Vicar equated stepping into the Questioner’s Hall to setting foot in the waters of the Riverdun on a hot summer day. It might look tranquil during the approach, but when the undercurrents got ahold of you, they’d never let go. Still, the city outside was burning, and someone had to answer. He’d been here before. Most of the Casters had.
The white-washed walls brought one word to mind—sterile. It was as if the color had been scrubbed off every facet of the Hall. The scent of rose oil lingered in the air, perhaps a remnant from when it had been a bathhouse. It masked the smell of charred wood from outside and was almost enough to make Vicar forget where he was. Almost, because under it all came another scent, a stink so insidious that nothing could wash it away.
It oozed from the dungeons below and seeped through Vicar’s toes. He tried not to think about what was happening just below his feet. Glaws, the Questioner who had summoned him, stood over a marble basin, his hands dipping into the water. Blood swirled from Glaws’s fingers, staining the pool pink. Crimson speckled his pearly apron and flecked his stark white brow. Pupils as blue as snow cover in moonlight scrutinized Vicar in a way that was inhuman.
That reversal of natural form was universal among Questioners, but no less disconcerting to behold than it had been when Vicar was an apprentice. He spoke to distract himself from that stare. “Head Questioner, you wished to speak with me?”
Glaws shook his hands dry, scattering water across the floor. “Caster Vicar, the people need your talents.”
Vicar’s tongue turned to rigid leather in his mouth. He swallowed to try and regain his speech. “The arsonist provided an answer?”
“They always do.”
Vicar nodded. He’d been in the market when the arsonists cracked the first phoenix egg, spewing wildfire through the stalls and devouring anyone too slow to flee its path. Three other eggs had followed, one within a stone’s throw of the palace walls. The crier’s dirge had gone well into the afternoon. Three-hundred and forty-two dead. Eighty-three missing. She’d spoken the names and their next of kin one after another until they’d lost meaning. Then the rumors started. There’d been another egg that hadn’t burst. The arsonist who bore it had been captured before it hatched.
“What was the answer?” Vicar asked.
“He whispered a name before he departed. He sought the forgiveness of Yarrow Illian.”
Yarrow Illian? A Proderi name. It figured. The Proderi resented the Golden City’s very existence. Its success and glory stood as an affront to their way of life. “If I may ask, who is he?”
“Does it matter?” Glaws asked.
Vicar tilted his head. It was a bizarre question. “I mean, was he the alchemist who forged the eggs?”
Glaws dried his hands in the folds of his cotton robes and approached.
Despite three decades of dealing with Questioners, Vicar still wanted to shrink away.
Placing a hand on Vicar’s shoulder, Glaws stared up at him through the blue pinpricks at the center of his irises. “You misunderstand your place, brother. It is my role to ask questions and yours to feed the hungry dead with answers.”
“It’s just not much to go on—a name. If you gave me more I could be sure; a description, perhaps?” There was no going back if the Questioner was wrong. Once Vicar brought the spirit forth, only consuming the life of its intended victim or its Caster would sate its hunger.
“We both know a name will suffice. The spirit always knows. But if you lack certainty, be thorough. The message we send is as important as the deed itself.” Removing the hand from Vicar’s shoulder, Glaws paced away, back bent as if he shouldered a heavy burden.
What was left unsaid spoke louder than words. Blood and ash stained the streets of the Golden City—someone needed to answer. The right Proderi or the wrong one, someone would answer. Vicar’s stomach sank as he stared at the floor.
Glaws tipped his head to peer at Vicar out of the corner of his eye. “Perhaps the day’s events have shaken your nerves. Shall I summon another Caster to perform this duty?”
“No.” The word emerged from Vicar’s mouth far too quickly. “No, that won’t be necessary. Yarrow Illian will not see the sun rise.”
Some approximation of a smile cracked Glaws’s lips. “Good. The people of this city will thank you for your service. You will have helped us thwart another Proderi plot against our security.” He paused. “I’m told you’re a father. Imagine how much safer your son feels knowing that those who conspire to destroy what we’ve built cannot escape justice.”
Vicar did think of his son. He could not allow his personal doubts to bring the loyalty of his lineage into question. “I’ve brought my ancestor stone with me.”
“Good. We’ve prepared the chamber for your work. I see no cause for delay.”
