The penumbra of the godway’s presence danced around the Reliquary’s granite walls, giving the rough-hewn stone a tarnished look that turned Bailat’s insides into ice. She shook her head, as if the motion alone would still the sudden memories of outstretched hands and cries for help.
Instead she forced herself to focus on the constant stream of constructs that moved in and out from the dark smudge hovering above the Reliquary’s spire—their transit between worlds leaving a white streak of impossibility etched against her vision.
Her fingers clenched around the soul marker Fint had given her, grasping the promise of power the Brightsoul’s presence would bring, her other hand caressing the core that fed her connection to Mote.
‘Where are you, little one?’ Bailat cast her thoughts into the small sphere. Through the connection she could sense that the construct was still near the borders of the Allmarket’s Central Quad, its thoughts still focused on finding the boy they had met at Market’s Edge. She didn’t wait for a reply. ‘I told you to meet me here. Thannec’s little delay has me worried.’
A momentary flash of fear danced through their connection, but was quickly stifled by the Brightsoul before its voice danced into her thoughts, ‘You sure that’s the best one you could find? Nothing that old will want to serve you willingly. I mean, the poor bastard’s been trapped in the Reliquary for how many years now. And I haven’t even mentioned that it obviously won’t know what the godway just went through.’
‘Marrin said it would remember war, and that will be enough.’ She thought, ‘Get here as soon as you can. Our chances of getting a metallurgist in Central are better than in the outer Quads.’
Mote sounded confused. ‘But Fint said there weren’t any likely traders in the market?’
‘Fint would only tell us what the market clan running his quad would let him say. Just get here.’
Bailat severed the connection before Mote could reply. She frowned as she neared the constant susurration of the crowd determined to get into the old building, and as she neared the building, coughing, the haze of smells that made up the mob of people standing outside its entrance caught her off guard.
She pulled a piece of cloth around her nose and mouth, and started to push her way through, ignoring the occasional huffs and muttered curses from merchants and other Brightsoul traders. As she neared the steps of the Reliquary, the guard who had been watching her laboured journey held up his hand. “Afraid you’ve been rubbing yourself against half the market for nothing.” He half-smiled, hands closing slowly on the dinted rifle at his side. “Mundane trading is closed, indefinitely for your kind, and anyone else besides.”
“Not here to trade.” Bailat sighed a little too loudly while digging into her bags then eventually pulled out a thin metal circle stamped with a stylised wolfshead design. “Just fetching Brightsouls for Hedge-Priest Marrin. They were traded yesterday and housed in church constructs.”
The guard looked at the contract and spat to the side. “Thuir are dead, girl. What need would the priest have for constructs?”
“He didn’t tell me. Probably thought that I wouldn’t have to contend with those equally ignorant as me.” She smiled and spread her hands wide. “In fact, I would say that he—”
“Bailat, is that you?” A man approached the dais that separated the building from the crowd. His presence became monolithic by the crowd’s sudden quiet, as if they were seeing something strange and terrible at the same time. In front of Bailat, the guard seemed to shrink with every step the man took towards them, closing his eyes tightly as the newcomer laid a massive hand on the man’s shoulder. “It is you, isn’t it?”
Bailat looked up at the speaker, taking in the stone-carved features, focusing last on eyes that were pale and cold as a winter sky.
He passed a massive hand through the blonde, thinning curls that hung limp over his brow. “I thought they had killed you in Heolith.”
Shit. She let her hands fall to her sides. “Good to see you, Kereb,” she said, glancing to the side, “seems like you thought wrong.”
“Seems that I have.” He nodded, his gaze darting across her, washing Bailat in their icy regard, before flicking over the sullen, but still-silent crowd. He pointed to the silver coin pinched between her fingers. “Are you here for Marrin’s requisition?” Without waiting for an answer, he motioned for her to follow into the Reliquary. Bailat obeyed, and passing beneath the power-touched stone, she was enveloped in a feeling of emptiness as her mind instinctively reached out to the godway’s touch but grasped nothing. She paused, hand held over her eyes, forcing herself to focus on the crowd resuming its vague murmur.
When she looked up, Kereb was waiting for her, his expression that of sadness or concern, she wasn’t sure which. She shook her head and went towards him, glancing up at the marble gyre that soared into the sky, a hollow needle that pricked against the thin membrane that separated the market from the endless shores of the godway.
“So tell me,” Kereb stayed in front of her, glancing back over the ornate warplate that encased him, “why did Marrin choose you?”
