Those Thin, Penultimate Hours, while not strictly plot related, will help greatly in understanding things.
Dawn hung in misty sheets, curling through tangled forest. A mourning dove cooed in the grey distance. Here and there the half-collapsed skeleton of a house could be seen through the thick trees, lit softly by the pre-morning.
A woman walked down the road, splattered with gore, a lumpy black body slung over one shoulder as if it was little more than a bundle of twigs. She was a very heavy-set woman, in both overall shape and the fact that she consisted of nine hundred pounds of white marble studded with smoothed chunks of amethyst.
The marble woman’s name was Ahlama Bat Amir, and she was singing. Her voice reverberated through the trees, clear as the morning itself.
“As I went down in the river to pray / studying about that good old way / and who shall wear the starry crown / Good Lord, show me the way…”
The cyclops slung over her shoulder, with the snapped neck and caved-in skull and shattered rib-cage, had been stalking around the local farms for the last few nights, and at least three goats had been stolen. Poor thing was starving and half-mad, not stable enough to be relocated elsewhere. Had to be put down. Their meat wasn’t any good to eat, but the biology classes would have a fine time dissecting it.
“Oh, sisters, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down… Oh sisters, let’s go down, down in the river to pray…”
The path road wound on through the forest. Occasionally, Ahlama would pass a watchtower or tree platform where a member of the Guard would be sitting, huddled in their jacket, perhaps sipping tea or soup out of a thermos, or gnawing on some squirrel jerky, gun at the ready, radio at hand. She waved at each one she passed, though she was not able to see if they waved back. The watchtower guards hid themselves well.
“As I went down in the river to pray / studying about that good old way / and who shall wear the robe and crown / Good Lord, show me the way…”
The woods gave away a bit from the road, revealing a few inhabited homesteads, and the stone walls of the town rose in the distance. The first sunlight of the day filtered through the trees.
“Oh, brothers, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down… Oh brothers, let’s go down, down in the river to pray…”
The walls rose higher and higher as she approached. They did not have the distinction of being unbreached, but no walls in these days had that to brag about. But they were tall and thick, with various wards against harm carved into the blocks, and they were manned by the Guard. That was good enough for most. These were walls that promised salvation to the lost.
“Good morning!” She waved at the gatehouse.
A window above the gate opened, revealing the head of a gangly, acne-faced, tired-looking student.
“Morning, Ahlama,” he yawned. “Nice job ther-what?” He turned his head back inside the window. “Sister, I am not falling asleep, I’m completely awake…yes, Sister, I know…yes, I know…Sister, I am not falling asleep.” He turned back to Ahlama, rolling his eyes. “Hold on, we’ll let you in, get you some water to wash all that off.”
Ahlama nodded, and a short time later the groan of machinery could be heard from within the wall as Gate Leibowitz opened. A second student, shorter and mousy looking, was standing there with a bucket full of hot water and a rag.
“Here you go, Ahlama.”
“Thank you, Ben.” The gate shut behind her with a monolithic sound.
“We got a note from the Headmistress for you.” Ben handed Ahlama a folded piece of paper.
The note read:
A woman by the name of Jun Iseul Error should have arrived with the West Road Trade Guild caravan late last night. She’s here to do some study of the reliquary and will be staying at the school for several weeks. I need you to show her around. Standard tour, nothing special.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to meet with her today, so please pass my apologies on to Ms. Error: the Transit Authority decided to call a meeting with the town council and we’ll be at it all day. If I manage to get out early, I’ll see if I can find you.
Thanks a bunch
There was a pneumatic hiss from the wall on the right, ending at a tiny opening in the wall at head height, just the size of someone’s thumb. A moment later the white-haired, black-armored, stern-faced, and incredibly tiny countenance of Sister Superior Victoria, OVH, stepped out onto her little balcony.
“Good morning, Sister.” Ahlama saluted with her free hand. Victoria nodded for ease.
