I really should have called in sick today, I thought as the dead man turned to stare at me with clouded eyes.
I could have, too. I was still recovering from the last time the church had been called on to help with an infestation. That job had taken nearly two weeks of sleepless nights and had cost us seven casks of the abbey’s best brew. I was supposed to be passed out in my bed right now with a healing rune pasted to my forehead. But the abbess had woken me up with that look on her face. The look that said, “Gosh, I hate to do this but it’s gotta be you, Moishe.” I’d seen that same look on her face when she asked me to do the last job too. That’s why I had ended up spending two weeks trying to relocate a tribe of Yōkai who thought a local power substation was a great place to hold a month-long rave.
What can I say, the abbess is a convincing lady.
But I’d rather try to herd twenty drunk and rowdy Yōkai than deal with the fella who’s glazed, undead eyes were trying to focus on me right now. I hate zombies. It’s not just the smell (which is revolting) or the constant moaning (which is annoying) or the fact that they tend to drop pieces everywhere (which is just rude). The truth is, zombies just creep me out. I think it’s the eyes.
“Zombies again?” Liliya said as she stepped through the doorway into the ruined temple behind me. “What is it with these guys and zombies?”
“I told you it didn’t smell right,” Eelis said, following Liliya through the doorway. “I said that, didn’t I? I said, ‘guys, this doesn’t smell right.’ I said that.”
My two companions couldn’t have looked more different from each other. Liliya was petite, pale, and beautiful, with fierce eyes and long, pale hair. She had a large pack slung across her back and wore the soft grey pants and hooded tunic of our order but she had ripped off the sleeves to leave her arms bare. Eelis was tall, dark, and muscular with sleepy eyes and a nose that looked like it had spent more time broken than whole. He also wore the grey (sleeves intact) but tended to keep his hood up. What they shared, of course, were the tattoos. Every inch of skin visible, from face to fingertips, was covered in dark markings that, when you really looked at them directly, somehow seemed more real, more solid, than the people who wore them. They were marks of devotion. They were marks of power. They were what made us Marked.
Standing between Liliya and Eelis with my head bare and my tunic torn open down the front (I hadn’t had a chance to replace it after that thing with the Yōkai), I’m sure that I looked like the odd one out. The skin of my exposed chest was pale and unmarked.
The dead man’s eyes finally seemed to latch on to us and he turned toward us, raised an arm, and pointed.
“Llleaave. Llleeeaave ooor DIE,” he moaned at us, his voice cracking like old, dry parchment.
“Well,” I said, surprised, “that’s a new one on me.” I turned and looked at Liliya. “You ever heard of a zombie that could talk?”
“Draugr,” she replied, her face grim, “like a zombie but marginally smarter. Stronger too. Suckers are tough, weigh a ton, and don’t go down easy. Gotta take the head or the heart.”
“Or light ‘em on fire,” Eelis added. “Doesn’t stop ‘em right away, though. You can light ‘em up like a candle and they’ll keep coming until they’re more ash than bones.” He smiled at me, “But they’re sure easier to keep track of when they’re all on fire and stuff.”
“Yeah, dead guy running around on fire trying to rip me apart. Sounds like a great plan.” I replied.
Eelis nodded thoughtfully. “Oh, also,” he added, scratching his chin, “they can sometimes use magic.”
“Wait, seriously?” I asked, turning to him, wide eyed. “Magic, talking, super zombies?” I threw up my hands in exasperation. “Who comes up with these things?!”
“Eh, keeps life interesting.” Liliya said as she cracked her knuckles. “Shall we?”
I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “Yeah. Guess we better get to it.”
With a grunt, Eelis bounced on the balls of his feet a few times and then he was gone. In two heartbeats, he had crossed the twenty yards or so between us and the draugr. He pulled to a stop directly behind the draugr, leaned into its left ear, said, “Tag! You’re it!” and then boxed the dead man’s ears with both palms.
The draugr roared and turned around to attack Eelis. Or, that’s what he tried to do, at least. Unfortunately for him, Eelis’s slaps had magically bound the dead man in place. Instead of turning to face Eelis full-on, the draugr was only able to twist at the waist. That was more than Eelis had expected, however (usually this trick leaves opponents completely petrified) and the draugr was able to nail Eelis in the temple with his elbow. Eelis had time to register a look of surprise and stumble backwards a few steps before he slipped to the ground, unconscious.
“Oh, right,” Liliya said, “also resistant to magic. Forgot that bit.”
“You forgot that bit?” I retorted, “That seems pretty freaking important, Liliya!”
“Yeah, well,” she replied hotly, “you try remembering everything about zombies next time, ok? You didn’t even know about draugr, so maybe cut me some slack!” Her eyes went wide, “HEADS UP!”
The draugr had spun back around and lifted his palm towards us. He muttered a curse and a thick crust of ice formed around his arm. With a flinging motion, he launched a large spike of that ice directly at my guts.
Calmly, Liliya stepped between me and the draugr. The massive ice spike slammed into her chest and shattered, shoving her back several feet. She brushed off her tunic, adjusted the strap of her pack, and moved back between me and the dead man, advancing on him slowly.
“Alright, Moishe,” she said over her shoulder, “time to do your thing. Remember; head, heart, or set it on fire.”
“Right,” I muttered, “Head, heart, fire.” I didn’t grow up in a religious household. Very few people do these days. In a world where men and women can build marvels with their own hands or work miracles with the power of their own minds, there aren’t many people who feel the need to look to a higher power for purpose.
