OF DAWN & DARKNESS
Elder cults find their recruits in the ways you would expect: through bribery, misinformation, brainwashing, preying on the emotionally weak, and exploiting the uneducated.
But we’ve discovered a few, a very few, who join such cults because they truly believe that the Elders will somehow save us.
—From the Navigator’s Guild Report on Sleepless Activity in the Aion Sea
Twenty years ago
Jyrine Tessella held her father’s hand as they walked down the street. She’d never been to this city before, but she didn’t think she liked it—everything smelled like fish, and the people didn’t know how to walk. An old man passed them, covered in a full-body cloak of burlap, limping like his left leg was broken. Every time he took a step, something wet slapped against the pavement. She pictured him wearing fish on his feet like shoes, and she giggled.
The town was in even worse shape than its citizens. Each building had been cobbled together from driftwood and parts scavenged from shipwrecks, so Jyrine and her father walked between walls of warped wood and crusty ropes. Many of the houses had collapsed or sunk down into the earth, but someone else just built another one on top of the pile. The result was an entire town that looked more like a model built by a little boy out of scraps he gathered in his back yard.
Strangest of all was the way they treated gold. They weighted their fishing nets with mismatched golden idols the size of her fist, and gold statues of the Emperor sat on boats as anchors. Half-clothed children ran through the mud in a ditch, tossing golden pebbles at each other. Thousands of goldmarks worth of precious metal, treated like trash.
“It’s not real gold, is it?” Jyrine asked, looking at a woman sweeping gold flakes out of her doorway.
Her father’s tattooed cheek crinkled as he smiled. “Just because it’s valuable to us doesn’t mean it’s worth the same to everyone. Gold, on its own, is worthless. Only a few things have real value.” He rubbed her head, and she smiled back, because she knew he was talking about her.
His tattoo was far more complex than hers, a squirming web that covered the entire left half of his face and rolled down the left side of his body, wrapping his whole leg. Hers stretched from the bottom of her left ear to her ankle, telling the world the history of their Vandenyan family.
She’d asked him once why his was so much bigger, and he’d laughed. “Secrets take a lot of ink,” he’d said, which in her opinion didn’t answer the question.
A cloaked figure stepped out of an alleyway and blocked their way forward, so quickly that Jyrine instinctively moved to stand behind her father. The fish smell was stronger now that this man—at least, she guessed it was a man—stood so close to them. He breathed too loudly, as though he sucked each breath through clenched teeth.
“You are Larrin Tessella.” That was her father’s name, but the man pronounced the words all wrong, like he was choking out a demand instead of asking a polite question. She wasn’t sure he meant it as a question at all, and he hissed in and out after each word.
Her father’s hand tightened slightly on hers, but he forced a smile. “I am. What may I call you?”
The man jerked his head to one side, limping away, his burlap covering dragging in the muck behind him. There was a lump like a camel’s between his spine and left shoulder, though it squirmed as he moved. She imagined him hiding a cat under there, and she almost laughed.
Her father didn’t seem to find the man funny. He pulled her closer to him as they followed the man deeper into the town.
The farther they went, the worse it seemed to get, though that could have been the dying light. The sun was going down, so the light was worse and worse with every passing second. Light and shadows played tricks on her eyes, which was no doubt why some of these people looked like they had webs between their fingers. And why some of the children watching her from open doorways had eyes that reflected light like a cat’s. A few times, she heard what she thought was the call of a distant bird, followed by what could have been screams or loud laughter.
She drew so close to her father that she was almost hugging his leg.
Finally, the hunchbacked man stopped at a towering gold temple that rose above the surrounding. He bowed them forward like an usher bowing them into an opera, though Jyrine couldn’t see if he was smiling or not.
She knew it was an old temple because it looked exactly like the pictures in her schoolbooks. Made of almost pure gold, the temple was blocky and fluid at the same time, like some architect had tried to build a rearing snake out of bricks. It was adorned by dangling flags of every color, on which were written words she didn’t understand.
