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Series are multiple stories that go together; the order they are listed in on the tables of contents and directory pages are their chronological orders within the universe, not the order they were written or posted in. A tilde (~) denotes an original fiction series, while an abbreviation such as HP denotes a fanfiction series.

The Right Hand

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series ~ The City

TITLE: The Right Hand
CHAPTER: 1 – Oneshot
AUTHOR: Lythande
DATE: 6-12-08
COPYRIGHT: I do own Syren and The City. Not to be used without my written consent.
PAIRINGS: —
TYPE: drama
RATING: PG-13
WARNINGS: —
OC WORLD: The City
BETA: none
WORDS: 15,661
SUMMARY: Syren is a silent priest of the Right Hand, a bringer of death.
NOTES: —

* * *

The Right Hand

Title: The Right Hand
Author: ankh_ascendant
Character: Syren – Priest of the Right Hand of Seiayo (Priest of Death)
Rating/Adult warnings: R – plenty of death and blood
Words: 15,661 (28 pages and 1 line)
***
The Right Hand

The priest nodded to the guard as he stepped around the body of the man he had just killed, wiping clean the small ornate dagger before sliding it back into the folds of his simple gray robe.

The other man nodded back, shifting his helmet under his arm. “Thank you,” he finally found the voice to say.

He only nodded again and stepped around him, twitching his finger at his tall companion in the shadows. Together they stepped outside into the cool night air. He only really noticed that the tiny house had smelled of blood when he left it behind. He had grown so used to the smell, it was more of note when it was absent…

“Wait.” The guard was silhouetted in the doorway by the flickering lamplight within. For a moment he looked like a mistaken summoning by an inexperienced priest. It passed, then, when he shifted his helmet again. “What’s your name? I’d like to know who released my father from his pain.”

His companion answered for him. “This priest’s name is Syren.”

“‘Syren’…” He repeated, tasting the unfamiliar word. “Where did that name come from?”

He explained through the interpreter who read his sign language in the dim light that in the land of his ancestors, where the land had bordered the sea, a siren was a creature with a beautiful voice that lured men to their deaths.

The man was looking straight at him as the interpreter spoke. “And what about you, Priest of the Right Hand? Do you have a beautiful voice?”

Again, his companion didn’t even have to wait for him to say anything to answer for him. “Silence is the most beautiful voice of all.”

As one they turned and walked down the wide avenue, soon passing out of sight of the small house toward the temple.

Of the three hundred and seventy-something deities minor and major that comprised the most popular religion of the City, one of the most widely worshiped was Seiayo the Balance, the silent and impassive goddess of life and death, healing and pain. Her priests – or usually priestesses – were sworn to silence as they entered Her service, before they even chose a Hand, and could never speak again as long as they remained Her servants.

In myth, a touch from Her left hand could heal any injury; a touch from Her right could release one from any pain. After years of study and apprenticeship, Her servants chose a Hand, and were bound to it for the rest of their lives in the temple. Priestesses of the Left Hand were healers and comforters; they tended the sick and the grieving. Priestesses of the Right Hand tended to the dying and the despaired, giving them a dignified death.

Though perfectly immune to the law and so not regarded as criminals or murderers, Right Hand worshipers were never greeted happily.

Syren and his interpreter – the interpreters had no more name than the priests and priestesses had words, giving up their identity to become the voice of the Hands of the goddess – would be together for as long as they were both alive, barring the most extreme of circumstances – a grievous fight or attempted murder from one party, or the interpreter’s marriage, after which he could no longer devote his life to his priest. If the interpreter was the first to die, eventually, Syren would have another, but if the priest died first there would be no other master for the interpreter. Many translators, losing their priestess, chose to go the path of the Right Hand rather than find another purpose in life.

Syren rarely thought about their situation. Many would find it unfair or cruel, but that didn’t bother him. He had precious little use for his voice, and his interpreter – his name had once been something harsh and foreign, he knew, but he rarely thought of that either – had chosen his path of his own free will, and attended him fervently. He couldn’t have chosen a better protector and companion.

He often thought about death, though, especially when he lay in his narrow bed with nothing in particular to think about, staring at the dark ceiling as he was doing now, listening to his interpreter breathing calmly in his sleep. It was his trade, and his art, and in some ways his life, and his mind always came back to it, fondling the idea like an old familiar heirloom. The edges were worn smooth by now, and it often brought him around to his own death, and what it would be like, whether it would be before or after his interpreter’s, whether it would come because the death surrounding him eventually caused him to despair and choose that path for himself. It had been known to happen; even the best of priests could succumb to it, and he was not the best.

He was actually neither very good nor very bad at what he did. In fact, he was unspectacular in most every way; he was of average height, medium build, brown hair that was auburn in some lights and green eyes that never drew much attention. He was personally neither richer than many nor poorer than most, from a muddled and quite normal ancestry, too old to be a prodigy and too young to be important in the temple hierarchy, with a personality that tended to fade into the background. Only the name he had chosen and being the priest of a goddess whose adherents were mainly female brought him any notice at all.

There were sounds beyond the door, the scratching step of a scuffed shoe reminding him that there was another world outside the darkness and the silence. Other priestesses, going to bed or going to work, probably. It was something else to think about.

And then they died away, leaving the warm silence cocooning him again in dark thoughts.

Before he could sink into them, his interpreter stirred and reached out; he was impossible to see in the darkness, but it was always the same routine. He extended his hand and let him set his fingers there.

‘Stop thinking,’ he felt signed into his palm. They had learned to communicate both by sight and touch in their respective trainings… there were many foreseeable situations where he might need to speak but his companion couldn’t see him. ‘Death will be waiting in the morning. Go to sleep.’

Syren smiled slightly. He never really disappointed him… He seemed determined to take care of him, whether he wanted it or not.

He probably didn’t understand how cloying that could be.

The priest turned their hands and signed back into his palm. ‘We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you were taking your own advice.’

‘I was taking my advice. You woke me by thinking too loudly.’

Syren laughed silently and let his hand fall, plunging them back into true silence. After a few moments of waiting, he heard him give up and roll over again, and soon his breathing had evened out again.

The ceiling tried to capture his interest again, but he resisted its spell and turned to his side, closing his eyes to watch the deeper darkness within. As though the conversation had leached the quiet turmoil from his mind, he drifted off to sleep without another thought of death.

Magic had been disavowed and forbidden three centuries ago in the last great war the City had seen. The barbarians who had used it had been banished and killed, and magic wasn’t even the remotest of threats any longer, but for some, watching the Summoning priests at work was uncomfortably close to it.

Syren was not among those. It was not a difficult task for him to remember that the magicians were gone and that the science of Summoning was the ultimate height of religious ability; he hoped to be a Summoner one day, in time, after he spent enough years working through the temple. Then again, that was probably everyone’s ambition on entering a temple, and precious few realized it.

It was obvious that his interpreter felt differently. He stayed in the background, just in range of Syren’s arm, as he always did, avoiding watching the spectacle in front of them. A half dozen wizened women, in this temple – men or mixed groups in most temples, but again, Seiayo’s favored worshipers were normally women – gathered around a shallow pool of water, the conduit that worked best with their goddess’s servants, that sat in the center of the simple stone room. Vaulted ceilings overhead reflected their chanting as the pool reflected the shades of grey around it.

Soon they would add the secret substances to the water, carefully guarding the ingredients and quantities even from their own lesser priests, almost as jealously as they were guarded from other temples. One or more or them would go into a trance; Syren assumed the number depended on the strength of the being to be summoned, or possibly the strength of the priestesses that day. Within a few hours, if nothing interrupted and they had done everything properly, one of the servants of Seiayo would visit them for a few minutes. If they were experimenting today, they might get a new one, and if so they would question him or her and record everything in the secret book of summonings that every temple had.

He often came to observe the summoning priestesses when he had some free time, trying to learn their secrets though he knew it was pointless. No one learned to summon before they ascended to those ranks, and any who did were irredeemably labeled as a thief and stealer of sacred texts, and cast from the temple.

The idea of bridging whatever gap there was, though, reaching to another land… another world… and drawing forth the servant of a god…

What if they could cross that gap themselves, not summoning here, but being summoned, or even traveling to the land of the gods of their own will?

His translator shifted uneasily behind him. With a slow blink at the interruption, Syren glanced back at him. He was pale and unhappy looking, watching the wall beside him instead of the scene before him with one arm wrapped around his thick stomach, the other only free for Syren’s use out of habit and training. The priest smiled slightly, feeling his heart go out to the poor guy.

‘Do you want to go?’ he signed into his palm, watching him start as he got his attention unexpectedly. His translator was a big man, with fair skin and hair that fell about his ears and dark blue eyes, and a very solid body made of muscles that grew naturally without needing any particular training. He looked the part of the intimidating brute, and that made him a good guard… but his personality was unexpectedly gentle, and that made him even more valuable as a friend. In a perfect world, all of the partnerships in this temple would work so well.

There was a long pause as his eyes darted toward the chanting priestesses, then he shook his head and signed his answer. ‘No, I’m okay. We can stay.’

