“Thannec damn it all,” Bailat swore as a flash of panic inundated her mind. She had barely stepped out from the haze that was wrapped around the Water Quad’s entrance. Grasping at her head, she ducked into the nearest alleyway, ignoring the merchant families that scrambled out of her way. “I told you, don’t talk if I’m holding the core.” She growled softly as Mote drifted down towards her. “You know I can’t take the strain on my own.”
“Sorry,” The little construct said, “but there are Reliquary Guardsmen in Fint’s shop. He’s dead.”
“Did they feel you snooping?” Bailat asked after a while, gaze flicking towards the cringing market family. A woman stood with her back to Bailat, hands clamped over the heads of two children. One of them had managed to edge its head halfway from under the woman’s scarred hands and stared at her, one green eye flicking from Bailat to the hovering orb that housed Mote. The woman had begun whispering fervently, prayers to the Thuir in general, and Veil in particular. Bailat rolled her eyes.
“No,” Mote replied, “they barely investigated before leaving. Market’s Edge is about to be cut off from the Reliquary. I guess they had more pressing things to do.”
Bailat nodded and motioned to Mote to follow her as she headed back into the market’s streets.
“Want me to find the clan building?”
“That is why I have you.” Bailat breathed out slowly. Her attention was drawn up, past the tattered roofs of the market stalls, towards the Water Quad gate. On top of the intricate stoneweave structure, the godsteel lodestone that was keeping the Allmarket tied to godway was flickering intermittently. The darkness encased in its metal boundaries grew brighter with each second, and with it, the gate’s haze became thinner.
“We need to get moving.” She looked back towards the street, where Mote was hovering a few paces away from her. “You wanted to kill Fint, didn’t you? Why else send me to see where he was.”
“That’s enough, Mote.”
“What would killing him have served you?” Mote pressed, hovering closer to Bailat. “This whole thing is so obviously a trap, why won’t you see it? Let’s get out while the manifestation still holds—Water Quad is close to Dolman city, and if the quad severs its connection to godway before we’re ready, we’ll be stuck thousands of kilometres from Trakir.”
“Were you a coward in your previous life too?” Bailat’s words were soft, nearly pulled away by the low hum of the streets. This close to the quad gate, the godway manifestation played blue-black against Mote’s dark carapace.
It turned this way and that, like some errant planet. “I’ll find the clan,” Mote said softly before speeding away from her master.
“Your servant sounds unhappy.”
Bailat glanced down, almost smiling at the lightened eyes of her Allmarket guide looking up at her. She held up a finger as the boy took a step closer to her. “It is unhappy because it never chose to be a servant.”
The boy stopped, eyes wide as he looked in the direction in which Mote sped off. “But the Shard said they can all choose now.”
“Seems like the Shard can be wrong sometimes.”
“You’re lying.” The words were almost petulant.
Bailat shrugged. “And still the world turns.” Bailat walked away without waiting for a reply. She moved quickly, darting from street to street, but still making sure she kept to the direction Mote had taken earlier. She glanced around the stalls as she walked, taking in the occasional bloodstain or broken core housing, frowning as the scent of putrid construct oil and human waste washed over her. Bailat pulled a cloth over her nose.
“Glad I never came to this quad.” A familiar voice piped up behind Bailat.
Bailat turned and sighed as her erstwhile market guide came into view, wrapping a piece of cloth torn from his shirt around his mouth and nose.
“Why are you still here, boy?” Bailat crossed her arms.
The boy shrugged. “I have to get to The Jack’s too.” His voice was muffled by his cloth cover.
“Thought the Shard and him aren’t on speaking terms?”
This time it was the boy’s turn to shrug. “He is letting his youngers go. Shard is taking them in.”
Bailat spun around, hand already clenched around the core connecting her and Mote. “You better have something. We have less time than I thought.”
“I do. A sizable Thuir manifestation just bled through into the Real.”
