Black Phasm

A Grimdark Fantasy Short Story by S. Alessandro Martinez.

Black Phasm

by S. Alessandro Martinez

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No one is about. The coast is clear.”

Then go with the Six,” Kahtalusa said to the others. She hoped none of them would be observed leaving her home. It was impossible to ensure no one was lurking about. She couldn’t risk her friends being linked to suspicious activities.

Friends?

Perhaps “conspirators” was a better description for what they were. An eclectic group of people who had come together from all over the city of Lorona including a wealthy human couple, merchants by trade, another human woman who ran a bakery several streets away, and a male kaythan who belonged to the city guard. And then there was Kahtalusa herself, a plaenar, the daughter of a soap-maker, who had moved away from home at an early age to use her skills as a seamstress.

Come, people,” the kaythan, Medasso, told the others, peering out of the front doorway. He pulled his scaly face back inside, closing the door behind him, and fixed them all with his yellow eyes. “The guard patrol will come down this street soon on the eight bell. We must be gone by then.”

The group muttered agreement, and hurried out of Kahtalusa’s cramped house—a decrepit pile no different than every other building in this forsaken nation; except, of course, those structures that belonged to the Church of Repenencia. But even those holy buildings had begun to show signs of decay in the last few decades.

The meeting had gone well, Kahtalusa felt. Each participant had brought a list of people they thought might join their cause, and Kahtalusa thought there seemed to be a few with high potential. She knew they would need all the help they could get. A revolution could not be accomplished by five people alone.

As the others dispersed in various directions into the night, Medasso turned to look back at Kahtalusa, seeming to study her for a moment.

Do you believe he will actually visit you tonight?” he asked.

Kahtalusa hesistated a moment before answering. With a heavy sigh, she said, “To be honest, I’m not even positive he exists.”

As if to belie her words, a shiver of fearful anticipation coursed through her at the thought of the second meeting she had set up for this night. She reached up to the black horns on her head and fingered the left one’s jagged stump. All plaenar possessed the bony projections atop their skulls, but her left horn had been broken years ago during a particularly brutal absolution. She would never forget the pain.

I believe he is real,” Medasso said reassuringly. He took her hand and brought it away from her broken horn. “Stop fretting. He will meet you. There have been so many rumors that traveling around these last three months, how can I not believe that someone is out there actually doing these things? But whether that person truly is a spirit manifested as some say, I cannot even guess.”

She nodded in agreement. And with that, Medasso wrapped his cloak around his broad shoulders and left.

Kahtalusa stood at her house’s threshold for a moment, looking out into the murky night. Her faith was important to her, as it was to all those who resided in Arcacantes. Yet, it was because of that faith that she and the others had come together to conspire. The Church of Repenencia was wrong. She knew that in the very core of her being. She had no doubt the Sacred Six detested seeing what had become of this land over the centuries, and how warped its religion had become—to the point that its early practitioners would find it unrecognizable.

Despite this, her faith in the Six themselves remained strong. And this bolstered her belief that the person she was to meet this night was indeed real and could help them.

Kahtalusa quickly went about her small house, extinguishing the oil lamps. Once finished, she put on her traveling cloak before heading out. The meeting was to take place at her father Usto’s house, unbeknownst to either him or Kahtalusa’s brother, Tereno, who both resided there. It would have been safer to meet here at her own home, but she desperately needed help with her ill father. Besides, Tereno was out of town on business, and their father unable to leave his bed.

Locking the door behind her, Kahtalusa made her way down the street towards the east side of Lorona where her father’s house sat, tucking in among other decaying shacks, mentally preparing herself to face whomever—or whatever—she had arranged to meet.

For if all went as planned, this night, she would come face to face with the Black Phasm.

#

A gust of wind brought with it a swift chill, as well as the sound of someone crying in the street below. The wailing pierced the elf’s ears like a physical pain. He longed to go down there and offer his help, but knew from experience the person would most likely refuse any aid.

Master Markestess,” said a voice from behind him.

