Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Pale City

[Note: this has been poorly received--characters and setting too icky.]

Ma Rat poked her nose out of her nest of fluff and ancient tatters and sniffed the air. Men, she thought, or maybe the city was burning again.

She heaved her rag-strewn bulk from the bed, shedding bits of cloth and paper in the darkness, a grubby phoenix ascending from the midden. She scurried naked, all breasts and dirt, to the old steel door and flung it open to reveal a reluctant trickle of twilight from the crack of the hatch above. She ran up the old gray steps and pressed her face to the narrow breach in the rusty panels. There was no mistaking the wood smells. Maybe her husband had returned.

Rat scampered back down and looked over her hoard. She scratched herself and smelled her hand. The timing was good for this.

#

For the thousandth time, Tuan Macks contemplated life and the future. This was no career for the aged, he thought, but with no children he knew, it was unlikely he'd be taken care of when he became too feeble to guide the cart. For the thousandth time, he wondered if it would have been better to have reared some sons to take over the operation. But then he'd have to stay in one place long enough to raise (or at least acknowledge) them, and he shuddered at the crippling orthodoxy that infected the insular little hamlets he knew. Tuan could not live in places like that. He longed for freer times to be spent with people, back when the world was young and alive, or back when real men fought with valor against legions of vampires in the fresh ruin of the past. But if the valiant times were gone, at least there were open spaces to roam, endless miles of them. He sighed, and patted the lead horse's neck with a weary arm before turning around.

"Mick, Sancho, Kwak: it looks like we're on the outskirts. If you want to, we can stop here today."

"Hey, we know where we are, jefe," Kwak, the spokesman, said. "We can go another couple miles."

Tuan doubted that Kwak or the others had a very good idea of their location. (No, this business would definitely die with old Tuan Macks.) You could sight ruins peeking through the trees at nearly any point along the ancient crisscrossing ways that ran west of the river, between the city and the towns that clustered about the haunted fields of Skunaplant. They were all largely identical but for a few desolate landmarks known to travelers. Few of the derelict stonescapes were populated, and even in the heart of the Pale City you could come to the same conclusion. But in there, there was almost a civilization in there, if you knew where to look.

He wondered, again for the thousandth time, what in the lord's name drove people concentrate together like that. Even the white savages couldn't stand to be apart from one another for very long. He looked back at his staff. Hayzeus knew, Tuan couldn't get completely away himself.

"All right then," he said. "We'll keep it up to the next big crossing." That would be a large one, great broken monoliths, and Tuan thought they were quite close to it. The trail had recently widened from a dry rutted thing to a huge brushy boulevard, with those wide, soft chunks of ancient paving stones still dotting the surface.

With a sigh, he plodded forward. He had not gone ten steps when he stopped, patting the nearby Kwak in the chest. "You recognize this?" he asked, wrinkling his nose.

"Recognize what, jefe?"

Tuan shook his head. "There are many things to see, Kwak. Earlier, I was wondering if you remembered passing this place earlier in the springtime, but--"

"Of course I remember."

"...but now I am much more concerned about something else. Can you spot it? Any of you?"

No answer. Naturally.

"Can you /smell/ it, maybe?"

Mick laughed. "Couldn't hold it in, eh jefe? Right here in the road?"

Kwak glared at him. "No, you idiot, I've been talking to him all this time. And only savages..." He trailed off.

Hope after all? "It could actually have been any time this afternoon," Tuan told them calmly, "and I don't see signs of a crowd. In fact, bad as it smells, this thing already looks pretty dry." He poked it with his toe. "I think we'd better turn around and set up camp a couple miles back, just in case. Get our signal fire going there. We need to let 'em know we're here, but I don't like seeing 'em this far out."

Sancho, who was just catching up, punched Mick's shoulder. "Try not to step in it," he said.

#

The smoke smelled fainter than usual, too faint for this calm wind. Ma Rat wondered how far away her husband was, whether it was, in fact, he. Maybe the smell would get stronger, closer. Maybe it was nothing, but she was not comfortable with this change.

