The Edge of Flames (short fiction)

Wren and Hess


Hess, like all lizardfolk, had little use for gods. It was assumed by his race that their goddess had laid the eggs from which the first of his kind hatched and then wandered away to leave them to fend for themselves. She would return one day to devour those souls that met with her disapproval, but there wasn’t much to be done about it, so they didn’t bother with worship.

Wren had even less use for gods, but her family felt some comfort when she offered a bit of tribute to the goddess of justice and the god of guardians. She found something unpleasant about believing either deity was more concerned with the size of their temples than in actually doing their job, but if gods truly were the same as mortals, just infinitely more powerful, it wouldn’t have surprised her.

The city itself supported many gods by necessity. The god of disease kept plaque away when the overwhelmed sanitation system backed up. The goddess of vermin kept the rats from eating everything. The god of prosperity ensured that a healthy economy. But most importantly, the god of fire kept the whole place from burning to the ground.
This had already happened twice before. Huge swaths of the city had been reduced to blackened ruins, and it was a safe bet that one errant flame in the wrong batch of dry hay would set the city afire. But since appeasing the god of fire with the grandest temple in the District of Heavens, things had been more contained. The goddess of vermin, in her jealousy, had allowed the rats to breed a little more and the god of disease occasionally allowed a bad cold through, but it was better than watching the merciless, hungry flames devour everything.

And now the fire god’s temple was nothing but ash and charred wood. It shouldn’t have been possible, and the Tower had dispatched a task force to get to the bottom of it. Wren and Hess were part of it, but their job so far involved keeping the gawkers at bay.

“Step back, please,” said Hess to the crowd.

“Tower business,” said Wren.

They stood side-by-side with other mid-level constables while inspectors, magi, and alchemists did their job among the ashes.

“Join the Constabulary,” muttered Wren. “Be the thin line between law and chaos.”

“Crowd control is a valued part of law enforcement,” said Hess, but he was as annoyed as she was. There were more important jobs for them to be doing now. They had their own patrols to walk, their own cases to deal with. If the god of justice gave a damn about this city, he still needed help from a good constable now and then.

“What happened?” asked a round elf.

“Nothing to see here, citizen,” said Hess, although the scorched ruins of the fire god’s temple was very definitely something to see.

“Move along now,” said Wren. “So mortal or god?” she asked Hess.

He stroked the quills under his chin. “If it was a mortal, they’d have to have tremendous power. If it was a god . . . . ”

The city had enough problems without a holy war breaking out. For the most part, the gods and their representatives enjoyed a truce and tolerance, but like all truces, it was only as strong as the honor of its participants and like most tolerances, it was more about practicality than acceptance.

“How would you even arrest a god?” wondered Hess.

“Very carefully,” said Wren.

Chief Inspector Scoria, a dwarf in a long blue coat that trailed behind him on the ground, approached them. “The Lord Priest of the temple has requested an escort to the Tower. You two will take care of that.”

Wren and Hess saluted, happy to be doing something more useful than telling people to ignore what was definitely not worth ignoring.

They rode a Tower carriage to the Lord Priest’s house, built on the high ground, above the muck and the filth. It was good business appeasing the gods, and at least most acknowledged it. The irony as they passed the poverty god’s priest’s three story manor went uncommented upon.

The fire Lord Priest’s house was the largest in the neighborhood, and it was strange that he requested an escort when he had a small force of highly trained personal guard stationed around the place. But it was most likely the prestige of having the Tower at his beck and call that appealed to him.

They were met by a pair of guards in the foyer. “His Lordship will be right with you.” They left Wren and Hess alone in the room, closing the massive doors with a heavy clunk. It wasn’t surprising that they were kept waiting. It was the Lord Priest’s reminder that he was more important than them and the office they represented.

Hess turned his head. His tongue darted out.

“What is it?” asked Wren. Hess only flicked when he smelled something particularly interesting.

“Not sure.” He tasted the air several more times. “Something . . . familiar.”

“Familiar, how?”

“Ash. Smoke. Something else.”

“He does serve the fire god,” said Wren.

Hess pulled back a tapestry to reveal a door. No surprise there, but he pressed his snout into it. “Something’s in there. Something suspicious.”

Wren raised her leg to kick in the door.

He stepped in front of her. “We should wait for Tower permission.”

“You know we’ll never get it.”