My parents were both mid-level technicians for an experimental pharmaceutical combine under contract to The Tower. The only time that I can remember religion being mentioned in my childhood was in history class in the context of wars and empires. Looking back, I think that my parents put every bit as much devotion into their work – into science – as those medieval knights and twentieth-century zealots ever did in their religions. It was understandable, though. My parents had both grown up in The System – a series of “nurturing environments scientifically engineered to maximize a child’s potential societal impact.” They had been weaned on a diet of detached reasoning and had been taught unwavering trust in the scientific method as well as its champion, The Tower.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the scientific method is a powerful tool for approaching and overcoming many of life’s challenges. I just don’t think it’s the ONLY tool a person should have in their toolbox. But my parents were Tower devotees to their core. The most deviant thing that they ever did was to raise me in a binary family instead of entrusting me to The System.
Unfortunately that meant that, when they got blown up, I was left without a family or a support system. It was a freak accident; a local, wannabe hedge-wizard botched a summoning in his apartment and vaporized three city blocks including the office building where my parents worked.
The Tower took custody of me and put me into The System but I was ten years old at that point and they weren’t sure how to assimilate someone after they’d been in a binary for that long. On top of that, I was mourning the loss of my parents (another thing The System wasn’t set up to deal with since most people in The Tower came up in the System and didn’t really HAVE parents). I couldn’t adjust and, frankly, I didn’t want to. I was so mad at everything: at that stupid hedge-wizard for being careless, at The Tower for not protecting innocent people, at my parents for leaving me alone and unprepared, and at myself for not being strong enough to handle it all.
That’s why, after two years of trying to find a place in The System, I ran away and found myself living on the streets at twelve years old.
You know, it’s funny: the division between science and magic in our society seems so clear on paper. According to the media, you’re either aligned with The Tower or with The Council. If you listen to either side talk about the world, you’d think that there’s no grey area. The reality is that, once you get down to street level, there’s a whole lot of grey area. Survival does that to folks. When you’re living hand-to-mouth, you’re not going to turn down any advantage that comes your way. This is especially true of the ubiquitous street gangs filled with displaced and disaffected youth that roam almost every major city in the world. They’re a wild mish-mash of the scientifically-altered, the magically inclined, and plain vanilla, standard-issue humanity. I found myself quickly swept up into one of these mixed street gangs.
The leader of the gang, an older boy named Maximus, was an ancienttwenty-three years old and had massive burns across the left side of his body. His story was that he’d been attacked by a wild fire elemental at some point (his age at the time of the attack varied depending on his audience) which he’d supposedly defeated single-handedly by kicking open a fire hydrant and drowning the beast. As an impressionable twelve-year-old, I actually believed that story. Whatever really happened, the scars were real. The fire had left him blind in his left eye and had burned his left arm down to a nub. That’s why he had a completely cybernetic left arm and a rune branded into the scars on his bald head that allowed him to see better with his blind eye than he did with his working one.
See? Science and magic mix pretty freely when it’s a matter of survival and not principle.
Anyway, I found myself in this street gang, running cons and committing a wide variety of petty theft to get by. Every so often, Maximus would suggest that some of the rest of us should get “upgraded” so that we could run better cons and steal better stuff. And a lot of us did. Some of the kids went to chop shops and got new limbs. Some of them made appointments with shamans or witch doctors and got themselves runed. I ended up in a back-alley gene-jockey’s dank basement lab, screaming in pain.
I’m told that, in high-end gene joints, they knock you out or give you all sorts of great drugs that numb the pain of gene splicing or make it so that you just don’t care. That sounds nice. Unfortunately,thatkind of facility costs a lot of money (which I didn’t have) and most definitely will not work on someone under twenty-one without a guardian (which I also didn’t have) present for the procedure. The kind of facility that wouldwork on a kid like me gives you a double shot of industrial cleaner-grade moonshine and a mouthguard to bite down on. Almighty, it hurt. I swear to you, I felt every last genetic strand in my body get ripped apart and put back together by that gene-jock’s virus. At some point, I passed out. I remember coming to, sitting up in a panic, and gasping as waves of pain washed down my torso. Literally. I could watch the pain ripple across my skin due to my new DNA.
As a kid, I remember watching nature documentaries about the sea and being fascinated by how cuttlefish, squids, and octopi can change the color and pattern of their skin in a flash to blend into their environment or signal danger. If you’ve never seen a cuttlefish change colors, go look it up. The speed and control that they have is mind-blowing.
When I decided to take the next step in my life of petty crime, I’d remembered those old documentaries and bought myself a new skin which could change color and pattern in the blink of an eye. With my new cuttlefish DNA, I could blend into almost any environment and change my appearance quickly to avoid identification. It was awesome. My new skin made me a rockstar in the gang. I became the de facto scout, spy, and sneak thief for the crew. I got a lot of practice being quiet and maximizing the camouflage effect of my skin.None of that did me any good when, at sixteen years old, I tried to rob a tattooed, grey-robed lady named Lívia and was caught red-handed. Turns out Lívia was actually friar Lívia of the Marked Order of The Word. In retrospect, there was no way I was ever going to get the drop on that woman but I had no way of knowing that at the time. Lívia was inhumanly fast and impossibly strong and, before I even knew what had happened, she had me pinned with one hand against the pavement of the dark alley that I had tried to jump her in.
