God of Nothing, chapter 1
Aphrael


AN (STORY EDIT):

It's been a long time since I've posted this story here, and after recently re-reading it I discovered an annoying number of typos. THIS RE-POST IS PURELY FOR TYPO CONTROL. I know I have no hope of finding ALL the mistakes, but I've at least eliminated a few of them. There's been no real change to the story itself, so if you've read the story already a re-read is really not necessary. Unless, of course, you want to help me hunt down more dastardly mistakes. :)


The domed city of Acadia was a sight to behold from a distance. Many a traveler had paused in awe as the dense forest through which they had traveled for days finally gave way to clear fields and distant cliffs, endless skies and, in the distance, a dome that shone like a jewel through rain or shine, that glowed in moonlight or from within with the firelight that lit the streets and windows of the city that it embraced.

The fields between the forest and the cliffs were divided by a single, well-worn dirt road. This road was lined with varying establishments from pubs and inns--most of which had been intended as temporary refuges but had slowly been built up to something of a permanent status--to road-side vendors and wandering troops who could be there one day, and have disappeared completely on the next. Rough paths had been worn in some spots, serving as makeshift roads from one place to another as the booths and larger buildings sometimes stretched across the fields for as far as the eye could see. It was this market place that served year round as the lifeblood of many traders and entertainers, but it was nothing compared to what lay in the distance.

The city itself was perched atop a high cliff, and backed by an identical backdrop; stone walls of various shades of gray and brown only served to amplify the beauty of the reflective dome that protected the city from every direction. A single, steep road wound its way up the face of the cliff, deterring to even the most hardened of travelers and off putting to those who would wish to take the city forcibly--and there were many who would, given the chance. The roadway led up to the sole entrance to the city, a huge set of doors that were nearly as impenetrable as the dome itself. Usually these doors stood open, welcoming those who would brave the long journey and steep path, but as of late they had been closed against the outside world, warning away potential visitors and threats, and keeping those within the city safe and sound inside--or, perhaps, trapped.

Inside the dome the city was more like the makeshift market in the fields below than those above were willing to admit. The inner streets were cobbled, but narrow, made to seem even more narrow by the tall, dark buildings that loomed on either side, crowding the roads and trying hard to block out what natural light managed to make it through the protective dome. Labyrinthine and winding, the crowded streets often doubled back on themselves or took unseemly, circuitous routes that were little expected by the unwary, sometimes leading unsavvy visitors right back to where they started, and frequently leading them somewhere that they had not at all intended to go. These roads were often made even less easily negotiated by a multitude of stalls and carts that lined the more frequented ways both day and night, sometimes blocking off side streets all together and forcing pedestrians to take an unexpected detour. But regardless of these difficulties people thronged the streets at all hours, heading to and fro with a seeming importance that few outsiders dared to question.

One merchant in particular had, on this day, decided to set up his cart in a most inconvenient place--in the very center of a busy road, forcing any who wished to pass through to concede to a single-file line that trod slowly past his wares. This, he had decided, was a most enterprising way to cause people to pay attention to him and to what he was selling. He grinned broadly at the passing potential buyers, and was in fact doing some very lucrative business--few people paused to haggle when they knew that a long line of angry individuals was waiting to pass through where they stood--when a distant shout caused the merchant to look down the busy road with a small frown.

Not so far away the usually slow moving shoppers were hurrying about, trying their best to get out of the way of . . . something that was making great haste down the street. The merchant squinted down the road--his eyesight wasn't what it used to be--then gaped in mingled surprise and horror when he realized what it was that was heading straight for him and his little booth.

Running towards him was a familiar young man; his lean, bare chest was glistening with sweat, suggesting that the chase in which he took part had begun some time earlier. Unfortunately the young man's gaze was not on the road ahead of him, but cast over his shoulder at his two, darkly cloaked pursuers. He was surprised, then, when a quick glance ahead of him brought into view the wide stand that stood directly in his path in the center of the road. The young man and the merchant shared similarly shocked looks for a long moment before the merchant hastily abandoned his cart, moving quicker than he had in many years and leaving the stall to face the impending collision alone.

On the road the young man had no occasion to stop his quick progress, and even given the chance he couldn't stop with his pursuers so close behind. With little other choice the young man grit his teeth and prepared himself for the shock of the pain that he was about to impose upon himself. A shout of pain heralded the result, and with an unmatched speed and grace a pair of dark, feathered wings seemed to burst violently from the young man's back, unfurling and pounding the air with a precision that almost immediately lifted him from his feet and caused the hooded robes of his chasers to move wildly in the sudden wind. Grabbing at the upper edge of the merchant's cart the young man guided himself upwards, pushing off of the roof of the stand with one foot as his wings took control, bearing him upwards away from the busy street, the angry merchant, and his furious pursuers.

In one hand he held a ripe fruit--a delicious sample from the cart of the troublesome merchant--and with a grin he cast a glance downwards. "Thanks for the lunch, Giacomo," he called, waving to the red-faced dealer.