“If we knock down that door . . . . ”

“Then we’re doing our job.” She pushed him aside and kicked it open with a swift kick. The lock wasn’t strong. The Lord Priest assumed, rightly, not many would have the foolhardy conviction to break it down.

They followed the spiral staircase down into a basement laboratory. The stench of burning wood and ash grew stronger. A brazier burned in the center of a magic circle. It didn’t strike them as especially suspicious for a priest of fire.

“You realize you just cost us our jobs,” said Hess.

“You’re the one who said you smelled something suspicious. I was just following your lead. At least, that’s what I’ll tell the Tower when the review comes up.”


The fire in the brazier burned brighter. “Who’s there? You’re not him.”

“We’re not,” said Wren. “Who are you?”

“I am the god of fire, and if you release me, I shall reward you in ways beyond mortal imaginings.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said a voice from above. The Lord Priest, a tall, lean figure in silk robes, wearing copious amounts of gold and silver, descended the staircase with several guards. “It is only my wards that keep the god in check.”

The flames flared. “Liar. You betrayed me, tricked me into this trap.”

“A necessary deception,” said the Lord Priest. “Mortals shouldn’t be beholden to the pernicious whims of gods. We offer our sacrifices, our temples, our worship, and all you offer in return is to leave us alone. And if it suits you, you can destroy us at any time. Even without the interference of the gods, we dance on the edge of flames. Surely, as officers of peace, you understand why a more secure arrangement would be desired.”

“And it’s better that you hold the power than a god?” asked Wren.

“Of course. All I want is to protect this city and some small reward for my work. I’m not without flaws, but at least I am a mortal. My needs, simple. My failings, minor.”

“You’re dripping in gold,” said Wren.

“Is a little gold too much to ask for keeping things safe?”

“We had a deal,” said the god of fire. “You can’t go back on a deal.”

“The terms of the deal have changed, for the good of all of us,” said the Lord Priest. “If the god of fire is released, he will no doubt burn this city to the ground in his wrath.”

“I will not.”

The Lord Priest smiled. “Of course he would say that.”

“If the god is under your control, how did the temple burn?” asked Hess.

“An accident. His power can’t be completely contained, and he lashed out.”

“Three of your own priests died in that fire,” said Wren.

“An unfortunate sacrifice. They will be honored.”

“Easy to say when you don’t have to make the sacrifice.”

The Lord Priest glared. “I sense you aren’t going to be reasonable about this.”

“You sense right,” said Wren. “You’re under arrest for . . . well . . . I’m not sure what the crime is yet, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out once we get you to the Tower.” She drew her flintlock as the priest’s personal guard step forward.

“You couldn’t let it go, could you?” Hess drew his sword.

She smiled. “You know me, partner.”

“A pity,” said the Lord Priest. “Destroy them, my faithful servant.”

The god of fire roared up as a long, snaking serpent of red and white flame. “I’m sorry, but I have no choice.”

He struck and would’ve surely incinerated Wren and Hess in an instant if not something else. The glowing golden figure held the serpent in her steel gauntlets. The goddess of justice looked different than her idols. She wrestled with the god of fire.

“Kill them, you idiots,” ordered the Lord Priest.

His guard stepped forward, and Hess moved to meet them.

Wren whirled and fired, blasting a leg out from the brazier. It fell over. Its coals spilled across the floor and a handful rolled out of the magic circle keeping the god in check.

“No!” yelled the Lord Priest.

“Yes!” yelled the god of fire as he stopped fighting the goddess of justice. He exhaled white hot flame that burned the flesh off the guards, leaving only blackened bones behind. The Lord Priest turned to run, but the serpent swallowed him whole. When Wren looked closely, she could see the silhouette of the priest in the serpent’s belly, and if she listened, she could hear his screams echoing.

The fire god turned toward Wren and Hess and bowed before vanishing. The goddess of justice saluted them. They saluted back as she disappeared in a flash of light.

The moment they stepped out of the manor, it burst aflame.

“Maybe it would’ve been better to keep him locked away,” said Hess. “Gods can be unreliable.”

“So we don’t rely on them,” she replied. “And maybe the Lord Priest had a point, but it doesn’t make it right.”

“And if the city goes up in flames?”

“We do our jobs, Partner. Like always. And hope to hell the gods do theirs.”

They rode away as the Lord Priest’s manor collapsed into a heap of burning rubble.

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