Sybil had arrived early so that she could place her feet on the flagstone at the foot of the dais. The large gray stone was all that remained of her childhood home. As a young girl, she had thought the plain stones drab and colorless. Now, marble surrounded the last stone on every side. She had to admit the contrast between dark shale and white marble was beautiful – as was the gold inlay that edged the dais – but the newer stones held little meaning for her. The swirling marble was lifeless; only the dark gray stone of her childhood had true character.
Sitting on the dais, she undid the straps then removed her sandals, holding her feet above the floor. To place her bare feet upon the marble would be sacrilege, a betrayal of her childhood, a symbol affirming her mother’s decision to tear down their home. The house had stood for centuries, and as children, all of the First Generation had been raised in that home. But their mother didn’t care. She had given away their childhood in exchange for a temple.
Compared to the old wooden shack, the hall that encompassed her was vacuous and hollow. She had tried, on occasion and without success, to imagine herself in that house, her knees pressed against the gray stones, but now, she failed again. Without the heat reverberating from the stove – which had once stood in place of the dais – the air held a stale chill. The gaudy pillars, grand aisles, and vaulted ceilings that had replaced their little shack were poor substitutes.
Easing herself forward, Sybil positioned her feet above the dark flagstone. As she pressed them onto the cool shale, she stood and turned to face the altar. White marble and gold gilding had taken the place of flaky stone floors and timber walls. The damp smell of earth and wood had long vanished, the air now smelling of wax and tallow from the hundreds of candles that had been cleared from the altar. The leaky, hay-thatched roof was gone. In its place, high-buttressed ceilings and marble arches held up by grand columns etched with elaborate script. Though striking and beautiful in their own way, these things were not her home. Her home was gone, but upon this last, lone tile – from the depths of her memories – she could recall it once more.
Sybil pictured her mother’s face, that emotionless painted mask that had greeted her each morning and put her down at night. She saw the two-room abode with its low ceiling and thick pine walls. Sybil and her twin, Galina, had shared the larger room that served also as kitchen and entranceway. Nets – which they’d used as beds – hung from the ceiling beside a lone wooden chair wedged in a corner. The only other furniture was the coal stove and the warm bearskin rug before the fireplace. She could not picture the other room. It had always been wholly Mother’s, the place where the Whore had slept and worked, and therefore barred to Sybil and the other children.
In this perfect memory, young Nikom had not yet been born, so the clods of dirt and roots and flowers from his musings did not clutter the floor. It had been only her, Galina, and sometimes Just, who had already moved away years before. She did not know if those years had been better… but they had been simpler.
The drag of the heavy doors across the stone floor pulled Sybil from her memories. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a man easing it closed. When he turned to her, she recognized him as Walter’s firstborn. She nodded him a greeting, offering him a sad smile before sitting on the altar to replace her slippers. After regaining her feet, she stepped to one side and invited him to stand beside her. Though rumored to be proud and pious, his shoulders slouched as if he carried a heavy burden. His face, encased by long brown hair, was taut and strained. He looked to be in his middle years, but if memory served, he was well over four hundred.
Like his father, the man wore simple clothing; a habit she admired. Far too many of the younglings had become ostentatious. They had no memories of the modest hovel in which the First Generation had been raised and seemed to think their birth set them above the common folk – a disastrous presumption. Sybil owed much of her success to the mortals who worked by her side, and she could not imagine shouldering the burden of her studies without their aid.
When her nephew reached her side, she did not face him, choosing instead to stu5dy the gilding of the dais.
“I had hoped to be first to arrive,” he said. The voice, though somber, was deep and strong; lulling, like the calm winds over Trel’s harbor.
“You would have had to arrive much sooner, I’m afraid,” Sybil said. “I often arrive early so that I can place my feet upon the heart stone. It reminds me of my childhood.” She tapped her foot against the shale. “Tell me, why did you wish to be here first?”
“I wanted to show that despite my father’s actions, our family still holds strong and proud.” His mouth hovered ajar as doubt flickered across his face. “Or at least… I thought my presence might stymie the whispers.”
Sybil folded her lips against her teeth, pushing the muscles apart in a sad grin. “No matter his recent choices, your father was a good man,” she said. “You have my condolences.”
“Thank you, Alchemist.” Though his eyes glistened with damp, he did not cry.
“Please, call me Sybil.” She paused, unable to recall his name. “I’m sorry. I do not know your title.”
“I do not have one,” he answered. “I still go by Kalec Rin.”
Sybil nodded. That was unusual for a man his age, but not unheard of. Sometimes a god’s aspect came slowly, and other times it was impossible to put into words and titles. “Then I will call you Smith,” she said.
“Please,” Kalec said, aghast. “I have not earned it.”
“Would you be ashamed to wear your father’s title?”
Kalec frowned. He spoke slowly, sounding as uneasy as he did sour. “Smith was no longer his title.”
