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Once the Cyclopian Master pushed the muses into the boiling pot, they realized that they haven't produced any new fiction recently and quickly wrote the following in waterproof ink. Enjoy!
My breaths were short, quick, silent as I could make them though my lungs desperately burned for great gulps of even the stale air of the catacombs in which I hid.
Voices drifted from the nearest fork.
I pressed farther into the recess in which I crouched, sliding between
the shrouded forms standing perpetually upright.
Mold and dust fell upon my shoulders, hand, head as I pushed between the
rigid corpses layered three-deep in the rough hewn cache in which I hid, but
seven and even eight deep elsewhere. I
tightened my grip on the poniard held close to my body, its now blunted tip
pressing into the bulge caught by the shoulder of my tunic.
The mold tickled my nose, an allergy.
I bit my tongue to distract the cough that was welling inside.
The voices grew louder and were accompanied by the ruddy glow of
“I think I see footprints,” whispered the first voice.
“I don’t know a man three arms high that leaves footprints so big,
you great goesh,” insulted second voice.
“He’s so short, his feet should be like little cucumbers.”
“They’re still footprints.”
“Yeah, probably from the last time some tosh-brain
like you came into the ‘combs with a bottle ‘stilled mash,” explained the
second voice. “C’mon, let's get
back to town before the sun dips.”
“But the Doge said to check each run.”
“You want to walk down there?” accused the second.
“If you do it will be in the dark, because the torch is coming with
me.” Footsteps shuffled away. "Sides, what the Doge don't know, he don't
The faint light waned and disappeared, leaving my silent companions and I
to the dark. In a few moments, my
eyes began to adjust to the faint glow provided by gray-green lichens clinging
to the tattered wraps.
I sneezed, nearly becoming orgasmic at the release, and began extricating
myself from the crevice and the entombed therein.
Standing in the passageway—nearly two arm spans across-- I stood
straighter and stretched thoroughly, feeling the tension in my aching arms and
shoulders abate briefly. Fitzgerald
Tode, you simple messenger, how do you find yourself in such straits?
I asked myself. Ippslad, god
of messengers, did not deign to answer.
Lifting a foot, I examined my nearly normal sized footprint in the dust
and chuckled that despite barely reaching chest height when squaring against a
normal man, my feet are almost so. Size
of a cucumber, indeed. I slid my
poniard in the wide belt circling my waist and chuckled as I began creeping back
to the surface.
The catacombs extend in a hundred different directions beneath the
surface. No plan had ever been
devised to house the legions of dead the city of Mari produced—crowding
created need which spurred diggers to begin excavating in a new direction. Carving niches as they went for the poor dead, and elaborate
vaulted rooms for the wealthy.
Families keep detailed maps of the location of their family members,
extensively described and passed generation to generation through the male
patriarch with the understanding that they know where to find their sires, an
important piece of knowledge when the gods brought them back.
dead are carefully wrapped and preserved, all dead are given a procession
through the street and to the necropolis—that ragged circle of stones and
statuary that decorates the single entrance to the wealthiest place on earth. Non-Marins, foreigners and others who have been denied a
rebirth, are buried in rough stone tombs above ground where they can serve as a
reminder to future Marins to guard their words and deeds carefully when tithing
to the local priesthood. Interestingly
enough, though denied a rebirth, Cwithan, or ‘ignoble dead’, will walk again
as undead servants when the rebirth happens, serving the pious Marins for all
time. Lucky foreigners.
Only the disheveled dust declared the intrusion of the searchers as I
approach the iron door that seals the catacombs from animals and other
desecrators. The approach way to
the door is several arms across, forming a circular room in which several
attendants could gather in the final ceremonies of laying the body.
A mosaic of the city’s founder making its pact with Asoluth, Lord of
the Dead, though indistinguishable in the poor light, decorated the floor, as I
knew from my previous fraught filled visit.
I glanced over my shoulder in the darkness often as I cross the atrium
images carved into the door were cold beneath my fingers as I ran my hands to
the handle of one of the twin doors. The
hinges of the door were well oiled. Oiling
coupled with counterbalances hidden in the walls made the door well within a
single person's ability to open one half without assistance.
Whether night or day, I couldn’t tell, the craftsmen who fitted the
door fitted its seal as well and barely a breeze drifted beneath its weight.
my feet and taking a deep breath, I pushed on the door.
With each finger width the door moved, I prayed to my own luck that the
searchers didn’t simply lie in wait beyond the door to spring a trap on me.
final shove and the door opened wide enough that I could slip through.
Beyond the door, the sun had sunk below the horizon though warm rays
streaked the sky and clouds. The
approach to the door was yet littered with overturned braziers and torn banners
from my frantic dash from the catacombs and into the Doge's annual tribute to
his sires and Asoluth hours earlier.
Then the subsequent frenzied chase of me back into the catacombs before
the observing Mari Patricians rend me limb to limb. With a sigh, I descended the stairs with every sense
and local legend drives the curious away as do strong social mores backed by
stronger local law which can cause violates to the necropolis during the fourth
Sabbath day to be crucified.
shuffling noise to my left sent me sprawling down the incline, grabbing at the
poniard at my waist.
to my knees, poniard before me—fear rising the bile to my throat with the
burning and sharp bitter taste flooding my chest and mouth-- I scanned the
darkness frantically around the barren rock near the necropolis entrance, brush
having been cleared by the city sextons during the day.
As if a rabbit frozen in a field, I waited breath shallow, blood thudding
in my ears. The shuffling came
again. To my right, near a monolith
with a rough-hewn image of one of death’s keepers, the hounds of Asoluth.
I tensed my shoulders and thighs, ready to lunge or dodge as the need
arose, fear mounting.
moon cast shadow crept past the monolith, growing larger until… a bristled
hedge hog ambled past the monolith and past the door, following the path down
the necropolis and towards the grasslands and errant trees that segregated
necropolis and city.
cursed, vehemently and loudly at my own cowardice, then chuckled at it as well,
sliding poniard back into my broad leather belt.
