In the ninth year of the war, the people of Ullering were troubled by horrors from the tainted woods. Being a people of faith, and well educated in the Testament of the Keepers, they gathered in the little village church and prayed together, putting their hopes in the gods.
They prayed for deliverance, and the gods sent to them a warrior saint.
* * *
“This place,” says the saint, “looks like shit.”
The priest sighs. “I beseech you, watch your language. You represent the Patros and the church, and so you must – please – speak politely.”
Saint Aleena scowls. “No-one gives a fuck what I say, Cypros. All that matters is how I whack stuff with a fiery sword.”
“You feel you were ill-used in Guerdon,” says Cypros, quietly.
“No-one fucking cares what you say, either.”
They ride in silence through the forest for a while. Aleena’s description of the region is, overall, perfectly accurate. The trees around them are sickly, blighted. Patches of foliage rot where they grow, the leaves softening into a greenish mush on the branches. This close to the borderlands, the wind and rain carries a taint that seeps ito soil. Alchemical weapons, used in the war.
He tries again after a while. “We cannot hope to comprehend the plans of the gods. They see further than we do, more subtly than we do. Our place is to serve and to obey, not to question. You, Saint Aleena, are their chosen champion, their living weapon. Your task is to be keen and bright in your service, to smite those who offend the gods. Bend your mind to that, and –“
“Like I said,” she interrupts, sourly, “all that matters is how I whack stuff.”
He draws closer to her, lowers his voice. “I know you have doubts, but listen: you are the youngest of the saints. Believe me, I have seen such trials of faith before. I have helped other chosen through. Trust me, if you hesitate to trust in the gods.”
Aleena rises in her saddle. “Fucking quiet,” she hisses. “There’s someone out there.” Her eyes scan the undergrowth, her hand goes to her sword. Tensing for an ambush. Divine power surges through her, a blazing light that shines from within with all-consuming fire.
And then – cheering, laughter. A trio of children burst from their hiding place and race down the road to the village ahead to announce the coming of the saint.
Cypros laughs. “This place,” he observes, “reminds me of where we found you.”
Aleena remembers that afternoon three years ago: following behind the scythe, back aching as she gathered the fallen wheat, the sweat-soaked cloth of her tunic clinging to her skin – and then the gods reaching down and choosing her.
Three years later, and despite all her confessor’s teachings, she doesn’t have an answer.
Three years and more killing than she can recall, and she doesn’t have an answer.
* * *
The people of Ullering gathered before the village church, and there they recited their sorrows to Saint Aleena of the Sacred Flame, and also to her confessor Cypros of Guerdon. The sorrows of Ullering were many. They spoke of the summer rains that brought blight. They spoke of the perils of the deep wood, and strange portents that came out of the war in the south. They spoke of invaders, of hauntings, of farmsteads found destroyed or abandoned. They spoke of fear and dread and mounting despair.
And above all, they spoke of monsters.
* * *
“I fucking hope it’s a monster,” says Aleena. She draws her sword and waves it around the small bedroom, sweeping a jug off a nightstand and smashing a mirror. “A godhusk, maybe. I haven’t killed one of those yet.” Her cheeks are flushed, her eyes bright. Cypros curses himself for letting her linger at the banquet that the master of Ullering had thrown in their hour. Every saint in his charge required different handling in different circumstances – he’d hoped that by letting Aleena enjoy herself, she’d throw off the sour mood she’d carried with her all the way from the city of Guerdon.
Instead… the best that could be said was that no-one was maimed. Aleena had drunk too much and insulted the master of Ullering. He had demanded an apology, to no avail. Two of his guards had intervened and… well, Aleena might be a young woman, but the gods had blessed her with strength and speed. The line between holy weapon and holy monster could all too easy be crossed. It was Cypros’ role to redraw it whenever it became blurred.
And to persuade his young charge to be satisfied with breaking a few bones.
“We should go hunting now,” she insists. Flames flicker on the blade, reflected in her pupils and in the dark mirror on the wall behind her. “Not spend any longer in this shithole than necessary.”
