(Reed’s Playlist for the day: Salty Eyes by the Matches)
I wrote you all something! 😀
From the moment the woman entered her office, Mistare knew she was an Antiquate.
It wasn’t the pair of golden gossamer wings on her back, or the aura of light wreathing her. It was even more subtle than that – something in her bearing, some way she carried herself.
Before the Antiquate could offer so much as a word, Mistare drew her rifle, flicked the setting to tranquilize, and put three rounds into her chest.
The woman dropped, her body falling to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Mistare glanced around, rifle shouldered, watching for signs of a trap. When none were immediately apparent, she hurdled over her desk and picked up the woman’s body. She was lighter than Mistare would have expected and smelled slightly of perfume. Mistare shook her head as she kicked open the back door to her Shrine and tossed the woman down into the center of the chalked circle.
Trembling hands flew to the door and latched it. Mistare let out a shaky breath and began to light candles around the dark room; their flickering glow illuminated the runes etched into the floor, the sterling silver basin that sat at the head of the chalk circle. The faint aroma of spice and incense wafted through the air as the candles began to burn in earnest.
Mistare slung her rifle back around her shoulder and pulled a silver dagger from her belt. Kneeling beside the woman’s unconscious form, she pulled the head up by the hair, lifting it so that the neck lay just inside the threshold of the basin. The hood of the Antiquate’s cloak fell back as Mistare held her knife to the woman’s throat and began to cut, muttering the words.
“Gods fall, so we may rise. Let mine spirit flourish as – ”
She stopped, a trail of blood dripping from the cut into the basin. The face… the Antiquate’s face… it seemed so warm, so familiar. So…
Mistare swallowed, set her jaw, and held the knife back to the woman’s throat. “Gods fall, so we may rise,” she started again.
The Antiquate’s eyes flew open. She unfurled her ethereal wings – the motion slapped Mistare back into the wall like a strong gust of wind – and stood, her hand flying to her neck. She and Mistare both noticed the silver knife, which sat quivering, embedded in the floorboard.
The Antiquate made eye contact with Mistare, slowly raised her hands. “Hello,” she said, ignoring the blood seeping down the side of her throat. “My name is Virtesa. Please don’t kill me.”
Mistare stood, rolling her shoulder to see how badly it had been hurt by the collision with the wall. “What do you want?” she said.
“Only to show you something.”
Her gun arm was injured, but Mistare was fairly confident she could shoot before the Antiquate could reach the ceremonial dagger. But the woman had been able to regain consciousness after three tranqs to the chest. Was it worth it, engaging her without knowing the extent of her powers?
“Get out of here,” Mistare said. “I won’t kill you if you leave right now.”
The woman smiled, and Mistare felt a strange pang in her gut. “What if I told you that, if you come with me and see what I wish to show you, you can kill me afterward?”
“I’d say you’re full of shit.”
“Please, Mistare,” the Antiquate said. “There is a part of you that wishes to trust me. Indulge it.”
Mistare stared at the woman for a long moment. Then she leapt to the side, rolled, and came up with her back to the corner of the room and her rifle in hand, aimed at the Antiquate… who had not moved in the slightest. Her hands were still up in a placating gesture, her smile still genuine.
Mistare felt all her nerves on fire as she slowly lowered the rifle. “All right,” she said. “What do you want me to see?”
* * *
The Cave surrounded them, engulfed them, diminished them with its vastness. It stretched on for as long as the eye could see, its ceiling a dim bumpy mess of stalactites above them, its bottom invisible in the shadows thousands of feet down, where the Risen lived.
The Antiquate – Virtesa – looked neither up nor down as she strode through the streets of Fit’s End, one of the more notable districts of the Plateau. She’d agreed to be cuffed with sterling silver restraints Mistare had fashioned herself, and every so often she threw a look back to ensure Mistare was following her.
Above them, the massive links of Heaven’s Chains rose a seemingly impossible distance up to the cave roof, anchoring the Plateau to the bedrock there. Mistare glanced up at the realm of the Antiquates, feeling a sudden stab of hatred. She tore her gaze from Heaven and instead watched Virtesa, noticing how easily she moved through the crowd.