Her father pulled her inside, though she was more interested in staring at the entrance. They passed between two statues that looked like they could have represented the Emperor, except they each had a snake’s head resting on a man’s shoulders. As far as she knew, the Emperor had a normal head.
Fires burned in braziers standing against the walls, lighting their way in and filling the air with a more pleasant smell, almost like pine and cinnamon. They only walked a short way before her father unlocked a perfectly ordinary door, which opened onto a much larger chamber. A strange golden statue stood against the far wall: most of it looked like a snake, though it had the tail of a scorpion, the head of a lion, and the talons of a huge bird. She supposed it must be a Kameira of some sort, but she couldn’t tell which one. She hadn’t studied natural history yet.
In front of the statue, gathered around a fire-pit full of stacked, unlit wood, were five figures in hooded robes. Other than the hoods, none of the robes had anything in common; one was black and plain, another blue and richly decorated, and she was suspicious that a third was really just a bathrobe with a cowl sewn on. At the sight of her father, the bathrobe man lowered his hood and grinned. He was a very ordinary-looking old man, obviously older than her father, with a red, round face and a ring of wispy white hair.
“And the cavalry’s here!” he shouted, spreading his arms wide. “Light and life, Larrin, it’s been an age! Worms take me! We’re getting ready to begin, just waiting on you, but we’ve got a little time. Why don’t—”
He seemed to notice Jyrine for the first time, and he leaned down to put his hands on his knees, looking at her on her level. “I’m sorry, little lady, they say manners are the first thing to go. What is your name?”
“Jyrine,” she said, happy to meet a normal person in this town.
“You must be hungry, Jyrine. Why don’t you get something to eat?” He gestured over to the wall, where a perfectly ordinary service table had been set up, carrying all the bite-sized delicacies she would have expected to see in the Capital. It was bizarrely out of place here, something from polite Heartlander society over here in the middle of a wilderness temple off the Izyrian coast.
But she was happy for a meal, so she looked up at her father for permission.
“I tell you what,” he said, amused. “Why don’t you have a seat over there? I want you to watch what we do tonight, but just to watch, okay? Eat what you want, but don’t make a sound.”
She nodded impatiently; he’d explained as much to her many times over the weeks aboard the Navigator’s ship. “Don’t make a sound. Pay attention, but if your head starts to feel strange, it’s okay to close your eyes. You need to be brave, and look closely, but not too closely.” Most of her instructions she didn’t entirely understand, but she’d committed them to memory anyway. She was afraid that he’d start reciting them all if she didn’t escape, so she scurried over to the snacks.
Her father and the others began to talk, and she started to relax. The food was delicious, if a little less than fresh, and her father laughed and joked with these people. Three were women and two men, all much older than her parents, which made her father the youngest person in the circle. That was a strange thought: her father, young.
Jyrine was just starting to get bored when her father gestured to her to stay where she was. She almost jumped out of her chair with excitement.
She didn’t know what was about to happen, nor why they’d traveled for weeks across the ocean, but she was finally about to find out.
Maybe she would learn why her mother had tried to stop her from coming.
Her father had changed into a brown robe, though his hood didn’t quite cover his face. All the robed figures knelt around the stack of wood, speaking in another language. That was strange in itself; everyone in the world spoke Imperial, according to her tutors. There was a time when the Emperor had imprisoned people for speaking the wrong words, or even for having too much of an accent, though that was a long time ago. Now tutors like hers, under the supervision of the Witness’ Guild, made sure everyone could understand each other.
Wherever her father had picked up this strange language, she wasn’t sure she liked it. He and his friends sounded like they were imitating the hunchbacked man outside, hissing in through their teeth, though the sound was mixed in with clicking tongues and a few words that she thought she could almost understand. All in all, it was like listening to a snake trying to have a conversation with a swarm of bugs.
