Bone Up Yar
Jechiel Andrade put down pen and journal. How boring was that?
He pulled two loads of punch from the deep inner pocket of his longcoat. If he had a ducat for every dream he’d put to paper… well, so he wouldn’t be wealthy enough to live in the Tower, but he’d have far less if he’d earned a ducat for every dream he’d ever actually figured out.
Maybe his anxiety was really just Farris Lord-Umbra’s accession to the Accord’s Panoptica. There’d be little to hold back his Pure War against the Mandaroy people. Grim, grim news, but something else seemed to be fueling Jechiel’s angst and he couldn’t put a finger on it. And that angered him.
You will die, his father had said five years ago, and then tossed him a grey, motley-patched longcoat—now nobody knew him without that haggard rag—and spoke his last words to his son: Take this. At least you’ll be warm while you starve.
Jechiel hadn’t starved yet, though he was rail thin. Food meant little more than annoying necessity, and he often forgot to eat, particularly when he was “composing” or practicing his gittern. Or spun out on punch. He knew what he looked like. He’d set the standard. Now every crankster bard was emaciated, pale, sullen, pensive. Womyn loved it, men respected it. He took the love, took the respect, and, when the band allowed it, occasionally returned cryptic turds of wisdom.
Two black, sticky nodes of comfort. With the slightest aroma of rotting leaves nipping through the small room’s cloy of stale smoke. He sat a load of punch on his tongue.
Only his gittern provided more comfort against the pain in his congenitally wrecked lungs, the nightmares, the uneasiness that had been teasing him for the entire week-long trip across Ramblewood. They said you could hear the prime loads sizzle. This one did not sizzle, and in truth, he’d never heard even a squeak, but its strong mint-and-pepper tang told him to hang on. Bone Mob always got him the prime loads. He’d wear the crossed bones on his forearm for the prime loads, but the cabal sigil went no deeper.
The punch melted slowly into a grainy paste that coated his dry throat, seeped coolly into his belly where bulbs of warmth began to bound about. He chased it with a swig of ale and eyed the second load. Take it now or wait until after the gig, when again the dreams beckoned from behind the promise of sleep?
The air stilled, then broke. The heavy door unstuck with a bump and creaked open with a small puff of once-white paint flecks.
Lok Argosy peeked in. "Go'bro, you spun out already?"
"Not just yet."
"Jechiel, we need you straight enough to play."
"Don’t I always play?" Jechiel said, hiding his annoyance behind a mild smile. He drew a wheezy breath, squeezed the second load in a tight fist, drank some more ale, put the one-jug down on his beat-up journal. It made you rather deliberate, the punch. The jag fluttered in his belly and dulled his irritation. Soon, he would spin away, and for a short time, he would breathe with less pain.
"Play you do. Straight? Rarely." Lok laughed a bit, stepped inside, and shut the door. He immediately pulled out a fat redbone and sparked it off. He knew better than to offer Jechiel a toke, but didn’t seem concerned about the cinnamony cloud of redbud smoke wafting about the room.
Bone Up Yar was at Cranium Box in Arambul, close enough to see the Ramblewood Wall and closer to home than Jechiel had been since leaving Kyllo’s Den. How many songs had been written about the Wall? Five paces tall, a pace thick, a century or two to build. A millennium’s worth of tunes.
"You’ll kill yourself one day," Lok said with fake levity, grabbing a one-jug of ale from the iced vat.
“So I’ve been told.”
"Or Omen Swords will kill you for messing with his investment. And then what’ll happen to the rest of us?" Lok flipped his hair tail up, leaving a faint trail thanks to the punch. Back in Kyllo Den, back when they called themselves Dropping Stone and played the Battered Hull, they wore their hair anyway they wanted. The cosmetic conformities came quickly as a matter of survival, but only he seemed to have kept the Bone Mob from skulking into his heart. The formidable Wall, built by the Mandaroy to keep out the warring Towers, instead trapped the Mandaroy inside. And it was flimsy as paper when behind it stood two Tower-states that hated the Mandaroy and unabashedly allowed the Umbral Split to operate in their territory. Lord-Umbra’s Scorpio Gemfires scaled the Wall and picked off the Mandaroy at will.
“You know what?” Jechiel said with a big, stiff smile. “Fuck Swords.”
“Hey, domo, Omen is like our, our…”
“Benefactor?” Jechiel said, the punch making him feel like a mind reader, setting him on a roll. “Maybe, maybe that’s all he is. Just a big-hearted foreign music lover who showed up one day with nothing, no grip on anything in the `Wood, killed Rogen Chancing, and took over Bone Mob.”
“I know. Benefactor. But Lok, Omen Swords has secrets. Where’d he come from? What’s his business here?”
“They say he’s a pirate. Hunting someone for revenge.”
“Yes,” Jechiel said. “They. I know the rumors. They’re like assholes.… Omen Swords is using us for something other than a spun out bard’s lame tale. Pirate is exactly what he is.”
A thick silence made the drummer loom in the small graffiti-splashed anteroom. He fiddled with the unopened one-jug, pinched his narrow nose, scrutinized the redbone’s cherry.
“Say it, domo,” Jechiel snapped. “You’re making me nervous.”
Lok took a long drag on the red, slowly huffed out smoke, and watched it furl about his wan face. "We think maybe you need help," he said in that slightly absurd way he had when he wanted to be assertive. "We all do."
"The band, Jechiel. Everyday you’re spun out. And it’s going to catch up with you. We’re just taking the long view, go'bro."
"Long view? Lok, since when do you see beyond that?" Jechiel tilted his one-jug at the crossed bones tattooed in stark white and red on Lok's left forearm. A repetition of the larger image on the drummer's narrow back. A repetition of the image on Jechiel's left forearm. He laughed. “Any long view is an illusion, Lok. A Harmony bedamned mirage.”
"Not true, domo. And that’s because of Bone Mob. Look at us! Pulling down the ducs. Finally! The Cranium Box! Omen Swords made this happen.”
Jechiel nodded, smiled. He knew better than to talk down that farce. The ducats were nothing compared to what Wyrdo bards got on the other side of the Wall where they were allowed to record their music and have it played over the Accord waves. Ducats? Bone Mob took its cut, the mongers took their tax, the band split the rest four ways; well, that left enough for a fat steak and a glass of cheap wine in the finest Ganiard tavern. Five years ago, on the road out of Kyllo’s Den, he’d dreamed of this.
Ramblewood was small and the people shortsighted. The long view. One of the peculiarities of living behind the Wall: denial was a blindfold of laughter, thin as wind. And Omen Swords knew that; he was nothing if not shrewd.
“Finally gettin’ our music to the people,” Lok said, the redbud making him all sincere. “The ones who’re moved by our music, go’bro. The ones we play to. Like you say. Why we left Kyllo’s Den. Why we wear this.” He held his arm out.
Jechiel took a long, hard breath through ruined lungs. He swallowed, felt the jag, and said, "Freebillies don’t come to Cranium Box. No hoi’polloi. Only cabaliers. And cabaliers are always too busy posturing and digging and grabbing for éclat to listen. To really listen. The Cranium Box is only about the experience, about being able to say you played here.” Jechiel liked the clouding look on Lok’s long face. “You’re digging that same old sorry story. That idealistic trash. The music. You’re all about the music. That’s all you hung onto from Kyllo’s Den?”
“What’re you talking about, Jechiel?” Lok said. “And you’re not all about the music? Take away that journal of yours and you might just fade away. I mean… you’ve had that journal since I’ve known you, domo…. I mean, what is there if not the music?”
“No one’s moved by our music, Lok. Cabaliers care about what—who—we represent: Bone Mob and Omen Swords and whatever they can get from being close to that."
"Damn, domo,” Lok said. “All my point was is that we want you around to en—enjoy this."
