Vashire won’t be so bad
Banishment is not all the pomp and circumstance rumors make it out to be. Most cases are somber affairs, limited to your close and disappointed family. Though some people will still show up uninvited with grandfathered mage-devices and the occasional borrowed pitchfork, hoping for a mob, a smart convict knows the real danger comes from the gate where you leave Society. There are three in total: Pruvine, Anador, and Vashire. The only entrances and exits, save climbing the palisade itself.
My father always told me I’d stand before one of them someday.
Petty criminals, loafers, and anyone who was simply a “bad-fit” were generally sentenced to Pruvine, the sea gate. From that southern port, sand-hardened, cedar boats braved the toiling waves on rumors of the spice trade booming on the far continent. The work was harsh and plentiful, and money was easy to make and easier to lose if you didn’t keep your wits about you. A rocky wharf shielded the town there, which imported necessities beyond the gate.
Most people were sent back through Anador, because there is only so much room for non-believers in Society. Dozens of shrinking villages are huddled out to the east behind small embankments, which peek up through grass that clitters and chirrs when you walk through it. They, at least, are protected by the canyonlands and the great river that rages at the edge of the Wilderness, which crawls into a black line along the mountainous horizon.
Then there was Vashire, the gate I stood in front of. Nothing less for my crime.
Accompanying me was a small group of witnesses. We stood beyond the palisade on a walkway above an otherwise empty stretch of land, all undergrowth freshly burned away for the season. Smoke and ash hung heavy in the air as our party came to a stop before the bridge.
“You will die,” said Daedalus, “slowly and painfully.”
I would have rolled my eyes, but my master was rarely wrong. His jaw clenched as I nodded, but silent understanding hid in his wavering, sky-blue gaze.
Daedalus rubbed his temple, a vein pulsing against a sea of wrinkles. “When the judge asks, repent. You are my apprentice, and I didn’t train you to be an idiot. Do not enter the Wilderness.”
I turned away from this conversation, seemingly inflexible. My knees quaked slightly. It was all just another act. I needed everyone present to think me stubborn. Maybe a bit daft.
It wasn’t just the judge I had to convince. There were also the two armed mages that flanked me on the walkway between the palisade and gate. Sfithera scaled armor glimmered on their chests, obsidian-black swords tucked into well-oiled sheaths. The gold insignia of Society clasped their heavy white cloaks.
Their weapons weren’t for me. They were for if and when, I had resolved, the mighty drawbridge went down to open Vashire, the Wilderness gate. Beyond this fortified edge of Society lay a tangled forest filled with monsters thirsty for blood. They were alien, powerful, and ruthless. Only the palisade and the canyonlands kept them from crossing into the southern continent.
And I was about to knock at their doorstep.
My knife sparkled silver, even in the absence of moonlight, as I twirled it round and round. Blood seeped like black ink from a knuckle I had grazed in my anticipation, but I didn’t notice the pain as I stopped before the Wilderness gate.
Torches struggled to fight off the impermeable dark along the ravine’s edge. My eyes burned at the light as I struggled to make out the forest around the monolithic raised drawbridge. I was willing to risk the last few minutes of starless night on the other side of the bridge if only to have some relief.
I sensed the attention of warriors on either side of me, focusing on my blade. Their easy stances did nothing to hide that these were seasoned men. I was honestly somewhat honored. Maybe they just wanted to see if it was true. That a sixteen-year-old girl managed to work up enough strikes to get banished.
I played out a conversation in my head, my hands twitching, itching for some semblance of normal.
So, you guys attended Croydon Academy?
What monsters did you kill for those seals?
Is the Wilderness as bad as they say? Any advice?
But as usual, I stayed silent and continued to spin the knife around my scar-flecked hand, a trick I’d picked up after years of restless energy and a dangerous tolerance for pain.
The judge had held the knife out to me shortly after reading my sentence to Vashire, saying, “You are young. Foolhardy, but not yet lost to us. Let this represent temptation.” His eyes had sparkled darkly at the only useful thing I could do with its single sharp point and dull edges. “For if you enter the Wilderness, the Dark Lord will whisper in your ear, encourage you to further violate the Compact. We judges may not see, but He will. If you leave, there will come a time when you will have to decide whether to beg His forgiveness to use this knife—or whether you still care to avoid sending your immortal soul to Brimstone.”
Though my master predicted this, it saddened me that my reputation was tainted enough that Judge Keenan could so easily consider I’d ever use the weapon on myself. But I suppose I should be thankful most people are flawed and superficial. Otherwise this would never work.
I resisted the urge to look back to the yawning hole of my father’s place behind me. He had revoked his last goodbye in shame. But that was unsurprising— he had been ashamed of me long before he had any excuse to be because I was his wife’s but not his. The single brand on my wrist grew warm, as it always did, whenever I thought about my first transgression. Being alive at all.
My hand snuck up to grasp the small white stone hanging from my mother’s golden chain. An imperium.
