CHAPTER EIGHT :
OF THE NIGHT, AND THE
DEMONS OF THE DEADLAND
A duel in darkness with the denizens of
the Deadland, and the secret of a blazing Skyship
Winged apes with razor-sharp claws and bared teeth crawl from the ornately gilded walls. The Drhazilsk swings alertly, expression lost behind his smoked visor. His Prayerblade arcs in a lethally precise curve. A gibbering simian head falls to the floor, cleanly severed, while the body comes on tearing for the man’s throat.
Taad stares, rooted with horror, cold sweat vomiting from him. A-Hylca tugs at him from behind, and sluggishly, face aghast, Taad responds. More apes seep from tapestries and erupt out of the floor. The Trooper is already a seething mass of scrabbling talons, bloodied scimitar teeth, and the cracking of leathery bat wings. As bestial eyes begin switching towards them the two men retreat back up the corridor towards the galleon’s stern. Tides of blood ripple across the ceiling. The whole craft is vibrating now, the floor moving beneath them, the rasp of destructuring metal reaching a harsh cacophony of discord. Sulphurous clouds of steam gush in acrid geysers from sudden holes in the air, congealing in a glistening sludge of fetid ichor on walls and floor.
Taad and A-Hylca stumble down a broad companionway, the floor rebelling beneath them, their footfall ghosted by hollow metal echo, their feet turning to lead. The air dances in vivid contrails of crimson fire, the baying of monstrous predators at their heels. There’s a bewildering array of passages and sealed doors stretching before him, but A-Hylca moves with a sure sense of purpose, Taad following him down flights of spiral stairs as though they’re still connected by the ligature.
A frigid chill hits them as they enter an antechamber beneath, a thick-set man with the look of a mechanic is on the floor pearled with frost, hair turned white, skin the pallor of death, eye sockets empty. Taad crouches over him attempting to unfasten a Prayerblade bandolier, a shock of cold striking painfully at nerveless fingers. The buckle is frozen solid, so he just tugs the blade free, strengthened by the psychological protection of its cool solidity against the palm of his hand.
It’s been so long since he held a blade. Since Nonocastria.
He turns from the corpse. A-Hylca’s sparrow fingers are already hauling clumsily at tarpaulin sheets covering a number of Descent Kites. Revealing a row of small dart-shaped gliders, flimsy constructions of wood and canvas without power unit or accurate directional control. Nevertheless, the ship is falling apart around them. A large cargo portal is set into the curving outer hull and he moves rapidly across to its adjacent controls. Opening procedures are mapped out in incomprehensible symbols, with no time for detached interpretation. Taad traces a set of cables snaking up the wall to a system of hydraulics and, leaving no pause for thought, he swings the serrated blade severing the cables in one clean blow. Gouts of green blood pulse from quivering black mouths, and the portal judders. He stands back as it falls jerkily in a series of awkward lurches resonating across the floor in sympathetic shockwaves.
The air beyond is strangely still in unnatural silence. Invisible shapes circle the stricken craft leaving rippling wakes of visible distortion and disembodied shadows of supernatural horror. But nothing tangible. Far beneath them huge boiling cumulus cloud-banks surge like tide, cast into the pure ochre of reflected flame.
Taad retreats, to test the flimsy framework of the nearest dart. It gives at the slightest application of pressure. Surely it’s too weak and insubstantial to bear the weight of a man - particularly one of his ursine girth and bulk! His guts are awash with contagions of fear, but choice has vanished. The Skyship is slowly tearing itself apart. Soon nothing will remain.
A-Hylca, already buckled into his ungainly craft, begins slithering it towards the portal. For a moment he turns, “should anything happen to either of us, the other must reach Baal-Shadaam to stop Chao’s transaction. There’s a man there, the Elector of Luna - Artanis Vas Kratz, he’s sympathetic to our cause. Contact him.” Then he turns back to the open sky, launches into nothingness, and submerges in air, spiralling down and out of sight.
‘Our cause! Our cause! Since when was this our cause. Must. Must. Why must? What right has A-Hylca to determine what I must and must not do?’ Demonic footsteps prattle on the companionway behind him. Whispers of sound magnified by tricks of acoustics, but unmistakably coming closer. The floor lurches violently, timbers rending in protest. Taad fumbles the last buckle into place, fingers trembling uncontrollably, and he hurls his weight against the Kite’s framework, propelling himself across the floor in a flapping rattling guise of canvas and struts. He yells to drown the dull thudding in his chest, and dares not pause or hesitate lest resolve melts. He half-drags and is half-carried by momentum over the brink, and falls, feet waving in a frantic parody of haste, until he levels out, gliding slowly.
‘Our cause. Must, must... what right?’
A numbing silence. Breath amplified, the throb of blood in his veins clearly audible.
But nothing else. Wind, cold and cloying at exposed areas of skin, but otherwise he’s amputated from anything beyond self, from all exteriors. Confidence returns gradually. He chances a glance back. Chromatics have shifted. The ‘Tellurian’ is listing alarmingly, its starboard bladder deflated, aquarium-green flame crawling around sails and lower housing, fore-section shattered with traces of impact, but no sign of a second craft or another victim of collision. A feathering of Escape Darts fan from the docking bay he’s so recently vacated. They seem small and distant.
Then he’s dipping into a moist maelstrom of cloud and all else is obscured. Travelling in wide lazy spirals of uncontrolled flight, adrift like thistledown. The fog, dense and richly coloured, gives no indication of depth or of what lies beneath. The continual silence is oppressive, his eyes straining to penetrate swirling bands of bronze, now yellow, now emerald.
The mist parts. A molten plain seething with volcanic lava, spouting fire and foul smoke, spewing rock and magma. An incandescent light bursting through his head, a vision of primordial Earth that - just as suddenly, is lost, obscured by cloud. Still the descent continues. There are faint echoes of his breathing trapped into repetition. Impressions of stone all around him. He’s falling into a vast but narrowing pit, a funnel of rock going down to the planet’s very depths. Then he’s drifting again, experimenting numbly with control, leaning first this way, then weighting the other. The dart responds sluggishly. Except there’s nowhere to aim.
The sky around him ripples with blood.
The sky around him is pure and unbroken crimson, a single horizon delineated where the upper reflects the lower exactly.
The sky around him is a dense forest of hanging chains, endless links in an endless repetition of verticals.
Now he’s gliding slowly over ochre desert broken by huge salt sculptures, a metal city of mechanical insects, a jungle of singing crystals, over tundra scrubland where light snow falls on skeleton rib-cages as vast as cathedrals, a fleet of phantom-white ships lost in polar seas, their rigging heavy with thickening ice. There are rolling dunes of frigid quartz shingle slashed open into a maze of jagged rifts, as if by an earthquake. The rifts expand as he falls towards them, each one kilometres-long now and fattening at the centre, tapering off at each extreme. The edges of the wounds congeal until they are smooth and rounded, until they become lips curling back to reveal row upon row of canine teeth. And the whole plain is an ocean of jaws opening to receive him into a million cavernous maws. Mad laughter burbles and dances. There are phantasmal dragons at the eye of chaos. A rain of ice-cold fire. Every nerve-end is burning. His body convulses, comes apart, his limbs are wrenched off and fall away, his chest is shocked inside-out, each intestine snake-headed as it uncoils from his gut....
Taad finds himself screaming...
Then the nightmare is gone.
