The blind man stepped off the barge and faced Saikaido Temple. A morning breeze blew the smell of salt off the Burnished Way, punctuated by the cry of seagulls behind him. Before him, the Shao temple covered most of the island. A splendid, ancient-looking structure of stone and painted bamboo, it had been built at the summit of a high, rocky hill and crowned with azure flags, with only one approach, which consisted of one thousand meticulously carved steps. Despite the early hour, the temple bustled with activity. Squires descended and ascended the stairs as part of their training, overseen by bored Isle Knights. A few priests moved about, as well. One, who looked to be in his early thirties, spotted the blind man and touched his arm.
“My child, if you wish, I can help you up the steps.”
The blind man erased his smile at being called my child by someone who was hardly older than he was. “I didn’t come for the temple, sir. I was told I could reach New Atheion from here.”
“Ah, of course.” The priest looked disappointed. He started to point, blushed, and stopped. “On the far side of the island, another boat can take you there. I’ll show you the way.”
“No need.” The blind man smothered a grin.
He started off on his own, swaying a staff before him as squires and priests politely moved out of the way. He passed a small town that was little more than fishing huts and a few temples, surrounded by children playing. There, everything reeked of fish.
The blind man hurried by, forcing himself to appear polite as he refused additional offers of help. He resisted the impulse to look up at the splendid temple as he circled around the rocky hill, toward the far end of the tiny island.
After the better part of an hour, he came upon a harbor at least thrice the size of the one he’d arrived at earlier. Instead of squires, Knights, and priests, that one was crowded with tradesmen. Carts were being loaded and unloaded. The smells of straw, sweat, and animal dung overwhelmed the more pleasant brine of the sea air. He winced. Then, he looked beyond the harbor and saw New Atheion.
For a moment, he could hardly believe it. He’d heard stories of the famed City-on-the-Sea for years, including how it had been sailed in its entirety from Nosh to the Lotus Isles, but seeing the impressive city for himself was quite another matter. It looked as though a brilliant, bustling city were simply rising out of the water. As he neared the edge of the harbor, he spotted countless skiffs, upon which New Atheion’s temples, homes, and shops sat like plates floating down a calm river. The buildings themselves looked to be made either from white marble or clean, white adobe. Bridges and walkways joined the various skiffs, somehow floating with the motion of the sea without shattering.
Thanks to the ancient magic of the Dragonkin…
The blind man pushed the bygone sorcerers from his mind and looked instead for a way to get across. He spotted a ferry soon enough. He hesitated when he saw it already crowded with drovers and a herd of cattle. Though he had no desire to submerse himself in such a chaotic reek, he did not want to wait until a more appealing and sparsely inhabited ferry became available. He had hardly started onto the ferry when a young man grabbed him.
“Five cranáfi for passage, if you please.”
Feigning surprise, the blind man reached into the pocket of his tattered robe and withdrew five coins, each one stamped with the sigil of a crane balancing on one foot. He pressed them into the ferryman’s hand.
The ferryman frowned. “One of these is an iron crown, sir. I’ll need three more if that’s how you’re paying.”
The blind man considered killing the ferryman for the lie. He reached back into his robe, withdrew three more cranáfi, and gave them to the ferryman. “Will this suffice?”
The ferryman grinned. “Barely.” He tucked the coins into his apron and took the blind man’s arm. “Here, I’ll help you sit down.”
“You’re too kind.” The blind man pretended to stumble. When the ferryman moved to catch him, the blind man said, “Thank you, brother. The gods saw fit to curse me at birth.” With one hand, the blind man lifted the worn strip of cloth tied around his eyes, revealing dark, empty eye sockets.
The ferryman blanched.
While the ferryman was busy staring, the blind man reached into the ferryman’s apron with snake-like speed and took back a handful of coins. “You’re too kind,” he repeated as he sat down.
