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Chasing the Bride
By Davide Mana
The first fat drops of rain were hitting the sidewalk as I climbed in the passenger seat of the old VW, sliding it back to accommodate my legs.
A thunder rolled somewhere over us.
- Lousy weather.
Val was not overly expansive. We left the curb behind and headed west, the rain splashing on the windshield. There was a cigarette stubbed out in the overcrowded ashtray and the tang of second-hand smoke forced me to open the window, letting in a gust of cold, clean air.
- Is it that bad? - I asked her. She was supposedly out of her cig thing.
- It's as bad as usual.
We passed an old maroon Simca with a Tim Curry clone at the wheel, almost rammed a silly-looking coupé out of the way and turned towards the labyrinth of the Limited Traffic Zone.
I was waiting for her opening, and she knew. We had been sleeping together long enough for either of us overstepping the reciprocal confidence.
- I better fill you in, - she finally said as we stopped for a red light.
I nodded once, keeping my eyes on the traffic.
I felt at least one of us was supposed to.
- Kid. Sixteen. Female.
I knew there was a file on the backseat, but it was faster this way, more focused.
- Single mother, a yuppie kind of critter…. - We were going again, pointing towards the Hill. - Sharp, busy, aggressive, dont-fuck-with-me attitude, that kind of profile, if you get me.
About fifteen years ago, you see, with a different name, another hair colour and tons of attitude, Valerie was a singer in a band, and she still retains her rock'n'roll outlook of old, together with part of the wardrobe.
- I do get you all right - I said.
- Fine. So, Saturday night, girl gets out with her school mates. We're talking 'bout two nights ago.
I nodded and grunted. She changed gear and shot a look to the mirror.
- For a bite, possibly a movie, having some fun, - she continued. - The usual stuff teenagers do.
We skirted the old cathedral and started climbing with a low growl from the engine behind us.
- Somehow they end up at a concert at the Printz.
- The Printz Eugenz, - she made a vague gesture - you know… the anarch-punk squat place by the Royal Gardens.
I nodded again.
I knew we had been keeping an eye on the squatted-over old building for six weeks, without any result.
So this was all about that in the end.
Maybe a lead.
- OK. So she and her pals get there and have a ball or two, and a few drinks, and then some, to make the most of the night.
She ignored a red light and turned left.
- So she comes home as high as the proverbial kite, courtesy of a nice nasty multicoloured cocktail of chemicals, has a canonical big-time row with her tight-assed mom and goes to sleep, all giggly and happy for all we know.
She clenched her jaw.
This was not about that, then.
- And that's it, - I anticipated her.
It was not the first time.
Val nodded. - That's it. She's been sleeping like a log these last 48 hours or so.
We left the main road.
- The mother can't get her to rise, - Val continued - Gets scared and calls her doc. Nothing doing. Slow pulse, regular breathing. He makes a few calls to a few specialists. We get the news through the grapevine. I throw you out of bed. - She sniggered - We're needed.
- Blood samples?
A nod, direction light blinking - Underway, but the background noise of all the stuff the kid did the previous night's messing things up royally.
We stopped in front of a small one storey house.
A stupid-looking mid-sized dog eyed us with suspicion through the bars of the gate, as we left the car behind and went for the bell.
The electric lock of the gate buzzed as the dog started barking like a psycho, and we had to go round, keeping about a yard's distance, to reach the three steps that led to the door.
The mother of the subject was framed by the open door, a thirtysomething woman with no-nonsense auburn hair, wearing jeans and a green sweater.
We exchanged greetings, feeling awkward.
- I was expecting you, - she said, still not letting us in.
We were probably a weird duo standing in the drizzle, me with my old trench coat and the hat, and Val with her black jeans and red leather jacket.
Finally she stepped aside and we stepped in.
Whoever had pushed us on her had done his job.
The subject was fast asleep.
I kneeled down by the bed and felt her pulse, touched her brow, checked her breathing - soft and slow, opiate-like.
Nothing was there that I did not know or expect already.
She was pale, very short hair, a brace of silver studs in the exposed ear.
She had a small dolphin tattoo at the base of the left thumb and nails colored an unlikely shade of green.
In a few hours, the docs would probably start feeding her a glucose solution through a mainline.
- Full R.E.M. - said Val at my back, softly.
We went through the usual questions with the mother.
Anything out of the ordinary in the last few days?
Was her daughter a regular user?
Did she suffer from nightmares?
She answered as in a trance, not even offended by the implications of some of the items, and we moved on before she could ask us some questions of her own.
The subject's room was straddling the thin borderline between childhood and something else, something rougher.
I left Val by the bedside and took a look around.
Not really useful, but you never know.
There was a chair, in front of a desk/make-up table with a mirror over it.
A denim jacket lay abandoned on the chair's back, a thick-soled pair of trench boots with bright red strings discarded nearby.
A few photographs were stuck in the mirror's frame. A class shot with autographs, a slightly off-centre pic of a grinning, beefy boy wearing a leering Marylin Manson T-shirt, a shot of the singer of the Cranberries, evidently cut away from a magazine and used as a model.
A few postcards - Prague, London, Florence.
On the desk were scattered the private remains of a youngster's experimentations with cosmetics and growing up, the discarded spoils of a number of candies, a box regurgitating a quantity of cheap paste and wire jewelry, a pair of Blues Brothers sunglasses, half a packet of Silk Cut with a cheap ziggy lighter tucked in and a round floral-pattern tin box on the lid of which a Smurf jazz combo was frozen mid-gig, like an old Chick Corea record cover the girl probably never saw.
Books on a few shelves.
Paperbacks by Agatha Christie.
The usual Freud that's almost mandatory with girls of that age.
The usual sampling of thick seaside bestsellers - King, Koonts, Harris.
A pair of ultracheap Shakespeare - "Romeo and Juliet", the movie tie-in, a copy of "Othello" that was clearly far from being finished anytime soon, some paperback Irvine Welsh, probably second-hand and unread as well.
Her mother was watching me from the door, Val by her side now.
She probably thought I was a meddler and that it was a weird way to go for a Sleep Troubles Expert, but she was too worried to react now.
It was going to be over fast.
I turned and stepped away.
Or maybe yes.
I was leaving the room when it twinkled in the half-light and caught my eye.
I picked it up, and signaled to Val.
A pin on the jacket's lapel.
I showed her.
She made a face, looked me in the eye.
- That's a triskell, - said the mother, coming over. - It's some kind of Irish folk thing…. -
A vague gesture.
She was beginning to wonder what all that meant, I was beginning to see what it was all about.
We were out of there in a pair of minutes, leaving behind the usual reassurances and the usual unanswered doubts.
The dog barked at our heels as we left the small garden and climbed on the car again.
As the seat creaked under my weight, I sighed.
I took a breath as she started the engine.
- Oh, tell me have you seen it?
But Val was taking all this personally, and was in no mood for literary quotes.
- I saw the fucking Yellow Sign all right!
She was grim, as we thundered back towards the city on the water-slick hillside road. - What now?
As if she did not know already.
There were people covering the thing from this side.
I checked the chronometers.
It was a quarter past six.
- We'll have to go to sleep on this one, honey.
By seven thirty I was ready to go to sleep.
I had set all the alarm clocks in my room - not that it's any use, but I like this little ritual. Despite her tough stance, Val is rumoured to sleep with an age-old teddy, so I guess we all have our little Linus blankets to hold on tight to when we go in.
Val was already home, and probably a goner in a few minutes.
I took another pair of deep breaths and laid down.
She was leaning to the standing stone, in green silk and satin, with conservatively underplayed jewelry, hair piled up and a nasty expression on her face. The bodice hugged her in a pleasant way, much more flexible than the real thing but still stiff, and cut too low for decency, in these parts.
I laughed. Val in full mock-Tudor drag is always a sight worth seeing, and enough to lighten my day no matter what.
My mirth made the zoog scout to retreat in the bushes, but I still felt the creature's beady eyes on the back of my skull, trying to pry it open.
It had been following me for two full slumberdays, and it was not letting me go just because of a sound that was weird to its ears.
No problem with that.
You get used to those sinister little chaps shadowing you, after a while.
- I have been expecting you for ages, - she said, straightening and half turning in pretended offence for my laugh.
I could believe that.
She left the shadow of the strangely angled dolmen and came closer, casting a dubious glance along the dirt road.
- I've been in the Hall, - I explained, - before I translated here.
She crossed her arms. - You wanted to pick the two old owls' brains on the kid.
I nodded, and we started towards the granite walls of Hlanith of the Peaked Roofs, barely visible on the horizon.
- That's mighty irregular.
I shrugged. It had been worth the while, anyway.
- They never saw her passing, but were pretty rattled themselves.
An interrogative stare.
