“I got a hand
So I got a fist
So I got a plan
It’s the best that I can do
Now we’ll say it’s in God’s hands
But God doesn’t always have the best goddamn plans, does he?”1
In dreams, she made sense of the drips and pieces and parts of emotion that fell on her cheeks–much like a person made sense of a broken vase. But the question persisted. Where, where, where…
Where had all the heroes gone?
It was at times such as these that the girl could feel her Other Self pacing. She had become good at ignoring it–and controlling it when necessary. But during these moments, these quiet intervals that whispered of fears and haunts and memories filled with blood and gore, the girl could feel Her lurking. The beast seemed to feed on her unrest. With a conscious effort, she suppressed the creature and her mindscape turned still.
Nyx turned and twisted under heavy blankets. The first snow of the winter season had yet to fall, but the nights still nipped at poorly covered appendages like dogs at the heels of cattle. Hurried by this impatient chill, the youth reached over the edge of her bed, and plucked her wool socks from the floor. She pulled them on beneath the covers, a shiver blasting through her and sending her hands into clumsy pawing.
Her eyes flickered to the ceiling.
Heavy lumber–like a naked skeleton–loomed at a slant to her sideways gaze. The circular window over her bed was left uncovered, letting a shaft of moonlight displace the shadows. Her room was simply furbished, if a bit messy. Books stacked from the floor in growing towers that threatened to fall, with papers as a sea about their intellectual roots.
The curtain of beads at her bedrooms entryway clattered just as Nyx pulled on her last sock.
She looked up through mussed hair to see Atalo peering shyly at her from the shadows of the entryway, one hand holding back the curtain. His eyes were wide and his shoulders hunched as he twisted the hem of his cotton shirt.
“…I didn’t wake you?” he asked, voice just skimming the waters of a whisper.
Nyx sat up and shook her head. She wiped at her eyes and smiled. “No. The cold is to blame. …Are you alright?” she added, sitting forward.
He scratched at his cheek and glanced behind him. He looked at her with a soft sigh as he stepped further into her room, the curtain of beads swinging forward to reclaim their place. Beyond, the hallway loomed black. Atalo’s face was depressed into a solemn expression.
“A-ma isn’t sleeping well. I can hear her crying through my walls. I went to check on her, but she went back to sleep. I didn’t want to disturb her…” He rubbed at his arm, tawny eyes turning to the wood floor. “I’m worried about her.”
Nyx sighed and pulled away at her covers. She scooted to the edge of her bed and held out her hand. “Koen, come here.”
The boy obliged, though he took small steps. He flumped onto the feather stuffed mattress and looked at her sideways. Nyx put her arm over his bony shoulders and pulled him into an embrace. He felt cold. Her hands tangled in his hair. She closed her eyes and whispered something for the both of them.
“Everything will be alright…”
Nyx was busy in Tosmai’s village center, copying supply orders made by the Ailuran military. Her hand was cramping from writing down all the information. It was late evening. All had left, save for the village leader, Orestes, who was in his quarters. Now was her chance.
As a private secretary to Orestes, Nyx was required to dress appropriately. She wore a white cotton blouse with a black embroidered collar and a forest green suede vest–usually with each polished silver button fastened closed, but with the day drawing to an end, she left her vest open. On her feet were rich brown boots, made of deerskin, which came high over the ankles. White leggings could be seen sprouting from them before her thick cotton trousers swallowed them at the knees. Her long hair was pulled back and tied once with a black ribbon, six inches from the tips, then again, two inches from the tips. The hair on the sides of her head were braided to the back, where the ends were then twisted into a simple flip. Her unruly hair alone took an hour out of her morning. Before, her mother would have to help her. These days, it was Atalo.
The girl’s brow wrinkled as she tried to finish her work. She wanted to be done with this task before someone–
The girl looked up with a start, hand slapping over the parchment she had been writing. She grimaced when she’d realized what she’d done, and lifted her hand, which was now stained with ink. The copy she had been writing was ruined.
“Oh, uh…sorry…about that…” the newcomer said.
A boy with a pointy chin, curly umber hair, and warm honey eyes looked down at her apologetically. He wore a black jacket with gold cuffs, the inner lining a silky velvet, and the collar high and stiff. A brass button at the top, just above the collar bone, was the only thing bringing the jacket together. Under that, the boy wore a black vest and white cotton shirt, with black leggings and buckled leather shoes, polished to a gleam. The traditional attire for a priest-in-training.
Her mind, no longer preoccupied with her work, finally paid mind to the soft smell of roasted almonds and incense that she knew to belong uniquely to the boy. She smiled at him wearily, pulling the handkerchief from her vest’s pocket. “Hello, Ampelos…”
“I’m here delivering a message from Urian,” he said, holding up a wax-sealed scroll. “Is our leader in?”
Nyx nodded and stood gesturing down the large hall. “Yes. I believe he’s just reviewing his speech for this year’s harvest festival.” She tossed her handkerchief onto the table–making a point of placing it over the documents she had been reviewing. “I’ll announce you.”