He was selfless, too, which bordered the line between cute and annoying. It was a prerequisite quality for all translators, though… You couldn’t lose your name and devote yourself to the service of another without a heavy dose of selflessness.

‘Well, I was thinking about taking a walk,’ he signed. ‘But if you want to stay, I guess we can.’

The blue eyes watched his fingers, then rolled toward the ceiling. ‘I never said I wanted to stay. Let’s go.’ With a small smile, Syren slipped through the arched doorway and into the hall, followed immediately by his translator. He couldn’t wait to get out of that room, which was too bad, because Syren did find it interesting. “You’re such a mother hen,” he heard behind him, and just knew that the translator was shaking his head.

He laughed silently and held his hands behind him to speak to him. ‘Me? Or are you looking in a mirror?’

His translator’s chuckle was surprisingly robust, for someone who spoke in sign more often than not. “So where are we walking to, mother?”

‘You shouldn’t call me that out loud,’ he pointed out with his fingers. ‘I was thinking of just walking around the Cathedral and looking at the temples, or watching one of the classes.’

“Just to have pity on me and get out of here, in other words.”

‘I find the temples fascinating.’

“You live in a temple. Why is that not fascinating enough?”

‘Those are other temples. I like to know about all the other gods, too. Seiayo is the only one I serve, not the only one I’m interested in.’ In silence, he led the way down the narrow hall and to the top of the flight of grey stone stairs, the tight confines falling away immediately to the suddenly wide open but deserted ground floor. All of the windows were covered in sheer grey, pulled tight over the glass, so that the whole place was filled with a vague, directionless light.

“You mean the temptation to go back up there and make me uncomfortable woulf be too much for you if we stayed.”

‘You know me so well, huh?’ He smirked a little as he signed behind his back.

“I do. You know what I’d do if you decided to turn around and run up there again, right?”

‘What?’ he challenged.

Suddenly his breath was knocked from his chest and his translator’s beefy shoulder was pressed into his gut. The floor was some distance in front of his face, he saw with a wave of vertigo, and while his limbs flailed wildly it did no good .

There were no signs for common swear words in Seiayo’s sign language, past what the pairs made up for themselves, and his translator wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway. He was pretty sure that knocking his elbow into his head, however, was a fairly clear way of saying ‘Put me down you asshole!’

His translator was pretending not to speak that language. He could see the floor moving and hear his amused chuckle as they carried on toward the door. Since the horror of being carried through the temple was second only to the horror of being carried into public, he did the most logical thing he could think of and wildly slammed his knee into the bully’s chest.

In a second or so they landed in a confused pile on the floor, tumbled together and wound through each other. His translator was gasping for air, rubbing his chest, and Syren sat up, rubbing his head and trying to disentangle his legs from under him. Ved the blond politely in the shoulder to move him and signed quickly with one jerky hand. ‘That’s what you get.’

“…sorry…” he coughed in reply, and rolled away.

Syren hadn’t made a noise through the whole scene. Even when they were startled or injured, the priestesses and priests of Seiayo were trained to not make a sound. There was a one year grace period after they took the vow of silence; after that, any noise, the slightest giggle even, was grounds for their banishment. Syren was not a new enough priest to still have the instincts to vocalize his feelings.

He rolled to his feet and patted the blond’s shoulder, signing in front of his face. ‘Forgiven,’ he said with grand, sweeping gestures that spoke of his magnanimosity. ‘Let’s go. The Cathedral awaits.’

With a grunt, the translator grabbed his hand and used him to lever himself to his feet. Syren managed to keep his feet with an effort and shook his head at him, getting only a grin in response, before he turned and led him through the grey hall, their footsteps echoing from the walls and the impassive, mouthless face of the beautiful statue that dominated the space. She stood serenely between the curving flights of stairs, observing all that went on in her temple as emotionlessly as she observed all that went on in the worlds of life and death, from the simple but long front doors which stood partially ajar on a temperate day like today to the altar between her knees, which received her worshipers and their prayers and offerings. Her pitiless eyes bored into Syren’s back as he walked away with his companion.

‘I wish she’d stop staring at me,’ Syren commented in small gestures in front of his stomach, as though trying to keep her from seeing. The stare was a palpable weight on his shoulders. ‘Does she make you uncomfortable too?’

‘I think you have a guilty conscience. I don’t feel anything.’

‘Guilty conscience? I don’t know what you think I’ve been doing while you were blinking…’

‘Then why do you think she’s watching you?’ he pointed out logically, his large hands forming the signs efficiently and without hiding them, making his tone of “voice” calm and reasonable.

Syren stopped and turned to look back up at the statue. Her blank eyes peered from the stone likeness and into his cloudy soul…

‘Because she is.’

His translator grabbed his shoulder gently and tugged. “Let’s go,” he said with a fond smile.

He shook his head, wiping brown hair out of his eyes, and turned around to follow him. He was right, he supposed. It was just a statue; it could hardly be possessed by a goddess who had never even been successfully summoned, after all. He was also right himself, however, when he said he had no reason for a guilty conscience. His sins weren’t worse than some minor horsing around in the temple, which was certainly not worthy of Seiayo’s scrutiny. Knowing that only for some reason gave validation to the feeling, because after all, he certainly wouldn’t be able to know a goddess’s reasonings, would he?

Sliding the heavy, elongated wooden door back into its slot carved into the stone of the wall with a strain, he raised one long hand to shield his eyes from the sudden sunlight. Out here it was so bright, a definite change from the gray world in which he lived, with the sunlight reflecting merrily from the streets paved with the white stone that was so common in the area, the pale faces of the other temples, and the city walls in the distance. He wasn’t sure if he appreciated it… The calm gray world was in no danger of dazzling his eyes, at least.

‘Where do you want to go?’ he asked his companion, pulling the door closed again.

‘I thought we left because you wanted to go somewhere,’ he signed back in amusement. ‘Unless you were lying and it really was for me…’

Annoyed at being caught, Syren rolled his eyes so he wouldn’t have to listen to the end of the sentence and walked down the few steps to the street. ‘We’ll just walk,’ he declared behind his back. ‘Come on, let’s go.’ He heard the steps of his translator fall into rhythm behind him, but he didn’t feel any answer signed into his palm.

Across the wide avenue, a group of children was listening to a tutor of Talos as he taught them about nature; the progress god’s temple and house of learning was a good walk down the street, but classes were held all over the part of the city named the Cathedral. Syren smiled slightly; he remembered sitting under that same tree, listening to the same lecture, from the same priest, even though ten years ago the tree had been slightly smaller and the priest slightly taller. Some things were as eternal as the city walls…

He raised his left hand in a wave to them as they passed the group. Children being children, most of them stopped paying the least attention to their teacher and craned their necks to follow their progress until they turned the corner. Syren was used to being gawked at in public; at least he knew the children were doing it for a distraction and not because they actually realized it was so strange to see him. Or maybe they did; being Seiayo’s only priest was instant false fame, with everyone knowing of his existence and not much else. It was lucky he wasn’t an assassin, just a priest… Once people saw the right hand symbol on the shoulder of his robe, beneath the star of Talos that all priests wore, keeping his identity a secret was impossible. No one knew his name, but ‘the priest of Seiayo’ was at least as good.

The way they were walking, the enormous temple to Illari the Allgod dominated the skyline, in the same way that the palace dominated the Crown. Illari was the only god who was worshiped alone, not as part of the general pantheon; Syren was of no opinion whether or not he actually existed or was a figment of one ancient man’s imagination, and he thought most people tried to keep that neutrality… the last thing they needed was another religious war in the City. It was hard to think that He of Fate was as real a god as Talos or Seiayo, though, when the two faiths excluded each other, and some of their gods had actually been summoned.

Anyway, he tried to be open minded and not think about that. Glancing back to make sure his translator was still following – which he was, he had nowhere else to be – he changed course and walked down a narrower side street. The structures were closer together, without the wide lawns of some of the bigger temples. He knew that the temple to Charn, the masked god of thieves and sneaking, was back here somewhere, but he didn’t really know where; he had only stumbled across it once, and he had been lost at the time. Most of that temple was underground, and there was no steady stream of priests to lead you to it; in fact, Charn only ever had one priest, at least in the Cathedral. Most people agreed that there were probably illegal temples to him in the criminals’ hideout of the Coffin.

One temple he didn’t miss, however, was the one to Isarin the Dark. They turned a corner and there it squatted, a low dark structure that stood out silently from the rest of the Cathedral, and the rest of the city; very dark stones, especially very dark stones of any quality, had to be quarried and transported to the City from a hundred or more miles away, making a building as black as this one a rare sight. Grotesque statues leered over the edges of the jagged slate roof, staring at them over the patchy, overgrown lawn. Even though Syren could have walked inside and touched the ceiling with his palm, and his translator would have been hitting his head, it seemed to loom over them maliciously.

