Prologue

 They say that people come to the Stop when they’re ready to die.

They say that Death himself is a patron. Certainly, that’s where the tavern got its name.

Azrael’s Stop. Watering hole for the Angel of Death.

There’s an altar in the corner, a white ash cabinet with a statue of the angel. It’s simple, but stands out—most taverns don’t have altars to Death, after all.

They say you’re supposed to leave an offering on the altar, instead of tipping. Not wanting to risk attracting Death’s attention, most do it. That’s also why most avoid the name, and just call it the Stop.

~

But that was all just rumour, and Ceph didn’t trade in rumour. He just served the drinks.

Only seventeen years old, small, thin, Ceph looked perpetually tired.

He’d seen a lot of death in his short life. Maybe that’s why he was here. No one really knew.

No one really knew much about the Stop—like why a hooded crow lived in the rafters of the common room. That’s why so many rumours sprang up.

But they were just rumours, Ceph said.

Except, of course, that every couple of weeks, someone died at Azrael’s Stop.

~

Losday, 30 Zalornym, 1006 KR

Seventh Bell

The Stop was busy tonight. Outside the heavy oak door, the famous mists of Theore City blanketed the metropolis in muffled quiet. Inside, the common room was kept warm by a slowly burning fire and the closeness of bodies, like the cramped space was designed to remind everyone that they were still alive.

Ceph poured an old dwarven tanner a glass of heavy Running River mead.

“Need a room? I haven’t seen you around.”

The dwarf shook his head, his grey braided beard swaying. “Nah, I live in town. Just needed a new scene. Something calmer, y’know?”

“If you want calm, just don’t piss off the crow,” Ceph said, without a hint of a smile. The dwarf watched as the crow flew down from its perch and stole a drink of whiskey from someone’s glass before flying away again. He snorted.

“How come it’s so quiet?” he asked.

“No one’s died yet.”

The dwarf stared at Ceph, but Ceph moved down the bar to help someone else.

~

Someone else might have asked the dwarf why the change of scene, but most of Ceph’s patrons didn’t like to talk about their problems.

Ceph had seen the darkness in the tanner’s eyes, the downcast look, the weariness. Someone close to him had died recently; the dwarf was here to grieve.

Alone, surrounded by people. As they all were at the Stop.

~

“Ceph!” Old Tom said as Ceph brought another glass of whiskey fey to his oldest regular. “I meant to tell you, the shutter in my room was stuck this morning.”

Ceph wasn’t sure just what Tom’s age was. He was probably in his seventies, though still a big man, his hands engulfing the small glass. He’d had a few already, tonight—this was the third time he’d mentioned the shutter.

“Blame the crow,” Ceph said. “Something about a safety hazard. Don’t want you dying on us, eh?”

Tom laughed. When he’d first come to the Stop a month ago, he said he’d come because he was ready to die. “I like you, Ceph. How’d you get so smart, being so young?”

“I was cursed by a gnomish warlock. I can still hear the ticking of his infernal clocks.”

Tom laughed again, and Ceph moved on.

He didn’t know much about Tom, but they got along. He didn’t want Tom to die.

Not like everyone else had.

~

There was a momentary break in the orders for drinks, and Ceph leaned against the rack of bottles behind the bar. His hand automatically went to the copper amulet around his neck, the design it once bore worn smooth by his thumb over the years.

He was tired. He was always tired.

His regulars wondered what had brought a seventeen-year-old kid to run a bar like this. What they didn’t know was that he wondered the same thing.

He didn’t know where he was going. Barely understood where he’d come from, all he’d come through.

So much death.

It haunted him. He was always tired.

He watched the hooded crow. It cocked its head at him.

“I’m fine,” Ceph said under his breath, as if to the crow.

It’s what he told himself every day. At least working at the Stop was something. At least it kept him busy.

He was fine.

~

Tenth Bell

Ceph was wiping down a table when they all heard the bell chime. Conversation died, and in the moment of silence, the dozen patrons raised their glasses, a nightly toast to the dead.

He’d barely returned behind the bar when the door opened, cool outside air momentarily chilling them, like Death passing by. A woman in a heavy cloak entered, one hand holding the fabric tight around her, the other pulling the door shut again.

She fell onto the stool at the bar. “Something strong,” she said. She looked young—maybe in her early twenties. She might have been very pretty, Ceph thought, but she looked worn. Like a newssheet, crumpled up and thrown on the side of the street to be trampled by horses.

Ceph poured her a shot of local gin. “A room?”

She shook her head, and downed the gin. Ceph poured her another. “Won’t be staying that long, I think,” she said, her voice weak. She shivered. “It’s cold outside.”

Ceph figured these thoughts were unconnected. “I can stoke up the fire, if the crow lets me.”

She glanced at the hooded crow, cocked an eyebrow with the slightest smirk on her face, then downed the second gin. When Ceph made to fill it again, she shook her head.

“I used to like fire,” she said. “A lot.” She paused. “Too much, really. I burned things just to watch the flames dance…”

She didn’t look at Ceph as she spoke, and Ceph felt in her voice the weight of things carried too long. He knew it well. Knew that here in the Stop, the burden often proved too much.

“I was always careful. I knew the power of fire. I respected it.” She stopped. Then, “I waited until the family had left the house. I’d always wanted to burn a building. To see the flames claim a structure like that, to see them tear down what men had worked to put up… But—” She drew a ragged breath. “There must have been—the kid must have been asleep—I heard him scream…”

Ceph looked away from her, suddenly disgusted. He was elsewhere, he could still see the fire of his childhood, the wood burning, the paint wilting. He could smell the smoke. He could still hear the screams. If only he’d…

“I ran,” the woman said. Her voice was a hoarse whisper, now. “Ran and ran. That was five years ago. I’ve been running since. Every night I hear that scream. It’s followed me. I haven’t been able to live ever since.

“Then tonight—a real scream this time. I was passing an alley, and saw man grabbing a child, trying to rob her mother. And I realised… I couldn’t keep on like I was. You can’t let one thing define you the rest of your life. You have to move past it, move on. It doesn’t matter what came before—you choose what to do with the time given you.”

She coughed, a rasping cough.

Ceph frowned. She was sweating, he suddenly noticed. Pale.

“I grabbed him away from the kid…”

“Are you okay?” Ceph asked, as she coughed again.

She raised her hand up in front of her, the one that had been holding her cloak close. It was crimson with fresh blood.

“I’ve been better.”

She fell off her chair.

Ceph ran around the bar as the patrons suddenly fell silent, gathering around. Ceph moved the cloak aside, saw a gaping wound in her side.

“How’s it look?” she gasped.

“I’m afraid the diagnosis isn’t good,” Ceph said. “You seem to have caught a nasty case of knife-in-the-gut.”

She smiled, a sheen of sweat on her face.

“Sometimes,” she said through clenched teeth, “you do your best, and you get shit as a result.”

Old Tom passed Ceph the bottle of gin, and he dribbled a little into her mouth. The others stood, silent. Most had seen enough death to know that it was too late.

“The important part,” she gasped, “is that you do your best. Do well by others, right? Go forth with dignity.”

“The kid?” Ceph said, quietly.

“They got away.”

Ceph nodded. “Then meet Azrael with dignity,” he said.

She closed her eyes, and the caw of the hooded crow rang in the silence.

~

First Bell

The common room had emptied. The woman’s body taken away, the regulars gone home, Old Tom retired to his room. Silence filled the Stop in Azrael’s wake.

Ceph scrubbed at the floorboards. There would always be a stain, but he didn’t mind that. He thought she should be remembered.

He didn’t even know her name.

When the bar was full, Ceph could distract himself, could put on a brave face. He’d seen a lot of death, and it no longer fazed him. It was no longer an individual tragedy, but the next stage of the journey. It surrounded him.

But alone with his work, his memories filled the emptiness, and he could distract himself no more. That fire, the screams. But also the rock, the darkness. The blood and swords. The sickness. Every time, he’d been spared. He had to live with every one.

The hooded crow drank from one of the mugs left on the white ash cabinet. He walked toward it, causing the bird to flap up to the rafters.

He looked at the statue of the angel, and wondered if he’d ever see the white-eyed man again. Maybe he’d be stuck working at this bar for the rest of his life. Would he care if he did?

It wasn’t like it was much of a life to live, anymore.

But a part of him still wondered why he was here. Wondered if he’d ever get any answers. He’d long given up on getting any peace.

He picked up the whiskey fey Old Tom had left on the altar and downed it, ignoring the burning in his throat.

He glanced at the crow, who seemed to be giving him a disapproving look, then picked up the rest of the drinks to take to his own room, preparing for another sleepless night.

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Biggles and the Departed

Sunday, 3 Gabrianym, 1007 KR

 ”Welcome back to the Stop,” Ceph said.

“Thank you! Um… back?”

“You’ve been here before.”

“Oh, probably!”

“I’d remember.”

The man was dressed as if the latest fashions had been introduced to a rainbow and had a bastard love child. Blues and oranges and purples and greens and yellows, accented with flashes of white or hints of black. A lute was slung across his back, and the whole ensemble topped with a wide-brimmed black hat and huge orange feather.

“Hard to forget an outfit like that,” Ceph said.

The man smiled. “I am Floerian Silverstring, Humble Bard of Great Renown, Wearer of Bright Colours and New Fashions, Player of Flute, Lute, and Trumpet Mute, Maker of Fun, Player of Jokes, Traveller of Worlds, Herald of the Knights of Cantara, Actor of the League of Rune, Personal Scribe of Biggles the Chicken, Herald to Many, Servant of None, and Flamboyant Travelling Minstrel Extraordinaire!” He ended with a flourish.

