- 0:00 – Intro
- 2:33 – Fixer theme [Trogdorpolska – Tråd – Barry Phillips]
- 3:02 – Fixer: Installment 5
- 16:18 – Outro
Ransom’s got a plan.
Friday, 28 of April of 2017
Ransom’s got a plan.
“Ken, he’s been stuck in there for six hours now, in the dark. He’s hurt. He’s confused. We need to try to help him.” Cora was pacing, repeatedly running her fingers through her still damp hair. She’d let Ken talk her into sleep and then a shower while he and Stacy took turns guarding the door that used to lead to the kitchen. And she did feel better for it, but she couldn’t stand waiting outside any longer, not knowing what was probably happening behind the door. She’d barely exchanged three words with Ward since they’d met, but she knew all too well what he was going through, and no one deserved to have to deal with that alone.
“Cora, I hear you,” Ken began in his I-know-better tone, “but he was violent, and he’s probably worse now. We’re not equipped to restrain him without hurting him. We need to wait for…” he trailed off as footsteps approached on the porch. When Lucas stepped through the door, looking wrung out, Ken fell into such an obviously staged casual pose that Cora couldn’t help rolling her eyes.
For his part, Lucas burst out laughing. When he had his control back, he grinned and waggled his eyebrows at the two of them. “You, ah, working on the door there, Ken?” Following his gaze, Ken flushed when he saw the obvious signs of what he’d done six hours ago: the hammer propped against the jamb and the collection of small pieces of scrap wood jammed underneath the door as makeshift wedges. He put on a stern face and opened his mouth, but Lucas cut him off. “Hey, it’s cool. I don’t need to be asking any questions about any secret ninja witchcraft stuff.”
Ken turned even redder. “We are not witches!”
Lucas’s grin widened, and he winked as he backed across the room. “So, just ninjas then. Gotcha. Mum’s the word.”
As Lucas disappeared into the hall Cora wondered Where was he all night? Then realization hit her and she was chasing after him. “Lucas, wait up!”
Lucas stopped at the door to his bedroom and leaned casually against the wall. His face was serious, though. “What can I do for you, Cora?”
Cora stopped at the foot of the stairs and grabbed the top of the post with both hands. “Lucas, where did you go last night?”
A little sarcasm slipped back in with his reply, “A gentleman never tells, my dear.”
Cora shook her head. “Badly phrased. Did you see Ward last night?”
He nodded. “Yeah. I dropped by his place pretty soon after I left here, and we hung out for a while. Why?”
“Did he seem… strange?”
Lucas suddenly looked around uncomfortably. “Cora, where’s Gunner?”
Cora leaned forward intently. “I haven’t seen him since last night. Why, did Ward do something to him?”
“What? To him? No. We just talked. It, ah, turns out Gunner is Ward’s older brother, and they don’t get along, but I don’t think he would have done anything, no.”
Cora’s eyes narrowed. “Then why did you just get so nervous?”
Lucas rolled his eyes. “Because I’m tragically genre-savvy. Saying ‘Yeah, girl, turns out your boyfriend is my best friend’s older brother, but get this, my man Ward says your main squeeze is a sociopath,’ is a one way ticket to ‘He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he.’ It’s called ‘class,’ dear. And speaking of class, my aforementioned main man is way too classy to have done anything sneaky to Gunner, bad blood or no bad blood.”
Cora nodded and grimaced. “Normally I’d just take your word for that, but Ward wasn’t himself last… Wait, what do you mean, ‘sociopath?'”
“His word, not mine. He says it’s always like it’s been this week with… with us. Says Gunner comes on all charm and cool at first, then when he gets bored he gets mean, and eventually he just vanishes down the road again, and if you’re lucky you didn’t lend him your car or your…” Lucas trailed off, obviously searching for a replacement for the word he didn’t want to say.
“Heart.” Cora finished. “Well, that’s not good news for anyone.” She stopped and shifted uncomfortably under the weight of what she knew she was about to ask.
Lucas capitalized on the silence as he so often did. “What’s going on with Ward, Cora? What do you know about who he was last night?”
Cora sighed and closed her eyes for a second, gathering herself. “Ward needs help, Lucas. You can help me help him, if you’re willing to get involved with our secrets. But it won’t be pretty.”
Lucas stepped toward her, scowling. “Does Ward need help because he got involved with your secrets, Cora? Did you guys drag him into something?”
“Yes and no, in that order. I don’t know how it happened. If we’re lucky he’ll be able to fill us in when he’s out of danger. I’ve told you all I can tell you unless you’re going on.”
Lucas sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. Then he dropped his hands to his sides and nodded solemnly. “I’m in. Now what’s going on?”
