The baying of the Markhounds jolted the priest to wakefulness. Even after three years living next to their kennels, the eerie sound—frantic barking mingled with deep-throated howls—lifted the hairs on his neck and sent adrenaline coursing through his veins.
Fra Alexei Bryce fumbled for a match in the darkness. An instant later, a wavering flame appeared. He touched it to the stub of candle next to his armchair and leapt to his feet, knocking a fat biography of the Southern Pontifex to the floor. A quick rummage through teetering stacks of books on law and psychology unearthed a pocket notebook of supple brown leather. Alexei jotted down the hour.
Rain lashed the narrow arched windows of the Tower of Saint Dima, though the storm was nearly inaudible over the clamor in the courtyard below. The kennels held two dozen Markhounds and they were all going off at once. Alexei rubbed his shorn skull, fighting the desperate urge to close his eyes. He rarely slept, and never for longer than three or four hours at a stretch. The doctors had given him pills, but he’d only taken them once. The sedative left him groggy and he hadn’t touched them again.
Sometimes, after drifting off in the armchair, he woke with the fleeting sensation that he had dreamt, the way he did as a young child, but this was impossible. Priests of the Curia did not dream. They’d been inoculated against such folly.
The nights in Novostopol were never cold, but this one was certainly wet. He lifted a cloak from its peg and drew it on over his midnight blue cassock. The pockets held a pair of soft leather gloves and a coin-sized copper disc with a raven engraved on one side and a name on the other. Alexei absently fingered the disc before drawing on the gloves. He blew out the candle. For a moment, he stood in darkness, blue eyes searching the distant lights of the metropolis.
Somewhere beyond the walls of the citadel, someone was descending the rungs of madness.
Their Marks—intricate pictures inscribed on the skin by the psychic power called the ley—had suddenly flipped. Instead of suppressing a person’s worst impulses, inverted Marks had the opposite effect, erasing all inhibitions. Alexei had seen mothers drown their children, fathers do far worse. Strangers might be the first victims if the breakdown happened in a public place. Men tended to be more violent and women more cunning, but there were always exceptions.
No one fully understood the condition, but it seemed to be triggered by extreme stress. A conflict simmering in the unconscious mind that finally erupted—often with no warning.
As an ordained brother of the Interfectorem, it was Fra Bryce’s task to find and subdue these dangerous lunatics before other lives were destroyed.
He strode to the oaken door and hurried down the winding stone steps, worn smooth as sea glass from a thousand years of priestly boots. Alexei raised his cowl and stepped into the rainy courtyard. Four Markhounds stood in a semicircle, coats glistening.
They were bred from southern stock, dark brown with long, thin bodies and pointed ears, but the ley had made them into something more than hunting dogs. They could smell the moment a Mark flipped—thus the frenzied howls—and follow the trail to its source. Most people would glimpse a shadow from the corner of the eye, if they noticed the creatures at all. The thickest walls and stoutest gates would not stop a Markhound. A crevice wide enough for a tendril of fog sufficed for them to pass.
As usual, the pack had not waited for him to open the kennel door. They’d come out on their own.
The hounds fell silent the instant he appeared. Alexei had fought beside them back in the days when he was a knight in the church’s war against the rebel cities. He knew they would obey his commands. Yet there was still something viscerally unnerving about the dogs, which was why the kennels were in a wooded area distant from other buildings in the Arx—especially the touristy parts.
The Markhounds watched him with alert eyes. The only sound was the steady drip of rain. Had his partner slept through the racket? Then headlights slashed the darkness. A sleek black car pulled up between Alexei and the hounds. Fra Patryk Spassov killed the engine and got out, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. It became instantly sodden. Spassov ground it underfoot with a grimace. He was a decade older, early forties, with a tired face that had seen its share of horrors. Like Alexei, his hair was shorn nearly to the scalp, concealing a receding hairline. His eyes were bloodshot and he smelled of cheap wine, but that was quite unremarkable.
