[UPDATED: October 2009]

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

Book 1: Death can be found here: http : / / www. fictionpress. com/ s/ 2484195/ 1/ Voidbringer_Book_1_Death (remove the spaces - or just go to my profile and find it there, LoL).

Like when I first started posting Book 1, this hasn't yet gone through an edited-by-someone-who-isn't-me stage (i.e., KA hasn't read it yet); therefore it's subject to change. It's also not complete (evidently), but here's the first bit of it, anyway. :)

Thanks! I hope you enjoy the read!

Rose Zemlya


VOIDBRINGER

Author/Co-creator: Rose Zemlya

Editor/Co-creator: KA Harchak

Book Two

DECEIT


1

Despite what was – to all appearances – an abysmal situation, Faustus was in a good mood. The heat was oppressive, the insects aggressive, and he had nothing but bad news to report, yet he leaned against the wall outside his Mission Head's door, grinning broadly and humming to himself. He idly bit the end off one of his nails and inspected it critically, choosing to neither question nor explore the reasons for his buoyancy. Too many good moods were wasted searching for their source; better to just shut up and enjoy the ride.

As he waited to be called in, his eyes drifted to the window on the other side of the hall and a shallow frown played across his face. He continued to chew at the offending nail as he considered the ugly, threatening sky. The city was normally one of the brightest places in Qirast, having, as it did, the thinnest canopy cover, but today the air hung heavy with humidity. Dark clouds brewed overhead, dimming the already broken light that managed to filter down through the trees. He silently willed them to burst open, releasing the jungle's inhabitants from the worse-than-usual heat, and, more specifically, to get the storm over with before he had to go back outside into it. He had a long way to go to get back to the third ring and the Fury tribe, and he'd rather not start the journey soaked to the skin.

He may not have known where his good mood came from, but he could think of no better way to kill it than hiking for three days in wet leathers.

"Well," called a grim voice from inside the room, pulling his attention away from the cloud cover, "you're home way too early to have any good news for me. You may as well come in and get it over with."

Faust's frown dissolved beneath a brilliant smile as he pushed himself off the wall and moved in through the open door.

The room beyond was small and cramped, filled mostly with a long, simple table that served as the Mission Head's desk, and a few unadorned wooden chairs – none of them were designed for comfort. A large map of the world – Qirast and beyond – stretched across one wall, opposite the single, paneless window. A collection of coloured markers were pinned to the ancient, coloured leather, scattered across all three continents. Each pin bore two or more tags; one naming the Ghost it represented, and one naming each of the Ghost's quarry.

"How do you know it's bad news?" Faustus asked, dropping into a chair near the window – the sky didn't look any happier from this angle, he noted. He tipped the chair back on two legs, and deposited his feet on the table with a grin. "Maybe we already found our targets and have returned, triumphant."

Halei Wastewander gave him one of the withering looks he was widely known for and got to his feet. "Do I look like I'm in the mood for this?" he demanded, and Faustus was forced to admit that he did not. He watched the ugly little man as he moved over to the map with short, blunt strides and began studying the eastern continent, where the bulk of the pegs were pinned. The Mission Head was short by most standards, but he carried himself with enough force of personality and bridled aggression that any but the least intuitive of idiots would think twice before judging his physical prowess by his size. He was also uniquely hideous, as far as Faustus was concerned, and his face was often the subject of the young Ghost's morbidly fascinated study. Halei's visage tended to be flat where it should've been sharp, and sharp where it should've been flat, as though he was a statue carved by unskilled hands. Perhaps, Faustus thought, by a sculptor who had never really seen a human being before, just heard of them in stories. He bore a broad scar across a pug-like nose, broken many times over, and his eyes were a murky, muted brown; like mud, or shit, or an old bruise. They were, beyond the barest whisper of a dobut, the single, ugliest part of him. In fact, they were on the top ten list of the ugliest things that Faustus had ever seen. He hated Halei's eyes.

It occurred to Faustus that he had never really liked his Mission Head.

"So what's happened?" the older man asked, roughly pulling the marker with Faust's name on it out of the Wastes. He pulled the tags listing his marks from the pin with ungraceful fingers before stabbing it into Qirast. He turned around and returned to the table, throwing the tags down onto it. They scattered across the dark wood as Halei resumed his seat and began drumming his fingers idly against the table. He glared at the Ghost without even attempting to mask his irritation. "Why are you back?"

"Oh, well, where do I begin?" Faust mused aloud, his grin widening; Halei's face soured at the expression – he knew the Ghost well enough to know that it was never a good thing to see him so blithe. Faustus Voidbringer was a shit-disturber without equal in this world or the next, and nothing made him this happy except the promise of havoc. Faustus would have agreed with him. As much as the thought of a Ghost turning Zabran bothered him – never mind what he'd told the priest – picturing the many and colourful reactions the news was certain to elicit was a satisfying bit of fantasy. The Creed needed a shake-up if it was going to avoid the fate of the Order and the Priesthood, and it warmed his gleeful heart that he might be the one to deliver it. "Well for starters, you may as well get back up and go over to the map. Herrick is dead."

