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I found this image online while I was writing the novel, and it fits The Urbille perfectly. I wish I could find the name of the artist who created it, but my efforts to do so have been futile.

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 
Chapter10
  Chapter11  Chapter12  
Chapter13  Chapter14  
Chapter15
Chapter 16

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Welcome back!

As you’ve probably noticed, there’s no original illustration from me for this week’s chapter. To be frank, I no longer have the time and energy to do such illustrations. Why? Because I’ve decided to write a new novel this summer–beginning now. So for Chapters 17-22, I’m going to post images that inspired me while was I was writing A FEW ODD SOULS. I don’t think anyone who’s read this far will mind–my writing skills greatly exceed my artistic skills. 

Thanks again for reading! –JF

PS. A special thanks to the keen-eyed Robert Massey for helping me find and destroy any typos that might have slipped by me during the editing process. 

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Chapter 17.
Silver and Brass

The DISTENDED BLADDER was mostly empty this early in the morning. A few bored Beatifics sat in pairs here and there, holdovers from the night before. A Doxie turned her porcelain smile at Crag as he came through the entrance, but lost interest as soon as she saw Caroline. Crag led her into the establishment by the hand, like guiding a sleepy child.

The rage that had consumed him in the judging hall still simmered in the coils of his belly. He would let it burst free later, when some pinhead gendarme hauled him in to see the Tribune again. He’d have a bullet ready for the Tribune’s skull next time.

Wail is a Surgeon.

He can help her.

If he survived the plan he’d set in motion.

By now Skiptrain and the two hired guns had done their part. The wailing of distant sirens confirmed his estimation. If everything went as planned, Skiptrain would meet Crag here and they’d get Caroline out of the Urbille before sunset.

Keep her hidden until then. Don’t give them a chance to take her back.

By now they know their prize is lost.

Crag wondered who would find him here first: Skiptrain with an exit plan or gendarmes aiming to drag him back to the Ministere. He chose a curtained booth in the back of the tavern, where the morning sun hadn’t reached yet. Crag needed the shadows. He couldn’t stand look at the sun today. He sat across from Caroline and held her hands.

He ordered two expensive lubricants and a bowl of soapy water. He took a napkin, dipped it, and wiped at the grime on Caroline’s porcelain face. His fingers moved lightly, careful not to put stress on the fracture that ran from her left forehead to the top of her delicate nose.

“This one was always my favorite,” he told her. He restored the face’s shine as much as possible. Caroline’s opticals focused on him, but she still hadn’t said a word. He used another napkin to polish her lenses. Their color had faded from green to grey.

Wail can fix her.

He wondered how Wail could fix a broken mind. A murdered spirit.

He held a cup of warm lubricant to Caroline’s lips, helped her drink it down. He whispered sweet words, but he didn’t know if she understood him.

“Say something,” he begged. “Anything. Say my name, sweetheart. Do you know me? Who am I? Say my name.”

Caroline squeezed his hands and her opticals swiveled. She looked down at the table, saw her reflection in a tiny puddle of oil. She trembled fiercely, like her body would shake itself apart. Still she said nothing. Crag slipped over to her side of the booth and took her in his arms.

“It’s okay, baby,” he said. “It’s okay.” He kept saying it until she stopped shaking. She lay in his arms helpless as a baby. The slight weight of her head on his shoulder and her arms around his neck, these things let him know: she recognized him.

“You don’t have to talk. It’s okay.”

An gaudily dressed Beatific with a burgundy coat and powdered wig pulled back the booth’s curtain. He slid into the empty side of the booth. Crag didn’t know his face, but his voice was unmistakable.

“Hello, Crag,” said Wail. “Caroline…” He doffed his top hat in her honor. Caroline raised her head, looked at Wail, and returned her cheek to Crag’s shoulder.

“Nice disguise,” Crag said. “I was expecting Skiptrain.”

“He’s working on our exit plan,” Wail said. “How is she?”

“Look at her,” Crag said. “See what they did to her. She won’t say a word.”

Wail leaned across the table, inspecting her face and neck. “Hmmm,” he said. “She’s suffering from physical and mental trauma. Very common among those who survive the labyrinth. Most of the prisoners down there never see the light of day again. She’s one of the lucky ones. Let’s get her back to my workshop, where I can give her a full exam.”

“Fix her, Wail,” Crag said.

The Surgeon nodded. He called for a private carriage and they left through the back door of the tavern. Wail slipped a ruby brilliant into the barkeep’s hand on his way out. The carriage was completely enclosed and driven by a Beatific, so the gendarmes wouldn’t stop it for inspection unless there was an accident. Another brilliant in the Beatific driver’s hand secured his silence as they reached a row of dilapidated warehouses.

Crag lifted Caroline in his arms as the coach rumbled away. He followed Wail through the wreckage to the hidden grate and carried her down into the highwayman’s hidden lab. The big reptoid was sleeping again, and the Organic girl sat in the corner sharpening her long blade. Skiptrain hadn’t returned yet. Crag hoped he would arrive soon. Things were heating up and the Ministere would want Crag to play the fall guy. If he didn’t get Caroline through the gate soon, they might never make it out of the Urbille.

Caroline lay on her back atop one of the workbenches. Wail began to gently examine her while Crag observed. Wail pealed back the elastic skin covering her arms and legs, treated her joints with high-grade oil and sprayed her gears with rust-away. Wherever her silver bones were visible, including her naked skull, he applied a solution that restored luster to the metal. He replaced her faded opticals with new lenses of bright green glass. He pulled her flexible skin back into place with the skill of a master artisan, repairing holes and rips with a honey-like epoxy. He made all her wounds disappear. Except the ones he couldn’t see.

When Wail pulled back her breastbone to check her coils, heart, and torso gears, Crag couldn’t watch anymore. He went to sit on the other side of the chamber with the reptoid and the girl. The scaly warrior had woken up and was devouring the last of Wail’s canned food. Crag sat on an iron chair and stared at the big stone face carved into the wall.

“Ugly, isn’t it?” Svetlana said.

Crag nodded.

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SVETLANA

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 
Chapter10
  Chapter11
Chapter12 
Chapter13
Chapter14  
Chapter15

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Chapter 16.
The Operation

Crag made the call from a public service box on the Avenue of the Iron Spleen. He used a nine-digit number reserved for Tribunal Inspectors and added a three-digit priority code so he could speak to the Tribune directly. He plugged the earpiece into the socket on the side of his skull and held the microphone close to his bronze lips.

In four hours dawn would light up the Urbille, and the streets would be full of pedestrians and carriages. Right now the Reclaimed Zone was deserted, a winding maze of cobblestone and concrete lit by flickering gaslamps. Drifting night-fogs filled the air, and a few scattered fizzleshades blinked in and out of existence like candles in high wind.

The Rude Mechanicals had returned to the Urbille a couple of hours ago, and Wail had walked right into the city disguised as one of them. His iron horse had trotted away on the Thoroughfare to wait for him in some covert location. Wearing a porcelain face with a foppish smile, dressed in robes of gaudy design, Wail fit right in with the actors. Crag flashed his badge at the gate gendarmes on the way in, just to make sure he avoided malfeasance charges later. The gate captain would report his return to the Tribune, who would be expecting Crag’s call.

A pair of auroras clashed like dueling serpents in the sky. Azure versus Violet. Crag felt the tingling of a rabidity on the rise in some other part of the city. He waited in the calm of the deserted street. The dead line came to life in his ear with a series of crackling and popping sounds.

Finally, a transistorized voice said: “Hold for His Eminence.”

Crag asked himself the question again: Should I hang up?

He waited.

The familiar voice of the Tribune sounded in his ear. “Inspector Crag. You’ve made no attempt to file an official report for at least a month. And now you call me at this hour?”

“You still want the Surgeon?”

“You know I do, Inspector.”

“I’ve got him,” Crag said. “I’ll bring him in just like I said I would.”

“You wouldn’t have made this call if it was that simple,” said the Tribune. “What’s the catch? And remember that you work for me, Crag. You work for the Potentates. They see all and know all.”

“I want Caroline,” Crag said. “Like you promised.”

“Of course,” said the Tribune, “we’ve already agreed to that. Deliver Wail and I’ll write up an order rescinding–”

“No. Not good enough,” Crag said. “I want her out of the labyrinth now. Tonight. I want her waiting for me at the Ministere de Justice. That’s where you’ll find me one hour after sunrise with the Surgeon’s head. I’ll even throw in the rest of his body at no extra charge.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait,” said the Tribune. “A coach must be sent to the Palace with an executive writ…”

“Then you’d better get on that, Boss. If I show up and Caroline isn’t waiting for me completely unharmed… Well, let’s just say your highwayman problem will go from bad to worse. No Caroline, no Wail. Looking at my pocket watch I’d say you’ve got about four hours.”

“What you’re asking is preposterous.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re the Tribune. Nothing is beyond your reach. Or you could just say ‘no’ right now and I’ll disappear. You’ll never see me or the Surgeon again. Until the day he comes for your head.”

“The Potentates aren’t going to like this, Crag.”

“I don’t think they’ll even notice,” Crag said. “Four hours.”

He cut the connection and relocked the box. Going back to his flat for fresh clothes was what he really wanted to do. But that wasn’t an option now. He had to stay hidden until dawn. Delivery time.

He crossed into the Commercial Zone on foot, ignoring the fizzleshades of beggars and thieves that followed him down Cerebellum Street. They faded to nothing as he turned the corner. He saw the rabidity rising from a distance. A concentration of winds and conflicting energies somewhere in the Rusted Zone, dispersing clouds of rust as it ruptured local reality. By the time it had died away, Crag met Skiptrain at the DISTENDED BLADDER. The actor was conversing with a table full of Beatific bohemians, artists, and thespians.

Skiptrain detached himself from the table and met Crag at the bar. They stayed long enough to down a single shot of spiced lubricant. The place was filled with Doxies looking to accompany the rogues of the stage home for some illicit merging. The place was a lot like every other bar on the edge of the rust, a slum joint for Beatifics who needed a little dirt–or a little adventure. The lubricant hit the spot and seemed to clear Crag’s head. He followed Skiptrain, who had recast himself in a plain porcelain face, black tunic, and olive-green cape. Beneath the cape the handle of his antique pistol gleamed with silver inlays.

Skiptrain led him to an abandoned factory, then to the hidden passage and its floor grate, where they climbed down into Wail’s secret workroom. Wail had gathered two more agents for the operation, a big reptoid and a grown Organic woman with a blade. Crag took Wail’s belief in these two at face value. Wail would get the worst of it if things went sour. They relaxed as best they could in the underground chamber until sunrise. Wail lay himself on one of the cots as Skiptrain and Crag took out their heart-keys.

“Are you sure about this?” Skiptrain asked.

“Absolutely,” said Wail. “I’m a doctor.”

 

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The Clatterpox-driven carriage rolled up to the tower of glass and steel that was the Ministere de Justice. The sun had been up for nearly an hour, and the Urbille had come shambling, steaming, clanking, whistling, and grinding to life. Crag checked his watch, then dropped it back into his coat pocket.

Climbing out of the carriage, he secured the topper on his head, then reached inside the vehicle to pull out the body of Aimon Wail. It lay wrapped in a dirty blanket from his hidden lair. The tri-corner hat, sword, and pistol were missing, but the body was completely intact. Not a mark on it. That fact still made Crag nervous. Nothing to do about it now.

He tossed Wail’s body onto his shoulder and carried him toward the entrance. Wail’s dead innards clanked and squeaked against his silver bones. Crag tried not to think about Wail’s heart sitting still as a stone inside his breast, its cogs and gears no longer moving. He tried not to consider Wail’s brain, dying or already dead inside its silver skull. If the man was mad enough to attempt this and fail, then Crag would mourn him. Crag would still come out on top, regardless of what happened to the highwayman.

A crew of gendarmes came to escort him as he passed beneath the trio of jade gargoyles and entered the building proper. His escorts led him directly through the building to the Tribune’s golden bench. Crag didn’t need an escort, but since he was bringing in Public Enemy Number One he had expected the tight security. He stood before the high bench and stared at the Tribune’s veiled head. Wail’s body was heavy on his shoulder, wrapped in the blanket like a shroud.

“Where is she?” Crag asked.

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GENDARMES

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 
Chapter10
  Chapter11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13  Chapter 14

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Chapter 15. 

The Urbille

The entry porte to the Urbille looked like any other along the Greater Thoroughfare: a pair of towering obelisks engraved in swirls of ancient sigils. The black sky was studded with stars, but a colossal orange moon blotted out most of the night. It took up half the sky and hung low enough to drop at any moment and pulverize everyone travelling on the road. Svetlana hadn’t seen a moon so large anywhere else along the Nexus.

What set this porte apart was the orderly nature of its guardians. Twenty-one soldiers stood in a triple row before the gate, each one wrapped in a dark overcoat with a rifle resting against his shoulder. Beneath the brims of their cylinder hats clusters of oval lenses shifted in all directions at once. They looked more like the faces of spiders than those of men.

“The final porte will be well-guarded by gendarmes,” Bruno had said. “We don’t have the paperwork to enter the Urbille ourselves, but if we hire on to an incoming caravan it’ll be up to our employers to provide it. They’ll pay a permit tax to the guards, deduct it from our wages, and we’re in.” It wasn’t hard to find a Beatific merchant caravan in Oblivione. There was brisk trade being done between the City of the Potentates and the City of the Goblin Queen. Oblivione provided a rich tribute to the Urbille every calendar year.

“Do all the cities on the Nexus pay such tributes?” Svetlana asked.

“All the ones that wish to remain standing do,” Bruno said. “Except for…”

“Except what?”

“Forget it. It’s not even real.”

“Aphelion?”

Bruno nodded. They stood in the great basalt plaza of Oblivione amid bustling crowds of goblins, Clatterpox, and horse-drawn carriages. The Beatifics always used mechanical horses, but the coaches of wealthy goblins harnessed living horses, which the drivers whipped mercilessly as a matter of general custom. Svetlana didn’t like it here. She was eager to leave the goblin city as soon as possible.

“According to the tales I’ve heard,” said Bruno, “Aphelion lies at the farthest point of the Nexus from the Urbille. Some claim it was destroyed ages ago, others say it never existed. Others say it still exists at the distant edge of the Potentates’ domain.”

“Is that true?”

“I have no idea,” Bruno said. “But I like to think there is one place along the Nexus where sentients can live in peace. One place where men don’t kill each other.”

“Sounds like a dream to me,” Svetlana said.

