Without – Excerpt 7
March 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
Jospeh Rafiela was at that moment making bagels.
For the most part, working in the bagel shop was for him a perfect job. For one thing, he worked in the off-peak hours, between six and eight pm, and most of his job took place after the shop closed. He spent most of his time making bagels, cleaning up the place, counting receipts. Then he would come back in the morning, open the place up, and while the rotating girls (the D’Annunzia family seemed to have a fetish for hiring young college girls to work the registers, and so a parade of young flesh in tight yeans that rode low on the hips had come in and out of Joe’s life, which was unfortunately wasted on him, being the wrong kind of flesh) worked the front, took the orders, he would sit in the back and make bagel sandwiches, refresh the coffee, and otherwise avoid having to talk to anyone. Then from noon to two the place became a lazy little café, the girls would go to classes and he’d enjoy the quiet. Sit on the stool reading a book, stay on top of the coffee, and then go to classes himself.
Not a hard job. A touch boring, but Joe liked the quiet.
He knew he was an unusual person in many ways. He had no real interest in socializing with his fellow students, although he had the potential to do so. He was of average height, thin, with a thick mass of wavy black hair and the kind of brown eyes that made him appear to be always in thought, deep brown and set deep in his face. It didn’t help that he often was thinking, absorbed with some distant idea he rarely bothered to share with the world. His sister called him mooncalf, and he accepted it from her as he accepted all things from her, gently affectionate as they were with each other. She was the doer, the active one. He liked to think about the odd things he could see, that he knew from experience no one else could.
He’d made the mistake of bringing it up around his grandmother once. She had not reacted well. He’d been unable to sit comfortably for quite some time after that, and the old woman had muttered various Italian words that were unfamiliar to him at the time. Since then he’d done some reading on the subject, but not much. He didn’t like to antagonize his tante if he didn’t need to, and in truth, he didn’t see much need. He saw things other people didn’t. He knew it, and that was enough.
As he changed the filter in the coffee machine, an example of that very facility became much more immediate and important than he’d expected. He heard the bell over the door ring, and scowled at it, because he knew from experience that what would likely come next would be ten minutes of explaining that the shop was, in fact, closed and possibly a few obscenities hurled his way.
Then he turned to speak and found himself unable to.
The men coming in the door were not men. Four of them… no, five… and at first sight they looked normal enough, but they weren’t men. Overlaid over each of them was a second form, a twisted, deformed self that looked like it had been stapled and stitched together. The closest one had a human enough jaw, but a snout like a pig’s had been somehow grafted over its nose and each eye seemed to have come from something else, one small and pink and twitching, the other large, black, swiveling about independently. Teeth that had no business sharing a jaw jutted out of its mouth.
The rest were much the same.
There was a greasy patina around them, unpleasant and grey, it made his stomach clench up to see it. It was wrong. He knew it was wrong just to see it, the way he would have known that it was a bad idea to stick his hand into battery acid. It looked to him like they were sweating quicksilver.
The fifth, a smallish woman who came in behind them, was even worse. On the surface, the level most would have seen her, she looked odd… a somewhat skinny woman somewhat older than her sixties, with long grey hair trailing down her back and skin fairly tight against her bones, making those wrinkles she had seem smaller. Her eyes, though, were swirling grey like hot lead cooling and hardening on rocks. Beneath that level, though, the light seemed to recoil from touching her, shattering into fragments of rainbow that seemed cold and wan. The very sight of her made him desperately want to find a way to walk through the back wall of the shop and away.
“I’ve been looking for you, boy. Do you know who I am?”
“No.” He swallowed so hard he felt his adam’s apple move against his throat. “The store’s closed.”
“Do I seem hungry to you, boy?” She smiled, and it made her angular face point like an axe-head. The four massive things she’d brought in with her moved to either side of the counter, looming, and he felt himself swallow again. Please don’t touch me, he thought while the room began to shift beneath his feet, if you touch me I’ll throw up and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop.
“You look like you’ve never been full.” He didn’t know why he said it… it had come into his mind to speak and he’d spoken, and regretted it instantly. Her smile widened, her impossibly large teeth gaping out at him.
“Very good, boy. Very well said. You can see me, can’t you?” She walked up to the counter, stared intently up at him. “I can see, too. But I think you see much better than I do, don’t you? It comes naturally to you. I had to walk a very long way, by distant shores, to come by my sight. I had to see things you might find unpleasant to linger upon. But you… you and yours see very very well.”
He sucked in a breath at the look on her face, the tight skin stretched back to let that wide grim loose at him. The things at either side of him had not moved, but he didn’t see any way past them. The occasional person would walk past the large windows looking out onto Hope Street, but they didn’t seem to see anything unusual in the old woman at the counter. Joe blinked, his eyes moving from side to side hoping to find a way to get past her.
“There was a time when the eye was common among my kind, boy. Then a young man stole it, used it, and gave it away. Later, a young beauty beguiled a god and gained it for herself, but refused his love, and he punished her. No one would believe her when she saw all too clearly what was to come. Her blood holds the eye… your blood. I’ve been looking for it for a very long time now.” Her smile fell away and she frowned just a little, her forehead crinkling up, the seething grey of her eyes almost violent as she tapped a finger along her jaw. “You were so hard to find. Something made you hard to see. But I have you now… I’m afraid I’ll need to be very cruel to you, young man. What is your name?”
