Bailat hunched her shoulders as she descended the worn stone steps leading to the Allmarket proper. Never should have come back here, she mused, turning the final corner that stood between the market and the outside world. As she gazed into the vast stone chamber cut from the living rock underneath Trakir City, her senses were inundated with the stench, lights and reverberating murmur of countless humans and machines.
She couldn’t help but glance up at the towering buildings, laced with cables and rope-like trees beset by dark vines, all straining towards the black reflection that hung above the cavern, the only stable godway manifestation this side of life.
As always, the familiar stalls and piles of goods lined the roads, merchants quietly signalling their wares to those who roamed the market’s makeshift avenues. If they weren’t trying to get the attention of the scores of buyers, they were flagging down constructs that drifted down from the manifestation. Despite the frenetic atmosphere, no merchant shouted or called out. In the place where everything was for sale, discretion was the only currency of any worth.
“Looking for a guide?”
Bailat glanced down as a Dereed boy, probably no more than ten years old, sidled up to her. She barely registered the flutter of his fingers darting into her bag and snagging some of her money. Getting sloppy. She arched an eyebrow at the emaciated child, noting how his pale skin was stretched thin over his face, hunger etched on him like a scar.
She shook her head and extended her hand, middle finger on her palm.
His eyes widened as he saw the symbols etched on her fingers, also extending his hand, three metal coils resting in his palm. He smiled slightly.
“Consider it payment”—Bailat returned the smile and closed his hand around the money— “for taking me to the Jack.”
The boy looked up at her, wiping his nose. “I don’t pocket for the Jack,” he said, the embarrassment in his eyes quickly replaced by a look of sullen defiance.
“Directions will suffice.” Bailat shrugged, motioning the pickpocket to follow her into the market. He hesitated but joined her as she passed underneath the stone arch that ringed the market’s grounds.
“You’ll only find his pockets in the Water Quad,” he said after a while.
Bailat gave a low whistle. “Lost some ground, has he?”
The boy nodded, pulling at her shirt and craning closer to her ear. “New market clan, the Shard, sent one of them, one of the Arcrin.” The boy whispered the last word, his breath foetid. “In one night all of the Jack’s Adepts in Market Edge and Steel Quad were taken to serve in the Empress’s armies. First it was good, but now the old men say that nothing escapes construct eyes.” He glanced at the metal spheres that sailed above their heads.
Bailat nodded, trying not to react to the boy’s stench. “If you’re with the Shard, why aren’t you fed?”
The boy smiled, and Bailat glimpsed light in his eyes, reminding her of animal eyes catching moonlight. “They give me whatever I want.”
“I see,” she said, her insides suddenly filled with ice. “Go bother someone else.” She held out another steel coil, which he quickly palmed before he disappeared into the market throng.
“Well, that was fucking horrifying.” A small black globe popped from her bag to settle in Bailat’s offered hand.
“Probably some weaver blood in him.” Bailat nodded.
“Last you told me they weren’t waking Teludries anymore,” the construct warbled, its fear still evident.
“Seems I was wrong,” Bailat said, studying the pool of darkness that hovered above them. They were still at the edges of Allmarket, but even here countless constructs hovered at the boundary of the manifestation, their messages causing slight disturbances on the otherwise placid surface.
“Might be a spontaneous thing. Guessing the kid has probably been under godway’s shadow his whole life. Might even be errant Brightsouls on that side reaching out…” Bailat turned, exhaling sharply when she saw that a few merchants had seen her, and had quietly began motioning for her to look at their wares.
“You know we can’t do that anymore,” Mote said, voice suddenly flat.
Bailat ignored the construct’s anger. “If the Jack has lost this much ground, I don’t think a trade will be possible. Not that there’s a lot of trading going on here in the first place,” she said, glancing from one stall to another, her fingers tapping against the construct in her hand. “Follow the boy. I need to know if the Shard will deal with Adepts. Otherwise we will have to find another way.”
