Alyss had almost given herself up for lost when she heard the footsteps.
She sat up among her blankets, listening. Yes, there–the rapid click-clack of heels on cobblestones. Someone doubtless in a hurry to get home and shut out the bitter winter evening. Someone fortunate enough to have a home at all.
Alyss fumbled for the battered top hat that lay, bottom-up, before her. Little good it had done. The streets had been unusually quiet all day, and those pedestrians who had ventured out, stingy. Alyss wished she could say that were unusual.
But perhaps this one would be different. She needed this one to be different.
Alyss peered along the alleyway. The glow of a nearby street lamp revealed that the person approaching was a woman, all bundled up in a coat and bonnet. Her nose was wrinkled against the stink of the gutter, and she held her skirts clear of the ground with gloved hands. Not a regular visitor to the Warren then, but not too fine either. Alyss felt a twinge of hope. This was the type who might take pity.
She held out her hat as the woman came closer. “Spare a prayer, miss? Spare a prayer.” Her voice emerged as a cracked whisper, hoarse with disuse and the cold.
The woman started at the words, emerging as they did from the shadows beside a brimming dustbin. Her eyes flickered towards their source, but when she spied Alyss she hastily averted her gaze. Alyss’s hope–meagre in the first place–receded. But she couldn’t afford to give up so easily.
“Spare a prayer for an unlucky god, miss?” she tried again. “Come on, miss. I’m down on me luck. Spare a little prayer.”
Yet the woman only click-clacked onwards, allowing Alyss to glimpse her shoes beneath the hem of her skirt. Patent leather, they were; well made, with smart little heels. Alyss looked sadly at her own boots–cast-offs from a laborer’s child, soles flapping at the toes, laces missing, threads frayed.
Hunger growled in her belly, warning her that it knew how weak she was, that the moment was coming when it would finally pounce.
She wouldn’t have many more chances.
Alyss made one final attempt. Bracing herself against the chill, she let her blankets fall away, exposing her skinny ankles, her tattered skirts–and her wings. Poking out of her jacket, the once-proud pinions dangled down her back, inert and useless.
“Please, miss. Please, one little prayer. I ain’t asking for a litany, just a tiny prayer will do. I’ve fallen on hard times, miss. I’ve no disciples left. Please. One prayer. Spare one little prayer.”
She waited, trembling with cold and anxiety. She didn’t know whether her piteous display would persuade her audience, for her cry was the cry of half the gods in the city. Abandoned deities lurked on every street, hunkered down in doorways and under bridges, thin and wretched, cradling hunger in their bellies just as Alyss did. With so many begging for succor, the populace had grown accustomed–and hardened–to their pleading.
Like as not this lady would be the same, hurrying off into the deepening night in her expensive shoes and never thinking again of the starving god she’d passed on her way. But just as Alyss began to draw her blankets back around herself, the woman’s stride faltered, and she walked back a few steps to look down at the shivering supplicant. Alyss returned her gaze, beseeching, hardly daring to believe her luck.
The lady’s lips were chapped, her eyes sombre, and Alyss realized that she didn’t look so very proud after all. She wondered what the woman thought of her, a child-sized godling with a pale, pinched face and drifting white hair, almost drowned in her oversized garb. Alyss was no beauty, she knew that much. She had been formed of garbage–knuckles made of bottle-corks, wings of sackcloth, features molded from rain-pulped newspaper–and it showed. Although Wakening had smoothed away her seams and transformed her motley parts to flesh, her ignoble origins were still apparent. Alyss’ body was awkward and crooked, her limbs more knobby than a grandfather oak. Newsprint peeked through the skin of her cheeks.
She tried to smile, but found she was so frozen and miserable that she couldn’t force it out. Yet the sight of her must have stirred the woman to sympathy, for she bowed her head and mumbled a few words–some generic wish for health or happiness. A wisp of prayer slid from between her lips, curling in the frigid air. She plucked it from her mouth and dropped it into Alyss’ waiting hat.
“Thank you, miss. Oh, thank you. Bless you, bless you.” Alyss wasn’t in a position to bless anyone, but she reckoned it was the thought that counted.
The woman ignored her thanks. She only leant down and said, quickly, “I’d get indoors if I were you.” Then she turned and click-clacked into the night.
Alyss’ brow creased, but she was too hungry to ponder the woman’s words. The prayer beckoned. Alyss pulled it out of her hat and cradled it in her hands. It squirmed across her palm, glowing faintly, nosing like an underfed grub. It was a paltry thing, formed without faith or conviction; Alyss could see right through it to the grime-caked lines of her palms. But it was the first meal she’d had in days, and when she stuffed it into her salivating mouth it tasted as sweet to her as the yield of a ritual homage.
The prayer was gone in two quick bites, though Alyss prodded and poked her tongue about her teeth until she was sure she had scoured away every last morsel. It did not sate her, not by a long shot, but it at least blunted her hunger, delaying its victory for the time being.
Alyss slumped against the grimy wall in relief, pulling her threadbare blankets back up around her chin. The sky was cloudless above the slanting rooftops, only the usual miasma of smog smudging the brightness of the stars. The night would be a bitter one, and Alyss had only a single prayer to sustain her through it.
With that thought, the intensity of her solitude hit her afresh and the memory of her erstwhile companions rose in her mind’s eye. She remembered them all, her dear little brood, with their scrawny wrists and haunted eyes that had seen too much for ones so small. A gaggle of street urchins. It was to them Alyss owed her existence. In need of a protector, they had fashioned a god out of the odds and ends that lay around them, the leftovers of more fortunate souls. Laying their creation piecemeal in the mud, they had sacrificed a sickly sparrow to give it life. Alyss had Wakened to find a ring of grubby children staring down at her, faces flushed with triumph.
They called her Sister Alyss, after one they had lost.
The urchins had offered Alyss modest prayers cupped in small white hands, raising the offerings reverently to her lips. She had granted their requests as best she could–causing a minor distraction so that a pickpocket could do his work; planting a smidgeon of kindness in the heart of a baker, the impulse to give a hungry girl a loaf; sowing a little luck for an orphan so that he might find a hidey-hole in which to curl up for the night. Alyss’ powers had never been strong–her birth was too humble for great feats–but back then she could perform the simpler knacks with a quirk of an eyebrow or click of a finger. The children’s prayers had nourished her and she had looked after them, her little dirty ducks, in return.
But, just as children grow quickly out of their infant garb, so Alyss’ ragged disciples had moved on from their early godling to a better-fitting deity, one who could offer them more than she. Some new striplings joined her for a time, but they too soon passed on, and the next bunch also. It had happened slowly as these things do, but gradually Sister Alyss, diminutive god of the urchins, was forgotten.
Alyss sighed and tugged her blankets closer. It was a sob story, sure enough, but one all too familiar in this city. People created divinities to fulfil their needs, then forsook them as times changed. Alyss didn’t blame the children–no, not ever–but she still missed them something awful.
Lost in memories of better times, Alyss did not notice the hush intensify over the city. Lights winked out, shutters closed, doors latched. It was only when the bells began to toll that she realized her error.
Alyss leapt to her feet, scattering her scant possessions. Fear lent her energy. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Hadn’t the lady warned her to find shelter? Why hadn’t Alyss understood what she meant, that this was a holy night, a hunting night?
The bells clamored, their discordant peals reverberating through the deserted streets. The bell tower loomed to the west, a pale spire dominating the skyline. It rose from the city’s heart, where the buildings were of stone and gilt and marble, with pillars flanking their doorways and statues guarding their gates. Where the rich and influential flourished silver pocket watches and silken handkerchiefs, and rode about in carriages instead of traipsing through refuse. Where the two prominent cults gathered in elegant parlours and expansive halls bequeathed them by their ancestors. Where the people were hearty and well fed–and the gods were too.
