Chapter 1 - The Blue and the Watcher
If often wonder what my city would have looked like had the Well not been tainted.
I quickly push the thought aside.
It hurts too much.
It was not the first Blue guard to be killed by fiends, and it would certainly not be the last.
Rumours whispered through the ranks of the Blues spoke that the body had been so mangled by the attack that the funeral directors hadn’t the stomach to dress the man in a clean uniform. Others said that the casket was empty, a token symbol of the life lost to be buried. Very few knew the truth; that only one part of the body remained to be buried. It was the man’s head, resting on a silk pillow within the casket.
Faulkner stood with his wife, Harriet, holding her hand tightly. His fingers were interlaced with hers against his thigh, her pinkie running along the fabric of his trousers in a small show of comfort.
“Are you okay?” she whispered. She was considerably shorter than he, so she had been forced to rise onto her toes to whisper. He didn’t look at her, though, staring at the casket.
“I’ll be all right in time,” he whispered, feeling his memories rush with flashes of Blue Guard’s death.
The march of death, the citizens called it. For Faulkner, though, it was work.
“Reynold Markson was a good man,” said the priest presiding over the funeral. Garbed in the traditional purple robes of the Architect—a combination of red and blue; red for the flames, blue for the guard that protected the city—the priest’s voice was a dreary, cold drone. “As a Blue Guard, he had a strong sense of morality and served his Architect as he was always meant to.”
It couldn’t happen to a better man, Faulkner thought as, before his mind’s eye, the easternmost courtyard in which the Tyndibar Well resided, appeared.
The march of death was the space of unlit cobblestone between the Tyndibar Well and the gates protecting the courtyard. Blue guards went through it every evening, protected by the oil lamps they held.
“It was a tragic accident that lead to Reynold’s death,” said a Blue who had gotten up to the lectern to speak. All the while, though, Faulkner had his hand wrapped around his wife’s waist, touching the bump on her belly, as if hoping to reach through and hold the child, too.
He gripped the lantern tightly, holding onto it like life itself. Between him and the fiends was that single lamp, warm, golden and bright. The sea of fiends parted before them, unable to enter the light.
“He was a man with a family, with a wife, with children,” the man continued, “and now he is survived by them.”
If Faulkner died today, his wife and unborn child would be left unsupported.
Some rumours said the Architect was the one who had caused the Fiends to appear. Until he had Blessed a man in the Tyndibar Well, and the man had died, the fiends hadn’t existed.
And now the fiends were everywhere, swarming around them, feral and demonic.
The rain fell in torrents, as it always did. It hid the tears falling from Faulkner’s eyes, but could not cover the pain bubbling up within him. He turned towards the casket and to the lonely family sitting behind it, as the speaker ended his speech.
“I promise I will never let this happen to me,” he said, whispering to Harriet. “I will never leave you or our child.”
“But you can’t control the fiends,” she whispered.
The lantern at the rear of the procession fell dark as the wick burned out. It took only a moment for the fiends to circle in and strike. Snarls and screams mixed together in a cacophony of deathly noise, until the man’s roars of agony were cut short.
“But I can fight back,” he replied, “and I will do everything I can before being killed at the hands of those beasts.”
Atop the casket sat three lamps, unlit at present. Each of the family members were given a match, and one-by one, the matches were lit. They stepped forth, igniting the wick within the lamps.
Three mourning family members. Three shining flames. A single casket containing the head of a Blue killed by the fiends of the city. The honour guard unslung the rifles from their shoulders, aiming them skywards, towards the Architect’s Tower, shooting at the flame that burned at its peak.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Three times they shot. Three times the gathering flinched at the sound. And with each shot, a hearthfly rose from behind the casket, its dragonfly-like tail curled around a cauldron filled with fire. Into the sky they ascended, like spirits being released into the heavens.
This is what I fight for, Faulkner though, running his hand softly over the side of his wife’s protruding belly. This is what I fight to protect.
The Well was made of marble; smooth, white and glossy beneath the light of the oil lamps that surrounded it. In its centre was an opening that led down into a black abyss, darker even than the overcast night sky. Faulkner stood at its edge, warded by the light of a nearby lantern from the fiends that stood before him in the massive Eastern Square. They snarled and growled at him, but he remained stoic and solitary, lit only by the lamps. There was no moon tonight—not that there really ever was. Not since the Tainting. He could smell rain in the air, though it seemed hesitant to break free of the clouds, just as the fiends refused to leave the safety of the shadows.
The Well was empty, a dry ring of something ash-like rimming the marble pool, marring the perfect alabaster with its permanent, smeared mark.
