Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Shadows Of Polaris chapter four

The Nick Of Time

(and other abrasions)

Shadows Of Polaris


Al Bruno III

Chapter Four

"Ok! Up and at'em! Naptime is over."

Matthew awoke with a gasp. Had he been holding his breath? It certainly felt like it. Audra was nudging him gently. He had half a mind to ignore her and go back to sleep. The dream rambled around in the back of his head. There was something unpleasantly familiar about the way it left him feeling- it was like his college days when he would wake up the morning after a cram session with information stirring disjointedly around inside his skull.

Hangover. That's it. I have a hangover. It must have been the brandy. Matthew thought as he tried to remember how to stand. It came back to him after a few aborted attempts.

"I swear I have never heard such snoring in my life." Audra was already on her way to the door, "You sounded like a rutting Vlodek."

"If you say so." he groaned as he followed her, steadying himself on the pews, "How long was I asleep for?"

"Three maybe four hours. You needed the rest."

“I don't feel rested."

"Stepping between realities can do that to you." She kicked the door open. It was eerily quiet. "Magwier calls it dimension-lag."

He paused in the doorway, even the starlight was too bright for him. His eyes found the Pole Star easily. It bore down on him, mocked him. "Do I get to go home soon?"

"Sure." She led him back along the path to the open gate. He followed her quietly, "Hey Matt."


"Are you mad at me?"

"For what?"

She shrugged, "For any of this?"

"No. You’ve been-" He stepped out into the street. The lights were on again but the streets were empty. After all the noise and commotion Matthew had expected to find bodies piled like cordwood at every corner. He had expected shell-shocked looking survivors and flaming buildings. The streets however were clean and empty. the houses were all still standing but their doors were torn from their hinges, their every window hollowed out and gaping. "Jesus Audra what did they do?"

"An example was made"

"All this over me?"

"Shhhhh!" She put a finger to her lips.

"Who's going to hear?"

"Just in case."

That quieted him a little, "This was all done because of me?"

"That and the guy in the bear skins." She explained as they hurried from one empty street to another, "He should have known better than to talk about the Pendaroth in a public place."

"What's a Pendaroth?"

"Nothing you need to worry about."

"Bullshit! The guy in the bear suit said that the Pendaroth would be an Outlander. They're after me because I'm an Outlander. Don't tell me these two things have nothing to do with each other!"

"You're not the Pendaroth. If the Pendaroth comes he will have chiseled abs." The sneer fell from her lips as she rounded the corner to see a Constable walking alone down the middle of a vacant street. She pulled Matthew into one of the naked doorways. They huddled in the shadows, pressed together, trying not to move or breathe. They watched the Constable stride on by, waiting until he had rounded a corner.

A few blocks later they were back among the populated neighborhoods. For the hour there were a lot of people milling about and it was easy to blend in. All the houses were painted in shades of red and pink; every house had large undecorated bay windows facing out into the street. Backlit by neon, men, women and the occasional shaved primate strutted before those windows trying to catch the attention of the pedestrians filing past. When a particular pedestrian did take notice they entered the house and a thick velvet curtain was drawn across the bay window.

"It isn't what I think that's at issue here." Matthew said, "What is the Pendaroth? I think I deserve to know."

"All right. All right. The Pendaroth is the First. He will gather the Valiant Ones to his side and lead them to victory against the Monarchs. If you believe that kind of thing."

"Do you?"

Audra hook her head "No. If the Monarchs are going to be stopped we have to be the ones stopping them instead of just lying low and waiting for some mythical version of the Super Friends to come along and save us."

"Good point."

"Besides you're not the Pendaroth."

"Yeah. You said before. The abs thing."

Leaving the red and pink houses behind them they cut a zigzagging path through slumbering neighborhoods. Soon the opulent looking houses and strange cathedrals gave way to slums and strange-looking doorway shrines. Their goal was in sight, Audra pointed to it, "Here we are."

"Great another wall." And this one was the tallest of all, at least sixty feet of seamless granite. "How are we going to get over that?"

"Easy see that building there?" She pointed to their left, where an entire section of the street had been blocked with a tall chain link fence. A tall square building slouched against the wall.

Matthew didn't like the look of the razor wire at the top of the fence "Yeah."

