PROLOGUE

Decay lingered on the air; fetid and cloying as if some ancient grave buried beneath the city had opened and from it rushed a corrupt perfume. It permeated everything, imbuing the bricks and asphalt with its stink like a spreading stain.

It had arrived a few weeks earlier, riding into Level Two on the back of the early King Tide. For a while it remained near the Sunk, flirting with odors of ruin and refuse that never dissipated in Lovat’s lowest levels. Then, as if it had a mind of its own, it slowly drifted upward past Level Three, then Four, until even the wealthy in their gilded tower far above had begun to complain.

The shoalta—an ordained priestess of Deeper—moved with purpose through the stink, head down, her black eyes alert. She imagined it swirling in her wake like a mist. The odor made her lightheaded and giddy. But below those feelings was a knot of conflicting emotion. This had been foretold. This was the first sign. A prophecy etched into the senses. 

Look west! Look west, oh, children!

She should be glad. But she wasn’t. The moment was lost. There was danger. The Guardian had not fulfilled their duty; the cycle was broken. As much as it pained her to admit, her golden master was correct. Now wasn’t the time.

Adjusting her salt-stained robe and straightening the chain of her office, the shoalta rounded a corner and moved along the broad thoroughfare that ran along the western edge of Haliaetus Lake. It wasn’t a true lake, not really. Just an open patch of seawater centered above a flooded basin that was surrounded by the streets of Level Two.

Hundreds of small stands vied for space, each offering identical merchandise with baskets full of clams, crates brimming with muscles, and bins filled with geoduck. The smells of seawater and shellfish should have overpowered the stink, but it lingered even here.

He was close now. Like the city, she too had heard the rumors. Missing boats. Coastal communities disappearing. Sightings of something unknowable and indescribable from cephel farmers along the Gorda and Blanco. Her heart thumped in her chest.

Fisherfolk, stevedores, buyers, merchants, and farmers mingled and lingered along the edges, living their small lives in this crowded city of lost souls, unaware of what was coming. Could she convince them? Her heart ached for these people. But she’d be disregarded, brushed off as just another crazy street mystic. What shoalta preached Hasturian words? Could she even call herself a Deeperist anymore?

She pressed among the throng. Eight-armed cephels and squat anur were the majority—the true aquatics of the lower levels. But an occasional swarthy human or pale maero bobbed through the crowd in their ungainly way. No umbra or dauger however—shadows and masked labored elsewhere in Lovat’s nether regions. She saw at least one dimanian with mean eyes and curved tusks that sprouted from his cheeks. There were stocky kresh as well with their vaguely avian heads and dark eyes—her people. Usually ignored, mostly forgotten, always treated as simpletons.

Everyone moved with a nervous energy that had become more common in recent weeks. The ordinarily boisterous crowd still hummed with discussion, but it was suppressed, muted. Strange weather had lingered along the coasts. Riptides had taken whole fishing villages. Sailors had reported seeing huge waves out in the channels.

Then there was the King Tide. It had come early without the full moon. Parts of Level Two had flooded, and Deeperist Shoals scrambled to prepare for the usual celebrations to mark its arrival.

The shoalta continued her journey, leaving the hustle of the shellfish markets behind. She passed through several of the lower warrens, moving deep into Lovat’s recesses. She passed unlicensed centipede breeders, pitch dens, and seedy casinos outlined with gaudy neon that flickered against the shadows. She saw neighborhoods of hovels where starving people gazed with hollow eyes, and some nicer warrens where the stumps of grander buildings rose and the poor managed to eke out a semi-decent life even this far down. The stink lingered—the sweet rot punctuated with the base smell of death. 

She stopped before a narrow, unassuming door along a narrow, unassuming street in a narrow, unassuming part of Lovat. The warren was named Myrtle, and it was a decent place a few levels up. Down here in Level Two, it was a rougher warren. The remnants of a crematorium stood to the left. An abandoned automat sat to the right, and a sign above it read Whateley’s, or it would have if the letters weren’t half-missing, leaving a rusted “What” behind like a question with no answer.