"What?!" Halei demanded, sitting up straighter and blinking in surprise. For the briefest of moments an expression of intense shock flirted with his puggish features; something flickered so quickly through his muddy eyes that Faustus was unable to identify the emotion beyond its obvious relationship to surprise. Too much surprise, Faustus realized – too intense. The Ghosts had a dangerous job. They were well trained, highly capable individuals, but often so were those they hunted. It was not even remotely uncommon for a Ghost's ghost to beat his body home.

But the reaction was a fleeting thing, flickering across his face and disappearing before Faust could confirm what he'd seen. Now that he looked again, the little man was displaying an appropriate degree of mild surprise and dismay, nothing more.

Years of training with the Creed, however, had taught Faustus that kingdoms were made and lost in the space between moments, and he was not one to question his first impressions. Resisting the urge to hesitate, he continued, alert suddenly to Halei's gestures and expressions. "Sura and Renlis picked up his assignment, since it was supposed to be in Ophelion, and theirs was just over in Valiant City, so you can expect them back later than the rest. They've got to do two things now."

"Who authorized that?" Halei said, annoyed. "Sura and Renlis are after one of the big artefacts. They need to head back as soon as they have it, not delay trying to find a handful of minor items."

Faustus raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "I don't know," he said. "I wasn't there when they figured it out, they just told me after."

"Who took your assignment?"

"Jaken did," Faust replied. "He picked up a lead in Haven that said the bracers he's tracking were actually sold to the same guy we think commissioned the thieves who took the weapons I was after. The guy's gone off to Longwei on the western continent, so Jaken took my assignment and went looking for a boat."

Halei squeeze his mangled nose like he had a headache. "All right," he said. "Okay." He dropped his hand back on the table and resumed his ceaseless drumming. "Everyone else is on the same missions they were assigned?"

"Yeah."

"Then tell me what happened. How did Herrick die?" For a moment Faustus wondered if he was growing paranoid, but it seemed to him there was a note of incredulity in Halei's voice that, while not inappropriate under the circumstances, somehow didn't seem directed at the expected target. It wasn't the fact that Herrick was dead that was bothering the man, it was something else.

Something irrational crawled into Faust's chest and took some of the legitimacy out of his smile. "Hmm," he said, choosing his words far more carefully than he'd originally intended to. "Everything happened as normal up until Haven." That was mostly a lie. Everything on the Creed's end happened as normal, except that Faust hadn't wanted the Priest to find Galen, and so had neglected to inform him as to where the large man could be found. He had flatly refused to help locate their eldest brother, and hadn't expected Anubis to be stubborn enough to wander off into the desert by himself – though in hindsight he should've known better given the stakes. "We stayed a night in the city – at the Priest's request," he threw in, catching the sudden deepening of the thick lines around Halei's eyes. "One day won't hurt their missions, you know," he added defiantly. "And by staying, two of them were able to get leads they wouldn't have gotten otherwise." He waited until Halei nodded – grudgingly – before continuing. "Anyway—"

"Why did the priest want to stay?" Halei demanded.

Faustus frowned at the interruption. "I don't know," he lied. "It's not like I asked him. Creepy man in a jackal mask says we stay, we stay. Those are the rules. What the Hell else were we supposed to do?"

"The priest is your brother, isn't he?" Halei pointed out, gesturing impatiently. "You didn't discuss it?"

"Maybe you haven't noticed," Faustus said icily, "but my family spends most of its time at odds with each other. The priest and I don't get along particularly well, and we've minded our own business since we grew up and moved out."

"You have another brother, don't you?" Halei continued, relentless. His eyes were dark and aggressive. "A guardsman in Haven. Maybe he was—"

Faustus dropped his chair to the ground with a crash and snarled at the ugly man across the table. "I have a brother who died ten years ago when he broke his oaths and left Qirast!" He did not have to fake his anger – Halei should have known better than to broach a topic as touchy as a family member who'd broken his oaths; Halei did know better. The question was out of place, offensive, and alarming. Faustus glared furiously at his Mission Head. "You want to know what Anubis was doing over there, you go ask him yourself, because I didn't. Is this a debrief or an interrogation?"

"Sorry," said Halei, raising his hands in a defensive gesture, though his eyes remained hard and searching. "Crossed a line, I admit it. Go on with your report."

Still scowling, Faustus dropped back into his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. Something was wrong. It wasn't odd for Halei to know that Galen was a guardsman – part of the Creed's duty was keeping track of those rare few who broke their oaths and crossed over to ensure they weren't talking about things they shouldn't be – but the line of questioning had been too out of place given Halei's supposed level of knowledge…too specific given Faust's. The last of his good mood dissipated like so much vapour.

"We stayed the night and in the morning someone dumped Herrick's corpse off on our inn's doorstep." He gestured negligently to indicate that was the story.

"Just like that?" Halei demanded. "Just dumped it there?"

