Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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Walking the Cobblebones

Set within the Vicious Moon Cats Milieu

by Jaimie L. Elliott


In the alabaster streets of the Cobblebones, the rich may lay with the destitute and royalty does not look down upon beggars. Interned within the walled section of that ancient city, the dead sleep everlasting, wishing only peace, unfettered from life and its associated obligations. Besides the rotting smell that passed in time, the dead made good tenants. Not necessarily friendly, but quiet, the best sort of neighbors.

It is when their wishes go unheeded-- which sometimes happens given enough time and foolishness-- that they behave in manners less gracious. What came of this was oftentimes messy, always horrific, and occasionally even artistic, in a macabre sort of way.

"So just how were these whoresons killed?" asked Cattre, his voice muffled, one hand with a cloth covering his mouth while the other brushed away buzzing flies.

"Whoreson," said Girthbottom.

"Say again, master?"

"It's just one whoreson," explained Girthbottom as he leaned against his staff, the wood bowing dangerously. He tucked the thumb of his free hand in the belt under his expansive waist. "This arm, that leg. That head way over there with the eyes locked in mortal terror. This all belongs to one whoreson. Just one."

"By Zost," whispered Cattre.

"I don't believe the gods had anything to do with this," said Girthbottom, "although I could be wrong". His foot prodded a pickaxe smattered with blood. He noticed pieces of stone chipped from a nearby wall. He tsked.

A wiry man, garbed in a plain midnight blue robe, the hood darkening his eyes, approached Girthbottom from across the street. Behind the man, set against the backdrop of ivory buildings, hovered four others dressed in a similar fashion.

"Not yet," said Girthbottom.

The man paused. "I haven't said anything."

"I know what you're going to ask. And the answer is: not yet."

If the man frowned, his hood concealed it. "But we must commence the cleaning."

"Not yet," repeated Girthbottom.

"The streets are stained--"

"Not yet," interrupted Girthbottom. "Listen, this is evidence. We're still examining, uhm, all the pieces."

"It's much harder to clean when the blood dries," mumbled one of them toward the back.

Girthbottom shook his head. Although he appreciated the Adherents of Skurv keeping immaculate the Cobblebones as part of their religious duties, their behavior, at times, irritated him.

"To Skurv with this obese fool," muttered another. "Why must we listen to a blaspheming necromancer anyway?"

Correction. Always irritated him. Many of their disagreements stemmed from a difference in ideologies. Zealots of a death god thought the practice of necromancy profane. Necromancers, on the other hand, believed worshipping death instead of studying it an effective yet improper way to shorten one's lifespan.

Girthbottom sighed. He readied a tepid reply when a voice, sharp and venomous, cut through to sting their eardrums. "Girthbottom! Juba on your lard-ridden ass. Stop mucking around!"

The cluster of midnight blue robes scattered like rats surprised by torchlight. Cattre hid his ample but substantially less frame behind his master. Through the shimmering heat rising off the white stone pavers, Girthbottom recognized the squat curmudgeon striding forth, his body jangling with the various implements a sadistic guard happened to carry for any number of delightful get-togethers.

Girthbottom's mouth twisted. "Passaden," he said in distaste. Old Wild Eye. The creature that not even the savage Scions of Ganea could slay.

Passaden, his gray hair frizzing outward from under his helm, stopped abruptly in front of Girthbottom. The smaller man scowled upwards. The mage, although looming over Old Wild Eye, took a step backwards. Cattre yelped as his master crushed his foot.

"Well?" roared Passaden, his arms flailing. Madness gleamed in those watery eyes. "Is this the work of the dead, or is your billowy sail of an ass going to find another way to avoid doing anything useful?"

"We're not allowed to perform standard guard work," said Cattre as he leaned against a clean spot on the wall, his hands rubbing his injured foot. "Ours is solely the purview of the necromantic. The Arcane Declaration--"

"Still your tongue, whelp! I'm speaking with the mama cow, not with its pudgy calf still suckling at the teat."

Cattre whimpered and nearly tumbled over into a pool of blood and entrails.

"Ah," interjected Girthbottom. "Passaden, yes, yes. There's a strong residue of unlife. Most definitely the dead."