No one paid her any attention – although Mistare was the subject of many more looks. Likely none of the normal folk could see the wings on Virtesa’s back, marking her as an Antiquate. And luckily enough, too; Mistare didn’t want a bloodthirsty crowd on her hands.
Lost in her thoughts, Mistare almost ran into a little girl who was walking with her father. She muttered an apology and pushed past them, but the little girl clung to the back of her cloak. “Mistare Risen?” she said in a soft, awestruck voice.
Mistare grimaced, noticing Virtesa halting in front of her. “Yes, it’s me,” she said, crouching next to the young girl, whose eyes lit up. “I think someone wants a signature, is that it?”
The girl nodded, her mouth an open O. Despite herself, Mistare smiled, searching her pockets for a scrap of paper.
“Here.” Virtesa pulled out an old fountain pen and a sheet of paper, handing them to Mistare. After a moment’s hesitation, Mistare took them, scrawled her name on the paper, and handed it to the little girl, who clutched the thing to her chest before it had even had a chance to dry.
The father chuckled and shook his head, offering a hand. “You mean the world to her,” he said. “Thanks for your time.”
Mistare’s smile faded as she took his hand. “You’re welcome,” she said.
As the two walked away, she heard the girl say, “I’m gonna be just like her when I’m a grown-up!”
“Touching,” Virtesa said softly. “Everyone on the Plateau looks up to you.”
“Come on,” Mistare grunted, taking her by the arm.
“It’s the reason I came to you instead of another hunter,” Virtesa said. “The way you turned down a residency with the other Risen – I heard the speech.”
“Good for you.”
“Do you truly believe humans are equal to gods?”
Mistare stopped. Virtessa’s one eyebrow was raised, her face otherwise expressionless.
“No,” Mistare said. “I think humans are equal to Risen. I think Antiquate like you are miserable guttershites who should be purged from this world.”
Virtesa nodded slowly, starting to walk again. “Well, you’re doing a good job of it,” she said. “Twenty-five Antiquate in the past ten years? That’s unheard of. And twenty-three of them you rooted out and killed yourself.”
“It’s gonna be twenty-six if you don’t shut up,” Mistare said, placing her hand on the pommel of her dagger. And for the rest of their walk, Virtesa remained blessedly silent.
* * *
“What are we doing here?” Mistare said, glancing around at the line. She didn’t like being in lines, or crowds for that matter.
“Have you ever been to the Chain chamber?” Virtesa said. She was looking around at the massive domed room, the tourists stopping at pedestals to read the commissioning plaques, the spiral staircase upon which they stood in line to get access to the roof of the dome.
“No,” Mistare said.
“And why would you? You’ve gotten very lucky hunting Antiquate here on the Plateau. Why go up to their realm, right?”
Mistare said nothing. The line shuffled forward – there were several dozen still in front of them – and Virtesa stepped to the side of the staircase where one of the many plaques hung against the curved wall. “Here,” she read, “is one of the ten Heaven’s Chains which the first Risen, Hugo Ironarm, hurled into the realm of Heaven above to tie the Antiquate Gods down to the human realm. Visitors are welcome to attempt to climb the chain, which reaches a height of two hundred and sixty-three feet, to Heaven.”
She turned from the plaque, looking at Mistare as if expecting a response. Mistare gave none.
Virtesa sighed. “So let me see if I understand your lore. The Antiquate Gods create humankind in this dank, massive cave, while they enjoy Heaven aboveground, where the fields are endless and the food plentiful. The Antiquate Gods move between Heaven and this Plateau, spending time with their subjects and lording over them, until one day this Hugo fellow says, ‘No more.’ And he kills one of the Antiquate, absorbing his power of inhuman strength, which he uses to… chain Heaven to the Plateau? Is that right?”
Mistare stared. “What are you doing? Seriously, what are you trying to prove?”
