Harl stood a few cautious steps back from Cole as the man crouched on the crushed shells and small pebbles by the water’s edge and peered into its shallows. Harl watched, fear rising, as the tall man reached out and nearly touched the rippling surface with his fingertips. Cole halted though and then looked out to the deeper parts of the harbour where many-sailed ships including Lion in Armour sat at anchor. Harl watched him raise his hand to shade his eyes, the grey light of the sun reflecting off the slight waves as he scanned the further waters.
“And you think it helped you?”
“Can’t see how else I got out.”
Cole nodded. They both knew that the ‘ghosts’ the prophets proclaimed as Lios’ judgement were actually the creatures from the castle; children stolen and bought from their parents and put into cells with older creatures that either killed, maimed, or very occasionally, changed them. Like Harl had been changed. If he’d not escaped from the castle with his own cell mate, Fysiwon, he’d have ended up with his own numbered room. One with its own sobbing child waiting for doom to come and get him from the shadows. Cole knew because he’d been one of the masters once. Entrusted with getting more and more young boys for Orinius’ experiments… Even now, a year or more after the castle had fallen, Harl still had no idea where the stern looking woods-voln had come from… because if he’d been a master, that meant he’d been one of those stolen and bought children too. And his scars showed how close he’d been to being one of the dead.
But these ‘ghosts’… they were the changed children. He’d seen Fysiwon, seen the twisting changing chaos of him. Sometimes flesh, sometimes like smoke. And when his friend had swept him up and taken him from the castle, to Harl it’d felt like swimming through shadows. And whatever had saved him from the sea water in the first crescent had been a dark shadow like Fysiwon. But his friend was dead…
“You said once that the ‘Lios-fuckers’ had found a lad’s body at the bottom of the cliffs?”
Cole looked back at Harl, standing again. They were stood not far from where Harl had dragged himself… or been dragged… back onto the rough stone shoreline of the beginning of the second crescent. The place where abandoned small boats and bottles lead upwards to a narrow alleyway at the base of the hill. Cole had taken them there via quieter paths, showing a knowledge of Emphon that Harl had not noticed him gaining while working all hours at the Cant of the Lion. Cole had even insisted that they both wore hooded cloaks that he’d brought to their rooms before they left on their mission. From a distance Cole might pass for city-voln, but Harl had covered his red hair straight away. Now he looked up at the taller man from the shadows of the hood, judging the man’s reaction to his words.
Cole nodded, “Aye, there was a body. They thought it were yours.”
Harl remembered Cole, drunk and slurring in the Light of Lios tavern in Bara. That’s when he’d mentioned the body. Trying to convince Jerekyn that the Lios-fuckers wouldn’t be after Harl. And what had Jerekyn said when he’d heard about the body… something about Cole being either very smart or very stupid.
“When you told Jerekyn that… I thought it was Fysiwon.”
He looked deep into Cole’s eyes. Truth be told, there weren’t as much difference in their heights now. Maybe only half a head. Harl took a step closer and said it again. “I thought it was Fysiwon.”
There. A flicker. Was it shame? Guilt?
“It wasn’t was it? And it damn well wasn’t me! Who was it?!”
Cole pulled away from Harl, breaking his searing gaze. He pulled his own hood up, nodding towards some sea-voln working on a ship far too far away to be a serious issue, even if the men gave a shit about woods-voln. “Careful.”
Harl’s bruises and aching bones echoed the sentiment, and he did reign in his voice. But something stank here and it wasn’t just the ugly green sea water lapping nearby. “Who was it?”
Cole sighed. “It was necessary. And useless. Orinius still sent for help from Liosinium and that fucker Dren ended up in Bara and fucking well shot me.”
“You killed a boy?!”
“No!” Cole snapped. “There’s plenty’a evil I’d do. That I’ve done. And you know all about that! But that… that I didn’t do.”
Cole reached into his cloak and pulled out a dagger. Harl was startled, but even more so when he handed it to him handle first. It was another sea-voln crafted blade, made from a serrated tooth sharped and set in an ebon-wood handle with twisting threads of steel. Cole went on once the dagger was in Harl’s hand, as though he’d done nothing at all.
“There was a city-voln lad in the infirmary. He was bitten about the middle. Aye, just like me, but he didn’t make it. And they’d have chucked his body to the sea anyway. I bashed his head in a bit before I threw him over, but the masters were dumb enough not to think to check his hair overly.” Cole mumbled. “Orinius though, he was always suspicious by nature. I’m guessing that when I didn’t return he thought to send for the button men anyway. Bloody Dren!” He rubbed at his shoulder, where the city-voln’s bullet had pierced him.
“You covered up my trail?”
“Yeah.” Cole said no more, returning to look to the seawater in the crescent shaped harbour. Somewhere high above them a strange bird was making a haunting long screeching sound as it winged through the grey clouds over Emphon.
“Leave it be, boy. I helped you. And maybe it was as stupid as Jerekyn said it were.” He shrugged, but with his hood up his face was already hidden, and it was like the days when he used to wear a wide brimmed hat. Harl just couldn’t see his eyes to see the truth of it all. So he just nodded, accepting Cole’s abrupt ending of their conversation. For now, at least.