As the slim knife slid home, it pinched the open flesh of my palm sending
a twinge of pain along the nerves. I
remembered how I received the cut and that there are more things to fear than
simple-minded Marins. It hunts the
I felt the bulge in the upper pocket inside of my tunic, insuring the
safety of the package I had been instructed to deliver--as a follower of Ippslad,
messenger god-- to the Doge when he entered the catacombs.
Through the leather, it felt warm then cold, alternating between the too
temperatures as a scorned woman alternates between hatred and love.
The circular shaped jewel lay flat and nigh unnoticeable.
I stood and began moving silently through the necropolis, paralleling the
path without being seen from it, the dark brown of my clothes and small stature
helping my endeavor.
Leaving the palisade of the necropolis behind, I began looping across the
fields, trading speed for visibility. Praying
to Ippslad, god of messengers, that I would leave the fetid creature that hunted
me in the dark of the catacombs behind.
A stream, one of several tributaries that feed the great Cu'Kadeitch
River that splinters Mari into a city of several boroughs, meandered past the
necropolis and the grasslands, to the very fringes of the city. I stopped to rest on its sandy bank.
The city glowed past the copse of trees and slight rise on which I
rested, the water falling gently toward the city's plain.
Occasional squeals, clanks, or grunted passings drifted from the city in
the open star lit sky. The sounds
of a city settled for the evening. The
sky above the city brightened the farther to the west and south I looked, in one
direction casting the multicolored parasols of the red-light District, named for
the brothels that hung lightly died red shades over the lamp lights near the
entrance. The other direction was
lit for the safety of those on Boulevard, the wealthy lords and players of the
city's politics by virtue of funds and genealogy. There is where I wished to go to discharge my service.
The night, while cool, was not overly uncomfortable, and so I slid to
kneel next to the water and after slaking my thirst with as much water as my
palm would hold, began removing my glove.
The crusted blood stuck to the leather and pulled away as the glove fell
to the bank, renewing the bleeding. I
dipped my hand into the cool water to wash it clean, fearful of the pestilence
that breeds on dead things. Beneath,
the tortured skin, split in rents along the seams of my palm, neatly bisecting
the line a fortuneteller would call life and another would call wealth.
The small, deeply cleft luck line was unfettered.
water coursing through the wound stung, and so I gritted my teeth as, with my
uninjured left hand, slowly straightened fingers and palm.
The blood was faint in the wan light as the water diluted it and washed
it towards town.
The tendons and muscles would need to be properly stitched by barber or
better, a midwife, if I could find one, and soon before the healing begins.
I was fortunate that the wounds were wide rather than deep, the thick
tendons still whole and the bones of my hand invisible beneath.
I listened to the water and the stirrings of the grass, fearful still
that I was hunted, not by the Doge's men, ignorant and slothful as they were,
but by the thing I had discovered, the thing that in dodging its fearful
appendages, I slit my hand upon the metal grating from behind which it arose.
I pictured it then, limbs materializing behind me, saliva dripping from
its many gaping maws, intelligible glutteral sounds buzzing nigh imperceptibly
and its eyeless face searching mine.
I shook, from pain or fear I knew not, but I slipped my glove back upon
my hand and pressed it to my chest. Feeling
that which I felt was stolen beneath my tunic, I rose and began moving towards
the city gates, straining to listen.
The gates of Mari close at sun down, terrible monsters have been known to
roam the country side though many peasant farms are hidden in the surrounding
hills and woodlands protected by their own.
The gates close, but for the daring, the stupid, and those without a
sense of smell, other ways exist into the city.
I spied the large culvert that supported the wall above the river, a long
swim with a grill work that hand been sunk on the outward side to greet the
intrepid swimmer. The grills spaced small enough to prevent a normal adult from
I slipped into the water away from the lights, causing little eddies in
the water. Bobbing along in the
cool water and shivers snaking my spine, I drifted, mouth barely above the
waters until I neared the grating for the intake channel.
The current was not swift, but strong, and with effort I found a row of
bricks redder than others, and an arm-span past, a crack that branched as a tree
high above, reaching the crenels of the parapet. Knowing my place, I took two slow even breaths, capturing air
in the pockets of my cheeks and sank.
frigid dark waters rose above my head, lifting my hair from my scalp and sopping
my clothes. Unlike the water
egression south of the city, where sludge catches at tattered remains of
clothing, carts, and assorted other refuse that falls into the browning water,
here the water was pure, sharp, and cold. I
began shivering as I sank to the silt.
Seconds passed as I slowly sank, pushing downwards with a steady stroke.
Blindly I reached forward to
the rusting grating that protected this odd entrance.
I grasped weeds, jerking them roughly aside before grabbing the thick
rusted metal of the grating. Like
the rungs of a ladder, I pulled myself downward, leaving the last glimpse of
light above, counting the time of my descent.
My count led me too far; I pulled at assorted weeds in the dark,
searching for the break in the rungs that signified my entrance.
The dark began to close on me as the rent remained invisible in the inky
blackness. My Cheeks burned, puffed
outward with my slowly evaporating captured breath.
I began to rise a length and began my search again, desperately wondering
if I miscalculated my descent or my location.
My chest constricted, panic beginning.
In the darkness, weeds grasped at my legs at arms, catching me; I pulled
my poniard and stabbed violently at the offending vegetation, using the
ineffectual edge to pry free, picturing as I did the many arms of the creature
from which I ran.
The catch in my tunic began to grow warm.
Frantically, I pulled myself backwards and forwards, desperate for the
entrance, knowing that my time had nearly escaped.
My limbs slowed as the chill crept inward.
In place of grabbing another rung, my hand fell through the blackness,
bruising my shoulder as I fell to the grating.
In my exultation, I nearly let loose my remaining air. Quickly I pulled myself through, careful of the jagged edges
of the worn metal. On the opposite
side, now in the waters of the city, I kicked violently for the surface; the air
suffocating in my lungs, burning in air starved muscles.
Blackness crept into the edges of my vision before I broke the water and
desperately gasped for breath in the blackness beneath the arch of the intake
duct. Momentarily, I thought I
remained beneath the waves, and nearly halted my frantic grabbing for breath.
Bobbing in the waves, my breath echoing in the small chamber, I began to
shake from fatigue and the cold of the water.
The warming on my chest drove me from my reverie.
