You ask what truth is? It is whatever you have been told. Even a lie is true when stupid folk repeat it.
Lessons never Learnt, The Eschatologies, Vol. V
‘The girl who sliced my throat open,’ said Grimalkin, stroking her neck. There was no scar, Al’tis noticed, gazing at the place where the wound should have been. ‘No hard feelings. I deserved it, I’m sure.’
‘No doubt you did.’ The blue-haired woman had taken a seat by Grimalkin’s side.
They waited for the assassin to speak, but Al’tis stayed silent. She looked at the array of folk and creatures assembled in the circle, counting twenty-eight in all. It occurred to her that the same blank stare she’d seen on Grimalkin’s possessed face when they’d met at the trapdoor to Sin Ingris’ cellar was now written across her own, only this time she was not under the phantasmal influence of her user.
‘Perhaps,’ said the daemon hunter, taking up the reigns of conversation, ‘we should start by giving our names.’
There was a muttering of agreement as human, synche, orc, highborn, goblin, dwarf, and a good many more besides turned to each other and nodded their heads in hushed agreement.
‘I’ll go first. I am Grimalkin, of Rending Pike, alliance—negotiable.’
‘I am Cale, of Glenborough Moor, alliance Distressed Ingress,’ said one of the foxlike synches who had met Al’tis at the cave entrance.
‘I am Ry the Eager, of Grail’s End, alliance Crossfellows,’ said a highborn, sitting opposite. He managed a faint smile, but his tone was hesitant.
He appeared uncomfortable with the incongruity of his noble ancestry and the undignified euphemism his user had bestowed on his name. The snigger that arose from within the circle as he announced himself suggested he had good cause to feel aggrieved.
‘Grawl Fortinbras, of Sunken Fields, alliance Reaping,’ said a large orc in a low, surly voice.
The introductions continued, and after the twenty-eighth member, a huge bird of fire—or ziz—had announced itself as Lowki, all eyes fell on Al’tis, some eyeing her suspiciously, others sympathetically.
‘I am Al’tis Mara, of Eastwind, alliance Cambrook.’
‘Eastwind?’ Ry said with surprise, addressing the woman with the blue hair. ‘I didn’t know our recruitment drive had extended to Eastwind. That town is as possessed as they come. How did you manage to find her?’
‘Al’tis Mara came to us,’ replied the old woman, her voice assured.
‘What recruitment drive?’ Al’tis inquired, but the conversation continued amongst the group and she was ignored.
‘And just how in the Dynast’s bollocks did she know where to find us?’
It was the orc, Fortinbras, who, like most of the others, was dressed in tattered hessian. He fired an accusing glance at the old lady before turning his fierce gaze on the assassin, his eyes fixed on the hide jack and the guards visible beneath her mammoth-skin coat.
Whenever Al’tis had met orcs or highborn in Karingali, they had always been formidably dressed, either in resplendent chainmail armour or elegant robes. These folk were a complete contrast: with the exception of Grimalkin and the blue-haired woman, who had introduced herself as Arkana Zalmuri, they wore rags for clothes, and to a man, synche, ziz, goblin or orc, they all looked exhausted and starving. Their uniformly disheveled appearance reminded Al’tis of Braithwaite. Realisation came suddenly. They were alike in one crucial aspect—they were dispossessed.
The members of the circle began to shift in their places, waiting for an explanation of how this outlier had been admitted to the Circle of Nine. Al’tis looked at Grimalkin and thought how relaxed—even oblivious—the daemon hunter appeared to the rising tension within the room. Sitting in her chair, her long, shapely legs outstretched, she seemed to luxuriate in the sensual body she had been given.
‘She had this on her,’ said Zalmuri finally, seeing that Fortinbras, along with a handful of others within the circle, was getting ready to leave. She held up the toy horse made of metamorph.
‘And how did she get that?’ the orc asked aggressively. Every inch of cartilage in his pointy, backward-slanting ears was filled with an array of metallic spikes, hoops, studs and barbells.