Alyss did not bother to gather her things; the oddments were not worth the time it would take to retrieve them. She merely rammed her hat upon her head and ran.
She dashed from house to house, hammering on doors, banging on shutters, begging to be let in. “Just for this night!” she pleaded. “A few hours–one hour–half–anything! Please!”
Her entreaties did no good. Curtains twitched and shadows shifted behind shutters, but the sight of the frantic god clearly stirred more revulsion than pity, and Alyss was left stranded on the cobbles.
To the west she could hear a ruckus rising–faint shouts and whoops, the clatter of wheels and hooves. The noise made her tremble, but also spurred her on. Alyss scampered between inns, shops, breweries, brothels, knocking and yelling. None would admit her. In her desperation she even tried pounding on the doors of churches and temples, the gates of shrines. But there, of course, the city’s other gods were shut up tight. Safe from the holy night’s perils, they were not about to risk opening their sanctums for anyone, let alone a stinking gutter-god who had been foolish enough to forget the ruling deity’s calendar.
Of her fellow street-gods, Alyss saw no sign. Evidently they had been better prepared than she, begging sanctuary for the night in advance of the bell’s toll. Which was exactly what Alyss should have done instead of sitting in the street, griddling for prayers.
But it was too late now for self-reproach. The racket was spreading from the city centre towards the tangled streets of the Warren, and beneath the general hullabaloo Alyss now caught yet more ominous sounds: a clicking and chittering, snorting and growling. These were the sounds the beggar-gods dreaded most, the sounds that came when the cult of Mantis emerged from their affluent haunt to loose their god upon the city. These were the sounds of the hunter, of Mantis himself.
Alyss paused, panting, and tried to think. Mantis tracked primarily by smell, so where would she be safest? It stood to reason: the filthiest, foulest place in town. The sewers. She’d not get into them from here, though–sanitation in the Warren extended to open gutters oozing along the sides of the streets. She wracked her brains for the nearest access point. The wealthier central neighbourhoods were the obvious place, but with the hunt on the move they weren’t an option. The riverside, then.
Alyss set off again, heading north towards the riverbank. She tried to run, but her initial exertions had left her weak and the best she could manage was a brisk shuffle. Her gasping breaths ghosted before her, her wings trailed behind. She tried not to think of how easy it had once been to dart into the sky, evading trouble with a flap and a twist. She was only goading herself with such memories now. It was a long time since she’d had enough prayers for flight.
The hunt was still to the west of her when Alyss emerged on the promenade overlooking the river, but it was close; the tumult was so loud it could be only streets away.
Alyss cast about, searching for a manhole. There–an iron circle set in the intersection where a bridge adjoined the bank. Alyss raced to the spot and fell to her knees. There was a small hole set in the metal cover. She jammed her hands into it and tugged.
The cover didn’t move.
Alyss tugged again. Nothing.
The clamor mounted behind her.
Alyss got to her feet, straddling the manhole and bracing her legs against the road. Gathering all her remaining strength, she wrenched at the blasted thing.
The cover moved a fraction, grating against its lip.
Alyss strained. “Come on,” she muttered. “Out with you!”
The iron inched upwards.
Then noise erupted at her back as the hunt spilled onto the riverbank. Wild hallooing burst out as they caught sight of the tiny god struggling with a manhole cover in the middle of the street. And then a howl split the night.
Alyss’ fingers slipped from the cover, which clanged back into place. With a despairing cry, she whirled–and terror froze her more utterly than any winter could.
A gigantic shape was scuttling along the promenade towards her. Six legs scissored beneath it, slim and articulated, the front pair serrated with cruel spikes. The behemoth’s body was weirdly segmented, and the glare of the street lamps flashed and slid off its carapace, a transparent shell that revealed the intricate mechanisms within. The god had been constructed with the precision of a mantle clock, the craftsmanship as fine as Alyss’ was poor. Yet there was nothing delicate about the Cult’s creation. Wakened with who knew what horrific sacrifice, Mantis had become muscle and flesh, and although its body retained some appearance of its glass-and-clockwork beginnings it was as powerful and resilient as any natural beast.
That was not even the worst of it, for the tyrant god’s body was only the vehicle upon which it carried its real weapon: the head of a monstrous hound, bristling with metallic hair. Strings of drool stretched between huge, diamond incisors and swung from golden gums. Massive nostrils flared and snuffed, while cold, glass eyes fixed upon Alyss’ tiny figure.
With its prey in its sights, Mantis howled again.
Behind the charging chimera streamed its followers–a retinue of carriages and gigs, riders and foot soldiers. Careening in their god’s wake, the cult of Mantis whooped and hollered, revelling in the perverse thrill of the hunt. Holy night had arrived, and Mantis’ aristocratic disciples seized the opportunity to throw off all restraint. Toupées tumbled from highborn heads to vanish beneath horses’ hooves. Gentlewomen’s skirts flared indecently behind them as they bolted along with the throng. Magistrates and factory-masters whipped their horses until their flanks were striped with blood.
Prayers spilled from the cultists’ lips, flaring like fireworks in the night. The devotees flung them to Mantis, who turned its great head to snap a few of the luminous streamers out of the air. Alyss stared as the rest fell short, bouncing off the god’s flanks to fade, untouched, on the pavement. All those prayers wasted.
Alyss knew the reason, of course: she was better sustenance. Consuming another god was the fastest and surest way of bolstering one’s power, though only the most desperate or most tyrannical would do such a thing. Mantis made a habit of it, each season on holy night.
The fiendish deity loomed over her. She could not flee. Her strength was spent, her hope extinguished. The cult hooted with glee as their god prepared to feed, knowing that every increase in its power cemented their hold over the city, ensuring that their prayers would be answered above anyone else’s.
A huge glittering mouth descended. Mantis’ breath was an acrid blast.
Alyss closed her eyes. “Goodbye, my ducks,” she whispered.
There was a thunk at her feet.
“Oopsy daisy!” said a man’s voice. Then a pair of hands clamped around Alyss’ waist and drew her backwards into the manhole. For a heart-stopping moment Alyss was sure it was too late, that Mantis would pluck her out of the air on the very brink of her escape. Yet the only casualty was her hat. Punctured by the tip of a colossal fang, it was lifted clear off Alyss’ head as she was snatched underground.
Alyss landed with a splash on top of someone. She looked around in a daze, and saw that she and her rescuer were lying in a pool of fetid fluid. A handheld lamp stood upon a nearby ledge. Its light revealed brick walls rising to either side, curving to form an arched ceiling in which the manhole gaped. Mantis snapped and snarled above the opening, but had no hope of reaching through. The cultists’ shouts of triumph had turned to groans of disappointment.
Beneath Alyss, her liberator moaned. Recovering her wits, she scrambled away from him.
“Sorry, sir! So sorry!”
She turned to help him up, and was surprised to find herself looking at another god, grimacing as he struggled to his feet. He resembled an elderly man, but like Alyss he had been built rather shabbily; Alyss suspected that bent nails and twisted planking had played a part. He wore an overcoat with a wilting daisy pushed into one buttonhole, both now thoroughly smeared with filth.
Alyss reached up to clasp his hands. “Thank you!” she gasped. “Thank you, kind sir!”
The other god grunted. “We’re not safe yet, lass.” Then he smiled, showing peg-like teeth. “But you’re welcome. I don’t like to see a fellow soul chomped up on the streets. No, that ain’t a sight I like to see at all. But they’ll send someone down here to flush us out if we ain’t away post-haste.”
