CHAPTER TWELVE: KIYANYA
“I DON’T KNOW,” Salek’t whispers back, and then signals for me to be quiet as the court officials continue conversing. He, Kiyachi and I are all riveted by the sight of them, and by Galinicus standing in stoic silence. A torrential downpour lashes the windows, but despite this, the fiends have found us! As they did before, they swarm and climb up and down the outside walls of the ecclesiastical court. They hiss and click with renewed fury, knowing that the Imperatrix is within. However, they cannot charge inside and claim Kiyachi, because every space consecrated by our clergymen is holy. From the towering heights of our church’s roof to the humble dirt floors of its followers’ houses, each blessed site remains safe from harm. If a fiend even attempts to enter one of these, it will be obliterated by our god’s magnificent power!
Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop them from trying. A few leeches poke their glowing heads through some cracks they’ve found in the courtroom walls. With screeches of agony, they shrivel and disappear. Before they do, however, they seem to give a more human-sounding death wail than a fiendish one…
Salek’t turns to me, still in his ghostly human form. “I know what they’re saying,” he rasps. “Kiyanya! They want Kiyachi and my sister, whom I pray is still alive, and will not stop until they have both in their grasp.”
“What shall we do, then?”
My guide puts a finger to his lips: Hush! He points at Kiyachi, who catches his eye, and then at the pew: Stay inside! His gaze is stern, which means these are commands and not requests. Taking my ethereal hand, he then floats up toward the ceiling of the courtroom, with me clinging to his shade for dear life. Once we’ve phased through its wet tile roof, and are surrounded by the driving rain, I dare to speak again:
“What about Galinicus? You should have ordered me to stay inside as well, so I could help him!”
“How? You know how nervous those charlatan court officials were at the thought of spirits among them? The only thing you might have tried was to possess either your master or one of them, in order to speak through them, which would have ended in disaster. The clergymen would have called their Invokers to perform an exorcism, and you would not only have been lost, but annihilated like the leeches! Trust me: it’s better this way, and that Kiyachi stays behind. Not only will she be safe from the fiends, but the voice of an Imperatrix carries. Perhaps, now that she is in her spirit form instead of a physical one, she’ll be able to call to us from the courtroom and tell us what’s going on. Her mortal speech was certainly formidable!”
“What if the court officials call for an exorcism if Kiyachi tries?”
Salek’t sighs. “You’re right. That’s a risk she probably won’t be willing to take. Oddly enough, even eternal suffering in the Abyss is preferable to outright obliteration. There’s something to be said for existence.”
Even in that particular case? I’m not sure I believe you, but I’ll take you at your word…I clear my throat, which I can barely feel or sense. “If so, or even if not, what should we do now? How do we find Anya?”
“There’s one theory I have,” he answers, “which rests upon what I already know about her. Our god knows that in this city he’s forsaken, there are few life paths available besides farmer, merchant, wife or whore! That’s why my parents, whilst they were still married, decided what Anya and I would do for the rest of our days. I was to become a scholar, apprenticed to the sage Voranti, and my sister would be an ascetic. She would spend the rest of her life praying, scrubbing the church floors, and serving our god and humanity.”
“Let me guess: she didn’t like that?”
“Not by an arrow’s long shot! After spending her childhood and early youth in a cloistered chapel near the main church building, Anya decided to run away. I don’t know where she is now, but I have heard rumors while I’ve been here in Thorüsa. The fiends murmur Anya’s name, and in my mind’s eye, I see a tower.”
“What kind? A watchtower, or a fortress?”
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: SEARCHING FOR A REBEL
“A DARK TOWER,” answers Salek’t, “and in a literal sense. Its walls are made of pure obsidian, which is not only incredibly rare in these parts, but incredibly expensive. It’s an imported rock, which makes me doubt that the tower is actually real. Who on earth would have enough money to build it?” He shakes his head. “Nevertheless, whenever I hear the fiends hiss my sister’s name, that’s the image which seizes me.”
“Could the tower of obsidian be metaphorical, symbolizing Anya’s power?”
“If so, then we’re still at a loss as to how to find her. She could be anywhere, and I’ve spent the past year in Thorüsa looking for any trace. Our church’s clergymen do not take desertions lightly, and from Anya’s letters, I’ve gathered that she was one of their most guarded acolytes.” His expression contains a sudden gravitas that makes me shudder. “When she finally managed to flee the chapel for good, it wasn’t the first time she’d attempted to do so. Anya’s written that the Invokers put her in chains after each escape, and would not release her until she spent a fortnight on her knees! Whatever she’s done since then, however, does it merit the Abyss?” He shakes his head again. “Enough. We must begin the search, and quickly!”
After a long pause, I ask my mentor and guide: “Do you really need my help in finding her?”
“Of course!” he shouts, and then his look softens. “What I mean is that I know you want to help Galinicus, but at this point, there’s not much we can do. The court officials think that visitations by spirits are evil, and neither of us wants to risk being exorcised. If we both look for my sister and try to convince her to repent before she dies, then we both will have accomplished what we’ve set out to do in Thorüsa. We’re here to warn the living, and to rescue fugitive shades who are lost. Kiyachi’s safe for now, and if the Harrower is willing, Anya shall be too. Our god may be more stern than the stone of the dark tower, but at least he and his church preach penitence.” I nod solemnly, and Salek’t morphs back into his leech form once we’re back at ground level. “As always, follow the fiends if you want to find their next victim.” We fall silent.
