Imagine standing on a rocky outcrop, with no way off except jumping to your death where the crashing waves await. What would you do? Stay on that ledge and live the most meagre, dull, and wretched life imaginable, or jump, where the promise of existence after death is a mere dream, a fairy tale.
The answer is simple: only a slave remains on that rock.
A Quandary, The Eschatologies, Vol. II
‘Get up,’ she said. ‘We’re leaving.’
Braithwaite opened his eyes, still thick with the fog of sleep. Standing over him, Al’tis was unhooking a medallion from above the bed. It commemorated the fifth year of her creation—Peter, like all users, had received it as a token of gratitude for his participation in Karingali’s eternal struggle against the taint and a legion of other threats. He’d had her mount it above the bed which he had bought for her, in a room that he had bought for her, in a town that he had moved her to. She even owed her birth to him, a strange inversion of life’s biological imperative. She owned nothing herself, not even the clothes she was dressed in, but today, of all days, she felt the pinch of dependency less keenly. She would take the medallion with her, not as a memento, but as a reminder of what she was escaping.
‘Where were you last night, Al’tis?’ Braithwaite rubbed his eyes, watching her from the bed as she pocketed the medal. ‘I woke up when I heard the wolves howling. You weren’t here.’
She ignored him and inspected the medallion, holding it up to the frosty window and breathing on its cheap copper plating. A wintry light shone through the thawing clouds, and she could hear the sound of feet crunching through the snow, passers-by who continued to quest, accumulate, construct, unaware that a different world, a freer world, existed beyond these borders.
‘Al’tis?’ the young man queried, rolling to the corner of the bed to get closer.
Al’tis was sunk deep in thought. For her, everything had changed. Her journey back from Fallwood could have been far quicker, but against the advice of Arkana Zalmuri and her own better judgement she had lingered, rejoicing in her surroundings. She had heard the bird song in the forests a thousand times before, seen the corn-wood plants shed their early morning dew in dawn-lit fields and felt the same drops of rain fall on her face. But last night she had experienced these wonders not as building blocks which constructed a prison around her, but as harbingers of change, spurring her on to a different life.
Sitting next to Braithwaite, she pulled out a small, grey whetstone from the drawer of the bedside table and began sharpening the daggers against its grainy surface, their points so thin, so lethal, they could pierce the toughest armour.
Braithwaite moved his head slightly so that his face was under her arm as she worked the glinting steel with expert ease.
‘You smell of salt,’ he said, sitting up a little and putting his nose to her long black hair which fell across her shoulders or reached down her back.
‘Where have you been? Did he come for you in the night?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘he didn’t.’
‘Then why do you smell of salt? Where have you been?’
‘I took a trip, Braith.’
‘Around Eastwind? At night?’
‘I don’t understand.’ Braithwaite sounded upset.
So, she told him everything.
When she was done, she thought he would scream. Or worse, cry. He’d looked at her with growing astonishment as she explained her travel to Fallwood and the meeting with the Circle of Nine. When she described the orc Fortinbras and the ziz Lowki, his grin grew into a laugh, and she found herself laughing with him.
‘So, we will leave,’ she ended emphatically, and the excitement of her discovery washed over her again.
‘Tonight, if I’m not called away.’ It was one of many euphemisms Al’tis had for possession.
‘What do we take with us? We’ll need everything.’
‘We won’t take a thing’, she said categorically. ‘It’s going to be hard enough getting us both to the shrine at night without drawing attention.’
‘But how will we survive when we cross? You said it’s a long trek from the glitch to Provision. What will we live on?’
‘We’ll figure it out.’ She leant over and kissed the crown of his head.
Al’tis couldn’t say she felt a maternal love for Braithwaite, but she had affection for him. He was weak and most possessed hated him for it, but she had always thought of his frailty as a kind of resistance. Whilst she and others dedicated their lives to becoming killers, pursuing weapons and armour across the world that would give them greater advantages over those they battled, Braithwaite remained as he had been from the moment of his inception. She had no doubt that, given the opportunity, he too would succumb to the arms race that was Karingali, but in his vulnerable, unprotected purity he represented something altogether nobler.