"You need me around."
"Whatever," Lok said, "whatever."
"Not whatever,” Jechiel said. “Whatever is why the Cranium Box is relevant anymore. Farris Lord-Umbra is going to get his seat on the Panoptica because no one—not even the self-avowed moderates—will challenge his accession. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“No? How many Mandaroy have vanished from this side of the Wall? How many of us killed on the road to the Harmony Wells? How will that multiply now that the Umbral Split’s been legitimized?"
"Hey, domo, I don’t know. I get tired of worrying about all of that.”
The punch magnified everything, and Jechiel knew that the rage flaring inside him should be choked down. “That’s Lord-Umbra’s strategy. And it’s plain as day and no one does anything. It’s all just part of the game of winks played by the power. Mandaroy leaders too. Our own! They wink while they keep collecting this tithe and that tax, and their puppet Claymage and her Knights and Mountain Guard in Zahariad, do nothing to keep Lord-Umbra from coming over the Wall. Nothing! But they keep collecting that fat Bard's Tax from us for the privilege of playing our own songs."
"Not so loud, Jechiel."
"Of course not.... And that’s the sad problem...." Jechiel scissored his own hair tail between two ringed fingers, wanting to yank it out of his scalp. The jag spread inside him. "The merchants and mongers bloat themselves off our confusion, their own people searching for any kind of meaning in such a dismal world. They use the Wyrdo's spin to generate their own. You know, I once thought the cabals were the only way to dodge that spin. That the cabals were subversive, true instruments of true change. Bone Mob, a couple others, maybe they aren’t really pups of the rich, but they all deal with the mongers, right? Sooner or later in the `Wood, you have to, and that's as good as being pups. And all that does is subvert the subversive, which is how the mongers operate." And if you were Omen Swords, who wasn’t Mandaroy and had no Memory, no history that couldn’t be Forgotten, you laughed about it. “But the rest of us, Lok, we all Remember. We have no choice. And when you Remember everything from everyone from all time, you become everyone and you have no choice. You’re nothing but Mandaroy, stuck with all the misery, despair, the shame. You’re not yourself, there is no you, only this huge, shapeless, meaningless us, Remembering, and you have no choice.”
“Huh,” Lok said, stabbing the redbone into his mouth and sucking deeply. “That’s some pretty heavy digging, domo. All that punch you do, you know what they say, makes you Remember more than most of us. You get all political when you’re spun out, domo….”
Jechiel felt stupid, but he waved his hand out in front of him. "Aren’t you afraid of the Umbral Split?"
“I’m not going to be scared,” Lok blurted, smoke lazing about his face. “They say his joining the Panoptica is the best possible thing. Now he’s got to comply with the Pandecta.”
“Hah! How better to circumvent the law than from within?”
“Domo, I could worry like you. I could see conspiracy and just badness everywhere I look. But I don’t want to. Jechiel, you’re not the only one who sees, domo. That’s, well, domo, that’s kind of arrogant. I know it’s bad along the Wall here. I see that. Everyone sees that. But I am not going to let what I can’t control bring me down all of the time because, go’bro, this is it. Yesterday is done with, tomorrow isn’t here yet. And right now,” Lok sucked on the redbone, “I’m feeling pretty good. I accept this. I accept it.”
Jechiel only nodded. What did you say to the lamb at the butcher’s?
Ugh, I am arrogant.
Five years ago, before he left Jechiel
stunned on the
"What is left when the hoi’polloi act like headless fowl?" Jechiel asked, the punch lending him a brand of focus, clarity. "What is needed?"
Lok hesitated; well he knew the predatory look on Jechiel's thin face, knowing so well the punch jag. "Leadership?" the drummer offered. “Look, domo, I don’t want to do this. We got a gig.”
"No, Lok, check this: leadership without due cause corrupts. The hoi'polloi needs a real threat. One that can’t be softened by the spins of the elite, one that no talk can dilute, no Memory can warp. One that threatens each and every individual. Only from that need will there arise true leadership."
Lok’s long nose and brow wrinkled. "Go'bro, that's, that's just the punch talking. Seeing badness."
Jechiel bit back his irritation. "Try this out then. Does it make sense that Omen Swords is behind the attacks at Tower Lyseth? Does it? Why would he indiscriminately bomb Farris Lord-Umbra’s people like they say he’s doing? Not to mention how? There’s nothing to be gained but the attention of Lord-Umbra’s Hunter-Killers."
"I don't know,” Lok said curtly. “That's all just digging. Just talk, go’bro. The HKs've been after him since he showed up in Ramblewood.”
“I wonder why?”
“Because he’s a leader,” Lok said. “I don’t know. No one even knows why he’s here at all…. I mean, like we were saying. I mean, the punch’s got you going every which way, which is what I’m talking about.”
"All right, Lok, all right—" Jechiel coughed. Knives rattled around his lungs. He hacked until his eyes watered and sour phlegm smothered the punch’s aftertaste. He knocked it back with some ale and then conceded: "But how do you expect me to go out there and play when you talk that concerned go’bro shit at me? I don’t know what to think when my band thinks I can’t control the loads. They send you, my best friend, in here to make me change my ways just before our most important show."
Lok opened his mouth then shut it. "We got about half an hour before we go on. Just be in tune, all right?"
"Am I not always?"
"Close enough for crank, go’bro, close enough," Lok said with a failed smile. His ale cracked with a hiss. He took a big gulp, stood for an awkward moment, and left the room.
Jechiel stared at the door, the etched and scrawled names of countless other bands obliterating the peeling paint. The entire room danced with that pre-gig energy; bands leaving their marks in brash color, simple austere blacks, knife strokes. It sang of the false simplicity of being a musician. Melancholy, it hunkered down on him like an imp. He tongued the other load.
His gittern leaned on its stand beside a small cold hearth. Most crankster geeters were fat and cavernous to throw the most sound possible during gigs that were generally so noisy you could hardly hear yourself play. But Jechiel’s gittern was thin enough to grip, looking almost too sickly to play even the gentle “civilized” garbage of the mongers and upper Tower floors. But his geeter was loud, domo; it projected sound like a gittern twice—thrice—its size. No luthier in Ramblewood knew why. Nor did anyone know why it stayed in tune despite Jechiel’s much-loved onstage thrashings. Jechiel thought it a function of the nut, cut from some kind of grey stone that the luthiers knew nothing about either.
He never tired of playing it. Or looking at it. The galeselph, supposedly one of the twelve Grand Drakars, painted on the gittern's dark hollow body poised on a backdrop of black suffusing into lake teal at the edges. Massive wings bloomed like a rare blue flower over a head tilted coyly on a long neck. Old, peeling horns sprung from its head, twisting down past jaws ablaze with teeth. Its eyes watched him from every angle and its tail curled along the ebynwood fingerboard, inlaid with blue seastone fret marks, and around the gittern’s unusual headstock with its one sweeping, razor-honed edge opposite the seven tuning pegs. And of course, sitting at the point where the grey plates of the beast's belly met the blue plates of its deep chest, the irregularity that Mikalis Allardyce had identified as the Soul. That same night, forever ago, it seemed, the stranger had named the galeselph, Sceogress, from the Old L’Endish, meaning Skymover. That same night, five years ago while walking the Midnight Circles, Jechiel decided to leave Kyllo’s Den.
He tore his eyes from the gittern as he always had to and buried himself again in his journal. A gift from his mother, frayed and feathered, edges softened by time and travel. It was as old as his ability to write, thick as a scholarly text, cumbersome to carry. But he did. Everywhere he went.
The punch made his journal a tunnel into the deepest serene. A temple where he hid, insulated from everything by the words he scribbled there in a ragged, leaning script. Lyrics, notions, couplets and stanzas, meaninglessness turns of phrase, color, light, and sound. Dreams.
