X. THE END OF THE ROAD
I had a dream I was running. I was chasing someone down a glass staircase. As I made my way down a long corridor, I could see the person in front of me. A woman, in long flowing garments, prismatic rainbows, as if her gowns were made of crystal. Her hair, I remembered her hair the most. Long, full waves of dark hair, as though shadows gathered to frame her face. I think I might have been crying, but she would not stop running away from me. We came to another corridor, though I think it might’ve been a bridge. At the opposite end was a doorway, a large black doorway with sculpted black angels. I hurried. Somehow I knew that if she made it behind that doorway, I wouldn’t be able to follow. I couldn’t run fast enough. She stopped in the doorway as I approached and turned to face me. She had no face I can recall, just white light shining from beneath the black waves of her hair, reflected brighter in her crystalline gown. As I threw myself at her mercy, begging to enter the doorway with her, she pushed me back onto the ground and leaned in, her face breaking through the light, indistinguishable.
“You don’t belong here, not anymore…” she whispered.
I awoke to the sound of Ember humming. It was the same melody the Oracle Eos had been singing when I stumbled across her. I sat upright, rubbing my eyes.
“I thought you’d sleep forever.” Ember said.
“Feels like I have been.”
The little girl sat perched on the balls of her heels holding her small hands over a mound of stones overlapping one another in a pyramid formation. I could not read her eyes behind her mask, but I could tell as she bowed her head that she was praying. Her humming lost its rhythm and became focused into one particular tone. She had her rucksack beside her and she reached inside it and brought out a single piece of wood. It was cylinder in shape and inscribed with many small glyphs.
She clasped her fingers around this and began rolling it between her palms. She began to roll the wood harder and faster, and as she did this, the wood began to smolder. Plumes of smoke rose from between her fingers and tiny sparks rained down between her palms, hitting the formation of stones with dozens of small hisses. The wood itself began to glow, a pale orange and then red as hot iron. The burn did not faze her; in fact it spurned her on faster and faster till her hands were nothing more than a smoky blur. She turned to face me, her painted smile glimmering and her eyes taking on a new shade, that of a burning candle, the kindled hue of her namesake. As she looked at me, her face became a silhouette, the mask nothing compared to the light of her eyes and the fire that bloomed in between her hands with a thunderous burst.
“Do not be afraid,” she said her childish tone taking on a more mature composure. “Fire is not an enemy. Not to me.”
She set the burning piece of wood atop the peak of the stones and I watched, mouth agape as the flames rippled out from the wood and spilt down the pyramid of stones, igniting them one by one like torches. The stones absorbed the heat and drank the flames deep into their centers, glowing brighter as the energy radiating from the wood was siphoned away. The indentions of the emblazoned glyphs darkened as the last few embers were drained away, leaving the piece of wood to tumble off the peak and roll onto the ground, intact and unscathed by the flames that had once consumed it.
Little Ember clapped her hands together and dusted soot from her fingers before claiming the piece of engraved wood and tucking it back into her rucksack. She then fished out a small copper pot and stood, crossed to the reflecting pool and gathered water. She then went to the flowering vines and plucked several of the Oneroion blooms then carried them to the mound of stones. She set the pot atop the stones and once it began to boil, tossed in the blooms bringing them to a simmer.
“How did you do that?” I asked quite amazed.
“I asked the fire to help.”
“You speak to fire?”
“No, silly. It speaks to me.”
“I’m not sure, really,” she said leaning over the pot to check on its contents, before sitting back on the ground, bringing her knees up to her chin. “I woke up one day and I heard it, in a candle. It told me if I was kind, it would be my friend. It told me I’ve always been able to speak to it, but that I was just too small to know how. For my birthday, my sisters gave me the Spark Wood, wood from the dragon trees that once grew in Luonnatar Forest. As long as it remains engraved with the sacred sigils, it will never burn up and I can use it to focus the fire into other things like the stones here. It’s really very simple.”
“And where are these sisters of yours?” I asked yawning and stretching.
“Home, I would imagine. They aren’t really my sisters. We just call ourselves that.”
A strong aroma sifted up from the copper pot, sweet and euphoric. The fumes caught in my senses and drew me closer. I leaned over to peer into the pot finding that the flowers were congealing in the silver water. The scented vapors roused me from the grogginess of sleep and my eyes shot wide with complete awareness.
“Almost done now.” Ember said, drawing up beside me and peering over my shoulder. A pair of the moths drifted and lingered on the peaks of my shoulders.
“What is it?”
“A remedy, will give you extra nourishment for your journey. And helps chase bad dreams away.”
“You know about my dreams?”
“I heard you crying out. I wanted to wake you, but you needed your rest.”
Ember sniffed the air rising off the copper pot and let out a satisfied sigh. She skipped back to her rucksack and retrieved a small copper mug. She took the pot by its handle, and poured the contents into the mug. She offered it to me and I gathered the mug between my hands, much hotter than I’d expected. She told me to blow across the top of the mug and I did so before pressing the rim to my lips and took a small sip. The liquid ran down my throat thicker than I would have liked, but it appealed to my senses in waves of warmth and as it hit the bottom of my stomach I could feel myself smiling by the spark of vivacity that stirred within me.
“It’s good, yes?”
“Oh yes,” I sighed, taking another swig. “Very much so.”
“Good,” she exclaimed her once emblazoned eyes now a bright green. “Drink up every last drop. Then we can go.”
