AuntieVerse Serial #5.5, 2017
Let me tell you a bedtime story, Dearest.
It begins with a dead man in the desert.
Perhaps that is not entirely factual. It begins, as all stories must, centuries before the dead man in the desert opened his eyes and rose from the dunes. It begins with a mad King and his Faithful, ruling the shining, marble city in the heart of the red wastes. It begins with a girl who would be his Lady, her deadly gifts and devastating experiments, her nest of little birds, her Citadel, her teacher's regret. It begins with the Sparrow, the woman at the well, Adanna.
After all, few good stories begin with dead men. So, my Dearest, although he is an intergral, if unpleasant, part of this tale...let us begin more simply. Before he was a dead man, he was a starving man in bandages, wiping crisp crusts of black blood from his brow when he woke upon the crest of the hill. He baked beneath the unyielding scorn of the summer sun, too long for any man's liking, and struggled to his feet, eyes upon the village nestled in the valley far below.
Eyes upon the woman, the Sparrow, at the well.
He dragged himself up from the twisted, soot-filled confines of the golden box that once held him, past the ruined bodies of the armored men and through the burning sand, ever nearer to the oasis, ever nearer to the woman who would be the death of him.
She stood at the rim of the stone well, in the village far below. The woman was Adanna, a stranger in the village, and any who laid eyes upon her could see that she did not belong, though her thick ropes of hair and browned skin were the norm for this country. Her back was strong, shoulders proud, and chin defiant, spiderweb scars on her muscled arms shining in the sun. Draped in boiled leather and wearing a sabre at her hip, she watched the horizon steadily. There was a tingle upon the back of her neck, some thread that pulled her along to the edge of this little mudhole.
Her Lady directed her to watch, to wait—as always—but there was nothing to see. Soon she would need to return through the Smuggler's Gate and make a report, even if there would be nothing to say. The sun was high and unforgiving, the dunes beyond the well bleak and empty.
Bleak and empty but for...
Adanna squinted into the distance, eyes tracing the shambling blot of black.
And there, the tug at the base of her neck, the twinge in her fingertips, the shaking of her knees that nudged her from the stones that encircled the perimeter of the village. Her boots were soundless as she walked to meet the smudge, the persistant dot that grew larger when the sand met the sky. The sun was nearly asleep when she caught his bony shoulders between her palms.
He was barely a man or perhaps barely pieces of a man. Held together with stinking gauze and sloppy stitches, he trembled in her hands, collapsing from the weight of his own body and the stress to draw breath into it. She grimaced awkwardly, but the tingle in her spine told her that this would please her Lady...one way or another.
She slipped a shoulder beneath his armpit and hoisted him to his feet with ease. Absently, Adanna raised her eyes to the pyramids and the rippling banners that dotted the minarets. Then, ignoring the stab of cold in her spine, they continued back toward the village, a speck in the shadow of the shining city that protected it.
Clack, clack, clack.
The Priestess's lacquered beads resounded with each footstep in the bustling halls of the temple. Housemen and godwives alike scurried before her, squawking like chickens to move out of her way and maintain some semblance of order over those beneath them. She waved away serving girls and nudged a dozing boy holding a tray of thinly-sliced meats drizzled with honey.
The palace was hosting no less than thirty-eight noble families in the outlying rondavels of the King's estates, and it was all that she could do to avoid the never-ceasing stream of simpering sycophants and puppets. Every floating garden and ivory gazebo, every orchard of sparkling glass fruit and bronze wrought trees, every bubbling fountain was rotten with them. Pathetic corruption and putrid decandence infected the blessed halls of her home like a wriggling, writhing plague.
How she hated the film of disgust that lingered on her tongue when she offered them her blessings.
How she hated the curl of her lips when she was forced to bestow upon them a gracious smile.
She was a tall, proud woman and a senior Priestess by at least two decades. Her skin was burnt amber, typical of her homeland, and her cheek bones were high enough to have once inspired their own romantic poetry. She was a striking woman, if not classically beautiful, and once, long ago, whispers echoed in the kitchen of the life she would have led if not for her devotion to her God King. Like most Faithful, she shaved her head clean of even the most stubborn, coily stubble and her holy scars and white tattoos gleamed in the light of the lamps and lanterns lining the white walls.
Down, down, down, she led the unit of Falcons, along a gleaming marble staircase and ivory bridges. An elderly houseman moved to avoid her and she glared him down, feeling the warm buzz of satisfaction in her belly when he shivered and froze beneath her gaze. The Priestess pursed her lips and drew the corners into a sharp smile, then set her hand upon the handles of the sliding doors.
Waiting inside were several godswives in red robes beneath hardened leather and iron-studded armor, leisurely leaning upon their decorative spears, appropriately menacing. Two of the women present wore white robes and daggers at their hips, but were otherwise reclining beside the elaborately carved throne.
Her King awaited her, chin balanced carefully upon his long, bony fingers. His Priestess followed his gesture forward, stepping along the shining mosaic tile. Her gaze followed his, beyond the ebonwood furnishings, the ivory bed, the silk and sheer curtains.There was nearly more sky than wall--one boundary was taken nearly completely by colored glass that filtered the sunlight in pink, orange, and blue rays of dancing motes. One pane was thrown wide open and the Traitor's Sea—the wide-stretched desert to the west--was rippling in the distance behind the massive pyramids that dotted the region like the spine of a sleeping giant. At the base of their own moderate pyramid, her eyes caught on the green and gold banners of the greater nobility, and the smaller banners of their bondsmen and vassals waving feebly beneath them.
“My Faithful,” her King grunted between heaving, dry coughs.
She nodded, though she knew it was not necessary for her to agree or understand.
Her King spoke again, each word pulsing in her chest like a drumbeat. “My Hangman...?”
“Gone. We did all that we could, oh Lord.” A Falcon spoke too soon, and his scream was swallowed in a flash of light when the King languidly closed his fist. The remaining Falcons started and stumbled to back away from their companions' remains.