"Any idea what in particular tore the corpse looter apart?" Passaden's eyes seem to wander separately on their own as the diminutive, terrifying man scanned the scene.

"Perhaps a very large but not very ravenous alley cat," offered Girthbottom.

Old Wild Eyes glared. He jabbed a thick, calloused finger into Girthbottom's rotund belly. "You and the calf here take care of it. Can't do this. Can't do that. All day, all night, the Arcane Declaration won't let us. About time you justify being on the payroll."

Sounds of a ruckus arose down the street. A group of bedraggled peasants shouted profanities at a handful guards prying open a crypt.

"You know the rules," shouted one of the guards over the din. "There's only so much room in the ‘Bones. We gotta make space, so out she comes!"

"Out she comes!" chorused the other guards.

"Stupid mudstickers," seethed Passaden. "If they only kept up their maintenance fees, this wouldn't have happened."

You mean bribes, thought Girthbottom.

Passaden pulled out both a wicked short sword and a stout cudgel. He weighed each, comparing. With some reluctance, he sheathed the blade. Ignoring the necromancer and his apprentice, he marched toward the unruly mob.

A storm was about to be unleashed upon their unsuspecting noggins. Girthbottom reproached himself for not empathizing with those poor, simple folk. Then again, better their noggins than his. He wiped his sweating forehead with the back of his sleeve. He motioned to the Adherents creeping out of the shadows. "Alright," said Girthbottom, his voice strained. "You can commence to scrubbing now."

####

"There's nothing more wondrous than walking the Cobblebones at sunset," proclaimed Girthbottom as they ambled down deserted Jayla Street. A crimson tinge warmed everything with a beatific glow.

Although taller than most men by a head and a half and possessing long legs, Girthbottom walked a pace that made turtles impatient. Cattre, despite his bruised foot, repeatedly found himself pausing as he waited for his master to catch up. "It certainly breaks up the monotony of all this white," said the apprentice without much enthusiasm.

"I just love it when the breeze comes from the south," continued Girthbottom. He inhaled, his nostrils flaring. "The smell of the salt, the coolness of the sea."

"Salt. Smelly," agreed Cattre, his concentration focused on Girthbottom's feet, unable to fathom how the larger man crept along. It did not seem that Girthbottom took short steps, as though he spent most of his effort moving his feet sideways, left and right, a swaying motion. Cattre's toe caught on the pavement. He stumbled.

"Did you know that most of these tombs use to be houses?" asked Girthbottom, gesturing at the buildings on either side of the wide street.

"Yes, master. You've told me countless times before."

"It's funny how a city grows over time," said Girthbottom. "They buried someone. And then another. And after a few hundred years, they put a wall around the entire area and it becomes the place where everyone is put to rest." He pointed to an open area to his left. A single, neat slab stood in its center. "And not just Skurvians, mind you, but people with all sorts of beliefs. Over there is where the Zendians conduct their funeral pyres. On the other side the ‘Bones near Yetherian Alley is where the Ganeanites maintain their keening stones. That's the proper way to do it, Cattre. Leaving corpses behind--"

"--causes all sorts of mischief," finished Cattre, his eyes glazed from rehearing the lecture everyday over the past five years.

"Exactly." He tsked. "It's a shame they drove the Ganeanites out of Tergordia."

"They did cause a lot of problems," said Cattre.

"But they didn't leave corpses behind!" argued Girthbottom. They stopped at the western gate. The two bored guards stationed there ignored them.

"So that's it for today, master?"

Girthbottom placed a flabby arm on his apprentice's shoulder and swung them around back to the east. "No, dear Cattre. The incident with the corpse looter requires our attention. Tonight, we patrol the ‘Bones."

"Well Juba me to no end," lamented Cattre, his body slumping, his knuckles white as he gripped his staff.

####

The faint rays of a new day beckoned atop the walls of the Cobblebones, but exhaustion dulled Girthbottom's enthusiasm for the scenic display. Despite walking the bleached streets throughout the night, they only succeeded in making their feet ache. The levels of unlife, albeit elevated, infused everything, whatever the source proving untraceable.

They sat upon the white steps of a small, nondescript crypt. Girthbottom yawned so mightily that his jaw locked for a moment. "How is your foot?" he asked, rubbing the side of his face.