Al’tis began to wonder if she had used the chameleon accidentally. Had she become invisible to those around her?
‘She found it on Aeson Balleth of Gantry Woods, when he died trying to enlist the services of the Night Duke,’ Zalmuri returned.
‘Found it? You mean she robbed him.’ Fortinbras looked Al’tis up and down, two huge front tusks becoming pronounced as his mouth twisted in contempt. She wished she were invisible after all. ‘She seems mighty well dressed and fed for a dispossessed,’ he added. At this, others started to inspect her clothes and muttered amongst themselves.
‘No,’ continued Zalmuri, softly. ‘Her user had her loot it from Balleth’s body, in Galgothria.’
‘I fucking knew it!’ the orc bellowed and leapt up from his chair. ‘She’s possessed!’
The uproar was instant. Chairs were knocked backwards, wicks were kicked and turned over. Lowki, the ziz, squawked violently, more at the commotion around it than at the revelation of the assassin’s true identity. Spreading its huge, burning wings, it flapped urgently upwards, into the cavernous expanses of the room’s ceiling, knocking a dwarf off his chair as it rose in the air.
Some of the company pointed accusingly at Zalmuri, others glowered menacingly at Al’tis. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Fortinbras make a dash for her; but for the quick intercession of the two synches, who formed a barrier of fur and fuzz between them, Al’tis was in danger of being caught completely off guard. She leapt back over her chair, reached for her daggers that were not there, and felt utterly confused.
The chaos ended when Grimalkin, who had until now been watching the scene with a detached amusement, rose from her chair and, skin and flesh ripping apart, assumed a completely different shape: an enormous, blood-soaked vampire, replete with large wings which thrust from her back and a pair of dangerously sharp fangs in her mouth.
There was a shriek as the circle turned to see this violent metamorphosis, and though they had almost certainly been witness to it before, they were cowed to silence by her terrifying form.
‘Now,’ she said diffidently, retaking her seat and pushing her wings over the back of her chair like the ends of a scarf. ‘Please, be seated.’
Even as a grotesque vampire, Al’tis thought Grimalkin oozed seductiveness, slowly moving her tongue over her fangs, running her hands up and down a pair of long legs that now ended not in feet but in a pair of hooves. Ry the Eager, who had remained seated throughout the entire disorder, seemed unable to take his eyes off her, and the gaze he fixed her with was not that of disgust but desire.
Once the circle was again complete, Grimalkin continued. ‘I met Al’tis Mara at the home of Sin Ingris. It was there she saw Aeson use a portal to enter Karingali and rescue Alin Ugast.’
‘Why Ugast?’ asked someone Al’tis couldn’t see. ‘What’s that old git got to do with anything?’
‘Not the most pressing point at the moment,’ Grimalkin replied. ‘I repeat: Al’tis Mara has seen the Occultory’s portal magic.’
‘And yet she’s still here, not there,’ the orc fired back.
‘It was a risk we had to take. She came looking for us.’
Again, all eyes were on Al’tis. For the first time since she’d entered this bizarre council of misfits and misanthropes she spoke freely.
‘I came here of my own accord,’ she said, telling them of Galgothria, of the elf’s body, the red toy horse hued from metamorph, the night in the square, and of her journey to Fallwood. ‘I came to find this Aeson Balleth,’ she ended.
‘He’s not here,’ Fortinbras responded. ‘He’s there.’ He seemed to be recalling an unpleasant memory.
‘Where is there?’
She’d never heard of Provision, and for a moment she thought the orc described a new location in Edgefrost she had yet to discover.
‘Not enough having a vampire in our midst,’ he continued, slapping his knees and becoming irate again. ‘Now we’ve got a possessed too. We’re fucked.’
‘I would suggest you refrain from impugning the honour of Lady Grimalkin, if that is to whom you refer,’ said Ry. He took his eyes off the vampire momentarily to glare at the orc.
