Monday, February 13, 2012

Chapter Seven: Part Two

Continued from Chapter Seven: Part One

A burst of flame and force from one of the sparking balls of the Scarpy rocked him back. The sudden force woke him, a steadying vibration. He pushed himself to his feet with the pickaxe. With it he knocked the grate on the duct off. Hooking its head in the duct he climbed up to the opening. After only four inches of flat, the two foot by four foot duct went straight down, ending only at the basement. Twig dove in head first. The last he saw, the Scarpy he’d shanked had the knife out of his arm. Kneeling, he hid it away in his coat. The Scarpy on the second floor climbed through the hole. He and the third with the pickaxe saw Twig dive into the duct. They would not follow him. It was not their way. They were relentless hunters. But when they would predict and counteract more than pursue. Twig knew that from boot camp.

It gave Twig a second to rest. He fell through the dusty duct. His eyes closed, and it seemed like an eternity. He concentrated on nothing. It felt to him as if the walls of the duct disappeared. He knew neither up or down. For a moment, he felt alone in an empty universe. His body still ached and froze, seeming-stiff as in dying. But his mind cleared. He found his center

Then he had fallen long enough. Opening his eyes he looked into the duct extending into the ceiling of the second story. He grabbed the edge of it. His body swung down past him. With his toes he stopped his descent silently. The sound came through the wall of the Scarpy yammering among themselves. They moved toward the stairs near the far end of the room. They would stand guard at the top of the stairs up from the cellar, Twig deemed. In the meantime, Twig reached into the duct before him. About three feet down it, there was a cutting in its top. Twig had picked the right duct. Inside the cutting Twig grasped a handle. If he had not known just where to reach he would have had trouble finding the handle. It took some strength to pull it, so that rats wouldn’t pull it on accident. He pulled it, straining back against the side of the duct.

It slide with a momentous clunk. The clunk triggered creaks and screeches, then mechanical clicks and whirs fading into the quiet of distance. He only hoped this would work. This lever should have been thrown at the same time as one of the others. They had never discussed the possibility of only one soldier triggering the whole self-destruct himself. Twig wasn’t sure if something strange would go wrong.

The distant, mechanical chain of sounds continued. Twig let go of the lever and the side of the duct. He dropped into the dark, down two floors into the basement. He landed on a bend of duct following the cellar ceiling. The joint in the duct collapsed under the weight of his body. Dust fell with him out of the gap he made. His body crunched onto a pile of coal. For a moment he lay there, listening to the Scarpy chattering between themselves and stomping in the room above, and to the now faint grinding and clicking that the lever in the duct triggered. The mechanism to trigger the cave-in made the noise. It surprised him how far the mechanism reached. Even as he lay there in the coal he heard the mechanism give a final clunk—a sound with satisfyingly ultimate solidness. He knew not what would happen next. Getting to his feet, he stood in the dark cellar, the pensive silence. The Scarpy had fallen silent, awaiting him. Perhaps they had also heard the clunk.

It seemed that nothing would happen. Aside from the dust settling around Twig nothing moved. One trigger perhaps did nothing alone. He still must release the other two catches. The Scarpy guarding the way up still must be fought. Twig took a step toward the rickety stairs out of the cellar. A sliver of light shined through the closed door at the top. A shadow moved across it. Twig reached over his shoulder for the bow.

A fizzling sound came from behind him. At first he thought it sounded like sand running through an hourglass. Expecting to see a red spark, Twig wheeled, looking for the source of the noise. He saw nothing but the dirty stone walls of the cellar. The sound grew louder so that Twig could pinpoint its source. Near the base of the wall, but not from inside the room—not sand, either. Gravel ran away, outside the cellar, lower than the level of the ground. The sound grew suddenly very loud. The stones of the cellar began to sink and slide away from the foundations. The wood and metal structure above began to groan. Cracks laced the floor from the wall toward Twig. Rafters over his head bowed. They would not hold the weight of the breaking building for long.

Twig raised his eyebrows, anticipating the tons of infrastructure disintegrating onto his head. Whoever had designed this autodestruct mechanism either had great faith in a Zombie’s powers to escape a tight spot, or they cared very little for their foot soldiers.

Progress suspended for a bit as I have posted almost to the end of what I have written.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chapter Seven: Part One

Continued from Chapter Six: Part Four

Chapter Seven

Twig drew the feather of his arrow to his ear. He aimed at the Scarpy on the right. The Scarpy cackled and hopped through the snow, overjoyed to have something to do it seemed. Embers and sparks dribbled from his mouth and his eyes glowed yellow in the shadows of Cankerous Gorge.

“Just hold real still,” the one on the left said, his voice low. He raised his sword and pointed it at Twig. “This can never take long.”

Twig glanced at the one on the left. He had a more commanding presence, like he led the Scarpy. He was a little bigger as well. Looking back at the one on the right, Twig took a good aim. He released his arrow. It sung through the cold air. Scarpy have thick skin and they’re fast bastards. With a cry, the Scarpy sidestepped. The arrow, aimed for his belly, glanced off his side just above his thigh bone. No lasting harm, but it made him stop laughing. It distracted him so that Twig could make a run for the artificer’s building.

