THE DEAD KINGS


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

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Chapter 13. 

The Road to Oblivione

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe you,” she said.

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

“I look nothing like Domo,” she said.

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

“No,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hooded figure pulled back its hood. A skull covered in rotting flesh made her grimace, but she kept herself from screaming. It must be rude to scream in this place. Something told her that fear of any kind would destroy her here. So she swallowed the terror of the rotting face. Tiny green worms crawled in and out of his nose and eye sockets. The skull’s grinning mouth did not move, but somehow it spoke again:

“If you can master your fear and enter the darkness, they will receive you.” It shambled away from her, leaning on its crooked staff.

Bruno gave Svetlana an “I’ll wait here” look, and she followed the rotting man into the royal vault. The interior was alive with dancing shadows. Torchlight flickered on the lids of a hundred sarcophagi built into the walls. She imagined each coffin was filled with a corpse that would stumble out at any moment. With every step, she was more sure of it.

At the far end of the vault a round dais supported a trio of thrones. The glimmer of jewels flickered on the arms and backs of these seats. In each throne sat a desiccated figure, mummies with skin like withered papyrus, round mouths agleam with teeth, eye-sockets filled with spectral light. The odor of ancient incense mingled with the smell of an open grave.

Each mummy wore a fantastic crown set with sparkling stones. Black shrouds wrapped their emaciated bodies. Necklaces of ruby and opal hung on their chests, and diamonds glittered on their fleshless fingers. Ancient hidebound books were scattered about the dais, along with heaps of scrolls inscribed in ancient tongues. Chests bulging with all manner of treasures lay heaped behind the triple throne. Banners with faded sigils hung between the torches, flags of the nations the Dead Kings once ruled.

The rotting man faded into the shadows, and Svetlana stood alone before the dais. The oppressive silence of the place was unsettling; not even the burning torches made a sound. She kneeled and pressed her forehead to the floor as Bruno had instructed her to do.

“Arise, Mother,” said a rasping voice. “We know why you have come to us.” She did not know which of the three mummies spoke. All three of them faced her as she stood, their skull-faces identical beneath the splendid crowns. Their eye holes were full of starlight.

“If you know this,” she said, “then you must help me.”

“You come to ask us questions with simple answers,” said one of the mummies. His lipless mouth was still, yet somehow he spoke loudly. “We are bound to answer, as you have done us a favor.”

“A favor?”

“You have added a new citizen to our realm.”

In the shadows behind the triple throne the ghost of Pepper Domo stood shivering and naked, his eyestalks downcast. He was only there a moment, then gone.

“I have many questions,” Svetlana said.

They answered them all and told her many things besides.

The Faceless Angels worked for the Potentates of Urbille, harvesting the Outer Affinities for human children. The children were perfectly safe in the arms of these Harvesters, who carried them crossworlds to the Urbille. There the Ministere de Naissance determined a suitable family to raise each stolen baby. At the age of sixteen these adoptees would trade their physical bodies for the mechanical bodies of Clatterpox or Beatific. It would be fifteen years until little Dima would lose his Organic body. Until then he would be raised in the Urbille, so that’s where Svetlana must seek him.

“How do I find the Urbille?” she asked.

“You came to us on the Lesser Thoroughfare. Now you must take the Greater Thoroughfare to Oblivione. There you will find a caravan heading for the City of the Potentates,” said the Mummy Lord. “It is far from here, and there are perils, but your sword and pistol will be welcome additions to any merchant caravans.”

“Why did they take my baby?” she asked. “Why Dima?”

The mummy chuckled. “Perhaps you were chosen by fate,” it said. “The Harvester came to your world looking for livestock and he found it.”

“Livestock?”

“That is how the Potentates categorize humans,” said the mummy.

“Once I get to the Urbille,” Svetlana said, “how do I find my son?”

“There is no legal way to do this,” said the mummy. “You will have to defy the Potentates. If they catch you, they will condemn you to the living hell of their dungeons, which are not made to support the existence of Organic beings. If only you were dead, you would be so much stronger. They might even fear you as they fear their infamous highwayman.”

The mummies chuckled at some private joke.

They told her about the Empire of Stone and how it united the dimensions via the Nexus. They told her of the Potentates war among themselves and the crumbling of the worlds along the Nexus. Now the last of the Potentates controlled every world from their home at the center of the Nexus. Or at least they believed that they controlled them all. The further-out worlds, those called Outer Affinities, were still wild and disordered. Creep City sat on the border of such territories, and Svetlana had passed through many of them.