Together they walked, Nyx in the lead, her deerskin boots softly clicking on the wood panel floors. The hall was curved in an arch, the ceiling made of baked brick and supported by visible beams of strong oak wood. The walls were sandy brown, embeveled with Ailuran art that harked back to the earliest of days. Behind her, Nyx could hear Ampelos fuss with his clothing. As they neared the double doors leading into Orestes’ office, the girl stopped and turned to look at the boy with an exasperated smile.
“Amp, what’s the matter?”
The boy looked at her, his eyes widening. He cleared his throat and touched a hand to his collar. “Huh? Oh, nothing…just nervous about seeing–”
“You’ve delivered messages to Orestes’ dozens of times. Is there something else on your mind?” She crossed her arms and looked up at him with raised eyebrows.
Ampelos blushed. “I…I was thinking of asking…if you’d like…ah–” The boy stared at her, face flushed. Then he let out a loud, frustrated sigh, and looked down at the ground. “Y’know, th-that isn’t fair. You didn’t give me a chance to ask you properly.”
Nyx blinked and pulled her hair over her shoulder. She fussed with the ends and felt her own face turn hot. “Um. Ask me what?”
“I was going to ask if you’d like to go with me to the festival.”
The girl winced and turned her head to the side. She had known Ampelos since she was young. He had been the only one, besides her friend Taila, who had not shunned her for her dissenting ideas. But with the years, he had grown differently, and his affections for her had become exceedingly apparent–even if Nyx wasn’t so quick to pick up on his advances.
Guilt twisted her insides and she bit her lip. Ampelos was shaping into a good man. He was sweet, intelligent, and had a positivie future ahead of him.
…But she could never see him that way.
“I…I’m sorry, Amp. I can’t go with you,” she said quietly.
Ampelos looked down at the scroll in his hands, which he turned slowly. “Oh,” was all he said.
They stood there awkwardly for perhaps another minute before Nyx began to backpedal towards the doors. “I-I’ll go announce you, now.”
She opened the double doors with sweaty hands. In her head, she thought she heard Her chuckling–but that was impossible.
“Ampelos, son of Ourias, brings you a message, sir…”
The boy delivered his message quickly, then mumbled his goodbye. Nyx watched him go, feeling tired and somehow, disappointed with herself. But she had more important matters to deal with. With a fresh roll of parchment, the girl set to finish what she’d started. This copy was sloppier than the first, but it was still legible. Nyx was more upset about her blouse. Ink had gotten on the sleeves, and she couldn’t afford to replace it.
With her duties finished, Nyx left the village center, feet lithely coming down the stone steps. She walked briskly, face forward, her hands gripping her knapsack with a white-knuckled grip. Pulled over her blouse and vest was a thick smock-frock, to protect from the cold.
Tosmai was the second largest of the six Ailuran villages, which, along with the various forts and farm settlements, comprised the Ailuran nation. The buildings here were of timber, cement, animal hide, and shingle, with stone foundations and circular design. ‘Daikut’ as the architectural style was called. The daikuts wound and wound in a swirl to the heart of the village, where tread earth was conquered by red stone tiles. To the North, of the square was Tosmai’s center, and Nyx’s place of work. At the center of the square was a small wooden stage, where leaders spoke to the citizens. Around the square, bright colored streamers flapped in the wind, and buildings were decorated with strings of copper crescent moons–meant to bring good fortune and good health for the winter. Smoldering ash left in dishes near doors were meant as wards from hungry ghosts, known as pretas. They were said to come during the winter, sucking away the joy and love in the lives of the living. Nyx’s family had a dish of ash near their door as well.
The harvest festival was only three days away.
Nyx walked as though she were returning home, nodding respectfully to those she passed. Many nodded in return, though the action lacked warmth. Others coldly ignored her. The girl was used to it. Many felt she was trouble to her family, and while her position as Orestes’ Private Secretary earned her some level of respect, there were many who still tutted after her in disapproval. Orestes’ had done her a great favor in letting her work for him. He had been fond of her brother Thad, and there were even times she suspected he was interested in A-ma. He didn’t pamper her, but he was kind. She lost sleep, knowing that her actions could bring him great harm, politically…but she could not stop.
…Not after what happened three years ago.
Nyx without a backward glance, deviated subtly from her route. Her detour took her through some of the smaller, more run-down daikuts of the village, to the West. At last she came to an empty shack behind the village storehouses. The wind picked up, chilling her through the wool of her smock-frock. Her nose flared at the scents of wheat and oats from the buildings behind her.
Then, a man came toward her, as though birthed from the darkness. She hadn’t sensed him, as he was downwind, and he had made no sound. His face was covered with charcoal and dark paint. His clothes were similarly dark and unremarkable, but the girl noticed he had no shoes on. “Have you brought them?” he asked in a low voice.
