Bells chimed a haunting melody through the honey stained wooden cabin of the Shephori airship, reverberating in the brass rails and cages holding their luggage precariously over their heads. Wood scraped on wood as they stretched the docking plank across the gap to the tower. Hooks clicked into place and the airship shook as it came to a full stop and the mooring clamps tightened around the anchorage posts.
Ghost Echo rose from their seat and rocked back and forth on the pads of their bare feet. Their claws dug into the carpeting as they stretched. They flicked their shoulder-length, black mane back with their white furred cat ears and chuffed with excitement.
"I wish I could do that." Scythe said from the seat next to theirs as she sharpened a small, curved knife. The purple vines atop her head peaked out from beneath her hood.
Ghost Echo winked one of their large crystal blue eyes at their tiny nephrear friend standing up on the seat beside them.
Scythe resembled a small doll made from a collection of daikons with the head of a carved turnip. Her black, hooded coat and circular, copper glasses with purple lenses made her look more at home at a concert than as a pilgrim to the holy city of Lightfell.
Ghost straightened their maroon tunic and waited impatiently for the other pilgrims to disembark. Most were humans, but some other diminutive nephrear.
Only a few were sadath like them, but each resembled their familiars- a fox, a rabbit, a frog, and a turtle who cradled his familiar in his arms like a beloved pet.
At the window, Ghost’s small, white tiger familiar, Moon Shroud, leaned against the glass and pawed at the clouds rolling by just above them. Even though their souls intertwined at birth, Moon loved flying more than Ghost did.
Not long after they left Feyhollow, Moon pushed Scythe out of her window seat to watch the sky fish riding the bow wave of the ship. Scythe grumbled, but fell asleep quickly. She hated traveling.
Once the rows behind them cleared out, Ghost stepped out and pulled Scythe’s bag from the basket over the seat and handed it to her before grabbing their own.
With Moon on their heel, they followed the crowd off the ship and onto the docking ring of the sky tower.
They rushed over to the railing. From this height, the holy city sprawled out like a maze of red roofed shops, shrines, and houses.
The sky tower stood in the middle of Heart Town, surrounded by the decaying splendor of the ancient stone buildings with their gilded terracotta shingles and statue laden roofs.
To the southeast, the patchwork wooden towers of the sadath quarter, called Soulfire Row, stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the ornate city.
Cyclopean temples reached up to the heavens to the southwest in the temple district. Beyond them, the titanic boughs of the mother tree of the Blessed Grove towered over the city walls.
They ran around the docking ring to gaze to the north at Mount Ameslin, the holy mountain, the home of the gods.
“I can’t believe we are finally here.” Ghost practically bounced on the spot.
“Really?” Scythe said. “It’s all you’ve talked about for years. I mean, I can’t even remember the last time we visited a pub, cause every coin gets us one step closer to the holy city.”
Ghost’s ears flattened against their head. “Sorry about that.”
Scythe chuckled. “Not a problem. I’ve learned not to get between you and your goals. Besides, I am excited to be here too. It’s colder than I thought it would be.”
They descended the stairs, discussing the strange chill in the air that only grew colder as they left the shelter of the sky tower. As they stepped out onto the streets shaded by the towering buildings around them, they agreed that the vast quantity of aether in the air from all the temples, magic, and enchantments tingled their skin. The chill was an illusion born from the abundance of magic all around them.
Lightfell didn’t disappoint. Flowers bloomed in raised platforms down the center of the streets. Pungent spiced incense filled the air from the myriad shrines and scattered temples.
The other pilgrims wore variant colored robes and capes to announce their devotions. Some chanted solemnly, while others danced and sang.
Somehow, the disparate songs melded together into an intense symphony of devotion and joy. Their contrasting rhythms built on each other and different songs took the lead as they passed the pilgrims while the other recessed into the background to harmonize with them.
Whatever spirit guided the processions did so with an intoxicating mastery.
Shops dotted the streets between the shrines selling all manner of statues, necklaces, and prayer beads. A plethora of signs in multiple languages sprouted like branches of a tree in a well-manicured garden from the corner of every building.
Ghost fought off the urge to spend all their money before they even checked into their room in Soulfire Row.
Dancers and singers surrounded them, and Ghost mimicked their motions.
They threw their head back and saw a small Daskensian airship fly over from the south, past the sky tower, toward the holy mountain.
“I wonder who is aboard who has the right to dock on Mount Ameslin.” Ghost said.
“Some high muckety-muck, no doubt,” Scythe said with a deadpan expression.
