Corruption (Prologue)

ONE BY ONE the old bricks fell. “Almost got it,” Katherine said, pushing hard into the broken wall until her arm slid through. The hiss and splash of bricks falling into water whispered through the ancient tunnels. “You owe me a bottle of good vodka,” she told the one-eyed man watching from the shadows.

Vojciek attempted to scowl, but the cracked dolomite of his face betrayed a quiet satisfaction. “Ho-hoo! One bottle? Make it three. You’ve done well today, Kat.”

Katherine’s nickname among her fellow Vermin was Meerkat – often shortened to Little Kat, or just Kat. Meerkats were burrowing rodents supposed to have lived on the Surface before the Last Day of Sun. Bookmother had read her a story about them once. Since she was a little girl falling over on Vojciek’s mats, Katherine had tried to emulate how she imagined such small, springy creatures must have fought, all sniping limbs and devious balance.

She raised her heel and kicked the broken wall, once, twice, then three times, the old stones spilling from their dusty crypts until the hole was wide enough for her and the old man to fit through.

“Let me guess. I’m taking point?” Katherine said.

Vojciek poked his torch through the hole, his white, bottlebrush eyebrows folding down into a hard squint. The light shied beyond the broken bulwark of the wall, where a few scattered glimmers revealed a canal snaking away into the darkness. A rank cloud enveloped them as the old, unseen bowels of the Night City breathed once more.

Katherine had always imagined such a discovery would be exciting, but all she could think about was the smell.

“That is a good guess,” her teacher said.

The old man stopped her as she was sliding her foot through the jagged bricks. He offered her the torch. “We’re just little Vermin sneaking through his halls, trying to steal a bite of cheese. And we know his cure for little Vermin. But though Vermin we may be, we are also the fire. No matter what awaits us in there…” Vojciek said.

“We know what awaits us in there,” Katherine said, taking the torch.

Vojciek drew a deep breath, pulled his shawl up over his nose, and nodded for her to move. Katherine mounted the broken wall and vaulted into the darkness.

Her legs splashed into cold, oily water. The shadows retreated and advanced from the flickering nimbus of her torchlight like unsure combatants. Black islands of questionable composition floated by her in the gloom.

“Look what we’ve found! Another tunnel!” Vojciek said. “What a strange and mystical thing to find hidden a kilometer beneath the Surface! Ho-hoo! Is something wrong, Kat? Worried we might wake up some ancient, eldritch thing set down here to guard our Beloved Ruler’s secrets? Feel any tentacles brush against your leg yet?”

“No. Can’t say that I did.”

“You never know down here. Better stay on your toes…”

“Ugh.”

Katherine paused, holding the torch close to the tunnel’s low, curving wall. Unlike the other passages, this one wasn’t made of brick, but carved straight from the slick, pale rock. “Have you noticed the walls?” she said.

“Aye. Either we’re standing in a very shoddily-delved mineshaft, or whoever built this passage did so in a hurry,” Vojciek said.

The tunnel branched every twenty or thirty steps, a spider-web network of yawning, black mouths all waiting to devour the scarce light of Katherine’s torch. They were all dead ends, Katherine knew. She had studied the manuscripts in Bookmother’s library enough to know that once they passed the false wall, it was a straight shot to the cavern. The other passages were blinds meant to mislead potential grave robbers.

The tunnel ended abruptly around the next bend, and the two of them stepped into a cavern so large Katherine’s torchlight barely touched the ceiling.

They were standing on a slender crescent of beach winding around the shores of a vast subterranean lake. There was an island rising in the distance, upon which stood the largest building Katherine had ever seen.

It was a great cathedral, all wrought from red brick and white marble. Its shadow-shrouded spires were so tall they interlocked with the gargantuan dripstones of the cave ceiling like twisted puzzle pieces. Katherine had to crane her neck to take in its full, nauseating height.

Her pulse quickened as the realization sank in. The Lost Cathedral of Saint Aram. It actually exists.