Reaching into his satchel, Vicar removed a felt-wrapped sphere, careful not to touch it. The cold of the artifact permeated the fabric and nipped his fingers. Glaws led him to a stairwell descending to the dungeons beneath the Questioner’s Hall—a place where prisoners awaited a trial that may never come. As he trudged down the spiral stair and listened to the cries of the forgotten, he was reminded of a time when the Golden City hadn’t needed a place like this—a time when they’d been isolated from the greater cares of nations. Now, the question was just one more necessary evil . . . an evil that grew by necessity with each passing day.
An iron-banded doorway loomed at the bottom of the stairs. A bench sat outside. Glaws moved toward it, resting his back against the wall. “I await word of your success. Blessed hunt to you, Caster.”
Vicar took in a deep breath and opened the door. The confines of the black cell were kept unadorned from concern that distraction might cause fatal interference with the transition. As Vicar stepped inside, Glaws sealed the door behind him, plunging the room into darkness. Only then did Vicar remove the felt covering his stone.
Fourteen emerald motes swirled within the glassy black sphere like fireflies eternally trapped in a bubble of the Void itself. Fourteen souls stolen from fourteen names fed to the hungry dead. Reluctantly, he affixed his fingertips to the stone, spreading them evenly across its surface so his connection would not be disturbed. Something darker than the lightless room stirred within the hollow world clenched in his grasp.
An ancestor spirit—that was the pleasant lie they told. It sounded better than admitting they had no clue who or what the hungry dead were, but with every fiber of his being Vicar knew they were not benevolent grandfathers sworn to protect their descendants. A shudder coursed through him, the chill winding up his arms like a thousand tiny needles. He fed it the true name before it fed on him. “Yarrow Illian,” he whispered.
At once, it felt like his body was being yanked apart and slapped back together all wrong. He soared free of the Questioner’s Hall as a shadow, curling in with the rising smoke and ash. The Golden City sprawled below, a seemingly endless hive of humanity. Phoenix fires raged within its walls, their bottomless thirsts not yet slaked. So much destruction, but from this height they were nothing more than candlelight floating in a dark ocean. Even with all their fury, the charcoal smudges of demolished neighborhoods were mere blemishes on the crowning achievement of man.
He flew above the city walls, ever faster as he skimmed the Riverdun and scaled the ice-capped peaks of the Fangreach. He merged with the clouds and became like a storm as he swept onward, everything a blur. Then all at once he came back to himself—reborn in a field outside a Proderi dwelling, a place that must be the home of Yarrow Illian.
With legs longer than his own that bent a second time above the ankles, he trod through a garden leading to the structure. Wherever his shadowy feet stepped, the land died. Plants curled up and withered away. Green drained to black. Nothing stopped the hungry dead, nothing short of claiming a life.
Fire could stall him, though, and one lit candle glowed inside. With slender fingers like the legs of a spider he stretched and reached for the second story window. He flowed through and around the glass in a dark mist, emerging into the room.
A bed chamber. A child no older than his own son slept here, despite the candlelight. Perhaps he feared the dark? That made him wise. Vicar blew on the candle. The flame snuffed out, and with its light went hope. The only other bedroom on the upper floor was modest—an unattended mattress, a wardrobe, and a desk. Not the lair he expected from an alchemist trying to burn down the Golden City, but the Proderi had grown clever. Their leaders were known to shroud themselves in false modesty while proselytizing hate. If this was a clever mirage it wouldn’t save Yarrow Illian now. And if it wasn’t . . . he tried not to think about that possibility, or consider the child sleeping across the hall. He slipped back out the doorway and creeped down the stairs. Vicar’s shadowy outline grew and shrank to fill the space as he moved.
More light below. A room without windows. At the bottom of the stairs, a man with as much gray in his hair as black watched the hearthfire from his chair. The Proderi was alone. Soon, there’d be a fifteenth light floating in his ancestor stone. Weightlessly, Vicar guided the spirit from the landing and stalked toward the man he hoped was Yarrow Illian.
Yarrow must have sensed the looming shadow because he spoke before the spirit’s claws closed around his lungs and stole his breath. “You’ve come for me, haven’t you?”
Vicar nearly finished him then, but his victim made no move toward the fire. Either he didn’t know how to stall the spirit, or knew the futility of it. Glaws had said Vicar’s role was not to question, but this Proderi was not what he expected. Nothing like the fourteen warlords, priests, and smiths he’d claimed before. Instead of consuming the Proderi, he listened.
“I told him not to go, that there would be consequences.” Yarrow shook his head. “My brother was a fool. He never listened to a word. Just kept spewing the same rhetoric, the Golden City needs to pay for what it’s done to us. He never realized most of you are no different than us. Just believing everything you’ve been told.”