Bailat sucked in her breath and opened herself to the construct’s eyes. She nearly cried out as her mind was flooded by images of a dark stone building, tall and ugly, even when seen against the makeshift tents and stalls that stood next to it. A pale wash of energy was surrounding the dark stones, etching out the outlines of small figures standing around the building.
“Follow, if you can. Those children might already be dead,” Bailat told the boy before vaulting over the broken remains of a ransacked storefront, running towards The Jack’s hideout.
What have you done now, Ilke? Bailat thought as she willed her armour to come alive and flood her body with speed. She couldn’t help but smile as the market around her became a broken blur.
“I don’t sense anyone nearby,” Mote said as it drifted into Bailat’s open hand. The construct had been hiding behind one of the squat buildings that seemed to sag away from the dark stone structure, as if it wanted to stay away from the white light that played around its smooth edges like an inverted shadow.
“And in the building?” Bailat looked back towards the quad entrance, eyes drawn to the power-tinged sky that wrapped itself around the gate. It was growing lighter. She frowned and turned back to her construct. “Go take a closer look at the manifestation. Let’s not waste the opportunity.”
“It’ll give us away, spoil your chances of surprising them.”
“They’ve been in our shadow since the moment we stepped into Market’s Edge, Mote,” Bailat said through clenched teeth. With more than a little effort she composed herself and pulled out the weapon Kereb’s market guards had given her, feeling for dust or debris for the fourth time since she had holstered it at her side.
Clean your weapon, Arcrin, or by the collective assholes of the gods you’re going to clean your blood off the floor. Bailat smiled as the image of a slender figure clad in immaculate warplate armour, his hands dancing around a rifle, flashed in her mind.
“Get going.” Bailat nodded at the construct, and watched it fly up a bit into the sky. She pulled off her cloak and hid it and her supplies in the darkness of an abandoned stall. When she was satisfied that they would not be easily found, she took her last core, running a finger over the etchings on its faceted surface. A blast of blue fire jumped from it and into her armour’s dark metal, lining each scale’s edge with its touch. She breathed in sharply as the steelweave rippled against her skin, its scales covering her hands and neck.
Four Thuir are standing over some children, who are not moving. Two humans watch on, one is armed with a core-touched rifle. The rest of the building is quiet.
Tell me about the interior. Bailat thought, clenching her teeth as the armour flowed around her face, encasing her in its icy touch, only leaving her nose and mouth open to the rotten air of the Water Quad.
I can only show you how to get to that main room. The children aren’t moving. This close to the raw matter of the Thuir, Mote was less than a twinge in Bailat’s mind, allowing her to feel the full force of the Brightsoul’s anxiety. She forced her breath to remain even, making it a bulwark against the sudden onslaught of panic washing through the mental connection.
That will have to do. Can you get a bead on the Gate’s Lodestone? I’ll need more power.
There was a pause. Bailat swore as the core in her hands started to cough acrid black smoke, and cast it into the gutter, where it bubbled loudly in the muddy water.
It’s all founded on Root. I’ll have to convert it to work with your biology.
Bailat spat to the side. So be it. I’m taking your core with me. Put everything you can into it. Bailat looked up at the hovering construct as a brief flash of light played around its centre. One of its hemispheres unfurled and started to glow with a piercing white light as the construct turned towards the quad’s gate.
They’ve felt my presence. Mote’s panic was a blast of thunder that strummed against the mental thread binding Bailat to the Brightsoul.
Good, she thought, and began running towards the building, her weapon suddenly warm against her hand as it expanded into its full size. She weighed it absently as she darted up the moisture-slick wall, the otherworldly speed propelling her onto the balcony that ringed the hideout’s main room.
Two voices shouted alarm as she neared the smoke-stained windows, and Bailat dived to the side as pain blossomed against her back. She cried out and forced her armour to move. She dashed behind her two attackers, levelling her weapon at the first one.
They are just children! Mote cried out as Bailat’s finger curled around her trigger. Bailat snarled, and slammed her fist into the child’s stomach. She was no more than fifteen years old and collapsed as the air fled from her body. Pain cracked through Bailat’s side as the other child unleashed his rifle against her. Bailat screamed and jumped forward, closing the distance in moments. She barely kept her hand from crushing the child’s chest when it threw down the weapon.
