Saturday, June 12, 2021

Making Your Bones: Dragonslayer

Summary: Weird fiction detective action-adventure. In my opinion this is the strongest among the short stories I’ve been posting lately, and it certainly has the most variety: tragedy, actual detective work, something like erotic romance, steelmanned sociopolitical debate between characters whose positions don’t map 1-for-1 onto my own, the experience of the abyssal, psychological reintegration and battle. The last two stories were “played out” as if I was running an RPG for myself. This one is written in a more traditional way: a blend of storyboarding, personal revelations as I wrote it, and feedback from friends.

It’s a continuation of a previous tale, but you can read it standalone if you know the following facts:

It’s about a mercenary detective.
It’s set in a city of towers and skybridges.
It has an interwar tech level.
There’s an international aviation summit which the main character is attempting to protect.

Morning broke across the atriums of Diadem. The mercenary detective Jon Dart was sitting in the corner of a diner. One window faced the blooming prairie and the dawning sun, and the other opened onto a little lane that was empty except for a young couple sitting together against the wall with their arms around each other. They were bathed in the morning light, and no doubt in the buttery waft of the diner too.

A young waitress brought Jon a cherrywood serving board with his breakfast. She wore a neat shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a striped apron in a multitude of colors. She gave him a silent smile. There was more allure and suggestion in this than in any conversation. She said nothing but her quiet courtesy spoke to Jon of potential. He smiled and watched her go before turning his eyes to the steam wisping past his face.

There was challah French toast still flecked with egg served with porcelain cups of earthy maple syrup, butter that was the thickness of custard and lingonberry jam, a little tray of pork belly bacon fried in duck fat, and a sterling silver coffee carafe with a tiny decanter of fresh cream.

Jon got after it with relief. His mind had been burdened that last night, and what sleep he’d gotten had been on the concrete floor of a Diadem Gendarmes solitary confinement cell.

A great many things had weighed on him as he walked to the restaurant. First came the murder of the receptionist at the lodging house where Daniel Stanton, the rogue Starling & Shrike agent who had Jon killed the day before, had been lodging. This was a cover-up, and to Jon it heralded the presence of absolute evil in Diadem. He knew this was the first place he’d go after refreshing himself in the diner. He was no use to anyone living or dead if he was half-crazed with hunger and fatigue.

The second thing which had been on his mind was the silicasilk scarf given to him by George Baysinger, the venerable Starling & Shrike Contracting Officer which their home city and mutual employer had posted in Diadem. Jon called for a steak knife from a passing busboy and glanced around the diner. Jon was no strange sight here, and nobody was paying him any mind. He put the knife on the table by its base and balanced it upright with his scarf, pressing the tip into the shimmering metallic fabric. The knife poked into the scarf but Jon saw no metal cutting through the threads. He pushed harder and the knife shot off the table with a slam, bouncing against the chair of the man across the aisle from him with a thwap. Jon’s heart skipped a beat.

“Holy shit! Watch it, jerkoff!” the man snarled, eyes wide and livid.

“Sorry! I’ll stop fucking around,” Jon said, alarmed. He reached down and picked up the steak knife where it was spinning by the heel of his Oxford shoe. The tip of the knife was bent like a hitchhiker’s thumb.

The man was glowering at Jon from the corner of his eye. Jon had a heightened sense of self-consciousness as the other patrons glanced at him, but he wasn’t nearly as sheepish as he would have been a couple days ago. Something about the gunfight had put things in perspective in a way that seemed to be permanent. Jon knew he needed to avoid doing things like he’d just done, but he couldn’t feel like it was that big of a deal, all things considered.

The final thing which had been occupying his mind was Dan Stanton, the boy he’d killed the day before. Jon was making his peace with this. The world had been dead to Daniel. He’d cut himself off from mankind and seemed to be on a path to violence. Jon’s regret remained that he'd never met Daniel before the day he died. Jon knew something about their upbringing; it had been an impossibly long affair of rigor and conformity. A fourteen year apprenticeship instead of a childhood and adolescence. There had been comfort, there had even been travel and love for some students, but Daniel had experienced none of these bracing things. Perhaps Jon could have brought Daniel towards them.

Jon knew what he had to do in lieu of this. He’d sworn an oath to himself while he stood by the Shrine of Saint Nina that he would murder no rogue agents the way his benefactor, the Council Inspector Joshua Currant, had asked him to do. Jon would bring them back to Starling & Shrike to be questioned. To be examined. So they could be learned from.

This was settled. The darkening mystery that consumed Jon’s thoughts was the murdered receptionist and everything that her death could imply. Jon paid, wiped his mouth with a soft, ample napkin, stood up quietly, and made for the door.

Jon approached a sandstone brick wall surrounding the lodging house where Daniel Stanton had been staying. It was engraved all across its surface with architectural diagrams that seemed to alternate and flow together like an extended bolt of harlequin cloth patterned in hexgrid and crisscross.

The boarding house was built into a foundation of this tower’s outer wall which ran up into the story above like a monumental stela. Jon circled around in the shade of the wall until he saw a pair of blue-suited gendarmerie cuirassiers with bolt-action rifles idling by an archway. He felt a sense of foreboding at their vividly pale faces. One of them glanced at Jon, paunchy beneath the eyes. Jon spoke first, hoping to put the men at ease.

“Jon Dart, Starling & Shrike.”

“Hey. Been expecting you. You eat breakfast?” one of the gendarmes rasped as they shook hands.

“Yeah,” said Jon.

“Too bad. Go head,” said the gendarme.

Jon glanced through the archway. The building was a presidio-style longhouse with a low front deck covered by a cloister. There were a few wooden rocking chairs on the deck, which faced the tower’s terminus so as to bathe it in the sunrise and sunset.

The wooden front door was slightly ajar, and it gave Jon a tremendous sense of foreboding. Space seemed to stretch as he looked at it, and visions of hidden hammermen and walls painted with blood and bone began to possess him. He recalled the slaughterhouse that Daniel Stanton had made of the room where he’d fallen and died after Jon had mortally wounded him. Jon shook his head.

The gendarmes were looking at him, but they were neither prodding nor condemning his hesitation.

Jon had to know what was beyond the door in the room where the woman had died. If it was hammermen, so be it. Jon decided that he would find vent in that. He began walking towards the door. Everything seemed like a vision in a dream.

He reached the deck and traversed it silently. He reached beneath the back of his coat and laid a hand on his .45 semiautomatic pistol. He put his back to the door and peered through the crack. There was no blood.

Jon moved the door an iota with his heel. No creak. He opened it smoothly and silently from where he stood against the wall, glancing in once it was all the way open. Nothing but a reception area and a dark hallway with doors on either side. He entered.

There was a counter with a brass lamp and a white mug filled with fountain pens. Across the room from the counter there were a pair of plump armchairs covered in off-white fabric. Jon made his way to a little swinging door which led behind the counter, but he paused, and then just stuck his head over the top of the counter like he was popping up during a gunfight. There was the woman’s corpse. He set his hands on the countertops and looked down at her with mounting horror and grief.

It was worse than Jon had imagined. He had pictured a totally shattered head like a broken eggshell. Blood, brains, not much face left. It was nothing like that.

Whoever had walloped her had continued long past cracking visible indentations into her skull, where hair had been beaten into little tracts of visible brain between broken-in triangular concaves of bone. The thing that really transfixed Jon was that her face had come unmoored from its proper place after the destruction of her scalp and the blows which had been rained directly onto her face. It seemed to be twisted slightly around the side of her head like a limp mask, distorted and twisting up on itself, hanging a little away from the paint-red gore of her skull laying skinless.

Jon tore his eyes away, leaned his head between his arms and gazed at the floor, eyes wide, trying to cleanse his mind with the normality of the carpet, which was green with a golden diamond pattern across it. He stood up straight suddenly like a fish coming out of the water, gazing at the ceiling as he turned towards the door.

He walked away from the countertop but the scene seemed to grow in horror and numinous antimagnetism as he walked away from it. Like he could never go back and see it again if he kept walking. Like the corpse would turn into a source of evil, that the murder scene would become a cipher that Jon could never face. A thing that was too powerful for him to match. Jon stopped in his tracks, wavering slightly.

He thought to himself,

The Saints of our history must have had to face this kind of thing all the time. I never really realized what that meant.

Jon turned and faced the counter. There was an evil radiance that seemed to be pushing him towards the door, and he felt slightly sick, but he walked towards the little turnstile and went around the counter. The woman was laid at his feet in a manner that felt perverse to him. He looked at the flesh-wrapped skull again and felt the same twinge he’d felt at seeing Dan Stanton’s butchered corpse. This time it was colored more by existential dread and darkness than by physical upset.

He felt horror and hatred at the thought of a human being doing this. What kind of monstrous… demonic ape would a person have to become before they could take a hammer and do this to an innocent woman? For a moment Jon thought, Maybe Daniel was right. Maybe I’m sheltered and we are just demons waiting for a chance to break free and commit the worst crime we can conceive of. If this was within human capacity, maybe it’s inside of every human’s capacity.

Jon shook his head. No. Think of counterexamples. George Baysinger would never do anything like this. He would want me to think deeper about the context. Think about all the places people end up in life, the different things that a life path might enable you to do. Might compel you to do.

Jon shook his head. Nothing had compelled this, and Jon wasn’t even that sure anything had ‘allowed’ the killer his indulgence, either, except for his total alienation from the human race. If all that is given you turns sour in your mouth, and you will not seek your own path to meaning, why not experience the predatory thrill of the most brutal murder possible? It wasn’t like Jon had felt no satisfaction at killing Daniel Stanton.

Jon understood that this crime had some kind of sick attractiveness; the call of ultimate freedom, the freedom to rob, rape and murder. Crocodile freedom. That was the source of the feeling of ineffable evil that Jon had encountered when beholding the corpse for the first time; whoever had done this had enjoyed it. It wasn’t a wild animal or a stark raving lunatic who had bludgeoned this woman. It was a man who’d fallen far away from his faculties of conscience, who’d twisted them into evil, or had never given ear to them in the first place.

Jon took a knee next to the body.

He thought, There aren’t many people like that. Now, there are plenty of people who will kill in war. There are people who will kill thieves. There are people who kill over insults. There are people who kill policemen. But almost none of them would do this.

Even Joshua Currant would not have done this. Under any circumstances. That thought gave Jon comfort.

His thoughts had run to the perpetrator. Of breaking him on the wheel. Flaying him alive. Boiling him to death. There was no punishment great enough.

But now he was overcome with compassion for the woman as he gazed down at her body.

Your trial is over. Perhaps forgotten. The score is wiped clean, sweet one. You cannot be hurt anymore. God willing you’ve lived with love and discovered what you hoped to discover in this world. God willing you’ve walked in the sun with your friends and family. God willing you lived with peace and left just a little undone. It’s alright now. Rest in peace.

Jon besought the powers that be with these last three words. He bent his head with tears in his eyes.

Gods and Saints, Ancestors All, I pray to you from this woman’s side. I beseech you, give her peace and absolution, balm the wounds in her soul so she can look back and smile at the time when she walked in the House of Light with her friends and family. Prepare a place, let them meet again when the turmoil of this life has become like the rain outside your home. And give her a halo for her head.

Gods, Saints, Ancestors All, give me strength and guide me, if you will, while I become her arbiter, executor and, if need be, executioner on this earth. It is mine to take up her cause. I will carry it out. I swear it.

Jon opened his eyes and looked upon her with deep compassion for a moment. Then he stood up and gazed towards the door. He blinked his eyes dry and sniffed back a little moisture.

Well. Time to begin.

Jon turned to the reception counter and spun his way through the rolodex which held guest records. No mention of Daniel Stanton or his pseudonym, Jonas Pinkerton. Somebody might have lifted the relevant card. Jon went through it and found what room there was no recent mention of, given that the Aviation Summit would have this place packed to the gills. Room 3.

Jon went to the door which had a brass 3 riveted into the knocker. Jon tried it and it was locked. He knelt and drew his white flame lighter and magnifying glass, holding them up and looking into the lock. There was a lockpick pattern in the dust. Well, that was that.

He stood, put away his tools and took a step back. He hadn’t brought any picks, so it was a choice between breaking the door and breaking the window. He chose the door.

Jon leapt forward and kicked with full force just to the left of the handle. He’d learned that just because a kick felt laborious to unload didn’t mean it was weak. The cheap wood door blasted inwards, the lock ripped and dangling from the wood around it, the door waving with reverberations as it swung inwards.

The room was totally strewn with clothes and greasy newspapers from fry shops. You couldn’t walk anywhere except the bed without stepping on something. Jon’s sense of unease deepened.

Had someone ransacked this place? No, there were walkways between the clothes and trash. This was just how Daniel had been living. Jon gave a grim little smile at the thought of a Starling & Shrike residence prefect seeing this place.

He thought, Time to find out where our murderer went first.

Jon knelt by the door and drew a level. He laid it here and there around the entryway carpet until it registered a slight unevenness. Jon ran it around the presumed edges of the footprint until he’d determined its outline and facing.

That’s about six hours, Jon thought. He laid his ear to the carpet behind the footprint. He could just about make it out, and the next one. He repeated this process until he had reached the sea of clothes. Extrapolating the distance between strides, he spotted divots in the clothes that were probably footprints. They led to a low dresser next to the grandfather clock which sat in the corner. The killer had gone straight there. Simple enough.

Jon gritted his teeth. It was time for something he hated doing due to the painstaking process involved: dusting for prints.

He took out his chalk and brush and began gently coating the handles, blowing it away like an archaeologist as he finished. The first set revealed a number of half-pressed prints and palm patterns. That wouldn’t be much to go on, he wouldn’t have given it a high rating on his homework, but it was a start.

He blew the chalk off of the second set of handles and stopped dead. They looked like some kind of lizard had rubbed itself all over them. Jon took his magnifying glass and gave it a deep inspection. Calfskin gloves. Jon smiled. Bingo. He dusted the other handles for good measure, but they had prints resembling the top handles.

Stanton didn’t have gloves when the gendarmes searched him. Jon rifled the room for a pair. Nothing. Wasn’t the type to buy calfskin anyways.

This cocksucker knew just where to look. He must have been in cahoots with Stanton. They’d made a stiff-plan.

Jon opened the drawers. A customs book tied shut with twine, and travel stubs for Periapt, Passwall, Mandrake and Miscellania. Crusty socks, castor oil and pornographic photographs. A paper-covered box of .45 cartridges, which Jon pocketed.

But the glove-marked drawer was empty. The dust inside had been swept around. This one had been looted.

Alright then, Jon thought. It’s a conspiracy. He swept his way through the room for awhile, lifting up the ill-favored and miasma-prone clothing piece by piece, feeling all over the mattress for stitch-seams and tapping the pipes in the bathroom for caches. Nothing of the sort.

A Forensic-Criminological Detective would have had a few more tricks up his sleeve, but Jon was an Undercover Detective. HUMINT gatherer. So it was time to shake a different kind of tree.

He’d find that girl, Sarah Seravies, and she’d tell him just who Daniel’s associates were. If he’d opened up to anybody, it would have been her.

Jon went out of the room and gazed at the countertop. He didn’t look over the top of it this time; he didn’t feel the need to anymore. He no longer feared it the way he had.

Jon thought, The cocksucker must have murdered the receptionist on the way out. Must have thought she was suspicious about his visit.

Jon spat on the rug. Or maybe he thought he could justify killing her to his buddies, so he decided to get it while the getting was good.

He walked out of the house and passed between the gendarmes.

“The city can clean up in there. I’ve gotten what I can.”

“Any leads?”

“Everything points to a conspiracy but I can’t-”

Jon noticed somebody on a staircase that spiraled like a lemon peel in a cocktail. A man in black with a broad-brimmed black hat just barely visible over the staircase’s stone banister. There was a double flashing- the man had binoculars.

Jon put his hands in his pockets and said as casually as possible to gendarmes,

“Don’t look around. There’s a picket on the stairwell. We aren’t going to be able to catch him or cut him off so we want to act like we haven’t seen him. That’ll make him and any friends he’s got easier to deal with in the future.’

The gendarmes tightened their grips on their guns and grew very excited. One of them leaned in, saying,

“Let’s nail him. We’ve got our 30.06s.”

“No, don’t try. If you raise that, he’s gone. Just tell your boys on the force, if someone’s carrying binoculars far away from where they could see the airshow, that’s cause for a little extra curiosity. I’m gonna make a full report to the city government tonight so if I find anything else out, you’ll know about it soon.”

