If yawning chasms could speak, they would have his voice. Deep and dark and empty, it echoed off the cliffs overlooking Meridian. “I admire your research. Very ambitious for such a young scholar.”
“Thank you, sir,” I stammered, eyes flitting from the jagged, narrow cliff-side path to the giant who led me. The wind yanked hard at the edges of his white cloak, and he took heedless strides while I had to pick my way by inches. It felt like every loose pebble I kicked down the mountain landed in the pit of my stomach.
“You say you discovered the story of my past?” he said, turning back to regard me, that featureless silver mask swallowing his face.
“I think so. Nothing about your days before you... um... whoa!”
Stumbling over my words, I tripped over my feet, and the world pitched upside-down. I plunged off the path. He caught my wrist and swung me in front of him, setting me down on my feet. I threw myself against the cliff wall and breathed in long, keening gasps. His hand was deep-sea cold. “Th-thank you.”
The mask nodded. “Go on.”
“Nothing about your days before joining the Abyssal. Some accounts about what you did in the cult.”
He towered over me. He could even loom over most Bahmi, in his ornate robes and ornate mask, with his simple, deep voice that drilled into your chest. “Some of it was quite terrible.” With one huge hand, he bade me take the lead. I didn’t know where we were going, but there was only one path.
“Some of it, yes. I do know that the cult made you Tidelord of Meridian. But you approached Asha and Orphiel, offering them the stronghold in exchange for amnesty and a position of power within the emerging Defiant.”
I lost track of how far we trekked through the mountains. There were times I had to scramble on hands and knees to climb over rocks, while the Faceless Man simply stepped over them, never breaking stride. At last, he said, “Well found. You’ve earned this initiation.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, not without pride. Here I was, being led by the spymaster of the Defiant to join their network of infiltrators and agents. Now, at last, I would serve my faction, and learn what lay at the end of this mountain path besides the rasping roar of the ever-closer ocean.
“You must have many questions,” he mused. “How could a sworn Tidelord defy the will of Akylios? And why would Catari and Farwind trust a cultist? By all rights, they should have taken the city and slain me, not put me in a position of such power.”
“If I had to guess,” I said, “you somehow resisted the confirmation ritual and fooled the other Abyssal. And your position comes from having some leverage. The Defiant need you, or you wouldn’t be alive.”
The Faceless Man chuckled behind me. “Spoken like a true spy.”
“Thank you, sir. I know I’ll serve you well.” I turned a corner and found myself at the end of the path, a spike overlooking a thousand-foot drop to waves and rocks and froth. “What sort of leverage is it?”
“What do you think?”
I took a deep breath. “I’ve heard of an Abyssal ritual, known only to Tidelords--a series of sigils surrounding a stronghold to keep enemies from getting in. I’m guessing you altered the sigils to keep the riftspawn at bay, and keep their locations hidden. Am I right?”
The Faceless Man stood behind me, and I heard him cross his arms over his chest. For a spymaster, he carried himself like a Warrior, every gesture swift and cutting. “Asked like a true spy. Of course, you know I won’t tell you, but the effort shows bravado. Also, we’re far past the vulgarity of requiring leverage. I have given the Defiant years of loyal service, so I hold trust on my own merits, though I still keep my secrets.”
“Trust, you will find,” he went on, “is just as important to the Defiant as it is to the Guardians.”
I nodded, looking out at where unsettled sea and stormy sky blended into a long, cobalt cord stretched tight across the horizon. “I will remember that, sir.”
“Remember also not to swear by the Vigil under your breath, even when you think you’re alone. Faith in the gods is a rare thing among the Defiant. More common among foolish Guardian sneaks.”
Before I could stop myself, my fingertips flew to where I normally wore my symbol of Thontic. I wheeled to find his sword point grazing my chest, having slashed through my robe with only the force of my turn. “Please...” I said.
“You must have enemies in Sanctum, to send you so inexperienced on such a dangerous mission. Infiltrate the Unseen?” I wondered if he could smirk beneath that mask. “Unheard-of.”
“Please, I’m not an agent!” I pleaded. “I chose to do this, to serve the Vigil. I didn’t learn anything that wasn’t already in your library. Please, I’m not even Ascended. Just let me go, and I promise, you’ll never see me again.” I took a step back, heel hovering over the drop.
He stared at me a long time, masked head tilted. A drop of blood welled up on my chest, running over the tip of his sword. At last, he nodded and stepped back, blade at his side. “Turn around.”
I did, my heart fluttering against my ribs. I heard him walk away. I would go home to Silverwood. I would disappear. I had friends who could hide me, from both my people and the Defiant. How had he known? For now, at least, I was safe, I
His massive hand wrapped around my head. He had never left.
He squatted like a gargoyle at the end of the long promontory, the wind whipping his cloak back and singing against the silver of his grotesque mask. He watched the boy begin to fall, and then rose and walked back toward Meridian. To his credit, the giant seemed to look back, but without a face, who can say for sure?