“The accounts of the villagers were confused,” says Cypros, carefully. “Some spoke of a host of invaders, others of some supernatural horror, others of ghosts. Nor was there a clear pattern to the attacks – the farmsteads on the forest eaves south of Ullering, but those along the lakeside are to the north of the village, and how could the attackers have crossed unseen?” He shakes his head. “It’s best we get some rest, so that tomorrow we may be clear-headed and find the truth.” Appeal to her sense of duty, he thinks, remind her of the mission. And be patient.
“The lamp of the Holy Beggar will light me way, isn’t that right?” says Aleena, a note of mockery in her voice. The Holy Beggar is the Kept God of the unfortunate and the wayward, but also god of secrets and revelations. “He’ll guide me to whoever I’ve got to fucking murder, aye?”
Cypros isn’t the only one who hears the mockery. The flames on the blade died, and Aleena’s arm sags a little under the weight of the sword. The gods can withdraw their blessing if displeased.
“Fuck it,” she says, and falls into bed. Cypros pads across the guest room to his own bed. He recites the evening prayers for both of them, then lowers his travel-worn body down on the feathery mattress. He lies there, waiting, listening to the noise of the manor house. Servants cleaning up, guards seeing the last guests home. And beyond, the night-speech of the forest that surrounded Ullering.
He waits, listening for Aleena’s breathing.
She isn’t asleep.
Cypros the Confessor waits, as he has waited for other saints before.
She speaks into the darkness, addressing the ceiling. Not looking at him, not acknowledging his presence at all. “I know some of the fuckers were demon cultists. Back in Guerdon, the Thay family. The last mission the church sent me on. I know they had to fucking die. The shit I saw in the basement, yeah, burn it all.”
Cypros stays silent. He knows his job is to be an ear, a vessel into which she can pour this venom and guilt. He is the cloth used to clean the blade of gore, so it remains sharp and shining.
“But… they weren’t all in on it, were they? We killed the whole family, and some of them were still in their fucking beds when we came for them. The gods were screaming in my head, telling me to destroy the heretics, and I did, I did, but…”
He takes her guilt. Swallows it. To other saints, he might have offered prayers, or absolution, but young Aleena called for a different approach.
Cypros says: “It is not our place, child, to question the will of the gods. What you did on that night was… by Their will and in Their name. When They call you, answer without question. Be Their saint, Their weapon. But when They are silent… be yourself. Be Aleena.”
She doesn’t reply, but her breathing became even, and then she begins to snore.
Cypros has dealt with other saints who snored, too. He rolls over and goes to sleep.
* * *
In the century of woe, the city of Guerdon fell to the cult of the Black Iron Gods, and their dark priests demanded blood sacrifice. The people of Guerdon went out into the hinterlands and prayed together to the old gods of field and stream, begging for deliverance. And the gods of the Hinterlands rose up and sent a host of saints into the city, and they cast down the Black Iron Gods, and delivered the city from fear.
Great was the mercy of the gods. The streets ran with blood, and a third part of the city put to sword and fire, and thus was Guerdon redeemed.
* * *
Aleena is no stranger to death. Even before the gods chose her as champion, she saw her share. Disease and hunger and old age put people on the black cart. Some of the village boys had signed up as mercenaries, too, and gone away to the war. Those few that came back didn’t last long. They rotted from the inside, poisoned by alchemy or god-cursed. Death is a rising tide that catches everyone in the end.
When the gods exalted her, she became the leading edge of that tide. Her sword the bright edge between life and death.
The farmhouse is quiet and dark, and nothing there remains alive. Aleena picks her way through the debris, remembering the carnage at the Thay mansion in Guerdon. She remembered the wealth of the place, and how it had brought no salvation. It didn’t matter how many gilt-edged mirrors or fine china teapots or golden candlesticks you had when that fiery tide rose and claimed you.