- There's been a lull in the traffic through the Gates lately. After those MK meddlers screwed on their IDP project, the stuff dreams are made of has been adjusting somehow, and it acts resilient….
I paused under her mocking stare.
She knew it too, she too could feel the oppressive atmosphere and the slo-mo vibes around us. For her, it was evident all around us.
She was a better shaper than me, after all. Dreaming was hard.
- You think somebody's using the backlash to cover some major op?
- We're here to find out, right?
As anticipated, we had no real problem entering Hlanith.
We maintain an apartment over the Stuffed Crocodilian tavern on Whores' Corner and a legit commercial front down at the Wranglers' Pits, and the Guard and Militia both are well oiled with casual but noteworthy gifts.
The catafracts just let us in with a brief, wide-eyed but otherwise non-intrusive check of Val's decolletage.
She ignored them haughtily, as we later ignored the peddlers and the mountebanks on the streets, the guy baiting the old tame bear and the water seller that was notoriously a militia informant.
Keeping a low profile, casting the right impression is absolutely essential.
This is still the longest lived Sleeper operation in the Lands, and we'll not screw it by acting particular.
Hlanith's nights are as busy and crowded as the days, even if many of the denizens prefer to keep their activities somewhat more private.
Along the cobbled streets we passed cloaked companies and silent solitary strollers, giggling ladies selling their stuff and incognito prospect buyers eager to sample. The joint was jumping under the gentle but continuous push of the highest CU-seepage ever - and growing - and we were near the hub where things were supposed to happen.
The city was alive with flux, as it was the land around it as far as the mind could conceive, and beyond.
Finally, we reached the sign of the Stuffed Crocodilian, and entered.
We paid our respects to the regulars, spending some time exchanging a few made-up news and a few genuine items with the old men in the taproom, buying drinks and toasting the King before we retired to our quarters.
I heard a spicy comment from a heavily accented voice, and a peal of laughter accompanied us up the stairs.
- Fancy some Kirin?
There was the usual backlog of ciphered reports, stacked in a neat pile on the writing desk.
I looked up from the pages. Val was out of her shoes, standing barefoot on the buopoth pelt rug, holding an eccentrically-shaped bottle and two glasses.
The Kirin plain vintage is too sour for my tastes, but I nodded anyway.
I needed something to chase away the torpor.
- Compliments of the backup kids, - she explained, turning so I was able to undo the strings of her dress.
I picked up my glass and went back to the reports.
Val retreated to her room to put on something more comfortable for our nightly pursuits.
There was nothing definitive in the reports.
Someone trying peddling fringe wakeworlder memes in the Alchemists' district was the best lead we had. That, and the persistent if confusing news circulating about the strange house in the south docks district.
Val came back, buckling the sabre at her side and reading over my shoulder.
I smelled her perfume.
- The Dark House Pattern again? Pretty basic.
- We could be dealing with amateurs, after all.
- Amateurs wearing the Sign? - she chuckled. - They're bound not to stay amateurs for long.
It figured. - There was that glovecleaning outbreak in Geneva, last January. This might just be a belated side effect.
A shrug. - You're the one who knows the whirls and eddies of underground press flow.
She was not convinced, but picked up the paper with a sideways grin.
- South docks… she mumbled.
She straightened, fingers interlaced, arms stretched over her head and back.
- I feel like a bit of hacking, - she admitted.
We left through a little hidden door that a former lodger had found expedient to have built, opening on the darkened alley backing the Croc.
It was the end of the first watch.
Two streetlights out of three would be extinguished soon, and the honest Hlanithians - if any - would lay down and rest till the morning came.
We went the fastest way to the south docks, through an assortment of courtyards and covered passages, slipping in the shadows when steps sounded on the flagstones, sneaking through cellars and tunnels to avoid the more crowded and trafficked squares and boulevards.
A cat watched us go, yellow eyes glistening under a chair on a terrace.
Or maybe it was not a cat.
I offered a greeting sign anyway.
We emerged on a short overpassage, used as a hanging garden by the denizens of the nearby rookery. It was a good vintage point for getting our bearings, and we stopped for a breather and a nervous glance around.
Oblong tomatoes, beans and some stuff I did not recognize climbed the pergola.
The Oukranos was a misty presence just beyond the next curtain of roofs.
But there was more.
I had picked up the house two blocks away, Val probably sooner. We were prepared when we finally slid down a passage and stood in front of the pile of old granite and blackened wood, four storeys high and evil, but still it took us aback.
- Jesus! - she whispered.
A cloud covered the moon, that was full and close enough to touch.
There was a very bad feeling crouching over the building and the surrounding alleys, squatting on the whole neighborhood, filling the small space we were standing in like thick oily smog.
- Why the heck the wizs are not doing something about that?
We both looked north, to the barely seen beacon on the top of Wizard's Tower.
- Maybe it's just us, - I said. Wakeworlders are sometimes much more sensitive than the natives, to this kind of disturbance.
- Crap, - she answered, taking a tentative step forward.
The air felt like warm oil, thick and resilient.
Something howled in the distance, a long lament that rose through the air, followed by the faintest of echoes.
That spoiled the mood.
Val laughed and drew a stiletto. - Oh, please!
The Pattern was just too Hammer to work.
We stepped up to the front and studied the black doors.
- In from the main?
I nodded. - Why not?
She just pushed, arm crossed, head tilted on a side, and the gate swung open.
There was a six-sided hall just beyond, the floor a single layer of obsidian seven or eight yards across. The moon glanced from behind the clouds, casting our elongated shadows over the reflective black surface.
Two alcoves opened at the sides of the doors, both empty.
I went along the left wall, while Val reached the center of the hall.
- Empty *, she gave the sign.
I nodded, relaxing a bit.
The impression of something really bad was still in the air, but somehow felt less frightening now.
We found the three dead bodies on the second floor.
All the alarms were ringing at the same time as I jumped up and took a pair of seconds to determine where I was.
Gray, sickly light was filtering through the curtains and one of the ringing bells trepanning my skull was the phone.
A glance at the nearest clock. Ten twentyfive.
- You up?
Somehow Val always recovers faster than me.
Some kind of age/gender thing, probably.
- OK, get down in ten minutes. We've two of them.
She hung up.
With a groan, I massaged my neck, stood and tried to decide if I could do without a shave.
There were a few perfunctory leather-and-rags punks standing in the rain in front of the building, waving equally perfunctory hastily-scribbled signs and screaming insults as we stopped and entered.
Too bad the press was not about to take pictures of the show.
Inside, we met a pair of fresh-faced auxiliary officers that were waiting for relief and clearly not enjoying their stay.
Ultrafast paper flashing, salutes given and acknowledged, then upstairs.
- Why do these places always smell this bad? - she asked as we climbed the stair.
- It's the smell of anarchy, - I offered.
She gave a short chuckle. - Those posers out there would not recognize anarchy should it chase them wielding a buzzsaw.
She stopped at a partially blocked window and looked down. A brief chorus of obscenities rose from the sidewalk outside.
- Wankers, - she sentenced, replacing the cardboard in the wooden frame.
The walls were covered with graffiti, a second generation of bad subdued scrawls covering some more gaudy and better executed murals. Cracks opened in the paint, and the floor was stained and in a bad state.
Various strata of roughly pasted leaflets and xeroxed tazebaos mottled every vertical surface in the corridor.
Val checked the preliminary report she was carrying and led the way to a destitute little room on the first floor.
The feeling of deja-vu was strong in all this, like reenacting a recent dream, but we kept mum about it.
The door had been professionally kicked in.
The usual Che Guevara poster hung askew from a wall, barely covering a large, age-old water stain. Furniture was too big a word for the junk cluttering the cubicle.
A cardboard box with some books and magazines, a rough wooden plank used as a shelf for an assortment of items: an old Chinese alarm clock with a chicken pecking, a large glass bong, an ashtray full of rusty paperclips, a soapstone Holy Virgin roughly painted in fluorescent colours and holding hands with a Bugs Bunny flexi-doll, a new roll of cheap, rough toilet paper. A single window, half the glass panes replaced by thin scraps of plywood. In front of it squatted an ugly mismatched couple of dirty mattresses, laid on a double door resting in turn over four old tires, some foul sheets piled at the foot of the makeshift bed.
The floor was covered in old papers - la Stampa, Tuttosport, l'Unità - and the whole place had not been aired in a decade.
Val passed me half a dozen large bw pics in a large manilla folder.
I got closer to the light, turning them so that reflex would not hinder me.
- We're still trying to identify the girl, - she said, as I went through them.
Young, long black hair with clear streaks.
She looked like she was sleeping, which was fair enough, in the unfair illumination of the med-ex team flashes.
A detail showed a bruised cordon of thickened tissue on the inside of the left arm.
Next, an establishing one for the whole. She wore a silver anklet and a pair of black briefs and nothing else.
