Chapter 2: The Journey 2


Sethlzaar had heard of them.

Every living thing had a gift from Ayla. When the dead are not buried properly Ayla's gifts are not returned to her properly, so they fester within the body. In time they rot, bringing the bodies to life, but not so alive. More accurately, undead, presenting themselves in various forms. Or so Ventril's stories described them.

The church spoke of burial ceremonies, a requirement for returning Ayla's gifts back to her, but spoke nothing of the unsouled. Up till this moment, Sethlzaar thought them nothing but tales. Tales Ventril told to scare the children into behaving.

"You'll learn of it in the seminary." The priest did not look up from his work.

Sethlzaar watched the priest, waiting for something in the man's demeanor. Anything that would tell him the man was simply trying to scare him. He found nothing.

The priest looked at him. "You can put that down, now."

"Where?" Sethlzaar asked. The heart had stopped beating.

"It doesn't matter." The priest pulled out an intestine longer than the beast. "Before we reach anywhere that can use it, it would have begun to fester."

Sethlzaar tossed it to the ground with no intention to move from his spot. The blood was warm but he knew it would soon cool and leave his hand sticky.

"Where were you; before the orphanage?" the priest asked, skinning the animal, satisfied with whatever he had been previously doing. Sethlzaar's brows drew together in surprise, and the priest added without taking his attention from his work. "You and I know you haven't always been there."

"The conisoir," Sethlzaar answered.

"I see..." The priest didn't sound very interested. "So tell me, how did you move from such a place as that, to an orphanage. The conisoir doesn't let people go that easily."

Sethlzaar paused. Hesitated. It was a story no one outside the conisoir knew. Not even Saelin. Reminding himself he was no longer in Dun, that the man who asked was a priest, he spoke.

"There were four of them..."

Sethlzaar could remember the night it all began. The beginning of the end. He remembered the faces of all four men as if they stood before him all sick and twisted. After all, they had brought the end along with them.

The memory replayed before him like threads weaving upon themselves once, then twice, then into an infinite loop. And like aging story-tellers who sit hunched at the outskirts of the conisoir for the promise of a few coppers, employing words for their tales and weaving their audience into them, his memory wove a magic of its own. Soon, it was not a memory remembered but one relived.

They bellowed in laughter, downing each jug of the foul tasting stuff in one gulp. It had been brought by outsiders during the winter, came from the peaks, they said. The adults had created an uproar when they first drank it. Ambrosia. Nectar of the gods, they called it.

Sethlzaar didn't understand how they could have been so ecstatic. It tasted like piss and fire, if fire could be tasted. He had taken a sip on an early morning while the adults slept away their hangovers.

The men who drank now were outsiders. Not like the men from the peaks. Those were true outsiders. These ones were from outside the walls, other parts of the Realm. Skeldrige, to the north, if their accents were anything to go by from the little he knew.

They hassled the girls who came close enough and broke a few jugs. What Sethlzaar had not understood was why Old Groc let them. The Wood was his child, so he always said. And he had but two rules: you break it, you buy it and, don't touch the help. These men disobeyed all of them, and Old Groc was seated right in front of them.

It was one of those special meetings the old man held very rarely. He held meetings with a lot of people but, it was only for these kinds that he sent all the little ones to their room.

Sethlzaar watched through the little hole in the ground. Among other children, he slept in the bar's attic and had found the hole over three years ago. Actually, Fen had shown it to him and Old Groc knew nothing about it. If he did, he would've sealed it long before he was born.

Somehow, Sethlzaar didn't think it was a hole born of aging on the part of the wood. Its place was too precise, settled directly above the tables Groc held his oh so special meetings. Usually it was him and Fen who watched the goings-on beneath it. Tonight, however, Fen was serving. He was the only child allowed to serve during such meetings considering he was going to own the bar someday, or at least that's what everyone said. At best, Sethlzaar was going to support him.

At some point the bar emptied out, leaving the outsiders and Old Groc alone. Unlike every other night, there would be no drunks to wake from the bar floors when morning came. The other children had fallen asleep, too. Though they knew there was something of secrecy in the attic Sethlzaar and Fen always busied themselves with, they had no knowledge of what it was. Fen had a strict rule, whenever they were not using the hole they covered it with a tiny piece of black tarp.

Paranoid he always was.

The tarp stuck well enough, blending in with the color of the floor. At first Sethlzaar always found it a challenge just to locate when he wanted to use it, but in time it became a knowledge of his body's, never having to think or search.

Sethlzaar spied alone tonight.