A touch on his wrist was as good as calling his name, and he glanced back. ‘This wasn’t where we were going, is it?’ his translator’s nimble hands asked. There was no reason he couldn’t speak aloud, but Isarin’s temple invited silence.

‘No.’ He glanced around. Unsurprisingly, it was deserted; Isarin was a harsh god who cared nothing for followers and services, only for chaos and cruelty, and even those who did follow him would rarely advertise the fact. ‘It’s just on the way.’ Tugging once on his translator’s sleeve, he hurried off again, putting the dark temple out of mind as quickly as it fell out of sight behind.

Of course, now he had to figure out where they were going. He racked his mind in a search for anything of interest down this way, so that he wouldn’t look like he was wandering aimlessly. Even – especially – if he was.

A stroke of genius struck, and he grinned to himself. They would go to the house of Wenga, get a show, pass the time, and he wouldn’t even have to change his path… it was perfect. As if the hand of fate had guided him in this direction. He loved cooperative fate.

He turned back and tugged his sleeve again, giving him a grin. His translator raised his eyebrows but shrugged and quickened his pace to match him. Syren led him out of the cramped alleys and into another wide avenue, where the sun once again reflected off the white buildings of worship all around them and there was a muted murmur of people. Though he couldn’t see them yet, he could hear whistles and conversation in the distance.

“We’re going to Wenga’s, aren’t we?”

Syren looked back at him with a lopsided grin. His translator was grinning already. ‘Surprise.’

“Hurry up, then,” his friend urged, nudging his back and hurrying past him. Of course he obliged.

The first people they had seen since leaving the main street were drifting from the far end of the street, toward the same corner they were aiming for themselves, a pair of men no doubt drawn to the spectacle of Wenga’s temple as well.

They turned the corner together and there it was, one of the most desirable sights in the whole Cathedral, and possibly the City. Wenga’s temple was a stone floor above the ground, reached by climbing the dozen broad steps that swept down from every edge. Soaring columns supported the arched roof above, but no walls interrupted the view straight through it to the temple of Lelleth further down the block. Octagonal gazebos littered the lawn, places of necessity for the priestesses’ use; they had thin screens for walls, for privacy and meager protection from the elements.

Much more interesting than the architecture were the priestesses. Many of the most beautiful women in the City lounged on the temple’s steps, smiling at the passers by and inviting them to come and worship with them. Each wore a gold locket in the shape of a heart with spread wings on a fine silver chain, and whatever other jewelry she thought would accent her beauty best, and nothing more. Aside from that, there was nothing in common among the priestesses. They were of a variety of bodies, shapes, and sizes, of ages ranging from younger than Syren to obviously mature. There were varied and sometimes wild hair colors, some of which were surprisingly natural, or very thoroughly dyed, others which were obviously unnatural as the woman flagrantly exhibited her modifications. Others had shaved or plucked every single body hair, giving her a smoother appearance and no way of telling if her hair was the color she was born with. Syren truly had no preference… each and every one of them was beautiful in her own way.

‘I love Wenga.’ his interpreter told him. He nodded in agreement.

As his eyes feasted on the bounty before him, one of the priestesses caught his eye, a dark haired woman with generous sensual curves and smoky makeup. She smiled at him and held out a hand, decorated only with deep red paint on her long nails and a set of delicate bracelets that jingled musically as she moved. Her other hand caressed the stone step lightly, inviting him to come sit with her, and he didn’t hesitate to accept.

“You’re going to get us in trouble,” his interpreter said as he followed him up the steps.

‘It will be worth it.’

“Come on…” ‘You know you can’t do anything.’

Syren sat beside the woman, lightly setting one arm around her waist and letting his fingers caress her soft skin. She smiled and placed one hand on his back, running her fingers over him through the cloth. True, he couldn’t be intimate with any of them, that was an easy way to be gracefully released from his service to his goddess, but there were no rules about appreciating the scenery…

“Welcome to the temple of lust, Priest of Seiayo,” she said with her knowing smile.

He leaned against her comfortably, signing with his other hand. ‘So do they. That’s why they’ll play with us.’

“He says you’re very beautiful,” his translator lied. Not that she wasn’t beautiful, but he hadn’t said that. Thought it, certainly. ‘You’re going to get us in trouble,’ he repeated.

‘Maybe we’ll find you a wife.’

‘You know they can’t do that.’ Wenga was goddess of both lust and freedom… The priestesses were expected to indulge lust regularly, but without sacrificing their freedom; to Wenga, marriage was as abhorrent as walls, because both were unnatural barriers against freedom. She was a strange but popular goddess.

‘Then why are you complaining? Just enjoy it.’

“You’re talking about us,” the priestess in his arm accused, the corners of her lips tilting slightly further upward. “What are you saying?” She touched Syren’s lips with two fingers.

“I was telling him that he’s going to get us in trouble,” his translator answered defiantly. Syren glared at him. “He doesn’t mind.”

“You have so many rules.” That wasn’t from Syren’s priestess, but a petite blonde who gracefully settled beside his translator’s leg. “It must be terribly hard…” She looked up at him with big doe eyes and rested her hands lightly on his knee.

“Mm-hm…. I suppose so…” He was obviously not even paying attention to what he was saying anymore; Syren couldn’t blame him, because that would be a little distracting.

Syren shook his head, until it was stilled by the gentle but firm touch of the dark haired priestess. She took his chin softly in hand and kissed him. His vows seemed relatively unimportant, compared to the touch of her soft lips on his, and her warm body pressing against his…

He would like to say that he came to his senses and pulled away, but in reality, she took pity on his poor vows and let him go. He even tried to follow for a couple inches, until he realized she was doing him a favor and sat back with an uncomfortable burning in his cheeks, and areas further south. ‘This may have been… hey. Hey!’

“Hey!” consisted of snapping his fingers in his translator’s face.

“Hm?” The bigger man blinked and lifted his head from where he was admiring the form of his attendant. His hands still strayed over her delicate curves.

‘She is manipulating you,’ he said in amusement, leaning his head back as he felt long fingernails massaging his scalp. ‘Aren’t you trained to keep your eyes on my hands at all times?’

He pried one hand away from the girl to answer him. ‘This was a little more interesting…’

‘I don’t blame you,’ he admitted. ‘But I was saying this may not have been the smartest idea.’

‘I don’t know… I’m kind of fond of it now… Let’s stay.’ His eyes went back to the girl so quietly greedy for his attention. She smiled to reward him, standing up on her knees for a kiss.

Syren nudged him in the shoulder. ‘You don’t get kicked out of the temple if you take them up on it. I do. And I think we’ve been distracted enough.’

His translator didn’t answer, and his priestess wrapped her arms firmly around him, covering his hands and tugging him closer to her. By now he was fairly certain it was a conspiracy. “You talk too much,” she murmured quietly, leaning forward and tugging lightly on his bottom lip with her teeth. “Don’t you know there are much better things to do with your hands?” She demonstrated, pulling one of his hands up and pressing it to her chest, guiding him until he cupped one firm breast and tentatively began to explore it. Oh, this was definitely not something he was supposed to be doing, but he didn’t want to stop…

Steeling his nerve, he took a breath and pulled his hand back, sliding a few inches across the step away from her, and shook his head. She tilted her head with a small smile of some emotion Syren couldn’t place, but let him go. Luckily. He didn’t really have that much nerve to steel, and she could have had him easily.

He stood up and punched his translator in the knee to get his attention. The other man managed, reluctantly, to pry himself away from the girl and follow him down the steps.

“Priest.”

Syren paused and looked back up the steps, toward “his” priestess. She no had the blonde lying across her lap, and was stroking her hair. Long red nails disappeared into the golden hair and slowly reappeared, only to repeat as she petted her. He wished for a moment he were that little blonde girl…

“Maybe next time, hm?” She smiled, without a trace of lust or malice.

He smiled back and shook his head, turning back down the steps. He thought he might have been in love with that woman…

“Thanks,” he translator told him as they stepped back onto the street. “Did you just do that to tease me or what?”

‘You enjoyed it,’ he signed behind his back. ‘Better than watching the summoners, right?’

“…Yeah, I guess so. It’s still torture.”

‘Pleasant torture…’

“Oxymoron. And I mean you, not what you just said.”

‘Ha ha ha.’

Syren stepped around the corner and found his shoulders grabbed by vise-like clutching hands. He couldn’t even register who was grabbing him before he tried blindly to pull away, irrationally startled. A man’s voice was saying something…

“Please, you have to help me…!”

…Oh.

“Hey, let him go.” His translator came to his rescue, pulling the man’s hands off of him and holding him back. He didn’t struggle, only stared at Syren as he gasped for breath and calmed his racing heart. The man didn’t really look all that dangerous; he was tall and thin, with lank black hair falling to his shoulders and dark eyes that stared from a pale, narrow face. He was wearing fine clothes – so he probably wasn’t a thief – of dark burgundy, and his shirt had a clasp of smooth black metal. That would be expensive… Thieves didn’t really wander the Cathedral, especially in broad daylight, anyway.

