Sunday, 25 December 2011

009 - Oubliette

Cassidy allowed herself a wry smile at Jacob. There was precious time for thought, let alone humour and it took her by surprise. 

The tunnels were vaguely familiar. She'd walked them as a child, playing hide and seek with her brother, Ellis. It'd been a decade or more since she'd stalked around the network of filth-encrusted pipes but as they advanced deeper she began to tick off the mental landmarks. There were chalk markings they'd made to reference the town above; a crude scrawl at waist height pointed the way to an access point below The Oasis, another to the central reservoir; a hub of several pipes that drained straight into the water table.

Cassidy took point as they set off, scrambling over generations of detritus. 

"Stick to the edges," she called back "You'll be less likely to step in something"

As they turned a corner she recognised the junction ahead. Kneeling down she eyed the chalk scribblings. One pointed toward 'The Den'; her and Ellis's long abandoned secret headquarters. The other pointed towards 'Warning - D Basement' and was surrounded with skulls, exclamation points and other warning symbols.

"What's 'D Basement'?" asked Frida

Cassidy replied without turning her head. "You'll find out in a minute."

Several turns later they arrived at a hatch in the ceiling. The whole door was covered in more skulls and warning marks. Cassidy reached up and grabbed hold of a valve wheel thick with dust. It didn't give easily. She'd spent plenty of time wrenching on this to make sure it stayed shut the last time she was here.

With a whining, scraping noise the wheel began to turn until eventually the heavy door swung free exposing what looked like floorboards. 

"Dammit they've covered it over!" she exclaimed.

Muffled voices echoed down through the boards.

“Wait. Hang on.”

More scuffling. The sound of something heavy sliding across a wooden floor.

Suddenly the wooden boards above them disappeared, replaced with a blinding  rectangle of white light. The group all cowered, covering their eyes.

“Hey Garth, look, we got rats!” came a voice.


As her eyes adjusted a beaming smile attached to a grubby face began to resolve out of the glare.

“Who else? Me and the man-child were hoping you’d stop by for a visit.”

“Just pull us up. It smells worse‘n you down here.”

Ellis reached down and pulled Cassidy up through the aperture in the floor and she helped him heave the rest up after her. They were sat in a rather well-presented drawing room. Around them sat various stuffed leather couches and chairs. One of them was occupied by an elderly woman in a red shawl. She stared intently into a bowl of cloudy water on a mahogany coffee table in front of her and seemed completely ignorant of their intrusion. The walls were lined with bureaus and bookshelves, all overflowing with books, maps and other scraps of paper. Brass sconces were dotted around and a tarnished brass chandelier hung from the centre of the ceiling.

Behind Ellis a large man in a dirty vest was engrossed in poking his finger into his ear and waggling it furiously. Ellis himself was surprisingly well turned out and fitted perfectly with the wood and brass of his surroundings. He wore a fine leather waistcoat over a plain shirt and a pair of trousers to match.

“I'd ask what you're doing charging about in the midden, but we were on the roof when you got cornered. Saw the whole thing. How’d you like the distraction?”

“I’d like it better if I could see,” Frida snapped. “I’ve been blinded twice in the past ten minutes.”

“Not much of a view inside a pine box, honey. I’d be grateful I still have all my spleens n such if I were you. The Grinders have a habit of taking what ain’t theirs if you catch my drift. Anyways, I couldn't just let them cart Cassidy off now could I?”

“Wait. You two know each other?” asked Jacob.

“Yup.” Cassidy replied. “This barrel o’ farts is my kid brother and the one in the corner with the stupid look on his face is Garth. No offence Garth”

”None taken.” Garth was busy examining something stuck under his fingernail and didn’t look up.

Ellis flopped down onto a red leather couch and lit a cigarette.

“The cherry bomb was Garth’s idea. He’s been down in his room cooking up a few non-lethals for when we go hunting. One of those goes off in a kitty cave you can sit outside and pop ‘em in the eye as they run out. We were out there a couple of moons back with a rifle and a case o’ beers. It’s poor sport but rather that than they get back inside the walls again.”

“Wait, where are we?” asked Nelya. Her eyes were darting madly from wall to wall looking for an exit.

“We’re under the old courthouse”, Cassidy replied. “Home of the Domarah elders.”

She turned to Ellis. ”Is he..?”

“Meditating.” Ellis interrupted. “But he’ll want to see you now you’re here. He ain’t gonna take too kindly to that one though.” He waved the cigarette at the torn rags hanging from Jacob's arms, the tattoo on his wrist clear for all to see.

“You know how he feels about clergy.”

