the heft and the edge 14/2/2019
This is a piece of writing from
The Twist Inside (Song of Ages V. 2)
This is a selection from Part 2 - Inventions. An unlikely character makes a reappearance. He’s supposed to be dead, he’d quite like to be alive. Stuck somewhere
in between, Chaldonie is hoping for a little restoration.
His erstwhile colleague, Morgan Trant, helps with the arrangements.
The self-named Moderator paused before the door. Niplock, keeping too close for reasons he did not quite understand, accidentally stood on the man’s heel. The Moderator spun, flung out an arm and pushed sharply at Niplock’s left shoulder. It hurt. Niplock didn’t like that. He tipped his head and the heavy-set type bringing up the rear pushed forward. He grabbed at the offending arm with the intention of breaking it. It was a doomed attempt. His opponent was far too quick. A knee to the groin and a short blade stabbed deep into the biceps of his right arm, persuaded him to desist.
“That was his first and last warning, Sterrett. And yours.”
Niplock hesitated, torn between the desire to call up more men to teach this Moderator a good lesson, and the almost overwhelming urge to run away. Instead he decided to attack his bodyguard.
“You useless oaf, Ragman. Go and get that wound seen to. And send your brother through on the way. This gentleman may want someone else to stab, and I’d rather it wasn’t me.”
The bodyguard gave his boss a black look but obeyed all the same. Just as Niplock knew he would.
The fellow had turned up at Niplock Sterrett’s house while Niplock was enjoying a late afternoon fuck with his current favourite. How the man had managed to bypass both Niplock’s guards and servants and reach the upper apartments had not become clear. What was clear was that the man didn’t seem to care what he dared.
Niplock refused to be impressed. He dismissed the favourite, dragged on a suitable gown and, after ringing a bell, ordered a servant to bring wine and cakes. It was a display of the calmness in adversity he’d perfected over the years. Usually it more than made up for his lack of physical strength or any prowess with weapons.
But this fellow seemed merely amused by Niplock’s show of unconcern. Content to wait for the refreshments he poked around looking at the ornaments and paintings. Niplock wondered if he would ever speak. Now he sauntered over to a table and took an apple from a fruit bowl.
“Are they any good?”
“The best you can get in River’s Twist, of course.”
The man took a bite, and then spat it out. “Things seem to taste a little off in this city.”
The chewed apple had fallen on a fine Hyrcana rug. Niplock desperately wanted to clean it off but knew he mustn’t. Luckily the servant arrived with the wine.
“Clean that up before you go.” Niplock poured a generous glass and passed it over to his visitor. “Perhaps this Furedi will taste better.”
The man took in the bouquet before taking a sip. “It is good. Expensive. You like to live well. Do you want money? A lot of it?”
Niplock pursed his lips. “As it happens,” he said, “I am already blessed with considerable wealth.”
“Yes, I heard, all stolen from the people of this city you pretend to govern.”
“I am the Regent’s Chief Commissioner. A role that lends itself to convenient understandings with good people of commerce.”
“And do those understandings involve bribery or blackmail for the most part?”
Well this was something new, Niplock thought. A bold move to enter a man’s house without invitation and then accuse him of corruption. “Have you been listening to tales about me?”
The man grinned. “Yes. From a mutual acquaintance: Malbur Bolsammo. He was ever keen to sing your praises. He gave me quite the life history.”
“Did he now? And do you find Bolsammo easy to trust – about anything? He is a gossip by inclination—”
“Last I saw him in Garrassa, his size was so great he could no longer take a sedan. Even if he could have fit in the seat, he was too heavy to lift. How his heart managed to beat was a mystery. Did it give out at last? Or was he stuck by some poor lad he’d abused once too often?”
“Surprisingly neither. He died in battle two weeks past.”
Surprising was the least of it, but Niplock quickly worked it out. News of Moreda had travelled far and wide.
“He was a part of this Black Company then? One of the four sorcerers, of course. And that would suggest Semmento was another. And the albino. But who does that make you? You don’t strike me as a sorcerer.”
