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Tag: 2016

The Cat at the Gate

There was a cat at the gate. He was no ordinary cat. He was a mackerel tabby with a blaze of white across his nose and two horns of stiffened hairs spiraling up from the top of his head. When the wind blew from the south his words reached human ears.

“I’m making up for time not yet lost,” he said.

And I understood.

We walked together into the garden. The trees lifted their limbs in a wave of emerald and turquoise, and the grass sighed beneath our feet, and the puzzled shadows of dawn made faces as they retreated. The distant cry of a hunting horn rose on the air and I lifted my nose, but smelt only the perfume of lilacs and oranges. We were alone.

My companion matched my long-legged pace, his striped tail held high, until we reached the glimmering depths of a pool. He curled his tail around his toes and looked down at his reflection, an imperfect image of shimmering white that spread like spilled milk. “This is where she’ll walk,” he said. “On a summer day. In the rain, with lilies between her fingers.”

I took a breath, filling my mouth with air that tasted of sprung sap and overturned earth. I nodded.

We walked on, over the rounded backs of pebbles and the brittle remains of last year’s leaves, under the bridge made by twin trees felled by their own embrace, and up a steep bank littered with the empty shells of mollusks. I pulled myself up by way of a gnarled root. The cat leapt the distance in one smooth arc, his horns thrust forward like the rack of a stag.

He paused to drag his tongue over his back, a flash of pink in the murky gloom of the wood. I waited. We had left the garden and I no longer knew the way.

I followed the cat as he slunk between ferny plumes crisscrossed by the glistening trails of slugs. His shoulder blades lifted and fell beneath his fur. His ears swiveled behind his horns. When he halted, I halted too.

I heard nothing beyond the distant whisper of falling water. The trees had grown thicker, each one slouching amid a carpet of its own progeny, each one marred by boles and broken limbs and weeping sores infested with beetle larvae. Sawdust lodged like blown snow inside their craggy hides. Below lay piles of larvae plucked from the wood by birds who couldn’t resist their fattened bodies but couldn’t abide their bitter taste.

A second trumpet blew from the hunting horn, closer this time. My heart constricted. “They’ll find us,” I said, though I hadn’t meant to speak aloud. “We have so little time.”

The wind was from the east, and so my companion made no reply. He walked on, his back low, his padded feet silent on the mossy undergrowth. I lost sight of him as he crept through the tangled remains of a holly bush, its branches still showing white wounds, the earth torn in short furrows of three.

I climbed over and found him on the other side, his gaze fixed with a cat’s indifference on the empty hollow left behind by the shrub’s uprooting. “This is where she’ll be brought to bay,” he said. “On a winter’s night, with the moon as her witness.”

“Ah,” I said, an exhalation of grief sharpened by revelation. I hadn’t known and wouldn’t now forget. “She will die here.”


I looked down at the cat, but he had resumed his grooming, his head bent to his splayed toes, his eyes half-lidded. “Then where?” I said. I couldn’t keep the weight of my heart from my words, so I didn’t try. “You must take me there.”

“It’s not a place for those such as you.”

“It’s not for her either,” I said. I held my breath, listening for the horn. But I heard only the gurgle of water I couldn’t see. “She was once mortal.” And could be again, I didn’t add.

He met my gaze as if he’d heard. His alien eyes held neither pity nor compassion. He stretched his pliant limbs and trotted into the underbrush. His pace was quicker this time, his back low, his ears flattened behind his horns. I kept up only at the cost of snapping twigs and whispering leaves, but he didn’t slow, and above the ruckus of my own passage the horn blasted its strident call a third time, so close it crept like an unwanted caress against my skin.

Down once more, into a gully. I slid and stumbled where the cat ran and leapt. I fell once, twice, my knees bruised by unyielding rock, my hands scratched by the sharp edges of torn grass. Shapes had been pressed into the sandy mud, the shallow impress of a human hand — larger than my own — the deeper gouge of a hoof. Crushed leaves still wept, strung with crystal droplets. A tuft of coarse hair, layered from white to gray to black, had caught on a splintered branch, only to float away a moment later, lifted into the air by a sudden gust of wind.