“Joseph.” He croaked out the word.
“My name doesn’t count for much anymore, but it was Robia Dasallia when I was your age. That was a very long time ago.” She turned her head to the nearest patchwork creature to his left. “Take him.”
The bell rang over the door.
All eyes turned to the man walking in the room. Joe had seen him around the town from time to time… a large man with green hair who wore a ragged biker jacket and haunted the local bookstores stood out in a small town in Rhode Island, even a college town like Bristol. Still, because it was a college town, no one paid much attention to eccentrics either. It was where they were supposed to end up.
Joe opened his mouth to say something. But he didn’t say it. Instead, he found himself staring intently at the edges of the man. They were lit up. There was light leaking out of him, a light unlike the unwholesome sheen the Dasallia woman and her not-men exuded.
For her part, Dasallia gaped at the newcomer. His face was so familiar it dragged itself across her memory, the face of a man in green pouring over old folders in shock, save that his eyes were a green color that seemed to shine out over his face. He wasn’t the man she remembered, but he was his image.
And he was the marked of Chokmah, the prince of motion. She could see it in his bearing, the way he swaggered into the room, the hard stare he gave her. He was the one the cards had mentioned, the one who’d obscured her vision and destroyed her servants. Here he stood, despite her attempt to remove him from her path.
“Hhhh.” Nameless exhaled. “I think I’ve got something to discuss with you, ma’am.”
“Kill him first. Then bring Joseph to me.” She pointed, and the four patchwork men turned to face him, while she stepped back. Stepped back, and continued to step back even when she should have struck the counter, but instead folded up inside herself. Joe watched as she seemed to collapse down a tunnel that smelled wet and looked like a cubist painting, as if she became a moment from the Guernica and then was gone.
The man with green hair smiled and held a large, flat club out in his right hand, almost smirking at the four not-men. The one closest to him shoved a table out of its way and snarled, extending its arms to try and crush him to it.
Joe didn’t quite seem him move. He saw him disappear from where he was standing, saw a flicker where he suddenly appeared next to the bellowing thing, and saw him smash the club he was holding full into its face so hard that bone crunched inward. The forward momentum of its leap halted, it spun in the air and crashed on its back on the floor, and the club descended into its chest and caved in bone with an impact so loud it made the previous strike sound like an old man breaking celery apart for a salad.
Even as the man turned, two of the black-suited things were on him. One took the end of the club in the abdomen, but the other struck a vicious blow to his face, snapping his head back. It then wrapped its hands around his exposed neck, obviously trying to snap his neck or crush his windpipe. It lifted him up by his throat and slammed him bodily against the wall, holding him a foot off of the floor and snarling as it did. Joe looked fearfully up at the one standing near him, keeping him from running away and hoping it didn’t decide to do likewise.
Nameless snarled as his vision cleared from the red haze of his head smashing into the wall. He wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a hole where he’d hit. Still clutching the cricket bat in his right hand, he brought it up between the arms of the thing strangling him and turned it hard like a lever, giving him enough leverage to drop down to the floor in a crouch. Before it could try and grab him again, he pushed out of the crouch and into a waist tackle that took the two of them across the room and through two tables before crashing them into the far wall, which shook from the impact. Knowing he couldn’t count on stunning the damn things, he pulled back and swept his leg in a kick just as the third one came into reach, knocking it aside and towards the counter.
The one that was guarding the kid at the counter finally stepped away as Nameless rolled across the floor and swept up the bat. He threw it directly into the pig-snout of the thing, crushing bone and flesh and forcing the improvised missile out the back of its skull. It crashed to the floor, its eyes the only part of its face still visible.
The one he kicked began to get to its feet, and he dropped low and swept them out from under it, ducking under a charge from the one he’d tackled in the process. They were a lot stronger and faster than he’d expected… definitely not her previous shit and semen creations. Still, they seemed to be flesh and bone, if not blood, and the power that had led him there hadn’t deserted him yet. Rolling away again, he pulled the cricket bat out of the face it was driven through and spun it in an arc to gain speed before bringing it down hard on the spine of the one that was trying to get to its feet before him.
It collapsed, folded backwards as its back caved in, and Nameless blocked the last one with the bat as it tried to bring both hands down on top of his head. He stepped in and used the bat to clothesline it, driving it hard against the throat and knocking it on its back.
He then swung overhead, bringing all of his weight and strength down on top of its head, smashing it open and spilling very little onto the floor. Panting, he stood and stared at the empty remains of its caved-in skull. Another look at the one the bat had caught in the face confirmed it: they had no brains, in addition to no blood.
“Fuhhh… “ He rasped a swear that trailed off in his mouth. What in the hell is she? What does she want?
“I… thanks. Thank you.” Joe’s voice brought him out of his disgusted haze. He looked over at the kid as he felt his throat suddenly start burning and realized he’d lost hold of the shem ha memporash, was just a man again. “I think they were going to kill me if you didn’t show up when you did.”
