.

“Thank-you for letting me play a role, priestess. I’m at your service.” Prilya’s features continued to portray attentiveness and respect—she hoped so, anyway—but behind the façade, she recoiled. Plans? She already had a plan: Enter the Order as an Acolyte, train as a priestess, and work her way up, garnering accolades and glory as she went. With her apprenticeship over, things would be more difficult, but the same ambitions smoldered in Prilya’s breast. As word of her might spread, she would be feted by the great houses and accepted into the confidences of kings and senators alike. How many times had she imagined the way her success would make Father beam with pride, and—even more satisfying—cause her snide, inexplicably bitter harridan of a mother to seethe with envy?

The plan is to show them. To show them all!

Dutta’s face creased. “I’m appreciating the sentiment, I am. But after ye’ ken a bit more, you might be findin’ yer’self a wee bit less thankful.”

Prilya fought the urge to bite her nails. She didn’t like the sound of that. Not one bit.

“As I think ye’ right well understand, this’d be a terrible war, it would. Everyone this side o’ the Gulls’d be pulled in. Hundreds of thousands’d die. Millions, mayhap. We canna allow it.”

Prilya eyed the priestess. The Entrienne was one of the most powerful religious orders in the empire. Worshippers of a dozen well-loved gods flocked to its cathedrals, and its influence extended to any number of the great houses. Still, the church had little hope of stopping a war the coastal duchies were determined to wage. Might as well try to heat the ocean by pissing in it, father might have said. If mother wasn’t around to chide him, anyway. Had the order taken leave of its collective senses?

Dutta’s face tightened, and fleshy cheeks bunched below her eyes. “Like Bishop de’Lena said, we’ve one hope, we have, and that’s to play for time. For now, the world canna learn of your mistress’s death. We in this room, those who witnessed it, and some who we need to keep close. Until such time as we be choosin’, no others can know.”

Prilya frowned, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Their “plan” smelled like dog farts. Her mistress had been one of the most visible members of the order, and the arena challenge had only served to heighten her fame. The idea that she could disappear without anyone discovering the truth was absurd.

“Ye’r doubtful, and ye’ve a right to be. Tongues are already wagging about Laszis not bein’ seen in days. Questions’re bein’ asked, they are. And that’s why ye’ be needed.”

Prilya’s hands spread before her. “Priestess Dutta? I, I don’t—”

“You’re to impersonate the great lady, plain as that. We’ll cancel what meetings we can, and ready you for the rest, explainin’ what’s expected, and makin’ sure you’re familiar with those you’ll need to speak to.” She held up a bulky stack of vellum. “Ye’r to confer with the imperial officials who administer the arena, first thing t’morrow. Don’ worry. We’ll make sure ye’r ready.”

The chamber dissolved into brightly colored smears, and Prilya wobbled on her feet.

What? WHAT?

Had they all gone mad? She thought, hoped, she’d misunderstood. That thick accent…

Benis’s arm wrapped Prilya’s waist, steadying her. He muttered in her ear. “Be strong! Otherwise, they’ve no use for you. Be stone and steel, girl.”

She blinked, and her surroundings came back into focus. Stone and steel. It was something Dol’ might have said, and the thought made her stand a little straighter. “Priestess Dutta, I fear I’m still adrift.” Make them understand it can never work. “I’m not some dramatist, and I even if I was, how could anyone believe—”

“Ye’ve not been lookin’ in the mirror if ye’ have to ask that, Lady Prilya.” Dutta’s voice cooled. “Do ye’ think we’ve not thought this through, with all that’s at stake? We’ll use a glamer. It’s cost us dear, but a master illusionist from Ki’et Mountain has agreed to help, he has. He’ll be castin’ the spells on you each mornin’, before ye’ go out and about.”

“But, priestess… I’m so sorry for being contrary, but the glamers, they’re—”

“Yes, they’re bein’ the weakest and most unreliable of all enchantments, as ev’ry studen’t o’ the Art knows. But girl, people’ll look at you and expect to see her. That’s the kind’a glamer that’ll fool most anyone. We’ll make ye’ look a tad older and soften yer voice a bit. That’s all that needs done.”

