Saturday, June 5, 2021

The Fane of the Poppy

Summary: If you were raised to be a bloodsoaked warrior aristocrat and loyal unto death, when could your family’s actions go beyond the pale and what happens when they do?

Join Truanor Hightower of cruel Archzenith on a journey to the underworld where there seems to be no way home but to leave his soul behind. His underworld is Setroxia, the brainchild of Dan Sullivan.

UPDATE! Dan wrote a story set in Setroxia: he first imagined the city, and now he’s realized his original vision in prose. I asked if I could share it on my blog, and he graciously agreed.

Read Dan’s story, Viaticum, here.

Truanor Hightower gazed out of a thick, vast window over the burning bright, mysterious expanse of jungle around the city-state of Archzenith. The buildings rolled down pockmarked and spiking beneath him, terminating in steel-rimmed walls shouldering clusters of black flak cannons, machine guns pillboxes and anti-tank cannons. There were concrete dugouts a hundred meters back from the wall, bristling like orchestra pits with artillery guns and mortar daises.

Truanor turned his head and eyed a smorgasbord with a white tablecloth that sat even with the window but was set back deeper into the room. It had an integral ice chest running along the inside of it and there was a broiling radiator in parallel. One side of the table bore bowls of shrimp, pate, salmon and chopped fruit. The other side carried skewered meat, a seafood bisque and a creamy tanscale rainbow of fondues.

A pair of servants in black tunics trimmed with House Hightower’s teal livery stood against the walls with their hands folded over their groins.

Several boys pushed their way into the dark room. They wore the ebullient finery and teal accessories of Hightower nobles. They were Dio, Jovenar and Castor, Truanor’s cousins.

“Truanor at the smorgasbord!” cried Dio with a grin, “I thought he took all his meals rectally now!”

Truanor smiled.

“You look so clean today, Dio! Has your mother finally cautioned you about wiping with the House colors?”

“Yes, I only choke mongrel dogs with them now!”

Dio rushed at Truanor, who fell into a crouch and then leaped forward into Dio’s hips, knocking his cousin onto his back. Dio slapped Truanor across the face and Truanor headbutted Dio’s forehead, pushing his palms into Dio’s face.

“Kill him, Dio, or he’ll come back and steal your panties!” yelled Castor.

“Truanor, you’ve got to strangle him before the family gets any more inbred!” yelled Jovenar.

Dio drove a knee into Truanor’s hip, slipped an arm between them to grasp Truanor’s lapel, and then drove his cousin off him into the smorgasbord. Truanor felt his back lurch across a table leg, which proceeded to slide up and across him as the table was knocked over with a tremendous clatter. Dio grabbed a banana, seized Truanor by the jaw and attempted to drive the banana into his cousin’s mouth like a dagger. Truanor held him off, grabbed a silver platter that had been used for custards and bashed the flat side into Dio’s head. Dio gave an angry yell and drove the crown of his head into Truanor’s face, grinding his cheek into his molars.

“Boys!” yelled a voice from the door. Truanor and Dio froze and peered across themselves at the door. The servants had been silently piling food onto platters, but they froze in their bent-over states.

A man with dark, silver-striped hair was leaning in through the door. He wore dark garb with a dull teal cloak, and wore an 8” ornate warhammer in a velvet loop from his belt. He was Tazriem Hightower, Truanor’s uncle.

“Give me two for an errand.”

“I’ll go, father!” cried Castor at once.

The other boys were silent and Tazriem gazed about with a cold blue eagle’s eye.

“I’ll go too,” said Truanor with a sore jaw.

“Good. Follow me,” said Tazriem and walked away down the hallway.

Truanor pushed his way up past Dio and hurried out after Castor.

They walked down a long hallway of dark stone blocks lit by openings into space. The sky was white, and it was humid but cooler than usual.

“It’s time you took a hand in the family business. I’m sending you to Setroxia for a consignment of heroin from the lords of that godforsaken heap. You’re to meet with the local priests, who are a higher sort being Archzenite expatriates, and they will supply you with the heroin that we are owed.”

“The family business is heroin, uncle?” asked Truanor. Castor flashed him an angry, disbelieving look.

“The family business is whatever your superiors tell you it is, Truanor. The heroin is going to our Affidavit tribal allies. It is not some moneymaking scheme.”

They came to a stop on a jutting balcony promenade overlooking the city and jungle.

“We have no need for that.”

The nearby towers were windowless and coated with incandescent gold, and the city’s walkways shone with a fluorescent silver. The infinite, effortless wealth of Archzenith was infamous across the globe. It was the fruit of the Archzenith Antirenaissance, the mysterious disappearance of every artist in Archzenith, followed by an explosion of mining wealth unparalleled in human history. Precious metal had replaced other forms of decoration in Archzenith.

Tazriem Hightower pointed down to a brown river snaking away from the city, almost hidden among the molten boughs of the jungle.

“There’s a seaplane waiting for you there. The pilot will be at your disposal while you conduct your business in Setroxia. The priests are no longer citizens of Archzenith and they might attempt to worm their way into a new agreement. Don’t allow them to disrespect us. But the Setroxians know how to treat nobles. They have been trained into the proper respect for their superiors.”

“Excellent,” said Castor, “I hope they do try to renege on us, father. Bringing them to heel would ‘strengthen our relationship.’”

“Perhaps. In any case, we are owed ten kilograms of uncut heroin, and this is what I expect you to return with.”

“Of course, father.”

“Castor, you’re my son and you’ll be responsible for driving this little expedition forward. That doesn’t mean Truanor must do everything you say. You two will work that out amongst yourselves. Truanor, you are there to ensure the success of the mission. Am I understood?”

The boys nodded and murmured their assent.

“Excellent. Go and experience what is beyond our garden gates.”

The two bowed and headed for the nearest stairwell.

“Heroin!” said Castor with excitement, “Precious cargo for our first overseas caper, isn’t it?”

“It is,” said Truanor, peering through the little porthole windows of the narrow spiral staircase, “What do you think the Affidavits do with it?”

“Are you ten years old? They shoot it, fool. They’re strung out like ripped-off pearl necklaces. You do know why they stopped raiding us, right? Trade! It civilizes people!”

Truanor wasn’t sure what to make of this. His father had told him he’d cut Truanor’s arm off if he ever caught him shooting drugs. He’d shown him the silver machete.

Truanor and Castor split to gather their effects.

Truanor went to his vast bedroom and sat at the edge of his four-poster bed for a few moments, running his fingers over the familiar jungle print bedspread with tigers and serpents. He unlatched the iron bound chest at the foot of his bed and rifled through his effects. He set a Bowie knife, a Sarabande midwife and a sawed-off shotgun on his bed, then he extracted a fully-automatic machine pistol and a long ramming stiletto. He belted these and went to meet Castor at the stairwell.

His cousin wore a long, thin flamberge rapier. The handle was shaped like a serpent with an open, fanged mouth for a cross guard, and the long, slithering blade emerged from the mouth as a tongue. He was twirling a .44 magnum with rattlesnake leather grips on his finger.

“Choosy princess,” Castor said.

“You never were much for preparation,” said Truanor.

“Oh but cousin, weren’t you the one who was unfamiliar with Affidavit customs? And House Hightower affairs? And the nature of Setroxia, I presume? I think you’re a compromising element on this mission.”

“I’m here to make sure you don’t overdose or otherwise dishonor the family name. I’m not the one your father thinks will compromise House Hightower’s honor.”

They walked out into the streets of Archzenith and down towards the walls. The cafes, bars, shops and restaurants were roaring even midday, though the theaters, galleries and music halls had all been converted for other functions. People were staggering around in enormous fur coats, swaddled in cashmere scarves, bedecked in pounds of jewelry and frostings of makeup.