She cracked the squealing hatch, and poked her head out cautiously. She would have to ask some questions. The others tended to shrink from her, shying to the other side of the avenue when Rat trundled by, and normally, this was her preference. The skinny pale men would sneer toothlessly at her sometimes--even the smaller ones who could have been her sons--but the women just ignored her as they went about their own scavenging. They did not like being her second, feared her glamour, and resented that Rat was the key to their relative prosperity.

Rat lived differently from the others in the city, and in most ways better. Peering past her strands of dirty yellow hair, she often watched her fellows prowling through the streets after pigeons and other prey, which she rarely resorted to catching. She saw them rushing back from the woods with nuts and fruit, fighting over a fish, or coming back from a far raid, painted with mud and crazed with corn-fed bellies. By contrast, Rat was able to subsist almost primarily on the food her husband brought. Hunks of salty meat and desiccated hardtack were kept in a corner of her dark, dry hole, allowing her to spend days on end in that warm den, suckling her litter, or sleeping alone, depending on the season. Sometimes food showed up on her step of its own accord, and what Rat didn't eat, she stored that too.

When she wasn't curled in her lair, Ma Rat prowled the dark and crumbling corners of the city, hunting for treasures. It was, indirectly, her eye for these things that had bought her status, snagging valuable glass, metal, plastic, and innumerable pretty trinkets that were used by unknown people abroad. She alone had charmed one of the black men with those baubles, arranging them just so on the walk in front of her den. None of the others had thought of it then, preferring to watch with fright or contempt from the shadows as the strange men rooted through the old stone for the shiny bits. And it was true that Rat alone had brought the man below, where, it was said, she not only grabbed his seed but had stolen a piece of his soul as well, acquiring a fraction of his power.

None of which would happen again, if something was wrong. Her unease was growing. She pushed the rest of her body through the crack, and then jumped on the ancient metal hatch until it clanged shut. She darted away, looking for other urbanites.

#

"Hey, jefe, you going to finally take us in to meet your secret lover this time?"

Tuan smiled into the fire. "It's not a lover, Kwak," he said. "I think you know that. But the savages won't allow more than one of us in their downtown at once." Neither statement was true.

Kwak fidgeted his large hips uncomfortably on his stone as he considered this. "What's it like?"

Tuan's smile broadened. No lies now. "Do you know, it's not much different than the other ruins we walk through--bigger than most of 'em, more imposing, I guess--but the real difference is what you can feel. You can sense the eyes behind every corner, watching you. Every now and then, you see something moving around a corner, a rag fluttering maybe, or a naked ankle. I think half of them don't wear anything all year, but unless you got a guide, you don't see nothing."

In the shadows, Kwak's own eyes floated, disembodied. Sancho made some grunting, thumping noises under the wagon behind them. He was a notorious snorer.

"And it's a small price to pay. They don't value the stuff in there that much themselves, but they know we want it. And it's hard to find these days if you don't know where the stashes are. I remember Old Joe telling me that he would pluck it all out himself when he was young, but it kept getting harder every year. I don't believe a lot of the stuff he told me, but that was probably true. It was certainly hard to find anything when I was a boy. It's a lot better having the savages do it for us."

Tuan didn't tell Kwak how he had found his clever yellow Rat on one of Old (and by then quite infirm) Joe's ruthless and dangerous errands. Fortunately, he'd been carrying a cider jug he'd stolen from his then-jefe. It was the start of a profitable relationship, and was, not coincidentally, Joe's final year of business. Kwak and the boys had it much easier under the current master.

"Do you know, jefe, I don't like waiting without you. I like the other guys well enough, but..."

"You're a good man, Kwak," Tuan said, meaning it. "Let's see how this year works out, OK? Maybe we can think more about how the trade will continue when I'm gone." He'd have to retire somehow.

Kwak jerked his head at his boss, horrified.

"I'm not in a hurry, don't worry." Well, not that sort of a hurry. Tuan sighed and looked back at the wagon. "What do you say we wake up the two idiots over there, huh? I'm tired."

Kwak smiled, Tuan could tell because a few broken teeth had joined the white eyes, and he pulled on Tuan's outstretched hand. The younger man stretched, and trudged a few paces beyond the wagon, uncinching his belt. He stumbled, recoiled.