“Ok,” said one of the gendarmes. He clearly comprehended the situation but was very divided inside. He wanted to do something about the murdered woman just as badly as Jon did.

Jon nodded, clasped the gendarme on the shoulder and made his way back the way he’d came.

Jon arrived at the workshop where he’d met his first Syndicalist in the early afternoon. The streets had felt fraught with menace all along the way. Everyone who paid him a glance aroused suspicion in Jon’s heart. This was an exhausting way to live. The lightness and gaiety of the city had disappeared. The prosperous revelers celebrating the airshow seemed like targets; incautious, unsuspecting, unprepared.

Jon looked around the humming, clanging workshop. An enormous boiler had been separated from its control components and was hanging in space like this was the nerve center of an esoteric machine. Jon saw a man wearing a familiar beat-up welding mask. That was the Syndicalist who Jon had spoken to once or twice, and was as good a lead as any. Jon took a seat on a toolbox that looked pretty disused and waited for the man to take a smoke break.

It didn’t take long. The man took a few wobbling steps back from the steam control apparatus he was breaking down, raised his visor, swept the sweat from his face and walked to a tall, drafty corridor leading to a statue garden whose follies had become working-class residences. He put his back to the wall but didn’t lean, and lit up a cigarette. Jon approached him.

“Hey skip, good to see ya,” said Jon.

“Hey buck, what’s got you coming round?” asked the whiskered welder, giving Jon a meaty handshake.

Jon paused for a moment, then said,

“Something’s going on and I don’t like it. That kid, Dan Stanton, got shot by a Starling last night. He’s dead.”

“Son of a bitch!” the man exclaimed, “That little dingus? I can’t believe it! And by one of those damned labor spies! Just goes to show, they’ll cut down anybody if they can get away with it.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about,” said Jon, “that Seravies girl, I figure she’s about the most politically active of any of the Syndicalists here. Trained in Leagues. She was also Stanton’s closest associate. My guess is she’s the one that pigeon’s looking for.”

“I follow you,” said the welder, “you wanna warn her. But there’s no meeting til next Friday.”

“Right,” said Jon, “I wanna get this off my chest before then but I don’t know where to find her. I dropped by right now cause you knew about her and Dan before, so maybe you’ve got an idea about where she hangs out.”

“Hmm… only place I’ve seen her outside of meetings is at the Tin Hat. They’ve got all kinds of booths, I’ve seen her reading there with books and papers spread out all over her table like a draughtsman. Anyways, that’s probably your best bet.” The welder gave him a keen look. “You’re not thinking of horning in now that Danny boy’s gone, are you?”

“Nah, she’ll probably be grieving since they were friends. But I feel obliged to tell her. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I could have told her but the Starling got to her first.”

“You’re all right kid. Old fashioned. Well, I hope you find her and I hope that goddamn pigeon who shot Dan Stanton gets hit by an airplane.”

“I’ll drink to that. Catch you later, skip.”


Jon slipped into the bar and glanced around quickly. The Tin Hat had booths alright. There was a bar with a long natural wooden countertop and a few stools, but the place reminded Jon of a bunch of cedar mineshafts with walled booths all along the walls. There were a few guys sitting at the bar but there didn’t seem to be anybody in the booths.

“Wow, cool place,” Jon called to the barmaid, “mind if I look around?”

“Knock yourself out,” said the barmaid with a thumbs-up.

Jon took a stroll around the long, U-shaped corridor of booths and hanging gas lamps but the place was empty except for a tramp sleeping on a bench in the back. Jon came back to the bar and took a seat. It was still too early to write the place off. Jon decided he’d wait til primetime before changing his plan.

He ordered a beer and got talking to the man next to him. He was named Jordan Gillespie, a copper wiring expert who occasionally worked as a porter on mountaineering expeditions. Jon had spent a fair amount of time on the slopes of Starling & Shrike growing up, so they swapped stories of near-misses and hardship on the mountainside. Jon was careful to attribute his stories to a variety of distant locales.

The place gradually began to fill. After about an hour, Jon heard loud female laughter from the door and glanced over. His heart began to pound: it was Sarah Seravies and a portly girlfriend. Sarah was in higher spirits than Jon had seen her and the twosome sashayed over to the bar arm-in-arm.

“Two kelpies, puh-lease, and no vermouth!” Sarah cried to the bartender, “And don’t let anybody send your drinks back tonight, honey! That’s not Syndicalist!”

Gillespie gave Jon a weary-looking glance.

The girls leaned on the bar and began rifling their bags for coins. Jon started doing the equations, too. He needed to have a serious conversation with Seravies about Dan Stanton, but her friend was a complicating factor and she clearly wasn’t in the mood for it anyways.

The situation was moving fast. There weren’t any stools open at the bar; Seravies and her friend would probably depart for a booth soon and that would create very unfavorable energy for Jon just walking up and starting a conversation. Then the two would eventually leave the bar. Jon knew he had to bust a move or lose the advantage.

“Goddamn you two are loud!” Jon called over, “My and my buddy are trying to talk about mountaineering over here and I can’t hear shit he’s saying!”

Sarah’s eyes flashed and she looked at him intently. Her friend gaped like a deer in headlights.

“You can hear him!” Sarah said.

“Well now I can, but I’ve got a feeling you’re about to try butting in on our conversation.”

Sarah’s eyes blazed with curiosity. Not about the conversation.

“Why would I care about something as bourgeoise as mountain climbing?”

“Don’t fuck with me,” Jon said, “I can smell the designer luggage on you two.”

Sarah threw her head back and gave a genuine cackle.

“Well I have to admit I have been mountain climbing,” she said, moving closer to Jon and Gillespie. Gillespie looked between her and Jon with confusion.

“Is that your sherpa?” Jon pointed to Sarah’s friend.

Sarah bent her head over the bar to stifle her laughter.

“I’m her friend!” the girl protested, “Sarah, I think these guys are capitalists.”

“Well how bout it then? You with the Union?”

“Yep! Union of International Strikebreakers out in Mandrake,” said Jon.

“You are too much,” said Sarah, shaking her head in wonder.

“I knew it,” said her friend, pouting slightly, “I can’t believe how exploitative this society is…”

“So what are you two drinking, hmm?” said Sarah challengingly, “Beer? Isn’t that a bit proletariat for the likes of you?”

Jon figured it was time to cool the conversation down just a little bit so that it would have somewhere to go.

He smiled a little. “Hey, you like climbing mountains, I like drinking beer. Guess we both like breaking class barriers.”

“We do have that in common,” said Sarah. A couple seats had opened up, and the girls took them. Sarah looked into her kelpie and stirred it,

“Though I have to admit I wasn’t born into the working class…”

“Another thing in common.” Jon gave a slight smile.

“So what brings you to Diadem?” she asked.

“Oh, you know. The airshow sounded fun. No regrets. Fun town.”

“Is that all you care about?” asked Sarah’s friend, feeling ignored. Jon ignored her.

“And you?” Jon asked.

“Oh, doing some social work, helping out with some organizing.” She got a little bit more serious. “Listen, do you have a problem with the Union? What do you think about Syndicalism?”

“I’m all for unions but I’ve never seen Anarcho-Syndicalism work,” he said carefully.

“Hm. Alright,” said Sarah. She seemed to have made peace with his position. He silently let out a breath.

“Well,” she said, “Here’s to breaking down class barriers.” She raised her glass for Jon to clink and he clinked it. They both took a sip.

“We can start by finding out whose carpet you stole,” said Jon pointing to Sarah’s tartan-fabric messenger bag.

Her eyes went wide. She gazed at him for a moment, then said, “Meet me outside in two minutes.” She got up and went to the bathroom.

Sarah’s friend had taken a pamphlet out of her bag and was hunched over rereading it. Gillespie leaned in to Jon, shaking his head.

“Man. That was something else. What do you think she wants?”

“Maybe she wants to fight,” Jon grinned.

Sarah swept by them and out the door. Jon got up and followed.

She was standing outside with her hands on her hips?

“So what do you want?” Jon smiled.

“I want to make out with you, that’s what,” said Sarah.

“Alright.” Jon took her by the hand and led her into a brick alleyway. He turned her to face him, picked her up by her thighs and pinned her against the wall so that their faces were level.

“Oh! You’re fun!” she said. Jon met her with a kiss and they made out against the wall, maintaining the playful aggression of their conversation, turning it into passion.

After awhile, Jon set her down with a smile. “We’d better get back in there. Your friend’ll get lost without you.”

“Oh, she can take care of herself,” said Sarah, but Jon took her hand and led her back into the bar. That loose end had to be tied up before they could get down to business.

Jon took a seat with Gillespie at his right and Sarah sat to Jon’s left and started whispering to her friend.

Gillespie gave Jon a meaningful glance. Jon just winked. He knew Gillespie would smell Sarah on him.

Sarah put a hand on Jon’s forearm and leaned in to his ear.

“Just give me a little time to put my friend to bed and we can meet up.”

Jon nodded. “Meet me at the Skyfountain in an hour and fifteen minutes.”

“Done,” said Sarah. She leaned back and continued to talk to her friend. Eventually they got up and left.

“Well shit,” said Gillespie, “Well played.”

“I’ve had training in the occult,” said Jon, giving Gillespie a clap on the shoulder, “Good looking out, brother. Gotta go powder my nose.”

Jon went to the Virago, which was the finest hotel within walking distance of the Skyfountain, and booked a room with a view. The foyer was like a black marble bank vault. Jon looked past it into an underlit bar with a freestanding white marble counter where a tattooed woman (an extreme novelty) was mixing drinks with spectacular deftness. It served as a lounge and there were black velvet-covered couches here and there. Jon thought, That would make a great place for a conversation depending on how she feels.

He took a lift to his floor, walking down the dark, silent corridor to the vast oak door of his room. He opened it and was met with windows that looked into the blood orange sunset. It had a vast bed with fluffed goosedown sheets, a big mahogany desk, a long painting of Ascension by an actual artist, and there was a freestanding bath that looked like it could seat four. Jon mused than in another world he could have got Sarah and… a different friend back here together.

Jon washed his face and then stood looking out the window for a long time. He could see the farmers bringing bales of wheat into little granary castles in the fields below. He checked his watch.

Time to get in position.

John moseyed up to the fountain after an hour and twenty minutes. Sarah was sitting at the edge of the fountain as white water cascaded behind her.

“Finally! There you are! I was starting to think you might have changed your mind on me.”

“No no,” said Jon, “We’re of the same mind. Come on, let’s go get a drink.”

He took her hand and led her towards the Virago.

“So what do you do?” she asked.

“I’m a New Projects researcher at Ascension Aeromarine,” said Jon, “so you’re actually in my heaven right now.”

She winced. “Do you have any family here?”

“Nah, they’re all over,” Jon said, “I was mostly raised in boarding schools, one of those kids.”

Sarah looked up at him with surprise.

“You’re kidding. So was I.”

Jon smiled. “Sorry I can’t tell you stories about having a family, then.”

“Ha, well I’d rather not hear about that. I think you find your family wherever you go.”

“Guess I’m in agreement… it’s good to have people who understand that about your life.”

“Yeah. It is,” Sarah smiled, then she said,

“Oooh, you’re staying at the Virago?” She looked up at the tower of light and shadow.

“Yup,” said Jon.

They walked into the hotel and the receptionist gave Jon a polite wave. She knew the score. Jon, holding Sarah’s hand, drifted gently towards the bar, but she pulled him towards the lift with certainty.

Alrighty then.

Jon winked at the lift attendant, then slipped him a silver once they reached the thirtieth floor.

They walked down the hallway in sultry silence. Jon opened the door and let Sarah into the hotel room.

“Oh, wow, my God, the view,” she said, setting her bag down by the door and kicking off her shoes. Jon hung up his coat.

“Need to use the pottie?” he asked

She shook her head.


He picked her up the way he had before but this time holding her high enough that he was kissing her with her face above his. She clasped the back of his neck and ran her hands over his ears and through his hair. He squeezed her around her thighs and bottom more liberally now. She ran her hands across his neck and shoulders and drew her fingertips across the breadth of his back. He pulled his lips free of hers and bit as much of the skin of her neck as he could, holding her. She moaned and he felt her shudder in his arms.

“Fuck me,” she breathed.

“All in good time,” he murmured.

He set her down and pulled her dress off her in one swoop. Her eyes went wide. If she had been wearing any underwear at the bar, it was gone now. She was totally naked. He tossed her dress onto the bed and bundled her up into the air again, kissing her lips and neck, biting her breasts. She ran her nails across his back and gasped, her head hanging back, eyes half open, gazing at the last light of sunset.

Jon swept her to the floor with a single motion, undid his belt and made love to her right there on the carpet.

They lay in bed.

“…so I’ve never read Karendin but Star Index is on my list.”

“Yeah, me too… Sarah, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about, and I oughta stop putting it off. I realized that I’ve actually seen you once before, out and about with Dan Stanton. I knew Dan a little bit, and... I thought that maybe you hadn’t heard. That I should be the one to tell you. Dan Stanton was shot to death last night.”

“Oh? Too bad, he was kind of nice,” she said, twirling a lock absentmindedly, then shrugged. “Oh well, he was basically a piggie, anyways.”

Jon looked at her with a flash of anger.

“You’ve been talking to me like you were a human being since the fountain, what gives now? You act like you have sympathy for the whole global working class but then a guy who you actually know and who adores you gets shot to death and you call him a piggie.”

She was taken aback and seemed to wake up somehow.

“I’m sorry… I said that because of how I was raised. Because of how Dan and I were raised. We sort of came from similar backgrounds, that’s why I called him that.”

Jon’s heart began to beat rapidly.

“How well did you know Daniel?” she asked

“I knew his character,” said Jon.

“Well, that’s what it was,” she said, “we had similar upbringings, but I went one way, he went the other. I started to think about the people who didn’t have our educations, who didn’t have our advantages, and he…” she shook her head, “He was nice to me, but I know how he talks when I’m not around. I want to help people and cut the powerful down to size, but he…” she trailed off, then said, “I don’t think he ever cared about anyone.”

“And what about you?” Jon asked, his voice becoming gentler, “You told me it was because of how you were raised, that you called him that. What do you mean?”

“Oh, that’s a big one,” she said with a pause, “I was raised to worship money, really, and be all nationalistic. Not to worry about people who were suffering if I couldn’t profit from them. Isn’t that horrible? So when I grew up and became more independent, I started to travel around and I saw what the world’s really like. It broke my heart. The poverty. The ignorance. All the sick monarchies and aristocracies just grinding people into dust. It broke my heart. And I was supposed to go out and... participate in all that. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t.” Her face and voice got firmer.

“Then I found Anarcho-Syndicalism. A movement by the people, for the people, to make sure nobody ever starves or goes illiterate again. So I went to the City of Leagues and they taught me how to organize people. We have a vision of a better world, without hunger, without war, where men and women are equal, as radical as that may sound.”

John didn’t want to go down this rabbit hole, but if she had been raised a Starling & Shrike agent as he suspected, then he had to make a good faith argument to win her back. The City of Leagues was a blacklisted client because it funded Anarcho-Syndicalist movements in many city-states. A lot of these movements were intent on overthrowing their governments. Joining their project was prosecutable in Starling & Shrike. This made her a rogue agent. Another rogue agent. Two in two days. What the hell was going on?

Jon did not want to hurt her. He had to reach her.

“I understand. It’s terrible to see people suffering when there’s no need for it. There’s nothing worse. But you said you had a great education before you even went to Leagues. Why not use your own specialty to find new ways to help people?”

“Well, I do, in a way, but a single person can only do so much. I’m pretty small. I might be able to help people out here or there, but it takes a movement to undo the structures of oppression that keep people locked up in chains. Anything I could do alone would just be a bandage. It wouldn’t do anything about the cause of the problem.”

“Well, the system... ever since global trade really took off two hundred years ago, it’s brought the world off its knees. I’m no friend of feudalism, but remember that there’s been a lot of good done for the working class by free trade. It’s not all exploitation.”

“But there’s still a lot of exploitation, Jon. Maybe life’s better for some people than it used to be, but we don’t have to let people suffer like they do now if we could change the system. The unions would trade, too; that’s the point of having different unions for different types of labor.”

“I know, but don’t you think that given the progress we’re making right now it might not be better to just stay the course? People suffer in this world, and believe me, I’m in favor of a regime change in a lot of city-states, but I think most people would rather try to keep on in the direction that we’re going than turn everything upside down. Plenty of working people even feel that way.”

