Archive for May, 2019

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 
  Chapter11  Chapter12  
Chapter13  Chapter14  
Chapter 16


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 illustration 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. 


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.

Continue reading


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



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.”




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.

Continue reading


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


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.”


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.

Continue reading


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


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


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.

Continue reading


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


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


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


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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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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