What The Hell Am I Doing Here.

What.


Leviathan Sleeps: Part III
Shmifty
iamdemandred
CHAPTER SEVEN: QUANDERS

It was dark when I left the room to discuss further payment with the inn's proprietor. Fatigued, Indrastea had remained abed for most of the day. We concluded our business quickly, settling on a moderate rate in exchange for a promise of three days' payment. I sat down at a chair in the common room and ordered a glass of wine from a doe-eyed serving girl. While I was waiting, the giant I had seen before came to sit beside me. He was perhaps the tallest man I had ever seen, closer to eight feet than to seven and with that warping of the features and limbs that occurs when too much height stresses the skeleton. His face was long and solemn, twisted slightly to the left. He wore clothes of a good cut and his black hair was shorn close to his scalp.
“Good evening,” I said as he settled into his seat. It creaked beneath his great weight.
“And to you, sur,” he said, meeting my eyes. His own were a startling shade of green, so pale as to be almost yellow. His mouth worked before he spoke. “I have discerned that you are, and correct me, sur, if I am taken now by faulty reasoning, a man intending to travel.”
“I am,” I said, because I could see no point in dissembling my purpose.
The giant nodded gravely. “Then, my friend,” he said, “I have a proposition to make. My name is Ilan Quanders and I find myself, at this juncture, a traveling physician. My assistant has been absent for some few days now, doubtless engaged in whoring or dead in an culvert somewhere, and I am in the market to contract another.” The giant leaned forward and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Particularly one with the medical expertise of a trained Confessor.”
The girl brought my drink and set it down. I thanked her, my eyes still on the giant. “What wages do you offer?” I asked, sipping the bitter drink. Raised in the temple, I had a theoretical understanding of money and its transferal between parties. Quanders might have taken me for a fool then and there, for I would have agreed to anything short of slavery to escape from Monta and the shadow of the temple. Thankfully, he was an honest man in his own strange way.
“Fifty shekels a month,” he said. “Ten extra if you can be ready to leave tomorrow.”
I put down my glass. “I have a...woman with me. Her health is poor.”
Quanders blew out a breath, squinting at me through his round spectacles. At length, he leaned back in his chair and, frowning, said: “She can ride in my carriage, if it is amenable to her.” He made no mention of his services as a physician, and I did not press him.
“She'll ride,” I said.
“Good,” said Quanders. He held out a hand and I took it, avoiding the urge to stare at the gross proportions of his digits or the prominence of his wandering blue veins. Our bargain sealed, the giant rose with obvious difficulty from his seat and placed a shekel on the table by my drink. “I will expect you at breakfast, master...?”
“Abendrad,” I said.
Quanders departed, speaking briefly with the innkeeper before climbing the stairs to his room. I observed the obvious pain with which he moved. His joints must have been under tremendous strain.
I finished my wine and returned to mine and Indrastea's room. The bed was empty, the rumpled sheets strewn across the floor. Indrastea knelt naked before the washbasin, blood dripping from her parted lips. Even as I closed the door she was seized by a violent coughing fit and sprayed bloody sputum over the porcelain. I went to her side and set a finger to her wrist. Her pulse fluttered beneath my touch. She glanced at me, eyes wide and frightened. Her breath came raggedly.
“What's wrong?” I asked.
Indrastea shook her head and then vomited, slumping against the basin. Her whole body twitched, muscles spasming beneath her voluptuous flesh. I put an arm around her shoulders and drew her up. She gasped for breath as spittle ran down her chin. “Sick,” she said. “I just need to rest, darling. That's all.” She turned, her neck jerking through the motion with unpleasant delays, as though she were some clockwork toy. Her lips, red and full and warm, found mine. The taste of bile flooded my mouth, but I did not push her away as she mashed her heavy breasts against my chest and slid her arms around my neck. There was a desperation to her ardor, a maladroit girlishness to her movements that I had never noticed before. I pushed her thighs apart as she undid my trousers.
I slid into her, erect and flushed with desire. She sank back onto the ground beneath me, resting on her elbows. Her chin was smeared with blood. I braced myself over her, hands on the rough planks. “Will I hurt you?”
She leaned up to kiss me, bloodying my mouth. “No,” she said.
In the morning we rose together just before dawn. Indrastea was sluggish and weak. I helped her to wash the blood from her skin and hair before she dressed herself. I packed our meager belongings in a burlap sack. We went down to breakfast in the common room where Quanders sat at his own table, attended by the innkeeper and his daughter. The giant, accompanied by a second man of tall stature and pompous aspect, was engaged in eating a roast ham, honeyed flatbread, thick yogurt and a ripe golden melon split into crescents. It was a feast fit for six men, and yet already he had devoured half of what had been placed before him. Quanders looked up at our descent from the stair and, mouth full, gestured with a lit cigar to a pair of empty seats. We joined him, Indrastea still pale and unsteady on her feet.
“Good morning, master Abendrad,” said the giant, stubbing out his cigar in a half-eaten dish of mussels. He ignored Indrastea entirely. “Meet my associate, Doctor Anarian.”
The doctor stood, removing his hat, and, rounding the table, proffered his hand. I shook it. He was a large man, though he appeared almost short beside Quanders. “Good morning, sur,” he said. “A pleasure.” He pulled out a seat for Indrastea, bowing over her hand as she took it, and then returned to his own chair where a simple repast of tea and dry bread waited untouched. I was reminded forcibly by his scowl of Master Halmure, though Doctor Anarian was bulky and austere where Master Halmure had been sour and thin. I wondered if he had survived the massacre at the temple, if he had lived while Master Gallian had died. The unfairness of it galled me.
“Doctor Anarian is a chemist by trade,” said Quanders, sawing at a breast of quail. His knife and fork looked like toys in his massive, blue-veined hands. “He serves as my apothecary.”
Indrastea looked up, meeting Anarian's pale eyes. “My father was a chemist,” she said.
“Fascinating,” said Anarian before turning back to me. “I trust you understand the fundamentals of the Accepted Sciences, master Abendrad?”
“Don't insult our guest, Doctor,” said Quanders. “Master Abendrad is fully qualified.”
Doctor Anarian looked at Quanders with such venom that I thought, for a moment, he might launch himself across the table and stab the doctor with his fork. Instead, though, he set to tearing his loaf of baked bread apart. His hands were slim and feminine, at odds with his broad shoulders and thick neck. I wondered what had made him hate Quanders with so much passion.
“I've had my megatheres curried, fed and hitched,” said Quanders as he dabbed at his lips with a napkin, quite oblivious to Doctor Anarian's displeasure. “We can depart once you've eaten.” His gaze flicked to Indrastea, who was toying disinterestedly with the plate of chilled fruit that had been set down before her. Even pale and drawn, she was beautiful. “Master Abendrad has informed me of your delicate health, madame,” the giant said. “You will, of course, ride in my coach.”
“You are too kind, Doctor,” said Indrastea quietly. “Thank you.”
The rest of our meal passed pleasantly enough, though I was in a poor humor for the knowledge that Doctor Anarian would be traveling with us. Afterward we went out from the inn and around to where Quanders' coach and baggage cart were waiting by the street corner. A pair of huge, stinking megatheres were harnessed to the cart and in a foul temper for it. I helped Indrastea into Quanders' enormous coach, which was richly gilded and drawn by six fine black horses of impressive pedigree. She was soaked in sweat and nearly limp. Her fingers slid reluctantly from mine as she took her seat, limp hair falling across her flushed cheek. I stepped down from the coach's running board.
A crabbed, red-faced coachman sat up on the box with his legs crossed and a cigar clamped firmly between his yellow teeth. I, Quanders explained, was to drive the cart. I protested that I had no notion how to direct megatheres, in harness or out, but he assured me that they were completely docile and very tractable. Even so, I climbed onto the driver's seat warily and kept well away from the great sloths in the traces. Quanders and Doctor Anarian climbed into their carriage and their driver cracked the reins, setting the horses to a walk. I gathered my own reins, gave them a tentative snap and breathed a sigh of relief when the megatheres lumbered into motion in the carriage's wake.
It was a warm morning, and soon my shirt was stuck to my shoulders with sweat. I sat on the creaking cart box, trying not to betray my nervousness by glancing down every alleyway we passed. We passed in procession down the narrow streets of the Sambul, past sour merchants hawking their wares as naked beggars prostrated themselves in the gutter and prostitutes blinked sleepily behind the gauzy veils of their pleasure kiosks. The backs of the megatheres moved rhythmically before me like twin mountain ranges of hair and muscle. The laden cart creaked onward at a snail's pace toward the distant shadow of the city wall. I wondered what Quanders and Anarian were discussing in the darkness of their carriage, and whether or not Indrastea was frightened of them. Lialisk, I was sure, had been a much more fearsome lover than Anarian could hope to be, and I thought that Quanders' deformity would keep him from forcing himself on her.
The megatheres seemed content to follow the carriage of their own accord. I straightened up in the box, letting the reins lie slack in my hands as we joined the thronging traffic bound for the gates. The crowds seemed nervous. Their eyes, like mine, strayed often to the temple where it loomed on its sinister hill. One of that structure's great towers had collapsed in upon itself. Smoke still smeared the air above its sprawl. There was, aside from the marring of the temple itself, no sign of the interus of the hermiods; if indeed they had ridden to earth on the flames that had crashed down from the sky.
It was a tense and dogged crowd. Peddlers with their tin and iron goods on their backs and their mules laden with millet and bolts of cloth, dour herdsmen returning from the bazaar to tend their flocks in the hill country, families of colonists traveling by wagon down the Benaz and lesser Feudales in their gilt-trimmed coaches pulled by teams of gelded oryx. As we processed toward the gates, caught up in the human river of the Monta's traffic, I began to doze. Perhaps it was the plodding rhythm of the megatheres, the rise and fall of their broad backs, or else the oppressive heat. Whatever the reason, my attention drifted. I saw the human river in a dreamy light through the lids of my half-closed eyes. A surging channel of sapience and flesh moved around me, their bodies webbed and veined with light.
I saw the face of the man I had interrogated in the oubliette beneath the temple. I saw his throat work as he babbled helplessly in his alien language, spilling secrets.
The gates of the city rose up from the dust and sweat of the crowds. I sat up on the wagon seat, blinking sweat from my eyes. Quanders' carriage had drawn to a halt at the back of a long queue waiting to pass beneath the arch and into the wilderness. The guards looked over travelers' papers with bored diffidence, smoking as they leafed through sheaves of promissory notes and official documents. I pulled up the hood of my cloak and took firm hold of the reins. The sloths stirred in their traces, irritated at the delay in their exercise. The sun blazed. I began, in a heat-induced stupor of paranoia, to fear discovery. I had determined to leave the temple, and Masters Gallian and Rochelle had conspired to see that I effected my departure, but what had Halmure thought at my disappearance? Or Drasten, for that matter? Even at such an early hour they might have dispatched their men to detain me. Foremost in my fears, looming over even Halmure's vicious temper, was Lialisk. I had not forgotten his lifeless eyes or the queer way in which he had treated me as a boy.
I had not forgotten the window in his tower.
The roar of a sudden wind banished my reflections and drew my gaze skyward. A hermiod, almost identical to my attacker in Lialisk's tower, stood balanced atop one of the bartizans that flanked the gate. Some few others stared up at him in silence. Gradually, the crowds fell deathly quiet as more eyes found their handsome, alien surveyor. He leaned back against the sun-heated stone of the bartizan roof, arms folded over his sculpted chest. His vivid yellow eyes looked down upon us, slitted and lazy as a sated cat's. He said nothing. I stared at him. My hands shook. He wanted me. I was sure of it. For a wild instant I considered turning the Psychologos against it.
The hermiod vanished with a crack like thunder, speeding back towards the temple. I nearly pissed myself with fear.
We went up to the gates. Doctor Anarian emerged from the carriage to present papers to the guardsmen, who nodded and dismissed us to the road at once. The doctor returned to the coach, which presently lurched into motion with myself following at a small distance. The bent-backed old driver seated atop Quanders' coach offered no conversation, and I would not have been fit for it if he had. I was caught between relief and awe at my first look at the countryside beyond the walls of filthy Monta. For some miles the earth was barren and hilly, its only landmark the reddish bulwark of the walls themselves. Only when the city had begun to fade did the forest begin to make itself apparent. Gnarled trees rose up from the earth in stands and copses. Leaves fluttered in the air, falling. Other travelers made the going slow, and several times I was obliged to snap the reins against the backs of my charges to prevent them grazing at the roadside.
That night a storm savaged the forest. I sat with Indrastea under the wagon, our sleeping mat raised up from the sodden ground by wooden blocks. Water coursed under us. The megatheres, hobbled under the sheltering branches of a nearby oak, roared at the thunder as it crashed. Screaming winds unlimbed the forest's trees while lightning scrawled archaic letters in the bruised intaglio of the sky. Indrastea's breath was shallow, her skin chill and clammy. I held her close and thought I saw, as I slipped away into dreams, the misshapen outline of Quanders standing atop the carriage, his back to us and his face to the mad roil of the storm.
In the morning Indrastea seemed recovered and joined Quanders and the doctor in the carriage after a hurried breakfast of salt cod and biscuit. The storm had left the roads muddy and unreliable. We met no other travelers and halted at first sunset, leaving the road and rolling into a just-visible gap in the thick boscage of the forest verge. The limbs of the trees wove together above us. Pale light was filtered green in the still, clean air. I heard the trickle of running water as the coachman scrambled down from his box and lit a cigar. I, stiff-necked and sweaty, stood and abandoned the cart with stiff deliberation, my muscles painfully sore. The megatheres were content to hunker down and crop the thick, dark foliage of the forest floor. I left them and went to the coach. Quanders stepped out. He was in shirtsleeves, his fine clothes soaked through with sweat. The buckle of his belt was undone, and when he had seen me and caught my eye he did it up with special deliberation. I stood, conscious of the weight of the katar hidden in the sleeve of my shirt. Quanders pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his crooked nose. “She's still alive,” he said, “but only just. I'm afraid the granpadre's medicaments, while imaginative, are not of lengthy duration.”
Doctor Anarian emerged from the darkness of the coach's interior. In his arms he carried Indrastea. She was naked, her thighs bloodied and bruised. Her head lolled against his chest, dark hair limp with sweat. Her eyes were glazed. Anarian looked at me, his eyes empty.
“Why?” I asked them. I thought my chest would burst with hate. The halves of my mind flared with brilliant loathing.
The driver sat down with his back against a tree and began to whittle.
“Have you visited the track?” asked Quanders, scratching at his chin with a tapered finger. “The best races have only two contestants. The field is of no consequence, the other beasts irrelevant. Only two matter. Two horses burst from the gates. The rest are light and dust. Imagine the thunder of their hooves, the foam that will streak their flanks in a moment's time.”
I lunged at the giant, drawing my katar with lightning speed. His misshapen hand caught me across the face. I staggered back, spitting blood. I saw in double-vision Anarian dump Indrastea to the ground without ceremony. He ignored her, his hateful eyes boring into me. I turned back to Quanders, warier now. He looked mad with his sunken eyes, his sweaty black hair and twisted face. His white teeth, gritted, gleamed.
“They crash toward the mark, neck and neck as they heave and struggle in pursuit of their destiny. Their bodies break. It is the spirit that motivates them onward. They gain nothing by the superseding of that scratch in the hard-packed sand. They want not victory but the nectar that comes with it, that flows from the godhead, the Demiurge itself and into all who delude themselves with the trappings of power and prestige.”
I lunged at him again and he sidestepped with a quickness unnatural for a man of his freakish size. His lips parted in a mad grin. “Both horses brim with that selfsame urge, that same unending drive. And yet one falters and must cede to the other. But what worth is an inch, an instant, against the power of the labyrinth mind?” The giant was crying now, his face nearly black with fury. He seized me by the arms as I attacked him again, and in spite of my struggles he lifted me easily from my feet and held me close against him. His lips touched my ear. “I will taste of all that you delight in,” he said. “My death comes on swift wings in the twisting of my bones. Before I see it, I will know that you comprehend the fullness of your folly.” And with that he flung me to the ground and strode back to his coach. I struggled to my feet, fighting the pain of what I believe to be a broken rib, and threw myself at the giant one final and moronic time. He turned en pointe and caught my skull in one great hand. I drove my katar into his arm, but he did not flinch. His mad eyes raged at mine.
“Overindulgence is a sin,” said Doctor Anarian. He stood with one foot on the running board of the coach and the other on the springy moss of the forest floor, disinterested and bored-looking. “Leave him to die. The Demiurge will judge him better.”
Quanders' fingers tightened on my skull. I felt bones shift and grind, compressing the powers of my mind even as I sought to summon them. The giant's eyes bulged in their shadowed sockets, and then he drove his knee into my stomach and threw me down again. I lay, curled up and gasping for air, in his shadow. He stood there for a time before joining Anarian in the coach. The driver lashed the sloths' bits to the coach's axle and then climbed to his box and whipped the doctor's team into procession. They rattled from that clearing, the black carriage like a clumsy statue lurching over every root and stone. I stood, blood drooling down my chin, and limped to Indrastea. She looked up at me with love, her own mouth bloodied and fouled. I knelt down and pulled her into my arms, breathing in the fading smell of her, remembering the silken smoothness of her skin even as I felt it. The fullness of her body, the smell of her breasts and the warmth in the hollow of her neck. Her fingers left little smears of blood on my cheek. “Near the water,” she said.
She died. I buried her in the soft, dark earth and fell asleep in the shade of a tree by a creek.
I had imagined her as some diaphanous thing, half real or less. A phantasm, ghostly and ephemeral. I see now how laughable my boyish fantasies were, how fettered she was by the elaborate prison Lialisk had woven her in the stuff of her own heavy flesh. I see now that she was never his concubine. She had been too frail.
A statue in his gallery.

CHAPTER EIGHT: ATHRAGAR

I woke to the gross rumble of the Crocuta at its feast. Stirred from an exhausted sleep, I saw it tearing Indrastea's flesh from her bones. Blood and some milky fluid were spattered across the clearing and even on my own clothes, which I regarded in stupefied horror. The Crocuta itself paid me no heed but only continued to gorge itself. Bones snapped like kindling in its sharkish jaws. “Sweet, sweet, darling daughter,” it said to itself in the voice of Hastuk the baker as it swallowed my lover, twisting its head to tear gristle and fat from her corpse. “I saw you once as you walked in the garden and drew a picture which I loved and hated until I ate myself. Now we are together as you eat of your flesh. We are together in this warm and wretched garden.”
The Crocuta's voice dissolved into a wretched sob. It wailed as it ate. “No!” it cried, raking the turned earth with its claws to expose the rest of Indrastea. “Abendrad will kill you! Please, I belong to the granpadre. Please. He'll be so furious.
“Please, no.”
By stealth I slipped around the trunk of the tree under which I had slept and crept away through the thick undergrowth, quiet in spite of my injuries and weariness. There was a dull core of disbelief throbbing beneath my perception of the Crocuta's gluttonous repast. I had seen my lover die only hours ago. I had seen my master torn apart before my eyes, had been betrayed by men who defied comprehension with their weird cruelty. Quanders' ranting still echoed in my ears as I crept through the foliage. And the Crocuta feasted, sobbing to itself in Indrastea's voice. “Don't go,” it whimpered. “Please, please, please.”
Its beady eyes scanned the forest. I stepped behind a tree of sufficient girth to conceal my presence and, overtaken by fear, pressed myself against it. My own breath seemed thunderous in my ears. I knew I would be found, that soon the Crocuta's muzzle would appear beside me and its lips would part, and Indrastea's voice would speak. And then I would die. With iron certainty, I knew this. But hours passed, and it did not appear. I heard its heavy tread and the gnashing of its teeth, but it did not speak again and slowly, despite my terror, exhaustion sapped my strength. I sagged against the rough bark of the tree. Sunlight filtered down through the canopy.
“If you're going to run,” said the Crocuta, “do it now.” Its voice, Indrastea's voice, was close at hand. Soft and loving. I felt its breath on my neck. “Please.”
I ran. Branches caught at my clothes. I splashed across a shallow creek and skinned my hands climbing its stony bank. There was no looking back. The suns danced wildly overhead as I tore through the thinning woods, not daring to stop even as dark spots burst before my eyes and my lungs heaved like bellows. Clothes sopping wet I thrashed my way through the underbrush, flailing with my katar at low-hanging vines and branches. The forest was miasmic, a close-clutching world of hands and moss-draped arms. It oppressed my soul, peeled back the skin-like layers of civilization's conceits and left me gasping and wild-eyed beneath the pitiless sun. I walked when I could no longer run, stumbling blindly down game trails and through thorn bushes that tore my skin and clothes. My thoughts were slurred and indistinct, my reason utterly stripped from me. Coveys of quail and archeopteryx burst from the brush at my unsubtle approach, startled skyward. One a stag bounded across my path, its flanks glistening with sweat, its dark liquid eyes wide with terror. I lurched onward, blowing spit with every step, too frightened of what might have chased the beast to linger overlong.
The suns wheeled overhead as I went onward. Sol sank out of sight, followed by dying Erebus. Sweaty and bloodied, I crawled to the crest of a bald hill and there fell against a stump, lightning-struck and withered. With trembling fingers I removed my boots, wincing as blisters tore and began to ooze. My feet, used to the paved streets of Monta, throbbed. I forced myself to massage them, although the pain was severe. Better pain now than agony in the morning. When I had recovered some measure of breath, I stood up and, against my every inclination, hobbled like an invalid to the stream that flowed past the hill where, sinking down on the mossy bank, I dangled my feet. The cold water soothed my inflamed skin. Minnows flitted around my ankles, nibbling with small mouths at my body. I wondered what I was in their world.
So exhausted was I by my flight from the Crocuta and the shock of Quanders' depredations that I nearly missed hearing the rumble and creak of wagon wheels on the nearby game trail. I withdrew with some reluctance from the stream and crept through the underbrush to a place where, shielded from sight by the stand of stunted sumac, I could watch the road in safety. A pair of colossal brontotherii lumbered into view no more than a minute after I had settled into place, towing behind them the largest wagon that I had ever seen. Indeed, it produced such a din as it rattled along the track, snapping branches and thumping over roots, that I wondered it had not been set upon by predators-for it stank like a slaughterhouse. A bull mammoth, freshly butchered and covered all over with blocks of sweating, bloodstained ice occupied the cart's entire bed while above it on a narrow bench sat perched an old man. He was as outsize as his cargo, a big-gutted, broad-shouldered man with a thick white beard and a hooked nose shaded by the brim of his wide straw hat. His eyes, points of glittering black, watched the road with unbroken concentration. In his weathered hands he held the reins of the two brontotherii and, on occasion, he would snap the broad leather straps across their humped backs. The brutes lowed in irritation, muscles rippling as they dragged the cart along its too-narrow track.
I had no desire to seek succor from such an unprepossessing source, but my bloodied feet would carry me no further and it seemed likely that the Crocuta might come upon me as I slept. I had no desire to wake to the sour wash of its breath, or to the saw-sharp rasp of its teeth closing on my stomach. I stood and limped out of the sumac. The driver saw me almost at once and, without speaking, drew his team to a halt. The beasts grunted, shouldering one another as they bent to graze on the sides of the track. The old man removed his hat and ran a hand over his bald pate. “You're a ways from the compass of the Arch-Emperor's eye, traveler,” he said.
“My name is Abendrad,” I said. “I traveled with a caravan of merchants from the city of Monta. We were waylaid, several of our number slain by highwaymen. I escaped and fled, seeking asylum and safe passage to any place where rule of law holds weight.”
“I'm bound north for Lienn,” said the old man as he replaced his hat. “Climb up, and do not mind the smell. My client deserved his death.”
There was a ladder on the cart's blood-gummed side. I dragged myself up its rungs to sit, my nostrils full of the stench of the butchered mammoth, on the bench beside the old man. Turning to sit, I caught a glimpse of the mammoth's regal skull. Yellowed tusks, cracked with age, jutted from beneath a trunk scarred and burned. One dark eye stared up at me, rotten and sinking. The old man gripped my hand in his callused paw and shook it. “I am Komarck,” he said as he sat back and gathered up the reins. A crack of leather against hide and the wagon lurched into ponderous motion. “I've known the perils of the road and wilderness before.” A fly settled on the brim of his hat, rubbing its forelegs together like a fiddler.
I leaned against the bench's back, letting my head loll bonelessly over it. Heat soaked my body, plunging bone-deep into me. Bruised, worn down and brutalized I could hardly summon the vigor to converse with Komarck at all as he muttered under his breath, more to the brontotherii than to me. Indeed, I soon lost consciousness to the rattle and thump of the cart in motion.
Asleep, I dreamed of the mammoth.

With brazen call, in rav'nous glory
The Mammoth King ascends his throne
Wielding now, his triumph gory,
Bloody tusks that scrape across unpolished bone

Crowned beneath the blooded sky
Draped in strands of cloying tar
Mercy, please, the people cry
Ruled over now by Athragar.

Anger. Manlight. The crash of tusks and the stabbing pain of manteeth, fire-dazzling, in my hide. Not anger. Fury. Raw wrath. Other bulls in my fold, savaging the cows that were mine to rule and break and brutalize. I trampled them beneath my feet, rent their soft bodies with my tusks, caught them up in my trunk and wrung the blood from their skin. Manchildren. Rage. Manlight on all sides, closing in and then, from above, the greatest light of all broke through the clouds and I panic. Anger is there, and it rules still, but now sharp fear tinges the scent of the world. Bodies- NO, MINE -crash through trees and into water. Manteeth come pursuing, biting flesh, burning hair.
Anger. Such impossible anger. In my youth I rampaged down the veins of mancaves, breaking and killing so that the anger might pour out of me and burn the whole world. I crashed through the bones of the before-livers, trumpeting my anger to the vault of the sky. I trampled my firstborn son on a cliff overlooking my domain, for only I am real. All else is dust and blood, held between two-
GET OUT, MANLING
-hemispheres of burning light.
I am Athragar, the Mammoth King.

