The island of Aspro was a corpse, the remains of a primal god, an elder being who walked the earth when the world itself was but newly formed. The white sand that made up the bulk of the landmass was one of the deadliest poisons known. The touch of a single grain against the skin would turn a grown man into a screaming lunatic for a few short moments before he started spewing blood and died. Not even plants were immune to the white sands. Not a blade of scrub grass, not a mushroom or a clump of moss was able to live on the island. That didn’t mean it was entirely barren, however. Aspro had several rivers and multiple deep turquoise lakes that held an abundance of fish and other aquatic life. The poison, as deadly as it was, became inert through contact with enough water. Life had also found a way to spread across the two great mountains that dominated the island—life that had crawled out of the ancient corpse itself. These creatures, one and all, fed on fish or on one another. The most common were reminiscent of large eagles and a derivative of the cat family, though they had neither feathers nor fur. Like every creature that drew breath upon the poison shores, they had a thick, chalk-white hide and pupil-less milky-blue eyes.
Outsiders only rarely ventured close to Aspro—sea captains and crews driven as much by desperation as by greed. A few small jars of white sand lifted carefully from the beach could pay off a great many debts . . . so long as a stray gust of wind or a careless movement didn’t bring a screaming end to the expedition.
Ruin looked around sadly at the vestiges of her once-vibrant village and the inbred remains of their herd of steeds. Only a dozen yurts were set around the standing stone that was the heart of the tribe. Her people couldn’t see themselves for what they were, for what they had become. But the Bright Dreams came to Ruin often and showed her the past—the tribe had been greater and stronger than any of them could now imagine, their herd numbering in the hundreds. Proud warriors and hunters had competed with each other in battles for dominance. She could see them as clearly as if they stood before her, mounted atop their savage white steeds, casting bone spears in their endless struggles. Theirs had been one of the largest villages on Aspro. It had counted over a hundred families, children spilling out of every home. Now there were no younglings left at all. . . . Hers was a fallen people. They had been set on an almost incomprehensibly slow path to dissolution in the far past.
The Bright Dreams did not forget. They had shown her the blue-skinned darklanders who didn’t fear to walk in the land of light. Who had come to them in the guise of traders and had taken the bulk of their herd, not just from her village, but from every village on Aspro. The loss of their four-legged brothers and sisters was the start of their fall. But the dreams had also shown her a way forward, a way to reclaim that which was taken so many generations ago and restore the balance.
Ruin understood why the dreams spoke to her more clearly than to anyone else. She was the strongest hunter her tribe had seen in an age, the fastest with a spear, the quickest to learn the skills and knowledge of her people—she was born to her purpose. Tonight is the night I take the first steps along my path.
She left her yurt and looked up at the sky. The land around her glowed, reflecting the stars and moonlight all around her. Her kill from her evening hunt hung outside the yurt, deep-red blood still dripping into the sands. Ruin drew her bone dagger and cut a slab of meat off the haunch. It steamed in the night air as she bit into it. She made a point of eating as much as she could. Her journey would not be an easy one and there would be no fresh meat where she was going.
She would enter the dark cavern between the mountains. She had seen what lay in the deepest depths of the darkness. The dagger—if a blade half again as long as her arm could be called such—was roughly hewn from a jagged crystal, the handle wrapped in rough hide. It waited for her in a deep pool of murky corruption—the rotting blood of the dead god. The weapon was old beyond imagining. It was the first tool created on this world for the sole purpose of inflicting murder. There was power in symbols, and the symbolism of this most ancient weapon crafted to kill a god held a power few would dare to wield. And with it I will bring vengeance to the Dreth!
Salt sighed loudly. Life just couldn’t seem to return to the nice simple routine from before the war. Not that anyone in their right mind would call a Night Guardsman’s life simple or routine. Soon they would split up his squad and lump him with a bunch of new recruits—volunteers from Bialta’s other military forces. Worse still, the Arcanum’s special investigator had been permanently assigned to assist Salt in carrying out his duties.
Altog adjusted his sword in its scabbard impatiently. “We really have to wait for the guy in the dress?”