“Gessen, please Root no, Gessen!” it shouted, voice cracking as tears coursed down his face. Bailat looked back, taking in the heap of the boy that had been Gessen. She pulled a canister from her belt, throwing it to the child, who she saw was a girl.
“That’s Quickmend. If he’s Adept, that should keep him alive long enough for a healer to help.”
The girl shook her head. “He’s unbound,” she muttered, and began crawling towards the boy.
“And still you Inept think you can rule the world.” Bailat brought her heel down on the girl’s weapon, and without looking back, ran to a window that Gessen’s poorly aimed bullets had shattered. The Thuir’s power pulsed darkly from the opening, obscuring her mortal sight.
Now, Mote, she commanded, pulling out the construct’s core. From somewhere further down she heard shouts. More of Ilke’s young soldiers, eager to shoot at each other. More children are coming. She was about to turn away when the white core that bound her to the Brightsoul turned as black as the coiling manifestation that lapped against the open air. Keep it coming. Bailat smiled, igniting the core’s power, and directing its flow into her weapon and warplate. The weapon drank greedily, and still smiling, Bailat jumped into the darkness below.
Somewhere Close to the Godway
“I am guessing that you are Nunc?” A playful voice rippled across the world’s shadow, revealing Nunc’s surroundings with each heartbeat. First earth, then long, dark trees, and finally a sky peppered with reaching branches came into view.
“You seem much smaller than what he thinks. That is good to know.” Finally the voice coalesced into a shadow that stood out from the twilight world. A thin line of darkness connected the amorphous form to the sky above. Nunc’s gaze followed the line into the sky to where it terminated in a disk of black circled by a ring of silver.
Nunc shook his head, grunting as the metal in his hand throbbed. As he moved his arm, the world around him blurred, and then he was standing in a clearing, surrounded by the strange trees, the punctured moon hanging above him.
“Is this another test?” he asked finally, his voice gruff, sounding unfamiliar to his ears. “Is that you, Jocelyn?”
“No, boy, I am not one of your lord’s servants, however much he might think so.” The shadow coalesced in front of Nunc, its nebulous form starting to convulse like a storm cloud riding the wake of a gale. From the coiling mass a bearded face emerged, eyes glinting in the darkness of the forest. A body, wrapped in grey warplate formed last. The man held out his hands, as if seeing them for the first time “At least your mind has a better idea of what it’s dealing with.”
“Who are you?” Nunc asked, taking a step back.
“I think in this part of the world, I’m more of a what, than a who.” The man tilted his head “I am a Brightsoul. At least, that’s how I heard The Jack describe me.” He looked around, eyes narrowing for a moment. “Funny name, The Jack. Do you know why he chose it?” He leaned closer to Nunc.
“All the market clan leaders forsake their names for the founder’s,” Nunc explained, taking another step back from the looming figure. “What’s your name?”
The figure looked around, as if seeing the surrounding forest and the clearing for the first time. “I think the last time I had a name, it was Abyssal,” he said, hand held to his head. “Your aedr is too young to remember enough, it is as if…” The Brightsoul’s eyes now fixed on Nunc, and he approached, held out his hand to the boy.
“What are you doing?” Nunc felt himself drawn to the whorls and eddies that seemed to dance on the surface of the Brightsoul’s armour, and from the corner of his eye, he could feel his darkened world leaning in towards him.
“You are the first of your line to bear aedr.” Abyssal’s voice sounded faint from somewhere behind his armoured hand. “It is not that your blood knows little, your blood knows nothing.”
Nunc groaned as the dark forest began to fold into a kaleidoscope of dark lines mixed with the silvered shadows that hid the sun. “But it only calls to new gods. Gods who have claimed godway.” Abyssal’s voice was as twisted as the landscape. “Young and impetuous, but ignorant of awakening and bond.”