“What is honor, cousin? If one of these jumped up commoners stepped up to me I’d slash him. He has no honor. The Affidavits had honor, once, but they chose to sleep it away. They may be a terror to other tribes, the manioca-slurpurs and the grub-gatherers, but to a civilized man they’re nothing but lapdogs fit for the chase or the kennel. They worship our agriculture, the kennel keeper, papavar somniferum.”

“I’ve heard they worship a giant serpent. A megaviper. It was supposed to be a jade, jeweled rod that turned into a god when they tried to roast it.”

Castor made a farting noise with his lips.

“Puffs of smoke.”

They reached the walls. Archzenite soldiers in black boilerfatigues and gleaming silver breastplates sprinted to unlatch the gates, their rifles clanging rhythmically in symphony with their steel-toed boots on the concrete.

The tiny pedestrian door was made of depleted troglodite, far more valuable than gold. It swung open as laboriously as a bank vault for the cousins, who stepped out onto the rough flagstone trail and down into the Affidavit jungle.

The air was cool on Archzenith hill, as far as jungle climates went, but there was no breeze down by the river. Fat dollops of warm water fell on the cousins as they strolled beneath the overhanging canopy. The flagstones became more and more consumed with vines and mud that seemed to engulf manmade things in this place. Gazing into the jungle, Truanor lurched and staggered as he saw humanoid forms watching them. At first he thought they were hanging fetishes which the Affidavits used to mark their territories, but they were men. They seemed to have crocodilian skins. The backs of their arms were ridged and bumpy, their chests ringed horizontally, perhaps the result of scarification or the insertion of ivory beneath the flesh. Each had a vast quantity of painted knives stashed, tucked and hung across his body to the point of decoration, and they had fully-black eyes like reptiles.

“Those are eerie ones, aren’t they,” said Truanor.

“They’re the warriors. They might have given you quite the fright, but they’re the hard core of their society. Even you shouldn’t lose your nerve at the sight of their regular men and women. Trust me, the only honor the Affidavits have is in their warrior lodges, since they live away from those slime pit warrens. You’ve never seen an Affidavit fastness. They could have been cities, given millennia. Now they’re like wood-plank castles set up and forgotten by children.”

The two Archzenites came to a little mud beach next to a river that swirled and frothed like a jacuzzi. There was an expensive Ascension Aeromarine seaplane at anchor, curling back and forth in the water like the paw of a satisfied cat.

Truanor stopped dead where he stood on the mud slope between the end of the flagstone trail and the waterline. There were a number of ponderous human forms laying flat in the mud like seals.

They must have been Affidavits, but they were totally different from the warriors. They were morbidly obese, wearing almost nothing, laying in a line like hoagies on a platter. The nearest one lolled his head towards them with heavy-lidded eyes, then began trying to struggle onto his side so he could stagger away and escape. To his left was an enormous woman laying on her back; chocolate bile had filled her nostrils and she was not breathing.

“What’s wrong with them?” Truanor cried.

Castor gave him a withering glance over his shoulder.

“They’re enjoying the sacraments of the opium priests, cousin…”

“But… Castor, we can’t make anybody into that! Let’s show Uncle Tazriem what… what this is turning people into!”

“Blame the confectioners before you blame our family,” sneered Castor, “We’re not the only ones who supply them with the fruits of civilization. Lay down and cuddle with the Affidavits if you want, you’re as tiresome as they are. I’m getting the pilot.”

Castor walked down along the waterline and whistled at the seaplane, whose pilot glanced out the window and waved, starting the engine. He motored the roaring machine near enough to the shore that the nobles could board without wetting their feet; the Affidavit had failed to get up and lay still, blinking slowly. Another Affidavit had raised his head to look at the flying machine, but the others were catatonic.

The seaplane negotiated the river for some time, straddling rocks and scraping beneath branches until they reached a wide plane of brown water. The Archzenites could see two-story thatch houseboats far up the river; one manner of Affidavit residence. The seaplane accelerated and took off over the houseboats, blowing twigs and daub from their roofs.

“I’m concerned about you, cousin. You’ve been acting the coward and the naive child since we left Hightower Hall. How are you going to deal with the Setroxians when you wet your panties at the sight of some puffed-up primitives enjoying the riverbank?”

“There’s a line, Castor. What we’re doing to them doesn’t involve honor. We haven’t even taken them by force. We’ve rotted them like candy rots a tooth.”

“You simple, silly little lass. You are such a… you’re like a child playing with dolls, and every one of them gets to win its heart’s desire. Is your thinking on force and victory so shallow? Force is a spectrum. It takes many forms. It’s like magic. It’s not all fire and thunder.”

“It’s not about force,” said Truanor, “We’re making them useless. To us, as much as to themselves.”

Castor shrugged. “They were useless before, they’re marginally less useless now, keeping the other tribes in check. But listen, cousin. We’re dancing around the real issue. Your lack of loyalty.”

“I am loyal. But I’m loyal to House Hightower before any… any single issue.”

“Were you going to say, ‘before any single uncle’?”

“Perhaps before any cousin! You and I are on the same level! Your father said it: you’re not the dictator of this expedition. So if I tell you you’re wrong, that has nothing to do with disloyalty.”

“You have your orders, sweetheart,” hissed Castor, “and you’ll carry them out no matter what your aching heart makes you blurt.”

They sat without speaking for some time while the propeller roared.

What could Truanor do? His cousin was fully invested, but when Truanor looked into the future, if he participated in making people into those bloated slugs in the riverside shade he saw his soul becoming weak, hollowed out, a pawn, a lifeless cog in a gray, grinding machine.

Truanor was not afraid to kill. He was eager to strike down any scion of another House in a street fight. He would be glad to lead an expedition against the savages that still resisted Archzenith’s rule. His heart had ached at the conclusion of the victorious war with Palgrove because he was just a little too young to participate in it.

Truanor would gladly kill rivals, Cynthians, Palmgrovers, and barbarians. But kill and be done with it. Kill in the heat of battle, then let the corpses burn on the pyre of glory. Don’t cage your enemy in an underworld on earth. Don’t rot his blood, his bones and his soul while he still lives.

If Truanor participated in this, then his future would mean little to him. The gleam of the glory he’d expected would be gone. But if he stood against his family, there would be nothing left for him. It would mean walking off the end of the earth. He’d have less position than a peasant. He’d be a hunted, mendicant pariah.

“Your soul is more rotten than those pigs on the beach,” said Truanor, “They’ve made their world into a dream, you’ll make yours into a nightmare. We were raised to be warriors, not dealers of drugs. I’ll protect you, though I wish I could let you reap what you sow. I’m going to be a second set of eyes in whatever godawful gomorrah we’re going to. My loyalty is to House Hightower, and you’re a Hightower. But I won’t participate in this as anything other than a guardian. You’re on your own when it comes to handling the heroin.”

“Ha! You think yourself a warrior, but your heart’s soft and sweet as funnel cake. We’re going to see how long your loyalty holds up when it’s already been cracked by a stroll along the river trail. I think you’ll lose it in the City of Smoke and Ruin, as the wholesalers say.”

The biomes shifted beneath their plane. Jungle gave way to sea, sea gave way to scrubland. The land was bright and fertile by the coast, but as they flew inland it grew more and more ashen.

“Where will we land?” called Truanor to the pilot.

“They have a big trough of water in the city. It’s a reservoir. Lately they’ve had to turn it into a fortification because the fields are drying up.”

“Should we really be landing in that?”