With supple strokes I paddled as an animal, head barely cresting the
water from out of the chamber ducking beneath the waves and taking several
strokes before breaking for air and beginning again. After surfacing three times, I felt I had gone far enough
from the wall to risk climbing from the water.
I replaced my poniard in its characteristic spot.
I surfaced and drifted towards the rivers edge, I glanced back and the oblivious
guard who remained staring out upon the grasslands from which I crossed,
seemingly unaware I had entered the city.
Leaving the water proved more difficult than I imagined, the side I
wished to exit to rose above the river edge and required climbing upon rocks
slippery with algae. Several false
starts left me bobbing in the water, more tired with each effort. Finally, I gave up and swam to the far side of the river,
several spans across, and emerged onto the shoals, digging hands into sand and
clambering over sharp rocks.
I collapsed upon a grassy ledge near a cobbled roadway that paralleled
the river. On the grass I huddled
from my wet clothing, breathing deeply, and shivering violently from the chill.
“Oy, wats’ this.”
“Don’t know, d’ya—is it a boy,” replied a voice distinctly more
feminine than the first.
A toe kicked at my shoulder. “Aye boy, are you a wake?”
I struggled to regain control of myself and managed to force down the
shivering enough to rise to a kneeling position.
“E’s cold,” commented the observant woman.
“I’m not about to give'im m'cloak”
“'E wouldn’t want it, has more holes than whore's chastity belt,”
she replied indignant, “Sides, maybe he’d like to squeeze near me.”
“Other men pay, why’s 'e get it free?”
“Shove a poke up it, you shite,” she defended indignant.
An arm draped my shoulders. “There you are, now stand here and I’ll
help yo get someplace warm.”
I stood, keeping my head bowed. “Thank
you, but I must decline such advances as yours,” I explained politely,
removing her arm. “Perhaps
She jerked her hand back at the sound of my voice, one deeper than she
imagined I am sure. “Milosh!
Wat are ya?”
The man moved near and stooped to stare into my face, “It's him! The
manling the Doge wanted! Help—“
A jab to the man’s abdomen drove the breath from him, before he could
regain I shoved him violently backward towards the water.
Something caught me on the shoulder, the same I scraped on the grating.
I turned quickly enough to avoid another swing from the women.
As her punch swung wide I booted her in the ass and sent her tumbling
towards the water after her rough companion.
“Bloody ‘ell, he twisted my ankle!” shouted the man from below.
I began running before an additional retort could be added from the
woman. The boulevard is lain
out with a guiding plan created by Lord Guilbertti, but it is the exception.
From the Middens to the Red Light, every other road meanders, stops,
starts and avoids housing along the way. I
fled into the maze away from the river and road.
Winded, I slid into the shadows near a tenement where scraps of wood and
clothe substituted shutters and drying lines were strung from building to
building for neighbors to share. I
rested in the shadows, straining to hear the sound of pursuit.
None came, nor would it here where lictors, the local equivalent of
constabulary, tended to avoid travelling small numbers.
Water puddled beneath me.
the Doge would realize I was within the city-- those two would run to him as
hunting hounds as quickly as they could, which meant that events needed
concluding tonight for more than one reason.
Though the item in my tunic had grown cool again, carrying it was also a
hazard I knew.
I stood when I no longer strained for breath and began moving towards the
boulevard which required crossing above water this time.
I headed for a service bridge that fed the warehouses and factories,
rather than risk the direct bridges that led to the boulevard-- those are
guarded by house lictors at all times.
The home I sought was well away from the homes near the highest hill of
the boulevard, which rose well above the slums to the south.
Nearly all homes along the boulevard are guarded by high stoned walls and
defended gates, but the wealthy who have not graduated to enough political clout
maintain homes that have larger courtyards and the exterior and main door serve
darted from the shadows provided by the groves of trees of which the boulevard
is riddled and crossed a street three carts wide—the boulevard, and
disappeared around the side of the home that was my target.
Lamps burned atop poles spaced in front of the homes along the street,
illuminating the street well but providing apple shadows elsewhere.
waited for a pair of lictors hired by House Isthile--the Doge-- by the garish
yellow and green of their surcoats, to pass on their rounds of the entirety of
the boulevard. Custom dictated that
the wealthiest homes contributed to the defense of the entire patrician class,
which also meant they control the constabulary.
In the dark, I flexed my shoulders and adjusted my tunic so that the
loose strings at the shoulders were placed to allow the most movement.
This accomplished and my mind turned to the task, I reached for the well
fired clay of the exterior walls and began to pull slowly, tentatively upwards
towards the two stories of the roof. In
the dark, each finger moved carefully as did toes inside my boots, towards what
purchase they may find. If time
allowed, and if I did not fear pursuit before the evening finished, I would have
climbed without boots, bare toes find root in rock faster than leather.
Suspended like a fly for an eternity, I found the lip of the roof, each
heartbeat exposed on the wall had brought an increasing itch of an arrow in the
back. I rolled onto the roof and
saw the clear constellations shining well above, those put there to remind of
the works of gods. I found Ippslad,
eyes bound, dagger in hand. Merciless
On my belly, I crawled over the clay pitched roof towards the window that
overlooked the courtyard on the room nearest the street.
I craned my head and neck past the roof’s edge to peer at the
open-shuttered room. Drapes clung
to the ledge , but otherwise the room was open to the night air to allow it to
shed the stifling heat of the day.
No one moved in the courtyard below; filled with manicured trees and
lawn, the garden was the social center of the house, but had been settled for
the evening, its braziers doused. Like
stars, other windows with pale candlelight dotted the remaining walls of the
slid over the edge, holding tightly to its lip—causing pain to shiver up my
forearm from the cuts on my palm. I
lowered myself carefully to the window edge and released, balancing precariously
on my toes while the curtains caught at my calves.
Regaining my balance, I centered on the window and crouched, listening
for sounds within.
Low moans of pleasure drifted outward as well as the rustling of sheets.
I used the point of my poniard to edge the curtains aside.
Twin candelabras lighted the room with a trio of candles burning in
beeswax on each, the flames dancing in the sudden breeze.
Much of the room was decorated in faux southern style, with deep richly
embroidered carpets and pillows. A
well-oiled serving table was littered with silver serving platters and nibbled
foods; several chests and cupboards lined the walls.