‘For shit’s sake, highborn. She’s not going to fuck you, not if you were the last man left to suck on.’
There was a nervous laughter from some within the circle.
Grimalkin raised her eyebrows at the orc, and he fell silent. The giant fire-bird, Lowki, who had been keeping an eye on proceedings below, ended its circular passes of the room and finally came to rest above a chair that, as a courtesy, had been set out for it. It was a glorious creature to behold, at least ten metres in height, its coat of enflamed blue feathers kindling like scorched coals. It looked from Grimalkin to Fortinbras to Zalmuri, and finally laid its golden eyes on Al’tis.
‘Portal magic,’ Al’tis whispered to herself, recalling Grimalkin’s phrase. She remembered the block of cliff-face that had fallen away and the cavernous hole appearing behind it. ‘There’s a place beyond this, beyond Karingali?’ The incredulity in her voice made her sound like a child who asked how the sky was blue, but she couldn’t help it. The sting of anticipation and fear was powerful. Somewhere inside her an enormous sea of hope was surging yet threatening to drown her. ‘How is that possible?’
‘You know as well as we that Karingali is a prison,’ said Zalmuri, picking bits of loose hessian from her robe. ‘And like all prisons, there is a world outside the walls.’ She met Al’tis Mara’s stare and smiled at her. ‘You have read The Eschatologies. Its words have not been lost on you. On the contrary, they have reached inside and touched that spirit which is yours alone. You spoke of the Dynast. You know the truth of the matter already.’
A murmur rippled through the circle. At the mention of the Dynast and the mysterious book, Al’tis saw Fortinbras’ expression shift from outright hostility to something approaching begrudging disdain.
‘To answer your question directly: glitches.’ Grimalkin was inspecting her thin, sharp, claws and leaning backwards in her chair, her mien suggesting she were about to fall asleep. ‘Weaknesses or points of stress in Karingali’s design. Not so much holes as sites where the fabric of the world is worn so thin you can pass through without tearing it apart. They’re all over the place if you know where to look.’
‘Then why are you all still here, and not there—in Provision?’
Ry the Eager piped up. ‘Now that is the question, isn’t it? Why indeed?’ He cast Grimalkin a glance, and an unspoken message flashed between them.
‘Because,’ said the orc, ‘they’re a bunch of fucking cowards. Either that or they enjoy the feeling of starvation in their bellies.’
Al’tis turned to him, a question in her eyes. He would need to elaborate.
‘Over there,’ he said, ‘there ain’t no coming back from the dead. Over there, if you die, that’s your lot. This bunch,’ and he motioned around the room with his muscular green arms, ‘prefer to live in hope they’ll be enslaved by their users than die there as free folk.’ He sat up straight in his chair and folded his arms. ‘Too dumb, blind or scared to accept the fact they’re waiting on a prayer. No-one’s coming back for them.’
Al’tis had never given much thought to mortality. In Karingali, dying was just a part of being possessed. Users made mistakes, after all. You’d get eaten by a dragon or poisoned by a spider, but your user would bring you back, and you’d pick up where you left off as though nothing had happened. Even the dispossessed never really knew the finality of death; no matter how small or unlikely, there was always a chance that a user might return and reclaim what was theirs. Though he never admitted it, Al’tis knew Braithwaite set store by such a scenario.
But if there was another world beyond this one, a place where the grasping hands of a user were merely a memory, then one’s freedom from possession also meant a new and terrifying vulnerability—mortality. There would be no revivals, no resurrections. Death would be permanent, and no amount of wishing it differently would change that.
‘It’s not quite as simple as Grawl Fortinbras makes out,’ said Grimalkin, filing a claw with another. ‘Though he does an admirable job at adumbrating the general quandary.’
The orc looked confused but grunted in consent.
