Chains snarled the courtyard behind the derelict cannon foundry in
Applecross: spears of chain radiating at every angle, secured into
walls with rusted hooks and pins, and knitted together like a
madwoman’s puzzle. In the centre, Barraby’s watchtower
stood ensnared. Smoke unfurled from its ruined summit and blew west
across the city under a million winter stars.
Huffing and gasping, Presbyter Scrimlock climbed through the
chains. His lantern swung, knocked against links and welds and God
knows what, threw shadows like lattices of cracks across the
gleaming cobbles. When he looked up, he saw squares and triangles
full of stars. His sandals slipped as though on melted glass. The
chains, where he touched them, were wet. And when he finally
reached the Spine Adept waiting by the watchtower door he saw
“Blood,” the Presbyter whispered, horrified. He rubbed
feverishly at his cassock, but the gore would not shift.
The Spine Adept, skin stretched so tight over his muscles he seemed
cadaverous, turned lifeless eyes on the priest. “From the
dead,” he explained. “She ejects them from the tower.
Will not suffer them there inside with her.” He tilted his
head to one side. Below the chains numerous Spine bodies lay in a
shapeless mound, their leather armour glistening like venom.
“Ulcis have mercy,” Scrimlock said. “How many has
Scrimlock drew a breath. The night tasted dank and rusty, like the
air in a dungeon. “You’re making it worse,” he
complained. “Can’t you see that? You’re
feeding her fury.”
“We have injured her,” the Adept said. His expression
remained unreadable, but he pressed a pale hand against the
watchtower door brace, as if to reinforce it.
“What?” The Presbyter’s heart leapt.
“You’ve injured her? That’s . . . How
could you possibly . . .”
“She heals quickly.” The Adept looked up. “Now we
must hurry.” Scrimlock followed the man’s gaze, and for
a moment wondered what he was looking at. Then he spotted them:
silhouettes against the glittering night, lean figures scaling the
chains, moving quickly and silently to the watchtower’s
single window. More Spine than Scrimlock had ever seen together.
There had to be fifty, sixty. How was it possible he’d failed
to notice them before?
“Every single Adept answered the summons.”
“All of them?” Scrimlock hissed, lowering his voice.
“Insanity! If she escapes . . .” He wrung his hands.
The Church could not afford to lose so many of its assassins.
“She cannot escape. The window is too narrow for her wings;
the roof is sealed, the door barricaded.”
Scrimlock glanced at the watchtower door. The iron brace looked
solid enough to thwart an army. That still did not give him peace
of mind. He looked for reassurance in the Adept’s eyes, but
of course there was nothing there: only a profound emptiness the
priest felt in his marrow.
Could they have injured her? And what would be the cost to
the Church? What revenge would she seek? God help him, this was too
“I will not sanction this,” he protested. He waved a
hand at the heap of dead bodies, at the blood still leaking onto
the cobbles. “Ulcis will not accept these opened corpses;
every one of them is damned.”
“We have reinforcements.”
“And they will die too!” the Presbyter snapped. Yet he
recognized a lack of conviction in his own voice. They’ve
managed to hurt her. In a thousand years, no one had
accomplished as much.
“Sacrifice is inevitable.”
“Sacrifice? Look at this blood! Look at it!”
Scrimlock stepped back and lifted his cassock clear of the blood
pooling around his ankles.
“Hell will come for this blood, for these spilled souls. This
courtyard is cursed! Evil will linger here for centuries. A hundred
priests could not lift Iril’s shadow from these cobbles.
Nothing can be saved here. Nothing.”
The Presbyter could not decide which horrified him more: the
thought that their Lord Ulcis, the god of chains, would be denied
the souls of so many of his Church’s best assassins, or that
hell might be lurking somewhere close by. The Maze was said to open
doors into this world to take the souls from spilled blood.
Scrimlock searched the gloom around him frantically. Perhaps hell
was already here? Were these souls passing even now through some
shadowy portal into Iril’s endless corridors? If so, what
might come through the other way? What might
“End this hunt now,” he said. “Let her escape.
It’s too dangerous.”
“You wish her to survive?” the Adept said.
“No, I . . .” The Presbyter’s shoulders nudged
against something, and he wheeled round in alarm. A chain. “I
only wish to preserve the Spine,” he said, clutching his
chest. “Pull your men back before it’s too
A howl of laughter came from above.
“Reinforcements have reached the window,” the Adept
Scrimlock looked up. Smoke leaked from the jagged watchtower roof
and spread like grease over the stars. The stone falcons and
battlements had crumbled inwards, exactly as the sappers had
promised, blocking access to the roof and thus blocking escape. The
sulphurous smell of blackcake lingered. Halfway up the tower, the
assassin nearest to them squeezed through the window.
A sword clashed loudly.
Scrimlock moistened dry lips. “She’s armed,” he
said. “God help us, she’s defending herself with
“No,” the Adept replied. “Barraby’s
stairwells and passages are narrow.
Combat in such confines is treacherous. You merely heard a Spine
blade strike stone. She remains unarmed.”
“I don’t understand.” The priest cast another
glance over the corpses piled to one side. “There must be
abandoned weapons in there. You cannot have removed them. Why does
she not arm herself?”
A scream—followed by terrible laughter. Scrimlock felt
nauseous. Both scream and laughter had seemed to issue from the
“We believe,” the assassin said, “she wishes to
“But that makes no sense. She—”
A noise from above distracted the Presbyter and he looked up in
time to see a body being forced through the narrow watchtower
window. Bones snapped, and then the body fell till it struck a
chain. Arms and legs twisted around the massive links, and for a
heartbeat it hung there, limp as a straw doll. Then it slipped
free, bucked, and snagged on the chains further below, until it
crumpled to the ground. Spans of iron tensed and shivered. Four
more Spine had clustered around the outside of the tower window.
They clung to bolts and hooks in the walls whereby the chains
gripped stone. Others were climbing closer, from below. The
assassin nearest to the window, a lean man, eased himself inside,
after his sword.
He called down: “She’s cut,
A wail, half torment, half rage, pierced Scrimlock’s heart.
There were sounds of sobbing, like those of a frightened child,
followed by a hellish cry. The assassin’s broken, bloodied
body reappeared at the window and dropped a dozen feet before its
neck snagged on one of the tower’s protruding bolts.