Though unnecessary, Sybil drew a heavy breath. It was hard to see a person lose their identity. She may not have known Kalec’s name, but she knew his history. The man had served as his father’s apprentice for nearly four hundred years, apprentice to the Smith, a god who had once been well respected and powerful. And now, through no fault of his own, this man had lost his calling. All because his father had disgraced himself. Sybil could not forgive what Walter had done, but she would do her best to offer his son any comfort she could provide. Kalec did not deserve to pay for his father’s crimes, no matter how heinous they had been.
“Your father and I were not very close,” Sybil began. “He was more than a century younger, so I had left home by the time he’d been born, but I often visited when he was a child. He had always been a clever boy, and when he came of age, I offered him an apprenticeship. He turned me down, of course. I remember his father well. A smith himself, I recall. One of Mother’s true loves I believe. Galina and I never met our father, but your grandfather on the other hand, he lived alongside Mother his entire life. Even now he is buried beneath this temple. Your father had that same sense of loyalty and love, and when he turned me down, he did so bluntly, but respectfully. Instead, he apprenticed himself to a mortal. To your grandfather, Atepos Rin. So many believe that godhood is about controlling the world, but your father decided instead, to shape it. He understood that godhood is about a balance between creation and manipulation.
“It is a shame. The younger generations would find his choice shocking. So few of them would resign themselves to such a humble life, but what they do not understand is that humble choices are often the most powerful. Your father cared for none of that. He simply wanted to follow his father’s craft. An honest and heartfelt decision. It does not matter that they call him Butcher now. Not for me at least. To me, he will always be that little boy Walter, who loved his father more than the thought of godhood. To me, he will always be the Smith.”
Walter’s son turned his head to look into her eyes, but Sybil kept her face pointed away. The man needed to hear these things from an authority, not a family member.
“You say that you have not earned the title,” Sybil continued. “But you are wrong. I have seen your work, and more importantly, I have seen your character. Like him, you chose to stay by your father’s side. You chose loyalty and love over power. In five hundred years, I have not had an apprentice that would stay by my side for longer than twenty. You stood by your father’s for several hundred. If it were my decision, the title would be yours to inherit. So, I ask you again. Are you ashamed to wear his title?”
“N- No,” the man stuttered.
“Good. Then I will call you Smith. Whether you accept the title or not, I suspect it will find you. No god can refuse their aspect. Eventually, it always takes its shape.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the Smith dance on the balls of his feet.
“Thank you for your words,” he murmured.
Behind them, the door opened a second time. They both turned to see the young woman that entered. Though her hair was darker and her face sharper, the resemblance was clear. Smith waved to his sister then returned his eyes to Sybil.
“I must speak with Atep,” Kalec said. “I will think on what you’ve said.”
As Sybil watched him leave, his face was lighter and his back straighter. Kalec met his sister near the door, where he took her arm and whispered in her ear. At his words, the sister glanced over her shoulder to Sybil, a look of surprise framed between her shoulder length hair. Smith led her into an alcove between two pillars, and although she could hear their voices echoing through the hall, Sybil chose to ignore their words. This was a private moment, and not for her ears.
Sighing, Sybil let her eyes wander the room. Normally this hall would be filled with benches for the many parishioners, but today they had been replaced with large, round tables covered by white tablecloths. It seemed an odd choice, for it felt very much like the décor for a wedding, but she knew very well that Mother would not have summoned the entire family for such an occasion.
Weary of standing, Sybil brushed her foot across the flagstone one last time before seating herself at the table closest to the dais. She chose a chair along the westward side so that she could watch the door.
After a time, other family members began to trickle in. She did not recognize the new arrivals, all of them distant nephews and nieces. Though many appeared to be similar ages, they sat scattered amongst the tables, and when she waved greetings, far too many avoided her gaze. Aside from shuffling feet and the odd cough, the hall was silent. The mood was eerie for a gathering of family members, but things had been rather tense since Silt had killed Walter.
Surely that awkwardness would vanish in time. Indeed, the first steps to healing the family were already being taken. Mother had called everyone to her temple, and tonight, the Mother’s Hall would be filled with gods and godlings. Never in Sybil’s life had Mother called a gathering of this scale. Though she had overcome the need more than a generation ago, she drew another deep breath and exhaled slowly. It would be a long evening and Sybil was restless to return to her work at the university.
As more of the family entered, Sybil gave up on greeting them. There were simply far too many of whom she didn’t know. She noted their garb. Many wore scarves, hoods, or masks that covered their faces. She knew the trend was an effort to emulate Mother’s own style, but she did not understand it. Mother was certainly a figure to emulate, but her dress was neither the most fashionable nor particularly wholesome.
When Sybil’s apprentice shuffled into the room, Sybil smiled and waved. He was a smart lad, dedicated to his work, and Sybil was rather fond of him, but when she motioned for him to join her, he shied into his coat and disappeared into an alcove.
“You’ll have to beat that out of him.”
Despite its soothing cantor, the voice startled her. Sybil turned to meet her guest. Realizing that it was her brother, she pulled a chair from the table then twisted to face Just. As he examined her face, Just took the offered chair and sat with what could only be described as a flourish. Her brother was not eccentric, but he had an aura about him that made everything he did seem grander than it truly was.