That building had been where the sparking bears had been cross-bred with the fire impelled from Scarpy powder. One of the three triggers to cause the cave-in of the whole complex had been built into one of the inside walls of the building when it had been built. The doors were chained shut, like the barracks. Twig ran for the nearest ground floor window. He took up a gnawed chunk of bar from one of the lids on the bear pits. Throwing the bar, he broke one of the windows before reaching it. The snow scattered from his feet as he leapt through the shattering glass into the building.

His boots kicked up a puff of dust when he landed on the floorboards inside. He broke into a run at once, weaving between the worktables arranged in the room. The room nearly took up the same footprint as the building itself. Aisles of worktables covered in few remains of broken chemists’ gear stood in tiers. The middle of the room had a cage of crisscrossed iron bars, where the bears had been observed and manipulated. Twig hopped onto the nearest worktable Leaping from worktable to worktable, he ran toward the bear cage’s open doors.

Accompanied by a shout from a Scarpy, one of the windows thirty feet away on Twig’s left shattered. The Scarpy had leapt through it. He landed on one of the worktables on that end of the room. Heavier than Twig, the Scarpy’s momentum knocked the fifteen foot long worktable off its legs.  Without bothering to get on any other workbenches he forced his way through the aisles toward Twig. He heaved worktables out of his way. He no longer smiled. The situation no longer amused him. He was the one Twig had got with his arrow. The other Scarpy plunged through a window further along the wall. Something sparked in his hand, like a match in the moment of its ignition. Going across the tops of the tables Twig went faster than the Scarpy. He slashed at pipes in the ceiling as he went. Many were dry. Some began leaking oil for the lamps and aritificers’ machines.

Leaping from the last worktable, Twig reached the open doors of the cage. The Scarpy threw the sparking thing--a sound a little like sand falling through an hourglass accompanied it. When it hit the floor an eruption of force and fire came from it, like in the barracks but smaller. It missed Twig. Several worktables blew into the air from the explosion. Twig took a wrong step when he landed and stumbled into the stone floor of the cage. He turned and fell back-first against the bars on the far side.

He stayed still there for a moment. The breath had been knocked out of him. He chose not to inhale again just then. The Scarpy approached. The one on the left took something from under his coat. A flash of flame lit against it. It began to spark. Twig drew an arrow. He wanted some wadding. And matches. He’d light the oil dripping from the pipes in the ceiling then. He had neither. Taking his aim on the Scarpy he waited. The Scarpy threw the sparking thing in his hand. It was a fast throw, straight at Twig. It would hardly have gone straighter or faster if shot from a wrist rocket. Watching it come spinning and sparking toward him, Twig considered what it would do when it hit him. Wondering about the result, Twig aimed at the sparking ball and shot. The arrow whistled and hit the thing just high of its center. Deflected off its course, it ricocheted straight at the growing puddle of oil. It exploded on impact. The flames belched forth caught the oil alight. It burned hot and spread across the tables and wooden floor.

Twig hesitated no longer than that. He began climbing up the inside of the cage. It had no ceiling. The bars continued in a column up the three floors of the building culminating in a leaded glass skylight. Sticking the black bow into the quiver on his back, he climbed quickly. There was no opening till the very top where windows had been made just below the ceiling on the third floor. The artificers stuck tubes and pipes through the narrow windows to pour chemicals on the bears. A glance up earlier had revealed that the tubes had been removed, leaving the space empty.

The Scarpy stomped into the bottom of the cage. They screeched up at him, cussing but in the Scarpy dialect. Twig only knew terms to describe fighting in Scarpy. Twig predicted that both of them would have one of their sparking balls in hand--he could hear the falling of hourglass sand sound. Coiling and releasing the strength in his arms and legs, he leapt sideways and up. He caught hold of the farthest crisscross in the bars he could reach. One of the sparking balls flew through the bars and hit the floor, exploding on the shadowy second floor. Desks blew away from it. The second hit the bars and exploded just behind Twig’s back. The force of it and his own weight swung him forward. Releasing the bars where he had a hold he went the couple feet to the next wall to his right and caught a hold there. He climbed again. With a few grumbled words the Scarpy left the cage. Twig thought he heard “stairs.”

He reached the peaked, leaded window ceiling of the cage. Taking a peak out before proceeding, Twig caught a glance of something falling from one of the gantries sticking from the cliff. It fell toward the roof of the building. Twig only saw it for a moment. Then snow drifted on the window obscured it. Curling through the empty space at the top of the cage, Twig climbed into the top floor. There were no windows here. The only light came from the leaded skylight at the top of the cage and the light rising from the floors below through it. As Twig got out of the cage a huge thump smote on the roof. The thing from the gantry landed. It began smashing on the roof as if with a pickaxe. Landing on the floor, Twig ran between the cots on this side of the room. The artificers had slept up here.  The opening of a duct stuck from each of the walls. One of the ducts had a switch in it. He only hoped he remembered the right one.

On the far side of the cage, the pickaxing Scarpy broke through the roof. In a hale of plaster and splintered wood, he fell into the room, bringing more light. Twig glanced back. The Scarpy’s yellow glowing eyes stared through the falling dust. He shouted instructions. Twig just heard the footsteps on the floor below him before they got just ahead of him. From the sound, the Scarpy reached the same place. Twig strafed to the left. Just in time as the floor ahead of him broke from below. The head and arms of one of the Scarpy erupted in an explosion of broken rubble and light from below.