The pilot shrugged.

“That’s where I’m supposed to land, Master Hightower.”

“Don’t harass the peon, Truanor, your prattle does dull the senses.”

Truanor clenched his jaw and gazed out of the window. The tan desert of crabgrass and cacti suddenly turned into a blooming wonderland of luscious red, pink and purple fields.

“What- they’re like flower gardens… they’ve made a flower garden in the desert! It must be vast.”

“That’s exactly what it is, you droll buffoon. Far more productive than the saffron and dye they used to plant in that worthless earth.”

A city came into view. It was a vast expanse of tan stone squares stacked up on each other in rolling blankets or brickpile castles. There were enormous manors and houses of state in the city center like bulbous cathedrals or monolith mausoleums, and here and there were scattered spike-walled complexes of rich and ornate manor homes clad in mosaic, or graven marble and gracefully-wrought iron ivy. Straddling the city was an enormous statue that was made of onyx, jet, or cast iron. Truanor couldn’t tell. It was holding a vast, gleaming red ruby to its eye, and it must have looked like some kind of predatory shadow demon by night.

“Know what that is?” asked Castor with a smile.

“A statue.”

“It’s a superweapon. It can roast whole armies. And when the high nobility want to punish someone, they put a rope around his head and bake him with the statue’s beam until it cracks his skull like an eggshell. Say what you will about this hovel of badland yokels, their nobles have style.”

The biplane turned and began to descend towards the city. Indeed, at the heart of the metropolis was a long strip of dark, shimmering water, and the biplane came down between the houses and towers with a thump along the freestanding canal. There were little pleasure boats here and there but their passengers hauled them up onto the stone block bank as the seaplane approached.

They came to a stop and Truanor looked around. There was a 10’ tall caterpillar of barbed wire that had been strung around the canal as a fortification. There were soldiers carrying bolt action rifles and were characterized by wearing militarized versions of the vast-brimmed hats characteristic of latifundia field capos. These were normally worn wide open but could be tied up like a parcel atop their heads when close-quarters activity was required.

“Shall we disembark?” Truanor asked the pilot.

“Is he in charge?” spat Castor as he stepped out of the plane onto its pontoon, then onto the stone wall of the trough.

“Thank you. Good landing,” Truanor said to the pilot, who bowed his head very low. Truanor stepped out onto the pontoon, then halted, transfixed, as he was met with the point of a slithering rapier.

“Sorry cousin, but I’ve made a decision. You’ll be going back to Archzenith now. You’re too soft, cowardly and morally confused to be present for this affair; you’re a liability and you being here makes it less likely I’ll come home, not more so.”

Truanor grimaced and whipped the rapier away from him with his stiletto as he drew it, nearly knocking it from Castor’s grip with a clang. Heads turned from all around the canal. Truanor brought the stiletto level with his armpit, ready to dart a stab into Castor if he needed to.

“Your blood is on your own head unless you sheath that tentacle. Remember that our pilot has no loyalty to a corpse, and these soldiers will be glad to tell anyone what they’ve seen today.”

“Hmm,” smiled Castor, “I guess you’re less of a kitten than you seemed, cousin. Very well. You’ve passed my test.”

Truanor shook his head slowly.

“Don’t push me again, cousin. I value Hightower blood, no matter how corrupt the vessel.”

Castor stepped down from the wall of the great trough and spread his arms. “Come on then, Truanor. Let’s see the sights of this magical place. I know it will transform you. Your soul and your backbone.”

Truanor stepped out onto the canal wall.

“Walk in front of me or I will transform you,” he said.

Castor’s smile disappeared. “Don’t be tiresome. I’ve given you a degree of respect and you cast it back in my face.”

Truanor stared into his eyes. “I will cast my boot into your face if you don’t start walking, and we know where that will end.”

Castor gave him a mirthless smile once more. “Of course, cousin. Let’s go find the our erstwhile countrymen, the Orthodoxy of Opium. You’ll be able to relax once you feel more at home.”

Truanor sheathed his stiletto and followed Castor. The soldiers were watching them, smiling with amusement or standing in awe of the warlike fractiousness of these splendid foreign nobles. A few of them trotted to the wire and used their bare hands to pull out an opening for them, gingerly plying the steel with their fingertips.

The nobles passed human wreckages with every stride. There were wizened corpses mummifying in the corners and alleyways, blackened wind-warped things with white teeth still gleaming, laying curled up on themselves like seekers of warmth. Sitting among the actual piles of corpses were emaciated men with filthy beards and women whose lips seemed to have been sucked down into their throats, yet their flesh still hung loose from their necks and puffed-up arms like hens.

The worst thing to Truanor were the children; curled up things like turkey roasts, waiting to die in the alleyways or thronging the Archzenites until Castor kicked one of them like he was teeing off on a ballfield, drawing his rapier. The boy who’d been kicked just lay down in the dust, holding his frail torso, and Truanor considered reopening the feud for a chance to stab Castor, but ended up simply stalking behind him while taking deep breaths so as to calm his heartbeat.

“Where are we going?” asked Truanor gruffly.

“There’s a grand temple in the center of the city.”

“Fine.” Truanor gazed around this place. “You and your underhanded power. We’ve had more food than we could eat since the Antirenaissance. This place could be our client state if we fed them.”

Castor shrugged. “This isn’t Palmgrove. Why would we want to be responsible for such a stain of shit?”

Truanor shook his head. “This place isn’t anything like what it could be if it weren’t for the drought and the heroin. It’s a metropolis.”

They turned a corner and stood before a huge, gray marble temple with a dark cavernous opening behind a smooth colonnade.

“Ah, here we are!” smiled Castor. The broad front steps of this building were scattered with bright flowering poppies and their petals like a bath prepared for a lover.

Castor walked up the steps and walked into the temple. Truanor followed but was stopped by a horrific miasma from the arched mouth of the temple. The doorway smelled of rotting meat, sweat and feces. Truanor gazed into the darkness; inside were hundreds of human forms wrapped in filthy wool blankets, scattered all over the beautiful but defaced tile scenes of a hundred dead pantheons. Men in ornate robes were walking slowly throughout this place; they had braziers of incense in one hand and long needles in the other. Shepherds of the dying, herding them into the abyss.

As Truanor’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw thousands of rats crawling over the bodies, both those that were dead and those that still moved.

“Cousin. I’m not entering this place.”

“Hmm. Well that’s a relief. See you at the canal at sundown.”

Castor continued into the darkness. Truanor lurched away from the door and leaned against a marble pillar. He could still smell the temple and he began to retch, vomiting a thin stream of liquid onto the flagstones. He staggered down the steps and sat, his head spinning. This was the death of the human soul. The fate of its final surrender. A willing half-step into hell on earth.

He gripped his head, looking down at the step beneath his knees. He had to get away from this place. He stood, and walked away, and wandered down a side-street which had been laid over with the unswept dust of the wasteland. He passed a fat, bearded artisan who was driving an emaciated, shirtless slave before him, slashing at him with his belt buckle.

Truanor smashed the man’s head with an open palm in a state of anguish and fury that he hadn’t felt since he was a toddler. The man fell against the wall with a thwacking noise and lay on the stones with blood streaming from his forehead. The bruised slave simply crouched down on his heels. Truanor put his boot under the man’s rear and tried to lift him up.

“Get up! Don’t just sit there, damn you!” he said. The slave rose and then sat again. Truanor stalked away from the scene with one hand on his stiletto and the other one on his gun.

He came to a little dessicated bazaar in an alley courtyard. There were merchant’s stands that were dried up and falling inwards like the wispy corpses of spiders; hanging canvases turned to paper, lengths of wood turned to brittle reeds by age and dust. Truanor sat on the edge of a counter and wrapped his cloak around himself.