"More or less," he replied. "It was a Zabran that did it, one way or another. His heart had been cut out—." He was going to say more; he was going to continue with the story and explain about the shaved head and Zabran tattoo, but his tongue froze to the roof of his mouth. As Halei moved his hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose again, Faust's eyes fell on the small man's wrist. Carved into the soft flesh of the underside was a delicate scar Faust had never bothered to notice before. It twisted its way up his wrist in the shape of a snake, forked tongue extended. Despite the unbearable heat, Faustus felt himself go cold.

"Why would a Zabran kill him?" Halei demanded. "It makes no sense."

"I don't know," Faust answered automatically, dragging his eyes away from the scar and forcing his mouth to move before Halei noticed his momentary lapse. "I stuck around for a week or two looking for leads but didn't get anywhere. The Havenites don't know much about Zabrans except how to kill them anyway. If the guy who did it was good enough to kill one Ghost and escape without drawing the notice of the rest of us, then he's got to be from Rak Zemlya, and I wasn't going to try infiltrating that place. I'm a retriever, not a spy for Zasi's sake."

"Did the Priest come back with you?" Halei asked, dropping his hand back to the table and drumming again. His sleeve covered the scar once more.

"I tell you one of your best Ghosts is dead by an unknown Zabran and all you care about is the priest?" Faust demanded.

"Just answer the question, Faustus."

"Yes."

"Did anyone else come back with you?" For a moment Halei's eyes were uglier than usual and the hairs on the back of Faust's neck rose. He met Halei's intent gaze with every bit of dishonesty he could dredge up from within himself.

"No," he said.

"You're sure?"

"Yes."

"You say you and your brother don't get along?" Halei asked, raising an eyebrow.

Faustus gave him an incredulous look. "Did I mention that Herrick had his heart cut out?" He gestured at his chest to mimic the act. "Like, with a knife? Are you even hearing me?"

"I'll deal with Herrick and his demise shortly, I assure you. You've given your report on that, I assume you've given me all the relevant details, so I would like to move on to another topic. Answer the question."

Faustus scowled at him. "No. I would not say we get along."

Halei studied him for a moment. "Would you be willing to watch him for us?" he asked, and Faustus blinked, not understanding the question at first.

When its meaning sank in and he realized he wasn't hearing the words incorrectly, he balked, twisting his mouth to offer his Mission Head a predator's smile; all teeth and no mirth.

"I'm going to pretend you didn't just ask me that." His eyes blazed. "I might be a lot of things, but I'm no blood-traitor."

"Fair enough," said Halei, leaning back in his chair like he hadn't just asked Faustus to commit a crime second only to kin-killing. "I had to ask." He ruffled his salt and pepper hair and the gesture tugged his sleeve upward; the snake scar peeked out from beneath. His expression was inscrutable and that made Faust nervous. "Are you sure that's everything? About your trip and Herrick? There was nothing else?"

"Dead Herrick, no heart, doorstep. Yeah, that's it. Nobody even noticed him leave the inn."

"What was he doing?" Halei asked. Faust's eyes slipped of their own accord to the scar then slid back to Halei's face.

"Whoring? I don't know."

"What was the priest doing at the time?"

"The priest didn't kill him," Faustus snapped.

"That's not what I asked you," Halei returned darkly.

"He was screaming at me," Faustus answered.

"About what?"

"None of your damn business, that's what."

"Faustus."

"Family stuff."

"Come on. Give me more than that."

"Why?" Faust exploded, shoving his chair back with a loud, scraping sound as he rose violently to his feet. "Why the obsession over the stupid priest? We were discussing Family related matters that don't fall under the Creed's jurisdiction, and therefore don't fall under yours. It isn't related to Herrick or our mission. Are you a Voidbringer? No. So with all due respect, keep your ugly, busted face out of it." He scowled ferally at the little man, who remained unimpressed.

"Are you done?" Halei asked dully.

"Are you?!" Faust returned, gesturing irately.

"You're sure there was nothing else?" Halei demanded, and Faustus could hold it in no longer. Knowing he shouldn't, recognizing as he did it that it was a bad idea, he leaned forward onto the table and offered the little man a venomous smile.

"What answer is it you're expecting me to give?" he asked, narrowing his eyes. "What do you know about it that I don't?"

For a split-second the question hung in the air between them, and they stared at each other, each, it seemed to Faust, trying to gauge what the other did or didn't know.

"I'm not expecting a particular answer," Halei said at last, and the space between them practically crackled with tension and danger. "Why would you assume I know something you don't about it?"

Faust's back was rigid. "Oh, I don't know," he said, and despite himself – despite literal physical straining not to – his eyes flicked back down to Halei's wrist. This time the Mission Head noticed the gesture. He glanced down at his wrist and the drumming of his fingers stopped abruptly. He looked back up at Faust, and something behind his ugly eyes was menacing.

"That's an interesting scar," Faust noted, deciding that there was little point left in being subtle. "Where did you get it?"

"None of your business," Halei said, getting to his feet.

Faustus started backing toward the door. "Looks like the tattoos the Zabrans get."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Halei said stonily, advancing on him.

"I think I'm done here," Faust said. "I've given you my report, good luck with that. See you around."

