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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.