The Soul is a composite, Jechiel wrote beneath his last grim entry, a sum of wholes making a bigger whole. I hate this, my so-called music. A platform for emptiness. You are me, my journal, making me more than Memory, less than that whole, but more, like the Soul. I have a choice, we all do, yet none of us make it. I sometimes think, I sometimes know, I am destined for mo—
The door banged open and slammed against the wall, bits of bravado and false wisdom taking to the stagnant air. The simmering violence skulking about the tavern’s main room poured in, followed by Lar Lakenwold. His eyes, perpetually wide, barely narrowed into a demented squint and his ever-grim face darkened a bit more. The Bone Mob anglemyn stabbed a giant finger at Jechiel. “Swords wants you on stage in five minutes.”
Jechiel closed his journal, took a long, slow drag on his ale. “What?” he said, eyebrows up in languid query. He refrained from laughing at the strongest man in Ramblewood, Omen Swords’ sworn protector.
“Five.” Lakenwold leaned into the room and swung his head back and forth, searching. His eyes swelled back to their normal affected roundness. His huge hand wearing, on its back, the first set of crossed bones marching up his thick forearm, spread five long fingers across the air, and he slid out, leaving trails and the door open. On the waft of beer, redbud, sweat, and constrained aggression rode the calls of the cabals.
Bo-o-o-one U-u-u-u-p! Bo-o-o-one U-u-u-u-p!
Cey Dee Cee!
The cries rose and fell, rose and fell from dozens of cabaliers from different cabals milling about amid the burnt golden light veiling the main floor. A mix fixed for disaster, it would seem. But then this was Cranium Box, the only neutral tavern in Ramblewood. Of course Bone Mob hadn’t visited since Omen Swords became its doyen mystes. Murmurings of unity, the frail shield held up against the accession of Lord-Umbra, could be heard everywhere in Ramblewood. This was a huge night for the cabals of the `Wood. Uneasiness settled on Jechiel like a thickening of his longcoat’s lining.
* * *
Bone Up Yar was a great band. But Jechiel knew great bands formed and fell in Ramblewood all the time without ever being heard. Omen Swords had gotten Bone Up Yar heard. It had suited his agenda.
Some thought he was nothing but a confidence man, no better than the mongers he claimed to oppose, getting rich behind his subversive words, his overtures to cabal unity. And there were those who viewed him as just another short-sighted cabal doyen interested only in the shallow power of territoriality. The Accord wanted Swords dead, which either belied the cynics or spoke to the distorted perspective of a government that hated even the palest shade of dissent. The rumors then that Farris Lord-Umbra’s Hunter-Killer units had made Swords their darling after the Oaklea Uprising (or Riot, depending on how high on the Stack you stood) fueled the fervency of still others who wanted him to be the one who united the cabals, even the deathcores, to raise the Fallen Lands from the rubble of the toppled Accord. Jechiel had toyed with the last sentiment, but he worked to balance the undeniable lure of Omen Swords against his own cynicism.
In a word, Omen Swords was measured. The man never talked about his past. At least not that Jechiel had ever heard. Rumor said he was from the East, farther than Taelemone, a son of pirates from the Myriad Isles. He could curse and dig with the coarsest of cabaliers and then launch into a sophisticated political diatribe worthy of scholars. In another word, Swords was enigmatic. He had simply shown up one day in Ramblewood. And had taken the doyenship of Bone Mob from Rogen Chancing by blade. Legendary, that fight, in a Stranahan tavern, an announcement, declaration, invitation. It instantly established Swords as a leader and a menace.
Which was, Jechiel knew, exactly what Omen wanted. Sometimes he wondered what could possibly bring a pirate to land lock himself. But Jechiel knew nothing about pirates that wasn’t utterly distorted by the ornate belchings of bards.
Spun out and into his fourth one-jug, he chunked and squronked on his geeter, always with the underout, the ancient rhythms of long-dead nomads that he had introduced into modern crank music, trying to find a measure of peace in the gittern’s soar.
We take the bullets and we attack!
We are the down, down on the ground
And we have to whack the fucking Stack!
Janza sang, swaying, snapping her fingers. Radical, anarchic, mundane.
Jechiel hated the flattened vision of cabal politics. It could never see past the Stack, could never see that the Towers, tall as they were, were only so high. Because it was a mirror, sanctioned by the Stack because it allowed a safe, dispersal of dissent. It watered down true radicalism into a predictable, controllable pap.
Whether it was despair or the punch or something else, halfway through the first encore song, Jechiel’s uneasiness hardened from the vague feeling that had caressed him for days into something near solid, near frightening.
Somebody watched him.
The sensation sent his breath whooshing from his lungs in a single rank whoop. Azzel gave him a quick look over the thick neck of his six-string deep-end.
Barely aware of the song and trying to catch his breath, Jechiel searched the crowd, still bouncing after almost two hours. Someone—something—simply watched and waited. But the stage lights made it hard to see more than a few people deep into the crowd. Why did he feel this at all? Sometimes the punch allowed Memory to intrude on his own thoughts and confuse him with the vibrant recall of other people’s lives past and present. But this, this was different. He stepped forward and the air stilled. Alight with the two doses of punch, everything seemed frozen, poised for that first bright bolt that heralded the storm. He pulled a long breath noisily into his lungs and now Janza noticed. No, she eyed him because he’d just missed the first measure of his solo bridge.
Jechiel flung a weird little phrase into the gap. And then another, and another, leaving the practiced lead, grinding a groove, the underout, turning a mistake into something dramatic. He assaulted the anticipation holding that air, battered at it until a wave of disruption pushed across the crowd from the back near the drinking tables and the staircase.
The rest of the band, used to such commotion, went on playing, and the Bone Mobsters warding the stage showed no concern; this was Cranium Box, not just a cabal tavern, but the cabal tavern, and while drunken squabs might break out, the claim of neutrality was respected by all: much éclat or worse could be lost if something serious or permanent happened inside Cranium Box.
Then Jechiel felt the influx of
hostility, a pointed belligerence that rolled in like the heated southern winds
that sometimes blew across
A roaring orange flash and thick smoke burst across the room like an animal unfurling. Tables crashed heavily, followed by yells and shrieks. Cries of war and pain preceded the thrust toward the stage.
Cabalsign and fists flew, bottles broke on heads, knives and machetes flashed, then firearms—always the punctuation—sparkled and snapped from within the blinding smoke. Then something heavier, not typical cabal arms.
Crim Dire Call was attacking. After taking over the tavern and renaming it, the deathcore cabal had put forth the declaration of neutrality. Everyone else had eagerly accepted the chance to show unity so close to the Ramblewood Wall.
You could never trust a deathcore cabal. Never.
Bullets bit at the stage, chewed stone overhead, spit wood and polymer shards at the bards. Janza squealed and leapt behind Lok's drum kit. Lok himself was already crawling for the backstage door, terror glittering in his eyes. Azzel was down, sprawled atop his deep-end gittern. His face peeked coyly up from the stage, yellow lights and blood painting his slack features.
Jechiel stood rooted. He saw bullets. Wild, sun-hued trails zipped past him from out of the smoke. He gripped the top horn of his gittern's body, feeling war or hatred or something vibrating deep in its old wood, and watched the Twixt-spawned scene before him. While still someone watched him.
He had seen so many squabs in five years, fistfights and stabbings; he’d even seen slaps pulled and fired. What he watched now made all else look like the tamest freebillie street dispute.
Crim Dire Call mowed down Trey Spire and Madding Deep and Bone Mob cabaliers with militia-like precision. Machetes arced and leaking heads pumped into the air in the grip of deathcore fists. The thunking chatter of heavy arms overpowered all else.
