Chapter Three

The coughing kicks in by the time I’ve made it down to the gaslit streets at Grenornac’s rocky feet. My body bends over double as convulsions spike through me; a gang of sea urchins explodes in my belly. I spit blood and something greasy onto the alley wall, and curse... and then feel a wave of guilt wash over me as I realize that wall belongs to God’s home here on the surface world. Weakly, I try to wipe it off with what’s left of my robes, but only succeed at leaving a bloody smear down the temple wall before I collapse in another fit of coughing.

This one brings up less than the first, and I lay still on the ground for a moment, letting the rain cool my fevered skin.

This isn’t good. I’ll be the first to tell you that internal injuries are bad news, unless you’re really excited to die slowly. Whatever that thing did to me up on the roof, my body’s not taking it well. But I’ll be God-damned if I’m going to die from some pink octopus, psychic or not. I’m lying right next to Grenornac, for God’s sake! If you’ve the coin for the rituals, they’re better than any chirugeon’s ward. I’d really rather avoid the chirugeon’s ward. That place gives me the willies.

On the other hand, I believe Patriarch Juniar’s last words to me had something to do with “working on your excommunication.” He’s not going to do me any favors--holy brotherhood or not. And I don’t have any money with which to press the issue.

But I do have something that’s worth a lot of money, to the right people. I just need to make it to the club. Lord Culnor wouldn’t dare stiff me on this. Besides, he likes me. I think.

Well. There is one other option. Corwinne could patch me up, no doubt about it. She’d have some elixir or another, I’d swallow it, and in seconds my innards would be knitting themselves together under some process of arcane rejuvenation. I’d ask, knowing better, and she’d prattle on about sub-microtic phosphalgia or thaumic resonance induction, and after a minute or two of watching my eyes glaze over, she’d explain that it was magic, and I should just relax while she made me a nice cup of tea. She could definitely help, and wouldn’t charge a dime.

As I slowly get to my feet and start to press towards the club, I tell myself that she might not have gone home--probably helping someone get a kitten out of a tree, or saving someone’s grandmother from a burning building or something--and then I’d just wind up going to the club anyway. It’s the most logical choice, really it is. Absently, I stroke the gear at my chest.

Wait--no, I don’t. It’s missing. I remember the stench of death--suddenly its remaining fourth hand tears the Cogwheel of Sayn Ieander from my neck, flinging it out into space. The hatchling... the second one with the squid-thing on its face. The squid had crawled off of it, but I never knew where that stinking bug went. I didn’t remember seeing another body on the roof... it must be out there, somewhere.

Seven hells,” I mutter weakly. “If I ever find you...”

Frankly, finding it should be a priority, but I’m in no shape to do anything except vomit blood at it. Impressive as that might be, I doubt I’d survive the rest of that encounter. My cogwheel, though... it belonged to my father. I eyeball the distant roof of the temple from where I’m standing. Chances are good that the wheel is within a couple of blocks of here, depending on the wind. I could--

I could just see it, directly across the alleyway from me, pinned to the wall by a black-bladed dagger with a jagged edge.

Darkleaf.

Fuck.

“I’m in a really bad mood,” I call out, straightening up and trying not to look like my insides have been recently pureed. “Let’s just get this over with, all right?”

I wait for several heartbeats. The alley is pretty typical for this area of Noldon: gray, littered with refuse, shadowy doorways aplenty, smelling vaguely of piss and cleaning elixirs. It’s dimly lit from either end by the gas lamps along the main thoroughfare, but there are shadows everywhere here. They seem to sway and move closer as my vision blurs from pain and injury... or is it something else? One of the shadows is just slightly darker than the rest...

The shot rings out from the cloak of darkness, but I’m already moving--not a hell of a lot, mind you, just a little sidestep and lean, but it does the trick. The shadow solidifies, and I see his cheshire grin. And the smoking muzzle of his pistol.

“You look like shit,” he says smoothly.

“You aim like shit,” I retort.

Ferian Darkleaf is tall--my height, I guess, about six-foot-one--and has a lean, muscular build. His shaved head reveals skin that’s a creamy brown, like the People of the Crescent; a gift from his father. His large eyes--I overheard a chamber maid once call them “dreamy”--and slightly-pointed ears come from his mother... an elf. You don’t see too many half-elves around, especially not these days. Most try to pass for human to avoid the hassles, but not Darkleaf. He wears his heritage like a badge. He even uses his mother’s name, in keeping with elvish tradition.

He glides past me without further threat, holstering the gun as he moves. It disappears somewhere on his body, concealed by his strange costume. It’s the only garb I’ve ever seen him in: tight black leather that seems to drink in the light, with a cloak of some material that looks like nothing so much as a solid shadow wrapped around him. You can’t see its contours, just a featureless black shape in space; if a part of it folds over another part, it is lost to sight entirely until it unfolds. It conceals his form perfectly, hiding the array of weapons I know lurk there.

“I’ll get you one of these days,” he smirks. “Still, not bad. Thought for sure I had you this time. You love that stupid wheel.”

I pull the dagger out of the wall and fling it in a single motion, letting the Cogwheel of Sayn Ieander fall into my other hand. The blade quivers in the ground at Darkleaf’s feet.

“You’re cocky. You think I wouldn’t notice one of your signature daggers? Might as well announce it with a speaking ring. I mean, come on,” I shake my head, “pinning it to the wall? Real subtle.”

He laughs easily. “I don’t do subtle, Fellthorn. I like people to know that I’m coming.”

“Then you’re never going to get me,” I shrug.

“Who’s cocky now?” he rejoins. “You think I’ll never manage it.”

“If I doubted that, then this little game of yours would get a lot more serious, wouldn’t it?”

We face off for a moment, eyes locked. Out on the edges of my perception, I’m aware how still his hands are; how close they are to his belt. I’ve returned Jorngnir to its dagger form, and it’s strapped to my wrist, but detecting the chance for mayhem, the blade grows warm in anticipation.

Then something spasms in my gut, and I’m doubled over coughing again. Damn! (And, ow.)

That casual laugh again. “Yeah man, very serious.” I feel his hand on my shoulder, steadying me. I look up as my gut un-clenches, and he’s proffering a tissue.

I take it, shaking my head as I daub my lips. “I don’t get you. You’re trying to blow my head off one minute, and now you’re helping me clean myself up.”

“You know, just practicing. At some point, you’re going to piss off someone enough that they’ll want you dead. I may as well know all the ways to kill you that won’t work.” His eyes betray no emotion; he’s not being cocky now, not trying to knock me off my game. He’s talking about future attempts to murder me with less vigor than he’d use to describe a bowel movement.

“As for the handkerchief, it’s not mine. You can keep it, but if I were you I’d look to being sure that the constablery didn’t catch it on me.”

I recoil from it in disgust... another of his damn games. I hadn’t paid much attention as he was handing it to me; I’m definitely not sure that all the blood on there is mine.

“You’re repulsive,” I spit. “How much did you get for this one?”

“That’s privileged info. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Besides,” he sneers, “how many people did you kill today?”

“I don’t keep count,” I lie. I drop the twitching corpse onto the deck, wiping myself clean on his uniform... There wasn’t a choice, I tell myself. He would’ve tried to stop me, and I barely got the pyrotoxin off as it was. I had no time!

“Did you know,” he asks casually, “that the Society has a pool going? About us? Who earns more kills before the end of the year, is how I hear it.” He sniffs.

I have heard about it. Last I heard, I was losing. Happily. “You’re not a member of the Society,” I dodge. “Where do you come up with these nasty little rumors?”