At the far end of the room was a door, barred with a lever from the
To the left of the window, a large bed, canopy tied above, was occupied
by two figures tangled in the blankets and sheets, a man was resting--chest
barred-- against the headboard, a longhaired head was farther down.
held the curtain aside with my free hand and tapped the pommel of the poniard
against the wall. “Hello, Hulseel.”
The woman’s head rose with a start, while the bald man opened his eyes.
“What is the meaning—the messenger?” he sputtered, squinting his
piggy eyes. “You live!”
I took a miniature bow from the waist while remaining in the window.
“Should I be dead, Hulseel? " I said, again calling him again by
his name--an insult to any patrician. "What
danger does a simple message carry with it?”
Hulseel cringed in his bed, pulling the sheet towards his sagging breasts
and competing with the woman who was attempting to take the sheet with her as
she moved off the bed. Perhaps
because he found the patrician arrogance common to his class or perhaps because
he simply did not wish a trick see his impotence he scolded her with a curse and
demanded she remain in bed.
you should allow the girl to leave,” I told Hulseel.
He didn’t respond, instead reaching for a robe.
"What do they say, Hulseel?"
He grumbled, "They say the tribute of House Isthile was disrupted by
a small man." Hulseel lowered
his legs to the floor, unabashed by his nakedness.
"They say the Doge himself was touched."
I didn't remember touching the Doge, but I was preoccupied with several
sharp blades swinging in my direction. Hulseel,
minor Patrician of House Wialis, assumed my silence to be an invitation.
"The stranger disappeared back into the catacombs, but was not found
before sun down requiring the search to desist lest the Doge risk the wrath of
Asoluth for violating his domain."
"And you discovered this how, Huseel?
As I recall minor houses are not invited to such events as the
The muscle of his jaw twitched. "Lords
disdain base comments . . . servants will talk."
I shifted foot to foot. "Being
an alien to Mari, tell me, Hulseel, are the catacombs sacred."
He made no comment.
"Or better yet, explain to me, if you would, . . . was the man you
sent to me valuable. A friend
perhaps, a trusted servant, a lover?"
I asked, masking accusations. "I
offer condolences. He seems to have died, but I found the package you were to
have left for me. A jewel wasn't
word of a jewel has been heard,” he chastised.
“No word is gossiped," I explained.
“Tell me, Hulseel, the jewel, was I meant to present it to the Doge and
insight a riot as House Eyelenor's most sacred treasure was defaced in the
presence of every Patrician Family. The
hands of a Cwithan, a soon to be
ignoble dead-- groping their icon."
I chuckled. "The loss
of face would have been incredible to House Eyelenor, but what of the others
houses, outraged! At the Doge and House Isthile for allowing the sacrilege . .
.at each other-- speculating which house would have the audacity to commit theft
in the catacombs. The act of a Cwithan."
I held up a finger to silence him, "Was I to be slain?
If I was slain, I certainly could not speak of the Patrician who hired me
to present the jewel to the Doge."
Hulseel gained confidence as he pulled a satin robe over his pale body,
cinching it at the waste with a belt. “Perhaps
all three if things worked well and the gods were with me.”
He crossed to the table and lifted a gold rimmed goblet, wine sloshing
over its side as he drank. “The
Doge has let word come that a small man has desecrated his family’s vault,
would you know the culprit?”
The jewel, still tucked safely beneath my tunic, began to grow warm
again. “Hulseel, you should know
I am unfamiliar with Mari’s necropolis…you did ask for a Cwithan
He turned to pour more red wine from the jug at the table.
I pulled a small leather pouch from beneath my tunic, undid its tie and
reached inside withdrawing a ruby, perfectly oval and the size of a large nut.
A perfect vein of crystal split it in twain.
“Tell me of myths Hulseel, tell me of tales surrounding a ruby . . .
was I to die before or after I left it for the Doge?”
He froze, back to me yet. “Do
not believe old wives, their tales are fictions for children.”
“Really, an old wife told me a tale of a monster that is summoned by
the ruby, eyeless with three mouths, each filled with long, sharp teeth.”
He spun, the goblet falling from his hand to the floor, “What do you
say? Is this true?”
held the ruby in my palm, unseen by Hulseel.
“Is what true. Old wives
tell tales, but only Three-fingers, only he has seen."
shivered, then asked, "Tell me what you know, Hulseel, and perhaps I will
speak of old wives.”
he threatened torments privileged by his patrician estate upon my impertinent
held a gentle hand upward. "Peace,
Hulseel. Perhaps you could shout
and bring your house upon me before I escaped through this window from which I
came, but what would it avail? Is
the jewel of which we-do-not-speak of value?
Do you wish its power? To
summon horrors upon your enemies? An
easy route for a minor house to become majoris,
debated with himself, his eyes wide and searching.
Patrician arrogance demanding obedience, but greed and eagerness winning
over. “You know all families made
bargains with Asoluth?”
is not the only bargain struck.”
pressed him further, “What do you mean, Hulseel?”
His hands clenched and unclenched at his side.
“House Eylenor was rumored to have made a bargain with—with”
“With a demon . . .Cul’chynai, the eyeless one.
The ruby was to be its eye which it gave as a sign of the pact.”
He waved that away into irrelevance.
“Does it matter? Power,
wealth, what does it matter . . . what was important was that everyone knew of
the rumors and the origin of the jewel, the eye of Cul’Chynai.
Do you not see, House Eylenor was the keeper of the eye, if it were to
fall into the hands of another house—“
“Then Cul’Chynai would come for it”
the best circumstance," he admitted. "In
the worst, House Eylenor would lose face for losing its most valued possession,
and House Isthile, the Doge, would be in a scandal and lose the confidence vote
of the houses if theft was found in the catacombs," Hulseel impudently
explained moving closer to me, threatening with each step.
“Where is the jewel? Where
did you put it? Where!”
The jewel glowed hot in my hand through the leather. With a single spring I launched myself at Hulseel.