“Please help me,” the man repeated, holding still in his translator’s grasp. “You serve Seiayo, right? My daughter…” His eyes bored intensely into Syren’s full of pain.

‘I’m sorry.’ Syren shook his head as his companion translated. ‘I am a priest of the Right Hand, I can’t help your daughter if she’s sick. We can take you back to the temple…’

He shook his head vehemently, cutting him off. “You don’t understand. A priest of the Right Hand is what she needs…”

Syren blinked at him slowly. ‘Then come with us,’ he signed. ‘You need to formally request a priestess of the Right Hand, and the temple will send one. Your daughter will need to be examined by a priestess of the Left Hand first, and if she can’t help…’

He cut him off again, pulling from the translator’s hands. “She’s already been examined!” he snapped. “They can’t do anything for her. She’s in pain… please come with me, I don’t have the time to come to the temple and wait…”

‘Why not?’ He frowned in frustration. ‘If she’s dying, you don’t need me.’

“She’s not.” He shook his head again, his dark hair swinging to almost hit his translator in the face. “Or she is, but very slowly. Her grandparents are at Temple now. They’re priests of Illari – they won’t allow the Right Hand near if they know. I can’t let her suffer like this… If you won’t come I’ll do it myself.” He looked up with piercing dark eyes.

He stopped his hands before they signed his thoughts – that that would be murder and he would be prosecuted for it – and looked at his translator for input. His companion remained uncooperatively impassive, however, as was exactly proper, making him decide for himself.

The man looked at him, eyes burning, then at his translator. He shrugged their attention away when they didn’t respond. “Fine,” he said, turning and beginning to walk away. “I’ll do it myself.”

His eyes widened and he hurried after him, reaching out and catching his upper arm tightly before he could escape. His arm was thin beneath the thin material of his shirt, all bone and sinewy muscles that he could wrap his whole hand around. ‘No, I’m coming,’ he signed rapidly, and his translator echoed him. ‘I can’t let you do that. I’ll see her.’

The man’s dark eyes searched his face, wavering between hope and defiance. He wanted to hope, though, so it won out, and finally he nodded and let out a breath. “Thank you,” he breathed. “Follow me… Please, this way…” He hurried away, looking over his shoulder to make sure they followed. He needn’t have bothered; there was no way Syren would let him free her himself and have that on his head for the rest of his life.

He was hard to follow, though, in his hurry to lead them to his suffering daughter, and they didn’t have time to talk. Syren was no longer entirely sure where they were or where they were going after a couple minutes; he was certain he could fins his way back in relatively shored order, but he didn’t actually recognize the side streets they cut down. The smaller temples blended together, especially when they didn’t see any part of them except their featureless backs by which to identify them.

He did recognize the temple of Illari, though, even from the back. It was a massive building, all white like most of the others, though made from a purer stone than any of the others save the Pegasus temple. It sat near the inner wall and dwarfed the smaller temples spread out around it, haughtily surveying the Cathedral like its own private domain. Syren had never much liked Illari’s temple; the dozens of steps from the street to the door were always crowded with statues of the temple’s benefactors or people looking for handouts that they rarely got. It was far too gaudy for his taste.

They came out of the back streets into a broad lawn littered with slightly less opulent homes for the priests and priestesses. As little as he liked the temple, he liked operating in another god’s territory even less; normally he avoided assignments inside the walls of the Cathedral. Hopefully he wouldn’t be judged badly for this…

“Hurry,” the man said, looking over his shoulder at them once again, and strode quickly across the well-cropped grass to a smaller house of white stone set back near the wall. Syren shook himself and followed, patting his knife lightly inside his robe. Time to work.

The man hurried up the few narrow steps and then hesitated at the door, one hand resting on the stone frame. “She’s inside,” he said. “I can’t see her – she won’t even recognize me. I’ll wait out here…” He shook his head and stepped away from the door.

Syren would have asked him to wait outside anyway, as was customary. He wasn’t sure he liked stepping into a stranger’s home alone, though; you never knew what you could find inside. Nodding to his translator, who also had to wait, he slipped in and pushed the door shut behind him.

His eyes adjusted to the dim light after a second or two, and he glanced around. It looked like there were only three rooms to this house; the first room held a fireplace and some seating, nothing too rich, almost unbearably modest to a priest of Illari… they must not have been very high-ranking priests. Thy probably ate at the temple… the other two rooms would be bedrooms. Maybe the father shared with his daughter? It wasn’t his place to ask.

The first bedroom he checked was empty, the large bed neatly made and curtains drawn. The grandparents’ room, probably. Closing the door again, he checked the second one.

The girl lay on the bed, twitching and sweating. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, pale haired and thin in a short golden dress, the same sort Illari’s priestesses wore, a couple sizes too large for her. He closed the door behind him and stepped to her bedside, kneeling beside it to check on her. They had to know if their intended was truly in such bad shape before they could act.

The child moaned quietly and twitched away from his hand when he touched her forehead. Her eyes opened; they were blue, and would no doubt have been bright and beautiful if they weren’t glassy with sickness. She stared at and through him, not really seeing. Her father was right, she wouldn’t have recognized him if he had been able to come in. Racing heart, clammy skin, twitchy and incoherent… He was needed here.

He stood up again and pulled his blade from the pocket inside his robe. He stroked her hand lightly to comfort her, but it didn’t matter, she wasn’t aware of her impending fate any more than she was aware of him, wasn’t conscious enough to be scared.

‘Blessed Seiayo,’ he thought, placing the blade kept warm by his body heat against her heart. His own sped up, and he licked his lips lightly and ignored it. ‘Release this girl from her pain. Take her and keep her safe from pain ever again, merciful goddess.’

He took a breath and pushed the sharp blade into her skin.

The heady scent of blood filled the room. He might have been hallucinating it, since he smelled it even before the thick crimson spilled out around the knife, soaking into her dress and turning it a deep brownish color. She had already stopped twitching when he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, drinking in the smell and slowly letting it out through his mouth. He could almost taste it… His addiction, his calling, his reason for being…

He opened his eyes and held his fingers to her neck, feeling for a heartbeat, though it seemed unlikely, with his knife buried there. Nothing. He wasn’t surprised; he never missed. With a glance over his shoulder to the door, he pulled the knife out and laid her body in a more relaxed and natural pose, so it wouldn’t look like she had been sick and twitching before she died. Then he put the tip of the blade into his mouth and licked the blood off, letting out another breath that wanted to be a moan.

“Syren!”

He quickly pulled the knife out and turned toward the door at his translator’s voice. Why would he interrupt him…?

The door was shoved over, slamming into the wall, and revealed a young blonde woman who looked so much like the girl it was scary. Her blue eyes glued to the body on the bed and she screamed shrilly, rushing forward and shoving him out of the way. “No! Cara! Oh gods…!”

Syren stumbled back and turned toward the door, looking for his translator. The big man was just coming to the doorway, signing frantically to him. ‘That’s her mother, don’t do it…’

Too late.

“You monster!” the woman screamed at him, looking up from her dead daughter. “Why? Why!”

‘She was sick,’ he tried to explain in a hurry, his translator speaking quickly for him. ‘Her father came to me-‘

“Her father is dead! Murderer!” Tears shone brightly in her eyes, not quite spilling over, yet. “You killed her!”

That was hard to deny. He didn’t even try it. ‘There was a dark haired man who led me here and said she was sick. She was, I never would have done it if she were healthy-‘

“She was healthy!” The woman let the body go and stood up. The front of her golden priestess dress was stained with her daughter’s blood, and Syren had a hard time taking his eyes from it. “You murdered her!”

That was a word Syren would never own. ‘She was in pain!’

“Murderer!” She frantically grabbed for his knife, and he backed away quickly, right into his translator. She was out of her mind with grief; he’d never seen it because they weren’t supposed to kill anyone when one of the immediate relatives objected…

His friend stepped back, out of the doorway, pulling him outside with him. The grief-stricken mother followed them, stumbling along the wall, groping for a weapon or something to hold her up, Syren didn’t know which. Now her tears were falling, streaming down her face. “Killers…!”

Syren turned around as the lawn opened up around them. He was nearly as out of his mind as she was, panicked. He had killed her without permission… He needed to get back to the temple and tell the elder priestesses what had happened, and they would set it right… But outside was no escape. The woman’s screams had drawn attention, and he could see a few priests running from the temple. One had found a pair of guards, and their armor glinted in the reflected sunlight. Merciful gods…

‘Where is the man?’ he demanded, facing his translator again quickly.

‘He was here before she came up… I don’t know, he’s gone.’

He swore and faced the crowd that was quickly coming toward them. The woman was still screaming from the doorway, throwing the word ‘murderer’ at him again and again, and he clenched the knife, willing her to shut up. They couldn’t run, not with so many people and all of them between them and the street, and the back streets such an easy way to get lost, and he wasn’t even sure if that was a good idea or not… Maybe it was just panic that made him shift against the wall and rock his head back into the stone to drown out her voice.

