Pain thundered through Bailat’s body, tracing the winding of her veins with needle-tipped fingers, their journey inexorably leading to her heart, where it grabbed on and shook her with the force of a god.
‘Abyssal has been taken by the Thuir.’
She woke up, shuddering. Bailat could feel Mote’s absence like a real thing, as if a needle had been removed from her skin. She opened her eyes, grimacing when she saw the boy who had woken her standing to the side, his ash-stained face creased with fear. He held up his hands, and Bailat saw a wheeling light playing on the metal seal stamped into his right arm.
“Who are you?” She groaned, as the weight of her unpowered warplate dragged her back to the floor. The boy looked to her side, and back to her, mouth moving, but making no sound.
“I’m not going to hurt you boy,” Bailat slowly lifted a leaden hand to her neck, numb fingers fumbling against a metal catch. Her efforts were rewarded with a faint click, and she exhaled as the metal drew back with a chattering sound, and fell off her sweat-drenched skin, exposing her to the Water Quad’s cold air.
“I’m Bailat.” She said, placing her hand against her chest. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Nunc,” the boy said, “your construct asked me to help you before it…” He motioned to Bailat’s side. As he spoke he cradled his arm, a single finger tapping against the intricate steel embedded there. Every now and then his body shook faintly, as if he was heralding the approach of something gargantuan.
Thannec Xio, what a fucking mess. Bailat shivered as she took in the ruined hall. Dancing on Mote’s borrowed power always left her feeling hollow, but still some of the Brightsoul’s touch lingered in her, enough for her to see a faint streak of light, bright enough to leave an afterimage scratched into her vision, dance across the room.
The ash still floating from the half-smouldering beams above them fell around the light, like leaves caught in a crosswise breeze. Her eyes followed one as it fell to the ground, coating the damp cobbles beneath in a oily film that stank of burned metal and unveiled power. Bailat sniffed. Humans too.
“Nunc, you say?” Bailat glanced to where the boy was pointing, ignoring the chill that lanced into her as her gaze fell on the broken metal housing. “Help me up.” She held out her hand to Nunc. “Slowly please.” Bailat said, eyes fixed on the puffs of acrid smoke that drifted from Mote.
The boy stepped closer, and with his help she managed to sit up, her back against Ilke’s throne. Nunc sidled closer, hunching down next to Bailat as she held up the ruined carapace, reaching into its smouldering innards. A satisfied grunt escaped her lips as she pulled out a small steel globe, covered in a fine web of carvings. A faint light pulsed through the lines. Not unlike a heartbeat, Bailat smiled. “More fight in her than she knows. She’ll be fine.”
“How do you know?”
“The ambit is still intact.” Bailat held out the orb to Nunc.
He ran a finger over the smooth metal surface, tilting his head to the side. “It’s warm.”
She caught a faint glint coming from the boy’s arm as he touched the core. “It is. Not unlike your seal I’d guess. Does it hurt?
Nunc got up, hand held over the metal. “Not in a way that I can describe. I’ve never seen this in the ironcraft manuals.”
“How did you get it?” Bailat asked softly, her hands caressing Mote’s ambit.
“By serving a market lord who decided that service to him wasn’t curse enough,” Nunc said, holding his arm up, “so he marked us, and others, with this.”
“How did he –”
“He murdered the innocent.” Nunc glanced back to the edge of the room. “As many as he could find.” Something in the boy gave, and he sank to the floor, curling around himself. The ash fell on him like flecks of pure night. Bailat let the boy have his grief, and sat back against Ilke’s throne. She wondered if some of the ash that lay around the seat had been part of Ilke, her mind picturing the sallow face, eyes alight with joy as he walked with her from Heolith’s Lytrian academy. She sighed. The sun was shining so brightly on that day, too brightly. It must have thrown his shadow deep into his soul, where not even she could have seen it. Or had wanted to. Bailat shook her head and grimaced as the double-edged pain of mind and body suffused her.
“Why haven’t you left yet?” Nunc was standing in front of her. Bailat realised dully she’d not never heard him get up. She looked into his eyes, taking in the darkness there, and the long streaks of tear-washed ash running from his face. He didn’t wipe it away.