Bruno snorted through his flared nostrils. He sold the doorless iron carriage to a goblin scrap-dealer. Domo’s books brought a nice stack of golden coins from an Oblivione bookseller. Each coin had the hideous face of the Goblin Queen on one side with the sigil of the Potentates on the other. Svetlana replenished her satchel with fruits, acorns, raisins, and freshwater for her canteen. She took no meat while in Oblivione. Bruno had warned her of the goblins’ taste for human flesh, as well as their tendency toward cannibalism whenever meat became scarce.

Great, gutted boars hung upside down at the butchers’ stalls, along with the skinned carcasses of unidentifiable creatures. An alley of seafood merchants made Svetlana wretch as she passed. Goblins preferred to buy their fish half-rotten. They ambled along on their private business, shoving handfuls of raw oysters and clams down their gullets.

Svetlana held the green tiger on a leash, now that the carriage was gone.

“We can’t take him to the Urbille,” Bruno said.

Svetlana stroked the big cat’s fur while it gnawed on a boar bone.

“We can’t just leave him here,” she said. “He’s a warrior like us.”

Bruno looked at her strangely, the visor of his helm raised in the grey light of morning. The chatter of goblins filled the air, and Svetlana had almost grown used to the reek of the place. Bruno’s vertical pupils closed and opened as he regarded her. Svetlana got the sense that her words about the cat had impressed him.

“The goblins will eat him,” said Bruno, “unless we hire someone to take care of him.”

“Luckily we have a bag of gold and a chest full of Creep City jewels.”

Bruno found a family of Clatterpox innkeepers willing to take the tiger into their stable for a hefty fee. He paid them enough to keep the tiger in meat for a month, then convinced them that one of the Beatifics who patronized their business would buy the tiger eventually. Beatific visitors knew well enough to stay away from goblin-owned inns. Each Beatific carried a tender human brain inside his silver skull, and goblins would crack open those skulls to feast on the grey matter. Or they could sell stolen brains on the black market for a small fortune. Beatifics engaged in commerce with goblinkind, but they were under no illusions about the dangers involved.

The Clatterpox innkeep referred Bruno and Svetlana to a caravan stuffed full of crossworld goods and about to depart for home in the Urbille. After acquiring a handsome porcelain mask for Svetlana, the pair approached the caravan master. A trio of carriages, wooden coaches supported by iron wheels, lined up behind the inn while a crowd of Beatifics inspected their cargo. The leader, a powder-wigged Beatific named Charles Chevallier, had already hired two Beatific guardsmen. Svetlana stared at the bronze faces which set the two hirelings apart from those who employed them. Lord Chevallier and the rest of his companions wore typical porcelain faces painted into serious, comical, or serene expressions.

Bruno crafted a clever lie while Svetlana stood behind him in her own porcelain mask. Would they truly think her a Beatific? Or did they have some kind of sixth sense that would alert them to her humanity? She wore Domo’s purple cloak pulled close about her shoulders, and a broad-brimmed hat shadowed her eyes. The hilt of Takamoto’s sword rose above her shoulder, marking her as a warrior. Bruno would do the rest.

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DOCTOR WAIL (a.k.a. “THE SURGEON,” a.k.a. “THE HIGHWAYMAN”)

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 
Chapter10
  Chapter11
Chapter 12  Chapter 13

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NOTE: I announced a while back that this chapter would be accompanied by a special illustration inked by the great Kelley Jones (BATMAN, DEADMAN, ALIEN, etc.). Well, you can’t rush genius! Kelley is still working on the piece, and I’ll post it as a “bonus” illustration as soon as I get it. Meanwhile, I did the above piece, which gives us a long-distance look at The Highwayman. We’ll see him in much greater detail when KJ finishes his inking process. Thanks for reading–please tell a friend and help spread the word. Cheers!–John

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Chapter 14. 

The Highwayman

The morning after the troupe’s twelfth performance, when the nocturnal celebrations had died away, the Rude Mechanicals loaded up their steam carriage. They moved through the streets of Neopolis with Crag at their middle, almost one of them now. They waved at the Beatific fans hailing them along the streets or from passing coaches.

Crag sat on the back edge of the steam carriage, his feet dangling above the road. He watched the spiral towers gleam like sculpted ice above the smoke and squalor of Neopolis. The excitement died when they entered the Clatterpox territories. Crowds of worker drones marched toward their shifts in factories, foundries, and industrial complexes. Everything in the lower depths of the city was owned by those in the crystal towers, the wealthiest of all Beatific families. So wealthy they had bought their way out of the Urbille and established an extended version of the Potentates’ domain.

Crag had no idea what role his parents played in the machinations of Neopolis. The city had swallowed them up, and he had lost touch. He didn’t want to leave without seeing them, yet here he was heading out of town.

It’s the job. I have to do the job.

I’ll come back when Caroline is with me.

“We mustn’t stay too long in Neopolis,” Skiptrain had said last night. “The fans here are fickle. During long engagements they inevitably turn against the performers. They like their entertainments best when they come and go like capricious lovers who keep them at a distance.”

The man certainly knew his business. Sala–Noemi–taught him everything she knew over the last two centuries. They were practically one mind in two bodies at this point. The way Crag used to be with Caroline. A constant connection that ached like a phantom limb ever since it was cut off.

The road ran across a patch of strawberry fields toward the twin obelisks that marked the porte. Nine gendarmes with rifles guarded the spot, but they knew the Rude Mechanicals and let them pass without questions. The actors were draped in cloaks, robes, and waistcoats of expensive fabric, gifts from their patrons in the crystal towers. Strands of precious stones and clever jewelry glimmered on their limbs. Their porcelain faces offered red and purple smiles, and pools of painted shadow surrounded their opticals. The only face that remained the same was that of Skiptrain. He wore the gold-and-ivory mask that marked his status. It was the same face that Sala North had worn in her heyday.

She was still an excellent actress, whatever name she chose to call herself. In every one of the twelve performances Crag had witnessed, Noemi was the standout. Her words and tone, her movement and impeccable timing, these things gave her the power to evoke spectator emotions. Establishing that empathic bond turned Art into Alchemy. It activated subtle changes inside the hearts and minds of those exposed to it. Noemi’s performance enlightened everyone around her, both onstage and off. He almost thanked Skiptrain for having her rebuilt after the Surgeon sliced her apart. But that would be a crass thing to say, so he kept it to himself.

On the other side of the porte the Greater Thoroughfare ran through a dry and dusty tableland where tufts of desert grass grew in clumps. Spires of speckled rock stood here and there, and winged lizards flitted from stone to stone. The road wound toward a range of mountains on the horizon.

Skiptrain took a small box from his satchel, a rectangle with a tiny lock built into the side. He took out a small golden key, inserted it, and turned it clockwise. The top of the box flipped open on hidden springs. A tiny bird made of brass and copper filaments stood revealed. Its eyes were tiny diamonds. Skiptrain whispered to the bird and it sprang to life, flapping tiny wings like a real hummingbird. It swirled into the air, zoomed above Crag’s hat, and sped off toward the mountains. In another second it had disappeared altogether.

A curtain of dust and sand blew across the road. Organic opticals might weep and sting, but the Rude Mechanicals kept right on walking. A yellow sun burned high in the sky, and banks of green-yellow clouds hung above the desert. If there were any moons in the sky here, Crag couldn’t see them.

The clockwork bird was either a toy, a spying device, or a messenger. Skiptrain had promised to contact Wail. Crag trusted the man to keep his word. The troupe was heading back to the Urbille for a few days before their next crossworld engagement. A perfect time for Skiptrain to set a meet. Crag had already cleaned and polished his sidearm to prepare for it.

The troupe passed into a world of tree-like fungi and colossal mushrooms. The road bisected forests of living crystal and arched into sculpted bridges above rivers of flame. The occasional heap of ruins marred the wilderness, and sometimes smaller settlements burned watchfires in sight of the road. In another world a pack of elephantine insects had gnawed a mighty forest into kindling, building massive nests from rotting logs. In the next world crowds of ghosts stood on either side of the road, weeping and pleading in the midst of a phantom metropolis.

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THE DEAD KINGS


Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 
Chapter10
  Chapter11
Chapter 12

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Chapter 13. 

The Road to Oblivione

Svetlana could have been sitting inside the coach, enjoying the luxury that Pepper Domo would have lavished on himself. She chose to remain on the driver’s bench alongside Bruno. They had saved one another’s lives, and by the code of warriors they were equals. She would not insult him by asking him to drive her, or by offering to be his driver. So they drove together, and the cushioned interior remained empty.

The road ran through a green wilderness dappled with sunlight. The smells of decaying leaves and sprouting blossoms hung in the air. The weeds grew tall on either side of the Greater Thoroughfare. It was the same shade of pale stone as the Lesser Thoroughfare, but twice as wide. The six worlds they had crossed since leaving Creep City were bleak and calm. The spirits of the dead roamed aimlessly alongside the highway, sometimes whole crowds of them, but they had no power to walk the Thoroughfare. The portes to these worlds were unguarded except for a few weeping phantoms.

After killing his employer, Bruno had insisted on escorting Svetlana to the Mummy Lords as planned. He left Domo’s corpse for the vampires and they drove away from the crypt-mansions. Svetlana’s hands and feet were still tingling and half-numb, but she had managed to sit upright on the bench. Her clothes and Bruno’s armor were stained with black gore. The reptoid did not seem to mind, but Svetlana felt dirty and longed for a bath. Bruno guided the carriage through sloping streets full of lumbering corpses. The sweet-sour smell of rotting flesh filled the air like an invisible fog.

The black mountain of towers and terraces stood directly ahead, the elite domain of the Mummy Lords. The carriage rolled through a royal gateway guarded by bat-winged sentinels. They flapped about like jade gargoyles, waving hooked spears of rusted metal.

“Here’s the plan,” Bruno said. “I wasn’t able to collect for the serums Domo delivered for Herr Vivant’s coven, but we’ve still got a full shipment for the Mummy Court.” His taloned thumb pointed backwards at the remaining crates and kegs on the coach’s roof. “Our only way in is to deliver these goods on behalf of the Apothecaries. We do that, and we collect the fee that would have gone to Domo. We’ll be rich. But you’ll have to do your part.”

“I want no part of this plan,” Svetlana said. “I only want to find my son.”

“This plan will serve that one. Don’t you believe me?”

Svetlana flexed her fingers. Their feeling was coming back in tiny pinpricks of pain.

“I believe you,” she said.

“Then put on one of Domo’s robes,” Bruno said. “You’ll play his emissary.”

“I look nothing like Domo,” she said.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Bruno. “The Court of the Dead Kings does not care if Domo appoints a human to make his deliveries. After all, the mummies here used to be human. Bet you didn’t know that.”

“No,” she said.

“We deliver our product, collect a chest of loot, and get out of here fast.”

“I came here to get answers,” Svetlana said.

“The Dead Kings will be more apt to grant you wisdom once you’ve delivered their potions, salves, and serums. Domo has them addicted. You will be able to ask them anything, provided you remember who you’re supposed to be.”

“Do you think they will know the secret of the Faceless Angels?” she said. “The Silverwings?”

Bruno expelled air from his scaly nostrils like a cough. “Domo said they would know.”

“He could have been lying,” she said. “Just to get me here.”

“The Dead Kings are nearly as old as the Nexus itself,” said Bruno. “They know many secrets.”

She sat inside the carriage and wore a seven-colored robe from Domo’s luggage. Bruno drove through another royal gate, offering the Apothecary’s password to the winged guards. They looked like the ink drawings of devils Svetlana had seen in one of her father’s old books. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old when she saw it. All of her father’s books were stolen or burned when he died. The devil-guards peered through the coach window at her, horned foreheads and coppery scales, bloodshot eyes blinking. Their wings thundered against the carriage walls, and with a chorus of screeching they were gone. The carriage rolled up the royal way toward the black palace, which opened its gates to welcome the trader from Nil.

Svetlana was glad she could not see all the terrors on display inside the palace of death. It seemed more like a massive collection of tombs than a castle. Each tower, each cuppola, every shriveled garden and web-smothered archway, they all reeked of ancient dust and moldering bones. The dead moved from corridor to corridor in various forms and guises, some quiet as the wind, others howling or giggling, sometimes singing in flurries of echoes. Eventually the coach stopped, the door opened at Bruno’s hand, and she stepped out in a flutter of silks.

She stood before pair of iron doors designed with intricate patterns of thorn and thistle. Fanged serpents large as horses writhed among the vines, and three crowned skulls sat atop the tangled thorns. Two guards stood before these doors in armor of baroque design. They held bronze spears three times their height, and their heads were those of great bulls. Flames burned in the empty sockets of their eyes, lighting up the gloom about the thorngate.

Svetlana bowed to one knee, following Bruno’s lead, and the great doors began to open. A flood of shadows came forth like a chill wind, and the lights of ninety fires ignited as one, the torches of a god-sized tomb sparking to life. A hooded figure with a crooked staff emerged from the darkness. Its hands were skinless yellowed bone.

“Greetings from Domo of Nil,” Svetlana said. “Here is your shipment.”

The shadows inside the hood were impenetrable, but she felt invisible eyes on her face. “Where is Domo?” a voiced hissed.

“Sitting on his lazy ass somewhere,” Bruno said.

“I have been chosen to make this delivery,” Svetlana said, as she had practiced with Bruno. “Domo sends his regards and apologizes for his absence.”

“We only do business with Domo,” said the hooded figure. It turned away.

“We’ll give you a fifty-percent discount,” said Bruno.

The hooded one paused and turned back to the carriage. “Very well,” it said. The bone fingers snapped, and a swell of green light from within the vault became a pack of slack-mouthed spirits. They grabbed the crates and barrels from the top of the carriage and carried them into the darkness.

A brawny corpse with half a face lumbered out of the shadows with a chest full of gold, silver, and jewels. It must have weighed more than Svetlana, but Bruno took it on his shoulder and remounted the carriage. The green tiger sat licking its paws. It had been here so often that the dead no longer disturbed it. Plus it had eaten well of Domo’s corpse, and a full belly was making it sleepy.

“I wish to speak with the Dead Kings,” Svetlana said.

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HARMONA

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 
Chapter10
  Chapter11

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Chapter 12.
A Matter of Time

The world was still green, but it no longer seemed quite as good. Once again Harmona stood atop the Hearthtower watching the sun rise over the worldforest. Three of the six moons were out of sight, the other three pale as bone against the blue sky.

The armor crafted for her by Artisan Therol was lighter and more comfortable than she’d expected. Plates of silvery metal fit snugly upon her legs, torso, and arms. The intricacy of the overlapping scale-plates was stunning. There was no time among the armorers for indulgent decoration, but Therol had engraved the tower-symbol of HearthHome on Harmona’s breastplate. The suit was light as leather yet strong as steel.

