July 2019

“I need to be assured of your support in the Edelkammer when this measure comes up,” said Voss. “We have the power to use it through, if need be, but things will be easier if it is a large majority with respected statesmen like yourself behind it.”

Blohm did not rise from his seat, instead combing his whiskers to one side and blithely refilling his great horn pipe, on which he continued to puff meditatively. “What does the Emperor think of this? As much as we may dislike the successionists, they are still subjects of His Imperial and Royal Majesty.”

Voss laughed, a short, sharp, bitter sound almost like a strangled cough. “I am, of course, the Emperor’s loyal servant,” he said, “but these arcane matters of state do not rise to His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s notice. We are doing the Emperor’s work by using to powers he has delegated to us and not pestering him about minutae.”

A fresh puff wafted up from Blohm’s armchair. “If matters of state are beneath the Emperor’s notice, to say nothing of the welfare of his subject, then what have we left to him?”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to cling to that fairy tale and fig leaf as your only response,” said Voss. “The Emperor is a unifying symbol, the grandfather of his nation. He reviews troops, feeds ambassadors, and recites jolly nothings to small children for newspapermen and photographers. When it comes to the actual filthy work of running the Empire, we are the ones who must do it.”

“I see,” said Blohm. “And you feel that rounding up and executing the secessionist leaders will force their fellows to lie down, beg the Emperor his indulgence, and learn to speak fluent Old High Imperial with no accent?”

“I am not so blundering as you appear to think me,” Voss replied. “But I do know that if we leave them be, we’ll find ourselves both out of a job when the old man finally dies.”

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They say it’s been a summer of violence, in the papers. But you’ve gotta wonder if it’s any different, or if our eyes are just open wider. Are we only seeing afresh the thousand little violences that make up life in a place where there is no middle? Maybe the difference is that lives are getting chewed up quicker, chalk outlines on what should have been a safe floor instead of husked-out rinds beaten down by years of violence spring, fall, summer, winter. No one could–no one would–lift a hand against threats muttered on sultry air, unjust blows rained down behind doors closed and locked. No one can–no one does–lift a hand against machines of death chewing up supermarkets and festivals. By the time they got to the perpetrator, there was never anything left to punish. The people are the same, the misery is the same, it is only death that has become more efficient, stalking us all on copper-clad wings. When no one stands against it, great or small, fast or slow, nine millimeters or the width of a thumb, is it all the same?

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Couv was almost late to his job due to the holy war.

The Lightfaith had come down like a hammer, and as Couv walked casually through the streets of Edeleve, hands in pockets, he could see the results of their purge. Streams of people, many of them broken or bloodied, staggered toward the citadel in long lines, each bound to the others. Many were still wearing the white robes of the Aulites, though most were showing muddy blood at the very least.

“Shame,” Couv said to himself. “I was sick of them, but not enough to want them all smashed.” Like anyone else with business in Edeleve for the last twenty years or so, he’d gotten used to the Aulites preaching on street corners, the constant pleas for love and universal brotherhood. He’d filled up on thin gruel from time to time at the Aulites’ run-down missions where they served all comers.

“Look! Behold, the great mercy of the Martyr upon these sorry and weary folk!” one of the Edeleve city guard cried, walking beside the prisoners. “The law decrees death for apostasy, and yet they will be given the chance to redeem themselves through labor! Is that not good and just, brother?”

It took Couv a split second to realize that the guardsman was talking to him. “I wouldn’t know,” he said. “Just passing through.”

With a dissatisfied snort, the guardsman continued haranguing all passersby as the column moved on. For his part, Couv was just happy that the guard had been so focused on shouting about redemption that he hadn’t noticed the handoff. A small envelope, wax-sealed, had flicked between a passing man’s hands and Couv’s, with no one being any the wiser.

He slipped into one of the many pubs lining the Edeleve docks and ordered their smallest, cheapest drink before wandering over to the fire. The seal was good, a clean impression from an authentic signet ring. Couv broke it and tossed the envelope into the embers after it had spilled two small scraps into his hand: an address in the slums of Edeleve, and a scrawled note from his employer.

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The skipper had taken the night watch. He wasn’t able to do it often, since taking the day to sleep meant he would inevitably be roused by the hundred little issues that could befall a sailing ship with a green crew. But when the almanac said that there would be a full moon and the clouds were just right, he would stand watch at the bottom of the night and watch the second-largest lamp to shine on the world reflect brilliantly off its largest mirror.

It took him back, in a way that nothing else could, to the nights he had spent on the bluffs as a boy, watching the lighthouse and the moon and looking for any sign of his father’s ship gliding into port. It was a sense of wonder that didn’t come easily to anyone who’d ever had men under their command, much less as far from home as the skipper’s ship tended to wander.