Over the hills and fields we fly, with Salek’t latching onto me so that I’m not overtaken by the swarm. It’s strange: why can I no longer see the pulsing of light and shadow, life and death, that I first saw in every living thing once I entered Thorüsa? The blades of grass beneath us look just as ordinary as they did while I was awake. I suppose that just as our living eyes adjust to darkness, so our spiritual eyes adjust to the magnificent but overwhelming presence of these currents. It’s both a relief and a shame at the same time. As much as I want to regain my former vision, I know that it’s being lost, little by little. In this world, we first notice everything, and then if we’re not careful, we come to notice nothing, absorbed by the cares of life…
Having spent so little time among the fiends, I’m startled when they hiss a single, all-too-familiar name.
“Let’s go! My sister’s death must be far closer than I thought!” His leech-teeth clench me tightly, almost to the point of pain in my spirit form. We race along the ground, trailing the particular fiends who are intent on seizing Anya for their own. “They never call for a certain person unless that one’s end is nigh!” We rush along with the leeches toward their destination, but I don’t see any obsidian tower in the distance. Are Salek’t’s visions inaccurate, or merely too early to count as accurate? All I see is more muddy fields, strewn with wet stubble that always stands miserably upright after the harvest. No one else is in sight, whether mortal man, leech, celestial or shade. The only sounds are rolling thunder and ever-driving rain.
It occurs to me that there’s no way we could turn back and reach the courtroom in a hurry if we need to. We’re so far away from the ecclesiastical site that not even its spire is visible in the far distance anymore. Salek’t and I are literally in no-man’s land, and I start to wonder if we’ve been led astray by the fiends. After all, they are minions of our Great Foe, the master of lies and deceit. How will we ever find our way back to the familiar places we’ve been before, and to Galinicus especially? We travel further onward.
As a bolt of white light strikes the ground, nearly vaporizing our spirit forms, we both shriek in terror. Salek’t screeches rather than crying out, still in the guise of a leech. Taking deep breaths, we move forward more cautiously, and then hear a voice similar to Kiyachi’s. Like hers, it is female, and like hers, it resonates on the howling wind. However, unlike that of the Imperatrix, this voice is imbued with the blazing heat of rage.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: MAGGOTS
“LIE DOWN, DOGS!” roars the voice, sounding more like a mountain lion’s than a woman’s. “Have you all forgotten why you’re here? Have you forgotten, in a drunken stupor, that for which you stand?!” As we and the ever-numerous fiends tumble over the crest of a hill, we see a muscular lass very much like Kiyachi indeed, except that this one’s fist is raised in a rebel’s classic gesture. Her face is beet-red and dripping with rain and sweat. She surveys the gray-uniformed minions who lie prostrate before her in the mud.
“Who are we?”
“STONE MEN!” comes the reply of fifty-odd males and females, their voices hoarse with exhaustion.
“Ha! More like straw men. Do you know what you truly are? Maggots, the helpless young of flies, who wriggle and writhe before they earn their wings! At this rate, I don’t think any of you will. How do you think you’re going to take up arms against the church of the Harrower when you can barely lift a sword? I had to learn to fight, it’s true, but I learn quickly. I’m surprised that any of you can remember your own names!” She strides up and down the rows of makeshift soldiers, who still lie with their faces to the ground. None of them can bear to gaze up at their commander, who rains blows down upon their backs with a whip. At last she stops in front of a young man, barely Salek’t’s age, and whips him lightly. “Get up, you idiot! D’vacht!”
“Can’t.” We hear him cough this answer as blood mixed with spittle flies out of his mouth. He clutches his side as if it were a glass vase about to break, and grits his teeth. In response, his superior places her right boot upon his neck and presses down. In a sudden motion, she twists it, and the horrible cracking sound we hear isn’t just the thunder overhead. The commander kicks her victim’s body aside, and asks the rest:
“Who am I?”
“ANYUTA! ANYUTA! ANYUTA! ANYUTA!”
“That’s right. You’d better use my full name, or you’ll end up like that corpse on the ground. He was weak, and wouldn’t have lasted much longer even without trying to learn the ways of battle. However, all of you are like him at heart. You are not yet made of stone, but if you follow my every command, you shall be.”
Can spirits retch and upheave their guts? Salek’t certainly tries, but nothing emerges from his mouth.
Anyuta squares her broad shoulders. “To the Watchtower. March!” Her bedraggled soldiers rise to their feet, shake the worst of the rain out of their quartz-gray uniforms, and fall into line behind her. A man at the rear tries to turn and pick up the body of his slain comrade, but a woman at his side clutches his forearm. Salek’t and I notice that the gaze on her face is both fearful and murderous: Don’t. She’ll kill you. We stare, absolutely astonished, as the leeches swarm around the fallen soldier, but cannot seem to find his soul. Have the celestials collected him already? There are no signs of the céli about, which is strange. Then I remember: Thorüsa is for those who are trying to escape damnation or salvation, not accept it. Perhaps the poor young lad who Anyuta killed is safe in the arms of our god, if you can call it that.
As we follow the ragtag army along their mud-and-rut-covered path, coinciding with that of the fiends, I sigh and whisper to Salek’t: “That can’t be your sister.”
“It is. I’m the only one she ever permitted to call her Anya. Not even Mother and Father could do that.”
I can’t say I’m surprised. Out loud I ask him, “How did she end up this way, and become so cruel?”
“I know not, except that our clergy will exact a dire payment from her if she’s caught.” He turns his leech-head toward me. “She wants to take up arms against the church of the Harrower? Has she lost her mind? Many have tried in the past, but none has succeeded! There were the Harrower’s Chosen fifty years ago, who thought they were especially favored by our god, more than our Invokers and Inquisitors. However, they were wrong. Dead wrong. More recently, there were Salvation’s Sons, but they faced the stake, too.”
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