“Ho-hoo! Three bottles of vodka, indeed. Your mother would be proud, Kat. I wish she was here,” Vojciek said.

“It’s hard to believe I’m finally looking at it,” Katherine said. “Feels a bit surreal.”

“On that note…” The old man pulled a leather flask out of a secret pocket stitched into the lining of his coat, took a deep swig, and offered it to Katherine. “Distilled it myself, you know.”

She took a drink and gave it back.

Vojciek put the flask away, unslung his Wyvernwood spear from where it rested on his shoulder. “Since this is your show, I trust you know how we’re getting across that.” He pointed his spear across the lake.

The serene, midnight water ran far past the tiny halo of her torchlight, as motionless as black stained glass. They could swim, but the lake was deep, and icy cold. It’s too warm this far down to freeze. Too bad. Some thick ice would have helped.

“I have a plan,” she said.

The old man gestured for her to demonstrate. Katherine raised her hand and released the ghost from where it rested in the casket embedded within her palm. The world gave a little scream, and a crushing pressure enveloped her. A black, shivering line bloomed from her fist. She aimed it at one of the giant stalagmites growing from the cave floor.

Katherine flicked her wrist, slicing the monstrous stone pillar from its base. The upper segment began to slide, down, down, down, until it toppled. She made another quick slash, and another, slicing angled portions from the base. The pillar rolled into the frigid water with barely more than a splash. A maze of ripples cascaded across the lake, lapping the shore with a gentle elegy of waves.

The pillar had fallen to form a natural bridge between the beach and the island that they could easily wade across. Only after did Katherine wonder if the sound could have been heard up on the Surface.

The old man frowned at her.

“We’re deep enough,” Katherine said.

“That was thoughtless,” Vojciek said.

Katherine bedded the ghost in her palm and started across the beach. “We can handle a few shells, master. Besides, we’ll be gone before they ever know we were here.”

Vojciek shook his head. “It’s not shells we need to worry about. They won’t send a purging party. Not down here.”

Katherine’s eyes drifted to the empty socket where her master’s eye had been, hidden under a ragged leather eye patch. The ghost shot a knife of pain up her arm at the thought. “If we’re on borrowed time, then we’d best hurry.”

The old man stroked his mustache. “We’re all on borrowed time, Kat. One of the great secrets of life is that it can end at any instant. Realizing that will both free and condemn you. But no matter what chains the Oppressor may put on us, he cannot take away our fate.”

“I thought you said fate was a choice.”

“Precisely my point. Now, before we go on, I can see the ghost is giving you some discomfort. It is reacting to your fear. The People of the Sun were masterful architects, most of all when it came to weaponry. It’s one of the reasons they’re not here anymore. I thought you were better prepared for this. Remember your drills. You must empty your mind to avoid being stung. You must become the fire. Kat…?”

She stepped out onto the pillar, walking on the balls of her feet so she wouldn’t slip and fall in. It was no different than walking on the balance beam in the mat room back at the Last Station, something she’d done a thousand times since she was a child.

Far beneath the surface of the lake, the shelf of the shore dropped away to limitless depths of black. Katherine’s reflection on that mirrored surface was one she hardly recognized. Her once-smooth, pale skin was now yellow from malnutrition. Her close-cropped hair was spotting white. Her cheeks looked sunken, and there were deep circles under her eyes from camping in the Undersprawl for more than a week.

Yet even living the hard, likely short life of a Vermin, she was far more fortunate than most girls her age in the Burrow, already married and bearing children before their eighteenth birthdays.

So many lives I’ll never live. But I chose this, didn’t I? I knew what I was giving up, just like mom did.

Vojciek whistled as he set foot on the rocky shore of the island. They both took a moment to soak in the magnificent sight of the Lost Cathedral up close.