"There's a tunnel down in the basement. We crawl out and from there its just a hop, skip and a jump to Harnet's Tabernacle." she approached the fence and began breathing heavily. It sounded to Matthew like Lamaze breathing.

"Wh- what are you doing?"

She turned to him, "Give me your hands Matt."

He was going to demand to know why but the look in her eyes told him he was better off just going along with her. Audra's grip was strong and warm, uncomfortably warm. She breathed out one last time then began chanting. Flashes of light began dancing before Matthew's vision, it was as though he was caught in a swarm of fireflies.

My God! We're...we're glowing!

The light became painful, his eyes began to water. He wanted to rub them but Audra refused to let go of his hands, or stop chanting for that matter. All he could do was close his eyes tightly.

"It's Ok. You can open your eyes now."

He did. The glittering lights were gone "We're... we're on the other side of the fence."

"A simple spell of conveyance."

"Then why didn't you just convey us over the wall?"

"That is no ordinary wall. I try and pull a stunt like that and all that will be left of us is a thin gray paste."

"I'll take your word for that but why is there a chain link fence around the whole damn block?"

"The residents here practice anthropophagy, it tends to annoy the neighbors."


They walked to the house, there was garbage and debris strewn everywhere. A fine coating of greasy cinders seemed to cover everything. There were people everywhere but they seemed more interested in rooting through the ruins than in paying attention to the strangers in their midst. Matthew was being watched however, every few steps he seemed to catch Audra stealing glances at him.
"Is there a problem?" He asked.

"Matt, when we get in there I want you to keep it together. Don't flip out at what you might see going on. I'm not gonna let anything happen to you."

He slowed his pace, hanging back as she mounted the steps to the building. The place looked to Matthew like your stereotypical crackhouse, run down, boarded up and covered with graffiti, "What am I going to see?"

"Nothing you need to really worry about. They won't bother us as long as we pay the toll."

"You need my wallet again?" Matthew asked as he stepped up behind her.

She laughed a little and led him inside, "No."

By now Matthew had believed that he was used to the fact that the exteriors of Olathoe's buildings had very little to do with their interiors. This place however wasn't bigger on the inside it was cleaner. It wasn't just clean it was sterile, more sterile than some hospitals. The cool smell of antiseptic hung in the air. Every inch of the white linoleum that covered the floors and walls was polished. Large paintings and strange-looking statues adorned every wall and corner. These were real paintings, nothing like the collections of lines and colored blobs that the Dean had used to decorate his study. These were paintings Matthew could understand; paintings of oceans, landscapes and dignified looking people that were probably long dead. Hung on the wall between two of the paintings was a small woodcut in a silver frame. Intricate and faded it depicted to Matthew what looked like a man hard at work, A craftsman perhaps, wearing an apron and bent over his workbench.

The sculptures were all museum quality. The strangest of the lot was the one to his left- a purple trapezohedron set upon a tall marble
pedestal. Matthew couldn't believe that people with a house this nice would leave their front doors unlocked. "Close the door behind you." Audra whispered.

"Shouldn't we have knocked?"

"They know we're here." Audra exhaled, she was shivering slightly. "They probably smelled us from a block away."


A small crowd of people stood at the top of the stairs; there was a striking family resemblance. The women all wore black, some carried sleepy children in their arms. The men wore white, and a look of smug superiority.

Jesus! It's only a few hours until dawn and they look like they're on their way to a fancy dinner party.

Doesn't anyone around here sleep?

"We are not interested in new initiates." One of the women spoke, her hair was streaked with strands of gray. "If that is why you're here than you've made a mistake."

"What is your name?" Audra waited until they had gathered at the foot of the stairs before she spoke.

"I am Chesseni."

"Well Chesseni, we need to get out of the City. The Sentries and the Kuen-Yuin are pursuing us."

The older woman nodded thoughtfully but said nothing.

"So..." Audra started speaking again, "we need to use your tunnel."

"We have no tunnel." The tallest of the men said with a grin. "The tunnel is a lure, sweet smelling honey to catch flies."

Matthew gasped at the sight of his teeth, they had been filed down to sharp points. A quick survey of the greedy smiles bearing down on them showed they all had done this, even the children. "Uh, maybe we should-"

She silenced him with a wave of her hand "Listen to me! I am Audra DiMico of the Seventh Circle of the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues. I am sure we can come to some sort of an accommodation."

"Ah a sorceress." Chesseni said icily, "An acolyte really."