A third Spine peered in through the window. “She’s
“What?” Presbyter Scrimlock retreated from the
“We must get away from here. Now, quickly,
“She cannot break through this door,” the Adept said.
“Nothing can break through this.”
Scrimlock’s sandals slipped on blood-soaked cobbles. His
lantern shook, dimmed, then brightened. Shadows clenched and
flickered around him. Above them, Spine were climbing, one after
another, through the window: three, six, eight of them.
“She will die now,” the Adept said flatly.
Something struck the watchtower door from within, with the force of
a battering ram. Dust shuddered free from its thick beams, and the
Spine Adept pushed against the door brace.
“Get away,” Scrimlock said. “Leave her now, I beg
you. This is her night.”
“Her last night,” the Adept said.
The brace jumped. Wood cracked, splintered. The Adept pitched
backwards, then lunged forward again and threw all of his weight
against the door. Scrimlock looked around, searching for the best
way to escape. “It won’t hold,” he gasped.
Steel rang inside the tower: sharp, furious strikes, like an expert
butcher hacking meat. The assassins had descended to the other side
of the door. Then another scream. More rapid concussions as blades
struck stone. Scrimlock pressed his fists over his ears, sank to
his knees. His limbs were trembling. He began to pray.
“Lord Ulcis, end this, I beg you. Let your servants
prevail.” Let this door hold. “Spare these
souls from the Maze, spare us all, spare me, spare me.”
“It’s over.” The Adept shifted his weight from
the door brace.
The watchtower door exploded outwards, its timbers shattered like
rotten boards. The brace crashed to one side. The Adept was thrown
clear, colliding with a chain, but Scrimlock was astonished to see
the man’s sword was already out; he was already rising to his
feet. Then the Presbyter looked at the gaping hole where the
watchtower door had been.
Something stood there, darker than the surrounding shadows.
“She’s here,” he hissed.
The angel stepped out into the lane, small and lithe and dressed in
ancient leathers mottled with mould. Her wings shimmered darkly,
like smoke dragged behind her. Her face was a scrawl of scars: more
scars than could have been caused by the current battle with the
Spine, more scars than a thousand battles could have caused. Blood
spattered her similarly scarred arms and hands, and her eyes were
the colour of storm clouds. She wore flowers and ribbons in her
lank, tangled hair. She had tried to make herself look
She was unarmed.
Scrimlock, still on his knees, said, “Please.”
One corner of the angel’s scarred lips twitched.
“Run,” she whispered.
The Presbyter scrambled to his feet and bolted. Fast as his leaden
limbs could carry him, he stumbled and weaved though the chains.
Spine were slipping soundlessly to the ground all around him, pale
faces expressionless, swords white with starlight. They converged
on the angel.
Scrimlock didn’t stay to witness the slaughter. Clear of the
tangles of iron, he ran and ran; away from the crash of battle,
away from the howls of pain and anguish; away from the unholy
laughter. And away from the Spine, who never made a sound as they
Twilight found the city of Deepgate slouched heavily in its chains.
Townhouses and tenements relaxed into the tangled web of ironwork,
nodded roofs and chimneys across gently creaking lanes. Chains
tightened or stretched around cobbled streets and hanging gardens.
Crumbling towers listed over glooming courtyards, acknowledging
their mutual decay. Labyrinths of alleys sagged under expanding
pools of shadow; all stitched with countless bridges and walkways,
all swaying, groaning, creaking.
As the day faded, the city seemed to exhale. A breeze from the
abyss sighed upwards through the sunken mass of stone and chain,
spilled over Deepgate’s collar of rock, and whistled through
rusted groynes half-buried in sand. Dust-devils rose in the
Deadsands beyond, dancing wildly under the darkening sky, before
dissolving to nothing. Lamplighters were moving through the streets
below, turning the city into a bowl of stars. Lanterns on long
poles waved and dipped. Brands flared. Gas lamps brightened. From
the district known as the League of Rope, right under the abyss
rim, and down through the Workers’ Warrens to Lilley and the
lanes of Bridgeview, lights winked on among thickets of chain.
Chains meshed the streets, wrapped around houses or punctured them,
linking, connecting, weaving cradles to hold the homes where the
faithful waited to die.
Now all across the city, sounds heralded the approach of night:
shutters drawn, bolted with a clunk and snap; doors locked,
buttressed; padlocks clicked shut. Grates slammed down over chimney
tops, booming distantly in all quarters. Then silence. Soon only
the echoes of the lamplighters’ footsteps could be heard,
hurried now, as they retreated into the shadowy lanes around the
The Church of Ulcis rose unchallenged from the heart of Deepgate,
black as a rip in the blood-red sky. Stained glass blazed in its
walls. Rooks wheeled around its spires and pinnacles. Gargoyles
crowded dizzy perches among flying buttresses, balconies, and
crenellated crowns. Legions of the stone-winged beasts stared out
beyond the city, facing towards the Deadsands: sneering, grinning,
furious. Lost amidst these heights, a smaller, stunted spire rose
from the shadows. Ivy sheathed its walls, smothered one side of a
balcony circling the very top. Only a peaked slate hat broke
completely free of the vegetation, skewed but shining in the waning
light. A rusted weathervane creaked round and round, as if not
knowing quite where to point. Clinging to this weathervane was a
He hugged the iron with thin white arms. Tufts of hair shivered
behind his ears. His nightshirt fluttered and flapped like a
tattered flag. For a long time he held on, all elbows and knees,
turning regularly with the weathervane, studying the surrounding
spires with quick, nervous eyes. His toes were cold and he was
But Dill was happy.
Warily, he stood upright. The north-south crossbar tilted under his
bare feet, moaned in protest. Rust crumbled, murmured down the
slates below. A flock of rooks broke around him, screaming, then
uncoiled skywards to scatter among the gargoyles and jewelled
glass. Dill watched them go, and grinned from one pink ear to the
He took a deep, hungry breath, and another, and then unfurled his
wings and let the air gather under his feathers. Muscles in his
back tightened. Blood rushed through his veins, reached into his
out-stretched wings. The wind buoyed him, tugged him playfully,
daring him to let go. He leaned out and threw back his head, eyes
bright. The weathervane spun him like a carousel. An updraught
swelled under him. He flexed his wings, straightened them, and
pulled down on them.
His feet lifted and he laughed.
A hooded figure hunched at a window, yellow lantern raised.