“Probably.” He looked around the room again. Now that the woman was gone and they’d been beaten down, the corpses were starting to reek. “I think these things are going to rot away to nothing right here on your floor if we don’t get rid of them. So we should do that.” He looked up at the younger man, at the look of disgust on his face. “And while we do that, you can tell me who you are and what you know about her, especially what she wanted with you.”
“Never saw her before, huh?” Nameless grunted as he heaved the last trash bag into the dumpster, feeling its contents shift in the green plastic. Hopefully no one will dig through this before tomorrow. After that, it shouldn’t matter anymore.
“No, I’d have remembered her.” Joe held open the door into the shop for the large man, who’d done most of the work of bagging up the deliquescent corpses once the first one Joe had tried to help move sagged apart as the flesh around its stitches shredded and turned into that horrible yellow ooze, reeking of salt and rot. He could still taste his own vomit after having raced to the sink and thrown up. “She was horrible.”
“I’ll admit I don’t generally approve of guests who play Raggety Anne with dead people, and possibly dead things aside from people.” Nameless stared at the drying wet spots where Joe had furiously mopped with bleach. “You’re a neat freak?”
“Ordinarily, no. I may start.”
“And she didn’t know your name?”
“No. She asked me what it was. She said she was looking for me, and then she went on about my having the eye and her needing it, and something about being very cruel to me.” He closed his eyes and leaned against the counter, head down. “Based on her company, I wasn’t terribly interested in finding out what she meant.”
“The eye. And you said you could see those things for what they were?”
“Yeah. I could see them, and her. And you, even. When you came in you were glowing. You’re not now, though.” Joe opened his eyes and looked carefully around. “Everything seems normal.”
“And this is something you’ve always been able to do?”
“Pretty much.” Joe straightened up, placing his hands in his pockets for lack of anything else to do with them. “Look, like I said, I’m grateful you helped me out, but I’ve been answering a lot of questions here and you’ve been asking them. At some point that’s got to even out. I’d think you could start telling me what you know.”
“Yeah, I could.” He looked Joe over. “You want to ask me a question, go ahead.”
“Who are you?”
“Yeah, figures.” He smiled ruefully, lifted the cricket bat up and slung it over his shoulders. “Depends on what you mean by that question.”
“Well, you could start with the easy stuff. I told you my name, you could return the favor.”
“Nope.” He had both arms up over the bat now, so that his forearms rested on it. “I honestly can’t tell you my name, because I don’t have one.”
“What, you have amnesia? Like in one of those made for TV movies?” Joe’s thick black eyebrow slid upwards, arching over his eye.
“No, not at all. I remember my life perfectly. I remember where I grew up, but if you went to that house and got the address and looked up the records, the names have vanished for that period. If you went to my elementary school and asked all my teachers, they’d all be totally perplexed when you showed them my class picture and asked who that was. My academic records up at the college you probably go to are blank, and my faculty advisor would recognize me on the street and be unable to tell you who I was. Everyone in my immediate family is dead. The more likely someone is to remember my name the less able they are to do it.”
“Really.” Joe blinked, then took his apron off and placed it on the counter. “That sounds messed up. How’d that happen?”
“You’re okay with what I just said?”
“Well, I just got done telling you I can see weird things, you just killed four whatevers in front of me, and a little old lady folded up like origami and vanished. If you’re telling me that you don’t have a name, it seems kind of stupid for me to stick on that point as unbelievable.”
“Point. I’m not going to tell you how it happened. Maybe later, if it ever seems to be important that you know it. It’s enough that it did.” He stalked over to the space in front of the counter where the woman had crumpled, for lack of a better word. “What do you see when you look here?”
“Nothing… “ Joe closed his eyes and rubbed his face with his hand, sweating. “Well, not nothing, just… “ He stopped talking.
“There’s nothing there. But it looks like when you stare into a mirror that’s reflecting another mirror, and you get that tunnel effect, smaller and smaller mirrors until eventually they curve away out of sight.”
The big man didn’t respond at first. He looked from Joe to the floor and then back to Joe. The room looked slightly yellow in the dim light from the overhead bulb, the rest of the room dark. Several flyers had fallen off of the walls where the fight had smashed into them, and there was a small crack climbing up to the ceiling that Joe didn’t think had been there before. He didn’t think it would be as noticeable during the day.
“Do you have any board games here?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Crap. None of them? Risk? Monopoly? Trivial Pursuit, even?”
“Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m really not in the mood to find out just how much you know about useless crap or see if I can take over South America before you do.”
“A deck of cards, even. I need something random that provides more options that a coin toss, or I’d flip some pennies around.”
“Oh.” Joe’s brown eyes hooded as he considered it. “Uhm, yeah, I have something you can probably use, then.”
“Yeah? Then get it, already.”
“… Sure.” He walked back behind the counter, dug through his brown JanSport backpack and pulled out a tin container with a Union Jack painted on it. It rattled as he put it down on the counter. The big man cocked his head to the side and regarded it, his face shadowed with the overhead light behind him. “Look, I’m not proud of it, okay?”
“Not proud of what?”
“This.” He opened the tin and dumped a number of plastic objects out. A hundred dice in pink, orange, green, yellow, blue, red, each shaped in one of the pythagorean solids. There were dice with twenty sides, twelve sides, ten sides, eight, six, and even four, little pyramids that had three numbers written on each side.