“Hurry.” The cat’s voice rang out like a bell. He looked back at me, his eyes wide. He turned away, his hindquarters bunched, and he sprang up into the arching branches of a willow.

I hesitated. She couldn’t have–


I grabbed a branch and pulled myself up into its shelter. I couldn’t see beyond the drooping curtain of leaves and only followed the cat as he climbed higher and higher, his claws leaving marks in the trunk, my soft hands and feet searching ineffectually for handholds and footholds. “Wait,” I said. “Please, wait.”

His shape hovered above me, a black shadow, his horns growing and retreating as he lifted and lowered his head. “We’re almost there.”

I caught up with him at the crown, a lofty break in the foliage. I sighed as the sky opened above me in pearlescent hues, laced with clouds, gilded by the watery light of two suns. It was a sky I didn’t know, but remembered. “This is where she was born,” I said. I swallowed. I wouldn’t weep.

“Look.” The cat’s voice drifted, drawn into a deep whisper by the errant wind. “There.”

I followed his gaze. Down, down below us, in a spiraling haze of smoke, an orange flame licked white branches, and once more the peal of the hunting horn rang out, a triumphant note, satisfied, merciless. My throat opened in a wild cry. “I can’t reach her.” I clutched at my eyes. “I can’t help her.”

“That was never in your power.” The cat had stretched himself along a heavy branch, anchored by his claws. “You would only have been destroyed.”

I lunged at him, but he sprang away. I slipped, landed hard on my shins, and caught myself before I could fall. “I hate you.” I wanted to let go. I could let go. “You’re unkind. You’re cruel.”

The cat blinked, slowly. Unmoved. He canted his head to one side in an unfeline gesture. “I don’t hate you,” he said, as if he’d mistaken my meaning. “It was an act of love.”

“What do you know of love.” I leaned back against the bulwark of the tree. I wrapped my arms around my ankles, no longer caring if I fell. “Everything she ever was, everything she could ever be, ends here.”

“She made her choice.” His lifted his eyes to the sky. The blaze on his nose picked up a brilliant highlight in the dual glow of the suns. “You still need to make yours.”

“What choice?” He hadn’t lied to me. They cannot lie.

“Let her go.”

“No.” I breathed around the knot in my chest. “I can’t.”

“You can.”

I closed my eyes. “I could just let go,” I said. “I’d fall for a long time before the end came.”

“You could.”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“That’s up to you.”

Tears burned from beneath my lids. “She was never mine,” I said. “So I cannot hold her.”

A sigh shivered up from the leaves below, a susurration like a watery breath. When the wind shifted from east to south, the sigh was echoed in the voice of the cat. “She was much loved,” he said. “So I shall go in your stead.”

I squinted against the dazzle of the suns. My companion sat with his head bowed, his horns lowered, his figure indistinct, suffused with a clouded brilliance. I lifted a hand, though I couldn’t reach him. “Who are you?”

He laughed, a tinkling as of tiny bells, like falling water. The wind shifted, taking his words, and he leapt in one smooth motion, to land on his feet at the end of the branch. “Will you find me?”

“I will.” I didn’t know where, but I knew I would, in time.

“Then I will be content.” He tilted his head once more, in that uncatlike gesture — and leapt. Down. Down. His voice came on the wind. “Find me.”

And I did.

July 20, 2016


I’d never traveled the Underworld alone. To do so now, with omen-songs riding the wind and every tongue heavy with rumors of a broken seal, would’ve been foolhardy — but to take a soul-reaver with me? That wasn’t my choice. I shared my rations with one who didn’t eat only because the city could afford no better, neither hireling nor sanctioned priest, just myself — a debt-ridden old mercenary — and this creature molded from human flesh into death’s handmaiden.

Her name was Makes Shadows Shift, so I called her Makeshift. She was eight feet tall and as emaciated as a weeks old cadaver, and so unnaturally still I began to doubt she breathed at all. She never sat. Never slept. Never spoke. She’d been trained at the Sanctum Dolor for purposes unknown, and lent to me freely, without terms, for their coffers were deep and influence had never come so cheaply. She’d taken vows in two worlds to become what they’d made her. I didn’t yet know what that was.