CHAPTER NINE: WANDERER

I awoke in a frozen alleyway beneath a starry sky. My mouth tasted of blood. I rolled over, cold and stiff, and spat reddish phlegm onto the cobblestones. My arms were stiff, my back twisted and aching, but the blisters on my feet had healed. I stood, wiping my hands on the front of a plain black robe. Where were the clothes I'd bought in Monta? I could not find my katar. I slumped against the sheer concrete wall of one of the alley's framing structures, mammoth-thoughts still roaring in my mind between the halved-sun poles of consciousness and madness. A cart. I had climbed up onto a cart, driven by Komarck the Hunter.
I ran from the alley and burst into an abandoned square, snow-dusted and serene. Kiosks and carts lay forsaken, weathered by who knew how many winters. The temple of St. Anthony loomed over me, high on its austere hill behind its encircling walls. Snow fell from a leaden sky. Opposite me, sitting on the room of a silent fountain, was Quanders. He had grown old. His left shoulder rose higher than his right. His face was distorted and lined with age, his hair grown long and turned white as snow. The clothes he wore were threadbare and ill-fitting. I knew that it had been his face I had seen while drowning in the koi pond, trapped by Master Rochelle's foot, but where once I had felt awed and overmastered by his aspect I now knew him for the pathetic creature that he was. He looked at me with cloudy eyes and his misshapen hands formed palsied, liver-spotted fists. He stood, taller even than he had been. He leaned heavily on a cane, his right leg strangely twisted. “Abendrad,” he said bitterly, tears streaming down his pitted cheeks. “I've waited long enough.”
I reached out to him with the Psychologos. The halves of my mind bathed him in actinic light, plunged him down into the depths I had felt in the mind of the unfortunate man in the temple oubliette. I was those depths, drowned and mad. He shied away, crying out in his pathetic old man's voice.
I was myself, drowning in a foot of brackish water. I was the anguished laboring of my own starved lungs, the rush of water down my throat. Blackness. I awoke in two beds. Master Rochelle sat beside one, Master Gallian by the other. One of me began to scream.
Two horses burst from the gates.
The priests threw me out from the temple. I wandered the streets of Monta, begging as the seasons passed and my body grew tall and twisted as a root. I killed for money. Sometimes, skulking in dark alleyways, I saw myself walking at the illusion Gallian's side and my heart contorted with hate.
They crash toward the mark, neck and neck as they heave and struggle.
I meet the doctor, Anarian, in a brothel in the Sambul. He tells me things, a white blur of meaning and suggestion clouding over his words in my memory. A plot. A design. Greater than ever either of me knew. I meet myself years later in the common room of a worthless inn, flea-bitten and ramshackle. A day passes and I kneel inside a sweat-stinking carriage, raping the empty shell of a woman I desired beyond all else. Slap of flesh against flesh. Screams muffled by my twisted hands. Vengeance forestalled by the doctor's harsh command.
What worth is an inch, an instant?
Loneliness. The creeping ruin of my body as bones twist and organs falter. I am alone.
I opened my eyes, letting the fearsome light of consciousness, of Reas, fade back into the animal darkness of thought. Quanders was gone, his walking stick lying abandoned on the paving stones of the square. And yet he was not gone, for he now looked out from within me. I knew his bitterness, his anger and his hatred as I had known the mammoth's, and the misery of the alien prisoner beneath the temple oubliette. I stared at the place where he had stood, feeling the harsh heat of him, of my other self, in my breast. Anger overcame me. I tore my hair, clawed at my own skin and writhed like a serpent in moult. I had murdered Indrastea. I had dumped her to the ground like so much meat. And I had not. I tore my cheeks, nails gouging deep furrows in my flesh, and then I collapsed to my knees and vomited until my stomach held nothing but sour water and acid.
It took some time for me to collect myself. I stood, unsteady on feet no longer twisted and deformed, and looked down on my cane with pity and loathing both. My hands I could not refrain from feeling, from rubbing together as though to assure myself repeatedly of their function and wholeness. No swollen joints. No ligaments age-stiffened and unmoving. I brushed snow from the front of my robes and looked up at the shadowed bulk of St. Anthony's. Around me, Monta echoed to the sound of its own emptiness. A door swung in the chill wind, banging against its stone lintel again and again. The snow fell now in thick, wet flakes. It had begun to drift against storefronts and in alleys as I had met myself. I set my shoulders and set off toward the temple, head bent against the gathering storm. The trek up the hillside path and into the graveyard was long and laborious. I was ready, though, for the Crocuta when it came padding toward me through the snow. Its narrow eyes found mine as I froze in place. It paced between gravestones, sleek and fearful with its razor teeth bared in a madman's grin.
“Aben. Dear boy. Come in out of the cold. There are sweetbuns by the fire.”
I said nothing. It circled me, huge and hoary and awful, silent as death and drooling long ropes of yellow spittle. Its voice changed, abandoning the gruff accent of Hastuk the baker for a younger man's bright tenor. Eschegg. “Come on, Aben. You don't want to stay in this temple forever, do you? I'm going to make my name and take back my father's land. I should have been the heir. Didn't we always say so, when we were boys?”
Barlans. “We're all waiting, Aben. It's not so bad in here. No Halmure. No lessons.”
Trebatius. “Just let it go, boy.”
The creature hissed, gnashing its teeth. I watched it, unfeeling and cold. It clawed the ground and, snarling, charged. We went down in a tangled, tumbling heap of fur and black cloth. Snow flew around us as the Crocuta's heavy jaws snapped at my shoulders and throat. Its teeth sank deep into my collar, cracking bone. Blood soaked my robes. “I love you,” it said in Indrastea's soft, warm voice. “I love you, darling.” Her fingers touched my throat. “Lie with me.”
The disjointed hemispheres of my mind blazed back to life. I caught the Crocuta between them, caught my friends, my lover, the fragments of their minds preserved in that awful creature. Meat, not light, played cradle to their gnawed and blinded psyches. I took them from it, wrenched from that grasping unperson its greed-hoarded treasures, its baubles and jewels. I took them into me, the walls of my mind thinning until nothing was unabsorbed, until I was and always had been Barlans' ironic grin, his desperate struggle for the cleverness that seemed to come to him so readily; I was Eschegg's veneer of arrogance scraped thinly over doubt, Trebatius's coarse laugh and the cook's absent-minded affection for the acolytes. I had always been Indrastea's round, full thighs just as I had been the boy fumbling between them. I loved myself, mind traveling at speed down the corridors of her mind, and, loving, knew the rotten thing like flowers spoiling in the humid heat that she had never told me. Revelation scorched the sky and boiled the clouds. Light poured from my mouth. The Crocuta slumped over onto its side, whining in pain as steam rose from its blasted flank. I stood, clutching at my mauled shoulder, and looked down at it as the incandescence of my mind faded away to shadows, bearing with it voices soft and strident. “I love you,” wheezed the beast. “I love you. I love you.”
I left it to die in the falling snow, and carried the newness of my self to old familiar places.
The temple courtyard was cold and empty, the bailey of the north tower deserted. No guards walked the walls. No acolytes scrubbed the floors of the bathing house. The light that spilled through the skylight in the sepulcher was washed-out and drab. The oda was broken, its glass walls spidered with mad traceries of cracks. The five high seats of the temple's masters stood empty. I walked the temple's silent halls, accompanied only by the forlorn whistling of the wind. The cyclopean corridors and tombs of the great edifice had been my boyhood haunts, the loveless dormitories my only cradle. I thought I saw, for a fleeting instant, my memory coupling with Indrastea in a corner, buttocks clenching with each boyish thrust. My face was wrong, though, and soon the memory faded. I lingered in the kitchens, rested my hand on the cracked and frigid stove where once Hastuk and his cooks had worked. Master Rochelle's study, the room in which he had died, was dark, Master Gallian's utterly bare.
In the orchard, bare-treed and grim, I found a boy's skeleton lying weather-worn in the dried basin of the koi pond.
Only in Halmure's grim, unwelcoming quarters was there any sign that, once, men and boys I had known had called the temple home. A daguerreotype, ragged and unframed, lay alone atop the old man's desk. I crossed the room and looked down at it. It was myself, not yet seven and grinning widely as I hunted for insects in the cracks between the courtyard's heavy flagstones. I gripped it in bloodless fingers, looking down with distaste at the old man's hateful memory. Of all the fantasies I had entertained as a boy, I had never imagined for an instant that Halmure had fathered me. I dropped the daguerreotype to the floor and left. There was, I knew, only one place I might find answers to the questions that had dogged my mind, conscious and unconscious, since the earliest days of my childhood.
Master Gallian was waiting for me in the ascender, which one we had ridden together to see the granpadre. He looked much as he had, tall and lean in his plain black robe and kilt. Older, lined and worn, but much the same with his aureole of blue-white light, his skin thatched with subtle lines of illumination. Had he ever been real? I stood on the threshold of the iron cart, one hand on the grille that served as its door. “Master Gallian,” I said.
He opened his arms. “Abendrad.”
We embraced. His smell, the musty stone-and-leather smell of the temple, was a comfort. His thin arms were still strong. We stood together for a time, and then my teacher stepped back, his hands still on my shoulders. “Let me look at you,” he said, his expression one of mingled pride and sadness.
“You died,” I said.
“Only here.” He pulled the ascender's lever and the grille slid shut. The cart rose smoothly upward along its tracks, engine wheezing. Bars of light and shadow slid over us as we passed in rapid succession a hundred empty rooms and chambers, deserted halls thick with dust, iron-grey light spilling over unpolished floors. Master Gallian kept his wrinkled hand on the lever. His throat worked as he swallowed. “There was so much I wished to tell you.”
The ascender slowed and ground to a gradual halt. The heavy steel doors to the granpadre's apartments slid apart and we stepped out into the long, antiseptic corridor where Master Gallian had died, torn apart by the wounded hermiod as I escaped with Indrastea. Blood still smeared the wall, thick and black. We passed down the hall where dust-filmed eyes opened to watch us pass, and through an open airlock into a chamber I did not recognize. It was a yawning space, high-vaulted and lit by the light of an unfamiliar yellow sun that streamed through windows nine times a man's height. High golden seats formed a crescent facing the doorway in which Master Gallian and I stood. The granpadre sat in one, icy-eyed and silent. In another sat Master Drasten, and beside him ancient Master Rochelle. Halmure was nowhere to be seen.
On the floor before the granpadre's throne sat a coffin, glass-fronted and ornate, its brass bars wound with golden wire, its sides etched with images erotic, neural and monstrous. Masked necrohols stood over it, swords bared. I feared to draw too close, lest its occupant upset what little sanity was left to me. It was a deep thing. A well of self and soul. Instead I stayed where I was, facing the architects of my youth across a gulf of time and marble, my mind coursing with accreted thought. At last, Lialisk stood. His dark eyes, set in the square confines of that unremarkable face, bored into mine. “You may depart, Gallian,” he said.
I turned to my master. His lips moved, beginning the impression of a smile, and then he was gone, his space occupied by a shaft of sunlight in which dust danced lazily toward oblivion. I fought down the urge to weep. He had never truly been at all. The granpadre cleared his throat and I returned my gaze to his. “No span of time can claim you,” he said. “No arrow can still the beating of your breast, and no mind can stand between the halves of yours. With this world, warm in the bosom of a truer one, as the reservoir of your power, you will be forever tombed in chthonic glory, a leviathan breaching reality's skin. You will return with us through the channels of the sun, and you will be more than Man. The plagues that afflict truth will be undone.”
I stood there, poised on the threshold between corridor and cathedral, black robes caught at by the rumor of some ethereal wind, or else by sluggish tides. It seemed an ocean of lies crashed and roared about me, its waves ship-breaking and increate. Unwilling, my feet bore me to the coffin where, looking down, I beheld, as I had known I would, my own self dressed for burial in flowing robes of black. I put a hand on the glass front of the coffin. The breath of my other self had fogged it. “Will it hurt?” I asked.
“Life is pain,” said Lialisk.
I nodded.
I know now that I will have no deathbed, that as I was born, fatherless and unloved, I shall live to see the last gasped breaths of stars different from those I knew in my fast-fading boyhood. How many years have passed between strokes of pens while I slumbered, unknowing, too distant from time to feel its rushing passage? The reasons for which I was made have long since passed from my mind. I accomplished all that was wished of me, and more. I know I have awoken to ink cracked and dried by the passage of decades. I know that the servants in this house differ from day to day, though I have not the heart to learn their names. If life is pain, then death is forgetting.
I have lived too long, kept company only by the minds within my own. I do not often hear their voices anymore.

Leviathan Sleeps: Part II
Shmifty
iamdemandred
CHAPTER FOUR: THE PRISONER

I was excused from my duties and classes for a week. Master Gallian informed me that I was to sleep in the medicarium until a room could be found. I was to be made a celebrant on St. Euris's Day at the start of First Spring. Restless and still weak I walked the temple grounds and wandered through the halls, avoiding my friends and brothers. Several times I ventured to the low chapel to hear lictor Henrus deliver sermons to the penniless proletarii who came in their unwashed thousands. Watching from the deserted galleries, I felt something like a specter in the shadows. Lictor Henrus was a tall, sinewy man with a shock of wild black hair and a long, expressive face. His sermons were fiery and eloquent, even if they lacked the polish of Master Gallian's addresses in the high chapel at the heart of our temple. He was not nearly so creative as Master Gallian in the extraction of confessions, either. Invariably he would tie a willing penitent to the pulpit and cane the person's back until blood sheeted down it. I thought then that it showed a lack of initiative, but I believe it was only that lictor Henrus was a gentle man at heart. He could not bear to inflict the soul-deep agony of the Psychologos upon those who loved and trusted him.
The Benaz, swollen with the end of First Winter, provided a welcome distraction from my convalescence. Unattended, I swam as often as I felt the urge to. In its frigid waters, still comforting in spite of my near-drowning, I felt the pulse of the temple's great subterranean engines and the distant rumble of Monta's artifice. The water ran clean from its wellspring far beneath the temple, unsullied by the city's depredations. It seemed that I too was cleansed when I swam. At last the day came when, upon my return to the medicarium in the early evening, a necrohol informed me that I had been assigned rooms in the rookery tower. To reach them I had to cross the antechamber, largely empty so late in the day, and climb six flights of stairs-following the necrohol's directions to the seventh floor of the tower, just below the aviary.
My room was a small one, little more than a cell with only a thin mattress and a tap jutting from the wall above a marble basin. It produced frigid water, for washing. I looked about, noting with some interest the view of Monta my new quarters afforded me. Pressing my nose against the smeared glass of the room's single square window I could see nearly all of the city spread out from the temple's hill and with the forks of the Benaz branching through it like polluted arteries. In a handful of days I would join Master Gallian in the city as a celebrant, and before the next audit I was sure I would be empowered to take confessions with my own staff and edict. It was, I confess, an exciting thought. I hoped to aid in Monta's salvation, though my selfish interests in new rank were not inconsiderable.
Weary, I turned from the window and began to undress myself. Indrastea was standing in the doorway. She wore a blue evening gown tailored exquisitely to the lush swell of her hips and the heaviness of her round, firm breasts. It left one shoulder tantalizingly bare, and I was instantly enervated by the strength of my desire for her. I had not seen her in some time, and my growth during the interim had shortened the gap between our relative heights-though she was still the taller of us. She moved toward me with that awkward grace that was half sway and half limp. Her arms slid around my neck and I leaned up to kiss her, nostrils full of the scent of honey and forget-me-nots.
She sank down onto my bed and I knelt before her, pushing back the folds of her gown to reveal her fleshy thighs and the naked lips between them. I was half-wild when I went into her, consumed by the scent of her sweat and the feel of her lips against mine. Cool and sweet, like milk. I was conscious, in a detached and vicious way, of my own ugliness, of the sharpness of my chin and nose, the gauntness of my cheeks. My shoulders were narrow, my eyes deep-set and dark. Indrastea's hips rose and fell, matching my grunting exertions even as her eyelids flickered. She tired easily, always. Still, I was insatiable. My mouth sucked at her neck, her breasts, the hollow of her shoulder. My body, tense as a guy wire, thrust itself against hers.
I think now that I hurt her, then, in sating my desire. It is a thought I can scarcely bare, but in the moment I ignored the drops of blood on the mattress and on her thighs, the shallowness of her breath beneath what must have been the oppressive weight of her breasts. I used her as Lialisk must have used her, and then I fell, limp and spent, onto the mattress beside her. She was silent for a long while, eyes glazed and skin slick with sweat. At last, as I began to drift off into a waking dream, she slid from the bed and began to dress herself. I watched, warm and half-asleep, as she struggled into her gown and did up its clasps. She looked like an hourglass with her narrow waist and generous curves. A sculpted thing, not real. She turned back toward me, arms folded beneath her breasts. There was a queer look in her eyes. Loneliness, I thought. “Don't forget me,” she said, and then she bent down and kissed me on the mouth before slipping from the room.
The next day marked the first of the new spring, with Sol alone at its apex and dying Erebus lost below the horizon. Master Gallian escorted me on a survey of the grounds and walls as the rest of the temple readied itself for the accession. My accession, I supposed. I was listless, but Master Gallian seemed ill-disposed toward conversation. He walked quickly across the southern courtyard as we left the temple proper. His robes flapped in the warm breeze. There were workmen and enginers crawling all over the roofs of the temple complex, adjusting the ancient artillery pieces half-hidden by their engraved columns and elaborate facades. There would be fireworks in the evening, as there had been at Eschegg's ceremony.
Trebatius was on patrol atop the southern wall. The guardsman offered Master Gallian a sharp salute, chancing a broad wink at me only after the older man had passed by in silence, still brooding. I grinned at my old compatriot, but Master Gallian's brusque bark of, “Come here, boy,” brought me running to his side, leaving Trebatius to complete his rounds. The soldier plodded off along the battlement, his legatus armor venting smoke from its shoulders. Master Gallian, meanwhile, led me at a swift pace to a time-worn embrasure from which defenders might fire on approaching enemies, or else deluge them with boiling oil. He halted and I followed suit, staring out through the narrow slit of the embrasure at the meandering course of the Benaz's westward-flowing fork. Had I dared to lean out a little ways, I think I might have seen the Vulgatic Tower, the massive casement that was the terminus of the southern and eastern walls. Master Gallian, however, remained silent, and so I kept to my place and said nothing.
“I remember the day you rose to acolyte,” he said after several minutes had gone by. I glanced at him, but his gaze was on the city. He clasped his hands behind his back and said, “Even surrounded by a score of other boys, you made yourself apparent.” He did turn, then, and fixed me with a hard stare. “Our world is not a gentle one,” he said.
The ceremony was long and stiflingly hot, the festivities, I am sure, memorable. I was distracted and took no joy from either. Afterward, departing the courtyard, I was apprehended by Barlans, who had stolen a bottle of sour wine from the cellars. Against my protestations of weariness I was dragged back out into the sultry night where Eschegg awaited us in the bailey by the library. “Looks as though it's just old Barley in the dormitories now,” said Eschegg smugly as we walked together in the library's shadow. “Give Drasten a kiss for us, won't you?”
I chuckled in spite of myself as Barlans threw himself at Eschegg in mock fury, cursing a blue streak that would have raised Master Rochelle's eyebrows. I sighed and leaned back against one of the library's elaborate caryatids, the wine bottle dangling from one hand. Master Halmure drank often and I had no particular desire to emulate him. Still, when my friends finally abandoned their amiable abuse of one another and Barlans uncorked the bottle with his knife I was persuaded to swallow a few mouthfuls of the dark, rich red wine. We passed the bottle back and forth between us as the stars wheeled overhead and the moon, wan and pale, rose.
“They've passed me over again,” said Barlans glumly as he passed the bottle to Eschegg, who took a long swig. “It's hardly fair.”
I snorted. “I heard you botched your recitation of Themesis to Halmure.”
Barlans seemed not to have heard. “Now you'll both be off with Rochelle and Gallian,” he grumbled. “Where does that leave me? I can't exactly traipse around with the new apprentices.”
“Why not?” asked Eschegg, his wide blue eyes all but watering in their effort to convey innocence. “Aren't they young enough for you?”
I choked, spraying wine over my robes, which thankfully distracted my friends long enough to avert their murdering one another. Even as I wheezed with laughter, though, I felt a sense of emptiness. Barlans was right. We would have less time for each other now. The days of our carefree childhoods were, at long last, over. I returned to my room near sunrise, sober and in a melancholy state of mind. The fireworks had ended hours ago and outside my window Monta was dark but for its street lamps. Unable to sleep, I sat on the edge of my bed and watched Erebus rise. I slept, after a time, and dreamed of granpadre Lialisk's dark eyes.
I woke early, head pounding, and dressed in the loose trousers and stiff-collared black robe that had been left by my washbasin. The face I saw in the mirror was nearly skeletal in its gauntness. Dark circles underscored my eyes. I lathered myself and, unfolding my razor, stropped its glistening blade on the length of rough leather bolted to the stand. It pared the uneven stubble from my skin with casual ease. It would, I thought, have parted flesh just as easily. Master Gallian was waiting for me in the antechamber, standing silently at attention at the point of confluence for the temple's human traffic. I attempted a semblance of dignity as I allowed one of the staircases to bear me down to the mosaic tiles of the ground floor, but I still felt something of a pretender in my celebrant's robes. Across the antechamber on the western gallery, Master Drasten was leading a procession of apprentices toward the refectory. I felt a hollow ache in my chest as I saw Barlans talking with several of the older acolytes, boys whose names I had never bothered to learn.
Absorbed in my own thoughts, I stumbled as I left the stair and nearly fell flat on my rear. I brushed imaginary dust from my robes and strode hastily toward Master Gallian, cheeks burning. My teacher glanced at me, his lips a thin line, etched in light and skin. I noticed that none of the milling crowd around him were part of his entourage of scholars, technicians and guards; the usual compliment for our expeditions into Monta. My puzzlement must have been apparent, for Master Gallian said, “We have no need for an escort today. Our business is here, in the temple.”
I inclined my head. “Yes, Master.”
We left the antechamber by one of the circular iron doors found at irregular intervals throughout the temple and operated by plain levers mounted in the stone beside them. I have always found the finality of such gateways a very great comfort. They form a terminus to the steps of the unsure, a bulwark against the sinful and licentious world beyond the temple walls. I stepped through the portal after Master Gallian and applied my weight to the appropriate lever, causing it to slide shut with an echoing thud of metal on rubber. I turned to find Master Gallian already moving down the long, narrow hall. His footsteps echoed from the walls of cut and polished stone. I followed him, hurrying to match his long stride as we walked together in silence. Dim lights held in sconces made our shadows dance over the rows of identical oaken doors we passed by to either side, all bolted and chained. Numbered placards decorated each stout door. The temple oubliette.
I burned with curiosity, anxious to know what had kept us from our duties in the city, but I dared not ask Master Gallian. His temper had become unpredictable.
A masked necrohol stood guard outside the four hundredth door. He watched our approach through the eye slits of his mask. Master Gallian stepped past the man, lifting a fine silver chain from around his neck as he did. A key dangled from the chain. Master Gallian took it and slid it into the first of the door's several locks. He paused, glancing back at me. I think that he wished dearly to tell me something of import, to invite me into some sacred confidence. But he did not. The lock cycled open and the door slid aside, washing us all in the compressed air of the adytum beyond its threshold. The prisoner, a slack-faced man of middle years, was restrained in an iron chair bolted to the floor behind a wall of liar's glass. We saw him plainly, but he could neither see nor hear us.
Master Gallian moved past me to stand beside the lever that would open the adytum. He rested a hand on the length of grooved steel, regarding me as he did. His face was without expression, all the familiar wrinkles and lines as still as if they had been carved by a sculptor's chisel. “He is a foreign agent,” he said flatly. “A native of Rama in the Southern Commonwealth. You are to interrogate him regarding his activities as a spy and his masters' designs. His confession, Celebrant, is in your hands.”
Master Gallian pulled down on the lever and a section of the glass partition slid up into the ceiling of the adytum. The eyes of the man in the chair snapped open, tracking me unerringly as I stepped through the doorway and into his cell. His skin hung loose on his skeleton. As he turned to follow my progress, I observed that his dermis was not just loose but badly-fitting, stretching oddly with his every moment to reveal unusual lines and contours. I halted, glancing at the spotless white walls all around us. Master Gallian had resealed the liar's glass. I turned back to the prisoner.
The man's mouth opened. Sound flooded the gleaming space of the adytum. Sourceless, vast and awful. I closed my mind, reaching for the twin hemispheres of the Logos and the Reas. The sound redoubled in volume. I could feel it in my bones, like the basso roar of one of the city's guard ursids. I regulated my breathing, using that dull rhythm to time my respiration. I sank deeper into my trance, as Master Gallian had taught me. Down, down into the recesses of my mind. Light welled up around me.
The prisoner's mouth flew open. New waves of sound beat against my skin. The air rang. His throat inflated, in appearance horribly like that of a frog. I began to panic, the Psychologos slipping from my grasp, the light haloing my features dissolving. I feared that Master Gallian would think me incompetent-or worse, that I had been framed and my failure engineered. Perhaps by Master Halmure. Infuriated, I seized the man's head between my hands and brought to bear upon him the full force of the Confession. My mind burned, straining through his emotions. They were cold and dull. Some I could not even recognize. He was depthless, his soul a frigid void where something lurked. Something vast.
Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose. The man's eyes twitched and flickered, his hands clutching at the chair's arm. Muscles bulged beneath his loose and sagging skin. I clung to the prisoner, ignoring his wails and the bizarre convulsions of his body. I stood only half with him now, so absorbed was my mind in the Confession. In the Psychologos. Light beat against his eyes as I held the endlessness of him between the halves of my consciousness. We stared at each other. He gave vent to his endless foghorn scream. And then, gradually, he quieted until only the dull rasp of his respiration broke the silence. Ice formed a thin scum over the yawning pit of his mind. It was a moment of celerity in thought and action. I felt that I could reach out and take the truth from that broken husk, that I could tear it from his repulsive corpus with nothing but my will.
“Confess,” I said. The words dropped from my lips and struck the floor like weights of lead.
The prisoner blinked, and then began to speak in a low, arrhythmic voice. Oily perspiration slicked his cheeks, obscuring in unsteady trails the architecture of his greyish stubble. I understood nothing of what he said, but that he was engaged in the confession of his crimes was beyond question. I had broken him, and with an art I only half understood. The door in the liar's glass slid open. I stepped out into the darkened antechamber, wiping my hands on the front of my robe. My temples, freed from the pressure of their exertion, pounded in maddening time to the spasmodic declarations of the prisoner. The glass door slid shut at my back.
The granpadre stood beside Master Gallian, watching the prisoner through the liar's glass. His dark eyes were narrowed, his mouth turned down at the corners in a humorless frown. I froze, breathing hard. In that moment my confidence, my confessor's persona, collapsed entirely. My hands shook. Lialisk ignored me, his attention wholly consumed by the the prisoner. I glanced at Master Gallian. He nodded tersely. I left, staggering out into the hall where, mercifully, the attendant necrohol closed the cell door before I vomited.
Indrastea was waiting in my cell when, after wandering through the halls of the temple oubliette, I returned at last. She sat on my bed, legs folded beneath her, sheer white dress clinging to her skin. I fell into her arms, burying my face in her perfumed chest. She held me as I shook, eyes screwed up and mouth trembling. Her slim fingers moved through my hair in a comforting rhythm. “Darling,” she said.
“I'm sorry.”

