The reliquary of La Chiesa di Ánima Alektos was haunted, or so the crueller rumours ran. Within drifted a shattered apparition, grotesque, that hid its shame from the world beneath a gray, misshapen hood. A spectre whose very passing chilled the air and left a trail of frost in her wake.
Lieutenant Persephone Matthewson knew this, because just that morning over breakfast, she’d heard an older boy telling two young acolytes about it through the door of their cell. She’d fled as soon as the tale had begun to spell out her grotesquerie. “… her crooked eyes seethe beneath her hood, and she spits the very winter with her hiss…”
That was one time! Persephone thought, as she opened the door to the reliquary, and shut it behind her. A droplet of ice ran down her cheek, and she furiously scrubbed it away before it could freeze to her reading glasses. I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep going to pieces any day Helga isn’t here. Why isn’t she here?!
The thought was selfish, and for an awful moment she found herself wishing for one of the old Kamzite scourges she’d kept in her room, all those terrible years ago. At least back then the searing cuts and the smell of blood would have restored her mind to order, if not calm. Helga had never quite forbidden it, but there’d been a wounded look that came over her eyes the one time Persephone had raised it. Helga hadn’t answered, and Persephone had had the good sense never to raise the idea again.
But now, by herself, her back itched in her furious shame, along the scars that revealed where she’d once been torn apart. Only her own innate talent for regeneration had restored her, if imperfectly.
Persephone wasn’t sure if it was the damage to her body, or her mind, or simply the suffering they’d all been through fighting a necromancer uprising in the north. But ever since, the days without Helga were emotionally fragile.
What good is it if I can hold her hand while we walk, or kiss her in public, but people still turn their eyes away because of my scars? I turn their stomachs. Their children call me puzzle-ghast behind my back.
She closed her eyes, and drew long draughts of breath, taking in the scent of ancient leather and old hardwoods that perfumed her refuge. Every exhalation spread a patch of frost on the floor, which evaporated quickly under the already oppressive heat of spring. Without looking, she reached over to lay her hand atop the first of seventeen boxes, warded and runed.
By rote, she summarized the story, burying her anguish in the tale of another’s. “Within this box lies the trowel of Mathilda Veracrenza, canonized Saint Fieri. When Mount Posta erupted, and fire and ash swept down towards her home, she threw down her gardening and raised her hand, and struck the stones of the slope. Her blow moved the very mountain, and saved the lives of her family, her town, and her precious garden. She gave of her soul for the lives of the faithful, and lived out her days dimmed, and diminished.”
Her hand moved to the next box. Her breath steadied as she assuaged the demands of her office, and the runes bound within her, to protect the stories of the relics. “Within lies the silver comb of Giorgio Bacigalupi, the only precious thing he owned, which he drew through the hair of his wife one thousand times a night. When a fire spread from an alchemist’s experiment, a fire that consumed and burned magic as if it were fuel, his wife was burned terribly when she tried to conjure water to save their home. Her beautiful hair burned, and her-”
Persephone faltered, and looked away from her own hand, before continuing. “- skin burnt to bone. When he found her dying, he drew on his faith and his grief. His scream pulled the very water from beneath the ground, weeping with him in his sorrow, and flooded all the town of Luciazo. Four died in the fire, three more in the flood, but the town and countless more lives were spared. Where conjured water failed, the water he drew from the earth held true, and quenched the flames. He was found weeping over his wife, drawing the comb very gently through what remained of her hair, in preparation for her funeral.”
“Within lies the violin of the infant son Giamatti Bucepo-“
The sound of heavy, armored footsteps coming up the hallway outside brought Persephone to a halt, and she drew upright. A moist breath escaped her lips, and she bit down on an icicle of hope forming in her mouth, swallowing it before it could burst free prematurely. Normally, on any good day, it was just one pair of iron greaves that thudded on the wood of the hallway floor outside the reliquary.
The door opened, and it was clear from the look on Helga’s face that it would not be a good day.
It’s me that’s supposed to wear the masks, Persephone thought. It’s me that’s supposed to keep it all in.
Helga’s face was stoney, her lips set in a grim, flat line. The dwarf’s eyes softened as she met her lover’s gaze, but her face didn’t relax, not one bit.
Persephone let out a breath that painted a second’s worth of nervous frost down her face, before it evaporated in the heat. “What’s happened, Helga?”
