It was late afternoon, and she was tired. Her robes, damp from the rain, rested heavy on her back. They were thick and plain, but festooned with countless wooden idols and talismans, such that each movement was set to a trancelike clattering of symbols. Beneath the hood, a pair of stark young eyes stared out from behind a veil of chimes. What they saw, what they had seen on these months of travel, was exactly as she had been told. Her elders had not deceived her. The world was old. It was greying, slowing down. Dying. The signs were myriad and inauspicious. All roads were less travelled, all dawns less bright. Clouds ripened and burst in ceaseless, languid cycles, leaving the sun with precious little of his former glory. Her travels had been a tapestry of ill omens, each new vista feeding thread to the loom. This newest path was no exception.
Winding down the hillside, she cast her focus out onto the fields below. Even through the fog, she could see that most of the crop had gone to rot. Clouds of wingworms fluttered idly above the still-living patches. In her mind’s eye, the scrolls of long-dead prophets unfurled. She had memorised them all, as all of her order must.
“Many plagues will issue forth from their submerged gaols. In blindness and folly, they will sense the end, and believe that they may yet flee, and they will run rampant across the land.”
The ground would be crawling, too. This was a fresh and vital pestilence, one that still had food on which to chew. It would kill the field and its dependents, but it was no danger to her. The wards along her robe would screen her, and the herbs in her inner pockets could heal her if needed. She glanced upwards. A storm would likely break in earnest shortly after sunset. A roof would be needed. The horizon was throttled by haze, but she could make out the crests of buildings. Perhaps there would be people. She was in need of a flock. A vain hope, most likely. The able among them would certainly all be gone, and it was only a matter of time before the rest would follow.
“Men and beasts will exchange homes, such that no creature’s lair will suit it, and there will be great uproar.”
Wild dogs and rats did not suit her, but there was little choice in the matter. The open air was not a safe choice tonight, and a town’s ghost still offers shelter. Now at the foot of the hill, she started in that direction. It was good to be on flat ground again, but that was more a mercy than a true blessing. The plain was squalid. Wet, infested and stinking. She extracted a paste of blossoms and smeared it across her face. It had its ritual properties, but it would serve her better as a competitor to the stench. The rattling of her strides and the sanctity of her being would drive away lesser vermin. The passage was without incident, and she made it to the town by sunset.
It was as expected. Silent and still, but for the obscured shuffling of unknown creatures. The new residents were giving her a wide berth, although their curiosity laced the air. This place had been abandoned some time ago, and its new residents were well established. Most likely something had driven the people away even before the blight set in. A cursory search of the buildings revealed nothing of use to her. No food or suitable tools. There were still some dead, infants and the infirm. People who would have burdened the exodus.
“The strong will outpace the weak, but find their own strength to be wanting. The shrewd will outwit the foolish, but find that not all trials are of the mind.”
She resolved to cleanse the town tomorrow. Her mission could not afford to be slowed too frequently, but this was a wound that required dressing. She was not willing to let it fester any longer. It was a knowingly palliative gesture. That was the nature of the beast, at times. In all their tutelage, the elders had never made it clear whether their task was to heal the world or merely ti ease its passage. An easy enough mystery for their generation to bear. Less so for hers, now that the time was at hand.
The sun was down, and the storm was mustering up the opening sobs of the nightlong wailing to come. She settled on an old shrine, although the local faith was wholly alien to her. It was a matter of practicality. Such places tended to be built well, and at times some virtue still lingered in them. She turned her eyes to the night sky before entering. There was no clear sign there.
“The heavens are a page upon which an elder script is written. When earthly knowledge fails, the people will look to them, and find themselves illiterate.”
Indeed, the scripture was of little help in reading the stars and the moon. It warned of the most brazen omens, but the prevailing message was one of ignorance.
The shrine was small, and its contents had been taken. It would do nicely. There was a firepit in the centre of the room, presumably intended for the burning of offerings. It would serve her just as well for warmth. Some stonelice had taken up residence in the cracks, no doubt delighted by the unchecked moss, but that looked to be the extent of the place’s corruption. Certainly, it had not yet fallen so far as the rest of the town. Happy with this relative safety, she kindled a fire and began the nightly chant.
She raised her arms, forming two wings of rattling pendants, and began to circle the spluttering light. Her voice emerged in a sinewy contralto, shaping strange and unknown words with a lifelong confidence. This was a song said to have preceded them all, to have somehow passed through the death of a previous age into the birth of theirs, and fated to survive yet again until such a time as fate itself dies. Whether that was true or not, it was certainly old. Older than melody, and so the singer must fight against her instinct to put tune to the sound. Older than sequence, and so she must know each of its morae as a phrase unto itself. No two performances could be alike, but each must be perfect. With a dramatic sweep, she cast a vial of incense from within her sleeve onto the fire. The flame quivered, and plumes of defiant, bitter odour filled the room. The final note trailed off into the quiet outside. The rite was done.
