VULTURES Prologue & First Chapter
The Month of Cemb, Reshaper Year 1895
OURAN’AN, once great city of the Reshapers, was a ruin. A necropolis of ice and stone, of hoarfrost spires like the jagged teeth of dragons. A sick, black essence webbed its way along the streets; it crept up buildings like vines. Its gossamer threads extended from the rotted corpses strewn about: it had left none untouched.
Varésh Lúm-talé stood beneath the archway of the city gate and wept. Some god I am. Some Architect. Some parent. Despairingly he crept inward: just one more look. A moment in this monument to his failure, this stain of a legacy.
He wrapped his midnight, feathered wings around himself, though it did little to ward away the early morning chill. There was something angry to the cold, something…old. Varésh closed his eyes and held his nose to the sky. Being the creature that he was, he could discern the various energies in the air—arcane or otherwise—with but a sniff. They were of him, after all.
Mîrkûr, but different than the black essence tattooed to the city and the dead. Less a plague. He opened his eyes and trained them on the tallest spire. Even here, perhaps a mile or two away, he could feel the mîrkûr’s strength, its urgency. He unfurled his wings and, with a great flap, took flight.
Mîrkûr choked the interior of the spire; the walls pulsed and throbbed. Fluid in its nature, the wispy energy had hardened to a membranelike consistency. Every now and then it seemed to hiss, its discontent provoked by the illumination coming from Varésh’s wings. Having landed at the topmost balcony he descended now, heart thumping, skin like gooseflesh underneath his cloth and plate.
There were bodies here, what remained of them at least. Judging by the magnitude of the gore, spattered on the ceiling, walls, and floor, Varésh reasoned this was where the slaughter had begun. At the very least, where the savagery had reached its peak. He pressed on, well beyond ground level and into the vaults below.
He touched down in the anteroom, equilibrium thrown off almost instantly. The room spun in and out of focus momentarily before Varésh was able to steady himself. He took a deep, ragged breath and pressed ahead, crossing overtop the inlay of a black and white raven. A portrait of his favorite shape to take. Trickster, most believed. Wisdom bringer, Varésh sought to make them see.
The vaults stood in a hallway wide enough for six to stand abreast. There were nine doors total, the first eight of which stood parallel to one another; the last was further on. Each bore a labyrinth of grooves, which extended outward from a unique symbol carved in the center of the door. The crests of the eight Reshaperate families. Though they bloomed with light as Varésh passed them by, they remained sealed.
He reached the final door, engraved with the symbol of a raven, wings outstretched. He mimicked the depiction, wispy tendrils of brilliant light—îllum—extending from the tips of his wings. The illumination permeated the raven and outlying grooves. Then the door dilated with a groan.
Varésh furled his wings around him like a cloak, light streaming from his feathers to erect a shield that pushed against the wall of mîrkûr that’d erupted from the vault. Smoke shrieked and crashed against the barricade, forcing Varésh to expend more îllum than he would have liked. The onslaught faltered after a minute or two, leaving silence and a white-eyed silhouette.
Varésh approached at a measured pace. He sensed, somehow, that whatever this creature before him was, it would not hurt him. This was just as well because he’d used up an entire wing’s worth of îllum. He inhaled: the silhouette bore a familiar perfume.
It hissed bits and pieces of the old Reshaper tongue, though the words were too distorted to discern.
Varésh shook his head. “I do not understand. I am sorry.”
The silhouette swirled and, in a rush of smoke, retreated to the back end of the vault. Varésh followed. The silhouette moaned, and he realized that its tether to this plane was growing weak; its form was collapsing. He knelt before it, staring into those white eyes, searching for something, someone—a sign, anything. It mewed again, and gestured with a wispy thread of a hand.
To a grimy leather book. Varésh picked it up. His heart stopped.
A journal. The journal of a friend, of one whom he’d considered true son.
The silhouette wailed and, in a burst of mîrkûr, ceased to be.
Varésh clutched the leather keepsake to his chest, trembling. He opened the journal and read by the light of his wing. Read, until he was numb and the prospect of death seemed to entice him more than did life. His first creations, his children, were dead. Some worse than dead, puppets dancing to the tune this tainted mîrkûr sang.
