Talia was once one of the twelve martyrs of the forgotten compass, a prisoner of the unhuman creatures known only as the vordcha. She barely escaped that life with her body and soul intact. Now she has a new life as a poison eater in the city of Enthait. Here she is hailed as one of the city’s protectors. No one knows her history. No one has asked about her past. She’s been here long enough that Enthait is her home now, these are her people. She loves them and they her.
But in the Ninth World, the past is a living, breathing thing. And when it hunts you down, you can run. You can fight. Or you can die.
Set in the world of the award-winning RPG Numenéra, Shanna Germain’s The Poison Eater is available January 17th from Angry Robot Books.
Poison never lies.
But Talia does. Every time she takes the poison, she lies. False words are the only weapons she has left, and she wields them with precision, but not with pride. Every time, she tells the guards that she sees danger in the woods, creatures in the clouds, something coming, something dark. Not too specific. Just enough menace. For those who are looking, those who believe, there is always a danger to be found outside Enthait’s walls. And Talia is the one who finds it for them.
She would lie this time too. She had to.
In the small room that she’d come, over time, to think of as hers, Talia picked a small spraypen off the small table and marked a circle, no bigger than the pad of her thumb, on the wall. That one made seven. Seven moons. Seven poisonings. Seven lies.
Talia still wasn’t used to writing with her left hand, and all of the circles were misshapen in a different way. She touched each one with the pad of her left thumb, the most recent smearing as it took on the texture of her fingerprint. Seven down, three to go. If she lived through this one, that was.
Lying about the poisoning was a given for her. Living through one was not. Most poison eaters lived through one, many through four or five, less through seven, and no one—as everyone was so fond of reminding her—had lived through all ten. No one but the orness. They called it the killer, the tenth poison. As if the others weren’t.
Even to Talia, whose sense of right and wrong was no compass to guide one’s life by, the system seemed… broken at the very best. And something else entirely at its worst. But it was a system that served her needs, at least for now, and she would play its game until she won—or until it killed her.
There was very little in the room other than herself. A bed. The small table that held, in addition to the spraypen, a hexed armband and a broken blue-black blade. A cobalt cloak upon a hook. Two doors, one to the street and one to the tunnels. And Khee, the former warbeast, curled about himself and snoring lightly on a blanket in the corner, his weirdly angled legs and long neck forming an impossible circle. The striped implants that laced his fur were unlit, settling into a shade of brown only slightly paler than his natural color.
Talia picked up the hexed metal band and pulled it over the empty space where her right hand used to be. It glowed pale blue as it settled around the skin of her upper forearm. Ganeth’s handiwork. The aeon priest had wanted to recreate her a living hand, but she’d refused. She had reasons for wanting to remember her loss. That negative space was as important to the entirety of her self as the etchings along her spine or the streaks of red hair that grew from the scars on her scalp. She wielded these with neither precision nor pride, but with some combination of shame and memory that formed no word.
She had not been able to turn Ganeth away from building this, though: as she reached for the cobalt cloak hanging on the wall, the hexes covering her forearm spread apart and reworked themselves into a mechanical semblance of her former hand. The transition was silent and took a mere second—barely long enough for her to marvel, as she often did, at Ganeth’s skills—and then she was using both hands to pull the cloak over her head.
The cloak was not hers. It belonged to the station of the Poison Eater—those who had worn it before and those who would wear it after—but the metallic fabric settled and shaped itself around her as though it had been made for her. It had taken her weeks to figure out how to flow the fabric with a thought, but now it was second nature, a passing trifle in the ritual of getting ready.
Ganeth had showed her the mechanism once, a weave of thin metals inside the fabric that pressed to her skin, and while she could make the material bend to her will, she still didn’t understand it.
At the soft rustle of shifting material, Khee raised his head, blinking, his long upward-curving tusks glinting with sleep drool.
Khee was no longer the warbeast he’d been when they’d found each other. Since the night they’d walked side by side through the city’s gates nearly a year ago, his stripes (she thought of them as his moods) rarely glowed anymore. Sometimes when he was sleeping—dreaming, she thought—they’d pop bright yellow or blue, light up the room in tiny flickers, wake her from her own fitful sleep. But mostly they stayed quiet.