Bailat let her gaze fall back to the carpet, looking past the well-trodden pathway that wound between brightly coloured tiles, recalling the image of a broken man, hands scratched bloody against the floor of his prison. “A shared journey.” she said as they reached a small alcove cut into the marble base of the Reliquary’s outer wall, one of many that was cut to have a small table, surrounded by cushioned seats. Kereb motioned for her to sit, and Bailat took the opposite seat, allowing herself a quick smile at Kereb’s frown.
He sat down across from her, his form bent against the curved walls. “Obviously our watchers have reported the manifestation between you and the Thuir messenger.” His eyes remained fixed on Bailat. “I also know Marrin is dead. So my question is this—are you fixed on following this path he has set out for us?”
Bailat leaned back against the wall, forcing herself to smile. “You know full well my blood is dead to the godway. Seems only fitting that dead dreams are the ones worth following.” She paused, tilting her head to the side. “And speaking of following others’ dreams, how does an imperial general find himself in the very Reliquary his commander banned a couple of days ago?”
“I no longer belong to them.”
“You could say that, yes.” Kereb’s smile was without humour. “Marrin arranged my release, but I have to admit that I am unsure whether his plan bears merit.”
“Now that he is dead?” She sat forward.
Kereb nodded. “Now that he, and his Lords and Ladies, are missing, dead, or close enough to make no difference.”
Bailat pulled a dull grey cube from her pack, placing it between her and the general. “This is an opportunity to change that.”
Kereb looked down at the cube, “It could, but if this withdrawal puts us at risk—”
Balait spread her hands on the table’s cold stone surface. “It was thoughts of risk that led us down this path, Kereb.” Bailat felt the same chill she felt walking underneath the Reliquary’s entrance creep around her as she spoke, but she forced her face to remain placid.
Kereb’s eyes fixed on her as he spoke. “I know you hate Root and Gate for what they did. Gods, half the empire hates them, but if this is something you can’t control, and you unleash it in the Allmarket, this close to the godway”—he shook his head slowly—“Don’t let your dreams of power make you forget that we are not what we used to be.” He exhaled the words, his gaze fixed on hers.
“With this brightsoul, and enough godsteel, I can reclaim our lives from what they’ve made us become.” Bailat’s words were hoarse, straining against her throat with her need.
“And what about the lives of those who followed you to Heolith?” Kereb asked, all emotion falling from the old soldier’s face, replaced by something even harder than stone. He leaned forward, letting his bulk overshadow Bailat. “What if all you unleash is your spite?”
“Lady Veil blind you, Kereb,” Bailat growled. “I know what I’m doing. Don’t you want things to be the way they were?”
“An Inept would tell you things are better now than they ever were,” Kereb said, slowly getting up and moving to stand outside the alcove.
“We are powerless against their vengeance.” Bailat’s words were softened by bitterness.
Kereb shrugged. “Think about the way we treated them Bailat. Their vengeance was understandable, and ultimately merciful. Can you honestly say the same about our tenure under the godway’s shadow?”
“Tell that to the Adept who still live in those cities, who scratch at the dirt like farming constructs to make a living.” Flecks of spit fell on Bailat’s hands as she spoke, “This will bring balance, Kereb.”
Kereb sighed, eyes darting around the colours of the Reliquary floor, but before Bailat could speak, he nodded towards the side. “Archives are this way.” He started walking without waiting to see if she followed.
Bailat shook her head and slid from the alcove to join the hulking figure. He remained silent as they went to the wall that separated the Reliquary’s inner sanctum from the larger world. Kereb waved aside two guards who stood at the entrance of the inner wall, and ushered Bailat through. She took in the stone walls, barely higher than Kereb. They were made with real stone, unwoven by constructs, the handprints of their builders still etched into the ancient surface. A slight crackle drew her attention to the rough diamond shape that hovered in the middle of the Reliquary.
The godway lodestone shone darker than void. It’s rough diamond shape could only be made out by the silvered threads of smouldering godsteel wire that encased it, from which unshaped power drifted off like mist from a dawn-pierced river.
Every now and then constructs drifted down from the spire’s reach to hover in front of its maw, before darting away to their masters. They reminded Bailat of the small fish that would flit in front of a shark’s open mouth that she had seen in the Altrassan aquarium. With each transfer, a shimmer of power shot up from the lodestone and into the godway manifestation that drifted placidly above the spire’s opening.