Previous Continue

Sunday, 18 December 2011

008 – Indiscriminate

“There is an old saying; when surrounded.” Jacob began speaking, his eyes searching for a break in the semi circle of armed men that hemmed them against the stinking river. 
“Surrender, maybe it won’t be so bad?” muttered Frida. She could still smell the dead preacher’s corpse rot and had convinced herself that it clung to her clothes. If she could burn them she would, at the earliest opportunity. Possibly these men only wanted Jacob as he looked like a wanted man, all scowls and seriousness. 

The town had quietened down. The merchant’s caravan’s lamplight still illuminated the main thoroughfare, though that light barely reached the pit. 

The men on the bank above them were a cohort of armed mercenaries. Frida was not alone in recognising them. These were the Organ Grinders, they did what the name suggests. They had nothing to do with monkeys. Cassidy and Jacob had thought that the Ironguard might arrive, the guard were well trained but Grinders had a reputation for creating nightmares. Grinders and Adders, these were tools of the old families.
The Grinders looked formidable; they all wore a leather banded armour cuirass painted with a crude human trapped in cogs. They pointed a variety of dangerous cylinders and bows at the four companions below. 

An overweight, ferret eyed Grinder, stepped to the ditches rim. He cleared his throat and opened a sheet of onion paper. He positioned himself so the faint light from distant lanterns made the words visible.

“We’ve been instructed to inform you,” he began “That you are condisered...”

“What?” said Jacob.

“Condisered?”  The Grinder shifted his paper into the light.

“Do you mean considered?” shouted Jacob. Frida nervously backed further behind him. The guy was big and maybe he’d stand a few rounds of lead before keeling.

“They’re about to kill us, I don’t think we should be pulling them up on reading skills” hissed Cassidy. 

“I’m playing for time”, Jacob whispered, “or do you want to take them all on?”

“It’d beat standing here waiting for them” she snapped back. An arrow thudded into the ground by her foot. 

“You finished?” asked the lead Grinder, “ Only I’ve been told that we don’t get paid unless this is read out to you, frankly I can’t be arsed, but essentially, you want to surrender your weapons and come with us,” he glared at Jacob, “and no questions”.

If only, so many of Frida’s options now began with those words. She had little fighting ability, that left running. Frida stepped back, using Jacobs’s bulk as a shield. In doing so, she stumbled over a tree root. Flailing her arms as she yelped and fell. She hit the mud hard. Cassidy, used the distraction to pull out her pistol. Nelya followed suit drawing her bow. By the time Frida looked up, two Grinders had dropped. One collapsed with an arrow embedded in his forehead, the other screaming where he stood, clutching a shattered forearm. Now we are going to die, thought Frida, should I bother getting back up? As she pondered this a dull metallic orb landed in front of her. Tiny vents opened across its surface. It let out an inhuman whine that increased in pitch. Frida recognised the machine; a discharger. The whine increasing in pitch to become ear-splitting . The others had grabbed their ears to drown out the sound. Frida knew what was coming next. She picked up the orb, throwing it high into the air. There was a blinding flash and a deafening noise, followed by a dull persistent humming. The effect was indiscriminate, now no one could see or hear. They stumbled around, Frida’s friends and the Grinders had all been in the discharger’s blast zone.  

Frida stood up, she reached out blindly. Her fingers felt the warm skin of the Darklander flinch from her touch. They had to move, the dischargers’ effects were not permanent as a bullet would be. The Grinders refrained from firing into the ditch, whoever was paying clearly wanted them alive. The Grinders could wait for the effects to pass. They were still enough to cordon and corral four people. 

Somebody pulled Frida, she dragged Nelya with her. They ran, slipping and stumbling along the ditch edge. Frida’s right foot splashed in the water. They were heading towards the ditch pipe. Mud sucked at their shoes, pulling at the soft leather.

Somehow Cassidy dragged them all into the heavy concrete pipe, cajoling them forward through a series of tight tunnels. Eventually they rested. 

The world resolving itself as sight gradually returned. Cassidy sat cross-legged, a small burning candle in front of her. She was swearing, angry with herself and her new predicament. 

Jacob and Nelya looked around the confined space; they were in a concrete tube. Smaller tubes ran along the walls. Some had split open, their interiors densely packed with fibrous semi organic capillaries.The root pipes that once carried nutrients to the cities. Frida had heard of this place, Fairfield had been built above some kind of derelict farm that still filtered water through underground pipes. Once purified, the water would percolate into an underground aquifer, fresh and leach worm free. This is why a settlement was built here. One of the pipes ran under The Oasis, maybe they were under there now. 