“People get attached to things that are used to control them. Religions, city-state identity, feudal overlords, I don’t really think they can help it. It deadens them to the pain they’d need to feel to wake up, and that’s a form of security. But that’s no reason we shouldn’t aim for the best world possible. Once we get union rule up and running in a few places, people will have something to refer to. They’ll see how good it is to be part of a real community of their peers.”

“But wouldn’t union rule generally require overthrowing governments by force? That would ruin a lot of working people’s lives. It’s not easy to set up an economy, let alone a whole new one in the midst of chaos.”

“Name one government that’s been overthrown by Anarcho-Syndicalists.”

“Well, there haven’t been any yet, but it’s not like nobody in the movement claims to want to do that. What I’m trying to point out is that An-Syn is most likely going to be subject to the same pathologies as almost any government, almost any human endeavor. It doesn’t change human nature, which you surely have an idea about given that you were highly educated. Look at Parousia. They had that purge where dozens of union people got killed by other unioners. That kind of thing can happen under any government unless people are incentivized not to do it. The profit motive can do that. It makes people worth more to each other alive than dead.”

“A slave’s worth more alive than dead to a capitalist. That doesn’t mean that way of life is worth anything to the slave. And Parousia was an anomaly. That happened after they were infiltrated by labor spies. They were the ones agitating and creating disunity, and they were probably the ones who pulled the triggers. Anyways, the ringleaders willingly went to Leagues for an investigation, and that’ll make sure that won’t happen again.”

“But what if it wasn’t infiltrated? Why take the risk of associating yourself with that kind of horror? You can never be sure if a new policy is going to help people or end up running roughshod on them, but you can be sure that if you set out to help someone in particular, you’ll be able to do it.”

“So what? Just like, poke around, give people a hand here and there? Bring a few people water while the multitudes suffer in the drought?”

“At least you can be sure you’re helping someone! Sarah, you might end up frittering your whole life away with Syndicalism and then what? What if it goes out of fashion? You’ve lost your chance to make a difference! The suffering continues!”

“If I spend my time on a few people, the suffering of unfree across the globe will continue. If I dedicate myself to a total reform of city-state society, maybe it won’t work, but at least there’s a chance to bring all people out of poverty, oppression and aloneness in my lifetime. So that’s what I have to do.”

She could parry. Jon had to try a different tack

“Sarah, all I want to do is help people. Don’t get me wrong, I want to find the good things in life and experience them fully, but I think the best thing I can do in the long run is to improve the lot of the whole human race. But I have to know. I have to be sure it’s working. The only way that I know how to do that is to start with the individual. Maybe I’ve got ideas about what everybody needs. About how we could run our governments and societies differently. But all I can be sure of is that when I look into a tear stained face or a funeral, I’m the one who can set things right if I try. I can help those people. So that’s what I do. Maybe the unions are the solution, I don’t know. But I know that I have a solution, and I know it helps. There’s no theory. I can make sure.”

“I know Jon,” she said, her voice softening, and her eyes tearing up just a little. “But what is there without hope for the world? What is there when you look out and all you can see is how every person who’s living and is going to be born is going to suffer? It’s too much… it’s too much. I need hope or I can’t go on.”

“I honor your sympathy and your perspective,” said Jon. “You and I want the same thing for people, we’ve just chosen different paths to the same destination. That’s what separates us from Dan Stanton and people like him. We’ve never given up.”

“That’s what I want. To never give up hope. Never to give up that spark. Because without it… there’s nothing but darkness.”

Jon thought, It’s time I laid my cards on the table. If she’s some kind of associate of Daniel Stanton outside of Syndicalism, which I suspect she is given that they’re both Starling & Shrike agents, she’s not gonna divulge information about their mutual associates without a lot of trust. So we’re gonna get on the ultimate common ground here.

Dan put his arm over her and pulled her back into his chest under the sheets.

“I don’t wanna block your path, Sarah. I don’t plan to. I think what you’re doing is fine; it’s not my way, but at least you’re moving towards the good. I’m not gonna try to stop you, I’m not gonna hinder you unless I think something terrible’s gonna happen. I’m not gonna inform on you. So don’t be scared by what I’m about to tell you. You can trust me.”

He felt her body tense up, but she didn’t push away.

“You killed him,” she said quietly.

“Yeah. But I’m not gonna hurt you.”

She rolled over under his arm and looked straight into his eyes with urgency.

“I’m not with him, Jon. The Union’s not with them.”

“Not with who? Sarah, this is what I’ve been wanting to ask you. Was Daniel involved with anybody else? Anybody with ideas which are more like his than yours?

She closed her eyes and clasped the skin of his sides tight with her fingers.

“Jon, there’s nothing simple about this.”

“Do you believe that I don’t wanna interfere with your cause?”

“Yes. Yes, I do. I can sense that. But this, I wasn’t expecting. It changes…” she shook her head, “so much.”

“I understand,” said Jon, “Take your time. I’m not in a rush, but it’s like what I told you. If there’s anyone like Dan in town, they might be planning to hurt someone. Neither of us wants that. I don’t know what the situation is, but maybe I could do something that you couldn’t under the circumstances.”

She closed her eyes and was silent for a time. She pressed her head against his chest. He nuzzled her hair with his nose.

“I need to think. Spend the night with me?”

“Of course,” he said, “we’ll talk about it whenever we’re ready.”

Jon awoke alone. He glanced around in the morning brightness and sprang up out of the sheets. He darted to the bathroom and looked inside. Empty. Shit.

He glanced over to the mahogany desk by the window. Yep. There it was. There was the note.

“I think you’re a good man, Jon, even though I think you’re part of an evil business. But I too have made a pact with a dark power. That’s why I’m writing this to you.

There are multiple conspiracies here in Diadem. Dan and I are part of different groups, but we have been working under the same handler because of our backgrounds. Daniel and I were both raised to do what you do.

This man we’ve been working with is a spymaster of some kind. He wears a black shawl and we only meet at night in a different place every time. He gives us resources and helps us plan the things that we wanted to do anyways. But I don’t want what Daniel wanted- what Daniel and his group wanted.

Let me make a prediction Jon. Let me be your oracle. I don’t know who Dan’s group are but I have an idea of what they’re going to do. It’s going to happen today at the Navel of the Mount tower. They were going to meet there and Daniel spoke of it like he might not be able to see me afterwards, and I could tell that it was eating him up. I think it’s going to be violent. There’s an airbase there. I don’t care if they interfere with that, but the rest of that tower is filled with innocent people and they might get caught in the crossfire.

Maybe you can do something with that, Jon. I don’t know.

I’m leaving Diadem. Don’t follow me. Don’t go after my people. Don’t go after the Syndicalists. Leave Starling & Shrike. It’s a source of great suffering and fear for the people of the world.

If the man in the black shawl finds this note, I will die.

Thanks for the memories.


Jon set down the note and looked out the window, seeing nothing.

Several different conspiracies. Each associated with a rogue Starling & Shrike agent. Each agent working for the same shadowy figure.

And a plot that was reaching fruition today at the Navel of the Mount tower.

“Thank you, Sarah,” he said to himself. He donned his coat, tore the note into shreds and placed them in his breast pocket. He’d burn them later. First things first, he had to get the gendarmes set up to give special attention to the Navel of the Mount tower.

He took the lift down, walked past the receptionist who gave him a demure smile, and walked out into the refreshing breeze of the streets. He looked up and around to the nearby apartments built into the great foundational columns of Diadem like mail slots and saw a glint in the morning light. Set deep into the darkness of an apartment on top of a bed stacked up on a table was a sniper.

Jon lurched backwards, falling on his rear end and spraining his wrist. There was a distant bang and a bullet skipped off the cobblestones behind him, flying through the front doors of the Virago, knocking a hole in an expensive black marble wall inside.

People glanced at Jon.

“Shooter! Shooter!” he yelled, pointing at the window as he scrambled into the foyer, slamming hard into the wall, nearly knocking over a potted fern with his knees.

People began to yell and clear out of the square.

Jon looked out and saw a gendarme rushing towards the Virago with a 30.06 rifle. People were pointing up to the window Jon had indicated. The gendarme turned towards it and began to stalk sideways with his rifle at the low ready, gazing up intently at the apartments.

“Get out of the open! Get out of the open!” Jon yelled at the man. There was a bang and the gendarme fell onto his rear with his hands spread behind him, his rifle clattering to his side on the cobblestones.

“Fuck,” Jon breathed. 99-to-1 a full metal jacket rifle bullet had just pierced the steel cuirass that the gendarme wore over his blue fatigues.

There was a second bang.

The gendarme’s head blew apart vertically; bits of bone and brain blasted in every direction and he fell back with what brains remained in his head steaming in the morning air. His skull was totally shattered and his head splattered in two different directions like an unzipped fly as he fell back on the cobblestones. His eyes had been displaced and Jon could see them laying in the mess.

Jon pressed his back into the wall and bit his knuckle, glaring at the stony ceiling.

More gendarmes would show up and more would die.

I have to show this guy I’m a lost cause.

Jon moved to the doorway, took off his hat and poked the top out just a bit, brim down. There was a bang and a bullet blew the hat out of his hand, sending it spinning through the air in a cloud of little fibers. Jon felt like he’d had his knuckles rapped with a metal ruler.

This guy was a good shot but he was still bound by physics. A powerful bolt-action rifle would take several seconds to rack and get back on target. More, if he was handloading. Jon hesitated to call him a sniper. A sniper wouldn’t have taken that shot.

Jon sprinted into the open.

“One, two…” he counted, then he threw himself flat onto the cobblestones and then immediately leapt to his feet again, continuing at a dead run. A shot rang out and Jon heard it crack through the air behind him like the bullwhip of a demon. All around the square people were cowering behind whatever they could find or watching with great interest from the adjoining streets.

Jon ran past the glass door of a bakery with bay windows. A doughy baker stood between a floury countertop and numerous racks of bread across the wall behind him. He had a thin goatee, ruddy cheeks, and was peering intently through the door as Jon flew in.

“What’s going out there?” he asked worriedly.

“Assassination attempt,” said Jon breathlessly, “Do you have a back door?”

“Yeah, go head,” said the baker, gesturing to a doorway behind the counter.

“Thanks,” Jon said and ran through into a room with thick wooden tables, a gas-fired brick oven and many sacks of flour and yeast. Jon saw a back door and ran through it into one of Diadem’s ubiquitous covered corridors. He wanted to bend over at the knees in relief but he turned right and jogged down the corridor towards where the apartment column would be.

Jon knew the chances of catching the sniper were slim to none. The shooter would know that Jon wasn’t coming back out, so he’d bug out as fast as possible. That was the reason Jon had shown himself. To bring this to a close.

Jon ran until he found the base of the foundation where the shooter’s apartment was, ran up the stairs, found the apartment door unlocked, and searched it.

It was vacant. No residents. The cartridge brass had been cleaned up and taken with the sniper. Jon looked for calfskin on the door handle but found only a smattering of fingerprints.

He didn’t go near the window. The gendarmes might have a bead on it and they’d be hungry for revenge.

Jon left to tell them where the action was going to be.

The Diadem Children’s Hospital in the Navel of the Mount Tower. This was the biggest target besides the Air Force hangar and the coal-fired electrical plant at the bottom of the tower. The gendarmes thought it unlikely that the conspirators would act against the airbase given that the airmen went armed with pistols, and they thought the Children’s Hospital was an unlikely target as it was non-strategic, and so they had concentrated their forces around the coal plant.

Jon didn’t think the Children’s Hospital was an unlikely target at all. He remembered Dan’s words: They’ve had enough time with the things they love. I haven’t had any time like that.

Jon prowled the Children’s Hospital with a troubled mind.

All around him nurses were tending to sick and hurt little children in their beds. Tapestries of better places hung on the walls and the crazy, esoteric architectural blueprints that characterized Diadem’s walls had been left out of this place.

Jon looked down hallways and into surgical wards. Nothing seemed amiss. There were no unexpected guests.

“Are you looking for somebody, sir?” asked a wan little boy who sat upright, swaddled in sheets in a shining steel bed.

Jon looked at him and smiled. “Not anyone in particular. I’m here to make sure that you’re safe. I’m just checking around to make sure that everything’s normal.”

“Is something wrong?”

Jon stood for a moment.

“Yes. There might be something wrong. But I’m here to make sure that you’re as safe as you can be. So are the nurses and doctors.” Jon walked over to the bed and put a hand on the guardrail. “You can help me. Keep your wits about you. Look around and if you see anyone who gives you a bad feeling, just tell somebody right away. Don’t feel like you’re judging them. Just tell someone. If it turns out it’s nothing, no harm, no foul. What’s your name?”

“Charlie Gray.”

“I’m Jon Dart. I’m a… policeman. Put her there, partner.” Jon extended his hand and the boy clasped it as best he could.

There was a tremor in the floor and the lights went out. Immediately, a shocked and worried murmur ran through the nearby rooms and hallways. Jon couldn’t make out his own nose.

“Sir?” the boy whispered?

Jon cast about, grimacing, but couldn’t see any light sources.

“It’s all right, kiddo, I’m here,” he said. He could hear the doctors and nurses comforting children down halls and through doorways.

Jon cast his gaze skywards. What next?

His world was torn apart and turned upside down with an apocalyptic scream that seemed to emerge from the fabric of reality itself. Jon was still holding the guardrail and even though he couldn’t feel the ground he yanked himself forward and threw himself over the boy. Jon’s ears were ringing with a full heaven’s chorus of machine angels; a high constant eeeeee that dominated his whole existence. He began to feel the ground beneath his feet again; his knees shook like he’d been standing for hours. He felt sick to his stomach and the whole left side of his body was numb like he’d been slapped full-force by a giant.

Thick dust began to swirl all around him. It began to infiltrate his breath, mouth and eyes.

Jon could hear yelling and screaming from the nearby wards. Children and adults. The voices quickly receded.

“Charlie,” said Jon thickly. He pressed his palms around the boy’s body in the sheets. The boy was soaked and Jon smelled blood. He felt it, viscous, on his palms and chest.

“Oh no, no, oh God,” he said in disbelief, taking hold of the guardrail slickly and falling to one knee beside the bed.

They’d been bombed. The boy had been cut up by shrapnel. Perhaps that shrapnel would have hit Jon had Charlie not been sitting up in bed.

Why? Why, why, why, a thousand times, why? He looked around into the darkness but he winced as the dust coated his eyes. Who was behind this? These horrific crimes?

He reached up and shook Charlie a little. The boy was limp. Tears were stinging Jon’s eyes and his mouth and nose were filling with liquid.

Fuck, he thought in dismay. How many little lives had just been snuffed out?

He started hacking and spitting as the dust fully engulfed him. He realized that this would be the deadliest weapon of all; very soon he would suffocate.

Jon put his coat over his mouth but he could barely breathe through it. It was no good. Then he raised his silicasilk scarf over his nose and lips. He could breathe through it like he was on a hillside in the still summer air. Thank God, and George Baysinger. The dust wouldn’t be the death of him.

He tore a strip from the bedsheets using his teeth, soaked it with lighter fluid and then set it on fire on the floor. It cast a little light through the oppressive motes of swirling dust, and by squinting Jon could see a mop that was leaned in a corner. He grabbed this and made a torch with another strip of bedsheet, heart in his throat as he worked, trying to breathe steadily through his mouth.

He held the torch over Charlie. The boy was laying under bloodstained sheets with his head turned sideways and his mouth slightly ajar. He was not breathing. Jon seized the side of the hospital bed but fought back the urge to flip it in sick, helpless rage.

What can I do? he asked himself. What can I do?

He became still.

You know what you can do. You can find any other children who might still be alive.

Jon struggled through the hot dust, shouting, “Is anyone there? Anyone there?” He heard a little hacking cough from the next room, like someone was holding their breath but had drawn in dust trying to answer him. Jon rushed in and there was a girl on both knees holding her face. Jon rushed to her and wrapped the free-running end of his silicasilk scarf around her mouth beneath her hands.

“Breathe, baby!” he said. She began to take long, deep breaths through the scarf.

“Hold onto that scarf and keep it to your mouth no matter what. We’ve gotta go find the other boys and girls. Let me know if you can see or hear anyone move.”

He took her thin, dewy wrist and led her from the room, stumbling on rubble and across knocked-over racks and equipment.

Keep a lid on it, he thought. There will be time to break down 100% and roll around screaming once you’re out of here.