Bailat found that she couldn’t answer, not yet. The sudden weight of the past day settled on her chest, pulling her breath in down into her being, until her heart floundered aboutround like a wounded animal. “I don’t know.” She finally said, her voice soft against the reality of her actions.
Nunc sighed, “Mote made me promise to get you out of here, so I guess we need to start moving. Jocelyn will take up the mantle now, and if she’s not getting the rest of the clan armed, she’s definitely making plans to destroy this place.” He glanced towards the far wall. “We might have survived this, but if we stay here much longer, we’re just as dead as they are.”
Bailat followed his gaze. Nunc’s casual dismissal gave her enough anger to bring her breathing under control. “The child soldiers aren’t what concern me, much less the rusted group of half-awakened soldiers your clan can muster.”
Talking about the soldiers, she remembered staring back at Nunc, his hand extended, blackened fire pouring from him. She frowned “How much metal did you use to conjure up that fire?”
“None. This did it.” Nunc held up his hand. “A Brightsoul called…Ingot.” He said, his hand falling back to his side. “When those things attacked, it spoke to me, and suddenly I could…feel the godway, and pull it into the room.”
“Did Ingot mention any other Brightsouls?”
Nunc shook his head. “No, but Mote said you were on the lookout for a specific one. Said I should tell you that Abyssal is no more.”
“Are you sure she said that?” Bailat asked, her breath burning her chest.
“What were her exact words?”
“Tell her that Abyssal is no more, and to make sure you get out of the Quad.”
Bailat grunted. When Nunc didn’t reply she pulled herself up from Ilke’s throne and walked to the end of the room where she had fought the Thuir servants. She motioned for Nunc to follow her. Five dark oily smears were the only proof of something other than wood or steel had lain here. Bailat ran her fingers over the streaks. “That way,” she murmured to herself, looking at a specific part of the wall.
“What are you doing?” Nunc asked, but Bailat ignored the boy, instead kicking around the ash that lay against the wall.
“Ilke, or The Jack as you knew him, could cast your seals with godsteel. If he had found enough…ah, there they are.” Bailat pulled out three metal shapes from the ash, holding each one up to the failing light.
“Those were my friends,” Nunc whispered and took a step back from Bailat.
Bailat shook her head. “These are seals. And they are as close to pure godsteel as you can get this side of the Divide.” She glanced to Nunc, and back to the metal. If she looked closely, she could see the flecks of light spilling from their corners, reflecting illumination that no mortal eyes could see. “If Ilke had found a way keep them stable this close to the godway…no wonder they were moving in on him.” Her voice was a whisper, but Nunc heard her all the same.
“You knew him.” The words were heavy with Nunc’s hatred, and Bailat had to keep herself from flinching as the boy walked closer to her, hand outstretched. “The youngers (youngsters?) were under my care, by order of our Market Lord. Their remains should be buried.” His eyes were red, irritated by ash or loss, Bailat couldn’t say.
“I need these more than you could know.” Bailat pulled herself up, squaring her feet just in case Nunc planned to charge, but before he could answer, the faint crack of brightness she had seen earlier was back, slowly cracking open and flooding their world with light and a susurration of sound not meant for mortal ears.
It’s the lodestone,” she said, spit flying from her lips. “We’re severed…drifting.” She held her hand against her eyes, as if she could cradle her eviscerated mind. After what felt like days, her pain became blunted enough to allow her to speak.
“We need godsteel…a core, or we’re going to die” Bailat said, her words flattened into sharp hisses.
“In the armoury”, Nunc gasped, pointing down the passage that lay beyond the door.
Bailat hissed a string of profanities as she helped Nunc get to his feet, and together they stumbled down the passageway, their scraping steps heralded by the chorus of cries that rose from the Water Quad.
Faint traces of dust drifted down from the armoury’s vaulted roof as another tremor shook through the building, and probably the rest of the Quad. Kaltus sucked his teeth as he eyed the dust filtering down, grimacing when some of the specks accelerated somewhere beyond their currently reality, leaving spots of white dangling in their absence that felt like someone had taken a needle to his eye.
“All good, but still as strange as Root’s love.” He called back, wincing as another streak of white flared across his vision. Cursing, he turned to see four figures limping into the room.