“Head, heart, fire. Head, heart, fire.” I inhaled sharply and closed my eyes. “Right, then.”
I released my held breath slowly.
The thing about The Word is that, the larger the tattoo, the stronger it is. Eelis has fully a third of his body dedicated to the Word for speed which allows him to move so fast that he’s just a blur to normal human eyes. I once knew a Marked brother whose entire body was covered with the Word for strength. He could literally rip entire buildings from the ground. Very few of my brothers and sisters have less than five tattoos. A tattoo that takes up even a quarter of your skin is immensely powerful.
As I exhaled, my skin exploded with tattoos. They crawled across my chest, arms, and face. All the power of The Word spinning across my body. I said a quick prayer to the Almighty for safety.
Facing a magic, talking, super zombie, and with a man down, I opened my eyes and turned my whole body into a canvas for one Word: flame.
Fire sprung up from nowhere and spun around me in a great, whirling tornado of flame. I spread my arms wide and the tornado expanded into a raging inferno as I yelled, “Hey, Mr. Dead guy!”
The draugr’s clouded eyes left Liliya and latched onto me.
“Catch!” I screamed as I lifted my arms and hurled the entire inferno up to the ceiling, arced it over Liliya’s head and slammed it down onto the dead man. It knocked him to the ground and and he burst into flame.
“Yeah!” I pumped my fists in the air and did a little victory dance, “Set. It. On. FIRE!”
“Hey! Stupid!” Liliya’s shout drew my attention and I looked at her as she held up two fingers. “Two words: Magic. Resistant. Remember?” She turned and pointed at the crackling figure on the floor.
The draugr was gathering its feet underneath it and struggling to stand up. Even engulfed in flame that should have reduced him to ash in seconds, this thing stood up, pulled an already red-hot dagger from its belt, and started walking towards Liliya even as flames ate away at its dessicated flesh.
“Ah. Right. Ok,” I said, thinking quickly, “Plan B, then…”
I took a quick breath and leapt to the right as, with a whirl, my tattoo rearranged itself into the Words for speedand inflammable. The world around me seemed to slow down to a crawl. Flickering flames looked like gently flowing water. Both Liliya and the draugr looked as though they were carved from stone. In the literal blink of an eye, I had circled the room and closed with the draugr from behind. My tattoos spun again and speedwas replaced by strength. The world lurched back into motion. The draugr, perhaps sensing me by instinct, craned his head to look at me over his shoulder as I drew back my arm and drove it with power-fueled strength through the flames and into its back. My hand burst through its chest holding its cold, petrified heart. The clouded eyes had time to register genuine surprise before the zombie fell to pieces and was consumed by flame.
I took several steps back from the bonfire of the draugr’s remains, still holding the thing’s heart. My skin gradually cleared of markings and returned to its normal pallor.
Liliya stepped over the burning corpse, ignoring the heat and flames and walked over to Eelis’s prone form.
“Wake up, man,” she said and poked him in the chest with her shoe, “no sleeping on the job.”
Eelis’s eyes fluttered and a moan escaped his lips. He slowly pulled himself up to a sitting position and looked around.
“Stupid draugr,” he muttered as he put a hand to his head. “Knew this place didn’t smell right. I said that, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you might have mentioned it,” I said as I walked over to him. “Here,” I tossed the petrified heart in his lap, “Have a little souvenir for your troubles.”
Eelis stared blankly at the lump of stone for a moment before knocking it to the floor with a disgusted grunt.
“Gross, man. Just… that’s just gross.” He glared at me as he stood up.
“Hey, guys?” Liliya was looking around the large room with careful eyes. “You don’t suppose there are more of those things hanging around, do you?”
Eelis stopped brushing the dust from his pants and tensed, his eyelids drooping down over his eyes as he listened intently.
“Um,” he said after a moment, “yeah. Yeah, I think there might be. There’s something moving around back there.” He pointed to the back of the ruined temple lobby to the doors that would have led into the inner sanctum. “And several somethings moving around upstairs.”
“Great. Let’s clear this place,” I said, straightening my ragged tunic, “I want to get back to my bed.”
The thing to know about The Church of Eternal Light and Darkness is that it was founded by well-meaning, overly optimistic people who also happened to have absolutely no understanding of human nature.
They sprung up around the time of The Return, when magic was new and everyone who had even a drop of talent was experimenting and trying to understand what it all meant. The Church of Eternal Light and Darkness – or Balancers as they liked to call themselves – believed that the state of equilibrium was the essence of beauty and worshipped the concept as a god. They were far from the first group to think that balance was beautiful but they were the first to use magic to take the idea to the extreme.
Whenever a member of The Church of Eternal Light and Darkness reached a certain point in their spiritual journey, they’d have a “balancing ceremony” where their local priest would assign them (or “seal” them as they called it) to either light or darkness. They would then devote themselves to becoming as militantly “good” or as creatively “vile” as possible. The priests were tasked with ensuring that the balance between those sealed to the light and those sealed to the dark remained steady.
The problem is that humans are not, by nature, creatures of balance. Eventually a priest would either decide that one side or the other was better or would just make a mistake and seal too many acolytes to light or dark and the whole thing would unravel. There were internecine wars that leveled entire city blocks for over a decade before the whole religion wiped itself out, leaving behind wrecked temples and pockets of twisted magic.
