VIVANT

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

————————————–

Chapter 10. 

Creep City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does the road run through all of them?”

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

“How many worlds does the road serve?”

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

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

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

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

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

Svetlana shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

Domo stuck his head out and yelled at her. She couldn’t hear a word over the roaring wind, but she saw the dark shapes whirling about the tiger. Ragged wisps of shadow with hearts of burning flame, they surrounded the feline.

Svetlana moved forward, crouching low with sword and pistol.

The tiger swept a massive paw at the apparitions, but his claws found no substance to maul. Bruno lay on the road face-down. A shadow crouched on his back, a vaguely humanoid thing of churning darkness. She swept her blade through its body and had no more effect than the big cat’s claws. The specter turned away from Bruno’s body. A flaming skull emerged from its interior darkness, a man’s skull with the fangs of a dog or jackal.

The shadow swept over her. She fired two rounds in sheer panic and swiped her blade at the skull. The blade’s tip struck a spark from the ancient bone. Something physical to fight now: skulls wrapped in cocoons of shadow and flame.

The shadow-thing’s thoughts invaded her head like burning knives. She yowled and dropped her weapons, clutching at the burning skull inside the shadow. Its invisible fingers dug into her mind. Her vision clouded and drops of blood fell from her eye, dripping across the front of her tunic. She grabbed the skull and squeezed it with every bit of strength she had left. Its flames were cold as ice, and her fingers went numb. But Domo had said his serums made her stronger. She was putting that claim to the test now.

Unable to crush the burning skull with her bare hands, she slammed it against the hard road, cracking it like a boiled egg. The cloak of shadow flickered about her. She raised the skull again, the pain in her head driving her to animal ferocity. She slammed it to the road again and again, until it burst into a cloud of yellow shards. The shadow and flame died as one, and she sat on her knees in the flying snow. Bruno lay before her dead or unconscious. The shadow-thing had been feeding on him when she interrupted it. Now three of the wraiths were feeding on the tiger, who leaped about trying to swat them or catch them in his fangs.

An eruption of light broke the night, then another, and another. Domo stood on the driver’s bench. His glass scepter fired bolts of glaring brightness at the wraiths. One by one they shriveled and faded. Domo leaped down to calm the tiger, rubbing its fur and whispering into its big ears. Svetlana dragged Bruno to the door of the coach. She couldn’t detect a pulse through Bruno’s thick layer of scales. She waited for Domo to join her.

“He’s alive,” Domo said, examining the reptoid. “Thanks to you.” His twin eyeballs regarded her with pride. “Let’s get him inside where I can treat him.”

“What were those things?” she asked. They placed Bruno on one of the inside benches, and Domo shuffled through his bottles of serums.

“Spirits of the vengeful dead,” Domo said. “Psychic predators, guardians of the frozen gate. That’s what I wanted to tell you about Creep City. It can be quite unsettling, especially for those who have never interacted with the non-living.”

“Non-living?”

“The undead, as it were,” he said.

“You mean ghosts?”

Domo laughed as he poured a colorless liquid down Bruno’s throat.

“Ghosts, ghouls, specters, vampires,” he said. “Drinkers of blood, stealers of souls. These are only a few of the dangers lying beyond the frozen gate.”

Svetlana nodded. How could the worlds ahead be any more strange than the worlds behind?

“I’ll need you to drive for awhile,” Domo said. “If you don’t mind.”

While the Apothecary tended to Bruno, whose wounds were primarily of a psychic nature, Svetlana climbed into the driver’s seat. The tiger was restless, ready to be rid of this cold world. She barely took the reigns in hand when the beast launched forward. The frozen gate was closer than she imagined, but it was not easy to see beyond the curtains of flying sleet. The road ran directly toward the ice-sheathed obelisks, and Svetlana guided the carriage into the world beyond.

A blast of warm air came as a relief after the frozen world. Her eyes blinked against the brilliance of instant daylight. The sky here was a great bowl of blue filled with amber clouds. An instant of vertigo made Svetlana dizzy when she looked to the side of the road. Apparently the highway here floated in the sky thousands of meters above the earth. It was a sky-spanning bridge higher than she thought was possible. Looking down from left or right, the hills, valleys, and rivers of a green world glimmered far below the sky-bridge. The carriage rolled up a long steady slope, heading toward the zenith of the arching road. The Thoroughfare was no wider here than anywhere else, and there were no railings along its sides to prevent careless travelers from falling to their deaths. The entire bridge was supported by massive pillars tall as mountains, hundreds of them stretching into the distance.