“Oh, come off it. You know it’s true as well as I do. You’re their most notorious member. You don’t have to be born with a silver spoon stuck up your ass to find the challenge... interesting.”

I shudder. “A challenge? We’re talking about people here--real, dead people.” The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I feel its tip scrape the inside of his skull. Warmth gushes down over my hands... “I don’t do it for the pleasure, or for money. I do it because I have to.”

“No pleasure?” He arches his eyebrow, his elven blood making it a gesture as subtle as a slap. “No religious ecstasy as you send the damned to their reward? No battle high as you fight the wicked?” He sees his words hit home, and presses on. “Yeah... that’s what I thought. Don’t get self-righteous with me, choir boy.”

“I’m doing the work of God,” I whisper.

I don’t see much difference between doing His work and doing the work of any other sack of shit with the coin to give you what you want. He gives you super powers, and you kill for him. Neat deal.”

“I don’t have to stand here and take this from you.” I turn, heading out of the alley.

“Hey man, at least I don’t think you’re just a psychopath.” I pause, not looking back. “I’ve seen too much weird shit in this world to tell you you’re crazy. That said, you’re sure as hells not getting a good deal from Him. Lots of little hidden costs.”

“Costs?” I echo, softly.

“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but people tend to die around you. Not,” he cuts off my interruption, “the same way people tend to die around me. Heard you were supposed to be on the Falkoj. Funny coincidence, that it’s falling down around our heads even still.”

I clench my teeth, half-turn to glare at him from the corner of my eye. “What’s your point?”

“Just making a little observation. I see a lot of death, Fellthorn. I know him well. He hovers over you like the clouds over Noldon. Today it’s a ship full of soldiers. That orphanage, last year? That wasn’t a pretty sight. Yeah, yeah--demonic possession. Even your good buddy Juniar said it was legit. But the body count keeps creeping up, doesn’t it?” He lets the corpses stack up invisibly between us. “People around you keep dying. Makes you wonder how long that pretty little redhead of yours is going to last.”

“She’s not mine,” I mutter to myself, eyes downcast. Nothing gets lost on those pointy ears, though.

“Oh no? You know, we’ve never been properly introduced, her and I. Maybe I’ll see if she’s looking to upgrade her black-clad accessories.”

I manage to keep a lid on the threat that instantly bubbles to my lips. Instead, I snort, “Try using proper grammar when you pop in, then. It’s, ‘she and I’. She’s not into gutter trash.”  Ugh.  Weak comeback, Fortis.  Grammar?  Not that I’d know what Corwinne’s into--I’ve never seen her with a man. Or a woman, for that matter.

“Thanks for the tip, academy boy.” Damn him, he’s too smooth to bristle. “I’ll tell her you said.”

My eyes flicker back to him, but they’re too late: all that’s left in the alley are lengthening shadows. I start to call on God’s light to banish them--let’s see how well he hides when the divine is illuminating his sorry backside--but instead I just sag. It doesn’t really work that way, does it? You don’t get to call on God when it’s convenient for you, or because you feel like it. You’re just an agent of His will. He calls, you answer, occasionally checking back in for a bit of advice and maybe a wee bit of help here and there. Whatever Darkleaf’s many sins, God hasn’t seen fit to call me to cleanse them.

I make my way out of the alley and into the greasy light of the gas lamps, hoping He’ll at least see fit to help me call a cab.

Chapter Two

There’s a shriek of metal, and the air immediately fills with the roar of a million humming wings and the stink of putrescent shellfish. Sound, scent, and shockwave reach me together, and I’m catapulted into space along with the rest of the ship’s corpus. Cogwheels and pistons compete with me for right-of-way in the air, and since they came off of a twenty-thousand ton dirigate, momentum is in their favor. They’re each half a dozen feet wide and probably weigh a thousand pounds, and they’re uninterested in the plight of a puny human whose fortunes just took a turn in the direction of gravity.

A grin creases my cheeks. I’ll have something to stand on.

A gear that looks large enough to build a house atop it flips like a titan’s coin through the air at me. I flail wildly--just manage to get a hand on it--and haul my feet around so I can plant my boots down on its surface. It’s like riding one of those alchemical bulls that are so popular in taverns these days: air currents catch it and kick it one direction or the next, and then a huge piece of something nails it on the opposite side from me. My arm screams as I try to keep myself on its surface: I’m barely hanging on as it is. I pray for equilibrium.

Sayn Ieander hears my call, and just like that I have a “down” again; I crouch on the metal gear as the horizon whirls overhead, alternating places with the lights of Noldon below. It looks like the sayn of civilization has answered my plea for stability in the most direct means possible: it would be hard to agree on much if we didn’t agree that our feet were down, right? Society is based on these little sorts of agreements. Where before it was taking all my strength to hold on, now I stand up as easily as though my feet were planted on God’s soil, frustrating a whole slew of the laws of physics as I take a lightning survey of my airspace.

The rest of the G.S. Falkoj is busily careening through the air around me. Huge chunks of metal are raining down on the city below: flywheels and wind rudders and thaumaturgical engines making ready to drop like bombs on Noldon and her people. My gut clenches--nothing I can do. Corwinne enters my mind for a moment; I pale a little.

My thoughts are soon drowned out by the noise. The wind up here roars with rage, a mercy because it means I can’t hear the screams of the airmen who are now plummeting to their doom. Some might have been lucky enough to have elemental buoyancy units strapped on, but despite regulation I know most of them probably weren’t wearing the bulky things... I certainly wasn’t.

From what I can tell as Noldon and the sky rotate over my head, our path has taken us mostly over the river Irsa, so the damage to the city should be merely tragic, not catastrophic. That’s good for Noldon, but maybe bad for mankind: I pray the salvage crews take care of things quickly, because once the bulk of the Falkoj hits water, there’s no telling how Those Below will react. We really don’t want them pissed off at us. Not even God can keep us safe from Them.

Of course, if I’m right about what put me aboard the Falkoj in the first place, we may already be too late.

Something long, pointy, and definitely on fire hurtles at my head way faster than I’ve got time to react to it; I’m saved only by the fact that my head is now moving in time with the pinwheeling gear, and it rotates out of the way just in the nick. The length of--hmm, thaumiol piping, I’d guess, from the green color of the flames--slams into my platform, making it heave. From my perspective, it’s like an earthquake: “God’s soil” tosses me out into the maelstrom once more.

There are plenty of things to latch onto out here, however, and now that I have a grace on me I’m in much less danger of becoming a smear on the underside of any of them. I catch the edge of a piece of hull plating and swing off of it and onto what was once a boiler in the airship’s steam engine. The grace of God steadies me and brings me upright on the side of the boiler, as solid beneath me as it would be if it were just a lump of steel lying on the ground.

I spring to my feet, Noldon’s lights beneath me and miraculously not whirling overhead, just in time to come face to face with one of the hatchlings. I’d been acting as chaplain on the Falkoj in order to find them, but my guess is that whoever had been shipping them had made sure there was an enchantment set to trigger their emergence when the omnipresent thunder over Noldon got loud enough. I’d seen environmental triggers like that before, but usually they were a little less sinister: summon the ice elemental into your cloak to keep you cool when the temperature gets over such-and-such, that kind of thing. This was devious--Noldon has basically always got thunder this time of year. The hatchling spawn of the Crawling Ones that were embedded in the war dead aboard the Falkoj had heard it... and answered. I’d dithered too long, not willing to murder the entire Honor Guard that had escorted the corpses back home in order to accomplish my mission; telling myself I could do it at the eleventh hour. Now the ship is gone, the Honor Guard with it, and one of the hatchlings has found me.