“I see the Emperor has granted you victory in your hunt. And that you’ve received the Headmistress’ missive. Excellent. I’ll have these louts take care of that carcass.”
Ahlama watched Ben’s face drop in disappointment and gave him a sympathetic smile. No one got off work when Sister Victoria was on duty. She then excused herself, found a secluded spot a short distance away, and washed off the splatters of dried blood and pulpy viscera from the cyclops she had killed. Wouldn’t be fitting to show anyone around while looking like that.
Jun Iseul Error wiped the grit from her glasses on a threadbare handkerchief. Around her, the caravan market bustled. The West Road Trade Guild, being a sizable group meaning to stay for several days, had set up inside the walls, in the Inside Market, and the town within a town had planted its short-lived roots there: cooking fires sent their smoke up to the sky, dogs and children raced underfoot through the trucks and wagons, bison1 snorted, and the merchants bickered and shouted in a dozen dialects. With the day would come business: some wise shoppers among the townsfolk had decided to beat the later crowds. The Guildsmen appreciated this, and took the opportunity to break out their fake early-bird specials.
Jun stuffed the handkerchief back in her pocket. She was a thin, wiry woman, the kind that was built on stretched meals and long work hours, somewhere on the shy side of thirty years old: black hair pulled back in a short ponytail, straw hat to block out the sun, beaten old backpack and weather-worn hunting rifle, travel-mussed clericals. Someone had accidentally stepped on her collar a few days ago, leaving it rather crumpled and sad looking.
But she was finally here. It took a month and a half on the road from the west, but she was finally here. Not that she had a chance to enjoy it yet, but the relief was setting in. Travel didn’t agree with her, or at least the plodding monotony of cross-country travel. Dealing with spookums in the night was easy. The byzantine labyrinth of intra-caravan drama and the omnipresent bureaucracy of the Transit Authority were well outside her areas of expertise, and she was glad to trade them for regular access to toilet paper.
The letter of introduction sat folded in her pocket. She didn’t think she’d need it now: she had spoken with the Headmistress of the Hope Lake School on the phone several weeks ago when the caravan had stopped in CORN LAND, DOMAIN OF SRQNABOTF.
“Hello? Excuse me, are you Ms. Error?”
Jun turned to see a fat woman approaching her. It took a moment for the details, the word carved into forehead, the hollow eyes filled with gentle fire, the fact that she was made of stone, to fall together in Jun’s head and spell out “golem”.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Oh, good. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find you: I can barely understand these people when they’re giving directions.”
Jun had never met a golem before, and she had not expected them to be so conversational. This was a reassuring surprise.
“The accent is pretty thick, yeah. Are you from the school?”
“Mmm-hmm. The Headmistress wanted me to show you around today, and to let you know that she’s sorry she wasn’t able to do it in person.”
“No problem. I can’t imagine her life is anything less than busy. Lead the way." Jun didn't voice it as a command: that would make sense, but it felt impolite.
The golem nodded and began to walk back the way she had came. Jun kept pace with her.
“I know you know who I am, but I don’t know your name.”
“Oh, sorry. I’m Ahlama. It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Error.”
“Likewise. Oh, and, uh, just between us, you can drop the whole Ms. Error thing. Jun is fine, or just Error. Friday’s good too.”
“You have a lot of names.”
“When you throw them all together I’m Mother Jun Friday Iseul Error, and by that point it’s just nonsense.”
The golem-woman chuckled, the sound rolling out in P-waves.
“I suppose it is.”
The pair made their way out of the Inside Market and into the town proper.
By modern standards, the town of Hope Lake was a place of almost unimaginable wealth: clean cobbled streets, electric streetlamps, solar panels and windmills and vegetable gardens and chicken coops among the houses and shops. The lake provided enough algae to make sure that no one went too hungry, and the presence of the school meant that the literacy rate was significantly higher – nearly eighty-five percent. The presence of the Guard meant that crime was low, as well as deflecting threats from the outside, and the old sponsorship of the Initiative had seen to keeping the populace’s spiritual needs fulfilled, though Tribunal had become more of a cultural power rather than a political one: The settlements had their own leaders, their own governments, all tied together by a shared birth.