Its brick-and-marble façade rose in layers, reminding Katherine of an enormous gingerbread palace. Each of its twin bell towers was topped with a giant gumdrop of verdant bronze. The main door was carved from a single slab of pure amber, the frame adorned with hundreds of life-sized marble statues depicting choirs of angels singing and marching to war. Most other churches in the Night City had long since fallen to ruin, their statues and marble dressings stolen by time. But this cathedral was perfectly intact.

The people of the Twilight Age built this. It’s like a window into another world.

“Ho-hoo! Almost makes an old atheist want to believe again,” the old man said.

Katherine felt it, too, though she did not share her master’s skepticism. “How old do you think it is?”

“If the legends are true, older than anything still standing on the Surface.” A hint of sadness tinged the old man’s voice. “But I’m still not entirely convinced they are.”

“What would convince you?” Katherine said, gazing up at the cathedral’s bulbous, twinkling spires. “Do you not think this is Saint Aram’s?” She wanted to say, are you mad? But kept the thought to herself.

Vojciek picked something from his mustache and flung it off into the darkness. “It would be nice, wouldn’t it? If we found the church where our Oppressor lived before his rise to power, when he was merely an acolyte; if we found his diary, that terrible trove of secrets so powerful it could undermine his rule, even make the Amber City fall…

“We have found a real, physical structure, which someone really hid – or built – a kilometer underground. Does that mean it was moved here by magic, or that the Crippled King was the one who did the moving, like the stories say? Or that this discovery will win us the war, and herald a glorious new age of daylight?”

The old man didn’t wait for her to answer. “Now, I don’t know much about any of that, but here’s what I’ve observed in my six decades on this iceberg. Myths are always about what we want to believe, and never about what is. Suppose we discover some proof the Crippled King is not who he claims. Will our position have improved? Will it stop the Amber City from hunting us down like little rats? No. We’ll still be Vermin to them. We will always be Vermin to them. Hate doesn’t need a reason.”

“I see,” Katherine said.

The old man spat. “Oh, don’t give me that face. You’ve found something incredible, Kat. I give you all the credit. I certainly don’t want any. Fame would go right to my head. Can you imagine? I’d become as insufferable as a full bladder multiplied by a hangnail. Ho-hoo!”

She forced a smile.

Vojciek took another swig from his flask, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and casually extended a long, bony finger toward the door of the cathedral. “But don’t take my word for it. Open it. That way, when you prove me wrong and win this war, you can look back on this moment and say, I told that old fool. I always knew I’d surpass him. What’s that old saying again? To the master goes the blade?”

Katherine took a deep breath and placed her hand on the door. There was no handle. She merely had to press her fingertips to the cool, smooth amber and a crack opened in its center. The door swung inward.

The old man’s cackle echoed through the cathedral’s dark, voluminous innards. “Ho-hoo!”

Katherine stepped inside and gasped.

She was washed in blinding light, then the resounding boom of organ music. A hundred airborne lamps flickered to life all floating between dozens of ornate pillars, which held aloft a great domed ceiling swathed with paintings of the saints and their sacred stories from the Sol Firma. The walls were a robber’s trove of countless golden statues and icons gazing out at her from every nook and sepulcher.

Most of the vast interior of the church was occupied by a colossal black ship resting on a crystal bier, like some behemoth display in a museum built for giants. It reminded Katherine of the stories she’d heard as a child of the Twilight Age, when brave men and women still sailed the unfrozen seas all the way to the edges of the world. From a distance, the shining, ebony hull appeared mirror-smooth, but up close it was covered with thousands of tiny pockmarks.

The music thundered its final note, dwindled, and started over from the beginning. The song was a military march played in a major key. She’d heard it before, but couldn’t remember when.

“The Battle Hymn of the New Republic,” Vojciek shouted over the din. “One of my favorite tunes. The title refers to the new New Republic, not the old New Republic, or the old Old Republic, or the Great Old Republic, or the Grand Old Republic, or the Federation, or the Paradigm, or the republic that called itself a republic but was actually a fascist empire. No, no, the one to which this song refers is the one our Beloved Ruler usurped on the Last Day of Sun, before the fall of the True Night…”

“Master.”

