Knell’s stomach sank, a feeling rapidly replaced with jealous rage that she trapped behind her teeth in a fierce, rictus grin. “You know her?”
Cerro didn’t notice her tone, or chose to ignore it. “She works – worked – at The Red Diadem. Vaska.”
She could believe it – the Necromancer was wearing something skin-tight under the ragged cloak, and the cloak itself was artfully tattered.
If she had noticed them, she wasn’t showing it, but the undead were gathering around the building – even the ones Knell had shot were dragging themselves forward, broken legs trailing behind. “Directed, I think,” Eldryss opined.
Knell shrugged, and aimed a pistol at the Necromancer. Pulled the trigger three times, and deafened by the first shot only heard the click on the third squeeze, and reached for a quickloader with one hand while pouring out spent casings with the other. The bullet exploded into dust a foot from the Necromancer’s outstretched hand.
“She’s seen us now,” Eldryss said, crouched low in the raincatcher.
Cerro waved both hands over his head, tried to shout to Vaska, but the sounds of rioting around the city must have drowned him out; she pointed at Knell and the pirate dropped her gun as a painful chill gripped her hand. The weapon was rust before it hit the ground.
“All of my hate,” Knell muttered to herself, and threw herself prone behind the rise at the edge of the roof.
Eldryss was gone, vanished somewhere in the exchange, and Cerro reached for her hand. Knell swore at the pile of rust and gripped Cerro’s grasping fingers with her fleshy hand.
“Now what?” He asked. The sounds of violence were beginning to fade, although the scratching of the undead on the wall below was still audible, and there was a sound outside ordinary hearing that set Knell’s teeth on edge.
“Hope she fucks off,” Knell said, half joke and half prayer.
The sound was rising into a piercing wail, drowning out all other noise, making Knell’s teeth and ears hurt so bardly she squeezed her eyes tight and bit her tongue.
She tried to shout, to tell Cerro they needed to run, but she couldn’t even hear herself, and the air seemed to grow darker around them, filling with motes of slick shadow like oily dew. By the time Knell realized what was happening, it was too late to run, and they were plunged into the World WIthout Sun.
“Knell, you’re hurting me,” Cerro said, pulling his hand away from here and staring around their new surroundings in silent, frightened wonder. Knell curled up on herself like a baby and shivered.
It wasn’t cold. It might be mistaken for cold, but it wasn’t anything so mundane as an absence of heat. It was a hunger. An emptiness that could only consume and never be filled. A longing unanswered and barely comprehensible. A chill as deep as the soul.
The rooftop had distorted into a grim reflection of itself. The slight rises at the edges had grown into spike battlements, the raincatcher had grown twice the size around, turned to polished shell and become filled with a thick fluid that moved like mist. Dead insects floated on it like foam. The sky had been replaced with a high, vaulted ceiling of stone, visible only where phosphorescent mosses or stone illuminated arches and stalactites.
The undead were gone from the street below, but the dead remained; like the blood-soaked street and fanged checkpoint around them, they were distorted. Humans in simple white clothes, but stained red, their fingers too long, eyes too wide. Mercifully, Cerro thought, they were just as afraid as he was. As Knell seemed to be.
“Knell?” He laid a hand on her shoulder. She whimpered and snatched his arm, holding it in a vice grip.
“Knell, what… Is it this place?” He looked around again, and was struck by the way the world seemed to end after a few feet; the darkness simply deepened like a wall of night, the only things visible beyond it were faint lights in the distance. Stars in the realm of the dead.
“Come on, Knell, we have to run.” He said, voice strained. She hadn’t let go, and she wouldn’t move. From mostly-stone-cold killer to weeping little girl in seconds. Cerro was inclined to blame this place entirely – he could feel alien emotions pulling at him, seeping into him; a mingling of hate and rage he’d long considered himself above. Or perhaps I am failing my teacher, he thought.
“Knell, please,” he pleaded, trying to drag her to her feet. No sign of Vaska, at least. They had time to run – if there was anywhere to run. He wracked his memory for anything he’d read, anything he’d been taught about this place.
As he stared into thought, Knell screamed. Something over his shoulder?
Cerro rolled awkwardly aside, Knell still clutching his arm in a deathgrip, and landed on his back. Staring up at…
He screamed, too.
When Cerro had been very small, his fathers brought him to see the farms around Moondrop. They sounded like a waste of time, to Cerro – the whole point of Moondrop was that people didn’t have to work. A few smart-trees, some simple Mind-directed manufactories, and the little commune was perfectly self-sufficient.
And yet here were people working under a sky dyed bloody by the setting sun; soft, high clouds patterned like goosebumps and just as pink, and a warm breeze rich with cut grass and drying hay. It had never sat well with Cerro, how decay could smell sweet.
The farmers toiled in the earth with hoes, and pitchforks, and shovels.
“Why not use Magic?” Cerro had asked.
“Because that would miss the point,” his older dad had said.
“Then what is the point?” The little boy had asked, with wrinkled nose.
“This,” said his younger father, and swept his arm in illustration.
Farmers coming home, sweaty and red-faced, stained and calloused, but smiling. Arms around each other. Tines of pitchforks, at this remove, like little black towers against the red sky.