I did as I was told. I drank every last drop and let her finish off what was left in the pot. She placed the mug and pot back into her sack, before kneeling beside the stones and lifted her mask a pinch to blow out a stream of air across the glowing mound. The glow died slowly, flickering as it ebbed away. After strapping her pack over her shoulders, she began gathering flowers from the vines and tucked them into her basket.
“Does everyone use magic here?” I asked bemused, watching her as she sauntered to each bloom and gave a curtsy before dropping it into the bottom of the basket.
“It’s not magic I’m using. Fire is real. Air is real. Sometimes you just have to listen and you’ll hear them and if you’re nice, then they help out.”
I studied her for a long while amazed by the change in her mask’s features, more pristine, more animated as if a fresh coat of paint had been applied. She still seemed haunted by this shadow of fatigue in her eyes, but her frozen lips would never resist smiling. Were it not for the sad pauper’s dress that barely clung to her, she’d have been as whimsical and elegant as a wood nymph from a fairytale.
“Why do you wear that silly mask?” I asked as we made our way down the steps of the temple. Already the area was more alive than it had been in untold years. The soil was enriched and grass spread out against the surface and the vines were strong and blossoming.
“You should always wear your mask if you find one or else you’ll lose it, and losing a mask in Nous is like losing a key.”
“I’m not sure I understand?”
“Not everything has to be explained, Architect. ‘Seeing does not always mean believing’, Icarus says.”
“I’d like to meet Icarus. Who is he?”
“Icarus Canto? Well, he’s many things. He loves music and is terribly fond of masks. Of course he’s hopelessly prone to getting himself into trouble, so he might be fond of that too.” She giggled.
“Anyone else I should be aware of?”
“There are many, in Pandemonium. They go in, but never come out, not like me and Icarus. Doors aren’t what they used to be here in Nous.”
I stood and stretched, yawning boisterously, laughing at the sound of the echo bouncing through the open air. For all the wear and tear on my body I felt refreshed, the Oneroion having done its work quite thoroughly. I bent over the pool and washed my face in waves of silver, still pristine and sparkling as looking through crystal prisms. I rinsed my hair of the dirt and tangled knots, and I threw back my head letting my hair splash water over my shoulders, soaking my alien skin. I splashed some of the water over the hole in my chest thinking that the wound would heal as others had done so effortlessly, but the gape remained.
I dried off under the heat of the staggered, stationary half-sun which felt surprisingly wonderful against my wet body. Ember moved across from me to the Oneroion on the pillars and plucked a bulb suckling at it like a hard candy. I joined her and together we stared off towards the distant horizon where Noumena Pandemonium pierced through the clouds raking the bowl of the sky which was fixed in a dark orchid gloaming of sunrise and sunset. And though I knew that I had to venture among the maze of those pathways clustered together like thousands of knots, it was the shining egg that glittered at the center of the city that held my gaze.
There would be no end to this nightmare without them.
The distance that separated me from my mark was vast with so many toppled structures barring the paths up and down the hillside of what Little Ember had called Wielder’s Watch. It seemed highly unlikely that I’d find any discernible footing to trek to the peak where the temple stood taunting me.
“We should get going,” Ember announced pulling her mask up slightly to take a big bite out of the end of the flower’s bulb. “It won’t be safe here forever.”
I know I thought to myself.
“Do you still hope to reach the Omphalos?”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“I know a way, through an old waterway that leads to the temple’s underworks, but it is dangerous. The cursed ones are everywhere.”
“Will you be my guide?”
“I have sought the wishes of my Lady, and she has given me permission to assist you as far as you wish to go.”
“Who is this Lady?” I asked her.
“If there is time, I shall take you to her, if it is her wish to meet you, that is, and if He allows her visitors.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “He keeps her imprisoned to her chambers. There she waits day after day, hounded by His many vile burdens.”
“Is there anything I can do for her?”
“She refuses all but her Handmaidens. It is of her own choosing that she suffers. It is the only way she believes she’ll ever be forgiven.”
“Who is she?”
“You really don’t remember anything, do you?” Ember asked me, puzzled and even slightly frustrated.
“I’m afraid much of my memory is a fog,” I shrugged.
“What a shame. A child should never forget his mother.”
The word sank into my brain like a hot knife. “My mother?”
“The Mater Coelestis, high matriarch of the Isles of Selenium, three sister islands adjoined as a crescent moon aloft a once silver sea, the bottom of which was said to be lined with precious jewels that the matriarch herself had wept. As to what she has done, well that is something you would have to ask her yourself.”
“Mr. Cloak told me she betrayed the other Architect.”
“Betrayed,” she asked he voice drawn and taut. “Is that what you believe?”
“I’m not sure what to believe anymore.”
Strange that Cloak would forget to tell me about my own mother. Stranger yet that he would claim she was a traitor.
“You’ll find your way. You are the one.”
“I have to help her. If he has her what other choice is there?”
“First thing first, Architect. You’ll be of little threat to the dark warden without the Threads of the Demiurge.”
“Then take me there. Show me the way.”
One moment she had been this mature, omniscient voice, and the next she was dancing and skipping along the garden steps giving kisses to the starry flowers that bent forward to receive her fake lips.
“Come on, the day is nearly gone, and the Revenants, they love to come out at night.”
“How can you tell?” I asked looking at the sun and moon locked in their menacing hate, glowering down at the two of us.
“I’ve heard the stories of what it was like before.” And at that she began her whimsical saunter down the wobbly staircase. I followed after.