“Sorry. I’m rambling again. Piss on it. The point was – and I did have a point – I haven’t heard this tune in decades. I still remember some of the lyrics.”

The old man conducted an invisible choir with one hand as he sang:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…

“He is knocking down the silos where the grains of wrath are stored…

“Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot, I can’t recall the words…

“…His day is marching on.”

The old man’s voice trembled and quieted, leaving only the heart-pounding percussion of the organ, then he said, “Your mother used to hum it to you. That’s why you remember it. It was the only way to get you to fall asleep so she and I could train. But I doubt you’ve heard it since. This piece of music was banned a hundred years before you were born.”

“We should turn it off,” Katherine said.

Vojciek struck the ground twice with the butt of his spear. The music ceased. The old master gave Katherine a gap-ridden smirk. “Most buildings from the Twilight Age were fully automated. Some call it magic. I call it sound engineering.”

“What’s that?” Katherine said, venturing closer to the altar.

“Well, well. Now that is a pretty thing,” Vojciek said.

He followed her up the marble dais to where a huge statue of a faceless man in white robes levitated with one palm outraised, the universal symbol of the Wanderer.

The statue was four times as tall as a man, all grown from a single vein of solarite crystal. The artist had left the face blank, but had covered the Wanderer’s arms and legs with intricate spirals where they poked from beneath his tunic.

“The Wanderer, memory be upon him,” Katherine whispered. She knelt and touched the tip of her thumb to her forehead, ears, and mouth. Vojciek remained silently on his feet, glowering until she stood.

“Yes, yes. Son of the Spiral, Sower of Seeds, the Gardener of Worlds, the source of as many unutterable curses as revelatory visions. Legend tells that the People of the Sun used to make these statues from solid gold. Solarite would’ve been a more decadent option. Gods always mirror the societies who create them.”

Katherine had no desire to debate the flaws and virtues of organized religion with the old man here.

She climbed the dais and ran her fingers along the fat, smooth nodules of the statue’s toes. They were surprisingly warm. “It’s magnificent.”

Vojciek uncapped his flask and drank. “Suppose so. Suppose not. Boo. I suppose nothing matters less than an old man’s sorrow.”

Katherine turned. “What?”

Her master’s voice fell to a crack. “I may not get another chance to say this, Kat. S-something… I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time.”

“Yes, Master? What is it?”

“That I’m proud of you. The Vermin fight because we must, not because we wish to be honored. But don’t think I don’t see you, Katherine. The highest reward for a teacher is to watch a student reach their potential. And I know you will succeed where I failed. Because you are the fire.”

The old man’s lips quivered. “When the Oppressor’s Dog stole your mother, I tried to get her back. She was my best student. How could I not? I climbed up the Echelon. Even got as far as the Palace of Dolls. It was the best I ever fought. He… was there. I fought him, Kat.”

Her master motioned to his missing eye. “You never asked me how I got this. Thank you for that. Now, you shall never need to. He… defeated me. But he let me live, to shame me. To send a message to any other little Vermin who might get a big idea. To remind me of that day and what he, and the regime, were capable of. And to remind me of your mother.”

An old ache stabbed in Katherine’s heart. She thought she might burst into tears, so she turned her face away and gazed up at the statue of her Prophet.

A muffled crash drew her eyes back to the altar in time to see the old man ram it again, shoulder down with all his bodyweight. His claw-toed boots scrambled for purchase on the slick tiles of the floor.

“Now help me… (huff)… move this… stupid… (puff)… eldritch… thing…”

“Why?” she said.

“Because if there’s treasure… (huff)… hidden in this… (puff)… church, (wheeze)… it will be buried here.”

But even with both of them pushing, the altar wouldn’t move. When Katherine’s muscles were nearly spent, she muttered “Piss on it,” and used the ghost to slash a tiny wedge from the altar’s base. The heavy marble box groaned and gave easily with the next concerted push, revealing a deep hole falling away to blackness beneath the chapel floor.