The mummies spoke of empires risen and fallen. They sang ancient warsongs, conjuring phantasms of battles, victory parades, and decadent revelry. All the splendors of the last Organic Age stood revealed in curtains of colored mist. Svetlana felt she were dreaming as the grand events of the past swam through the shadows of the vault.

Eventually she asked them a final question.

“What about Bruno?” she said. “Can I trust him?”

The Mummy Lords were silent for awhile. Finally, one of them raised his skull and spoke. “What is trust?” he asked. And that is all they would say on the matter.

The rotting man returned, bearing a golden tray with selected serums for the Dead Kings. Svetlana saw this as a cue to leave. The mummies drank to her success as the rotting man guided her back to the carriage. Once again she rode inside the carriage as it passed along monolithic avenues. She sat lost in thought as Bruno and the tiger made their way to the outskirts of the necropolis.

When the carriage rolled through the porte into a desert of stone arches, she shed the robes of Pepper Domo and took to the driver’s seat. It was good to be back in her own clothes with Takamoto’s sword resting on her back again. She had missed the comfortable weight of it.

Several worlds later she sat beside Bruno and cleaned the barrel of her pistol with an old rag. Trees with black boles stood like towers about the road. There was nothing else to be seen here but the dense layers of fern, flower, and vine. It was rather pleasant after the city of living death. She fought the urge to fall asleep.

“Gates of Aphelion, we did well,” Bruno said. “Even at half the price, selling that stock of serums made us two of the richest people in the Nexus.”

Svetlana looked at him from the corner of her eye. Reassembled her pistol.

“Trust me,” he said, “you can’t get into the Urbille unless you have some loot. You’ll have to buy a visitor’s permit just to get through the gate, and those things ain’t cheap. I’ll need one too, since I don’t have a trader’s license.”

“You?” Svetlana said. “You don’t have to accompany me. This isn’t your problem.”

Bruno was silent.

“If you do not want my help, then I will not give it,” he said.

“I didn’t say that I did not want your help.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“Nevermind,” she said. “How far is it to Oblivione?”

“At least a dozen more Affinities,” said Bruno. “Take a nap if you want to. I don’t need one. I only sleep once a year, during the season of hibernation. Your kind are more delicate. Sleep. I will drive.”

“You barely know me,” she said. “And yet you killed Domo, whom you knew for decades. How can I trust you, Bruno?”

Bruno’s laughter was a blend of huff and growl.

“It’s not my problem if you don’t trust me,” he said. “But if it makes you feel any better, I’ll let you pay me for helping you.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard,” she said.

“No,” he said. “You need someone who knows the Nexus. Someone who’s been to the Urbille. Someone like me.”

“And why do you need me?” she asked.

Bruno shrugged. “Maybe you remind me of someone I used to love,” he said. “Or maybe I’m just an outlaw on the run after killing my boss and stealing his treasure. That’s what you are too, Svetlana. You should know that, or you’ll never survive what’s comin’.”

Svetlana shook her head. “I am only a mother,” she said. “And I need my baby.”

“Get some sleep,” he said.

She decided to trust him until he gave her a reason not to. Most men eventually did. Takamoto and her father were the only men she’d ever trusted for long. Bruno wasn’t exactly a man, but he was worthy. Her enemies were without number, and she was glad to have an ally.

When she woke and rejoined him on the driver’s seat, the road had brought them to a world of reeking swampland. Twisted trees rose from the slime, and black vultures circled above the road. Twelve moons lay scattered across a darkening sky. A ruined castle cast its dark shadow from the top of a hill. The croaking of toads and the songs of insects filled the humid atmosphere. The Greater Thoroughfare ran wide and straight through pools of marshwater, somehow remaining dry as a bone.

Bruno greeted her with a grunt. “Good time to wake up,” he said. “Look ahead.”

A caravan of six carriages approached from the opposite direction; clockwork horses pulled them along in pairs of two. Red banners with black sigils flew from each carriage, and armed guards sat in the driver’s seats. As they rolled closer, passing the iron carriage on its left side, faces appeared at the windows of the coaches. They were pale as bone and painted with red at lips and eyes. It took a moment for Svetlana to realize these were painted masks.

The drivers, too, wore masks. Theirs were bronze or some other dull metal, threatening and grim. Yet the faces inside the coaches were sophisticated and eloquent. The last of the masked ones stared at Svetlana as the big caravan rolled by.