In answer, Nyx opened her knapsack and pulled out the scrolls of parchment she had been copying the military documents to. “It’s all there. I also overheard Orestes’ mentioning the body count from the recent battle in Uktace. We’ve lost almost 300 hundred soldiers to Fiamma.”
The man hissed out a curse. “Too many lives lost!”
Nyx nodded gravely. “And recruitment is down. They’ll be drafting soon.”
“And they’ll be calling our children to arms.” The man spat. “We have no more men. Most have gone to war…or died.”
Nyx stepped closer, looking over her shoulder. “Listen,” She gestured at herself. “I want to do more. Copying documents and pulling the wheels off of chariots isn’t enough!”
“…He’s already given you your answer, kitten. He tried to train you, but you haven’t a stomach for violence.”
Nyx hissed from the back of her throat. “What use does violence bring us when the ones we harm are of the same spirit!? I can still be of more use than this! Let me prove it!”
The man seemed to gaze at her a long time. Then he nodded. “Don’t go to bed early tonight.” And without another word, he left.
Nyx stood there, her breath shaky. She listened to the world shiver and felt her heart thrum anxiously beneath her breast. Slowly, she turned and left. She was careful not to be seen on her way back.
Back at her home, Nyx shed her smock and vest.
Her mother, known as Fotini to those outside the family, was stirring a pot in the kitchen, face lit underneath from the fire of the stove. Her hand was slim and pale, the bone and veins showing unnervingly underneath. Nyx bit her lip and set her knapsack on the stone table. She went to her mother and took the spoon from her. “A-ma, please sit. You aren’t feeling well,” she said.
Her mother looked at her. Her face was a little broader than Nyx’s and Atalo’s, and her chin had a small dimple (which the girl always thought curiously charming). Streaks of white and gray sprinkled her dark hair, locks feathering about her shoulders. She was already dressed in her nightgown, and her eyes and nose were a raw red.
Nyx guided her mother to the table with firm but gentle hands. She felt her throat tighten at how easily her A-ma was persuaded. The girl remembered days when she feared the pinch of her mother’s fingers about her ears (usually for hiding in Thad’s room when he was off to war, or from stealing the toys from bullies as retribution) but nowadays…
The girl went to the pot, stirring what looked like rabbit stew. “How was your day, A-ma?”
The older woman sighed and rubbed at her face. “Tiring. I wasn’t able to meet my quota today. The weave-master was furious…”
Nyx bunched, her eyes flashing. “Did he hit you again?”
Her mother shook her head. “No. Orestes’ spoke to him already about that. But…” the woman’s face crumpled like paper, and suddenly she seemed so much older. “…I…I can’t…”
Nyx stopped her stirring and crossed the room in three quick strides. She enveloped her mother in a hug, holding her close to her chest. “Shh…A-ma, it’s okay. Orestes’ said he was happy with my work. We’ll be getting more grain and silver the day before the festival.”
The woman shook her head, muscles quivering. She felt hot under the girl’s touch. “My Nyx…My dear, dear Nyx. It’s more than just pay. Those men out there…they need their armor. When their leather gives way, the last thing to save them is our weave! If my work is poor, then another mother could lose her…” The woman couldn’t finish. She broke into sobs, gripping Nyx all the tighter.
The girl caressed her hair, silent tears slipping down her cheeks. Her voice was thick when she spoke. “Shh…A-ma…shh…stop that…”
“What would Thad say? What would he say?” her mother wailed.
Nyx stiffened, and her hands turned to claws against her mother’s back. “Nothing.” She bit out, with more force than she’d meant to. “He’d say nothing. He loved you. He loved all of us.”
There was a sound from the hallway. Nyx turned her head to see Atalo crouching and peering around the corner. His eyes shone in the firelight, and the girl could see her brother struggle to keep his lip stiff. She held out her arm.
Atalo ran over to embrace them.
That night, the stew burned, and they were left with crackers and water for dinner.
Not much later, whilst reading in bed, Nyx heard a ‘clack’ against her window. Her breath stopped in her throat, her copy of ‘Mysteries of the Animus Revealed’ falling flat against her lap. She dog-eared the page she was on, then set the book aside and stood on the mattress, stepping up on the head rest to stare out the circular window. Nyx saw nothing. She squinted her eyes and opened the latch, pushing the window out a crack.
“Nyx, daughter of Fotini?” a voice whispered.
“Aye, I am she.” Nyx said, heart thumping. She strained to peer farther out of her little window. “Who’s there?”
“I bring you a message from the Ipogius. Travel fast, to the Kreut Forest in the East. Our company awaits you tonight.”
“Yes.” There was a rustle, and Nyx saw a shadow on the ground move in the scattered moonlight. “Wait!” she hissed. The shadow paused. “You can’t mean tonight!”
“Yes. Tonight. But if your dedication wanes, then by all means, resume your recumbency daughter of Fotini.”
Nyx cursed. The shadow was gone.
