His finger rasped along the rough texture of the plaster wall as the tip ran dry. His heavy breath caught, his perfect teeth—now smeared with red—locked into a tight smile. Perfect, yes, but there was a long way to go. It had been a while and he had forgotten how quickly blood could dry. With the finesse of a master painter, he gently dipped his finger in the liquid and continued his work.
The letters weren’t the curls of Cephan or the straight-backed lines of Strutten, they were something much greater. He didn’t know the letters, he never did. Like most Lovatines he spoke only Strutten, and could understand only a little Cephan. He had learned the latter so he could deal with his servants, hire the occasional rickshaw, or buy a meal from a food cart. But he knew the shapes were correct once he saw their perfect forms. He could feel it—a hum along the edge of perception. He could recognize their patterns and see similarities in the lines.
Muffled laughter—the sound of Auseil revelers—drifted in from somewhere behind the walls. The winter holiday was nearing its end, the scraps of paper that had been sealed against doorways at its start now fluttered down the streets like snow. As the poor struggled in the cold below, the elevated, the wealthiest of Lovat’s citizens, competed with one another through ostentatious parties and vulgar displays of abundance. The hum of the party added a smidgen of gravitas to this glorious ending: the final sacrifice accompanied by the music of a jazz band.
He ignored the dead stares from the plush animals that lined the wall and covered the small bed. It was strange that this all ended in a child’s room. It was the noblest of work and it should have ended in a more hallowed space: some temple or sanctuary. In his imagination this last sacrifice took place in a hidden tabernacle with rising stone pillars and a glorious altar to Ashton. It was almost obscene for the writing of the Founders to sit alongside posters for monochrome stars and jazz musicians.
Pushing the decor out of his mind, he squinted at the shapes, adjusting the edge of one, rubbing away a drip from another. Feeling that vibration with the completion of each glyph. He scratched his chin and pondered the next one as his eyes grew heavy. Exhaustion was creeping in, darkening the edges of his vision. He took a moment to catch his breath, allowing himself time to lean against the wall.
How long had it been? Over a year, surely; this had all started before the blockade, before the rationing, before the Breakers had marched in the streets. Yes, the first pharos had been laid years earlier, even before the collapse of the Humes Tunnel and the death of that damn Peter Black.
The first had happened in the Sunk, below the waters—the perfect place. The first had been a cephel, a young cephel. He could barely remember her now. He never collected trophies, never had the desire to file away a scrapbook of clippings like some shamble-touched. What was her name? The memories were a fog.
Memories were funny that way, like idols in the corners of homes—unless visited regularly, they are forgotten. Dust and cobwebs build upon them, obscuring their shape. He could remember a few things. She had been frightened, of course, but it hadn’t lessened how special she was.
He had taken her quietly and even that had been more difficult than he’d imagined. He, a creature of dry ground and she, a creature of water. Finding a chamber of air in that sunken level of the city had proven to be a challenge, especially there, where it needed to be. The placement had to be perfect.
Her eyes, with those hourglass-shaped irises, had been wide and terrified. Her beak had clacked sharply in the dark space as the life drained out of her.
She was young, scarcely out of adolescence. If she had been a larger one, say a fully mature female, would things have ended differently? He wondered this often. It could have been him lying in that pocket of air beneath Lovat.
But things hadn’t been different. She had died, and he had painted the symbols with his hands. His hands, red with her dark blood. He had completed the pharos. Like he was doing now.
They never found her body.
Feeling energized, he pushed off the wall and resumed his work. Dipping a finger in his ink and working to make sure everything was perfect. Everything had to be perfect. This was it, the epilogue. His legacy.
He paused again. Studied his work. Took another breath. Sweat dripped down his brow, soaked into his collar. He was in a mad rush this time. Had only precious moments to complete his life’s work. At any moment someone could burst in, one of the merrymakers could stumble through the door and catch him. Worse, they could try and stop him.
It reminded him of the second pharos. It had happened on Level Two. Which warren had it been? Some northern one, near the end of the Sunk. She was older, human, a pitchfork addict. The marks on her arms were already festering and the smell of death hung about her. She was worthless. A tick suckling off the flesh of the city, spending her days moldering in some forgotten corner. In life she might have been worthless, but in death she became something great.
The process still scared him then. As he built the second pharos he had to make sure the line from the first was perfect, and so she had to be sacrificed in a public space. He chose an alley. He was certain that someone would catch him. Certain the LPD would round the corner and drag him away. She had been so doped out of her mind she never even noticed the blade as it cut into her. One second she was in the mortal realm, the next her bright blood was staining the walls of a wonton joint. No one had caught him. The few Lovatines who passed by looked away quickly and hurried about their business. He had slipped away.
