Sunday, 18 February 2018

Chapter 39, Part Two: Assistant Commissioner of the Ring

Thanks for reading, everyone! A bit late this week. I'm behind on a few work projects and am scrambling to catch up. The usual warnings apply, hope you enjoy!




“Ma’am,” said the construct, stopping in front of her cell and looking in between the bars. Aleph had the feeling that he was restraining the urge to click his heels together and come to attention.

“Prospero,” she replied feeling her shoulders relax slightly at the sight of him. “How is Aristarchus?”

“He’s well. It was touch and go for a while, we had Williams of the Black on hand to dose him with Panacea, otherwise, I fear it would have been more go than touch. The bullet was lodged in his kidney and made a real mess of things. I thank you for bringing him so quickly.”

“I’m glad to hear he’s alright, he’s one of the good ones.”

“He is.”

There was a long pause where Prospero shifted his weight from foot to foot, and the only sound was the faint click and whir of his sigils as they shifted and realigned. Finally, he spoke. “I find myself in a dilemma, ma’am.”

“I thought you might have,” Aleph replied, she knew this would be difficult for the construct.

“Do you know what has been happening here in the Armoury?”

“Only in very broad strokes, but I have a hunch you’re facing a sudden shortage of qualified leadership.”

“You intuition serves you well. This morning when you left for Vancouver we had a Duke, an Assistant Commissioner, a Commander, a Chief Inspector, and four regular Inspectors, all here on staff. Now we have an Assistant Commissioner, one Regimental Sergeant Major, that being myself,” he said touching his chest, “one Supernumerary Sergeant Major who has been jailed,” he said gesturing to her, “and a single Inspector who has armed and locked herself in her office. She refuses to come out, and honestly, I don’t blame the woman. None of the constables I’ve sent out into the city have returned.”

Prospero drew in a breath with the sound of bellows being inflated in his chest. “Assistant Commissioner Peters has given the rank and file no instructions other than to say that it was,” here he made a voice that sounded uncannily like Nigel Peters’ own, “‘business as usual.’ I find myself strongly disagreeing with the Assistant Commissioner’s assessment of the situation. Things are not business as usual.”

“What happened to everyone?”

“The Duke was found unconscious and is under guard in the infirmary, the others are simply missing, or were seen walking off through the Black Gate under their own volition.”

“Now, add to this a breakdown in communication networks of any kind within the city and I see a picture I don’t like.”

“When Miranda told me that our Supernumerary Sergeant Major was in the brig, I thought I’d come down for a frank discussion of current events with one of our few remaining members with any kind of leadership ability.”

 She gave a nod. “The city is under attack, it’s the people that have been disappearing for the last year, they’ve been turned into Alchemical drones.”

“Drones? With whom in control?”

“Knox of the White, he as much admitted it. The Duke’s Own are the only defenders the city has.”

“Knox of the White?” Prospero sounded incredulous. “He’s a pariah, even among the Alchemists. It’s an open secret that he’ll be of the White until the sun burns out.”

“Unless he steps in and bravely saves a city from the forces of Necromancy,” she said with a significant expression.

“Surely not.”

“Think about it. The Alchemists have been looking for more power in Senak since The Dust War. They thought they had it for a while with Duke Penhold, but he became… unreliable. If Knox swooped in and saved the city, what would their reaction be?”

Prospero’s leather face grew suddenly still. “The Alchemists may be fractious, but they always protect their own,” he said quietly.

“We need to mobilize Duke’s Own now.”

Prospero nodded slowly in agreement. “I agree. Here we come to the problem though. I am a Watchworker, and you know very well how a good number of the biological members feel about taking orders from the likes of us.”

Aleph sighed and nodded, there was no point in arguing, no matter how much she wished it wasn’t so. Prospero might be able to command, but only two-thirds of the force would obey on a good day, and of those, many would resent taking orders from a construct. If fighting broke out…

 “Then there’s yourself,” Prospero continued, “and forgive me for pointing it out, but you are unwilling to give orders.”

“Unable,” she put in.

“Unable, then. Between the two of us we have, an unconfirmed story that puts us at odds with the Alchemists, a number of crows, the other watchworkers, and strong language at our disposal.”

“I’ve never heard you curse.”

“I thought you might be able to cover that for the both of us, ma’am.”

“I can help,” Dimitri spoke up. “I can swear like a motherfuck.”

“And no biologicals of rank, except the Assistant Commissioner?” Aleph asked, shooting a quelling look at Dimitri.

“Inspector Viscounti has locked herself in her office, beyond that Corporals and Sergeants. Either way, there’s nothing to be done until the Assistant Commissioner gives the order.”

“Or until he’s no longer the ranking member of the Duke’s Own.”

Prospero eyed her silently.

“It’s a good thing the Assistant Commissioner just got a dose of Panacea,” Said Aleph, clasping and unclasping sigil-inscribed bracelet in her hands. “Without that, he might be just as vulnerable as the others who have been disappearing.” She closed the bracelet with what she hoped was a telling snap.

Prospero looked down at the bracelet and slowly nodded.

“Is there any chance the Assistant Commissioner might be available to talk with me? The slanderous things I’ve been saying really should be put to a stop.”

“Yes, I see your point. Very unprofessional of you, ma’am. Insubordination is bad,” he said sternly. “You should know better.”

“Insubordination is bad?” she asked, feeling a lopsided grin spread across her mouth.

“Yes, very, very bad. You should stop it. Immediately.”

Prospero turned on a heel and began walking back down the corridor.

“Ah, my ears, I can hear no more of your treasonous libel,” he said blandly, before exiting.

“What just happened?” Dimitri demanded.

“I’ll explain it to him,” said Sam.

It took fewer than five minutes for the sound of the key turning in the lock to be heard again. Nigel Peters entered the corridor with a face as red and snarling as a redhead’s hairdo in a convertible. The door slammed shut behind him with a boom that echoed throughout the corridor.

Aleph remained on her bench and rolled her eyes as his footsteps approached. How such a drama queen had made it so high in the ranks she could never fathom.

“How much worse are you trying to make this for yourself?” he hissed at her, coming right up to the bars of her cell. “Prospero told me what you said. If you insist on continuing this battle, I will make it my mission to have each and every one of your followers exterminated. I will leave you powerless and alone while the tiny handful that remains curse your name. Now, you keep your mouth shut, or by God, I will make you wish you had.”

Her nails bit into her palms, and she did her best to keep the rage off her face. Aleph made her way to the bars, trying for all she was worth to fix an expression of desperation on her face. It didn’t look like it worked because the Assistant Commissioner took an unconscious half pace back. Still, she must have got it partly right because he stood his ground, red-faced and nearly vibrating in fury. If he had known what kind of emotions gripped her at that moment he would have taken more than a single pace back.

“But Assistant Commissioner,” she said with a hint of panic in her voice, clutching at the bars. “You can’t do that!”

Her words had the desired effect. Nigel stood straighter and squared his shoulders. “You are not in any position to tell me what I can, or cannot do! You are nothing, you are the last casualty of a defeated nation that was rightfully wiped from the face of the Aether.”

Aleph seemed to cower before him, and as she hoped he would, he took that half-pace forward. Thank whatever hoary ancient god had deemed fit to create the male ego. She struck. Her arm flickered out from between the bars, seized the front of his uniform jacket and jerked him forward. His head smacked into the bars with a resonant bong that she found deeply satisfying.

In the time it took a quick breath, she’d pulled his arm through the bars and snapped her bracelet around his wrist. It was a poor fit, her wrist was much more slender than his, and she had to squeeze tightly to make the clasp catch. He let out a gasp of pain as the two ends came together. She found that part satisfying as well.