He jerked backward in surprise, but the hand holding the jewel caught his
face, forcing the jewel past his lips widened to raise alarm.
momentum carried us over ontoHulseel back, my hand firmly placed over his mouth
and nose. I scrambled to hold his
jaw and nose shut before he could react, flailing as he was like a turtle on its
His face reddened as he struggled to draw breath, unsure what was in his
“Swallow,” I whispered into his ear.
I cautiously slid the poniard to the large artery in his neck. “Swallow or I spill your blood now. Let me give you my hypothesis, do you know the word?
It's one I learned from a philosopher in Colum D’an, it means educated
I guess that you believed the origins of the jewel to be real, you
believed that the creature would come for its eye.
I guess that that you hoped I would be killed by the Doge, whose arrival
at the tomb was several hours earlier than what you supposed it to be.
guess that--swallow or you die-- that you intended for the creature to kill the
Doge, his retinue, and with luck myself. Who
stole the jewel? Not I. Even you would not allow a Cwithan
into the catacombs. Was it the
servant who was struck down as he handed the heated jewel into my hand?
Was it him? How did you
convince him--a Marin-- into the catacombs for such sacrilege?”
unable to hold his breath any longer swallowed forcibly. “Again," I
commanded and to which he complied.
I released my grip and stood away. "Did
you promise guilders--money? Or was
it loyalty to House Wialis?"
Coughing, he sat up and reached for the jug on the table and drank
heartily, sputtering periodically. “Am
I poisoned?” he mewed.
I shook my head.
“Then what?” he pleaded red faced.
“Does your stomach burn? Do
you feel a warmth in your belly, Hulseel?” I told him, “I’ll offer a clue
to you that you did not offer to me, when the jewel grows warm the creature
comes, materializing in the air before you, above you, or below you.”
His eyes grew wide as both the realizations of what now rested warming
his belly was and what I threatened.
I moved cautiously to the opposite side of the bed, aware that the
creature may enter through the window. The
girl cowered under the sheet. “It's
slow, ponderously slow… which is fortunate because you do not appear to be
well-formed for running. Realize
that when ever you slow down, it will appear.”
bent over, slamming his finger into his throat, gagging and heaving, but failing
to bring more than the wine he drank up
“The ruby is smooth, which means it will save your ass if you live long
enough for it to come out naturally . . .I have been told by old wives that fish
oil speeds the process along.”
A thump sounded against the window frame.
Hulseel froze, a stream of liquid flowing down his leg to puddle on the
floor. I knelt beside the girl and
covered her mouth with my hand; she shook like a lamb beneath me.
“It will be alright,” I cooed. “Trust me when I say that you must
not move nor make a sound and it will pass you by.
Nod if you understand.” To
which she did, though I did not remove my hand.
Rather, I continued kneeling, in order to watch merciless revenge unfold.
with fear, Hulseel watched as a slender tentacle probed past the curtains,
followed by another and then a third. Each
ended in a spade like appendage that ‘sniffed the air’.
I turned the girl's face away from the scene and pushed her, mouth yet
covered, into my chest.
A clawed foot, three-toed, fell to the floor followed by the majority of
the creature's body and bringing with it a smell of decay that drifted about the
room. Three maws that I recalled
from the dark catacombs opened along its torso.
Saliva dripping from between jagged teeth, it gurgled a word, to which I
can only interpret as ‘mine’. It
then swung its eyeless face towards the girl and I, its appendages sniffing the
air. Without pause it continued
past, the appendages growing erect like the penis of some large carnivore as
they found Hulseel's scent.
three maws broke into malicious grins and ‘mine’ came from each in a chorus
of increasing octaves. Perhaps it
was this that broke Hulseel’s doe like fear and allowed him the adrenaline to
run. He sprinted towards the door,
fumbling over the lever as the creature, with great deliberation, brought its
remaining two legs into the room and trailed another half dozen appendages.
a thud, the lever was thrown wide and the door opened.
Hulseel tore down the stairs of his estate in the dark.
The creature moved past, trailing a pungent fecal and decayed odor while
I held the girl into my shoulder. Before
it left the room, the bottom most mouth uttered another intelligible guttural,
one that my fear addled mind interpreted as ‘three-finger’ and which was
enough to cause me to shake
made my escape back through the window shortly after Hulseel's frantic flight
had taken him onto the boulevard; in the confusion it was easy to disappear to
the Middens. I took a silver,
though otherwise unremarkable, serving platter and an amphora of Illuvian Red
wine for my efforts, slipping both in my tunic during my escape. One I drank that night, the other was given to a fence for a
number of imperial crowns rather than the local guilders.
Waking the next morning, I drank the dregs from the amphora and splashed
cold water from a basin onto my face. Refreshed,
I opened the door to my room and called for a boy to bring stylus and wax
I was dressed before the boy arrived.
“You called for these, sir,” he asked holding an inkwell and a scrap
of parchment; each would cost much more than the tablet and stylus. I didn't have the strength to comment however.
I pointed to the small table the room possessed.
“Set them there and then bide outside for a moment.”
He nodded and shut the door as he left.
I scribbled a note on the sheet:
even a wolf is saved by the bite of a venomous snake…when the bite is to a
I left the note unsigned, but scratched Cwithan
at its bottom. I dripped wax from
my single candle onto the rolled parchment and allowed it to cool.
This done, I called the boy back in and slipped a copper guilder, the
currency of Mari, in is palm. “This
is for delivering the note to House Isthile, the Doge; you’ll get its twin
when I have his reply. And if you
fail to deliver or cheat me…” I
left the implied threat hanging in the air.
“Never a fear sir,” he responded with a salute and left.
For four days, I had meals delivered and never left the room.
It was shortly after noon on the fourth day that the messenger boy
arrived with a note.
“About bloody time,” I murmured and gave him the promised copper.
reply was on new parchment: freshly bleached and sealed by a yellow and green
ribbon, the colors of House Isthile. I
broke the wax encrusted seal of the Doge with my poniard and read the note
inside. It read as simply as my
A wolf does
not owe a snake forever.
read the note several times before convincing myself that I had been granted
temporary amnesty and would not be openly hunted by the Doge for disrupting a
holiday celebration. He must have
suspected my involvement with disposing of a minor rival--though rival
nonetheless-- in the form of Hulseel.
Joyed by the fact I lived another day, I called for the boy to bring a
bottle of wine and to accompany me to the public baths, strigil in hand.