He bursts through a final barrier of cloud to be deluged in the howl of wind - pure, tactile, real. The sky clear and familiar. He’s falling towards greens, blues and greys. Ground rushing up at him. Drab marshland with small patches of stunted trees and bushes. He crashes to waterlogged earth, dragged furiously at speed across rough ground through ragged black thickets, shrieking and yelling, until the Descent Kite stumbles, tilting, and slows to a halt. A second later, seen across an expanse of reed-infested plain, the fractured Skyship falls from night sky. As it hits it explodes in leaping tendrils of curling voracious flame splashing up into darkness like eruptions from hell. For a long moment the ground beneath the cloud-heavy sky is vivid with artificial daylight. Each fern, each outcrop of dripping bulrushes, each brittle cairn of stone painting long weeping shadows of eclipsed blackness away from the vortex of flame.
Taad is temporarily winded, and badly shaken. He crouches in the recoil harness in a fit of helpless nervous shivering, only dimly aware of the Landing Kite’s huge yellow dart around him, his fingers numb, watching the mesmeric holocaust with dim incomprehension. Eventually, in a strangely detached way, he feels marsh water eking across his bare toes, soaking into his ragged worsted hose. His attention registers the haze of mist hanging in wraiths at the edge of vision, a tangible dampness already beading strands of his long untidy hair and beard with clinging pearls of moisture.
The explosions die away in roils of crimson-painted smoke, replaced by patterns of lazy flame feeding not on the helium gas bladders, but on the wood and canvas sections of the wrecked craft. The conflagration provides an ochre sunset fluctuating through the night. With it comes the returning ebb of sensation - he’s alive and free, he’s escaped the Machine Relics Mine, and he’s escaped the insane sorcery of the Waterlords of Pacantic. The cold and isolation are secondary considerations. He draws the Prayerblade, severs the restraining harness, then manhandles the unwieldy kite across a brief space of treacherous ground to where he can send it crashing and slithering down a steep incline to submerge noisily in a lake of fetid water. The dismally flapping sails disturb veils of brackish fog. He watches the last struts and tarpaulin slide beneath the oozing water, having missed just such a fate himself by mere metres.
He exhales, watching his breath congeal in dancing patterns torn and dissolved by the slight wind. Concealment has become a reflex action. The role of fugitive coming more easily now. ‘Thank you, A-Hylca’, with conscious irony. He knows nothing of this Deadland plain or its denizens, and will leave no clue for pursuers to hunt him by, human or otherwise. He systematically searches the sky and the extremes of visibility for other Landing Kites, but can locate none. He shrugs, resigned to being alone with the steadily burning Skyship. His collar uncomfortably damp against the nape of his neck. And he trudges towards the warmth of the wreck, the ground bogging under his tread as though the mud and loam are loath to release him. Darkness is no time for formulating plans. The flames will at least counter the relentless cold, and keep predators at bay. As he walks the roar of burning grows to drown out the steady squelch of mire underfoot, while blackness clings and festers around ragged reed-banks or unhealthy trees, lurking in wells and pools of shadow, the very earth exuding malignancy.
He nears the blazing pyre, heat heavy on his skin, intimations of unease intensifying. The hair on the nape of his neck spikes unpleasantly, but the fear is a blurry-edged and unfocused thing. Indecisively he fumbles for the blade stuck through his belt. And at the same time he’s struck a glancing but inaccurate blow from the rear that sends him sprawling, blood-roar in his ears. He hits damp shingle half stunned, head split by white-hot needles, but rolls aside, blade in hand protectively angled to counter further attack. The night garish with leaping flame and dark dark menace...
Nightmares of previous fire-storms break loose and drift. The Warren. Drhazilsks. Throndups. Gyalas. His wife. His fear-frozen inability to prevent her death, her death, her death, to prevent the total destruction of his enclosed world.
Three figures against the churning sky, feral and beast-like. The nearest wields the stone responsible for the savage blow, its arm at the lowest point of its vicious arc. ‘NOT THIS TIME, DUNGHEAD. NOT AGAIN. THIS TIME I’LL NOT STAY FEAR-FROZEN’. Taad’s blade hefts wildly as he grovels, and it bites flesh. The hominoid creature howls, its wrist severed in a deluge of blood. It leaps back brandishing the injured limb like a grotesque trophy.
In a confusion of hatreds Taad scrambles unsteadily to his feet. He’s no swordsman, though he’s used blades regularly in Warren Prayerblade rituals, but driven by the urgency of revenge the weapon stabs instinctively. A separate thing. Something apart from his unprepossessing figure, wired directly to his rage. A second lunging attacker roars as it intercepts a random but lethal swing. Then the third beast is on him clawing and tearing in a fury of teeth and talons, sparking explosions of revulsion. The assault is as uncoordinated as the defence, but horrifically effective. Before he can target his blade Taad is slammed backwards by its animal ferocity, the monster’s foul breath steaming at his throat, fangs rending through the coarse fabric of his prison jerkin. Without conscious thought Taad clenches both hands round the hilt of the sword and brings it down jarringly onto the furred vulpine head, once, twice, then again until the skull caves, splintering sickeningly, his hands hot with sudden blood-gush. The beast’s grip slackens, becomes limp, and shrugs to the shingle.
Limbs weak and unresponsive Taad slouches to his feet to stand over the crumpled form for a moment, watching the night. Waiting for movement that doesn’t come. He feels faint, and he’s abruptly sick, throwing up violently into the undergrowth, vomiting away all the pain, sickness and guilt, hate and anger, retching as though the sensations will never stop. Until there is nothing left to come. Rain trickles down his neck. His skin crawls. Time crawls. Blood weeps from minor contusions, dirt ground into their rawness. His breath comes easier, but with it the salt-metal taste of blood in his mouth. Flames continue climbing along ripples of boiling smoke making everything run in threateningly liquid shapes. But otherwise all is still, the two wounded assailants melting back into twilight.
Taad spits a foulness of congealing saliva, passes the back of his aching sword-arm across a sweat-damp forehead, shifting entanglements of hair. He stoops over the fallen creature, hackles rising. It is dead, the ebb and flow of light enabling him to examine it with increasing horror. Naked and ape-like, furred with a coat of coarse tawny hair, it has a second pair of childlike hands ending in dagger-sharp talons, protruding from its chest. Perhaps it’s a kindness to end such a vile parody of life?
Grenaman Taad is suddenly cold. He slides the blade back under his belt. He doesn’t understand. This abomination has no right to exist in the universe he knows. Perhaps he’s not escaped the Time Marshes after all, but merely reached a further temporal zone, a world of deep prehistory? There’s much that is confusing. Alone now on a foreign planet he knows nothing about. ‘A-Hylca could explain it all. Or at least he’d pretend to know, and fabricate a convincing explanation.’ Better to have died fighting in the Warren. Better not to have followed A-Hylca’s crazy advice. Even the Penal Colony is a place and time he can relate to and function in.
He leaves the beast, moving into the warmth of the fire. Animals fear flame. He’ll be safe from further attack. He circles the pyre, shielding his face from its intensity, steel struts which once reinforced the gas envelopes now glow white, twisting and warping like modelling clay, charred cinders racing erratically up from its heat, caught on updraughts. He moves round the fuselage to where part of the superstructure remains intact, as yet untouched by flame. Machinery lies smashed and disgorged across the marshy ground like the entrails of a slain dragon. He pauses, his eyes examining it curiously, registering a vague familiarity with this cargo. This is either a careful reconstruction, or a painstaking refurbishment of equipment they’d excavated not a month since in the Relics Mine. For a moment the significance tugs quizzically. Then he shifts attention to the Skyship, where the elaborate and luxuriously carved interior walls of decks and cabins look out of place exposed to night air. There are also Drhazilsk corpses twisted and crumpled like discarded dolls in satanic rites. The fugitive pauses over each body, expecting, but not finding either A-Hylca or War Chao.