Frida wondered how safe her horse was, the stables adjacent to Cassidy’s would be safe for a while but all her belongings were there. She wanted her horse; she wished to ride away from this madness. She reached for her tap box, holding the little metal device for reassurance.

“Are we safe here?” Nelya asked, watching the corridor. Everyone waited for a response.

Cassidy shrugged. The Grinders would be exploring the tunnels by now, after a short delay to collect torches and patch the wounded.

“How come you could see?” Frida directed the question at Cassidy.

“I had one eye shut for aiming” Cassidy replied.

“Been thinking,” Cassidy said, “and I don’t like where it’s going. No one sounded the alarm, the Domarah got people everywhere, think those Grinders could just walk into town. They must have come in the West gate when your people,” she indicated Frida, “came in the East.”

She nodded conspiratorially, Frida was lost. Should they make a break for the East gate or the West. She looked around for reassurance from Jacob. His eyes lit up, as he leaned towards her.

“I remember it now. If you are ever surrounded," Jacob grinned, his face seemed unused to it.

" Pray it’s by idiots.”

Previous Continue

Sunday, 11 December 2011

007 - Kindness

They blinked at her like startled rabbits. If they didn't move soon they'd be snapped up by hungry jaws.

“You really need to -” she started.

The bossy one - Cassidy? - swore.

“I know, alright? Come on, Jacob. No time for finer feeling.”

His face twisted up with disgust, Jacob helped the two women lift the stinking bundle up.

“I can go ahead. Make sure they aren't...” Nelya didn't know the words, so she settled for hand gestures.

“Circling round on us?” said Cassidy.

“Like a pack of ashdogs.”

Cassidy nodded. “We'll be right behind. Take the alley to the left.”

Nelya was already moving back towards the door.

“Wait. Before you go. Why did you come back?”

“We don't have time. Later.”

Later. If there was a later. Nelya slipped out of the door, as silent as she could. To the left, no-one. The wolves weren't quite at their throats yet.

She opened the door and beckoned. A tense moment later, the three tunnies staggered out, panting and groaning under the awkward burden. Didn't they know how to be quiet? It was a wonder they'd lived this long.

She led the way through a narrow, mud-splatter maze of alleys, stopping now and again to take silent direction from Cassidy. She winced at every groan, cringed at every huff of breath. Every single noise these people made was a shout.

She began to wish Cassidy hadn't been kind. That the first breath of kindness in twenty nine days hadn't come from people involved in something so stinking-rotten and risky.

It didn't matter. After this mess, she'd leave. She had a pack hidden just outside town, and with the kindness repaid, she'd slip out to it. Forget the meats, the other things she needed. There were other places. Safer places where no-one threw rocks at her and madmen didn't drop dead for no reason. Just leave this confusion and wrongness and go.

How could anyone live so closed in? In this one alley there were so many places an enemy could wait, could hide, and no way to keep them all in sight. No way to keep yourself safe.

It was making her panic.

No fresh air, no clear sight, and constant unnatural noises. These dangerous men could land right on top of them, and she'd never know. Not even have enough time to react. To save herself. Her hand hovered over her knife.

“We're nearly there.” said Cassidy from behind her. Nelya jumped like someone had put a weapon to her skin.

“Be quiet.” she hissed back, forcing the panic back down. Tried to slow the racing heartbeat. It was good they were nearly there. Good. Nearly there. Nearly done. Then away. Running.

As they left the alley, a large ditch came into view. The stink of this place got worse if that was possible. That particular wet, overripe stench that came with stagnant water and rotting waste. She'd smelled it in a dozen tiny still ponds, and always known never to drink that water.

“The run off.” Cassidy sounded out of breath. “Dump him in there, and it'd take an unholy luck for anyone to find him ever again.”

With an utter lack of ceremony they dropped the body into the run off, the only noise a thick splash. For an awful second it seemed as if he was just going to float on the half metre of scummy water, until Cassidy pushed him down with her foot. The mud underneath parted and swallowed the thing that had been a preacher. Nelya breathed out, low and shaky.

“This doesn't feel right” said Jacob. Nelya rolled her eyes.

“It wouldn't be right, us taking the fall for someone else's crime, either. Just going along with some plot? No.” Cassidy brushed strands of hair off her damp forehead. “Hey, Darklands girl. Can you at least give us a name to thank you with?”

Nelya stared at her for a second. What did it matter? She'd be out of their lives soon enough. Besides, was this really the time or place? But she got the feeling Cassidy wouldn't let it go.

“If you have to call me something, call me Nelya.” she said. “Not that it -”

Wait. The panic that had been haunting her this whole way flared again into clammy hand, bristling spine warning. They were being watched. She'd swear to it on her own blood. They were being watched and this stupid place had stopped her noticing.