"Mick? Oh you idiot…" Kwak dropped to his knees and prodded the form on the ground.

Tuan crept up to peek over his shoulder. Kwak held up a bloody hand for him to see by the firelight. Tuan couldn't see his pained grimace, but he could sense it.

"Go over there and check on Sancho, quick."

The younger man bowed lower to look underneath the wagon as Tuan hustled to its side to unlash the bundle of weapons with trembling hands. He glanced back at his lieutenant, who shook his head in alarm.

"Well, get over /here/, then!"

#

Rat jogged first to Egg's nest, which was not far from her own. It had been several years since Rat had pushed the little one out, but unlike the rest of her brood, skinny Egg spoke to her mother occasionally. Rat liked the girl more than most people. Egg was smart.

Rat looked up at the entrance to her daughter's lair. The girl used a rope to get into the high opening, which she pulled up after her when she was home. Rat followed the path of where the line should be, all the way up to the corner of the opening, where she saw eyes flashing opalescent in the moonlight. Before Rat could call up to the watcher, the clumsy ladder of rags and scraps trailed itself down to the street. She clawed herself up it, hand over hand, short legs scrabbling on the pitted surface of the wall.

She pulled herself over the edge, and could see Egg's luminous forehead floating skull-like in the early moonlight. She could smell the musky otherness of the girl, the dry decay of her nest somewhere behind, invisible in the gloom. Rat sprung back to her feet and regarded the young woman as best she could.

Egg took a step forward, and pale cheeks appeared beneath the smooth arch of brow, pale shoulders as well. "I knows what youz wants, Ma Rat," Egg said quietly. "I knew youz knew."

Rat nodded. She certainly suspected.

"The mens say don't..." Egg stopped and spat. She had no children, but she'd been caught several times (hence the rope). She continued more forcefully. "Mebbe youz know, but I tells you anyway. The mens gunna kill your bargain. Theys gunna kill your husband. Try to take his glammer."

Rat opened her mouth to speak, but her daughter interrupted.

"I think youz knows who. Who's the stupidest man you know?"

Rat smiled evilly, not expecting Egg to see. She had her own suspicions, but her daughter had not exactly narrowed it down.

"Yah. Incher. He's jealous of youz for long time. He hates your power." Egg clutched her own rags more tightly about her. "And I hates Incher. Nasty tooth. He tries, but he can't make me not speaks. I knows youz ferreal, youz has the ferreal glammer."

Rat did not dispute this.

"I tells you where Incher is, but youz gotta promise to keep him away. Kill him mebbe. Mebbe he never touches me again. You do this Ma Rat, and I tells youz where he goes."

Yes, she would have to do something. They couldn't afford to have stupid Incher sabotage the exchange. It was good for everyone. Stupid man.

#

Kwak and Tuan stood back to back near the fire, listening. Kwak held his spear trembling before him; the older man had recovered the atlatl, but did not linger for the arrows, which would be no help in the dark anyway. He could use it like a club.

"Do you think we should move, jefe? I haven't heard anything for a while."

"They can find their way in the dark a lot better than we can, Kwak."

"But we can't /hide/ here, jefe. They'll see the fire. Why do you think they're attacking us?"

The man had a good point, and a good question. "I don't want to abandon the wagon," Tuan said.

"We could take the horses at least."

Not a bad idea. Tuan had some warehouses, could maybe re-establish an inventory from there, and the horses were difficult to replace. But starting over was a young man's game. "Let's see if--"

The rock missed Kwak and rebounded off the wagon with a crack. A second rock whizzed past Tuan's ear. The old man stepped backward. A third struck his thigh and he fell to one knee.

Kwak bounded over amid the thumps and hisses, grabbed his boss, and dragged him from the firelight toward the trees. A couple more rocks could be heard crackling the leaves, and then there was silence again.

"You all right?" Kwak asked in a low voice.

"I hope to Hayzeus I am." He rubbed his leg, and stood shakily. "They're probably clever enough to go around the fire. Won't be able to see 'em. Watch out from the sides, I think."