Before long a few shadowy figures wrapped in canvas or strips of torn-up bedsheet came drifting into the bazaar. They were eyeing Truanor with bloodshot eyes and they had knives, hammers and firepipes woven onto their bodies with fabric. They picked at themselves and tugged at what clothes they had, and none of them seemed to ever stop moving.

“You’re beautiful,” one of them rasped.

Truanor undid the safety on his machine pistol beneath his azure cloak.

The group began to lurch through the bazaar towards him, spreading out and looking around. None of them seemed like they had a drop of water in their bodies. The only color on them came from livid, splotchy red sores all over their mottled arms.

“What are you?” Truanor asked them.

“Petitioners of paradise and proponents of the Orthodoxy,” rasped one of them, gazing at Truanor with fiery eyes above a wrapping of gauze over his mouth and nostrils. This had once been an educated man.

“And what do you want?” asked Truanor, shifting his body as he drew his machine pistol, holding it along his forearm behind his cloak.

“Take off everything you have on you. We’re going to sell your finery to the priests, but I’m also going to see what a strong, healthy body looks like again before I die.”

They began drawing their knives, hammers and firepipes, holding them limply near their thighs or fiddling with them in front of their pelvises.

Truanor opened fire from inside his cloak, chopping down three of them with his first burst. The gunshots beat at his arms and filled his cloak with heat, and the air before his face billowed with fibers from his shredded garment. The other robbers began lurching for cover behind the bazaar’s market stalls, but Truanor raised the machine pistol in both hands in front of him and felled another two of the half-clothed creatures before the rest of them could make it to cover. Truanor’s gun was now burning hot.

One of the robbers poked a firepipe over the top of a stall counter and depressed the lever with incongruously fat, swollen fingers bundled on a bony wrist. There was a bang and sparks flew from the mouth of the pipe along with a puff of pure white smoke; there was a cracking near Truanor’s thigh as the bullet whiffed through his tattered and singed cloak.

Truanor hadn’t realized that this was a firearm, and he dove through the dust underneath a stall lest another robber be drawing down on him, filling his sleeves with sand in the process. A pair of ragged feet appeared before his face, yellowed nails curling deep into the gnarled toes. Truanor emptied his magazine through the shins, which blasted open like thunder-smitten logs. The man’s legs were unstrung and he fell on his back in the dust, gasping, his tape-handled knife laying by his split open shins, which had only just begun to bleed.

Truanor leapt up and banged his head on the counter; feeling nothing but a lump he sped forward in a crouch. A robber in a sackcloth came at him holding a raised masonry hammer up in the air behind him like he was trying to keep it as far as possible from Truanor.

Truanor darted at the man stiletto first in a dueling attack that he’d trained since he could walk. The stiletto slipped through the man’s ribcage like there was nothing there; the hammerman didn’t seem to notice he’d been stabbed but his approach halted and he made no attack with his hammer. Truanor withdrew the stiletto and stuck it an inch into the man’s thin breast. At this he dropped his hammer, turned and began to sidle away with his head hanging against his chest.

Truanor saw other forms moving among the stalls but he turned and sprinted through the alleys and streets the way he’d come. The slave and his master were gone, but there was blood on the wall and cobblestones. Finally Truanor came to a halt, panting, in the great square of the temple of the poppy.

He walked over to a cabinetmaker’s shop and leaned against the wall. The business, at least, seemed to be functioning. He could hear hammering and sawing behind the wall. Such plebeian noise would have annoyed Truanor in Archzenith, but he was grateful for it now.

A pair of men in black hooded cloaks with golden trim came walking near him. Truanor spit in the dirt.

“You heroin priests?”

The priests looked at each other and then at him.

“No. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Truanor raised an eyebrow.

“Then what are you? You look holy.”

“We are keepers of the old faith. Do not mistake Setroxia for a monotheistic city. Many creeds were once represented here. Now only our faith, the true faith, carries the light.”

“So fades the light, so fades the water,” observed the second priest.

“I’m glad to hear you’re not with that cult. They’ve made this city hell on earth.”

“Not all of it is ruined, but I understand why you might think that, standing as we are before the pusher’s fane. The solvent of souls. We serve the Earl of Setroxia, and his holdings are well-maintained. Where do you hail from?”

“House Hightower, City of Archzenith. I was sent here with my cousin to score heroin, but there’s no way in hell I’m going inside that temple.”

The men looked at each other, then one asked,

“Must you wait here in the open? This district is not famed for its civility.”

“I’ve got nowhere to be til sundown. That’s when I’m meeting my cousin at the canal.”

“We are going to the House of the Earl right now. Come take a meal with us, if you’d like.”

“Anywhere but here,” he nodded, “Where’s the Earl’s manor?”

“The Earl prefers to live at his latifundia outside the city proper, but maintains a fortified manor house east of here.”

They started walking together.

“Which faith do you practice in Archzenith?” asked one of the men.

“Reism, mostly. The lower orders follow a host of disciplines. You’ll find many nobles think of the world as a battleground, a proving ground for some kind of consciousness that pokes its tendrils into the universe in the form of human beings. That’s why the noble houses fight each other, we’re like finger puppets. I don’t think that, but just the idea is a relief for some of us. Now the commoners, they can think what they want as long as they follow us in wartime. The aristocrats see them as having a different purpose than leadership and struggle.”

“Yes, so they fight and kill because of the call of the divine! Not far off from the truth, but have you ever considered that the presence which you regard as a consciousness may in fact be something more akin to an energy field or an energetic source?”

“You mean the Monad. It’s possible. Some people think that agony feeds the Monad. In Archzenith it’s more like, kill all you want but there’s no need to torture; if you die you go back to the Consciousness, but torturing a person tortures consciousness as such. Consciousness can’t be killed, but it can be made to suffer.”

“It must be admitted that whatever you Archzenites may believe, you feed the Monad better than most,” said the holy man. They arrived at a great fluted gate outside of a manor composed of cast iron blocks and domes with artillery ports. This place was not built for beauty: it was a pure fortress. There was a good deal of activity on the other side of the gate; gardeners with wheelbarrows, masons laying new foundations on the spare grass between the cobblestone paths, a servant taking kitchen orders from foremen.

Truanor smiled in spite of himself.

“Gentlemen, this place is functioning properly. I can’t believe it.”

“A year ago, I would have chastised you for your pessimism. No more,” said one of the priests. They stood until the portcullis was raised.

Truanor followed them down a stony path that was lined with dusty cypress trees.

“What are they building out here?”

“We don’t expect the coming years to be easy. The Earl wants as many of his retainers as possible living on his property, so we’re digging in and laying down foundations for new homes.”

“I see. You gonna get a church out of it?”

“We already have a chapel in the center of the manor. Would you like to go there after lunch?”


“It is well. You’ll find it’s a walk from where we’ll be dining near the kitchens.”

The priests led him through an alcove entrance into the manor. It was a place of dark splendor; black, white and midnight blue tiles, gold and onyx statues of skull-faced knights, smiling tortured death goddesses, saints armed with knives, pliers and dynamite. There were frescoes of sandstone and cinnabar depicting wars, massacres, even slave revolts that appeared to be successful in killing many of the city’s overseers. Truanor began to grow uneasy.

The priests led him down a grand stairwell that branched off as it pleased into different parts of the manner; they took him down a minor staircase that was made of wood and seemed to cut through a wall that had been mined out after its construction. Truanor smelled food, and after traversing a winding 6’ corridor for a hundred meters or so they entered a, low small room with a round table. There were stacked up stools and metal cabinets in the corners; the priests took a few of the stools down and handed one to Truanor.