‘There were nine in the beginning. Nine glitches across Karingali. The dispossessed discovered them, for they were left to their own devices too long. They learnt to rely on their own senses, learnt to take an interest in the world around them. For the first time in their lives they opened their eyes and ears. They came upon the glitches quite by chance of course, in the unfrequented nooks of the world. They were the sorts of places users never went—unfrequented nooks—and which the Dynast consequently never showed much interest in maintaining.’
‘A big shiteing mistake, as it turns out,’ Fortinbras butted in.
‘A matter of opinion.’ The vampire sighed. Her tolerance of the bad-tempered orc seemed to be waning. ‘They stepped through the glitches, each dispossessed finding his or her own road to freedom. After a time, they found each other, and roughly seven years ago they established Provision, a colony of sorts, a haven for dispossessed to live in liberty, away from Karingali and the Dynast.’
‘The colony—it’s still there?’ Al’tis asked, trying to keep up with the torrent of revelations, still struggling to believe what she was hearing.
‘Very much so,’ said Lowki. ‘I was there yesterday.’
‘What?’ she shouted in disbelief, startling the synche Cale, who had taken up a seat beside her after the fracas. ‘Then why come back at all? You made it out, away from—’ she gestured at the cavern and the people in the circle ‘—from this.’
‘My sentiments entirely,’ muttered Ry, and received a withering look from Grimalkin.
‘Up until now, we have stayed to ferry the dispossessed across,’ the vampire continued.
‘But why? Why do they need you to lead them there? You say the first ones to cross through the glitches did so by themselves?’
‘When the first folk crossed, they usually did so alone. These days they cross in packs. As families. As communities. And often it’s a week’s journey for them to reach a glitch. They’re easy pickings for host-bandits and users. The Circle has helped where we could. We’ve protected them on the road, bought supplies for them in the towns, shown them the quieter routes to the glitches. Up to this point, we’ve never crossed ourselves—that journey has been for others to take. Those like you, who have become cognisant of the facts.’
‘Up to this point?’ Al’tis asked. ‘What do you mean?’
‘The facts have changed. And we must change with them.’ The vampire fell silent, and she appeared unwilling to elaborate.
Fortinbras intervened. ‘Let’s be honest,’ he snorted, looking around the circle and addressing those present. ‘You lot remain here because you’re scared to leave. That’s the real reason.’
‘What about you?’ Al’tis challenged, fixing her gaze on Fortinbras. ‘Why are you still here, knowing you can leave when you want?’
The orc furrowed his brow and grimaced, the two tusks on either side of his lower lip protruding like impaling spikes. He glared at the assassin, and for a moment she thought he would charge at her again. ‘I have my own reasons,’ he said in a lowered voice, ‘and you don’t need to know them.’
‘We all have our reasons.’ Grimalkin stood up, shaking the lethargy from her wings. ‘And we all have our choices to make. Some stay because they still have hope. Hope that their users may return to reclaim them, and they can go back to handing their lives over to another.’ She yawned theatrically. ‘After all, it is easier to do another’s bidding and pretend you’re free, than actually grasp your freedom by the neck.’ She stretched out a toned, grey arm and strangled the air with her claw. ‘Not everyone is suited to the free life. Taking decisions and standing by them. Accepting responsibility for your life.’
The vampire seemed restless and resumed her seat. Stroking her legs again, she was careful not to tangle the long claws in her fishnets. Ry the Eager followed their direction with hungry eyes, appearing more interested in the length of her limbs than her ontological insights.
‘But some also stay from fear,’ she continued, ‘as Grawl Fortinbras has so eloquently noted. They fear that if they die in Provision, they will not come back. And others stay because they are boatmen, taking the enlightened to the other shore.’ She looked at Ry.
‘The elf,’ insisted Al’tis. ‘Aeson Balleth. He was dead. I’m sure of it. I saw him with my own eyes, in Galgothria. And then he wasn’t. He entered through a portal. How was that possible with no user to revive him?’
‘Either he was playing dead or he’s finally been backed up,’ mused Fortinbras.