It used to be a woman, but it would be hard to tell if you didn’t know beforehand. Scraps of human meat hang from its fore and hind legs, but an extra joint that’s sprouted where a human elbow would have been shows only the black and green carapace that lies beneath the dead flesh. Spraying gore, a third set of limbs suddenly bursts free from its torso, tearing loose from the human sack that held them in and lunging hungrily for me. I hop backward on my falling platform, relying on the grace that’s on me to keep my balance, and the creature misses its mark. Its mandibles, formed where the woman’s jawbone has split in half, gnash the air close to my face, and the reek of the meat bag that was once a woman named Mellony Carnitay makes my stomach heave involuntarily.

The Revelation I’ve just received, combined with the stench, throws my timing off, and Jorngnir’s animus hisses at me as I swing the blade too low. I hadn’t even realized that the rune-blade was still in my hands, but its battle-lust misses no opportunity to deal death. The Mellony-thing’s wings buzz, and it jerks upwards over the arc of the sword. I rage at it--“Die, blaspheme!”--and plant my weight, heaving the five-inch wide blade into a pivoting upswing that no mundane sword could match. This time, the animus tastes flesh, and its joy washes over me as the hatchling bellows. It--staggers is the only way to describe it, though its insect-wings and not its legs are what hold it upright--but it doesn’t fall.

A lashing limb swipes me off my feet and I skid to the edge of the boiler, unable to keep my balance. My stomach lurches, my free hand scrabbles for anything to hold onto, finds nothing, and now I’m falling yet again. The rush of air as I fall is louder even than the gyros of the Falkoj had been, and the sudden burst of sensation scrambles my perceptions. With a last, wild grab, I catch a pipe coming off of the boiler and avoid sailing off into space once more, but I can’t possibly swing Jorngnir like this; it’s all I can do to hang on. The grace doesn’t seem to apply unless I can get my boots down, and the way this thing is spinning... no. To make matters worse, I catch a glimpse of two more of those fuckers headed my way, and where there are two, there are bound to be another dozen or so.

I’ve barely got a grip on this pipe at the moment, and now that I’ve been falling for a good thirty seconds, the air isn’t quite so dense with debris I can stand on. Letting go would leave me in free fall and trying to fend off a nine-foot insectoid that can fly on its own. Because I’ve got nothing better to do, I take a half-second or so to think. The Revelation... God was telling me that it’s important that her name was Carnitay! The name is familiar... someone at the Club, probably old Shelnoc, was telling a story about them just last week. Old military family... cursed... something about a leopard and a goat... all of them blind in the left eye! Bingo--I feel the Revelation answered, my soul resonating with God’s omniscient vision.

A calm descends over me, as it always does before I repatriate the damned. I whisper a quick thanks. You have shown me the path, O Lord; now give me the strength to do Your will!

Taking a deep breath, I prove my faith and let go of the boiler. I am almost surprised when I don’t go tumbling off into space. Instead, I drift away from the boiler a bit, but by now we’re both falling at the same rate, so the only other force on us is air resistance. A smile twists my mouth: “air resistance”? I’ve been hanging out with Corwinne too much. Better to put it as would the People of the Crescent: God is great.

So too is the noise that the Mellony-thing makes as it comes for me--from my left, just as the Revelation guaranteed. All the Carnitays are blind in the left eye, and this thing hatched from one of them... curses don’t just roll over and ease up because you’ve transubstantiated. When it’s facing me, it can’t see me well on the left side, so it favors attacking in the direction of its strong right eye. Since it’s facing me, that’s on the opposite side... yeah, I aced my trigonomurgy exams, all right? Despite my semi-controlled fall, there’s no way I’m going to be able to use my enormous sword in any sort of meaningful way, here... except as additional air resistance.

I curl my left arm in tight to my body, and throw my right out wide, doing my best to keep the flat of Jorngnir’s wide blade aligned with the plane of my body. The hatchling lunges, but my shape in the air has changed, and I whirl like a gyro as the air buffets my outstretched arm and sword. Insectile wings glance off of me, and then shear apart as my spin takes Jorngnir around and into the back of the creature that has just sprang past me. The enchanted steel buries itself in the creature’s spine, and I plant my foot on a chitinous limb and twist it free once more. There is a cracking sound, and I taste the filthy spray of ichor as the thing’s exoskeleton spews its viscous contents into the air.

“Say hello to the Crawling Lands for me, blaspheme,” I grin. “God is great.”

And Noldon, suddenly, is very close. In a few seconds, I’ll be amidst the tallest of her gray spires; in fact, it’s looking a lot like I’m going to be impaled very ironically on one of the great clawlike edifices that surround the Brazier of the Light on His holy temple of Grenornac. I’m certain that Patriarch Juniar of the Ecclesiasts would like nothing better, but God has other plans for His servant.

The pair of hatchlings I’d seen just before dispatching the first is upon me; even if I couldn’t hear the buzz of their wings, the scent of rot belching from them is stronger than any wind. Jorngnir snickers towards one, and I let it, but check its thrust at the last minute. I’m not positive, but in the last few years I’ve come to suspect that the hatchlings retain some kind of human canniness; finding me totally vulnerable might prove suspicious enough that they’d let me drop. The one my blade had set to skewer whips to the right, and I brace myself for pain as three of its clawed limbs catch me all along my right side: arm, leg, and belt. My jaw clenches as its spiky fingers pierce my skin, but I feel the creature tugging me upward, checking my fall. The other grabs my leg, and I dangle precariously, held aloft by two insectoids who are ready to feast on my flesh.

Grenornac is perhaps fifty feet below me, though not quite directly underneath. One of the five spires that surrounds the Brazier juts up towards me, a long shot at best. I don’t have much time to think--devoured for sure or flattened for maybe?--so I say a prayer and invoke the face of God.

In all honesty, I have no idea what it looks like: those I’ve used it on haven’t lived long enough to talk much about it. I know that when I call on it, I feel filled with light, and a rage more terrible than anything else I’ve known. This is the wrath of the Lord, pouring forth from me, shining out from every pore. The unclean cannot bear its radiance, and find themselves flung away.

These hatchlings are no exception: having stopped my fall, they are now blasted back from me, releasing their grasp. I swing as the light surges from me and their grip slips, angling myself towards the spire and praying hard. Meanwhile, I thumb the control gauge Corwinne installed on Jorngnir’s hilt, and feel it vibrate as the thaumic engine acts on the specially-treated wood, causing it to telescope out under my grip. The sword transforms into a polearm, a long staff with a blade at the end, and I grip it mid-haft, planting a boot on either side of my hand.

The tip of the spire rushes towards me, and just as it comes within reach, I jam my feet down on its inside edge. I’m counting on the grace that kept my feet attached to flying debris to help maintain my balance as Jorngnir’s haft forms a platform on which I skid down the spire. The fingertips of my left hand brush stone behind me as the curve of the spire slopes inward, and I surf down the inside face of the stone edifice. The wind gusts crazily; I drop my weight down low onto my weapon, legs wobbly as I realize that God isn’t going to do all of my work for me. I’m not feeling steady, here, and my arms wave about wildly trying to correct my balance as I slide. I can’t tell if there’s building below, or just the emptiness of a several hundred foot plunge. There’s a gust; I can’t hold it; I curse and curl up as I’m blown off of my perch...

