Greetings, everyone. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in any of my categories here. Meditating at the Crossroads is back, however, and I plan to keep it up and running with frequent updates. What follows below is the first chapter of what *may* turn into a larger novel…IF the first chapter seems to resonate with YOU, my dear readers. If you enjoy it, please do not hesitate to indicate your feelings either in poll box or comment section provided below. At any rate, let me know what you think of it, and enjoy! Thank you for your support and your time.
Beryl Toren needed to wash the stink of the Stronghold out of his mouth, and in his experience, the best way to do that was with a tall shot of moonshine. Not the filthy swill poured out of the Council-sanctioned taps, but actual, honest-to-goodness homemade spirits. There was only one man in the Northeast Stronghold he knew had the stones to make it.
He started walking towards Barry’s bar, already looking forward to the indulgent perfection of the man’s homemade liquor. The prospect of returning to his studio filled him with disgust. The children next door would be wailing disconsolately for a mother who wasn’t there; that unnerving skittering and crunching sound carried on sporadically throughout the night; and every Moon Day’s evening a Council-sanctioned Tout would holler a litany of new ordinances passed throughout the Nation until midnight, when he would host a sequence of inane advertisements sponsored by Council-sanctioned merchants. The Council openly claimed that it did not interfere in merchant business, but the Sixth Council member was a merchant himself, as were his brothers, uncles, and distant cousins. Together they commanded a dynasty that dominated the market, peddling everything from liquor to soap. Nor did the Sixth Council member shy away from passing ordinances that made it difficult—if not impossible—for his competitors to do business; including an ordinance that penalized bootlegging with exile. Barry Windham was an exception to the rule, and there’s a story behind that.
Two years ago, one of the transport Millipedes had derailed, tearing off the tracks at breakneck speed and plunging into Slum Quarter 25 in the south of the Stronghold. It didn’t happen often, but every now and again one of the Great Beasts would remember that it had a mind of its own. Most of the citizens on the Millipede had died immediately, and a good many others were lying contorted in pools of their own blood or writhing underneath piles of debris. A few people managed to worm their way free of the wreck, and one of these was the fifth daughter of the Seventh Council Member. There are Eyes and Ears all over the Stronghold, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a corner, alley, hovel, or hole that wasn’t crawling with the Council’s spies—but the denizens of the Slums know their territory, and they know when and where those eyes and ears are turned in other directions.
When that poor girl came up out of the canal all bloodied and messed up, she found herself face to face with a few area boys who would have vented their frustration with Council policy on her in a few choice ways—starting with rape and likely ending with butchery. It would have taken the Medicals a good bit of time to get there (no rush: seems no one knew the Seventh Council Member’s fifth daughter would be on that Millipede); plenty of time for the mongrels to have their fun. Lucky for her, Barry Windham had business in Slum Quarter 25 that night. He fought off the mongrels and saved the girl’s life. He did her one better, too: kept her hidden away until the ruckus surrounding the accident died down, so the girl could contact her mother privately and be taken home without too many prying eyes speculating as to why such a prominent citizen would have taken a public Millipede to begin with.
In exchange, the Seventh Council Member turned a blind eye—and all other eyes—away from Barry’s illicit business. Only a few people knew this story, and Beryl was one of them…primarily because he had helped bind the poor girl’s wounds. Trick he learned from his ex-wife. He was in Slum 25 on business also: tax collecting. A euphemism for wading through blood, tears, and hate on behalf of the Council; especially in the slums, where the citizens knew well that they were giving up their coin for nothing they would ever see in return. That’s where the blood came in: no coin, one less mouth to feed.
Beryl was no Skull player, but tax collectors were expected to be imposing. They were expected to frighten the submissive and intimidate the aggressive. More than a few bravos had tried their luck with him in physical combat. If they had stopped to think about it, they might have remembered that tax collectors receive intense martial training for years before their first assignment, and practice consistently thereafter. Unlike those who enforced the Council’s laws, tax collectors were trained to subdue rather than kill, bruise rather than break, immobilize rather than mutilate. You couldn’t pay your coin if you were dead, and you couldn’t make your coin if your legs were broken.
