Across the desert, past the rush of the River Ash and the burning wastes of Al-Reshara, an old woman sat beside her mirror in an empty house, waiting for news. Nerium Kerah didn't study her reflection as she might have decades ago. She had known her share of vanity, but now she felt all her years and battles in her back and hips and spotted, blue-veined hands; she had no need to see them in her face.
Light slanted through the windows, hot and honey-gold, undimmed by the storm that raged far across the empire. If she looked east she might see the stain of its passing across the desert, but that view was of no more interest to her than her reflection. She'd seen the devastation of the ghost wind before.
This was the first time she had caused it.
Nerium shook her head. She was weary enough without regrets. With nearly a hundred years of service behind her, she had seen what the storm wrought—other members of Quietus had not. Perhaps now they would understand what would happen when the old seals, the old ways, finally failed. And fail they would, of that she had no doubt. Other members of the Silent Council deluded themselves that the darkness they bound in diamond prisons would stay bound forever. Or at least another thousand years—it was difficult to maintain personal investment in something that might happen centuries after one was dead. Even she couldn't imagine she would see the turning of the next millennium. Not in this decrepit flesh.
The voice came from the dark glass, husky and breathless, edged with fear. Nerium winced to hear her daughter afraid, but she counted to ten before she responded, keeping her face and voice calm.
"Is it done?" She brushed the surface of the mirror, and her own tired face gave way to another. Like watching time roll away: the loose flesh of her throat and jaw firmed; close-cropped hair darkened; the lines on her face smoothed. Then the illusion vanished, and the woman in the mirror was herself again. Nerium tried to recall the name her daughter was using now, but it escaped her.
"Yes, it's done." Annoyance replaced fear in her voice, but the younger woman's eyes were wide and dark and shadowed, olive cheeks pale and splotched. "What happened? The storm—"
"Isn't it obvious? The seals failed. We've lost a diamond, years before schedule, and another is close to failing. We're sealing the breach, but the system won't last." The words were dull with repetition by now. With any luck, she'd only have to present this lecture one more time.
"I have Zadani's rings—"
Nerium shook her head. "Only a stopgap measure. We don't have enough stones to keep this up, no matter what Ahmar claims. She would scheme and delay us all into oblivion. But we won't let that happen."
Her daughter's head tilted at that we, not bothering to hide her weariness. "What do you need?" She kept her voice pitched low, and her eyes flickered to one side.
"You on a ship to Kehribar within three days." Dark eyes rolled, and Nerium nearly mimicked the gesture. "I don't ask the impossible." Sending her best agent to clean up a colleague's mess irked her, but it meant her daughter was placed to leave Assar quickly.
"No, only the intensely annoying. What's in Kehribar?"
"An entropomancer. Isyllt Iskaldur. Bring her to me. Offer her anything she wants. Find the right leverage."
"She's under surveillance already, isn't she? Why do I need to bring her in?"
"Her watcher is one of Ahmar's pets. I need someone I can trust." Her daughter glanced aside again, tracking some distant sound. Behind her Nerium could make out red hangings and candles. "Where are you?"
"At church." She grinned at Nerium's frown; the temples of Ta'ashlan were also full of Ahmar's pets. "Shall I ask for absolution while I'm here? Wash the blood from my hands?"
"There isn't any, is there?"
She snorted. "Of course not. I used a wire."
"Find Iskaldur. Keep me informed." Nerium touched the mirror again, and the connection broke. Her own grey and weary face took its place once more in the glass.
Her knees cracked as she rose to dress and her robes weighed heavily on her shoulders. The day stifled, and she would have been just as happy to go to her fellow councillors in a nightdress, but Quietus was fond of formality and comforting rituals.
The light didn't change, but Nerium felt a shadow gathering behind her. A smell like char and bone and the musk of insects drifted through the room.
"She looks tired," the shadow said with a voice of rasping sand. "You work the poor child too hard. But you were always careless with your toys, weren't you?"
