Sunday, June 1, 2008

Chapter 4 - The Disreputable Band

“The most important thing for a band of thieves,” Gavin had said on the day we finally found a suitable location for our Den, “is a sense of community. The moment we abandon each other we abandon everything, and then we're no better than the animals they think we are. So I'm going to lay a few ground rules. We have to trust each other here. There can be no hiding, no double-crossing, and above all, no secrets.”

He was right. We had to trust each other. Especially with something that could get us killed.

“On the other hand,” I said, between bites of a delicious rose pastry, “We don't really know what we have here, do we? I mean, we don't know what it is, we don't know what it does, we don't know where it came from and we certainly don't know if it can hurt us.”

“We know it's forbidden.”

“Our whole lives are forbidden, Gavin! Face it – everything we do could get our heads on the chopping block six ways to Sunday.”

“I couldn't agree more,” Gavin said. “That's why we need to keep a low profile, watch out for each other, and not take any unnecessary risks.”

“But this could be important!”

“Our necks are important!” Gavin snapped. “Keeping this band together is important! Keeping faith with the people who trust me is important. That's the priority here.”

I took the last bite of my pastry and stared at my friend, willing him to back down.

Gavin sighed. “You've got jam on your face.”

“Look – look,” I said, following him through the trapdoor that led to our underground home. “I'm not asking you to keep a secret. Just don't mention anything tonight.”

“Tonight? What happens tonight?”

“Tonight, I figure out exactly what this thing is and what it does.”

“You can do that tonight?”

“I'm pretty good at this kind of thing.”

“No, I mean -” Gavin stopped in the tunnel and looked at me. “You're going to fiddle around in the dark with a strange metal device in a bed with four other notoriously light sleepers?”

“Well..” I thought a moment. “I could always request an arrangement.”

“An arrangement? With who?”

“You, silly. How else could I fulfill my curiosity for this glorious new toy?”

“I see,” said Gavin. “There's only one problem.”

“What's that?”

“I don't want to spend all night staring at clockwork.”

And that's how I ended up taking apart the old man's device from a private room in the Den, on my back, while Gavin slurped away at my pussy.

Scene 1 - Prelude



ARMORED BOOTS. Clanking up carpeted, shiny obsidian stairs. Deliberately. One step at a time.

GENERAL CLAY, a stony crag of a man in his 60s. Harder than the armor he wears. He carries a TORCH to light his way on the pitch-dark spiral stair.

The torchlight reflects off the black glass walls, surrounding the general with his own mirror image.

Then the reflection turns, and stares at the real General Clay with extreme disgust.


General Clay continues trudging up the stairs.

His reflection LAUGHS at him.

No response? Very well. You damn yourself with your very silence.

One step at a time. Clank, clank. The general's stolid frown never changes.

His reflection, however, becomes furious. It SCREAMS at him.

Do you think you will escape your fate? Do you think, somehow, you can save your city? You cannot! We are dead, General Clay! This city is dead, and it is your fault!

Clank. Clank. Clank.

The General is nearing the top of the stairs. A RAY OF MOONLIGHT shoots down from above and bounces down the stairway.

His reflection regains its composure.

Very well. If you will not answer me, perhaps you will listen when they cry out to you.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Chapter 3 - Lucy

It wasn't long before the executions started.

When the city moved, everything inside the walls moved with it. Unfortunately, that included a pretty significant number of Western soldiers. As soon as they realized they were trapped inside Caduceus with a mob of angry Northerners, most of them stripped off their weapons and their weird metal armor, and surrendered.

For the next few weeks, executions became the city's most exciting form of entertainment. The black glass guillotine would come swooshing down, and like everyone else I would get caught up in the energy of the crowd and the moment and I would cheer.

I was sixteen. Of course I loved it. These Western soldiers were the source of all our problems; they were the monsters our mothers had warned us about in or cribs. They were the living, breathing incarnation of everything that Enki hated. They had made us suffer, and in return, we killed them. A hundred at a time.