Dill scrambled to clutch the weathervane to his heaving chest. He
folded his wings tight and dropped to a crouch, heart thumping. The
figure hovered for a while, the shadow of its cowl reaching like a
talon over the temple’s steeply canted roofs. Then the figure
lowered the lantern and moved away.
Dill watched the priest’s shadow flit over the glass before
the same window went dark. A hundred heartbeats passed while he
clung there shivering. How long had the priest been there? What had
he seen? Had he just then happened to pass by, or had he been
hiding there in the room, waiting, watching, spying?
And would he inform on Dill?
The tracery of scars on Dill’s back suggested he certainly
might. I didn’t fly. I wasn’t going to fly.
He’d only unfurled his wings to feel the wind. That was all.
That wasn’t forbidden.
Still shaking, Dill climbed down from the weathervane and squatted
where the moss-covered cone capped the surrounding slates. At once
there seemed to be watchers hovering at every window, hooded faces
scrutinizing him from all around, unseen lips whispering lies that
would find their way back to the Presbyter himself. Dill felt blood
rise in his cheeks. He tore free a scrap of moss and feigned
interest in it, scrunching it in his palm without feeling it,
examining it without seeing it. As he let it go, the wind snatched
it and carried it out over Deepgate.
It was said that once, you could have stood on the lip of the abyss
and peered into the darkness below the city with nothing but the
foundation chains between you and the fathomless depths. A
sightglass, perhaps, might have offered views of the ghosts far
below—but not now. The great chains were still down there,
somewhere, hidden beneath the city that a hundred generations of
pilgrims had built. But time had seen cross-chains, cables, ropes,
girders, struts, and beams grow like roots through those ancient
links. Buildings had been raised or hung, bridges and walkways
suspended, until Deepgate had smothered its own foundations.
Dill lifted one calloused foot and thumped it down. A slate
shattered under his heel. He picked up a fist-sized chunk of it and
swung his arm to throw it at the window. But he stopped in time.
The windows were old, maybe even as old as the temple and the
foundation chains. As old as the roof tile he’d just broken,
he thought miserably. Instead he hurled the slate into the sunset
and listened hard to hear whether it hit anything before falling
into the abyss beneath the city.
Glass shattered in the distance.
He flopped back, not caring if he crushed his feathers, and gazed
past the twinkling streets to where the Deadsands stretched like
rumpled silk to the horizon. Purple thunderheads towered in the
west, limned in gold. To the east, the Dawn Pipes snaked into the
desert, and there a ripple of silver in the sky caught his
attention. He sat up. An airship was purging its ribs for descent,
venting hot air from the fabric strips around the liftgas envelope.
Turning as it descended, it lumbered toward the Deepgate shipyards,
abandoning the caravan it had escorted in from the river towns. The
caravan threaded its way between water and waste pipes, the camels
trailing plumes of sand.
Behind the merchants, a line of pilgrims shuffled in their shackles
between two ranks of mounted missionary guards.
“See you tomorrow,” Dill murmured, but he didn’t
really imagine he would. It would be days before the pilgrims
Darkness was creeping into the sky now, pierced by the first
evening stars, and so he slid the rest of the way down the roof,
hitting the gutter with a thump and a tussle of feathers. A rotting
trellis, overgrown with ivy, formed a rustling, snapping ladder
back down to his balcony. When his feet finally found solid stone,
he was shaking more than ever.
Once inside, he closed all four of the bolts in the balcony door,
then checked the window, making sure both locks were also tight.
The fire was uneasily low, and deep shadows lurked at the edges of
his room. Dill piled on more coals, then knelt before the hearth,
prodding them with a poker. The fire snapped and popped and
sparkled briefly, billowing heat. Orange embers spiralled up the
flue; coals crumbled and settled. He tapped the poker against the
iron-toothed fender, and hung it back on its hook. Then he took an
armful of the big temple candles from their chest and circled his
cell, lighting each with a taper from the fire before pressing it
down on yesterday’s melted stub, where it would best keep the
night at bay.
When he was satisfied, he looked up to the wall above the
to the sword.
He raced over to the weapon and slid it free from its mount. His
soot-smeared fingers barely managed to close around the
leather-bound hilt, but that didn’t worry him. Tomorrow he
would wear it, all the same. Firelight washed over the curved hand
guard and blade. He dipped the sword and raised it again, measuring
the solid weight of it. It was still too big for him, too heavy,
but he took a step back, thrust forward the blade, and raised his
other hand the way all great swordsmen supposedly did. His
nightshirt sleeve slipped down to his elbow. The sword tip
It took a moment to muster his grimmest expression. He covered his
uneven teeth with his lip, thrust out his chin, and spread his
“Are you afraid?” he asked the wall.
His brow furrowed as he swished the sword through the air, once,
“Do you fear this weapon? Or its wielder?” He arched an
“My name?” He snorted, rubbed a sooty hand on his
nightshirt. “That doesn’t matter. I’m an archon
of the Church of Ulcis, Warden to the Hoarder of Souls.” He
hesitated, thinking. “And mortal blood of his Herald,
That sounded right.
In his mind’s eye, an army of heathens advanced, sword hilts
drumming on their shields. They cried out in voices edged with
One archon against a hundred warriors.
“A hundred?” Dill laughed. “No wonder you
tremble.” With a twist of his wrist, he spun the sword end
over end like a propeller—and caught it by the wrong side of
the guard, on the sharp side.
“Balls on a skillet!”
The weapon clattered to the floor. A chip flew from the tile where
the hilt struck, but the mark was tiny, barely noticeable among all
Dill sucked his finger, then examined it. The scratch, like all the
previous ones, wasn’t serious. For the priests had neglected
to sharpen the blade in his lifetime—and Dill knew why. He
picked up the sword, slammed it back into its wall mount, and
dropped to his haunches before the hearth.
Mortal blood of his Herald, Callis.
This time he resolved not to look up at the sword, not as much as a
glance. He wrapped his arms around his knees and rocked backwards
and forwards, gazing into the warm currents between the coals,
Darkness gathered outside his cell. The wind picked up, whispered
behind the windows, and teased the flames in the hearth. Only once
did Dill’s eyes flick back to the sword. He grimaced, hugged
his knees tighter.
Tomorrow he would wear it. . . .