I had several days of grime to scrape away.
I hadn’t left the room in four days; its odors were less than pleasing.
imbibed watery coffee from plastic vending cups for a dollar and missed the
ambiance of cathodes and thundering skies.
coffee was dispensed by one of several vending machines in the foyer of Time
Squared, the research laboratory for Millennium Computer, Inc. -- the leader in
virtual reality simulators.
mad scientist was James Irwin, the genius who created all the machines and
programs that propelled Millennium ahead of the larger design firms at the
latter part of the twentieth century. Unfortunately
for Irwin, hyperopia is genetic and his grandfather's selling of the farm and
Irwin's hiring contract both included the same chicanery: small print.
maybe he would have owned the company instead of just working for it.
was a slim young man with pointed nose and a habit of drawing deep breaths
through it. A phone recording on
his voice mail was the only contact he had with the doctor; it simply asked for
his attendance and described the meeting as an opportunity to see a preview of
the latest wonders the twisted lobes of Irwin's mind had wrought.
for the day off from Kestor, Hully, Nedle, & Fenrick, Attorneys at law had
not been easy. Not that they truly
needed his expertise, a paralegal isn't that invaluable, but on principle no one
should have more of a life than theirs they verbally bedraggled him.
A thought that percolated through his mind as he sipped his simulated
coffee and Irwin failed to show.
course, his invitation was odd. He
was neither a computer geek nor agent of the press.
to think of it, he really didn't even care much for computers, but one does not
pass up the opportunity to see a genius's newest product.
glanced again at the electronic marquee on the wall behind the abandoned
receptionist desk. In glowing
letters a half a meter tall it repeatedly asked each of the four present to
please be patient while Irwin finished his preparations.
Milhouse planted his butt on the edge of the receptionist's desk to sip
his coffee and succeeded in overturning a pen stand. A dark-skinned man with a
barrel chest sauntered over-- a five-dollar bill in his hand-- as Milhouse
quickly replaced the pens.
me," he asked, his bulldog jowls splitting into a grin, "would you
happen to have change for a five… the stupid coffee machine won't except my
reached into his rear pocket for his wallet.
A quick search revealed two ones that he proceeded to hold before him.
"Sorry, all I have are two ones."
said the jowly man shoving the five into Milhouse's left hand while snatching
the two smaller bills from his other. He
walked hurriedly towards the vending machines, excusing himself through the
balding man in trim khaki suit with burgundy waistcoat and the dark haired women
in a more business black.
jowly man returned a moment later, a plastic cup steaming in his right hand.
He closed his eyes and sipped, then made a pinched face as he lowered his
This is awful. How can they
make coffee this bad?"
sipped his own. "It's an
jowly man took another sorrowful quaff. "I'll
tell ya, coffee hasn't been the same since they made caffeine a controlled
substance. I can't even get a good
buzz after drinking a pot of this stuff."
Two more draughts and he crumpled his empty cup.
He pulled the second dollar from his coat jacket and returned to the
vending machine for a second cup. The
marquee scrolled by for a forty-fifth time.
jowly man returned, excusing past the suit, who said a curt "excuse
you" and the woman who simply pursed her lips and frowned at jowly man's
impertinence. He held out his right
hand to Milhouse on his return. "Pat Onari."
accepted the firm handshake; Onari's his meaty paw encompassed the younger
man's. "Milhouse Breanen,"
laughed. "Like the
shook his head ruefully. "My parents were conservatives."
took a gulp of coffee. As the taste faded with his disgust, he watched the two near
the vending machines and asked conspiratorially, "Say, do you know what it
is were supposed to see. Being at
the labs of the company that created the virtual web isn't quite what I'm
normally into. I'm a
bio-psychologist, not a hacker; what about you?"
watched the marquee. "Lawyer."
raised his eyebrows. "Say really. Y'know
you don't strike me as the type. Your
hair should be greased or something. What's
replied Milhouse, rationalizing that it was a small lie, since he had fully
intended on becoming an attorney before he left school and he did, at least,
work for several. "Mostly
copyright and patent infringement clauses."
on load to Time Squared…no…oh, well. Y'know,
you don't fit in with the rest of this group," commented Onari.
Milhouse asked, suddenly conscientious of his retail shoes and dime store polo.
pointed with the hand holding the cup. "You
see that man, Julian Cretier, he's a physicist from Cal Tech, spatial theory and
relativism; supposed to be quite renowned to hear him tell it."
a theologian, Margarite Van Wright, another professor type, but from some
private foundation," he explained. "A
bio-psychologist, a physicist, and a theologian, and an attorney -- sounds like
the plot to a 'b' horror flick from pay for view."
grunted. Whatever witticism Onari
was about to dispense was cut short as the speakers recessed in the acoustic
tiles above their heads cut off a Muzak rendition of Inna Godda Divita,
to say, "Uh, excuse me, is this on, uh hello, this is Irwin, I just wanted
to let you know I'm ready for you to come on back.
Can you hear this?"
woman spoke first. "We can
hear you quite well, Mr. Irwin."
loud speaker buzzed again. "That must be you Professor Van Wright.
Thank you for coming."
went to the glass door beyond the vending machines and tugged at the handle.
"We might be a little late if you don't unlock the door,
Irwin," he called to the air. A
buzzing began near the door; Onari jerked it open before the buzzing ceased. Each visitor filed through, holding the door cautiously open
for each other. Milhouse finished
his coffee, swirling the dregs before sending it over his tongue, and stepped
through with Onari-- thanking him for holding the door.
would have quickly become lost in the maze of mimicked corridors if smart
lighting hadn't illuminated the only available path.
In minutes, they descended upon a brightly lit lab behind an airlock.
The lab was neat and well kept: parts stored neatly for use, cables bound
together and secured to floor or ceiling, a row of computers covering two walls,
and a large VR unit squatting in the room's middle.