Alyss glanced up to find powdered faces peering down at her. There seemed to be a debate going on aboveground.
“You know somewhere we can go?” she asked.
He nodded. “Come on, I’ll show you. You ain’t the first scrap of sanctity I’ve helped escape that monster. I’m Fennick, by the way.”
He held out a hand. Alyss stuck out her own tiny paw and shook it. “Sister Alyss.” She hesitated. “Well… just Alyss nowadays.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance, Alyss. But now–” Fennick retrieved the lamp from its perch. “–it’s time we scarpered.”
The sewers were as foul as Alyss had expected–and hoped–them to be. Even she, accustomed to living amongst litter and waste, was almost overwhelmed by their stench as she followed Fennick through the tunnels. The other god strode before her with lamp held aloft, the greenish glow of the flame casting a ghastly aspect over the already grim scene. Shadows fled up the walls as they passed, briefly revealing stretches of slime-coated brick, before collapsing back again in their wake. Every so often the tunnel would fork or a dark opening yawn to one side or other, exhaling a cold, putrid breath. Alyss peered warily down these offshoots, but to her relief Fennick seemed confident of his route and did not hesitate as he led her through the intersections.
After half an hour of walking Alyss began to tire, her legs shaking as she dragged them through the sewer’s waste. Fennick splashed through the stuff at ankle-height, but on Alyss it reached to her knees and made the going hard. Gradually, the gap between her and Fennick widened. Shadows pressed at Alyss’ back.
“Wait up there!” she called. “Oy, wait up! Me legs weren’t made for this.”
Fennick turned, and, seeing her difficulty, came back a few paces to join her.
“Here, you’re just a little mite, you are.”
Alyss cocked her head. “Makers didn’t have much to work with.” She eyed his own crooked features. “You know how it is, I’m sure.”
He wheezed a laugh. “I do, at that.” He put hands on his hips, considering. “Tell you what. If you wouldn’t mind, Sister Alyss–” He turned his back to her and crouched. “–scramble up.”
Once, Alyss would have been too proud to accept such help. But now, chastened by privation and her near miss at the jaws of Mantis, she did not hesitate. Pulling her boots out of the sucking filth, she caught hold of Fennick’s shoulders and clambered aboard.
“Blimey, you’re one bony mister.”
He grunted as he straightened. “Well, my makers didn’t exactly have much to hand either.”
“Who were they?” Alyss asked, clinging to Fennick like a limpet as they set off again.
“Were. Aye, that’s the thing,” said the god gloomily. “Workmen, they were, and shoddy ones at that. No wonder they needed me for their schemes. Prayers as dishonest as you ever saw. ‘Gull this gentleman, Fennick! Befuddle this old lady so she doesn’t notice we’ve short-changed her! Hold up this house ‘til we’re well away!’ Swindlers.” The god huffed. “Well, it’s done now. As soon as they could cobble the parts together, they replaced me with a god more willing. Glad to be rid of them, to tell the truth.” He sounded far from glad, however. Bitterness tinged his words.
“I’m sorry,” Alyss murmured. At least she had fond memories of her troupe. It was hard enough to be starving, let alone resentful to boot.
They went on in silence after that, each lost in their own thoughts, until Fennick gave a satisfied grunt.
“We’re here.” He held up his lamp to reveal an iron door set into the sewer wall, with three slimy rungs rising to its threshold.
Fennick lowered Alyss to the floor, then reached to knock on the door: two short raps, a pause, then three more strikes. Rust flaked away with each blow.
“What is this place?” Alyss asked.
Fennick grinned down at her. “A hidey-hole, lass. For the needy, like ourselves.”
A scraping sound told of a lock being drawn back. Then the door creaked open to reveal a woman standing in the entranceway. She too held a lamp. A curl of hair tumbled over her forehead, escaping the clutches of a frilly bonnet tied at her chin. The bonnet was complemented by a neat black dress, giving the impression that she was a maid opening the door to a fine house instead of this grubby hole in the sewers. Her gaze held authority, however, as it tracked smartly over Alyss and Fennick.
“Bit late tonight, Fennick. I thought maybe you’d been… unlucky.”
Fennick shook his head. “Didn’t get me this time, Angie. Though it was a close thing for my friend here.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose. “That so? Well, you’re both here now.” She jerked her head. “Now get your toots in here quick, before I choke on that stink.”
Fennick lifted Alyss to the door and scrambled up after her. A long, dark tunnel stretched before them. The walls were brick, like the sewer, and it was no warmer, but the floor was at least dry. The woman–Angie–tugged the door shut and slid the locks back into place, shutting out the stench. The smell still clung to their clothes, but compared to the sewer the air was ambrosial. Alyss gulped long, grateful breaths.
“You all right to walk for now, lass?” Fennick asked.
“I think so.”
Angie led the way down the tunnel. Alyss followed her, padding between the twin pools of light thrown by her companions’ lamps. She could see little beyond the glow. The tunnel might go on forever as far as she could tell.
“Where are we?” After all their wandering, she had no idea what part of the city they had ended up in.
“You’ll see, lass.” Fennick put a hand on her shoulder. The reassuring weight brought tears pricking in Alyss’ eyes. She had been alone so long she had almost forgotten how good it was to have a friend.
After a few minutes of walking, Alyss realized she could hear something up ahead–a faint rushing sound, as though a torrent of wind or water was moving far off. She threw a quizzical glance at Fennick, but he seemed sunk in thought and did not notice. Returning her attention to the front, she tried again to identify the sound. She thought now that she could perceive changes in it, rises and falls in volume. Perhaps the tunnel emerged onto the river, or a tributary. But if they were heading outside then surely she would feel colder; instead, the air was growing warmer. It was a welcome change but a puzzling one.
Then, as the passage curved to the left, Alyss saw light ahead, a smudge of illumination insinuating itself on the walls. The noise was louder now, surging and echoing against the brickwork. Abruptly, Alyss realized what it was.
Applause. A great crowd of people, clapping.
Questions leapt to Alyss’ lips, but before she could voice them Angie halted and turned.
“Now let’s see you, sweet.” She crouched and shone her lamp full in Alyss’ face. Alyss squinted and retreated from the glare, only to collide with Fennick’s legs. His other hand came down to steady her.
“Here,” said Angie. “She really is just a scrap.” She sounded suddenly annoyed.
Fennick’s voice rumbled from above Alyss’ head. “Hardly my fault, is it? There were slim pickings tonight.”
“Hmm. Well, they’re not fools, I suppose.” Angie looked at Alyss again. “Except this one maybe.” She shrugged and straightened. “I guess she’ll have to do.”
A dull horror filled Alyss. “What are you talking about?” she stammered. “Do for what?”
“You’ll only get a pittance for her, mind,” Angie continued.
Alyss tried to twist away, but Fennick’s grip tightened on her shoulders.
“Sorry, lass.” Alyss strained to look up at him, but he was too tall and his face was lost in shadow. “It’s nowt personal.”
“What’s not personal–?” Alyss began, only to give a startled choke as Angie thrust a rag between her teeth and tied the gag tight around her head. Next thing she knew, she had been plucked off her feet and–as easily as if she were a child’s plaything–tucked beneath one of Fennick’s bony arms.
Alyss thrashed and squirmed as Fennick and Angie walked on, but she was small and weak and already exhausted, and her wriggling did not so much as force Fennick to shift his grip. Still she fought–until she was distracted from her efforts as they stepped from the passage into sudden brightness and another wave of applause washed over them.
