Man hates himself like no other. Finding the door to the prison cell open, he elects to remain, for he does not trust himself to walk free. What waits beyond that door? Who waits for him on the other side? He calls to his guard to slam shut the door, or else he slams it shut himself, begging for a lock to be placed upon it, never to be removed. And there he remains in the darkness of his prison until he is nothing more than a bundle of useless bones. Yes, man is certainly contemptable. The ground shakes and the stars fall. Loved ones leave, loved ones die, and the sands of life slip through man’s fingers. For this does he imprison himself within the Dynast, that most gracious lord who orders chaos and erases chance. Bad conscience! Don’t you see, O stupid one, that only in chaos can the true life be lived?
The Origins of Hate, The Eschatologies, Vol. I
Two nights after the bloodbath in the cellar, Al’tis set off. She had waited for the opportune moment and found it this evening when Peter had filled her inventory bags with farming items, had her sell them to the local host-merchants in Eastwind’s markets, and deposited the coin in her pockets in the town’s bank. It was a sign: Peter would not be returning to Karingali for a day at least, maybe more, and she would be free to ghost awhile. And so, without saying a word to Braithwaite who, as in nights past had fallen asleep next to her, she dressed, closed the door silently behind her, and made her way through the town to the shrine, leaving not one footstep in the snow.
The square was empty, bar the warden and koda, patrolling their routes and taking up their habitual positions. Since her last failed attempt at reaching the shrine, she’d worked hard at using the chameleon by herself, and whenever Peter was absent had practised the art of disappearing and reappearing among acquaintances, who never realised she’d been anywhere else but by their side. Practice made perfect. It was so much easier this time around, as easy as breathing, and when her hand touched the blue flame, burning calm and still in the soft falling snows, the hooded guard and attack dog were just as easily duped.
She had never understood how the shrines linked together as a continent-spanning nexus, how they could send you across massive distances in a trice, time zones and hemispheres reduced to mere afterthoughts. She’d never needed to know. When Peter moved within her, he made her touch the flickering blue flame that sat atop the shrine’s pedestal and that was that: the next moment she saw the Malformed sea twinkling in the distance, or felt the sands of the Bone Waste desert grit her mouth and eyes.
The power of the spoken word. When Al’tis brought her hand to the flame and whispered the village’s name, the ground beneath her fell away and she was thrown into the void. It felt very different without Peter there to guide her and mitigate the sensation. Her stomach dropped, as if she’d been thrown from a mountain top. There was a rushing wind, streaking light on her face, a strange static ringing in her ears. It was over in a heartbeat but standing here now, in the shrine of Fallwood, she struggled to put one foot in front of the other and her head span so quickly she had to sit down.
Lying amongst the long, sun-warmed grasses, the smell of the sea in the distance, she waited for the nausea to pass. Images of the raid on Sin Ingris’ house flittered across her mind: the taint, the dismembered bodies, the resurrected elf. What exactly had it all been about? What, indeed, was the purpose of any of this? Of this world and her life in it? The official explanation for Karingali’s existence was a total falsehood—she’d decided that an age ago. Karingali, so the lie went, was the creation of the divine hag Cailleach, who made the wind blow and the seas rise, who had built the mountains as her stepping-stones and who shaped the hills and valleys with her hammer. But for Al’tis, aware of the world as something distinct and detached from herself, such an explanation was a fable, window-dressing to hide an entirely different reality.
She touched the blades of grass with a hand, feeling them bend beneath and tickle her skin. No. There had to be something else, a prime mover that not only shaped the natural world, but moulded the social one too. The endless missions, the interminable cycle of life and death that creatures like the Night Duke endured, the travel restrictions placed upon ghosts, the hosts who kept watch and maintained order—all of it pointed to a power beyond.