Ghost longed for an ounce of her composure, but that wasn’t their lot in life.
The light from atop the holy mountain flooded the streets as the bright shadow that embraced them all.
Ghost’s fur stood on end as the power of the Lieges washed over them.
The songs of the faithful mixed with the incense from the temples and shrines throughout the city into a melange of hope and fear that warmed their heart and soul.
“You don’t have to follow me to the shrine. If you want to explore the city on your own, that’s okay. We could meet up at the inn later, if you want?” Ghost asked. They’d never left Feyhollow before. Being alone in such a large city frightened them.
“Actually, I thought we might set up our meetings today, and meet up at the inn tonight. I’ll just feel better knowing my name is on the register.” She smiled up at them innocently. “We are in town for a week. Hopefully, the priests can meet with us immediately, but we might have to schedule our blessings.”
Ghost pursed their lips and nodded. “I suppose that makes sense. I mean, if you’re not concerned about being in such a large city alone.”
“I’ll be fine,” Scythe waved away their concerns. “Besides, you won’t be alone. Moon Shroud will be with you.”
Ghost nodded like a clockwork person in need of oil and continued to smile.
“It’s settled then. I will see you at the inn shortly after sunset.” Scythe said before disappearing into the tangled mass of strangers on the road.
Ghost sighed. They were alone in the city. Moon growled at their feet. With a heavy sigh, they reminded themselves they were on pilgrimage to the shrine of Sarthuun. They searched the signs to find the way to Soulfire Row, the sadath quarter of the city. Scythe’s pilgrimage was all the way across town to the Blessed Grove. They whispered a quiet prayer to themselves and calmed their heart.
Moon Shroud stared up at them and shook their head.
“It’s fine. Let’s just do this.” Ghost sighed.
They followed the signs to Soulfire Row.
As they walked, they recited their devotions to Sarthuun, the shepherd of souls. They received their calling when they were a child and fell out of the life tree. They woke in the Reverie and followed the pale shepherd back to Moon. By the pilgrimage’s end, they would learn if it was real or an illusion. All they had to do today was sign the book. That was it, nothing more. After their consultation with the shepherd, they would seal their fate. They resolved to light a candle in the shrine, hoping to receive a blessing. Without it, they would have to rethink their entire life and give up on their dream of becoming a reverend shepherd of the dearly departed.
They laughed at themself. They’d only told Scythe about their intention, so they wouldn’t return to Feyhollow in shame, but they would need to rethink their future.
Anxiety wormed its way through them, eating their heart and sapping their strength. They didn’t know why. The pale shepherd took care of the flock and wouldn’t abandon them now.
Scythe’s goals were, as usual, far simpler. She came to visit the shrine of Agra, Lady of the Chase, to seek a blessing for the upcoming great hunt. The temple district was halfway between the sky town and the Blessed Grove, so she wouldn’t have to walk all over town with them.
- II -
Ghost Echo and Moon Shroud wended through narrow city streets toward Soulfire Row. They’d never encountered so many humans and guinea pig-like tugwattles in their life. Humans, or Uhraids, rarely came into Feyhollow, except for the occasional merchant or traveler. None lived there.
Tugwattles rarely left the cities. They buried themselves in their books and their work. Their services were always in such high demand.
Ghost resisted the urge to bow every time they passed a tugwattle.
A few in flowing cloaks and robes clinked with metal, which convinced them they were ok’un, machine people. They covered their metal bodies to fit in, but no one would ever wear that much armor under such heavy robes.
As they took each turn, they encountered more sadath like themself. Each had a different animal familiar, and they resembled an anthropoid version of that creature.
A strange tension filled the air. Was it possible for their fellow pilgrims’ apprehension to color the aether? They didn’t understand how magic worked, but figured passion must be an important component.
More than anything, it was probably the soft, glittering light shadow of the holy mountain. It found its ways into the small side streets of the holy city, ever reminding them of the divine presences on the sacred palisades.
Living in the illumination of immortal greatness weighed on the minds of the city’s inhabitants, or at least on Ghost’s. They doubted they could become accustom to so much power.
A mild judgement fell upon them ever since they stepped off the airship, but they presumed that was more their conscience than anything else. They bore no conscious sin. It was more like their parents watched them to ensure they didn't get into trouble.
Ghost stopped at the vestibule of the shrine of Sarthuun. The painted statue of the pale shepherd stood atop the building with his staff in his hand, and ash white face benevolently smiling down from under his yellow robes.
Touching their forehead reverently, Ghost bowed their head to the statue. This was it. Their moment of decision had come.
The ground shook.