Dill cursed, then rose and yanked the sword free again. He’d
owned the weapon for six years now, almost half his life. He ought
to be able to use it by now. The priests had said he’d grow
into it. It was a good word, they’d said. He wheeled about,
snapped his wings out, and addressed the wall once more. “Are
This time there was no army of heathens: nothing but the cold
temple stones between Dill and the night sky. He swung the sword
backwards and forwards in fierce arcs. “Are you
afraid?” Slash. “Are you afraid?” Cut. “Are
He leapt, stabbed the sword into the wall. The tip of the blade
sank an inch deep between the stones. Mortar crumbled. The hand
guard jarred against his fist. Wincing, he dropped the weapon
again. Dill squeezed his stinging hand under his armpit, and folded
to his knees beside the fallen sword. “Why are you
afraid?” he asked himself. Why was he afraid? Temple
service was a privilege, an honour, Soul Warden a position of
respect. Hadn’t his ancestors performed this duty? His
father, Gaine? But they’d been Battle-archons, they’d
trained with the Spine, flown far across the surrounding Deadsands
on behalf of the temple. They’d warred against the Heshette
and carved the will of Ulcis into heathen strongholds. While Dill
himself . . .
Dill lifted the sword in both grubby hands.
Who am I? An angel who reads about the exploits of his
ancestors in books, who stands on his balcony day after day
watching the airships return from the river towns, the Coyle delta,
the bandit settlements where Battlearchons once fought and
Places he would never see. Now churchships and warships ploughed
the skies, and an angel’s place was here in Deepgate among
the chains. While his father’s armour rusted in a locked
storeroom deep in the heart of the temple, ivy had grown unchecked
around Dill’s spire. Dust had thickened the old stained-glass
windows. Now spiders lived among the jumble of rafters high above
his cell, softened the wood with their cobwebs. Now damp crept up
the stairwell and saturated the rooms below, all of them empty but
for mould and snails.
Dill had been born too late.
But they’d still given him a sword. That meant something.
Didn’t it? A hammering at the door startled him. Dill
scrambled to his feet, replaced the sword in its mount, then
brushed soot stains deeper into his crumpled nightshirt and padded
over to open the door.
Presbyter Sypes stood wheezing on the landing. A black cassock
engulfed the old priest, and melted down the spiral stairwell
behind him. Only his head and hands were visible: the head shaking
like a bone loose in its socket; the hands grinding his walking
stick into the stones. “Nine hundred and eleven steps,”
he said. “I counted.”
For a moment Dill just stared at him. Then he stammered,
“Your Grace, I didn’t expect . . . I mean, I thought .
“No doubt,” the Presbyter growled. “I seem to
have been climbing up here since breakfast.” He hobbled into
the cell, dragging his robes, scowling. “So this is where all
the temple candles get to. Place looks like the Sanctum itself.
Your clothes”—he handed Dill a rumpled bundle tied with
string—“but you’ll need to fold them again. I
dropped them, twice.”
“Please, sit down, Your Grace.” Dill scraped a stool
closer to the fire. The Presbyter eyed the tiny stool. “A
terminal manoeuvre, I suspect. My bones are still climbing steps.
No, I’ll rest here by the window until they realize
I’ve finally arrived.” He gathered the folds of his
cassock and perched on the window ledge, folding his hands over the
silver pommel of his walking stick.
“Well,” he said.
Dill fumbled with the bundle against his chest.
“I said, well?”
Dill hesitated. “I’m looking forward to it,” he
said, lowering his eyes.
“Are you really?”
Dill shook his head.
“Really?” The old man’s eyes narrowed.
A long moment of silence passed between them. Coals shifted in the
fire. Dill glanced back up. His sword was still there, glinting in
“Callis’s own sword,” the Presbyter
Dill gave the weapon another brief look. His head dropped even
lower as he turned back.
The Presbyter’s gaze travelled round the cell, lingering on
the cracked tiles, Dill’s stool, the candle-chest,
snail-bucket, and sleeping mat. There was little else to snag
anyone’s attention. His hands twisted on the top of the
walking stick. “Well—”
“Thank you,” Dill interrupted, “for bringing my
clothes.” Presbyter Sypes coughed. “I was coming up
anyway, on my way to the observatory. Thought I’d wish you
luck for the big day.”
Dill’s cell wasn’t on the way to the observatory. It
wasn’t on the way to anywhere.
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
The Presbyter chewed his lips, struggling with something. Finally
he said, “Been up on the roof again, have you?”
Dill flinched. “I . . .”
“Certain priests have nothing better to do than spy and
snipe.” The Presbyter’s entire face wrinkled. “I
won’t name names.” The wrinkles deepened. “It was
Borelock, that bloodless pickthank. Skulking in the shadows like a
damn Shettie saboteur, watching everything, as if it were any of
his business. At least he came to me this time. . .
.” His voice trailed off.
“Still,” the old man added eventually,
“can’t say I approve. Parts of the temple roof are
rotten through.” He rapped his stick against the window
ledge. “Dangerous. Don’t want you falling off and
breaking your neck.”
Dill stole a glance at the Presbyter but saw no trace of
insincerity there. “It won’t happen again,” he
said, and right then he meant it. The whip scars on his back
tightened, reminding him that Borelock hadn’t always taken
his discoveries to the Presbyter.
Presbyter Sypes was examining the window ledge, as if he expected
the stone to crumble at any moment. “Just be careful,”
he said. “The temple is no place for foolish mistakes.
Dangerous, you understand?” A gust of wind shook the window
glass in its lead surrounds, howled in the chimney. The fire
crackled, wavered. Candles guttered. Dill felt the night outside
crowding in on them, a pressure behind the windows, pushing,
searching for a way in. He swallowed, nodded quickly.
The Presbyter sucked in his cheeks, then let them slacken.
“I’d better be off,” he grumbled. “Far too
much paperwork for me to be wasting my time here.” He rose
unsteadily, his eyes focused inwardly on whatever toils lay ahead
of him. “Power shifts among the nobles,” he
“Trade, sciences, censuses, accounts, everything from
supplies to bills to taxes to wages to stories to recipes to . . .
hah! . . . poetry.” His shoulders slumped. “It never
ends. The Codex grows fatter, the pillars in the temple library are
full of books, stuffed to bursting, and I’m buried under the
pages yet to be squeezed in. No place to put it all. How long does
it take to build a new storage pillar, eh? Stonemason’s been
at it for months now, for months.” He glanced around.
“You haven’t seen him, have you? The
“No, Your Grace.”