“An effective method I’m sure,” she drawled. “It seems to have worked wonders for your own apprentices.”
“You wound me, Sybil.”
Though she always called Just by his title, her brother never used hers. She didn’t mind, it was not a matter of formality. It was simply that Just had earned his title before her birth and so it was the name she had grown up with.
“I am sure your insinuation is in reference to dear Silt, which is why I give my warning. Silt was the only one of my apprentices I did not beat.”
Sybil smiled at her brother, to which he smiled in return. “I have missed your jokes, brother.”
“Ah!” Just gasped sarcastically. “And you wound me again. Why must you assume I am joking?”
“Two of your apprentices are Galina’s children. If you had harmed one of them, you’d be throat-less as well as spineless.”
Just beamed. “And I have missed your clever tongue,” he said. “Tell me, where is our sister?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her in several months. I’ve been meaning to speak with her.”
Just’s smile faded to a grimace. “That does not bode well. I was hoping that she had confided in you.”
For a moment, both studied the worship hall. Strangely, the early arrivals were still scattered about the room, seemingly avoiding one another.
“Confided what?” Sybil asked.
Just stared at her a long moment. “Tell me, Sybil. Why have you come here tonight?” He asked the question, and then his breathing halted. She turned to see what was wrong, but when she met his gaze, he turned away. She knew, then, that Just feared her answer, for despite all the love they held for one another, his aspect was Judgment, and his domain encompassed the realm of gods as well as mortals. Her answer to this question would decide her fate, for Just’s tone, though unwilling, was that of an interrogator.
But Sybil had always been honest in her intentions, and in all her dealings with Just, so she answered honestly and without hesitation. “I’m here because Mother summoned us.”
But the damage had already been done. She had never given Just reason to question her loyalty and never had Just directed that tone at her. The mixture of anguish and shame on his face was mortifying.
“And are you on her side?” Just asked.
“Side?” Sybil blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” he sighed. “You should not have come tonight.” The worry in Just’s bearing had been replaced momentarily by sorrow. His hands rested on the tabletop, the fingers fidgeting uneasily. She placed her hand upon his own and squeezed. She would not blame him for the necessities of his role.
“What is going on?” she asked. “What would make you doubt me?”
Looking at her hand wrapped around his own, Just regained his composure. He took his hand from hers and gestured to the room. Sybil let her gaze follow. More of the family had arrived. Nephews and nieces of every generation now clustered around tables and in the hallways beyond the pillars. Quiet chatter filled the chamber. But something wasn’t right.
“Look how many of them sit with their backs against the wall,” Just said. “Take note of where they sit. Those close to the entrance. Those who avoid windows. Those who avoid others. The trust is gone. All because of Walter’s death. All because of Silt.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you remember when Tybalt died?”
“Yes, of course I remember his death.”
Tybalt had always seemed so bright, but she had overestimated his knowledge and his patience, and it had killed him. She was responsible.
“But do you remember when?” Just asked.
“Six hundred and thirty-two years ago,” she said. She could name it to the day, but this was her burden to carry, not her brother’s.
“Yes. It has been over six hundred years since another of our kind has died. Since then, our system of apprenticeship has protected the young from themselves, but it has also made them weak and ignorant. Many of them are learning only now that a god can die. Even for the rest of us, this is a shock. Short of Mother, I am the oldest in the family. I have seen many of our kind die due to their own foolishness, but rarely has one god killed another.” Just paused for a moment. He put his arm around her shoulder to pull her close. “And now Galina has gone missing. And she is not the first.”
Sybil gasped. “Who else?”
Just did not answer right away. Instead, he watched the room and the family members huddled together in conversation. The Mother’s Hall was nearing capacity, and his eyes wandered from group to group. With each glance, he clicked his finger against the table, and at each tap, she sensed a light dusting of power. The dust fluttered from person to person, tying invisible strings between them. They were not physical ropes, but a residue of the birthright. Sybil could sense the strings as they were placed, but she could not see or sense them afterward. For any but a member of the First, even the placement would be invisible.
Just sighed before answering in a whisper. “You do not have much contact with the rest of the family, but I am surprised you have not heard. Three of Litre’s daughters have not been seen for more than a month. Of Nikom’s youngest children, only Till and Rye remain from his latest brood of six. Each suspects the other of foul play. All of my apprentices have gone missing, including Galina’s children and Silt.” He paused for a moment. “And I have reason to believe they are dead.”
A chill ran through her. “Who would do this?”
“I suspect we will find that out tonight.”
He placed a hand on her wrist. Looking down, she found that she had been wringing the tablecloth in her lap.
“You must stop that,” Just said. “You are making everyone nervous. None of us, myself included, know what you are capable of anymore. Like Mother, you no longer breathe. You do not eat. Your apprentice says you do not sleep. Before Galina vanished, even she spoke of your power in awe.”
My power? Sybil wondered. She was a godling compared to Just. Certainly, she had learned a few tricks, but they were nothing more than that.
