Chapter 36

They broke for an early lunch near the bottom of the stairs.

It felt morbid to Angharad, having a meal looking down at what might become a grave for some of those eating, but she supposed it would have been even worse to stop halfway through the Toll Road and dine overthe grave. They split into small groups for their meals of hard bread, cold pork and whatever tepid water they had left in their skins. Talk was quiet, as if the spirits below might be roused by too loud a conversation, and to the noblewoman it all felt like the breath before the storm.

Only a different storm came calling.

That Song would sit by her side for the meal was half-expected by now – but only half, it would have been arrogance to go further than that – but it had not been Isabel’s habit to do so unless the meal was communal. When the infanzona elegantly sat herself a step lower than them, it came as a surprise. Angharad made herself refrain from noticing how Isabel had unbuttoned her doublet and so her respective heights allowed her a … plunging view.

Twice Song looked at Angharad. For a fever dream moment she thought that the other woman was trying to catch her looking, but the mounting incredulousness on the Tianxi’s face finally told her otherwise. Isabel’s idle talk about Izcalli fashions was interrupted by Song’s sharp voice.

“Ruesta, it would be best for you to eat elsewhere.”

“Are you so ardently in favor of asymmetrical skirts?” Isabel replied, cocking an eyebrow. “I had thought better of you.”

Song looked Angharad’s way, as if prompting her to speak, and something of the gesture irked her. She was not a trained parrot, to speak when spurred so that courtiers could laugh. And she had told Isabel, for better or worse, that their slate was clean.

“It is only a meal, Song,” Angharad said.

“It is a mistake,” Song flatly replied. “One you ought to know better than to commit.”

And there the Pereduri was able to muster some steel at last. It was the most foundational of rights of a noble to decide who was allowed to sit at their table. Song was Republican, would not know better, but an unintentional insult was still that.

“I can decide,” Angharad evenly said, “who I eat with.”

And without a vote first, she almost added, but bit down on it. It was unworthy of her and the forbearance that Song had shown her on this isle. The Tianxi’s eyes narrowed nonetheless. Isabel, ever the peacemaker, attempted to cool the flames.

“I know we have not been on the best of terms, Song,” she said. “But I would make amends. I-”

“You are,” the Tianxi rudely interrupted, “every bedside story for Tianxi children made flesh. A useless, grasping thing that draws breath only by taking from those with skill, will or decency. Yiwu in the truest, most fundamental sense of the word.”

“That,” Angharad said, “was uncalled for.”

Song turned her silver gaze on her and what the noblewoman saw there gave her pause. She had never seen the Tianxi disappointedbefore, and it felt like a knife in the belly. Guilt was swift. Rudeness was not to be tolerated, but it was true that this was not Llanw Hall’s table. Had she not been forcing a guest on Song, herself breaching manners?

“I can also choose who I eat with, Angharad,” Song said, popping the last of her bread in her mouth.

She swallowed, then rose to her feet.

“And did.”

Song took up her pack and walked away. Angharad froze, her first instinct to follow but her mind arguing otherwise. Isabel’s eyes found hers and for a searing moment she wondered if this had all been some scheme. If the infanzona’s contract had moved them both somehow, made them-

“You should go,” the infanzona advised. “I did not mean to come between you two, Angharad.”

She then faintly grimaced, looking discreetly around them.

“And people are already noticing,” Isabel said. “It needs to be passed off as trivial.”

It had not even occurred to Angharad that eyes would be on them, but now that it did she felt a flush of humiliation. It felt not unlike being slapped in public, though it might well be her own palm responsible for the sting on her cheek. She nodded, rising to her feet. Song had hardly gone far, only a few steps away as she checked her munitions and belted her sword properly. The Tianxi did not acknowledge her standing there, so Angharad waited awkwardly for a time before finally clearing her throat.

“You should finish your meal,” Song said. “There will not be another opportunity for hours.”

Angharad could not apologize, for she had not done anything wrong. It would have been slighting her own honor to make apologies for nothing.

“I did not properly grasp,” she finally said, “the depths of your dislike for Lady Isabel. That is my failing.”

Father had taught her that. If you cannot apologize, instead acknowledge a mistake of your making. It will carry much the same meaning and represent a concession besides. She could almost hear his voice, the sound of their boots on the gravel as they strolled around the gardens, and Angharad ached with the loss of it. She would never hear his voice again. Any of their voices.

“My dislike,” Song bit out. “Circle and Gods.”

The Tianxi glared up, but she pitched her voice low.

“You heard the same thing I did, Angharad,” Song said. “How her contract works. Why would ever allow her in your presence again, to dig her hooks into your mind?”

“She has admitted her wrongdoings and apologized,” Angharad replied. “I cut ties over it, calling our score even.”

“So now she’s making a new score,” Song sighed. “Since you have a blank slate.”

The noblewoman shuffled uncomfortably.

“How do you know she is not using her contract on you?” Song asked.

“I do not,” Angharad said. “But the same is true of everyone I have had dealings with. She has demonstrated her contract to me, and though I cannot swear I would be able to tell were it used on me it can only achieve so much.”

“The filter is not the most dangerous part,” Song said.

She paused at Angharad’s open confusion.

“That is what her contract is,” Song said. “A perception filter that lets you see the good and dims the bad.”

The Pereduri frowned.

“And how would you know that?”

The slightest pause.

“Because I’ve almost entirely deciphered her contract,” Song Ren evenly replied.

For a moment Angharad thought she had misheard, for what she had just been told was absurd. Decipher another’s contract? Only a god and their contractor could ever know such terms, and it was not as if the pact was some scroll in a library that… Yet Song’s face remained deadly serious, and so Angharad swallowed. She could either call the Tianxi a liar or take her at her word, and Song had never once lied to her.

“They would kill you for that,” she hoarsely said.

She did not put a name to ‘they’, for there were too many to count.

“It is not as rare or potent an ability as you think,” Song told her. “There was a contractor at the Old Fort who could do something similar – though by sniffing out the gods.”

“The High Queen’s court employs such bloodhounds by the dozen,” Angharad dismissed. “But you speak of deciphering terms, Song.”

Of being able to read some of the most precious, dangerous secrets in all of Vesper simply by being in the same room.

“And I told you that my pact is not as potent as you think,” Song replied. “Deciphering is not an exaggeration – why do you think I learned so many languages?”

Oh, Angharad thought, and then suddenly it occurred to her that Song might be able to see her own contract. No, she told me she cannot read Gwynt, the Pereduri remembered. And surely her contract with the Fisher must be written in the old tongue? She swallowed, knowing that she would only get an answer if she asked.

“Can you- did you…”

“I have the loosest sense of what your contract can achieve,” Song said. “But it is very difficult to look at, as if I were reading with my eyes open underwater.”

A heartbeat of hesitation.

“I have been advised not to look too closely,” the Tianxi admitted. “That your gods is… temperamental.”

The Fisher was not, at least in the way the other woman must have meant it. The Fisher was not a thing given to fits of rage, to passing tantrums. The rage in him was old and deep, carved into the bone and unchanging.

“I have known kinder storms,” Angharad quietly said, for she would not say more.

She sighed, resisting the urge to fiddle with her braids. Mother had always slapped her hands when she did, called it an unfortunate habit.

“I would ask that you keep your knowledge of my contract secret,” she stiffly asked.

It was walking very close to the lines of honor to request such a thing, but it must be done if she was to ever return to the Kingdom of Malan.

“I am not a gossip,” Song said. “Principles aside, to run my mouth in such a way would likely get me killed. Though as I will not speak of your pact, I would ask you extend me the same courtesy.”

Angharad shallowly nodded, suspecting she had not quite hid her relief from the silver gaze.

“Given what I have told you,” Song continued, “I would repeat what I said earlier: the most dangerous part of Ruesta’s contract is not the filter. That is the habit it induces.”

She paused, looking for words.