Apart from a brief reconnaissance of the square and a necessary trip to Kylar the butcher, Al’tis spent the rest of the day in her room with Braithwaite hidden away, fearing her mere appearance in Eastwind would reveal the secret she carried in her heart. She showed her companion a paper map Grimalkin had passed to her when the council had broken up and which indicated clearly the location of the glitch she should pass through as well as the path she would need to take to get there.
It was yet another risk Al’tis had taken in the name of her freedom. If Peter found it on her when he entered the world he might have asked questions, and so, having shown Braithwaite the shrine nearest the glitch—one on the outskirts of Holbrake, in the north of Karingali—she screwed the map up into a ball and threw it on the low-burning fire.
And then they waited.
Afternoon passed into evening, and evening into night. Peter still hadn’t arrived, and though every minute presaged his appearance, it was also a minute gained, a minute closer to their goal. When she heard the pine wolves begin their nocturnal song in the mountain passes, Al’tis knew the time had come.
‘Let’s go,’ she said finally, just as Braithwaite was falling asleep on the bed.
Outside, the town was deserted and still. Every now and then they paused in its alleys and backstreets to check for guards or hosts who might ask questions of them, but all was quiet save the soft swish of snow beneath their feet. Their progress felt excruciatingly slow; unable to apply the chameleon to Braithwaite, Al’tis attempted as best she could to hide the imprints his tattered shoes made in the snow.
They approached the square from the same angle she had taken on her two prior forays. The warden and the koda were there as usual but she waited regardless, Braithwaite shivering in the snow behind her. She’d had the whole day to plan her next move.
‘Stay here,’ she whispered, and Braithwaite nodded.
She slid away and in a moment was gone from his sight, following the perimeter until she reached the opposite end of the square. Her idea was simple: draw the hound away, and when the warden disappeared momentarily from the square, as he always did, she would slaughter the mutt, track back across the square before the warden reappeared, and make it to the shrine with Braithwaite in tow.
She waited by the entrance of a long, narrow alley at the northern end of the square that terminated in a tall stone wall. The warden had begun heading in the opposite direction, towards the southern exit, and she knew the moment had come. Searching the walls of the alley, she found the small piece of flint which she had dislodged earlier in the day, fumbling to feel its best edge. She listened. No sound. Then, throwing the flint violently, she launched it at the far wall, cracking the stillness of the night air and sending an echo rippling around the walls and out into the square.
It was enough. With its ever-alert green eyes, the dog had been watching the warden make his rounds and it leapt at the sound, snarling and running at full tilt towards the echo. But when it reached the back alley where Al’tis had stood, it saw nothing. It whined and sniffed the ground, sensing the smell of raw meat not far away. A large cut of lamb lay frosting on the snowy ground; the hound approached it, snuffed at it, and began chewing.
When it heard the sound of steel on steel, it was already too late. Before the hound could turn to meet the noise, two daggers, one from either side, slammed into its temples, and it collapsed onto the snow without a whimper.
The assault had hit with such ferocity that when Al’tis withdrew her daggers and sheathed them, not a single drop of blood spilt from its head. She listened to the night again, but there was nothing. Tracing her steps back to the opening of the alley, her heart sank—she hadn’t been quick enough. A growing shimmer of lamplight was spreading across the walls of the southern passage that led into the square. The warden had returned.
Al’tis felt her breathing quicken when, at the spot where the koda had been, another lamp light shone and a second warden, bigger and burlier than his compatriot, occupied the dog’s position. He was wearing a red robe with a large sword hilt poking from the hood. She cursed her luck: she had affected this change. The dog’s sudden absence from the square required an alteration to the environment. The Dynast was responding.
The red-robed warden did not move, but just like the koda had done, took up position and waited on the edge of the square, occasionally extending his lamp to illuminate the dark in front of him, before lowering it slowly by his side. There was nothing for it now: she’d have to kill him too.
Skirting the perimeter again, while all the time watching the smaller warden who was once again departing through the southern passage, she used the chameleon and made it behind the red-robed guard before the spell wore off.
But as she went to draw her daggers, she heard her name.
‘Al’tis Mara!’ a voice bellowed.
Her intended victim was suddenly shaken from his coma and into life, raising his lamp light quickly, scanning left and right, and squinting into the darkness to discover the origin of the noise.