... and onto the stone of the top of the Temple Grenornac. My bones make a nasty grinding noise as I land, and I skid to a stop in a heap. Jorngnir flashes over my head and buries itself into the stone, inches from my nose. Its haft qivers with the force of its landing, and my insides follow suit. I stare at its vibrating form, fixated on its polished blade... until I notice the reflection of the hatchling that’s bearing down on me.

I heave with my forearms and try to roll away as the thing lunges for me. My legs get tangled up in my cassock and I don’t quite make it: one of the middle-limbs opens a bloody strip down my back as I make to dodge. Its foot-claws strike sparks on the stone where I had just been; damn, that would have been a killing blow! Instead, its wings hum angrily as it pulls itself back into the air, and my lips peel back as I make ready to counterattack. I pull myself into a crouch--

--and my back explodes in fire! Liquid death sprays onto me from the mouth of the other one. I feel necrotic pus scoring its way down my back, and I desperately claw my way out of my disintegrating vestments. The first one lunges, but I see it from miles away and sidestep easily. I’m too good to get caught so easily, unless there’s something else...

Where is the second one?

My head whips round, and I barely catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to focus on it, it’s gone. I feel a void in my mind open up as I try to locate the thing, but it’s no good; I can’t lay eyes on it. I can even feel my mind betray me, like a witness bought off at the last minute: just when I’m about to pin it down, the thing fades from my sight. On instinct, I throw myself sideways, back hissing at me as a dozen blisters rupture, and another spurt of the thing’s foul spit sizzles the ancient stonework where I’d just stood. I’ve fought these things before: acid-spitting is new, but not unexpected, but befouling my mind? Hatchlings are pretty straightforward: they tear you apart and lay eggs in whatever part of your corpse they don’t eat. They’re not mentalists.

It’s definitely as we feared, the nightmare that made unleashing pyrotoxin on a ship full of people seem like a sane plan. Those Below have started taking an interest in us here above. God help us... if He can.

This rooftop isn’t huge: I’m standing on one-fifth of a circle with maybe a thirty foot radius, with the ten-foot high bases of the Five Spires on two sides, and a five hundred foot drop on the third. The hatchlings have maneuvered me so that Jorngnir is a dozen feet away, and as best I can tell, they’ll have the drop on me from two sides if I make a break towards it. If I try to run in the other direction, gravity will get the last laugh.

I’ve read about spellswords who are so bonded with their blades that they can call to them from across a city and have their sword fly to their hand. I’m not such a one, and I presently envy their devotion to their craft. Still, I’m not completely helpless. I take a step backward, heel just brushing the abyss behind me, and clutch my hand to my chest, gripping the silver cog around my neck.

Sayn Ieandar,” I pray, “I’m in a bit of a bind, here. Would you mind...?”

The symbol of my patron sayn glows hotly, and the first hatchling buzzes in closer, fascinated. Its claws touch the stone of Grenornac, and then I hear a moan tunnel up from its chest, followed by a scream as the light of God shines forth from the icon I hold and burns away all impurities before my sight. The dead human flesh it wears as a cloak dissolves away, leaving only a singed carapace beneath.

Simultaneously, I feel my body lighten, and I leap through its thrashing limbs with the grace of an angel, rolling neatly to my feet and pulling Jorngnir from the stone in a single motion. I straighten up, casting my eyes skyward, and I feel a void open up in my sight. I cast my left arm out towards the void, answering the call of the Revelation, and murmur words in an ancient tongue of arcana. Winter pours forth from my fingertips, swirling in gouts of wind and ice to envelop the second hatchling in a thick shroud of snow. Mystical runes hover in the air, tracing the boundary of a storm summoned from the hoarfrosts of the northlands by ancient pacts made by the First Men. The hatchling’s form stands revealed amidst the blowing gale.

I step just beneath the frigid chaos, carefully staying outside its rune-scribed boundary, and swing Jorngnir in a mighty arc. Its haft is a full six feet long now, and I can reach the hatchling with ease without entering the whirlwind I’ve summoned. I feel the blade’s ferocious pleasure when it slams home, undaunted by mystical wind, and the glaive’s shaft bucks in my hand as it tears into the creature. The hatchling falls to the rooftop, landing in a crouch, two of its limbs flailing up at me. I duck out of the way, pulling my blade free and cutting viciously after the set of arms that just attacked me. Jorngnir shears them into stumps. Dropping low, I spin clockwise and let the weapon follow my body for one final, arcing strike. This time, I slice clean through it. Its torso hits the ground in two immensely satisfying thumps.

The head comes to rest at my feet, multifaceted eyes glinting up at me. Something pink and wet covers the lower half of its face, atop where a human’s nose and jaw would be. It looks aquatic, like a squid, like something found deep in an ocean far below us, but its surface gibbers malevolently, and then a single eye on its back cracks open--

I don’t need a Revelation from God to tell me what to do, here. I bring Jorngnir down with the force of all my disgust and fear behind it. The squid-thing falls in chunks onto the rooftop of holy Grenornac.

Chest heaving, I turn to face the lone remaining hatchling. Somehow, it’s standing upright, and its mandibles chitter at me, fully revealed after I burned away the human flesh that covered them. A low sound emanates from the darkness beyond them: “‘Ohrnnn...” Ruined wings flicker rapidly, and the sound becomes a little more human. “Fellthornnnn...”

My blood runs cold. It knows my name.

I pull up Jorngnir, its animus ready for more blood, and take a step towards feeding the blade’s hunger. I don’t get far. There is a loud buzzing in the air, and looking around, I see a dozen more of the hatchlings descending down on me. Each fouls the air with its voice, and each voice is calling out my name.

My hands grip tight on Jorngnir’s haft, and I steady myself. These odds don’t look good. Surely God would not let me fall, right here on the roof of His greatst temple? I grit my jaw, and pick my first target...

Only to watch it disintegrate in a hail of white-hot missiles. There’s a whoop from behind them, and the sky glows with heat as the air fills with fiery death. I fling myself to the ground, covering my head with my hands and whispering a profanity-laced prayer. The sound of demons’ shrieks cuts through the night as the inferno erupts overhead, scalding the heavens with sulphur.

Moments later, Corwinne’s dainty-yet-mannish boots touch down on the roof, inches from my head. Her ice blue eyes flash at me. “Look, you,” she starts, “it is a known fact that you cannot fly.” The glider-contraption she has strapped to her back begins to fold itself inward, compressing jerkily into a backpack. Several of the bug-things have escaped her initial onslaught, and she turns from me for a moment, casting her arm in a wide arc across the sky. Tongues of green flame gout out of a nozzle on her wrist, which is connected by a hose to a cylinder strapped to her skinny midsection. Her targets ablaze, she returns to me.

Therefore, you are not to be flinging yourself from high places when I am not around.” The eyes bear down on me again. “We’ve talked about this.”

Which is totally fair. Talk we have--or she has, anyway--at length, on this very topic. I roll onto my back, and grin that grin I know infuriates her. “O ye of little faith,” I grunt, rolling to my feet. “What do I always say?”

If you don’t stop throwing yourself off of high places, you’re going to be saying, ‘Ow, ow, Corwinne, stop setting my unmentionables on fire.’ Did you know you’re practically naked?”

I trace a quick sigil with my fingers, and an invisible dagger slides into my hand, the gift of a demon prince to thaumaturgists long dead. I fling it, knocking another of the swarm out of the sky as it swoops down on my comrade’s unguarded back. Corwinne clucks her tongue and raises an eyebrow. “And, might I add, are pretty sexy when you’re tossing spells about. Rrrrawr.”

