Chapter 17

Tristan, sitting on a stone, idly strummed at strings that did not exist. The supplicant’s cithara in his hands was but a petrified piece of wood without the additional accessory of a priest with mastery of the Gloam to weave strings and pluck at them. The first might not be so impossible, but the second was rather more of a hurdle. So, in the hours past midnight but before they left, Tristan asked a burning question.

“Can you play cithara?”

Sarai eyed him like he’d tracked mud all over her nice Izcalli carpet.

“Can you dance the moravac?” she shot back.

The thief duly considered this.

“I’ve never tried,” he said.

“There’s your answer,” Sarai easily replied.

He supposed it would have been a too lucky for one of them to be able to play the ancient magical instrument he’d dug up from the shrine. As expected, he would have to scrap it for parts. Tristan would have liked to keep the cithara for the rest of the trials, but its bellyful of feathers would do the trick instead – if only the once. Sarai’s blue eyes remained on him, scrutinizing.

“You’re scheming again,” she noted.

“I would never,” Tristan lied.

“We’re not betraying Ferranda,” Sarai reminded him. “She’s lovely and her relationship with Sanale is very romantic.”

He blinked at her in surprise.

“Her what?” he repeated.

“Tristan,” Sarai patiently said, “they have two bedrolls but only one gets mussed. Either one of them sleeps on stone or they’re fucking.”

He’d actually thought Sanale was being very neat.

“They don’t act like it,” he said.

Tristan himself might not partake, but he had learned to recognize the signs of people being lovers. He’d caught on that things between the pair were not quite as simple as mistress and hired hand, but he’d not seen any telltale marks of there being a physical dalliance.

“They’re probably used to being discreet,” she shrugged. “She’s a noble, right? I imagine her family would disapprove.”

“They likely don’t know,” Tristan frowned.

The way that Sanale was not a corpse floating by Fisherman’s Quay was something of an indication. The thief could not remember ever hearing House Villazur before, but the other infanzones had treated Ferranda as one of them so she should not be an impostor. It must be one of the lesser houses, those barely above merchant households in means. The kind that needs to marry its children well to keep the lamps lit, he thought. He thought he might have an inkling of what Ferranda Villazur was after by coming to the Dominion of Lost Things, and thus was forced into the unpleasant experience of feeling the barest kernel of respect for an infanzona.

This island truly was full of trials.

“I’ll be keeping faith,” Tristan told his companion, returning to the thread. “I am only considering the ways our efforts might turn sour.”

“We are taking risks,” Sarai acknowledged. “But there is no way forward without doing so.”

The lay of their plan was simple enough. Yong and Ferranda had found cultists encamped in the woods to the east of the bridge and killed a fox on the way back. Their company was to approach the camp while the hollows slept, then Tristan would stuff the fox carcass with every drop of lodestone extract he had left. One of the three among them that did not bumble in the woods would plant the carcass in the cultist camp, at which point their group would begin a circuitous route west while waiting for the heliodoran beast to attack the hollows. With both their obstacles keeping each other busy, they were then to run for the bridge in relative safety and hope the great lemure did not finish the cultists off before they could cross.

It was going to blow up in their faces.

If someone asked him why he was so sure of that Tristan would have struggled to answer, but within the enclosure of his own mind it seemed obvious. It was in the moving parts, the hitch of the clock, the ringing of the coin as it spun up: debacle was in the air. Too much neatness was being relied on and if years with Fortuna’s had taught Tristan Abrascal anything it was how to sniff out a coming debacle. Now, the clever thing would be to find his way out and prepare for when firmament dropped on their heads – ensure, by hook or crook, that he was not the one of the lost.

But the thief gotten greedy since he sailed to the Dominion. Too used to the shelter of companions that would not easily betray him, to others keeping their word and expecting his to be kept. To all the comforts that were a slow poison, dulling your edge and lulling your eyes into closing. Never grow roots, Abuela had taught him. Trees are good only for felling. Hard as the lesson had been to live up to, it had also kept him alive: how many times had he crossed a slumlord or a gang only for their swaggering bullies to find he was a ghost? No home, no haunts, no ties. No man could take revenge on morning mist.

Tristan had not forgot the methods through which he’d stayed alive so long, how in his own way he’d come to thrive – a fatter rat than most – but still he found his mind spinning out the wrong plans. Tacking on demands, like keeping Song and Sarai alive. Vanesa as well, the thought crept in, but bit down on it. If he opened the door to the old woman then Francho would not be far behind and soon he would like a miner out of the Trenches: back breaking for the weight of the stones he carried.

“When it comes tumbling down, and it will, come find me,” Tristan said. “I may be able to keep us alive.”

The heliodoran beast was clever, for a lemure: not the kind of creature that would eat poison if it could smell it. And it so happened that Tristan had a cithara’s worth of something the beast would want to avoid.

If he stretched them thin, there might be feathers enough for three.

Traipsing through the woods was significantly more unpleasant when they were wet.

It had rained while Yong and Ferranda went looking for the cultists and gods but he wished it had been long enough since for the forest to dry. Vanesa thrice tripped on a slippery root she misjudged the distance of before he asked Aines to stay with her, Felis kept shivering from the cold – a fresh lick of dust courtesy of Lan had perked him up but also made him feverish – and with the rain washing off many of the marks Ferranda had left they’d got lost for half an hour. Sanale took the lead in her place, effectively trailblazing, which slowed them down further. They advanced with the lanterns veiled until only the barest slice of light showed, a procession trying to be quiet but falling short of success.

At least no one was chatting.

With Sarai ahead of him and Francho behind, the thief had much room to move and so he was left alone with his thoughts. It was not a blessing: with only himself for company, they kept going in increasingly grim circles. Perhaps it was his discomfort with the woods or simply the way the darkness seemed like it kept closing in from all sides, but part of him could not help but feel they were walking to their deaths. As if they had all missed a knife with their names written on the blade. The same instincts that had guided him in Sacromonte insisted he was making a mistake and it frustrated him not to know if it was unease talking or if he should be listening.

“You look like you’re chewing on a lemon,” Fortuna told him.

“I feel as if I am pulling a noose around my neck,” Tristan muttered back. “How else should I look?”

Pondering this, the goddess mimed pulling at a rope above her head and rolled her eyes before lolling out her tongue.

“Mwore like tshis,” she informed him.