They walked back to the Cant of the Lion in silence. Harl was half wondering at Cole’s decision to help him, and half certain that it really was Fysiwon who’d saved him in the water. Both were miracles of a sort and both unsettled him in ways he didn’t entirely understand.
Then they were a street or so from the tavern when Cole halted, his sharp woods-voln ears hearing something just a moment before Harl’s own caught it. Shouting. Somewhere to the east of where they were. East and south. Down towards the gate of the first crescent that led out onto the coastal road. Were the hunters returned?
“Go back to the tavern. Go to our rooms.” Cole hissed.
Harl opened his mouth to disagree but Cole was already moving quickly and quietly towards the disturbance. Harl looked to where he should be heading if he was going to go back to the tavern and then turned, and began his own path towards the loud noise. While Cole took the street path, Harl looked about for watchers before slowly easing out the tiny claws in the palms of his hands and scampering up a slouching wooden house nearby. Made from the parts of a long-gone ship, the wood was old and soft, making Harl an easy path upwards to its roof. That too was dotted with occasional slates, but also curved, betraying its original shape as a hull, one that’d once skimmed through the waves. Harl raced over the undulating rooftops, all as rounded as the first, ignoring the strange feeling that he himself was skimming over waves as well. He kept Cole in sight below him, a dark shape in a hooded cloak that joined with the crowds of sea and city-voln that had formed about the great wooden gate.
Harl hung back on a roof overlooking the horde, holding onto a crooked smoke stack as he strained to hear individual words amongst the shouting rabble. But it was his sharp eyes that told him the story before he could hear it from the lips of the crowd. Five prophets circling two men near the gate. The men were broken and bloodied, and recently fallen from the back of a single horse. Harl might have thought that the prophets had done the bloody work, as they had with him, but one of the men was clasping the bloodied stump of his arm. The hunters had returned and they had failed.
“The ghosts” Harl whispered to himself, only then noticing how the word was already fluttering about the crowd. His eyes caught Cole again, seeing him standing towards the back by a vendor’s stall, using the canopy as more cover. He shouldn’t stay there. The crowd was somewhere between angry and scared, and the five prophets seemed to be feeding from their dark energy, gloating to each other and then to those nearest to them about the feeble mistakes of the voln who’d gone on the hunt against the will of Lios.
“Punishment!” Yelled one suddenly, trying to bring in the rest of the growing mob to his righteous anger. “Lios sent the ghosts as punishment!”
“For sin! For sin!” Another joined in, turning his attention to the crowd.
“We are living in Lios’ golden age. For now. Forever. And you bring his rage when you do not obey!”
“Lios is the god-king. His will is complete and perfect. He watches over us. He sends the prophets to help guide the people now that their sins find them out. Now that the ghosts have been released!” Another was yelling at the crowd, standing over the bleeding men… the dying men. Suddenly he drew his hand, his dagger, across the one-armed man’s throat and what little blood was left in the man splashed out across the first row of sea-voln, marking them with red.
Others in the crowd started backing away, a sensible few already running off down the crooked streets. A different prophet grabbed at someone, a city-voln whore, and pushed her to her knees in front of him. She started to sob, begging and pleading for her life.
Harl stood, unsure of what he should do to help her. But Cole, Harl could see, was still towards the back of what crowd was remaining, ready to run if needs be.
The prophet holding the whore was shouting at the crowd. “Your sins walk the streets and spoil Lios’ world with their impure vileness. You lie with the voln you are not of!”
Harl felt his anger growing. They’d beaten him, perhaps these very prophets in their disturbing mouth covered robes. And now they were terrifying the people of Emphon, who were neither good people nor bad, but voln living their lives. And there was Cole, down there and not doing a bloodt thing to help the woman who was now screaming! He calmed himself and concentrated on the wyrd power within him. He’d promised Cole time and time again that he’d not draw attention to them both by using it in Emphon, but there was a way he could avoid being noticed. He breathed out, and let the air from his let become smoke as it had done in the castle. There he’d filled the smoke with courage, helping the ghosts to escape in the first place by strengthening their will. They’d been children when they’d first come to the castle; scared and alone. He’d given them bravery. But this time he concentrated on the prophets, letting the smoke fall from the rooftop and creep up towards them like a fog coming in from the first crescent and the sea. He’d seen a few since they’d been here and thought he could do a fair job of replicating it.
And when the low fog reached the prophets they inhaled it as they took deep breaths before their rants began again. Inside them it became fear, a dread nameless terror. The crowd were fine, but they saw the five men in thick robes suddenly shake and quake in terror. Laughter echoed in the fog before it completely covered the bloody scene; one of the prophets had pissed himself. But soon the five Lios-fuckers were charging through the fog, fleeing the fear that was on their heels. When they were gone, fled down various different winding streets that headed up the hill towards the high third quarter, Harl let the fog disperse even more, so that it lay about the people’s feet and was kicked to nothingness as they left. He could hear them discussing the fog, and perhaps some story would come of it. But Harl was too busy scanning the emptying space in front of the gate. Cole was no longer by the stall and Harl could not find him!