One by one, they joined him, until the tile was a mess of black ash and stinking brimstone. The King drew his palm along his brow, clearly exhausted. His Priestess waited patiently, eagerly devouring each gross display of power. He settled uneasily, all sharply stretched bones and creaking joints, and his spidery limbs shook and rattled.
The Priestess looked on silently, wisely keeping her tongue. If that creature had escaped his binds...if he were to wake...
She drew a handful of that ash from the floor and spread the fine powder upon her palms, tracing ancient symbols. For some silent moments, she searched the future. Her silver-streaked braid brushed her waist with a familiar swish-swish.
“The gestation is nearly complete. We must find him or lose all.” She did not dare to speak aloud the misfortune that would befall them should the Hangman return to their shining city.
Her King's words were scarabs along the back of her neck. “Where?”
She took a deep, shuddering breath and shook herself free of fear. “There is a shroud upon him—it may fall as I draw near. We should begin at the outskirts of the city, and then search the slums and lesser shrines. Those dens of sin are rife with heretics.”
“Find my Hangman,” the King stressed, this time with a tone of finality.
The Priestess covered her hands in the ashes of those Falcons' failure and rubbed along her arms furtively. The feathers split the skin of her forearm in fistfuls and soon she stood upon the balcony, stretching her wings to the sky.
“Find my Hangman,” her King instructed. “Burn any who hide him from me.”
Her laughter cut a jagged line through her beautiful face as she leapt from the tower.
Adanna and the bandaged man had stopped for a moment and a breath in the shadow of a narrow alley when the vision shook the breath from her body and threatened to crush her chest and skull with the weight of truth.
The steam and stench of human flesh hung heavily in the air that morning, fogging the filthy glass that filtered anemic rays of morning light. It formed a clinging film upon the skin of every man and woman huddled in the crowd of bodies, suffocating them. He hated it. Hated the freezing night air and chattering, rotten teeth. Hated the stink of fear and murmured lullaby of despair. Hated the uncertainty of his fate.
Didn't any of these cattle know who He was?
Didn't any of these pathetic wastes of flesh and breath recognize Him?
The group turned in unison after some time, rotating to remain in the path of the clouded gray light. Dust motes flickered and fluttered in the air, flakes of dead skin and dirt among them when a hundred pairs of feet shifted restlessly to remain in the light. He shifted with them, passively watched a member of the crowd clawing at the cheek of an old man when he wandered to closely to his space, when he turned too slowly.
He did not even hear the old man's body hit the ground.
He had already forgotten him...
Adanna was choking up bile, clutching at her hair, her lips, her shoulders. Nails bit deeply beneath her flesh, but the bandaged man waited, his lanky fingers resting upon her elbow. She pushed him away in her panic and watched his shriveled body crumple to the earth. When she collected herself and reached for his hand...
The group turned again, clumsily staggering to follow the sun. He was aware of his dry throat, his pounding head, the smell of rotting wood and human waste. He heard the consistent chorus 'Wait and see, wait and see, all will be well, wait and see' that churned beneath the thin veil of terror.
He heard the prayers, the pleas, the promises.
He heard the furtive whisper: 'The tithe must be paid.'
He felt the tremor in his bones, the burning in his blood.
And then He was screaming, thrashing, grabbing ahold of shoulders and clutching at elbows, frantically searching, searching, searching....
Adanna freed herself finally, falling back against the sturdy support of a crumbling stone wall. The man gasped and wheezed from the exertion, and she felt the familiar tendrils tugging beneath her skin, within the sinew. It was in her blood, this urgency, this hymn that roared in her ears.
Her Lady was calling them.
She watched and waited, and then settled her fingertips upon the man's wrist, bracing herself for another shock of prophecy, another illusion of times past or future...nothing. She gripped him in earnest now, hauling the man to his full, gangly height, and dragged him after her, keeping him at arms' length when she could, holding her breath and turning her gaze when she could not.
Adanna was taking him to the market district, where the stench of unwashed humanity, animals, and the polluted slums were all veiled beneath a cloying blanket of spices and expensive flowerd. A woman shouted that her beads were hand-carved ancient treasures and yet the prices that she called for them suggested otherwise, brought so low as to claim poverty in haggling. Apprentices from the Distillery District brought samples to wet the dry mouths of peasants and onlookers while the promenades of nobles in their carved litters waved with bright smiles and blank eyes to those that they thought deserved to recognize them.
Tonight only the stars and the occasional staggering drunkard were there to greet them.
The shrines and chapels were modest, but persistent, springing between and beneath outcroppings of apartments and storefront like fungus. Adanna had seen a hundred and a hundred more stamped out of existence, crude idols smashed in the streets, only to sprout elsewhere in greater numbers. Their chants were scribbled and scratched along the chipped stone archways and canals.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
The two of them watched from the shadows of the back entrance of a dilapidated cantina in silence, eyes desperately combing the side streets and alleys for some sign of life. It was not until the sky was awash in pastel pinks and blues that Adanna and her would-be Hangman were rewarded for their diligence—a pickpocket slipped between two slats of hastily fastened boards over a deep crevice. Adanna settled her hand upon the bandaged man's shoulder.
The shadows swallowed them as she and her charge stole through the crack in the wall. Tracing her fingertips along the sandy corridor, Adanna led the bandaged man into the inky depths, taking each turn with the confidence of a woman in her childhood home. Only the careful crunch of padded footsteps upon sand filled the air, until the hiss of pain when the man collided with a sharp corner, slathering stone with a streak of jet.
The depths sparked to life with the glowing eyes of a hundred little matches and a hundred little knives.
They'd found the Sparrows' nest.
There she sat in silence, cloaked in shadow, glowering upon her subjects from the raised stone dais. The gauzy curtains that barely budged in the stale, stagnant air were torn and tattered. They draped in a perfect halo behind her head when the light was right…she'd heard as much in the mumbles of her children.
Fingers drummed aimlessly.
One after another after another, her subjects approached her, murmuring some measure of praise poetry or inquiring direction. She guided their swords, salved their spirits without effort. All the while her subjects, her Sparrows, marched and milled about her meager throne room..