"Sore," mumbled Cattre. "Both sore now, having walked all night." The apprentice sat hunched, his arms crossed. He glared sideways at his master. "I can see why they say this place drives men mad."

"Over time, the aura of the deceased can have a destabilizing effect upon those unprepared for it," lectured Girthbottom. "It's a subtle enchantment. It won't impair you or me, ones trained in the necromantic ways. But it has been known to unhinge other lesser minds, such as crypt looters and guards."

"That explains Passaden."

"Alas no, Old Wild Eye was born insane." Girthbottom stood and teetered, his body a chorus of pops and creaks. "Come. We've done all we can for tonight. Time for sleep."

Upon reaching the western gate, they found the guards absent. Girthbottom sighed. "See what I mean? They're neglecting their duties. Probably out drinking in the Foreign Quarters and taking chances with Tezdian whores." He gestured toward his head with wiggling fingers. "Madness, I tell you! Maaaa-aaa-aaadness."

"Who's crazy?" asked a boy stepping out from the shadows.

"Ja-dah-wah-huh-gnuh!" gibbered Girthbottom as he dropped in staff in sudden alarm, his hands and arms a dysfunctional windmill. Cattre screeched, a high-pitched girlish sound. "Jobac!" bellowed Girthbottom. "Curse you, you little rat! You're blessed by Kuba that I did not fry you with a spell!"

The urchin glanced down at the staff. "With what? The other stick you keep between your ass cheeks?"

"Why you disrespectful, wretched, son of a--," seethed Cattre through gritted teeth.

Girthbottom laid a restraining hand upon his apprentice. "Why in Zost are you up so early?" he asked, his heart still thundering in his chest. With some effort, he bent over and picked up his staff.

"Up?" said Jobac. "Who said I just got up?"

"You should be in, uhm-- well, you should be asleep," answered the necromancer.

"I know a few places where he can sleep," said Cattre, glancing back at the street filled with crypts, tombs, and sacrificial altars.

"Shouldn't you be asleep?" asked Jobac, his dirty face a symbol of innocence.

Girthbottom knew better. "Well, yes, we were headed that way, before you interrupted us."

"What are you doing up so late?"

"None of your concern!" shouted Cattre.

"We are working, little one," answered Girthbottom in a calmer voice. "You should not be in the ‘Bones at night. I've warned you before. It's dangerous."

"But I want to be a necromancer! Teach me!"

Cattre snorted. "To Skurv with this," he said. He flung open the iron gate and tromped off toward the living side of the city.

"Farewell, Cattre," said Girthbottom to his apprentice's retreating back. Cattre ignored him. Furrowing his eyebrows, the necromancer glared downward at the young boy. "You know the rules. One master, one apprentice."

"But why?" asked Jobac, his expression fraught with childish misery.

"Because the Arcane Declaration says so. The mages of Seyton, outside their own country, will not allow schools of magic to form. That means one master, one apprentice."

"But why?"

Girthbottom sighed. "I have neither the time nor the desire to educate you on history. Now, farewell. Go to sleep and, by Zost, stay out of the ‘Bones!"

"I would be a better necromancer than Cattre," pouted Jobac.

Girthbottom, sensing the boy's potential that dwarfed his own, did not argue and did not look back as he made his way home. "But you're still a little rat," he muttered to himself.

####

Sleep. The beautiful state of being. During moments of sheer exhaustion, Girthbottom felt his greatest kinship with the deceased. He understood then why they sought eternal peace, why they hated disruption. His mind drifted into ethereal consciousness. The light creeping through the dirty window could not draw him back. The pangs of hunger waned, their beckoning too feeble.

However, where sunlight and appetite failed, the door crashing inwards succeeded. He awoke. Quite abruptly.

He bolted upright, dimly aware of Cattre as a blubbering mass at the side of his bed. He fumbled for his staff when someone grabbed him with strong hands and tossed him across the room. He tumbled as an incoherent heap.

His assailant fell atop him instantly, applying a series of holds and twists, effortlessly contorting Girthbottom's limbs into angles that would make Asparian dancers gawk in amazement.

"Passeden," gasped Girthbottom. "What in Zost?"

"Two of my men dead," said the crazed guard. "Torn apart, worse than that corpse looter."