Nunc didn’t realise he had started screaming, but his voice was lost between the shattered horizon of dark leaves and twisted sky.
“That is good.” The Brightsoul withdrew his hand from Nunc, who fell towards the black soil, hands raking deep furrows in the loose earth.
Abyssal came to him and hunched down. “Thank you for giving so much Nunc, although if I had to guess, it was because of your lack of knowledge, and not because of an inclination towards cooperation.”
“What did you do?” Nunc asked, rolling onto his back. It felt as if the Brightsoul’s erratic presence was still in his mind, warping the sky with an occasional stab of pain that pulled at the encircled sun.
“As far as I understand your lord, this will be an opportunity to bond with the living. I decided to see whether you would…withstand my unveiled presence.” Abyssal sat down next to Nunc, looking at him with eyes that now shone brighter than the beleaguered sun above. “It seems that there is hope for your continued survival.”
Nunc got up, ignoring the Brightsoul’s outstretched hand. His breath was thick in his chest, “Does that mean the other children will be safe?” He touched the metal lines that sat below his wrist. As his fingers grazed the cold intrusion, the blotted sun darkened for a second.
“I do not know. I was but one of the Brightsouls your lord had fashioned into the vessels.” It pointed at Nunc’s arm. “If your friends have aedr enough, chances are that they live. I was the eldest of those gathered.”
But Nunc remembered. During the past months, since The Shard’s raid on their Market’s Edge hideout, and the clan’s subsequent decline into its ancestral seat, almost all the youngers had started speaking of being summoned by their leader, and then appearing with burn marks and wounds on their bodies. Then six youngers had disappeared completely before Nunc had been taken.
Each of their faces flashed in front of Nunc’s eyes. Each one felt like a ripple of pain that spread from him into the surrounding forest. The Brightsoul looked around as the lightless trees around them began to sway, moved by Nunc’s horror.
“I see,” Abyssal said, his gaze focused on the ground, “but I would not dwell on this, little one.” Abyssal rose, his body tensed against the violence inundating the woods.
“They are cursed because of you, and The Jack!” Nunc cried out, scrambling out of the way as one of the black trees fell down next to him, showering him with earth.
Abyssal shook his head, frowning at the boy. “My kind have no choice regarding the vessels we are placed in.”
“They were children!” Nunc shouted, heart thundering. Further away, more trees began falling, the impact beating the earth like a drum.
Abyssal walked over to Nunc, his clothing and hair unaffected by the wind that howled around them. “There is a chance that your friends may still live, but if you destroy this place, you will die.” The Brightsoul held out his hand to the boy. “Let me help you master your anger and find your friends.”
Nunc shook his head, his words threaded with the same hate that was unravelling the shadow world around him. “Why would you help me? Besides, if I die, I will take you with me. This, thing keeps you here.” He turned his wrist towards Abyssal.
The Brightsoul smiled. “I will survive your petty anger, Nunc. I was created to live in inanimate objects. Your body would just be another distraction until it degrades into dust. The seal will survive, and I will sleep.”
The earth underneath Nunc cracked open, spewing fine dust into the air. Abyssal held up his hand, running the particles through his fingers. “I see. Your dilemma is of a more mundane nature.”
Nunc heard himself scream as he started falling into the nothingness underneath his blackened earth, but from the darkness two pinpoints of light, brighter than the fallow light that remained of the sun above, appeared above him, and then iron closed around an arm he didn’t know he was holding out, encasing him in inescapable intent.
“Let me show you what your anger can do.” The words thundered across Nunc’s mind, scouring his dark world away from his vision, leaving him standing unsteadily in the throne room of his lord.
Then he raised his hands.
The fall was further than she expected, and its impact left Bailat stunned. She grunted, letting Mote’s stolen godway power take the brunt of the impact. Move quickly, but with purpose, Arcrin. Let your panic wash away from you like dirt off steelweave, and you will see your enemies bleed. Bailat saw, more than remembered, the familiar lupine form emerging from the darkness, his gentle hands indicating the forms of calm. Her body began moving, and with the godway coursing through her veins, like floodwater ravaging a drought-stricken river, she danced.