“Ho-hoo!”

Voyciek lowered the torch, then threw it down. He followed it in, landing six feet below on the lid of the slender crystal box lying half-buried at the bottom. No, not a box. A coffin.

A grave, Katherine realized. Someone was buried under the altar.

The death mask painted on the coffin’s lid in ripples of brilliant, dancing light depicted a man with a long, plain face. There were dreadlocks in his hair and beard, and his robes were simple, but there was a penetrating humility to his face that caught Katherine off guard.

The People of the Sun buried their kings and queens in grand crypts full of riches and splendor, and their priests in the walls of their churches. Why would they bury this man somewhere no one could honor him, without so much as a grave marker, or even a name?

Vojciek knocked the loose dirt off the sarcophagus with the butt of his spear. “They grew these caskets from solarite crystal, you know. Grave robbing was considered a penultimate sin back then. You can tell from the death mask that this man had rich friends. Thankfully…” The old man slammed the blade of his spear down through the lid of the coffin. “…Wyvernwood was invented to beat solarite, so open sesame.”

Katherine’s excitement turned to ash as the quincunx of cracks oozed down the crystalline surface, and Vojciek gave one last, powerful jerk to pry the lid free. The top half slid away, revealing the raggedy grin and dust-eaten cloth of the corpse inside.

No buried treasure. No great secret that will win the war. There’s nothing here but bones.

“Who was he?” Katherine said, trying to hide her discontent.

The old man shrugged. “No idea.”

For the first time since setting foot in the cathedral, Katherine felt tired. Her eyelids grew heavy and hunger raked her insides. “Is that it? Is this what we came here for? These… bones?”

Vojciek hopped out of the grave, using his spear to vault himself up, then stood next to her, brushing himself off. “Bones are bones are bones, Kat. They can mean nothing, or everything in the world.”

“Master,” Katherine started to say, but was cut off by the echo of a door slamming somewhere else in the church.

The ghost stung the inside of her palm. Katherine gasped and clenched her teeth shut to keep from crying out.

“Hide,” Vojciek said.

They both scrambled down behind the ruined altar.

The view of the main door was blocked by the looming black mass of the ship, but there was a gap under it where Katherine could almost see who had come inside. There were no footsteps, only a soft, golden light slowly making its way across the floor toward where they were hiding.

Shells, maybe, or the Amber Guard… she tried to convince herself. But there were no sirens. No floodlights. No screaming spears of blue flame to root them out. There was only one creature in the service of the Crippled King who hunted his Vermin alone.

A dizzying chill spread through her as she heard the clink, clink, clink of a heavy chain echo from the other side of the ship.

A flood of terrified memories came rushing back to her all at once, some from the earliest moments of her childhood; memories of her mother, of losing sleep over stories of the man with the lamp and the iron chain, a monster who couldn’t be hit or killed, whose only joy in life was to take little Vermin like her to the Amber City so they could be turned into dolls.

The old man rapped her on the shoulder, mouthing the words, “Go, Kat. You need to run. Use the ship. Not the door.”

He pointed to the vast, black vessel on display in the center of the cathedral, so tall its masts nearly scraped the inside of the dome. “Climb up and find the stairs to the bell tower. Then rappel down the outside. Stay hidden. He cannot know you’re here. You must tell them what you found. And whatever happens, do not gaze into his lamp.”

Katherine broke cover and sprinted, only stopping once she reached the nearest of the huge, crystal columns that held the ship aloft to try and catch a glimpse of their pursuer.

Wait, where’s Voyciek? Then it hit her. The old fool meant to stay and fight.

That hideous, golden glow was almost to her side of the ship now. She could see the tip of his chain, a horrid, bladed beak that snapped with each clinking bounce upon the floor. His boots were divided at the toe to hide the sound of his footfalls. His robe was a swirling nimbus of the color deeper than black.