"We did not--"

"Silence!" hissed Passeden, squeezing harder. Girthbottom yelped in pain. "You and the whelp were supposed to take care of it. Not as though you're allowed to do anything else except chase shadows." He picked up the necromancer with surprising ease and threw him back against the wall, one ironclad hand locked on his throat. The house shook. Drawing his knife with his free hand, Passeden stabbed upwards.

A loud thud jolted Girthbottom. He looked down and saw the double-edged knife situated quite snug between his legs, just a hair below his crotch. His gonads, acting on their own accord, retreated to safer climes. "Tha-- that's quite a sharp blade," he stuttered.

Old Wild Eyes slowly raised the angle of the blade.

Girthbottom obligated by rising likewise to the full extant of his tiptoes.

"Here's the deal," said Passeden. "Until you resolve this, no one's going into the ‘Bones. When someone complains about not being able to pay respects, I'll blame you. When someone wants to have someone interned and can't, I'll blame you. If anyone else so much as cuts a finger or stubs a toe on those precious white streets, I'll not only blame you. I'll gut you."

"I understand, I understand," said Girthbottom, red-faced, clutching at the hand around his throat. His calves screamed and his legs quaked. "I said I understand! Can you please for the might of Zost remove that fucking knife!" His whole body trembled.

Passeden grinned. He pulled the blade just as Girthbottom's strength failed. The necromancer collapsed to the floor.

"We'll go out tonight," said Girthbottom on hands and knees, his forehead resting on the floor. "The dead usually come out at night."

Passaden stood grim over the necromancer, a behemoth of a midget. "The dead may only live at night, but the living may die at any time. Never forget that." Upon saying, he departed into the hazy, morning air.

Girthbottom rolled on his back and lay on the floor for a while, his chest heaving. Cattre's sobs were the only sound to disturb the silence. "Madness," Girthbottom mumbled to no one in particular.

####

"We don't have to do this," whined the shadowy form within the swirling, glowing blanket of fog. "We could head to Gannongorn. My sister says the dead are less confrontational there. They don't try to... reorder the layout of your organs."

"Cattre," responded another amorphous blob with its own source of light, "we cannot take flight. Not ever. We have a sworn duty, my young apprentice. Ours is a sacred trust, a pact of magical tradition and personal honor. Fleeing the unlife would denigrate the very profession of necromancy. It would disgrace the generations of necromancers that have preceded us. We could never hope to live with such shame." He paused. "Besides, Gannongorn is a backwater hole of a kingdom. Have you ever seen a pretty Gannongornian wench? One with all her teeth? I thought not. Unfth-- Watch it now! I'm right in front of you."

"I can't see a damn thing through this stew," said Cattre. "Master, our lights are insufficient."

"Dim your illumination a bit and hold your staff closer to the ground," said Girthbottom. "By Zost, I've never seen sea fog so thick." He shivered. "Nor ever as chilling."

"Perhaps an effect of the unlife?"

"Perhaps. Be aware at all times of your surroundings. Your mind must be open. Your senses must be keen," said Girthbottom just before he caromed off the side of a building.

They meandered for an eternity, losing their sense of direction. "Perhaps we should come back when this fog has cleared," suggested Cattre.

"And face the wrath of the Imperial Court? Old Wild Eye turned away a burial procession for one of the Emperor's cousins this morn. You can well imagine who he blamed."

"He was a very distant cousin," said Cattre.

"Nevertheless," said Girthbottom, "a couple representatives from the Imperial Guards decided to deliver a message afterwards. Nice fellows. Fortunately, I had opted to wear my codpiece after the Passaden incident. Oof! Watch where you put that stick, Cattre!"

"Turn around," muttered Cattre. "I'll show you where I'll put this stick."

"Say again?"

"I said we should turn around," replied Cattre. "We're almost upon the Western Gate. I think."

Girthbottom pivoted left and right and left again, searching through a fog that seemed to wrap its long, sinewy fingers around him. "Perhaps you're right. We cannot possibly hope to manage in this morass. Let's try again some other-- Guh! Curse you, Cattre! How many times will you bump into me tonight?"

"Did you say something, master?" replied Cattre a disconcerting distance down the street.