Nameless looked at them with a blank expression for a moment.
“What, are you a gambler or something?”
“No. I, ah, I play a lot of role playing games.”
“What, like you’re the lusty sheepherder and your girlfriend is the householder whose husband is away in town?”
“No!” Joe blushed, his face going dark as though it instantly tanned. “I mean like, you know, D&D!”
“Oh, that shit the crazy tract guy hates. Yeah, I know what that is. I once mistook a group of pale kids playing rock-paper-scissors for something a lot more threatening. That was embarrassing.” He looked again at the dice, some of which were solid colors, others marbled, still others semi-clear with colors swirling around inside them. He picked up one with twenty sides, an amber die that sparkled in the amber light. “Reminds me of the Romans. Okay, you should come stand over here.”
“We’re going to test something. You watch the tunnel you see and tell me what happens when I roll this.” Rolling his shoulders under the jacket, he squatted and rolled the amber die directly at the counter. It bounced off and rolled to a stop, with the number 20 coming up.
To Joe, it was as though the mirror tunnel widened and quivered, and filaments of thin, silvery something shot out all through the room, a web of flaring quicksilver that penetrated everything around him. He looked down and saw filaments passing through his chest, his hands… he moved, and the filaments stayed where they were, and he passed through others.
“Yeah, but I have no idea how to tell you about it. It kind of looks like we’re standing in a web that tangles up right where she vanished. It’s fading out a bit while I’m telling you about it.”
“Okay.” He went to the counter and picked up another die like the first, this one a speckled purple die with ten sides. “Let’s see what happens this time.”
He rolled them both, this time just skittering them across the floor, and as they did, the filaments flared back into Joe’s sight, even brighter this time. The tunnel/tangle seemed to shrink as they did so.
The dice came up 20 and 10.
“What’s going on?” Joe’s voice quivered, almost was swallowed up by the room.
“What she did was like a bullet tunneling through flesh. What you’re seeing is probability trying to fix it. It’s imposing improbable results on the dice in its wake, ordered improbability instead of chaos.” He gathered up the dice and picked another one, one with twelve sides and an electric blue sheen, and tossed all three to the floor.
20, 12 and 10.
“I bet you couldn’t roll anything but the highest possible result if you rolled any die at all. Check the pile where you scattered them.”
Joe looked, and saw it. Each die he’d dumped out of the tin had landed highest side up. Even the four sided dice had all come up 4’s, even though half of them used the number at the peak of the pyramid is the roll system and the other half used the number at the base of the pyramid system.
“What does it mean?”
“Well, for us, what it means is you and I are going to take a walk and hope she didn’t go very far. Do you still see that web you described around us?”
“Yeah. It’s brighter now, but I still have to strain to see it.”
“Okay, then let’s go. We’re going to see if we can find her egress point.”
“No, I’m sure.” A half-smoked cigarette butt flared up for a moment, illuminating in red a thin, angular face. “She went in to a bagel shop. Yes, the one on Hope Street… no, I don’t think she took four of those stitched together monstrosities with her to pick up a turkey and cheese on an asiago bagel.”
The extremely thin body had a serpentine cast to it, with narrow hips leading up to a flat, almost concave stomach and ribs that poked through it visible through the tight tank top that served more to accentuate that conceal. A long black leather overcoat hung from thin shoulders, exposing a jutting collarbone and a chin sharp enough that it looked like it could cut. The face, with sunken yellow eyes and long white hair streaked green and yellow in stripes, seemed wholly made to slash a smirk across thin lips, as it was doing now.
“Jake, would you relax? I’m telling you, she’s looking for it and I think she found… hold on, something going on.” Stepping back behind the pole, trying for the world to look like he was waiting for a bus, the androgynous stick-figure of a person held the phone in a study of causal abstraction. “Two of them coming out. One’s big. Almost as big as Byron is. The other doesn’t look like much. No, no sign of her. The little one’s maybe five foot seven, black hair, not bad looking, olive skin. They’re locking up the place now. Should I follow them?”
A flare of red light again, making those yellow eyes look like autumn leaves withering off of the trees.
“Okay, then, I’ll head back to the room.” A slender, long-fingered hand snapped the phone shut and looked back across the street at the retreating backs of the two men, watching the little one look around himself like someone sightseeing. For a moment, considering following them anyway, but Jake wouldn’t take it well and after St. Louis it wasn’t a good idea to upset things. At least not yet.
A pivot, swirling the long coat around in a motion of practiced spontaneity, and then stalking away towards St. Michael’s for a bit of fun desecrating things before heading back.
Heading in the opposite direction, Joe squinted his eyes to keep the filaments in sight. They were easier to see outside in the moonlight than they had been inside the store, but that didn’t make them easy to see. The stars threatened to break his line of sight and the lines tangled around other lines he’d never noticed before, strange sparkling slashes of multi-hued light that hurt his eyes. It was the first time he’d ever tried to focus on one specific thing out of all the things that creep in and out of sight, and it was making him blink and peer a lot more than he usually did.
“I never saw all this stuff before.”
“Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of… stuff… to see. Try and focus on the trail she left.”
“I am trying.” Joe watched it arch across the street, over the block. “We’re going to have to go around the Post Office to keep following this.”