The virtual reality unit's water couch was inflated with the head unit
resting near the top. At the sides
were both feet and hand units, their sheathing designed to completely block
non-essential stimuli from the user as did the head unit and the couch.
man that gathered them together on a warm Saturday stood nearby, dressed smartly
in slacks and sweater. Merely thirty-four years old, Irwin still maintained his
youthful face and athletic profile. He
wasn't a vid star, but his looks made many a young woman swoon when coupled with
his money and success. Van Wright
depressed a series of switches along the computer face causing the VR unit to
hum to life. "Ah, thank you,
each of you for coming -- I hope you introduced yourselves to one another, I'm
really rather excited about starting," he said sincerely, his face beaming
at each member of his audience in turn.
dropped the niceties first. "Desist
with the pleasantries, my day is already wasted by venturing out here.
What is it you want us to witness?"
get on with it, Irwin," echoed Van Wright.
leaned near Milhouse's ear and whispered, "You got anything better to
by Cretier and Van Wright's annoyed urgings, Irwin continued adjusting both VR
couch and program settings on his computers.
He spoke as he did so, "You must forgive my impertinence, Dr.
Cretier, but I must make sure the settings are just right for this to
what to work?" asked Van Wright.
Irwin finished his manipulations and smiled a knowing little smile as he
turned to answer Van Wright's question. "What
if I was to draw a line on a chalkboard -- what dimension would it exist
sputtered, "You brought us here to listen to this tripe.
Mr. Cretier," Irwin cooed. "If
I were to draw a second line, perpendicular to the first, what dimension
who has every taken a physics course can answer that?" was Cretier's
and Onari looked at each other and shrugged in unison.
Dimensions, Mr. Irwin," answered Van Wright. "Height and Width."
third line perpendicular to the first two."
stretched his right arm before asking, "Could a two-dimensional being see a
three dimensional one?"
began to answer, then paused to think before answering.
"Only where the three dimensional being bisected the two dimensional
plane, the rest would not be within the realm of perception for a two
affirmed Irwin, "to the perceptions of a two dimensional being, a third
physical dimension does not exist, though it is obvious it does, that is why
I've asked you to come."
great for talking to Cretier over there, you two scientists can battle
out," commented Onari. "But what about us," he said indicating Van Wright
waved him down and replied, "We'll be there in a minute, Mr. Onari.
Please be patient." Irwin
returned to Cretier. "We've
also identified another dimension, time, and several other possible dimensions
that only occur at the subatomic level-"
infintinum if we're speaking of mathematics," interrupted Cretier, "or
as many as nine dimensions if speaking of pure physics, depending on what
journals you subscribe."
of geometry, human perception," clarified Irwin.
"What if we were to take another line perpendicular to the first
three and then another perpendicular to those four and another to those five and
another and so on."
thought for several minutes with his arms crossed and fore-finger tapping his
bottom lip. "Its possible for
us to represent the shadow that a eight dimensional object would project into
three dimensions, but the actual perception or creation of such an object is
stood near the VR unit, adjusting the setting, as Cretier explained.
As Cretier finished, Irwin climbed onto the couch in its upright
position. "But you admit that theoretically they do exist?"
answered slowly, "Yes. Theoretically."
Irwin slipped both feet from his Leather shoes and inserted them into the foot
coverings of the VR unit
Wright began to interrupt him, but Irwin cut her off with a polite but
restraining gesture. "Mr.
Cretier has just lain the groundwork for why I brought you here. Thank you Mr.
Cretier," he said and nodded to him. "The
computer consoles around you serve but one purpose: to create a sensory
representation of these added dimensions."
explained Irwin slipping the hand guards on, "by producing registrable
stimuli from these added dimensions, I can actually alter my perception and my
existence to these altered dimensions-- I am the two dimensional being that
someone lifted into the sky."
not possible," insisted Cretier.
but it is," replied Irwin setting the water couch to recline on its axis.
"I have already done it, several times in fact, but each time I kept
a part of myself anchored within my limited field of perception.
I called you here to witness the severing of that tie; tonight I begin a
Bio-psychologist was laughing, Cretier was sputtering, and Van Wright began
espousing the metaphysical implications of such blasphemy.
Irwin silenced them all. "Now you know why I gathered all of you. Each of you are known and respected in your fields, each of
you have written something on the subject of dimensionality or perception-- I
give you this, this knowledge of what I am to do for you to argue amongst
yourselves where the technology should go."
Wright said, "I'm not convinced it will work."
laughed in boyish glee. "I'm not here to convince you."
get the show on the road," commented Onari, rubbing his hands together.
"I can't wait to see what happens next."
the spirit, Mr. Onari." Irwin
takes a breath and looks at of them with his x-ray
eyes while holding the VR helmet in his steady hands before him.
do we tell people who ask where you went?" asked Milhouse pragmatically.
them--" Irwin began as he brought Milhouse into view.
"Excuse me, do I know you?"
looked nervously at the imposing faces in the room.
cursed beneath his breath then opinioned, "Virtual Secretaries are truly
worthless, don't invest in them. Too
many grammatical complexities."
affixed the nose and ear pieces to his head then hoisted the helmet up.
"Tell them I've gone on to a better place."
description of what it's like, how it feels, nothing," Milhouse asked
it and find out," he replied and lowered the VR helmet to his head.
Now covered in the black egg that would feed him all stimuli. Now blinded his hands lifted and began adjusting the
virtually controls. The watchers leaned forward, intently aware of each motion,
waiting anxiously to see what would happen.
The machine began powering and then--
slumped forward, hands falling to his sides as his limbs became limp.
Dumbfounded, they looked at one another as the machine powered down. Onari stepped forward and removed the black egg helmet.
Irwin's eyes were open. Onari
felt at his neck then lifted a flaccid hand and let it fall.
"He's dead," he flippantly pronounced.
Wright and Milhouse moved nearer the body to concur for themselves while Cretier,
satisfied with Onari's pronouncement, went to examine the flickering computer
Ex Machina," said Onari.
Ex Machina." Milhouse
asked Van Wright.
Ghost in the Machine," Milhouse explained reciting from Fiction Writing 233
from a sophomorfic year in college. "Its
a literary device . . . a character, device, or event suddenly introduced in a
literary work to resolve a difficulty. Maybe
his death was an act of Deux Ex Machina"
was examining the computer consoles along the sidewall. Onari rapped a knuckle on the hull of the VR unit.
"Or maybe he is the ghost in the machine.
What if it worked?"
