Claws Out, Ladies – Southern Horror by Installment
A RUDE GIRL
The stones and debris from the cliff face totem settle around the vehicle, hugging low to the ground, steam rises from it’s coal furnace and dweomer motes flicker around the headlamps.
Silence after the deafening boom and long fall from the cliff, echoes of a screaming cat click over on a purely empathic level.
She turns off the sound dampers and looks back into the tight gloom of the rear seating.
“Why, by The Low One’s arse are we stopping here, Pants. We just blew up a fucking Road-Steeple. Hopers will be down on us like shit gnomes in Parlou if we don’t get ghost,” says Rude, adjusting her seer-goggles to low light in the dark of the reclining cockpit.
“I’m switching to side A on the bronzestone player, I want to hear The Hanging Garden again.”
Pants flicks his tail and rolls his eyes while he slowly flips the ember coloured stone vinyl and grins at Rude through his peng piglet helm.
“I know what your thinking, so don’t even start with me. Now, we’re going to need to stop for milk and cigarettes soon too. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Rude snarls at him, switching off the empathaean receptors in her own peng sow helmet, letting the first strains of Robert Smiths voice sooth her nerves as Pants signals with his front paws that the Rod was steamed up and ready to roll again.
Shit. The fucking receptors are stuck on. I’ll need to get this looked at. Next town.
The countryside is unchanging, ash mountains looming over, the same colour as the sky, low hanging Naelthaen clouds making the headlamps reflect absurdly, so they drive in darkness, seer-goggles beaming out of the front and rear cockpits, Pants scanning ahead and behind, his pale furred tail loosely relaxed on the trigger mechanism of the Rod’s mount-rifle.
By the time that they come booming out of the mirror world of the canyon, night has fallen and Pants insists that they do not flip back to side B of the bronzestone.
“We have a good thing going here, Rude. I’m surprised you can’t tell, have you got your helmet switched on?”
“Yeah Pants, but it’s all over the place. I definitely can’t hear any kind of rhythm.”
“Trust me, it’s out there, I can hear it coming up through the wheels. The ghosts around these parts are really into Smith and his buddies. I say we just keep rolling this way and we’ll make it out of this night alive.”
“Yeah, but we are pretty close to the Basin, so it’ll pay to stay sharp. Shit, I could really use that some milk and cigarettes right about now.”
The sky has collapsed into a blanket of churning mists and Naelthaen lightning, tiny spark spooks being dashed off the bubble glass screen of the cockpit.
The fur on the Burmese is stiff and his tail flicks with anticipation, ear flat and eyes wide beneath his green glowing goggles.
Hours pass. No change. The bronzestone hums softly under the repetition of Pornography. Rude grips the controls hard, leaning forward as if this will get them off the busily haunted highway faster.
Thousands of eyes and glowing fingers press to the glass, hold tight with faces gaping, gibbering. Both of the drivers have turned off the receptors in their peng helmets. Better not to hear. Certainly better not to feel what is going on in the awful dimness outside the Rod.
A long way west, Rude catches it with her periphery attachment, a great Nael hued crack opens in the air and she imagines the cities spewing out of it, crashing into the Basin, swallowed but never digested, falling until The End.
“Pants, did you see that?”
The cat snores softly and paws the air, his goggles flashing data and reflecting oddly on his wet nose.
Another crack, so much closer and the highway buckles like old world ice, heaving in the oceans before they were swallowed.
Pants jerks awake as Rude brings the Rod out of a spin and tamps down the furnace clutch.
“The fuck,” he hisses, pulling on his seer-goggles. “How long was I out?”
“Not long, but warn me next time, sky is opening up out here and getting closer.”
“We gotta get off this road.”
Under the dead city, the rats crawl around on electric cakes, they’ve been lifeless for centuries. Swinfield throws aside a particularly large snake carcass, electrum scales tinkle when they hit the floor, glimmer soft in the light of the Wicker lantern.
The young woman’s tall shadow moves jerkily as it follows her and then overtakes, a touch out of sync in the Bae-light of the tiny Wicker, sweating from the heat of their glowing mirrors and careful not to burn themselves on the glass eggs that the light bugs have left all over the lantern floor.
“Brighter,” commands Swinfield, her voice shockingly loud even at a whisper in the long silent halls of the Low City, miles below Umban-Cassar, even below the city it was built atop of.
She is as low as any other has ever been and she knows it, alone but for the Wicker folk, an antique bone pistol, greasy with Influence and her dagger, stolen from the Cadan embassy when the Great Flood hit and like most others who had more pluck than sense or decency, the tall girl had been looting.
They’re all dead now, she thinks. But the dagger hums in her boot sheath, life crackling through her calves and up her thighs.
What the fuck have I brought with me? And why?
He told me to get low and here I am, just Gall rats and dead snakes, not even any Shit Gnomes. Just their husks. Drained one and all.
How long had it been since the Parlou left? Before the Cadan had, for sure. But history is not her strong point.
Cappuccino flavoured liqueur goes down easy and she is a touch drunk when she comes to the spiral staircase some hours later, horrible slabs of synthesized flesh leading obscenely down into some terrible throat. The Wicker chitter in their unknowable tongue and Swinfield gives the lantern a sharp shake.
“Shut up, boys. Let’s have us some high beam.”
The Bae-light eats at the dark, starving, yellow bone banisters and nauseating rugs of thick fur grow out of the giant flesh steps at apparently random intervals. The stairs have a faint sense of give as she half jumps down from one to the next, lantern high in one hand and pistol cocked.
And now the stench.
Sour, sweet, invasive, her lungs fill and bile rises, she chokes it back down, gagging.
“The fuck is this?”
More dead gnomes, not drained though. Overripe bodies, glistening frozen with the reek of mass graves in high Summer. The Wickers are silent. The Bae-light strobes.
Chittering, not like the bastard language of the Gall rats, half spider hissing and half rodent squeak, something like tiny bones bouncing in avalanche across icy stones. Above. Coming down.
Unseeing, in one move, with no shadow to mock and distract, Swinfield blows open the previously empty air with her screaming pistol, the staircase aflame with Naelaemic fragments, they devour the descending horror, eyes and teeth and more teeth.
