Matthew Sprange



Shouts for his blood echoed off the walls of the narrow alley, the worn buildings bouncing the sound so it seemed as though he were surrounded. Casting an anxious glance over his shoulder, he saw nothing through the shadowy gloom and guessed they were still on the street behind.

Not wanting to push his luck, he ran faster, legs straining under the effort and ankles aching from the unfamiliar exertion. A shape shuffled from the darkness of a doorway to his left. He nearly screamed in panic, thinking the murderers behind had caught up with him. The grey-haired beggar gave him a curious look, perhaps wondering why a wild-eyed man was in this region of the city at so late an hour, then shuffled back into his temporary home.

The alley jinked crookedly and, rounding the last corner, he saw the expanse of Meridian Street opening up before him. He slowed down, trying to control his breathing and appear normal, lest he draw attention from revellers or some of the less desirable types he knew frequented the thoroughfare. Drawing his hood up, he wrapped his cloak about him and continued north at a measured pace. The shouts were gradually receding and he began to give a silent prayer of relief. While the events of the evening had been painful, there was still a chance that something could be salvaged from the disaster.

Meridian Street was lit only by the torches and lanterns of the taverns, clubs and brothels that choked its wide midway stretch as it reached, arrow straight, to Turnitia's northern gate. Even those lights were slowly being doused as all but the most stubborn establishments, or those most patronised, depending on how you looked at it, began to call an end to the evening's trade. Only the pale blue giant overhead continued to provide an eerie grey illumination, its cloud strewn surface leering down on the city as the sphere dominated three quarters of the night sky.

He hoped his ancestors, soaring high in the clouds of Kerberos above, were watching over him now, providing whatever aid and protection the true God permitted. Discretely, he made the sign of the Brotherhood under his cloak, and then hurried north. Hoping to appear like a young party-goer finding his way home, but fearing he appeared more like an old man on the run.

Few others were on the street, and even fewer paid him more than a scant glance, having the delights of heavy drink and loose women on their minds. For this, at least, he was grateful, for he could not afford any sort of confrontation, not tonight. The Faith had eyes everywhere, it seemed, and it might not take them long to arrive here if some sort of altercation broke out.

Crossing the cobbled road to avoid two young men obviously, and loudly, looking for a tavern that was still serving new arrivals, he strode purposefully onwards, eventually reaching the point where Meridian Street narrowed. A few closed shop fronts marked the undeclared barrier between entertainment and residential district, and he stopped for a few seconds, watching the road behind to see if any furtive shapes broke from the shadows to continue pursuit. Seeing nothing, he released the breath he had unconsciously been holding, though he knew he would not feel completely safe until he reached home. Perhaps not even then — that, however, was something to deal with in the morning. If he could just survive this night…

He continued his frightened trek and, a few hundred yards further along the road, he turned into a side street he had come to know well. Another turn and he was in the alleys that ran behind the row of close knit dwellings, the simple two storey town houses of a type that sheltered the majority of the inhabitants of the city. Such humble accommodations were perhaps surprising for the man he was to call on, but he had learned they were entirely fitting for the Preacher's outlook on life. In Pontaine, the man would have been revered as a bishop, at the very least, but here, in subjugated Turnitia, the Faith and its lackeys in the Empire of Vos had ensured even this great man remain hidden.

Pausing once again to make sure he was not being followed, ears straining to hear soft footfalls in the twilight, he quietly entered the shadows cast by the house, and tapped on its back door, flecks of paint breaking loose from its ragged surface. Three taps followed by a pause, then two more.

A middle-aged woman opened the door, peering anxiously past him into the alley before focussing on his face. He could sense the fear emanating from her as she hustled him in quickly but that did little to stifle his own relief at, finally, reaching safe territory.

Inside, the kitchen was small and the same as in every other house in the street. A small cast-iron stove sitting under the chimney flooded the room with warmth, the fires behind its latticed grate combining with the lantern on the central dark wood table to provide a homely atmosphere, something he was glad of. The man seated at the table grabbed a bottle and poured a generous amount of wine into a clay cup.

'Tabius,' the man nodded in welcome. 'You look as if you could use this.'

'Preacher,' Tabius acknowledged. 'We should get you to safety. The Faith could have discovered your location by now. They have taken enough of us tonight.'

The Preacher waved his concern aside. 'I did not run when the Empire descended on our city, even though we all knew they would bring the Final Faith with them. I am not going to start now. Have a drink man, steady your nerves. We don't believe it breaks the divine connection between man and God.'

'I heard the Anointed Lord had passed that law,' Tabius said, finally accepting the cup and relishing the first sip as it warmed his throat and stomach. 'Think her followers will accept it?'

'They had better, if they know what is good for them,' the Preacher said then, with a wry smile added, 'Whether the Anointed Lord and her closest cronies follow it too, ah, that would be the question. Still, what can you expect when women are allowed into religion? Now, sit, and tell me how we fare this evening.'

Tabius sat across from the Preacher and smiled in thanks as his wife laid out a plate of bread and ham, though he did not touch the supper, instead cradling the cup of wine in his hands to warm it.

'They knew where we were and what we were doing,' he began, wincing slightly as the screams of dying friends echoed in his ears once again. 'Someone gave us up. Tanner, maybe. He was a little too ready to offer us his cellar, knowing the risks it carried.'

The Preacher shook his head. 'I find that difficult to believe. I have known Tanner a long time, and would declare him righteous. He accepted the risks because he knew they were necessary. However, we have taken in new believers recently, and who knows whether they are all truly genuine? Even with recommendations, it is within some men to only deceive.'

'Truly. The Rites of Protection and Good Health had barely finished when the Faith arrived. They were among us before we knew it, striking with swords at anyone within reach. Not just the men — they were after everyone.'

He stopped to take another sip of wine, hoping the motion would conceal the shaking he felt enter his hands. The compassion in the Preacher's eyes told him he had failed, and he took a deep breath before continuing.

'It was complete chaos. People were running in all directions, trying to get out. And the screaming. It filled the cellar. We were slipping on the blood running across the floor, men were struck down as they tried to help their wounded sons. Gregor rallied first and began to fight back — I remember a hammer in his hand. We followed him as he headed for the stairs. I saw him cut down, but some of us, I don't know, maybe a dozen, managed to get out. Once we were on the street, we just ran.'

'And you were chased?'

'Yes. We split up. I don't know if the others escaped. I was hoping I would find some of them here, as I went all the way round the Five Markets before coming back towards Meridian Street. I know Sanser, Mikels and Dornire got out with me, and I think I saw Kurn as well.'

'Did the guard not come?'

'I saw a couple but…' Tabius paused. 'The thing is I could have sworn they were in on it. Or, at least, some of them were. Since the city fell, the guard step in if you so much as knock a barrel over in the market. They must have seen what was happening, they just had to — but I did not see any of them act.'

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