This farmhouse, though, has been looted of everything that could be eaten or sold. Cupboards torn open, doors broken down, treasures stolen. Lifetimes of papers and mementoes spilled out on the floor, smeared the blood of those who lived them.
Cypros walks a few steps behind her, muttering prayers for the dead.
“A godhusk or other monster would have taken the bodies, right?” says Aleena.
“Indeed.” Cypros gently rolls the body of a woman over. She’s been shot in the back. “This was just hasty slaughter.”
“They went for the food first.” Aleena explores the house, imagining the attack. Unable to wholly drive away thoughts of how she would have carried out such an assault. She walks through the kitchen, emerges from the back door into the yard. Scraps of food mashed into the ground; an empty chicken coop littered with blood and feathers. “Came up through the woods from the south, started shooting from the edge of the fields.”
“Accuracy at that range means phlogistonic rifles,” observes Cypros. Alchemical weapons forged in Guerdon, bullets propelled by elemental fire. For a priest, Cypros has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all technicalities of warfare, from battlefield sorcery to siege weapons to espionage. Aleena just knows her own sword and armour are absurdly outdated. They are made in the fashion of saints of old, for the gods are slow to change. Her garb, her actions, her prayers – all have to be familiar to the gods to maintain her sainthood.
“What do you think?”
Cypros glances back into the house. “Deserters, most likely, fleeing the war. But there’s something else. Did you notice –“
A flash of light amid the trees. Sunlight reflecting off a spyglass. A scope.
Aleena grabs Cypros and flings him back through the door of the house as a shot rings out over her head. Then she turns and sprints towards the gunman.
Divine power floods her limbs, carrying her with incredible swiftness across the fields. The gunman fires a second shot, but the gods shield her. Miraculous armour snaps into existence, deflecting the bullet. The gunman turns and flees, but she is faster. He has to dodge between the trees, duck under low-hanging branches, push through the undergrowth. Aleena is strong enough to smash through branches and undergrowth, and she’ll take on a tree if she has to.
“STOP RUNNING YOU SHIT” she roars. The presence of the gods in her makes her voice the song of angels; she shines with an inner light as she scrambles through the mulch and underbrush.
She catches the gunman, tackles him to the ground. Something bright falls from his hand and smashes, but she’s focussed on the rifle. He struggles to load another phlogiston cartridge, the little glass ampoule slipping from his fingers in his haste; Aleena reaches down and crushes fingers and ampoule and brass breech all with one hand. She throws him to the ground, draws her sword. Flames smoulder along the blade.
“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?”
“No-one! No-one!” His eyes are those of an animal caught in a snare, “I was just out hunting, and by mistake I-“
“I CAN TELL WHEN YOU’RE LYING.” Another blessing of the gods – she can feel his lies, like a discordant note running down her spine. The gods are close to her now, so close their perceptions overlap with hers. Aleena sees herself from above, watches as she stands over the prisoner. Through senses that were not hers, she can smell his fear, taste his oaths to foreign gods, see the fading tendrils of sorcery.
“Please, spare me,” he begs Aleena. Fuck, he’s younger than she was. “The master, he will kill me if I disobey. He has so many eyes.”
“JUST TELL ME –“ she begins, but he keeps babbling, terrified by the saint.
“I pray by the God Aroc, please, spare –“
The divine power flowing through Aleena surges, propelling her arm forward with sudden violent force.
“SHIT, NO, IT’S NOT ME!”
The flaming sword impales the wretch, killing him instantly.
The light in the saint goes out.
* * *
It is written in the Testament of the Keepers that the city shall have no gods but the Kept Gods, for the gods of other lands are cruel and mendacious. The Kept Gods shall keep their faithful safe, and send to saints to guard them against all harm. The chosen carry the light of the gods into this sorrowful world, to shine like lamps against the darkness.
* * *
Furious with herself, furious with the gods, Aleena trudges back through the forest towards the farmhouse. The Kept Gods killed the deserter, murdered him for the blasphemy of mentioning the name of another god in their presence. They’d killed him, not her, but the blood was on her hands.