He’d grown full and sated, a little soft, maybe even a little sweet. But then again, so had she. Sometimes that gnawed at her—the vordcha will come for you—but most of the time she was able to push the thought away.
She was working on it. Small steps. Small thoughts. First the poison eater, then the orness, then the aria. When the vordcha came, she would be ready.
Khee stretched and yawned, showing off a row of natural teeth and, behind that, two rows of crafted ones. One set was enough to kill. Two were enough to kill slowly, painfully. Only the vordcha would think it necessary to add more. Or perhaps they did it for fun. Because they could. She thought she had some answers about the vordcha, but how they thought, why they did things, for that, she had only questions.
Khee blinked her way, four bright blue eyes asking.
“Soon,” she said.
Talia flexed her hexlight fingers and the pieces slid back into the shape of a band around her arm.
Then she bent her head until her chin touched her chest. She hadn’t come here with any gods of her own. Only the gods given to her by others, gods that had betrayed and sacrificed her, and so she said no prayer now other than her own name. Not the name she owned now. Not the name she’d been given by her former captors. The name she’d been born into, a secret name of a people she no longer remembered. She whispered it toward her heart, so quiet that not even Khee could hear.
And then the only thing she knew that even resembled a prayer. “And only the orness, the keeper of the aria, shall remain.”
A knock against the clave door, soft and low enough that she knew instantly whose hand it belonged to.
The girl scarcely waited for the sound of her name to leave Talia’s lips before she rushed into the room. Barely tall enough to carry the long flickerstick against her back without it dragging on the ground. Her cloak did drag, but it carried no sign of the tunnel she’d just passed through. Seild stopped in front of Talia, as was custom and proper, but her gaze couldn’t help sliding toward the creature in the corner.
For the poisoning, Seild’s usually wild hair was pinned and wrapped into the shape of two curling horns on the sides of her head. Talia almost laughed to think of Isera getting her daughter to sit still long enough for that piece of costuming.
Talia was generally bad with ages, but the first time she’d met Seild the girl had said, “Finwa. I’m Seild, I am six, and I am the youngest member of the zaffre.”
Talia hadn’t known half the words the girl had said. Like most people she’d met, Talia spoke the Truth. She also spoke the code language that she and the other martyrs had made up to keep plans out of the minds of the vordcha. But Enthait also seemed to have its own turns of phrase, cultural threads woven through the language. She’d pulled at those threads a lot since then, unweaving them, trying to reweave them. The patterns were more complicated than she’d expected. Finwa was usually hello. But sometimes please. And other times another, more nuanced, sentiment that she still didn’t quite grasp.
Zaffre was an easier word, at least. Concrete. Simple. Enthait’s defense force. Patrols. Protectors. Guards. They served the wishes of the elusive orness, who served the wishes of the city. And Talia, as the Poison Eater, served the wishes of them all. Or, at least, she was supposed to.
Most in Enthait revered the zaffre, hoped their children would grow up to be a member some day. Talia knew Isera felt differently. And yet here was her only daughter, already wearing the mark. To be the poison eater’s escort was high honor, decreed by the orness herself. Not even Isera’s desire to keep her daughter safe was strong enough to turn the orness’ decision. Talia wondered, not for the first time, why the orness had chosen someone so young. That, in turn, begged the question of why the orness had chosen her, Talia, an outsider to the city, to be the poison eater. Or, really, why the orness did any of the things she did. Mystery upon mystery. Only a few of which she’d been able to solve.
“Moon meld you, Seild,” Talia said. The formal greeting of her position still felt strange in Talia’s mouth after all this time. The vordcha had formalities and rituals, but they were wordless and bloody, metal and mech. But then, the vordcha were not human and cared not for human things.
Remembering herself and her duties at the sound of Talia’s voice, Seild pressed her thumbs to the spaces above her eyes and raised her half-brown, half-gray gaze to Talia. Her mismatched eyes were identical to her mother’s, a startling contrast in their otherwise symmetrical faces. At first, Talia had thought the mismatched eyes to be a blessing, passed mother to daughter. Now she knew the truth. Or something closer to the truth.
