The flooding had done a lot of damage in the Joy district. Soldiers and bartenders, humans and gillmen had all pitched in over the past month to make repairs. The improvement was remarkable.
Jethan scraped the last shovelful of sludge out of a basement, and looked up. The soldier next to them was staring at their blue skin. “Are you Jethan?”
“Magistrate Thane asked me to give you this.” He handed them a small ivory plaque.
You are invited, it read,
to a grand symposium at the house of the Thanes, at dusk on the night of the full moon.
Tonight. But the repairs here were done, and it was only an hour past midday. Plenty of time.
And what was going on over at the Temple of Ienna?
Jethan approached a small group of — were they elves! — clustered around a piece of machinery.
One of them pressed a sheet of paper into their hand.
“le Journal! All the latest news, printed today!”
It was covered in incomprehensible text.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Elvish.”
“You do not …?” The elf scanned through another sheet.
“Non! Ze problem grand! Tanée, we need to change the plates.”
The elf spun back to Jethan.
“Tell me, in this city where can we find ze smith of lead?”
“You need to go to the Forge quarter.” Jethan pointed north.
“Merci! Merci beaucoup! My apologies, we must go at once.” The elves swarmed into activity.
Jethan held out the news-sheet. “Before you go, could you tell me what this says?”
It didn’t take long, as the articles were little more than headlines:
City Shocked by “Lighting Thugs”
Lightning strikes in Noble Quarter, and throughout northern and western Kathrakopolis.
Reports of roving bands of muggers.
Undead Gilman Menace?
Captain Thane Returns from Circumnavigation
Expedition retrieves exotic treasures.
Feast of Flowers Preparations Under Way
Giant Lizard seen in City
Sky May Fall Again, Astronomers Warn
Plague of RATS!!!
Are they unnaturally intelligent?
I have this box. It is mysterious.
Draca Procrusta New Junior Magistrate
Under High Magistrate Thane.
PAN Cancels Tour, Leaves City
Cites need to “gain perspective”, “spend time with band”.
“What’s this about a “mystery box”? Who gave you this story?”
“That’s Antón’s byline. Antón!”
Another elf dashed across the square.
“That story? Mandolynne asked me to write that. Plays with PAN.”
Hmm. Jethan knew Mandolynne’s house. And if Pan was out of the city, it should be empty.
Meth’s monster was contained, and the city was safe. There was plenty of time until the party. But had someone mentioned a dragon, or lizard, or something, attacking the city?
But first Vinnie’s amphora was empty.
“Give me a bottle of wine!” Vinnie slammed some money on a counter.
“Sir, that’s 30 gold pieces. Are you sure you —”
“I want a bottle of wine.”
“Very well, sir. This is a Katraktes Rosé, from the drought three years ago. Our best vintage.” [Probably brandy or something, not Rosé wine, as it’s apparently flammable — Ed]
“Thanks. This’ll do.”
This was good stuff. In fact…
Vinnie tipped back his head, and blew (or fired?) a gout of flame into the air.
Heads turned. Somebody shouted. Vinnie dived into the nearest alley, then sidled away from the street.
He met someone else shuffling in the other direction.
“Excuse me, dearie. Could you spare a coin for an old bundle of sticks like me?”
“Absolutely, ma’am.” Vinnie pressed some coins into the old woman’s hand.
Her eyes went wide at eighteen gold pieces.
“Dearie, I — thank you.”
Wildflower handed her another coin.
“Thank you both. If there’s anything I could do for you?”
“Ma’am, have you heard of a giant lizard stomping around these parts?”
“My, my, yes. And a very big lizard it was too. Down by the river of shadows, if my memory doesn’t deceive me.”
The swamps that fed the river of shadows were murky in more ways than one. Something grey and misty ran through the waters of the river. Vinnie wasn’t swimming in that.
Fortunately, his horse had just arrived. He leaped into the saddle, urged the animal into a gallop, and rode straight for the river.
The horse leaped, and fell towards the water. For a moment, mount and rider hung in the air. Vinnie strained every bone and muscle towards the far bank. And somehow, they flew across and landed safely on the other side.
The tracks were about a day old. Huge, circular indentations in the ground, like an elephant with claws. Not particular draconic, but then, you never knew.
The creäture had gone into the marsh from the river, circled past several lightning-struck trees and rocks, and returned to the bank. Vinnie stood, and stared across the river. Surely those were the same tracks, continuing on the other side?
But where was the lizard itself?
The moon had risen, and the light fell on the temple of Esdore behind him. The deity of hunting was worshipped here, in the swamp. And wasn’t he on a hunt?
The temple was empty. Moonlight shone straight through the doorway and onto the altar, filling the chamber with eerie shadows. But the only people here were in the murals on the walls.
Vinnie inched towards the altar, and the doorway behind it. Maybe the priests were in the inner sanctum?
He stepped into the doorway. An icy shadow fell on his shoulder. Cold gripped his limbs, and froze his muscles in place.