As the Assistant Commissioner was cut off from magic, Aleph caught the look of horror that flashed across his face. If he hadn’t guessed what she was up to before, he knew it now, he was cut off from the healing Panacea in his blood, and he knew it.

She pulled his stunned face close to hers until the bars began to push into his flesh.
“You will not so much as look in the direction of my children,” she said, tracing a sharp black fingernail around the edge of his eyelid until it just broke the skin. “If you do, or if I find you have interfered with them in any way, I will make sure their beaks tearing out your eyes are the last thing you see as you are staked to the ground for them to feast on. Do I make myself understood?”

Nigel nodded as best he could held up against the bars, his eyes bulging.

She balled up the front of his jacket tightly in her fist and shoved him roughly back out into the hallway. He staggered back with a cry of surprise before she pulled the material and whiplashed him into the bars of her cell with a shout of rage. His head made a loud, much more satisfying crack this time as it hit the bars, and she let his limp body collapse to the floor of a corridor. The bars hummed a fading note on a tuning fork from the impact. She might have to come back and record the sound as a ringtone. It was a sound she found to her liking.

“Did you kill him?” Sam asked, aghast.

“Probably not,” Aleph replied indifferently. “I wouldn’t be sad to see him off though, some people just need killing.” She looked critically at the crumpled body. Nobody threatens my children,” she growled, seating herself on her bench again.

It didn’t take long for Prospero to come back, this time Miranda came with him. On seeing the Assistant Commissioner’s collapsed form, she came sprinting forward. It never ceased to amaze Aleph how fast a watchworker was able to move when it had a mind to. Miranda skidded to a stop, sliding on her knees for the last fifteen feet before coming to a rest beside Nigel. She carefully rolled him over to discover two dark vertical welts each running straight down from his forehead and down over his cheeks. The skin on his temple was partly abraded and there was a small trickle of blood running up into his hairline.

Miranda began to thoroughly check him over, running her hands over his limbs and torso looking for additional injuries.

“Assistant Commissioner! Can you hear me, sir!” she shouted this in his ear to no response.

“He came in here and just ran right into the bars!” said Dimitri.

Miranda turned her head and eyed them, an expression of incredulity easily recognizable through the round glass lenses of her eyes.

“It was like watching one of those nature documentaries about mountain sheep,” said Sam, doubling down on the stupid and smacking his hands together to illustrate.

Dimitri nodded his emphatic agreement. “Just like mountain sheep.”

Neither of them would be winning an Oscar for their performance, thankfully Prospero wasn’t looking for one.

“Oh my goodness,” said Prospero in an expressionless voice. “How very clumsy of him.”

At his words, Miranda turned her expression to her Sergeant Major. “Sir…” she began, then stopped. Her fingers had found something. She pulled back the sleeve of his black uniform jacket and found the bracelet clamped around his wrist. The hand beneath the bracelet was beginning to turn a shade of dark purple from where the band of metal had cut off the blood supply. She looked up at Prospero questioningly.

Prospero eyed the bracelet, then looked at Aleph. “That’s no good,” he said gesturing toward it, “we’ll need a bigger one”

Aleph shrugged. “I think it’s alright.”

“Even with a bigger bracelet, won’t seeing the Assistant Commissioner with one of those things on be a bit obvious?” asked Sam hesitantly.

Prospero nodded slowly. “You have a point. We should have thought this through better.”

“I think we’ll be just fine,” said Dimitri with a confident note in his voice.

Prospero turned a questioning glance toward him.

“That one’s only too small for his wrist,” Dimitri explained.

“What do you suggest?”

“We should put it somewhere less noticeable. He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Prospero wasn’t biting.

He tried again. “Somewhere where they’ll be less likely to look.” He gave Prospero a knowing look.

“His ankle is…” Prospero’s line of thought was brought up short and a look of sick realization fixed itself on his face. “Oh. I see.” He paused and Aleph began to laugh. “Wouldn’t that be, ah, too small?” he asked delicately.

“I thought of that, and it all depends on where we attach it. I hope you guys have latex gloves because someone’s going to have to run interference to get that thing on.”

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Chapter 39, Part One: Assistant Commissioner of the Ring.

Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by to read this week's update! This is the first draft, so expect grammatical errors, dropped plot lines, continuity issues, shifting placenames, and the occasional piece of hackneyed dialogue. It happens, it's mostly unpolished. Also, expect adult situations and language.

If you're alright with that stuff and find you are actually enjoying the story, please consider sharing it with friends.

Thanks!
-S

PS So not to cause confusion, I've decided to change the name of the constructs working for the Duke's Own to Watchworkers.



Aleph listened to the conversation going on in the cell across from hers with half an ear, her mind concentrating on things happening far beyond the walls of her cell.

“People named Nigel have no friends,” Dimitri declared. “It is known.”

“But…” Sam tried to break in.

“Ah!” Dimitri held up a silencing hand. “It is known.”

It had been like this since they arrived. They’d been sitting for an hour, and if their thinly padded bench was anything like hers, their asses were by now completely numb. If time flew, the part of it that was looking after them had missed its connector and was sitting at an empty boarding gate looking confused.

“I mean look at Nigel Longbottom.” Dimitri continued.

“I think you mean Neville. Neville Longbottom.”

“I’m pretty sure it was Nigel. He had no friends.”

“Neville had friends.”

“Nigel, and no he didn’t.”

“Harry and Ron…”

“Barely tolerated him.” Dimitri broke in. “As soon as he got in their way, wham! Petrificus totalis.”
Dimitri settled back against the wall and continued. “Nigel’s whole relationship with his friends,” he said making air quotes around the word, “was based on sympathy.‘Ooh look at me, my parents were tortured, I’m sooo sad.’” He said,  making little waving motions with his wrists.

“Nigels don’t have friends, they just have people that feel sorry for them. If you ever hear of a Nigel getting laid, you can be pretty sure it’s a mercy fuck. Nigels are kings of the mercy fuck.” he added darkly.

Sam looked at him for a long beat. “Why?” It didn’t sound like it was a question about the conversation so much as it was one about Dimitri.

Dimitri turned an incredulous look on him. “Because it is known. Duh. How else do you explain that asshole we met at the front gate.”

“But his name is Nigel,” Sam said, sounding lost.

“Exactly my point.”

“Guys, I know you’re bored and this is just your way of coping, but could you both please shut up for just two minutes? I’m trying to concentrate.”

“On what?” Dimitri asked.

Aleph eyed him darkly.

The flock boiled over the Wandering Market, thirty strong. None of them called out to each other, the only sound was the sound of wind on hard feathers. They beat high into the dark sky until the lights of the market were pinpricks on a glowing grid. They were the fastest, the strongest, the canniest of those remaining; chosen of their goddess, black of wing and sharp of beak. They had left their mates, their young, their families, to join the mob. All across the city their gates had been blocked or guarded. No souls arrived and none of The People left to carry them back. Three attempts had already been made on smaller gateways, this would be the last.

“On getting a message through to Vancouver,” Aleph replied.

“Like, right now?”

“Yes, right now.”

The mob broke southwest past the market and the massive buildings the flightless had built in a sad imitation of flight. All they had accomplished for their efforts was to give The People safe places to roost.

“Oh. Is this some kind of crow thing?” Dimitri asked.

Sam elbowed him and gave him a look.

“What? I’m just asking.”

“She asked you to shut up.”

“Yes,” Aleph said between clenched teeth. “This is a crow thing.”