Swish, thunk. Catharsis.

I was never alone. My colleagues loved to keep me company – the Disreputable Band, as Gavin called it. Execuions were a target-rich environment. All those bodies pressed up against each other, attention focused on a single slicing edge. It was easy to work an execution. The tricky part was target selection.

First, the mark had to have something worth stealing. As most people had already begun selling their valuables for food, this was easier said than done. So they had to be well-off, but not so rich that they could afford a bodyguard.

If I'd been born a boy, that's the career path I would have chosen. The amount the upper classes were willing to pay for protection of themselves and their valuables was obscene. There was always the danger, in my line of work, that you might piss one of 'em off. Thieves who did that never made it back to the Disreputable Band. As for girl thieves.. I didn't like thinking about it.

It was a gamble. I'd be lying if I said I didn't love the risk. The chance that I might get caught made it saltier when I didn't. It made me a champion. A hero. A winner.

Maybe that explains why I went for the wild card.

He was an old man, or at least, he looked old. His hair was white, anyway, and it exploded violently from the back and sides of his head, leaving a shiny bald crown on top. His clothes looked like they had been the height of fashion, once; now they seemed worn, and a little tattered.

But the most curious thing about him, the part that held my attention, was the way he moved. As he moved through the crowd, he seemed almost lost. His head bobbed and weaved like a bird's, staring at everything. It looked like he was searching for someone, but didn't know who, or what, it was he was looking for.

I gave the signal to Gavin. This was today's mark.

We had a simple enough operation. Gavin, the big lunk, weaved his way through the crowd until he was walking in front of my mark. I nimbly swooped in behind. As soon as I was in position, Gavin abruptly stopped, causing the mark to slam into him and almost fall over. While he was regaining his balance, I pretended to bump into him, while my hands quickly searched through his pockets.

It was all according to plan. This particular mark had more pockets than most, but that wasn't all that unusual. I smiled as I closed my hand around a lump of something heavy, cold, and hard.

Fifteen seconds after it began, the operation was over. The old man kept walking in that odd, stilted, staccato sort of way. Gavin and I quickly faded into the crowd.

“So what's the haul?” asked Gavin, once we were a comfortable distance away from prying eyes.

“Dunno,” I said. “Feels like a jewel maybe.”

“We should be so lucky,” said Gavin. “Go on then, open her up.”

I pulled the hard cold heavy thing out from my own innermost pocket.

“Enki,” Gavin swore. “Put that away before someone sees you.”

“It's so pretty,” I said. I was fascinated. I had never seen anything like it.

“Lucy!” snapped Gavin. “Put it away. Now.”

“All right.” I shoved the object back into the recesses of my long wool coat. “What kind of person carries something like that around?”

“I'd rather not find out,” said Gavin. He was getting paranoid – there was a vein on his forehead that bulged whenever he was frightened.

I was a little scared myself. I still had no idea what I had picked, but I knew it had to be important. Regardless of its place or function, the thing was made of metal. In Caduceus, the law has certain penalties for handling objects made of metal.

Swish, thunk. Justice.

April Fools

The latest chapter, Chapter 3 - Lucy, is not, in fact, the real Chapter 3. Having given the matter a great deal of thought, I have decided to take the entire story in an altogether different direction.

Stay tuned for the actual Chapter 3, which to be nice and confusing I shall still call Lucy.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Chapter 3 - Lucy

A hundred years later, Lucy Sasparilla was in her bedroom at Riverbend Castle, wondering how she would get even.

Poisoning, she considered, would be rather too pedestrian, and did not fit the offense one bit. Torture, now; that was getting warmer. It only lacked a certain irony, a certain.. deliciousness of character to set the spark to the whole thing. She would have to deny him something. Something very precious.. She cast her eyes about the room for some kind of inspiration as to what the Baron of Riverbend might find precious.

She found nothing. The whole estate was as bare as a church. She had had to beg and wheedle with the man for days to get what little decoration there was in her own room. Finding a single object that the man admired, let alone treasured, would be an impossible task.