“Ah yes,” Ceph said. “Hard to forget that, either.”

Floerian smiled. “That’s the idea.”

“A drink?”

“Stormcrow wine, if you have it.”

As Ceph poured, he sensed Floerian’s eyes on him. They were old eyes. Like his own, they had seen a lot.

“Would you like to hear a story?” Floerian asked.

“Only if it’s not yours,” Ceph said.

“I never tell mine.” His eyes glinted.

“Sure,” Ceph said.

“It’s a story of the infamous Biggles the Chicken,” Floerian began.

 

~

 

In the days after Biggles the Chicken escaped his life enslaved, he travelled far and wide across the countryside, seeking adventure and revelling in the joys of freedom.

One evening, as the summer sun cast its long shadows across the hills and Biggles began to want for a place to rest, he spied dark smoke in the distance. Thinking perhaps it was the smoke of a fire from a roadside inn, he hurried forward.

Cresting the next hill, however, he discovered that the smoke was not from a merrily burning hearth fire, but from the smouldering wreckage of a farmhouse.

“What tragedy has happened here?” Biggles said, though there were none around to hear him. When nobody answered him — for how would they? — Biggles decided he must find out for himself, and he hurried toward the wreckage.

As he neared, he saw a shape among the planks and beams that still burned on the ground, a man standing amidst the debris, shrouded by the smoke.

“Hello!” Biggles called. “Are you all right?”

The man turned to look at the little chicken hollering from the grass. Biggles saw his eyes were all white, and the fire did not seem to touch him.

But Biggles also saw the bodies that lay on the ground around the man, burned by the flames. And he saw the shades of those people, their spirits, rising like the smoke from the bodies.

It was a family — a man, a woman, and three children. The farmers, whose home had burned down around them.

“Why don’t you help them?” Biggles said to the white-eyed man, aghast. But the man did not respond, only looking at Biggles with those eyes.

“Well if you’re not going to help, I will,” Biggles said. “I can’t just let that family die!”

And so he ran forward into the heat of the fallen building. He ran to the bodies of the family, as their spirits rose out of them. And though the embers scorched his feathers, Biggles paid them no mind.

First Biggles dragged the bodies away from the lingering flames. Their burns were bad, but Biggles tried to soothe them with water from his satchel, binding them with clean cloth. He opened the mouth of the smallest child and tried to fill it with air from his own tiny lungs.

The spirits of the family rose around him as he worked. Their eyes were sad, pained. But their bodies could hold them no more.

The man watched Biggles with his white eyes.

“If I can’t save the bodies, maybe I can help the spirits,” Biggles said, and turned to the shades of the family.

“Return to your bodies!” he said. “You are too young to pass into the Queen’s Land, into the shadow.” But the spirits did not move.

Biggles had heard that music had the power to affect spirits, and so he began to whistle a lively tune, hoping to inspire life back into them.

The spirits of the family stood around him as he whistled. Their eyes were still sad, still pained. But they had risen and would not return.

The man watched Biggles with his white eyes.

And so Biggles turned to him, this white-eyed man who stood unscorched among the flames, who watched Biggles silently, who seemed to be waiting for the farmer’s family.

“You are Death,” Biggles said to him, understanding. “You are here to collect these souls.”

And the man nodded, silent, for he was Azrael, the Angel of Death.

“If I can’t save the bodies, and I can’t help the spirits myself,” Biggles said, “then maybe you can. Look at this family, Death. They are helpless, they have small children. It cannot be their time to die. Put their souls back in their bodies, let them live again to see their lives through!”

The spirits of the family watched him as he spoke. They were sad, pained. But Death would not relent.

He watched Biggles with his white eyes.

Biggles sat on the grass, exhausted. He had tried to save the bodies, he had tried to rescue the spirits, he had even argued with Death himself, and nothing had worked.

He looked at the spirits of the family with their sorrow and pain.

“I’m sorry that you have died,” he said. “But I have tried everything to save you. There’s nothing more I can do.”

At this, the man smiled. Then the woman smiled. And then the children smiled. They nodded. And they drifted away, peaceful at least.

And Biggles looked at Death. But the angel had spread his wings of shadow and turned away, preparing to depart as well.

“I can’t stop death,” Biggles said, “no matter how unfair it seems. All I can do is accept it, and let go.”

In response, Death took wing, and disappeared into the smoky sky.

That night, Biggles thought of the family as they embarked on the next stage of their journey. And the next morning, he continued his own.

 

~

 

“A chicken?” Ceph said.

Floerian smiled.

“Let me guess. There’s a moral.”

“Probably,” Floerian said. “But I’m just the storyteller—I don’t get to dictate what you get out of a story.”

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Elegy of the Twilight Prince

Byrday, 5 Faenym, 1007 KR

It was a particularly rough night for Ceph. No matter what distraction he sought, the faces of the dead lurked behind his eyes.

“You all right?” Old Tom asked.

“Fine.”

“You don’t sound it,” Nael said.

“Just—tired,” Ceph said. But he could tell they didn’t buy it.

“You don’t have to put on a brave face,” Tom said. “Not for us.”

But Ceph didn’t do it for them. He did it for himself.

Sometimes, it all felt so… final. For so many of them, it just ended, and Ceph was left alone once again. Always alone.

Nael seemed to stare at him from beneath the bandage over his eyes. “None of us are alone on the journey. And the journey never ends. Do you know the story of Cain, the Twilight Prince?”

“God of outcasts,” Ceph said. “Leads the dead to the Shadowrealm.”

“Forever outcast, forever wandering,” Nael said. Then he picked up his guitar and began to play.

 

I come from the waste

The outcast

I come through the shadow and dust

The twilight of the west

I wander

I don’t belong, never allowed to rest

Fate is forever, I’m marked for my sins

I serve only the Queen, myself, and the wind

 

The world’s at my feet

I have everywhere to be

And nowhere to go

 

Your feet are heavy

You tire

I come through the shadow and sand

From the twilight of the end

To find you

To take you away from your land

You know that it’s come, the end that you fear

He comes, I follow, the Queen’s Land is near

 

The world’s at my feet

I have everywhere to be

And nowhere to go

 

I’ll never find rest

But I’ll take you to yours

A rest without sleep

Lost but ever onwards

Your journey’s not done

Your time’s just begun

For the end of all things

Is not the end of all things

 

Take your first step.

You are new.

Reborn.

The journey doesn’t end, it never ends.

I have wandered the worlds

For eons.

Outcast.

It never ends. Never ends.

Infinity stretches before us, a hand in the dark.

In the shadow.

Take it. Let it guide. Follow. Eyes open

Wide.

We are outcast. We wander forever.

It never ends.

And I wouldn’t want it to.

 

The world’s at your feet

You have nowhere to be

And everywhere to go

 

The world’s at my feet

I have everywhere to be

And nowhere to go.

 

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Dreamscape

Byrday, 3 Drannym, 1007 KR

 That night, Ceph closed the bar early, kicked the patrons out, poured himself a drink. The crow watched him, head cocked, as he made his way to his bed.

The sheets needed cleaning; they were browning from sweat. He hadn’t been sleeping well.

The crow could feel it. Could hear the uncanny sounds of a low, soft voice, speaking indistinguishable words that are at once calming and terrifying. The sounds were far away, indistinct, as if they didn’t quite belong.

The Dreaming came as Ceph dozed off. The crow saw it. Saw the creature appear, straddling Ceph as he tossed and turned, a hideous hag, a woman with a drawn and gaunt face, rotted teeth, wild hair, wilder eyes.

A nocnista. A bringer of nightmare. She held Ceph down with clawed hands, feeding off his fear.

The Dreamscape wasn’t a kind place to him.

 

~

 

A large doorway in the darkness. A sign declaring it Larilla’s School of Reclamation.

A classroom.

Teenage students sit in rows of old desks. A teacher, a youthful man of about thirty, stands at the front of the class by a slate board and a desk. Windows look out onto the streets of Theore City.

Can anyone tell me about the Twelve Day War?” the teacher asks.

No one in the class responds.

Anyone? Anything at all?”

‘Twas the bloody elves did it, weren’t it?” one boy shouts out.

Can you be more specific, Morrit?”

Whotcha mean?””

Which elves?”

The bad ‘uns, Master Carver.”

The teacher snorts. “The elves of Enlanuin, the kingdom to the north. But not all of them—a general called Tholandar Ilterquess acted without orders. Does anyone know why?”

Silence.

Anyone? Ceph?”

In the back row where Master Carver is looking, Ceph slouches in his seat, staring at the floor. He is pale, unhealthy.

Ceph?”

But he ignores the teacher.

 

~

 

A dorm room. Ceph sits on one of two beds, staring out a window. A few items of clothing and a book are strewn about one half of the room—the other half lies empty.

An empty bottle that reeks of alcohol lies on the floor.

The door opens. “Ceph?” says a woman. She’s older, with steely hair wrapped in a tight bun. A film of hair sits conspicuously on her upper lip.

Ceph doesn’t respond.

Master Farns, I am addressing you.”

Ceph looks at her. “Matron,” he says.

We’ve accepted a new pupil. He is moving into this room with you.” She steps aside to let a boy enter the room.