“You should start moving. Now.” she said.

Which was the moment that all those places she'd noted as hiding spots were full of people. Big people. Armed people. And there was nowhere to run.

Previous Continue

Sunday, 4 December 2011

006 - Hungry Shadows

The world hadn’t finished showing Jacob the grotesquery of death, and he certainly hadn’t got used to it. He swallowed heavily to keep down the bile welling up in his gut.

He could hardly believe a man’s flesh could go from healthy to this blackened, unholy state so rapidly, but he had seen it with his own eyes, had watched it crawl across the preacher’s body like a hungry shadow. And this girl, Cassidy, claimed it was something condoned, maybe even commanded, by the old city families, which meant even the Lords and ministers might be complicit.

No, that couldn’t be true. The High religion, his religion, preached peace. With realism, sure, you needed a guard to keep unruly elements in check, to protect a city from the outlands and worse. And the guard could attract some bullies into its ranks, a necessary evil, but poisoners and assassins? Surely not.

Unless something was rotten in Ironhaven. He recalled the dead man’s final, rasping words, unheard by the others as he slipped Jacob a slender key.

“The inner sanctum, the unholy truth...”

A truth that might have cost this man his life.

A set-up, Cassidy had suggested, and maybe she was right, but maybe someone wanted this man silenced, too. Two scrub grouse with one bullet. He would keep that to himself for now.

“Whatever the reason,” he interrupted the girls, “They're not going to hang around for long if they're looking to catch us poor fools in the act.”

Cassidy looked indignant. “Who are you calling a fool?”

“He’s got a point,” Frida cut in. “We should get rid of the body, and fast.”


Jacob took a deep breath, and wished he hadn't, the air was rank. He prayed the day would get no worse.

Cassidy smiled at him, “You’re a big man, Jacob. Grab his legs.”

He grimaced.

“Is that going to work?” Frida pointed to where the flesh had torn at the shoulder joint. “I don’t think he can take it.”

Jacob balked at the thought of the man’s flesh parting and tearing as they lifted. That soft, shredding sound from earlier replayed itself in his mind.

“We’ll wrap him back up.” Cassidy nudged the preacher’s open robes with her foot, “Pick him up by his robes.”

Frida looked revolted, but she nodded. None of them liked it, but it had to be done.

“So where are we taking it?”

Cassidy thought for a moment. “I know a place. We can take the back streets. With a pinch of Earth-given luck everyone will be distracted by the caravan.”

Jacob gritted his teeth. He rolled his neck and shoulders, stretched and squared up with the corpse. All procrastination of course, delaying the vile inevitability of the task. But as he was about to reach for the preacher’s robes there was a frantic knocking at the door, and an out-of-breath voice.

“Hey. Let me in.”

Cassidy looked up, startled. “Who?”

Jacob thought he recognised the strange accent. “The Darklander girl?”

Cassidy slipped the bolt and the wild girl dived in, shoving the door shut behind her.

“You gotta-” She clamped a hand over her mouth and choked at the putrid stench in the room. She pointed at the corpse.

“Urgh. He looks like Death’s own bitch.”

“We know.” Jacob said.

“You gotta move him.”

“We know,” Cassidy replied, “You came back to tell us that?”

“No. Saw some big men, armed men, stalking the caravan. All seriousness and business. Asking questions ‘bout a preacher.”

Previous Continue

Sunday, 27 November 2011

005 - Snakes

Things had never gone to hell so fast. Cassidy felt her mind racing as she tried to come up with a plan that didn’t end up with a boot on her neck. Her words carried a lot of weight in these parts but if the Ironguard caught wind that one of their own had chosen to complete his mortal journey right on her doorstep there’d be a foot on her windpipe before she could gag for mercy.

“Bar’s closed!”, Cassidy shouted, striding up between the booths and tables. All eyes were on her which was fortunate because it meant none of them were on Jacob and Frida dragging the lifeless corpse of the preacher through the shadows and into a side door.

“The caravan’s just pulled in. If you still feel the need for more boozing, Erik’s got a half-dozen barrels of that northern piss-water you call whisky.  I’d go see him before it burns through the wood”

That did the trick. Most of the regulars wouldn’t know whisky from lake-water but they knew it got them drunk a damned sight faster than beer did and at caravan prices too. There were grumbles and curses but they all got to their feet and shuffled out of the door into the street. A toothless drunk called Petyr was the last to leave and he doffed his grubby hat to her as he staggered past.