All the while, she reached.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
It started slowly enough, harmlessly enough at first. Children were easy to control, easy to lead, and their disappearances went relatively unnoticed. Children had fewer threads attached, fewer families that sought them out. Children had fewer complications.
Children were easy to clean up.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID.
She reached further on occasion, but the rewards were rare. Women proved too stubborn, too unpredictable. Men proved too prone to…violent mishap. The elderly frequently could not take the strain of her touch. The sun rose and the sun set and still she reached.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID.
He came with the first Sparrow...that woman who once dared...no matter, now. She'd fulfilled her purpose.
Draped in filthy bandages, bruised and bleeding black, groaning and growling and incapable of knowing his immense power. She felt him right away, and the roiling darkness trapped beneath his skin. She reached him easily and found it inside of him...the end of her search.
The bandaged man ought not to have been surprised by the crowd of children swarming through the stone warrens beneath the city. As quickly and quietly as they appeared the tiptoeing of tiny feet vanished, snuffed out behind heavy velvet curtains and crumbling, moldering wood like so many wind-kissed candles. Adanna moved among them easily, straightening shoulders and ruffling curls absently, each step guiding her to the stone altar at the peak of the dais. She hesitated, eyes askance, fingers fidgeting. The bandaged man could smell her fear...and her regret.
The girl waited there, swaddled in great, pooling swathes of moth-eaten silk and combed cotton. Adanna curtsied without irony, eyes lowered to the ground as the child rose, brushing fat twists of locked hair from her eyebrows and balancing a brass crown precariously among her braids and beads. The girl tilted her chin imperiously, fingers twitching as they tightened the band of leather fixed over her right eye.
"What have you brought Us, Sparrow?"
As though she did not know.
The man felt some power in her voice twinge in his gut, deep beneath and within his skin and stomach and soul. He felt black bile bubble into his throat and onto the floor of the secret tunnel, splashing and sputtering against the packed sandstone. Children recoiled in terror and awe, but silent all the same. Their eyes flashed silver and red in the gloom and their knives as well, these beasts in children's skins.
Adanna swallowed the scream that threatened to claw itself out of her throat. "Have you ever seen a Hangman, my Lady?"
"A Hangman? Truly?"
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
Every syllable shook and nearly shattered the Hangman's bones. He doubled over in pain, moaning and clutching at his wet ears and throat. The children bristled and murmured mysteriously, blades flickering. The one-eyed girl trailed her train of sheer silks through the filth the bandaged man had wrought upon her hall, delicate toes dancing through the stinking, starving muck that lapped at her bare heels. Even now, upon his knees, he towered above her and when she rested a soft hand upon his cheek, his panicked recoil only forced him to fold and crumble around her tiny frame.
They shook and shuddered together for some time, the girl cradling his head in her thin arms. When she spoke, there was a tremble in her voice that was too fragile, too mortal.
"This is no Hangman," she whispered, stroking the sticky, damp curls that struggled for breath between bandages. "This is the noose."
She lay a gentle kiss upon his forehead, smearing the tar caked there. He winced beneath her glorious touch and whined when he felt her thumbs upon his eyelids. She felt him tremble in fear, she felt his misery beneath that thin veil.
"This is the noose," she whispered again, spurting black blood up to her wrists. He howled in pain and struck out, narrowly missing her as she giggled uncontrollably. Her congregation of Sparrows joined her, save one, and their laughter chirped and chimed against the stone walls of their underground sanctuary. The one-eyed Lady raised her patch and smeared that tar against her own ruined eye. A sharp flare of pain and then…peace.
She turned her attention upon her errant Sparrow, eldritch eye shining a pale light in the shadow of the temple. Adanna was visibly horrified, but stood her ground, hand resting upon the hilt of her curved sabre.
The Lady cackled, reaching out to her children. They joined her, stepping over and around the Hangman's flailing arms, ignoring his wordless screams. The Lady turned her eyes upon him and smiled, her eye pulsing all the while.
She could see it all.
The King. His Priestess. The Hangman. The Queen...
Her death was coming, on swift wings, and soon she would kiss the sun. Tears swelled and ran, drenching her silks.
He was perfect, truly, and who could have guessed that she would have brought him to her...that her tiny fingers had pierced the palace and gripped Him, the sun, of all men? Even after the coup she still had her claws in him...even in death she had commanded him to her side...
“My Lady,” Adanna began, fingers dancing a perilous rhythm upon the hilt of her sword. There were too many emotions, too complicated, but she could not look upon her d...Lady's face. The fear and revulsion was too strong, her shame too great. “May I be relieved?” It was all that she could manage, all that she dared hope for.
A tinkling melody, sweet laughter with a haunting strain. “Of course, my dear Sparrow. We will see you within the hour.”
Adanna gaped. She had thought...surely... “My Lady...”
The sound of thunder as her head jerked to the side. A silver blade sang through the dark, red with her blood. Adanna felt her cheek go warm as her Lady pocketed the knife.
“Go now,” the little Lady stressed, as though correcting a disobedient child. She was pre-occupied with smearing the black blood of her newest toy along her palms. Adanna squeezed her eyes shut, willed the tears away, and when she opened them again she was bathed in sunlight, face turned to the dawn in the open air of the marketplace.
They patrolled in double file, fifty soldiers strong, and the brass feathers on their pauldrons were whispering in the wind like sand along glass. Adanna stood in the midst of the chattering crowd and watched each strong stride, each swing of the tasseled spears against their shoulders. The sun glistened and gleamed on golden beaks and blades as the armored guards settled along the parapets, sheer silk of the royal banners fluttering lazily with every sticky breeze.
They were slight in form, these guards, these Falcons that gleamed beneath a sheen of sweat and satin. The legends that accompanied them, and the mysterious, shaded litter that shuddered behind them, were much mightier. Eyes that cast sinners in stone, fists that shattered bones and brains with ease, voices that commanded even the dead to rise…
They were well away from the nest, though Adanna thought that she saw a glint of familiarity in the eyes of the woman who walked alongside them.