I won’t remember that.
The Wicker begin to whisper.
“Back to work, you lazy shits.”
THE GRYM CENTAUR
The whole tent stinks like men in the various stages of death; even the hale and young got it on them. Sick eyes. Sour insides. Black rot and white tubes like we spill in the mud and water and on the stones and streets and swords and over cribs and beds and in hovels and grand halls. It’s almost the same everywhere. I used to breathe deep and secret, when I was a younger man, still a man.
Am I a man?
After what they did to me.
When the whores or fine ladies of Brastol would sway past, perfumed and fresh, some over ripe and some subtle, I could mount them. What now? Crush them.
Now, even in the quiet cities, ones we have subdued or those who didn’t raise arms, I stand at the tables alone and even the youngest harlots and grandest court ladies stink of little ends and gape at my carriage.
I can smell their spawn, not yet conceived, rotting in the Beforenow, ready to birth and eat and live and lie in the Herenow.
Try to keep the others from seeing.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
They know. But they don’t want to.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
I can’t explain. I don’t know either.
Concentrate. What is here? What?
Old fat cook sweats into the stew cauldron, black and burnt, taken from some other outfit months before when ours was found full of Sorro-tube parasites. Drip.
His grease mixes salt and oil with the bubbling gruel, they can’t taste him, probably.
For all the scents, the shades of death in my nose, I can’t taste an Endsdamned thing. Ash, for a while.
Tick. Drip. Tick. Drip.
A pair of camp followers pleasure the one handed commander over by the beer barrels.
Men stand around, waiting? Half seem interested in the fucking. Half in the watered down drink. I hear them complain, it tastes like dirt. It tastes.
I have this wineskin. They are scared to take it from me. It doesn’t taste, but the tick tick tick subsides as it drains. I can get more. Who here will deny me?
Take their heads and trample their bodies under snake-iron hooves.
My longest knife is on the table. The hilt is bound in wicker skin. Sinner skin. Skin is skin to me and the priests turn a blind eye. They’re getting blinder. Thing is, if you carry this kind of thing with no caution or reverence, no nod to the End or the little bastards that live there, what can they say? They deny the import of the whole realm and to take this off me would only show that they know they are at least a little wrong in their claims. But the real reason for their actions are cowardice. Cowardice and greed. I’m a goldmine. One man does the work of many, but they pay me the same. But I take my liberties, such as they are.
This blade, it never gets clean. Blood stains and clings to it, oiled and dragged along the whetstone – though it never goes blunt, dull as it may look. Looks. That’s what I avoid. No reason for the others not to see me sharpen the damned thing. Not that I’ve drawn it in anger, not in months. Better to show with a great sword men going down in the earth and blood than what may happen when this knife is rasping and shearing through ribcage or windpipe. No, it is the sword for my ‘enemies,’ men who I do not know and never stood a chance when we swept down on them, night or day, in cities or villages.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
My left eye like vintage clockwork, demented wicker-larvae flicking their protoplasm wings beneath the skin. Madness. I’m licking my lips and squeezing the wineskin, tavern idiot look. Who would look at this?
Pay attention to the companies Varwolves, grumbling under the table, crawling with Cess-maggots and full grown, lurid red beetles. A soldier kicks one and laughs. He should put it out of it’s misery. He would not have japed and kicked at the beast a month ago, before we trekked the Nesden mangroves. Very few of our hounds survived. They seemed to attract the red beetles en-masse and their tendril fur was a perfect breeding ground. It absorbed the fetid moisture and the Endsdamned bugs survived on those unlucky Varwolves that made it out of the swamps and across the polarizing desert flats – the larvae sucked the very water from the hounds and we saw many crumble to almost dust, their fur blowing in the desert storms like obscene swamp grass. Luckily the bugs don’t seem to hunger for men.
The commander finishes his rut loudly, for show to the men. Some jeer, some mutter, anger in their eyes. His aides scuffle over the haradan who still had eyes and when the more aggressive of the two throws his prize over a barrel, the loser finds that a pair of soldiers have already dragged the blind whore out of the tent. He spits at nothing and drinks from a flask. He coughs and spits again.
The rains have followed us south from the moment we left the deserts and most of the men have the same wracking coughs, shuddering chests and milky eyes. Woe to them if any think to meet our advance with violence, they should die unless all in these miserable parts suffers the same affliction.
But we meet no-one and send no reports back to the main contingent of our forces. We move through mile after barren mile, cold and sick. Ticking.
I’ve heard them make joke of riding me.
I shot one jester in the face with my arm cannon.
No one has been warm since that day, but I stopped feeling warmth many winters ago.
Why does the cook sweat in this freezing deluge? Fever? Or something worse? The priests speak of inner flames from The End. They will come for us, if we are to stray. That is all we do, out here. Away from the Knight-Priests.
The clouded eyes and ruined lungs, they stay clear of me and this makes the others look, even the commanders and Field-ministers. They fear me for my health. For my worsening condition.
When we clear the mountain passes in some months, in Spring, the other men speak of the ripe orchards and near ripe women of the low lands, the farmlands and fat merchants who rule the road cities en-route to the Basin. I doubt that they’ll make it.
If I’m honest, I won’t come close to joining them. I will go below the passes, not through them. I am committed to the below. And Ending. Of sorts.
They will not send hunters to take me for desertion. They think me cursed. As far as dead men think. They are dead. Even while they strive and fear The End. They are dead men.
Maybe I am cursed and this freakshow body shouldn’t come as a surprise.
When the Sleepers laugh, men weep and gnash teeth before laying their children on altars and whispering to the Whore-saint for forgivness.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
For all their proclaimed second sight, the priests turn a blind eye to this army of staggering corpses, playing at verisimilitude with life. Unholy End dwellers walk the Herenow, they say. It is our duty to make them unwelcome. No-one is welcome. Not out here. We are closer than they know. I can smell it.
The priests sit in their austere tents, looking tents. Austere looking tents. Do they think us blind too?