“Thought not. I think the fellow’s died. Or gone and
thrown himself into the abyss.” He sighed. “The fools
still do that, you know? One whiff of hard work and they jump,
disappear, slip down between the chains like heathens. As if Ulcis
would accept unblessed corpses!” The Presbyter rubbed his
“I don’t know, Dill. I don’t know whereit will
It seemed to Dill that Presbyter Sypes was ageing ten years for
every one that passed. His fingers were wasted, ink-stained, curled
into claws, as though still clutching his quill. But the Presbyter
would struggle on, year after year, collating, ordering, and
binding the city records, filling the pillars in his library with
books that no one would ever read.
Until it finally kills him.
Back hunched, the old priest shuffled across the cell. “God
help me,” he said, “if I spot him down there, plotting
with the dead, I’ll wring his neck. I’ll have no
skulduggery in my temple, or under it. None. I won’t
stand for any of their nonsense.”
Dill rushed to get the door.
“Someone’s got to keep an eye on them.” The
Presbyter jabbed his walking stick at the floor. “Got to make
sure they aren’t up to anything unsavoury. This blasted wind,
I swear it’s them. Listen to it: the dead moan more than the
living. They’re restless, always restless before the
ceremony.” He paused on the landing, and his expression
“Not nervous, Dill?”
“No, Your Grace.”
“Good lad.” Presbyter Sypes squeezed Dill’s
shoulder, then released it. “About tomorrow . . .” He
looked uncomfortable. “Your overseer will be here to collect
you in time for the mourners’ bell. Your instruction will
begin after the ceremony.”
Dill had been expecting this. John Reed Burrsong had been overseer
to his father and to his father’s older brother, Dill’s
uncle Sewender. A highly respected soldier and scholar, Burrsong
had been instructing temple archons for more than fifty years. Dill
had been eight or nine when he’d last seen the old overseer.
Burrsong had looked to be more than a hundred years old back then,
but he was as tough as old armour—still able wield his great
iron sword to best men half his age.
“That’s right,” the Presbyter said. “Your
sword. You ought to know how to use it, yes? And there are other
things: poisons, decorum, and diplomacy.” He waited for an
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“The overseer can explain it all better than I can. Be here
in the morning. You’ll get along—bound to get along.
Pretty little thing, if you don’t mind that haunted look. You
don’t mind that, do you?”
Dill hid a look of surprise. Clearly, the Presbyter had become lost
in one of his fuddles, slipped into another conversation. Not by
any stretch of the imagination could John Reed Burrsong be
described as pretty, little, or a thing.
“No, Your Grace.”
At once the old man came alive. “I am glad we had
this chat.” He turned quickly away. “Best of luck. For
Stone steps spiralled down into darkness. Wind whistled through the
broken windows and murderholes below. “Shall I escort you
down?” Dill said weakly, torn between his duty and the dread
of descending into that terrible gloom. He edged closer to the top
step. Presbyter Sypes might stumble, hurt himself in the dark. Had
every one of the torch brands down there blown out?
The old priest studied him for a moment then rested a hand on the
rough-surfaced wall and lowered himself down the first step.
“No need, no need,” he said. “Get back to the
fire, lad. Only nine hundred and ten steps to go.”
Dill wavered. A boot fell from the bundle he still clutched. He
reached down to pick it up and dropped the rest of the garments,
his hands were trembling so much.
“Nine hundred and nine.” The Presbyter gave him a
strained smile as he waved the lad away with his stick. “Nine
hundred and eight!” The young angel gathered up his bundle
and returned to his cell. He gave the bolts and window a final
check, found everything secure, and for a moment considered
lighting yet more candles. Night was just beginning, and his cell
full of draughts. If the dead beneath the city were restless, some
of the candles might blow out.
He carried her with the confidence of a man used to finding his way
in darkness. Wooden boards creaked underfoot; ropes groaned and
stuttered. With every step, the walkway bucked and swayed closer to
the shacks on either side. They called it Oak Alley, those who
lived here, but there wasn’t a splinter of oak in the whole
damn place. Pulpboard more like, and tin. Mr. Nettle dipped his
shoulder to avoid snaring his daughter’s shroud on a stray
tin panel. As he ducked, the boards sank with him, bobbing the
gangplanks that lay between the walkway and the doorsteps like
tongues. The shacks hung motionless over the dark, quietly crumpled
in their cradles of hemp.
Up ahead, a brand guttered over its blackened drum, spitting tar.
Giant shadows swept around him as he passed. Mr. Nettle raised his
bottle and took another slug, wiping his mouth on the back of his
hand, and settled back into the beat of his own footsteps.
The hood itched against his skin. The whole bloody robe itched. The
rough sacking rubbed his wrists like stocks, drawing sweat despite
Gossip spread faster than disease in the League of Rope, and his
muttered lies about Abigail’s murder had done nothing but
feed those rumours. Unable to disguise his dead child’s
wounds or pallor, he’d shooed away the shroud widows
who’d come knocking at his door, cleaning and wrapping the
body by himself. There’d been no viewing, no death ale.
Curious voices soon turned angry and fearful. To avoid the gauntlet
of his neighbours’ stares, he’d figured to deliver her
at midnight, when the streets were as quiet as the yawning abyss
Oak Alley dipped below the Tummel cross-chain—named after the
Glueman who’d fought and died at Sourwater—and rose
again steeply. Mr. Nettle stuffed his bottle under one arm, then
strained on the rope to pull himself up the slippery boards beyond.
When he reached the top, he saw that his secrecy had been in
Barterblunder’s Penny Tavern depended from one of the
foundation chains, some eight feet out from the walkway itself.
Dented, potbellied, rivet-stitched, and belching smoke, it had lost
none of its charm from a former life as a tar boiler. Rowdy
laughter came from the open hatch in the tavern roof. Four men were
outside. A heavyset fellow with the look of a cutpurse stood on the
main walkway, shaking the guide-ropes as a second, scrawnier man
wobbled across the tavern gangplank to join him. The other two
crouched among the curtains of chains around the hatch, sharing
smoke from an old tin hookah. Blaggards, the lot of them, they
turned at Mr. Nettle’s approach. Drunken grins collapsed. The
cutpurse let go of the guide-ropes.
One of the smokers exhaled. “Where does he think he’s
going with that?”
“It’s the big scrounger from up Dens way,” the
man on the gangplank said, “with the cut-up
The cutpurse lowered his head and the shadows under his eyes
darkened. He took a step toward Mr. Nettle, all brazen like he
owned the road.