Helga stepped in, shut the door, and then walked up and drew Persephone down into a tight, hard hug. Persephone returned the embrace, ignoring the old tug and ache of her scars throughout her body.
“It’s bad, dearie,” Helga said softly. “Troubling bad. We should go outside to discuss it.”
Persephone’s sweat froze to her brow, and she shivered. Discussing it outside means Helga expects me to lose control, she thought. Saint Brumelia, give me strength, give me calm. I don’t want to go outside, where people will see me, and avert their eyes. I don’t want to go outside. Out where they’ll stare at me if I scream and spit ice like some petulant toddler who hasn’t learned better yet.
“Let’s sit, love, instead,” Persephone whispered, nervously adjusting her glasses. “I don’t want them to stare.”
Helga cupped Persephone’s hand in her gauntlet, and brought it up to her own cheek. Helga gazed up at the taller woman, and willed a smile to her face. “How can they stare, dearie, when you’re so hidden away in your cowl? You’re as beautiful as ever to me. When I can see you in there, that is.”
It’s not about how beautiful you think I am, Persephone thought, not for the hundredth time. But of all the people on the face of the world, Helga was the last person Persephone wanted to snap at. So instead, Persephone sat on the floor.
After an awkward moment, Helga eased herself down beside her, and slumped wearily. “There’s no softening this hammer, love,” the dwarf said. “You’re being called up for this. We’re reopening the Scrimshaw Spider case. Looks like the Merchant’s Guild, or someone rich and begrudged, decided a Crimson Cloak needed a crossbow bolt in his throat. The corpse has a rune that keeps us from remembering his face.”
A tremble ran up Persephone’s spine, chill spilling out of her pores as icy terror followed the news. She exhaled a shuddery mewl, the memory of caves and long green grasping things and something pulling and squeezing me and a bone giving way inside me then another and then another and all I could hear was my own screams and bones breaking and-
Persephone’s terror and magic came boiling helplessly out of her skin. The right lens of her reading glasses snapped in half under the stress of the temperature differential. The glass fell away, revealing an eye rheumed in hoarfrost underneath.
Helga quickly shook her gauntlets off, and reached up to remove Persephone’s glasses. Then she pressed the warmth of her palms against her lover’s eyes. “Oi, oi, no dearie, no, you’ll start the headaches again doing that,” the dwarf said, frantically brushing a kiss against her lips. “No dearie, none of that now, we need you, I need you. Because I’m frightened too, dearie, I’m frightened too and I need my hero. That’s you. So be my hero again today, dearie, be my hero. Don’t be there and then. Be here and now.”
A sob tore from Persephone’s lips, clattering shards of ice across the floor. Helga embraced her tightly, and Persephone shuddered anew. I died. I died and I didn’t see the Divine. I died and they put me together again from all those pieces but I didn’t see the Divine. I should be dead. I was dead. I don’t ever want to be dead again, or trapped in an imbecile body, learning to walk and talk again.
I don’t want to think about what it means, that I didn’t see the Divine. That I was denied. I should be dead.
Persephone’s arms tightened around Helga again. And here’s all I have that keeps me from wishing I were dead. And she needs me.
“I should have gone outside with you,” Persephone blurted, another clatter of ice and frost leaving her lips alongside the words, emotion running riot over her control.
Helga laughed into a sob, and scooped up a bit of the ice to wipe the dust caking under her own eyes. “Aye, dearie, you should have. But that’s okay. We’re here now.”
Persephone swallowed, and did her best to pull herself together. “Tell me what we’re to do.”
“We’re going to join Captain Pramath. The body we found, with that rune on its face? We’re not sure how, but it keeps you from remembering what he looks like. Captain says I’ve seen his face at least three times now, and I know he has too. Neither of us can remember it, only what we’ve written down.”
Persephone frowned. “A rune to make others forget your face. That’s complex work, isn’t it? Like that fascinator rune they used on the fortress, when they killed-“
Everyone. When they killed everyone. The entire fortress at Frostmoor. The thought brought another burst of fear, and Persephone hastily spat out a flurry of snow over Helga’s shoulder. By now, the room was cool enough to keep the morning heat away.
Helga squeezed her hard, and then settled into a companionable lean against the much taller woman. “Aye, dearie,” she said, her voice subdued. “More complex than I’ve any mind for. We need you there. There’s more bones moving in the forest, and we’re going to have to go and hunt them down. Captain wouldn’t call on you for this, but we don’t have many eyes that have seen these bastard’s work first-hand. He wants his team close by. We’ll even be calling in Blackthorne, from the sound of it.”