He’s about Ceph’s age, maybe fourteen. Short, thin, and shy, he holds one arm with the other in front of his body. He’s looking at the floor, then glances up at Ceph—and his eyes are caught there.

Ceph, this is Rye. Make him comfortable. And clean up this mess!” The woman bends to pick up the empty bottle, sniffs it, and scowls. “I’m keeping an eye on you, Ceph.”

She turns and leaves.

Silence reigns over the room for a moment, then Rye says a timid, “Hi.”

Ceph turns to look out the window again.

 

~

 

Ceph and Rye sit in the back row of the classroom, stifling giggles. It’s a couple years later. Rye looks more confident, Ceph much healthier.

The Quiet War,” Master Carver says, standing at the front of the class. “Anyone? Come on, people, this is current, this is important. Angor? No? Rye, is something funny about Angor?”

No, Master Carver,” Rye says, trying to calm down.

Ceph covers his mouth with his hand, and glances at Rye. Rye and Master Carver are looking at each other—then, Master Carver sighs.

Can anyone tell me about the Quiet War?” He sits in the chair at the front desk—and the chair collapses.

The whole class bursts into laughter as Master Carver falls to the floor, Ceph and Rye loudest of them all.

In the midst of his laughter, Rye begins to cough. He doesn’t stop. Ceph calms down after a moment, looking at Rye, as Master Carver stands and nurses his rear.

Rye, you okay?”

Rye gasps for breath as he is seized by a fit of coughs. Blood spatters on the desk.

 

~

 

Rye lies in his bed, his skin almost as white as the bed sheets, sweat beading on his forehead. He looks gaunt, frail. He shivers constantly. Ceph sits in a chair beside Rye’s bed.

A cough racks Rye’s body, and Ceph clutches his thin hand.

I got a message from the priests of Nioth,” Ceph says. “They don’t know what’s wrong…”

Rye tries to say something, but another fit of coughing hits him. He looks up at Ceph, and whispers something.

Ceph leans closer. “What?”

Matron—”

Ceph shakes his head. “She tried getting a potion, but you know it didn’t help last—”

Rye puts his hand over Ceph’s mouth. “A ring,” he whispers. “She has a ring from when I came here. I was always told—” He stops, catches his breath. “—it was magic. Protective.” He can’t go on, and his hand drops to the bed, exhausted from the effort of holding it up.

Ceph nods. “I’ll get it. I’ll find Matron.” He stands to go, then looks at Rye. “Just—don’t go anywhere.”

Rye manages a smile, and Ceph leaves.

Then, the half-elven woman Lona is in the room. Tattoos over her face and arms in twisting, vine-like patterns, in the style of the dark elves of the Thron Sea. She watches, but doesn’t move.

The crow is there. They watch each other.

Lona drops a ring on the ground.

The crow picks it up. Places the ring in Rye’s hand, which closes reflexively around it. Rye coughs once, then forces his eyes open to look at the bird.

They are clear. There is an understanding there. He nods, and closes his eyes again; his body settles back into the sheets, and he becomes completely still.

There is no more rattle in his throat, no more ragged breathing. No breath at all.

The door opens, and Ceph runs in. “Rye, I found it—”

He stops.

He sinks to his knees beside the bed, and grabs Rye’s hand.

Rye!”

Everything fades to blackness.

Rye!”

 

~

 

Ceph woke with a start, staring into the eyes of the hooded crow, standing at the foot of his bed. “Damn bird,” he muttered.

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What I See

Glass shattered in the fireplace. The bar grew quiet and heads turned to Old Tom, standing by his usual table, fist clenching and unclenching. He was in his seventies, and his shoulders slumped from the weight of years, but he was still a large man; the Stop was always dominated by his presence.

I watched Ceph, the barkeep, touch his arm. Ceph had always been small—next to Old Tom, he looked like a child.

“Let’s get you upstairs,” Ceph said. His voice was soft, not unkind. He cared for Tom like a dear friend. Like he cared for me.

Ceph led Old Tom to the stairs, right past me. He looked tired—they both did. He didn’t look up as he passed, but then, he didn’t know I was there.

I followed them upstairs, silent, to the third floor where Old Tom’s room was. Tom sat on his bed, still not having said a word. Ceph looked at him for a moment, a quiet concern on his face, then turned to the room’s desk. On it was a square mirror, about a foot to a side, with an ornate silver frame, tarnishing. Beside the mirror, an unopened letter.

“That letter arrived weeks ago,” Ceph said.

“From my son,” Tom said. “In Icepeak.” He had turned to gaze out the window at the night sky. The twin moons slowly circled each other, the roofs of Theore’s Temple Ward stretching away into the starry sky of city lights. Old Tom said no more on the subject, and Ceph didn’t pry.

Ceph never pried. It was an unwritten rule of his. He was always scared of what might happen if he did.

“We used to own a cat just like that one,” Tom said. He was looking out the window still. I could see a tomcat sitting on a roof across the alley, light reflecting in its eyes, watching us right back.

I went back downstairs, leaving Tom to his memories and Ceph to his silence.

Subdued conversation had resumed in the common room. Some of the regulars expressed concern about Tom, that he’d been looking older, that he’d been growing more restless, more impatient, that he’d been drinking more.

Azrael’s Stop had a strange atmosphere for a bar. After all, it was named after the Angel of Death, and they say people are drawn there when they’re ready to die. And the regulars at a place where they see someone pass away every couple of weeks are a strange group of people. It’s not a depressing atmosphere, not depressed people—just a bit subdued, a bit melancholy, a bit more respectful than it might be in other bars. The regulars never talked about why they came—whether being so close to death made them feel more alive, or whether they liked the sense of solemnity. I heard some say they just liked Ceph and his dry wit—a wit I knew masked a much deeper depression than any of those who came to die. But I’d known Ceph for years. Regardless of their reasons for being there, the Stop was a place with a lot of memories, a lot of stories.

No one knew Old Tom’s. Except that he had arrived a few months ago, saying he was ready to die, and had lived there in tired desperation ever since.

I glanced at the hooded crow that lived in the rafters as Ceph returned to his place behind the bar. It watched the proceedings silently—the crow only ever cawed when someone in the Stop had died. Otherwise it was just an observer, like me.

 

~

 

The next morning I returned to the Stop. I was the only one Ceph wanted around in the mornings—the few people who stayed in the rooms above, like Old Tom, tended to go out during the day or to stay cooped up in their rooms, and hardly anyone ever came for a drink during the day. Even those led here to die, if that’s really what happened, tended to show up at night with everyone else. Without the clamour of people, the silence of memories was too much for most. But Ceph liked it.

Those days when I was around, Ceph tended to be in one of two moods. Some days we were silent for hours—he worked to prep the bar, and I watched; he just took a calm comfort from my presence, I allowed myself to yearn for things with Ceph that never were.

Other days, we talked.

“Whatever happened to Lacaena?” Ceph asked as he counted piles of silver and copper coins from the previous night.

“Which one was that?” I asked.

“The little forest elf girl. She came, what, the year after we did?”

“That’s right. Brilliant with numbers, but she could barely speak the language?”

“Her accent was cute,” Ceph said.

It’s funny how it’s those little comments that hit you. I didn’t have a cute accent. But then, I wasn’t a girl either. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe she’s still at Larilla’s.”

“Maybe,” Ceph said. “I kind of lost track of them all, after…” He trailed off.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Don’t you get out and around, Rye? Ever go back?”

“It’s a big city.” He didn’t know how much I stuck around, even when he didn’t see me.

We heard feet coming down the stairs. I gave Ceph a wan smile, and disappeared as Old Tom emerged into the common room.

“Eh?” he said. “You say something, Ceph?”

“Just good morning, Tom,” Ceph said, smiling at him.

“When was the last time you had a good morning?” Tom asked.

“Fifteen years, three months, and four days ago,” Ceph replied. They smiled, but they both knew there was some truth behind the jokes.

“Big plans for the day?” Tom asked.

“I thought I’d go out to the docks, hijack a merchant ship, and be a pirate on the Thron Sea for a couple years. What do you think?”

“Grand idea. But will the crow let you out?”

“Good point. Drat. Ah well, there’s always tomorrow.”

“And tomorrow, and tomorrow,” Tom said, and the levity left his voice. It was about this point in the morning when Tom normally ordered his first whiskey fey of the day—Ceph was reaching for the bottle—but then he said, “Ceph, let’s go for a walk.”

Ceph looked at him, then at the work he was doing.

“We both need the fresh air,” Tom said.

I could see the hesitation on Ceph’s face. I knew he was worried.

It always seemed that it was those who shared their stories with Ceph, needing to unburden themselves one final time, that ended up dying in the Stop. That’s why he never pried. He didn’t want to encourage it. He didn’t want to be the cause of any more death.

He didn’t want Tom’s story. He’d grown to like Tom, over the months.

But I also knew that he wondered. If he knew why Old Tom was there, maybe he could understand why he was there. A seventeen-year-old boy, led to an old bar to serve drinks to those on their way out.

Go, I urged him silently.

In one last appeal, he looked around the rafters for the hooded crow—but it didn’t seem to be around this morning. Taking that as permission, Ceph swept the piles of coins into the strongbox and nodded. “All right.”

 

~

 

They walked the tree-lined cobblestones of Temple Ward in silence for a while. It was one of those perfect Theore spring mornings: a light rain that freshened the air without drenching you, no wind, the air just warm enough to be comfortable. I had loved the smell of rain and greenery. The smell of life.