Curling up into the folds of her robe, she began to sleep.
It was some hours later when she awoke. The storm and the night now held this little shrine tightly in their grasp. Rain beat wildly against the walls, and the winds forced their way through gaps in the stonework, spreading icy fingers across the warmth that she had invoked there. The fire was mewling, keeping its vigil but waning fast. Bleary-eyed, she watched it struggle for a while, listened to the shrieks and percussion of the weather. Then, slowly and yet somehow suddenly, a change came over the room. The light dimmed to an ember, darkness swallowing all but a tiny pool of hot, stifling orange. The sound from outside seemed to withdraw, becoming distant and muted, as though submerged. In response, all stimuli from inside the room bristled with renewed focus. The scent of cool stone and smoke, the patter of lice, the quiet clacking of wood as she shuffled to attention.
“That was a nice song.”
The words came from somewhere beyond the firelight, or indeed everywhere. The voice was deep, silky and formless. It betrayed no gender, no intent, no aspect of the speaker’s nature. She did not reply.
“No need to be afraid, my dear. I am simply extending a greeting, from a wise old thing to a wise young one.”
“Oh, yes. There has been nothing for so long, in all this life and vigour. You and I have no place in a young world. But now the leaves fall, the rabble clears, and the stage is readied for its true actors.”
A passage emerged from the corners of her mind.
“There will be voices in the dark, and voices in the light, and voices in all the grey between, and all will ask fealty, and all will be deceivers.”
She had not expected so literal a realisation of the scripture. Something was reaching out to her, hoping to ensnare her, or perhaps simply to entertain itself while its power grew. This place had been a land without a master, and this entity a master without a land. No void goes unfilled for long. It was as her elders had taught, and as the voice boasted. Man’s dominion withered, and older, stranger, neglected things emerged to take his place. The cities and the towns were fairweather friends to this world, its carers and companions only in good health. Now, in its twilight years, it fell to the voyeurs, the carrion-eaters, and the sworn custodians. To those who knew that the end was not a storm, but a season. She had not been deceived. It was good that she had chosen this shrine. It was likely the one place in this town where the voice would not be too strong to resist.
“Come now, relax. We are of a kind. We can find a flock for your taking, if that is what you desire. It only gets worse from here… you will need help, I assure you. Why do you hide behind your robe and your icons? I am a friend to you. Do you not see how I preserve your flame, how I address you in your own tongue? You are young, too young to be alone in this coming season. I have been here many times before. I have seen the mistakes that you will make and the suffering that you will endure. Do not waste your pleas on vacant thrones, and do not think yourself strong enough unaided. You are naïve, and you are flesh, and the age for such things is ending…”
The voice went on, the words coming out in woven strands, coursing throughout the dark of the room in attempts to constrict her. She could not move. This was not the same place she had entered. A new and malicious law held sway, and she was strong enough only to exert freedom over her tongue. It would be enough. She had been fortunate, to encounter this thing while it was still weak. It was dependent on the breaking of her will, but it was not strong enough to force the matter. In crescendoing whispers, she uttered a mantra. It was not something she had been taught, nor did it hold any particular meaning. It was merely something that was of herself, and not of this voice in the dark, and that, she hoped, was all that would be needed.
It resisted, of course. It buried the room beneath a wall of abject menace, until air and stone alike trembled in their fear and desire to placate it. It crushed the flame, completing the blackness of the scene, and so bringing itself all around her. She was steeped almost to the skin in its coercion. Still her mantra persisted. She became one sound only, a language unto herself in which no fear, acquiescence or defeat could be expressed. With a final hiss of resentment, it was gone. The rain, wind and cold came rushing back. A welcome return.
She curled back up, but could not find the courage to sleep. It was worse than she had been told, worse than she had seen thus far. Omens are one thing, but to glimpse the end of the path they mark is another. And it had been just a glimpse, a pale reflection of a pale reflection. This encounter had been no victory. It was but a single, exhausting feat of survival, one of countlessly many on her journey to come, a journey into the bowels of ever deeper despair with no promise of success. For the first time since setting out, she was afraid. Not merely cautious, or uncertain in her decisions, or doubtful in her purpose, but afraid. In that respect, she supposed, the voice had won her over.
She left at the break of dawn, not stopping to cleanse the town. There was no time. She needed a flock, and somewhere, there was a flock that needed her. As it was, both she and they were floundering, half-blind and alone. Neither would survive much longer without the other. She knew now to fear the sunset, but it would not be long before the sunrise held no reprieve.