Eventually his flailing foot shatters a partially crippled barrier of splintering woodwork, and he forces his way onto what remains of the Bridge. The air is heavy with smoke and stunted flame that leaps and runs like rodents along heavy curtaining and tapestries. There’s the smell of blood, smashed muscle and bone mixed in with seeping oil. The smell of charred lacquer and burnt flesh setting his throat and nostrils stinging. He can even smell his own skin scorching. There’s a tangle of bodies in one corner, they hold Prayerblades in dead fingers, they obviously died in Ritual - Escape Darts being few and prized. He pauses to separate corpses, recognising many of his erstwhile captors.
The air chokes with smoke, the flames intensifying, the fire feeding on its own heat. A crash of destructuring beams sets the floor lurching. He’s about to abandon his search when the last of the cadavers slumps to one side, releasing from nerveless fingers the fist-sized sphere of pure crystal he’d been shown earlier - part of the navigational mechanisms guiding War Chao to his rendezvous with the Deadland leader. Acting on impulse Taad scoops it from the floor. A directional tool. If Chao can find his way out of the Time Marshes with it, perhaps he can use it to navigate the Deadland? Or at least it might provide a useful tool for bartering with whatever inhabits this frontier wilderness. He considers replacing his prison fatigue with clothes from one of the dead crewmen, but whether that would prove an advantage depends on how the Domain’s regime is regarded here. It could just as easily get him killed. After a moment’s hesitation he contents himself with neatly cutting a document pouch from the waistband of a dead Drhazilsk. Then, coughing and flailing at acrid smoke and a flaking pother of soot, he retreats into the clean air beyond the wreck, crouching down at a safe distance to wait for morning. He waits without incident, even sleeping fitfully.
THE COMING OF THE BEAST OF DARKNESS
In which Grenaman Taad first encounters
the being who claims to be the Great Beast, and then
finds evidence he mistakenly believes
provides proof of Ansor A-Hylca’s survival
Dawn smears over grey mounds of quagmire and mud-slick several hours later. Drab land emerging, taking shape minute by minute, melting into aqueous sky as the crisp gleam of sourceless white permeates both. Behind him, beyond banks of tree-tall fungus, he can see the black wall of the Time Marshes boiling in impotent fury, thick and impenetrable, while far above drift the ragged shabby Sky-Islands, buoyed up by their cellular helium pockets. The familiar organic clouds shift slightly in the wind, aerial continents rent violently apart by storm to admit stilts of daylight. Sharply defined columns of luminous green to support an entire wildness of sky.
Taad rouses himself. The plain is empty but for the moist seepage of mist haunting shallow tracts of water and marshland. The nightmares of darkness have ebbed, the fires shrunken too, the wreckage merely smouldering resentfully. He couches the sword, weighing it, balancing it loosely. The ebon hilt and guard fit his huge paw perfectly, already adapting itself to his fingerprint patterns and neural charge. It is something solid and real in bedlam. A deep, almost instinctive yearning fills him, and he holds it in front of his face, spearing the dawn. Although its resonance is not yet perfectly attuned to his neural signature, its light-retentive Triskele inlay along its serrated blade swims in a dance of reflections, strengthening him.
The Prayerblade Ritual, enforced clear across the Spirit Domain, has its mantras etched deep in his memory. A reflex action. Since his escape from the Penal Colony time has been confused, the strict practice of Dawn Observance has lapsed. Now he feels its need. He crouches to his knees, full attention transfixing on the light-play igniting the carved character-symbols along the sword’s length. The sky ripples its response. The chanted catechism focuses his concentration until he’s totally unaware of anything other than the vortexing sigils and the mesmeric power of his will draining into its intricate patterns. The trance lasts a full five minutes of virtual disembodiment, all thought in quiescence, all senses suspended, all self-awareness fused into an eternity of oneness. Contributing to, and drawing from, the Morphogenetic Field generated by human life across the planets.
Until the transcendence passes, and he stands rejuvenated.
At that same moment the screech of a disturbed acid-pink cormorant startles him. He turns. A vast black Skyship bursts low and silent over the mound of smoking wreckage, feeding with inexorable menace to near eclipse the sky. He can’t decipher its markings. But prompted by foreboding he hares towards a patch of tall reeds spangled with Marsian Violets, squishing and slithering through deep puddles - to be brought up sharp. In his haste he’s almost trodden on the beast-corpse from the night attack. His stomach heaves. Already decomposition is eroding it, the nose gone, eaten to the bone. Waves of maggots plunge in and out of its disrupting flesh. Carrion land-crabs squirm and skitter across what remains of its face, the jaws dripping mucous and bloody bile over blackened lower teeth and bloated tongue. The back of its skull smashed open in a fleshy mess of blood and hair. And it is haloed by midges. But it’s the beast’s sunken eyes that meet Taad’s accusingly...
Retching, he launches himself over the grotesque shape, holding his breath so as not to inhale the midges, and finds himself tumbling down the steep incline beyond where, hours before, he’d despatched his Landing Kite. The fall is wild and undignified until he comes to rest in the thick matted shade of splayed mushrooms and bulrushes. Muddy water closes in around his feet, beginning to soak up into his jerkin, but he fears to move until his spasming gut settles and until the sky is clear. He has a sudden panicky picture of drowning in this black mush before that happens.
From concealment he watches the galleon hover, its green beacons pulsing. He can even see the figures moving beyond its quartzite observation blisters. They aren’t Domain Troopers of any division he recognises, can’t decipher their markings or regalia. A rope ladder uncoils from the ship and four men, capes billowing, clamber down. They circle the wreck slowly, kneeling at intervals to sift through still-warm ash, venturing between blackened ribs to explore what remains within. In occurs to Taad that theirs is not merely a casual interest, but a systematic search. His awareness of the thefted globe in his shirt increases guiltily. Minutes lengthen, his leggings become waterlogged and uncomfortably cold, but he daren’t move.
Across the narrow shelf of mud he clings to, small red crabs with an apparently arbitrary number of legs, shunt in purposeful dance. As he watches, a tendril of spring-coiled weed lashes out to snare one of them. A Trip-Trap with carnivorous intent. Purple scum at the water’s edge shimmers responsively.
Above him, the discovery of the rotting Simian causes considerable excitement. The sound of footsteps approach and he cringes down deeper into the slime. Looking up, a man stands with barbaric arrogance, dark against the sky, cloak whipping in the breeze. His hand rests casually on a sword pommel. And it is pagan - nullifidian, not a Prayerblade! While, although his face is in shadow, it’s obvious his head is shaved to a single scalp-lock that extends in a long braid to his shoulders, his skull tattooed with concentric chains of dots.
As he scans, the snared land-crab fights the entanglement of tendrils, and the purple scum washes at the mud purposefully. Surely the stuff has moved? Surely it’s further up the mud margin than before? But Taad’s attention is dragged off to a second figure approaching from the Skyship, now standing behind the wild soldier with the hood of his burnouse pulled in tight around his face. The nullifidian turns. Taad can’t be sure, but fear seems to tremor across the tattooed face, hastily adjusting to a more formal expression.