“For a moment,” Just continued, “the room was quiet, and all eyes upon you. They do not know you as well as I do. They do not know your habits, so they think you are crafting a spell beneath the table. With the trust gone, anything is possible. Even a member of the First could turn upon her twin.”
“I would never harm Galina!” Sybil gasped. The room fell into a shocked silence. Again, all attention in the room was fixed on her.
“Any who believes so would be a fool.” The voice was loud and firm. Galina stood in the doorway, entire patches of her blond hair missing as if ripped from her scalp, making her look ragged and aged beyond her years. Her clothes, once regal and elegant, were torn and frayed. The hem of her dress dragged across the floor in strips. The color beneath her eyes was black, the flesh around them strained.
“Unlike my children,” Galina continued. “I vanished of my own accord.” She spoke the words to the entire room; a challenge to everyone present.
Sybil rose to greet her sister. Upon reaching their table, Galina stopped. She looked directly into Sybil’s eyes, but there was no love in the gaze, only anguish.
Galina turned to face the room. “Go back to your conversations, you rats! I will deal with the lot of you later.”
Every glance shifted away, and at the next table, a young godling squeaked as though Galina had spoken directly to him and him alone.
Sybil rushed to hug her sister.
“I’m so sorry, sister,” Sybil said, wrapping her arms around her twin.
Galina didn’t lift her arms to return the gesture.
“Galina, your clothes…” Just started. “Where have you been?”
Galina rolled an annoyed glare to Just. “Looking for them.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sybil demanded. “I could have helped you search. But it is no matter. We will find them.”
With her chin on Galina’s shoulder, she did not see the look of sorrow that must have been on Galina’s face. Instead, Sybil felt only Just’s hand as it pulled her away.
“Sybil…” Galina’s voice broke. Tears streamed down her face. “I have already found them.”
For a moment, Sybil’s body failed her. Her vision, her legs, her thoughts: all had been overwhelmed by her sister’s words. She found herself seated again, and as she looked up and stared into Galina’s eyes, Sybil knew that the despair in Galina’s features would be mimicked upon her own face.
Galina had waited so long after Tybalt’s death before having more children. She’d had twins; two girls, just like them, who she had named Tin and Iri. Both had grown strong in their twenty-three years of life, and when they had grown old enough, both had decided to apprentice themselves to Just. And now, they were gone.
Galina pulled Just to her side and forced him into a chair. She seated herself with Sybil on her left and Just on her right. She twisted toward Just and whispered, barely loud enough for Sybil to hear. “Your suspicions were right,” Galina said.
Just grimaced. “I should not have stopped beating my apprentices,” he mumbled.
“What are we going to do about it?”
“I do not know. Have you heard from Mother?”
Galina tsked. “Yes, she caught Rift and I as we entered. She mentioned something about consoling Till and Rye.”
“Rift is here?” Sybil asked, “Where is he?”
Just spoke at the same time, his questions for another matter. “Till and Rye? What has happened?”
With a dismissive wave, Galina motioned to the door. “Yes, Rift is outside speaking with Dydal.” Her gaze fell on Just. “My husband and I are not the only ones who have been hurt… Nikom’s daughter, Field, was found this morning, along with Tyrena’s youngest. Both their necks had been broken… and… and worse. I don’t imagine the others will be joining us tonight.”
Pale, firm, and emotionless, Just’s face was a mask to match Mother’s.
“How…” Sybil tried. “Who would do such a thing?” Neither sibling answered. For several moments, they sat in silence.
“It seems my worst fears have come to pass.” Just’s eyes drifted to the doors leading to Mother’s offices. “She has gone along with her plans against my advice.”
“And now my children are dead,” Galina said. “I’m of a mind to kill her once I’m done with Silt.”
“What?” Sybil asked. “What plans? What are you two talking about?”
Just glanced at her, then back to Galina. “You will not,” Just said. “She is still our mother-”
“And before this morning, I was a mother too,” Galina hissed.
Just shook his head. “She plays a dangerous game, but we must find other ways to reason with her. There must be some way to bring about her wishes without all this.”
“Her wishes are mad, look at what they did to Walter. And now Silt.”
“What is going on?” Sybil asked.
Her brother ignored her. “We have no guarantee of that,” he said.
Galina balked. “She as much as told you what she has done.”
“She said she wished to rebuild the pantheon-”
“And then she pushed Walter to become what you destroyed.”
“She would not dare.”
“You said it yourself,” Galina said. “She is trying to recreate Death.”
“Death?” Sybil asked. “What are you two talking about?”
Again, Just ignored her.
“She cannot mean to do it this way,” Just said. “Her aim is for stability.”
“Her aim is to guide us toward what she desires. Look around you, fool. Walter is dead because of her, and Silt is mad. If she’s done this to them, what will she do to the rest of us? What aspects will we hold when she is through with us? If she can try to force Walter into the aspect of Death, what about us? Will we all be so despicable?”
“What are you two talking about?” Sybil demanded.
Just stared at her. Galina pursed her lips.
“You did not tell her?” Galina asked.