Ossario Markestess gazed for a moment longer on the dark city that lay sprawled beneath the high balcony of his home; dim lights in all the houses like failing beacons, almost swallowed in the oppressive gloom.

With a sigh of resignation, the elf turned to look at the man who had called him. It was his head servant, Emer, a human man whose exposed skin was covered in both old and new scars, as well as many-still healing wounds.

Yes, Emer?” Ossario said.

The rest of the servants and I are finished with the day’s work,” the man replied, his eyes lowered respectfully.

Good.” Ossario nodded. “And did everyone pay penance?” It was a question the elf hated to ask, but until things changed, appearances had to be kept up at all times.

Of course,” Emer said. He removed his shirt, which Ossario saw was sticky with blood on the backside. Emer then turned his back toward his master. The man’s skin was raw with still-seeping wounds. “We flogged ourselves this day in the name of Sister Sansavian of the Six. Much guilty blood was spilled to pay for our transgressions.”

Years of practice allowed Ossario to keep any of the grief he felt at the sight of the man’s bloodied flesh from showing on his face.

Excellent,” he said. This word, in response to the evidence of Emer’s self-harm, tasted repulsive in Ossario’s mouth. “You may all leave for the night. I shall see you in the morning.”

Very good, Master Markestess,” Emer said with a stiff bow that clearly pained him, though he tried to hide it. “May the Six forgive you.”

And you as well.”

The man bowed again, another brief grimace of pain visible on his face before he disappeared inside. The elf was once more alone on the lofty balcony of his mansion.

Mansion.

How ridiculous. What did he, a single elven man, need with such a grand house when the rest of the citizens of Lorona lived in hovels and dilapidated shacks? His eyes swept the city below him. It was like a sea of rotting, crumbling buildings; the same as every village and city in the nation of Arcacantes. As the years passed, this place more and more resembled ancient ruins instead of a thriving land where people lived, worked, and worshipped.

The elf rested his elbows on the balcony’s stone railing. The long sleeves of his scarlet robes hitched up, exposing his lean, tanned arms. The specters of countless cuts, burns, beatings, and other forms of torture marred his own flesh. Almost all had been self-inflicted, of course.

He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.

The people of Arcacantes were all taught at a young age how to inflict pain upon themselves. Several of his own childhood scars were still visible, not just on his arms, but all over his body. Others had been replaced time and time again by new wounds. It was an abhorrent practice that had been indelibly ingrained into his people’s culture and psyche for centuries. It had certainly been a fundamental tenant of Ossario’s life until Palermo, his mentor, had shown him the truth. Palermo’s teachings had not been easy to accept, as they brought Ossario’s core beliefs down around him to lay in ruins. But eventually, Ossario accepted the truth.

The elf swallowed an uncomfortable lump that had formed in his throat. If only Palermo were still here today.

Just then, Ossario spied a dozen people far below him, walking along the path from his front door toward the street. Once the servants were gone for the night, he knew he could get to work.

Turning away from them, the elf let his gaze drift upward, and he contemplated the dark sky, its millions of stars twinkling like tiny gemstones tossed into an ocean of black.

Were the Six Sisters truly up there watching over all of Arcacantes?

It was a question he was taught to never ask, but one that crept into his mind every so often.

If the Six were there and cared for the people, why had they let the holy nation of Arcacantes devolve into the sorry condition in which it existed today?

Did he, Ossario Markestess, truly believe in the Six Sisters?

The answer was undoubtedly yes. No matter how many times his mind questioned the existence of the Six Sister Goddesses, the answer his heart provided was always the same: yes. But is this life what the Six wanted for their faithful? Once again, his eyes swept down to the rotten dilapidation of the city before him, like a vast necropolis where the interred corpses still walked about, not knowing they were already dead. In the distance, Lorona’s cathedral, still majestic even in its own decrepitude and in the darkness of night, loomed over all as it began to toll the eight bell.