‘Al’tis Mara of Eastwind!’ came the voice again, only this time, the other, smaller warden scurried back into the square to see what the commotion was about.
The assassin drew a dagger silently from its sheath, but as if by intuition the burly guard sensed her presence. He turned to face her, and dropping the lantern on the ground, reached for the hilt of his sword.
She attacked, and there was the sound of clashing steel, her daggers batted effortlessly aside by a sweeping motion of sword. The man was strong and quick, and it was as much as she could do to get close to him, so close that he could not swing and take her head off. She was on him in an instant, stabbing at his chest where his heart should be, but he was agile and, dropping the sword like a burning coal, grabbed her two wrists, bending them backwards so hard she thought he would break them. She let out a whimper rather than a scream and let go her weapons. The warden lifted her off the ground and with cynical strength smashed his large forehead into her nose.
‘Al’tis Mara!’ boomed the voice again, so loudly that she almost missed the sound of her nose cracking. Blood coursed from her face and quickly reddened the snow beneath her feet. With gauntlets that gripped her wrists so tightly she could feel her bones begin to splinter, the warden hauled her into the light of the square’s centre and threw her to the ground as though she were an unremarkable pest.
The other warden, seeing the tussle unfold, began to run towards them and lend a hand in Al’tis Mara’s beating. But as he made to move, a shriek rose behind him, and a figure ran out of the darkness into the torchlight. ‘No!’ Braithwaite wailed. ‘Leave her alone!’ The young man leapt onto the warden’s back, and though he was light, the force of the impact was enough to bring him down.
Sounds of the boy’s struggles reached Al’tis and she sprung to her feet. Avoiding the punches and kicks of her opponent, she rolled over his shoulder in one movement, and ended with her legs wrapped around his neck. She heard it snap, like the sound of a dry twig in a summer’s heat, as she rammed her knees either side of his neck, connecting with jaw and larynx. She was brought back to the ground by the warden’s slumping body, and rolled herself away and onto her feet.
‘Al’tis Mara of Eastwind,’ the voice bellowed for a third time.
And then she was able to put a face to the voice. From the shadows of the southern entrance a man dressed in elaborate Videth armour and a cingulum stepped into the light. It was Alder Drak.
The smaller warden had bested Braithwaite, and was sitting astride him, hammering his fists at the young man’s emaciated body. He was about to land another blow when the staying hand of Drak held him back. The warden got to his feet and stood still, as if under a spell.
Al’tis was already running towards Braithwaite when she was stopped in her tracks. The man had unsheathed his great axe, the same glass-bladed weapon he had offered her a few evenings ago. He raised it high above his head, the agate rings he wore sparkling in the low light, and gave her a cruel smile before burying the axe in Braithwaite’s skul. There was a loud thud as the axe disappeared deep inside the head, and Drak stood back to look admiringly at his work.
She screamed, but it was too late. Braithwaite’s legs twitched convulsively for a few seconds, and then lay still, blood leaking from his head and pooling around his body.
‘Told you the night was for devils’ work,’ Drak hissed.
Al’tis would have run at him then, torn out his eyes with her fingers, if she hadn’t seen what was coming. First one, then two, then a hundred green pairs of eyes lit up the dark recesses of the square’s many entrances. A sea of koda emerged into the lamplight of the square and formed a steadily closing mouth around her, their paws slowly, deliberatively moving across the freezing stones. She backed away towards the centre of the square. Towards the shrine.
Keeping her eyes on Drak, she committed to memory the grin on his face as he pulled the axe from Braithwaite’s skull and wiped it on the young man’s tattered clothes.
Hundreds of koda spilt into the square then, swallowing up the ground between her and the shrine, and where there had seconds before been an open expanse of untouched snow that glittered in the torchlight, there was now a morass of black fur and bared teeth. The koda were all but on her, their stinking breath reaching her ruined nose and mixing grotesquely with the taste of iron from the blood in her mouth. But she was within a hand’s reach of the shrine’s altar now, and taking one final look at the body that had been Braithwaite, and at Alder Drak who she would destroy, she touched the blue flame, closed her eyes, and disappeared.