"You think they're smart enough to surround us? How many you think they are?"

"Probably. A lot. Shut up, already." They heard a twig snap from the direction of the camp.

"Move," Tuan hissed, and they did. He grabbed the younger man's shirt and limped behind him. They avoided the road, and as their eyes adjusted, they could see the faint shadows arced by the moonlight through the trees. Shadows on their left, Tuan noted. They were heading toward the city. He did not tell Kwak.

Go ahead and burn the wagon, he thought. Kill the horses. If I can't come back here, I'm finished anyway.

#

As she darted along, Rat worried about her husband: a fire, too far away; a plot by Incher. Her husband was a capable man in his way-- he held amazing knowledge that was completely outside the sphere of the Pale City--but he was like a child against the low scheming of her urbanite clan, and she admitted grudgingly that her enemy possessed a certain shrewdness, if not wisdom.

Rat liked to think she understood a little of both worlds. As a child, she had developed a habit, to a greater degree than most of her peers, of observing the dark visitors. She would follow the men into their stashes in the buildings, and she mentally catalogued the items that most fascinated them. Soon, she began gathering similar items on her own. The black men were not very good at searching, avoiding the narrow dark places as though afraid of them.

The men, with their size and in their groups, were intimidating, but there were sometimes young ones that came around too, and often these were sent after the more dangerous artifacts. She was fascinated by these boys, who were older than she but appeared more childish, and by one in particular. Even as the other boys disappeared from season to season, he kept coming back.

She began to assemble likely items on her walk in front of her burrow. When her husband first saw her, she was sunning herself there, watching her youngest stack up a bunch of milky white bottles and knock them down again. He had first been amazed at her hair, then her body, and then at the junk that the kid was playing with. He showed her the clay jugs he kept his own water in, which broke when she dropped one, and she could still remembered the sound of the tinkling shards, still found it funny. He showed her a smaller jug as well, one he handled much more carefully, and the water inside had a powerful spell in it that made her throat burn and her mind reel.

Lately, some of the other women had begun placing collections of crumbling bric-a-brac on the walks in imitation of herself, hoping to draw in a black man of their own. Ma Rat wished them luck. Her husband visited them as well, but always bought less, and offered less for it. With few other visitors, Rat's status had grown as the sole bringer of trade. She knew, even if the other women didn't, that these strange men still wanted the same things as any other men, no matter how much they talked, or how nicely they touched.

Her husband usually came down from the north, along one of the old ways, far from the river. Egg confirmed that Incher was planning to intercept him. The wind ran in complex patterns around the ruins, but it was Ma Rat's impression that the fire smells were coming from that direction as well. She hunched closer to the ground, and increased her pace. The moon would rise a hand or two before she got to the source, she thought. She hoped it would be time enough. She hoped that this resistance didn't extend beyond Incher's own little cadre of fools.

#

Eel worked his hands along one of the clasps on the large wooden cart, feeling out the mechanism. He'd already accidentally released the catch for the horses' bridle, and the animals had bolted away when his partner started banging on the other side of the wagon with a rock, as he was still doing now. Large nasty beasts anyway, he thought, though one of them would feed four handfuls of people when he caught it. At any rate, they seemed lazy and loud, and Eel figured they could always get them later. Maybe, if he could discover the magic behind it, he could force them to walk themselves back before he killed them.

Even more than horses, the food inside the cart was extremely valuable because it could be kept forever. Incher also placed a high priority on whatever magical things the black men carried with them, including (and maybe especially) the enchanted water that they peddled in exchange for junk.

There. The thing caught, and dropped. He lifted the lid.

"Stop your banging, cracka," he said.

A balding, dirty moon rose up over the top of the wagon. Eel winced at the oozing white crater just over its right eye. How had that thing not killed him all these years? The man must have some powerful glamour, but Eel couldn't fathom where he'd have obtained it.

"Youz open it?" Pigeonshit said.

"Yah. No glammer in the metal thing after all. Youz just pull it here."

"Gots bottles?"

"Bottles is Incher's. Incher smells it if we tastes."

"But we gots to find it. He wants that before any other magic."