“Never you mind. I’ll keep my name and business to myself. You forget, Malbur told me all about you. Apparently, you have a nasty habit of turning information into control. Let’s bring this meeting to its point. My client has a proposition for you. A lot of money is involved. Meet me at this address tonight at the time indicated if you want to know more.” He handed over a slip of paper. “Feel free to bring along your guards if you mistrust me. I don’t care either way.”
“But why should we make some mysterious tryst? Why not tell me what you need here and now?”
“I’m taking you to meet someone who can explain it all better than I can. Don’t be late.”
Niplock watched the man down his wine and then make for one of the windows as his means of egress.
“What if I choose not to come to this meeting?”
The man turned. “It is of no consequence to me. You may think of me merely as a moderator. If you fail to attend, I will attempt to moderate the anger and actions of my client. I don’t always succeed. Whether you come tonight or not, be assured there will be a meeting between you, sooner rather than later.”
The choice made itself. Better to get this one sorted out as quickly as possible, he decided, and so several hours later he made his way into the Low End with all the protection he thought he would need. But now here he was just about to meet this mysterious and probably dangerous client, one man down already, and fully aware that he did not hold the upper hand.
“Why did you stop so suddenly anyway? Just now, before you decided to stab my guard. It was as though you wanted to say something.”
The Moderator laughed. “Believe it or not, I was being kind. Not a common occurrence, I’ll grant.”
“Kind? How so?”
“I just wanted to warn you. He’s not a pretty sight. Hope you’re not squeamish.”
“Is Sterrett to be trusted, Morgan? This journey seems overlong already and I begin to doubt what we might find at the end of it.”
Their carriage had been rumbling along for half an hour, taking some time to escape the dirty tangle of streets that made up the Low End, their chosen refuge in River’s Twist. But now, after cutting through empty market squares, and the long Carri’bolsa with its grand buildings, their conveyance had brought them to the dusky boulevards of the western city.
Trant snorted. “You think he’d pull a fast one? After our little meeting yesterday? Not a chance. He’s too scared.”
“Do you have any idea how you look, even with the jacket on? You’re like the dead walking. He’s scared of you, and he’s scared of them too. Up until now all that ever mattered to Niplock Sterrett was money – making it and keeping it. But he’s never had to deal with customers like you lot. Right now, I think he’d pay anything you like just so long as you and these spooks get out of his town, and out of his nightmares.”
Chaldonie smirked. “Whether we go or stay, I think I’ll haunt his dreams for some time to come.”
“You’re probably right – you certainly haunt mine. When do I get my money? You said as soon as it’s done.”
“Eager to leave me, Morgan?”
“Look, I said I’d get you here, and arrange the meeting. I think that was very reasonable of me.”
“And a reasonable price you demanded, too.”
“What does it matter to you? Sterrett will be paying - according to the contract. The look on his face when he realized how it was going. Thought he was going to make money not lose it. Very handy you happening to know about his arrangement with Athoff, and curious you knew about these Blood Magi too. How did you get to know?”
“It is all part of the plan. My master and I had discussed the matter. Sterrett is working for the Regent, and the Regent takes his orders from my master, Sterrett knows it. The Blood Magi have a different allegiance but still they hold to my master’s strategy. Soon the war will begin. Our opponents will have help from Errensea. It will be a surprise for their wizards to come up against the best Lusk has to offer.”
“Do you know, I’m not really sure what that means. But don’t bother – I’m not interested. Let’s just get this done. Looks like we’ve arrived.”
The carriage had come to a halt. Trant peered out of the window. Dusk had given way to night. They had come to an unlit street lined with bulky buildings of many styles, their dimensions adumbrated only by the meagre light of a thin moon. The only thing these edifices had in common was a look of abandonment.
Trant helped Chaldonie out on to the pavement. “So much for Temple Street.”
“I like it,” said the sorcerer, “Churches deserted in their need. Perhaps they should have chosen a better God.”