They walked up to a desk made from the same stone that separated them from the manifestation. As they neared, a construct unfolded itself from the stone, long metal lines glinting bright against the non-light that bled from the incarnate darkness behind it. Bailat crossed her arms as it coalesced spindly limbs with quick economical movements, a human face with three eyes forming in its centre.
“General, it is good to see you. Who is your visitor?” it asked with a strangely melodious voice, face turning towards Bailat.
“This is Bailat, a member of my security team. She is here to collect the Brightsoul Abyssal. You may place it in a stationary construct; I will see to any transfer fees.”
Bailat glanced at the huge man, exhaling slowly as she saw how he squared his shoulders against the weight of his lies.
One of the construct’s eyes swivelled towards Kereb. The other two fixed on Bailat. “If you so wish. I am required to remind you that the new Arcrin Treaty states that all military-grade Brightsouls and Warsouls are to be kept in their current storage, or remain in the godway. This may be seen as an act of aggression by the leaders of the Althan Hold and the Freehold.”
“I am aware of that. You will see that the trade was made well before the Treaty was signed.
“While that is true, the Treaty does make allowances for events such as these.”
“And I’m choosing to ignore them. Get the soul,” Kereb said, exhaling slowly as Bailat pulled the marker from her bag and placed it in front of the construct.
“Very well,” the construct said, closing all its eyes.
Bailat turned to Kereb, “Thank you—”
“Don’t,” he said. “You are not the one I am helping today.”
“Then who are you helping?” Bailat curled her hands into fists.
Kereb inhaled sharply, but before he could speak, the Reliquary construct’s musical voice interrupted them. “General. I am afraid there was a problem retrieving your soul.”
“What is the problem?” Bailat asked.
“It has already been retrieved by an unknown runner, sir, but records state he was identified as a member of the Water Quad’s criminal element. Retrieval took place today, but I cannot recall you authenticating its release, and no other servant other than myself was allowed to manifest, I—” The construct drifted off, eyes darting erratically in their metal sockets.
Bailat sighed. “Damned Thuir.” She turned to Kereb. “That’s why they risked the manifestation, but why implicate the Water Quad?”
Kereb nodded. “And have us realise how much they still control the exchanges for getting the Brightsoul out.” He rubbed his chin. “They sacrifice the foundation to keep us from the stone.”
“I apologise for my failing,” the construct continued. “I can issue a retrieval team to find the soul and bring it to the Reliquary, and then submit myself for destruction.” Defeat coated the construct’s voice.
“No.” Kereb held out his hand. “This was not your fault. Investigate the breach and send your findings to the Freehold’s Arx and General Nyst. Then give order that our construct forces will defend the Reliquary lodestone at all costs,” the general said, and when the construct returned into the walls, he turned to her, lines of worry cracking his placid face. “Marrin is dead, Bailat.” He almost whispered the words. “The Arcrin, most of the Adept, are powerless. Standing between the Thuir and Root and Gate’s machinations will see you killed. Let this go. There are many places in the world where none of them hold sway. I can see to it that you make one of those places your own.”
Bailat shook her head, her hands once again forming into fists. Somewhere in her mind a man curled around a filth-stained shroud as blood and sound fell from his mouth in equal measure.’
Bailat blinked once, slowly, and stared up at the general. “Help me find the soul, Kereb, and we’ll never have to hide again.”
Kereb’s eyes focused on the wall behind her as he spoke. “Transmit the following to all Reliquary forces. As per my orders, Bailat is hereby a sanctioned member of the Reliquary’s watch, and will retrieve an important soul on behalf of the Reliquary.” He paused, and looked at the construct, all three its eyes swivelled to meet his gaze. “You will also furnish her with a sidearm.” He turned to Bailat. “Happy hunting, Arcrin.” His metal-bound shoulders hunched as he left the room.
Nunc smiled as the clamour of the children around him pulled him from his daze, looking in the direction their dirty fingers were pointing at. High above them, the dark stain of the Water Quad’s godway manifestation trembled as a colossal skybarge, easily the size of a four- or five-floor tenement, slid into its silvered darkness amidst shouts of disbelief coming from the children, and the market below.
“Wonder if there were people in the ship.” A boy walked up to him, gaze still fixed on the manifestation. Nunc glanced down at the child, eyes narrowing when he saw the thin blue armband marking the boy as one of the Clan Runners. Too young by half. He thought.
“If there were any, they’re all Brightsouls now.” Nunc looked back at the mist-shrouded buildings of the Water Quad and taking a deep breath he allowed the smells of blood, oil, and sweat to permeate his nose. From the vantage point of the clan building, he could see people scrambling around their stalls like ants gathered around a piece of fallen food.
