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?”

Svetlana spoke by instinct, in her own language.

“Yes,” she said. “You gave me water…and something else.” The expressions on the faces told her that they understood her, and now she understood their sing-song insect language.

“Of course,” said the double voice. “The Elixir of Understanding. We always bring a bottle of it along on these trips. You never know who you’ll meet while parsing the Affinities.”

Svetlana forced herself to stand on aching legs. She was tall enough to look the heads in their eyes while the creature was kneeling. “What is this place?” she said. “Who are you? Have you seen the Faceless Angel?”

The three handsome heads frowned, while the creature’s other heads grimaced.

“So many questions. Your first time on the Thoroughfare, we presume?”

“The what?”

“The Thoroughfare,” said the creature. Its two arm appendages spread themselves to indicate the broad stone highway winding among the dunes. “The road between the worlds. Are you here by mistake? Are you looking for a way home?”

Svetlana picked up Takamoto’s blade, wiped it clean of sand, and sheathed it on her back.

“No,” she said. “I’m here for a reason.”

The heads rolled their eyes in various directions.

“Forgive our impertinence,” said the two speaking heads. “This cluster is Gehosopha, and these are my brothers. We are of the Solbred, Composite Beings whose lineage can be traced back to the 42nd Caliphate of the Solarion Empire. We are descended from this world’s native inhabitants.”

Svetlana blinked. Her head still swam from the language elixir. What else had it done to her?

“Geho–Geho–”

“Gehosopha.”

“Svetlana.”

“We are honored to make your acquaintance,” said Gehosopha, in two voices at once. “Do you walk the celestial road alone?”

Svetlana stopped herself. She wanted to tell this alien the truth. It had saved her life. It could be an ally. In this land of death, this meeting could mean life for her and Dima. But something wouldn’t let her blurt out the fact that she was looking for her son. She wasn’t even sure should could say those words without weeping.

“I’m hunting the Faceless Angel,” she said. “It took something that belongs to me.”

The clustered heads blinked and drooled and trembled.

“Have you seen it?” Svetalana asked. She described it as best she could: The shimmering silver skin, the glittering wings. There could be no mistaking it.

“We see many things along the Thoroughfare,” said Gehosopha. “Some of them possess wings as you describe. Some have silvery skin, as you also describe. Yet it has been many revolutions since we saw such things. We have little more to say about the matter. We are sorry that we cannot be more to help you.”

“Maybe you can,” Svetlana said. She looked in the direction from which she had come, then stared the other way along the Thoroughfare. It seemed identical. Kilometer after kilometer of red desert, and this road flowing through it. A dry riverbed ran perpendicular to the road. She saw the tracks left by the Composite Beings as they had scuttled along the riverbed toward the Thoroughfare.

“Where does this road lead? Maybe I can find the angel there.”

“In this direction lies the ruins of Nil.” Gehosopha waved an appendage in the direction Svetlana was going. “Where the Great Apothecaries work their alchemies.” He waved his talon in the direction from which Svetlana had come. “In this direction lies the Unknown. The way of it is forbidden to us.”

“That way lies my world,” Svetlana said. “The eelheads have conquered it.”

“What are eelheads?”

“Very unpleasant beings. You don’t want to go there.”

The cluster of heads nodded as one. “It is forbidden to us. Yet you come from this place where we dare not go. Should we fear you?”

Svetlana almost laughed. Any one of these creatures could stomp her to death, impale her on its spear-like forelegs. Yet Gehosopha was the one worried about danger. These were gentle beings, despite their grotesque bodies and clusters of heads. The faces were so human-like that perhaps the ancestors of these Solbred were true humans. Perhaps at some point in their history they joined physical forms to ensure their survival, thus creating these Composite Beings.

“Only those who keep me from the Faceless Angel need fear me,” she said.

Gehosopha hummed and clicked his appendages together. “We will not ask what this angel has taken from you.” It blinked at her with six concerned eyes, as if each head already knew the answer. The rest of its heads hung limp and disinterested.

“Can you help me?” she asked.