“Ha. You think it’s a matter of religion? Not the case. The only object of worship in this town is gold coin.”
“Which is as much to say,” said Chaldonie with a grin, “that Ah’remmon rules them, whatever they think.”
“You doubt it?”
“Shall we go in?”
There were oil lanterns marking the side door of only one of the thirteen temples of Temple Street. It was a structure of pointed towers and high rooves, all made a little mean by this poor approach: five steps and a squat doorway. In the gloom the brick walls blackened by the smuts of two hundred years of coal fires, seemed to promise nothing more or less than anguish and sorrow.
Their approach had been observed. As they set foot on the first step the door was pulled back into the echoing recess of a modest entrance hall.
“Some assistance would be nice,” Trant called.
It wasn’t that Chaldonie was such a burden, it was just uncomfortable getting up close to him. One of Sterrett’s men came down to help, not looking happy at the prospect. He took a deep breath before taking one of Chaldonie’s arms.
Inside they progressed down a damp smelling corridor to a dilapidated door – the lower panels almost rotted through. Here Sterrett’s man pushed open the door and stood aside to let them pass. This was his limit. Whatever lay beyond was not for him. As soon as Trant and his burden had stepped through, the door clattered shut behind them.
The room they entered was remarkable. Lanterns with red glass poured blood onto the black and white marble chessboard of a floor. A double row of columns holding up the high ceiling defined the central procession. Each was made of basalt inlaid with a spiral of white marble that climbed from base to capital. The altar was all white. But an alien element had been imposed upon this scheme. Before the altar, facing outwards, stood a throne. It was not fashioned from marble or basalt, but of a stone more dense and hard, with a shade much like lead. It made Trant feel nauseous even to look at it.
They had entered through a door into a side aisle nearly level with the throne. Close by stood a table with a dozen or so chairs, and just beyond it a six-legged litter with handles at each corner, it’s bed just wide enough for a single man. Surrounding the table stood twelve people, men and women, in dark unadorned robes, some wearing hoods to keep their faces hidden.
None of the twelve offered to help as Trant manoeuvred Chaldonie into one of the chairs. None offered any sort of welcome.
“Does it offend you, Morgan?” Chaldonie cast him a sideways glance. “For myself I have no need of pleasantries. And besides, it is not in the nature of our hosts to offer any. These are some of the most powerful Blood Magi in all Asteranor. Lusk is depleted by their absence. They are not here to please me, and they are not here by choice. Someone more powerful by far requires their presence.”
“Your master, Uh Bib?”
Chaldonie laughed; there was some murmur of annoyance among the magi. “No, Morgan. Powerful he may be but Uh Bib is not a match for these twelve together. He might move them by persuasion and promise, but he could not command. Our friends are here at the dictate of their master, not mine.”
At this one of the twelve stepped forward. She did not seem amused.
“It is our honour to serve Lord Ah’remmon. And it is our choice to do his bidding. Even if that means offering you aid – whatever your sneering comments.” She took a seat close by and five others also sat. Their hooded colleagues stood sentinel. “I am named Mukhanda. We were told that you are the Randalan’s creature, Chaldonie. The thief, Sterrett, said you were damaged, but seemed incapable of explaining further. What do you want from us? Speak.”
Trant at least admired the straight-talking approach, but he saw that Chaldonie was unusually nervous. Maybe it was the pain. Undoubtedly the sorcerer had much to lose if this didn’t go well.
“Very well,” he began, “I was involved in a sword fight with the wizard Seama Beltomé. Had I recognized him sooner I would have avoided the contest.”
“That would have been wise,” Mukhanda agreed.
“His wrath was hot that day: his sword boiled my innards.”
“And yet you survive?”
“Not in any common sense of that word. This body does no longer function. It is merely held in time through divine intervention. I had no idea that such continuance could be possible, but the god made it so.”
