Despite what his worst enemies might say about him, Cuthwin was quite unaccustomed to pissing himself; yet as he stumbled backwards along the corridor, his bladder released, and a warm stream of urine cascaded down the legs of his torn and bloody trousers.
Down. Down. Down. The lift gradually made its way toward Cuthwin and the others, but not fast enough. The horrified wizards stood by the empty shaft, waiting, bleeding, and knowing that only a few of them would escape the tower alive.
We got the relic, Cuthwin thought, swimming in his waste. It was all worth it.
The mess in his pants momentarily distracted Cuthwin, allowing him to forget about the axe jutting from his best friend’s face.
Sabel had died instantly, turning to dead weight in Cuthwin’s feeble arms. He now stared up blindly into the flickering gloom of the 50th floor corridor, the jagged cliffs of his cracked skull peeking out from underneath a ragged scalp. A milky goop that had been his left eye trickled down his cheek, like a pale, runny tear.
It was all worth it.
And the wizards retreated.
When the lift finally arrived and the gate opened, the mass of men crowded aboard the car in a panicked stampede. Behind them, the steady blue glow of rune-lamps warmed the darkness as the House Osir guardsmen continued their advance through the gloom, undeterred. These men were well-trained. They wore the most sophisticated body armor. They brandished runebore firearms and contraband wards.
Again, a clamor of gunfire echoed down the hallway, and shells hissed past Cuthwin like a squall of furious wasps. Two men dropped, shrieking, and a third—a flamboyant enchanter from Templetown—took a pellet through the neck, giggling uncontrollably with shock, his chortles growing murkier as the blood pooled in his throat. He fell, convulsing, at Cuthwin’s feet, blocking the lift gate.
“Go, you pigs!” shouted a crooked-nosed wizard with a kinky, blackened beard. “Close the gate! Activate the lift! It’s the only—”
Before the old man could finish, a pointblank blast from a hand-cannon sheared off half of his face.
The force of the explosion parted Cuthwin’s hair; and then there was silence, followed an instant later by the acrid stink of gunpowder and scorched flesh.
Scrambling backwards, Cuthwin kicked bodies out of his path, attempting to close the gate. Other men joined him, crouching to struggle with the dead, only to be cut down one at a time to become obstacles themselves. Somehow, he managed to survive another volley, and climbed over the squirming mass, tumbling head over heels onto the floor of the lift.
The car shook with his weight. Gears turned with a hiss of steam and grinding of teeth. Wires rattled along their pulleys. Scrambling to his feet, Cuthwin pulled the lever.
Another volley! Bullets pinged around the walls of the car. A cable snapped, and the lift tipped, jouncing to one side, dumping bodies whirling into the echoing void below. Then a second cable broke, flipping the whole car upside down, where it swung slowly back and forth, like a pendulum in an oversized grandfather clock.
Cuthwin dangled; but even as he clung to life, he felt his grip loosen… and loosen… until he couldn’t hold on any longer.
As the gaping blackness roared up at him, and his screams fell away in the sounds of ripping wind and gunfire, he comforted himself in the words:
It was all worth it.
Drunk off his bony ass, Frost scaled the crumbling tower, higher and higher, his head spinning with the glorious, swooning vapors of Smoke Town Port. Good beer was like love. It tilted your gait and loosened your tongue, and even in the darkest of nights, the whole world burned just a little bit brighter through the murky lens of the alcohol.
Pausing on an outcrop of rock, Frost belched crudely, unable to resist the foolish grin that came with it. He nearly lost his footing, and a rain of pebbles clattered down the heaps of rubble, skittering along the flagstones far below.
Instead of worrying, he belched a second time, and louder.
Because he was free.
Had Frost been sober, a climb up the decrepit tower would have still posed a significant challenge. The ancient eyesore had been threatening to collapse for decades (centuries even), a weathered and gouged monument to a long-forgotten war. Above its arched gate hung a massive plaque, declaring this to be “Tower 78” of 320 identical towers lining the wall that wound around Gateway like a stone serpent, strangling much of the city in its bleak and mossy embrace.
Frost kept climbing. Not because he couldn’t find a better place to take a much-needed piss. (The borough of Junk City could have easily been mistaken as the world’s largest latrine, as in recent years it had become a refuse pit of sorts for all the assorted castoffs of Gateway.) He climbed because when he did, he remembered…
You’ll have to climb. That’s what the other AlchiMen had shouted, their fingers wound tightly around the bars of their cages. Up is the only way out. The Kinsman waits.
One year had passed since that night, when Frost narrowly escaped from the bowels of Rector Skelcro’s dungeon, a vast underworld of laboratories known across the city by its ominous nickname: “the kennels.” One year. It was almost enough time to have shaken off the crippling terror that swept in with every memory. Almost.
Reaching the ramparts, Frost hopped along their slippery edges, swaying with the grace of a man intoxicated enough to take ridiculous risks, but sober enough not to kill himself in the process. At the nearest corner, he stopped, tucking back his ragged black duster and unzipping the front of his britches. Then he relieved himself over the side of Tower 78, delighting in the sound that his stream made as it fell, spattering to the empty streets of Junk City far below.