That’s why we’d been called in. Our order, The Marked of The Word, had successfully cleansed several Balancer temples in the past. When the local neighborhood council started getting reports that there had been a surge of dark activity at this old temple, they had asked us to do our thing again. We said yes, just like we always do. Risking our hides to help people in need is sort of our thing. It’s part of what it means to follow The Word.
Eelis led the way down the hallways leading to the main temple sanctum. Liliya and I crept along behind him, trusting his enhanced senses to detect any traps or approaching monstrosities. As we neared the door to the sanctum, we all became aware of an awful smell. Liliya and I didn’t need Eelis’s exceptional sense of smell to know that whatever was behind that door was bad news. The stench was absolutely revolting.
As we reached the entrance, Eelis held up a hand for us to pause a moment.
“Ok, so here’s the deal,” Eelis whispered as we gathered close, “Right now, I don’t hear anything moving in there. But surely even you numbnoses are smelling what I’m smelling?” When we nodded, he continued, “Well, that delightful bouquet is a combination of rotting corpses–probably unlucky victims–and grade-A, magical, undead types like the elbow happy jerk out front. At least a dozen of those guys, I’m guessing. There’s no movement in there but they could just be having a nice sit down and resting their feet. I don’t know…”
“Alright,” I said, “Well then, I guess we go in soft and slow and see what there is to see?”
Liliya gestured grandly to the door with a little bow and whispered, “After you, brother.”
“Gee, thanks,” I muttered as I turned my mind to The Word. My skin once again filled with a tattoos. This time, I chose the Words for perceiveand obscure. I didn’t know how resistant the draugr would be to a passive Word like obscurebut, in theory, it should hide me completely from detection. I didn’t usually need it for sneaking around (I had lots of practice being stealthy) but obscureshould also make me hard to see, smell, or detect magically. The first Word, perceive, should grant me greatly heightened senses like Eelis enjoyed.
Or maybe “enjoyed” was the wrong word. As the Word settled into my skin, the smell of the next room hit me in the face like a sledgehammer. Eelis, noticing my reaction, smirked at me.
“Such a delightful bouquet, no?” He was visibly straining to stifle his laughter.
“Dang, man,” I muttered, rubbing my nose furiously, “how do you live like this? What if you have to fart?!”
“Boys,” Liliya interrupted, “work now, juvenile humor later.”
Eelis and I nodded at each other and mumbled, “yes, mom” in unison as smiles were replaced by looks of concentration. Eelis slowly inched the door open and, when it was wide enough, I slipped into the inner sanctum of the Church of Eternal Light and Darkness.
Even in its current ruined state, the room was an impressive study in grand, beautiful contrast. The floor was an intricate pattern of black, white, grey, and ivory tiles in a pattern that seemed random yet strangely, beautifully balanced. The ceiling was covered in a gigantic mural depicting dozens of shadow-cloaked monstrosities locked in battle with shining figures of light.
Between the intricately tiled floor and the vaulted ceiling stretched soaring pillars of silver, ivory, ebony, and obsidian. Scattered around the room, their placement seemed almost random and yet, despite having no discernible pattern, they somehow felt balanced and evenly spaced. All except for one, which stood in the middle of the room. That one was a chaotic swirl of the materials that made up the other columns.
And at the foot of every pillar lay a gigantic, stone coffin carved with arcane symbols. Fifteen coffins for fifteen pillars. Twelve of the coffins were closed, presumably with their owners still inside, sleeping or whatever it is that draugr do with their off time. That left three open coffins. One must have belonged to the fellow that we had met in the lobby, leaving two draugr unaccounted for.
Hearing and seeing nothing moving, I returned to the others, silently closed the door, and recounted what I’d seen as my skin faded to normal.
When I’d finished, Liliya looked from Eelis to me with a small grin beginning to spread across her face.
“So then,” she said smugly, “I guess we’ll need something big, huh? Something along the lines of a great big fire, huh?”
“Yes, yes,” Eelis replied shortly, “it looks like you’re going to get to play with your toys after all.”
Liliya’s grin turned into a gigantic smile as she swung her pack off her back and opened it to reveal several, small, homemade firebombs. Made of some terrifyingly flammable material and runespelled so that they could only be set off by using a one-of-a-kind runestick trigger that Liliya had carved herself, these little packages of destruction were Liliya’s answer to not having any offensive Words tattooed on her small frame. Her reasoning was that she had a great, big inflammabletattoo so she ought to make the most of that by figuring out how to burn all the bad things that wereflammable. I personally think that was an excuse. Liliya just likes to tinker and to wreck things.
But, in this instance, I couldn’t argue with how useful it looked like her “toys” were going to be. Sure, I could pull my full-body firetrick again but man, bombs are so much easier.
“Alright, that’s a plan then,” I said with a sigh, “let’s get these things stuck on those coffins and have ourselves a little zombie barbeque, I guess.” I moved to open the door again, but Eelis stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
“Moishe, aren’t you forgetting something?” He raised an eyebrow at me. “Three empty coffins? One dead draugr? I’m not super great at math but that doesn’t add up to me, you know?”
“Crap. You’re right. Where…” I stopped, looked at Eelis, and then we both looked up at the ceiling as we heard a loud crash from upstairs.
“Ah,” I said, “Right. Ok, new plan. You two set the party favors and I’ll go deal with the upstairs neighbors.”
“Good plan, chief,” Eelis said with a smile. “Be super sneaky, alright?”“Always,” I replied as obscure and perceive slipped back onto my skin. “I’m good at sneaky.”