“What would you like for lunch?” asked a priest.

“What’s on the menu?”

“Whatever you like. We’ve been amassing quite a reserve given our lack of food security.”

Truanor loved roast beef fresh off the fire, he would eat it by the pound and drink its juice, but he wasn’t in the mood for flesh after what he’d witnessed in the temple.

“Black rye, some hard cheese, if you’ve got it, and a glass of cider.”

The priest nodded and glanced at his companion, who said, “Escargots in hot butter with parsley and sage, a thirty ounce ribeye sautéed in portobello and shallots, rare, a bowl of pitted kalamatas, and a glass of the Inamorata.”

“I don’t know how you drink that swill,” the other priest said, and departed.

The priest plied Truanor with questions about Archzenith. He seemed delighted by the debellatio of Palmgrove, the enslavement of the POWs in Archzenith’s mines, the disappearance of the city-state’s artists, and the devastation wrought on the Affidavits, their continued war against the other nearby tribes.

A priest returned with a pair of pale, unsteady young men in felt tunics who laid a heaping feast upon the shabby little table. Truanor appreciate the smell but was satisfied pressing bits of cheese into his rye, drinking it down with his cider

When they had finished, each man leaned back in his chair.

“How was your food?”

“It was good,” said Truanor, “even in Archzenith you can’t always get proper black rye.”

“Good, good. You feel refreshed? Embiggened?”

“I suppose so,” said Truanor, pursing his lips.

“Good. We’re ready!” the priest called. The door opened and a man in an blue shirt and black beret entered, kicking the door shut behind him. He carried a glossy .45 submachine gun and pointed it at Truanor.

The priest who’d inquired about Truanor’s lunch drew a long, silver dagger from his sleeve apologetically.

“I was afraid of that,” said Truanor.

“It’s not because of our religion. Well, it is, but this would have to happen even if we worshipped unicorns. This way, fed to satisfaction and then bled, the Monad gets you at your very best and all of existence is enriched.”

“Why are you killing me in particular, then?”

“Your city buys so much opium. You keep the Orthodoxy of Opiates alive, you and cities like yours. Without a buyer, their faith has no basis. So it’s better if you just disappear when you come here, even if it means a war with your city. It’s better if they think it’s futile to send their children to Setroxia.”

Truanor closed his eyes. He should have been more suspicious but he’d let himself be enticed here by the prospect of food, comfort, fellowship and beauty after the horror of what he’d seen. Now, one way or another, he was going to be shot. He would kick himself off the ground and fall backwards in his chair, drawing his machine pistol and spraying the room. The submachine gun man would shoot him first but the recoil-

The door burst open. Everyone jumped. A silver .45 pistol poked through the doorway and emitted an earsplitting bang, blowing the top of the gunman’s head off with his black haired scalp coming loose like a floppy hat. Truanor felt a profoundly light mist blow past him with this; not blood, per se, just moisture. The shooter pivoted his arm around the door and shot the knife-wielding priest in the face; chunks of bone, lead and gore were dotted across a mop leaning on the wall behind him. Truanor curled in on himself as the gunman’s smoking pistol fanned past him and came to rest pointing at the final priest.


There was a final tremendous bang that seemed to carry a shockwave of physical force with it. The bullet blasted through the corner of the priest’s forehead and tiny pieces of bone were scattered all throughout the room; little chunks of bone and brain fell into Truanor’s hair and down his collar.

Truanor was cowering down, holding himself around the midsection, but he felt that being skipped in the rotation must increase his chances of survival. He looked up and was greeted with the smoking barrel of the killer’s pistol.

The man was dressed in a steward’s tunic. His dark hair was flecked with white although he looked to be in his early thirties.

“Who are you?” the man asked, gazing through his pistol smoke at Truanor.

“Truanor Hightower. Of Archzenith.” He knew his city had a fearsome reputation.

“You’re a narcotrafficker,” the man stated.

“Not my first choice of profession,” Truanor deadpanned.

The man’s pinkie and ring finger loosened their grip on the pistol.

“Well, you’re free to go now. Shake a leg,” said the man, who turned and darted back into the hallway.

“Wha- Wait!” yelled Truanor and rushed after him, banging bloodstained dishes with his thigh as he rounded the table.

Truanor rushed out into the hallway, which was made of round gray stones and mortar, and saw the man sweeping away, deeper into the fortress. Truanor followed, passing a pair of scullions who were nervously advancing on the room to investigate the gunshots. Finally Truanor caught up to the man at a T-intersection of corridors.

“Wait!” he hissed. The man spun on him, glaring at him with clear and bright eyes.

“Why’d you save me?”

“They were about to execute you.”

“Well, so what?”

The man shook his head.

“Archzenith. Look, you need to escape. Go enslave some kitchen boy and make him dig you a way out of here.”

“I was a child when that war went off! And I’m not here to traffic drugs! Not anymore.”

“What are you talking about?”

Truanor glanced around.

“This is complicated. Can I talk to you? Let’s find somewhere private.”

“There won’t be anywhere private down here in about two minutes. I’ve potentially compromised my cover to help you. Now it’s on you to make something of it.”

“Well, let me help you! Then we’ll be square and we can get out of here together!”

“Are you trained in infiltration?”

“Of enemy trenches, yes.”

“That’s not what I mean though I’ll keep that in mind. Take off your fucking House Hightower colors and follow me.” The man set off. Truanor stood flat footed for a moment and followed.

“How’d you know about my colors? Are we that famous?”

“Infamous. But I’ve been trained on you. A know-your-enemy kind of thing.”

“Enemy? Just who are you?” Truanor stopped in his tracks. “You’re a Cynthian Knight.”

The man whirled on his heel and seized Truanor’s House Hightower cravat with one hand and his stiletto with the other, roughly yanking Truanor’s nose within inches of his own and pressing the point of the dagger against Truanor’s belly.

“Call me that again.”

They were both silent for a moment as the man stared into Truanor’s eyes.

“I’m Johannes Bloodroot, Starling & Shrike.”

The man let him go and continued on. Truanor stood for a moment before following him.

“What the fuck was that for? We aren’t enemies! We’re at war against the Cynthians!”


“You’d better be more fucking careful! We’re prickly where I come from!”

“Ungrateful for his life two minutes after I saved it. And you thought I was the aristocrat.”

“I am grateful, but watch it! My self control isn’t limitless!”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Bloodroot opened the rough wooden door of a grain well that descended deep into the earth. He stepped inside onto the surface of the grain reserve. A few rats squeaked and scurried into the hallway, glued to the wall as if by gravity while they slipped by Truanor, who followed Bloodroot into the darkness.

“The Earl’s men are going to come down this hallway eventually. We’re going to be underneath the grain when they do.”

Truanor looked down and nodded, but said, “Maybe we should just ambush them. I’ve been training for combat since I was a little child.”

“So have I, but you don’t need training to sit in a stack of grain. We’re in the deepest corridor of an enemy fortress. Fighting is our last resort. Dig in.”

They began to scoop their way into the grain.

“So why did you rescue me if you don’t want my help?” asked Truanor.

“I already told you.”

“But who cares if they were gonna kill me? You don’t know anything about me.”

“The fact they wanted you in the first place told me something.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m here looking for annals from the Church of Murder. Radiant Monadists. Killed a lot of people even before the heroin cult blew up. There are a lot of people who’d like to see their records, not least of which are families whose children disappeared when the Church was at its peak. They try to sacrifice good people because they’re the ones who are most pleasing to the Monad or some fucked up shit like that. They were about to sacrifice you, ergo they thought you were a good person. Guess they fucked up.”