Lar Lakenwold was a ghostly mountain within the smoke, tractoring through throngs of fighting cabaliers, throwing any and all bodies aside, probably to get Omen Swords to safety. But Jechiel didn’t see Swords. Bone Mobsters followed in Lakenwold’s wide wake, screaming and firing pistols. The legendary Bone Mob anglemyn wailed at the top of his lungs and fired his pistol, toy-like in one huge fist. But neither size nor legends protected him from a battering ram of bullets. His war cry choked to a little screech, and he jerked backward like a rag doll, crashing into Mobsters behind him, breaking the rising countertide.
Where was Omen Swords? His hoodoo, Alain Olyoak, and his fearsome magicks?
If they were dead, the war of succession
A giant fist struck Jechiel. He crashed into Lok's shattered kit and lay there dazed atop cymbals and crushed drum shells that jabbed his back. He labored for breath, and the punch turned the still shining overhead lights into searing points that spiked at his eyes. He tried to check his body for wounds and found that he still held his geeter. He let go and it slid off to either side of him in two pieces.
Jechiel lifted his head in panic. Felt the pain in his side and pawed at a shredded gash in his longcoat. The gittern's hollow body, still hanging from the leather strap around him, was shattered, the galeselph obliterated beneath torn wood. To his left lay the instrument's neck, broken cleanly at the point it had dovetailed with the body. Steel strings sprawled stiffly from it like wind-bent reeds. Beyond that was a leg, the sweep of its calf upset by the rose blossom of a bullet, spattered with strings and blots of blood. He saw the crossed bones tattooed on Janza's ankle.
Jechiel lay there while bullets trailed over him. He felt no more pain, nothing beyond the whirl and swirl of punch. The keen of ricochets and the screams of pain mixed together in awful chorus with the sour-mash-raw voice of his father promising death. But Jechiel still lived, having seen more of the world than all the rest of his family, while his father had died holding not the Mandaroy faith, not his wife's hand, but the tatters of a worn-out skorp net he’d been trying to mend.
The weapons’ fire abated to occasional crackling spurts and pops. How much was there to shoot at in such a small place anyway? The yells continued, but they were like military commands, a dismal sign of control. The screams continued too; pain lingered. He smelled spent gunfire and a vomity shit stink that crawled over everything.
Jechiel undid the leather strap. The gittern body fell away and thunked the stage; the panic rose to his throat. Gripping the fingerboard at its broken joint, he rolled to his right and sat up. No hammer strike of a bullet smashed him into Memory.
The invaders’ attention seemed focused on finishing the wounded—the chunk, chunk, chunk of machete chops like butcher day at the month-end market.
He rose, his shakiness maybe merely punch or shock at the loss of his most vital appendage. Something drooled down his leg and when he touched at the gash in his longcoat he came away with dark smears on his fingertips. Blinded by the stage lights, he leapt off stage, flying, flying, his longcoat mushrooming like wings behind him, leaving his own trail. No Crim Dire Call cabalier took notice of him; the taking of heads was occupying most of their attention.
He limped toward the bar, working his way between overturned tables and chairs, squirming bodies and still bodies and puddles of spilled ale and blood. He saw dead eyes everywhere, the punch drawing their empty stares right into him. Off to the left, where Omen Swords' entourage had been, a handful of Crim Dire Call heartshot one bloodied captive after another, then took their trophies.
Jechiel drove down Memories of dying, Memories of killing. The floor was slippery. He found it hard to breathe again, like no matter how deeply he inhaled, it was not enough to sate his damaged lungs.
A body splayed across the bar top. Broken bottles jutted from the Far Madding sigil on the bared chest of a domo, a boy, easily ten years younger than Jechiel, who would be twenty-two this year. Fluid spread along the bar top and glimmered in low lights held by a small cluster of figures near the staircase. He touched his side again. Leaking his own fluid.
A victory roar went up when Lar Lakenwold’s head rose into the smoky air, mouth droopy, eyes still large, but now childishly round.
Jechiel hacked for air. Was this how it would end for him? Suffocating to death on a punch jag in the aftermath of a cabal ambush. Over what? Ducats? Pharma? Éclat? Was this about Omen Swords? And where was the near mythic hero of the `Wood?
Crim Dire Call might grant Jechiel passage as a bard. After all, music was the only common language of `Wood cabals. But then you could never trust a deathcore cabal.
The room wavered and the galeselph appeared before Jechiel.
Strength of a mountain, grace of a prana.
He stumbled. Prana? The galeselph hung there like smoke, full-bodied, blocking his sight. This was no pastel ghost of a punch hallucination. Jechiel blinked, but it remained. The Soul shimmered on its breast. He clasped his hands and the galeselph faded, leaving cool peace in its wake.
Five figures stood at the staircase, none
members of Crim Dire Call. They looked at first like cons. But while constables
wore khaki fatigues, they didn’t wear a shepherd’s check sash. Jechiel’s breath
left entirely then, or rather his capacity to breathe. Scorpio Gemfires? The
soldiers of the Umbral Split and Crim Dire Call, a Mandaroyan cabal? A
deathcore cabal riding war with the
A sixth figure, who’d been standing in
shadow behind the five, stepped forth. Tall, tall, clad in scaly leather cloak
and noon-sky blue metal, like ancient armor, with a helmet that concealed the
face except for a sickly white chin. Horror emanated from the figure, snaking
out at Jechiel like the tubeworms that sometimes infested the fish of
Its gloved hands opened up toward Jechiel as if the thing presented itself. He could imagine the deadly smile that splayed within the shadow of that helmet. And he couldn’t say if it was the punch that made him see its fingers stretch and shrink, stretch and shrink. What he could say though was that this thing had been the watcher during the set. The watcher in his blood-black dreams.
Its black cloak, long and stiff, was imprinted with faces that screamed.
Jechiel’s mind, a mess from the punch, worked furiously to make sense of the tableau confronting him. Scorpios and Mandaroy deathcore cabals and daemons. As the implications hammered home, the Soul returned, hanging in the space between Jechiel and the horrible realization of the deepest deception.
The Soul meant Harmony, the heart of the galeselph, the heart of all the Great Drakars, the heart of the Jewell. And, Mikalis had said so long ago as the rising sun spread a yellow velvet-mist light across Kyllo’s Den, the heart of you.
Although the weighty sensation of ballooning lungs did not ease, Jechiel found himself able to think clearly enough to curse the old man with the ridiculous antique sword on his back and the faint challenge in his fancy words, the mockery in those blue eyes that seemed to have seen so much of the world. Jechiel hadn’t seen the man since he’d left Kyllo Den.
He began to move again. Almost as if he floated. It was not the punch; the jag was a sloppy haze haunting this new clarity. He edged away from the black daemon-like figure as much and as subtly as possible, and crumpled a bit as large automatic rifles leapt to five shoulders.
"You just figure on walking out of here?" the lead soldier said with a laugh. "Drop your weapon."
Jechiel drifted to a stop. Weapon? The soldier dipped to direct his shoulder-mounted torch at Jechiel's left arm. He kept his rifle trained on Jechiel's chest, who followed the light's ivory beam to where it came to rest on the gittern neck with its blade-like headstock and its strings spreading away from it like a spider's crooked legs.
His breath held in limbo, Jechiel could not speak. I’m a bard, he wanted to say. With five gaping rifle barrels before him and the intermittent crack of weapons fire ending lives behind him, part of him wanted to drop the severed fingerboard. His gaze drifted in search of escape, floated back.
A Scorpio Gemfire stepping close.
Light. Inside his head and out.
Jechiel dropped to his knees, scraping the knuckles of his left hand, which clutched the gittern neck even tighter. He tasted blood and poked for loose teeth with his tongue. He felt the swelling immediately. Of flesh and anger. And still he could not breathe.