Alyss hung limp, blinking stupidly, as she tried to make sense of the scene. They had emerged into an enormous circular hall, easily the biggest chamber Alyss had ever seen. The stone walls had been smoothed and polished to an elegant shine, and great marble columns supported the vast vault of a ceiling, from which dangled a constellation of glittering chandeliers. Yet the room stretched not only above, but also below. The tunnel had come out midway up the wall, and gave onto a viewing platform edged with brass railings. Beneath this, tiers of velvet seating descended towards the floor, transforming the space into a huge amphitheatre. The auditorium brimmed with people, a genteel crowd in smart evening dress. Presiding over all was a box built into the wall, swathed with velvet drapes, wherein sat a stately woman with her hair pinned back and her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Alyss started. She recognised the woman from the papers, and although she could not read she had picked up enough gossip to know that this was the Dowager Countess of Redthorn. The Dowager, Alyss knew, was a regular installment in Parliament, where she made it her mission to oppose Mantis’ ministers at every opportunity.
Her stomach clenched, and her gaze fell to the arena.
No. No. It couldn’t be. Fennick couldn’t, Fennick wouldn’t, have brought her here.
But there was no denying what lay before her eyes. In the arena stood a towering creature, gleaming darkly in the light of the chandeliers. It was vaguely humanoid, though taller than two carriages and with hands the size of cartwheels. Muscles rippled beneath its skin, whose sleek black hue was shot through with glimmering silver veins. As it turned its big, broad wedge of a head, Alyss saw that its eyes were the rich red of rubies.
“Bolder.” Alyss’ whisper was distorted by her gag, but she needed no confirmation. There could be no mistaking that dark titan. Carved out of black marble, Bolder was the god of the city’s second great cult, long-standing rival to Mantis. Even gutter-gods such as Alyss knew of the hatred between the two. Though both were strong, Mantis was the stronger and had been so for the past decade. Unable to surpass the ruling god’s power, the Bolderite cult had been forced to accede control of the city to the followers of Mantis. Yet Bolder had clearly been gathering strength. For the god in the arena was almost as big as Mantis, and what with those great, muscled limbs in place of Mantis’ spindly legs, Bolder looked as though he might even be the other deity’s match.
The arena in which Bolder stood was bounded by a high wall and scattered with churned-up sand. Alyss squinted at something near the deity’s feet, then felt herself go cold as she realized what it was. Wreckage–a collection of oddments that might once have been limbs. Her horror grew as a gate in the arena wall winched open and a number of people were thrust through the gap. No, not people–gods. Dressed in tattered garb, they shared a bedraggled look that Alyss knew all too well. These were gods who, like her, had been gathered off the streets.
The gods clustered, terrified, at the base of the wall as Bolder turned ponderously to regard them. His ruby eyes flashed, and he raised a slab-like foot to step towards them.
Alyss whimpered as comprehension dawned. This arena was not designed for fighting; it was designed for feeding. Desperation seized her and she hit out again at Fennick. “No!” she tried to scream. “No, no, no!”
“No good struggling, lass.” Fennick’s words were tinged with sorrow, but he did not loosen his grip. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but a god’s got to eat. All gods got to eat.” His eyes flicked towards the arena. He swallowed. “Times are hard. You know how it is.”
You tricked me. The gag prevented Alyss from voicing her anger, but she thrust it at Fennick all the same. I thought you’d rescued me. I thought… I thought we were… friends. Remembering her earlier tears of gratitude, Alyss felt a hollow pang of grief. She had thought she’d found some companionship, but it had all been a lie. She was as alone as ever.
Angie gestured impatiently. “Don’t just stand there, Fennick. Get on and hand her in.” She gave Alyss a thin parting smile. “Well, goodbye then, deary.”
Alyss turned her face away.
Fennick moved along the viewing platform to where a large oak desk stood at one side. He set Alyss on her feet before it, though not before taking a firm hold of her wrists. Behind the desk sat a man, dressed prissily in a tailcoat and cravat and with a monocle tucked in one eye. He looked at Fennick with distaste. “An offering?” he enquired archly.
The clerk peered through his monocle, unimpressed. “Not much of one.”
Fennick tensed. “‘S all I could find.”
“Hmm.” The clerk bent to write something in a ledger, finishing with a flourish of his quill.
Alyss’ attention strayed back to the arena. The captive gods were now circling Bolder warily. One tiny fellow was clicking his fingers and mumbling, forgetting in his desperation that his divine powers would not work on another god, even if he did have enough strength to use them–which, it was clear to Alyss, he did not. Another was trying in vain to find a purchase on the smooth stone of the arena wall. A third was crouched, sobbing in fear.
The audience, on the other hand, was all but silent. Unlike Mantis’ rowdy crowd, the Bolderites remained quietly in their seats, watching the proceedings with expressions of polite interest. The occasional fan fluttered back and forth, and here and there a pair of opera glasses glinted. Alyss shivered. Who were these people, that they could simply sit and watch the sufferings of fellow creatures? If anything, their cool detachment was even more frightening than Mantis’ wild retinue.
Every so often, the watchers mumbled prayers and cast them into the air, leaving them to float down like confetti and be caught by Bolder. But as Alyss watched, one of the doomed godlings leapt to grab one of the prayers from under Bolder’s nose. Landing with a cry of triumph, she darted away with her prize, stuffing it into her mouth as she went. It wouldn’t do as much good as a prayer offered by one of her own followers, yet it would lend her some strength nonetheless.
A murmur went up from the crowd and Alyss heard a man’s voice declare, “I say, that’s not on!”
Bolder appeared to agree. The great god slowly approached the thief who, momentarily uplifted by her small victory, quailed once more against the wall. Bolder tilted his heavy head to one side. Then, with no more warning, he attacked.
He was much quicker than his bulk suggested. A huge dark fist snapped out, narrowly missing its target who flung herself to the side just in time. Bolder followed with a kick, which again missed by a hairsbreadth as the other god rolled away. The godling scrambled to her feet and took off towards the opposite end of the arena, obviously hoping to buy herself some time.
She wasn’t fast enough. A monstrous hand chopped down and there was a dreadful crunch. The little god screamed in pain as one of her legs shattered into bone-white shards. She writhed in the sand, trying to pull herself forward. Bolder watched, like a malicious child might watch the agonies of an insect it has just de-winged. Then he brought his hand down again.
Alyss cried out through her gag as the god’s other leg smashed beneath the titan’s fist, and tears burned in her eyes as Bolder plucked the broken deity from the floor. The godling hung, shrieking, in his marble grip.
She had been treasured once. Even from this distance, Alyss could see that she had been carefully made. Her proportions were good, and her materials not poor either–those legs, now so cruelly severed, had been porcelain. What sad circumstances had brought her here, abducted by the cult and forced to face their greedy deity? Was anyone missing her now? Was there a prayer for her dying on someone’s lips, or was she like Alyss, alone in the world?
Whatever the god’s story, there was one thing certain now: it was over. Bolder raised her to his lips. His dark maw opened, revealing rows of sharp, pearlescent teeth. And then she was gone, her shrieks transformed into the sound of shattering china as Bolder chomped her down.
Applause rose from the crowd and more prayers were launched into the arena. Bolder caught several in one great fist and washed down his meal with their luminescent power.
Alyss turned her face away, sickened. She had known that the Bolderites must be ruthless–how else had they managed to retain so much power for so long?–but she hadn’t thought their methods would match the cult of Mantis in cruelty. She couldn’t decide which was more barbaric, to hunt terrified gods through the streets at night, or to throw then into a ring to be consumed.
Meanwhile, Fennick had been fielding questions from the clerk, who noted each answer in his ledger. The interrogation over, the man blotted the ink with small, meticulous dabs. “Hmm.” He frowned at the page.