Ghost stumbled backwards.
A violet flash raced across the sky.
Thunder crashed to the north.
A plume of purple and black fire engulfed and erupted from the top of the holy mountain.
Foreign birds of prey screeched from the sky as the thunder crashed.
The ground vibrated under Ghost’s feet like they stood too close to a great engine of an airship mindlessly drumming nearby.
An unseasonal warmth raced with the wind from the holy mountain. Buried deep with in the gale, an odd foreboding stole their breath.
Violet light bled into the sky from Mount Ameslin like dye dripped into a pool of water.
Pilgrims screamed with horror but didn’t move or run. The horrific sight of the home of the gods burning entranced them.
Ghost stood slack-jawed, struggling to take in the strange sight.
Whatever happened on the holy mountain acted like fire, licking violently at the sky and throwing off smoke. It wasn’t fire, though. Blacker than a starless night, the flames didn’t glow. They stole light from everything around them.
The vile pyre of shadows and strange images flickered and flew up into the air.
The sky darkened, and the heat fled from the world.
This infernal gloom raged out of control, consuming the temples where the Lieges lived.
Terror shattered Ghost, only restrained because the umbral flames didn’t race down the mountain toward them.
The cry of a great bird of prey thundered from the mountain.
Moon nuzzled into Ghost’s legs.
Next to them, a rodent like tugwattle held his lantern before his face and watched the events through its light. "The shadow phoenix, Eterna rises," the tugwattle said with frustration in his voice.
The words washed over Ghost like a cold shower.
How could something like this happen? The gods, goddesses, and deities of Mount Ameslin watched over everything in the world. How did they not know what happened in their own holy city? Were they being punished for some unknown sin?
The flames moved like the titanic wings of a shadow bird, fanning them into the temples atop the mountain. A dark haze covered glowing temples. What possessed this power to challenge the lieges?
Like a break in the clouds, a shaft of bright light cut through the heavens, touching the peak of the holy mountain.
The Maiden of Light hovered over the city, reciting prayers beyond even the ken of the priests at the high altar of the Holy Ternion.
Ghost’s chest burned as a great heat erupted in their stomach.
“Awaken faithborn.” A soft voice whispered in Ghost’s ear with the sweet melancholy of a last breath.
The dark light filled them.
They glanced around the chapel grounds. No one was close enough to them. Who said that?
As the Maiden of Light descended toward the holy mountain, the violet sky hung oppressively low. Dark clouds swirled chaotically and the occasional flash of lightning illuminated flocks of foul creatures hidden within them.
Across the courtyard from the shrine, a statue of Orla, the goddess of death, caught Ghost’s eye. A plaque on the base of the statue read, “In memory of the fallen.”
Ghost extended their hand toward the statue, and a luminous silver mist extended to them. They shook their hand, but the mist soaked in and disappeared.
A strong breeze blew through their fur, and their whiskers tingled from the latent magic in the air.
Their stomach dropped, and they returned their attention to the mountain.
Dark flames rushed up from the top of the holy mountain and engulfed the Maiden of Light.
The maiden screamed.
Light flashed through the dark fire like lightning buried deep in a cloud.
An anguished wail rippled through the city.
The pilgrims stood in the streets staring at the carnage.
Flames and smoke spread across the summit of the holy mountain.
As the light dimmed, dark shadows took to the sky.
Airships detached from the sky tower and fled south.
Swarms of ravenous birds spiraled from the clouds.
Flames burst from the balloons and decking as the swarms attacked.
Slowly, the ships listed and fell into the city.
Stone, metal, and brick cracked as the ships rained down from the heavens.
Fires flared in the metropolis.
Ghost picked Moon up and ran from the carnage.
Ahead, a tugwattle raced off down a side alley.
They followed the light of their lantern.
If anyone knew where to hide, it would be a tugwattle.
- III -
Ghost Echo and Moon Shroud followed the tugwattle into a dark tavern. None of the lamps were lit and the eldritch, violet light of the sky leaked into the room, lending an eerie glow to the abandoned tables and bar.
Half-drunk glasses and food laden plates sat haphazardly on the tables. Chairs cluttered the floor where they fell after the panicked patrons fled.
The tugwattle disappeared.
In the chaos of the abandoned tavern, several clear paths wended their way through the toppled tables and chairs.
Moon sniffed around the edge of the cluttered room.
Ghost walked toward the bar, listening carefully for any stray sounds.
Behind the bar, a small half-door near the floor opened into the kitchen.
Ghost crouched down.
The frame was tiny. Moon probably couldn’t fit through, let alone the tugwattle.