He found no living adults. He hoped they hadn’t just fled. Maybe they’d been trained to do the same thing Jon was doing in case of a power outage?

The girl tugged on the scarf. He knelt in front of her.

“It’s ok, speak through the scarf,” he said.

“They might be in a room I know. There are tunnels where boys like to play.”

“Ok. Can you lead me there, baby?” she nodded, and Jon did too, stepping back. The girl moved through the darkness, picking her way step by step. They came to a metal door which was painted white, like the walls, though it was clouded with the same grim dust that plagued the air.

Jon opened the door and there was a whoosh as the dust billowed into the room. This place had been spared the bombing; it had been filling with dust slowly under the door, but now it would quickly be deprived of breathable air. It was a supply room for big, foil air ventilation pipes, and several boys were gazing in fear from the mouths of the pipes.

“Guys! Come out here and breathe through this scarf! There’s been a disaster and we have to get out right now! Come on! Don’t leave behind anyone in the pipes!”

There was a scurrying around inside the pipes and boys began to emerge, rushing towards the scarf. There were a full seven of them.


There wasn’t enough room on the scarf for everyone. In fact, there was only room for six if they stacked up on either side of it. The room was darkening with dust.

Jon picked out the biggest boy.

“Listen,” he said, “I can tell that you’re very brave. That’s why I need you to be up front with me. Try to breathe through your smock. We’re gonna let the others have the scarf.”

“Ok,” he croaked.

“Do you know the way up from of here?”


“Ok. Hold onto my coat and lead me forward. The others are gonna follow me.”


“Alright, go.”

The boy led Jon down a rubble-studded hallway and the children followed them, holding aloft the silicasilk scarf. Jon was choking on the dust through his undershirt and he knew that the lead boy was too. He was losing oxygen and they had to find their way out quickly.

The boy led them to a stairwell which curled back over on itself over and over. They crept up the stairs. Jon’s head was pounding. He wanted to tell the boy to hurry up but he didn’t want to lose anyone from the rear. Finally they reached a landing on the top. There was a thickset metal utility door. Its handle gleamed goldenly in the torchlight. Jon opened it and there was a vortex of dust pouring past them and out into the hallway outside.

“Go,” he rasped and ushered the children past him like he was counting cattle.

There were seven. One less than he’d departed with.

Jon looked back into the soot-black darkness swelling past him like the ashen essence of a plane of death. It was inimical to life. He was unwelcome there. He paused and then plunged back into it, lightheaded, feeling his head tightening around his eyes with the lack of breath. He pounded down the stairs until he found a little form that had fallen flat on the steps; a boy with a cast on his leg. The boy was laying on his chest, and looked up at Jon with half-aware eyes. Jon took him by the collar like a cat and dragged him roughly up over the stairs to the doorway.

Sorry, kid. I’m as weak as you are right now.

Jon dragged the child into the hallway and collapsed. He looked left and there was a darkening corridor leading who-knows-where; to the right he could see sunlight from a doorway in the wall. One of the boys walked out into the open, and then ran back to where Jon was kneeling. He grasped one of the lapels of Jon’s shirt. Jon looked at him with bloodshot eyes and black phlegm dangling from his lips.

“Sir! There’s a man coming with a gun!”

Jon closed his eyes with a wince, spat as much of the phlegm out as he could and drew his .45 semiautomatic. The children gawked at him and fell back against the walls. Jon stumbled to the doorway and took a quick glance around the corner.

It was the airbase’s hangar. There were numerous steel blue biplanes sporting a variety of modern weaponry, as well as fuel tanks and crates for parts and ammo.

A pale, thin young man with lank, greasy locks of black hair was advancing on the hallway. He carried a steel-barreled, wood-furnitured submachine gun with a lacquered black typewriter magazine. He had it trained on the doorway.

“Come out, kiddie kiddie kiddies! Come- Jon Dart!”

The gunman opened fire in a thundering staccato. Bullets cracked into the stone wall behind Jon, crumbling it in lines as they went. The children screamed and retreated into the darkness.

The planes began to take off from the hangar.

“Shoot! Hey, shoot me, pigeon! I wanna die! Kill me already!” the young gunman screamed in an uneven, high-pitched voice, spraying fire as he walked. The bullets cracked through the air like the jungle sounds of strange, supersonic insects, or the tectonic cracking of an earth to the ethereal Gaia inside of it.

Jon waited for a long burst, then bladed his eye and pistol a half-inch out beyond the corner and began shooting the limpid gunman.

The boy’s submachine gun exploded into pieces as Jon fired through it into his body, rippling his shirt. The boy winced deeply and took one step to the side before Jon sent a final .45 hollow-point through his spine, folding him across himself like a Jacob’s ladder. He lay in a heap upon the hangar’s stone floor.

Jon put his hands on the ground with one of them resting on his hot, smoking pistol. He allowed himself several deep breaths like he’d just won a race. This was careless; only afterwards did Jon look up to make sure that the young man wasn’t moving. He was still. Jon thought as much.

“Kids, come back out of the smoke,” he called, “You’re safe now.” He’d only seen the one gunman on foot.

The children emerged haltingly, like goblins peering from a warren.

“You got the bad guy?” asked one of the boys.

“Oh yeah,” said Jon, cocking the boy a smile, “I got him.” Then he turned to the corner again and glanced out into the hangar.

There was only one plane left. Jon recognized it. It was a beautiful steel-blue Ascension Aeromarine Pegasus II with white Diadem Air Force livery bands.

She had the most powerful machine gun that had ever been mounted on an airplane swivel sponson, though no forward guns; she was meant to fly low and dispatch enemy planes coming down on her. She stood between the troops on the ground and the dive bombers. A guardian angel.

Jon glanced around the hangar. He saw numerous airmen and ground crew laying in their lavender Diadem Air Force fatigues near one of the walls. They had been tied up; three of them were pilots and had been shot in their heads. The ground crew still lived. Jon raised his pistol and advanced carefully into the hangar.

“Help, help!” yelled one of the crewmen. Jon moved to the boy he’d shot and pulled his upper body from where it lay atop his legs. The boy’s eyelids fluttered; if he wasn’t technically dead he would be in moments. The boy was dressed in a white shirt, now flecked with blood, and corduroy pants; he’d intended to blend in until the fatal moment, though now he had a pair of spare magazines and a Bowie knife tucked into his waistband. A golden pendant was resting on his chest from a twine loop around his neck. It was a strange ouroboric symbol; it was clearly eating its tail, but it wasn’t a dragon. Jon tugged this malign sigil free and tucked it into his coat pocket.

“Help! We’re gonna lose our hands here!” yelled the crewmen with consternation.

Jon rushed over to the crewmen and found that they had been bound with parachute cord so tightly that their hands were growing purple. Some of them were bleeding from bindings that had been wrenched into place with a foot placed on their body as a fulcrum.

“You!” Jon yelled at one of the boys, “Get that guy’s knife and bring it here right now!”

The boy came out and approached the body carefully, gulped, grabbed the knife and scampered to Jon. Suddenly he noticed something out of the corner of his eye: through the hangar’s takeoff door he saw a blooming of light between two of Diadem’s white towers. He took a step forward and saw one of the bridges bathed in fire.

“Ah- kid, cut these guys free! Right now!” 

“Ok,” the boy said, nodding and turning to the nearest crewman.

“What, are you kidding me?” asked the crewman, “This kid’s gonna cut the hell out of us!”

“Are there any more pilots around here?” Jon asked.

“No…” the crewman said, remembering his own tragedy.

Jon ran over to the edge of the hangar. The blue Diadem Air Force planes were glinting in the sunlight. He saw smoky explosions as they dropped bombs on the bridges. They were firing their machine guns at those beneath, and Jon saw one big, hulking plane fly low and slow over a Diadem Air Force landing strip, burning everything into the tarmac with a flamethrower that was mounted on the rim of the rear seat.

Jon saw people run, but they were caught in the lightning conflagration, their clothes turned into monochrome candlewicks, their hair consumed in flames.

Some of them sprinted with all their might as people leapt out of their way, others walked aimlessly with a curious detachment and seeming lethargy as people surrounded them, some attempting to beat out the flames with their coats. A few of the burning people leapt off the side of the bridge.

Why don’t they roll? Jon screamed inside, welling up with consternation and grief. You’re supposed to roll! Don’t they know that?

Jon couldn’t bear it. He turned away, back towards the ground crew, his face a mask of agony.

He stabbed a finger at the Pegasus II and growled, “Get that thing fueled up and loaded for bear!”

Without waiting for a response he sprinted away into the corridors of Diadem, searching for a stairway.

Jon ran up the stairs into the hangar where he had first arrived in Diadem, his mouth filled with the taste of bloody copper and ash. Slaughtered planes sat around the hangar, shot to pieces by flyby strafings, while every military and civilian plane on the great bridge’s tarmac had been cooked or bombed in the air raid. Civilian mechanics were picking through the wreckages or standing as near the hangar’s grand opening as they dared, gazing at the ruin outside.

Jon spotted Langston Donahue in the middle of the hangar. He was watching the smoke rise with his hands resting on the top of his head, his fingers interlaced in his hair. Jon ran over to him.

“Donahue,” he wheezed.

Langston turned and dropped his arms.

“God, Jon, you get hit by a bomb?”

“Yeah. Come on.” He grabbed Langston’s wrist.

“Wha-where?” said Don as he stumbled after Jon.

“There’s still one plane,” Jon spat, “c’mon!”

“What! What do you want to do!”

Jon wheeled on Donahue with his eyes blazing.

“We’re gonna do something!”

“Fuck! Ok, alright! Yeah, let’s go!” said Don, swept along for the moment.

They arrived at the Navel of the Mount airbase. The ground crew were watching the carnage with the children, rubbing at their sore wrists.

One of them turned to Jon as he entered.

“Look, she was already green on everything. I did a systems check, all-ok. I don’t know what you think you’re gonna do, though.”

“Jon, wait, he’s right,” said Don, “If we go out there against twelve of em we’re gonna get slaughtered. I can fly but I’m no fighter pilot.”

Jon dashed to the hangar door and looked up keenly.

“They’re done,” he says, “They’re gone. We aren’t gonna fight em, we’re gonna fucking find out where they’re going.”

“Shit, said Donahue, “Ok, that makes more sense. But what if they see us?”

“I’m a Starling & Shrike agent!” Jon yelled, “I know how to fucking shoot! Get in the plane!”

Don was taken aback.

“Y-you are?”

“Yeah! Saddle up!” Jon rushed to the Pegasus and climbed in the gunner’s seat.

“Fuck, well, alright then,” said Don, climbing into the pilot’s seat.

“Let’s go,” Jon said. He was feeling no little fear himself, but he was absolutely determined to avenge the abyssal Tartarus that had been made of the Children’s Hospital. This was his chance at absolution. He couldn’t live if these people got away with it, and so he had to go.

A ground crewman rushed over with a pair of parachutes and handed them to Jon and Langston, who donned them quickly.

“Now you can take some real risks,” said the crewman with a dark grin.

“Yeah, well, if my goose gets cooked at least I got to fly this baby,” Donahue muttered as he started the engine. Jon began to familiarize himself with the machine gun mount, wheeling it left and right, swiveling the gun around. It was smooth and seemed to drift to a halt in an intuitive way.

The plane sped forward and dropped into space. Jon was flung backwards and he was momentarily afraid that he would fall out the back of the aircraft, but this was just part of the launch, and Donahue quickly straightened the plane out and began to ascend. Even the air out here was tinged with soot; they flew past pillar after pillar of greasy black smoke from the manifold infernos below. Jon gazed down.

Whoever these motherfuckers were, they’d been thorough. They knew exactly what they were going to do.

“What now?” yelled Donahue, his amber hair whipping in the wind as he turned.

“Let’s get up high! We’ve gotta find em!”

They ascended, both scanning the horizon, Don to port and Jon to starboard.

“There!” Donahue yelled, “There they are!” Jon peered after his gaze and saw a dark flock of steel-blue flecks flying away up the coastline.

“Alright! Let’s get after them!”

Don looked at him uncertainly.

“We have to find out where they’re going!”

Don was tight-lipped but he gave the OK sign and turned back to the controls. They picked up speed and followed the planes down the coastline, wind whipping at Jon’s grimy, soot-stained face and neck.

The flock began to descend, then disappeared. They hadn’t gone over the horizon; Jon could still make out details about them until the last moment

“Shit!” Don yelled, “You think they ditched?”

“Maybe!” Jon called back, “Buzz em and let's see if they’ve got a camp or something!”

“Alright,” Don yelled, then hesitated and asked, “Is that machine gun ready?”

“Seems like it,” Jon called, “I can move her just fine!”

Don gave the OK sign again. They flew low over the rocky coast and Jon was practically leaning over the side of the plane trying to see where the hijacked squadron had landed.

“There!” Jon roared, “That’s where they went!”

There was a sea cave right around where the planes seemed to have disappeared. It was low-profile and Jon didn’t think he’d have noticed it if he hadn’t been peering right at the coast.

“Alright!” Donahue called, “What now?”

Jon sat back in satisfaction and ran a hand through his hair. Thank God they’d found their secret roost. That was enough to go on for the time being.

“Take her home!” Jon called, “We’ve found their base! Let’s go back and tell Diadem!”

“Right!” Don gave the thumbs-up and pulled the plane around in a tight roller-coaster arc.

Jon cast his eye across the land and sea, which were thrown into strong primary colors by the midday sun. The prairies were like a great soft green blanket and the ocean was blue and webbed with whitecaps.

Jon pushed the explosion, Charlie Gray, the dead pilots, and the burning people from his mind. This wasn’t the time. It was time to take in the beauty of the coast and the peace of the air. He would need it as counterevidence for his own mind soon.

Jon gazed back at the stretch of coast where the sea cave had been.

What could that place be? How long had they been planning this?

Suddenly he noticed a tiny bolt of color rising through the sky above the green-gray coastline by the sea cave. It was steel blue. A plane had re-emerged from the cave. Jon’s heart sank, then began to pound.

“Don, we’ve got company!” he yelled

“What?!” Don yelled, dismayed.

“Don’t worry!” Jon yelled, grabbing hold of the machine gun, “This won’t be the first of these motherfuckers I kill!”

Don gave a firm thumbs up but didn’t change course. Jon silently concurred. If the plane didn’t follow them, they wouldn’t pick a fight.

It followed them. The hostile plane billowed black smoke. Was it having engine trouble? Jon looked at it intently until it was close enough to identify. It was the flamethrower plane.

“Don! It’s that goddamn firebat!”

“What?! That’s a Blackforge Vitriol! It’s got a forward twin-link!”

“Right,” yelled Jon, “Fly low and I’ll catch her before she can dive on us.”

“You got it!” called back Don. His voice was tremulous but he tightened his grip on the controls.

They dived. Jon steadied the black, segmented machine gun and peered through the steel reticle at the advancing Vitriol.

He’d never used a machine gun before. That wasn’t part of the Starling & Shrike upbringing.

He didn’t know when to start firing but he figured the gun must be fully loaded.

Fuck it. He squeezed the trigger.

Nada. The trigger didn’t budge.

“God dammit!” Jon roared.

“What?!” yelled Donahue.

“Don’t worry!” Jon yelled back. The warplane was growing larger in his sights. Jon began to frantically hunt all over the weapon for some kind of latch or button. He found a little nub poking out of one side and pressed it. It slid through the weapon and a nub appeared on the other side. Jon took aim again and pulled the trigger. This time the trigger moved, but the gun didn’t fire.

“Son of a bitch!” Jon screamed.


There was a long, rumbling buzz as the Vitriol opened up its forward guns on the Pegasus. Fat machine gun rounds spilled through the air over their plane’s starboard wing. Jon could feel the air rippling with lead from where he sat.

“Holy shit!” Don yelled, “I think they’re in range! Open up, man!”

“I’m trying!” cried Jon.

“What!?” roared Don incredulously.

What the fuck was wrong with this gun? Jon thought. The cartridge belt’s in place!

“Jon, the Vitriol’s got an afterburner,” yelled Don, “they can put their propeller into overdrive! They’re gonna overtake us!”

There was another long burst of machine gun fire and Don banked so hard that Jon almost fell sidelong from the plane, hugging the machine gun while it lolled around in his arms like a playful dog. When Don straightened the plane, Jon looked up. The broad-bodied Vitriol was diving right at them. Jon could make out the pilot, a bald, obese and pasty man with beady eyes. The Vitriol fell in a dive past them and Jon saw the gunner, as well, a lean and lantern-jawed boy with a pair of narrow goggles over his eyes. He held the flamethrower steady with reedy arms and there was a horrific burbling rushing noise as the weapon billowed a deadly cloud of red flame across the length of the Pegasus.

