Jasper walked back from his training sore, eagerly anticipating a nice bath to wash the sweat from his skin, and maybe he could even beg a minor healing salve from Teysa to sweep the wounds away...
It was a shame, wasn't it?
He was just getting to know everyone. Teysa was cute and digging him, Thorn was a steady friend. Even Amun was slowly growing on him, like a fungus.
He thought he'd hate them forever, but the truth was, it was hard to hate people up close and personal. Jasper had hated everyone once-- when the world was alien to him and he'd been shut up inside his tiny apartment, his tiny world. He'd hated them as an abstract-- he'd argued and he'd won every time against the tiny little homunculus-people he'd made up just to vent his anger on.
But people had inner twists and turns inside their head. They were hard to predict; they surprised you.
Whatever abstract idea of a person you kept inside your head, you'd find it blew away like so much dust.
And Jasper felt the wind around him, now, as he walked through the city. He felt the sun's heat ebbing as it sank towards the base of the dunes, leaving a rippling reflection in gold that stretched down the river, and heard the choruses of frogs and cicadas singing towards the orange-pink sky, where those last fingers of light burned on the edges of thin clouds and outlined them in gold like autumn leaves curling at their edges.
It felt like goodbye.
But in a way, that was exciting. This was just a small town in the middle of nowhere; there would be other towns, and other stops along the way, other evening skies, all out there somewhere beyond the horizon.
Jasper could live with being on the run, he thought...
But as he crossed an ivy-covered bridge, he caught sight of something that made him freeze in place. A gondolier was paddling his little ship under the bridge, and for a moment, he looked up and Jasper looked down, their eyes meeting.
The man wore dark blue paint on his face, with golden lips and eyeshadow.
It was the same mask of colors that the God of Fools wore.
For a second Jasper thought the man was the God of Fools, but no. Just a stranger in facepaint. The gondolier winked and waved and passed on, digging his pole into the shallow water and carrying on.
Unsettled by the encounter, Jasper felt his anxieties waking up, breaking through the idyll beauty of the scene. He hurried on…
But at the next street corner, there was a white-robed priest nailing a parchment up onto a door. Jasper barely glanced over it before jerking his head away and hurrying forward.
'... the outsider presents itself as human, but be warned, this is only a cunning mask. It is tall, thin, with dark hair and golden eyes…'
At the next corner, there was another priest. But this one wasn't having such an easy time. A bulky shopkeep stood between him and the door of the butcher's where he was trying to nail his proclamation. The man carried a cleaver with such a casual air that the massive blade couldn't even be called a threat– it was a promise.
"S'my shop, 'n my door. Who do you think you are?"
"I am a servant of–"
But the priest couldn't get more than a few words in. Surrounding him, hanging back only by an arm's reach, was a small crowd. No, mob was the term. They were riled up, hooting and calling and interrupting the priest, and among the faces, Jasper saw several wearing the blue facepaint of the Fool…
Guards were forcing their way through the crowd, cracking heads and reaching hands with truncheons.
Jasper turned and made it his business to be elsewhere. The sun was fully gone now– the city at night was lit by small floating lamps that seemed to have no more substance than smoke, their hazy bodies spinning in spirals just above the rooftops.
He didn't take the main streets anymore. He slid through alleys, leaping walls and going through courtyards where he had to.
In the dark claustrophobia of a crooked alleyway, the walls leaning to constrain the sky into a narrow scar above, he bumped against a beggar. The man smelled utterly foul– Jasper recoiled, but a scrawny hand grasped him by the silk of his armor. It was the beggar's only hand.
"Yer a Midlund boy, eh? But such fancy clothes, 'n that Ardish sword, peh, you've forgotten it ain't you? Let your heart go cold in yer chest, boy? All weighed down with Ardish gold?"
"Get off me." Jasper hissed. He wasn't willing to hit a starved, one-armed old man, but god– his fingers twitched into a fist.
"Hear me, boy! Hear the bells ringing, listen, before it's too late! They can't make you forget!"
Jasper took a stumbling step back, pulling the man with him. The dim light of the rising moon crashed down on a weathered, wrinkled face with a stub of patchy beard. Worked into the creases was a crude attempt at facepaint, bluish smears applied unevenly.