Within, the best whores, blankets and meals, hot baths and servants taken from the conquered, some of them the wives of conscripts who march in this very company, now concubines and cooks, maids and doctors to these holy men who have sworn off the pleasures of Herenow to find Hereafter.
When we left Brastol, months? A year ago? It wasn’t like this and it was not like this in the Harain lands, where we found the scrolls beneath the Old Sleepers temples. The priests were hard men of body and mind, skilled with their blades and committed to their way. Now, so far from home, so weary, they are showing to be men again. Me, what am I? Man? More? Or less?
The One is not mercy they say, He is purpose. One Mind. One Action. One Way.
Men kill and fuck and drink and curse and so do priests. Men die. Priests are men.
I killed one of our own when we took a small Grey Outpost. It was the first time any of the others had met the Grey giants. I met one, long ago, in Brastol even. In the pits. They die too, but not easily.
I burst into the priests tent in the small hours of the morning, where the priest lay thrashing on his bedroll, the mutilated body of a girl beneath him, his bones popping out and dancing, a monster made by Cadan bone-shaper dweomers. It took one swing of my great blade to take his head from his body, but many minutes to defeat the horror-skeleton that emerged from him. In the end, it took the wicker-ensorcelled knife to end the dance of the priest’s once-skeleton.
This priest’s replacement is a far softer man and I feel the knife’s hunger for him. I feel my contempt. I smell his end.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
BOW TIE CAT – A Trial In The Sleeper Halls
Grim dirt silence has the rumbling quality of night dust from the Western shores in the Sleeper Hall. Choir lamps rest, shuttered and silent, thick stone keeping out the guard change for highwatch outside in Folly Gryms. Black boots and staves banging time with iron bells and the less ostentatiously criminal are strung up or burned or beaten or stoned in the stocks. All this is too fine a thing for me.
My bow tie stifle, whiskers twitch. Tail lash and ears flat. Stay calm, old boy, they know you’re sweating it.
The men in the hall have been here from midnight last, Gossmen hammering the light of their peng-swine into chatterbox reports, a line of pig-lanterns reflecting under doors and around the shifting labyrinth corners of Old Sleep. Everyone wants to know the what of this judgement, because even the least of them know the who, from the whores and guttersnarks of Rouge Hollows to the Battane Promenade where the bars are full of braying swordsmen, great steel clad sluts giving up death for coin.
Lesser men fill the galleries, minor nobles from The Crest, nervous and twittering, some obviously still drunk from a night in the Hollows. Scholars from Saint Lomar’s, noting what transpires without need for the use of the pigs; a lost art that died in it’s infancy. Some familiar faces, studiously avoiding my eyes when I can look away from the boar, employees, associates, friends. Now, they are interested strangers, curious gawpers with no love for what I have become.
What of wonder, you bastards? Do you so hate to know the unknowable?
This city of theirs, it is not mine yet the walls are closing as a terrible reverse womb, the pucker holes from the boar’s intrusions opening, eyes into somewhere beyond and before The End, bright darkness, stranger than the worlds that the Grey lords have ever shown me.
My city is a flood of dead men, mile upon endless mile of water savaged ruin; I’ve been to the Basin and the Umban derelicts, Púr-Noms matches them a handful of years from it’s end, no splendour left untouched by the rapine of first ignorance and then greed. It was easy living. Until no one else was. Then it was all we could do to flee to Umban, carrying what we could – books, a sword, some Raol fire and our children, not yet of the world, but her heavy and awkward, hands burned black by constant pistol fire.
The Bae Censor lights flutter, dimming, disrupting the peng-codes and cause a brief flit of dissent from the Gossmen, little sows and piglets mewling with empathy as their masters compose themselves. The great boar bristles at the commotion and I see his cock go hard at the smell of the sows, this is brief, now his Gossman is back in charge and the empathaen toxins pump once more, my innards and inner being buckling under the sensation of being at once filled up and diminished.
Baes burst with choir-light and here is the Chase Sayer, Almost Sixth, Higher Of The Just, Brynn Kinane. So final, he seems, drawing the bae sound light in as we drew in Iel smoke and wicker fumes, huddled with the Shit Gnomes under the streets of Umban, practising as living as beggars and finding what strange joys we could.
The boar can smell the Chase Sayer’s aura of tobacco and tart wines, sour women and sweeter girls, it rankles jealous as the instant transfer of information with it’s Gossman flicks back and forth, the green empathaen fills my eyes a moment and the bae sound light looks as a forest of evergreens, a menacing palace, ready to burst into flames.
Kinane is almost ready, adjusting his white furs of office, stained from years of sitting before the Chase tables, years of watching a peng-boar draw a man out of himself and be interpreted through a Gossman in faded silk robes, gaudy only in the choir lights.
He is ready.
She is a big woman, not fat nor much taller than most, taller than Rude, but no giant.
She appears to be built to some different scale. She is broad and her features seem to be fighting for space, large lips over huge eyes, rolling oneiric beneath the lids.
Her hands are coarse and her nails broken, her arms badly scarred.
“Fighter,” says Pants.
Rude nods, the obvious, “Young for it though, but her gear says she has the experience.”
Odd dagger, still smoking Dweomer-gun.
Old breastplate scarred and glimmering. Well used greaves and bracers.
“Didn’t do shit to protect her from this,” sniggers Pants, tail flicks and ears twitch.
The storm rumbles high over head, little holes digging their way up into the maelstrom, coming home to breed.
Chasm walls hum their agreement and pebbles dance circles, gathering into the sky and speeding towards the Basin, covered in the gathering Spark.
“Look at this,” says the Burman, lifting up a copper and bronze sphere. “Auld-Wicker.”
“Sleeper preserve us,” whispers Rude, dropping the gun she has been examining in the half light of dancing shadow play on the chasm walls.
“Few dents, but should still work. Catch.”
Rude steps back from the deft throw and the lamp clatters down an incline, the tittering of Other people following its path.
“We don’t need that shit, Pants. We need to get out of the Ends-damned Basin. Now.”
“So, what do we do with her?”
“There’s room in back with you, buddy, help me get her in the Rod.”