Jon ducked down into the compartment and threw his arms over his head as the air turned to cosmic heat around him. As soon as he was sure he wasn’t on fire he stuck his head up and looked at Don, who was hunched over flying and seemed uncharred. The air around the plane was shimming thickly; the Pegasus had been set on fire! Jon pulled himself straight by the stinging hot rail of the gunner’s compartment and was met with a sword of heat down the throat as he inhaled. He coughed and sputtered, seeing nothing through the tears.

“Shoot goddammit! Shoot! We ain’t jumping if that thing gets a bullseye!”

Jon took a raw, blood-tinged breath as he sat deep in his compartment and then got up again. The flames had abated slightly but he could feel them eating through the skin of the plane. He took hold of the machine gun, which was blazing hot but grippable. Jon’s eyes went wide when he saw his left hand; it had been burned severely in the Vitriol’s blast, and his skin was blistering massively and coming loose from the muscle.

Fuck it, Jon laughed with manic darkness, I can’t feel anything yet!

He looked at the gun. You can’t fire a .45 without racking it. There was a handle on the side of the machine gun near the end of the receiver. Jon leaned forward, gripped it with his rapidly-numbing left hand, pulled it back along the weapon until it clicked, and then rode it all the way forward. The Vitriol had activated its afterburner, climbed, turned, and was about to make another pass on them. This time it was leading the Pegasus and would be in position to give them a full dose of fire no matter where they turned.

“Jon, this is it,” Don called hoarsely, glancing up.

“Yeah, it is,” Jon said, “Hold her steady. Don’t turn.”

Don was like a statue. He held her steady.

The Vitriol grew in Jon’s sights. He saw it angling slightly in on them to get its machine guns on the Pegasus. Jon saw a dark, gaping maw in the pilot’s bullet-shaped head. He was cackling with glee.

“Eat this,” Jon whispered and pulled the trigger.

The machine gun emitted a wild blast of burning rounds, lacing the sky with streaks of light. Jon filled the fuel-laden beast with lead and it exploded into a fulminating inferno that was so hot Jon could feel it baking his face, and so bright that he could barely turn his eyes upon it.

Don looked up.

“Aaaaaaaaaguh! You got it! You got it!”

Bits of charred hull fell away like spiderlegs from the smoking fireball where the Vitriol had flown. The flame was cascading through the air as its massive fuel reserve burnt up. Jon knew the burgeoning pillar of charcoal smoke would be seen from Diadem.

He relinquished the firearm and fell back in his seat, hugging himself. His heart was singing despite the horror of the day. He gazed at the horizon. It seemed to reflect the way he felt about his place in this world right then, in this house of light and fire: he was sitting on a blade’s-edge line between the vivid bliss of divine victory and the infinite darkness of an all-consuming underworld. He closed his eyes and let the wind cool his brow as it quenched the flames of the Pegasus.

Jon breathed the sea air deep and gathered his strength. Once he was alone, the divine and the darkness would wrestle for possession of his heart.

The ground crew had removed their caps when Jon and Donahue landed. Many telescopes and binoculars had been on the air combat of the Vitriol and the Pegasus II.

The children had thronged them. They been given commentary as the fight played out. They needed the glory of the victory at the end of such a day.

Medics had gauzed Jon’s hand. He’d grabbed a flashlight from a toolbox, wrapped his mouth in his silicasilk scarf and joined the excavation of the children's hospital. He carried a few limp bodies onto the tarmac.

The children’s hospital was not the only hospital in Diadem. Jon spent the night there in a state of fever as ointment and fresh gauze was rotated throughout the night. The next evening he dragged himself out of bed and went to Diadem City Hall. Every moment he lingered, the killers became less and less likely to be brought to justice. Jon intended to make a case for an expedition being launched that very night, which Jon proposed to accompany to its conclusion.

The City Council had their own ideas about how Jon would spend the night

Jon ended up standing before the Lord Mayor in the Sun Gardens atop Diadem’s highest tower. George Currant was at his left side, and Langston Donahue by his right. The Security Commissioner, the Wing Admiral of the Diadem Air Force and every minister of the Diadem government stood in circle around them.

The Lord Mayor had declared that the Navel of the Mount Children’s Hospital would be renamed the Jon Dart Children’s Hospital.

George Baysinger had presented Jon Dart with the crimson and gold Order of Saint Suchara, protector of children.

The Wing Admiral had granted Langston Donahue a roving commission as a Captain in the Diadem Air Force Fighter Command. Donahue had almost fallen over, but managed to salute.

The Ministers had promised that a bill would be passed extending the security pact between the City of Diadem and Starling & Shrike for an additional decade in honor of what had been done that day.

They had declared that an expedition would be launched posthaste to the sea cave up the coast.

Jon had politely extended his right hand to everyone present. He had promised to continue prosecuting his search for those responsible for the crimes of the day, and the rulers of Diadem had promised to put unlimited support behind his enterprise.

He had felt joy in his heart, but fatigue and grief had slowly overtook him like a storm rolling in from the horizon.

Now Jon sat deep in the davenport in George Baysinger’s office, shielded from the reporters that lingered on the great commercial ziggurat outside. George sat behind his desk, smoking mild tobacco through his pipe.

“This was a very auspicious start for you, Jon, all things considered” said George Baysinger with a twinkle in his eye.

Jon gave a smile, and then it fell away.

“George, my heart’s heavy. I’m glad I helped the people here, but the things I’ve seen since the night before last…”

“Leave it be for now, Jon. I want you to give your mind to the present. Give what you have seen time to heal. Don’t lock it away forever, but put it inside a box that you’ll open when you have space and freedom. Your wounds are fresh. Let them shut. Then, you may begin to give them therapy. Walk for a long time, alone in a peaceful place. Whatever gives you agony… give it the attention it deserves. Look at it until it no longer overwhelms you. Look at it until the terror is gone, until you can see it clinically, or even with compassion. Think of it like a prophet with a hideous visage who yet has something to tell you. There is something that you can learn from everything you have seen; something about the true nature of the universe, that will yet allow you to go on and set it right. Your heart has been broken, and it will heal darker, and scarred, but stronger. Believe me. I have had thirty years of this. You will learn it far earlier than I did.”

Jon was nodding slowly. “Thank you, sir. I’ll remember that.” He reached into his pocket and drew out the golden icon he’d taken off of the gunman he’d slain in the hangar. He held it up and it dangled in the smoky light.

“I took this off the guy I shot in the hangar. Another psychologically damaged, decrepit boy of about my age, just like Daniel Stanton.”

George Baysinger set down his pipe and gazed at the symbol.

“We now have our culprits because of you, Jon. The Ringwyrm antinatalists.”


“A new movement. The darkest I have ever seen. Darker than Social Darwinism. Darker than the Crag of Songs Killers.”

“Darker than the Crag? How is that possible?”

Baysinger picked up his pipe and puffed it slowly. The orange flame glowed and then relented as he let out his smoke.

“The men and women of the Crag of Songs have some limit on their actions. They believe in each other and in their conception of the divine. They raise children, they give wealth to their community, however blood-soaked it is. For the boys of Ringwyrm and their ilk, there’s nothing but what was witnessed today. Life is an abomination, community is an enemy, and children are a target.”

Baysinger was tapping at his pipe.

“What they did today was instrumental, by their standards. The theft of military aircraft and the decimation of the Diadem Air Force fleet. Was this only a means of escape? Antinatalists are usually not very concerned with escaping the scenes of their crimes. This is something of a mystery.”

“I think I can answer that,” said Jon. “A source of mine, who’s departed the city now, knew Dan Stanton and told me that his gang had been answering to some kind of spymaster. Whatever this Ringwyrm group is doing, I don’t think they’re acting totally of their own volition. I think somebody’s handling them. Somebody who’s got his fingers in Anarcho-Syndicalism, too. Those two movements are totally antithetical, so whoever this spymaster is, I don’t think he’s Antinatalist.”

George Baysinger leaned back in his chair, holding his pipe up by his temple.

“What sort of man is capable of leading Anarcho-Syndicalists and Antinatalists with the same hand?”

Jon gave a fierce smile.

“I’m gonna find out.”

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Art Contest Entry: Laren Dar at the Bridge

Summary: This is my entry for the Noisms art contest to draw a color picture of Laren Dar, an Etruscan fighter played by Patrick Stuart. I also did a reading of Horatius from the Lays of Ancient Rome by Macaulay to accompany my illustration. The poem is about a vast Etruscan army attempting to capture Rome so that they can sack it and reinstate an obligated Roman monarchy.

Link to reading

Link to art contest post

Link to poem

Shame on the false Etruscan
Who lingers in his home,
When Porsena of Clusium
Is on the march for Rome.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Cave Dragon

Summary: This is two-fisted weird fiction set in Ben Massey’s city-state of Sarabande. A dying mercenary  is offered one last chance at meaning before he passes away. Perhaps there is no better time for an adventure than when your life is already forfeit, but on a real adventure you could risk spending your last moments in hell on earth. What do you choose?

He couldn’t taste the coffee. It was all about the heat and the clink of the china at this point.

He looked at the cigar stub laying on a clean white porcelain ashtray atop the fishscale glass table.

“Parasitic worm,” he growled at it, and smiled.

Hunter Flintridge was cold. It was a crisp, sunny, bright-aired day in Ascension. The thick little leaves shimmered and shivered in the breeze on the gleaming gray trees lining the clean, uncracked lane.

Hunter tried to bury himself deeper in his gray felt overcoat. He crossed his legs in his black corduroy slacks, squeezing his thighs and knees together as if to extract a little more warmth by friction or some impossible melding of flesh and bone.

He coughed long and bloodily. Tasted like he’d been shot. All the little round holes on his body gave him the authority to say this. But he couldn’t recover from his latest wound. He smacked his lips and wiped them with the back of his hand. The foam he was coughing up wasn’t as pink as it would be in the evening. At least there was that.

Two men walked up the sidewalk towards him. Black peacoat on the first one, gray tweed slacks, black loafers. Smoked lenses in round wireframe glasses. Black flat cap. Companion in a light brown bomber jacket. Brown cords. Brown combat boots. Red scarf.

If Ascension even had an intelligence service, these boys seemed to be likely candidates. Handler and security. Or they were outsiders looking the part. Hunter was used to being approached this way. He hated to disappoint, but he’d been forcibly retired.

They stopped a few paces from him.

“Hello Hunter,” said the foremost man with a brisk smile.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Hunter and took a long, loud sip of coffee.

“It was distressing to hear about your prognosis. Such a talent. Such a career.”

“Hope no one died for you to discover that secret.”

“On the contrary. It might end up saving lives.”

“I’m touched. Let me finish my lunch so I can barf something.” He picked up the cigar stub, popped it into his mouth, looked up at the man and swallowed it.

The man’s smile didn’t waver. “You’ve got spirit, Flintridge. To this day you’ve got nothing to prove.”

“That’s the Grimwall in me, sport. I wasn’t born in paradise, and now that I’ve made it here I can’t wait to move on.”

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say,” said the man. His smoky lenses flashed.

“I’m retired. You know that. An eight-year-old with a bad attitude could take me. So what the fuck do you want? A speaking tour?”

“In a way. We’ve got a job that only you could do, Hunter. Your life has been one long mission. You’ve never spent your fortune, except in service of your missions. Your extravagance is legendary there. We know you don’t want to live out your days dying at a cafe table.”

“Huh. So you boys from the Tribune or the Association of Psychoanalysts?”

“We represent a host of interests, and to the point, it’s been decided that things would be better if Hemmer IV Adarga of Sarabande did not become absolute monarch of her ill-favored city-state.”

Hunter cracked a coffee-stained smile.

“Adarga. That’s big game, tiger. Be careful, the ill-favored can be touchy. We don’t have a lot to lose.”

“Precisely the concern about a permanent Adarga government in Sarabande. We aren’t after an assassination. That’s not likely anymore. Queen Adarga’s condition is worsening. She’s moving around less and less so as to preserve her life into the foreseeable future. Her body is becoming harder. Gunfire, explosions, poisoning are becoming less viable day by day. What Sarabande needs is a domestic opposition. They’ve got one, but they have no tradition of internal espionage. They’ve never needed one. Don’t like your monarch, just weather the storm for a few years.”

“Advisor, then, that’s what you want.”

“That’s right.”

“But any son of a bitch who takes you up on this is gonna get the barking fever.” The woodrot. The body-stiffening disease endemic to Sarabande.

“It wouldn’t be a letter-writing campaign.”

“So I should go to Sarabande and get my nuts turned into acorns on top of my lungs turning into nuts?”

“We could leave you alone if you’d like.”

“Yeah, yeah. Who’s the opposition?”

“Varnishing Commissioner Garland Millsborough. Minister in the public affairs office.”

“Alright. I want a ticket today. Flight, boat, horse and carriage, I don’t give a shit. I wanna leave before sundown. Pull some strings. Second, I want some cash up front. I’m gonna live a little before the game’s up and I want a bankroll to burn. Don’t care if it’s in the barkbone colony.”

The man drew a black velvet coin purse from his coat and set it before Flintridge.

“This is the advance I’ve been authorized to give you. Now, would you come with us to the transit bureau? It would be easier to get you a berth if you’re present.”

“Nope. But I’ll do you a favor and sit right here till you’ve got tickets in hand. Course, I was gonna do that anyway.”

It was a merchant cruise. Some exports, but mostly consignors and importers looking to make a deal and skip town that same day. The cargo exchange would be touch and go. No one wanted to linger in the sickening city of Sarabande.

They’d just passed the island of Tincaro, the burgeoning colony of Sarabande. The people of Sarabande were generally not welcome abroad, but those seeking a degree of productive isolation could leave the sawmill city and take root on Tincaro for however long they lived. The homes and statehouses were more developed, the port quieter and less prominent, but it was a place that took in the sun.

Hunter stood at the very bow of the ship, leaning on the light metal railing. The mainland coast loomed, spilling foliage over the water everywhere but around a trident-shaped concrete jetty which awaited the ship’s flighty passengers. A few miles inland Hunter could make out the dark stony towers of Sarabande.

A merchant came and took hold of the rail at Hunter’s elbow.

He wore robes composed of dozens of diamond-shaped pieces of red fabric set with hundreds of little gold outlines of squares and intersecting triangles. Tassels fell from his earrings as if from the bottoms of tapestries.

“There it is,” said the merchant, “How far we are from the light to be trading in such a place as this.”

“Not looking forward to the plunging necklines of Sarabande?”

“In case you couldn’t tell, that’s not what I consider good taste. So what’s your racket?”

“I’m a socialite. Here for my health. Better climate.”

The man’s eyes went wide.

“Are you mad? Do you know a thing about Sarabande?”

“I’ve heard about the woodrot but I think that’s overblown. Why don’t you come check out the town with me once we dock? Gonna try and find a really happening dive bar or a dancehall, somewhere nice and packed.”

The merchant looked at Hunter like he’d exposed himself.

“Man, are you-“

Hunter grinned. The merchant walked away, shaking his head.

The dock was lined with stevedores waiting to receive the ship. They shifted, crossing and uncrossing their arms, flicking little white cigarettes into the water. Further back there were big blue parasols on steely poles. Saber-wielding security slaves from the nearby tribes were manacled to the poles, crouching on their heels and chewing some kind of herb from the forest’s heart. They were tattooed as if they were covered by unpleasant animals; thin-legged spiders, mandibled millipedes, twin-tailed scorpions and climbing cockroaches with wide-ranging antennae. There were potbellied slave overseers standing nearby; they’d dressed as they pleased but they had bolt-action rifles slung over their shoulders. They periodically handed down cigarettes or mouthfuls of chaw to their slaves.

It was a two mile walk to the city from the docks. Hunter hired a palanquin to be carried by a pair of slaves. He didn’t give a fuck. He wasn’t walking that.

They walked him over the well-worn trail to Sarabande. He smoked and spat over his palanquin door. Sarabande came into view; a city of raised promenades wrapped around the hills, half-subterranean houses stucco-clad or like squat stone towers, newly built lumber mills, mining seams cut into the rocky hills and ridges, foundries and smelters with a whiff of metallic dust and phosphorous. Everything outside of the old town seemed to have been built of lacquered logs and planks; this place must be fearsomely fire-prone, but all the newest buildings had a glossy, dewy appeal like they’d just been soaked in rain.