In the space of a hundred wingbeats, they were over the square that spanned the worlds. The one the flightless used to come and go, as though it was the only way in and out. Below them, masses of the flightless were crowded together, slowly shuffling to the edges of the square while more filed through the stone gates, adding to their number. 
On a regular day, they would be able to come and go as they pleased, but the flightless had stopped them, battered them out of the air and crushed them as they tried to leave. Even those arriving with new souls had suffered.
Their goddess had called though, and for their love of Her, they would answer. The mob began a steep spiralling descent toward the stone gate that led back to the cold city by the ocean. They were black feathers against the ever-blackened sky.

“How can you do that? These cells are covered in the same sigils as these bracelets,” Dimitri said pointing at the faint outline of sigils that were only barely visible under the institutional beige paint on the bars. “This is a magical Faraday Cage,” he said, giving the bars a thump with the heel of his palm. “Nothing in, nothing out.”

“Yes, but that only works on mortal magic, Sorcery, Alchemy, and the rest. These weren’t built to hold gods. We work differently.”

“Then why aren’t you out there kicking ass and taking names?”

“It would be pointless. Just because I’m a goddess doesn’t mean I’m all powerful,” she grated. “I could rip these bars apart like paper, but it would be a complete waste of energy.”

Dimitri looked confused.

“I love them to bits,” she said, trying to explain in a way that Dimitri could understand, “but a few hundred thousand crows, no matter how awesome, don’t leave me with a lot of divine gas in the tank.”

“Oh.”

“And besides, it’s not allowed,” she added distractedly.

“What?”

Aleph sighed. “Haven’t you ever wondered why the gods aren’t just tearing things up all around the Aether? We could you know.”

“Not really.”

“I have,” said Sam. They don’t even really answer prayers like they used to.

“Yup, we stopped when we nearly unmade the whole multiverse.”

“I never heard that,” said Dimitri.

“Not surprising, the worlds where it happened mostly aren’t there anymore.”

“Oh.”

“Since then, there are a few rules we follow. One of them is that we don't directly interfere with mortals.”

“So it’s kind of like a divine Prime Directive,” said Sam.

“A what?”

“Don’t worry about him. He switches to geek sometimes when he gets excited,” said Dimitri.

“So, if that’s true, how come you’re working for Penhold? Isn’t that against the rules?” asked Dimitri.
“As long as I don’t do anything more for him what any other mortal can, I’m good.”

“So that’s why you didn’t turn Nigel into a pile of dog shit on the spot?”

“Exactly. And it’s why I don’t just walk out of here now.”

“Are we good for right now? I need to look after some stuff.” She closed her eyes in the hopes that it would make the two less likely to disturb her. This was going to get tricky.


Three times around the gate, three uninterrupted circuits and they would be through to deliver the message. Fast as shadows cast by a candle on a windy night, they dropped toward the gate. Whether it was the wind from their passage that gave them away or some unseen alchemy, faces turned up at them when they were still high above the gate. In moments they levelled off and beat their wings furiously, curling around the gate in a funnel. All of their cunning went into avoiding the nets, the grasping hands, and the blasts of buckshot that came up to meet them.
The first of them was swatted from the air, another disappeared in an explosion of feathers and blood as lead pellets tore through her. Still, they spun and whirled, doing all they could to complete the three orbits of the stone gate.
By the time they had completed the first full circle there were only seventeen left able to fly, by the second time around there were six. The ragged remainder flew on. In moments it was finished. Black feathers drifted and settled to the cobbled earth.

In her cell, Aleph shuddered and drew her knees up to her chest. Her children died every day from raccoons, cars, disease, it was to be expected. Grief was the currency the living paid to remain behind. It was a transaction Aleph knew to her bones, she was more intimately familiar with death than nearly any other being in the Aether. To lose so many so quickly though, felt like there was only a cold hollow in her chest where her heart used to be.

“Well? Did you get through?” Dimitri asked.

 Aleph had to unclench her hands to answer. “I don’t know. Once they’re through the gate I can’t feel them anymore, but I lost so many…” She took a deep steadying breath. “We can’t count on it. Whatever we do from here on out, we’re on our own.”

“Alright,” said Dimitri, clapping his hands together and getting to his feet. “So what do we do?”

“We wait.”

“We wait?!”

Aleph nodded.

“For what? What do we wait for?”

“For who. Either Nigel realizes that I’m too dangerous to keep here and takes steps, or…” Aleph cocked her head as though listening to something. Sam listened, but couldn’t hear a thing but the hum of the lights.

“Or what?

“Or one of my friends comes through for me.”

At the far end of the room there came the sound of a key in the heavy lock and the click of the door opening followed by heavy footsteps.

Aleph knew those footsteps, but she still rose and joined Dimitri and Sam who were peering out the bars of their own cell to see down the corridor. A watchworker made his way toward them, but this time it wasn’t Miranda. This construct had wider shoulders with a narrow waist and had the rank insignia of a silver crown surrounded in nightshade leaves on his sleeves. It was Prospero.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Chapter 37, Part One: The Armoury

Hi folks, thanks for dropping by to read! The usual caveats apply this week: This is a rough draft so expect errors. This is also a work that includes adult language and situations, so if that kind of thing offends, please read no further.

Finally, if you find yourself enjoying the story, please consider sharing! I'm trying to generate some interest for the happy day this novel is finished and I can begin work on book 2...
-S





There was a gasp from the crowd and people scrambled away opening a clear space around them. Aleph stepped in close to the assailant and delivered an open palm blow under her chin, snapping her head back in the worst case of whiplash Sam had ever witnessed. His gut clenched in sympathy as he heard the muffled crunch of bones. Instead of falling to the ground though, the woman took a single steadying pace back and swung her gun arm back up in Aleph’s direction. Sam couldn’t help but note in sick fascination that her head now wobbling loosely on her neck.

As the gun swung in her direction, Aleph moved her upper body away from the muzzle and, in a move that Sam sensed more than we saw, used one hand to torque the barrel away while the other smashed against the inside of the woman’s forearm. The gun fired again, the report barely louder than a polite clap.

This seemed to enrage Aleph more than anything before had. She grabbed the attacker one-handed by the neck and physically slammed her to the cobblestone ground where she lay still—at least for the time being.

Dimitri, who had been crouched next to Sam for the brief confrontation, darted over to Aristarchus and pulled his uniform jacket open to reveal a bloody white shirt.

“He’s breathing!” His voice sounded higher than Sam remembered.

“Check for an exit wound,” Aleph instructed him, striding over.

Dimitri’s mahogany skin looked ashy as he slid a hand under Aristarchus’ side and pulled it out to show her. It was clean of blood.

“Well, at least we have that going for us. Sam, take over for Dimitri and put pressure on that wound.”

“Why does he need to do it?” asked Dimitri.

“Because I asked fucking nicely.”

Sam felt his throat click as he swallowed and nodded at her. He gingerly placed his hands over the bloody hole in Aristarchus’ side and began pressing down.

He could feel the blood draining from his face, he’d never been good with the sight of blood. It didn’t bother him on an emotional level, but every time he saw more than a few drops something in his hind brain triggered and he began to feel green.

He tried to focus on his breathing but he could already feel his lips beginning to tingle. He tucked his knees to his chest and rested all his weight on his hands. If he did faint, by all the gods his body weight alone would still stop Aristarchus from bleeding out.

Meanwhile, Aleph had taken Dimitri’s phone and had it up to her ear. “I thought you said this thing got reception.”

She tossed it back to him and Dimitri grabbed the phone out of the air. He swiped at the screen and began flicking past menu screens. After a moment there was another chorus of chimes and chirps around them as the notification beeps of other phones and tablets immediately around them sounded.“Dimitri, what’s going on, do I have communication, or don’t I?”

