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.

…Continue Reading, Chapter 1

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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.”

…Continue Reading, Chapter 2

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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.

 

…Continue Reading, Chapter 3

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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.

…Continue Reading, Chapter 4

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