Twig leapt in the middle of strafing, wanting to get further away. With a shout, the Scarpy lashed out toward Twig. He caught a hold of Twig’s leg. It brought Twig down, breaking one of the undressed cots. Twig twisted, drawing Silk’s knife. The knife was narrow-bladed. He thrust it between the bones on the Scarpy’s forearm. The Scarpy howled, an orange glow in his throat. His hand let go of Twig. Leaving the knife, Twig scrambled away and back to his feet. He didn’t look back again until he reached the wall under the grate to the duct. A whooshing in the air behind him caught his attention. Turning swiftly, he saw just in time that the Scarpy had thrown his pickaxe. With his eyes suddenly wide, Twig raised his hands. The pickaxe whirled. The sharp end came where his fingers could touch it. Brushing his right hand against the side of the point, he redirected it. With his left he followed the wooden handle. The brush of his fingers slowed it a little. His left hand matched the speed of the handle. Even though he slowed it, the force the Scarpy had given to the pickaxe would outweigh Twig. He braced his shoulder.

His grip firm on the pickaxe, it yanked him off his feet. He flew the last five feet into the wall  under the duct. The wall cracked under his shoulder. Distant pain fizzled from his heel to his temple on his right side, like an old bruise came all at once. The electric buzz of the pickaxe having an ill impact on the wall almost broke his grip. He kept his hold on it. His body could no recover immediately and he fell to his knees.

Continued on February 13...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Chapter Six: Part Four

Continued from Chapter Six: Part Three

Younes chuckled. “Not so,” he said. “Not so. A monster he is, no failing that. Join with the tidy man? Mayhap he will—mayhap he will. And yet, something gives him pause,” Younes, sitting on the ground, no longer looked up, no longer seemed to talk to Kyouki or anyone else but himself. “Nay,” he went on, his voice getting steadily quieter so that it could hardly be heard over the wind outside the hollow. “Nay, for he has had a long hard time to think in the rushing sands—sands of time, yes. Iskander Younes is a hazard. No mistaking that, certain sure. That being so, why did they not kill him when a chance for it came to them? That’s a question that vexed him long, kept him quiet, left the canyon free of his wailing and cursing. That it did. His new mind never left it to rest, and Iskander Younes as he is to be seen now discovered a fair prize. He solved the riddle to his own liking, that and more. Yes, it’s so.” Younes rolled his eyes back to look at Kyouki. “You’ve an opinion that he should join your adventures, do you? But tell me, tidy man, what service can you to aid Iskander Younes in his vengeance? Can you answer me that?”

Kyouki paused before answering. Jarvela felt the sadness in him, seeping out like a mist. It was the kind of question he would not want to answer.

“I will not aid your vengeance, Younes,” Kyouki said.

Younes grinned. “Then Iskander Younes has no further use of you.”

The interview ended badly. Younes fled.


Thinking back on Younes, as they met in that canyon so many years earlier, Jarvela left Súthende in the company of his young friend, Tag Tegran. They rode due north through the hills to Kyouki no Uma’s house, a home to lost children like Jarvela till they could go into the world and stand vigil. The lost and the forgotten drew to Kyouki, learning of themselves, growing and training. They learned secrets of the world, locked in themselves. Over time, the urchins at Kyouki’s house blossomed and he sent them into the world to keep the peace—fighting monsters in shadow. The uneasy peace of the world would have long before been hotter had Kyouki’s Runagates not been prowling, though few knew it.

Jarvela had his message to carry to Kyouki: in the company of Digger, the Wiggend Lordling, Silk Golinvaux had gone into the hills near Súthende. Jarvela had been investigating Silk and his movements for months, using the networks of Runagates. Jarvela concluded that Silk had gone into the hills to meet with Iskander Younes, to join in their common purpose, though they had different reasons for meaning violence to the Warlord Engelkind. Younes had gone his farthest yet on his mission of revenge. He could be tracked through the movements of his less careful company.

“You’re awfully quiet, Jarvela,” Tag said in his deep voice, uncommonly thoughtful and even for a kid his age. He had dark hair straight as straw, and wise eyes with premature wrinkles around them. A hand rolled cigarette wobbled between his lips. Often his eyes stared into the distance even when he talked to someone three feet from him.

“I’d hope that Wexerly would join us on this road,” Jarvela said. “We’re riding to…” Jarvela groped for words.

“Death and ruin?” Tag suggested.

Jarvela shook his head, not to disagree but to say he didn’t know. “How do you feel about the future, Tag?”

Tag smiled around his cigarette. “It feels stormy, or nearly stormy. A pregnant frisson awaiting the first lightning strike.”

Jarvela frowned. He disagreed. He thought the first lightning had stricken somewhere, that they had missed it and awaited the thunder and the onslaught of a torrential rain.

He kicked his horse to a trot. Haste felt appropriate.

End of Chapter Six. Continued on February 7...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chapter Six: Part Three

Continued from Chapter Six: Part Two

“Aside from my training,” Jarvela said. “I can only remember that you always asked for more ghost stories. I discount my training as important to you. So we must be ghost hunting.”