“And then she wiped the blood upon her eye and it granted her sight?”
Adanna nodded vigorously and took her eyes from the edge of the balcony. She knew that the old hermit was not truly questioning her out of disbelief, but the need to fulfill some manner of scholarly procedure. The memory of her Lady splattering herself with a man's blood, even a man as pitiful as that creature she'd dragged from the desert...
The Sparrow emptied the mug of its last mouthful and slid it across the rickety table with perhaps a little too much force. An apprentice, desperate to appear as though he were not eavesdropping, scrambled for it before it could reach the edge and refilled it to the brim. When he offered it to the Sparrow, she waved him away, a smirk tugging the corner of her mouth when he obeyed with a disappointed scowl.
“What is a Hangman?”
The hermit shook his head and gazed out over the bustling city. He watched as the streets swelled with the ebb and flow of its citizens before he finally spoke.
“Hangmen don't exist anymore. Perhaps they never did.”
There was something else there. Something unsaid that swelled beneath the surface of technically truthful words.
Adanna made a show of cleaning her nails with her arced dagger. “Humor me, old man.”
He grumbled somewhat irritably but obliged. “Mage hunters, mostly. A cult from the Age of Legend, obsessed with destroying magic. There was a conduit theory, that they would work in groups—hunting clans—siphoning and channeling the flow of magic used against them. Some say mages started making artificial ones to murder each other. No reason there'd be any about now, though I won't say it's impossible. An old story to scare young mages from straying from the path, in an age when magic was wilder.”
Adanna heard what he would not say, that Hangmen were trained to kill mages like her Lady...that her Lady somehow called him there for the explicit purpose of assassinating someone...she drew an open palm across her brow and leaned into it, resting her tired eyes against the meat of her hands.
“She's mad...isn't she?”
The hermit waited a heartbeat or two—as though listening to something that Adanna could no hear—and then patted her shoulder gracelessly, clearing his throat. “You ought to rest here a while. You've earned it and she won't miss you. I'm sure she's busy.”
Adanna searched the edges of her consciousness for her Lady's pull and, for the first time in months, found nothing but the shadows of her influence. The Sparrow nodded, against her better judgment, and called for her mug when the hermit clapped her on the back. He laughed heartily and she joined him, eyes once again drifting to the windows.
Well after sunset, when the back alleys and windowless dregs of Sama were washed in deep indigos and the piss and vomit of wealthier citizens, Adanna slipped into the shadows and back to her Lady's side.
He did not see the Falcons enter, did not hear their angry questioning, did not see the pointing of fingers.
He did not hear the growing panic, the fanatic chanting.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
He clambered to his feet, snarling and snapping like an animal.
He must escape!
There was no time! No time!
She was calling him! She was calling him!
The Lady rushed to his side, babbling wildly, beating upon his chest. She clutched at him when a Falcon captain caught her about the waist. Chaos erupted then, and the tiny Sparrows were slashing and stabbing at calves and stomach, twisting tiny knives between the chinks in their armor, the slits in their helmets.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
He did not feel the fist in his throat, the boot on his chest, the heel against his temple. He did not feel the weight pulled off of him as the Sparrows tore the Falcons away, tore them apart.
He howled and hissed against the ground, next to the bodies of fallen Sparrows. He did not feel the pounding in and outside of his head.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
His skull celebrated his escape, bursting like ripe fruit. Fire engulfed the Nest, swallowing Sparrow and Falcon alike.
“You've killed us all!”
The last Sparrow traced the halo of the blackened crater with stumbling steps, following the ominous spiral of caked blood and charred remains. Each stride brought her ever closer to the bandaged man...and the fragile body that he held in his arms.
“There was nothing that you could have done?” Adanna shouted, tearing at his face and skin savagely, ripping bloody hunks of hair beneath her knuckles. “What sort of savior are you? What prophecy could you possibly fulfill if you cannot protect even a child?”
The man waited for her in the center, shaking and shuddering, chest rattling with oily black phlegm that hissed upon the ash. His shoulders wracked with each shallow wheeze and she saw the veins in his neck and forehead bulge with the strain of battling for breath. Each drop of blood stretched endlessly, pooling around his knees and staining the frayed brown bandages on his knuckles.
She snatched the remains of her Lady from him, cradling the wrecked child...if she could even call her that anymore...to her chest. Tears burned bitterly and flowed down her cheeks in hot streams that stung the forgotten cut. She sobbed there, clutching the girl's face, caressing her jaw, her hairline, her once-freckled cheeks. Adanna had hoped that she would not live to see this day, but she knew it was a matter of time before her Lady's power, her boundless ambition, would consume her.
She'd always known.
Adanna watched the torches flicker around him him, drenching the Nest in warm puddles of crimson. The man raised his eyes, glistening and yellow. She wondered briefly if that was the exchange—the Lady...her daughter...had stolen his eyes and so he stole them back with her death.
They flashed in the dark when he whispered, parroting her daughter's final command, “Citadel. In the mires. West.”
"You've killed us all," she repeated through clenched teeth, though she knew he could not hear her—he was empty inside, a vessel for her daughter's terrible gift. "I hope that you're worth it."
The rooftops of the city were a maze of red paper lanterns and gauzy sheets of silk. They snatched and swallowed at Adanna's pumping arms and legs as she darted from garden balcony to steaming poolside, steps slipping and skidding. The bandaged man led her along, leaping from shadow to shadow like some demon of the depths---only the sallow moonlight kept pace.
She heard the Falcons far below, bustling through the marketplace in a fury. The glint of spear tips sliced effortlessly through the chill of the night, whistling past Adanna's braids and silencing themselves in walls and wood and the unfortunate passerby. Commoner and noble alike scattered in their wake, headless chickens fleeing the butcher's knife long before they could realize that they were already dead.
The bandaged man grunted with some effort, before taking a running leap across a wide lane of carts and cattle. His strangled cry signaled a spear narrowly kissing his thigh, splashing a brush stroke of black against a marbled trellis. Adanna followed, much more gracefully, and the man gave a wail and a groan when she did not slow, jerking his shoulder from its home in her rage and fear. He trailed behind pitiably, but Adanna had no time for his weakness.