“Doesn’t that story seem a little bit strange to you?” Virtesa said, stepping forward as the line moved up again. “I mean, this is a god of strength, and Hugo just happens to kill him?”
“Are you saying history isn’t true?” Mistare said.
“I’m saying no one as smart as you should refrain from questioning what is true,” Virtesa said softly.
Mistare turned from her. “Just be quiet until we get to the chain.”
“As you wish,” Virtesa said, as the line continued to inch forward.
* * *
At the roof of the dome, a janitor was cleaning up blood. He shrugged when he saw Mistare staring. “Most folks are here just for the experience, but occasionally you get an actual climbing attempt,” he said. “It’s impossible, though.” He gestured with his mop to the vast chain, each link as thick as a man’s trunk, stretching up an inconceivable distance to the roof of the Cave.
“Heaven above, Risen below,” Virtesa said, meandering across the stony surface of the dome, looking out over the edge of the Plateau. Far below, somewhere in the shadows, was the residence of the Risen. She turned back toward Mistare. “Have you ever wondered why the Risen need to keep a separate residence from the regular folk?”
Mistare shrugged. “They’re afraid people are going to try to kill them too.” She’d been subject to several attempted assassinations herself.
“They want to steal your powers, the same way you take the Antiquate’s powers?”
“You already know this,” Mistare said. “Why are you asking about it?”
“Just curious,” Virtesa said.
The janitor finished cleaning and left, instructing them he’d be back in a minute once they finished their climbing attempt. The door hatch swung shut behind him and they were alone.
“And why,” Virtesa said, “do you stay in the Plateau despite being a Risen? You’ve said yourself it’s dangerous, when people want your powers.”
Mistare sighed. “You said you heard my speech, right? I think people are better than that. I think if we as Risen live among them and show them how to hunt the true evil in this world – the Antiquate who locked us up underground and left us to suffer – then we can all live harmoniously.”
Virtesa smiled sadly. “If only it were the Antiquate who locked you up underground,” she said.
Mistare’s brow furled. “What do you mean?”
“Hold onto the chain tightly,” Virtesa said, walking towards her. “I’m going to orient you.”
Mistare grabbed onto the chain, flinching away when Virtesa put her cuffed hands on Mistare’s face. “Calm, now,” the Antiquate said. “Just trust me.”
Mistare looked into the face of this woman and was astonished to find she trusted her.
Virtesa’s eyes slid shut as she pulled Mistare’s face towards her. Her lips were cool and soft on Mistare’s forehead, and they sent an electric tingle down Mistare’s spine. She felt her own eyes shutting as some deep, dark realization unseated itself in her mind and clamored to be heard.
“Open your eyes,” Virtesa said.
Mistare opened her eyes and nearly fell from the chain in shock. The world had been inverted – the dome of the Chain chamber now a bowl above her, the length of chain running down to a floor below. She was dangling out over three hundred feet of empty space, with nothing other than her arms and legs keeping her from falling.
“You bitch!” Mistare screamed, her thoughts racing, her heart beating wildly in her chest. “What have you done to me?! What have you done?!”
“Calm,” Virtesa said, hovering next to Mistare, her wings beating slowly. “I’ve just oriented you. This is how things are, not how you want them to be. Look around; what you thought was up, is down.”
Mistare clung to the chain, squeezing her eyes shut. She opened them again. She was still dangling.
“You need to start moving down the chain,” Virtesa said. “Even with your strength and your powers, you’re not going to be able to hold on for a very long time.”
“When I get down there, I’m going to kill you,” Mistare swore.
“We’ll see,” Virtesa said as they began to descend.
* * *
The very moment her feet touched the bottom – top? – of the Cave, Mistare pivoted, grabbed Virtesa by the throat, and slammed her to the ground, her rifle already unslung and pressed to the Antiquate’s temple. “Change it back,” she said. “Or I’ll blow your brains out.”
“I can’t do that,” Virtesa gasped. “Only you can.”
“By choosing to orient yourself the other way. You have to believe that things are the way they appear, instead of the way they actually are.”
