The Matriarch stood, silhouetted by the moon, over a tall building overlooking the courtyard. She wore the garb traditional to the Raven clan – black as the feathers born from her back. Conforming leather from neck to foot with her talon like fingers and toes given wide birth to maneuver independently. Her fingers and toes were the color and edge of obsidian and her dark hair was cut close to her face, framing the delicate features of a creature that was so rarely described as such. Not a soul would see her descend this night. None, that is, but the ones she chose. The gates beyond held the prize she sought and the armored guards were just another obstacle in her path. The towering stone masonry gave her a view of the compound: a sprawling pasture surrounded by razor rope. Within – the children slept.
She checked rope bound around her waist, tucking the wings and half-cloak closely to her back and began to descend. She dug into the side of the brick wall making a foot hold. She had run atop the city once she arrived from her roost – she was comforted to let her arms finally begin to bear a portion of the traveling burden. Though she knew with the completion of her goal tonight – a heavy and swift burden she would carry back to Sunder’s Peak.
The factory had only two floors but the first took up much of the space. The children worked there during the day, at least a small portion of them. The ones who were taken out into the city were forced to do much more difficult maintenance tasks, many of them older boys. But if the job called for labor, The Order didn’t hesitate to send out girls and younger boys as well. Inside the factory was a host of manufacturing tasks. Children weren’t skilled enough to make the intricately embroidered clothing of nobles but when the outlying lands were seized ten years ago, the craftsmen’s trade was crushed for lack of resources and the occupying force could pillage the city simply by forcing the indentured citizens to buy their goods.
The Ministry cared for the children, yes, but to what end? Slavery for room and board followed by a life of servitude; it wasn’t much of a choice. The Matriarch wanted her city back but for now, she would content herself with rescuing the innocent.
Daevas, as her kind were known, stood apart from society both hailed and feared. Half-Angels, they were sometimes called. Born from a divine spark, laden in a human child. The gift wouldn’t manifest itself until the child reached adolescence when wings would begin to sprout from the developing muscle tissue and the fingers and toes would calcify. Of course, this is what the Raven Clan had told her – her experience in the world had shown quite the opposite – that her kind were hated, hunted, and persecuted. The clan knew this as well, so they trained in the guise of shadow. The Matriarch lay cloaked in the shadow the moon’s light cast from the east. Full and high it sat, though not yet midnight, when she would be vulnerable to its light.
The razor wire fence surrounding the Ministry was to keep the children in more than other citizens out. These were the outcast of society. The Order created the Ministry to keep the urchins off the street. The endless wave of dead fathers and pregnant whores made orphans a regular occurrence. Another consequence of the endless city-state wars, a consequence the Order had cleverly played to their advantage.
She didn’t make a sound, darting between shadows; her leathers were still damp with oil, to prevent cracks and squeaks, even after her flight. The factory was on the Ministry’s compound but dormitory was the only portion under strict guard. Kanton’s streets may not want the children but the Ministry had to deter escape attempts. She had easily evaded the perimeter guards from the roof tops but lanterns brightly lit the corridor leading up the courtyard providing its own challenge. The small flames danced in their paper lanterns, six in all leading up the fenced path.
A figure leaned against the wall next to the door only dimly lit by the lanterns, his boiled leather helm sat pushed over his eyes. His spear-point upwards, resting between his folded arms. She knelt down and folded her fingers together; index finger toward the sky and thumb to her chest. She found this to be the most effective way to focus her gate. Out of her chest, a dull green dust began to spin, enveloping her thumbs.
She studied the lantern closest to her. The lanterns light grew dim then was snuffed out. Channeling through her Heart-gate gave her a measure of control over the pressure in the air. She had the power to focus great gales of wind with a more overbearing hand but now she used a delicate touch. A mistake here could sound an alarm as easily as unveiling her wings. Small tendrils of smoke rose from the first lantern, nearly indistinguishable from the darkness. One down, five to go, she thought.
Beads of sweat began to appear on her porcelain face. The effort of drawing the power of the cosmos through one of the seven Soulgates was not insubstantial. The weaves of energy extended from her Heart-gate like a slow, controlled breath. Then, one by one, the lanterns flickered out. The guard never stirred. She looked up to see the constellation Vega, The Huntress in the stars directly above her; it would be another thirty minutes before another guardsman passed this way.