The scum is now melting into long quicksilver fingers targeting at the trapped land-crab. As it makes contact with the first curve of the shell, the crab begins dissolving. A slight acrid smell replacing what had been hard carapace. More tentacular strands of mauve ebb past the melting crab towards Taad’s leg.
The hum of an insect sounds curiously amplified
There’s the hint of an intoxicatingly rich aroma.
The men are talking soundlessly, Taad attempting to penetrate the black well of the new stranger’s face, but shadow makes it an absolute void of chilling emptiness. Yet it’s almost as though his outward semblance to humanity is no more than an assumed concession to anatomical convention. Concealing... what? All he can see are the eyes. Cold, emotionless and evil. Neither male nor female. Beast eyes set like bright malignant gems in the black velvet of a cave mouth. And, with movement, only the contrasting black glint of eyes that are set like polished marbles in the bone-white glaze of, what... a glazed ceramic mask? Frozen. Expressionless.
Colours stand out suddenly, unnaturally bright. Images coming apart and spiralling in a mad vortex he can’t suppress. The virus of an idea has appeared at the back of his mind. Where has it come from? Nowhere. Outside. Beyond. But it is a whispered suggestion that, once planted, grows. The eyes, it says, are death incarnate. And this is how, in nightmare, you’ve seen the Waterlords transfixing you with venomous menace, rising mountain-huge and awesome from the primeval mire of the Time Marshes. This is how the Ebon Sentinels of Wolvorta-Hgadin bring their messages of death. This is true. You know it with absolute certainty. This is the Beast of the Coming Darkness, destroyer of worlds, bringer of apocalypse and final chaos. The Razored Night. The Blackness-That-Walks. The suggestion expands, stirring in ripples of irrational fear, a growing terror intuitively deep. You are something small and helpless trapped a heartbeat away from the certainty of predator’s fangs. A mouse the instant before the eagle’s rending talons. You’re consumed by a blind compulsion to run. An instinct to find a bolt-hole small and dark. To crawl and hide. Crawl and HIDE. Crawl and HIDE.
The land-crab is nothing more than a messy stain on the mudbank. The tentacled slurry tonguing up at Taad’s ankle, but he’s too scared to move lest it draws unwelcome attention to him. He feels it burn, and the pain is excruciating. As though its already dissolving its way down through layers of skin and nerve-endings. He’s suddenly biting down hard on his lip to suppress the yell.
What happens next is totally unexpected. The shock of detonation is terrifying, ripping the air apart far above them.
The black-etched figures cringe instinctively, pointing at the sky in a contagious fear. Then they’re moving fast, soon beyond visibility. The sharp explosion ripples in waves of receding echoes, the sound instantly replaced by several high-pitched keening whistles simultaneously. The fugitive lies rigid, scarcely daring to believe he’s escaped detection. Heartbeat pulsing up against his ribcage. Holding on as long as he dares, then snatching his leg clear of the moving scum, rolling clear. Lying on his back, the violent vortex of Sky-Islands surge and jostle in expanding tides, directly above him. An island is seeding. He understands the process and it terrifies him. A mile above where he lies the pods have expanded and matured to the point of rupture, scattering spores in explosive detonation and at high velocity towards the earth where they’ll germinate. Their multiple howl raising to shrill and piercing levels.
The strangers scurry back towards their ship where there’s frantic activity. Some of the equipment cargo from the wrecked ‘Tellurian’, and the invaluable Cavorite plates, have been transferred to the black craft’s hold by a lifting train in jury-rigged derricks and slings. But suddenly the labour has ceased and bulkheads reseal. Taad howls in terror as the barrage begins in a series of shock impacts, pummelling over and over. Giant columns of mud and debris blast in foul torrents spattering and deluging him. It seems to go on interminably. Until the silence resumes and the world settles.
Taad’s ankle throbs from its brief contact with the acidic scum.
The Skyship is moving again, whispering low across the ravaged wetlands, pulsing greenly. Taad watches it go as his trembling subsides and he considers it safe to emerge. Yet the effect of the shock seeding, and of those alien eyes remain burned deep. His fear is irrational, but all the more disturbing because of that. A man he’d seen for what could have been no more than a minute. Yet even the memory of that brief presence chills him physically. He feels giddy, mildly intoxicated, his head aches like the after-effects of too much wine. Perhaps it’s something he’s inhaled?
Can this man be the Darkland ally Chao had intended contacting? The alliance he’d spoken of with such obvious distaste? Taad fumbles for a name. Comes up with that of Naws Tenrab, Elector of Mars. Chao could have survived. And be still intent on fulfilling the alliance. By that same logic, A-Hylca could also be alive. Alive and in the grip of that same evil presence.
He examines his leg irritably. ‘Our cause!’ he grumbles. The surface of the skin, around the point where the ligature had once projected, is scorched and raw. ‘Our cause? Must, Must. By what right...?” Every instinct tells him to turn tail and head in the opposite direction, but instead he finds himself walking clumsily in the Skyship’s wake, into the dawn. As he’d done before in the Time Marshes, siamesed by ligature to that irritating old insurrectionist.
Wind moans over tasselled reedbeds and impact-craters from the seed-pods, shivering in silver tides lifting mist and skimming large expanses of brackish water like the passage of unseen wings. Sky-Islands reflect in dark lakes alive with hovering jewelled dragonflies each a metre across. Swarms of madly dancing midges skitter, and other more venomous insects take an unhealthy interest in exposed areas of Taad’s skin. Lost in a sodden land of ash-greys, soft yellows and rotting greens, a strange waterlogged world of withy-beds and giant fungi. There are few signs of animal life, yet he senses they are there. The simian attackers of the night, where did they come from? And where did they return to? On mudbanks, in tunnels and deep wells there must be things that slither and crawl. Creatures that scurry, chirp, swim, scuttle or wriggle. And his thoughts keep returning to the purple scum with its hallucinogenic odour altering his perceptions and acting on his fears. Thoughts of how it digested the land-crab, as though working in some symbiotic way with the spring-coiled weed, snaring and devouring prey through mutual strategies? Or had the unfortunate crab been the victim of two simultaneous but rival predators? His head is clearing, but he’s run out of theories. His ankle throbs painfully.
His clothes dry. They give off flakes of crisp mud. He’s wading through waist-high reeds, each blade crowned with nine-pointed blossoms, brilliant stars of varying colour that wink as the green ripples run. He stumbles across a crude highway winding a path inefficiently across the plain, rutted with cart-tracks and strung with long interconnecting chain-lakes of stagnant water. And since the black Skyship with its dread cargo is no more than a far faint glimmer in the distance, then is no longer visible at all, the road provides an obvious direction. The low horizon always no more than a handspan away, congealing the route’s eccentric meanderings
There are huge termite mounds three times taller than he is, then weed-festooned debris indicating that at one time there’d been a Road House. And smashed into its remaining outer wall, the shattered shape of a Domain Escape Dart. Taad glances around wildly – A-Hylca? The derelict structure into which it has collided sprouts tangles of metal reinforcement rods like weeds, while its undressed stone betrays traces of coiled fossils in its imperfections. Age within age. He grins absurdly - five centuries late for some sorely needed hospitality! A giant stone face, once part of the construction, lies on its side. Elaborate maps of ivy grow around its forehead, extending bright rusty copper scales winding up into the collapsing masonry above it. Taad slouches down to sit on its nose, kicking the heads off flowering moonweed idly. There’s no trace of the Escape Dart’s passenger. What colour was the dart A-Hylca had used? it all happened so fast his memories are confused. But this has to be his dart. It must be. They were the first two out of the stricken Skyship, weren’t they? It’s logical that they should therefore have drifted farthest.