Gehosopha rose to his full height and scuttled over to his fellows. They consulted in a rush of words too fast for Svetlana to follow. When Gehosopha came back to her, his three main heads were smiling. She wondered if the rotting heads would fall off someday, like dead leaves from a tree. She recalled similar skulls lying half-buried in the sand on either side of the road.

“It is likely that those who do business with the Apothecaries of Nil have seen this angel you are seeking,” Gehosopha said. “You are welcome to walk among us, Svetlana. We would like to hear more about your world, and you may find answers to your questions when we reach our destination. You carry weapons, so we offer you the position of sentinel to our caravan. The road has its dangers, and we abhor violence. We will pay you in water, food, and knowledge.”

Svetlana picked up the watering orb that Gehosopha had been using to revive her. She drank more of the cool water. The container was still mostly full and bigger round than her head. The crimson heat no longer felt so oppressive, and the water felt good in her belly.

“You have already given me water and knowledge,” she said. “What do you have in the way of food?”

She did not ask what the “dangers” of the road were.

It could not have mattered.

####

Svetlana saw the smokes of Nil well before she saw the settlement. It used to be a magnificent metropolis of domes and spires, but that was obviously a long time ago. Now it was just another dead city, built in some lost age by artisans with supreme skill at beautifying stone. The fragmented towers gleamed in seventeen colors bright as mirrors. The broken domes were large enough to house mountains. The pointed shards of their roofs reflected sunlight in various shades of orange.

The smokes came from a smaller and far more practical settlement built directly in the center of the great ruin. While millions of souls lived here in splendor long ago, only a fraction of that number remained. A great wall once stood about the city, but it lay now in piles of rubble between the Lesser Gates. Twenty such gates admitted traffic from trails and tracks running to Nil from the broad desert. One of these gates served the Thoroughfare, and the Composite Beings were not the first arrivals today.

Svetlana had rested with the Solbred for several hours before beginning the journey to Nil. Their thrice-yearly custom, according to Gehosopha, was to travel in a sacred hyep, a group of exactly eighteen members, across the red waste, camping at the road between the worlds and then following it to Nil. There they traded outer-desert goods and gemstones for the miraculous drugs of the Apothecaries.

The Solbred didn’t speak much on the road. They walked like great spiders surrounding Svetlana. She kept to the middle of the road, although she would have taken the point. Gehosopha insisted she walk at their middle, amid a forest of spear-like legs and pendulous head-clusters. She soon understood why they spoke little while traveling: Their heads tended to swing back and forth. Only a few heads kept their eyes open while the rest closed their eyes to avoid dizziness. The heads hanging highest to the top of the central stalk swayed the least, so they tended to be the eyes used for walking.

Svetlana wasn’t sure if she were guarding the Composite Beings, or if they were guarding her. If anything came to threaten the caravan, it would have to attack the Solbred first. Svetlana could run from the forest of legs quickly, but not as fast as the Composite Beings could scuttle away from her–leaving her face to face with whatever might threaten them. She had no idea what form such a threat might take, as Gehosopha had dismissed any knowledge of eelheads. Of course, the Solbred might know them by another name, but if so the Elixir of Understanding should have translated it like everything else. Perhaps the eelheads had never invaded this world. At least not yet.

Drinking the sour-sweet elixir had changed more than her understanding of language. She understood the Solbred now, having slept in the desert alongside their resting forms. While she slept, she heard their thoughts and saw their dreams. She knew the images were not from her own imagination; she could not have imagined such a grotesque story. She knew the ancient history of the Solbred now, from the time before they were Composite Beings, to the Era of Unification, where their physical forms were joined by harnessed universal forces. Their Great Migration to find a world where they could prosper had brought them here. They called it Shyn Myah, and they settled along its great red desert in fertile river basins. They had built fantastic cities like Nil, mingled with races from the stars, visitors to this world who often settled here as well. The Solbred empire had been a vast and diverse cosmic menagerie of form and color, shape and density, a myriad of organic and semi-organic species.

