The Prioress

(More from the land of the Shift. This turned into a bit of a short story. Unfortunately, I’m not close to good enough at photoshop to illustrate it.)

Her name had been Greta, and she had been raised in Cheruk Syndicate in the days when Fox Speaker ruled the city. Her parents were Fallen—Goyles, as the less devout called them—but she was born healthy and entirely human. Fox Speaker took her on as his lover when she grew old enough, and taught her the ways of the ayahuasca, the peyote, the blue mushrooms which still grew on dung if you dared to brave the Shift. What spirits she touched shook her with their anger, their need for vengeance over what humans had done to their earth.

“How can we appease them?” she’d asked Fox Speaker, young and terrified and trusting.

And he had shown her.

So that’s what happened to my parents, she thought, remembering the days when her mother, and then her father, had vanished, leaving nothing but their memories behind. She did not blame Fox Speaker. They’d been driven insane by the power of the Shift; it was more evil to keep them alive. The altar was high above the city, and when the moon was full and bright, you could see the shimmering border of the Shift at the edge of the city’s ruins, rippling like a gauze curtain. It pulsed brighter when Fallen blood splashed across the ancient stones; in the fading glow she could sometimes make out an odd sound, deep and rumbling and contented. Like a cat sated after a rich meal.

“Is this what keeps the Shift from the city?” It was raining that night, a fierce downpour that washed away all the blood.

Fox Speaker shook his head. “Humanity does that.”

“Ten thousand per square kilometer,” she said. The number drilled into every City-dweller’s head, no matter how ill-educated. The population density needed to keep the Shift at bay.

“But death helps. Death keeps it satisfied.”

He was killed later that year. Yi, the upstart street-hustler who’d been poaching on Fox Speaker’s territory in central, called a meeting to negotiate a truce. A bomb destroyed the safe house and killed everyone inside—including Yi’s own operatives. She remembered that she read about something like that once, in one of the pre-virus books that Fox Speaker had collected: Romans or Celts or some primitives like that, ambushing their enemies under a flag of peace. She wondered if that meant that Fox Speaker should have suspected Yi’s treachery. But maybe history merely repeats itself because it works.

She was known to Yi; she was hunted. Fox Speaker’s successor, Uru, had never liked her and offered her no protection.

She escaped into the Shift. They thought she was lost there, that the wild, roaming goyles, warped beyond all recognition by the raw power of the Shift, would make quick work of her. They very nearly did. She very nearly let them, mad with grief over Fox Speaker, and fury toward Yi.

Among a pile of deer droppings, a perfect blue mushroom. She rested against the withered trees and fondled its silken top, delicate gills. She ate the entire thing. Deep in the Shift, she felt no spirits to keep at bay. Only peace, and a burning circle with an uneven line through it. She knew that symbol. She had seen it all her life. But Cheruk didn’t follow Keller; they traveled an older path. She saw him within the burning orb—Fox Speaker’s beloved face sliding into that of a stranger, and then back again.

“You must hold back the Shift,” they said. “You must maintain the sacrifice.”

The mushroom poisoned her. The large ones could do that, sometimes. She awoke on a pallet of rough burlap, weak and burning with thirst. She was alone. Sunlight streamed from between the grimy slats boarded over a gaping hole that might have once been a window. The light fell on the far wall, illuminating something that took her breath away.

A Keller circle, done in gold, made fiery in the sunlight. The words of her vision came back to her.

She’d been found and cared for by religious recluses, Keller-worshipers who lived and scavenged like animals within the Shift to better honor their messiah. Their home was a long-abandoned manor, filled with crumbling bricks and ancient graffiti: “disco dan” in fading black paint, strange humanoid creatures with wide, googly eyes and pointed chins. A few of these recluses were Fallen, but the power of the Shift didn’t affect them inside these walls. The marauding goyles couldn’t enter their compound…voluntarily.

They tried to hide it from her, but it didn’t take long for her to understand the reason for the manor’s safety. Keller himself had told her. She had learned her lesson from Yi—to revenge herself upon him, she would have to be ruthless as well. She made them build up the walls, scavenging the edges of the city for materials, and stealing the rest. When some objected to the perversion of their simple worship, she had them sacrificed. And when their numbers dwindled, she dressed herself in the green that Fox Speaker had always loved, covered her face and hair, and approached the syndicates.

“We’re just a humble missionary school,” she told them, “kept safe in the Shift by Keller, blessed be his name. We wish to raise girls into appreciation of His love, away from the sinfulness of the city. Surely you have many such corrupted girls?”

And of course they did. Yi and Shiva, Jade and even Cheruk, they gave her their wayward daughters, grateful to be rid of these destabilizing forces. The Manor grew in size, in prestige, in power. Yi never suspected a thing, not even when he gave his own daughter to the Manor after he had caught her dancing with his driver.

“Send her back to me when she’s tamed, Prioress,” he’d said. She bowed and escorted the screaming girl away. It had never occurred to Yi to consider who might lie beneath that wimple.

She killed the girl herself, with a sharp knife, bright moonlight and a dim view of the rippling Shift border. Novices delivered the body to Yi compound’s door and then scurried away. He could not avoid her signature: Cheruk’s crest, a running fox, branded right over his daughter’s heart.

He knew, then, who had been the architect of this misery, which face must lurk behind the Prioress’s veil.

The Prioress grew old, and richer and more powerful.

Yi kept away, and never told his son how his sister had been killed. Such tragedies happened in the syndicates often enough. No one had much concern over particulars.