“Aroc! Aroc! Fucking Aroc! And fuck you too!” she swears at the sky. With every step, she feels the strength fading from her limbs. Part of her wonders what happened to saints who blasphemed too much. Can she drive the gods away from her entirely just by insulting them? She’s in a mood to try.
Cypros will know. That’s his bloody job, isn’t it? To be her confessor, her handler. Her whetstone. Her fucking jailer.
The man she killed, the deserter – he was from Ulbishe, from the tattered remains of the uniform he wore. Ulbishe, the land on the far side of the forest, was at war with half the world. She’d salvaged a scorched piece of cloth, in the hopes that Cypros might be able to learn something more from it. And what was all that shit about a master? “He has so many eyes” – some sort of god-touched monster? A saint of some spider-god with eight eyes?
“Cypros?” she calls as she enters the ruined farmhouse.
She finds his body in the dining room. There are no visible wounds, but his cassock is soaked in blood as if he’d been stabbed a hundred times. Aleena’s hands burn with healing magic, but it’s like trying to hold back the rising sea. She cradle the old man’s body in her arms, biting her lip to keep from cursing.
As she weeps, some part of her mind – a part honed by his training, his discipline – keeps trying to work out how the killers had gotten past her. Were they waiting in the woods for her to pass? Did she miss something when she searched the house?
Then, because crying doesn’t do anyone any fucking good, she stands. The bodies of priests, she reflects, are burned. The laity go on the black cart to the city tombs, but priests are burned.
The gods have forgotten her blasphemy, it seems, because she lifts Cypros’ body without effort.
* * *
What, then, is a saint? If a “god” is a self-perpetuating pattern in the spiritual aether – a churning river of sorcery shaped by belief and sustained by the passage of faithful souls – then does the existence of saints not imply that the gods are capable of volition? Does a chosen one not imply the act of choosing? In this paper, I contend that sainthood is a temporary and accidental spiritual congruency, a passing alignment of souls – that the gods no more choose their saints than the floodwaters choose who to drown.
- Ruminations on the Theory of Forms and Related Matters, Also Some Light Heresy, De Selby, University of Guerdon Press (Placed on the Index of Banned Books by the Keepers)
* * *
The people of Ullering gather on the market green. Word has spread that the hero-saint rode out to slay the monster, and they crowd together to celebrate her inevitable victory. The gathering becomes a festival, a turning of the tide. The days of bad harvests and sickness and sorrow are at an end, they cry, and the war will soon be over too. Saint Aleena protects them!
At twilight, Saint Aleena returns to Ullering, carrying the remains of her confessor. The crowd’s cheers are strangled by the sight of the dead priest and the tear-streaked saint. Children jeer and point at Cypros’ corpse, assuming it was the remains of some monster or rival saint, but their parents quickly hush them. A terrible silence takes over the crowd, until the only sound is the gravel path crunching beneath Aleena’s boots.
“They got him.”
A trio of women hurry forward and take the body of the priest from Aleena. The master of Ullering, surrounded by his guards, pushes through the crowd. The guards stop well clear of Aleena, fearful of coming too close to the saint.
“You have my… condolences on the death of your confessor,” calls the master, “but you have now seen the peril that surrounds us. How do you propose to protect us?”
“I don’t know, all right? Whoever it was, it got past me. I couldn’t stop it.”
The people of Ullering begin to wail and weep. Mothers clutch children tight; men look fearfully at the dark woods that surround the town. Their keening and crying become deafening; the master shouts something, but whether it is to Aleena or to the crowd or to the gods, she cannot tell.
She should say something, quote from the fucking Testament or something, but she can’t find the words. Her tongue feels like a dead thing inside her mouth, heavy and rotten. If he were here, Cypros would prompt her, whisper some suitably inspiring words to rally the faithful. But he’d dead, and nor do the Kept Gods reach down from on high to set her mind afire with poetry. The din of the crowd presses in on her, their cries for aid filling her ears.
They prayed for deliverance, and the gods sent to them a saint.