“Once you grow used to seeing the good in someone, your mind follows down that road habitually,” the Tianxi said. “She does need to use her contract constantly, because she has taught everyone around her to assume the best of her actions. Her blank slate is favorable.”

Angharad frowned.

“What you describe,” she said, “sounds not unlike trust.”

Keeping faith and doing good deeds resulting in a worthy reputation was not sinister, it was the very nature of civilization. Song looked irritated.

“Not earned trust,” she said. “Fostered.”

Then it was simply giving the benefit of the doubt which Angharad saw nothing all that sinister in either, but she could see saying as much would only further trouble Song. That a contract had been involved complicated things, but to use one’s reputation was not an evil act. The act of using the contract on another without their knowledge was where the breach of honor lay, and that part Isabel had addressed.

“I hear your concerns,” Angharad said. “And I would not be comfortable serving as shield to one intending to use their contract on others.”

“But,” Song said.

“She has sworn not do so, save by accident,” the Pereduri said. “And then to reveal her contract publicly once sanctuary is reached.”

Song looked at her for a very long time, silver eyes hooded. What went on behind them she could only guess at, for the other woman’s face was calm as a pond on a windless day.

“If you hear my concerns, then act on them,” Song finally said. “Do not speak to Isabel Ruesta alone.”

It chafed, for someone to try to dictate to her like this, but Angharad swallowed her dislike. It was a request not made high-handed but out of concern for her safety. She could bend her neck that much, so the dark-skinned noble nodded in concession.

“And once we reach the next sanctuary, please cut ties properly,” Song said. “She will have no need of your protection, having that of the blackcloaks, and should face the consequences of her actions without an intercessor.”

Angharad grimaced. A steeper term but not, she thought, one unreasonable to ask. I have no intention of staying long in sanctuary anyhow, she reminded herself. And tempting as the thought was to let Isabel make a private apology now that she knew the contract had little to do with her attraction – a filter could not make something out of nothing – she could not in good conscience linger at sanctuary for that purpose alone. It would be highly frivolous.

“We will part ways at the sanctuary,” she conceded. “And I had no intention of intervening when she is to recover her honor, but should you want me to take an oath I-”

“No need for that,” Song said, shaking her head. “Your word is enough.”

How easily that answer came was almost enough to make Angharad feel guilty for what she had done. Namely, cutting out the mention of time from the promise. It was cracking a door slightly open, nothing more. So she told herself. There was still some stiffness between them after that, not every wrinkle smoothed, but Song stood by her side when everyone gathered to take the last steps down together. It would be different now, Angharad thought.

Thing always were when you realized you could lose something you had taken for granted.

The stone marker stood tall as a man and about as broad.

It was bare of carvings and adornment, nothing more than a roughly hewn slab of granite standing sentinel as the entrance of the bridge. Angharad could hear the roiling current of the river below, see white foam and sharp rocks bathed in golden light from above. Ferranda had told them that to fail a test was for a tenth of the bridge to fall below and Angharad saw only death in those waters. If we lose twice in a row, we are finished. It would be too broad a gap to cross, even with ropes.

As the survivors – all fourteen of them – stood before the marker, there was a heartbeat of hesitation. Who was to be the first of those not yet crowned victors? Song had removed herself from that list, and quite boldly, so the eyes went to those that remained: Lan, Brun, Yaretzi, Cozme Aflor and Lady Ferranda. Angharad hid her surprise at who took the initiative.

“I shall take the vanguard, then,” Cozme Aflor said, rolling his shoulders. “Wish me luck.”

Courage, Angharad thought, from one she had not expected to have such a virtue. Yet he must be a coward at heart, for why else would he have returned to Augusto Cerdan’s side? If the mangled infanzon was worried at the notion of losing his protector, it did not show. Augusto’s face was a study of nonchalance.

“Try not to die,” Tupoc casually replied. “It would be inconvenient to have to pull out all the stops as early as the second test.”

“You’re all heart, Xical,” the man snorted, stroking his moustache.

He stepped forward onto the bridge, and the air shivered. They could see all that followed clearly, for though all had put away their lanterns – the few real ones, but also the iron things the Watch had gifted them – the golden light of the machine above made it look like a strange summer day.

The stone cracked, a creature ripping itself free of the cracks. It was a centipede, a filthy horror all crawling legs and large as a man’s torso. The legs got larger as they went up and ended in a head of twisted curved mandibles – it looked like a skull atop a ribcage, though all of it carapaced sordidness.

Cozme, to his honor, did not flinch.

“God of the land, I greet you,” the older man said.

“Pick a weapon,” the spirit said, its voice like plunging your hand in a pit of maggots. “Wield and face it: slay my puppet to win passage.”

The older man remained silent for a time, then sighed.

“Knife,” he said.

Not a respectable weapon, but then Cozme had proved to be anything but.

“Agreed,” the spirit laughed.

Cozme Aflor loosened his sword belt, dropping it on the stone floor, then his pistol and powder followed. It was the long knife strapped to his side he drew, the shine of fine Someshwari steel catching the golden light from above. Yet Angharad’s eye was on the spirit instead, who was shaking and twisting as it vomited a river of filth. Bile and mucus full of squirming, foul things shaped themselves into a man inch by inch. Cozme’s height and build were matched, the spirit at last spewing out something like chitin that the puppet took in hand. Threading fingers through the filth, the silhouette shaped the material into a mirror of Cozme’s own knife as if it were clay to be molded.

The older man spat to the side.

“I’ve seen worse in the Murk,” Cozme said. “Try harder.”

“Begin,” the spirit hissed.

Both struck.

Before the second pass had ended, Angharad knew why Cozme had chosen the knife. She had seen him shoot a pistol and in passing use a sword, but he was nowhere as deft a hand with them as he was the sharp length in his hand. It was a brutal bout, more like the tangle of back-alley cats than an honor duel: Cozme struck with his fists as well as his knife, gouged eyes and on the third pass ended up rolling on the floor with the horror trying to choke it out. Even as cuts opened the skin of both, bile and blood spilling in a foul puddle, the mustachioed soldier did not flinch even when the puppet’s features turned into a nest of screeching centipedes.

He cut and gouged and choked, until they were on their feet again and swinging.

The cut that ended the fight was the costliest. Cozme slid under the monster’s guard, striking its chin with his palm and rocking it back as it swung past him – then he closed in, ramming his knife into the puppet’s throat and ripping it open, but the creature pressed against him and stabbed into his back. It struck again and again, wailing away the flesh until Cozme’s knife was all the way through its throat and the head came tumbling down.

It collapsed back into the vileness the spirit had spewed out, drenching the soldier who roared out a curse, but the puppet was done. Cozme ripped out the chitin knife yet stuck in him and threw it over the edge of the bridge.

“Told you,” he panted out.

“Shame how bile got in the wounds,” Tupoc idly noted. “If Tredegar had not gotten our friend Tristan killed, he might have seen to that.”

Angharad ignored the insult and the bickering that followed it, eyes staying on Cozme. He had been stabbed five times, but with his coat she could not tell how deep it had gone. He still seemed able to move his arm, at least. Yet blood loss alone would ensure he was far from at his best. That was a loss, for the purpose of crossing the bridge.

It was a gain for when the time would come for Augusto Cerdan’s end to find him.

The spirit whose blunt test they had beaten did not deign to humor them with a confirmation, instead slithering back into the crack it had emerged from. Yet the bridge did not collapse when they gingerly began to walk, as plain a crowning as they would get. Cozme hung back, Augusto helping him dress his wounds, and Angharad avoided both. In time she would face them both, but until then it was beneath her to loom like some sort of scavenger and pick at the their wounds. She joined the gathering before the second stone marker instead.

“I will take the second,” Brun told everyone.

Some murmurs of approval.

“Good luck,” Lan sweetly said, smiling very wide.