She turned, because it was weakness not to look. The creature in the corner was darkness and smoke, roiling like storm clouds within a tall, gaunt outline. His head was a vulture's, bald and beaked and snake-necked. Ragged wings lay folded down his back, and two pairs of arms crossed his sunken chest.
"My daughter is none of your concern."
"I've always felt a kinship with her. We failed experiments should stick together." Sunlight glinted on dust motes inside him as he moved forward.
"She isn't a failure." From the mocking tilt of his head, Kash knew it for a lie.
"Merely a disappointment, then."
"I don't have time to play with you today, Kash."
"No, nor strength. You're so tired." He drifted behind her, resting insubstantial taloned hands on her shoulders. "You'll wear yourself to rags if you don't rest." His wicked beak brushed her cheek. "And when you fall I'll be there to eat your eyes."
She shook her head. His taunts had long since lost their power to unsettle her. "Not today, Kash."
"No? What if I tell the others what you've done? I don't think they'd appreciate your games."
"You don't want me to face council justice. You want revenge."
"Maybe I'll take whatever I can get. I'm used to scraps and carrion, after all."
"You'll get your chance. But not today."
She turned, his cold shadowy form still pressed against her, and laid her hand against his beak. Under her fingers it was solid as any living bone and chitin. She spoke a word of silence. Kash recoiled, but the spell had already taken. His beak opened in a silent hiss.
Once she would have trusted him to keep her secrets. Once he had trusted her to keep her promises.
With a word of banishment he was gone, and she was alone again.
Her knees and neck ached as Nerium left her rooms, the familiar pains worse than they had been two days ago—the ghost wind's handiwork. Qais had been spared the worst of the storm, protected by layers of spells, but its shadow lingered.
The mages' dormitory was silent; even the tall brass-studded doors swung shut behind her with only a whisper to mark her exit. The Chanterie, the red sandstone hall was called, and had been for centuries. Nerium didn't know the cause, but assumed it was a bitter joke; this was not a place for music.
The courtyard too was quiet, buried under drifts of copper sand. Wide pools lay stagnant, overgrown with weeds and filmed with droning midges. Green water shone gold in the westering sun. Qais wasn't as deserted as it appeared—farmers and craftsmen and soldiers lived here, servants who should have been tending the pools—but she could go days without hearing anyone. She couldn't remember when she'd last seen children playing in the desolate streets.
Nerium frowned. She was hardly sentimental about children, but their presence here served a function—fresh life to ward off the constant shadow of decay. Swept streets and clean fountains also served: order combated entropy, and mastery over one's environment had thaumaturgical benefits as well as aesthetic ones. She would have to speak to the staff—too much was at stake in Qais to let the city fall into disrepair.
The city was a replica of lost Irim, carefully constructed after its doom. As much red sandstone as the survivors could carry away from the ruin had been reused—the rest had been carved from the same cliffs in Hajar. Gardeners bled myrrh trees as they had in Irim, though the Smoke Road that had carried wealth and incense across the desert was long abandoned.
Qais was meant to be a monument to all that had been salvaged from Irim, a memorial for all that was lost. To Nerium it was a sepulcher, another corpse of a long-dead kingdom. The survivors of Irim—the founders of Quietus—could have moved on, but had instead chosen to shackle themselves to the past.
She shook her head. None of her morbid thoughts was untrue, but the black veil of despair that hung over her was another effect of the storm. With the seals' renewal it would pass. When the moribund bindings now in place were replaced with fresh ones, she might in turn see new life brought to Qais. Or better yet, let the desert claim it once and for all.
She followed a broad, paved lane lined by crouching criosphinxes till she reached the hypostyle, a forest of fat sandstone pillars holding aloft the ceiling of sky. When she pushed aside the ghost wind's depression, she could appreciate the stillness of the hypostyle, its latticed shadows and carven flagstones, whose lotus patterns appeared and disappeared with the drifting sand. She tried to hold to that stillness as she emerged from the columns and crossed the broad courtyard to the observatory temple, but it was no use.