There was little left of the Solbred Empire now. A few scattered settlements of centuries-old Composite Beings. They spent most of their time philosophizing, gardening, dancing, and enjoying the vast array of drugs provided by the Apothecaries of Nil. This tri-annual pilgrimage would restore the supplies of Gehosopha’s community and maintain his family’s wealth.

Something else she learned from the elixir, but did not quite understand. The Solbred worshipped the wild stones of the desert. Every rock or crag among the sands was sacred to the Composite Beings, as was the stone road itself. Svetlana could not wrap her mind about the bizarre logic of this belief. Recognizing this belief was not the same as feeling the passion of the belief itself. Some of Svetlana’s people had worshipped a god, or gods, but it had never saved them from bandits or marauding eelheads. She did not understand this Solbred reverence for anything made of stone. This lack of understanding in an otherwise vast pool of awareness reminded her that she was only human. The Composite Beings were not, even though their distant ancestors surely had been.

The Thoroughfare was a holy path to the Solbred. A sacred route to the drugs their people craved. Svetlana knew of drugs that could cure the sick. Her people had found them sometimes in the depths of ruined cities. Sometimes they were poison, other times they saved lives. After drinking the Elixir of Understanding, her conception of drugs and medicine had also expanded. She knew that the Apothecaries of Nil brewed the most wonderful and potent drugs in twelve realities. Another blank spot in her new awareness: How many were realities were there? At least twelve, as the Solbred understood it.

Most of all she understood that she was in another world entirely. There was no tundra here, no Omiska, no Kirishni, or any of the places she knew. She’d felt it in her guts when she first came through the gateway, and now she knew it for a fact. This was not her world. This confirmation did not impact her motivation. Dima’s abductor had come through this place. She would cross a thousand worlds to find him. She hoped the folk of Nil would know more about the angel.

The pale stone of the Thoroughfare ran directly through the heart of Nil, but travelers were made to stop at a pile of ruins that used to be a gate wall. Guards prowled the site with spear-gun rifles. They looked like huge desert lizards that had learned to walk upright. Dark metal plates had been forged to fit their serpentine bodies. Spiked helmets obscured their slitted snake-eyes with visors of black glass.

The crowd at the guard post consisted of twenty-four gnarled, green-skinned creatures like something out of a child’s tale. The word goblins came to mind. The elixir again, still making connections in her consciousness. Apparently these goblinoids had been stopped and searched after offending the lizard-men guards on some point of otherworld etiquette. Gehosopha explained this to Svetlana as another member of his hyep secured passage by dropping a bright stone into a guard’s palm. The reptoids waved the Composite Beings onward. The goblins squealed and cursed as their packs, their silver-chased war vests, and their canvas bags were picked through by the reptoids.

“It pays to have connections,” said Gehosopha. “And money.” The hyep lumbered its way past the noisy scene. Svetlana was glad to leave behind the reek of unwashed goblin-flesh.

The great stone road ran directly through the ancient piles of ruin. The great bazaar steamed and roared directly ahead. It stood at the center of the ruins, the heart of the rising smokes, vapors, and auroras that filled the sky. Crowds of odd beings walked, worked, and bartered here. Wheeled carriages drawn by feline beasts rumbled about the corners, making pedestrians scurry.

A swirling music drifted on the wind. The endless smells of Nil were like a thousand epiphanies crowding the brain via the nostril pathways. Svetlana almost fainted, but Gehosopha propped her up. “Only a bit farther,” he said. “Then we’ll find a respite.” Svetlana enjoyed the change in mood created by the mingling of lights, sounds, and fogs. The desert had burned her numb. Now the cool breeze of the city and the shifting colors rekindled her fascination. She felt like a little girl walking in a dream of colors.

Her eyes swept the alien crowds for winged figures. Most of the beings here were humanoid in shape, or semi-humanoid at least. Yet there were no true humans. There were more races and species than she could easily count. These were the remnants of the great Solbred Empire, which had crumbled ages ago. A diverse array of biological remnants.