Her feet were upon the sandstone roads well before she heard the screams…but the stench of charred flesh and hair sped along the wind. She was struck with it like a blow to the chest, and she felt her breath leave her, but the moment was over and her legs eagerly ate the miles to the smuggler's gate, the bandaged man whimpering and stumbling all the while.
“Well, well, well.”
The Hangman had skidded to a halt, and his hand twitched at his side, as though to alert her, to warn her to stay back in the shadows.
It was too late.
The small band Falcons were upon them in moments, but Adanna had no time to act. The Hangman beside her bellowed, black spittle frothing upon his lips, and then he was a whirlwind of motion, ripping limbs and innards through the brass and bronze armor as easily as he would the fruit from an open melon. Adanna looked on in horror as he howled and snapped, tearing at sensitive, soft flesh with broken fingernails, ignoring the pathetic, terrified hacking of swords. When they ceased moving, he rose from the pool of gore and bone, and silently stared at the Sparrow, lifting a limp hand for her to grasp between her shivering fingers.
She silently took it and began to run, willing herself to not look back.
The Hangman followed.
Of course he did.
She led him along, quick as a doe, ignoring the telltale hiss of his blood splattering along the sandstone beneath their feet. Adanna did not hesitate, shoving her way through a barbed rift in the western wall of the city—the Smuggler's Gate. She was not careful in pulling the Hangman through after her and heard his bandages rip upon the jagged teeth of their escape route.
She screamed when she turned, slashing instinctively with her sword.
One of the hermit's apprentices cried out in pain, slinking away from her flashing steel. His master grunted a warning and stilled the panicked Sparrow's hand with ease, twisting her wrist until her jaw set and she came to her senses.
“We must go quickly!” he cautioned. “I'll lead the way!”
Adanna searched his grey eyes, surrendering her terror and grief for a moment. His seven apprentices murmured among themselves and grabbed her wrist. She shook herself to attention and followed the old mage and his students, across the moonlit desert, chasing the sun and freedom into the west.
"I am not convinced that you actually know the way to the Citadel."
The hermit harrumphed dramatically, phlegm rattling behind his rib cage He leaned on his cane and stroked the wisps of his eyebrows between stubby fingertips.
"Well, Sparrow, if your opinion mattered then I suppose we would be following your directions instead."
Adanna shut her mouth with an audible click, forcing the sting of a sharp retort back between her teeth. She needed the hermit's assistance after all, no matter how crude or curmudgeonly. After all, her daughter had never trusted her with the Citadel's location...she had never even heard of it until the Hangman had echoed it in her Lady's voice.
His apprentices prodded the sucking depths of the moor with their staves, cautiously edging the raft across the swirling sludge. All about them, the air hung damp and dreary, a slab of slate perpetually suffocating the sun above. Mist clung ominously to the hanging trees that lined the flooded moorlands, draping any distant danger in a chilling cloak of silver.
All the while, the Hangman slept soundly, curled tightly in the center of the raft. His snores gurgled in this chest with each shallow breath and Adanna absently curled a bandage around her finger as the raft shifted and slid awkwardly with each stroke of an apprentice's staff.
There, in the distance, she saw it. A stone tower cowered on the horizon, cold and crooked. A swarm of crows cackled, summoning Adanna and her guides ever closer, crooning a lullaby that sparked shivers down her spine in the gloom of the early morning. Hours of drifting through the moorlands had not brought them any closer to the Citadel, and she was certain that she'd overheard the call of some mysterious predator not more than a moment ago…
The short burst of a hunting horn shook her. Adanna lifted her head when the gray of the never-ending mist tinged black and the sky above darkened charcoal. The boat ought not to have seemed so large but any change to the monotonous landscape was a fearful surprise. The single man at the prow bore a curved sword and embroidered military jacket---a single golden jackal upon the breastplate.
He leaned upon the rail of his boat and offered an easy smile…and it looked to Adanna as though he were more baring those polished, white teeth.
"Now, who has floated into my home?"
The finely crafted hills and valleys of that golden jackal shone like the sun in the dim light of their lanterns. Adanna unsteadily rose to her feet, brandishing her curved sabre. The Moorman barked a laugh, all snarling teeth and predatory smugness, and gestured arrogantly to their puny raft.
Adanna felt herself falter for a moment when the thudding of her heart overwhelmed her and, for a moment, she could not tell if the ringing in her ears was the impact of a blow against her skull or her own raw screams. She heard a rope burn through strong hands and a crack that shook the tips of the dead trees around them...and then silence.
All the while, the Moorman grinned, sharp teeth shimmering in the moonlight, and the mire muttered in apathetic gurgles.
If her companions shared her discomfort, they did not speak of it. The Moorman, alone though he was, would prove more than a match of the lone Sparrow and a handful of scholars. Not even the supposedly powerful Hangman could be trusted to assist her, she realized. Heaving a sigh, she handed her sabre upward, hilt-first, into the waiting fingers of the pirate. He accepted the blade graciously and without taunting his prey, though she held no illusion that he did so out of respect.
The scholars followed the blade and the Hangman as well, until each passenger shared an equally cramped space abroad the Moorman's boat. The swamp eagerly swallowed the raft, licking at the hollow wood and hemp bindings. When the boat turned, away from the distant silhouette of the Citadel, the Moorman turned his gaze upon Adanna and she upon him in turn.
He was not a handsome man, this wolf in the wastes, and the stench of fetid death and desolation clung to him like a cowl, enveloping all that he touched. The rings in his ear and nose were large, gaudy things that shone with a near brightness to his breastplate and his neck was stretched on a high ebonwood collar. The artfully curled tails of his coat would trip any man who was not accustomed to the fashion--Adanna noted this with the precision that came naturally to a swordswoman, though she immediately decided against instigating a battle with an armed assailant within his own territory.
She could watch.
She could wait.
"So," the Moorman began, in a voice that she may have once consider soft and smooth as velvet in her youth, "what has my Lady sent me? What message does her Sparrow bring?"