It was one of the keenest comforts of Tristan’s life that other people could not see Fortuna. 

And to think some scholars insisted gods were fonts of wisdoms, that their words could open up fresh realms of understanding. Still, his lips twitched. Any moment now – the golden-haired goddess, still taunting him with rolled up eyes, walked backwards straight into a tree. This did not actually hurt her in any way, but as tended to be the way when she ran into things without noticing Fortuna emerged on the other side glaring at the tree as if she had been personally attacked. However grim the situation, watching the Lady of Long Odds begin yet another implacable blood feud with an inanimate object did wonders for his mood.

She’d once spent an entire month trying to talk him into tearing down a worn statue of Emperor Pere after passing through it mid-sentence. Tristan, naturally, had instead paid the matron of the house across the street to thoroughly clean it. Best nine radizes he’d ever spent.

Ducking under a low branch, the thief followed the sight of Sarai’s back. She had cut away at her skirts since her face was revealed, making slits so they could more easily be run in, and taken off her gloves. She still carried only a knife for weapon, but what did she need blades and powder when she could call on the powers of the Gloam? The thief bit his lip, hard enough he almost drew blood. He was still tired from running through last night, despite the rest since, and their pace through the woods was slow enough it was not the first time he’d caught his mind beginning to wander to nowhere. He’d be of no use to anyone, not even himself, if the cultists got the drop on him.

And the cult of the Red Eye was certain to have watchers. Their warband had raised its camp far from where their group had encountered the airavatan, but there was always a risk. It would have been madness not to keep a full watch with the likes of a heliodoran beast prowling the woods.  

The darkling camp Yong and Ferranda had found was about an hour to the east of the bridge, in the woods facing the tall grass. It was by the river – which, this far east, was at the bottom of a wide ravine. The way the pair told it, they had found the hollows half by chance: it had begun to rain violently while they were out and during the storm part of the cliff the cultists had made their camp broke off and collapsed into the ravine. If not for the ruckus that had made, the pair might have missed the darklings entirely for their camp was well-hidden behind a tall thicket of trees and broken ring of raised stones.

Sarai slowed in front of him, then weaved behind a tree. Following quietly, Tristan found that in the small clearing before him – little more than a dozen feet of room between trees, all wet earth and stinking dead leaves – most of their party had stopped. The two who had been leading them, Yong and Sanale, must have called a halt. He joined them to find out why, the informal circle that’d formed to make decisions assembling in short order: Ferranda and Sanale, he and Yong and Sarai. And Lan, who instead of chasing away he made eye contact with.

The blue-lipped Tianxi met his gaze and dipped her head in acknowledgement of the debt – he could force to leave but had not – and he looked away to find Sarai’s lips twitching as she made no pretence she had not been watching them. As tended to be the way with her, he was left feeling wretchedly bare.

“We are close to the camp,” Yong told them. “No more than half an hour at our current pace.”

“We were supposed to get closer still,” Ferranda Villazur said. “Why stop now?”

Tristan forced himself not to look at Vanesa, who had been lagging behind even with Aines’ help. It was close to morning now, as they’d left only after everyone grabbed a few hours of sleep in anticipation of the early start, but at her age that made little difference. It won’t be about her, besides, he thought. Yong had never been shy about his belief that if the greyhairs could not keep up they should be left behind.

“I found tracks,” Sanale said.

“From your tone,” Sarai slowly said, “they are not ours from earlier.”

He shook his head.


“There should not be anyone from the Bluebell left around here,” Lan noted. “That leaves only hollows.”

Or the Watch, Tristan thought, but they should not be involving themselves in the Trial of Lines.

“At least ten,” Sanale said, “but they are good. Could be more. All moving east, quiet but quick.”

“If they were friends to the warband in the camp,” the thief said, “they should have no reason to be sneaking around.”

“They could be hiding from the airavatan,” Sarai suggested.

“This far east?” Yong said. “If it were anywhere near here it should have already found the camp. They must be hiding from the other hollows.”

Tristan did not disagree. The beast had last been seen hours to the west and it had no reason to push this far east save the hollow camp – which would already be as a graveyard, if the airavatan had caught scent of it.

“That complicates things,” Ferranda Villazur grimaced. “We don’t want to be caught in the middle of a cult war.”

“If we let them get into a scrap first, it will become be easier to plant the carcass,” Tristan pragmatically said.

“We don’t know if they will fight,” Yong said. “They could band together. And even if they do, it might not be anytime soon.”

It was early morning still, before the dawning hour where most of Sacromonte woke, so Tristan would admit it was a toss-up: there was no telling whether this fresh warband would want to press on to strike while the other hollows were asleep or rest instead.

“We must track them and find out,” Ferranda said.

“It would be dangerous to try the cultist camp before we know we won’t be attacked from behind,” Sarai agreed.

So did Tristan, as it happened, and the rest of them. Ferranda and Sanale were the ones who headed out into the woods, the rest of their company waiting in the clearing and huddling for warmth until the pair returned with news. The thief lowered himself to the ground and rested his back against a tree, closing his eyes to enjoy the break – though not so much he ever ceased listening to the noises around him. All this talk of ambushes had his nerves thin. Before long he heard someone heading his way, though what he found when he opened his eyes surprised him. Francho, hand smoothing back what few wisps of white hair remained atop his head, came to plop himself down by his side.

The old professor held his flat cap tucked under the arm of his worn green coat, pulled tight enough around his neck that only the collar of his cotton shirt showed. His boots were of good make and obviously new, but his breeches were labourer’s clothes in dull brown whose seams were beginning to give. He was dressed, Tristan thought, like a man who had raided his wardrobe for clothes he thought fitting for the countryside and put them out without thought to what fit and not. You bought the boots just for the Dominion, didn’t you? That was telling, the thief thought. Francho, unlike Vanesa, still had an eye to living through this.

The toothless old man let out a sigh when he rested his back against the tree, fruitlessly trying to pull his coat even tighter.

“Try to gather your strength,” Tristan advised. “This is the last breath before the plunge.”

“So I’ve gathered,” Francho agreed. “It has been an interesting few days, Tristan. I have seen things I never thought I might.”

“That temple was stripped clean,” the thief drily said. “Is a single supplicant’s cithara enough to please you so?”

“I went treasure hunting when I was a youth, so empty temples are old hand to me,” the old man chuckled. “Three expeditions in the isles of Nemn, though our captains were so careful bolder hunters had already emptied the ruins.”