As soon as the bar was empty she barred the door and shuttered the windows. Inside the bar was dark but between the shutters the reds and golds of the caravan lanterns shone through, casting shadows across the empty walls.  She took a moment to drag her glove across her brow and still her shaking hands before heading for the office.

She swung the door in ready to let fly with a few choice expletives and was nearly knocked off her feet by the smell. Her hands shot to her face to try and stifle the stench. She looked down at the corpse on the floor. The preacher’s arm had turned black and begun to rot.

“It’s spreading! Look!” Frida pulled the man’s collar down to reveal the blackness spreading across his torso. “What is it, Cass?”

Cassidy could only stare as the rot spread through his flesh. When she surveyed the room properly she saw Jacob standing near the window, his skin had gone pale and he looked terrified.

“Get away from him, you don’t know what it is. It might be infectious”, he croaked.

Frida backed off and rested against the heavy wooden desk, her eyes still fixed on the horror unfolding on the floor in front of them. “What the hell happened to him, Cass? I thought you said he’d been in a brawl? Fist-fighting doesn’t do that to you.”

Cass finally spoke up.

“It’s not contagious.”, she murmured, her voice wavering as she fought the urge to vomit. "Anyway, it's stopped. Look."

Sure enough the decay appeared to have stopped spreading short of the man’s face.  He looked no less grotesque.

“How do you know it ain't catching?”

 “I’ve heard about it but I’ve never seen it up close before. Someone wanted this man dead. More importantly they wanted him dead right here, right now. Dammit, I think a snake did this.”

Cassidy hadn't 'heard' anything. She'd been on a scouting trip to Morris a couple of years back. A particularly loud opponent of the increase in city taxes had gathered a small group behind him and there was talk of them taking arms against the patrols. Cassidy had spent the night in a local inn, the next morning the leader was found propped against his own back door, his stomach bloated and cracked, staring sightlessly into the forest. She'd seen for herself what snake justice looked like.

“A snake?” asked Frida.

“Everyone calls them snakes but they call themselves the Adders; dirty little sneaks that work for the old city families. They lurk about in places too volatile for the Ironguard to take control."

Cassidy approached the body and nudged the blackened arm with her foot. The shoulder joint tore wetly like cooked chicken and as the arm rotated they could see a puckered, crimson circle just above the elbow.

“That’s where they got him”, said Cassidy. “The snake must have been right behind him during the confusion. They have syringes hidden up their cuffs, it only takes a second and then...”

“But why him and why in the middle of a lords-damned bar?”, muttered Jacob. Cassidy noticed he was sweating profusely. She'd have to keep an eye on him to make sure he wasn't going into shock.

“Two reasons spring to mind” said Frida. “They wanted this guy dead and they needed someone to pin it on.  The Oasis is the perfect place, they just finger the poor saps who get stuck with the stiff.”

“No, you’ve got it backwards”, said Cass. “I don’t think this particular priest is important. You heard him, he was preaching chapter and verse. This guy lived for The Brotherhood. No, the important thing isn’t who he is. It’s what he is”

“Which is?”

“He’s a set-up. A preacher lying murdered on my own damn floor and we’ve all got his blood on our hands.”

Previous Continue

Sunday, 20 November 2011

004 - Frida

Gravity shifted sideways, her unsteady hooves slipping on the heavily rutted ground. She had waited impatiently, gnawing at her saddle harness, aware of the Leercats circling out near the tree line. What had panicked her was a gust of wind that brought with it another strong scent; she recognised the smell, leather, human sweat, men.

Frida crouched on an overgrown ledge high up on the ancient man made Tor. The large cylindrical tower of rock and concrete had no entrance at ground level, whatever purpose it originally served or who built it was lost to time. Travellers had decorated the lower levels with hand painted signs and faded pennants, the upper levels covered with ivy. From her position, Frida had a view down towards her fidgeting horse and across the valley towards the track way, one of the dirt roads that followed the ancient routes across the country. Far off, she spied the array of carnival colours that were the trader’s horse drawn caravans moving slowly towards the distant town of Fairfield. She checked for the yellow chevron roof of the one she shared with the Brazingate family, allowing herself a smile when she spotted it.

She had finished linking herself to the lash lines hidden in this Tor, lines that enabled communication across the outlands. She bent down to unplug two heavy glass and copper jars. Inside these wet batteries; in the murky nutrient soup, the eels went limp, returning to their usual torpid state. She unclipped the wire from her ear, returning it to the copper discus shaped device in her hand.

She’d heard enough. Fairfield was safe, they were expected. There had been some fight at Cassidy’s, another preacher punch up. Nothing new, hardly unexpected given their popularity, she thought.