Barrel-bodied beings traded shells with talking worms. In the next booth an eight-armed man hawked metal trinkets. Muscular men with the legs of hairy goats carried tridents of brass and silver. They quaffed mugs of foamy ale and laughed at unknown jokes. There were beasts whose true form could not be seen, as only their bulky heads rose above the piles of silks and furs that hid their bodies. A population of white-furred, six-armed apelings lithe as cats swung from cornice, streetlamp, and roof gardens.

Frog-headed shamblers traded kisses with blossoming plant-folk. Six or seven times Svetlana spotted something that looked somewhat human but was not. Helmets, masks, and hoods were common in the bazaar. If there were any humans here at all, she would not recognize them. She obviously did not belong in this place, but the population of oddities paid her no mind.

At the center of Nil, dominating the inner third of the bazaar, stood the Salons of the Apothecaries. This area was far less crowded and far better guarded. Armored reptoids stood on every corner, and the symbol of the Apothecaries flew above them, an abstract design of red and black threads. A wealthier class of shopper walked these streets, entering and exiting the salons one at a time, leaving with bags, boxes, barrels, or wagonloads of product. The hyep of Solbreds dominated a narrow street as they approached the broad window of a shop painted with an alien language. Svetlana found that she knew these symbols. The elixir’s effect on her was still active, but she had no control over what she understood and did not understand. Gehosopha had told her the elixir’s effects were permanent, though its intensity would gradually fade.

PEPPER DOMO’S ALCHEMICAL SOLUTIONS read the sign. The Solbreds engaged in a simultaneous chanting that drew stares from passing shoppers. Svetlana waited for them to stop and tell her what came next. Across the street a juggler in a gaudy cape looked partially human, yet his face was missing. Two eye-stalks grew out of his oval-shaped head, blinking with green phosphorescence. He juggled a plethora of knives with his human-like hands. Svetlana watched the steel sparkle in an endless loop above the juggler’s palms, waiting for him to stop. He did not. Someone dropped a coin into the hat sitting at the performer’s feet.

The Composite Beings stopped their chanting, and Gehosopha stepped forward. “This cluster is to be the Procurer,” he said. “We must negotiate with Pepper Domo. This cluster’s brethren will secure lodging while we do business. Will you accompany me, sentinel?”

Svetlana nodded. Each of the Apothecary Salons was a great, squat tower of white stone that gleamed like mother-of-pearl. They were not ancient structures, but were built with obvious skill and integrity sometime well after the fall of greater Nil. Svetlana noticed lizard-guards stationed at the door and on the roof of each Salon. A single round window on each side of the pentagonal towers meant that most of the rooms inside had no windows. Probably storehouses for all the drugs made by the alchemists.

Her belly growled. The Solbred had fed her a pouchful of tasteless gruel when she had begun the journey. It gave her energy but did not cure her hunger. She had allowed herself a tiny bit of dried fruit from her satchel. Now the smells of cooking and spices wafting from streets and windows made her ravenous. Later she would have to find proper food. Right now her hunger for knowledge took precedence.

She followed Gehosopha through the double door of the Salon. Inside was a wonderland of glass, crystal, and bubbling fluids of every color. Shelves were labeled and loaded with glass vials featuring concoctions, elixirs, potions, oils, balms, liquors, philtres, solutions, medicines. The showroom was only part of a vast laboratory that extended across the ground-level chamber. At stations along the walls, more of the eye-stalk people took orders from a diverse array of clients. Like the juggler outside, the eye-stalk folk exhibited startling dexterity and sleight of hand, grabbing vials, bottles, and jars from the shelves as quickly as they could and securing them in paper packaging with astonishing skill.

The smells in the shop were acidic and faintly sulfuric, which dispelled Svetlana’s hunger pangs. She accompanied Gehosopha to a broad station at the back of the shop, where a space was designated for larger folk like the Composite Beings. Her companion exchanged a few quick words with the eye-stalk at the counter, and he disappeared. Moments later another eye-stalk man replaced him, this one dressed in gray with a necklace of amber and rubies.