Two of the shadows had moved to stand behind him. Odd shapes, almost like silhouettes of priests’ robes. They gestured away from the door.
Vinnie stepped back into the public chamber.
Where were the real priests? Why couldn’t they let him in the sanctum?
The shadows gestured wildly. They were the priests? Dead? Could he avenge them?
They pointed to the murals on the walls. No, to the dark tiles between the murals. Tiny scenes were cut into the dark pottery: a forest; something — a broken arrow? — dug from the ground; forest and miners, dying. A ship, loaded with the arrow. A course marked by (through?) the stars. A course ending at Kathrakopolis.
Possibly Wildflower could have followed Vinnie’s leap across the river. But walking back to the bridge was safer.
A blue-skinned tiefling was walking in the other direction along the bank. In their hand was a familiar ivory plaque.
“Looks like we’re both going to the same party.”
“It’s a surprise what washes out of the marsh, deary.”
A familiar old woman was combing through debris alongside the river. She held up a square object — a checkerboard.
“A checkerboard?” The tiefling, Jethan, leaped down to the riverbed. Wildflower followed.
An Oread appeared between the two of them and the old woman.
Quick as silver, Jethan grabbed his arm. “Rook.”
He squirmed. “You’re not supposed to see me when I appear. Look, I have to —”
“Rook, who is the Red King?”
“The Red King,” the Oread recited. “The Red King dwells the other side of sleep, where destruction cannot reach.”
Jethan waved the checkerboard in front of him. “What game is this? How can we win?”
“Win? The only way to win is not to play.”
Jethan sighed, and let him go.
They held out the checkerboard. “Did you want this?”
The old woman had gone.
Jethan & Wildflower
The moon was rising.
“We’ve got to find my friend, Vinnie.” Wildflower climbed back on the boardwalk. “He’s in the marsh, and he needs to be back here in time for the party.”
By the time they reached the Temple of Esdore, the moon had fully risen. Didn’t there used to be a rabbit in the moon, not a scallop shell?
They asked the shadows in the temple the same question.
The shadows gestured dissent. Ienna, the shell-deity — or rather, the bright half of the shell — had stolen the moon from Esdore. But Jethan could see another layer — Esdore, or whatever was in Esdore’s sanctum, wanted the moon back — but the shadows were afraid of what their god would do with it.
Could the heroes see this god in the sanctum?
Reluctantly, the shadows agreed.
The statue of Esdore looked up, pointing a drawn bow at the moon through a skylight. But there was something wrong with its face. Vinnie glanced at it, then looked away. Jethan stared a moment longer, then recoiled.
Wildflower met its eyes. Deep, black pits, going on forever — and after forever, at the bottom of an infinite space, something glowing. An arrowhead, lit in a purple mortal eyes should never see.
The statue looked back at them.
Slowly, its bow swung down.
Wildflower’s hands slid off the smooth marble. Jethan’s arrow shattered the stone, but barely scratched the dark metal underneath. Star-iron. Vinnie lifted his sword, far too slowly.
The statue loosed its arrow at Jethan.
Everything went dark. Air shattered. Space cracked, leaving a void without sound. Something tentacled writhed in a gap between moments. Then the hole slammed shut, and there was only dust.
The statue was rubble. So was a section of temple wall where it had been shot.
Jethan lay still, peaceful, and apparently unharmed. There was no pulse.
Jethan sat in a study. Bookshelves and overstuffed leather armchairs lined the walls. A black-flamed fire roared in the grate, giving off no light. Good thing they could see in the dark.
There were no doors. No visible exit.
Jethan pulled a book from a random shelf. No secret doors swung open.
The book was written in Infernal, and seemed to be a record of various contracts.
Jethan replaced it on the shelf.
The chair behind the desk turned, slowly.
Its occupant set a clay cup down on the blotter.
“Welcome, Jethan. I am afraid there is only one way on from here.”
It pushed the cup across the desk.
“What do you know about the space between the stars?”
It jerked back. “I suppose we have time to answer questions. But I had not thought I would hear about the space between the stars for a long time.”
It gazed into the cup. “In my time, I have seen many of your like take the hemlock. Occasionally, I have had stars come to me; one star as often as a thousand of your souls. Once, in all the thousands of stars, one of my own kind came to me. Perhaps, after another million stars, I shall see another colleague.
“But I will have seen millions of my own before the time has come for the space between the stars. When I see it, my own time will be nearly come. Strange and dark as it is, that space shall not touch yours for many eons yet. Unless it were somehow disturbed.”
Jethan circled the room again. There were no gaps between the bookshelves and walls. Even the fireplace lacked a chimney. But there was a finger-wide channel of black flame, running out of one corner of the hearth.
“As I said, there is no way out, except to take the hemlock. Even I can only remain here until my time comes.”
The fire-channel ran around the room, at the foot of the bookshelves. As Jethan circled the room, four other channels joined it: one of tears, one of silver mist, and one of yellow venom. Five fine streams.