The thief hid his surprise. The isles of Nemn were famous in Sacromonte: treasure hunters had been sailing there for decades yet were said to have found no more than a third of the islands. Many of them could only be reached if their name was known, some ancient Antediluvian aether machine otherwise keeping them hidden. Once every decade or so, when a new name was dug up by scholars, every treasure crew south of Ixion’s Lighthouse competed to be the first to plunder the depths. The stories Tristan heard made it plain the crews were as dangerous to each other as the dead gods and the traps, not at all the kind of place he imagined a man who taught at the University of Reve might go.

“What was it that surprised you, then?” he asked.

The old man paused for a moment.

“That young girl on the ship,” he said. “I never caught her name.”

Tristan’s belly clenched. There was only one he could be meaning.

“Marzela,” he said. “Her name was Marzela.”

Francho sighed, which set him to coughing into his hand. The cough never got worse but neither did ever seem to go away, which had left the thief to wonder whether it was from the depredations of old age or from a contract’s price.

“A tragedy,” Francho said. “It always is, when a god takes one of us, but I had never thought to see a Saint with my own eyes.”

“I could do without seeing it again,” Tristan said.

“Oh,” Francho softly said, “I agree.”

A hesitant pause.

“Have you read what Alizia Arquer wrote on the three modes of the divine?” Francho asked.

Tristan cocked an eyebrow. As a matter of fact, he had. Abuela had obtained for him the extract of the work being referred to, The Sea of Shapes, concerning the subject. He had been interested enough to track down a complete copy afterwards. He’d even set aside his distaste for the family name involved – the Arquer were one of the Six, the infanzones of infanzones – and paid proper coin for it. Stealing from those who peddled witch books was a fool’s bargain.

“Perception, dislocation and manifestation,” Tristan quoted.

These were the three modes through which gods interacted with the material, according to Lady Arquer. Perception, for a god to make themselves seen to a mortal, was the most basic. Even the most destitute of deities could do it and it was the limit of Fortuna’s own power. Gods who were still little more than shapes in the aether first brushed against Vesper this way, reaching through places or times matched to their nature. Tristan himself had met Fortuna at his lowest, hiding in a shattered shrine with no way to live save beating long odds.

Dislocation was the act through which a god brought a mortal into themselves, a connection of souls that could not be done without an existing bridge – usually a contract. It was an experience supposedly much like a vision, the world around you grinding to a halt until the god released their hold. Even that was a trick of perception, however, for no god was powerful enough to halt the march of Vesper: it was only by bringing a soul into themselves that could cheat and make a single heartbeat seem an hour.

The last was manifestation, what all gods relentlessly sought: to become physical, aether manifest. In Lady Arquer’s words, ‘to overcome entropy, existence becoming less effort than absence’. It could only be achieved through mortals – by contracts, sacrifice and prayer. The Manes, those old gods who were patrons to the infanzones, were said to have walked the world since before the fall of Liergan. Not all need be so old, forever. The Old Alcazar, the broken fortress at the heart of Sacromonte turned temple district, was full of temples and shrines to gods manifest. It wasn’t only the nobles that saw divinity in the flesh either.

Even the Murk had a few, though only fools bargained with gods who chose to make their home among squalor and desperation.

“Lady Alizia’s works have long been of interest to the university,” Francho said. “The Arquer now jealously hoard their secrets, so it has been the work of generations to expand on the original postulations.”

Tristan was not surprised at the secrecy: the Arquer were famous for being able to forge ‘legacy’ contracts, bargains with gods that were passed down the bloodline. They sold that expertise for riches and favours, and whether you were a the most splendid of infanzones or the lowest of rats no one liked to share their begging bowl.

“I was once friends with the Master of Aetheric Studies, Tristan,” Francho continued with forced nonchalance, “and she told me of an experiment made on the nature of sainthood.”

“Did she,” Tristan frowned, grown wary of the conversation.

He could not grasp where the old professor was headed and it raised his hackles. This was not idle conversation, he could tell that much.

“The question to be resolved was as follows: does one absolutely need to draw on a contract for the process of sainthood to begin, or is continued exposition to the lesser modes – perception and dislocation – enough on its own?”

The thief stilled. So that was what this conversation was about. He met the man’s dark eyes.

“You heard me talking,” he said.

Francho coughed, the sound of wet as the saliva flecking his lips.

“I saw your lips move,” he said. “And once I thought of it, it is not so hard to put together: how often did I see you looking at something in the dark or muttering to yourself? I had though it a nervous habit.”

Fortuna leaned against the tree, cocking an eyebrow as her red dress trailed in the muck and leaves.

“I thought it would be Sarai that caught us,” the goddess admitted. “Interesting.”

Tristan forced himself not to look. It was more habit than need, for already he knew that denial was not on the table.

“I am not in danger of sainthood,” Tristan replied in a murmur. “There is no need to worry.”

He would have preferred to dismiss the professor entirely but that would be unwise. If Francho took this to the others out of fear, the thief might well be cast out of their company: no one would want to take a risk with a Saint. The old man grimaced.

“I understand your god may be assuring you of that,” the old professor gently said, “but perception is not meant to last so long. I imagine it began when you made your contract. How long have you been continuously seeing them – a week, a month? The danger now grows by the hour.”

Fortuna laughed. He kept his face blank.

“Pretend,” the thief slowly said, “that it has been a year.”

“Or ten,” the goddess added.

Francho peered at him dubiously.

“That is…” he began, then stopped. “You are serious.”

“I am.”

“Your god should be dead,” the scholar said. “Perception takes power, and the god does not devour you at the end then it is frittering itself away for nothing. Once it has spent itself, its consciousness will fade back into the aether.”

The thief flicked up a glance at Fortuna, who looked as baffled as he felt.

“It feels more natural to be with you than not,” the goddess told him. “Tell the idiot I have not grown weaker.”

“It says it has not faded since starting,” Tristan duly repeated.

Fortuna, scowling, began reaching for his hear as if threatening to pull at it.

“She,” he hastily revealed. “She says.”

It,” Fortuna repeated in disgust. “You calamitous brat, how dare you deny my beauty for even an instant? Poets wept at my leaving, Tristan, they fucking wept.”

Alas, they had company so he could ask her whether she was sure they had not been weeping until she left. Francho’s eyes were wide and alight.

