1: Voices

Silence. Darkness. Nothing. Where? Why? How? What? Nothing.

Silence. Darkness. Nothing. Where? Why? How? What? Nothing.

The voices repeat. They heed nothing, no one. They'll destroy you if you don't listen to them. Even if you don't know what they mean, heed them. If they visit you, heed them. If you don't they'll have you killed. Nothing can stop them. You are as good as dead.

He sat straight up, whacking his head on a crossbeam in the process. He opened his mouth to scream, when a hand closed over it, muffling the sound.

"Jiit! Control yerself, would ya?!" The voice that exploded into Jiit Fayright's ear was a harsh whisper, but he knew the harshness was deserved. If they were heard here, they were dead. The hand covering his face eased away, and Jiit let out a breath.

"How did you.. Banil?" He looked behind him. Then above him. Hanging from a beam above him was a boy wearing the most mischievous face you could have seen. He had guessed the end of Jiit's question, and the mischievous grin changed to a guilty smile.

"Check a mirror." He snickered.

Jiit cuffed him round the head as Banil dropped to the wide beam Jiit had been sleeping on. "Can you ever take your watch seriously?" asked Jiit as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

"Nope," grinned Banil, his eyes still glinting mischievously. "I'd get board if I didn't have something to do." Jiit ran a hand through his sweaty mop of unruly fair hair.

"Can't you draw on something other than my face?" Banil's expression gave him the answer.

"You gonna go back to sleep?" Banil said as he swung down, hanging from the beam he'd been sitting on.

"And let you roam the streets on your own? Never!" Jiit also climbed down after the mischievous young thief, but he was nowhere near as graceful, or fast, as he descended the Knot.

The Knot. The name given to the tangle of wooden beams referred to as modern art. Guarded by armed soldiers in the daylight hours, inhabited by urchins in the darkness. The Baron had decreed that anyone who was discovered in the Knot would be killed. So far, the soldiers had taken very few street children for execution. The Knot, despite the dangers associated with it, was a great hideout. You could see over the plaza that dominated the centre of the city with ease, and it was easy to escape the pursuit of any adults, as they found it harder to climb the network of beams.

Jiit dropped to the floor next to Banil and took a deep breath of the early morning air. The sun had yet to rise, and the streets were lit by a light blue glow from the plasma strips that lined the walls of nearby buildings and the edges of the roads. Banil stretched and yet out a cavernous yawn, and Jiit gave him a sceptical look.

"How much of your watch were you actually up for?" Banil grinned, and Jiit groaned, and gave him a friendly punch on the arm.

The pair headed down to Market Street, to see if any scraps had been left on the roads at the end of the previous day's trade. Sekoplis was quiet, with nothing out on the streets. It seemed like the two boys were wandering a ghost town. Jiit stroked his chin. He was a young adult, a couple of years older than Banil, and was pleased to feel some whispy hairs on his chin. He'd have a beard any day now. Banil said, in a chatty voice,

"So, what made you scream, girlie?"

Jiit gave an involuntary shudder. "Was it that bad?" Banil piped up, and Jiit shot him a withering look.

"It was a nightmare, dunce. I had a nightmare." Banil persisted.

"About what?" There were moments when Jiit wanted to throttle his young friend, and this was one of them. But they needed each other. Banil for Jiit's protection, and Jiit for Banil's skill as a pickpocket. "Come onnnn!" whinged Banil, tugging at Jiit's sleeve. "Tell us!" Jiit looked him in the eye.

"The voices."

Banil almost burst out laughing.

"That trip to the temple must have played with your head! You haven't started believing in that superstitious crap, have you! It's codswallop. They make it up to scare little kids." Jiit shuddered again.

"But what about that story about the guy who… who…" Banil cut him off with a raucous laugh.
"You believe that! Your so gullible! If you didn't have me with you, you'd believe everything the guards told you. If they said 'right this way for an ice cream sundae,' you'd fall for it and get massac.. arrrk!" Jiit had had enough. He grabbed Banil by the collar of his shirt and thumped against the garden wall of a house.

"Stop shooting that smart mouth off at me!" He hissed, his face contorted with rage. "I don't care what you say about the voices, they're real, and if you don't shut up, I'll do what they told me to do." Banil gulped, and asked the question Jiit had expected him to.

"What did they ask you to do." Jiit paused, for effect, and then said,

"For human sacrifice!" He gave a cackle and let go of Banil's collar.

"They didn't." said Banil, forcefully. But in his eyes Jiit could see he believed otherwise.

The rest of the walk to Market Street was conducted in silence, and soon they arrived. Both of them had been brooding, Banil over the truth of Jiit's statement, and Jiit over whether he should leave Banil in the market and pay the temple a visit, and ask the priest for guidance. Jiit hardly even noticed when they arrived in the street, with empty stalls on either side. Banil dropped to his knees and picked something out of the dust on the road.

"Cool!" He grinned, holding something up to the light of a nearby plasma strip. Jiit peered over trying to make out what it was.

"What is it?" he asked, squinting.

"Breakfast!" cackled Banil, and he shoved something into Jiit's open mouth. The thing was living, and in scrambled down his throat, causing him to hack and cough. The thing flew out of his mouth and landed on the concrete floor, where he could see it was a…

"Spider!" He gave Banil a look, but the young thief was laughing so hard that he barely even took notice.

Jiit tried to look stern and disapproving, but Banil's laughter was infectious, and he joined in, the two active members of the city's population rolling around in the dust on the cities central street. Then there was a flicker of blue light, and then the plasma strips died. Banil and Jiit quickly sobered, rising to their feet and brushing themselves down. Dawn had come, and another day of scratching a dishonourable living had arrived.