It was heartening, Angharad thought, to see some fine comradery between Sacromontans after all the backbiting of their infanzones. The pair must have been friends.

This time the spirit was not so unpleasant to behold: when the stone cracked, what emerged was almost human. It looked like a smooth, genderless child whose face was wrinkled with old age. It spoke in a voice sweet as the flowing of water, offering its test.

“I will run around my part of the bridge, screaming,” the spirit said. “You must touch me with a hand to win. You have nine hundred breaths to do so.”

Brun carefully ensured that the spirit would be tangible, then haggled the terms. The strange spirit refused to remove the time limit but conceded that in exchange it would not seize Brun’s soul should he lose, only if he died during the test. It seemed well-bargained to Angharad, but of course it was not so simple as that: within a heartbeat of the test beginning, the spirit turned invisible. It took Brun by surprise, the fair-haired man having clapped his hands over his ears – perhaps in a anticipation of the spirit’s screaming being harmful.

It had been her guess as well.

Angharad was not the one taking the test, so it might be different for her, but as far as she could tell the only harmful thing about the screams was that they were so exaggerated it sounded like the spirit was making sport of them

Still, though the creature was invisible it made noise and the touch of its feet on the floor could barely be made out. Brun had his contract as well, though by the way the Sacromontan began blindly reaching into thin air Angharad suspected his power could not detect the spirit at all. Yet for all the difficulties the man was clever and quick – only he seemed inexplicably clumsy today, as if his limbs had slowed. It was a small thing, but always he seemed to miss the screaming and giggling spirit by inches. Was the creature using some sort of power to slow him?

It was near the end of the time that the test turned dangerous. The spirit began to hide near the edge of the bridge, and it baited Brun near the edge again and again – twice it tried to kick him down into the waters, the second time almost succeeding.

By the time the nine hundredth breath had passed, the spirit had not been caught.

“Missed me,” it laughed, coming back into sight for a moment long enough to grin.

A tenth of the bridge collapsed under it, falling chunk by chunk. Angharad ran to the edge even as Brun did the same, the fair-haired man leaping as his footing disappeared under him – she caught his arm, grunting as she dragged him forward. His knees still hit the edge of the bridge, no doubt bruising them, but Angharad got him back on the bridge. They both collapsed on the floor and Brun rolled away, revealing a face that still seemed calm even having come so very close to dying.

It was, she thought, impressive nerve on the man’s part.

“Congratulations, rat,” Augusto Cerdan drawled. “You are our first failure of the day.”

Angharad turned a cool gaze on him.

“Worry not, Lord Augusto,” she said. “You will always be such in my eyes, no matter the date.”

“Ha!” Zenzele chortled, and he was not alone.

Augusto was not beloved. Eyes turned to the newly formed gap, after that, and though some – Tupoc and Lan – suggested the leap could be made without help others prevailed on a hook and rope being used. It took a quarter hour to fix two hooks against the stone on the other side of the bridge, but after that the crossing on two parallel ropes was not all that difficult. The cautious crossed on all fours, the rest trusted their footing.

All were aware that a second defeat in a row might well kill them all, so there was no talk of anyone taking up the test before its nature was revealed.

The stone cracked and two wriggling shapes shot out, unfolding like paper cranes. Angharad winced at the sight of them, for the pair of spirits she beheld wore the shape of the dead. With bulging eyes, skin gone grey and their too-long ghastly tongues hanging loose the spirits looked like hanging victims. Both held onto the stone marker with sharp fingernails, swaying as they considered their supplicants.

“Play with us,” the spirit to the left said.

It choked on its tongue as it spoke, and the sound would have been comical if not for the ugly rasp to the words. Like rope coiling tight, like gulping at air that would not come.

“Two come to play,” the spirit to the right said. “Xiao Xiantiao. A strike to the face for every missed clap, and no one can step in.”

Unease spread like malignant air as Angharad shot a glance at Song, hoping for a translation. The Tianxi frowned.

“It means ‘little lines’,” she said. “But I do not know the meaning.”

“It’s a children’s clapping game in the Republics.”

Gazes swiveled to the speaker: Yaretzi, who looked uncomfortable at the weight of the attention she was receiving. She toyed with one of her turquoise earrings.

“I am surprised you never heard of the game,” Yaretzi continued, cocking an eyebrow at Song. “I was taught of it because how staggeringly common it is over all of Tianxia.”

“I had a strict upbringing,” Song admitted.

That felt like a very long story forced into a very short sentence, Angharad thought. Eyes moved to Lan, who laughed.

“Hey, don’t you fine folk glare at me,” the blue-lipped woman said. “I’ve got the Tianxi look, but I was born in Sacromonte. We played slap-a-liar like all the other kids.”

What a horrifying name. Yaretzi cleared her throat.

“I believe the game is also called the ‘lamp song’ around the Trebian Sea,” she said. “The words are different in Antigua, but not the rhythm and movements.”

That found purchase.

“I know that one,” Acanthe Phos called out. “Used to play it with my brothers.”

“It will have to be the two of us, then,” Yaretzi said. “Unless we are to teach the game to others?”

“I am not sure that would be wise,” Song said. “Clapping games are rote repetition, no?”

Meaning even someone with finer reflexes might not do as well as someone who simply knew the order of movements down to not needing thought.

“I take it the game is more complex than simply clapping left and right?” Angharad asked.

“There’s two sequences with up, down and a finger snap,” Yaretzi replied. “Then for the second part you do them the opposite way.”

“It sounds risky for someone new to learn them, then,” Angharad opined.

There was some argument – Lord Zenzele suggested that Shalini and her unnaturally quick hands might be a sure bet, until she asserted that her contract might instead make her the single less suited person present – but eventually it was agreed that Yaretzi and Lady Acanthe would be their champions. After that it was only a matter of being cautious. They asked that the spirits demonstrate the game with each other, to make sure it was the same they knew, and then settled the stakes.

So long as one finished the game and forfeit without dying, the spirits agreed, the test would be considered as passed. Only in exchange for that they demanded should either Yaretzi or Acanthe miss five claps in a row, their lantern would be forfeit. Understandably, neither was pleased by this.

“It is the best deal we are likely to get,” Lady Ferranda said.

“Easy to say, when your soul is not on the line,” Acanthe bit back.

“You would do well,” Zenzele Duma mildly said, “not to confuse patience with forgiveness, Lady Acanthe. You will have none of that from me after the Trial of Lines – or from most standing here, I think.”

The acne-scarred lady glared at them all, then grit her teeth.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll do it. But I am already a victor and now risking myself a second time – in exchange, I must not be called upon for another test until we reach the end of the maze.”

Some tried to argue against, but it was half-hearted work. Angharad though it a reasonable demand and so she bent her neck along the others. The pair stepped forward to face the spirits, who crawled all the way out of their marker to sit down on the ground. Their loose, wide-sleeved grey coats pooled on the floor as they tucked in their long-nailed teeth underneath the fold of blue robes ending at their ankles. Settling face-to-face, the pairs stilled and  began to play.

The trick used by the spirits should have been obvious, but Angharad had not thought of it: though their hands moved unerringly both began singing a different song.

Neither was the right song.

Acanthe, taken aback, missed two claps in a row before catching up. It was Yaretzi that helped her, loudly singing the true tune as she kept going. The diplomat, Angharad was impressed to see, had not missed a beat. After that the spirits began to pull every trick they could. They slowed or quickened their hands, presented the grim sight of their heads turning all the way around, threw mockery and insults. Twice more Acanthe missed claps, and Yaretzi finally missed as well.