“I…” Just paused.
“You thought she would take Mother’s side,” Galina accused.
“If you do not tell her, Just, then I will.”
Just held up his arms to forestall Galina. “Please. I mean to tell her… I meant to all along, but I suspected you had already done it.”
Galina sniffed. “Well forgive me, brother, but I have been searching for my children.”
Just’s gaze dropped to the table. “I know… I know. I have been busy also. I am sorry, sister.”
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” Sybil asked.
Just met her gaze. “We will, Sybil. After all this. We will need the privacy. But for now, know that… Mother is trying to shape the aspects. She is trying to guide us into specific roles.”
“What? But that is preposterous. Aspects do not work that way. They are innate, they cannot be forced.”
“I know, Sybil, I know, but that is what Mother intends. She intends to make one of us into a god of Death.”
A silence stretched as Sybil pondered the ramifications. What Just posited was unthinkable. Aspects were a natural force, a physical manifestation of a god’s character. How could Mother think to guide someone toward a specific role? It would require shaping their very nature.
Finally, Just sighed and stood. “I suspect Mother will be a while. I should say something.”
“Good,” Galina said. “You should preempt her regardless.”
“We are not yet sure this was her,” Just said. “Still…” Just eyed the dais. “Perhaps I should be the one to begin this meeting anyway. I feel there are… things I must apologize for.”
Galina nodded. “The sooner this is done, the sooner Rift and I can continue our search for our daughters’ killers.”
“And me,” Sybil added. “I am going with you.”
Galina thanked her in the form of a smile, but it lacked the usual warmth. The expression knotted Sybil’s stomach.
The moment Just stood, the crowd quieted, and by the time he mounted the dais and turned to face the room, all was silent.
Just cleared his throat. “We are facing an uncertain time,” he began. “As you all know, we have lost a family member in the last few months. A member of the First. A loving brother and father. I am sure all of you know what the Smith did and how he was killed. To his children and grandchildren here tonight, I must apologize.”
Choking down some emotion, Just paused and rubbed an eye. “I must apologize,” he continued, “for my inactivity. I failed in the duties of my aspect and had I done what was necessary, your father might still be alive. Instead, I did nothing. And my apprentice Silt took matters into his own hands. I did not order Silt’s actions, but neither do I begrudge them.”
The room shuffled uncomfortably, and many who stood hurried to find chairs, seemingly unable to stand after hearing such dire admissions.
“Many of you have taken to calling the Smith, ‘Butcher’.” Just’s voice echoed through the vaulting, firm but somber. “Unfortunately, I believe this to be a title he has earned. I have seen the city of Vigil. Entire districts have been burned to the ground, corpses rot in the streets, and blood is clogged in the sewers. It is now a ruin. We often think of ourselves as above mortals… and in many ways, we are, but this was unacceptable. To the Rins, I apologize, for your father should not be dead. I do not know what changed in him, but the brother I knew would not have done something like this.”
He stopped, allowing for a moment of contemplation. “Unfortunately, Walter is not the reason we are here tonight. Not entirely. It has been more than six hundred years since the last death in the family. And now, in three months, there have been at least four.”
The first sound to fill the chamber was the cry of a woman. It was the sad and desperate wail of a mother who fears she has lost everything. On its heels followed the outraged voices and the pleading questions. Sybil could feel the tears begin their descent; so many people desperate to be heard, all of them fearful for the fate of their missing loved ones. All of them family. The reality finally sank in for Sybil. Tin and Iri would not be the only loved ones she had lost. Galina had once again lost her children. She might never recover. The family might never recover.
“All of you know someone who has gone missing,” Just continued. “I am sure that many of you have noted Nikom’s absence this evening. This afternoon, his daughter Field was found dead, and Tyrena’s youngest son.” He swept his gaze to Galina and a silent confirmation passed between them. “Our sister Galina has lost both of her daughters.”
Murmurs of shock and consolation drifted toward their table. The voices of the unaffected held empty sympathies.
“Many more have gone missing, so I will be blunt. I fear the worst and so should you. I believe I know the person responsible for this – or rather, the people – and I think that if they were going to show mercy they would have already done so…” Just paused, his eyes staring transfixed at his finger tapping on the pulpit. “Unfortunately, there is more. I have watched each of you this evening, and I am sorry to say that some of the culprits sit among us.”
This was not met with the outrage Sybil had expected. Instead, the room grew silent, a product of shock – and if Just was right – perhaps the fear of the guilty. Just’s aspect was not merciful, and neither was he.
“I may have been hesitant to respond to the Butcher, but in this, I will not be dormant. When I find these cowards, I will deal with them personally.”
“We are not cowards.” A lone figure spoke from the main aisle, his voice filled with the vigor of youth. “We have simply been waiting for the right moment to act.”
From the voice, Sybil could tell it was a man, but he wore a heavy cloak and a draping hood that covered his features. As he spoke, he stepped confidently toward the dais. With emotions as high as they were, the words should have incited a mob, and yet, the entire room stayed in their seats. Not a single voice rose in anger.