“Working on it.”

“How long.”

“I don’t know, a couple more minutes? I didn’t think they could shut him down to begin with.”

“Him?”

“Me. I meant me.”

“Sure, whatever. It’s too long to wait, we need to move now. Aristarchus can’t wait and we’re a sitting target.”

As if in response to her words, there came the sound of grinding bone. The drone Aleph had struck was beginning to stir and as they watched. She rolled to her hands and knees, her neck drooping at an unnatural angle.

Aleph let out an impatient noise, walked over to the drone and gave her arm a sideways kick. The elbow bent in sideways with a horrible crunching noise and the drone let out a screech of rage. There was a gasp from the crowd.

“What? I didn’t kill her. She’s still alive,” Aleph said. Gazes fell away as she swept her eyes across them.

“You should all get someplace away from here,” Aleph said, calmly walking around to the other side of the downed woman. “This,” she said gesturing at the growling drone, “is just the start of things. Get out of the Market, go home, lock your doors.”

The crowd began to slowly stir under Aleph’s continued glare.

“Now!”

She punctuated the word by taking out the drone’s other elbow. The crowd scattered and the nearby vendors began shuttering their displays. 

By this time, Sam’s nervous system had decided that it would be best to stay conscious. He wasn’t as dizzy as he had been and his hands were almost finished trembling. For now, he kept his eyes on the dispersing crowd. Any new threat would be coming from that direction and keeping watch gave him a good excuse not to look at the blood that was becoming thick and sticky under the heel of his palm.
Winging above them, there was a veritable tornado of crows wheeling in place. He took real comfort from the sight. After what he’d seen the crows do to the drones at Memorial Park, he was absolutely confident that the flock that size could seriously ruin someone’s day.

Aleph strode to one of the nearby vendors who had a large wheeled cart with a display of cut glass prisms and animals for sale. “I need to borrow your cart.”

With no more discussion than that, she cleared the glass curios off with a sweep of her arm and hauled the cart back to where Aristarchus lay. Behind her, the vendor, a huge walrus of a man, bellowed in indignation, looking at his glittering wares scattered on the cobbled street. After Aleph’s confrontation, Sam wasn’t surprised that blustering was as far as it went.

“Come to the Armoury and fill out a loss form,” she called over her shoulder. “A man’s life is at stake here. Get some perspective!”

“Won’t her elbows just heal?” Dimitri asked, nodding toward the drone.

“Sure, but that takes time and unless they’re set back in place, they’ll heal like they are. She won’t be playing the piano until a doctor sees to those elbows.”

Dimitri looked back at the drone on the street with a sick expression. She was back on her knees and slowly beginning to stand.

Aleph followed his glance. “You still have two good knees,” she growled the drone. “I can have them too.”

The drone didn’t appear to hear. She walked toward them, head askew on her neck and arms hanging uselessly in front of her.

“She’s sort of like the Black Knight,” Sam supplied from where he crouched. “‘Tis but a scratch!”
Aleph sighed, marched up to the drone and snapped a kick out at her kneecap. There was another pop and the drone’s leg went out from under her depositing her back onto the cobblestones.

“You get his legs,” Aleph instructed Dimitri, walking back and working her hands under Aristarchus’ shoulders. “On the count of three.” She counted down and they lifted, Dimitri nearly staggering under the weight. Sam kept his hands pressed firmly on the entrance wound, and between the three of them, they were able to maneuver Aristarchus’ torso on top of the cart, his legs dangling over the side.

“Now move,” Aleph instructed them. “Dimitri, you push, Sam, keep that pressure on. I’ll be on look out. You two spell each other off when the runner gets tired. We need to get him to The Armoury fast.”

Sam nodded, and soon he and Dimitri were trotting along, doing their best to avoid the crowd where they could, Aleph clearing a path for them when they couldn't. Dimitri did his best to keep the cart at a pace that maximized speed without rattling Aristarchus off the display while Sam executed a gimpy sideways shuffle as he attempted to keep pace with the cart and maintain pressure on the gunshot wound.

Despite the makeshift nature of their little ambulance, the bicycle wheels on the cart were doing an admirable job of absorbing most of the jolts and bumps.

They were only at it for a few minutes before the White Bridge, and The Armoury beyond came into view. Sam was pushing now, his violin case bouncing against his back, and Dimitri had taken over the job of keeping Aristarchus’ bleeding to a minimum.

A group of five black-uniformed officers were making their way across the bridge. In the group, Sam spotted Miranda, the watchman from the gate. She was at the rear of the party and judging from her body language, not happy about it. In the lead was a black-uniformed man with a thin face and a beaky nose, his epaulets displaying three golden bars to Aristarchus’ two silver.
“Shit,” Sam heard Aleph say under her breath.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Chapter 36, Part 2: Blood in the Wandering Market.

Howdy folks, thanks for dropping by! The usual warnings apply: This is a rough draft so expect questionable grammar, hackneyed dialogue, adult language and situations, dropped plotlines, continuity errors, and the occasional typo. If, despite all these things, you still find yourself enjoying the story, consider sharing with your friends.





Aristarchus raised an eyebrow and his eyes darted to the people flowing in and out of the gate. “Well then. You’d better come back to The Armoury,” he said. “Doesn’t sound like the kind of conversation we should have out here.”

“You might need more people on the gate. You might need a lot more.”

He looked to the other black-uniformed members at the gate and spoke to the gear. “Miranda, run ahead and let Duke Penhold know we’re on our way. Bring twenty more constables back with you—” He saw the expression on Aleph’s face. “Thirty more,” he amended.

He gave Aleph a questioning look. She shrugged. “That might do it. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but you might ask the SWAT and SMAT teams to begin gearing up as well.”

“SMAT?” asked Sam.

“Special magics and tactics,” said Alpeh.

Aristarchus cocked a white eyebrow. “Really? Is it that bad?”

“It’s worse than that, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” she said tensely.

Aristarchus gave Miranda, a nod. “Get them back here double-time.”

“By your command,” she said in an oddly musical voice, and the gear sprung off into the crowd and out of sight.

Sam did a double take at the construct’s back as she wove through the dense crowd and looked at Aristarchus in question. “Did I? Did she just…?”

“Noticed that? They think it’s funny as hell to mess with the rest of us. Fracking toasters,” he said with a smile that contained no trace of malice.

“You might want to start paying overtime to the members about to go off shift and bring in anyone who can work on their day off,” said Aleph.

Aristarchus shrugged. “No phones, no network, no overtime.”

Aleph looked to Dimitri.

“What?”

“Can you help with that?”

“I’m talented as fuck,” began Dimitri.

“And modest,” said Sam.

“And modest,” agreed Dimitri. “But there are limits. I can’t just make a high-speed network out of thin air.”

“I don’t need a high-speed network, I need basic two-way communication. I’d be happy with two cans and some string if it meant I could get in touch with people.”

“Oh, yeah, I could probably arrange that, then,” he said reaching into his pocket. “Gimme a sec.”

“We’ve had our people working on the problem for the last three hours,” said Aristarchus. “The hardware at the network towers has been sabotaged. How are you able to do what our own technomancers cannot?”

“Thank you!” said Dimitri, pointing at Aristarchus. “Thank you. At least someone can manage to not call me a Webmage.”

“I’ve had sensitivity training,” said Aristarchus without missing a beat. “Please answer the question.”
“Well, your guys could get in trouble for, say, co-opting someone’s device without their knowledge, right?”

“Yes.”