“Shut up, fucking pigeon. I already told you I’m not here to push drugs and I wasn’t in the war on Palmgrove! What more do you want?”

“Then why are you here? Enjoying the discount on prostitution that comes with chattel slavery and humanitarian crises?”

“Watch your fucking tongue! I came to protect my cousin, who is here to get heroin! But I’m through with that now!”


“It’s fucking horrible! The world’s turned into a goddamned nightmare ever since I encountered that awful shit.”

They were up to their necks now, with only their hands free to cover their heads with wheat when the moment came.

“Why am I skeptical about the Archzenith nobleman’s sudden change of heart when he needs my help escaping the murder cult? The murder cult he thought he was gonna mooch off of?

“Because I’m a man of honor! I’d fucking tell you if I was still gonna get the heroin!”

“Did you tell the Affidavits what’d happen if they got the heroin?”

Truanor lunged at Bloodroot but they heard footfalls in the corridor and immediately wiggled into the grain, sweeping it over their heads. The door burst open. A guard with a rifle and bayonet leaned in. He poked his bayonet through the grain for a moment, then let the door bang shut. Then he quickly opened it again. Then he closed it and left.

Truanor used a finger to sweep the grain from in front of his mouth.

“I think they’re gone!”


They waited for some time. Finally the footsteps came back down the hallway and continued the way they first came. Bloodroot began to worm his way up and out. Truanor followed suit.

“What do you mean ‘enemy’? We’re on the same side.”

“Ever notice how there’s nothing formal about our alliance? How we have contracts with Diadem, Troutbridge, Ascension etcetera, but not you? Never you? Ever wonder why that is?

“Who cares? Who needs you when a country has its own cohort of gentlemen to carry out its cause?”

“You just don’t get it. Everyone thinks Archzenith’s evil. And having all your artists disappear hasn’t helped.”

“But I’m not involved in any of that!”

“Fine! We’ll see where your loyalties lie once we get out of here! To your newfound, vestigial conscience, or to the gentlemen of Archzenith? Show me! We’ll find out!”

“Well- I’ll show you, cocksucker! I could bust my way out of here no problem, but I said I’d help you find your idiotic paperwork and that’s what I’m gonna do! So you don’t have to take a thing on faith.”

“Fan-fucking-tactic. You come along behind and we’ll see if we can get you into something that’s not a dress uniform’s dress uniform.”

They ran down the hallway in a blur of gray brick, dust curling after their footfalls.

“Those dead priests mentioned a chapel,” said Truanor, “Seems like a good place to start.”

“Fair,” said Bloodroot, sliding to a halt in front of a humble, stained wood door. He fell down on all fours and listened under the crack, and Truanor crowded his ear against the keyhole.

“Monadic patron, eternal saint, bather in lifeblood sacrosanct-“

Bloodroot leapt up and opened the door just enough to slide through with his .45 raised. Truanor followed. It was a humble servant’s quarters, and there was a young man on his knees before a golden orb that rested upon an old chess table at the foot of his rickety timeworn bed. The boy looked up, gaping, and tucked the golden orb into his coat. Bloodroot had the .45 inches from the tip of the young man’s nose.

“Disrobe. After prayers, it’s bedtime.”

The young man said, “Please don’t take my Monad.”

“The Monad’s inside of you, isn’t it? Or something? We’re here for your clothes, not your balls. Strip down and we’ll let you keep the snow globe.”

The servant began to disrobe, and Truanor began pulling his own intricately-donned raiments off piece-by-piece. The servant watched him like he was disassembling a complex 3D puzzle. The servant finished first and stood in his underwear.

Finally Truanor unlaced his oxhide kote and shuffled it down his arms onto the pile of his clothes by his feet. He reached into the heap and withdrew his stiletto, advancing grimly on the servant, who fell back into his bed frame and chess table, knocking the latter to the ground with a clatter, and gave an exhaled squeak of terror.

“Halt! Stay your stiletto!”

Truanor had begun to raise his weapon but Bloodroot had grasped the blade.

“What is it?” he asked.

“We’ve no need to kill him!”

Truanor looked at Bloodroot, then at the servant, then back at Bloodroot.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll knock him out!”

“But he’ll wake up and tell on us! What do you care? Doesn’t he worship the Devil Sun?”

Bloodroot looked at the servant.

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

“I- I haven’t, lord master sir, b-but if you kill me my soul will go to the Monad.”

“See?” said Truanor.

Bloodroot looked at them both. “I’m gonna let this kid ripen. Sacrifice yourself before you sacrifice others. The Monad will get a bigger meal off you both.” Bloodroot spun the pistol around on his finger, then whipped the handle into the servant’s jaw with a stupendous whack. The boy clattered to the ground, cut across the chin.

“A lesson in sweetness and humanity. Get dressed,” said Bloodroot, holstering his weapon and hoisting the boy into bed.

They stood in a small library off of the ribcage-roofed chapel of the Earl’s fortress. Bloodroot had ripped the pages out of a holy book and substituted them with logs, diaries and annals taken from a darkened Records alcove before binding the booklet in a twine of woven-together bookmark ribbons. Truanor had been thumbing through volumes:

Precosmogonic Gastrosyncretism: Nothing New Before the Sun
The Radiant Schism: Blood Baptism and Sacred Radiation
The Journal of Human Sacrifice: The Thrill of the Divine

“I’ve got thousands of names. Looks like some of them were traded to Radiant sects elsewhere on the planet. Some of them could still be alive. Saved for New Year’s sacrifices.”

“That what you need?”

“That’s what I need.”

A priest in black robes with golden trim opened the door and looked at them.

“Greetings, master. What can your humble servants do for you this day?” asked Truanor.

“Violators!” he breathed angrily, and took a step back.

Truanor dropped his book, rushed the priest, and stuck his stiletto all the way through his chest as he staggered backwards with his hands raised. Truanor’s vicious thrill turned to angry shock as he and the priest bumped into a rifleman who’d been standing behind the priest. Apparently he’d been given a security detail of two soldiers in the wake of the brotherhood’s pruning.

The soldier they’d bumped into was off-balance and tried to unsling his rifle but Truanor put his hand on the man’s shoulder, pinning his the strap in place, and yanked the stiletto from the priest’s sternum, who fell over and grasped the wooden banister of the chapel’s inner cloister.

The soldier grabbed Truanor’s wrist, but he forced the blade into the soldier’s neck anyway; the man leaned into himself and away from Truanor, but Truanor rammed the stiletto through one side of his neck and almost out the other. The spike slid free as the soldier collapsed like a sack of potatoes. There was a tremendous crack that made Truanor jump; the second soldier had crouched a bit and fired his bolt-action rifle into the library with a hint of pressure that Truanor could feel echoing away from him. The soldier was met with a barrage of gunshots from inside the library and collapsed onto his side. He screamed like he’d just lost a fortune, and then was still except for ragged and unprofitable breathing.

Bloodroot emerged from the library hunched up over his pistol, sliding home a new magazine.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” he said and spat red froth onto the flagstone floor.


“Bring your ass.” Bloodroot made for the chapel doors with one hand on the bannister, his pistol hanging by his thigh. He had a blood-soaked bullet hole through his left lower back.


“How’d you get here? To Setroxia?”

“By seaplane. It’s moored up at the grand canal.”

“Help!” Johannes screamed raggedly, “Help!”

“What are you doing!?”

“Carry me. Help!”

Truanor ran to Johannes and put his arm over his shoulder as they reached the door. Blood was pouring down his chin. They staggered into the hallway and a pair of the Earl’s riflemen ran to them.