Something bumped Girthbottom again. Ice electric played upon his spine. Shouting mightily, he thumped the end of his staff upon the alabaster stones. An audible ‘whump' sounded as his staff glowed brilliant. A rush of air pulsed outward, dissipating the nearby mist.

Girthbottom gazed upon something darker than the heart of Passaden, a black so profound that it seemed more void than substance. The gears in his mind clicked. With sudden insight, he realized he stood eye-level with a leg. Something's leg. His head tilted upwards.

Unlife loomed overhead, featureless and humanoid. It moaned, a bedlam of despairing voices and tortured screams. Girthbottom toppled backwards, his hands clutching his ever-glowing staff.

The creature turned. Girthbottom's eyes followed. The swirling fog parted and he saw Cattre standing agog, legs twisted inward, knees rubbing together. The monster advanced.

"Staff," croaked Girthbottom. "Light. Your spells."

Hands shaking, Cattre spoke the words. Despite the apprentice's terror, his staff blazed brilliant.

The pureness, the power washed over Girthbottom. "Yes!" he shouted, sitting up. "Yes yes yes!"

The creature shirked back from the seraphic emanation. It paused, quivering at the edge of darkness. It waggled a finger in admonishment. Then, faster than thought, it lurched forward, its mammoth, clawed hand swinging downward, snapping Cattre's staff. Only a stub remained in the apprentice's hands.

"No," moaned Girthbottom. "No no no."

The creature lowered a clawed fist before Cattre. With a flick of an ebon talon, it knocked the stump from Cattre's hand. The broken piece of wood clattered across the stones.

The creature laughed an eerie, mocking sound. It turned, absorbing itself into the shadows. The fog cleared. Girthbottom saw once again the moon. Not a hint of the creature remained.

Cattre trembled. With querulous steps, he proceeded toward the west gate.

"Cattre!" rasped Girthbottom, rising to his knees. "Cattre!"

The apprentice never looked back.

"Cattre!" Girthbottom fought back a sob. "Oh the madness of it all..."

####

"Absolutely not. We cannot help you."

Girthbottom fidgeted on the rough, wooden bench. He squinted from the harsh sunlight blazing in through the tall windows behind the Grand Morbid's desk. His hands still shook, the incident with the unlife the night before seared into his memory. He grasped his staff to keep his hands steady. "But the purview of Skurv is of death, is it not?"

The Grand Morbid nodded. "Indeed."

"Then why won't you lend me assistance in this matter?" His fingers twisted unconsciously on the worn, smooth wood, the staff quivering.

The Grand Morbid's eyes flickered briefly on Girthbottom's nervous hands. "If any would receive assistance from us in this matter, necromancer, it would be the entity you so eagerly seek to eradicate." He leaned back in his chair. "Mind you, we will not interfere with Imperial duties, despite our partiality. However, that does not signify our participation in your hunt."

Girthbottom slumped, his head hung in despair. He glanced up, his expression bleak. He licked his lips. "I have just one question. One final question."

"Yes?" asked the Grand Morbid.

"Why is it so damn bright in here? Isn't this a temple of a death god?"

The Grand Morbid shrugged. "We use to keep it dark and gloomy, long ago, but it's terribly bad for the eyes. Blind Adherents make ineffective Adherents, for the most part."

"Indeed," said Girthbottom.

"Listen, necromancer, I do not want it to be implied that we were hindering you in this regard. Living creatures have a certain irrationality about dying, despite the inevitability of the process. So if you must obtain assistance in this matter, I recommend you take it up with the Zostians. The city proper is under their protection, after all."

"Alright then," said Girthbottom.

"You'll see yourself out?"

Girthbottom, alone against the world, nodded. "Of course."

####

"Absolutely not. How dare you even ask."

Girthbottom, kneeling on one knee, teetered for a moment as he steadied himself with a hand on the carpeted floor. "But the Grand Morbid of Skurv sent me to you."

The Celeste Priestess of Empyreal Ceremonies barked a harsh, dismissive laugh. "What care I for the pompous ravings of a lunatic dressed in black?"

"He was actually wearing dark blue with silver trim..."

"Nor do I care for the sniveling drivel of an overweight guard," she continued.

"I'm a necromancer," blurted Girthbottom and immediately regretted it.