We walked on foot, as no mount would bear her, and passed the Sphinx Gate in six days, crossing the boundaries of inhabited land and following the river as it snaked its way through the marshy heath. Tonight we’d reach the ruined temple that breached the Underworld. I’d hoped to enter it by the grace of daylight, a boon to mortal travelers, but a storm-laden wind had been against us — a warning or a last chance to turn back I didn’t know — and we were delayed. Night had come to this forlorn stretch of wild lands, and from within it blew the hot breath of the fane, an exhalation like the sigh of a lost soul.

The temple’s rocky crest rose on the black horizon, limned in gold by the sharp crescent of the waxing moon. I hadn’t thought to look for good omens, and took the one that was proferred, sending a whispered prayer to Omela Ahma of the Waters for even so slight a lamp in the darkness. Makeshift didn’t pray. She kept walking, her stride modulated to match my own until my breath came faster, unwilling as I was to slow down, to reveal any weakness, though she wouldn’t have noticed.

I didn’t halt until we’d reached the shattered outer wall of the fane. It had once been a monastery dedicated to a god so old it had forgotten its own name. It had been overrun a hundred years ago, first by reformists who had slaughtered the monks, and then by thieves who had slaughtered the reformists, and finally by the teeth and claws of nature. Home now only to beasts of the field and lubas and gulagar and other malformed things escaped from backwater cultists, it stood like a gap in the night, a blasted place that had never felt the touch of a blessed hand. I’d been here before, a dozen times, and each time I swore I wouldn’t return.

Makeshift stood with her back to the moon, either oblivious to its presence, or so much an atheist as to be beyond caring. Her arms hung limply from her shoulders, her back slightly curved, her legs splayed at the knees. Her hair stood out in whorled knots, an adornment I hadn’t expected when we were introduced, and her reaver’s robes — a diaphanous silver cloud that blurred if looked at directly — shifted about her bare feet as if with a will of its own. Her face was turned away, and in profile, had a noble cast, the empty eyes sunken over an aquiline nose, the chin at once stubborn and over-long, every aspect of her body stretched as if by long use of the arts that made her both feared and pitied.

The urge to speak rose in my throat. An oblate’s instinct, I suppose, though I’d been many years breached of my vows, to manifest resistance with the power of ancient words, to make true every thought by repeating it aloud. But I only took a breath. Makeshift wouldn’t have cared what was said, and the gods already knew what was in my heart: I didn’t want to be here, but I’d do what I’d come to do — or die in the attempt. It was in my nature more so even than that of the Reaver.

I stepped through a gap in the wall, desiccated leaves crunching underfoot. Makeshift followed behind, the rasp of her claws against the stonework strangely reassuring. I caught a glimpse of a ghostly tendril extruded from within the sleeve of her robe, her peculiar gift for hunting down anomalies in both worlds at once.

Nothing moved within the great pile. A breeze blew cool with the draught of coming night as it hissed through the remains of a broken tower to funnel into the open bailey. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me even with the glad assistance of the maiden moon, and kept a hand lightly on the rapier at my side. It wouldn’t do to draw prematurely. Some of what called the ruins home might dismiss us if we proved no threat.

Makeshift moved silently, the grass bending only briefly as she seemed to float over the dusty cobblestones. The illusion unnerved me. I glanced at her and caught a warning tremor in her face, the skin drawing tight over her cheekbones as she lifted one cadaverous hand.

I dropped to my knees. I drew my dagger, the long rapier useless in close quarters, and a breath of air touched my cheek like a whisper as Makeshift’s hand passed in front of me. Her long fingers curled as if to swipe at my face and I lurched backwards, my teeth bared in fury — until I saw the glimmer caged by the reaver’s pale hand: a glyph ward, cast in the shape of a dart.