He turned without waiting for a response and bolted for the door. Behind him Halei drew his long knife from his belt, but before Faust could even register the sound, he crashed into something large and impressively unforgiving. His immediate priority unexpectedly became somehow maintaining both his balance and his distance from Halei. He swore explosively as he stumbled, trying to figure out what he'd run into.

It was a testament to the seriousness of their previous discussion, that neither of the Ghosts had noticed when the door became a wall of a man dressed in the full battle plate and skull mask of the Order. The paladin's sudden presence was disconcerting enough that once he'd regained his balance, Faustus could not immediately reconcile it with his surroundings. His head whipped back and forth in consternation between the implacable newcomer and Halei.

"You called the Order on me?!" he demanded, indignant.

"I didn't call them," Halei returned, offended at the implication. He drew his other knife and continued to look angrily from Faustus to the paladin.

"You're under arrest," said the wall of a man. "Drop your weapons."

"Who?" Halei and Faust demanded at the same time.

"All members of the Creed are under arrest, by the will of the Council and the order of the Grand Crusader," he replied. His voice was mountainous and deadpan. He could have been a golem. "Will you come peacefully?" The question had a tinge of resignation to it; as though he had asked this question several times today and been given the same answer each time.

"I'm pretty sure I speak for both of us, and in fact the whole Creed," Faust noted acidly, "when I say go to Hell."

The paladin heaved a great sigh. "Yes," he agreed, and drew a wickedly-spiked morningstar from his waist. "I'm pretty sure you do."

Faustus slid his sais from their loops and backed up slowly, keeping distance between himself and Halei, as well as the advancing paladin. He tried, in vain, to pinpoint the exact moment when this whole situation had gone to shit.

He performed a nervous flourish and eyed the room for an escape, but it was now even more cramped than it had been with the addition of a third, heavily armoured person. He was already out of space to back up into, and there were only two exits – the door he couldn't get to through the paladin (and now that the paladin had moved he could see others in the hallway outside, one of which had a crossbow pointed into the little room) and the open window which was closer to Halei than him.

If he was right – and he was so right – and Halei was somehow connected to the Zabrans, the little man might try to cut him down as he bolted past, paladins or no. If Halei didn't, the archer in the hallway would the instant he moved. So his only option was to wait until—

Something hardened in Halei's beady little eyes as he looked at Faustus; something vile and crazed and dangerous. Faustus blinked, recognizing at last what it was that made Halei's eyes so fascinatingly hideous. Lurking behind the dirty brown irises was the same blind fanaticism he saw in the Zabrans, and the paladins, and the priests, and all the other religious idiots the whole world over who care more for their ideology than they do for themselves or anyone else. He understood in that moment, between Halei throwing himself at the wall-that-was-a-man, and the wall-that-was-a-man moving to the side to let the archer have his shot, that Halei had chosen martyrdom over capture and exposure.

As much as he hated martyrs, Faustus liked to think he'd never waste an opportunity to avoid becoming one. As Halei lunged, so did Faustus, dashing forward for the open window. The archer's arrow sliced right through Halei's throat and kept going, almost nicking Faust as he flew across the room. Halei gurgled something as he died and Faustus almost missed it under the shouting of the paladins, and the pounding of the large man's feet as he raced to catch the lanky Ghost before he made it to the window.

"Esar…," Halei groaned around his ruined throat. "Esar—!"

The paladin lunged forward, another arrow pinged off the stone wall near his head, and Faustus dove out the window, hitting the ground in a roll and streaking off into the growing dark.

A crack of the thunder and a blaze of lightning split the sky open, and even his silhouette was lost in the rain.

2

It wasn't, Aase Sleepingvow reflected, that she didn't like teaching, or that her subject matter was distasteful – though the recent trend for editing the curriculum was such that she could not accurately predict how long this would remain the case. Her facilities were sufficient, her classes were full, her students eager and attentive – but in the latter, she suspected, lay the problem.

It was her students. She didn't like them. One of them she could almost bring herself to hate, and there was little in this world or the other that Aase could bring herself to feel very strongly toward at all.

They stared at her now as she studied them, and tension crackled in the air; the sort of tension one associated with a pack of predatory vermin waiting for a sign of weakness; a sort of bloodthirsty, slavering greed that was unbecoming in a reasoning, sentient being, let alone a classroom full of young men and women who were old enough to carry themselves with far more comportment than this.

The theatre they were in was a large one, but this particular group was small, and filled only a portion of the first few rows of seats. Twenty-one Applicants in total – twice as many as she liked for a subject so delicate and precise – who all seemed to act as though they had one mind between them, never daring to raise a finger unless it was the will of the horde. One of them involuntarily coughed into the silence, and shrank back immediately from her own echo. Another averted his eyes when Aase's gaze fell on him, staring desperately at the various organs preserved in sterile glass jars along the wall as though he wished he was one of them. Someone at the back fidgeted impatiently with a quill.