Cora stepped around the post and held her hands up in front of her, as though in prayer. “Not just yet. Hold your hands up like this.” Lucas raised an eyebrow but did so. Cora then clasped her hands around his and held them tightly. “Repeat after me. I, Lucas Martin…”
“I, Lucas Martin…”
“…will keep the secrets that Cora asks me to keep, listen to Cora when she tries to tell me something important, and generally not be a jerk.” Lucas bit back a laugh and repeated her, and she smiled but did not release his hands. “And I, Cora Lessing, will try to keep you from getting in over your head, not keep secrets from you for no reason, and generally not be a jerk. In the light of order, let it be so.” She nodded at him by way of prompting, and he repeated the last sentence.
“Good,” she said, releasing his hands. “Let’s get you a cup of coffee while I give you the short, short version.”
Five minutes later they sat at the kitchen table. Lucas was experimentally sipping a cup of instant coffee and Cora was wracking her brain for a way to explain quickly the broad strokes of what he would need to know. “You know the word ‘chaos,’ right?” She waited for Lucas to nod and continued. “Only what you know is small-c chaos, the absence of order. The same way that cold is the absence of heat. What we’re dealing with is big-c Chaos, which is a force all by itself. True Chaos is capable of literally anything, but it burns itself out quickly. The world just won’t accept it for long. But when it goes, things are… different. When a person encounters Chaos, it drives them insane if it doesn’t kill them. But sometimes, and we don’t really know why it happens when it happens, sometimes people survive, and manage to keep, or rather regain, their sanity. And those people wind up with… secrets. Like me, and Ken, and Stacy.”
“Ninja witchcraft secrets?”
“Essentially. We can all do… tricks, I guess. This is coming out all wrong.” Cora shook her head in frustration. “I’m distilling too much and it’s coming out stupid.”
Lucas set down his coffee and held up a hand placatingly. “This is just the short short version, so let’s focus on what’s up with Ward, hmm? I’ll ask more questions later.”
Cora nodded. “Okay. Ward showed up last night, hostile and raving. I know it doesn’t sound like him–from the little I’ve been around him, I’d say it’s not like him. But it happened. I suppose he could just have gone crazy, but I have reason to believe that he survived a brush with Chaos and was suffering the aftereffects.”
Lucas dropped his hand. “Is he all right? What did you do with him?”
“We… we trapped him, Lucas, and soon we’re going to have to go in and see if he’s all right. That’s where you could help us out. You know him better than any of us, you have the best chance of getting through to him if he’s still confused.”
Lucas looked over at the door from the kitchen into the living room. “Is this connected to Ken’s sudden home improvement project?”
“Yeah. We trapped him behind the kitchen door and then Ken wedged it shut.”
Lucas shook his head. “I know I’m going to regret saying this, but, you do realize that we’re behind the kitchen door, right?”
Cora let herself smile a genuine smile. “Not exactly. Come with me, this is really cool.” Cora led Lucas, still holding his coffee, back to the living room the long way. Ken was still leaning on the wall. “Ken,” Cora said, “Lucas has agreed to go in with me and look for Ward. Would you open the door?”
Ken looked sour, but he nodded and set to work. As he knocked wedges free, Cora pulled a pair of flashlights from her backpack, then zipped the pack closed and shrugged it on. Lucas just took a long drink from his coffee and waited. Ken finished with the hammer, set it aside, and cleared an errant chunk of wood from the door’s space. “Lucas,” he said, “I assume Cora’s told you that we’ve got certain talents. Well, this is mine.” After a beat, Ken swung the door open. Where the kitchen should have been, there was instead a dark empty room. Bare, smooth concrete floor and ceiling stretched as far as the light let them see, and there was no sign of any wall.
Lucas sighed and drained his coffee.
“I… I wasn’t expecting this reaction, Lucas, I’ll be honest,” Ken said.
Lucas just shook his head and walked up to the door. He set his coffee mug down just on the edge of the carpet, then used the hammer to push it across onto the concrete. Then he stood up and walked out of the room. After a few seconds of confused anticipation, Ken jumped aside as an apple bounced out of the door, unseen until it cleared the threshold. Lucas stepped through after it, shaking his head. “I was really hoping you guys were just crazy.”
This week I bring a cautionary tale for any young wizards out there.
The continued adventures of YouBee from Urbana.na.
This one’s a little different. I’m giving Fixer a rest and running a story in the form of a podcast.
A little explanation is in order here. Last year I sold my first piece of fiction, to the Drabblecast, which is a flash fiction podcast that I highly recommend. Hearing my story read in a podcast that I was already listening to, not to mention the song afterwards, scratched an itch I hadn’t really known I had. That morning, walking to lunch through the snow and listening to my story for the third time on my mp3 player, was the beginning of a chain that eventually led to this website.
I’m posting that episode here both because I think it deserves to be in the feed alongside my newer stuff and because I’m getting married on Saturday, which has expanded to fill my life and prevent me getting much writing done lately. I’ll be back as soon as I can, but for now please enjoy the dulcet tones of Norm Sherman reading “Sleep Age.”
