The angry sea brought a storm against the city of Ceryl, filling the air with the smell of salt and seaweed. Thunder pulsed, a great beast’s unhappy growl. Rains lashed with stupid hatred against the city. Anyone still caught outside huddled and darted from one dripping awning to the next, looking for all the world like scurrying rats trying to avoid the notice of a hungry cat.
Fewer people than Lysander Parval had expected. Rumors of refugee columns swamping the cities had started to spread, bringing with them reports of bandit attacks, bands of raiding farrow, and worse things besides, seeking to take advantage of the vulnerable. Just a few more miseries to stack on the pile.
Lysander realized his traveling companion was looking at him expectantly. “Sorry, did you say something?”
Danius grinned. The big Thurian had an easy manner, his cheer and enthusiasm the polar opposite of Lysander himself. “I asked if you’ve ever met her before.”
“Mistress Stokes? No,” Lysander said. In truth, he’d never even heard of the agent of the Order of Illumination prior to receiving a summons to Ceryl to assist her.
“Me, either. She used to be an inquisitor, you know. It’s why she’s missing the hand. They say she cut hers off so the old tattoo wouldn’t give her away.” Danius made a chopping gesture against his own wrist.
“‘They’ who?” Lysander asked.
Danius waved as if to encompass all of creation. “You know. Them. The people who know things.”
Lysander considered the statement as they walked. The people who know things. He was certain he wasn’t counted among them.
A short time later the pair arrived at the safe house, soaked to bone. A scrawny Midlunder with a pinched face led them down a flight of stairs into a stone basement, lit by the glow of an iron furnace and weak lantern light.
A group of others stood in a semicircle around a bruised, bloody figure shackled to the floor. A woman in her fifties stood in front of the prisoner, wiping blood from her clockwork fist. The execrator pistol at her hip marked her as an Illuminated One, the gun a weapon in the Church of Morrow’s arsenal against the darkness.
“The last two, mum,” the Midlunder said, taking his place among the group. The others gave Lysander and Danius a silent nod.
The woman—Stokes, Lysander assumed—indicated for the newcomers to join her. “Thank you, Brennan. Vigilants. Just in time. Mister Bannstock was just about to tell us where his friends call home.”
The prisoner Bannstock dribbled spit from his split lip. “You’re mad, witch. I’d sooner die.”
Stokes grabbed the man by his scraggly hair with her clicking metal fist, wrenching his head back so their eyes met. “That can be arranged, cur. I know your leader was of the Progenesists cabal while in the Fraternal Order. I’ve read his thesis on the making of gates. I’ve seen the inventory of occult objects he stole when he left the Order. I know you think him a fearful man, but right now it’s not him you need to be afraid of.”
Bannstock swallowed, looking at the collection of grim faces surrounding him. Lysander tried to fix his own face into a cold mask of implied threat.
“Trevett Printwerks,” Bannstock said, his body crumpling as the fight left him. “Near the southern end of the waterfront.”
Stokes patted him on the head like a schoolteacher praising a clever student. “Not so hard, Bannstock, was it?”
“You must protect me.” The prisoner began to babble, seeming to realize what he’d done. “Father Jonas has laid claim to my soul. Unless you take me from here, he’ll come for me. Or he’ll send one of those things—”
Stokes shushed him. “No. They won’t.”
The sound of her blade sinking into the man’s chest startled Lysander. He hadn’t even seen her draw it.
“What is it about cults and the bloody docks?” Danius muttered. The Thurian wore a sailor’s coat over his breastplate and shifted the bulky haversack containing his crossbow, leaning against a pitch-soaked piling.
Lysander crouched behind a stack of fish-stinking barrels on one of the port’s long piers. He had a clear view of a long warehouse, the most likely place for the cult to have hidden. A pair of men meandered from shadow to shadow outside the building’s walls, doing their best to look like a pair of common stevedores and not like lookouts on patrol.
“Plenty of strange goings on near the waterfront,” Lysander said as the cult’s lookouts turned a corner and passed out of his view. “Lots of newcomers, foreigners, smugglers. It makes it easy to hide in plain sight.”
Danius spat into the black water of the bay. “Lots of bodies near the waterfront, too. Let’s see if anyone notices theirs, shall we?”
“Wait. Stokes and Brennan are waiting in an alley on the east side. Let’s see what she does first.”
Danius shuddered. “Stokes. Makes my skin crawl.”
“You, too?” Lysander asked. “I’ve killed before but only in battle. The way she killed him was like…”
“Like someone putting down a dog,” Danius said. “You haven’t fought with the Illuminated Ones as much as the rest of us. Sometimes they get like that. They spend their lives trying to hold back darkness. You can only grasp at shadows for so long, I suppose. I think having an enemy they can feel, they can hurt, is rare.”