There were a few patrons in Barry’s dingy backwater joint this evening; two regulars, several strangers, and a honey-trap sitting at the end of the bar. Half the prostitutes (“sexual service providers”) in the Stronghold were Council-sanctioned, a little better than the Eyes and Ears skittering in and out of sight or droning blatantly on the message poles. A little bit of pillow talk could get you killed if you didn’t keep your mouth shut any better than you kept your pants up.
More than a few of the girls, though, were just down-and-outs looking to make a little coin.
Beryl knew this one. He didn’t exchange the common greeting with her (“Prosperity and Progress, citizen”), as in this part of town that would more than likely elicit a sneer and a curse as anything else. He was reviled enough as it was for his work. He was thankful at least for one rule that made sense: tax collectors never worked where they lived. They worked among strangers. They were constantly rotated throughout the Stronghold, and in a metropolis of over forty million people and one tax collector for every two thousand, it was easy for them to remain faceless and anonymous. Of course, it was still hazardous. Most of the tax collectors worked in at least one of the slum quarters, and a bit of common sense went a long way. Asking the desperate and angry to give up what little they had usually added another body to the murky canals that crisscrossed the city. Beryl had often written “pending” in his ledger, giving more than a few citizens the opportunity to defer payment until his route took him through their neighborhood again.
He was under no illusions that his leniency was any kind of help to them. If they couldn’t find work to pay their coin, they would make money some other way—and they would keep making it that way. Lizzie was a perfect example. Poor girl was no simpleton; her ambition had once painted her in colors far more vibrant than these. But another tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger one too many times.
“You missed the Tout,” she said.
Beryl grunted. “What’s the news of the day, then?”
Barry Windham came out of the stock room, his face brightening to see Beryl. One look at his friend’s haggard countenance and he disappeared again, no doubt to retrieve the good stuff.
“There’s to be a Godfall,” Lizzie said.
That took Beryl by surprise. There hadn’t been a Godfall since he was a kid. It was rare for any citizen to witness more than one in a lifetime. His own father had seen only one, and his grandfather had been a boy himself when he saw his own. “Huh,” Beryl said, taking a stool and breaking into a grin when Barry came out with a clear bottle of his specialty.
Barry nodded, uncorking the bottle and pouring him a shot. “They say it’s because the Stronghold is larger. More people. Takes more power to keep everything running. Makes sense to me,” he said, pushing the glass across the narrow bar. Beryl took the shot, slammed the glass down, and savored the aftertaste—watermelon. Real watermelon. Not the “tweaked” monstrosities peddled in the Council-sanctioned markets. He motioned for a refill.
“Savor it this time, you philistine,” Barry said. “I don’t sweat over this stuff so you can go through it like water.”
Beryl grinned. “First time’s to set the mood,” he said. “Which one of the Old Gods is it?”
“Who knows? Tout said something about them turning off the water and rationing supplies…”
“One of the Old River Gods then,” Beryl said. He took a sip of the moonshine, but the taste had lost a bit of its luster. The Stronghold would be in a riot over the Godfall. It would generate more excitement than any of the games, parades, or celebrity appearances that kept the citizens from focusing on anything important. Until it was over and they cast the spent husk of the Old God from the Pinnacle Tower, there would be talk of little else. Beryl had no stomach for it. As far as he was concerned, it was a hideous spectacle with an explicit motive: a testament to the unassailable supremacy of the Council over the world and the utter annihilation of everything that had once been magical, wondrous, and divine.
His granddaddy told him once that the Old Gods had been worshiped. That they had willingly given a portion of their immense power to those who knelt before them and to the priests who invoked their names. They had spread the Wild like a blanket over the created earth; they had gathered up the mountains from the bedrock of the world; they had dipped their hands into the mighty oceans and scattered the first rains with their palms across the dry country. They had given shape to the beasts and the Great Monsters that had once ranged beyond the fragile habitations of humankind.
Now they were chained in pens beneath the Strongholds, bound by the techno-sorcery of the Alchemists. Their power was used to fuel the Strongholds and the Council’s innumerable machines. The Siphons drained them day and night, funneling their divine energies into the immense network of pipes, conduits, and arteries stretched between the 9 Strongholds. There was even some speculation that the network itself had been one of them, hollowed out and used to funnel the energies of its brethren across the country.