At that, Persephone frowned deeply. “That’s even more cruel than calling me in for this,” she whispered.
Helga nodded. “Aye, t’is dearie, but orders are orders.”
Persephone hung her head between her hands, replaying memories, hated and buried. Caves, and a winter that never ended, and the fear that never stopped, that today we’d be discovered, today the undead would find us. Or they’d drop artillery from the fortress on us. Or we’d die a thousand ways in a thousand frozen holes trying to stop those hateful, grave-robbing bastards.
And Blackthorne. She was a difficult, prickly bitch, who got into arguments with the Captain every week or two when things were bad. Woke us up with her screaming most mornings. Smart, and unstoppable when you gave her time to plan. But she was always the kind of smart that could forget other people around her had working minds, too. Thank the Saints she could cook, that forgives a lot of sins.
I’d never want her under my command again, but she was a friend, Persephone thought, bitterness painting sharp bits of frost along her tongue. And saints know I haven’t any of those left anymore but the Captain.
Persephone brushed a kiss against Helga’s cheek, and rose to her feet, shifting from foot to foot. “Let’s go get ready then, before I think about it too much,” Persephone said.
“That’s my hero,” Helga replied, and raised a hand. “Help me up?”
Ramdas waited at the church camp, the zebra-striped centaur frisking from hoof to hoof, frowning in displeasure. A camp sentry let Helga and Persephone past, though not without a double-take at the taller woman’s disfigurement.
“She took those scars fighting the evil that dead man’s cult wrought,” snapped Helga at the sentry. “If you’re going to stare, dearie, you do it in her honor!”
The man raised both hands in placation. “Yes Sergeant!” He hastily bowed as Persephone rearranged her grey cowl around her face, in doing so revealing her rank insignia on her collar. The sentry paled as the three brass suns on her collar gleamed in his torchlight, and he saluted swiftly. “Pardon ma’a- Lieutenant.”
Ramdas waved them over to his open-air tent. A few lamps lit the interior, casting warm orange light over a table, and the map atop it. “Caballeros, come see. We’ve had six more sightings from the scouts while we were away. Bones at work, always at a distance.”
“Work?” asked Persephone. “Hauling bodies?”
The centaur shook his head. “No. They were carrying deadfall. One was carrying a dead beaver.”
“For someone’s supper, or for the bones, dearie?” Helga asked.
“Could be either or both,” Ramdas replied, tapping the map. “Attend. About six years ago, there was a sawmill and paper mill opened, three kilometers down the road. House Ridenza opened it, and then it changed hands about a year and a half later. The new owners immediately shut it down, and locked the workers out. Presumably Montaigne nobles. They fired everyone, said they were replacing the workers with automatons, and exporting all the paper for the war effort.”
Persephone and Helga shared a glance, and grimaced. “And since then?” Helga asked.
Ramdas shook his head. “They brought the automatons in, broke the strike, and the workers had to find other trade. There’s been bandit problems ever since. Unemployed woodsmen finding other work.” Ramdas arched his eyebrows. “Convenient. The occasional disappearance or corpse disposal would not go unexpected, si? I would think, with our foe’s history of using automatons alongside necromancy, we have a paper mill to investigate.”
“Yes sir,” Helga said. “Is the investigatory bureau on this?”
Ramdas inclined his head. “Si, but…” he lowered his voice, giving a runed button on his jacket a twist. Silence descended around them, the wards of the jacket allowing no sound in or out from their discussion. “… the number of detectives cleared for Scrimshaw Spider are very few, and fewer still on active duty. Blackthorne has been requested, but I do not know when we may expect her, or if it will be her at all. Until then, it is up to us, si? We pacify the area, ensure it is safe for the holy engineers and detectives to do their jobs.”
Persephone cleared her throat, and cast Ramdas a questioning glance. He held up a forestalling hand.
“Si, Lieutenant Matthewson. I know, you would prefer to stay in your reliquary. But you represent one quarter of the sum of the Church’s experience and knowledge of Scrimshaw Spider. We need you, and in a thick forest like this, we need your wards and spear, too.”
Persephone and Helga shared a look. “We wouldn’t be anywhere else, sir,” Helga said. “Not when it comes to these grave-robbing bastards, aye?”
Ramdas looked to Persephone to confirm, and his glance was met with a tight, tiny nod.