“Beatifics,” Bruno said. “From the Urbille, according to those banners.”

“The Urbille?” she said. “We must turn around and ask to join them.”

Bruno bared his fangs for a moment, huffing through his snout. “No, they’re going the wrong way. We need to find a caravan heading for the City of the Potentates. We’ll have no trouble finding one in Oblivione.”

Svetlana knew he was right. She stared at the line of moons arcing across the sky. It was fully night in the swampland now. The cry of a hungry beast split the evening, a lonesome predator announcing its territory.

I’m getting closer, Dima, she whispered. I’m coming for you.

We will find this Urbille, and we will find you.

Beyond the next porte the road ran across a flatland where a great city had once stood. Like most of the cities along the Thoroughfares, it had fallen to ruins. A group of refugees, survivors, and aliens had built a new community amid the shambles of the old one. It reminded Svetlana of Nil, and she recognized a pattern that endured from world to world: Life springs from death. The sight of another lively community existing in the shadow of ruins gave her a little hope. A tiny flame that she chose to cherish in silence.

“This place is called Nub,” Bruno said. “There is a tavern here known as the Volcano. Domo used to lodge there when he passed. They accept anyone’s coin.”

A stone building next to a sheep corral bore the sign of a flaming mountain. Bruno stabled the carriage, and they went inside for a supper of roasted lamb and strange vegetables. Svetlana found her appetite again and ate mostly vegetables, but the meat was tender and spiced. The patrons of the Volcano were mostly aliens, although several Beatific merchants dined at private tables. She watched them sipping at goblets, but never saw anyone lift his porcelain mask to eat the food.

“Tell me about these masked ones,” she asked Bruno. They shared a bottle of purple wine and a bowl of yellow cherries.

“The formerly fleshed of the Urbille,” he said. “Traded in their flesh and blood for mechanical bodies. It’s what all humans do in the City of the Potentates.”

“Do they ever take off those masks?” she asked.

“Only in private,” he said. “Or in cases of public humiliation. The masks are their public faces.”

Bruno wanted to stay the night and try his hand at a nearby casino. Svetlana convinced him to get back on the road. “I can sleep in the coach if I get tired,” she said. “I want to get to Oblivione as soon as possible.”

Bruno followed her back out to the carriage and spat into the mud. The tiger was feeding from a bucket of meat scraps provided by the stable keepers. They were round-bodied beings with semi-human faces and six jointless arms each. A few weeks ago Svetlana would have been startled by their inhumanity, but they were kindly enough. She had grown used to grotesque wonders.

The iron carriage left town on the Greater Thoroughfare in the dead of night. The sky was moonless and full of blinking stars. The road glimmered ahead as the lights of Nub disappeared behind the vehicle.

“The Greater Thoroughfare seems far less dangerous,” Svetlana said.

“With me at your side you’ve nothing to fear,” said Bruno.

The tiger growled uneasily as it pulled the carriage into a pale mist. The vapors smelled of nightflowers, but there were no flowers in sight. Only reed-like stalks of grass hemming the road. Soon the mist obscured everything, even the tiger. Svetlana heard the beast’s gullet rumbling as it walked through the fog. The carriage moved slower now.

“What is this fog?” Svetlana asked. She turned to see Bruno’s head lying against the headrest of the bench, his fanged mouth open, red tongue hanging loose. His eyes were closed, and gentle snoring came from his snout. The carriage had stopped completely.

Svetlana stood up, or thought she did. She fell forward into the traces. The leather harness caught her like a spider in a web. The tiger lay sleeping or dead in the middle of the road.

The mist was nothing natural. It was a weapon.

She struggled against the lethargy that made her eyes close and lost the fight.

####

She woke with the sweetness of the vapors still in her nostrils. There was pain, and cold metal, but her vision was mass of shifting blurs. She lay on the floor of the carriage’s cabin, black chains wrapped around her wrists and ankles. She squirmed around to get a better view of her condition. Bruno lay like a dead man beside her, wrapped in the same dark chains from shoulder to ankle. Someone had stripped off his armor, along with Svetlana’s boots and weapons.

Her eyes focused on the green-black scales along the back of Bruno’s neck. A drum pounded inside her skull. She wasn’t sure if it was interior pain or external noise. Her ear against the coach’s carpet told her that the vehicle was moving. The sound she heard was the iron wheels rolling. A biting stink met her nostrils and she wanted to puke.