Fennick shifted impatiently. “Well?”
The clerk blinked at him in obvious dislike. Then, rolling his eyes, he spat a quick prayer into the palm of his hand. He held it out to Fennick at arm’s length.
Fennick stared at the prayer. It was barely even glowing.
“That,” the clerk replied, “is what you are owed.”
Fennick bridled. “Here, I know she’s only a sprat, but I snatched her right from under Mantis’ nose. That’s got to count for something. I took her away from him, so’s Bolder can have her instead.”
The clerk placed a finger on a column in his ledger. “That. Is what. Is owed.”
Fennick huffed. “Might as well as left her for Mantis.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. He crossed his arms, the prayer hanging limply from his hand. “Listen, gutter-god. Do you fancy a trip in there yourself, is that it?” He inclined his head towards the arena.
Fennick took a step backward, face blanching. “No, sir.”
“Good. Then take your payment and be content.” The clerk held out the prayer again.
Fennick all but grabbed it from his hand. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Pushing the prayer into his mouth, he licked his lips in exaggerated satisfaction. “Delicious. Really, delicious,” he said, bobbing in an awkward bow.
Alyss caught his eye as he straightened and glared at him with all the accusation she could muster. The older god’s face twisted with guilt. “Don’t look at me like that. You’d have done the same, were you given the choice. Desperation changes people.”
Alyss continued to glare. It didn’t change me, mister. I’d never do what you do.
The clerk clicked his fingers. Another man appeared from along the platform and took hold of Alyss, pulling her from Fennick. As she was turned away, Alyss caught one final glimpse of the other god, fingering the wilting daisy in his buttonhole, his expression crumpled with shame.
The man marched Alyss along the viewing platform and down a flight of steps that descended past the back of the auditorium. She could no longer see the arena, but from the frightful noises and smatterings of applause issuing from its direction she knew that the other godlings were being mercilessly eliminated. Dread took her as she pictured being taken straight to the gate and thrust out onto the sand, but to her relief her captor instead turned in the other direction, steering her through an arch in the chamber wall. This led to another passageway, wider than the one Alyss had been brought in by, but just as dank. The passage was lined with doors, each one set with a barred window. Small hands rose to grip the bars as Alyss and her captor passed. Entreaties pursued them.
“Please, sir, kind sir, I’ll do anything…”
“I’ll poach for you, I swear on me life…”
“Long live Bolder, I say! Just let us out of here and we’ll serve…”
“Down with Mantis, yes! Down with the dog-god! Please–”
The gaoler made no response to the gods’ pleas, remaining grim and silent as he reached an empty cell and unlocked the door. Removing Alyss’ gag, he gestured her inside. Alyss hesitated on the threshold. The sight of the cramped prison made her keenly aware of the sheer weight of rock and earth above her head, pressing down, enclosing her. She was a winged god; this was not her place. She belonged up in the open, flying free above the rooftops, not trapped down here in the dirt.
Her captor gave her no choice–a shove on the back sent her stumbling across the threshold. She caught herself on the wall, gasping as the rough-hewn stone grazed her palms. The door slammed behind her. The key scraped in the lock.
Alyss stood still for a few moments, too weary even to move. Then, slowly, she lowered herself to the floor and crawled to a corner of the cell, where she sat hugging her knees to her chest.
In the neighboring cells, her fellow prisoners continued to whimper and beg. Alyss bowed her head, overwhelmed with a mixture of scorn and sympathy. Desperation changes people, that’s what Fennick had said. And yes, she supposed he was partly right. When you found yourself in the direst straits, it was hard to cling to your ideals–your thoughts could twist, your principles decay. These poor, pleading gods were not bad creatures, merely mistreated and petrified.
Yet privation couldn’t change a person, or a god, entirely. The part of you that defined your being–the essence that in gods was brought forth by Wakening–could never be lost. Alyss believed this wholeheartedly, and because of this she knew that she would never make those same entreaties to the gaoler. For from the instant she had opened her eyes upon the world Alyss had felt herself animated by a loving warmth, an urge to care and to protect. Although her original creators were now gone, that love remained integral to her. Even if it would grant her freedom, she could never do what Fennick did, entrapping her fellow gods in order to preserve herself. She would rather die than earn prayers that way.
Her belly cramped, reminding her that she was likely to get her wish.
Alyss did not know how long she sat there. There was nothing to mark the passage of time except the footsteps of the gaoler as he returned to the cells at intervals. Then would come the screeches of opening doors, followed by the screeches of the prisoners selected to be dragged from their cells.
“No, please, no. Not me!”
“…not worth eating at all, sir. Wouldn’t even make a snack…”
“I’ll serve him! Please, I’ll serve him if only–”
It was no use. Their pleas were met always with silence, and inevitably trailed off as the gaoler drew his charges away along the corridor. Alyss tried not to listen to what came next, but even with her hands pressed over her ears it was impossible to block the noise out completely. The sobs and screams. The crunches and smashes. And then, when the carnage was over, the murmurs of approval, the polite applause.
To distract herself, Alyss shuffled through memories of her urchins, that first gang of children who had made her and whom she had loved so dearly. She pictured them all one by one. Charlotte the eldest, with her torn red bonnet and scraped knees; merry Jeremy, always ready with a joke to cheer the littler ones; stubborn Deirdre who always carried that fierce little stick; spindly Reginald, half proud and half ashamed of his posh-sounding name…
“My little ducks,” she whispered. “Oh, my little ducklings. All grown up now, I expect. All grown up. And I helped–yes, I did that. I helped keep you safe, so’s you could move along in the world and get bigger and braver and kinder.”
A smile touched her chapped lips, and when the door to her cell clanged open she looked up at the gaoler with an almost serene expression. “My turn now, is it?”
The gaoler looked askance at her. Then, with a shake of his head, he pulled her out into the passage. A huddle of other gods was already there, about ten of them, wrists tied together with rope. The gaoler bound Alyss the same way, then took hold of one end of the rope and tugged, leading his captives in a staggering line.
Alyss shuffled along with the others, declining to beg, concentrating on staying upright as they were taken to the arena gate. There, the gaoler nodded to another man in a waistcoat and cap, who nodded back before reaching to turn the levers of a large wheel. A pulley creaked and the gate cranked upwards. Candlelight streamed through the widening gap, falling upon Alyss’ face and those of the other gods who stood beside her.
As the gate opened, Bolder was revealed from the feet up. When his head finally came into view, the waiting gods saw that he had not yet finished his previous course–a struggling god was just disappearing into his mouth.
“Oh my days…” Faced again with the awful spectacle, Alyss could not retain her calm. “Oh my days, oh my days, oh my days…”
“Get them ready,” said the man with the cap.
The gaoler nodded. His hand pressed on Alyss’ back. She quivered.
Then, “Wait,” said the gateman. He was frowning through the opening at Bolder. “Look. Look at that.”
Puzzled, Alyss stared at Bolder. The man was right, there did seem to be something different about him. If the marble god had been intimidating before, he now appeared utterly swollen with power. His muscles bulged and his skin shone with an excessive lustre. Crimson auras radiated from his eyes.
The behemoth placed his feet apart and stood to face the curtained box with its single stately occupant. When he spoke, his voice was deep as an earthquake.
“I am ready,” Bolder said.
A collective gasp rose from the spectators and a visible thrill ran through them. Dozens of fans snapped open as ladies suddenly felt the need to compose themselves, and a hundred little glints showed where gentlemen thrust opera glasses and spectacles hurriedly to their faces.