“Moon meld ebeli, memories cleave the marrow. Moon meld iisrad, shades ward your eyes–” Seild began. Talia waved the formal gesture of address aside. The girl was well-trained and would do her duties—she knew the list of the ten poisons backward and forward—but the recitation took forever, and it was obvious Seild only had eyes for the creature in the corner. And he her.
“Tell it to Khee, yes? I need to finish preparing.”
There was nothing left for her to do. But, of course, the girl didn’t know that. There was so much mystery, so much hidden ritual, surrounding the role of poison eater that even she felt like she didn’t know the whole, or even the half of it. How could anyone else be expected to?
“Go,” she urged, when she realized the girl was still standing there.
Seild’s delighted grin lasted only a second before she was running to the corner, toward the languishing beast.
“Slow, slow,” Talia cautioned.
The girl caught herself up short. After the two’s first fateful encounter—not surprising that a bouncing, screeching girl and a former warbeast weren’t the best mix—Talia had taught her to greet Khee quietly and let him make the first move.
Seild went down on her knees—oh, the dirt she would hear about later—in front of Khee, and with as much propriety as a girl with a too-big weapon and a too-big bundle of energy could muster, said, “Hello, Your Softness.”
Khee caught Talia’s gaze.
You and me both, beast.
She didn’t know if Khee talked to the girl, if Khee talked to anyone but her, and she never asked. But some signal must have passed between the two, for a moment later they were a giggling, growling ball of fur and formal clothing.
Someone from the zaffre—most likely Isera—would have the girl’s head for her disheveled state. As the youngest member of the corps, Seild was expected to be a role model for every child who someday dreamed of wearing the blue and bronze uniform of the zaffre. Seild’s cloak, at least, was still clean. Too bad Ganeth hadn’t also given her dirt-proof everything else.
Talia might need to interfere and take the blame. It would be worth it, just to have seen the two of them at play. She watched Khee lower his triangular head, ever careful of his sharp, upwardly curving tusks, to the girl’s stomach until she giggled and hugged his whole head to her. The beast’s barbed tail thumped the floor softly. Seild scratched around one of the hard metal stumps at the top of Khee’s head until he huffed a rare breath of contentment.
“What are these?” Seild asked.
“He had horns once,” Talia said.
“What happened to them?”
“A story for a later time,” she said.
The girl kept her gaze lowered on Khee as she parted his fur and ran her hand over one of his now-brown stripes. Talia knew from experience how those odd striations of his body felt. Smooth as synth, but softer. Warmer. More alive. What she didn’t know was whether those parts of his body felt different to him, or whether he’d had them so long they seemed natural. The parts the vordcha had put in her felt both foreign and somehow part of her. Even now, after she’d pulled them from her body, she felt their dissonance.
Seild was quiet, paying far too much attention to her own hand running through Khee’s fur. Talia knew little of children—hadn’t spent time with them until she’d come here, not since she was a child herself—but it was clear the girl had something on her mind.
Talia waited as long as she could before she cleared her throat and spoke.
“Seild, it’s time for us to go.”
The girl’s words were muffled in Khee’s fur. “I don’t want you to go. All the poison eaters die.”
Seild’s bottom lip was trembling, and she drew in a wet breath, the rest of her words tumbling out in a rush. “Today is seven. Today is seven. Lots of the others died this time, and I don’t want you to die. I don’t.”
Talia was surprised that the girl knew about such things. Where had she heard it? Certainly not from Isera. On the street, likely. The whole city was abuzz with today’s poisoning. It was true—it had been a long time since a poison eater made it through seven. Maybe as long as the child had been alive.
“Come, Seild,” she said.
The girl didn’t, her head down and fingers still in Khee’s fur. Talia could tell that she was doing her very best to honor the zaffre and her mother and herself, and not to break into tears. It must be hard for her, she thought, to be so young and carry such burdens. She went to her and knelt at her shoulder, catching Khee’s unreadable gaze over Seild’s head.
“Yes,” Talia said. “All the poison eaters die. But not this one. Not today. Not with you as my escort.”
Reminding Seild of her duty brought her back to herself, as Talia had hoped it would. The girl softly wrapped her hands around Khee’s snout, then leaned in and kissed him on the side of his head. Khee’s lips curled back in surprise, but he didn’t bare his teeth as he would have for most other creatures entering his space. Likely unaware of the gift she’d just been given—a beast designed for destruction letting another creature bring their mouth so close to his—Seild stood, brushing the dust and dirt from her knees and palms.