The children always worked at the bar, serving customers. Some nights it was be all of them, other nights just a hand full. Tonight, it was only Fen. This was how it was. Just past his tenth year, Fen served as the only child on nights of import such as this. Sethlzaar knew the boy heard everything that was said at the meetings but he never spilled the details whenever Sethlzaar asked.

"... You fucking shite!" one of the outsiders bellowed. Fen had been offering him a new cup of ambrosia when the man reached for it too quickly and spilled it on himself. "How d'yous plan to pay for me slacks?!"

The man was venting. No one vented at one of Groc's kids. Not within The Wood. But Groc simply shook his head in resignation, before shooing Fen off to go get a replacement. Sethlzaar would often wonder what could have been if he had understood the look on Groc's face that night.

"Like I was saying..." The man faced Groc. "This here establishment is nice and all. And you's have the decency of good drink." He glanced in Fen's direction. "... not so good help. You's a business man. So why don't's we talk bijnesh." He had clearly had one too many cups of Ambrosia.

"I believe what my friend is trying to say is, just accept what we offer." This from the man at the other end of the bench, resting his weight on the wall beside him.

"I've already told you fine gentlemen," Groc began. "I can't sell. This right here," he twirled a finger in the air, "is home. And I just can't sell me home."

There was nothing fine or gentlemanly about them.

"Whatsh he mean by djat?" the drunk asked.

The man in the middle, quietly sipping away at his mug, decided it was time to speak. "Groc, you're a smart man," he began. "You know how it is. You know the business, prolly done it before. Be smart about this."

Groc sighed, his age was beginning to weigh down on him, perhaps he was getting too old for this life. "And I'm sure you know enough about me to know I won't sell, Guilly."

Guilly sat straight, apparently, no longer interested in his cup. "She won't like this, Groc. She won't like this one bit."

"I know." Groc put his cup to his mouth for the first time tonight. "I'd ask you to intercede, but we both know that'll never happen."

The drunk was beginning to rise. "Whatshu mean old man. Yoush won't shell?" his words slurred. He was on his feet now, and he drew a knife from somewhere behind him. "I've got meshelf me own barge back home."

"Droog..." There was a warning in Guilly's voice.

Droog ignored him. "I'd reckon I take shu back. Shkin yer and flays yer all 'ver me wallsh, like dje resht of 'em horshe wankers."

Now he was hunched over, brandishing his knife in Groc's face. It was a fine knife, if Sethlzaar ever did see one, a clean enough steel, clean and polished. Groc simply shook his head in exhaustion. Sethlzaar knew the reaction. It was the one the old man gave when the children were up and about being stupid, trying to act like they were mature.

There was a brief shuffle. The bench bumped against the wall behind it. A loud bang erupted from the table, and Droog was on the bar floor. It happened so fast Sethlzaar missed it.

Droog held his hands to his nose. His knife, now forgotten, lay a few feet away from him. He writhed in pain as he removed a bloody hand to examine it. Sethlzaar winced at the sight. The man had no doubt broken his nose and, by the splotch of red on the table, he had an idea how.

"I truly apologize for that," Guilly said, rearranging his shirt. "First we bring you bad news... cos tis good news for any business owner. But for men like you, tis not so much. Then..." He spared a disgusted look at the man on the floor. "He's nephew to someone at the top. If not, I'd have had him pay for his insult the way he's meant to..." He sighed now, and he looked his age, around Groc's, no older, maybe a little younger. "I mean you no disrespect, Groc. Consider our offer and get back to me. I'll be around for a moon cycle; you know where to find me."

Groc simply nodded. Guilly rose to leave and the other man followed. He gave Groc one more look, his eyes imploring this time. "Get back to me."

Groc took another sip. He let the cup linger a while at his mouth before he dropped it. "You know that's not gon' happen." 

Guilly said something Sethlzaar did not catch and stepped over the drunk man who was busy spewing profanities slurred by his drunkenness or the blood. Sethlzaar was not sure.

"Get his drunk ass up!" Guilly commanded walking out the door, nearly kicking the man in the process. The other fellow, after a few struggles, managed to wrestle Droog and his knife off the floor and lumbered after him.

When Fen finally returned, a hint of worry on his face and no tray in his hands, Groc gave him a sad smile. "Its gon' be alright. They'll be gone soon enough, and we won't have to worry 'bout their kind ever again."

For a moment Sethlzaar though the boy would cry but Fen stifled a sniff and made work of cleaning the table.

Groc just sat there in silent contemplation.

When morning came, Groc sent Fen scurrying off to the bridge, something he never did before.