“Listen to Dutta,” said Malda, stepping forward. “Your mistress was remarkably young, given her accomplishments, and looked younger yet. The years barely seem to touch some lucky individuals, and we should all be grateful the high priestess was one of them. The likeness was profound. You and she looked more like sisters than—” He gulped, then swallowed. “Anyway, you looked like sisters, almost. It’s the one advantage we have, and make no mistake, we intend to use it.”

Prilya ran her fingers through her hair, trying to ignore how girlish and absent-minded it made her look. Could it work? If the illusionist they’d hired was really that good, it might. She was a quick study. All her tutors said so. When she bothered to show up for lessons, anyway. With Dutta’s help, she might be able to bluff her way through her mistress’s engagements.

Before she could say, Priestess Dutta, I’m sorry I doubted you, something twisted in her gut. A monstrous black knot, whispering promises of an endless night. Fear. “But priestess, they tried to kill her.” Prilya’s voice shook with a thousand tiny tremors. “Not tried. They did it. Murdered her in the middle of the cathedral. In the middle of her strength. And if they think she’s still alive, they’ll come after her—me—again.” She edged backward. “And again!” Memories enveloped her: of lying, beaten, on the floor; of being covered in burns; of wanting to shriek, but being too broken to even mewl.

No.

She backed toward the double doors through which she’d come, eyeing the council members as if she’d they’d transformed into slavering wolves who padded toward her, yellow eyes aglow. Her eyes widened. Every part of her trembled. Benis’s mouth moved, but she had no idea what he said.

“You want to sacrifice me!” She shouted the words at the top of her lungs. “Well, I won’t let you.” Her sight blurred, and moisture coated her cheeks.

“Acolyte Prilya,” said Malda, his voice cold. “You will do your duty, just like the rest of us. And let me assure you, precautions of every sort have been taken. Now that we understand our enemy’s plans, we stand ready. Steady yourself and return to center of the chamber, where you may properly address this council.”

Prilya shook her head so hard it made her neck hurt. “But I’m not an acolyte. The attack happened before the induction ceremony—before I could say the words. I haven’t been sworn to service, so you can’t tell me what to do.” She backed against the doors.

The cardinal rose, glaring at Prilya. Everything about the woman bespoke firmness and certainty. She was the kind of person no one considered gainsaying. The woman’s jaw clenched, and her eyes smoldered. “Lady Inferness. Return to your place before us.” She snarled, staring daggers. “Now!”

A wave of panic swept over Prilya, and she grabbed for the door handles. Her hot, wet eyes could barely see, and her movements became so wild that her hands skidded along the door’s surface, finding nothing. She swiped moisture from her face and tried again, but continued to flail. Her mind filled with images of the charred goats that tribesmen sacrificed to Belak, god of the feast.

Burnt offerings.

The cardinal began to chant, spitting out one angry, contemptuous word after another.

It took a moment, but Prilya recognized the form: dictum. Even as her resolve sagged beneath the weight of the spell, she found a handle. She yanked it and flung herself into the hall.

Prilya ran toward the priory, dizzy and tottering. One passageway swept by, then another. Broad stone tiles slapped her feet. Her first thought was to retrieve her belongings from the quarters that served as her sickroom, but did she dare? How far would the Sanhedrin go to bend her to their will? A curse escaped her lips—a foul denigration she’d never used before. Fear and fury and the terrible certainty that all of her dreams were gone, gone, gone welled up inside.

Before she could reach the priory, Prilya turned back, convinced she had no choice but to head for the nearest exit. If her belongings were forfeit, so be it. Every moment she spent on the Order’s wretched grounds was one moment too many. She fled down a wood-paneled corridor, sure it would lead her to the main cathedral entrance. It dead-ended in a classroom, and she backtracked, hoping to find a side entrance that opened onto the gardens. From there, it would be easy to sprint around the main building, round the curtain wall, and reach the street. The boulevard bustled at all hours, and a girl in a simple white dress ought to have little trouble losing herself among merchants and tradesmen.

A few minutes later, Prilya leaned against the wall of a windowless passage, panting. Drafts skittered by, and guttering torches filled the air with an inconstant orange glow. They smelled like tar.

Lost. I’m lost.

She cursed herself for a fool, and tasted salt on her lips. A fresh sheen of tears coated her cheeks.

“Wipe your face, young lady. It’s a mess.”

