The wind blows a few stray hairs across my forehead, tickling my eyebrows on their journey to, fro and beyond, like tetchy damson flies in the breeze. The vista I survey from this window is the finest on the whole planet I’d wager. The imposing mountainous landscape interspersed with deep verdant valleys holds the eye tenderly as it ranges the scene. Few know it’s undulations as intimately as I, for I am of the land and the land is of me.
I’m tired, no, beyond tired. Has anyone ever felt the weight of such a burden as that which I tote upon my small spiny shoulders I ask myself? The future of a whole species. Survival or damnation. One or the other. That choice will make itself within the next few hours, I have not the time for idling, yet still I give my mind leave to wander for a while.
Resting one hand on the stone sill for a moment to relieve the pressure on my feet a little, I close my eyes and allow my burning lids to rest upon my cheeks. The last three thousand miles have taken their toll on my body, especially my ankle joints, which are too slender to be punished so. I can best any animal or vehicle on this planet in a finite race, but eventually distance culls my speed and I am no longer a youngster. Ill suited to this task as I am, I have no choice in the matter. I, the most prized of all who inhabit this world have no choice. ‘Has it come to this?’ I wonder, but wondering is not my business for it leads me into seas that threaten to drown my sanity once and for all. If only I were larger of build, unfortunately I take after my mother in that respect; my mother Eleanoren, one of the most delicate and beautiful creatures ever created by the Star of Izar. I’d trade beauty for a meaty pair of loins and strong shoulders any day though. Luckily I am gifted with a sharp and keen brain, which has saved my thin and pale skin too many times to count. I have only ever met one on this damned planet who matches me in that capacity. The quickest of wits and the host of an imagination that blinds me with the beauty of its visions. It’s cold and kind capacity.
Him. He. Jannell. Banished now, exiled below, back to the war-torn dark-lands of our birth for crimes against the state, consumed with such determination that I not follow him and face what was considered to be certain death, that he left without a word. Vanished without a trace over night. Carefully. With a-forethought. Knowing the tracker that I am you see. My only peer in a lifetime that is already far too long. Gone. As I think of him I feel a mixture of warmth, pain, fury and hunger, each and every one of them immersed deep into my heart, stitched into my very soul. For even we sub-terrestrial beings have souls, though most humans spurn this truth and believe we are an uncivilised, heathen, accursed race. Accursed perhaps.
Hunger. Yes, I hunger for him in such a form it is as tangible as the mountains themselves. Every day, every night upon the hour I hear him, I feel him as faint whispers from his psyche aimed in my direction slip through the firmament hitting their target square on from what feels like an eternity away. Sometimes they say he’s going to return. Sometimes I believe it.
I feel a tear fighting its way bullishly through my heavy lashes and cease the attempts my heart is making to plead for some physical release. No. Not again. Not now.
The air smells sweetly fragrant from the Lendai trees shedding their pollen and blooms haphazardly in the soft breeze. I catch a few stray petals in my grasp briefly and take a long deep breath, enjoying the slight high that can be gleaned from their blooms.
Of the glass that was fitted into this aperture I stand before there is no sign now. Over four hundred years have passed since the day it was originally fitted. This edifice was once an empyrean library like no other, housing a hundred thousand (at least) tomes, documents, files, reams of information, every story ever written on the surface of this planet, every census for one thousand and twenty-seven years. A vast collection of knowledge available for all to access. It was sumptuous beyond belief. Shelves of solid gold lined hundreds of rooms, tiny sparkling diamonds set into acres of the finest Caramor worm silken wall hangings and bunting were draped across every ceiling. I recall its beauty at the beginning, the unveiling day when it’s parapets shone celestially in the morning sun, awing myself, my brothers and Jannel, guileless slack-jawed children that we were back then. Our chattering voices un characteristically silenced for a span, mouths hanging open like village fools in wonderment. Now it lies empty, stripped and raped of all it’s glory, everything confiscated by the Ministry of Freedom ‘for the greater good’. As evil a phrase as was ever coined.