Standing up, Ghost glanced around, repeating prayers to keep their mind calm.
Moon hissed at a wall in the back corner.
Ghost walked over.
Nothing about the wall was special, plaster covered wood slats like the rest of the tavern. The coating was thinner in places, but nothing to show an escape route.
Faintly, behind the plaster on one board, a small rune resembling a double gabled house with a slash through it recessed into the wood.
Ghost pressed their hand on the plaster.
A cold shock rippled through their palm.
Golden light spiraled out from beneath their hand, uncovering a door as the sparks showered to the floor.
The jagged circle of golden light opened into an earthworks tunnel. Spider webs clung to the ceiling, but fresh footsteps walked off into the darkness.
After taking a calming breath, Ghost entered with Moon close on their heels.
The passage corkscrewed into the ground for quite some time before opening up into the spirit warren beneath Soulfire Row.
Light crystals glowed from the ceiling and the walls of the enormous cavern. Thatch-roofed buildings with white-washed walls lined the streets of the hidden town.
The spirits abandoned the warren already, leaving an eerie emptiness behind. Only a small coterie of wyvlings hovered stubbornly, guarding a clutch of eggs, flapping their wings and singing a mournful song. Their small horselike faces contorted with fear as they rolled the eggs with their tails, encouraging them to hatch.
Ghost followed a feint light to the main square of the spirit warren.
The tugwattle sat on an ornately woven red and gold rug with their lantern in front of them.
Ghost stopped, not wanting to interrupt the tugwattle’s meditation.
“You don’t have to stand all the way over there,” the tugwattle said. “You will be safer in the lantern’s glow.”
Ghost and Moon approached cautiously. They sat with the lantern between them and the tugwattle.
“I am Senex,” the tugwattle said with a grin stretching across his large, furry, wedge-shaped head. “It is a terrible thing happening up there. Just awful.”
“Terrible is a bit of an understatement, don’t you think?” Ghost said, then lowered their head. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know how to react to something like this.”
“Be grateful for that, my child.”
“My name is Ghost Echo,” they sighed, “my familiar’s name is Moon Shroud.”
“Were you born under the new moon?”
“Moon dawned under the new moon. I arrived later.”
“That is so rare. You are a miracle, Ghost Echo. Someone is clearly watching over you.”
Ghost touched their forehead and whispered a prayer to the pale shepherd. They sighed. “If only they would look out for all of us.”
“They were, child. That is why they were attacked first.” Senex waved his hand across the globe of the lantern as dark smoke rose from the top of it.
In the smoke, the image of the burning mountain and the raging storm shimmered into being.
“This was supposed to be a simple pilgrimage,” Ghost said. “All I wanted was to get a blessing and go home. Then all hell broke loose.”
“Would it make you feel better if I told you this was all prophesied and that our salvation is at hand?”
“Why? The pain and suffering would be the same.”
Ghost leaned back on their palms. “I would at least know that it all served a greater purpose.”
Senex shook his head. “Purpose is a story we tell ourselves in the aftermath of tragedy to mask our trauma. Nothing justifies the suffering of others. We would do better if more people remembered that.”
“I liked the way things were. I just hope we can get back to normal quickly in the aftermath.”
“Your normal was someone’s nightmare. Things will be different, but you will get used to it.” Senex waved his hand, and the images disappeared and the smoke cleared. “Everything changes, and that can be scary, but only when we allow ourselves to accept that can we work for the changes we want to see.”
Ghost Echo grunted. “And sometimes we just lose.” They scratched Moon absentmindedly behind their ear. “Can we just lead everyone down here and wait out the storm?”
Senex shook his head. “Unfortunately, now that the spirts have abandoned this warren, it will disappear. I came down here to gather my thoughts and make a plan.”
“Do you have one yet?”
“Why would the spirits leave this shelter?”
“Because they know what I do. The shadow phoenix, Eterna, has invaded our realm. Those who do not join her will feed her dark fires.”
“Has this happened before?” Ghost asked.
“No. Her cult has always been stopped before getting this far.”
Ghost stared up at the light crystals glowing in among the stalactites. Why had they left Scythe’s side? She was better prepared to handle something like this than they were, but they were safe down here while she was alone up there.
She was one of the best hunters in the village, but a hunt wasn’t a battle. What if she needed their help, and they weren’t there?
Senex said, “Fear is a powerful master, but it is rarely defeated. Most of us have to learn how to fight through it and work around it. You just can’t let it conquer you.”
Ghost nodded gratefully at the tugwattle.