“Good. Bunk up, Caballeros, and get some sleep. We move at dawn.”
Martin Andrews set his paintbrush down, and carefully blotted a bit of excess paint from his easel. He straightened up from the canvas with a groan of relief. A smile spread across his face as he brushed a bit of paint-spatter from his crimson cloak, and stood.
“Oh, that feels fine to stand, Cristo!” he exclaimed as he stretched.
The automaton in the corner didn’t reply, or pause in its work. To the metal figure’s left stood a box of nearly empty paper. To its right, a box of nearly full paper, each page creased in identical lines and painted in identical strokes. Runes of fire and air wound together, explosive potential bound into paint and paper.
Cristo didn’t reply, but Cristo never did. Martin preferred that the dead man locked inside the metal remain silent. They all screamed so much if he’d let them, and Martin preferred the quiet to paint in. He checked Cristo’s paint-pot, and refilled it, his eye watching as the automaton continued to make the exact same paint-strokes. Each rune was painted identically in every way, as they had been for the last three years without pause.
Fire and air. The elements of a good sunrise, Martin thought in satisfaction. Red for change, red for the cause, red for revolution.
He turned his eyes to the canvas he’d been painting. The city of Coroesta spread out beneath his third story window, high atop Milea Hill. On the canvas, the city streets were a simple contrast of white and deep blues, with the black of the midnight sea hanging like a skirt off the horizon. The king’s palace was lit in glorious, garish colours, painted in place to match the hues the king’s decorators shone on the palace every evening.
Not bad for starting by moonlight, he thought. Not my best work, but I’m not going to waste my best for this.
Down on the lane below, another figure in a crimson cloak was approaching, walking up the hill with a comfortable, plodding pace. His hood covered his face. Martin’s smile widened, and he made his way down the stairs to meet the visitor. From his pocket, he plucked two little origami birds, and with a flick of his hand sent them spinning into the air, where they began to circle overhead.
Martin was many things, but careless was never one of them. The little paper birds hovered above the door, awaiting his signal. The door opened, and the stranger in the crimson cloak drew his hood down.
His face was unfamiliar, but his passphrase was pleasantly novel. “Spare a traveller a cup of Gladioli tea?”
Martin scratched his beard, the gesture-signal sending the paper birds back into his pocket. Then he laughed. “Well, it wouldn’t do to be inhospitable.”
At the word ‘inhospitable’, the other man in the crimson cloak slipped his dagger back into his sheath from under his cloak, stepped in, and shut the door. He shook hands with Martin. “Good to see you again, Martin. Come show me how the aviary’s doing.”
“Again? We’ve met before?” asked Martin, scanning the man’s unfamiliar face. Then came a pause, and a small laugh. “Finally get tired of the last body, Daniel?” he asked, as he led the man up the stairs of the tower.
“No, but that’s part of what I’m here to talk about today. Merchant’s guild targets are off the table, as of now.”
Martin’s hand slapped the banister, and he turned to glare at Daniel in displeasure. “What?! The point is revolution, Daniel. The merchants are the worst of the bourgeoisie. They have to be torn down. I can’t count how many times you’ve said so.”
Daniel gave a disconsolate grunt. “And I stand by that. But if we’re going to effect real change, we have to pick our battles. Church and state are fight enough. The Guild sent me a message, via a Negator. Have you ever met one before?”
Martin shook his head. “No. Unpleasant?”
“In the extreme. She undid my skeletons instantly. I even tried to drop some from the trees, to see if they’d reach her before she got them. Not a chance. Every lick of magic I threw at her while she hunted me, she just erased, as if it had never been. Then she shot me- well, that body, in the throat, and gave me the message.”
Martin’s eyebrows climbed. “Which was?”
“They’re willing to stand back, and let the dice roll, so long as we don’t bet against them. They think we’ll lose, and destroy ourselves in doing so. But if we’re successful, we’re going to pay all we owe their way. That’s their take on it.”
“I don’t like it, Daniel. You tell your superiors they should keep the spirit of the revolution close to their heart.”
Daniel nodded glumly. “Believe me, nobody’s happy about it. But we’re compromised, at least strategically. The guild has spies in every court and alongside every minister, and they’ve penetrated further than the Montaigne or Venician intelligence apparatus has.”
“Like I tell you, Daniel: Every wall has ears and every banner has a tongue. We can’t make them all our own.”