At the head of the room she saw the two humans Mote mentioned. Bailat fell to her knees as one called a rifle to his side, the weapon flowing into his empty arms in the time it took her to take a breath. Four power-drenched rounds flew into the space her head occupied a moment before. Her handgun replied, leaving her opponent grasping at his chest before he sank to the ground.
The other one kept his seat, but raised a rotted hand, and something exploded against Bailat. Mote’s stolen power surged around her in an instant, taking most the shock, but the force of the explosion was still powerful enough to fling Bailat towards the far side of the room.
The Arcrin are powerful, but by Veil’s moist innards, we are not godlike. As she flew through the air, she saw the familiar hands, fingers weaving the second form, and Bailat let her body flow with the force of her attacker’s power. When you are overpowered, you have but to let it unbalance itself against you.
As she flew towards the room’s far wall, she took in the three shapes standing over comatose children, who were lying still in pools of their blood. Mote was riding in her eyes, and the sight turned her into something past words, past her need to withhold, and like a coal wrapped in kindling, true power rushed into the night-black core in Bailat’s hand.
Then when you see the opportunity, you strike. Her feet met the far wall, and she grimaced as muscle and steel strained against the need of her bones to break. Momentum kept her in place, long enough for her to take aim with her sidearm, now nearly rotted with power, to sunder two of the manifestations with Mote’s immense hatred. They disappeared in eruptions of dark fire.
She pushed off the wall and soared towards the final manifestation, who held up his hands stepped away from the child. Bailat ordered her weapon to fire, but it crumbled in her hands, the steel falling away in flecks of rust. She threw it aside as she landed next to the Brightsoul, her fist clenched around Mote’s core and the black flame that sprang from it.
Bailat flowed towards the manifestation, hands striking at the darkness that held its form. “Stop this!” the Brightsoul shouted, holding up its hands and stepping away from the child. Bailat ignored his cries, and surged forward, fist ablaze.
“I am your lord’s castellan, fallen one,” she heard the Brightsoul shout as she slammed her fist into its torso. The Brightsoul cried out, its voice ripped apart as flakes of godsteel fell from its form.
“Then tell him the next servant that steps across my path will be the first Brightsoul I kill,” Bailat sneered, kicking apart the fallen manifestation.
“Magnificently done,” the man shouted from the end of the room.
Bailat swung her head towards the sound, taking in The Jack, dressed in a filthy robe, tapping his deformed hand into his other.
“Although, if I honestly think it was somewhat unnecessary to’ve killed poor Hebbus.” The Jack glanced down at his fallen retainer.
Bailat began running towards the man, but as the Thuir manifestation faded into nothingness, Mote’s anger followed, and Bailat found herself leaned over and retching blood as the godway’s acrid power left her.
“You seem winded.” The Jack laughed from across the room.
Bailat spat, wiping her mouth with a trembling hand, and turned towards the figure sitting on the makeshift throne. “Where is the soul, Ilke?” Bailat glanced up to see Mote hovering in through the window. She held out her hand for the construct, who settled into it without saying anything.
The Jack took a step forward, swaying slightly. “In the hands of my chosen.” He cackled, raising his rotten hand held into the air. “Wouldn’t you agree, Nunc?”
Move! Mote’s word seared through Bailat’s mind as The Jack screeched something inane. Her muscles shrieked as she threw herself to the side, and as she fell, she saw one of the children, a lanky boy, holding up his arms, one hand pointed towards the direction of the Water Quad’s lodestone. The other, curled into a claw, was aimed at The Jack.
Then the world contracted around the boy’s cupped hand, and Bailat hit the rough brick floor of The Jack’s throne room. The last thing she saw, before her mind gave itself up to darkness, was a wave of spent godsteel gather up into the boy’s grasping hand, and then a flash of silvered power thundered across the room and envelop The Jack, who laughed, even as he died.