Even though she still took a short but pleasing moment to punch Nemnir in the shoulder, reaching as high as she could and then being hurt more for her jab than him, she did allow him to lead her out of the tavern along with Pierson. The three of them left behind a collection of broken and bleeding bodies; Jerekyn’s men who underestimated both the raw rage of the mountain-voln and the fake priest’s skill with daggers. However, one of those groaning was Jerekyn, slumped against the wooden leg of a table, a slick red hand pressed to his chest, trying to keep his life inside. Above him Estille was lying stretched out across the table, as white as bone, but still breathing.
Heading out into the dark at the front of the tavern, they heard shouts in the distance.
“Come on!” Snapped Pierson, and led them quickly across the way to a street that was little more than an alley-way. They were hardly inconspicuous; Nemnir a dark looming shape taller than any city-voln, Pierson in his glinting rich robes, and Eris, a woods-voln surrounded on all sides by a city.
Pierson led them down labyrinthine routes, bringing them to a halt in a deeper doorway. “We’re being followed.” He whispered. “Since the tavern. They aren’t good at it, but they’re persistent, so it’s likely to be one of Jerekyn’s lesser officers. And just one man, so we can easily… dissuade him of his deadly intent.”
Eris nodded, her green eyes fierce in the dark, earning her a stare from Pierson, who then whispered, “You and I need to have a talk when all this is becalmed, sweetling. But hush now.” He stopped her as she began to answer, indignant. “He’s coming.”
Pierson’s ears were obviously sharper in the streets of the city than Eris’. In the woods she would have heard the man much earlier, but even after Pierson had alerted them she struggled to recognise the sound of his feet on flagstones, drawing nearer, cautious.
Suddenly Pierson leapt out from their shadowed hiding place and grabbed the man as he went to pass them, grasping his sword arm behind his back and holding one of his deadly dagger’s to the gasping man’s throat.
“Good evening. How might we help you?” he asked his captive pointedly, as Eris and Nem joined him in surrounding the figure, weapons held ready. But even with his face locked into an expression of shock and fear, Eris recognised him. It was Orrin, the storyteller from the tavern.
“Please. I wasn’t-”
“No coin for you tonight, you’re not earning a reward from Jerekyn this time!”
“No! No! I don’t work for Jerekyn! I just tell tales at the tavern!”
Pierson paused, looking to Nemnir, who mutter a low growling noise.
“My friend here says you look honest. Which is bloody unlikely, as you’re a heathen in a city of Lios-worshippers.” whispered Pierson.
“Yes! That’s right! I serve the bastar-”
Pierson hushed him. “Not so loud, the streets have ears. Although, they’ll see nothing wrong with a priest executing a blasphemer who has confessed. Bear that in mind as you choose your next words.”
The man gulped. He was younger than Pierson perhaps, with a growth of hair on his chin and cheeks that had been shaped into a tidy dark goatee. A long fringe of parted hair was not dissimilar to Pierson’s too, but again groomed and cared for, even if he’d been just pushed about by the rogue and was now more dishevelled.
“I do not work for Jerekyn. But I was there tonight. I’ve spent many late evenings… after the bell… at the Light of Lios. I tell stories. Made up little things of no interest to but a few.” His stress on ‘made up’ made his belief in the bastard gods clear. “I heard from Estille.” Pierson’s grip tightened on him tightened. “Who I have never particularly cared for! But I heard from her that your servant here had a new story she might share with me; of a stone and a pool of water. And then tonight, I heard your servant say a name… I will not repeat it… a name that I have only come across once before. And I wanted to know more. But then, sadly, good sir, you and your servants had to leave quickly this evening…” He left the truth floating like smoke behind his words.
Pierson paused, looking at Eris. She thought quickly; he might be lying, he might really be working for Jerekyn after all? But he was just one man. She nodded, and Pierson released him, but kept his dagger to hand.
“Thank you.” He rubbed at his neck. “I have a place we can hide. Jerekyn’s men will not expect you to be with me, whoever takes over his firm.”
“Jerekyn was alive when we left.” Pierson noted.
The man paled. “Ah, well. Perhaps other plans will be needed soon. But for now, if you will all follow me, I know a subtle way that will keep us from too many eyes in the dark.” He smiled and bowed a little, gesturing for them to follow. Pierson remained on his guard, and Nemnir scoured the dark for other signs of hunters. Eris watched Orrin, expecting treachery, but only getting the occasional cautious smile in return as he led them onwards. They finally reached a small square of buildings overlooking a fenced off garden, a richer area of Bara where the residents had claimed land of their own and even looked after it, againt the city-voln norm. It was a place where they flaunted their wealthy eccentricity. Above them, and far off behind the terraced houses, was the tower of the temple of Lios, a sharply pointed four sided structure than was covered over in scales of golden tiles, glinting in the slight moonlight. What did the priests make of this odd space in the middle of their city, Eris wondered.
“Through here.” Orrin took them to a normal looking part of the iron fence and moved apart two of the railings, making a space to crawl through. Nemnir managed it after some help from the others, and then they were all inside the night garden. Eris had never seen plants like these; they kept their growth limited to tidy spaces next to each other, and bloomed with much more elegant and complicated flowers than she’d ever seen in the woods. There, competition led plants to strangle and swamp each other in the fight for life. Perhaps Lios commanded them to like this here, while the bastard gods took little effort to control the wild woods?
Orrin gestured again for them to follow him, and they made their way up the slight slope of the garden to an oddly untidy mound that was shot through with great slabs of granite, an old oak tree pushing through them and shoving them from the ground so that they were like teeth working their way out from gums. At the great tree’s roots Orrin crouched.