Jasper swatted his hand aside and grabbed him in turn, getting a fistful of his rags in an iron grip. "What is going on?" He hissed. "Why is everyone wearing that idiotic facepaint?"
The old man just laughed, slumping back against the wall and lifting a gourd to his lips. "We remember, boy. We remember who we are, and the gods, they remember us back..."
"Look, here." Jasper dug out the remains of a copper ring from his pocket and pushed it into the old man's hand. "Get some proper food."
"I was a soldier…" The man murmured. "Still go see the graves…"
Jasper just left.
Today, he didn't go back to the inn. It was just an instinct– too much was wrong here. He'd thought if he kept his head down and acted as if everything was normal, things would stay normal. He'd been trying that since the incident at the temple, trying to play things cool.
It had worked about as well as burying his head in the sand.
Things were closing in on him now. The angel. The priests. People wearing the God of Fools' color…
Going back to the inn was putting his foot into the trap, willingly.
So he took a sudden right turn, and kept going, weaving his way through the city with his head down and letting his feet lead him, blindly, through the chaos that was unfolding.
There was a wine-seller handing out free cups to anyone wearing the blue.
There was a tavern that had become a warzone, the guardsmen trying desperately to shove themselves through the narrow door as the drunken mob within pushed them back; whenever the guards got ahold of a blue-painted fool, it became a tugging match between the two sides, the poor man being dragged out towards the wagon full of prisoners as the mob tried to haul them back inside. Truncheons whipped about and struck down.
Not that the mob didn’t have their own cruelties.
Jasper crossed paths with a priest in torn robes that barely clung to his body, staggering and stumbling ahead of a procession who called out, jeering cruelly, kicking and pushing him whenever he slowed down. Bottles sailed from the back of the mob, hitting him or littering his path with glass. The man looked up, mouthing ‘help’ as Jasper stepped into the road–
And then his eyes went wide.
“That–” He gasped out, a crude club hitting from behind and sending him stumbling forward, grabbing for Jasper. “It’s him! Look!”
But Jasper pushed him down, to the cheer of the crowd, a cheer that drowned out the priest’s accusations. Without looking back, Jasper turned and began to run.
Through the city…
Through darkened streets and the bright pools of light spilling forth from open doors…
And then the night’s dark canvas was disturbed.
Through the sky came a blazing pillar of light, piercing down towards the distant white-walled compound of Owl’s temple. It split the night like a bolt of lightning…
And like thunder echoing after, there was a howl.
What chilled Jasper wasn’t that the cry was particularly loud, particularly horrible. It wasn’t. It was completely silent– the sound was in his head, and only in his head.
Something knew who and where he was.
Jasper froze, turning towards the temple. The pillar of light had broken apart, dissolving into wisps of gold floating through the sky like feathers. The last time there had been light like that, it had been a summoning, calling the angel.
This time they’d called something different.
Something bad was coming.
Jasper kept moving. Not running now. Walking, swiftly and stiffly, head turning to the street-corners, the mouths of the alleys, the rooftops. Waiting for death to arrive. His hand sitting on the hilt of his rapier. The fact that the night was already bleeding past him, that it was nearing dawn– it didn’t matter. Exhaustion only registered as a sense of sick emptiness. Sleep was an impossible thing, far from his mind.
It felt like the night was a prison, and the only way out was to keep moving…
Jasper was in the horticulture district when it happened. All around him were the massive, skeletal frames of six-sided pyramids, their hollow walls filled in by barriers of light. Artificial hexes. Within each one grew a jungle or a forest or a field, the desert fully replaced by some other environment, a greenhouse of wonders where the limbs of trees pressed against the translucent walls, the edges of their cage…
Jasper looked up.
The sky was beginning to lighten. Against the frame of blue, Jasper saw a hunched, black shadow sitting atop the pyramid.
And it saw him with eyes of flame.
In a single bound, the creature landed, cracking the street underneath its paws. It was a hound, but brutally mismade. Its teeth were long and tusks jutted up and down from either jaw, crossing like scissor-blades in the corners of its mouth. A single tusk jutted up from its blunt, flat face, and a mane of golden curls hung around its neck, set against the rust-red of its fur.