“They always pick the filthiest weather to go crazy, don’t they?” he remarked, climbing into the passenger seat.
By long agreement, Alexei drove while Spassov smoked and provided moral support. At first glance, they made an odd pair. Alexei’s views were radically different from Spassov’s, who believed the insane to be better off dead. Patryk had no qualms about cracking skulls and considered himself akin to a refuse collector who was merely disposing of the trash.
This was the prevailing opinion in the Curia, not to mention society as a whole, and the reason their order was a dumping ground for defectives—priests with the brute strength to wrangle maniacs into custody but inadequate social-emotional skills to function in loftier spheres of the church. Invertido were feared and despised, making the Interfectorem equally feared and despised by association.
Alexei was a defective, no question about that, but a somewhat higher class of one. He was a war hero, after all. He was not a raging alcoholic like Spassov, the Pontifex bless his soul. And he did his best to arrest people without shedding blood. They were sick, not evil. Spassov thought he was naïve, but after years of heated arguments he had ceded some ground. At least he no longer stabbed first and asked questions later.
Alexei started the engine. The hounds arrowed forward, racing for the Dacian Gate. Circles of blue fire punctuated the night, each with a raven in the center, symbol of the Eastern Curia. The conflict had ended four years before with the defeat of the heretics, but hundreds of Wards still blazed over every window and door, a final cordon against their enemies. No mage who wielded abyssal ley could pass these walls.
Alexei floored the pedal, trying to keep the hounds in the headlights. The inner citadel was only a few square kilometers. Within a minute, they reached the broad Via Fortuna, flanked by bright yellow street lamps for its entire length. Candles and torches burned in every building despite the late hour.
The promise of his faith.
Post tenebras lux.
Light after the dark.
“I didn’t see you at supper,” Spassov said, rolling down the window to light another cigarette. The flame trembled in his cupped hand. “Or evening meditation.”
“I was reading.”
“Ah. Anything good?”
“A biography of Luk.”
The Via Sancta comprised four city-states, each governed by a Pontifex. Once it had been six cities, though two now lay in ruins, their clergy dead or excommunicated. Luk was the Reverend Father of the Southern Curia, a rocky peninsula southwest of Novostopol.
Spassov gave a crooked grin. “The Wolf?”
“He made the Markhounds. Evolved them, I mean.”
“I heard that somewhere.” Spassov produced a silver flask and took a sip. “Ever been to Kvengard?”
“No, have you?”
“When I was younger. A delegation to commemorate Liberation Day. It’s a strange place. They don’t have telephones. Not even electricity. The taxis use horses! I wouldn’t want to live there.”
Alexei switched the wipers to high. “They probably wouldn’t want to live here.”
Spassov laughed. “Probably not. The weather in Novo isn’t for everyone. Not unless you have gills.” He tucked the flask away. “Hey, when we’re done tonight, let’s go to that place with the spicy noodles. They’re open late.”
“The one with the pretty waitress?”
“She likes me.”
“Because you tip so much.”
“No, no, because I make her laugh. Make a woman laugh and she’s yours forever.”
Alexei refrained from pointing out that women did not grant favors to priests of the Interfectorem, and most would run swiftly in the opposite direction. Patryk knew it as well as he did. But it made him happy to pretend otherwise, and who was Alexei to deprive him of his fantasies?
They sped past the Pontifex’s Palace and the Tomb of the Martyrs, followed by various ministries and the gilded dome of the basilica. By the time they reached the white marble arch of the Dacian Gate, the hounds were gone. They would run until they found their prey. Then, Saints willing, they would await the arrival of their masters, although Alexei always feared the dogs might get carried away and do something stupid. Unlike Spassov, Markhounds could not be reasoned with. On the front, he had seen packs bring down Nightmages and while the nihilim heretics were his enemies, the memory made him grateful he didn’t dream for he would surely have nightmares.