The Six Sisters could not want this! Not a land where the people tortured themselves daily in the hopes of purification through penance. Not a day went by when the sound of wailing did not echo from all corners of every city in the land as the faithful visited the various temples and churches of the Six Sisters to have their assumed transgressions physically beaten and brutalized out of them, leaving their bodies masses of mangled flesh, all in the name of blessed absolution.

The Elders and the Shepherds of the churches across Arcacantes solemnly tended to the flocks who came to them for atonement during weekly services. The rest of the time, an individual was expected to take up the rod, torch, whip, and razor at home to perform the necessary penance themselves.

Each of the six sects of the church was devoted to one of the Six Sisters, and each had its own preferred method of absolving the guilt of its congregants.

Here in Lorona, the Whipped Hierophants—who honored Sister Sansavian the Scourge—were dominant, and were responsible for most of the city’s religious affairs.

Ossario sighed. He supposed whippings and beating were not as atrocious as what the devotees of Sister Meerialess the Afflicter, or Sister Nolana the Denier did to their charges. The elf shuddered at the mental images that flashed behind his eyes.

Damn it all, the elf thought, slamming a fist down on the railing. Change was needed in this land. A desperate, dramatic change. He believed this with all of his soul. This was no way to live. This was no way to maintain a nation. This wasn’t what the Six wanted of their followers. And he couldn’t possibly be the only one in this entire country who could see how wrong everything was.

No. No, he knew he wasn’t. The few people he had helped already were more akin to his way of thinking. Otherwise they would not have risked so much to reach out to him. And after monitoring them for a while before making contact, he was positive they were the sort of people who would not talk freely about what he had done for them.

Not that they knew his true identity.

Still, it seemed like such a small number of people. It was disheartening. It would be so easy to simply give up. But he knew he couldn’t. His position in society allowed him to perform his own penance at home, which meant he could forgo the abuse as he had been doing. He could leave the rest of the population to their fate. The majority of people were too deluded by the church, while the rest were too afraid to protest even in secret.

No, he could not sink into those thoughts.

Despite the state of ruin the city—and in fact the whole of the nation—had fallen into, Lorona and Arcacantes were his home. They needed him.

And with the rumors that were being whispered since he had begun his work three months ago—rumors of a dark spirit manifesting at night and stalking the streets to attack the unrepentant—perhaps those who heard of the Black Phasm would seek out the truth and open their eyes.

He stood to his full height. With a fire now burning in his chest, Ossario left the balcony and strode inside. It was time for the elf to get to work this night.

#

Kahtalusa walked alone down the quiet street. The holy day of Domeneli-Skaba, honoring Sister Domeneli the Flayer, had been a full two days ago, and yet the worn cobbles were still sticky with the rivers penitent blood that had been spilled, as the majority of the town had paraded through the streets in celebration, cutting their own flesh in penance. Her skin prickled and a shiver ran down her spine at the thought. She was glad she had moved out to live on her own, for, if she still lived with her father and brother, Tereno would have made sure she had participated in the gruesome act.

A sudden noise came from somewhere ahead of her, though she could not determine its source due to the nightly fog that had rolled in and now shrouded the streets. Kahtalusa made a quick dash for the cover of a nearby alleyway, and hid within the shadows. It was not illegal to be out at night, but she knew if she encountered a guard patrol, she would be stopped and interrogated for quite some time. She couldn’t be delayed and possibly miss her meeting with the Black Phasm.

As the seconds wore on, she eventually saw an elderly dwarf pass by the alley entrance, mumbling prayers to herself. When the woman had disappeared into the mists, Kahtalusa breathed a sigh of relief and went on her way.

Half an hour’s walk brought her to the edge of the Barena River in the fetid district the locals dubbed “Rankburg,” where all the slaughterhouses, tanneries, matchstick makers, and other terrible manufacturing industries that made one’s nostrils burn were concentrated, surrounded by the homes of their employees. Kahtalusa nearly staggered backward as the reek suddenly hit her. Though she had grown up here, the impact of the stench never lessened.