She slipped from her home and out of Tosmai. She avoided the main road, taking to the wilderness with all but the stars as her guide. She knew she arrived at the Kreut Forest when the trees grew tall and the underbrush thick. Here, the forest was black from the work of dwarves in the overshadowing mountains, and it was said that the forest was enchanted–host to wily fairfolk and a home to many spirits. The frosted earth snarled beneath her feet. She came to a clearing, and paused, her nose quivering as she sensed others.
The beast inside her snarled, and Nyx grit her teeth as she banished it to the dark.
Shadows moved around her, and she with them–body turning to find that she was surrounded. Her mother had always said, she was a child for the dark. Now she was one with it.
“Nyx. You’ve come, and quickly, too. This is good.” A man stepped before her. He was a head taller than her, and his voice was so deep, it rumbled in her ears like a bear’s.
Nyx bowed, her breath short. “Myrk. You honor me with this chance.”
A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and she let out a squeak as she nearly toppled over. “Nyx, the formality isn’t required. We are the Ipogi! Not the government. I fought with your brother, Thad. You are as my own, kitten.”
Nyx straightened. “Th-thank you, Myrk…”
The man’s shadowed face nodded. She couldn’t make out the details of his clothes. Somehow the darkness of the Kreut forest was harder to pierce, even for her Ailuran’s eyes. The most she could gather was that he was wearing a smock and fitted pants.
“Will you let me go deeper?” She asked, face tightening in anticipation.
“You know that I must test you, first.”
“What would you have me do?”
“Farther north of here, there’s an abandoned dwarven settlement. There’s a two-story tradehouse there. You have to sneak into the settlement, break into the building, and get the red ribbon without anyone seeing or hearing you,” The man said.
Her voice was a fog. “Where will the ribbon be?”
“On the second floor.”
“…That’s all you’ll tell me?”
Chuckles around her. When Myrk spoke, she could hear the smile in his voice. “There will be many times when the most you’ll know is what village your target is in. Be happy I give you this much.”
Her hands clenched and she squared her shoulders. “…When is my time done?”
“Kitten…you already know…that both for this test and any missions you may be given afterward…”
The other shadows moved away, off into the inky world. Only the man remained. If she focused, she thought she could see the fire of his spirit, glowing deep in his eyes.
He spoke again, and this time, she heard no smile.
“…Your time is done when you’re caught.”
Three days later.
The villagers crowded Tosmai’s central square. It was the day of the harvest festival. An emissary had been sent by the Illuminati of Himitahl, the nation’s capital.
The emissary, a tall man dressed in navy blue embroidered robes, raised both hands and boomed out. “Sons and daughters of Aelurus. Cast your attention this way! I bring important news from your great elders.”
Nyx frowned as she came up near the stage. The crowd pressed in, forcing her into intimacy with those around her. A sea of heads and shoulders afforded her a limited view of the messenger, whose jade stone eyes swept over his audience.
“The Fiamman devils proceed to tramp upon our lands,” he roared, spit flying from his pale lips. “They rape these sacred forests and swallow herds of cattle with little thought. They press and they press…but the children of the moon remain strong. In all the years, they have not taken a settlement, nor have they ever been close in damaging our great spirit as a nation! At this very moment, our brothers fight for the good of us all, and the Fiammans quell at the might of Ekilluos! It is a vicious struggle, one filled with its share of tragedy and torment…but there is glory and honor as well.” He gestured grandly, with arms spread out as though inviting an embrace. His eyes narrowed. “Now! Children of Aelurus! Now has come the time to show your commitment to your elders, to your kin, and to your goddess!”
Another man came near him, holding a large scroll. He unfurled it and held it up high for all to see. The messenger gestured at it with one hand. “Here!” he cried, “Is a list of positions that require those of able body and mind! You need not be a warrior to aid in this war! You too, can stop the Fiamman menace from their unholy crusade!”
Nyx felt something press into her back. She stiffened, and turned her head just slightly.
“You’ll apply for the position as Permanent Secretary with the Senate. Today.” A deep voice murmured.
Nyx looked forward again, but her eyes were glazed. She swallowed and whispered. “My reputation precedes me. If Leander finds out–”
Whatever was pressed into her back slid down to fit into her open palm. She gripped it in her sweaty hand. It was a small roll of paper.
“Will be fine. Go.”
She turned her head. The faces of many were turned up, to the messenger, who had gone on quoting scripture. Her messenger was gone. She placed the note in her pocket, her finger brushing against the red ribbon she kept there.
“‘And the Mother looked upon her children with a face filled with glory. She held out her hands–hands of great creation–and She bade the brave to take on greater vitality in the name of Her and the Powers That Are and Always Shall Be. ‘Hark! The light it calls! Draw up your pride, and remind thine ghosts who is master!’”
She folded her last shirt and placed it carefully in her pack, amid her other belongings. Atalo sat on the bed, feet kicking, but his face long. “How long will you be gone?” He whispered.