“We call it etherium,” the artisan told her. “Following the guidance of the StoneFathers and using ores from the deepest catacomb, we’ve created an alloy of fantastic durability. And it will fit our soldiers as lightly as a second skin.”

The next batch of swords would be made from etherium as well. By that time every one of the 450 soldiers inside HearthHome would complete their training. All of the martial skills they had acquired during the last few weeks would need to be adapted and re-learned by men and women wearing armor. Yet after donning her own set of scale-plate, Harmona realized that the nature of etherium–strong but light–would not require as much adjustment as she had imagined. Perhaps a week more of training, now that everyone was armored.

She leaned on the black staff and observed the spread of HearthHome’s walled environment. From atop the central tower she could see nearly everything except the Inner Sanctum, which lay directly below the main tower. The Great Hall stretched forward from the base of the tower like a great cylinder turned on its side. A maze of walled gardens and orchards surrounded it in all directions, although most of the produce had been picked clean in preparation for siege rations. The four Towers of Lore stood to the north, south, east, and west, miniature versions of Hearthtower with peaked domes at their summits.

From the south rim of the towertop she looked upon the Grand Amphitheatre and the sculpted landscapes of the Outer Courtyard. Now her eyes rose to the great wall that encircled the entire citadel. Men gathered near the watchtowers or paced along the walls, keeping eyes open for the latest Yicori incursion. The black oil was gathered in vats along the wall at precise intervals, and the watchfires burned day and night.

The gardens of the Inner Courtyards had been cut back to half their size in order to create a training yard ran by Captains Duval, Macre, Andolir, and Fedgemont. Even at this early hour the clang of swords and shields filled the air, rising from that great concentration of discipline and sweat. Not so long ago Harmona could stand up here and listen to the wild symphony of birdsongs. Now the clangor of steel and etherium, along with the grunting and shouting of determined warriors, drowned out any other sounds.

Since the first assault of the Yicori upon the wall, sentries had driven them away three more times. No human lives were lost thanks to the burning oil that scorched the apelings from the walls. The Outer Wall was blackened on every side, but the stone stood strong.

Harmona peered beyond the high walls into the depths of the woodland. The Yicori were out there somewhere and in greater numbers than ever. The last two wall attempts had come only two days apart. The Yicori were growing more brave as the main force of their horde assembled. She imagined them out there among the massive tree roots, drooling and snarling, craving the flesh and blood that lay just beyond the big wall. But where were they? She saw no sign of them in the morning light.

They came from the trees…

Of course. They couldn’t be seen from up here because they weren’t travelling on the ground, moving through open meadows, crossing streams, topping hillocks. They hid in the branches of Gaeya’s great trees, moving between them like oversized apes. As far as anyone could tell, they only came down to feed. She scanned the treetops closest to the Outer Wall and watched the sea of leaves rustle in the wind.

There. The wind wasn’t very strong today, but some of the trees quivered, their leaves fluttering in half-seen patterns. Patterns of movement. Harmona walked the entire rim of the Hearthtower, scanning the tops of the trees. Invisible currents moved among the branches in every direction as far as she could see. The trees outside the walls were full of Yicori. She couldn’t see their shaggy, brutish bodies, or their veiney, oblong skulls, but now their presence was obvious.

There were thousands of them out there.

A familiar anger rose in her throat. She cursed the StoneFathers for not telling her this day would come. She thought of her daughters, safely nestled inside the Inner Sanctum with the rest of the children. If the outer defenses fell and the walls were breached, there would be no way to save them. If total defeat threatened, she could take a small group of them through the Hidden Gate, but they’d be marooned on the Thoroughfare. Not much of an improvement over death.

“Damn you, Wail.” Where was the bastard when she so desperately needed his help? Would he even help if he were here? He was a tool of the StoneFathers, serving their will because he had nothing else left. So perhaps it made no difference.

Now that she could see how great the Yicori horde truly was, she couldn’t wait another week. They were sitting out there in every tree, and it was only a matter of time until they came pouring over the wall from all directions at once. Would the flaming oil work when that happened? They’d run out of it before they burned away half the horde.

Her soldiers were armed and armored. The Yicori expected them to sit in here and wait for the inevitable slaughter. So maybe it was time to do the unexpected. Time to put the strength of metal blade and silver skin to the test. To defend these children with nowhere safe to go.

She marched down the spiral stair with a giddy sense of purpose. At the same time her stomach rebelled, but she refused to allow its sickness. She paused at her quarters to pick up the etherium helmet Therol had made for her. It framed her face with pointed wedges at both cheeks and one above the nose. The helm’s crest was a Gaeyan condor spreading metal wings, its eyes set with a pair of black jewels.

With helm and staff on display she walked through the sanctum into the training yard. Duval and a fellow captain noticed her from across the field of dueling men. They all wore the glittering scale-plate armor now. Their helmets were less ornate than the HearthMother’s, each one topped with a spiked crest. Their shields bore the sigils of the Hearthtower and condor. There were three hundred armored men and half that number of women. More women would be training right now if they weren’t pregnant. The matrons now served as caregivers for all the citadel’s children.

Another reason to do what must be done today.

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SKIPTRAIN

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9
Chapter 10

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Chapter 11.
Twelve Nights in Neopolis

The Rude Mechanicals assembled after dawn in the plaza behind the Theatre d’ Ames Rire. They wore longcoats and motley cloaks, some with feathered hats, most of them wearing painted porcelain faces. As the troupe’s leader, Skiptrain wore the traditional gold-and-ivory face, probably a gift from some rich Beatific patron. The twelfth member of the troupe soon joined them, followed by a six-wheeled steam carriage that rumbled at his heels belching smoke from a double row of exhaust pipes.

The carriage resembled a flatbed lorrie without a cabin. A small dome of shatterproof glass rose from its center, the brain floating inside it connected to the engine by an array of wires and microfilaments. Such brain-driven vehicles were once common in the Urbille, but they had fallen out of fashion centuries ago. By its very nature and its accumulated patterns of rust, Crag could tell it was older than half the troupe’s members. The vehicle stood waist-high to a man, its flat surface piled high with barrels of oil and coal, as well as crates full of costumes, backdrops, and props. Since they no longer allowed Organics to apprentice, the Rude Mechanicals didn’t need to pack food or water.

Crag watched from an alley across the street. For two days he had shadowed the troupe, watching them prepare for the journey to Neopolis. Some of the actors gave private farewells to the wealthy Beatifics that sustained their company, while others shopped for new clothes to replace last season’s wardrobe. The last few worked on repairing and replacing the stage gear for their next performance. Skiptrain met with quite a few Beatifics during this time, usually in the company of Noemi, who was apparently his second-in-command. Or perhaps his lover. She never left his side, so the latter was most probable.

The two days had also given him time to research every member of the troupe. Skiptrain was a life-long veteran of the theater, who had apprenticed with Sala North when he was a young Organic nearly a hundred years ago. Since Sala’s death at the hands of the Surgeon, he’d taken on the role of troupe leader, apparently uncontested. Noemi, his co-star, and confidante, was new to the troupe, having joined them a year after Sala’s death. Crag found no information on Noemi before that time, which probably meant that wasn’t her real name. Could be that she was on the run from the Beatific house that raised her. Not all the wealthy houses approved of an actor’s life.

Albertus was another long-timer. He had served the Potentates in three different wars over the past three-hundred-and-fifty years. But for most of the past century he’d been an actor instead of a soldier. Albertus carried a longrifle on his back as the troupe prepared to depart, confirming Crag’s theory that he served as the troupe’s protector.

Specious and Hangdog were the only other long-timers. They had been with Sala North since the beginning. One-hundred-sixty-five years ago, Sala had formed the Rude Mechanicals with these two originals. Gromsley and Tulwar joined the troupe fifty-six years ago. Persephone, Slate, and Gloriadne had also been members of the troupe when the highwayman killed its leader a decade past. The two newest members, besides the high-ranking Noemi, were Dinkum and Antebella; both had joined less than six years ago. Crag wondered who Noemi might actually be, and he kept a list of possible names in his notebook. They were only guesses, and not particularly good ones. He needed to know more about Skiptrain, Noemi, and what really happened on the Lesser Thoroughfare ten years ago. There was only one way to get that information.

Crag shouldered his traveling pack and walked across the street to join the troupe. Actors pointed in his direction, and Skiptrain turned to greet him with a slight bow.

“Inspector,” Skiptrain’s tone was far too pleasant to be genuine. But then again, he was an actor, so nothing he said was completely believable. “How nice of you to come and bid us farewell.” Fans had brought the troupe bouquets of flowers and jars of expensive lubricant, all of which were piled onto the self-driving steam carriage. A few onlookers hung about the plaza, waiting to see the troupe off.

Crag wore his official bronze mask today. “Not necessary, Mr. Skiptrain,” he said. “In their infinite wisdom the Potentates have decided that the Rude Mechanicals are entitled to state protection. I’ve been given the honor of escorting you to Neopolis and back.”

Skiptrain’s head turned sideways. He looked into Noemi’s amber opticals for a moment. “My good man,” Skiptrain said, “I assure you no such protection is necessary. As you can see, we are armed…”

Skiptrain opened his coat to reveal a well-polished antique sidearm. He waved an arm at Albertus, who hefted his long rifle. Noemi wore a slim blade and a long-handled pistol at her side. A few other actors spread their cloaks to reveal sidearms or blades. Not all of them traveled with weapons, but enough of them did to make a difference.

“We have roamed the Thoroughfares for so long that our reputation precedes us,” said Skiptrain. “A certain measure of respect is accorded the Rude Mechanicals on the road, even among those who would otherwise harm travelers. There is very little danger to be found in this journey, as we intend to stay on the Greater Thoroughfare and avoid the Outer Affinities altogether. So as you can see we have no need of a bodyguard, official or otherwise. We must, with gratitude and politeness, decline your kind offer.”

“It’s not an offer,” Crag said. “It’s a Tribunal Decree. Looks like you’re stuck with me.”

Skiptrain examined at the faces of his troupe. Crag had basically invited himself to the party. Organics might have displayed nervousness, confusion, or even anger. Yet the porcelain faces held their carefully crafted expressions of benevolent beauty. It was almost impossible to tell what a Beatific was thinking, unless you engaged in mind-to-mind contact. Such an intimate bonding was only for lovers and family members. Crag was good at guessing what his people thought. It was part of his job. He could tell the troupe wanted nothing to do with him, and he’d expected nothing less.

Skiptrain laughed. “Very well, then!” he announced. “Mechanicals, welcome our official state escort, Inspector Crag.” The actors bowed and doffed their hats. A casual observer might have thought the lawman was actually welcome in their company.

The troupe leader raised his arms to the grey sky and recited a poem that bordered on pure gibberish to Crag’s ears. When Skiptrain finished this benediction, the actors shouldered their packs or stowed the last of their gear on the steam carriage. Skiptrain walked with Noemi at his side, and the troupe followed with the carriage rumbling in the center of their ranks.

They passed from Commercial Zone to Rusted Zone, waving at their fans. They patted the heads of dirty-faced Clatterpox children who ran to embrace them. Beatifics and Clatterpox alike slowed their coaches or stepped to the side of the road to let the Rude Mechanicals pass. Some begged them to stay, but Skiptrain promised the troupe would return soon.

Crag had never realized how universally beloved the troupe was in the Urbille. Even crowds of snapping goblins parted and dropped to their knees as the Mechanicals moved toward the Outer Gate. The Avenue of Egress led directly to the first Outer Gate, which opened onto the pale expanse of the Greater Thoroughfare. The road between the worlds ran straight from the ragged edge of the city through a range of ashy hills. Glancing backward while passing through the gate, Crag took a last look at the jumble of conflicting architectures and rusted metal that comprised the Urbille skyline. Clouds of red dust hung above the streets, obscuring the Good Hills and the Palace of the Potentates from view.

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VIVANT

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9

————————————–

Chapter 10. 

Creep City

The iron carriage rolled from world to world. Svetlana rode with Bruno in the driver’s seat most of the time. She felt an odd desire to prove herself to the reptoid. Maybe it was his dismissal of her as less than worthy to be travelling with him. But it was Pepper Domo who called the shots and paid the bills. And maybe Bruno had a point when he said Domo was “sweet” on her. It didn’t matter. Dima was all that mattered.

I will find you. The promise had become a silent prayer.

The road led across a plain of purple grass where herds of shaggy mammoths grazed. The air was crisp, as if it might snow. This world reminded Svetlana of her homeworld in autumn.

Domo referred to each gateway as a porte, and not all of them were guarded. In fact, the farther the carriage got from Domo’s world, the less battles she and Bruno had to fight. Another band of scavengers had fled when Bruno shot their leader in the head. One of the portes was set in a tangled forest where sunlight never broke through the upper canopy. The road led through a mass of towering mushrooms, a forest-within-a-forest where six-legged wolves stalked the carriage. Bruno blasted three of them to ash. It took six slugs from Svetlana’s pistol to bring a single beast down.

Sometimes the road led through kilometers of ruins, the former capitols of dead worlds. Nothing was left of those places but heaps of slag, the bones of dead towers, and piles of blackened bones. Even in those landscapes of endless wreckage, figures moved like shadows, eyeing the carriage, calculating the odds of a successful raid. A glance from Bruno sent most intelligent creatures running in terror.

The remains of fallen civilizations lay scattered across the Affinities. Yet just as often the road ran through pristine wilderness or star-flecked wastelands. The carriage rolled across a marshland where clouds of cosmic dust hung between clustered moons. The oily water on either side of the road reflected the stars, creating the illusion that the road floated in the night sky. Svetlana looked for the constellations she knew as a child, but they were nowhere to be found. These were strange stars gleaming in strange colors.

When the porte appeared at the far end of the marsh road, a colossal reptile rose from the slime. It glided legless along the road, fanged mouth open wide enough to swallow the carriage whole. Its forked tongue slid out like a red carpet toward the iron wheels. Svetlana scrambled for her pistol, but as usual Bruno was quicker. He grabbed a spear-gun from behind the bench, aimed it for a half-second at the serpent’s black cave of a mouth, and let the spear fly. It pierced the back of the serpent’s mouth and sank deep into its brain. The beast’s head flew backward and its massive coils spasmed, sending up spumes of muddy water. The green tiger waited for the beast to thrash itself off the road, then pulled the carriage through the gate. The great coils fell still, and a pack of eight-legged lizards rushed out of the swamp to devour the dead giant.

