The Fall and Rise of Catelon
It was the last day of spring and the kingdom of Catelon lay dying.
Avenant Guillory stepped through the gates of his father’s palace with deliberate care, pausing once to steady himself against sudden vertigo. A carrion stench hung in the air: the royal guard, rather than abandon their king, had succumbed to the plague at their posts and lay in huddled heaps of armor and pikestaffs. I knew these men, Avenant thought, dizzily; and now they were so much rotting meat. There was no room left in him for grief over the deaths, only a species of distant annoyance that they had died and rotted here and so limited him to shallow sips of air as he tried to catch his breath.
Swallowing bile, he pushed himself away from the gate and stumbled on. The city’s cobbled streets were perilous in his condition; he moved with the halting gait of a man much older, catching his balance against anything that came to hand. Nothing else moved in the streets: Catelon’s citizens died quietly in their homes, the carters’ horses in their stalls, the feral dogs and alley cats in the gutter. No one was abroad to see their crown prince in disgrace, staggering down the street like a common drunk as he struggled toward the Sanctuary of the Crescent.
Some vague hope beat in Avenant’s breast that he would at last be able to rest once he reached the sanctuary. Surely the brothers with their chemia and their magic had discovered something that would fight off the plague, or barring that—he stopped, wobbling, at a corner; spat blood, wiped his knuckles across his mouth—the Mother’s blessing would check the contagion as it had in the past, and if only enough of his people could be moved inside the sanctuary’s boundaries, their symptoms would vanish… He did not truly believe this would be the case, of course. Apothecaries, alchemists, and priests alike had been baffled by the virulence of the disease, far worse than spring’s usual sendings; and that had been before the brightest of them began to succumb without making any substantial progress.
No, Avenant could not believe there was any hope for him at the sanctuary, but he had to believe, or else resign himself to wasting away in the palace alongside his family. He had to fight it somehow, and if that fight was all in dragging himself the mile to the sanctuary, then that was what he would do now that he had fixed on his course. No matter that every stumble threatened to send him to his knees, that he was dizzy with fever, that the coughing only got worse and wetter as he exerted himself: he would fight until he died of it.
It took twice the time it would have taken him, healthy, to stroll to the sanctuary as he might have on the Mother’s holy days. His vision had narrowed, so blackened with exertion he didn’t realize his destination until he sagged against the wall of it, the crescents set into the stone digging into his shoulder. In his daze, he had missed the front of the sanctuary—which was just as well, as he doubted he could have managed the broad steps to the Mother’s Gate, and here was a perfectly serviceable side door. He swallowed hard, rather than spit again so close to the holy presence, and began groping his way along the wall to the door. It was locked.
“Open up!” The words came out like the gurgle of a dying beast. Avenant coughed and swallowed again, then beat his fist against the door with what little force he could muster.
No response came. Despair gripped him, then flashed into rage; he punched the door so hard his knuckles split and bled freely. “Open the damn door!”
Another coughing fit shook him, so loud and racking he nearly missed the sound of someone approaching the door from the other side. He caught himself with a hand on the doorframe as it swung open suddenly, leaving him reeling so that he nearly bowled into the brother who stood behind it. A brother who had the hubris to look disgustingly well fed and healthy, or at least when compared to the rest of the dying population; Avenant eyed the man with sudden distaste. “So you did find a cure,” he croaked. “And you’re keeping it to yourselves.”
Clearly he wasn’t the first dying man to make that accusation at the door of the sanctuary, for the brother’s immediate response was a look of fury as he tried to slam the door shut in Avenant’s face. Not to be denied, the prince thrust an arm in the way and nearly fell over again; the door pinned his arm with bruising force that he scarcely noticed. “You—“ he began, at the same moment the brother recognized his error:
“Sire!” The door swung open again. Avenant fell to one knee, barely saving himself from sprawling on the floor as the brother stepped back in shock. “My sincerest apologies, I didn’t recognize you—“
“My father,” and here, Avenant levered himself to his feet again, swaying and struggling for breath, but upright, “—my father is not dead yet. You will refer to me as your prince, and explain just what in the frozen hells you’re doing locked up in here.” He had apparently found the door into the refectory, for the room before him was long and lined with trestle tables. A fire burned at the far end. The air was uncomfortably hot.
“M-my prince,” the brother said, and gulped, face paling. There were traces of blood at the corners of his mouth, Avenant noted; so perhaps he was not faring so well after all. “—Please, your highness, come out of the door and sit; I hadn’t meant to be so hasty—that is, I didn’t recognize you; there have been so many who’ve come to the sanctuary with violent intent, I’d thought you were a looter or a cutthroat…”
Fumbling, the brother dragged a chair over and thrust it in Avenant’s direction like an offer of peace. “I don’t care what you thought,” the prince said with ill grace, and sat himself in the chair. There was no concealing the relief that washed through him at no longer being upright, though he struggled not to loll back in it as the brother bustled past to close the door. And lock it again. “Have you found a cure yet? Has the Mother done--said anything?”