Nyx glanced at him and swallowed. “I’m not sure. If I’m chosen, then I won’t be returning right away.” And by that, she meant, she could remain there for the rest of the year. “If that happens, I’ll send you and A-ma money and food. I’ll be earning gold, not silver. You’ll be able to afford so much more.”
The boy scowled at his knees. “I don’t want gold. I want you to stay with us, Koah.”
Nyx bit her lip, her eyes burning. She reached over and touched his shoulder.
“I…I know, Koen. …Please, take care of A-ma for me, will you?”
At the Senate building, in Himitahl.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” Said Svette, Chancellor under the Illuminati. He stared at the scroll of names in his hands, then looked back at Nyx. His bald eyebrows pressed together. “I’m really surprised to see you here,” He exclaimed again. “As I recall, you had quite the reputation for running that mouth of yours in Tosmai!”
Nyx looked him in the eyes. Svette was a slim faced Ailuran with a pinched nose and coral-colored eyes that appeared too close together. To her misfortune, he was one of Leander’s closest companions…and Leander, as her old teacher, hated her.
The girl fought to hold the Chancellor’s stare–his focused, prejudicial stare–even as she felt the heat creep up her neck, felt her heart beat so fast it were as though it were trembling. She resisted the urge to curl her back and dip her head in submission. Her Other Self felt threatened. She could feel the beast clawing at the surface. She was almost certain Svette could smell the animal beneath her skin.
But she fought it, cursing her inner demon and pushing Her away. Nyx drew herself up as tall as she could, taking a deep breath so as to make herself look larger. She thought of Atalo and her mother. Her heart calmed a fraction, and the beast became muted.
“My conduct in the past is irrelevant,” she said, voice flat and hard. “The pain in my family, in my heart now, is what matters. Those human swine have hurt me and mine enough already. My mother is struck ill with grief, and my Atalo is too young to take to arms. I myself am no fighter. This is the only way I know to contribute.”
“You do have top marks in dictation and writing. Orestes’ also speaks highly of you,” Svette said, looking down with pursed lips. “Our witnesses agree, you are an intelligent girl…if a bit misguided.” The man turned to the elders at the back of the room, who sat shadowed behind a long polished oak table. “Wise ones…is the child fit to serve?”
The phantoms beyond the table leaned over to one another, conferring. Then the one in the center sat forward. Beetle-black eyes and a craggy face hidden beneath an olive-brown beard shifted into the light. The elder gave a nod.
“Daughter of Fotini, sister to the warrior-hero Thaddeus…We would have you as our Permanent Secretary.”
Nyx straightened her neck as much as she could and gazed toward the ceiling. She felt like her heart was trying to punch its way out of her body. “Yes, great one!”
“This is an honor for one so young… Please tend to the public accounts, and mind the expenditures of our divisions. There will be three aids under your guidance. Leave behind the poisons of your past. As a daughter of Aelurus, your future depends on it…”
“Yes, great one!”
Nyx was in a daze. She sat on the bed of her new daikut–a small building meant only for a single occupant–but it was freshly built. The girl could tell from the fresh smell of the wood, and the way the bricks still held the scent of the ash from the oven that baked them. Her bed was soft, and the sheets clean. The wood furniture was recently polished.
…The girl wished she were home.
Next to her on the bed were her new clothes–given to her by the Illuminati. Her new uniform. A dress. She was to wear a dress. A white one, with gold laces and a silky blue scarf. Only women of high-station had the luxury of dresses.
“Sweet Aelurus, what have I gotten myself into…?” she moaned, burying her face into her hands.
It wasn’t the work she was scared of. She could handle the record-keeping, divisional supervision, and even having people working under her. Nyx was used to handling things of varying complexity all-at-once. She did it for years at her home, since her mother’s health had begun to decline. She wouldn’t have to speak much with those in other offices, and she would never have to speak with the public.
But…she hated Himitahl. The temple was too large and unfamiliar. Even the food seemed to taste differently. Nyx shuddered at the thought of her first full moon there. The village felt more like an overgrown town, and the mentality of the capital disagreed with her on a deep and fundamental level. Tosmai had its fair share of propaganda and overt military displays…but here, it was worse. So much worse.
…And what would happen if she were caught?
Nyx lifted her face to stare at the small note that sat atop her new dress, the one she had received the day of the harvest festival. She recognized the messy scrawl as Myrk’s.
“Let the night come early. Track the needs of the pretas. Meanwhile, your eyes must be keen and quick. Find the Names of the Damned before the suns swallow us all.”
The girl burned the paper in her small stove, and sat staring at a wall for the rest of the night.
The first week was exhausting, and the girl hardly slept. She didn’t realize how much standing, approving, disapproving, and reporting she would have to do. The tedious correspondence alone made Nyx want to scream. Her aids, she realized, were a terrible obstacle in her espionage efforts.
