Ana had once read a parable about sin; that it was like a wolf at your door, always scratching and howling to get in. The wolf would first ask for food, and show its belly and starving bones, to make you give it sympathy. It would ask you for your food earned in virtue, and because of your natural sympathies, you’d feed the wolf. Then, the wolf learns to come back. It wants more. And in the end, it eats you alive when you can no longer satisfy it.
She did not want to feed Tros any more, but the wolf was already gnawing on her at this point. So, when the weekdays began and her bruises from the fight started to heal, Ana walked out to the beachhead. The Blackwood Quarter gave well away to the enclosed, low buildings that belonged to the fishermen and fish-wives and their little children. Ana couldn’t say much for the beauty of fish-wives, though some were comely, but rumours of how much they swore certainly proved true.
Eventually she made it to the grey, silty beachhead. The dark sand had soaked water until it had taken on a clay-like consistency. Bleached tangles of driftwood and dark seaweed dotted the beach, alongside the porous outcroppings of stone. Her boots squelched into the wet sand, leaving tracks wherever she went. She clambered onto a rock with care. The stones had sharp edges.
Hidden just out of sight was a basin of stone and silt carved into the outcrop by aeons of erosion. The seaweed and brackish water sat very still here, and Ana took a moment to observe and marvel at it. Little fish darted from place to place in the salty water, no bigger than the pads of her fingers. She could almost see clearly through their thin skin, to their reddish veins and beating hearts, so utterly alive. White and grey barnacles loosed their alien organs like flowers into the water, closing just as Ana’s hand breached the water. The white husks of crabs floated in the dim morning light and when she touched the silt at the bottom, it erupted into a cloud. An eel stranded by the receding tide wriggled away from her hand and to the opposite end of the pool, frightened and alone.
Ana took pity on it, grabbing it by its neck – or was it the tail? – and throwing it back to the sea. She waved it goodbye before continuing on her ramble.
Eventually, she found what she was looking for. It was a manageable shard of white driftwood, with a hollow center. She gently squeezed it and it didn’t break or lose any chips of wood. She went back to the rock and sat on it, and slowly whittled it down to a base with a knife, a whitened near-circle of wood. She first slowly carved out a pinhole with great care, then the symbol.
A circle, and within it a downward-pointed triangle, and within that a strange, fluttering structure about a line. What Tros had put into her head. She didn’t complete it – she left part of the circle incomplete – so as to not directly call on her. It was an appeasement, certainly, but she hoped a little appeasement would go a long way for leniency before the devil. She slipped a length of twine through the medallion, and looped it around her neck.
Ana wondered if this was how cattle felt when they were yoked. The weight felt awkward and scratchy on the nape of her neck as she walked back towards the rest of the city, away from the little fishing houses and their markets. She had a second stop – a place she had always wanted to see.
The Cathedral of Saint Elakhis wasn’t hard to find at all. It stood tall and proud above almost every other building in Blackwood. It was built on the foundations of an old pagan temple-ground, having burned quite thoroughly during the revolution. The stained glass in the windows shone in the light of early morning, the spires stretching high into the air. Great statues of the First Saints stood guard, their stony eyes staring down as she passed through the door.
The interior was just as great. The pews were well-arranged and beautiful; the great arches towering so high over her that it felt as though they were the roof of the world itself, greater than even the sky. All the rainbow’s tones flowed through the glass, and they showed scene after scene of the holy books. Eventually, she made her way through the mostly-empty nave, to a door. A single man stood guard, musket at his side, but he nodded assent as she passed without a single word.
She opened it to a stairwell. Down she went, into the dark, her way lit by small oil lamps that made the air smell sweet. Then she came to another door, and another man. He nodded to her as well, handed her a lamp, and let her walk into the reliquary. There, she saw Elakhis.