The Dowager Lady Redthorn rose to her feet. Spreading her arms wide, she smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced. “Our god has spoken! Now is the moment we have waited for, patiently, faithfully, for so many years. The cult of Mantis think their dominion of this city is irrefutable, that they can loose their slobbering god upon the streets whenever they choose with none to oppose them. But they have grown fat and decadent in their confidence, while we, with diligence and with dignity, have been hard at work all these years to further the glory of our own magnificent deity.” She bestowed a look of pride upon Bolder, who inclined his head. The crowd clapped their agreement. When the noise died down, the Dowager raised a triumphant fist. “Now is our chance, my fellow worshipers! It has been a long time since Bolder ruled, but we did not give up. And now we are ready.” Her fist fell and her eyes narrowed. “Tonight the hunter will become the prey. Tonight we shall see whose god is the strongest.”
The chamber thundered with applause as the crowd rose to their feet, their decorum finally overcome by excitement.
Alyss shook her head at the cult’s hypocrisy. Bolder might not rampage openly through the streets as Mantis did, but within his arena he was as much a predator as the other. In this colossal struggle for power, the real victims were crushed underfoot–sometimes literally–but these fine gentlefolk did not care. All that mattered to them was power. Swelling it, stealing it, hoarding it.
The gaoler interrupted her reflections, tugging on the rope to jerk the gods round. He too was infected with the general excitement. His face, so stern before, was now split by a grin. “Looks like there’s been a change of plan, then,” he told them.
“Are you letting us go?” a god beside Alyss piped up, his voice strained with hope. “You don’t need us any more, right, sir?”
The gaoler regarded them with half-lidded eyes. “Oh, we still have a use for you fine ladies and gents. You–” He wound the rope around his fist. “–are the bait.”
Half an hour later, Alyss stood hunched on the cobbles of a square. Escorted by the gaoler and a number of Bolderite guards, she and the other street-gods had been hustled through a disorientating subterranean labyrinth and then out aboveground, exiting through a disused warehouse. They had then been led to this nearby square and forced into a tight group in the center, before the guards and gaoler retreated to encircle them at a safe distance. One god had seized that moment to try to flee, but he had been swiftly caught and bludgeoned into submission before being returned to his place among the others. Alyss could hear him moaning.
It was still dark, though a violet cast to the eastern sky suggested that dawn was approaching. Alyss could not reckon exactly where she was, but guessed it was somewhere north of the river. The square was bordered by redbrick houses with tiled roofs, not as shabby as the tenements of the Warren but not the palatial residences of the city’s central areas either.
Here and there, candlelight flickered in surrounding windows as the square’s residents woke and peeped out, but upon seeing the Cult’s guards skulking in the shadows the curious faces soon retreated. No one raised a hand to assist the gods in the square. Fear kept the people locked up tight.
Ten dirty little vagrant gods, standing out in the open on the night of the hunt–it did not take long for Mantis to scent them. After only a few minutes, a delighted howl came drifting over the rooftops, followed by a wild chorus of cheers.
Alyss steeled herself as, for the second time that night, the cries of the hunt bore down on her. She was scared, of course, but after all she had been through she found that her dread was now tempered by a contrary emotion: disdain. Disdain for Mantis and his rival. Disdain for the Cults who created and sustained them. Disdain for a system that kept the cityfolk powerless, too frightened even to help each other in times of need. Disdain for the notion that might was right.
Yet still, beneath her skirts, her knees shook.
The sounds of the hunt grew louder and louder, until Mantis and his Cult surged around the corner and the square erupted in a whirling carnival of noise and motion–clattering hooves and carriage wheels, guffaws of pleasure and squeals of delight, bright bursts of prayers streaming through the air. The godlings cowered back as Mantis lifted his fearsome canine head, saliva streaming from his lips, and pinned them with his gaze. There was no time for them to even attempt to run before Mantis bounded forward–only to come to a skittering halt as Bolder stepped into the glow of the streetlamps.
Mantis yelped in surprise, stopping his momentum with difficulty on his insectile legs. Behind him, his retinue milled in confusion, their bewilderment increasing as the cult of Bolder began to file out of various side streets and line the opposite side of the square. As two factions of the city’s wealthy and elite, they could not have looked less alike. Mantis’ disciples were wild-haired, red-cheeked, breathless from the exertions of the hunt. The Bolderites, meanwhile, stood solemn and pristine in their evening dress, occasionally smoothing down a stray pleat or adjusting a pair of crooked spectacles.
There followed a silence as the two cults stared at each other.
The hush was broken by hoof beats. A rider appeared from behind the hesitating Mantis. Richly dressed in a scarlet overcoat, he sported a resplendent moustache and an equally resplendent girth. Alyss recognised him as Lord Fellinor, an influential peer known for his blustering political speeches that said very little in as long-winded a manner as possible.
“So, the Bolderites have finally deigned to emerge from their burrow,” Fellinor said. “I did wonder when you were going to come up for air.” His smile was mocking. “You bury your god deep.”
“Not tonight.” The Dowager Lady Redthorn stepped forward. She raised her chin, her gaze moving over Fellinor’s shoulder. “Tonight he has come to take you, Mantis.”
Mantis shifted, his nose lifting into the air. His dog’s lips parted and drew backwards. The expression might have been a snarl or a smile.
“This is my night, Bolder.” The god’s voice rasped like claws on stone. Alyss flinched to hear it. “This city runs according to my calendar. This is my hunt and these–” His eyes swept over Alyss and the other gods. “–are mine by the hunt’s rules.”
Bolder’s response rolled out like an avalanche. “They are only yours if you catch them, Mantis. As am I–” He set his feet upon the cobbles and flexed his muscles. “–if you can best me.”
Mantis’ followers sneered, though to Alyss’ eyes they looked a little alarmed at Bolder’s show of strength.
Lord Fellinor licked his lips. “There is easier prey–” he began, endeavouring to sound contemptuous rather than cowardly, but his god was having none of it.
Mantis stepped forward, his towering legs easily clearing the horse and rider. “You think to beat me, Bolder? On my holy night? In my city?”
Bolder set his shoulders. “It is only yours if you can keep it.”
Mantis sprang forward with a growl, striking sparks from the cobbles. Alyss and the other gods backed away, only to realize that behind them Bolder was also advancing. In panic, one of the godlings rushed to the left and tried to push away through the onlookers, only to be shoved back into the square by a Bolderite guard. Alyss swallowed. So they were in the arena after all.
At the realization, exhaustion threatened to swamp her, but she managed to thrust it away. She had evaded death so many times this night. Now was not the time to give up.
The huddle of godlings broke apart as the two leviathans circled above them. Alyss skipped to one side, keeping a close eye on the tyrants’ feet, Bolder’s twin crushing slabs and Mantis’ six razor points. Soon, however, she saw that there was another threat to avoid–for as Mantis circled, he suddenly snatched a godling from the ground beside him, then threw back his head to gulp her down. Another godling screamed, but her terror was drowned by the approving whoops of Mantis’ followers.
Bolder saw his chance to strike the first blow. Stepping in close to Mantis, he swung a fist and smashed the other god around the muzzle. Mantis’ head snapped away and then back again, his lips drawn into a snarl of rage and surprise. He lunged at his assailant, but Bolder dodged out of the way of the diamond bite.
They circled again, their focus sharpened. This time it was Mantis who attacked first, pouncing to bite at Bolder. His teeth caught one marble bicep, gouging deep trenches. Bolder exhaled a rumble of pain. He retaliated, reaching in with a punch, which Mantis swiped aside with a flick of a foreleg. Pulled off-balance, Bolder stumbled heavily to the right. Cobbles cracked. Godlings scattered. The cult of Mantis roared and jeered.