“I’LL FUCKING SORT IT, ALL RIGHT?” shouts Aleena. Blindly, instinctively, the Kept Gods sanctify her words, making them a holy oath, and her voice is the ringing of church bells and the rolling of distant thunder, echoing out over the dark woods beyond Ullering.
* * *
Why would the gods, in their wisdom, choose the unworthy as tools? Why, I must conclude, to bring them into the embrace of the mother church, so that we may aid in their redemption. Clearly, there is no virtue in giving instruction to a soul who is already brimming with wisdom, and who never strays from the path of righteousness. Our task, and our reward, is in taking those exalted by the gods and teaching them to wield their saintly gifts with mercy and humility.
- From the private writings of Father Cypros
* * *
Back in their room in the master’s manor, Aleena sits on the bed and stares at Cypros’ scanty belongings. His remains will go to the church; so too will his robes, his books, his relics. She picks up one of the books – a child’s workbook. Cypros taught her to read, to write, to cypher, given her a hasty education. To her, he was infinitely knowledgeable, unfailingly kind. He seemed wiser than the gods, a fount of counsel like cool water, calming her, giving her clarity.
Now he’s dead. The memory of his corpse, blood welling from a hundred deep wounds.
You failed him, she whispers to herself. She rarely engages in such self-recrimination, but she hasn’t fucked up like this before. And there’s so much blood on her hands. Saints fight monsters, she thinks, and the echo comes back, saints are monsters.
She flings the book across the room with such force that she nearly knocks the mirror from the wall. Loose pages explode into the air, fluttering down like dying leaves. You’ll never find his killer, whispers that cruel voice in her head. You’re no hero out of legend. You’re a lackwit peasant girl used by your betters to do their dirty work. Without Cypros, you’re nothing. Give up and go home.
The sword in her hand is heavy. In the dim light of the room, the blade seems caked in blood. All the people she righteously murdered for the Church of the Keepers.
And you don’t even know how many of them deserved it, and how many were innocent. You did what you were told, didn’t you? Serve and obey, don’t question it. Be nothing but a weapon in the hands of the idiot gods. Thick as pig-iron – as above, so below.
Despite her god-given strength, she can’t carry the blade a moment longer. She lets it clatter to the floor. It lies there, dull and ugly. Join it. Give up. Give in. Or go back to the church and beg for another confessor. Run back to the Patros and admit you failed.
Aleena turns slowly and looks at her reflection in the mirror.
“As I went a-courting on a summer’s morn/I found my true love caught/in the arms of a girl named Thorn,” she recites quickly. A random piece of doggerel from her childhood, but she knows it so well she can say it without thinking. The lips of her reflection move, but they’re a fraction behind her, a fraction too slow.
It’s not her in the mirror.
She drew on her anger, drew on her power. Shakes off whatever insidious spell of despair had gripped her. Suddenly, the tendrils of magical power coiled around the mirror were obvious to her.
Aleena drives her sword into the glass. For a split second – before the mirror explodes in a hail of glass shards – she sees the image change. The illusion of her own face vanishes, replaced by the visage of an older man, eyes glowing with sorcerous power. She glimpses the forest behind him, leafless and blighted trees like a jagged crown, but the angle’s strange. Looking straight up, she realises – he’s using a stagnant pool as a mirror on the other side.
A glass-witch from Ulbishe.
Cypros told her of those sorcerers – able to spy on you through the mirrors, entwine you in illusions and twisted reflections. The Ulbishan army use them to communicate; anyone with the talent to warp glass is indentured into service. This fucker, she thinks, must be a deserter.
They could cut you up with blades of liquid glass, too. And there had been a mirror in that farmhouse where Cypros died.
“I’m coming for you,” swears the saint Aleena.
* * *
The people of Ullering were roused from their beds by the ringing of the church bell. They gathered on the green once more, where the Saint Aleena preached to them. She told them that the stronghold of the enemy had been revealed unto her, and that she sought these things: a mirror-still pool, a crown of trees, and a place where warriors might encamp.