Hunter dismissed his palanquin once they’d cleared the city’s fire-treated palisade. Riflemen and tribal auxiliaries knelt among the stakes, watching.

Hunter walked among the smoky streets and hacked pink phlegm onto the gleaming, veined stone thoroughfares and the rich, dark soil that seemed to surround the city’s every house and edifice.

Damp goddamned smoke, he growled to himself, How’d they pull that off?

He found a cafe that consisted of a ring of stone countertops around a stack of cages. There were strange little muskrat marsupials hanging from their tails from the roofs of their cages; every few minutes one of them would defecate a coffee bean then catch it in its little pawns and tuck it into its pouch. The tender of the cafe moved between the cages with bright red coffee cherries, deftly tucking them into the marsupials’ mouths while simultaneously running fingers over their bellies to slide gestated coffee beans out of their pouches. These beans were placed in a grinder on an elevated blue marble dais, and when customers came the coffeeminder would serve them espresso or black coffee as their preferences ran.

All of this sat beneath a bright orange water tower. As Hunter stood gazing at the cistern among the treetops, he saw a hatch open and a number of tattooed and muscular young men in tan overalls come leaping from a chamber at the very top with fire axes in hand. They came and slid down smooth poles that undergirded the water tower’s legs, the tops of which were ribbed so as to serve as stepladders.

Hunter stepped up to one of the countertops and a thin young man with a rag over his shoulder stepped up to take his order. The boy had bright eyes and weak features, except for a Neanderthal-like brow which jutted visorlike over his friendly eyes. Hunter also noted that the backs of his hands were incredibly gnarled, to the point that he looked like he had extra knuckles across his fingers.

“Hey sport, I’ll take a doo doo drip, don’t much mind the kind so long as it’s hot and steaming. Some fire boys, eh? Spot a smoke signal and down they come. Good job for a young guy.”

The server waited for a few moments until the last of the fire brigade had trooped up off the woodmulch hillside.

“Well, sir, it’s likely they’re going on a raid, not a fire callout. I’m afraid things have been a bit topsy-turvey in Sarabande lately. The fire brigade have turned into the Queen’s paramilitaries. They’re chopping more than wood with those axes. I see them coming back and washing blood off them right into the tower cistern.”

“Nice,” Hunter smiled grimly, “Hey kid, I’m here to see the Varnish Commissioner. Any chance you could point me his way?”

The boy thought for a time, then said, “A friend of mine works in that ministry. I can tell you where he lives, and he might be able to set you up with the Commissioner.”

Hunter drank his coffee in one glug.

“Lay it on me.”

Hunter walked up a steep stone stairway under an upside-down sea of jostling boughs. There was a house above, wood and painted brown, with a flat slat deck and a roof and eaves like an upside down heart. He knocked at the door and a young man with sharp, burning eyes and a tight-lipped expression opened the door.

“Hey killer, name’s Hunter Flintridge, I’m from out of town. Wanna pull on the Varnish Commissioner Millsborough’s coat about commissioning some varnish for Grimwall, you know, kind of a rough looking town as you might imagine.”

“Sure,” said the boy, “Follow me.” He slipped past Flintridge and went down the stairs two at a time. Hunter hustled after him but choked up halfway down the stairs, leaning on the walking-stick wood banister, coughing a thin stream of gore over the side, then sat down, breathing deeply through his nose.

The boy glanced over his shoulder, held up, then came back near the base of the stairs.

“You said you’re from out of town but you’ve got the rot.”

“Nah kiddo,” Hunter wheezed slowly, “Wood rot might have this market cornered but it’s not the only game in town. Just gimme a sec, I ain’t the tiger I used to be.”

“You want me to get you a stick?”

“Nah, my knees are bad but they ain’t transformed on me yet. Just hold up.”

He breathed for a few moments until his head cleared, then he stood up and walked after the young man.

The Varnishing Commissioner lived behind a high wall of cast iron bars; this was difficult to tell at first glance because the entire structure was totally blanketed with ivy. The boy led Hunter across the fallen leaves until they reached a seam in the ivy that would have defied Hunter’s passing attention; presumably this was the gate.

“Here you are, sir,” said the young man.

“Thanks kiddo, I’ll put in a good word for you. What do I call you?”

“Don’t worry about that,” the young man said and walked back towards his home.

“Oh-kay…” Hunter breathed. He tried the gate. It was locked.

He stepped back.

“Anybody there?” he shouted. His voice petered out and turned to an aural wisp by the end of it. He bent over his knees and began a rasping, coppery cough that continued until he was brought down on one knee. When he finally got a grip on his coughing, he was wheezing and light-headed. He looked up to see that the gate had opened. A badger-haired man in an orange tartan blazer and black slacks had opened it.

“Here,” the man said, holding out a palmful of copper coins.

Hunter smiled. “Man. I’m sorry about that. Mr. Millsborough? I’m Hunter Flintridge. I’ve heard that you’re in need of a security specialist. Well, that’s why I’m here. Had a lifetime of infiltration and counter-infiltration. Intelligence-gathering and counterintelligence. ‘Active measures.’ Obviously my days doing fieldwork are over, but I can get you and your people set up in a watertight front that’ll keep your secrets, bounce off any prodding tendrils, and give you something to strike with should you ever find that necessary.”

Millsborough nodded. “Very well. I never wanted things to get to this point but I suppose I’ve got to be realistic, hadn’t I?” he said with a faint smile, “Please come in.”

Hunter followed him through the gate towards the man’s home, which was a stately three-story wooden building that had been painted a mint color with a white trim. Millsborough stepped up onto the deck, which wrapped around half the house, and sat down in one of a pair of wicker rocking chairs with a little table between them. He indicated the other for Flintridge, who accepted it with a smile.

“The situation has evolved dangerously these last months,” said Millsborough quietly. “We’ve begun to suffer murders committed by the fire brigade. In every case the rationale is self-defense, but that’s a fig leaf. Everyone who’s died was in some way related to the Committee for Monarchical Sacrifice. The Queen is weakening their influence across every level of society. It’s becoming less of a certainty that we’ll have a sacrifice this year. No one seems to want to bring it up at chamber assemblies. And there have been new hires in the Ministries. Young people from the Royal Academy, or fresh out of the fire brigades. It’s a goddamned infiltration if the chilling effect it’s had on all my colleagues is anything to go by. But the desire for mutual defense is there, and for a hardening of the will come the next sacrificial season. We just need coordination.”

“That’s where I can help you. I’ve seen situations like this all my life, works the same more or less every time. I was in Atrialia when Goval came into power and trust me, I left behind more than my faith in humanity on that island when I escaped. But I took a lot of wisdom with me too, more or less all of which applies to our situation. The key is to get in communication, get in cahoots early so that everybody knows that they’re not gonna be acting alone. Otherwise it’s like an assault where everybody’s looking at his buddy to make sure he’s not the only one making the charge. You gotta start to insulate-”

There was a banging on the gate.

“Sorry, do you mind if I get that?”

“Go head.”

Millsborough stood up and walked across the sun-streaked, leafy lawn to the ivy-girt gate and opened it a little. It was suddenly pushed open in his face and he staggered backwards.

Flintridge blanched at the ogre who stood in the opening.

He was easily seven and a half feet tall. He had huge, muscular arms that curled across themselves like ingrown oaks, and his barrel chest was ridged strangely like his ribs had shifted into a vertical disposition. His muscles were wrapped around their anchorages and strained to transmit power between his gnarled bones and twiglike sinews. His hands were horrible: his fingers had grown long, thin and segmented like some kind of scarecrow, and rather than being flat along a palm they seemed to emerge in a bundle from his knotted wrists.

He had a tightly-shaven, misshapen head and a malign simian brow with thin-spread sootstreaks of eyebrow, bloodshot red eyes and teeth that were unnaturally spaced by the growth of his gums and jaw.

He wore a long sleeve white collared shirt that he filled to bursting and had on custom-made office slacks and huge loafers with stitchwork showing between lengths of rawhide leather.

He strode forward and with every movement Hunter could hear cracking and creaking coming from his body like he had to force his joins and bones past each other to walk. This didn’t seem to bother him; he was grinning right at Hunter. Hunter gave him a fierce, mirthless smile back. But Hunter’s rictus lapsed slightly when he saw who was standing behind the monster: it was the boy who’d led him here. The boy shot Flintridge a look, then turned and walked out of sight

“You’re having guests and I wasn’t invited, Garland? Taking on lodgers now? Is your post in Her Splendor’s government leaving you that unsatisfied?”

“It’s not hers,” Millsborough hissed at the giant.

“I’ll tell her you said that,” grinned the monster, “And what have we here?”

He stood in the grass and the leaves before Hunter’s rocking chair.

“Why don’t you introduce yourself first, since I’m the one who’s sitting.”

“Garland, didn’t you tell him? I’m Nefaro. The Security Commissioner. Let me guess. You didn’t register with the Foreign Affairs Bureau before you arrived?”

Millsborough cut in,

“That bill was only just passed, Nefaro! He hasn’t been told!”

“Is that a legal defense?” grinned Nefaro.

“So what you gonna do? Take me in yourself?”

“Hmmm… I was going to serve you macaroons, but I like your idea better. In fact, I think I’m going to carry you all the way to the mines by your head like a springball.”

The monster twitched to take a step forward and Flintridge already had his .38 in hand, firing one, two, three, four in the chest, five, six in the head. Lung cancer couldn’t stop him from being the fastest quickdraw this side of a Mayhew Brothers sideshow. Millsborough jumped and lurched to the side as the shots shattered the morning calm. Hunter peered through the smoke at Nefaro. The giant hadn’t collapsed yet.

Then he put his hands on his hips.

“Aahahahahaha! I love it when they do that! Should have saved one for yourself, you silly thing.”

Hunter gaped at his target, then looked down as his revolver. Had he loaded it with blanks? No. No way. His life had just been cursed since he coughed his first puff of blood in Attar. He thought maybe it’d been some tincture-gone-wrong that he’d smelled. No. Perhaps it was the revenge of those he’d slain.

Hunter set his pistol on the little wicker table between the rocking chairs. Then he got up and walked to the edge of the deck.

The ogre’s chest and forehead were bleeding. His skin wasn’t bulletproof, but the rest of him seemed to be.

“Mr. Millsborough,” Hunter said, nodding to the Commissioner, who was pale and holding a hand over his mouth.

Nefaro reached behind Hunter’s neck and picked up him up by his coat collar. He carried him through the haze of gunsmoke, through the yard, the sunshine and the chirping birds, and out through the gate.

By the time they reached the mine, Hunter couldn’t feel his arms. The rubbing of his shirt and coat on his underarms had reached a burning furor, and he couldn’t tell if the dampness there was sweat or blood.

It was a place of stripped-stick scaffolds like geometric wicker men around mineshaft entrances, mechanically screaming gasoline conveyor belts, and fraying baskets of glittering coal and dull tetrahedrite filthy with other minerals. Cauldrons of hot grease were kept boiling here and there across the artifice; these were used to fry the raw food slaves were fed at mealtimes, and they were also used as a source of discipline. When a slave was regarded as being in need of punishment, he was brought before a cauldron where an overseer dipped a cat o’ nine tails into the boiling grease and whipped him with it; if it was a light punishment the overseer would stop short of actually making contact, instead just sprinkling the slave with hot grease, but for a severe punishment the overseer might lash him until the grease cooled, then dunk the cat o’ nine tails again and continue.

If a slave was to executed for e.g. killing an overseer, he’d be lowered headfirst into one of these cauldrons.

Most of the slaves and the overseers were deformed in similar ways to the Security Commissioner, but to a far lesser extent. His disease was either far advanced over the average case, or it had simply taken to him with a vengeance.

The commissioner set Hunter down near a 5’ tall mineshaft. Hunter looked with unease at the large steel bowl of boiling, hissing, leaping liquid next to it. An overseer and a pair of guards approached. The overseer carried a cat o’ nine tails, and the guards carried axe handles. No one appeared to have a firearm here. They’d obviously been phased out.

“So, who are you? Why are you here, my friend?” asked Nefaro, putting a massive, sandpaper-rough hand on Hunter’s shoulder.

“I’m here to commission varnish for private citizens in Grimwall.”

“Quick on the draw for a decorator! And you’ve sought out Sarabande’s greatest malcontent.”

“Grimwall’s a rough spot. And my impression was that Millsborough’s a harmless civil servant.”

“Oh, sweet little man. You want to protect Millsborough. You can’t protect him. Especially not since he retained an armed foreign mercenary in secret. I could crush your skull, but we’re going to get some labor out of you instead. If someone comes and offers a great ransom for you, we might let you go. Otherwise, you’ll never leave that mineshaft.” He pointed a wandlike finger to the mouth of the mine.

Hunter grinned. “You’re wasting your time. Nobody’s coming for me and I’ve got lung cancer. You won’t get a nugget of coal out of me, you hideous, dimwitted freak.”

Nefaro gave his shoulder a squeeze, which was sharply painful like his muscle was being cut on bone, and grinned back darkly.

“Mazranai, induct him into slavery.”

The two guards seized Hunter and roughly stripped him of his shirt and jacket. Sure enough there were livid bands showing across his shoulders and armpits, bloody at the very bottom. They turned him to face the dark mouth of the mineshaft with the burbling cauldron behind him.

Slaves were glancing at him. Some with pity. Some with resignation. Others with a sadistic thrill.

Hunter looked up into the blue skies through the canopies of the trees that loomed over the mineshaft. They were bobbing gently in the wind, oblivious to all this. He’d tempted fate one too many times and this was his comeuppance. Life had been without color when he was waiting to die in the sterile streets of Ascension, but this was a far more terrible way to end his life. There was no need for it.

“You know why we use tribesmen as overseers?” asked Nefaro.

“They’re the only ones stupider than you are?” said Hunter quietly.

“No. They’re the only ones crueler.”

There was a sizzling noise.


Hunter screamed. It felt as though someone had put serrated kitchen knives to his back and ripped them down with great force. The pain did not relent. He wanted to run forward to escape his own back, but the guards held him with iron force. Their muscles were stronger than his, and their joints and ligaments were hardened by their disease.


He felt himself being cut to the ribs and backbone. He felt sick and clammy. Rivulets of hot grease ran down his back like razorblades, burning away the hair and peeling up healthy flesh.


He cried out raggedly. The carnage of his back was scrambled and deepened by this final blow. It was like he was on fire; he could not escape the pain. His eyes were clenched, his head was spinning, and he was getting chills and spasms.

The guards had dumped him in the dirt without his notice. He lay there, blowing dust with his rattling breath.

“Get him to work,” spat Mazranai, the overseer. A pair of slaves gripped him roughly by the biceps and pulled him across the cool dirt of the mineshaft.

There was an explosion. Hunter was consumed by fire, ice, lightning. He leapt up but his body was maimed; he couldn’t move it. He forced his eyes open into a smog of whirling darkness. Finally he saw a pair of legs in wrappings of diamond-patterned linen.

There was a tremendous splitting crack on his head as the overseer dropped a wooden bucket on him. He heard it spin on the rough stone floor, and then it came to rest against his head. He was wrapped in a rough, filthy, wet wool blanket. The slaves had cocooned him in this to stave off shock.

He was soaked. He began breathing deeply through his mouth and tried to free himself from the sodden wool blanket. The overseer came around behind him and kicked him in the back, which caused his whole body to arch as if he’d been electrified. The kick was accompanied by an aura of splitting pain emanating throughout his entire back from the point of contact.

“Up,” said the overseer. Hunter had been passed out on the stone and could barely move, his left arm dead asleep, but he managed to stagger into a kneeling position. His trousers were soaking wet now, too. The overseer picked up the bucket and raised it. Hunter staggered away from him on all fours and fell over on his side, unable to balance himself properly.

“Go down and get a piece of coal at least as big as your head. Bring it back to the mouth of the cave, then go down and get another one. Keep at it till you get called for food. If I hear you’re malingering, you get painted again. I’ve got lots of eyes and ears down there. I’m a charming guy and your compatriots are eager to please. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Hunter breathed, and staggered into the darkness away from the overseer. He saw some torchlight and went towards it. It was a burning torch, which seemed profoundly dangerous in a coal seam, but he continued as he seemed to be losing elevation. The shaft narrowed and shortened, and soon he was walking bent over at the waist, stumbling and twisting his ankle on the uneven stone floor. He began to pass slaves who were carrying hunks of coal. They seemed to balance it on their thighs and were moving with a natural crouching lope. Human question marks gone troglodyte in the mines.