The Aal, the peoples of Irim and Qais and the greater desert, had been sky-watchers, filling volumes with sidereal patterns and movements. They strove to speak to the stars themselves. This desire for knowledge, surviving records indicated, had brought doom to Irim.
The observatory was a broad building, terraced in a series of receding slabs—nothing like the gilded domes and graceful minarets of modern Assari temples. A wide staircase dominated the front, but couldn't long draw the eye away from the round tower rising above it. From such a tower the scholars of Irim had sung to the stars.
The sky was a wash of carnelian by the time Nerium climbed the last of the steps, streaked with high violet clouds. The Reshara desert spread to the northeast, red sand melting into the gloaming sky. Shadowed in the east, as Nerium had thought, by more than dusk; she turned her gaze back to the red stone steps.
Khalil Ramadi waited for her at the top, robed in grey and leaning on his cane. His white hair was long and neatly braided as ever, but thinner each year. Gold flashed in sagging earlobes, the last echo of the flamboyant warrior-mage he'd once been. His brown skin had been creased and weathered for decades, but now pain deepened the furrows around his eyes and pressed his mouth to a bloodless line.
"I'd hoped not to see the storm twice," he said, offering his hand as she climbed the final step. His fingers were crooked and gnarled, trembling in hers. The band of his smoky diamond ring—twin to her own—pressed into paper-thin flesh; she doubted he could ever take it off.
"We may see it yet again if Ahmar continues to ignore the truth."
Shoulders once broad and strong hunched further. He had been a tall man—now his curved spine pressed against his robes and bent him as low as she. "I stand with you," he said quietly as they limped toward the tower door. "But there isn't much fight left in me."
Relics, all of us, she thought bitterly. Fit only to be locked away in dust and darkness.
"You deserve rest," she said. "We all do." If her plan worked, they would have it.
They entered the observatory tower, but followed the spiral staircase downward instead of up. Quietus had no use for the sky—their concerns were bound in earth. Nerium conjured witchlight as they descended, careful not to show the strain it took to hold the glow steady. Architects were much too fond of stairs.
The snail-shell spiral ended at a red door. Rock salt, rose-colored slabs veined with crimson and porphyry, banded with steel to hold it to the hinges. The metal showed signs of recent scouring, but rust still blossomed. Salt for protection, to help contain the darkness that slept inside. As much use as a sticking plaster on a severed limb, as far as Nerium could tell, but it was very pretty.
The room beyond the red door was round and domed, like the observation tower above it, and like the tower roughly twelve cubits across—three times the height of man. In the center lay a black pit six cubits in diameter. Such a small space to hold so much power. So much destruction. Nerium drew a breath, bracing herself as she stepped across the threshold. Behind her, she heard Khalil do the same.
Her witchlight flared as they entered the room, reflected in diamonds set in the curved ceiling. Hundreds of stones, bought and stolen and smuggled over centuries, a fortune to ransom kingdoms. The mages who built the prison had chosen to re-create the night sky—crystalline constellations glittered coldly in black marble, unchanging, locked forever in a night centuries past. Like the salt door, it made no difference that she could see, besides beauty. The power of the stones was real; Nerium nearly staggered under the weight of magic in the room.
A man and a woman waited for them. The woman, Shirin Asfaron, was Quietus's historian and the third member of the Silent Council who dwelled permanently in Qais. A thin, reedy woman, she had taken on the same yellowed shade of parchment as the records with which she surrounded herself. She inclined her head to Nerium, and witchlight shone against her sweat-slick brow. Her hands trembled at her sides, and the cords of her neck stood taut. She was younger than she looked, but years of living in Qais had taken their toll. She wasn't as resistant to the constantly leaking entropy of the oubliette as Nerium.
The man, Siavush al Naranj, didn't turn. He faced the wall, muttering a constant chant of spells under his breath as he replaced a diamond in its stone setting. He was the youngest of them all, Ahmar's prized pupil, and very clever at bindings—vinculation, as university mages called it.