The guy was paler, older, or maybe just more worn out, with a nose plug and a badly executed rhino tattoo on the left shoulderblade.
Two of our Hlanith corpses had a wakeworlder face and address now.
The easy ones.
- The kid was a well known fixture down at the sector, - my partner continued. - Possession, dealing, breach of peace, damages, personal injury…. The usual stuff, if a lot of it. DIGOS has a file this thick on him, the run of the mill conspiracy crap they go for. - A brief pause. - The family's been informed already.
She snapped the folder closed with a bang and looked at me, sighing. - Working class drones, - she blurted, sounding harsh and angry, in an unfocused way. - They want to donate the organs, to do some good, but there's not much in good shape left in the bastard's carcass. The eyes, maybe.
I turned, staring her full in the face.
Taking it this personal was not good.
- It's just not fair, - she said, lighting up a fag.
I got closer. - Let's get out of here.
Once in the corridor, she got a grip and gave a raucous call to one of the kids downstairs, and he was just too happy to climb up and give us a quick rundown of the previous night's op.
The boys in black had gone in the professional way.
Door battered down at 00.05 am, under Blade-Runner-style pouring rain.
The kids in the building had not even noticed: they had a big loud death-thrash concert going, and a few scores of them were pogoing with abandon on the ground floor.
There were two T units outside, plus five patrol cars, lights flashing unheeded.
Big fat op it had been.
Our friends at the Battalion had resurrected an age old file about one of the losers nesting in this place, that had sent a 9mm Parabellum bullet to the mayor for Christmas '96 and was probably implicated with the Gray Wolves bombing debacle on the Lyon line in early '97.
That, plus suspect crack possession and dealing, with its ancillary full-auto weaponry deployment, had been more than enough to grant the presence of a full ROS strike team, plus two of our "observers".
As the auxiliary rattled on in a two-finger-typed-service-report kind of monotone, I could picture the scene: no less than seventeen specials in and about in less than thirty seconds, waving their hardware and followed by the Investigative unit guys taking their time, the concert canceled in the worst possible way, the dancers escorted out and pic-ed and filed as they passed, the premises and the people roughly but thoroughly combed for just anything of use in building a case.
Val passed me the file and I eyed the inventory, following the kid's speech.
Two laughable zip guns, that would probably cripple the wielder sooner that they killed the target, were at the top of the list. Assorted knives and chains, the pair of nunchuks that always pop up in these instances. Illegal stuff, mainly chem. Heroin. Surprisingly little ash. The usual vague and probably preposterous bit about "subversive material". Trust the DIGOS on that.
The auxiliary had finished his report and was fidgeting, looking with the corner of his eye towards the greasy bedchamber.
- You were here when they found them?
He shook his head, then remembered himself and snapped, selfconsciously and too loud. - No, sir! I was downstairs with the CI team, sir.
I could imagine that, too, the ROS spec-op guy kicking the door in, sweeping the room with the laser sight and then stepping back, even embarrassed, thinking this was just a couple of kids having a quick one.
The backup guy kneeling, the two exchanging a look, an OK sign, and maybe a joke.
Then the realization that not everything's all right.
I checked with Val, just a glance, and when she nodded I thanked the boy and sent him back with a tight-lipped smile.
- There's something else, - she said as soon as he was out of range.
It was another room, with a thick dirty carpeting on the floor and the whitewashed walls covered in a cloud of black gliphs.
She threw the butt of her cig out of a broken window and handed me a stack of polaroids that clearly were not going in the file folder, each of them singling out a significant portion of the wall writing.
- Still blaming the Geneva cleaners?
Outside, the rain relented as noon approached, and a thin, pale sun finally cast its rays on the sidewalks and roofs of the city.
Once in the street, the kids shouted at us, calling us names.
Val shrugged, fumbling with the jacket's pocket to retrieve another cigarette.
- That stuff will kill you, - I told her as she lighted up.
- As if….
She lit up again and looked pensively up at the roof of the old building.
An anarch flag was flying from a tv aerial. The idea of an anarch flag was silly, but the coupling significant.
- Did you recognize any of the choreography back there?
- The pictographs you mean?
I nodded; they looked familiar but I could not place them.
She shook her head. - Never dreamed something like that before. Could be Xiuhrnan for all I know.
It was an old joke.
- This is not just a case of meddlers ending the wrong way. And it's not the Yanks testing some stuff like the last time, - she said. - Somebody's pushing whatever shit dropped those kids on the other side bypassing the Hall. Somebody's handing out Signs passing them for folk art. Somebody in the know all right….
The anarchs' growl had been growing as we stood under the gray sky.
- And somebody clearly did the three bastards in Hlanith.
It was pretty clear where she was going to end up.
When she turned her gaze on the punks, they subsided and took a step back.
- We'll have to tackle this from both sides, - she said, tossing the butt away.
There's places in Hlanith where you can get almost everything, for a price.
Crates of unrefined Stygian black lotus, aeon-old mummies from Zothique, rounded moonstones and conchshells from the Troos riverbanks, silver-trimmed unicorn horns from Pnath, bricks of compressed Sona-Nyl pollens, bales of Sarkomandian dragonworm silks or whatever other item the traveller fancies and the collective unconscious is able to provide.
Information's just another exotic spice to be traded.
Asking the right questions can get you to the right place.
I got out of the Crocodilian one hour before sunset, pointing my steps to the King's Market and, once through it, to the more popular districts that lay well beyond the Wizard's Tower, and in the shadow of the western wall.
Soon, the cobbled street under my boots became irregular, some of the porphyry blocks missing, probably used as projectiles during some riot or sold to 'Lands primetimers as relics of some lost and fabled city. Rickety stalls occupied a small square expanding around a dry well, selling newts on sticks, cheap wine and dates and nuts, dubious lucky charms and stained velvets from some providentially sunk cargo barge. The aphazard marketplace was a dull kaleidoscope of different races and ethnicities, leanings and persuasions, all of them shrouded in a thick veil of mistrust and reserve bordering on the suspicious.
A blind guy sold old writing stiluses out of a tin mug, a token concession of the local texture to the new patterns.
No other beggars here, as this was a no-nonsense kind of place and the gaping well was just in the right place to dispose of nuisances.
It was not casual the guy was blind.
But there was a blade-sharpener and umbrella-repairer in one corner, a letter and contract writer had set up her folding bench in the shade of a turan tree growing out of a crack in the floor, and a seller of scrolls had some of his stuff on display on some steps leading to an old door that had probably been painted red once, the paint now dark and flaking.
I walked up the stair with an air purposeful enough to convince the old man that it was better to ply his trade somewhere else.
While he picked up his prints and his other wares, I knocked.
I counted to ten, and finally the door opened a few inches, a fat woman looking at my hands first and then at my face.
- We're closed for business, - she mumbled in a rough voice.
- I'm here for Zani.
She looked at my hands again, spending some more seconds on the hilt of my sabre, then her eyes climbed the jet buttons of my jerkin, vaulted over the chin and landed square on my face.
- He's not here.
It sounded almost as a question.
It was time to throw some weight.
I flashed the signet ring on my right hand.
The King's Eyes. It was hard to mistake, being the real thing.
The owner had been carrying a good copy - not that he knew it, obviously - these last six weeks.
She made a face, the kind of face that her kind everywhere makes to cops and other related species.
I smiled without any warmth. - Do you think the Weasel is worth the unpleasantness of a visit to your institutions from the Council of Physicians?
She considered in the blink of one eye, stepped back nimbly and let me in, hastily closing the door.
Old, meticulously darned silk draperies hung from the yellowed walls. A relic of a man was operating the ceiling fan, while a woman well over forty slouched on a chaise, sucking blue smoke from a water pipe. She had a placid expression and was beginning to rise, pulling her rags together, as I stepped in the light, looking a million piasters in my hlanithian best. I stopped her with a raised hand and she fell back, soon starting to pull again on the silvered mouthpiece.
In a corner, a fat man leaned on his huge scimitar, scratching his left buttock in a meditabund manner and chewing like an old camel, with a circular jaw movement.
I gave the madame an inquisitive look.
- Number 23, - she said, pointing to a beads curtain.
She cleared her voice, - My girls….
- I'll see that nothing unsightly befalls them.
The corridor was as desolate as the rest of the once elegant place. The enameled floor tiles were cracked and a bad smell of camphorated oil pervaded the air, not exactly a heavenly aroma.
The door to 23 was a flimsy thing held together by rusty nails hanging by a proper, if battered, hinge and a cheap leather strap nailed to the wall.
Suggestive noises and creakings came through the thin, moth-eaten wood.
The Weasel was occupied.
No need to be subtle.
I kicked the thing in and entered.
The two forms groping on the bed stopped their rhythmical activity and stared at me - a girl of about fifteen with a large red birthmark on her cheek and an older, bored-looking woman with her hair in a mess and large pendulous earrings.