“Heading for the water. Makes sense.” The big man swiveled his head. “We’re clear.” They crossed the street quickly and Joe strained, trying to pick the fading line out of the night.
“You know, there’s a voice in the back of my head that’s telling me I should be going back home now.”
“Ask that voice if it wants to be alone in your apartment when she shows up again with more of those things. Which way?”
“You make a good argument. This way.” They took the narrow path between the Post Office and the library, heading down into a parking lot. All the while Joe kept his eyes locked on that wire trailing through the air, hoping not to lose his footing on the cement stairs. They ended up walking out onto Thames Street, near where it crossed Church Street and headed into the docks. The smell of the tide and the harsh calls of seagulls, even after dark, made for a strange juxtaposition with the mercurial cord that lead down the street, ending up in the old Alhambra carpet factory.
“This is where it ends.” Joe stopped about a block up, near the Prudence Island ferry lot, next to the swing set and slides that had been placed in a small patch of green off the pier in an attempt to make it look friendlier. “It goes right into there.”
The nameless man didn’t say anything. He stopped next to the sandbox, looked at the deserted building, his eyes tracing to where it extended out onto a pier over the water itself. He turned and walked down the parking lot to the ferry loading ramp, looked around at the water there, even peered out into the steadily darker night and the bay itself, then walked back up, his boots clicking slightly as he walked from the metal pads on the front.
“The damn place extends right out onto a pier.”
“I’d be surprised if any of the local quahoggers dock their boats here anymore, because by now they’d have noticed that they catch nothing if they do. Remember the dice? All luck descends to her… she’s stealing the chaos from the water, twisting it.” He slid a hand into his pocket for a moment, thinking. “Okay. I’m going to go in there. If you want, you can go home now and try and forget you ever saw any of this. Either I’ll come out, in which case you’ll be fine, or I won’t, and you won’t be.”
Joe considered this. He still didn’t know what was going on. He still felt the nausea, tasted the mouthful of his own bile he’d choked back at the idea of that old woman touching him, or those patchwork things. He very much wanted to go home, and the idea of forgetting appealed to him.
He closed his eyes and saw that explosion of silver again when the dice had rolled, the gleaming bands that had extended through everything, even himself. He’d never seen anything like it before. The old woman had wanted something from him, and he didn’t even know exactly how it worked or how he’d come by it. He never had.
It came down to the idea of never knowing.
“Uhm. I don’t know much about fighting.”
“No shit.” The big man looked him up and down, his green hair half-hiding his face, his reddish beard bushy and tangled, hanging down his face. “Joe, no offense, but if this comes down to you having to kick ass we’re both fucked. But you’re obviously caught up in all this, and you can see things I can’t, so if you want to come in I won’t try and stop you. Your call.”
“I’m making it. I want to know why she came after me.”
“Okay. That I can get behind.” Those green eyes behind hair the same color flashed for a moment in reflected moonlight. Then he walked over to the sandbox. “You may want to watch me do this… I have no idea what it will look like to you, but I’m sure it will be interesting.”
He grimaced and then bit into his own cheek. It looked painful from Joe’s position. Then he cleared his throat noisily and spit a mass of phlegm, spit and blood into the sand. He did so again, and again, creating a small patch of muddy sand, and then made an even more unpleasant gagging sound and coughed a small amount of what looked like bile onto the wet patch. Joe watched, not entirely sure what he was seeing, as the stranger stopped spitting and settled back on his legs, his eyes closed. Then he reached forward and, using the sand wet with his own fluids, drew a triangle, point facing away from him.
“Ohooohatan, lord of fire, king of choler, I give unto you myself, and draw you into myself, your power, your anger, you who are gold and iron, greatest of the salamanders.” As he spoke, Joe could see a ruddy light shine from his skin, and the symbol he drew, with flickering shocks of fire. Again the finger moved, drawing a new symbol, another triangle like the first but with a bar across it a third of the way up.
“Tahoeloj, lady of air, phlegmatic one, taste of my being as I gather you in my lungs, your pattern, your inspiration, your mind, you who change like quicksilver, most noble of the sylphs.” A bright blue light begin to play along the symbol, and tendrils of that same azure radiance wrapped around and across the stranger, almost dueling with the ruddy golden color of the previous symbol. Then a new triangle, inverted in relation to the others, was sketched out into the sand.
“Thaebyobiaatan, master of water, you who swim in blood, I suffer for your sake that I might be the river in which you flow, your intuition, your emotion, you who stand in silver, mother to undines.” Silver tendrils now moved like time-lapse kudzu, writhing and sliding around the man kneeling in the sand and forming a lattice with the others. Another triangle, the exact inversion of the one that had been rendered for air, finished the diamond arrangement in the sandbox.
“Thahaagtahe, king of Earth, maker of the clay of my flesh and the rock of creation, I am the matter of which you carve and I ask that you shape me anew, your form, your endurance, as dense as the lead you dance in, ultimate gnome.” The final cord, this one somehow combining aspects of all three previous colors, shot forth and was embraced by the helix surrounding the stranger, who knelt for a full minute with his head bowed and the snakes of color sliding along his body.
Then he stood, his hair moving in a private wind, his eyes lit from inside, each breath rumbling like waves crashing against rocks. He swiveled his head and looked at Joe, who took a step back from the inhuman dispassion of the gaze.
