April 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
There is something about the myth of a sunken city that seems to call out, siren-like, to our collected subconsciousness. They come in many shapes; the hubris of Atlantis, the horrors R’lyeh and the decadence of Ys. Even Tolkien subsumes the idea into his own mythic cycle of The Silmarillion when he has Beleriand flooded after the War of Wrath. We can see quite clearly the dappled columns, kelp-wrapped and silent, and the shoals of darting fish that move between them. Abyssal canyons are populated with immense spires, outlined dimly by glimmering bioluminescence and haunted by vast, lumbering shapes. Those of us who have lived by the sea will have heard tales of forlorn church bells that ring out from under the night-time sea, pulled into life by the ebbing Spring tide or turbulent storm-waters. Perhaps we have even heard the bells ourselves…
What is it that makes this myth so forceful and we so ready to believe it? There are two strands to this answer.
March 1, 2018 § Leave a comment
In the graveyard, only silence
And the shadows of the stones
But beneath the frozen soil
Muttered voices, restless bones.
May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Fitful dreams flickered through the mists of sleep, jumbled up across space and time. Memories floated to the surface of my unconsciousness until they coalesced into one image; Annabella. How she’d laughed with glee at a puppet show in Yellow Park, the jerking dances and squeaking voices making her clap her hands in delight. Her tears, hot and inconsolable, when the news was announced of De Pontellino’s death; days spent locked in her room, playing the master’s cascading etudes on her piano instead of eating; listening over and over to the little music box I had bought her. I saw the day she came to me in my rooms as I was reading my mail. The words she said, having undoubtedly been made to say them by her wretch of a brother. Her face as she turned to leave; her blue eyes, red-rimmed, refusing to meet mine. Her hair tumbling from its amber combs as she fell.
No, she said. Please don’t.
Immense personal thanks to the team at Aether & Ichor for their support and editorial rigour. This wouldn’t exist, certainly not in as complete a form, without them.
October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.
Neither large nor small it goes all but unnoticed next to more important volumes as its cloth cover fades slowly from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. Maybe not fading at all. The ghost of silver embossment lingers on its spine, indecipherable. A commonplace book in a common place of books, with nothing to mark it out beyond a slight smell of damp.
Occasionally, curious fingers will pick the book up and absently ruffle the yellowing pages that fall open at random to reveal their contents; mediocre poetry or tedious inventories of belongings, rambling short stories or blocks of impenetrable legal text, descriptions of rain-streaked foreign shores or the simple musings of lifeless repetition. Each browser sees something different, yet equally banal, and each will sigh with disappointment before replacing the book and moving to the next. The book’s cover fades slightly more from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. The faint lettering on the spine is perhaps less clear than it used to be. Perhaps not.
More rarely, the book is plucked from its resting place by an inquisitive reader and opened eagerly at the first page. They read the publishing details, curiously blurred, and then the typesetting information (“Set in New Lethean, 11pt”). Their eyes settle on the opening lines and from then on their fate is sealed. As they read, they become thinner and the story of their life unwritten becomes yet another fragment of the book. The frustrated novelist, the list-maker, the writer of unheard songs. All of them stretch into lonely silence until they become so thin they disappear, another tale of the everyday added to the pages of the book’s collection. A tutting librarian finds the book days later, dropped on the floor, and dusts it down before replacing it on the shelf. Nobody notices that the spine’s lettering is now perhaps less faint, perhaps a brighter silver.
Of the book itself we know little more, beyond its existence. It is where books are, where books gather, but where that is could be anywhere. All we really know is that hook, the opening words that snare the curious or the unlucky. And those words are these:
“There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.”
January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
I went up to see him, like we all did, strapped into his swinging gibbet-cage on top of Dancers’ Hill. The thin, withered corpse naked but for a wrapping of black iron banding, its bald head angled back in a scream of agony – or of fury – with eyes plucked from the sockets, left hand hacked off at the wrist.
The left hand of Aux-Çevoires, the Alchemagos. The Poisoner of Melhaut, the Breathstealer, He-Who-Walks-In-Fog. The hand that I had seen only once, when he jabbed its discoloured fingers at my eyes before leaping through the stained glass of Our Lord Abiding’s rose window and down into the canal below.
So I went up to see him, like we all did, but I went at dusk when the night-mists begin to settle in the hollows and the sounds of the City are softer, distant. I went at dusk, to be alone.
I went at dusk, like a fool.
The walk is not long, but it is hard. Dancers’ Hill rises quickly from flat moorland on the far side of the Choke and its cover of thick gorse is left to run wild as a deterrent to the casually morbid. In the slow darkening of dusk, and as your breath begins to catch from effort, it feels as if your own life is ebbing away with every step of the climb. Yet suddenly, always suddenly, you are stood on the small tonsure of bare ground at the hill’s crown. Behind you the City’s lights glow amber and ignored. In front of you is the Dancing Master; the bent and blackened tree, impossibly ancient, that stretches out one arm to dangle the final home of the treacherous, the wickedly insane or the simply evil.
Aux-Çevoires was all of these so we hunted him down, across decades, until a time when the Dancing Master could offer him a lesson.