I stared a fraction of a second too long.
Exploding in a cloud of moth-eaten fragments, an old easy chair slammed into me, followed suit by the opposite wall, that knocked my breath out.
I grunted, drew my misericord and got back on my feet, as Zani the Weasel cursed and launched through an open window.
I followed past the patched curtains.
I landed in the square and hastily looked around, noticed a water seller sprawling on the cobblestones and went that way, clearing him with a long, splashing stride. The scarlet and gold silk gown the Weasel was wearing was billowing at the darkened end of an alley. I ran. The sun was going down fast and soon this labyrinth would be in deep darkness.
I closed in on him, managing my breath and taking care not to slip on the worn flagstones.
Nobody was paying any attention to us anyway, but to get out of the way. You don't get far in this neighborhood if you pay attention to guys pursued by men wielding blades.
I turned where Zani had turned, hitting the corner with my shoulder, and saw him stand back from a door, look at me and bolt again.
Nobody home, bad luck.
By the junction he ran into a passing cart full of cheap pottery and implements, stopped, tried to shoulder a seedy hanger-on out of his way and was pushed back roughly in my direction, landing on his bottom in front of me.
He rolled his head back and stared upside-down at me with watery eyes.
I drew a breath.
Something the size of a ham landed on my shoulder and forced me to turn.
Six foot odd, bald as a billiard ball, built like a sumotori and with a wicked grin crossing his bloated features from left, multiply-pierced ear to right, tattered and chewed-looking ear.
So there had been somebody home, after all.
He gazed suggestively at the weapon in my right hand, shaking his head in amused disapprovation.
I flipped the blade down, nailing his left foot to the ground through the thronged sandal sole, and hit him with a knee in the crotch.
He humpfed and let go of me, keeling over, foaming at the mouth, gurgling.
Zani was running again.
I picked a baked clay thing shaped like a spitoon from the cart, smiled an apology at the owner and launched the pot through the air in a high curved trajectory that led it to crash squarely in the Weasel's occipital zone.
He went down.
I turned again, hand on the sabre hilt.
The bald giant was gone, taking my misericord with him as a tip for the unfinished job, leaving a trail of bloody footprints.
The shadows were melting into a single shroud of darkness when I reached Zani and grabbed his blood-caked black hair.
- You're bleeding. - I said. I had spent four days tracking him, and the last exertions had not placed me in a favourable mood towards him.
- What do you want of me? - he groaned.
He was not ready yet.
- You're positively pissing blood like a gutted piglet, - I said, softly.
He turned, gritting his large yellow teeth. - I don't know you! What do you want? I'm a honest citizen.
I shook my head. - Have you noticed how night comes earlier these days? It's the time of the season, as the old saying goes.
He tried to stand and I pummelled him once, gently, in the ribs. - Soon the dogfaces will have the run of the streets in this part of town.
He spat. - They don't touch the living….
- If you keep bleeding like that you won't be of the living much longer.
I let it sink in.
It did not take long.
He went paler.
Now he was ready.
I forced him up and pushed him against a wall.
He was thin and wiry.
A yellow rectangle of light projected by the second storey of the nearby building fell on him, making him squint. I noticed he was wearing just the silk gown, trying to keep it close with a hand over his pigeon-chest while pressing the other to his head.
- You're taking care of a house by the south docks.
His eyes widened.
- No, - he blurted out. There was something scaring him more than the prospect of the ghoul larders.
- It was not a question. You are collecting money monthly to make sure that a certain house in the south docks stays undisturbed.
His eyes darted around, looking for an escape.
He had more of the Rat than of the Weasel.
- You are not making a good job of it, by the way. I guess your master would not be pleased by it….
Steps drew near.
A dark, silent shape stood at the junction, on strangely shaped legs.
It sniffed the air and turned a pair of yellow eyes set in an elongated skull on us. The whiff of the charnel smell clinging to him crept up my nostrils and I had to control my gorge. I tightened my grip on the sabre's hilt, smelling the sweet and unpleasant reek of dead meat, but offered a nod of greeting anyway.
Slowly, it went its way.
I turned to the Weasel.
- Just take me somewhere safe…. - he said, flatly.
My head hurt and my mouth felt like sandpaper.
The alarms had gone off and fallen silent while I was away.
I half-walked on stiff legs to the bathroom, giving my bladder some relief while I opened the shower cold tap. I stepped in the glass box with a suppressed scream and let the water wash over me for long minutes, hands on the slick tiles, eyes shut.
I put on an army-issue bathrobe and stared in the mirror.
Wasted - some more of this and I'll be looking like a hip MTV personality. My tongue was pale and rough.
I brushed my teeth to no avail, then went back and in the kitchen, checking the time on my way.
Eighteen hours of sleep.
While the water was boiling for the tea, I checked the answering machine.
I opened a window to let some fresh air in and dedicated my full attention to the scrambled eggs and orange juice.
It felt better.
I put on some rags and went to the mailbox.
Two newspapers I examined without too much attention while going through some ultra-bitter chocolate.
No interesting news, no other mail.
While I was running through the Hlanith underground flaunting fake credentials, the wakeworld had apparently been laying in deep freeze.
I wondered what Val might have uncovered while I was sleeping.
- Come on in….
She hesitated as usual, standing on tiptoes on my "beware of the cat" doormat, then stepped in and undid her jacket.
She was pale and drawn, more than I was.
Wakeworlding is hard on dreamers.
- They've taken the girl in, - she said, sitting on one of my mismatched chairs.
I sat down in front of her. - Stationary?
- Like freezed in amber.
We shared half a minute of hawkward silence.
She fished in her pocket and held out a small plastic bag, sealed, handing it to me.
- Spent five hours combing that junkyard of a place, - she said, and shook her head in disbelief - The stuff we did not find…
The bag contained a piece of glass straw, some five/eight millimeters around and thin, sealed by melting at one end and irregularly broken at the other, caked on the inside with some unpleasantly yellow-brown substance.
- Is this it?
A nod. - The Dreamlands Gatecrasher Drug, granted to land any newbie on the preset focus straight away upon the first hit. No Steps, no Hall, no Forest. Far out.
A sad grin. - And we don't know what else it does to your sponge. It was among the junk in the room with the writing.
I laid the bag on the nearby coffee table.
- The Yanks were working on something like this.
She shook her head, wild-eyed and grinning. - Oh no, boy. Nowhere like this.
She handed me a gascromatographer printout.
It looked like a very crowded railway timetable.
- What's this stuff? The Spice from Dune?
- Closer than you think. This is a way out badass loco cocktail, my friend, and believe me… I saw some pretty rough stuff out on the road.
She pointed at some of the data, that had been circled with a red felt-tip pen.
- According to the boffins down at the lab, - a sideways glance - that were pretty miffed, incidentally. - A shrug, - According to the kids in white this is basically a highly complex natural molecule, sort of a protein….
- 'Sort of' a protein?
- Hush! A natural, large protein-patterned molecule, provenance unknown but possibly animal, tightly wrapped up in a probably synthetic "cloud" of chems to make it more user friendly. Pretty advanced, and at least partly natural, if heavily manipulated… Not like the whole-synth stuff the IDP guys dropped at all.
- If just as nasty.
She crossed her arms and leaned back.
- Prob'ly more. It will take a few weeks to nail that crap in detail. In the meantime, I've cashed in some old favours and put a few friends on the lookout. With that sort of packaging it's pretty hard to miss.
- And you? - She asked - Got any luck?
I told her about my hunt for the Dark House caretaker, and my final meeting with the Weasel.
She shook her head, chuckling. - I should have been there.
We both knew that splitting the team was highly irregular and all that, but let the matter rest.
I cleared my throat and went on.
The Weasel had opened his heart to me in the darkened corner of a nameless tavern where nobody had taken heed of his strange clothing or his histerical trembling and shaky, unconvincing laughs.
He had downed two full flagons of the foul-smelling house finest before he started, and imbibed constantly during his monologue. When he finally landed snoring on the chipped tabletop, I knew what I needed.
So I left him there, setting my part of the bill.
Leaving the fleapit behind, the Weasel's story had led me to the cheap moorings downstream from the doks.
Junks and flat-bottomed woods were creaking in the current, and a small wineshop, barely a light reed mat strung over a simple rig and some tables, was enclosed in a sphere of warm light, the only sign of life along the Oukranos. There, off-duty dockhands accepted a skin of wine and had admitted noticing the lean barge that sometimes landed there by night, collecting three or four dark-caped persons and leaving again for destination unknown.
- Unknown but northwards.
I nodded. The merrier of the company had been positive about that, and the others had mumbled their boozy agreement.
- Fucking Kled.
I nodded again. - Now we know why they're using Hlanith.
Sixteen hours later, while we were going through the books at the Royal Archives, the hare set some of the bells Val had placed throughout the town's underground tinkling.