“Fascinating,” the old professor murmured. “The study of gods is the study of exceptions so the cry of impossibility is that of a fool, but never have I seen our understanding of the modes so contradicted. Your goddess must be extraordinary.”

A heartbeat passed.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Fortuna announced, preening against the tree. “He is obviously a man of piercing insight.”

Tristan supposed it was senseless to call flattery a weakness when the Lady of Long Odds was made up mostly of those in the first place. Describing her by her strengths would be like describing a sinking ship by how well its sails could catch the wind: not untrue but rather missing the point.

“A discussion for another time,” Tristan calmly replied, quite possibly meaning never. “I hope your concerns were set to rest.”

The scholar looked puzzled, for a moment, and only then remembered how their conversation had begun. He coughed in embarrassment.

“Yes, naturally, of course,” Francho hurriedly said. “I did not mean to pry into your affairs, my boy. It was only worry.”

“I understand,” Tristan said, and in truth he did.

He had not enjoyed the polite interrogation, for that was what their talk had been, but he might well have done the same in the other man’s shoes. The professor still felt guilty, however, it was plain on his face. In practice he had asked of Tristan’s contract, which was the kind of thing some people pulled knives over. The guilt made the man babble, seeking to fill the silence. After a few aborted attempts at idle talk he fell back on safer grounds.

“I have been listening to old stones,” Francho said. “The raised ring of stones where Yong and Lady Villazur found the hollow camp, you might be interested to hear it is only one of many.”

Tristan cocked an eyebrow.

“I am,” he admitted. “There are others?”

“I am not sure of the number, but there will be others along the length of the river splitting the island,” the professor said. “More interesting yet, I believe them built by the same people who raised the shrine were we found Lady Villazur. The cultists care not for them, save as building materials.”

“So what were they for?” he asked. “They do not look like shrines.”

“I cannot tell,” Francho enthusiastically said. “Some voices speak of ritual killing, but that may be the work of the Red Eye – it can be hard to tell the when and who of what I hear. I find intriguing, however, that they were raised along the river. Many cultures saw running water as a metaphysical boundary: the rings could be meant to strengthen or weaken it.”

The chatted for a while still in low voices, Tristan keeping the talk going in part to distract from their earlier one. Twice he raised his voice when speaking of the stones when someone was close, the second time when it was Lan. That should throw them off the tracks of the earlier conversation. The talk was long done by the time Ferranda and Sanale returned.

Their faces were grim. The news were not good.

“We did not find them,” the Malani bluntly said.

The man’s directness was starting to grow on him. It had a certain charm to it.

“The trail cut off after a field of gravel,” Ferranda added. “There is no telling if they are still around.”

Tristan took off his hat – which was doing a delightful job of keeping dripping water off his scalp, a testament to the occasional Malani stroke of brilliance – and passed a hand through his hair.

“We need to plant the bait on the cultists anyway,” he said. “If we wait too long they’ll break camp and our plan is good as finished.”

None of them liked the additional risk, but what choice did they have? It was simple but careful work, stuffing the dead fox with lodestone extract. Lady Villazur had caught the animal the back with a throwing knife – one he’d never seen her use, caution he could only approve of – so he had to widen the wound a bit before inserting the substance. He made sure wash his hands careful with alcohol after. There was less of it left than he would have liked.

“Careful not to get any on you,” he warned.

Lady Ferranda silently nodded. She and Yong were the ones to set out for the cultist camp again, leaving the rest of them to wait in that same clearing. There was no point in finding a better hiding place when the trees and stones here would serve fine. Tristan helped a tired Vanesa to fold her legs beneath a jutting rock, tucked away out of sight. The bandage around her eye was red again, he saw with a grimaced. But he only had one roll of makeshift bandages left and this would keep for a while still so he did not make the offer.

“We are almost through,” Tristan told her. “Once we cross the bridge it should be a clear path to the second trial.”

It would be senseless for cultists to wait in ambush past the bridge when the bridge was already being guarded. He could not be sure, of course, but he doubted there would be much trouble on the last stretch of the journey. Vanesa wanly smiled.

“My legs won’t give yet, don’t worry,” she said. “It is these cursed roots that are never where they should be.”

“Once we’re sure the beast is on the hollows, we’ll open the lanterns wide,” he told her. “It will be easier to move for us all.”

Sanale had done the rounds while he busied himself with the old woman, nudging the few lacking in prudence to find better places, and now there were only the two of them left. The huntsman took him aside. Tristan had never gotten so close a look at the beadworks on the man’s cloak and shirt before: they were all sharp angles and deep colors, though nothing so bright it would stand out in the woods. The thief had heard that all the clothes adorned with the same that were sold in Sacramonte were fakes, for beadwork was particular to the northern Low Isle and the colored patterns particular to family clans of that storm-wracked land. The other man sought and held his gaze.

“The beast might catch us,” Sanale grunted.

Tristan’s brow rose.

“It is a risk,” he cautiously agreed.

“If it do,” the huntsman says, “and you betray us, I will shoot you first.”

The thief’s eyes narrowed.

“That sounds like a threat,” he said.

“Is,” Sanale said, sounding pleased at his quick understanding. “So don’t. Fuck infanzones, but not Ferranda.”

“I thought it was the very opposite, with you two,” he drily replied.

The Malani frowned, confusion pulling at his scarred cheeks – little smooth stripes Tristan had never noticed before, none thicker than a razor blade. The man’s Antigua might not be good enough for wordplay the thief eventually admitted.

“You and her,” he said instead.

Sanale’s face brightened with understanding and he nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “She is not like the others. So don’t betray, or I’ll kill you.”

Well, that did have the benefit of being impeccably straightforward. No nuances to get lost in.

“I won’t,” Tristan assured him.

The Malani eyed him for a while, then slowly nodded.

“She thinks Sarai runs you,” Sanale said. “But I don’t. You’re more like umndeni.”

A word in Umoya, Tristan thought, but not one he recognized.

“We’re allies,” he shrugged.

“We should be too,” the huntsman bluntly said. “Better you than infanzones. All snakes.”

Against his better judgement, the thief’s lips twitched.

“One of your own nobles went with them,” he pointed out. “Tredegar.”

Sanale snorted.

“Peers,” he said, like it explained everything.

When he saw it did not, the huntsman continued.

“Half are mad,” Sanale explained, “the other act it.”