Frost closed his eyes. He inhaled the sharp urban stink, a combination of open gutters, steam exhaust, and runestone burn-off; he’d smelled worse, of course, but not much.
With one spidery gray hand, he checked his belt pouch; and after a quick inventory discovered three remaining cigarettes and a handful of usable flints. That would probably be enough. These days, there was no surviving the witching hour without a little help. Not with the nightmares.
That’s when they visited him. The AlchiMen.
Frost knew their misery, for he had been one of them: a monster concocted in a laboratory at the behest of scholars and scientists, an alchemical-man, brewed over the fires like some rank human stew. AlchiMen were monsters and slaves; and Frost was, too.
Until the day he’d climbed up, and out… to freedom.
And he had the Kinsman to thank.
The Kinsman. The mysterious freedom fighter had come to the AlchiMen in secret, arranging the breakout with a meticulous, almost mechanical precision—maps of the dungeons, copies of the cage keys, even the poison with which they incapacitated the sentries. All the Kinsman had expected in return was their loyalty; and after decades of being scarred at the hands of sadists and scholars, loyalty was about all those pitiful creatures had left to give.
Of course, a plan is nothing without its execution; and in the end, only Frost had escaped to see the coming sunrise. That’s why Frost climbed, to remember those he left behind.
Frost peered down into the mists.
A bobbing bloom of white appeared in the distance, weaving its way down the nearby streets, warming the alley walls with a soft, hazy luminescence. Moments later, the electric thrum of a mech-mount could be heard, joined by the deep wooden rumble of a cart. Then the solemn procession appeared, rolling along the cobblestones at a glacial pace, the cart hobbled by the weight of an unseen payload.
“IS ANYONE THERE? PLEASE!”
At last, the raiders had returned. Sighing, Frost buttoned his britches and descended.
“Welcome back, Wizard,” Frost said.
The man raised his lantern, shining its wavering light over Frost’s face; a gasp went up from the group when they saw that Frost was Threnn, a race of northern albinos thought to have died out ages ago. Frost met their frightened gazes, his face drawn and gaunt, hardly more than a skull wrapped in pale skin as thin as parchment paper. In his immaculately cut suit and expensive black Homburg, Frost cut a skeletal figure. To these shambling urchins he must have resembled an undertaker more than a gangster, that or the very embodiment of death himself.
“My lord,” the man said, hastily lowering the lantern. “I didn’t know it was you.”
The wizard Madulf stood with one hand on the rusty rump of the mech-mount, robes splattered with dark streaks of blood. He was a rotund, bespectacled man with a clockwork plate bolted across the broad sag of his chest; he had installed this machinery himself in an attempt to revive an ailing heart. While the whirring, clicking contraption had cured his affliction, it had also caused a host of irksome side effects, including a lopsided gait and the occasional, unintentional erection.
“What news do you bring?” Frost said.
“We have returned from House Osir, my lord,” Madulf said, scratching at the seam where his scalp and the metal plate came together in a puffy pink ridge.
“And was the raid a success?”
“We return victorious, my lord.”
Frost grunted. “Not all of you.” His watery gray eyes swept the procession’s grim cargo. A disquieting number of corpses lay heaped to the top of the cart, scattered without care or order, limbs entangled, faces already beginning to bloat into the unmistakable masks of decomposition. All of the dead were wizards. A slow, steady dripping came from cart’s rear ramp, as a trickle of blood and bodily fluids pooled beneath its heavy wheels.
“True,” Madulf said, shrugging. “But the fact that any of us survived can be considered a cause for celebration.”
“Wise words, wizard.”
“It’s a harsh world, my lord. A man must find reasons to hope.”
“Yet there are so few.”
“The night sky is flush with darkness, yet still we delight in the stars.”
Frost smiled. The old man had a good spirit, even if he was a wizard.
“And where is the relic?”
Madulf winked, the innards of his clockwork plate coming to life—rotors whirring, gears clicking like a cloud of locusts. He momentarily retreated out of the lantern’s glow, disappearing into the shadows behind the cart. When he returned, he held a small silver box.
“Your prize,” he said.
The box was small, about the size of a desk clock, trimmed in red, its face crowded with silver carvings—spiky barnacles, cockles, and a quartet of pious fishwives; a relief of the grand old Owl King grasped in his claws the crest of House Osir: the split axes and helm. The box’s surface shimmered with protective wards that appeared and disappeared in the half-light.
Frost took the box unceremoniously. Then he dug into his belt and retrieved the wizard’s payment: a tube of gilders sealed in a thick, cracked sheathe of purple wax. It was a fool’s fortune. “Go now,” he said, handing Madulf the gold. “Enjoy your revelry. Live every day as if it’s your last, compliments of my employer.”
“The Kinsman is most kind, my lord,” Madulf said with a bow.
“That he is,” Frost said.
For a moment, the two men gazed curiously at the box in Frost’s hands, saying nothing; its warm glow gave Frost’s sallow face some much-needed color.
“It’s beautiful,” Frost said.
“It should be,” Madulf said. “For the price we paid.”