It had been just after that message that she caught a muted dip in signal; enough to tell her there were eavesdroppers on her line. As she packed she tried to pinpoint their location. She spotted them within seconds. In the wheat grass near a small tumulus were two figures; one standing while the other appeared to be adjusting a spear, stuck hard into the earth. She cursed her luck; she should have noticed the signal drop sooner. She packed everything into her backpack and prepared to climb down the Tor. When she reached the ground she received a gentle nudge and a snort of hot horse breath. Originally a gift from a friend, her horse was a mature mare with a heavy dark mane and steady gait. Frida intended to call her Mavis, but the name never stuck. Instead she rode on Gravity. She mounted the horse in a clumsy leap.

“Light speed!” she shouted, Gravity complied.

Frida could feel the still warm Tap disc against her chest as she rode quickly to her rendezvous with the caravans. She kept it safe, close to her heart. As she galloped past them, the two eavesdroppers watched her impassively. She wished she had avoided the eavesdropper’s direct attention; she hid her hair, she even bandaged her chest for convenience when riding. She hoped they thought she was a man and was relieved to see they did not follow her back to the track way.

A spicy smell of hot suppers and boiled meat hung over the caravans by the time Frida had caught up with them. She rode past the armed outriders, acknowledging them with a quick wave. She weaved between the many large-wheeled caravans. Gravity slowed to a brisk trot to enable her to deliver her hand written messages to the various recipients. She had finished when the first tiny droplets of rain fell. Frida adjusted her hood. Fairfield was only an hour away, already visible, a jumble of undefined shapes with lanterns lit against the darkening sky.

Music heralded the caravan’s entrance into Fairfield, coming up from the direction of the makeshift gates onto the wide avenue. Under the watchful eyes of the local night guards, the merchant Caravans arrived, sides fell open and awnings popped out so that within seconds there was a bright and colourful market where moments ago there had been a large expanse of muddy track.

The storm had worsened by the time Frida arrived at Cassidy’s place. Heavy rain had washed the muddy streets into brown pools. Leaping down from Gravity, she ran over to her friend, excited and brimming with stories. She had amassed a collection from her travels, three months of tales to tell to anyone who had not been there when they happened. Cassidy was standing talking to an unknown man, whilst on the covered walkway nearby, her face catching the rain and legs poking over the edge sat a strange feral girl. By their feet, seated in the mud, resting his bruised head against a wooden post lay a Preacher. The Preacher continued muttering incoherently as the large man knelt beside him, offering a canteen of water. Frida realised her stories could wait.

"Hi Fri, That’s Jacob, he’s helping me out. Locals got a bit angry with the Preacher, can’t leave him like this, bleeding and pissing in front of my place, it’s bad for business" said Cassidy.

Frida watched Jacob talking to the Preacher, his body blocked her chance at lip reading but she thought she saw something metallic pass between them. The feral girl seemed to notice it too.

The Preacher stood up unsteadily, stumbled backwards in the slippery mud, hitting the wooden post before he collapsed. There was one final exhale of breath before his body became lifeless. Nobody moved until after Jacob had examined the man.

"The preacher's dead" he stated.

Frida and Cassidy exchanged glances; the injuries were hardly fatal. Frida noticed that the other witness, the outlander girl, had vanished.

"This isn’t good, you two, " Cassidy indicated Jacob and Frida, "give me a hand."

There was a sudden explosion overhead, a bright, colourful bloom in the sky.
From the main avenue the music continued to play as the celebratory fireworks exploded. No one noticed them carry the dead preacher inside.

Previous Continue

Sunday, 13 November 2011

003 - Nelya

Stupid, weak-brained, half-made Ashdogs. Foolish things in this hell of buildings and spite - and now Nelya couldn't see, eyes bleached by too much sun and sudden dark. And still not safe. If these places followed any proper, natural rule, going into the dark place would have left her safe and alone, not facing a crowd of angry tunnies.

She'd only wanted to trade. She hadn't thought her attempts would be met with anger and violence. The traders the Godpeople had sent out now and again had never reported such a thing. Maybe she'd done something wrong, crossed some taboo they had.

So now she was crouched, catching her breath, facing angry crowds outside and inside, in a place that smelled like sick sweat and rotted fruit. Everything was off. She couldn't run here, couldn't climb, couldn't even breathe or see like she should; all she could tell was that the air was sticky with anger and hate.

But not directed at her, not like the group when she'd started trading, but at the two men she'd rammed into, both wearing robes. The bigger one wasn't the problem, but the smaller one. Everything about him screamed madness. Perhaps that was the reason for the anger. Madness did tend to enrage those who feared it. That made things worse. If the ones who had decided to chase her didn't give up, this man’s madness and the anger in the bar could get her killed.