Nobody knows when he came to the City but it is likely that it was during, or sometime immediately before, the White Plague of AB412. Perhaps he was a young man then. Perhaps he has always been as old as he looked when I last saw him alive. Perhaps he was never even a man but simply a husk, animated by something unthinkable. Whatever he may have been, he was a murderer. A vampire, feeding off the fear of his victims.
The infamy of Melhaut is well-known; the bloated victims leaking and bursting as they staggered drunkenly in the streets; the escalating quarantine measures that couldn’t stop their screams echoing through the night; the very buildings themselves infected with malignancy, even all these years later. I remember hearing a shout go up and seeing the figure of a woman, still in the early stages but obviously lost to infection, run howling along the shallow incline of a gambrel roof. A Boxer took her with a shot from a trycklock and she burned as she fell into the streets.
Yes, Melhaut is well-known but Melhaut was a war and its atrocities on a scale that made them mercifully incomprehensible. It is the smaller crimes that make my throat burn with bile and wake me in my sleep; the candlemaker, almost suspiciously healthy in himself, whose corrupted sweat caused every 18th candle to gout yellow, choking fumes when lit; the mother who unwittingly killed her babies, driving herself into collapse as she tried to feed them more and yet more but ignorant of the fact that it was her own tainted milk that poisoned them; the sewerman, no longer aware of the difference between night and day, who went to work as the full moon rose and was found, reduced to a small pile of teeth, by the morning shift.
Yet the worst crime he ever committed was to kill the hope, the peace of mind, of thousands. The backstreet jack-a-knife can be avoided or struggled with. Hunger can be prevented with hard work or thrift. Even old age can be balanced against a life well-lived or the sight of a grandchild. When all this can be taken away on a whim, without reason, then life becomes meaningless. He killed many without lifting even a finger of his filth-stained hand.
So I went up to see him, like we all did, just to make sure that it was actually him, that it was finally over.
I looked up at him as I thought all this and realised that I’d been holding my breath. I let it out and with it came all the horror of the years gone by, all the faces pleading with me to save them when I couldn’t. I wept and howled, beating the cage with my fists until my strength left me and I fell to the ground, into blackness…
I awoke to cold seeping into my bones and a bright half-moon hanging high in the night sky, silhouetting the gibbet above me. Something tugged at my hair. A rat, no doubt, drawn by the smell of decomposition. I clutched at it, flinging it from me. Its claws raked out, leaving sharp lines of fire across my throat. I cursed it, I cursed the foolishness that had drawn me here and I cursed, as I had cursed so often before, whatever passed for the soul of Aux-Çevoires. I turned to spit but my throat was dry, hoarse with curses, so I simply glared up at the corpse.
And that is when I heard it. Under the whispering of a night-time breeze, under the creak of the settling gallows-tree, even under the distant murmurings of the slumbering City was a sound like dust falling on paper. I became silent, immobile and focusing every ounce of concentration on that sound. It became rhythmic, rising and falling like far-off waves. Like a memory of breathing.
Or of laughter.
Another sound, louder now and close by, made me spin around to see the vague smear of something crawling in the shadow of the Dancing Master. The rat I had flung into the darkness? No! Not the rat but a spider, bloated and dragging itself along the ground. Dragging itself out of the shadows and into the light…
I howled denial into the cold, uncaring night as the moonlight shone down on the horror that crept towards me. There had been no rat. There had been no spider. Crawling slowly, impossibly, in jerking movements and with fresh blood, the blood it had scratched from my throat, glistening on its talons was a blackened, distended hand.
The left hand of Aux-Çevoires.
I fled, crazed and unthinking, as the paper-thin laughter echoed in my mind. With no distinct direction to follow my limbs took me home, back into the City. I should have disappeared into the Fen, taken this death out to the monsters and abominations that haunt the horizon. But I did not, and now I am too weak to move. Fire fills my head and my eyes steam like coals. My lungs gurgle with every breath. My hands are bound tightly with cloth but still they swell and drip with thick, grey fluid. Soon I will no longer be able to hold this pen. Soon I will be dead.
I write this note as an apology. I caught the Alchemagos, brought him to trial and to punishment, but I am his final victim and, in being so, I continue his work. I will die. I will seep foul fluids into my clothing and belongings, tainting them irreparably. I will blossom spores into the air of this room that will waft through cracks and crevices, into the lungs of others. I will be found and will be removed, spreading the infection like the soft touch of autumn mist.
It is a mist that preludes a storm, ushered in from beyond death itself by the left hand of Aux-Çevoires.
Apparent final note and confession of Procurator-Medico Alnstein. Found amongst personal effects, post-mortem. Immediate quarantine procedures instigated on discovery. 1,203 related deaths confirmed as of time of report, including 57 officers and related auxiliaries. 721 further possibles. 3 Boxer units subsequently deemed inoperable or lost-in-operations.
Recommend noted area be sanctioned Red/Black immediate, full disassociation.