The hunched old wizard turned his attention to the cart of bodies, where a fog of blackflies had begun to swarm in a thickening cloud. His clockwork clicked sporadically, a haphazard heartbeat. “Poor fools,” he said. “They’re up with the gods now.”
Frost said nothing. He pulled out another cigarette and lit the bitter paper, inhaling; he longed to blur the edges, to numb the pain. To forget how far he’d climbed to reach the stars.
Up is the only way out.
In their six months as partners, Frost and Tanek had never seen so many corpses.
They dragged the dead from the cart and tossed them in a fly heap along the bank of the canal, so the Igniters would know where to set the cremation fires. They marked the mound’s four corners with petrol torches—according to regulations—and sorted through the pockets for items of monetary value, or high combustibility.
The last time a fly heap hadn’t been searched properly, an Igniter had unknowingly detonated a runestone smuggled inside the lining of a merchant’s boot. The resulting blaze razed six city blocks, killing hundreds. While Frost and Tanek were a lot of things—mutants, crooks, lechers, and notorious drunks and drug addicts—they were certainly not idiots.
The two AlchiMen lived in a retrofitted circus wagon complete with two separate quarters, a retractable awning, and a functioning blackwater tank. Tanek had purchased the ramshackle vehicle from a peddler in the Chimneys (for a song), and made the required repairs and renovations himself. Since then, Frost and Tanek had taken the wagon with them in their travels—everywhere the Kinsman told them to go. It currently sat in the looming shadow of the great wall, beside a humble campfire, and surrounded by a network of tripwires. (Hire thugs could never be too careful.)
After the exchange with the wizards, Frost and Tanek settled onto their stools by the campfire to eat. They watched Madulf and his men shuffle back into the darkness of Junk City, tugging their creaky mech-mount behind them, its energy core trailing whiffs of oil and ozone.
“Pathetic,” Tanek grumbled, shaking his head.
“You should pity them,” Frost said.
Tanek stared with beady black eyes—a bird’s eyes. “They knew what they were doing.”
“You think they wanted to die?” Frost said.
“They wanted revenge,” Tanek said. “All wizards do. They dream of it, boast about it; hell, they pleasure themselves to the dark fantasy of vengeance.”
He dumped his table scraps into the flames with a crackle of grease. “That’s where we come in, my dear Lord Frost. We provide a small glimpse at retribution.” He chuckled darkly. “But once a wizard gets a taste of reality, of that blood that bubbles up in the back of your mouth, he loses all stomach for payback. Seen it a hundred times.”
“You don’t believe that,” Frost said.
Tanek shrugged. “Doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said. “I’ve come to enjoy my life of scant reflection. Don’t worry. You’ll learn how it’s done soon enough: Loose the dogs, and then soothe them when they come crawling back. Then collect your money.”
Frost watched his partner, his fondness for the man outweighing his initial disgust.
To describe Tanek as an “odd bird” would have been partially accurate, as he’d been engineered as an Avari-Saloran hybrid—part bird, part fish, with whatever leftover as man. His round, scaled face ended in a bright yellow beak, its insides lined with rows of tiny hooked teeth. While useless for flight, his wings were a gorgeous emerald green, with fingers protruding from the tips like those of a bat. Frost had to admit that despite the obvious grotesqueries, his friend was a unique and magnificent specimen.
Tanek’s creator and former master, the magician known as Professor Calice, had been famous for his inspired interspecies combinations. That was until he was killed by the Kinsman, and his AlchiMen freed from bondage. No one spoke of him now.
“I’m sick of this town,” Tanek said, belching. He pulled a cage from beneath his stool; inside he kept the small green lizards on which he snacked. “The food is revolting, the best ale has to be imported, and it’s growing increasingly difficult to separate the whores from the vermin, as both are simply teeming with disease.”
“Revolutionaries are poor by nature,” Frost said.
“Revolutionaries! Ha!” Tanek rolled his eyes. “Why does the Kinsman care about this rabble? No one else does.”
“That is precisely why he cares,” Frost said.
“Politics,” Tanek said. “It’s for the sober and the stupid.”
Frost stared into the fire. Around him, the sounds of Junk City loomed huge—the rumble of water wheels and hiss of static-cables. He remembered the darkness of the kennels, and how he would spend the long nights huddled in the bottom of his enclosure, listening to the city as it breathed overhead; he would strain his eyes to stare up, up at the faint pinprick of light at the top of the shaft. Was it a star, a planet, or simply a figment of a madman’s imagination?
“The Kinsman gives the wizards hope,” Frost said at last. “We needed hope once, too, my friend.”
“It wasn’t hope that sprung us,” Tanek said. “It was hate; hate and huge balls.”
“And the Kinsman,” Frost added.
Tanek grumbled incoherently, but then he raised his pewter cup and sloshed its contents gently. “And the Kinsman,” he agreed.
And they made a toast, the first of many that evening.
“Please,” a voice said, hollow and tremulous. “Please, tell me what it is.”
Tanek started on his stool, and he glanced around the campsite anxiously, eyes wide and gleaming in the firelight. “What the—”
“Who’s there?” Frost spoke into the outlying darkness. The fire only reached so far.