Adanna followed his pacing for several moments. "She's sent us to the Citadel," she hastily lied, her voice steady, her eyes still.
The Moorman pursed his full lips and clicked his tongue, tutting to the sway of a finger. "Strike one."
An apprentice leaned forward, bracing his shoulder against Adanna's chest, dutifully stepping between her and the pirate. "She speaks the truth! The Lady sent us as her entourage to--"
Up and over he went, the Moorman having grasped his waist and flung him into the murky depths. The boat bobbed aimlessly as he struggled and screamed, clawing at the impassive wood while the swamp sucked at his body, until nothing remained but ripples and regret. The Moor adjusted his beaded collar and smoothed tattooed fingertips along the stubble on his jaw.
Adanna watched him thoughtfully, giving her lie some air to breathe. If she spoke too soon, too surely, he would--
The Moorman's fist struck her soundly in her temple and again in the jaw. Her neck craned and her body followed, until her head thumped against the deck without protest. The weakened, spent Hangman was upon him in a moment, but it was a simple matter for the Moorman to disentangle himself and cast the smaller man across the deck. Before blackness engulfed her, she saw the Moorman lean over her, hand fisted in her curls.
His fist kissed her to sleep.
When Adanna woke, it was to a splitting headache and two missing teeth. Ordinarily, she would be able to overlook the first inconvenience, but the dried blood beneath her nose and swelling in her cheek set her chest heaving. She gingerly massaged her gums and felt the sickening sensation of cool air against the point of her tongue.
When her sight settled, she nudged fingers forward to grasp at any furniture within reach. The shadows in the cramped cabin---cabin, yes, she was on a boat, wasn't she--shifted restlessly, reaching out to claw at her exposed arms and legs. The captain must have dumped her here, instead of dropping her over the railing.
This information, she decided, boded well for her.
The door creaked, as though entering the conversation, and its reply was punctuated by the sharp click of hardened leather soles upon wood. The captain paced like a hungry beast from the door to the desk, one foot leading the other in a dance that might have turned deadly if he so chose. Adanna watched beneath the weight of her pain and shame, one hand tenderly massaging the bruises along her abdomen, her breath whistling from her shaking chest through her broken teeth. Had he kicked her when she'd lost consciousness? Had he beaten her body while she slept?
The Moorman had begun to hum under his breath, some peasant's tune that Adanna barely recognized. She heard the insidious whisper of oiled leather and the tell-tale clink of sharpened metal. When the Moorman turned to face her, his eyes were alight with a veil of amusement. He stepped forward, twisting a small silver hook between his fingers, as though he were presenting a sweet to a child.
Adanna spoke suddenly, before he reached the foot of the bed. "She's dead. Your Lady." She had nothing to lose now; he had proved that he was willing to bludgeon or carve the truth from her.
"Is that so?" The Moorman appeared unperturbed, as though he had already heard this a hundred times before. Adanna listened to the boat and noted how silent it was, how empty...she saw the splatters of blood on his sleeves, caking his bruised and broken knuckles...
"The Hangman..." she began again, distracted. "She burned with the others. The Falcons made certain of it."
The Moorman shushed her, caressing her cheek first with the point of his finger, and then with the point of that silver hook. Her skin split easily and she felt red warmth licking down her neck in no time. She did not dare flinch, but her eyes caught two glistening teeth strung on a chain around the Moorman's neck. He smiled tenderly and planted a soft kiss upon her forehead, a dry press of cracked skin against the clotting blood at the edge of her hairline.
"It has been so long since we've had visitors, little Sparrow." He curved the hook upwards and then moved to the other cheek. Adanna averted her gaze and when he had finished there, he drew the point down in a single line between the eyes. He gripped the round of her chin between his fingers, smearing blood along her jawline.
"Do not ever lie to me again. I'm the only family you have left, now." He pulled her into and embrace and forced her head upon his chest. "As you were my Lady's sabre, little sister, so am I your Citadel. We need to finish her blessed work."
She nodded carefully, listening to the easy rhythm beneath his breastbone, and plotted in silence.
"This is most irregular," the old man clucked irritably as he fished beneath the bloody bandages for delicate, shriveled flesh. The man shifted on the table in discomfort, but the touch of Adanna's fingertips upon his wrist stilled him instantly. He weakly searched her eyes while the wizened hermit muttered, pricked, and prodded at the open sores and tar leaking from the corners of his patient's grimace.
"If he's no Hangman, then what is he?" Adanna asked, her face stony, impassive. The cuts had swollen in the night, but the Moorman had packed them with ash to ensure that they would neither pucker nor spoil. She avoided the urge to touch them and instead concentrated on the elderly mage, whose broken nose had taken a careful touch to reset. She'd seen no sign of his apprentices..she knew that she never would again.
The old man glared daggers at her, mustache twitching. His eyes flashed with something Adanna could not place immediately—regret, perhaps? "I didn't say he wasn't a Hangman. I said that he wasn't a Hangman YET. There's something missing...some sort of ingredient is awry. The recipe is wrong." He gave a particularly vicious jab at a soft patch of forearm and shifted a glass jar beneath the steady black stream that oozed from the sliced skin.
"What is he, then? Who is he? Why are the Falcons searching for him? How could they have known that my..." She choked on the words. She had not said them in decades.
The hermit held a ring of glass to the contents of the jar, peering at it in beneath the flare of the sunstones on his desk. After a moment of mumbled curses, he titled his head to the door behind the woman and her prone companion, great white wisps of eyebrows furrowed deeply.
"Someone's here. You need to leave. Now."
Adanna obeyed, slipping out of the open window and over the railing that enclosed the desk. The Moormoon's moods had proved erratic...every hour delivered a different manner of interrogation. Why did she share his Lady's eyes? Who else knew of him and the mire? How many Falcons died in the fire? Was there a winged woman among them?
“You've been gone for some time.”
Adanna flinched and danced away from the man that had appeard on the deck behind her. The Moorman's eyes twinkled with sadistic amusment and he twisted another small knife between his fingers. He stalked after her jovially, lips stretched wide in a grin that still seemed to not touch his eyes.