“Never better. This is the best part.” He walked past and made his way up to the metal shutter slid down over the double doors that hadn’t seen use in years. The cricket bat hung low in a right hand that to Joe’s eyes kept swirling between shocks of color, those tendrils of red and blue and silver and that prismatic all-in-one light. The pulses of color rode up the bat itself, until it too glowed in Joe’s sight.
Then the nameless man swung it, crashing it into the metal shutter, which caved in, groaning and squealing as the impact tore the sliding track along the cement wall out bolt by bolt. They snapped and popped as the shutter shattered the old glass of the door behind it, and the whole mess of tangled metal and crushed glass fell into the building. Nameless smirked for a moment, then reached down and casually tossed the whole mess into the far left corner, then stepped inside.
Outside, the Alhambra was built to look like a Moorish palace, with ornate (for a carpet factory, anyway) square towers jutting up, their tops crenellated. Inside, it was just a huge brick room littered with disassembled machines and fragments of flesh. To Joe’s eyes the walls, the floor, and everything in the room shimmered with that awful grey, a darkness that greedily drank light. It stank of the bay at high tide, when the water would actually come up under the building and lap at the piers it was built on. They moved past the scraps of wood that at one time were a reception area and a wall keeping the average person from just blundering into the main floor of the factory.
“This is wrong.” Joe turned his attention back to the radiance crawling around his companion, watching it dance and twist along his skin. “Everything in here is… something’s wrong. Everything’s wrong.”
“Probably. Stay back here.” Bringing the bat up in front of his chest, he walked forward into the dark that dominated the long cement and brick room. Even with his eyes throwing forth their own illumination it was hard to see. The floor was strewn with parts, some animal, some mechanical… he barely avoided squashing half a pigeon under his feet or slipping in a pool of grease, and he heard himself kick a bolt or some other small bit of metal across the floor.
It reminded him of going down the basement stairs as a child to turn on the water heater. He’d hated that so much he’d once deliberately given himself a nosebleed to get out of it, by squeezing down on his bowels while clamping himself shut, feeling the blood rush to his face… a trick he’d learned as a child from other children, a school bus game turned to his purpose. The memory of it now made him smile, his teeth hard against his lips. A smile that wasn’t much more than a grimace.
When he reached the half-way point, he could sense that he’d stepped out onto the pier now, could feel the water take over for earth beneath him. It was at that threshold that he first saw her, kneeling on the floor, her strange face vacant.
“You came. I expected you would, but I thought I would have more time. Still, I had enough.” In her hand was a large knife, a kitchen knife by the looks of it with a serrated edge. It was slick with what looked like mercury. A pool of it was spreading along the floor, and she’d drawn what appeared to be a scorpion in the silver-grey liquid, which quivered but kept the shape.
He narrowed his eyes. Her tattered dress was also stained, and from just beneath her breastbone. A slit hung ragged there, and a darkness within the rip. He frowned. So deep a cut, her guts should have spilled out along the floor.
“I’ve perplexed you?” Her withered face, now so pale as to look like bone, cracked into a grin. “Oh, that is a gift, to have puzzled you as you puzzled me. So hard to find, slipping through my grasp. Until I saw you I had no idea how that could be… I would not have thought him to be so soft as to bed a woman. I made my mistake, but were I a man I would not have had to.”
He stepped forward then, but stopped, puzzled. There’s a trick here somewhere. She’s talking with a hole the size of a small turkey ripped in her stomach and a big smear looking like a bug on the floor in front of her. He considered calling Joe up, having him take a look at her, but hesitated at the idea.
“Still nothing to say to me? I have tried to kill you three times now, I would think you have questions?”
“Why are you talking so much?” He looked around him, his forehead cut in lines from his raised eyebrows. “Do whatever you’re going to do so that I can get this over with.”
She shook her head from side to side, clucking her tongue.
“I wanted to talk to you because I wanted to understand why you were the one to interfere. To know what he chose, and why… I see him in you, but for those eyes. Those you have from someone else. I am going to kill you, but I bear you no hate, stranger. That’s all.” He noticed that she was holding a long thin card in her left hand, flickering between her fingers.
“You planning on doing a reading?”
“For you? That would be a waste of my time. You come up the same every time. Unreadable prince of motion, chosen of Chokmah. You are unknown even to yourself. No, this card is for me.” She held it up so that he could see it, the inverted grim reaper seeming to frown at him from the bottom of the card. “I decided I needed a change.”
The sound of a tidal wave in his ears, a sudden crashing of rocks, leaping flames, howling winds, and he cursed himself for not simply leaping across the room and bashing her head in as she dropped the card into the slick pool in the shape of the scorpion.
Joe, from back near the doors, saw it clearly. Suddenly green fire, a green that twitched into and out of the grey, seethed along everything strewn along the floor, every gobbet of shredded flesh, every discarded feather, every scrap of metal, every bolt and rusted sheet and shiny drum from a discarded mechanical loom. The pooled scorpion on the floor exploded into tendrils of glowing fluid, each tendril lashing out and grabbing hold, then collapsing back like a tongue striking an insect.