CHAPTER FIVE: CROCUTA

A young man's life is a rare and precious thing, crystallized forever in the moldering tomes of Man's great libraries, enshrined in the tales of our distant past. We are a singular breed. Our exploits outlive our bodies, outshine our maturity and decline.
I think now that no child raised in the temple before or during my time there was ever truly a young man, save perhaps in our penchant for complaining and our passion for the affections of absent women. We were led by the hand from the innocence of childhood to the cold isolation of middle age. If my recounting of the events of my formative years seem strange to you, recall that they were spent under the tutelage of men whose parents had discarded them on the doorstep of a foreign and imposing order. We were born old.
My first confession was never discussed again. Master Gallian continued my apprenticeship, though I felt a certain distance had grown between us. By the first spring of my twentieth year I had ascended to the rank of confessor carnifex and commanded my own retinue in pursuit of Monta's salvation. I had put my trauma in the adytum behind me and returned, in public at least, to the icy composure appropriate to an agent of the brotherhood of confessors. In private, I believe that I was at once more miserable than any of my brothers, and far more content. Indrastea's visits gave me something that the whorehouses could never give them, but her long absences left me tense and furious. I had grown old enough to dissect my own jealousy, to imagine her crying out in passion beneath the granpadre. Lialisk might have been a fearsome omnipresence to my friends and teachers, but to me he had become something less than godlike. Another man. Competition.
We never discussed him, or any others she might have lain with.
A new cycle of penitence began in the second summer of the year. The city's sewers would need inspection, its prisons a thorough review and opportunities for confession. Master Rochelle's ill health and Master Drasten's role as proctor of apprentices meant that more of the cycle's responsibilities fell on the shoulders of Masters Gallian and Halmure. We, their understudies, were therefore under a great deal of pressure to perform with distinction. Eschegg in particular had been entrusted with many of Master Rochelle's official duties and a new gravity had instilled itself into his person. Often, in an attempt to please the old man, he would spend his nights studying liturgy and confessorial law. I had been assigned to the Sambul, one of Monta's most notorious riverside slum districts. Inspecting tenements and boarding houses made for dull work, but it had to be done. Like a tree, the populace required regular pruning to stave off canker in its roots. Or so the gospels said.
I was never able to do as Eschegg did, to put aside my thoughts and concerns in favor of the common good. I could never look at a bloodied woman lying on the floor of her own kitchen, hairless and striped with the marks of the lash, and think that I had done a good and necessary thing. I could not find righteousness in the sharp cries of those unlucky enough to be scheduled for defilement as they shook beneath me, teeth gritted and fingers knotted in damp sheets. It was not a woman who finally broke me, though, in the end.
It was Amon the butcher.
He had, I was told, suffered a scandal when his daughter became pregnant with the child of a local Archon's son and heir. It had been put about with no small haste that the girl had seduced the young feudale, but her father had refused to accept the charges. Amon's shop and the small apartment he kept above it had been burned, his wife and daughter crucified in the Goltha at the center of the city. The butcher himself, destitute and stricken with grief, had found his way to a sonorum den in the Sambul's low quarter. It was there that I found him lying, skeletal and rheumy-eyed, on a filthy mattress in a rented room where rats scurried over the floorboards and beads of condensation slid down the greasy window panes. From the doorway, dressed in my open black robe and lighter underrobe, I stared at the pitiful man. The katar, concealed on its spring-loaded grip in my robe's tight-fitting sleeve, pressed against my arm, cold and definite. Master Gallian had given it to me on my eighteenth birthday. A confessor's weapon, merciful and uncompromising.
Amon lay on his back, white beard and hair grown long and limp. His arms were outstretched on the rank and moldering mattress, palms upturned and stained yellowish-brown with sonorum powder. He was bare-chested, his ribs visible beneath his sallow skin. His eyes watered as they found mine, and I saw his toothless mouth move. “Forgive,” he whispered.
I crossed the room, floorboards creaking beneath my weight as rats fled before me. The men of my retinue, three soldiers in brown uniforms and an earnest young scholar by the name of Bartrem, waited outside. The scratching of the scholar's pen was loud in the sordid silence as I flexed my wrist, triggering the katar so that it sprang out of my sleeve with a swish of metal over cloth. The law was clear. I knelt and punched down, driving the katar's triangular blade into Amon's chest just beneath his sternum. Dermis, fat and muscle parted beneath the steel. The butcher's wasted legs jerked as the blade's guard slammed home against his breast. No cleansing light for those who walked of their own accord in darkness.
“How long will it be?” he gasped. “Until I am saved...”
“Not until all the people of Ul are dead,” I said. “Not until the last sin is confessed.”
“Pray for me,” he begged. His eyelids fluttered. Blood leaked from the corner of his mouth.
I pulled the blade from Amon's chest and wiped it clean on his sagging mattress. Straightening, I returned the katar to its sheath. “It would do no good,” I said.
The old man's breath rattled wetly in his chest as I strode from the foetid boarding room, out past my waiting escorts and into the bustling street. There were beggars burning incense in the gutters side-by-side with priests indistinguishable in dress and condition from their impoverished brethren. A pair of massive platybelodon hauled a granite sledge piled high with cuttings from the quarries along the muddy street. Their handler, a huge, powerful old man dressed only in a breechclout, walked beside the leftmost beast with a goad to guide its progress. I halted to let the sledge and its team pass, mouth pursed and hands clasped behind my back.
“A thousand pardons, confessor,” said the handler in passing as he smacked his charge on one trunklike foreleg. The beast groaned, its shovel-like tusks scraping the mud of the street.
I took other confessions that day. Perhaps a dozen, perhaps a score. I no longer remember. I returned to the temple as Sol set and Erebus began its last sad parabola across the horizon. The temple complex clung to the slope of Monta's highest hill, hemmed in by its own formidable walls and by the natural aversion the city's populace felt in the shadow of the confessorial order. The soaring arches and bright domes, surmounted by statues of our most beloved saints and divinities, were black against the sunset. I dismissed Bartrem and my guards at the base of the winding stair that led up to the temple's southern gate. It was my inclination to circle around through the funerary field, affording myself an opportunity for reflection before I gave my report to Master Gallian.
I knew, as I climbed the steep, smooth path between endless rows of mildewed headstones, what he would say. Amon had been virtuous, and he had succumbed to corruption. We had given him death, the greatest mercy it was in our power to give. Still, I saw him as he had been in my youth: strong and vital, faith burning in his proud mien. I pitied him, and grieved for him in the selfish fashion of the young who outlive, inevitably, their predecessors. Lost in these morbid reflections, I did not hear the soft, heavy tread of the thing that followed me until its rancid breath washed the back of my neck. I froze, wrist tensed to produce the katar's blade in an instant.
“Sweet Aben,” said a deep and melodious voice. “Dear boy.”
It was Hastuk, one of the senior gourmands who ran the temple's kitchens. Or, rather, it might have been had Hastuk's heart not failed in the summer before I rose to celebrant. Slowly, I turned to face my strange companion. I have observed that fear, for myself at least, is not a thing of the moment but a thing born of anticipation. When one waits with time to ponder over all the crushing permutations of their plans, hopes, dreams and designs, it is inevitable that despair should find some crack and slither in. But take that same man, throw him blindfolded into a lion's den with only a sharpened stick, and see how he fights for his life. With this tidbit of philosophy if not in mind then at least close at hand, I spun in a lightning-quick pirouette and slashed at eye-level with the katar.
The Crocuta cried out in Hastuk's voice, lurching away as my katar slashed its snout. Hot blood splattered my arm. I stepped back, falling into a crouch as the beast began to circle me. Its bulk was half-concealed by the shadows of the graveyard, but I knew that it was huge and strong. Its reddish-brown fur was mottled with darker patches. Its tongue hung from panting jaws.
“Dear Aben,” it said. “Sweet Aben. Come and join me. Your arms will tire, and I will take you into myself.” And it laughed, a psychotic cackle that sawed at the air as spittle dripped from its teeth. “Come in where it's warm, boy. Fresh bread if you're quick about it.”
I backed away, blade still at the ready. It had unnerved me with its idiot mimicry. The facility with which it reproduced the voice of what had (presumably) been its meal was uncanny. I could not help but think that perhaps some cruel intelligence lurked behind its lurid orange eyes. It smiled at me, blood running from its snout as it paced between obelisks and headstones. Bands of flickering light played over its coat. “Rolls,” said the Crocuta, slavering. “Hot from the oven. Come in out of the rain, lads, and sit yourselves down by the fire. By the fire, where it's warm.
“You can't last forever, boy.”
I lunged and it retreated, snarling deep in its throat. It feared the sharp, cold steel of the katar. A muscle wound to a creature of its large size would be perilously dangerous. I advanced at a rapid pace, stumbling over the uneven ground. The Crocuta snapped at me, eyes blazing with furious light. And then it turned and fled, bounding away through the funerary field. I watched it go with bated breath. My heart pounded hard against my chest. When I was sure the beast had left and did not lay somewhere in wait, I set off for the temple. The night was hot and my robes were soaked through with sweat by the time I arrived at the great iron doors of the western wall. The gate guards let me in once I had given the accepted sign. I felt strangely lightheaded, and the encounter with the beast had shaken my nerves, but since I was uninjured I decided to wash and give my report on the day's confessions to Master Gallian. There was no real need, I thought, to involve the temple guard.
When I had changed into clean robes and replaced my katar in its lead-lined case on my writing desk, I left my cell and went to Master Gallian's apartments. He was absent. His eunuch informed me that he stood watch over Master Rochelle's deathbed. I thanked the secretary and went at once to the Panopticon at the heart of the temple where Master Rochelle had his rooms. A pair of Necrohols waited outside the doors, which were bronze and embossed with the face of a man with burning eyes. I passed between the masked cenobites and into Master Rochelle's bedchamber where he lay, his head propped up on pillows, on a sleeping couch. Master Gallian stood gravely beside the dying man, his back to me. Light pulsed and thrummed across the walls.
The Panopticon was a unique location, in so far as I knew. Its walls were made entirely of panes of some thick, dark glass that showed at intervals the rest of the temple complex. From the couch where Master Rochelle now lay dying, a man could observe all that went on within the temple and the confines of its grounds. Images flickered erratically across the thousand separate panes. Some were smeared and indistinct, others unsettlingly sharp. The women in the kitchen were baking the next day's bread. It brought Hastuk, an unwelcome subject, to the forefront of my thoughts. I turned my attention from the panes to Master Rochelle himself. The ancient man had stirred at my entrance, muttering fitfully.
Master Gallian turned. He looked at me with a strange expression. “Abendrad,” he said. “You're late. I expected you before sundown.”
Death is of consequence in the halls of the temple, but it is not an unexpected guest. We Confessors deal in it as merchants deal in salt. I bowed and said nothing. I was alone with the two Masters for the first time in years. For the first time since I had nearly drowned.
Master Rochelle whispered something to Master Gallian, who turned and bent down with an ear to the other man's mouth. Master Rochelle whispered something to the other man, gesturing toward me with a veined and spotted hand. Master Gallian rose and beckoned me toward the sleeping couch where Master Rochelle lay, breathing heavily. I went to him. Master Gallian left us.
“I've a story to tell,” said Master Rochelle, so softly I had to lean in close to hear his words. “One you should listen to, boy.”
“Yes, Master,” I said.
Master Rochelle coughed, wincing as he did. When the fit had passed he sagged back against his pillows and for a moment I thought that he had died. “I was at the gate,” he said at last, his voice faint, “the night your mother brought you to us. She was such a young thing. Sixteen. Perhaps seventeen. A whore, as you know. She set you down on the steps and fled when I offered her sanctuary for the night. Fled the temple, and perhaps the city. I have no way of knowing.”
His hand closed over mine. The skin was dry as paper and strangely warm. “A lovely girl,” he said, his voice hoarse. “She was wise to leave. This city makes whores of us all.” He was overcome by another coughing fit, but his grip on my wrist did not relent and at last he mastered himself and pulled my ear close to his sunken mouth. “My funeral. Leave then.”
It was his apology, though I did not know it as I pulled my arm free of his claw-like hand and strode quickly from the room. I thought only that he was mad, or a liar. I knew my mother had died in my childbed. My footsteps echoed in that flickering space where images spilled in light along the walls. Master Gallian stopped me as I passed through the doors and into the hall. He laid a hand on my shoulder and drew me aside, into an alcove where a statue of Saint Antonina looked piously up toward heaven with empty marble eyes. “Speak to no one of this,” he said. His voice was terse, his grip like iron. He released me and stepped back. For a moment I believed that he would strike me, as he sometimes had when I was a boy. But he did not.
Instead he went back into the room where Master Rochelle lay dying, and I was left to stand alone in the darkened corridor.
I had to leave, I knew. Because Master Rochelle had warned me, because of the man I had tortured in the oubliette beneath the halls of the temple, and because of dead Amon who I had murdered. I would have to leave. The thought made my breath catch in my throat, made my chest contract with panic. Where could I go? How would I escape?
What would Indrastea do? Would she go with me?
Alone in the hall, I sat down at the base of Antonina's statue and tried for hours to pray.

CHAPTER SIX: HERMIOD

Master Rochelle's funeral commanded the attention of the great bulk of the Temple's inhabitants. Servants and brothers alike gathered in the shadow of the western wall to raise his wasted corpse on its iron crucifix. For three days it would hang, and then he would be taken down and placed in the womb of the earth. The last to rise from the cross had been the Arch-Emperor, and it had been thousands of years since his ascension to the throne. I did not join that thronging crowd. I was not missed. Not by Masters Gallian, Drasten or Halmure, who must all have known that I would flee. Not by Barlans, or by grieving Eschegg.
While the Temple mourned, I climbed the rubberized steps of the quiescent stair in the grand atrium and slapped my hand against the smooth steel face of the verithemo where it lay flush in the wall beside the doors of the ascender. Its needle-sharp teeth tasted my hand. The door slid open and I stepped inside. The ascender shot up through the darkness, toward the granpadre's apartments. I had no real plan.
The corridor beyond the ascender's doors was just as I remembered it; flat, featureless and metallic. I walked down it without hesitation and passed into the statuary chamber just outside the granpadre's apartments and laboratories. Lialisk was at the crucifixion. He would know of my crime against him only after I had gone. His sculptures were as unnerving as I remembered, caught somewhere between stone and flesh. Copulating men and women captured not in moments of ecstasy but in the pedestrian act of grinding against one another, sweat beaded on their marble skin as they gritted their teeth in boredom. Waiting eternally for release.
“Indrastea!” I called as I moved through that forest of carnal statuary, a lone point of black in a sea of stark white stone. Glimpsing the statue beside which we had first met, I made my way toward it. There was no sign of her. We had not seen one another for a week, but this in itself was not unusual. I had given it no thought until now. Panic began to edge my thoughts. What if she had been locked away? What if Lialisk had confined her to his apartments for some unknown reason? I left the sculpture room by the nearest door and found myself in another familiar chamber. The granpadre's display room, its walls papered with diagrams of the human form sketched roughly in dark ink. The statues here were fewer, and less recognizably human. Their bodies were distorted in subtle ways, their expressions twisted with rage, fear, pain and horror. I found myself revolted and, having no wish to remain there, I took the door most immediately accessible.
The chamber beyond it was a startling contrast to what I had seen of the rest of the granpadre's apartments. A perfect octagon, one wall host to the door through which I entered, the rest dominated by soaring windows of stained glass. Cushions covered most of the smooth stone floor and fragrant incense burned in a dozen censers hanging from the walls. Indrastea lay in the center of the room. Her skin was flushed, her lips parted. Her pupils, grossly swollen, flicked from side to side beneath heavy lids. Her limbs moved with the sluggish grace of a swimmer, heels dragging through the pillows and silken sheets that lay tangled on the floor.
“Get up,” I said. I had no desire to touch her as she was now.
Indrastea blinked, slowly, before pushing herself up onto her elbows. She paled. “Aben,” she said. Her voice was hoarse. “You can't be here. If he-”
“Lialisk is at Master Rochelle's funeral,” I said. “Get up. We're leaving.”
Indrastea stood, though the languor of her movements betrayed the continued influence of whatever stupor I had discovered her in. She wore a skirt, slit the length of her full thighs, and a man's coat, open over the overfull swell of her breasts. A choker of golden slats was fitted to the elegant curvature of her throat. I was taller than she, now. It felt strange to look down at her as she moved to the window and leaned against its frame. Her body seemed slack, her stare distant. I waited for her to collect herself, and as I waited I wondered how long she had lived in the temple. How long she had been a whore to Lialisk? She looked now as she had when I first saw her.
“Aben.”
I looked up, reverie broken. Indrastea had moved away from the window. Her eyes were wide, her complexion grey. Outside, beyond the walls of the temple, fire was raining from the sky. Funnels of raging flame stretched earthward, burning away the dark clouds that hung over Monta. They danced and twisted with mad vitality, raging ever closer to the earth. We watched in silence as the first of the vortexes touched down just beyond the walls of the city.
It vanished. Smoke drifted on the wind, and the others followed suit. I counted nine of the great firestorms in the moments before they dispersed, leaving greasy smears of smog to roil lazily where they had howled. The city was silent. Wounded clouds churned overhead. I stepped back from the window, taking Indrastea by the arm. “We have to leave,” I said. “Master Rochelle's funeral won't keep them occupied much longer.” I swallowed, thinking that perhaps my brothers were already pouring back into the temple to record and analyze what they had seen. The necrohols would consult their observatory, Drasten, Gallian and Halmure their texts.
The granpadre would almost certainly return to his apartments. Indrastea stumbled after me as I strode through Lialisk's sterile apartments, moving toward the ascender. I had forgotten how slowly she moved, how much of her swaying grace was a mask meant to hide her crippled gait. I am ashamed to say that I grew impatient, that I spoke sharply to her as we entered the long corridor immediately preceding the ascender's shaft. The eyes set in the walls swiveled to track our passing. “Tear your skirts, if you have to,” I said, pulling on her arm as she slumped against me “We can't be here when he returns. Or don't you want to leave?”
At that moment, the temple bells began to ring. Cursing, I pulled Indrastea close and began to drag her down the hall by main force. She clung to me, not frightened but exhausted. Her bare feet slid drunkenly over the floor. The doors of the ascender slid open at our approach. Out of the lift car stepped a naked man with flames dancing about his head, like hair. Tall and muscular, he moved with all the confidence of a feudale despite his nudity. His eyes, which were a vibrant blue, found mine. “Where is Lialisk?” he asked.
I stepped back, wrist tensed to release my katar. Indrastea's nails dug into my arm. The man clasped his hands behind his back and pursed his lips. “Come now,” he said. “Where is he?”
The bells continued to ring, chiming the alarm. I turned and ran with Indrastea stumbling at my side. She was heavy, but panic lent me strength as I tore down the hall.
The naked man was waiting in the doorway to the sculpture room, leaning against the frame with his arms folded across his chest. I stumbled to a halt and pushed Indrastea behind me. The doors of the lift slid shut with a loud clang.
“Enough,” said the man. “Tell me where Lialisk is, or I'll kill the both of you.”
I was far from defenseless. I had my katar, and my training in the art of confession had prepared me to kill men in any number of ways. This man, however, unnerved me. I held back, trying to claw through my panic to the warding light of the Psychologos.
He moved, blurring past me in a roar of flames. My lips split and I was thrown back against the wall, ears ringing as blood drooled down my chin. Disoriented, I turned and saw that he stood once again before the doors of the ascender. He smiled. How could anyone, anything, move so swiftly? I wiped blood from my chin. “He's in the courtyard,” I said. “At the funeral.”
“Well,” he said, grinning, “that wasn't so hard, was it?” He turned, and as he did the doors of the ascender slid open a second time and Master Gallian lunged from the cart and drove his katar hilt-deep into the naked man's chest. The black-robed Master's face was a mask of concentration as he gripped his opponent's arm and twisted the katar's blade. The flames licking around the thing's scalp flickered as he slapped at the length of steel buried in his flesh. A low wail of pain escaped him, and then, with a shriek and a howl of wind, he wrenched himself free of Master Gallian's glowing grip and fled. Blood sprayed the walls in his wake.
Master Gallian stood for a moment, staring at Indrastea. She pressed herself back against the wall in terror. Master Gallian strode to me and slapped me, hard, across the face. His own mien was pale, his teeth bared. “For one of his toys?” he said, his voice strained. “You risked yourself for that thing? Get out of the temple, boy. Take it with you, now that you've made an ass of yourself.”
Indrastea wilted back against the wall. I kept a hand on her arm, silent before Master Gallian's towering rage. He had not struck me since my accession to the ranks of the brotherhood.
“Go,” he said again. “Keep out of sight. There are other hermiods in the halls.”
I moved past him, pulling Indrastea toward the lift car. A great weight seemed to hang about my shoulders, and as the doors slid shut I turned to speak to my Master. To offer some farewell, or beg forgiveness for having once sneered at a servant. I was just in time to see him die.
The naked man appeared as though from nowhere, twisting in midstep like a dancer, and drove a bloodied fist through Master Gallian's belly. His blow tore the older man nearly in half and I saw the wild elation on his handsome features as my Master slumped back against the wall and slid to the floor, the light that had burned in him for as long as I could remember flickering wildly.
I threw myself at the closing doors, shouting obscenities as I did, but Indrastea held me back and my last glimpse of the granpadre's apartments was of the hermiod standing over Master Gallian's broken body, its own bloody hand raised before its eyes as though for inspection. The ascender plummeted down toward the atrium, pursued by the thunder of the temple's bells.
The rest of the day remains a nauseating blur in my memory. I recall that we saw bodies in the halls and that several times we were stopped for questioning by the temple's frantic guards. We left by one of the gates and disappeared into the vast and decaying sprawl of Monta. It is to my disgrace that I thought nothing of my friends, of Barlans and Eschegg or poor Trebatius. Indrastea and I fled to an inn in the Sambul. It was a dirty place, nameless and nondescript. The city was in turmoil after the terror of the burning sky, but the Sambul was unflappable. It would exist no matter what horrors befell the world. That night, as strange lights flitted over Monta and the temple's beacons sliced through the dark, we lay together in a cheap room. There was an urgency to our lovemaking.
In the morning I rose early and sat for a time on the edge of our bed. It was hot, Sol and swollen Erebus sharing the sky so that their differing hues of radiance cast everything in a vague and orange light. I sat there, naked and sweating, while Indrastea slept. Where would we go now? I had, it seemed, spent a great deal of my life desiring freedom from the temple and the life of a confessor. Now that I had it, it seemed I had never known anything half so frightful. I dressed, vomited into the washbasin and then shaved with the dull razor lashed to the stand. I reflected, as I regarded my face in the mirror over the basin, that I would need new clothes. Something inconspicuous. I had some small amount of money on my person. It was standard practice for a confessor of my rank to carry funerary coins for use in various rituals.
Master Gallian was dead. I folded and set down the razor. My hands trembled as I ran them under the tap and then through my dark hair.
The inn's proprietor was a slouched, toothless man who seemed disinclined to shift from his seat behind the battered front desk. I left him with a day's rate and went out into the Sambul. Traffic on the streets was sparse. I bought fruit and white cheese at a vendor's stall, then went in search of a tailor. It took a while to find a shop, a shabby lean-to packed with reams of shoddy cloth and run by an aged seamstress obviously desperate for work, still open in the city's quiescent state. I waited outside on a folding chair as she adjusted a shirt and trousers to my tall frame. When she had finished I dressed myself in a muddy alleyway and then bought a burlap sack to hold my robe and vestments.
“Watch the skies, child,” said the old woman as I pressed a coin into her weathered palm. She placed it in her battered till, motions slow and deliberate. “It's a time for mourning.”
I returned to the inn by a meandering route. It was hot, and soon my new shirt was dark with sweat. Sol and Erebus hung low in the sky, uneven eyes staring down at all of Monta with uncaring scrutiny. The patrons of that nameless inn were congregated in the common room and engaged in breaking their fasts. The smell of eggs and soft guava permeated the air. Nearly to the stairs, I gave the room a cursory look. It was foolish to think that some member of the temple might find and recognize me here. We never ate outside the walls of our home. Still, the inn's clientele were an unsavory lot and I could not shake the feeling that several among them were engaged in watching me. A giant seated by a window, spectacles perched on his crooked nose, regarded me with special scrutiny.
I slipped into mine and Indrastea's room. She still slept, dark hair fanned out over her pillow. Her respiration was slow and underlined by a deep, glutinous wheeze. I set out the fruit I had bought and busied myself with slicing thick wedges of cheese. I would need a plan to leave the city. Somewhere to go. I could hire myself out as bodyguard to a merchant caravan, or perhaps seek employment on one of the river barges to Lii or Hana. Sighing, I set down my knife and sat down heavily in one of the room's unsteady wicker chairs. I ran my hand across my face, imagining Master Gallian's body torn in half.
I had dreamed of it.

Leviathan Sleeps: Part I
Shmifty
iamdemandred
LEVIATHAN SLEEPS
Micah E. F. Martin