She couldn’t see his mask, but she didn’t need to. For to gaze into the Ratkeeper’s mask meant a fate worse than death. His mask was what hypnotized you. Then his lamp would trap you with its terrible light, and your soul – your life as a free individual capable of thinking and making choices – was gone forever.

The Ratkeeper. I’ve dreamt of this moment for so many years. But I can’t stop shaking. I need to run, live to fight another day-

I’m not the fire at all. I’m nothing but a scared, little coward. Pathetic. What would mom think?

She’d tell me to escape. To make the old man’s choice matter. To tell them what I found.

Katherine climbed up through a jagged wound in the ship’s hull into the shadows of the lower deck. She stumbled through piles of char and the remnants of cargo whose contents had long since turned to ash to the tiny light of a porthole, where she pressed her eye against the murky glass and readied the ghost to fire.

Despite its fogginess, the window gave a good view of the altar. She had barely settled when Voyciek’s slender shape stood from behind it and planted his Wyvernwood spear in the ground.

“Remember me?” his voice drifted distantly through the glass. “I thought we might run into each other again here. I’ve found your beloved sovereign’s great secret, dog.”

Another shape entered Katherine’s vision. The Ratkeeper advanced, seemingly unmoved by her master’s speech.

The old man retreated up the dais, keeping just enough distance to stay out of reach of his enemy’s slowly twirling chain, until his back nearly touched the statue’s huge, crystal toes.

“I know the terrible things he was trying to hide, the truth that will bring down your unholy regime.”

He’s grandstanding. Letting his enemy get close before springing the trap. Classic Voyciek. But will it work? And where is the trap…?

“Come now. Try to take it from me, then. Before I scamper off and tell the whole world. Then you’ll be in a pickle, won’t you? Because you fear Him far more than we shall ever fear you.”

Close enough. The old man ducked and the red tip of his spear slashed back in a wide arc as the Ratkeeper’s chain smashed into the wall where he’d been standing. The old man’s cut took the statue off at the knees. Voyciek tucked and rolled as the huge crystal statue crashed down on top of his enemy, filling the cathedral with billowing motes of dust and ruin that swallowed master, monster, and all.

But that was only the start of it.

Before the old man was back on his feet, the Ratkeeper reappeared next to him and struck. Voyciek was ready for it, and spear met chain with a harsh cry that raised discordant echoes through the dusty shadows.

Pain lanced inside Katherine’s palm. The ghost begged her for release.

Impossible. How could he-

I saw it crush him-

There’s no way he could-

She couldn’t fire until she had a clear shot. But a clear shot never came.

The old man cackled as the two combatants entered their death-dance and began circling crab-wise, spiraling ever closer as they checked and dodged each other’s blows. “Ho-hoo! You made an error letting me live. You of all people should know the way to hunt Vermin is to stamp them out with one, quick stroke. Let us linger, and we grow stronger, faster, until one day you are overrun.”

The old man was fast, the blade and butt of his spear forming a blur of sanguine red. But his enemy moved like nothing Katherine had ever seen.

At first she thought it was only a trick of the glass, but the longer she watched, the more convinced she became that it was no illusion.

When the Ratkeeper dodged, he didn’t simply evade the old man’s attacks. He vanished and reappeared somewhere else, moving like something shuttering and demonic, something wholly unnatural.

Try as he could, the old man couldn’t hit his target. Suddenly the sag of an arm. The old man was getting tired. The flashing guard of his spear dropped an inch.

The Ratkeeper’s chain grabbed the old man’s spear and yanked it away. His lamp brightened and Voyciek froze. Even through the ruddy filter of the porthole, Katherine could see golden light blooming in her master’s eye. The old man’s hands went limp, and he said a name.

Everything was sick, and slow, and wrong. The old man wasn’t supposed to lose. Katherine whimpered.

The Ratkeeper stopped his advance and looked up toward the porthole. Katherine ducked, praying he hadn’t seen her.

I need to run. Mourn him later. Live now. Tell them. I am the fire.