The cost of creating these havens in the chaotic aftermath of the Breach had been bankrupting the Initiative, clearing out its reliquaries, and begging, borrowing, stealing and scavenging every spare cent that could be drummed up. But where the Initiative fell apart, the seven city-states of Horizon rose to fill its place: Bastion, Hope Lake, St. Kateri, Watchpoint, New Pitt, Ghibli, and Levi. Mizbeach had been the eighth, but had been handed over to Marshall, Carter, and Dark Ltd as collateral for a loan default. Prayers went up daily for the sake of those who lived in that town.
Ahlama had not been born in Hope Lake, but it was home. She knew many of the townsfolk she saw now by name (golems have a good mind for memory), and she waved to them as she passed on towards the school. Jun remained quiet, though Ahlama noticed that the woman was watching everything with an intent eye.
“So where are you from, Jun?” she asked.
“Little trapper town around Mount Whitney, right off the trader road down to Vegas. Nothing like this. A lot more…salt of the Earth, if you get what I’m saying.”
“Lots of hair, bad teeth, and everyone’s related?”
“Yep. Plain old folks.”
“The best kind.”
“And the not-so-best.”
“Yeah, that too. Lot of the time they’re the same people. You’ve got a parish, then?”
“I was wondering when you’d bring that up.” Jun tugged at her crumpled collar. “You know how it goes: world falls apart, then gets put back together all on its head. Job’s gotta get done, and I don’t think God cares much about who does it, so long as they do it right.”
Ahlama nodded. Jobs needed doing, and if you were told to do the job, you did the job.
“You think like a golem.”
“Good thing I know that’s a compliment now.”
The pair passed through the gate of the school. The archway above them was engraved with the following:
Hope Lake School
IN SCIENTIA SUPERVIVERE
The walls were not as tall or as thick as those surrounding the town, but they were fortress enough to serve as a fallback in the case of invasion. Thankfully, that had not yet been the case. Ahlama waved to the guards as they passed.
“If you have any questions, just ask, and I’m sorry if I ramble a bit.” Ahlama imitated clearing her throat: she didn’t actually have a throat to clear.
“Hope Lake School was founded in 2036, shortly after Horizon troops retook this area from…”
Jun juggled observing the school and listening to her guide: there was a great deal to take in.
The school was a nested fortress. If the town’s walls fell, the school could hold out. If the school’s walls were breached, barricades could easily be put up between the buildings to fortify the inner campus, and if those barricades were breached, the buildings themselves were easily defensible from the inside. Fortresses within fortresses. Jun was a woman of the hinterlands, fit for chasing away spookums and brewing moonshine. This was all far more impressive than anything she had seen back west, save perhaps the Angelic University and the Vegas Archives.
The campus was still, as it was still quite early. The students would be scraping out five more minutes before breakfast, though a few early risers could be seen jogging around. A few of the children who lived in town hovered around in little groups.
Ahlama went on with her description, detailing the classes and the daily regimen. Every child was expected to learn a trade by the time they graduated, augmented with the rigors of a serious scholastic life. Ignorance and superstition were the two great enemies: it was no good to make a blacksmith who did not know the workings of the body, no good to make an artist who could not handle a gun, no good to make an engineer who could not perform an exorcism. The world did not allow for that any more.
The pair meandered for a while, and eventually Jun caught sight of a man sitting on a glacial boulder by the pond, fishing rod in hand. His entire face was a knotted mass of scar tissue: a long gash on the left, burns and a lost eye on the right.
She prodded Ahlama’s arm.
“Where’d he get those scars?”
Jun nodded. Every community had someone like that, some old protector who had been everywhere, seen everything, done everything.