The road ran upward until it disappeared into the clouds. Gusts of wind whipped at Svetlana’s cloak and braided hair. She worried that it might sweep the carriage right off the bridge, but the tiger pulled it steadily as ever into the cloud-realm. Now and then the clouds parted, and Svetlana glimpsed the ruins of another dead city far below. This one lay near a great waterfall on the side of a mountain, a tangled heap of stone and crystal debris. For the next three hours the carriage moved through a landscape of golden vapors that completely hid the tremendous drop on either side of the bridge-road.

When the carriage reached the road’s summit, it ran level again and the clouds spread away from it. Svetlana saw the centermost pillar of the great sky-bridge now, a spire of green stone large as a mountain. Atop its flat peak rose a collection of towers and curious domes fuming with the smokes of a living settlement. It was a small city, but it was splendid and beautiful, carved from the naked rock of the mountain-spire. Strange gardens grew thick among the terraced buildings, and fountains spewed geysers of cool water.

The Thoroughfare ran straight through lofty Umbraxia and down into the cloudscape on the other side of the mountain-spire. A giant armored in bronze stood before the city gate with a great axe slung across his shoulder. Four ivory tusks jutted from his big jaws, and a golden war-helm seemed a bit too small for his head. As the carriage rolled toward him, Svetlana tensed and rested fingers on her sidearm.

The giant could have raised his weapon and sliced the carriage in half, but instead he only smiled and kneeled to pet the tiger. Massive, gnarled fingers rubbed the cat’s back and it purred, licking at the giant’s warty skin. The giant cooed at the tiger for awhile, then raised his eyes to the carriage.

“Where is Bruno?” the giant asked. It sounded as if he were carrying a load of gravel in his throat.

“Inside,” Svetlana said. Her thumb pointed to the coach. “He is not feeling well.”

“Does Pepper Domo ride within?” asked the giant.

“He does. We’re to rent lodging in Umbraxia for a brief stay.”

The giant nodded. His attention returned to the tiger for a few more moments. Domo stuck his head out the door. He waved at the giant, who stood back and let the carriage pass. Umbraxia seemed much like any other city, although it was more beautiful than most. As Domo had warned, there were no humans at all here. A race of wingless bird-people moved about the streets, dressed in flowing robes and intricately patterned clothing. Their heads were like the heads of sparrows or cardinals, their voices high and piercing with a melodic timbre.

The chittering Umbraxians walked along beautifully landscaped streets arguing, singing, and making commerce. They stared at the iron carriage with blinking birds’ eyes as it rolled along. There were no other vehicles like it in the city. Some of their kind stood as sentinels on the corners of rooftops, armed with halberds and crossbows. A few bands of the beaked folk rode in clever baskets suspended from floating hot-air balloons. Dozens of these conveyances glided between the towers, some venturing out among the sea of clouds.

Moving easily among the Umbraxians, apparently on equal terms with them, were packs of armored goblinoids much like the ones Svetlana had seen at the gate of Nil. Green of skin, pointed of ear and tooth, these waist-high warriors strolled with the proud air of giants. Svetlana imagined that in great numbers they would be quite dangerous.

As the tiger pulled the carriage toward its destination–Domo’s chosen lodging house–Svetlana watched two furious goblins in a street fight. One of them bit the other’s ear off while their companions watched leaping and laughing. She didn’t see the end of the contest since the crowds of amused Umbraxians blocked her vision.

The tiger pulled up beside a stone hall with a roof of painted timbers. The smell of roasting meat rose from its double chimney, and the bird-folk sat dining and drinking on three different patios. A sign above the house read TOP O’ THE MOUNTAIN in Umbraxian script. Bruno emerged from the carriage first, followed by Domo in his gaudiest silken robe.

Umbraxians in splendid suits came to bow before Domo, shaking his hand and welcoming him back. Svetlana examined Bruno from a distance. He seemed no different than before his fall. He must have sensed her gaze because he turned to look at her. She looked away, and he came close to her.

“Domo says you saved my life,” Bruno said.

“No need to thank me.”

“I’m not thanking you,” Bruno said. “But I am impressed.”

Domo waved them into the lodging house while attendants led the carriage to the stables. “Tonight we’ll dine with a some old friends of mine,” said the Apothecary. “At dawn’s light we’ll hit the Mountain Market, pick up a few odds and ends, and we’ll be back on the road before noon. Umbraxia marks the midpoint of our journey. Let us eat, drink, and be of good cheer tonight.”