We left the garden behind, neither of us looking back, hoping against hope that should we ever return, the beauty I had made would still be there when we went back. When all else seems broken away, there is always hope. We started down a wide barren street that Ember told me was once one of many marketplaces. She navigated through the city shrewdly, in and around dead ends and unsafe alleyways with wading shadows that frightened her too much to dare.
Still, she was so much braver than me. But this was her playground afterall. I followed her as she strode up a long narrow road to the center of the city where the trails lead up a steep hill towards Wielder’s Watch. We had to be careful as there were so many dodgy areas of loose stone roofs and tipsy pillars gating the passages, our maneuvering had to be braced for just about anything that could come barreling down. The central ramparts of the city were layered in dense clouds of dust that fogged the way slowing our pace significantly as we fought to see through the heavy billows disturbed by late lamenting winds. It felt at times we were wandering aimlessly through static overcasts, unsure of which way we were headed and indeed if we were headed anywhere at all.
We climbed over unsteady ledges and rocky hillsides, making our way around the Watch rather than up it.
“The entrance to the underground is near. It’s a long tunnel, but it should get you into the temple without having to deal with the monsters.”
The city enclosed around us like the rim of a low dipping bowl, while the Watch loomed over us a mountain of bone and marble. I imagined myself back on the side of the Pralaya Mountains staring out towards Illmatar that lay sprawled out like a corpse and wondered what physical area we were now skirting along. I pictured us roaming along the dipping part of the chest just below the shoulders, the Omphalos Temple a shiny heart while troops of the shattered palaces decorate as links in a rusty chain around the city’s throat. Up ahead the elongated head of the citadel hovered on the horizon shrouded in a veil of purple clouds.
We stopped halfway down a narrow pathway with broken staircases on either side of us. Ember began limping and seeing little dabs of blood trailing behind her steps, I stopped our sojourn midway and had her rest herself against a fallen pillar. She wore no sort of protection or bindings on her feet against the sharp, rocky surface. I set her down and took her feet into my hands. They were tiny, dainty things, but the bottoms were riddled with scars and scrapes. I slit my palm and once the blood came to the surface I placed it to her heels, massaging the milky fluid over her wounds. She cooed like a baby while I kneaded the blood into her weary soles. I gathered pieces of yellowed cloth from a shabby robe beneath a pile of clutter and tore it into strips and bound them to the little girl’s feet.
“I’m sorry,” she said as I finished tightening the bindings.
“I’m slowing you down and you’ve important work to do.”
“Not at all, little one. I’m never going to find my way around here without you as my guide.” Her eyes lit up behind her masked face and she leaned forward and threw her arms around my neck, adorning my cheeks with painted kisses. The earnest tenderness with which she offered me brought something out of me. I found myself holding her to my chest without really acknowledging I was doing it. It felt natural somehow and as I buried my face in her wavy hair, I caught the scent of ripened fruit and flowers. It struck me as something familiar, a long lost fragrance I should remember but couldn’t locate in the vault of my mind. When I released her, I felt the urge to reclaim her and continue holding her, but didn’t know why.
I thought of Fawkes and the way he had held me the night he and the others rescued me from White Lips compound. He suffered his own wounds, yet he held me at his side and promised that he’d protect me. It was the same tenderness Cloak had offered to me, and how I had fought against him, reticent to his guardianship. I understood that protection now because I was feeling it towards Ember. I had her climb onto my back and clutched her little arms around my neck so I could carry her. She chimed with sweet laughter as she leapt up my back, resting her chin against the back of my neck. We continued forward. I stepped lightly as to not cause her to slip and at one point drew up my hand to clasp her in place as the way became obscure and unstable.
As we wandered down the shifty path lined with the heads of broken statues, my senses flared and I crouched into a predatory position.
“Is something wrong?”
“Shhhh…” I whispered.
It was very faint, but I recognized it long before it had even deigned to drift on the breeze. The keenness of my senses still alarmed me, my nerve endings so delicate I could feel the disdain in the very soil under my feet, so intimate it was grotesque, like wading through a shallow pool of the dead. The soft fragrance of Ember’s hair wafted through to smother this foul odor, but even as much as I wanted to bask in the ambience of its allure, the venomous intoxicant I’d been exposed to inside the cave, found me.
The Revenants were near.
I had Ember climb off of my back and told her to stay hidden behind a jut of stone while I investigated. The air changed swiftly, a venomous unease infecting the atmosphere and spiraled through the narrow pathway, beckoning me to see what lay at the other end.
“Don’t go,” Ember called out to me.
Ember’s moths paced the air nervously, the silver glow died to a cold gray.
“I’ll not be gone long,” I said turning to face her. “I just want to make sure it’s safe.”
“They’re down there. Please. We can find another way around.”
“Alright,” I relented and gathered her back in my arms and over my shoulders. “Hold on tight.”
I couldn’t speak the entire time we walked back down the street which seemed longer somehow than before. On the wind their crying continued. It was met with shrill replies from either side of the city. They were no longer holed up in their murderous mountain cesspool, but stalking the city streets signaling to one another with their mongrel dog howling.
“Sometimes they cry all night, out of fear and loneliness, often because they remember what it was like before, but they can’t remember how it felt to be truly alive. I find myself crying with them, knowing well what they are probably doing, but I cry secretly so as not to disturb my Lady’s own suffering. How she suffers. Always suffers.” Ember paused, sighing. “I need to return to her before He discovers I am missing. My sisters allow me to leave from time to time to play because I am the youngest, but my place is with her.”