It was the size of a damn lion.
“Took your time…” Jasper said weakly.
It had intelligence in its eyes. It huffed, and Jasper knew it was laughing.
“So do angels really have sun shining out their asses? I figured you’d know, with your nose up there all day…” It was a weak insult and he threw the dagger with a weak hand. It curved, struck true, and struck off the beast’s coat of fur like it was a wall of steel.
The beast roared, and lunged for him.
“Fuck!” Jasper dove aside, rolled, and came up running.
Fate-Eater. Half-turning and lifting his hand, he threw the curse against it, seeing the little timer-bubble pop into being above its head.
The timer was moving slowly.
Jasper dove into an alley too narrow for the beast to follow, but it only leapt up, onto the rooftops. Its massive paws galloped overhead and it vaulted down into the street in front of him. Jasper turned, squeezing through a narrow gap and over a wall and into a courtyard– the dog that was supposed to keep him out was whining in pitiful fear, hiding beneath the house.
As he crossed a clothesline, Jasper snagged a fluttering cloak.
He made it over the opposite wall and into the next alley seconds before the beast caught up, its teeth snapping as it shoved its head into the narrow gap in the bricks.
With a grunt of dissatisfaction, it pulled back and leapt up, and Jasper felt the houses shudder, heard people inside scream as the ceilings began to groan down. Stucco dust poured from the walls as one of them cracked, beginning to sink. Bricks fell and broke against the alley, and Jasper was forced back, reversing himself as the alleyway collapsed in on itself.
The beast was waiting.
Jasper saw, in his mind’s eye, what was going to happen. It was going to leap down,and slam him to the streets with one paw. He could try to intercept with his blade– let the beast’s own weight push it onto the rapier’s point– but even a perfect, killing blow wouldn’t stop the dead weight from burying him.
Maybe Fate-Eater would save him…
But he wouldn’t count on it. Instead, Jasper lurched to a halt and threw the cloak forward, letting it unfold on the breeze like a matador’s cape. The beast shot down, tearing through the fabric with a massive paw.
It hit the ground and twisted, realizing it had been tricked.
Jasper put everything into a single, piercing thrust. His crystal rapier was a blur as it sped towards the beast’s eye–
–and broke the golden pool into a grisly core of blood.
Jasper didn’t wait. He grabbed hold of the beast’s mane, kicked up, and vault-slid over its back, rolling onto the ground on the other side– the hound was tilting its head up, crying out, its claws whipping at where he’d been.
The timer overhead blinked out of existence.
His free pass, and his free hit, were used up.
Fate-Eater! He recast the spell, and began to run, taking all the advantage he could of his head start. He fled through the streets, rushing past crowds of blue-masked fools, past the priests shouting from the steps of stores, through the dawn as the sun came up, painting the sky and the desert below as one expanse of purest gold.
He ran towards the greenhouses…
And with every step, the beast caught up, rushing towards him. The space that measured his life was vanishing fast, and if Jasper only needed to stay on his feet long enough for Fate-Eater to activate–
Then his long day of fretting, walking, training, all his exertions were coming due. He felt the wall of pure exhaustion looming ahead of him. His steps were ragged and stumbling.
He needed to end things.
He felt the beast’s breath on his neck– or imagined it.
But the pyramid was just ahead, the rippling wall of gold rising up into the sky. With a final push, a last give of everything left inside his body, Jasper lunged forward and threw himself to the ground– praying that Fate-Eater had come due.
The beast leapt overhead, claws outstretched.
It sailed over him and through the golden barrier, hitting the ground, rolling, dragging itself to a stop with its claws. Its tail flicked in a circle as it turned, seeing Jasper on his knees…
Seeing its prey at hand.
It snorted, sparks billowing from its nostrils, mouth yawning open with a vent of ember-stung smoke
It lunged for him–
And slammed flat against that same barrier. Like a pigeon hitting a glass door.
You could only cross a hex boundary once from one dawn to the next. The ancient pyramids held artificial hexes within them– and dawn had just come up over the city.
It howled in frustration as Jasper dusted himself off and lifted a single-finger salute.
He had one day to leave this place behind.