Katherine was already at the first landing of the stairs when she heard the scream. She paused, wiped the tears from her eyes and put her other hand out to steady herself. The walls of the ship were cold, full of crevices and forgotten, ancient knowledge. He should have been there with her. No. No time to think. She had to be fast. She had to be quiet.

She took the stairs three at a time, the remains of the ship settling, creaking, and resettling with every step. She was almost at the airlock that led out to the main deck when she heard a voice calling to her from deep within the bowels of the ship.

“Come out now, Kat. I slew the Oppressor’s Dog. We’re safe, dear Brave One. We can go home. Call to me so I know where you are.”

The old man’s voice had none of its usual candor. It was flat, lifeless, ragged, like tearing cloth.

That’s not him. That’s not Voyciek.

The old man’s calls echoed through the ship. “Don’t you want to feast on roasted meat and drink vodka next to the fire? Come out now, so we can go home…”

No. Voyciek is gone. That thing is using his voice. Trying to lure me out.

She tried opening the airlock, but her hands were trembling so violently she could barely grip the wheel, and the rusty, stubborn metal was not wont to move after ages of being sealed.

The blood pounded in her chest and skull with each booming summon. He was getting closer. “I owe you a bottle, don’t I? Distilled it myself, you know…”

I must run. I must tell them what I found.

A creak, nearby. Someone was coming up the stairs. A voice like needles in the darkness. “Found you, Little Kat.”

Katherine spun and fired the ghost into the black maw of the stairwell. The walls split like pieces of a cloven fruit. In the scattered matrix of light that fell through the perforations, she saw him step onto the landing beneath her.

The Ratkeeper was using her master’s body as a lampshade. The old man had been draped over the lantern to hide its light. He didn’t move, only watched limp and lifeless from his perch with buried candles for his eyes.

Katherine screamed and cut a long, vertical line down through the ship’s hull, reached back with her other hand, and pulled the airlock open.

She exited onto the main deck as the two halves of the ship were beginning to split and fall away, scrambled up the nearest mast to the crow’s nest, which cracked and fell as the ship at last gave to the damage of her cut and collapsed.

She rode the falling mast over to the inside of the dome, leapt and grabbed onto the lowest protruding ledge. Her feet kicked through empty air as they struggled to find purchase. They did, and she pulled herself up onto the dusty rim.

She sat there, torn, bloody, and heaving. The dome’s interior had no doorway that she could see, only the bright falsity of the circling, painted heavens.

I’ll need to cut a hole. But what if he follows me, and being trapped inside that wreckage didn’t kill him?

Weren’t the ceilings of these old churches all made of plaster? Hadn’t one of Bookmother’s tomes said that?

She let the ghost guide her hand in a 360-degree cut, taking the dome down in a deluge of priceless art that rained slow, pale ruin over the vastness of the church. That way, even if the Ratkeeper was still alive, he wouldn’t have the advantage of his vanishing trick. She’d be able to track his movements, to see him coming before he saw her. Katherine braced herself against the ledge and waited for the storm to pass.

When the air was clear, she stood and brushed herself off, then hurried to the corkscrew stair winding up the inside of the tower. She half expected the Ratkeeper to be waiting for her at the top, but the cathedral was silent above as it was again below.

Five hundred steps later, she entered the belfry.

The belfry was a tiny room, empty save for two giant ropes and an ancient mattress. In the old churches, this was where the Acolytes slept, as it was their duty to ring the bells.

Her first task was to get the window open. She didn’t try to find the latch, instead cutting a square portion large enough for her to crawl out of from the huge panels of stained glass. A burst of cold air rushed in, nearly knocking her to the floor.

Why is it so cold? And where is this wind coming from? I’m a kilometer underground.

Puzzled, Katherine poked her head out and looked down. Her heart sank to see a thick sheen of ice covering the outer façade of the church. In the short time she and her master had been inside, the entire exterior had been encased in frost.

It would be impossible for her to climb down.