Even as Nameless leapt forward, the congealing mass of metal and flesh reached out an arm composed of a tube of metal almost as big as a man and crashed it into his chest, crushing the wooden bat and knocking him away and into the wall to its right. He impacted a good ten feet up and stuck there, his back having crushed brick and pushed out concrete. Red dust rained down from where he stopped.
Joe saw the mass push itself up on legs that formed out of scraps of metal and bits of dead flesh, with that silvery ooze that had come out of her chest sliding around and inside of it, while her body itself jerked and spasms caused her eyes to sink back into her skull. He realized that she was breaking down, like her patchwork things had, and pouring out of the hole she’d ripped in her stomach to flow into the aggregate of machine scraps and organs she’d prepared. It reached almost half way to the ceiling, making it at least twenty feet tall, a shifting latticework in a vaguely human shape.
It opened and closed a massive fist while the last of the silver fluid poured out of the withered husk of the woman and into it. The other arm was mostly a club, tipped with that great stainless steel metal drum a good six feet from end to end. It had a large mound where a head would be, and several broken safety lights gave out a sickly green light descending down its chest in two rows. Joe could see the same filaments as before flickering in and out of view, now severed all around it, flailing as if attempting to restore their usual connections.
It was as though someone had ripped a tapestry apart, a tapestry that could try and restore itself.
The amalgamate thing strode over to the wall where Nameless had stuck even as he pulled himself out of it, dropping to the floor. The fall didn’t seem to bother him, although he looked up at the creaking, screeching metal as it twisted and flexed and walked, seeing blobs of pulsating flesh embedded throughout it.
“Okay, I’ll admit, this is a new one on me.” He rolled to the side in time to avoid being under the thing’s foot as it crashed down where he’d been standing. The mechanical looms, the lighting elements, the factory trash and debris, it all shifted and moved like flesh. It vaguely reminded him of scales locking together, or the tiny bones inside the human hand.
He wanted to counterattack but barely managed to roll forward as it reached down to grab him in that three-fingered hand made out of jagged bits of rusty metal. Damn thing’s fast.
It moved to grab or crush him again… he wasn’t sure which… and this time he managed to slide under its arm and throw himself forward, bringing his fist forward in an arc and tearing through the metal of the thing’s leg just under the knee.
His arm was like an axe-head, charged with the power of Thahaagtahe, the lord of the primordial earth. The twitching fragments shredded from the blow and it twisted from the impact, unable to keep its bulk upright on one leg, and swayed before crashing to the floor. He allowed himself a grin as he turned to leap onto it again, hoping to crack it open at the chest.
Instead, he found himself under attack as the limb that he’d blasted apart flowed around him, a mass of swaying metal and rotten meat. Before he could react, it had configured itself into that same three-clawed hand that he’d avoided before, this time firmly clasped around him, squeezing hard enough prevent him from getting leverage, trapping his arms at his sides.
It took him a few seconds of struggling to realize that the thing hadn’t even bothered to get up from the floor… it had instead merely flowed and clattered and twitched itself back together again, and was now simply pulling itself into the shape of an erect form. Still squeezing, it held him up to look at the circle of glowing lights it now had in the center of its ‘head’, an oddly staggered spiral of twenty-five flickering lamps.
Joe watched the horrible grey fluid as it wormed itself way through and around the mass of parts. He saw it flow through the capillaries of a solitary eyeball, over a flexing mass of aluminum, between the wires of a lighting element. He’d never focused his attention on anything so much. How to stop it? You’d have to somehow root it out of the damn thing. But he had no idea how to…
Then he remembered.
She’s twisting the pure chaos of the water itself.
“No!” Joe’s voice rang out from the darkness. Nameless could just barely turn his head to the side to seem him come running up. “She’s got you over the water! Don’t let her put you in the water!”
His flickering green eyes widened in surprise.
The amalgamated mass slammed its metal hand, and Nameless in it, into the floor in response. Again it lifted him up and again slammed him back down while still squeezing, trying to keep him from thrashing about, until finally it cracked a hole in the floor itself and the sound of the harbor splashing about could be heard. It raised its hand to drive its struggling enemy down one last time.
A surge of water gushed up, and then smashed upwards, breaking through the concrete and severing the hand holding Nameless at what would be a wrist on a real arm. It tumbled to the floor and shattered again, and this time the salty water of the harbor washed over it, washing the fluid that had been coating and driving it away in rainbow arcs like waste oil in a puddle.
Coughing for a moment, Nameless pulled air into his lungs, more air than he needed, seeking to reconnect with it, to feel the air inside the room as if it were inside him.
“Thanks for the Bre’r Rabbit bit. Could you maybe have come up with an idea that didn’t involve me getting bashed into concrete repeatedly?”
“I was in a hurry.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Standing up, the large man extended his arms and felt the air around him, murmuring to it, while the stream of water pouring up into the room suddenly sank back to its natural level, visible through the hole of the floor, lapping at the pylons. The metal-flesh titan cemented by the concentration of silvery fluid shot through it pointed that spiral of lights at them both in a parody of a stare. “You should grab on to me.”
Joe did as he was told, wrapping his arms around the leather jacket (avoiding the spikes) just as the mass took a step that cleared twenty feet, closing a third of the gap between them. Then the wind roared. In through the open doors at the other side of the room, a blast of air that crushed Joe’s face into the leather screamed in the cavernous building and caught the amalgamate in mid-step, blasting pieces of it away in the high pressure stream of gritty air.