What was there that the Baron took pleasure in? Lucy wracked her brains, trying desperately to come up with a single instance of her foster father ever smiling as he described something – anything at all. There were the books in the library, but she could never get at them. And besides, thought Lucy, who could get excited about books?

A soft knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. She knew that knock.

“Go away,” shouted Lucy. “I'm plotting your demise!”

“That sounds interesting. May I come in and watch?”

“It has to be a secret so you don't know it's coming.”

“Then you had better let me in, so you can feed me false information. Otherwise I'll be likely to grow suspicious.”

Lucy opened the door.

“I'm still angry at you,” she said.

“That's only to be expected,” said the Baron.

The two of them stood across the doorway. Lucy did her very very best to stare defiantly up into baro Riverbend's soulful, compassionate blue eyes. He looked embarrassed. Perhaps even apologetic. She couldn't stand to see him this way. Those bright flashes of nobility were buried under a thousand layers of piety and self-punishment. She could see the toll that the drought had taken on him. And to think that she had contributed..

“I'm sorry!” Lucy threw her arms around the baron and wept. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll be good, just please don't be sad anymore. Please?” She looked up at the baron, and he laughed.

“I don't see how anyone could be sad with you around to cheer them up,” the baron said.

“But you are,” said Lucy.

“Yes,” admitted Riverbend. “I suppose I am.”

“So I'm not good enough.”

“You are as skilled an up-cheerer as any young woman could be. My malaise has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with my people. I fear I may have led them to ruin.”

“You're not in charge of the weather,” said Lucy.

“No, but I am in charge of the workers, and their families. I should have saved more. Prepared more. I should have been ready for this.”

“You couldn't have known.”

“Precisely,” said the Baron. “I should have been ready for the unknown.”

Baron Riverbend broke free of his foster daughter's embrace.

“If you are truly no longer upset, he said, “I should return to my business. One of the messages I sent to Bradhurst has returned. It would behoove me not to keep her waiting.”

“I'm sorry I got so angry. You're just so serious all the time! And you don't listen to me. And you treat me like a child. And -”

“Slow down,” the baron smiled. “I will answer for my sins tonight at dinner.”

And for Lucy, that would have to do.

The Agon River sprang from the high mountains in the northern part of the West, cut a swath through the heartland of the South, and emptied into Biscuit Bay, a hundred miles east of Bradhurst. Riverbend Castle had begun its existence as a tax-collection fortress, back when the South was truly a collection of independent baronies. Nowadays its purpose was not to stop trade along the Agon, but simply to provide a central, local government to the people of the area – and, of course, send tribute back to the West.

The village of Riverbend, where Lucy Sasparilla had spent her formative years, playing in the shadow of the imposing, monolithic Castle Keep, had grown quite prosperous since the Final War. A century of peace had successfully converted a massive, sustained weapons production machine into an equally massive engine of Progress. Every day, thousands of steamboats travelled up and down the river, delivering ores of iron, copper, and zinc to the great foundries of Bradhurst, then taking the metals back upriver to be worked into usable goods.

Most of these goods stayed in the West, never to be seen again. It therefore fell to local craftsmen to provide the South with most of the more sophisticated tools and machinery that modern life required. Such men were required to be brilliant, resourceful, and ingenious, masters of finding novel uses for the simplest of scavenged opponents. The best of them could take one careful glance at a new machine, assembled carefully in a Western shop by a small army of assistants, and duplicate it, himself, in his workshop, using improvised tools, and for a fraction of the cost.

The best of them had a name. It was Robert Sasparilla.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Chapter Two: Overture

“I see no cause for alarm,” said the Mediator.

“Oh, no. Of course not. None whatsoever. The enemy is at our gates, throwing mechanized bombs through our windows. But there's no cause for alarm there. Oh, no. This is ordinary.”

“The city will fall. This was ordained long ago. You knew all about it.”