"Well?" Demanded the one she almost hated, drawing her cold, uninterested gaze. His bravado was false – his eyes showed a sudden uncertainty and alarm when they met her own – but his arrogance was not. His expectant, impudent tone only solidified her silence and to his credit he apparently realized it. He made an obvious, irritated noise and modified his tone ever so slightly. "Did you hear the question? I can ask it again." She said nothing, but neither did she remove her gaze.

She had not always hated her students – there were some classes she remembered quite fondly, in fact. But those were a decade ago now, and she had been younger and less experienced. In truth, it had been at least three years since she'd had even a single Applicant who had made the time worthwhile. For all their desire and ambition and hunger to learn, her latest students were as empty as the bones laid out on the table before her, devoid of spirit, intelligence, or soul. It was like teaching a panther to play cards; it lacked the tools to apply the knowledge it didn't understand, and one day it would tire of the game and devour you, cards and all.

"You know," the boy noted, raising his face so that he could appear to be looking down at her, "a teacher is supposed to answer her students' questions. If you won't do your job…." He let the threat hang, but Aase remained unaffected.

His name was Nazani; his family Deathtongue. His father was a Hierophant of Zasi, and a member of the Circle of Seven. Nazani assumed this meant he was guaranteed a place in the Priesthood; for he believed – not without reason – that none of the teachers would dare to offend his father by allowing him to fail, and was quick to remind them of it. The elder Deathtongue had certainly made his expectations for his son's future clear to those involved in the boy's education.

For the first time since she had accepted the prestigious position of the school's Administrator, she considered quitting. Not because she was afraid of what Deathtongue might do if she failed Nazani – which she would certainly do if she did not quit first – but because she had grown tired. The position was no longer what it had been; and it hadn't been what she wanted for some time now. There would only be more like Nazani.

"Are you going to teach us how to bring these fools back from the dead, or not?" The latter huffed, losing his patience.

"What is the motto of the paladins?" she asked, her voice as cold and uninterested as her eyes. Nazani frowned.

"What does that have to do with anything? We aren't here to learn about Amen, or anyone stupid enough to follow him."

"What is their motto?" Aase repeated. A young girl at the back cleared her throat.

"Duty unto Death," she offered.

"What is the motto of the Priesthood?"

"Power over Death," Nazani responded immediately, looking smug. Aase narrowed her eyes at him.

"Is that what your father's been telling you?" she asked. "Or is that your own idea of what the Priesthood represents?"

"My father—," started Nazani, but abruptly swallowed the retort, recognizing in his teacher's tone that the question was a trap.

"What is the motto of the Priesthood?" Aase repeated, staring intently at Nazani. Some of his uncertainty finally began to show on his face.

"Duty into Death," he said finally, but added under his breath: "For now."

"Good," she said. "Now pack your things. You're dismissed."

"What?!" Nazani cried. "But class has just started! You can't—"

"I didn't mean from class, Nazani," Aase replied calmly, putting her own things into her bag. "Everyone else is dismissed from class. You are dismissed from the school. I am denying your application outright." She pulled her mask off and paused a moment, staring at the cold jackal's face and running a finger along the edge of it. It would have made her happy to believe that Nazani would never wear it, would never devalue it, like so many before him had already, but she knew it wouldn't be that simple. She set it gently into her bag as well.

Nazani watched her blankly, for a moment not understanding her words. "You…you can't!" he stuttered, shocked.

"Yes," she responded simply. "I can."

"My father—!"

"Let me," she cut him off, raising her voice for the first time as she turned to address the stunned class, "make something very clear to all of you. I don't care what's happening in your other classes, or the halls, or your sleeping quarters. I am here to teach you what you need to know to be a Priest of Zasi, and no family, no friends, no thing that is external to you will affect my judgement. No matter how many other teachers may give you their seal of approval, if you cannot get mine you will never wear the mask, do you understand me?" They stared back at her, eyes wide, fascinated and frightened.

"You will not blaspheme; against Zasi or Amen," she continued. "You will show the proper deference to the Brethren, be they acolytes or hierophants. And you will never show disrespect toward the choices and Oaths sworn by our people – be they paladin or ghost or civilian. All oaths are equal. All kin are equal." She swept her icy gaze across the cowed assembly of students to emphasize her final point: "You will recognize and respect the sacrifices made by the Unyielding. Anything less, and I will reject your application outright." She turned to Nazani. "You have one day to say your goodbyes and remove yourself from campus." She turned her back on the group and moved toward the door. "Class dismissed."

She pulled the heavy door wide and stepped out into the corridor beyond, adjusting the strap of her bag to sit more comfortably on her shoulder. She began to mentally calculate the amount of time it would take for word of Nazani's dismissal to circulate, and how long for the boy to run to his father. Once he did that, it would not be very long at all before the senior Deathtongue was banging down her door and threatening to do all sorts of things he lacked the authority to do – though there was no denying that he did not lack the power. Still, Deathtongue was not a fool, and Administrator was a position with its own power. He was more likely to try reasoning with her, or bribing her, perhaps threatening other areas of her life. But he, like all the others who had tried before him, would learn that she was not a woman who was interested in anything but the fulfillment of her Oaths.