Something caught her eye, and she glanced down at the pile of sticks. A green light kindled inside, like the world’s smallest quicklamp. She’d seen shows before where they used strange-colored quicklamps to set the mood, but those were expensive. So expensive that she was surprised to see one here.
The light spread, and she realized it wasn’t a quicklamp after all. It was a fire. But rather than the comforting, homey orange light she was used to, this was a poisonous green flame that cast everything in harsh shades of emerald.
But she wasn’t paying attention to anything else, because the fire was fascinating. How had they done that? Did they burn some alchemy to change the color of the flames, or was one of the robed figures a Soulbound?
She hoped so. She’d always dreamed about meeting a Soulbound.
Jyrine was staring into the fire when the world seemed to blink out. It startled her enough that she looked around the room, to see if the older men and women had reacted, only to find that the room had left her behind.
She wasn’t looking out into the chamber of a golden temple anymore. Instead, she sat on top of a high mountain, surrounded by towering clouds and piles of flawless snow. She knew it was cold from the snow flurries and the howl of the wind, though the temperature didn’t touch her.
Jyrine tried to get up and look over the edge of the peak, but she couldn’t move. She stifled her moment of panic. It’s like watching a play, she thought. I’ll sit back and enjoy the show, just like they always say.
Put that way, she could think of this like a holiday. No play had ever created such a vivid picture as this one, and maybe she’d get to see something that even her father had never seen.
She looked around, enjoying the scenery, when she noticed that there were other peaks around her. There must be miles in between the mountains, because they were hazy with distance, but one in particular caught her eye. It loomed over all the others, and there was something strange about its shape. Jyrine focused on it, and suddenly she could see it clearly, as if she’d moved closer.
This mountain was riddled with holes, like someone had drilled dozens of mines everywhere they could, and something wove in and out of each one. At first she thought it was a giant snake, burrowing through the mountain, but she quickly realized that the skin was too smooth for scales. And its body was segmented in lines, like an earthworm.
It was a giant worm, woven in and out through the rocky peaks as though the mountain were nothing more than a rotten apple.
And as she watched, the worm began to move. It slid forward, displacing rocks in an avalanche, slithering and squirming deeper. It was repulsive to watch, certainly, and her mother would probably have told her to look away. But it was the kind of disgust that meant she couldn’t look away; she was too horrified and too fascinated all at once.
A sense of hunger, of growing dread, suffused the vision like someone else’s emotions were pressing down on her.
“YOU ARE ONLY A PILE OF MEAT,” a voice declared, deafeningly loud and yet somehow still a whisper. Jyrine leaned forward as the mountain rumbled, eager to see the worm’s giant, repulsive head emerge.
Just as she was sure it was about to pop out, the scene shifted.
This time she floated above a field of flowers. Once she adjusted to her disappointment at missing the end of the last dream, she enjoyed the new one; even the scent of flowers seemed to drift up, as delicate and pure as the most expensive perfume. She looked between the petals and realized that the flowers weren’t planted in grass, but rather floating on lilypads. And under the lilies, a red pool.
A coppery smell reached her, underneath the more pleasant notes of the flowers, and she wondered if it was a sea of blood.
Hands reached up from between flowers, dripping scarlet, like human hands but six-fingered and wrong. They groped for the sky, and the scene shifted again.
This time, Jyrine couldn’t contain her impatience. “Go back!” she complained, but no one responded. Were all of these visions going to end just before something good happened?
The third one did the same. She was inside a dim cave, which had been filled by a mound of bleached bones. Tens of thousands of bones surrounded her in waves and piles, and the only sound was a distant crunching sound. It grew louder, until she could see something rushing toward her beneath the bones, like a mole burrowing through the soil. It rushed closer with the speed of a galloping horse, and just when she was sure it would reveal its hideous body in a spray of skulls, the sight changed again.
She’d expected it, but was still disappointed.
More images flashed in front of her, some for only an instant and others for a quarter of an hour. They were all somewhat disturbing, either grotesque or so strange that they left her squinting. One and all, they ended before her greatest curiosity was satisfied.