Prilya let out a tiny shriek and leapt a foot in the air. Benis. He’d caught her unawares, though she didn’t see how; the old man slumped, red-faced, a stride away, fighting to catch his breath. The tether on one of his sandals hung loose, and the thing flopped around, half on and half off. He extended a hand holding a rumpled linen. She supposed he normally used it for blowing his nose, but it looked clean enough.

Prilya nodded, too weary and discouraged to do anything else. “Well, I guess you’re going to drag me back to the cardinal.” She dabbed at her chin, and the cloth came away sopping and filthy.

“May I escort you to the root cellar? You do realize that’s where you’re headed, yes?”

Sobs threatened to erupt from Prilya’s chest, but she managed to hold them in. “I just want to get out. Help me get out. Unless you want me dead, like the rest of them.”

He straightened. “We’ll stop by your quarters and gather your things. Then we’ll leave by a little-known route. It won’t do to have you seen, even though you’ve decided you won’t be staying.”

She gave her face another wipe, clearing grit from her eyes, and curled her hand around the chancellor’s arm. “Fine. Lead the way.” Maybe she could trust him, and maybe not, but trying to puzzle out the man’s motivations struck her as an exhausting and probably futile chore. “They won’t try to stop me? Not even the cardinal?”

“You mean Merthevis? I left the chamber just after you did, and she was already voicing regret. Attempting to compel you wouldn’t just be impractical, it’d go against everything the order stands for. And most of the gods we embrace, for that matter.”

Prilya pursed her lips. “She frightens me.”

“Merthevis frightens a good many people, but she’s no inquisitor. She’s used to being obeyed, that’s all. When you didn’t bend to her will, it shocked her, I think, and she acted in an untoward manner. If the cardinal gets a chance, I think she’ll apologize.”

“Really?” The idea struck Prilya as preposterous, but neither Benis’s voice nor expression held a hint of sarcasm.

“Before you leave, may I show you something?”

She stopped, eyeing the chancellor. As much as she couldn’t wait to escape the church grounds, the idea of denying the man’s request didn’t sit well. He’d treated her with kindness since the moment she arrived, and been at her side during the long, grueling hours the monks spent knitting her back together. “Is it far?”

“As it happens, your explorations have brought us close. Smell that?” He sniffed the air, and Prilya followed suit.

Solid, earthy aromas, with a hint of yeast. “Potatoes.”

“Very good. Between the meat locker and the potato bins, there’s an old man-door—forgotten by most—that will take us outside. From there, it’s hardly pissing distance.” Prilya felt her eyebrows rise, and Benis blanched. “You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve spent much of my life ministering to scoundrels. One acquires the argot.”

A minute later, Prilya followed Benis through a thick gray door with hinges so rusty it refused to open until the chancellor chastised it—first with a curse, then with a kick. To get there, they’d climbed over crates of turnips drying in the ill-lit bowels of the cathedral’s southern storage cellar. Cracked slate stairs led to a lawn crisscrossed with pathways and fences. Benis led her down a path marked by flagstones so worn they looked swaybacked.

“There’s hardly anyone out here,” said Prilya. A practice yard used by the chapel guards stretched to one side. It lay empty. Racks of practice weapons leaned against an outbuilding housing archery supplies. She’d taken note of its comically steep roof while touring the grounds with her mistress.

“Everyone’s been called to matins. The students and teachers from the school. The clergy, laborers, and soldiers. Even the Sanhedrin are there by now. Only the guards who are on duty are out. And us, of course.” He pointed to the south. “If it wasn’t for this fog, you’d be able to see the men walking the wall.”

Prilya squinted, trying to make out the fortifications that separated the church grounds from the rest of the city. She caught a glimpse of mortared river rock, but nothing more. “Is it always so bad, this time of year?”

“Nay. Usually the rising sun burns off the worst of it. But for the last couple of days, the fog’s been thicker than flies on a camel’s rump, if you’ll pardon the unseemly comparison.”

As they moved deeper into the church’s southern yard, the visibility grew poorer yet. She looked from side to side, surprised at how little time it took the mist to encroach. Walking through the stuff was like floating in the belly of a cloud. A tombstone appeared to one side—basalt, speckled equal parts light and dark, with angular letters chiseled into its midsection. Moments later, another slab loomed, and then a picket of holy symbols that marked the approach to a mausoleum.