A world of snow and ice came next. Svetlana rode inside with Domo for awhile. Bruno seemed impervious to the cold and wind. “Thanks to my serums, Bruno is immune to the hazards of weather.” Domo told her that Bruno’s terrific speed was also due to alchemical treatments. She suspected the reptoid would still be a deadly warrior even without Domo’s potions.

“There is a settlement after this next porte,” Domo said. “Umbraxia. A crossworld free market, if you will. Nothing as fine or well-established as Nil, but a good source for oddities and trinkets. There are no humans at all there, so I’m afraid you will be quite conspicuous. We will find safe lodging there, but when we walk the markets you’ll want to stay close to Bruno and me.”

“I can take care of myself,” Svetlana said. It sounded like something a naive child would say, but she was tired of Bruno’s silent dismissals. The serums apparently not only made him faster and stronger, but also arrogant.

“Of course,” Domo said, his eye-stalks quivering. “Yet there is strength in numbers. And I’d hate to lose you.”

He offered her a vial of azure liquid. “This will counteract the cold.” She drank it and sat quietly while Domo read from one of his old books.

“How many different worlds are there?” she asked.

The stalked eyes looked up from their page. “If philosophers and sages are to be counted as experts,” he said, “there are an infinite number of worlds. I tend to agree with this theory.”

“Does the road run through all of them?”

Domo laughed. “Oh, my dear, no. Not even the Thoroughfare can span infinity.”

“How many worlds does the road serve?”

“Nobody knows,” said Domo. “The best estimates put the number at well over a thousand, yet alternative scenarios propose as much as three times that number. As I say, nothing has been proven.”

“Why connect so many worlds?” she asked. “What was the original purpose of this Thoroughfare? If it was meant to preserve the empire that built it, then it failed.”

Domo shrugged. “Seems to me that whatever beings conquered these worlds built this road to unify their multidimensional domain. Only by the sharing of free trade and ideas can an empire thrive, grow, and avoid stagnation. Every empire builds roads to put its stamp on conquered realms. But I’ll tell you something I’ve noticed in every history book: Empires always fall. It doesn’t matter how powerful or glorious they are, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve lasted, in the end they always topple under their own weight. Time is the great enemy of conquerors and no empire is eternal. ”

Svetlana smiled. “What sort of beings could conquer so many worlds?”

Domo giggled. “An intriguing question, and one often debated by the Philosophers of Sub-Nil. The great sage Ongo Dagith has a famous quote on this topic: ‘To conquer all of time and space, or a great and worthy portion thereof, a conqueror must exist outside of time and space.’ Do you understand?”

Svetlana shook her head.

“Dagith is saying that whoever or whatever built the Thoroughfare must be an entity or entities that dwell outside of the space/time continuum.”

“What sort of people exist outside of space and time?”

Domo leaned in close to her, his eyes floating before hers. “Not people, my dear,” he said. “But something else entirely…or things. Perhaps they are non-things, since they exist outside of temporal reality.”

Domo sipped from his goblet. He raised a finger. “Before we get to Creep City, you should know–”

The carriage rocked and Domo’s words were lost. Svetlana braced herself against the wall as Domo bounced off the ceiling. She opened the door, and the wind blew snow into the coach. She stepped into the frozen night. The road itself was free of snow accumulation, but it ran through a canyon of snowdrifts now. Bruno wasn’t on the driver’s bench, and the green tiger was in a rage, jostling the coach back and forth.

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 9

YICORI

In case you missed a chapter: Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3  Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6  Chapter7  Chapter8  

—————————————

Chapter 9. 

A Midsummer’s Night

It was the LoreKeepers who saved the day. While the battle raged along the wall, they climbed the sentry stairs two at a time hauling barrels of black oil. Harmona’s staff incinerated three more Yicori while the LoreMasters poured the barrels over the side of the battlements. Another LoreKeeper ran along the battlements setting a torch to the spilled oil. The outer surface of north wall erupted into blue-white flames. The swarm of climbing Yicori wailed, burned, and fell to earth.

The last Yicori to top the wall died in a blast of Harmona’s flame with six spears and fifteen arrows protruding from its body. Spearmen drove the flaming brute backwards until it fell screaming from the wall. The LoreKeepers’ oil burned for several minutes, charring the entire north side of the outer wall. A hundred meters below, the burnt and broken corpses of Yicori lay in heaps. The survivors had already fled into the forest.

When the oil-flames died away the dead were counted and carried away. Duval went with Harmona to thank the LoreKeepers. They took her into the catacombs below the keep where the earth had split open three days earlier, creating a new well that bubbled forth black oil.

“A gift from the StoneFathers,” explained LoreKeeper Trenton. He was chosen to oversee the extraction and barreling of the flammable substance.

“Another weapon in our fight against the flesh-eaters,” Duval said. “A perfect way to protect our walls.”

“Until it runs out,” Harmona said.

“The black well is deep, HearthMother,” Trenton said. “We’ve filled thirty barrels so far, plus the six we used to repel today’s attack. I’d say we’ll run out of barrels before we run out of oil.”

Harmona offered him a weak smile. “Good work,” she said. “Make sure we have a supply of oil at each watchtower and set up stations at the mid-point of each wall. The Yicori will climb our walls again, it’s only a matter of time. We must be ready.”

“I will see to it myself,” Trenton said.

Harmona and Duval walked to the dining hall for a mug of hot tea.

“You fought well,” she said.

“The blade was unsteady in my hands,” Duval said. “My training has only begun. The new metal is…effective. I’ll say that much.”

“You are among the first company of blade-wielders,” she said. “And you’ve set a great example. I heard men talking along the wall. You’re a hero to them. You killed a Yicori, and now they all know how effective these blades can be.”

Duval sighed and sipped his tea. “This was only a small pack of Yicori,” he said. “A scouting party. Most likely they are the first of the beasts to find HearthHome. We killed a few but most of them survived. They’ll carry the news back to the rest of their tribe. They will all come for us, Harmona. We have a few days, perhaps weeks, depending on how far out the main horde still is.”

“Then we’ve more time to prepare,” she said. “Every man or woman who’s willing to fight gets a blade and shield. Soon we’ll have armor.”

“We’re doing everything we can,” Duval said. “I know it’s difficult. You haven’t had time to grieve for Dorian. None of us have. But you need to know that you’re a symbol of hope for everybody here. Now more than ever.”

Harmona let the liquid warm her belly. A quiet moment passed between them.

“As long as the StoneFathers keep bringing us the secrets of the earth and showing us how to use them,” she said. “We have a fighting chance.” She didn’t want to tell him the StoneFathers knew all along that war was inevitable. She hadn’t told anyone the truth yet, that they were dropped into a paradise doomed to become a battleground.

Duval squeezed her shoulder as he rose from the table. “Time to supervise the day’s training. Care to observe?”

“I have a council in thirty minutes.” She took his hand lightly. “Come and eat with us tonight. The girls feel safe when you’re around.”

Duval hesitated, then nodded. He left her alone with her tea and her thoughts.

Harmona met her advisors in the Great Hall, where she sat at the head of the long table. She listened, nodded, and approved. The foundries and forges were working night and day, relieving Artisans in shifts to avoid exhaustion. The weaponsmiths had taken several apprentices each, which increased productivity. Field workers, prohibited from their fields outside the wall, concentrated on seeding and maintaining the inner gardens and harvesting the orchards. The kitchens worked to preserve foods and stock the cellars for a siege.

If the New Organics could keep the Yicori from climbing their walls, they could stay safely locked in HearthHome for about a year–until provisions ran out. At least the wells inside the wall were deep and dependable, and now there was the black well. The StoneFathers could obviously open more wells anytime they needed to. Water wouldn’t be the problem in a siege.

The council examined calculations and inventories, reporting rapid progress. In a matter of days HearthHome had bent the whole of its efforts to preparing for war. It was frightening how quickly and easily the transition had overtaken her people. Tensions were running high, and fights among the young men were breaking out every day. The children of HearthHome totaled 90 under the age of ten and 120 pre-teens, all of them too young to fight. Sixty percent of New Organic women were currently pregnant, meaning another 150 non-combatants.

Duval, Macre, Andolir, and Fedgemont, four of the most respected HuntMasters, were assigned the title of “captains” for the duration of the war. Fedgemont represented the captains in council, presenting grim numbers: The Yicori had claimed 56 lives so far. In the blended ranks of Hunters and Hunters-in-Training–all of whom were now learning to be soldiers–there were 457 men and women. Ages among these troops ranged from 14 to 27, and because of the high pregnancy rate the ranks were predominately male by a factor of two-to-one.

Four-hundred-and-fifty-seven souls against a horde of Yicori. How many were out there? The StoneFathers had told her this was the last tribe of Yicori, but still there could be ten thousand of them out there lumbering toward HearthHome. Or a hundred thousand. “I will speak to them again,” she promised, “now that they have finished melding with our LoreKeepers and Artisans. Perhaps they can tell us more clearly how many Yicori are coming.”

Harmona waited for a single one of them, man or woman, to question the path in which the StoneFathers were leading them. She waited for the slightest show of suspicion about this rapid fostering of a warrior culture and the terrors that lay ahead of them. None of these advisors had seen the blood and bowels spilled along the parapet, or smelled the burning reek of Yicori flesh. None of them had seen a glimpse the violence that was to come. Only those along the north wall, and those who survived attacks in the wild, only they knew the true horror of what HearthHome was to face. The blood and guts and death that the StoneFathers had bequeathed to their chosen people.

She waited, but nobody said it. Not a single “Are we sure?” or “Is there no other way?” The StoneFathers had said it must be war, and so it must be. She wanted to tell the council the truth in that moment, to shatter their illusions of the thirty-nine benevolent faces. They knew it was coming. They set us here and waited for those creatures to come for us. They trapped us, made us believe we have no choice. And now we don’t.

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 8

THE RUDE MECHANICALS

Chapter 8.
Skiptrain

Crag began his day in the usual way: Inserting his heart-key into the slot at the center of his chest and winding it clockwise ninety-nine times. As early sunbeams poked through the window of his garret, Beatifics all across the city were doing the exact same thing. The unspoken ritual of sunrise in the Urbille.

Clatterpox didn’t need keys to keep their heart-furnaces burning. They simply dropped in the next chunk of coal when the old one started burning low. They spent their lives working in the foundries and factories of the Rusted Zone to keep their coal rations coming. The coal itself came from distant mines manned by more Clatterpox, who worked to the dictates of Beatific supervisors. Knowing those mines existed reminded Crag that there were plenty of jobs worse than his. Although today he didn’t need the reminder.

Today was the first step in getting Caroline out. The first step to getting her back.

He watched the smokes of the Urbille rise from its jagged skyline. The streets were full of Clatterpox on their way to morning shifts and the pubs were full of night-workers ready to blow off some literal steam. A few Beatific carriages crawled slowly through the lanes drawn by clockwork horses. The sky was a bruised melange of purple and orange.

The cabinet above his head was lined with red velvet, a collection of faces hanging inside. Four of the masks were Crag’s faces, the other six belonged to Caroline. He’d kept her faces in perfect shape. He looked at them every morning before going to work. They never made him feel any less alone. Today was different though. Caroline’s faces smiled at him with porcelain lips and empty optical sockets. They made silent promises to him.

She’ll wear us again soon. Once you’ve done your job.

Crag’s choices were bronze, silver, or a pair of porcelain visages crafted in the prevailing style of twenty years ago. He wore the bronze face when he expected trouble or needed to lean on a contact. The silver face was an award from the department for 150 years of dedicated service. He’d never worn it. Lots of people to interview today, so a porcelain face was the obvious choice. Most Beatifics wore porcelain every day, swapping them for more exotic masks whenever they wanted to impress, protest, or express a specific emotion.

A porcelain face was the least threatening, the most sociable, the least objectionable. Crag could ask questions and get answers with a porcelain face. The bronze reminded everybody that he was with the Ministere de Justice. An enforcer of the existing power structure, a tool of the Potentates.

He picked up a porcelain face and slid it carefully over his naked silver skull, watching himself in an oval mirror. It snapped into place and he wiped the dust from its cheeks with a kerchief. His amber opticals stared back at him from the glass. The face bore a painted goatee and curling mustache. Caroline called it his “handsome face,” as opposed to the second porcelain mask, which she referred to as his “thinking face.”

He checked his side-arm, securing it in the shoulder holster, and chose a grey overcoat. Grey was good for moving unnoticed through the crowds of colorfully-dressed Beatifics. The black top hat completed his illusion of a perfectly normal Beatific, and he hit the streets, hailing a private coach driven by a wheezing Clatterpox.

First stop, the Minstere de Science, to see what Dr. Aimon Wail’s former colleagues had to say about his breakdown of twelve years ago. The institute stood at the inner edge of the Rusted Zone like a larger version of the Ministere de Justice: a towering parabola of glass and steel grown from a foundation of ancient granite. Inside was a maze of antiseptic corridors hung with pastel art prints and displays of antique medical relics from the Organic Age. The Tribune’s people had notified the Ministere de Science that Crag would be paying them a visit, so they made him welcome. The place either had nothing to hide, or they were very good at hiding it.

He went directly to the new Supervisor, a man named Pairey. The only thing Pairey could tell Crag was that he replaced Supervisor Guillaume a week after Dr. Wail had murdered him. Pairey hadn’t witnessed the attack or the breakdown, having been stationed on another level of the Ministere when Wail lost it. A useless lead. Crag took the personnel files Pairey offered him and moved on to the Surgeons who had worked with Wail.

Twenty-eight Surgeons staffed the Ministere, some of them on rotating assignments, but fourteen had worked Conversions during the same thirty-year period as Wail. Of those fourteen, twelve Surgeons were still here, while the other two were unavailable on “special projects.” Even Crag’s clout as an Inspector wouldn’t get him anywhere near those two. He questioned the twelve resident Surgeons and began to build a picture of what happened to Dr. Wail:

Wail had filed a Special Permit for Early Conversion on behalf of his son Alain. The boy’s original Conversion date was only a few hours away, so filing such a permit seemed insane on its surface. The permit was signed by Supervisor Guillaume and included in the files Pairey provided. A read of the document revealed in Wail’s spidery script that Alain had acquired a necrotic disease on his trip home from a Beatific prep school. He was turning sixteen and, like most kids raised by Beatifics, he looked forward to Conversion on his birthday. Wail arrived with Alain some eleven hours before the Conversion was scheduled, filing his Special Permit without waiting for it to be signed or approved.