“Not all,” Daniel said. “Not many, in fact. The Hanshu, in particular, they’re careful not to leave anyone sensitive unattended around us. Yet they’re cooperative. Very cooperative. And if the messenger the Guild sent me is to be believed, they’ll be coming with the richer offer.”
Martin sank into his chair, and passed Daniel the half-pot of tea gone cold. Daniel sniffed it, wrinkled his lip, and poured himself a cup.
“And both Hanshu and the Thousand Kingdoms, they’re on board?”
Daniel nodded slowly. “For the Hanshu, emptying out their old tombs and crypts for them is a sensitive bit of favor, but it is a favor. They’ve got their servitors bound in those ancient tombs. Every few years some peasant or another falls in and gets cut up or torn apart. So we empty out their old tombs, move them at night, and march them to the nearest coast. Hanshu gets a lot less centuries-old undead headaches on their land, and we get free troops we’re committing against a rival nation.”
“While they can deny any official knowledge,” Martin said, lips quirking in approval.
“Of course. They’re keeping their denials plausible. We have to kill the occasional guard or lose a few bones here and there to keep up the pretense. Meanwhile, hundreds of undead stream in every day, all of them now ours.”
Martin ran his fingers through his beard thoughtfully. “And the Thousand Kingdoms?”
“Four kingdoms out, everyone else in. They’ve got all that wartime dead, and more every day. There’s a lot of fresh casualties out there, and the Montaigne army has left behind some convenient massacres. So long as we stay away from their supply lines, the army leaves our packs of undead alone. They don’t want to pick a fight they don’t have to, and all anyone there sees is the dead marching into the nearest seas. I’ve had some of the cults spread the rumour that it’s for cleaner burial, so their ghasts won’t haunt the land and leave it angry.”
“That’s a clever touch,” Martin said. “Disguising the recruitment as public service.”
“Shame they don’t bind their dead the way the Hanshu once did. Much more useful, those old Hanshu skeletons. Smart, skilled. Prone to disobedience, though.”
Martin tapped his forehead, and cracked a grin. “A universal affliction of the smart and the skilled, or so you’ve told me.”
That, at least, made Daniel smile, and he fidgeted with his teacup for a long second. “The stakes are going to get very real again, very soon, Martin. This can’t go like Frostmoor. We did alright up there, but we should have done better. I’ll need you in command of our cells in Coroesta, and by extension all of Venicia, after the attack.”
“Well that would explain the briefing,” Martin said, and smiled.
He then turned and gestured to his newest painting on the easel and the pile of framed canvases along the wall. Each one prominently featured important buildings around the city at different times of day.
“Leave it to me, Daniel. We’re all set. I’ve got paintings at dawn, noon, dusk, and midnight, of every target on the list. And if we’re taking the Guild holdings off the target list, well, that’s much more of my little birds ready to flock.”
“Speaking of. I’ve come to get more cases of your birds. Waterproofing failed on two of them.”
“Take as many as you need, Daniel. It’s for a good cause, after all.”
Daniel lifted his teacup Martin’s way. “Let fly in a fortnight. All of them. Make a mess, Martin. And let’s add a few more churches on the list. I’m told that centaur’s operating out of the churches here, and he’s hailed as the hero of Frostmoor. Do you think that elevates him enough to make a plausible target? Or am I being petty?”
Martin laughed. “Why not! He’s a symbol and figurehead. It’s enough of an excuse. You don’t want him for yourself, then?”
The blond-haired man shook his head. For a moment, Martin’s eyes caught a shimmer on Daniel’s forehead, a play of the light along the young man’s golden locks. A heartbeat later, Martin forgot all about it.
“No,” Daniel said. “I think this time I’d like an example made. Flatten all their barracks, church and state, shipyards, docks, and the granaries. Do whatever it takes to keep them busy. Too busy, domestically, to care about one more of Montaigne’s fortresses changing hands.”
Martin beamed, and withdrew one of his little paper birds from his pocket. He blew on it, and the origami bird caught the air and fluttered into motion. It wheeled twice, oriented on the painting, and flew into it. It fluttered and beat itself against the canvas and damp paint, like a moth against a lamp.
“I can hardly wait.”
If you’d like to spread the word about From Winter’s Ashes, vote for us on TopWebFiction.com, or better yet, write a review at WebFictionGuide.com, Goodreads, or Amazon. Or visit our Facebook page and share it with your friends!