She was dead, of course, and it was only her jawbone, but it was still a sight to behold. The white bone had been joined with a statue of some kind of clay or painted stone. She stood tall on a pedestal, larger than life – eight feet at least. The story went that Elakhis was a giant, and the sculptor had captured that much. She wore a long white robe, with golden jewelry and purple sashes on her neck. Her eyes looked down with serenity. Her hands, though, were different. One bore a sword whose tip dug into the pedestal beneath her, and the other bore a noose and a long stake of wood.
Ana knelt and set down the lantern at once. She felt the yawning weight of the earth over her. A total and immense presence of the divine. The eyes cut her worse than anything ever could have. Elakhis – the Great Saint of The Kolet Revolution – was before her, as real and present as air in her lungs.
It was an impossible feeling, being so cut up by a jaw-bone nearly thrice her age. All that childish guilt, that sleeping and unconscious guilt, and all the adult guilts that she had borne out were awoken in an instant by the cold and stony stare. It was the stare of a judging school-marm, of a commander at a drum-head trial, of a priest at a pulpit.
She knew the story all too well, first from street-myth and then religious text and history. In the dark hour on the eve of the revolution, she opened her doors and preached to the sick and hungry of Kallin. She had given refuge to a worm. A nobleman came knocking for his property. She refused him, and by some miracle killed him, hung him by his neck.
Ana moved her eyes to the saint’s neck. It was open. Painted red.
She knelt and put her eyes to the ground. She very nearly cried, but held herself back from it. History was not kind to the first revolutionaries.
She silently prayed to Tros for a moment, then clutched the heptagram around her neck. Then, she began.
“I am sorry for not praying for so long. It has been difficult for me to find the time. And I know I have been sinful.”
She struggled for a moment to find the words she had to say next before deciding. After a moment’s contemplation, she abandoned all her pretenses, all the protocols. She told the truth.
“I still worry, O Godhead, O Saints, I worry about Edam. I worry about her. I worry about her at times more than I worry where my food and bread comes from. And I worry if she is doing well without me, and sometimes, though it’s selfish, I worry that she still needs me.”
She clasped her hands together, kneeling lower.
“I know I asked for it before. Please watch over her. Keep her safe from the harms in this world.”
She lost track after saying that. Ana told the saint everything. Every last thing she could think of, in sin and in joy. She lost track of her words, of whether she was whispering or yelling, of whether she was alone or not. And finally, when there was nothing left to tell, when her mouth felt dry and her throat felt hoarse, she rose again, and felt better. No locusts at all. She smiled, and walked away happier than she was before.
Korel met her on the docks in a peculiar way. When she arrived she briefly thought that he might be dead by the way he was lying down, with ravens, pigeons and seagulls surrounding him. They squawked and chirped all around him. She approached quietly, and he sat up quite suddenly. He shook himself from the bizarre reverie like a dog.
“Oh, hello Merya!” He yelled out. The birds all fluttered away in a great cloud, and he slowly stood. Ana felt uncertain as to whether or not she was dreaming until he shook her open hand. At last, she managed to speak.
“Do- do you do that often?”
“Yes,” he said.
Ana wasn’t sure how to exactly parse that simple of an answer. She had encountered more than a few madmen in her time, in her youth and in her time as an inquisitor, and a few did act strangely around animals. There was a man who passed through the poorhouses more than a few times named Tshigura who believed he had the ability to speak with rats and dogs, but he also once grabbed Ana and informed her that vampires were attacking her with secret poison in the gruel, which made her somewhat skeptical of his other claims. Korel, though, seemed like a quite well-put-together person, which made this all the more confounding.
“So,” he said, moving briskly on before Ana could totally process what had happened, “Business. Shosef. First thing you need to know is that you aren’t going to out last him unless you’re willing to go deaf and dumb for a few years. He’s better with verdure than anyone else I’ve seen, and better at withstanding backlash. More willing, at least. He once lost his ability to speak for a week after fighting. He won.”
Ana let out a low whistle. She had knocked herself into a similar state once when she was first learning to manipulate verdure. It spoke of his determination, if it proved true.
