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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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