The bridge was where the older children stayed. The Wood was a legitimate business but, in the conisoir, there was no such thing as legitimate businesses. The children who stayed in the bridge carried out most of the less legitimate parts of Groc's business. Everyone knew this, after all, they were all residents of the conisoir. Groc had made a name for himself in the cesspool of vile and infidels.

Rumors had it that in his younger days he had served in the imperial army. He even had children he had helped living comfortable lives within the city. Why he was not living there too, everyone wondered. Some said he was drawn to the chaos of the conisoir. Others said he was a wanted man in the city. But one thing was certain, no one knew why, and sometimes, Sethlzaar wondered if the old man even remembered why.

Sethlzaar had thrown a tantrum of his own when the information reached him. The trip to the bridge was his sanctuary, his time to himself. He would share everything else with everybody. But the trip to the bridge was his. Not liking the attention that came with the crowd, he always followed the back-alleys. No one knew them like he did and he rarely ever walked the common roads. Everyone knew him. "Groc's kids" they were called. All of them, those that lived in the attic as well as at the bridge.

Sethlzaar was one of them, "Groc's kids", exchanging service for life. At least that's what he would have liked to believe. But he was not. The children knew it. The adults knew it. The entire conisoir knew it. His life was not in exchange of his services. His life with Groc was a gift. "Groc's boy" they called him.

"...Best be getting along kid." They would say... "That one there's Groc's boy. Best not cause too much trouble for him."

The other children in the conisoir didn't like it. Even some of Groc's held a grudge against him just for that reason. They never expressed it, though. They all restricted their disgust and jealousy to their faces and snide remarks

 One of his earliest memories of it was of when he was barely five years. The bigger children, led by Old Karlix's boy, Alphis, had dragged him out to express their hatred in more physical means. It was when he met Fen. He had walked up to Groc stained in blood that night after the encounter.

"How did this happened?" Groc had fussed over him. He never remembered the old man ever being so worried. "Come on back, I'll have you looked at."

He had surveyed himself before looking back at the old man. "It's not mine," he'd said. "It's Alphis', and the others. It was inside them."

It was the first time Sethlzaar had seen so much blood in one place. Only Fen remembered what had happened that night, and the boy never spoke of it. Groc had cleaned him up and never asked questions. Suffice it to say, after that, no one challenged him again. Sethlzaar was sure that was not the only reason, even during their roughest of plays he always proved himself more agile than the rest, outrunning most of them in a game of tag or proving his defeat quite a conquest in a game of conquer the king.

Bad news came eventually.

The news came in the dark of night on Insahel, the busiest night in the conisoir. Fat Novil lumbered his way up the ladder and into the attic with it, and Sethlzaar knew it before the boy announced it to them.

Fat Novil's voice filled the room with the nasal authority it always had before he hunched over to catch his breath.

"Fen's dead."

The room consequently erupted in a sea of questions. The most recurring being: "How do you know?"

"Ventril said he saw him in the ditch," Novil replied after a delay from catching his breath.

Sethlzaar wasn't surprised at where the body had been seen. In the conisoir, anything not wanted makes its way into the gutters which interconnected all around that part of the city like a spider's web. The gutters lead into the city, and as the water flows, some of it takes a dump into a large ditch in the ground that seemed to serve as a boundary between them and the rest of the city. Often times the bodies rejected by the conisoir ended up there.

Tonight, it was Fen's.

Every night, when Novil climbed the ladder, he would always emerge out of breath and ready to collapse so that Sethlzaar often found himself wondering if each night would be the night he died of a heart attack. He knew it was a thing in the city, but tonight Sethlzaar had his mind elsewhere.

Everyone in the conisoir knew the risks of dumping a body in the gutter. And nobody dared to challenge Groc's authority. This was an act perpetrated by someone who either took it upon himself to choose the way he would die or someone who didn't know the gutters very well. The former was highly unlikely. And Sethlzaar knew it too.

Sethlzaar forced his way through the children and down the ladder to find Groc in a pitiful mood. The old man was sad. He was mourning. The sight of him infuriated Sethlzaar. As far as he was concerned the man was displaying the wrong emotion. It was too early to display sadness, there was no place for sadness tonight. What was to be displayed consumed Sethlzaar where he stood. Rage. Everyone knew who had done it. At least he and Groc knew. So why wasn't the man doing anything?

When Groc met his eyes, there was recognition. The man had the same rage in him but his sadness oppressed it. The sight of Sethlzaar seemed fuel enough.