"Yah. Let's find summa those foods too. Then we finds those other mens." Eel sighed. Taking the wagon was easy. Keeping track of everything else was more difficult.

"Youz gonna have a bite?" Pigeonshit asked. Incher wouldn't approve of this either, but Eel saw no reason not to compromise. They already had killed two of the men, probably enough, and they had the wagon. And he doubted the little hunchback could smell ham.

"Yah," he said. And maybe he wouldn't miss just one sip from the bottle either.

#

Tuan blundered in thick underbrush behind Kwak. His partner was hard to see even in the moonlight, just one silhouette among many, a competing shadow creeping across innumerable lonely gray slabs. They had somehow lost the minor trail they had been following, and still had not found the main road. Worse, they were still going basically south but now with an eastward bent, toward the river, trapping themselves. Tuan's stomach fluttered and his feet lightened. He stopped walking and breathed deeply, waiting for the urge for flight to settle.

"Moon's looking pretty high now," he said, making no effort to soften his voice.

Kwak--Hayzeus damn his young body--was still going strong. "You say so, jefe."

"We're far enough away, I think. We should start getting back on track."

A shadow in front of him shrugged.

"After we rest."

A sigh in the dark. "You want me to keep the first watch, jefe?"

"I'm not young anymore, Kwak. Just give me an hour."

The shadow grew larger, crunching twigs. "Not a bad spot anyway," it said. "Nobody will see us in the brush."

Tuan thought it unlikely anyone saw them anyway. If the savages had been making an effort to follow, they'd be caught by now. And what did it matter at this point? Without ceremony, he dropped to the ground, not hearing whatever the young man was mumbling as he closed his eyes.

Much too soon, he opened them. The shadow was shaking him, and not gently. Something was scraping his cheek, and he could feel Kwak's breathing. What in the Goodbook's name had he been eating?

Kwak was hissing at him. "Gets up, stupid man!"

Tuan opened his eyes and turned. "Get back, K--"

Instead of Kwak's shadow, he saw a protruding gray bulge of a forehead, followed by an angular nose, followed by a single gray tooth, jutting at him like a spear. The face, sucking in and out, was emitting a foul exhalation. And it was smiling under a matted beard. Tuan tried to push himself back on his elbows, and found that the creature was sitting on his legs.

"Youz mine, glammer boy."

#

The smell of wood smoke and more was burning in Rat's nostrils. There was, she knew, an inimitable scent to burning hair, one that she loathed. She hugged to the ground and moved faster, habitually feeling with her hands and feet for loose branches, for stray debris, for anything that would give a report of her presence. Suddenly she stopped, lifted her head and cocked it sideways. Yes, that was a man's shout, but not a close one. Not her husband's beautiful deep voice either, but a barking grunt that sounded familiar in another way. She put her head down and moved in the direction of the noise.

She could hear the men shouting and laughing before she could see the firelight. As she got closer, she could see their bodies as flickers through the trees. The flames were blazing dangerously high. Rat felt contempt twine its way into the knot of her other emotions. She bellied herself to the ground, and inched up quietly among the laurel.

On the fire were two misshapen logs that sent smoke billowing blackly into the night sky, and she could see luminous forms hopping about erratically in front of it. The men--for all their noise, there appeared to be only two--were crashing about like they were sick, delirious. She recognized the feeling, but these two were as stupid with the fire water as they were without it. (The glamour of that liquid only made you a silly version of what you already were). Rat felt red blood pumping behind her eyes. Incher would die for this.

She spied a large rock not far away. She slithered over and closed her hand around it, granite, she noted, and prized it easily from the ground. She moved around on her elbows, coming up behind her husband's vehicle. She was quiet, but she didn't need to be.

#

Pigeonshit sat back down on the log, contentedly splaying himself out before the fire, grimy finger circling around in his ear. They would have to find some more things to throw on it. People burned, he found, and wood, but not rocks. He could see why the black men liked this stuff. It was warm. What was there to be afraid of?

"Hey cracka," he said, "youz thinks we can keeps a bottle for us two? /Win/ us some womens instead of taking them? How many's there again?"

