It was a new moon that night, and the grave fields before us were illuminated only by starlight. Occasionally we would spot a small flame or mysterious light along the dark paths below, but otherwise there was no motion and no sound. Kileg had built a small fire to ward off the darkness and the growing chill, despite my weak protests about offending whatever spirits watched over Mortuary. Very few things genuinely scared Kileg, least of all the dark, yet he jumped at every crack and sizzle from the sputtering flames. If we were not surrounded by the graves of our ancestors’ ancestors, I would have found it humorous. Our whispered conversation eventually turned from the latest happenings along the Seven Fingers to the Joshuan sword. We tried to understand how it could have wound up in an Evan boy’s hands, and how a Sin Eater was supposed to make things right.
It was hard to gauge the passage of time in Mortuary, but we must have sat around the fire until well after midnight. The flickering against the wall of the tomb’s mouth had long dimmed. Suddenly the light inside flared and an unearthly scream ripped through the air, catching Kileg and I utterly off guard. We grabbed our swords and ran headlong into the sepulcher.
The entrance passage turned sharply once, descending down an earthen ramp into a circular chamber. A guttering fire was at the center, filling the room with heavy smoke and the smell of incense and herbs. Standing beside it was a grotesque mass of flesh, bone and viscera, its skin etched with bleeding runes and sigils. It bellowed at us, revealing a mouth that nearly bisected its head, full of ichor and several rows of teeth. Its features were incomplete and unformed, like clay shaped by a child’s hands, and its skin writhed and convulsed unnaturally as it moved.
Something snapped in Kileg upon seeing it. He returned the roar with a cry of his own and charged. I think his spirit was swept from his body even before the disfigured arm swatted him away, as I felt him dive into the River of Dream with no focus and no attempt to control it. Kileg’s limp body slammed into the wall behind me with a sickening crunch. An instant later the beast was on me, raining down a savage barrage of blows that shattered my blade and dislocated one arm.
I managed to put the fire between myself and the beast, and we circled warily for a few seconds. It was then I truly saw the rest of the chamber. The blood and entrails sprayed against the wall, the remains of the two young Joanites. The shattered bowls and ritual implements scattered on the ground. The Joshuan blade sitting at the edge of the firepit. Den’a and Robbo were missing, and in their place the monster. Its expression was filled with hared and rage, but its eyes seemed to plead with me.
Surrounded by the haze of drugs and incense in the power-charged air, I calmed myself with a koan and slipped into the River.
Joan saw Dahlia on the road and asked where she had come from.
“The River,” Dahlia said.
“Where did you spend the winter?” Joan asked.
“In the south of Sanctuary.” Dahlia responded.
The beast took a step forward, dust raining down from the ceiling as its misshapen foot struck the ground.
Joan wondering how long Dahlia could give honest answers and asked, “When did you leave there?”
“On the first new moon after the snow last fell.” Dahlia responded, and Joan knew it to be truth.
“I should give you three blows, but today I forgive you.” Joan told Dahlia and left her on the road.
One more step and the beast closed the gap. It raised one arm, the flesh shifting and rippling as talons the size of arrow heads erupted from its fingertips. There was no way I could survive another blow.
The next day Dahlia came to Joan and asked, “Yesterday you forgave me three blows. Why did you believe me?”
Joan replied, “You are good for nothing. You simply wander from one Tribe to another.”
My koan done, Synthesis flooded the small chamber. Just as a Dahlian dancer knows her next dozen steps I saw every possibility of movement, the result of every chain of events. I rolled underneath the creature’s arm as it smashed into the wall hard enough to crack the rock, coming to my feet beside the firepit. The Joshuan sword was already in my hand. Poised on the balls of my feet, I coiled my legs like springs and launched myself in an arc at the beast, visible lines of power and force in the air guiding my trajectory. The rough blade plunged to its hilt between the abomination’s shoulder blades just as it started to turn, staggering the creature forward until it fell to one knee and then slumped to the ground.
I did not move from beside the creature’s corpse, not even when the Joanite girl found me. She left and came back with several Yagans, who bound me and took me out of the tomb and into the light. They brought me to Mortuary where they questioned me about what had happened. Then they turned me over, still bound, to my sisters in Joan. In each person’s face I could see nothing else but the creature’s eyes. Dena’s eyes. Robbo’s eyes. They were one and the same.
From the transcripts of Inquisitor Ren’nel’s questioning of Cara Gray’on:
“So your statement is that Aline is lying? That you did not kill the Sin Eater, the boy, and the Joanites to protect your secret?”
“Aline? Who…” The subject’s bonds tightened slightly, eliciting a low moan of pain.
“Answer the question. Noncooperation will only tighten your bonds. The Joanite girl. You never bothered to learn her name, did you? ” The Inquisitor selected a brand from among various utensils laid out on a table, placing it in a brazier of hot coals. “I would use Truthsaying but I have enough evidence. Her statement is that you killed everyone in that chamber including Kileg Tar’on, one of your own tribesmen. Becoming concerned when none of you returned, Aline overcame her fear and sought out the tomb. That is where she found you, holding the sword that slaughtered your tribesmen. You would have killed her too, but she escaped.”
“No…the Sin Eater, not…” The straps began to cut into her flesh, staining the edges of the leather red.
“I know your secrets. How you found the Joshuan sword during a raid on a Serf hamlet and kept it for yourself, even while your sisters died at the hands of the Z’bri. How you plotted revenge on Nyeda for rejecting your affections. How you gave the sword to the boy, knowing the blade’s power would affect his simple mind. How you twisted him so he would think Nyeda an enemy needing to be cut down.”
“Lies…” Came the strangled answer.
“Shaman Storm Cry saw through your ruse. He arranged for a Sin Eater to purify the boy and discover the truth, to get the evidence necessary to hold you accountable. You tracked them to Mortuary and slaughtered all of them in cold blood to keep your secrets hidden. Do you deny this?”
The only answer was a gurgle. The collar ar
ound the Templar’s throat had constricted so that she could only gasp for air and watch as The Inquisitor picked up the glowing brand and turned towards her. She struggled feebly against the restraints, each movement tightening them until they sawed into her flesh and totally immobilized her.
“Cara Gray’on, you face the charge of heresy against the Fatimas. For betraying your oaths to Joan and the remainder of the Seven. For allowing greed, jealousy and lust to poison your heart. For murdering five of your fellow Tribesmen, and for attempted murder of a sixth. Crimes so heinous Tera Sheba will not allow her Judges to try them. You are to be consigned to the Circle of the Fallen on the next new moon. Should you survive, you will continue to live the life you have chosen – empty, soulless and without the protection and love of the Fatimas. To the Nation, the Tribe of Joan, your clan and your family you will be dead. If you are lucky, you will perish there.”
The Inquisitor brought the brand to the Templar’s forehead and pushed it against the inverted sword tattoo there, searing away ink and flesh. Cara Gray’on, Templar of Joan, didn’t even have the strength to scream.