Once a year, when the two moons of Aurfell align with its blue sun, the House of Light and Dark unites. It is the Transcendence. The world is shrouded in darkness before giving way to the light. It is a union of the First One’s children—a union of the gods—and it must be celebrated, for once, long ago, the Light and the Dark stood apart, two sides of the Everwar.
Tonight, disciples of the House remember the blood of those who came before, and honour what their ancestors became. The disciples—from Acolytes to the Speakers themselves—throw off their silk and cast them into the streets until piles of white and black lay strewn around the city, until they stand bare under the darkening sky. But not for long. They replace their clothing. Now those who belong to the House wear new silk: white on the left, black on the right, with a triangle on the chest. It is split down the middle, and there is an orb at each point.
Lumessa is so dressed. A year ago, when she had chosen to walk the path of darkness, the Messenger for this part of the city—a man named Quine, short and fat, with a red nose scarred by time and liquor—had thrust the ceremonial attire into her arms while exclaiming, “Rejoice, for you are saved!”
But she has never cared about the House of Light and Dark, or its moon worship, and she had wanted to spit in the Messenger’s face. Instead, she had chosen to survive, for all residents of Aurfell must take a path. There is no alternative, and Lumessa had no intention of being evicted from the city and set to wander with the Red-Eyes or skulk with the Demons. So, she had accepted the silk with open arms and a smile, with eyes wide-open.
Now, on the eve of her first Transcendence, she stands with the other Acolytes of her coven on the outskirts of its courtyard. A single banner hangs over the eastern wall. It bears the mark of her coven, a desert crow, and billows just above a raised dais, where the assembly focuses.
Lumessa grinds her teeth as she listens to Quine sermonizing. She pulls at strands of her pale-blonde hair while the Messenger rambles on about the horrors of the Everwar and the exodus of the gods, which had brought the first Speakers of Light and Dark together. She grinds the heel of her pointed boot into the loose grains of sand that have blown across the courtyard as Quine praises the peace in Aurfell, and touts the prophecy of the sun.
But Lumessa is careful with her display, because the Shepherds are always watching. So, it is with a hushed voice that she whispers to the thin girl standing next to her, “We must do this every year?”
Savantha firms her lips, then raises four fingers together and holds them over her eyes. Lumessa’s unwilling partner does not care for her manner. They are not friends, but they are bound. The duality of the House is everywhere—a symbol of the House’s devotion to the prophecy—and every Acolyte is paired with another, meant to walk the path together. When the twins are one again… the first words of the sun.
Lumessa sighs, perhaps too loudly. A Shepherd cocks a head in her direction and clucks her tongue. It is Shepherd Mara. She is an ugly woman, and stern. The folds of her skin have been cracked by time, but her eyes are sharp. Beads of blood still spot Lumessa’s skin from her last encounter with Mara, and Lumessa’s back aches from where the lashes of a whip have landed too often. She pulls her shoulders back and lifts her chin, but she quiets nonetheless.
The Messenger finishes his address with a rare prayer to the moons. He looks at the gathered Acolytes, expectation on his face, but there is no applause—not until several Shepherds silently encourage their flock with stern glances and clenched fists. After Quine descends the dais to a smattering of claps, he hurries to a woman who has emerged from the shadows under the fluttering banner. Several figures appear around her. Lumessa peers at them, but settles her gaze on the woman. She is different. She is tall and regal, and her pale face is framed by shoulder-length brown hair that curls around her angled features. There is no triangle on her chest—instead, there is a sphere with swirls inside. The woman is a mage.
Lumessa may not believe in gods and fairy tales, but she very much believes in magic—she’s seen it, long ago, and the smell of burning flesh still visits her dreams.
But why is this mage-woman here, Lumessa wonders? There is no magic in Lumessa’s coven. It is a simple place, and its Acolytes are destined for labour and menial work. The mark of the desert crow is well known in Aurfell for the toil of its fledgling alumnus. She doubts her coven has produced so much as a Shepherd.
The woman and Quine seem to be arguing, though the Messenger quickly bows his head and totters away. After he is gone, the mage-woman and her cohort approach the dais. She climbs alone, her steps slow and steady, no sway in her arms, and her posture tight.
When she reaches the podium, she rests her hands on each side and stares into a crowd that has gone silent. The quiet lingers, but, before long, nerves get the better of the young boys and girls of the Desert Crows, and their voices begin to creak in confusion. The Shepherds threaten with their presence but do nothing, perhaps equally unsure.
At last, the mage-woman raises her hand to the onlookers, and, like an unspoken command, the Acolytes quiet in an instant. When the night stills but for the flapping of silk and rustling of sand, the woman speaks.
“Acolytes, my name is Huri. I am the Inquisitor of Darkness.”