The scuffed, beaten stone floor offered nothing; Memories assailed him, scalding lashes across his psyche: the very moment before death, the rage and fear and poise. The Scorpio Gemfire remained over him; he heard the soldier muttering curses. The black-and-red Scorpio sash's short braids caressed the top of a heavy boot, which now drew back slowly for a kick. Jechiel braced himself, but the boot stopped, floated while another set of huge, incredibly black boots appeared between his legs behind him. So black, those boots, it was like looking at holes in the heart of reality.
"Touch it no more," a grim voice said. The soldier's boots slid and jerked, and then a horrible, pathetic scream bit Jechiel’s ears. And somehow over it—or under it—in his head, the grim voice spoke: You belong now to the White Pantheon, wind fiend.
"End that wauling now," it said aloud.
A single gunshot squelched the shriek, and the solider crumpled to the floor, spasming. One eye stared wetly past Jechiel; the other had been punched into a blackened mash.
"Harm this one, touch this one, even think a dark thought on this one, and you will know the purest agony."
"B-but he is just a Mandaroy," someone said. "A jaghead crankster by the looks of his eyes."
Jechiel turned his head and stared directly up into the black underside of the being’s helmet. A gloved hand crossed his line of sight, overlong fingers trailing shimmering worms of sick color, the strata of some filthy stone.
"Never talk to me again," the grim voice said, "or I will eat your dirty little soul."
A single gurgle, then a wet slap. A blood-soaked, wadded-up uniform dropped atop the dead Scorpio. Jechiel saw a captain’s bars and a holstered pistol on a brown belt. A torch rolled away, its cone of light twirling over bodies, broken glass, and pools. At the tip of a radial of blood spiking toward Jechiel lay a single blackened tooth.
“Humyn arrogance makes me sick.”
Jechiel was lifted by his neck, a signature of fire and ice marking the black thing's brutal grip. "So you would be one of the Five? You are alive with magicks as if infested and yet you cannot wield it. What should be glory for me is but a disappointment. To have waited for so long to face a foe that, at its sum, is an infant. A retarded one at that. Truly a disappointment. "
It—a daemon, a stereotype from old insipid books—grabbed Jechiel's wrist and jerked his arm up. A musty earthen stench billowed over him. The daemon released his wrist and gripped the fingerboard. Jechiel could feel the thing's strength, the heat and chill of its touch seeping like infection through the wood. The good wood. Its strength came from the nut, carved from some strange swirled grey stone.
The daemon yanked the gittern’s neck, but Jechiel did not—could not—release it. It yanked again, twisting this time, and Jechiel's elbow and shoulder popped in unison. The broken geeter strings sang coarsely as they danced against each other.
"Release it." Words glittered with amusement.
I can't, Jechiel wanted to scream, but instead his chest swelled, as if he caught and held the daemon's rank breath, and the exhalation of everyone in the tavern, Arambul, the `Wood, the Seven Valleys, all of Cloister. Pain swarmed inside him, swirling amid the swelling of air trapped there and growing.
Light brushed against the daemon's shadowed face, a fuzzy silvery glow coming from the fingerboard.
The blue inlaid tail of the galeselph was lit up with a light so soft and pink it appeared like the elongated bulb of a wispore weed.
"Magicks," a soldier said, backing away.
"Kill the witch now!"
With its free arm, the daemon backhanded the nearest soldier, slamming him into the wall several paces away with a cracking oomph.
Heat ran the length of Jechiel's arm. No images of galeselphs or the Soul, just the pressure in his lungs and the glow of the fingerboard. And anger. He tore the gittern neck from the daemon's grip. His left arm arced in front of him, and a chill wind whistled off the whipping gittern strings. The gleaming arabesque of the selph's tail inlay carved a trail of pink shimmer in the air as it swept before the startled creature. Its wan chin dropped. Jechiel's wild follow through took him close to a solider; a hot breeze blew from the man's mouth. He stumbled, but righted himself quickly and turned to face the daemon’s response.
The creature's helmeted head flopped back, exposing a precise and horrific wound in its neck.
For the merest moment all froze in the dark, smoky room except for the air, which writhed with the major and minor winds of the living and the dying. In that moment, Jechiel Andrade saw the galeselph's Soul for the last time soaring in the bloody air.
With a sudden lurch he exhaled. He quaked, the room quaked. Sight and hearing failed, and even his body left him, borne on the incredible wind gusting from him.
He soared over a valley like a free breath might, the infinite roar of wind in his ears. A valley vaster than any of the Seven, with loping hills of stunning green inlaid with smears of soft purple and scuffed with barren greys. Countless brooks flowed from every direction, sapphire veins; and at the end of every direction peeked gnarled mountaintops.
The valley of the Great Drakars. Before
selph and otra split. A place with hope sown into the rich soil. But a
foreboding seeped into him like the cutting Dark Solstice winds that swept off
Funnel clouds, mythical wind daemons Jechiel had read about in the moldy books his mother kept under the work shed’s floor. The crude, but colorful drawings had depicted huge, twisting black dervishes wrapped in nets of lightning and driven to destruction by someone called a windmage, one invariably shown juggling numbers upon gracefully outstretched fingers.
The northern mountains drew forth, their brown facing shivered with age and weather, their crowns obscured by filthy mist. He breached the sultry, egg-shit vapor, speckled with swirling ash. Wind left his ears and they popped. It seemed he moved through a vacuum, recalling lost days when he used to chance a swim just outside Sunken Meadow Lagoon and float with eyes closed near the cool silent bottom until his senses and pained breath left him.
The greyness soon beat with a heart of orange. He burst into brightness and descended toward the riven cone of a massive live volcano. From the gaping split an orange-black cascade of lava plummeted far below to the valley floor. Tongues of flame spit from the fall, throwing off spumes of smoke that serpentined skyward to meet the vapor cloud. Jechiel sped between them into the broken cone. As if the setting sun had been trapped and minted viciously into a coin, a lava lake seethed in the cone's belly, fuzzed with fire. At its center, a molten fountain twined in flame, leapt high into the hazed air; it reached and fell, reached and fell. Jechiel crested its amorphous head and spotted an island that rose from out of the far end of the lava. He angled down toward it, not because he wanted to, but because something pulled him that way.
The island jutted like a mushroom on a tenuous stalk. A thin gnarled bridge of stone spanned the lake to connect the island to the volcano’s rim. He dropped low where the heat and fumes were thick. There he saw better the lay of the island. Beautiful white ruins, limned in orange, ran like jagged horns across its black, faceted scape.
Something monstrous walked there.
Dread pummeled Jechiel; he tumbled from his impossible flight, cartwheeling for long moments before righting himself and continuing toward some unrelenting hunger.
The island moved. Like a head. And lava waves lumbered off from its twisted neck. Blacker than the black rock around them, two pits whirled open. The ruins fell away as a huge horizontal rift opened, tilting the top of the island back.
It screamed. In horrible glee.
The daemon sprawled before Jechiel, its head hanging by a flap like a limb flung carelessly behind it. It wasn’t dead.
Beyond it, gaped the stairway up. Impeded by the spread-eagled body of a Scorpio Gemfire, his face a wild death mask of fearful shock.
Jechiel breathed deep and felt only the usual pain. Smoke drifted in long, warm banks, carrying with it voices and occasional gunshots.
"I always thought you a strange one, Jechiel Andrade, but never anything like this."
Jechiel spun, shocked more by the scene around him, the Memories and violence, then by the sudden voice.
Omen Swords dropped the body of a Crim Dire Call cabalier and flicked blood off his black knife. Not just any cabalier, the bug-eyed face ogling above the scarlet fish smile mugging across a pale neck belonged to the deathcore doyen Harlan Boglyth. Alain Olyoak stood behind him, looking everywhere at once, hands up like a mage from the old books, as if he might actually be ready to Craft.