This installment of Headlong carries a very similar content warning to the last, to wit: unsympathetic narrator! explicit language! violence! flee for your lives!
He waited in the shadow of the porch, uneasily shifting the messenger bag from shoulder to shoulder. It wasn’t all that heavy, but even after years of similar drops the contents of the bag still made him nervous. Not many things did, any more. He was sure it wasn’t his imagination–he did sense an awareness from inside the bag. Slumbering, to be sure, but there nonetheless. It made his skin crawl. It made his brain crawl.
Finally the front door of the house opened, though the porch light remained off. A young woman, dressed for a casual evening home, stepped to the porch railing, just a few feet from him. She did not look at him or acknowledge his presence in any way, just stood staring off into space with her hands resting on the rail. Her left hand was curled into a fist, except for the thumb and first finger, which stuck out at right angles.
Seeing the all clear signal, Galen relaxed a bit, just a bit, and softly gave the countersign. “Segmentata.”
The girl looked at him then, and smiled. “Good to see you again, Galen.”
Galen stepped forward and gave a tight smile in return. “You too, Cora. Though I can’t say I appreciate the circumstances.” He unslung the bag and held it out toward her gingerly. “Keep it safe, and don’t open it. Someone will be by in a few days to pick it up.”
Cora gulped and took the bag slowly, flinching visibly when her hands touched it. “I don’t get it. Why don’t you burn it like always?”
Galen shook his head gravely. “This one needs special care. Don’t try to deal with it yourself, Cora. I mean that. It’s probably the most dangerous one we’ve found in ten years.”
Cora hung the bag by its strap from the doorknob and backed away from it. “You still haven’t told me why you need to leave it here at all.”
“Cora, I… Something’s following me. Or maybe that. If it’s after me, I can’t afford to have that when and if it catches up again. If it’s after that… Well Ken’s box is the best hiding place we know of. It’ll be safe here until we figure out what’s going on.”
Cora latched onto something in that that made her forget about the bag, temporarily. “Catches up again? Galen, are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine.”
But Cora was having none of it. Instantly she was back at the rail and holding Galen’s shoulder. “Don’t be stupid. You can’t take the chance of an infection.” Suddenly her hand was doing the glow/no glow thing that always bothered him. Warmth flooded him, concentrating on the puckered gash on his thigh. When it receded, the wound was still there, but smaller, and he knew he had no need to fear infection now. Not a natural infection, anyway.
Galen sighed. “Sometimes I wish you would teach me that. It might be worth melting my brain a bit.”
Cora hissed reprovingly. “Don’t even joke about that. The rules are there for a reason. We don’t seek power, you of all people know that!”
Galen nodded. “Sorry, I’m just tired. I’m going to hit the road and see if I can find a place to sleep.”
Cora sighed and released his shoulder. “I’m sorry too. Be safe, Galen.”
Galen turned half way around, then stopped and looked back at Cora. “I’d almost forgotten. I’m supposed to tell you that you’re about to run into a candidate. Or maybe you already have, Walter wasn’t sure.”
Cora smiled. “I think I know who it is. Tell Walter thanks for telling me.”
Galen smiled and nodded, tipping an imaginary hat. Then he was gone. She hadn’t seen him go, but then, she would have been worried if she had.
Gunner slipped back into the house about an hour later. Finding out that the musical buddy Luke wouldn’t shut up about really was Dear Baby Brother had been fantastic, but after the amusement wore off he started wondering why Cora had been so calm about him wanting to step out instead of spending the evening with her. Not even calm, really, almost… eager. Like she’d been looking for an excuse to get rid of him anyway. Little Cora might be slicker than he’d suspected. So when he came back from tailing Luke he parked a few blocks away and let himself into the yard by the back gate. When he arrived, Cora had been standing on the porch with a shoulder bag, shifting it from hand to hand like she was nervous about something. Gunner hadn’t seen the bag in any of Cora’s things, so it was new. It was new, and she was nervous about it, and she wanted to keep it a secret. From him, from everybody.
Cora, baby, are you a mule? A dealer? The thought was almost too delicious to bear. Gunner knew he had to get inside that sack somehow. So he waited, and when Cora finally went back inside with the bag, he followed her movements through the windows. Upstairs to the room that Kenny and his whore of a girlfriend Stacy shared, then back to her room, and lights out. He ghosted into the house, padded up the stairs, and slipped into Ken’s room. Between the night light in the corner and the street lamps shining through the window he could navigate the room easily. He already had a good idea where the bag would be, but to draw out the anticipation he checked all the places he knew it wouldn’t be first. Not under the bed, no. Not in the closet, no, neither on the floor nor up on the shelf. Not on the bookshelves. Not in the underwear drawer, although he was amused to see that Stacy apparently was kinkier than she made out. None of those places would have it, of course. No, it would be in the Devil Trunk.