They were an odd pair, young Ceph and Old Tom, barkeep and regular. They were more than acquaintances certainly, but you couldn’t say it was like family when they knew so little about each other. They seemed aimless at first, but as they crossed into Copper Ward, the mercantile district, and approached Songwind Park, it was clear that Tom had always had this destination in mind.

It wasn’t a large park, just a patch of green at the edge of the ward, a couple groves of cherry blossoms and a still pond. The cherry blossoms were coming to the end of their bloom, late, and pink littered the grass. Tom sat heavily on a bench by the pond, Ceph eventually sitting beside him.

“Is this where you come?” Ceph said.

“When I’m not at the Stop? Yeah, often.” A pause, like that might be all he’d say. Then, “My wife died here.”

Ceph looked at him. He’d prevented Tom from telling his story before, interrupted with other conversation. All Tom wanted was to die. All Ceph wanted was that for once, someone he liked wouldn’t die.

But he didn’t say anything, and Tom fell silent, and it seemed for a moment like he wouldn’t go on after all. But the door had been opened, a crack of light allowed to escape.

“Drowned in the pond,” Tom said, his voice heavy. “She’d just walked right in, like she thought she could breathe it. Like it was where she belonged. Her body was found floating—” He stopped.

“I didn’t even find out until the next morning. I’d been out all day, working down at the docks, then all evening with the guys at Codwick’s. I got home, and I guess my son had put himself to bed—he was ten. I don’t know if I even realized she wasn’t there. Not till the morning when they knocked on the door…

“She’d been getting worse. She’d always been, I don’t know, off. Like she saw something no one else could. But she was kind, and pretty, and she raised my son while I worked.

“Every day, I worked. I was never around. I’d barely noticed.”

He fell silent again, looked away from the pond into the trees, while Ceph sat still, staring at his hands.

“I’ll be damned,” Tom said. “There’s that cat again.” The same one from the roof, a calico old thing, scruffy around the edges. It looked old. “It really could be ours.”

He sighed, and looked at Ceph, who had remained silent. Ceph had always been a good listener. People found it easy to open up to him.

There was worry on his face, though. I know he tried to hide it from Tom. But I could see it. Worry that Tom had told his story, that now Azrael would finally come for him. He didn’t want to see Tom go. Like so many others had.

“Come on,” Tom said. “The crow’s probably wondering where in all the hells you are.”

 

~

 

Ceph never sleeps well; violent, disturbing nightmares plague him every night. But that night, I’m not sure he slept at all, waiting anxiously to hear the caw of the crow that would suggest Tom had died in the night, his story shared.

But the call never came, and in the morning Ceph checked in on Old Tom in his room.

“Still here,” Tom said with a small smile despite a hangover.

He sat at the table in his room, looking at the mirror, while Ceph stood over him.

“Why don’t you read his letter?” Ceph asked.

Old Tom didn’t respond, and Ceph was about to repeat himself when he said, “Things were worse after she died. Had to leave him at home while I worked. He left for Icepeak as soon as he was old enough…” He shook his head. “I’ve barely seen him since. Never seen my granddaughter… Y’know, she’d be about your age, now.”

He sighed, and picked up the mirror, avoiding the letter sitting beside it.

“My wife gave me this not long before she died, on our anniversary. She always remembered our anniversary. ‘So you can see what I see,’ she’d said.”

Tom put the mirror down again. “All I ever see is an old man who was never there for his family.”

“Go get some fresh air,” Ceph said. “I’ll tidy your room today.”

Tom nodded. “Thanks,” he said, standing slowly, bones creaking. He looked at Ceph, then turned and left the room.

Ceph made the bed and cleaned up some of the old glasses that lay about before he realized I was there.

“You’re here early,” he said. “You usually knock.”

“I was worried about you,” I said.

“I’m fine. It was Tom I was worried about. He was so hopeful that he would go tonight.” He paused, looking at the mirror on the table. “Is it selfish that I’m relieved he didn’t?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s selfish of him to want to go, to leave you behind.”

“I guess we all are. We want it to be all about us.”

He’d picked up the mirror to wipe some dust off of it, then suddenly looked out the window. I followed his gaze, but didn’t see anything.

“What is it?” I asked.

He looked back at the mirror. “I don’t—I have to go.”

Still holding the mirror, he ran out of the room, footsteps flying down the stairs.

 

~

 

Ceph found Old Tom sitting on the same bench in Songwind Park. He sat down beside him, the mirror on his lap. Tom barely acknowledged him, sat staring at the still water reflecting the grey sky, itself a mirror.

“What was your wife like?” Ceph asked. “Before she died?”

“The sweetest woman you’d ever meet. Caring, affectionate, even to people she barely knew. She was very religious, though not to any particular deity—she just had this sense that there was more out there, and that it was… beautiful.” He paused. “She was beautiful. Simple, some called her, like she wasn’t all there. But that wasn’t true. It came and went. Like sometimes she would drift off into that other world she believed in, that only she could see.

“I should have been there for her more. Maybe I could have kept her in this world. Kept her alive. Kept my son…”

“Did she like your cat?” Ceph asked.

Tom looked at him, a cocked eyebrow and a wry smile. “She did. She thought the world of that creature.”

“Which world?” Ceph asked. I didn’t know if he meant it as a joke.

Tom frowned, looked back at the pond.

Ceph picked up the mirror, and looked at it. Then, he stood, and held it in front of him and slowly started turning around.

“What are you doing?” Old Tom asked.

When he was facing away from the pond, Ceph stopped. “Look.”

Tom stood, looked in the mirror beside him—then quickly turned, to look at the pond, then back at the mirror. “What—”

Whatever they saw in that mirror, I could not. I’m tethered to this world and to the shadow—I can’t see any others. But Ceph described it to me later.

In the mirror, they could see a woman, sitting on a rock in the middle of the pond. Bird wings folded around a beautiful body, and though they could not hear her, she seemed to be singing.

“A siren,” Ceph said.

“How?” Tom asked, looking again at the empty pond behind them.

“They say cats have an affinity for the mirror world, the Otherwhere,” Ceph said. “In your room, I saw that old cat—your old cat—in the mirror . I bet he’s been travelling to the Otherwhere—where your wife could see. She had the Othersight, Tom. She had the gift of seeing beyond this world, like you thought she could.

“She probably came here, while you worked, to watch her.” He indicated the mirror, the siren. “She wanted to hear her sing.”

Tom took the mirror from Ceph’s hands, sat down slowly on the bench.

“Tom, she wasn’t crazy. She didn’t die because you weren’t around to keep her safe. She was plagued by a gift no one could understand, by a desire for something she could always see but never get.

“She wanted to hear the song of another world.”

Tom had begun to cry. As Ceph sat beside him, resting a hand on Tom’s shoulder, the old calico appeared again, twining itself around Tom’s legs.

 

~

 

That night at the Stop was quieter than normal. Tom had stayed in his room, presumably needing some time alone, and things seemed more subdued without his boisterous presence.

Ceph kept up his usual banter with the regulars, but even he seemed a bit more removed than normal.

It was almost midnight when the hooded crow let out his call.

Ceph dropped the glass he was holding, and was at the stairs almost before it shattered on the floor.

Some of the regulars must have come to the same conclusion as he, for a few rose and ran after him.

Tom lay on his bed, still, eyes closed. The mirror lay beside him. He looked peaceful. He might have been asleep.

The letter from his son sat on the table. It had been opened. Ceph gently picked it up.

“‘I never blamed you,’” he read. “‘She wouldn’t have, either. I wish you wouldn’t blame yourself. Come to Icepeak—let’s try to be a family again.’”

Ceph put the letter down, and sat on the bed beside Tom’s body.

The next day, he wrote a letter to Tom’s son. The calico and I kept him company.

 

~

 

I died about a year ago. But I wasn’t allowed to move on, to journey to the Shadowrealm where the shades of the dead go. Where Tom had gone. My spirit is stuck in that liminal space between this world and that, trapped in Limbo.

Ceph thinks my death is his fault, that he wasn’t fast enough, that he wasn’t good enough to save me. It’s not his fault—it’s not anyone’s. Like Old Tom and his wife.

I wonder if I’m still here so I can help Ceph understand that. I wonder if we all are.

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Dragonwalk March

Lorday, 30 Enlanym, 1007 KR

The elf was a local—he’d lived in the City of Mists for forty years, though he’d been born in Enlanuin, and lived there a hundred years before. He spoke of his long life, of the trials he’d witnessed; he spoke of the elven myths of the age when there were more than just a scattering of stars in the sky.

He had lived a long time and seen many horrors, but also so much light in the darkness, and the regulars gave him a lot of respect, despite the typical Trysm superiority towards his race. But when he settled back into his chair by the fire and the hooded crow called, Nael did not move into a dirge as he usually did.

The song he sang was a song of war, a Trysien army traditional.

 

Take note, my lads, of stories past, the place from whence we came
The fight for freedom that would last, the men who forged our name
Take note, my lads, where it began, the Hand that held us down
Of Kalith, Delhon, the rebel clan who broke the tyrant’s crown

 

March on, my kin, march through the starless night
March on, for peace, for peace we walk, for freedom we will fight

 

Take stock, my lads, the lords since seen, who each upheld our way
The land where elves have never been, where none will rule a day
Take in, my lads, the Dragonwalk, the wilds and lands we’ve tamed
Where kingdoms joined in steel and rock, where we have forged our name

 

March on, my kin, march through the starless night
March on, for peace, for peace we walk, for freedom we will fight

 

Take all, my lads, the freedoms earned, we marched from peak to sea
Though nations at our borders burn to see us live so free
Take rest, my lads, we’ll march again, we’ll not forget the past
Our brothers do not die in vain, our freedom shall outlast

 

March on, my kin, march through the starless night
March on, for peace, for peace we walk, for freedom we will fight

 

It was a song the Trysiens sang in defiance of the elves, a taunt from the place they had never conquered. It was a slap in the face.