An older man rushed past them to console the screaming woman, and finally her cries tapered off into sobs. He never thought he’d be so happy for the sound of a woman crying. He closed his eyes and took a shaky breath, waiting for the rest of the onlookers to come up and surround them. The stabilizing hand of his translator on his shoulder kept his feet firmly planted and kept him from running for the alley, but he slammed his fist and the butt of the knife into the wall behind him repeatedly. How had this happened…?

How could he have killed a supposedly healthy girl?

How could he have…

“What’s going on?” The soft clank and heavy step of armor announced the guards. He didn’t open his eyes to see them.

“Cara’s dead.” That must have been the old man; the voice came from the doorway where the woman’s sobs still sounded quietly. The rest of the crowd rippled audibly with shock, gasps and murmurs surrounding them for a moment. Syren could feel the eyes on him. How could they not be? He was standing here with a bloody knife, his job and mission was killing, and there was a dead girl inside. There was no hard detective work to this crime… Was it a crime? Was he a criminal?

“You – Right Hand priest.”

“Syren,” his translator informed the guards.

“Priest,” he repeated brusquely. “Explain yourself.”

Slipping the knife into his robe, he signed slowly, still without opening his eyes. ‘She was sick. I was brought here by a man who said he was her father, and he needed me or he would do it himself. When I saw her she was sick. She was dying. I didn’t know…’

“Liar!” The distraught mother exploded from the doorway. His shoulders were in her grasp before he could even open his eyes in surprise, and her face was inches from his when he did, crazed and violent and still pouring tears. “You murdered her!” She shook him harshly. His head cracked against the wall and the world spun. He groped blindly for his knife, not thinking about it, just needing to defend himself and make this woman stop screaming at him… He could think if she would just shut up…

The woman was pulled away by the old man and one of the guards. His translator’s hand held his wrist in a vise-like grip, and he realized the knife was half drawn. Slowly, he let it go, raising his eyes to the other guard, the one standing calmly with his arms crossed and surveying them both with cool eyes. “It looks like it was a religious crime,” he stated, and the rest of the crowd went quiet.

Crimes of idealogical hate were punished by swift execution and unmarked burial… it was how they kept the peace with so many followers of different gods and faiths… But they couldn’t really think he killed a child because he hated her god… could they?

“You’re mad,” his translator said firmly. “It wasn’t a crime, it was a mistake. Take us back to the temple to speak with the High Priestesses before you make any decisions like that.”

He never should have spoken his own words in a situation as serious as this. He should have stood there and waited patiently, speaking only his priest’s words and fulfilling his job as Voice of the Hand. Syren was glad he had spoken, though, because there was no way he could have gathered his mind again to say what needed to be said…

The senior guard nodded slightly at the other, who let the mother go back into the care of the other priests of her god. Syren wondered if her faith had been shaken by this now. How could she accept that this was what was written in Illari’s book, what was destined to happen to her family?

“This will be taken care of,” he assured them, and reached out to grab Syren’s arm. He didn’t resist, even letting the guard take his knife away. His eyes followed the blood. That needed to be cleaned off before it dried… and he’d never be able to focus if that was in his sight.

The other guard took his translator by the arm as well, but he took his cue from him and also went peacefully. Their hands were held behind their back – in case they were a danger? Or to keep them from speaking? – and they were marched across the lawn, in full view of the public. It was humiliating, and Syren didn’t even care, because they were followed by the mother’s wail.

“Murderer…!”

It was silent as they stepped onto the street. Syren watched his feet and the glaring white stones beneath them, squinting against the light. Why did it have to be so bright? He needed darkness to hide in, the light showed what he had done so clearly… He needed his gray home where what he had done didn’t matter, the nonjudgmental embrace of the goddess…

“If the temple bitches protect you and you get away with this, I’ll be disgusted,” the guard holding his arm said conversationally, keeping his voice low in case of any passers by. “We both know why you did it. You’re scum that can’t stand another religion, one that doesn’t condone murder.”

His translator jerked against his guard behind him, but Syren didn’t look up, signing subtly for him to be still. Some people hated the Right Hand. He didn’t care. Let him hate, they just had to be careful not to give him an opportunity to kill them and say that they had been threatening him or trying to escape.

“You’re just a criminal in priest’s clothes. Anyone else who had murdered as many people as you would have been killed.”

He could smell the blood on his knife in the guard’s clothes, and breathed deep, unable to help the allure of the scent. The taste of it still lingered on his tongue. It was dirty, knowing it was an innocent girl’s blood, but still too sweet to deny…

And a better distraction than the guard’s hateful rhetoric.

A cool point of iron traveled from side to side over the back of his neck, from one side of his throat to the other. He could feel a warm drop of fluid roll slowly down the back of his neck and his breath hissed in through his nose. The smell of the blood was so much more poignant now… That was his knife, running over his skin… A shiver ran up his spine and his heart began to race.

“Scared, huh?” He lifted his head as the knife drifted around over his fluttering heartbeat in his throat. Scared? No, not hardly… He hoped he didn’t cut him, but fear had nothing to do with it. He didn’t think he could bear that much blood so close, not in public.

“Just think how they feel, lying there before you kill them.” Before he pushed his knife down and their blood escaped… He shivered again and closed his eyes, swallowing thickly… his throat pressed against the blade, and there was a slight sting as it broke the skin a little. He bit his tongue, the only sure way he had learned to keep from making a noise when he wanted to so badly.

“Captain…” Syren’s eyes slid open and back toward the other guard, annoyed… at being interrupted? Being interrupted was good, the guard was trying to torture him… it was pure coincidence that he had no idea what he was doing to him, but torture was the last thing it was. He needed to start thinking again. It was hard, his whole body felt hypersensitive… the brush of his robe over his skin, the trickle of sweat and blood down his chest and back… the knife pressed against his throat… All were surreal and hyper-real, and the interruption was trying to take that away.

“What?” The elder guard pulled the knife away in annoyance, glancing back at his underling. Syren was sure it was rare he had one of the people he hated so clearly at his mercy. Who would want to lose that?

“Their temple is down here.” He jerked his head slightly down the road. Syren’s eyes followed the movement and the line of the street. And there it was, their large gray home. He hadn’t even noticed.

With a grunt, the captain pulled him down the street. Syren tried to breathe deeply and get his racing heart back under control, clenching his hands tightly and ignoring the scent of blood as best he was able.

They were pulled to the temple without another word being said, and the captain pushed the heavy door open. Syren raised his eyes just in time to see the statue once again staring down a him, and this time he physically winced. The taste of blood on his tongue turned rancid and his stomach trembled. Now he knew why he was being judged… Anything, he would have given anything to be back with the distraught mother screaming at him again, anything other than her stony stare…

The large antechamber was deserted as it generally was. “Hello!” the guard called, and Syren closed his eyes against the normally comforting gray light and surroundings, closing his hands into tight fists. Maybe the summoning wasn’t over yet and the High Priestesses wouldn’t have to see him this way, know what he had done.

Maybe the summoning had been successful and he would be judged by a servant of Seiayo in the flesh… or the goddess herself…

The guard clenched his arm as he shivered a little at that idea and pulled him inside, calling again. He heard the steps of the other two following them, but didn’t open his eyes, wishing quietly he were anywhere but here.

There was a voice from the top of the stairs above them, the old voice of the translator for the highest High Priestess, leader of their temple. He hadn’t even heard them come up. “What can the temple of Seiayo do for you?”

“Sarest?” the captain asked coolly. Syren was surprised he even knew her name. After all, he hated them all so…

“This is she,” the cracking voice of the translator replied. “Why does the guard have custody of one of the goddess’s servants?”

There were footsteps now. The voices must have been attracting attention, from the rest of the priestesses… He shrank a little more and refused to look at any of them.

“He killed a girl.”

“He is a priest of the Right Hand,” Sarest pointed out kindly, as though he were a slow child who had missed that fact and still somehow come to the correct temple.

“He murdered a girl,” the captain answered coldly.

He heard only silence, and couldn’t stand it. For the first time in a very long time, he couldn’t take the oppressive nothingness…

Opening his eyes, he saw a sea of faces he knew but didn’t, somehow. He was not friends, really, with any of the priestesses, but he would talk to them if they were there to talk, he knew them all… but the shock and disbelief and accusation he saw on those faces made them almost unrecognizable. His eyes turned up the stairs, to the High Priestesses, seven in all, all old stooped women who carried the news with dignified detachment, and their translators. They were well trained and experienced translators, mostly men, one woman, none of them less than forty years old, and they showed as little reaction as their priestesses.

“Is this so?” Sarest’s translator, a withered old man who looked older than the priestess, asked coolly, looking down at their small group. The rest of the temple was still deathly silent.

Syren sought out the woman herself, looking to her blue eyes in her wrinkled face. She had been tall when she was younger, but the years had pulled her toward the earth. The thick robes she wore, sparsely decorated charcoal gray with shades of black and white, seemed to weigh her down even further; it seemed unlikely she could move at all, but it was deceptive; she was quick and strong for her age, and her mind and tongue could both be sharp.