When I jumped Friar Lívia in that alleyway I had no idea how monumentally stupid of a move I was making. The way she moved was just… impossible for me to process. In the blink of an eye, I’d gone from urban predator to helpless baby with a face full of asphalt. It was a startling reversal, to put it mildly.
Even more surprising than how spectacularly wrong I had been about my target was the fact that Lívia didn’t turn me in. She didn’t even rough me up. What she did instead was buy me lunch and let me go. Over the next few months, I found myself mysteriously running into Lívia at really awkward times. Times like when I was just about to pick someone’s pocket or when I was leaving the apartment building that our gang’s fence used as her office. It seemed like every time I was about to or had just done something of dubious legality, I would look up and find Lívia nearby.
She never turned me in or scolded me or told me to change my wicked ways. She would just smile and ask me how I was doing and offer to buy me coffee or a sandwich. And, when I said yes (which I always did because you don’t turn down free food when you live on the street), we would talk.
Lívia always listened when I talked and she never judged me. She didn’t treat me like I was dangerous or diseased or “less than” just because I lived on the street or because I had obviously been spliced or because I had tried to mug her that one time. She just… listened. And she always answered any question that I asked even if the question was intentionally rude or waytoo personal. I asked her why she had tattoos on the palms of her hands. She told me that they were a mark of her religious devotion. I asked her why anyone would be so stupid and backward that they believed in religion instead of science. She didn’t get offended, she just replied that the two were not mutually exclusive. I asked how she managed a love life with tattoos all over her face. She just smiled and said it wasn’t something that she had problems with. I was so rude. She was so patient.
For months, we did this. I asked more questions. Lívia bought me more sandwiches. We became friends. I started to trust her and, eventually, I asked her the question that she was waiting for: did the church have any job openings for someone like me? Ok, so maybe that’s not exactly the question that she was hoping for but it was close enough. The next thing I knew, I was off the street and living in the guest quarters at the monastery. I was basically a janitor but I was happy for a place to sleep with four walls and three square meals. I helped clean up around the place, run errands, and do minor repairs. And I learned more about their religion. That wasn’t part of the job but, you know… you live with folks for a while and you start wanting to know more about them and what makes them tick.
I’d never encountered religion of any sort before and, in my ignorance, I’m sure I was more offensive than not in those early days. The monks of The Word were, for the most part, as open and friendly as Lívia had been, though. They took me in with no questions and treated me like a little brother. For the first time since my parents had died, I felt like I had something resembling a family. I learned a lot and came to not only understand what motivated Lívia and the “brothers” and “sisters” in the order but, much to my surprise, I started to believe it myself.
Science, as The Tower teaches it, is very much human-centric. It boils down to understanding the forces of nature so that they can be harnessed to serve humanity. Magic is pretty much the same thing, just different forces and processes. Religion, on the other hand, looks towards a higher – or at least greater – power than humanity. It requires putting your faith in and submitting to something or someone that’s outside of your control. That’s not a super attractive concept for most folks. Not when you can whip up a personal fusion reactor from a build-at-home kit or draw a few arcane runes to keep your house from getting burglarized while you’re out getting coffee. There’s just not a lot of “need” for a higher power in most people’s minds.
At the monastery, I saw the peace, humility, and sense of purpose that submission to The Word brought out in the monks. They were different and I wanted to be different too. I wanted that peace. I wanted my life to mean something for once.
It was Lívia who heard my confession and prayer when I decided that I was finally done with my old life and ready to start a new one in the church. It was Lívia who later petitioned the church leadership to allow me to join her order as one of The Marked. And it was Lívia who gave me the dedicated tattoo that changed my world forever.
It was also Lívia – now Abbess Lívia – who’d woken me up this morning and sent me to a wreck of a temple to fight stinky, magic superzombies. Thanks, Lívia.
I wouldn’t want to go back and relive it, but my old life sure came in handy at times. With my gang-life-learned sneak skills and the Words for obscure and perceive on my skin, staying under the radar and nearly invisible was a piece of cake.
I slipped up the stairs and onto the second floor without encountering anything moving. As I exited the stairs, I stopped at the entrance of what was clearly some sort of reception area for an administrative space. A wide, richly-carpeted reception area, the walls lined with chairs, was presided over by an exceptionally large reception desk. Behind the desk sat a ridiculously massive chair. I mean, this thing was practically a throne. It seemed like overkill for a receptionist but, who am I to judge? Two hallways extended back into the darkness on either side of the receptionist’s throne but I let my tattoos fade as I saw, with relief, that I wouldn’t need to go exploring them. The monstrosity of a throne was occupied by the headless body of a draugr. The other (and last by our count) draugr was in the middle of the room… mostly. It’s hard to be sure. There were a lot of pieces.
I slowly stepped into the room to try to get a look at what was left of the draugr on the floor. I guess I was distracted by the sheer carnage of the shredded corpse. Or maybe I was overconfident in my sneakiness. Either way, I was completely caught off guard when someone threw a bowling ball at the back of my head. That’s what it felt like, anyway.
I must have been thrown across the room because, the next thing I knew, I was up against the reception desk, blinking my eyes rapidly to try to get the number of rooms swimming in my vision down to a manageable number. I couldn’t quite stop the room from spinning but I saw that there was another person in the room, facing me. Of course there was. Bowling balls don’t throw themselves at people’s heads. Eventually, I was able to focus enough to realize that the other person was a woman in the telltale blue and green cloak of a Cabal ranger and, instead of juggling bowling balls, she had a string of small beads that she was spinning rapidly around her fingers.