“Show yourself!” Tanek called, sliding the sap from his belt.
“What’s inside?” the voice said. Its words sounded slurred and wet, as if rising up through a clogged sewage drain. “Tell me what’s inside!”
Frost caught movement outside the bonfire’s orange shimmer, a shifting in the shadows. Then he understood; and the hairs along his spine prickled.
The voice came from inside the fly heap.
“Shit on me,” Tanek said through a mouthful of lizard, coming to the same conclusion.
Slowly to his feet, Frost crossed the campsite to the bank of the canal, where the mound of rotting corpses emanated a noxious stench. He hesitated, but then proceeded to pull at the bodies, ripping at the drooping limbs as if they were the tendrils of some overgrown weed. After a minute or two, Tanek joined him, and together they excavated a single human figure from within the convoluted snarl of the dead.
At the bottom of the pile lay a wizard’s apprentice, Alendrian, by the look of it. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen years of age, a boy, his plump face rimmed with the downy hints of a beard. Tears dried on his cheeks. Clumps of gore—brains and bone—hardened in his tangled hair. Frost took one whiff and stepped away, covering his face with a wing. The apprentice’s deep chest wound already writhed with hordes of necrotic-larva.
“Please,” the apprentice whispered. His broken ribs rattled with the effort. “Tell me what’s inside.”
“Inside what?” Frost said, leaning in close.
“What’s inside the box,” the apprentice said.
Sighing, Tanek raised his sap, preparing to crush the boy’s skull with one blow; but before he could strike, Frost grabbed his wrist and squeezed. “No,” he said.
Tanek glanced up curiously.
“Leave him,” Frost said.
“Leave him to suffer, you mean,” Tanek said, slipping the sap back into its loop. “Suit yourself, Lord Frost.” He shook his head disagreeably and returned to his meal. The lizards rattled their pen, tiny claws skittering across the metal mesh.
“Show me what’s inside,” the apprentice said again. “I want to see the relic.”
“It doesn’t matter what’s inside,” Frost said.
“It does to me,” the apprentice said. “My friends died for it. I… died for it.”
Frost chose his next words carefully. “You did what you thought was right,” he said. “And for that, I commend you. But this relic is of great value, and only he who paid for its recovery may gaze upon it. I’m sorry.” He turned away from the fly heap. Despite his wish to face the apprentice, he couldn’t stand being close to the stink. Death clung to the youth’s skin like a layer of ripe sweat.
“Didn’t I pay for it, as well?” the apprentice said, but this time Frost did not reply.
He regarded Frost and Tanek with glazed, hooded eyes. “You. You’re AlchiMen.”
Tanek grunted. “What betrayed us, our beauteous countenances?”
The apprentice blinked, and then he began to stutter. “I… I didn’t mean to—”
“You’re correct,” Frost said, turning. “We were fashioned by wizards for their whims.”
“I’ve never met an AlchiMan before,” the apprentice said. “I’ve only heard stories.”
“Then let us test their accuracy,” Frost said. “Ask your questions.”
The apprentice shifted in the pile, causing the corpses on top to tumble down and strike the cobblestone with a sound of meat being tenderized. He tried to inhale, failed, and coughed a mouthful of blood over his robes. “Where are your masters?” he gurgled. “Whom do you serve?”
Tanek laughed coarsely, flashing a mouthful of serrated fish teeth. “The cadaver wishes to know whom we serve, Lord Frost.” He opened the cage, extracted a lizard, and bit off one of its waggling forelegs with his powerful jaws. The reptile shrieked.
“We serve no one,” Frost said.
“All AlchiMen serve a master,” the apprentice said.
“Then your stories have misled you,” Frost said. “We rule ourselves.” However, the insinuation ate away at him. Even after everything he’d been through, he was still a slave in the eyes of others.
“Masters are for dogs, boy!” Tanek said through his food.
The apprentice’s hazy gaze sharpened with a spark of life. “I am not a boy. I am seventeen, a man, and I can do magic!”
“Little good your tricks did you on the raid, boy,” Tanek said. “That tower was no place for a novice. Thought our contract made that clear. Only seasoned wizards welcome.”
“We were ambushed,” the apprentice said.
“Not an ambush, boy,” Tanek said. “You were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Less bad luck than unfortunate arithmetic.”
The apprentice’s face sagged. “Do all raids end like this one?”
“Do most of the raiders die?” Frost said. “Yes. This one was no different.”
“Then we are doomed,” the apprentice said, tears welling in his eyes. “The Inquisitors wield too much power.”
“Every raid sends a message,” Frost said. “That the oppressed have not given up, and that they will fight to the last man.” Why? Why did he feel the need to comfort this boy?
“How will we do it?” the apprentice said. “Our numbers dwindle, our supplies run low.”
“But your will to resist grows stronger,” Frost said. “Or so says our employer.”
The apprentice stopped crying, seemingly in an attempt to salvage what little dignity he still possessed. “Your employer, he is the freedom fighter known as the Kinsman?”
“He goes by many names.”
“But he is the one rallying wizards across Gateway?”
“He is one, but not the only.”