“Aren’t you worried that the child will report you?” The construct hovered closer to her ear, as if it wanted to whisper the words.
Bailat shook her head. “They’ll only know that an Adept of undeclared rank is here. We were probably identified the moment we walked into this Thuir-forsaken place anyway.” Bailat jumped to the side as an overloaded barge hovered past.
“Still, while you’re sniffing, find out who’s stupid enough to pose as Arcrin. I’ll feed you a whole core.” Bailat smiled for the first time since stepping into the market.
“What are you going to do?” the construct asked.
Bailat narrowed her eyes as she gently caressed the construct’s metal shell with her hand. “Going to check in on the trader your owner told us about.”
Mote hung in the air for a moment longer. “Stay safe Bailat,” it said finally, and sped off. Its black carapace was quickly lost in the swarm of constructs that flitted above the streets.
Bailat sighed again. “You too, Mote.”
She walked over to the nearest merchant, if only to create the illusion of being just another customer. He was selling fresh souls for empty constructs, not one older than three days. Bailat frowned as the chorus of confused voices echoed in her mind.
Barely here and already snared. Bailat shook her head at the merchant, making her disgust plain. She walked away, ignoring his silent and crude riposte.
As his shop’s notification tone inundated the empty space, the muscles on Fint’s face drew back into an easy smile, which was, despite his many years as a merchant, slightly marred by the faintest of grimaces. He made a mental note, again, to disable the bastard thing, even though he knew he wouldn’t. Besides, Father had always claimed it was the opening notes to the first prayer ever offered up to the Thuir lords, and was sure to bring success to them and the shop.
“How can the Empire’s Discount help you today?” Fint called, dodging around the towers of boxes that barred his way to the front desk. His smile stiffened a bit when he saw his prospective customer. She was tall, the cloak she wore tattered and filthy, its hood doing a terrible job at obscuring the sharp edges of her face. Even so, Fint caught the grey glint of steelweave underneath the fabric.
She didn’t answer, but extended her hand, palm up and middle finger pulled back to complete a glyph. “Marrin sent me, told me you could introduce me to some friends.” Her voice had the faintest lilt to it.
The mention of the hedge-priest made Fint’s stomach sink, and he briefly shook his head, as if he could dispel the memories of fire and screams from his mind.
“You should tell Marrin that we’re all out of friends,” Fint said, his smile evaporating.
“Why is that?” she asked. “Market’s Edge seems a bit emptier than when I last saw it.”
“The Jack had the only trade route, and it went away when he did.” Fint sighed, pulling out a thin strip of hjan meat from a container. “Even better, got word this morning that our new Empress has outlawed every city’s Allmarket this morning. Makes sense, seeing as our glorious Empire is at war with the afterlife.” He popped the meat into his mouth and chewed, which helped settle his stomach, thank the Thuir. “Why don’t you know this? You have the mark, surely you were told first?”
“I have been— Away for a while. Still need a friend, though.” The woman lowered her hood. Fint frowned when he saw that she was bald, but her grey eyes forced him to keep his face neutral.
“Don’t know what to tell you.” He swept a hand through his hair. “You’re looking for goods that don’t exist any—”
Fint didn’t see the woman move, but now she stood in front of the counter, placing a small golden coil on the cracked surface. He licked his lips, cursing himself for doing so. When he looked up, the woman was smiling faintly. Gods damn it all, he thought before swiping the money.
“Like I said, just restocking,” she whispered. “If you have something, even if only a word that will point me in the right direction…”
Fint swallowed. “Maybe at the Shard’s shops, but with everybody getting out, I don’t think you’ll find much. There’s even talk going around that the Reliquary is shutting down the Quad’s lode reflections later tonight.”
Her hand brought a small sphere from somewhere beneath her robes. It chittered softly in her hands. Thuir-damned Adept. Fint slowly slipped his hand towards the space where he kept his weapon.