He’d spotted, and named, the Devil Trunk on his first day in the house. Cora was giving him the tour and through the open door he saw a weird looking wooden box. The wood was blackened, like it had been in a fire, and there were crazy jagged symbols carved all over the outside, and a big ancient-looking padlock on the front. He’d laughed and asked Ken if that was where he kept his spellbooks, and damn if Ken hadn’t clammed up like a champ right then. After that Ken and Stacy kept their door closed when Gunner was around.
The Devil Trunk squatted at the foot of the bed, daring him to open it. There was the padlock, of course, but picking locks, especially old ones, is mainly a question of dexterity and patience. Well supplied with the first if not the second, Gunner grabbed a couple of hairpins from the dresser and made short work of the crude mechanism. The lock fell open with a click and he slipped it free of the hasp quietly.
Gunner grinned like an excited child as he lifted the top of the trunk. The inside was dark, so he grabbed the little flashlight from his keychain and shined a light down. And down. And down. He wasn’t looking into a space a couple of feet on a side, he was looking down through a hatch into a room. The floor was at least ten feet away, and he couldn’t even see the walls. Unmarked boxes and random bits of clutter were stacked haphazardly below him. And right at the top, hanging from a hook driven into the side of the hatch, was the black messenger bag he’d seen Cora with on the porch.
What the hell? Gingerly, Gunner reached down into the Devil Trunk as far as he could. No bottom. Even when he knew his fingers were well below the floor of the room, no bottom. He tried shifting the trunk a foot to the right, but the view through the hatch didn’t change, and his fingers still didn’t find floor. Grinning even more, he lifted the trunk completely off the floor. It was heavier than it looked, but that was the only evidence that something was not right about it. The view through the hatch still didn’t change. And when he tipped it up on its side the bag still hung straight and the stacked boxes didn’t tumble.
This is the coolest thing I have ever seen. Gunner didn’t know or care how it worked, but he knew when he left Larson he was taking the Devil Trunk with him. First thing’s first, though. He set the trunk down and pulled the bag out. It was heavier than he’d expect for drugs, but given what he’d already seen he wasn’t placing any bets on what was going to be in the bag. It didn’t even occur to him that what was in the bag might present a danger to him, nor did he notice the sensation of being watched that stole over him when he touched it. Gunner impatiently undid the clasps and threw open the top of the bag.
Inside was a book. A large thin book, bound in leather with black iron clasps and weird symbols burned into the cover all over, the kind you’d see on somebody’s coffee table in hell. Vaguely disappointed but still curious, Gunner opened the book and started flipping the thick, musty pages. The writing was so spidery he could barely make out any recognizable letters, and the brown ink didn’t stand out very well from the brown paper, but he thought it might be Latin. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but there were occasional diagrams, so he kept flipping, hoping to figure out what was up.
Most of the diagrams were drawings of what looked like a dissection. Page after page of some creepy looking thing that was almost, but not quite, human. Limbs and such were present in the right numbers, but the proportions were off, arms and fingers too long, joints bent in odd angles. And if he wasn’t mistaken, at least some of those pieces that had been peeled back and cut off were meant to be metal.
Gunner should have been feeling uncomfortable by that point, but he wasn’t feeling anything at all. He flipped pages rapidly, mechanically, and his eyes darted across each page, absorbing even if they didn’t comprehend. Finally, after far more flipping than a book of that size should have required, he reached the last page, which was one large diagram. It was a slightly misshapen circle, filled with radiating lines that met and parted in ways that the human eye doesn’t want to follow. Symbols were scribed along each line, so fine they would look like dots without a magnifyer, and in the center the paper itself seemed to fade away, as if the center of the page were a portal to some other place.
Gunner sat there, motionless, for an hour. He just stared blankly at the center of the page. He was so entranced that he did not notice when the Other entered the room.
It was another three hours before Ken and Stacy got home. They didn’t want to wake anyone, so they didn’t turn on any lights when they got to their room. Silently they undressed by the door, dropping their things on the floor to be picked up in the morning. Stacy crawled into bed and was asleep before her head hit the pillow, but Ken stubbed his toe on something on the way and bit back a curse. He crouched down to see what the heavy thing was, and was startled to find his chest in the middle of the floor. Suddenly wary, he felt blindly at the lid. Closed and locked, and the lock was secure. Mind eased somewhat, he pushed it back to its normal place and crawled into bed.
Ward climbed the staircase doggedly. From where he stood he could see landings above and below him, but no end to the stairs. To either side other stairways crossed the enormous room, leaving no space for anything else. The staircases were dotted with groups of people, some climbing and some descending. Whenever their stairs came close to Ward’s, which was often, the people in the other groups would call out to him. They were people he knew, sometimes people he hadn’t seen in years, sometimes people he saw every day, and sometimes people he hadn’t met yet. Sometimes he asked them where they were going, but they never answered. Everything they said was a variation on the same theme.