Something dark and gleaming hovered before her face. She focused her eyes, rewarded with a stabbing pain behind them. The barrel of Bruno’s pistol glimmered before the tip of her nose. A short, fat figure sat on the cushioned seat and aimed the weapon at her. Whoever was holding the gun had the reek of a dung rat.

“I see no fear in those eyes,” said a voice. “I see something else altogether.” Throaty, wet, like the sound a man makes when he’s choking to death on his own blood.

The gun withdrew and a round face with a pointed chin replaced it. Its leathery skin was orange with crimson warts, but its flabby throat was fishbelly pale. A wide smile revealed a mouthful of pointed yellow fangs. The ears were huge and pointed, ugly with tufts of black hair. The nose too was pointed, set with a golden ring through the septum. A bronze skullcap enclosed the tiny head, which sat upon a bloated body draped in rusted chain mail. A broad belt supported a curved blade, its pommel bearing a thorny sigil that was also branded into its owner’s forehead.

“A pre-Conversion model, are we?” said the goblin. “You’re as fleshy as I am. Not from the Urbille, that’s for sure. What are you, Goldilocks?”

Svetlana struggled against the chains but they were locked tight. The goblin laughed at her thrashings, which achieved nothing but a few groans from Bruno. The reptoid was finally waking up.

“Stop it,” said the goblin. He aimed Bruno’s pistol at her face again, one claw ready on the trigger. She lay still while Bruno coughed and moaned. The goblin pulled the gun back again. “What a strange pair. A true beauty and a true beast…”

“Who are you?” Svetlana said.

Stall him. Give Bruno time to wake up.

The goblin laughed and spittle dripped from his lower lip.

“I am your master,” he said. “You may call me by that name, or you may call me Drakus the Great. I am the greatest magician in all Oblivione.”

Bruno’s laughter was deep and hearty. “There is nothing magical about you, Drakus,” he said. “You’re a rogue, a scoundrel, and a robber.”

The goblin aimed the pistol at the reptoid’s snout. “My reputation precedes me. You forget the Sleeping Fog that laid you at my feet. A product of my great magic. My soldiers drive your carriage now. I gave the big cat some raw meat and we became fast friends. I will forgive your impertinence once, Lizard, but do not insult me a second time. Now tell me about these books. What are they? Are they valuable?”

Drakus lay the gun aside and pointed to the stack of books that Domo had been reading. They lay in a heap on the seat beside him.

“Tell him nothing,” Svetlana said.

Bruno bared his fangs at the fat goblin. “I don’t know anything about books,” he said. “Those were Pepper Domo’s things before I killed him.”

Drakus scratched his pointed chin, where the wisp of a beard attempted to grow. “This girl of yours is going to the flesh-pits of Oblivione,” he said. “She’ll fetch a good price on the slave market. However, they might not want a specimen like you. Too big and vicious, too hard to control.”

Bruno laughed. “You don’t know her very well.”

“Nevertheless,” said Drakus, “I can kill you now with your own gun.” He shoved the pistol into Bruno’s face again. “And sell her for a fine profit. Taking this coach is already a win for me. I don’t need you, Taildragger. So give me a reason to keep you alive.”

Svetlana strained against her chains, but Bruno lay still. His serpent-eyes blinked, and he sighed. “All I can tell you is which of those serums is poison,” he nodded toward the cabinet built into the carriage wall. “And which of them will give you the magic you crave.”

Drakus opened the cabinet with his stubby, clawed fingers. An array of bottles, vials, and flasks filled the shelves. Domo had emptied nearly half the contents on the journey from Nil, but there were at least a dozen full bottles or vials left. Drakus rifled through them, looking at their chromatic colors in the glow of the window. Outside the chattering of goblins filled the road.

“Which ones are poison?” Drakus asked.

Drakus raised the bottles and vials one by one, fourteen in all, and separated them into two piles based on Bruno’s words.

“Are you sure?” the goblin asked.

“Positive,” Bruno said.

“So these six vials, they are the poisons?” His claws tinkled against the containers.

Bruno nodded. “Powerful enough to kill a living man with a single drink.”

Drakus laughed. “You must think that goblins have no brains,” he said. “You’re trying to make me drink fluids from these other eight vials. Therefore these eight must be the true poisons, which you want me to drink so that you can escape.”