Inside the lodging house was a domain of polished marble, fine wood, and golden trim. It looked ancient yet well preserved. Domo, Bruno, and Svetlana were the only non-Umbraxians staying here. Svetlana gathered from Domo’s comments that goblins weren’t allowed in this establishment.

“Neither are humans,” said Bruno.

Domo corrected him. “Humans in service to licensed traders are perfectly legal. You know that, Bruno.”

“What do you hope to find in this Mountain Market?” Svetlana asked.

Domo ordered a dinner of roasted fowl. “Bits and pieces,” he said. “Historical relics from this world and others. And if we’re really lucky…books.”

“He pays great money for useless things,” Bruno said. “Never enough books for this one.” Svetlana smiled at Bruno’s attempt to make conversation.

“What do you hope to find in these books?” Svetlana asked him.

Domo laughed and raised a glass. “Knowledge,” he said. “Knowledge, Beauty, and most precious of all, Wisdom.”

The crowds of well-dressed Umbraxians chirped about Domo’s private table, and occasionally he signaled to one of them or yelled out a greeting. The fowl was served with steamed vegetables that Svetlana could not identify, but the meal was delicious and filling. Bruno drank deeply of the red wine Domo ordered. Svetlana sipped it sparingly. Soon Bruno was laughing and sharing tales of past adventures with her. He patted her on the back once, almost knocking the air from her lungs. A band of Umbraxian musicians played woodwinds, and the well-mannered patrons performed complicated dances.

Domo and Bruno laughed and drank a while longer. Svetlana sat back with a full belly and listened to the lively music. She wondered where Dima was, and if his little belly was full tonight. She had no choice but to believe he was alive and well. To think otherwise would be like diving off the sky-bridge.

“One thing I like about travelling with you,” Bruno said to Domo. “You have expensive tastes.” The reptoid toasted his employer with a glass of expensive liquor.

Domo snickered and placed a hand before his vertical lips, shielding his next words from the rest of the room.

“Everything is cheap in the middle of nowhere.”

####

The rooms at TOP O’ THE MOUNTAIN were spacious and luxurious. Svetlana slept on a big mattress stuffed with feathers. In the morning she ate a breakfast of black grapes and hot bread, then accompanied Domo to the Mountain Market. It was a fraction of the size of the market at Nil, but full of colorfully dressed Umbraxians plying their trades.

Svetlana could not put a name to most of the items on display. Domo said they were mostly relics taken from the dead cities of the lower world. Merchants lay their offerings out on blankets while local musicians walked among the aisles playing stringed instruments. Domo picked up a few interesting vials and glass bottles for future alchemical uses, but his main interest was the book dealers. He spent an hour haggling with a beak-faced bookseller while Svetlana and Bruno waited patiently.

Bruno displayed interest in nothing but the weapons shop, where a collection of ancient swords and knives drew his attention. Goblinoids shuffled between the merchant stalls demanding lower prices and driving hard bargains; they paid in silver coins bearing the image of their hideous queen. When all was said and done, Domo came away with a coffer full of glass vials and three ancient hardbacks. Bruno purchased nothing, but he did accept a bottle of wine from Domo. The reptoid hung the bottle from his belt so he could take nips from it during the next leg of the journey.

Domo also bought an amulet from a goblinoid merchant and gave it to Svetlana. A crowned skull carved from bone, hung on a necklace of iron links. She refused initially, but Domo said it was a charm that would protect her from nefarious forces in Creep City. He insisted, so she hung the amulet about her neck.

Before midday they were back on the road, water and wine re-stocked, carriage wheels freshly oiled. The tiger pulled the coach down a gentle slope leading from the mountaintop and back into the cloud layer. The Thoroughfare here ended on a rocky mountainside, where the twin obelisks of the next porte stood gleaming in sunlight. There were no bandits or predators lingering about this gateway. It was maintained by the vigilant folk of Umbraxia who made their fortunes from crossworld tolls.

The next few worlds were wholly dead. One giant expanse of rock and ashes after another. A devastation so great had occurred here that it spread into the adjoining Affinities. The number of moons varied from world to world, some of them broken into clusters of floating rock. Clouds of stardust glittered in the deep void above these Affinities. The Thoroughfare cleaved its way through the ruined worlds undamaged, although sometimes its pale stone had been scorched to black.