“Do not be so quick to dismiss yourself,” Kyouki said, looking sidelong at Jarvela. “You are right, though. We are ghost hunting. A specific ghost. We have almost found him.”

The next morning they started early. Unlike every other day since Jarvela had joined company with Kyouki, the Oswemend seemed to have a clear idea which way to go. They continued southward along the scrubby edge of the desert. Gradually, hills grew and slowed their horses. For a day no further adventure beset them.

The next dawn burned hotter than any Jarvela had ever felt. He shed many layers of clothing before they started and still dripped with sweat before an hour had passed. The hills grew hotter and drier as they went south. Large, sandy rocks began sticking up from the ground, becoming larger as they went. After not many hours there was more rock than hills. The wind formed rocks swept up taller and taller. Soon their rode wove around tall rock formations.

Wind grew through the rocks. The sparse sand whipped up. Jarvela wrapped a cloth around his mouth to protect his breath. The going got more difficult every mile—the wind threw around more grit and the ground was always stonier. Jarvela did not want to believe that some ill will set against them. He had trouble disbelieving it. A dry voice laughed or cursed in the wind, raising the hairs on his neck. The first few times he heard it he thought he imagined it, spiraling through the coarse dust into his face. It sounded so faintly and seldom that he thought it a brush of wind. The sound of the voice grew louder, clearer, frequenter, till Jarvela could only believe it. The laughter sounded scornful and ironic—the curses as bitter as the grit in the wind blowing in his face.

The sand blowing around had grown so thick Jarvela saw a few feet ahead of him and no further. He had no clear idea of the terrain anymore, except that the ground had become dry stone. Kyouki still seemed to know where he wanted to go. He rode a little ahead of Jarvela, his head bowed and wrapped in his black silk hood. The cruel voice in the wind drew him on through the sand. He had found his ghost, Jarvela supposed.

Though the wind developed no change, Jarvela became vaguely aware through the closening of the air and the tightening of the rushing sound that they had ridden into a canyon. Jarvela felt they had been riding in it for some time—perhaps two miles. The walls swooped closer around them so that what little sunlight strangled through the gritty wind turned dim and red. The horses didn’t like the wind and sand. They wanted to turn back. The voice in the wind scared them the more. It had become shouting with a renewed vigor.

The walls of the canyon narrowed to nearly a cave for a hundred feet. They whooshed out again suddenly and they rode into a wide place in the canyon. The sand had been thinning for a while. Through it Jarvela could see vague shapes in the distance. The walls of the sandstone canyon, windswept and winding, stood tall and a uniform yellow-red from the ground up shaped like a very slow creek bed eroded with very fast wind. The[1]  far wall was featureless except for a pale X shape chained to the wall thirty feet off the ground.

“A man,” Jarvela shouted, bending near Kyouki’s protected head.

“Very nearly,” Kyouki said. If Jarvela could have seen his face he would have guessed Kyouki smiled.

“Your ghost?”

“Yes—the wretched creature,” Kyouki said. The familiar, rasping laugh in the wind broke forth again, louder than ever.

Taking a pickaxe they had brought with them, Kyouki, using his own special nimbleness, climbed slowly up the cliff face to the X of a pale man hanging from the walls. Kyouki found a narrow ledge under the chains and just managed to keep his feet enough to strike the chains securing the man’s feet a few good blows. Jarvela watched, feeling loathe to release this person, so securely hanged from chains in such an unwholesome place. His voice made Jarvela nervous. And some other ill feeling hung about the place, though Jarvela could just be jumpy from riding in the hard wind in the canyon for so long. Besides, the pale man could not be trussed so roughly for being a safe person. A hazard and no mistake.

Kyouki managed to dislodge the chains securing the man from the cliff till only on chain kept the pale man’s left arm attached to the wall. Through an improbable feat of balance and strength Kyouki held the pale man by the one chain left, climbed to where it was attached to the wall, and dislodged it as well. He kept a hold of the chain and climbed down the cliff. On the ground Kyouki wrapped his own cloak around the man, who could almost not stand. They walked back to Jarvela and the horses, Kyouki supporting the other, who still dragged his chains.

“Let’s find someplace to get out of this wind,” Kyouki shouted at Jarvela. Jarvela tried and failed to get a good look at the newcomer. He kept the hood of Kyouki’s cloak over his face. Aside from being a man as large as Jarvela, broader than Kyouki, and pale, Jarvela could see very little of him.

A little further along the canyon they found a deep crevice which afforded protection from the wind. It was deep enough and wide enough to get the horses inside. Still they had enough space to sit on the canyon floor near the opening. Jarvela had a good look of the pale man, who sat against a wall in the alcove.

He smiled. It looked genuine enough. Anything cheerful in it had the taint of being formed by a purple and bruised mouth in a wax-white face, his skin chapped and cracked from maybe years hanging in the sand-swept canyon. The chains around his limbs had been welded together. Whoever put him up there wanted to keep him there.

“What crime deserves this punishment?” Jarvela asked.

“He is guilty of no crime,” Kyouki said. “Though the name may mean nothing to you, this is Iskander Younes. He was hidden here because some people are embarrassed by his existence. He reminds them of certain secrets they’d rather hide. I think he wants to tell you about it.” Kyouki fell silent while the quiet laugh of Younes mumbled from him.