Even watching through the veil of darkness that had been pulled over his eyes, Vicar knew they’d made a mistake. Yarrow’s brother must have been the one questioned, and he’d spoken a name. Not the name of the man who sent him, but the name of the person he wanted to forgive him, the person who’d tried to stop him from going. Vicar’s claws twitched at the end of his onyx fingers. The spirit was hungry and wouldn’t wait forever. A freezing emptiness opened within Vicar. A hollow space demanding to be filled. Someone must feed the spirit—if not Yarrow Illian, then Vicar’s own soul would be consumed.
“Finish what you came for,” Yarrow spoke. “But I beg you, leave my son out of this.”
Vicar sought a way out of his predicament. He was not the monster he wore, and he didn’t wish to steal this man’s life any more than he wanted to surrender his own. But, even if he sacrificed himself, the Questioners had Yarrow’s true name. Glaws would summon another Caster before Vicar’s body had gone cold. He tried to speak through the spirit, say he was sorry. No voice emerged from the shadow. Pressure mounted, like a sarcophagus of jagged ice closing in from all sides. The spirit would not be denied. Vicar couldn’t hold back any longer. He lunged forward in desperate hunger, plunging his claws deep within Yarrow’s chest. He lifted his victim from the floor and held him dangling like a child’s doll. Color siphoned from Yarrow’s face until his skin went gray and his eyes turned milky white. The warmth that Yarrow granted him was a roaring fire crackling beneath his real skin. A surging pulse of unclean vitality. When Vicar finished draining his victim, he released the body. It fell lifelessly to the ground.
It was only then that he realized another presence had come into the room. Yarrow’s boy hid behind the stair’s railing, watching between the slats. He gasped when he realized Vicar’s shadow had spotted him and shrank back. Vicar could only stand motionless over the corpse of the child’s father as the warped ecstasy and relief of the kill dammed off the flashflood of guilt threatening to overtake him.
Something changed in the boy. He sucked in a deep breath and stood. His small hands formed into fists. But it was his eyes that drew Vicar in. They burned—burned the way the markets had when the phoenix egg cracked. In the instant before Vicar was slung back into his own body, he wondered how long it would be until that boy, no older than his son, grew to be a man. How long before that man stood in the streets of the Golden City holding a phoenix egg?
Then he was back in the chamber below the Questioner’s Hall. Fifteen lights within his stone illuminated the cell in sickly green light. He’d been brought up to fear the Proderi. They’d been spoken of as barbaric monsters when he was a child. Several people he’d known were slain by their craven attacks. When he’d begun his training as a Caster he’d been willing to do whatever it took to protect the Golden City from the Proderi and anyone else who threatened it. But today . . . today, he was the monster.
Vicar stared at the weapon in his hand with disgust. He wanted to crush the stone on the floor, free the floating souls trapped within, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. If he destroyed one of their precious ancestor stones the guides would probably put him to the question, perhaps even his son. Those were consequences he didn’t dare to face—even if the night had made him a murderer. The image of Yarrow Illian’s boy standing over his father’s corpse made Vicar’s stomach curl and shoulders sag. He had to get out of there. Even the smoke-filled air of the city streets would be better than spending one more moment in that place.
The stone was warm to his touch now. Nothing like the icy chill it had held before he’d set it to use. With a careful hand he wrapped the felt back around the stone and returned it to his satchel, then he shouldered open the door.
Glaws waited for him outside. The Questioner sat on a stool, picking his teeth clean with the sharpened end of a chicken bone. When he noticed Vicar, the bone disappeared into his sleeve.
“Yarrow Illian is dead,” Vicar mumbled. He couldn’t refrain from adding, “I killed an innocent man.”
Glaws’s eyes narrowed until only the blue dots of his pupils stared out from the slits of his eyelids. “How can you be certain?”
Struggling with the disorientation of being in a clumsy human body again, words were harder to grasp than vapors. He wanted to find the right ones. A way he could convince the Questioner he’d made an incalculable error. Instead, all Vicar could manage was, “I just am.”
“A pity, then.” The Questioner wrapped a hand around his mouth and turned to contemplation.
“It’s more than a pity. It’s tragic. An innocent man died for nothing.” Not just a man. A father.