A few Surgeons saw the boy before he entered the Conversion Room. Apparently, his body had experienced a sort of rapid decay unprecedented in medical science. Alain was half-dead when they laid him on the operating table. Wails’ stated goal–his only hope–was to perform Conversion before the disease reached his son’s brain. Only the brain was necessary for Conversion, as the center of neural activity and psychological identity. Alain’s brain, like that of any Beatific, would be transplanted into a silver skull attached to a new Beatific body. The miracle of the process was the preservation of the living brain indefinitely while the rest of the Organic body was discarded. This was how the Urbille distributed immortality.

Wail, insisting on performing the operation himself, began the process of removing his son’s brain from its bony casement. The procedure was monitored by two resident Surgeons. Both of them told Crag the surgery initially went off without a hitch, but Wail was too late. The black death that consumed Alain’s flesh had already reached his brain. There was nothing left of the organ but a shriveled lump of dead tissue, dark as a clot of soft coal.

Realizing his son was gone, Wail lost his mind. Attendants dragged him from the Conversion Room in a violent fit of screaming. Alain’s remains were incinerated to avoid the spread of contagion among the city’s Organic youth. Wail got a leave of absence, but he didn’t take it easy. He started digging around, looking into Supervisor Guillaume and the “special projects” division of the Ministere de Science. Did he suspect they had something to do with Alain’s death?

That evening, according to official reports, Wail confronted Guillaume at his residence in the Good Hills and stabbed him through the optical with a scalpel. Guillaume’s brain was punctured by the weapon, and Wail fled into the night. Gendarmes sent to the Wail residence discovered the manor-house in flames and the charred remains of his wife Kalmea.

Crag read that last part again. Something didn’t make sense. The man went mad over losing his son. Why kill his wife? Was she involved in Alain’s death? An affair with Guillaume, maybe? One of the Surgeons implied as much, but others denied it. Apparently Wail loved his wife and was a perfect husband. Crag wondered if it was really Wail who burned down his own house and killed Kalmea. If the gendarmes had done it in retaliation for Guillaume’s death, would their captains admit it? Write it into their reports? Crag knew better.

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 7

BRUNO

Chapter 7.

A Free Road

The entire caravan consisted of Pepper Domo and an iron carriage pulled by a green-skinned tiger. Svetlana had spent the night comfortably in one of Domo’s guest rooms. She said goodbye to Gehosopha over breakfast. Domo had yet to show himself when the hyep departed. Perhaps the Apothecary had drank too much Andromedan last night and required more recovery time than the Composite Being, who could spread a hangover across several brains at once. Svetlana was eager to begin the next leg of her journey, but only Domo knew the way.

“Can I trust this Apothecary?” she asked Gehosopha as he left.

“He is a fair and honorable trader,” Gehosopha answered. “This cluster will miss your company, Svetlana.”

She had no idea how to approach embracing the cluster of heads that was Gehosopha’s middle body, so she simply nodded and offered him an awkward bow.

“Thank you,” she said.

“We will hire a replacement sentinel before leaving Nil,” said the Composite Being. “I hope you find your missing offspring.”

Svetlana wanted to weep, but she took a deep breath and saved it for later. She waved as the Composite Beings lumbered down the street, the tops of their central stems loaded with crates full of fresh serums. The bizarre crowd soon swallowed them up.

Domo’s carriage came rolling from the stable behind his shop. The body and four wheels were made of black iron, the roof lined with a short fence for securing luggage and trade goods. A silver trim formed arabesques across the single entry door. A curtained window on the opposite side of the coach showed drapes of red velvet. The barrels and trunks containing Domo’s serums had been loaded onto the top of the vehicle, tied into an impressive pyramid by a net of strong ropes.

The tiger’s meaty shoulders stood level with Svetlana’s chin. Its fur smelled like wild grass in summer, and she longed to run her hand through it. She resisted the urge as it turned to sniff at her, showing its magnificent fangs. She heard a rumble deep in its mammoth chest, and its big pink tongue licked at her boots. The servant who had brought the carriage around leaped off the driver’s bench and ran back to the stables.

Svetlana had arrived early in the yard with satchel, cloak, sword, and pistol. Ready to go at sunrise, as requested. She stood before Domo’s waiting carriage awhile. Apothecaries and their wavy-eyed servants rushed up and down the streets, but it was too early for much customer traffic. Both suns were up and the heat was rising fast. For a moment she considered climbing into the driver’s seat of the carriage and taking off without Domo. If she had any idea where to go, how to find Creep City on her own, she might have done it. Instead she crossed her arms and leaned against the side of the shop. The tiger took her cue and lay itself before the carriage, crossing its front paws and resting its chin. The traces that bound it to the coach were polished leather hung with silk and jewels.

“You must be the new muscle.” A deep voice from the other side of the carriage.

Two large, booted feet were visible. The coach hid the rest of whoever stood there. Svetlana moved behind the vehicle to get a look at the new arrival, but she found nobody standing there.

“Slow,” said the voice. “Too slow.”

Behind her. She whirled and something darted from her line of vision. It was inhumanly fast. She reached for Takamoto’s sword and cursed. The handle wasn’t there above her shoulder-blade where it should be. The scabbard was empty.

“Looking for this?” She turned.

The gleam of Takamoto’s steel she recognized immediately. The figure holding it took awhile longer. One of the reptoids that served as the guardsmen of Nil leaned against the doorjamb precisely where she had been standing seconds earlier. His scaled body was covered by form-fitting silvery armor, mostly along the limbs and midsection. Svetlana identified seven points of weakness in that first half-second: ankles, knees, wrists, elbows, underarms, groin, and neck. None of those areas was covered by the silver metal, but each spot did have dense and scaly skin to protect it. Then there was his head, handsome in its own grand ugliness.

A twin set of bone ridges lined the top of his skull. A pair of vertically slitted eyes gleamed yellow above a sloping snout that ended with flared nostrils. The reptoid’s fangs were miniature versions of the tiger’s, but his toothy grin was altogether human. A forked tongue darted in and out between the fangs. His scales were an uneven blend of green and black, or perhaps they were of a green so dark that it resembled black.

A pistol hung at the lizard-man’s side, and a rifle lay across his back. Neither of his weapons looked like those of Svetlana’s world, but their shapes were unmistakable. Her own pistol was made of dark metal, but the reptoid’s gear was polished silver like his armor. She took all of this in while the reptoid stared at her and twirled Takamoto’s sword, taunting her like a child who had stolen a toy.

“I don’t need that sword to kill you,” Svetlana said.

The reptilian smile widened. “You didn’t even know I was here,” he said. “You’ll have to be more alert if you’re going to work for Domo.” He reversed the sword, offering her the grip while the blade lay naked in his palms. It could have been a dare to use it against him. If it was, she didn’t take the bait.

“Who are you?” she asked, sheathing Takamoto’s blade.

“Bruno,” said the reptoid. His yellow eyes flashed in the sunlight. “I work for Domo. Sixteen years now. He tells me he hired you to join this caravan. I say ‘Yes, Boss,’ but we both know he doesn’t need another guard.” The reptoid’s face came near to her as Bruno leaned forward. “So I ask myself: Why did he really hire you?”

“You’ll have to ask him yourself,” Svetlana said. She turned away from Bruno and put her back against the wall again. How much longer would Domo keep her waiting?

The reptoid continued staring at her. “I say he feels sorry for you. I say he’s sweet on you. Can you even fight?”

Svetlana closed her eyes.

When she opened them, Bruno had backed away. He inspected the ropes that tied the baggage onto the coach roof. Men had tried to bait her before, and she had learned to ignore it. Once they saw her skill at the hunt or in defense of the community, they gave her respect. This is how warriors bonded. If she was going to travel with Domo, she would have to establish a warrior’s bond with the lizard. Unless the customs of his own society prevented such a thing. Then she would have to make the entire journey enduring the heat of his scorn. She might have to kill Bruno if it came to that. A hundred such lizard-men would not keep her from finding Dima. She waited and kept her mouth shut. Bruno took his spot on the padded driver’s bench, and the tiger woke from its nap yawning.

Pepper Domo appeared in a cloud of powder, perfume, and flying silks. The front door of his shop burst open at the hands of two servants, and he swept through it in a robe of nine colors and carrying a scepter of gleaming glass. Whenever he took a step the air was filled with the tinkling of glass vials like tiny bells. His eyes at the end of their stalks blinked at the brightness of morning.

Spreading his arms wide, staring at his carriage fully prepared and the two bodyguards awaiting his pleasure, Domo sang in a high voice. The servants kneeled about him in reverence. The tiger purred like a great engine. Domo finished his song and the servants withdrew. The Apothecary turned his eyes to Svetlana and smiled with his sideways mouth.

“Good morning, my dear,” he said. “I see you’ve met Bruno.”

The reptoid nodded. Svetlana duplicated the movement.

“Years of experience,” said Domo, “the most trusted soul in all my retinue. Bruno has saved my skin more times than I can count. He was a great warrior among the Uxx people, you know. His people serve the Apothecaries in a generational pact because we helped them win the Batrachian War of 7013. Ah, but that’s enough for now. You’ll get to know us both better along the way.”

“How long?” Svetlana asked.

“Until?” Domo said.

“To reach Creep City,” Svetlana said.

Domo smiled and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Sweet girl, I can see that you have not travelled widely, so let me educate you. On the Thoroughfare we’ll be moving through an array of diverse Affinities–parallel dimensions–until we reach the world that includes our destination. Because time itself is a subjective concept, it is impossible to know exactly how long it will take to travel from Nil to Creep City. Also, atmospheric conditions can vary greatly from realm to realm, slowing down crossworld traffic at times. Too many variables, you see, to calculate an accurate estimate of our travel time.”

Svetlana said nothing. She heard the reptoid grunt with amusement.

“If I were to judge from previous excursions,” said Domo, “I’d say the fastest I’ve ever made it from here to there equals approximately 30 days, as time is measured here in Nil. Yet it has taken me as long as 93 Nillian days in other instances.”

Svetlana nodded, though she didn’t really understand.

A servant held the carriage door open and Domo climbed inside. “Svetlana, ride with me for now,” he called to her. “You can trade shifts with Bruno later.”

Bruno grumbled. “Sweet on you…”

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 6

HARMONA

Chapter 6. 

The StoneFathers

The shrine of the StoneFathers lay deep beneath the walls of HearthHome. The cavern was far older than the stone towers that grew from it like trees growing from hidden roots. Harmona stood amid thirty-nine faces set along the curving walls, each one three times her size. Beards of green ivy hung from their craggy chins, and the hollows of their eyes were dark with shadow.

The flame atop her staff lit the chamber in hues of emerald. The faces of the StoneFathers stared at the center of the shrine, where Harmona stood on a dais of marble. She sang the words of Waking, Reverence, and Gratitude.

The stone faces opened their eyes, weeping rays of amber light. The green glow diminished in their collective brilliance. Harmona wiped at the tears drying on her cheek. “Ancient Ones, we need your help,” she said. Even now her thoughts raced back to Dorian, legless and bleeding on a cot in the infirmary. Possibly he was already dead. She could do no more for him than the physicians could, and this errand could not wait. The girls had not seen their father’s condition yet, but there would be no hiding it from them.

A granite mouth opened with the sound of grinding of stones. A deep voice filled the cavern. “Be brave, little one.” Harmona turned to the Seventeenth Father, the first to speak. She spilled out the details of the attack on the hunters, but the voice cut her off.

“We know.” The words sank in the chamber like stones in deep water.

“What’s happening?” Harmona asked. Despite her determination to stop weeping, her eyes would not play along. She rubbed them with the hem of her sleeve.

“This day was foreseen by us,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“The Yicori have found you,” said the Ninth Father.

“Do not despair,” said another. “This was foreseen.”

“We will guide you, child,” said the Seventeenth, “as we have always done.”

“You knew?” Harmona said. “All this time we’ve been here and you knew these things were out there?”

“We know everything about this primitive world,” said the Fifteenth Father.

“Do not despair,” said the Eighth, coughing out a bit of sand.

“You brought us here,” Harmona said, “you and Wail. You told us it was safe. You said Gaeya would be our home. Ours.”

“So it has been,” said the Fifteenth.

“So it is,” said the Seventeenth.

“We have planned for this,” said the Third Father’s face. Harmona spun to face it.

“Your plan did not including warning us? You waited years for them to start killing us, and now you’re telling me not to worry about it. Where is Wail? I want to speak with Doctor Wail.”

“You ask too many questions at once,” said a face.

“And make demands of us,” said another.

“Doctor Wail brought you to Gaeya at our instruction,” said the Seventeenth Father. “We built this citadel for you, opened the nine wells. We taught you how to live in this place, revived the basic survival skills that your race had long forgotten. You would have died in a matter of weeks if not for our intervention. We built HearthHome for you, and you have done well. Your numbers grow. Yet you do not live outside of time as we do, so you must always contend with elements of change. Your temporal existence demands the chemistry of evolution. Change creates conflict and conflict creates growth. Your people have done well so far. Now they must grow.”

“Or die,” said the Thirty-Ninth Father.

“So it’s not a paradise after all, is it?” Harmona said. She sat down on the top step of the dais. The black staff leaned across her knees as she rested head in hands. The anger had come and gone in a flurry of emotions, and now she felt numb. Something significant was happening. Something that would change everything. Forever.

My husband is dying.

The tears welled again, and she shouted through them at the faces.

“I don’t understand!”

“Calm yourself, child,” said the Fifth Father. “The time has come for you to know the truth. This world is not yours alone. The Yicori dwell in the high trees of the far ranges, where your people have never hunted until now. We anticipated that one day the New Organics would have to take this world from these primitives. So we made HearthHome far from the Yicori territories, giving your people time to grow their numbers, adjust to their new lives here, and learn the hunting skills that will make them excellent warriors.”

“Warriors?” Harmona said. “You brought us here to make war on these creatures? To fight for dominance like animals in a pit?”

“We brought you here to free you from the Potentates of Urbille,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“You could never have fought the Potentates for dominance,” said the First Father. “Here you have an excellent chance to establish a permanent foothold for your species.”

“We saved your kind from annihilation,” said the Seventeenth.

“You have adapted well here,” said the Thirtieth Father, “with our aid.”

“You think I forget this?” Harmona said. She forced herself to stand again. Her knees were unsteady, so she leaned on the staff. “You want to forge us into the defenders of paradise. A paradise we have yet to earn. Will this blood buy us peace? Why can we not live side-by-side with these Yicori? There must be another way. Something besides war and death and suffering.”

“The Yicori have great appetite for human flesh,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“It is true,” said the Thirtieth.