"What did I say, Omen?" Olyoak said, eyes locked on the daemon. He spun toward Jechiel, his many-hued longshirt whirling like a collapsing dawn. "This explains why you are so often haunting my meditations, Jechiel. There's an evil here I cannot understand, magicks thick as the smoke and humidity, and you are part of it."
"Spare us the bombast," Swords said, his clipped accent silvering each word. He wiped his hand on his pants, put away his knife, and pulled out a twin-barreled broadbore. “So goes my business.” He snapped the broadbore open, eyed the two chambers, whipped it shut, put it away. Pulled out another pistol, chambered a bullet with a deft casualness. “This annoys the hells out of me.” He stepped quickly toward the staircase, booting the dead Scorpio out of the way. "The sooner we get up top, the sooner we know our fate."
Alain Olyoak said, "Our fate is easy to read in the union of Crim Dire Call and the Umbral Split."
"This thing isn't dead yet," Jechiel said.
"Without a head?" the hoodoo asked. “What manner of… A daemon…?”
"Out of here," Omen Swords said over his shoulder, climbing the stairs. “They generally travel in covens of thirteen.”
“How many?” Jechiel said.
“It is alive,” Olyoak said, pointing at the daemon.
The flap of skin linking its head to its body receded like a snail into its shell; its fingers clutched, one hand at the floor, the other at the air. Its cloak writhed, the faces in it blackened, twisted like squalling babies.
Olyoak stammered, “A grim coming.”
“Need I say it again?” Swords said, taking three steps at a time.
On the main floor, the three men hurried through a montage of ordered tables and jumbled bodies. Crim Dire Call’s daggerfin mixed liberally with other sigils. Ale mugs and tall schooners of beer sat undisturbed on the gaming tables along with cards, dice, and money.
“Do any of the Mob live?” Olyoak said.
“I saw Lar Lakenwold fall,” Jechiel whispered.
“Just a matter of time for that lubber,” Swords muttered.
“Dark change, dark magicks," Olyoak said with a shiver, looking around and then over his shoulder at a howling plea from below.
"Enough, Alain," Swords said, nostrils flaring at the wails. "It was all just a matter of time. This way." They headed back to the kitchen. More bodies littered the narrow kitchen, which ran the length of the tavern's southern side. One white-robed cook draped over a chopping block, still clutching a knife half-buried in a tomato, his white cap sagging over his face, half a dozen other knives hilt deep in his back. Death blended with the aroma of soups and sauces simmering on the stoves, meats broiling in stone ovens. Jechiel swallowed hard. Wordlessly, they hopped the bodies of cooks and servers until they passed through an exit that opened up on a small fenced area.
Jechiel breathed deeply, as if the air chased the first spring rains of Sunninglow and not as if it sweat with humidity and the stink of rotting food from the cluster of rust-pitted trashcans against the rotted wood fence. Beyond the quiet wax and wane of waefly buzz, no sound reached them there; it could have been a night no different than any other night.
“Are you all right?” Olyoak asked.
“Should I be?” Jechiel said. “My gittern is broken, my journal is gone, my band is dead, covens of daemons—“
“I just meant that you’re gulping air like a fish.”
“It’s my lungs,” Jechiel said sharply. “My lungs. That’s all. I’ll be fine in a moment. Something, something strange happened to me back there.”
"What’s strange is that no one wards back here," Olyoak said.
"That you find strange?" Swords said. He looked around, his heavy hair tail swinging. "They obviously didn't expect anyone to get out. Arrogant."
Olyoak grunted, his pointed features crinkling. "Jechiel and I must speak."
"Later," Swords said, sniffing the air. "Much later. Now, to the river." He was not a tall man, but uncannily spry and strong. Good with a blade and fists, best with his brain. He hopped onto a trashcan and pulled himself over the fence. It shook and crackled. Olyoak followed.
Jechiel balanced on the crushed rim of a trashcan, launching himself over the rickety fence before remembering his wounded side. The pain of landing was an ordinary sort, almost welcome.
They stood at the edge of one of the notches in the spit from where the stone for Cranium Box had been cut. It smelled worse on that side of the fence, like the lowest of Kyllo tides in midsummer: Arambul’s taint. While not nearly as poisoned as other rivers of Ramblewood, Arambul’s fragrance hung in the air like a funeral shroud.
The notch was steep, two of its faces angling back into the cliffside. How anyone was able to get down in there, much less position themselves to paint, was beyond Jechiel. Yet cabaliers were nothing if not desperately creative in the face of anonymity. Graffiti, mostly Crim Dire Call, announced names and deeds and insight in all cabal dialects and in hues only barely distinguishable beneath the bleaching light of the moon. The river slugged by some fifty paces below that, a wide black ribbon speckled with dancing moon chips. In the limp breeze blowing from the west, Jechiel picked up a rushing sound.
"Look," he said, pointing to his left.
Just east of where the river elbowed to
the south on its way to
"We don’t need to swim it." Swords said. "We only need follow it to Hallows Run."
"Hallows Run?" Jechiel said. “That must be a fifteen-twenty leagues from here.”
"I needn’t tell you, Omen, that no river behaves that way. Something dark—”
“Evil,” Jechiel said.
“Evil, something evil abounds." Olyoak's lined and painted eyes were glassy balls in the moonlight. "My meditations, Omen."
"Yes, yes, Alain. Save your hyperbole for someone easily dazzled."
"My meditations speak as if all ended, in a world of fire."
"At... the City of the Tombs," Jechiel said, though he’d never heard of the place.
Olyoak gripped Jechiel's shoulders. "Yes," he hissed, "all ends there."
"Doomsayers,” Swords said, “one painted like a whore, the other so spun out he could be stringing words together purely by chance. You both ache my head." As if there was a ladder conveniently placed there, he started down the notch. Jechiel and Olyoak looked anxiously over the edge and watched the doyen deftly negotiate the descent. They looked at each other.
"This is just the beginning, I think, of the unpleasantness, minor and otherwise," Olyoak said with a lemony smile. While not timid, nor slight, the Bone Mob hoodoo cultivated the appearance of ethereal delicacy with glassmilk longshirts, face paints, and fragile fingernails. His brown hair wisped around his hollow face as he glanced back at the surging river. "A river that flows back on itself like that... Jechiel what know you of such an augury?"
Jechiel shrugged helplessly.
"Haste now, you slack-jawed poltroons!" Swords stood down on the narrow bank beside the river. He held the broadbore and another pistol now and looked west to where the slow surge bore down on them.
Olyoak shrugged with feline languor and started down, moving with surprising agility. Jechiel let the hoodoo gain some distance while trying to figure out how best to carry the gittern neck. His weak lungs had long denied him the opportunity to run and climb until the gittern removed the interest entirely.
The voice burned across his thoughts; it was his, but a womyn's too.
Leap and soar as only you can, wielder of the winds.
Jechiel stepped to the notch's edge. The breeze picked up, spiced with rotten food and bad water. The pain in his lungs spread sometimes to his toes like a fork of lightning.
Cast away the burden of the Soul, cast it to the winds that heed your call and find ultimate freedom, ultimate harmony beyond the confines of your physicality on the Pathway of the sky.
A beautiful womyn's voice; a picture formed in his mind of what this womyn looked like. A womyn too sophisticated to desire a bard of crankster. Graceful, bright and fresh like the dawn. Loving. He stared down at the gittern neck, filled with revulsion, as if the wood grain slimed beneath his fingers. All that time with the instrument, alone, tweaking it, caressing it, as if its tinny tones could banish his loneliness, his pains. No one had understood his obsession, yet maybe they all did, maybe the falseness beneath had glared out at them all, fueling laughter and resentment, while he saw only some kind of truth as thin as his own breathing. To let it all go and join the wind, where finally his isolation would end. Where he would join Harmony in its magnificence. He stepped, or tried to, it was like walking through the Kyllo mud at the heart of the dry season, and he could no more than grunt and kick his right foot off the notch's hard edge. He imagined the flapping of his longcoat, the wind billowing it as he fell.