The words broke through Glaws’s concentration. “You mistake me, Caster. It’s a pity Yarrow was an incorrect target. That means the alchemist who forged these eggs remains free. We will redouble our efforts and call upon you again when another name surfaces.”
“That’s it? You’ll keep picking the minds of anyone who might have an answer and we’ll keep killing until the sun and stars align and the right Proderi dies? You and your ilk make these decisions like that . . .” Vicar snapped his fingers. “. . . And lives end. What gives you the right?” He knew he’d gone too far as soon as he spoke the words, but the casting had left him sapped in mind and body. The only thing he had left were the glowing embers of red-hot anger. Much of the disdain that tinged his words he held in equal proportion for himself. Glaws might give the orders, but he’d followed them. It’s not your place to question.
Glaws stood and wrapped his robed arms behind his back. The passion within Vicar’s voice didn’t rattle him in the slightest. Instead, he looked on with those piercing eyes as if he was scouring the very contents of Vicar’s soul. “You sound like one of them. Have you forgotten the number of lives the Ancestor Spirits have saved? How many plots against the Golden City have been foiled without risking a single soldier’s life?” A stony frown bridged Glaws’s lips. “And what of the lives of the Proderi children? Souls who won’t be thrown away by selfish leaders in endless war? The methods we employ may seem barbaric, but our results are undeniable—yours and mine.”
Try as he might, Vicar couldn’t meet the challenge in the Questioner’s gaze. Ashamed, he looked to his feet and wondered how he could stand before his son as the coward he’d shown himself to be. Glaws’s hand tightening around his shoulder startled him. He wanted to shake off the Questioner’s grip, but he endured the touch like a barbed hook threaded through his flesh. Pulling it free would cause worse damage.
“Return to your sanctuary and rest,” Glaws said. “It’s been a difficult day for all of us. Perhaps your belief in the irrefutable justice of our cause will return by morning.” He released his grasp on Vicar’s shoulder.
Vicar bobbed his head. He refused to look up from his feet and meet Glaws’s gaze. If he did, he was certain that the Questioner would see through him—would notice cracks running through the foundation of his faith in their purpose. He fled the Questioner’s Hall as fast as he could without looking like he was running away. As soon as he escaped into the night air, he sped toward Caster’s Sanctuary.
He passed damage caused by the Proderi’s attack. Homes burned to the ground, entire city blocks missing. Work crews sifted through the rubble to extract the charred flesh of their dead. They, too, had been families like his. The wastefulness of it was staggering. Excavators who noted his passage turned and saluted, fists to their chests. Soot stained their hard faces and collected in the wrinkles of their skin. One shouted at him, “Kill the Proderi bastards, Caster! I hope they die screaming!”
He couldn’t meet their eyes any more than Glaws’s. There was a time when their faith in his talents would make his chest swell with pride. Today, it made bile rise to the back of his throat and burn the roof of his mouth before he choked it down. He walked faster until he was practically running. Where did this end?
Out of breath by the time he reached Caster’s Sanctuary, Vicar staggered up the steps and past the sentries, and slipped through the doors into the foyer. Only when the huge doors boomed behind him in the cold, dank sanctuary did he allow himself take a deep breath.
None of the armed guards protecting the chamber reacted to his arrival. They were among the best soldiers in the Golden City, wardens whose singular purpose was to guard their city’s greatest treasures—the artifacts that kept them safe from any enemy within or abroad.
He departed the foyer and took the long stair down, deeper to the reliquary where he would return his stone. The home of their order was quiet tonight, and the peace within dulled the screaming in his mind to a distant roar. As he stepped into the antechamber of the reliquary, a woman’s voice called from an adjacent cloister.
“How was it, Vicar? What did the Questioner want?” Achon asked.
He turned his gaze upon the matronly woman, her glassy eyes distant. How could he tell her what he’d seen? Achon was one of the oldest Casters and one of his mentors in the craft. She’d gone blind many years ago, and could only see through a spirit when she spoke a name. “It was . . .” he began, and then fell silent.
She frowned. “The wrong name was given?”
He didn’t need to reply. She’d divine the truth by what was unsaid. Achon had a sense about these things. Not the same sense the Questioners had, but a way of seeing what eyes couldn’t.
He searched the antechamber but didn’t find Naidem guarding the reliquary. It wasn’t like him to abandon his post. “I need to return my stone. Where’s Naidem?”
Achon’s sigh trailed away like a whisper. “He was in the market when the first egg burst. He didn’t make it.”