Salt shrugged. “His fanciness Mage Holit Nobesid is now a member of our squad. We’ll all just have to get used to it. Count yourselves lucky. Most of you will be moving on to other squads or leading your own in the next few weeks. I’m stuck with him.”
As Holit Nobesid came huffing up to join them wearing his usual elaborate Arcanum robes, Salt turned his back and set off. “Come on, we need to get moving. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover tonight.”
“Night Captain, a moment to catch my breath if you will—”
“So? Where to, Salty?” Min interrupted.
Salt smiled and gestured for her to walk with him. “Gurt gave us a good one. We’re heading up to the temple district. He wants us to check out a new cult. Their god has some name I can’t pronounce, but they also call him ‘the Blood God’ if you can believe it.”
“Sounds like a friendly bunch,” said Altog.
“We going to clear them out?” asked Min.
“Not tonight, anyway. We’ll just poke around a little and maybe introduce ourselves to these new priests. There’s been some talk about them making people not wake up for a price. The ladies think there’s something to it. So if need be, we’ll push them a little and try to get a reaction. They’re in the ruins of the temple of Basat if any of you guys know where that is.”
Min groaned. “Figures you’d come up with a reason to drag us there.”
Salt looked at her in confusion.
Altog laughed. “Basat was Bialta’s very own homegrown god of pleasure. These cultists have got balls. There aren’t many who’d try to set up shop in another god’s temple. Basat wasn’t really scary, but the consecration was real. Even if he doesn’t have any followers around here anymore, they still risk pissing off the god of perverts’ shade if there’s anything left of him.”
“God of pleasure, huh? How come I never heard of him?” Salt asked with a grin.
Skye laughed. “His cult died out at least a hundred years before you were born. The faithful didn’t get a whole lot of work done and ran out of gold pretty fast. Charging for their services wasn’t part of the creed apparently, but all priests need followers to throw coins at them every once in a while.”
Min nodded. “Still, the old goat had real power. The fact his temple’s stayed empty for so long in the heart of Darien is proof of that.”
The walk to the temple wasn’t long. The old stone building Min said was their target was an imposing structure. Salt shivered when he saw it. Old statues of people in various states of undress and enjoying a variety of excesses had been defaced. Faces and limbs had been hewn off, and each had been splashed with blood. Simple altars made from rough stone had been set up against the outer wall at regular intervals.
“Min? Holit? Either of you getting anything off this place?”
“It crawls, Salty,” said Min. “There’s power here. But it feels more like sorcery than any god.” Holit nodded his agreement while numbly wiping the sweat that was streaming down his face with a handkerchief.
Salt looked at the temple with distaste. He didn’t much trust priests at the best of times, but this place looked like it was openly flaunting blood sacrifice. “Keep sharp, everyone.” The fact that no sarcastic comments answered his words was proof enough that the whole squad felt as he did.
While they were watching, a nondescript man walked up to one of the makeshift altars with a squawking chicken clutched in his hands. He pushed the bird down onto the stone and cut its head off with a quick chop of his belt knife. Steam rose off the altar as blood pooled beneath the spasming bird. The man shook a few last drops out of it, then walked back the way he had come.
“That’s disgusting,” said Min, looking at the pool of blood with a handful of dirty feathers floating in it.
“I don’t know,” answered Altog. “Nothing worse than you’d see from any marketplace chicken seller. If you grew up on a farm, you’d be used to worse.”
Min rolled her eyes. “It’s still out of place in this part of town, and the chicken seller doesn’t rub the blood and shit on the walls. Besides this new god isn’t calling himself the Lord Harvester or the Great Lost Farmer—”
“Let’s head in,” cut in Salt before their argument could escalate.
No doors barred the entrance to the temple. The wide hall Salt and his squad walked into was starkly empty and meticulously clean. Not a speck of dust, or a drop of blood, or any loose feathers for that matter. Two guards wearing blackened steel armor and long red cloaks stood at the far side of the room. Both were armed with wickedly barbed spears. Their helms completely obscured their features. Only their eyes were visible—black irises surrounded by whites so severely bloodshot they looked pink from a distance.