A smile crept onto Just’s lips.
“Greetings apprentice,” Just said. “I was hoping you would join us tonight.”
Sybil shot her gaze to the figure. She could see only the lower half of the man’s face and even that was in shadow, but after Just’s declaration, she knew it was Silt.
“Come,” Just said. “Give us a speech.”
Silt dropped his hood. With his flat nose and broad brow, he looked like one of Nikom’s Dekahnians. Though in his forties, he had always looked youthful, a trait common in their kind, and tonight he looked even more hale and vibrant than usual. An aura of power and competence surrounded him as he marched to the dais. Shockingly, Just stepped aside to give Silt the pulpit, offering his apprentice an exaggerated bow.
Sybil looked to her sister to see the fire burning in Galina’s eyes. What is happening? Sybil wondered. Where is Mother?
“What is he doing?” Galina whispered. “He should be tearing out his throat.”
Sybil had no response. She could not understand why everyone was just sitting there. Silt had as much as admitted to murdering their family members. They should be in frenzy. The entire room should be fighting for the honor to kill this man. Instead, they sat silently. It didn’t make sense. It was as though the entire room had come to witness this confrontation. She remembered back to her conversation with Just. The trust is gone. Even here, her family had reason to fear one another; in a room filled with witnesses. She recalled the strings of power Just had tied between family members. Oh, she thought, I’ve been a fool. He was marking factions. This is not a meeting of family. This is the beginning of a war. Sybil gripped Galina’s hand.
Just had moved to the edge of the dais but he hadn’t left it. Silt stood awkwardly at the pulpit. He faced the crowd at an unusual angle, seemingly afraid of putting his back to Just.
“Well,” Just spoke, “go ahead. Say your piece before we kill you.”
Silt’s youthful face compressed to a scowl and he leaned forward with both hands upon the pulpit. “You think yourself powerful?” he spat. “You lord over the rest of us as though we exist at your approval. And it is not only you, Just. It is all of you. You elite few; the First, the Second, and all those of the older generations.”
Silt paused, his gaze drifting over his audience. “In service to my fool of a master, I have been forced to kill. Our pantheon is weak. At its heart lies the God of Justice, a pathetic wretch too weak to uphold his own laws. He passes judgment over mortals and gods alike, but when it comes time to fulfill his sentences, he cannot. He makes me kill mortals in his stead.” He turned his eyes on Just. “Tell me, master, why should I fear your threats? What reason does the headsman have to fear the judge? For years, I have done your dirty work. And what has been my reward? Fear and disrespect from my family, titles of mockery and disgust: Silt the Slayer. Silt the Murderer.”
“And my personal favorite,” Just interrupted, “Silt, the Bitch of Justice.”
“I am not your lapdog!” Silt hissed, his head whipping to face Sybil’s brother. “And tonight, you will learn the truth of that. In spite of your ineptitude, I have grown strong. Indeed, I have profited from your weakness. There is power in death, and while dispensing your justice, I learned of this power. The blood of a mortal strengthens us. It gives us energy and vigor. It is like an ever burning fuel that courses through the veins. I shared this knowledge with many of you. And many of you laughed in my face, or cringed in disgust.”
“Because, aside from being despicable,” Just countered, “your foolish beliefs are what drove the Smith mad.”
“Smith was weak!” Silt hissed. “The blood sings to us. It entices us. He was not strong enough to resist its call, and he became greedy with lust. If we must speak of blame, then tell me why you did nothing. You did not stop me when I spoke my thoughts. You did not stop Smith when he ravaged Vigil. You admit yourself that you have failed because of your inaction. But I have not failed. When you refused to stop the Smith, I took it upon myself.”
“And killed another god in the process!” Just’s anger seemed strong enough to shake the entire room. “Could you not restrain him? Could you not persuade him?”
Silt shook his head, almost looking sad, and when he spoke, he spoke slowly. “He could not be dissuaded… He was different. His mind gone.” Silt turned his gaze back to the room as his voice picked up speed. “But I do not regret my actions,” he said. “For they have been my vindication. You must understand, to kill a mortal is bliss, but to kill a god is rapture. There is power in the blood of a god, and tonight, I do not stand before you as a mere godling. I am no longer an apprentice to an unworthy master. I have ascended. I am Silt, the God of Punishment – the only true form of justice, and after tonight, I shall wear the title. I will be Just.”
Quiet murmurs resonated through the chamber as Silt paused to let his challenge descend on his audience. All eyes gravitated to Just, as all eyes do right before blood spills, but Just did not seem to care. Rather, he sighed emphatically, eyes closed, arms stretching toward the ceiling in an exaggerated yawn. Once finished, he blinked, drew one hand to his mouth and slouched forward, as if to hide his embarrassment. He motioned apologetically for Silt to continue.
“My pardons apprentice,” he said. “My unworthiness is beginning to make me sleepy. You may continue.”
Silt’s eyes became thin slits. As he continued, Galina leaned over to whisper in Sybil’s ear. “I do not know Just’s game, but this will escalate quickly.”
