Before It Happened
Far Spires laid near the northern mouth of the Marshfold, and sprawled for miles east of the river to end under the shadow of the great Jaggerhand with its ominous fingers reaching high in the sky. White smoke from the fires deep within seeped out from the many caves, fueling the moist clouds that clung to the fingers, nourishing the rich rain forest that grew along the valleys and sides, and perpetually draped the tips in frost and snow. The Jaggerhand was the tallest, most impassably inhospitable mountain in the Jaggerline which ranged along the bountiful plains of Empire to the north and hedged the Marshfold down south into the sea.
The gothic-like buildings mirrored the mountain, and though many rose hundreds of feet tall they were as pebbles in the shadow of the Jaggerhand. A few of these climbed taller than the others and one of them was the Tower of the Black Hand, where black-robed monks worshipped strange gods in silence while they tended the dead. Only merchants and the dying visited these grim men.
Opposite the Tower and nearly as tall, stood the Temple of the White Palm where both men and women worshipped in white-robed pairs as they tended to the sick, the poor and the living who flocked daily to the Temple doors. Further up the slope, closer to the Jaggerhand, stood a cluster of spires, larger and taller than both the Tower and Temple combined.
These spires were built outward from a central green in concentric circles and were connected via walkways with the tallest of them nearest the center. The campus of the University of Empire at Far Spires, or UEFS as it was more commonly called was actually younger than the Temple and the Tower but not as young as the Three Halls; three giant colosseums from which the city was governed – the Hall of People, the Hall of Words, and the Hall of Swords.
Among these giants lay neighborhood after neighborhood of smaller spires housing private and communal dwellings, restaurants and parks, barbers and butchers, smaller Towers and Temples, market squares, traveller’s inns and all the other various wonders and walks of life you’d find in the largest city this side of Empire, housing almost four million citizens by the Word’s Census last year. Citizens whose lives changed 14 years ago when Empire usurped the city’s management. Citizens whose lives are about to change in the next few days.
At the university Ivar Setheses is well-groomed, his clothes are clean and his shoes are new. The expensive hand-tooled leather satchel at his side held fresh copies of all the scrolls, books and other reading material for his Advanced Literature of The Firsts class. His parents were so proud!
On his way to classes, Ivar had seen other students who seemed half-starved, unkempt, desperate. Students who lounged about the grounds here and there, hunched over papers and sharing few, heavily notated and dog-eared textbooks amongst themselves. He didn’t understand why they weren’t like the others, who dressed a little more like Ivar, and who rushed around either alone with tasks or in well-mannered clusters deep in discussion, clutching new books in neat satchels to their bodies as they went to their classes or other exciting places.
The first group seemed suspicious of the second group, and the second group seemed wary of the first group and everyone watched Ivar while he smiled at everyone and then he was at the door to Spire S, Room 311.
Ivar loved the University and he loved the students anyway and he loved Literature Firsts and he loved Spire S, Room 311, even though he had never been there before. He opened the door and walked in to meet his destiny.
The thick, green buds of the tetrahydric flower secrete a crystalline fuzz that, when scraped off and ground in a pestle and mortar, made a powder that greatly helps to relieve pain and ailing symptoms for hours. The dried buds, and most particularly the powder, could be smoked for direct but temporary relief as well as pleasurable, sometimes hallucinatory effects that the Order of the White Palm claimed was religious. The powder could also be baked into edible treats or dissolved in beverages. Sister Jessaine snipped the buds off with gardening shears and flipped them into a woven basket she carried at her side. Acolytes of the White Palm were each armed with a supply of the treats and the sacred plant, dried and cured, and a strict daily quota on their use, while the Initiates, like Sister Jessaine herself, assisted the Ward Bishop with the common manor and grow house duties. Every day White Palm acolytes spread from the grow houses scattered near White Palm manors throughout the city, offering treats to the needy, and free consulting sessions to any who would have one. These smoke consultations cost nothing and were widely popular. Many, like Jessaine, joined the White Palm because of them.
“Sister Jessaine!” She looked up at the call from Sister Lina. “It’s almost noon!” Lina said. Jessaine nodded, hung up her shears and closed the door to the glass-topped growing dome behind her as she joined a crowd of city folk and the Faithful gathered on the grounds outside the Temple’s main spire. Several acolytes stood amongst the crowd holding baskets of rolled tetrahydric joints and small, mini torches for lighting. A bell tolled and someone in white robes mounted a platform and regarded the crowd while they started talking amongst themselves, smoking the joints that were passed out and lit by the acolytes.
Several of the acolytes whipped out small tumbaknaers and began to drum on them. Jessaine joined the crowd and took a long drag on a joint as the man on the platform started reciting the creed of the White Palm. With the drums, the recital became like a song and Jessaine began to dance. She was soon joined by Lina and they twirled around each other and the smoke that wound around them, trailing from the joints in their hands.
