Thousands of years ago, the city of Athanor was set adrift in time and space by alchemists, called "the Curious Men". Ever since, it has accumulated cultures, citizens and species into a vast, unmappable metropolis.
Isten and her gang of half-starved political exiles live off petty crime and gangland warfare in Athanor's seediest alleys. Though they dream of returning home to lead a glorious revolution, Isten's downward spiral drags them into a mire of addiction and violence. Isten must find a way to save the exiles and herself if they are ever to build a better, fairer world for the people of their distant homeland.
File Under: Fantasy [ Alchymical Exiles | Loathing and Fear | Manifest Revelation | City of Broken Spheres ]
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Reluctantly, she poured herself from Athanor’s innards, floundering through the shit, dribbling through the back streets and brothels. The Sisters of Solace released her with a surprising and beautiful grace, shortening their beards, dropping their skirts and proclaiming her prowess to anyone drunk enough to care. Few women have been so well served by whores as Isten was in the long winter of her grief.
The corpse-light of mandrel-fires picked her out as she hurried towards the banks of the Saraca. They blazed across the filthy water, revealing the fruit of Athanor’s latest plague. Corpses, of course, but also bundles of clothes, folded and bound, drifting through the scum in a pitiful flotilla as though destined for a happier world. There was nothing there of any value. This was a plague of the poor. Death, like everything else in Athanor, was unequally shared.
The mandrel-fires were a shocking reminder of how long Isten had been gone – how much she had missed. These were not the ghostly lamps that always lined Athanor’s streets, these were heralds of transformation, beacons that were only lit at the time of conjunction; grand, sun-shaped scaffolds of silver and brass that would burn until the Festival of Undying Light. While Isten was embracing the Sisters of Solace, the city had jumped. The sky was an ocean of unfamiliar stars. Life had lurched, blind to her fall, and Athanor had changed. She looked up at a forest of new spires, studying the growth, marvelling at the labyrinthine constructions. With every rebirth, Athanor changed, growing larger, stranger, more bewildering.
She dropped out of sight, moving away from the beacons, hurrying on through the darkness, scouring the quayside for a familiar face. The awnings of Coburg Market had been rolled away leaving only a stink of fish guts and the fine-spun, skeletal facades of warehouses. At this time of night, even the beggars had a better place to be.
She lurched along for an hour, slapping through the blood and the brine, then collapsed on the steps that led down to a jetty. She coughed and spluttered as the cinnabar wormed its way through her skull, oozing painfully through her pores. The Sisters of Solace had blessed her with a particularly potent farewell gift and she lay there for a long time, feeling the city roll beneath her, looking up at its tortuous, seedpod bones. The locals boasted that Athanor’s tracery of roads and aqueducts formed a map of the spheres, but to Isten it only ever looked like a cage.
It was nearly dawn when she sobered up enough to realise she was hungry. Her stomach was tight and resentful and she struggled to remember the last time she’d eaten. She hauled herself slowly to her feet, discovering an impressive collection of bruises and sprains. Every inch of her ached. She wanted nothing more than to lie back down again and sleep in the gutter, but she had a date to keep and a memory to honour, so she staggered off down the embankment.
She was leaving the market just as the traders and dock workers started to arrive and, as she hurried past, she heard snatches of their strange argot. Athanor was a city of émigrés and refugees, but the haulers and lightermen of Coburg Street were a particularly mongrel breed, speaking an amalgam of every language that had ever come to the city. They could be half understood by everyone and fully understood by no one. Having no wish to be recognised, she hurried on through the half-light, heading for the Blacknells Road Bridge.
She reached the borders of the Temple District and stooped lower, humbled by the scale of the architecture. Plump, recurved walls swelled out across the river, skimming the water like sails and trailing beautiful, spindle-twisted buttresses. Entrance to the temples was forbidden for commoners like Isten, but a narrow path skirted the walls, running alongside the water’s edge, and she soon started to see more people. The Elect would be asleep at this time, but their laborators were abroad, running errands and brokering deals, scurrying like colourful vermin, their turmeric-stained faces hidden deep in lemon-coloured hoods. They were probably too engrossed in their work to acknowledge a wreck like Isten, but she avoided them all the same.