The rest of them hung on to every gesture, knowing there was nothing at all they could do. The most prudent among them retreated close to the gap, perhaps intending on attempting a leap back if the test was failed. Angharad doubted it would amount to anything. Besides, for all that now and then a beat was missed neither seemed anywhere near the five in a row that would lose their soul. They need only until-

The first sign something went wrong was when Acanthe winced after a particularly hard clap. The spirit facing her leaned in, leering, and struck even harder – it got a yelp of pain out of the noble girl. Angharad could only gawk at the sight. It had been a hard clap, but surely not enough to hurt Acanthe. Had her hand already been wounded? Only it was both hands that had her moaning as the spirit began putting its back into the slaps, until with a sickening sound Acanthe Phos’ left wrist snapped.

Cleanly broken. Her contract’s price, Angharad thought. Has to be. No one alive had bones so weak.

“Keep going,” Yaretzi hissed. “They only need five to-”

One clap missed, two, three, four – and Acanthe dragged up her broken hand, screaming as the clap rippled down her arm. She barely managed another clap after that, weeping and gibbering, and missed three more after. Again her bad hand went up, a scream ripping itself clear of her throat as the spirit slammed its palm against hers, but while she began missing claps again Yaretzi finished a discordantly cheerful rhyme in Cathayan and the game ended. Angharad breathed out.

Never five in a row. Acanthe Phos would keep her soul.

“Good, good,” the spirit to the left said. “Lovely game. The forfeits now, yes?”

The one to the right struck without warning, its knuckle catching Acanthe in the chin. She fell back, screaming more in surprise than pain. Yaretzi took her own blow more carefully, rolling with it. The difference in training showed. Acanthe was struck again while on the ground, right in the eye – it was certain to blacken – and then Yaretzi got her turn again. It was, however, the last blow the Izcalli diplomat would get. She had only missed two claps.

Acanthe Phos had missed many more than that.

It would have been too much of a compliment to call what followed an execution. It was a murder, nothing more than that, brutal and drawn out and gleefully done. They all watched in anguished silence as the spirits toyed with their victim, changing who held her down and who struck. After five blows, Acanthe’s face was a bloody mess.

By the eight it was beyond bruised flesh, her nose broken and cartilage peeking out.

On the ninth her cheekbone broke.

On the tenth she lost her eye and began choking on her own blood.

The spirits waited after that, Acanthe’s head in one’s lap as she gurgled and died.

“Finish your last blow, you foul things,” Angharad snarled. “Eleven is all you won.”


“We never said how long between blows,” a spirit said. “Wait and see.”

It wasn’t the blood that killed Acanthe, at least not the  bloodshe was choking on. She began convulsing, something in her skull broken from a blow, and died with a plaintive wheeze. And as the last breath left her, the spirit to the right gently flicked her cheek with a sharp nail.

“Eleven,” it said. “One survived. You may pass, now.”

They went back into their stone, bellies full, and silence reigned in their wake.

Angharad closed Acanthe’s eyes and Song helped her throw the body into the river after so that carrion would not pick at it.

It was little, but all they had to give.

The spirit that awaited beyond was a fox in silver, its brisk manners welcome after the sordidness of the last test.

“Thrice will I release birds,” the fox said. “Only one will be true, and this one you must slay before it flees beyond your reach.”

A hunter’s challenge and hunter stepped forward to meet it: Lady Ferranda Villazur, her musket already in hand, claimed the test. She haggled only a little with the fox spirit, which had Angharad frowning. Better terms might have been had with a little effort, as they stood they were quite vague and – ah, she finally thought. Song had idly come to stand a few feet behind Ferranda, and the ploy was made clear. The spirit released five gulls from its back, the lovely things images in perfect silver taking flight.

“Second from the left,” Song stated.

A flint struck, powder burned, the gull dropped and already Ferranda was reloading her musket.

“That is not the spirit of the test,” the fox insisted.

“It is not against its rules, god of the land,” Ferranda flatly replied. “Again.”

Irked, the spirit no longer showed restraint. It was a dozen small birds that erupted from its back in a flock, silver sparrows, but again Song called the shot and Ferranda took it. The spirit only grew angrier, the last time unleashing a veritable swarm of birds of all shapes and sizes. That proved to be a mistake, for the differences made the target even easier to call.

“Cormorant, middle left,” Song said.

The fox was gone before the dead bird even hit the ground, angrily burrowing back into its stone. How thoroughly the test had been beaten brought back some boldness to their lot, straightening backs, but Angharad thought it would take more than a single victory to erase the shadow left by Acanthe’s brutal death.

“Eleven victors, now,” Tupoc noted. “Almost halfway through and we can still afford a corpse.”

Unpleasant as his words were, they were true enough no one took him to task over them.

The fifth of the ten markers was inhabited by the most unsettling spirit yet. It was a two-headed snake, its scales a vivid green and red, but it was not the reptile that spoke to them: when those fanged maws opened, they revealed the small heads of infants inside.

“A simple game,” the serpent said.

It slithered along the ground, oil trailing in its wake and slowly coming to trace a perfect grid of ten by ten, covering all of its section of the bridge save for a few feet across.

“Two play,” the serpent spirit said. “You can cross when there are no eyes on you, but when there are you cannot. If you are caught moving, you are thrown back ten feet. You have seven hundred breaths to cross.”

Ishaan immediately hemmed in on the loophole she had.

“And will you stand at the same place the entire time?” he asked.

“I will not move,” the serpent conceded.

Not impossible, then, though no doubt there would be some sort of trick to it.

“Seems like my kind of game,” Lan easily said, stepping forward.

“One,” the serpent said.

“Come now, not so fast,” the blue-lipped woman said. “The last time a test had a set amount of time, the god did not get a soul out of a loss – only a death. It seems only fair for the same terms to apply again.”

“Insolent rat,” the serpent spirit scathingly replied.

“You have me dead to rights,” Lan grinned. “And I’m no great athlete either, easy to catch. I’d be splendid fodder, if you bothered to lure me in properly.”

The infant’s mouth inside the maw pulled into a pout, which had Angharad shivering in disgust. It was tempted, though, and conceded in exchange for the concession that standing on a line would also be enough to get you thrown back ten feet. The terms were agreed to by the second who would take the test: Augusto Cerdan. It was with narrowed eyes that Angharad watched him step forward. What did the infanzon gain by this? He was already a victor and taking risks would win him no friends.

Or was he a victor? Augusto might be nobly born, but he had no honor. He might well have lied about a victory to save his life. Yet he would have needed to fool not only her but also Tupoc who – who was frowning at the infanzon, looking surprised for once. It does not matter anyway, Angharad reminded herself. We are under truce until the tests are done.

“Prepare yourself,” the serpent spirit said. “We begin.”

The two positioned themselves at the edge of a line, preparing to move. The snake turned its head and they shot forward, only gaining half a foot before it turned back. Neither were standing on a line.

“Tricky, tricky,” the spirit complained. “Again.”

It turned and again the pair moved, only a heartbeat later both went flying – thrown back by an invisible force.

“Hey,” Lan complained, dusting herself off as she rose. “Your eyes weren’t on us.”

“Did I say anything about my eyes?” the serpent spirit smiled with a toddlers’ mouth.

It was then Angharad realized that the other she could no longer see the other head.

“Shit,” Song quietly said. “They’re two spirits, not one.”

The Tianxi was right: the second head had split into another snake entirely, now standing on another side of the grid. It grinned at them all as Angharad went back over the wording of the terms in her mind. The spirit was right, it had never specified only its eyes would count and promised only it would not move from its position. As was often the way with spirits, though, they did not make the bargain impossible to fulfill. The snakes left slight openings for the pair to advance, slight but enough that the pair could gain an inch or two at a time.

Only they needed to maneuver precisely every time and ten successes were tenfold undone by a single mistake.

Whichever spirit caught them threw them back in the direction opposite them with that invisible force, and as the pair were toyed with by the creatures Angharad began to glimpse the enemy’s plan. Lan and Augusto were caught more often by the snake on the side, slowly moved to the left edge of the grid.

The same that ended mere feet away from a bridge with no railing.

“One must love the Trebian Sea,” Lord Zenzele snorted. “The only place in all the world where it is the fish that fish you.”