“Leave him to the temple guard,” the smoker said.
“Man doesn’t know better. He’s drunk or stupid
“Got no right to take that thing to the temple,” the
Mr. Nettle tightened his grip on Abigail and shoved past him. The
walkway lurched. The other man spun and gripped the street-rope to
steady himself. “You think they’ll let that in?”
“Think they won’t know?”
“Might be someone tells them first,” the man on the
gangplank said. “Best bury her in the Deadsands, save
yourself the walk.”
Mr. Nettle kicked the plank from under him. The man threw an elbow
over one of the guide-ropes. The hemp stretched dangerously,
groaned, but held, leaving him swinging over darkness. The smokers
Mr. Nettle grunted. Damn right he was drunk.
When the men were out of sight, he shifted Abigail’s corpse
to a more comfortable place on his shoulder. His heart was beating
painfully. For a long while he searched the ground, seeing
What would Abigail have made of his present mood? How many times
had she brooded and sulked, fretted and cried and shaken him to
break his silence over one of her worries? He’d never gotten
angry; never raised a hand to her like some fathers might have
done. He’d just sat there and watched her through his whisky,
quiet like. The bottle felt cold in his hand. He took another
After a while, the path brought him to the edge of the
Workers’ Warrens. Here the sprawl of timber huts and walkways
lapped the walls of stone-built tenements. Frost clung to the
cobbles and flint in Coal Street, a wending fissure which led the
scrounger into the district of Chapelfunnel. Fog smothered the
ground and writhed amid the swish of his mourning robe. Wisps of it
coiled around his knees.
Maybe four hours until dawn. He was running out of time. He drank
deeply, savouring the burn in his throat. Mutilation was not the
answer. Not for his child. Those that took knives to their
dead were worse than blaggards, or thieves, or cutthroats. They
were worse than the heathens. Yet what choice did he have? If he
was to see her safe? Under his robe, the cleaver hung heavy from
Coal Street narrowed as he went deeper into the Warrens, pressing
the fog into a dank vein. He passed Boiler’s Inn, silent and
shuttered, and followed the long curve round Fishmarket. Smoke
drifted through the locked grates. He narrowed his eyes and pushed
on through it, hoping the shroud would not retain the smell. Past
Fishmarket the tenements grew taller and slouched inwards. In some
places the upper storeys buttressed those opposite, like exhausted
brawlers, and then Mr. Nettle’s footsteps echoed in utter
darkness. Unseen tunnels burrowed into the walls here, gaping maws
that leaked chill draughts, odours of damp straw and horses, hookah
smoke and weed. Once, he sniffed the spice of the censers at
Sinners’ Well: his stomach clenched at that.
Beyond the tunnels there was scarcely more light. With the brands
here long out, moonlight fell in grey slabs that made the shadows
all the darker. He trudged past bolted door after bolted door.
Rusted bridges linked the districts of the Warrens, spanning narrow
canals of empty space. He left Chapelfunnel and crossed into
Merrygate, iron ringing under the hobnails of his boots.
He was deep in the Warrens, where Merrygate merged into Applecross
and the road skirted the broken watchtower to follow Dolmen’s
Chain, when he noticed a heap of blankets on the ground ahead stir.
A voice chimed out: “Coin for a pilgrim, sir, a penny or a
double? Look at the moon grin—one night before she’s
dark. A double for a room to keep me safe.” Blankets hid the
boy’s face, but Mr. Nettle saw the cup outstretched.
“Hungry,” the beggar said, reaching for his own mouth.
“No mother, no father.”
Mr. Nettle spat at him without breaking stride. Fifty years a
scrounger had taught him plenty. Expect nothing, ask for nothing.
If you need a thing, you find it or you pay for it. If you
can’t find it or you can’t afford it, you never needed
it. A double would make no difference anyway. Didn’t matter
what night it was any more. Full moon or dark moon, the lad
wasn’t safe. No one was safe these days.
“Ragman!” the beggar cried. “Keep your
League-filth coin, you’re no better than me.” He banged
his cup against the wall and began to sing. “Come out
tomorrow. Come see the moon. Out tomorrow. See the
Mr. Nettle’s pace faltered for an instant. Thrashing the
beggar would only delay him. He held Abigail more firmly,
straightened his back, and pressed on. The city soon swallowed the
boy’s lunatic song.
Dawn was close, but the districts of Deepgate still slept in frost:
air held like a breath for morning. Stars glittered like spear
points in a ragged strip between the eaves. The bottle was nearly
empty. He raised it to his lips, then lowered it again without
taking a drink. What was he to do? He had to think. A headache was
creeping into the base of his skull, and his thoughts ran like tar.
Had he sleepwalked into this godforsaken maze? Where was he
now? On Tapper Road, where once he’d broken an
oil-seller’s jaw for weighting his barrel with stones. He was
almost out of the Warrens.
How much time left? Not much. He’d wasted it. He’d
listened to his own footsteps and watched his breath curl up before
him, and drunk his whisky. The cleaver blade felt like ice against
his thigh, the bottle neck like a knot in his fist. He threw the
bottle away and heard it smash.
Around the next bend, the Tapper Road plunged into deeper fog. Gas
lamps bloomed in the distance: the temple districts. He was almost
there. Mr. Nettle paused by a luckhole, a gap where the
street-stones had fallen through, lost to the abyss below. Someone
had put down planks, but those would come up easy enough. There
would still be iron down there, lots of it. Often you could remove
three or more girders without weakening the street and making more
holes. But sometimes you lifted too much iron and the whole lot
would cave in when a loaded cart went over. It was hard to
He pulled Abigail down from his shoulder so that she lay in his
arms. Her face sparkled with a patina of ice, as white as the linen
in which he had wrapped her. This was good linen, better than any
you’d get in the League. He’d found a bolt beneath the
Coalgas Bridge fourteen years ago, unsullied, for all the stink of
that place, and kept it for himself. Even so, merchants sold silk
out in Ivygarths, and he’d walked the miles there yesterday
to price it. And walked the miles back emptyhanded. It was fine
There was nothing delicate about Abigail’s appearance. She
had not been pretty: the strong jaw, wide forehead, features as
blunt as his own but softer. Her too-wide shoulders and hips were
now far from those of the young girl he still saw in her. Despite
this, even after all this time, she weighed nothing. He could have
carried her for ever.