It had the air of an old saying to it, which made it all the more amusing to hear.

“Not a great admirer of nobles, I take it,” Tristan grinned.

“My uncle shoot their taxmen when they come to the hold,” the huntsman proudly said. “Outlaw under three different names.”

It was making an increasing amount of sense to the thief how Sanale got along so well with Yong, a man who referred to nobles by a word which meant relic.

“Yours are a forward-thinking folk, Sanale,” Tristan told him. “Would that we were all so wise.”

The Malani eyed him, as if trying to ascertain if he was being made sport of, then nodded decisively.

“The Trial of Ruins needs allies,” the huntsman stated. “The weak get sold out. Think on it.”

Tristan found, to his surprise, that he was considering it. He was yet hesitant to tie himself too closely to anyone – the more interest he had to care for, the harder it would be to get a good shot at Cozme Aflor – but he could do worse for allies than this pair. They were competent, and while he did not trust Villazur in the slightest he was fairly sure that if Sanale ever intended to turn on him the knife would come from the front and not the back. The huntsman offered him a polite nod, which he returned, and then Sanale went to cut off the last lantern entirely.

There were plenty of roots and stones to hide under, but after staying so long in the same clearing Tristan was feeling restless. The brush of wind against the leaves above had him reaching for his knife, what he thought to be a bird only a shivering branch, but the idea it brought to mind pleased him.

It took a minute or two to find a halfway dry tree with branches low enough he could hoist himself up, but find it he did. The bark bit at his fingers as he climbed but the work was not arduous and once crouched on the lowest branch he found another in reach: he’d be able to get higher with little effort. Once he began rising he continued on a whim, the thought of breaking past the canopy of this damnable forest too pleasing to resist.

In a matter of minutes he broke past the leaves, face emerging for his first clear look at the sky since he’d entered the forest. The stars shone pale in the distance, their light just enough to outline the sea of trees spread out below. When squinting he could almost make out where the treeline ended to the north, the ravine where the river ran. The bridge was too far to make out. Breathing in slowly, the thief let tension bleed out of his frame. It was not in his hands whether Yong and the infanzona would succeed, all he could do was wait. Until then, he might as well take in the rare sight of a wild forest that – was that mist?

For three secondsTristan leaned forward, heart beating against his ears, and prayed to any god listening it was just some fog from the rain he saw. But it was too thick, moved too quickly. The heliodoran beast. It’s coming. It was too close for the lodestone extract to be responsible: Sanale had said the lemure saw smells as colours, but while a beacon of colour had just been lit the monster was more than halfway to the camp already. It’d already been close, but why? The thief struggled to understand where it had gone wrong, until finally he found the keystone.

Sanale had said the tracks he’d found earlier were heading east, but perhaps it might have been more accurate to say they were heading away from the west.

“It was after them,” he muttered. “Fuck.”

Sarai had been right. The cultists hadn’t been going east because they were looking for a fight with the other hollows, they were running away from the heliodoran beast. And Tristan figured they might well have lost it, because there’d been no sign of the monster, only now most of a bottle’s worth of lodestone was wafting up like a column of smoke. It was like waving a red flag before a bull. Cursing under his breath, he got moving: branch after branch, until he could leap down into the leaves. Vanesa peeked out from under her stone.

“Tristan?” she called out.

“Trouble,” he replied. “Sanale, the beast is already close.”

The Malani huntsman stepped out of the shadow between trees like he’d just manifested out of thin air, grim face gone grimmer.

“I’ll fetch them, then we run,” he said.

The addition of Yong to ‘them’ was likely more than just politeness, considering how well the pair got along. Tristan shook his head.

“I’ll go,” the thief said instead.

The man looked about to object, so he raised his hand to cut him off.

“If the people here have to run, I can’t guide them,” he said. “You can. I’ll be enough to play messenger, Sanale.”

Reluctantly, the Malani nodded. He gave few curt instructions as to the path to follow, which Tristan carefully committed to memory, and without further ceremony he went.

It would have been a lie to say that Tristan moved smoothly or skillfully.

He almost ripped his knee up sliding down a flat stone and used the wrong lightning-struck tree as a signpost, forcing him to double back and take a left past the running water. But he got there, and though it came at the cost of some scuffing and spitting out a mouthful of dead leaves he got to the outskirts of the cultist camp. Creeping across the wet earth he risked a look, finding a few fires lit from behind the broken ring of raised stones – of which barely half were left. The trees were thick here, so close every path needed squeezing through, but that worked in his favour for now. It would be difficult to pick him out even for a darkling.

From what he could tell the cultists were not yet awake, save for the watchers – two of which were perched atop raised stones. Now he needed to find out if Yong and Ferranda were still around, dearly hoping they hadn’t just walked past each other in the dark.

When a gloved hand coved his mouth, pulling him back, he moved without thought.

Elbow in the stomach, pivot, opposite elbow in the neck while he reached for his knife. There was a grunt behind him and he turned to see Ferranda Villazur clutching her head as she stumbled back. She was groaning in pain. Behind her Yong moved out from behind an oak’s trunk.

“You should have whistled,” the Tianxi murmured.

“I can see that now, yes,” the infanzona rasped out.

“You’re lucky I looked before using the knife,” Tristan told her, unsympathetic.

Tempted as he was to rub salt in the noble’s wound, there were more pressing matters.

“The airavatan is close,” he said. “Where is the bait?”

In the dark it was hard to make out their expressions but there was no missing how they both stiffened. Neither were fool enough to think anything but death awaited if the beast caught them.

“In a berry bush close to the edge of their camp,” Ferranda replied. “How close, Tristan?”

“I can’t be sure now, but when I left-”

He never finished the sentence.

Not for lack of trying, but because at his feet mist was billowing out. The thickness of the growth had played against him, let him miss the creeping advance until it was too late. The airavatan was here, and where its mist spread there was only silence. A shiver of dread went down his spine. If it had found them… But from the corner of his eye he saw movement near the edge of the cultist camp. In the trembling light of the fires a hulking shape approached, tearing through the trees in eerie silence. Gods, but it was so quick for a creature so large. It almost seemed delicate, the way it moved, until you saw the crushing weight it bored down on all it touched.

 Panicking hollows tried to wake their fellows without being able to scream in alarm, but it was too late. The great beast slowed only for a moment, when it reached the edge of the ring of raised stones. Tentacles carefully felt out the edge of them, and after finding what they wanted the beast burst through.