. . .it's possible. Anyone want to give it a try. Thought not."
finished examining a computer screen, typed something on the ergonomic keyboard,
and straightened. "Just as
well," he murmured.
He joined the group in inspecting the late Mr. Irwin.
pulled a cell phone from his jacket and flipped open the receiver.
are you doing?" asked Van Wright.
EMS," he explained. "It
will look a little odd if the corner declares him dead and wonders why it took
us three hours of gawking at the body to call."
hovering over the keypad, Onari asked, "For what?"
walked carefully to the VR unit and examined the connections.
"Perhaps," he began then paused to look carefully at each of
us, "What if Irwin was correct. Should
we allow the machine to fall into the hands of the uncouth, the unsophisticated,
and the poor dreamers before its been truly investigated?"
Wright spoke for each them. "What do you suggest?"
that we pause to consider what we may have before we give it away,"
cautiously proposed. "Perhaps
another of us should give it a try."
gave an evil chuckle. "And who
do you propose it should be, Cretier?"
pursed his lips and paced from the console where he stood.
"The least of us I suppose," he murmured.
"There is one of us who is here by mistake after all."
Cretier spoke, Van Wright began to nod ever so slightly while Onari stood in
thought. All points which Milhouse
did not fail to notice. "No,
oh no. Uh-uh. I will not sit in that seat or play at guinea pig for you,"
surely you understand why none of us should be the one," said Van Wright.
"Our expertise will be here to guide the machines and to evaluate
your experience, we would simply taint the experiment if we were directly
mean you would taint your underpants, I'm not taking the ride."
you no understanding?" said Cretier. "Surely
you see why it must be you to, how did you say, 'take the ride'."
answer is no, no, no. Hey, just because you carry the alphabet behind your names
doesn't mean I value your skins more than my own."
Milhouse looked to Onari, like a lost child and asked, "Onari,
please, back me up on this."
looked at him impassively then said, "The kids right."
shouldn't be the one to go," said Onari.
scoffed and turned back to his computer screen as Milhouse took the opportunity
to walk far, far away from the unit. Van
Wright watched each, but asked of Onari, "Why you, Mr. Onari, why should
you be the next?'
scratched his head. "Well, as I see it, Irwin was talking of inducing a
psychological reordering of sorts," he explained, his hands shaping a
sphere in front of him. "His
idea was to do it by providing enough stimuli and the right kind of stimuli to
cause the perception-- though illusionary-- of added dimensions.
It would be a bit like giving sight to a blind person by providing
echolocation, a dolphins radar."
how does this justify your decision, Mr. Onari."
a bio-psychologist who specializes in perception, this is what I have studied
for, more or less, my whole life."
muttered, "What nonsense."
I believe he has a point," said Van Wright.
"I say we let Mr. Onari have his chance and though we are far from a
democracy, that makes it two to one in our favor, Julian."
of the cretin? He clearly opposes the machine's use."
snickered. "Oh now he's
important to you."
doesn't matter," interrupted Milhouse returning from his self-imposed exile
across the lab. "I've called EMS. An
ambulance will be here soon."
and Van Wright's faces fell though Cretier's lifted considerably with his
a wall phone near the lab's rear," answered Milhouse to Onari's unvoiced
snarled Onari, "I'm going to beat this ducks ex machina stuff, sooner or
stood in front of the Fostoria, its gilded facade muted by the cascading rain.
The city's air was heavy, its sky blackened between the towering
fortresses of industry.
pair of headlights broke from the herd that bullied itself down five lanes of
traffic near the front steps of the Fostoria.
stepped from the protection of the red faux velvet awning and quickly crossed
the near deserted sidewalk as the black cars rear door opened before him.
Milhouse, the rain will ruin the upholstery." called a familiar feminine
slipped into the cars' leather clad interior.
The rain from his jacket fell to the leather and rolled along its seams.
A terry cloth towel landed in his lap.
hurry, the water will ruin the leather."
did as he was bade, dabbing first at his face and hands before moving on to his
clothes and upholstery. As he
finished, he pulled a brown wrapped parcel from his coat and tossed it onto the
seat beside him.
drying, he folded the towel neatly and laid it across his knee before turning to
watch the rain stream along the window edge.
he answered. "I promised you'd have an advance copy." He
fingered the windows automatic controls.
slim hand reached forward to pick the parcel up.
The manicured fingers deftly undid the parcel's wrapping, leaving a
compact disc to be held by a dark skirted lap.
it will be aired?"
Margarite," said Milhouse as he turned to look upon her business black suit
and dark hair. "Yes, it will be aired."
gave a soft laugh. "Not so
unimportant anymore are you? 'The Man Who Told All', is that how you'll be known."
not to late you know," she said, "there are many who would welcome you
into our society."
thank you," he replied. "Being
a figurehead in a cult isn't where I hope to go."
are not a cult," insisted Van Wright.
of course, I forgot. You are a group who gathers routinely, believes in the
unproven, worships a dead computer geek, and vehemently denies you are a
cult," replied Milhouse failing to hide a smile.
"You are a society. I
Wright pouted. "Onari never
seemed to mind the adoration."
died the night he rode the chair. What
do your followers call it, ascended." said Milhouse. "I'd rather stay
on level ground."
Wright waved her hand, dismissing the conversation.
Her brows furrowed. "Still,
many of our society will be very cross with you for going public." She said
lifting the CD into the air. "Airing
our laundry so to speak. Dismiss
dabbed at a bit of water rolling down from his hair.
"I'll have to trust you to keep those people from me."
try, but you will be a Judas figure when the interview hits the vid, whether you
were present at the ascension or not," she said reaching out to squeeze his
hand. "Promise to be
have since Cretier tried to strap me to the machine," Milhouse sighed and
held hands with his friend as the car wove through traffic.
"Why do you still persist, Margarite?
Why are you my friend when I am about to go public with everything I
know. It's going to draw criticisms
to your, ahem, society like nothing before it?"
patted his hand. "Because you
saw and I have faith that one day you will believe."
car pulled to a stop beneath the awning of a steel and glass building amid other
similar blades of glass superstructures. Milhouse
opened the door to the rain.
chuckled. "Never give an
educated theologian the opportunity to start a cult."
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