Dimitri swiped his screen and spoke quickly and quietly into his phone. “Oh, look! A bird,” he said pointing up at the black sky and tapped his screen.

There was a chorus of chimes and chirps around them as the notification beeps of other phones and devices immediately around them sounded.

Dimitri’s shoulders hunched and he turned to face the two officers who had been standing silently behind Aristarchus. “Not that there’s anything wrong with birds,” he said, careful not to make eye contact with the constable who had red feathers for her hair.

Aristarchus gave him a level look before reaching for his pocket.

“Don’t bother,” said Dimitri. It’s just going to show that an app updated itself.

There was another more faint chorus from devices further away. Then another. Then another, the chirps, quacks, and dings spreading in an expanding ring until they were too faint to hear.

“It might take a couple minutes, but you three should be able to text in a couple minutes.”

“What about you?” asked Sam.

Dimitri cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’d be a pretty shitty technomancer without connectivity, now wouldn’t I? Unlike yours, my device has some special mods.”

“How long will it last?” asked Aleph jiggling her phone at him.

“As long as I want it to. The outage is affecting the network, not the devices themselves.”

Aristarchus turned to Aleph. “Should we be alright with this?”

“Not normally, but I’m willing to let it go for now.”

Aleph turned to face him. “With all due respect, I’d suggest that it’s time to start tracking down the duty officer to start getting in touch with members who can be brought in.”

“You sure about this?” Aristarchus asked, looking worried. “The overtime is going to be worth a king’s ransom.”

“It’s not my call to make, but I’ll make you a deal. If we end up not needing them I’ll pay the overtime myself.”

“You’re starting to worry me, Aleph.”

“You have no idea how much you should be.”

Aristarchus turned to the remaining two constables. “Grab the barkers from the gate to keep you company until the reinforcements arrive. They’re used to cracking the odd skull. Stay here as a visible presence, but don’t hang around if things start to get dicey.” They nodded, the avian constable’s red feathers puffing slightly as she did.

Aristarchus motioned for the rest of them to follow and began to quickly make his way into the bustling market. The gate opened onto a wide avenue packed with shoppers and semi-permanent vendors. Sam could just make out the rise of the Whitebridge over the heads of the crowd and walls of the Armoury a kilometer distant.

The stretch of cobbled avenue between the gate and the Armoury was known as The Armoury Walk. It ran straight as an arrow between the Black Market on the left side and the White on the right. It was one of the most walked stretches of cobblestones in the Aether and it was only the very tip of the iceberg that was the Wandering Market.

It was common knowledge in the Community that different parts of the Aether were known for different things. If you wanted interior design, you went to Fey for custom-grown furniture and living wallpaper. If you needed dental work, you went to see the Shojo and got fixed up for the price of a kiss and a bottle of good whiskey. Had a craving for the best noodles in all of known existence at three in the morning? No problem, you took a trip to visit the Panotii and made certain you brought your own drinking water. If, however, you needed to find the impossible—or at the very least the improbable—on a tight budget, the only place to go was The Wandering Market.

The Market itself occupied a square exactly two kilometers on each side. It was often said it this size, not for any love of the metric system, but because the beings who originally conceived it realized that the area of four square kilometers is the perfect size one needs to become utterly lost.

The Market was packed with every sort of creature that the human brain could fathom, and a healthy assortment of others that it tried its very best to ignore. Intelligent colonies of fungus bartered with the sentient shadows cast by divinities long since forgotten for the best price on a case of macaroni and cheese. A family of octopus-like beings, out for the day to shop and see the sights, piloted conveyances of glass and metal through the crowds, the largest with a garland of tinsel strung around the clear pilot’s dome. Vendors of every description attended wheeled carts, collapsible tables, and fabric-draped stalls of all possible configurations. Strings of fairy lights made with real fairies, hissing kerosene lanterns, and glowing glass vials of different hues and brightnesses propped the market up against the surrounding darkness.

Fragrant smoke rose into the still air like weeds rising from the bottom of a mill pond to be consumed by shoals of giant, luminous, goldfish who flashed and swam lazily through the rising columns. As they passed overhead they cast golden disco ball light onto the rows and stalls beneath them. As Sam watched, one of the enormous fish attempted to eat another’s gently glowing poop, only to spit it out a moment later.

It was The Market in all its filthy, noisy, smelly splendour and Sam was so caught up in his surroundings that he completely missed the assassin. They passed her, just another Christmas shopper inspecting a selection of Fey silks, completely failing to notice anything unusual about her. None of them could be blamed since there really was nothing unusual about her. Until she drew the gun
Whether one of her crows had spotted the gun or if Aleph’s instincts were just that good, Sam would never know, but the goddess reacted so quickly that by the time Sam realized anything was happening at all it was over. Aleph spun on a heel and slapped at the woman’s hand. The gun went off with a cough of compressed air and Aristarchus collapsed to the ground without so much as a grunt.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Chapter 36, Part One: Blood in the Wandering Market

Hi all! Thanks for stopping by. The usual warnings apply. This story has adult language and situations. It's a rough draft so expect any / all of the following: Grammatical errors, pacing problems, hackneyed dialogue, gratuitous swearing. If you find yourself actually enjoying the story, please consider sharing it.





Sam, Dimitri, and Aleph kept their heads down while pretending to inspect a fruit display at a Panotii ethnic market on Kingsway. Thankfully, Kingsway was one of those streets that had the same name in Sam’s Vancouver as it did in Senak, so at least he had a notion of where he was.

Getting this far hadn’t been easy. It had been a constant game of running hide and seek with the KSDs, both singly and in groups. Sam’s shoulder ached where he’d been tagged him with a baseball bat during an ambush nearly an hour ago. The bat had been aimed at his head but he’d been able to roll with the strike and his shoulder had taken the worst of it.

Aleph led them in a roundabout route through the city, occasionally doubling back, occasionally prodding them into a run, but always on the move. Whenever he looked up there was a crow winging overhead or perched on a nearby roof.

Their destination was the Armoury, and if it had been as simple as that, they would have already arrived. No, the Armoury was smack in the middle of the Wandering Market and the thing about the Wandering Market was that it wandered. Even if you knew generally where it was on any given day, it still took some time to track down the entrance.

“Let’s go,” said Aleph in a low voice, putting down the pale spiky tuber she’d been handling and moving away from the market at a walk. She kept her head down looking at her useless smartphone, yet somehow managed not to jostle or bump into anyone. She moved through the crowd like a bead of mercury. Even with his head up, Sam was still shoved and knocked as he made his way through the press.

Floating in the air ahead of them, Sam could see the two giant bug-eyed goldfish, Abeam and Windward, marking the location of the Wandering Market in the near distance. They were getting close. Sam could hear the calls of the Market Barkers funnelling people toward the mouth of the Market like a Basking Shark devouring krill as it made its plodding way through the city.

They wouldn’t need the barkers to direct them today, Aleph had lined them up perfectly with the main gate. Farther down the street the crowd parted and he could just make out the black uniforms of the Duke’s Own keeping an eye on people going in and out of the main gates. It would be a straight shot down the street with no hiding places or stalls to duck into.

The Market stretched reality down the centre of the wide front gate, buildings, people, and anything else that got in the Market’s way, elongating like taffy and zooming off to either side like water at the prow of a ship.

 Anyone caught in the wake of the Market would notice absolutely very little beyond a faint tingle as they were warped around the perimeter. Sam had tried it once, and had been so underwhelmed by the hour and a half-long experience that he hadn’t even bothered to buy the souvenir t-shirt at the rear gate, “I Got Warped by The Wandering Market, Senak.”