“Second thing you need to know is that he won’t fall for anything dirty, but you aren’t very dirty as a fighter. He uses an amulet – ochre mana – to make himself quicker. Take that off of him, and you’ll have a better chance. He usually prefers to fight ‘fair.’ That’s why he wanted me to tell you all this, for the record.”
“Wait, he wants you to give me an unfair advantage?”
“He thinks it’s unfair that you might not know,” said Korel, shrugging, “He’s a strange fellow sometimes. Hard to track.”
“If that’s what suits him,” said Ana, trying not to comment on the strangeness that she had just seen. Korel began to walk towards the old warehouse, and she followed, case in tow.
“His hand-wraps are his other main focus. They draw things in, and they’re not liable to make distinction between your flesh and anything else. Long and short of that is that unless you’re solidly outside of his reach, he’s liable to bloody you. The wraps around his feet do the opposite. They’ll knock you further.”
Ana calculated in her head as she walked. She was still skeptical of Korel’s advice. He was a low-down street fighter who slept with birds, after all, and if she saw indication that Shosef didn’t adhere to that sort of strategy she’d have to improvise. But, under the assumption that he was telling the truth, she ran over her options. Outlasting him like Korel wasn’t in the cards, she couldn’t get too close. She could cordon him off like she had with Korel and keep him there.
It could work, she thought.
“So, does he tell everyone this kind of thing?” She asked as they came up to the old warehouse.
“New people. He sent someone else to inform that Sondi woman.”
They went in the side door, and Ana carefully equipped herself, collecting her wits and walking to the fawning mob in the stands. The smaller number of fights had done nothing to dissuade them. If anything, they were even greater numbers in the crowd, and even greater volume in their yells and raucous cries. She parted from Korel with a wave and he smiled as she went up. It took her so long to find Sol among the endless tide of people that by the time she sat beside him the first fight was about to begin. It was Manguyaat again.
She was, again, utterly serene. A pagan in perfect and poised form, waiting at the loose ring, the crowd far more accepting of her now than before after beating down her previous opponent. To the far side was a rather dingy-looking woman, with very dark, greasy hair. At first, it was difficult to see that she was wearing a veil through the dark mass. In her hands, she held a clay bowl.
Ana squinted at it for a moment, then made a gasp of admiration and smiled. This was going to be a good match.
Temari took her place at her little pulpit, and began the ceremonies. She reiterated the rules briskly, and introduced the second fighter as Terete. Ana took the chance to ask Sol a question.
“Do you know Korel?”
“Well?” He asked, “No. But I’ve been around him a few times.”
“Does he ever do strange things with birds? Have you ever-”
“Was he lying in a pile of birds?”
Ana nodded, not sure if she should be serious or joking in this case.
“It’s just something he does. He’s a good fellow, just took a few too many blows to the head. I’ve seen worse.”
The crowd counted down. The pagan grasped her stave.
“It’s not a story you’d want to hear.”
“I’ve heard a lot in my time,” said Ana, “Seen more. You can’t just leave me off with that.”
The pistol, the smoke, the instant of silence as the fighters rushed towards each other. They clashed in a furious spark of green light, an upward thrust as the bowl glowed. They had run past each other and Terete had held up the bowl high. It was textbook – literally, textbook. Ana had read it in her studies.
The bowl’s intent is to contain. While an unusual choice as a ward, it is often exceptional at storing the energies put into it when properly refined. Where other wards more efficiently redirect, confound or deflect, the bowl stands as a thing that efficiently absorbs malign forces and even mana itself.
The verdure sparked in it, then darkened from sea-green to forest-green to dark black tones that could only be produced by something rotting. Ana smiled as the two turned to each other once again. She slowly lifted the bowl up like an offering to the sky before tipping the dark sloshing liquid onto the ground.
“Kaarji-vzõ-Beryat. Tiny border town, between Tajma and Sondi. A deserter was terrorizing it. Which side, who can say?”
The black semi-liquid spread in pools and gouts across the arena, far more than the bowl could ever normally carry. Manguyaat evaded, carefully stepping over the trickling streams of black curse-stuff. There was little space for her to move, and that space became littler and littler by the moment.