But it was one of his only pleasures, and his easiest.

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“The dining car will be closing soon, sir.”

Cam reached into his wallet and pulled out a $20 silver certificate. “Let me stick around,” he said. “You can turn the lights off if you want, but I can’t go back to my car.”

The steward took the bill and folded it. “Anyone in here? Dining car is closing!” he said. Then, looking through and around Cam, he buttoned up the place and turned off the lights. Cam was left with only the odd light outside and dim moonlight glistening through the dining car windows as he continued to nurse the bottle he’d bought hours before.

“You can come sit down, if you like,” Cam said, two half-glasses on. “No sense just standing there alone in the dark.”

A shadow slid into the seat opposite him. “Very kind of you. Not that it will make any difference.”

“Of course not,” said Cam. “No need to shout and beat one’s breast at the inevitable. You could probably see that by my…feeble efforts to hide.”

“A feeble effort is still more than most will put forth, at least before the end when they begin whining and pleading.”

Cam nodded, then gestured to his bottle. “Care for a nightcap? I’ve got a clean glass, still. I had them put it out, for…I don’t know what. Maybe I had a premonition.”

“I’ll have a sip, but no more than that. Can’t be impaired on the job, hmm?”

“No, of course not.” Cam poured two fresh glasses. He took a deep drink from his own, first. “There, you can be sure I haven’t doctored it.”

A hand reached out took up the other stem, sipped. “A fine vintage. Shall we settle up, then?”

Cam nodded. “Very well. Will it be quick?”

“No need to drag it out.”

His drink finished, Cam set the stem back down. “Do it, then, and let’s have done with it.”

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Santorini’s sallow eyes flicked up from the menu. “How’s business, Katy? Still taking classes at night?” Santorini had taken his customary booth, near the back, and with a thick, sturdy wall behind him.

“Let’s just say that when I’m done with classes, you won’t be seeing me here anymore,” Katy said with a smile. “What can I get started for you, Mr. Santorini?”

“I can think of a few things,” he laughed. “What’s the special?”

“Boss…” one of the two younger men, the one that had been practicing his stony face since coming in, spoke up. Katy had seen him relaxing for a moment, even cracking a secret smile, when he thought no one was looking. “I don’t know if…”

“What?” Santorini said, turning to look at his companion. “You don’t know if what?”

The poor kid’s facade was crumbling, his cheek twitching desperately as he tried to keep his expression even. “If you don’t get one of your usuals, it might me…I dunno…dangerous!”

Katy had alwys been struck by how Santorini commanded the room even when he was just sitting there; now, the full force of that was turned on his poor little bodyguard. “What, you think someone’s gonna try to poison me with the greasy spoon special? What’s the matter with you? If anything, they’d do my usual!”

“Look, boss, I’m just trying-” the facade was gone, and the young man looked about to cry.

Santorini had already turned away. “Bah,” he said. “I know what you were trying to do. Heart’s in the right place, brain’s not.” Then, looking back up at Katy: “I’ll take the special, whatever it is.”

“All right; one special.” Katy didn’t write it down; five years of waitressery had given her a mind like a steel trap when it came to orders. Phone numbers, dates, birthdays…that might fall through. But she’d never forget a meal, even if it were being served her in a retirement home. “What about you?” she said to the younger man, the bodyguard.

“He’s having what I’m having,” said Santorini with a grin. “If it’s poisoned, I’m taking him with me.”

“Right, two specials,” Katy said. “He can work for you in the hereafter, hmm?”

“Ha!” Santorini chortled. “Good idea. Like the pharaohs of old Egypt. You hear that, Spinelli? Normani? When I croak, I’m having you buried with me to continue to protect and serve in the afterlife. Can you think of a better reward for your loyal service?”

The two young gunsels looked nervously at one another as Katy took the remaining orders and drinks. Then Santorini and his guest began discussing something animatedly in Italian, and Katy slipped into the kitchen to give the orders to Hal, the cook.

“You’re due a break,” Hal said. “This’ll take a hot minute to put together anyway. Go have a cigarette or something, Janice will take out the drinks.”

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The circle was drawn fresh, laid out in blood taken from a virgin ram that was the seventh son of a seventh son. The book, laid out before Anovi on an ornate wrought-iron stand, was properly made–inked in ichor drawn from the sac of an abyssal squid, bound in the flesh of a cold-blooded murderer by a morally questionable bookbinder, the eldritch runes within carefully calligraphied by a seventh-level monk of art history.