I dodge her slap at my backside--which, now that I’ve shed my cassock, isn’t covered by anything other than some modest undergarments--and for several sweaty minutes, we’re both occupied by other things. Specifically, killing them. Finally, the only sound is the cackling of flames, and the whirring noise as the eight spinning tubes of Corwinne’s shoulder-mounted thaumaturgic projectile engine whine to a halt.

She turns to me, making a dusting-off motion with her gloved hands, and raises her bulky goggles onto their accustomed position on her forehead, holding back her wisps of red hair. She’s a small woman, five-three on a good day and almost elf-thin. The mass of gear she carries makes her look huge, though: a shoulder cannon, flame thrower, glider pack, and at least half a dozen other things that I’ve got no explanation for are strapped to her arms, back, belt, and thighs. If you held her upside down and shook her--a thought that continually tempts me--it would take you ten minutes before the last of her gizmos stopped tumbling out of this pouch or that pocket. Not exactly the well-heeled picture of modern womanhood; I think the only device that’s ever given her trouble has been a lipstick tube. Those unadorned lips split open into a ferocious grin as she jerks a thumb over her shoulder at the carnage we’ve wrought.

Eh?” she wiggles her ginger eyebrows. “Eh? Not baaaaa-ad!”

Sure,” I pant, gore dripping from Jorngnir’s satisfied tip, “you’ll give credit to a couple of mystical tricks I picked up over the years. But did you see the bit back there where I vaulted the big one, slid through the legs of the one behind him, and skewered the spider-looking thing that was coming up behind you?”

The one with the sword, or the other one?” She wipes ichor-smeared red locks from her brow.

The other one. The ugly one.”

Right, him. Reminded me of an old mate of mine at the Academy.”

A charmer, I’m sure,” I wave away her coming reverie. “When have you ever known me to be able to pull off a stunt like that? Before you showed up, I tripped myself trying to stand!”

You’re pretty good in a fight,” she objects. “There was the one time in Valta, but other than that...”

Seven Hells, in Valta I literally had one hand tied behind my back!”

She shakes her head. “Your own fault. Everyone knows you don’t place bets with gnomes. You were saying?”

I’m saying that I can’t catch a soft pitch at a ring-stick match most days, but when I really need it, when it really matters, I can hurdle eight-foot monsters with six arms in order to save your heretical ass. It’s God, ‘Winne. Pure grace.”

She makes a dismissive frown. “Sure, that or a battle high. It’s like those spellswords in Rutenwold, the Lightning Brigade--they tap instinctually into spells--”

--that they were trained to cast from the time they were knee high to a rocking chair.” I shake my head. “I was a clark until I was twenty-four. Doesn’t apply.”

Well, maybe your prayers and such are just an alternate way of invoking thaumaturgic energy! Hey, don’t roll your eyes at me, mister...”

We bicker over the existence of God while I find enough scraps of my cassock to tie into at least half of a decent set of clothing. Proper ladies will still blush, but I there’s a chance that I’ll avoid getting the constablery called on me for a Decency Violation. Patriarch Juniar won’t like it, but he’s more than welcome to lift up what’s left of my robes and kiss--

So, did we at least find what we were looking for?” She’s got a serious look on her face, and waves her hand toward the river, where the bulk of the Falkoj has crashed. Green flames flicker across the surface of the water. “Was it worth it?”

I sigh, shaking my head. I’d ministered to that crew for a week. I’d learned some of their names. “Worth it? Who even knows? But yeah, we found it. It’s Them, ‘Winne. Those Below. They’re behind all this, gotta be.”

She looks at me expectantly, uncharacteristically silent. I continue, “One of them did some sort of mentalist trick... made itself invisible for a bit.”

She cocks her head. “That’s weird. Hatchlings aren’t exactly of the subtle sort. Endo- to exo-skeletal conversions, caustic salivary glands, an occasional poison stinger or two. I’ve never seen one turn invisible.” She stops, dips her head just so, tilting her hair into her eyes. “Or, um, you know, not seen it turn invisible. Or saw it before, and then not saw it. Because it was invisible.”

I can’t help but smile. “Like I said, ‘Winne: Those Below. The ones who came before even the Crawling Ones. The ones who wiped them out, back when bug-men ruled the planet. If they’ve turned their eyes on us...” I trail off.

She smiles back, shaking her head. “Okay, Jaspar, you know I don’t go for that stuff. Ancient insect civilizations, wiped off the map by giant aquatic slugs? I’ll back you up right to the edge of the world, you know that, but there’s no evidence that--”

My body throbs painfully; I just can’t deal with this right now. “Dammit, that thing nearly killed me, ‘Winne; I barely noticed it in time... spare me the atheist lecture this once, okay?”

Her smile vanishes, and her back goes straight. “Fine. Sorry. Didn’t mean to piss in your oatmeal. Let me take a look.” I start to say something, apologize, but she’s already behind me, gloves off, fussing. She hisses as she sees my blistered back. I hear her unscrew something, and I hiss back as she daubs one of her ointments onto my pustules. She stops for a moment, but I wave it away.

No, it helps,” I assure her, turning so I can see her out of the corner of my eye. “Just like always. By the way, you do know that the largest temple to God in all of Calisar is right under our feet, right, and is chock-full of healers aplenty?”

She somehow finds room amidst all the gizmos on her belt to put her greasy hands on her hips, looking for all the world like my mother--albeit younger and a lot skinnier. She huffs her wispy hair out of her eyes. “As if, after all the times you’ve been there for me, I’d entrust you to a bunch of hacks I’ve never met, who have probably never even heard of Salve-All, because they only leave their cloisters once every third year...”

Once every other year. And that’s just the patriarchs and their acolytes.” I smile, meaning for it to be gentle.

Corwinne stiffens, telling me it isn’t. Too many years of hunting down and killing the enemies of God have robbed me of more than my ability to get a good night’s sleep without nightmares. Spend enough time with God telling you all of the right places to thrust a sword, and you start finding soft spots in the strangest places, all by yourself.

Right,” she whispers, jaw tightening. “Sorry.”

Ah, ‘Winne, no, I’m--” I start, but her icy eyes are filled with heat.

No, no! I’m sorry that I don’t keep better track of the minutiae of your little church-thing, you know, the rules you yourself tell me you couldn’t care less about,” she continues, jaw thrust forward. There’s a new look about her, one that makes me nervous. She looks very... female.

I just get kind of busy sometimes, trying to save your ass time and time again, dodging through people who are falling out of the sky because we’ve gone one one of your adventures that always end up with something horrible with an exoskeleton trying to eat our brains, and this time--oh my goodness, look at that!--something is trying to eat our brains, but as always it can’t just come after us, it’s got to go after everyone near us too...” She backs away from me as she speaks, her hands moving automatically, twisting little knobs on control panels that she’s got at her belt, on her wrist, on her thigh. The wings in her backpack start to unfurl again, as she reaches the roof’s edge. What the hells...?

I take a step towards her, see the look on her face, stop. “‘Winne, wait, you’re acting cra-”

I stop the word before it comes fully out of my mouth, but it’s as good as said. “Crazy?” she spits. “You are calling me crazy? This from the guy who murders people because a voice in his head tells him to.

The words slap me across the face, and I feel ice crystals form in my stomach. I’m not angry, like I’d think I would be. Just... sad. The wind blows between us.

Well,” I say.

Yeah,” she replies. She steps off the roof, and I don’t make a move to stop her. Usually I’d check to make sure her wings deploy because, well, whatever. But not this time.

What in the hells set her off so bad?

I shiver, up here in the cold. There’s a muffled boom as one of the larger pieces of debris hits something below, but I barely blink. It’s raining, I realize--how long has that been going on?