An underground industry, wholly invented, promoted, and perpetuated by the same t-shirt vendors, had been created around the myth that children conceived while being warped by the magic of the Market would be especially talented. Nobody really believed it, but the one thing it did do was provide an excuse for public exhibitionism. For many who visited the market, an excuse for illicit sex with a random stranger in a place far from home was all that was needed.  Engaging in the activity was known as “getting twisted,” and in Senak it was the equivalent of joining the mile high club without having to worry about airsickness or nosey flight attendants.

It wasn’t uncommon to find various and sundry species from across the breadth of the Aether squishing and otherwise getting their freak-on in darkened corners between buildings as The Market overtook them. Hotels that looked to be in the direct path of The Market would find any available rooms snatched up as The Market approached, and knew from long experience to make sure they had extra mops and buckets on hand.

On top of directing people to the entrance, the Market Barker’s job was also to evict the less discreet couples, trios, or spontaneous orgies they came across. As a matter of custom, they didn’t look too closely down some of the better-concealed niches and alleys. As the Market departed any given part of the city it always left a scattering of breathless and moistened beings, furtively grinning and adjusting their clothing in its wake.

The t-shirt vendors trailed behind in the wake of the market and were available for those wishing to commemorate the event with novelty t-shirts in cuts and sizes guaranteed to fit any being from the many worlds of the Aether. Most of the Ts were bought in a haze of endorphins that quickly passed. While it was usually a fun and harmless activity, most people didn’t want to advertise the fact that they got a thrill from bonking in public. For this reason, many of the t-shirts ended up at local second hand and goodwill stores days to weeks later. The vendors knew this, and could be often be seen scouring the shops to pick up the same shirt, usually for a fraction of the price they sold it for. In this way the circle of life, and the circle of commerce, both, ground on.

“Get ready,” said Aleph, jerking Sam out of his thoughts, “We’re going to have to run.”

Sam swallowed and cast his eyes from side to side. He couldn’t see any of the alchemical drones, but he also didn’t have a flock of surrogate eyes flying overhead. He’d have to trust her word for it.
“Run,” she hissed, leaping ahead and scattering a trio of Tengu carrying bags of blown glass Christmas ornaments. Sam had been readying himself for Aleph’s call and the pent-up adrenalin in his system made his thighs feel like they were spring loaded as he took off.

If he was fast, Dimitri was faster, he ran ahead of both of them, his long legs propelling him down the street like a state-sponsored Eastern Block Greyhound with an ass full of rocket fuel.

Sam swivelled his head as he ran, certain that at any moment he’d be tackled to the ground by a dead-eyed drone and shot. The drones, and more importantly, Knox, wouldn’t give up now. The Wandering Market wasn’t exactly safe, but The Duke’s Own had a small army’s worth of armed police officers patrolling it with a reputation for coming down hard on anyone making trouble.

To Sam’s relieved puzzlement, the ambush and consequent messy death he’d been expecting never came to pass, and the three of them made it to the gate without incident. Four black-uniformed members of the Duke’s Own met them there. They were a strange mix of different beings, even for The Market. Two of their number were nominally human, and Sam passed over these to instead focus on the other two.

The first had long red feathers for hair, a pair of golden avian eyes, and wore an ornate copper mask that covered her nose and mouth. Beyond merely decorative, it appeared to be some kind of filtering device. The final member of the group was one of the wood and brass constructs that the Duke’s Own had been using since the early nineteen hundreds. Brass sigils in a state of constant movement across her spring steel and mahogany frame. Her face was made of molded leather, and her body had the rounded hips, and bust that, while modest, clearly identified her as female. She nodded to him as they arrived. Sam grinned and nodded back.

One of the final two humanoid members stepped forward to talk with Aleph. Sam didn’t know much about rank, but he wore three silver bars on his epaulets, his name tag read, “Dane.” He was a grizzled looking creature, some variant of human from a part of the Aether that Sam couldn’t immediately identify.

His eyes were a bit too far apart and he was too wide across the shoulders to easily fit in back home, probably still a member of Homo Sapiens though. He wore a trimmed white beard across his dark, creased face, and his long white mane was tied back in a tail. 

“Aleph,” he greeted her, with a voice so deep that sounded like it originated from inside a bass cello. “It’s good to see you back,” he said enfolding her hand with one huge mitt. When he spoke Sam noticed his teeth were thicker, and his canines much larger than his own. Maybe he wasn’t quite as close to Homo Sapiens as Sam originally thought.

That was the problem with trying to figure out different species in the mix of The Market. You never knew what evolutionary lineage might have become dominant on any given world. All it took was for one sabretooth tiger to get peckish at the wrong moment and, wham! Your whole evolutionary branch got pruned. There was a good chance this person had more in common with Homo Neanderthalensis or Denisovans than he did Homo sapiens, and that wasn’t even taking into account the cross-breeding. If there was one thing Homo Sapiens was good at, it was getting it on with the neighbours, even when they weren't necessarily quite the same species.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Chapter 35, Part 2: Going Over the Top.

Hi all! Thanks for stopping by. The usual warnings apply. This story has adult language and situations. It's a rough draft so expect any / all of the following: Grammatical errors, pacing problems, hackneyed dialogue, gratuitous swearing. If you find yourself actually enjoying the story, please consider sharing it.

Thanks! -S





“Oh fuck.” Stirling aimed his ass into a nearby plastic seat, it was either that or he’d have ended up sprawled on the floor.

“Yeah, you could say that,” Rebbecca agreed, but now in the discordant three-part voice of a thoroughly pissed off ghost. “This is what happens when you fuck with the sanctity of people’s credit cards, Stirling!” indicating to her ethereal form. “Congratulations, I’m dead.”

She came to a complete stop and stared at him. “What the fuck did you do to your hair?”

Stirling put a hand to his bare scalp. “It’s a disguise. Do you like it?”

“Don’t change the subject!”

“Becca…” he began.

“Rebbecca! My name is Rebbecca!” she practically growled at him through her teeth. “When you get somebody killed the least you can do is get their fucking name right!”

“Um,”

“Say it!”

“Rebbecca. Your name is Rebbecca.”

“You will fix this, Stirling, or by god, I will haunt your ass until the day you die, then I’m going to haunt your pathetic ghost.”

“But you’re dead, how am I supposed to fix that?”

“Not dead,” Lloyd put in. Our bodies are still at least partly alive.”

“And what am I supposed to do about it? I’m not Miracle Max.”

“You will try,” Rebbecca hissed.

“Fine. Where do you think I should start?” he asked.

“It’s not hard, we just need to be revived with a dab of Panacea, but that’s not going to be the hard part,” said Lloyd.

Stirling waved his hand in a gesture indicating that he should move it along.

“They started reviving people today but their spirits are still stuck on the outside. I think they spiked the revival dose with something that stole our place. It’s contaminated our bodies with some kind of spiritual taint.”

“Taint?”

Lloyd nodded earnestly.

“So I have to get rid of this taint?”

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do until it’s gone,” Lloyd confirmed. “We’re stuck outside of our bodies.”

“So, to clarify, you want me to destroy this guy’s taint?”

Lloyd was beginning to look confused. “Um. Yes.”

“Would you say then that you would like me to savage his taint until he squeals,” Stirling asked, trying hard to keep a straight face.

Rebbecca sighed and rolled her eyes.

“That would be great,” said Lloyd slowly.

“His taint won’t know what hit it,” said Stirling warming to the subject. “It’ll be like I took a cheese grater to his taint.”

Rebbecca looked at Lloyd, then at the grin that Stirling was unsuccessfully trying to keep from his face.