Ahmar and Siavush claimed holding Qais was an honor, a mark of great strength and trust. That was not untrue, but they were also the youngest and strongest of the circle and meant to remain so. So they lived far from the specter of Irim, guarding Quietus's interests and their own ambitions, shaking their heads at the fate of their poor fading comrades. Trying to ignore the reality of their oaths.
The object of those oaths lay in the blackness in the center of the room, whispering softly even now. Al-Jodâ'im. The Undoing. The doom of Irim.
In all Quietus's years of study, no trace had been found of a greater destructive force, not even the ancient cataclysm that sank fabled Archis. In their desire to commune with the stars, the scholars of Irim called something down from the heavens, and nearly destroyed all of Khemia.
The touch of Al-Jodâ'im crumbled stone and withered flesh. Men and spirits alike disintegrated in its shadow. Crops failed and earth grew lifeless. Plagues sprang up where it passed, spreading lesions and tumors and twisting organs against themselves. In the dark times after Irim, the storms men called the ghost wind had swept across the desert, killing hundreds and stunting the land.
Out of that chaos Quietus had risen, dozens of mages who risked—and often gave—their lives to seal the hungry darkness where it could do no more harm. But Al-Jodâ'im were stronger than any spirits human mages had ever dealt with. A diamond might bind a ghost forever, but even the strongest of mage stones eventually failed under the entropic touch of the Undoing. So a new generation of mages had taken up the burden of Quietus, and then another, for over a thousand years. They pledged service till their deaths, and to uphold the seals above all else. They pledged secrecy too, lest the greed and curiosity of man cause more disasters like Irim. They had been ruled by ennearchs and heptarchs and triads, and even a few autocratic witch-kings.
And now there were five of them. Though only four gathered today.
"Is Ahmar joining us?" asked Nerium when Siavush was nearly finished. She kept her voice light despite her lingering unease. If he'd found signs of her tampering, he surely would have said something by now.
Shirin shrugged. "I've heard nothing."
Siavush stopped chanting and finally turned from the wall. His face too was drawn and damp, his warm copper skin lusterless with fatigue. He held himself straight against the strain, but the glitter of his rings betrayed shaking hands. "She's busy dealing with the destruction in Ta'ashlan. I speak for her."
"I'm glad to know how seriously she takes this," Nerium said dryly. "But of course, I already knew that."
Siavush frowned. His weight shifted as if he meant to step forward, but thought better of it. No one wanted to stand close to the lip of the pit. "We all take our mission and oaths seriously. A lapse in the seals is nothing trivial. But it's remedied now." He waved to the newly replaced diamond. "The seals will hold, with vigilance. Ahmar will replenish our diamonds."
Nerium wanted to turn away from the faith in his voice, the affection he still felt for his teacher. Those too would wither with time, but the reminder of her long-faded youth stung.
"With vigilance." She snorted. "With the vigilance of Qais, you mean, while you and Ahmar sip iced wine in the comfort of the cities."
"I'm hardly sipping wine here, am I?"
"No," she acknowledged, smoothing her tone. "Your sense of duty is not in question. But all of our burdens could be lessened if we stopped binding ourselves to this carious corpse of a place, and to an expensive and antiquated method of vinculation."
"There is little profit in changing methods that still work," Siavush said, "and a great deal to risk if something goes wrong. One broken seal is enough to loose the ghost wind—imagine what could happen if we removed them all. Ahmar and I—"
"You've made your feelings clear. As has Ahmar, with her absence from this meeting. If not for my oaths, I would be happy to let you fail. Luckily for the rest of the world, I won't."
Siavush's face pinched. "What have you done, Nerium?"
"I've acted, as we should have long ago. I've summoned an entropomancer, a vinculator. The best candidate I've found in thirty years to help us deal with our burden."
"That stormcrow spy? You risk everything we work for. We won't allow it."
Nerium smiled, sharp and cold. "The majority is mine, Siavush." She glanced at Khalil and Shirin, who each nodded slowly.
"Nerium is right," Khalil said, knuckles whitening on his cane. "Something has to change."
"Enough argument." Shirin's voice cracked. "Let's finish what we came to do, and get out of this tomb."