Crazy, she said. Voices in my head.

You’re only crazy if you answer back. Isn’t that how you people put it?

I stiffen. The voice in my head is perfectly clear, not cut by the wind or the rain. It crinkles, like the voice of ruined paper.

Talking to yourself is normal,” I say to the wind and rain. “You’re only crazy if you answer back.”

I wait. The wind and rain make no answer.

I turn slowly, taking in the destruction that Corwinne and I delivered. The ancient stone of Grenornac is unhurt, but it is littered with the detritus of death: severed, alien limbs, whitish ichor that stubbornly resists the cleansing rain, and bodies in every imaginable state of disrepair. There wasn’t that much room up here to start, atop this slice of the church’s roof, and it’s now impossible to move around without stepping in something you’d rather have avoided. Little rivulets of water are starting to sluice through all the biology on the roof and spill off in the direction Corwinne went. The massive roots of the two spires that carve off this section of roof hiss with the spray, but say no more.

She’ll never forgive what you do. What you believe. What you are.

There’s a... directionality to the voice this time. I whirl, Jorngnir at the ready, teeth unconsciously bared.

Nothing. My eyes slide through the air above Noldon, the void in my mind as empty as the space before me... wait... over the rain, a buzzing... from the void?

I sweep my eyes left and right. There’s a flicker of something, just like...

The hatchling grabs me by my throat, by both hands, and plucks my weapon away from me all in one explosive burst. Its charge propels me backward through the air, and Grenornac rushes up to slam into me from behind. The beast has got me pinned to the wall, the base of the spires, feet dangling helplessly in the air, sword gone. I hear Jorngnir clatter to the stone, and suddenly the hatchling’s remaining fourth hand tears the Cogwheel of Sayn Ieander from my neck, flinging it out into space. Its face is close, very close, and is covered with the same squidlike thing that the other one had, the one with the single eye on its back. I struggle, but it’s got me dead to rights, bearing against me with extra limbs and all its weight, pushed hard against the wall with all the thrust its bug-wings can generate.

The eye opens.

Darkness... cold... PRESSURE, oh, God, it’s squeezing, can’t breathe, I’m being crushed under the weight of the oceans. Thousands of them, everywhere, more ancient than time, millions, billions, memories older than stars, older than God. Raiusha, the world, shattered, and they were cast out, swallowed up, but not killed, never killed...

My heart is beating like a hummingbird’s; my breathing is coming in high-pitched, like I’ve just run a four-minute mile. I’m sure I’m going to die, just trying to get my lungs to work fast enough to put air in me. My arms and legs are jelly; my vision is a tiny pinprick.

I feel a tentacle caress my cheek.

There, there, it soothes. Soon you’ll never again have to worry about her silly denials of your God.

I start, despite my condition. Oh, yes, the voice crackles, we believe in your little God. It makes us very, very hungry. Will you take us to Him?

A second tentacle, sliding around my throat, kissing the base of my skull.

We can reward you. We can loosen her mind, just as we did today. Instead of rousing her to anger, we can take away her heresies, make her worship a new god, worship you...

I distantly feel myself slide down off the building; the hatchling has dropped me. But there’s a weight on my neck, and something is pulling itself up over my eyes.

She can be yours, the thing on me whispers as I feel it pry my mouth open. Something starts to force its way down my throat. Just take us to your God. Show us His face...

And I do.

The face of God blows the creature off of me, flinging it halfway across the roof. I am filled with light, with wrath, and it suddenly looks very small indeed. Its pink skin is smoking lightly, but the eight arms are still moving with an intellect behind them. The eye on its back is narrowed, and I feel pure hate hit me with a physical force. I’m lifted me off my feet, and it slams me against the wall again and again. I snarl, and call the invisible dagger, but my desperate pitch misses badly.

Pathetic human, it screams in my mind, you dare? You think yourself ackjz flxtwn kavi?In its rage, it loses control, slipping into a language no human tongue could pronounce.

“Oh, I dare, you bulbous snot-wad!” I jab at it. It slams me into the wall again, indignation pouring through the mental connection is has established.

“Thanks--whough!--for re-aligning my back, you primitive lump of--ungh!--phlegm. Maybe I’ll sleep better tonight after--urk! killing... you...”

My words choke off as the force that’s bashing me against the stone instead lifts me up over the roof, levitating me closer to it, and starts to twist me, inside and out. My throat closes, I pray that’s not a tearing I feel in my gut, and my torso starts to rotate away from my legs, spine straining...

... and my fingers close around the hilt of Jorngnir, which the enraged creature carelessly brought within my grasp. I feel the animus of the ancient weapon howl; my lips peel back to match it as I allow the rune-blade to chart its own path through the air, using my body merely as a vessel through which to kill.

The thing jerks back in time to avoid being sliced in half, but Jorngnir severs three of its tentacles just at its bulbous body. It cries out in pain, but mine is the only mind nearby to hear it, and I am not in a sympathetic mood. It tries to pick itself up, using its mental powers, but Jorngnir swats it out of the air, hurling it back into the same spot on the wall where I had just been battered. I leap after it.

The air ripples as it sends a wave of telekinetic force at me, but God or a battle high or whatever signals me in time and I dodge under it. I lash out; another tentacle wiggles uselessly on the ground. It tries to crawl away, backing towards a corner, but I plant my boot down on top of it, stopping just short of squashing it into the stone.

When you go to meet your gods, creature, you tell them: my God bows to no one. We aren’t afraid of you.” I ease the pressure slightly. “In fact, I think I might let you live. Just to be sure the message gets where it needs to go, just in case the rest of your kind aren’t listening in to your pathetic little cries for help. You go, and you tell them what I said.”

I take a step back, feeling an the thing’s alien emotion wash over me. It’s not relief, not gratitude... I don’t have a name for it.

I turn away for a second.

Then again...” When I spin and strike, I see that the eye is wide, and this emotion I know. This one is fear.

... no one threatens her,” I finish.

I wait. The wind and rain make no answer.

Chapter One

Sometimes God tells me who and how to kill. Other times, He’s a bit more mysterious.

I grit my teeth as I stub my toe on the top step of the exit stair, and my toes curl instinctively. Spitting a silent curse, I hop around for a moment, and then stare daggers down through the deck at God, no doubt laughing at me from far below.

That’s your big Revelation? Curl my toes? Have I pissed You off, lately? Sometimes, I swear to You, being a divine avatar of God’s justice is a royal pain in my ass.

I cautiously close the bulkhead door behind me as I follow my throbbing foot out into the wind. The top deck of the dirigate is a wide, lonely place, all grey elementeel plating and salamander-welded seams. Civilian models are a lot glossier, but this is a military boat we’re on, so no frills here, just armor and the occasional servo-mounted cannon. The drone of the dozens of gyrorotors that help heave the cathedral-sized platform aloft and keep it stable on top of its elemental sphere thrums through the air and through me, blanketing the entire world in the roar of their thaumaturgical engines. Absent any suppressing fields or other mystical conveniences, you’d have to shout in order to be heard. I won’t have to worry much about tiptoeing, at least.

The wind is strong up here, and my vestments whip about wildly. My cassock swirls around my legs as if trying to escape, and the red sash around my waist snaps and cracks when the gusts catch it. Though my shirt is relatively tight, the flaring tips of my ceremonial sleeves puff and dance through the air. I hate this damn outfit. It’s a mad bastard to move in, especially when you’re fighting for your life. After five years of this particular alternative lifestyle, the cassock still looks like a skirt to me. The only good part is the collar; I’ve always thought that band of scarlet at the throat looked smart against the black. I probably could have picked an easier way of earning a banded collar, or the right to wear whatever I wanted. But of course, it’s not as if God had really asked my opinion, about the garb or the gig.