Bruno no longer seemed to resent Svetlana’s presence on the driver’s bench, but he made very little conversation. Svetlana respected his silence. She watched the dead worlds roll by and kept her mouth shut. At least here, in the presence of annihilation, there was no one to fight or kill.

At some point she noticed transparent figures standing along the road watching the carriage. The ghosts of those who died in the conflagration that ended this world. They stared at her with empty sockets where their eyes used to be. Some of them wept blue flames. The phantoms did not follow the carriage. They made no attempt to communicate, shambling aimlessly across the charred earth or standing by the road like invalids.

“They’re only mindless shades,” Bruno said. “Harmless.” Svetlana grunted.

The ghosts increased in number until the Thoroughfare passed through a crowd of spirits so dense that nothing else was visible outside the road. Millions of staring specters disturbed by the passage of the living through their realm of quiet death. The next porte lay directly in the middle of the ghost-horde. The carriage rolled right through it into another wasteland.

Domo had warned Svetlana of the Empty Lands where nothing lived. Crossing these lifeless dimensions she began to lose all sense of time. She could no longer count how many Affinities or how many days had passed since the stop at Umbraxia. Time was a warm liquid aura flowing past her like a fog. Or a dream.

In the next world the road ran by a phantom city. A phantasmal population went about their daily lives as if pretending their world had never died. Perhaps they actually believed they were all still alive and their metropolis was still standing. Svetlana saw the molten remains of it spread across a burnt plain. Like the images of its people, the image of the city refused to die. Its lucid structures stood gleaming with antiquity.

A few worlds later the road was blocked by staggering humanoids. They shuffled along the Thoroughfare in ragged clumps, the smell of rotten flesh spoiling the air. Bruno steered the carriage around and between the ambling corpses.

In the next world two armies battled on a great plateau above a sea of flowing magma. There was no sky here since the road ran through enormous underground tunnels. Both armies were already dead, little more than desiccated skeletons in suits of rusted armor. They smashed at one another with swords and maces, carrying banners that were shreds of bloody cloth.

Domo called Svetlana into the carriage. His vertical mouth quivered in what passed for a smile among his kind, and he offered her a goblet of sparkling vintage.

“Beyond this next porte lies the world we seek,” he said. “A final preparation for entering and surviving the atmosphere of Creep City. Drink up, my dear.” He downed his own cup. Svetlana found it refreshing, and it tickled her nose as she drank.

“You may go back up if you wish,” said Domo, returning to his book. “It’s quite a view and you won’t want to miss it.”

“What about you?”

“Oh, I’ve seen it many times,” Domo said. His floating eyes were practically glued to the pages of his latest acquisition.

Svetlana rejoined Bruno just in time to see the next porte appear in the road ahead. No guardians, bandits, or predators waiting to challenge traffic here. The iron carriage rolled through the porte, and volcanic light gave way to gold-purple twilight. The road wound through an immense graveyard stretching as far as the eye could see. A massive moon was shadowed by two lesser ones.

Grave markers with sculpted angels rose like cacti from the dust. Tombstones of every shape and size were marked in diverse languages. Mausoleums stood like wicked mansions, large enough for families or entire generations. Grim-faced gargoyles crouched on the peaks of tombs large as cathedrals. A roving mist lay everywhere upon the ground, obscuring the mud and rotted layers of moss. Dead trees stood like twisted giants guarding the paths of the dead.

As the Thoroughfare wound through the necropolis, the tombs grew larger and more ornate, some of them built to monolithic proportions. Before long the road was entirely hemmed in between rows of stupendous tombs. Scenes of antique imperial courts lived alongside the road, carven into the marble walls. Entire histories of forgotten peoples played out in hieroglyph and sculpture. Eventually the road sloped upwards until it rose above the tomb-city, winding itself about a cone-shaped mountain. The mountain itself formed an inner city of tombs, sepulchers and crypts whose grandeur dwarfed that of the outer necropolis.

The people of Creep City were either gliding ghosts, lumbering corpses, or hooded figures moving through the shadows. They paid little attention to the tiger and its iron carriage. The city was alive with activity but entirely silent. It was the kind of silence that could drive a man or woman insane. Svetlana’s skin prickled, and a third sense warned her of impending danger. The carriage rolled on, turning down an avenue of mansion-sized crypts set with green lawns and lush gardens. Svetlana wondered if the gardens and foliage here were also phantoms.