Further still he could see small figures, stripped of all humanity by the distance, massed at the quad entrance, probably battling to get past the portway that would lead them to a safer part of the Allmarket.
No more Thuir protection, at least none left who were able or willing to help.We are as desperate, or stupid as our gods were. Too much time spent this close to the godway’s light, too long being scared of standing on mundane soil, with mundane light playing on our skin.
The boy next to Nunc had joined him in his survey of the market. “Why aren’t we leaving too?” His voice undulated slightly.
Because we serve a maniac. Instead Nunc said, “Because The Jack has a plan,” ignoring the bitter taste the lie left in his mouth. “Now go get everyone ready. If you get a good start, today’s haul will be huge.”
Nunc didn’t say that it would probably be the last haul for weeks, if not months, nor did he look back as the boy began shouting orders at the clan’s youngers, swiftly organising them into groups for begging, stealing, and more intricate activities. He could barely remember himself doing the same, not too long ago, but a flash of pain ignited in his head as he tried to bring the memory closer to the surface, his hand clasping around his left arm, where a metal triangle had begun vibrating.
He closed his eyes and forced himself to focus on the rough iron shape embedded in his flesh, letting his fingers run over the textured surface. His senses bloomed away from him as he caressed the metal, encompassing twenty sets of small feet running down the causeway and into the depths of the Water Quad, where its smells coated them. He forced himself to focus on each scent that permeated the air—fresh blood, stale blood, oil, and sweat—until the pain in his mind settled and he was able to release his arm.
When he opened his eyes, one of the clan’s youngers was standing next to him, one hand cupping her shoulder. “He’s been asking for you.” She said, her voice small and uncertain. Nunc glanced at her shoulder, eyes following down the line of red that was running down her arm.
Nunc frowned, eyes darting over the chaos of the Water Quad. Fewer people were milling about, but where the market’s earlier denizens were hunched, frightened creatures, the people who remained were like market cats who had caught the scent of a wounded rat. “How long have I been standing here?”
“Don’t know, half a rotation?” she said, looking up at the shuddering darkness that perched above them. “Its light was wrapped around you, while you were—”
“Things are going to get rough in the market,” Nunc said. “Better get some of the runners to keep an eye on the youngers. Do it now.” He didn’t wait to see if she had listened, and instead headed towards the black stone building behind him.
“Nunc, thank you for joining us.” The Jack’s voice was a measured thing; its rich cadence nearly blinded Nunc with an instinctual panic. “I’m sorry, sir. I— Your gift overcame me.”
The Jack sat back in his chair, and a hand gnarled like ironwood branches reached from the confines of his tattered robe to sweep back his hair, revealing a sharp nose, above which sat dark eyes that shone sharper still. “I see, dear boy. It is my fault that you are late to our little, conclave. I will have to reprimand myself for forgetting that all gifts are also a burden.”
Nunc sank down to one knee, his eyes fixed on the stained brick floor in front of him. “Please, sir, I only ask forgiveness that I am not strong enough for your gifts.”
“Very well.” The Jack said, a smile tingeing his words. “Now get up before you keep us any longer.”
Nunc allowed himself to breathe out slowly, despite his heart’s thundering cadence. “Thank you, sir.”
“Now, tell me of the day’s expectations. We are anxious to hear what the night will bring.” The Jack spread his arms to indicate the two figures standing beside him. Both were tall and armoured, but one shifted his feet as The Jack gestured.
“The youngers have set out, sir. An older boy and the runners are keeping an eye on them.”
“Who gave that order?” The Jack’s question dug into Nunc like a knife.
“I, I did, sir. They said that the Quad will be removed from Allmarket today. The Lodestone is already fading, and—”
“And you believed them? How can you be sure it’s not The Mirror mongering more fear to keep us in our little hole?”
“I, I saw the Lodestone myself, sir. It is fading, even the seal you gave me—”
“So again we come to my gifts, young Nunc.” The Jack tutted. “Would you like me to remove the seal?”
“No sir.” Nunc almost shouted the words, but he could not keep his thoughts at bay, ‘With all my life, yes.’
“Let that be the last time I ask,” The Jack said, turning to one of his companions. “Jocelyn, dear. Go tell the runners that only half of theirs and none of the youngers will be allowed to find rest in the clan hall ever again.”