“Don’t think we look that bad sarge.” One of the figures groaned, heaving her burden into Kaltus’ arms, who almost smiled as he took in the woman wrapped in ill-fitting armour, still stained with the lifeblood of its previous owner. Kaltus grunted, “Root take me, are you actually defending Empire issue steel, Bask?”
“There is a first time for everything. Just ask Trinket.” Bask wheezed, falling to the floor and running a hand through her thick curls. Her hand came away with a dark sheen of blood, and she wiped it against her armour with a trembling hand. Her compatriot fell down next to her, hands tapping against the blue-tinged metal strips that made up his cuirass. “It’s easy to forgive when it’s not your blood on the floor.” Trinket’s smile faded from his lips. He pointed to the final two that made up their shore crew, “Think they’ll see this through sarge?”
Kaltus looked back at the soldiersiders, snarling as the light pulled against his vision. “You two struggling with the light?”
“Only in the physical sense.” Bask smiled and pointed her finger towards the ceiling, “I think Gate knows where we stand.”
“Last I heard the Thuir still held those aspects?” Trinket made a show of blinking rapidly as he turned to Bask.
The woman’s smile widened. “Exactly.”
“I’m taking that as a yes from you both.” Kaltus walked over to the two Adept, trying desperately to remember anything that didn’t sound useless. “Amorgan said we were adrift.” He said after a while, “Don’t know what else to do but feed them a core.”
As he spoke, he pulled a bloodstained metal orb from his bag. Its previous owner had tried to run away with it, instead of facing his group as they had broken out t of the Clan’s prison. Kaltus shook his head, forcing the man’s screams from his mind and placed his fingers on the core’s markings just like as Amorgan had shown him. The dull metal throbbed to life in waves, it’s power pulsing through the casing and bathing the room in a grey light that seemed to dull the sharpness that cracked against his vision. Kaltus gently placed the ignited core closer to the two Adept.
As he stepped back, he saw Zahl began frowning and muttering, screwing his eyes closed, and frowning so deeply that he seemed to age instantly. Amorgan’s waking was less gentle. Her dark brown eyes flew open, the shock of black hair tumbling forward as she flew off the ground, nearly colliding with Kaltus.
“Gate, what was all the waiting for?” She stuttered, gulping huge breaths of air. She stepped away from Kaltus, holding her hand in front of her eyes.
“Many guards who still held loyalty to their clan,” Kaltus nodded towards Trinket and Bask, “we had to find somewhere safe.”
Amorgan lowered her hand, and let out a long breath. “Fine.” She said as she crouched down next to Zahl, her fingers pressing against his scarred temples, as if she was searching for something written in the secret language of the man’s past violence.
The man groaned a few half words as sweat began to run down his face. Amorgan cursed and stood up, hands limp by her sides “He’s half way into the godway already. When the core runs out, he’ll have a few hours before he enters it completely. Then I’ll follow, with you lot dying of exposure.” She nodded towards Kaltus and the two other soldiers.
“Discrimination against the Inept is illegal now.” Trinket growled, still half-out of breath.
“Calling us Inept is also illegal now dear Trinket.” Bask muttered, hands behind her head as she stared at the ceiling.
“You think they’ll nab an Inept for calling an Inept, Inept?”
“If the discrimination has become institutionalised, I don’t see why not.” Bask looked off to the side, “Even if the irony of the act is in itself deafening.”
“Go see if you can’t find anything of worth.”Kaltus barked at the two, who still smiling, got up and began listlessly searching the various shelves and cupboards in the room, still arguing about the Inept. “Never coming to this rusted ever ever? market again.” he looked up at the spore-infested ceiling of the clan’s armoury. “What are our choices?”
Amorgan closed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “We get some soulmend for me and Zahl, make our way to the Quad gate, somehow get that going and pointed to the Real, or,” sShe paused for a second, “Or we’ll have to barter passage.”
“I get the feeling she wants it to be the latter, sarge.” Trinket said as he was rifling around in another bloodstained bag, the property of another of their past captors. “Don’t have soulmend, but there is a dose of quick.” He got up slowly and walked up to Kaltus and Amorgan, arming the medicine canister. The needle sprang out from one end with a sharp tick.“Should still help, yes?” Trinket was turned to Kaltus, but as he spoke he jammed the needle into Amorgan’s arm and pressed down on the release.