DR VANGUAGE YASBORKEAN, CENTAUR HUNTER
Every step is glass walking and I have very long bones under my skin, the moon is leering down on me, her sister is hiding and all the Sleepers are coughing dirt in their grave sacks. The pits are full of my kin, horrible and righteous. The men who swung heavy sticks and stole my bread, the women who gave me apples in the orchards, the children and the dogs who laughed and chased me even as my bones popped out of my flesh bag. All in the ground, monsters behind the eyes or black beetles under their arms, in their trousers. None for me.
Behind my eyes, a cradle and children and cities and men and the dead. The Basin is opening and the Sparks are many and one and the same. The Grey giants are massing, the Saints are talking to us and we are walled up below the crushing stones, down where the cattle people live on their own shit, moving about like Parlou-drones, their nobles much as oneanother, high on honey of a different kind.
The father went over to the Grey giants and made his choices, not without creation.
In the burning city, his children were kings, gutter dogs, I saw them last night and now he is here.
Tall and cruel, dripping blood through the years, a man, a demon at his hip and death serpentine twining his chest. Men scurry like whipped dogs when he turns, they busy themselves with their gathering and he moves slowly, not seeing them, he sees the bodies and the sick and the past.
The Saints follow him with bright swords, green dragons from the sky, tending their cloud flocks. Even now they watch him and he does not know that he is seeking solitude from their golden eyes, huge fierce eyes with teeth that eat men and their whole world. They only care for the clouds.
He is pulling the fence closer and his brother pushes it back. The father is tethered in his iron throne, great red pigs eating the past. Tomorrow is pouring down and this tall, cruel man comes close, his demon sees me, the death uncoils and flickers, I see the next city, all the men are smiling and they have wine and cake. The girls are young and pretty. There are no bones jerking out of my finger tips in that city. We are all there.
The killing has stopped for now and this has made everyone’s mood uglier. The weather gets worse and rattling our swords in an ‘enemy’s’ ribcage would have brought welcome warmth – and meat. Some of them are sick of eating rotting Varwolf flesh and the horses are still considered precious. Many balk at man flesh, but I see everyday, more people moving to those ‘other’ stew pots.
I’d killed men before this war started. I’ve been to the pits. I’ve lived with street nobility. In both cases, you’re a hero, as long as you obey the rules. Out here, the rules disappear the moment the mélee is joined and at night, they send me into the homes of great men, alone with sword and knife. I’ve taken cities for them, one man, steel and shadow, leaving scores dead, never maimed. I’m not a warning.
My brother once asked me how I felt when I took the life of a man, I told him I felt lucky and he said, to be alive. I’m not so sure that is what I meant.
Now they all fear me. What is behind my left eye?
Once we met a man who told us that he knew our father. I don’t remember our sire, but damn him all the same. This man, this Boaz, this colleague of our forbear, he told us that our father was a great man, but prideful. He said that between us, we were his image as if made from the very clay that the Sleepers made the first men from. Boaz was a drunkard and a petty thief and if he was the type to consort with our father then our father was no better than my brother and I. We are filth. Why else would I be in this slowly uncoiling serpent, is this my war? Can I believe in a Way so obviously contrary to all evidence? Do I need to believe in this way Way to kill for it? It was really a matter of who got to me first.
When Mathias left Brastol, where he was headed, they would not tell me. I had my own duties in the Guild. When he left, he said that he would be back by the next Summer. Three passed and the Guild wouldn’t say an Endsdamned thing. They took gold from my knife and sword and all manner of other silent and roaring dooms that I met men and women with. Gold was mine too and all the luxuries that they could bestow (even then, the carrion flowers were blooming, invisible and sweet rotten), but not a copper’s worth of my brother was given.
Of course it came down to the knife and the tick. Tick. Tick.
Almost a year and a half in the pits, sedated by Juelian Soma-Wickermancers, many died. Sometimes I almost died. I could smell the End flies gathering around me as I bled out in the muck, could see the impossible city through the gossamer veil of crawling insects. The clock behind my left eye would sound an alarm. The other city went dark and I was that city, a monster full of thousands, millions, uncountable dwellers, men, women, animals. Others. All waiting for me to leave. Each end fills up the city with another brick, which becomes a cavernous room of it’s own making. I was starving. I slept, tight and sound under the singing wings of that city’s locals.
By the time that the war began, all in the city knew my name. I was legend. When the priests had taken the city, giving very little evidence of the blood that would later be spilled, they knew my name and where to find me. I was theirs.
IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE CITY?
Púr-Noms, the Clock District. Fourteen long and interesting, if largely terrifying, months after the floods. We haven’t slept in a few days now and we must keep moving from rough house shell to rough house shell. The only thing that we’re not running from is the rats. You can’t avoid them, they’re everywhere. For some reason, the dead aren’t eating the little bastards, even when they’re so Ends bent on getting a chew on anything else with a pulse.
I’ve got about a handful of shots left for my pistol and a pound or so of Raol fire powder. You can say that for the sorcerers, even when everything goes to the End, you can bet that their devices will hold up.
At first, we were cursing them. The floods weren’t normal; black oceans pouring from the sky and the docks torn down by burning waves that shot up vertical, covered in faces and with steaming talons and tails lashing out and pulling the slatterns, pimps, drunks and longshoremen into the maelstrom. Some of the bodies crawled out, burnt and dripping. The lucky ones lay still on the seabed or simply supine and smoldering on the streets where the rats would gather in kingdoms and glut on the evil smelling pile, drawn as though to a garden of carrion flowers.
It wasn’t the sorcerers, of course. They don’t have this kind of power and we even saw a group of them: weeks back, dragged down under the weight of a death gang as they discharged their fire pistols and shouted their desperate, arcane language.
You can’t fight the dead when they gather en-masse. Sure, we’ve picked off the odd walker here and there, but for the most part, all that you can do is keep running.
The Clock District is a long way from the docks, which is where most of the walkers seem to gather. Some of them have made the long, shambling journey though, breaking into the towers and workshops. Some of the dead are screaming mad. They wail and gibber in a strange language. I’m almost certain that it is a coherent tongue, but I wouldn’t swear it to Above. Sometimes I think that the raving dead are trying to say something while they tear apart a breather. For the most part, however, the walkers are silent. You don’t hear them coming up behind you. Death has taken their breath and made light of their steps. You’d think they were haunts if not for the very real vision of them pulling a large man’s head from his shoulders.