“I wonder what they look like,” Lizzie said, “you know, before they’re all drained and everything…”
Barry looked at her oddly.
“What?” Lizzie leaned over the bar and whispered, “I don’t see any Eyes or Ears in here.” Beryl made a slight gesture with his head towards the strangers sitting around a table in the back. “Oh, them? They’re just some working boys out for a drink,” she winked. Beryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. “What?” Lizzie challenged him playfully. “All you have to do is ask, Beryl, and I’m yours for the night.”
“Quit it Lizzie,” Barry said. “Lay off your talk or I’ll cut you off.”
Lizzie frowned. “Don’t tell me you never wondered, Barry. What they look like.”
“No. Never wondered. All I know is they keep the city running. You may come here for a shot or two of homemade, but at the end of the day, you get your food from the Dispensaries like everyone else. Ride the Millipedes to work like everyone else. Breathe the same filtered air. You want to try your luck with the exiles out in the barrens and Wilds, you just keep asking the wrong questions.”
“There’s a Godfall coming up, Barry. You think I’m the only one asking these questions?”
“Lizzie,” Beryl said, “you shouldn’t…”
“Shouldn’t what? Barry’s bar is safe, Beryl; been safe for two years now. Besides, I know better than the both of you how to protect myself. I’m no Council-sanctioned whore. And working boys like those,” she jerked her finger towards the three men in the back, “feel comfortable enough to talk to me about all kinds of things. An’ more than one of ‘em’s wondered about the Old Gods, locked away under this prison of a city. Wondered what it must’ve been like in the old days before the War, when there were still monsters to fight and heroes to fight them. Sure, most guys don’t give a damn one way or the other—they eat, they drink, they work, and their cares pretty much end at what’s between my legs and whether or not they’ll catch a show. But some of ‘em have more between their ears than they have hanging below their bellies—only they’re too damn scared to say anything within earshot of anyone other than me.”
“You think this place is safe, Lizzie?” Barry asked, shaking his head. “You’re a fool to think so—she watches me closer than anyone because of what happened two years ago. She wants to make sure I don’t tell anyone what happened. So why don’t you just calm down and lay off the subject…”
Lizzie growled and slammed her empty bottle down on the bar. The men in the back turned their heads sharply in alarm. Beryl nervously clenched his fist. “It’s good that there’s someplace I can go to feel safe,” Lizzie said. Barry shook his head, opening his mouth to interrupt, but the words that poured out of her mouth may as well have been boulders tumbling downhill.
“Safe from the damned Orders and their robed freaks!” One of the men in the back coughed up his drink. “Safe from all those damned abominations!” One of the two regulars all but ran out, bursting through the door in a blur of frantic desperation. Barry reached over the counter and tried to grab Lizzie’s arm. She pulled away, tipping over her stool. “Safe,” she hissed, looking around the room, “from all the ‘citizens’ who could care less about what the Old Gods looked like before they were chained up. Safe from the damned Council!”
“Alright, I’m done, I’m done!” She glanced around with a look of desperate disdain. “It’s dead in here anyway, and time for me to get to work…” She abruptly closed her mouth as the door opened.
A robed figure entered the bar, features obscured by a gray hood pulled low. Silence fell over the room, and in the quietude—punctuated only by the sputtering of the gas lamps in their dusty globes—everyone could hear a low whispering coming from the figure. Pale lips could be seen moving quickly beneath the shadows. Hands gestured in tandem with words spoken too softly to be heard. It could have been male or female, but everyone knew what the black robe and gray hood meant: it was a member of the Order of Whispering. The warning-givers (“Woe unto those to whom the Whisperers speak”).
The Whisperer approached Lizzie, who stood immobile and terrified. Beryl knew what she was thinking: how did they know? How did it happen so quickly? The strangers in the back rose and made themselves scarce. Lizzie started shaking her head and trembling. She was losing it. The regular boozer tottered to his feet and made for the door. He slammed against the dead music-box and crashed to the floor, dragging himself on his hands and knees towards the exit. The Whisperer was towering over Lizzie now, leaning in close to utter its fateful warning.