Two boys of Ullering stepped forward, and said “verily, this place is known to us; it is not far. Let us show you there, so that you might defeat those that trouble us.”
* * *
A rocky bluff, fringed with stunted trees. The dark mouths of caves. A natural fortress of sorts, the perfect place for renegade sorcerer and his henchmen to make camp.
There are maybe two dozen deserters. Ulbishan soldiers. Veterans of the godswar, mortal men who’d faced down saints and monsters and come out at least somewhat intact, somewhat sane.
Aleena defeats them with a weapon utterly unknown in the godswar: mercy.
“If any of you fuckers want to leave,” she shouts, “now’s the fucking time. Go west, stay away from Ullering and the other villages, and I won’t come after you. Go and live. Stay and –“ she raises her sword, and flames run down the blade.
One man throws down his gun and flees. Then another, and another, and their courage breaks.
Aleena advances towards the caves. The sun glitters off a hundred still pools of rainwater amid the rocks, a hundred mirrors, but she does not break stride. Implacable, she approaches.
The first attacks are predictable. The water of the pools rise up and lash at her with glassy tendrils, razor-sharp. The same magic that killed Cypros in an instant. Against a saint, though, the spells are ineffectual. She shatters the spells with a word of power. Beads of water jewel her armour.
She passes another mirrored pond. She can’t see her own reflection, but deep below the surface cowers a shadowy figure, whimpering, begging for pity. Her own words echo back to her, and she can’t tell if they were a memory or a whisper from the water. We killed the whole family, and some of them were still in their fucking beds when we came for them.
To a saint, doubt is poison. Doubt is the blade that finds the gap in divine armour.
“FUCK THAT,” says Aleena. “YOU DON’T GET TO THROW THAT AT ME. SHOW ME HOW YOU MURDERED CYPROS. SHOW ME THE KIDS FROM THAT FARMHOUSE YESTERDAY.” She strides past the pond.
Another pool. This time, her unseen foe conjures images of the godswar, of the horrors he’s seen. The sky cracking. Cities burning. Suffering piled on suffering, inflicted by foe and ally alike. The glass-witch, the images insinuated, has suffered too. The armies of Ulbishe forces those gifted with the mirror talent into service. They cut out his eyes, replaced them with enchanted silver. Whipped him and broke him to make him into their tool.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aleena whispers as she approaches the cave. “Is it ‘we’re not so different, thee and me?’ We both got shitty magic powers, yeah. I won’t argue with that.” She kicks a rock into the pool, disrupting the illusion. “Still going to fucking kill you.”
Flaming sword in hand, she clambers up the last stony slope, plunges into the darkness of the cave mouth. The glass-witch is in here somewhere; she’s close enough to sense him now.
Cypros waits for her inside the cave. Alive again. Healthy again. The old priest raises his hand in a gesture of blessing.
A smile breaks on his lined, careworn face. Her heart breaks to see him.
“Be yourself,” he says, full of kindness. “Be Aleena.” Put down your burden. Put down your unwanted sainthood. Show yourself mercy. Walk away.
The flaming sword is heavy in her hand, but she doesn’t put it down.
This is who she is, and the boiling core of righteous indignation that fuels her doesn’t come from any god or faith. Gods and men, magic and faith, law and justice – none of it works right, none of it is as it should be, but she’s not going to walk away.
This place looks like shit, but she can make it better.
Her sword cuts through the illusion. The false Cypros vanishes, replaced by the glasswitch. His mirrored eyes reflect the flames from her sword for an instant, and then she twists the blade and he’s consumed in the sudden inferno. Fire lights up the cave, blazing for a brief moment.
Back in Ullering, they take the distant flash of fire as a sign from the gods.
* * *
The master of Ullering, perhaps wisely, did not hold a feast when he learned of the defeat of the evil glasswitch who had beset his domain. Instead, he proclaimed three days of prayer and public mourning for the murdered Father Cypros.
The saint did not linger.
Other villages had prayed to the gods for deliverance, and someone had to answer.