Most of the people have fled Púr-Noms, now. Word spread like the Sleep-sickness when the dead began rising up out of the flood waters. The sorcerers were the first to leave, saying that they would send for help from their homeland. A brave few stuck around to act as guardians and to try keep order but it didn’t last long. As the walkers grew in number, the sorcerers began deserting.
It has taken us nearly three months to get to the Clock District and at this rate, it’ll be another month or so before we reach the city limits. I don’t know what is happening out on the plains, but something tells me that it will be easier to spot a walker coming for us out in the open rather than in this stinking labyrinth of an Ends-damned city.
There is precious little to eat and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to convince the others that it would be folly to dine on Chells, a domestic Peng-swine that has been my companion since I was a young man. Chells is happy to snuffle about in the garbage and take sustenance from whatever nutrient rich dirt lays beneath the growing filth of Púr-Noms.
We on the other hand, haven’t had a morsel in two days now. The last house we broke into had a few jars of poorly preserved hang-peas and their bitter taste was enough to make young Machesh retch, but his mother made him force them down. He is looking smaller each day, growing up to be a skeleton rather than a young man. It seems that we will likely all soon resemble the walkers, as we waste and run and drink filthy water. Dysentery is a constant now and last night I woke up, heaving blood from my mouth. Chells and Machesh were badly scared, even more so it seemed than when hiding scant inches from the reach of a death gang. Lura and Iam calmed their boy with stories about the countryside while I retired to a far corner of the cellar so as to not disturb the boy any further. Chells whimpered all night and his usual third eye light dimmed to an ember.
Boaz still rants his ideas, if only we’d listened to him! But to bring his manifesto, the Hot Pale, as he calls it, before the Council would have been the end of us all. It needs more proof.
Today, there is a light mist of rain. The first Above honest rain there has been since the floods. The clean water has sent the walkers into hiding which has in turn given the rats free run of the streets. If they weren’t likely so disease ridden, I’m sure that we’d be eating them by now, but we’ve all seen the sleek, black brutes feasting on the corpses of the city folk. Some of them have even taken to hitching rides on the walkers, chewing away at the moving, dead flesh as the gangs roam the streets, silent and hungry.
The Cat-temples in Folly-Gryms have been torn down by the walkers. They’ve pretty much ignored everything else without blood but when we were slinking through the holy yards, there were hundreds of walkers, methodically pulling the buildings down, scrabbling with preternatural strength and mindless determination while hordes of screeching cats milled about frantically. The temple cats are usually fearless, but not even the grand matriarchs would go near the walkers to stop them.
We hadn’t seen any other cats until today, when the rain started and that just goes to show how messed up things really are. Normally, those holy creatures would be indoors on their hearth stones the moment that the sky went grey, but now they can smell the same thing that I can for the first time in months. Reprieve.
Machesh looks exhausted and his parents want to rest now, out in the open. Chells is tired too, but prancing along as jaunty as he did the day before the floods. Come along, I say. We can go faster if we don’t have to hide every hour to stop ending up a snack for the walkers. We need food, says Iam and Lura agrees. Machesh just looks sullen. Chells snorts and runs off up the street, making my decision for me. Come along, you three. We can look for food when we get to The Grey Bend.
The Grey Bend looks like it always has. A huge, stone bowl in the ground, covered in arching bridges of the same grey stone, each linked by smaller wood and rope pathways. The bowl has drained surprisingly fast of the black flood waters, though the brick buildings built on the floor and up the curving walls are all covered in stinking residue. The thick, sticky substance left by the floods burns if you touch it, though why anyone would deliberately grab a handful of it is beyond me. There is no way that we are going to be able to salvage foodstuffs from the bowl, but the bridge vends at least look to be in reasonable condition.
The vendors have all fled and have largely taken their wares with them. There are some rotten peng haunches. They’ve attracted swarms of flies, not to mention the bowl of barley cane candy chunks wrapped in grease paper. Infested.
We gather some light clay jars to catch the rain water and it feels like a blessing to have these things, a child’s poisoned portion of a suckling treat and the basic necessity of clean water. Chells dims his third eye at the sweet candy, uncomfortable on the unnaturally worked stone. Yes, Chells, we will get back to the city proper soon and out altogether soon enough, Above willing. Just count yourself lucky that they’re eating this rancid candy and not you. The little peng snorts his laugh and trots into a vend, rooting around with his snuffling snout.
Lura and Iam find a stale loaf of black bread, soaked in the rain water. It is a delicacy, though we are sparing with the gritty loaf and stow a large portion for later. As we eat and drink, Chells squeals for attention and I run into the dark vend. Like most vends, this one has a sleeping cubby built below the main storage area and Chells is stomping a four hoofed dance on the flimsy bark door, his third eye bright and wide. I crawl down the cramped tunnel-space to the bark portal and Chells squeezes past me onto the landing, purring loudly and flitting his excitement with staccato light bursts. Touching the door sends a mild shock of cold up my arm, causing me to fall back in amazement rather than any real pain. The chill quickly goes numb and I am left feeling calm and revitalized. This time, knowing what to expect, I grab the door rope and slowly lift the portal, latching it to the wall hook in the vestibule.
Blue light crept out of the nest, slowly, as if exploring the dank shadows of the tunnel. It crept up the walls like water forgetting gravity and as it seeped towards the vend proper, the little cavern grew pleasantly chill and sound damped and deepened, Chells’ purring becoming a low rumble in the background.
I swung down into the nest, feeling instinctively that there was no danger down here, bathed in arcane light. Instead of the regular bed and chest furnishings of a vend’s sleeping quarters, this nook is dominated by an altar of sorts, a huge cat’s head with oversized eyes, black quartz pupils boring into my eyes and causing me to avert my gaze.
The darkness descends in shades of cobalt and winter nights, shivering and bracing.