The Stop was silent when he had finished. They stared at him, disbelieving, accusing. Nael did not flinch under the stares he could not see, but must feel. His breathing was heavy, but he sat upright.

“Out,” Ceph said, his voice quiet but carrying through the silence like a falling icicle. “Get out.”

Nael stood and walked to the door, the icy silence following him.

“We’ll not forget the past,” was all he said before he closed the door.

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Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow

Losday, 11 Kornym, 1006 KR

Ceph stoked the fire. The bar was mostly empty—he’d started to get a few patrons some nights, but Azrael’s Stop was hidden down a little alleyway near Temple Ward, and Ceph didn’t think anyone would ever find it. Only that old man, Tom, was nursing his whiskey in the corner with a friend.

The Theore night was frigid, and though the Stop did a good job of keeping out the damp, Ceph still shivered. It was colder than normal in the city. He felt sorry for those who didn’t have a warm fire tonight.

As he brewed some mulled wine, he heard a flapping of wings, and saw the hooded crow alight in the rafters. He’d never heard it make any other noise than that. It was a little creepy.

He sighed. The Gifted Days of the Yuletide season always made him think of his family—long dead as they were. They’d died fourteen years ago, when he was just a toddler. He didn’t have anyone to be with at Yuletide.

The hooded crow took wing again, landing in front of the great oaken front door. It cocked its head at him.

“What?” Ceph said. “Expecting visitors? No one ever comes.”

He went to pour Tom another whiskey, but the crow kept standing at the door. It pecked at it once or twice.

“Looks like it needs to go out,” Old Tom chuckled.

“Normally it just shits in my bed when it needs to go,” Ceph said. Tom laughed.

The crow pecked at the door again, and Ceph sighed. “You want us to freeze in here?” He went to the door, the crow hopping aside to make room, and opened it in exasperation.

A boy sat on the stoop, a ragged blanket pulled tight around his shoulders. He looked up at Ceph with bleary eyes that shone in the light from the doorway.

Ceph raised his eyebrows as a cold wind swirled around him. “Oh!” he said. He glanced briefly at the hooded crow. “You look cold. …You want a drink?”

The boy nodded, numbly. He tried to get to his feet, but stumbled. Ceph grabbed his arm and helped him up, leading him inside the Stop and closing the door tight behind them.

The hooded crow watched him—he thought its look was almost approving.

“Thank you,” the boy mumbled as Ceph helped him into a seat by the fire. He had long hair in a tangle around his head. He was young, maybe thirteen or fourteen. His skin was ashen, and as he grasped the steaming mug of mulled wine Ceph poured for him, he saw that his fingertips were blackened.

But his eyes were bright, but when he looked up at Ceph and said, “There’s a light in the darkness.”

Ceph blinked, unsure how to respond, then simply said, “What were you doing outside? It’s freezing.”

The boy looked down at his drink, and lifted it to his mouth with shaking hands. It should have still been steaming hot, but the boy didn’t seem to mind. “Nowhere to go.”

“Where’s your family?”

“They kicked me out.”

Ceph sat down in the chair across from the boy. “Mine are dead. I’m Ceph.”

The boy looked at him with those bright eyes. “Caspar,” he said. “Are you a herald?”

The crow perched at the edge of the table as Ceph frowned. “No,” he said. Then, “How—” But he stopped. Prying was rude, but he hadn’t been one for rules for a while. “How long?”

“Since the spring. Just after the Feast of Liuun. It wasn’t so cold, then.” Caspar had withdrawn his hands, holding them against his body. “I was okay at first. I mean, it’s not like we were close. Lived on the streets, did what I could. What I had to.”

“We all do what we have to,” Ceph said.

“Well, exactly,” Caspar said. “And of course I missed them. I missed having people who loved me. But I survived. But now — Yuletide…”

Ceph nodded. He had vague memories of the mountains, the Yule log, the laughter… And at the orphanage, it was the only time with any real joy. When he gave the little doll he’d made to Cari…

Caspar’s voice brought him back to the present. “I miss them. I miss them so much. The food, the warmth. The laughter, all of us gathered around the fire. Songs and stories. It’s the songs and stories I miss most. And the warmth.”

“Why’d they kick you out?” Ceph asked.

Caspar reached for the mug again, took a sip, and placed it back—and Ceph saw frost coating the mug, ice crystals forming on the surface of the wine.

“They said I was touched.”

Ceph blinked. Caspar was staring into the fire, his eyes blank, though they shone in the firelight.

“We’d gone up Cast Mountain for the feast, a group of us. Easier to see the star, outside the city. But something happened during the rituals. Everyone felt it — the chill, the darkness. We looked up, and there was only the Void…”

“The Starfell?” Tom spoke up from the corner. He and his friend had grown quiet. “The Flows seem to be getting closer each year…”

The seven realms of magic, converging on the world… A chilling thought.

Caspar nodded. “The endless black. That’s what they saw, anyway. I saw stars.”

“So you didn’t see the Starfell?”

Caspar shook his head. “I felt it just like them. But it wasn’t empty. Not the dozens of stars we see — not Liuun and Uustlan and the constellations and all. But hundreds of stars. Thousands, lighting the sky. It was full of stars.”

Ceph frowned. “The Starfell is empty. The old stars are myth.”

Caspar seemed to return to the bar, and looked at Ceph. “That’s what they said. But I know what I saw. And—” He reached out and touched the frosty mug. Ceph heard a snap, and the wine was ice. “This began to happen. They said I was touched by the Void, by the madness. That I’d imagined the stars, that my soul had been frozen. I’m flowtouched. And they kicked me out for it.”

He shivered.

“A Child of Winter, they called me, when word got around. They say Jack Frost plays cruel tricks on children; I would have been better off with that. But the Void is a curse. They wouldn’t have me.”

The crow hopped closer, cocking its head at Caspar, then flew away, up to the rafters.

Caspar and Ceph watched it.

“I was okay at first,” Caspar said, still looking into the rafters. “I survived. But it’s been getting colder. Always colder.

“All I wanted was for them to hold me. To tell me it was okay. Isn’t that what parents are supposed to do? To be strong when we can’t be?”

“Sometimes we’re not given that choice,” Ceph said.

“I just wanted some warmth at Yuletide,” Caspar said. A tear dripped down his face as he watched the crow — turning to frost and ice as it did, leaving a trail of white crystals along his cheek.

“You have it here,” Ceph said. He took Caspar’s hand —it was icy cold, but he held it. “As long as you want to stay, you’ll have people with you.”

Caspar looked at him. He was shivering uncontrollably now, but he smiled as another tear froze to his face. “I miss them.”

“I know.”

Caspar closed his eyes. “Full of stars,” he said.

And then he was still.

For the first time, the hooded crow let out a piercing caw.

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The Soulbinding Oath of the Dranae

Danday, 22 Serisinym, 1007 KR

As night drew on, Lona stared into the shadows of the bar, scratching absently at the scars on her arm as she repeated the Soulbind Oath to herself. As she reminded herself of what she had lost.

 

By this oath, made before our families and clan, the descendents of Drana, and before Cain the Twilight Prince, until the day his curse is broken, until the day his journey ends, we two shall be as one soul.

 

As this is the land of death, we shall protect each other as ourselves. As these are the wastes of grey, we shall be the colour in each other’s eyes. As the stars abandoned the world, we shall not abandon each other. As the dead walk, we shall hunt them. As we are of the same people, we shall be as the same person.

 

Though not born under the same stars, we hope to die so.

 

With these chains of iron cutting into our living flesh, we bind our souls to each other.

 

With every moment of endless pain, we shall know we are alive in the land of the dead; we shall know that we are not alone in the realm of shadow; we shall know that there is another bound to us, our soulmate—

 

Until Cain takes us into the West.

 

She had lived in the Shadowrealm, where the dead walk. She had seen the evil they did, the twisted forms they took when they were not allowed to pass to the Queen’s Land in the West.

She would have her revenge against them all.

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Eggs and Masks

Brenday, 22 Ethanym, 1007 KR

Ceph looked at the thing Trin had put in his hands. It was egg-shaped, he supposed, but filled with some kind of green jelly that looked anything but appetizing.

What is this?” he asked again.

“Wyrm egg! It’s a delicacy of the Great Divide,” Trin said.

“It’s edible?”

Trin laughed.

They were at a Zorn street festival in the Copper Ward. The shops and bars were decorated with colourful swathes of cloth, woven lanterns, wooden masks. On every corner, dark-skinned orcs and humans sat in circles with drums and shakers and pipes, creating a pounding rhythm that followed Ceph and Trin through the streets. Smells of spices rose from sizzling meat as travelling merchants from the south hawked their trinkets and their culture.

“What kind of wyrm?” Ceph asked, still eyeing the egg warily.

“I don’t know. Zorn wyrm. Just try it!”

“What if the mother comes looking?”

Trin laughed again. “I’m sure she’s a long way away.” She leaned her face close to Ceph’s. “Try it!”