“I’m going to find Mother,” Sybil said. Things were getting out of hand.
Galina sniffed. “May as well. She deserves to see the destruction she’s caused.”
“And what of you?”
“I will remain. I will not miss my chance at vengeance.”
The anger in her sister’s voice set Sybil on her feet. Her thought was that Mother’s presence would diffuse the situation, but she was beginning to think even that wouldn’t help. She did not think Galina would be dissuaded from violence.
“Don’t do anything rash,” Sybil pleaded.
Galina turned a glare on her, but said nothing.
Sybil stared back at her for a moment, before slipping away through the pillars and into the aisle leading to the western hall.
As she pushed her way through the doors and continued to the halls that led to Mother’s offices, a loud crack reverberated through the chamber. The sound had come from the main hall. Screams rose up behind her. Panicked, Sybil ran. She rushed through the next set of doors with such force that it sent them crashing into the walls. She entered a wide hallway, lined with more marble. She heard feet trotting on the stones, but in her panic ignored them. As she passed an intersecting passage, a body pounded into her, throwing her from her feet. Stars stole her vision as she rolled once across the floor. Her assailant groaned as he shambled to his feet.
“I am sorry, Mistress,” her apprentice said. “I did not see you coming.” The boy’s face was covered with sweat and his whole body shook as if it were desperate to be moving.
Sybil propped herself against the wall, trying to subdue the headache and vertigo. “My boy, you are in a panic.”
“It is no longer safe in there,” he said, nodding to the hallway behind him.
“What has happened?”
“Silt was talking about his victims and Galina attacked him. It has started a riot. Fortunately, I was near the doors to the eastern hall and when I saw two cousins throwing one another against a pillar I decided it best to leave.”
“But you’re shaking.”
“It was a quick decision,” he dismissed. “I will be fine. Here, let me help you to your feet.” Her apprentice offered his hand and she accepted it. Gripping his forearm, she pulled to right herself, but as she did so, she felt a vibration of energy. Half way up, her legs toppled as pain blossomed just above her heart. Her eyes dropped to the wound. Blood leapt from flesh to flesh; a jet of red sprinkling the boy’s fingers, in his hand, a solid iron hilt. In shock and pain, she drew a deep breath.
“So, you breathe after all,” her apprentice whispered. The pressure in her breast was excruciating as the boy retracted the narrow, rounded blade of the stiletto. The hiss of escaping air rattled from the cut. He had pierced her lung.
“That is good,” he continued. “The poison will spread and ease your pain.”
But Sybil did not need to breathe – not to live and not to speak. Thinking fast, she drew another heavy breath for the boy’s sake. Numbness began to fill her.
“Why?” she asked. A trying night. Tears forged trails down her face. She had loved this boy. She had trusted him. Sybil had had many apprentices over the decades, but this boy had been different. He had come to her at such a young age… He had only been ten when she’d taken him on, and for the past twelve years, she had raised him as her own. This boy was the closest thing she had ever had to a son. They had studied together. They had tinkered together. She had been his mentor and his teacher.
“If I say, it will only hurt you more,” the boy said. “Just close your eyes and accept your fate.”
“Tell me!” she gasped. “I must know. Please. I must know why. Did our work mean nothing to you? Did these years mean nothing?”
It was difficult to breathe, but she continued the charade.
“They mean everything to me,” he said. “I love what we do. It is all that makes me whole. But I cannot live forever in your shadow.”
“My shadow? I have given you every opportunity.”
“But you have taken the most important opportunity.” Tears formed in his eyes. “I have spoken with my father and he has shown me the truth. The older generations have forced us into servitude. We toil in your names, and in return, you withhold your knowledge.”
“What kind of teacher gives away every answer?” Sybil challenged. With her wounded lung, it was difficult to speak the traditional way, but she did so anyway. “Knowledge must be earned, it cannot be given. If I taught you what I knew, it would kill you. I have seen it before. What is the point of our art if every variable is known, if I give you knowledge that you’d be unable to understand?”
The boy looked at her accusingly. “And what is the point if it forever stagnates? If it has no room for growth? Silt is right. The old never die. You force us into apprenticeship to keep us from true power. You want it only for yourselves. You say the apprenticeship protects us, but it keeps us from godhood. You have taken our birthright.”
“Oh, my boy, there is no such conspiracy. Not from me. Not from Just. Not from Mother. It was she who set me on my path. It was Just who encouraged my inquisitive nature. We have ever worked for the family.”
The boy slumped forward and held his head in his hands. He wiped his nose with a sleeve. “No,” he said, “you do not understand. What is the point of questioning, what is the point of trial and error, of experiments and science if you already hold the role? There cannot be two Gods of Alchemy. There is no place for me. There is no throne for me. And yet I love our work. So, what can I do? Our art is one of knowledge and manipulation, but most importantly it is about progress. It needs to be fluid. It needs change and growth. Science cannot progress if it stays forever rooted within your grip.”