The ferryman, unaware that he’d just been robbed, returned to the front of the boat to welcome and collect his fee from a few more passengers. Then, when the ferry was full, he nodded to two other men at the other end of the ferry, and they pushed off. The blind man glanced back, watching as the Shao temple shrank smaller and smaller. He wondered if the Grand Marshal was inside.
Then, he turned to face New Atheion. The City-on-the-Sea was farther than he’d suspected. As a testament to its size, it grew and grew until the blind man felt as though he were staring at a sprawling metropolis like Lyos—or even Syros, before it had been destroyed. He stood up as the ferry docked. The blind man forced himself to wait with a banal smile as the drovers and their herd disembarked, followed by the rest of the passengers. The ferrymen offered to assist him, but the blind man shook his head and started out on his own, swaying his staff and nearly falling on purpose before setting foot in the city.
A fresh wash of sounds and smells nearly overwhelmed him. Shrill street vendors were selling crisp slabs of fish and spiced vegetables. Flesh-peddlers moved through the crowds as well, smiling and barely dressed. The blind man realized he had enjoyed neither women nor food in ages but pressed on. He spied a few pickpockets, as well, but none paid him any mind. He doubted that was due to their conscience so much as the fact that he was dressed in rags.
The blind man considered asking directions then remembered that the Scrollhouse was known as the greatest structure in New Atheion and decided to simply follow the crowds. He passed from one skiff to another, making his way over bustling walkways. Though he had never heard the Scrollhouse described, he recognized it by its size alone—even though a great portion of it had been ravaged by fire. Carpenters and stonemasons still labored to restore it.
The blind man passed between twin columns of statues depicting the gods and goddesses then paused when he reached the stairs leading into the famed library. Clerics in sea-blue robes milled on the steps, along with similarly dressed guards. Both wore the sigil of the goddess Armahg: a swirl of tiny stars.
One guard came forward. “I beg your pardon, but Armahg’s Scrollhouse is not open to general admittance this day.”
The blind man glanced up. While the roof of the Scrollhouse indeed bore the flag of Armahg, he also saw the balancing crane of the Isle Knights, flying just above it. He glanced past the guard and, for the first time, saw two smartly armored Isle Knights standing in the distance, taciturn and formidable in their gleaming kingsteel. He smothered a grin.
“I have heard as much,” the blind man said, “but I’m afraid I can’t wait. I must see the High Father at once.”
The guard’s unimpressed expression indicated that he’d heard such pleas before. “I’m sorry, brother, but none but the ordained may enter today. If it’s food and sleep you’re after, there’s a temple just a little ways south of here—”
“I’m not a beggar, sir. I’m here by invitation.” He reached into his tattered robe, withdrew a scroll, and passed it to the guard. He leaned on his staff, smiling faintly, as the guard read it.
The guard’s eyes widened. “Of course. Apologies, brother!” He snapped his fingers and gestured. Two more guards hurried forward. “Show this one inside. Take him straight to Father Matua.” He handed one of them the scroll, stepped aside, and touched the blind man’s shoulder. “If you’ll go with these men, brother, they’ll show you the way.”
“Thank you.” The blind man allowed himself to be led by the arm.
The temple was crowded within and smelled of mulled wine and lamp oil. He spotted row upon row of books and scrolls, along with endless rows of tables at which clerics of Armahg sat, either reading or debating. The guards led him up a narrow, winding stairwell then down a hallway to an open door. One walked in ahead of him to announce his arrival.
Moments later, the blind man found himself in a modest office, surrounded by books, facing a plainly dressed, middle-aged cleric who sat at his desk. Father Matua had the faintly bronze skin of a Queshi. He was missing an arm, and more than half his face had been badly burned. Nevertheless, he smiled as he stood.
“Welcome. Please be seated,” Father Matua said.
He gestured, and the guards helped the blind man to an empty chair across from that of the High Father. The cleric sat back down, appeared to ponder his next move for a moment, then dismissed the guards. At his command, one closed the door to the office behind him.
