I don’t know how long I sit in the dark trying to block out the hooting and the screaming and the thrash of metal on metal, but it feels like I have lived a lifetimein my prison. If I close my eyes then I am back on the floor of the cave with the whispering of moths my only companion. Have I really left that place or am I still trapped there and his has all be been some madness brought on by fear?
Some great beast is standing close, I can feel it’s breath on me, both hot and cold at once. I can hear it, I swear I can. It’s breath, it’s movement it’s heartbeat.
But now it is gone.
I am alone once more.
No noise. Nothing at all. The screaming and weeping from before is gone.
I sit in silence.
I cannot hear my own breathing. I cannot hear anything.
I try calling.
I try screaming. I scream and yell into the artificial night. I care not for the tears, for my shame, as even moon-eyed Hodin cannot find me here.
Still there is no noise. Perhaps this is a nothing void, like the tales told by the mad thinkers of the Heaven-Treaders, those who believe we once rode the sky on ships or kites and that we lived on different earths. They would preach their strange religion at the fairs and market days, back in a time when the world made sense to me. May we did once ride in the sky like they claim, maybe we did walk in unseen lands on their Other Worlds. Maybe Silvartar really is a doomed god. Maybe I really am still beneath that mountain, the jaws of a leech creature burrowing into my flesh.
Maybe … so many things.
“All I want,” Silvartar said, “is your boy to get in. I’ll give him something and all he has to do is wait.”
Father shakes his head.
“No, we can’t.”
“What if I offer you a lot of money?”
“I’m sorry, but no. We can’t put our children in danger.”
“They’re in danger anyway. The people that visited you last night? You think they won’t keep coming and coming? And what about when praying isn’t enough? Huh? What about when your boy gets snatched and you try to take him back yourself? They will kill you, amigo, make no mistake.”
“The answer is still no.”
“And what about when they take you daughter? They take girls too you know. I don’t know what they do with them, but, heh, we are people of the world. We know what happens to young girls with no parents.”
“That’s enough,” Mother stands. Her eyes are red. “I think we have heard enough.”
“Is it? Think about what I’m offering you here. You get out with your family. Hell, I’ll even throw in money. You can start your new life across the Land Bridge with some wealth. How can I be any fairer?”
“We are not going to – ”
“I’ll do it.”
All eyes turn towards me.
“I’ll do it,” I say, “it’s for the good of the family.”
Light slams into me, burning into my eyes like a new sun. The noise returns as well, hundreds of roars and screams and thrashing filling the air until I think my ears will burst.
I stagger and try to stand, but something batters my cage, shaking it like rag in a wind. A hand slaps against the bars, a hand that is too big, too clawed to be real. It comes from a cage near mine; the thing inside a huge and hairy beast that bellows at me with a hate I –
Its head explodes, ropes of blood and shards of bone going everywhere. It hits me and gets in my mouth. It’s hot, so hot that it burns.
I yell and shout and slip in the red mess, trying to spit it out. I am, momentarily, one with the roaring mass of trapped animals that fill the room with their terror and fury.
My cage is one of many, stacked and locked one atop the other in a room as big as a barn. A machine claw reaches out to grab my bars and I am hoisted into the air and in a dizzying moment I am dumped onto a stone floor.
Above me stand three of the ogre men, thick hands resting on the hafts of their blades and gun butts. With them is the man I saw before, their leader, draped in some gown of pale leather. His head is a twisted thing, metal cables hanging from his skull and his eyes red rimmed and huge. He moves towards me and I see his arm divides at the elbow, a new limb protruding from the juncture. Instead of fingers this limb twitches with blades and other surgical instruments.
His other arm is gone altogether, a drill appliance being removed from a scrap iron prosthetic by an assistant that looks part human, part rat.
“Good evening, child,” he says, his smile showing a random collection of teeth, “you are about to be blessed.”
They strap me to a table, leather belts pinning me down. One is tightened around my throat and others at my wrists and ankles. Something metal is clamped into my mouth holding it open.
A light is swung into my face, burning dazzling fire into my retinas.
“I like this one,” says a voice from behind the light, “He does not scream.”
Mechanical skeleton hands pull at my clothing, ripping it away.
No, I can’t be naked in front of them. I don’t want it, no one said anything about this. My shirt comes off, ripping the twine pendant from my neck.
The hands – how many I don’t know – grab at my belt.
No, please no, I don’t want that.
My stretched open mouth slurs out my pleas and I try to thrash, try to stop them, but all that gets me is a punch to the stomach.
“Disappointing me won’t go well for you,” my captor slurs, his body too close to my naked flesh, his hands exploring my flesh.