Angharad might have felt a sliver of amusement, if it were only Augusto’s life on the line. Lan, though, did not deserve such an end. The pair realized their trouble soon enough, taking greater care with the spirit on the side, but there was only so much they could do.

“Caught you,” the spirit crooned, and Angharad saw their newest trick.

It was only the snake on the side that would catch the pair stepping on a line, forcing them to the side. And Lan was shoved roughly ten feet nearer to the edge, half fingers’ width away from the furthest line of the grid. One more mistake and she’d be over the edge.

She went very, very still.

“You bitch,” Augusto snarled. “You can’t wait the test out, we’ll both-”

He went flying as well, landing on his knees but a foot behind Lan. He swallowed his words, face gone pale. Neither moved, but knowing they were a single mistake away from death. Only neither of their poses were all that comfortable – Augusto was sitting on the back of his own foot – and the gazes of the serpents stayed on them unblinking. They could breathe, if shallowly, but not even swallow. The gazes went away and Lan swallowed, but Augusto was bolder – he unfolded his leg, which he had been sitting on.

The spirit on the side turned its gaze back on him before he could finish, leaving him stuck halfway. He froze, did not move an inch, but his leg began to tremble. The pose was too hard to maintain. The trembling a little, at first, but it got worse. He was shaking. With a scream of terror, Augusto Cerdan toppled to the side and the spirit screeched in glee through a toddler’s lips.

A heartbeat later he was over the edge.

Angharad, rope in hand, stepped forward. In the water she could see the infanzon, how he had landed on one of the rocks in the rapids – he screamed like a seagull, impaled through the side and only that slow death keeping the current from sweeping him away to a faster one.

“Cozme,” Augusto screamed. “Cozme, help.”

The mustachioed man looked over the edge, stood there for a long time, then shook his head.

“You won’t survive that,” he replied. “Best go with the current, Augusto. It will be faster.”

“You fucking cock,” the infanzon shouted. “Your traitor. Isabel, ISABEL – throw me a rope, I order you.”

Isabel Ruesta walked away, out of his sight. She looked distressed.

“Tredegar,” Augusto tried, growing panicked. “You can’t leave me to die, there’s no honor in this, there is-”

Angharad met his eyes, for a long moment, and thought of that night in the woods when he had fired the pistol. Tried to kill half of them so he might live a little longer.

She looked away.

By the time the span of the test ended, the screams had turned to sobs. When the portion of the bridge began to collapse Angharad threw Lan the rope and dragged her up with Ferranda’s help. The stone falling in the river drowned out even Augusto’s sobs, and then there was nothing heard from him at all. Buried in stone and water, not even his corpse was there to be seen.

They set up the ropes and crossed again.

The sixth marker cracked open to reveal what Angharad thought to be a headless dog, until it rose on its back feet and revealed its stomach was a froglike face.

“I will release a fly,” the spirit said. “The first to catch it wins.”

Shalini stepped forward, grim-faced.

“I’ll take that one,” she said.

No one contested her, as the superficial of her contract were an open secret.

Bargaining was brisk and successful. The spirit opened its mouth, spitting out a fly the size of a bullet, and as it buzzed away Shalini shot the spirit in the eye faster than Angharad could follow. It screamed in anger, turning on her, but she ignored it and shot forward herself. It was a harsh trade: just before Shalini’s fingers closed around the fly, the spirit’s long barbed tongue darted out and ripped into her shoulder. The spirit cursed around its own tongue, lips flapping, but there was no denying the fly was in the Someshwari’s hand.

“We’re done,” she grunted. “Get that goddamn tongue out of me.”

Her lips thinned until they turned bloodless as the spirit did exactly as she had asked, none too gently. The barbs, Angharad saw, did more damage on the way out than they had going in. The wound is still shallow, she thought. It was meant to inflict pain, not cripple. Had Shalini Goel used her contract once or twice, Angharad wondered? That shot had been too quick to be anything but that, but her hand when she had snatched the fly had been barely any slower.

“Oh,” Lan faintly said from behind her. “That can’t be good.”

Angharad followed the Tianxi’s eyes and went still. The spirit they had just beaten had not even returned to its stone yet already the marker ahead of them had cracked open – revealing some sort of cat made of worms.

So had the two markers beyond that one, their spirits coming out.

A spirit shaped like skinless, one-legged man let out a resounding scream and only ceased when the worm-cat leaped at its throat and tried to rip into it. The last spirit, a black horse whose back turned into a spider’s, struck at both with its hooves.

Lord Ishaan had claimed that Shalini’s contract drew attention, Angharad recalled as she watched the spirits begin to tear into each other. Her use of it so close when they were starved must have whipped them into a frenzy.

“Well now,” Tupoc drawled. “That does simply things.”

“No,” Song suddenly said. “Look at the bridge.”

Cracks were spreading, Angharad saw. Every time a spirit tore into another, wounded what they were, the part of the bridge their marker held together began to break.

“We need to run,” she said. “Now.”

Within three steps the first chunk of bridge had fallen.

Angharad glimpsed ahead, taking a hard left when she saw she’d been about to fall into the river as a hole opened in the floor. Ishaan looked about to tip over the edge so she yanked him back, then dragged him along with her. The man tried to thank her but she kept moving. Cracks spread, louder and louder as the bridge began collapsing behind them. It was blind, heedless run forward that Angharad broke only by feverish glimpses forward – never more than half a second, taking hard turns to avoid death.

The cat spirit let out a scream as its head was gobbled down by the horse-spider, its entire chunk of the bridge falling down behind them.

“Go, go, go,” Angharad exhorted the others.

By the time they’d reached the brawling pair, the skinless man was biting into the other’s flesh with too-large square teeth. It turned when Shalini approached, as if drawn by the feel of her, but the other spirit used the distraction to cave in its bare ribs. The bridge ahead of them began to collapse but they were already there, already running and…

Angharad leapt, shouting at the top of her lungs, and the others followed behind.

She landed on her belly, chin hitting the stone painfully, and barely got out of the way before Tupoc landed in a crouch where her legs had been. Angharad hastily rose to her feet, counting the survivors, and as the number rose her hopes did – ten, eleven, twelve. They had all made it, she realized in a moment of pure joy as she watched Lady Ferranda drag Shalini up from the ledge she’d been hanging onto.

“Sleeping God,” she smiled. “We-”

A cracking sound interrupted her, whisking away the joy.

She turned, hand on her sword, as the marked revealed the last spirit. The last test. Her belly clenched in anticipation. It was not as wrong as some of the others, not wicked or warped. The spirit looked almost like a whale that had grown four legs, all pale wet flesh – though it was smaller than any whale known to man, barely the size of a horse. Its breathing was loud, and when it opened its mouth it was to reveal rows on rows of teeth so fine they looked like hair.

“Two must face me and not bleed,” the spirit said. “Until you have wounded me thrice. Any who bleed before then surrender their lantern.”

The voice was slow, lazy, and Angharad blinked away a wave of exhaustion as her veins suddenly cooled. The Fisher was not pleased by the other spirit’s encroachment, she could tell. It would only grow angrier if the spirit persisted, she thought, and so that made her a natural choice for this test.

“I will make one,” Angharad said, stepping forward.

“And I the second.”

Her jaw clenched as Tupoc Xical swaggered up, spear on his shoulder. For all her hatred of the man, he was a skilled fighter. If there was to be a test of martial strength, she would not turn him away. Pushing aside her reluctance, she acknowledged him with a nod. He returned it, along with a smirk that had her considering throttling.

“Let us discuss terms, honored elder,” Angharad said.

The spirit was not interested in trading time for fewer hits, or making assurances too precise about what it might use to pursue them. It only conceded it would not shrink the space of the bridge.

“There will be a trick to hitting it,” Tupoc told her.

“I expect there will be,” Angharad said, and breathed in.