Nearby, a teenage boy leans against the outside of a short, squat spire, watching the White Palm sisters dance on their grounds across the street. The words “Sal’s Sausage Shack” swung above a door on a sign next to an artfully carved and painted image of a grinning fat man holding a string of sausages in one hand and a large tankard frothing dark beer in the other. Sal looked extremely happy, the boy thought. He should be. As far as the boy was concerned, setting up a restaurant serving sausages and beer right across the street from a White Palm Temple was the singular stroke of genius that set Sal and his family up for the rest of their lives, and his employees, too.
The front doors crashed open and out stepped a huge and portly man in his mid-twenties carrying a bucket of swill that he promptly emptied onto the street despite yelps of the passerby. He looked almost like Sal on the sign, except his hair was dark brown and Sal’s was blonde. Setting up Sam, Sal’s firstborn and heir apparent as the manager of the Sausage Shack may have been, in the boy’s opinion, the singular stroke of idiocy that he hoped didn’t cost Sal the restaurant and him his job.
“Great,” the boy said. “Our lunch crowd’s going to really enjoy that puddle of swill on the way in.”
“Shut up!” said Sam as he heaved his bulk around and aimed it at the doorway. He paused, apparently considering the ramifications, then said, “Mop’s around back. Here, you can use this bucket. Get that mess cleaned up right away.” Sam looked up at the clear springtime sky. “It’s a nice day, might as well set up the outside tables and chairs while you’re at it too. There’ll be some customers wanting to eat outside today and it’ll be good for business to give them a place for it, eh?” He laughed and rolled back inside.
It was amazing how someone could be so thoughtless in one moment and then manage an employee so successfully like that in the next. The boy wasn’t quite sure what to make of Sam, Sal’s firstborn and heir apparent, but if mopping up a bucket’s worth of swill meant keeping his job he’d do it. And he wanted to do it soon in case these White Palm girls came over for a couple of Sal’s sausages. He’d talk with the one with the dark hair. If she came over. He would do it, or his name wasn’t Cade and he’d grow Sam’s gut if he didn’t.
“Dead, for two days,” said Brother Edyas as he stood from examining the body on his knee. “Girl, seventeen. Strangled by hand, like the others.” He fished a cigarette out of the breast pocket of his loose robes and lit it with a snap of his fingers. Catching Brother Rodders’ raised eyebrow, Edyas smirked and showed him the tips of his thumb and first two fingers. It was a combination of flint, steel, and wick thimble-like device that when snapped produced and held a candle-like flame which was extinguished when the device was squeezed closed into a ball.
“Fascinating,” said Brother Rodders dryly and rolled his eyes. They were in an alleyway between two large apartment spires that twisted around each other into the sky. “This girl was found by a housewife taking out the trash earlier this morning. After an inquiry by the Hall of People, we were sent to care for these remains.” As Brothers of the Black Hand, it fell to them to collect and manage the dead. They were just inside the entrance to a dark alley. The body was partially buried under some trash and debris. Its skin had a pale, bluish tone, with dark purple bruising around the neck. Its bloodshot, green eyes stared sightlessly at Brother Rodders reached down to close their lids. Pretty eyes. “A shame,” thought Rodders.
“But this is the third one already!” Edyas said angrily. “Same type and age, same method. It’s him. Him, I’m telling you!” He reached down and twisted the girl’s ankle to expose the inside of her foot, where a tiny triangular symbol was branded. “It’s the third one branded like that, Rodders, and they’re not doing anything about it!”
They certainly weren’t, Brother Rodders silently agreed. If they were they’d be all over the place, but it was just the two Brothers of the Black Hand here. The officials in charge of investigating the matter were called away to help deal with a situation at the far-off North Gate. A bit unseasonable for the forest raiders, but Rodders digressed. And what were they to do about it? The Order of the Black Hand only takes care of the dead. Hunting down killers was a matter for the Hall of Swords, not the Black Hand. The Black Hand collects, the Black Hand preserves, and the Black Hand keeps. “That is all the Black Hand does,” whispered Brother Rodders.
“What?” said Brother Edyas loudly, causing passerby outside the alley to glance their way. “All the bloody Hand bloody does, right? Look around, brother, you see the Hall of Words? Swords? How about the People, huh? The Hall of the People?” He spat onto the sidewalk and glared at the bystanders who were now giving them a wide berth, then looked up at the many windows that studded the spires. “I wonder if there were any witnesses?”
Brother Rodders shrugged. “The Black Hand collects.” He reached into his black long coat and pulled out an obsidian rod studded with green, red and golden crystals along the end of one side. He pressed one of the golden crystals and aimed the rod at the slashed, drained body of the girl. The body was bathed in a golden light. Rodders glanced up but Edyas looked stubborn. Rodders sighed and shook his head, “the Black Hand preserves.” He pressed a green button. The golden light that surrounded the body flashed green and the whole thing vanished, blood and all. One of the red crystals on the rod now glowed a brilliant blue.
“The Black Hand keeps,” said Brother Edyas. “Now put that thing away and come with me, I think I saw something in one of those windows.”
“Brother Edyas! No!” Rodders pleaded to no avail and resignedly followed Edyas inside, failing to notice as a larger regiment of Swords frantically rushed past the building towards the North Gate.