Fell, not flew.
Right foot dangling, Jechiel loosened his grip on the neck; it slid to the first joint of his fingers.
The nut lit up.
The glow was white fire in his eyes. Within it grew the vaguest of patterns, a pure geometry that entangled him in a euphoric web far more potent than any punch he’d ever taken. It sang. Sang like the breezes on Eastwind Barrows, sang like he wished his songs sang, like he knew his songs could sing. And just as the light winked out, he saw that its song was his song.
He scaled down the graffiti-laden notch, finding near invisible finger- and toeholds with the offhand dexterity of someone who’d made the descent countless times. He dropped past the lore of cabals as if he truly did soar and touched down on sand seconds after Alain Olyoak. Below the glow of town lights, trapped in the river’s gash, the night darkened threefold.
The rolling water was empty, but Jechiel could hear something. So could the others. A deep hum, rambling but melodic. Singing. And it rode the low-tide stench like a swarm of flies. Already the river moved strangely before them, as if disturbed by something below the surface that moved against the current.
"It's a long walk," Olyoak said as they turned east. The sand was dark, streaked with light, and littered with driftwood and trash.
"Whining is unbecoming, Alain." Swords said.
"It will overtake us," Olyoak said.
The queer song grew louder. The river billowed, whitened, then belched. A giant hump of seething water collapsed toward both banks.
"Harmony scream!" Jechiel backpedaled.
Humpbacked waves ruptured against the shore's shallow incline, cutting the legs from under all of them. Jechiel swept up the beach and slammed against the twisted remains of a fat tree while being pummeled by countless objects. He tumbled back toward the river, the receding wave sizzling. Gagging on tepid water tasting of the foulest of bilges, he used the gittern neck to clamor to his feet. The surge of water rolled on to the east, and the river's surface pulled along after it into rounded peaks.
Swords and Olyoak, washed back closer to the river, stood as well, apparently unhurt. Fish lay scattered everywhere. White bellies bloated and eyes bulging, mostly greenbacks and fanners, fish able to live in the taint. They smelled partially cooked, partially rotted.
A boat approached from the west, slipping like a ghost from the shadows of the cliffs into the moonlight. A broad, flat scow resembling the kind once used by the old river traders. A figure stood at the curving prow, and Jechiel could make out the silhouettes of many heads behind it, yet he saw no oars or poles, nor heard any motor. Behind that, more boats appeared like bleak stars. They rode the river's unnatural easterly billow, and they thrummed with singing. Jechiel's soaked skin pimpled beneath his longcoat.
“That is more than thirteen,” he croaked.
“They are not all daemons,” Swords said.
Jechiel tried to speak again, but found that once again he could draw no breath to speak, and again the pressure began to build inside, drawing from the gittern neck, tingling up his fingers and arm, suffusing through his body.
As the singing grew louder, Jechiel's fear solidified in the disquieting rhythm dancing within its dark, meandering melody. If they were words at all, it was no spoken language he knew. Yet he heard a language he did understand: underout. But a harsh slang, twisted and dissonant, alluring and shameful. It burrowed beneath his skin like the sting of a thistlefly and set his teeth on edge.
Swords and Olyoak stood at the water's edge, watching the flotilla's approach with seeming disinterest. The fingerboard roiled beneath Jechiel's grip. Run, he wanted to scream.
The lead scow floated equal to them, and the standing figure looked to shore. It stood as tall and broad as the daemon in the Cranium Box, wearing crimson and black armor under a cape that caught the wind and silently screamed like a thousand deaths. Jechiel saw the red sparks of its eyes, the twisted dagger shapes of horns rising off its head.
He pushed away from the tree, raising the broken fingerboard in a manner he found vaguely ridiculous. The waning punch breathed through him in velvet waves as he reached his comrades.
Olyoak said, “Those, those are Miniak.”
The sight of the giant reptilian warriors chilled Jechiel.
The daemon on the lead scow pointed at them with a staff held midpoint and perpendicular to its arm. Swept-back barbs corkscrewed the staff's length as if spinning on a track.
Alain Olyoak threw his hands out. To Jechiel’s surprise, a yellow-green stream of flame, preternaturally lit by the punch, tumbled from the hoodoo’s clawed fingers toward the scow. It fell short, tossing steam that rose like a silver bush in the moonlight. Coarse laughter ripped slowly over the water. The daemon pumped its arm and the staff buckled and snapped like a rope being pulled taut, and the barbs splayed erect as if they were the crest of some lizard puffing up in the face of danger.
Olyoak screamed and staggered into Jechiel. His face swelled, blackened, and ruptured like an overripe fruit. He collapsed into a convulsing mound and his substance boiled from out of the folds of his glassmilk longshirt and spread like a stinking pudding among the dead fish.
Omen Swords looked east at wholly exposed beach, back at the thing that had so easily destroyed his comrade, and then at Jechiel. There was no fear in his gaze, no quarter, no appeal. Swords looked back to the boats, and the Bone Mob sigil on his neck rippled.
"Seems there are worse things than Scorpios and deathcores," he said quietly, stepping into the water with weapon rising. Shots echoed off the cliffs, puny snaps lost over the broad river.
Jechiel barely registered the man's comment or action because streams of wild numbers flowed forth from the fingerboard and flooded through his head. Equations far more complex than any math his mother had taught him, answerless but alive with implications and rhythms that revealed more equations and more implications. An insanity of numbers collapsed into labyrinthine patterns, defining chaos and hinting at an order, a harmony, that must always exist.
The gittern neck thrust into the air as if drawn by a lodestone. The numbers fountained from the blood-streaked headstock into the night. The silversteel strings snapped out, radiating from the neck with skeletal rigidity, humming with dirty discordance. A bitter, whipping wind pounced from every direction. It sang through the squared off notches in the cliffs, chopped up the billowing river, and filled the air with sand and beach debris. Alain Olyoak's longshirt burst into the air and danced down the beach, an angry spirit. Clouds smothered the moon, black as the rest of the night, bellies sagging with pent storm. Jechiel and Swords leaned into the wind, and even the daemon seemed to brace itself, its attention drawn away from the two men momentarily as its scow began to rock.
"Run!" The word boomed out of Jechiel more wind than word, barely carrying over the gale's howl. His lungs, free again from the strange pressure, burned fiercely, and his arm quaked with the unseen power pouring from the fingerboard. Swords shook his head, without taking his eyes from the rising storm, empty weapons hanging limply in his hands.
"I can’t control this!" Jechiel's voice broke with the effort.
The stone nut cast a light brighter than the slashing lightning. White like a whole moon concentrated to a point, the nut sang with an intensity mirrored by the fire in Jechiel's lungs. He sang too, a wordless wail meaning nothing but release. The equations took sudden shape before continuing with their endless web, and Jechiel understood what would happen next without knowing why.
The sky was a grim vault from which hung distorted stalactites that writhed as they descended. Funnel clouds, netted in lightning.
Like angry swarms of wasps, five funnels screwed wildly toward the river to the west, punch trails dragging behind them with slow-motion snaps. Two touched down on scows, disintegrating them easily, ferociously. One funnel glanced off a cliff, spraying chunks of stone whistling everywhere. A whirling slab slammed into a scow like a scythe.
The other two funnels struck the river and plowed water into giant frothy fans; it swirled up their twisting lengths further darkening them, adding a strange timbre to their howling.