We’re flying below the clouds, just a few minutes shy of land-ho, everybody off! That means we’re all supposed to be belowdecks--wouldn’t want another repeat of the “yes, Madame Justice, your favorite nephew was picked right off of the ship by a giant roc” incident that happened last year. It also means that this is the only time on this whole damnable voyage where I can get to the cargo I came to destroy.

The sky over Noldon is steel-grey, clouds laced with lightning, ice, and nastier things. At some point, they might have been clean--in the countryside you see them, all white and puffy, or wisp-thin, like a breeze painted on the sky. Not so in Noldon: decades of necrotic spillage have shorn the sky of stars. The clouds don’t even have shapes anymore; they’re just a gray slate across the hidden sky.

There are those rare days when the sun breaks through. Let’s not talk about what happens in the height of midsummer, when the clouds part for whole weeks at a time and the sun bakes the alchemical filth in the river Irsa into a dry crust across its surface hard enough to walk on. The stink of it is overpowering on an average day; on those days the shimmer in the air can peel the paint off of buildings and scald your lungs for the rest of your life.

Ah, Noldon. Home, sweet home.

Corwinne’s voice humms in the comm-stone in my ear, a little tinny but clear despite the noise of the gyros. “Scrying eyes still diverted. You’re all alone up there.”

“Thanks,” I whisper, knowing that her thaumaturgy will pick my voice up over even the loudest background noise. “Be sure to keep moving. Once I pop this thing, I won’t be able to get back to you if anyone starts making poor life choices in your vicinity.”

“You’re adorable when threatening hypothetical people who may or may not show up to cart my perky yet possibly treasonous ass to jail,” she returns sweetly, “which, may I remind you, is the present location of a dauntingly large number of monumentally unpleasant persons whom we’ve put there ourselves--the ones you forgot to kill, anyway--a fact that strongly suggests that the perkiness of said ass could be sorely tested should such an unfortunate event occur.” A pause. “You just get the job done, fast, ‘kay? This whole job has me creepified in the most intense of fashions.”

A faint-yet-alarming perception snaps me into movement. Damn it all. “Will do.” And, because I can’t resist, “God be with you.”

I’m spared her adorable follow-on heresies because I’ve pulled the comm-stone from my ear just in time to stumble into the smartly-dressed young soldier whose pipe-weed I caught scent of a moment ago. He’s gripping the pipe firmly with his jaw, making a game--if futile--attempt to smoke it despite the howling winds. Bucking for a commission, I’d guess. Aside from his death-grip on the pipe, he’s got a clipboard under one arm and the look of someone satisfied that his checklist has just been completed. Until he collides with me, that is. That’s when the comm-stone in his ear starts to look a lot more relevant.

His eyes first go wide, then narrow, then flicker uncertainly from side to side. He can’t quite decide if the pipe should be in his mouth or out of it; should he yell at me, sound the alarm, or am I perhaps somehow authorized to be here? Clearly no one who’s not authorized would in fact be up here, it’d be against regulations, and nobody on this boat would dare buck the system, least of all the brand new chaplain... His hand flickers towards his ear for a moment, and then... pauses.

But it’s too late. We’re both out of time.

“Er... Father,” he starts, apparently opting for the reasonably safe, deferential approach. One never does know with church officials. “You’re not really supposed to--”

My knife catches him in the soft spot just under his chin, and I heave it upward, pinning his jaw to his brain. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I feel its tip scrape the inside of his skull. Warmth gushes down over my hands, and I drop the twitching corpse onto the deck, futilely trying to wipe away my sins on his uniform. I slip the knife back into the hidden sheath in my cassock before returning the comm-stone to my ear.

“... darn it, Jaspar, hello? Is everything all right up there? Any trouble?”

“No trouble,” I whisper, tenderly closing the soldier’s eyes. Doing this properly is out of the question, but I at least make the sign of the star over his brow, helping to ease his journey to the next world. I stand, shake off my doubts. “Ran into something; popped my stone out.”

“Jaspar Fellthorn, you are the world’s worst assassin! Always bumping into this or tripping over that,” Corwinne gripes, reading into my words the double meaning that I’d hoped she’d choose. “What are you going to do if there’s a patrol up there that’s not marked on the schedule I nabbed?”

“Kill them all, probably,” I reply, huffing a little as I break into a run. “If I have to get into lengthy conversations about who’s authorized to be abovedecks during landing, all of Noldon is going to get coated in unholy flame. This boat’s hitting dirt in less than ten minutes, and we’d better give it at least five for the bomb to do its work. We really don’t want to be off by even a second, here.”

“Seven Hells, must you always make me sorry I ask?” The image of her wispy red locks shaking to and fro is as clear as the blood on my hands. “Just keep it quiet up there, ‘kay?”

“Very quiet,” I agree, wondering if Corwinne can hear my pounding feet through the comm-stone as I sprint up a set of elementeel stairs and across a causeway. The massive dirigate stretches out far beneath me; the thing must be two hundred yards or more on each side. My speed is reckless; any patrol would hear me instantly, despite the roar of the gyros. I’d say that the thunder in the sky hides my clattering footfalls, but the Edicts prohibit me from telling false truths, so I’m limited to lying by creative omission.

Fortunately for my immortal soul and Corwinne’s blood pressure, there are no more guards up here: all hatches are battened, so no cause for violating the God’s decrees any further. Even the honor guard that’s stood watch over the war-dead has gone below, in these last few minutes before touchdown. When I was a kid, the decks of dirigates like this one would be teeming with people waiting to see their loved ones, everyone pushing to the edges of the deck to wave at a likely-looking speck below. Far too many “incidents” later was the last straw with Lady Scarblossom’s nephew and the oversized bird, and that was that. No captain would risk what happened to that poor bastard after the High Courts got through with him. No, right now I’m alone with the dead.

Hopefully their number doesn’t include any more soldiers on last-minute patrol whom I don’t have time to sweet-talk.

I bound down the stairs and vault the twenty foot drop to the cargo deck. Corwinne’s half right: I’ve got days when I could probably turn my ankle while walking on cobblestones, but I’ve also trained hard to overcome a certain lack of natural grace--and I have God on my side. I land without so much as a thump, and unsling the satchel at my back. It thrums in anticipation. My dagger is in my hand again, and I make a little adjustment to the gauge at its pommel. Reality shimmers; my hand is now filled by Jorngnir, the Butcher’s Blade, which I pried years before from the fingers of Urngar, the mad Hall-Thane of Thibaney. I flick my wrist; with less force than it would take to swing a carpenter’s hammer, the ancient weapon shears the top from the box in front of me.

I look down sadly at the coffin on the deck at my feet. Not much more than a crate of pine, it’s barely got room for the soldier stuffed inside. His uniform is a near-match for the one I left lying a hundred yards away; the only difference is that the blood here has dried. The body still has a pair of arrows sticking through it. Though the yellow feather-tipped ends have been snapped off, I’ve seen enough of these to mark them as elven. From the look still on his rictus-warped face, this kid hadn’t. He hadn’t seen elf arrows before, and probably hadn’t seen the ones that brought him down, either. Poor bastard.