The fight continued, Bolder weaving and punching like a boxer while Mantis tore with jewelled fangs and lashed out with his forelegs. Beneath them, the little gods scrambled to and fro, frantically dodging the combatants’ shifting feet as well as the occasional hand or mouth that attempted to pluck them into the air.
Alyss skirted the edges of the square as well as she could, running her eyes over the wall of people, searching for any chance to slip away. There was none. The cults formed a tight ring around the fighting ground.
Gradually, though, Alyss realized that the two cults were no longer the only onlookers. More people had joined them, crowding behind and craning over their shoulders. Not fine gentlemen and ladies these, but ordinary townsfolk, many still in their nightwear with only coats thrown over the top for warmth. The city, it seemed, had emerged to watch the confrontation. But where the cultists urged on Mantis and Bolder, these other spectators remained silent. Their own gods were sequestered safely away, and yet, although they would survive another holy night, these middling deities would never be powerful enough to challenge the two leviathans. The people had resigned themselves to the fact; it had been that way all their lives. Their interest in this battle was therefore cursory. Mantis or Bolder–it would make small difference to them which tyrant won out.
The fight, meanwhile, took a more brutal turn. A ruinous blow from Bolder dislodged one of Mantis’ teeth, sending the diamond shard clinking to the ground. The Bolderites applauded their pleasure, but as Bolder drew back the other god lashed out a pincered foreleg. The joint snapped shut, its serrated sides closing around Bolder’s arm. The marble giant wrenched against it, but Mantis dug in his legs and retained his hold. When Bolder reached with this other arm to free himself, Mantis snarled and tore at him, so that it was all Bolder could do to keep Mantis’ fangs at bay as he tugged on his trapped limb.
Nevertheless Mantis could not sustain his advantage for long, for of the two gods Bolder was better built for a match of strength. Planting his feet, he gave a monumental heave, forcing Mantis’ spindly legs to slide over the cobbles. Godlings dived out of the way as Mantis fought for balance. Seizing his opportunity, Bolder kicked out. There came a tremendous crack as one of Mantis’ middle legs gave way.
Mantis let out a shrill howl as he crashed to the floor. Almost instantly he righted himself, but was forced to use a foreleg in place of his broken mid-limb. One pincer down, he had lost a weapon. His muzzle wrinkled with wrath.
Alyss had scrambled out of the way when Mantis fell, but in doing so she blundered into the ring of cultists. Exclaiming in disgust, the gentlefolk ejected her. Their shoves sent her wheeling in close to Mantis who, intent on avenging himself on Bolder, swiped her irritably out of the way. To the larger god the blow was nothing–the mere swatting of a fly–but to Alyss it was as though she’d been hit by a speeding carriage. The breath was crushed from her chest, a great pain tearing along her left side as one of Mantis’ leg-barbs caught her flesh. She landed in a heap, striking her head hard on the cobbles.
For a few moments she lay still, dazed and blinking. Then, gingerly, she tried to lever herself up.
It took a few attempts, but eventually she came upright. She looked about her. The world was blurry. She took a few wobbling steps, and then halted as a great black shape loomed before her.
That’s Bolder, her mind whispered. Move. Get out of the way.
Her body reacted, but slowly. As a monstrous hand swept down to claim the wounded godling, Alyss twisted away so that instead of grabbing her, the hand knocked her over. She went sprawling again, crying out as her injured side hit the ground. She tried once more to stand, but found she was shaking too much and did not have the strength.
A kick caught her side. Blearing upwards, she made out a row of pale, oval smears staring down at her. Faces.
Another kick set her whimpering.
“…done for,” a haughty voice concluded.
Alyss instructed herself to crawl away, find somewhere safer, but still she was too feeble to move. For yet another time that night, she sensed death approaching. Well, she thought distractedly, I’ve been close to it for a long while. Mayhap it’ll be nice to rest at last.
The voice was soft, so incongruous among the noise of the battle and the cultists’ shouts that it was somehow enhanced despite its quietness.
“Alyss,” it said. “Sister Alyss.”
Alyss squinted in its direction, forcing herself to focus. A small girl was crouching a foot away, peering between the legs of the cultists. Her tangled hair was half-bundled under a miner’s cap and her face was smudged with dirt.
“It is,” exclaimed the girl in an excited whisper. “Look, it is. It’s Sister Alyss.”
Alyss realized that the girl was not alone. Other small faces peeked out from among the forest of legs–a troupe of urchins crawling through the throng. Some had purses and watches in hand.
A moon-faced boy scrambled closer. “It never is. She’s gone, ain’t she?”
“It is, I swear it. Look.” The girl pointed.
The boy blinked at Alyss. “Blimey,” he breathed. “It is an’ all! She’s got those wings, just like Jem said.” He scooted round and hissed to the other children. “Hey, you lot, get over here. We’ve found Sister Alyss what looked after Jem when he was little!”
Alyss’ mind reeled as more voices joined the first. Jem. That’s what the boy had said. Jem. That must be Jeremy, her little Jeremy, all grown up like she had hoped. Did he look after these children, then? Had he taken them under his wing? She hoped so. Oh, she hoped so…
Her thoughts began to drift.
“Hey,” came a murmur. “She’s closing her eyes.”
“Do you think…”
The children’s voices grew fainter. They brushed across Alyss’ awareness but she could no longer make sense of them.
“…bad, don’t she…”
The girl’s voice piped up again, louder this time. “I pray,” she announced. “I pray that Sister Alyss will be all right.”
“Yeah,” the boy put in. “Me too. I pray that Sister Alyss will get back up again.”
One by one, the urchins joined in. Beneath the eyeline of the adults, prayers unrolled from the children’s mouths. Alyss could see them even behind her closed eyelids–rich, iridescent, golden invocations. The children released them towards her and, faced with their glowing beauty, she managed to crack her eyes open. Opening trembling fingers, she took a prayer and moved it shakily to her lips.
The prayer moved down her gullet sweet as nectar, smooth as silk, warm as cobbles on a summer’s day. It filled her with a sense of rightness and hope. And when she reached out for another, she found that she already felt stronger.
Alyss ate. One prayer after another, savoring each bite. She had never tasted anything so delicious, not even at her peak with her little ducks all around her. Then, the urchins’ prayers had all been for themselves, but now it was for Alyss that the children prayed. No one had ever done that for her before. The sustenance it gave her was immense. As she chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, the wound in her side knit itself back together and energy returned to her battered body.
With Mantis and Bolder still locked in combat, no one but the urchins noticed the small god rise to her feet at the edge of the square. No one else noticed the new glow to her cheeks, the new lustre in her eyes. The other onlookers only took note when her wings twitched, extended, gave an experimental flap, and then propelled her off the ground.
To Alyss, it was as though ecstasy itself lifted her into the air. She had not forgotten the sensations of flight, but she was certain it had never felt as joyous, as liberating, as it did now. She soared into the lightening sky, revelling in her aerial perspective, enchanted by the violet-grey dawn that crept over rooftops and chimneypots. But when she glanced down and saw the battleground spread out below, and the hopeful faces of the urchins gazing up at her, her joy hardened into resolve. She couldn’t desert these children now. She could not leave them–or her fellow godlings–to the mercy of the cults. To flee would be unforgiveable. Whatever small good she could do, she must.
Taking a deep breath, she dove towards the fighting gods.