A cough rolled up from somewhere in his belly, shaking him out of his reminiscence. His insides flipped. The smell of vomit was pungent and he wondered if his knife had nicked the stomach. He’d done it before, and even now, at number nine—glorious number nine—the smell sent shudders of revulsion through him. He swallowed thickly and resumed his work.
The sound from the band swelled from behind the closed door. A crescendo to his work. He finished one line and started on the second. It might not be a cathedral, but it would do nicely for the great rebirth. The sun would touch the final pharos, the link would pass down and signal to him. The next time he was called...
The thought made him giddy. Camalote would be pleased. The Herald would resume his march forward. The purification would come yet again.
He hummed along with the muffled music as his mind drifted to the third pharos. That one had been a male maero. How difficult that one had been—such a struggle. The fellow had to have been a construction worker or an engineer. He found him working on the superstructure of the city, tied to a line as he clambered outside a lift shaft. This one happened on Level Three. The words. The marks. The pattern on the floor. All of it.
Killing a maero isn’t easy. He still bore the scars from the fight. Ragged marks ran across his back from the nails of a seven-fingered hand, the ghost of a bite still visible on his shoulder. The maero had fought his hardest, but like those before him he had succumbed to his destiny.
The memories came easier now. Moving from the murky past toward the present. Towards this, his final sacrifice.
Unlike the junkie, the police identified the maero immediately. He remembered the monochrome news report. The slack-faced, shocked friends and family. He felt guilt, he always did, but these acts served a great purpose.
He wondered if the police had ever found a connection to him. He had never been called. Never been so much as mentioned. Rumors of serial killers occasionally drifted through Lovat like the morning fog, but no one spoke his name. No one mentioned the words. His face never appeared on the monochromes. There were no posters. He had somehow remained hidden.
It made sense that no one had ever found number four. She was beautiful and so young, not quite a woman grown. She was bright-eyed, with a wide smile and shining black hair. It was clear why Ashton had wanted her. The ancient words flowed in her veins just as they had in the maero’s, and the human’s, and the cephel’s. It was his duty. His calling was to release them. Free the Herald. He was his evangelist, handpicked from among the converted to spread Ashton’s message upward.
His finger ran dry again and he paused.
He gulped another deep breath. His chest lifted and fell. He was tired. So tired.
He would miss the planning, the hunt, the chase, and yet... he was also glad it was coming to an end. While he never shied away from his duty he would spend the long months after each death struggling with the method. But the parchments were specific. Life flowed from blood, it lived in blood. If life wasn’t ended in the host then it couldn’t continue in words. Ashton would remain forever trapped in the black realm. That made him susceptible to enslavement. He couldn’t have that.
He continued his scrawling. He was getting close. Dipping his finger in the ink and making another character and then another. A smile flickered across his lips as more memories surfaced: number five. A dauger. Base-born, Iron or Lead, he couldn’t remember and it didn’t matter. He was a janitor. A worker drone in some mid-level tower, arriving, doing his duty and returning home to a beer and a jai alai match on the radio. He had been easy. Weak. But it was worth it.
He had peeked.
It was his most delicious secret. He had looked under the mask. Seen what lay beneath the dauger’s faceplate. What he had seen beneath that base metal mask was surprising. He’d felt shocked… yet strangely empowered. Even the Precious Families could hold nothing from him, fools like that smug Janus. He knew their most sacred secret and, grinning, he kept it tucked away.
Muffled footsteps echoed behind him and he turned as he heard someone move to the door and stop. A pair of shadows blocked a part of the light that eked from under the door and into the child’s room. He froze, eyes fixated on the door. What if they caught him? What if they stopped him? He was near the end now and so close.
He mouthed a prayer to Ashton. Time stretched out as it slowed. The figure on the other side of the door said something, and then another responded. A second pair of shadows joined the first, four feet. There was muffled laughter. Then a quick exchange of words. Then they drifted away, leaving an unbroken line of light.
The evangelist breathed. He returned to his work.
Six had soured the ritual for a time. They had been related. Simon, the eldest son of his cousin Annalise. A strapping lad with broad shoulders and pale blue eyes. He’d lived in a room much like the one he was in now. He also had stuffed animals that occupied the corners of his room. Similar posters adorned his walls. They had a similar look, sharp features, bright blue eyes, skin paler than most humans. Simon’s long neck had reminded him of his mother’s. Cutting it was unbearable.
“But you ask,” he rasped at the wall. “You ask, Master, and I obey. No matter the cost.”
Simon had stared at him as his life drained away, blubbering soft whispers. His soft hands clutching at his jacket. He had taken his time, drawing the swashes of the words through stinging tears. Adding his own elegant touch to the characters. His small way to honor Simon’s sacrifice.
He still missed him, but he had served such a purpose. He had been the perfect stanza in Ashton's song. Those that followed were nothing compared to him. Important, yes, vital to the completion, yes, but he had to be perfect. With his perfection everything else was soured.