“I thought it was a lie. If I had believed, with all my heart, if I had known beyond a shadow of a doubt that the City of Magic was doomed to fall, and nothing that I or anyone else could do would prevent it, do you think that I would have stayed here and defended it, to the very last?”

“Of course you would have,” said the Mediator.

The General sighed. “You know me better than I thought.”

“Regardless, there is nothing out of line here. Your city is fulfilling its destiny, precisely as foretold.”

“There must be another way.”

The General stared across the city at the advancing armies of the West.

“These cannot be human soldiers.”

“What's that?” The Mediator looked over Clay's shoulder. She lauged. “Have you never seen a man in armor before?”

“The steam that rises from them blocks our spells as well as our ammunition.”

“They are very clever, these Westerners.”

The General looked at his Mediator and sighed. As he sighed, the last spark of hope escaped his lungs and blew away in the breeze. He felt very old.

“If there is truly no way to save my city, then why do you remain by my side?” said the General. “Surely you must have business elsewhere.”

The Mediator smiled. “I wanted to be the first to see the great General Clay lose hope. You know that you are a legend, even among the gods.”

“That will be little comfort if I am remembered as a failure. You have convinced me. My city will fall.”

“And every man, woman, and child will be sent to the Underworld. The prophecies are very specific on that point.”

“So everyone I have ever known or loved will be dead within the day. What bloody use is it being a legend?”

At this point the Mediator became very still.

“What is it?” demanded the General. “Have you lost your tongue at last?”

The Mediator did not answer.

“Well?” said the General. “Spirit of the Earth, I confess that I would rather hear your mocking tongue give me a thousand lashes than this eerie silence. I beg you, speak!”

“General Beauregard Clay,” said the Mediator, “my new Mistress has proposed a solution.”

The first thing the Western soldiers noticed was a great wind, blowing away the steam from the exhaust pipes of their armor. This alarmed the officers most greatly, as they had been counting on the steam to shield them from return fire. But there was no return fire.

While the officers were delivering messages to each other, trying to come up with a plan to deal with this new development, two new and extremely unpleasant factors entered into their equations.

The first was a piercing, high-pitched, and steadily rising hum, and the second was a bright white blinding light. Both rose to shocking, unheard-of levels, until it was quite impossible for the officers to think about anything but the pain in their eyes and ears.

In the memories of Western soldiers who survived that battle, the Hum and the Light became euphemisms for the eerie, destructive, dangerous power of the North. They reported that while it was upon them, they wished that they might be blotted out from existence, so long as that noise and that light should go with them.

When it was done, the scouts lifted their elegant brass spyglasses, to see what kind of eldritch power had just assaulted them, and whether it was likely to do so again.

They were quie surprised to discover that the City of Glass, along with all two hundred thousand of its people, had vanished into thin air.

Chapter One: Prelude

General Clay was on the Top Ring. He was there to pray.

Now, a great many people would give their lives to visit the Top Ring. King Malaghaster once offered to sacrifice himself to Enki, renounce the worship of the Moon God on behalf of all his people, and pay tribute in perpetuity to the kingdom of the North. He was refused.

From the Top Ring, one can see across the Earth. Open your eyes, and there is nothing that can hide from your gaze.

Yet General Clay's eyes were closed. He did not need them. His ears told everything. With a thud, they told him that the outer wall was taking artillery fire. With a creak, they told him it would not last long. With a shout, or a hundred, or a thousand, they told him that his men were dying. His friends would be murdered. His women would be raped. His children would be bastards.

So General Beauregard Clay was on his knees on the Top Rung, with his eyes tightly shut. He was a man of action, but all he could do had been done. The time for surrender was long past. The stillness and the silence was soon to come.

It is a peculiar feature of the acoustics of the Top Ring that, should you make the slightest whisper while atop it, the sound will be delivered direct to the ears of every one in the city, as clearly as if you were inside their bedchambers. On this particular evening, General Clay did not whisper.

He howled.

And he was heard.