He ducks into the shadow and begins poking at dark mounds of rubble inside the roofless building, hunting out some clues to the Tellurian’s other survivor, and something of the welcome he’d missed. Picking aimlessly in moss-stained junk he uncovers a clutch of small statues, nine of them, inset in wall-alcoves and now embedded in a stink of musty fungus slime. Eroded out of recognition, human or something other than human, he can’t tell. Nor what they represent. But they’re still figures of melancholy grandeur. Waterlords? The Nine Dormant Gods - Zagat Shakhrai, Y’Myraferz, Dubh Gregennsil, Wolvorta-Hgadin, and the rest? They remain black and threatening, weather-lined with mournful striations. An air of malignancy that clings like mildew. Cold, with the sweet taint of decay. As if these are not images fashioned by craftsmen, but the petrified shells of once-living imps or demons.
He regurgitates a sudden memory of the beast he’d killed bleeding into the stony ground. Then the memory of Cumaryll, the Mithraisian Mine Guard they’d murdered in the Autodrome Complex. What strange dreams and distorted nightmares must ooze, like leaking blood into the earth, as they die? Is it terrible? And then comes nullity. Oceanic oneness. Unity with the morphogenetic fields that spheres the Cluster just as exactly as the lens of air. A web of essence caging the enemies of humankind; the Dormant Gods - the sleeping Old Ones immured beneath the crust of worlds across great trenches of time, and the unpredictable Nine Blind Waterlords penned in their Pacantic dominions, held there by the constant collective will of the race. Of the Spirit Domain. But the beast he’d killed had not been human. Merely humanoid. And this is the Deadland where unbelief is the norm. And even in the Domain itself there’s doubt... A-Hylca himself. Vast change is riddling the very permanence of worlds. He senses, and fears it.
He looks at the group of nine statues, simultaneously feeling the need to urinate. With a ludicrous smile he aims a stream of piss at them in a conscious act of sacrilege, washing them steadily clean of moss and dirt, until his need is satisfied. In the dripping stillness that follows, the full awfulness of what he’s done creeps up on him. He glances fearfully over his shoulder, expecting some kind of horrific supernatural retribution, and hurries from the Road House, the crashed Escape Dart, and the nine statues with blundering haste.
He walks on with quickened pace until twilight thickens into dusk and a soft blurring of drizzle drifts, softening hard edges into vignettes. The air cool and tactile. Gradually the ground firms and the road peters out to nothing. It should have taken him directly to some human habitation - perhaps even to the city of Baal-Shadaam, his ultimate destination. Now it doesn’t seem to even belong to the same civilisation. Instead, he moves up a sparsely wooded incline of scrubby grass, heather, and skyweed, glimpsing high fells beyond, rain hissing up the slope ahead of him.
Nearing the crest, glancing at the overhang above, there’s a sculpture of bones in garish mis-formation decorated with fetishistic paint, feathers and mud. The skull set into the chest. The arms extending down from the hips like additional legs. A quadruped. An insect. Surely it had been arranged this way as a warning to unwary travellers? Surely nothing with so grotesque a symmetry had ever lived? Scuttling. Scrattling like a man-sized bug. Even here. Beyond it he can look out through endless rain and drabness, between great crags of limestone, over the shoulder of the ridgeline, and across a low valley.
A wide sluggish river drains the wetlands down the centre of its depression, steady phalanxes of mushroom-like trees stretching along its lower slopes. And straddling the brown water stands Baal-Shadaam, the river looping through the heart of a grey thickly-walled city of sunken years. Its towers rise like some illusionist’s sleight-of-hand in oppressive smears of black out of clinging smudges of mist, to its steep swooping gables, slate-grey roofs and spiral turrets whitened by centuries of accumulated bird droppings.
What now? For a while the fugitive sits undecided, watching night congeal and pearly saffron lights glow into fireflies flecking the city. Early night mists creep from the river, blurring the outlines of the city’s edge, drawing haloes about the shining points of lights, transforming them into rows of misty moons.
Meditatively he slides the crystal globe from the warmth of his prison jerkin to examine it more closely. It is now smooth ebon. Sensual to the touch. Its interior swirls in smoky vortices of silent storm. The substance of dream and nightmare. He watches a cascade of messages in its confined horizons as it absorbs and sifts the miasma of the Ashirian Omphalos, tuned from that collective memory bank, seer, and biological computer in the Domain’s capital city, to the Trancers spaced out across the Last Empire. There are swirls of weather patterns, circuit diagrams, images of torture, snowflake crystals, neural patterns, mathematical symbols, Tellurian, Marsian and Venerian topographies, city street-grids, and now - clouds of vermilion moths swarm and cluster across the hemisphere of the lens, splintering and separating out into spectral shapes at either end of its curvature.
And suddenly, a woman’s face. Starry, and as yet indistinct...
BAAL-SHADAAM, AND THE RITUAL OF THE NIGHT
Mareeh interprets images from
the Deadland, as Grenaman Taad experiences
the madness of its greatest city in his second encounter with
the being who claims Beast-hood... but
in altered guise and circumstances
Why him? Why - of all the magical locations clear across the Cluster that it could have switched her to, why has the Omphalos focused oh him? From the control bridge of Chao’s war galleon locked above Mars - to a man she doesn’t know sat hunched up on an overgrown hillside outside the forbidding walls of a city she’s never seen.
Mareeh examines the mental picture more closely. It fish-eyes into distortion at its outer rim, thus defining the limits of the globe that communicates the image. The man is the wrong side of middle-age, and carrying it badly. There’s a tendency to paunchiness, his hair thinning to non-existence at the crown, and shaggily unkempt where it laps down over his shoulder or merges into his untidy beard. Is he... what?, an animal herder who’s tarried too long in his pasture, missed last curfew and been locked out of the city? Why should the Omphalos choose to focus on someone like that?
But then - beneath the grime she recognises the prison garb he wears, the coarse worsted uniform jerkin and hose. Things begin slotting into place like a series of lenses aligning correctly to give a clearer picture. This tramp is no animal herder. But an escaped convict. An insurrectionist? The Omphalos is deliberately testing her reactions to him. It wants to know if there’s been contact between her Calyx University cell, and whichever group he’d belonged to prior to his arrest. Does she have knowledge of him, his plight, his destination, his ambitions? So now it knows. Her reactions are nil. It knows, and she knows that it knows.
So who is he, and why does the Omphalos consider him significant?
THE CITY: Baal-Shadaam, in the neutral margin of mutation that lies between the Cluster’s two great mutually opposing powers - the Domain; and the Pacantic world of the Nine Blind Waterlords. A city in the Deadland created five-thousand-three-hundred-and forty-two years ago by the mad architect Gaudyer who cast it from a single matrix by a process of pressure moulding; simultaneously erecting all the city’s greatest buildings and civic contours in a single shell laid twice over the remains of several earlier cities that had occupied the site over the preceding millennia. A city built according to Gaudyer’s principle of ‘balance’.