“That’s not–“

“Therefore I won’t drink from the vials you have chosen as safe,” said Drakus. “Instead I’ll make you drink one of them.”

“No,” Bruno said. “Please…”

Drakus’ smile grew wider, swollen pink gums glistening above his fangs. His dark eyes blinked inside tiny pockets of fat. “Ah,” he said. “Now you beg not to drink from this vial.” He paused with the vial hanging over Bruno’s snout. Drakus blinked madly. “You’re trying to trick the trickster, Scaley Dick. You want this serum, don’t you? You want me to pour it down your gullet so you can use its magic to kill me.”

“No,” Bruno said, “no, that’s not the one…don’t make me drink it.”

Drakus stoppered the vial and grabbed another one. “Oh, I won’t,” he said. “Instead I’m going to make this girl of yours drink from one of the vials you say is poison.” He uncorked the vial and held Svetlana’s chin in one claw, while his other lifted the tiny bottle to pour its contents between her lips. He squeezed her jaws, forcing her mouth open, claws biting into her skin.

“No,” Bruno said. “Don’t do that. I lied. They’re all poison. They’re all poison!”

Drakus paused over Svetlana’s mouth. Her eyes rolled as she endured in his grip. Takamoto’s blade lay on the seat opposite to Drakus. She could see its grip and hilt, but there was no way to grab it with her wrists chained behind her back and a two-hundred pound goblin squatting on her stomach.

“I don’t know whether to believe you or not,” said Drakus. “You’ve succeeded in confusing me. But there’s still a quick way to tell if these serums are poisonous.” He dripped the syrupy fluid across Svetlana’s lips and onto her tongue. She tried not to swallow it. His booted feet stamped on her lungs, and she had no choice. The bitter fluid seeped down her throat.

Drakus sat back on his seat and observed her. Bruno lay still. The goblin’s eyes flitted from Bruno to her and back again. He clapped his pudgy hands together and squirmed on the cushions. “What’s going to happen?” he said. He leaned his head forward, balancing elbows on his knees. “Will she die? If so I can still sell her for a good price, but it won’t be at the slave market.”

Bruno watched her. A tiny glimmer of hope glowed in his slit pupils.

Or was it fear?

When the serum hit her belly it blossomed like a fire inside her. The warmth, heat, and vibrations ran along her legs and arms like shockwaves, slamming into her brain like the back of a shovel. Her vision exploded with flashing lights, and she inhaled a great breath into her lungs as her back arched. She screamed as the power ripped through her body, and the fat goblin chuckled. He thought she was writhing in pain. Dying.

Svetlana opened her eyes. An aura of light surrounded her now, but it did not burn or give off heat. It made her feel lighter than air. She grit her teeth as her legs ripped apart the chains confining her ankles. In a swift pivoting motion her bare heels slammed into Drakus’s face. Her legs snapped to rigid hardness, pinning the goblin against the back wall of the bench. His eyes bulged as his fingers grabbed for the pistol again.

The shackles on her wrists came apart like flower-stems. She pulled both legs back and sent her right foot flying into Drakus’s face. The kick snapped the goblin’s neck with a sickening sound. Drakus fell forward and Svetlana caught him in her hands. She punched a fist into his rib cage, howling as the wave of mad energy rushed through her veins, spilling radiance from her eyes, nose, and mouth. She pulled the goblin’s greasy heart from his chest with a shower of purple gore.

Turning to the door, she kicked it off the hinges. The body of Drakus flew from the open door, and the screeching of alarmed goblins filled the air outside. The carriage slammed to a halt, and the tiger roared. A trio of goblins with curved swords rushed toward the doorway, leaping over the corpse of their leader. Svetlana jumped from the doorway, a lioness amid a pack of squat gazelle.

Goblins rushed at her from before and behind the carriage. She grabbed them by their heads, one by one, wrenching the tiny skulls free of their bodies. They fell spurting blood and viscera from the holes her unstoppable fingers tore in their bodies. She howled like a demon, exulting in the slaughter, all the while wondering what was happening to her. She watched from some dim, distant corner of her mind while her body released its rage.

An arrow struck her in the shoulder. She pulled it out and stuck it through the archer’s eye into his tiny brain. When eighteen dead goblins lay in pieces about the carriage, the last few fled into the dark woodland on either side of the road. Svetlana raised her nose to inhale the night air beneath the golden moons. Six of them floated in the sky, each one larger than the last. Something about the moons stirred her blood. Or perhaps it stirred the serum in her blood.