“We're nearly to the harbor, little Sparrow,” he teased, speeding to her side and forcing her to jump away again, hand reaching behind her for some support or—even better—some improvised weapon. “May as well enjoy ourselves before we begin the Lady's work.” He reached for her chin playfully, chuckling darkly when she batted him away. All the while, the knife glimmered in the lantern light.
They docked some time later and the Moorman was shackling the hermit into his quarters. Adanna watched in silence, cradling a newly bandaged bicep. When the Moorman beckoned for her to follow, she hesitated, only acknowledging his command when her embrace with the old mage had ended and he stealthily slipped a small vial between their palms.
Her eyes caught his in the shadow of the cabin, and then trailed after her Citadel, who waited in the doorway. She pecked the Hermit on the cheek and offered a soft smile, nodded to tell him that she understood...and she forgave him. Then she broke away from him and the Moorman's boat.
The Hangman followed.
Of course he did.
The palace loomed in the side of a modest pyrmaid, some twenty miles from the harbor district, dwarfing the buildings that surrounded it. A couple of golden rings pressed into sweaty palms allowed the three of them passage into the district, well away from prying eyes. Stray Falcons patrolling the streets were easily dispatched, their bodies hidden in the rubbish heaps and alleyways. Naturally the Moorman took the lead, with the Sparrow and the Hangman trailing after him like beaten dogs. When they reached the inner city, he relaxed and would even attempt the occassional joke with his unamused companions.
Suddenly his smile vanished.
Adanna had less than a breath to spare before the Moorman was lifted up, off of his feet, and carried through the air. Adanna gripped the elbow of her Hangman and drew her sabre, but her legs were already pumping, driving the two of them away from the crossroad andto the looming shadow of the pyramid and its awaiting palace.
A gust of wind and lick of flame stopped them in their tracks as a woman drifted from the sky, her booted feet caving the painted ceramic roof that she landed on. In her fist, she gripped the torn coat of the Moorman, Adanna's Citadel, who clenched and clawed at her immaculate face. She dropped him without a word, and his smoldering body collided with the paved stone like a bundle of rotten fruit.
“It is rare that I am so disappointed in my prey.”
The hawk-faced woman was on them in a second, slicing and slashing with a steel spear that whispered Adanna's death as she narrowly avoided it. The first thrust was unlucky—the Sparrow stepped gracefully beneath it and got her hand around the haft, pushing it up and out of her way so that she could draw her sabre across the winged woman's perfectly arched eyebrow. An incredulous cry was followed by a merciless buffet of those cruel wings, which knocked Adanna sideways, and the second thrust found it's home between her ribs and into the stone wall of a crumbling house.
The winged woman tittered and her beautiful, thin lips curved into a hollow smile. She made an elaborate gesture with her fingers and the Sparrow heard the Hangman moan in surprise.
His body dangled in the air, a broken, meaty marionette, and began to float to the pyramid.
NO NO NO
Adanna felt blood welling up her throat and onto the city street. She gripped the spear's haft again and pull herself along it, carving a hole through her body and meeting the winged woman at the end. Using as much strength as she could muster, she reared back and sent a fist colliding the woman's bowed lips, splitting them easily and smearing blood across her knuckles. The Priestess shrieked in disbelief, sliding out of reach of the next blow and letting the wasted energy send the Sparrow sprawling against the bloody streets. The woman licked at the blood trickling along her lips and tore the spear from the wall.
Adanna dragged her broken body with cracked and bloody hands. The winged woman clicked her tongue and tittered a laugh as she followed, piercing and prodding at the Sparrow's prone back with a practiced nonchalance. Some fifty feet away, her Citadel lie reeking and ruined, a mess of scorched black flesh. She gagged down a surge of sickness and choked.
“Have you even the faintest of ideas what He could have offered you?”
She felt a cold spike of fear and steel slide between her ribs, again and again and again, until the sand beneath her could not swallow anymore blood and it began to pool. She vaguely remembered hearing the crack of bone when the Priestess crushed her forearm beneath her boot, but the pain was far away. It belonged to someone else.
“Have you even wondered at that power, that greatness?”
Adanna grunted and pulled her legs under her with some effort, desperately struggling to protect what was left of her precious organs. The woman hardly noticed; she had begun pacing around the Sparrow, eyes alight with frenzied fanaticism. Her speech was an endless warbling of praise for her King and his terrible power...her blind love was matched only by her blazing envy.
“How could you?” the winged woman continued, staring into the haze of the moon high above them. Adanna's eyes followed hers, but her hand... “How could you even begin to understand? How could you have hoped for even a moment to oppose Him? No heretic could.”
The shattering of glass.
The silent swallow.
The sensation of fire in the belly, the throat, the fingertips.
One step after another, the winged woman rounded the Sparrow, pricking at her skin with the tip of her spear. Adanna curled in on herself, felt the pounding in her head, the rising heat beneath her skin.
“Such a waste,” the winged woman muttered, raising her spear one last time.
THE TITHE MUST BE PAID
Adanna opened her eyes, parted her lips and let the sun blossom from her mouth. The winged woman gave a short scream and her ashes drifted upon the breeze, mercifully silent. The Sparrow felt her body rise, fingers gripping for the remains of her would-be murderer.
She was nothing now.
She had already forgotten her.
Adanna stepped over the body of her Citadel, and left him to the lingering day and hungry jackals. She had a bandaged man to find. She had a King to kill.
The dead man floated through the sparkling city and the Sparrow followed.
She dragged her useless arm, each footstep a weary trudge as she trailed along after the Hangman, eyes upon him as he was drawn to the King's palace.
She could not dissolve the enchantment. She could not stop the Hangman, the Lady's careful experiment, from falling into the hands of the withered King. She could only stumble through the desert, tracing the spots of ash and black blood into the sunset.
And still he burned within her.
The winged woman had absorbed the brunt of her borrowed power, this ancient virus that simmered beneath her skin and boiled in her blood. She had no strength left, only the determination to place one foot ahead of the other, to follow the Hangman into his master's hands. As he lingered, so would she.