“I will protect you,” Seild said, serious. She steepled her fingers together. It was a promise gesture Talia had seen others use. In the gesture, Seild was her mother’s daughter, right down to the uplift of her shoulders and the strength in her mismatched gaze.
“I’m sure of it,” Talia said. She was tempted to brush the remaining dirt from Seild’s pants, to right the carefully molded hair that had run askew, but it would only serve to make the girl nervous. Instead, she picked up the broken blue-black blade from the table—it was only as long as her pinky, but the jagged edge was as honed as it had ever been—and tucked it inside her armband. Its cool sharpness calmed the too-fast beat of her pulse.
They went out by the clave door, Seild leading, her flickerstick giving enough light to see the ornate patterns beaded along the side and top of the stone walls. Talia had touched one of the beads once as she went by—an orange one the size of a tooth—and she’d had the distinct sensation that it had somehow opened up and snapped at her fingers. Now she kept to the center of the tunnel, careful not to step on the drag of Seild’s cloak.
Enthait’s tunnel system was a maze Talia hadn’t yet mastered. It seemed you could get almost anywhere in the city without venturing aboveground, a bit of privacy and secrecy that she would have appreciated and taken advantage of if she wasn’t always getting lost and popping out some door into some random city street on her way to somewhere else.
Thankfully, this tunnel only allowed her one path: from the poison eater’s door to the clave, the circular building in the center of town where the poisonings were held. Seild’s guidance was a formality required by the ritual, but not by Talia’s poor sense of direction.
Each beaded section represented one of the ten poisons, but Talia could never remember which, so she’d dubbed them all with a name that had meaning for her. Here was Khee’s section, beaded in the brown and once-blue stripes of his fur. Here was Seild’s, red for some reason that she didn’t know, but the beads were scattered, windblown, in a way that spoke of the girl’s movement. Isera’s was orange. Ganeth’s blue. The orness was a pale green, the color of deep wood moss. She named each one in her head as she passed it.
Last, they crossed what she thought of as Maeryl’s section, rolling swirls of blue and silver, like the sea. Talia had never seen the sea, but Maeryl had described it to her so many times she felt like she knew it, what waves were and how they smelled of salt, and why blue and silver were Maeryl’s favored colors.
At the tunnel’s end, it widened so they could stand abreast in front of a large metal door flecked with ten symbols in a circle. Talia licked her thumb and touched it to the symbols in turn, saying the name of each poison as she did so. Two holes, each slightly larger than a human fist, irised open on either side of the door.
“Ready?” Talia asked.
Seild nodded, then raised her tiny fist and put it inside the left circle. Talia did the same with the right. Something licked the base of her wrist, pressing wet and warm against her pulse, and she shuddered. Beside her, Seild wrinkled her nose and made an involuntary noise of disgust.
This was just one reason that some believed Talia shouldn’t be in this position. Whatever lived inside this door only opened for two living hands, and she had only one.
There were other reasons. She was an outsider. She walked around with a mechbeast at her side. A mechbeast that you mentally talk to; don’t forget that. And then there was Burrin—the leader of the zaffre and the orness’ only son—who clearly wanted, who clearly felt that he deserved, to be the one standing here with his fists buried in the door.
The pressing flesh withdrew and, a moment later, the door clicked open to reveal a sprawling round room. No. Room was far too small a word. The clave was easily the largest building Talia had ever been in. A giant sphere, the walls and top arching up with ancient red ribs that ran from the floor which Talia stood on all the way to the faraway top of the clear domed roof. She didn’t know what it was originally designed for, but whatever it was, it must have been a spectacle, for the building could hold far more people than those who lived in Enthait’s walls. Perhaps three times as many.
Not everyone who lived in Enthait came to watch the poisonings, but many did. They were gathered now along the sloped edges, up and up, sitting or standing as space allowed. It was tradition to attend. And, she thought, a bit of blood lust. You never wished for the poison eater to die—at least not out loud—but you didn’t want to miss it if it happened either. She’d heard the stories of the deaths. Or at least she’d heard the beginnings of them; she always tried to step out of earshot before they started recounting their actual demise.