“And is he not your master?”
Frost bristled. “He is our benefactor. We work for him out of respect and debts unpaid.”
“And because I enjoy the weight of gold in my pocket,” added Tanek.
“What is he?” the apprentice said. “Nathru? Haradi? Torran? Is he a wizard, or a thief like you?”
Frost hesitated. “I… We…” He glanced briefly at Tanek, who cocked his jittery bird head at a questioning angle.
“I have never met the Kinsman,” Frost admitted.
“Yet you send men to death in his name,” the apprentice said.
“We are simply agents, messengers,” Frost said, growing impatient.
“And you can live with all that blood on your hands?”
“You choose to spill your own blood, and the Kinsman supports you in your cause. He does this for the future of your people.”
You will be our revenge. That is what the other AlchiMen had said.
The apprentice closed his eyes, and for several minutes he remained silent, breathing in a hitching wheeze. Frost thought that perhaps he was readying to die.
“Save your breath,” Frost said.
He returned to his stool, fumbling for his beer. His head thundered, like the clanging pistons of the canal locks, and only the veil of alcohol could provide the momentary escape for which he hungered.
Downing the contents of a whole bottle in a single gulp, Frost stared at the apprentice through the smoke. “Stop talking, boy,” he said, perhaps too harshly.
“Will it hurt less if I do?” the apprentice said.
At this, Tanek chuckled maliciously from his roost. “Boy, you haven’t begun to hurt,” he said, and set about snapping a lizard’s neck.
The night lingered. Time passed slowly, as it often does in times of great suffering, and the young apprentice screamed his way through one last night in Gateway, howled until his lungs burbled with blood and every breath seemed to drown him.
Frost slept fitfully, interrupted by memories of the climb. In the murk of morning, it was difficult to discern what was real, and what was born of fear; not that it mattered. He cried out like a hungry newborn, and tossed his bedroll throughout the long, stinking hours. In his dreams, Frost rushed to escape the darkness. Yet every time he clawed up another phantom ledge, the handhold would crumble in his grip and turn to dust, and he would plummet into the gaping well below. As he fell, the beckoning gold of daylight overhead shrank until it became little more than a pinprick on a patch of blue. The screams of the AlchiMen drifted up around him like smoke from a blackened stack.
It was no surprise that Frost welcomed the morning.
At dawn, he and Tanek woke and set about their morning’s business of scrubbing pots, rekindling the fire, and performing whatever attempts at personal hygiene they’d deemed appropriate, which weren’t terribly many. They gulped water to dilute the pints of stale ale percolating sourly in their stomachs. After relieving themselves in the river, the two companions sat to partake of breakfast in agreeable silence.
As he ate, Frost noticed Tanek eyeing the pile of bodies. Thankfully, the dead hadn’t yet begun to stink—not too badly—but the heat of the day would surely change that. “The boy lives,” said Tanek, nodding at the corpses. “Too dense to know he’s dead.”
“I am,” the apprentice said, whose soft voice chilled Frost; it was a death rattle.
“What keeps you ticking, boy?” Tanek said, feeding tinder to the morning fire. He shook his head. “Give up. You’ll be glad you did. Even I can’t stand to see such wasted suffering.”
“I can’t,” the apprentice said.
Frost fumbled to light a cigarette, watching the boy closely. It took him three tries to catch a flame, and when he finally inhaled, he choked on the vapors. “Was it revenge?” he coughed. “You must let the grudge go, my young friend. Baron Osir lives on. You may have stolen one of his relics, but I assure you he has thousands more. Possessions mean nothing to a man like him.”
“It’s not revenge,” the apprentice said.
Tanek cackled madly, his hands across his girth, the buckles of his tunic jingling brightly. “Justice!” he bellowed. “What do the wizards of Junk City know of justice?”
“Osir made me hurt,” the apprentice said. “So I wish to return the favor. You said the relic was of great value? Well, I wanted to take it from him.”
“You know nothing of injustice! It is wizards who oppress, boy, wizards who dabble in the destinies of others. What injustice has a shit like you ever faced?”
“I practice magic. That alone incurs the wrath of many in this age of Inquisitors and the City-Watch.”
“I’ve said it before,” Tanek spat. “You’re no wizard.”
“Perhaps,” the apprentice said. “But I was next in line, after my father, a geomancer, last in a grand tradition of wizards; venerated readers of the Leylines, scholars of Penumbra University and the Ring of Rimus.” His tongue lay fat and parched in his mouth, like a slug dried out in the sun. “That is… until the Inquisition.”
“When the Magistrates began the executions?” Frost said.
“They murdered your father?”
“If only they’d been so merciful.” A gray fog seemed to drift over the dying boy. “My parents and sisters, my grandparents… All of them killed in front of me. The Inquisitors were thorough. Baron Osir demanded it. They started with my sisters, just babies. They… They…”
He could not go on, for his breath had left him.
After several last meditative puffs on his cigarette, Frost tossed the butt. “What is your name, boy?” he said.
“Cuthwin,” said the apprentice. “My name is Cuthwin.”
“I am sorry for your pain, Cuthwin,” said Frost; “but we’ve all had our share of it.”