“This is it, then?” said Prilya. “This is what I’m supposed to see?” She huffed. “I’ve been in cemeteries before, you know. This is where I’d probably end up if went along with the Sanhendrin’s stupid ideas.”

Here lies a girl who did what she was told.

A rock lay before of her, and Prilya gave it a kick, bouncing it off the top of a scalloped alabaster cross. “I guess you’re trying to tell me I’m doing the right thing. I already knew that. If I have to leave the order and give up my dreams, fine. I’m not going to wander around like a dumb little lamb, waiting to get slaughtered.”

“You’ve made yourself clear.” His words had a muffled feel to them, as if they could barely reach her through the sodden air. “I wish you could see the knights patrolling the wall, though—if only to know that the cardinal spoke the truth. We petitioned King Loris for help, and his archers perch atop the outbuildings. Cavaliers defend the church’s borders so our guardsmen can patrol the buildings in twos.”

He reached for Prilya’s hand, and she let him give it a squeeze. His skin felt like old parchment—fragile, wrinkled, and dry. She said nothing.

“We want to keep you safe, Prilya. I want to keep you safe.”

They drew up in front of a newly turned grave. A sandstone block squatted at its head. She leaned closer and read the engraving.

Father Theus. Teacher, master healer, and faithful servant of the gods. He gave his life for Peace.

Prilya’s brows knotted, and she scratched her chin, trying to remember… Father Theus. The name’s familiar, somehow. One of father’s guests, when I was little? “I think I know why you really brought me here. I can’t figure out where I heard the name, but I know of him, somehow.”

“No.” Benis shook his head. “I don’t think so, anyway.”

“Why, then?”

The old chancellor rubbed gnarled fingers along his forearms, as if he’d grown cold. “You were hurt quite badly, you know.”

“How could I forget?” She took a deep breath, counseling herself to patience. One couldn’t expect an administrator with seventy summers in his wake to be swift about anything, including making a point.

“We acted right away, and were able to stop the bleeding and knit some of your wounds. But your insides were too badly torn for you to ingest a healing draught, and there was no time for one of the lengthier rituals, such as Saint Felicia’s Hymn. Your life’s light dimmed, and the elders chose to recite the Deep Cant.”

She stared at Benis, searching his face for signs of deception. He returned her look with a calm, level gaze. A few moment later, he blinked, lids descending into mottled skin and stark white lashes.

He’s a good liar, or he’s telling the truth.

“But…” Her voice thickened. How was it possible? How could men callous enough to make her into bait, dangling before the most vicious of enemies, have done such a thing? “The Deep Cant, it’s—”

“The most dangerous of all the mystic liturgies. Yes. The priests were veteran mages. They knew the risks.”

Prilya knelt before the headstone and ran her fingertips across its surface. Her shins sank into loose, fragrant soil. “And Father Theus—it was too much for him.” Her throat grew tight, and she blinked twice in quick succession.

“It was too much for all them, really. Bishop Kelway’s mind is gone. He’s been taken to the convent at Aven-Laey, where the sisters will feed him infant’s mash and change his soiled linens until he passes. Kal Thaen, the deputy chancellor, is now lame—a good man, who spent a decade at my side. He can continue to minister, but with both legs withered, he’ll never be able to take my place.”

Wave after wave of humiliation washed over Prilya, and she sagged.

How stupid I am. Stupid and selfish and vain.

She reached to either side, shoving her fingers into the sod. Could she pull it over her head like a blanket and hide from the world? Down in the ground with grubs and the worms—it was where she belonged. Tears came again, spilling of their own accord, and she pressed her face into the sleeves of her dress, hiding her shame.

Benis approached. He set his hands on her shoulders. “It’s right for you to weep, and water his grave with your sorrow. I did.”

Sobs rose from deep in her chest, and for a time Prilya lost herself in regret. The suffering of the priests saddened her, but her own unworthiness was more troubling by far. They had done as duty dictated, after all, giving everything for the cause. But when presented with the opportunity to follow their example, she let cowardice rule her soul.

Flee! It’s all could I think to do. Run, and cry, and run some more.

She reached for the bare ground just below the gravestone. The tip of her index finger dipped into cool, moist dirt. She drew a short line from left to right, continuing straight and arcing down, then right, then up in a sharp swoop. A moment later, she lifted her finger, moving it to a spot just below where she’d started. She drew the mirror image of the first shape, sweeping up, across, and down. The two curves ended in the same place, coming to a point. Finally, she joined the points at which the lines began, connecting them with a single stroke.