She gave an apologetic smile at the herridan keeping an eye on us and silenced her pager, then ran softly to the hall to use her cell phone out of ear's reach.
I stayed there, browsing some of the less known pieces of the old Savoy collection and trying not to breath too loud not to awaken the guardian's fury.
The old blackletter paragraphs were convoluted and useless, hard to make sense of and empty of meaning, but Val's smile as she came back somehow improved my mood.
- Can we get a few photocopies of this one? - I asked, standing to leave and pointing at the old Tibetan manuscript.
The librarian went gray and looked like she was about to scream.
When we settled for the two old maps and the floorplans, she was relieved enough to grant our wish, plus photos of five pages.
The guy had been nailed while chatting up a girl of sixteen in a well known microbrewery just out of town, a place favoured by Harley and blues fans, with Clapton on the jukebox and a small stage for live acts.
A perky brunette, she was with some friends and had been wondering around the premises while her pals were taking the brewery's courtesy tour.
She hated the smell of the brew.
He had bought her a pair of thick House Specials and invited her to dance, got her to a quiet corner table afterwards and started rambling about summer in Ireland and other such crap, and at the climax of this number he had produced a small pewter trinket - that had of course belonged to his Irish grandmother none the less - and had affixed the Yellow Sign on her lapel and kissed her on the forehead.
By this time, one of the musos manning the entertainment bit of the place had already informed the bartender that there was a hard drug pusher working an underage chick, giving him a number and a name to call pronto.
And as the two sweethearts sat out in the open, holding hands, sharing a joint and admiring the neons along the horizon, a friendly pickup unit had nailed, filed and carried them away.
Now she was as scared as hell, pale under the white lights, this being almost four in the morning and her family knowing nothing, and he was waiting in the can for a grilling.
I left Val to mess up the kid's memories and went in to stick an apple in the pig's mouth and a branch of rosemary up his backside before lighting up the carbons.
He refused to talk for about two and a half minutes.
After that, he spilled the beans as soon as we promised some ice for his crippled right hand.
Try and roll your own with that, now.
But he was a nonetity, the kind that specializes in car stereos and is not so good at it anyway.
He was paid small change by a friend of friends to scan the crowds for suitable young girls, accosting them, breaking them and marking "the good ones" with the Sign.
After that, his job was done and his money was in.
Whoever paid wanted strictly underage virgins.
- But I hosed one anyway, - he grinned, the memory of the previous pain already gone from his short-spanned brain. He was gonna show off with the guys. - Standing. God if she squeaked.
A rough laugh. The left hand sneaked down to the pelvis, stroking the skin-tight jeans.
A hunch. - Describe her.
A shrug. - She was a cunt like another. An ass like an airport….
Hitting him was becoming pleasant, which was worrying.
He gave a short description. I showed him a sketch.
He nodded, watching me, uncertain if a grin would be in order.
I felt weary.
The third Hlanith body had been localized, the pattern was clear.
We would not get much more out of him.
I left him to the late crew and went back to the waiting room.
The girl had fallen asleep, and somebody had called her father after Val had taken care of her.
Now they were carrying there to the ER upstairs.
We got out of the hospital.
A nurse was telling a man to calm down, that his daughter was all right, if confused. It had been just another after disco car crash, and while the driver was severely injured, his daughter had been given sedation and was now waiting for him.
Val lit a fag and shook her head.
There was a big, rigidly stuffed beaver hanging from the ceiling over the crowded desk, which was obvious in a twisted manner and fitting the ambience and the pattern.
The large room at the top of the old house on Thinkers Lane smelled mostly of musty old books and that shoe-cabinet aroma that very old parchment gets with time, scrolls and volumes randomly packed over shelves and tables, bifurcated silk bookmarks like pulled tongues protruding from the thick pages, letting off a faint creaking sound, like they were slowly breathing, as in sleep.
On the desktop lay a small silver Slannesh idol, with an incense stick burning, and a complex armillary sphere, describing orbits unknown, and a moltitude of writing implements, seals and wax sticks, a horn-handled magnifying lens and a large glass balloon half filled with dirty-green water in which small phosphorescent medusae swam lazily with nowere to go.
Light filtered through the dark yellow oiled paper of the large window overlooking the table, and the air was hot and dry like a desert wind, vague riffles causing slight movements in the hanging chimes and causing a DaVinciesque balsawood model contraption to turn clockwise before starting back on the string from which it was suspended.
- Such unexpected pleasure, - bowed our host, slithering back and letting us in with a flicker of its furcated tongue.
I gave him a wary nod.
In the grip of the whalebones, Val courtsied, eyes fixed on our host.
He went back to his high-backed chair, and gestured.
- Please be seated….
Posh as they get, is Ss-la-hesh, and extremely nice in a polishhed, old world way that gives me the creeps. There is, in its languid movements and affected manner, the inherent menace of a member of a race that was there when we were stashing nuts and dead grasshoppers away in the Cretaceous.
He leaned back, head nodding a bit with each breath, tongue lashing out now and again. He wore a high-collared Fu Manchu coat and a pair of bottle-butt pince-nez spectacles balanced at the end of his snout.
- Refreshments? - he asked, pointing to a glass cabinet witha few dusty bottles in it. - I seldom see guests theese days, y'see, so selection's somewhat scarce.
- We are fine, thanks.
A four fingered hand picked up a paper knife infinitely less sharp than the talons holding it from the lap of the idol representing our hosts's namesake, and the vertically-slit, humorous eyes scanned us, hesitating slightly over Val's features.
- So? - he distractedly tapped the balloon, sending a blur of activity through the medusae's colony - I suppose this visit's therefore somehow service-biased?
For all our long backlog of bargains and mutual favours, I don't trust the bugger.
Extinct or not, he's from a people that has an unmatched hostility record when we humans are concerned.
Go ask the Valusians.
A refugee and an outcast, Ss-la-hesh can be more curteous than a bartender on a slow night, and confined to this cluttered loft of his, but he's still a certified Phillips-class dreamer, with a few aeons of racial tricks up his wide, flame-patterned sleeves.
For all his friendly attitude, I still think he's just waiting for the right occasion to get us mammals back in our place.
And anyone holding a formaldeide-preserved human foetus on his window-sill has a lot of bowing to do to gain my trust, and in that sense Ss-la-hesh's backbone is distinctively rigid, for a reptile.
While I kept a skeptical eye on him, Val gave him a need-to-know overview of the events, and a slip of paper holding some of the gliphs we had singled out on the punk-palace walls.
Ss-la-hesh listened, keeping his eyes on her.
She placed the slip of paper in front of him, and he did not move to pick it up, but looked down to read it.
A curteous nod.
He stood and moved to a shelf.
- It has been such a stretch since I last saw something similar…. - he mumbled.
A book resting on a nearby lectern was dropped on the floor and replaced, pages flashing past as he browsed purposefully.
The tongue lashed out.
- So, - he sentenced, tapping the page with a talon. - As I guessed….
He pointed to the page, leaning back. We stood and leaned closer to look.
He lacked the tipically ophidian smell I anticipated, and was instead faintly scented of something like violets.
Val placed our sample on the yellowed page.
The characters there, though more clearly printed than the scribbles on the wall or our rendition thereof, were clearly the same language.
- So? - I echoed him.
- Sarnathian. Specifically, Old or Higher Sarnathian. - Being phisically unable to shrugh, he flexed his tail, heading back to the desk. I wondered at his possible age once again.
- Hideographs, - he continued. - A small sample from some long lost style. A song, possibly.
- Do you read it?
Playing hide and seek with the viper was costing us time we did not have.
Val placed a more complete transcript in front of him. - Enough to translate this.
A twitch of the pallid lips, something that might have been a smile, might have been something more subtly aggressive. - Studying it some, yes.
- Do it.
The eyes behind the green-tinted spectacles were as cold as the critter's hearts, and devious.
- Sir, this translation service is the practice substaining my simple lifestyle, and you should appreciate….
But we had come prepared, and I had spent long hours memorizing the photographs and replicating the twirly script.
I fished out the bamboo roll, undid the string and showed him the first few inches, exposing two or three segments.
He hissed, an unsophisticated, animal sound.
- Hsan's Seven Secret Statement Scrolls…. - he leaned closer, and I stepped back. - A passably decent decypherment.
- I guess you are familiar with the text, - Val said, while I kept the roll in front of him but out of reach.
He tried to downplay his interest, but it was too late. - I should still have a reproduction of the selfsame….
He turned vaguely towards the shelves, waving a taloned forepaw, gears turning in his mind, betrayed by the nervous movements of his long, thin tail under the table.
- Not of this one, - I said, cutting him short.