Eel danced over, and held up two dexterous hands, lots of fingers. He giggled.

"Hey," Pigeonshit said. "Don't forget the jug."

"The jug!," Eel screeched and then whirled around and lurched clumsily back to the big wooden cart. The glamour infected the smaller man quickly, Pigeonshit thought. Not fair. He wasn't feeling a thing himself. He needed another pull.

"Hey Eel," he shouted at the wagon. At the sound of his name, the smaller man spun and dropped. Pigeonshit heard a wet cracking sound. "Youz breaks that jug, I kills you myself. Never minds Incher." He pushed his body to a sitting position, and kept going forward. Maybe the glamour was getting to him after all.

"Youz better not--" Pigeonshit stopped. Before him strode a woman, glowing red in the firelight. Her teeth were bared, and the jug was in her hand. She walked to him cautiously, jug raised, liquid sloshing inside. Unbelievably, his own feet were slower than this, and he discovered that he couldn't gain them. He looked up at her arm: it was raised high, but it was moving sideways somehow, and not quite distinct. "Ma Ra--"

#

Rat spat on the man's prostate form. For once, the white pustule on his forehead was invisible amid the blood and broken clay. She breathed deeply of burning death, and her head began to feel hot again. She kicked the man, who didn't groan. She hoped he wasn't breathing. She kicked him again.

She looked at the fire. One man was only in it from the waist down, face mercifully undamaged. He could be tumbling from a door if you ignored the lower half of him. She looked down at an expression of frozen surprise, lidded eyes opened wide, mouth agape. His lips were heavy and his nose was broad and flat. Rat did not recognize him, but a friend of her husband's deserved to be mourned. She yanked a filthy rag from Pigeonshit's body, and placed it over the burning man's eyes.

She inspected the arm of his partner, who was not so well preserved. The hand was huge, with rings on it, and the few patches skin which were not blackened by the flame were nearly as ruddy as her own. She breathed deeply, hope and anger wrestling in her mind. Where was her husband?

She fanned out, scanning the ground for signs, uncaring of the noises she made now. Eel and Pigeonshit had made a wreck of the place, but here, she noted, something had crashed through the bushes coming from the camp, moving northward. She dropped to her knees and crawled along the trail, feeling and watching. The track was wide for men, but she did not think her husband knew how to move through the trees. She felt a moon-shaped print under her hand, and then another. Not men, then, but the beasts that pulled the wagon. Could her husband be on top of one? She had better check for other paths.

She circled wide around the stinking fire, light enough from the high moon and from the flames. Nearly opposite the horse track, she found her own serpentine path, where she had shimmied inward. She crossed this, thinking that her husband could only have walked toward the city or toward the river. She got her face closer to the ground and moved.

Not ten steps from her own trail, she found it. Two men, with boots on. Her hand shook as she pressed it into one of the clear prints. Heading south, and clumsily. They could not have gotten far with their skills. She hugged her palm to her breast and scurried after them.

#

The savage had a hump, Tuan noted, which he swung widely when he walked, but it didn't slow him down. Tuan was uncomfortably gagged, and his hands were tied tightly with the scraps of his own shirt. Right now, since he had been recently cooperating (he was too tired not to), the humped man led him by the bonds. Earlier, it had been by the hair. He did his best to keep up. At least this person he could see.

Sometimes the tusked, verminous face turned back to him, sometimes angry, sometimes smiling, always calculating. Now and then, it spoke.

"Ma Rat's power, and all those foods. I gunna take it from you, little man."

His Rat's enemy, then. She had never introduced him to this one. Tuan shut his eyes thinking what horrible things this creature could do to her. He stumbled.

"Ah! Up, up!," filthy hands groped in his direction again. Tuan stood and waited for them to clutch his hair once more, but the savage only yanked the bonds on his wrists, and pulled him stumbling along once more.

"Faster, faster, little glammerboy," the toothy face said. Tuan was tiring of the nickname.

They had quickly found the old road (it was less than a hundred paces away), and with aching legs and mouth, Tuan tried to distract himself by picking out his normal route. As they walked slowly along, the ruins grew more concentrated, and Tuan could sometimes sense the ponderous presences he knew were about him. The eastern horizon was beginning to turn gray as they passed the place where he usually found Rat. His legs were burning.