“Tell me,” Cuthwin said. It was a whisper.
“I’m sorry,” Frost said. “I can’t tell you what’s in the box.”
“No,” Cuthwin said. “Tell me about your injustice. Tell me about AlchiMen.”
That word, “AlchiMen,” it wounded Frost, like a shiv in the spine, and he glared back at the apprentice. “There is nothing to tell,” he said. “We were created by wizards as living experiments. I was given life by a sadistic necrologist, and then killed day after day, in order to test his theories on resurrection.”
He turned to Tanek, who looked eager to bash the boy’s brains, but not to be merciful. “And as you can no doubt see, Lord Tanek began life as a man, but later underwent a series of procedures that combined his cells with those of other races, most notably Avari and Saloran, making him… well, whatever he is.”
“Or whatever I choose to be,” Tanek said defiantly.
“With the help of the Kinsman, we freed ourselves,” Frost said. “We are now our own masters. No one rules us. No one holds our leashes. We are free men as surely as you are.”
“Why do you call each other ‘lord’?” Cuthwin said. “You are abominates, not nobility.”
“We have claimed the titles, as a symbol of our independence.”
“I wanted to be called the Grand Cockmaster,” Tanek said, “but he wouldn’t have it.”
Cuthwin looked from one to the other. “You must hate wizards as much as I hate Osir.”
“Wizards did this to us,” Frost said. “They made us what we are.”
“Don’t you want to know why?”
“What difference would reasons make?”
“They make all the difference?”
“We are free.”
“You’re still slaves.”
“We work for the Kinsman!”
“You are his dogs!
“We are his men!”
“BUT YOU’VE NEVER EVEN MET HIM!”
Convulsing, Cuthwin attempted to sit up, but found that only one of his arms still functioned properly; he fell, tumbling to the dirt, dragging his lifeless legs behind him. Frost and Tanek stared at him, speechless, unsure of how to react.
“Don’t you want to know why?” Cuthwin croaked. “Why they mistreat us? Why they kill and lie and torture?” He didn’t recognize his own voice anymore.
Then Cuthwin began to crawl, hoisting his dead weight up with one elbow and driving it into the ground, pulling… pulling… pulling across the campsite toward the flickering fire—toward the silver box, where it sat on its warped wooden pedestal. Frost and Tanek recoiled instinctively—out of revulsion—for the boy before them was more dead than alive.
“Listen, you’d better—” started Tanek, but Frost raised a hand, silencing him.
Cuthwin mouthed words, but he couldn’t make a sound. Behind him, a trail of his own liquefied entrails wound its way from the rancid fly heap to the tent; several internal organs lay along the fetid path, unwound like thread from a spool.
Dropping to one knee, Frost leaned in so close that he could see his own reflection in the boy’s dulling blue eyes. The reek of death was upon him. “What is it?” he said. “Tell me.”
A bloody belch escaped Cuthwin’s lips, as he summoned a final whisper, the sound of his voice like the crack of dry leaves.
“All of us.”
Then he reared up violently, in what could be described as an exaggerated death rattle, and swiped the box from its perch, knocking it end-over-end into the campfire. Upon impact, the lid popped loose and began to melt, silver turning to quivering smears in the coals. The young apprentice crumpled backwards, a bag of busted bones and singed flesh—dead at last.
Stunned, Frost stared into the snapping flames.
The box was empty.
After the apprentice’s death, Frost stopped drinking. Not even a full growler of Port Town Stout could scare away his melancholy. It hung on him heavily, like a coat wet with winter rain. He sat perched on the dilapidated rampart of Tower 38, his back to a stone barrier, his head tilted up at the slow pinwheels of the cosmos, a sight often beautiful but always terrifying.
If only he knew why he cared, why the boy’s words haunted him in the same way that the voices did—all those cries from the past, rising up from the depths of the kennels; reaching to him over time and across distances, crowding his waking hours with nightmares.
Tanek’s scaled head appeared on the street far below, and he gestured with a wave of his emerald wing. Those obsidian eyes glinted.
Once again, Frost plunged through the black void of the hollow tower; but this time there was no spring in his step. He landed beside the gate just as the strangers arrived—six of them, two taxying the others in a pair of blue, battered auto-rickshaws. They pulled their vehicles alongside the tents, which Tanek was still in the process of deconstructing, and stepped out into the shadow of the tower, dusting the grit of Junk City off of their tunics and trousers.
As Frost approached, his gaze remained on the fly heap, where the apprentice’s body lay, having been dragged back from its place by the fire. A creeping white bloodlessness sucked at the boy’s face, as the corpse eased into the throes of rigor mortis. His eyes stayed open, staring with an endless calm that Frost might have found comforting under other circumstances.
Lifting a bony hand, he closed the boy’s eyes. “Be free,” he said softly.
Tanek snorted. “You’re too sensitive,” he said. “The boy was a fool to the end.”
“I worry that we’re the fools,” Frost said.
“Yes,” Frost said. “And I have a feeling I’ve been wrong about a great many things.”