(Angharad Tredegar and Tupoc Xical accepted the terms, beginning the test.

The spirit was quick for its size, charging without batting an eye, but neither its opponents were amateurs. They danced around it as it struck with tail and grasping maw, Tupoc scoring a blow on its side. Only the flesh did not part. The spirit brushed against Angharad a heartbeat later and a spear wound erupted into her side, surrendering her soul. She forced herself to continue, to buy passage for the others. Twice she struck at the spirit, now with nothing to lose – first managing a deep slash into the side that parted no flesh, and then an enraged thrust as the spirit’s forehead.

Which parted flesh like a wide, deep slash.)

Angharad breathed out, shivering for the sudden cold in her veins.

“Do not let it touch you, not even in passing,” she ordered.

“I love it when you give me orders, Tredegar,” Tupoc replied, winking at her.

She ignored that. The spirit’s power was the delay of one wound, Angharad decided. Only while the wound was being delayed, the spirit could give it to one of them instead through contact. A difficult trick to beat if you were unaware of it. Lucky for them, they were not.

The spirit was as quick as it had been in her vision, but not quicker than her.

Cold burned in her veins, keeping exhaustion at bay, and whatever god had blessed Tupoc it seemed no more inclined to let the Izcalli be slowed down. Angharad played the bait, slowing until the spirit charged, and only ran when it had begun to move. The creature slid, trying to turn to catch her, and that was enough od an opening for Tupoc to peck at its back. The Pereduri hazarded a shallow slash as she cut close to the spirit, earning a shallow thrust wound for her trouble, and Tupoc’s pale gaze fell right on it.

The Izcalli figured it out in a heartbeat, not needing a word.

After that, they made sport of their enemy. It moved predictably enough, slowing only to swat with its tail and snapping its mouth whenever they came close, which let Tupoc blind an eye – turning into her shallow slash – and even as the spirit roared in anger Angharad ducked under a tail swing to rise into a smooth pivot. She cut through the side of the tail with a textbook perfect cut, though it only unleashed a pierced hole into the flesh.

It was, however, undeniably a third wound.

The spirit turned on them in a fury.

“You tricked me,” it accused.

“I did not fall prey to your tricks,” Angharad plainly corrected. “Your wrath rings hollow, honored elder.”

She walked right past the spirit, ignoring Tupoc’s delighted laugh, and went to claim the prize promised her: a way out of the nightmare.

The end. They’d finally got to the end of the maze, damn the blood-hungry thing.

Sweat pouring down her back, Angharad climbed the wide stairs and found she barely begrudged Tupoc’s presence at her side. He too was a victor twice over. She could return to despising him when he next opened his mouth. The gentle slope ended on flat grounds in the uneven make of nature’s hand, the old cavern floor bereft of so much as a speck of life. There were only two things here: a wall of hanging lanterns and a gate.

There must have been hundreds of the lanterns, thousands – and though many were of the same cheap iron stock the Watch had given them at the Old Fort, not all were. There was brass and bronze, elaborate silver filigree and even an exquisite thing of sculpted glass shaped like a flower. The flames were pale and they burned even though not all lanterns had wick or air. Angharad could not decide which was more unsettling: the unnaturalness of that, or that not all flames burned even. Some were bright, others guttering out. Were there other lanterns gone dark, just out of sight?

Shaking herself out of the musings, the Pereduri moved her eye back to the gate. It had seemed tall from a distance, but from here it was outright colossal. Tall as three dozen men, half as broad, and its curved head ended in a great lion’s head holding a knocker in its mouth. Angharad looked for a hinge or a keyhole, but all the great panes of bronze displayed was elaborate wrought iron patterns of curving snakes and flowers.

“The floor, Tredegar,” Tupoc said. “Unless you intend on gawping all night?”

Angharad duly resumed despising him, as had been foretold. He was not wrong about the floor, however: there were circles of bronze set in it, themselves tracing a greater circle before the gate. Ten circles, to be precise, and that could not be a coincidence. Their slowing gait had allowed the first of the others to catch up, so Lord Zenzele soon let out a sigh as he caught up to her.

“Would it have killed that fat Tianxi to tell us what precisely was needed to open the gate?” he said. “I must confess I am not greatly in the mood for a spot of occult mystery.”

“The Watch did tell us.”

Angharad’s gaze slid to the speaker, who she had not expected to come forward on her own. Lan looked as exhausted as she herself felt, but her eyes were sharp.

“A bold claim,” Zenzele Duma said. “Do elaborate.”

“They gave us one thing before we set out,” the Tianxi said. “You think it’s a coincidence they’re also hanging off the wall here, Malani?”

The blue-lipped woman cleared her throat.

“Lady Tredegar, would you please place your lantern in one of the circles?”

Angharad frowned, but she could see no reason to refuse. Though the blackcloaks had said the lantern touched with their blood was for spirits to find them in the aether – and feed on them should they lose – the golden light of the aetheric machine above would prevent such mischief. She walked to the closest bronze circle even as she went through her pack, lightly setting the lantern down in the middle. She stepped back afterwards, wary, but nothing at all happened. Three heartbeats passed.

“I thought you’d have taunted me by now,” Lan candidly admitted to Zenzele.

“I thought to wait for Ferranda so-”

A flame, pale and bright, suddenly lit up inside Angharad’s lantern.

“That is to say,” Lord Zenzele corrected midstride, “well done, Lan, capital work.”

By now the others had caught up, and the method was laid out other victors began to set down their own lantern. Isabel was the first after Angharad, and the Pereduri kept her eye on the gate as the infanzona’s lantern lit up. No movement at all. They had precisely ten victors out of their survivors, so ten lanterns were set down. Ishaan’s was the last, and it was placed within the circle Angharad idly glimpsed ahead.

/A flame within the iron, the lionhead’s mouth opening, the flames winking out and then nothing./

She swallowed her fear. The mirror-dancer bared her blade even as the bronze lionhead came to life, eyes turning to her. Then then the golden light above, their constant companion, went out like a snuffed candle. The barest instant after, so did the hundreds of lanterns on the wall.

Angharad had not seen nothing, she realized, but the dark.

Shouts of fear and dismay echoed, blades being bared and even a shot fired blindly – or perhaps not so blindly, as the sound of a bullet on metal echoed. Had Shalini snapped a shot? If she had, it did not stop the spirit in the gate for they all heard something massive landing before them.

“Gets your lanterns out,” Angharad shouted. “Your real ones.”

It was a madman’s whirl after that, everyone scattering as the spirit charged – feeling so much larger than it had as a mere head, even were a matching body attached to it. Angharad glimpsed ahead once, twice. She used not her eyes to guide herself, for she saw nothing, but the pain of being mauled should she misstep. She found the spirit, or close enough, and felt wind as is struck at her but came short. Was it blind to the dark as well?

“Here,” she shouted. “It is here.”

A shot flashed through the dark, revealing for a heartbeat the hulking shape of a bronze lion large as a carriage as the bullet went wide. The spirit turned in a moment, striking out, but Angharad threw herself out of the way. Her shoulder landed badly on the stone and she swallowed a hiss as something tore through where she had just been standing.

“I despise cats,” Tupoc noted in the distance, then raised his voice. “Over here, you rusty old thing.”

The spirit roared, leaping his way, and Angharad saw it for some blessed soul had finally gotten a lantern lit. Song, silver eyes steady, had set her lantern on the ground and was already loading her musket. Tupoc, meanwhile, laughed as he danced around swiping claws and – the shots were in such quick succession Angharad almost thought there had only been the one. Instead she saw Shalini drop her fourth pistol with an incredulous look. The Someshwari did not even carry four, Ishaan had his arms raised to make it easier for his companion to snatch his.

The bronze lion roared again, turning, and Angharad saw that enough bullets had landed in his right eye to cave it in. Not that it seemed to slow it down any.

“Powder won’t work,” Lady Ferranda shouted. “Blades out!”