All that remained was the incantation, spake forth in the Darktongue, to bring forth the unholy knowledge that Anovi sought and finally give him the vile insights into evil that he craved.

H’bin odommoc t’necov menomead ecce!” Anovi cried, reading the vile sigils in a voice that grew more distorted, more profane, with each twisted syllable.

The effect was immediate. Anovi’s elaborate summoning circle flared to luminescent life, as the blood of an unfortunately-lineaged goat became the conduit to the iron city of Dís in the chaos and evil of the infinite Abyss. There was a roar, a smell of brimstone mixed with lemongrass, and a pillar of fire burst from the circle, rising upward to scorch the stone arches of the desecrated abandoned chapel where Anovi had made his unholy workshop. Within the flames, a dark shaped writhed, stark in its inky inhumanity.

“Yes, yes!” he cried. “Demon! I command you to heed my words and obey my commands!”

Abruptly, the fire sputtered out like a candle being huffed out by an errant breeze. As Anovi coughed and swatted away the wispy smoke, he saw that the circle was occupied by…

…a young woman with short blond hair and an aristocratic raiment and bearing. If not for the distinct reddish hue of her flawless skin and the batlike wings trailing behind her, Anovi could have mistaken her for a royal courtesan.

“A-as the one who brought you here, I command you!” Anovi continued, “share with my the eldritch secrets of the Abyss, that I might become the most most brilliant the world has ever seen!”

“Hmm.” The succubus looked Anovi over with a cocked eyebrow, and bit her lip coyly with a meaty fang, drawing forth a single droplet of blood. “I’d say you’re rather poor clay to be fashioned into the most brilliant lover the world, but it’s your summoning circle. We’ll start with Demogorgon’s Double-Kangaroo Scissors and then teach you the Backdoor Mailman–an musty standby in Dís, you see, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways.”

“W-what?” Anovi stammered. “I didn’t mean-”

“Of course you did,” the succubus said with a wicked smile. “You wouldn’t have summoned me otherwise. Now, if you’re still alive and in one piece after the Backdoor Mailman, we’ll try the Frothy Walrus of Doom, and of course the the Cheerleader And The Angry Nighwatchman. I’d advise removing anything flammable before that one…”

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“Seems a bit dead tonight.”

The Demon’s Hole bartender, a cyclopean demon who went by Ayers, looked across the polished bloodwood at Nuby. “That’ll be the zombies,” he said, gesturing to a party of four decidedly rotten patrons taking up a booth on the far side. “I know the stench can be a bit much, but you know my policy. Everyone’s welcome.”

“So long as they have money,” said Nuby with a light smile. “And as long as they don’t do more damage in a brawl than their tab allows.”

“Hey, it’s a business, not a charity,” said Ayers.

“So tell me about this succubus you’ve seen coming in here lately,” Nuby said. “The one you said needed someone of my talents and proclivities.”

Ayers nodded at the door. “Here she is now.”

The succubus turned and saw a boisterous demon sweep in, his huge gut jiggling behind his well-tailored suit. A pair of tiny bat-wings twitched in tailored holes on his back, while his hooves clapped loudly on the Demon Hole’s abysstone floor. Behind him, at a pace’s distance, followed a succubus. She was dressed in comparative rags, walked hunched-over, and wore a silver cord around her neck that was linked to the shining brass buttons on the demon’s waistcoat.

“Oh, Ayers,” Nuby said. “You were right. That poor thing is not equal to the dignity of her station or our proud sisterhood. I will have to take this on as an emergency fixer-upper at once.”

“That’s Siseneg and Hori,” said Ayers. “Have a look.”

Nuby sipped her Abyssal Snoworm Tequila Slammer demurely as she watched from her barstool. Siseneg took over a booth, filling an entire side of the thing, and immediately ordered one of everything on the drinks menu. By the time he’d finished it, the demon had engaged in three fights, killed one of the zombies–inasmuch as they were able to die–and loudly argued politics until knives were drawn.

It was boorish, but frankly, Nuby didn’t particularly care. What interested her, though, was his treatment of Hori.

Siseneg seemed to enjoy parading her around, when he wasn’t fighting or arguing, simultaneously pointing out Hori’s great beauty while nevertheless lingering–and laughing–about every flaw he could see or imagine. When she attempted to squeak out anything, he would silence her with a bellow and a jerk of the silver cord. And two out of the three fights were caused by Siseng deeming Hori to be looking too closely at distant patrons.

“Ayers,” Nuby said softly. “Slip a little Acheron bladderweed into the next round, would you?” She slid a coin across the bar.