Benis stooped beside her. “What have we here?”

Her crying ceased, and Prilya shook her head. “I don’t know. What you said about him made me think of this. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

“It’s an old symbol. Very old. From one of the first orders. Its adherents used it as a secret pict, to identify one another. It’s a fish.” He edged closer, peering into Prilya’s eyes. “Why this, specifically?”

Just beyond Benis, something caught her eye. Dull, grainy crystals lined the edge of an adjoining grave. A faint smell laced the air, like vinegar turned foul. “Piss,” she said.

Benis blinked. “I don’t follow. And I believe I’ve been a bad influence.”

“No.” She pointed at the plot behind him. “There’s something strange about that grave. Look.” Her nose wrinkled. “Something’s wrong.” The word wrong sounded like it’d been stuffed in a sack.” Everything sounded muffled, for that matter, reminding her of the times she’d dived into lakes and landed poorly, jamming her ears full of water.

Benis gave her a nod and stepped over to the odd-looking grave. He bent, running his fingers along the discolored stretch of ground, and then turned to her, eyes wide. “Run,” he said, making shooing gestures. “Run!”

Prilya moved to Benis’s side, wondering if she might have misunderstood. Why in the gods’ green lands should she leave without him? In any case, she’d had enough of fleeing. Enough of cowardice.

As she began to form a question, Benis’s face contorted. He leapt to his feet, punched her square in the chest, and yelled, “For once, mind your elders, you stubborn ass of a girl!”

She gasped, clutching her hands to her breast. For the second time in as many hours, her head swam in a sea of confusion. “What?” she said, backing away. “Why?”

Benis continued to shout. “Run, damn your hide! Vermin shit, sulfur, and rock salt. This ground is no longer consecrated. I can feel dark majiks lingering here. Vevilosi, and something else.”

Prilya stared at the chancellor. An act of desecration, performed on well-guarded church grounds? Who would dare?

The same scum who blasted their way into a cathedral, murdered a dozen holy men, and loosed a demon from the nether-hells. The ones who stole my mistress from me.

Her legs trembled, racked by a turgid mixture of fury and fear. She ought to do as she’d been told—sprint back to cathedral and call for help. Benis would follow as best he could.

Help.

Best summon it sooner rather than later. The knights Benis mentioned couldn’t be far. She screamed at the top of her lungs, but the mist swallowed her words whole.

Benis contorted his hands, sweeping them around one another, and they filled with light. He spun on his heels, remarkably spry, and glowing streamers trailed behind—radiant arcs that sliced the gloom like resplendent knives. Prilya knew the spell, though she couldn’t cast it half as well. Avillica-Ti-Fen. A rite of warding.

The path described by the streamers—seemingly random, at first—developed a flowing symmetry, crossing itself at regular intervals. Even though no one responded to Prilya’s calls, she felt a glimmer of hope; two more turns, and Benis would complete the protective pattern.

He dropped to the ground, and Prilya fell silent, gaping. It would have been easy to blame the infirmities of old age for his collapse, but she put the notion aside. The man’s joints might pop and ache, but he moved with the precision of a falcon.

Benis struggled, legs jerking. She ran toward him. Perhaps those who befouled the grave had also prepared a trap—a snare, or netting.

No. As Prilya neared the chancellor, she caught sight of what held him.

“Caus-kot!” she said, clucking the first syllable and chirping the second. The Skyborne expression translated roughly as the world has gone mad, and taken me with it. A pair of gnarled, filthy hands protruded from the grave, gripping Benis’s ankles. Not true hands, but blood-slicked bones in the shape of extremities—structures swaddled in translucent flesh as insubstantial as the fog that licked her skin. Dark veins pulsed within that flesh, and their branching channels bulged with ichor. The tissues they traversed stretched and flexed—a profane jest that mocked life rather than imitating it.

As the uncompleted ward sparked and faded, Benis continued to struggle. Prilya stepped behind him, hooked her hands beneath his armpits, and strained. He kicked his way free, but the freakish appendages remained. They rose above the grave, fingers wriggling at the end of thick, ropy arms.