“Aye, no crime but loyalty,” Younes said. “This was the body of Iskander Younes, a loyal soldier, who swore fealty to a lord and a lord bade him do, so Iskander Younes did as he was bidden. There died Iskander Younes, but not his end. Nay, for here is he still. And not the same. Nay, respawned, the first of an ill breed.” Younes giggled. “They hid him away—dangerous he is, certain. More dangerous still being present than being he. Iskander Younes is a secret clue of a bad decision. As the master yon suggests, Iskander Younes reminds them what they meant to hide. They don’t much like that.”

“Damn,” Kyouki muttered, standing just behind Jarvela’s shoulder. Jarvela glanced back. Kyouki’s eyebrows lowered, his eyes stern. “I’ve made a grave error. I hoped he’d be more stable than this.”

Younes looked past Jarvela at Kyouki. Laughing, Younes waved a chained hand to Kyouki. “Iskander Younes is free. The tidy man—oh ho, so prim and clean at every edge—has his price, no doubt. Perhaps Iskander Younes will see it in his power to repay this mild kindness extended to him. Name your warrant, tidy man.”

“Join with me, Younes,” Kyouki said, stepping around Jarvela. “Join with me and we will rebuild a place for our kind.”

The pale face of Younes looked suddenly tense. His eyes widened and his mouth fell agape. “You are not like Iskander Younes. Not by an ounce of flesh nor a turn of phrase. How could you even suppose?”

“I know better what you are than you know,” Kyouki said, lowering his voice. He sounded like he had recently become uncertain of it.

Continued on February 3...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Chapter Six: Part Two

Continued from Chapter Six: Part One

All the booze had run out. For the last couple of years, their travels had been accompanied with beer, or wine, or hard alcohol. The night at the edge of the desert were the first completely sober nights of their adventures in a long time. Jarvela found the experience thoughtful and calm. He didn’t miss the alcohol. Although he found that he wondered with a greater urgency than ever what Kyouki had in mind for the future.

“I think that your fiddle needs new strings,” Kyouki said to Jarvela on the second night, when they had camped in a gravely patch surrounded by rocks and thorny bushes. Kyouki lay on his blanket, the stars reflected in his eyes. Jarvela sat on a log across the campfire from him. At Kyouki’s suggestion, Jarvela fetched his fiddle from one of the packs. He had taken up fiddle at some point during their travels. Kyouki encouraged it, seeming to think it calmed Jarvela.

It did, Jarvela hesitated to admit. He had always thought music seemed a prissy pastime. Admitting he quite liked it came hard. But he did admit it.

Gently adjusting the delicate wood, Jarvela removed some of the old strings from his fiddle. He had new strings in his bag, but before he started putting them on he checked everything else about the fiddle to be certain it stayed in good shape. He worked quietly, keeping his main attention on his task while allowing his imagination to wander freely, thinking through old ponderings. He began wondering about Kyouki, his past and motivations. Jarvela knew very little about Kyouki, really. Kyouki had money and Kyouki had prestige, though why he did never seemed to come up in conversation. On their travels, Kyouki would often be treated with an almost religious respect by the few who recognized his name—usually historians or the very religious. They called him “consort”—Consort no Uma. Though consort to whom they never mentioned. Kyouki never brought it up. It seemed that Kyouki had no allegiance to any kingdom. He seemed neutral to both Engelkind’s new regime and to the old king exiled in the north. One thing he had told Jarvela was there were no lands that belonged to the name no Uma. Kyouki conducted himself like an errant knight, allied to no one.

The only distinct point of character that Jarvela had gleaned of Kyouki was a profound religious respect. Many people chose a god or two, sometimes, three, to hold in most reverence, directing the bulk of their prayers and sacrifices to that god. Jarvela himself had always held Ythig, the lord of chaos and first mover, in most reverence, though he had a strong respect for Ellen Róf, the shield maiden and courageous cousin to Ythig. People would remember and revere all the other gods. They were gods. They all deserved reverence. Each god had a different philosophy, though, and healthy folk would decide on the one that suited them best and live most by that philosophy. No one followed all the gods at once. That would imply far too much discipline.

Kyouki did, though. Kyouki would make daily references to all seven of the gods. He would talk in the morning of Ythig’s excitement of new movement, throughout the day Kyouki would talk of Gróesn and the value of being aware of the still things, and at dusk he would tell sometimes unsettling stories of Ferryman and his often peculiar place in history. Kyouki would talk of Gróesn’s wife, the lady Wendy, when they rode through leafy woods, and on the crossing of rivers and when they walked on the tops of cliffs overlooking the sea Kyouki would laugh and shout to Ellen Róf, Ythig’s wife. The other two, Uncle Spircan and Mama Boom-Boom, known sometimes as the grandparents of the gods, Kyouki would mention less often, but with as much respect. Uncle Spircan often came up when they lit campfires, and he would mention Mama Boom-Boom often when he would sing songs or tell old tales. Kyouki rarely spoke of Kunig, the new god, but when he did he was thoughtful, as if he had made no certain decision about him.

Dedicated allegiance to the entire pantheon was unheard of in Jarvela’s memory. Men who tried became confused and flighty, never sure what they believed. Jarvela knew a few historian monks who claimed to be non-denominational, following all gods the same. They mumbled rather than spoke and were perpetually lost in study, never aware of anything but their books.