She thanked the Six upon safely reaching her father’s house, and let herself in. The house—actually more of a two-room shanty—was quiet and dark. Kahtalusa made her way by memory to a table and lit a tallow candle. From there, she made her way to the tiny bedroom where an elderly plaenar man lay prone upon a bed, apparently unconscious, and breathing in a laborious manner. In the dim light of the candle, his hair and beard appeared gray, like dirty snow, and his once-shining black horns were now faded to dullness with age.

Usto, her father.

Kahtalusa strode over to the bed and placed her candle upon the bedside table. She looked down at her father, tears welling in her eyes.

You fool,” she whispered, leaning down to kiss his cheek.

Her father had always been a strong and hale man, despite the devotion with which he had always performed his penance. The previous week he had taken ill with some sort of sickness that affected his breathing. He had assumed, as most would have in this damned land, that the illness had been sent from Sister Meerialess of the Six, Goddess of Affliction. And as any faithful Repenenciado would have done, Usto had traveled to one of the temples devoted to Sister Meerialess in the neighboring town of Domarr.

The sect of Sister Meerialess was ruled by the Plague Monks. Kahtalusa shuddered at the thought of these mysterious sorcerers. Usto had visited the Monks, hopeful they could use their vile malumancy to help bring his sickness to its full potential, and thereby absolve him of the guilt he obviously he carried. For why else would the Goddess have struck him ill?

The Plague Monks had succeeded in their foul magic. And now Usto lay here in his bed, alternating between unconsciousness and a delirious half-wakefulness, his breathing sounding like an intermittent death rattle.

Kahtalusa’s chest tightened with fear as she watched her father struggle to take in air. Which of his labored breaths would be his last?

She shook her head to dispel the thought. No, she couldn’t think that way. The Black Phasm would help. That’s what the rumors were beginning to say, right? That he was helping heal people. She wondered if these rumors had reached any of the Priests of Penance. What would the Sovereign Bishop of Arcacantes do if he ever found out?

She let out a weak chuckle. Fortunately, this town was too small for anyone important to take notice.

There was a rap at the door, and Kahtalusa froze in place, her heart banging against her ribcage. For a brief moment she thought it must be Tereno, her brother, come home early. But then common sense reminded her that her brother wouldn’t knock before entering his own home.

The staccato raps continued, and she concentrated on the patterm; a sequence of three quick knocks, a pause, then two slow ones. It was the code she had been told to expect.

Picking up the flickering candle once more, Kahtalusa returned to the front entrance. Hands trembling, she opened the door a crack, peering through. A figure stood just beyond, cloaked in shadows.

Is it…Is it really you?” She hated how her voice shook on the last word.

The invocation please,” the figure whispered urgently.

Oh yes, forgive me,” Kahtalusa answered. She recalled the words that had been written in the message. “Night falls, but the Six still watch. Who calls at this hour?”

The Black Phasm,” the figure answered in a harsh whisper, and stepped over the threshold as Kahtalusa pulled open the door fully to allow him entry. She peered out for less than a second, then shut the door with haste, hoping no prying eyes were out and about on the street to see him enter.

When she turned around to face him, Kahtalusa took an involuntary step backward as she examined the figure before her. He was tall, but lean, and wore all black—a color outlawed in Arcacantes, for it represented an unrepentant soul. Boots, gloves, trousers, tunic, overcoat, and headwrap–in which she could make out the outline of pointed ears; all were the color of pitch. Every garment seemed to be made of leather, and hugged his body. Not an inch of skin was exposed to view. Upon his head sat a wide-brimmed hat, and underneath it, a terrifying countenance peered out at her.

She now knew why some rumors him a sinister spirit. She studied his face for a long moment before realizing it was simply a mask. It reminded Kahtalusa of the aquila wyverns, a beaked sub-species of small dragons native to Arcacantes. The mask had a beak like the aquila, long, and ending in a sharp point. Brown eyes peered out at her through eyeholes sealed with what appeared to be small, round panes of glass.