CHAPTER ONE: ABENDRAD

As I set my pen to paper, I think that there is only one place to begin an account of my experiences. Boyhood, not birth, was the real genesis of my life, and one night in particular defined the rest by the strength of its far-reaching effects. If I am to be forced to dissect myself, to reach into the heart of the matter that is Abendrad, then it is there that I will reach.
The night was cold. I crept, as I often did, on silent feet to the southern and decaying bank of the dark river that ran beneath the temple of St. Anthony the Confessor. The temple was built upon the only hill in the whole great and indolent sprawl of the city. The river ran beneath it through the catacombs and vaults to crash down the hill's bald slope and, broken by its fall into courses separate but invariably attracted, out in spidering fashion through the stone and iron landscape of Monta. It was this view, the meandering veins of the river cleaving through Monta's towers and tenements, drenched in the pallid light of the moon, that I saw from my vantage point on that hill. I was thirteen years of age, caught fly-like in the spider's web of boyhood and struggling for a maturity I did not truly desire.
Sodden moss squelched between my bare toes. I pulled my thin brown robe over my head and, leaving it crumpled on the bank, dove into the pool the current's churning had made at the mouth of the temple's bowels. The water swallowed me up, wrapping me all around in dark and frozen cold. I drifted, thinking of Master Halmure's thin mouth and the way his lips twisted when his temper was on him, as it had been during the evening meal. He would surely remember his foul mood for many days. I was glad that my studies lay under the supervision of Master Gallian, who was much more even in his temperaments.
Floating beneath the rippling surface of that pool I drifted in the chill water, my skin prickling with the cold. It seemed perception had become a fluid thing, swirling mistlike around my eyes, so limited was my vision beyond the senses of my Water. Sounds echoed powerfully all around me. I imagined that the waterfall's muffled roar was the voice of some distant Gargantua, reaching out as they were said to do to grasp for handholds in the minds of men who dreamed too deeply. After a short while I was obliged to return to the bank and, gasping and shivering, to scramble up into the chill night to collect my robe and sandals from where I had left them.
Master Gallian was waiting on the mossy verge. I felt, as I stood cold and dripping in the shallows, that instinctive sense of boyish shame that has long since deserted me. I looked down at my feet and said, “I'm sorry, Master. I know-.”
Master Gallian was a tall man, lean and narrow-waisted, with a head of thinning grey hair. Even in memory, though I know I am now near his height, he seems much taller than myself. Light, bluish cross-hatchings of dim radiance, limned him as it did certain of the temple's brethren. He raised a hand to silence me. “Dress yourself,” he said.
I did, and he led the way up the mossy hill and around the bulk of the temple's west wing. That ancient structure, sunk deep into the hillside by virtue of its great weight and unique composition, must have appeared menacing to outsiders. To me, though, it was hearth and home. Shivering, I hastened to keep up with Master Gallian's long stride. I burned with curiosity as to what had brought a Master of the temple out onto the grounds in the dead of night. If it had been a matter of punishment alone, an adjunct would surely have been sent.
I followed Master Gallian up the sweeping iron stair that encircled the hill and led to the yawning, empty archway of the temple. Night laborers, poor men with little talent and fewer prospects, worked to polish and plane fresh vigor into the ancient steps. I glanced at one of the men as we passed and a sneer, born of every privileged youth's innate knowledge of superiority, tugged at the corner of my mouth. Master Gallian's hard hand wiped it clean with a harsh crack of skin against skin. Sparks fizzed over my face as some of Master Gallian's light washed over me. My teeth clicked together. He seized me by the arm and dragged me along, quickening his pace. I made no protestation. I had not known he supported Equanimity.
We passed through the gaping arch, a rotten and arcane construction of wrought iron standing two meters from the doors of the temple, and then into the building itself. The antechamber was a vast space, empty and echoing with its many columns and great stairways leading up to several different floors or galleries. Windows paned with stained glass let in the moonlight through colored filters. The low thrum of the dynamos in the undercroft was loud without the noises of the temple's daytime traffic. Even at its loudest, though, I could always discern that throaty rumble. As though some ancient and fulminating beast lay dreaming in the foundation stones.
The stair directly opposite the doors clicked to life as we approached, its rubberized steps gliding smoothly upward toward the ninth floor where the ascenders, iron crates that rose and fell at the pull of a lever, waited in their shafts. Master Gallian pushed me roughly onto the step ahead of him. He put a hand on my shoulder as we rode the stair in silence. His palm was callused and rough. After a time, he said “A temple cleric should comport himself with greater dignity. You shame yourself with your common manners, boy.”
I said nothing. I remember clearly the dissonant feelings of rebellion and guilt that churned in my stomach. At last we stepped off of the moving stair, which halted at once with a puff of steam from the copper vents set beneath the bannisters, and walked together to the ascenders. There were nine steel doors set flush into the smooth, cool wall of the ninth floor gallery. Each opened onto an ascending crate, though two doors had been left to rust shut because the ascenders behind them no longer functioned. Master Gallian brushed past me to press a finger to the verithemo, which tasted his blood. The door slid open with a hiss a moment later. Wiping his hand on his robes, Master Gallian took hold of my wrist and drew me into the cramped, filigree-walled ascender. He pulled a lever set into the cart's floor. The door closed and we began to rise. I heard the wheeze of machinery at work.
Lights flashed past outside the filigree. Each one seemed to dawn above us, then sink rapidly. Like a fading star. Master Halmure had told me that someday all of the stars would go out. The final triumph of entropy, he called it. Now, I see the humor in the old man's cynicism. Then, it terrified me.
“Granpadre Lialisk has sent for you,” said Master Gallian, after a long silence. Before I could respond he had turned me around and bent to put his eyes on a level with mine. It was a profoundly personal gesture from a man who had always conducted himself, in my presence, with utter impersonality. I was too shocked for words. “Listen to me, boy; there are three things you must not do in the granpadre's presence. First, do not lie. Second, obey any command he may give you. Third, never meet his eyes. Do you understand?”
I said, “Yes, Master,” and Master Gallian released me, folding his arms over his broad chest. He seemed pensive, and not a little frightened. I could conceive, in my now-enviable state of innocent stupidity, of nothing that might unnerve a Master of the temple. I had never met granpadre Lialisk, and my image of the temple's reclusive master and guru was a fuzzy, disinterested one. The old men I contended with daily, Gallian, Halmure, Rochelle and Drasten, bored me enough to stifle all interest in their undoubtedly senescent superior.
The ascender slowed, then stopped. The doors opened onto a hall utterly unlike any I had seen before within the walls of the temple. It was all of white iron, or some other metal, and very smooth with no seams or joins visible to my eye. It ran on for perhaps forty meters before terminating at a round door of the same material, which gave me an impression of great strength and imperviousness. There were no windows.
Eyes opened in the walls to watch our progress along the corridor's length. They swiveled in their mountings, actinic blue gazes tracking our bodies; washing us in sheets of grainy light. I was unnerved, though pride kept my chin up and my pace steady. The portal door at the hall's end rolled aside as we approached it, flooding the corridor with warm yellow light. Strains of music floated out. The eyes receded back into their concealed recesses. I stepped through the door behind Master Gallian, craning my neck to take in the intricate opulence of the chamber beyond the threshold. It was some sort of antechamber, richly decorated with gilt and carved hardwood. A bowl of water on an iron table held the floating petals of early jonquil. Marble caryatids, nude and beautiful, supported a ceiling frescoed with oil renderings of copulation between men and women. I was fascinated, but not overly so. The paintings were no more explicit than those I had seen in the Vetruvian Texts.
Granpadre Lialisk was waiting in what I took at the time to be a sort of display room. Diagrams of the human form seemed to cover every wall. Statues of odd composition, distorted in subtle ways, occupied various plinths in the center of the room. The granpadre was a short man, balding and heavyset, dressed only in a white chimere and skullcap. He stood, facing away from us, with his hands clasped behind his back. His gaze was trained on the chiseled countenance of a marble woman reclining on a plinth. Master Gallian drew to a halt and restrained me with a hand on my shoulder, though in truth he would have had to drag me had he wished to approach any closer to the statue, which gave a terrible impression of arrested vitality, as though it labored eternally to draw breath. She was long and slim with flaring hips and a narrow waist.
This is to say nothing of its observer, who had done nothing to acknowledge us. You may, depending on the mores and convolutions of your own society, think it not unusual for a man of such high standing to ignore his subordinates, either as a gesture of authority or out of simple disinterest. In the close and cloistered world of temple life, it was not usual in the least. Masters acknowledged their students in the halls, if curtly, and every cenobite and frater kissed his equals on the cheek in passing. From the lictor in the low chapel to the necrohols in the catacombs, we were united, a family of bitter men and sheltered boys. Master Gallian, to my surprise, showed no sign of offense.
At length, Lialisk abandoned his examination of the sculpture and turned to face us. Or, rather, me. His sharp black eyes, nestled deep in webs of wrinkled skin, pierced mine. With one square-fingered hand he tipped my skull back, turning my face from side to side as though he were a physic examining my bones for rot. “Thirteen?” he asked, not turning to look at Master Gallian.
“Yes, granpadre,” said Master Gallian. The timbre of his voice suggested a deeper degree of submission than I had believed it capable of conveying.
The granpadre hooked a thumb between my lips and exposed my gums. He said, “Leave us, Master Gallian,” and waved toward the door.
Master Gallian departed without a word, and I was left alone with Lialisk. He took me by the arm, his palm smooth and unlined, and led me away from the statue (I swear on my left hand that I saw it move) to a doorway hidden by a certain clever arrangement of angles in the wall. Beyond the doorway was a hexagonal room, stone-walled, set with two windows and centered on a padded chair with a sturdy iron frame. Lialisk directed me to undress, which I did, though the air was uncomfortably cold. He felt my chest with an open hand, frowning to himself as he passed his palm over my heart.
Naked, I shivered as the granpadre waved me toward the chair. I sat, knees together and arms folded. Lialisk's eyes bored into mine. They were blacker than flint, set far apart on his square, unremarkable face. I knew instinctively, by some subtle external betrayal of Lialisk's temperament, that I was expected to remain silent. Some men, I had heard from the older acolytes in my dormitory, preferred the affections of boys to women. Perhaps Lialisk was a pederast. But he did not, as he examined me, seem interested in the slightest by what he saw. His touch was brusque and perfunctory, his manner cold.
“Have you taken a lover yet?”
The question caught me by surprise. I had fantasized, perhaps with more imagination than my peers but no less typically for that, and once a scullery girl had let me feel her breasts in exchange for a book from the temple archives, but I had yet to do the deed. I looked down and said, “No, granpadre.”
“Do so,” he said, not looking up from his examination of my ear canal. “Your humors are of an age to rebel, and semen will spoil, unused.” He gripped my head again and twisted my neck until I stared up at the ceiling, eyes smarting. His free hand cinched leather straps tight around my wrists. He released me and reached up to pull on a chain hanging from the ceiling. A sheet of black glass in a metal frame slid smoothly down. There was a flash of light from the sheet, which blinded me, and then a crackling hiss.
As my vision returned to me in a dizzying series of flashes I saw Lialisk inspecting the sheet. It was changed, marked now with what looked like a strange, ephemeral rendering of a man's skeleton. “You'll have your growth, soon,” said the granpadre, running his fingers over what I thought must be an image of my skull. Sweat beaded on my forehead.
He asked me several questions, took samples of my blood and phlegm and gave me an injection in the crook of my arm that pained me for several days afterward. I cannot say that I was not afraid, but my comprehension was insufficient for real terror. Instead I was unsettled and defensive, even after Lialisk removed the leather straps binding my arms and I was allowed to dress myself. He took another look at my face, turning it first to the left and then to the right, and then he turned and strode to one of the long, narrow windows. He put his flat, square hands on the sill. “Send in Master Gallian on your way out,” he said.
I hesitated, my confusion, wariness and curiosity warring, before common sense won a rare victory and I left through the door I had entered by. As I did, though, I could not help but glance back at the granpadre. What I saw would hold a special place in my nightmares for years to come. Lialisk still stood at the window, but where before it had looked out on Monta's just-waking bulk, it now displayed a scene at odds with that familiar urban tangle. A field of flowers, bathed in the ruddy light of a single bloated red sun hanging low in the sky. I left.
Retracing my steps to the antechamber where Master Gallian waited proved problematic. Granpadre Lialisk's apartments were dimly lit at best, and the strange, twisted forms of his sculptures made my head swim. I wandered down corridors indistinguishable from one another, all built from the same seamless white metal as the entrance hall. Until, after what felt like hours, I came to the display room beyond which lay the antechamber and, presumably, Master Gallian. The display room, though, was not empty. A woman stood in the center of the chamber, admiring, or so it seemed, the same statue that had so unnerved me. Even without seeing her face, I knew that she was beautiful. Her dark red evening gown did nothing to hide the smooth swell of her hips, the shape of her rounded buttocks and the full thighs above her long, slender calves. Her waist was narrow, her hair an artless tumble of black that fell to just below her shoulders. She turned at my approach (or perhaps I gasped) and I, overcome, halted. Her features were perfect, not in some idealized and chiseled way, but as enshrined in the mind of every man who has ever known lust. Her wine-dark eyes were heavily lidded, her lips full and red. Her breasts were heavy, white and round. “Do you think I'm beautiful?” she asked. Her voice was the gentle wind of a hummingbird's passage.
Unthinking, I said, “Yes.”
Her lips twitched into a hesitant smile. “Then help me,” she said.
I could think of nothing to say. Master Gallian would be waiting, and I couldn't even imagine the punishment meted out for speaking to one of the clerics' odalisques. Much less the granpadre's. And yet, I felt a desperate urge to do whatever this unbearable woman asked of me. My young self ached for her, body and mind compelled toward something that embodied not just the physical beauty of her voluptuous, perfumed flesh but also that elusive quality of desire itself. She was beauty, a poem described in sighs and grunted breaths. Something sordid, something clean.
I said, “I can't. I'm only an acolyte.”
“Someday you'll be a master, and then you can bring me away to live with you.”
I shifted, looking down at the floor. “I don't know. Perhaps.”
The granpadre's concubine stepped away from the statue with tiny, mincing steps. Her feet were very small, and I could see that her thighs rubbed together when she moved. It must have been painful for her to walk at all. She bent down, her gown pooling around her heels as its neckline revealed a wealth of soft, white flesh to my staring eyes. “I can give you what I gave the others,” she said softly, and an unspoken sorrow passed over her lovely oval face. “Just remember.” She rose and left with the same delicate, precise steps. Her hips swayed from side to side with lazy fluidity.
I swallowed, trying to ignore the painful stiffness in my groin, and said, “What's your name?”
She paused in a doorway I had not seen before, her hair falling across her face in a way I am now sure was deliberate. “Indrastea,” she said.
And then she was gone and I went out to the antechamber and told Master Gallian that the granpadre wished to speak to him.

CHAPTER TWO: THE SECOND SACRAMENT

I was a whore's child, the clerics told me. Left in swaddling clothes on the steps of the temple by the Madame of whichever brothel had served as my first cradle. As such I was plagued by none of the hundred little heartaches that afflicted my peers. I had no parents to mourn. The sons of whores are fatherless. Nights in the dormitory tower were often stretched long for me, lying awake with the muffled sobs of the other boys echoing in my ears. Still, I had dreams of Indrastea to occupy my waking nights and my studies as an acolyte to busy my days. Master Gallian drilled his apprentices rigorously in theology, mathematics, metaphysics and various other accepted sciences.
We were, down to the youngest apprentice, expected to recite on command any principle of any given discipline from philosophical dialogues to the proper arrangement of candles around the altar on St. Michael's Day. It was a demanding environment for a young boy, but, or so the clerics would have had us believe, one preferable to that of the boys forced to live in squalor in Monta proper. It was said that fish who chanced upon the waters of the Benaz (the river that had been host to my nighttime wanderings for as long as I could remember) within forty miles of Monta would die, strangled by the vileness in the current. The city, though, no matter its squalor, was a source of constant fascination for me. When daydreams of Indrastea's lush body lost their power to fascinate, I could always retreat to the nearest window to gaze out at the cancerous sprawl of Monta. From my vantage point on the temple's hill I could look down at all of it, its glorious decay writ large across the river valley of its birth and decline. The towering walls had been raised under one monarch or another, forgotten now to history, and the founding had dwindled from memory centuries before.
To return to the subject of my formative years, they followed a staid and predictable formula. Aside from the deviation of my audience with the granpadre, each day proceeded as though scripted by playwrights. We, the apprentices, woke each morning an hour before dawn with the tolling of the ghostly bells in the campanile. We washed ourselves in the morning heat, dressed, and descended the three hundred steps to the refectory where the masters ate at a high table on a dais of weathered stone. We sat on benches at long, low trestle tables and ate unsweetened porridge and crusts of bread. I can still recall the taste of that porridge, bland and overcooked. Sometimes Master Drasten would see that we were all accorded a spoonful of honey. I think it was because his great ugliness gave him a need to be loved. We, for our part, obliged him.
Our mornings were given over to prayer in the sepulcher where, as Master Gallian read in a deep, sonorous voice from the Liber Sancti Ecclesia, Master Halmure strode up and down the rows of prostrate boys with a leather strap stretched between his hands. Chores followed prayer, an interminable slog of laundry, floor-washing, stable-mucking and the scrubbing of pots. Lessons, held after the noontime ringing of the bells, were far from a respite from this rigorous routine. As I have said, they were exhaustive in their depth and breadth, our Masters unforgiving of laxity.
I learned a great deal of what it is to be a cog in the great machine of the Ecclesiarchy, from my own lowly role to that of the Masters, the Ecclesiarchs, who took confessions and judged in high courts for the Archons, Barons and Feudales. More than this, though, I experienced the things that every boy does. I made friends, my own peers Barlans and Eschegg foremost among them, and various petty nemeses whose names I choose now to forget. They are unimportant to my story. An introduction of my closest companions, however, is in order. Barlans was an old soul, well-read and studious. He laughed often, told bad jokes and had, when it suited him, the foulest mouth I have ever heard. He was short, bandy-legged and unprepossessing. Eschegg was wasted in the priesthood, an Archon's third son with chiseled features and an imperious bearing. For all that, though, he was entirely incorrigible. No disciplinary measure, short of raw torture, has been invented yet that could contain or break him.
We all carried the scars of Master Halmure's strap, and it was unusual for a week to pass without our being sent into his presence. He was, though I now see him for the bitter and hapless man he was, something of a nemesis to us. I recall one occasion on which we crept after dusk into the orchards and stuffed ourselves with oranges, only to be caught by the groundsmen and brought to Master Halmure's study in the Terra Purga. Halmure was the least approachable of the temple masters, a scowling man with a ruff of dark hair and a hard, powerful face. His chest was covered in grizzled white hair, his eyes by tinted visual lenses. The guards brought us into his antechamber and told us to wait. We did, cold and nervous. He emerged from his bedchamber minutes later, bare feet slapping against the flagstones as he approached us. The groundsmen left us then to cower before that archaic fixture of temple justice. He stalked forward, lips pursed in disapproval. I thought, as I often had, that he looked more like a pimp than a priest. He did not glow with subtle light, as Master Gallian did, or live a life devoted to service as did Drasten.
“Have you learned nothing?” he asked us. There was a polished ashplant in his hands. His question was a simple one, flat and uninflected. His pitiless dark eyes darted between us.
Barlans looked down at his own feet, studying the grain of the wood-paneled floors. I did my best to meet the old man's eyes, but could not match Eschegg's defiant glare. I broke off and joined Barlans in contemplating my shoes. Master Halmure's cane blurred out and caught Eschegg across the face, knocking him to the floor. “Shame on you,” he said, voice rough. “Have you learned nothing?”
Eschegg pushed himself up on his elbows, blood drooling down his chin. I still don't know why he defied Master Halmure so stubbornly, but it earned him a fierce punishment. The old man left him unable to sit for a full week, and he had to swallow his mash through split lips.
Halmure's beatings were memorable, if not for any great quantity of imagination, then for their thoroughness. He caned us all, and then made us recite from Origenisis the ninety-nine tracts detailing the Avatar's temptation in the fruit garden of the Demiurge, who had created all. Men like Halmure confuse the symbol of a thing for the thing itself, and while our theft was reprehensible it was also, to that purist, a sacrilege. It was my first unwitting introduction to the disparate theological factions within our temple, and within the Ecclesiarchy itself.
Halmure stared at us for a time when we had finished our recitations, the corners of his sour mouth turned downward in a frown. “Think on what you've learned tonight,” he said. “I do not wish to see you here again.” And with that, he turned and went back into his bedchamber. The door closed.
Barlans and I left upright, if only just, and dragged the cursing, half-conscious Eschegg down the steps from Master Halmure's apartments to the parapet of the north curtain wall. Overlooking the bailey on our left and the funerary field, burial ground to the temple's prisoners and priests alike, on our right. Eschegg was in rare form, his honey-colored curls lank with blood and sweat, his lips magnificently split by Master Halmure's ashplant. “I swear, I'll cane that cacogen,” he mumbled blearily, feet fumbling over the smooth stones of the parapet as we passed by one of the patrolmen.
The guardsman, clad in a suit of legatus armor that made him twice a man's size, turned toward us, a broad grin splitting his weather-roughened face. It was Trebatius, one of the night watchmen. His handful of golden teeth gleamed in the lamplight of his watch station as he set down his arquebus against the parapet's retaining wall and lit a thick cigar. “Trouble again, eh lads?”
I sighed, pausing with Eschegg's arm still draped over my shoulder, and said, “We've come from Master Halmure's. What do you think?”
Trebatius blew smoke. It hung in lazy curls around him, drifting in the still air. “I try not to,” he said with his customary unpolished good nature. “Something we have in common.”
I was going to retort when Barlans, who had been staring out over the retaining wall at the endless rows of headstone-marked mounds of the temple's funerary field, let out a startled cry and ran to the wall, leaving me to stagger under Eschegg's full weight. “What in Hell's name is that?” shouted Barlans, pointing. Trebatius whirled, cursing, and grabbed his arquebus in one massive gauntlet. The floodlight attached to the weapon's heavy muzzle clicked to life, washing the headstones in grainy radiance. I followed the sweep of the arquebus, Eschegg peering blearily over my shoulder, and then nearly stepped back off of the parapet in shock. Something massive, man-height at its shoulder, was clawing at one of the fresh-dug graves nearest to the wall. It was somewhat like a dog, but high-backed and with a saw-toothed grin that might have belonged to a carchadon. It looked up sharply as Trebatius's light found it. Its eyes shone like a cat's, and I saw in that moment that a great quantity of hair and skin, still bloody, hung from its jaws.
Trebatius opened fire without hesitation. Illuminator rounds stitched through the darkness as the ancient weapon roared in the soldier's hands, ejecting spent shells. Little puffs of dirt flew up around the grave-robbing beast as it bolted, hurling itself with reckless speed between the headstones. A moment later and it was gone, vanished into the night with only the open grave and its mangled occupant to mark its presence. I stared, heart pounding in my throat, as Trebatius's fellow watchmen came running toward us through the infrequent pools of light along the wall.
Barlans grabbed my sleeve and tugged, pulling me away as one of the other soldiers bellowed questions. He, Eschegg and myself descended a switchback stair cut into the wall, crossed the bailey and returned by way of the servants' corridor to our rooms in the dormitory tower. The lateness of the hour demanded silence as we walked, and by the time we had reached our destination we were too exhausted to discuss what we had seen. Barlans and I helped Eschegg into his cot and then departed for our own. I winced as I stripped off my robe, crusted to my back by dried blood.
Other boys snored in the dark of the long, narrow hall.
I lay down carefully, gritting my teeth against the stretching of my half-scabbed cuts. I never heard any sound, but after I had lain a while, unable to sleep, I felt a soft, cool hand on my raw back. The smell of some nameless perfume filled my nostrils, and the cot sank beneath another's weight. It had been a month or more since I had seen Indrastea in the granpadre's tower. I had supposed, for no reason I could now recall, that she was confined there somehow. I turned my head on the pillow to look at her. She sat beside me, a long gown hugging tightly the exaggerated curves of her body. Her dark hair was loose. “I can't be here long,” she whispered, and then she leaned down and kissed me on the mouth. Her lips tasted like honey. She said, “Poor boy.”
I was confused, weary and in pain. I sank into her, into the deep pools of her black eyes and the softness of her flesh. We must have looked strange, an ugly youth and the most beautiful woman I have, to this day, ever seen. And yet our fumblings were equally graceless, adolescent and eager in character. I wanted her as only she could be wanted. My hand rose to cup one of her melon-like breasts. Her lips left mine. She rose, the folds of her gown falling to the floor as she tucked a strand of hair behind one perfect ear, above which she wore a fresh orchid. Moonlight from one of the windows set high in the dormitory's south wall touched her cheek.
She left, kept to a slow sway by the roundness of her thighs. I watched her go, pulse pounding uncomfortably. Sleep was a long time in coming.
In the morning we were roused by Master Drasten, who was Master of Acolytes, and sent about our duties. Master Drasten, as I have mentioned, was not an attractive man. Short, squat and bald with a crooked mouth, squashed nose and pockmarked, jowly cheeks, he dressed always in stark black and wore a dark glass videlle over his left eye, which was milky and blind. Without the videlle he would have been far uglier, for it lent him some small measure of sophistication where his face suggested the lowest birth and crudest upbringing. He woke us with enthusiasm, striding down the aisle between our cots and clapping his square hands in a brisk rhythm. “Up and about!” he would bellow, turning on one foot when he had reached the end of the aisle. “Wash and dress before the Remonstration! Cleanliness in body is cleanliness in spirit.”
I rose stiffly and, with some difficulty, pulled on a clean robe before lacing up my sandals. Each movement strained my marked back and shoulders, testing the new scabs. I straightened, shutting Indrastea from my mind as I fell into line beside an equally disgruntled-looking Barlans. I was half-convinced that she had been nothing but a dream, and discussion of the creature in the graveyard (an older boy called it a Crocuta) distracted me further. We apprentices progressed in orderly fashion from our short, bulky tower along an open suspension footbridge to the temple and then, passing through the outer cell blocks of that colossal structure, into the Solarium. It was a combination of lecture hall and audience chamber, a high-ceilinged space built in the style of the oldest Gothic cathedrals with soaring vaulting and elaborately carved caryatids. A single gigantic skylight, wrought-iron bars separating its panes, let in a flood of sunlight from above. Masters Gallian, Halmure and Rochelle occupied three of five massive stone seats at the hall's elevated end, lording over the vast and empty space left for the apprentices, myself included, to stand. We did so, organizing ourselves by age as Master Drasten ascended the broad steps of the dais to his own seat, leaving only the granpadre's place unoccupied.
In the center of this enormous space was a glass-walled room within the room, an oda where six men in ragged prisoners' grays knelt in chains, guarded by a pair of celebrants, older boys who had risen in the ranks with the last year's accession. I felt a thrill of anticipation. We had not had a Remonstration in some time. Now Master Gallian rose from his seat, virile in his middle age beside the other elderly Masters. In his left hand was the familiar bulky apparatus of his filtration mask, a holy relic of our order. “The Arch-emperor, hallowed be his least proclamation, has sent these destitute souls to us for chastisement,” he said. His voice echoed in that expansive room. He began to descend the dais. “The Confessor's Brotherhood, oldest of the nine churches, faithful conduit of the Demiurge's inscrutable will, honors the dictates of the Arch-emperor's earthly authority.” He left the dais and crossed the floor of the chamber, robes billowing about him as he pulled on his mask and stepped past the two celebrants and through the door of the oda. He pulled it shut behind him. Faceless behind the glass and black rubber of the goggles and filter, he turned, and it seemed he faced me.
There was a lever in the center of the oda's floor. Master Gallian's light-scribed hand closed around its grip and pulled as the prisoners cursed and wept, silenced by the oda's thick glass walls. Only one held his composure, and I thought, judging by his smooth cheeks, that he was castrati and so didn't count. The prisoners held their breath for as long as they could, until one by one their faces purpled and their instincts betrayed them to sudden, explosive inhalation. One man, a fat and ill-looking specimen with yellow teeth and greasy hair, slumped against the oda's wall. Blood ran down his chins and I could see that his tongue had ruptured in his mouth.
The rest fought, thrashing and twitching until at last their lungs were overwhelmed by the Remonstration and they collapsed, foaming at their mouths. Master Gallian pulled the level back into vertical alignment, waited eleven minutes as we bowed our heads in prayer, and then emerged from the oda into the silent room. He removed his mask, leaving red lines cut into his cheeks, forehead and chin in strange counterpoint to his aura of light. “The criminal's life is forfeit,” he said.
We answered in kind, a chorus of young voices raised against his deep, mature one. “The criminal's life is forfeit.
“He whom the Arch-emperor calls criminal is indeed criminal. Let there be no question.”
“Let there be no question.”
“Amen.”
“Amen.” I joined my voices to those of the others, understanding unconsciously that to appear united was to assure our place in the Arch-Emperor's great diaspora of subjects.
We departed in groups, according to age, when the Remonstration had ended. The youngest boys went with Master Drasten to see to further chores and then to their lessons while the next group, true apprentices (myself included) went with Halmure, Gallian or Rochelle to our separate wings of the temple complex where we would be lectured and shown demonstrations of various proscriptions of our brotherhood. Barlans and I were pupils of Master Gallian while Eschegg studied under the ancient Master Rochelle (the only man to whom I have ever seen him show real respect), so we parted ways without thought and went to our work.

