Gnosis

That slow sick spread of certainty: he has spent weeks, months, both evading and cinching the net ever tighter. The streets are dark with crematory smoke, greasy with ash. Those who can, leave; run for the cleaner air of the hills, the safety of the monasteries. Those who must stay bar their doors, cover their heads and eyes with ruby glass, tattoo gargoyles and demons on their arms against sickness.

Superstitious nonsense.

He has forged his chains himself, from brutal logic: cause and effect in terrible array. He has studied charts and stars, the movement of mice across the temple steps, the simple tests of cards and books. He has worn his eyes ragged in the lab. No. The signs are clear. He is cause and generation of this plague; it is his sin, his crime, that grips the city, that runs red and joyous through the shuttered houses and the empty streets.

And now?

He climbs the five thousand steps from the water to the cliff top and looks out and down at his city, Albion, Albion on the winedark sea. He has bled and suffered for its glory, fought against the seeping corruption eating at its bones, dosed its worm-raddled heart with bitter tonic. Weeping, gnashing his teeth, he turns his face to the white line of the desert and flees.

Foundation

The work of generations, setting bones, curing warts, delivering babies. They don’t get much call for war-work, but every spring and summer the men drain off to the east and return lighter a limb, shorter an eye, aching in joints broken and reset in haste; these too need tending. Half of what Jillian knows is useless garbage, an indecipherable bit of success scrawled in the margins of the little Red Book; words have shifted, since then, or men, or climate, assuming it ever worked at all.

It’s a dark night with the rain coming down and she’s up late writing the day down in her logbook by the watery light of the coals when the knock comes and the door opens hard on its heels, spilling rain and a man all over her floor. “God save us all,” she growls, and levers herself over to see what the devil has brought her.

It’s a well-made shape he’s taken this time, barring the scarring and the blood all over his front. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got,” she tells him, and humps his leaking corpus over to the side bed redolent with rosemary and ivy. Underneath the wreck of his clothes he’s a marvel in ruin, a shipwrecked statue, his belly torn open down to the fork. Jillian looks up and his eyes are open, but milky. “You’re bound to die, son,” she tells him, but he either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t care.

She does what she can, but it won’t be enough.

Morning finds her asleep in her chair, arms black to the elbow with dried blood and pine tar. She pries gummy eyes apart to find him standing over her, numinous with health. It hurts to look at him, and when he speaks, it’s a tall tree in her ear. He passes, and the day is empty for his going. The side bed is pierced through with blue flowers of new-grown rosemary, black berries of ivy.

Transitioning

Fog, and weeks of fog. Mold and moss digs furry fingers into every nook and crevice, and the greasy face of the Sailor’s Quarter goes piebald with crusted salt summoned from the slate grey pucker of the bay. Markfeet is cold to the core of her, no matter what fires she builds or drinks she swallows; she swaddles herself in colorless, bulky sweaters, festoons herself with charms against the dusk. No matter — her fingers still ache, bloodless and so stiff she can hardly hold flame to her cigarette. Forensics has to do it for her, her face moony and foolish in the red light of the match.

“So? What did you learn?”

Forensics flinches. “Not much, alas. Vegetarian. A drinker, to judge by the liver, but not a smoker, going by the lungs. Brain raddled with worms, but–” she holds up a hand to forestall Markfeet’s next, obvious question– “years old. Probably got exposed during the last skirmish.”

“Sailor, then?”

“Hard to say. Could’ve been an islander, or maybe just unlucky. Worked with his hands, sure enough; see the calluses? That says sailor, right enough, only his feet are soft as lambskin.”

“Maybe they were new-grown?”

Forensics purses her lips. “Y-e-e-e-es,” she drawls. “that could have been it. Hard to tell in this weather, but they do seem pale, don’t they? We’ll get you a list of backalleys that could have put them together for him; maybe they’ll know something.”

Up from Beneath

It’s been a bone dry year, to the point where she can’t quite remember what a pain in the ass rain is and sleeping’s hard without the white noise to cover everything up. There’s the bay, of course, but the breakwater’s ten miles out and won’t drown anything except sailors. Months and months of sunny days, and everyone alternately laughing and irritated, phantom limbs gone withered and dry.

Markfeet’s spent the better part of it below ground, though, so she’s kept hold of her proper Albion pallor, her and the magicians who barely notice the weather when it’s terrible and not at all when it’s good. Albion’s been plagued, if that’s the word, with a throng of returning dead come trooping up out of the sea, faces and flesh eaten away by bottomfeeders and nothing to say who they were or what they want. They’re not violent, which is some kind of a relief, and they don’t rot any more than they already have, which in this endless April is all kinds, but they’re uncanny and messy and persistently dead so they’ve been dropped in her lap to figure out.

They’re not getting anywhere. Forensics is biting nails and even her University contacts are getting a little wild around the eyes. Every so often some enterprising pack of hooligans goes wading into the crowd with machetes and flamethrowers, but for every one they kill another comes oozing out of the blue, blue water to take its passive, unresisting place.

Everyone tries to take it in stride, but she knows how these things boil over. It’s all laughs now, but people weren’t built to take such an endless regard; sooner or later the weather will break.

Living Water

Early in her second year as a lay student with the alchemists, and six months before she drops out for the first time.

“How can you not believe in something, and you a mathematician?” They’re smoking shitty cigarettes over shitty beers in a windowless students’ bar and arguing about faith. Markfeet is five years older than the journeymen and has nearly a decade on her fellow apprentices, so none of it is especially revelatory.

“How d’you mean?”

“Y’put your hand on the wellspring of the world, man! You’ve been hip deep in the machinery of life, how can you see all that spinning work and not believe?”

She’d learned the basics from watching the hoodoo work in her days fighting back and forth across Maplewood, and of course from working with Forensics, so that puts her up on a lot of the tiny chicks she hangs with, but all of that’s practical knowledge, not theory.

“Hell, I believe in plenty. I believe there’s a rule and an order to life, and that it’s only time and hard work that keeps us from knowin’ it. Don’t know as I need to follow a creed to believe in that. Don’t know as what I’d do with that sort of believin’.”

She’s more interested in the how than the why, and that’s maybe the difference between the real scholastics and her, but it’s all smoke and endless conversation to her. Her throat burns with tobacco and her stomach aches with weak beer. She dreams of blood in the streets and the clean logic of murder.