May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
I remember how it started, lined up tightly in the alleys and closes across the road. It was early morning. I was cold. Water trickled down from a leaking gutter, splashing onto my jerkin. The Ballivo made some kind of speech. I didn’t understand much of it apart from ‘charge’ and we pushed forward to storm the gates. The old locks splintered easily under the hammers of the leading men and we tumbled through, onto the boulevard.
And that’s when it all went so horribly, horribly wrong.
There was nobody there, nothing but the houses on either side and the leaves dusting the cobbles in front of us, but we fell anyway. The man in front of me doubled up, gasping, like he’d been hit in the stomach. Hit hard. Blood coughed up between his lips as he fell to the ground. His body lay limp. I jumped past him and carried on, my baton raised, more from the lack of other options than duty. Tillea, running beside me, glanced over briefly before her head whipped back with a sickening crack. She grunted weakly. I remember watching her helmet tumble backwards and clang on the cobbling. There was mist curling around our feet.
Distracted, I caught a vague movement on the edge of my vision. I was twisting away before I realised what was happening, raw fear controlling my movements, but even so something solid crunched into my jaw. Light exploded and danced in front of me. I hung suspended in the air somehow until, suddenly, my knees cracked against the ground and I jerked back into thought.
I couldn’t move. I started to panic. I was held, rigid, kneeling on a paving slab by the edge of the boulevard. Cold needles pinned into my shoulders, numbness spreading out through my body. I could see pale blue flowers lining a bed of dark soil. They seemed to glow slightly.
It was barely a voice. A rustling of pine needles, the scratch of dust swirling down an empty corridor. It didn’t matter. The sound didn’t need to travel. I felt it in the very bones of my skull.
Anger. Blistering, consuming anger. But not just that. Outrage, indignation and a kind of sadness.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. It sounded pitiful. My voice cracking like a child’s, slurred out through my broken jaw. “We…,” I gasped as the word stretched my mouth and pain shot through my head, flaring sharp against the icy numbness. Thought was difficult, slow. The flowers. Watch the flowers. Bright. Blue. Rows. Ordered. Think.
“Orders…” I coughed the sound, barely deserving the name of word, through a coating of mucus. “Had…orders.”
The flowers. Dull now, just outlines. Rippling slightly in a breeze. Bending. Nodding.
And I fell, released, into their midst.
After that, all is darkness and whispers for what felt like a thousand upon a thousand years until a voice came and asked for me. A soft voice, yet strong and imperious. It cuts through the darkness like moonlight. I am needed. We all are needed.
Night is falling and Whither must awaken.
February 4, 2014 § 1 Comment
Dyall Square. A great, tile-lined plaza shifting constantly with the snapping pennants and fluttering tent-fabric of a myriad market stalls and faux-mystic hawkers. Sellers of fruit and mandalas and spices and candles and forgetfulness and knowledge and themselves and others, all dot-dotted about haphazard like a mercantile motley. A single, constant litany of prices, offers and plea-bargains rises up through day and lamp-lit night whilst stalls suddenly break camp and scuttle to a better catchment area, a more fertile feeding ground.
And, in the centre, the great campanile rises high above the clouds of salesman’s patter as if unconcerned by the price of silken gloves or sesame. An ersatz gnomon – although built long after the square was named for a now-forgotten bureaucrat, giving it a perhaps not entirely subconscious homophone – whose even-paced shadow strolls from dawn to dusk, a dark-suited overseer marking out ungraded time against lamp-post and flagpole.
Myths and superstitions accrete pearl-like around its base, flowing out into the lyrics of the marketeers. Oaths are pinned on its solidity, boasts on its height. Shaded stalls are particularly favoured or cursed and make brief sales or losses commensurate with the owner’s outlook. A bore-wave of beggars, dragged by the shadow’s tidal pull, ebbs and flows against those certain, milk-and-honey shore-stalls where food is given as an offering to the momentary eclipse.
And behind even them come the cut-purses and minstrels, wassailers and fools who dance and stalk and caper through the crowds in unwitting complicity against the Dalliance, the square’s dedicated corps of peace-keepers and legate bouncers whose long service has seen even their name worn down into self-mockery by the grind of each day-noting sweep of shade.
Here, in this irregular blend of self-organised regularity, everything takes on meaning. Repetition drives paths and memories into the square itself. The shadow’s daily pass driving down tree-ring layers of a fractal, self-repeating tradition. Traders and browsers skirt around each other in daily, weekly orbits. The precision arrangement of wares, the fluid dispersion of stalls. The wax of cotton, the wane of linen, the weft and the heft and the warp of wood. All reflect in a higher arrangement. All are cogs within cogs within cogs.
A delicate dance of give and take and move and shake where small disturbances give up rippling interruptions through the whole. Prices rise despite a glut, stalls slide away from certain ill-favoured patches, boisterous haggling turns to murder, olive-sellers crack barrels filed to the brim with briny eyeballs, water into wine into blood. The mercuspex watches all this and learns of subtleties that birds or fire, unaware as they are of the human magnetism of greed, are oblivious to.
This is why, on the gargoyled edge of an overlooking roof, a rag-swaddled figure hunches and watches in the few minutes of tower-shadow with cog-eyes whirring and brass-gleaming fingers clicky-clicky nervous.