A black pall of fear settled over Prilya, followed by disgust at her own weakness. It seemed that denouncing cowardice did little to keep it at bay. She’d heard of animated corpses rising from the grave, but watching a dead body claw its way out of the ground was like drowning in a sea of despair. She strained, dragging Benis further from the creature.

A grotesque head burst into view, spitting dirt as a rose, and a moment later the monster’s chest appeared.

“A shade,” said Benis, his voice a distant hum. He waved for Prilya to leave. “Go! Get the guards. I have to keep it from getting the rest of the way out.”

The undead thing continued to rise, pressing its palms against the ground, and belly crisscrossed with scars became visible. Benis gained his feet and shuffled toward the monster, weaving long, spotted fingers into a crosshatch. Holy words fell from his lips: prayers that chided the darkness, naming it a small, petty thing with no true hold on the human heart. A coppery light radiated from a point just in front of his chest, and the shade recoiled, features twisting with hatred and dismay.

Prilya began to retreat. Maybe Benis was right. He might be able to keep the thing at bay until she returned with guardsmen.

The shade roared, face elongating into a hideous masque a stride long. It leaned toward Benis and swiped at him with cracked, curved nails as thick as tent stakes. They tore into the priest’s forearm, splattering his face with crimson streamers, and the man screamed. He scrambled away, but when the shade continued to free itself, he moved back within reach.

Prilya froze in mid-stride. The skin around Benis’s wound had begun to blacken.

If he backs up, it’ll pull itself all the way out and run him down. If he stays, it’ll slash him to ribbons.

Prilya gulped, swallowing her fear, and turned. She charged. After taking a few quick steps she lowered her shoulder, ready to plow into the shade. It terrified her, but the creature wasn’t all that big. No larger than a man.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Benis gesture. No. Get away! Pain, fury, and exasperation warred for control of his features. But she’d built up considerable speed as one long, hard stride followed another, and couldn’t stop if she wanted to. Prilya locked her jaw and leaned into the attack.

The shade’s neck and back grew near—parchment-white vertebrae surrounding by pulsating, not-quite-there flesh. She flinched, ready for impact, but instead of slamming into the creature she passed through it. After a sickening instant spent swimming in the thing’s innards, she hit the ground on the other side and tumbled to a bruising halt.

Prilya convulsed as a deep chill suffused her body. She shivered, trying to inhale.

Gods, I can’t breathe!

Her lungs refused to work. They’d become useless, frozen bags of air. She clawed at her throat. Ice crystals formed on her lips, and she felt her eyes bulge.

As she struggled for breath, Benis drew a dirk from some hidden fold within his raiments, slashing at the monster. When he caught the creature in the face or chest, the blade failed to find purchase, sliding through amorphous meat to little effect. But when the chancellor struck at the shade’s hands or wrists just as it reached for him, the knife opened jagged, oozing wounds and the undead thing cried out. Despite the fog, its howls pierced her skull like a mountain man’s pick.

Prilya’s lungs came back to life. Her chest heaved and her back arched. The first breath was raw and ragged and desperate, and the second nearly as bad. Moments later, she struggled to her feet, wiping frosty crusts from her eyes. Prilya still shook with cold, but she ignored her body’s protests, pressing her hands against her knees, groaning, and forcing herself upright. She looked toward Benis and whispered a word of thanks that he still stood.

Several chains hung around the chancellor’s neck. One of them held Saint Rentha’s Sphere, a bronze globe worn by many members of the order. The others descended inside his robe, and he tugged at one, revealing a sunburst medallion formed from wrought gold and purple gems. He yanked the chain over his head and curled his fingers around the edges of the medallion.

“Ettithis vina-thi’ Toh!” he shouted. “Ekittah feh.” The shade snarled, clawing wildly, but Benis stepped aside, intoning until he finished the incantation. The medallion blazed with white fire, and for an instant the creature became more substantial, more human. Benis lurched toward it, slamming the holy symbol into the shade’s eye, and the side of its head crumpled and smoked.

The shade cried out in a dozen voices at once—men and women, waifs and ruffians, slatterns and babes—all wailing in torment. It thrashed about and knocked Benis away. The thing seized the medallion, pulling the device from its head with an audible pop that made Prilya’s stomach heave. The side of its face—gruesome to begin with—was a gutted ruin. Tiny white flames danced within a hollowed eye socket. When the shade hurled the medallion aside, one of its fingers went with it, evaporating in a pillar of smoke.