Seven had been Madam Bonheur—a society matron, elegant, wealthy. She ran the Bonheur Seafood Company out of Demetrios and was rumored to be one of the members of Camalote. He knew her well as she had been a client of his for some time. She was a dimanian with small horns that curved upwards like corkscrews and two smaller spurs that broke forward from her cheeks like stubby tusks.
That hadn’t been so long ago. Right at the beginning of the Syringan blockade. She had died on Level Seven and when was the last time someone was killed on Level Seven? Her death caused a stir. The family demanded justice. The mayor promised protection, patrols were increased. They had dragged some liquor-sodden kresh into the spotlight. Claimed he was the killer and naturally, the elevated demanded his death. The mayor—hiding behind that wide cocksure smile of his—obliged. After all, their demands were of the utmost importance. If they didn’t feel safe... how could anyone?
The family would recover. Her loss was unfortunate, but she was survived by her three sons and the eldest was well equipped to take her place at the head of the company.
Madam Bonheur had been the easiest, though. She seemed to understand. She had smiled, gripped his hand in her boney ones and seemed to help him cut along her belly. As she bled out, she mumbled something. Words he couldn’t make out. But he knew they were his words. Words she set free.
Eight was a male kresh, a servant. There was nothing special about him. He was old, quiet, but chosen. Odd he was selected. He had always considered the kresh a vile race. Something about those black eyes and fleshy beaks. He never accepted them as clients, and refused to hire them. Why the words resided in the veins of a kresh he’d never understand.
“I just follow, Master. I follow and I obey,” he said to the lifeless room.
He sighed. That was all of them. All except this one: number nine.
Tracing his hand along the wall, he finished the spine of the last character and then cut it with the final swash. There.
That was it. The final pharos was complete. His job was complete. He looked around at the stoic audience of stuffed beasts that lined the room. They made him shiver. Their empty gazes gave the place an eerie quality when it should feel wondrous and hallowed. The signals were now set. The barrier would slip. The gothi would make a mistake. Ashton would be free once again!
He wanted to sign his name. Leave some mark indicating that he was the one, him all along! What would those elevated fools think now? What would LPD say? Nine sacrifices up the nine levels, each one a step in setting the signal. Pharos to pharos, from the blackest of shadows into the brightest red sunlight of the spires.
With a weak breath he collapsed, and the world went black for a time. When his eyes reopened, he looked down the length of his body. His gray suit was ruined, the jacket open, and his shirt was stained and torn. He eyed the ragged gash he had carved into his own stomach. His knife lay in a pool of blood an arm’s length away. He felt light.
Outside the room the band quieted and the voices of Auseil partygoers could be heard.
His name was being called. His name…
He poked his finger into the wound and pulled it out again, studying his blood, his paint. It glistened delicately in the light of the setting sun. A dark stain against his tan skin. The room around him glowed red. He squinted at his hand, it almost seemed like it belonged to someone else. So many times it had drawn the words along walls of stone, brick, plaster, iron, and even steel. Now, like him, it was finished.
He wondered if Ashton would visit him. He hoped he’d see him again, one last time.
The world grew fuzzy and warm. He shivered.
Pain welled from inside. Sharp angry pain that sprouted from his stomach, crawled up his back, and slithered along his throat. It was tremendous. Suffocating. He wanted to scream. Cry out. The enraptured feeling that had blocked out so much was fading as his world darkened.
Outside the band began playing a new lively number. It warbled in the background, a strange accompaniment to the gore-covered room.
He heard his name again.
Pain clenched onto the back of his eyes and squeezed. He tried to scream but no sound came. He heard voices now, growing louder. They’d find him in here, laying in this altar of his own blood. They wouldn’t be able to do anything. Lovat would be reborn.
The door swung open and music spilled in. There was a beat, he heard laughter, and then a scream filled the room. A man’s. He turned his head and smiled, seeing an umbra in a tux, mouth hanging open, and next to him a maero in an evening gown gasped and dropped a full glass of shimmer.
The umbra ran in, shouting something, sliding onto his knees through the blood. He leaned over the evangelist, his face a pool of shadow that drew him in.
“No, no, no, no, no,” the umbra said.
“By the Firsts!”
“Someone call the police!”
Voices rattled. The music halted. More people rushed in, their faces blurring on the edge of his vision. People he recognized: friends, servants, but where did that damned caravan master go off to? He should see this. He needed to see this! Hadn’t he been here not too long ago? Hadn’t he traded words with the others?
“No! Please. Someone help him!” yelled the umbra’s voice.
He heard another gasp—his own, his last—but it was too late.
It was over.
It had begun.
To be published by K. M. Alexander; Copyright © 2015 by K. M. Alexander. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.