She waited a moment for her heart to slow before she spoke.

Are you really the Black Phasm?” Kahtalusa asked, her hand absent-mindedly going up to her broken left horn to scratch at its broken stump.

I am,” the Phasm answered. His voice was distorted by the beaked mask he wore. It would be impossible to place the voice if she heard it elsewhere, unmodified. “Your message said your father has fallen ill?”

Kahtalusa nodded. “Yes.” She swallowed a lump in her throat. “Sending a message to you was quite difficult.”

She didn’t know why she mentioned this. Once it was out of her mouth, she felt foolish. Of course the man knew how difficult it was to request his aid.

I apologize for that,” the Black Phasm said, unbuckling a satchel that Kahtalusa now realized he was carrying.

He appeared to remember something, and began going around the tiny room, examining the walls and floor. What was he looking for? Traps she might have set for him? His caution was completely understandable, though Kahtalusa had to admit it made her feel the tiniest bit insulted. She didn’t question him.

Being difficult to reach is how it must be,” the Phasm said once he was done looking around. “For if I were to expose my true identity, or if I were caught, my life would be forfeit. If the Priests of Penance knew who I was, they would come to…silence me.”

I understand,” Kahtalusa replied, her anxiety easing somewhat. “Come this way.”

She led the Black Phasm into the bedroom where her father rested on the bed. Again, the masked man searched the room as if for hidden traps. When he seemed satisfied there was no danger, Kahtalusa spoke.

Some sort of infection has taken hold of his lungs, I believe,” she told him as the both observed the unconscious man struggle to breathe. “He visited the Plague Monks in Domarr.” She shook her head, and words suddenly burst from her. “This can’t be what the Six want.”

Instantly, she felt a flush suffuse her as these blasphemous words in exasperation of her father’s actions slipped from her mouth. Kahtalusa had never voiced such opinions outside the safety of her group of conspirators. But this masked man…Surely he wouldn’t be doing what he did if he did not oppose the teachings of the Church in some way. Anyone one who did so put their life in jeopardy.

Kahtalusa stood beside him, motionless, waiting for the man to respond.

I do not believe this is what the Six want, either,” the Black Phasm said, his voice low but clear.

A weight lifted off Kahtalusa’s chest at his response. She watched as the Phasm set his satchel on the floor and leaned over her father, head tilted as he listened to Usto’s breathing for a few moments. He lifted the old man’s eyelids to study the eyes, and put two fingers under his jaw to sense the strength of her father’s heartbeat.

Before falling unconscious, did your father complain of chest pains?”

Yes, when I visited him last evening,” Kahtalusa answered.

Much coughing?”

Kahtalusa nodded.

The Black Phasm then knelt down beside his satchel and proceeded to extract various vials of liquid, sachets of herbs, and a ragged-looking tome, along with a mortar and pestle.

Without speaking, the masked man flipped to a page in the book, skimmed it, then poured the contents of several vials and packets together into the mortar. He began grinding it all with the pestle.

May I ask you a question?” Kahtalusa said, biting her lip nervously, and restraining herself from scratching at her broken horn. She had to know more.

You just did,” the Black Phasm answered. He made a noise, but the mask made it difficult to determine whether or not it had been a chuckle. “What is your question?”

Kahtalusa hesitated a moment. “Why do you do this? Why do you go against the Church in order to help people? If you were ever caught…”

They would surely send the Order of Deprivation’s Ordained Assassins for my blood, yes,” he replied. He poured a strange red liquid into the mortar. It began to fizzle and pungent steam rose from it. Pulling a leather cloth from his bag, the Black Phasm quickly covered the bowl. “This needs to sit for a minute.”

Kahtalusa waited, but the man spoke no more. She asked her question again.

Why do you risk your life to do this?”

A sigh emanated from the mask, and he turned the beaked visage toward her.