“My Mother Goddess Karnimata. She is sometimes known as—”
“Bhandrakali, who is one aspect of Durga, and she is beloved of Ah’remmon. This connection speaks well of you.”
Trant rolled his eyes. He didn’t much go in for religion and Gods. Chaldonie perhaps missed the expression but the magus glared at him. Chaldonie continued with his explanation.
“As Karnimata she is worshipped as the Rat Goddess. I have been her servant now for many years and have been blessed with her gifts. I have rule over rat kind — either of this world or Daemonia — whenever I wish. And so, in my extremis, it was natural that I called upon her mercy. In answer she let her power flow through me.”
“And this stopped the progression of your death. Are you now immortal?”
“It seems that you do not need our help.”
Trant burst out laughing. His own reaction surprised him. The chief magus was outraged.
“Control your servant, sorcerer. In mocking you he mocks us all.”
“Sorry,” said Trant quickly, “Honestly I meant no offence. I’m a little nervous – in this company I mean – I’ll just shut up. Ignore me.”
Chaldonie smirked at Trant’s discomfort, as he would. “For my part, Morgan, I understand your amusement. I find it all a bitter irony. You see, my honoured hosts, Karnimata’s help was not unproblematic. In allowing her power to flow through me, she also allowed something of her nature to… to bless me also.”
Chaldonie pushed himself to his feet and stepped back from the table. He struggled with the straps of his jacket. Trant moved to help him, but the sorcerer waved him away.
“No Morgan, I can still undo buckles and buttons – one of the few powers left to me.”
Straps unbuckled, now Chaldonie began to fight with the large buttons sewn to his remarkably thick leather jerkin. As they came undone a glow began to escape through the opening, painting his normally white hands an unhealthy yellow-green.
Last button opened, Chaldonie drew open the breast panels to lay bare his problem. Trant tried to look away but failed.
They were silent, these Magi. Trant guessed they were too used to the unpleasant and bizarre to be unduly disturbed here. Before them the albino’s chest heaved and throbbed in the noisome light. And then it began to move. At first, lumps like the buboes of a plague began to emerge and disappear, but they quickly gave way to a roiling cavity forming in the centre of his chest, at first smooth, yet soon something like a gaping mouth bristling with teeth, and the teeth became heads with teeth, and much of the skin dissolved leaving the ribcage bare, and filled with hideous movement. Rats within tangled and fought each other for whatever flesh yet remained. They were eating him alive over and over again.
Chaldonie’s agony made him writhe and whimper. Desperately he clawed the coat together. Trant jumped up to help and between them they forced the buttons home, pulled tight the straps. The sorcerer collapsed back into his chair, and there he stayed, silent, jaws clenched, for a full five minutes before he could manage to speak again.
“The tightness of the jacket helps, prevents movement, though it makes it hard for me to breathe. It may be that I do not need to breathe. The pain, as they try to escape, is terrible. I am filled with her creatures, though I do not understand how or why. This body has become a host. Where once I, Chaldonie, had rule over the creatures of Karnimata, they now have rule over me. Your help is my only hope.”
The chief of the Magi said nothing, but a brutal looking, dark haired man at her side took up the challenge for them all.
“It is a pretty problem. Your best course would be to die, and yet you cannot, held in this existence by the power of the goddess. I suppose we could try to kill you.”
“No, no, I wish to live. Besides you must keep me alive – I promote your cause. My work is essential to your success. Can you think of nothing to help expel this plague?
“The Anaadii Kaal should speak,” said Mukhanda, looking towards the head of the table. Trant hadn’t really looked at the other magi, assuming them to be quite as normal looking as their chief. This man was not. He was a slight figure with white hair, nothing special in that, but his face was pinched and wrinkled and looked like nothing so much as an ancient brown leather purse. His eyes were like pin points. His hands looked like bones. His voice was high and cracked.
“Should we try to expel this plague, as you put it, we would be setting ourselves against Bhandrakhali. We will not. We could beg her help, seek her forbearance, ask her to withdraw, but that would put you beyond her protection and you would surely die. It is ever a poor choice to rely on the power of a god, however great or small. Do you think you chose well, sorcerer? I can almost hear her laughter. She has never been known for kindness.”