The information whispers directly into her mind. She can see the city now from above, as if glimpsing it from a drifting Skyship. The silver thread of the river dividing it. An island-building called the ‘House of Rebirth’ on its central axis. Green grid-lines superimposed over it by whatever recording devices have snared the images, and a flickering series of encoded numerals at each grid intersection. The perspective tilts in a vertiginous series of flash-frames of towers, walls, alleys, paved squares... and a single white obelisque patterned with gargoyles.
Then the abrupt interior of a listing Skyship, winged apes with razor-sharp claws and bared teeth crawling from the ornately gilded walls, erupting from smoke-plumes suspended in mid-air with a cracking of leathery bat-wings. Her flesh crawls. An Escape Dart roars into a moist maelstrom of cloud, travelling in wide lazy spirals of uncontrolled flight, chromatics shifting. A crimson explosion roils across marshland, leaping tendrils of curling voracious flame splashing up into darkness like eruptions from hell.
He’s drowsing. And she’s inside his memories. In some way the Omphalos can penetrate his brain and she’s seeing through the eyes of his recall. He’s lying in mud in the thick matted shade of splayed fungus and bulrushes, scummy water closing in around his feet, beginning to soak up into his jerkin. A mist. An hallucinogenic mist, the Omphalos tells her. A gentle narcotic exhaled by amoebic Deadland predators to transfix their victims prior to engulfing them. He’s lying on an oozing mudflat beneath a tussock overhang. The mudflat is crawling with small red crabs each with an apparently arbitrary number of legs which shunt in purposeful dance. But his attention is directed steeply upwards at something, or someone who terrifies him.
When intense fear is experienced, the brain releases endorphins into the bloodstream. That’s what he’s experiencing now. The effect of the hallucinogenic mist further distorting and amplifying what he sees. The Omphalos wants another interpretation of what he’s witnessing to verify its reality. The image freezes. A mesh of grids descend to divide their mutual field of vision, and subject each frame to scrutiny...
A vicious lurch. He’s moving. The sudden action throws the careful analysis of the Omphalos out of kilter. He’s alert, hunching deeper into the surrounding foliage. His mind no longer drifting and unfocussed, so limiting access to it. The probes can only get inside his head as he drowses.
The sphere must be lying on a rise opposite him. She can see him crouching and watching. But she can’t see what he’s hiding from. She can see the horizon cut black into the sky by the low hills above him, the deeper darkness beyond, lit intermittently by fluorescent green discharges. ‘Static electricity sparking pockets of Sky-Island helium’, says the Omphalos. It should know.
The flicker of green lightning tilts his profile into relief. Then - overlaid across the image, comes rapid indistinct impressions of what he’s seeing, siphoned directly from his conscious mind, mixed in and blurred with memories. A sculpture of bones in garish misformation decorated with fetishistic mud, paint and feathers. The skull set into the chest. The arms extending down to the hips like additional legs. The Omphalos recognises it as a ‘Go-No-Further’. It tells Mareeh it is a ‘warning for the Fortunates of the Deadland’. But just as quickly it’s gone and they watch a procession of shambling figures herded by taller darker shapes on the ridge etched against the sky. He’s thinking Lhyrill. He’s thinking Sentinels. The idea he holds - real or imaginary, is of figures in slit-eyed wooden masks, horned with tusks and antlers, decorated with jawbones and the white gleam of mismatched teeth. And behind them yet taller figures, inhumanly tall, two metres or more, and featurelessly black.
The Omphalos recognises them. Luna. She can sense its irritation as it attempts to sift the information, separating what is real from the embellishments of imagination and memory. A quiet storm of luminous green invests everything with a bizarre aquatic quality. As if some murky sea level lies several metres above the field of visibility, but through it the waves glimmer, prisming turquoise and silver across the fugitive, the vegetation he crouches into, and the procession of dark figures he watches.
They seem less distinct now. Either their shambling progress towards the sealed city is sufficiently advanced that it has taken them beyond the point that threatens the fugitive with discovery - and hence his fear has eased, and with it the sharpness of his perception. Or they have passed into a lacuna of shadow, and they are indeed less visible...?
At that moment he glances around so sharply, and stares so directly into her eyes that Mareeh starts back in shock. Even as she tells herself he can’t see her, that he’s looking not at her, but into a crystal globe on a wet wilderness hillside, he is reaching out to seize her...
--- 2 ---
Disturbed by the thought of hidden eyes, Taad stuffs the globe back into his jerkin.
At length he begins circling the city, tracing the path taken by the dark procession, but avoiding the bright circles marking globe-illuminated guardhouses set into the intricately moulded thermoplasticrete walls. Night walks with him. If A-Hylca had escaped the Tellurian’s destruction in the Descent Dart, he might be one of those dejected captives in the column he was following. Alternately, A-Hylca might already be inside this city - as guest or prisoner. Either way it seems likely that further survivors from the sky-wreck had been discounted, and Taad saw no reason for altering that impression. Yet.
A steady rustle of rain disturbs the stillness, making the windswept grass, dock and nettles underfoot gleam damply, festooning foliage with water that, when disturbed by his passage, sends spinning beads shimmering into the darkness. Small, cold droplets of rain that sting his face. His fatigues are damp and his hair plastered in incongruous straggles across his forehead.
After avoiding open areas of tillage and cultivated ground, past implement huts and middens, he reaches the shallow celadon-green lake rimmed by pebbles that marks his last sighting of the sad column. Somewhere far to his left it probably drains off into the leadenly glinting central river, a skiff of wind carries its stale-mud smell to stain the air with midges. Above the opaque backwater the buttresses of the city tower, the palpable gloom of shadowy arches extending its fortifications across the main body of swirling water. Darkness acts on frescoes and bas-relief occult hexes until patterns stand out with knife-edge clarity. There are also grilles set like grinning mouths in the unyielding stonework allowing the passage of effluence.
He’s puzzled. The procession disappeared somewhere around... here? They’d entered the city in some way at this point. He watches the night sky for long moments, recording the heavy drift of bleak kite-shapes. Some kind of night birds. They emit weary, infinitely mournful wails like the sirens of lost ships. They cluster in ragged arguing groups at points along the walls, Taad separates out the form of cages suspended there. At first he mistakes the cages for proof of domestication, until he’s able to detect the mouldering near-skeletons penned within, anthropoid - but non-human. The flying carrion tearing at and feeding on the remains of cruelly imprisoned hominoids.
There’s no other movement. No sound but the moist creak of frogs. Decisively Taad slides across an exposed stony strand of prehistoric fern and fungoid puffballs. A dull blood-red crab shuffles rapidly back into the shallows, its claws raised defensively, the sound of its submerging a slight silver disturbance. He treads across crunching spits of shingle pointing into the shallows of the foul lagoon, until he reaches the firmness beyond. Backing along the walls, swallowing his distaste to wade calf-deep pools and inlets of stinking water, to reach the lowest and most accessible orifice. Ripples run ahead of him, gurgling and lapping up against the crumbling walls as mud sucks numbingly around his ankles.
Had they entered this way? The grille is recessed above a silicate deltoid rippling with descending effluence, the water melting through a thick green sheen of algae. As antiquated as the rest of the fortifications, and as ill-maintained, its cold metal is rusting, its cross-welds flaking with verdigris. The mortar anchoring it is sufficiently corroded for him to wrench several bars free and force an admittance, despite his bear-like rotundity. The water in the sewer beyond is ankle deep, the must-smelling shaft itself tall and domed enough for him to stand. Badly repaired to the extent that rank grass grows thick and ghost white. As he looks back at the latticed grid of receding sky the taller tendrils of plants already blur its symmetry with a siege of spear-like leaves.