Like a crack of thunder, gasps and muted cries ripple among the throng, and the sounds coalesce into a rumble of confusion and awe. Even Lumessa is shocked. There are only two Inquisitors in Aurfell—one light, one dark—and they are the heads of the paths of magic, second only to the Speakers. Perhaps, thinks Lumessa, they are equal.
Inquisitor Huri is not swayed by her reception. Her face is void of expression, and she does not move. Lumessa has never encountered such a powerful figure. The Shepherds may lash their whips, but Lumessa does not fear them. Pain fades, and blood clots. But standing on the dais is a statue, a keeper of the secrets of magic, and an aura of strength drifts through the air. Lumessa finds herself biting her lip and tensing her muscles.
The Inquisitor speaks again.
“Sons and Daughters of the Dark. Blessed is the Transcendence. Blessed is the union of the two moons and their followers. Blessed in the House, and the peace.”
“Blessed be!” comes the response from the Acolytes, in harmony. Lumessa does not think the Shepherds will notice her lack of participation, though Savantha casts her another sharp glance before raising four fingers over her eyes.
“You must find it strange for me to come here,” continues Huri. Her voice is steel. “Your coven is on the edge of the city; your graduates are decent, and hard-working, but not much more. The desert crow is not a symbol found within the Speaker’s Hall, to be sure.”
Lumessa stifles a laugh. She knows he Shepherds will bristle, as will the more delusional Acolytes. She warms at the look of horror on Savantha’s face, which shifts quickly to stone when she catches Lumessa staring.
“Yet I am here. I will be put this simply, as is my way: I am searching.”
Murmurs escape the Shepherd’s control, and Lumessa whistles. Savantha flares another look and covers her eyes again, again wishing blindness upon her counterpart.
“That which I seek is beyond your understanding. I will say this, and only this: magic has gone too long without new blood. We have neglected our responsibility to nurture the gods’ gift.”
The Inquisitor’s voice echoes through the courtyard and lingers in the evening air. Breath unfurls from her lips. Already, the chill begins to set. It will only grow colder.
The Acolytes do not make noise. They are now hanging off of the Inquisitor’s words. No one knows much about magic, or those who practice it, and the Shepherds discourage gossip. It is not taught in the coven, though whispers seep into open ears like water through cracks in stone. Still, the desert crows are ill prepared to be visited by a mage—the Inquisitor, no less.
Lumessa thinks the words are carefully chosen, and her mind races as she tries to understand. She is now as silent as Savantha, and as the others gathered in the courtyard, finally captured in the moment.
“In the coming days,” says Huri, “my mages will visit covens like yours all over this side of Aurfell. I know you’ve not before had the pleasure to keep company with my kin, but I urge you to welcome them, for they are of the Dark, too.”
An urgency lurks within the Inquisitor’s words. Lumessa hears it. She wonders if others will have as well. The murmurs grow again.
“Prepare yourselves, Acolytes.” Huri is playing with the crowd. Lumessa is enthralled with the speech, but her anticipation fades at the Inquisitor’s next words: “I will find what I seek!” Huri speaks with sudden violence, her steady voice now a rasp, and she pounds a fist on the dais. The air ripples around the point of impact, and a wisp of shadow emerges and begins to coil around the Inquisitor. The shadow is amorphous, without form, yet it moves with purpose, finally settling in a hover over the woman’s shoulders. Two spots are glowing, faintly, from where a head might be, but Lumessa can’t be sure. Her fixation is shattered when the Inquisitor abruptly rips off her ceremonial clothing and stands naked in the cold.
Lumessa becomes suddenly aware of the panic surging through the desert crows. Even the Shepherds are mesmerized. Huri stares back into the crowd, shadow on her shoulders, and Lumessa squirms. The woman is frightening, and her intensity cannot be ignored.
“Bring me proper clothes,” Huri demands. A snivelling Quine breaks free from the cohort of mages who stand in the shadows, then rushes over with silk as black as night, his face blanched and eyes wide. This was not planned, thinks Lumessa.
The Inquisitor pulls on the garments, which now include a flowing robe. “Better,” she says. Her voice has regained its calm, as if her display had been ordinary. The wisps of shadow—blackness darker than the night itself, as if a void in the world that eats the light—disappears.
She flaunts the union on the eve of the Transcendence, thinks Lumessa.
The Shepherds are now standing with their mouths hanging open, and they seem oblivious to the growing cacophony in the rows of Acolytes: questions, cries…cheers? Lumessa bites her lip, her discomfort growing.
Huri speaks again, and is calm once more. ”Blessed be the Darkness. Blessed be the desert crows.”
“Blessed be!” comes the answer, though less unified than before. Huri abruptly leaves the dais and strides off, becoming invisible almost immediately as her silk blends with the night.
Shepherd Mara cracks a whip on the stone of the courtyard, and several Acolytes jump in time to the puff of sand that is raised. Instinctively, the desert crows filter into lines and began a shuffle into the coven. Before she joins, Lumessa peers up into the sky and sees the last flickering of a blue ring as the eclipse begins.