“Oh grow up.”

“Come on, it’s a little bit funny. He asked me to destroy some guy’s taint.”

“I was just murdered. My body is resting in a barrel of preservative crap in the next room. Not finding a lot of things chuckle-worthy today, Stirling.”

“Sure, you died, but here you are. It’s not all bad, you can still speak with me.”

“Well there’s the stormcloud to my silver lining, but now that we’re on the subject, why is that?”

“Why is what?”

“Why can I speak to you, you fuckwit!?”

“It’s a thing that I’ve been able to do for a while,” he said modestly. Even though he knew she was dead, he was having a hard time feeling as bad as he should. It was hard to grieve for someone who was yelling at him.

“He’s a Necromancer,” Lloyd helpfully put in.

“A what?”

“A death magician.”

Rebbecca turned to him. “Is that true?”

“Technically,” he shrugged. “I like to think of myself as a living-impaired magician. Death is so negative sounding.”

“When were you going to tell me?!”

“What? Was I supposed to have a coming out party to let everyone know that I’m the ghost whisperer?”

“Yes.”

“Of all the knacks, necromancy is the most hated,” said Lloyd. “He would have been hunted and killed by the Alchemists.”

“Yeah see, you aren’t the only one having a bad day,” said Stirling, pointing to his battered face. “See this right here? Alchemists.”

“Oh, boo hoo. You got jumped by a bunch of chemistry nerds and You’ve got a couple bruises that will be gone in a few weeks tops. I’m dead. I feel soooo bad for you.”

“Whatever. Let’s make sure the coast is clear then go and see.”

“Don’t you ‘whatever’ me… See what?”

“Your body of course.” He cast a glance at her. Unless you’re naked. You aren’t naked are you?”

“No!”

“Let’s go and see then. I can see what I’m up against. It’ll be like a thirty-second version of Stand by Me.”

“Not everything needs to be broken down into a pop culture reference, Stirling.”

“Since you’re dead you can be River Phoenix, and I think we both know I’m Wil Wheaton,” he continued blithely.

“You are so twisted.”

“No, twisted would be asking you to wanted to pet the leech.”

There was a long beat before realization hit and her face twisted in disgust. “Ew!… that’s just… ew! What is wrong with you!?”

The spirits began tricking back into the lunch room. None of them could locate the homicidal duo, though with the uproar in the warehouse getting any information was difficult.

Stirling decided that would have to be good enough and began to move toward the door to the lunch room again, now with Rebbecca and Lloyd following behind.

On the other side of the door, the air was chill and rank with the smell of preservative and shit. Rows of barrels stacked two deep on heavy-duty steel shelving racks went from one side of the warehouse to the other. Most of the barrels were empty, their lids tossed onto the floor which was wet with a slurry of different coloured fluids.

Stirling nearly gagged at the smell. It was beyond anything he’d never hoped never to experience.
“I let my apartment get messy from time to time, but holy crap.”

Rebbecca led him to a rack on the far left side of the warehouse where a single plastic barrel remained sealed.

“I’m in there,” she said pointing to a blue barrel resting on a wooden pallet.

On the thick plywood shelf above it, there was an old-fashioned green bottle with a medicine dropper screwed onto the top.
Stirling grabbed the bottle and gave its contents a little shake. Whatever was inside looked black and viscous through the green glass.

“That’s the revival dose,” said Lloyd. “It looks like Panacea, but there’s something wrong with it.”
“Huh.” Stirling unscrewed the stopper and gave the bottle a sniff. What hit him wasn’t a physical smell, so much as it was a feeling of greasy decay and red hunger. The most worrying part was that it resonated through his entire being like his soul was a bass string being stroked by a broken bottle.

“Blah!” He moved his head back.

“What is it?” said Rebbecca.

“Smells like taint,” he replied. He put the bottle in his jacket pocket and zipped it shut.

“So this is you?” he said, gesturing down at the nondescript barrel.

Rebbecca nodded and Stirling wrapped his arms around the lid and twisted his whole body to break the seal. His head throbbed even worse than usual and he saw black spots in front of his eyes before he gave up.

“Fuck. I feel bad for laughing at women who struggle with pickle jars now,” he gasped.

 On his second attempt, the lid finally let go and he nearly fell over as he twisted off balance. Stirling rested his aching head on top of the lid, the fumes in the room were beginning to make him feel lightheaded. He lifted the lid off and could see the crown of Rebecca’s blue-haired head bobbing just above the level of the preservative.

“That stuff is going to be hell on your hair,” he predicted, looking down at the murky preservative.
It was only Rebbecca’s yelled warning that gave him time to crane his neck around to see the knife sink into his back. He didn’t cry out, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, he simply couldn’t. Every time he tried, the pain made him gasp and hitch in a breath.

“That was for Elanor,” said a voice in his ear.

Stirling barely heard the words, his world had narrowed down to the white pain in his chest and the effort to take in his next breath. He staggered around to face his attacker. It was the woman from the scene of the crash, still dressed in her grime-spattered outfit complete with courier bag strapped across her shoulder.

“Elanor? Who?” he managed to wheeze on a pair of outgoing breaths.

“I thought you might have been innocent. When you fought to save those people, I thought they might be wrong about you,” she said, not looking at him as she spoke.

Stirling’s brain finally put the pieces together and he remembered where he’d seen her. She was the cardio goddess who was fighting off the invaders at Strangefellows.

“You. Strangefellows?” he managed to gasp before staggering back to rest against the rack of plastic barrels. “Ow.”

“But then I followed you here, and I find you working for Knox,” she continued, staring down at the knife in her hand.

He shook his head in denial, “Friend,” he managed to get out, throwing out a limp arm to point halfheartedly at the barrel where Rebbecca’s body lay.

The courier finally looked up at him, “And that tells me all I need to know about you. The only friends Knox has are monsters.” She came at him again, but this time the impact was muted, almost like someone winged him in the side with a bean bag. Stirling thought that she must have missed until he looked down and saw the hole in the front of his jacket.

The courier stepped back again and stared at him. He shook his head. “Friend,” he gasped again pointing at the barrel. His legs were beginning to feel even more rubbery than they had, and there was a tickle starting in his throat, coughing was going to suck. He revised that opinion as she brought the bloody knife to his throat.

The sound of a heavy door scraping open echoed through the warehouse, breaking off any meaningful conversation they might have continued to have, like “That’s my throat, I need that part," "Quit putting holes in my jacket,” or “Call me an ambulance, you crazy bitch!”

Before Stirling’s brain could absorb what was happening, he was lifted with strong arms and stuffed into one of the newly-empty barrels. Between the stab wounds and the residual car crash injuries, he was introduced to whole new vistas of heretofore unimagined pain. He came to from his momentary blackout just in time to hear the lid twist onto his barrel, and for the last crack of light to disappear.
Rebbecca’s luminous face came into view through the side of the barrel. She examined him critically. “Fine,” she eventually admitted, “maybe you are having a bad day.”

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Chapter 35, Part One: Going Over the Top.

The usual warnings apply to this week's installment. I'm not trying to offend, so if foul language and adult situations are not what you are looking for, read no farther. For those of us who don't mind that kind of thing, thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy!




Stirling sat on a cement crash barrier in a Safeway parking lot feeling wretched. He’d already downed more painkillers than it said was safe on the bottle, but given how his head and neck felt, his kidneys start could do their part for the cause.

He’d never been in a serious car accident before, and up to this point had no way to fully appreciate what smashing two tones of steel into a stationary object did to the human body. He ached everywhere and his head was pounding harder than the worst three hangovers of his life.