The shrine of Holbrake lay two kilometres from the town itself and was as deserted as Eastwind had been. It was even colder here, but that wasn’t a bad thing—ice crystals in the air were helping to cauterise her nose and stem the blood. From Grimalkin’s map, she had a clear idea of her direction, and set off on a path that led north, away from the most northerly town in Karingali.
The path ran through dense forest and the sound of snow was everywhere, falling from the towering pine trees, their branches groaning beneath its weight. She stopped after a while, finding it hard to breathe through the coagulating blood, and squatted to wash her face in the snow. Once again, she heard the thud of the axe as it had slammed into Braithwaite, and couldn’t shake the image of his shuddering legs as life had left his body. She wanted to sit and think, to collect herself, but for all she knew the koda would be following, pouring into the shrine and transported to her location. She had to keep moving.
About a kilometre from the spot where the glitch had been marked, she heard the rustling of bushes and the snapping of branches, and from the thick shrubbery emerged the synches that had protected her from Fortinbras at the meeting with the Circle of Nine. They were on all fours and far bigger than real foxes. Pausing to inspect this stranger in the woods, they looked at her through their quick, black eyes until one of them stood up on its hind legs and extended a paw towards her.
‘Greetings, Al’tis Mara,’ Cale said. ‘Goodness me, look at the state of you!’ He approached her then, and they shook hand and paw.
‘We never spoke,’ said the other, following Cale’s lead. ‘At the meeting, I mean. My name is Horatia. Cale’s sister.’ The heat from their bodies was turning the early morning mist into steaming vapour.
‘You seem to have met with some trouble.’ Cale regarded Al’tis Mara’s nose with mild curiosity and sniffed at the blood on her jack. ‘Come. We must get to the glitch, quickly.’
‘You’re coming too?’ she asked hopefully. The events of the past hour had shaken her. ‘How did you know I’d be here at this time?’
‘Grimalkin sent us,’ Cale replied. ‘We didn’t know exactly when you’d arrive, so we’ve made the woods our home. Quite a pleasant place really. Fresh.’
Horatia was still looking at the assassin and seemed to sense her pain. The synche approached the young woman, and lifting a small paw towards Al’tis Mara’s nose, glided it across her face without touching. The young woman yelped as her nose snapped back into place, a darkened glob of blood suddenly released onto the snow.
‘How did you do that?’ she asked, shock mixing with relief.
She drew into her lungs the rich scents of the early morning forest.
‘Horatia has her ways.’ Horatia smiled and her long, white whiskers twitched. ‘As Cale says, we really must be going.’
They set off, the synches leading, and continued along the northern path which twisted through the snow-laden forest until there was no more path to tread. Eventually, when light was streaming through the trees and bathing the forest floor in shades of white and yellow, the synches stopped.
‘Here it is,’ Cale whispered.
But for a wall of trees, Al’tis saw nothing. ‘Where?’
‘Go through.’ Horatia directed her with a fuzzy paw.
The assassin began to push through what seemed an impassible barrier, pine needles dousing her in their beautiful scent. She was surrounded on all sides by branch and twig and a thick blanket of evergreen leaves, but she moved on, brushing aside the overgrowth, snow clinging to the mammoth skin she wore.
‘Now look to your left,’ she heard one of the synches say, the voice muffled by the densely packed trees. Al’tis came to a stop, looked to her left, and then she saw it.
The glitch was a shimmering white light, whiter than the snow, but oddly translucent too, flexing and contracting in the wall of trees which marked the ultimate boundary of Karingali’s northernmost border. Far from solid, the glitch bubbled softly like heated liquid, and through its opacity she could make out something behind it, a shadow form without distinction or clarity. The glitch was roughly her height, but it was narrow too, about half a metre wide. This was where Karingali ended and the province of possibility began.
‘Go through, friend. Don’t be scared,’ called a voice.
‘You’re not coming with me?’ she shouted back over her shoulder, though keeping her eyes on the glitch’s restless contractions.
‘One at a time. We’ll follow.’
She thought of Eastwind then, and Braithwaite, the elf Aeson Balleth, and the cliff face at Fallwood. She thought of the man she would return to kill, and she was resolved.
Al’tis Mara stepped into the glitch to meet her fate. Or else her freedom.