“What a waste of powerful magic,” the mages had said, “to fix a broken baby from a mother on her way to Brimstone. Let it pass onto Aaliyah.”
Fortunately, Daedalus had never been one to assume the will of the Great One. He was a healer and archivist. One of the best. Few people beyond the council were old enough or smart enough to win an argument with him. When I was born, he chose to give me the imperium he’d carried for decades to restore my damaged lungs and heartbeat. The only thing he couldn’t save was my voice. A small price to be alive.
For that alone, I would always be grateful. Which is why I trusted his plan. I also trusted the pouch I’d sewn into the inner lining of my cloak.
I could feel Daedalus’s eyes upon me as the first fringes of pink started to chase the horizon. My knife finally found its way back into my boot. According to the plan, he told me what he could not utter within the palisade. “If you are so stupid as to refuse the judge’s mercy, your only chance will be to run. Run from the moment dawn crests the trees and do not rest. You must reach the Wayfinder by dark, or you will die. Do not stop. Do not listen. Do not look. Your imperium knows the way.”
Fear bubbled through me like vinegar, stagnant and acidic, followed by a flash of hope. Was it that simple? I had suspected, growing up surrounded by mages who muttered about the one person who could get me out of this mess. The Wayfinder. No matter the books I read or the people I prodded, my questions had always been shut out and silenced by the mages’ oath. All I knew was that Daedalus had promised she, above all people, would be able to solve my problem. But the only way to get to this mysterious woman was through Vashire, which only let out two kinds of people: criminals and mages. And I wasn’t a mage.
There was a reason the Covenant was so strict. Without continual vigilance by citizens of Society, darkness could easily creep over the wall, snuffing out entire towns in a dreadful night. I’d heard stories of the countless nightmares, too horrible and too diverse for names, that plagued the villages to the east. Many of the mages had terrible scars—that they left Wilderness at all is a testament to their power.
Such was the mage to my left. Once upon a time, he might have been beautiful. Now a scar danced across his forehead, almost artful the way it curled down to his cheekbones, but his grimace ruined the effect. It obviously still pained him. Three imperium rings denoted his rank and skill.
Three successful missions into the Wilderness.
I could almost feel the energy buzzing inside of them as I watched the sunlight bathe the northern crags in red. The seventy-foot palisade that formed the gate kept the bridge in deep shadow.
Judge Keenan stepped onto the parapet above the bridge, his white robe glowing in the torchlight. “Child,” he began, my name forgotten, per the custom of banishment. “Please think over your decision. It is foolishness. Repent. Own up to your sin, your great lie, and you will be welcomed back with only a mark.”
This was why the judge had chosen this gate. Faced with the Wilderness or repentance, any sane man would choose to turn their back on the dark with tears in their eyes, shouting the glory of the Great One.
My master pretended to share the opinion. But he knew what was at stake. “Repent,” he hissed. “Repent!”
And I did. I really did intend to repent. Because it was a lie, to hide an even bigger secret. The darkness festering inside me. Only the Wayfinder could save me. Could purify me so I could assume a position as an archivist.
My hands grew clammy with regret and fear, knuckles aching to profess my shame and be welcomed back to everything I’d ever known, albeit with some condescension. Everyone knows adolescents are fickle. The judge was certainly counting on the terror of facing the Gate of Death to give me a good smack in the face. It would be embarrassing, but I’d been born to worse.
Aaliyah knows by all rights I should be at the judge’s feet begging for his understanding, telling him the whole story. But if the council knew, I wouldn’t just be banished. They would smite Daedalus and me for consorting with the Dark Lord. Some things, the council just couldn’t afford to be understanding about. And from the stories, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were right.
I turned my face up to the judge, jaw set. I wouldn’t cry. A slow, comforting smile invited me to share my decision. In his mind, I didn’t really have a choice. And he was right. I didn’t have a choice.
Get to the Wayfinder. Your imperium knows the way.
Great One, forgive me.
I signed my response with one finger.
Daedalus sputtered behind me—maybe that was a bit much.
Chains as thick as my wrist garbled against one another, jockeying the drawbridge into position. My escorts drew their swords with a clicking hiss that made my heart rate jump into overdrive.
One of the mages shifted uncomfortably at my side. I knew what he was thinking. What could a girl, still a child in body, have done to end up at Vashire, the gate of death? The Covenant forbade the killing of even a former Society member outside of defensive action, but the council and its lower judges found a passive death, or the threat of one, suited them just as well. Only those who consorted with darkness were exempt.
The judge sneered, “Then may you spend your days in the Wilderness until repentance or death. Whichever calls you first.” He would stew over this for months. A search party might even be sent out if only to retrieve my imperium—if I didn’t come back crying to the gate within the hour.
The dawn bell started to bellow. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs.
Hope and despair fluttered inside me as my new name echoed in my heart. I took a step onto the boards. And another. And another. Until I was running. My feet met the wood with quiet snaps as the overpowering rush of pine came to meet me and the fear rose into my throat and my imperium bumped softly against my collar bone. Asha. My name is Asha. And I am not going to die today.