Jethan turned back to the figure. “What happened to the moon? Why is it a shell?
“I suppose I can say. It’s all over now.” The figure paused. “As I said, one of my colleagues came to me. It was a great sacrifice. Heroic. But even for her, there was no way out.”
Jethan poked the channel of fire. Ouch! They pulled their hand back quickly. The yellow channel was less painful, but left them with a sting of guilt. They could not remember touching the yellow channel. And the tears?
A vision of the Joy District. Gillmen and humans, fallen in the streets. Others sitting, weeping.
Jethan reached for the fifth channel. Their hand passed through, and out. An arm followed, then a shoulder. They leaned closer, but the space was too small. Their body would have to brush one of the other channels to fit.
Jethan fell forwards, into black fire and pain.
Vinnie & Wildflower
Wildflower grew large, and set off at a run. Past the temple of Pheia, past the unhelpful temple of Baket, and on to the temple of Bracaden, deity of secrets. That was the symbol Jethan had worn.
The temple had no door. The walls were covered with mathematical and symbolic carvings, but no openings or handles.
A circle ten feet up seemed out of pace. Vinnie flew up, and pushed. It slid inwards.
The initiates of Bracaden were scribbling arcane formulae, adding to the copious notes that covered the inside of the temple.
When they saw Jethan’s body, they scrambled to help. Every one of them shouted theories or scribbled notes.
“Their soul is caught.”
“In the past.”
“The Ending Ring. Of course! Kathrakopolis is the Seven-Ringed City.”
“Go to the end of the city.”
“The ends of the earth!”
Vinnie stood still, and fumed. His sword opened its eye. “I know! Get something from the edge of the world. There are dragons there!”
“There ain’t time.”
“But if you could get something from there? From Captain Thane?”
Vinnie and Wildflower still had their invitations…
By now, nightfall was well and truly past, and the symposium was busy.
Exotic creatures and objects (and the occasional rat) lined the walls of Thane’s dining room, but the guests were clustered around a central table.
Thane the Elder waved from the other side of the crowd.
“Ah! The wrestling champion, and —” he peered at Vinnie’s invitation “— well, I must have invited you. Come in! Have a drink!”
“We don’t have time to drink.” Vinnie took a swig from his bottle. “We have to save someone’s life.”
Lyssa Thane was near the centre of the crowd. They pushed towards her.
From here, Vinnie could see the object on the central table: a small box with four — no, three stones set in the lid.
It was inscribed in Runic: “Your wish is my command.”
Vinnie pushed closer. Close enough to read the smaller text under it. “Pandora.”
“Don’t you dare touch it!” Captain Lyssa Thane pushed him and Wildflower away.
“We need to talk to you. The icon of Esdore is attacking people! It shot Jethan, then collapsed.”
“Idols are attacking people?” Captain Thane led them out into a courtyard. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
Vinnie and Wildflower summarised the situation.
“First of all, do not go looking for that giant lizard again.” Thane’s tone grew warmer. “I’m not sure I can help you with your friend’s soul. Pontifex Breck?”
An aged Oread shuffled out of the house. His staff was topped with the rune-pillar of Kalagon. Again, Vinnie and Wildflower explained the situation.
“You understand I would need to see the … ah … body? The temple of Baket, you say?”
The priest of Kalagon inspected Jethan’s body, cast a set of rune stones, and looked over the body again. “Jethan is not fully dead, but their soul is … ah … caged. Caught somewhere. Probably at the place they … this happened.”
Lyssa, the priest, the Baketans, and several curious partygoers followed them back to the Temple of Esdore.
Pontifex Breck shook his head at the damage to the temple. He cast another set of runes where the statue had shot Jethan, and shook his head. “The soul should be in the sanctum, but the sanctum is no longer … ah … sanctified.”
“How can we get it back?”
Vinnie’s sword blinked. “I know! A temple is just a house of a god, so you need all the bits of a house. A fire, of course. The god — well, the statue. Walls and a roof, and — I got this, I got this — and a party, of course! A party led by the priests.”
One of Lyssa’s guests had been a sculptor.
“Can you repair this statue?”
The sculptor scowled at the pile of rubble that had been the icon.
“All you other people, help us put this wall back together.”
There was a flurry of activity. Vinnie gave up his bedroll and wine to start a fire. The sculptor commandeered Wildflower’s violin strings and made an avant-garde arrangement of suspended rocks. Many hands made short work of the hole in the wall.
The heroes laid Jethan’s body in the rebuild temple.
“Now, who here is a follower of Esdore?”
“I am, dearie.” The old lady stepped forward. One of the followers of Baket joined her.
“Great. You’re the new priests! Now, let’s have a party!”
Surrounded by noise and activity, Jethan drew in a breath and sat up.
“You’re alive!” Someone smiled at them, then frowned. “Was one of your eyes always that purple colour?”