“What do you think we should do, Moon?” Ghost said.
The white tiger spirit hopped up and stretched.
“You’re right. We should go help her.”
“It is dangerous out there.” Senex said and swung a bag from his back.
He rummaged through it for a moment and pulled out the brass hilt of a sword with a short candle where the blade should be.
“This is a lamp blade.”
The tugwattle leaned forward and opened a tiny door on the side of his lantern and lit the candle.
“Here, take this. Its flame will not burn you, but it will protect you from darkness.”
Senex handed it to Ghost.
Ghost chuffed. “Thank you. Keep yourself safe.”
- IV -
Desolation haunted Ghost as they wandered the city streets with Moon at their heels. The citizens and pilgrims escaped or hid. Without their voices and footsteps, the city echoed with the sounds of beasts and destruction. They must have fled down to the harbor. Maybe they followed some other path out of the city. Ghost hoped they escaped.
The holy mountain blossomed with violet flames like a perverse candle stealing the prayers of the faithful from the air.
Scythe ran off to the Temple District on the west side of Heart Town. As long as Ghost kept the burning mountain to their right side, they should be on the correct path.
None of the gas lamps lining the road were lit. Aberrant shadows flickered and crawled through the streets from the violet lightning in the clouds.
Various creatures cackled, howled, and yipped throughout the city. Their voices echoed down the streets.
Ghost focused their will and forced their legs to carry them forward. They jumped at every sound.
Moon scurried along at their heels.
Ahead of them, the shadow of an enormous creature roamed back and forth from building to building hunting.
Were they rounding people up or just killing them? The lack of bodies on the streets provided no answers. Splashes of unknown liquids marked the cobblestones. In the violet light, it was impossible to tell the difference between blood and water.
Behind them, clanks of armor accompanied by a horrific gurgling sound burbled from the buildings.
Ghost cut down one of the side streets to escape the creatures.
A thick miasma rolled down from the mountain, covering the ground like a sudden flood.
Slowly, they crept down the street with the wall to their back.
Shadows moved in the miasma like rats and roaches, scurrying away from the light.
Claws clicked on the stone streets.
Ghost and Moon waded through the miasma. They crept slowly, careful not to step on any of the small creatures.
The sound of strange beasts banging on metal resounded in the air. Wing beats of giant creatures thrummed from above them.
Nothing in the city looked like it had before they went underground. The violet light from the summit of Mount Ameslin colored the dark clouds spiraling around the peak and cast an amaranthine pall covering everything.
Long shadows stretched out over the weathered cobblestone road. Between the roaring of the umbral fires on the top of the holy mountain and the almost constant rumbling of thunder overhead, it was impossible to tell if anything moved or lurked before them.
With each step, they checked for any sign of danger.
Something moved on the rooftop.
Or was it a trick of the light?
They pressed their back to the stone wall under a tin awning, holding their breath so they didn’t attract its attention.
Ghost turned their ears back and pressed them against their head.
Rasping breath clicked in something’s throat as it paced back and forth on the rooftop.
Strange scraping clacks as each heavy step hit the tiles.
Ghost envisioned the long hooked claws.
The creature’s long, twisted shadow stretched out across the street.
There was no way to make it to the next awning without being seen.
Ghost tightened their grip on the lamp blade, wishing they payed more attention to Scythe when she tried to teach them to fight. They could hold their own against a training dummy that didn’t fight back.
The roof crunched above them and the fragments of clay tiles rained down to the ground.
They raised their lamp blade on the left side of their body to chest height, clutching the hilt in both hands.
Dark clouds poured onto the street.
Something heavy thudded within them.
Ghost widened their stance, hoping they could strike first and take the creature out.
The miasma cleared.
A bipedal, reptilian creature with large, sharp teeth and claws that gleamed in the light like crystal glared at them.
It reminded them of a Broken Howler from the stories the elders told to keep them from playing in the woods at night.
Ghost froze, mesmerized by its hungry eyes. Where was Scythe when they needed her?
The howler lunged at Ghost.
Ghost slashed forward. Fire erupted from the candle wick.
The howler’s hands recoil with a sizzle.
Ghost struck at the beast.
The howler knocked the lamp blade from their hand.
The beast lunged at them. Its claws plunging deep into their flesh.
Pain rippled through their body.
Blood flowed, warm and thick.
The world dimmed.
Ghost stumbled backwards.
Their breath caught in their throat.
They fell to their knees.
The beast fell upon them and dug into their flesh with its teeth and claws.
All the color drained from the world as a dark light flared, robbing them of consciousness.