She turned her eyes to the top of the mountain. A black palace stood framed against the stars. Flocks of bats orbited its sharp spires. Surely it was the Palace of the Mummy Lords. The carriage stopped before a massive crypt only halfway up the mountain. Domo popped out the door in a robe of black and crimson, waving the glass scepter in his hand. His eye-stalks stood tall and rigid atop his head.

A trio of robed and hooded figures emerged from the crypt’s immense doors. They descended the broad steps toward the carriage, passing beneath the wings of monstrous idols. Svetlana tried to step down from the driver’s seat, but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak either, although she managed to stutter a bit. She tried to scream but it was impossible. Her eyes fluttered to left and right, the only things she could still control.

Domo gave her a brief inspection then turned to greet the hooded ones. Bruno was on the ground already and unloading cargo from the carriage roof. He stacked crates and kegs at the foot of the crypt stairs, oblivious to Svetlana’s predicament. Either he did not know about her paralysis, or he did not care. She recalled the sparkling beverage Domo had given her before crossing into this world. She cursed herself for a fool.

“My good friends,” Domo bowed low at the waist. The three hosts removed their hoods, and Svetlana watched in the corner of her eye. Their lean heads were bald, pale as bone, their black eyes glittering like onyx. Their faces resembled those of hairless rats with pointed fangs in the corner of each mouth. High collars of white lace rose about their necks.

“Pepper Domo, you are welcome,” said the first.

“What have you brought us, Apothecary?” said another.

Domo waved an arm at Svetlana, and the fanged ones focused their onyx eyes on her. She saw their hands now: long crooked fingers tipped with claws, thickset with jewelry. Their lips were pale, too, and slightly bluish. The lips of dead men. Yet there was no sign of decay about them. They smelled of damp earth.

Svetlana tried to speak, coughing a little. Somewhere in the back of her mind a tiny voice raged and shattered the mirrors in its tiny room. Whatever Domo had drugged her with had affected her in mind as well as body. Anger, horror, outrage, fear–these were pebbles floating in the pool of her sluggish thoughts. She was a cloud trapped inside a flesh prison. A mute passenger with no will of her own.

Dima…

She couldn’t even say aloud the name of the child she was never going to find.

Domo beamed with pride as the fanged ones sniffed at Svetlana like hounds.

“As you requested, Herr Vivant,” Domo said, “a living specimen of the Old Blood, homo sapiens terra. I offer you the most precious vintage of them all: the fresh blood of a human female.”

The fanged ones exchanged glances. Their leader turned to Domo.

“Exquisite,” he said. “And what price do you ask for such a rare prize?” His black eyes swiveled back to Svetlana.

Domo’s eye-stalks wavered. “You already know my price.”

“Do I?”

“The book.”

The fanged lord smiled at Domo. “Yes, of course. You shall have it. For services above and beyond the call of duty.” He leaned in close to kiss Domo’s vertical lips. Domo endured the gestures and bowed again, moving away from the creature’s intimacy.

“I’ve also brought your usual supply of serums,” Domo said. “The rest of my inventory is for the Mummy Court, but have your servants see to these crates.” He pointed to the baggage Bruno had unloaded. “As for the girl…”

The fanged lord raised a clawed index finger. “I’ll carry her myself.” He leaped into the air like a pouncing wolf and stood on the driver’s bench. He picked her up as if she were a small girl and leaped to the other side of the carriage. He walked up the broad steps with her in his arms.

“Don’t be afraid, girl,” he whispered in her ear. “I only want your blood, not your soul. You are so very lovely. You will learn to love it here.” He kissed her gently on the earlobe as they ascended to the gates of the crypt.

Rage boiled inside Svetlana’s skull but found no way to manifest itself. She was a rag doll, a limp body.

“My name is Vivant,” said the fanged lord. His tongue licked at her ear. “You will call me Master.”

Domo followed Vivant and the others into a courtyard full of night-blooming jasmine. A second set of gates led to a vaulted hallway lined with burial niches. The crypt was designed like a palace in every respect, the decor chosen by someone obsessed with the splendor of grotesque things. Vivant brought Svetlana into a domed dining room hung with crimson drapes and ancient chandeliers. The chairs were lined with silk, studded with jewels and golden trim.

“Won’t you stay for a glass of wine?” Vivant said.

Domo avoided looking at Svetlana as Vivant posed her like a doll in one of the plush chairs. “I’m afraid I must depart immediately as an appointment with the Mummy Lords is mine to keep. I’ll leave you to enjoy this red harvest in privacy as soon as I receive my payment.” Domo cleared his throat, and Vivant smiled at him. His black eyes sparkled with polite malevolence.