Nerium nodded. "Yes. Let's." She often wondered if the founders of Quietus called themselves the Silent ironically, or if the quarreling had come later.
Siavush frowned, but finally nodded. The four of them positioned themselves evenly around the black pit. They didn't hold hands, but their magic commingled and flowed into a circuit.
Her blood beat hard in her ears; under its rhythm, a different music swelled. As she turned her attention to the oubliette, the whisper grew, became a song. Polyphonic, discordant, inhuman, but its meaning was clear nonetheless—loss and loneliness, exile and longing. It scraped and shivered over her skin, ached in the roots of her teeth—it would take them apart, if they let it, layer by layer, muscle and bone, until all that was left was dust.
They hadn't let it yet.
Sleep was the only mercy they could grant Al-Jodâ'im, bound as they had been for centuries. Her tampering had disturbed their rest years before they might have woken on their own. But since her colleagues refused to consider the evidence otherwise, she had no choice but to force the issue. She quashed a pang of guilt before it could infect the working.
Each of them focused their power differently: Siavush chanted under his breath, incantations and litanies of strength; Khalil recited sword-forms, though he hadn't practiced them in decades; Shirin ran mathematical equations in her mind. Nerium sang. Her voice was not what it once was—that had been lost, with her beauty, to time—but rhythm and pitch she still had.
Disparate as they were, their rotes served the same function: strength, order, precision, and perhaps even love. All the things that stood against the chaos and destruction that were Al-Jodâ'im, and the despair they had learned to wield as a weapon against their captors. All these they wrought into chains to bind the darkness, as their order had for centuries.
They left the temple in silence when their work was done, limping, trembling, cold with sweat. No amount of pride could disguise the cost of these spells. But the crushing air of hopelessness had eased—the night air was still, soothing. The seals would hold.
They paused in the courtyard before the hypostyle, and Nerium couldn't resist needling Siavush one last time. "Zadani is dead, by the way."
"Good," he said, his voice clipped. While no one argued that Quietus needed fresh blood soon, Siavush's choice of the imperial mage had proven a poor one. Next time, she'd let him clean up the mess himself. "It's time I returned to my work, then."
Shirin's lips pinched. Nerium marked it too, how he placed his second life outside Qais over his sworn service. She didn't bother scolding him, though; she was finished with that.
"Would you prefer the short route or the long?"
His eyes narrowed at her solicitude. "The short, if you please."
A journey across the desert took decads, a month with slow camels, fraught with the danger of storms and wells gone dry. Quietus had faster methods of travel, though not always more pleasant.
He balked at her summons; a hundred years of servitude had not broken him to the bit. She respected his defiance, but it was often inconvenient. She tightened the leash of her will and called again. The air curled away from him as he manifested, like skin from a wound. Black wings flared, blotting the stars. Shirin flinched, and Khalil turned his head.
To the rest of Quietus, Kash was a necessary evil, a tool to be used quickly and set aside. To Nerium he was her grandfather's legacy. Any oathsworn member of Quietus could call him, but her family were usually the only ones willing to do so. He had become their inheritance, an unholy bequest. Once he had been even more, but that had ended badly.
"Kash, escort Lord al Naranj back to Ta'ashlan, if you please."
Kash had been a jinni, captured and exposed to Al-Jodâ'im's touch in an experiment to discover the effect of entropy on immortal spirits. It turned his fire to smoke and ash, left him dark and bitter and twisted, but it also wedded him to the void, an avatar of the great nothingness. A way to harness its power.
Kash hissed silently, still held by her silence. She read calculation in his eyes—wondering, no doubt, if she was weak enough to challenge. Not today. He acquiesced with a mocking bow and the air parted once more behind him, a doorway into emptiness.
"Ahmar won't be happy about what you've done," Siavush said, turning reluctantly to Kash.
Nerium smiled at the threat. He was so very young. "She's welcome to discuss the matter with me. I'm always here, after all."
Kash might hate her, but he scorned the other mages more. The rift sealed behind Siavush before he could have the last word.