CHAPTER THREE: MASTER ROCHELLE

I was fourteen when Eschegg, two years my senior, became a celebrant. He was raised to his new office, along with three other boys of equal age, on the midmost day of Second Winter when the two suns hang both in the sky for one short hour, bright Sol highest and dim Erebus lower to the horizon. I and my fellow apprentices, Barlans included, sat together on the long, low benches of the refectory hall-decorated now for the festival of accession. Eschegg, Master Rochelle and two of that ancient man's older students occupied the Masters' dais behind which hung ten enormous scarlet banners alternating the intersecting parabolas of our order and the Aquila of the Arch-Emperor. Eschegg, his golden hair cropped close to the lines of his skull, looked uncharacteristically grave in his black celebrant's habit.
I have described Master Halmure as an aging man, but beside Master Rochelle he might have been a strutting bantam all in the flush of youth. Master Rochelle, from the time of my earliest memories of belonging to the brotherhood, walked only with the aid of a curious silver cane, and even then he was uncertain on his feet. Once he might have been tall, but age had shrunken him and stooped his shoulders until he resembled nothing so much as a sheet of papery skin stretched over brittle bones. Wisps of white hair clung to his spotted scalp and he wore ground crystal spectacles to aid his failing eyes. Now he stood at an iron pulpit between Eschegg and Thurmond, another of his pupils, with the third boy (I think his name was Garret) standing to Eschegg's left. The ancient man's hands clasped the edges of the lectern, thick tendons standing out.
The other Masters stood among us, watching their old associate's moment of pride. The thought that this would be Master Rochelle's final Accession was on every mind, as it had doubtless been for the past twenty years. I wondered who would replace him when he died.
Master Rochelle chose that moment to clear his throat and straighten up as much as his stooped shoulders permitted. His eyes scanned the room, then moved to the lectern before him where, I knew from Master Gallian's tutelage, the whole of the Book Inchoate, from Origenisis to Reconciliation, resided in the form of light. He began to read in a whispery, quavering voice that carried no further than my own row near the front of the assembly of apprentices, celebrants, necrohols, lictors, primates and temple staff. The old man read from the Book of Chemuel, expounding on the miracle of the Carcinogenesis (which had brought Chemuel's daughter, Lamia, back from Hell in a new body) and on the seeding of the thousandfold worlds by the Demiurge.
At last, after several hours of Master Rochelle's unsteady recitations, the aged man quit his pulpit and ordered his students to strip, which they did. With a vigor I would never have credited him with, Master Rochelle set to beating them with his silver cane. It was a ritual I had seen yearly since childhood, the final scourging of the apprentice to relieve him of all his sins before he took up the mantle of celebrant in the Ecclesiarchy. The sight of Eschegg's blood, being another common childhood experience, did nothing to hold my attention. Rather, I let my mind wander while my eyes remained fixed on the ceremony before me. As it invariably did when given free reign, my imagination drifted to thoughts of Indrastea. Her heavy breasts pressed against my face, her dark hair floriate and fragrant as it tickled my bare chest. The taste of rosewater on her lips.
It was difficult to track the occasions on which she had visited my cot, for they blended so readily with my frequent, vivid dreams. Three times, I think, in the year since I had met her in the granpadre's art room. The new celebrants rose and pulled on their dark robes, open over the chest in the fashion of the Masters (though lighter in color, and of inferior cut). They and Master Rochelle led us in prayer, and then we all processed out into the bailey in the falling snow. The temple's ancient artillery pieces launched fireworks and other pyrotechnics far out over the city, where they burst like flowers in the darkness. The younger apprentices passed through the milling ranks of the brotherhood with glasses of spiced cider and hot wine. I took one to warm my hands as I stood in the cold, watching the fireworks and thinking of Indrastea.
“Well,” said Barlans, appearing at my side with a half-empty cup of cider in his hands. “That's it, I guess. Gallian will have us up there next year.”
I nodded, not really listening.
Things were different after that day. Barlans and I went without Eschegg's company more often than any of us would have liked. Master Rochelle's poor health meant that his celebrants were busy with the routine administration of the temple's business; dealing with the merchants who supplied the brotherhood; playing jailer and confessor to the prisoners sent to languish in the dungeons by the Arch-Emperor's judges; interring the city's dead in the mortuary field on the first and fifteenth of every month. Glamorous things, to my young and inexperienced judgment. Even the dredging of the leach fields beneath Monta's streets, occasions over which a ranking member of the brotherhood ritually presided, seemed holy and momentous to me.
I was conscious, after a time, of my own changing place within the brotherhood. Master Gallian had begun to take me with him more and more often when he went about the execution of his duties, even those that demanded descent into the city. We were nearing the Day of Clemency, our order's annual audit of Monta, and there was a great deal of work to be done. The city's manifold penitentiaries required assessments of their clientele, administration and sanitary works-a vast undertaking left solely to the sparse ranks of the brotherhood. Often we would interview certain of Monta's citizens, ascertaining their education, their piety, their loyalty to the Arch-Emperor and to his Ecclesiarchy. It was dull work, and I think most boys of my age and active temperament would have found themselves bored, but I took to it with enthusiasm and a natural aptitude. Under Master Gallian's brusque tutelage I began to learn the ancient art of the Confession.
Our brotherhood's equally ancient role as caretakers of the city's wells, cisterns, leach fields, reservoirs and aqueducts was not neglected-I received a thorough education in the mechanics and ritual adherent to each aspect of our sacred trust. The techniques of the Psychologos were also imparted to me, mainly by Master Gallian's practical examples in the field. I learned how to bring guilt and fear to the surface of a mind, how to track the meaning of ocular movements and the pulsing of the veins in the head and neck, and how to hold the crass emotions of the penitent between my reason and my logic and, thusly, to influence them. To my adolescent mind it was power I had never dreamed of. Particularly vivid in my memory, which is poor at the best of times, is the day that Master Gallian and I, accompanied by an escort of scribes, technicians and legion regulars, went to the home of Amon the butcher. Amon was a poor man, but a generous one, and respected. He greeted Master Gallian at the door of his small apartment, built over his shop and meat lockers, dressed in shirtsleeves and stained trousers. He was a big man, muscular and heavyset. “Forgive me, father,” he said in a rough voice as he bent and kissed the ring on the fourth finger of Master Gallian's right hand. “I have sinned.”
“Be at peace, my son,” said Master Gallian, taking Amon's head in his hands. “How long has it been since your last confession?
“One year, Father,” said Amon.
Light bloomed around Master Gallian's skull, illuminating the whole room. Amon's eyes closed. His mouth fell slack, and then began to move. He confessed.
I was in awe. My own command of the Logos and the Reas was incomplete, insufficient to the task of holding a man's mind between the two. What Master Gallian did now was poetry to my scratching in the dirt.
When it was ended and the scribes had taken down the full accounting of the butcher's sins (I will not recount them here, for he believed them to be a matter between himself, the Ecclesiarchy and the Demiurge), Master Gallian held Amon and let the man weep against his shoulder. I remember the glow of contentment on Amon's face as we departed. Often, the men and women of the city would, on the days they knew the brotherhood to be in the area, light incense in their sitting rooms and play at piety, beating themselves with leather switches. I had seen Master Gallian flay one of these charlatans, and rack another. I had been allowed to assist on the second occasion, and never have I seen Master Gallian so furious as he was then. Light had poured from him like blood.
On the evening after Amon's confession, I was taken aside after chapel by Master Gallian and Master Rochelle while the other boys filed off to the dormitories. Eschegg shot me a terse look across the hall, which left me nervous and out of sorts as the Masters led me out of the refectory and into the summer gardens on the left slope of the temple's hill. The city glowed dully below us, spread out like the corpse of a leper carpeted with fireflies. Stunted trees surrounded us, casting long shadows over the koi pond. Master Gallian stood, silhouetted against the blood-colored sky while Master Rochelle put a wrinkled hand on my shoulder. I could feel his weak, fluttery pulse. Master Gallian did not look at me. “Your studies are progressing well, Aben,” he said, light dancing between his teeth as he spoke.
I swallowed. “Thank you, Master.”
“You have a talent, boy,” said Master Rochelle in his whispery voice. “Master Halmure speaks highly of your piety, and Master Drasten says you are not prone to weeping at night.”
I thought of Master Halmure's cane splitting the skin of my back, and said nothing.
Master Rochelle squeezed my shoulder. His hand trembled as he did. “We are all tested,” he said. “As was the Avatar by Loyaloth in the garden. Some of our brothers, boy, are found wanting when called to task. Weak in flesh, weak in spirit. Sobbing for their mothers in the dark.
“Our order is a high and lonely calling. We do the Demiurge's justice, maintain the artifice of His temple and extract the confessions of this city's sinning masses. Do you know why?”
I shifted uncomfortably, glancing at Master Gallian. He stared out at the city and said nothing. “I don't know, Master,” I said at last.
Master Rochelle released my shoulder and hobbled around to face me. He was a tall man, even bent beneath the weight of his age. “Judgment,” he rasped, his rheumy eyes watering. “We exist to expunge sin, to cleanse the soul through the airing of the mind and heart. Through us, Man is freed from the burden of his venal nature.”
I had listened, enthralled, as the ancient man moved closer; now his face was only inches from mine. I could smell garlic and rotting teeth on his breath. “We are tested,” he wheezed, “so that the Demiurge can be certain of our conviction. Only the pure can purify.”
“Come here, boy,” snapped Master Gallian.
Master Rochelle nodded placidly, stepping aside. I went to stand with Master Gallian. Beside us, the dark-scaled koi swam in circles in their pool. He took my arm and guided me to the edge of the pool where mossy ground met still water. A gnarled little willow, dwarfed by frequent pruning, trailed its weeping branches just above that glassy surface. Master Gallian released me and knelt down on the bank, staring into the water. I followed suit, excitement and apprehension mingled in my thoughts. I had seen Indrastea in the gardens, once, from a distance. Walking with the granpadre (the only time I had ever seen him outside) she had seemed free of her usual clumsiness, gliding along with easy grace.
Master Gallian slid his cupped hands beneath the water and splashed a handful over his face. Sparks, little dying stars of light, blew backward along with stray droplets as they swept over his skin. I thought his face looked like a sagging statue, once chiseled and now wrinkled by time and weather, care and weariness. The corners of his mouth and eyes were heavily lined. Water gathered in his wrinkles and ran down his still-sharp chin to drip back into the pool.
Master Rochelle's cane slammed into the back of my head and I tumbled into the pool with a cry, stars bursting before my eyes. Cold water enveloped me. I inhaled without volition, drawing the chill of death into my lungs as the agitated surface retreated. My robe billowed around me. Fish swam lazily before my eyes, darting about. I clawed, maddened by fear of drowning in that miserable, foot-deep abyss. Master Gallian's boot drove down through the water and onto my ribs, pinning me to the mossy bottom of the pool. I fought to keep from sucking more fluid into my lungs.
In a moment of bizarre clarity I watched silvery bubbles erupt from my mouth and nose, streaming toward the surface. My fingers clawed at the sodden folds of Master Gallian's robe, clutching at his leg. Raw panic thundered in my ears alongside the galloping beat of my heart. I kicked and struggled, straining for the surface. Drowning in a foot of water.
Abendrad.
The voice was music. It was beauty. It was the crash of waves upon the shore. I heard it clearly, past the guttering of my own lungs and the disturbances of the pool. The koi fled from me, vanishing into their enclosure's mossy crevices. I was drifting in the sea and a man's face was rushing toward me. He was vast, larger than a mountain, and his eyes blazed with white light. His lips parted, revealing teeth like millstones. I knew that I was nothing before him.
Abendrad.

******

Master Rochelle was seated in a chair at my beside when I woke on my back in the medicarium. I was hopelessly weak, feverish and drained. The weight of the sheets on my chest seemed incalculable. My limbs trembled with weariness. Tears rolled down my cheeks, blurring the sight of Master Rochelle and the rows of empty cots beyond him.
Master Rochelle wet his lips and said, “You are to speak to no one of what passed between ourselves and Master Gallian.”
I choked back a sob and said, “Yes, Master.”
The aged man rose from his seat and put a dry, soft hand on my brow. He smelled of dust and the rose oil we used to wash ourselves before chapel. “You'll be one of us,” he said, his voice quavery and thin “A high seat in the hall. Someday, boy.” His fingers smoothed my sweat-damp hair back from my brow, and then he turned and limped away.
After he left I leaned over the edge of the cot and vomited until my throat burned and my stomach seized. My innards felt as though they were out of order, guts wrapped around spine in a carnal embrace. A necrohol, robed in black and with a silver mask covering his face, came to sit beside me on the bed. He wiped my mouth with a damp cloth as another of the funerary cult cleaned my sick from the flagstones. I wanted to ask him if, as Eschegg had told me in confidence once, he and the rest of the custodians of the dead and ill were lepers themselves, but my tongue was swollen in my mouth and my breath was coming only with difficulty.
The necrohol rose from my bed, smoothing his robes with gloved hands. “Rest,” he said, his voice distorted by the mask he wore. Blush cross-hatching covered him as it did Master Gallian.
I was already drifting away as he spoke, too weak to keep my eyes open a moment longer.
I slept.

Cactus Blues: Part 2
Shmifty
iamdemandred

By seven o’clock they were outside and waiting for the clucks, a company car idling near the train, its wheels sunk into the still-muddy ground. Karen, impatient to be off, drummed her fingers against the dull steel of the car’s hood with its bas relief woodlouse. Thorpe fidgeted with his tie. E. W. smoked alone by the passenger car’s front right leg, eyes red and hair disheveled. Jon hadn’t slept, but he felt strangely refreshed. Dressed in his only surviving clean clothes he waited beside Thorpe, hands in the pockets of his pinstripe trousers. The air still held the flat, metallic smell of rain and grey clouds hid the sun.

“Foul weather,” said E.W.  He laughed, hysteria tingeing his voice.

“Quiet,” said Karen. She straightened up, hands clasped behind her back. “Here come the birds.”

The clucks came robed and hooded out of the dust, their stilts sinking into the cracking mud. They moved with staccato grace, heads bobbing up and down as they approached the car. Four yards away they halted, six of them, claws wrapped around the pegs of their stilts, hands clasped at chest level. Their leader bent his head to Karen, his wattles trembling. “She-khan,” he grunted. His beak clicked. The smell of wet feathers and musty wool surrounded him. Jon tried not to wrinkle his nose.

“Good morning, khan,” said Karen. She didn’t offer her hand, and the cluck seemed not to expect it.

“We will take you to the wellspring,” said the cluck. It turned, its hood hiding its profile, and set off at a bounding lope. The others followed, cloaks flying.

“Gentlemen,” said Karen. “Into the car.”

 

****

 

The company car, driven by hatchet-faced Sutton, rattled and bounced over the muddy hardpan. In the backseat, Jon sat with his chin resting in his hands. The wind ruffled his dirty blond hair and made his eyes water. Even with the night’s rain it was still dusty in the desert. The clucks kept ahead of the car with ease, bounding along on their stilts. Beside Jon, Thorpe twiddled his thumbs and looked troubled. “What do you think it is?” he asked Jon, shouting over the wind’s thin howl. “Their god, I mean.”

“Big fucking cactus,” said E. W., grinning thinly.

The rest of the ride passed in silence. Jon thought about smoking, but didn’t.

The clucks halted at the base of a low sandy ridge and Sutton brought the company car to a shuddering halt. Jon stepped out of the car, a sense of bleak serenity settling over him. Whatever happened, it was going to happen soon, and he had a pretty fair idea what he’d see over the hill’s crest. His dream was waiting for him there.
“We walk from here,” said the khan, tapping the ground with his left stilt.

They set off up the ridge in a group, the clucks walking with exaggerated care in the loose soil. Jon’s heart began to pound as they came to the top of the ridge. The clucks spread out in a half circle around the Company men. They kept their feathered hands raised and their beady black eyes downcast, except for their khan who stood proudly with his hood thrown back. “Behold,” he said, sweeping a clawed hand across the sweep of the bowl valley beyond the ridge, “the Mighty Griswold, Font of the Sacred Spring.”

The cactus, two stories tall and wide as a house, loomed in the center of the valley, its bulk ringed by a moat of pure water. Grass covered the rich, dark earth and pink flowers bloomed amidst the verdure. Small black eyes stared out over the water and its wrinkled, fibrous mouth was twisted in displeasure. Karen pushed past Thorpe and began to descend the curve of the bowl. Jon followed her, his eyes on the immense cactus that had spoken to him in his dreams. Behind him, Thorpe and E. W. followed at a distance, Thorpe hesitant, E. W. miserable and drunk.

When they reached the edge of the Mighty Griswold’s moat, Karen halted. The cactus-god stared down at her and she returned its gaze without flinching. The cactus’s mouth moved, wrinkled lips shifting slightly. “You…are…she…khan,” it rasped. Its voice was like old tree trunks breaking. “I…see…fire…in…your…eyes.”

“You know,” said Karen, reaching into her coat with a slim, elegant hand, “I thought you’d be bigger.” She produced a stick of dynamite and, with a casual flick of the lighter in her left hand, lit its fuse.

Jon stared. The hiss of burning cordite was drowned out by the roar of an approaching engine as a second company car flew over the hilltop, sand pluming around its wheels. It slewed down the valley’s curve, workmen with rifles and shotguns leaping from its running boards. Karen wound her arm and hurled the sputtering dynamite at Griswold, who closed his eyes and sighed deeply. The clucks were squawking furiously, long knives appearing from beneath their robes. The stick of dynamite flew in a graceful arc over the moat and landed at the cactus’s roots.

“Oh Jesus,” said E. W., on his knees in the sand. He cradled his head in his hands, weeping. “Oh Jesus.”

The dynamite went off with a bang that sent Jon reeling, hands pressed to his ears. Chunks of fibrous vegetable matter rained down around him along with sticky blue sap and broken thorns. Heat and wind slammed against the barkeep-turned-foreman like a pounding wave. He stumbled away from the blast, ignoring the soundless screams of the clucks as they advanced with knives drawn on Karen. Bragg drew the pistol holstered at her hip and shot their khan clean in the throat. His stilts folded and he fell to the sand. The workmen opened fire on the rest. Griswold’s immense bulk had been scorched and blasted half to pieces, his face, apart from one beady black eye, had been entirely burned off. His remains were slumped like an invalid, smoking copiously.

Jon saw Thorpe standing pale and drawn beside Karen as she watched the clucks retreat, sprinting away while the workmen fired at them. Two stumbled and fell, one without a head, the other clawing at its ruined side. Jon halted, breathing hard. His ears were ringing. Four of the six clucks that had escorted them to the spring were dead, sprawled on the grass with blood soaking through their heavy robes. “Jesus God,” Jon breathed. “What the hell did you do?”

Karen, if she heard him, said nothing. She’d holstered her gun and was walking toward her car without a care in the world, long hair swinging from side to side. She turned to look at Jon and a smile curved her lips, slow and satisfied. Jon fought the urge to throw up on his shoes. The workmen were laughing, slapping one another on the back as they cleaned their guns and followed their employer toward the automobile.

“E.W., no!”

Thorpe’s strident cry was distant in Jon’s damaged ears. He turned, his feeling of nausea worsening, and saw the scientist lying on his back beside the moat, Thorpe kneeling beside him and cradling his head. E. W.’s thin chest was rising and falling in short, labored hitches and there was blood all over his chest and shoulders. Thorpe looked at Karen and shouted something, tears running down his broad face. The woman looked back at him without pity and Jon saw her lips form the words: “What the hell use is he to me?” She turned and climbed into the car, dark glasses flashing.

“Help me get him to the other car,” said Thorpe. Numbly, Jon walked to the dying E. W. and took his legs while Thorpe slipped his arms under the tall, thin scientist’s and lifted. E. W. was light, easy to get over the hill and back to the first company car, abandoned in the sand. Sutton, Karen and the workmen were already diminishing into the distance by the time Jon and Thorpe had gotten E. W. strapped snugly into the backseat and pulled away from the column of greasy smoke rising from the crater. Jon’s hearing was returning in increments. He stared at his hands while Thorpe drove back to Lawson.

 

****

 

There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Oceanside a month later. The mayor, a huge goateed man with the Company’s woodlouse on his ascot, loomed in the center of a sea of aides, thugs and lickspittles. Half of Oceanside had turned out to watch. Jon and Thorpe stood to either side of Karen as she climbed the steps to the railroad platform and, with a flourish of her shears, snipped the red ribbon neatly in half. The crowd applauded, led by their smirking mayor and his cronies. Jon felt like laughing, or sobbing, as the suspension trail glided smoothly into the station. It hung eight feet from the ground, each car connected to the suspension cable by electric wheels.

There was a speech by the mayor that Jon didn’t listen to, and then the huge man left the platform with Karen in tow and the crowd started to break up. Jon, hands in his pockets, looked over at Thorpe. The other man looked sick. “Bar?” asked Jon, arching an eyebrow.

An hour later they were slumped across from each other in a booth at the Sunflower Tavern, Thorpe on his third glass of whiskey while Jon spun his empty wineglass on its stem and ignored the laughter and conversation of the bar’s other customers. He had money in his pocket, but it felt like lead weights, not freedom. “Think E. W.’s alive?” he said.

“We did what we could,” said Thorpe, putting down his drink. “Besides, I don’t think he cares one way or the other.”

“Boys,” said Karen.

Both men turned, Jon blinking blearily. Karen Bragg was standing beside their table in a sleek black dress. Her hair was up in an elegant knot, dark and shining in the bar’s dim lighting. Jon could smell the alcohol on her breath as she put her hands on the table and leaned in toward him and Thorpe. “How’d you like to work the new rail line?” she asked, her lips curving up from her teeth in a smooth, callous smile. Bragg stepped back from the table, one hand pressed self-importantly to her chest. “I’ve been promoted, of course. Company liaison to the Mayor’s office, and supervisor of the Hoover-Oceanside line.

“I’m a powerful woman now,” she said quietly, sliding herself onto the table. “I can give you anything you want.” One of the bar’s patrons whistled loudly, but if Karen heard him she gave no sign. Her eyes, half-closed above the slim crescent of her smile, were bloodshot slits. Her slim hand flicked out, fingers walking slowly up Thorpe’s wrist. There was a look of naked, desperate greed on her thin face. Jon felt a sudden deep sense of pity for her. He stood, slapping a few coins and a crumpled bill down on the table.

“I’ll take the job,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Bragg turned sharply, a few strands of her dark hair escaping her knot. She slid off of the table, her fingers leaving Thorpe’s arm. The other man looked tired and troubled.

“You won’t regret it, Mr. Morton,” she said softly.

As Jon turned to leave, Karen put a hand on his shoulder. He half-turned, removing his glasses. Thorpe was already out the door, his broad back vanishing into the evening crowd. “You know why I did it?” hissed Bragg. Her face was close to Jon’s, the smell of alcohol heavy on her breath. “The Mayor paid us to wipe the clucks out, to take the spring from them. He needs that water to survive what’s eating his lungs, and we’re going to be the ones bottling it.” The smile slid cunningly back into place, making her look for a moment like a grinning fox. She kissed Jon full on the mouth, her tongue sliding snakelike between his lips. “I make you sick,” she said, pulling back an inch. “That’s good. I like that.” She took his hand and pulled him out of the bar, sliding with smoky grace through the crowded bar.

“You’re going to run the line,” she said as they stepped out onto the street. “I’m going to make sure the city serves the Company’s, and, more importantly, my, interests. I don’t think we’ll see much of each other.” She turned, her hair falling out of its knot and across the left side of her face. Jon felt his skin crawl. “Let’s enjoy tonight. I can pretend you’re Edward, and you can pretend I don’t make you want to shoot off the roof of your mouth.”

She pressed a finger to Jon’s lips. “I’m drunk,” she said. Tears glistened in her eyes. “So are you.” She took her hand away and kissed him again. “In the morning, you won’t even remember hating yourself for this.”

 

****

 

Jon sat sleeping in the locomotive of the Hoover-Oceanside suspension line, his head resting on his arm in the car’s small, square window. The wind ruffled his hair and the sleeve of his shirt. The sun was just rising and in the front of the locomotive the engineer was easing the train’s brakes into place as it approached its first stop. Jon woke with a start and sat up, blinking away the fog of sleep. He was disheveled, his clothes three days old and stained with spilled wine. Outside, the smoke-wreathed bulk of the bottling plant sat brooding on the carcass of Griswold the Mighty, its pipes sunk deep into the sand. Jon stood up and went to the engine’s ladder, ignoring his driver’s greeting.

The ladder unfolded with a hiss of pistons working and Jon climbed down to the dead brown grass of the bowl valley. E. W. was waiting for him in a camp chair, the stump of his right leg swathed in cotton bandages. Workmen surrounded him, carrying boxes marked RENAISSANCE BOTTLING PLANT 019 to the train’s lowered cargo cars. The scientist looked thinner than he had on Jon’s last visit and there were shocks of grey in his wild hair. “Everything’s on schedule,” he said. “Problems with the tribes have been minimal.” His lips thinned into a bitter line. “This place is dying, of course, but what does that matter?”

“To her?” said Jon. “Not a whole hell of a lot. How’s the leg?”

E.W.’s mouth twisted into a sneer. “Still missing.” He gestured to the padded wooden peg leaning against his chair.

Jon pulled a cigar from his breast pocket and lit it with practiced ease. “It’s been a year. You’d think they’d have something better than a stick for you.”

“You’d think,” agreed E.W. “Any word from Thorpe?”

“No,” said Jon. “Not since the rail got built.”

An uncomfortable silence descended on the two men. After a minute or so, E.W. picked up his peg leg and fastened its leather straps around his knee. “We’ll watch the men load the Mayor’s magic bottles,” he said, levering himself upright. “I can sign your forms, you can sign my forms and bureaucracy will live another day.” He stumped off toward the cargo cars where his men were lifting crates and placing them on padded pallets. Jon followed, blowing smoke.

“I’ve had enough,” said E.W. His voice was tight, strained. “She’s having them killed, Jon. The men here don’t answer to me. They’re only here to shoot clucks.

“When you took me to Lawson, the doctors had their hands full just keeping me alive. It was a cluck medicine man healed me, even if they still had to take off the leg. One of their khans sent him, because a survivor told him that I’d grieved for Mighty Griswold.” The scientist laughed bitterly. “Grieved for it. I was drunk, and scared out of my mind. I didn’t deserve to be saved.”

When the boxes were loaded, they shook hands and Jon climbed back into the train’s locomotive while the cargo cars rose back into position and E.W.’s workmen retreated from the boarding platform. Jon turned at the top of the ladder, but E.W. was already gone. “Poor bastard,” he said to himself, and closed the door behind him.

A day later, the train pulled into Oceanside’s station. Jon stepped out onto the platform. He liked the city, cleaner than Lawson or Hoover and with the smell of salt in the air. His nightmares weren’t so bad when he slept here. Karen was waiting for him on the platform with two men in the uniforms of Oceanside’s sheriff’s department. He blinked, surprised. “Karen,” he said.

“Relax, Jon,” she said, smiling thinly. “I’m not here for you.”

Jon turned, looking back along the train’s gunmetal length. E.W. was stepping calmly out of the rear passenger car, a gun in his hand. Thorpe was with him, sunburned and grim. The rest of the car’s passengers gave them a wide berth. “Don’t try to stop us, Karen,” said E.W. “Everyone’s going to know what you did. Whether they give a shit or not, they’re going to know.

“I’ve had enough lies.”

Karen drew and fired without a hitch. E.W. staggered and his back hit the side of the train, his own gun falling to the platform. The platform’s occupants, frozen watching the scene, began to scream. Thorpe caught E.W. before he fell, cradling the other man in his arms. “You shot him,” he choked.

“Yes,” said Karen, holstering her pistol. The deputies to her either side had drawn their guns and moved out to push back the panicked crowds. Other officers joined them. “I know he was your friend, Marvin,” she said, spreading her hands, “but look at the big picture. In a few hours, I’ll be the Mayor of Oceanside and you can either be with me, or you can be against me.” She straightened, hands behind her back. “What’s it going to be, Marvin?” Her eyes narrowed. “Jon and I, or the corpse in your arms?”

Thorpe looked down at E.W. and gently, slowly, he lowered the dying man to the platform. He straightened, looking at Karen. Jon couldn’t take his eyes from E.W. This is it, he thought, watching the scientist’s chest shudder. I let this pass and I might as well kill myself. I’m going to go to Hell.

There was a pause, Thorpe and Karen staring at each other. Thorpe’s mouth was twisted, his hands clenching and unclenching. Karen looked like an eel, slippery and full of teeth. And then Thorpe turned and ran. He vanished into the crowd before Karen could so much as raise a hand. Jon watched his friend go. I don’t even have the stomach to run away. I’m sorry, E.W.

“We should get to City Hall,” said Karen, tearing her eyes away from the place where Thorpe had vanished into the crowd. “The Mayor should be half dead by now.”

“You poisoned him,” said Jon dully. He couldn’t seem to feel surprised. On the platform by the train, E.W. coughed, wheezed and sagged into stillness. A dull ache joined the rhythm of Jon’s heartbeat. He wanted a drink.

“He had it coming,” said Karen. She turned and left.

Jon stayed on the platform until the county doctor came to collect E.W.’s corpse, and then he followed Karen to City Hall.

 

****

 

Mayor Walter M. Thurgood had died just after lunchtime, complaining of a stomachache. His deputy, Karen Bragg, was sworn in before his body was cold. And before Bragg’s hand left the Bible she was calmly dispatching orders to the Sheriff and deputies were streaming out of City Hall in automobiles and on foot. The whole while, Jon sat in an antique chair in the office of the former Mayor and, with his feet on the dead man’s desk, drank Thurgood’s expensive whiskey. E.W.’s gun lay on the desk beside his feet. Karen paced back and forth in front of the window, watching the city as evening fell and the electric streetlights came on.

“What’s the matter, Karen?” Jon asked. “All the right people are bought. All the trains are shut down. So”-he paused to take a long swallow of Thurgood’s whiskey-“it must be Thorpe. He’s got you…got you riled.” The one-time bartender chuckled darkly. “Guess we’ll all see what’s what ‘fore tonight’s over.”

“And just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” snapped Karen, rounding on Jon. Her hair flew, outlined in stark black against the sunset. “Keep your mouth shut while I’m thinking, you fucking hayseed. Every move I make from here on out is vital-”

“Yeah,” Jon interrupted. He took another swallow of whiskey, enjoying bitterly the warm golden feeling as it burned its way down his throat and into his stomach. “Vital, sure. God knows Oceanside’ll never last without you as Mayor.”

Karen threw him a poisonous look and turned back to the window. She looked small in silhouette, a slim little woman with long hair and narrow shoulders. Jon felt again a sort of nauseous pity for his employer. Why he’d stayed with her, he still didn’t know. Nowhere else to go. I’m in the bottle and the bottle’s in me. Ha, E.W. would you love to see me now. I’m right where you were, but I’ve got this gun…

It was nine o’clock when the deputies stopped sending back reports. Karen returned to her pacing. Jon drank and brooded. At half past nine, a fire started near the docks and neither of them said anything. By ten, Jon could see small mobs gathering in the streets, and by quarter past they were in the town square with guns and torches. He knew without looking who’d be there with them, at the head of the crowd. “Just like old times,” he said, getting unsteadily to his feet and placing Thurgood’s empty whisky bottle on the desk.