Somehow, Kyouki seemed functioning enough. And when he told stories of the gods the stories sounded less like old legends, heard from childhood up, than like anecdotes. Some of Kyouki’s tales almost seemed to feature him. Jarvela had long suspected Kyouki was more than human, though not a god himself. Kyouki never confirmed it. It hardly mattered. Many strange things lived in the world. Jarvela knew Kyouki no Uma the person, and that contented him till Kyouki cared to explain himself.
Jarvela finished stringing his fiddle. He began tuning it. Probably Kyouki guessed Jarvela’s thoughts. Kyouki had an uncanny talent to do that. When he did he would address Jarvela’s concerns, but in a sideways way that made Jarvela think about what the problem had been at the first.

“Are you concerned that I have no idea what I’m doing, Jarvela?” Kyouki asked. The question surprised Jarvela. He shook his head and muttered, “Of course not,” before he really thought about it. Doubting Kyouki’s self-assurance had never occurred to Jarvela. Now that the question had been posed, though, Jarvela began to realize that Kyouki seemed completely confused. He got routinely drunk, started fights almost nightly, and wandered without clear purpose. It made sense to think of Kyouki as befuddled. He always seemed so wise and in control, never a hair on his head out of place, never a question set to him without an immediate answer on his lips. It inspired Jarvela to just go along with Kyouki’s idiosyncrasies. It suddenly seemed idiotic to Jarvela that he had failed to question Kyouki’s state of control sooner.

Kyouki smiled. “And his world comes crashing down around his ears,” he said. “You have the tools to doubt me. Rightly you should. My world has been devastated since the War. Since the exile of the gods I have been attempting to rebuild my world. I have not been making too fine a job of it either. There’s been progress, though.”

Jarvela thought of a question. He hesitated to ask it.

“Ask it, Jarvela,” Kyouki said.

“What was your place, master?” Jarvela asked.

“What do you think it was?”

Jarvela thought about it. Kyouki was more than a man, that much seemed clear. He told stories he could not know about things in the shadows of the past, and he seemed on first-name terms with all the gods at once. Some old stories featured strengthy beings, more than men and less than gods, who served the gods as their close consorts.

“I’d warrant you’re Oswemend,” Jarvela said. “A god herald.”

“And that does not frighten you?” Kyouki asked, smiling still. “Men are usually awed to know that.”

“They have not drunk with you, perhaps,” Jarvela said. He raised his now strung fiddle to his shoulder and drew a few notes from it. He continued pondering. Oswemend--god herald. A servant of the gods, made by the gods to work with them, and all the gods but one exiled to none knew where. The one left had been the power exiling the others. Here was Kyouki left behind.

“I have nothing left to do in this world,” Kyouki said. Jarvela could see that. “Or I had no possible mission. As I have said, I have been rebuilding.”

“There are other Oswemend, I presume,” Jarvela said.

“Yes. We are a closer-knit bunch for the fall of our lords,” Kyouki said. “Our world looks far different than any we had ever anticipated for ourselves. We have been forced to grow.”

“You are boozing rapscallions?”

“Come now, you know me better than that,” Kyouki said. Jarvela wanted to believe that he did. Keeping his mind on the sweeps of his bow across the fiddle strings Jarvela quieted his rising anger at Kyouki. Before his anger could quite take root, Jarvela thought over the past couple years, finding if there was anything aside from the boozing and the fighting that unified their travels.

Continued on January 31...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chapter Six: Part One

I am heartily sorry for the delay. It has been a busy weekend. I beg your patience and forgiveness.

Continued from Chapter Five: Part Four.

Jarvela Gunnar ruled gangs. He was born in Kunigsgrad, back when it was called Seafasten, in the later days of the war. The streets were most dangerous then, and he called the streets home. Jarvela lived by his wits, staying alive by keeping ahead of the other urchins. It always felt to him like he had more than the usual rationing of wit. People he knew back then all seemed slow and stupid. He made them into a gang, for their protection and his own. Then, in the shortest version of a long and painful story, though, the gang all died, killed by a larger and more powerful gang. Jarvela survived. After spending a week of night drinking he armed himself, making ready to storm the house of his enemies. He wanted to end his life. As a return, he wished only to take a few of them with him.

Any other option sickened him with grief. He would not go on. He would not go back. But over his last bottle of rum, taken in a tavern before making his attack, a person confronted Jarvela, suggesting a different option.

The man called himself Kyouki no Uma. He had sleek black hair grown long, thin eyes that slanted at the edges, and skin colored like unbleached silk. He smelled like mint, wore sleek clothing, and stood taller than Jarvela. He looked out of place in the dark wood of the tavern, stained with smoke and worn to sleekness by hundreds of years of people walking around the room. Jarvela stood at the bar, his third clay cup of rum in his hand, and he angled his head to the mint smelling man who looked out of place in the tavern—far too clean, far too distinguished. Castles and fine halls would be Kyouki no Uma’s natural environment. Kyouki looked sideways at Jarvela and smiled crookedly, twisting his trimmed goatee.