Chaldonie slumped in his chair. Trant took it as a sign of defeat, but then saw the sorcerer’s hands clench, as he forced himself into one last effort.
“There is one thing you could attempt. I understand that you would not wish to vie with even the least aspect of Durga. But you could cast your prayers higher. Have you not the capacity, between you, to speak to the very highest? My work has been ever to support your Lord’s purpose. I now beseech His intercession to right this wrong.”
Trant looked around the table. He expected fireworks, but the magi were strangely quiet. Mukhanda seemed oddly excited.
“Your request is close to blasphemy.”
“It is not so intended. I know from my master, Tarangananda uh Bib, that it pleases your Lord to enter into contracts. And that he is sometimes wishful to exercise his power upon this world. It is not for me, and not for you to withhold any possibility from your Lord. It is for mighty Ah’remmon to decide His pleasure and His course. Is that not so?”
The chief magi glanced at each of her colleagues in turn. Trant saw that some were smiling, eager.
“I believe the sorcerer has the right in this. This man recently carried a spechan stone, gifted by Ah’remmon to his master. Already our Lord must understand much of the sorcerer’s thought and intentions, and all his worth. Shall we then… shall we ask the question?”
Morgan Trant knew how this was going to go. He’s been to temples before, sat through rituals that gabbled on about nonsense and meant nothing. Religious types were the most boring and stupid people on all Earnor. It’ll be just the same here, he decided, even if these Blood Magi did have some power. Intercession? Not in a month of Fridays. They’ll mumble some so-called sacred incantations, quite likely drink some booze and pretend it’s blood, kill an animal maybe, or worse, anoint the victim, sorry – petitioner, and then sit around waiting for some miracle cure. And there may be one – perhaps one of them’s a healer, like young Hebog back in Dyffily. So why couldn’t they just get straight to it and cut out the garbage.
Trant settled in his seat at the table hoping he wouldn’t have to get involved.
They did seem to want to put on a show. Casting off their dark hooded robes the magi displayed quite a feel for the dramatic. You could say that their tunics were red, but that wouldn’t do them justice. Trant decided that they were the colour of congealed blood, just a little while before it would turn black. Each had a necklace: a silver chain carrying three, or four or six oddly shaped stones, each like two four sided triangles fused together at their peaks. He wondered if they were some indication of rank – the chief magus and the old guy both had six stones.
Each of the magi wore a leather belt from which hung a box-like leather pouch on the right, and a long sheath knife on the left - the knife hilts made of black steel. All wore black trousers and boots, even the ladies.
Two of them helped Chaldonie to lie down the litter and then carried him to the centre of the processional, his feet nearest to the base of the throne. On either side of the litter they placed many stemmed candelabra. If there was to be dark business here, it would not be hidden in the gloom.
Mukhanda came to Chaldonie carrying a tray. Trant didn’t much like the look of its contents. There was a short, hooked knife, a small bottle of liquid so dark that the candlelight could not tease out any colour, and another larger bottle that Trant took to be filled with fresh blood. There was also a bladder attached to one end of a tube, and a spike attached to the other. Trant decided to look away as the fluids were administered via the tube and spike into Chaldonie’s arm.
Instead he watched the other nine magi arrange themselves about the throne and altar, three before, including the old man, and six behind. The delivery of the fluids took some time. Nothing happened. There was no sign of animals or booze – it was even more boring than the usual nonsense.
After half an hour Trant’s bum was beginning to feel sore and he considered getting up for a quick turn about the hall, but then Mukhanda signalled that the preparations were complete, and she came to stand with the old man before the throne.
They started to sing. It wasn’t particularly good singing, but it was very intense, in a language that Trant could not understand. There was a progression to the litany that he could hear, with new elements continually overlaying what had gone before, and the song became louder and faster promising a crescendo, but on and on it continued, now falling back and then picking up once more. How they could know when to stop was not apparent, but in an instant the song ceased punctuated only by a single high-pitched cry from the old man.