The Celeste Priestess glared at him from her golden, throne-like chair. She leaned forward. "Do you think that I believe being a mage is better?"

"Although I am a guard in title," said Girthbottom quickly. A sharp pain stabbed his knee, despite the thick shag underneath him. "And I am asking in an official capacity."

"Again, I care not." She leaned back into the plush cushions. "The issue is of the undead in an area appropriate for the undead. As long as the monster stays in the Cobblebones, it is no concern to us. Does the supreme Zost deign to dirty his transcendent fingers with rotting corpses and churlish spirits? Does he oversee crypts and burial mounds? Is that his prerogative now?"

"No, no, of course not," said Girthbottom. "The mighty Zost is, er, mighty! He is powerful! He is the lord of-- the lord of-- uhm, what he is the lord of?"

The Celeste Priestess curled her lip into a snarl. "He is the Patron of Tergordia, you ignorant cretin! Without him, there would be no nation!"

"Uh, sorry, sorry!" stuttered Girthbottom. "That's why I sought you, since the citizens of Terregorn City are in danger. I didn't mean to show my ignorance regarding Zost. He's just so, uhm, big-- so incredibly enormous-- that's it's hard to, er, define him... properly... in all aspects... given that he's enormous... and vast... I suppose with a gigantic body, of course... with big toes and fingers and elbows and earlobes... and head.... and... and... stuff." He wobbled on his one knee. "He picked a wonderful piece of land to patronize. Don't you, uh, think so?"

"Remove this... object," commanded the Celeste Priestess.

The effeminate yet strong hands of Zostian Acolytes lifted him off the floor and dragged him toward the temple entrance.

"Perhaps you should seek the assistance of the so-called real mages," mocked the Celeste Priestess. "The ones of Seyton that keep you on such a short, short leash."

With all the dignity he could manage, Girthbottom shouted over his shoulder, "I shall never debase myself in such a manner! Never! Never, you hear!"

With those final words, they flung him headfirst through the ornate, intricately carved double doors.

####

"Absolutely..."

Girthbottom fell to his knees and grasped the shimmering robe. "Thank you, thank you, Rafi! Thank Zost and Skurv and all the gods in all the universes," he blubbered.

Rhafizeen coughed. "Sorry, I had something in my throat. I meant to say, ‘Absolutely not.'" The mage from Seyton disengaged Girthbottom's entwined fingers. "I'm truly sorry, Girth."

The necromancer collapsed to the ground and rolled onto his side. "You were my last chance, my one possibility."

"It's not that I don't want to help. It's that I cannot. The laws of Seyton are very strict. You should know this."

Girthbottom sighed and stood up, his face ashen. "I am a desperate man. I have asked assistance from both the temples of Skurv and Zost. No one will help, and I cannot face this danger alone. I'm not powerful enough."

"I do sympathize," said Rhafizeen. "Despite all my training, having grown up in a society of magic, I still cannot fathom how other nations can function with so many restrictions. I have to remind myself the reasons for the Arcane Declaration, the terrible wars that arose from misused magic."

"But I'm only asking for your assistance!" pleaded Girthbottom. "There's no restriction on the mages of Seyton, just on those they police."

"You are wrong on that account. We are quite restricted. Helping you would be helping Tergordia. Imagine how the other principles of the treaty would view that. Seyton must forever remain impartial. Our interference must solely be to address infractions. Anything else would cause irreparable imbalance. Would you like more tea?"

Girthbottom wrung his hands. "Passaden will kill me. He's probably searching for my pathetic, blubbery body at this very moment."

Rhafizeen placed a comforting hand upon Girthbottom's shoulder. "I am young. I'm not even a Chromatamancer yet. However, I always believed, perhaps naively, that one could even overcome the Prophecy, if the inner strength is inside him."

Girthbottom straightened. He glanced down upon the smaller mage of Seyton. "You are right, Rafi. I need to take matters into my own hand. I will find a solution."

"Therein lays the courage!" cheered Rhafizeen. "So, after is all said and done... I guess you'll not be wanting anymore tea?"

####

Girthbottom walked with purpose. He strode down the street that led to the Cobblebones, his manner imperious, his gaze forged steel. People skirted his path, afraid to meet his eyes. A dog, at first growling, scampered away whimpering with just one hellish look from Girthbottom. Even the guards who often heckled him kept silent as he marched past.