“They killed… another priest. They’re in… the library!”

“Right! Wait here!” said one of the soldiers and they crept into the room.

Johannes and Truanor went through the front doors and out towards the gate.

“Gunmen! Gunmen in the chapel! Blasphemers! Seek cover!” yelled Johannes.

They arrived at a gatehouse built into the wall. The wrought iron portcullis was closed; a pair of soldiers were inside a windowed chamber lined with heavy chains to control the gate.

“Carry me in,” said Johannes. Trunaor pushed open the door and they staggered into the guard post.

“Keep him out of here! He goes to the Monad, can’t you see that? Out!”

Johannes drew his .45 and shot the man in the heart. The other fell into a crouch and tried to get below a table. Johannes shot him in the side, then sent a bullet through the back of his hand and into his brain. The man slowly extended on the floor like a caterpillar.

The room now smelled of gunpowder and blood. The man who was shot in the heart was sitting on a records-making table with an expression of disbelief; he seized his chest as if he was having a heart attack, grimaced, then slid into a heavy faint on the floorboards.

“Open the gate,” rasped Johannes.

Truanor found a crankwheel and wound it with all his might until the portcullis had opened enough for them to bow through.

Johannes selected a submachine gun from a rusty, cobwebbed weapons rack and began lining his waistband with magazines like he was making a grass skirt.

Johannes came to Truanor and pulled him roughly into his side, wrapping an arm over the back of Truanor’s neck.

“Make for the nearest alley. They’ll be a hell of a lot easier to deal when they’re not on home turf.”

Truanor carried Johannes into the courtyard. Laborers and scribes were approaching the guardhouse to see what had happened; Johannes fired indiscriminately just over their heads and they rushed for cover, screaming for the guards. Truanor carried his charge out into the dusty open ground that lay fifty feet between the Earl’s walls and the nearest buildings; he expected to receive a rifle round just as Bloodroot had but they made it into an alleyway without gunfire. Truanor was elated to have escaped the fortress despite the wound of his companion

“Let me down!” said Johannes. Truanor slid away from him. Johannes advanced gingerly down the alleyway.

“Alright! I can walk! I have a surgeon, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to lead you anywhere near him. You’d give him up under torture, just as I would. He’s not far from here; you are going to take this and get it to a Starling & Shrike office!” Johannes pulled the book he’d assembled out of his belt and thrust it into Truanor’s arms, who almost dropped it.

“What! No! There’s no way I’m letting you walk through these alleys alone, least of all after I got attacked doing just that!”

“I don’t need you when I’ve got all this!” Johannes gestured to his submachine panoply. “Go get on that seaplane right now!”

“I won’t do it! I’m not going to leave you after what you just did!”

Johannes drew his silver .45 pistol and placed it underneath his own jaw, just above his Adam’s apple. It gleamed in the midday sun.

“Then I’m leaving you. You’re taking that book and getting out of here. That’s the best bet for it. I’ll take time to recover. Time that this city might not have. You’re taking that book and you’re flying out of here right now. One way or another.”

Truanor slapped the pistol out from under Johannes’ jaw, but he said, “Fine, you crazy asshole! Mr ‘I’ve got to be a hero and go it alone’. Go it alone! See what happens! I’ll tell the pigeon brass to not get their hopes up for you!”

“Do that,” grinned Johannes with bloody teeth and hobbled away up the alleyway.

“Fucking psychopath. I hope I see that guy again,” Truanor said to himself.

He jogged through the alleyways until he came into the square of the grand temple of the Orthodoxy of Opiates. There on the front step was his cousin, still in grand Archzenith raimentry, speaking with a group of men in hooded robes of rough brown wool, each carrying a poppy-shaped staff with an incense brazier for a head and a long, heated hypodermic needle poking from the top.

“Castor, are we finished?” Truanor called as he came near the gathering.

“Ah. My cousin Truanor. Please humor him. Cousin, have you gone native? What’s become of your Hightower Colors?”

“Nevermind that, suffice to say this is not a place to wander. Are we going?”

“You gave up your Colors to street urchins?”

“No! I fought like a Hightower! But my cyan blood would be stained in the streets of Setroxia had I gone on as I was! Are we leaving?”

“No, we are not leaving. It will be several days until the heroin is ready. But the priests have graciously offered us lodging in the temple.” He grinned.

“I’ll wait for you by the canal. I cannot stand the dryness of this place. I’ll sleep on the stones of the water trough wall if I must. But I won’t go in that temple.”

“Oh, but you will,” said Castor sternly, “You abandoned me when you swore to protect me and you lost the colors of House Hightower, something we swore as boys never to do! The days of your naive insolence are over! You’ve proven yourself unfit to wander freely and now you’ll be kept under lock and key until I bring you home to Archzenith where you’ll answer for your failures as a man, a warrior and a Hightower!”

The priests were uneasy and began to lower their glowing needle-staffs towards Truanor.

Truanor closed his eyes, looked down and then leapt backwards through the air, drawing his machine pistol. As soon as he hit the ground he gripped it mightily with two hands and rode it bucking across the heroin priests. He cut them down in puffs of protruding fabric before the last one stabbed Truanor through the arm with his needle, pouring glowing coals of incense over him at the same time; all Truanor felt was a dull ache and a sear as if someone’s fingernails had been raked down his arm. Truanor shot the priest once in the center of the chest and he collapsed, screaming tightly. Truanor drew down on his cousin with the needle-staff still poking through his arm. Castor had just drawn his .44 magnum but hadn’t quite got it on Truanor yet.

“Drop it,” breathed Truanor. Castor gazed at him with livid eyes; he wasn’t sure if Truanor would do it and was studying him with the greatest intensity. Truanor began to squeeze the trigger. Castor dropped the weapon and stepped back with his hands raised.

“Aaaaaugh! Aaaaaaugh!” screamed the priest who’d been shot in the chest.

Truanor could hear his straining heartbeat around the hypodermic staff, the point of which poked bloodlessly from Truanor’s arm. He kept his handgun trained on his cousin and yanked the staff free with a strange sensation like having a tooth pulled. He got up, advanced, seized the .44, tucked it into his coat and began to walk backward towards the canal.

“You’ll never escape. Never,” said Castor.

“Then hope I don’t take you with me when I die,” hissed Truanor. As soon as he was a hundred meters away, Castor turned and sprinted up the stairs into the temple. Truanor didn’t fire; he turned and began his run for the canal.

Truanor arrived at the barbed wire in just a few minutes, ragged and sweating. The soldiers saw him coming, scowled at him and waved him away.

“No water for the likes of you, cockroach! Go drink out of a donkey’s asshole!”

“I’m a noble of Archzenith! Clear the wire before my next heartbeat or this city will go the way of Palmgrove!”

“Ah, shit, yes, I recognize you sir! Help me move this!” called the soldier and a few came to pull it out of the way. As soon as it was opened a few inches Truanor dodged through it and made for the seaplane at a dead run. The soldiers doffed their vast hats to him as he passed.

He leapt up onto the wall of the canal and ran to the seaplane, jumping onto its pontoon and soaking his thin felt shoes. The pilot was sleeping on the floor of the seaplane wrapped up in a thick blanket; he poked his eyes blearily over his cover at the disturbance.

Truanor wrenched the door open. “Start the plane! We’re going! We’re going right now!”

“W- where is master Castor, sir?”

“He stays! Get up!”

The pilot pushed the blanket off of him and struggled to pull himself up with the nearest seats.

“Are we in danger, master Truanor? Such a rush, I note.”