A pair of dauger with oxidized brass masks leaned against one another inside the automat. They breathed shallow breaths and occasionally twitched in their sleep, two souls lost in the ecstasy of a pitchfork high.

This was the place. She had been told to look for those landmarks. A dull glow emanated from beneath the door’s jamb. It lit the tips of the claws at the end of her toes, and she wiggled them, smiling at the play of light.

Her smile was short-lived. The smell grew stronger, as if reminding her of what was to come. Look west, it urged. Look west, oh children, oh servant. It was both a promise and a subtle warning. A will, bound in stench. 

The golden king’s words tickled at her mind. The hot air of the desert filled her lungs. She mimed the dusting of ash from her shoulders—knowing full well it wasn’t actually there.

She took a deep breath and could almost feel the stench tickle her insides. Then she knocked, the rap of her claw louder than she expected on the door’s metal surface. She looked toward the pitch users, expecting one to stir, but neither did.

In response to her knock, a sound echoed from within. A shuffling. A murmur of a voice—a deep and resonate voice. Someone was talking to themselves.

The door swung inward, and a pool of light and the pungent scent of pine spilled out onto the dirty narrow street. The light and this new fragrance washed over her. Clarity sparked within her mind. She almost gasped. She was here for a reason. She was here to make things right.

A medium-sized dimanian stood in the doorway. He had small black horns sprouting from his forehead and long hair pulled back and worn in a loose topknot. He was dressed smartly, much smarter than most Level Two citizens: a white button-up shirt with double cuffs, pressed black slacks over glossy pointed shoes. No tie. 

He regarded her with a slight tilt of his head. He had a notebook in one hand and a half-finished bottle of beer in the other.

“Help you?” he asked, lowering the bottle. His voice was as slick as his appearance.

“Um, hi. I…” the words were there, but the shoalta had trouble making her tongue say them. This smartly dressed dimanian was intimidating. She wasn’t used to interacting with his sort down here.

Realization sparked behind his eyes. “You the Deeperist shoalta?”

She nodded and felt a pang of guilt pierce her heart. She was here, after all, going through with this.

“Been expecting you. Trust you found the place okay?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Come in.”

They left the stink behind, and her nostrils were assaulted by an overpowering scent of the forest. She blinked—stunned to be removed from the stench that had haunted her for days now.

He led her down a hallway into a medium-sized room. It was an ordinary kitchen. A counter ran along the far wall, split by a stove and a rusty icebox. A thick table sat in the center, surrounded by four chairs.

Along the room’s edges, sitting on shelves, counter space, and atop stacks of boxes, were jars filled with sand. Stuck into them were burning sticks of incense—hundreds of them scattered around the room. Wisps of fragrant smoke drifted into a dense cloud that settled against the low ceiling.

Two doors opened further into the building. One was open, and from it came the buzz of neon and a dull-pink glow. Somewhere water dripped. Distantly a band played an old swing number. Somewhere else, perhaps floors above, came the muffled sound of people arguing. Or maybe that was just in her mind? It was hard to tell anymore.

A single lantern hung suspended from a cable in the center of the room, its glow hazy in the cloud of incense. Now, removed from that sickly sweet stink, the shoalta felt alone, removed from reality. The room felt oppressive. She began to sweat, and she hugged her robes close, resisting the urge to shiver.

“Drink? Wine? Beer?” the dimanian offered, his voice pulling her back. She turned, saw him standing there, waiting. Through the pink door came a third figure. An enormous bok, its deep-green scales color of canopy moss on a cloudy day.

The shoalta stepped back, blinking at him. She had met only a few bok, and most of the interactions had been brief. They were a long-lived species who rarely interacted with anyone, even their own kind. They had a reputation for being temperamental, but this one presented himself as casual, perhaps even friendly.