“I’m, uh, not hungry,” Ceph said, his eyes suddenly overwhelmed by her face—her smiling green eyes, her lips. Not hungry for wyrm egg, perhaps, but for something else.

No, he thought. You’ll only get hurt. Like all the others. And yet he’d agreed to the date.

Trin sniffed and moved away suddenly. “Have you had a drink?”

Ceph looked away. “I was nervous.”

“You don’t have to be nervous,” Trin said. She smiled and skipped off toward one of the circles of drummers.

 

~

 

“You’re still carrying it,” Trin said.

“What?” Ceph was pulled from his thoughts. He’d been imagining taking hold of her hand, turning her to face him, leaning forward—

“Just try it!”

He blinked, then realized she meant the egg. “Do you even know what’s in it?” he asked, trying to recover quickly, hoping he wasn’t flushed.

“No. Probably something dead. Thought you’d like that.” She winked.

They were far from Azrael’s Stop now, and it had, for a moment, been driven from his mind.

“I think the crow would be offended if I ate an egg.”

She laughed.

Ahead of them, chanting had risen up from a little square. Crowds were gathered, a mix of the Zorn and locals checking out the festival. Ceph and Trin found a gap in the human and orckish forest, and saw what seemed to be a marriage ceremony. A man and woman, half-orc and human, stood together, their wrists tied together by a red rope. Both were clothed in swathes of magnificently coloured fabric and woven blankets, shining bright against their dark skin.

A shaman or priest stood in front of them, wrapped in pure white, a necklace of flowers around her neck. She spoke to them, but the chanting of the nearest crowd—the two families, it looked like—in the Zorn language drowned her out.

For a moment, both Ceph and Trin were lost in the ceremony. Ceph wondered if he’d ever have a ceremony like that—though his side of the family would be somewhat lacking.

“You have much family, back in Icepeak?” he asked Trin. That was the kind of question you asked on a date, right?

“Oh, sure. You know, parents, uncles and aunts. Mostly my mom’s side; my dad’s not from there.” She turned from the ceremony, taking his hand to pull him along. “It’s nothing special.”

He stumbled trying to catch up with her. He wanted to stop her, pull her to him, to hold her. He wanted to take her back to the Stop, or maybe find a park somewhere, stretch out under a tree, rest her head on his chest…

He suddenly became aware of how separated those thoughts were from his actual body—which just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Kept going through the motions of living.

That’s all he did any more. Go through the motions of living.

He looked over his shoulder, back at the wedding. Could he ever do that? Could he risk the loss that would inevitably come?

He looked back at Trin. Maybe he wanted her too badly not to try.

She glanced at him, and smiled. “What are you looking at?” she asked, grinning. She always seemed to know what he was thinking.

“You,” he said.

“Your egg’s getting cold.”

 

~

 

They found a little park where a few alleyways met. Two maples shaded a little patch of grass and flowers, and a single bench. No one was around, the sounds of the festival a dull roar a couple blocks away. The air was fresh, a sudden change from the stink of the city streets.

“Have you ever, uh, dated before?” Ceph asked. She seemed far too confident for this to be her first time, but he had very little idea of what normal people did.

“Sure,” she said, not looking at him as she sat on the bench. He was about to follow up when she added, “You know, you’re usually quite laconic. Why is that?”

This had been pointed out to him before. “I prefer to listen,” he said.

“Makes for a good bartender. But that’s the easy answer. What’s on your mind so much?”

He blinked. “Um. I don’t know.”

“Of course you do.” The way she said it, it seemed like she did too—but she wanted him to say it. With anyone else, that might have been annoying—that knowing smile, that smugness of holding his hand to figure something out, like a teacher with a young child. With Trin, it was endearing. She made him think.

“I guess, just—it all weighs on me. The death. My—my friends.” Everyone he’d been close to.

She nodded. “I think that’s right.” Smugly. Kind of adorable. It felt like she wanted him to continue.

“I guess…” He frowned. “I guess it just consumes me, most of the time.”

“But it doesn’t have to.”

“Well, sure it does—I deal with it every day—”

She looked almost disappointed with this response, and he stopped himself. He didn’t want to think about this any more. He wanted to kiss her.

But she stood, grabbing his hand and pulling him off the bench. “Come on,” Trin said, grinning suddenly, “let’s go look at masks!”

 

~

 

The griffin stared at Ceph with piercing green eyes.

“How do you know it’s a griffin? It’s just a mask—it could be an eagle.”

“Griffins are more interesting!” Trin said, taking the bright wooden mask off.

“True.”

“You know, they say if you go into the Otherwhere, your face comes off like a mask.”

“And then you’re, what?” Ceph asked. “Just a blank head?”

“I guess so!”

“You’re pulling my leg.”

“No, really! I mean, it makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it? We all just wear masks in our day to day lives, pretending to be someone that’s not quite ourselves.”

“What are you pretending to be?” Ceph asked.

“A griffin,” Trin said, grinning as she skipped off down the street again.

Ceph smiled to himself and shook his head as he followed after her. He thought back to his own encounter with the Otherwhere, the mirror world, and the old cat that sometimes still found him. He thought about Old Tom—another friend who had left him, who had died when he’d let himself get close.

And he looked at Trin, skipping ahead to another stall selling wooden masks.

He didn’t want it to happen again. He didn’t want to lose her—not ever. But he couldn’t just mask his loneliness forever.

What had Rye said about that? Always having to go on living anyway? Despite whatever had happened to you.

He hadn’t seen Rye in a while. He’d wanted to tell him more about Trin, but he hadn’t shown up…

He looked at her again. He had to try. He couldn’t keep pushing others away. Not forever.

He caught up to her, scanning a row of masks hanging from a beam. He picked up a particularly wild-looking one.

“And what are you pretending to be?” Trin asked.

“Someone willing to take a risk,” he said, then raised the wyrm egg, closed his eyes, and bit into it.

Warm juices and spice filled his mouth. It was not unpleasant. In fact, it was pretty good.

He opened his eyes to see Trin watching him, anticipation in her eyes.

“Well?”

He grinned. “It’s good!”

“Ha! Told you!”

He held it out to her. “Want some?”

“Ew, no way,” she said, grinning. “Wyrm egg? Disgusting.”

He laughed. “Why won’t you try it?”

“That’s way less fun than trying to get you to eat it! Come on, let’s go find some music.”

 

~

 

Drums big and small, a chorus of voices, and some kind of wooden flute. The Zorn music wasn’t like anything Ceph was used to, but it was beautiful. They watched the bodies of the musicians sway to the music they were making, watched an orckish woman dancing in the middle of their circle.

Ceph took Trin’s hand in his, and turned her to face him. He wanted to kiss her.

So he did.

Her lips were soft, softer than he’d expected. And warm. He could feel her breath on his face, his eyes closed as their lips parted gently for each other, while the beats of the music washed over them.

He could do this. This was what he needed, what he’d needed for months. To connect. To feel.

Trin pushed away. He slowly opened his eyes. “I think I love you,” he said.

But her eyes were wide open and she was looking at him with a mix of confusion and shock

“No,” she said. “No, you can’t love me. I never—gods, do you even know what love is, Ceph? I like your company. I hang around with you because you’re fun, but romance? I thought I was just your friend. Clearly that was a mistake.”

Ceph stared at her. “What?” A mistake. The world crashed down on Ceph. The beating drums were the beating of his heart, the singing became the silent screaming in his chest, the crowds a sea of masks, faceless no ones behind them.

And he ran, disappearing into the mass of undulating bodies.

 

~

 

Usually, as night fell, he’d pour himself a shot of something, put on his mask, and open the bar. “Fine,” he’d say when a regular asked him how he was.

But he’d taken off the mask. He’d opened himself at last and he wasn’t worth loving. Now he was the one who was dead. Killed. He couldn’t put that mask on again. He couldn’t bear to hear the words “I’m fine” come out of his own mouth again.

After his first shot, he poured another. And he didn’t open the bar.

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The Lost

Danday, 18 Spirinym, 1007 KR

A man stood on the road in front of Lona, faintly illuminated by the lights of the city she’d left behind her. He had the milky eyes of the blind, but he didn’t feel of the world. She drew her silver blade.

“Would Arash have wanted you to abandon those in need?” the man said. His voice was deep; it seemed to resonate through her.

“Arash is dead. Who are you?”

“Arash’s body is dead. His spirit walks in the Queen’s Land.”

She could pick out small movements of his eyes that were too precise for the blind. He was watching her closely.

“I’ve seen you before. Around the Stop.”

“Few notice me.”

“You never come in.”

“I prefer to watch from afar.”

“What are you?”

“Not an enemy.”

Lona tightened her grip on the knife.

 

~

 

“I wonder who they were,” Lona said, turning over a corpse with her foot, looking for anything valuable.

“They’re the enemy,” Arash said. He kicked the ghoul to loosen its sword from its hand, tested its balance.

Lona reached down to rummage through a pouch, winced as pain shot up her arm. The hooks on the metal chain dug into her flesh.

With these chains of iron cutting into our living flesh, we bind our souls to each other.

They said she’d get used to the pain, eventually. But it would always be there.

“I mean, before they were ghouls. They were people, once.”

“And now their souls are free again. Free from torment. That’s all that matters.”

Lona nodded.

“Come on,” Arash said. “The tribe will want to know of our success.”

 

~

 

“What do you know of Arash?” Lona said.

“I know he would not have left a tribe faring worse than he found it,” said the white-eyed man.