We took a turn down a rocky path of broken ivory and pottery shards. We had been silent for some time when I found myself wanting to hide that manic wailing in conversation.
“What was it like, you know, before?” I asked staring across a wounded section of houses tumbling into one another.
She had me stop and climbed down, and then placing her tiny hand in mine pulled me down to eye level, staring at me squarely, her eyes a startling blue.
“Try to remember the most beautiful memory you’ve ever had.” Ember said her voice once more the mature, assertive tone.
“Not sure I have had too many of those.”
“Your eyes speak otherwise,” she said caressing my face, her fingers entwined in the stray curls falling against my forehead. “I can see it… Beautiful and warm. It haunts you though, troubles you with its faded beauty because though is belongs solely to you, you fear it will never be obtained again. It is lost and all you are left with is the memory of it to taunt your heart, but each time you recall it, it is mistier, duller in its sweet magic.”
“What are you doing to me?” I asked feeling my vision waver in the pools of her eyes, lost to the flow.
“I can smell it…the faint scent of fruit and flowers…auburn and raven hair splashed against one another as though a single strand…part of the same blood…so innocent…Ah…there it is…”
A flash of silver split my vision into a fractured memory: I was sitting in a woman’s lap, a small child resting my head against her shoulder, our hair tangled as one. It was the woman from my dream; my mother.
“Stay out of my head!” I stammered, breaking from her grip, her shimmering blameless gaze.
“That’s what it was like for those of us who are alive and even for those who are…something else. But the further the taint extends, the harder it becomes to keep that memory as brilliant as it once was. I remember white gardens and silver palaces and children! So many children to play with,” she turned her back to me, reflective. “I of course had my responsibilities to my mistress, but there was always time to play and to dream. The Architect and I were very close. We used to play together and read in painted fields he made just for me. But then the darkness came and took him from us all, and beauty died. And dreams withered like the Oneroion you awakened in the ruined garden. But I believe that it will come back to us, the way it was before.” Ember passed her fingers in my hand again, tickling the ends of my fingers with her own. Her eyes seemed to smile making her painted sun dappled lips even brighter. “You remind me so much of him. So alike, and yet so different.”
“Maybe I just need a mask like you have.”
“No. If you are him, you won’t need one. Ever.”
“I wish I could believe, but each day becomes harder and harder.”
“I will believe for the both of us then. I believe that the Architect has returned to us, within you. I know you don’t see it, but that little boy you can’t remember, he’s still in you. You just have to want to find him.”
“Maybe I’m just too lost, too far removed from all of this. The memory of it.”
“Never,” she shook her head vigorously, her voice hot with confidence.
Frustrated and feeling the foul virulence coming on the winds, I snapped at Ember, “This isn’t getting us anywhere, are you going to get me to the temple or not?”
She scoffed as if to frown and turned her nose up snidely. “Fine, let us away from this place before they catch our scent.”
We quickened our pace as we took to a new lane, but something was trailing us. Eyes were on all sides. We both could feel it, and it grew like a giant shadow that grew denser and denser as we traversed the cityscape, having to find new outlets to travel through to get back up the hillside, but everywhere we attempted we were met with obstruction, as though the city itself was realigning the wreckage to block our every step.
The shadow soon hovered over us making itself known through the dense dusty clouds heralded by the squall of beating wings. Ember’s hand slipped into mine as though we were one being, and we darted forward, climbing up a heap of bones. We hid in the shallows of gutted homes still smelling of smoke and ash, but kept getting discovered, the wing beats closer and closer.
Where to hide? Where to run?
Ember saw them first, digging her fingers tense with a leaden fear deep into my arm. “We’ve gone the wrong way!”
I stopped and turned my attention to the direction of her whimper, my heart leaping up into my throat as I now saw what she saw.
I staggered backwards as if struck by a boulder overhead, nearly toppling from shock as I scrounged for my bearings. Coming just over the rim of a tower of broken walls was a flurry of Revenants soldiering their way over the stone slabs. In the air, a second wave was mounted, a dozen or so winged shapes hovering, honing in to take us both out quickly and with as much pain as excruciatingly possible. I could already feel the frenzy of their massive beaks and the cracking of my bones under their human handed talons.
The Revenants funneled the streets at break neck speeds, scurrying together as one unintelligible shape, like black bodies of cockroaches scurrying together in a rampant flock against the dimly lit pavement of a shadowy corridor. They strode fast on a rush of bloody feet, stampeding over one another, reaching out with withered, gnarled fingers in desperate need to fondle our goose-pimpled flesh. Their leper’s agony gave them astounding, horrific propulsion. We made quickly for an escape route, zigzagging up and down passage after passage, struggling to keep from getting cornered, but there were only so many places to run in this graveyard. We moved as one, her hand in mine, our legs a single pair.
“We have to find another way into the temple. The underground is lost to us now.” Ember sobbed, squeezing my hand tighter as the last of the host of those bloody feet trampled the earth. Dust clouds swept up again as the wind regained spiteful momentum to slow us down.