It changed shape, oozing itself into a legless trunk, fighting to move forward and crush them as the wind intensified. As it did, Joe found his head forced up against the nameless man’s back so hard that all he could do was look down… and down meant that he could see a strange mass of multi-chromatic lights wriggling through the floor like snakes. One looked up at him, almost appraising with a head bearing six eyes, and then the serpents continued wriggling forward. They were crawling up and down Nameless’ legs.
The crack in the floor began to widen and lengthen, shooting tendrils out along the floor, while the wind screamed and ripped a metal plate, a bird’s wing, rivets, a light away from the mass. It now wasn’t even trying to move forward, simply prevent itself from being pushed back, and Joe could feel the loud beating of the heart inside the body he was pressed up against. It got louder and faster as the wind grew, as the floor cracked and groaned and then a blast of blue light flooded the edges of the ceiling, highlighting the spiderweb of cracks that had shot themselves through the brick and metal holding the roof up.
The metal mass had condensed itself into a blob now and was moving forward like a snail, creating a foot out of its own mass to creep along on. It got closer, shaping itself for a minimum of resistance, with a prow of sorts to divert the jet of air along its sides. Nameless grinned broadly at this, amazed at just how adaptable it was, sweating as the effort of commanding three elements at once set his limbs to trembling.
Twenty feet away.
Cracks ringing the building, wind whipping his hair forward, a vibration as water crashed into the far wall, a blast of lightning out of the clear sky.
Ten feet away.
His lungs aching, vision blurring, feeling the weight of the body slammed up against his back by the wind and wondering if Joe could even catch a breath at this point. His right hand was still clutching the shattered chunk of bat despite the sweat in his palm.
Five feet away, the mass pulsated and shivered, trying to drive itself forward while chunks of the roof rained down on them and Nameless saw in his doubled vision what he’d been waiting for… an indistinct, wavering silver orb.
The blue-white face of the moon through a hole in the ceiling.
Exhaling, he let go of the wind, let the waves calm, let the earth cease holding him in place.
The mass convulsed and threw itself forward to engulf them both in its jagged, crushing bulk.
And a bolt of lightning stabbed down and struck the wood in Nameless’ hand, causing it to burst into flame, flame that engulfed the amalgamate and grew, driven hard by will and the anger of the salamander-lord into a whirlwind of shuddering heat, a red-orange conflagration that burned away the corrupting mass of congealed hate, the fluid of Necheshthiron that had rooted in Dasallia’s being and burst forth to bear her will. The amalgamate made a sound, a grinding keening that bounced off the walls and floor.
Joe fell, no longer pressed up against the leather by the wind, and rolled to cover his ears. The mass of scraps began shaking apart as the fire struck and wriggled and struck again, in the form of a long-tailed reptilian thing with long arms terminating in wicked yellow claws and a massive, heavy-jawed head. It struck and burned flesh, seared and heated metal to melting, constricted and incinerated that oily mass that did not belong.
Dropping to his knees, Nameless saw the floor through a tunnel. Forcing his eyes shut, he reached out to all the lords at once and moaned his final request in a long bellow of pain, entreating them wordlessly through sheer noise.
As the fire raged, a last burst of wind and water and a deep rumble in the earth shook the whole building. There was a final grinding of resistance, then the wood of the pier resisted no longer.
The half of the building containing what was left of Robia Dasallia tumbled into the harbor and was swallowed by the water.
Joe got to his feet and walked over to the edge, which had been about the middle of the building before. Now the shattered pier stuck out about five feet past the lip of concrete, which resided right on the edge of the shore itself. Water lapped it, and a faint slick of oily rainbows was dispersed more and more by each wave heading into the harbor… when the tide came in, the water itself would probably come right up to the broken floor. Only a few faint shimmers of that loathsome grey could be seen now, and they were fading fast. Around him, the floor was strangely clean, as every scrap that could have made its way into the grey woman’s creation had found itself devoured by the water.
Panting, Nameless was face down on the floor, his forehead touching the cold, almost like a man prostrate before someone. The serpents of rainbow light were gone, as were the tendrils of red and blue and silver that had wrapped themselves around him like vines. A smear of blood trickled onto the floor from his head.
“Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better. Give me a second.”
“I don’t know if we have that much time. The police and fire will… “
“Crap. Yeah. Hold on a second.” Groaning, he rolled over onto his back and mumbled to himself. “Apocryphon keleos.”
A flash of black, if black could be said to flash, and then they were wrapped in the stuff. Joe raised his hand and looked at the circles of what appeared to be shadows orbiting him, and looked down at the man on the floor in wonder.
“Minor spell. Nobody will see us because nobody will want to see us. We don’t register as important.” He panted a few more seconds, then held his hand up. “A little help?”
“Sure.” It took a lot of work for Joe to pull the bigger man to his feet. “Jesus, you weigh a lot more than I do.”
“What, you were thinking I’m several inches taller than you and wider than you, and therefore I’d be lighter?” Turning his head, he listened for a few moments. “Come on. Cops and I think Fire are on their way, we should be elsewhere.”