The evening star twinkled in the dim dusk and Adanna glared down upon the city below. Motes of magic drifted to the sky, a thousand and a thousand more stars falling up into the heavens.
And then she slipped and slid down the sand dune, sabre clutched tightly in her fist.
The Hangman floated to his King and Adanna followed him to her death.
The palace was suspiciously empty when the Sparrow reached the open gates. No Falcons awaited her. No priests or Priestesses sought to bar her path with magic. Each of her steps followed a hungry wall of flame ahead of her. The tiled floors and alabaster corriders, the marbled mosaics, gardens and gazebos, the orchards and fountains had all tasted the small power that swam in her blood, her daughter's dark power that simmered inside of the same man she'd chased to the palace.
He was nowhere to be found now, her Hangman, though he'd blazed a path through the palace, from open libraries filled to the brim with towers of elegantly scrolled parchment, to sprawling kitchens that could have housed a score of Sparrows' Nests, to shimmering pools that reflected every star in the sky.
Finally her footsteps brought her down the piles of ash that blanketed the winding staircases and the corpses of the sliding doorframes. Inside awaited the Hangman and, beyond him, pacing along the balcony, the King.
When Adanna stepped into the room, the King's gaze was immediately upon her, but the gestures he made were halting, clumsy. He cackled feebly to himself as a storm rose around them, battering winds and rain flooding through the open walls and lifting Adanna off of her feet. She felt fingers lock around her wrist and the Hangman tug her back into his arm, wrapping his lanky limbs about her shoulders. Her screams and tears were lost in the tempest, ripped from her to swirl into the sky, but her bandaged Hangman remained all the while, shining like the sun at the dawn.
The King cursed then, lunging forward, screaming some spell or another that she could not hope to recognize. The Hangman cast her behind him and shimmered with rage, meeting the King blow for blow. The savagery that Adanna had witnessed only a handful of nights before returned, kindled in the breasts of the King and his Hangman. It licked up the walls, climbed the curtains, shook the pyramid. She could hear the roar of the sky splitting, the clamor of the city shuddering into pieces.
It had to be stopped or the city would die.
Adanna strove forward, striking whichever man met her fist first. The Hangman sprawled sideways, listing for the second required for the King to gain the upperhand. He struck in that moment of vulnerability with the blade of his hand, cutting deeply into the Hangman's right shoulder and severing his arm. In his shock, the Hangman allowed for another strike, which sent his torso flying and the King fighting for breath and balance.
Adanna shouted and struck out at the King, who gasped when her fist shattered the bridge of his nose. She did it twice more for good measure and kicked the back of his knee out from under him when he heaved and swayed. When he staggered, she let the weight of his body sag away from her. Adanna had made a career out of killing larger men—she hooked a leg inside of his and tripped him. Even with her useless arm, she could still scramble atop his chest, pinning his head between her knees and punching to the rhythm of slick, satisfying crunches and groans.
If only this could be the end.
No, the King survived this, as surely as the Hangman did, but the living always command more power than the dead. When Adanna's blows slowed and she hunched above the broken King, he lay there, gurgling his laughter at the futility of her struggle.
“No man kills a God,” he babbled through the foam of blood at his lips. “Not even I can do that, try as I may.”
Adanna shook her head, exhausted. Perhaps the King could not die, but he certainly would not be rising to kill her. She might as well rest a moment. “Who is he?”
The King's sigh formed a comically large crimson bubble. “A dead man. A dead King.” An amused whine. “Long live the King.”
Adanna nodded. She had thought as much. “You knew? My...my daughter's...affliction. That she did this to him?”
“Of course. We sensed it easily enough in the prisons, though she could not have done it alone, with such meager gifts.” Even whistled though broken teeth, his pompous incredulity was apparent. “I do not think her so powerful as to wake him so early. After all these years...perhaps he had some talents after all. I had hoped to dispose of her before all of this foolishness.”
Here, too, Adanna nodded. Now that the pieces were laid out before her, she cursed herself for not having seen them. She drew a trembling, blood-stained hand through her braids.
“What happens now?”
The King cooed and weakly turned his head to spit a glob of blood and teeth upon the rain-soaked tiles. “Now we sleep. When we wake, we will battle again. And again. And again. Until the end of time.”
“And if time never ends?”
“Everything ends, little Sparrow.”
Adanna shrugged, unwilling to meet his gaze. “And if it doesn't?”
She saw his eyes light and felt his chest quake beneath her, then saw the edge of a crooked smile. Adanna gave another jerk of her head and stood, giving him room. By the time she stretched to her full height, the King had vanished, and with him her hope of waking her Hangman, who stared blindly into the stormy sky. The pyramid ceased shuddering and the city fell silent, and when the sun rose, the Sparrow and her Hangman, too, had vanished, the last of her borrowed magic spent to escape the palace.
It is said that she found a proper bed for him and buried it deep beneath the sand, so that he would not ever wake. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that she became Queen by her own hand long after the destruction of the sparkling city and the mysterious disappearance of its Kings.
But that was all yesteryear, another lifetime, a simpler story of a Hangman and his Queen. A story of a zealous King and his envious Priestess and the twisted Lady who would oppose him. A story of ambition and corruption, a story of the virus that burns through all men, the sickness of Godhood.
This is a different story, Dearest, of the day the Hangman, the True King, woke and the world trembled beneath his feet. Of his reign of fire, of the devastating rebirth of humanity as he unleashed his terrible power and crushed man within his fist. It is a story of what comes after the Sparrow, his Queen, can no longer protect us from ourselves.
It begins with a dead man in the desert.
Story time is over, Dearest. Turn the hourglass and lay down your head.
Let me stoke the fire.
Shut your eyes.
Dream of the rolling sands and the sun that lives in a man's skin.
Dream of a lost mother and her broken child.
Dream of a brother's ambition and a King's life after death.
Dream of the sickness in all men, the sickness of Godhood.
Sweet dreams, Dearest. Auntie loves you.