"Aphrael!" the merchant exclaimed, shaking his fist skyward. "Get back here you troublesome, good-for-nothing-"

The rest of the merchant's words were lost to Aphrael, taken away by the sound of air rushing past him and the pounding of his wings as he leveled out his flight, heading for a part of the city in which he knew he could find temporary refuge. Slowly the streets below him became less congested with traffic and Aphrael allowed his flight path to lower to a comfortably covert position just above the tiled rooftops. Though he knew that the men who pursued him were no longer an immediate threat, Aphrael also knew well enough that caution was still necessary--those two were not the only ones of their sort within the domed city. Lately the streets seemed to be crawling with them.

It wasn't until Aphrael neared his destination that he began to suspect that something might be amiss. It was true that the streets in this part of the city were never exactly busy, but it was also true that if one walked these roads they were sure to bump into a problem or two; however, as he scanned the streets that passed below him Aphrael decided that the roughly cobbled streets were markedly devoid of any sort of life. The only movement that caught his eye was that of a small animal that darted for cover as his shadow passed over it. The marked lack of any signs of the usually obvious punks that roamed these streets caused a small warning flag to go up in the back of his mind. The reason for this quiet was one that Aphrael learned the hard way only a moment later.

As he passed over the gap between two rooftops Aphrael glanced down curiously, only to find a shadowed figure looking back at him, a weapon already aimed upwards as though the figure knew that he would be passing that way. Had Aphrael looked down a moment later, or had his instincts moved him any slower, he would have been made quite uncomfortable by the bolt that flew his way from the small crossbow that the cloaked figure held. As it was, Aphrael was narrowly able to avoid the dangerous projectile, and only by compromising his own flight in a way that caused him to momentarily free fall. He landed hard on the sloped rooftop, out of sight of the shadowed figure below, but any reprieve that he might have hoped to gain was lost as the clay tiles that covered the roof below him slipped and gave way, sending a shower of red shingles crashing to the street below.

Aphrael scrambled to keep himself from being pulled along by the sliding tiles, managing to do so only with the aid of his wings as they beat furiously against the pull. As the miniature landslide subsided Aphrael sighed in relief, allowing himself to come to rest on his knees on the now very bare rooftop. By simply remaining where he was he could avoid another bolt from below, at least for the time being.

"Aphrael," a voice called emotionlessly from below, easily reaching the young man's ears despite the quietness with which the individual spoke. "You're in over your head this time."

The voice paused, and Aphrael could hear the crunch of broken tiles underfoot as the cloaked individual moved around below. It reminded him, quite suddenly, of a hungry animal pacing beneath a nest of birds, patiently waiting for one to fall.

"We have been quite lenient with you up until now," the voice continued, "but if you don't come down here immediately and return what you have stolen, we will no longer be so forgiving. Our patience has its limits."

Again the voice paused, this time awaiting a response, but Aphrael had no intention of replying. Instead he moved quickly, kicking out at the tiles that still remained on the roof beside him. As the clay tiles slid from the rooftop to the street below, hopefully to where Aphrael thought the cloaked individual to be standing, the young man stretched out his wings and hurried to the peak of the sloped roof, using the high point as a bit of a boost to taking flight. He had no intentions of sticking around, despite the cloaked figure's threats. Aphrael knew that to turn himself over to them and then admit that he had no idea what they were talking about was just asking for punishment--they would never believe that this time it hadn't been him.

Once more Aphrael stuck low to the rooftops as he proceeded quickly to a building not so far removed from his latest encounter as he might have liked. With caution he alighted upon the rooftop, taking care to avoid a repeat performance of the avalanche of tiles. This roof was one that he had perched on more than once before, and he knew by experience on which places to avoid stepping too heavily.

He paused, high above the streets and carefully out of sight of prying eyes, taking the opportunity to rest both his body and his wings. Things within the domed city had gotten more difficult for him, as of late. Aphrael was, by nature, a bit of a trouble-maker; he was also, by practice, very good at avoiding punishment for the trouble he caused. It also happened that he had--maybe it was something of a weakness--a certain affinity for causing trouble for a group who called themselves 'hunters'. They had always been a group whose dangerous reputation held merit, and whose ideals Aphrael couldn't help but strongly disagree with.

Usually the hunters--those darkly cloaked figures who seemed utterly intent on causing him every sort of inconvenience imaginable--were few and far between within the city walls, making them easy to avoid when caution warranted it. During the past few weeks, however, the hunters had seemed to multiply tenfold, making running into them with a disturbing frequency almost unavoidable. Then the doors of the city had suddenly been closed, making even a temporary escape more difficult than usual--but not impossible. And Aphrael thought that maybe it was time to disappear for a little while.

Cautiously Aphrael approached the edge of the roof upon which he perched, glancing over the ledge to the street below. A couple of tough-looking individuals passed by, casing nary a glance upwards. Their presence was a good sign--it hinted that there were no hunters around, as any who lived their lives doing wrong seemed to feel that it was pertinent to avoid those darkly cloaked individuals. Leaning further over the edge Aphrael peered at the wall of the building upon which he sat, or more specifically at the dark window that was set in the wall beneath him. The young man frowned slightly. The window was closed. The window was never closed.

With a sigh he leaned even further over the edge of the roof, spreading his wings wide for balance as he reached toward the window with one hand. If he could just reach it, then. . . .