Then Beryl saw it. One of the Council’s Ears.
In the days before the War, there were all manner of lesser beasts. During the Period of Ascendance, before the Old Gods were enslaved, the Alchemists began to “harvest” them. Capturing them and twisting them to serve their purposes. Beryl didn’t know how they did it—no one but the Alchemists themselves knew—but the abominations they created were grotesque. People had gotten used to them, apparently, but Beryl couldn’t stand to look at them.
The Ears used to monitor the citizens of the Stronghold had been made from the feral cats that once wandered the streets. The Alchemists had emptied them of their innards, pulled their naked skin over unnaturally extended limbs, and replaced their red blood with some foul brew drained by the Siphons from one of the Old Gods. Their skulls had similarly been reshaped; wrought by vulgar hands into a bony jumble of canals and orifices designed to capture and isolate sound. They heard everything. The Alchemists had also found some way for the Ears to transmit what they heard directly to a receiver. Beryl knew this because, sometimes, a dumb fool who had let slip something he shouldn’t have had thought to capture and kill the Ear that had heard him—but it was never any use. Someone somewhere already knew.
There was a Godfall coming up, Beryl reminded himself; there would be Eyes and Ears everywhere.
But dammit all, she’d just asked a honest question…! Beryl watched the Ear slink into the overhead shadows, seriously contemplating throwing a bottle at it. He turned back to see the Whisperer move away from Lizzie. She looked even paler than before, turning a dismal gray color. She seemed on the verge of fainting. Beryl gave the Whisperer a wide berth, trying to catch a glimpse of its face under the gray hood—he could only see those ugly lips moving.
“What did he say to you, Lizzie?” Barry asked from behind the bar after the Whisperer had left.
Lizzie said nothing. Instead, she reached over to the bottle she had finished, and with a quick snap of her arm, broke it over the edge of the bar.
Barry and Beryl both shouted, but she was too fast: she struck the jagged edge of the broken bottle into her neck and drew it across her throat, flaying the skin open. She dropped to the hardwood floor, gouts of blood spurting from the ghastly wound. Too much blood to stop in time.
Beryl tried to stem the flow, but it gushed up between his fingers. Lizzie tried to speak some final words, freed by imminent death from the prison of her fear. Beryl leaned in close, wanting to comfort her, to tell her that was going to be alright…but he didn’t. He needed to hear what she was trying to say.
“I just wanted to know what they looked like. They must have been beautiful…”
Then she died. Barry was standing over Beryl and trying to pull him away. “You have to calm yourself down, man! You have to…” Beryl pushed his friend roughly aside. He knew her. He had known her. Now she was dead, so much meat for them to cart away and dump in the wastes beyond the walls.
Barry tried to tell him there was nothing he could do, but he was wrong. There was something he could do. In his heart the decision had already been made. Beryl rose to his feet, smiled at his old friend, and walked out of the bar. The Whisperer was gone, but that didn’t matter. The Council was everywhere. Watching. Listening. Not far from Barry’s bar there was a square, one of the innumerable hubs where the boulevards and avenues crisscrossing the city converged. When the Gods fell, nothing remained of them; but trophies of the slain Great Beasts were on display all over the Stronghold. Testaments to the supremacy of the Alchemists.
This one had been a creature of immense size; its skull stretched the length of five men. Beryl didn’t know what it had been called by the people before the War, nor even how it must have looked when alive. What mattered to Beryl now was that one of the Council Touts was drawing a crowd. Appropriately enough, he was announcing the upcoming Godfall.
Several years ago, Beryl had been working in Slum Quarter 37 in the northeast quad of the Stronghold. Tax collectors weren’t authorized to break down doors, but, if they didn’t write “pending” in their ledgers, they instead recorded the addresses of those who believed that a closed door would spare them. Sooner or later, someone who was authorized would come through and break down their door; they would take a pound of flesh as interest. On this occasion, Beryl had knocked on a door that looked the same as every other door in every other building in the quarter—except for a small symbol etched into the wood.
