She slips from a golden tear in the fabric of night, light feet landing on lifeless white soil. The Little Fools – blind, as always, to consequence – have stripped this world bare.
Their city looms over her, lit by twitching searchlights, smoke belching from its colossal smelters. It reeks of anguish, of millions upon millions of suffering souls.
If she lets her guard down, their collective despair will drown her. But she will not let her guard down. She will not let him down.
On the white landscape around the base of the city, debris from the battle is polished by the light of the twin moons overhead. The bodies are gone.
‘Inconclusive’, that was how the warlock Karach had described the engagement when he returned. But for her it has concluded everything.
Five Guardians dead, four stones recovered. Her Path has disappeared beneath her feet, and she is tumbling through the void. ‘Master yourself,’ Karach had told her.
She selects one of the wraithbone runes from the pouch at her waist. Viae-Ryoca, a rune of seeing, of seeking. ‘A way in,’ she breathes, and it lifts from her palm and floats skywards, towards the city.
When it is gone she sits on the dead soil, closes her eyes and reaches for him. The ghost of his smile. The echoes of his laughter. The murmurs of thoughts he shared with no-one but her. Even the faintest traces of him are enough.
She tracks him to a spot deep beneath the earth’s surface. The city must reach almost as far into the planet as it does above it. His soul glows down there like an ember in a bed of ash.
Her rune returns, drifting down through the night air to land on her hand. It shares with her what it has seen. The night tears again and she steps into golden light.
Inside the city the reek of misery is stronger, and so are the more profane stenches: waste and smoke and rot and a chemical tang.
Another rune, Fuetharal, floats above her as she walks through the streets. A rune of hiding, of deceit.
Always she descends, in juddering elevators, on long service ladders, through sloping warrens where the inhabitants are twisted like fiends. She is most shocked by the children, with their rags and their swollen, malnourished bellies.
Her people have long memories; they remember when the Little Fools came to this green world and turned it white in their quest for the minerals beneath its crust. What was the point of all that, she wonders, if they still can’t care for their little ones?
‘Senseless.’ That was what Karach had called her plan when she told him of it. To lose one soul was a tragedy, he’d said. To throw another after it…. Well, Karach has walked many Paths but they have never led him to love.
Finally she arrives at a huge, round building with square entry portals spaced evenly around its base. She watches as a freight vehicle pulls up at one of the portals and disgorges a load of slack pale limbs – of corpses – into it. This must be some kind of holy place, she thinks. A place where the dead can join their dead God.
Viae-Ryoca finds an unguarded access panel in the roof and Fuetharal cloaks her in darkness so she can climb to it undetected.
She drops through the hatch onto a suspended walkway that hugs the building’s circumference. Just below her a great metal maelstrom churns. Teeth within teeth within teeth. A mechanical maw.
The corpses are piled up at its base, more than a dozen metres below her. Teams of twisted mon-keigh menials retrieve them from the huge mounds and haul them up stairs that zig-zag up the sides of the tower.
Just as the machine’s purpose dawns on her, a corpse is heaved in by one of the menials. Its limbs flail in the air before it lands in the centre of the maw and a red mist erupts. Bones crack and flesh is pulped with a sucking sound. The machine churns on.
For a moment her mind’s strength fails and the miasma of misery rising from this twisted manufactorum threatens to overwhelm her. She falls to her knees. A lifetime of suffering, and this is the end to it? It would be hateful if it were not so tragic.
She rallies, staggering to her feet. She cannot leave him here. He is not far beneath her. She takes the stairs at a run, heedless of the noise – the great maw will drown it out anyway.
On the floor more menials are gathered at the base of the machine, where a neverending worm of minced pink flesh squirms from a funnel. The workers are tearing it up and stuffing handfuls of meat into metal capsules. These are passed down the line where they are soldered shut, wrapped in labels and stacked on pallets.
It is on one of the pallets that she finally finds him. She saws open the capsule using the knife on her belt and plunges her hand into the meat, feeling for the stone that contains him. When her fingers close around it, warmth rushes up her arm and all of it – the smile, the laughter, the murmured nothings that mean everything – flashes through her mind. She feels as though she can breathe again.
She turns to look at the label on the capsule. She does not know the Little Fools’ crude script, but the picture – a soldier with a spoonful of pink mince halfway to his mouth – tells her enough.
She looks up at the tower where the maw is housed, at the great pink flesh-worm emerging from beneath it, and she laughs. She laughs until she is doubled over, tears streaming from her eyes. What else is there to do? She cannot stop. Her sides, the corners of her mouth, are beginning to ache.
Still laughing, she tears the air and steps into gold.
About the Author
Jack is from New Zealand and enjoys painting grey plastic and stumbling around in the grimdark.