“Gate’s tits, Trinket!” Amorgan shouted, “What is wrong with you?” She snarled, but before she could run at the soldier, she grimaced and shut both her eyes tightly.
“Guess we’ll have to start bargaining after all.” Trinket’s eyes were downcast as he walked back to Bask who had found another cozy spot to lie down., “I wonder what this will cost us.”, h He asked and sank down where Bask patted the ground.
“No use sharpening a rusty blade,” Kaltus told the soldiers as he helped Amorgan stay upright as she was muttereding various curses aimed at either Trinket and his extended family tree. “We have a full weight of godsteel on the Wilful Maunder, payment enough for those power- starved idiots.”
“Not like they’ll take us onat our word, and I know you’re not going to point a hungry Brightsoul in the direction of the boat and our navigator.” Bask sighed,. “Get inside the Dark. Maybe Gate’s little bastards are feeling magnanimous.”
Kaltus sighed as he took in the two Inept soldiers. Bask’s dark skin bore lines of still-bloody wounds, as if some nightmare spider had spun a web of blood over her face and arms. Trinket’s light hair was matted against his temple where the clan guard had hit him with a truncheon, but despite the wound, the soldier’s eyes glittered as he stared into the distance.
“You lot sure you’re ready for this?” Kaltus’ words were soft, but as both soldiers jerked abruptly at the words, he had a brief flash of panic that he had made a mistake.
“Mercy Candok should have killed us sarge, but it didn’t. No use trying to feel these things out, not anymore.” Bask smiled as she spoke, her eyes fixing on Kaltus with a piercing intensity.
We’re on the very edge. Kaltus thought, I hope to Gate that someone catches us when we finally take the plunge.
Kaltus’ thoughts were interrupted by Amorgan shouting a warning. He swung around and saw two figures stumbling through the armoury doors. Trinket cursed, as Bask surged forward, a jagged knife ready in his hands. “Stop,” Kaltus cried out just as Bask closed in on one of the intruders, a bald woman, her exhaustion etched on her sharp cheekbones and stained in her sweat-drenched clothing. The other one, a boy just past the cusp of manhood held out his hands, showing blackened fingertips. Hhe coughed up a mouthful of blood.
“I thought you said the building was empty.” The woman growled, her eyes darting between the group. She took a step back and grimaced, her movements reminding Kaltus of a feral cat he had once saved from a pack of hounds.
“They…” The boy said, wiping the blood from his mouth, “You were the prisoners. How did you get out?”
“By killing all the scared little guards.” Trinket had gotten up and was walking up to the pair, stopping to pick up Kaltus’ blade. “What do they call you?”
“I’m Nunc, and this is Bailat –”
“Don’t tell them my name you –” The woman hissed, interrupting the boy, taking another step towards the armoury door, but the strain from the godway sepaeration proved too much;, she fell to the ground, a half-spoken curse still on her lips.
“We were both attacked by Thuir before…, before the explosion.” Nunc finished, casting a worried glance towards Bailat. “Please, I can show you where they hide the weapons and the cores. Not even the guards would know where they are.”
“Trinket, Bask.” Kaltus pointed at the groaning woman. Both soldiers rolled their eyes and padded over to her, like hungry wolves. She groaned as they dragged her closer.
“And why do you know where the better kit is buried?” Kaltus asked Nunc.
“Kaltus.” Amorgan’s words were ice, “What is on the boy’s arm?” The Adept fixed her dark eyes on the small one’s arm.
“This is the last blessing of my clan lord.” Nunc walked over to Amorgan, turning his arm and showing steel that sat amidst crimson slashes of infected skin. Amogran leaned in, running a finger over the carved steel, “This holds something old, old enough to remember kings instead of Arx.”
“Kaltus, looks like we’re in for a bit of a problem.” Trinket called as he and Basked dragged the woman to Amorgan.
“She has held on tightly to the Dark.” Amorgan said as Trinket touched the flat of his blade to the silvered veins that ran glistened faintly underneath her clammy skin.