I could feel them without even being in physical contact; a saturated aura that reached out with airy arms to embrace us; to envelope us in their maggot frenzied love. I could feel us slowing down little by little, hindered in the dust, the fatigue, the utter mire of their sticky filth. I kept my eyes towards the temple, so close I could reach out and pinch it between my index finger and thumb, but still so far, my stuttered hands numb with this want to defend myself, to wrench my nervousness away from their stifling haze and face them. I wanted to show them what I was deep inside. For the first time I wanted to be the Architect and show them the power they feared I’d obtain. I wanted to embrace providence. Yet, my bravery wilted prematurely as I turned to see their numbers swarming up a hilly pathway, fleshless limbs, the grotesqueries of their gray anatomies marching straight towards us like a knife with our names on it. We dangled on the spit openly, too many of them to our meager two.
Ember whimpered and I turned my head seeing four of the gray deviants charging to cut us off. One of them lunged for Ember and as she screamed I whirled around and raked my claws against its face. Its thin skin came away under my claws like a slimy membrane. I shoved it into the other three who looked upon their wounded comrade with praise as though it’d just received a blessing. The girl shrieked again as we turned to run the opposite direction. They were climbing over the broken walls, and not far from them, a flock of Scavenger birds were swooping in low, their clacking maws chattering away stupidly.
I hauled Ember into my arms, holding her against my chest. She threw her arms around my neck and clung there. Her flower basket slipped from her small hands, Oneroion blooms tumbling out onto the pavement. More of the Revenants poured onto the streets, cutting us off wherever we had turned. They were blocking off routes now. I had underestimated them. Though they seemed ignorant beasts with only a mind to maim and despair, they still retained the ability to reason, and that was even more terrifying. I used that terror. It motivated me to continue fighting.
They put up obstructions of stone and even formed a wall of their hideous forms, holding their blades out, planted in front of them. At one point they crowded me and I used all my strength to fend them off, slicing the air, punching, ripping, biting, whatever I had to do to ensure I’d not be overcome, but it was useless. The more I thinned into bloodied heaps, the more that followed, passing by like pedestrians on Illmatar’s once bustling streets. Worse, they didn’t die. No matter what I did to stop them, whether coring their eyes from their skulls, snapping their necks, or goring into their chests with my formidable fists; nothing would stop them. They were unyielding and I was losing steam, with a young girl clutching my throat.
“There is no way out of this,” announced the Craft who had remained silent until that moment. “They will bring you closer to the Threads than we can on our own.”
“You want me to hand myself over to those things? No way. You’re crazy.”
“It is the only feasible answer. You cannot keep running from them, and you lack the power to defend yourself against their numbers. Do not be afraid, boy. I am with you.”
“But the girl?”
“She is of no consequence.”
I did not even dignify its statement with a response. The Craft thinks as an animal thinks, self above others, but I couldn’t let Ember be taken. I wouldn’t allow her to be subjected to whatever it was those monsters wanted to do to me.
Ember grazed her nails against my arm and shrieked, “They’re nearly here!”
The sudden sting of her nails ripped me from my commune with the Craft and I froze, helpless, feeling the girl’s arms wrap around my waist for a protection I couldn’t offer. The Scavengers descended from the sky and perched their screeching forms along a crippled staircase, a starving barrier of screeching beaks. They peered down at us, the carrion birds waiting patiently for the feast, to gather and gobble up what is left over from the Revenants’ carnage. The Revenants appeared from the front and behind, slowing their quick clumsy pace, and crept to encircle us hissing through their furnace mouths:
“FLESH TO BREAK
FLESH TO BEND
HAIL SIMU’LA RE!
THE BLESSED END”
Sensing the end to come, I withdrew Breeze from its sheath, the blade singing as it met the air and then I crouched onto my hind legs reared to pounce and bared my teeth and claws, ready to go down fighting. Ember wriggled down and pressed her back to mine. She pulled the spaded staff from over her shoulder and twirled it in her hand threateningly. I watched as she bowed her head in meditation and the curved blade began to glow, radiating hotly. The moths gathered close to their young mistress, the brilliant diadems of an airy tiara. The fire, her friend, had answered once more.
We both realized there was no other option except to fight and to protect ourselves. I admired her bravery and vowed to protect this curious little masked child as long as I could before the infernal creatures would tear us apart. And as the Revenants drew nearer still, Ember hooked her weaponless arm under and over mine ready at my word.
And then an unearthly sound filled the air around us. The Revenants heard it too and halted their advance. Strange music was coming from every corner of the Broken City, vibrating through the ground beneath our feet, resonating in the chambers between our ears; a deafening melody that stripped away everything befouled and wrong about our situation and sent me and Ember to our knees. The wind shifted and as I looked up to see what direction the wind was headed, a bolt of green lightning shot down from the sky and thrust into the earth between us and the Revenants shoving Ember and myself onto our backs.
The electric charge surged and the wind gathered around the point of impact faster and faster, a tempest spiraling up from the dirt and spread building a wall between us and them. The funnel rippled with threads of green energy, the melody of the strange music building to an impressive crescendo. I could just barely see through to the other side of the wind wall, watching as the Revenants and the Scavenger birds caught in the tailspin of the whirlwind began to shudder and shake frenetically, their bodies lifted several inches on the ground. The melody then lost its enchantment and grew tremulous and deafening. Ember crawled towards me and motioned for me to cover my ears. I did so keeping my eyes fixed on the Revenants.