“A hundred thousand years ago they existed in great hordes all over this continent,” said the First Father. “Voracious and strictly carnivorous, they devoured every other mammalian species into extinction. This created a series of massive die-offs, as the remaining tribes turned to cannibalism. This last tribe of Yicori has survived for a thousand years by preying on the myriads of avian species in the worldforest. When times are lean they still revert to cannibalism. Yet now they have discovered another mammalian race to prey upon, and the appetite consumes them like a fever. There is no other way. The New Organics must fight to survive on Gaeya. It is the next stage in your extraordinary evolution.”

“The Yicori must be destroyed,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“Every last one of them,” said the First.

“Only when this is done,” said the Seventeenth, “will this world belong to you.”

“I understand,” Harmona said. “But I don’t have to like it.”

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 5

CRAG

Chapter 5.
Special Dispensation

 

The Ministere de Justice was a monolith of glass and steel. It stood atop a crowded ridge overlooking the red valley of the Rusted Zone. Most of the buildings along the avenue were recycled institutions from the city’s various architectural eras, from Organic to Late Gothic to Retro-Modernism, so the result was a melange of old and new construction.

The crude angles and iron superstructures of the past mingled with neospires of steel and glass; nanotech smartdomes melded together by macrofiber networks; new and glistening skins grown over decrepit understructures thousands of years old. Architectural recycling at its finest, a baroque blend of styles influenced by a thousand different worlds. This was the Reclaimed Zone, where modernity overshadowed mouldering antiquity, and the Ministere de Justice was the perfect icon of that modernity. It sparkled white and blinding in the first light of morning.

Sunbeams pierced the windows of the lorrie. Crag awoke in the back seat at the prodding of a gendarme’s rifle butt. He kicked at the soldier’s head but didn’t really try to connect. The gendarmes moved away from the vehicle and allowed him to slide out. Crag wavered for a moment, the heat of good nitrate oils still burning in his belly gears. He turned back to grab his top hat. The Tribune was a stickler for appearances.

Crag adjusted his bronze face, pressed the hat down upon his skull, and followed the garden path toward the massive outer stairs. Statues lining the courtyard were made of bronze, faded and tarnished by age. The plants thriving here were synthetic recreations of real foliage, creations of the Ministere de Science whose personnel maintained the building. The banner of the Potentates hung crimson and black at the top of the steps, between pillars of silver and milky quartz.

The guards didn’t bother to nod or salute Crag as he passed. He was beneath their notice, just another tool of the Tribune like themselves. Crag tried not to look at the trio of jade gargoyles above the entrance. The sculptures always gave him bad vibes, yet he could never avoid staring at their reptilian faces. They stared back at him with green stone eyes, their mouths grinning with crooked tusks. Crag entered the central corridor through an open pair of immense doors. The walls were sterile, built of white alloy and stainless steel. The chairs were ornate, carved of ancient wood, lined with deep velvet. Porcelain-faced Beatifics stood along the walls in their finest coats and hats, waiting for access to the Tribune’s court. Some wore shackles at wrists and ankles with silent gendarmes looming at their shoulders.

Crag approached a second pair of doors somewhat smaller than the first. These were carved of ancient wood with intricate swirls and arcane patterns. A gendarme opened the right door as Crag approached. He was expected after all.

Inside the golden bench of the Tribune stood on a raised platform above the twin stands of prosecution and defense. Eight plastic couches sat below in two orderly rows for the comfort of observers. In all his years serving the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone sitting on those couches. The Tribune heard cases and made judgments without an audience. Crag wondered why the couches were even there if nobody was ever going to use them. He slumped down on the rearmost couch. His coils sighed and his leg gears unlocked.

On the left wall stood a door marked ABSOLUTION. An identical door on the opposite wall read PUNISHMENT. Prisoners brought into the court were judged, sentenced, and dragged through one door or the other. In all his years at the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone get the door of absolution. He wondered if anyone ever had walked through it, and if it led anywhere at all.

The Tribune’s gavel fell with a boom. Two gendarmes escorted a condemned Beatific from the bench to the door of punishment. As the door opened before him the man lost all sense of dignity and began screaming for mercy. They always did that. The gendarmes wrestled him through the portal, and the door slammed shut. The shrieks of the condemned man echoed for awhile from the other side, gradually fading into silence.

The Tribune finished scribbling something on a scroll with his peacock quill pen. The Ministere de Justice had a real taste for old-fashioned customs. That is to say Tribune Anteus had a thing for old-fashioned things, because he was heart and soul of the Ministere de Justice. This was the House of Anteus. Everyone here answered to the Tribune, and the Tribune answered only to the Potentates.

A miniature version of the Potentate’s banner hung above the Tribune’s high seat. The opaque veil that hid the Tribune’s face matched his spotless white robe. A long powdered wig hid the rest of his head. The walls of the court were etched with mosaics of ancient Beatifics wearing those types of wigs. Despite its external modernity the place was a bastion of tradition, a crucible of frozen history, and the only source of order in the grand chaos that was the Urbille. Crag was a part of that order. He was good at his job, even if he’d lost the heart for it.

The Tribune waved his long fingers, and the precious stones of his rings sparkled.

“Inspector Crag, you may approach.” A voice familiar as the Urbille itself. The Tribune’s regular speeches, delivered via high-frequency transistor, were the voice of the Potentates. It was a voice Crag had known all his life. Yet did anyone really know the Tribune? Crag reported to him directly on a case-by-case basis. He preferred to avoid it whenever possible. The urge to strangle the man until his pulpy brain oozed from his optical sockets had left Crag years ago. That wouldn’t have been any good for Caroline.

Crag stood before the high bench in the place where accused criminals were also made to stand. The Tribune had all his meeting like this. A constant reminder that he sat above everyone else, even his fellow agents of order. Anteus drummed his sharp nails against the golden bench as he spoke.

“Splendid work tonight,” said the Tribune. “We can always count on you, Crag. Was the apprehension difficult?”

“No apprehension,” Crag said. “The killer was sick. He had to be put down on the spot.”

The veiled faced stared at him.

“It was a matter of life and death,” Crag said.

“Very well,” said the Tribune. “You’ll find no dispute from me this time. We have more important things to discuss.”

“What’s more important than keeping the Urbille’s children safe?”

“Whatever serves the interests of the Potentates, Inspector.”

“Yes, sir.”
“In this case the matter does happen to involve the youngest members of our population. Perhaps it is related in some way to the case you just solved, but that is not for me to say.”

Crag waited.

“Are you familiar with the notorious highwayman known as the Surgeon?”

“I’ve read the reports,” Crag said. “Renegade Beatific, roams the Nexus robbing and murdering travellers; horseman, swordsman, handy with a pistol; supernaturally gifted; responsible for at least a dozen murders a year for the past decade.”

Crag had an optical for detail and an excellent memory. Caroline always said it was what made him good at his job. A half-dozen special agents had tried to track, entrap, or gun down the highwayman in the past ten years. Nobody ever found him. And nobody who went looking for him ever came back alive.

The Tribune waved a sheaf of papers. “Yes, yes, but have you seen the Red File?”

Crag reached up and took the folder. He opened it and scanned the document inside. It was marked CONFIDENTIAL: TRIBUNE ONLY in red ink. A list of dates and names; times and places; most of them along the Greater Thoroughfare, the others in and around the Urbille itself. Abductions. Some singly, some in groups.

Crag read the notations and recognized his own name on several cases. He slapped the folder down onto a wooden podium. “Missing persons cases from the last 12 years. Some of them were my cases. All of them unsolved…”

“Two hundred and sixty four unsolved cases,” said the Tribune, “and we suspect many more unreported losses. Do you see what all of these cases have in common?”

Crag had already noticed it. “They’re all minors. Young Organics. Pre-Conversion citizens of the Urbille.” He checked a row of data. “Seventy percent were stolen from Beatific families, the rest from Clatterpox.”

“And what does that suggest to you?”

“That somebody’s stealing children from the Urbille and he doesn’t play favorites.”

“That somebody is the Surgeon, Inspector,” said the Tribune. “And these are only the cases of youths taken from the Urbille itself. It doesn’t take into account hundreds more who were stolen right off the Greater Thoroughfare. Taken from the families of travelling merchants and private expeditions. Even an acting troupe lost four Young Organics who were travelling with them as apprentices.”

“So the Surgeon is stealing kids,” Crag said. “Children of all ages. He’s not murdering his victims for their wealth. He’s robbing them of their children.”

“He takes whatever wealth he can as well,” said the Tribune, “but we now know that his primary target is and always has been our children. He’s never taken anyone who has undergone Conversion.”

“No one under the age of sixteen,” Crag said. “Why? What is he doing with them all?”

“Now you’re asking the right questions, Inspector. I knew you were the man for the job.”

“What job, Excellency?”

“This child-stealer is no better than the child-killer you just eliminated,” said the Tribune. “To understand his motives, we must look at the man behind the reputation. You remembered that the Surgeon is a Beatific. What else do you know about him?”

“Not much. Rumors and whispers. Some say he’s a devil from Hell, others say he works for the Potentates. I’ve even heard it said that he’s not human at all.”

“No, Crag. The Surgeon used to be Doctor Aimon Wail, a gifted physician specialized in Conversion. Ranked extremely high among the Masters of Conversion Arts and Sciences. He earned six doctorial degrees in biomechanics and won three Adept Scrolls. He served the Potentates in the Ministere de Science for over two hundred years, during that time Converting thousands of Organic youths into magnificent Beatifics. A job so important one might see it as a sacred calling.”

“What happened?” Crag asked. “Something must have sent him over the edge.”

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SVETLANA

Welcome back!

Chapter 4 returns us to Svetlana, who crossed through a strange portal back in Chapter 1 and found herself in an alien desert. A big THANK YOU to everyone who’s reading and spreading the word.

In case you missed a chapter:
Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3


Chapter 4.

The Apothecaries of Nil

At first she thought they were some kind of strange trees. They rustled and shambled in the distance like a pack of lazy spiders. It might have been the hot wind that moved them, but the wind had died down hours ago. The tiny white sun had set, but the big orange sun never changed its position. It blazed across a quarter of the crimson sky.

Svetlana had stripped the lining from her parka to make a scarf that covered head and shoulders. She had never known such heat, not even in the brief depths of summer on the tundra. She dripped sweat and staggered forward with a dry mouth, rationing the rest of her canteen water. She half-believed she would find Dima, but also half-believed she would die trying. If she did find him in this boiling hell, he would need water too. She would need to find more of it, or something else to drink.

Several times she considered going back. She fell to her knees on the seamless pavement where the blowing sand would not drift. She wept and wailed at the bloody sky. But going back was not really an option. The eelheads would kill her as she came through the gate. Even if she survived their torments, she’d have to live with abandoning little Dima.

You’re not going back.

Get up and follow that damned angel.

Follow him to Dima, or to death.

A mother’s fierce heart.

So she got up, that time and the next time. She prayed that dusk would fall and the red sky would fade to the cool touch of night. But night never came in this place. All three of the moons had set and risen again, but no darkness came. There was no night here, only a time when one bloated sun ruled the sky, and another even hotter time when the smaller sun rose to join it for awhile.

Her stomach growled and her throat was raw. She ignored the hunger like a wound, a pain in her gut for which she could do nothing. She walked the endless road and her skin turned to red then brown. Her body ached. There was no way to measure the passing of time since night and day had become meaningless concepts. She saw nothing alive here, no plants, not even the tiniest lizard. Nothing but sand, bare rock, and red sky, until she came upon the creatures.

Heedless of danger, drunk on heat and light, she stumbled closer to the trembling things. They were far taller than she imagined. If they were vegetable in nature, they might have fruit for her to eat. If they were some kind of animal, she might kill one of them and eat its flesh. She drew Takamoto’s blade and walked on, too exhausted for a cautious approach. They weren’t spiders at all, at least not earthly ones.

Their central bodies were like clusters of colossal grapes, a mass of fleshy ovoids hanging from a central stem, gathered into a “bunch” by clinging transparent membranes. From that central stalk rose nine segmented appendages, arcing into the air above the cluster-body, and swiveling downward at the third joint to impact the earth. These leg-like appendages formed a crude “cage” about each of the body-clusters. Each leg ended in a single talon long as a sword, and these talons clacked against the road or dug into the sand as the creatures walked.

The color of their flesh ranged from black to purple to lavender with veins of white, and their strangely pleasant odor blew on the wind. Svetlana inhaled it and came close enough to walk beneath the nearest of the creatures, who seemed entirely unconcerned with her presence. The point of her blade dug a furrow in the sand beside her; she couldn’t find the strength to raise it.

She examined the crab-like legs as she walked between them. One of the creatures swiveled its many eyes at her. They blinked violet and gleaming from the body-cluster, two eyes set in each of the hanging ovoids. She fell to her knees again, not because of the high-pitched garbling of the creature, although it pierced her ears like a siren. What forced her to the ground, humbled her with impossibility, was its cluster of faces.

The creature’s central body was composed of a dozen or more suspended ovoids, each one with its own two eyes, nose, and mouth. They were human faces, some of them bloated and stretched, while others hung limp and drooling. Some of its faces were beautiful in their androgynous simplicity. Others were rotten and half-decayed. A horrible cluster of heads, most of them warbling something vital and unintelligible.

A warning? A greeting? Svetlana couldn’t begin to say.

Other clusters of heads regarded her from outside the cage of legs into which she’d stumbled. She lay on the sand now, directly below the hanging cluster of heads.

Now these things will kill me, and it will be over.

I tried, Dima. Forgive me.

In the cool shadow of the creature’s body, the only shade she found since coming through the gateway, she fell unconscious. An instant later, or perhaps many hours, the chill of liquid on her lips awoke her like a shockwave. It sluiced into her mouth and overspilled her cheeks. Cold, pure water. She drank it down, deeply and greedily, until her stomach felt bloated and her head ached. She wiped the excess over her face and hair, and her vision cleared.

One of the cluster-headed beings kneeled beside her on seven folded legs. Its last two appendages were what passed for arms. They rose from the central stalk like the other seven legs, but were contracted now to half their length, drawing into the central stalk. Among the glistening heads staring at her from the creature’s mid-body, there were three that seemed entirely human. She avoided looking at the decayed heads and the distorted ones. Perhaps some of the thing’s heads were dying, rotten fruits clinging to the vine. Three pairs of healthy eyes stared at Svetlana while the pointed arms poured water from a glass orb. The three heads spoke simultaneously, and she could not understand the language. It sounded like the singing of insects, but much louder.

Svetlana checked her body. She lay unmolested next to the kindly being, her sword left on the sand a short distance away. The rest of the head-cluster beings milled about nearby, as if waiting for Svetlana’s caretaker to give a sign. Surely they wouldn’t give her water if they intended to kill her. Yet there were worse fates than death.