The lead man licked his lips "When was the last time we dined on the meat of a wizard?"

"Six years ago my darling Fergus. And he was a true Mystagogue, one of the Third Circle."

The 'anthropophagi' were moving slowly off the landing, insinuating themselves in every doorway, closing off every avenue of escape. Some of the children were drooling in anticipation.

Keep it together she says. How am I supposed to keep it together when they're eyeing me like a box of McNuggets?

"You ate a Preceptor?" Audra laughed a little, "That must have been gamy." She walked up to Fergus, meeting his gaze. Everyone in the room seemed to tense at her approach. "I know you can kill us. I know how easy it would be for you." She brushed up against him, he was a full head taller, "But let me ask you something, are you in the mood for meat or for flesh?"

Chesseni's face mirrored Matthew's expression of disbelief. Fergus just chuckled, "What's to keep us from taking you by force? From taking everything by force?"

"Nothing." Audra reached up and scraped the back of her fingernails against his cheek. "But we all know how much more fun it can be with a willing participant."

"Now I have heard everything." Chesseni said with a flip of her hair, her neck was covered with hickeys. "Haven't we toyed with these two long enough?"

"Maybe the toying has only begun." Audra pressed herself against him.

Matthew stared long and hard at that trail of hickeys, they wove a trail up from her shoulder to the back of her triple pierced ear. The earring that hung from that ear was black and familiar looking.

Fergus's smile became a leer, "What are you proposing girl?"

"What do you think? You help my friend here get to Harnett's Tabernacle-" She flicked her thumb at Chesseni, "And I'll give you something to think about when you're pounding away on the Bride of Frankenstein over there."

There were giggles at that and a few stifled gasps. Matthew saw the knife first, he shouted "Audra!"

Chesseni was on the sorceress in training, the point of the blade dimpling her throat. "You think your spells and your pedigree can protect you? I could kill you a dozen ways before you even began an incantation."

Audra kept her eyes riveted on her target "But Fergus is not going to let that happen. Are you Fergus?"

Matthew raised a finger, "Uhm, can I say something

"Let her go Chesseni." Fergus said.

"Are you out of your mind? You're going to let this little whore waltz in here and make demands?"

"Killing them would be wasteful. Our larder is more than full. And its a fair trade, we'll both get something we want."

Chesseni shouted, "I forbid this!"

"I second that!" Matthew added but no one seemed to pay attention.

Fergus pulled Audra from Chesseni's grasp. Audra gasped a little with pain, a trickle of red running down her neck. Fergus picked the girl up in his arms and kissed at the trail of blood. He walked up the stairs, a line of young men forming a queue behind him. "Luther." he called back, "Take the Outlander to Harnett's Tabernacle and don't eat him. Not even a taste."

"Just a damn minute here!" Matthew grabbed something expensive
and fragile looking and flung it to the floor. It shattered noisily, sending fragments flying everywhere, "She is not going to party with any of you! Do you hear me?"

They heard him and he sure as Hell had their attention. Audra's eyes were as wide as saucers, "Matt! What did you do?"

Fergus paused on the steps, he spoke without bothering to turn around, "I think perhaps you had better mind your manners. This
sweet girl is making a sacrifice for you. I'd hate for it to be in vain."

"I don't want her to sacrifice anything and I don't need your tunnel! We'll find another way out. Now put her down." He became aware of Chesseni staring at the floor; the knife had slipped from her fingers. Actually most of the anthropophagi were staring at the floor. There were chunks of purplish-red glass around his feet.

"My love." Chesseni cleared her throat uncertainly, "The Outlander has shattered the Amaranthine Crystal."

"What?" Fergus spun around, neatly smacking Audra's head into the banister. "What kind of a trick is this?"

"No trick I saw him do it..." Chesseni paused, it was almost as though she couldn't bring herself to speak the words, "...with his bare hands."

There was a loud slam as several of the finely dressed people scrambled into the drawing room and locked the door behind them. Matthew didn't know what they were so upset about but he pressed his advantage, "If you don't put her down I'll do worse than wreck your pottery. I've had just about enough of you weird-ass people and your weird-ass city."

For a few seconds Matthew just stood there glaring, feeling his pores starting to bead up with nervous sweat. Chesseni kept looking
from him to the shattered crystal at his feet. The boys on the steps waited, poised. "Show them to the tunnels." Scowling with disappointment Fergus let Audra slip from his hands, "And clean up that mess."