“You’re on the wrong path,” Lucas told him, smiling. “Hop over here.”
Ward just shook his head and kept climbing. The red tile clicked under the soles of his shoes, and his hand felt clammy on the tarnished steel handrail. A dozen steps went by and then he was drawing even with a staircase crossing on the other side. A group of his old high school classmates was there, and Lucy Gellar from Algebra turned to him. “Come on over, Ward, that one doesn’t go anywhere.”
Ward didn’t even bother to shake his head this time. On he went, turning down teachers, relatives, and old friends. He never slowed, never got tired.
After what might have been an hour or a minute Ward saw something strange. It took him a while to figure out what was wrong about what he was seeing up ahead, but then it came clear. Someone was just standing there, not moving in either direction. Just standing, right where his staircase met hers, was Cora.
“There’s no one else on that path,” she called as he got closer. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”
Ward stopped a few steps down from her and planted his hands on his hips. “I’ve got to walk my own path.”
She nodded. “But what makes you think you’re the one who decides what that is?” Suddenly she grinned, and Ward jumped back, startled. Her teeth were shining chrome fangs, and something with sharp, angular edges moved under the skin of her face. He started to overbalance, and grabbed the rail for support. Unable to dodge or flee, he threw up his left arm to shield himself, but it was gone. Just… gone. Blood trickled from a clean cut just below his elbow, and as he watched in horror, tiny chrome tendrils poked out from inside the ruin of his arm, waving blindly in the air.
Cora grinned even wider, and when she opened her skullsplitting jaws the voice that came out was not human. “We will come for the rest of you soon.”
Ward woke with a strangled scream and lurched off his couch in mad flight. His feet tangled in the blanket, sending him crashing into the stereo. His elbow cracked against the corner of the speaker, knocking it over and starting a bone-deep bruise. He barely noticed, just caught himself on the stand and kicked his way free before launching himself at the door. Still off balance, he slammed into the door with a jarring thud that cleared his head somewhat. He blinked and looked around at his dark, empty apartment. What am I running from? It was just a dream…
The dim shadows cast by the light bleeding through the curtains writhed and coalesced into a hulking mound of darkness. Ward stared, paralyzed. Soon there was a column of shadow spreading along the floor and ceiling, growing in irregular pulsing jerks, like a diseased heartbeat. In the center of the mass Ward saw a dull glint, like a reflection off the barrel of a gun. The glint moved from side to side, as though looking around, and the inhuman voice from the dream grated “You can not run from us. We are in you.”
The shadow surged forward, and when it overtook Ward it felt like sinking into a pool of cold, dirty oil. Shocked into action, Ward frantically fumbled the latch open with cold-numbed fingers and ripped his door open. Fighting screams of panic, he fell through the opening and half fell up the stairs to the street, splitting the skin over his right knee on the edge of a concrete step.
The darkness followed, of course, snuffing the lights in the stairwell as it rolled out of the apartment into the freedom of the outside. Ward didn’t have to look to know how close it was–the cold that grabbed at his bare heels as he ran down the sidewalk and the shifting shadows as street lamps winked out behind him told him all he needed to know. The voice called from time to time, asking why he ran, but mostly it just wheezed dry laughter. Ward ran past exhaustion, heedless of the cold of the autumn night, heedless of how he must look, running down a sidewalk in the middle of the night dressed only in plaid flannel pajama pants, heedless of the cuts and scrapes accumulating on his bare feet. All that mattered was staying ahead of that voice. He ran without a thought to any eventual destination, changing directions randomly when he saw what looked like an easier path, or sometimes when a shadow to one side spooked him further. The real danger, though, was always behind him, and he was not leaving it any farther behind no matter how he ran.
Suddenly Ward crashed headlong into a chain link fence he hadn’t noticed in the moonlight. He tried desperately to catch his breath, knowing that it was useless, that this delay was the end of the chase, but the shadow and the voice held back, toying with him. As he gathered himself for renewed flight, Ward realized what he was seeing beyond the fence. A big, old house, two stories and an attic, with gables that seemed to frown down at him. Light shone from the ground floor windows and the porch. Lucas’s house. And… Yes. Of course, it has to be her. Cora!
Ward snarled and scrambled over the fence, spraining a toe and cutting his hands, and hit the yard running. He was up the porch steps and at the front door in seconds, and he didn’t even slow. There was no storm door, and the front door popped free of the frame at the impact of his shoulder. The shadow, apparently taken by surprise, was barely to the porch when he slammed the door shut and threw the deadbolt, trying to ignore the thump and scratching sounds from the other side of the flimsy barrier.