“He had gone war-mad. I suppose he had killed too much, or seen too much killing. Doesn’t matter one way or another,” he said, trailing off as Manguyaat deftly maneuvered over the trickling streams. Her footwork was immaculate. Ana noticed streaks of ochre spilling out from her mask’s lips like smoke, and where her muscle was exposed it rippled with power and grace.
“Thought that the wild dogs were his friend.”
“What happened to him?”
“They ate him,” said Sol quietly, “When we found him, he was already dead. Killed five other men. So, no, I don’t think that birds are the worst friends you could make.”
The thought was sobering. She thumbed the amulets on her neck, first Tros’, then the heptagram. She had fed Tros. She wasn’t friendly with her, but the thought still stuck that she had made a mistake, making the amulet. She wanted Tros to leave her be with her happiness, and the amulet served that purpose, but if she were to falter in her faith – if she were to bare her teeth and stare the wolf in the eye – she suddenly felt as though it would fall upon her in and consume her alive.
Ana breathed heavily and banished the thought. It was the last time.
Manguyaat struck forth, lunging and jabbing Terete in the chest. Terete stumbled back towards the edge of the ring.
Manguyaat sunk precipitously down.
The curse-stuff was not stable ground. Her foot sank into the black-soaked earth and the rest of her nearly toppled. At the last moment, she suspended herself with her free leg and the stave. Terete moved forward with a wild grasping motion. She was going to try to pin the pagan down.
Manguyaat was smarter than that. Ana saw it and knew it before it even happened. The mask pulsed, and Manguyaat rose from the clinging murk. There was, for a very brief moment, balance. She stood upside-down on a single hand, balancing on her stave, her legs curled like those of an insect.
Then, Manguyaat brought her entire body down like a hammer onto Terete. The crowd roared as Terete tried to scramble out from her, only to be pinned by a strong hand. It was terrifically decisive. The match was over before they even started counting.
Ana made a mental note to not let Manguyaat get over her as she prepared to descend. The crowd finished the count in short order. Terete took the whole thing much easier than Surraen. She even shook the pagan’s hand before going on up to join the crowds. It seemed she had a surprising number of fans in the crowd. They gladly accepted her, took her up, patted her on the back and were generally admiring of her short performance.
Ana made her way to the ring’s edge. It was just a few moments after that Shosef descended. She had seen him in the crowd before. He was a very well-balanced man. He was built like a tried-and-true pankratist, not the swimmer’s build presented by Korel or the overly-burly body of Surraen. As Korel had said, he had a little metal amulet around his neck, and wraps around his hands and feet. She could even see the little ink symbols that had refined the wraps on his hand. His arms were covered with scars – the kind of scars that you got from proper dueling with a sword, not this low-down affair. He had a short cut of hair, and a handsome face. No doubt part of why people were whooping and yelling for him.
Altogether, he was the very image of a fighter. Ana readied herself as Mishel raised the pistol, entering into the ring.
The pistol rang out, and immediately ochre sparked on Shosef’s chest. He moved with preternatural speed, each blow of his foot kicking up enormous spates of dust from the earth. Ana drew the wand in an instant, and let a burst of fire appear in his path.
He skidded through her obstacle faster than her eye could process. There were mere moments to act. She raised her other hand and let verdure flow through it, the green light casting her hand in a sickly pallor as she stepped back. The blast knocked his feet from under him, and she took the ground as he retreated, moving forward.
It wasn’t deterrent enough for Shosef. He made another charge, a human blur of mana and flesh. The next spark of light hit him in the chest, making him only stumble slightly as his fist connected with her gut.
Ana stood her ground and made a split-second estimation before deciding her wand was sturdy enough to take a beating. She whipped it into his flesh and reached for the metal bludgeon with her other hand. Shosef cried aloud with pain before rushing into her like a bull. His hot breath covered her face for a brief moment before his foot made contact with her stomach.
Before she could even calculate what had happened, she was outside the ring. Shosef grinned at her, and she felt her heart alight with anger. It wasn’t a happy grin – it was arrogant. The welts and bruises on his chest had hardly affected him.