“Silt has twisted your mind,” Sybil breathed. “There are many thrones. There are many paths to power and death is never progress.” With great effort, she raised her hand to his face and lifted his chin. She stared into his eyes and saw the pain and guilt. “I have failed you,” she said, “for I failed to teach you what mattered most. Our aspect may be about progress, but progress is not most important. Life is most important. We study to create, to heal the sick, to better the lives of others.
“And we study because we enjoy it.”
The image before her was the perfect encapsulation of anguish. A myriad of emotions battled across the surface. Tears flowed freely from their ducts and she felt each drop as it struck the hand still holding his chin. His mouth tightened and loosened with each quiver of his lips. He lifted the hand he had used to stab her. What he saw there, Sybil could not say, but it had made his decision. The hand became a fist.
“But I must have the role.”
Her eyelids compressed together tightly, as if to pinch loose the last of her tears. The heel of her palm brushed against smooth flesh as she drew the hand across his neck. Liquid surged in the wake of the razor thin blade. As her apprentice collapsed forward, she positioned her arms to catch him in a loving embrace. A strange euphoria echoed through her, from palm to head, before grief devoured it. She laid the boy against her shoulder and held the back of his head, letting the blood trickle onto the fabric of her dress. The steady patter of her tears upon his tunic mirrored the effect. She could feel the boy’s heart slowing in his chest. Still holding the razor, she punished herself by clutching her fingers to the blade as she let out a pleading sob. As it cut into her hand, she gripped tighter. The pain was not enough. Not for this. There would never be enough pain to set this right. She didn’t know how long she sat there.
“My daughter, you must come away from that now.”
Sybil lifted her head. Mother stood before her, wearing her porcelain mask and the heavy black robes of mourning. Her painted flesh was completely covered.
“Mother… He… he tried to kill me.”
“Yes, but you must put that aside for now.” Mother crouched before her. She took Sybil’s hand from the apprentice’s back and held it by the forearm. She pried open the fingers and pulled free the thin, hilt-less blade. “One of your sister’s?”
Sybil nodded. “Yes. She gave it to me a long time ago. For protection.”
“Your sister is wise. Please. We must go now.”
“Where are we going? What’s going on? Just and Galina spoke as if you had a hand in this.”
“They do not know everything. Please, we must leave here. The fighting has gotten worse. Your wounds have already healed, but the poison will slow your mind for a time. If we do not hurry, we will be buried beneath the rubble of this temple.”
“Where… where were you?” Sybil asked. She could not think clearly. Elation, grief, and poison fogged her mind.
“I was in the offices consoling Till and Rye. When I heard the noises in the hall, I told them that I must go see what happened. They attempted to restrain me. The older one, Till, claimed I was ‘little more than an ancient hag, propped up by the power of the First.’” Mother seemed amused by that.
“Where are they now?”
“Close to my heart.”
“I do not understand.”
“Please, daughter. You must stand.”
Sybil lay her apprentice gently on the floor before she forced herself to her feet.
“The younglings, they have started a revolution,” Sybil said.
Her mother supported her weight.
“Yes. I believe so.”
“I need to find Galina. She will need my help. We must find Tin and Iri’s killer.”
“No, my daughter, Galina can handle herself. You must go somewhere safe. I have put a lot of work into perfecting your aspect and it cannot be tainted further. Soon the Blood Call will take you, and you must be away from here before then.”
“Tainted? What do you mean perfecting? Mother, where am I going?”
“There.” A strange disk, adorned in light, appeared in the wall before them. The image of a barren landscape hung within the disk, shrouded in a thick fog. No air passed through the portal. The image was pristine. “Do not inhale there. You will need to adjust your eyes to see properly. Your skin is tough, it should withstand the chemicals.”
“But this is forbidden,” Sybil said.
“I have forbidden it because of the danger in the hands of the ignorant.”
“But how will I return?”
“Once Death has been restored and the Call has been broken, I will come for you, but until then, I cannot take the risk. It will be lonely there, but do not fret. I have given you a fresh slate. There, you will be free to create. I have given you a world to build as your own. You will not be bored.”
“Why? What are you trying to force me into?”
“I do not force you, I have simply guided you into the role the pantheon requires.”
“And what role is that?”
“If I tell you, you will not find it on your own. You will be tainted.”
“Then Just and Galina spoke true?” Sybil asked.
“They do not know everything. Do you trust me daughter?”
“Then you must go now.”
Sybil nodded then looked to the body of her apprentice. She knelt before him.
“My daughter…” her mother began.
Sybil lifted the corpse. “Will you tell his mother that I have given him a proper burial? Do not tell her how he died. Please. He does not deserve that.”
Her mother nodded. “You are better than most of us, Sybil.”
Sybil stepped to the portal and walked through. A small weight lifted from her body as the clouds buried her.
“Sybil.” The voice stretched behind her as if from a great distance.
She turned to the portal. “Yes?” The sound seemed muffled.
“What was his name?” the Mother asked, her form framed by a silver-lined hole in the air.
Sybil looked down at the boy’s face. Small drops of condensation had formed in the corners of his eyes and mouth.
“Gemm,” she said.