In the flickering lantern light, they went after the spirit. Tupoc and Angharad were quickest and so they led the dance – darting in and out of the bronze lion’s reach. It was slow, the mirror-dancer realized, and did not see well. But it struck with the strength of a dozen men and it was made of fucking bronze. Twice she scored slashes on its face and side, earning only a line, and none of the others did better save for Brun whose hatchet sunk deep enough into the spirit’s head he was not able to wrench it back out. It tossed him away with a swipe of its tail, the Sacromontan falling to the ground with a scream, and others were not far behind.

Ferranda was hit by the spirit’s shoulder as it ran and went flying as if it had been a battering ram, unconscious on impact.

“On me,” Angharad hissed at the monster, striking at its sculpted mane.

From the corner of her eye she saw Lan drag away the infanzona, but it was all spinning out of control. They were losing, could not get past the bronze.

“Your contract,” Lord Zenzele shouted. “Nair, you need to use your contract.”

“Fuck,” Lord Ishaan Nair cursed, closing his eyes.

And a miracle happened: the lion went still.

At least until Ishaan started screaming.

“Kill it,” Shalini screamed. “Kill it now or his brain will melt and-”

Tupoc rammed his spear into the lion’s dented eye, plunging through bronze until the shaft was a third through. He grunted with effort, tanned muscles clenching as he pushed as far as he could into the creature’s head.

The lion stilled and Ishaan stopped screaming.

Had they… had they done it? Another two heartbeats passed and the lion did not move. It must be dead, Angharad thought, though only Song would be able to confirm that –  and where was Song? She had not fought, not even fired the musket Angharad had seen her loading. She could not think the Tianxi a coward, so something must have happened. Was she… Gaze sweeping the cavern to the edge of the light, Angharad found no trace of her. It was only beyond that cast that she glimpsed movement. Song had climbed the wall unhooked a lantern.

As Angharad watched a pale, bright flame lit up inside.

“Ren, what are you doing?” Lan called out from below. “Your cursed fool you’ll-”

“No,” Song shouted, “Xical, don’t-”

Angharad’s gaze went to Tupoc, who she found was merely laying a foot on the lion to prepare to rip out his spear. She moved to stop him, trusting in Song, but the Izcalli was quicker. The spear came free, and for a heartbeat nothing at all happened.

Then the bronze lion moved.

It wasn’t dead, Angharad realized with horror. Ishaan’s contract only forced it asleep. The Someshwari had been failing in the contest of minds before Tupoc’s spear went into the skull, which had distracted the spirit enough for the contract to win that contest. Only now the pain of the same spear being ripped out had awoken it. The Izcalli went down, slapped away, and Angharad struck at the lion’s back.

“Ishaan,” she screamed, “you must-”

The lion ignored her, the thin scar she inflicted in its back, and bounded forward. Once, twice and on the third bound its jaw snapped closed.

Ishaan’s head popped like a grape, a mess of red and grey that the lion swallowed whole.

Shalini let out a heartrending sound, like her soul had been ripped out, and stabbed at the spirit with a knife. It bounced off the bronze, too blindly struck. Angharad pursued, shouting to draw the monster’s attention, and after a final wet gulp it deigned to turn towards her. Zenzele dragged Shalini away. Fighting her for every step.

Angharad faced the spirit, breathing out, and knew all she had left was-

The lantern’s arc was perfect, a thing of beauty. The iron box Song had thrown struck the lion on the side of the head, impossibly shattering like glass, and there was a burst of pale light as the flame within flared up. The spirit roared, screamed, but the pale fire spread across its bronze body and blackened the metal. It struggled and twisted, but inch by inch it was devoured by the bright flame until there was nothing left but a blackened husk.

And when at last the pale fire guttered out, in the distance the great bronze gate began to open.

The sound, Angharad found, could not quite drown out Shalini’s sobs.

They did not linger.

Shalini took up her friend’s body, after wrapping it so the lack of head would be hidden, and would not hear of being helped.

Beyond the gates lay a hallway, little more than a tunnel sloping upwards. There were no torches here, no light but what they brought with them. Yet Angharad saw that what waited at the end of the hallway was a different kind of darkness from the one behind them – lighter, airier. It was the outside. Sleeping God, Angharad thought, but she was finally going to feel the wind on her face again. She hurried up the stairs, the light of the lanterns trailing behind, until her legs ached and there were no more steps left to climb.

Past the edge of the hall waited a long drop, mere feet of ground before the sheer drop of a cliff. And yet Angharad grinned, for above her twinkled the distant stars of firmament.

They were out, finally out.

Song was the first to join her, musket still at the ready. Together they caught sight of the lights in the distance. Far to the north, past thick woods, where a port was tucked away and waited the ships that would take them away from the Dominion of Lost Things. A cliffside path to their left led that way, snaking down towards the bottom of the mountain and the darkness below. To their right, their west, awaited something better: rest.

A fort jutted out of the mountainside, a tower at its summit burning bright and pale. More tempting still were the yellow lanterns around the fort, the marks of sanctuary. Blackcloaks would await them there, Angharad thought, with beds and food and safety before they ventured into the horrors of the Trial of Weeds.

“Come on,” Song said, brushing their shoulders together. “I could do with a good’s night sleep after this bastard of a day.”

“So could I,” Angharad fervently replied.

She glanced back, seeing the others were catching up.

They felt it before they heard the noise.

The shiver going through the ground, the feeling of something breaking. Then there was that catastrophic, deafening crack as the very earth shook under their feet. Angharad barely stayed on her feet, and caught Song so she would not fall.

“Oh Gods,” the Tianxi breathed out.

Angharad followed the silver gaze, which had come to rest behind them and above their heads. For a heartbeat she understood nothing, and then she saw it too: the crown of the mountain above them had just gone down. The ground shook again, the roar of breaking stone crashing against their ears. The mountain, she realized was crumpling from the inside. Caving in. And as a third great heave threw them both against the ground, the mountain’s crown fell all the way down – disappearing from their side. Angharad stayed there gaping until she was shaken out of it.

“- up, we need to go,” someone shouted, dragging her up.

She followed, struck dumb, and saw it all fall apart.

On the mountainside, chunks of stone began to fall. To roll down the slopes. A landslide, one so large as to defy descriptions.

She did not stay long enough to it swallow up the Watch’s mountainside fort, they were already running towards the woods by then, but she heard it. There could be no doubt.

Sanctuary lay buried under a cairn of stones, and thus began the Trial of Weeds.

36 thoughts on “Chapter 36

  1. clavesoon

    In some ways, Song and Angharad are very alike. Angharad is disappointed by everyone else. Song is disappointed by Angharad.

    I still think Augusto will re-emerge at a later point with a contract to the Red Maw.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. IDKWhoitis

      Also we just hit the 50% casualty rate of this batch, meaning almost 75% casualties overall including the first boat.

      Add in the fact the island is collapsing, I think this trial process might get an overhaul…

      Liked by 6 people

    2. Reader in The Night

      HAHAHAHA OH FUCK Tristan collapsed the fucking mountain. And the Second Trial’s sanctuary just went to hell with Brun the serial killer on the loose – assuming he survived, but there wouldn’t really be a reason to kill him off now – and the surviving party at various levels of exhausted, grieving, wounded, and asshole (looking at you, Tupoc).

      Whatever the Trial of Weeds was originally supposed to be, it has now officially become “survive long enough to get to safety”. With Angharad’s tenuous grasp of politics and the powder keg that is this group, things will certainly prove… Interesting from now on.