“And she had this.” Trinket said as she pulled an orb with faintly glowing lines, and three seals from a makeshift bag strapped to Bailat’s back. The soldier gave a low whistle, “I don’t know what she’s about, but this is deep meddling.”
Kaltus saw Nunc’s bloodstained mouth open, but before the boy could say anything the ground shuddered, and an explosion of white streaks fractured his vision, their nauseating intensity throwing him onto the floor, and leaving him gulping for air like a caught fish.
“I’m not waiting any longer.” He heard Amorgan shouting, and then a flare of power.
Everyone stood mesmerised by the sudden flare, of power, and before Kaltus could move move, he felt, more than saw, Amorgan raising her hands towards the sky, the core’s light flowing over her in an ininstant, blanking out all her features and fillinginundating the room with a power. a power ?
Amorgan opened her eyes, and inhaled sharply. Instead of lying on the floor of the crumbling building where she and her compatriotstriots had been trapped, she found herselfwas standing on top of a bluff overlooking a vast stretch of earth that bordered a seething mass of darkness. She looked up, noticing how the stars winked in and out of existence in the ever-dark sky of the godway, disappearing and appearing somewhere new.
As she watched, the darkness welled up like a titanic wave, its black waters vibrating against her vision, as it curled up and slammed against the shoreline, sending waves of force dancing over her skin. The stench of molten metal and stone overtook her, and she fell coughing to the ground. She almost lost the grip on her presence, but managed to spit out the words that were already pushing against her tongue. The compulsion tasted like metal, but it was easier to swallow than this place.
“Ghen, holder of the lower passes, I call you.”
And so I come.
Amorgan looked up through tear-stained eyes as the words washed over her, and saw a figure walking towards her. It was shaped like a human, body wrapped in a thick black cloak that bore Gate’s slivered glyphs, and its skin shone like burnished copper. As the Brightsoul neared, Amorgan saw shades of verdigris dancing across its face, and realised that it was reflecting the immense span of void stretching out behind them.
The Brightsoul bent down to her, its hand extended. “So close to the edge, and still able to step onto our soil, even though it would stretch the definition of territory when held up to scrutiny. Regardless, your teacher will be proud to hear of your skill, Amorgan dia’Nonta.”
“Is the old idiot still knocking about?” Amorgan snarled and grabbed the Brightsoul’s hand, and nearly retching at its touch;, simultaneously hot and cold, dead and alive, sliding into her skin like a thousand oil-slick barbs. Yet despite the aversion, she clung to the Brightsoul’s hand. The constant flow of its presence had a calming effect on the air around her.
“She is.” It nodded, smiling, “In fact, she has done some wonderful things for Gate’s domain in Callad.” The Brightsoul smiled, his face reminding Amorgan of the iron-cast (not cast-iron?) faces the Fallians used to scare away evil spirits – both terrifying and slightly comical.
“Wonderful,” She smiled back, making a show of looking around. “Aand now that we’ve been very nice to each other, can we get to the part where you help me?.”
Ghen put its free hand against their chests and (they?) bowed their heads. “Yes of course. We have all heard of the Allmarket’s sundering. Have you decided then, to pledge once again to our Lady?”
Amorgan stared off towards the thundering maelstrom in the distance, “I …yes. It’s not looking good.” Amorgan hated that her voice trembled as she spoke, but she continued, “I will make a Pact.”
The Brightsoul shook its head. “I’m afraid your previous agreement did not mean much. Your actions at Mercy Candok will require more, commitment.”
Amorgan snarled and pulled her hand from the Brightsoul’s grasp. The air immediately pressed in on her like a vice, but she shook her head as the Brightsoul stepped forward. In the distance the titanic struggle of nothingness against existence thundered in step with her heartbeat, and as it clamoured around her, Amorgan extended her hand, palm up, calling on her meagre skill.
Three godsteel seals appeared in her hand. This close to the shore, they were no longer dull, but shone with a bright silver fire, trapped just beneath their surfaces. She could feel the sudden power of the Brightsouls in the seals, as if they were reflecting sunlight into her soul, but it was as if they were reflecting the same light, she thought before Ghen interrupted her thoughts.
“And what are these?” The Brightsoul asked, a brief glimmer of jealousy dancing in its copper eyes as it glanced at Amorgan’s outstretched hand.