“Hey,” called another guard to the right of him. It was Rueben—a guard he often shared shifts with.
“Yes,” he replied, turning to Rueben. The man had dark hair and equally dark eyes, but had lightness to his face that juxtaposed the strangely harsh features of his hair and eyes.
“What time do you knock off?”
Faulkner reached into his breast pocket and drew out a gold pocket watch—a gift from his wife.
“Half-an-hour,” he replied. “Same hours as me tonight?”
“Ever since Reynold’s death,” he replied, a little too matter-of-factly for Faulkner’s tastes.
Faulkner felt a stab of pain in his chest. He looked up to the rain-swept cobbles, still stained by the blood of his comrade, glossy crimson in the light of the lamp.
He looked up to the tower where the Architect resided, the flame shining above the city like an ever-watchful eye. The fiends growled loudly before him.
“He just sits in his tower,” said Rueben, “while we’re left to do the work.”
“Mmm,” Faulkner nodded quietly in agreement.
“We’ve just lost our friend, and nothing’s changed. It makes me angry!”
“Don’t say that too loudly,” said one of the other Blues. “Don’t want the Vindicators to hear you.”
“What are they going to do?” Rueben said, pushing on Faulkner’s side.
A lot, actually, Faulkner thought.
“No one ever comes here,” Rueben continued, “and we still guard it. We risk our lives against the fiends, protecting by these four lamps, and he just sits up there in his tower, protected and safe and warm.” He paused. “He’s never going to lose his father.” Then more quietly, “Those poor Markson kids.”
“Well actually,” said one of the other Blues, “I think he tried to kill his father, our Architect.”
“That’s beside the point,” said Rueben. “We’ve lost someone, and he hasn’t even shown himself to offer his condolences.”
He doesn’t have to, Faulkner thought numbly. His words are absolute.
Faulkner began to whistle to pass the time, hoping to distract himself from the rain that fell, reminding him of Reynold’s death and his funeral. He could still hear shredding flesh, splashing blood, pained roars. It appeared, though, that one of the fiends didn’t appreciate the cheerful, diverting tune. Within moments of Faulkner starting, a particularly amphibious fiend, with leathery skin, wet eyes, and a set of claws that could sheer his arm in two, lashed out at him.
“Whoa!” cried Rueben, excitedly. “That one looked like a bloody ugly toad, eh?”
The fiend’s action made Faulkner take a step closer to the lamplight, even though he knew there was no way for the beast to cross into trail of gold being cast across the cobbles.
“Quite toad-like,” said another guard.
“I think it looked more like a lizard,” another said, and quickly it became an argument about what the fiend—which had now lumbered away—looked like.
It wasn’t uncommon to see Blue guards in an argument. Their name seemed almost prophetic. Originally, it had been used to describe the colour of their uniform. Now, it was used to describe their behaviour. Having a blue, eh? men at the tavern would say when two men brawled.
Faulkner ignored the growing argument, keeping himself separate from the small group that had begun to speak rather passionately about the toad or lizard-like fiend. Arguing like children days after a comrade’s death. It was cold. Did they not worry about their own families? This job was dangerous. The death rate was high. How is it that none of them are worried? To Faulkner, what the fiends looked like didn’t matter. That was trivial. Some looked like wolves, others like bears, others like some chimeric amalgamations of a hundred different animal rolled into one.
Rueben pulled Faulkner from his reverie.
“Can’t believe the Architect sends us on these missions,” he said. “I mean, it’s His bloody fault we’re out here. It’s his fault that the fiends exist. It’s his fault that good people like Reynold get attacked by things like that!” He pointed at a fiend nearby.
A night fiend that looked somewhat like a giant, vicious rabbit with moose antlers growled at the blues, waiting for the moment when the gas that flowed through these lamps ran out and darkness ensued. It rocked back and forth in preparation for an event that would never come.
“We pay the price for his mistake.”
Faulkner nodded slowly, distantly, not wanting to get involved too deeply. Rueben was the sort that would turn back on their beliefs the moment it suited him.
“And they’re here,” Rueben said, as the gates across the way creaked open, revealing the Blues meant to replace the present guards, with oil lamps in their hands to cast a path through the wall of snarling creatures. The Blues that had been arguing and threatening fisticuffs fell silent as the replacement group approached. The glow that surrounded them like a barrier wavered and expanded and contracted, as if the light from the hearthflies above had a pulse of its own.
The fiends parted for the light, cracking silvery rictuses or exposing nails as sharp as knives. But they could not enter the light, or risk turning to a smoking puddle on the floor.