Sometimes she felt like she was the only one interested in the Oaths or the Sacred Duty anymore.

"Is everything all right?" inquired a familiar voice politely. She turned and looked behind her, at the man standing against the wall by the door. He wore his mask, but there was no mistaking his long form and narrow hips. "I'd been told you wouldn't be out for another two hours." She offered him one of her rare smiles.

"I'm carefully plotting my own downfall," she informed him. "How long have you been back?"

"Only a few days," he said, falling into step beside her as she began moving down the corridor again. "I apologize for the mask, but I have no immediate wish to be recognized and summoned to explain myself. I wanted to speak with you first."

"I'm flattered," she said. "Did you find what you were looking for?"

"I did," he answered carefully. "I suppose you've guessed by now."

"There is only one thing in all of creation," she said, "for which you would move heaven and earth. I know you, Anubis Voidbringer. You would not have left Qirast for anything less."

"Hmmm," he replied. "It goes without saying of course, that—."

"Your secrets will keep as they always have," she said.

"And I appreciate it as I always have," he replied.

"What do you need me to do?"

He thought about it. "At this point, I'm not sure," he answered honestly. "Except to say that plotting your own downfall is likely to be unhelpful. I may need someone on the inside very shortly, and I may also not be in a position to be that someone."

"I see," she replied lightly. "I will see what can be done to slow my descent, then."

"I know what it means to you," he said.

"I'm aware," she replied. "And that's enough. Oh, I informed certain people that you had volunteered to go outside with the Creed as a favour to your brother. You may wish to stick with that story when you do decide to explain yourself."

He offered her a rare smile of his own, and took her hand, kissing the back of it briefly. "Your prescience is impeccable."

Someone cleared their throat from behind Anubis, and Aase looked up. "One might say the same of your timing," noted a dry voice. Anubis, still bent over Aase's hand, winced beneath his mask. So much for avoiding the summons – like an idiot, he'd given himself away with the simple, affectionate gesture. Aase's face settled easily back into its customary neutrality and she offered the newcomer a nod.

A tall, thin man stood in the centre of the hallway, appearing stiff and uncomfortable. His face was covered by his mask, but a steel-grey beard spilled out from beneath it, giving the jackal face an aged appearance. "Good afternoon, Rysson," Aase greeted him, as Anubis straightened and turned to face him. He knew next to nothing of Rysson except that he was a mid-rank priest frequently used as a message runner for the Circle. He largely minded his own business – an essential quality in one to be trusted with the Circle's affairs – and Anubis had always been content to leave it at that. "Is there something I can help you with?"

Rysson offered her a polite bow. "Ah, no, Administrator," he said. "Apologies. I was speaking to Acolyte Voidbringer. I've been sent to summon him to the High Chamber. The Circle would like to speak with him."

"How did they know I was back?" Anubis inquired stonily. "I haven't reported in yet."

"Your brother was seen passing through the fourth ring on his way to the city," Rysson replied. "Since you left with him, it was assumed you had also returned – correctly, apparently."

"Ah," Anubis replied. "Then I suppose I shall have to take my leave of you, Administrator." He turned to Aase and offered her a polite bow. She responded with a slight nod of her head. "I will seek you out when I'm finished and we will chat more then."

"Of course," she replied. "Oh, and Rysson, tell Hierophant Deathtongue that I will be in my quarters for the rest of the day, should he wish to see me. He may seek me out there."

Rysson offered her a puzzled look. "Not to seem impertinent, Administrator, but is there a reason I should inform him of this?"

"One he'll become aware of soon enough," she replied with an enigmatic shrug. "Thank you Rysson."

"My pleasure, Administrator."

3

There is a storm coming.

Galen heaved a great sigh but didn't open his eyes or move.

It's building over the city and will move outward from there. If you weren't so close to the falls you would be able to hear the thunder, even at this distance.

They drown out thunder, but not you, Galen noted dryly. Why is that I wonder?

Were you hoping they would? the voice inquired politely.

A little, Galen admitted. But I can see that was foolish of me.

A little, agreed the voice, and for a moment it was silent. I'm not being metaphorical about the storm, by the way, though the analogy is a good one, it clarified. The city is quite literally under assault from the rain. It will move very quickly, I think, and overtake you by nightfall. Perhaps you should go back to your sister's camp.

It's not my sister's camp, Galen corrected him. It's the Fury camp. No one of them owns it anymore than they do anything else on an individual level. The Fury are a single entity made up of many women. If one of them owns something, the Fury own something.

Ah, said the voice. I was not aware. The Fury were but a fledgling tribe back in my day; still growing in ritual and culture. I did like them quite a bit, though; I am happy to see they have prospered.

They're the strongest tribe in the third ring, Galen boasted, unable to mask his pride. His mother had been a Fury, in her youth, and two of his sisters had returned to the tribe after they'd grown. Cattie-Shai has done really, really well as their leader. I never would have thought of her as a Spirit Caller, but she's doing great.

If the possessions of one are the possessions of the Fury, would not the same be said of accomplishments? the voice inquired curiously.