Just as she decided to take her chances running back out of the bar and through this nightmare place the madman said something that sparked chaos.

“You harbour Darklanders here? You truly are in need of my salvation.”

A breathless silence and then the crowd surged forward.  A woman was running from the other side, shouting. Nelya darted under the table with animal grace. She would simply wait the fighting out. She couldn't see or even hear much, hidden under the table, but she could hear enough to know the robed madman was still ranting, his foulness cutting over the woman’s more measured tones.

A woman's voice was raised in a strident shout - from what Nelya could hear over the sounds of a brawl, she was asking for calm. And in fact, it was working, the crowd returning to grumbling instead of shouts. No more smashing and crashing. The feet that moments ago had been running and skidding were steadying. She crawled out from her hiding place and stood up. The ranter was now silent. Good.

Nelya ignored the crowd - the grumbling, the deliberate refusal to let her through with any ease - the immediate danger was past, and she had things she needed to do. It seemed like the shouting woman didn't want her dead, which was good enough.

Once she squeezed through the crowd, she waited until the woman, who was stood on top of a table, breathing hard, noticed her. It took a few minutes, but when it happened her face went strange and tight.

“You. Get out of here. Do you understand?”

“I understand.” said Nelya.

“Then why aren't you leaving?”

Nelya simply stared. “I can't. I haven't got what I need. Where can I trade?”

The woman stared at her for some time.

“That's... it?”

Nelya nodded.

“Not a person in this place will trade with you,” she sighed. “But the caravan comes by soon, and you might get lucky.”

A caravan would do, thought Nelya. She didn't need much.

“Just watch yourself.” Finished the woman. “I'd stay out of people's way.”

Nelya had no intention of doing anything else.

Previous Continue

Sunday, 6 November 2011

002 - Jacob

Jacob had been in Fairfield three days when the trouble started and things went to rot quicker than a blight fly infested corpse.

He was sitting in The Oasis, the bar at the centre of the trading town, contemplating a mug of the thick, grainy beer they served there. He scratched at the stubble of his recently shaved head with his thick fingers. It was remarkable how a few small changes made all the difference: shaving his head, leaving his hood back, standing to his full height and walking with his arms loose by his sides instead of clasping his hands... people saw him merely as a big stranger and not as a missionary of the High.

His lower arms and palms were bound with rags of cloth, hiding the tattoo on his right wrist - the two overlapping circles of the true religion, Heaven and Earth converging.

The man who walked into the bar was hiding nothing, though. He was a priest and proud of it, nothing wrong with that but these city preachers were so supercilious, so arrogant. Jacob had quickly realised the people in this town were suspicious and mistrustful of the High, some to the point of hatred. The burble of conversation around the bar petered to a pregnant quiet. Jacob couldn’t believe a local preacher would come here alone.

“Wayward children, I have some work that might help you towards a reward in Heaven.”

He couldn’t believe a local preacher would be so damned foolish.

As Jacob stood he loosened the bandaging on his arm but made sure to keep his tattoo out of sight, a subtle flash when he was closer should be enough to make the fool listen to some sense. To his left he heard a glass tankard smash, a handy makeshift weapon. He really had to get this idiot out of here before someone decided to make his trip to Heaven all the sooner.

“Well? Do I have any volunteers or do you all wish to remain forever Earthbound?”

A bottle flipped through the air from somewhere in the shadows at the rear of the bar. It smacked into the preacher’s forehead and ricocheted into the wooden doorframe. The bottle shattered and the man staggered back a step, clutching his head. A rattling wave of cruel laughter swept the room, almost covering the sound of footsteps thumping across the ceiling and down the back stairs. The girl on the watchtower above them must have seen the preacher coming, must have guessed what might happen; if it was something more serious she would surely have rung the warning bell.

“Another donation for you, Brother.”

This time it was a tin mug that span out of a rough, working man’s hand and the preacher flinched as it whipped past his face. Another round of raucous laughter filled the room, but distracted this time, Jacob was moving through the tables, drawing some of the attention.

The girl from the watch tower reached the bottom of the stairs then, quickly scanning the room, assessing the situation. Jacob’s eyes met hers and he could tell she was trying to work out whether he meant to help or harm. Years of farming difficult fields had built him big as a bullhorn, he abhorred violence but he looked dangerous.

More missiles were being readied and he felt the restlessness in the room, held in fragile check only by his passage and the girl’s arrival. He reached for the priest’s shoulder and flashed his tattoo with a quick twist of the wrist, hoping the man would notice it, praying no one else would.