The dark procession didn’t enter by this route, so much is certain. But it’s already too late to go back. So Grenaman Taad gropes his way beneath the city walls in darkness. Rodent eyes flash yellow, then dissolve into concealment. Above him unidentifiable black shapes settle on leathery wings. The channel forks. In the glimmer of luminous moss he sees a secondary barrier, a new grille. He applies pressure to it but there’s no yield. He curses and tries again, muscles standing out until his arms ache. He sinks back to regain breath, then hangs on the moment, gazing at the semi-visible lattice in an ennui of frustration. He retraces his lumbering steps back to the ingress and fumbles around in the shallow mire until he’s retrieved one of the firmer bars he’d dislodged earlier to gain access. He weighs it, and grunts. Swallowing saliva he lurches back into the tunnel, using the bar as leverage on the grille, sweating and mouthing obscenities until he feels movement. A pause, then he tries again. It holds, prised gradually back from a cross-weld, until it gives violently, momentum taking him down smashing his knuckles on metal, ripping them open in icy stabs of pain. He winces and cringes up against the curve of stone until nausea eases back to a dull nagging after-taste.
There’s a gap forced in the barrier, low enough to be surmounted, but silted so deep it dams a sludge-pool beyond. As he applies weight the remains of the grille lurches, then shifts abruptly, and he goes down spluttering ludicrously in the suddenly released foul tide of scummy mud and freezing water. He retches. Gagging on filth. Wipes dirt from long sodden strands of hair, spitting and cursing as it rivers down his face. The grille is hinged. From the inside. He’s been forcing it the wrong way. All he had to do is pull, instead of push. Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha.. what was it A-Hylca had said?, “what do you dream of Taad, tunnels, caves, corridors, dark places in which to hide?” THIS is one tunnel he can do without.
He wades on. The level changes abruptly, forcing him to climb a steep slimy gradient skidding and further skinning his fingers. Water runs continuously down walls, now excavated from natural stone. A slow seepage feeds stubby stalactites of moist mould, but the sewer soon opens out into large labyrinths, some natural, more extended with flights of stairs and shattered masonry leading into upper darkness. Fissures tell of earth movements and subsidences that might be centuries old. Taad moves blindly on, feeling his way along crumbling brickwork with chill fluid coursing down his arms. The weed grows more lushly, and he gains the disturbing impression of habitation. Something misshapen and bestial has been exiled from the surface and lurks forever in these warrens, Taad imagines the mournful whimper of its breath, the rustle of stiff fur... or scales, the shiver of its passage through the tall fronds. A damp smell. He walks more quickly. Terrible things have happened down here. Misshapen creatures shamble, squirm and slither in this darkness in hideous agonies of deformity. He can hear the pounding of falling water that sounds like torrential cascades. He must be lost and dangerously close to the slip-off to the central river, stumbling blind.
He stubs his toe on something hard and sharp. There are hazy shafts of light from above, a soft spray of drizzle, and the tread of footfall. Real this time. No doubt. In the dull shadows he can see that bones litter the floor. He’s stubbed his toe on someone’s ribcage. The floor is also a seething mass of cockroaches. Taad swallows hard and approaches the luminance gratefully, until he makes out rusting rungs twisting upwards through a descending rain of gutter water. He shrugs the sphere into a more comfortable position in his jerkin, feeling the reassuring weight of the serrated blade at his waist, and begins the ascent. Pressure causes the wet-streaming metal to stir in its mounting, buckling as he climbs, until he approaches the grille above his head. The sound of shuffling movement intensifies and Taad freezes to a stop, then goes more stealthily. He can see nothing but the drizzling sky and the outline of tall buildings through the baroque design of the moist grating, so he applies his back to the metalwork and lifts it, by slight degrees, enabling him to glance into the street beyond. No more.
A deceptive darkness. At first he sees nothing. Then dismal figures condense from the edges of night.
He’s rediscovered the dark procession, by chance. Can now see them at closer range. There are five pagan soldiers, nullifidians in variously strange barbaric light plasteel armour of antique, but familiar style. Recognisably from the same culture as the black Skyship’s aeronauts. The nearest one wears a balefully flapping square-cut greatcoat of deep emerald, the coat and hood pulled in tight about him against the relentless inclemency. They look oddly foreign. But reassuringly normal after the nightmare pursuers of the Time Marshes he’d at first imagined them to be. But they also herd six misshapen prisoners, wolfish submen of slouching gait and sunken heads, similar to those Taad had fought on the Deadland plain beside the blazing Skyship. The bored soldiers prod their tethered victims with swords and tall trident-headed lances as they trudge, laughing humourlessly at the angry frustration of the response.
Taad daren’t move. He’s familiar with suffering. He’s learned to accept it. So he remains, intent on emerging when the retinue has passed.
But he’s counted without the treachery of corrosion. Without warning, the rung he’s standing on rasps from the facing and plunges noisily down the manhole into the stagnant water beneath. Arms wrenched taut, Taad clings to the rung above him, scrabbling for purchase, dislodging the heavy grille as he does so. Soldiers spin towards the metallic clangour trapped into mocking echoes between the steep canyons of city buildings. Two of them quit the submen to investigate, their stealth leaving no doubt about their intention to silence the intruder witnessing their obscene and secretive ritual.
Taad fights down an impulse to escape. Already it’s too late. He’d hoped to conceal his presence in Baal-Shadaam for as long as he could, until he’s discovered how safe the forbidding place is. Who, if anybody, to trust. But night is with him. He heaves his incongruous bulk from the dark opening, cords standing out on his arms, then draws his blade and reluctantly prepares to face the hostiles. Wriggling his feet into a firmer position, his great hand fisting around the weapon. He’s not made for this game. A farmer. Not a warrior. But his familiarity with the instrument, bred from Dawn Observances of prayer, enables him to manipulate the blade effortlessly and with precision.
The Prayerblade is a tool for life. A conductor, harvester and transmitter of the vital energies of life. But it can prove lethal in practised hands.
The first man comes at him, sword whirling lazily, expecting little opposition from the unkempt and comically drenched intruder. Taad’s snaking blade takes him, neatly impaling the centre-join of the breastplate, pitching the soldier forward, halfway into the well he’s so recently vacated.
A death. The blade cold in his hand. But warming to him.
‘This is wrong. This is bad. I don’t like what’s happening to me. I’m a farmer. I make things grow. I give life. But here I am with blood on my hands. Forced into positions in which I must take life. I’m becoming brutalised. I don’t like it.’ It’s not Taad’s choice. It’s his life that’s been violated. Ripped from all normality. It’s not Taad’s fault. He’s not responsible. He’s entitled to hit back at those who destroyed and exiled him. Isn’t he? None of this is by choice...
The second nullifidian treats the fugitive with greater respect. They cat-stalk each other warily, the clash of metal on metal ringing sharply as they engage. The soldier grins. His head shaved but for a braided top-knot pegged with onyx pins. From the corner of his eye Taad can see a third and fourth guard leaving the huddle of prisoners to silence the interloper from the sewer. This isn’t fair. Internal tremors of fear ripple under the surface control, gnawing at his flimsy tegument of rational restraint. Desperation opening up like a deep well beneath him.