Karen half-turned, her expression drawn. “You don’t see what’s at stake here, Jon,” she said tersely. “You don’t understand the first thing about it.”

Jon put a hand on the desk to steady himself. “Your deputies all went home,” he slurred, “or else they’re out there with the crowd. Either way, we’re gonna die.”

The crowd raised its voice and surged toward City Hall. “Looks like they know Walt didn’t die clean,” said Jon. He sat down behind the desk and clasped his hands between his knees. Somewhere below, doors began to break. Jon heard the hungry crackle of fires spreading.

Karen stood in the center of the room, her hands shaking. The big oak double doors were closed and locked, but there were footsteps coming up the stairs and the floor shook under their feet. Jon lit a cigar and started to smoke. Something slammed into the doors and Karen jumped, biting herself hard enough to draw blood. Jon laughed to himself as the doors began to splinter and cave inward, hinges screaming. Thorpe came through first, pushing the door in ahead of him. He crossed the room in three huge strides, slapped Karen’s gun out of her hand and, grabbing a fistful of her hair, forced her to her knees. He put his gun to the back of her head. Eight other men stepped into the office, one carrying a phial of gold-tinged water. From the building’s lower floors came the sound of breaking pottery. “Poisoned him,” said Thorpe. “Killed E.W. in broad daylight. You didn’t really think you-”

“Stop it, Marvin,” snapped Karen, straining her neck until blood ran from her scalp. “You don’t know what you’re fucking with.”

“I know you’re a murderer,” said Thorpe, and his voice was tight with grief and reluctance. Jon stubbed out his cigar on the Mayor’s desk.

“None of this was my idea,” said Karen, her tone changing from bullying to pleading. She twisted her head as far as she could, looking with wide, tearful eyes at Thorpe. “Please, Marvin, you have to believe-“

He shot her. Jon saw what it cost him, saw the agonizing pain that flitted across Thorpe’s honest face, the way he averted his eyes from the blood and brains fanned out over the carpet. He let go of her hair and she fell flat, trailing smoke from the hole in her skull. Thorpe took a deep breath and let his gun fall to the carpet. The other men in the room, dockworkers and the lads from the steel mill, even a few railroad employees, looked on in stony silence. Thorpe turned to Jon. “I guess I don’t have to worry about you,” he said. His voice was an older man’s voice, tired and beat.

Jon picked up E.W.’s gun. “Not for much longer,” he said, and stuck the barrel in his mouth. Thorpe’s eyebrows rose. Jon pulled the trigger.

Jon Morton’s life ended in much the same way his daddy’s had, with a bullet in his head. He lay slumped on a dead man’s desk, blood dripping from his mouth. E.W.’s revolver lay smoking a few inches from the curled fingers of his left hand. Marvin Thorpe stood for a while and stared at his friend’s body, and then he turned and left the office with the other men. Outside, the moon was out and the city was burning.

Jon was buried next to his mother in Potter’s Field, just outside of Lawson. People from the city came to pay their respects. Thorpe didn’t come. It wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t so strange. Jon didn’t mind, anyway.


Cactus Blues: Part 1
Shmifty
iamdemandred

CACTUS BLUES

 

Micah E. F. Martin

 

Jon Morton’s life had started strange when his mother, four months pregnant on account of a no-good railroad man, had run out of the abortion clinic of Vernon’s Hollow’s only doctor’s office screaming at the top of her lungs with both hands on her belly and leaving Dan Corliss on the floor with a bullet between his eyes. That had been quite enough of Vernon’s Hollow for sixteen-year-old Lily Morton, and when the next train had left for Lawson City she, and her passenger, had been on it. In Lawson, Lily worked as a barmaid until Jon arrived a month early and cranky to boot. Mother and son lived together in a tiny apartment over a bar in the city’s slum district, and if Lily Morton was bothered by the sniffs and sneers of the city women, she never showed it.

Jon grew up quick and quiet, a tall boy and always big for his age. From seven onward he mopped floors at the Lawson Arms while his mother waited tables, and on Sundays he went to the church school and learned spelling, grammar and mathematics from Pastor Bart Freeman, a retired gunfighter-turned-preacher with one leg lost to gangrene and a patch over his right eye. Jon’s only other departures from work were his outings with his mother, who had never quite gotten rid of her traveler’s feet after leaving Vernon’s Hollow. When Jon was nine, things started to go bad for Lawson. The mining in the hills dried up and the city started dying, prospectors and company men drifting away in clots and dribbles. Jon watched his home rot with a young boy’s objective detachment. Soon, even the desert people stopped stilt-walking their way into town to trade their eggs and cactus water for good Lawson steel or lengths of hardwood brought in on the wagons from Dodge and Renaissance.

When Jon was ten, Lily Morton caught consumption. It ate her quick (she’d never been a large woman), and she left her son with a hundred and fifteen dollars and seventy-two cents, and a warning not to get into any trouble. Jon held his mother’s hand when she died and told her he loved her, and he did, though she hadn’t been an easy woman to live with. When Lily Morton was dead, Doc Greenberg had her towed out of town to the potter’s field and buried. Jon went to the burial and Pastor Freeman read from the bible for fifteen minutes until the potter’s field men had well and truly buried Lily Morton.

Jon had, in fortunate accordance with his mother’s dying wish, never been much inclined toward trouble. He had a pragmatic streak a mile wide that had kept him away from Farmer Leroy’s secret stash of rotgut cider and the hash the older boys smoked behind Dewey’s Corner Store. So, being a sensible young man at the ripe old age of ten, Jon took his hundred and fifteen dollars and seventy-two cents and moved into the abandoned warehouse overlooking the town on King Fred’s Hill. The warehouse’s boards were in need of repair, its floor was covered in dirt and it was empty except for its rotting canvas partitions, but there was no rent to pay and Jon could walk every weekday day to the bar where he still swept the floor and sometimes worked the tap and on Sundays to the church in the dying town’s center, which he proceeded to do for the next twenty-two years with only a few deviations.

It was six months to the day past Jon’s thirty-second birthday, a holiday sadly unremarked upon, when the Company came to town. In Lawson, when the Company was mentioned it was almost always mentioned in connection with Karen Bragg, its Branch Executive Coordinator, and it was Karen Bragg who came to Lawson on the Renaissance Line. She and her associates were the first passengers to use the railway since taxman Clagget from Magistrate Bill Cod’s office in Renaissance City had come calling six years previous. When the train came into town, Jon was behind the bar at the Lawson Arms, polishing a filthy mug with a rag that had seen better days. The Arms was empty, waiting for the five o’clock rush when the workers at the mill would shamble in to half-fill the old stained tables.

Nathan Hatfield, round-faced and flushed with exertion under his bowler hat, burst through the bar’s front doors. “Train’s in town, Jon,” he said excitedly, moving to the bar and planting his hands on the dark, much-polished wood. “Came in just now. Company woman from Renaissance, and a science type from the ‘cademy.”

Jon looked up from his glass, arching a bushy eyebrow at Nathan. “That so?” he asked. Jon was a big man, square and heavily-built with round glasses perched on a large nose. His eyes were a faded blue, his thick blond hair perpetually uncombed.

“Them’s the facts,” said Nathan, pulling a stool out from the bar and plopping down on it. “Why don’t you come down and have a look?”

Jon set down the glass and rag. “Well,” he said, “why not?” He turned to Mr. Dodson’s ancient black footman, Charles. “Charlie, keep an eye on the bar, yeah?”

Charlie nodded, the wrinkled landscape of his face unreadable. “Yes, suh.”

The train station was a big square building six blocks from the Lawson Arms. Its only remarkable feature was its bell tower, a boxy spire looming from the roof for no reason that had ever been apparent to anyone in Lawson. Jon and Nathan walked there, Jon still in his stained and dirty apron. Now in nature, Jon had very little of his father in him, but neither did he have much in the way of his mother’s temperament. From Dan Corliss he’d received only a relentless sense of practical necessities, and from Lily he’d inherited a pair of traveler’s feet. In his youth and early twenties he’d done a fair bit of wandering around Lawson and the surrounding hardpan, visiting the clucks on their reservations and even making his way out to Hoover City on a few occasions to play cards and throw dice. And as Jon walked with Nathan to the train station, his feet started to itch again. He’d spent his thirty two years in Lawson, and he knew suddenly that he wanted out, and that he wouldn’t be going back to the Lawson Arms after he saw the train.

The two men arrived at the station just before noon. There was a ragged crowd already gathered to watch a large black iron train engine descend the ramp at the side of the building, its six crablike hydraulic legs hissing and clunking. A steel woodlouse was engraved on the engine’s side. It had wheels as well, folded just then against its undercarriage, but the only other line out of Lawson went to Hoover, and it had been out of commission for two years. A single passenger car clattered along on an older set of legs, the cordon connecting it to the engine creaking loudly. A profusion of men, mostly blacks, dressed in dusty overalls, old shirts and work caps were coming out of the station behind the train. Each man carried a heavy pack. A slim woman with long, light brown hair and a face that was at once sharp-featured and very feminine was standing alone at the top of the station’s steps, her eyes following the train’s ungainly progress with absent, brittle concentration. Jon and Nathan pushed their way to the front of the crowd, mostly housewives, free blacks and night workers from the telegraph building with a smattering of tired-looking whores from the Diamond Saloon. A pair of morose-looking clucks stood at the edge of the crowd, birdlike features hidden by their heavy robes.

“That’s Karen Bragg there,” grunted Stan Kowalski, the bearded and beer-gutted owner of the Express Hotel, “that’s money comin’ through.”

Privately, Jon agreed. Karen Bragg did look like money in her smart grey skirt, tinted glasses and grey velvet waistcoat. She also looked like a weasel in a henhouse whenever her eyes moved to the crowd around the station steps. As Jon watched, a large red-haired man made his way through the press and whispered something in Karen Bragg’s ear. Bragg listened, then nodded brusquely. The large man ran back down the steps and toward the engine. “Stop right there!” he shouted, waving his arms. With a groan of hydraulics and a great gout of oily black smoke from its smokestack, the train hunkered down on its legs and fell still. A man in a conductor’s coverall and tall hat poked his head out the engine’s window and the big red-haired man flashed him a harried thumb’s-up before turning back to the crowd.

“Right, hello,” he said. As an afterthought, he took off his brown bowler. He had a broad, honest face, pale under its sunburn. New company man, fresh off the slave plantations around New Goshen or Abilene, probably still on his papa’s credit. He looked uncomfortable talking to the crowd, most of whom stared back at him without expression. “I’m Mr. Marvin Thorpe, with the Renaissance Rail Company,” he said, running his thick fingers along the brim of his bowler. “We’re passing through on the way to a construction job in Hoover City, and we’re one foreman short. Now you all know you can’t trust a negro to work honest without a white man calling shots.” He paused to smile. A whore coughed. Mr. Thorpe’s smile faded somewhat. “Pay is five dollars and fifty cents a day, cash,” he said. “Miss Bragg wants to head out quickly, folks. There’s a bottling plant needs building, and I’d be much obliged if you’d hurry up on deciding.”

Well, thought Jon, glancing skyward, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. And five dollars fifty ain’t bad for railroad work. He pushed past Stan Kowalski and stepped away from the crowd, untying his apron and ignoring Nathan’s shocked expression. “I’ll do it,” he said, tossing the apron aside.

Mr. Thorpe looked vastly relieved. He hurried forward and, seizing Jon’s hand, began to shake it vigorously. “Excellent, excellent,” he said hurriedly. “We’ll have you set up with the morning crew, Mr….?”

“Morton,” said Jon, “Jon Morton.”

And that was how Lily Morton’s only boy left Lawson.

 

****

 

“We’ll be running a suspension line from Hoover City to Oceanside,” said Thorpe, running the blunt tip of his index finger along the map spread out on the passenger car’s dining table. “The Company is planning a combined still and bottling plant here,”-he jabbed a finger near the center of the map- “but that’s reservation land and we’ll need a say-so from the cluckers to lay down track. They don’t like people drinking their water.” Thorpe sat back on the car’s padded bench and smiled politely.

Jon, sitting across from the red-haired foreman, sipped at his scotch. It was cheap, but the Company was buying and it helped offset the effects of the train’s lurching motion as it moved out of Lawson and into open desert, following the busted Hoover line. “Seems simple enough,” he said.

“It would be,” said the passenger car’s third occupant. E. W. Thurmond, the expedition’s anthropologist, was taller and thinner than either Jon or Thorpe. He sat opposite the map table, stretched out on a bench with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a half-full glass in the other. Behind him, the flat vista of the desert passed by in slow monotony.

Jon arched an eyebrow at the scientist. “It would be?”

“The clucks,” said E. W. He paused, draining half his wineglass, and then slumped back against his seat. Jon had never seen anyone who looked so beaten. “The Company wants to put its line right through their holiest holy site,” continued E. W., speaking with the delicate, ponderous diction of an alcoholic. “It’s where they keep their god, the King of the Oasis, and they’ll never let us through. Myth is he sits in the middle of some goddamn magic spring.” He drained his glass and set it down on the floor, closing his eyes behind their wire-frame glasses.

“Rail can’t go a mile to the west?” asked Jon. He was curious now. He’d never heard the clucks talk about their god. Hell, he hadn’t even known they had one.

“The springs in the area are valuable, even if the magic is just cluck superstition. Good water for the bottling interests. Miss Bragg asked E. W. to negotiate,” Thorpe interjected, shooting a look of disapproval at the lanky E. W. who now had one leg dangling in the aisle. “The clucks will see reason, or good cold sterling.”

“And then hot lead, I suppose, if that doesn’t work out for you,” said E. W. He didn’t open his eyes.

Thorpe said nothing.

Jon finished his scotch and stood up. “Thanks for the drink,” he said, extending a hand to Thorpe, who shook it.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Morton,” he said. “Get a good night’s sleep.”

Jon nodded and went to the back of the passenger car where two sets of bunked cots were bolted to the walls. He stripped down to his union suit and got into the bottom lefthand cot, leaving his folded shirt, waistcoat and trousers on the floor. The creak and hiss of the train’s engines and the low murmur of E. W. and Mr. Thorpe’s conversation kept Jon awake for a long while. He stared at the underside of the cot above his own, hands clasped atop his stomach. There was no sense of loss at leaving Lawson. He’d wanted to flee it for years. He wondered what Karen Bragg, a woman he was sure had all the love and warmth of a sand shark, was doing in the train’s locomotive. He wondered why the Renaissance Company wanted a line from Hoover to Oceanside, and why it had to run through the clucks’ sacred place. Mostly, though, he thought of his mother.

Jon dreamed, and in his dream there was a great rounded hill in the desert’s heart, and around the hill water welled up from the earth and made an oasis and the water was pure and good to drink. The hill turned ponderously to Jon, and its skin was green and waxy and dotted with thorns, its eyes black marbles surrounded by a thousand wrinkles, its mouth a lipless slash between sagging vegetable jowls. “Oh,” wheezed the cactus that was a hill, its eyes closing in weariness. “You…are...of…man’s…seed. Do…you…bring …fire?”

“No,” said Jon. He knew he didn’t want to hurt the cactus, though he didn’t know why. The air smelled of warm honeysuckle. The stars shone overhead.

“You…lie,” groaned the cactus-god, settling on its own fibrous bulk. Flowers began to bloom from its green skin. “You…lie,” it said, “and…I…must…sleep.”

Having spoken, the cactus sagged forward and began to snore. Jon stared at it for a moment, not quite daring to move, and then he went to the water’s edge and, kneeling, drank. The cactus reared up with a horrible groan, its tiny eyes narrowed in fury. Jon scrambled back from the water, looking up in horror at the vengeful god towering over him, its wrinkled lips peeling back from wooden teeth-

Jon woke in his cot with the shrill blast of the train’s whistle ringing in his ears. He sat up and put his legs over the cot’s edge. Thorpe was asleep in the cot across the aisle, E.W. snoring loudly in the bunk above the other foreman’s. Jon blinked sleep from his eyes and put on his glasses, bringing the inside of the passenger car into sharper focus. There wasn’t much to see. A liquor cabinet, half empty, and a set of shelves stacked with Thorpe’s maps were the only indicators that anyone lived in the car at all. Jon got up and dressed himself. He ran a hand over the reddish-blond stubble on his jaw and neck. No mirror meant no shave, but he wouldn’t have risked a razor while the train was moving anyway. Jon went to the front of the car and stepped onto the accordion platform between it and the locomotive. He gripped the moving platform’s metal rail for balance and squinted out at the town.

Hoover had always been a dusty backwater. It’d belonged to the clucks until settlers ran them off to plant corn, which they’d done until the Susan River had dried up and the corn had dried up with it. Now Hoover was a glorified whorehouse, its rail lines mostly silent, its houses boarded up and forgotten. Only the bars and hotels were still open, and the lights in their windows were always dim, as though they were embarrassed to be seen with their storefronts looking out on Hoover’s dusty streets. Needless to say, there wasn’t any crowd to greet the Company’s train like there had been in Lawson. A few tired men and wan, pale women came out onto the sidewalk as the train headed for the center of town, but they didn’t linger.

“Ah, Mr. Morton,” said Karen Bragg, stepping from the engine’s rear cab onto the connector. She wore the same clothes she had the day before, but she’d pinned her hair into a loose knot at the back of her head. She closed the iron door behind her, giving Jon no glimpse of the locomotive’s innards.

“Ms. Bragg,” said Jon, inclining his head.

“There’s a warehouse in town holding the materials for the suspension line on commission,” said Karen. She moved to stand beside Jon, her pale eyes surveying the town through the round, tinted lenses of her glasses. Below, the work crews were keeping ragged time with the hiss-thump of the train’s mechanical legs. Karen Bragg’s fingers closed around the rail. “The warehouse owner’s a Jew. I’d like you to take a few men and see that we get a fair price out of him. When he releases the steel, head back. Time is very much a factor.”

“Sure,” said Jon.

“Thank you, Mr. Morton,” said Karen. She smiled thinly and then went back into the locomotive. Jon watched her go. She had good legs, but she still made him feel like bait hung over a crocodile pit.

 

****

 

Saul Greenburg was indeed a Jew. He was large, barrel-chested and bearded with a lion’s mane of grizzled grey hair and a yarmulke covering the best part of his shining bald spot. When Jon, accompanied by two rifle-toting workmen, knocked on the aged wooden door of Greenburg’s small home, the Jew burst out onto the porch with a cry of greeting and crushed Jon’s right hand between both of his. “Good morning, good morning Herr Morton,” said Greenburg in a booming baritone. “Fraulein Bragg said you would be coming, and you have. You will wish to see the steel, of course, and then we will bargain!” He sounded overjoyed at the prospect.

“Thank you, yes,” said Jon.

Greenburg led Jon and his escort down Hoover’s main thoroughfare, droning all the while about the city’s lamentable state. “I stay here only two nights a month,” he said as they rounded a corner and came to the warehouse district. “It is too dusty a place for a man to live, and there is no temple…ah, here we are, Herr Morton.” They stepped in front of a dilapidated warehouse building and the bearded Jew drew a heavy iron ring of keys from the pocket of his trousers. The building’s double doors opened with some difficulty, their rusted hinges screaming in protest while Greenburg sweated and cursed. Jon stepped into the building’s dim interior. I-beams, suspension cable and piles of lumber and mechanical parts sat on wooden pallets in the gloom. Dust drifted through the beams of light that pierced the rotting ceiling.

“Fifteen thousand,” said Greenburg, his expansive tone of welcome gone.

“Nine,” Jon said absently. The liquor sellers and beer cartels were all misers, and he’d been charged with keeping stock of the Lawson Arms up to par for the last eight years. He could hold his own at the table.

“Thirteen,” said Greenburg. “I have children to feed, a wife to think of. I am a family man, Herr Morton. My mother is old, soon I will take care of her.”

“Eleven,” said Jon. “Take it or leave it.”

Greenburg threw up his hands. “Gentiles!” he cried. “Eleven! Very well, Herr Morton. It does not quite ruin me.” He shook Jon’s hand again and departed with a roll of crisp bills from the one-time bartender’s pocket.

“Tom,” said Jon to the taller of the two men, “run on back to Ms. Bragg and tell her the steel is paid for.”

“Sir,” said Tom, and he set off down the road toward the center of town where Bragg’s train had installed itself. He returned fifteen minutes later with Thorpe and the rest of the Company’s day shift, about sixty blacks all told.

“Right,” said Marvin Thorpe, taking off his hat and running a hand through his wild red hair. “We’ll want to get this out to the south edge of town. The station won’t go up for another month or two, but we’re starting near the old Oceanside line.”

“There was a line to Oceanside?” asked Jon, surprised. In the warehouse, the workers were starting to break up into teams to wrestle the wheeled pallets out into the street without spilling their cargo.

“About ten years back,” said Thorpe. He squinted at the sun for a moment and then put his hat on. “The clucks tore it up and strung up all the workers when the tracks got too close to their sacred spring.”

Jon arched an eyebrow. He’d never seen a cluck do anything meaner than take a swipe at one of their chicks when the little ones misbehaved. “Didn’t know they went in for killing,” he said.

Thorpe shrugged. “It’s good water,” he said.

 

****

 

The suspension line, a series of triangular metal frames supporting a track threaded with steel cable, stretched eight miles into the bare desert before the workers had their first contact with the clucks. Jon was on shift, supervising the day crew while Thorpe slept away the afternoon, and E. W. drank and thumbed through his small collection of crumbly academic books. Karen Bragg had gone back to Hoover to secure their next order of steel. Work had fallen into a familiar rhythm in the two weeks since they’d left Hoover and its dusty lots behind. Every morning, Jon woke up before dawn, gave himself a careful shave with a straightedge and a wet towel, drank a cup of coffee and went out to relieve Thorpe. For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon he walked around the worksite, shouting when the men slacked, overseeing the water rations and the periodic retreats to the shade of the train. Sunstroke was the bane of desert work.

The clucks came a few hours after Jon started his shift, their stilts whisper-silent in the soft sand. Jon turned from the water tank, half empty now, and saw six of them coming toward the worksite. They skirted the crew’s shabby tents, graceful and quick on the four-foot stilts they wore to keep their clawed feet from burning on the hot sand. Better than five feet tall on average, the clucks resembled enormous brown chickens, though their musculature gave them a vaguely mannish appearance and their leathery mouth-beaks could form a semblance of expression.

The clucks tore it up and killed the workers.

Jon’s right hand drifted casually to the Bragdon .45 revolver holstered at his waist. “Ho, friends!” he shouted, waving left-handed at the clucks. The workers were abandoning their efforts to raise a new frame in favor of staring at the intruders. The clucks wore heavy robes of dark reddish-brown roughspun, hoods thrown back to expose faces that combined human and avian features in a decidedly uncomfortable way.

“You are khan?” asked the largest of the clucks, stepping away from its fellows and addressing Jon with its head cocked to put him in view of its enormous left eye. “You are khan?” it repeated.

“Foreman,” said Jon, tapping his chest with a finger. “I speak for the…khan.”

“Tell your khan he comes too far,” said the cluck, drawing itself up and fluffing its brown feathers. “Tell him we will take skulls if he goes farther.”

“I’ll tell her that,” said Jon, his fingers closing around the grip of his revolver. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“You should not have come,” said the cluck, sidestepping nimbly on its stilts. There was something sinister in the way its head bobbed up and down, as though it were a huge robin sizing up a worm. “This is bone-land. This is not for your kind, you and your she-khan.” He hawked deep in his throat and spat on the sand.

Jon swallowed and stood his ground, saying nothing. He heard a door slam and E. W’s muttered curse. The anthropologist was beside him in an instant, his shirt front hanging open, his eyes still gummed with sleep. “Ho, khan,” he said, offering the cluck a deep bow.

“Ho, scholar,” said the cluck. “You are welcome. Your flock is not. This is bone-land. We will gather skulls.”

“My khan has asked me to speak to you,” said E. W., straightening hurriedly but keeping his hands crossed over his chest.

“Your she-khan,” the cluck said, its voice thick with derision.

“She serves a true man-khan,” said E. W., not missing a beat. “He also wishes that I speak to you, as the mouthpiece of his people.”

“Then come, scholar,” said the cluck, its stilts shifting in the sand. “But your iron beast must rest while we speak. If your flock comes further, we will gather skulls.”

“Thank you, khan,” said E. W. in a weary tone, his shoulders sagging. He turned to Jon. “Tell Karen where I went,” he said, gripping John’s shoulder with frantic strength. “If I don’t come back, be ready for killing.”

“Are you sure about this?” asked Jon.

“Hell, no,” said E. W. He flashed a wan smile and set off after the departing clucks, his sandals sinking awkwardly into the sand while the fowl seemed to glide over the dunes like wraiths. “Tell Bragg I won’t be home for dinner,” shouted the scientist, looking back over his shoulder. In five minutes he and the clucks were lost to sight, hidden by the dunes and the dusty wind.

“Everyone, under the train,” shouted Jon, turning back to the work crew. “We’re taking a breather until Ms. Bragg gets back. Drink some water and lie low.”

Thorpe emerged from the passenger car while Jon was cleaning his revolver. His eyes took in the gun and then shifted to Jon’s face. “The clucks showed up,” said Jon. “E. W. went with them. Said he’d be gone for a while.”

“Ah,” said Thorpe, scratching his chin.

 

****

 

Karen returned to the work site just after sunset, her automobile trailed by a rattling company passenger car weighed down with fresh building material. Jon and Thorpe were waiting under the train. The men had gone back to their tents to dice with their company scrip. “Ma’am,” said Thorpe, removing his bowler as Karen Bragg stepped down from her dust-streaked automobile.

“Mr. Thorpe,” said Karen. She peeled off her driving gloves and tucked them into her built, but her eyes never left Thorpe’s. Jon was again reminded forcibly of a shark staring at a baffled fish. “Would you care to explain why the evening shift isn’t working on the railroad, which I believe is the object of our venture?”

“Ah, yes,” said Thorpe. He looked uneasy, a fundamentally honest man confronted by a sudden overwhelming impulse to lie. “The clucks shut us down, ma’am. They showed up in the afternoon. Told us if we kept building they’d shut us down.

E. W.’s gone to speak with them.”

Karen Bragg’s smile suggested that Christmas had come early. “He did?” she asked. “They agreed to negotiate?”

The naked greed in Bragg’s smile made Jon’s blood run cold. She just got something she wanted, thought the foreman. The chickens aren’t going to like that, whatever it is. He felt a momentary pang of regret at having left his job at Lawson, where death by clucker lynch-gang had been a much less tangible threat.

“E. W. said he’d be back later tonight,” said Thorpe.

“Good,” said Karen, her grin widening. “Let me know when he gets here, Marvin. I want to know the minute he’s back. The minute.” She touched Thorpe lightly on the back of the hand, and Jon saw a pained echo of her greed in Thorpe’s honest, freckled face.

“Of course, Miss Bragg,” said Thorpe. He swallowed.

“Thank you, Marvin,” she said, taking her hand from his. She turned and walked off toward the idling locomotive where Sutton, her mustached and hatchet-faced driver, was smoking at the window. Thorpe watched her go, his expression troubled.

“This won’t end pretty,” said Jon. He sat down in a camp chair and lit a cigar, smoke billowing around his head. Thorpe walked away.

The sun set at half past eight. Jon sat under the passenger car, dancing the stub of his long-dead cigar between his fingers. “If I were home, I’d be serving drinks,” he said to the night air. He looked at the ground and his voice softened. “That wouldn’t be so bad.” His blunt fingers moved easily, shuffling the cigar stub back and forth.