When the cleric was alone with the blind man, he used his remaining arm to lift the scroll and read it again. “You did a remarkable forgery of my name.”
The blind man nodded. “Thank you. I practiced many times.”
“Where did you find a copy?”
“In an old letter you sent to a priest in Syros.”
Father Matua grunted. “I’d ask what happened to the priest, but if he was in Syros, I’m guessing he’s been dead for years.” He sighed. “Too bad I had to learn to write with my other hand after the Nightmare burned my good arm off. To be honest, my new signature resembles that of an addled child. But that’s beside the point. Who are you, and why are you here?”
“I’m not here to hurt you, if that’s what you’re asking.” The blind man flexed his fingers around his staff and leaned forward in his chair. “I’m only here for information.”
The cleric scowled. “The Scrollhouse has no secrets. I’ve seen to that. Come here on the right day, and you can read anything you want. Or I could have a priest read it to you… though I’m guessing reading isn’t a problem for you.”
The blind man smiled in grudging admiration. He leaned his staff against the Father Matua’s desk, lifted his hands, and removed the strip of cloth tied around his head. His admiration increased when the priest did not even flinch at the sight of his hollow eye sockets.
“There,” the blind man said. “Does this help reassure you that I’m not an assassin?”
“Not really,” the High Father said. “I noticed that your ears are rounded, but the tops are scarred… almost like someone cut them to make them look rounded.”
The blind man nodded. “My parents carved out my eyes when I was a child… either for my benefit or theirs—I couldn’t tell you. The ears I did myself, much later.” As he spoke, he allowed tiny embers of violet flame to ignite within his eye sockets.
He expected the sight to unsettle the priest, if anything would, but Father Matua nodded slowly. He reached out with his remaining arm, picked up a glass goblet, and took a sip of dark red wine. “I’ve seen Shel’ai before… but never one like you.”
“Oh, I doubt there are any quite like me.” The blind man paused. “My name is Algol. Do you know what that means?” When Matua shook his head, Algol smiled. “Too bad. I’d tell you, but jokes and threats are similar in that both lose something when they’re explained.”
Matua was quiet for a moment. “I saw the Nightmare once, during the War of the Lotus, when he came to New Atheion. You remind me of him.”
Algol laughed, allowing his wytchfire eyes to enlarge until they nearly spilled out of the hollow sockets. “I don’t know whether I should feel complimented or insulted.”
The High Father touched the scarred half of his face and shuddered. “Were he still alive, I suppose I should thank him. The other clerics were so impressed that I survived that they thought Armahg herself wanted me in charge of the Scrollhouse. It didn’t hurt that the four or five clerics ahead of me in line all got turned to ash.”
He’s stalling. He’s wondering if he made the right decision, sending the guards away. “I told you, I’m not going to hurt you. I just came here for information.”
“And I told you, you can have it. You didn’t have to sneak in here. And you don’t have to threaten me or anyone else. Times are different. Even Shel’ai are welcome here now.”
“Not where I want to go.” Algol paused again. “There’s a secret room at the bottom of the Scrollhouse. Most of it was burned when the Nightmare threw his tantrums, but some of it survived. That’s where you keep certain scrolls that you and Rowen Locke deemed too… sensitive for common viewing.”
Father Matua winced. “I trust you’ve already paid a visit to the Sword Marshal.”
“Not yet. But Locke and I will meet in time. For now, he’s the least of my concerns. Are you going to take me where I need to go”—Algol gripped his staff again—“or not?” Tendrils of ghostly violet flame blossomed from one hand, scouring the wood. Then the flames vanished though the wood continued to smolder for a moment.
To Algol’s surprise, the High Father chuckled. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen wytchfire. I’ve even known a Shel’ai who can summon flaming hands to replace the ones that got chopped off at the wrist. You’ll have to do better than that if you want to intimidate me.”