He knew what he must do.

The western gate to the Cobblebones came into view. A number of guards stood in front, blockading entry. Girthbottom inhaled a deep breath, adjusted his belt, twirled his staff with his right hand, and-- with an assertiveness of a man empowered-- ducked into the alley to his right. He scuttled down the meandering road that led to his house.

He knew what he must do.

He must flee.

####

Girthbottom had just bundled his meager belongings within a blanket when someone rapped on his "door", causing him to jump in alarm. He called it a "door" since it consisted of wood and leaned against the frame where Passaden had knocked down the original, the gaping holes on the sides, top, and bottom notwithstanding. One good thing about this version of the "door" was the fact that although he could not see his visitors, he saw their shadows. Shadows being hard to discern at times, he reckoned five or six people awaited him outside.

He remained very quiet. Perhaps they would leave if ignored.

A second knock, this one much harder, caused the "door" to teeter almost upright before rattling back against the frame.

Girthbottom prayed that they would give up or, failing that, not hit the "door" with any more force.

A thundering blow caused the "door" to topple inward in a crash of dust and noise. Blinded by sunlight, Girthbottom fell to his knees sniveling, his hands held out in front. "Please don't hurt me," he beseeched.

"What's the matter with you?" asked a child's voice. "Are your ears too fat to hear us knocking? It's not as if we can't see you through the holes."

"I am so sorry sorry sorry," said Girthbottom, his voice racked with sobs. "I did my best to get some--"

Wait. A child's voice?

Girthbottom shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand. He saw not Passaden, but eight street urchins standing in the doorway.

His terror turned to rage. Rising, he screamed, "Why you little rats! I will turn you all into real rats for scaring Skurv up my ass!" He searched around for his staff.

"Hold on, wide one," said the tallest and dirtiest of the youths. "We're not here to put anything up your ass. We're looking for Jobac."

Breathing hard, Girthbottom frowned. "What about him?"

"Jo's been missing for the last couple days. He went into the ‘Bones and never came out. Have you seen him?"

Girthbottom sat, almost fell, on his bed. He ran his hands through his hair. "I warned the little one not to go in there."

"Is Jo dead?" asked one of the other boys.

Girthbottom looked up. His expression grim, he said, "Yes. Yes he is. And it's his fault. He's been warned before." He rose and grabbed his wrapped belongings in one hand and his staff in the other. "He's been warned many times."

He pushed through the crowd of children. He ignored their sudden crying. With both hands occupied, he had nothing to cover his ears against their wailing.

####

Sneaking into the Cobblebones at night proved straightforward. The guards, fearing an eviscerating, time-consuming demise, vacated their posts at sunset, leaving only a crude sign that said:

KEEP AWAY

Gruesome Death to Those that Enter

(direct all questions, blame, and projectiles to Girthbottom)

"Well, I can't say I care for that last part," mumbled Girthbottom. "Alright, time to head in." He froze. "I'll just trot right in and find the little rat. Then I can leave this thrice-Juba city once and for all." He stared down at his boots. "Anytime you're ready, that's fine by me." He glanced up at the alabaster streets beyond the unlocked gate. "Yes indeed, anytime now." He gulped.

Someone coughed far off in the darkness behind him. The image of Passaden approaching gave him the impetus he needed. His hand trembling, he pulled open the iron gate and tread into the Cobblebones. He uttered a hollow entreaty to Zost for protection.

The stink of unlife coated everything. His magical knowledge knew very little of the living, so he searched by way of the only method he knew. "Jobac," he hissed to the dark recesses of the night as he lit his staff. "Jobac, are you there? Come to me, you little rat."

He combed the streets and alleys, every nook and shadow, even places unknown to the Adherents, calling forth the urchin's name all the while. He found neither boy nor blood. Exhausted, he leaned against a statue near Kiestorn House, an elaborate, three-story building famous for interning the bodies of the five Warlords from the First Ruchian War. No guards would ever yell ‘Out he comes' with these privileged men. His eyes closed as he rested, drinking deep the cool, night air.

When he opened his eyes again, fog swirled around him.

"Madness," whimpered Girthbottom, his wild eyes scanning the unfathomable mist.