Faulkner would be allowed to return home shortly, but first he had to clock off. It would be a quick walk from one end of the city to the other, so long as the LampLighters had done their job and lit the main roads up with light from the flickering flames. Failing that, he could take one of the flaming torches from the men and hope that the hearthflies would follow.
Despite the late hour, Faulkner arrived home to a hot dinner waiting for him at the table, his wife, Harriet, smiling warmly as she spooned the last of the mashed potatoes onto the plates. She blew her fringe out of her eyes and flicked the longer hair over her shoulders. She looked up, her smile smooth, but tired. Her eyes held black beneath them from her exhaustion, yet she remained aware and sure.
“I've told you not to stay up,” he said apologetically, making his way quickly towards her, wrapping his hands over her shoulders. Her faint bump showed beneath her buttoned shirt, stretching the fabric slightly. She was definitely pregnant, and probably exhausted.
“I was waiting for you,” she said, “as I always will.”
He kissed her on the cheek softly. “But you don't need to,” he whispered, as though it were a wonderfully delicious secret.
He carried their plates over to the table, and pulled out Harriet's seat. “Now you do nothing else. Just eat and go to bed. We need you well rested for our child.” He kissed her on the forehead as she sat down.
“I will,” she replied.
Their dinner was filled with quiet and interesting conversation, about both of their days. As usual, Harriet told Faulkner that he was awfully brave to walk the streets at night, but he assured her, as he assured everyone else, that so long as he had the LampLighters, the streets were perfectly safe. Nevertheless, she would respond with a sigh and the statement, “Well I don't feel right until you are inside, with the door locked and all the window candles lit.”
They both finished their meals, and Faulkner escorted Harriet up the stairs and into the bedroom. He pulled back the sheets and pulled the covers over her once she was in her nightie and comfortable.
“I will be up once I've cleaned,” he said, kissing her once more, this time on the lips. It was only short-lived though, as all of them nearly are.
“And I will be waiting,” she said.
“Will you never learn?” he laughed as he left the room, turning the light off as he went.
He made his way down the stairs quietly, unbuttoning his coat as he did so. He removed it and rested it around the backrest of one of the chairs, so that he did not get it dirty. It did not matter if he had stains on his white undershirt; it would not be seen.
He cleaned up what little mess Harriet had made, giving the kitchen and dining room one last look over before he turned away to begin the climb upstairs. Pausing, he stared out of the window into the street.
That's strange, he thought, taking slow, deliberate steps towards the window. I thought that was...
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. The candle sitting before the window, casting its soft light also spread a glare streak across the glass, obscuring whatever was outside. Moving quickly now, he leant against the window and looked out into the lamp-lit street. There, he saw rain that had begun to fall, water glistening over the cobbles, and the curious heathflies, now flocking to the window to take a closer look at the man within. The flies’ flames shimmered brightly, casting the entire street in a warm glow, keeping the monsters at bay, and in the middle of the road, walking quickly away, hobbled a man, unfurling an umbrella in his hands.
“What the hell?” muttered Faulkner as he rushed through his house, drawing an umbrella from the pot at the door. He pushed it open and flung himself into the night.
The rain beat heavily against the fabric of the umbrella, and the wind buffeted, threatening to turn his umbrella inside-out. It sunk deep into him, eating away at any vestigal warmth he had found in his very late dinner. The thin undershirt provided very little in the way of heat. It was only the sudden rush of adrenaline that made him oblivious to his abrupt bout of shivering. Forgetting to don some kind of cloak had been his first mistake. His second was calling out.
“Hey!” he cried.
The figure, which had been moving quickly, stopped and glanced over his shoulder, his face kept hidden by the darkness of his umbrella. There was a jolt of surprise in the man's body, and then he sped off into the night, casting his umbrella aside.
“Hey!” called Faulkner. “What are you doing!” He had been looking through his window. At what, though? No innocent man runs as that man did. He ran after him for a few moments before the cold, night air got to him once more, and he realised Harriet would still be awake, waiting for him, as she had promised. He hesitated, slipping, but correcting himself before he fell. He let out a shuddering puff, his breath misting before him. Watching with a sigh of disappointment, he saw the man turn a corner into another lit street and into absolute safety.
Faulkner was alone in the street now; the rain’s beating methodical, the wind’s howls softening. He had to wrap his hands across his chest as his shivering became more vigorous. The hearthflies, seeming to notice his trembling, began to flock about him, their fires providing an unnatural warmth.
Strange, he thought. I’ve never seen them act this way.
As if they had heard his thoughts, they began to disperse, perhaps offended by his musings. He sneezed, swearing quickly afterwards, as he turned away himself and dashed back towards the warmth of home.