Shaking, Ward spun around and saw that he was not alone in the room. There she was, sitting cross legged on the end of the couch, holding a cell phone and staring wide-eyed at her frantic guest. “W-ward? Lucas isn’t–“
Cora didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence, because Ward was there, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her. “What do you want with me?” he shouted. “Why are you after me?” Without giving her a chance to respond, Ward snatched the phone from her and shoved her down onto the couch. He whirled on the door and shouted, into the phone, at the door, “Leave me alone! You can’t have it! Not my hand, not anything! Just leave me–“
“HEY!” came a man’s voice from the other end of the room. “Just what the hell do you–“
Ward spun and hurled the phone with a snarl at the half naked man who stood in the other doorway. Despite, or perhaps because of, his fear and confusion, he came very close to hitting–the phone brushed Ken’s hair on its way into the kitchen. Cora took this moment to stand up, waving her arms. “Ken, I’m fine. He’s confused, Ken. He thinks we’re after him.”
“Thinks? Thinks!” Ward spat at Cora. “I know! I know because you told me! You told me on the stairs, before you grew your teeth! You can’t take it back now, even if your teeth are back!” Shaking with rage, he faced Ken. “And you! You,” suddenly confused, he paused. “I don’t know you.” Ken held up one hand calmly, and swung the door behind him almost closed with the other. He started to say something, but when he opened his mouth Ward saw the chrome fangs again, and the metallic shape moving underneath his skin. “You’re the thing from outside! You got inside somehow and now you’re going to take my arm! Well you can’t have it!” Despite his terror, Ward actually took a step forward and pointed menacingly at the thing that called itself Ken Silva.
Ken sneered. “That’s right. I’m coming for your arm. And you’re going to be easy meat, too.”
Cora gasped. “Ken, what the hell?”
“It’s okay, Cora, he can know. It doesn’t matter. He’s too much of a coward to actually face us. This little rat is going to keep on running in the wrong direction!”
Ward’s vision condensed to a red-rimmed oval around Ken. “The hell I will! I’ll face you right now!” He lunched forward, but Ken threw himself aside, dragging the door open behind him, and Ward stumbled into the kitchen. At least, it should have been the kitchen. Instead of the avocado tiles and peeling linoleum he’d seen on his previous visits, Ward was standing on a bare concrete floor, lit only by the light cast through the doorway. Soon even that light was gone as the door slammed shut. Ward was surrounded by shadow, the shadow that chased him, only it wasn’t behind him any more, it had looped around and trapped him and he’d fallen for it and now there was no way out, no light, no hope, nothing but the dark and the cold and the voices and the sick sensation of unseen fingers on his skin.
Ward lunged to his feet and fled back towards the door, but it wasn’t there. He ran on, hoping to find a wall and another way out, but after running for what seemed like hours he tripped and sprawled on the concrete, sobbing.
“It is over,” the voice purred. “We have you now, and we will make you one of us.”
Ward curled up and lost himself in darkness.
A brief forest interlude.
The very first Digital Busker Exclusive Fixer Content (whew!).
The Thane’s hall was a hulking granite lump in the center of the oldest part of Old Tewett, an overgrown keep long since bedecked beyond any military usefulness with balconies, ballrooms, and colonnaded walks. Every few generations a more paranoid Thane would come into power and brick over the largest windows and wall in the balconies, but when the wind inevitably shifted the other direction the renovations always seemed to run to further additions, rather than remodels. The end result was a drafty, tortuous pile of hallways and rooms, many quite fine, that seemed to have been the result of some kind of civic implosion.
As Quick’s party approached, the Lamplighter guards parted, handing off their charges to the Thane’s civic guards, resplendent in their green and white livery. In addition to their normal kit, their halberds were decorated with small green ribbons–somewhat jarring on such obsessively honed weapons. The entrance designated for party guests was surrounded by shining crystals that made it impossible to see inside past a few feet. A page at the entrance took invitations from Quick and Naiden, bowed, and ran inside without a word. A few moments later he was back, motioning them into the hall. Quick let Naiden take the lead and formed a rear guard to shepherd Daire forward. In the relative darkness of the hallway, Quick found he could barely see well enough to follow his friends. He walked delicately, afraid he’d brush some display of exotic fragilia and cause an incident.
Just as his eyes were starting to adjust, Quick saw that they had arrived at a set of double doors. The sounds of music and conversation filtering through from the other side seemed to enter Quick’s ears and bypass his brain entirely, nestling in some more primitive pleasure center. He grinned as liveried servants stepped out of alcoves and threw the doors open. A senior servant inside, already informed of their identities, announced without looking “Master Naiden Agnithe. Master Daire Agnithe. Master Quinn Callan.”