Taking a deep breath she rose and wiped the sweat from her face, glad to be done with the exertion. She strode into the now dark, open corridor; it was never a comfortable feeling, being so exposed. Though the building’s shadow still concealed her, she still longed for a corner to crouch around. She reached the door, finding the guardsman unmoved; the thick smell of ale wafting from his unconscious snores. It was no wonder – the Ministry wasn’t a defensible priority and even though every man living in a City of Order was mandated to serve two years in the militia, all the competent solders were off in the border lands bringing an end to chaos. Kelek, she believed the guard’s name was, always seemed to find himself on duty and uncomfortably drunk when she made her visits to the Ministry though whether from bribery or his own desire to assist through negligence she couldn’t tell. Lithely, she swung through the door without so much as a scratch from her talons. With luck, he would sleep till morning.
Inside she found herself in a foyer showroom. Ornately carved wood trimmed the walls and the staircase that wound upwards to a balcony loft where the Ministry would entertain guests. The façade appeased the politicians. Children weren’t allowed in these rooms; not even when making their way to the factory. A crystal chandelier hung in the center of the grand foyer but the only light within shown from the moon through the high windows. A sliver of candle light flickered under a doorway from the kitchens to her right.
Making her way down the eastern corridor, well hidden in the shadow, the faint smell of spiced broth struck her.
Her secret accomplice.
The door at the end of the hall was cracked open and from within the Matriarch could see a woman just setting a place for herself at a high-topped counter. She was thin, her clothing was ill fitting and hung loosely about her shoulders. Although nearing her thirtieth dawn, the gray of her hair and the circles under her eyes gave her the appearance of a woman far deeper into womanhood. She sat down, lifting a spoon to her lips, then spoke: “You must forgive me, Matriarch. The days are long and your presence makes this night longer still.”
The Matriarch pushed the door open slowly, allowing the light to spill onto her form from the kitchen; the woman didn’t stir, leaving her back to the Matriarch. When she saw that the two of them were alone some of her tension eased. “You would do well to keep your talents hidden, Gallet. The Order keeps a short leash on its Gatekeepers.”
“Yes, yes, but it’s that same talent that made me Head Mistress to the Ministry.” She laughed weakly, adding only to herself, “Head Mistress, Ha! More apt to call me Hidden Mistress for all the Children allow me to covet the title. The politicians take our grand foyer for their dignitaries and allow me to parade our most promising children through. ‘Look at how grand we treat our lost ones!’ they say.” She scoffed then as if the sound of her own voice disgusted her. “Might as well take a cow to the theater before you have it for supper.”
The Matriarch stood back from Gallet; the woman hadn’t turned to look at her but the Matriarch knew she was a clear image in the woman’s third eye, a gate that manifested in the brain swirling in between her brows. She wasn’t able to grasp it entirely, but the Matriarch knew that the Pineal-gate would show the keeper images, perhaps even from the future. Much like her own use of the Heart-gate –Gallet was able to channel, but the power of the universe manifest differently through each Soul-gate.
The room had a skylight and the moon poured through it giving the room a ghostly air. Wooden counter tops swept the room. Tubs, cauldrons, utensils and hearths lined the outer edge of the room and the smoky lingering of this evenings meal hung in the air. A candle flickered dimly at a doorway opposite the one the Matriarch entered from.
“Are they ready?” The Matriarch asked.
Gallet lowered a spoon full of broth to her pewter bowl, her head forward still refusing to meet the Matriarch’s gaze. “They are,” she said.
“Let’s be done with it, then—” She began.
“Tonight is the end Venara,” Gallet said.
The Matriarch paused; her childhood name, the name that had left her after becoming one of the Daeva, stung as much as the proclamation attached to it.
“The Order has discovered your weakness, and now you betray me?” Her voice was even, but she felt the pain emanating from her once childhood friend.
“You speak of betrayal to me, Ven? You, who left me to rot in the streets when your wings began to sprout and your clan came for you?” there was venom in Gallet’s voice and The Matriarch could see her steady herself from shaking on the table. “You knew comforts that they will never know!” she spat, “A clan! A watchful eye! A—no.” She took a deep breath, finally turning to look The Matriarch in the eye. “You know nothing of betrayal, Matriarch,” her voice scathing, “and you’ll know none of it from me. No, tonight is the end because I’ll be dead by morning.” Tears rolled down Gallet’s face now, try as she might to hold them back.