“Yes, it is,” the guard beside him informed her. He seemed unaffected by the crowd, even enjoying it. “He murdered her with this.” He held up the bloody ceremonial knife.

“Priest Syren had no assignment today,” the translator of one of the seven told the guard and the crowd.

He pulled his hands free and signed to the matron of the temple, seeing her watching him even when his captor was speaking. ‘There was a man,’ he signed frantically. ‘He claimed she was his daughter. He needed me to go because he didn’t have time to waste. He said he had already asked a Left Hand to see her and she couldn’t be helped.’

Her hands flickered and he watched them. The guard, untrained in their language, probably couldn’t even notice her signing. ‘You went with him without contacting the temple,’ she stated. ‘You believed a stranger and ignored the procedures.’

At least she believed there had been a man. At least she knew that he wasn’t a willful murderer. There was still hope. ‘If I hadn’t gone he would have killed her himself…’

She studied him, and he met her eyes earnestly, begging her to believe him. She nodded slightly and his heart nearly burst with relief. She did believe him…

‘You chose foolishly, Syren,’ she signed to him, and he froze. “The temple relinquishes Priest Syren to the hand of justice,” her translator announced expressionlessly.

He sagged backward, covering his face with both hands. He might have fallen to the floor if his own translator hadn’t been there to catch him.

The senior guard nodded. “Thank you, priestesses,” he said, and grabbed Syren’s arm again. He didn’t fight as he was pulled from his translator’s hands and backward, out the door. He stumbled on the steps and nearly fell again before he was pulled around to face forward again. It didn’t matter very much to him.

They blamed him. Everyone blamed him. Everyone knew what he had done and why, and they thought he had done the wrong thing…

They blamed him for his mistake. He would go and take it all back, give the girl back her life, ignore the man begging for his help, if he knew what he knew now, but he couldn’t, and they blamed him for that… For trying to help a grieving desperate stranger…

A warm hand settled on his shoulder as the guard guided him down the street, and he tensed. His translator was still with him. Why? He hadn’t done anything wrong, to be taken… and nothing he could have to say to his accusers, his judges, would make any difference, so he didn’t need him… why was he still here?

‘Syren,’ he felt tapped onto his shoulder. And nothing more… apparently he had nothing to say. What could he say? That it would be all right?

Taking a shaky breath, he pulled his hands away from his face so that he could see the glaring white world again and put them behind his back, twitching his fingers for his translator’s attention. The hand slid from his shoulder and down onto his hands so that they could speak privately.

‘It’s all over,’ he signed, hanging his head and watching the paving stones under his feet, listening to four sets of steps on them as they headed toward the Crown, and the jails just inside the next set of walls, where he would wait for a day when he would go before the King and Queen and be judged for what he had done. ‘My life is over…’

‘No, it’s not,’ his translator insisted urgently, and squeezed his hands. ‘They might understand and let you go free…’

‘Free to what?’ he demanded, shoulders shaking slightly. ‘Free to come back here where everyone thinks I’m a murderer?’

‘If the King lets you go…’

‘I am a murderer.’ His fingers went limp. He was a murderer. He had murdered a child because a strange man had told him to. Because a stranger had lied and claimed she was sick, and because he had foolishly believed him…

He’d thought he was helping. That he was doing his job and the goddess’s will, freeing her. She had been in pain, he could see that. Her mind had been gone and her body going…

‘Syren!’ His translator’s hands clenched his again. ‘No, you aren’t. Setting people free is your purpose, what you do. Not murder.’

‘You’re right,’ he signed back feebly. ‘So killing her wasn’t my job… I just killed her.’

‘It was an accident. We were tricked, both of us.’

Syren nodded slightly. That man who had tricked them and caused that girl to die… He could see him now. A tall, thin man, with long hands… lank black hair drooping to his shoulders… expressive black eyes… He didn’t look like he was tricking them, he looked like he was telling the truth. Fine dark clothes. Maybe he should have realized when he saw his clothes. The daughter was wearing priestess training robes, if he followed Illari he shouldn’t have been wearing that. Merchants sometimes wore black, but not when they followed Illari, and the criminals from the Coffin… But how could he have known? He looked like a merchant, rich clothes and expensive jewelry. That black metal clasp must have cost a small fortune itself…

Black was also reserved for priests of some gods… If he wasn’t a merchant, who else would spend so much to buy something like that? Oh gods…

‘Isarin…’ he signed weakly. ‘Or… Charn. Kor.’ Except it wasn’t Charn or Kor, he knew that. Only one god loved to sew strife between other religions. ‘He was a priest.’

‘He can’t have been. He wasn’t wearing the star of Talos.’

Syren shook his head. Priests were supposed to wear their symbols and Talos’s at all times, but that didn’t mean anything, especially when Isarin refused to play by the rules… any rules. He hated rules. If a priest of Isarin wore the star there was a reason for it, not if he didn’t wear it. ‘It was a priest. Who else? Why else?’

‘Okay,’ he signed calmingly into his hand. ‘Then we can tell them. They’ll understand that.’

He shook his head again, viciously. The guard looked at him with a glare, but he ignored him. ‘They won’t! Telling won’t do any good, because it won’t change anything. I still did it. Even if they believe me, I’ll still be guilty of killing her!’

‘Then what do you want to do, Syren?’ he asked plaintively. ‘We either tell them or we don’t-‘

‘Let’s find him. Let the guards have him too. He needs to be punished…’ It wouldn’t exonerate him. It wouldn’t bring her back. But it would give her justice.

‘We can’t find him, we’re in custody. Let’s tell them and-‘

He cut him off again. ‘Help me knock them out. We can run and lose them here, we know the Cathedral better than they do. By the time they find us we’ll have found him.’

‘We can’t do this, Syren.’

‘Yes we can. You’re a better fighter than I am, but I’m not that bad, together we can get away from them, and Isarin’s temple isn’t that far away…’

His translator grabbed his hands tightly to shut him up. He could have been kicked out of the temple for doing that. Syren had never really wanted a master-servant relationship with his translator like some of the others had, but even he looked back over his shoulder in hurt.

‘No,’ the translator mouthed firmly, squeezing his hands. ‘Stop.’

He looked at him a long moment more, then swung his head back away from him, yanking his hands free. ‘Fine,’ he signed hastily. ‘I’ll do it myself.’

He sized up the guard out of the corner of his eye. His only weapons were his own sheathed sword – ornamental, no doubt – and the knife he had taken from him. The armor he wore over most of his body would slow him down considerably, but it would also make him harder to hurt, unless he could aim for the few relatively small free spots. He’d only have a couple shots.

He tensed in preparation. “Syren!” his translator called out, one last ditch effort to stop him, but even that worked in his favor – the guard was surprised and turned back to look at him. Syren pulled his hands together and swung the single club they made into his jaw. He staggered and hit the ground, hard, and Syren knelt down with a knee on his chest and punched his exposed face again. He didn’t for a second believe he could really hurt the guard, but the more dazed he could make him…

“Hey!” He looked up, to see the other guard drawing his sword as he ran up. “Step away from him!” he ordered in his most authoritative voice.

Syren groped for his knife, looking back down. It must have gone underneath the other guard when he went down… Hell. He scrambled off of him, away from the second guard. He couldn’t take him when he was already alerted and had his weapon out.

The other guard stopped suddenly, and then toppled forward on top of his companion. Syren stared at them, and then realized that his translator was standing where the second guard had been, shaking one hand. He smiled in relief. He’d come with him after all.

“Come on,” the translator urge, beginning to hurry away. Good advice, they would get up soon… He paused a second to crouch down and lever the captain off the ground, barely enough to slide his hand under him and grope until he cut himself. He closed his hand around the blade and pulled his knife free, then turned and ran after his translator.

“You’re going to be killed for that, Syren.” They turned around a corner together, getting out of sight.

He shook his head, hiding the knife in his robes and flexing his fingers. There was a deep cut straight across his palm and another shallower one in the second bend of each of his fingers from grabbing the knife. They were bleeding profusely; he wrapped one of the cleaning rags for his knife around the cut in his palm and put his fingers to his mouth. It made it hard to talk, when he only had one hand and was distracting himself with the blood, so he didn’t.

They ran in relative silence back toward their temple, only the pounding of their feet around them. Syren listened closely, but he never heard the sound of guards coming for them… maybe they had lost them as planned. He didn’t really trust that; it was far too easy. They should have encountered wandering bands of guards coming back from their temple or something…

He pointed as they came toward the corner. Isarin’s temple was down that street. “I know,” his translator said, pulling his hand out of his mouth and turning. He glared at the back of his head but shook the blood off his hand instead of licking it, closing it into a fist against the rag, and followed. It was hard to yell at his translator when he wasn’t looking at him.

They slowed to a walk as the temple came into sight in silent consensus. Neither of them wanted to go in there… As before, it loomed over the patchy unkempt lawn, sneering down at them, daring them to come close. The sense of malice was possibly even greater than normal… Maybe now because Syren knew what the facade of the temple was hiding, maybe because the evil was personal instead of philosophical now… Either way, he detested the building on sight, the way it drank the sunlight and gave back only warped dark reflections in its surface, the way the grotesques laughed mockingly at the world…

“We should go turn ourselves in,” his translator said quietly, looking at the dark building, transfixed. “There isn’t anything we can do here.”