They were three young men–only a little older than she–who were unhappy answering to a young girl, but earnest in their work. She mixed their names up on a daily basis. Nyx couldn’t be bothered to get to know them. Her mental capacities were taken up just doing her job well enough so that she could do her real job. Hours dragged on longer than necessary, because she had to memorize information without writing it down. She could not afford to write anything down. It was enough risk carrying the package the Ipogi had given her, she could do nothing else that may lead to her discovery.
At the end of the week, she received a message to meet an agent of the Ipogius outside of Himitahl. In the dark, they met, and she told him all she could remember. He said nothing, only handed her a small package, then left. It made the girl feel cold to know that even her peers felt distant in her new surroundings.
The second week fell into a smoother rhythm as Nyx became accustomed to the pace of her work. The third week even started to feel routine. At the end of each week, she reported to an agent of the Ipogi. At the end of each week, she sent a letter home to her family. Her first full moon was spent alone, away from the other villagers. It seemed even the beast disliked Himitahl.
It wasn’t until nearly a month went by that Nyx had every inch of the Senate building memorized–atleast, the areas she could access. There was one hall she was barred from, unsurprisingly, as it was the way to the Chamber of the Elders. But it was unneeded.
Shortly after the end of her first month as Permanent Secretary, her moment had come.
“A bulk order on weapons and armor? Has recruitment improved?” Nyx said one afternoon, holding up a leaf of parchment.
One of her aids glanced at her distractedly from his desk. “No, miss. The Illuminati passed an order last night. Each village is to produce 200 sons and daughters by the end of the week.”
“…Each village?” In her mind, the girl knew this to be disproportionate. At this rate, the Illuminati would be asking not only for the able-bodied…but the very young…perhaps even the old. She sat back, her lips and fingertips tingling, her skin feeling cold. She stared forward, over the sea of papers, and wondered if the elders were really just “defending the nation”, if they were even just pursuing land and possible mineral deposits.
That evening, when she went to turn in her reports to Colec, the Cabinet Secretary, she saw the man sign his name at the bottom of a scroll, where other illegible signatures could be seen. He looked up at her, his long sunflower hair tied back into a tail. He stood, his robes rustling as he did so. “Ah, Nyx. Your timing is impeccable. The Senate requires your signature here.” He pushed the parchment across his desk.
“What is this for?” She asked, as she took the quill Colec handed her.
“The authorization for the draft list.”
Nyx froze. Her eyes rolled up to stare the man in the face. “…They…require…our signatures for this?” The quill tip lowered to the parchment. Sweat broke out over her skin.
“The Illuminati aren’t so much asking our permission,” he explained, “As asking the divisions if it’s possible. You’ve been keeping meticulous records over the last month, yes? Do you think we can afford this influx of troops? If you look, it details the estimated number of new soldiers and the funds needed to equip and transport them.”
Nyx’s mouth felt dry. Could she stall? Could she flat-out refuse? Her hand twitched on the parchment as she looked down and speedily read the document. She felt sick as she gave a nod of her head.
“…Yes, sir. We do.”
The girl fought to keep her hand steady as she signed the document. “…Has…the draft list been completed?”
“Quite speedily, yes.” Colec reached over and took the scroll from her, rolling it up. “Excellent, madame. Yours was the last signature needed.” He came out from behind his desk, boots clicking on the tiled floor. He patted her shoulder, a large smile on his face. “Might I say, that your work here has been incredible. Especially given your age. You would do Thaddeus proud.”
Nyx heard the man leave the room. She stared forward, eyes burning. Her fists clenched to the point of drawing blood…
She had to do something. Soon.
Night time. New moon. In a storage closet. Through guile, the girl had managed to hide there well after her work had finished.
The Senate building was empty, save for the guards patrolling the hallways.
The package Nyx had received from the Ipogi contact contained all that she needed. She was now dressed in a one-piece cotton suit, dyed black, with simple black shoes, and wore a black mask that concealed half of her face. Tied around her waist was a belt of dark cloth, where a small knife hung holstered on her right hip, and a leather pouch on the other. The pouch contained a vial of sleeping drought, a vial of poison, a vial of acid, a roll of string, and a simple lockpick. She didn’t plan on using the knife to fight, but it could still serve as a useful tool. As for the poison…
Nyx prayed to Aelurus that it wouldn’t be necessary.
When all outside her door turned quiet, the girl dared to emerge. She knew the patrol routes, knew when the guards shifts ended. But most importantly, she knew where the draft list was.
Nyx moved with purpose, her slim form a wraith in the dancing torch light. She needed to get to the sub-level, where the room of records contained all the original government records. The problem was, there was a guard stationed there at all times. Fortunately, she knew the guard liked to have tea during his break.
She slipped into the building’s kitchen, to the rear of the Senate, an off-shoot that was purposefully built with a high ceiling to make it less stuffy for the servants who made lunch for the officials each day. Nyx had come in the room only once, but she remembered one thing, common in Ailuran architecture…
It was a simple matter of getting onto the counter and running up the wall, where she was able to grab onto one. Safely straddling the heavy rafter, the girl took out her string and began to unroll it. Nyx was over the table that held the herbs and spices. The guard, when he came, would eventually come directly beneath her to steep his tea.