“Don’t worry about that! Do as you’re charged, man!”

The pilot sat down at the controls. Truanor glanced back at the street where he’d come and saw Castor run into view with his rapier drawn. Dozens of armed retainers from some Setroxian nobleman followed behind him.

“Move! Move now!” Truanor hissed at the pilot, who looked over his shoulder as he started the propeller with a bang and a whir.

“Master! What’s the meaning of this? There’s your cousin Castor with a whole platoon of soldiers!”

Truanor drew his pistol and put it to the back of the man’s neck. It was still warm.


The pilot took a deep breath and opened the throttle. The plane began pushing forward across the perfectly-still water. Castor and the soldiers had cleared the wire behind them.

Truanor swallowed, put his face in his palms for a moment, and then looked up at them resignedly. The soldiers would begin firing in moments. The plane would be riddled with bullets. Escape was very unlikely.

The soldiers leveled their rifles at the plane. Truanor squeezed a backrest, preparing for the barrage. Then Castor raised his rapier in front of their rifles and bade them halt with delight; he pointed his sword up in the air, towards the city’s great statue.

Truanor looked up as well. The torso of the black statue was rotating slowly; the enormous ruby that covered its eye was coming into view.

That’s what Castor had meant. He’d never escape.

The pilot looked up and followed Truanor’s gaze.

“It’s the superweapon,” he said, his voice breaking. “I think we’d better cut off the engine, sir.”

Truanor looked at the ruby. It was beginning to glow with an inner fire, an unnatural light divorced from the sun, which was held off by a halo of darkness ringing the ruby’s edge.

Truanor didn’t answer. He simply watched the gathering light with bitterness and pushed the pistol deeper into the pilot’s neck.

After a few moments, he whispered to himself,

“This has been worth it. I go to glory in a story that may never be told, but my actions will sit right among the ancestors. If I am a piece of a great consciousness, I have maintained its integrity here. Forgive me the life of this pilot. He is my only regret.”

The ruby began to glow like a second sun. It burned a purple light into Truanor’s eye that lingered even when he closed it, as he could look at it no longer. The seaplane lifted off from the water. It grew devastatingly hot inside of the compartment; both noble and pilot grimaced and squeezed whatever was nearest, curling into themselves.

There was an enormous vibrating noise like an earthquake in the air around them. It was deafening and the seaplane shook like it would undo its own bolts. This was it!

But the vibration relented, though the sound intensified. Truanor looked up and behind him, heart hammering, sweat standing upon his brow. There was an enormous wall of light behind the plane, so bright and hot he could barely gaze upon it, but he forced himself to, thrusting himself into the back of the plane, deciding to sacrifice his vision if need be to understand what it was he was seeing.

A vast beam of sun-bright light stood between the ruby and the canal below! The beam was raking its way up the canal, leaving nothing but whirling clouds of pulverized stone and glowing metal snakes where the barbed wire had been! The statue was annihilating the whole canal zone.

The light beam scorched and crushed everything until the end of the canal, then suddenly narrowed and shut off just before it would have destroyed the nearest house. Truanor tried to make out signs of life near the canal; he could only catch glimpses of corpses that were laying near the devastation. Those not obliterated by the massive beam were presumably killed by the heat.

Truanor put his fist upon the hot window and leaned against it.

He murmured, “Cousin, I am a fool, for I cannot but hope you made it clear.”

“Did- did they miss?” yelped the pilot, whose arms and knees were quaking violently.

They were flying up level with the statue’s head and Truanor was gazing at it. He could see behind the steaming ruby, through the empty eye and into the head itself. It was a control room with levers, and it was blanketed with bloody corpses and men who were still writhing from gunshot wounds or shrapnel. Johannes Bloodroot was sitting against the controls, his clothes torn up and stained by half a dozen gunshot wounds. Johannes saw them fly by and raised his submachine gun overhead with one hand before he disappeared from view.

“No,” said Truanor hoarsely, “It was a friend of mine. He hit exactly what he was aiming at.”

They touched down in the bay of Mandrake, a city-state famed as a refuge for exiled noblemen. The Archzenites called it the world’s outhouse. Truanor would call it home.

They motored through a watertop forest of mangroves towards Mandrake’s innumerable wooden docks of every elevation and state of repair. Several times they were nearly ensnared on vines, roots and kudzu, but they made it to a dock and were approached by a man in suspenders and a newsboy cap. He chewed a burned-out cigar for a moment, then called out,

“You mooring?”

“Just dropping off,” said Truanor, stepping onto the pontoon. The man pushed his cigar into the water with his tongue, which he extended far past his lips, then turned on his heel and walked back to shore.

Truanor turned to the pilot.

“Please accept my apologies. I put your life in great danger, and now you’ll have to face my family once you get back to Archzenith.”

The pilot’s face showed gratitude despite the truth of what Truanor had said.

“What do I tell them, master Truanor?” he asked quietly.

“Tell them that I wanted the best for the House, but that it would stain my soul as a Hightower to have participated in this affair. Tell them that to maintain my honor as a Hightower, I must leave the House itself, perhaps forever. Tell my mother and sisters that I love them, and tell my father that I have done this of my own volition, and that I step forward upon a new and darkling path with the blood of our line in my mind and my veins.” He smiled. “And tell them that I put a gun to your head, if you think that will help. Some of them won’t care. But some might.”

The pilot nodded.

“I wish you luck,” he said quietly.

“Thank you,” said Truanor, clasping the pilot’s arm, and then walked down the jetty to Mandrake.

Truanor stood at the edge of a muddy street. Sweating stevedores, outrageously ostentatious noblemen and their retinues, stray dogs, donkey carts, and even a tracked motorcar passed behind him

He’d reached his destination. It was a whitewashed stoneblock house with a black tile roof. The building was stained with mud around the base, and cigarettes had been put out here and there upon the wall. There was a sign hanging from the building that read “Starling & Shrike”.

Truanor had Bloodroot’s book in his hand. He knocked and a Starling & Shrike Contracting Officer in black and white opened the door.

“My name is Truanor Hightower of Archzenith. One of your agents, Johannes Bloodroot, grave his life to save my life in the city of Setroxia. He had one final request, which I’ve come to fulfill. May I come in?”


  1. Damn dude, your vision of Setroxia might be even grimmer than mine. I've been working up a short piece set in Setroxia myself, a blasphemous little thing I've been calling First Communion, Last Rites. I finished the 1st draft yesterday. Be happy to send it your way after a little more work if you like!
    Great moment of tension with the statue, I thought for sure they were going to be blown out of the sky. Wonderful detail all over, the teeth on the blackened bodies made for a truly nasty picture in the mind's eye.

    1. Nice, please do! Yeah, I pictured Setroxia having actual jewelry districts, château villages, elegant townhouses and perhaps something resembling suburbs near the edge of the city, but I sort of focused on a dilapidated urban core filled with drugs and chaos for this; either way, I just want to say publicly that my vision of Setroxia or any of these cities is NOT canonical!

      I’m really glad you liked it, Dan. Thanks a lot.

    2. I'm quite willing to have this be "canon" for whatever that's worth! You did a wonderful job evoking this place!

  2. I’m really liking these glimpses into the city-states! Good job at weaving bits of the others in as well.

    1. Thanks Ben! There’s a main character experiencing his darkest moment deep beneath Sarabande as of the end of my writing session today. Let us pray to the Burning Eye to guide him, not that he believes in any of that horseshit...

    2. Oh excellent! I remember the Burning Eye from the Gardens post. I’m sure he’ll have a wonderful time.
      Like Dan above, I might do some writing of my own in plagued Sarabande.


Art - First Run