Makeshift dropped her arm to her side. The moon painted an outline of the creatures that surrounded us. Six or eight, or ten, I couldn’t count them by their eyes, as they had so many. One was a luba — humanoid, as tall as Makeshift, its multitude of arms as flat as tentacles and each one bearing a phosphorescent glyph. The rest were a mix of wild and constructed, once-human and never animal. Some rose up on two legs, others hunched over on four, all of them seething with a hunger that pinched my mind, an urge to yield without the futile waste of resistance.

I whispered a glyph ward of my own, six words to reseat the soul — “I am foretold of the light” — and to my surprise, Makeshift echoed them, a double blessing, her voice like the rush of a wind-drawn flame. The luba’s glyphs faded to a lifeless gray, but the creatures didn’t falter. Only steps from the breach in the world, they would have risked far more for such fresh prey. A mouth swelled with teeth. One creature paced back and forth on human hands. The others shifted, uttering plaintive moans, until at last they surged forward as one and the luba leapt in a graceful arc, sighing as if in anticipation of the downward plunge into the crunch of bone.

This time I moved before Makeshift. I drew my rapier and swung, cutting the luba in two. Bloodless, it fell with a screeching wail as I ran my blade through a second, and then a third, the whole mass moving now — angry, fearful, and most of all, hungry — until, dismembered and oozing a foul ichor, the survivors crawled away. Mewling piteously, they rejoined those that were still whole and slithered together into the darkness, and down into the gaping maw that opened into the Underworld.

I took a steadying breath, my rapier hanging limply at my side. I drove the blade deep into the earth, speaking aloud a heartfelt prayer to Oma Oman of the Blood that she might cleanse it of the stain of the unshriven. And she did, tugging on the blade with an added benediction before I could free it, clean and unblemished.

Makeshift stood as stoically as before, unmoved by the attack. Her robe clung to her narrow chest, as still as the dead, though for the first time I detected the tiniest throb of a pulse in her throat.

“Remat a atta,” I said in the old language, the one taught at the Sanctum Dolor. When she didn’t react, I spoke again, in the coarser tongue of the new people. “I am yours.”

This time she did respond, and for a long time after I wouldn’t understand what it meant. She swung her head in a broad motion, as if she lacked the fine control required for a simple negation. “No,” she said. “Not yet.”

Puzzled, not knowing how to reply, I sheathed my rapier. The gap to the Underworld awaited, and I had no time for riddles. Six days from now, I’d either stand triumphant over the enemies of the living, or I’d be one of them. I resisted the urge to look back at Makeshift, to reassure myself that I didn’t travel alone — for what kind of company was a reaver of souls?

Without another thought, either of prayer or regret, I stepped into the breach.

July 17, 2016

Miscreant’s Feast

It was a miscreant’s feast that day in the harbor, the guts of the ruptured galley spilling over the sand like a defeated army. Boxes of wax slabs, sheets of tin, coiled wire; a hundred sopping yards of Aqualest wool; glittering shards of glass daubed with precious drops of perfume, solvent, dye, tinctures, spirits. A single unbroken flask of tanner’s eyebright. Seventeen splay-ribbed barrels that had yielded their fermented nectar to the sea at the behest of the rocky shore, and another two dozen kegs stinking of spoilt beer.

It wasn’t the wreckers who took the first prizes. They’d had no hand in the ship’s demise, and were in fact sleeping the deep sleep of the sated only two days after they’d brought down their last victim. It wasn’t the fishers either, who ordinarily would have seen the foundering ship long before the ship could see the shore, for they’d been away already a fortnight on the great herringers in a distant northern sea. And it wasn’t the lonely children hunting for a meal, or escaping from the too freely given blows of their elders, though they would be released from the pinioning gaze of their schoolmaster in time to be the second to plunge eager hands into the ship’s generous gifts.

No, the first was myself, of course. It’s the only reason for my telling this story, and I do have a purpose — bear with me — in telling it the way I have. I’m not a miscreant, or at least not the usual kind. I’m not a thief, or at least not always. I’m a vagrant, a wanderer, an itinerant fortune teller.