Syren grabbed his hand so he’d have to hear him. ‘We can take him with us. Come on.’ Dropping the hand again before he could argue, he took a resolute step forward, onto the cracked path to the door.

His translator hesitated, but by the time he neared the building he heard him following. Without looking back, Syren pushed the door open. The gritty hinge ground loudly, menacingly announcing the presence of intruders to whatever inhabitants dwelt within.

Unlike most buildings that took advantage of the near constant sunny days to light them cheaply, the temple to Isarin was lit only by sputtering torches that barely cast enough light to throw eerie shadows into the corners and recesses of the narrow hall that stretched out into the distance. An oily film coated the ceiling from decades of unwashed smoke, visible in the few spots of illumination just above each torch. The sense of claustrophobia and paranoia was immediate; Syren didn’t have to duck, but he almost felt he should, and the hall was narrow enough for him to reach out and lay both palms flat on the walls. The lights flickered in the breeze of their movement, sending the shadows chasing each other along the walls.

The hinge ground again as his translator pushed the door shut behind them. The feeble rays of sunlight that had intruded were blocked out, and the shadows greedily took their place.

They stood there for a second, watching the shadows play and scatter. No priest or guard came to check on the noise, and eventually the paranoia eased, slightly. He reached back for his hand again.

‘Come on,’ he repeated with false bravado. ‘He must be in here somewhere.’

‘Unless you were wrong about him…’ His translator squeezed his hand, though, and let him lead the way.

Syren hunched into himself to avoid touching the walls and ceilings, ignoring the sensation that they were closing in on him as he walked forward. The hall was long but unconfusing… it led straight from one door to a corner, and from that corner to another door. The silence, save for their steps and the quiet crackle of the torches, was oppressive and made him tense again. There had to be something in here… waiting for them, waiting do devour them…

Well, that was a stupid idea. They wouldn’t be devoured. That was just how it felt though, as though the darkness were a living, palpable thing with claws and teeth waiting to gnaw their bones and chew their flesh… His imagination was far too graphic.

The door at the end of the hall was larger than the outside portal, and more ornate, with relief carvings of beings, some human and some not, being devoured by what appeared to be flames or the tentacles of some beast, being graphically mangled and tortured. It was disgusting. This was not how death was supposed to be. Death should be as painless as possible, a quick act of mercy and completion, not this… act. This perverted everything he believed in, and he rejected it at the most basic level.

He forced himself to touch the door and push it open; getting his skin anywhere near the carving felt like it left a filthy residue that no amount of scrubbing would get off.

It looked like they had found the summoning chamber on the other side of the door, illuminated with more guttering torches. There was a charred pit in the center of the floor, with grooves spreading away from it like a spider’s web. Between them and the pit was an altar, as black as the walls, also grooved with abstract designs. What sort of monstrosities they could summon here Syren didn’t want to contemplate…

He looked around warily, but it was deserted. The doors in the walls – less ornate, or at least bare of any carvings he could see from here – were all firmly closed, and not a sound echoed from behind a one of them.

‘There’s no one home.’ He felt it signed on his hand before he realized his translator was touching him. Maybe he was right… maybe the temple was truly deserted. Or maybe the man had never been a priest at all… But even if so, he wouldn’t be satisfied until they searched. He had to know for sure.

‘We’ll look anyway,’ he replied, stepping into the room and looking at the altar curiously. The grooves were crusted with some thick flaky substance; with a frown, he touched it, lifting a tiny amount on the tips of his fingers. They neared his face, and his eyes widened as the familiar rich scent wafted from it… Blood sacrifices. Isarin subsisted on blood…

He wiped it off on his robe and stepped away from the altar. Disgusting… Horrible foul filthy, he needed to get out of here… He could never understand treating death and blood so callously, perverting them…

He turned around to tell his translator that they should go, before they were both damned for being in this awful place, but paused and looked past him. One of the doors was open now, a few inches ajar… They had all been closed, hadn’t they? He would have noticed that… Instead of signing he reached out and grasped his wrist, walking past him toward that door.

The door opened silently into a short hall, which spilled into another room, a library that curled back around the hall. The shelves were cramped together, barely leaving enough room for them to pass between them, laden with heavy dark books bound in leather or something worse. The torchlight was dim, blocked out by the shelves, and the whole room was a mass of shadows interrupted only by absolute darkness. Syren imagined whatever creatures these priests could summon lurking back here, protecting their hidden knowledge from intruders, and squeezed his translator’s wrist tightly to give himself the heart to step inside.

He crossed the threshold and turned sideways so that he wouldn’t have to touch any of the books on the shelves. His larger translator wasn’t so lucky; he couldn’t avoid it, even sideways, and Syren felt him shudder, but he followed gamely.

Syren peered into the shadows as they walked, smelling blood around them now, like the books were drenched in it. He shook his head to try and dislodge the smell from his attention, if not his nostrils; it didn’t work. Of course it wouldn’t. Since when did he think he was capable of ignoring blood?

The jumping shadows fooled with his eyes, making them unreliable, even if he had been paying full attention; twice he thought he saw the man they were looking for, only to see the shadows flicker again as he hurried closer and there be nothing there. The library was a labyrinth that pulled them in and lost them completely; Syren couldn’t have found his way back out after a few minutes of walking if it had been fully lit and harmless, let alone under these circumstances. He didn’t care. There was no purpose to going backward, only forward, until they found him… He must be in here. He had to be…

There was a sound in the bookcases, and he stopped dead, gripping his translator’s arm to hold him still. “Syren…” he heard whispered among the books, and he jerked back. He was here…!

“Syren… little killer priest…”

He gripped his translator’s arm and ran forward, not caring any longer if he brushed the books. One of them tumbled off the shelf as he passed and he didn’t even look at it. His translator stumbled on it, but as long as he kept up he didn’t care…

“Murderer…” the voice whispered, and he ground his teeth together, pulling his knife out. He wanted to scream at it… It was only because of him that he had murdered, it was not his own choice… he had been manipulated…

“Yes…”

There! He clenched his hand around the knife and dodged around a bookshelf, taking another narrow path.

“Manipulated into following your heart’s desire…”

He sliced his bloody knife into a wooden shelf angrily as he passed. He had never wanted to kill… murder… never…

“Syren,” his translator panted. “Stop…”

He just threw down his arm and ran on his own. He would find that man and… yes… maybe him he wanted to kill…

Alone now in the maze of books, he grew more lost in the shadows and didn’t care. The smell of blood was growing stronger. He was getting closer, he knew it.

“Syren…” The whisper was louder, taunting him. “Killer… It’s your passion…”

It was his job… his calling… He hated this man. Passionately. Right now, that was his passion, nothing else. He didn’t just want to kill him, he had to. He was going to. He’d go to prison for that gladly… Even die. He didn’t care, not right now.

The shadows grew darker, but his eyes were adjusting to the low light and he moved more surely, avoiding the books and the shelves. The smell was overpowering, drawing him on, deeper into the depths of the library. The books themselves rustled secretly, almost forming a second, lower voice. The first still called his name, sinking into the back of his mind, barely heard but deeply felt.

He rounded another corner and stopped, jerking back in surprise. Even after expecting it, seeing the man here in these surroundings was a rude surprise… Somehow he hadn’t expected to see him. Or hadn’t expected to see him looking so much the same… he should have been a monster, a magician, a beast, but he wasn’t… Just a man. The same man from before, with his lank dark hair, black eyes reflecting the guttering torchlight, the same burgundy clothes, turned black and blood red in the torches. Only now instead of a look of desperation a look of smug cruelty sat on his face. He smirked at Syren and spread his hands slightly.

“Welcome to the house of Isarin, killer,” he said smoothly. His was the voice that drove into Syren’s mind, calling him a murderer, taunting him… He growled silently and clenched the knife. “Your kind is welcome here.”

‘My kind?!’ Syren signed with one hand, quick harsh motions. He knew the other priest wasn’t trained to understand, but he didn’t care, he just had to say it. ‘I have no “kind”, nothing that your god would want!’

“Sorry.” The man came closer. He seemed to glide smoothly over the floor, without taking a step. “I meant our kind.”

He lunged madly at him with the knife swinging. He was comparing them… no. Never. Never!

The other priest stepped nimbly backward, and some sort of beast darted out of the shadows, leaping on him with a yowl. Whatever it was had the build of a scaly cat, with leathery wings and a mouthful of fangs… some sort of summoning. He mentally cursed and stumbled back, swinging the knife in a blind panic, angry with himself for being lured forward so easily.

The blade of the knife finally connected with something and he heard a screech. The animal ripped free of the knife and pushed away from him, shoving him to the floor and disappearing down the narrow path he’d come from. He saw only a scaled tail lash once like a whip before it was gone, leaving a trail of some dark viscous fluid that must have been its blood behind.