The horns sound after midnight, in the constant drizzle. I haven’t slept. The strange knife calls to me, sings and hums in the darkness of the commons-tent. My wineskin is empty. Men stir and groan in the freezing shelter. The horns blare again and I can hear the clash of arms. Raol-shots fired.
To attack us, all must know, is madness, even with sorcerers and their machines.
My arms hum as the circuits below crackle. Dweomer tingles through me and dances round my chain-tail.
Outside, the wind is a gentle wraith and the drizzle has left all watch fires sodden and miserable. Men roll in the mud, stabbing with knives, bashing with crude maces and axe hafts.
Dull booms as the sorcerers flare from their guns and hands, gobs of thick fire, pustular and incandescent.
Horns blare and horses scream. Here they come. Through a ruined fire pit, a man swathed in cheap furs, his axe high. Split from throat to cock, he is down and his companion loses a leg before I turn and loose my sword end over end at a slow approaching shadow. Knife in hand.
The hilt burns, whispering to me. We are melting and becoming other.
Look. It is hissing. Look at the dead. The men on the ground. Harlis. Mokie. Howarn. I know them. All about, the company is at fierce battle with itself, no allegiances obvious as they hack at each other. Most have not even donned armour or taken up proper weapons. Smoking logs stave in a face before the pair of brutes turn on each other.
More of my allies. Knifework. This is a garden, blooming and magnificent. The ticking is now a throbbing. The hilt burns down through the flesh of my hand and connects with bone.
The darkness recedes and takes on dawn hues, the dead and dying and killing are lit in light like the eclipse I saw in Harain. Black figures covered in glowing End flies. Each dead man frothing and aglow with these creatures that suck the last few seconds from each man and shit them out into that other city, waiting for me.
The other city is a ragged mismatch of time and place, like stained glass windows shattered and pieced together in the wrong churches. It is beautiful and wrong. The people stare at me as I stalk past, knife hissing and biting. Children hide their faces and men show steel, black and hot as the sky above. Everything glows. There is no light. The Others are here too. Wicker, no longer misshapen and tiny, servile tools of anyone with enough Fetish-bait. Here, they are lords, ladies, terrible to behold as they walk the streets, laughing and cursing here, rutting and killing there. They do not see me.
It is freezing outside the other city. My knife is suddenly cold in my palm, almost lifeless and completely silent, no longer crying out for food and drink from man and woman. So heavy, it wants rest. Lay it down.
No more wind phantoms dance and drone and the killing within the camp continues in eerie silence, blood that would be bright even in the pre-dawn light now just fine shadow rains, not even the stars are watching us.
The priest stands there, mouthing wordlessly and holding up a flaming blade – the world is not silent, it is the roar of those freezing fires that drowns out all other sounds.
He is quick, unnaturally easy with his grand weapon and I flicker between this desolate camp and the other city, each cut a doorway and the Wicker catching glimpses of my shadow beyond their threshold. My knife sleeps in the rain dirt, covered in water and blood and mud.
In the other city, a huge man, bigger even than I, throws me to the warmth of the black cobbles, my skull opens and End flies gather, a dull grey-green here, strange and ugly when compared to those that show in my world. Children shriek and run into twisted side streets, the man draws back a long whip, dark as the sky, it hums rather than cracks as he whips it back through the air, for show, for power. For whatever reason. Face covered in crawling flies, I hit him around the mid section and even with his great bulk, I am the stronger, bearing him to the ground and rolling over and over. We tangle beneath the feet of Wicker men, bartering with something invisible and cold. They cannot see me. The invisible thing can, I feel its gaze. One of the Wicker lifts the huge man as if he were a kitten and reaches inside his chest, pulling out shadows. I am sick, heaving out strange colours onto the city street, they disappear in less than seconds. The invisible thing reaches for me. I grab the man who lost his shadow’s whip.
The sword moves in slow motion and I am behind the priest, whip uncoiling, humming and cracking, snapping about his neck even though I am too close to gather much momentum.
The screams of the dying and calls for sanity blast my ears as the sword drops from the priest’s hand, his life screaming into me, scaring off the few End flies that came back from the other city with me. The dead priest is a tiny man, a head or more shorter than me, and how he lifted that great blade seems impossible to grasp. My knife calls and I answer. Holding it’s warm skin against mine, the priest’s sword reveals itself. Still a magnificent blade, but no bigger than any other soldier’s weapon. In the mist of rain, icicles glitter in the air around the blade, shattering in miniature as they hit the ground. Leave it say my knife. I want it. Leave it.
Leave it says the Knight-Priest, hurrying up the small hillock. His vestments are stained with blood. None of it appears to be his. This is more than I expected of him. Leave it, he says again, steps aside as his pets come forward. A pair Raol sorcerers. Fire pistols drawn, the barrel mouths of these nasty weapons steam in the cold.
I withdraw, coiling the black whip over my shoulder, seeing the dead priest, now drained dry, looking as a corpse many years into decomposition rather than a fresh casualty.
The sorcerers train their pistols on me and look to the Knight-Priest, but he is looking away, his eyes giving off light rather than reflecting it as dawn breaks over the carnage within the camp. How long was I in the other city? The sorcerers lower their weapons and I move through the camp. How many dead?
Hundreds of our thousands are dead or dying and I fight the ticking doors. I’ve seen enough of the Other City to last until I get there by more traditional means. What was the invisible figure? What did the Wicker pull out of my opponent?
Dallas! They yell and rush up to me, survivors. I know them. They saw me struck down, smote by the dead priest’s blade and a great blackness descended on them, the voices of thousands spoke in whispers, incomprehensible tongues. For hours, the killing continued in this mad, susurrus void before the night returned, just before dawn. We must flee, Centaur, the frightened men say. This is cursed land.
One of my companions’ head explodes, the grey brain matter giving off a pungent smell, something almost like a pleasing flavour to my ruined senses as they cook under the intense heat of Raol fire powder. The second shot takes a man in the belly and he almost oozes down onto the battlefield, cooking from the inside out, as the unfortunate man’s back plate caught the searing ball and stopped it from merely blasting a hole through his gut.
Stay a while longer, Grym , says the Knight Priest, tall and glowing from the eyes, huge sword slung from a makeshift back holster.