Sure enough, within the hour, the guard appeared, his leather armor griping as he fished out a teacup for himself. Nyx watched as he heated a kettle full of water till it squealed. Then he came beneath her. The man, carefully picked his tea leaves, placing them in the strainer, which he then dipped into the water-filled teacup. He even added a small amount of spice with it. These simple tasks done, he gave a cough and turned his back to the cup, leaning back against the table with a bored expression.
Overhead, Nyx carefully lowered her length of string until it was over the unattended cup. Then taking her vial of sleeping potion, she carefully let the liquid trickle down the length string. She let a few drops fall into the drink, then quickly reeled the string back.
The guard turned around after a time and took the strainer out. Then he added sugar, stirred it, and drank the tea. Nyx watched the man drink and held her breath. With time, he drained the cup, then turned and left the kitchen.
The girl waited an extra moment before letting herself drop down. The hall was clear, as she knew it would be, and she proceeded with hastened steps to the stairs leading to the sub-level. Down below, she found the guard, asleep in his chair.
Nyx ignored him, knowing that he did not have the key, and went to the heavy steel door. She eyed the intimidating lock and immediately knew that her lockpick would be of no use. Instead, she pulled out her vial of acid. The vial was different from the others, as it was not contained in glass. Instead it was held in a special metal that kept the acid from eating its way out. She guessed the acid had been harvested from a foreign monster. Gingerly, she opened the vial, then carefully poured the dangerous liquid into the keyhole. Some dribbled down the side, and she cursed as she avoided it. The metal hissed and bubbled. The keyhole expanded, and Nyx could see it eat away at the mechanics.
She tried opening the door, but panicked when it didn’t open. She bit her lip and crouched down to peer into the keyhole. The torchlight was poor, even with her good vision, but she could still make out some of what was inside. The acid seemed more or less gone, having drained away from the keyhole. Nyx took her lockpick and jammed it at what she guessed to be the piece keeping the door stuck. It moved less than a centimeter. The next fifteen minutes were spent stressfully scraping at the hunk of metal until it tumbled out of the keyhole and clattered to the floor. Nyx froze at the noise, and looked at the guard.
The man was still fast asleep.
With a sigh, she pushed her way through the door.
The room beyond was dark–too dark for her to look for the draft list. The girl came back out to grab the torch from its place and carried it back into the room. She gawked at what was illuminated.
Inside the room of records, the girl found herself in a sea of musty parchments and scrolls. There were dozens of aisles, categorized by division and year. She was careful to keep the torch away from the documents–there were birth and family records there too. Nyx didn’t want to accidentally wipe out a family’s history.
With a bit of perusing, she came to discover what she was looking for. Sitting fresh, atop older scrolls attributed to military actions and orders, was the draft list. She recognized it by its size–a mammoth collection of names nearly twenty feet long. Nyx took it in her hands, a sense of awe coming over her. So many lives, so many Ailurans to send to early deaths. With the list, the Ipogius could warn the families, could thwart the military’s drafting efforts by showing the people just how much their leaders were really asking of them, there were even some Ipogi members who were soldiers, who could confuse the military of where the draftees lived–
Nyx’s heart froze. She whirled around. A guard stared at her through the spaces of the bookshelves from the door way, dumbfounded. She’d taken too long. Thinking quickly, she backed away, to the center of the room, and dropped the torch. The girl hurried away from the reach of its glow. The guard ran forward, hand reaching to draw his sword…but even an Ailuran’s eyes needed time to adjust in new light. When he reached the torch, he squinted, head swiveling about the room.
The girl cursed to find her way blocked. This was her mishap. She’d lost precious time fighting with the door and looking for the draft list.
She knew she had seconds before the guard’s eyes adjusted to the dark. To her advantage, the mustiness of the room was so pervasive as to conceal her scent from immediate detection. But there was no other way. She’d have to knock out the guard–for if she didn’t, he’d warn the whole building…and then she’d never get away. The beast inside thought of claws and violence. Her joints and muscles ached, and heat swept over her–amidst her cold fear. Once again, Nyx suppressed Her.
Carefully, the girl drew her knife and set the draft list on the ground. She could not even entertain the thought of killing, but the blade handle was thick and heavy, and when struck against a weak point, made for a passable blunt weapon. Nyx’s mind flashed with memories of Thad, shortly before he died.
“…Tell me, kitten. Where are a warrior’s weakest points?”
“The top of the head, the temple, the eyes, the nose, and uh….”
“Notice where they all are?”
“Yes. Good. Most of the time, these places will be protected in war–but outside of the battlefield, most people prefer not to go running around with helmets on all the time. They’re uncomfortable. So your best bet in an average fight, is to attack these points. Atleast…if you want the battle to end quickly.”