Lysander considered his companion’s wisdom, but it didn’t settle him. He wanted to fight for something, not against. Rather than grapple for an answer, he gestured toward the warehouse.
“Let’s go,” he said. “They’ve rounded the corner.”
They dumped the bodies among a pile of refuse in an alley, taking care to search them for any blasphemous tokens or useful items. They discarded their rudimentary disguises and entered the printwerks in pairs, moving swiftly and silently at Stokes’ directions.
The building had been abandoned by its original owner, or perhaps the infernalists had dispatched him. The front office contained large typesetting machines and reams of blank parchment. Darius drew Lysander’s attention to the most recent issue of the Trevett Daily Bulletin atop a dusty stack.
Attack on Boarsgate Claims Hundreds
Survivors Report Strange Sightings
Church Leaders Urge Calm in Face of Calamity
Lysander could barely remember the event. The past seemed like one unending series of disaster following disaster, barely broken by moments of peace. An attack on Boarsgate would have been alarming news, once, but now it was simply another foggy memory of suffering. If the last issue’s urgent lede had faded from memory, how long must the cultists have been working here in secret?
Stokes urged them forward with a silent gesture. Ahead, Brennan opened the door to a privy and loosed a silent crossbow bolt into an unseen occupant. Two other vigilants stood ready at a pair of double doors leading toward the back of the printwerks, crossbows held ready. Lysander and the others took positions on either side of the hall, aiming their crossbows in overlapping fields of fire.
“Open it,” Stokes whispered.
The space beyond was a yawning warehouse, scarcely lit by high windows above looking out on the stormy sky. The air was thick with the smell of old paper and old ink. Shelves reached almost to the ceiling, creating alleys and roads within the space, each holding a roll of cream-colored paper waiting for news that would never be printed.
The Morrowans split off and moved down the different channels between the shelves. Lysander and Danius took the nearest left path, checking the shadows as they moved in a silent glide. Occasional obstacles—pushcarts, fallen rolls of paper, stacks of old broadsheets—provided them the cover they moved between. Like scurrying rats trying to avoid the notice of a hungry cat.
At a junction where a stack of shelves ran perpendicular to their own, Lysander spotted a silhouette moving past. He froze behind a tower of yellowed broadsheets, prompting Danius to do the same. When the figure passed, both men rose from cover and converged on it from behind.
Lysander threw an arm around the man’s neck to choke off his cries, and Danius rammed a dagger into his chest with three quick blows. The man wore a metal mask, a scowling visage that concealed his own face. Still, as Lysander pulled the body between the shelves, he could see surprise turned to futile anger in the man’s fading eyes.
When the vigilants reached the end of the stacks, several had similar encounters, judging by the blood spattering their coats and faces. But there had been no cries of alarm. Danius grinned at Lysander and mouthed, So far, so good.
The printwerks’ inhabitants had transformed it to better suit their needs. In a recessed area, likely where carriages would gather the Daily Bulletin to distribute through the city, the space had been swept clean and rebuilt for a much darker purpose.
Talismans of bone stood at seven points around the sanctum, providing dim illumination from irregular crystals atop them that pulsed with a foul red light. An elaborate wheel of lines and runes had been marked out on the floor, within which two-dozen masked cultists knelt prostrate. The masks covering their faces distorted their chanting voices, adding a hollow and unpleasant drone to their repeated prayers.
At the center of this group, the leader of the cult stood. Father Jonas, Bannstock had called him. In one gloved hand he held a heavy tome, reading a diabolical screed from its pages. With the other he gripped the hilt of a Caspian battle blade.
The man stood facing the rear gate of the printwerks. The posts and beam were inscribed with foul symbols that smoldered with an inner glow, like coals burning into the wood. As Jonas’ voice rose in volume and speed, tendrils of black smoke spewed forth from them. A deep cracking sound issued from the building’s bones—the sound of a ship being twisted apart in a storm.
“Hear me, Ongullu!” Father Jonas cried, “Howler of the Midnight Road, Whisperer of Silent Truths, your servant has prepared the way!”
The air around the rune-carved gate began to pulse like a heartbeat. With each thud, Lysander saw the phantom of a structure not built by human hands overlaid in the air, becoming more solid at each throb. Ghostly outlines of indescribable creatures awaited on the other side, pawing at the ground in anticipation. Rising above and behind this mass of things, a looming figure stood, its flesh shaping and reshaping before Lysander’s eyes. His eyes widened and his stomach churned.
In a moment, he understood his place in creation. Lysander stood in the presence of the infinite. He was not just unworthy of notice, but he was beneath notice at all. Insignificant. Not just beneath the notice of this being come to reap souls, but beneath the notice of any god. Menoth, Morrow, Thamar… if the universe held such beings as these, what possible place could he have in it? What mark could he ever scribe?
“Twins preserve me,” said Darius.
Stokes aimed her consecrated pistol at the cult leader and fired. The report sliced through the chanting voices.