I saw the ship that morning from my sandy bed upon the heath. A solitary scrap of sail fluttered like a disconsolate hand from the very top of the broken mast. I knew nothing of ships, but a cold chill echoed through my heart. No mortal could have survived whatever force had taken apart that construction of wood and iron. It heeled one way and then another as it approached the shore, as if in its final moments it agonized over which stretch of yellow sand would make the softest bier to rest upon. I watched, the way one watches the dysrythmic fluttering of a dying bird, fascinated by the movement toward flight and continuity that starts and starts over, but never finds its place and must start again.


I didn’t walk down to the beach until the outgoing tide threw up the contents of the ship, one wet-shiny piece at a time. The corner of a sand-swamped box, a sliver of glass reflecting the sun like a tiny beacon, a muddy wad of wool, the lucky bauble of tanner’s eyebright — and the only article among that sorry mass of lost and found wealth that intrigued me enough to draw my bare feet across the stinging heath and into the icy water.

It was a book. A glyph book. I recognized its metal clasp even from across the distance of the waste, as the contorted shape stamped into its unblemished brass seemed to rise above it, dancing like a smoky flame. I recognized it. I’d seen it once before, many years ago. It had been possessed by a rag man, a wanderer, a man very like myself — or perhaps it had possessed him. He told me it held a secret no man wanted to know: the circumstances of his own death.

I hadn’t believed him. I’d still been a young man then, and death had seemed like a foreign thing, a word divorced from ordinary language. Glyph books were of this world, and served only their true masters, and death couldn’t touch so harmless an art. Better tell your tale to the bone-casters and the skin-lifters, the white-eyed devotees of a truth revealed only after a lifetime of oaths and sacrifices. Glyph readers were a new order, a simpler order, and we’d have no truck with any mixing of the two. I’d sent him away.

And now here it was. Thirty years later, and me half a world away from where I’d been, and barren of book and craft and home and my next meal. I can’t tell the story now of my fall from grace, but only that I couldn’t — even had the home and meal been proffered in exchange — refuse the lure of that twisting glyph, that abomination of language, a fusion of the words “yield” and “conquer.”

I walked down to the beach. The book was trapped beneath the remains of the crate in which it had been housed, an iron-bound thing wrenched from its moorings and overflowing with saturated straw. I worried it with a trembling hand, dislodging a splintered board that pierced my skin and let my blood mix with the sea, drop by drop, until I’d freed my prize.

I sat where I was, in the wet sand, with the tide sucking at my bare ankles, and ran my fingers over the battered green leather of the book. It wasn’t oxhide as I’d assumed all those years ago, it was something thinner and yet more resilient, its discolorations only temporary blemishes. I could wipe them away with my hands, and I did, its surface smooth, untorn. Whole. Even after its disaster at sea, it felt after a few moments of care, as if I’d just lifted it from the hallowed shelves of that great underground library.

I walked away, leaving behind the recoverable Aqualest wool, a yard of which would have fed and housed me for a month, and the tanner’s eyebright that wouldn’t have fooled a half-penny shill but would have served a fishwyfe in exchange for a suit of clothes and a pair of shoes, and the tin and the wax, and the coiled wire, the former salvageable for an extravagant price in the inland towns, though the latter’s value had already been greatly diminished by the salt sea. I walked away, back through the heath even as the sharp voices of children echoed up from the gap that separated the coastal village from the shore, as the first of the wreckers woke from dismal sleep, and the herringer fleet turned back toward home with holds near to bursting with their harvest.

The contours of the glyph brushed across my hand like thread, or fine hair. They drew with them lines of fate that clung to them, weighed them down, thickened them into tendrils, vines. I couldn’t turn away from the story they told. The children all, sickened by the dye that had leaked into the sand, would perish that night in their mothers’ arms. The wreckers would trade their unlooked-for boon to a betrayer who would sell them to the lord’s warden, and every man and woman among them would be hanged. The herringers, already bearing for home, would fall afoul of an embargo, and disease and starvation would claim them in a long embrace.

Only one miscreant who had scavenged from the emptied belly of the doomed ship would survive long enough to tell the tale. Myself, of course.

For I am Skyborn, and this is my story.

July 7, 2016

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