The door had opened of its own accord, swinging wide as if in response to some magic word. He would never have expected what he saw inside. It was a vigil. His mother had taught him the word; but it was a forbidden rite in the Stronghold. The dead were dead. Nothing but husks to be thrown unceremoniously away. Citizens were allowed to mourn—an emotional, human habit that couldn’t be stopped—but any observances or rituals devoted to the dead were punishable with exile.
An old man had been reading something over the body of a child. When Beryl entered he snapped around, surprised. He rose in a fury, his eyes wide and frantic. He started shouting at Beryl—What are you doing here? How did you get in? When Beryl told him that the door had simply opened, the man stopped abruptly and stared at him. He looked back at the body. He had been nervous, fearful that Beryl would report him. Instead he said, “The door wouldn’t have opened otherwise.” For awhile, he said nothing else. Beryl stood awkwardly in the foyer, ledger in hand.
When the old man spoke again he said, “I’m going to give you something. Words. But you must remember them. They aren’t just any words. You must never utter them unless you mean it. You must never allow anyone in this place to hear them—not until you are ready for the consequences. They are the words of a very powerful prayer. Do you know what that is? A prayer?”
“They were spoken to the Old Gods by their priests, before…”
“Yes,” the old man had said, interrupting him. “Before. I am going to give you the words of a prayer. Will you remember them?”
Yes, Beryl had said. And he did. The words came to him when Lizzie’s blood was gushing through his fingers. He knew why, and he knew what to do with them. Now, he was ready for the consequences.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw them. People used to call them “dogs.” Packs of them would wander the streets, scavenging for food. People even kept them as companions. They were commonplace before the ascendance of the Alchemists. After that, they were harvested. As with all the other lesser beasts, their desired ability had been distorted and exaggerated, wedded to the machinery of the Alchemists’ craft and subordinated to the will of the Council. In this case, it was empathy; some part of the dog’s brain that could tune into human emotions, developed over centuries of cooperation. The Alchemists had toyed with it, discovering that its function could be heightened when exposed to the effects of a certain chemical. They rounded up the street packs, and for decades it became increasingly rare to see a dog roaming free. In the meantime, the Stronghold commanded that a certain vine be grown throughout the Stronghold—a thorny, tangled, and oily thing that clung to every lattice and stairway, choked every narrow alley and wound about every ruin and crumbling façade. This vine secreted the very same chemical that the Alchemists used to warp the dogs’ natural ability.
Then, only about a decade ago, the dogs were released. They had been bred to feed on the vine, but its side effects were…unfortunate. The oil from the vine had physically warped them, and from one generation to the next they had adapted to survive these mutations and use their enhanced empathy with uncanny precision. Some of them had elongated limbs, stilted legs that supported a skeletal torso; others were sheathed in a tight skin that pulled their lips away from their fangs, stretched taught over every rippling muscle.
Different breeds were trained to respond in different ways to different emotions—excessive emotions. Fear, anger, guilt; all of them seeped from human pores with a specific scent. Gestures, movements, voice patterns; no amount of subtlety or restraint could prevent one of the dogs from catching on. The larger, more aggressive breeds responded to anger. Packs of leaner, quicker brutes responded to fear. Others responded to remorse, others to euphoria, others to caution. The Keepers of the Dogs tracked them and every citizen that they took an interest in. Sometimes, the dogs got overeager.
Beryl could not even begin to describe what he was feeling. Ecstasy? Rage? Fulfillment? Everything at once? Every damned pack and stray in the city would be coming for him.
He stopped within thirty yards of the Council Tout. The dogs were moving in closer. People at the edge of the crowd were starting to exclaim, murmur and scatter. Beryl had only a moment to say his piece before the dogs frightened his audience away, and he needed an audience for this. People had to hear it.
He moved forward, startling the Tout; the boy stammered in midsentence, his deformed throat quivering grotesquely. The Alchemists worked their craft on people, also. How else would a human voice be able to reach hundreds, even thousands, across the din of a crowded sector? He was using only a fraction of his volume now, and his voice could easily be heard on the far side of the square and across Processional Boulevard 6.