“Wha… did you just hit me with tiny beads?” I said, trying to sound tough (hard to do when you’re crosseyed and too dizzy to stand), “is that the best the Cabal can afford? Budget cuts must be bad this year.” Not the best verbal jab, I know, but cut me some slack. Massive head trauma doesn’t exactly lend itself to quick thinking.
“Shut up,” the ranger growled. She spun her bead string in an intricate pattern around her fingers and thrust her hand in my direction. A wave of force hit me in the chest and I was shoved so hard into the desk that I heard the wood crack. At least, I hoped it was the wood that cracked.
“An initiate monk of The Word? That’s who the church sends to a place like this?” She slowly walked towards me, beads still spinning. “An unmarked amateur? Those idiots really don’t have a clue, do they?”
I tried to stand but, with a negligent flip of her wrist, the ranger spun her beads and I was hit in the knee with another blast of force and fell back on my butt.
“Stop that!” I said through gritted teeth. “What the hell, lady?!”
“Shut up, you idiot,” she replied, beads still spinning in an intricate pattern. She was a arcanokineticist (what most folks call a “motionist”), an unusual school of magic that channeled movement into power, kinda like they used to do in old-school kung-fu movies. She was using those beads on a string – begleri, I remembered – to create complex patterns of movement that generated a desired magical outcome. It was a tricky magical discipline to master and an even harder one to fight against since, as long as they could move, a motionist was dangerous.
I gritted my teeth and was about to fire off what was sure to be a stunningly witty comment on her potential ancestry when a noise from the stairwell caught the ranger’s attention for a second. A second was all that I needed. In a flash, my skin filled with the words for healing,speed, strength and weight. Or I tried to, at least. The ranger turned back to me in time to see the tattoos spin into focus on my skin and then flicker a moment before fading out and then back in (I was having trouble concentrating on account of the probable concussion). Her eyes grew wide for a moment before narrowing to slits as she hissed the word “abomination” and spun another massive wave of force at my face.
Luckily my tattoos were solid enough to work. I lifted my arm in a blur of speed to intercept the blow and, because I had made myself exceptionally heavy, I was not blown across the room this time but stayed rooted in place.
The ranger spun around, beads whirling, and made a yanking motion with her hand. The carpet under my feet responded by suddenly ripping free and jumping towards her, pulling my feet out from under me and dumping me on my backside again.
With a snarl, the ranger performed an exceptionally graceful pirouette, pointed at the elaborate marble ceiling, and pulled most of it down on my head, pinning me to the ground. My tattoos flickered again and faded away completely. As the dust (and my vision) cleared, I saw the ranger standing over me holding a wicked looking knife. With a sharp, backhanded motion, she slashed at my throat. I managed to get an arm up in front of the blade but it sliced through my tunic and laid the flesh of my arm open almost to the bone, exposing inky black muscle and spilling bright red blood on the ground.
“Freak,” she spat in my face. “Gene-spliced and Marked? What kind of perversion are you?! I can’t believe that even the church would create a freak like you.”
“Hey,” I heard from the direction of the stairwell. The Cabal ranger turned to assess the new threat as Liliya stepped into the room. “Please step away from the freak. He belongs to us.”
“Ungh,” I grunted, gritting my teeth and trying to shift some of the collapsed ceiling off of my chest with the arm that hadn’t been filleted, “I’m right here. If everyone’s going to call me names, can you at least have the manners to do it behind my back?”
Both Liliya and the ranger looked at me and said “shut up” in unison before turning to glare at each other briefly.
“You shouldn’t be here, monk,” the ranger said to Liliya. “Get out now before I have to thrash you and your freak.”
Liliya gave the Cabal ranger a small smile. “It’s nice to see you too, Anika.”
When I was a kid, we used to use the Cabal to scare each other. We didn’t sit around the campfire and tell ghost stories. We told Cabal stories. The Cabal was this great, big, scary organization of monsters that lived in the shadows and who would jump out and eat your soul if you tattled on a classmate or if you broke a promise. They were, to Tower-raised kids, the ultimate boogeymen.
When I got older, I stopped believing in boogeymen, but I learned the truth about the Cabal. They still scare the bejeezus out of me.
The Tower is the authority when it comes to anything in the realm of science. Their opposite on the side of magic is The Council. They’re a group of the most powerful magic users in the world. They wield an insane amount of power – enough power to bury continents and burn the world. Possibly simultaneously. As luck would have it, they’re also all giant egomaniacs and, for the most part, keep each other in check. They don’t spend much time thinking about, let alone meddling in, the lives of normal folks. They have other people for that – groups, committees, covens, and circles of magic users who take care of the day-to-day administration, policing, and education of the magical community. But the group that gives most people the willies is the Cabal.
The Cabal exists to do The Council’s dirty work. They track down and neutralize rogue warlocks, destroy infestations of dark magic (like the one in the Church here), and deal with magical elements in the criminal underworld when necessary. They also carry out “neutralizations” (read: assassinations), perform “interrogations” (read: torture), and are authorised to use whatever magic they deem necessary to get the job done – even the illegal, ultra-black magic that The Council expressly forbids others to use. The Cabal is the dagger in the dark that the Council uses when they can’t get their own hands dirty. They are extremely talented, utterly ruthless, and completely dedicated to enforcing the will of The Council. You really don’t want to attract their attention and you certainly don’t want to try to go up against them in a straight up fight.