The five strangers stepped forward, forming a semicircle around Frost and Tanek. A fierce, tattooed Haradi maiden stood at the front of the group. Cryptic runes glowed upon her shoulders, like the fiery brands on cattle. She observed them with a single eye—blue as sky. A black patch covered the gouge where the other eye had been.
“Lords Frost and Tanek,” the maiden said, nodding. “We’ve come to collect the relic.”
“I don’t recognize you,” Tanek said gruffly.
“I was sent by the Kinsman,” the woman said. “That is all you need to know.” She paused, raising an eyebrow. “Now where is it?”
Tanek glanced at Frost, and he shrugged compliantly.
“How many more raids does he want, the Kinsman?” Tanek asked, hobbling to where a pile of trinkets and treasures lay piled in a heap by the circus wagon. “I’m beginning to think we could do this forever, and no one would even notice.”
“You appear to be making the most of your compensation,” the maiden said.
Tanek smiled. “Point taken.”
He found the once-silver—now slightly blackened—box, which they’d rescued from the remnants of the fire, and he hefted it in one feathery palm. “We fetched the item, as instructed,” he said. “But there was nothing inside.”
“What do you mean?”
“The box, it’s empty,” Tanek said. “There was no relic.”
The maiden’s one eye pricked at them like a shiv. “You are not supposed to open the box. It is the property of the Kinsman.”
“Well, stolen property,” Tanek said, shrugging.
The maiden stepped forward menacingly; as she did, the two men on each end of the semicircle began to move, flanking Frost and Tanek. “Your instructions were simple. Recruit wizards. Send them to steal the relic. Wait for our return.”
“Hold on,” Tanek said, uncertainty creeping into his voice. “We didn’t know.”
“Now you do,” the maiden said.
At first, Frost thought it was the trill of a bird, or the whip of an acorn as it dropped from one of the sparse, gnarled oak trees that had grown intertwined with the stones of the wall. Slip. Slip. It was neither.
With the swift tug of his dagger, one of the men slit a streak of red across Tanek’s overhanging bird belly, spilling his guts across the dust; then he drove the blade up and into the hybrid’s throat and out the top of his skull. The bird-man wriggled in the killer’s grip for several seconds, mouth opening and closing, gasping for air. (In that moment, he resembled an actual fish more than at any other time that Frost could recall.) Then Tanek died, quickly, rolling over onto his back, a severed artery soaking the front of his vest with jets of red.
Frost stared at the woman’s one good eye, and at his own death approaching.
He felt the hands of the thugs behind him, lacing their muscled arms around his own in a painful grip. The dagger pierced his chest first—a flashing pain, like a hot poker—and then it slashed his neck, carving an arc from one pale ear to the other.
The smirk of the damned, that’s what the Threnn called it—a slit throat.
Choking blood, Frost fell to his knees. In his head echoed the cries of the AlchiMen.
The Kinsman waits.
That’s what the others had shouted to him as he climbed hand-over-hand up through the smokestacks, rats sinking their teeth into his pale flesh, ash raining down on him through the hollows. They called to him. The AlchiMen. He would be free.
As he died, Frost heard a different voice, that of the apprentice on the fly heap. It rang clear and loud in his head, blotting the past like an eclipse:
We deserve to know why.
A loud burst of steam announced the lift’s arrival on the 100th floor.
Osir woke with a start, and with a burning desire to urinate, as if his whole body was little more than a swollen bladder resting atop a fluffed silken pillow. He sat up promptly, back against the headboard, and wiped the grains of sleep from his eyes with a manicured fingernail. Around him, the naked bodies of his retinue covered the mattress in a patchwork of whites, tans, and deep blacks, all shimmering with sweat and the sharp, distinct smell of carnal decadence.
No wonder he was so exhausted.
The door alarm buzzed.
“I’m coming,” Osir grumbled, stretching. His muscles throbbed, especially those below the waist. The door buzzed again.
“By the balls of Daeus!” Osir shouted. “Give me a moment!”
What time was it?
Groaning, Osir grasped the girl closest to him and rolled her off his lap, giving him a modicum of relief. He scanned the shelves of his chamber for a clock, but everything had been knocked to the floor during the evening’s fracas, and it took him several seconds to recognize that the colorful curtains hanging from his bedposts were actually the frills and bands of women’s undergarments, now draped across the rooms in a flowing web of lingerie. He chuckled at the epiphany, which only served to further jostle his strained bladder.
Osir sat on the edge of the bed, straightening his appearance in the wall’s wraparound mirror. The robe’s rich embroidery declared his station; the rows of dazzling earrings revealed his wealth. As he examined the reflection, his roto-monocle switched lenses rapidly, adjusting focus, zooming in and out with microscopic motors. Daeus! He looked awful, like death.
“You may enter!”
The bedchamber door slide open, and in the doorway stood the maiden with the missing eye. Osir remembered this girl, despite having met hundreds just like her—assassins with empty pockets and empty souls, individuals willing to do anything to fill at least one of those vital hollows. The girl was pretty, but irreparably scarred; even now her hands still appeared to be painted with blood from one of her midnight missions. Osir wrinkled his nose at the sight, not wanting anything to soil his precious bed linens.