Ana stepped back into the ring with renewed anger and energy, waiting for the count once more.
She went on the offense first this time, walking forward. She measured her anger in motes and steps. One shot to his feet took him off-balance. The second put him on the retreat. She flicked the wand without regard to her headache, slowly creating a corridor through which there were only two exits – the one behind her and one behind Shosef.
He ran forward, and she let him skid past her, slamming the metal bludgeon into his back as he passed. She felt flesh ripple and crumple under her strength. He stumbled, off-balance, trying to avoid the fire. It was an opportunity.
Ana took it.
She rushed him like he had rushed her, pushing through the pain as he punched her in the gut time and again. His foot touched the line. Then, with a single, mighty heave, she pushed him over it. He fell out of the ring, and as her heartbeat faded out of her ears, Ana heard the crowd roar with adoration.
The fires died, their eerie light ceasing without fuel. Ana felt the headache grow and grow, blood trickling out of her nose again, but she pushed through it as she took her place at the edge again. Shosef looked incensed, his smile gone and his face ruddy.
Got one on you, thought Ana, Let’s see how you like it.
In as many words, he clearly didn’t.
This round was different. She could tell it from his first step. He moved with purpose now. He was intending to end this here and now.
He ran up to her with a practiced lunge with his right. She grabbed her ward tightly to deflect the blow, and he lead his body off to the side. She readied herself for his left hook-
Like a compass pulling north, her temple collided with the deflected fist. Her ears rang and her body sunk. For a moment, things went dark.
Then, his left hit her like a thunderbolt. She couldn’t even discern where. She yelled in pain, and couldn’t hear herself over the rush of her own blood through her temple and nose.
She stood her ground as best she could, and spat blood onto the floor. Ana saw the next blow coming just an instant before Shosef’s leg sweeped her feet. She was on the floor, and he descended on her, elbowing her in the gut as he came. She struggled against him, but she was no strongwoman.
“One, two,” yelled the crowd.
She punched him in the gut, elbowed his jaw as best she could.
“Three, four, five!”
She bellowed and howled like a feral dog, pushing and slamming into his heavy flesh. She felt almost certain she was going to lose. She slammed the metal bludgeon into his chest to no avail.
“Six, seven, eight, nine.”
Ana felt no despair under him. She felt spite, hot rage, anger, but no despair.
If spite was going to be the last reward for the tournament, she’d take it. She slammed her hands into Shosef’s pretty face as many times as she could until the count finally, mercifully, awfully reached fifteen.
The crowd roared, and they both rose.
“Good fight!” He yelled over the crowd, extending his hand.
Shame and anger filled her cheeks, but she still shook.
“Good fight! Good luck against that pagan,” she said. He nodded.
She took stock for a brief moment as she walked away, packed her things, and left the building. Her game-plan had been solid; the problem was his raw power. If she had more things to distract him, keep him on his toes, she might have won. A way to properly remove herself from a pin would have helped too. She mused on it for a long while as she walked from the roar of the crowd to the din of the city. The rest of the day was a blur, and she mercifully took herself back to Sol’s tiny home, to sleep.
When she went to bed, Ana’s last thoughts were on fighting that Shosef fellow again. She dreamt of it; of fighting, and breaking, and doing all these things time and again for a living.
All in all, it isn’t a horrible dream, she thought.
The next morning, she woke to a loud rapping at the door. Groggily, she drew herself up and walked to the entrance of Sol’s home to open the door.
It was Temari, dark-haired and haggard. She had a pistol on her hip, and she looked impossibly angry and distraught. The dawn made her seem terribly sad, orange-yellow skin caught up with shadow.
“You,” she said, “Merya, right?”
Ana, still half-awake, nearly forgot her name. She first shook her head, then gave her actual answer.
“Yes? That’s me. Why are you here?”
“Did you do it?” Asked Temari, fingering her pistol. “Do what?”
“Did you kill him? Did you kill Shosef?”