As I said before, I do not think the Six would want us living like this,” he said, crossing his arms. “Long ago, my…someone in my life made me realize how warped the teachings and doctrine of the Church of Repenencia has become over the centuries.” He shook his head. “This is not how the Six want people to live. A sort of corruption infected our land long ago. How this came to be, I cannot say. Most alive today are blind to its doings. It is hard to notice something that creeps into everyday lives with slow, sinister deliberation over such a great stretch of time. But you can see it everywhere. If you studied the history texts of Arcacantes, you would see the slow change and process of degradation. Of course, all that material is under lock and key at the Academy in the capital. No one has been allowed inside the vault since the fourth Sovereign Bishop of Arcacantes forbade it.”

Then how did you study these things?” Kahtalusa asked. Who was this man? If he had been inside the Academy…

The Black Phasm waved away her question. “It does not matter.”

Kahtalusa felt a slight irritation at his dismissal, but let him continue.

Our land will be nothing but ruins in a few generations,” the Black Phasm went on. His tone of voice seemed to be getting more heated. “The people of our land are so bent on enforcing and achieving penance, and too many end up crippling themselves. That affects everything over time. What happens when farmers can no longer farm because they’ve mutilated their legs? The food supply begins to dwindle. What happens when masons and laborers cannot work because they broke the bones in their own hands for absolution? Our buildings and structures decay. What happens when children die in the name of atonement?” His voice had reached a passionate volume, but then calmed as he seemed to remember where he was. “Forgive me.”

It is all right,” Kahtalusa said, the man’s words still running through her head.

Our land is large, and our population great,” the Phasm went on. “So it is difficult to observe the ramifications of our traditions. But if you look, really look, you’ll see the signs. How many empty houses have you seen in this town? The city of Lorena was built for many more people than what currently reside here. It’s the same across Arcacantes. I’ve seen it.” He paused. “Maybe not in our lifetime, but eventually, this nation will be devoid of life.”

With a sigh, the man in black with the beaked mask turned away to check on his mixture. It seemed ready, for he uncovered the whole thing and brought the bowl under Usto’s nose, so that the vapors could be inhaled by the unconscious man.

Everything this mysterious Phasm had just said raced around inside Kahtalusa’s head. This man was of the same mind as she. He wanted to fight against the twisted ways of this land just as she did. In fact, he was already fighting as the Black Phasm, a mysterious healer, going around the city, treating those who had crippled themselves in the name of the Six Sisters.

Eight years ago, my mother died,” Kahtalusa said as she watched the Black Phasm work. “She went to visit Elder Materno for penance, and he…” Her voice caught in her throat as the memory came flooding back. “He whipped her so badly…” She wiped at her moist eyes, and cleared her throat. “Ever since then, I’ve been opposed to the sickening ways we are expected to honor the Six. It’s not right.” She stepped toward the man. “Listen. I belong to a group of people—”

No,” the Black Phasm interrupted her. “Do not speak more of that. I do not want to hear it.” He had finished his ministrations and emptied the contents of the mortar into the chamber pot beneath Usto’s bed. “The less you say the better.”

But we are like you,” Kahtalusa protested. “My group wants to bring change here. Perhaps my friends and I can help you. Do you know what we’ve managed to learn of other nations? How people live—”

I said no.” The Black Phasm returned his used equipment to his bag. “I do not want to involve others in what I do. I am already risking my own life. I cannot be responsible for the lives of others.”

What utter rot,” Kahtalusa said, anger brewing in her chest. “You’re sneaking around at night healing people in mortal need of aid. How is that not making yourself responsible for the lives of others?”

You know what I mean,” the masked man said with irritation. After packing everything, he pulled out a small pouch filled with what looked like seeds or pebbles. “Your father should regain lucidity tomorrow by noon. Make sure he eats one of those capsules with each meal until they are gone.”

Yes, but—” Kahtalusa hurried after him as the Black Phasm strode out of the room, headed for the front door.

I must be gone,” he said, reaching for the door handle. “I have another meeting to see to tonight.”

Kahtalusa was about to protest once again when the Black Phasm opened the door. Standing before them at the threshold, his hand reaching for the handle on the other side, was Tereno.

