When wakens the serpent?

August 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

“When wakens the serpent?”
The old man asks
No word returns
From he who basks.

“When wakens the serpent?”
A whisper, low
“I woke within you
Long ago”.

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The left hand of Aux-Çevoires.

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.

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.

Vortex Lodge

November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

they cant see that the sky splits open where the light comes through and fire drips down like the putrid drool of a leper it burns and the GREAT HAND reaches down to shovel bodies into its maw when people squabble and squander and sit with their coins as devils dance in the streets leering in the windows grasping at the children with hands of coal and twigs theyre burning theyre burning and none of them notice that they burn as their hair dances in the flames that no wind nor rain can extinguish and the yellow is brighter than gold the red brighter than blood

Vortex Lodge

Oneiroscopic capture of a Vortex Lodge waysign in Pittlebone Alley, The Riddle.

and nobody sees and nobody sees the blue ghosts walking through walls walking through doors and their hands are all missing and the eyes are all missing and their keening sorrow hides behind the mist in the corners of the streets so only the sad ones hear it only the vacants and the babies in the wells floating in the water with their frogs and rattles of teeth and bones their only chattels their only homes

we see these things and only we the ones of the vortex lodge the walkers in spaces the lingerers between and the subtle touch of nothing.

…yet, whither, shallt thou arrive?

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.

“You…”

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.

“You…dare?!”

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.

Whither, annointed

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.

Catspaw

March 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

Bone charms rattle as she lifts her gnarled paw and silences the muttering of those rag-wrapped figures huddled around her. Her eyes glimmer despite the pearlescent sheen of aged decrepitude that blinds them and she spits once, twice into the sputtering fire before her.

Ghrek hehg hehhg! Ghrek hahlg harrakh! Ghrek, ghrek heeehhhgg!

That last, awful syllable stretches out, rising, and is picked up by the mewling group at her feet in splintered disharmony. Smoke puffs up from the flames, lingering briefly in the shallow cave until the cold wind rips it to tatters. She brings silence with a low growl and claw-show. She spits again and smoke rises once again, more persistent than before.

Ghrek hehg harrakh! Ghrek hahlg hehg hehhg! Ghrek hehg hehhg Ghrek harrakh harrakhiin!

And there it is. She read the moon well, the wind, the soft ripples in the earth and the grey-white lines of the sky. Smoke, more smoke than could be expected from such a meagre fire, billows up to the roof then slows, stiffens and slides back down the cave’s sweat-slicked sides. Grey smoke black now, black even against the jittering flame-cast shadows of the gloaming cave. She smiles, in her own way, as her brood are engulfed by the solidifying fumes and start to howl, deep and somehow slowed beyond any earthly voice. She hears the Pale Warders, the skull-stick totems out on the foothills, start their wail-song rolling out across the Fen. It sounds distant, fog-dulled. The smoke-mass touches her, flows around her, passes through her and for a moment she is a young leugha again, disobeying her mistress to skulk in the cavern-holes where she first found Him.

Then nothing.

And there it is. In the slow-time drag of failing thought, a binding of consciousness given up to the voids and that ur-stuff between the voids. Some willing, some not. No division. A roiling mass of beingness borne forth.

Moulder

And there it is. The Bubbling Foment. Moulder. The One Beneath. Well Dweller. Ghrek Harrakhiin, Shadow-Behind-Shadows.

And there it is. The Sleeping Cliffs sleep no more.

Hidden

October 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

///Hidden// thinks the Bat. //Hidden worlds, hidden words/Lost and found/Lost/And Found//

The Bat’s head jitters quickly. Thin fingers click against each other nervously.

///Found// thinks the Bat. //Stolen?/Difficult/Difficult thought//

The Bat walks slowly back and forth, hunkered over under the weight of brazen wings folded backwards. Quiet mutterings come from beneath its ragged cowl.

///Bat didn’t know// thinks the Bat. //Bat asked for secrets/Bat gives secrets/Bat gets coin/Always the same/Always/No trouble/ No trouble for Bat//

The Bat rubs its hands together, shakes its head.

///Bat not look for trouble// thinks the Bat. //Only lost secrets/Need home from sky colours/Bat gives/No trouble/No trouble//

Whither, thou goest…

October 6, 2013 § 1 Comment

The City stretches boundlessly and there are none who, if not exactly welcomed, are not tolerated under the great munificence of our Lord. From the winding alleyways of the Riddle to the open plazas of the Limbic Quarter, in the huddled camps out by the Sleeping Cliffs to the clamouring throngs of Dyall Square; diversity is victorious.

Yet, even these places are commonplace next to the great City within the City; the eerily glimmering necropolis of Whither.

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Behind black-iron gates, gates that are locked from the inside, lies this rarely mentioned Dark Borough. No tombs or catacombs stand here, no gravel paths lead through weeping yews, for this is not a place of eternal rest. Shadowed boulevards stretch into the gloom whilst glowering townhouses line their routes like stern-eyed pallbearers. Perpetual fog lurks under leafless branches, ignoring the changing seasons as it has for time out of memory.

Occasionally, as dusk falls on some quiet evening, a black hearse will draw up to the Whither Gate and the Master Undertaker, paler and more aged than his calling perhaps demands, will step down onto the cobbles. His assistants will bring out a bundle – sometimes large, sometimes small – and place it on the low, worn stone by the gate. They will pull the black, horsehair cord above and retreat quietly, quickly. There will be no reply, no acknowledgement, and for this they are grateful.

By morning, the bundle will be gone. By morning, a pledge will have been fulfilled. Only one man has remained, on a youthful wager they say, to watch the bundle be accepted. He does not speak of what he saw. He does not speak of anything, any more.

Our Lord’s honoured grandfather, long may he be remembered, saw the Whither’s existence as a snub against his rule, an island of silent independence in a place of otherwise universal dominion. Before dawn on one cool, spring morning he sent the militia to storm the gates and reclaim the Borough in his name. No man who crossed the threshold made it more than a dozen steps before collapsing into the gutters, grasping at their throats in silent torment as eyes bulged and ears bled. Our one-time Lord, many honoured even now, is said to have risen from sleep in his chambers ashen-faced and gaunt with a parchment clutched in his shaking fist. This parchment, written in his own hand but with signed addenda in perfect copperplate of unknown authorship, outlines what has become known as The Agreement; Whither will never again be assailed or otherwise defiled, a seat will be made available at the Conclave for any ambassador that Whither may wish to send according to their whim and there will be a tribute offered to the Lords of Whither by the Lords of the City.

Though a chair sits waiting in the Rose Office even today no ambassador has ever issued from the Borough, much to the relief of all sane men. Yet Whither remains unmolested and the tributes, delivered in bundles on demand, continue

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