Katherine shivered and sat down on the bed. He sealed us in a cage of ice. A maddened giggle escaped her lips. A cage of ice for little mice.

He survived. Oh, he survived, all right. He foresaw our every move. He’s taking his time. Playing with me. It’ll be any moment, now.

She decided she would commit suicide rather than be turned into a doll.

She wanted the moment of her death to be peaceful, so she could ascend the Spiral without the baggage of hate. But she couldn’t get comfortable. Not only that, there was something hard poking her through the cloth. Something hidden.

Katherine gasped and tore open the threadbare sheet, her pulse racing with newfound possibility. Could this be…?

Yes. Her fingers found four distinct edges buried deep inside the rotten slag of the mattress. A book. She pulled it out and gently set it in her lap.

The book was a mountain of thick vellum all bound carefully in stained glass. It was made by hand. The cover illustration showed twin crescent moons setting over a triangular plane. The vermillion pages cracked and whispered as she leafed through them. She was careful not to damage the delicate calfskin as she read-

Or rather, tried to read. The book was written entirely in Old Ithic.

Len could read this, she thought. I couldn’t translate a text this size even if I had time.

Microscopic handwriting ran to the edge of every page, hundreds of thousands of words written in the forgotten language of the People of the Sun. There were countless diagrams and schematics depicting the stars and the mechanics of motion.

Someone went to great lengths to keep this a secret, even before the Last Day of Sun, when the church was buried, and…

This is it. Wanderer’s wisdom. This is his diary. This is the Crippled King’s dia-

There was a clink, clink, clink outside the belfry door.

Katherine closed the book and rose. The ghost burned agonizing spirals up her arm, tasting her fear and her hunger for vengeance. She held her palm to her forehead and prepared to fire. Then she realized how stupid that was. This was her chance. She could avenge the old man, avenge her mother, and all the other Vermin this butcher had killed.

You can hit him. You can track him. Remember your training. You are the fire.

Clink. Clink.

Clink.

The belfry door opened.

Her cut bisected the door and some of the wall beyond at a perfect diagonal. Massive chunks of wood and stone slid away and the cold wind howled in. But the Ratkeeper wasn’t there.

Before she knew what was happening, the wall was already on top of her.

Crushing pressure. Blackness. A collapsing tunnel of red. Katherine tried to scream, but couldn’t. The thing biting her legs was too heavy to move. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. There was only the pressure, and the sick, sick red.

She opened her eyes to an enormous pile of bricks swallowing her legs, hips, and stomach. The Ratkeeper had jumped into the room somehow, pulled one of the walls down on top of her. It didn’t hurt, but the pressure – oh, Wanderer, the pressure – it felt like half her body was trapped in a vise.

She couldn’t move.

Her enemy stepped over her casually, raising his lamp so it shined in her face. Katherine tried to look away, but he was everywhere, even when she closed her eyes.

That mask. There it was. That hideous mask. A pale circle of glazed and fired clay bearing the image of an endless spiral. There were no eyeholes, because he had no eyes.

It couldn’t end like this. Not for her. She was the fire. She couldn’t be beaten so easily, by some mask, or some lamp, or…

The cloaked figure standing over her faded into the shadows of the background as Katherine’s ears filled with sound and with it, a pleasant warmth that brought tingles to her skin. The cold and darkness evaporated with every word they spoke, thousands of voices, then hundreds, then one.

Oh, my sweet baby girl. I love you so much. Open your eyes, honey. It’s all right.

She hadn’t heard that voice in years. But she knew it, didn’t she? It was still there like a splinter buried deep in her heart.

My strong baby girl. You’re the bravest of the brave. Braver than I ever was, her mother said.

Suddenly all she wanted was to listen, and greedily suck up every last drop of that warmth. It was as sweet as fabled sunlight.

C’mon, Kitty-Kat. Time to come home. Say yes, baby, and come home.

Katherine opened her eyes.

 

***

Corruption is out now from Lilydog Books.

4 thoughts on “Corruption (Prologue)

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