1: Moonlight and Blood
Cold was all I could remember. A murderer’s cold, bleak and fierce and biting. We stood together on the city’s cliffs, overlooking a frost-flecked sea at the outermost reach of this ravaged world. Too early for snow, according to the augurs, though I could smell it on the wind. I’d have preferred to die somewhere warm, but that couldn’t be helped. There was nowhere else to run: they would always find me, no matter how far I fled. I limped to the cliff’s lip, maimed leg stiff and numb.
Avengarde was my last sanctuary and the final stretch of this tortuous journey. Yet after so many years of hiding, I still couldn’t believe it had come to an end. They won’t get the pleasure of crucifying me like the rest. I took a breath, preparing to step into nothingness when I heard the first screams. They ripped the air, and I clutched my ears protectively, spinning only to fall hard on the cobbles when my maimed leg failed. I lay there, jamming my woolen hood into my ears as the pitch of the wail clawed higher and higher; but right when I thought the screams would burst my eardrums and hemorrhage my brain, they ceased with the suddenness of an in-drawn breath. In their place was a silence so acute that even the wind dared not make a sound.
I grabbed my dagger. Taveol the hypocrite: ready to kill myself one moment and defend myself the next. I shook in the silence as ice-flecked waves mindlessly destroyed themselves below.
“What was that?”
The voice came from the alley behind me, accompanied by clomping boot-steps. I flattened myself against the rock, gripping my dagger’s leather-wrapped hilt. Two shadowed figures appeared in the mouth of the alley. Their gloved hands were raised to protect their faces from the freezing sea-spray that shot in spumes up the cliff.
“Quiet. He could be close by.”
I felt my heart pound in my throat, tried to suppress my shudder of relief when, after a moment of bone-grinding apprehension, I heard the footsteps fade away in the direction of the screams. Letting my body fall slack against the frosty stone, I cast one last glance at the cliff’s edge and collected myself. Hard years had taught me to never stand still for too long in a city like Avengarde, a city that devours those poor souls whose instincts aren’t sharpened to a razor’s edge. So I let my gut guide me through the dance and whirl of snowflakes. Too early for snow? Damn liars. With the magnetism of an ancient lodestone, I found myself drawn to the memory of that scream. I trod as I always did: in and amongst the shadows, alert to every flicker of this broken city as if each bore a dagger aimed at my heart.
Moving as quickly as my leg could bear, I eyed the huge storm clouds in the sky then the deep shadows of each branching alleyway, one after the other. The source of the screaming was remarkably close, buried within the intestinal contortions of one of Avengarde’s labyrinthine seaside slums. With tingling premonition, I knew I had found what I was looking for when I emerged from the cramped alleys into a small square. Something tugged me forward, like a hook had caught in my soul. Peeking around the storm clouds, the moon’s pale blush revealed what had been masked only moments before: the ruined square was splattered with gore.
The first body I came across was still twitching. More shapes littered the cobbles ahead of me. I edged around the seeping puddle of blood, shaking away the cold as I picked out more corpses in the dappled moonlight. Heads missing, arms torn off, bodies rent in half and viscera strewn about like leaves after a gust of wind. Too dismembered to identify as humans or otherwise but I could see weapons—axes and spears and swords—cold on the ground, looking rather useless without owners to wield them. When the wind shifted, it carried away the slaughterhouse stench but brought to my ears sounds of pursuit. Heavy footfalls, the chink of lamellar armor. I fumbled forward, trying to avoid the pooling blood, mind clouded with primitive fear.
A sliver of white amongst the red caught my eye as I turned to flee. There, in the midst of the scattered bodies and still-steaming intestines, lay a woman whose white skin shone like wan moonlight. She was sprawled face-down on the ground, naked, and splattered in blood from her knees to her neck. The surrounding ground was bare of snow.
Her red hair spilled like stilled flame down her back. Some of the ends had dipped into blood and painted crazy scrawls across her skin—a red tattoo. Then her body moved in a single, shallow breath. I limped to her side, sheathed my knife, checked her pulse. Up-down, her throat rose weakly against my fingers. Barely alive.
I was in the midst of collecting my thoughts when I heard movement from the alley. Slowly turning so as not to be seen, I made out shadowed figures picking through the bodies. The Sons were here, spreading out, searching. They’d see my position in a few moments. I quickly rolled the woman over. Her hair parted, revealing her face.
She was impossibly beautiful. A flower misplaced in this abattoir. I sucked in a breath, paralyzed. Two sharply pointed ears ruptured from beneath her hair’s red cascade. Twyth-ani ears…
Approaching bootsteps shook me free of my reverie, and I lurched to my feet, turning to leave. I glanced back at the Twyth-ani woman. The Sons would find her, sell her hair, cut off her ears, crucify her. Because I had led them here.
Against every self-interested instinct that savage years had branded and whipped and cut into me, I turned and lifted the Twyth-ani woman from the cobbles of the bloody square, wrapping my jacket protectively around her cold body as I heaved her over my shoulder. She wasn’t human, but I didn’t care: no-one deserved to die in that place. Her weight was no more than a feather, but my limping gait slowed me, as I pushed through the heavier snow. My lame leg dragged a furrow in the fresh powder, a farmer’s tilled sward.
I strained forward past the perimeter of the square into shadow, hoping that I had fled in time, that the Sons might lose me in the coming blindness of the storm. But as I glanced back through the cold dark, I could see them moving toward me. The storm had not erased my trail.
“He’s here!” I heard one of them call, and knew it was my death-knell. The weakening rhythm of the Twyth-ani woman’s shallow breathing drove me onward, though I realized it would do us no good. I wrenched around in time to see the foremost of the Sons break from the storm’s curtain, course forward like a hound on the scent as he saw me.
When I turned back, searching in futility for somewhere to hide, my maimed leg collapsed and the Twyth-ani woman spilled from my shoulder onto the cobbles. Breath coming raggedly, I hauled her around the alley’s corner as fast as my limping leg would allow, heard the pound of approaching boots on all sides. Figures burst from the falling snow to my right and left and I tumbled backward, foot catching on an upraised stair. We collapsed into the hollow shell of a ruined building.
I pulled the Twyth-ani woman close, jammed my eyes shut and readied my dagger. We lay tangled in darkness as our executioners approached. I pulled my blade to her pale throat and willed myself to make the cut.
Because with the Sons of Dawn, death is a mercy.