“Blessed Stones!” said the newcomer, spreading his arms in welcome. “Gehosopha Solbred, so good to see you again.” He reached out both hands to grasp the talon of Gehosopha’s right arm-appendage. His ovoid head bowed, and his eye-stalks swiveled to stare at Svetlana. Only then did she notice his lipless mouth, a vertical slash centered in the lower half of the smooth head. So these people weren’t exactly faceless. Not like the Faceless Angel, who had no eyes, nose, or mouth.

“Greetings and Good Health to you, Domo,” said the Composite Being. “This is the sentinel of our hyep. She is called Svetlana.”

Pepper Domo offered Svetlana his hand, as any human man might do. She forced a smile and shook his hand. She tried and failed to get a fix on his twin eyeballs as they rotated atop the jointed stalks, scanning her from head to toe.

“What have you brought me?” Domo said. “A slave from the backwater provinces? She’s thin but not uncomely.”

Svetlana drew her hand away too quickly. Domo’s green eyes stared at her.

Gehosopha laughed. “You know we never take slaves,” he said. “Evil business.”

“You have slaves in Nil?” Svetlana asked.

She looked at Gehosopha instead of Domo.

“Not human slaves,” Gehosopha said.

“Does it matter if they’re human or not?” Svetlana said. She dared not think of Dima thrown into slavery. Death might be preferable to such a fate. But if her son was made a slave, at least he would be alive so she could find him. He must be alive. She would accept no other outcome. Dima was alive and she would find him.

Domo and Gehosopha looked at each other: A cluster of hanging heads, some with idiotic blankness, others full of polite mirth, the dead ones hanging in black and purple silence, staring at a pair of blinking, shifting eyestalks. The two beings burst into simultaneous laughter, something else Svetlana did not understand. Why her question should elicit humor, she could not say. She decided to let Gehosopha do the talking.

“I have prepared your customary seasonals,” Domo told Gehosopha. “You will see that all is in order.” He produced a ledger from behind the counter and pointed to row after row of quill-scribed figures with notations.

“This cluster has no doubt,” said the Composite Being. “We must negotiate.”

“Yes, of course!” said Domo. “Save it for dinner, my friend. I have prepared a meal of surpassing succulence for you, my most loyal of clients. I’ve also obtained some of that Andromedan wine you love so much.”

The Composite Being trembled with expectation, many of its faces rolling their eyes in delight, mouths twisted into tiny o-shapes or bright-toothed smiles. “This cluster would like to bring Svetlana along if you don’t mind. She has an urgent calling and could use your advice.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Domo. He led his guests from the showroom down a set of stairs into a sunken grotto filled with piled cushions, silken curtains, and small tables loaded with food and drink. Crystal goblets and glass decanters were filled with sparkling beverages. Golden platters were overloaded with steaming meats, roasted vegetables, and strange things that Svetlana could not identify. It all smelled terrific, even the crocks full of squirming white puffworms.

Domo settled himself cross-legged on the cushions before a table, and his guests followed his example. Gehosopha bent his seven legs, resting on the cushions between Svetlana and Domo. Svetlana could no longer resist the call of hunger, and while her companions spoke of prices, bulk discounts, and the like, she devoured the delicious carcass of something like a wild turkey. The dish lead her to several others, and everything she tried was edible. She managed to avoid the hairy worms, although Gehosopha couldn’t seem to get enough of them. The Composite Being shoved them into his many mouths, skewering six at a time with an arm-talon.

The sparkling green liquid that Domo called “wine” did not taste like any spirit of Svetlana’s homework. It burned and soothed at the same time, sizzled going down, and sent waves of pleasure throughout her body. Immediately she drank too much of it and had to stop mid-meal. But she rallied and ate another heap of tasty strangeness.

Domo was an expert at making Gehosopha laugh during course after course, but Svetlana did not catch most of the humor. The Composite Being said little, but its living heads chuckled, guffawed, or cackled as the dinner proceeded. The dead heads remained quiet, hanging like wilted fruits slowly turning into crusted skulls. Pepper and Domo drained three bottles of Andromedan between them before the last course was done.