They eyed him mercilessly. “Better hurry up,” one of them whispered in singsong.

Hunter’s thighs began to ache. He could barely breathe in this cloying air. These tribesmen had been fashioned by hardship. Their joints were flexible. Their sinews strong. Some of them were so gnarled by disease that their skin had begun to split; Hunter saw one hulking, cracking monstrosity whose skull was showing through his scalp and it had developed lichen like a fallen log. Men like this inevitably carried the largest hunks of coal.

He fell to his knees on the stone floor to rest. A pair of slaves passed by and one of them slapped Hunter’s rear end. They both guffawed as they continued their assent.

His back itched terribly. He felt the skin around his wounds and instantly he yanked his hand from his back, arching his chest flat against the ground like he was praying for the dawn. A pain of fire clawed at him from the place he’d touched. He would not make the mistake of allowing anything into contact with his maimed flesh again.

Down and down. How far was it to the coal? He’d have to traverse this entire thing again, uphill. He went to his knees again after an indeterminate stretch of darkness. A slave passed him and just spat on him.

How degraded he was. He’d left his wealthy, idle life in Ascension chasing a high, and ended up in hell on earth.

No. Not a high. Chasing meaning. He looked up into the darkness. I rolled the dice. I crapped out. Fair game. Time to give up the ghost.

“Get up man, before the prods catch you.”

Hunter looked up. He could smell a slave and just barely see a glint in his eyes.

“You got coal?” he asked.

“Yeah, what of it?” the slave asked defensively.

“Beat my head in with it, friend.”

“Don’t say that.”

Hunter shrugged invisibly.

“If you won’t, someone else will.”

The slave was silent for a few moments, then leaned in very close to him.

“Keep going. Feel for a hole. Go down that thing. Be real careful. There’s a priest down there. Tends to some of us. Talk to him. Then come back up.”

The slave hurried on. Hunter looked after him. What else was there to do? If all else failed he could go down the hole headfirst.

He crept forward through the tunnel for a long time. He didn’t know how long or how far. It seemed endless. It was the most laborious task he’d ever done. Slaves passed him by and passed comments. His cuts were splitting as he reached around on the stone and his sweat was tormenting him, but he was not going to miss that hole.

Finally he found it. It wasn’t large. Just a pit where the floor met the wall. There was a little light up here, but there was none down there. The hole was so dark it was almost fictional, but Hunter felt around and got a sense of its dimensions. He began to lower himself into it gingerly and felt a rock he could brace on. A slave passed by and glanced down at him.

“The fuck you think you’re doing?”

“Taking a shit,” said Hunter.

“That’s not the shitting spot.”

“I know, but what’s it to you? Would you just fuck off already?”

“Yeah, I’ll fuck off.”

“Thank you.”

The slave continued his ascent.

Hunter reached down with his second foot and felt around the wall but couldn’t reach any footholds. His tenuous grip on the rim of the pit gave way and he fell into the darkness with a gasp. His left foot hit the stone first and he felt it fold beneath him. He felt the cold panic of a broken bone where he lay in a pile on himself. He’d struck his head against the wall but this was nothing; his leg was limp and numb underneath his body.

That was it. There was no coming back from a broken leg here. This nightmare would soon reach its crescendo and its terminus.

He pushed himself around until he was able to get off of his leg; to the degree he could feel anything it was deeply-piercing pins and needles. He seemed to have fractured his femur, his shinbone and possibly his foot. He felt around the walls in a cold sweat and found where the tunnel went: downwards and away from the mineshaft above.

He dragged himself through it for a long time. He began to see an ephemeral glow up ahead of him. He couldn’t tell if it was a light or ‘the light’ but he decided to make for it anyways and picked up his pace, expending what strength he had left.

He reached the edge of a glowing cavern. It looked like a vast sea of cigarette ash punctuated with glowing blue pylons like a landing strip. On closer inspection they were bioluminescent, translucent mushrooms.

Hunter reached up and scooped up some of the ash; it was a wet sludge! He tossed it with a glop and immediately the cavern erupted with ear-splitting screeching like he’d triggered the linked alarms of eight bank vaults.

His ears were ringing when the screeching died, but he could still hear a voice in the darkness.

“The bells toll, service is in session…”

“Who’s there? Are… are you the priest?” called Hunter, afraid he was hearing a hallucination.

“You wouldn’t ask that question if you weren’t going to treat me like one.”

“Please, I’ll treat you like whatever you like, but I’m really hurt. Can- can you tell me what I should do?”

This felt hollow and pathetic.

“You can do little now. Why don’t you crawl down into the muck and get warm while you pass away.”

Hunter squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced. This was a waste of time.

“You’re my only hope. Please. You’re a priest. You care for people. Please, can’t you do anything?”

“There’s little of you left. Not much worth saving. You won’t like what I have to offer. There’s no going back.”

Hunter almost laughed.

“Oh, I’ll like it. Trust me, I’ll take my medicine. You just tell me what to do.”

“Come closer. Come to my voice. Let me look on you and see what can be made of you.”


Hunter slid himself forward into the ashen muck. It was warm, and there were living things inside of it; worms, and something like sand fleas.

“Closer… closer,” called the voice.

He dragged himself forward with his slickening forearms. The muck burned his broken leg. Even the smell burned his nostrils; phosphates or sulfates or something.

“Here… I’m here.”

Hunter slipped himself up to the source of the voice. There was a figure sitting cross-legged before him in the darkness. Its legs were very thin. Skeletal. Hunter plucked a mushroom and waved it around the form. It was a wooden man. A wooden mummy. A skeleton with thin, contiguous bark for flesh. Green and yellow lichen grew here and there in splotches.

“Wha… you’re a fucking statue… a wooden statue!”

The mouth moved a little.

“Yes, I suppose I am. And what are you? Soon you will be less animate than I.”

“I… I’m a petitioner,” he gulped, “I’ve come to seek you. The, the other slaves told me I could find you here…”

“And you wish to be saved?”


“Are you willing to become like me?”

Hunter’s mouth fell open. Despair curled around his heart.

“Please, there must… there must be some other way, musn’t there?”

“Do you know why I am a statue?”


“I am the oldest of the wood-rotting ones. My disease is the most advanced. This is the final form, unless I am to become a tree. The multitude die before they reach this stage. But I have found a sustenance that this body can consume.”


“Yes. And because my disease is the most advanced of all, it is most concentrated in my blood and bones. My breath,” he hissed.

Hunter shut his eyes for a long time and then looked at the figure again.

“So my only way to live is to… take in your disease.”

“Yes. And then you must choose. You may remain here as my acolyte, and minister to the slaves once I am unable to speak, or you may return again to the surface and die. Once you have been made host to my disease, you will never again taste a meal. You will die of hunger unless you remain in this cavern.”

“How do you know this?”

“I have done it once before. A slave who wished revenge upon his captors. They thought he was a monster. A dragon. He slew a great many of them before he died. He returned to this field many times, but he still wasted away. If you wish to live, there is no uprooting from this place.”

Hunter gazed at the frail, wooden form. So he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. He thought he might have escaped that terrible dichotomy but it followed him still, taking on new forms as it went.

This was not the life for him, sitting in this cavern with his blood and bones hardening into permanent fixtures. It never had been, not once in his wandering life. He’d been preparing himself for death over the last months. Doing nothing but preparing to die. He knew there was only one choice. He was going to go forward with death, but it would be in a blaze of glory just like he’d planned.

So this priest could make him into a monster. A cave dragon. Well. That suited his purposes just fine.

“I’ll take it,” he said. “Work your magic. I’m going the way of your last disciple.”

“It will not make you invincible. But it may give you parity with your captors.”

He thought, Parity? With these amateurs? There will be no parity.

“I’m ready,” he said.

“Then kiss the lips of your redeemer.”

Hunter hesitated, then pushed himself up onto a knee with great pain. He hadn’t realized how lethargic he’d been getting. Shock was setting in. He leaned his face in near the wizened wooden priest’s bowed, eyeless head, waited for a moment, then put his lips to the priest’s coin-slot mouth.

As soon as he did so the priest exhaled a cloud of particles like wet sawdust into his mouth and throat. It tasted of cedar. Hunter coughed and sputtered, hacked and choked, gripping his throat and spitting.

“Lay down. Rest. If you can be saved, the process will now begin,” said the priest.

Hunter coughed and retched until he could barely breathe, then laid down on his side in the muck and waited for the shock to take him. He felt himself falling from his body into an infinite underworld.

He was driven back onto the earth by a cosmic scream. His world was nothing but an overwhelming sonic wall of epic proportions. His soul joined in the scream.

The scream died but its reverberations continued in his mind, heart, ears. He noticed that he was warm. That was all he knew. He lay in the warm softness. He was well-fed. He didn’t want to disturb this sensation now that the screaming had stopped.

There was a blast of light across his vision, then darkness. Then another blast, then darkness. What was this annoyance?

“There he is. Oh, what the fuck is that?”

Squelching noises. The harsh talk of men. His father coming to shake him out of bed.

“A mummy… it’s a fucking mummy!”

“Like hell it is… it’s an effigy. The slaves built a fucking effigy down here and the merc crawled in thinking he’d found salvation. Did you know about this?”

“No, master, but this is quite the find I’ve made for you, isn’t it?”

“Yeah… double rations for a few days, I guess.”

“Thank you.”

“Hey, watch this.”

There was a cracking noise.

“Heh, I- oh, God! He’s- there’s-“

“Is that…”

“It was a mummy! Look at that shit! And there’s still blood!”

Hunter tried to open his eyes. His eyelids were stuck together. He kept trying. Finally his eyelids split apart and he could see the scene by the light of lanterns carried by the overseers.

One of the thugs had hit the priest with a sledgehammer. It’d broken his arm off. They could see the bones and blood still lodged in his body’s bark. What eyes he had were closed. His narrow mouth was slightly ajar and moving ever so slightly. He was praying.

“God! Kill it! Break it down!”

The guards had axehandles and hammers, and they began beating the priest apart. His brittle body fractured and split beneath their blows. Hunter recognized the man with the sledgehammer as the overseer Mazranai. He brought the hammer down onto the priest’s head and it splintered into sawdust and brains.

Hunter stood up.

The thugs turned to face him. They were four: two guards, the slave informer, and Mazranai.

Hunter hugged himself and clasped his biceps. His muscles felt hard, rugged, wooden. He slid his hands down his legs and stood up again. There were knots where his bones had fused.

“I’m gonna do to you what you did to him,” he said.

They looked at each other and laughed. They laughed deep, dark and hard. The bats joined in with a wailing sonic screech.

Hunter gritted his teeth and advanced towards them. His breath was free, clear and strong for the first time in many months, though he felt like he was breathing through a wooden chamber like the hollow of a tree. He cracked his knuckles. These were the hardest of all.

Mazranai grinned and rushed at Hunter in the lamplight, swinging his sledgehammer full-force. Hunter ducked it, going so low that his chest almost touched the ground, though he still felt the hammer graze his back. Mazranai took a step back and Hunter lunged for him, grabbing his sledgehammer with both hands. They struggled over it for a moment, bent at the waist while the other thugs stood and hooted encouragement to Mazranai. Hunter lunged down beneath the sledgehammer and between Mazranai’s legs, wrapped an arm around Mazranai’s thigh and grabbed his sleeve with his other hand. Hunter lifted the overseer up across his shoulders and then fell sideways, smashing Mazranai’s head onto the wet rock like the tip of a ball peen hammer.

Hunter stood up and dusted his hands. The thugs and the informer gaped at him in the darkness, lit by the lanterns which they’d set down to illuminate the fight.

“You son of a bitch!” one of the guards cried with fear and indignancy. “Why did you do that?”

Hunter glanced down at Mazranai, whose neck was crooked in an unhealthy way. His lips were working but his body wasn’t moving.

“You have the rest of your life to ponder that question. I think that’s what he’s doing.”

The guards wore expressions of ugly rage. The slave wore an expression of grim resignation. They rushed Hunter all at once. One of the overseers was in the center of the charge and leapt at Hunter with a jumping kick, but Hunter slipped left while throwing a wide punch and caught the man in the jaw while he was still flying. The man twisted in the air from the force of the punch and fell onto his side stunned, gritting his teeth and touching his face as he slid through the guano.

The other two were on Hunter in a heartbeat. The guard wrapped his arm around Hunter’s bicep and struck him in the shin with his axehandle while the slave began to strangle him. Hunter bent over at the waist, pushed his hip into the slave’s pelvis and then raised his leg to the side between the slave’s legs, lifting him off the ground just enough to dump him flat. Then he hugged the guard’s arm tight to his body and whipped himself away from him in a circle, dislocating the guard’s arm at the elbow. The guard gave a ragged scream and slid to the ground, pliant as a kitten. Hunter let him go.

The man who Hunter had punched midair had rolled over and pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Hunter walked over to him and gave him a kick in the jaw like he was teeing off a jettyball game. Hunter could feel the man’s jaw break and he fell face first into the muck. Hunter didn’t lift him.

The informer got up and rushed at Hunter, who took up a handful of guano and threw it into his eyes. The man gave a roar, clawing his burning face, and Hunter slipped him without difficulty. The man tried to run for the entrance but ran straight into a rough stone wall with a smack, falling down and holding his head.

Hunter approached the man and leapt into the air, drawing his knees into his chest as he went, and then stomped on the man’s head with both heels as he landed. Hunter could feel cartilage break free beneath his feet, and he fell on his rear at the bottom of the attack, his guano-slick feet slipping on the ground after exiting the slave’s face. When Hunter got up, the man’s eyes and jaw were hanging open, and he didn’t seem to be moving under his own power. Hunter gazed down at the man in a state of burning rage, but then felt a pang of regret at having done something so ruthless. He went and grabbed a lantern.

“Rest in peace, stool pigeon. Today I get mine, too.”

Hunter shone the lantern’s beam in the face of the man whose arm he’d dislocated. He was sitting in the guano rocking back and forth, cradling his dislocated arm in his lap, pale and sweating.

“Hope you guys told someone you were down here.”

Hunter went to the vertical tunnel and shone the lamp up it. With a light it was a damn easy climb. He dried his shoes on the rock as best he could, then ascended.

He made his way up through the tunnels. His bones were getting heavier. His muscles were hardening. His ligaments were stiffening as he walked. This shit worked fast, indeed, he thought. He rotated his shoulders, elbows and neck as he walked. He intended to stay limber as long as humanly (or woodenly) possible.

Hunter reached the mouth of the cave. The sunlight blinded him. It must have been the next day after his transformation. He could smell the stale grease. What a marker for a slave’s life; food and punishment at the door to his prison.

Hunter walked into the open next to the great cauldron of grease. The sky was blue and the birds were chirping. He saw them alight here and there in the boughs. He looked at the wood mulch spread across the ground here and saw a little blade of grass with an electric green bug clinging to it. He saw ants. The scene was unbearably beautiful.

Two overseers approached him, one of whom had a cat o’ nine tails on his belt.

“Why the fuck are your hands empty?”

“Why are yours?”

The overseer looked at his scourge and then back at Hunter. He turned and called up to a guard on the hillside scaffolding, “Niron, we got a hard case.”

“K, one sec,” the guard called from where he was sitting and began descending the network of little stepladders made from sticks.

Hunter advanced on the two.

“Hey, woah!” the overseer cried. He staggered backwards and threw his cat o’ nine tails at Hunter while the other one, quicker on the uptake, stepped forward and launched a high punch. Hunter ducked it, grabbed his leg and bowled him over onto the ground. The overseer stepped in to grab Hunter, but he spun around, launching a fist from near the ground and bashing it into the overseer’s jaw with a visible ripple. The big man fell woodenly. The man who’d been thrown got up and squared up with Hunter, who rushed him and gave him a stunning crack on his collarbone straight through his guard. The man staggered backwards on his heels, then fell on his rear. Hunter rushed forward and straddled the man’s legs, then delivered a sharp kick into his jaw. The man’s face went tense and his arms straightened and began to flap ever so slightly. Out of it.

The third guard stood watching from a platform made of long, thin poles carved from nearby trees. He reached up and began to ring a silver bell that hung from the scaffolding. This would be heard for hundreds of meters around the mine. There would be reinforcements.

“Come down here and I’ll ring your bell,” Hunter grinned.

“With pleasure. But I do have a job to do,” commented the guard as he finished his descent.