As the three crossed the threshold, a sprawling multi-leveled ballroom spread out before them. In the center, couples whirled and spun to a rolling tune played by unseen strings, layered skirts and beaded breeches flashing in the dazzling light that seemed to come from everywhere. On raised galleries around the dance floor the dancers’ older relatives maneuvered in shifting patterns of their own, conversations forming and dissolving by some internal logic as the rich and powerful drifted in and out of private salons and each other’s orbits. Through it all, servants ghosted about with trays of food and drink, unseen except when needed.
Quick turned to Daire, prepared to extract the gratitude he was due for bringing his friend to such a fantastic party, but Naiden spoke up first. “Come, Daire, your father beckons.” The older Lamplighter put one big hand on his cousin’s shoulder and turned him in the appropriate direction.
And indeed Donel Agnithe, patriarch and unquestioned head of the Lamplighter clan, was beckoning his son and nephew from a small balcony across the room. In the two-and-a-bit years since Quick had last seen the old man, he hadn’t changed much. The dramatic crest of graying auburn hair, like rusty iron, still drew the gaze to his piercing gray eyes and beak of a nose. He still carried the stick Quick remembered being chastised with after a few memorable boyhood misadventures, a long irregular shaft of milky quartz with a single half-twist near the top, which glowed when its owner was angry (or, Quick suspected, when he wanted to appear angry). The changes came to Quick only on his second survey: perhaps a more defined stoop, which enhanced his raptorial mien; more iron among the rust in his hair; a darkening around the eyes, making them hooded and inscrutable.
“Well, by all means go and pay your respects, Daire, but do seek me out when you can. Family is family, but we must have our priorities, mustn’t we?” Quick grinned and clapped his friend on the back. Daire smiled back–a genuine smile, for a wonder–and turned to follow his cousin.
Quick turned, trying to decide between food, drink, and dancing (could he perhaps combine two of those?), but changed his mind when he saw a swirl of gray silk on a nearby balcony. There was a reunion to be had, and Quick grinned as he maneuvered through the crowd, snagging a pewter goblet of chilled punch from a passing servant. Between the door and the balcony the punch had been quaffed and its container placed on another passing tray. Quick took the steps up to his destination in one bounding stride and slipped between the heavy velvet curtains, half-drawn, that made an ersatz room of the small balcony. Sure enough, his eyes had not failed him. The slender girl–young woman now, surely–in a silvery gray silk gown, now turning and smiling with recognition, was precisely whom he’d thought.
“Quick, I didn’t know you were already back in town!” the young lady swept towards Quick, ornamental draping layers of her gown floating out like pennants with the motion.
Quick took her hand and swept a deep and flourishing bow around a courtly kiss on her knuckles, then rose and allowed himself to be drawn into a less formal but more friendly hug. Upon disengaging, he grinned and said “Ciara, my dear, I’ve barely had a chance to brush the road dust from my boots. I’d planned to call on you tomorrow, but luckily for me you’re here now!”
For some reason that brought a flash of irritation–or sadness?–to Ciara’s face, but her returning smile reassured Quick that it hadn’t been directed at him. She opened her mouth to speak, but a masculine voice at Quick’s elbow cut in “Duels have been fought over less familiar attentions, stranger.” It sounded like an observation, not a threat. Or not entirely a threat.
Surprised, Quick turned. He knew one of the two men that now faced him, but Ciara’s older brother Kai was not the speaker. That one was tall and broad, dressed in loose-fitting black and silver, with black hair cropped close on the sides, perhaps to showcase the scar that started at his cheekbone and ended at a notch on top of his left ear. Quick found his angular face frustratingly familiar, but couldn’t place him. Kai, his family’s traditionally pale and slender build unusually marked in contrast to his large companion, smirked and said “You needn’t fear competition from this quarter. My sister has known Quinn since they were both small, as have I. He’s harmless.”
Quick had been preparing an explanatory introduction, but let it die unspoken and simply raised an eyebrow at Kai. The silenced stretched for a beat before the stranger broke it “Ah, that would make you the young Callan, Turi’s son. I don’t know if we’ve met. I’m called Wolfgang.” He bowed slightly from the waist and did not extend his hand.
Oh. That one. Wonderful. Quick realized why Wolfgang looked familiar–he was usually standing somewhere behind the Thane at official functions, a dark-clad unsmiling man with no title and no House, but a lifetime’s worth of whispered rumors and suspicion. The Thane’s Left Hand, he was called–albeit only when he was clearly not present. Quick responded with a mere nod of the head, technically correct for a son of even a minor House like Callan to a Houseless freeman, but much less than Wolfgang usually received. The taller man’s lips twitched in suppressed amusement at the nuance. Quick decided it was past time to speak for himself, and said “I don’t believe we have formally met before tonight, good sir Wolf, but that seems to have been mended now. Am I to interpret the talk of competition as a clue to your intentions towards my friend here?”