And now I was doing just that. Wasn’t it just my lucky day?
“Don’t you ‘Anika’ me, Liliya,” Anika spat. “That… thing,” she waved her hand in my direction, “is wrong and you know it.”
“Still right here,” I mumbled, clamping a hand around my arm wound in an attempt to slow my bleeding. I must have taken one too many blows to the head because my tattoos wouldn’t stay put long enough for me do anything useful with them. Also, I was seeing double. Probably a good sign that I wasn’t all there.
“He’s not ‘wrong’ Anika,” Liliya replied. “He doesn’t fit into your boxes, but that doesn’t make him an abomination.”
“You’d know all about boxes, wouldn’t you? You and your religious nuts.” Anika turned and glared daggers at me. “How about I blast a hole in his chest so you can put him in a real box? A nice pine one.” She started spinning her beads again.
“Anika,” Liliya took a step towards the ranger, hands out by her sides, palms up. “He’s one of us. You know I won’t let you hurt him anymore. He’s family.” Liliya lowered her voice as she took another step towards the ranger. Her eyes took on a hard, determined look.
“You know how I feel about family, Ani.”
Anika looked Liliya in the eyes for a long moment before muttering, “fine” and let her spinning beads slow to a stop.
She roughly shoved them into her pocket before pointing at Liliya.
“Fine! But I am telling the Cabal about him,” her pointing finger shifted to me before returning to Liliya, “and if I ever see him again, I’m going to do what I should have done tonight, do you understand me?”
“You do as you feel is best, Ani. You always do whether it’s truly the right thing or not.”
“Thanks for the lecture. I don’t need another mom, Lil.” Anika turned to leave.
“She’d love to hear from you, you know.” Liliya said softly. Anika paused. “Mom still prays for you every day, Ani.”
“Yeah,” Anika said without turning around. “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I don’t need her prayers. Maybe prayers aren’t enough.” Without a sound, the ranger slipped down the stairwell. She never looked back.
Liliya watched her go and stood for a long moment, quietly looking in the direction that she went until I cleared my throat.
“Ehem. Little help here?”
“Right,” Liliya said, jumping a little at the sound of my voice. “Sorry. Let’s get you out of there.”
Liliya’s enhanced strength made short work of the marble slabs pinning me to the ground and she propped me up against a wall while she tied a quick tourniquet around my arm. Then she fished some aspirin out of a pocket.
“Not generally a good idea when you’re bleeding, of course, but, if we can get your head on straight, you should be able to heal that up.”
I dry swallowed three of them before raising a questioning eyebrow at her.
“You just happen to have a pile of aspirin in your pocket?”
“Working with you, headaches are astoundingly common.” She smiled at me. “Also, two-week bender with Yōkai, remember?”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.” I rubbed my temples with my fingers, already feeling better.
“So,” I said, hesitantly, “your… sister is with The Cabal?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “I’m the oldest of six. Ani is the youngest. Fell in with a bad crowd when I was off at school. She doesn’t really talk to any of us anymore.
Thinks we’re backwards idiots for following the Word.”
“I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine what that’s like, Liliya.” We were quiet for a moment. “Thank you for standing up for me. That had to be hard with her being family and all.”
Liliya looked down at the floor quietly for a moment before she responded.
“You see this tattoo?” She pointed to her left arm where I could see part of the word strength. The tattoo actually took up almost her entire left side – arm, torso, leg, even part of her neck. “The Word seeps into you, you know? It takes on more meaning the longer you wear it. The longer you meditate on it. When I was younger, I only thought about strength in terms of physical ability. But it’s more than that. It’s mental and emotional.” She looked sadly towards the staircase. “I can be strong for the people I love. I can be strong for her even though she doesn’t want me to. One day Ani will need a sister again. When that day comes, I’ll be there to give her the strength that she needs.”
Liliya sighed, then stood and brushed her hands off on her pants.
“Anyway, we should get back to Eelis. You feeling up to it?” She reached out a hand to help me up.
“Yup,” I replied as I took her hand and stood up. I stretched my arms above my head and tattoos once again flew across my skin, settling into the words for strength, healing, and clarity.The room stopped spinning and I took a deep breath as my bones and flesh knit and the aches and scrapes faded. I sighed in relief.
“Alright,” I said, “Let’s finish this up and go home.”
Initiates of the Marked get one tattoo when they enter the order and don’t get another one for at least another four years. That first tattoo, dedicated, takes time to sink in. Our Words aren’t surface markings like other tattoos. Sure, The Word starts on your skin but, as time goes on, it literally seeps into your being, marking your muscles, organs, and even your bones. Initiates spend their first four years meditating on the meaning of dedication. They are required to demonstrate a true understanding of the Word before they are allowed to take another.
Marked Monks spend a lot of their time meditating on The Word – studying, writing, striving to understand the full depth of the concepts that mark them. The deeper our understanding, the stronger the effect of our marks and the deeper our tattoos sink into our bodies. In some of our monasteries, they display the bones of deceased monks. It sounds macabre but those bones, the black lines of The Word covering their surfaces, are a sign of their former owners’ dedication and understanding and are a huge inspiration to the rest of us. We all strive to be marked to the bone by our beliefs and it’s nice to know that it’s not impossible.