The guard turned, so that his back was to her. This was her chance. Nyx sprinted, her throat tight with fear and a desire to scream. With a hop she went toward a bookcase, then pushed up with the ball of her foot against a shelf. Her body launched up and forward, over the man, as she raised both arms high and gripped the knife with both hands. The guard turned, his eyes widening, his sword swinging low to strike up…
Nyx felt the hilt of the knife crack against the top of the man’s skull. He went down without a sound, his body falling over the torch on the ground. The girl tumbled over him, panting. She turned and noted with horror that the flames lapped at his sides. Panicking, she rolled the man off the torch and patted the fire out with her hands. Her skin stung and blistered, but Nyx was glad to see the flames go out. She didn’t want the man hurt anymore than he was.
Her threat removed, the girl stood and swayed on the spot, the room shifting unnervingly. She had to pause and catch her breath, her body shaking, the sweat drenching her skin. When the stars left her eyes, the girl stumbled back to retrieve the draft list, then ran out of the room. The guard outside was still asleep. She tiptoed past him, then bounded up the stairs to the main floor.
Nyx was off schedule. She didn’t know where she was in terms of time, and therefor, didn’t know where the other guards were. Irrational fear set into her, and for a mad moment she thought about running out the front doors. But guards were stationed outside. She may have escaped one by sheer luck, she doubted she could do it again.
The girl fumbled to recall her original plan. It was all she had to go by. Feet making the faintest of sounds thanks to her soft soles, Nyx ran to her office. She’d left it unlocked when she pretended to leave for home, and never had she been happier to see the cramped little room. She took the key from beneath the rug and locked the door on her side. Placing it in her pouch, she went to the window behind her desk and opened it. Outside, the path beneath her window was clear of any patrolling guards–but she didn’t know for how long. Nyx slipped out to the ground, shutting the window as she went.
Her last obstacle was the Senate wall, which went around the perimeter of the building. It was fifteen feet high. Nyx took a deep breath, touching the ground with her free hand and bending her knees. Then she pushed into a full run, at first running parallel with the wall, before curving towards it. With a great jump, she ran up the stone, her legs pumping furiously as they fueled her ascent. Then with a grunt, the girl twisted and grabbed onto the ledge with her one free arm, her legs swinging wildly beneath her from the abrupt stop. She thought she heard something rip, and her shoulder blade screamed in pain. Grimacing, the girl pulled herself up and over, adrenaline fueling her. She landed clumsily on the other side.
Then Nyx ran.
Later, snow drifted down in dreamy fashion through the dark, making her damp and numb. She was hidden in the shadow of a statue of the Unnamed One, in a small court far from the Senate. Her lungs were on fire, her limbs like ghosts to her as the white of the world coated her bit by bit. Nyx knew she was to report immediately to the Ipogi. She knew it would be foolish to try and read the list then. The snow could even damage the scroll.
…But she had to know.
Nyx pulled her mask from her face with clawing fingers and opened the scroll, rolling it at the two ends until she came to the list for Tosmai. Quickly her eyes ran down the list. She saw childhood peers, schoolmates, honest, gentle workers, husbands, even wives, all flash past her gaze in a blur of memories and ink. Then the girl stopped, her grip turning knuckle-white.
27. Atalo, son of Fotini: INFANTRY
Nyx closed the scroll slowly, her face a numb mask. She leaned back against the cold stone and stared at the dark sky, the length of the statue that loomed over her a grotesque, alien thing to her sight. Tears clouded her vision. The girl let the scroll fall from her hands to clasp her mouth. She sucked in one gasp of air, through dry fingers, then another. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Sobs wracked her body. She couldn’t breathe…
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. At his age, the most Atalo should’ve had to worry about were chores and doing well in his lessons. Not fighting for his life against trained soldiers, fighting for the greed of indifferent leaders, fighting for the chance to be happy. It wasn’t fair.
Nyx felt hands on her and screamed, her body trembling so bad she could hardly keep her limbs in control.
It was her contact from the Ipogius. His face was concealed as always, but his eyes held fury. “Cajeck!” He snapped, shaking her roughly. “Don’t you know they’re looking for you!? Come on! We have to run.”
The word echoed in her head as her nameless comrade dragged her through the streets of Himitahl. He would take her to a hideout, he said, atleast until the morning. After that, she had to go back to work as usual. Otherwise, they would know.
But Nyx didn’t want to go back. She didn’t want to spend another minute poring over financial records and fiscal reports–dry bureaucratic drivel that did nothing to show the struggle experienced on the battle field, nothing to show the cost of burying a soldier whose remains were so mangled he was hardly recognizable, nothing to alleviate the pain and horror experienced by those fighting and those praying for their safety. She didn’t want to sign any more death warrants…didn’t want to pretend to be a part of the process anymore. Couldn’t.
All she wanted to do was go home…
…Go home, and save her little brother from the madness of hungry ghosts.
‘Dear Sons And Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts’ by Wolf Parade, from the album ‘Apologies To The Queen Mary’. Sub Pop, 2005. [↩]