The City of New South Satar was the pride of the Empire. The Crown of the Expansion. Emperor Arulo III himself had taken to calling it his “Favorite Son,” much to the chagrin of his own children. Seated amidst the great flatlands where the sands became grasses, and the great forehead of land creased into anxious hills, enthroned upon the ruin of what was once an old northern outpost, the city would be the greatest ever built by men, said to rival even the Golden City of the Elves (though those who said it had never seen the city in question with their own eyes).
Some said that it would be even greater than the City of Kings itself, with a temple even to outshine Arulo’s palace. But when they did, they were sure to say it in whispers. It was widely known that Sursaku, High Priest to the Order of Unashka, was personally overseeing the construction of the temple, and beside him was the Emperor’s most powerful General, Coras Hadun, both reigning with iron fists. Thousands of slaves had been dragged from the battlefronts in the north and the east and lashed to chains in the quarries. They swung picks; they hauled stones; they died; they were replaced. In the loudest voices, on every front, it was proclaimed that this city would be the greatest ever built.
Already, towers were rising from the darkness. Streets of chipped stones had been ground to dust beneath bare feet. Walls, fifty paces deep, were heaving themselves towards the stars, dragged upward by the weight of the corpses who had died to make them.
The bodies had been laid into the walls. Their souls had been poured into the foundations. “Lives to strengthen the mortar; chains fashioned from the unblessed spirits to keep our enemies away,” So had said the priests, and nobody argued with the priests. In a year, more had been accomplished than anyone had expected.
Overhead, the moon whirring in endless battery, the spires ascended, crawling like some great titans out of the very earth, dark and lumbering, black against the stars. The streets rolled out like carpets. Carpets with bodies swept away beneath them. The seething winds broke against the walls, and left the streets breezeless. Barren. Scented with sweat and dust, painted in pale moonlight.
A single road, cobbled and winding narrowly through the buildings, had been named Numino Street. As the pendulum of time spun on, no one knew who Numino was, or why the street was named for him, and nobody really seemed to care, anymore. Because the street had another name, now: Kunroc. Demon Street.
There were two kinds of people who ventured to cross Demon-Street, at night:
Those who didn’t believe in demons.
Those who were not afraid of them.
The streets were almost always empty. But those who did go there—and those who frequented them, for whatever reason—could, and had been known to tell what few other men knew, when the night grew thick and the fires burned hot, in taverns or the still watch hours:
High up on that cobbled hill, there was a tree. Not like those little garden shrubs and bushes and sprouts of ivy on the rooftops, wrapped and combed and trimmed. Not potted. This was a tree.
Roots dug deeper into the ground than even the founders of the city had dreamed of clawing, deeper than the foundations and the secret passages of Sursaku.
Fingers reached higher, blotting and gouging at the sky and its twinkling eyes, reaching for the light. It had stood for two hundred years, nearly (or the stories of it had). Swelling and erupting with power, twisting itself higher, sinews straining and flexing to grow even more. And the stories agree. The tree breathed.
They could feel the tautening and loosening of breath, captured and escaping like a tide. A breath that swept through from no direction and all of them, simply there and gone, scattering hair and thoughts and words and stealing them away them.
The taste of the wind was the taste of agony. Anguish was its language and anger and sorrow were the words it spoke, as the tree grew. But no one could hear those words. Indeed, though the roots spread through streets and crawled up walls, no one could see the tree. Nor could they hear the creak of the wind through its branches. But some, when the moon hung right, as it had on that night, centuries ago, could feel it.
And the feeling resonated with a toll like madness and a torrent of tears. Those who stood on the right stones, and breathed in the wind as it splashed through the buildings, could sense its stab in their bones and roar in their stomach. A pain, rising in the chest, the pain of a broken heart and crumpled soul. It was a knife in the wind.
When all was aligned, the stars and the moon and the wind, some could hear the words in the air. The voice of a girl. An antiquated memory, a ghostly haunting, never allowed to sleep in the mortar, like so many others had.
The stones could not sense her voice; but the little scrubs of grass tingled, like the hair on the back of the neck. The stars themselves seemed to lean in to hear. Two speakers, two voices, but one set of footsteps. Some had stood and listened to those voices for hours, from the set to the rising of the sun, and hear many words stabbed at the air.
No one knew who the voices belonged to. No names, no histories. Simply Kunroc. This was the haunting of demon street. And the gravestone to this buried suffering was that great, monstrous tree, that tree that, when the moon was right, could drive men mad.
It stood like a warning, yet it taunted. It lured. It said come.
You who think you know fear, come touch my trunk. You who think you know pain. You who think you have acquainted sorrow. You who are not afraid of demons. Touch my trunk and see.
And none came.
None save one.