“I don’t want this,” I feel his fingers scratching my inner thigh.
“But I do,” he whispers in my ear.
My belt is pulled from me and I can feel more hands descending on me, pinching my flesh, pulling ay my joints and scratching me with metal fingernails. New faces emerge into the light, patch-work people, their skin a violated monument to science.
They laugh at me. They shriek and gibber in mad excitement.
The hands are shoved aside and the blinding light retreats.
A new person leans down.I get a glimpse of metal leaves and tattered skin before he forces my head back into its restrains and a cold iron hand clamps down on the device attached to the cord around neck.
“What is this?”
“You ever seen one of these before, boy?” Silvatar asks.
“I like that; ‘sir’. You raised your boy well,” he says to my parents. “You did good.” He turns back to me and presses the six inch long cylinder into my palm. It is slim, like grandfather’s beloved pre-war mechanical pen,its smooth metal topped with an ugly rubber plunger crudely soldered in place.
“That, cleaver boy, is a XV8 power cell. Heavy, isn’t it?”
The silence from behind me adds weight to the little object. I don’t know what it is, but I can suspect; a bomb.
“In the war, people used these to power their battle-suits and war-frames. When full there’s enough hydrogen in that little tube to take a chunk out of the moon. You know much about the War, boy?”
“No,” I really don’t know anything. The Meta War, apart from the occasional stories Mother could be persuaded to tell, was smoke on the horizon to me, distant and indistinct with neither form or substance.
But ever since we fled our home I have never been far from its long shadow.
“Why are you giving him something that could blow up the town? You don’t want your enemies that dead, surely?” Father rested his huge arms on the table, the wood creaking under his weight.
“My people have been careful. This cell has only about one or two per cent power left to it.”
“How much is it?” Susanna said.
“One or two, how much is it? One per cent will blow up a building and the street around it. Two is enough for the whole town.”
“Life is nothing but interesting, my girl,” Silvatar lit a new cigar and poured more water for himself.
“Hieme,” Susanna said to me, “can I see that?”
I handed over the small device.
Susanna weighed it in her hands.
“I’ve only ever seen busted ones,” she said, half to herself. “What’s this?” She pointed to the rubberised toggle on top.
“The detonator,” Silvatar grinned. “Push it once and it will go off in twenty minutes.”
“What is it?” He repeats again, his lips like two worms moving in unison. A hand like a collection of spiders turns the power cell around, letting it catch the light.
More scarecrow faces crowd around me, eyes stretched open with pins, skin hooked back to drum like tightness. They want to see it too. They reach out to take it from the man who holds it, as if possessing it will allow them more status.
“I’m… I’m from Silvatar,” I can’t keep my voice from trembling.
They babble at each other, giant rooks and starlings, gabbling away at my words.
“The dead god?” One asks.
“The god we made dead,” snorts another.
“You mean that heathen crime lord,” says the first, his hooked nose coming so close as to brush my skin. “That’s it isn’t it? You’ve come from him?”
“Yes,” my throat is too dry to add any clever lie to the word. “He sent me.”
I cannot lie, I have no cunning nor the wisdom of Hodin necessary. I can only tell the truth.
“He wanted you to have that.”
“I don’t care much about the people here,” Silvatar said. “They scrimp and they save and they look out from these walls and know fear. They are not a courageous people.”
“Why does that matter?” Mother sat with Susanna to her left and me on her right, Father looming above us behind her chair. We were drawn close by some need or fear. Perhaps my family knew that I was set on making the deal with Silvatar? Perhaps we just needed to be close?
“I know what you were in the War, Ortega, with your high and mighty family with your bezarker soldiers and chrono-gladiators. You were someone. But, me, well I was just a footsoldier. I started off as a runner and messenger boy when I was little. That was back when the Iron King first raised his flags. Yes, I am older than you thought. It is all this clean living that does it.” He drank more water.
“The Meta War showed me something; that the world can be toppled again and again and the only constant truth is that the strong will rule. I want to be one of the strong.”
“You effectively rule a town, isn’t that enough?”
“Not at all chikka, it cannot be enough. I see the empire on the bridge and I think to myself, ‘that mad old bastard, it’s a short time coming before I have to protect myself against his scrap harvesters.’ That Scrap King, him on the bridge with his storms and his boats, he wants the world.”
Silvartar sighed and stubbed out his cigar. He stood and walked to the wall, pulling down an old framed picture.
“This is him, back before New Birmingham. Before you and your people did for the place.”
I saw a man in the picture, a metal man holding a flag. I didn’t know who it was.