“I freed the Stop of its curse.”

“Why do you think it is a curse?”

“A spirit was chained to the Stop. I freed it of its torment. The Stop should be free!”

“And yet?” The man was stoic in the face of her knife. She wasn’t really sure what she was doing with it.

“And yet it remains steeped in darkness. Worse than before!”

“Who was the spirit you cut loose?”

“It doesn’t matter, he was just a spirit—”

“Who was he before?”

Lona paused.

Why was he chained to the Stop?” the man pressed.

“I don’t know.”

“Why is anyone?”

 

~

 

The chain was tight against her skin, the pain something she was growing used to but could never forget.

“Why do we do it?” she said. “Do they really think we’d care less for each other, fight with less ferocity to survive?”

“You spoke the words,” Arash said. “With every moment of endless pain, we shall know we are alive in the land of the dead. We are chained so we remember that we are alive. So the Shadow does not claim us.”

“As it claimed them.” Lona looked down the bank at the band of ghouls. The creatures had ranged far from the borders of Zergothia.

Arash nodded. “The pain chains us to life as we are spiritually chained to each other. Our people must bind ourselves together if we are to survive the despair of the Shadow. So it has been since the Dawn War. We are hunters,” he said, drawing his sword. “The Shadowrealm will not take us lightly.”

Lona drew her silver blade and leaped onto the road.

 

~

 

The road was quiet. No animals neared the dark elf and the white-eyed man. They smelled of death.

“They aren’t my people,” Lona said.

“You adopted them as your own.”

“I didn’t do it to help them. I did it to destroy the abomination, to set the soul free. I did it for revenge.”

“And yet you are unsettled by their continued despair.”

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Not all souls linger against their will. He still watches you, Lona. He still prays for you.”

Lona blinked. “How do you know?”

“You know. You were chained to each other.”

“The chain broke.” But she couldn’t be sure.

She looked over at the lights of the city.

When she turned back, the man was gone.

 

~

 

He was gone. It had happened in an instant. A sword he hadn’t seen coming, a sword she was too far away to stop.

He’d known it was a suicide mission—the two of them against a whole squadron of Zergothian ghouls. But the ghouls threatened a faelar tribe—children and their few guardians, making their first journeys into the wastes.

Pain had forced the compassion from Lona—survival was all that mattered. But pain had given compassion to Arash. He saw the pain of his people, he did what he could to help them through the bleakness of the death among which they lived.

So together they had gone. Lona to hunt, to kill; Arash to do whatever it took.

And now he was dead. And Lona was left standing among the bodies of the fallen.

The pain in her arm pulsed with her heartbeat. She barely noticed it anymore. But the pain never went away.

 

~

 

The pain never went away. Lona scratched at her scar, and she thought of Arash. Thought of all the undead she had slain in his name, in the name of revenge.

The city was quiet, this late at night. She looked at the sign of the crow above the Stop. She could feel the ebb and flow of shadow around her, like a sixth sense. Feel her home.

Arash had never abandoned a tribe in need.

She felt for the door she knew was there, the fold between realms. She slipped through.

Home. The City of the Lost, where she was born. The dark mirror of Theore, in the Shadowrealm, in the land of the dead.

She had forgotten how many souls filled the streets here. They were like a mist, cloudy and insubstantial, flowing through the streets in a chilling tide. The Lost, the souls that didn’t make it to the Queen’s Land, the souls Cain had never come for.

They flowed around her, numbed her, even in the little alley in which she stood.

Ahead of her, an old abandoned husk of a building. A crow watched her from its roof.

There, huddled by its side. A soul. Alone, separate from the masses. She recognized it. She approached.

He looked up. There was confusion in his eyes. Sorrow.

“Haven’t you done enough?” he said, but his voice was barely a whisper. He was fading, trying to hold on to the world but being pulled away.

“Why do you hold on?” Lona asked.

“I miss him…”

“Sometimes you have to let go,” Lona said. “Change comes. You have to move on.”

He needs change,” he whispered. “He needs help.”

 

~

 

“They need help,” Arash had said.

As this is the land of death, we shall protect each other as ourselves.

“The strong survive. People are selfish. We all just fight for ourselves,” Lona had scoffed.

As these are the wastes of grey, we shall be the colour in each other’s eyes.

“We are a people. We have the strength to protect them. It’s our duty.”

As the stars abandoned the world, we shall not abandon each other.

“It’s suicide.”

“They need you, siira.”

As we are of the same people, we shall be as the same person.

 

~

 

“He needs you,” Lona said. She understood now. This wasn’t the soul that haunted the Stop.

The Stop was what it was because of Ceph. “Now more than ever.”

“I can’t go back,” Rye said. “I’ve tried.”

“Because I cut you free. Your soul wants to move on.”

“I don’t.”

“You could be free. Forever.”

“He needs me.”

She reached into her pouch, felt the sharp hooks, the cold links.

She handed the chain to Rye. It was silent in his ghostly grasp.

“Then wrap this around my arm, spirit,” she said. “Usually the ritual is for two chains, two bodies, two souls. But you don’t need to protect my soul. One will suffice.”

He raised it with trembling hands.

By this oath, made before our families and clan…” she began.

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Ballad of a New Dawn

Byrday, 19 Aasanym, 1007 KR

Nael had spent all night at the university. He’d tossed a gold coin at a studying student, asked her to accompany him to the library.

She’d brought him old tomes, read the stories to him in a hushed voice as the moons rose and fell over Theore. She’d found music for him, which he took to Duskrise in the morning. He’d found an old teacher of his. “Teach me,” he’d said, holding out the scroll.

A thousand years ago, the elves had ruled Mystriath—every inch of the continent except what was now the Trysm Empire. The Eight Families practically ruled the world.

And then they’d begun to disagree. And they began to fight. The Dawn War, the world crashing down around everyone. And one family heard the whispers of madness, and formed a legion of darkness.

From a forgotten bloodline, a queen had risen, a light in the darkness.

Nael tuned his guitar on his stool on the stage in Azrael’s Stop. To the muttering patrons, he said simply, “Ballad of a New Dawn: Queen Gabriasien and the Dawn War. Old elven traditional.” And then he began to play.

 

When magic thrived and men were young

Our kingdoms spread across the land

When dragon dreams told of a time

The stars numbered like grains of sand

 

A darkness came to end our peace

The daughter took arms against the son

And so when darker Void appeared

We could not see, we could not run

 

When stars fall, the night is long

When stars fall, she’ll bring the dawn

 

The madness spoke, the magus heard

And brought to him the house of eight

Though darkness spread across the land

Seven houses were consumed by hate

 

Till she appeared, from humble starts

Her blood run weak from lands of men

And yet in her blood still burned

The ancient royal that would ascend

 

When stars fall, the night is long

When stars fall, she’ll bring the dawn

 

Through trials long and battles fierce

She made her mark upon the sky

Gabriasien Half-Elf, with her light

Brought the seven eye to eye

 

Though the past had shackled them

Had made the daughter fight the son

Gabriasien made them see

The past was past; the dark had come

 

When stars fall, the night is long

When stars fall, she’ll bring the dawn

 

United in their common need

Like waves they crashed upon their foe

With hope and promise together fought

Led by the Queen of Light, aglow

 

And so through time, though kingdoms fall

Though daughter may have fought the son

An enemy can be a friend

And together we can greet the sun

 

When stars fall, the night is long

When stars fall, she’ll bring the dawn

 

When he finished, the bar had grown silent. He stood. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for letting me play here, for sharing your stories. I have learned much. I hope I have done some small amount for you, in exchange.

“But it is time for me to move on, at least. Tomorrow, I’m leaving Theore. I wish you all luck with everything in your lives. May the gods watch over you. May your stories be good and your songs joyous.”

“At least stay for one last drink,” Ceph said.

“Oh, I expect a few before I leave.” Nael smiled.

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Speaker for the Dead

Losday, 22 Kornym, 1007 KR

That night, everything changed.

Cold wind blew snow down into the alley at the end of Candle Street, piled it up against the wall as if leaning there for support. Trin trudged through it, the cold creeping up her legs, and she pulled her cloak tighter around her.

It had started coming down harder tonight, sheets of white bundling the city in cold and quiet, tucking it into a freezing bed. Few were out—Theorites didn’t like snow, weren’t used to it.

Trin was—Icepeak saw snow for months at a time—and she’d felt an urge. She needed to see Ceph again, and she didn’t care about the consequences. She’d never been good at consequences.

She pulled at the heavy oaken door, fighting the wind, slipping inside as soon as there was space to do so.

Ceph felt the chill blow through the Stop before the door closed again, watched Trin shake the snow from her cloak. He looked away again before she had a chance to look up.

The Stop was quiet. He could hear the fire crackling through the murmur of voices, the clink of glasses. Only a few patrons were here, all regulars: an old dwarven man called Kubrik he’d seen a few times, a healer from the Dwarfcrown Peaks; Isabelle, a pretty Angorian woman who’d been coming in just recently, talking little and drinking her wine alone; a boy around Ceph’s age, dressed in castoffs, who Ceph had never heard speak a word. Lona sat by the fire, far more relaxed than she’d been before, despite the congealed blood on her arm. Rye would be somewhere nearby, watching. The crow, too, watched from the rafters; even she looked like she’d settled down for the night.

And now Trin.

Ceph broke some ice into a glass of whiskey and slid it down the bar to Kubrik. He’d harvested a couple of icicles off the eaves before the ice had made it impossible to open any of the windows.

