The truck smells of sweat and leftover food. We stink of despair, no doubt, as we clamber back in. Mother has not spoken and Father has stopped trying to coax her into speech. Susanna curls up in her spot on the back seat, her little pendant to Thosé Santoze held tight in her fist.
A question is stuck in my throat so hard that I can feel it like a physical lump. I want to cough it up and blurt it out so that we can all move on and stop feeling so desperate and wretched.
What do we do now?
No one else has asked it. My family look like the words are crammed into their mouths, but no one is able to release them.
Father locks his axe into its crate and stores his guns in the bin under his seat.
We sit in silence.
I … I want to … to know what to do. Mother and Father have protected us from beasts and monsters and they have always known what to do. Now … now Father looks out the window at the town and its strange people, looking but not really seeing, and Mother … Mother looks like an empty coffin. Purposeless.
Something knocks on the metal door.
“Looking to get out of town?”
Mother comes to life and Father reaches for his gun.
The knock comes again, thick fingers hitting the metal of my door.
Mother shakes her head and for a moment I move back, but only for a moment. I have a way to give us back our purpose. I have a way of answering the unasked question. I yank open the door and find myself looking down into the face of a man that only loosely can be described as one. His brow is high, ridged and tall like that of an ape, but his blue skin, like so much corroded copper, has the bumpy look of a toad. The suit he wears is ragged, twists of ribbon and cloth either stitching or tying pieces of it together. A small hat, like those I have only seen in the picture books of Albion history Grandfather collected, sits on top of his head. His eyes, too big to be human, are the brown of muddy pools.
“Well, well, well,” he says, his voice like the echo in an oil drum, “a genuine little boy.”
Father drops from the truck, hands made into hard fists. He pushes up close to the man, all but eclipsing him from my view. Mother rounds the front truck wheel, pistol levelled.
“What do you want?”
The man’s eyes bulge but he smiles and raises thin arms above his head.
“I represent a person whom can help you.”
“Oh yes. He is most interested to meet the famous Ortega’s.”
Mother and Father share a look. I see Father’s hand reach behind his back to the knife at his belt. The blue man does not see it. They mean to kill him.
No, no they can’t, they can’t just let this chance slip away from us. I snatch the blade from the sheath and toss it into the foot well of the truck. Father yells and spins to face me, his lips curled up in the beast snarl he wore in the mountains.
“Nino, don’t,” Mother says. Father stops, his hands inches from my own. He shudders and blinks, looking at me like a man emerging from a trance. He drops his hands to his sides and swallows.
The blue man coughs politely behind him.
“Will you meet my boss?”
“How do I know you aren’t lying?” Mother keeps her gun trained on him.
“Senoia, I am Ambrose Roabes, and my word is my bond.”
Roades takes us through a long tunnel that leads beneath the street. We walk down a set of stairs that seem without end, each one coated with a mixture of rust and slime.My legs ache by the time we reach the bottom; we come to a concrete corridor with walls that leak and dribble brown moisture. Father must stoop the entire way along it.
We endup in a room filled withmoist heat.
A large man sits a table, placing cards in front of him.
“Ah, Roabes, is this them?”
“It is sir.”
“Welcome, welcome, sit down, have a drink won’t you.” He stands and waves us to the seats, shaking both Father’s and Mother’s hands as he does so.
He sits again, offering us water from a glass jug.
“I remember those studs,” he said, his voice like that of an old friend, warm and rough. “Cerebral stimulators. I thought all the old guard like that were gone.” He smiles, but Father looks away. I remembered him shivering and whimpering on the rocky shelf at the top of the mountain, his body trembling from the violence done to it. Even now he hadn’t healed properly.
“What can we do for you, sir?” Mother asks. She perches on her chair, ready, perhaps, to rise.
“Call me Silvartar, senora.”
Silvartar? The brother of Hodin that tried to take the throne of heaven for himself? We call him the Chained God as his punishment was imprisonment in a cage of snakes. Why would anyone take his name? It is a curse.
For a moment I take the fancy that this man could be the real Silvartar, some revenant thing dragged from his cage and left to wander the world. Could that happen? So much has happened to me recently, why not?
“The name of a dead god?” Susanna asks.
“Better than Danny,” Silvartar smiles, showing big yellow teeth. He is made for smiling, this strange man, his lined skin burnt the colour old leaves and his eyes that twinkle in the dirty light. I know I should be afraid of him, but I am not. “No one is scared by a man named Danny, but if you take the name of a god, then people take you seriously.” He poured water for himself and drank.
“Now, let me look at the children,” he continues as if he were an old uncle meeting us after a span of years. “They really are a treasure. Your boy, he looks strong. Are you strong Hieme?”
“Yes, sir.” Only after I speak do I wonder how he knows my name.
“Good, a man must be strong in these parts. And you Susanna, my word, how the hombres will fall over themselves to dance with you.”
“What do you want with us?” Mother’s voice is clipped and sharp edged and I think I can hear the unexpected sound of panic there. Father moves his hand to her shoulder.