Val stepped forward, and lifted a hand, forefinger pointing to the ceiling. - Sealed with the emblem of the wheel, of the key, of the hearth of the rdo-rje, - she proclaimed, in something that was also, I knew, a discreet flexing of non-obvious oneiric muscles. Her voice rang in the room like a peal from some distant bell, and the light seemed to dim and the air to cool.
Ss-la-hesh's pupils dilated. - The Fifth Sacred Aspect's Own copy. I see.
I rolled back the scroll and put it back in its satchell.
The snakeman nodded just once. - So. How many paragraphs?
We had almost the double written down, but we had no reason to let him know straight away.
- I'll translitterate the script, - he conceded. - If you would please seat and be patient….
- It was easier than I expected, - Val said as we got out. - And cheaper.
- I'm not so sure. Did you see the greed in the snake's eyes? I just wondered what we really gave him.
In our line of work, giving the gift of books can really mess you up big time.
She was pretty cool about it. - The Fifth Lama's copy of the Hsan book is pretty tame. He's just one of those collector freaks.
I was unconvinced.
We would not be the first man and woman team convinced of having struck a real bargain with a snake, after all.
Back over the Croc we studied the script, now readable in Ss-la-hesh's neat, almost feminine calligraphy.
It was familiar, as it was to be expected. The 'Lands can be a bibliophyle's nightmare - from holy texts to science fiction, everythings seems to wash up on the Slumber Shores, ending up in basreliefs, papyruses, incunabula, clay tablets and dot-marked chaboola tusks.
Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's the wakeworlders that get the recycled stuff, and the only true wakeworlder-originated prose is in computing manuals.
We went through it once over a light repast of basmati-like pilau and roasted mutton.
"Look not upon me, because I am black,
because the sun hath looked upon me"
- Solomon's Song? - asked Val.
I'd never have marked her for the Bible pounding sort, but when she produced a copy - Bibles being two piastres a dozen in certain markets of Hlanith - we could go to the incriminated text and compare it with our own.
And sure, there it was.
"I opened to my bride;
but my bride had withdrawn herself,
and was gone: souls failed when she spake:
I sought her, but I could not find her;
I called her, but she gave me no answer."
The discrepancies increased as the text progressed.
"I charge you, O daughters of Hali,
if ye find my bride, that ye tell her,
that I am sick of love, and chasing her."
- Somehow this one sounds infinitely more sinister than the original.
Val nodded. - Looks like it's gonna be a rough shag all right.
There's a tract of the derelict Kled shore, south of the dolphin-shaped Ogrothan peninsula and facing the island of Mtal, where the coast is steep and rocky and sharp as a blade. The waves come a long way to munch the foot of the scarp, and periodically a thin, ample sheet of pink calcareous rock fails with a sinister creaking noise that can be heard from miles around, and while the seagulls take to the sky in a frenzy, hurls into the sea in a cloud of white spray. As gravity shifts its grip on the rock, huge cracks spread through the white billboard-like fragment, and large shards of sharp limestone rain into the sea to finally settle, like broken bottles on the top of a wall, just under the surface as yet another deterrent for the curious traveller.
- I'm not taking my ship any closer, Master.
It was a miracle the piece of junk had carried us relatively safe 'till here, I reflected, eyeing the self-styled captain of our sea venture with distaste.
The guy was no Hornblower, and he was clearly pretty anxious to get back to Hlanith to drink the silver pieces we had put down to rent him, his piece of flotsam and his two morons, that acted as deckhands and had apparently substained themselves these last three days on fish heads and foul-smelling algae.
It was the best we had been able to put together in a hurry, and was well below par.
- Nobody asked you to, - snapped Val, passing me the folded map she had traced from memory on cheap parchment.
The old temple was supposedly up there at the top of the cliff, according to the map no more than a slingshot from the edge of the scarp, probably closer considering the age of the original map and the discontinuous but stiff Wakeworld/Slumberland time ratio.
- What do you plan to use, - she had asked me a few minutes before, the seasickness of the last two days sharpening the irony in her voice - hang-gliders?
I had ignored her bitterness and turned to our skipper.
- We go back, - I said now.
The happy glow illuminating his mug was roughly shut down but my next instructions. - Back to that litte harbour we passed on our way last night. We land there.
He croaked, made an absolutely unpleasant rasping noise and spat something unnameable over the bulwarks.
- Our agreement did not mention any landing party, - he gurgled, - and I wait for nobody.
- Nor did anybody ask you to land or to wait. You'll land us there….
- And get lost, - added Val by my side.
Orchids were everywhere.
Thick leaves and meaty-looking flowers parasited the trees around us, spreading their scents through the shaded undergrowth.
Hummocky, thickly vegetated landscape forced us to climb up and run down the small hillocks, the sun casting strange shadows over us.
- Sure thing, - Val said during a brief pause - this place would give Nero Wolfe the hots.
We were standing in the shadow of a large ivory stelae pointed at the sky like a bony accusing finger, wrapped in vines and at least fifteen meters high.
I passed a hand along my damp collar and looked around, short of breath.
- I's giving them to me all right, and I don't give a damn about the flowers.
- You need more exercise, - she sentenced, passing along a small waterskin.
- I need sixty percent of humidity less and a steady wind.
- We should have rented a couple of gashants in Hlanit and come cross-country.
But it was too late to recriminate.
The pieces we had collected so far fit together in a partial image of something unprecedented - as far as we knew.
The Wakeworld guys needed someone in place when it happened, to assess and put a stop to it. And we were the ones.
I limited myself to two mouthfulls of water, knowing I'd be sweating it out in about ten minutes flat.
I handed it back and scanned the surroundings.
At the base of a large tree laid a human-looking skeleton, a large purple orchid flowering between its teeth, making it look like some long dead flamenco-dancing weirdo, or something out of a Grateful Dead cover, or both.
- We should get there before sunfall, - I said, starting again.
The sun was low over the cliff as we scrawled up an inclined wall and spied the courtyard.
We had not met the brown short men mentioned in the reports, nor any other sign of animal life, apart from a widddershins, corkscrew-snouted critter that had popped out of the ground by a forlorn sundial, and retreated instantly upon seeing us, with a sharp gyre and a distinctive sound, something uncannily like "Blimey!"
No birds sang, no insect buzzed.
The whole Jungle of Kled appeared to be empty of animal life around us, and the illusion had persisted up to the moment we first perceived the faint clanging of the bell.
Now the sound of the single bell had been guiding us for the last half an hour, a beacon in the increasingly frequent buildings surfacing from the felt-like ground, leading us here, laying on our bellies and watching the small procession unfolding in the six sided courtyard.
At the head, two huge brutes, head like "vagina dentata", protruding eyes, too many arms and too little ellbows.
These effortlessly carried a blakened plank between themselves, a huge, old bronze bell hanging from it. One step behind, a man in yellow rags carried a huge hammer in both hands, hitting rhythmically the gray-green metal.
Five or six yards behind these, a Von-Stroheim style bullethead in classier cytrine rags, cerimoniusly held the hand of a tall veiled woman in what looked like a marsupilami skin cape. Their steps were characteristically rhythmed, one step and a pause, then the other foot forward and a pause, and again.
They were followed by a third party carrying something red and wet over a yellow cushion, red stains spreading over the fluffy surface with each step.
And behind them, keeping a respectful distance, came two-score lesser worshippers, assortedly bedecked, minimal style details revealing their various provenances across two continents, and their general awkwardness in dealing with the surrounding belying their communal Wakeworlder status.
The column entered the ivory dome through the low slit of a gate, and disappeared.
The bell boomed one last time, riverberating through the ground and dislodging small crusts of dirt from our hanging refuge.
We slid back.
- Looks like we're just in time, - I said, picking up my crossbow and rapidly checking the repeat-action lever.
With a natural movement, Val tightened her sabre-belt.
- Let me see… - she began, eyes reduced to gree-gray slits - We're about to take on a templefull of Ragman cultists on their own turf, not counting the two veedees and whatever they can come up with?
- And the Ragman himself might be on his way this very moment?
I nodded, loading the quarrell-holder.
She sniggered. - All right!
A pause while she dropped all unnecessary gear.
- You think that's one of the missing kids? - she asked.
- Stands to reason.
- What about the others?
- If there's others….
- There's gonna be some, for the sake of statistics if nothing else.
I passed a hand over the front of my tunic to wipe away the sweat.
- Statistics do not always work here in the 'Lands.
She stood, cracking her knuckes. - I won't complain about that right now.
The inside of the dome was breathtaking.
It was not only the fact that this was a single carved piece of ivory of colossal proportions. It was the craftmanship of the artists that had sculpted a multitude of figurines following one after the other along a spiralling path over the concave surface, the material so thin in points that the red light of the sun filtered through, pale as a distant fire in the carven landscape. Here a goat-legged faun chased a nymph, there a a couple of centaurs necked under a weeping willow, further on a fat guy on a unicorn donkey revelled, glass in hand, vines in his hair.