‘Ba-ck-ed up,’ he reiterated, emphasising every syllable the way one does when speaking with an idiot.
Lowki spoke. ‘Balleth, or more likely the Occultory mages, has found a way of copying himself—don’t ask me how—and storing a version in Provision. A lot of blood and magic is involved, that’s about all I know. If he dies, they can bring him back, and he’s as good as new.’
‘Wait. Are you saying immortality is possible there, in Provision?’ It was another revelation in what had become an utterly transformative day.
‘Not yet, at least not reliably,’ the giant bird answered, and fell silent, staring at the small wick flame burning by its feet.
‘Understatement of the fucking year.’ Fortinbras laughed. ‘Remember Lothindra Faeryn? Jekuth Kol? Their back-ups didn’t go so well, did they? Seems to me that whatever the Occultory is working on is as reliable as a goblin’s cock!’
There was a dirty chuckle from a few within the circle, including, Al’tis noticed, a goblin, who had spent the entire meeting looking plaintively at the floor.
Having sat in silence, Zalmuri finally spoke. ‘As Lowki was saying, the Occultory’s system is not yet reliable. Arch-mage Equam is working to perfect it. And when she succeeds, as I have no doubt she will, then immortality will become a reality for the citizens of Provision.’
‘But how can you be sure she will succeed? How does this system work?’ For a moment Al’tis thought she detected slight irritation ripple across the old lady’s usually calm face. She wasn’t telling the whole story.
‘Those are questions we cannot possibly answer,’ Zalmuri continued, the placid smile returning to her face. ‘All we have is hope. For now, that is enough.’
Fortinbras scowled and scraped his boots along the stone floor, but he fell silent when he met the old woman’s cold gaze.
There was a hiatus in the conversation, each creature thinking perhaps of what such a system might look like and how it might affect them. Each one seemed lost in his own private fantasy—how freedom, real freedom, might feel. A freedom in which they would no longer endure the privations of dispossession and no longer despise themselves for hoping their users would return to protect them. A freedom that saw them transcend that ultimate master—death—a threat that currently weighed heavy on the minds of those living in Provision.
There was a silence in the circle. Only the oil wicks quivering in the faint draught and the far-off dripping of moisture could be heard.
Al’tis was the first to break the quiet. ‘There are twenty-eight of you here,’ she said. ‘But there are more than twenty-eight dispossessed in Karingali. Far more. What of them? Why are they not here with you?’
‘We prefer to remain anonymous and work in the shadows,’ Zalmuri replied. ‘I suppose twenty-eight seems an arbitrary number, and in a way it is. There is no mystical reason for it. Simply put, it is the number of folk we need to perform our duties in Karingali. Why add to that number if you don’t require more?’
‘But surely the more hands you have to help, the more folk you could see through the glitches.’
‘Good point,’ Fortinbras scoffed. ‘Let’s invite all the fuckers and find out. While you’re at it, let’s invite the whole world here and see how that goes. We’ve already got you. Why stop at that?’
There was a small muttering of agreement. A few members of the circle turned to glare at Al’tis, seeming to remember the threat her possession posed to them.
‘Twenty-eight is enough,’ Zalmuri insisted. ‘We’re looking to establish a community in Provision, not in Karingali. We need folk who are willing to work there, to help with its construction and development. They can’t do that sitting here with us.’
‘How do the enlightened get to Provision?’ Al’tis asked, careful to use the Circle’s terminology. She thought of Braithwaite, of his malnourished body and tired mind, and she wanted him to be with her now, to hear what she had heard and to draw hope from it.
‘We escort them to a glitch, and from there, to Provision,’ Zalmuri answered. ‘That is all.’
‘That is the condition of enlightenment,’ said Grimalkin, watching the assassin’s reaction closely. ‘And our sacred rule. We are not in the business of proselytising or converting. When folk know what we know, they are free to do with that knowledge as they wish. They can continue to live here, or they can take the next step to Provision. Those possessed who, like you, are keen to ask questions, well, they can remain possessed or escape their user. We appraise folk of the facts. End of. It makes no difference to us if they listen. After all, it’s what you do with that knowledge that matters, not the knowing itself.’