I, Galen noted, am not Fury – just a son of. Therefore I can be proud of my sister as an individual in her own right if I want. I'm allowed to brag.

Fair enough, conceded the voice. Another pause. She will be worried when she realizes you've gone. You should return.

Why? Galen asked. He shifted on the soft ground to get more comfortable. The heat was suffocating, but he couldn't help but revel in it. It was so different than the dry, burning heat of the desert. There was so much water in the air, and the ground and everywhere. It was euphoric, no matter the downsides. Besides, the mist rising from the falls nearby coated everything around them in a cooling haze that helped against the heat. Why do you want me to return so badly?

To tell you the truth, said the voice with what sounded oddly like a sigh, I would be happy with you doing anything that wasn't laying here doing nothing. I find it odd that one who swore so fervently, so recently that he would make everything right is content to lay on the bank of a river and set absolutely nothing right, except perhaps a lack of sleep.

What would you have me do? Galen asked, opening his eyes and staring up at the grey-green foliage above him. He had not yet adjusted to it; he still expected to see the sky, bright and wide and open whenever he looked up, and was startled each time he saw the living, verdant ceiling instead. What could I possibly do right now besides this?

You could act, the voice replied insistently. Anything is better than this.

Act on what? Galen scoffed. I have no information. He frowned at the leaves and vines twisted intricately over his head. I have no understanding of the situation. I don't even know who the players are anymore. I have no allies, no enemies, I have nothing. What do I have that I could act on? What action could I perform under the circumstances?

How will sitting here doing nothing solve the problem of not knowing anything? the voice countered. Does it teach you anything? Does it reveal any secrets to you? Are the trees whispering answers in your ear, or the falls shouting them at you? You are mortal, Galen Voidbringer, and you cannot hear the trees.

And I suppose you can? Galen returned sarcastically.

Go find the information you need, the voice urged him, refusing to be deterred. You say you can do nothing until you know more, and I agree, but therefore you need to learn more. So you can do something: you can go learn more.

Oh yes, of course, Galen replied resentfully, it's all so simple now. I'll just walk right up to the front gates of the city and ask to chat with the guards there about the state of things. Are you joking? They'll throw me in the Vanguard before I can blink.

Half of them won't even know who you are, the voice replied impatiently.

Half of them will, Galen responded, equally impatient. Ten years is long, but not that long. You want to take the 50% chance that I rot in the dungeons of the Vanguard 'till I die, doing even less for your cause than I'm doing right now?

My cause? the voice replied. Is it not your cause also?

I don't have a cause, I have a to-do list, Galen answered shortly, already not liking where the conversation was going.

Ah, said the voice in that wise, I-see-now tone it tended to take when Galen had apparently revealed something. I begin to understand the delay.

Do you? Galen replied angrily. How nice.

You do realize that a thing on a to-do list is nothing more than a thing that hasn't been done yet? It is not a thing that is being done. As long as it is a to-do list you work from, and not a cause or a purpose, nothing will happen. You will not act, and Qirast will sink ever lower, until at last the Gods that created it will destroy it again, and find a better way of protecting that which Qirast is meant to defend.

That's not going to happen, Galen argued, a dark frown playing at the corners of his mouth.

Oh no? the voice replied. To tell you the truth I'm surprised it hasn't already. Those to whom your Brother Gods answer are far more lenient than they should be in such matters. The Sacred Duty is not a thing to be trifled with, and it has gone unfulfilled for far too long. Galen's face hardened unhappily and he closed his eyes. The voice sighed lightly. Ah yes, I forgot, it said. If I mention the Brother Gods you stop speaking with me. Forgive me, it has been so very long since I was able to exchange words with anyone, and I sometimes forget the rules you have laid out for me.

For a long moment, Galen didn't respond, and the voice receded momentarily from his mind. With his eyes shut, the deep roar of the falls was all encompassing; its constancy was almost enough to lull him to sleep, but at the last minute he resisted, opening his eyes again. The voice's parting barb irked him more than he thought it would.

I haven't laid out any rules, he said internally, pushing himself to a seated position and giving himself a shake. He rubbed his eyes as the voice responded.

Ah, but you have, it said. I have discovered that certain topics or words cause you to become angry, therefore I assume you would prefer I do not speak of them. Others cause you to grow silent and sullen. Still others cause sadness or pain in you. In this you have established the rules of our interactions to date. I cannot speak with you if you are silent, and I do not wish to cause you anger, or sadness, or pain, so the rules are such that these topics must be avoided. But, as I've said, sometimes, in my fervour, I forget these rules. And sometimes, I have no choice but to break them.

Who are you? Galen asked, exasperated. He watched a brightly coloured bird flap its way from one branch to another and open its beak to call out, voice lost in the dull roar of the falls. If I knew who you were…

Well now, said the voice, and Galen would swear it almost sounded amused, to tell you that I would have to break the rules, wouldn't I?

Do I know you? Galen demanded. Is that why you won't tell me?