THIS IS HOW WE MAKE ANGELS, IDIOT
Bae-lights and wicker whispers. Air dissolving into the Other space. Naelaemic flames. Hundreds. Thousands of tiny mouths. Screaming as the dying air became the booming of angry stone and suddenly the blinding bright of a sad grey sky, she hasn’t seen it for months and gasps down the choking dust, the invisible poisons from the Other place.
Her wicker lamp shatters and the miniature mocks of men coalesce, a rampant apparition, growling and shrieking at a pitch she is certain she cannot comprehend. It races skyward, stone evaporating in it’s passage. Sky so bright and tides of gargantuan chasm dwellers wash upon the cloud shores, tremendous lizards with gills that hold cities. She can here the rioting. War sweeps through the beasts and great bombards tear through the scales made of weeping sky, hundreds of celestial bodies take orbit and are devoured by even larger wyrms that now pull holes in the simmering grey, crying the rights of shepherds to the flock and perceived wolves alike.
She twitches but can’t even blink.
Other air buffets her about the new canyon, high and low.
Grips tight to the pistol.
Higher and higher, praying that the Sleepers let her fall rather than be dragged into this conflict.
And she does fall.
And she breaks.
And she fights.
And she sleeps.
But not for long.
She is found.
OVER THE EDGE
Boaz swings down effortlessly behind me while Iam hovers at the lip of the vestibule, talking incomprehensibly with his family.
Boaz, I say. Saint Cat needs your attentions.
He turns, eyes lambent, ears flat against his head. Hissing.
Blaspheme, Chells twists the complex idea of irony and god-hate into bright colours and the memory of a smell so dry itwill catch fire when the summer comes on in earnest.
Lit up by the weird, blue glow, like rosecoals about to die on the hearth, she lays their in her familiar garb; mail hauberk and basin-forged cat mask. Saint Cat. Not the Saint Cat, my Saint Cat.
THE CAT MYSTERY
A few weeks before the floods, I was doing what I always did. I was drunk. I couldn’t sleep. I was eating pounds of CP every day. I didn’t want to eat anything else. Not that I really think that any of this was a bad thing. It kept Boaz out of my affairs, he was terrified of my eyes, he told me later, the huge, staring blacks, glowing with multitudes of shade – he thinks it to be a vision of Umban, the shade city. He swears that it exists, but cannot prove it. His funding at the university was cut off when he pushed his arguments too far without any tangible evidence of this ‘other’ City.
That has always been his problem, half made theories, half discovered truths. He trusts himself with such hubris that I am surprised that he so often accuses me of the same.
And to mention my eyes. To come home late and see him on his cushions by the fire, reading in the dark, eyes aflame.
Boaz was alone in his dockside apartments until I left that school of savage hypocrisy and daylit idea robbery to ‘apprentice’ myself to him, as at odds as our theories often were. We share at least a base interest in our area of study. He cackled like a mad man for weeks on end when we first lost our home, he felt that somehow just witnessing this calamity proved him right.
Perhaps it did, but merely a tangent theory to his main area of study, another ism in which our thoughts crosshatch and I must admit, that he put me onto the idea that the Naelaemic gap does indeed exist.
I have lost myself in reverie, in much the same manner that caused me to lose her in our madcap dash from the Mercy temples.
Old Boaz and me, we didn’t just stumble on the temples of that fickle saint. I went looking for her, she was alive, I knew. If anyone could thrive in this madness, it would be her. I don’t even know her name. I called her Saint Cat, mockingly and she simply arched her thin eyebrows and hissed through her crooked teeth, pink tongue noticeably rough and pointed.
She came by our quarters late one night with a sheaf of scrolls, some geometrical instruments and a bag of Pùr crowns. She wouldn’t speak to me, only to Boaz, but when she left, the old man was so excited that she may as well have told me everything.
The Cat-sisters and their wicker kittens wanted to know what the old man knew of the Other City. Not the hot, endless and cramped home of the wicker, but the world of dark mirrors. How long had the cat-sisters known, Boaz had cried, heedless of spilling the silver coins all over the floor as he busied himself with the strange, bronze and iron tools she had left. They looked heavy and primitive, but obviously possessed some kind of fetish energy quite different than that of wicker-rods and other such talismans from the better known Other City.
She returned a week later and after that every few days, always in her archaic armour and often wearing her ridiculous mask. If she wore it to cover her deformities, she was clearly mistaken, it covered her from crown to cheek and left her twisted mouth exposed, her thin lips barely covered a mouth full of sharp teeth that seemed to shift and jostle for position even as she spoke, it fascinated me, along with her lambent eyes. She only visited us after gloam had settled in the city.
Boaz and Saint Cat sat up all night, until the sky greyed with the coming of dawn and she verily leaped out into the city, moving as if chased by all the horrors of childhood. I do not imagine that with her obvious deficiencies that her formative years were particularly easy, even though she does have the look of someone who has not known life on the streets – beneath her lean, trained musculature is a look of softness – you see it in career military men from the upper class. They are different, not like those of us who learned to fight tooth and nail for survival with no second chance in the mud and dirt of the labyrinthine alleyways that circle the outer edges of the great dome. No, Saint Cat was a noble before a priestess, I would bet Chells on it. He chirps as I think this.
Each night as they sat and talked in hushed tones, a single, Bay-censor glowing it’s heatless influence over the table, the tiny wicker in the rose-coal sleeping it’s endless sleep, I would sit quietly in the adjoining study, feigning interest in Raol engineering manuals or Harain treatise on the correct application of wicker energy and proper disposal of ‘faulty’ instruments. As the cryptophague took hold, my interest would heighten and on occasion I found myself scribbling wild notes in a hand that was inevitably unintelligible by the next morning, the wine would cut the effects of the drug and I’d mellow, making secondary notes, the concepts not as pure, I am sure.
One night, Saint Cat left Boaz well before sun up and sat in the threadbare chair across from mine, where I sat, deep in a cup of cheap, sour wine, demystifying my frenzied notes on Nalemic gap’s effect on The Sleepers, proximity and potency.