Benis rose in stages, one heaving grunt at a time. His arm hung lank at his side. Black trails began to wend their way up the man’s neck, and Prilya fought off a wave of panic. The thing’s touch was death itself. Benis held his dirk at the ready, but moved with the slow, flat-footed gait of a man with little left to give.

She cast about, wishing she had her etti, and then cursed herself for a fool.

If wants and wishes were sweets and fishes, we’d all have a merry feast!

It was one of her father’s silly, oft-repeated sayings. The whole family groaned when he said it, which only made him grin and repeat it at the top of his lungs.

Off to one side, a tomb marked with a crusader’s sigil caught her eye. The symbol sat at the intersection of a narrow stone upright and a crosspiece the size of a trowel. Four feet tall. Five, at most. Perfect. She sprinted toward it.

With her back to Benis, Prilya could no longer see him, but a stream of curses worthy of a drunken corsair let her know he fought on. His knife sung a sweet tune, crooning snik
snik snik, my love, I’ll snik all day for you, as it sliced unliving flesh.

Prilya ran toward the sigil. Once she closed to within a dozen paces, she jumped, throwing her right foot out in front of her—knee slightly bent—and tucking her left leg beneath her bottom. When her heel struck home, she kicked for all she was worth. Pain flared in her foot, and the sigil’s upright snapped a hands-breadth above the ground, just as she’d planned.

She rolled to her feet and picked up the sigil. It had a decent heft—heavy, but not too heavy. She held it like a spear, with the broken butt before her, and bent toward it. After rattling off a prayer to the goddess Alseine, she mouthed a spell: a simple blessing. Just before reaching the litany’s end, Prilya closed her eyes and took a breath, filling every corner of her lungs. When she exhaled, she imagined giving that breath to the goddess—all of it and more.

Prilya shouted the last line of the recitation, binding each word to her will. “Ivven la, ivven fo, ivven th’ee.” A gust of wind made her dress ripple and snap, and a feeling of dislocation, of loss, throbbed within her. She’d just shortened her life by a year or more, but all she could hear was the rage-blood pounding in her ears. Nothing but crushing the enemy mattered.

The broken base of the upright glowed yellow, then white, and for a moment, the upright vibrated with so much force that Prilya struggled to avoid dropping it. She swiveled toward the shade.

Now.

Grass bent beneath her feet as she took one step, then another. Prilya’s strides lengthened, and she gathered speed until headstones raced by on both sides. She sped along an arcing path that put her behind the enemy. A raised stone sarcophagus lie between her and the creature, and she leapt atop it without missing a step. A moment later, she reached the catafalque’s opposite end. She howled wordless fury and cast herself into the air, legs churning.

As she descended toward the shade, the creature met her gaze, but with its hips still in the ground, it couldn’t turn. Prilya slammed the sigil downward, and the jagged end of its upright pierced the creature’s skull. Dark green plasm splattered everywhere.

Even with most of its head gone, the monster flailed with a mad strength, claws rending the air. One filthy nail ripped Prilya’s sleeve from her dress. She planted her feet and grunted, placing both hands atop the sigil’s crossbar and thrusting for all she was worth. The butt of the makeshift weapon sank into the shade’s neck, then its chest. A moment later, the monster disappeared, replaced by curling fumes and a pool of black ooze with a stench so formidable she collapsed to the ground, vomiting.

Once her stomach could empty itself no more, Prilya crawled toward Benis. She threw her arms around him. He felt light and fragile and nearly gone. A breeze whirled about them, dispersing the fog. Shouts and footfalls filled the air as a cadre of priests, monks, and guardsmen approached. More cries came from the wall, and knights clambered toward the ground.

“Don’t die,” she said. Her voice filled with desperate, pleading tones. Un-dig-nified, her mother would have said, with a sniff. Prilya didn’t care. “Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die.” She cradled Benis’s head in her lap, and her hips rocked as she chanted. Her words carried no magic—no holiness or power. Just sadness and guilt and dread at the thought of being left alone.

The chancellor’s eyes slid open, and he muttered, “Didn’t plan on dying, young lady. But if you don’t stop bobbing my head about, I may damnably well insist.”

For the third time that day, she burst into tears.

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