He looked at the journal. Where ink related fear and the fall of Ouran’an, it also offered hope, desperate as it was, to quell the plague that entropy had wrought. But for this minuscule chance at reclamation, at redemption, to help see the hope in this journal come to fruition, Varésh was going to have to do the one thing he did best: hide. Hide until the moment was right.
Journal tucked away, he withdrew from the vaults and the city he had failed.
It was time for the longest sleep he’d ever take.
The Month of Jul, Mid Year 1169
THEAILYS AN retched and the odor was almost as foul as that of the mangled corpse a few feet from where he knelt. A fantastic way to ring in his thirtieth year, to be sure. His younger self would have been surprised, horrified even, by the headless torso and the limbs strewn across the grass, by the gossamer threads of shadow leaking from the wounds—but that was then and this was now. Blackouts and mutilated bodies had become commonplace these last few years and it was hard to find shock in something so pervertedly routine.
Ignoring the carnage, Theailys stood and started through the moonlit trees. This has got to stop, he thought, though he knew the words held little weight. The breathing exercises that his mother had taught him as a child did little to quell the murderous voice in his head, and his medication was as useful as a torch in rain. Had Theailys’ victims been human he was sure the Faithbringers would have locked him up ages ago. Keepers, sometimes he wished they had been, if only to validate his guilt.
He arrived at Helveden’s southern periphery gate, and a cold sweat rose from his pores. Nearly two dozen corpses lay strewn across the road; blood stained the cobbles black in the dark of night. Theailys had never before seen this many after a blackout. He had never seen human bodies after a blackout.
What did you do? he hissed inwardly.
The voice in his head giggled, then manifested as a spindly white-eyed silhouette. It’d taken to calling itself Faro, a once common name made infamous four centuries prior by the wartime slaughter and treason of Faro Fatego. History told he too had seen shadows, had whispered to the voices in his head. Taking that into consideration it was an aptly appropriated name.
Answer me, Theailys growled as they walked in step.
Armored footsteps clanked his way. Theailys blinked, then found himself swarmed by half a dozen Faithbringers, collared by the tips of their crystalline longswords as Faro paced circles around them; the Faithbringers clearly could not see him. Their blades were slick with blood; their white half-plate bore signs of conflict too. Theailys sucked in a ragged breath, then exhaled.
“Did you call the lokyns here?” growled the lead Faithbringer, a tan-skinned man with brown eyes.
“No.” Theailys stole a glance at Faro, who had taken to licking the Faithbringer’s cheeks. He took another breath to compose himself. “What reason would I have for doing so?”
“You tell me,” the Faithbringer said. His face twitched and Faro snickered. “The enemy are your ancient brethren.”
“How astute you are.” Theailys crossed his arms. “Yes, my people are a lokyn sect, but we are no more the enemy than you are. Recall that it was with our help the great Faithbringer Khar Am imprisoned Te Mîrkvahîl four centuries ago. Recall that it was we who helped rebuild the city Helveden in the wake of war.” Then, stepping forward so the sword tip touched his throat and drew a dot of blood, “Recall it was the mîrkûr-wielding human Faro Fatego whom the enemy tasked to lead its brood, to whom our city nearly fell.”
The Faithbringer snarled—Theailys had touched a nerve, though not one tender enough to provoke assault, not that the Faithbringers actually had grounds, nor were they dense enough to severely maim the only man who could finally bring an end to the new lokyn war. The Faithbringer sheathed his dragon’s tooth of a blade, the others following his lead, then grabbed Theailys by the collar of his robes and shoved him toward the gate.
Theailys crossed the threshold, the southern farmlands stretching out before him, vast and gold, the late night air imbued with an amalgamation of wet grass, rot, and death. As his blackouts had become commonplace, so too had this perfume. And it would remain as such so long as the lokyns ran amok.
“You could reap the demon bastards, keep their essence for your own,” Faro hissed. “The power of those blackened souls and the mîrkûr they possess—”
No, Theailys thought. Keepers only know what I do when you take control, but I refuse to reap while I’m awake, not until I have to at least. Not until I’m standing at the Heart of Mîrkûr with The Keepers’ Wrath in hand.
Faro snickered. “Oh, my Flesh…”—Theailys hated the byname—“You amuse me so! You truly expect your little power focus to imbue you with the strength to reap the barrier that yet surrounds the Heart!”