“What does Teacher Ramsas tell us about weapons, Cerro?”
“A weapon is just a tool of unsavoury purpose,” Cerro recited, with less understanding than they would hope. Than he has now.
Tixa, his older father, nodded.
“The farm is the beginning of war, Cerro. Here, we deny that escalation.” He said.
Cerro didn’t understand, but he liked that they rarely spoke to him like a child, like their doctor. But he could see those tines being used as weapon, and shuddered.
The spectre brought it back under a layer of grime; something made from hoes and forks and scythes buried in human flesh. Its head, a mossy mound with pits for eyes, filled with skulls, was outlined in a hazy red corona like the sunsets from the south shore. It must have been the size of a fighter ship, bodies melded together with a fly-blown glue of blood and crude, sickle-stitched seams. A hand made from arms all holding farming tools curled over their heads, in an undulated sequence. Cerro had seen that motion in the hands of clients a hundred times.
I want to touch, but…
With all his strength, he grabbed Knell’s arm with both hands and tried to haul her, still screaming, away from the monster. The spectre watched him, as if curious – then turned a rusting scythe upon the ghosts milling about in the street. At the edge of the rooftop, the world fell away to blackness, and Knell almost carried them both over that edge as she scrambled up to hold Cerro tightly enough to make his ribs hurt.
“Come on, Captain,” he whispered, hugging her back. “Give some orders.”
She shook her head, holding him tighter – and then threw them both over the edge.
For a moment, they were falling, and then there was nothing – no light or sound, no heat, no cold, only the sensation of their bodies together and a vague hint of motion.
Cerro landed on his back on a small, stone plaza. Condensed, pulled in on itself, the stones stretching and shrinking. No more than eight feet across, with grey stone pillars rising at each corner. Traitor’s Plaza, made strange by this place. Cerro stood, taking Knell with him, helping her get steady on her own feet. Still, she clung to him, but the silence was different; she was thinking of something to say that wouldn’t embarrass her. She’d open up about it later, he knew.
The Plaza should have been ten minute walk back west from where they had been, and beyond it there was nothing but the darkness. A dead end, but at least without the monster.
“Knell, can you talk?”
“We need to get out,” she mumbled.
“No doubt.” He said. “How?”
“Don’t know,” she whispered.
“I may assist,” a new voice interjected, and Cerro glanced around as Knell’s fingers dug in, painfully, her breathing notched up. “For a price.”
The speaker was, unsurprisingly, another ghost. An androgyne in fine silks, all colour drained from their body and clothes. Smiling.
“Name your price,” said Cerro.
“Straight to the point!” The ghost clapped, the sound muted. “I was hoping for a little conversation first, but I’m sure you’ll want to spend a while mulling it over, eh?”
“Please,” Cerro said, “whatever you need.”
“Blood,” the ghost grinned, with prominent fangs. “Just a few drops. I’ve been here a long time, you see, and I know how to open the way… with the right reagents.”
Without hesitation, Cerro drew Knell’s boot knife, cut his palm with a hiss of pain, and held it out towards the ghost. A faint shine emanated from the wound, and the ghost stepped nearer. Inhaling that shine like smoke, leaving the blood colourless and cold. A greenish hue suffused the ghost’s skin, and the black and gold of their clothing began dimly to show.
“Generous,” it said. “More!”
Cerro clenched his fist with a wince, opened his palm again, and with this infusion the ghost seemed almost living. Solid, strong, vibrant in colour. It reached out to its side, fingers becoming talons, and raised one high as if pointing. Red eyes remained fixed on Cerro and Knell.
“And one other thing – spill blood on the centre of the Plaza, when you leave.” It said. “A body’s worth, if you can find it.”
Cerro shook his head. “I’m no killer.”
The ghost’s grin dropped away.
“Then you’d better find someone who is.”
It swung the upraised talon down with a sound like ripping paper or fabric, revealing the deserted plaza in weak sunlight, still so bright Cerro had to cover his eyes.
“Hurry,” the ghost said, an edge to its voice.
Half-dragging Knell, they fled through the tear. Back into the warmth and light of the living world, alone on the empty Plaza that, now, was much larger. Cerro ran to an edge, hopping down onto the street with Knell in tow. The Plaza itself was off-limits, and with the rebellion in progress he had no desire to break taboos. Conveniently Traitor’s Plaza was surrounded by benches, and they sat in one to catch their breath, to recover. Distant cracks of gunfire and muted detonations echoed over the city. A plume of fire rose from the Temple of Night. The coliseum was collapsing into a swirling cloud of dust.
Knell took Cerro’s hand, gently this time, and gave it a squeeze.
“Thank you,” she said.
He nodded, a faint smile playing across his features.
She tore a sleeve from her shirt and bound up his hand.
“Thank you,” he said.
She nodded, and sat back, exhausted.
“A long way from the dock,” he said.
“We are. I suppose we should pick a side, to get out of here.”
Cerro stood, glanced at the red stain growing on the wrapping of his left hand, and looked to the horizon.
“Which side is winning?” He said.
“I don’t care,” Knell said. “I’m not siding with Necromancers.”
She stepped forward, and pointed towards the smoking Temple.
“Maybe Eldryss can vouch for us.”
“If they’re still alive.”