“That’s Hammersmith,” Ahlama continued. “He used to be one of the Tribunal, now he’s the head groundskeeper. Spends most of his time fishing, now, though apparently he once caved in a demon’s skull with his bare hands.”
“He usually uses a hammer.”
“Oh. Well then. Remind me to stay off the grass.”
Other figures of local note were introduced as they cropped up. Some might not have been notable at all, but they stuck out in Jun’s memory all the same.
There were several other golems on the campus, though they all looked to be more traditionally golem-like and were far less talkative than Ahlama. Though there was the chalk-white one with a simple smile who played with the toddlers being dropped off at the daycare. Jun watched a pair of parents say their goodbyes: the mother had a chemistry textbook curled under her arm. The acne-pocked father wore a guard uniform and a scraggly excuse for a beard.
Ahlama just shrugged, and said “Life happens.”
They spoke with a very large man whose beard approached the waist of his khaki cargo shorts, who was awkwardly climbing a tree, butterfly net in hand. He looked like the large, earnest kind of man who had a lot of silent Js in his patronymic and was very fond of mead, meat, and pillaging. This was, apparently, the Headmistress’ husband.
There was a golden-tan woman with headphones and what looked to be a bathrobe embroidered with a constantly scrolling waterfall of musical notation conducting music class in the orchard. The choir was accompanied by a swirling cloud of humming ghosts. A half dozen teens in paint-smeared overalls hauled chunks of scavenged masonry past a troop of children with practice rifles. The workshop clanked and clunked with the noise of construction, and the alchemy shed behind the science building exploded at least twice during the tour: Ahlama wasn’t sure if the third time counted, because it might have actually just ascended to a higher plane for a minute or two. Jun trusted her judgment on that.
The steady parade of faculty and buildings and courses and little details built up into some massive amorphous wad of chewed gum in Jun’s head. The really good kind one got as a kid when one decided to blow what passed for allowance on treats from a caravaneer. A day or two would sort it out proper.
The tour came to stop at the guest house, and Ahlama saw herself off. Jun threw her pack on the chair in her room, lay down on the bed, and stared at the ceiling. It was first time in a month and a half that she had the opportunity to. A bed with clean sheets, a roof with no leaks, a shower with presumably hot water, real food, and toilet paper. Put them all together and you had civilization.
But you’ve got something to look for, remember…
Yes, yes, she had something to look for. She’d get to the reliquary later.
For now, she just felt like staring at the ceiling for a bit.
It was some time later, when the sun was on its winding path down, that Ahlama finally caught up with the Headmistress. It was plain to her that Naomi Zairi-Lewitt had been through a rather rough day.
“Are you alright?”
“Not at all. They’re not going to cut off the caravans to Toledo, thank God, but they are going to keep the negotiations up for another day, and up the prices on Transit Chits. Again.” She shook her head. “I hope your side of things went smoothly.”
“It did, headmistress.”
“Good. Thank you.” She yawned. “Sorry. I’ve up since four. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Naomi passed out of the scene, a man with an eye patch following a short distance behind her. He looked as if he had fallen face first down a flight of stairs made out of blenders and aged a full thirty or forty years beyond his age. Elihayo, the Headmistress’ bodyguard. Upon meeting his gaze, Ahlama felt the furnace in her chest burn a little hotter, and with this she felt an acute self-consciousness that perhaps she was not properly polished, or was too large, and this all was accompanied by an incredibly strong desire to hold hands and go on a walk with the deformed bodyguard.
“Shalom, Elihayo,” she said as he passed, wondering if he would notice the soft heat blush in her eyes.
“Shalom.” His voice sounded like his lungs were filled with wet gravel.
Why not ask him? She’d ask him. Ask him right now, if he wanted to go on a…a walk. A walk yes, that’s what they would do. A walk around the lake.
“Elihayo, I was wondering…would you like to go out, maybe, and –“
The bodyguard shuffled away, and left Ahlama standing in the hallway, alone.
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