The brother’s expression crumpled so rapidly Avenant was afraid he’d start crying, and the very thought of that was exasperating. Either the prince’s annoyance at the thought showed on his face or the brother had a core of steel beneath his doughy flesh, because he recovered without bursting into tears. “No, your highness. Apothecary Preux had made some progress with aqua vitae and the skins of oranges but he died at his bench—his notes are covered in blood, and I didn’t dare move him. He was the furthest along of all of them. I—“
Avenant lifted a hand to forestall further babble. “Fine. No progress. Where are the rest of the brothers? The patriarch? Has he—“ He pressed his fist against his mouth and coughed into it. Something in his chest tore like rotting parchment and he felt suddenly light-headed.
“Dead. He’s dead. They’re all dead, except for me.” Now the brother did dissolve into tears, weeping freely. “I begged the Mother to take me instead of the Holy Father, but he said it was his time, that She was calling him and—and the wolves were nearly upon us, that I should run and take word to the rest of flock, if anyone still lived. But where would I go, your highness? Is anyone still alive out there?”
The wolves were nearly upon us. Is anyone still alive out there? A sudden chill settled in Avenant’s chest. The brother stared at him, anxious and tear-stained, and he felt a sudden pity for the fat, frantic little fellow: this was likely the only subject of his kingdom who would make it out alive. The wolves are nearly upon us. This plague wasn’t another spring accident brought in by a careless smuggler; it was a weapon thrust into Catelon’s heart by an old enemy. There wasn’t any hope left; they were all of them already dead, even those with the misfortune of still drawing breath.
All that remained was the disposal of the ruins. Avenant shook his head once, as if disbelieving, and cleared his throat. An idea had begun to form, but it would require the brother not panicking. He tried to soften his voice: “What’s your name, brother?”
“C—Cassius, your highness. Is there really nothing we can do?”
Weary annoyance swelled; Avenant fought to banish it as he tugged a signet ring—far too easily—off his finger. “There is something you can do,” he said, slowly, and offered the ring. “But you must leave now, and go as quickly as you can.”
Cassius took the ring, ginger and wide-eyed, and clutched it to his chest. “What, your highness?”
“Leave on the west road. Now. Take whatever you need from the garrison—show them the signet, if anyone’s still alive.” Avenant sunk back in the chair, fighting sudden weariness and disorientation. It was becoming increasingly hard to string his thoughts together in sensible order. “My father sent word to the solari. They’ll be coming. You need to meet them—tell them what happened. What the patriarch told you. The wolves—the ulven will come for them next.” Them and everything else living on the face of the world, but he didn’t have time—or breath—to explain the magnitude of the threat.
Incomprehension on Cassius’s face, then horror as understanding dawned. “The ulven did this? Y, your highness, I can’t—“
“You can. You will. Go.” Gathering the rags of his strength, Avenant heaved himself up out of the chair, overbalancing and catching himself on the neighboring trestle. “Go, Cassius. Take a torch with you.”
The brother looked between his prince and the door in an agony of confusion. “A torch, your highness?”
“Fire everything you find. We’re as good as dead anyway. Let the city be our pyre.” He felt the corners of his mouth turn up in a rictus grin; there was no humor in the situation but he had nothing left in him but the desire to laugh, or sob. “And pray the Mother accepts our souls. Go!”
Smoke hung like a pall over the city when Avenant finally dragged himself from the sanctuary’s refectory. He had done his own part to set the city to torch, scattering coals from refectory’s fireplace as far as his flagging strength would let him and begging the Mother’s forgiveness as he did so. He didn’t know how far the fires would spread, or if every corpse in the city would burn—but it would be a suitable warning to the solari if Cassius was unable to take word to them. Sick as he was, it was unlikely the fat little brother would make it far beyond the garrison before succumbing, but Avenant had done what he could.
There was little reason for the prince to return to the palace. He could have as easily lain down in the shadow of the sanctuary and let fever and fire take him, but whatever had made him fight this far wasn’t about to give up. Leaning, staggering from wall to wall, taking whatever he could for support, he stumbled through streets turned nightmarish with the onset of twilight. Faces peered at him from out the house windows he passed; corpse-white faces, eyes white and mouths slack with the shock of death. He didn’t know if they were real.