Her brother had come home earlier from his trip than anticipated.

#

Ossario could feel heat rush to his pointed elven ears as he took a step backward at the sight of the large plaenar on the doorstep. The heavily muscled man stood seven feet, his black horns giving him another foot or so.

What is this?” Tereno said, stepping into the house. “Who are you?” His eyes then flicked over to Kahtalusa. “Sister? What are you doing here?”

Tereno, you were supposed to return tomorrow morning,” Kahtalusa said in a low voice. “Someone had to watch over father.”

The Six watch over him,” Tereno said. “If he had died, then that is how the Six would have wanted it.” He took another step forward.

Ossario felt his heart hammering. This man was the plaenar woman’s brother. He had seen him around town on occasion. The elf knew Tereno wasn’t of the same mind as his sister. This was not good. He had to get out of here quickly. But the look on Tereno’s face told him the plaenar wasn’t going to let that happen.

Wait, I know of you,” Tereno said, glaring back at Ossario. A slow grimace of recognition dawned on his face. “Black clad, beaked face. You are that Black Phasm rumors have spoken of. You’re real…and you’re in my house.”

I am just leaving,” Ossario said, trying to keep his voice calm. It was difficult.

No,” Tereno said flatly. “No, I don’t think you are. The city guard want any and all information on you. And here you are in my own home.” He spat on the ground. “You are an unholy blasphemer, skulking in the night, bringing sin wherever you tread.”

What you’ve heard is untrue,” Ossario explained, though the elf already knew this man would not listen.

Without warning, the plaenar lunged, tackling Ossario to the ground. The breath in Ossario’s lungs was forced out as he hit the floor, and a loud groan was forced from him. His vision swam for a moment, for the back of his head had struck the corner of a table. But as soon as his eyes could focus again, he saw a fist coming straight for him.

The mask—while good for filtering out airborne particles that could cause disease—was no protection against the plaenar man’s assault. The blow caught Ossario in the left side of his face, and he immediately tasted blood in his mouth.

Get off of him!” the elf heard Kahtalusa shriek, sounding as though she were far away.

He felt Tereno’s weight lift off of him, and heard scuffling. The punch had shattered the mask’s glass eyepieces. He couldn’t see. The elf knew he had no choice, and removed his mask.

He saw Tereno, eyes full of rage, holding a struggling Kahtalusa by her one unbroken horn, her feet barely touching the ground.

You dare bring this unholy thing into our father’s house?” Tereno bellowed.

He lifted Kahtalusa by the horn completely off the floor and delivered several rapid punches into her stomach. He then tossed his sister into the wall like a doll made of rags.

Enough!” Ossario shouted, tasting copper as he spoke. He removed a hidden knife from his belt and held it before him.

Tereno laughed at the sight, but his expression soon became one of confusion and disbelief as he stared at Ossario, who now stood before him unmasked. Kahtalusa also looked up at that same moment from where she was sprawled on the floor, marveling at the elf’s bare face.

It cannot be,” Tereno said, utter shock having replaced his rage. “Elder…Elder Ossario Markestess?”

Silence,” Ossario said, mustering all the authority he could. He imagined himself speaking to one of his own congregants.

Elder Ossario,” Tereno whispered, his face still radiating disbelief. “How could you? Have you forsaken your position in the Church? Your duty?”

Ossario shook his head, glaring at his opponent. “My duty is to aid the people, is it not? That is what I am doing. I am repairing the harm the Church of Repenencia has been doing for far too long.”

But this…this is sacrilege,” Tereno said, a note of childish incredulity in his voice.

I said silence,” Ossario ordered. He kept the point of his knife aimed at the plaenar. What was he to do? This man would surely reveal the Black Phasm’s identity to the authorities. But he couldn’t just stand here forever, keeping Tereno at bay. Carrying the knife was as far as he’d gotten in planning for an emergency situation. Damn his own stupidity!