“Stop talking in damned riddles, or I swear I’ll – ”
“Look around,” Virtesa said, pointing. “Look at your heaven.”
Mistare kept the rifle pressed to the Antiquate’s temple and glanced around quickly. Then a second glance. And then a third.
The chamber – if that was what this flat, craggy space could be called – was dingy and slippery with moisture. All around them, the stalactites, or rather stalagmites, poked up from the ground around the many massive iron cages holding wretches of human beings. Humans, not Antiquates – and not even truly humans, but more like animals in the way they shied away from her stare and shuffled around in sodden rags. There were hundreds of them across dozens of cages, stretching back far into the gloom.
Mistare cast her eyes upward, back at the bright speck of the Plateau above them. “What is this place?” she breathed.
Virtesa shuffled underneath her, and Mistare grudgingly let her up. The Antiquate gestured to the cages around them. “This,” she said, “is an Antiquate factory. The Risen – the so-called ‘new gods’ of your realm – come here about once a month, bringing with them poor folk, orphaned children, anyone who is different or strange or might upset the status quo. And they put them in these cages for a time until they think the people on the Plateau are getting restless. Then they come back up here with their godly powers and they slap a pair of wings on us and give us a power or two of our own, and then they release us back into the Plateau to be hunted like rats.”
“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Mistare said.
“None of you do,” Virtesa said, crossing to one of the cages and tossing a crust of bread to the cowering man who sat in a pile of his own filth in the corner. “Those people you call Risen? They’re the Old Gods. They’ve been the Old Gods this entire time, sitting up there in the real Heaven making sure the people don’t rise up against them. And what better way of keeping humankind complacent than by giving them a target to pursue? Provided they don’t look too closely at the target, of course.”
“But I’ve seen people become Risen by killing Antiquate,” Mistare said, turning from the wretches in the cages. “They go down – I mean, up – to the Risen’s home. If the Risen were the old gods – ”
“Those people you’ve seen ‘becoming Risen’ – they immediately get killed when they reach Heaven. Unless they’re folk heroes, in which case they’re kept around for public events until their image fades, and then in fifty or so years, they’re tossed back down here to the cages to become new Antiquate for the people to hunt. It’s kind of like recycling gods.”
Mistare shook her head vigorously, feeling shudders all down her body. “How do you know about all this?” she said.
“Because I was one of those folk heroes,” Virtesa said, gesturing to herself. “You ever hear of Haneta Healer?”
Haneta…. Mistare’s mother had praised Haneta as the best of all the Risen. Mistare remembered hearing about her as a child.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to hear all of this,” Virtesa said.
Tears leaked out from between her cupped hands and splashed to the floor of the cave. “What do you want?” she whispered. “Why did you tell me all of this?”
“Because I heard there was a Risen who refused to accept that people were so bloodthirsty that they would hunt their heroes,” Virtesa said. “You are the most powerful person in this world – most of those Risen, those old gods, have a few powers, but you have twenty-five of them! You and I, together, could mount an assault on the Risen in their home. We could actually destroy the old gods, and then we could move humankind to Heaven aboveground where they deserve to be.”
Mistare removed her hands from her eyes, letting her tears flow freely. “So you’re saying,” she said in a hollow murmur, “that humankind has been fighting itself for centuries on the whims of the Risen? That we’ve killed our own brothers and sisters for the Old Gods who have taken everything from us?”
“Yes,” Virtesa said, gripping Mistare’s shoulders. “But we can – ”
Mistare shot her through the heart.
Vistare’s face was less pained and more confused as she dropped to the ground, blood seeping from her far too fast for even a god to heal. Her face went pale and her eyes glazed over as she died.
Mistare dropped her rifle to the ground, closed her eyes, and focused on the way things should be, the way they appeared. She focused on the pleasant lie, forcing it to become a reality. And she felt herself reorient.
She didn’t make a grab for the Heaven’s Chain. Instead, she let herself freefall towards the Plateau, her arms spread wide to embrace it. As she hurtled down towards the city, impossibly fast, she thought to herself:
Anything is better.