Considering the recreation of The Keepers’ Wrath has been my life these past five years, yes, I do, Theailys thought as they continued to walk in step. Pray tell, what do you find amusing about that?
“History,” the white-eyed shadow hissed. “I sometimes read while you’re asleep.”
Better than maiming, Theailys thought.
“Debatable.” Faro grinned at Theailys. “My amusement though, dear Flesh, is in the irony of you taking up the very weapon that Fatego used to nearly bring your country to its knees.”
The irony of this had not been lost on Theailys. In fact it had nearly caused him to abandon the endeavor completely on several occasions. As far as Theailys was concerned the end of this war couldn’t come soon enough. With any luck, soon enough was perhaps three weeks away, four at the most.
He held his hand out to Faro. The grinning shadow took it with glee and the two were made one as they entered Helveden proper, abuzz with the apprehensive merriment evoked by wartime fear and drink. Here the farmland stench dissolved, replaced by horse shit, piss, and bile, which so happened to be the colors of the cobblestone street. Theailys yawned, then continued up the oak-lined promenade, heading northeast toward the Hall of Îllumurgists and sleep. He had gone perhaps half a mile when he heard his name.
He turned to find a pale man in black Hall robes approaching from the west. The man carried a slip of parchment. “Mistress Khal and Queen Ahnil require your immediate presence at the Bastion,” he said, fingering the hour-old timestamp. “The, um…requisitions team has, um…returned.”
Theailys raised an eyebrow. He’d not been expecting them for another week. He yanked the summons from the man and scanned it hastily, groaning. The requisitions team had returned, indeed—as body parts in silken sacks.
The queen’s council sat sequestered in the Bastion’s war room. They’d convened an hour prior to Theailys’ arrival, but his tardiness was the least of their concerns.
“This is bad, to put it mildly,” Mistress Khal said. The Master Îllumurgist sat parallel to Theailys, brow furrowed. “If word gets out about this people will call for blood, and the generals may very well oblige them.”
“At which point we’ll have grossly smeared our covenant with the phantaxians,” Theailys said. “The…remains they sent us were a sign, a simple warning to respect the laws laid out on either side, not a declaration of war.”
“Yes, but do you really think a people festering in fear will see it like that?” Mistress Khal inquired.
“Of course not,” Theailys scoffed. “Our country is historically, barbarically rash. Any non-human is a perceivable threat. The phantaxians were forcefully exiled from the enclaves because of a plague unique unto their race, and the dissident are routinely beaten and hung. Just yesterday a child was found strung up in the western farmlands!”
He stood up to pace the room, hands clasped behind his back. “Regardless—” He heaved a sigh. “Regardless, this business sets completion of The Keepers’ Wrath further behind schedule.”
“You have a thought, then, brother?” said Searyn, Theailys’ twin sister and Faithbringer general.
Theailys offered a reluctant nod, then looked up to regard the room. “The conception of this weapon was my doing; I’m the only one who can wield it. I’ll fulfill the requisitions myself. Time is of the essence and we can ill afford offending the phantaxians again. I hold favor with their king, so that should help to some degree.” He paused. “If my queen and council approve, of course.”
They did, unanimously.
“I’ll need three weeks, four at the most depending on how smoothly things go,” Theailys said to Searyn. Round trip, it was about a three-week undertaking, but it was necessary to have a bit of a cushion considering the state of things. “Will your forces be able to hold ground near the Heart?”
“It’s doable, though the quicker you are, the better: our numbers are stretched thin as of late,” she admitted, grimacing. “Te Mîrkvahîl is dead by my own blade, which makes things a bit easier, but recent reports suggest the rate at which the Heart of Mîrkûr is spawning lokyns has increased tenfold.”
“These are substantiated by the frequency with which they slaughter villages in the west,” Queen Ahnil said. “Not to mention the prevalence of their attempts to breach our walls.”
“Understood. I’ll make preparations to depart in two days’ time.” Theailys rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. “If there is nothing else…”
The queen obliged him with a nod. “You are free to retire.”
Theailys touched his right hand to his left shoulder in the formal salute, then withdrew from the room.
Footsteps trailed behind him, soft against the stone floor. “Feeling all right, brother?”
Theailys slowed to walk in step with Searyn. “Relatively speaking. It was only one corpse this time.”
“A good day then.” Searyn pushed a loose strand of auburn hair behind her ear. “You aren’t tired.”