It started to rain just after nine. Storm clouds boiled up over the worksite and thunder rumbled dully in the distance. When the rain fell, it came in sheeting torrents that marched over the hardpan like curtains being drawn by enormous hands. Jon watched, ignoring the slow rivulets, shiny with oil from the locomotive’s engines, that trickled through the dust around his shoes. Outside, the workers were putting up tarps and oiled canvases, shouting at one another. Lightning sheared the darkness from time to time, throwing the endless expanse of the desert into blue-white relief. Jon thought he could see something huge hulking in the distance.

E. W. came back alone, soaked and disheveled. His shoulders were slumped and he had his shoes in his hands. Jon stood, tossing his cigar stub aside. “How’d it go?” he asked as E. W. stepped under the passenger car’s shelter.

The scientist took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed tightly. “Shit,” he said, and then he put his glasses back on and went into the train.

Jon stood outside for a while, watching the storm. He heard raised voices coming from the passenger car. When he went inside, E. W. was slumped on his bench with a half-empty bottle of scotch in one hand. The scholar had stripped off his shirt and waistcoat and his trouser cuffs were rolled up to the knee. Thorpe sat opposite him, hands folded between his knees while Karen Bragg, immaculate in a grey uniform skirt, stood in the doorway leading out to the connector. Her arms were crossed, her eyes narrowed beyond the dark lenses of her round spectacles.

“They said you have to meet their god,” said E. W. “In the meantime, if we build, they’ll start raiding.” He raised his bottle and drank.

Jon paused, halfway through the trapdoor in the car’s undercarriage. Thunder rumbled and he stepped into the car, wet shoes squeaking.

“When do I go in front of it?” asked Bragg. Jon saw that her hands were clenched into fists, manicured nails biting into soft palms. “I want this over and done with, Edward. The Mayor wants the line finished and the water coming into Oceanside before Easter.”

“Tomorrow morning,” said E. W. He laughed bitterly and slammed the bottle of scotch down on the table. There were dark circles under his eyes. His head rolled limply on his neck, deep lines incised at the corners of his mouth.

Karen stared at E. W. for a moment longer, her eyes prying slits of grey. “Good,” she said. “You’ve been invaluable, Edward. I want you with me tomorrow.” She looked up at Jon and Thorpe, the dark lenses of her glasses flashing. “You too, gentlemen.”

E. W’s eyes shone with tears. He smiled horribly. “Of course, Karen,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of missing it.”

 

****

 

Jon sat awake on his bunk, smoking a cigar and listening to the rain drum on the passenger car’s roof. Above the one-time bartender, E. W. sobbed quietly into his pillow while Thorpe snored across the aisle. Near two o’clock, Jon rose and stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray on Thorpe’s map table. Outside, the rain had begun to slacken and the wind had died down. Jon stood at the window for a while in his undershirt and drawers, a glass of bad liquor in his hand. From the moment the clucks had showed up, he’d had the feeling he was in over his head. Bragg was out for something big. Too big.

“I don’t think you’d like this, mom,” said Jon. He lit another cigar and scratched the stubble on his chin. “I’m in pretty deep. You’d want me to hightail it.” He blew smoke, staring out at the dilapidated company tents with their embroidered woodlouse logos. “Think you can forgive me if I stay to see what happens?”

Jon sat down on one of the car’s benches. “I bet you’d do the same thing,” he said. “You always were crazy.” He put his half-finished cigar in the ashtray and sat for a long time, staring at the rain.


Cactus Blues
DEAD
iamdemandred
CACTUS BLUES

Micah E. F. Martin

Jon Morton’s life had started strange when his mother, four months pregnant on account of a no-good railroad man, had run out of the abortion clinic of Vernon’s Hollow’s only doctor’s office screaming at the top of her lungs with both hands on her belly and leaving Dan Corliss on the floor with a bullet between his eyes. That had been quite enough of Vernon’s Hollow for sixteen-year-old Lily Morton, and when the next train had left for Lawson City she, and her passenger, had been on it. In Lawson, Lily worked as a barmaid until Jon arrived a month early and cranky to boot. Mother and son lived together in a tiny apartment over a bar in the city’s slum district, and if Lily Morton was bothered by the sniffs and sneers of the city women, she never showed it.
Jon grew up quick and quiet, a tall boy and always big for his age. From seven onward he mopped floors at the Lawson Arms while his mother waited tables, and on Sundays he went to the church school and learned spelling, grammar and mathematics from Pastor Bart Freeman, a retired gunfighter-turned-preacher with one leg lost to gangrene and a patch over his right eye. Jon’s only other departures from work were his outings with his mother, who had never quite gotten rid of her traveler’s feet after leaving Vernon’s Hollow. When Jon was nine, things started to go bad for Lawson. The mining in the hills dried up and the city started dying, prospectors and company men drifting away in clots and dribbles. Jon watched his home rot with a young boy’s objective detachment. Soon, even the desert people stopped stilt-walking their way into town to trade their eggs and cactus water for good Lawson steel or lengths of hardwood brought in on the wagons from Dodge and Renaissance.
When Jon was ten, Lily Morton caught consumption. It ate her quick (she’d never been a large woman), and she left her son with a hundred and fifteen dollars and seventy-two cents, and a warning not to get into any trouble. Jon held his mother’s hand when she died and told her he loved her, and he did, though she hadn’t been an easy woman to live with. When Lily Morton was dead, Doc Greenberg had her towed out of town to the potter’s field and buried. Jon went to the burial and Pastor Freeman read from the bible for fifteen minutes until the potter’s field men had well and truly buried Lily Morton.
Jon had, in fortunate accordance with his mother’s dying wish, never been much inclined toward trouble. He had a pragmatic streak a mile wide that had kept him away from Farmer Leroy’s secret stash of rotgut cider and the hash the older boys smoked behind Dewey’s Corner Store. So, being a sensible young man at the ripe old age of ten, Jon took his hundred and fifteen dollars and seventy-two cents and moved into the abandoned warehouse overlooking the town on King Fred’s Hill. The warehouse’s boards were in need of repair, its floor was covered in dirt and it was empty except for its rotting canvas partitions, but there was no rent to pay and Jon could walk every weekday day to the bar where he still swept the floor and sometimes worked the tap and on Sundays to the church in the dying town’s center, which he proceeded to do for the next twenty-two years with only a few deviations.
It was six months to the day past Jon’s thirty-second birthday, a holiday sadly unremarked upon, when the Company came to town. In Lawson, when the Company was mentioned it was almost always mentioned in connection with Karen Bragg, its Branch Executive Coordinator, and it was Karen Bragg who came to Lawson on the Renaissance Line. She and her associates were the first passengers to use the railway since taxman Clagget from Magistrate Bill Cod’s office in Renaissance City had come calling six years previous. When the train came into town, Jon was behind the bar at the Lawson Arms, polishing a filthy mug with a rag that had seen better days. The Arms was empty, waiting for the five o’clock rush when the workers at the mill would shamble in to half-fill the old stained tables.
Nathan Hatfield, round-faced and flushed with exertion under his bowler hat, burst through the bar’s front doors. “Train’s in town, Jon,” he said excitedly, moving to the bar and planting his hands on the dark, much-polished wood. “Came in just now. Company woman from Renaissance, and a science type from the ‘cademy.”
Jon looked up from his glass, arching a bushy eyebrow at Nathan. “That so?” he asked. Jon was a big man, square and heavily-built with round glasses perched on a large nose. His eyes were a faded blue, his thick blond hair perpetually uncombed.
“Them’s the facts,” said Nathan, pulling a stool out from the bar and plopping down on it. “Why don’t you come down and have a look?”
Jon set down the glass and rag. “Well,” he said, “why not?” He turned to Mr. Dodson’s ancient black footman, Charles. “Charlie, keep an eye on the bar, yeah?”
Charlie nodded, the wrinkled landscape of his face unreadable. “Yes, suh.”
The train station was a big square building six blocks from the Lawson Arms. Its only remarkable feature was its bell tower, a boxy spire looming from the roof for no reason that had ever been apparent to anyone in Lawson. Jon and Nathan walked there, Jon still in his stained and dirty apron. Now in nature, Jon had very little of his father in him, but neither did he have much in the way of his mother’s temperament. From Dan Corliss he’d received only a relentless sense of practical necessities, and from Lily he’d inherited a pair of traveler’s feet. In his youth and early twenties he’d done a fair bit of wandering around Lawson and the surrounding hardpan, visiting the clucks on their reservations and even making his way out to Hoover City on a few occasions to play cards and throw dice. And as Jon walked with Nathan to the train station, his feet started to itch again. He’d spent his thirty two years in Lawson, and he knew suddenly that he wanted out, and that he wouldn’t be going back to the Lawson Arms after he saw the train.
The two men arrived at the station just before noon. There was a ragged crowd already gathered to watch a large black iron train engine descend the ramp at the side of the building, its six crablike hydraulic legs hissing and clunking. A steel woodlouse was engraved on the engine’s side. It had wheels as well, folded just then against its undercarriage, but the only other line out of Lawson went to Hoover, and it had been out of commission for two years. A single passenger car clattered along on an older set of legs, the cordon connecting it to the engine creaking loudly. A profusion of men, mostly blacks, dressed in dusty overalls, old shirts and work caps were coming out of the station behind the train. Each man carried a heavy pack. A slim woman with long, light brown hair and a face that was at once sharp-featured and very feminine was standing alone at the top of the station’s steps, her eyes following the train’s ungainly progress with absent, brittle concentration. Jon and Nathan pushed their way to the front of the crowd, mostly housewives, free blacks and night workers from the telegraph building with a smattering of tired-looking whores from the Diamond Saloon. A pair of morose-looking clucks stood at the edge of the crowd, birdlike features hidden by their heavy robes.
“That’s Karen Bragg there,” grunted Stan Kowalski, the bearded and beer-gutted owner of the Express Hotel, “that’s money comin’ through.”
Privately, Jon agreed. Karen Bragg did look like money in her smart grey skirt, tinted glasses and grey velvet waistcoat. She also looked like a weasel in a henhouse whenever her eyes moved to the crowd around the station steps. As Jon watched, a large red-haired man made his way through the press and whispered something in Karen Bragg’s ear. Bragg listened, then nodded brusquely. The large man ran back down the steps and toward the engine. “Stop right there!” he shouted, waving his arms. With a groan of hydraulics and a great gout of oily black smoke from its smokestack, the train hunkered down on its legs and fell still. A man in a conductor’s coverall and tall hat poked his head out the engine’s window and the big red-haired man flashed him a harried thumb’s-up before turning back to the crowd.
“Right, hello,” he said. As an afterthought, he took off his brown bowler. He had a broad, honest face, pale under its sunburn. New company man, fresh off the slave plantations around New Goshen or Abilene, probably still on his papa’s credit. He looked uncomfortable talking to the crowd, most of whom stared back at him without expression. “I’m Mr. Marvin Thorpe, with the Renaissance Rail Company,” he said, running his thick fingers along the brim of his bowler. “We’re passing through on the way to a construction job in Hoover City, and we’re one foreman short. Now you all know you can’t trust a negro to work honest without a white man calling shots.” He paused to smile. A whore coughed. Mr. Thorpe’s smile faded somewhat. “Pay is five dollars and fifty cents a day, cash,” he said. “Miss Bragg wants to head out quickly, folks. There’s a bottling plant needs building, and I’d be much obliged if you’d hurry up on deciding.”
Well, thought Jon, glancing skyward, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. And five dollars fifty ain’t bad for railroad work. He pushed past Stan Kowalski and stepped away from the crowd, untying his apron and ignoring Nathan’s shocked expression. “I’ll do it,” he said, tossing the apron aside.
Mr. Thorpe looked vastly relieved. He hurried forward and, seizing Jon’s hand, began to shake it vigorously. “Excellent, excellent,” he said hurriedly. “We’ll have you set up with the morning crew, Mr….?”
“Morton,” said Jon, “Jon Morton.”
And that was how Lily Morton’s only boy left Lawson.

****

“We’ll be running a suspension line from Hoover City to Oceanside,” said Thorpe, running the blunt tip of his index finger along the map spread out on the passenger car’s dining table. “The Company is planning a combined still and bottling plant here,”-he jabbed a finger near the center of the map- “but that’s reservation land and we’ll need a say-so from the cluckers to lay down track. They don’t like people drinking their water.” Thorpe sat back on the car’s padded bench and smiled politely.
Jon, sitting across from the red-haired foreman, sipped at his scotch. It was cheap, but the Company was buying and it helped offset the effects of the train’s lurching motion as it moved out of Lawson and into open desert, following the busted Hoover line. “Seems simple enough,” he said.
“It would be,” said the passenger car’s third occupant. E. W. Thurmond, the expedition’s anthropologist, was taller and thinner than either Jon or Thorpe. He sat opposite the map table, stretched out on a bench with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a half-full glass in the other. Behind him, the flat vista of the desert passed by in slow monotony.
Jon arched an eyebrow at the scientist. “It would be?”
“The clucks,” said E. W. He paused, draining half his wineglass, and then slumped back against his seat. Jon had never seen anyone who looked so beaten. “The Company wants to put its line right through their holiest holy site,” continued E. W., speaking with the delicate, ponderous diction of an alcoholic. “It’s where they keep their god, the King of the Oasis, and they’ll never let us through. Myth is he sits in the middle of some goddamn magic spring.” He drained his glass and set it down on the floor, closing his eyes behind their wire-frame glasses.
“Rail can’t go a mile to the west?” asked Jon. He was curious now. He’d never heard the clucks talk about their god. Hell, he hadn’t even known they had one.
“The springs in the area are valuable, even if the magic is just cluck superstition. Good water for the bottling interests. Miss Bragg asked E. W. to negotiate,” Thorpe interjected, shooting a look of disapproval at the lanky E. W. who now had one leg dangling in the aisle. “The clucks will see reason, or good cold sterling.”
“And then hot lead, I suppose, if that doesn’t work out for you,” said E. W. He didn’t open his eyes.
Thorpe said nothing.
Jon finished his scotch and stood up. “Thanks for the drink,” he said, extending a hand to Thorpe, who shook it.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Morton,” he said. “Get a good night’s sleep.”
Jon nodded and went to the back of the passenger car where two sets of bunked cots were bolted to the walls. He stripped down to his union suit and got into the bottom lefthand cot, leaving his folded shirt, waistcoat and trousers on the floor. The creak and hiss of the train’s engines and the low murmur of E. W. and Mr. Thorpe’s conversation kept Jon awake for a long while. He stared at the underside of the cot above his own, hands clasped atop his stomach. There was no sense of loss at leaving Lawson. He’d wanted to flee it for years. He wondered what Karen Bragg, a woman he was sure had all the love and warmth of a sand shark, was doing in the train’s locomotive. He wondered why the Renaissance Company wanted a line from Hoover to Oceanside, and why it had to run through the clucks’ sacred place. Mostly, though, he thought of his mother.
Jon dreamed, and in his dream there was a great rounded hill in the desert’s heart, and around the hill water welled up from the earth and made an oasis and the water was pure and good to drink. The hill turned ponderously to Jon, and its skin was green and waxy and dotted with thorns, its eyes black marbles surrounded by a thousand wrinkles, its mouth a lipless slash between sagging vegetable jowls. “Oh,” wheezed the cactus that was a hill, its eyes closing in weariness. “You…are...of…man’s…seed. Do…you…bring …fire?”
“No,” said Jon. He knew he didn’t want to hurt the cactus, though he didn’t know why. The air smelled of warm honeysuckle. The stars shone overhead.
“You…lie,” groaned the cactus-god, settling on its own fibrous bulk. Flowers began to bloom from its green skin. “You…lie,” it said, “and…I…must…sleep.”
Having spoken, the cactus sagged forward and began to snore. Jon stared at it for a moment, not quite daring to move, and then he went to the water’s edge and, kneeling, drank. The cactus reared up with a horrible groan, its tiny eyes narrowed in fury. Jon scrambled back from the water, looking up in horror at the vengeful god towering over him, its wrinkled lips peeling back from wooden teeth-
Jon woke in his cot with the shrill blast of the train’s whistle ringing in his ears. He sat up and put his legs over the cot’s edge. Thorpe was asleep in the cot across the aisle, E.W. snoring loudly in the bunk above the other foreman’s. Jon blinked sleep from his eyes and put on his glasses, bringing the inside of the passenger car into sharper focus. There wasn’t much to see. A liquor cabinet, half empty, and a set of shelves stacked with Thorpe’s maps were the only indicators that anyone lived in the car at all. Jon got up and dressed himself. He ran a hand over the reddish-blond stubble on his jaw and neck. No mirror meant no shave, but he wouldn’t have risked a razor while the train was moving anyway. Jon went to the front of the car and stepped onto the accordion platform between it and the locomotive. He gripped the moving platform’s metal rail for balance and squinted out at the town.
Hoover had always been a dusty backwater. It’d belonged to the clucks until settlers ran them off to plant corn, which they’d done until the Susan River had dried up and the corn had dried up with it. Now Hoover was a glorified whorehouse, its rail lines mostly silent, its houses boarded up and forgotten. Only the bars and hotels were still open, and the lights in their windows were always dim, as though they were embarrassed to be seen with their storefronts looking out on Hoover’s dusty streets. Needless to say, there wasn’t any crowd to greet the Company’s train like there had been in Lawson. A few tired men and wan, pale women came out onto the sidewalk as the train headed for the center of town, but they didn’t linger.
“Ah, Mr. Morton,” said Karen Bragg, stepping from the engine’s rear cab onto the connector. She wore the same clothes she had the day before, but she’d pinned her hair into a loose knot at the back of her head. She closed the iron door behind her, giving Jon no glimpse of the locomotive’s innards.
“Ms. Bragg,” said Jon, inclining his head.
“There’s a warehouse in town holding the materials for the suspension line on commission,” said Karen. She moved to stand beside Jon, her pale eyes surveying the town through the round, tinted lenses of her glasses. Below, the work crews were keeping ragged time with the hiss-thump of the train’s mechanical legs. Karen Bragg’s fingers closed around the rail. “The warehouse owner’s a Jew. I’d like you to take a few men and see that we get a fair price out of him. When he releases the steel, head back. Time is very much a factor.”
“Sure,” said Jon.
“Thank you, Mr. Morton,” said Karen. She smiled thinly and then went back into the locomotive. Jon watched her go. She had good legs, but she still made him feel like bait hung over a crocodile pit.

****

Saul Greenburg was indeed a Jew. He was large, barrel-chested and bearded with a lion’s mane of grizzled grey hair and a yarmulke covering the best part of his shining bald spot. When Jon, accompanied by two rifle-toting workmen, knocked on the aged wooden door of Greenburg’s small home, the Jew burst out onto the porch with a cry of greeting and crushed Jon’s right hand between both of his. “Good morning, good morning Herr Morton,” said Greenburg in a booming baritone. “Fraulein Bragg said you would be coming, and you have. You will wish to see the steel, of course, and then we will bargain!” He sounded overjoyed at the prospect.
“Thank you, yes,” said Jon.
Greenburg led Jon and his escort down Hoover’s main thoroughfare, droning all the while about the city’s lamentable state. “I stay here only two nights a month,” he said as they rounded a corner and came to the warehouse district. “It is too dusty a place for a man to live, and there is no temple…ah, here we are, Herr Morton.” They stepped in front of a dilapidated warehouse building and the bearded Jew drew a heavy iron ring of keys from the pocket of his trousers. The building’s double doors opened with some difficulty, their rusted hinges screaming in protest while Greenburg sweated and cursed. Jon stepped into the building’s dim interior. I-beams, suspension cable and piles of lumber and mechanical parts sat on wooden pallets in the gloom. Dust drifted through the beams of light that pierced the rotting ceiling.
“Fifteen thousand,” said Greenburg, his expansive tone of welcome gone.
“Nine,” Jon said absently. The liquor sellers and beer cartels were all misers, and he’d been charged with keeping stock of the Lawson Arms up to par for the last eight years. He could hold his own at the table.
“Thirteen,” said Greenburg. “I have children to feed, a wife to think of. I am a family man, Herr Morton. My mother is old, soon I will take care of her.”
“Eleven,” said Jon. “Take it or leave it.”
Greenburg threw up his hands. “Gentiles!” he cried. “Eleven! Very well, Herr Morton. It does not quite ruin me.” He shook Jon’s hand again and departed with a roll of crisp bills from the one-time bartender’s pocket.
“Tom,” said Jon to the taller of the two men, “run on back to Ms. Bragg and tell her the steel is paid for.”
“Sir,” said Tom, and he set off down the road toward the center of town where Bragg’s train had installed itself. He returned fifteen minutes later with Thorpe and the rest of the Company’s day shift, about sixty blacks all told.
“Right,” said Marvin Thorpe, taking off his hat and running a hand through his wild red hair. “We’ll want to get this out to the south edge of town. The station won’t go up for another month or two, but we’re starting near the old Oceanside line.”
“There was a line to Oceanside?” asked Jon, surprised. In the warehouse, the workers were starting to break up into teams to wrestle the wheeled pallets out into the street without spilling their cargo.
“About ten years back,” said Thorpe. He squinted at the sun for a moment and then put his hat on. “The clucks tore it up and strung up all the workers when the tracks got too close to their sacred spring.”
Jon arched an eyebrow. He’d never seen a cluck do anything meaner than take a swipe at one of their chicks when the little ones misbehaved. “Didn’t know they went in for killing,” he said.
Thorpe shrugged. “It’s good water,” he said.

****

The suspension line, a series of triangular metal frames supporting a track threaded with steel cable, stretched eight miles into the bare desert before the workers had their first contact with the clucks. Jon was on shift, supervising the day crew while Thorpe slept away the afternoon, and E. W. drank and thumbed through his small collection of crumbly academic books. Karen Bragg had gone back to Hoover to secure their next order of steel. Work had fallen into a familiar rhythm in the two weeks since they’d left Hoover and its dusty lots behind. Every morning, Jon woke up before dawn, gave himself a careful shave with a straightedge and a wet towel, drank a cup of coffee and went out to relieve Thorpe. For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon he walked around the worksite, shouting when the men slacked, overseeing the water rations and the periodic retreats to the shade of the train. Sunstroke was the bane of desert work.
The clucks came a few hours after Jon started his shift, their stilts whisper-silent in the soft sand. Jon turned from the water tank, half empty now, and saw six of them coming toward the worksite. They skirted the crew’s shabby tents, graceful and quick on the four-foot stilts they wore to keep their clawed feet from burning on the hot sand. Better than five feet tall on average, the clucks resembled enormous brown chickens, though their musculature gave them a vaguely mannish appearance and their leathery mouth-beaks could form a semblance of expression.
The clucks tore it up and killed the workers.
Jon’s right hand drifted casually to the Bragdon .45 revolver holstered at his waist. “Ho, friends!” he shouted, waving left-handed at the clucks. The workers were abandoning their efforts to raise a new frame in favor of staring at the intruders. The clucks wore heavy robes of dark reddish-brown roughspun, hoods thrown back to expose faces that combined human and avian features in a decidedly uncomfortable way.
“You are khan?” asked the largest of the clucks, stepping away from its fellows and addressing Jon with its head cocked to put him in view of its enormous left eye. “You are khan?” it repeated.
“Foreman,” said Jon, tapping his chest with a finger. “I speak for the…khan.”
“Tell your khan he comes too far,” said the cluck, drawing itself up and fluffing its brown feathers. “Tell him we will take skulls if he goes farther.”
“I’ll tell her that,” said Jon, his fingers closing around the grip of his revolver. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“You should not have come,” said the cluck, sidestepping nimbly on its stilts. There was something sinister in the way its head bobbed up and down, as though it were a huge robin sizing up a worm. “This is bone-land. This is not for your kind, you and your she-khan.” He hawked deep in his throat and spat on the sand.
Jon swallowed and stood his ground, saying nothing. He heard a door slam and E. W’s muttered curse. The anthropologist was beside him in an instant, his shirt front hanging open, his eyes still gummed with sleep. “Ho, khan,” he said, offering the cluck a deep bow.
“Ho, scholar,” said the cluck. “You are welcome. Your flock is not. This is bone-land. We will gather skulls.”
“My khan has asked me to speak to you,” said E. W., straightening hurriedly but keeping his hands crossed over his chest.
“Your she-khan,” the cluck said, its voice thick with derision.
“She serves a true man-khan,” said E. W., not missing a beat. “He also wishes that I speak to you, as the mouthpiece of his people.”
“Then come, scholar,” said the cluck, its stilts shifting in the sand. “But your iron beast must rest while we speak. If your flock comes further, we will gather skulls.”
“Thank you, khan,” said E. W. in a weary tone, his shoulders sagging. He turned to Jon. “Tell Karen where I went,” he said, gripping John’s shoulder with frantic strength. “If I don’t come back, be ready for killing.”
“Are you sure about this?” asked Jon.
“Hell, no,” said E. W. He flashed a wan smile and set off after the departing clucks, his sandals sinking awkwardly into the sand while the fowl seemed to glide over the dunes like wraiths. “Tell Bragg I won’t be home for dinner,” shouted the scientist, looking back over his shoulder. In five minutes he and the clucks were lost to sight, hidden by the dunes and the dusty wind.
“Everyone, under the train,” shouted Jon, turning back to the work crew. “We’re taking a breather until Ms. Bragg gets back. Drink some water and lie low.”
Thorpe emerged from the passenger car while Jon was cleaning his revolver. His eyes took in the gun and then shifted to Jon’s face. “The clucks showed up,” said Jon. “E. W. went with them. Said he’d be gone for a while.”
“Ah,” said Thorpe, scratching his chin.