Someone pulled at his arm, and Tristan did not fight back. They ran, leaving the cultists to their death.

The way back was faster than when he’d come alone, but not fast enough.

They could not run as quick as Tristan felt the need to, heart racing in fear: it was dark and slippery and none of them had brought a lantern. It’d been too risky. He followed Yong’s back as best he could, tried to walk where the man walked, and only slipped the once. Neither of the others stopped for him when he did. Tristan was not angered by it, could not be when a primal terror pressed against his own back. As soon as they found the others, he thought, they must all run. The plan was not yet undone, only on the razor’s edge. They had been meant to already be getting closer to the bridge when the heliodoran beast attacked the cultist camp, but this was not beyond salvaging. If the airavatan took its time with the hollows they might still get across in time.

Tristan felt relief well up in his throat at the sight of the lightning-struck tree he recognized from earlier, knowing it meant they were close, but ahead of him the others were no longer moving. They were hiding behind the hollow of a birch, eyes ahead, and he joined them with great care to be quiet.

The rest of their crew was out of hiding, a half-open lantern by Sanale’s foot casting its glow over the clearing. The Malani huntsman had his musket out and pointed, the others around bearing their own arms. It was plain to see why: facing them were a dozen armed hollows. The other warband, Tristan thought through clenched teeth. The one that had been fleeing the beast. He pulled his knife. Yong had a pistol in hand and was already loading it with powder, while Ferranda Villazur unsheathed her sword with care to keep the sound low. They were at the back of the cultists, if they struck first…

“Peace, strangers,” a woman called out. “None of us can afford to spill blood here.”

Tristan’s eyes followed the voice and what he found gave him pause. The hollows were armed with spears and swords, a few with mail and one a breastplate, but one among them wore only robes and bore no blade. It was blonde woman with skin pale as milk and a broad face, aged around what must be late thirties. Her eyes were wide and shining, unsettlingly black. She’d caught the three of them out and the advantage now lay with her band, but the enemy did not look eager to fight – a fight Tristan’s crew might not win if they forced it. The three of them traded resigned glances before coming out of the trees, carefully circling around the darklings to join the others.

“I know that look,” Yong said, spitting into the leaves. “Bishop, are you?”

“A learned man,” the woman praised, tone friendly. “I am Bishop Dionne, a servant of the divine.”

“Lovely to meet you,” Lan called out.

A rat to the bone, that one, Tristan fondly thought. She’d shake hands with the King of Hell himself if she thought him a useful relation.

“A sentiment shared,” Bishop Dionne easily replied. “I would have no quarrel between our warbands. We have already suffered losses and abandoned the season of the hunt. Besides, spilling blood will bring the woken god on us all. There are only tears to be had in that.”

Ferranda had come to stand besides Sanale, sword in hand, and she took the lead.

“Then let us all part ways in peace,” Lady Ferranda offered.

“That would be pleasing,” the bishop agreed. “But first I seek of you knowledge of how the woken god was drawn here. We had lost it, mere hours ago. I believe that change is of your doing, yes?”

Hesitation. It was a reasonable thing to ask, but already they could all dimly feel it would not really end at that first request. Perhaps this was, the thief thought, best handled by him. He stepped into the lantern’s light and made a show of sheathing his knife. The hollow warriors made no move to return the courtesy, but it drew the bishop’s approving eye.

“It was a scent,” Tristan told her. “Medicine I carried that also happens to draw the attention of gods. It has all been spent.”

He disliked speaking up, drawing attention to himself like this, but they needed to go and he didn’t trust anyone else to get it done as quickly. Every breath spent here was one less between them and the beast. The priestess smiled pleasantly.

“And how am I to know you speak truth?” she asked. “You might have cursed my warband the same way.”

She wanted something, as he’d thought. She’s mentioned losses earlier so maybe she wanted a prize to compensate for them. Something to bring back home to avoid the perception of complete defeat. Already he was going through his options, finding what he might offer as a bribe, and opened his mouth to –

Yong casually lowered his pistol and shot a hollow.

A scream of pain, followed by more of surprise and anger. Swords and spears rose on the other side, pistols and blades on theirs, but Tristan’s eyes were on the bishop. And when he saw the expression that flickered there, he understood that Yong had not been so reckless after all. Bishop Dionne was not furious, for all that ger face now showed anger. For the barest of heartbeats she had been amused. When Tristan’s eyes moved, he was not surprised to find that Yong had only shot the warrior in the leg.

“You offer insult, stranger,” Dionne said.

“I offer a gift,” Yong replied without batting an eye. “A man you know you will outrun. Let us part on those terms, Bishop, for you will get no more of us.”

The sole man in mail pleaded something to his priest in a guttural language. If Tristan were inclined to bet, he’d say he was asking for permission to fight.

“There is no need for that, Vasil,” Bishop Dionne smiled. “Let us accept this gift in the spirit it was meant. Come here, Alin.”

Grimaces bloomed across the faces of her warriors and the wounded man took a step back, eyes wet with tears.

“No, Bishop,” Alin pleaded, “I swear I would-”

The priest laid a hand on his head, and there was a small stir of wind. The warrior shivered, only for him to straighten his back as she withdrew her fingers.

“I take your pain for an hour, my son,” Dionne said. “You have a chance now: outwit the god, or earn the honour of its teeth.”

They had just cast him out, Tristan thought. The smell of blood was sure to draw the heliodoran beast, so he must be left behind. And part of him felt horror at how easily that life had just been thrown away but the part had been trained, the one that kept him alive all these years, was instead fitting pieces together. The airavatan had slain trial-takers and cultists both the day before the Bluebell docked, but there had been no trace of them impaled inside its maw when he saw inside yesterday. They are only kept there until death, he decided. How long did it take a man to die from impalement? There was no telling, unless you knew where they got impaled, and that was impossible to predict. But the odds were still worth it. Bishop Dionne flicked a glance their way.

“Let us part ways in peace, as was offered,” she said, an ironic lilt to the offer.

“No,” Tristan said, and stepped forward.

“What are you-”

Someone silenced Felis as the thief took his cabinet off his back, opening it up. He took out two vials, then a rag to go with them. He only had two clean ones left, at this rate he’d run out.

“What are your intentions, child?” the bishop asked.