“It’s time for you to leave, I think.” Jacob said in a firm, low voice. “Suicide will not open Heaven’s gates.”

Jacob recognised the stubbornness in the set of the man’s face and his heart sank.

He was about to take a step towards the doorway, pushing the priest with him, when something came in the other way. A lithe, rough-looking girl, her dark skin crawling with scratchy black tattoos, burst through the door and careened into the back of the preacher.

The surprised priest thudded into Jacob’s chest and the girl span away into a crouch. She yelled something at them in a language Jacob didn’t understand, though from the tone it didn’t sound polite. The girl’s alarmed eyes flicked back and forth between the bright doorway and the dim interior, as if she couldn’t decide which held the worse fate.

Previous Continue

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

001 - Cassidy

Cassidy sat with her scuffed boots hanging over the veranda. The luxury to sit on one’s rear end was a precious commodity in Fairfield, just like beer or bullets. Everyone was fighting to get some and you were lucky to enjoy either for very long. Conscious of the fragile nature of this brief interlude she gazed ahead at the back of her outstretched hands. Wiry black sigils wound their way around her fingers, across her palms and circled her wrists. Her father had told her they were her mother’s work. He used to mutter that they were her ‘twisted idea of protection’. Ironic really considering what the townsfolk would do if they could see her now. What they had already done to her dear mother down there in the courtyard all those years ago.

She laid the rifle beside her and began to fish around in one of the crates beside her looking for a fresh bottle or two to speed things along. When none was forthcoming she flopped back with a sigh. Daywatch was laborious, long and hot. At least at night you had the cool breeze and the cover of darkness. Out here in the noon sun she was little more than a sweaty bullseye surrounded by empty beer bottles.

If she peered out of the east gate she could see a small pack of leercats rolling and kicking in the dirt. This close to town the hum from the lines sent the damn things crazy. It was one of the unexpected safety features of civilisation. She’d heard from a local wiretap that it was due to some sort of magnetic field given off by the unshielded wires. Even deep in the ground, the buzz came up through the earth and screwed up their senses. Most of them hung back by the ridge having already learned their lesson, others actually seemed to enjoy the sensation. Either way, they were lousy hunters when they got the urge to roll around in the dust and easy prey for a bored sniper on watch.

She turned her attention to the Western gate. Of all the trouble that could come in from the east, it couldn’t compare with the trouble that came in through the western gate once a month.  The western gate faced the towering edifice that was the City of Ironhaven.

"All human life is here" she muttered under her breath. It was one of Ironhaven’s many motivational mottos. It blared out from huge speakers somewhere within the boundary. Some said it was found scrawled on the outside of the original city wall back before they started reinforcing it.

If that’s the case, she thought, what does that make us?

Picking up the rifle again she peered down the sight at the western gate, the wavering mist of heat distorting the view along the road. She was about to move her attention back to the eastern gate when a figure began to resolve just beyond the curve of the road. As the figure neared the town she could make out a dark robe.

“Preachers”, she cursed. “I fucking hate Preachers”.

Once a month Ironhaven elected to send a detachment of ‘missionaries’ out to the poor heathens in the towns and outposts along the trade route. They were interested enough in bringing the towns under their wing but, from what she’d heard, those that had signed up just became a little bit crazier and a great deal poorer all of a sudden.

The preachers were always polite and well-behaved but they had a habit of stirring up the worst in the more traditionalist caravans. Despite being well received in Holden’s Ford and Morris, preachers were a cause for alarm in Fairfield. Cassidy could already feel the hairs prickling on the back of her neck. Minutes from now word from those stalls closest to the gate would reach the large stone building that represented the core territory of the Domarah elders in Fairfield. Even now, tiny figures sprinted behind the shacks and tents; the eyes and ears of the elders. Cautious eyes peered out from behind darkened windows.

The robed man strode cautiously along The Avenue, his face hooded from view, his hands held together loosely in front of him. Cassidy shuffled toward the edge of the veranda, peering down at the man as he disappeared beneath her feet and entered the bar.

She tipped her head back, closed her eyes and counted.

3.. 2.. 1...

Cassidy winced as the unmistakeable sound of a glass tankard breaking against a bar table made its way up the stairs.  The sight of a preacher was like a red rag to a bullhorn in Fairfield and as far as most were concerned The Oasis was sacred ground. As usual it'd be up to her to stop the situation getting out of control. She allowed her head to loll forwards again and chucked the rifle on a pile of rags behind her seat. Reaching into her waistband she grabbed her leather gloves and dragged them on as she turned and made for the bar.

“Break’s over”, she sighed.