“Shadows . . .” Vicar muttered. He’d seen Naidem just a day ago. The hulking warden had been a peerless warrior and as indomitable as the city walls. It was difficult to fathom that he was gone, but no talent with arms could keep you safe from phoenix fire. He whispered a prayer for the terse warden, before realizing he was unsure of how to proceed. After a casting he’d always returned the stone to the warden on duty. “It’s been a trying day, and I’d like to get home to my son. Can I drop my stone off with you, or do I have to wait?”
Achon paused. “You’ve never been in the reliquary before, have you?”
“Of course not,” Vicar replied.
She returned her attention to something she was knitting by touch alone. “I’m sure you can manage.”
The response surprised him. Only an elder Caster or appointed warden was allowed to enter the chamber. He used to wonder what lay beyond, but events like tonight had incinerated his curiosity. He just wanted to be as far away from his stone as possible.
With a sigh of resignation, he turned away from Achon and pushed open the reliquary doors. A dark hallway lay beyond, gently sloping deeper beneath the city. The further he descended, the brighter a distant glow of green light became.
The tunnel bent and opened into a room lined with half a dozen wooden racks. Each rack was grooved so that fifty ancestor stones could rest upon their braces. Unlike the sparse flickering lights within his stone, many of these glowed with the solidity of the moon, and others held hundreds of stars dancing within the glass. He tried not to think about what all those little lights gleaming in the darkness meant.
His satchel glowed and vibrated as if his stone rejoiced to be reunited with others in the chamber. A whole demented family of otherworldly spirits waiting to gobble up the lives offered to them. He moved toward an empty space on the rack and was about to replace his stone, when something caught his eye. Movement within one of the opaque stones. It wasn’t one solid light after all. Hundreds of tiny lights clamored within. No, not hundreds, thousands. Thousands of souls choked a single stone until no more lives could be crammed within. How many of those were innocent like Yarrow Illian?
The cost of the Golden City lay bare before him.
His own stone fell from his numb fingertips and cracked on the floor. As it rolled, smoke and shadow escaped with a hiss. The fifteen lights within faded one after the next until the stone was as black and dead as the thing residing within.
Vicar’s hands shook as he contemplated how much force it would take to bring all of the racks crashing down—to end this cycle. He’d become a Caster to save lives, and now, here, was a real opportunity. Glaws could say what he liked about this being a better way; this wasn’t better, only easier.
Then he thought of his boy. Everyone would tell him that his father was a traitor who’d turned on the Golden City. They’d never leave him be as long as Vicar himself drew breath.
And he would never discover what his father sacrificed himself for—what he’d decided he could no longer live with. If only Vicar could make it look like an accident, or perhaps a Proderi plot.
An idea occurred to him, creeping slowly to the fore then gaining momentum. He selected one of the brightest spheres and wrapped it in felt, cradling the orb in the crook of his arm.
As if its kin could read the direction of his thoughts, the lights in the other spheres churned. They slammed into the walls of the confines of their glassy prisons, rebounding in a dizzying display.
Vicar took in a deep breath. Before his courage failed him, he pulled on the first rack with all his might. It leaned on two legs for a long, pregnant moment. Then it fell.
Perhaps it was only Vicar’s overactive imagination, but through the shattering of glass he thought he heard a faint and distant wail. A cloud of smoke filled the chamber, souls fleeing their eternal jailers like embers thrown by a campfire.
Through the smoke he went, on to the next, allowing the soullights to draw him in like a beacon. That rack fell easier than the first. Then the next. And the next.
Again and again until there was nothing but darkness once more. Some of the tension sagged out of him. But there was still one stone left to break.
He pulled the sphere from the crook of his arm and peeled away the felt wrapping. Its insides roiled. As soon as his naked flesh touched the stone’s frigid exterior it fed on him, as if it could chew through the offending hot meat before its home was ruined. It would never have the chance. Vicar would destroy it, but first he had one last name to feed the stone. The only one that could protect his boy.
“Vicar the Caster!” he snarled before driving the living weapon into the floor.
But Vicar’s own consciousness didn’t end, at least not the way he expected. Instead, the impossibility of sight returned to him within the darkness, and he found himself towering over the pale husk of a man, one fully drained of life. The cold, dead form below wore a Caster’s robe and shards of glass were embedded in the palm of his hand.
Vicar looked down at his own . . . hands, only to find dark, spindly fingers jutting out. In the back of his mind a voice whispered—one that was not his own.
“Now we are free.”
© 2016 by Jason Hine
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