The pain in his chest had gotten worse, become a searing agony. He couldn’t get enough air, no matter how he gulped at it. Every gasping breath was wet and tasted of blood. He heard sobs and screams somewhere up ahead of him; the sounds retreated into the distance as he approached, as if whatever—whoever—despaired fled him. Shadows congregated in the alleys in a sick parody of the city’s missing life. Near the palace now, the faces in the windows seemed to follow him as reeled past, their eyes accusing pits. It was a king’s duty to protect his people; his father had surely succumbed now, and Avenant was Catelon’s king, unable to protect them at the last. I’m sorry, he found himself mouthing to each corpse he passed. I did all I could and still failed. I’m sorry.
A loose cobble caught at his foot, tripping him. He pitched forward, went down hard on one knee, then crumpled to a fetal curl as coughing wracked him. Tried to rise and couldn’t, rolled onto his side to gag and spit—more than blood, hot and fetid. This is it, then.
The moon had risen above the smoke and Avenant rolled on his back to see it. A sudden vast sense of injustice rose in him, bitter as bile, gagging as blood. “Do something,” he spat at the moon. Mother of Us All, do something. Don’t let it end like this.
And he died, the moon shining down into his unseeing eyes.
Death delivered Catelon’s crown prince to darkness. It was a darkness with weight, with taste, with scent, all-enfolding. Something—SomeOne—waited on the other side of it, bright as the moon, and he reached for Her unthinking. He had no body, no life, no name any longer, just a desire to go to that waiting Presence.
Prince Avenant, the darkness said, shocking him back to himself—and a recollection of his fury at dying. Prince Avenant, do you hear me?
“Yes,” he said without a voice—then shut his mouth, suddenly afraid the darkness would climb through it down his throat. Yes. The feeling of desire, of unstoppable motion toward the Presence ebbed; he hung unsupported in the black.
Good. I hear you. Cling to your fury. Don’t let go. I can help you, if you don’t let go. Your kingdom does not have to die.
The hope he’d lost burned bright of a sudden, bright as his rage. Who are you?
A friend. An ancestor. Your people are my people. Something else drew close to him, neither as bright nor as incomprehensible as the Presence. I would help you. Will you let me?
He hardly had to consider it. Yes!
The new presence seemed to laugh, and asked: Will you let me in?
Didn’t I already agree? Yes! The distinction a single word might have made was lost on him, in his desperation to do something, to save his people.
Very well. By your leave— And the new presence grew, and grew, engulfing Avenant before he had a chance to scream or struggle.
Light—the moon’s light—and pain returned together. Avenant had a moment to blink and draw a breath before the thing that had found him in death flooded into his body after him like a wave of black tar. It crowded into his mind with irresistible force, prying up his wavering grip on himself as if he were a child clinging desperately to a toy. He fought to cry out, to move an arm, raise a finger, and it shoved him into a corner of his own consciousness. Sensation vanished, and with it pain, leaving him with sight and sound strangely attenuated, filtered through the invader’s perceptions.
Mine, the thing crowed. Mine, at last! Avenant could feel as it took rapid stock of his mind, tearing through his thoughts with unkind hands and examining each of them in voyeuristic detail. Memories flashed past his mind’s eye—his childhood, his parents, his first horse, engagement to Elissa, Tancrede drilling him in the sword—as it held them up and then took them for itself. It—he—the thing left echoes of himself behind in his haste and Avenant snatched at them, dazed and adrift. Another childhood a thousand years ago; a different horse, ugly and ill-formed; a different beloved, a wife, a child, another name—A name out of myth.
Koschei. Koschei the Deathless. A ghost had found Avenant in death, dragged him back into life—a ghost and a myth. Koschei wasn’t real—he was a story to frighten children—he couldn’t be real—!
The presence—Koschei—turned his attention from his ransack of Avenant’s memories, his regard intent and ice-cold. And amused. So you recognize me. Your people remembered. I’m flattered.
Let me go! Avenant retorted, furious and sick. Get out of my head!
Let you go where? Back into death? You’re too useful for that. Besides, I did promise to save your kingdom.
Unwilled, Avenant’s body pushed itself upright in the street. It—Koschei—lifted one of his/their hands, giving it a cursory examination. Good bones. Sickness has made you frail. We’ll fix that. But first, my promise. Virulent amusement lurked behind the thought, and Avenant caught the barest shape of Koschei’s intention in it: he could bring more spirits back from death with him. He could raise the dead.
He would raise the dead.
Necromancer! Penned into a corner of his own mind, helpless to act, Avenant shrieked his outrage and fear. Don’t! Mother of Us All, don’t—!
“You’re in no position to tell me what to do,” Koschei said, and stretched Avenant’s face into a hideous smile. “This is what you asked for, besides.”
He rose smoothly, the body he wore like a suit of clothes giving no indication it had been dying of plague mere minutes before. He strode the last hundred yards to the palace gates, unhurried, examining the city with a critical eye. “Your people were foolish to return here, young prince,” he said, conversationally. “The Godfall Wastes have been the death of greater men, and you thought you could live beside them? Hubris.”