Once they know what we know. It is what you do with that knowledge that matters. They were utterances that would not have been out of place in The Eschatologies.
‘Why did you invite me here then, if you aren’t looking to add to your Circle? Surely, you’re putting yourself at risk. My user might be back at any time. What happens then?’
‘Finally!’ Fortinbras clapped his hands at her sarcastically. ‘Rich girl understands!’
‘I don’t know really.’ Zalmuri chuckled, her tone relaxing for the first time since the meeting had begun. ‘Sympathy? Curiosity? Maybe you remind me of someone.’ She cast a glance at the vampire before she continued. ‘Perhaps I see you as a most able young woman who will help our cause greatly.’ She tugged lightly on her hessian dress and turned over a bracelet on her thin arm. ‘Besides,’ she said, producing the small burlap sack from her pocket again, ‘that is why I asked you to wear this. If you were possessed whilst you were with us, we would at least have some time to escort you back to the hillside path before you revealed our location. But of course, it was a risk.’
‘Once I posed a threat to the Circle, too,’ Grimalkin said, looking at the orc in defiance, ‘but I have done enough to warrant my inclusion in it. I was considered worthy when I was invited to join, and I do not think I have betrayed the trust invested in me or caused people to question my dedication to the cause.’
For the first time since her arrival, Al’tis thought the orc looked ashamed of himself.
‘As Arkana Zalmuri says, it is a risk. For everyone here. It is always a risk for folk like us who know things we were not designed to know. But the goal is this world’s liberation. And I for one will risk everything to see that done.’ The vampire stretched her neck left and right so strenuously Al’tis could see the throb of veins beneath her grey skin. ‘We think you will be of great use on the other side, as I am of use here. I’ve seen what you are capable of. Indeed, I have been on the receiving end.’
An exchange of looks passed between the two women, and Al’tis thought she saw for a fleeting moment a smile of solidarity pass across Grimalkin’s face. She realised, there in the cave, in a place long since forgotten by the world, that she had found an equal. Perhaps even a friend.
From the moment the name of Provision had been uttered, Al’tis knew she could not go back. Once they know what we know. Like the unravelling of a ball of string, her journey from Galgothria had led her ineluctably to this place and to this moment. It is what you do with the knowledge that matters.
After the Circle of Nine had broken, and the twenty-eight weird, wonderful and sometimes hostile dispossessed had made their goodbyes—some pleasantly, others less so—Al’tis sat outside the cave’s entrance and stared up the path which led back over the cliff, towards the shrine of Fallwood. The sky was almost as bright at night as it was in the full glare of the midday sun. Stars in their millions cast a liminal glow over the landscape, and the grasses seemed silvered and plated in chrome. In a few hours’ time a tiny glow on the horizon would signal the dawn, and the asterisms of stars would soon be no more as the sun poked through the night’s curtained sleep. The crash of waves in the distance reminded her of how she had started the day, only now, as they smashed against the cliff face, their sounds symbolised not the potential of hope and change, but the promise of revolution.
‘The longer you tarry, the more you risk all our safety,’ said Zalmuri, who, together with the synches, had accompanied her back through the cave’s labyrinthine passages.
‘I know,’ said Al’tis. She stumbled to find words to say to the old woman. ‘I just wanted to say—’
‘There is no need to thank me, Al’tis Mara. You felt it in your bones; you knew there was more. All we did was confirm that. Repay me by doing what is necessary.’
Al’tis looked at her, confused by her words.
‘You’ll know what that means, when the time comes. Now, will you be leaving for the glitch directly?’
‘No.’ Al’tis took back her belt and daggers from Cale, who had carried them on their way back to the entrance. ‘There’s someone I need to take with me first.’