      Though I doubt it’ll be more interesting than whatever Tristan just did, that dude either killed an elder god or is in the process of killing one.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Someperson

        Well, Angharad’s ability to lead is largely predicated on her being the best fighter in the group, and the fact that it’s plain to anyone with eyes that she doesn’t have a hidden agenda. I suppose the fact that she’s saved a few people’s lives by looking ahead with her contract doesn’t hurt. Unless the group decides to split up, her singularly straightforward approach will probably continue to *mostly* work, cuz the more things go down the toilet the more applicable being good at fighting becomes (welll….. until you are facing down something like an airavatan, then all bets are off), but whatever happens it will certainly be *interesting* yes. It’s looking increasingly likely that Brun is the killer and AFAIK she doesn’t suspect Brun at all.

        Also, I’m excited to find out what Tupoc’s very reasonable explanation for why people should postpone killing him will be *this* time!!

        Also, it goes without saying that I’m excited to find out how Tristan and co managed to blow up a bloody mountain.


  2. CantankerousBellerophan

    Of course it would take a citizen of a Republic to understand the true danger of noble propaganda. Of course it would take a noble to entirely miss the point.

    Song was, of course, right to say that the mere existence of Isabel’s contract is reason to distrust her forever. Her reasoning was correct as well: first impressions matter, and Isabel’s will always be the best possible. What Angharad misses is the true applicability of the lesson.

    The existence of the propaganda of nobility – the claim that people like Angharad deserve to always choose who eats at their table, while everyone else is denied the choice of who and how much is eaten from theirs – is not the most pernicious aspect of the status quo. The ubiquity of this message is. Everywhere, everywhen, the claim is made that some must rule while everyone else is ruled. Entire lives are lived under this lie, ideologies crafted unwittingly to facilitate it, branches of science itself warped into profane mockeries in the attempt to justify it. And all the while, people live their lives. Everything good that happens to them is attributed to the system, while the system atrributes all ills to individual failings. Everything one owns, it is claimed, exists because the system makes it. Everything one loses, is so because they deserved to lose it.

    People believe this. Prisons are constructed by a willing and eager public, to incarcerate those whose errors, assuming they even exist, were forced upon them by circumstance. Companies are paid for the services provided by people they exploit, and the exploited thank the company for the opportunity. Little enough even needs to be done to maintain this way of thinking. It is carved indelibly into historiography, reiterated by every luminary, and carried deep within the belief structures of everyone who lives with it.

    It becomes difficult to deny the claim that all good things are made by the system when it comes from every source. And so, we attribute goodness to a system incapable of it. It becomes so difficult to imagine the end of the system that it is likened to the end of the world. But the system, the hierarchy, has not always existed. The world existed before it, and therefore can exist without it. It is only our imaginations which are constrained. Not reality.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m not sure that CB is putting forth any pretence, yirza. Maybe you’re not using that word properly?

        (That would be kind of pretentious of you, though, wouldn’t it?)



  3. arcanavitae15

    It was heartening, Angharad thought, to see some fine comradery between Sacromontans after all the backbiting of their infanzones. The pair must have been friends.

    I know Angharad isn’t the best at social stuff but she really missed the mark here.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. wraithdream

    So right now, Shalini, who has previously pulled a gun on Tupoc and vocally hates his guts, has an explicit and very valid reason to personally blame Tupoc for Ishaan’s death.

    This is totally not going to blow up in basically no time at all, huh?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The True Victims of War

    A moment of silence for the true victim of these tragic events: Commander Atral’s record.

    The machine broken, the mountain destroyed, an entire garrison wiped out under his command? Even if the collapse was somehow the result of the Red Maws death instead of unleashing the eldritch horror, this was a disaster under his command. His Conclave bid is now defunct.

    Classic Tristan making future friends everywhere he goes.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. greycat

      If they actually managed to kill the Red Maw, that would be an epic accomplishment. Even the Devils could only build a containment. Trading one island full of Watchmen for one dead Red Maw might be seen as a bargain.


  6. Mirror Night

    Well this arc is ending with a bang. Also they cut it quite close on their Winner Count. Finished with Eleven.

    No Body no Death…I am not so sure Augusto is gone for good. Especially since he already gave Red Maw some Blood. And there be power in Blood and Souls in this world.

    The commentary on first impressions is interesting. And I stand by thinking a Contract with a God of Love Stories could be stronger than a God of Love. Especially coming off PGTE which was all about the power of Stories.

    I am curious about how Zenzele and Song’s contracts differ there does seem to be some overlap. Song seems to have a good understanding of how Powers work be they Gods or Contracts or I guess there is not much distinction there. Zen might be more broad.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Someperson

      Yeah the lack of body is *highly* suspicious.

      That said, this isn’t PGtE. I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that story logic holds quite as much sway in this world.


      1. Crash

        Augusto is not exactly heroic either, to be surviving falling off of cliffs like that.

        One hopes he’s finally dead.


    2. Pendatic Counter

      Closer than you think, they had exactly 10 not 11. They opened the gate with 12 survivors, 10 of whom were victors. Angharad (1), Isabel (2), Song (3), Zenzele (4), Yaretzi (5). Ferranda (6), Shalini (7), Ishaan (8), Tupoc (9), and Cozme (10). Brun and Lan both lost their challenges and didn’t count as victors for opening the gate.

      Eh. I doubt it will be stronger, whatever that means, PGTE ran on particular logic of narrativium being an actual force. Pale Lights hasn’t really shown any of the same tendency. It’s more about Faustian bargains and monkey paw wishes.

      Zenzele’s contract is particularly interesting as a dangling thread. He sees connections so it’s quite possible he saw something linking Tristan to the Cozme at the very least and probably the Cerdans. I wonder if he tacitly approved of Tristan offing Remund.

      Song’s contract might be to see (into?) Aether? Thus she can see the terms of the contract but has to actually decipher the written contract. But she can also see through illusions etc since she is looking into/through the spiritual realm.


    1. IDKWhoitis

      Im hopeful in the future she’ll grow to be a stronger character once we learn the ins and outs of her honor code and how far that goes. Currently she feels out of her element, which is concerning given shes the more martial of the two. I can’t tell if Isabelle is to blame yet, but some party’s of her logic feel cloudy.

      I for one would not chill out about the mind fuckery anywhere nearly this quickly…

      But yeah, I’m with you. Of the two protagonists, Tristan stole my heart (and has yet to pawn it, the bastard).


      1. Rynjin

        I think the problem is that we know exactly “how far” Angharad’s honor code goes. It’s as far as is convenient for her.

        She’s just as duplicitous as all the rest of the nobles in the story, she’s just the only one that’s a hypocrite about it. Have we EVER seen her make an agreement with someone without immediately thinking of a way to weasel out of it or around it?


    1. Simeonrr

      i think that was her future sight, which allowed her to see what would happen in the next few seconds and predict what the gods power was.


  7. Snappy270

    Ummmm anyone explain what happen with the brass lion thing ? I am really finding it hard to follow what’s going on lately, so many deaths in quick succession of characters I vaugley know. Oddly Tristan’s intrigue and sneaking chapters are just easier to follow for me.


    1. hoser2

      My best guess, the brass lion is the god or part of the mechanism that enforces the 10 victor rule. But just when the party comes to it, somebody turned off the mechanism (the golden light above) that enforced the rules of the maze. The hungry god, freed, tried to feed.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Scott's Folly

    For all that the Party’s fight against the Lion was unexpected and perhaps a symptom of the God breaking its bonds, they may well have been more lucky than they know. We were just reminded on the Bridge that the Iron Lanterns are hooks in the soul, and now the Victors are being invited to freely place theirs into the hands of a Being who already has quite the collection. What it normally does with the soul thus gifted, and what that may mean for the one making the gift, we may never now know. But this world appears to have few if any Gods more benevolent than the largely selfish Fortuna, so I doubt it would be pleasant.


  9. Can’t wait to move on to the next chapter and figure out whatever Tristan just did. It’s kinda amusing just how large in scale things keep getting with him. Really hope Angharad has to hear about it eventually; it’ll be really fun to see her head explode as, once more, he does not fit within the bounds of the boxes she tries to put everyone in.


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