Chesseni bowed and gestured deeper into the house. Audra frowned at Matthew as they followed their guide down the main hallway to a slender metal door. There was an ivory key on a chain around Chesseni's neck. She unlocked the door and led them down a twisting stairway.

Tendrils of frost worked their way up the walls, their breaths came out in puffs of mist. Matthew could hear the whir of air conditioners on their highest settings and the delicate scrape of sharp metal sinking into something soft. A gagging sound erupted from Matthew's lips as they reached the bottom landing. Slabs of meat hung from glinting silver hooks, smaller portions were arranged on a long table. A squat figure in a leather apron was hard at work sloughing the flesh from a plump human leg. It was a perfect mirror of the scene from the woodcut. The butcher tensed at the sight of them but a nod from Chesseni was all it took to send the figure back to work.

"Oh my God." Matthew felt his knees go weak, "Oh my God."

With a sharp tug of the hair on the back of his head Audra straightened him up again. She whispered "Cut the dramatics. I'm on to you."

"They're… they're…"

There was a large cabinet at the end of the room; it brimmed with everything an aspiring meat dresser might need. Chesseni pushed it aside to reveal a downward sloping passage. "This will bring you out
beyond the walls. If you try to get back in this way I'll kill you both myself."

"Yeah, yeah whatever." Audra said with a wave of her hand.
Matthew followed her; he could feel Chesseni's smug gaze burning into his back.

Now this is an escape tunnel! He thought. The walls, ceiling and floor were clean and smooth, Matthew felt guilty for not wiping his feet before entering. What looked to be Christmas tree lights lit the way for them, Matthew was grateful they were there when Chesseni pushed the butcher's cabinet back into place. He'd blundered through enough shadows.

Cannibals. He still couldn't believe they were a family of cannibals. Sophisticated cannibals no less- with their satin dresses and silk suits. How could they live with themselves? Didn't they understand what it was they were doing? They were killing people and eating them. Why?
Ultimately all they were doing was turning people into shit. There was nothing noble or edgy about that- it was just sick.

The passage began to widen. They smooth floor and walls gave way to uneven nooks and crannies. Matthew could hear water dripping and bats squealing. The trail of lights ended at the mouth of the cave. He could see starlight just a few yards ahead. "We made it." he laughed a little, "We made it Audra."

The sorceress in training slowly turned around, her hands and her eyes were incandescent "Who are you?"

"Very funny." Matthew took a step backwards. He was savvy enough in the ways of Olathoe to know that shimmering body parts always meant trouble.

Bolts of bluish light arced from Audra's hands to her eyes and back again "Who are you? You're not an Outlander, you blew that cover
back there. You're little trick with the Amaranth Crystal gave it all

"What are you talking about?" Matthew could feel his fillings starting to ache. "What's an Amaranth Crystal anyway?"

"Who do you work for? The Monarchs? The Gray Mandarin? I mean to find out."

"This is crazy. We're almost there!"

"Don't pretend you don't know what I talking about." The light blazed from her, illuminating the cave like a searchlight.

He raised his hands to protect his eyes, "Well I don't. And stop glowing like that it's making me nervous."

"It damn well better be making you nervous." She lashed out with a tendril of energy. Matthew shrieked and fell back against the cave wall. "I should have seen it, I should have suspected! You've been playing dumb all this time. No one could be as lucky as you! No one!"

"Stop! That hurts!"

"It's supposed to hurt fuckwit. It's going to hurt worse before I'm done. I showed you all my escape routes. I showed you everything! What were you going to do with them? Sell them to the Regent?"

"Please Audra, don't do this." Pain skittered spider-like along his nerve endings, "I saved your life."

Audra laughed the scintillation around her darkening, turning bloody. "Bullshit. I didn't see that happen. Besides the day an inbred half-wit like Jack Diamond gets the drop on me will be a cold day in Hell."

"All this because I broke a piece of glass?"

"I can't believe I trusted you! Who do you work for?"

"An... an... Amaranthine is something... what is... Why?"

"Amaranthine Crystal is invulnerable to just about everything and don't pretend you don't know that!"

"But I don't..."

"Who! Do! You! Work! For?" Audra punctuated each word with a fresh burst of agony.

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