“I know about you. I know a lot about you. The Ortega’s. The Deserter General and her Clockwork Soldiers. I know everything here. But I don’t know why you’ve come to my town.”
Mother and Father exchange a look.
“Our farm was destroyed,” Father said.
“Yes, we ran.”
“How many died?” Susanna puts her hand to her mouth.
“All of them.”
“That’s too bad.”
Mother’s left fist whines as the servos in the hand grind together.
“’Too bad’? They were our family.”
“And I will say many prayers to Hodin and Tor for their souls,” Silvartar waves his cigar lazily in the air. “So, you come here, into my town, and you don’t come straight to me? You two got a big reputation and I can always use folks with your skills.”
“We don’t do that anymore,” Father said.
“We can talk about that later,” Silvartar shrugs, “but for now, let’s talk about that caravan you need so bad.”
The streets are cold. My boots make soft noises in the muck as I walk. Mother’s hand on my shoulder seems a million years distant. There are no people here, just me and the soft squish of my boots in the mud.
The bazaar is packed up, the trash of the day left to rot under the moon. The offal stink of the butcher’s street tells me I am going the right way.
“When you get there,” Silvartar had said, “wait. They will come for you.”
So they do. Monstrous shadows loom in the dark, swooping in like desert hawks. Hands the size of my torso grab me and hoist me into the air. They tug and pull, grunting like bulls in some non-speech.
I want to scream and run, I want to be away from these huge patchwork men and their nightmare masters, but I have my family to protect and this is the only way we can be safe.
I do not struggle. I do not cry out. I let themen take me. I am lifted up carried towards the tall doors of the house by the well. They open and I have a glimpse of a sallow face looking down, a smile cutting its way across its lips.
Then there is only darkness.
“You see,” Silvartar said, “they come here from across the mountains, from somewhere north or across the sea, maybe. Took over the old water purification buildings in the south side. I thought, ‘bah, what’s the harm, just another flesh cult’. I was wrong, hombre. I was wrong.”
I remember how he twirled his cigar and looked into his drink for a long time before continuing.
“About two months later, I hear that people are disappearing all over. I think to myself that it is nothing. Such things happen all the time. This is a hard world and the weak do not survive in it.”
He grinned at Father, “You know what I mean, hombre.”
Father says nothing.
“But the months go by and more and more people disappear,” Silvartar continued. “My man Roabes here, he says ‘look into it’ and Roabes is a very cleaver man, so I do this.”
He leans across the table, big yellow teeth glinting in his mouth.
“It was the cult, they took anyone they could find. My man here, he says to me one day that he sees a Carnal he knows on the street, but when he goes to say hello, it is not the same man, but someone wearing his face.
“Then they start taking the children. I think you know some of the fear this makes inside you, yes?”
Mother nods but says nothing.
“They come into people’s homes and take their children away like a ghost in the night. What are people to do, you ask. Well, they come to me. They come to me and say, ‘Oh, Silvartar, won’t you help us get our daughter back, our son, our grandchild,’ they say all sorts of things to me. I tell them that I will take their children back, even if it is only so their bones can be buried.”
He took another drink of water.
“So, I send some men to see these cultists. They go in through the front door and there is a great booming and banging and all sorts of noises. None of my men come back out. A few days later this spider thing comes to my door. It’s made from the legs and arms of my men. Some little bastard had stuck a message on it saying ‘spares’.
“I send more men. I get more pieces of them back. Now I have few men and they want paying more. So, I need those cultists gone. That way I keep my promise to the people and I show my men I can still take care of business.”
“We’re not killing anyone for you,” mother said flatly .
“I’m not asking you to. I’m not asking you two to do anything for me. I want him.”
It took a moment for me to realise that Silvartar was talking about me.
Lights flicker behind closed doors and screams accompany every burst of illumination. I hear metal grind against metal, long clangs and sharp slams. Someone is laughing in the dark, a bubbling sound that comes right from the depths of the gut.
The smell of my captors is overwhelming, and my stomach threatens vomit with every breath. One holds my ankle in a massive sweat dripping paw. The second has my left arm bent up behind my back.
A cage door swings open before me, brass bars thick with corrosion. I am tossed in, hard stone and old rags greeting me. Somewhere around me a caterwauling scream followed by grunts and snarls turns the artificial midnight into a clamour of sound. Bars shake, metal clangs, meat hits meat and voices, too low and deep to be human, bellow in fear.
I am alone in this mad darkness.
“You look like a smart boy,” Silvartar said. He kept his eye on me, his smile on full display and his cigar blazing like a hot coal. “Are you a smart boy, Hieme?”
“Don’t answer him,” Father said.
“You won’t use our child,” Mother added.
Silvartar laughed, a big laugh, right from the belly.
“Amigos, I’m not asking for much. They boy looks quick on his feet and its harmless work, I can promise you that.”
“The answer is still no,” Mother got to her feet. “We’re leaving.”
“We haven’t even talked about payment.”
“And we never will.”
“Not even if I can get you on that caravan?”