The being’s dual appendages sat down the glass globe and reached above its main stalk where a bundle of provisions sat tied with strands of rope. The creature’s arms found what they were looking for: a tall glass vial of murky liquid. It clanked against several other glass containers as the being removed it from the rope-net above its head-cluster.

It offered the vial to Svetlana with a few blithering words, and several pair of blinking eyes. One of the side heads vomited an orange mucous, but the three pleasant faces smiled at her. Their eyes were orbs of gleaming purple, and their lips were that same shade. None of the heads had any hair, since they were connected to the other heads by shared membranes where a human might grow healthy locks.

Svetlana touched the vial. She had been dragged from the road proper to the camp of the head-cluster beings. The razory tip of an appendage came forward and punctured the big cork that sealed the vial. It pulled the cork free with a popping sound, and motioned for her to drink.

She sniffed at the mouth of the bottle. A sour-sweet stench. Definitely not water. But they had shared their water with her already. Why do that if they were only going to poison her? She blinked at the three smiling heads, tried to ignore the rotting skulls higher up on the beast’s cluster-body, and tipped the vial above her lips.

It burned going down, and she coughed some of it back up. The creature took the bottle immediately, deftly re-stoppering and re-storing it. Svetlana writhed and spat and cursed in the dirt beside the road. The heat expanded from her tongue to her fingertips, then from her belly to her brain, and her vision swelled with colors she could not name. She gnashed her teeth and wretched, but there was no food in her stomach to throw up.

The world turned to a mess of hot blurs, and she feared the drink had blinded her. She’d heard stories of the eelheads blinding men to make them more docile slaves. The roaring in her ears finally ceased, and her eyes regained their sight. She blinked at the many-headed creature.

“…not specifically an elixir of telepathy, but one of understanding. A liquid-form course in celestial linguistics, if you will. It should be working by now.” She realized a voice was addressing her with words that actually made sense. Of the three handsome heads that hung near her, the closest two were speaking with simultaneous words. “Are you feeling better?”

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 3

HARMONA

Why release Chapter 3 so early?

Because I can.

I make the rules here, not some distant publishing company. That’s the whole point of this experiment. And it feels gooood.

I also wanted to get the first three chapters out as soon as possible, so that readers can meet all three main characters. Their separate narratives entwine as the book goes on, but we’ll keep visiting Svetlana, Crag, and Harmona individually until fate brings them together. (No spoilers, dude!) Chapter 3 introduces Harmona and the New Organics. 

A big THANK YOU to everyone who’s reading and spreading the word.

In case you missed a chapter: Chapter 1    Chapter 2

 



A FEW ODD SOULS

Chapter 3.
HearthHome

 

The world was green and good. Harmona watched the sun rise from the top of the Hearthtower. The stone beneath her bare feet grew warmer in the first light of day. The last hint of night faded from the sky and clouds rolled above the worldforest.

The tower’s top was flat and entirely seamless. Its diameter was wide enough to hold a hundred or more people, but nobody had followed Harmona up here this morning yet. She relished these rare moments of quietude, when the only sounds came from the great flocks of birds soaring above the trees. This was the only place where she could look across the treetops, a green ocean of leaf and palm that blanketed the continent as far as she could see.

Ten years living on Gaeya and her people had yet to locate the edges of the great woodland or the farthest shores of the continent. She knew there was an actual ocean out there somewhere, a place where mighty rivers emptied themselves and solid land gave way to the chaos of open waters. Some enterprising wanderer of a future generation would discover it. She was content to stay here at the heart of the green world, to watch the sun rise above the pinnacle of HearthHome.

The morning wind tossed the curls of her hair and whipped the mothsilk gown about her legs. She inhaled the fragrance of a million blossoms on the breeze, the comforting scents of leaf and bark, and beneath it the everpresent musk of raw earth. Somewhere under that canopy of endless green, Dorian and his band of hunters were on their way back home.

Ten years ago she would never have imagined him as an archer, a huntsman, a wood-roaming champion of his people. Yet back then she would have never imagined herself standing atop this tower and staring at a new world of bounty and freedom. She raised her hands to catch a ray of sunlight, like picking fruit from a low branch. The golden light played across her knuckles, her upturned palms, the pale brown skin of her forearms. These simple pleasures would have remained unknown to her if she had not come here.

Gratitude swelled like a raw flame in her breast, ready to burst from her skin like sunbeams. The wind caressed her face. She hoped Dorian would return soon. It had been six days since she felt his warm skin against her own. She trembled, anticipating the heat of his lips, the strength of his arms wrapped about her waist.

“Mother!”

Harmona turned to meet her daughters as they topped the spiral stairwell from the tower’s uppermost chamber. Elodie, her youngest, had been the first to call out. Harmona couldn’t quite believe that six years had already passed since Elodie’s birth. Astrid and Sabine, Elodie’s eight- and nine-year old sisters, followed her onto the tower-top, grinning into the wind. Elodie blinked into the glaring sunlight as she leaped into her mother’s arms. All three girls still wore their sleeping gowns. Like Harmona, they hadn’t bothered to change before coming up to enjoy the dawn.

They stood together along the short circular wall that enclosed the roof. Harmona lifted Elodie so she could see over the edge.

“See how green the world is,” Harmona said. She brushed Elodie’s hair back from her round face.

“The sun hurts my eyes,” Elodie said. She buried her face in Harmona’s neck.

“You can’t look directly at it,” Astrid said. “You’ll go blind.”

Harmona smiled and rubbed Astrid’s head.

“Who told you that?” she said.

“Father,” said Astrid. “When he took us to the Sacred Grove.”

“Is it true?” Sabine asked. She was the skeptic of the bunch. Wise beyond her years. The firstborn and the first to question what was given or said to her.

“Yes,” said Harmona. “The sun is made of fire. If you touch a hearth fire your hand will burn. The sun will burn your eyes. Yet without it we’d all be stuck in darkness.”

“No we wouldn’t,” Sabine said.

Astrid gave her a dirty look. “Why not?”

“Because of the moons,” Sabine explained. “Six moons greater and lesser to light our way through the darkness.”

Harmona smiled. Sabine had learned well from her tutors.

“Can you name all six moons?”

Sabine rolled the names off her tongue rapidly. Astrid joined in with the names of the last two, mimicking her sister.

“The sun also gives us heat and warmth,” Sabine said. “There are six moons, but the nights are cold. Why don’t the moons give us warmth, Mother?”

Harmona pinched her eldest daughter’s cheek. “You are full of questions,” she said. “The moons only reflect the sun’s fire. They are bright but cold.”

“What are the moons made of?” Astrid asked.

“Stone,” Harmona said.

“Like HearthHome,” said Elodie.

Harmona kissed her daughter’s forehead. “That’s right, precious girl.”

Mother and daughters stared across the green world for a moment. A flock of white birds reflected the sun’s gold from their plumage.

“Tell us about the place you came from,” Sabine asked. “You never talk about it.”

Harmona frowned. Sabine’s curiosity went hand-in-hand with her intelligence. She cherished this quality in her oldest, but sometimes it made for difficult moments.

“It was an old world,” she said. “Nothing like this one. It was dark and grey. Cold.”

“Were there six moons?”

“No,” Harmona said. “Only one.”

“The nights must have been dark there.”

“Yes,” Harmona said. “Very dark.”

“Tell us more,” Astrid said.

Harmona sat Elodie down at her feet. “Your father is better at telling tales than I am. He’ll be home in a day or two. You can ask him these questions.”

Sabine sighed. She was used to her mother’s avoidance of this topic. Dorian had a way of explaining things to his girls that softened the cruelty of the past. He turned everything into a lesson or an entertaining story. When Harmona thought of their life before Gaeya, she felt like weeping. She didn’t want the girls to see her like that.

“Father’s coming home?” Elodie asked. She jumped and ran around the rooftop, shouting her joy to the wind. Children had no filters for their emotions. Already Harmona felt the shadow of Sabine’s question fading. She smiled and embraced her two eldest.

“Let’s go down to breakfast,” she said. “We’ll have honey and wheat-toast, and there’s loamberries and wingfruit fresh from the gardens.”

“I’m hungry!” Astrid said. Sabine reluctantly agreed to receiving nourishment over knowledge. The girls followed their mother down the spiral stair into the suite of bedchambers that served as home to the HearthMother. They changed into soft tunics of plant fiber dyed to colors of earth, leaf, and sky, set with golden trim at sleeves and hem. Each daughter presented herself and passed inspection.

Harmona took up her staff of black metal, her touch igniting the emerald flame that danced above its head. A circlet of beaten gold inscribed with a pattern of leaf and vine marked her status as HearthMother. It had taken her years to get used to wearing the circlet, but now she hardly noticed its presence about her forehead. She thought of it as little more than a device to keep her mass of dark curls from obscuring her face. The staff was a reminder of the world from which she had escaped. One day Sabine would ask for the story behind the staff. One day Harmona would have the strength to tell her everything. But that was not today.

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 2

INSPECTOR CRAG

Back at ya!

The response to Chapter One has been so positive and supportive, I decided not to wait a whole week to release Chapter 2 of the novel. Here you’ll meet the second main character CRAG and discover the bizarre (and often terrifying) city known as The Urbille. I’m thinking I might release Chapter Three a bit early as well, since I want readers to meet all three main characters as soon as possible. Special Thanks to everyone who shared my announcement about Chapter One. In the words of Ozzy Osbourne: “I love you all!”

Let’s rock…

 


A FEW ODD SOULS

Chapter 2.
Blood in the Rust

 

It was raining in the Urbille. The gutters sparkled with tiny rivers of black foam. Usually the Rusted Zone was a maze of red fogs and clouds of metallic grit, but the rain had cooled the streets and cleared the air. Heat rose from the pavement in curtains of steam. The stars were lost behind a canopy of curling smokes.

Crag walked through a slurry of rust and mud between the husks of ancient foundries. Most of the factories in this precinct were abandoned long ago. The broken bones of the buildings lay in the shadow of crumbling smokestacks. This was the ass-end of the Zone, a place even the Clatterpox avoided. A perfect place for murder.

The wind kicked up and Crag almost lost his top hat. He pulled the lapels of his waistcoat tight across his chest. He was following a hunch. The first six bodies had all been found within a two-kilometer radius of this place. Old Brickyard Avenue wound through the southwestern corner of the Zone. The victims, each one mutilated and headless, must have been killed here before being dumped into seven different rubbish bins. Nobody would hear children screaming in these decayed lots. Crag had studied a map of the Zone until a spark of inspiration ignited in the back of his skull. The spark led him here.

His opticals scanned the sodden pavement, looking for footprints in the shifting layers of sludge. The rain actually helped his search. Not even a lumbering Clatterpox would leave tracks for long on a dry street. The wind would blow any such marks to oblivion in seconds. But wet mud held prints intact for awhile, especially the rust-enriched ooze of the Zone.

Crag walked for an hour through the slurry as the downpour lessened to a steady drizzle. He had almost given up finding anything when he spotted the tiny trail of crimson rushing along a gutter to swirl down a drainage grill. He followed the gutter to its source at the curb of a derelict foundry, and a puddle of red at least a meter in diameter. It lay directly in front of a sliding iron door built high enough to admit a cargo lorry.

A smudge of red blood along the edge of the door almost resembled a handprint. It stood slightly ajar, and Crag felt the spark in his brain again.

The tiny gears in the fingers of his right hand clicked as he pulled the pistol from its shoulder holster. The door’s lock had been lost long ago, and the killer hadn’t bothered to replace it. Inside was a vast chamber of darkness, but a few stray beams of moonlight fell through the corroded ceiling. A tangle of rusted metal shards, iron vats, and  hanging chains filled the dark. Two sets of stairs led toward a gallery level above what was once a busy factory floor.

Crag stepped across the scattered debris. The trail of blood drops led deeper into the darkness. Nobody bled in the Urbille except children. Crag had found what he was looking for here. A muffled cry resounded from the walls as he reached the foot of the left stairwell. The red droplets led upward. The killer’s seventh victim was already dying.

Crag climbed the stairs as quietly as possible, hoping the killer was too busy with his prize, too secure in his privacy, to be alert. The next cry wasn’t so much muffled as torn from a tender throat. The stairwell vibrated with minute reverberations as the scream’s echoes died away. One more step and Crag’s head broke the plane of the gallery level. Deep within the shadows a flame flickered orange and golden, surrounded by the remains of extinct machinery.

Crag didn’t need to follow the drops any longer to know they led directly to the flame. A third scream, raw and animalistic, rang through the rafters. Crag moved forward, arms extended at chest level, pistol gripped in both hands. Finger light against the trigger.

There he was. The killer with his seventh victim. The smiling porcelain face confirmed what Crag had suspected: the killer was a Beatific. The lips of the alabaster face were painted blood red, and its opticals gleamed with emerald light, focused entirely on the young, bleeding Organic. The kid was probably twelve years old, four years from Conversion and adulthood. The killer kneeled before his victim at the center of a spreading circle of crimson.

Of course it was a Beatific. No Clatterpox could ever be this insane. Forty years of hunting his own kind had convinced Crag that the worst crimes were always committed by Beatifics. In all that time, he hadn’t established a theory as to why that was true. It was just something he knew deep in his coils. His heart-cogs increased their speed as the killer’s face lifted to regard him.

The elastic skin of the killer’s hands was drenched with the kid’s blood. A hooked knife gleamed dripping in each of those hands. Flames danced in a tin bucket nearby, the only source of illumination besides the killer’s green opticals.

“Don’t move,” Crag said. He aimed the pistol at the sweet spot just between the killer’s opticals.

“Inspector Crag,” said the killer. The child lying before him whimpered. Its small body was criss-crossed with a dozen preliminary wounds. Crag may have saved his life, but the boy would bear the scars of these wounds until his Conversion Day.

“You know me?” Crag said, stepping closer. Another two meters and there was no way he’d miss the head shot. Keep the creep talking.

“Of course,” said the killer. His fixed porcelain smile flashed in the gloom. “You’ve been in the papers. Chasing me down. I’ve been reading about you.” His dark waistcoat bore a white rose on its lapel. Strangely, it bore no sign of the blood that stained his coat and trousers.

Crag couldn’t see the kid’s face, but he could tell the boy was only half-conscious. The pain had been too much for him. Crag could almost remember what that particular sensation was like. It had been too many centuries. He barely remembered physical pain, but he knew the other kind well. The kind of pain that eats you up from the inside, the kind that started in the heart-cogs and travelled straight to the brain in its silvery casement. The pain of loss and loneliness and bitterness. He’d gladly trade that for some simply physical agony. But that was not how the world worked.