By the time they got around to Svetlana’s problem, she was half asleep on the cushions. The voices of other tables in shrouded corners of the room became a lilting melody. She drifted in and out of consciousness. Despite her understanding of every language she heard, she lacked the context to make out any great meaning in these conversations. Gehosopha giggled and gave her a cup of something warm and blue. The hot liquid woke her up as Gehosopha finalized business terms with Domo.

Now they both looked at her, and she knew it was her time.

“Svetlana has asked me questions that I cannot answer,” said Gehosopha. “I spoke to her of the Apothecaries’ great wisdom. Now I must be silent that she may ask your favor.” The Composite Being waved a talon to cue her, but she didn’t need his signal. She stared at an invisible point directly between Domo’s hovering eyeballs.

“The Faceless Angel,” she said. “Do you know it?”

Domo smiled vertically and his eyes narrowed on the ends of their stalks. “I suspect that what you call an angel, my people know as a Silverwing.”

Svetlana described the Faceless Angel.

“Yes,” said Domo. “Gleaming silver skin, feathered wings white as ivory, I have seen them. Extraordinarily beautiful creatures.”

“There is more than one?” she asked. “What are they?”

“These are questions I cannot answer,” said Domo. “Many times I have seen them flying over Nil. Only one at a time, and many years apart. Always following the route of the road between the worlds, yet they fly in both directions. I first saw one of them while I was travelling to Spirix with my grandfather’s caravan. He called them Harvesters, though we do not use that word anymore. He would say very little about them.”

Svetlana sipped the warm liquid. It calmed her. Anger simmered in her gut. Surely there must be more. How many of these things existed? Did they all come from the same place? Or places?

“I can tell you one thing for certain,” Domo said. “They fly between the worlds. Otherwise they would not follow the Thoroughfare. Beyond that I cannot say. Perhaps they are the agents of some higher power. Perhaps even Aphelion itself.”

“Aphelion?”

“An ancient legend,” Gehosopha broke in with his double-voice. “A city of immense wisdom and light. The city upon which all other cities were patterned, according to various belief systems.”

Domo huffed. “Aphelion is not just a legend.”

“Oh, really?” said the Composite Being. “Have you ever been there?”

“No.”

“Do you known anyone who has been to Aphelion?” said Gehosopha. “Seen any trinkets from its markets, or even heard anyone who speaks its language?”

“No, but I’ve heard many stories…”

“I have no time for stories,” Svetlana said. “I need to find these Silverwings–these Harvesters. I need to find the one that took my…”

Domo dropped his eyes. Gehosopha said nothing.

A silence fell across the table. Nearby a slug-like alien inhaled smoke from a giant water-pipe, passing it around his table to an assortment of eye-stalk men.

“I know one more story of the Silverwings,” said the Apothecary. His eye-stalks swiveled toward Svetlana, and he scooted closer on the cushions. The jewels on his chest gleamed in the light of candles.

“My grandmother said one of them stole a child from a woman in her village. She died many cycles ago, but she told me this story several times. Before my family came to Nil and learned the ways of the Apothecary, we lived in the eastern lands. In those days the ancient bloodlines sometimes manifested in genetic throwbacks to simpler times. A week after my grandmother’s eleventh birthday, a babe was born in her village that resembled the Old Blood tribes, those who lived here before the Time of Modifications. The Old Blood looked…well, they looked like you. Homo sapiens terra.

Domo pointed at Svetlana with a lean grey finger.

“This baby was considered a freak, but it would have been raised by the village anyway. Several Old Blood types were born every generation. But this one was stolen. Plucked from its crib by the hands of a Silverwing who flew out of the sky. My grandfather said the Harvesters used to come more often, in the time before the Great Modifications. Although he would never say it, I believe they once harvested life itself. Which is to say that they were stealing babies from the Old Blood tribes. Apparently they still do. The Silverwing took your child.”

