Ash whirled through the air. Each flake twirled through the empty streets like a pirouetting dancer, each holding a divine grace reserved for the God-Emperor. The city was silent and not a sound could be heard. The wind was a ghostly whisper that carried the remnants of the past upon its currents. The city itself was pristine, the streets and buildings and even the arching pillars lining the roads – all were clean save for the ash blanketing the ground in a veil of iridescent gray.
As the sun descended below the horizon, the city was cast into darkness. Shadows stretched across the white stones, reaching through crevices in pursuit of long-forgotten memories. Barren trees curled into themselves, their emancipated limbs hugging peeling trunks. A cold breeze rolled through the streets, yet the silence prevailed in its haunting lullaby.
The barest of movement disturbed the stillness. A young boy was on the move, azure eyes bright as he made his way across the street. Nikita kept close to the walls, one palm trailing across the damp stones as he cast his attention to his surroundings. A sense of unease curled at the base of his spine, his skin cold and clammy as it rose rapidly up his spine like a snake rising in warning to unseen danger.
The Night Watcher could be anywhere. He could be watching.
If he was seen, then the alarm would be cast.
He was already on the Watcher’s radar. He was prey being hunted, his blood staining the runes wound around the Watcher’s wrist like some sort of convoluted, perverted rosary. His skin crawled at the thought. Had the Night Watcher sent out his hounds? Was the sky crawling with Howlers?
Niki already had an encounter with the Executioner, his chain-laden body called upon by the fury of bat-like avians prowling through the night. His skin still stung where the hook-like barbs had bit into his flesh, the veins around the afflicted area red and angry. He absently rubbed at his shoulder, the skin there burning cold. He needed to find the temple, if Cara was right about his wounds.
Had to find it, if the woman was right. He wasn’t keen on dying just yet.
Darting across the street, slipping inside a building, Niki exhaled in relief. He sagged against the wall, not quite sure if being indoors was a good idea after his last encounter with the Skull Keeper. Casting a quick glance at the darkest corner of the room, his shoulders relaxed when he noted it was devoid of any hunched form holding an elaborate skull-lantern. Moving away from the wall, Niki made his way through the creaking, cobweb-heavy building.
He moved quietly, gaze darting from one side of the room to the other and back again. His shoulder was a sore, a dull throbbing that spread deep inside his back. Making his way into the back of the house, and then out into the alleyways behind it, Niki pressed on without glancing back. Stepping into the late-night air, he paused as a cold drizzle began to fall.
“You must take the back road, through Maria Del Square,” Cara touched his cheek, blackened fingers cold against his skin. The skin was cracked and rough, like an old clay bed next to a dried-up river. He met those midnight eyes, irises white while all else was a black abyss. “Lady Jacosa will be able to help you. I can do no more, not without drawing the Emperor’s eyes.”
Niki placed his hand over hers, a sad smile stretching across his lips. “I know, Cara.”
Making his way through the streets, he couldn’t help but wonder if Cara was the same girl he had heard of from his childhood. A woman cast into the Divide, a scorned man punishing her for not marrying him. It was a question he had thought to ask. He did not know how, not even now as he walked into the old pathways that hadn’t seen the light in a thousand years.
His mind kept returning to the young woman in question. She was a walking corpse, in some ways. Her body cold and unwelcoming, skin cracked and blackening from years of neglect. Cara, she was unnatural in many ways; she was kind, despite that coldness, and perhaps someone he could call a friend in this foreign, bleak world. Yet he knew she was right, her last words echoing in his mind.
“One does not simply amble through the City of the Dead.”
The thought of taking a leisurely walk through the deadened streets was laughable. Somewhere in the distance, a Howler shrieked. Niki jumped. He pressed close to the wall, hunkering close to the damp stones. His gaze swept across the skies, searching for any sign of the unnatural birds. He saw none, though he did hear answering cries echoing through the darkness.
Niki kept his hands clasped over his chest, feeling his heart thundering beneath his fingers. It wasn’t long until he neared the place of question, the looming shadows of the buildings slinking away from him as they opened to reveal a massive, open expanse of stone ground. As he made his way into Maria Del Square, Niki’s gaze was pulled away from the vines growing across the ground to the ancient, crumbling contraption resting in the middle of the Square.
It was a carousel, its platform still and the animals upon it drooping and dirty. Covered in moss and vines, the stray tendrils swaying in an invisible breeze, the child’s playground looked alarmingly out of place. It wasn’t the carousel itself that caught the young boy’s gaze. It was the man standing before the central column. A shrill cry broke the silence. Above, hundreds of three-eyed Howlers watched unblinkingly.
Long, black robes cascaded to the ground, engulfing the man in a shroud of darkness. Nicki slowed, the earlier sensation of unease awakening in his gut like a spark of fire set on dry grass. This robed man stood with his hands folded behind his back, a ruby-red gem gleaming off the middle finger of one of his hands. It gleamed, a subtle glow coloring the air with crimson light.
“Nikita Ravalan, son of Arima and Gunther,” the man did not turn around, though Niki knew it was him who was speaking. The tone of voice was calm and quiet, yet it rumbled with a power of authority that had his skin crawling. The man slowly began to turn, vibrant green eyes locking onto his from within a calm, impassive face. It reminded him of porcelain, faultless yet eerily beautiful. “I have watched you parade through this city, breaking the Laws set into place. You have entered the Divide of your own will, I have been told. Tell me, Nikita Ravalan, why are you here?”
Niki’s mouth ran dry, no answer forthcoming.
There was only bleakness and shadows.
There was only a promise…
A promise of death.