Mr. Nettle closed his eyes and imagined Abigail opening hers. She
would lift her arms around his shoulders. You don’t have
to carry me, she’d say. I can walk. Then
he’d lower her to the ground and they could turn round and go
home. He pressed his forehead against hers. She was still cold as
stone. He opened his eyes again, blinked at the gas lamps in the
distance, and pushed on—crossing the Flint Bridge into
Abigail had often come here to paint. She’d liked the crooked
old townhouses with their slatted shutters and delicate iron
balconies, and she’d liked to sit under a shady tree in the
cobbled rounds and listen to birds chirrup while she worked. But
she’d liked the gardens best.
They’d been down here together once, trying to sell a rake
he’d scrounged in Ivygarths, and Abigail, being little, had
done the doorknocking. An old fellow had let them in to one of the
gardens and stood haggling with Mr. Nettle like a Roper, while
Abigail had run in circles gawping at all the different flowers.
After that, she’d wanted to go in all the gardens, but Lilley
folk kept them locked tight. Still, he’d gotten eight doubles
for the rake and was put in a fine mood, so he’d lifted her
up on his shoulders so she could peek over the walls.
Southeast of Lilley the road veered away from Dolmen’s Chain
and rose to Market Bridge, and here were the pedlars out stamping
their feet, rubbing their hands, and hollering through the morning
“Coal, oil, coal, oil.”
“Hot bread, fruit bread.”
“Birders, ratters, guarders.”
Some Lilley servants were already out, milling round the carts,
buying, arguing, and laughing like it was their money they were
There was no other way but on through the market. Mr. Nettle kept
his head down and quickened his pace, and no one bothered him until
he reached the flower sellers at the far end.
“You, mister?” The man got right up off his stool and
stood in front of him, blocking his way. “Got daisies and
poppies and Shale Forest milkflowers, all fresh and nothing over a
double a bunch.”
He had a thin, dirt-coloured beard and a loop of gold in his ear,
big enough to slip a finger through.
“Nothing over a double, and halfpenny sprigs of sickleberry
from Highwine—and look here.” He picked up a
bunch of the white roses and cradled them like he was holding a
“Lilley roses, home grown, six a penny.”
Mr. Nettle was staring at the earring.
The pedlar was looking at Abigail’s shroud. “Nobles
been buying them up for twice that. Soil comes all the way from
Goosehawk’s Plantation in Clune. Listen, give you another
couple on top, same price.” He pushed the flowers into Mr.
Nettle’s hand. They were a tired-looking bunch: curling
petals and brown stems.
“That’s eight for a penny,” the pedlar
Mr. Nettle gripped the stems and shook hard. Petals
“Withered,” Mr. Nettle said. He snatched a fist of
petals from the ground and threw them at the pedlar.
The sky was flat white when he carried Abigail into Bridgeview,
where the road unravelled into dozens of deep lanes. He wove
through one after another, checking the signs to keep from losing
Victoria Lane, Plum Lane, Silvermarket. On Rose Lane he heard the
shuffle of feet and looked up. High above, the soft silhouettes of
the nobles’ bridges jagged between the townhouses. Muted
conversation drifted down: they were going to see the angel; they
were tired and cold, and if this dreadful fog didn’t lift
they’d see nothing. Mr. Nettle reached the end of the lane,
clumped down four steps, and came at last to a misty courtyard
abutting the open abyss. Here he stopped.
The Gatebridge shattered the dawn. Arcs and struts of iron rose in
a skeletal fan. Along the deck, low bolted gasoliers burned
feverishly, lighting wedges of the thick oak beams which ran all
the way to the temple steps at the opposite end. The dead lay
there: six or seven that he could see. So few? His stomach
tightened like twisted rope. He brought his hand to his mouth
before he remembered he’d thrown the bottle away. His gaze
lingered a while on those pale shrouds. Why could there not have
been more today?
The Church of Ulcis rose up behind, its walls like black cliffs.
Fierce convolutions of stone, sharp in the glare of the gasoliers,
spread outwards from the doors, softened, and faded into the fog,
so the building itself looked like it stretched to the ends of the
world. Mr. Nettle knew how vast it was. On clear days you could see
its fist of spires clear from the League, so big you felt you could
reach over and grab it. But this was as close as he’d been in
twenty-three years. There had been thirteen dead that previous day,
fourteen including his wife. He’d left Abigail asleep in her
tiny cot and carried Margaret here. A week before Scar Night and
the guards had been lax: they’d opened none of the shrouds.
But that day he’d had nothing to hide.
The courtyard nurtured a silence like a pause in the clangour of
bells. He felt it in his bones and it set his skin crawling. The
cleaver was a cold weight under his belt, the steel pressing
against his thigh. It had to be now or never. He held his daughter
firmly. For a long moment, he almost felt inclined to turn away.
And then he yanked the hood lower over his face and advanced.
He stepped onto the bridge, his boots loud on its deck. Other
mourners crowded the bridge. Some stood in silence; others huddled
in whispering groups. Black robes seethed around him as they parted
to let him through: robes of silk and velvet, some finely cut and
sewn in folds that rippled as they moved, some cut plain, but all
were as black as his own. Most of the mourners turned away at the
sight of him, but a few hoods bowed as he passed them, white
fingers steepled underneath in greeting—Warreners, he
figured. Mr. Nettle ignored them, pushing through towards the
temple doors with his jaws clenched and his heart bruising his
At the far end of the bridge, he laid her with the others, taking a
moment to smooth back her hair and brush away some of the frost
crusting her shroud. She looked now just as he remembered seeing
her asleep only a few nights before, her hair like coils of copper
round her cheeks, her mouth slightly open, as if even now she might
draw a breath and wake. He remembered thinking at the time how
peaceful she looked, as pretty as one of her own paintings. She
would have made some lad a fine wife.
He opened his hand and took the three white rose petals resting
there and tucked them in her shroud, and then gently he covered her
face with the linen. In a moment she was as anonymous as the rest.
Mr. Nettle stayed on his knees, tugging creases from the stiff
fabric of the shroud long after it was smooth.
Dark figures stood around him and waited. The gasoliers hissed. Mr.
Nettle counted thirty heartbeats before a hand gripped his
shoulder, another thirty before he turned round.