“No.” There was no point in lying: Searyn could read him like a book. “Just distracted. Three years to the day, you know. Three years since…” Theailys tensed his jaw. Even after all this time he still had difficulty saying his wife’s name. Part of it was grief, but most of it was guilt. He swallowed the lump in his throat, then heaved a sigh.
Searyn offered a sad smiled, then squeezed Theailys’ arm. “I’ll take my leave. Try not to linger longer than you need.”
Presently he withdrew into the cold night, starting south for the burial mounds. They were swathed in thick mist by the time he arrived, analogous of the pressure in his chest. Privy to this parallel, Faro roused from slumber with a shriek. Theailys offered nothing in response—the past three years had numbed him to the sound.
“Mmm. Fun,” Faro hissed as he took shape to Theailys’ right. “Smells like fun here with the dead, my Flesh. Have you come to kiss her corpse?“
Theailys rubbed his thumb against his index finger. A wisp of îllum bloomed to light his way along the path. Faro snarled as they continued on. His abhorrence for Theailys’ use of îllum, minimal as it was these days, was perhaps as strong as Helveden’s fear of Theailys’ ability to wield mîrkûr.The power of betrayers and demons, they said. The weapon of Te Mîrkvahîl.
A face from nightmare memory flashed across his mind. Theailys clenched his teeth. Maybe they were right. He wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“You see, Flesh? Light makes you weak. You could be stronger if you snuffed it out, silenced it like night does the sun.” Faro grabbed Theailys’ hand. “Let me show you. Let me help you feel while you’re awake…“
Theailys yanked his hand out of the shadow’s grasp. Not. Here. Keepers, anywhere but here! He refused to let this darkness take control where corpses slept. Where Anayela’s body lay at rest. H’d already let the mîrkûr take her soul—the best that he could now was to keep it from tasting her dead flesh.
“Are you sure? Not just this once?” Faro pled, stroking Theailys’ face and arms. “I could ease your suffering with just a thread, a string of smoke to make her rise—”
Stop. Theailys’ fingertips were cold; the mîrkûr was aroused.
“—And you could hold her in your arms, my Flesh.“
He gnashed his teeth together as the world spun into obscurity. Please!
“Dance beneath the starlight like you used to do.
Before you reaped her soul.“
A raven landed on the branch of an oak tree. It bore no leaves and its bark was the color of old ash. Theailys held his arm out and the raven came to him. It cocked its head, its beady eyes unmoving.
“Varésh,” Theailys said, acknowledging the creature by its name. He stroked its head, the feathers soft, if not a bit oily. “The world sits in your eyes.”
The raven’s eyes fluctuated cyclically from black to white.
“The darkness and the light,” Theailys said. “You have seen it all.”
Theailys chuckled. “Why fly so far? What do you hope to find?”
Varésh clucked, flapping his wings.
Theailys sighed.“If you must. What do you make of dreams, old friend?”
Varésh hopped along Theailys’ arm until he rested on his shoulder. He snapped his beak at a measured pace.
Theailys nodded. “I see. Is this always so? Is there always an ounce of truth to things we dream? Or is this simply your opinion, bird?”
Varésh clucked, then took flight. He landed on a tree branch, then bird and branch erupted into flames. Theailys simply stared. He took a seat in the grass and watched the oak tree turn to ash. From the ruin arose a slender silhouette. Theailys eyed the faceless shape, unmoving as he too caught fire and burned to ash, his remnants scattering in the wind.
Starlight twinkled into being. Theailys jolted upward from the dirt, a scream caught in his throat, subdued only by his need to gulp the wet air. He trembled as the silhouette persisted in his thoughts, leering with her eyeless stare, taunting wordlessly just as she had done every week for the past three years. A monument to Theailys’ failure.
He retched—a near certainty after a blackout—then scanned the area for remains. Keepers only knew what Faro had made him do. He saw nothing, but his heart thumped wildly when he realized Anayela’s burial mound stood several feet from where he knelt. He pushed himself to his feet, knees knocking together, and approached. His stomach dropped, and urine dripped down his legs.
Mîrkûr tendrils clung to shards of broken earth. Where once his wife had lain was now a vacant tomb.
Anayela’s corpse was gone.
Did you enjoy this preview of SHADOW TWINS: VULTURES? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to check out CHAPTER TWO.