“You’re shitting me, little man,” Jarvela said, raising his rum to his lips. Kyouki had just offered Jarvela a job. He had not yet said what job. It didn’t matter. Jarvela didn’t want a job. It was common for refined men of money to hire men like Jarvela to do the violent things they lacked the spine to do themselves. Jarvela would have been interested any other day. He just wanted to be left alone today. “Find some other schill, little man,” he said.

“You haven’t heard the job yet,” Kyouki said, his voice low and perfectly pronounced.

“Step off,” Jarvela said. “You’ve picked a bad day.”

“I think it’s the perfect day,” Kyouki said. “As I understand it, your enemies have deprived you of your allies and you have nothing left to do for yourself.”

Kyouki said the words evenly, without spite, without a hint of bragging. Only Jarvela’s enemies would know what Kyouki said.

“Tread carefully,” Jarvela said, lowering his voice and his cup of rum. His axe hung at his waist. He readied himself to use it.

“I’m not one of your enemies,” Kyouki said.

“You’re sniveling enough to be one of them,” Jarvela said.

“Jarvela Gunnar,” Kyouki said, a name he should not have known. Jarvela never used his real name back then. Kyouki’s smile softened. “Do you remember your first cloak?”

That cloak had been the first Jarvela had met Kyouki no Uma. Kyouki had given Jarvela his first cloak—a wool cloak, grey, soon stolen. After several days of thought, Jarvela did take the job Kyouki offered. He found he preferred it to dying. At first, Jarvela had acted as Kyouki’s valet and bodyguard, traveling with Kyouki. Kyouki went everywhere inside of the first few months, getting in the worst kind of scrapes. Kyouki would start fights everywhere. They would enter bars, and Kyouki would empty bottles of wine himself. He’d raise a ruckus and he and Jarvela would be forced to fight their way back to the street. Jarvela wondered from the first days what Kyouki wanted with a bodyguard. He could take care of himself, and more. Kyouki started teaching Jarvela things, in fact. Not just fighting, though Jarvela and Kyouki saw most eye-to-eye about that. Kyouki had a broad understanding of history, philosophy, logic, geometry, and all the old stories. Education had never either appealed to or wholly revolted Jarvela once he had a chance to learn from Kyouki he found his curiosity grew daily. He plagued Kyouki with questions and Kyouki fielded them with the patience of one who felt they had all of eternity to answer. And, sometimes, Kyouki would volunteer a piece of information: “I rather like to collect ghost stories,” he said more than once, and, more than once, he asked for new ones from the people they met on the road.

Jarvela continued, nominally, to be Kyouki’s bodyguard, though the idea of “employment” faded. They traveled to all corners of the world. They traveled to the farthest south and raised hell with the pirate lords, which Jarvela thought was stupid. Not as stupid, however, as the next few months when they went to the eastern isles and wandered the Savage Lands, bothering werewolves and the primal natives. From there they spent almost a year zigzagging gradually westward across the great plains in the middle of Eardbána, sampling beers, women, and brawling through towns. Jarvela sometimes wondered what drove Kyouki. Most days, he allowed the journey to be its own adventure. Other days he inquired what they were doing. Kyouki always answered that particular question with some sociopolitical question--who is the king? What is justice? Does anyone speak for the voiceless? The question started some only slightly related discussion, and Jarvela let it go. He presumed that Kyouki meant to tell Jarvela abstractly what the point it by the discussion. Jarvela had not divined the answer yet. Perhaps there was no answer and Kyouki was merely mad; that made more sense most days.

The Gelodra Mountains in the west slowed their journey, as winter had fallen upon them by the time they reached the foothills. Instead of stopping, Kyouki stocked up on whiskey and forged ahead, keeping Jarvela slightly tipsy through the whole trek through the passes. Jarvela remembered very little of the Gelodra days. He remembered, in their drunkenness, singing loudly enough to cause a few avalanches, and he remembered fighting bears that sparked from the mouth and bears that seemed a little too smart, and he vaguely remembered fighting monsters. He mostly remembered bitching about the cold and drinking more whisky.

“It was not wise to go into the mountains in winter,” Jarvela grumbled during a blizzard. He couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The world had greyed out. The warmth of a half of bottle of whisky kept him riding.

“Wisdom is subjective,” Kyouki said. “A man’s intentions inform the wisdom of his actions.”

“You haven’t told me what your intentions are,” Jarvela said, frowning.

“You can only decide the wisdom of your own actions, then,” Kyouki said, nearly shouting to be heard over the wind.

The whisky lasted just long enough to get them through the mountains out into the lush jungle in the western shadows of the Gelodra Mountains. Jarvela had always feared Kyouki would take them this way. They hiked through the jungle, where it rained constantly. Kyouki said they were fortunate it rained. The barbarians living in the jungle stayed indoors when it rained. Jarvela had despised the rain.

Eventually they passed from the jungle. The trees thinned and eventually disappeared. Then, with a suddenness almost like ocean breaching shoreline, they reached hot desert.

“You miss the rain now, I think,” Kyouki said, surveying the seemingly infinite sands with an ironic smile.

“Lord of chaos, you’re a crazy bastard, Kyouki,” Jarvela said.

They rode south along the edge of the desert, keeping in the scrubby hills. The tufts of olive trees and bramble offered some shelter from the heat, and Kyouki explained they would be more able to find water. “We’ll head out into the dunes in perhaps a few days,” Kyouki said. “Maybe. I hope not, though.”