They kept walking for maybe another hour, when the monster in front of him suddenly stopped and let go of his wrist. Tuan dropped instantly to his knees and sucked air through his nose. He closed his eyes and tried to treasure the moment of stillness, to pretend that the savage wasn't reaching for his scalp again even now.

And he wasn't. After a pause, Tuan opened his eyes and looked up for the man. He could see quite clearly now, and though he couldn’t yet view the rim of the sun, the tops of city's white towers were glinting with reflected morning light. One was particularly close, and he looked up its height. The impossible building gaped broken holes at him like a smile. He thought of Kwak, probably dead.

He still did not see his captor, and turned around to an even stranger sight. He had come to the downtown of the Pale City many times and had seen many shattered wonders, but none like this. All of the others were gigantic rectangles, built with unknown skills true, but still basically like overgrown country houses, conceivable. Here, old gray stone curved elegantly up over him like a pregnant belly, trees tickling its base like pubic hair. He felt like an ant looking up at an enormous egg, and he stumbled backward in fear that the thing would roll onto him and crush him like a hope. He bumped into something more giving than stone and jumped, fatigue forgotten.

The savage swatted him in the head. "Stupid glammerboy, too stupid to runs." The face was even more repulsive in the light. Its horizontal tooth was yellow, he saw, more diseased than threatening, and it shaped the mouth into a permanent sneer. He wanted to scratch his cheek where it had touched him hours ago.

The face was smiling. "I lives underneath," it said.

#

Rat still followed a trail of two men, but only one of them was the same. There had been a struggle, and although she had followed three distinct sets of prints out, she could only identify two of them now. Often, she recognized the stamp-and-drag gait of a barefoot track, which was frequently obliterated by the erratic shuffle of the shoes behind it. The latter were probably dragged along against their will, Rat thought, which bought her time.

As the light grew, it became increasingly evident that Incher and his captive were headed to the heart of the Pale City. The morning sun was kissing the ground when she followed the tracks off the highway--easily, because they departed at the expected point. It was enough evidence. She lifted her aching shoulders and elevated her pace, jogging straight to Incher's nest.

She hustled through the trees to the shadow of the great square spire, and then sprinted through the trees and brush to the shadow of the giant clam. She stopped to catch a breath as she surveyed the situation. Incher lived down below the curve of the thing, where there was access to some warm underground rooms. She had been there once, against her will, when she was very young.

One last breath, and she moved to the entrance she remembered. She pressed her ear to the stone, listening carefully. She could pick out a muffled thumping, and also a sound like someone scraping metal against the wall. Creeping inside, she heard a voice as well, the high-pitched lisp of her adversary.

The source of the thumping sound soon became clear, for Incher had not taken the time to pull her husband into the deeper levels. Up here, the black man's legs twitched feebly as he lay bound next to the wall. Incher was scraping some sharp bit of metal on the stone floor, as though he were about to fillet a mouse. Rat felt her blood flowing hot in her temples. Her husband! She scooped up some dusty gravel and hurled it at the little monster.

Incher twitched his head in the direction of the assault. Then he cackled. "That all youz gots, Ma Rat? Your glammer found me mebbe, but I kills him anyway."

Rat growled.

Incher glared at her, "I'm gonna take your glammerboy, Rat. I'm gonna take his seed myself, gonna cut it out. I don't needs youz. We just /takes/ the foods now."

The wrongness of this was self-evident to Rat. There was no glamour in the exchange; it worked because both parties brought something to it. Some of the men understood the concept of the bargain. Incher did not. She looked at the little man with hatred, remembering his clammy body, his motile lips moving on her like earthworms, but not tasty. There had been no gloating then, only insecurity in his little black eyes. And later, gratitude.

Oh, he needed her.

"My mens are /taking/ what we wants, right now." As he spoke, his tooth bobbed and threatened like a solitary tusk. "We don't /digs/ for it. Youz stupid womens..."

She narrowed her eyes, lowering herself into a crouch.