I glimpsed more, much more, including thunderbolt-hurling deities, demons, huge reptiles and hippopotamuses and what else, but let the impending sense of deja-vu die down.
There were more pressing matters at hand.
In the centre of the hall, under a star-shaped skylight and a few hundred steps from the wide, low door from which we entered following the procession, the head hierophant was salmodiating to the assembly, the veiled woman in yellow pelts standing by on a small elevated platform, surrounded by four pikes, three of which already occupied by blackened lumps of stuff.
As the guy kept cantilenating, the woman picked up the red thing on the proffered cushion with both hands, turned to her left and with a low growl progressively raising to a liberating, shrill scream brought up and then slammed the thing over the waiting blade, where it settled with an unpleasant, wet crunchy sound.
Blood sprayed her veil.
The assembly sighed.
I felt Val stiffen by my side and looked at her.
She had recognized the chunks of meat before I did.
- Let's wipe out these fuckers.
I raised the crossbow and went for the leader.
The quarrell crossed the floor in a low parabola over the cultists heads and connected with the guy's shoulder, spreading a red pool over the yellow garments.
Too far to do any real damage, but enough to give him something to think about in the next few minutes.
That was all we needed.
We stepped apart from each other while they took us in and reacted.
They came all together, wielding naginata-like polearms with more enthusiasm than expertise.
They were lacking in discipline, attunement and pattern.
All their strenght was in numbers, and we would see to that in no time.
Val needed about forty seconds, so it was up to me.
I nailed the first five with as many quarrells as they tried to rush me, the sixth taking my last projectile in the throat at no more than two yards from me.
Next. I roteated the not-yet-useless weapon, catching the following in the crotch and opening him up to the sternum. The crescent-shaped steel blade under the crossbow body stuck to the bone, so I let the thing go with the falling corpse while pulling the emergency poignard from its stock, sidestepping two spans of steel, turning on the axis of the left foot, and hitting the next attacker with an upwards blow that entered under the chin and nailed tongue to palate, killing the brain.
Next. Another sidestep, I crouched, a foot sweep, a body crashing on his back, breathless.
By that time my sabre was out and the remaining men had spread in a circle around me, keeping a distance, surrounding me with a wall of shaky blades.
And Val went off.
No warning, no ripples of power or straining of the texture.
She's a certified full Elton-class, intensively trained and focused.
No messing with that kind of power.
I felt absolutely sick as the floor seemed to twirl under my feet, gravity pulling in too many directions at the same time.
I was anchored.
The yellow kids were blown away.
When I got my bearings again, those that had been surrounding us were mangled as many broken dolls dripping unpleasant humors.
The veedees, probably the original target of the shaping, were crunched and smeared as a greenish gooey stuff across the ivory basreliefs.
Val staggered to the left, two, three paces, ending propped against the wall, eyes glazed, lungs emptying in a whistled breath.
She slowly slid down to the floor.
Time started flowing again.
I stood, shaking, and looked for my sabre, that was lost and bent some yards away. My eyes had problems focusing.
I found Val, shook my head and went to her.
She was coming back, falling back inside herself as the patterns rearranged.
She stood, shakily.
We exchanged a glance, nodded and turned towards the dais.
The hierophant was standing in front of the Bride.
He was pale and drawn and not so sure of himself anymore.
I massaged the back of my neck, collected a reasonably workable weapon and nodded to Val.
- Let's nail this biz shut, - I said, surprising myself with the croak that came out of my mouth.
I took a step forward.
I needed not my limited powers nor the hierophants ashen features to understand what was happening.
We turned as one.
The Thing in Yellow Rags had just entered the building, sending shivers down the walls. Val closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. - Jesus Christ!
The Thing smiled.
We felt it through our bones like a cancer munching on the marrow.
- No, darling, - He said, suavely. - Not tonight, at least.
They had got through to the wrong Guy.
This one was Gnarly Boy, the Toe-tapper, the Black Man of Old.
I remembered the Sarnathian chant and it made sense, in its way.
He was dressed in mottled yellow garments the way the moon is dressed with the solar corona during eclipses. It felt like the rags were not resting on His form, but simply going the same way at the moment. His body was pitted with meteor craters and crossed by age-old faults.
He came towards us at a leisurely stroll.
Ignoring me, He directed His full attention on Val.
She staggered, I supported her.
The smile came again, rippling through the air like static.
Mercifully, He turned.
The bullet-head reeled under the impact, tears flooding his rough features, a trickle of blood dripping from the corner of his mouth as he sank his teeth in his own tongue, whining.
- You are surprised.
His voice, like His steps, did not echoe in the dome, and was easy, slightly bored.
- I am not the One you were especting.
The hierophant fell on his knees.
- You do not understand.
Something resembling a dry chuckle escaped the Black Man's lips.
- In truth, you thought your ilk cold possibly perceive the true nature of a God in such depth and detail to be able to single Him from the Whole. You thought there was possible to perceive a clear demarcation, maybe, something that made One and the Other, Two, and Separate. You think praying to One, and sacrificing, is not sacrificing, and praying, yes, to All in One. Silly.
The man was trembling.
- You thought it would be possible to cast your pityful frailties on a God, dressing Him up in motley, and this way to Understand something that's beyond your grasp as tap dancing is to fishes.
The similarity was something of a letdown, I admit.
His laughter felt like steel leaves tossed by the wind.
He extended a hand and passed a finger over the hierophant's chin, collecting a drop of blood and lifting it up in front of its black, opaque eyes.
- But did not I, out of My Love for your kind, give all the wise men the right pointers, the significant stepping stones, the essential building blocks to achieve Truth? - His voice softened, he pointed the finger down and let the drop fall to the floor. - From the time I convinced you not to drag your knuckles in the dirt anymore onwards, was I not always there pointing to the Rule, helping you along to achieve Comprehension?
There was an edge of resentment, of hurt godly feelings.
- Did I not lead Akenathon and Moses and Peter by the hand to their epiphany, did I not lay the numbers down for Schrodinger, spelling the Way Things Are as plain as I could for all to see, and Become?
He shook His head, staring the mad hierophant in the eyes.
- But you will not listen, will you? - Sharp, cutting. - You prefer your silly games and your pathetic pets, painted bears, bird-headed demons, golden bulls, doves, cats, to shield you from the Unavoidable.
He straightened. - The sheer cheek of it all!
He pointed to the remains of the congregation. - You planned to lure your God of chioce from its starry exhile, baiting Him with a prophesized Bride built to measure through the Dream, to unleash Him on the wakeworld through the Dreams of billions, and this for petty reasons that are unworthy of mention.
He pointed a finger. - That red patch wanted to humiliate his father. That smear of grease on the wall desired money and women. You…!
The black finger tapped the forehead of the hierophant. - You did it because it was expected of your line! Not even the honestly cheap ambition of an upstart ape. What a let down, my son!
The hand retreated, leaving a black dot where the fingertip had connected with skin. - Unsurprisingly therefore you do not understand…. Bacause your line will not listen to the Truth, is that so? No matter what, you won't get it in your head, none else but Me will ever come because He That Shalt Not Be Named is no more, nor He ever was for you and your kin, but He is, because only the All in One will be in the End, and is the One Beyond?
A gurgle escaped the pale lips of the kneeling man.
- It still escapes you!
A paper-thin blade of fury was creeping in the Black Man's voice.
- Do I have to spell it out for you in words even a baby would understand? - He chuckled again - If only he had the spark your race lacks, or gains only by losing all of itself, that is. Listen then as I tell you there is no hope but the One, and its all-consuming Hunger, all-communing Act of Devouring.
The hierophant let out a scream that did not succeed in drowning the Black man's voice. - Your classifications are obsolete, sons of the Ape. All the old Gods that Were are going, Each in its own time will be swept up and incorporated, devoured and digested as the galaxies spiral into each other crushing worlds and suns by the billion, like specks of dust in a hurricane. Maybe this place and its Gods will go last, - He encompassed the hall, the Jungles and the whole of the Lands with a single sweep of an arm, - tucked away as They are, but away They will go nonetheless. They will all join the revels at the Mad Piper's tune, and with Them will go all races and things and matter and energy, because All is One in the End as in the Beginning, till End and Beginning are One again themselves.
The voice fell to a whisper. - I'm the First and the Last and should know, don't you think?
- Stupid factionalism is a thing of the past. Elder, Outer, Other, who cares? - A glint of the former urbane personality flashed back. - These are monotheistic times, my friend.
He slapped a black hand on the kneeling man's head.
- And all your chasing the Bride…
The fingers flexed.
- … Would just be another useles exercise…
- … In worthless theological manipulation.
A creaking noise.
The skull crunched.
The man slumped on the floor.
- And yet!
He stepped up and approached the Bride, lifting the veil lightly.