The guard on the left pounded the shaft of his spear against the floor when they came in. Salt stopped a respectful distance from the guards and waited while his squad filed in behind him. A moment later, a woman swept into the main hall from the opposite doorway. She wore long deep-red robes elaborately detailed in gold thread. They trailed along the floor behind her like a spreading pool of blood. Her face and hands were colorless and translucent. Salt could easily see the network of bluish veins beneath the skin. Her head was perfectly hairless and her eyes matched the hue of her robe—nothing but dark pupils floating in pools of blood.
“Good evening. I am Sakku, Ninth Bride of Ansharukan. To what do I owe the pleasure of the Night Guard’s visit?” Her words were mocking, but her face and tone didn’t betray anything.
As devoid of emotion as a corpse, Salt thought to himself. “I’m glad you know who we are. . . . We’re just curious, really,” he answered lightly. “And of course a name like the Blood God does spark a few concerns with some of the more squeamish inhabitants of our fair Darien.”
“All are welcome within our halls, Night Guardsman. Many of the locals have already embraced our presence and make regular offerings on the altars outside. If some few find our practices distasteful, we can hardly be unique in that offense.”
“And you’re content with chicken blood, are you?”
“And so we come to the root of your concerns. I appreciate you not wasting time. I will answer simply, though you likely won’t believe me—we do not take the lives of thinking beings within these walls. All blood is welcome, be it from a king or an earthworm. The red river of life flows through us all and is the domain of the great Ansharukan. The faithful offer what they will, be it a few drops from their own finger or a torrent from the throat of a lamb. This is a place that celebrates life, not death.”
Salt looked around the room again—a room so totally devoid of life it might as well be part of the Silent God’s domain. “And where did you come from? I assume you came in by ship?”
“Of course. We are from the Empire of Gho far to the south. The great Ansharukan rose from among our people. We travel to share his many blessings.”
“And you just picked Darien to set up a new temple?”
“Is it not the right of any temple to establish itself in this city? Do we have to espouse flowers or commerce to be accepted? Darien and indeed Bialta as a whole are the envy of many lands. It was a logical choice.”
“Are all faiths welcome in Gho?”
“There is only one god in Gho. Since the ascension of Ansharukan, no false gods have risen to contest his dominance over the archipelago.”
“Still, priestess, rumors have been going around that if I want to make someone stop breathing, you are the right person to ask if I am willing to pay the price.”
“You will find that I never leave the confines of my temple, Night Guardsman, nor do any of my guards.” She cocked her head suddenly, as if hearing something no one else could. Her eyes snapped back to Salt. “Now if there is nothing further you require of me, I must return to my meditations. You are, of course, welcome to remain for as long as you wish. My guards might even welcome some new sparring partners if you would like to pass the time. Be forewarned—they always practice with bare steel—Ansharukan welcomes all offerings both intended and accidental.” With those parting words, she swept back out the way she’d entered.
Was that a threat or what passes for humor in Gho? Salt looked at the others, who shrugged. He jerked his head toward the door and they filed out without another word, the guards watching them with unblinking eyes.
“Creepy bastards, aren’t they?” said Altog.
Salt nodded. “Her answers were oddly specific, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” said Min. “Only within these walls? And she and her guards never leave the temple?”
“I’ll ask Gurt to put some eyes on them,” Salt said. “It might be a good job for some of the new recruits. In the meantime, I’ll ask Lera and the ladies to do a little more digging into this cult and Gho in general. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s been there.”
“Those people aren’t what they say they are,” Brolt said.
Holit nodded sagely, having only just managed to get his breathing under control again. “It’s not like any temple I’ve ever been in or near. The flavor of the power here is all wrong.”
“So she’s a mage, not a priestess? Or is it the guards? Wouldn’t be the first mages we’ve seen wearing armor.”
Holit didn’t take the bait. “I didn’t feel anything from the guards while we were in there. But there’s definitely traces of sorcery or something very like it clinging to the priestess.”
Salt waved them forward. “We’re not going to get anything more done here tonight. Come on, guys, let’s get to the next name on the list—I want to be back at the palace before dawn.”