The temple guard wore oiled armour, as black as the abyss. Threads
of gaslight slipped over its surface, never settling. On the
breastplate, the talisman of Ulcis, the Hoarder of Souls, shone
dully. The guard’s face was clean-shaven, wrinkled and red
from the cold; the eyes beneath his helm were heavy with sleep. In
one hand he held a pike like an iron mast. “Open the
shroud.” He sniffed, rubbing a leather gauntlet under his
Mr. Nettle looked up, his face still hidden by the hood, his hand
still clutching his daughter’s shroud.
“I’m to check them all,” the guard said.
Still Mr. Nettle didn’t answer.
The guard regarded him impassively for a while, his breath misting
in the cold air. Then he moved to one side, laid his pike on the
deck, and knelt by Abigail’s corpse. Plates of steel on his
shoulders slid against each other as he loosened the folds of cloth
and pulled her arm free.
Both men stared at the torn flesh on her wrist. The guard dropped
the arm like it was a plague rat. “This one’s been
bled,” he announced, louder than he had to.
There were murmurs from the mourners behind. Mr. Nettle heard them
push closer to look. The guard traced a circle around his talisman
and touched his brow. “A husk,” he said. “Been on
ice for a while.” Slowly, he reclaimed the pike and rose to
his feet. “Why do you bring this thing to the temple doors?
Gods below, man, don’t you realize the danger?” He
threw his arms wide. “She cannot enter.”
Mr. Nettle continued to stare at his daughter’s exposed
“You understand? There’s no soul.”
The guard’s words rang out like bells in the still morning.
Deep inside, the scrounger felt some part of himself crumble. And
with it, the gem of hope he’d guarded all night slipped away.
Had he been wrong not to try to disguise her wounds? Suddenly he
was weary, his head slumped to his chest. For the first time, he
seemed to feel Abigail’s cold weight pressing down on his
shoulders. He sank to the ground. And then his teeth locked
together and his lips peeled back. Beneath his robe, the muscles in
his neck grew taut, his shoulders bunched, his hands tightened to
fists, and he was on his feet with a snarl, grabbing the
guard’s throat with all of his strength, and forcing him
The man stumbled, flailing an arm. He tripped over one of the
corpses and hit the ground in a clatter of armour, his neck still
tight in the scrounger’s grip. The pike toppled and landed
with an unholy crack. Mr. Nettle’s hood fell back; his face
twisted into a blur of teeth and stubble and murder.
The guard wrenched at Mr. Nettle’s arm and struck it, pulled
at the fabric of his robe. The sacking ripped but the arm beneath
remained hard as iron. Mr. Nettle tightened his grip.
Air burst from the guard’s throat; his eyes rolled back; his
face darkened to crimson. He scrabbled again at Mr. Nettle’s
arm, then at his face, fingers gouging. His gauntlets, stiff with
frost, raked Mr. Nettle’s skin. Then something hit Mr. Nettle
hard above his ear, pitching him sideways. His head struck the deck
of the bridge and he rolled awkwardly, twisting the muscles of his
shoulder. Darkness flickered through his vision. He ended up on his
back, gasping. His ear burned, and his skull felt like it was
shrinking. He shook his head, looked up. Spans of iron spun against
the still lightening sky. A second guard stood there, livid in the
dawn, armour gleaming, pike levelled.
Mr. Nettle staggered to his feet. Blood streamed from a gash on his
forehead, filling his eyes. The crowd of mourners backed away. He
charged at the guard—or tried to. Pain hit him like a nail
driven into the top of his spine. Everything suddenly lurched to
one side; the bridge slid out from under him. His legs folded and
he stumbled, brandishing his fists like a drunk, and dropped to his
knees. The second guard stove the base of his pike into the
Mr. Nettle curled and clawed at the wooden deck beneath him.
Splinters pierced him under his nails. He bit down hard, tried to
rise, and was struck again. And again. And again. The mourners
looked on in silence. One of them crouched to inspect the injured
guard. Pinned by his armour, the man coughed and spluttered and
drew in great rasping breaths. Mr. Nettle had no idea how long he
suffered this beating. After a time, he stopped feeling the blows
as they rained on him. They came as quick as licks of flame in an
inferno. He was only distantly aware of the sting of metal on
flesh, the deck of the bridge rough against his cheek, the blood
bubbling in his nose as he sucked in air. It might have lasted
minutes, or for hours.
Finally, the guard held back. “Get lost,” he said,
panting. His arms trembled as he levelled the sharp end of his pike
at Mr. Nettle’s throat.
“Go! Out of here. Get lost.”
Mr. Nettle tried to move, his muscles screaming protest. Torrents
of fresh pain rushed through his arms and legs. He bit down on the
urge to retch, and pushed back against the bridge, hefting himself
onto his hands and knees. His left eye had swollen shut. At least
one rib was cracked or broken. He spat a bloody tooth on to the
deck. But he moved away. Without turning to face his attacker, he
crawled back to his daughter’s body. Slowly, carefully, he
replaced her arm in the shroud. Blood dripped from his face
onto the linen.
Then he gathered her up and forced himself to his feet. For a
moment he wavered: she was suddenly so heavy. His legs shook, but
he wrenched himself upright again with a loud gasp that echoed back
from the temple walls.
Unhooded now, with teeth bared and his face swollen and bloody, he
started back across the bridge. His robe was torn and hung in
strips about his arm. He swung a savage glare over the other
mourners, who parted like a dark river before the bow of a ship,
crowding as far from him as they could, only to follow his retreat
with shrouded eyes.
Nervous voices hushed as he passed.
Mr. Nettle continued across the bridge with blood pounding in his
ears and only silence in his wake. In the shadow of the girders at
the Gatebridge entrance, he held his daughter over the edge, over
the darkness, and looked down at the rumpled fabric covering her
face, at the strands of hair that hung out from the cloth. Tears
mixed with the blood on his cheeks as he dropped her into the
abyss. The white shroud flamed for an instant in the gaslight and
then she was gone.
The cleaver handle dug into his ribs and, for all its cost, he felt
like throwing the damn thing far into the abyss too. What use would
it be to him now? How could he ever get close enough to his
daughter’s murderer to use it?
To kill an angel, he’d need to find a far more dangerous
Excerpted from SCAR NIGHT © Copyright 2011 by Alan
Campbell. Reprinted with permission by Spectra, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
- hardcover: 432 pages
- Publisher: Spectra
- ISBN-10: 0553384163
- ISBN-13: 9780553384161