- And yet how do I love the craftmanship of your race. The sheer talent expressed by such a work of art. I will always harbor a weak spot for you. The hubris of the Creator in the fragile shell of the Created.
It was our missing girl, or what was left of her.
She was thirtysomething by the looks of her, delicately made up, muscular body encased in a gold scales dress and animal pelts.
- To build an ideal out of a few bits and pieces, while at the same time so thoroughly and marvellously twisting and perverting the original, that no vestige of it remains but in flitting memories.
I passingly wondered how many years had been taken up by her education and conditioning. More than fifteen surely.
Not that time counted that much, here in Slumberland.
- True to the game, a pawn was turned into a Queen….
There was admiration in His voice, as his gaze swept the remains of the battle.
- … by sacrificing all the other pieces.
A black hand sneaked between bronzed temple and silk bonnet, dislodging a rich wave of luscious black hair that fell caressing the cheek and landed on the exposed, firm breast.
- Exquisite. A God's feat ideed.
Her almost perfect almond eyes were raptly fixed over the Black Man's features, the golden-tinted lips parting in a smile that was just a little too open, baring teeth just a little too sharp.
She straightened her shoulders, offering a gold-dust sprayed cleavage, and let out a sensuous sigh.
The Black Man laughed heartily, an almost human sound.
- Tempting strumpet, eh?
He turned to us and winked.
- And to imagine that less than a gnat's life ago she killed another just like her and ripped her innards with these lovely fingers. Versatile.
He stepped back and raised a hand, stroking her shadow.
She contorted, miewling with pleasure, utterly devoid of any restraint.
- Basic but fulfilling, I guess.
He moved his hand again, like he was handling some remote control.
She let out a guttural wet chuckle, bending forward and straightening her legs.
A thin veil of perspiration appeared on her forehead, legs letting go under her and she falling on the floor, curling up in a foetal position, letting out a prolonged, orgasmic sigh.
- Eh, - He sighed, turning to us - I can't but wonder if good old Hastur had not grasped some higher truth after all. Me, should I beget Myself again, I'll be sure to have a stint as a full time shepherd's god. Leave all this posturing to someOne more temperamentally suited than Me, and go for a bit of action in the open fields. Good for your health and your spirit.
He turned back to the curled up woman.
- Tempting, - he repeated. He clicked His tongue - A pity I'm already otherwise engaged.
He spent a breath's time thinking, a painful smile growing over his lips.
- But I'm not the kind to waste a good Queen. I think I'll set her back on the chessboard, and let your friends play out her game.
The girl was gone.
He slapped His hands together and rubbed them, turning to us for the last time.
- The two of you, now!
His tone was businesslike.
- Now, I'd like to state from the beginning that I'm enchanted by the job you did. Splendid. And I mean both you as individuals and as a whole race. Great improvisational skills, great sense of tempo, a definitive performance. You make me proud, kids.
He seemed somehow embarassed. - So you see, it's just for form's sake I'm gonna delete you from creation.
He let it sink in, then smiled again. - But as I'm at it, I'll put up a brave face and enjoy my duty. No ill feelings, I hope?
Val shook her head.
- You can't.
- C'mon…. - He was clearly not wasting any more time on our case. - You're gonna stand against me? What are you, a third-class dreamer?
He shook his head. - Kuranes himself could not stand his ground against Me. Not a whole legion of Kuranes could as far as inconvenience Me unless I so decided for My own purposes. So try for once and be a good loser, will you? Or are you seriously going to try and stop me?
She took a step forward, and I followed suit.
- Not me. The Other Gods. While they last.
He was not pleased. I felt my gums bleeding under his stare.
- You can't touch us. - Val continued, dizzily - This is Kled. We carry our own food and water. We did not touch beast, artefact, flowers or tree.
Strenght failed her, and I held her up, picking up her line.
- We're protected by the rule of the land, - I said, his stare blinding me, - and the curse of the Other Gods.
He was clenching his fist.
- We're protected, - I repeated. - This place and those that come under its Law are the Other God's. It's the Rule of the Land.
He let go.
A final laugh escaped Him.
- I always hated Rules Lawyers. With all due respect. But as yet…. Great improvisers, as I said, the lot of you kids.
He looked at the walls surrounding us, letting sheer, honest admiration for it all surface once again distend His features.
- Next time, then, - He said, with a small bow. - When the Other Gods will be One and this place will be in shambles I'll come for the two of you. Personally.
Uncannily, it was my time to laugh.
- By then we'll be long gone, - I told him.
- Thinks thou that will be enough to fall beyond my reach? - he asked mockingly.
- Yes, - I said.
But he was gone.
I laid down Val quietly by the door, arranging her air and her clothes, checking her slow breathing and troubled pulse.
I washed her face with some of the remaining water, wet her lips and mine and cast the useless waterskin away.
Then I sat next to her and there, under the stare of the Other Gods, we lay holding hand, and gladly slipped into Wakefulness.
It was hot and wet, the sun beating down mercilessly.
I trampled on along the gravelly road, hauling my large brown paper bag, passing a pair of joggers (how could they make it?) and their dog on their way downhill, and stopped by the gray and orange TIM lorry parked by the cell-network aerial units.
I slammed the sliding door behind me and let my eyes adjust to the darkness while the small, histerical fan chilled the sweat on my back.
Inside the lorry smelled of smoke, sweat, food and stale air.
Val moved to another seat and put out her fag.
- What's it gonna be today?
I slumped on the freshly vacated chair and brought up the bag.
- Chinese. Cantonese fried rice, frog legs, sour-sweet pork, the works…
She picked up a carton and leaned back.
- Another two weeks of this will kill us.
I nodded, examining the rice.
The Special Order I had signed myself expired in two weeks time.
After that, the small white house with the nevrotic dog would be alone on the hill with its potentially dangerous content.
She fished a can from the bag. - Wow! Pepsi! Just what we needed to wash down this cholesterol banquet.
I checked the screens.
We had two digital cameras trailed on the building, one fixed and the other operated by a small joystick.
Both were equipped with directional pick-ups and both were recording directly to zip packs.
We had a perfunctory tap on the telephone and went through their mail each morning, through their garbage once a week.
And nothing stirred.
We both came to our wits in a white hospital room, IV feed dripping, the first shock being the sudden separation. I knocked a nurse senseless and reached Val in her room across the corridor, two wetworks kids trying to keep pace with me.
Once together again we started filling in the blanks.
Our slumber caper had taken up 48 hours of continuous sleep.
A check team had found our respective sleeping bodies in bad fouled-up bedsheets and had us transferred to the Koelliker Clinic straight away, under V.I.P. procedure.
It took us the best part of a week to get back in working conditions, so we missed the clamour for the Sleeping Death Epidemy, that had claimed over 40 people within two days in the urban area, and that was generally considered to be the result of a locally-differentiated Spongiform Encephalitis batch.
We did not miss our debriefings.
We thoroughly reported every detail, and the bit about the Old One's philosophical rants did stir up a bit of controversy.
Stuff for the Thinkers' Lobby.
We had other troubles.
The original subject of our investigation was up and running, fresher than a rose. It was, according to the docs, a Miracle.
She did not remember a single thing.
But I did.
The moment we were both removed from Active Field Service, I requesdted a special surveillance unit for the girl and had both Val and me assigned to it.
That was ten weeks ago.
- They're moving!
I dropped the chopsticks and handled the joystick.
The panoramic screen showed a small bike idling in front of the small gate, half a mile away, the dog barking like hell.
Val dropped the volume.
- That's Tony… - she said.
He was a red helmet over a black leather jacket and a pair of jeans.
- Boyfriend number three, - she added.
I got him in the secondary field and slowly zoomed, singling him out.
On the panoramic, the dog stopped barking.
The door opened and a lithe figure walked briskly towards the gate.
The dog hid in a rose bush.
She opened the gate.
On the detail screen, she kissed her centaur and unclipped the helmet that had been hanging on the bike's side.
A few words over the speaker, while she tucked her pants in her boots.
- Pretty regular, - mumbled Val.
- As always.
She buttoned up her jacket and donned her elmet.
But before she did, for a single, endless second, she looked straight in the detail camera.
Her gaze rested on me for a heartbeat, then moved left, fixing on Valerie.
A cold, cruel little smile spread over her lips.
Then she was astride the bike.
- Let's go, - she said.
The bike roared away, the dog timidly looking from his hideout.
Val was already dropping on the driver's seat.
We had discussed this many times, and we knew what kind of evidence would be enough for us.
She started the engine as I tapped my code in the notepad, activating the PGP-crypted message home.
It was a single world.
A woman's name.
It meant we were going in live - the backup teams would know what to do.
The lorry swerved on the gravel of the road, roaring, spraying pebbles around.
As soon as the rocking of the thing became manageable, I picked up the rifle's case and unlocked it.