Beryl seized the flustered youth by his shoulders and learned forward. The boy cowered under his grip. “There is something I want you to say,” he growled. The Tout nodded. “You will say the words exactly as I say them, pronouncing them exactly as I pronounce them. If you do not do this, I will make sure you never speak above a whisper again. Do you understand?” Of course he did: the “children” of the Alchemists were task-specific citizens; if they couldn’t perform their tasks, they would be discarded like unwanted refuse. Beryl wasn’t entirely sure if he could do it. The boy was innocent, after all—no one asked to be “adopted” by the Alchemists. But after what happened to Lizzie, Beryl didn’t really know where his limits were anymore. Apparently, that showed clearly enough in his eyes. The Tout nodded frantically. Beryl loosed his grip, nodded and swallowed.
The words were still there, in his mind. Good.
He spoke them; slowly, carefully, mindfully. The Tout repeated them perfectly—they could mimic virtually any sound or voice imaginable. Choruses of Touts would put on Council-sanctioned performances in the squares at least once a week. Beryl never cared for them, but nearly every citizen in the Stronghold eagerly attended at least half of the biweekly performances. One needed to wander far indeed not to hear them echoing about the streets.
Beryl cocked his head to look at the crowd. The people were frozen. Their eyes were wide, their jaws slack, and they looked for all the world like a choreographed and synchronized mimicry of utter disbelief. Beryl wasn’t sure they would even remember what a prayer sounded like; it had been years since any prayers had been heard in the Nation. But they did remember. Even the young ones somehow knew what it was they were hearing. Beryl looked into the Tout’s eyes. Even he knew.
Beryl smiled. This was exactly what he’d wanted.
Then something happened that he did not expect. Near the prayer’s end, the dogs stopped in their approach and sat back on their haunches. They started howling. Howling!
Beryl understood, in a flash of insight, why the old man had given him the words of this prayer. They had somehow hidden his grief for his dead son. Otherwise the dogs would have been there, their claws skittering up the steps of that dingy building, their ravenous panting echoing up the stairwell. But they didn’t come. The old man had offered a prayer to one of the Old Gods, and whatever It was had heard him, shielded him, protected him.
The dogs turned tail and ran, darting about the motionless citizens and vanishing into the innumerable cracks and crevices of the Stronghold. They were no longer a problem…
…but the cloaked figures moving toward him with gliding, unhurried steps were.
Backwater Brook came in through the Hedge behind Slum Quarter 46. It ran underneath the barricades that kept citizens from trying to cross through the Hedge (willing exile was forbidden, and the poisoned thorns of the seventy-foot tall bush made the attempt almost certain suicide). It passed through the trading stalls of the slum markets (you could find literally anything there), wound through the mazelike gutters of the quarter, and emptied out into Canal 108. It circled through the pipes and purification tunnels, finally emptying out of Murdock Fountain. While in Slum Quarter 46, it passed in front of a peculiar shop, nestled between two decaying brownstones on the west side of what the neighborhood called Parlor Street. A handwritten sign posted outside read “Appraisal Shop.” When people wanted to barter their goods, it sometimes paid for them to make damn sure they knew what their goods were worth on the market. Otherwise, an exaggerated price could easily anger the wrong potential customer. Many a stall had been trashed by an irate resident who thought he or she was being cheated.
This indispensible service was offered by Owl Tannerson. His daddy was a trader in tinctures, salves, balms, and unguents. On the side he traded in bones. Owl’s granddaddy had been a trapper Beyond the Hedge in the old days. But he didn’t trade with the Alchemists. Never once in his life. He traded bush meat in the slum markets. Back then, the Council Dispensaries were running, but an intrepid fellow with skills and a set of brass balls could make a living dealing in real, fresh, normal meat. No one did that anymore, but the Tannerson family remained well respected in 46. Owl was no lover of the Council, that was for sure. The tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger the last time he’d come around, though, and Owl did not relish the thought of running afoul of the authorities.
At this moment, Owl was entertaining a rather nervous client. On the table between them was a pile of assorted baubles and trinkets. Unfortunately for the nervous man, they were worth less than the ashtray next to them.