The woman glanced up at him, her eyes gutting his thoughts. “So, what else do you have that’s close enough?”
Fint spread his hands, “I told you, there’s nothing left to—”
“Listen,” she interrupted. The air seemed to blur around her, and a moment later the point of a blade was resting gently on his eye. “I smell that weapon as much as I can smell your stench. Marrin sent me, and he told me that you would try and slip your way out of the deal. Now, be a good lad, and trade me the soul’s marker. You’re not going to do anything good with it.”
Fint shook his head, “In the Thuir’s name—”
“May our combined happiness grow.” She pulled her blade away and placed another golden core-weight on the counter.
Fint exhaled through his nose and pocketed the money. He pulled a console closer, and with a deft touch unlocked the safe below the counter. He was aware of his visitor’s gaze following him intently as he pulled a clear cube from the hidden depression.
“Tell me about it.”
“Records call it Abyssal.” Fint whispered the name as he held the Reliquary marker out to her. “My last one, got if from an army Adept, just as the Thuir fell.” Hearing the defeat in his voice made him nauseous. “Marker says it was commissioned by Arcrin Biahestos during the League’s invasion,” he said, pointing at the thin lines of writing etched on the cube’s side. “Other than that, the lad didn’t know, and I didn’t care.”
Bailat’s smile was beautiful. “That will definitely do.” She pulled two more gold coils from her bag and placed them on his counter. Fint looked up at her when she didn’t remove her hand from the money.
“And a blank?”
“I told you, the Jack tanked the supply when he was brought down by the Shard. Nothing I can do about it.”
His customer chewed her lower lip for a second. “Very well,” she said, hand and money disappearing into her robe. “Lords of the sky look over you, Trader.” She said, using the old Trakiri word.
“And you.” Fint nodded as the woman strode from his shop, flinching as the damned tone washed over him again, a clarion call to his failure. He sat down on a rundown chair, his shoulders slumped as he counted five minutes before touching another button on his console. A sharp whine filled the room and drowned out the noise from the street. A construct wafted from the dark recesses of his store, stopping to hover in front of Fint’s face.
“Go tell your lord that an Imperial Adept is in Market Edge. She will head to the Reliquary before the end of the day,” he growled. “And tell him that I consider my debt paid.”
The small construct stayed in its place, and not for the first time, Fint wished he had taken the time to hire one of The Shard’s Adept servants. “Bastard piece of rust,” he muttered and tapped against the construct’s icy cold surface, “How in Thuir’s—” But his breath left him as a flash of heat burrowed through his chest, its impact throwing him on the floor. Must’ve tripped.His mind a haze, he tried pulling himself upright, but the sudden weight in his chest would not allow him to get up. Made sense, he thought, seeing that his wet hands were staining everything they touched with a vibrant red slickness. Would take hours to clean that up.
“What is—” He wheezed once before nothingness claimed him. From somewhere at the edge of the black, he heard the greeting tone his father had installed at the shop’s door on their first day.
“The first notes of the Thuir’s own prayers, my boy.” His father’s words were crystal clear, echoing around the shop. “It’s sure to see us succeed.” Then the quiet maw of the darkness above Allmarket bore down on Fint, smothering him in its absolute silence.
A dull ache bloomed in Bailat’s head as the Allmarket Reliquary’s rusted spire came into view, rising out from the canvas of multi-coloured cloth that shrouded the market’s stalls. She sighed as the cadence of pain quickened, each throb leaching the colour, smells and sounds of the market away, leaving her standing alone among the darkened stalls and pathways.
“It seems that you have not taken the lessons of the past to heart.” The deep voice echoed faintly into the now-abandoned pathway. A figure stepped out from one of the stalls, his dark steelweave armour glinting faintly. A rotten cloak followed in the man’s wake, as if his very presence was tearing away at the light of the world.