You must, replied the voice, for I can speak with you, and I can speak with no other. But we have never met, if that is what you mean. In fact, due to my current, inconvenienced situation, I doubt we've even passed each other on the street, however unknowingly.

How is it you can speak to me like this? Galen asked, changing the subject. Inside my head I mean.

For starters, the voice corrected him, it is not your head to which I speak. And I can speak with you as I do, because you listen as you do. I can speak at others, perhaps, but they are not listening in any way that would allow them to hear me. It's all very…metaphysical and not necessarily something I understand how to explain, so much as it's just something that is.

Are you Gifted? Galen asked curiously. Is it your Gift?

Why do you ask that? the voice said instead of answering. Galen idly picked a stone off the ground and threw it at the river, watching it sail through the air and disappear in the churning water, its ripples indistinguishable in the roiling mass.

One of the kids I trained with was Gifted with telepathy, he said. He could speak to people with his mind, and they would hear it in theirs. He had all kinds of fun with it, until they found out what he could do. They pulled him right out of training and handed him over to the priests. He was devastated.

There was a pause as the voice considered the question. I am not Gifted, no, not in that sense, it replied slowly. And as for your friend, I assume you understand why he had to be given to the priests.

Because they could train him in his Gifts, Galen responded, picking up another stone and throwing it as well. It makes sense – everyone's got to do what's best for Qirast, and he was more useful as a telepath than a paladin. I still feel sorry for him though; he wanted to join the Order so bad.

There is a price we pay to be kin, the voice replied simply. We all pay it the same. And without a price, what value would our lives have?

Hmmm, said Galen. So you're kin, then?

Another pause. Yes. I am kin.

So, are you—Galen started, but the voice cut him off; it was alert and urgent suddenly.

I need you to quiet yourself, it said, startling him. There is something happening and I think it is important.

Why do I need to quiet myself for that? Galen demanded.

I am limited in my perceptions except through you, the voice responded. Right now I can experience the world only through you.

So then what—?

Be still!

It was, without a doubt, a command, and carried with it a good deal more authority than the voice had demonstrated to date. Galen obeyed immediately; a lifetime spent teaching himself to follow orders instantly and without question overriding any offence he may have felt. He calmed his hands in his lap and sat as still as he could, though his eyes darted from side to side, trying to discern what it was that had agitated the voice.

Your mind, Galen, it said, more gently, calm your mind.

Startled and suspicious, Galen attempted to do as he was asked. He forced himself to close his eyes. Again, without visual stimulus, the roar of the nearby waterfall seemed to encompass him, until he could almost convince himself he was standing right in it. He focussed on the sound, deciding that he didn't really know how to calm his mind, but he could at least centre it, like he did in combat. Shut out everything but the object of his focus and for that brief moment in time, know nothing but it.

He didn't know how long he sat there before the voice spoke again, but when it did it startled him so badly that he jumped, eyes snapping open, hand instinctively going for his maul.

Your brother is in trouble, it sounded grim. The storm I spoke of earlier was perhaps more metaphorical than I thought.

Which brother? Galen demanded. What's happened?

The youngest, the voice clarified. Faustus.

What kind of trouble? Galen asked, suspicious. Faustus was often in trouble, and it rarely paid to get involved.

Serious trouble, the voice answered, and that was enough for Galen. I think. It is very hard to tell at this distance, and everything I know is filtered through you, and so is tainted to some degree by your own impressions and feelings. He and his brethren are beset by enemies who I believe to be members of the Order.

The Order's after the Creed?! Galen demanded, pushing himself to his feet and turning away from the falls. Why?!

I don't know, the voice said apologetically. Except to say that often a creature that has grown sick with fever and plague will view any outside itself as an enemy and act accordingly. It doesn't take much imagination to picture the Order as such a creature, or to picture their motives in such a case.

Idiots, Galen snarled inwardly. Why would they do that? The Creed won't take this sitting down. It'll be all out war in there once they get the chance to regroup. He scrambled down the side of the bank and broke into a jog once his feet hit level ground.

Assuming the Order lets them regroup, the voice pointed out. Were I in their shoes, fevered and plagued or not I would give the Creed no such opportunity.

Galen felt his face lose some of its colour at the thought. I shouldn't have let him go….

Why would you have stopped him? the voice demanded, a frown evident in its tone. You didn't know the Order would turn on the Creed. You don't know anything about what's going on in the city or the Order, remember?

It doesn't matter, Galen returned, annoyed. He slowed down to force his way through a curtain of vines before picking up his pace again. It doesn't matter that I didn't know. He's my brother. I have a…a responsibility to keep my family safe. I should have stopped him.

While I agree with the sentiment, I'm afraid I find fault with your logic, the voice replied conversationally. From what I know of your brother you couldn't have stopped him anyway.

Galen scowled at the jungle ahead of him. Have you nothing in your life that you have to protect? He demanded angrily, perhaps unfairly. Have you no one who relies on you to help them if they get in trouble? Who trusts you to keep them out of it if you can? It's not a matter of logic.

No, the voice agreed, I suppose it's not. What will you do now?

Now? Galen answered, and his face hardened. Now I act.