Nothing could have prepared me for what followed. As the music grew to a horrifying drone of wind, lightning and song, the Revenants began emitting searing screams of pain, pain they did not relish, their effluence slick eyes widening and bleeding thick tears of blood down their cheeks, running over their open mouths. More shouts of anguish quaked through their emaciated forms, their faces bloating awkwardly, eyes bulging and tongues lolling out gasping for air though they were enveloped by whirls of it. Something larger, indiscernible began to blossom in the middle of the tempest, it loomed there radiating within the nexus of the green electricity. The energy emanated by this looming figure sprang out from the center of the storm and shot into each of the Revenants and Scavengers that wavered in the forefront. The others that amassed behind these stood mesmerized by the tones, beguiled and wavering listless.
The force sent them higher into the air, above the wall of wind and I watched mesmerized as the gray sacks of flesh trembled and rolled their red-rimmed eyes into the back of their skulls so that the whites shone and ruptured all at once with a single, grisly pop. Their skin bubbled and burst like blossoming seedlings and thick, viscous blood spewed forth like hot tar, steaming as it hit the ground. The pitch of the tones grew to a riotous siren and one by one their gaunt, eerily human faces imploded into their skulls, flesh and bone collapsing inwards, raining blood. The squall released them and their bodies toppled to the surface in ghastly heaps of misshapen limbs and faceless forms.
The gales died down and the energy surged one last time before it finally fizzled out, leaving in its wake a tall and lithe figure emerging and stepping out of the whirlwind and stood before us. Ember looked up first, a stunned gasp passing from her lips as she saw something more interesting than the Revenant bodies toppling down in an unseemly succession one by one into a ghoulish heap.
“Voila!” A bold and illustrious voice called down to us. “And I do mean VOILA! It’s so rare these days anyone says that, especially at these truly rare and wonderful moments when you can absolutely make a crowd lose their heads.”
I turned to its direction to see it there one moment and then gone the next, moving so fast my head should have spun off my shoulders like a loose spindle.
The figure moved on legs of lightning, and the blur of his leggings were just as blue. A swift blur of a well articulated somersault and a fine flourish later and he was standing – no strutting - atop a tilting balustrade, his pose all at once disarming. He looked unlike anything I had ever seen and though he covered his face with a brilliant mask of lavender and orange with peacock feather swathed around the cheeks like a lions beard, I could tell that he wasn’t merely our savior, he was a gentleman. He certainly fared better than Little Ember in his sleek cobalt blue pants strapped at mid-thigh with small belted clasps which secured what appeared to be pronged weapons of various shape and size.
The pants were tight along his slender legs, but loosened with a dramatic flair around the ankles, swooping over soft black shoes. His shirt, opened gallantly at the throat, was neat and clean, a bright moonlight white with a boisterous flamboyancy in at the shoulders and down the sleeves and the cuffs which were cut at sharp points, so that his blue velvet gloved hands weren’t simply emerging from the sleeves, they were growing like the pistils of a well dressed flower. Over this he wore a red leather vest that fit his upper torso snug and handsomely.
In his left hand he twirled a weapon of sorts like a seasoned gunslinger, while his right remained bent akimbo at his waist.
“Another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, Little Ember. Your sisters will be most displeased. Tsk. Tsk.” He said with a voice full of song.
“I didn’t mean to! Honest!” Ember squealed, her mask shuddering. “We went the wrong way.”
“My dear, the most exciting paths usually are. But I have come and I have saved you.”
“And just who are you?” I asked uneasy, the immobile Revenants that remained standing, transfixed, still deadly close.
“Aha! How right of you for asking. A bright day for you indeed, my friend. I am the dashing hero to those who have none. A gentleman to the crass who bring the masses to mass with my genteel repartee and gregarious flair for unconventional dramatics. And most importantly, I bring the explosive musical compositions to the well…explodible,” he said brandishing his weapon like a magician’s wand. “I am Icarus Canto, rebel, purveyor of songs, and troubadour of the troubled, humbly at your service,” our rescuer announced exuberantly ceasing his skilled twirling of his strange weapon and offering us a courteous bow. He lifted his masked face towards me and I could see behind to a beautiful pair of iridescent eyes one blue as a tiger’s, the second ruby red.
Icarus Canto dropped down from the broken banister elegantly on the tips of his feet, dusting off his knees.
“That weapon…How did you do that?”
“This,” Icarus said holding up his odd weapon. “This is my tuning fork; a wonderfully dangerous little device, turning innocent melodies into fierce canticles of death. Of course sometimes it just puts the listener in a lull, like those poor souls.” He said motioning towards the Revenants who remained enthralled and utterly spellbound.
The tuning fork had a sort of springing apparatus allowing the two sides to flip wide when triggered. One end was an imposing blade, thin and slender with an edge that intoned when he flourished and cut the air. The opposite end was fashioned with one of the slender pronged weapons that were tucked at his waist. He held it between his index finger and thumb, and fixed at its center a curvature that acted as a triggering mechanism allowed him to show off his flashy trickery with great showmanship. Staving off the theatrics for the time being, he folded the dual-jointed weapon and tucked it into a holster on the back of his right leg, securing it loosely in case he would require it again soon.
“So, my little firefly, who’s your oddly dressed – or lack thereof - friend?” questioned Icarus, sauntering down from his perch, passing unharmed through a pair of Revenants who gazed at him hypnotized.
“He’s the one, Icarus. The one!” exclaimed Ember, blowing out her dagger like she was blowing out a candle, before bolting over to embrace her fellow masked companion.
“You don’t say,” said Icarus, a mellow disbelief in his tone. “I had imagined the one to be much taller. Least that is how he is depicted in fables. Quite tall, and svelte. One’s are always svelte.”