From there she reached the sprawling mounds of the Azorus slums – the ragged, filthy petticoat of the Temple District, steaming in the half-light, hazed by flies and smoke, tumbling down into the river to form a dysenteric slurry of rafts and wharfs, a landslide of rubbish, patched-together tents and wasted scavengers. Here was the city in all its grotesque magnificence – oil-slick wretches wading through filth, shimmering in the half-light, stained rainbow hues by the chemicals that flowed from the temple walls. It was a kaleidoscopic crush, desperate souls picking through the poison that bled from above, risking death and worse as they looked for fragments of wealth. Even the water was transformed as it passed the soaring walls. Chemicals glooped from rusty outlets, threading the Saraca with metal, turning its currents into an eddying, gleaming mirror – the Golden Chain, its links and intersections binding Athanor together, shackling its lost souls.
As Isten forced her way through the crush, she caught glimpses of newcomers. All life was drawn to the Saraca, whether native or foreign. The sacred waters paid no heed to the origins of its supplicants and Isten saw countless species gnawing at its banks. Many were familiar – the withered husks of cindermen, swimming carelessly past leviathans that could crush them without realising – hovellers, their pitted carapaces trawling through the shallows like the shells of huge crabs, almost as impressive as the temple walls, trailing storms of salvage nets and flies, their gnarled, bulwark heads plunged deep into the currents. But there were also species that Isten had never seen before – avian creatures that wore their insides as plumage and reptilian things that towered over the humans, looming almost as high as the hovellers. Isten paid no attention to any of it. She could not risk missing an appointment she was already a year late for. She fought her way up to a higher walkway and left the slums behind, heading towards the oldest parts of the city.
The sun had risen by the time she reached the Blacknells Road Bridge, but she was still on time – they were all there, exactly like every previous year, pilgrims, visiting the place where they first set foot in Athanor, huddled like lovers beneath the bridge’s whorls and arches.
The sun was rising and they must have been able to see her face, but they showed no sign of recognition, staring at her as though she were a ghost. They drew cudgels and knives and she faltered, almost turning around.
She wiped some of the vomit from her clothes and tried to smooth down her lunatic hair, but it was pointless – she had taken too much cinnabar. Her eyes were bright red. She stank of piss and sex and she could barely walk. Even by her own, pitiful standards, she was a far from inspirational figure. Perhaps now they would see how wrong they had been about her.
“Isten,” said someone, she couldn’t see who, in a voice that gave nothing away.
She could think of nothing reasonable to say – no way to reassure them that she was sane; no way to reassure herself for that matter. And no way to apologise. She had been gone all this time, without word. She could hardly believe it herself. A painful silence stretched out between them. Then she remembered a bottle of wine she stole from the Sisters of Solace. She lifted it from her coat, wiped the dirt from its neck and held it up to the fading moon.
“My name is Donkey,” she said, “and I still know how to do this.” She took a few, hard gulps and heat exploded in her chest. The wine was better than food – and heavy enough to dull the wildness of the cinnabar. The vivid grey of the dawn grew less intense and her heart finally began to slow. She wondered why she hadn’t drunk it earlier.
They straightened their backs and said nothing, still sombre.
Then Lorinc glanced at the others and broke ranks, his massive, stooped frame looming over her. “My name is Goat,” he rumbled, lowering his knife and grabbing the bottle, “and I can still do this.” He scowled as he drank, making his butcher’s slab face even uglier.
Another of them stepped forwards – almost as tall, but ancient, stooped and slow, moving with the precise, considered steps of the brittle-boned. “My name is Worm,” said Gombus, “and I always do this.” Despite the tremor in his hands, he drank almost a third of the bottle.
One by one, they drank: Feyer, Korlath, Piros and Amoria, until the bottle was almost empty.
Finally, the smallest of them emerged from the shadows. Puthnok’s dark, perplexed eyes peered up at Isten from behind her glasses. She reminded Isten of an earnest child, unsure if she should speak in such adult company. Isten had to resist the urge to hug her. “I am the Beast.” Puthnok’s voice was hesitant, her eyes looking everywhere but at Isten. “And I hope I can still do this.” She glugged down some wine and, as she started to splutter, the rest of them could no longer hold back their smiles.
Isten’s shame was too raw for smiles, but she grasped each of their hands in turn. Their gaunt faces reminded her of home and she had to fight back tears. Thanks to her, home was further away than ever. She had come so close to losing herself.
“You’re an idiot,” said Lorinc.
She nodded, unable to disagree, and drank the last of the wine. Then she turned and hurled the bottle into the river, giving it to the flotsam and the dead.