The world changed.
Trant desperately gripped the arms of his chair for fear of being taken. Something pulled at him. The magi steadied themselves against the same force that sought to draw them all into the throne, because there in the back of the throne was a space. A space something like those rents in the world Chaldonie made whenever he called demons. But there was no demon here, and the space was no void. Instead it seemed brim full of existence. A different existence. And it was the density that drew them – up out of their bodies. Pull back as he might with all his will, though his skin and bones remained fast to the chair, Trant’s consciousness was leaking across the space towards the darkness. He thought he was lost.
But then in a rush of movement that was either something entering the darkness or something escaping into the free world, but was perhaps both, that rent in the world snapped shut. Trant was released to return to himself. The ritual was ended.
Trant struggled to come clear of the clouds of confusion. He understood none of it.
“What was that?” he asked of no one in particular. There was no immediate answer. The magi were drained – some were shaking, some sank to the floor.
The chief Magi, stronger than the rest, glared her contempt at Trant.
“Do you not know the Lord, your God?”
“I… saw only darkness.”
The magus turned away and stepped up close to the sorcerer. The two magi who had attended him throughout shook off their own torpor and began to unbuckle the straps of Chaldonie’s jerkin.
Trant had to see. He pushed up out of the chair and walked, none too steadily, towards the litter. Mukhanda pulled back the flaps of leather. The yellow-green light had gone. Chaldonie’s chest seemed whole, and stable, his skin the albino white it ever was.
“He’s cured then? How? What happened?”
Chaldonie sat bolt upright.
“Did you not see? Are you blind or stupid?”
“Stupid enough to be here.”
“You were very nearly somewhere else! Don’t pretend you didn’t feel it. You were drawn to Him. We all were, but it was me He wanted. Me.”
“And who do you mean by he? You’re not saying it was this Ah’remmon these black lot worship? All nonsense isn’t it?”
“I’d be very careful, were I you, Morgan.”
“What, you think these laughing boys will get upset? I don’t think they have the energy.”
Chaldonie swung his legs round and rose from the litter. He pushed up close to Trant’s face. “I was taken, Morgan, by the Rightful King, into his realm, into his embrace. He filled me and made me whole once more. Greater than whole, for he has settled a part of his greatness into me. It is not these missionaries you need to be wary of.”
Trant backed off a little. The intensity in Chaldonie’s red eyes was unsettling.
“You know what? I don’t understand a word you’re saying. And I don’t care. I don’t need any of this religion stuff. I’ve done my job and I’m done with you. Time I got my money, and Sterrett better have it ready. I’d wish you good luck, but I’m really not that polite.”
Trant knew that it was time to go, and quickly. He spun on his heel and marched off across the hall. Safety eluded him. Just as he reached the door they’d entered by he was taken up by some invisible, irresistible force and flung spinning and sprawling back across the floor.
Chaldonie stood over him. He poked Trant’s ribs with a toe.
“I’m not ready to go yet, Morgan. From now on you come and go at my bidding. Understand? For now, you will wait.”
Trant tried to respond but he could barely speak. It wasn’t the violence, he was undamaged, but as Chaldonie loomed over him, it felt as if a mighty weight pressed down upon his abdomen, crushed tight his chest. He fought for breath.
“Well,” he said, forcing out the words, denying the urge to vomit, “I’ll just… wait then.”
Chaldonie smirked his triumph. “Wisdom at last. I knew it would find you one day. Try to recover yourself, we have much to do.”
As Chaldonie turned away to conclude his business with the magi, the oppressive weight seemed to depart. Trant grunted and rolled over, pushed himself onto his knees. This was going to be bad, he decided, very bad. And he didn’t know what he could do about it. A man who had striven all his life to mark out his freedom had become a slave. But a slave to what?
© Wilf Jones 2019
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