“How about this? Either you help me or I’ll kill every priest and burn every scroll I possibly can. Yes, your guards will kill me eventually, but not before I turn even more of your precious Scrollhouse into a smoldering ruin.”
Father Matua raised his remaining eyebrow. “I imagine it takes a great deal of magic to see without the use of your eyes. That must be very tiring.”
Algol caught his meaning. “I’ve spent years practicing this, priest. I may not be a Dragonkin, but I assure you I am the most dangerous Shel’ai you’ll ever meet, and I have strength enough to make good on my threat. Now, do we have a deal or not?”
Father Matua was quiet for a moment, then he stood up and circled around the desk. Algol stood, too, clutching his darkened staff.
The High Father pointed at a suit of ancient-looking armor propped up against the far wall. “Can you move that yourself, or should I summon the guards?”
“Summoning the guards will get them killed… but you already knew that.”
Algol eyed the tiny dagger hidden in the cleric’s robes. He waved his hand, and the dagger sailed free of the cleric’s robes and clattered to the floor. Before Father Matua could speak, Algol waved his hand again, this time directing his attention at the far wall. The suit of armor rose in the air and floated forward, just a few inches off the ground. He waved again, and it settled with just a faint metallic rattle.
The High Father hesitated then started forward, Algol right behind him. The High Father faced a smooth wall of blank stones for a moment then pressed on one. The wall rumbled opened, revealing a passage into darkness.
The High Father glanced back and scowled. “Shall I bring a lantern?”
“No need.” Algol prodded him forward with his staff. Then he raised one hand, igniting a bright, silent sphere of wytchfire. He followed the High Father down a stairwell so narrow they had to turn sideways. At the bottom, they faced an iron door. The High Father removed a key from a chain around his neck and unlocked the door.
Algol squelched a rush of exhilaration as he prodded the cleric into the secret chamber. The room was barely half the size of the High Father’s office, with a low ceiling and just three small shelves crowded with books and scrolls. The room contained no tables or chairs though Algol spotted a luminstone on one of the shelves. He leaned his staff against the wall and waved his hand, and the luminstone sailed into his grasp. It ignited at once, filling the room with a soft blue glow.
He dismissed his wytchfire and gave Father Matua a shove. “Kneel and face the wall, cleric. Keep quiet and you’ll live. I swear it before the gods.”
The scarred cleric obeyed. Algol went to the bookshelves. He did not take long to find what he sought. Though the small, simple scroll bore no dust and did not even appear weathered, as though it had been written only the day before, the writing itself was in ancient Dragonkin. Algol read it once then read it again.
Finally, he glanced up. “You should have destroyed this.”
“We tried,” Father Matua said, half turning. “The Sword Marshal even tried using that damned flaming sword, Knightswrath. Not even wytchfire will burn it. So we hid it down here.”
“You should have hidden it in Cadavash.”
“It’s a scroll. If we can’t destroy it, it belongs here.” Father Matua paused. “Throughout the entire War of the Lotus, as bad as things got, even Chorlga refused to use that scroll. That should tell you something.”
“Chorlga didn’t use it because he wanted Ruun for himself.” Algol closed the scroll and tucked it into his tattered robes. “I don’t.”
Then he reached out and tapped the luminstone, extinguishing its magical light. The small chamber plummeted into darkness, and the cleric’s breathing quickened.
Algol smirked. “No need for fear, priest—at least, not yet. I told you, I’m not going to kill you. In fact, I want you alive so that you can tell everyone that I was here. Locke, Zeia, the Knights… everyone.” He paused. “Do you believe me?”
Father Matua shuddered in the darkness. “I have a hard time believing a word you say.”
Algol grinned and stepped forward. “Like I said, I promised I wouldn’t kill you. But I never promised I wouldn’t hurt you.”
Father Matua stood. His good hand formed a fist. “Actually, you did.”
“So I did.” Algol reached out and seized Matua’s good arm. “I lied.” Wytchfire blossomed from his grasp.