“We don’t have time for this.” I announced impatiently trying to find some sanity in all of this.
“Patience, patience. We have a little while yet,” he said patting his holster.”
“We are wasting time.” The Craft grumbled.
“I know, but there has to be another way in. If they take us-“
“We have a better chance of surviving as one than as three. Canto has bought us time, use it to send them away.”
The Craft was right, always right, but I was scared. I didn’t want to go with those creatures. I had seen what they did to their own. Why would I want to end up like that, just mutilated fodder on the ground?
Icarus and Ember gawked at me, both equally interested in why I was talking to myself. “Are you sure he’s the one?” doubted Icarus, studying me curiously.
“Of course he is. He makes flowers grow from dust.” Ember cried out, pulling an Oneroion flower from her dress and placing it in Icarus’ gloved hand.
He examined the flower thoughtfully and then reaching up to the back of his head, unclasped his mask, and pulled it away to savor the flower the same way Ember had when she first beheld its beauty. Beneath the mask was a face I hadn’t expected. I had expected someone dashing, but scarred. Someone older. Yet, this was neither.
This face was young, smooth as ivory, and sculpted by a master artisan– the features sharp, but soft, pliable. A mane of silver hair spilled down across his face shorn in decadent layers and angles. It suited him and his fantastic sensibilities. The two mismatched eyes shone even brighter in the half light, so bright it was as though he didn’t have eyes at all but jewels placed delicately in the sockets. He wasn’t merely a debonair, fashionable rescuer, his eyes spoke of something else, of pride that had been hardened and quarreled for. Ember had said he was a rebel, and his were a rebel’s eyes. Before I could savor the beauty of his face, he had already popped a petal of the flower into his mouth, and readjusted his mask, hidden away behind a façade of lavender and feathers.
“Extraordinary!” Icarus exclaimed, invigorated by the taste.
“I told you. He is the Architect.”
“He doesn’t look so sure, Emi. Destiny isn’t for everyone you know.”
Ember looked at both of us. Behind her mask she must have been a world of confusion. The weight of that title gave me away.
“Who I am, what I am, I don’t know. But what I do know is that you two have to get out of here.”
“What? Why?” the girl quaked.
“Listen,” I said, kneeling down to her level. “I have to go with them. You got me this far. I have to find The Threads, right?” She nodded. “So, I have to go and do what I have been charged to do. You’ve been a great navigator, but this is something I must do alone.”
“Icarus is here, he can help you. He’s so very crafty.”
Icarus nodded. “Every task requires the perfect tool.”
“I am sure he’d be very useful, but I need him to look after you, right Icarus?” I said looking up to the masked vigilante, pleading with my eyes for him to take her away.
“Um…right Mr. Architect, sir,” he said saluting me, understanding. “Come on Em….Your Lady must be wondering where you are anyways.”
Ember did not want to go. She embraced me hard. Behind me, I could feel the air changing. The Revenants were starting to regain their wills. In the distance I heard a monstrous roar. Icarus’ face darkened. I looked up sniffing the air, a scent I could not place overpowering and intending harm.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Icarus said pulling down his mask over his handsome face. “But time is against us.”
“You have to go now, Ember.” I told the girl, heart in my throat.
She looked up at me with such hurt in the pools of her watery blue eyes. “Have I done something wrong? I can be better, I can find the way.” I thought her mask might break from a levee of her tears.
“No, you’ve done nothing wrong. I have to go with them. There is no other way.”
“But she’ll…she’ll only hurt you…Don’t abandon me. Don’t punish me by leaving me alone.” I saw the pain in her eyes and I was overcome by such grief, such rage at my slobbering captors standing by watching us.
“I’ll come back for you,” I said kneeling down in front of her. “Once I have the Threads, I’ll make you flowers, painted fields full of all kinds, all shapes, and you’ll never have to be afraid again. I promise.”
She pushed against me, her eyes staring profoundly into my own, speaking with her commanding all-knowing voice, “Find the light, Architect. Find the light no matter how deep their lies take you. Be the one we need. Open the way to the Citadel and claim your truth. Aletheia Es Demurgios! Truth is creation.”
She leaned in and kissed the sides of my cheeks, the varying shades of her eyes turning a luxuriant viridian. I stood up bewitched by her words, gazing back to the enclave of Revenants spying on us, their chalky eyes drooling waste down into the corners of their clattering mouths.
Icarus clutched the girl by the hand leaping cat-like above me on top of his former perch. He looked down at me, the girl clinging to his waist nodding with a silent understanding and then with a soft whimper from Ember, her myriad eyes like prisms as they teared over, they were gone.
I was alone with the Revenants stirring from their stupor; even the faceless ones began to flutter with life. Nothing stays dead here.
“Well,” I hollered to the sacks of moldy flesh. “What are you waiting for? Take me to her so I can end this!”
They shuffled along the street advancing towards me just glared at me with their opaque eyes, drooling mouths agape like crooked smiles.
Cloak, I thought to myself. Please, return to me.
They swarmed and exclaimed incensed with jubilation, their gray limbs moving across the ground like spider legs sweeping in to enfold me in their cold, clammy embrace, and claiming their prize.
A second powerful roar broke the silence and the Revenants split down the middle into two walls of rotted flesh. Up the path I could see the one who had roared and this creature was nothing like the rest of them.