Trin sat at a table. She might have been trying to catch Ceph’s eye, but he kept looking the other way.

From outside, the bells of the temple of Ishtar chimed ten, the sound muffled. The dwarf raised his fresh whiskey, the Angorian her wine, Lona hers.

“To those who won’t last the night in this cold,” Ceph said.

When the last bell had faded to silence, the boy in the corner yawned, stretched, and headed to the stairs. No one spoke. Ceph tallied the wine. He’d have to restock soon.

He looked up to see Trin sitting at the bar.

“Hi,” he said, too startled not to.

“Hi,” she said. When she didn’t say anything else, Ceph turned away.

“Look, Ceph—” she said, hesitating, a million possible next words going through her head, I’m sorry, You have to understand, Can we try again? Can we try to be friends?

He turned back, a glass of water in his hand. He placed it in front of her.

She smiled. “Thanks.”

She lapsed into silence again.

Ceph wondered what to do, what to say.

“I have to talk to them,” Isabelle said. Ceph blinked, shook from his own thoughts as she stood. “Thank you,” she said to him, then went to the door.

It wouldn’t open.

Lona looked out the window. “Snow’s piled up,” she said. “No way that door’s opening.”

The woman looked down, defeated. “I suppose I must stay the night, then.” She turned to Ceph.

He nodded, fished keys from under the bar. “You all will. Rooms are on the house.”

She thanked him, and slowly headed upstairs.

Lona looked at Ceph, then at Trin, and the almost empty room around them. She stood and joined Kubrik at the bar, started talking to him in a low voice about old battles. Giving Ceph the chance to talk to Trin without the whole room hearing.

But he didn’t know what to say. So Trin spoke first.

“I didn’t mean for this, Ceph. I just wanted a friend.”

“I can’t do it, Trin. I can’t feel this. I can’t wait for you to die.”

“I won’t—”

The hooded crow started shrieking.

Ceph had never heard her make such a noise. She cawed and flapped as if possessed. Trin and Lona and Kubrik all stopped, looking around.

Ceph frowned, started running towards the stairs. He passed the boy, confused, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He ran to Isabelle’s room, the one he’d just handed out.

The door was cracked open. He pushed through, and suddenly stopped short. Isabelle lay on the bed, arms askew, her neck slashed open. Blood covered everything, soaked the sheets a crimson red.

Many people had died in Azrael’s Stop. No one had ever been murdered there.

“Ceph?” Lona called from below.

He tore his eyes away from the bloody woman, ran back down to the common room.

The boy, the dwarf, Lona, and Trin all watched him, wide-eyed, waiting. The crow was flapping around the room, still cawing.

“She was murdered,” he said.

Trin gasped.

“What—” Kubrik said.

Lona frowned. “Ceph—” She started backing toward the door. “We’re snowed in. They’re still here.”

And before he could really comprehend that, as he looked around at those in the room, the boy leaped towards Ceph with a snarl, a bloody knife suddenly in his hand.

Ceph was stunned, couldn’t move, couldn’t think.

“No!” Trin screamed, and she ran forward, ran into the boy. He turned, slashed at her, cut a line of red across her back. She screamed again, and fell to the floor.

Lona drew her silver blade, but the boy grabbed Kubrik, put the knife to his neck, and Lona froze. The boy moved past Ceph, the dwarf stumbling with him, behind the bar, towards the kitchen door.

“What’s the matter?” the boy snarled, deep loathing in his voice. “You’re all here to die anyway, aren’t you?”

“I came here to find peace, boy,” the dwarf said. “Why are you here?”

“I’m here to give you peace. Now, Kubrik. Why don’t you start telling me about all the poor soldiers you failed to save?”

“Who are you?” Ceph said.

“A servant of Death!” the boy said, and laughed.

“What do you want with us?” Ceph said.

“Just to give you all what you came here for. I’ll make you tell me, dwarf. I’ll make you relive every person you couldn’t save.” The knife pressed to Kubrik’s neck, he pulled the dwarf back into the kitchen. “Try to stop me, and he dies,” he said to Ceph and Lona. Then he slammed the door shut.

Ceph immediately fell to his knees beside Trin, pressed his rag against the wound on her back. “Trin!”

She groaned, stirred, cried out in pain.

“Don’t move. Lona, she’s hurt!”

Lona had leaped towards the kitchen door, put her ear to it, knife in hand, but she left it to kneel beside Ceph and Trin.

“It’s not deep,” she said, “but there could be spine damage. Trin, don’t move. We’ll get you through this.” She cursed in Elven. “I don’t know wounds like this, Ceph. We need Kubrik, he’d know better than me.”

Ceph stood. “What do you want?” he yelled at the door.

“Tell me!” The boy’s voice was muffled through the door. When Kubrik didn’t respond, they heard a thunk and the dwarf yelled in pain.

Rye appeared at the bar, his form pale, his eyes troubled. “Ceph, he—he stabbed the knife through Kubrik’s hand. He’ll torture him.”

The crow was still flapping around the ceiling.

Ceph looked at Rye, then Lona and Trin.

“Ceph—” Trin groaned.

“Tell me!” the boy yelled again.

“I—the first one I lost—”Kubrik said, his breathing heavy, “—he was beyond help even when I reached him. But I thought—”

Ceph couldn’t let this happen. This was wrong. Everything was going wrong.

This was his bar.

“Why did you kill her?” Ceph called through the door. “Why did Isabelle have to die?”

Kubrik stopped. There was a moment of silence.

Then, “She betrayed her lover,” the boy said. “She let her secret slip. The jealous husband killed her—and it was Isabelle’s fault.”

Another pause. “She needed to be punished. Just like Kubrik, here. Just like you, Ceph. All those people you couldn’t save.”

Ceph stepped back from the door, looked away—couldn’t look at Rye, couldn’t look at Trin.

“Ceph,” Lona said, “she’s fading.”

He felt a cool breeze on his arm, looked up to see Rye beside him, touching him.

“You know—” Rye said.

“—It wasn’t my fault,” Ceph finished. He turned back to the door. “Why you? Where are your parents?”

“Dead,” the boy said.

“Siblings?”

“Dead.”

“Other family? Friends?”

“Dead!”

“And this is how you cope,” Ceph said. “Maybe you should try running a bar instead.”

“You avoid your guilt!” the boy screamed, and Kubrik yelled out in pain again.

“No,” Ceph said, “I live with it every day. Because I have more yet to do with this life. I’m not ready to go. You don’t force the journey. You must let people get there themselves. Let them make peace with themselves, tell their own story.”

“They don’t deserve to live. You don’t deserve to live.”

Ceph’s mind raced. He looked at Rye, whispered, “Go in there. Draw him away from Kubrik.” He motioned Lona towards him, then said aloud, “What makes you different?”

“I don’t deserve to live either, but I have given myself over to Death. I am his servant, and this is my punishment.”

Rye slipped through the wall, and Ceph heard the boy yell in shock.

“You see him?” Ceph said.

“W—what—”

“He is everyone you think you didn’t save. He is your parents, your family. He is your friends. Does he look angry with you?”

Silence. Then, “He—he looks sad.”

“He is sad at what you’ve become,” Ceph said. He thought of watching Rye on his deathbed, thought of what he’d become since. “He is sad that you’ve let his death—their deaths—define you. Did you kill them?”

“No…” The boy sounded scared, but Ceph thought he heard a touch of sadness, too.

“Then their deaths are not your fault. And you deserve no punishment for them.” He thought of the time he’d spent here, at this bar. Wallowing in his own guilt and self-pity. He wondered for the first time what his own parents would have thought. What they would have wanted from him.

“Drop the knife,” Ceph said.

As he heard the clatter of metal against wood, he and Lona burst through the door. The boy was against the back wall, Rye standing before him. Kubrik, bleeding, was tied into a chair.

Lona leaped at the boy, pinned him, held her own silver blade to his neck. Ceph went to Kubrik, loosened the knot, held a towel to his bleeding hand.

Lona raised the knife.

“No!” Ceph said. “He deserves to live, Lona.”

“He killed that woman! He almost killed Trin and Kubrik!”

“We’ll give him to the Guard. It’s not our place to punish him for that.” He helped the dwarf to his feet, and Kubrik went to the common room to help Trin. “Just tie him up.”

He followed Kubrik quickly, knelt beside Trin as the dwarf—his hand wrapped in the towel—began examining her, pulling herbs and a needle from a pouch.

“You’re my best friend, Ceph,” Trin whispered.

“It takes me saving your life for you to say that?” Ceph said, with a hint of a smile.

“Bullshit. I saved yours.”

Ceph nodded. “You did. Thank you.”

 

~

 

It was dawn. The morning sun had come out, and the snow was beginning to melt. The boy sat silently in a corner of the Stop, his hands bound—but he didn’t struggle. Lona watched him. Trin lay recovering in a bed upstairs. Ceph had gone up, cleaned up Isabelle’s body, and found a journal. He sat with it now, flipping through the last pages.

“She was going to go to her lover’s parents. Apologize. Tell her whole story. Now she won’t get a chance.”

Rye appeared in the chair beside him. “People are murdered every day,” he said. “No one will ever tell their stories either.”

Ceph closed the journal. “I can. I can tell her story for her. I can bring her some justice.” He looked at the boy, who was staring at the floor. The boy that could have been him, were things different.

“I can be a speaker for the dead.”

And he knew, suddenly, that soon, he would leave Azrael’s Stop.

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