Continued on January 26...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Chapter Five: Part Four

Continued from Chapter Five: Part Three...

Digger whipped his sword to guard. He pointed it first to his left, backing away in case the enemy showed himself. The laughter sounded from his right then, however, and louder. He turned to face it. “Gods, how many?”

“There are few left in the world,” Silk said. His voice sounded serene. Twig looked at his face. Silk still smiled, looking toward the one standing in the flames of the barracks. “One is too many.”

“What are they?” Digger asked.

“They are Scarpy,” Silk said. “You know of Tetch Slander and the Scarpy. These are they. They came for me, just as you predicted that they would.”

Twig wondered what Silk’s crime really was. The Holy Assassins—the Scarpy—the classiest killers hunted Silk. When he found his own footing, Twig wondered if perhaps he would want Silk’s scalp too.

“Gods preserve us,” Digger said. He kept his voice strong and gripped his sword in both hands.

“Hold fast—here he comes,” Silk said. He brought his own sword to be on guard. The Scarpy in the barracks leapt out. Remnants of flame clinging to the oils of his skin, he began running the hundred yards from the barracks toward them. Silk and Digger stood to wait for the Scarpy. Twig had no such patience. Darting first sideways, and partly concealed in the dark—though he knew that the Scarpy could see heat—Twig ran toward the hot Scarpy. The Scarpy’s body generated the campfire heat Twig had been feeling. All Scarpy had blue and hairless bodies, tightened with muscle. This specimen, naked from the fire, stared with its glowing eyes straight at big Silk. The Scarpy had his head lowered, the small horns in his forehead pointed at Silk like a charging bull. Sparks dribbled like spittle from between his pointed teeth.

He ignored Twig. Until the last second, the Scarpy stayed intent on Silk. Somehow, Twig’s quiet charge in the dark shadows passed the Scarpy’s notice. Twig was not sure why. He pressed his advantage, however. Coming at an angle, Twig planted a foot in front of the Scarpy’s. The Scarpy gave a bestial scream that morphed to an obscenity. The Scarpy began to fall. In the middle of the Scarpy’s dive, Twig rotated to knee the Scarpy in the chest. He shoved the heavy body of the Scarpy gracelessly sideways. The Scarpy fell into a jagged hole in the bars of the near bear pit. A scream like a burning hawk escaped him as his side was pierced by several of the jagged ends of the bars on his way to the bones of the bears. A belch of fire lit the pit when he hit the floor.

“Do you think he’s dazed?” Digger said, running up to Twig.

“You can thank the man, boy,” Silk scolded.

“He will not keep for long,” Twig said. “We should run.”

“It’s a bit hard to run from them,” Silk said.

“It is harder to fight them,” Twig said.

“Damn it,” Silk said. He hocked and spat. “I always tried to keep on the same side as them during the War.”

“That is prudent,” Twig said. At the sight of the Scarpy going down, the laughs of the other Scarpy in the Gorge changed to howls and insults. Probably the insults were witty and profane. The thick Scarpy accent obscured what they said exactly. The voices all approached. “This gorge is fitted with explosives. If they are triggered it will cause a cave-in. The Scarpy will be crushed.”

“But probably not killed,” Silk said.

“They may be killed,” Twig said.

“How can we help?” Digger asked.

Twig looked at the young man’s face. He had urgency to do in his eyes. Impotency made him nervous. They would merely get in the way, however. The mechanism was supposed to be triggered by three people, but only Twig knew where the three triggers were.

“Run if you want to live,” Twig said. Digger looked uncomfortable at the command. “Give me your bow and a knife.” Twig took his cloak off and traded it for Silk’s bow and quiver of arrows.

“You’re in for a flailing if this goes otherwise than you say it will, boy,” Silk said. He took the cloak and handed over the bow, however, and produced a knife from somewhere. “Come on, lad. Let’s leave him to his arena.” Silk turned and jogged back to the zigzagging road up the wall of the Gorge.

Twig turned his back to them. He slung the quiver of arrows onto his back, tightened its strap. The knife he stuck under some of the straps on his leather sleeve. The snowy ground stretched flat from him. The building where the bears had been bred stood to the right—the stable to the left. Behind the breeding building the wall of the gorge loomed up, sheer and straight. Ancient mining equipment clung to its face, dirtying the clean stone. Among the catwalks and cranes hanging on the wall a series of cleverly placed charges, based on the Scarpy design, could be triggered to make the whole stone face crumble and bury the Gorge in stone. There were three triggers. Three Zombies were meant to light them at the same time. They were hidden.

Motion caught his eye. He looked toward the breeding building. Someone jumped from the roof. Orange-glowing eyes stared at him. A second Scarpy, walking toward him. A third ran around the stable, his eyes visible in the shadows.

“Well, cold one, we know what to look for now,” the lead Scarpy said.

Twig swung his foot back and drew an arrow. He looked at the wall of the Gorge, recalling the triggering process. It should take three people. Now he looked at it, he wondered if he might have thought of a way to do it by himself. The idea seemed ludicrous, though. He had no idea how to execute it.

He would need some rags.

Continued on December 21...