A tall, beastly figure, whose face was an amalgam of wolf and bear, walked down the cragged pathway towards me. The wild mane of a lion framed such a face, icy blue and windswept with two beaded braids cutting just below its wolfish ears. Its humanoid body was large, muscled and broad like a bull and covered in dirty white-blue fur. The creature had the feet and hands of a man, only slightly larger and clawed, made more fearsome by a pair of black and silver vambraces that came up above thick, burly forearms, each bearing a single slender scythe protruding from the underside of the armament and sweeping back like an extended, deadly elbow.
An entire suit of this black and silver metal armored the creature’s body, conformed sleek and smooth like a second skin. Inscriptions of runes etched across the metal trappings, though I could not translate their meanings. Still their message could be inferred. This was a creature that thrived on the scent of blood and was bred for war. The cuirass slashed across the beastman’s brawny snowy chest, covering the left side and shoulder with an pauldron molded into the likeness of a winged beast is midflight, while the right remained exposed, allowing it to wield a fierce and mighty sledgehammer with ease. It wore leggings made from the stark, runic metal and over this a bloodstained girdle adorned with a cryptic mosaic of precious stones and glass, tied at the waist by a series of crisscrossing leather straps.
Despite its imposing stature, it moved adroit and self-possessed through the crowd of Revenants, but in its cobalt, hunter eyes, it had but one train of thought, the kill. I backed away, but it would do no good. Its shadow was upon me. I took a deep breath as it hefted its mighty hammer and held it against its bare shoulder and approached me, the high tower of its face staring me down.
“I am Rhada Khar, son of the tribe of Ekaj Khar, descendant of the Rhyla’Khar,” the beastman spoke deep from his barrel chest, eloquent, but stern. He stood upright like a well-oiled soldier, head high in prominence. Once his feet were planted firmly on the ground he bowed before me with honor. His respect and formality was disturbing, considering those who stood gathered around him, naked and rotting before our eyes.
Cloak had spoken of the Rhyla’Khar and their evolved descendents, the Rhylians, in high regard, but here I was standing in front of one, desperate for my guardian’s knowledge and protection. He had said the Rhyla’Khar were made in the image of the Craft and this was true, for it had a vaguely humanistic quality to it the same as the Craft and bore similar features that made me shudder at the memory of its wolfish form assailing me in the Fringe, only this beast was superior, more noble and fearsome than the weakened Craft had been, even if it had been forged from the hearts of gods, and though it sent shocks of terror through me, I found the Rhylian quite beautiful. I looked down to my hands, my feet, recalling the bestial features of my face. Was I becoming like this beastman? With all the changes I felt myself going through, what would be the final metamorphosis? In obtaining power, are we then thereby transformed?
“Are you here to take me to her then?” I said, feigning my own dignified poise, but in truth was terrified.
Fear is illusion, the Craft had said.
Yes, it is an illusion, but it is oh so convincing.
Rhada Khar nodded, “My Lady, the Lamia Thanatas requests your audience, Land-Walker. You are high in her favor.”
“And why am I regarded so?” I tested.
“I am unworthy of such knowledge, but you will know. She will reveal herself to you and only you, Land-Walker.”
I narrowed my eyes, “Why do you call me that? It is not my name.”
“Rhyla’Khar and Rhylians journey the land, not as wayward traveler, but as keepers, protectors of the land, but you merely walk the land. You scrounge, toil to find your destination, but we know ours. We are already here, destiny is all around us.”
“I was told the Rhylians were noble, made in the image of the Craft, and yet you align yourself with these fiends? You are a shameful creature.”
Rhada Khar did not lose his composure, unfazed by my insult.
“I do as my Mistress commands. What do you know of the sons of Ekaj Khar? You are not warrior. You may hold the weapon of a warrior, but you hold no allegiance. No honor. You do not know what you fight for.”
“I’ll fight you if I have to.”
“Brave words, Land-Walker, but you do more harm to yourself with that fine blade than you would to me.”
Challenged I plunged the blade towards the Rhylian’s armored chest. The beast man knocked me aside effortlessly never once drawing extending his mighty hammer. I battered against him to no avail, each ambitious attempt blocked by the iron-clad defenses of one far more skilled than my ill-tempered fury.
“This is the spirit of one who would command an entire world,” he asked knocking Breeze from my hand and sending me to my knees. A quick lash of his strong legs shoved me on my back, pushing the breath from my chest. “I am unimpressed. The lineage is surely watered down.”
“I’ve made it this far,” I heaved, stretching my arm for Breeze lying just within reach. “I may surprise you.”
I rolled the hilt of the blade into my hand and whirled around to catch the Rhylian off guard, but again I met only air. The warrior kicked the sword from my hand and slammed his lion pawed feet into my forearm snapping the bone. I screamed, defeated, and looked to my wound, the bone protruding through the tendons dripping with dark red blood.
“Apparently,” Rhada Khar said raising an eyebrow. “Today is not that day.”
The Rhylian reached behind his back and retrieved a pair of iron shackles. He bound my arms roughly, causing me to cry out in agony when he throttled me to my feet. Rhada Khar turned towards the temple on the high mound of earth and ruins and then faced me once more his countenance darkening.
“Are you afraid, Land-Walker?”
I winced, biting my lip, blinded by the torn ligaments of my arm.
“I believe I am,” I said, flustered and losing consciousness as white shocks of pain shot up my arm.
Rhada Khar’s eyes glittered with triumph and a cruel smile curled at the corners of his mouth.
“My Lady will be most pleased to hear that.”