I crouch down, resting Jorngnir on my knees. Too soon, my questing fingers find the hole at the base of his neck that confirms my fears. “Sorry, kid,” I mumble. “Sorry you had to die in some God-cursed war with pissed-off tree dwellers. Sorry some asshole--who I will find and deal with--had to go and defile your corpse by pumping it full of bug. Sorry you’re not going to get the state funeral you deserve. May God keep your soul with Him in the Core, and forgive mine.”

My comm-stone is still in my ear; I’d forgotten it for a moment. Her voice is soft through the aether static. “Jaspar, I know. But it’s got to be now. If those corpses touch down with the bugs still inside...”

“Mealtime in downtown Noldon. This many hatchlings ‘ll overwhelm the coppers in seconds. Hundreds dead, and that’s before the next wave hatches from their corpses. After that...” My breath huffs out involuntarily. “I remember, ‘Winne. I can still hate it.”

I pause for a moment, hoping that maybe God will show up and tell me not to bother, that it’s all okay. The Good Ship Falkoj drifts serenely through the sky as rumbling thunder is my only answer. Thunder sounds different, up here: it seems to come from everywhere, and you feel it deep down, “in your water”, my father would’ve said. I grit my teeth against it and wait a few moments for the creaking and resettling of the massive dirigate as its elementeel frame absorbs all of the thundrous energy.

For just a moment, as the ship slows down to begin its touchdown, even the hum of the rotors seems to fade. The silence is perfect. Lights sparkle below, as if the sky were beneath me and I were staring at a field of stars. I’m accursed enough to have some notion of what lies beyond those stars, and this thought gives me a little shudder. The old ship seems to sympathize, with a little rumble from deep down, she purrs at me, buzzing gently.

I cock my head. Buzzing?

Corwinne’s voice snaps me out of it. “Jaspar!”

“Right,” I reply, pulling the long cylinder out of my bag. I tuck it in with the soldier and start pressing buttons in the sequence Corwinne had me memorize.

“No, that’s not it,” she starts, checks herself, continues, “well, yes, it is that, do hurry, but when you get an eeensy little second could you give me a quick count of the was that very loud beep the end of the release sequence?”

“Good ears!” I shout, legs pounding beneath me as I run for dear life. “What was it you wanted?”

Her reply is lost over the hissing that’s coming from behind me. I say a prayer to Sayn Ieander, and pour on the speed. My legs lighten, carrying me faster than a man, faster even than an elf, and I bound up the nearest set of stairs by threes. I don’t much care where I’m going, so long as I get up over the spreading pyrotoxin behind me. As I reach the top of the first flight and bounce off of the opposite railing to race up the next stairwell, I catch a glimpse of the destruction I’ve wrought through the open gaps in the stairs.

The pyrotoxin is spreading over the pile of coffins, racing along every surface it encounters with supernatural guidance. Where it meets a thing that once lived, it glows white-hot, and leaves nothing but ash behind. The mound of coffins, probably ten feet high and three times as long, is consumed in seconds. A ring of glowing red gel spreads away from it at speed. The elementeel beneath is untouched; probably a little warm, and completely shorn of all traces of any living thing, but otherwise not damaged in the least. The pyrotoxin will spread, covering every surface, pouring through every opening until it finally runs into itself again on the far side of the ship, when it will disperse into an inert dust. It’s a perfect killer: toss it into a troll’s warren and you’ll kill everything inside, but leave all the nice, shiny valuables.

Toss it into a warren with two exits, and you’ll risk coating the entire world in the stuff, wiping all life from the planet. I’m not sure that’s what would happen, but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t.

It’s insane that this stuff even exists... but you’ve got to love human ingenuity when it comes to killing people in the most efficiently horrifying ways possible. Getting a canister of the stuff damn near killed me: you’ve got to be one crazy warlock to want to have it lying around, and Leftenant Commander Holvelak had been crazier than most. Though the Calisar forces on the war front might miss him and I’ve got no love for elves, nobody with bars on their shoulder needs to be in possession of something of its destructive potency. Those bars get heavy; I suppose they must weigh on the soul. That weight makes them want to use the accursed stuff.

Frankly, I probably shouldn’t have had it, either, but I’m a man of God. Besides, it was a perfect tool for clearing a deserted airship surface just before touchdown. As long as it spreads across the ship before we hit groundside, we’re fine: it’ll neutralize when it meets itself on the far side of the ship, and I’m pretty sure you could safely put what’s left into a cocktail. (Well, maybe the cocktail of somebody who wasn’t too picky about the taste.) If it doesn’t make it... it’d be far worse than the bug infestation I’m using it to cure, for one thing. Pyrotoxin spreading through the capital of Calisar wouldn’t even be something that cheered the elves, and they’re butchering our troops in droves.

Pyrotoxin catching me might cheer up an elf or two, but would certainly be the very last part of my day. I’ve cleared another story, and I can hear the hiss of it burning its way after me. From its insistent volume, I’m not going to make it another flight before it catches up with me. The one nice thing about pyrotoxin is that it comes in finite quantities: as it expands, it spreads out in a thinner and thinner ring... By now, that ring is probably only a dozen feet or so thick, which means that it’s no longer coating the pile of ash that is all that’s left of the pile of coffins where I released it. There’s still a lot of the stuff down on the deck, but if I can stick this jump...

I press my back to the railing, take two deep breaths, and run. I’ve got four steps, three; the pyrotoxin is now at the top of the stair--I can feel its heat, thirsting for me, ready to devour--two steps to go; it’s coming a little faster than I’d thought...

Before I really wanted to, I throw myself into the air, a wave of red death sweeping under me, coating every surface with elemental flame. My leap carries me forward--really gotta make it far enough to get into the safe zone, near where I set the bomb off in the first place--but not quite high enough: little fingers of death rise from toxin-covered edge of the railing, defying natural order by sheer goddamn nastiness, and caress the toe of the boot that had just cleared the rail.

Well. Damn.

No time to think: this stuff is death and those boots are leather. I curl my toes in and whip down with Jorngnir, and hope that God thinks I’ve done a good deed today, or that I’m at least worthy of having somebody help grow me back a foot. I feel a tug, and then air... and then an explosion of pain in my shoulder as I land entirely wrong from a thirty foot fall. I roll like I was trained to, only a lot less effectively, and I’m choking, coughing--I can’t see--oh, God, I don’t want to die like this...

And then I cough some more, and my shoulder continues to throb. In fact, I cough rather a lot, definitely more than someone who was being atomized by a fiery supernatural toxin ought. There’s deck plating beneath me, along with a thick coating of... ash.

Hacking and fighting to breathe, I struggle out of the cloud that my fall has caused, and expel the stuff as best I can from my lungs. As I wave the plumes away from my face, I catch sight of myself in the toxin-polished deck plating--I’m covered, head to toe, in black soot.

Well, not entirely. Five pink, fully-attached toes peek out from the tip of my boot, where Jorngnir sliced off the deadly pyrotoxin.

I laugh, a weird, croaking laugh. “Curl your toes.” Praise be to God. Looks like I live through this, after all.

I hear a distant throb, like the dying pulse of a thaumaturgical engine, and there’s a white flash from the other side of the ship. Looks like the pyrotoxin fulfilled its end of the deal on the opposite side of the Falkoj, and has gone nicely inert. Noldon isn’t dying in fire today, praise God.

As I retrieve my fallen blade, the sound of Corwinne’s voice cuts through the ash. My comm-stone has popped out of its own accord this time, but I can hear her faintly from wherever it lies: she must be shouting.

“... didn’t get all of the coffins, do you hear? They moved some down to the cargo hold so the broadsheets could get a pictograph op when we disembark! We need to--”

That’s exactly when the airship explodes.