The man came in at Hunter low, juking left and right with his fists by his mouth. Hunter faked him out with a couple high swings, then clasped him by the back of his head and delivered a jumping knee into his mouth and nose. The man seemed to leap backwards and then fell flat on his back with blood pooling in his nostrils. Hunter rushed the guard and he rolled over on all fours, shielding his head with his arms. Hunter could have begun kicking him in the kidneys, but this was practically a stalling tactic on the part of the guard.

Hunter straddled the man’s head and punched him in the back a few times to keep him in place, then pivoted his right leg above the guard’s head, seized his left arm and fell flat on the ground with his legs beneath the man and the man’s arm across Hunter’s pelvis. Hunter wrenched it up across his body and the man let off a high-pitched scream as his arm broke in two places.

“You know why I picked that arm?” Hunter hissed at him.

The man screamed, “I rang the bell with it!”

“Ding ding ding!” said Hunter, viciously rapping the man’s head with his knuckles. Then he got up and left the guard to the judgement of the slaves, ascending the hill to Sarabande proper.

He cleared the lip of the hill and saw a blue marble promenade with several lacquered wood houses around it and a few little shops with orange light inside. There were a gang of fire brigade paramilitaries coming towards the promenade from the nearest wooded hill. Some carried ropes, some carried Sarabande midwives (broadheaded splitting hatchets), and one carried a full fireaxe.

Hunter advanced on the square with his arms raised.

“I’m unarmed!” he called.

“Good! We’re not!” yelled the man with the axe.

Hunter grinned. The fire squad rushed him.

The first man who reached him was supernaturally fast. Maybe he was infected with balsa wood. The squaddie launched a wild swing and crashed into Hunter but Hunter ducked it, rose with a hook of his own and clipped the man across the nose. The fire trooper fell on his rear with blood pouring from his nose, wearing a curiously calm expression.

Another man wrapped up Hunter from behind while a man with a Sarabande midwife raised it to split Hunter’s skull. Hunter bore the man who was grappling up onto his back and ran headfirst into the man with the midwife, who was knocked off balance. Hunter wrestled his way around in the arms of the man who had him in a bear hug, grabbed him by his suspenders and spun around, throwing him at the gang as he released. Hunter had momentum from this, too, and staggered into the doorway of a candle shop. Fighting the fire squad in a circle was suicide, he knew that well enough. A woman screamed and threw a patchouli candle at him before ducking into the back room.

A fire squaddie came into the doorway with his fists up. He threw a jab but Hunter leaned back at the waist and the punch was too short. Hunter leaned forward again and popped the man in the cheek; when the man raised his arms to defend his face, Hunter ducked and launched a massive thrust into his stomach. The man staggered backwards with his cheeks puffed down to the side, and Hunter kicked him in the bridge of his nose. He was felled by the blow, his unconscious face wearing an expression of beatific despair as he collapsed amongst his comrades. They dragged him back.

The first man Hunter had hit was on his hands and knees behind the gang, holding his mouth as blood poured between his fingers, and two squaddies made their way around him. Hunter simply shoved the foremost man. He was pushed back into the second, who fell over the man who was on the ground.

Hunter dove in low, grabbed the stumbling foremost man’s heel and leapt skyward, flipping him onto his side. He booted the man across the head, yelling, “Gotcha, bitch!”

A big fat squaddie pushed his way past the jumble of bodies. Hunter came in and gave him a right cross into the jowl with a wet slapping noise. The man launched a couple swipes at Hunter, who leaned back and then threw a cross at the exact same time the big man launched a punch. Hunter’s blow connected first and took the wind out of his opponent’s punch; it connected, but was a mere discomfort, while Hunter’s fist struck true and felled the man, who hit the marble pavillion and bounced.

A man rushed in as soon as the slugger was out of the way and grabbed Hunter around the back of his knees, pushing forward. Hunter was driven backwards out of the doorway and fell down with the man’s head in his groin. This was extremely dangerous as the squad was doing everything it could to get up and through the door. Hunter got his feet underneath him, grabbed the man around the rib cage, deadlifted him up into the air and then rode him skull-first into the wooden floor of the candle shop. The man sprawled out limp as a mannequin.

Two of the squaddies had broken free of the tangle and came in one after the other. The first kicked Hunter in the face. He sprang to his feet and turned, tasting blood around the molars. The man had a midwife in one hand but jabbed with the other, and Hunter fell back between two racks of shelves.

Hunter cocked back his left fist and the man ducked. Hunter cocked his right fist and the man ducked the other way. Hunter sent his left fist into the man’s jaw and he went reeling backwards.

The second man had gone around the back of the rack and clinched him. Hunter elbowed the man loose, put his leg across the man’s knees and twisted him to the ground, breaking free of him and stomping on his head. There was a tremendous flash and a crack as the man Hunter had just punched gave him a right cross to the cheekbone.

Hunter lunged in and grabbed his belt and shirtsleeve, and then fell to his knees, whirling around in midair and pulling the man across his back as he dropped. The man flew face-first into the floorboards with a crack and flopped out, totally still except for his head which lolled and bobbed from the force of the impact. He’d been killed.

Two of them remained standing and they rushed Hunter where he stood near the center of the store. One had a Sarabande midwife and the other one had the fire axe. The man with the midwife came first and made a downward slash at Hunter, who dodged inward and body slammed him. The man tried to clinch him but Hunter grabbed him by the thigh, put a hand in his face, lifted him up a little and slammed his head down into the floorboards.

He picked up the Sarabande midwife as the man with the fire axe advanced on him with the handle raised to shoulder height, the head of the axe almost scraping the ceiling. Hunter leapt forward and struck the midwife into the top of the man’s head with a flick of the wrist, outranging him. The axe stuck into his skull and he staggered backwards, dropping his fire axe with a clatter, trying to wrest the midwife free With both hands. He couldn’t do it and fell to a knee, holding the axe like some kind of displaced horn.

The man who Hunter had last kicked in the head ran full force into Hunter’s back and carried him clear into the shop’s window, which broke into huge shards with a plaintive crash. Hunter’s scalp was cut and blood flowed freely down his face, blasting out in a mist as he exhaled. He windmilled his elbows to get the man off him, then spun around to face him. This man’s scalp had been split, as well, in the center of the forehead where Hunter had kicked him. He had a stripe of blood running down his nose like warpaint. He moved his fists with speed and had a spring in his step. Hunter sighed.

He was exhausted. This wasn’t lung cancer. It was the simple fatigue of fighting fight after fight and ascending the underground labyrinth. The man gave him a flashing cross to his jaw. Hunter tried to hop in for a knee but was granted a right cross for his effort and staggered back against the window, dropping his hands. The men stepped in and gave him a jaw to the chin and a hook across the brow. Hunter tried to give the man an uppercut, driving him back, and then followed with a heaving straight but missed both. The man cracked him in the eye and Hunter was knocked sidelong; he reached for the floor to stabilize himself if he fell, then threw that hand in a cross that was slightly deflected but clipped the other man’s scalp.

This guy had a fucking guard. Hunter launched a barrage of blows into the man’s hands to get as close as possible, then spun full circle and caught him in the jaw with his elbow. It let off a clapping noise. Hunter whirled to face his foe and was about to strike him again, but the man’s head was lolling on his shoulder; he was already unconscious. Slowly he collapsed sidelong and lay on his back.

“There’s a time and place for everything.”

Hunter looked around at the manifold fallen forms. His head was ringing, his knuckles felt broken and his legs felt like lead. That was ok. They’d done their job.

He walked out through the front door. The man with the hatchet in his head was sitting miserably against the doorjamb.

“You want a hand with that?”

“No, no, I’m good…”

“Suit yourself.” Hunter stepped over the man’s legs and set off for Millsborough manor.

He saw the ivy-girt gates before anything else, but shadows loomed before them. Hunter advanced and saw that crates marked “kerosene” and “naphtha” were being stockpiled by the gate. They were planning on burning Millsborough manor.

Hunter came near them. There were pallets for the crates and several large trucks which had been used to carry them in. A few stevedores were still unloading the trucks, and a pair of fire brigade troopers stood guard over the stockpile of incendiaries.

“I guess that’s why they’re the ‘fire brigade.’”

Nefaro, the vast security commissioner, was pacing back and forth before the steel gate. He could climb it, this was no problem, but he could not burn the manor alone.

Up above, in Millsborough manor, Hunter saw Garland in a wide window with his family and associates at his shoulders. They were pale, tight-lipped, and were comforting children at their thighs or breasts. This was their last refuge on the mainland.

“Just you and these two clowns, big ugly? Don’t anybody wanna play with you?”

Nefaro froze, then looked over his shoulder.

“Not looking so beautiful yourself, now. Though slightly more robust…”

“Don’t let the growth spurt fool ya. I’m just as dead as you are.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Nefaro grinned, and advanced on Hunter who could feel the ogre’s footfalls. It was like staring down a grizzly bear. Hunter didn’t think he could have done it if this wasn’t his last day. But he did. The fire troops and stevedores stood and gaped.

Nefaro lurched his shoulder inwards a bit and then gave Hunter a massive backhand. Hunter got his hands up but it was like getting hit by a car and he went tumbling head over heels, absorbing most of the force in his face and chest. He looked up with double vision, split lips and a numb nose as Nefaro came looming over him.

“He’s gonna kick my head out my asshole,” Hunter thought and rolled to the side over and over in a way that felt comical and pitiable to him. He leapt up, woozy, and Nefaro was just six feet from him. He rushed in at Nefaro and swung at his jaw; this was risky but Hunter had to find out just how fast his opponent was. He hit Nefaro right on the tip of the chin; the giant let out an angry puff and smashed Hunter in the back as he passed beneath his armpit. Hunter had the wind knocked out of him, tripped, hit the ground hard and tumbled end over end again, his legs whipping him around. He felt the skin of his back rip. What the hell?

He staggered to his feet, Nefaro already lumbering towards him. This was not fair. He reached back to feel his skin, and between the bloody rips in his flesh there was a strange knotted surface. He wondered if he’d gripped a tree for a moment, but it was there even when he moved his back around.

Hunter rushed away from Nefaro, sliding on the grass. Nefaro had stopped and Hunter glanced over his shoulder. Nefaro was glaring at him with a furrowed brow.

“Can you blame me running?” panted Hunter with a stinging face.

“You… how long have you been in Sarabande?”

“A day. Or maybe forever. Depends on what you call me,” Hunter said with a half-cocked smile.

“Don’t trifle with me, fool,” said Nefaro, “I was mighty before I ever showed signs of the woodrot. Whatever strange, advanced case you may have developed can bring you no closer to matching my prowess.”

“You know more about it than I do. I just broke down a whole squad of your boys so you might be right about the ‘advanced case’ part.”

Nefaro’s eyes went wide and livid. He glanced in the direction that his fire squad had departed in, then back at Hunter.

“And can you squish ants, too? Come, prove yourself against a member of your own species, brother!” Nefaro stomped towards him. Hunter rushed in and launched a punch at his nose, connecting. Nefaro tried to clap Hunter’s head between his loglike palms and woodspire fingers, but Hunter squatted and made a diving roll between his legs, correctly predicting that he’d have clearance. Punching Nefaro in the nose was like striking a tree, and Hunter’s knuckles burned. He glanced at them and his eyes popped: the bloody skin had flaked away where he’d used it to strike, and his knucklebone was covered in a knot of what looked like smooth mahogany. He almost fainted at the sight of this, glancing over at Nefaro in wonder and disbelief.

“Pfeh! You can strike!” exclaimed Nefaro. “Come closer! I’d like to feel something again!”

Nefaro bore down on Hunter. Hunter bladed his body and raised his fists, considering how to manage this attack. He leapt in to kick Nefaro in the testicles. Nefaro grabbed his pant leg but Hunter ripped it free. Nefaro caught Hunter’s forearm as he was spinning.

“Got you! Any last words?”

Hunter’s flesh felt strangely numb under Nefaro’s grip. He had a premonition.

“Yeah. My skin’s yours. Might help with the blemishes.”

Hunter wrenched his arm free of Nefaro’s grasp. His forearm and hand were bloodily degloved by the iron grip, and Nefaro was left only holding only a ragged, calloused, fingernailed length of flesh.

Hunter darted back and raised up his aching hand. He had strange calcite-like buildups of smooth wood on his bloody bones, there were woody vines entwining his pale ligaments now free to flower with budding leaves, and he saw cellulose fibers in the interstices of his muscle, coloring it coconut brown.

Nefaro hurled the hand-flesh; it thwacked into the side of a nearby truck and began sliding towards the ground.

“Then give me what I’m owed!”

Nefaro lurched for him but Hunter rolled to the side. Nefaro tried to kick him but he juked out of the way and slipped behind the ogre, slugging him in the gut as he went. Nefaro whirled on him and reached out with both hands, seizing Hunter under both armpits and staggering forward with him until they came to a crashing halt in a broken crate of kerosene bottles. Wood dust rose around them and they were both drenched in the ruddy smelling fuel. The smashed bottles lacerated Hunter’s skin, but it was a curiously weak pain and only went skin deep.

“Now I’ve got you. Ironic that we ended up here. I would have loved to see you burn, stack of faggots that you are. But I’m going to pull your head off first.”

Hunter reached into his pants pocket and drew out his cigarette lighter.

“No, no, I’ll oblige you,” he said, and looked at his silver lighter as he flicked it. “I always knew you’d kill me.”

The inferno spread over them in a heartbeat. The air became a rushing gout of blue and pale yellow flame joined by booming eruptions of naphtha from the stockpile. Not only was everything in Hunter’s view set on fire, it seemed the very trees above had been set alight and were weeping burning matter into his field of vision.

Hunter’s mind was split in half and he was gripped by cosmic agony as his skin burnt up and died. There was a constant high-pitched scream in the background, even above the all-consuming breath of the fire. It was Nefaro; he had been made into a torch and was staggering away from the stockpile like a maimed yeti of fire.

I should be blind, Hunter thought. He looked at himself and he too was burning. He got up and walked through the numb heat towards Nefaro.

The fire was cutting through the body of his nemesis. Much more of Nefaro was flesh than Hunter had realized, and his blackened and scorched body contained much charred meat. Hunter had expected Nefaro to be like him. A statue of wood and ivy.

Nefaro rounded on him, a blackened shadow demon of ruined flesh and malevolent countenance. He burned.

“Still I will destroy you,” uttered the monster.

Silently, Hunter moved towards Nefaro, picking up speed with a trail of fire behind him. He could throw pebbles at Nefaro all day, but only a boulder would fell the giant. Hunter had to take a risk; he had to make one, perfect attack or Nefaro would surely finish him. But there would be no escaping the aftermath of a strike of sufficient magnitude. He had to get it right or Millsborough manor would burn.

Hunter arrived at his quarry and snapped a kick into the ogre’s chest. Nefaro brought his hands up to deflect it. Hunter followed the kick into a second spin and leapt into the air, coming parallel with the ground.

He delivered the top of his wooden foot right into the jaw of the monstrosity. Hunter dropped to the ground, and looked up with wide eyes. Had he failed, he would now feel the giant’s deadly stomp.

Nefaro leaned sideways, wavering for a few moments, and then pitched sidelong into the leaves in a heap and there his body burned.

Hunter walked to the ivy-laden gate. He gripped it with woodbone fingers and climbed, singeing the ivy as he went. He straddled the top of the fence and looked upon Millsborough’s beautiful manor.

“Millsborough,” Hunter rumbled through the flame, “The way is clear!”

His voice sounded strange; resounding, but reedy and monotone.

Millsborough left the window and his supporters followed him after gazing upon their burning savior for a moment. Millsborough led them, perhaps a full hundred, in procession through the gate. They bowed their heads to the strange, burning wooden statue as they passed. The Queen’s siege works were consumed in flame, but they loaded themselves into the trucks and sped away for the docks. This would be the end of their chapter in Sarabande, but perhaps not of their role in the future of the city.

Hunter walked through the city streets and overlooks. People screamed, gasped, held hands over their mouths at seeing this burning figure. A specter of legend. Myth. Fairy tale. It was making for a tower.

There Hunter Flintridge stood and gazed over the glittering bay of Sarabande for the last time. He saw the waving boughs of the forest and beyond them a red steamship making for the isle of Tincaro and a new life beyond the Queen’s deadly grasp and the reach of her enforcers, the chief of which was now firewood.

From the deck of the ships, the Commissioner, his family, and his supporters could see little of Sarabande but a single burning figure bidding them good fortune from the city’s tallest tower.

Art - First Run