She found the tiger chewing on a goblin corpse. She leaned against the big beast’s back, hugging it with weary limbs. She calmed herself by calming the big cat. Her heartbeat slowed, her breathing returned to normal, and she staggered back to the coach. Bruno still lay wrapped in chains on its floor. She pulled him out and with the last of her serum-given strength, tore the chains from his body. The glow had died away from her skin, but her muscles still bulged with the serum’s magic. The power faded rapidly, and she leaned against one of the big coach wheels.

“So they weren’t all poison,” she said.

Bruno rubbed his limbs where the chains had been. “None of them were poison,” he said. “I knew I could confuse the half-wit. Most of what was left in the cabinet were hallucinogens. The rest were serums of potency, like the one you drank. Bit of an overdose there. One sip would have done you fine. Sorry about that.”

“How did you know he would give me the potency serum? How did you know that I wouldn’t just hallucinate all the way to Oblivione and wake up in the slave pits?”

Bruno gave her a toothy grin. “I was hoping he would make me drink it, but when he picked you I figured it was worth the risk. Either you go mad with strength and set us free, or you take a long head trip leaving me to work something else out.” He grabbed her shoulder, and she looked into his yellow orbs. “We got lucky.”

Svetlana washed the goblin blood from her body in a stream running near to the road. The cold water brought her back to feeling normal, although a crazy energy still lingered in her arms and legs. She didn’t mind it.

“At least they didn’t take us off course,” Bruno said. He piled the goblin corpses into a buffet for the tiger, who was feeding voraciously now. “They were heading to Oblivione too.”

Svetlana squeezed water from her hair and looked in the direction Bruno was pointing. The forest ran on for several kilometers, but rising above the trees in the distance stood the barbed towers of Oblivione. A great black citadel of stone crowned a distant hill thickset with repurposed ruins. The black spires were wicked of design, silhouetted like spears against a pair of red moons.

“Let’s get moving,” Bruno said. “There might be more goblins in this stinking wood.”

Svetlana dressed herself in clean clothing, chose a crimson-and-white cloak from Domo’s luggage, and joined him in the driver’s seat. Bruno had found his tarnished armor and put it back on. The sun was rising as the tiger finished his meal. Bruno stirred him to action with a gentle tug of the reins. The carriage rolled on beneath the dark boughs amid the wavering songs of nightbirds.

“What will we find in Oblivione?” she asked.

“Goblins,” Bruno said. “A whole filthy city of ’em. But the place is always full of caravans. It’ll be easy to find one bound for the Urbille. We’ll get you a porcelain mask, so you can pass as a Beatific. Avoid unwanted attention.”

Svetlana’s skull sang ghostly melodies. “Maybe I drank the hallucinogen,” she said. “And all of this is happening inside my head.”

Bruno threw back his head and laughed. Then he put on the silver helm with its mirrored visor. If he’d been wearing that the first time, the fog would not have made him fall asleep. Apparently goblins were more resourceful than Svetlana had suspected. Nasty little creatures. Bruno’s voice sounded hollow when he talked through the visor.

“Maybe none of this is real,” Bruno said. “Maybe we’re all living out the same dream. Or the same nightmare.”

“How can we know for sure?” Svetlana said. She strapped Takamoto’s blade across her back and watched the rim of the world turn crimson.

“How do you know when you’re dreaming that you’re not awake?” Bruno said. “You don’t. A dream always seems real to those inside it. One of Domo’s philosophers said that everything we see is a dream within a dream.”

“If our lives are only dreams,” said Svetlana. “Then who are the dreamers?”

Bruno huffed. “Our true selves? The gods? Maybe there is no dreamer, only the dream itself.”

“I never expected you to speak with such philosophical depth,” Svetlana said.

“I never expected you to kill nineteen goblins with your bare hands,” he said. “But, Shades of Aphelion, I am glad you did!”

Bruno laughed, deep and heartily, until Svetlana found herself laughing too. She wasn’t exactly sure why. It must be the lingering effect of Domo’s serum. They laughed at the absurdity of existence and the wild beauty of dawn. Shadows between the trees watched them with coal-bright eyes.

The road ran through a gate carved in the likeness of a demon’s face. Svetlana and Bruno were still grinning as they passed beneath its stone fangs and into the festering crowds of goblins.

NEXT: “The  Highwayman” 

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