Nunc’s face began to burn, but he forced his breathing to remain soft and even. Jocelyn walked past him, her lithe form woven in steel and hate, pausing just for second by his side, before moving on to condemn the clan’s children.
“Now that we have returned to the optimal, what about our future, Hebbus?” The Jack asked, turning pointedly to the remaining companion, who shifted his weight again from foot to foot.
“We have tracked, it— Her coming from Central Quad, sir.”
“Good.” The Jack exhaled the word, long and softly as if sampling its quality. “And have the preparations been made for our much-awaited exit from Root and Gate’s prying eyes?”
Hebbus approached The Jack, holding out a small sphere. “You only have to speak your wishes, sir.”
A strange darkness bled from the walls as the Jack took the sphere in his hands, and before Nunc could move, it exploded silently like ash caught in a strong wind, flowing towards the centre of the room. Three human-like shapes rose from the ashen substance with slow and measured steps, as if they were climbing a staircase.
One, the tallest of the three stepped forward and bowed deeply to the clan lord, cascades of darkened flecks falling from him, only to be replaced by more darkness.
“The Lords and Ladies of the Thuir extend their most sincere gratitude for your generous help, clan leader,” the figure said, its voice clear, despite the constant movement of the particles. “You have ensured our mutual success in these trying times, something that we will not forget.” It paused as it’s two compatriots turned to Nunc. “May I speak freely?”
“I thought Brightsouls such as yourself were incapable of subterfuge.” The Jack waved his disfigured hand.
“Very well.” The two figures turned back to The Jack. “Our Lord has received word that the Reliquary will sever the godway’s connection to this quadrant. He asks on behalf of his fellow Thuir that you deliver the particular Brightsoul you have intercepted on his behalf.”
The Jack sat forward in his seat, small eyes shining in the preternatural darkness of the Thuir manifestation. “I was promised a full day with it,” he snarled.
“I am afraid that is not our concern, but all the Thuir have promised to provide any of their cadres for you to choose—”
“Why would I want to infect my clan with those who ran from Root and Gate?” We already have enough cowardice here.” The Jack’s words were like ice, and Nunc realised that the man was looking straight at him, before breaking his gaze and gesturing to Hebbus. The two exchanged a few quiet words, followed by Hebbus leaving the room.
Nunc couldn’t be sure whether it was fear or anger that made the Thuir messengers’ quiver, and he heard himself sighing as their turbulent forms returned to a more recognizable shape “We will have the soul regardless, and you will be rewarded for your loyalty.”
“Very well.” The Jack sat back and exhaled loudly through his nose. “My second is already on his way with the housing.”
A soft murmur behind Nunc made him turn. Five of the clan’s children, including the girl who had fetched him earlier, were being led forward by Hebbus, who ordered them to stand in a line, next to Nunc. The girl stood next to him, hand was still clasped around her shoulder, but it did little to staunch the line of blood that ran down her arm.
“Hebbus, you may present the housing of Brightsoul Abyssal to our guests.”
Something in the Jack’s voice made Nunc’s heart shudder. With a shaking hand, he turned to the girl and gently pried her hand away from her bleeding shoulder.
In the centre of the room, he heard the tall Brightsoul growl something strange. “I do not understand, Lord Jack. The housing has been damaged. Did you receive it in this condition?”
The girl shook her head gently as Nunc placed his hand on hers, a few tears escaping her eyes to flow down her face. Nunc looked at her, and smiling, nodded slowly. The girl paused, but after a while turned away, releasing her hand from her wounded shoulder. Nunc gently wiped away some of the blood, and as his fingers glanced over her skin, something essential fell away from him. He realised dully that it was hope dying in him.
“Unfortunately no.” The Jack’s voice was ice. “The housing was made of godsteel, naturally. And we thought it a wonderful idea to use some of it for our clan’s new generation of Adept.” He said, standing up and gesturing proudly at Nunc and the other children. “One seal for each side of the housing.”
“What did you do?” Nunc shouted as his fingers flinched against the textured metal that sat in the girl’s shoulder, the same that had been placed in his arm that very morning.
“I have recreated true power!” The Jack shouted, and as he cried out, the three Brightsouls turned towards Nunc, coalescing into a surge of darkness that sped towards them as sure as death.
Pain blossomed in Nunc’s hand as the amalgamated mass neared. Without thinking he pulled down his sleeve and saw that the seal was shining with a silver fire, and between the bright metal lines his flesh fell away into endless void.
Next to Nunc the girl screamed, and as he looked up the servants of the Thuir crashed into them.