Alexei squinted into the rain. The hounds had vanished, but phosphorescent paw prints revealed their passage in the blue surface ley that flowed in eddies and currents along the ground. The glow would fade within minutes but it was enough to follow.
By long custom, the gates of the Arx stood wide open, embracing all who sought sanctuary inside. Alexei slowed to raise a hand to the guards, then sped up again as they entered the city proper. Raucous music spilled from cafes and bars. Taxis and trams clogged the hilly cobblestoned streets. Spassov grumbled about the traffic, as he always did. The trail led up and down through the ancient, crooked labyrinth of the city center. Alexei drove as fast as he dared, but there were people about. Most had been drinking and they staggered under umbrellas, unaware of the large Curia automobile barreling toward them. Alexei reluctantly slowed down.
“Saturday night,” Spassov said in a resigned tone. “What did you expect?”
“What time is it?”
Patryk took out a battered pocket watch on a silver chain. It had belonged to his father and he carried it everywhere, just as Alexei carried the coin with the raven and name. Good luck talismans.
Alexei’s hands tightened on the wheel. It had been twelve minutes since the alarm sounded. The Saints only knew what might have happened in the interim. Not everyone whose Marks turned became violent. Sometimes the descent was gradual.
But sometimes it was very swift indeed.
He jammed his foot down on the accelerator and took a hard left. Spassov made an unhappy noise as he was thrown against the door. The crowds thinned, then disappeared as they left the city center behind. The monotonous swish-swish of the wipers made Alexei’s eyes heavy. He unrolled his window and gulped in the night air.
That was the most diabolical thing about insomnia. The acute, chronic kind that lasted for years. Exhaustion came out of nowhere, but when he tried to sleep, it would vanish. He would lie in his chamber, eyes wide in the darkness, thoughts whirling like the weathervane atop Saint Agathe’s Dome.
So he’d given up trying, settling for quick catnaps here and there, usually upright in a chair, and hoping he didn’t go mad himself. Not even the doctors knew how bad it was. If they did, the Curia would retire him to some mindless desk drudgery, but Alexei couldn’t leave the Order until he found what he sought.
The storm grew worse. Sheets of water sprayed from beneath the tires. They entered a fashionable neighborhood of townhouses on the west side. One of the oldest parts of the city, and expensive despite the decaying infrastructure. The car rounded a corner and Alexei slammed on the brakes. Novostopol sat on top of ancient aqueducts of historic interest so it took forever to get permits to fix things. The plaza ahead was flooded, the adjacent canal having overtopped its banks. Paw prints shimmered under twenty centimeters of water, continuing up the hill on the other side of a washed-out bridge.
Alexei smacked a palm on the wheel. He turned to Spassov. “I’ll go on foot, find a way across. Are you good to take the car? There’s another bridge at Pavlovsk Street.”
Spassov gave him a mildly offended look. “I drive drunk better than you do sober, Alyosha.”
“Meet me there.” His smile died. “We’re close. I can feel it.”
Once Spassov had mocked these sorts of claims, but they’d proven accurate so many times, he just nodded. Alexei’s instincts had been honed to a fine point in seven tours of duty in the ruins of the rebel cities. A sixth sense about which burnt-out buildings held nests of mages, which blind alleys had been rigged with traps. As a result, he was still alive when most of his fellow knights were dead.
Sometimes he wished it were the other way around.
Spassov got out and walked around to the driver’s side. Rain soaked them both in an instant.
“Take some steel at least,” Spassov said, sliding behind the wheel. “Don’t be a hero, Alyosha. Wait for me.”
Alexei gripped Patryk’s shoulder. “Of course.”
He walked around to the trunk and popped the latch. He stared at a sword for a moment, a blade blessed by the Pontifex Feizah herself, then reached past it and grabbed an umbrella. He rapped his knuckles on the side of the car, watching Spassov drive away in spreading ripples of rainwater.
Alexei opened the umbrella and followed the fading trail toward the canal.