Bailat sighed again. “Are you referring to a particular lesson? I tend to ignore many.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest, frowning at the stylised wolf’s mask he wore. The last time she had seen the symbol of Thannec, she had been the closer to death than ever before.
“I am referring to your choice of merchant.” The man laughed behind his mask. “Much can be bought from Allmarket, but loyalty to dead hedge-priests is not one of those things.” He held out his hand, in which a bright blue construct sat, vibrating slightly. Bailat flinched from the sudden wash of fear that sprang from the little thing.
“Speak,” the man said, his hand clenching down on the construct’s metal shell. The Brightsoul within cried out in a fractured tone.
“You’re hurting it—” Bailat stepped towards the man, but Fint’s voice rushed from the steel sphere. “An Imperial Adept is in Market Edge. She will head to the Reliquary before the end of the day.”
The eyes behind the mask were shining faintly. “These words were meant for the city’s garrison commander, and may just prove enough persuasion for him to invade sooner than you would want. At the behest of my Lord Thannec, we delayed the message until you have decided.”
“Decide what?” Bailat frowned.
“To, delay.” The man tilted his head. “For only a short while, of course.”
“Strange. Thannec was one of the first to call for their usurpers’ blood while Allmarket was still bound to the Hold’s cities.”
“The Lords and Ladies look up to Lord Thannec, and he has changed his mind.” He shrugged. “We need a few days so that our domain can prepare. If you succeed, there will be opportunity.”
“You will let the message reach its destination, if I say no,” Bailat said, a crooked smile on her face.
The man shook his finger. “But if you say yes, you gain precious hours to get the supplies you need, a sufficient blank to host the monstrosity waiting for you in the Reliquary, and a full-coil of godsteel to fund your delay. Another half when you achieve your goal. You could live your life free from your Arcrin legacy,” he said finally.
Bailat snarled and stepped forward, crossing the distance between her and the messenger in an instant. Before he could react, she plucked the construct from his hand, flowing away from him as he moved to grab her, armoured hand clawing at empty air.
“I was warned not to underestimate you,” the messenger said, his shoulders sagging slightly. He looked up at Bailat, who held the construct in front of her, inspecting the faint symbols carved into its shell.
“Go to your master,” she commanded the construct nestled in her hand, and flipped it into the air. It drifted slowly towards the edge of the manifestation and disappeared with a faint rustle. “Tell your lord that the time for waiting is over.” Bailat turned to the messenger. “Do you think he will understand?”
The servant’s eyes, shining slightly behind his Lord’s mask, never left hers. “I hope that he does.”
“He will or he won’t.” Bailat lifted her hand, mind coiling around the messenger’s connection to the Real and severed it, almost crying out at the sudden burst of pain her efforts caused. The messenger took a step back from her as he was thrown back into the godway, letting the noise of the Allmarket thunder over Bailat. She stumbled towards an alcove, then doubled over, spitting out a mouthful of blood. Ignoring the looks of disgust from the market-goers, she sat back, pulling out the sphere that connected her and Mote.
‘What just happened? I couldn’t find you in the market.’ Mote’s voice was a faint echo in Bailat’s mind, but still strong enough to make her wince.
“A message from Thannec, asking that we delay.”
‘That doesn’t make sense.’ Mote’s confusion made Bailat smile.
“Fear is a heavy chain that binds easily.”
‘But if you kill Root and Gate, they won’t have anything to be afraid of.’
“Not if I fail.” Bailat’s words made her feel cold. “Or, if I unleash something they can’t control,” she said, holding up the Reliquary marker.
‘So, what now?’
Bailat spat to the side. “Seems that even on the brink of destruction, the Lords and Ladies will still scheme. We need to get into the Reliquary, as soon as possible.” She put the sphere back into her bags before her construct could reply.
“Seems like god-killing is going to be more fun than I thought.” Bailat said to no one in particular, heading back into the throng of the Allmarket, shoulders hunched against the air of panic that permeated the marketgoers’ actions. Above her, the manifestation undulated gently.