“Look.” What looked like just another slab of stone had a rusted ring of metal in it, caked with mud and twined with weeds. It had been used recently though. “I come and go through here.” He yanked at the ring with surprising strength and a part of the stone lifted up revealing a dark hole below. However, the other three of them regarded it with suspicion.
“I’ll go first I suppose. You can always stab me in the back if it looks like I’m tricking you.” Shrugged Orrin, and lowered himself down into the dark by handholds cut right into the stone walls of the drop. Pierson followed, and then Eris, with Nemnir just fitting in at the rear. As Orrin lit a torch ready on the ground below they saw that it was a strangely dry and dusty path they found themselves on, a goodly thirty feet below the gardens above. Large flagstones, broken and jumbled, lined the floor, showing that this way had been made by men, but a long time ago. The walls were broken through by the roots of the oak for a little way, and then they were increasingly covered by pale sandy brown tiles. As they moved up the tunnel the gaps between the tiles were also covered over, and the walls gained pictures painted onto the smooth canvas of them in faded reds, browns and blues. Men, represented by nothing more than a few strokes of a brush, were fighting and killing each other, simply drawn body parts being flung about and blood staining the brown walls.
“Is this a story?” Asked Eris, looking past Pierson to Orrin, his torch making his friendly face ethereal. “What does it mean?”
“This part? I don’t know really. A great battle. A war perhaps. But up here, that’s where it gets interesting.”
He pointed towards a junction where their path split; left, right and straight onwards. Continuing their straight path they ignored the left and right, and found themselves walking past walls painted with much larger shapes. Eris immediately recognised the simple outlines of bastard gods; the lengths of arms up to the slopes of their shoulders, and their plain, featureless heads. She saw the many ways in which they were made different to each other. One pierced through with arrows. One with a sword across its throat. One with a green face. One with a black chain arcing over it. And the one she knew best of all, the Crowned One, she who once healed. Eris stopped there, the flickering light of Orrin’s torch showing her the nearest ones but also that the tunnel led off into the darkness with outlines of the bastard gods continuing on the walls leading that way.
“How many are there?”
“Twenty-One? Eighteen? Twenty-Nine? I’ve counted sixteen times, and each time the number is different!”
Pierson scoffed. “Perhaps you just don’t count very well.”
Orrin smiled, smugness creeping in slightly. “You are welcome to try. Just count in your heads. Humour me.”
Pierson nodded, and between them they marked off the gods as they walked, noting them with nods or nearly muttered numbers. At the furthest end of the tunnel, where another series of handholds would lead them upwards into darkness above them, they stopped.
“Before you give me your numbers I want to make a wager with you.” Orrin said quickly. “If I win, you will promise me that you will not try to attack me when we get to the top of this climb.”
Pierson raised his dagger again. “Are we walking into a trap, storyteller?”
Eris also glared at the smiling man, “I don’t know if we should trust him.”
Orrin spread his hands wide. “How is this? In our wager, if it turns out that I am incorrect in the prediction I am about to make, you can cut my throat right now, turn about, and make your own way out, without fear of falling into some trap above us now. Isn’t that fair?”
Nemnir grunted, and Pierson nodded. “Fair. And don’t think we won’t, however confident you are. My blades haven’t been sated by the blood of just a few minor thugs and criminals. They still thirst.” He turned his daggers, making the fire light flash off of them, and Eris had to fight to keep in her dark smile at his theatrics.
“Very well. Now… let me know your counts. I predict that they will all be different.”
“Nonsense!” Said Eris. “There are twenty-six bastard gods on the wall. Of course there are!”
Pierson struggled against a smile. “Well played. I don’t know how you did it, but well played. I counted nineteen.”
Nemnir held up ten fingers, then another ten, then four.
“How?!” Eris gasped. “We were all counting carefully!”
Orrin smiled. “Indeed you did. But might I remind you of our wager? Can I take you onwards, up the climb, to a place that Jerekyn will not think to look for you… and can I keep my blood where it is meant to be once we are there?”
Pierson growled. “Careful storyteller-”
“We promise.” Said Eris quickly. “You will be unharmed.”
Orrin nodded, extinguished his torch against the dust of the path, and then led the way up the climb, the same carved handholds making the ascent possible. At the top he pushed at a wooden hatch above them, slowly, carefully. He clambered out into more blackness, and helped each of them in turn as they reached the exit. As they carefully shuffled out of the hole in the dark Eris got the feeling that furniture or some other large objects were nearby, muffling echoes, and making the space feel smaller.
“Remember your promise.” Orrin’s words came drifting on the darkness. “Prepare your eyes now, I will light another torch.”
The sound of a tinderbox being used, and then the flash and roar of a torch coming to life, where it was hanging up on the wall. Blinded, Eris tried to wait patiently for the world to return. Before it did for her, she heard Pierson cursing.
“Oh fuck you, storyteller. You utter bloody shit!”
A slight laugh. “Remember your promise. I am to be unharmed!”
Eris’s eyes adjusted and she could finally make out where they were. It made sense, once she got past the initial shock.
Bara, Pierson had told her when they’d been walking about it in the daylight, was built on itself, older parts falling into disuse and being covered over, levels and levels compacting and growing on each other. And the tunnel was of the bastard gods, some kind of lost place of worship, so where else could it lead really? Eris looked up with curiosity at the cold and unconcerned carving of the golden eye of Lios hanging on the wall above Pierson’s own furious face.
They were in the temple of Lios.