She had seen a name for such a principle in The Eschatologies and it had stuck. The Dynast. She’d thought it was her own little secret, a personal discovery she’d made in the pages of a dusty, forgotten book. Until she’d realised it was well-known amongst those possessed who, like her, asked questions and sought answers. Al’tis couldn’t see, touch, hear, taste, or prove the existence of the Dynast, yet she felt its presence every second of every day. The sun that warmed her skin and the wet grass that perfumed the air. The shrines that broke basic rules of physics by transporting her from one side of the continent to the other in the blink of an eye. The user who dressed her, fed her and coerced her. Like an omnipresent, omnipotent shadow, the Dynast stood behind everything. Karingali was the product of its machinations, passing off the artificial as real, the constructed as organic.
There was, for instance, no other way to explain the sudden appearance of Edgefrost. A month ago the zone hadn’t existed, yet now it was packed with forests and horizon-spanning sheets of ice. Animals, folk, towns, farms, even cities—all conjured magically into life. The quest chain she was being made to complete, and the user who was making her complete it—they were only symptoms of her slavery. The Dynast was the illness which she needed to cure.
Feeling restored, she jumped up, brushed the grass from her coat, and made her way down to the bottom of the cliffs, where the sea met the land and the wall of red rock rose imperiously into the sky. She stood looking up at the dazzling, vertiginous cliff-face. All was quiet—she had not seen a single person, possessed or otherwise. It was as if the place had ceased to exist for the folk of Karingali. Walking the thin line between the cliffs and the incoming tide, she inspected the escarpment. The toy horse was pulled from her back pocket and held up for comparison. There was no doubt about it—the horse was metamorph through and through.
Clambering onto a large rock on the outermost edge of the shore, Al’tis lost herself in thought. With the exception of the elf, who should be dead but wasn’t, she was unsure what she was searching for and yet she’d risked her safety to come here. At this very moment, the warden and koda would be patrolling Eastwind’s square and she’d have to elude them again if she wanted to return home undetected. Peter might come back at any moment. Not finding her in the place he’d left her, Cailleach only knew what he’d do to her. The path towards a self-determining life was narrowing all the time: the more she walked it, the more she risked destroying it.
She looked at the cliff face. It was as red as a wound, but the waves that thrashed against it and the swathes of moss that clung to it had darkened its base far more than its upper reaches. Across the entire expanse of rock, thin white lines, like veins in a body, spread out radially from knots which punctured the cliff face. She traced one with her eyes and followed its meandering trail until it split into other, thinner lines that continued their own straggling paths.
Each knot was a juncture in life, a choice to be made, and each line that led away from it the consequence of that choice. The pattern was set, predetermined, locked forever within the irreducible rock. Choice and consequence were nothing if one had no say over them. Knot and line, choice and consequence. The cliff face was an expression of fate—hers as well as others.
But, Al’tis thought, dislodging a piece of stone from the rock upon which she stood, what if one smashed a knot? She aimed at a section of the cliff face and threw. The stone found its target, striking precisely the place where a knot and a cluster of spindly white fissures met. A section split apart and chunks of metamorph toppled onto the sand below. A hole appeared where the rock had been, deep enough, she imagined, to sink her hand in up to her wrist. A small crater, free of knots and lines. An empty space devoid of history but full of possibilities.
Was one of those possibilities to do with the elf? His apparent ability to return from the dead, to appear through a tear in space? Surely it was proof that, despite all its attempts to construct an environment which imprisoned her, there were weak spots in the Dynast’s creation. The rift appearing from nowhere spoke of a force that undermined Karingali’s controlled environment. Perhaps that power came from within Karingali itself. Was it more than coincidence that the miracle she’d witnessed had occurred in Edgefrost, an entirely new area of the continent? Al’tis couldn’t connect the dots, but she suspected that Edgefrost and the world event of the Ignoble Schism had a significance she was yet to understand.
While she’d stood daydreaming, lulled by the beat of the sea, the water had reached half-way up the rock, sending spray across her feet and legs. The space between ocean and land had reduced to a thin strip. Jumping down, she waded through the shallows, the warm ocean splashing against her hips and chest. She looked up at the enormous wall of metamorphic rock towering over her and was blinded by sunlight. Back at Eastwood it would be night, but here the sun was approaching its zenith. Through squinting eyes, she thought she saw a silhouetted figure perched on the bluff, and for a moment assumed it was simply a tree, rooted precariously on the cliff’s overhang. Then the figure moved off, walking back over the bluff and disappearing from view.