Designs etched in the clave floor echoed those of the door she’d just passed through. The ornate etchings were lit from beneath, creating upward swathes of pale light big enough for a person to stand inside. For the poisoning, all of the positions were held by the greyes, the ten highest ranked members of the zaffre.
Burrin stood in the shine of the closest beam, his back to them. He was a head and a half taller than Talia, lean and sharp as a blade, though she’d never seen him use one. He seemed to prefer a set of long, round-handled sticks with barbed ends. Likely something Ganeth had made just for him, though Ganeth hated making weapons. She imagined that when the leader of the zaffre—who also happened to be the only surviving son of the orness—asked you for anything, you said yes.
Next to her, Seild saw Burrin and faltered in her stride. The hairs along Khee’s arched neck ruffled up, and he stepped forward to press himself into Seild’s side. Talia didn’t know if he was seeking comfort or giving it. Seild’s duty was done here, and there was no need to press her into the light, despite all the time her mother had taken with her hair.
“Stay,” she said, more for Seild than for Khee. Khee would do his own thing—he always did—but she knew him well enough to know that he would not seek the center of all these people without absolute need.
Leaving the two in the shadows of the doorway, Talia stepped forward into the circle. The clave, which had been filled with low murmurings, erupted into a cheer as the crowd caught sight of her in her cobalt cloak. They were cries of luck and hope. For her. For the city. Most of all, for themselves. “Moon meld us!” “Finwa, Poison Eater!” No one called her name. She wasn’t sure most of them knew it. That was just as well by her.
Talia stepped forward. The globed glass ceiling let in the late afternoon light, hot and bright. It caught the dust swirling up from her steps across the floor, the shine of people’s faces in the crowd, the sharp glare off the zaffre’s weapons and armor.
Burrin didn’t glance at her as she went by, but the gazes of the other greyes followed her walk to the center of the circle. Their faces were heavy with expectation, a weight that seemed to grow with each poisoning. The crowd too had gone suddenly, completely silent. The only sound was that of their breathing, almost as one.
Talia knew that Isera stood upon one of the lights, but she couldn’t bring herself to look for her. They would see each other after, if she made it through this alive.
When she made it through this alive.
She lifted her shoulders and kept her gaze on the orness as she strode toward the center of the wide space. The orness stood on a low dais, facing Talia. It was impossible to see anything of her features. The crimson hood pulled over her head somehow granted her face constant shadow, even in the brightness of the dome. Every time Talia tried to see the details of her face—eyes, nose, mouth, anything—her gaze slipped away, skittered across shadow forms. At first she’d thought it was a mask, but now she thought it was something more… Ganeth-ish. Still, she couldn’t help but try, and fail, each time.
Everything about the orness’ garb seemed designed to obfuscate the person wearing it—the layer upon layer of wrapped red and gold that gave no indication of the body beneath, the thin gloves that left only her thumbs uncovered, the jeweled tassels that shifted as she did, distracting the eye.
Only her feet were bare. Thick silver bracelets fastened around both ankles, their pale glitter a sharp contrast to her dark skin. Each toe bore a ring of colored cloth—one for each of the poisons she’d survived. The black one around her pinky toe—awos—the final poison. The killer. For everyone except the orness.
As Talia drew near the dais, the orness made a series of gestures—her fingers moving through the air in a way that reminded Talia of birds taking flight—and the Eye appeared in front of her.
It was a moment that never failed to draw a collective gasp from the crowd. And not without reason. First there was nothing in the air between the orness and the poison eater. Then there was this: a floating orb lowering itself from nowhere, so big that it was impossible to wrap your arms around.
It wasn’t that easy to wrap your mind around either.
Depending on where you stood, the time of day, and your own state of mind, the Eye of Enthait looked like the moon, the sun, a child’s face, an egg, the inside of an eye, the black of the night. Yellow, golden, brown, beige, white, silver. Some said they could see creatures milling about inside its surface. Others that it was filled with machine parts. Or completely empty.
None of those things were what Talia saw. No one had ever asked her what it looked like. That at least was one thing she’d never had to lie about.