Avenant clawed ineffectually at Koschei’s presence, unable to get a hold or budge it. Anger welled at the ghost’s slights, and he threw that into his efforts—to no use. We survived, he spat. For centuries, where no one else would. We did.
“Until you grew significant enough for the ulven to notice, yes. But for their own hubris, they would have taken the devil-elves down with you—slavers deserve no less.” Koschei stopped before the gates, turning his attention to the corpses of the guards Avenant had so lately passed. Bending, he laid a hand on one’s head and—reached—into death, an effort Avenant felt like a stretching of muscles he hadn’t been aware of. The guard’s spirit lay close beneath the surface of the world, shackled to its body by the agony of death. And he will return more eagerly for it, Koschei purred. The dead are often desperate. We can use that. Even as he spoke, he hooked the spirit with his will, dragging it back—and the ravaged body beneath his hand shuddered and gasped and lived once more.
No, not lived. After that first desperate gasp the guard quit breathing, but still pulled himself to his feet, picking up his pike as he did so. The other guard responded similarly as Koschei raised him from death. “My prince—you live,” this one said, voice clotted, ragged with the cough that had killed him.
“Your king,” Koschei said gently, with Avenant’s voice, composing Avenant’s face in a mask of sorrow. “My father has died of his illness.” A frisson of shock ran through Avenant as he felt the truth of this; King Galien’s spirit had fled past Koschei into death not long before. Father, he grieved soundlessly, and felt Koschei’s black humor.
The guards murmured sympathy, pressing fists to their hearts. “What must we do now, sire?”
“Open the gates and remain at your posts. There are others I must see to. I will return soon.”
Koschei stepped through the gates as they were opened, nodding once to the reverent guards as he did. Avenant shook himself from his numbness as he realized the necromancer was headed to the palace itself, horror chilling him once more. You wouldn’t—you won’t, don’t you dare visit this abomination on my family!
Oh, have no fear, young prince. I quite like our being king. I have no intention of raising direct competition. Koschei smiled fit to split his face, appallingly pleased with himself. But for now, I think it’s time you slept off the nasty shock you’ve had. I’ll need you in good condition later.
The necromancer’s will, vast and cold, wrapped around Avenant again and thrust him down once more into darkness and nonbeing.
Now alone once more in his own—stolen—head, Koschei permitted his manic smile to lapse into a grimace of irritation. The boy was strong-willed—a useful trait, to be sure, but it would be annoyingly difficult to break him into something usable. If his hold on the prince’s body hadn’t required the host spirit to remain present, he would have simply evicted the boy into death—but there was little use in wishing for what wasn’t so. He had more important tasks at hand, the raising of an army among them.
Freed of distraction, he strolled through the palace gardens. A profusion of well-trimmed hedges and flowers exotic to these climes lined the paths; he sneered at them. The prince’s people had not only been fools, they’d been soft, spoiled in their security. A disgusting length for his descendants to have fallen; it mitigated any guilt he might have felt at using them. They would be fine soldiers as any in death, and lose interest in their pretensions beside.
A suitable clearing in the gardens presented itself, set with an ornately carved bench that Koschei disdained in favor of sitting on the ground. Letting his spirit be still, he reached deep beneath the surface of the world; the spirits of Catelon’s citizens milled there in death, confused and bereft. Few of them had escaped to Her clutches; it would take a very long time for any of them to achieve the peace required, which served Koschei well. If She wouldn’t save these people, as She hadn’t saved his, She didn’t deserve them.
He touched the nearest spirits with his will, turning them back toward life and their bodies. The intangible chains binding them to Her will snapped, freeing the energy of their deaths anew; Koschei took it into himself, using it to reach further and bring more of them back into life. It worked exactly as he had imagined; raising the whole of the city was an effort of hours, but scarcely wearied him. The difficult part would be binding them all to his will, and that hardly a trial: they had died terribly, and were desperate for comfort and direction. None of them resisted when he reached into their souls and minds, setting his words there: I am your king. I am your king, and each of you owes me his soul.
Tell us what to do, o king, they clamored to him—and Koschei smiled. He had plans to make yet, but there was one task they might be set to while he laid them.
There is a man on the western road. He is varulf, dressed in the clothes of a brother of the sanctuary. He has stolen our royal signet and brought plague down on the kingdom. Find him and kill him.
He felt their acknowledgment, their eagerness for the hunt, and he let them go. Felt them surge away from him like a pack of hounds on the hunt, slavering for Cassius’ blood. It was only a pity that Avenant wasn’t conscious to see his plan to warn the devil-elves fail.
Koschei would be sure to tell him when he awoke.