“I don’t know what you did to him and his people, Ortega, but he wasn’t the same after. Went East and changed his armour. Can’t get out of it from what I hear. Needs it to live. Went mad all by himself and made his shanty town out on the bridge. He’ll come back one day. His people are already making raids against the seaside towns. They’re stealing temples to the old gods I hear. Maybe your Hodin is trapped in his cages. That would be a fine thing to see.”
“Is that what you want?” Mother squeezed Susanna’s arm as my sister spoke, in reprimand or solidarity I do not know.
“No, chikka, I want an army. I think these flesh smiths are the best way to get one.”
“An alliance, perhaps?”
“No, Iken, it is a trick.”
“Agreed, the crime lord is sending us a message, like we did with him. Toss that thing in the trash or take it to the Iron Lab and have Gorithos look at it.”
“I wouldn’t let that rust fingered engine-head touch this. You can clearly see that it’s of pre-war design.”
“A point of order, brothers; Archotech relics are to be handed straight to the Lord Carnifex. Our code and charter – ”
“Hang the charter,” the one called Iken snapped, clutching the XV8 to his chest. “This is mine, I had the wit to see it whilst you all played predator with the youngling. It is mine by right of Right of Perspicacity, which, Brother Odo, takes precedence over cult rule.”
“Tell us, boy,” Odo turned back to me, the tiny light implanted into his forehead like a third eye dazzling me, “what is this about?”
“Like he would have told the child,” Iken snarled. He was turning the XV8 around in his hands, his long ugly fingers caressing it.
“It’s a power cell,” I tell them, Odo’s metal digits cold on my naked skin. “He wanted you to have it.”
Iken smiles, the darkness doing little to hide his scrapyard teeth, and spreads his arms.
“The barbarian has come to his senses. This is his submission. He wants us to bring him into the fold. Don’t you see brothers? This is our chance.”
“The Carnifex will decided that,” Odo draws a pistol from within his robes, the barrel a sharp needle point and the ammo clip a vial of semi-luminous green slurry. “Give me the object.”
“So that you may ingratiate yourself with the ‘fex? Never!” Before my captors can move Iken’s fist snaps forward and tiny silver flashes whistle through the air. The darkness whirls as men fall, lamps and metal instruments hitting the floor and the wet gobbling sounds of people struggling to breath fill the room.
Iken stalks through the gloom and grabs Odo from where he struggles to rise.
“I have wanted to hurt you for so very long, brother.” I hear the wet meat sounds of butchery and the muffled choking as Odo tries to speak.
“Always getting in my way, weren’t you, always hoping that the Lord Carnifex would take you on as his direct pupil. Well, now I have this power cell. Do you know what it is, brother? I recognise it from my studies; it’s an XV8. Some fool has tampered with the connector device, but I have no doubt that my genus can unravel its mysteries.” There is a damp snapping sound and the hiss of a pressurized needle unloading its contents.
“Hush, hush, now Odo. I just want to see what it is you’ve put in this gun of yours. If I like it I might take it too.”
Restrained to the table I could do no more than listen to the half noises Odo made; the whimpers and the scrapes as his limbs clawed weakly at the stone floor. It went on for a lot longer than death should take.
“Now then,” Iken said into the dark, his shape rising and turning to me, “what shall I do with you?”
Father would have torn his way free and beaten the man to a pulp. Mother would have tricked him and Susanna would… would have thought of something. I had nothing.
“Send me back to the cages?” I blurt. As it stands I will be safer there than here.
“Yes, yes, what a good idea,” Iken caresses the XV8 cylinder absent mindedly. “That will keep you fresh.” One of the lumpen guards lumbers from the shadows, his face impassive and its weapons belted at its waist.
“Take him away, will you,” Iken says, not looking at either of us. In the half-light I see him lift the cylinder up to his face and his fingers wrap around the plunger tip, as boneless as a snail.
I hear him say, “I have work to do,” just before the XV8 explodes.
I wake up. Mother’s face swims into view.
“Hello,” she says.
“Hello,” I try to say, but it comes out as a drought dry whisper. Mother presses an earthenware cup to my lips and I taste water.
“Easy, easy Hieme,” Mother warns me, letting the water drip slowly into my mouth. “You’ve been asleep for a long time.”
“What happened?” My body is swathed in a course blanket of wool and all around me I can hear the squealing and feel the rocking of a large vehicle. There is low chatter and the rumble of engines.
“You saved us, Hieme,” my Mother, a woman as strong and stern as any I have ever met, has tears in her eyes. They run down her face, pooling in the crease of her smile. They are the first tears of joy I have ever seen from her.
“You saved us.”