Then there’s a scream. One of the beasts spring, dragging its tormentor to the glistening cobbles in a frenzy of claws. Terrible teeth white against drooling red lips. The other hominoids join in, venting their hatred and resentment on the hapless man with bestial grunts and snorts of delight. The third and fourth nullifidians hesitate for no longer than a moment before doubling back to help their comrade. Taad uses the confusion to leap forward and fell his adversary, then shifts his attention to the turmoil of squirming gouging figures. His flesh crawls. The furred beasts half-hidden by the steam of their breath are uniformly ape-like, more animal than human - as if their Deadland home has set evolution in reverse. Black wells of eyes are socketted deep in jackal snouts, but each of them also bears a personal disfigurement, an extra limb, a deformity or mutation. They are now untethered, all of them involved in the frantic bid for freedom. For a long moment it seems they might succeed, and despite his revulsion Taad finds himself sympathising with their plight. Recalling his own ligature. But the three remaining soldiers replace their initial confusion with callous brutality, cutting a visceral swathe with rapidly bloodied blades and prod-lances. Even unarmed feral ferocity is no match for their steel. Taad watches the pitiless retaliation.
He can slip off into the night alleys... But he’s increasingly drawn towards the struggle of one particular combatant who appears relatively well proportioned. He fights with intelligence, with hypnotic brilliance. As submen die or fall maimed into quiescence, two of the soldiers home in on him, one levelling a trident, the other parrying with a blade, but each of their potentially lethal thrusts are anticipated. He avoids each blow, weaving around each lunge, replying with devastating scythes of razor talons.
But the end is predetermined, inevitable, despite the creature’s agility. Taad is torn in a wash of conflicting urgencies. The loudest voice screams at him to turn and scurry for safety. But it’s drowned out by vivid flashes of Nonocastria’s destruction, his wife and colleagues murdered while he’s helpless to intervene. The agonies of self-recrimination that follow. Then the stupid ease of his recapture by Chao’s Drhazilsks in the Time Marshes. Shit. Here is another victim. And a tangible foe to vent all that repressed anger on. A chance to redress his earlier humiliation. To exorcise himself.
The anger bursts. Blindly, viciously, he attacks the near spearsman, grasping the shaft of the weapon from behind, wrenching the man off balance until he falls to the wet-running street. Rain mingling with blood between the cobblestones. Taad hesitates for less than a second. Then smashes the trident-head down into the exposed stomach. Watching it explode.
Even as he falls, the beastman takes advantage of the shock intervention, and hurls the second guard to the cobbles. Before they can re-group, the former prisoner lopes off into the shadows, bare feet slap-slapping on the street stones. Caught up in burning confusion Taad returns his blade to his belt and follows into a complex of branching alleys, dark and filthy, running the length of many blocks of statuesque buildings. Eventually they cross a concourse paved with uneven cyan flags, emerging at the head of a flight of broad marble steps. They pause by a fountain, in the mist that feathers from it. Their exhaled breath congeals in the city’s oppressively still air.
Taad is panting heavily, then more slowly, then almost normally. His heart thuds leaden against his ribcage. The after-effects of the recent violence wash over him nauseatingly, warm sweat suddenly clammy beneath his armpits, across his chest and crotch. The sores on his knuckles have freshly re-opened and weep bloody mucous. But with the discomfort comes a strange exhilaration that he savours like an unusual narcotic of rich and exciting potency.
He looks curiously across at his new companion, his every nerve-cell on fire. A quiver of static discharge through the Sky-Islands ripples a green luminous wash across the dark necromantic layers of the city, buildings etched into precise shadows by its eerie flare. Viewed against the glowing sky and the silhouette of baroque keeps the man at once appears tall, and oddly, chillingly impressive. But some of that stature is due to an elongation of the skull. His arboreal face is white and softly furred, subdivided by high dark cheekbones set against the arrogant tangles of a silver mane of hair. But the symmetry is flawed. As if the forehead has been wrenched out of shape and torturously stretched so that above the alert and intelligent eyes, there is space for a second pair of eyes. The effect is disconcerting. Like looking into a still pool of dark water in which reflections shimmer in dances of luminous colour. And the reflected face is momentarily perfectly mirrored... then is distorted by a single wavelet that moves in such a way that the image is split across the eyes, separating them out into a surreal duality. Yet that image remains once the pool resumes its stillness.
And the second eyes are sleeping.
To Taad, the hominoid is ageless, and unsettling in a way he can’t explain.
“Where were they taking you?” grunts Taad at length.
“They’re the lackeys of Naws Tenrab, the Crow Lord, taking us to the Hold of Mars.” The intonation is musical and strangely accented. Taad uncomfortably aware of his scrutiny. “Tenrab’s been ‘collecting Fortunates’ for some time. They come in the night to our homes in the marshes. They seize groups of our men and women who are never seen again. Us, they bring us into the city. Don’t you find that strange?” He laughs a low derisive laugh. “So I, in my turn, use their deviancy to my advantage.”
So being dragged into the city as a secret prisoner is to this creature’s advantage? Taad deliberately ignores the bizarre claim. “I’m here to seek the... er, Elector of Luna, Artanis Vas Kratz” he gently states his neutrality. “Also to rendezvous with my companion, a man called Ansor A-Hylca.”
The ‘Fortunate’ turns to face him, giving Taad the uncomfortable sensation of being in the presence of a cold and formidable intelligence, even though this creature is of the same devolved beast-race he’d fought in the Deadland night. “My name is Dyespaar” he breathes, “for this city, I am the Beast that brings the Coming Darkness. Then, perhaps, to the worlds beyond, too.”
Taad reels beneath a curious mix of shock, and ridiculous laughter. This figure... the ‘Beast’ of prophecy? Destroyer of worlds? Bringer of apocalypse? “So why confide all this to me?”
“Two reasons. First, you helped me. I am in your debt. Second, you will not be believed anyway.” He seems unmoved by the reaction brought on by his bombast. “But Vas Kratz is domiciled not far from here. I can direct you. For your companion you must seek out the Marsian House of Tenrab. But beware, this is a divided city, secret wars are fought across shadow boundaries. Those who fail to choose loyalties wisely become its victim.”
Dawn begins to melt over the carved towers when Grenaman Taad eventually takes leave of Dyespaar, their contrasting figures pointing two shadows - one tall, the other rotund, across the bronze-brown street cobbles. As they do so, archipelagos of Sky-Islands shift by gradual meandering degrees to eclipse pale blades of diffused light, nudging the whole city into deep green murk.
Taad walks, fatigue and post-adrenaline let-down taxing his limbs. Almost obliquely it registers to him that - just as Dyespaar had explained, Baal-Shadaam mirror-images itself exactly. Designed in such a way that the eastern street-plan is identical to the west. Two interlocking wheels with spokes of nine boulevards apiece, centring on hubs formed by the rival strongholds. The two ‘Houses’. Both of them imposingly ancient, the tallest of their minarets opening out into Skyship bays and hangers. Dyespaar had explained that one of the Holds has been dominated by the Tenrab dynasty - consisting of the Houses of Mars and Tellus, since the founding of the city thousands of years earlier. The other fortress is traditionally occupied by the rival Vas Kratz clan, the Houses of Luna, Venus and the Minor Worlds. Antagonism between the factions has led to the imposition of curfew, and the wide ill-kempt streets are empty but for the occasional vagrant snarling dog. The fugitive walks the Beltane Way into the Boulevard of Ells towards the aquatic glow of morning without incident. Twice it is necessary to hide from lethargic squads of dissolute troops, but he’s able to cross the sleeping city, following the beast’s directions, without further interruption.