“Commitment.” Amorgan winced as the minds inside the seals seethed at being relegated to property, all vaguely shouting with the same voice. “Brightsouls, older than even the Thiur, I would guess. Fine collections to help your Lady establish dominance.”
“Or bring instability to our hold on the Littoral.” Ghen said, taking a step back from Amorgan. Torturous moments passed, and it nodded, but before Ghen could speak, its eyes darted to Amorgan’s side. She turned, or wanted to turn, but the figure that moved in front of her left her devoid of all will.
If she were truly here, Amorgan thought, she was sure she would surely have retched.
He was dressed in plain linen clothing, which only served to add a level of fluidity to his seven foot stature. Dark lines whorled across his skin, shining through his clothing, pulsing to the sound of the void slamming against the shore behind her. “Now, now, little speck. I think our guest deserves a more, balanced, offer.” The figure’s voice was soft, but left Amorgan breathless, as if it was a gale, and she the last flame in the world. It continued, “Best you leave us, Ghen. If she wants, she will call, I am sure.”
Ghen took a step back, “You may not command me so, Lord.” Its said, voice quivering like a cracked bell.
“We are on the Littoral, dearest speck.” The figure shrugged, running a hand over his dark brown hair. “It’s not my fault you could not take her deeper into your Lady’s territory. But then again, this may be a learning experience for your master, not to give lesser spirits charge over the less powerful.” He glanced back at Amorgan, his irises black against the whites of his eyes, “After all, the hungriest children eat the most, little speck. Now go.” He waved a hand, and Ghen evaporated, his futile retort still stuck on his metallic tongue.
The man turned, fixing his sable eyes on Amorgan.
“You, you are –”
“Yes. I am in fact, that.” The man held up his hand before Amorgan could finish. “Now I know you belonged to my compatriot, one of the first to jump on board, as it were.” He tilted his head, eyes still fixed on her., “”What was it, I wonder that got you in on the game? A seat at the table, no matter how new?”
The words crashed into Amorgan, and she found that she could only shrug.
The man laughed, “Very well then. I’ll stop trying to understand, and get to the point. These are seeds.” He said, pointing to the seals still held in Amorgan’s outstretched hand. ”Grown well, we could be given an opportunity that few this side of the Divide wouldon’t even think of.”
He stepped closer to Amorgan, towering over her, his words beating into her mind like a smithy hammer forging steel, “I will give you the means to get to the Reliquary, and then back into the Real. Bring me two of your seals, and I will teach you how to use the third to regain everything you lost at Mercy Candok, and more. No more bandying words with the lower reaches of Gate’s domain like some newly awakened Adept.”
Amorgan breathed out, her anger so cold it allowed her some measure of control tohat she desperately grabbed on tohold on to. “Let the third one be our payment. Leave everyone that steps foot on the Wilful alone.”
“Ah, to be again as metal fresh from the forge. Admirable.” The man smiled. “Very well.” He said, and before Amorgan could move, his hands snaked forward, his fingers pressing against her temples. “Wha–” she only had time to utter the single sound before the awful power of godway began pouring into her, the pain pushing her mind into the very corners of her being.
When Amorgan faded from the godway’s shores, the man turned around and sighed loudly enough to be heard over the thunderous beat of the void.
“Didn’t think you would ever come back out again.”
Root rolled his midnight eyes as Gate stepped into view. “Seems like Ghen does know how to get in touch with you.” He said, bowing low to his companion.
“I’m surprised you forgave that debt. She had a considerable hand in Mercy Candok.”
“Her concerns beats against her like the heart of a forge, and now she thinks she’s getting a way out.” Root shrugged, “she will bee, … singular,, in her focus.” He turned to his companion, “And if she steps away from the agreement, you will have her regardless.”
“And if Bailat interferes?”
Root barked a laugh, the sound rippling through the air. “Is she also making a play for this?”
“She is looking for a Brightsoul warrior that could kill us, and now three are right within her grasp.” Gate said;, her words warping the godway around them with her anger.
Root nodded. “I understand now why you called on the Simulacrin. I admit that I had thought it a touch too heavy.”
Now it was Gate’s turn to smile. ”You can be the needle, I’ll be the hammer.”