“Good morning, Baron Osir,” the maiden said, bowing slightly.
Osir blinked. What was the maiden’s name? Layla? No. Trina? What did it matter? She worked for him. He could call her whatever he wished, do whatever he wished.
“You,” he said, settling for an anonymous pronoun. “What do you want?”
“It’s Nenn,” the maiden said, not showing any sign that she was offended.
“Right, Nenn,” Osir said, yawning. “So what is it?”
“You commanded me to inform you once we’d completed the sweep.”
“The sweep of the gangs, sir. The clean-up.”
Osir stared at her blankly before what she’d said had any significance. Then, as a shaft of light squeezes itself, twisting and changing, through a keyhole, her meaning became clear to him; and he understood, if only marginally. “Of course,” he said, nodding his head. “Yes, the gangs, I remember.”
“The wizards seek safe haven,” the woman said. “They will go into hiding again, fearing further reprisals. The rebellion will quiet, for a time.”
Osir yawned, standing from the bed. As he did, the bunched sheets fell away to reveal his open robe and the glaring nakedness underneath. “The wizards will return,” he said. “They always do.” He didn’t bother to cover himself.
For the second time, Nenn did not register the offense, and hid any discomfort behind a rigid jawline and a stiffened spine. “Sir,” she said, fixing her eyes on a spot across the room, on the window, where the countless lights of the cityscape lay strewn below like shattered glass. “One of the teams… It opened the box.”
Osir smiled unexpectedly. “Did they?” he said, almost pleased. “Expect curiosity from the AlchiMen, a streak of disobedience.”
“You’re not angry?”
“With you?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “No.” He laughed, and the sound made one of the concubines on the mattress stir. “They weren’t the first.”
Frowning, Nenn wiped her dirty hands against her trousers, leaving tracks of drying blood. “If you don’t mind me asking, sir,” she said. “Why go through all the trouble? Why don’t you just crush the resistance, end the wizards once and for all?”
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Osir said with a wave. “Remember. Men are nothing more than upright animals. Beat them long enough and they will bow to the first one who stays his hand.”
“You could pay soldiers, to hunt them down.”
“Too expensive,” Osir said, shuffling across the room to the massive picture window, kicking several fallen goblets out of his way as he went. Wine dribbled.
“Expensive? But sir, we could—”
“I don’t care enough!” Osir snapped, leaning his forehead against the window. “Wizards. Magic. The Church.” His breath swirled across the glass. “It’s enough to drive men to madness.”
He tapped his skull lightly on the window, leaving a grayish print. “I could never crush the resistance. So I help the resistance crush itself.” He sighed. “Despair, that is the true weapon; and nothing feeds despair like giving a man hope, only to dash it to pieces at his feet. Eventually, the hopelessness devours them like a cancer; and then it’s simply a question of waiting.”
He watched Nenn. The expression on her mutilated face was difficult to read—it could have been delight, or it could have been disgust; neither would have mattered.
“It’s nothing personal,” Osir said. “It’s my job.”
“Your job, sir?”
“I solve problems. And right now, wizards are the sharpest thorn in my paw.”
“And when the wizards are gone?” Nenn said with a cock of her head.
“There will be another problem to solve,” Osir said, the words seeming to fall, turning into a great emptiness inside him. “When you’re a giant, you’re always stepping on things.”
Together in silence, they stared at the city spreading out around them in every direction, a view encompassing much of Junk City, Smoketown, Stonecutter City, and the Hills, and reaching as far as the mountains breaking the dark horizon in the west. Osir loved the city like this, all broad strokes and shadows. To go too far down—to the streets—was to risk finding filth under your fingernails; to risk becoming like the maiden (whatever-her-name-was; he’d already forgotten), with her ruined visage and that empty cave of an eye.
His bladder panged him.
“Leave me,” he said, turning away. Smoke rose from somewhere far beneath him.
“Shall we arrange the next wave then?” the maiden said.
“Use the AlchiMen again?”
“Try slaves this time; laborers,” Osir said. “They’re always hungry for purpose.” He had bored of this conversation, and his muscles ached with a sullen pain; perhaps he was getting too old for such bouts of debauchery. That would be a tragic day.
“And the Kinsman ruse?” the maiden said.
“Retire the Kinsman for now,” Osir said. “Use the Interceptor, or the Ragged Shade. Those old legends still hold a bit of life.”
Osir showed her to the door. “Let me know when it’s done,” he murmured, stepping aside, his nakedness dangling free, like a victory banner on a still morning.
“I will,” the maiden said, bowing one last time. “Thank you, sir.”
Tired, Osir watched the maiden retreat back along the corridor to the catwalk, and then into the lift. He would likely have her killed eventually—he knew this—but it was hardly urgent. It was just one more problem to solve. It was a shame, as she was certainly nice to look at from behind. Unfortunately, looking at her straight in the face was another story.
There would always be dogs, as there would always be masters.
This regret passed through him, albeit briefly—there and then gone in an instant.
Osir stayed for a while and watched, as the lift traveled down through the steam and gears and screams, past the killers and thieves and monsters, to the waiting streets of Junk City.
Down. Down. Down.