“Why’d you do it?” Crag asked, taking another step closer. Almost there.

The killer laughed, brandishing his bloody knives like conductors’ batons.

“I assume you mean the killing not the reading,” he said. “Do you really want to know, Inspector?”

“Tell me,” Crag said.”Why children?” One more step.

The green opticals glowed at him. The killer looked down at the kid’s body.

“They’re so young and pure,” the killer said. “So sweet and tender. I would call them innocent, but there’s no one innocent in the Urbille. I’m saving them, Inspector.”

“Saving them from what?” Crag was in range now. One pull on the trigger.

Something stalled him. Morbid curiosity.

“From becoming like us,” said the killer. His porcelain cheeks gleamed orange in the flamelight. “From losing everything that makes them human. Instead of dooming them to live forever inside a mechanized constructs–prisons!–I set them free. That’s all these clever bodies are, Inspector. Prisons. Surely you know that.”

“Drop the knives,” Crag said.

The killer’s left hand obeyed. Its knife clanged on the foundry floor, but the right hand retained its weapon. The killer’s left hand reached up to caress his own porcelain chin. With a deft movement he detached the Beatific mask and pulled it away, revealing the bare surface of his silver skull. His green opticals gleamed brighter.

“This is what we truly are,” the killer said. “Machines built from silver and tin, aluminum and copper, iron and steel. These faces we wear, they’re lies. Each one of us dies on the day of our Conversion. You don’t really think the brains inside our skulls are still alive do you? We’re all damned souls, trapped in our personal hells. So I free the little ones before they walk into the same prison that holds us for eternity.”

The spark jumped again at the back of Crag’s skull.

“It doesn’t matter whether you wear a porcelain visage like mine, or a bronze face like yours, we are all the same beneath the veneer of society’s masks,” said the killer. “We can’t even show our true faces in public. We are masked prisoners, spirits locked inside clockwork engines. I’m sparing the little ones this awful fate. Do you understand? Tell me you do.”

“Why torture them?” Crag said. He didn’t move at all. Kept the pistol trained on the sweet spot. The kill shot. Any second now. Why hadn’t he already pulled the trigger? Maybe he simply had to know what drove a Beatific to such horrible acts of violence.

“Torture?” the killer said. “No, I’m preparing them for the journey. Unlike us, their umblemished souls get to leave the Urbille. They travel who knows where–into the next universe or the next life. Suffering is good for the soul, so I prepare them for the journey by making their flesh suffer. I set them free.”

“What about the heads?” Crag asked.

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A FEW ODD SOULS – Ch. 1

SVETLANA

Greetings!

Welcome to my brand-new novel, A FEW ODD SOULS. I’ve decided to release it on my website, one chapter per week for 22 weeks. Each chapter will be accompanied by an original illustration by Yours Truly.

Why am I doing this instead of publishing through “traditional” channels? A few reasons:

1) How many authors ever reward their fans with a free novel? A FEW ODD SOULS is for the fans of my Shaper and Tall Eagle books. (see sidebar for samples and ordering info) Thank you for reading my work, now here’s my latest and best — for you, for free.

2) I want to interact with the fans as they’re reading and consuming the story. So please drop me an e-mail after reading each chapter:
johnny-nine@comcast.net 

3) Releasing a complete novel for free subverts the entire publishing industry model. It cuts out all middle-men, gate-keepers, and bean-counters that stand between YOU and ME (Reader and Writer). I’m not in this for the money–I wrote for years before making any money from it. I’m in it to tell great stories, and to reach as many people as possible with them. 

4) It’s also a chance for me to re-ignite my dormant artistic skills. I used to dream about drawing comics for a living when I was a kid, and about twenty years ago I did draw a graphic novel (NECROMANCY: A DARK ROMANCE, later released digitally as SKULLS). However, that experience made me realize that I’m a much better writer than comic-book artist, so I haven’t drawn much in the past two decades. Now I’m going back to doing art that supports my story. Every chapter will have one relevant illustration that I’ve completed specifically for this purpose. Mostly I’ll be working with pen-and-ink.

A FEW ODD SOULS is my Weird Fantasy Epic. It combines several genres but remains weird all the way through. What does that mean? Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out.

Chapter 1 introduces SVETLANA, one of three main characters. In Chapter 2 you’ll meet INSPECTOR CRAG, while Chapter 3 introduces HARMONA. As chapters continue, the viewpoints of these three central characters will alternate from chapter to chapter, heading toward an inevitable collision that defies space and time itself. 

Cheers!

John R. Fultz
March 27, 2019
Fairfield, CA

———————————————–

A FEW ODD SOULS

Chapter 1.
The Faceless Angel

 

The dead city was alive tonight.

The tops of its towers had crumbled. Most of its avenues were lost beneath a sea of rubble. A forest of weeds and creeping vines sprouted from the devastation every summer, only to die and rot in winter. A hundred years had passed since people had lived here. Most of their bones lay deep beneath the rot and ruin.

Omiska, they used to call it, those who had raised its towers and paved its roads. Those who were less than memories. Only the city’s name had survived, whispered by elders in campfire tales across the tundra. In time even that would be forgotten, as all things must be.

Yet tonight there were lights in the dead city.

The pale glow of those who had destroyed it.

Svetlana crouched behind a mossy boulder on the lower slope of the mountain. She watched the lights swim through the ruins like schools of phosphorescent fish in water. They glided toward the center of the wreckage. She could not see what was calling them together. She would have to get closer for that, explore the canyons of debris on foot.

The moon rose above the frosted peaks behind her. The gliding motes of radiance concentrated themselves at the heart of the dead city. A few stragglers drifted in to join the gathering. Eelheads. At least fifty of them, possibly more. She recognized them by the glow of their rubbery skins. Nothing else alive glowed like that. They were the ones who had conquered the city when her grandfather was young, as they had conquered every city across the world. They had built their own strange cities after wiping out most of the human population. She had no idea what drew them now to this forsaken place.

Svetlana had heard all the stories. She only half-believed that her kind once ruled this world, that millions upon millions of human beings had once existed. It seemed impossible that her people could breed in such great numbers, or that the eelheads could decimate so many of them. Yet the remains of great cities like Omiska — human cities — provided evidence that she couldn’t ignore.

In the books kept by the wise ones there were pictures of the human cities when they were alive with colorful multitudes. They had seemed to her younger self like visions from another world. Yet Svetlana’s father had taught her that the pictures were of true things, lingering visions of a lost glory. She had seen only one other dead city, a lesser version of Omiska whose name had been entirely lost. The eelheads had ignored that lesser ruin since destroying it during their great conquest.

She didn’t know what brought the eelheads swarming into Omiska tonight, but it must have something to do with the angel. The silver-winged angel without a face that had stolen her child. She moved down the slope, leaving tracks in the shallow snow. She didn’t dare to light a torch, but moved by the grey light of the moon. The wind whipped at her long braid, tearing loose strands of black hair that danced across her face. She stopped every few hundred meters to hide behind a rock or slip into a dry gully.

She avoided the yellow-barked trees heavy with bulbous veiny fruits. They were eelhead trees. They had spread across the world after the conquerors had claimed it. To eat their fruit brought madness, death, or worse. To walk within range of their stalks would attract their strangling vines. The trees fed on the blood of any living thing they could snare. Svetlana had seen too many men die in the grip of those thorny vines. The wise ones called them dyirevokrov, blood-trees. They drank lives in seconds, yet the eelheads could walk among them with impunity. Their poisonous fruits were a delicacy among the conquerors.

Svetlana climbed into a ravine and followed it toward the foot of the mountain. There might be sentinels at the rim of the ruins, but they couldn’t see her moving along the bottom of the crevasse. She moved across the uneven ground with caution. Her hands twitched, anxious to draw Takamoto’s blade from its sheathe across her back. She forced herself to wait. Even in the crevasse moonlight might glance from the blade and give away her approach.

She rested a hand on the grip of a pistol holstered at her thigh. It was a relic, an antique from the time before the eelheads came. Her father had kept it clean, oiled, and functional, passing the rituals of its maintenance on to her when her brother had died. A bandolier slung across her right shoulder held forty-six rounds. She had sold the last of her other keepsakes to buy the ammunition in Kirishni a week ago.

Tonight she could not use the gun at all. Its thunder would draw the eelheads in great numbers. If that happened, she wouldn’t stand a chance. She must be quiet and remain unseen. A mystery glowed at the center of dead Omiska. The key to that mystery would lead to her son wherever the angel had taken him. Not for the first time she wondered at connection between the eelheads and the angel. According to the oracle at Kirishni, she would find the answer here.

Svetlana had found the oracle sitting in a dim cave. The old woman sprinkled dust and bird-bones into a small fire. The oracle was old and toothless with skin like ancient leather. At some point the crone had eaten the fruit of the dyirevokrov and somehow survived it. A mass of fleshy tendrils grew curling from the side of her face. Her left arm had been deformed by the fruit as well. It writhed across her matted robe like a pale serpent, and a flower-like blossom sat where her hand used to be. She had gained magical sight by daring the madness and deformity of the blood-fruit. The oracle of Kirishni had paid a horrible price for wisdom.

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It’s here! WEIRDBOOK Annual #2 is available at last. A massive tome of all-new weird fiction—and poetry—all inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. 

A diverse assortment of eldritch horrors and terrors from beyond awaits the intrepid reader.

Includes my story “The Thing In The Pond.”

WEIRDBOOK Annual #2 – Table of Contents

•”The Shining Trapezohedron” by Robert M. Price
•”A Noble Endeavor” by Lucy A. Snyder
•”Ancient Astronauts” by Cynthia Ward
•”The Thing in the Pond” by John R. Fultz
•”Enter The Cobweb Queen” by Adrian Cole
•”Tricks No Treats” by Paul Dale Anderson
•”Ronnie and the River” by Christian Riley
•”Cellar Dweller” by Franklyn Searight
•”Yellow Labeled VHS Tape” by R.C. Mulhare
•”Tuama” by L.F. Falconer
•”Mercy Holds No Measure” by Kenneth Bykerk
•”Treacherous Memory” by Glynn Owen Barrass
•”The Hutchison Boy” by Darrell Schweitzer
•”Dolmen of The Moon” by Deuce Richardson
•”Lovecraftian Limerick” by Andrew J. Wilson
•”A Wizard’s Daughter” by Ann K. Schwader
•”The Shadow of Azathoth is your Galaxy” by DB Spitzer
•”Ascend” by Mark A. Mihalko
•”The Solace of the Farther Moon” by Allan Rozinski
•”The Stars Are Always Right” by Charles Lovecraft
•”Daemonic Nathicana” by K.A. Opperman
•”Asenat” by Ashley Dioses
•”The Book of Eibon/Le Livre D’eibon” trans. by Frederick J. Mayer

Weirdbook.
Get Your Weird On.
http://wildsidepress.com/weirdbook

Forbidden Futures #3

Art by Mike Dubisch [Click to Enlarge]

FORBIDDEN FUTURES is a unique celebration of dark fantasy art and storytelling. The third issue features a “high fantasy” theme, but don’t expect the traditional fantasy fare as weirdness and horror are more likely to show up than “sweetness and light” in these adventures.

All the stories are based on artwork by the sensational Mike Dubisch, and the esteemed Cody Goodfellow serves as contributing editor. My story “Tears of the Elohim” appears in this issue, alongside one of Mike’s many superb illustrations.

You won’t find another magazine like this out there, blending voices of fantasy and horror prose with fantastic artwork from a single illustrator’s visionary palette.

Get your copy right HERE.

 

 

 

Darren Coelho Spring’s spectacular film explores the life and legend of Clark Ashton Smith–one of fantasy’s greatest talents, and one of the 20th Century’s most enduring “outsider artists.” [Art by Skinner]

I missed the World Fantasy Convention this year because I was too sick to travel. Feeling much better now, but still disappointed that I missed this terrific convention–it’s been my favorite yearly con since I attended my first one in 2009. (Wow! That was almost ten years ago! Time does fly…)

Front cover of the DVD.

So how did I get over the heartbreak of missing WFC? I watched CLARK ASHTON SMITH: THE EMPEROR OF DREAMS, the brand new documentary spotlighting the life, the work, and the legend of my favorite fantasy writer.

I can’t say enough good things about this film, so let me just hit you with a few of the highlights:

  • The interviews with CAS experts are insightful and get more fascinating as the film continues.
  • The visuals are extremely well-done, as is the haunting and ethereal soundtrack, two elements that work together to create an almost supernatural presence as the story of Smith’s life unfolds.
  • Seeing the actual landscape that inspired “City of the Singing Flame”–one of Smith’s most admired tales, and one of his few fantasies that touch upon the “real world” in addition to his usual fantastical realms.
  • Some parts of the movie achieve an acid-trip style quality; filmmaker Darren Coelho Spring was obviously trying to evoke the weird wonder of reading a CAS tale–and he succeeds at this goal. This bio-doc gets totally “trippy” in a way that is delightfully unexpected.
  • After loving CAS’s work for decades, I now have a true understanding of the MAN behind the literature–the human being behind the cosmic poetry–the wizard behind all those wonderful narrative spells.
  • It traces Smith’s life from the beginning to the end, and provides a living context for his wildly fantastic work and his transcendent mastery of the written word.
  • One of Harlan Ellison’s last interviews is included, and he has some terrific observations about Smith’s work and legacy. Fittingly, Harlan even gets the “last word” in the documentary, exhorting the timeless quality of CAS’s work.
  • The film expertly captures Smith’s status as an “outsider” or “maverick” artist who never sold out, never chased after fame or success, and never once compromised his immense artistic vision.
  • CLARK ASHTON SMITH: THE EMPEROR OF DREAMS is the next best thing to sitting down with Smith himself and discussing the arc of his life in superb detail.

Back cover of the DVD.

One caveat: This documentary is really for those who are already fans of Smith’s fiction, poetry, and other works of art. It’s not a CAS “primer” built to woo new fans. As Harlan Ellison elucidates so very well, Smith doesn’t need to chase fans; they find him.

If you are already a fan of Smith’s work, this documentary will amaze, enlighten, and entrance you.

You can watch the movie online HERE.

You can order a copy of the DVD HERE.

I rented it, watched it, and immediately ordered a copy of the DVD. It will make a terrific edition to anyone’s collection of CAS books.

I’m already itching to watch it again.

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Finally, here’s a link to a comprehensive look at Smith’s greatest epic poem, THE HASHISH EATER (or THE APOCALYPSE OF EVIL) that I wrote for Black Gate a few years back. This poem is given a special place in the documentary, as well it should be. There are few if any poems that can match its phantasmagorical imagery.