One of the reasons that there was resistance to my joining the order was a concern that the nature of my skin would make it impossible for me to properly meditate on The Word. There were elders who worried that my marks could never be more than skin deep.
I don’t like people telling me that I can’t achieve something. I threw myself into the study of The Word. I don’t meditate on a handful of Words. I spend hours and hours of each day – sometimes whole weeks from sunup to sundown – studying the entirety of The Word. I want to understand it. I want it to permeate my mind, body, and soul.
Before today, even I didn’t know if it would ever be possible for my bones to join those of the revered brothers and sisters. Maybe the elders were right. Maybe my genetics would keep The Word from growing in me.
Anika’s knife wound was, in its own bloody, painful way, a gift. By laying open my arm, she showed me that The Word had, in fact, marked me deeper than my skin. I’d never heard of a Marked whose flesh was a solid black like mine but there was only one explanation for it. The ever-changing Words that crossed my skin had blended together and seeped into my being. It gave me hope.
We made it back to the sanctum without incident, creeping along and keeping a sharp eye out for draugr and pissed-off, little sister Cabal killers. We found Eelis sitting on the floor just outside the main doors, feet stretched out in front of him like a toddler. As we got closer, I could see that he was literally twiddling his thumbs.
“Are you twiddling your thumbs?” I whispered to him. “Seriously? Who even does that?”
Eelis shrugged and grinned up at me.
“Got bored. Didn’t have any cards for solitaire.” He glanced at my torn and bloody clothes. “Not all of us were off dancing with Draugr.”
“Not Draugr,” I replied. “Cabal.”
All pretense of playfulness left Eelis’s face.
“We good boss, or do I need to prep some more party favors?”
I waved the worry away. “No, we’re good. Liliya vouched for me and they let me go with a warning.”
Eelis’s eyebrows bunched as he looked a question at Liliya. She sighed.
“Long story. Not important right now.” She pointed at the door to the sanctum. “We ready to party?”
“You know it, Lil,” Eelis replied, the impish grin returning to his face. “All wired up for a real big bonfire. Wish I’d brought some marshmallows!”
“Awesome. Great. Let’s do it then.” I was exhausted and ready to go home. “Eelis, you head back out to the lobby and watch for trouble on account of you being terribly flammable.” I let the Words for inflammable, strength, and wind slide onto my skin. “Liliya and I will sort these guys out.”
Eelis nodded reluctantly and headed for the door, mumbling.
“Never get to have any fun. No dancing with cabal, no playing with explosives, no zombie bonfire, no roasting marshmallows… Eelis go watch the door. Eelis, go listen for the bad guys. Eelis, go see what that smell is…” His voice trailed off as he walked away. I winked at Liliya.
“Poor guy. Never gets to have any fun.”
She nodded as she dug the control stick for the incendiary bombs out of her pocket. “Yeah. Maybe we can get him some ice cream on the way home to make it up to him.”
“Good call,” I said with a smile, “Nothing helps a guy forget about not being allowed to face mortal danger and potentially catch a bad case of death by flaming zombies like ice cream.”
She held up the control stick.
I took a deep breath and then nodded. “Yep.”
And, with a quick rub of her thumb on the ignition rune, she set the bombs off.
There was a massive WHUMP that knocked the doors to the sanctum off their hinges and Liliya and I quickly stepped through the doorway and into an inferno. I raised my hands and summoned a whirling vortex of wind that concentrated and contained the flame to the sanctum while simultaneously stoking the flames higher and hotter. The coffins containing the remaining draugr started popping open like chestnuts in a fireplace, revealing the hulking forms of burning draugr getting to their feet and stumbling towards us.
They looked super pissed-off.
As they got close to us and the edge of the bonfire, Liliya charged into the fire and body-checked the draugr back into the inferno like a hockey enforcer. The flames burned so hot that the stone fixtures and columns throughout the sanctum exploded into rubble and the silver and gold ran in molten rivers across the floor. Even so, it took almost twenty minutes to reduce the draugr to twitching piles of charred bone.
I swapped out wind for flame and commanded the fire to snuff itself out. When the smoke cleared, I could see stars through a massive hole that we’d burned through the ceiling. Where the fire had burned, nothing was left but rubble and ash. We checked the ash for signs of life just in case. Never can be too careful where dark magic is concerned.
We found Eelis by the front door, sitting on a stone bench, sulking.
“Oh,” he said, without looking up, “Done already? Have lots of fun? Kill all the bad guys like big heroes?”
“Yes,” I replied, “All the scary bad zombies are dead. Time to go home and go to bed.”
“Unless…” Liliya said.
Eelis looked up at her scowling. “Unless what?”
“Well,” she said with a small grin, “I could really go for some ice cream after all that fighting evil.” She put on a mock-serious face. “Ah, but you probably don’t want to do that. Too busy being grumpy, I suppose.”
“Ice cream?” Eelis replied with an exaggerated, put-upon sigh. “That’s fighting dirty buuuuuut I suppose I can overlook it.” He pointed a finger at her. “But don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing. You know that ice cream is my favorite.”
“Is it?” Liliya said, eyes wide in feigned innocence. “I had no idea.”
“Fine, fine. Ice cream, then.” I said, herding them both out the door. “Why not? Who needs sleep, anyway?”
Eelis grinned and slapped me on the back.
“Sleep?” He laughed. “Sleep is for the dead! Ice cream is for the living!