“I am a physician,” Tristan lied. “I have taken oath to help those who suffer, even darklings. Let me treat his wound.”

Dionne looked taken aback. The hollow she had already good as cast out turned a pleading look on her, so she ended up nodding her head with open bemusement.

“You may proceed.”

“Sit down,” Tristan ordered the man.

Drenching the rag in alcohol, he cleaned the wound and explained to ‘Alin’ that he could not risk taking out the lead ball inside his leg lest he be at risk of bleeding out. Instead he cleaned the burns and wrapped the wounds with the last of his bandages before offering the man vial to drink.

“It will kill the pain for half a day,” he said. “It will also taste foul, but drink the whole thing anyway.”

The hollow gratefully nodded and downed it, almost retching at the taste. He handed back the vial and Tristan rose to his feet before helping him up.

“It is all I can do,” the thief said. “I can only wish you good luck.”

“You have done much already,” Alin, his Antigua faintly guttural. “My blessings go with you, son of the Radiance.”

Now there was something to trouble a man’s sleep. Tristan smiled back anyway. Bishop Dionne approached, giving a weighing look, and leaned close.

“I thank you for the kindness, child,” she said. “It is almost a shame that you are all already dead.”

Somehow he suspected she had not become a bishop because of her bedside manner, but that was fine. He had not done a kindness at all. Their groups parted ways with fewer glares than there had been a moment ago, though no one from either side had loosened their grip on their weapon. The last Tristan saw of them was the wounded warrior being encircled by the others, a chant beginning on the priest’s lips, and then they were hurrying away. Not long after they were out of sight he was pulled to the fore.

“Why did we just waste time watching you pretend to help that darkling?” Yong bluntly asked.

“Pretend?” Ferranda said, surprised.

“He is out of painkillers,” Sarai told her. “What did you actually make him drink, Tristan?”

“Volcian yew,” the thief said. “My entire stock.”

Sanale let out a hard bark of laughter.

“A poison?” Yong frowned.

“Only for spirits,” the Malani grinned. “Clever man.”

“The airavatan is going to be eating our friend soon enough,” Tristan said. “And when it does, it will also be eating a bellyful of poison.”

The heliodoran beast ate the corpses it impaled inside its own maw. It must, for there had been no trace of the first wave of trial-takers there when he had seen inside the mouth yesterday. The thief suspected that they were kept impaled so long as they lived to suffer and were consumed when dead. That was his bet: that the hollow would die quick enough inside the maw for the poison in him to matter.

Now all that was left was to run and hope the roll of the dice went their way.

24 thoughts on “Chapter 17

  1. arcanavitae15

    Great chapter, the characters and banter was great really loved Tristian’s approval of the murdering of taxman by the Hunter dude’s uncle. It was hilarious and in character.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. dinoseen

        Thanks for the massive spoiler you wretched piece of shit. I hope you get the enjoyment of a story knocked out of you just like you have done to me.


  2. Reader in The Night

    There is an instance of “Song” in this chapter where “Yong” was probably meant. Also, I begin to see where the irreconciliable theological differences of the hollows and the “children of the Radiance”: the darklings venerate Lemures as gods, which, come to think of it, is probably why they wanted their captives alive: Lemures have shown a preference for eating metaphysical concepts, like “human suffering” or “souls”.

    I am now goddamn terrified that the Red Eye Cult might have a Spirit as their patron that is actually intelligent enough to bargain and accept tributes instead of mindlessly slaughtering everything it can reach.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Mirror Night

    Tristan, I thought he was just really neat. LMAO. Interesting Relationship, we did get hints of that so it checks out.
    Good lore on Gods and Contracts, fitting one associated with LUCK would break all the normal rules.
    I think I prefer Tristan chapters more, he is clever but not to clever feels more like an underdog, we get more lore and his supporting cast has way more depth

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I kind of like Tristan’s group more than Angharad’s. Am I biased because I like Tristan more or are the people in Tristan’s group more interesting and likable? I even like Lan – the traitorous drug dealer. Everyone seems so focused on trying to pass the Trial and not fucking each other up. The couple in the group actually like each other and not just stringing the other along. Tristan is kind of clueless on the subject of physical intimacy which is cute.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. CantankerousBellerophan

      You make an excellent point on the parallels between the groups. Each of them has people filling functionally similar roles on the surface, but underneath things rapidly diverge.

      Sanale and Ferranda are the romantic pair in the commoners’ group. They appear to actually enjoy each others’ company (and “company”), are protecting each other out of genuine care beyond their duties, and are actively focused on surviving the present moment.

      Isabel and Cozme (is it Cozme? All the grasping nobles blend together) do not care about each other. She is stringing him and his brother along because she can manipulate them, they are pursuing her because her family is powerful. They are not focused on the moment, but on plots in the arbitrary noble games they were raised to outside the context of Trials which are literally trying to kill them. If you want to interpret Isabel and Angharad as the couple in that group, it is much the same. Isabel is stringing Angharad along because she is powerful, likely not because she cares.

      Lan is the traitor of the commoners’ group. She deals drugs, is clearly out for herself, and will take whatever deal is on offer which seems best for her. Her twin was murdered, likely by the nobility (though she naturally has reason to suspect Tristan), but she has allied with both groups even after that. At the same time, she can be trusted implicitly to do all of the above. All that is necessary to keep her on-side is ensure there is something you have or can do which she needs, and she is honest in expressing that fact. There is no plot behind her except survival.

      Augusto is the traitor of the nobles. Stabbing Gascon in the back, for all that it was likely the right move in the moment, wasn’t hard for him because Gascon isn’t noble. He was, therefore, subhuman. A tool to be abused however he liked. But, instead of embrace dishonor as Lan has done, he still acts the noble, playing their games of power to the expense of all else. He does not exist in the moment, but in a hypothetical future where he has survived and his brother has not. Which is why he tried to get the rest of them killed.

      Francho is the lighthouse, warning of danger. But for all that his contract is powerful, his motivation is knowledge alone. He wishes to know for its own sake, and cares little what that costs him. At the same time, his honesty and motivations make him a powerful and effective ally in the current situation.

      Brun serves a similar purpose for the nobles, but is not honest at all. His contract is as yet unknown, his alliance purely mercenary, and his motivations would see him driven against the nobles who spent his family’s lives like coin if he cared to live by them. He is embroiled in noble games despite having every reason not to be.