****

Karen returned to the work site just after sunset, her automobile trailed by a rattling company passenger car weighed down with fresh building material. Jon and Thorpe were waiting under the train. The men had gone back to their tents to dice with their company scrip. “Ma’am,” said Thorpe, removing his bowler as Karen Bragg stepped down from her dust-streaked automobile.
“Mr. Thorpe,” said Karen. She peeled off her driving gloves and tucked them into her built, but her eyes never left Thorpe’s. Jon was again reminded forcibly of a shark staring at a baffled fish. “Would you care to explain why the evening shift isn’t working on the railroad, which I believe is the object of our venture?”
“Ah, yes,” said Thorpe. He looked uneasy, a fundamentally honest man confronted by a sudden overwhelming impulse to lie. “The clucks shut us down, ma’am. They showed up in the afternoon. Told us if we kept building they’d shut us down.
E. W.’s gone to speak with them.”
Karen Bragg’s smile suggested that Christmas had come early. “He did?” she asked. “They agreed to negotiate?”
The naked greed in Bragg’s smile made Jon’s blood run cold. She just got something she wanted, thought the foreman. The chickens aren’t going to like that, whatever it is. He felt a momentary pang of regret at having left his job at Lawson, where death by clucker lynch-gang had been a much less tangible threat.
“E. W. said he’d be back later tonight,” said Thorpe.
“Good,” said Karen, her grin widening. “Let me know when he gets here, Marvin. I want to know the minute he’s back. The minute.” She touched Thorpe lightly on the back of the hand, and Jon saw a pained echo of her greed in Thorpe’s honest, freckled face.
“Of course, Miss Bragg,” said Thorpe. He swallowed.
“Thank you, Marvin,” she said, taking her hand from his. She turned and walked off toward the idling locomotive where Sutton, her mustached and hatchet-faced driver, was smoking at the window. Thorpe watched her go, his expression troubled.
“This won’t end pretty,” said Jon. He sat down in a camp chair and lit a cigar, smoke billowing around his head. Thorpe walked away.
The sun set at half past eight. Jon sat under the passenger car, dancing the stub of his long-dead cigar between his fingers. “If I were home, I’d be serving drinks,” he said to the night air. He looked at the ground and his voice softened. “That wouldn’t be so bad.” His blunt fingers moved easily, shuffling the cigar stub back and forth.
It started to rain just after nine. Storm clouds boiled up over the worksite and thunder rumbled dully in the distance. When the rain fell, it came in sheeting torrents that marched over the hardpan like curtains being drawn by enormous hands. Jon watched, ignoring the slow rivulets, shiny with oil from the locomotive’s engines, that trickled through the dust around his shoes. Outside, the workers were putting up tarps and oiled canvases, shouting at one another. Lightning sheared the darkness from time to time, throwing the endless expanse of the desert into blue-white relief. Jon thought he could see something huge hulking in the distance.
E. W. came back alone, soaked and disheveled. His shoulders were slumped and he had his shoes in his hands. Jon stood, tossing his cigar stub aside. “How’d it go?” he asked as E. W. stepped under the passenger car’s shelter.
The scientist took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed tightly. “Shit,” he said, and then he put his glasses back on and went into the train.
Jon stood outside for a while, watching the storm. He heard raised voices coming from the passenger car. When he went inside, E. W. was slumped on his bench with a half-empty bottle of scotch in one hand. The scholar had stripped off his shirt and waistcoat and his trouser cuffs were rolled up to the knee. Thorpe sat opposite him, hands folded between his knees while Karen Bragg, immaculate in a grey uniform skirt, stood in the doorway leading out to the connector. Her arms were crossed, her eyes narrowed beyond the dark lenses of her round spectacles.
“They said you have to meet their god,” said E. W. “In the meantime, if we build, they’ll start raiding.” He raised his bottle and drank.
Jon paused, halfway through the trapdoor in the car’s undercarriage. Thunder rumbled and he stepped into the car, wet shoes squeaking.
“When do I go in front of it?” asked Bragg. Jon saw that her hands were clenched into fists, manicured nails biting into soft palms. “I want this over and done with, Edward. The Mayor wants the line finished and the water coming into Oceanside before Easter.”
“Tomorrow morning,” said E. W. He laughed bitterly and slammed the bottle of scotch down on the table. There were dark circles under his eyes. His head rolled limply on his neck, deep lines incised at the corners of his mouth.
Karen stared at E. W. for a moment longer, her eyes prying slits of grey. “Good,” she said. “You’ve been invaluable, Edward. I want you with me tomorrow.” She looked up at Jon and Thorpe, the dark lenses of her glasses flashing. “You too, gentlemen.”
E. W’s eyes shone with tears. He smiled horribly. “Of course, Karen,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of missing it.”

****

Jon sat awake on his bunk, smoking a cigar and listening to the rain drum on the passenger car’s roof. Above the one-time bartender, E. W. sobbed quietly into his pillow while Thorpe snored across the aisle. Near two o’clock, Jon rose and stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray on Thorpe’s map table. Outside, the rain had begun to slacken and the wind had died down. Jon stood at the window for a while in his undershirt and drawers, a glass of bad liquor in his hand. From the moment the clucks had showed up, he’d had the feeling he was in over his head. Bragg was out for something big. Too big.
“I don’t think you’d like this, mom,” said Jon. He lit another cigar and scratched the stubble on his chin. “I’m in pretty deep. You’d want me to hightail it.” He blew smoke, staring out at the dilapidated company tents with their embroidered woodlouse logos. “Think you can forgive me if I stay to see what happens?”
Jon sat down on one of the car’s benches. “I bet you’d do the same thing,” he said. “You were always crazy.” He put his half-finished cigar in the ashtray and sat for a long time, staring at the rain.

****

By seven o’clock they were outside and waiting for the clucks, a company car idling near the train, its wheels sunk into the still-muddy ground. Karen, impatient to be off, drummed her fingers against the dull steel of the car’s hood with its bas relief woodlouse. Thorpe fidgeted with his tie. E. W. smoked alone by the passenger car’s front right leg, eyes red and hair disheveled. Jon hadn’t slept, but he felt strangely refreshed. Dressed in his only surviving clean clothes he waited beside Thorpe, hands in the pockets of his pinstripe trousers. The air still held the flat, metallic smell of rain and grey clouds hid the sun.
“Foul weather,” chuckled E. W., wringing his spindly hands. He laughed, hysteria tingeing his voice.
“Quiet,” said Karen. She straightened up, hands clasped behind her back. “Here come the birds.”
The clucks came robed and hooded out of the dust, their stilts sinking into the cracking mud. They moved with staccato grace, heads bobbing up and down as they approached the car. Four yards away they halted, six of them, claws wrapped around the pegs of their stilts, hands clasped at chest level. Their leader bent his head to Karen, his wattles trembling. “She-khan,” he grunted. His beak clicked. The smell of wet feathers and musty wool surrounded him. Jon tried not to wrinkle his nose.
“Good morning, khan,” said Karen. She didn’t offer her hand, and the cluck seemed not to expect it.
“We will take you to the wellspring,” said the cluck. It turned, its hood hiding its profile, and set off at a bounding lope. The others followed, cloaks flying.
“Gentlemen,” said Karen. “Into the car.”

****

The company car, driven by hatchet-faced Sutton, rattled and bounced over the muddy hardpan. In the backseat, Jon sat with his chin resting in his hands. The wind ruffled his dirty blond hair and made his eyes water. Even with the night’s rain it was still dusty in the desert. The clucks kept ahead of the car with ease, bounding along on their stilts. Beside Jon, Thorpe twiddled his thumbs and looked troubled. “What do you think it is?” he asked Jon, shouting over the wind’s thin howl. “Their god, I mean.”
“Big fucking cactus,” said E. W., grinning thinly.
The rest of the ride passed in silence. Jon thought about smoking, but didn’t.
The clucks halted at the base of a low sandy ridge and Sutton brought the company car to a shuddering halt. Jon stepped out of the car, a sense of bleak serenity settling over him. Whatever happened, it was going to happen soon, and he had a pretty fair idea what he’d see over the hill’s crest. His dream was waiting for him there.
“We walk from here,” said the khan, tapping the ground with his left stilt.
They set off up the ridge in a group, the clucks walking with exaggerated care in the loose soil. Jon’s heart began to pound as they came to the top of the ridge. The clucks spread out in a half circle around the Company men. They kept their feathered hands raised and their beady black eyes downcast, except for their khan who stood proudly with his hood thrown back. “Behold,” he said, sweeping a clawed hand across the sweep of the bowl valley beyond the ridge, “the Mighty Griswold, Font of the Sacred Spring.”
The cactus, two stories tall and wide as a house, loomed in the center of the valley, its bulk ringed by a moat of pure water. Grass covered the rich, dark earth and pink flowers bloomed amidst the verdure. Small black eyes stared out over the water and its wrinkled, fibrous mouth was twisted in displeasure. Karen pushed past Thorpe and began to descend the curve of the bowl. Jon followed her, his eyes on the immense cactus that had spoken to him in his dreams. Behind him, Thorpe and E. W. followed at a distance, Thorpe hesitant, E. W. miserable and drunk.
When they reached the edge of the Mighty Griswold’s moat, Karen halted. The cactus-god stared down at her and she returned its gaze without flinching. The cactus’s mouth moved, wrinkled lips shifting slightly. “You…are…she…khan,” it rasped. Its voice was like old tree trunks breaking. “I…see…fire…in…your…eyes.”
“You know,” said Karen, reaching into her coat with a slim, elegant hand, “I thought you’d be bigger.” She produced a stick of dynamite and, with a casual flick of the lighter in her left hand, lit its fuse.
Jon stared. The hiss of burning cordite was drowned out by the roar of an approaching engine as a second company car flew over the hilltop, sand pluming around its wheels. It slewed down the valley’s curve, workmen with rifles and shotguns leaping from its running boards. Karen wound her arm and hurled the sputtering dynamite at Griswold, who closed his eyes and sighed deeply. The clucks were squawking furiously, long knives appearing from beneath their robes. The stick of dynamite flew in a graceful arc over the moat and landed at the cactus’s roots.
“Oh Jesus,” said E. W., on his knees in the sand. He cradled his head in his hands, weeping. “Oh Jesus.”
The dynamite went off with a bang that sent Jon reeling, hands pressed to his ears. Chunks of fibrous vegetable matter rained down around him along with sticky blue sap and broken thorns. Heat and wind slammed against the barkeep-turned-foreman like a pounding wave. He stumbled away from the blast, ignoring the soundless screams of the clucks as they advanced with knives drawn on Karen. Bragg drew the pistol holstered at her hip and shot their khan clean in the throat. His stilts folded and he fell to the sand. The workmen opened fire on the rest. Griswold’s immense bulk had been scorched and blasted half to pieces, his face, apart from one beady black eye, had been entirely burned off. His remains were slumped like an invalid, smoking copiously.
Jon saw Thorpe standing pale and drawn beside Karen as she watched the clucks retreat, sprinting away while the workmen fired at them. Two stumbled and fell, one without a head, the other clawing at its ruined side. Jon halted, breathing hard. His ears were ringing. Four of the six clucks that had escorted them to the spring were dead, sprawled on the grass with blood soaking through their heavy robes. “Jesus God,” Jon breathed. “What the hell did you do?”
Karen, if she heard him, said nothing. She’d holstered her gun and was walking toward her car without a care in the world, long hair swinging from side to side. She turned to look at Jon and a smile curved her lips, slow and satisfied. Jon fought the urge to throw up on his shoes. The workmen were laughing, slapping one another on the back as they cleaned their guns and followed their employer toward the automobile.
“E.W., no!”
Thorpe’s strident cry was distant in Jon’s damaged ears. He turned, his feeling of nausea worsening, and saw the scientist lying on his back beside the moat, Thorpe kneeling beside him and cradling his head. E. W.’s thin chest was rising and falling in short, labored hitches and there was blood all over his chest and shoulders. Thorpe looked at Karen and shouted something, tears running down his broad face. The woman looked back at him without pity and Jon saw her lips form the words: “What the hell use is he to me?” She turned and climbed into the car, dark glasses flashing.
“Help me get him to the other car,” said Thorpe. Numbly, Jon walked to the dying E. W. and took his legs while Thorpe slipped his arms under the tall, thin scientist’s and lifted. E. W. was light, easy to get over the hill and back to the first company car, abandoned in the sand. Sutton, Karen and the workmen were already diminishing into the distance by the time Jon and Thorpe had gotten E. W. strapped snugly into the backseat and pulled away from the column of greasy smoke rising from the crater. Jon’s hearing was returning in increments. He stared at his hands while Thorpe drove back to Lawson.

****

There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Oceanside a month later. The mayor, a huge goateed man with the Company’s woodlouse on his ascot, loomed in the center of a sea of aides, thugs and lickspittles. Half of Oceanside had turned out to watch. Jon and Thorpe stood to either side of Karen as she climbed the steps to the railroad platform and, with a flourish of her shears, snipped the red ribbon neatly in half. The crowd applauded, led by their smirking mayor and his cronies. Jon felt like laughing, or sobbing, as the suspension trail glided smoothly into the station. It hung eight feet from the ground, each car connected to the suspension cable by electric wheels.
There was a speech by the mayor that Jon didn’t listen to, and then the huge man left the platform with Karen in tow and the crowd started to break up. Jon, hands in his pockets, looked over at Thorpe. The other man looked sick. “Bar?” asked Jon, arching an eyebrow.
An hour later they were slumped across from each other in a booth at the Sunflower Tavern, Thorpe on his third glass of whiskey while Jon spun his empty wineglass on its stem and ignored the laughter and conversation of the bar’s other customers. He had money in his pocket, but it felt like lead weights, not freedom. “Think E. W.’s alive?” he said.
“We did what we could,” said Thorpe, putting down his drink. “Besides, I don’t think he cares one way or the other.”
“Boys,” said Karen.
Both men turned, Jon blinking blearily. Karen Bragg was standing beside their table in a sleek black dress. Her hair was up in an elegant knot, dark and shining in the bar’s dim lighting. Jon could smell the alcohol on her breath as she put her hands on the table and leaned in toward him and Thorpe. “How’d you like to work the new rail line?” she asked, her lips curving up from her teeth in a smooth, callous smile. Bragg stepped back from the table, one hand pressed self-importantly to her chest. “I’ve been promoted, of course. Company liaison to the Mayor’s office, and supervisor of the Hoover-Oceanside line.
“I’m a powerful woman now,” she said quietly, sliding herself onto the table. “I can give you anything you want.” One of the bar’s patrons whistled loudly, but if Karen heard him she gave no sign. Her eyes, half-closed above the slim crescent of her smile, were bloodshot slits. Her slim hand flicked out, fingers walking slowly up Thorpe’s wrist. There was a look of naked, desperate greed on her thin face. Jon felt a sudden deep sense of pity for her. He stood, slapping a few coins and a crumpled bill down on the table.
“I’ll take the job,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Bragg turned sharply, a few strands of her dark hair escaping her knot. She slid off of the table, her fingers leaving Thorpe’s arm. The other man looked tired and troubled.
“You won’t regret it, Mr. Morton,” she said softly.
As Jon turned to leave, Karen put a hand on his shoulder. He half-turned, removing his glasses. Thorpe was already out the door, his broad back vanishing into the evening crowd. “You know why I did it?” hissed Bragg. Her face was close to Jon’s, the smell of alcohol heavy on her breath. “The Mayor paid us to wipe the clucks out, to take the spring from them. He needs that water to survive what’s eating his lungs, and we’re going to be the ones bottling it.” The smile slid cunningly back into place, making her look for a moment like a grinning fox. She kissed Jon full on the mouth, her tongue sliding snakelike between his lips. “I make you sick,” she said, pulling back an inch. “That’s good. I like that.” She took his hand and pulled him out of the bar, sliding with smoky grace through the crowded bar.
“You’re going to run the line,” she said as they stepped out onto the street. “I’m going to make sure the city serves the Company’s, and, more importantly, my, interests. I don’t think we’ll see much of each other.” She turned, her hair falling out of its knot and across the left side of her face. Jon felt his skin crawl. “Let’s enjoy tonight. I can pretend you’re Edward, and you can pretend I don’t make you want to shoot off the roof of your mouth.”
She pressed a finger to Jon’s lips. “I’m drunk,” she said. Tears glistened in her eyes. “So are you.” She took her hand away and kissed him again. “In the morning, you won’t even remember hating yourself for this.”

****

Jon sat sleeping in the locomotive of the Hoover-Oceanside suspension line, his head resting on his arm in the car’s small, square window. The wind ruffled his hair and the sleeve of his shirt. The sun was just rising and in the front of the locomotive the engineer was easing the train’s brakes into place as it approached its first stop. Jon woke with a start and sat up, blinking away the fog of sleep. He was disheveled, his clothes three days old and stained with spilled wine. Outside, the smoke-wreathed bulk of the bottling plant sat brooding on the carcass of Griswold the Mighty, its pipes sunk deep into the sand. Jon stood up and went to the engine’s ladder, ignoring his driver’s greeting.
The ladder unfolded with a hiss of pistons working and Jon climbed down to the dead brown grass of the bowl valley. E. W. was waiting for him in a camp chair, the stump of his right leg swathed in cotton bandages. Workmen surrounded him, carrying boxes marked RENAISSANCE BOTTLING PLANT 019 to the train’s lowered cargo cars. The scientist looked thinner than he had on Jon’s last visit and there were shocks of grey in his wild hair. “Everything’s on schedule,” he said. “Problems with the tribes have been minimal.” His lips thinned into a bitter line. “This place is dying, of course, but what does that matter?”
“To her?” said Jon. “Not a whole hell of a lot. How’s the leg?”
E.W.’s mouth twisted into a sneer. “Still missing.” He gestured to the padded wooden peg leaning against his chair.
Jon pulled a cigar from his breast pocket and lit it with practiced ease. “It’s been a year. You’d think they’d have something better than a stick for you.”
“You’d think,” agreed E.W. “Any word from Thorpe?”
“No,” said Jon. “Not since the rail got built.”
An uncomfortable silence descended on the two men. After a minute or so, E.W. picked up his peg leg and fastened its leather straps around his knee. “We’ll watch the men load the Mayor’s magic bottles,” he said, levering himself upright. “I can sign your forms, you can sign my forms and bureaucracy will live another day.” He stumped off toward the cargo cars where his men were lifting crates and placing them on padded pallets. Jon followed, blowing smoke.
“I’ve had enough,” said E.W. His voice was tight, strained. “She’s having them killed, Jon. The men here don’t answer to me. They’re only here to shoot clucks.
“When you took me to Lawson, the doctors had their hands full just keeping me alive. It was a cluck medicine man healed me, even if they still had to take off the leg. One of their khans sent him, because a survivor told him that I’d grieved for Mighty Griswold.” The scientist laughed bitterly. “Grieved for it. I was drunk, and scared out of my mind. I didn’t deserve to be saved.”
When the boxes were loaded, they shook hands and Jon climbed back into the train’s locomotive while the cargo cars rose back into position and E.W.’s workmen retreated from the boarding platform. Jon turned at the top of the ladder, but E.W. was already gone. “Poor bastard,” he said to himself, and closed the door behind him.
A day later, the train pulled into Oceanside’s station. Jon stepped out onto the platform. He liked the city, cleaner than Lawson or Hoover and with the smell of salt in the air. His nightmares weren’t so bad when he slept here. Karen was waiting for him on the platform with two men in the uniforms of Oceanside’s sheriff’s department. He blinked, surprised. “Karen,” he said.
“Relax, Jon,” she said, smiling thinly. “I’m not here for you.”
Jon turned, looking back along the train’s gunmetal length. E.W. was stepping calmly out of the rear passenger car, a gun in his hand. Thorpe was with him, sunburned and grim. The rest of the car’s passengers gave them a wide berth. “Don’t try to stop us, Karen,” said E.W. “Everyone’s going to know what you did. Whether they give a shit or not, they’re going to know.
“I’ve had enough lies.”
Karen drew and fired without a hitch. E.W. staggered and his back hit the side of the train, his own gun falling to the platform. The platform’s occupants, frozen watching the scene, began to scream. Thorpe caught E.W. before he fell, cradling the other man in his arms. “You shot him,” he choked.
“Yes,” said Karen, holstering her pistol. The deputies to her either side had drawn their guns and moved out to push back the panicked crowds. Other officers joined them. “I know he was your friend, Marvin,” she said, spreading her hands, “but look at the big picture. In a few hours, I’ll be the Mayor of Oceanside and you can either be with me, or you can be against me.” She straightened, hands behind her back. “What’s it going to be, Marvin?” Her eyes narrowed. “Jon and I, or the corpse in your arms?”
Thorpe looked down at E.W. and gently, slowly, he lowered the dying man to the platform. He straightened, looking at Karen. Jon couldn’t take his eyes from E.W. This is it, he thought, watching the scientist’s chest shudder. I let this pass and I might as well kill myself. I’m going to go to Hell.
There was a pause, Thorpe and Karen staring at each other. Thorpe’s mouth was twisted, his hands clenching and unclenching. Karen looked like an eel, slippery and full of teeth. And then Thorpe turned and ran. He vanished into the crowd before Karen could so much as raise a hand. Jon watched his friend go. I don’t even have the stomach to run away. I’m sorry, E.W.
“We should get to City Hall,” said Karen, tearing her eyes away from the place where Thorpe had vanished into the crowd. “The Mayor should be half dead by now.”
“You poisoned him,” said Jon dully. He couldn’t seem to feel surprised. On the platform by the train, E.W. coughed, wheezed and sagged into stillness. A dull ache joined the rhythm of Jon’s heartbeat. He wanted a drink.
“He had it coming,” said Karen. She turned and left.
Jon stayed on the platform until the county doctor came to collect E.W.’s corpse, and then he followed Karen to City Hall.

****

Mayor Walter M. Thurgood had died just after lunchtime, complaining of a stomachache. His deputy, Karen Bragg, was sworn in before his body was cold. And before Bragg’s hand left the Bible she was calmly dispatching orders to the Sheriff and deputies were streaming out of City Hall in automobiles and on foot. The whole while, Jon sat in an antique chair in the office of the former Mayor and, with his feet on the dead man’s desk, drank Thurgood’s expensive whiskey. E.W.’s gun lay on the desk beside his feet. Karen paced back and forth in front of the window, watching the city as evening fell and the electric streetlights came on.
“What’s the matter, Karen?” Jon asked. “All the right people are bought. All the trains are shut down. So”-he paused to take a long swallow of Thurgood’s whiskey-“it must be Thorpe. He’s got you…got you riled.” The one-time bartender chuckled darkly. “Guess we’ll all see what’s what ‘fore tonight’s over.”
“And just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” snapped Karen, rounding on Jon. Her hair flew, outlined in stark black against the sunset. “Keep your mouth shut while I’m thinking, you fucking hayseed. Every move I make from here on out is vital-”
“Yeah,” Jon interrupted. He took another swallow of whiskey, enjoying bitterly the warm golden feeling as it burned its way down his throat and into his stomach. “Vital, sure. God knows Oceanside’ll never last without you as Mayor.”
Karen threw him a poisonous look and turned back to the window. She looked small in silhouette, a slim little woman with long hair and narrow shoulders. Jon felt again a sort of nauseous pity for his employer. Why he’d stayed with her, he still didn’t know. Nowhere else to go. I’m in the bottle and the bottle’s in me. Ha, E.W. would you love to see me now. I’m right where you were, but I’ve got this gun…
It was nine o’clock when the deputies stopped sending back reports. Karen returned to her pacing. Jon drank and brooded. At half past nine, a fire started near the docks and neither of them said anything. By ten, Jon could see small mobs gathering in the streets, and by quarter past they were in the town square with guns and torches. He knew without looking who’d be there with them, at the head of the crowd. “Just like old times,” he said, getting unsteadily to his feet and placing Thurgood’s empty whisky bottle on the desk.
Karen half-turned, her expression drawn. “You don’t see what’s at stake here, Jon,” she said tersely. “You don’t understand the first thing about it.”
Jon put a hand on the desk to steady himself. “Your deputies all went home,” he slurred, “or else they’re out there with the crowd. Either way, we’re gonna die.”
The crowd raised its voice and surged toward City Hall. “Looks like they know Walt didn’t die clean,” said Jon. He sat down behind the desk and clasped his hands between his knees. Somewhere below, doors began to break. Jon heard the hungry crackle of fires spreading.
Karen stood in the center of the room, her hands shaking. The big oak double doors were closed and locked, but there were footsteps coming up the stairs and the floor shook under their feet. Jon lit a cigar and started to smoke. Something slammed into the doors and Karen jumped, biting herself hard enough to draw blood. Jon laughed to himself as the doors began to splinter and cave inward, hinges screaming. Thorpe came through first, pushing the door in ahead of him. He crossed the room in three huge strides, slapped Karen’s gun out of her hand and, grabbing a fistful of her hair, forced her to her knees. He put his gun to the back of her head. Eight other men stepped into the office, one carrying a phial of gold-tinged water. From the building’s lower floors came the sound of breaking pottery. “Poisoned him,” said Thorpe. “Killed E.W. in broad daylight. You didn’t really think you-”
“Stop it, Marvin,” snapped Karen, straining her neck until blood ran from her scalp. “You don’t know what you’re fucking with.”
“I know you’re a murderer,” said Thorpe, and his voice was tight with grief and reluctance. Jon stubbed out his cigar on the Mayor’s desk.
“None of this was my idea,” said Karen, her tone changing from bullying to pleading. She twisted her head as far as she could, looking with wide, tearful eyes at Thorpe. “Please, Marvin, you have to believe-“
He shot her. Jon saw what it cost him, saw the agonizing pain that flitted across Thorpe’s honest face, the way he averted his eyes from the blood and brains fanned out over the carpet. He let go of her hair and she fell flat, trailing smoke from the hole in her skull. Thorpe took a deep breath and let his gun fall to the carpet. The other men in the room, dockworkers and the lads from the steel mill, even a few railroad employees, looked on in stony silence. Thorpe turned to Jon. “I guess I don’t have to worry about you,” he said. His voice was an older man’s voice, tired and beat.
Jon picked up E.W.’s gun. “Not for much longer,” he said, and stuck the barrel in his mouth. Thorpe’s eyebrows rose. Jon pulled the trigger.
Jon Morton’s life ended in much the same way his daddy’s had, with a bullet in his head. He lay slumped on a dead man’s desk, blood dripping from his mouth. E.W.’s revolver lay smoking a few inches from the curled fingers of his left hand. Marvin Thorpe stood for a while and stared at his friend’s body, and then he turned and left the office with the other men. Outside, the moon was out and the city was burning.
Jon was buried next to his mother in Potter’s Field, just outside of Lawson. People from the city came to pay their respects. Thorpe didn’t come. It wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t so strange. Jon didn’t mind, anyway.

Soundtracks!
Shmifty
iamdemandred
Hey guys. Here are some songs.

Songs that define moments, periods, and people.

My Own Personal Soundtrack:



Writing Rising:



Writing the Summer War:



Braxton & Lawrence: Also the f-ing bear, J by name:



Summer:



The Turkey of Many Names:



The End of Prophet's House:



Home:



Writing Hyrzhog-Burluss:



It's Raining:



My Sister:


BOOK MEME
Gladstone
iamdemandred
MEMES. EAT THEM.

1. Favorite childhood book?
The Hobbit, hands down.

2. What are you reading right now?
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
Everything that has ever been written with the words "Dutch" or "British" somewhere in their titles.

4. Bad book habit?
I destroy and ruin them with my hands and eyes.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
RAGE.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
Blech. No.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
My habits have spiraled into madness. It's your fault. You know who you are.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Madness?

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
Hmmmmm. I guess...my...R. W. Emerson textbook?

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
Mistborn: The Final Empire.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Not terribly.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Lit'rature/fantasy/sci-fi.

13. Can you read on the bus?
Yuss.

14. Favorite place to read?
In a chair, in the breeze.

15. What is your policy on book lending?
Rargh, selective.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
Ha, ha. Ha.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
Not often.

18. Not even with text books?
Marh.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?
Monolingual, baby. Well, for all intents and purposes. Latin isn't much good outside of The Gallic Wars.

20. What makes you love a book?
Dynamic writing, strong characters, good execution of concepts.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
See above.

22. Favorite genre?
Fantasy. Horrible, gritty, dark and amoral fantasy.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
Historical fiction.

24. Favorite biography?
I don't like biographies, as a rule.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
Heh, no.

26. Favorite cookbook?
The internet.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham.

28. Favorite reading snack?
A cat.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
I can't recall one.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
Never at all. Burn them. Witch hunt.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
Predatory.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
French.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
Ulysses. If by "challenging" you mean "borderline brain-murdering.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin.
Finnegan's Wake.

35. Favorite Poet?
Wallace Stevens.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
Two-ish.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
Marh, too much.

38. Favorite fictional character?
Captain Ahab, Mr. Norrell or Atticus Finch.

39. Favorite fictional villain?
Agh. This is hard. The Lord Ruler of Final Empire fame, but he's just a recent thing. I really love Tywin Lannister, and Moby Dick.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
Harry Potter, Asoiaf, China Mieville.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
I have no idea.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
Twilight. Oh God.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
People.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
Lord of the Rings. No contest.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
The Golden Compass.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
I can't answer this without crying.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
Never.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
Deux ex machina, lousy writing, stupid characters.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Eh.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Mine.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
Meh, not really.

52. Name a book that made you angry.
Wheel of Time, and Iron Council.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Wild Swans.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
Iron Council.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
Warhammer 40k fiction. And before you judge me, recall: ONLY THE EMPEROR MAY JUDGE.

Avatar
Shmifty
iamdemandred
I just rewatched the series finale and The Avatar & the Fire Lord.

This show is a golden god.

Excuse me waiter, there is madness in my madness.
Shmifty
iamdemandred
Listen.

Listen.

I am writing a hundred different things as a method of compulsively avoiding Prophet's House.
I am playing far too much Medieval II. I have sacked Milan and burned it to the ground.

I AM ROME.
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