Biting the money approvingly, Ayers shrugged. “You want to make him angry? There are better ways to do that.”

“No, just piss him off.”

After the next drinks were imbibed, Siseneg indeed tottered off, making an off-color comment about needing to “flood the Styx.” He left Hori tied to his booth like a dog waiting for her master to return, and as soon as the privy door had slammed–with enough force to bring down some plaster–Nuby was up and walking over.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” she said, locking eyes with Hori. The latter immediately looked away, shyly–missing the sight of her fellow succubus quickly and effortlessly sawing through the silver cord with one sharp nail.

“Siseng doesn’t usually bring me,” Hori said quietly. “I only get to come when he’s seen folks around our place that he ‘doesn’t trust around me.'”

“Come, I’ll introduce you around.” Nuby gestured to the other side of the bar, where three hulking demons sat, alert, and constantly nursing a never-ending supply of canned beverages supplied by the bartender. “Those are Redbullius, Monstera, and Rockstarian; they competed for the souls of sleep-deprived mortals are but three of the demons in servitude to a greater power, a being that trades souls for sleep, hushed trades made in the carbonated darkness.”

“Are you making that up?” said Hori. She either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t care, that Nuby had led her away from her table and her silver cord.

“I’ll never tell,” hissed Nuby with a wink. “What I will tell you about, my dear, is how marvelous we sisters are. How long has it been since you tasted a little seduction, slipped a wee knife between welcoming ribs, or manipulated a spider’s own web to strangle him?

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They found Vince at his shop, red and breathing heavily. He’d just finished laying out a fresh grave, surrounded with rocks. He’d laboriously chiseled Becky’s name, and the name of their child, onto the rock along with her dates. He’d reverently laid out some of her possessions on the rock and across the fresh-turned earth.

“She didn’t make it, then,” Caleb said. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Vince wheezed. “She wasn’t.” He drove his rusty shovel point-first into the rocky ground and let it hang there. “Sorry you missed the service. Celia said some lovely words. But it’s good to see you up and about. We all told Tobe he was crazy trying to get you patched up, but here we are.”

“I wish I could have done more for Becky,” said Tobe. “You know that the old pills don’t do much anymore.”

“No, they don’t,” said Vince, bitterly. “You know what else doesn’t do much anymore? Standing up to the harvesters, getting shot up, and taking all the tender ministrations our only doctor has to offer while other people are dying.”

Caleb shucked in a sharp breath. “If I could have stayed there on the ground and bled out, I would have, if it meant Becky was still alive.”

“Easy enough to say, now that there’s no chance it’ll happen,” Vince said. “What do you need, hmm? Can’t even help me with the grave now. I suppose you could trade for something, keep me in business for a few more weeks until a miracle happens and we see another caravan?”

“We’re going,” said Caleb. “Following the harvesters. We want you to come with us. You, and Celia, and anyone else we can round up.”

“Oh, well that changes everything,” spat Vince. “Let me just abandon my home, my wife’s grave, and everything I’ve spent half a lifetime building out here just to go chasing phantoms with you.”

“Vince,” Tobe said. “I don’t want to leave either. But we’ll die if we stay.”

“And we’ll die if we go, too. Only there’ll be nothing out there to say we were even here at all.”

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“My folks, we made a mess of this whole thing,” said Tobe. “But I have an idea. Just a glimmer of one, but an idea all the same.”

“A glimmer of an idea is more than most folks have, anymore,” said Caleb.

“Town’s about dead, Caleb. You can see what a state I’m in. Vince has got a cancer that’ll kill him inside of six months, Becky delivered another stillborn while you were out and is probably about to cash out as well. Haven’t heard from any of the outer farms in nearly a year. Writing’s on the wall: this time next year, there’ll be no one left.”

“No one but me,” said Caleb tapping gingerly at his augmented torso.

“You’ll last a bit longer, yeah, but you also didn’t see all the little cancers I took out while I was in there,” said Tobe. “This thing we’re trying here, that the other folks were trying back when the caravans were still coming through? Dying embers, my friend. And I’m in no fit state to fan the flames.”

Caleb looked at the old man, at his piles of junk, and at the various harvester drones scattered about the workshop. “You mean to follow those damn things, don’t you?” he said.

“Look, they are the only things I’ve seen that’re acting with vision and purpose. Someone’s behind them. And I think whatever it is may be just the fan these old embers need.”

“What if you’re wrong?” asked Caleb. “They might just be fixing to put us both down for good.”

“We’re both on death row, Caleb,” Tobe said with a grim smile. “All I’m asking is that you help me plan an escape. Might be worthless, sure, but at least we’ll be trying.”

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