The Eye slowly lowered itself until it rested just above the surface of the dais. The dais was only a single step off the ground, but every time Talia took it, it felt eternally higher. As if she was not walking onto a solid platform, but was climbing toward something distant and unreachable. She feared she would fall, and find herself with nothing below her but emptiness.
But then her foot landed solidly on the dais and the orness was coming toward her, murmuring, “Moon meld you, Poison Eater.”
“And you, orness.”
The orness reached forward and pressed her thumbs over Talia’s eyes. When Talia dreamt of the orness—and she did, more often than she wanted to admit—it was this moment that she saw: a tall woman hooded in bloodshadow, the dark whirls of her thumbs coming to take away her sight.
The orness’ thumbs gave off a soft heat, as if a fire had just gone out beneath her skin. Her voice in murmured ritual was ancient, tired, but not without strength. She had been the orness a long time.
Not much longer. Not if Talia could help it.
In the blackness behind the orness’ thumbs, Talia heard the Eye begin to spin, a low keening whir that made her back teeth ache and her tongue go dry. The noise was always the same, no matter what poison the device created. Talia’s reaction was too—a sense of dread in the very depth of her being, the taste of bitter acid in the back of her throat.
“Do you promise to serve the city of Enthait?” the orness asked. “Do you promise to serve its people?”
“I do,” Talia said. Bitter-tongued in the blackness.
“You may begin,” the orness said. She removed her thumbs and stepped behind Talia in a swift movement that left her blinking, unsteady. Looking at the device didn’t help; it moved at a speed that challenged you to take it in, promised you could make sense of it if you just stared long enough, hard enough. But you never could; it was so fast that your eyes couldn’t capture any single thing, but hers kept trying, skipping across its surface, grasping nothing but shapes and shadows.
Swallowing down the bile in her throat, aware of the crowds all around her, she knelt in front of the whirring device, closing her eyes against its dizzying promise. Its movement pushed a breeze across her skin as it, too, did its duty.
Each poison was different. The Eye made each one in time with the moon’s passage. There was an order, but Talia didn’t know it. Only the orness knew such things. How the device chose which poison to make. How it made each one. What shape or form the poison would come in.
All around her, the crowd chanted, soft and low. She knew they bet on the poisonings, although it was forbidden. Which poison. Whether she would live or die. What coming danger she would see in her visions. If she was smart, she would have bet on herself, but she never did.
Of course, she hadn’t told them, any of them, the truth.
She wasn’t the true poison eater.
The true poison eater was supposed to do more than just survive the poison. You were also supposed to let it connect you to the all-knowing entity that the orness called the datasphere. You were supposed to let it show you all the dangers that were coming for the city of Enthait. You were supposed to protect the city.
None of that happened for Talia. She didn’t connect to the datasphere. She never saw Enthait’s endangered future. She only saw her own past, spread out before her, choice by failed choice, step by broken step. A beast of her own black mind, coming for her through the toxin.
So she lied, made up bedtime stories of spooks in the night, and sent the zaffre out hunting shadows of nothing. She wasn’t proud of it. Most things borne of necessity were not things she was proud of. Her missing arm. The fine scars along the sides of her head. The shard of blue-black blade. But she bore them, if only because she refused to fall beneath their weight.
The Eye stopped with a low whine and a metallic clunk. Waiting for her. Talia reached into—through—the hull of the device with her true hand and felt around until she grasped something small and soft. She pulled out a tiny pill filled with roiling black liquid. It smelled of wet ashes and wounds on the edge of going bad. Her stomach rolled, protested at the thought of taking that into her body, of the thought of the memories it would surely bring.
She’d done worse in order to survive. She could do this. Six down, four to go. She would live through the poisonings. She would become the orness. She would be the keeper of the aria and use it to destroy the monsters that haunted her dreams.
“Ebeli,” the crowd whispered, a hushed hiss, as she held up the pill. A few at first, and then more and more. Until the whisper had no choice but to become a chant. A hissing, writhing demand. Ebeli. Ebeli. Ebeli.
Everyone was waiting for her. Waiting for her to be their poison eater. Waiting for her to save them and the city. Waiting for her to lie.
Finwa, she thought, as she always did when she placed the poison upon her tongue. I am sorry for what I am about to do.
Excerpted from The Poison Eater © Shanna Germain, 2017