When Magnon arrived ten minutes later, things hadn’t improved to any noticeable degree. Tylenol might be hell on wheels for headaches, but lacked the needed strength when you’ve had seven shades of shit kicked out of you. In those circumstances, you needed something stronger, morphine, high proof alcohol, Tylenol Threes, or failing any of those, an enormous joint. Until all this was all over though, he needed as clear a head as he could manage, so Tylenol it was.

The crow swooped down from a lamp post and alighted on the barrier next to him.

“Find them?”

“You look like a panda who went 13 rounds with a jackhammer.”

“Yes, yes I do, but did you find them?”

“It wasn’t far. They stole a car and drove to a warehouse.”

Stirling carefully rose to his feet. “Let’s go take a look, shall we?”

“Shouldn’t you be going to the hospital instead?”

“No time for love, Dr. Jones. We know where they are right now. If I go to the hospital I waste a perfectly good car crash.”

What he didn’t say was the longer they held Rebbecca, the more opportunity they would have to do something permanent to her. If they hadn’t already.

He withdrew five hundred dollars from a nearby ATM deciding that the less he did with his credit and debit cards, the better. It wasn’t paranoia when Rag and Bone wanted to eat his face off. He hired one of the cabs parked outside of the grocery store and directed it drop him at an empty lot near the bottom of the hill at First and Clark.

The land on the west side of Clark was filled with warehouses, including the one he’d visited a few days ago for a false rat infestation. The building that Magnon directed him to was an old narrow warehouse with closed steel shutters installed over the windows. It squatted next to a recycling depot that was noisily converting old washing machine parts into compressed blocks of steel. The noise of tortured steel did little for his headache.

“So what now? Going to knock on the front door?” Magnon asked.

“I might.”

Stirling walked the perimeter of the building, a high chain link fence with barbed wire running along the top circled the entire property and the wheeled gate was locked tight. It didn’t look like there would be an easy way in.

He found the part of the fence he thought would be the least conspicuous point of entry. It was a section shielded one one side by a parked cube van, and on the other by a dumpster and outbuilding. He scaled the fence and did his best to arrange a damp cardboard box he’d found slumped next to a telephone pole over the rusty prongs of the barbed wire fence. Much as scissors beat paper, galvanized steel prongs beat soggy cardboard every time. By the time Stirling heaved himself over the fence he had new tears in both his jacket and pants with the bloody scratches to match.

“That looked painful,” the crow commented.

“You know, I’m not sure what I did before I had you to tell me these things,” said Stirling, dabbing at a smear of blood on his calf. He idly tried to remember the last time he had a tetanus booster.
The back side of the warehouse had a number of bays for shipping and receiving, their rolling doors all closed tight. It wasn’t until he tried a steel security door half way down the building did he finally catch a break. The door itself was locked, but thankfully hadn’t been pulled closed far enough for it to latch.

"I'll stay out here and keep a lookout," said Magnon. I won't be any good to you inside."

Stirling nodded his agreement and went to work on the door. It was jammed with grit and it took some effort before it reluctantly began to grind open. He winced at the sound of metal scraping on cement, took one last quick look around and entered.

Inside was a darkened office with a wooden desk pushed into one corner with old boxes stacked on top. A dusty Rolodex sat mildewing in the corner. Judging from the Swimsuit calendar still tacked to the wall, it looked like the place hadn’t been used since the mid-eighties.

A door with only a hole where the knob should be was slightly ajar at the far side of the room. Stirling made his way to it as quietly as he could. Outside the door was what looked to be an old lunch room. It was lit by a bank of humming fluorescent tubes, flaking butter-cream coloured paint scabbed off the walls and a mop handle angled out of a long disused stainless steel sink. Another door led out on the far side of the room.

And there were the ghosts.

Though the room wasn’t large, it was packed with at least a dozen of them. The ghosts were dressed in clothing that appeared to be chosen randomly from fashions of the last half century. There were bell-bottoms,  butterfly collars and gold chains. There were thick glasses and shaker knit sweaters from the 80s and even some flannel from the 90s. Regardless of their clothing, they were all agitated, and their echoey voices made goosebumps spontaneously erupt on his forearms.

One of them, a man wearing polyester slacks and a sports jacket with leather elbow patches, looked over to where Stirling stood. “Hey who’s the new guy?” he said jabbing a thumb in Stirling’s direction. “He looks like he got run over by a steam roller.”

“Says the extra from the Brady Bunch,” Stirling shot back. “I’ll heal, you’re stuck wearing that outfit.”

“Holy shit, can you see us?”

“Yeah, see, hear, touch and sometimes smell. You guys are a veritable feast for the senses.”
The ghost strode toward him, his face alight, holding out a hand for Stirling to shake. That was a first. Ghosts usually just swore at him.

“Lloyd Michaels, good to meet you!”

Stirling held up his hands and backed up a few paces. “Woah there, buckaroo. I don’t think you’ll be wanting to do that. Necromancer here, your kind have a habit of exploding when they touch me.”
The ghost pulled up short, a look of horror on his face.

“That’s better. I’d love to chat, but a friend of mine was taken here and I’d like to make sure she’s alright.”

Despite his obvious fear, Lloyd let out a quick laugh. “Nobody who comes here’s alright.”

“No shit. You’re all ghosts.”

Lloyd looked around the room as though he was hoping someone would step in. “Um, no. We’re not ghosts.”

“Fuck off. You float around, walk through walls and don’t have bodies. If that’s not a ghost, I don’t know what is.”

“We still have bodies, we just can’t use them. We’re souls.”

Stirling looked around the room. “I don’t see any bodies around here, Lloyd.”

“They’re in the warehouse,” he said pointing at the doorway on the far wall. “We’re Gin.” He looked at Stirling expectantly.

“You say that like it should mean something to me.”

“You know, Gin.” He waited again for some sign of recognition.

Stirling shook his head. “Nope.”

“Suspended animation?”

“I’m a bit new to all of this, Lloyd.”

“Oh. Well, being a gin means you magically preserved. Some of us came here because we were sick and needed a few more years for medicine to come up with a cure for what we had. Other folks were taken from our homes or just grabbed off the streets.”

“Let me guess. Grabbed by a big guy? Skinny blonde lady?”

“Madame Rag and Mister Bone,” Lloyd whispered.

“No one can hear you but me, Lloyd, no need to whisper.” He casually looked over his shoulder just to make sure no one had come in behind him. “That said, you wouldn’t happen to know where they are, would you?”

“If you’d seen the things they’ve done you’d whisper too. They aren’t people, they’re monsters.”

“Yeah, they’re badass alright, but are they here?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen them since they got back a half hour ago.”

“Any chance any of you fine folk could find out for me?” he asked addressing the room. The ghosts had gathered in a loose circle to listen to the conversation. “I’d be a lot happier with a snatch and grab than I would with a stand-up fight.”

The spirits exchanged glances, shrugged, and a good half of them disappeared through the back wall.
Stirling turned back to address Lloyd. “So, have you seen her, Lloyd? Blue hair, lots of eye makeup, looks kinda like a vampire cheerleader?”

Lloyd looked at the floor. “Oh, yeah, I seen her.”

“Your tone isn’t filling me with confidence, Lloyd.”

“They got to her.”

“What does that mean?”

“Gimme a sec.” With that, he turned and walked through the back wall. None of the other ghosts, spirits, or whatever they were, in the room would meet his eyes. That just couldn’t be good.
After a few minutes, Lloyd appeared back through the wall. He wasn’t alone. Accompanying him as he passed through the wall was Rebbecca.