They marched erratically up the Arambul, spinning sand and more water into a massive cascade that washed over the cliffs, and depositing the twisted remains of scows and huge Miniak warriors all along the beach. As the first funnel approached the lead scow, the daemon responded with a slow, dragging slash of its staff through the swirling river. The funnel shattered into black twirling wisps and a junk-filled rain. Jechiel felt its demise in the buckling of the fingerboard; he could also see the effort in the daemon's stiff movements.
The daemon dispersed the second and third funnels, but now struggled to stir its staff.
It was too slow to stop the fourth one.
The funnel struck the scow's stern, lifting it like a leaf and flinging it toward shore. It twirled over the two men, and Jechiel, unable to turn, heard its impact against the cliff.
He managed to twist his upper body part way around, his vision obscured by the charcoal grey of his whipping longcoat. Omen Swords' eyes widened and his mouth tightened even further. He glided behind Jechiel, and then arced back over him, arms and legs spread limply. He plunked into the wind-torn water and vanished upriver, a tiny bead passing by the remaining two funnels whirling aimlessly near the far bank.
The daemon came slowly about to stand in the river at the edge of the nut's misty light. It stared fiercely at Jechiel, a crease in its crimson shoulder armor. Its black cape snapped in all directions, and even in the darkness, Jechiel saw the horrified faces in it. The daemon held the staff out before it, as if blocking something. In the white light, the staff was the rich reddish brown of a roach shell and the barbs wriggled slowly like the fingers of a newborn.
"So, they underestimated you," the daemon said, its tired voice like glass crushing.
Jechiel’s arm burned, as if he’d been dragging in a league of net, yet he couldn’t lower it. A new hum started in the gittern neck, cascading against the strings’ buzz, singing new equations faster and faster. Beyond the daemon's shrouded head, the two funnels neared each other.
Just outside the fingerboard's glow, beings gathered. Possibly the survivors of the scow's flight. The Miniak. The gigantic reptilian warriors couldn’t be killed unless you destroyed the strange organ in their head. Or tore them into pieces. Their heavily boned skulls made it seem they were impervious to bullets; stories from the last war bore that out.
The daemon eyed the fingerboard, and then Jechiel. "It's true then, you know nothing of what you wield. And I would imagine neither do the other animals that compose this Five of which we are so afeared." Its chuckle was a grinding, garbled with exhaustion. "Yet even the lowliest are mighty when in possession of a relic such as that. Give it to me now, and I will spare you a slow death."
The equations slowed, froze on a series of numbers and symbols that with a fading, dissonant voice, defined limits so far beyond Jechiel's comprehension that he dizzied with the deconstruction of what he had always known.
"Animal." The daemon seemed to pitch its arm out, and its hand flew toward Jechiel on a rope of cheese-white flesh. The creature’s staff wrapped around his wrist, burying its barbs. The daemon's arm, marbled with green and sprinkled with kinky black hairs, sagged like a steel cable. Jechiel's wrist crushed. He howled, but did not release the gittern neck. The dissonance stopped fading and keened into something horribly organic.
There followed a thunderclap loud enough to make Jechiel's eardrums pulse. Even the daemon started.
One massive funnel cloud rose where before there were two. But it receded quickly into the ebony cloudbank above. The winds died and so did a hope Jechiel had not been aware he held. The only sound came from the disturbed river and the Miniak still on the river fighting for control of their scows. The daemon laughed. The staff convulsed and the barbs began to saw at the raw meat of Jechiel’s shattered wrist.
"Release it now, animal, and you may be able to save your paw."
Jechiel shut his eyes, dropped his head back, and screamed. His cracking voice blended with a sudden, all-consuming bellow that dropped like a shroud around him. There was a single wrenching on his wrist and then relief. He opened his eyes, expecting to see a spewing stump, but instead saw the fingerboard, and where the daemon had stood, a murky brown wall. It surrounded him and wormed up to an ultrablack point overhead. Mist whipped off the murk and danced inward in silvery corkscrews before showering down where it burst into the fingerboard’s glow with a diamond splendor made insane by the punch.
The light died and the gittern neck dropped as if it weighed ten stone. Silence stabbed deep into Jechiel's head. His wrist wailed.
The moon shone again and the Arambul,
calming quickly, flowed once more in its natural direction, carrying toward
* * *
Jechiel sat on the sand beside the gittern neck watching the moonlight caper in the settling river. His breath came in painful gasps, and a cold sweat poured down his thin back. His wrist throbbed, the bullet rip in his side burned, and the spin down from the punch rendered it all in the blackest despair.
Next to the gittern neck, lay the daemon's staff. It resembled an insect's leg; its barbs raked back in a somewhat relaxed position. Jechiel picked up the fingerboard and was about to grab the staff when a hand dove in and grabbed it.
"I think I’ll keep this," Omen Swords said through clenched teeth. The left side of his face was fat and ghastly blue, his nose crooked and seeping. His left eye was a black ball from the blood hiding its white. He pushed his plastered hair from his face. “Yes, well. I was far too handsome before.”
“Harmony sing that you didn’t drown,” Jechiel said.
“Harmony? Ach.” Swords looked around and said, "Only luck. I don’t drown so easily. I ended up east of here, beneath the bridge. I floated past the boats unseen. They were all a bit preoccupied.” He inspected the staff. “Scorpio Gemfires,” he said, “fully armed, ready for war, sitting beside Miniak. Alain was right, as always. An alliance from the unholiest hells. I wager this is happening all over the `Wood. Here." Swords took the gittern neck and then clasped Jechiel's good hand, helping him to his feet. “You’ve just been sitting here?”
“You guess. Surely not waiting for me.”
“I figured you were dead.”
Swords handed the broken fingerboard back to Jechiel, stared up river. His small smile turned brittle. Jechiel followed his gaze to where Alain Olyoak’s longshirt struggled to escape from a tree limb. “So, he seemed to know what you’re about. Tell me, Jechiel, what are you?”
“Spinning down hard from the punch,” Jechiel said.
A small dry snort. “That I do not doubt…. This foul excuse for water is making me ill.” Swords spit, grimaced. “Bastard broke my jaw.”
“What’re you doing here?” Jechiel asked suddenly.
“I’m sure there’s truth to the rumors.”
“Let’s just say that I owe a debt and I wish to settle up. Harlan Boglyth was kind enough to provide some information before he tried to take my head and I killed him.” Absently, Swords muttered, “You Westerners… fixated on decapitation.”
“How do you handle this?” Jechiel asked. “How do you get used to the violence, the death?”
“You never ‘get used’ to it. You accept it as part of the world you’re walking in.”
Now Jechiel shook his head. A moment chased with the rippling river murmur, the texture of wind over the cliff’s storied notches. He said, "I must go east."
Swords gingerly wiped his nose, glanced at Jechiel with his right eye, which, despite blackening around the socket, still appeared to be its normal blue. "To Ganiard."
"I'm not sure."
"I am.” Swords pulled out his blade, black as Jechiel’s spin down, black as a daemon’s cape. He tilted his head forward, grasped his hair tail, and hacked it off. Muttering a curse, he flung the thick dark mane among the dead fish. “I have good mates there. Strong allies."
"Look,” Swords said, rolling the blade over his hand and hiding it too quickly for Jechiel to see, “this isn't a cabal war, this isn't a tussle with the cons. This is why Kai Ferracane started the first war with the Miniak. It’s about making choices. It’s about consequence, my go’bro. Songs with foul language don't mean a damned thing. They never did."
Jechiel wheezed and turned to the east. Beside the thin strip of beach, the broad river trundled past. His gittern, his band, his journal. The headstock cut through his hair with frightening ease. He flicked the ugly tail, which burst like a dream in the air. He pulled his longcoat tight about him; he had never wanted a load of punch as badly as he wanted one now.