Are you going to kill me?” Tereno asked, anger returning to his words.

I…” Ossario didn’t know how to answer. His duty was to help people. The purpose of the Black Phasm was to save lives, not hasten their end.

You can’t do it,” Tereno sneered. He stepped forward, and like a snake, struck out, grabbing Ossario’s wrist in his large hand, and wrenching the knife from his grip so that it clattered onto the floor. The plaenar kicked the weapon out of reach.

Let me go,” Ossario said, struggling to free his wrist. It was futile. The plaenar was too strong.

Tereno spat on the floor. “Even with your faith misplaced in this unholy act you perform, you still don’t have the fortitude to—”

There was a dull flash of metal, and the man’s words were cut off, replaced with a wet gurgle. Tereno released Ossario’s wrist and his hands went up to his throat trying to stem the flow of blood that had begun to escape his flesh.

Tereno collapsed, his life essence pooling on the floor, forming a dark puddle. Behind him stood Kahtalusa, Ossario’s knife grasped in her shaking hand, dripping with the life it had just taken. The weapon fell from her grip as Kahtalusa and Ossario watched her brother twitch and writhe on the ground until he lay motionless.

The elf looked up from the dead man to his sister.

I had to,” she said, her voice trembling.

The elf could see the plaenar woman struggling to keep her face expressionless, despite the tears flowing freely from her eyes.

Kahtalusa,” Ossario whispered, unsure of what to say.

Kahtalusa wiped away her tears, only for fresh ones to stream down her cheeks. “He would have killed us. I couldn’t…I couldn’t let…”

Regaining some sense, Ossario walked around the body over to Kahtalusa and put a hand on her shoulder. “I…Thank you.” He looked down. “I would not have wished you to perform such a deed.”

What is done is done,” she whispered, and with a deep breath seemed to find some composure. She swallowed loudly. “He was my blood, yes. But he was also a brute. You didn’t know him, other than as one of your congregants. But he…” She paused. “Blood means nothing if there is no love in the relationship.” She tore her eyes away from the body on the floor to look at the elf. “Plus…what is one life for the many that you have and will continue to save?”

I am very much in your debt…” Ossario swallowed. He was struck by how calm the plaenar was when he himself felt like collapsing. Though she was most likely experiencing some shock. “We should dispose of the bod—of your brother’s remains.”

There is an opening to the sewers at the end of the street,” Kahtalusa replied, her tone harsh. “We can put him in there. It’s where he belongs.”

That should work,” Ossario said. He looked over at the doorway to the bedroom. He was glad the old plaenar had not been conscious to see what had just transpired. He wondered how Kahtalusa would explain Tereno’s disappearance to their father.

Thank you for everything you’ve done,” Kahtalusa said after a moment of silence. “Listen. I shall never tell anyone of your true identity. But you cannot keep doing all this work alone. You need allies. You need friends.” She looked in his eyes. “Know that you can trust me. I offer my help to you in whatever capacity I can lend aid. You wish to bring change to the nation? You will not even bring change to all of this one city if you go at it all alone. Accept me. Meet my people. We will work together. You need all the assistance you can get.”

But if you are caught—” Ossario began.

I know what will happen.” Kahtalusa waved his words away. Her look was one of utter determination. “Do not think me naïve.”

Ossario studied the woman’s stern face, her broken horn, her skin marred by a lifetime of scars, blood—her brother’s and her own—staining her clothes. There was fire in her large eyes, and a steeliness in her countenance that told of the hardships she had lived with. She was right, he knew. He couldn’t possibly keep doing this whole operation himself. Especially if he was to bring about the changes this nation required.

Ossario stuck out his hand. “Kahtalusa, I accept your pledge of aid.”

The plaenar woman took the elf’s hand in a firm hold, then pulled him into an unexpected hug.

Kahtalusa whispered into Ossario Markestess’ pointed ear, her words like steel.

Black Phasm, hear my vow. Together we shall change lives and bring about the downfall of the madness that grips our land. I swear it.”

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