Fallwood was not as abandoned as she had thought.
It was as she was returning the way she had come that Al’tis realised she was being followed. The figure from the cliffs was still there, moving slowly along an upper path that ran parallel to the trail she was following. It would intermittently disappear from view, only to reappear later, further ahead. When the flickering blue flames of the shrine finally came into view, the figure took a shallow footpath running down a break in the sides of the cliff and approached her slowly.
‘The Cailleach greets you,’ Al’tis began cautiously, but her hands were ready to punish.
‘Does she?’ the figure replied, bowing deeply.
The woman before her was much older than she, and was dressed in a strange, hessian robe that Al’tis had never seen in any of the markets she’d visited in the world, its embroidery lovingly detailed with roses, cannis poppies and glow rosemaries. The woman’s blue hair was cut short around the ears, and she wore a cluster of bracelets, different, original, that extended from her forearm to her wrists.
‘Sorry?’ Al’tis was confused.
‘I asked, does she?’
‘The Cailleach. Does the Cailleach greet me?’
The assassin frowned. It was a common enough greeting across Karingali, and one which the old lady must have said and heard a thousand times before.
‘Why don’t you try again, only this time, don’t invoke the name of someone we both know is humbuggery? Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?’
Al’tis stared into the woman’s eyes but found no trace of malice or trickery. Unsure of what she was being asked to say, she cleared her throat and said it anyway.
‘The Dynast greets you.’
‘Ah! Why, the Dynast protects.’
The confusion Al’tis felt must have been written on her face, because the older woman smiled sympathetically and spoke in the tone of an instructive parent.
‘Naming a thing it is not is the essence of lying and the root of all delusion. Why deceive yourself so?’
Al’tis thought for a moment. ‘You clearly set much store by names in Fallwood. Forgive me.’
‘Names are always more than names,’ the old woman said. ‘It is the ideas, the beliefs, and the powers we attach to a name that make them so important. With the use of names we have invested the feeblest of men with the power of the gods, and the meanest of characters with the spirit of angels. If you call something by another, how are you ever to learn what it truly is?’
Al’tis shrugged her shoulders. ‘As you wish.’ She knew she sounded petulant, but the role of casuist this woman was obviously playing annoyed her.
‘But,’ the old lady continued, seemingly unaware of her companion’s scorn, ‘it is a comfort to know there is another who has read the End of Days.’
Again, Al’tis felt bewildered and at the same time, irritated. She stared back blankly.
‘Ah, forgive me. You most probably know it as The Eschatologies.’
‘Why does it comfort you that I’ve read the book?’
‘Because it is the truth, my dear. And the truth is essential to freedom. That is what you seek, after all, is it not?’ Without waiting for the assassin to reply, she continued. ‘Tell me, what do you think of it?’
‘Of what?’ she stuttered, trying to regain an equanimity that had been ruffled by the old woman’s perceptions.
‘The Eschatologies, child. I confess, it has been a while since I read it myself, but I enjoy listening to the thoughts of those who have scrutinised its pages more recently.’ She blinked in the midday sun, smiling expectantly.
‘Well, what of it? It was—is—a challenging read. Many of the passages I skipped, others I didn’t understand. I suppose the illustrations were the best bit.’
‘Indeed!’ the blue-haired woman exclaimed. ‘Precisely as it should be. And which illustrations did you enjoy the most?’
There had been one in particular that remained etched in her memory to this very day. An enormous valley, framed on either side by steep, rocky mountains, had been washed in fire, the earth’s outer crust peeled away, its mantle erupting onto the surface in waves of dazzling larva. Al’tis remembered mountains cracking apart, strikes of white lightening shattering them into thousands of colossal shards, and herculean boulders that tumbled into the gorge below. It was an awesome vision, painted by a madman, of a world that could hold itself together no longer, eviscerated by its own elements, scorched and smashed from existence.