Incher cackled. "/We's/ gonna bring foods this ti-- Aah!" He gripped his cheek where Rat had raked him. She showed her own teeth, clean and white, and circled him, shoulders high. She was larger than him, she thought, and faster. There was no end to this man's stupidity. She jerked her head to see him flinch. When he did, gratifyingly, she swung her other hand in a wide arc, catching his opposite cheek with her fingernail. She rushed at him.

#

Tuan's legs hurt. His wrists hurt. His mouth hurt. He was afraid, and he didn't want to be here. Laying on the hard floor, waiting for death, he pretended he was running away to some rich life of ease, legs ineffectually flopping about like a dreaming dog's. It would be nice if his Rat were here. He'd have liked to have seen her one last time. He thought he could hear her voice. Growling?

Rat was angry, and he could hear that other voice, that freakish little man, shouting at her. He hated that voice. That man was going to cut off his...

Tuan struggled up to consciousness, pushing his legs more forcefully now, forcing his body up the wall to a sitting position. It /was/ Rat, and Hayzeus help her, she was fighting. Did she know he had a blade?

Tuan watched her dive at the man, aiming with impressive force at his waist, but she didn't see the sharpened metal pulled back for a swipe at her. Tuan kicked furiously, grunting through his gag. At the sound, Rat looked his way mid-charge, and dropped further down to knee level. The hand went high, scoring her back, and Rat tumbled into the twisted man's feet, knocking both of them down, scrambling.

Tuan tried to scream through bruised lips and a filthy gag. He tried to push himself up to his feet, but overbalanced and landed chest first on the dusty floor. He heard a few hits land, but much more ineffectual cursing and tumbling. Rolling onto his side, he came face to face with the man, who shrieked and lunged at him with the blade. Tuan watched Rat pounce, seemingly from nowhere, on the outthrust hand, but then the little man rolled her over and her head crashed hard on the ground. He straddled her and held the shiv high over her still body.

Tuan's eyes widened at the scene, recalling the story of Hayzeus's sacrifice of lesser gods at the roots of the Tree of Life, but with an appalling reversal of roles. He could see the shadows of hell gathering behind the man. He closed his eyes and heard the sickening, liquid fall of the blow, followed by silence.

He heard his name. "Tuan?"

That voice. So he was now joining the rest of the dead. No surprise.

"You all right, jefe?"

Tuan opened his eyes to see Kwak's gap-toothed grin. The man was waving his bloodied spear. "Your lover runs pretty fast, but I got here in time."

#

Kwak rubbed his hand over his curly new beard. It went nicely with his skin, he thought, adding to his dark mystery. But now, days' walk from his familiar civilization, he desired no attention from /these/ locals; they weren't really his type. He strode along without company, leading only one of his horses, and carrying only some token sample wares stuffed into the saddlebags. Back at the peddlers' post, which was now a permanent camp complete with a stockade, his three assistants waited for him to return with the city women that were in charge of trade. It was an outgrowth from Tuan's method, and Kwak also preferred not to share the secrets of the Pale City's heart with his employees.

He trudged along the path, noting how well-established the trail had become since the first year of his return. The savages must be maintaining it, he thought. He walked along through the cleared scrub, admiring the ancient hands that had built these sprawling, sweeping structures for the sole apparent purpose of travel, but finding no fault with the more recent effort either. Up ahead he could see two forms, and he waved at them. The smaller one was quickly coming his way.

"Uncle Kwak, carry me," cried little James, running at the big man's knees to be hoisted with a giggle at the last moment. Tuan, richly bearded like his protégé, but in gray, clasped the younger man's shoulder affectionately.

"Looks just like his old man," said Kwak. He pinched the boys cheek, who scrunched up his shoulder and made a face.

The former peddler shook his head. "They think he's some kind of holy child, you know. I never should have told them the old stories. I think it was Egg that spread them around. She thinks she's a prophet or something."

"How does Rat take all of that?"

"I think she lives for it, actually, and I must admit that it helps business."

Kwak laughed; he couldn't complain about business.

"The place is really growing up, Kwak. Wait till you see it. We've almost got a civilization going down in there."

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