But Jonas did not fall. Lysander was uncertain he could trust his eyes, but the man’s shadow seemed to flow up and away from the ground, solidifying into an unnaturally lean figure in the space of an instant. The Illuminated One’s bullet caromed off this figure’s round, black shield.
If she was surprised, Stokes recovered at lightning speed. “For Morrow, strike them down!” she cried, leaping down among the chanting group with smoking pistol and sword in hand.
The space erupted into chaos. The vigilants’ crossbows rattled as a rain of bolts hammered into the cultists. Despite that, the robed figures rose with ceremonial daggers ready. Father Jonas continued his chanting, voice shifting into a blasphemous shriek.
The infernalists counterattacked hard and fast. They moved on the vigilants like a swarm of black beetles. Lysander had to backpedal as a pair rushed at him, slashing with their wicked blades. He smashed to his left with the butt of his crossbow, kicking the knee out of the attacker on his right.
Below Lysander, a shrieking woman hurled herself on Brennan’s back, slashing his face. Danius picked up another figure and hurled it away, but two more ganged up on him with their daggers. Stokes kept a circle of space around her clear with swift slashes of her sword, but she couldn’t face everywhere at once.
The vigilants fought with better skill than the throng, but the numbers did not favor them. Where they drove the cultists back, the umbral figure emerged to strike at them with its spear, leaving them open to a howling counterattack by the mob. One by one the others fell beneath a shroud of black robes, Father Jonas’ black prayer rising as each was overwhelmed.
Lysander pressed through the mob to where Stokes kept her feet, her living arm hanging limp at her side.
“We must flee,” Lysander cried. “Morrow has forgotten us.”
Stokes cleaved through a charging cultist’s mask. “We yet live,” she said. “While we remember him, we hope he does the same.”
The Illuminated One spoke with the iron conviction Lysander lacked. Together, they fought closer to where Jonas and his shadowy protector waited. From within her jacket, Stokes pulled a length of fine chain. The end was a metal sphere perforated with holy sigils. She whipped it over her head, filling the air with consecrated smoke, slashing to keep the cultists at bay.
Lysander surged forward, loosing a bolt from his crossbow at the umbral figure to distract it. As it intercepted his strike, he drew his blade and struck at the cult leader. His aim was true.
As his blade fell, the umbral’s spear stopped him short. It rammed through his armor and into his gut, driving the strength out of his legs and air from his lungs. Lysander’s sword tumbled from his fingers and he collapsed. His legs felt distant and cold.
Lysander pulled himself forward, grasping for the hem of the cult leader’s robe. The umbral rammed its spear through his right shoulder and hissed with laughter.
“Little child,” Jonas said, a crooked smile on his face, “I serve greater gods than yours. You can’t believe you could kill me.”
Lysander looked up at the man. Behind him, the beasts of another realm were almost fully solid. Their towering leader stroked them with hands that ended in a thousand, thousand mouths, gazing on his injured body with a constellation of hungry eyes.
“I can hope.”
The windows overhead detonated in, showering the space with sparkling glass. Beams of radiance pierced through the boiling clouds and scattered on the sharp edges of each fragment, casting dancing colors across the gloomy chamber.
With a sound like jubilant voices joined together, a winged figure descended into view. It glowed with a pure light that banished the shadows, trailing streamers of ghostly white from the tips of its wings. Father Jonas’ shadow protector shrieked like a kettle as its flesh burned away.
In one hand the figure held a spear as bright as the midday sun. Though looking on it pained Lysander’s eyes, he stared into the figure’s face. It was a kind face, like that of a priest Lysander once knew. It smiled a small, sad smile at Lysander and inclined its head.
With a weak hand he reclaimed his sword and pulled on Jonas’ robe, yanking the old man down onto his blade’s waiting tip.
Lysander’s body began to feel light and airy. He began to rise up from himself, leaving behind the broken vessel. In the chamber he saw the other vigilants, Danius and Brennan, doing the same, figures of golden radiance unmarred by blood or injury. In pairs, they watched the servant of Morrow bring ruin to the last of the cultists with its holy spear, watched it tear down the gate Jonas had tried to build.
In time, only Stokes remained. She looked upon the glowing figure, tears welling in her eyes. The two faced each other in silence for a moment, until the Illuminated One let out a sad cry, gesturing at the fallen vigilants.
“What about me?” she asked. “Haven’t I done enough yet? I’m so tired of—”
The radiant one pressed a finger to its lips, silently shushing her before offering her a comforting hand. Stokes sagged, suddenly looking every day of her many years.
If he thought she could hear him, Lysander would have offered her his own words of comfort. Maybe, we are not forgotten, or one day you’ll find peace, if that’s what the Illuminated One sought.
In the end, Lysander’s spirit offered up a little prayer on Stokes’ behalf.
I hope to one day see you again.