When Al’tis described it, the old woman nodded sagely at every detail. ‘The Great Wrath,’ she said knowingly, when Al’tis finished speaking. ‘A personal favourite.’
‘It doesn’t seem a particularly accurate prophesy. The sun still shines and the land is still in one piece.’
The woman merely smiled. ‘We are not used to visitors in Fallwood,’ she said, changing the subject suddenly.
‘We? You are the first person I’ve met all morning.’
The older woman inspected Al’tis and seemed drawn to her heavy mammoth-skin coat. ‘There are some of us who remain here,’ she said. ‘We’re no trouble. We keep ourselves to ourselves.’
‘I’m not here to cause you trouble’.
‘Of course you are not.’ Her companion broke into a gentle smile. ‘You would not be here by yourself if you were.’ She looked Al’tis up and down. ‘Far from dispossessed indeed,’ she muttered to herself. She stepped forward, examining the mammoth-skin again, stroking it with her fingers. ‘A fine coat, though we are not expecting snow any time soon.’
An attempt at humour. That was a good sign.
‘You are a most curious stranger,’ she continued. ‘You appear well fed and fit, and you carry a newly made pair of matching daggers in your belt. Tell me, who are you?’
‘I need some answers to questions,’ Al’tis stumbled, unsure how she should account for her appearance here.
‘A young woman ghosts to a place that hasn’t been visited by anyone for months, armed and wearing a heavy winter coat that cost more coin than I’ve had in ten years,’ the lady mused. ‘I’d say you have more questions to answer than ask.’
How much should she tell her, how much could she trust her? Al’tis didn’t know, but she had already risked much in coming here, and the questions plaguing her—about the elf, the rift, and now the evocative mention of The Eschatologies—had her consider. Reluctantly, she produced the toy horse from her back pocket and held it up for the old woman to see.
The woman took the horse and inspected it, holding one hand over her eyes to better examine the toy through the blinding sunshine. ‘And where did you find this sweet thing?’
‘Someone gave it to me,’ Al’tis lied.
‘A fine gift indeed. May I inquire who?’
‘A friend. To thank me.’ She was not in the habit of lying. Peter’s encounters with others in Karingali were usually direct and lethal, and certainly never required pretence.
‘Why is the toy interesting?’ Al’tis asked with feigned indifference, knowing her words sounded false.
‘Because I was the one who made it.’
Embarrassed to meet the woman’s smiling gaze, the assassin stared at the ground.
‘We all have secrets to protect,’ the woman continued. ‘I see no reason why you wouldn’t have your own.’
Al’tis felt she had just lost a game of cards that she’d had no chance of winning. The old lady was far from the innocuous figure she first presented, with her flowery clothes and unfashionable blue hair. Less a hermit the world had left behind than a cunning extortioner of truths that people guarded closely.
‘I found it on the dead body of an elf,’ she blurted out. ‘I need to know who he is—was.’ She hardly knew which tense to use. ‘I need to know things about him. Things have… happened,’ and she stopped, frustrated at her inability to articulate a straightforward truth—or even a straightforward sentence.
‘Dead, you say?’
‘Yes. Did you know him?’
The smile disappeared from the old woman’s face. ‘Come with me,’ she said firmly.
The journey was long. The mysterious woman was surprisingly fit, leaping up the steep slope from where she had first appeared without the slightest loss of breath, and striking off once again on her own when they had reached a fork in the path. The track meandered up the cliff’s side like a snail’s trail, and each time Al’tis thought the next turn must be the last, it continued, seemingly without end. By the time they’d reached the top, the younger woman was scuffing the ground with tired feet, scattering pieces of red stone from the path onto the grassy banks that ran alongside.
‘Would you like to rest?’ the woman called out over her shoulder, but when the assassin returned her smile with a determined shake of the head, she continued to move on.
They continued to walk across the cliff’s enormous back, a huge expanse of green, like a giant’s billiard table, marked here and there with the occasional wind-battered tree or clump of sheep that grazed on the well-rained grass. The sea was completely out of sight now; at this height and angle, only the horizon where water met sky was visible on one side, and on the other, an infinity of fields and farmland.
