You all might notice that my fiction additions to this blog have been flagging lately, imaginary readers. I have unfortunately been distracted by another large scale creative project, which has kept me from…
Now that I’ve taken some advantage of my wordpress formatting, let me explain my apparently crazy actions.
Lee Cope is a long time friend and recent collaborator with both us and our partner project Liberation Industries, and a brilliant and prolific creative writer. The Ferryman’s Apprentice is one of their new offerings, the first issue completed in this years NaNoWriMo if I’m not wrong, now divided into delicious snippets to enjoy on your commute, your break or at any point that your infernal overlords quieten their terrifying demands.
Its a twisted, elegantly written fantasy clipping along the border of life, death and humanity, so I think my imaginary readers would enjoy it immensely.
It has been a long and unpleasant wait for all of us, imaginary readers. But here I am, once more.
Part 6 can be found here, along with links to the rest.
The night is quiet, and the face of the forest unyielding.
It crawls and scrambles along the line of open ground, sometimes a wayward root or a questing vine reaching as far as the scree heap at the base of the wall.
The scents of the harbour, the sweaty streets and the salt and fish reek of his home seem a long way off. Its cold up here, with nothing but the gut high parapet to break the wind, the accursed serpent whistling between the high towers that block the stars like inescapable fangs. The trees ahead, the towers behind, I can almost imagine myself between the jaws of some immense and sleeping beast.
The night is quiet, and the face of the forest a unyielding as the stone it stands before.
My eyes are starting to wander.
Not far to my right there’s a torch, battered and flickering against the breeze. It casts a ray of warm light, of sanity around itself, and I trace the line. It lights the flags at my feet and the wall before me before leaping off into the black abyss like a suicide. It lights one side of the powder keg but not the other. It lights the side of myself that I can see, the image ghosting in and out of focus as the wind wrestles with the light.
The whistling sings me back to the docks, to clacking ropes and creaking boards, the rumbling voice of my father long since silenced by the sea.
The night is quiet, and neither the forest nor the stone will be moved by tears.
I jump as the rasping voice rides the wind over my shoulder, into my dreaming ear. I turn around, and there she is, tattoos writhing on the half of her that the light touches. Night Corporal. Her boots are heavy, and she is girded by blades far weightier and more wicked than any I had seen in the quartermaster’s shed. The only sound is the wind.
“Yes,” I croaked in reply, “All quiet, ma’am.”
“Good to hear, child. Stay watchful. Can you hear anything over the wind?”
“No ma’am… Should I?”
“Better that way, perhaps. Once you start hearing the forest, it can eat its way into your dreams. That happens, and you’ll never really be safe again.”
There was silence between us for a time.
“Who were you before?” the gaunt figure intoned with a voice like spitting red wax.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” she snapped.
“With respect, Corporal, I could say the same…” the statement died in my chest, aged and withered by a gaze that felt like teeth on the back of my neck.
“True,” she grimaced, eventually, “I do have a certain… reputation for solitude, don’t I sop?” The wind slithered and hissed between them, licking their bones and making a plaything of their hair.
“You didn’t answer my question. What were you before? Nobody is born a soldier.”
“I… my family live by the docks. My mother and… my younger brothers and sisters, they work at cleaning and gutting where they can, my father worked the boats until… one day he didn’t come back, so I had to find work…”
I glanced into her gaze, before averting my eyes again. The wind lashed coldly against my wet eyelids.
“Sounds like we come from similar families.”
I must have looked taken aback, the gods know I felt it, because she snorted, exposing her row of sharpened teeth.
“Something to say, soldier? Lets hear it.”
“I’m sorry, corporal.”
“Sorry for what?” the word was like frost on the wind.
“I just never… I don’t know. I… gods I feel like a fool. I thought…” I struggled for a nicety, some polite turn of phrase that would get her gaze off, “To talk about families when you’re… a Sister.”
“Well, I’m your Corporal now pup, but I sure as falling wasn’t born into this uniform either. I’ve heard some ramming tell of scholars in yonder tower” she gestured with her head, “who say that the polite terms include ‘Underkin’ or ‘Pilots’. Wasn’t me who chose that shite, and if you prefer Charnel Sister when you’re giggling with your little friends then…” her eyes wandered out over the darkened woods, taking in the thousand thousand leafy peaks above the mist, “giggle while you can, child.”
“I meant no offence.”
“I’m sure you ramming didn’t.”
“Were your… family fishers as well?”
“My mother was, for a time. Fishing, trapping. That’s how things are below.”
“What drove you to leave?”
She smiled sadly in the flickering light.
“The Descent can’t last forever.”
The silence grew immense once again, humming between us. My thought were churning, trying to parse her words into something that made sense in the world in which I lived.
And all I felt was that I was far away, watching a young man atop a wall, caught in the echoes of his nightmares of the sea. A Descent. That this little boy could understand. The long fall, the crushing weight, the immensity of the ending.
“Thank you for answering, child.”
“Was… it important?”
“There’ a story, and stop me if you’ve already heard it… of a ruined city, far below. That the dead nest there in silence, beneath stones raised up to the unflinching stone above and carved with their stories. And how those who can’t find their tale just limp along until they fall apart. Into dust.”
“No,” I replied, “I haven’t heard that one before.”
“You should read more.”
There was a little sting in that; I’d never been strong at my letters, but I don’t think the Corporal could have known that. Or perhaps she could. My mind, however, was already trailing along a jetty yet unjumped.
“Have you seen it?”
“The city in the story.”
She laughed, and I found myself smiling along.
“It’s just a story, sop. As well as I know, at least.”
“So you weren’t… recording for me?”
“I’m no scholar, soldier, and I’m shite with a chisel. You want a decent epitaph, I’d recommend rich and loving children.”
“Thank you Corporal.”
The night is quiet, and my corporal’s face is once more unyielding as she leans out over the parapet, her face beyond the reach of the light.
“Don’t thank me just yet. If you want to give those rich and loving children a chance, you run and light the flare. We’ve got trouble.”
I ran for the signal tower without another word. Over my shoulder I heard Soma’s voice rise to its piercing, flaying knife screech, echoing across the walls and the rooftops of the City.
“Carpies by the southwest annex! Guards to me, if you like your hides! Come here tree ramming filth, let’s see what your insides look like…”
I hammered a torch into the flare bed, the coruscation blazing into my eyes as the night exploded with musket fire.
Another installment in this delectable serialised fiction, my dear imaginary readers, after three weeks of fluff- I mean quality articles. A familiar narrator again, if you haven’t heard from the Scavenger yet his previous outing was in Part 2. For those of you who have just arrived, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.
“Vulture,” Twin muttered in my ear as we trod down the newly crawling undergrowth.
Twin doesn’t speak often, and I often think that is for the best.
I can’t forget the first time he told me about his brother.
“Vulture,” the witch boy whispered again.
That story had sunk in like a rock in the pit of my gut.That was when I came to understand what it was the boy had missing, something broken inside him. Like we all did.
I hammered a ragged, low hanging branch into the earth with my boot, tearing it loose from its trunk like a shirt torn in half.
He’d come in a package, you see. He and a brother, just like him, born together, and I guess that’s why he’s called Twin. The two boys, as he tells it, are happy enough. Always closer to each other than the other street rats, naturally, just like my sister and I were, as long as you forget that she was the only one with enough iron in her gut to look me in the eye.
So the boys are just that, just a pair of whippets kicking about in the streets in the times between when their aunt can sober up enough to try again at teaching them their letters. They have great fun being able to convince people they’re in two places at once.
Then it goes bad, as these stories always seem to. For most little ones, you grow up the day your dog dies, or when your sweetheart leaves off, or you find out your sweet mother lied to you.
It hit Twin when a cart, rattling along like lightning on lake water, thrashed his brother to the ground and broke his neck.
That would be enough for decent folk to fall apart. But when its your brother, a life you shared, the very mirror of your face, that’s got to be something else.
Give it that.
Now remember that it takes at least a quarter hour for the boy to die. The bells ring as the brother screams for a doctor.
There’s a saying in the City, that when its your time to go it’ll surprise you, an you won’t feel it. I’ve seen that untruth with my good eye, seen that the whole of the City is built on the lies they tell each other.
I’ll know an angel has kissed me if I have the luxury of dying fast.
So Twin has the chance to see the lights go out in his brother’s eyes, and he thinks his life is over at that moment.
But what twists the knife is that, after all this happens, nobody talks about his brother anymore. Not his ma, not his aunt, and folks start tearing up or spitting madness when Twin talks of him, so he stops. he starts to lose his memories, like little ones do, and he comes to a point where he struggles to remember his brother’s name.
“Vulture!” Twin screeches out, and hurls himself at me, taking the both of us down into the mud.
And letting the gunshot echo around us, the bullet ripping open a tree instead of my stomach.
“Stay back, you gutterfilth goat fuckers!”
That voice was familiar.
And I guess that’s what hurt the most.
His brother might have been forgotten. It might only have been Twin that remembered him at all.
“It’s Vulture.” he rasped into my ear as we took cover behind a ridge of earth.
“Vulture… is dead.” I muttered back, “You told me!”
“Plenty of bullets for all of you, come and get ’em!” the voice rang out again.
“Alright,” I nodded, “Definitely Vulture. Why did you say she was dead?
Twin closed his eyes, squeezing them shut and gripping his head.
His brother’s voice had found him, while he was trying to sleep. It had told him what would happen, about what might happen, about the terrible things he might do now that he could choose them for himself.
“Why didn’t you know?” I shouted as another shot rang out. I could see it when I glanced out of our hiding place; the Temple was ahead, and it seemed that Vulture had dug in between the pillars. The sun was beginning to set.
Maybe it was the loss of his brother that made Twin into a witch. Or maybe he was born that way, and his witch blood had made him a brother. I won’t pretend to know.
There’s a saying in the City, that a witch among you is worth a legion at the gate.
In the Woods, one can save your life.
“Damn it all Vulture, its us!”
“Great! Get the hell away!”
“I can hear you just fine! It ain’t that I’ve not been listening, darlings, its that you won’t let me sleep!”
“We need to come in! Now!”
“You can come in after a course of lead, you lying pigs!”
Twin wasn’t just a witch, and City folk are fools to have only one word.
Twin, best as I’ve managed to guess, is living the gambler’s dream. His brother tells him what was, what will be, what he could bring to pass.
His brother gets quieter in the Woods, like something is trying to smother him.
There is more than one kind of witch.
Another shot rang out. I signaled for Twin and Dram to make their move around to the right, and the two lads nodded. They broke off, an I steppe out from behind the overhang, pistol in hand, flint under thumb.
I saw Vulture step out from behind one of the obscene stone pillars, the sun crawling into dusk at her back. One rifle in hand, another six at her feet, with the barrel aimed squarely at me.
“One more step and your dead, trickster!”
“Brilliant!” I shrugged, raising my own weapon, “You’re not looking to join me, are you maman?”
She locked her flint, and squared her shoulders. I took a few steps forward, then dropped my pistol where she could see it.
“Its me, Vulture! We’re pals, aren’t we? I still owe you a drink, you’ll throw that away if you put a slug in me…”
Her shoulders were shuddering with her breath, eyes ringed with grey and filled with terrified fire. “No closer, imposter!”
“What’s the imposter lark, Vee?” I steppe slowly closer, hands open, mere paces away now, “You don’t have to shoot me. Hell, its bad luck to kill somebody who’s already cursed.” I tapped a finger under my milk eye. “We’re friends aren’t we Vee?”
She gritted her teeth, stifling I don’t know what.
Her finger twitched, and the hammer fell.
The empty click resounded between the ancient pillars.
I took my last three steps, and took the gun from Vulture’s shaking, unresisting hands. She slumped against the pillar, face pressed into her palms, a low scream scrabbling out between them.
Over her shoulder, I saw Twin slumped against another pillar, and he threw a mock salute as blood sloughed from his mouth and nose. Playing the odds for me.
There’s more than one kind of witch.
Vulture fell to the floor, her cache of rifles clattering around her. I wrenched my blanket from my pack, put it around the shoulders of a woman I knew to be one of the toughest creatures in existence. The story ran that as her son was being born, she laughed and told the midwife to quit making faces.
There’s more than one kind of witch. Twin’s kind play the odds better than any gambler, but the ones in the Woods are different. They force their music along bonds of blood, closing off doors, forcing things to their natural conclusion. I’d heard whispers that the Charnel Sisterhood and the Boat Tribe who live beneath the City worked dark witchery in the same way. Sickening flesh, breaking minds. Natural ends. Death. Despair.
There’s more than one kind of witchcraft, but they all drive you mad, one way or another.
The lads skulked from the Woods and into the Maze of ancient pillars, making camp and getting a fire going. I kept my good eye on Vulture as the sky went dark.
If the Aldermen knew Twin was a witch they’d string him up like a squab for sale. But there’s not a guard alive who’d go down the tunnels to fetch a Charnel Sister. Funny how the law works, especially when lawsmiths know they’d rather die in bed.
Better in bed than on a cold stone slab in the depths of a midnight dark pit.
Vulture’s twitching quietened, and eventually she seemed to dose off. From what we’d seen, she’d earned it.
Twin wandered over to me, firewater flask in hand, a darkening rag in the other, held over his mouth and nose.
“Why is she here?” I whispered as he slouched down beside me, “You said you’d found her corpse.”
Twin shrugged, and passed me the flask.
“Might have been. Could have been. Maybe.”
“That’s not all that helpful, if we’re being honest, Twin.”
“It… should. Should have been. But, she’s here, so… a change. Feathers and blood. New Vulture. Sacrifice.”
Twin laughed, before hurriedly pressing the rag back in place as the blood leaped forth again.
He did his best to talk around it.
“All cursed, here,” he whispered, “You and me both, Sarge.”
Photo, “Lights through the trees in the Dark Forest”, courtesy of joansorolla on Flickr. Enjoy your weekend, imaginary readers.
Well, I never did plan to repeat this exercise, but I had fun with the first one. Once again we have a randomly generated character, just like Vik was a week ago, and I’ve often enjoyed the strange stories that are created when you’re relying on the often contradictory outcomes of dice rolls (digital ones in this case). In this case, we got a fairly unified if nomadic character.
So here’s Parvati Gairola; militant async, once dead and heavily edited, and continuing to hunt an enemy that seems to have left humanity behind.
And to make it all just that little bit more complicated, she’s getting married.
So like the last post, I’ve written you some fiction. Crunch pages connect at the bottom.
“Are you alright Vati?”
She snapped back to alertness, but caught the cold mug of tea before it fell from the camp bench.
“I’m awake, Shadow.”
Her muse swelled in her AR feed, a reflection of her own face made clear and hollow and filled with an unknown starscape.
“This is the alarm you requested Vati. The fabber has completed your order.”
“Thank you Shadow. That’s all for now.”
Parvati took one forlorn glance at the tea, and threw it out against the dusty wall of the dugout. The mining lights strung along the supports registered her activity, flaring into illumination. She reflexively connected to the nanodetector above her and the Guardian nanites swarming around her feet. No intrusions registered. She took the Hive from its place under her camp bed and dropped it in the pocket of her cargo pants, ordering the swarm to return home.
She glanced at the fabber, the four hand sized blocks of plastic explosives, the little tag of a remote detonator sitting beside them, cooked up and ready to go. She hefted one of the blocks, her memories resurfacing in the perfectly orderly fashion they always did.
The flare of the explosives, the almost impossibly slow caving in of the hatch. The guns, both sides, flaring to life. The TITAN worshippers were panicked, and she locked onto their fevered brains and squeezed until they collapsed, clutching their misshapen skulls, and still she fired.
The riot-shot that hit her full in the chest and carried her out the window in the pale Lunar gravity.
“Are you alright Vati?”
She was still cackling down the comm when the evac hit.
She sat down on the camp bed and began to strip and clean the battered sub-machine gun in its chrome case.
“Re-establish the connection to the transceiver. Download and parse anything its picked up, then seal us off again.”
The muse faded momentarily, and Parvati locked the clip back into place, dragging the hammer back and setting the gun across her lap. She reached across and opened up the red leather case, spinning up the ancient turntable and letting the strains of Nat King Cole hum through her subterranean world.
Shadow reappeared in a burst of starfire.
“You have received several important messages, Vati.
“Prioritise as normal.”
“There as been an additional request from Miss Queen.”
“She has requested that once the target point has been secured, that we attempt to salvage a sample of the device.”
Parvati glanced up at the ephemeral form of her muse.
“She has requested that you secure a sample of the target.”
“That wasn’t part of the deal.”
“Miss Queen acknowledges this, and has agreed to provide additional payment or rep boosts by negotiation once the sample is delivered.”
“We’ve been on this rock for three Martian months, and she only thinks to tell us now? Does she know how dangerous these things can be?”
“Judging from the text mode, Vati, Miss Queen does not appear to be attempting to deceive us. On the balance of probabilities I would say our benefactor has suffered an unexpected turn of events.”
“Alright. Anything else?”
“Marco has sent another message.”
Parvati sighed and ran a hand through the stubble of her raven hair.
“He knows when I’ll be back, why does he keep trying to find me?”
“He appears to have sent a selection of colour swatches.”
“Cache it for now. We’ll respond once we’ve handled our objectives.”
“He’s requested a response as soon as possible.”
“Dammit Shadow, he has a date, what is he worried about?”
“Are you alright, Vati?”
“Your endocrine levels have spiked. Do you want a dose of Komfurt?”
The memory resurfaces in its neat little box, empty blackness on either side. The frazzled artist took a knee and proposed in a storm of petals, hanging dreamily in their languid Titanian fall.
“Will you be wearing a dress?”
“I’m sorry, Shadow?”
“Marco has asked if you intend to wear a dress for the ceremony.”
“Save the message. We have work to do. The mission comes first.”
She knew this was important, but couldn’t place why.
“Can’t let my groom marry a pauper, now can we?”
“As you wish, Vati. I will inform Miss Queen that we have received her request and then sever the connection.”
Thank you Shadow. She wasn’t sure if she’d said it or just thought it.
She placed the explosives in a case, and stripped out of the light coat she’d been wearing. She took a moment to run her eyes over the coffee coloured warzone of her skin, the scars she had kept against all advice. She opened the box of memories that each was connected to. These bones, these muscles, the skin and all the machinery. These were hers.
A little girl feels her head snap backwards, feels her limbs tumble away beneath her. Feels the smothering weight on her chest, crushing out her breath and forcing the darkness into her heart.
“My God, are you alright Vati?”
She flexed her shoulders, and pulled on her combat webbing. The armour twitched, and cinched itself in around her, its weight familiar and comforting. She keyed her ecto into the jury rigged network they had installed through the weeks of digging.
“Morgan? Skald? You still with me?”
“Ready and waiting, fearless leader.” Came Skald’s rapid fire reply. He slept even less than Vati did, but in his case it was a voluntary condition.
“You got eyes on Morgan?”
“I got eye’s everywhere, boss. She checked out for some private time. You don’t want to hear what I do…”
“Get her prepped. Its time. Be at the B Point in 10.”
“At long last. See you there…”
Parvati hefted her gun, packed down the listlessly spinning record player, and stepped out into the tunnel.
The dreadlocked, muscular Fury morph shimmied down a narrow section of tunnel, pulling up her industrial mask as she spotted Parvati. She stowed the heavy rifle, and crouched beside her hunched leader as Parvati strung together the packages of plastique. Morgan’s font flared across her AR feed.
“Time to take out the trash?”
Parvati kept her focus on the explosives, and twitched back a text response.
“Same plan as ever.”
“You just be ready to drop those flashers.” Parvati continued, “I’ll take point.”
“You get all the fun.” Morgan texted back, and casually prepped a grenade. Parvati stood up, shooed the mining bot down the hall ahead of her. Skald slid into sight from the shadows, winked, and did a last prep on his observation drones and pistol. Parvati nodded back.
“Are you alright Vati?” murmured the tattooed journalist.
She sent a note to her squad: “Ready. Breach in 3. 2. 1.”
The rock wall gave way in a burst of heat and shock, and Parvati felt the surge of enhanced adrenalin and the hammering of her heart.
The way is open.
She saw the flashbangs register and flare on her Tacnet, and sprinted through the opening.
She let herself sink into the dark part of her mind, the place she had sunk to as a child and had returned when the TITAN’s had tried to take Luna from her. The dark place that the doctors had called The Virus, but she recognized as Death.
She sensed six targets, their mind scrambled by their exhuman sensed, and her body began to ride ahead of her mind, her thinking mind sitting back and letting the scene unfold. A multi-limbed sentry tried to raise a rifle, but fell to the ground screaming as the dark place reached out. She let herself be born away with the inexorable slowness of her clip draining to nothing, the sprays of blood and shattered bodies collapsing into scrap meat. She felt the pin click, and dropped the gun, her claws already sliding into place.
Her mind started to come back as she was pitched headlong into a bank of machinery that looked like it had grown from the surrounding bedrock. She tried to roll, but heard a rib crack, managing to turn before the crawling, insectoid combat morph leaped towards her. She tried to get hold of its mind, to crack it open to madness the way she had been taught, but the inner dark slid from its mind as, moments later, her claws glanced off its bio-mechanical carapace.
The sound of a heavy machine gun had never been so welcome.
The thing collapsed on top of her, and she felt the activity of its brain twitch off. The chitinous arms twitched frantically, and she hauled her claws up in a boxing guard, letting the dying limbs scrabble against her vambraces. She heard a couple of cursory guarantee shots before the massive Fury hauled the serpentine corpse off her.
“You alright Vati?”
The little Splicer retracted her claws, and winced at the pain in her chest as she tried to drag herself to her feet.
“Final sweep Morgan, keep an eye out for any synths. I think we got ’em though. You got your footage Skald?” she shouted across the cavern.
The little man, his drones hovering like vultures over one of the corpses, gave her a thumbs up sign. She called the mining bot to her, and when the spider legged thing arrived she popped its stack; Celia was reliable as AI went. She then keyed a timer on the incendiary charges built into the robots body.
A few more shots rang out. She couldn’t tell if Morgan had found new targets or had just gotten bored. The timer began to tick down.
“Time to bug out everybody!”
She saw her team pack up and begin to make for the tunnel by which they had entered. She took one more glance around the immense chamber, seeing the marks of the TITAN’s on every face; the inexplicable machines, the insane nanoforged sculptures, the maddening scale. The exhumans hadn’t built this, and she wondered what it was they were looking for.
She drew a sample bag off her belt, and extended her claws again. With three hard strikes, she took the insectoid creatures head from its neck, and shoved it into the bag before running for the exit.
“Are you alright, Vati?”
“Fine Shadow. Just sore. How long to evac arrives?”
“The shuttle is due to land in twenty three minutes.”
She looked up at the cold stars above her.
“I’d like to talk to Marco now.”
“Of course…” the muse paused a moment, “Though I’m afraid I can’t reach the system Mesh at the moment Vati. There appears to be some signals interference, I’ll let you know once we’re back online.”
Of course. Alone. The cold dark above, and the cold dark within, alone with the Virus and a body that isn’t mine, it isn’t mine, it isn’t mine, why the hell am I still here?
The little girl’s neck snaps backwards, and the darkness smothers her.
“Are you alright Vati?”
Tears and heavy breath began to mist the inside of her mask.
“No Shadow, I’m not…” She whispered, looking again into the void above her, “I’m getting married.”
So that was that. Once again, we had a fairly interesting turnout from random generation, and I didn’t have to replace a single result. I think the life path really gives a good jumping off point for playing around with some fiction, and I’ve enjoyed it so far, but I think if I were to do it again I’d use something a little less in-depth than Eclipse Phase…
Anyway, as promised, the nuts and bolts.
Parvati Gairola has led a thoroughly fractured life.
She was born to a small commune in Northern India’s agricultural belt, and lived there until she was seven years old, a happy if rustic childhood. It was a quiet place; there were days when not a single car passed through town. It was a terrible twist of fate that the car that did come through on that day in her seventh summer was the one that killed her.
Her parents and community were naturally distraught. Before the funeral was held, however, the local doctor presented her parents with the little girl’s cortical stack. He said that here, at least was a silver lining; their daughter was not truly dead, just waiting for her chance at rebirth in a new morph, or even as a datalife angel in new, networked communities. But the Gairolas were a poor family in a poor community, and could not afford server space, let alone a new body. The cortical stack itself had been contentious, only installed in the end due to the large government subsidies attached. But Parvati’s mother, Gaya, decided to take a chance that her daughter’s soul might still be linked to the little gem, and arranged for the stack to be sent up the beanstalk, to the glittering Lunar colonies, and a wealthy uncle she had known when she was small.
Uncle Rajesh received the package, and the old man had his grandniece reinstated as quickly as the process would allow. Parvati awoke, naturally shocked; she was in a new body, a new place, with an unknown relative and the memories of her own death lingering still far too close. She was in a state of near panic for weeks, but slowly began to acclimatise. Rajesh arranged for her education, which was idiosyncratic to say the least. Having observed a number of curious warrior traditions in his long life, he had come to the conclusion that war was the natural human state and thus his granddaughters, and his newly adopted grandniece, should be the best at it to ensure his family’s survival. Most twelve year olds don’t receive smartgun systems for their birthdays, but Rajesh had grown to trust that Parvati would make good use of it.
As she reached her majority, Parvati had volunteered for testing of new psychosurgical methods, and found that her mind reacted well to the editing. Some parts she had removed wholesale, freeing up capacity for her to focus on what she felt was most important, but she insisted that she keep the memories of her last day on Earth. For her, death had become a strange portal, a conundrum in itself, and she knew if she lost that referent she may be cast adrift entirely.
It was something to be treasured, and it proved to be the last time she would see her home planet after all.
The TITANs launched their horrifying assault when she was 25. The flood of terrified refugees into the lunar colony brought with it stories of monstrous, indestructible machines, but their eccentric ancestor had taught them that any obstacle can be overcome with determination and the right tools. Signing on with local militia with her cousins, they met the waves of kill drones and exsurgent freaks head on. After a furious firefight that left them adrift in a partially destroyed tin-can station, however, Parvati found herself losing time, and on her return was diagnosed with a strain of the exsurgent virus. She waited weeks, but the expected madness and mutation did not come. She found her senses acting in strange ways, finding information and locating people they had no right to be able to. When a woman wearing a Lunar Defense Force uniform arrived and offered to teach her how to use what she had become, she agreed, and bore out the Fall taking the fight to the TITANs, her mutant psyche wreaking havoc on enemy biomorphs.
And then, it ended, and she was cast adrift after all. Trained and conditioned for a war that ended without explanation, she has drifted, using her skills to eliminate any TITAN remnants or exsurgent threats she finds. She has been contracted repeatedly by Firewall proxies, but has yet to understand that her various employers are linked by the same conspiracy. She fell in with the Autonomists through her nomadic lifestyle rather than through fervent belief, but they have proven good friends. She stayed on TITAN, for a time, and there met Marco, the man who asked her to marry him.
But the Hunt goes on, and she doesn’t know if she’ll stay. In her mind, the war never ended, it just changed its face.
Like I said… fractured, but hey, it makes a decent story. For those of you who care, yes, the rulebook also told me she was getting married, which was a nice story point. PDF character sheet is attached below.
I’ve been reading up on my Eclipse Phase lately. As its all Creative Commons (something my regular imaginary readers will no doubt realize I make extensive use of) it makes a good way to smash your brain open and fly onto a new creative horizon when on a budget. Which I am. So I’ve smashed through character creation… which I’m going to come out and and say was pretty painful and drawn out, even with the handy module system in Transhuman.
But I came out with Vik Archaki, a bedevilled interplanetary historian and robot enthusiast. As its taken a few hours, I’m gonna reward myself by writing some fiction for y’all. The crunch junkies can get their nuts and bolts further down.
One more piece, and it would be perfect.
The metal guts came in to sharp focus in an instant, a nest of scavenged junk remade into something beautiful. Over that was a skin painted and finished so that it was just the way he remembered. Down to the finest micro-shade, it was perfect. Not even the mouthiest Neo-Raven could dispute him on it. Not this time.
His hand did not shake as the final element moved across the gulf of the valley, inexorably drawn to its rightful nest.
There was a sound like a shuttle ramming the door, and Vik clutched his ear, screeching as the metal fiber slipped away from his snatching fingers and tumbling away to the other side of the room.
Exhaling deeply, he unhooked his harness and let the microgravity buoy him, his little family moving off the tabletop and clambering onto his sleeves as he pushed off. The hammering continued. He punched the door control, felt the restabilization of atmosphere fumbling over his skin as the hatch slid open and his bots shimmied to his shoulders, forming a strange halo of antenna and gun barrels.
“What… do you want?” Vik stage whispered.
He took a momentary double take. He had been looking at the Gargoyle morph’s spindly, gunmetal torso. He looked up at the holographic face. Vik blinked, and the face changed, cycling as they spoke.
“Shop talk, Vik.” The elongated figure warbled, its voice shifting with its face. “You got time for a little chit chat, don’t you?”
Vik sniffed. Talbot. Had to be Talbot. She was the only one who thought that premium double-refined protective oil made any difference. Well, so did Jonah, but he wasn’t the door knocking type…
“Of course you do.” The Gargoyle clambered forward along the railings like a fluid stop-motion nightmare.
“Tchtchtchtchtch- Talbot… what’s it about?”
“Cool stuff.” The synth voice replied.
“Oh. Good.” Vik replied, and let her pass.
“What’s the project?”
“Just… just a memory. You know.”
“The gravity doesn’t make that tricky?”
“Oh it does.”
“I bet.” There was a moment of silence. Talbot’s holographic face shifted again. Vik struggled to reconcile her as a middle aged Javanese man with poor image quality, but before he could worry it changed again.
“How’s the new digs running?”
“Not the best,” Talbot replied, leaning casually against a work rig like a pile of brooms in a corner, “Had a burnout in the fabber on third deck, and a micro-meteor shanked our quarter a few days back. So byee to the atmosphere. Not such a problem for yours truly, but… its made things difficult for some of my pals.”
“Oh, it was a meteor?”
The synthmorph cocked a holographic eyebrow which changed from brown to grey. “You felt that on this side of the barge?”
“Maybe. 19ish ship time, two cycles back? Thought I heard a pop.” Talbot chuckled like broken glass in a blender.
“But we haven’t the spares to patch up that sector right now, so… I’m bunking with Teal until we make port. Which I think is why Indigo’s looking for you. She wants eyes on a piece of scrap, think it’ll have some resale.”
“I thought you hated Teal. He’s a dick.”
“I’m mostly bunking with Teal’s fabber. Gotta keep patched. I’m glad this place never sleeps, or I would get so bored… besides, he’s no more insufferable than you.”
“What?… You have eyes. Fancy ones. Why doesn’t Indigo want your eyes?”
“Because I’m just a sweet little spy,” Talbot lilted, “And of all things, right now Indigo wants…” She gave the best synthesised sigh she could muster, “… a historian, for reasons her own.”
There was a brief silence as Vik sucked the corner of his mustache.
“Cool stuff you say?”
“The fucking dickens.”
“Great.” The goatee’d Observer clambered through the hatch and hurled himself along the corridor outside, leaving his spindly compatriot to ponder where he had scrounged all that modelling clay.
“What do you care where I got it? And keep your hands where I can see them, Vik, you’re a shite thief.”
“Sorry, I just wanted a closer look.”
“O… kay. Can I handle the thing?”
“Why of course Vik, you may handle the thing. See? Politeness works wonders.”
The crewcutted Fury passed him the padded wooden box, open at the top. There was a cylinder… a cylinder? A tiny replica of a monolith perhaps… Vik knew that it was almost… no. Exactly the length of his forearm, elbow to the little burn mark on his wrist from when his engine blew out over an unnamed ocean. His Speck bots crawled out onto his hands to inspect the strange object.
It was black, carved with swirling glyphs that seemed to leave the stone it was carved from unblemished. He ran his fingers along it. Too smooth for granite, too rough for any kind of volcanic glass. Like stone that he’d only ever touched once before. His eyes picked up unusual wave activity around the stone, like it was trying to drink in the light around it.
Just like in the ruins.
“It’s a hoax.” He looked up at Indigo reclining on the other side of the low glass table. It was odd to be in centrifugal gravity again. Everything always seemed more… left than it should.
“A hoax?” The towering woman cocked a flared eyebrow, the wing of purple tattoo following it.
“Where did you pick this up, Indigo? Some Souk back on goddamned Olympus? I could have made you a better one.”
“Great to have a volunteer Vik. Glad your willing to do a solid for the swarm and make us a better one, so we can, you know… patch the holes in the goddamned ship.”
“How do you know its a hoax, little man?”
“Oh, er…” he scrambled for a convincing lie, “The glyphs, they don’t make sense… its like someone was working from a good copy, but didn’t understand what they were making. A very good copy, don’t get me wrong. But still… hell, I’ll make your copy. Then we can see how much we can scam for it. Do you mind if I hang onto this… just for a little while?”
“As long as you don’t hawk it for yourself Vik.”
“No, its fine, I don’t need the money.”
Indigo looked at him sideways again, before snorting.
“You know, if you weren’t so weird that could be taken as an invitation to rob you.”
“Yeah… maybe. So where’d you get it?”
“I have a feeling we’ll be hauling that particular merchant in for a chat fairly soon. You can talk to him once I’m done. Now you make us a good replica of this, and we’ll be in the money. Just don’t drop it out the hole, there’s a good boy.”
The amazon clapped him on the shoulder, then pushed him back off her gravity.
Vik put it where it belonged.
The monolith sat in pride of place on top of the hill, over the minute replica of the city that he had been rebuilding from memory, a block and a street at a time.
It was perfect, this ruined city, and it was still waiting on the other side of the Pandora Gate.
You can’t dodge the hairy hand of Fate, his old man had once told him, on an orbital that had gone down with their lives during the Fall. And Fate’s fingerprints were all over this, and it was then that Vik knew that somehow he would make it back.
The city waited, and soon it would be peopled again.
So on that ominous twinge of obsessive weirdness (Author’s Rebellious Id: Ooh, do you mean the character or the one who wrote about him? Teeheehee!) that’s the end of my short fiction. If you wanna hear more from Vik, you just say so in the comments, otherwise he probably won’t appear again.
As for the nuts and bolts, Vik was created using the random lifepath tables from Transhuman almost entirely. The only thing I retconned was illiteracy… which given his origin didn’t really make sense. So here’s the fiction that ever entertaining random generation has gifted us with.
Victor Archaki was born in orbit over the Earth, his family the inheritors of an immense aerospace company that had left their native Poland for space when encroaching climate change made it unlivable. He was born and raised in the spotlight, and as he grew to maturity his expensive education focused on the best use of that. He achieved a level of fame as a director and practical special effects designer pre-Fall, though the glitterati he filmed drew most of the spotlight. This ended when the Earth did, as a swarm of TITAN attack drones tore open the habitat and left the inhabitants to the freezing void, returning occasionally for the memories in their Cortical Stacks.
It was a few years later that Vik was reinstated from backup by the Cognite hypercorp, looking to put his expensive education to use as a lab indenture. A few years after reawakening in his new Hibernoid body, Vik was able to reconnect with his family accounts, paid off his morph and hitched a ride as a techie on the next Scum swarm to pass. It was with the trailing space nomads that he remained, continuing his study and tinkering on board, until one of his many manic schemes came to fruition.
The lottery was taken, and Vik found himself on an exploratory mission to an extrasolar planet through the Pandora Gate wormhole. He doesn’t often talk of what he saw, but the cyclopean ruins of some dead species have left him thirsty for more.
And so that’s where we would probably start a roleplaying game with that character. Probably won’t though, as I said, the character creation system was a bit of a pain (maybe I’ve just spent too much of my recent life Powered by the Apocalypse), but we got some nuance. Here’s his character sheet for the curious, though I was tired enough by the end to not bother filling in weapons, armour or defaulted skills.
Tired, like I said, but I think Eclipse Phase works a lot like Call of Cthulhu in this respect, in that its extremely front loaded. Character Creation is a lot of work, after which the system gets out of the way with a level of elegance. And hey, from me trying to learn something you all got a nice piece of fiction, so that’s nice.
Another Scene from the City for you folks, with the return of a familiar narrator. And my oh my does she have some adventures this time… anyway, hope you enjoy. For those just joining us, prior installments are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
The Young Thief
The window is small, but so am I.
It lies at the top of a spine formed of gradually rising rooftops, a great hunched creature slouched against the side of the tower in its death throws, a drunk leaning on a wall for support, a vomit of toxic sludge and refuse sloughing from its walls into the street. The thing’s uneven, clay tiled back leads to this window. The chill wraps the City, coiling serpents of mist in the streets below.
The window is small, but so am I.
To reach the old beasts spine, I had to cross briefly over one of the streets. The shopfronts I had reached were low, and their drainpipe was an easy grip. The rattle of my ascent barely broke the mist, and I had almost come within reach of the rooftop when the crunch of their boot heels on the cobbles drove the silence from the night.
Two men, a young man and an old one, in the colours of the City Guard. I froze, hugged the wall, knowing their path would take them almost directly beneath me. Knowing the scent of the old man’s pipe smoke as it wafted up to meet me, knowing the limp in the young man’s blistered feet.
Knowing that if I released the drain at the moment I already knew, I could use my falling weight to crush the young man’s face into the cobbles, and slash the old man’s throat into a toad’s smile before his smoke-addled lungs could raise a scream. I knew the arc his blood would make on the storefront, the portal of blank plaster it would paint.
I knew the scent of smoke, the limp over blistered skin.
I knew the gaze of the sick woman. One of them… maggot ridden. Silent. Hungry.
Silent. Empty. Who would be across that very street at that very time but may not, her dead eyes on me even now but yet maybe not.
I let the guardsmen pass, and they did not see me.
After their footfalls had faded, I relaxed my chill stiffened fingers and hauled myself onto the rooftop.
I glanced behind me.
And… that sick one, maggot ridden Underkin… was not standing in the door, nor had she been.
The window is small, but so am I, and again I stand above a harsh drop to the street below.
The old, drunken beast slouches beneath the window, so close as to be almost touching.
The alley may be eight paces across, but the tower did not want the old drunk touching her.
Here, packed together in the filth and the sweat and the terrible cold, she still stands alone. Almost.
I back along the great beast’s spine, press my back against the old warmth of the chimney stack, and focus on the small, forgotten opening in the face of the dark monolith, gouging at the night sky beyond, like a thumb in a man’s eye. I breathe in the chill air.
I might have torn my way into this world as a bird, but that would be too great a change.
It is not so far.
The old beast slouches, almost touching the monolith’s face. Almost touching.
I drag the cold of the night sky into my lungs, and I run. I take three long steps, and on the fourth I take flight.
The mist wraps me for but a moment.
The birds here are sick and mangy things.
My hands flash out and I catch the window ledge. My feet move to the wall, to slow my flight, but the stones are wet and old, and I have no claws.
I hang from my fingers, and my ribs crash into the cold slabs. The weight of the sky flies from my lungs.
I hang from my fingers, far above the street, and my Sin surges into readiness, begging for a change, begging for the other path that we both might live.
I deny it.
I may have no claws, but my fingers are strong, and with a heave I force my right arm over the ledge and latch on to the inner side of the wall.
The window is small, but so am I, and my breathless right arm drags my thin chest between great, ancient stones that try to force me out, scratching along my ribs for my insolent intrusion. I fall into the empty, dark staircase, and I curl into a ball in the depths of the shadows. The life of the City has been pushed far away, and I am alone with my furious heart as I let my breath return to me.
My ribs would bruise, but they would heal one day too. It took time, but soon I could breathe with little enough pain that my chest didn’t shake.
I pulled myself to my feet, dragged my ragged scarf back over my nose for all the good it would do. I began to limp quietly up the stairs.
The bastard had not been precise. I had no map, nor even where his bounty would be in exact terms. What I had was the rest of the night, at the pleasure of a noble house grown into decrepitude.
And failing that, the window grew no smaller.
I took the stairs higher. The furnaces, the kitchen, they were most likely below me and held little of interest. The guardhouse, too, would be down there too, shrouded in House Raleigh’s tattered banners. Up here, it was just the remaining decadents, any treasures they had yet to pawn off, and a young woman blooming in her Sin.
These things I knew.
I began my search.
The first door I found ground open with a ghost of dust rising around my ankles, and I slid inside. The dust was within too, and not a breath of wind, guard or moonlight stirred. I wandered past racks of blades and shields, heavy things built to crush and hinder, some ornate but far too cumbersome to be worth my carrying. I pulled myself up a short ladder, and found the bunk room above equally still.
Running my fingers over the threadbare palettes, I heard snatches of speech, and a strange rattling croak above all. I waited in the silence until the silence remained.
The ceiling here was low. Whoever had slept in the upper bunks must have had to turn his head to avoid skinning his nose.
I pulled myself into an upper bunk.
I pressed my bare fingers between the stones of the ceiling, and no dust fell. I drew them back, and saw that they were stained even in the shadows that surrounded me.
We used it to proof the hides of ships, when we still made ships.
We used it to seal roads against the fury of the wind and rain, when we still made roads.
We used it to protect corpses from the weight of eternity.
And it was hungry.
It would take the animals of the forest or plain, four legs or two, and drag them down into the smothering dark, crushing, filling their lungs and drinking their voices for ever and ever and-
I wiped my fingers hurriedly on my shirt.
I rolled off the bunk, and did a cursory check of this old barracks room. Nothing shone, and I returned to the staircase.
The next door was grand and gilded, and I could find no quiet way through.
The next was of heavy wood that I could not force.
The servant’s stairwell was little more than a hole in the inner wall, and the door to it was ajar.
A smell like a cesspool met my nostrils.
But the warren in the walls might be a great opportunity to a thin little creature like myself. I slid sideways into the narrow stair.
After a brief but dusty crawl, I emerged from a small arch behind a dankly frayed banner, my feet on smooth wood.
On the other side of a railing, candles burned on iron stands, each a dozen paces apart. The platform on which I stood must have run around the whole inner wall.
To my left there was a strange chair that looked to have been carved from a single stone block bigger than I was, at rest near the rail. The scent struck me again, harder, as I slid forward in the dark between candles.
It was the stink from behind the fishmongers at the end of a hot day, where the ravens fight for scraps. It was the ocean as a plague.
The shadow was small, but so am I.
Peering between the uprights of the rail I saw two more stone chairs, bedecked in candles with their bases disappearing into a black and flickering pool of water. The candlelight caught the gilded door, and its steps led down into the pool.
It caught the shape of something moving beneath the surface.
The shadow as small, and within it I bit my tongue in silence.
The boards to my right began to creak with laboured footsteps.
And there you have it for another week my dear imaginary readers. A double plus bonus sized serve of fiction for you, to make up for the time the nasty, mean internet took away from us. Photo courtesy of Miguel Soll, aka 1nsomniac on Flickr. Creative Commons again, so you can use it yourself, and feel free to hack and slash at this chunk of fiction for your own works, as long as we’re credited and your not making money out of it. Have a good one folks.
Another episode from the City as it teeters on the precipice of the end of the world… another narrator, once again. If you haven’t read the previous installments, follow these linkies: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
Indila had me again.
In a sudden and merciless sweep, her war elephants smashed through my scouts and chariots, edging my general off the battlefield. I sighed as my army collapsed into empty sigils, and Indila made to return them to their box. I refilled our wine glasses.
“Run me off again, cousin. There’s not a merciful bone in your body.”
“The problem, as I see it,” my waifish relative replied, rolling my general over in her fingers before entombing him in the box, “Is we just know each other too well, my dear Corrie. You might have grown into a responsible lady on the outside, but your still the reckless little girl I grew up with.”
I gasped, covering my mouth in a clown’s gesture of shock.
“And you, my love, are still the little liar who claimed it was me kissing stable-boys under the silos.”
“I guess that’s why I win.” She smiled, “Besides. You’re drunk.”
“The very nerve!” I grinned back, fanning myself furiously, “You’ve had just as much to drink as I have. Besides, you never lose, sober or not.”
“Your too good for either of us. I don’t know… I don’t think you could close in for the kill even if you had the chance…”
There was a brief silence. Indila leaned back in her chair, drawing in the crisp air of the high chamber. She looked over her shoulder, out the window, at the moon as it hung over the inky black pit of the ocean.
“Not a hint of spite in you… even if you caught me in a lie you’d stick to it, let me get away with anything. Like when we stole that wine from your father’s cellar and went swimming in the lake. Even when Lyla got hold of you… well, you left me naked and alone in the woods. And I had to lie to Nursie about how I came to be nude and dripping at her door with bleeding feet. But she was nice. And at least I didn’t get whipped…” She turned her gaze into her glass.
“I miss swimming. I miss when swimming was safe.”
There was another moment of silence, the wind whispering between the curtains that partitioned the room. My eyes remained on the sea, stretching out beyond the lights of the City below us. It was a cold night.
“We’ve been lucky. We held on to more than most.”
“That might be true. Doesn’t mean we saved all we could though… I mean, why couldn’t we keep the lake? It was just one lake…”
We both rose in silence and walked together, through the archway and onto the balcony.
“What’s wrong?” she murmured?
“I thought I was the liar.”
I smiled gently in the moonlight, and she squeezed my hand as I gripped the bannister.
“Corrie?” The voice echoed up from the entrance hall, and even baffled by the curtains I recognized my husband.
“I’m up here my love!” I called back, and I could almost hear his soft step as he made his slow ascent. Indila smiled into her glass as I left her on the balcony.
Marcus gave me a smile as he ascended the last few stairs, placing the brandy bottle on the sideboard and almost slumping into my arms.
“My darling…” he sighed, “I feel like I’m dying.”
I took his face between my hands.
“You’re not that old, Marcus.”
“No… it’s just…” he trailed off, glancing over my shoulder. He forced his smile wider like a workman hefting a barrel. “Indila, how lovely to see you. I didn’t realise you’d be visiting tonight.”
My cousin leaned against the pillar, gesturing with her half empty glass.
“Well, your children have cleared off to your brother’s, and the serving staff are apparently healthier when they have some sleep… someone had to keep your little bride company didn’t they?”
My husband chuckled, and Indila stepped up, taking his hand and kissing the wrinkles on his temple that hadn’t been there when we married.
“I’m glad that it was you that came. I’d hate to think how much trouble she’d have gotten into otherwise.”
Indila grinned again.
“I won’t tell you about the trouble I started then…” she looked past him at the brandy bottle, and smiled at me.
“Well, I appear to have appropriately diminished the wine stocks, I might leave you two lovebirds to your own devices…” she swanned off towards the door, “I trust the guest room is made up?”
“Of course, cousin,” I smiled back, “Just the way you like it.”
“I like that… means I’m not out of wine after all.” She waved cheerfully, and began to descend the stairs.
My husband turned to me after Indila’s footsteps had faded.
“How does she do that?”
“Do what, my love?”
“How does she keep smiling… how can she sit and joke while everything’s falling apart?”
I wrapped my arms around his waist, letting his forehead rest against mine.
“Marcus, not everything’s falling apart. The world changes, it has changed, and we’re still here…”
“I can’t sleep Corrie.”
“It’s alright… we’re not going to fall apart. Are we?”
He didn’t answer, so I got hold of his greying hair and looked him in the eye.
“No. Of course we’re not.” he leaned back to wipe his eyes, “Its just… I’m not cut out for this, little bee. I don’t know why they decided to make me the judge, because I can’t bring them the results they want…”
I took him by the hand, and we slipped between the curtains and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“These… I don’t even know what to call them. Like ghosts slipping out to murder people… these murderers have haunted three of the noble families. Killed in their sleep, eleven now… they’re in my dreams Corrie, I can’t get them out!”
I held his head to my shoulder, felt his shoulders shake with exhausted sobs.
“Don’t be afraid, my love. I’m here.”
Photo “Waking Up In Auxerre”, courtesy of Benedeicto de Jesus on Flickr. To confirm, no; I am not making any money out of this blog. You are free to give me money if you want to, imaginary readers; but only if you really feel you have to.
“And here, son, is where we make our nightly stand in the vicious defense of civilization against the terrible forces that would grind it into the dirt for their own sick amusement… Toli, Sim, a happy morning, this is the new lad… well introduce yourself boy! That’s the way… anyhow, along to your left you’ll see one of the little watch points, Flares we call ’em, because if their lit they light up the big old mirrors… so eh, you see a growling huge light in the sky then you lug your bugs that way and trouble’ll find you soon enough! Eh! Ah, don’t looks so worried. The damn carpies might get onto the wall, yeh, but with steel in hand and your mates at your back then what’s to worry?” The instructor chuckled, and drove the stem of a pipe into his walnut face. The smoke he spat between words smelled strange.
“The damn girlies come up here in wooden armour, barely a sharp stick to aim ’em. What they going to do, wrestle us until they get tired. Mad, every bloody one of ’em… you’d think they’d learn after – Neg, good to see you. After the first few dozen et lead shot on the ascent. Keep coming though… powder stock here, you can duck back here for more shot, just don’t be a bloody turkey and try doing it when carpies are up here and swinging at you eh?That’s what your blade’s for.”
He leaned over the cache of powder bags in their tarry shelter and spat yellow phlegm over the Wall, through the snatching winds and onto the mountain of scree that set up against the heavy blocks at the base. The instructor winked.
“One more thing for ’em to slip on eh? Anyway, Graf says you know your powder drill, and you can spear the bag just fine…” he seemed to think for a moment, the weed he tapped from his pipe wafting inelegantly over the powder cache. I didn’t have a moment to jump away, to even hurl myself back off the rampart. I must have twitched, because the instructor blinked at me slowly, before shrugging.
“Yeh, it gets pretty breezy up here, don’t it? Not like living down in the streets, no shelter. You’ll get used to it, then you’ll wonder how you ever got by in some of the Rose Lane Houses, eh?” He laughed again, and slapped my shoulder. “There’s a little scrap room down this way, careful on the stairs, come on… I’ll pull you a mug, get that chill out of you… then we can get you into the ledger so you can start raking in your Rooks, yeh? There’s a good lad. The guard’s a good place for a young chap like yourself, no more muck hauling down in the alleys, oh no; real blood and glory we get up here, with whole nests in your purse to match. We’re glad to have you, that we are, just think of how the good folk’ll gaze at you when they see that you’re one of their valiant defenders…”
We reached the bottom of the rickenback stairway and he began to fumble with the catch of a little wall-leaning shanty, one like a dozen or more I could see in the smoky alley of wood and scavenged stone.
“There we are, takes a bit of a wiggle somtimes… for all the harlots, they might leave the light by the door-”
“Put the damned light down, Gams.” It was a scratchy female voice from the dark within the hut. The instructor twitchedf involuntarily before puffing himself up and striding purposefully into the shadows, clattering amongst the detritus of a bench in search of the lamp lighter.
“How many times, Soma, must I tell you not to sit down here in the blood dinge? We need a light in here!”
“Go ram a consumptive milkmaid Gams, you know I don’t do day shift.”
“Because I was ordered here by the scum-ridden Major, who has yet to make his appearance so shut the accursed door!”
The voice felt as angry as a pan of spitting oil, and far more dangerous. I slowly closed the door behind me, my eyes growing slowly used to the gloom.
“Who’s the sop?”
“The new boy. Where are the ramming wicks woman?”
“Burned out, and that’s where its staying.”
“In case you have forgotten, Corporal, I outrank you, so if say… ha! If I say that this wick is lighting then it will be so! Can’t sign the boy on in the dripping dark now can I…”
There was a brief striking of flint, then the lantern flickered into life. The glow crawled over the scrap room, slowly bringing into focus the figure who had been sitting on a desk by the wall, her legs crossed. A low growl surfaced in her chest as the light scrambled between the twisting claws scratched in ink across her taut, blue-white cheeks, reaching eyes in red centred on wide dark pits.
“More meat for the market.” she snarled, her gaze drilling into me, her tattoos seeming to crawl in the lamplight. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I stammered a few brief syllables as the instructor put two pages on the table before me, urging that I make my mark on each.
“I…” I scrambled for purchase on my words in the oily firelight, “I need work. And there’s always a need for fighters, keep the… keep the barbarians off the Wall.”
“Just one more mark lad,” The instructor said, eyeing the tattooed woman who glared right back, “And you’re one of us, ready to walk out of here head high and rooks in hand…”
The woman he had called Soma snorted and rose to her feet, the uniform draped around her skeletal form looking filthy and askew.
“You sure you’ve been told everything boy?”
“I was first in my cadre when we went through drills ma’am.”
She chuckled, and her hair shone like oil in the light. I saw that her teeth were filed to points.
“Good,” she whispered in my ear as she glided past me, “So next time I see something that has no right to be anywhere on this earth or below it, I’ll know who to run to. Those Outsiders are clever, witch-ken and all. Glad you know all their little… tricks and secrets already…” she was silhouetted in the open doorway for a moment, “I’ll be outside.”
It was only when the door slammed shut that my brain began to register that the boards hadn’t creaked under her boots.
“Good to see boy!” Instructor Gams bellowed, slapping me on the shoulder again, “Now you take these and go rest up. You’ll be up here mostly nights, well… almost always nights, because that’s wen the trouble is ain’t it? But I’ll see you tomorrow just before sundown, and we can get you started on our good work…”
He was making for the door as I turned to speak to him.
“Instructor,” I near whispered, “Why do the barbarians attack the Wall?”
Photo “Sintra-16”, courtesy of Subodh Bharati on Flickr, presented unaltered and with no money changing hands. Have a good one, y’all!
Here’s the second installment for my Scenes from the City. Different narrator this time, fleshing out the world a bit.
There’s a saying in the City that a night alone in the forest will turn a brave man’s hair white overnight, if he lives at all.
This isn’t what happened to me. I am not truly sure if I should be exempted, for my hair was white from the day of my birth, as milky white as my ruined left eye, and the spattered white of my beard when I’ve been away from the walls for days. My white hair may exempt me from being a brave man.
I suppose the other untruth I see in the saying is that I have never known a man, or a woman, or a beast from the City who spent a night alone out here and was able to return.
I thrust my hands into the icy water of the stream, and the clear water carries the blood away. The entrails of the thing hang from a tree uphill and downwind of us. Some of the boys had wished to keep them, to carry them back with us. This is why I have lived long enough that my half-blind gaze can cow them. They do not think me brave in the squares and alleys behind the walls. When we drag our findings through the Waiting Gate. They whisper that I am some cursed silver wolf wearing a man’s skin, as bad as the Woodfolk and the beasts they revel with.
I could tell them it was my father gave me this white hair, struck out the light in my bad eye with the sickness he forced on my mother before my birth. I could bring them before the apothecary whose words those were. They would still take my spoils, hurl me their coins, and ward against my evil eye until I was gone.
I went back to the camp, where the boys were enshrouding the carcass. With luck the forest would be drawn to the bloody mess we left on the ridge, but the deep green has never been easy to judge in my mind. It’s… chaos. You have to adapt constantly to the new things it creates.
It had been that we were going to stay at the Old Fort, but on reaching it we had found the masonry overgrown. The woods have been overrunning things more quickly… perhaps it has been the last two years, though for all the tallies on the wall of the Sanctuary I don’t believe anyone truly knows. The old stones had been clear on my last visit, mere weeks before. We found it with its arch toppled, and the flags swamped beneath thorns and creepers, new plants springing from the earth beneath and around. I had considered taking the day to have the boys clear it. Then we found the first body.
Judging by the scraps of plate still clinging to the bug-picked bones, they were some of Vulture’s crew, and Twin confirmed it for me. Everyone looked away while he examined the corpses, getting far too close for comfort, close enough to kiss. He licked the eye socket of the smallest. He screamed for a while, yammering about the things Vulture had felt under her skin before death took her. I clutched him to my shoulder as he seized, trying to muffle his messages, the others chewing their lips and watching the woods around us. Grifter was praying quietly. Twin calmed down eventually, and whispered to me that there was death in the grey mushrooms around us, death watching. I’d have to remind the others not to come this way. After living the way he has had to, the witch boy doesn’t scare easily.
We set our tents in a bend in the river that we came to shortly after dark. There was a small ridge that would keep us out of sight, and I set a couple of the lads to climb trees and keep a watch for us, for all the good it would do. Better to have the forest think we weren’t here, so our rice was cold that night. The thing stumbled right into the camp on its spindly legs, and I took that as a sign that we smelled enough like the forest for now. We killed it before it could scream. It was a sick and limping animal, its hide patchy and stinking, but its good enough to sell.
If we can reach the Temple by nightfall, our outward journey is done.
I dry my hands, and I look across the stream to the figure on the ridge. The shy little thing had found us again, alone this time. All skin it would seem, or else the birds wouldn’t have stopped calling. I’d thought we’d given her the slip, but she just kept on, always watching.
There’s a saying the City folk would never understand.
You know a man is trouble when the birds won’t leave him.
Photo, “Lights through the trees in the Dark Forest”, courtesy of joansorolla on Flickr.
Well, I promised y’all some fiction, so here you are. The first in a series of writing exercises I’ve been subjecting myself to, set in a city nearing the end of its life. Enjoy.
The Young Thief
I remember the slippery roof tiles under my feet, but not my descent of them, or having reached the roof in the first place. I was in a crouch, my hands on the verdigris encrusted drain, my head leaning into the empty space that ended in the sky above and the street below. Four stories of tenement stretched like a field of coffins before me, all but two dark in the face of tonight’s biting chill.
I rose to my feet, breathing in deeply, and let the cold slide into my lungs and my fingers, and let it crawl into my bones.
The city is a thousand thousand stars beneath me.
I jumped, and the earth’s immortal pull dragged me down towards the ground, into the dark between the glittering gaslights. I felt for a moment the surge of fear, and remembered that I had no right to be doing this.
Caught by the nearly inevitable, I called my Sin to me, and mid-air felt it clamber and slide over my skin like the fungal blooms of the forest. I felt it wrap around me like an embrace, like wet hessian, like twists of wire and blood and choices yet to be made.
Three blocks away, a man in a tenement slips inexplicably on his staircase and breaks both ankles at the end of the fall.
Closer, a young woman, feeding her pigs. She collapses against the wall, feeling like she has been beaten, gasping for air.
One block away, an old woman dies of fright in her bed.
A drop of blood fall’s from a youth’s nose, and lands half on her hand and half in the grout between cobbles.
My blood. I pull myself back to my body, and find it mercifully unbroken, feel the tendrils of my Sin sliding back into the world around me, wickering in their soundless voices that this was how things had always been, and that there was no other way that the world could be right at this moment. I cannot accept the lie, but by then I am already running.
The gaslights in this part of town were disconnected before I can remember, the roads blocked, and the dark of night hugs streets that I’ve been told were once well traveled and prosperous. I jump to grip a decrepit garden wall, pull myself to to top, and spring off, catching a gutter that should creak. A hint of Sin. In a side alley, a stray cat yowls noisily. I pull myself onto the partition, and can see the tower silhouetted against the softly illuminated night clouds. The blood balloons from my nose and over my chin.
Like a fungal bloom in the forest.
I have never been there.
Photo courtesy of Miguel Soll, aka 1nsomniac on Flickr. Creative Commons again, so you can use it yourself, and feel free to butcher my prose for your own dark purposes, as long as nobody is making money out of it. Cheers folks.