The bok regarded her in silence. He didn’t look aggressive. He wore a gray button-up shirt and cut-off shorts, both damp as if he had recently come from a swim in the Sunk. He held a delicate glass of red wine in his head-sized claw.

“I’m okay,” she managed. She just wanted this over with. First this slick dimanian and now a bok. If she thought too long about it, she’d abandon her plans altogether. If she did that, everything would fall apart. The master would be angry.

“Suit yourself,” the dimanian said. “I’m Allard. I don’t need your name, Shoalta’fhalma.”

She stared at him, stunned at his use of the old tongue.

He smiled. “Grandmother was a Deeperist.”

They all watched each other, her with caution, Allard with cool indifference, the bok with what seemed to be a silent amusement.

“You know why I’m here,” she finally said, shaking off her shock.

Allard nodded. “Sure you can go through with it?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Allard’s brow raised. He scratched behind one of his glossy black horns; they matched his shoes. “It’s risky business. Especially now.”

She tilted her head, regarding him, her question clear.

“It’s a new Lovat. A post-riot Lovat. Security firms are on edge. The LPD ain’t messing around anymore. Magnez is coming down hard. Showing her strength. Making up for the lost time.” He grimaced as if pained and then repeated, “It’s a new Lovat.”

“If there was another way…” she began. She hated being here. She hated talking with these men. She was a shoalta. She was supposed to be here to guide, lead, and prepare. Not to make backroom deals in a Level Two alley with criminals. But she had no other choice. The master had warned her. If it happened now … all was lost.

Allard held up a hand. “Don’t need to explain. Just saying there’s time to turn back from this. My experience is ladies like you are good people. We’d understand if this was too much. Sometimes a soul gets this far and can’t go through. Wouldn’t fault you any.”

“I have to do it.” She had stressed this before, through the many contacts they had sent. She had explained where and why so many times it hurt to think about. She didn’t need to explain it again.

“On the Gamble,” he emphasized the name.

She nodded. Thoughts of the vessel made her sick to her stomach.

“During celebrations.”

She nodded again.

“We love this city. We want what’s best for her. Something happens to the Gamble while she’s in port, and something happens to the city. Something happens while she’s away….” He let the sentence drop and gave a well-practiced shrug. “Hence our willingness and generosity. But we need promises.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“We know.”

“Then what?”

The dimanian tucked his notebook into a pocket and set his beer bottle down on the counter. He leaned back, folding his arms. “We see ourselves as silent partners. We’re essentially financing this operation. Like the… like…”

“Camalote,” said the bok. His voice was a rumble, a grinding of stone.

“Right. We’re a charitable organization. Think of us like the Camalote Group. But the thing is, we don’t want nobody to put two and two together. We like remaining anonymous. Follow? We need to be kept separate from this. If it goes down—”

He raised a hand before she could interject. “—I believe you’re capable, I do—but if it goes down and the LPD is going to start asking questions, well, we want to make sure there’s no trace. Protect ourselves. Protect our investment. You acted on your own. We ain’t a part of this.”

“I am acting on my own,” she said. It was true—sort of, the master was also involved, but she couldn’t explain that to this dimanian. She had sought them out. They didn’t find her, she found them, asked for help. Truth be told, she hadn’t expected anything to come of it. But it just happened that their desires aligned.

“We have your word?”

“On the body of Deeper himself, sir.”

Allard smiled a sleek, snake-oil smile. Behind him, the bok flashed a grin filled with rows of sharp teeth. It was a wicked expression on such a fearsome face. Some deep instinct sent small blips of panic sparking through her belly. She felt like she should run, but instead she smiled back.

Before she could say anything, the bok turned and shuffled to a cupboard, pulling out a blue half-sized duffle from a lower cabinet. He set it gingerly on the table between them.

