ONE WEEK AGO
The sky turned to darkness as Hoenna’s carriage jostled along the cobblestone pathway into District Gloom. Gone were the blue skies and sunny days of District Sol, where she’d been hunting, replaced by the unending, oddly luminescent darkness of Gloom. In the distance, the Tower of Darkness pulsed its purplish Shardlight into the sky, casting a glow over the entire district. Even from here, on the far edges of the territory, she could feel its intoxicating pull. Her heart synced its beating with the pulsing of the tower. She could feel the tower’s hunger. “Soon, my love,” she said.
“What’s that?” asked the driver, an elderly man from Sol with more mustache than face. The fool had protested momentarily about transporting the very special cargo, but with enough coin and a simple spell, he had become most agreeable. Hoenna liked men that agreed with her. She had little use for any other kind.
“Nothing,” Hoenna said, flashing him a smile. It sliced like a sword through any strange thoughts he might have. It was enough to keep him driving forward past the twisting trees with leaves in perfectly manicured circles, through the drab city blocks with their pops of colored buildings, deftly avoiding the dandies and lawyers dressed in pinstripe suits. It was enough for him to ignore the whimpering in the back of the wagon, the soft cries for help their cargo mustered until they arrived at a thin red house stuck between two long rows of houses.
“Anything else, m’lady?” he asked as Hoenna jumped down from her seat.
“Yes. Would you be a dear and see the cargo inside?”
“But of course.”
The driver pulled back the sheet covering the wagon. Inside, strapped together with chains and gagged, were fifteen children, none old enough to reach double digits. Fifteen disgusting, useless, filthy human children.
“Bring them to the dungeon,” Hoenna said. “I’m going in for a tea.”
It was common knowledge among shardlight channelers that the Towers of Power were not simple structures. Anyone who had called upon their power, even once, knew the truth of it; they were vessels, holders of souls and life and blood. They were living, breathing entities with the power to wipe out the continent of Turrim, perhaps the entire planet of Argos. They were unbridled chaos, barely contained within the flimsy framework of a tower.
But Hoenna knew something other shardlight channelers didn’t. The towers were even more than chaos contained. They were prisons. And their prisoners had unique tastes, cravings that could only be satisfied by the work of the faithful. Cravings. The Tower of Darkness craved blood and so Hoenna obliged.
Hoenna had seen the prisoner inside the Tower of Darkness once in her dreams. A woman bathed in blood and purple light. She touched her forehead; told her she was special. The woman instructed Hoenna to bring the first round of children to the base underneath the District. When Hoenna awoke, she knew what came next.
That was years ago and Hoenna had gotten quite good at picking out all kinds of details depending on the type of scream a child gave. High-pitched and short? A noble, likely one who hadn’t worked a day in their lives. Long and drawn out? A hunter, mirroring a dying deer. Soft and sweet? A thinker. One that likely wouldn’t have amounted to anything anyway.
Today’s crop of children had an even mixture of screams along with one screecher. He would make a fine pet, she was sure. The screechers usually did.
“That’s quite enough,” Hoenna said, descending down a winding staircase into a cavern underneath the red house. She crunched hungrily on the driver’s skull as if taking a bite from an apple.
The children were lined up, chained to the rocky wall. Concentric circles forming intricate patterns were carved into the floor leading to a wall of darkness. It was as if light simply stopped at the end of the furthest circle. If one were to put her hand through, she would not be able to see it from the other side. Hoenna knew. She’d tried.
“Oh, come now, sister,” a woman said, stepping forward from that darkness. “Let the children scream.”
“Catrina,” Hoenna said. Her long smirk shortened as her lips grew tight. “Pleasure to see you, as always.”
From the darkness, flanked on both sides by flying gargoyles with raven wings, Catrina stepped forward. She had long dark hair, longer than Hoenna’s, and a round face. Purple shardlight seemed to emanate from her eyes, causing streaks to follow her wherever she went. “I’m sure,” Catrina said.
“As you can see, now is not the best time.” The children’s fearful screams intensified as Catrina’s gargoyles flew near.
Catrina eyed the children and then her sister. “You think She prefers your sacrifice to mine?” she said, chuckling. “Children? They have hardly any blood at all.”
“What are you talking about, sister?” Hoenna said.
“The woman in the tower,” Catrina said, a smile cracking her porcelain skinned face. “Did you think you were the only one she appeared to?”
Hoenna faltered as her heart sunk. Catrina was telling the truth; she was sure of it. Ever since they were little, Catrina had known exactly the way to cut to the hurt, whether it be an enemy or her own flesh. Hoenna loved the woman in the tower and so Catrina wished to take it away.
“Get out,” Hoenna said. “I have work to do.” She grabbed the closest child by the neck and snapped it. Blood trickled down his mouth as Hoenna turned to the sound, shocked.
Catrina laughed. “Is that part of the ritual?”
Hoenna flung the boy’s corpse at one of the gargoyles, who caught it in its talons. The other gargoyle flew over and the two tore the body to shreds.
“Take your beasts and leave,” Hoenna said.
“Not yet,” Catrina said, sidling up next to her sister. “I have a message for you.” From between her bosom, Catrina pulled out a thin scroll with an unbroken seal of the Argent Tower.
Hoenna took it and broke the seal, reading aloud. “You have been invited by the merchants of the City of Silver to attend the historic signing of the Treaty of Accordance one week from today. Please send your reply by porter, raven, or airship at your earliest convenience.” When Hoenna finished reading, the parchment caught fire and turned to ash.
“Seems we have been summoned,” Catrina said.
“No, it seems like you’ve been summoned,” Hoenna said. “Why would they send you the letter for both of us?”
“Because I’m your older sister,” she said, as if that solved the mystery. “I will reply on your behalf as well as my own. For now, I will leave you to it.” She snapped her fingers and her gargoyles came to her side. Another snap and two shards hanging from her earrings glowed, forming a portal which she stepped through and back into Gloom.
The children had grown silent at the death of one of their own. If they’d harbored thoughts of escape, they were gone now.
“Right,” Hoenna said, grabbing a young girl by the hair. A high-pitched screamer. She pulled her to the furthest concentric circle and strapped her to a table.
A pinprick of purple shardlight began to glow in the darkness as Hoenna tightened the restraints. “I have come with a sacrifice,” she said, tipping the table all the way back until the girl was upside down, her hair brushing the floor.
Hoenna stabbed herself in the chest with a single finger, ripping a shard from her flesh. A flower of blood spurted on the girl as Hoenna forced the shard into her forehead.
The purple light in the darkness expanded and seeped into the carvings in the ground, filling them with shardlight as the shard in the girl’s head burst with energy. She began to scream again, high-pitched. Short. Again and again as the shardlight caused pressure to build in the dungeon. Hoenna felt it press against her like lovers might coil their bodies around one another. She wept in pleasure as she kicked the girl in the stomach, forcing the table through the wall of darkness and into the hungry jaws of the purple light. The girls scream stopped as soon as she reached the darkness.
A single drop of sweat fell from Hoenna’s nose.
A creature crawled from the darkness on its hands and feet. Misshapen and ugly, with a bulbous head and muscled body. Beneath its skin on its forehead was an outline of the girl’s face.
Her blood sacrifice had been accepted by the tower, her blood replaced with shardlight and her body made strong.
Hoenna took a deep breath and said, “Bring me another.”
The golem obliged.