      Tristan is, of course, the rat. Struggling to survive not through force or cunning alone, but the relationships and alliances those can bring. He believes himself to be without honor due to his upbringing, but keeps to a code nonetheless, bringing people together around him to be more than what they could alone. He is focused solely on the present, on survival, with politics set aside for the moment until such time as the luxury exists for him again.

      Tredegar bumbles her way through the same position, but has only gotten anywhere through martial might and lucking into an extraordinarily powerful patron. She still somehow believes honor to be meaningful, and her entire motivation in the present is to put herself in a position to satisfy it in the future. Her power comes entirely from her hatred, as the Fisher says, and yet she insists even after their little chat that the world should conform to the noble game her father taught her to play.

      The nobles, in short, have never stopped being the vile creatures such people always are. Even stripped of the systems which empowered them, even in mortal danger, even when faced by people who want to sacrifice them to an ancient god (whatever that means in practice), they think of nothing but the games they play from their slavers’ thrones. Meanwhile, those who have lived their lives under noble threats see the danger for what it is and live with and within it. They see the jaws of monsters as jaws, rather than a tool with which to assassinate an inconvenient sibling or gain a position to avenge a father.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Mirror Night

        Angharad’s group lacks depth and is littered with people waiting to backstab each other. Her supporting cast feels very one note and been there done that. It also feels a bit overpowered given some of the contracts shown.

        Tristan has a group with depth and he has had interesting interactions with like everyone in his group. They also rely less on contracts and more on natural talent and skill. And the internal dynamics is not just waiting to backstab each other all the time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. CantankerousBellerophan

        More to the point, the noble group is full of nobles. People raised in power, sculpted by it, whose entire lives have been consumed by artificial intrigue rather than material realities. They are, objectively speaking, extremely powerful. A woman who can see glimpses of the future. One who can break the sky by clapping her hands, as a mere attendant to one who beguiles the minds of men (and certain women) by merely existing in their presence. A man who can scale any wall and bridge any gap, and a man who can see danger coming long before it enters the lantern’s light. None of that power matters, though, because the people who hold it are more snake than human. They know, intellectually, that they are in danger, now. That all the systems which have shielded them their whole lives are as lost as the island on which they stand. But they have no context on what that means, to them. The closest any of them have ever come to true danger was in Angharad’s childhood, and that was against reflections of herself. Nothing and no-one else has ever threatened them, and so they do not know what threats mean.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Kestral287

        This is a rather amusing argument given Tristan’s penchant for poisoning people to get his way. He’s more than willing to backstab members of his own group. It’s actually fascinating that Angharad is a straight up better person than he is. Facing the annihilation of her group Angy there found the plan that kept everyone alive, even her enemies, even though she knew it would entail a great deal of personal cost and injury to herself. Tristan immediately wrote off all but two members of his group for dead. And that’s after he only abondoned plans to backstab Sanale and Villazur solely because he was specifically asked not to by a person he needs.

        And when speaking of couples, don’t forget there’s another couple in Tristan’s group actively fracturing and on the verge of killing each other. The noble group is certainly more dysfunctional, but Tristan is doing his best to make it a competition.

        Also – Cozme is not an infanzone. He just works for them. He’s certainly not a particularly good man but let’s not assign his blood to that.


      4. CantankerousBellerophan

        Angharad did that because her child’s play of honor demanded it. She succeeded because she, by sheer dumb luck, obtained the patronage of an inhuman being of staggering power. Her survival, and that of her group, was not earned. It was handed to her on a platter, just like every single other thing she has ever had. If the Fisher were less powerful, or needed her less sorely, both she and everyone else in her party would have been captured and sacrificed, or had their souls eaten by the spirit bird.

        Tristan is working with far more limited resources and he knows it. His group is not composed entirely of the well armed and trained retinues of leeches accustomed to power. They are, almost all of them, people who earned what they have by their own hand. Those with nothing lost everything due to the exploitation of the men in the other party.

        By calling Angharad a better person than Tristan you make the exact same malicious mistake made by wealthy real-world suburbanites condemning urban minorities for high crime rates. The behavior arises entirely from conditions created to benefit those with privilege and power in both cases. Of course Tristan frequently leaps to violence as a solution to his problems. He has never once been secure from violence since his mother was killed. Of course Angharad protects her enemies. She was protected and coddled all her life, with no conception whatsoever of what an enemy could truly be. She is so certain the world is fair that she asserted this to the face of a god which has been chained away for centuries for the crime of not immediately bowing to colonial invaders.

        She isn’t a better person. She has lived her whole life in better conditions.


      5. Kestral287

        But no part of Angy’s group was relevant to her saving them, except that she had to save them from themselves and chose to save even those that definitely didn’t deserve it. Yes, she has power, but the impressive part of her is not that she has power but rather how she chose to wield it. She saw the easy way out and didn’t take it in order to protect those around her, regardless of their merits. That is the definition of a good person. And yes, it’s her honor that drives her to that extreme – but Angy’s actual belief that honor is real and must be clung to is not something to be derided. If everyone believed as she did, there would be far fewer petty conflicts both in this story and the world.

        And yes, Tristan’s resources are more limited – but he is far more callous and that is actively limiting his resources. His group is by no means without power. But when faced with the possibility of the heliodron beast besetting his group, he didn’t ask Sanale or Sarai if they had anything they could contribute to his plan, or even share what his plan was with them, despite their abilities not being well known to him – he asks one surface level question of Sarai and then decides for himself that she must not have any abilities to help despite her abilities being largely unknown to him. He just decided that he knew the best way to survive, picked his two most useful allies, and wrote off the rest.

        Amusingly, this is in marked contrast to your comparison. A great deal of urban violence comes from a small group banding together, branding everyone else as an other, and doing what they have to to survive against those others. Tristan isn’t a gang leader. If he was, I would think higher of him, because he would be looking out for his group just like Angy did hers, and he would likely succeed better than she due to how much more flexible they are and how much better they could coordinate. No, Tristan is acting just like the lobster in the bucket.

        And I do think there’s hope for him, for sure, but if you look at the two main characters based on their actions, one is definitely a better person than the other. They are both flawed, in largely opposite ways, and they are both excellent characters. But the fact that the noble is a good person, because she believes her own hype, is a fascinating contrast to the street rat who refuses to learn many of the most successful lessons of the street and is paying for it.


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