Several more of Vivant’s kind came into the chamber, sniffing at her, whispering of her beauty, her freshness. They licked their lips with pointed tongues and caressed her in a lewd manner. One of them took away her satchel, Takamoto’s sword, and her gunbelt. She couldn’t see where they put these things. She thought they would strip her naked, but they showed some restraint. They licked at her neck like excited puppies. Or cats playing with a mouse before sinking their fangs in for the kill.

“If you please, Herr Vivant, my driver is waiting,” Domo said. His uncomfortable nature was plain to see. He wanted to be gone before the bloodletting began. He was a liar and a coward. She wished she could at least hurl a dying curse at him before he left her here forever.

“Yes, yes, here you are,” said Vivant. His servant presented a large hidebound book to Domo. The Apothecary took the weight of it in his arms and blew the dust from its front cover. Domo read the title aloud with all the fascination of a child.

The Magnificent Malaeficarium. At last. The key to sorceries undreamed of in my world. Thank you, Herr Vivant.”

Domo turned his eye-stalks toward Svetlana. The fanged ones pawed at her skin and undid the braid in her hair. “I am truly sorry about this, my dear,” Domo said. “Your blood is priceless to these noble vampires. You were a convenient vial holding the rare substance I needed to make this deal. It’s only business. Nothing personal.”

She wanted to rip out his throat but still couldn’t move a muscle.

Domo left with his book. The vampires grabbed her up at Vivant’s signal, laying her spread-eagle across the dining table. Shackles locked her wrists and ankles into place. The vampires gathered in a tight circle, hissing and panting. Vivant turned her head to one side, brushing her hair back to expose her throbbing neck. His eyes burned into hers for a moment.

“So lovely…” he said.

His lips came close to her neck, and his mouth widened obscenely, fangs sprouting like inverted tusks. His serpentine tongue slathered her skin, but his fangs barely touched her. A lingering pause to relish the moment before entering the soft flesh. Then a red geyser would flow, and the fanged lords would drink her dry.

A length of gleaming silver sprouted from Vivant’s open mouth. A broad blade, driven through the back of his skull. Bruno swept his arm sideways and split the vampire’s skull in half. Vivant’s family fell on him like angry wolves, forgetting their helpless prey for the moment.

Vivant staggered away trying to hold his dissected skull together. His eyes burned bright as flames now. Bruno was a blur in the corner of Svetlana’s eye, and body parts began to fly across the table. A hand, an arm, a head. The big silver knife hit like a cleaver, splitting flesh and bone. The vampires didn’t bleed, but oozed a black tarry substance from their torn flesh.

Vivant leaped onto the table, leaving Bruno to his minions. His lower jaw was gone now, but his upper fangs could still sink into her neck. He lowered his face to her neck again, dripping black gore. A meaty sound filled her ears, and something rolled across the table. Vivant’s head. The wet sounds of Bruno slicing vampires to pieces was all she could hear. Herr Vivant’s headless corpse became a pile of ash lying across her body.

Bruno ripped the last of the fanged ones from his neck and hacked off its head. His breastplate was stained with splashes of dark ooze. Svetlana wanted to puke at the horrid reek of it, but she couldn’t even do that.

Bruno grabbed her satchel, sword, and pistol, then picked her up and carried her from the crypt. A few timid lesser vampires stared at him from behind corners, but they scurried like rats when he looked their way. By the time he exited the front gate and brought her down the steps, she found the will to speak again. Her voice was heavy and sore.

“Why?” she asked.

“You saved my life,” Bruno said. “Now we’re even.”

Domo’s corpse lay on the bottom step, a steaming hole in its chest. A wound that could only have been made by Bruno’s pistol. The glass scepter lay in shards a few meters away. The tiger had begun to gnaw on Domo’s left leg.

Bruno sat her on the ground next to the carriage, where she started to wriggle her arms and legs. Sensation flooded into her body, and she groaned at the pain in her joints. She looked at the great book lying next to Domo’s body. A second hole was seared through its center. She wondered if it contained any power at all, or if it was just another of the Apothecary’s obsessions like poetry or glassware.

“I guess you don’t work for Domo anymore,” she said.

The big reptoid shrugged his shoulders and cleaned his knife.

“Domo was an asshole,” he said.

 

NEXT: “Twelve Nights in Neopolis”

Send your feedback to: johnny-nine@comcast.net 

_____________________________

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