“Are you all right?” the priest asked in mock concern, and he jerked his head up to find him hovering over him. He scrambled to his feet with the knife at the ready again, backing away and circling around so that he wouldn’t back down the path between the books where the creature had gone. The other priest only watched with a smirk and didn’t follow him. “I couldn’t help but notice that you didn’t kill it… I wonder what’s different. Is it as simple as the fact that it’s not a person? You only like to kill humans?”

He clenched the knife but didn’t run forward this time. The easy, relaxed stance of the other priest was a lie. Who knew what other surprises he had? More summoned creatures, maybe worse than the cat one? Was he trained to fight? Syren wasn’t, but no one knew much about Isarin’s priests. He was sure there were more traps, more tricks…

The dark priest smirked at him, obviously waiting for him to do something. “Don’t you hate me enough yet? I thought you’d want to kill me by now.”

It had been a long time since he had felt his inability to speak so clearly. He wanted to scream at him, to tell him just how much he hated him. This man didn’t deserve to live. It was he who had truly murdered that little girl… A god this perverse didn’t have any business continuing to exist, and people who worshiped something this horrible were worse. All these thoughts in his head and no way to get them to those ears…

Unconcerned, Isarin’s priest leaned against the book shelf beside the opening, the only opening from this tiny alcove, dead end, watching him. “You’ve seen my pet,” he said calmly. His dark eyes were half-lidded and glittering brightly at him… monsters danced in those eyes, he was sure. “Stabbed it, but were nice enough not to kill it… Where’s yours?”

His eyebrows creased in confusion. His pet? He didn’t have a pet… Animals were rarely even allowed in their temple. This priest was mad.

“Never mind, I hear it coming.” His hand slipped inside the flap of his shirt unobtrusively. Syren frowned at him, then glanced toward the dark hole beside him. There was movement deep down the path, but in the darkness he couldn’t see what…

A quick movement from the other priest distracted him and he jerked back, looking at him. Everything was confused for a moment. Something metal flashed in his hand and something large and ruddy appeared in the entrance. His mind struggled to sort out and comprehend what was happening; it succeeded just in time to see the long knife in the priest’s hand sink into his translator’s chest. His translator was frozen in shock, staring don at his chest and then over at his assailant.

Syren cried out silently and ran forward, slashing at the priest’s arm. His blade tasted his flesh and the other pulled away, laughing quietly; Syren wanted to follow. To stab him and kill him and watch his blood flow, but he could already smell blood, and that was from his friend. That was more important. He stashed his dagger and put his arm around his translator, pulling him with him back down the dark, book-lined tunnel. They had to get out of here and back to the temple…

His translator’s hand held his arm tightly as they squeezed past the books, the laughter from behind them echoing with them, following them. “Syren…” he gasped, leaning heavily upon him.

Syren tugged his arm over his shoulders and signed into his free hand. ‘Don’t talk, we’ll have time when we get out,’ he urged, moving as fast as his injured companion could.

“You found him,” he said, and coughed thickly. Syren only nodded and squeezed his hand, asking him to be quiet.

The laughter only stopped when they ran deep enough into the books that they could no longer hear it. Syren was lost and had no idea if he was on the right track, but the darkness was lessening, so they must be getting close. His translator was leaning more heavily on him, though, and his breath was thick and labored… blood trickled over his hand, soaking into the thick gray clothes and leaving drops on the floor behind them. He had no idea how long they had been coming in here or how long they spent running out, he only knew it seemed like forever…

the flickering torchlight shone off something dark splayed crookedly on the floor, and Syren’s heart raced. A trap, a creature? No… When they got closer he realized it was only a book. The book he’d knocked off on their way in… they were nearly out! He tugged his translator after him and ran ahead, more sure now, certain that they would find the escape.

He almost missed it. The door was set back slightly from the rest of the shelves and they nearly ran right past it, but he jerked to a stop when he saw the shadows and fumbled for the doorknob. At first it seemed to be locked, but finally it took pity on his panic and opened with a click, spilling them back out into the inner sanctuary. He spared one glance for the altar and pulled his translator through the next door, back up the dark hallway and back outside, gasping the sweet air of freedom…

The eternity inside had only been hours, if the night that was falling was truly the night of the day he killed the girl, eons ago. Subjective weeks or years had passed, but the evening star was barely visible, the last ruddy light dying off the clouds barely seen over the city walls…

“We’re out…” his translator murmured quietly.

He nodded and moved again helping him down the stone path and back onto the street. ‘We’ll go back to the temple,’ he signed in a rush with his one free hand, the other still holding his translator’s arm across his shoulders. ‘The priestesses…’

“I can’t,” he said quietly, and shook his head, stumbling.

The knife still stuck darkly from his chest, slowing the loss of blood, but Syren pretended it wasn’t there, that he was unharmed. He would be fine… ‘Don’t say that!’ He pulled his arm around his waist and helped him up. ‘They will heal you…’

He helped him into an alley, a shortcut back to their temple, and his translator stumbled again and fell this time, pulling Syren down with him. He groaned, and Syren helped him roll onto his back. The handle of the glassy ebon knife jutted into the air, unnatural and obvious, mocking him.

“They won’t heal me, Syren…” He groped and found his hand clumsily. They were both smeared with his blood. Even in the gathering gloom he was pale and his hand was cool. “Even if they could, we’d be arrested again, and then they’d kill you… but they couldn’t anyway… don’t risk it.” He coughed again, rolling painfully to his side and spitting a mouthful of blood onto the pristine white street.

Syren hung his head, staring at the knife. He was an expert on death and dying, and he knew that even though the knife had missed his heart it had deeply struck his lung, and he was dying quickly… He probably couldn’t be saved. No, no ‘probably’… he couldn’t be saved. The only difference that could be made was in how fast he was dying, and how much pain he would be in. Right now he was dying slowly and painfully. He might have ten or fifteen more minutes…

His translator lifted one hand slowly and turned his chin back up so that their eyes met. “I want you to do it,” he said calmly. His eyes were serious, dark and pained and horribly lucid. There wasn’t any question that he knew what he was asking, no chance to resist, no hope that they were wrong.

A jerky nod was pulled from him and he averted his face again, sticking his free hand inside his robe to find his dagger. The silver glinted in the faint starlight, unlike the dark knife that blended so well with the night, as he placed the point over his friend’s heart. His hand shook until he willed it still.

He paused as a familiar hand gently grabbed his wrist. “Wait…” He looked up hopefully to his eyes. Had he changed his mind?

No… He still looked so serious, so confident in his decision. “Before…” He met his eyes again, searching them. Syren didn’t know what he was looking for or how to give it to him, but he would have. “I want… I want to hear your voice.”

There was a long pause before he nodded slowly. It was a big thing, but he had no temple to go back to, those who enforced his vow of silence had shunned him… This was more important, so much more important. He opened his mouth and tried, but it didn’t work; it had been more than a year, and he had nearly forgotten how to speak. Nervously he licked his lips and swallowed thickly, forcing himself to try again.

“What…” It was a weak croak. He didn’t think his voice had always sounded like that… “What is your name?” finally came out in a husky whisper. He hadn’t even realized he meant to ask that, but it was suddenly important. If he didn’t know, then who would remember him?

His translator smiled thinly, turned into a half grimace with the pain. “Azrin.”

“Azrin…” he repeated. His voice was beginning to return to normal… so quickly. It was becoming amazingly clear, smooth… he didn’t think it had sounded like that, either. He didn’t want to lose it again. “Be at peace… my friend…”

His translator, Azrin, nodded and closed his blue eyes, turned so dark in the deepening twilight. His pale skin and blond hair were turned a uniform sickly white except where they were turned black with his blood… he didn’t want to remember him like this. But that look of peace on his face… that he would remember always.

They didn’t speak another word, and under the watchful eye of the single star he pushed the dagger down, smoothly sliding between his ribs and into his heart. It was over.

Syren sat over him for a long moment, silent, not moving, before he leaned over him. For a long moment he hesitated, looking down into his serene face, before he finally closed the distance and with a jerky, guilty movement licked the cooling blood from his lips. He pulled away with the taste on his tongue and pulled the dagger free, wiping it clean on one of the rags as he hid it in his robe again.

He stood smoothly and slipped back around the corner and down the street, toward the wall. There was nothing else to return to, except a future of prison and execution, hate and vilification. That was not something he had the time for, yet. Maybe some day when his mission was completed he could turn himself in and let the court do with him as they would, but he couldn’t afford to die yet. Now Isarin and his priest had two murders to pay for.

For Cara and Azrin, then, Syren slipped through the door as the moon rose over the walls, and into the Coffin. He didn’t know how he was going to survive here as a criminal and an outlaw, but he would. At least here the only other inhabitants were more criminals, more outlaws, no guards to get in his way.

He glanced back down the street of the Cathedral and disappeared into the darkness, his gray robe fading out of sight, his dagger once more glinting in his hand.

~end~

Series NavigationFences

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