Svetlana’s eyes welled and tears crept down her cheeks. She did not bother to wipe them. “You tell me they’re real,” she said. “That they’re child-stealers. These are things I already know. But can you tell me where to find them?”

The eye-stalk man looked especially sad, and his eyeballs drooped. Gehosopha let out a long sigh from several of his heads at once.

“I wish that I could,” said Domo. “No mother should lose her child.”

“I have to go,” Svetlana stood up. Her head swam and she did not want to weep in this quiet place, or to show the weakness of her heart to these strange people. Grief swelled like poison in her chest. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves.

“Wait,” said Domo. “Perhaps I can help you.”

She faced him, but refused to sit down again.

“I do not know everything, as you can see,” said Domo. “But I am an Apothecary of Nil, and I know where to find information. Our tinctures and serums are made from the rarest and most precious of ingredients. We are masters of knowing where to look for what we need. There is a place where you can find memories far longer than that of my people, a place where you might find better answers.”

Svetlana crossed her arms. The tears burned on her cheek. She waited for Domo to finish his thought. He raised a goblet in one hand and drank first.

“The Lords of Creep City are ancient and wise,” he said. “They know many things that have been long forgotten. Their knowledge of the worlds along the Nexus is great. While they lived long ago, they were constant travelers between the Affinities. They even traveled to the ancient Urbille at the center of the Nexus. Thousands of cycles ago they died, preserving their bodies and minds with mystic science. They know more than my people have ever known. It is said they know all the mysteries of Time and Space.”

Svetlana had never seen a mummy, but thanks to the Elixir of Understanding she knew the word. Wise mummies. How wise could the dead be? Takamoto would have laughed at this question. It would have tickled his dark sense of humor. His people had believed in the sanctity and wisdom of the dead.

“Where is this Creep City?” she said.

Domo spread the fingers of his big, flat hands.

“Not too terribly far from here,” he said, “along the road between the worlds.”

Svetlana wiped at her cheeks.

“This cluster may not leave its homeworld,” said Gehosopha. “The Solbred depend on us to return with the seasonal psychoactives.”

“I will go alone then,” Svetlana said.

“It just so happens that I’m about to parse the Affinities myself,” said Domo. “An expedition to service important clientele in premium locations along the Nexus. Why don’t you sign a contract with me instead of these honorable Solbred?”

“There was no contract signed between us,” said Gehosopha. “We reached a verbal agreement, from which Svetlana is now free.”

“Somebody explain to me what’s happening,” Svetlana said. Her head swam with new ideas, possibilities, contradictions, and all of them holding back a flood of emotions that threatened to destroy her.

“You’ve proven yourself a worthy bodyguard for Gehosopha’s people,” said Domo, waving his eyeballs at her. “Now come work for me. I’m going to Creep City.”

Svetlana grimaced. “Proven myself? There were no threats to the Solbred on the road. I faced no bandits or other enemies.” She sat down on the pile of cushions with an exhausted sound.

“No bandits or enemies?” Domo repeated her words. “Well, that sounds like you did the job exceptionally well. Wouldn’t you say so, Gehosopha?”

The Composite Being smiled and its many heads nodded.

“Come, then,” said Pepper Domo. “Join my payroll. I can use someone with your courage, not to mention your sword and pistol. The Thoroughfare offers many dangers.”

“So I have heard,” Svetlana said. She recalled the half-starved oracle in her cave. The tribute she brought for the old crone had led her to the Gateway of the Angel. These mummy lords were simply another Oracle to consult. Here was something she could understand. She would have to find and deliver a tribute worthy of such Oracles. There would be plenty of time to do this on the road between the worlds.

“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go to Creep City.”

It was her only chance. Dima’s only chance.

Domo practically squealed with excitement. His arms danced in exaggerated movements and his eye-stalks writhed like tiny serpents. His slit of a mouth barely moved. He refilled their cups with sparkling Andromedan.

“And so we shall,” Domo said. “Tomorrow.”

He raised a glass.

“But today let’s get nicely drunk.”

 

NEXT WEEK: “Special Dispensation”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —