Scenes from the City Part 6: The Scavenger

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.

The Scavenger

“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!”

“Listen-”

“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…”

“Liar!”

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.

Madness.

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.

Eaten alive.

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.”

“A scapegoat.”

“A scapeman.”

“A curse?”

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.”

6511512805_624ea46c69_oPhoto, “Lights through the trees in the Dark Forest”, courtesy of joansorolla on Flickr. Enjoy your weekend, imaginary readers.

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Scenes from the City Part 5: The Young Thief

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.

Underkin.

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.

Almost.

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.

Almost touching.

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.

The smell.

I pulled myself into an upper bunk.

The smell.

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.

The smell.

Tar.

We used it to proof the hides of ships, when we still made ships.

Tar.

We used it to seal roads against the fury of the wind and rain, when we still made roads.

Tar.

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.

8310127549_27e6753b78_o

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.

Scenes from the City Part 2: The Scavenger

Here’s the second installment for my Scenes from the City. Different narrator this time, fleshing out the world a bit.

The Scavenger

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.

6511512805_624ea46c69_oPhoto, “Lights through the trees in the Dark Forest”, courtesy of joansorolla on Flickr.

Scenes from the City Part 1: The Young Thief

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.

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.

8310127549_27e6753b78_oPhoto 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.