The rush of images ended in black.
Painted darkness enfolded her, an infinite void filled with swirls of distant colors that shivered and danced. It was like drowning in an ocean of stars, if the stars were dyed like quicklamps for a festival.
Phantom noises drifted behind her, out of sight, and she shivered in a mixture of fear and delight. Something clashed beside her hair, like massive jaws gnashing inches away from her skin, and she spun around. She hoped to catch sight of some nasty monster this time, but was frustrated to see only more dancing lights.
A thin voice whispered to her, and she would have sworn she felt lips against her ear. “What would you ask for, given the chance?”
The colored stars froze, awaiting her answer.
Distantly, she thought she heard older voices responding, including her father. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but their cooperation gave her courage.
“Can you make it go back?” she asked.
The utter silence rang in her ears like a bell. Maybe it hadn’t understood her.
“I want to see the first one. With the giant worm. Would you allow me to see the rest of it, please?” If she was speaking to Elders, as she now suspected, she may as well be polite.
“Why?” the voice whispered, breath stirring the back of her neck.
She clapped a hand to the spot and spun around, though she caught no one. “I wanted to see its face.”
The voice murmured something else, something she didn’t catch, and then even that vision ended. It didn’t cut off instantly, as the other scenes had, but slid down her eyes like rain washing away paint.
On the other side of the abyss was the temple room, where the old men all waited in a circle. Her father was sprawled on his back, chest heaving as though he’d run a great distance. One of the older members of the group had a hand clapped to his eye, and blood oozed between his fingers.
Only four robed figures were gathered around the green fire now. They had started with five.
Jerri found herself wondering whether the others had seen the same things she had. She was willing to bet that they were allowed to see the giant worm’s face.
The four remaining leaders of the cabal gathered themselves, each composed and kneeling before the fire. One of the men spoke up. “Great Ones, show us our guide.”
From the center of the flames, a jewel rose up, flashing with light. It was an emerald, shining like a star as it hovered in the air above their heads. They whispered to each other in excitement, clapping one another on the shoulder as they watched it. Jerri’s father was ecstatic, his grin as wide as she’d ever seen it, eyes fixed on the gem.
It hung there for five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. After twenty minutes of silence and green light, the circle of adults began to shift uneasily on their knees.
“Should we…should we take it?” an old woman asked.
Five more minutes passed before anyone tried it. Jerri’s father rose slowly to his feet, reaching a hand out for the jewel. It didn’t fly away and it didn’t slap his hand down, so Jerri was sure he’d grab it.
Then the emerald became a stream of light, flashing away. In an instant, it appeared in front of Jyrine’s face.
She jerked back in shock, almost knocking over her chair. If this was some kind of an attack, she had no idea what to do about it.
That whispering voice from the void returned, and though it sounded quiet, it swallowed the room. “You look back. She looks forward. She will guide you into the future.”
The trinket fell as though a string had been cut, falling into Jerri’s lap. It was so hot that it felt like it would burn her even through her skirt.
“Bind this to her soul,” the voice said, and then a soft wind filled the chamber. As the wind left, the fire died.
The adults murmured to one another, glancing at her in confusion. Only her father seemed like he was on the verge of laughter. After another hour of discussion, during which Jerri fiddled with her gem and snacked on the food from the service table, the old men and women began to file out.
One by one, the three strangers put a hand on her shoulder and said words of farewell. She didn’t entirely understand what had happened today, but she knew enough to mind her manners, and she responded to each one.
Her father was last. He knelt in front of her, gathering her hand up in both of his. “Are you all right?”
She nodded impatiently. “Of course I am. But what happened?” She had waited over an hour to find out, and with curiosity burning a hole in her, it had felt like three days.
He patted her hand gently. “It will take a long time to explain, but I’ll do the best I can. The most I can say is that you’re going to be very important someday, Jerri. Very, very important.”
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