"Who's crazy?" said a boy's voice behind him.

"Ya-na-wa-sana-wa!" the necromancer jabbered as he attempted to flee, only to trip over the extended leg of the statue. He hurtled hard to the white stone pavers. He groped for his staff that had clattered away in his fall, the light now extinguished. Panic thundered in his ears.

A light illuminated within the fog, a vague silhouette outlined. "Looking for this?" asked the voice. The shroud gave way as if parted by two tender hands. In the middle, holding Girthbottom's lit staff, stood the boy that Girthbottom sought.

"Jobac," stuttered Girthbottom. He peered closer. In the space where urchin's eyes should gaze with childlike wonder, the necromancer saw only a black abyss. "By Zost," he moaned.

"By Skurv," corrected Jobac. "Don't be afraid. We won't hurt you." He walked up to Girthbottom and returned him his staff.

His hands numb, Girthbottom nearly dropped the worn wood. "Jobac, what has happened to you?"

"It's my fault all this bad stuff occurred," replied the boy. "I woke them up and they got mad when they couldn't find me and I'm really sorry. I didn't know."

Girthbottom shook his head, confused. "I don't understand." He grasped Jobac by the arm. "First thing is to get you out of..." He gasped and released his grip, his arm feeling as though plunged into the coldest water. Frost covered his fingers.

"Everything's better now," said Jobac. "We're better now."

Girthbottom gawked as Jobac gestured with his hands, the mist parting further to expose the night sky. "They had been calling me all this time. I thought I wanted to be a necromancer, but it was more than that. It was them I heard. They wished a way out of the Twilight, back from the grayness of it all."

"Jobac," said Girthbottom in despair.

The boy smiled. "You sound sad. You shouldn't be. I've been ready for this all my life. I just wish I had done it sooner, before they got mad."

"I don't know what to say, Jobac."

"Don't say farewell. Don't say that. You're a necromancer. Come visit me in Twilight. I'll always be there, when not here."

Jobac waved farewell before he vanished, the fog dissipating with him.

For a long while Girthbottom gazed at the emptiness. Finally, he decided to disappear as well, although in a method more mundane. He turned and walked the Cobblebones, one last time.

####

His feet hurt. Trekking the span of a continent tended to do that, although he had to admit that his slimmed down form was a pleasant consequence. Girthbottom did not know if he still remained in the Kingdom of Luke. The peasants acted distrustful, and the few that would talk to him he could not understand, even though the words sounded maddeningly familiar.

He continued to trudge down the ill-kempt Second Road, over the rolling leas and underneath the branches of elegant deciduous trees. As he crested a small hill, he saw a young, pretty peasant woman lugging a pail heading toward him.

Her eyes narrowed in distrust as they approached each other. Girthbottom stopped in front of her, careful to leave ample space between them. He wanted to appear as unthreatening as possible, even though he towered over her. She paused, her eyes now twinkling with a defiant fear.

"I am sorry to waylay you, madam," said Girthbottom, his left arm making a flowery motion, his right hand holding his staff low. "Could you be so kind as to inform me as to whether I've arrived in Gannongorn?"

The woman assessed him. She looked him up and down. Slowly, her frown melted. She cocked her head and smiled, displaying the most exquisite, most perfect, most misaligned set of brown, rotten teeth imaginable. She arched her brow, beckoning.

Girthbottom coughed. "I guess that means yes."

He offered to carry her bucket. Together, they walked another street, not white, not kempt, but well traveled.

THE END


© 2007 Jaimie L. Elliott

Bio: Mr. Elliott currently resides in Marietta, Georgia, with a wife and step-daughter, where he spends much of his time working as a project manager for IBM. His first love is fantasy, although he dabbles in poetry and literary fiction as well. He won first prize in the short fiction category in the Georgia Writers Association yearly contest and has been published in Aphelion and Swords Edge. He's currently looking for an agent for his novel Vicious Moon Cats. His most recent Aphelion appearances include the Nightwatch tale, The Sin Watcher (October, 2005) and the semi-regular column "Dream Songs of Lore", exploring lesser known aspects of mythology, legend, and folklore (viz. Superhumans in the May 2007 issue).

E-mail: Jaimie L. Elliott

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