He rose from the midst of the other grownups and walked over to him. He picked Sethlzaar clean off the floor by his shirt and hauled him into one of the cellars at the back of the bar. He closed the door and locked him inside. 

"He does not come out till, Frinsel," Sethlzaar heard Groc say from the other side of the door.

He had been wrong about the recognition he had seen in Groc's eyes. The realization burned his fury like the purest of oil. It burned like shadow fire. But this time it had no focus. Everyone would suffer for what had been done to Fen. He swore it. He would carve each and every one of them up and offer their entrails to Ayla. And if she would not take them, he would offer them to Truth. By Truth's blood he swore it, he would make each and every one of them rue the day Fen died. He would carve a new history into the conisoir, Truth be his witness he would—

"Sethlzaar Vi Sorlan."

The priest's voice pulled apart the weaves with which his mind had locked him in his memories, drawing him back to the present. He discovered he had his hands balled into a bloody fist and his nails dug into his skin with enough force to break the skin of his palms.

He looked up at the priest, puzzled. "Huh?"

"You were going to tell me what drove you from the conisoir to the orphanage."

He shook the specter of his memory from his mind. A summary of the story was what the priest wanted, so a summary he would give. "Some men died and everyone thought it was me. So I ran."

"And your friends?"

He didn't have any, but he had Groc. The thought saddened him. "They didn't believe me."

"I see..." The priest looked at him properly for the first time since their travel began. "Did you do it?"

He found the question annoying but it was more than the people he had called family had given him. "No," he answered.

The priest nodded a satisfaction and went back to his work, whatever interest he had, gone. "I thought as much. You couldn't have."

"Could too," Sethlzaar said. "Would've gutted them if he didn't beat me to it."

The priest retrieved a sack from one of his sacks and Sethlzaar wondered if there was anything the man didn't have in them. As he walked to the boar, seeming to glide across the ground, Sethlzaar noticed he had finished skinning the bull, at least a portion of it, and was now putting it in the sack.

"Do you remember how the bodies were found?"


The priest picked up another organ, perhaps the kidney. "How?"

"They were cut up and burned. Ventril said 'twas shadow fire."

At the mention of shadow fire, the priest's eyes narrowed. It seemed the man knew something about it. It didn't take long for Sethlzaar to realize he was done talking. Whatever he knew, he would not share.

All Sethlzaar knew about shadow fire was that it was extremely rare to get. Harder even, to use.

"Show me your hands, boy," the priest instructed, holding a canteen over Sethlzaar's hands.

He showed his hands and the priest turned its contents over them. The blood was sticky and drying quick, making it difficult to wash off with water. Sethlzaar moved his hands closer knowing he was going to have to scrub. A drop of the contents touched his hands. He felt the sting. It wasn't much like fire but it reminded him of it.

Past the pain he could see the blood sliding down his hands, falling to the ground. If he didn't know better, he could have sworn they were crawling away from the water. He spared the canteen a quick survey. It was different from the ones he had seen. If anything, it was blacker with cracks running the length of its body.

"It hurts," he complained. He hated how much of a child he sounded like.

The priest didn't even bother to look at him. "Bear with it." His tone remained without emotion, like reading an uninteresting part of the scripture.

Sethlzaar made no effort to contain his curiosity. "What is it?"

"Shadow water."

Sethlzaar almost reeled back in surprise. The man had spoken like it was something that could be gotten anywhere. But Sethlzaar knew better. Shadow water was more difficult to attain than shadow fire and was said to be the only thing that could quell it. It and the rain, but only whilst it fell. Shadow fire was near useless under the rain. But not as useless as people thought. Sethlzaar knew this more than most people.

The priest stood beside his horse, waiting to hoist Sethlzaar up. "Time to go."

Sethlzaar looked at his hands, examining the small cuts his nails had made, before joining the priest.

As they rode on and out of the forest, only one thought clouded Sethlzaar's mind: how did he do it?

He had seen people get lost in thoughts. Old Groc was fond of it sometimes, and it took more than simply saying the man's name to rouse him. The thought of Fen's death had only held him once before, and Saelin had claimed she'd had to hit him to pull him from his mind. So, how had the priest done it?

He had simply said his name with the same calm and uninterested voice of his, and just like that, he had come back. It was an impressive feat. Sethlzaar wasn't sure how this made him feel.

The sack that held the boar's parts bounced against Rive's rear as they rode. The horse, seemingly oblivious of the discomfort it should have presented, cantered along. They would sell its contents along their journey. Or in better terms, exchange it for whatever amount of coins the priest deemed just.

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