At last they began once more to descend to the sea, but then the path ahead disappeared from view, the ground opening outwards to form an entrance to a cave. It was a relatively small opening, as red in hue as the cliff face and almost perfectly circular, a puckered, lipsticked mouth, swallowing the trail they had followed.
Al’tis realised then why they had taken this elevated route. The cave could only be accessed from this side of the cliff, and only by following an exhaustingly long track over its back. From its sea-facing front, the entrance to this place was completely sealed and impossible to enter. It was a perfect haven from prying eyes and unwanted attention.
‘Wait here,’ the old woman said, when they had reached the bottom of the slope and the cave’s coolness enveloped them. ‘I will need these of course, as a matter of safety.’ She pointed to the assassin’s daggers.
‘I’d rather that didn’t happen.’
Al’tis Mara’s reply was direct. She was keeping one eye on the woman and another on her surroundings—getting jumped here would be only too easy.
‘I understand. But believe me, your presence here risks us much more than it does you. If you want to find answers to your questions, I suggest you do as I say. Please.’
Al’tis relented. The sooner she was done here, the sooner she could return to Eastwind and safety. She unhitched her belt, pulled it through the straps of her guards, and handed it over, daggers and all.
The small entrance to the cave was deceptive. Here, where the path terminated, the mouth opened out into an enormous clearance of red rock walls where smaller dirt tracks curled away into the darkness beyond. Hundreds of oil lamps burnt, each one composed of makeshift wicks that floated in metal containers filled with oil, their weak, flickering lights revealing primitive drawings on the walls. Drawings of strange, mythical beasts and a host of races—orcs, humans, highborn, trolls. The cave smelt of age as well as damp, but for all its apparent discomfort, it was an excellent place to live if one wanted to disappear.
A minute later, the blue-haired lady returned, this time flanked by two synches, fox-like creatures that stood on two legs and used their other two as arms. They were shorter than Al’tis, and a lot furrier. If she’d wanted to intimidate the assassin, the old woman could have done a better job with her henchmen. The synches smiled and timidly waggled their two free paws as a polite form of greeting. Al’tis bowed in return and tried not to laugh.
‘You’ll need this,’ said the old lady, pulling out a small burlap sack from a pocket in her robe. ‘Put it on.’
Al’tis looked from the sack to the woman to the synches, unsure whether they were serious. The animals continued to smile at her invitingly, their brown hairy faces the picture of innocence, and it was hard to believe they wanted anything other than to make her acquaintance.
‘You’ll understand why,’ her companion said, ‘when we get there.’
‘Get where?’ The assassin reached for the sack resignedly and placed it over her head.
‘Let us proceed,’ she heard the woman say. Feeling the soft touch of paws on her arms, she was led further into the cave and into darkness.
She counted the steps, calculated the turns, and knew exactly how to leave this place if the need arose. Ahead, she heard the woman’s footsteps echo off the walls, and directly beside her paws pattered softly as the synches escorted her carefully down one path, then another, and another, until finally, when she was beginning to doubt her ability to capture the route in her mind, they came to a standstill. She heard coughing and the clearing of throats. The smell of damp had been replaced by something more amenable—the scent of vegetables cooking, the scent of stew. The furry arms released her and she felt something move behind her and touch her legs. A chair, moved silently into position.
‘Sit, please,’ she heard a voice say quietly, and she did.
‘You can remove your headwear now,’ came the same voice, and Al’tis obliged. As she did, she prepared herself to adjust her eyes, but she needn’t have bothered. The same soft light that filled the cave entrance illuminated the space before her. The same wicks and containers of oil lay scattered across the floor, some placed next to walls, others arranged in small circles that dotted the floor at random intervals.
When she looked up, she wasn’t facing the old woman. She wasn’t facing anyone at all. Instead, she sat in a circle, with folk and creatures of all manner of race and type to her left and right.
‘Welcome to the Circle of Nine,’ came the same voice, and when she searched for it amongst the group, her gaze fell upon a pair of eyes she had seen before. A pair of pink eyes. They belonged to Grimalkin, the daemon hunter.