The shoalta’s chest seized. It was happening. Celebrations would begin soon, on the night of the full moon, when the King Tide was scheduled to ebb. Shoalta from shoals all over the city were planning to convene at Our Father of the Obscured Atoll, the church onboard the Gamble. They’d anchor above the sunken Looff Fields just off the West Lovat shore, and perform the necessary rites. It would be a wild affair. Deeperist revelers from all over Lovat would come. The mayor was even sending a proxy to attend the celebrations.

She should have been excited. For decades, this was what her mother and grandmother had hoped and prayed for. But they hadn’t seen the world beyond. Neither of them had spoken with him. They didn’t know what she now knew. If the cycle were intact, she’d have joined them willingly. But the cycle was damaged, off-kilter. Years ago, a Hasturian sect had acted the fool and failed in their summoning. The process was upended.

“Ten hours. No off switch,” the bok explained. “Chemical mixture. Press the button. Vials break.”

“Once that happens, there’s no going back,” said Allard.

The bok nodded. “It’ll mix. Smolder. Get hot. Then…” He made a silent gesture, the webbed-fingers of his claw unfurling and expanding.

Allard smiled wickedly. “Good luck, Shoalta’fhalma.”

The title stung her soul like a bee sting. She swallowed. It was all she could do to shuffle forward, giving both creatures a curt nod before taking the duffle and quickly walking back the way she had come.

Allard and Hank—the bok—watched the Deeperist priestess disappear down the hallway toward the exit. The dimanian scratched his jaw with a finger and didn’t move until he heard the narrow door close. Then he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

“Guess that’s that,” he said to the room. He rarely spoke directly to Hank.

The bok settled after the shoalta left. He pulled himself to a sitting position on the counter, his broad tail hanging to one side. He and the dimanian wrinkled their noses as a waft of the wretched stink attempted to penetrate their cloud of pine and cedar incense.

“Thinks she’ll pull it off?” Allard asked.

Hank said nothing.

A woman appeared. She was shorter than both of them but moved with a self-assurance the shoalta would have noticed. Her tweed suit fit well and gave her the look of an ancient hunter, the sort of person who’d tread through the swamps pursuing fowl with a faithful hound. Allard had seen similar characters on fantasy serials, and it was impossible to shake the comparison.

The woman had a sharp nose and full mouth that gave her a vulpine appearance. A cigarette hung from her lips. Its pungent scent paired oddly well with the odor of the forest. Her shifty eyes darted around the room, taking in everything in a heartbeat. Her eyes turned to the two men and then toward the exit where the kresh had disappeared, parcel in hand.

“So, our little soldier marches off to war.” She gave a mock salute in the direction of the exit.

Hank nodded in silence and took a drink of wine.

“You sure about this, El?” asked Allard, picking up the remnants of his beer. “I mean it’s the Gamble, for First’s sake. Ain’t no one been this bold in a decade.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” said Elephant. Her eyes narrowed slightly, and a subtle smirk moved across her lips.

“We get caught…” Hank said with a rumble of thunder.

“Chen ain’t the forgiving type,” added Allard. He paused, took a swig of beer, finishing the bottle. He scratched his jaw with a thumb. “Neither is Jurer, thinking about it.”

The woman waved a hand, disregarding Allard’s concern with a wave of her cigarette. “Ain’t no getting caught. That was Syringa Militia ordnance in that satchel. Someone catches that little sister there, they ain’t going to come sniffing around here.”

She took a long drag from her cigarette, blowing the smoke toward the single lamp. “If she manages to finish what she started, then Chen, Jurer, even damn slack-jawed Shelna will be at the bottom of the sea.” The smoke swirled, then joined the incense haze. “It’s business. Nothing more.”

“Business is business,” the bok rumbled.

Elephant gave him a side-eyed glance, and echoed his words, “Business is business.”


“Look west, Guardian. The High Priest comes and on his heels… a new Aligning.”
The fourth entry of The Bell Forging Cycle is nearly here.

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Copyright © 2021 by K. M. Alexander. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.