She asked me for Iel-smoke and I offered her my pipe. She declined, she had her own, just wanted the shavings to smoke.
We sat up for the rest of the night, lying to each other, I am sure, there was no truth in the room, we both knew and that was just fine, in fact it felt right.
She took off her mask and sweat rolled from her fine, strawberry-pink hair, down into her ruined mouth. She removed her armour and thick leather gloves and stalked over to me, maybe an hour before the sun came up. Tell no one, she said and then we fucked on the floor while Boaz slept at his desk in the room next door.
Don’t look for me, she said. I know where you live, I replied. The Cat-temples? She spat it. Fuck the Cat-sisters. What would they know?
When she left, I waited for less than a minute and followed her out into the city, but the streets were empty and my head was throbbing with the dull ache of wine gone.
She didn’t come back to our apartments after that and I spent all my time that wasn’t catatonic drunk and drugged or trying to decipher my own muddled notes looking for her. I asked around at the Cat temples and they all denied knowing her – she was easy to describe, but no-one had seen the young woman with the monstrous mouth, or so they said.
I was growing desperate, she had done something to me – like the first time I sampled Cadan cuisine. My life was changed, ruined and strange all at the same time.
I didn’t really notice how agitated Boaz had grown in those weeks of conversation but one morning, after spending the night at a peng-gallery, shooting ceeper-addled messages to the Cat-temples, abusive and plaintive, I came home to find Saint Cat cradling an unconscious Boaz to her breast, there was blood on her mask and mouth and it covered the old man’s face.
THEY WAIT FOR MURDER
The next few days are as cold and tedious as any other. Men talk in whispers that grow louder over the poor excuse for beer that we are served, they say that the Knight-Priest slew one of the Saints. Which one it was varies, Bæta Ruzé is ruled out; not a man here wants to find disfavour with the Whore-Saint and likewise the men make the sign of the Sleepers in hope that they have avoided the ire of Black Lomar.
If the Knight-Priest saw this, he’d like as not kill them as blasphemers, though stomping out years of fear and genuine faith is easier said than done. Most of these men aren’t here because they love the Doctrine, they are here because they are criminals or destitute or cowards. If I killed a Saint, what of it? I’d assumed they all went to The End centuries ago. I do not fear the Other City.
The small contingent of Raol sorcerers makes itself more visible to me, now eating in the commons tent with other higher ranking soldiers rather than in their own strange, metallic constructs that follow us on ant-like legs during the day, flat sheets that seem to be made of red iron that become cubes when commanded, as tall as a man and twice as broad as that.
I don’t hold official rank, but I eat in the officers’ commons. None argue. My longest knife is on the table in front of my soup bowl. More men than ever are at the ‘other’ stew pots tonight. A feast of friend, I guess.
The sorcerers aren’t secretive. They are threatening me. My knife is quiet, it has been ever since the night after a Saint turned the Army of One in on itself. And I broke his neck with a whip.
The ticking has stopped. Maybe it was the killing. Maybe it was the other city. Has something been taken from me, like the whip’s original owner in the Other City? Have my colours run out?
The town almost crept up on us, over the hill, laying low in the scum and scrub, misted over by the constant drizzle. No one knows the name of the Endspit community we have entered and no one wants to be here for long, but supplies are running out and even the man flesh that the men have salted is going an odd colour after the last few weeks of sodden travel. The priests haven’t bothered issuing their normal missive; now we just take what we can and leave as fast as possible.
I have never met people like these before. Surely I have walked with all manner of scum, vagabonds, beggars, mercenary killers, thieves and whatever else, many were not sound of body, most were not sound of mind. Here, it seems that all the curses of The End have visited themselves upon the tiny population.
The signs of plague are obvious enough; bloody sores around the eyes and black lumps that crawl just below the flesh, men and women burying their children in shallow plots before laying down to die. Not even the crows will feed here.
Stranger maladies are at hand though, ghost coloured people line the doorways, weeping sightlessly, eyes huge and white, bulging as if to seek sojourn in the skull of another. You can feel the dreams trying to escape from the minds of these unfortunates.
I have never seen sleep-sickness, but from what I know, the plague would be a far kinder fate. To have dreams take form within the skull and eat their way out, what madness took the Five to put this in the world of men?
In Brastol, before I was born, the sickness killed half the population, sparing not the priests, the nobles, the whores nor soldiers. I remember father said that he was abroad at the time, Juel, maybe and it was there too. When the sickness had done its work, the Harain came from the north on their monstrous ships of flesh, bolstered by the Zielichi that they slaughtered before crossing the sea, tens of thousands of dead men descended on Pür-Noms, the necrotic-constructs demolished the greatest city in the Southlands. Father said that it was not the Harain who brought the sickness, they merely took advantage of it – try telling that to most of these men, they would soon as gut one of the ochre-skinned northerners as receive a handful of coppers and a flask of rotgut.
In Brastol, said father, the doctrine of One was the only thing keeping any order in the streets as the people cursed the Sleepers, named them as equals to the Low One. The followers of the doctrine would be spared, said the new priests, even as the devotees of the Five and anointed of the Saints turned to a policy of cruel and willful ignorance, locking themselves in their temple vaults, though in the end, this did nothing to save them from their dreams.
There was some truth in what the new priests said, but it was a long time before tradition could be overcome. You can see the Sleepers in the night sky on certain nights and who knows when they will awaken and find us all at new altars? But, doomed and abandoned, men do not fear the slumbering Five, not when oneiric beasts grew claws of bone and steel, sharp prongs dripping venom and sprang forth only to dissipate when their dreamer was dead.
Early stages in this hovel town, it would seem, perhaps the plague is killing the townsfolk before their dreams can get to them. Maybe it’s killing their dreams.
Even with the protection of the doctrine hanging over them, the company is on edge; this is the first time in many visits to ‘civilization’ that we have not fallen to rapine and drunkenness. I wouldn’t even call this looting. Systematic gathering of what little is available. Old meat, not yet gone too green. Salt, grain not overly infested with maggots. The horses are nervous and won’t go near the blindly staring beasts in the village stables. We butcher these stricken creatures as quickly as possible and there is none of the joy that we would normally find in such a task.