Ciara had moved around Quick by this time, and spoke up “That’s what everyone says, but you hardly ever call on me lately, Wolfgang. One could think you were more interested in my father than me, given our relative time with you.” She was smiling, Quick was sad to see.
“Please, sister. Everyone knows the way to win a young lady’s hand is to win her father’s trust.” He playfully poked Wolfgang’s shoulder, but the gesture met no response. Indeed, Wolfgang seemed focused entirely on Ciara, clearly forming a response. He settled on something and opened his mouth.
“Speaking only for myself,” Quick interrupted, scowling befuddledly at his hand and wiggling his fingers slowly, “I find that my heart influences the disposition of my hand far more frequently than the converse.” He was gratified to be rewarded by a chuckle from Ciara, and a little surprised at an answering rumbling laugh, albeit a beat late, from Wolfgang.
Wolfgang shook his head ruefully. “I’m a simple man, and I take my tasks one by one. Can I be blamed for finding the patriarch of the Shroudweavers less intimidating than his beautiful daughter?” Ciara laughed again, and blushed.
I wasn’t supposed to set him up for a joke. Damnit! Quick’s inward musings on how to embarrass or entrap this oaf were cut short by Kai. “Sister, you must come with me. There’s a little family business that needs us.”
Ciara sighed and shook her head. “Bless my father, but he does not understand the purpose of a party. Very well, I’ll take my leave of you gentlemen now, and hope to see you each again soon.” She backed up a step and curtsied, flashing a cockeyed smile. Kai was already at the curtain, and she hurried after.
“Well, I suppose I’ll need to have extra fun to make up for–“
Quick was just turning to exit the balcony when Wolfgang’s hand closed on his shoulder. “Come with me, Callan, I need to talk to you.”
It didn’t sound like a request, so Quick let himself be steered toward a shadowed doorway leading away from the ballroom. The hallways deeper into the keep were quite dark after the party, and for the first few turns Quick was blindly following the hand on his shoulder. Soon enough, though, they arrived in a tiny bare room. Its irregular shape suggested it was a byproduct of other, more important structural features, and indeed it didn’t seem to have any use now, except possibly as a storage closet, if the dusty barrel in the corner was a guide. Wolfgang closed the door behind them, and the only light came from a crystal torch Wolfgang had picked up somewhere. He jammed that into a convenient crack in the wall and leaned back against the door, looking much more sinister than he had among the party guests.
“I note your father is not among us tonight.” Another observation, with no hint in voice or posture to his intent.
Quick stood in the middle of the room, confused. “He doesn’t often attend functions, so it’s not personal.”
“But you’re here. Just back in town, you said. At some private academy for the past two years, but now back and ready to take an active role in your family.” Wolfgang ran a finger absently along a scar on the palm of his left hand while he talked, seemingly to the air.
“Factually correct, if somewhat oddly slanted,” Quick critiqued, “so clearly you have no need of my input, and I should be going.”
Wolfgang continued as though he hadn’t heard anything. “Back to the city just when the old feud between the city’s two most mysterious factions looks ready to boil over into the streets. I understand that chaos and change go hand in hand. To a certain kind of person, possibilities might suggest themselves.”
“The major possibility that suggests itself in a war between the Lamplighters and the Shroudweavers is the destruction of Tewett, which I devoutly hope does not come to pass, as I live here.”
“There was a young man with you at the Academy, a Roan Killain.” Quick only nodded, unsure where this was going. “He did not complete the term. It was said that he returned home because of the death of his father, but it was also known that his family could no longer afford the tuition. There were whispers of scandal. His father, so the story went, had sought to improve the fortunes of his house by selling a large stockpile of grain when the price was high enough. To hasten that, in the rumor, he hired brigands to attack river vessels that hauled grain towards Tewett. People would become hungry, prices would go up, and the Killains would make a handsome profit on their secret hoard of grain.”
“I heard that rumor,” Quick admitted, “but I didn’t know whether to credit it.”
Wolfgang shrugged. “Who can say? Certainly there was an increase in river banditry last fall, especially towards grain barges, but rumors often weave coincidental events into their conspiracies. Certainly people did start to go hungry, but before the crisis point the banditry ceased and the market was flooded with cheap grain from an unknown source. It was about that time that the elder Killain was found in his study, the victim of a tragic suicide. Apparently–for reasons unknown to the living, as he left no note–he stabbed himself.”
“I hadn’t heard that was how he–“
Quick swallowed, thinking of some of the rumors he’d heard about this man. “That’s terrible, but I don’t see–“
“Just thinking out loud, about what happens when someone tries to arrange something that would be bad for my city but good for himself.” Wolfgang straightened and flashed his teeth in a mirthless grin. “I’ll leave you to your party, young Callan. Good evening.” Without waiting for a response he let himself out and strolled down the hall, door swinging behind him.
What in the three frozen hells was that?