That certainly caught the crowd’s attention. Cries of surprise and crows of derision rose from the spectators as the diminutive god swooped into the fray. Alyss ignored them, concentrating instead on her target. Mantis. The dog-god was limping now; he and Bolder were both tiring. Yet he spied Alyss’ approach out of the corner of his eye. As she barrelled in close he turned aside to snap at her, but in the same instant Bolder gave him a cuff across the jaw, reclaiming his attention. Alyss darted in. She aimed for Mantis’ ear, large and pointed like a hound’s. Alighting on his crown, she grabbed a fistful of hair. The sharp filaments cut into her palm, retaining some of the metallic properties from whence they were made. She gritted her teeth against the pain and, mustering all of her newly endowed strength, ripped out Mantis’ hairs.
The god yelped in surprise. He craned upward, but Alyss had already leapt away. She zipped in again to land on his neck and yanked out another tuft of fur. Mantis howled, shaking his head in fury, yet he dared not turn away from Bolder.
The urchins squirmed through the cultists’ legs and clambered to their feet to cheer Alyss on. Speaking more prayers of strength and victory, they tossed them up to where she could stoop and catch them.
Then a whole host of prayers filled the air, a luminous shower falling into the arena, launched from the back of the crowd. “Here!” someone shouted. “Here, take ‘em, littluns!” The other godlings–six still survived in the arena–hesitated for a moment. Then the meaning of the shout came home to them and they raced to scoop up the fallen orisons.
Affronted, the cultists shouted for the offerings to cease, but the perpetrators were hidden in the dense crowd and could not be identified. And at any rate (another woman shouted), there was no reason they could not pray to any god they so wished.
Emboldened by the crowd’s support and revitalized by their prayers, the other godlings followed Alyss’ lead. Racing in close, they jumped to cling to the legs of the larger gods and–with tooth and nail and fist and foot–did what they could to distract them.
Buoyed, Alyss plunged in again to fly in circles around Bolder’s head. Still grappling with Mantis, the craggy god grew increasingly irate with the airborne intruder. Breaking with Mantis for a moment, Bolder reached to swipe Alyss from the air, but, anticipating the move, Alyss banked and darted instead to the midpoint of his shoulders. Bolder was clearly angry at being so thwarted. Growling, he reached behind his head to try and dislodge her. Alyss, however, had chosen her location well and Bolder could not catch hold of her.
Mantis lashed out with a foreleg, catching Bolder across the face. Bolder roared. He stumbled back, his progress impeded all the more by the godlings who now hacked and pinched and scratched at his legs and feet. The marble deity roared again and kicked out. Two gods fell away and rolled on the cobbles, but more leapt forward to take their place.
It was only then that Alyss realized that there were more gods–many more–in the arena now than when the fight had started. And not only that–there were people too. They surged forward from the square’s edge, shoving through the cultists to join the combat. There were attempts to stop them, the Bolderites sending in their guards with truncheons and Mantis’ disciples steering horses into the crowd’s path, but the people easily broke through their ranks. Within minutes, a mass of citizens and gods had fallen upon the two tyrant deities, pulling them to their knees. Tired and injured from their long struggle, Mantis and Bolder could not resist the sheer numbers that swarmed upon them.
Then Mantis half-yelped, half-shouted with pain as one of his legs was ripped clean away.
The agonized sound froze Alyss to the core. Instinctively she zipped away upwards, then surveyed the scene from her vantage point to try and make sense of what was happening.
Spread below her was a scene of chaos, a riot of battling people and gods, overturned carriages and screaming horses. In the center, a surging, swarming mass hid Mantis and Bolder from view. Nevertheless, the terrible sounds that issued from that direction made it clear what was happening within. The cults’ gods were being dismantled, piece by piece.
Nausea roiled in Alyss’ belly as she hovered above the fray. What had she done? This was no better than the hunt, no better than Bolder’s subterranean arena. The tormented wails of Mantis and Bolder merely echoed the screams of the gods they themselves had consumed.
Alyss stooped low above the square. “Stop!” she yelled. “Stop, please!”
But her cries went unheeded; the destruction could not be halted. Even the cultists now stood helpless, watching in despair and disbelief as the carnage continued. Among the Bolderites, the Dowager Lady Redthorn’s stately posture had wilted, so that she had to be supported by two servants at her elbows. On the other side of the square Lord Fellinor trotted back and forth distractedly, his moustache quivering in shock.
At some point the bellows and howls of Mantis and Bolder ceased, and when at last the mob drew back, it was only to reveal a wasteland of debris. Chunks of smashed marble lay like sinking ships within a sea of broken glass, with gears and springs of clockwork scattered about them. Here and there, jewels winked and glittered. Yet the crowd was still not finished. With the great gods lying in pieces before them, they now sprang afresh upon the remains, the people looting for wealth, the gods for power.
Alyss could not bear it. She swooped to land upon a large piece of broken marble–what part of Bolder it had once been, she could not tell–and shouted as loud as her tiny body would allow.
People and gods looked up, frowning at the command. But when they recognized the little god who had begun the backlash against the cults, they paused and stood to listen.
Alyss looked around, panting slightly. “Stop this, please,” she entreated. “Don’t you see what you’re doing? This–” She gestured to the detritus, the various pieces clutched in eager hands. “–This that you’re doing, it ain’t no different than Mantis, no different than Bolder.” She let her arms drop and felt her shoulders droop with them. “Leave them,” she said flatly. “Just leave them, can’t you?”
A rickety god cleared his throat guiltily, hefting the diamond tooth he hugged to his chest. “But… the power…”
“Let it lie.” Alyss scrubbed a hand across suddenly tearful eyes. “We’ve had enough of powerful gods, ain’t we? Power-hunting, power-grabbing, power-eating… And look where it’s got us.” She cast her eyes down. Nearby, a ruby lay among the shattered glass. One of Bolder’s eyes, once so dazzling, now dull in the grey wash of dawn. “Can’t we just… Can’t we just let ‘em be?”
The tears spilled down her cheeks. She gulped, unable to continue. She was just a beggar god, after all. A homeless god. A lonely god. This was all too big for the likes of her.
Then a hand slipped into hers. Alyss looked up, startled. It was the urchin girl, the one with the miner’s cap and dirty face. She’d scrambled up the marble to stand beside Alyss. A short distance away, the other urchins formed a ragged little group.
“Let’s go,” the girl whispered. “Let’s go, shall we?”
Alyss allowed herself to be led away. The crowd parted before them, the street urchin and her little god, and in their wake the people began to lower their booty, returning the deities’ remains to the ground.
The girl took Alyss to where the urchins were gathered and together they left the square and began the walk back to the Warren. Alyss trailed in their midst, worn and overwhelmed and grateful. After a little while, a lad picked her up and carried her.
Alyss rested her head on his shoulder. They were not so very different, she realized drowsily, gods and people–not so very different at all. And that was good, that was the way it should be. For what were gods but the anima of the city, the wishes and dreams and yearnings of its people, coalesced into strange, lopsided bodies? The gods were a part of their disciples, created by their hands and hearts, and, in turn, the worshipers’ lives were shaped by their gods. Neither should be oppressed or elevated in preference to the other. They needed each other. They were each other.
If you looked at it like that, you could avoid a whole lot of trouble.
“Thank you, my ducks,” Alyss whispered.
Walking beside her, the girl patted her hand. “It’s all right, Sister Alyss. We’ll look after you now.”
Jess Hyslop is a British writer of speculative fiction. She studied English at the University of Cambridge, and was there awarded the Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing in 2010. Her winning story, ‘Augury’, has since been published by Shortfire Press. Jess’s short fiction has also appeared in Interzone and Daily Science Fiction, among other venues. Her story ‘Triolet’, which appeared in Interzone #246, was recently reprinted in Salt Publishing’s anthology The Best British Fantasy 2014.