Those six naive children, blinking at the glare of magnificence that day, of all of them only three remain alive – myself, my half-brother Grent, and Jannell, who travelled from the deep-lands to the surface with our caravan, unbeknownst to us as a family until it was far too late to turn back. A stowaway child. One who would go on to impact upon my life in a way not even the most skilled of our saga writers, our gifted story tellers of old could ever have conceived. For better, or for worse. Forever.
I have lost all but one of those I loved more than life itself…time takes his victims with alacrity, he is both a cruel and eager monger. He has pursued me fervently yet here I still stand. Still breathing, not out of luck just yet. I do not know how much longer I can run, but run I must. Both towards my uneasy future and away from my nefarious, yet well-meant past.
Those of my family not taken by the many plagues that afflict our kind when we rise, were systematically hunted and killed by the governing powers, albeit in the slyest of manoeuvres. Every case appearing to be unfortunate ‘accidents’, when in fact they were all revenge murders and I am held to account for their deaths because I failed to appease a cruel people and the result was utterly devastating. Retribution. I think of that word often. Of late ‘reparation’ follows it. I am numb with loss and have watched watch my compassion drain away in a stream of languorous bitterness. Numbed as a result of my own initial altruism and benevolence towards a people whose pain I thought I could ease.
I tire of it all. Did I say how tired I am?
As I stroke my hand over each huge block of stone I can feel the crenelations rough against my fingertips. There’s quartz in there, feldspar too, I need not even look to confirm this, I can identify any mineral or rock formation by touch alone. Pour three grain of sand onto my palm and I’ll present you with its composition and more; the name of the land from which it originates, the name of the beach or desert if required. If only I had both hands free, but I do not, so must stop the mounting frustration that threatens to oust the bleak task ahead of me. I am no longer in the business of self-sabotage. But what is my business then I imagine you ask? A dangerous undertaking. A rather singular occupation one might say.
A tatty looking crow flies through the windy aperture and comes to rest upon the sill. It hops over to me and gently pecks at my quilled knuckles. No harm is meant, quite the opposite for I know this rapscallion and he is no crow by night. “Nickel, I am disappointed in you, a whole day to track me down? You’re losing it my dear. Perhaps I should find another winged compatriot and retire you at last. Put you out of your misery hmm? Your 56th year is treating you ill methinks, I see only a shadow of the glorious creature you once were before me.” Nickel pecks again, with ferocity this time and draws a fine stream of blood. “Oh calm yourself, you must know by now I enjoy teasing you. As if any creature could replace my ever festering familiar” I laugh and stroke his many bald spots and sores tenderly. The common folk would assume rabies or potentially a carrier of the plague, and he is more than lucky to not have been blasted by shot pellets by now. The usual signs of abnormality are absent to the casual observer, so in that sense he is safe enough.
Nickel is my scout. He sees that which I cannot by day, enabling my safe passage across the continents, and I in return offer him a sanctuary in the night hours, when he transforms from a ragged old crow into a man. A man with a quite incredible body when standing naked, (a sight I observe every night), which is unfortunately topped with a crows head. A victim of industrial waste after drinking too often from infected waters. He also now has a four chambered heart and does things with his beak that beggars belief. There are more like Nickel than most people realise, all kind of mutations have been recorded, women whose arms become wings, children whose legs dissolve into skinny scaly claw-like limbs. Even I have been affected, but only marginally as I am not as the populous. Much like Jannell I am a different breed to the humans altogether, though I tolerate them well enough. I have developed lines of soft quills over my shoulders and down my arms to end of each finger. More lines flow down my legs getting tougher and sharper towards my feet, my torso has one band of them down the spine, and my chest has two small soft trails which begin close to my throat and descend to encircle my breasts and make for a v-shape in the place humans have a navel. I am philosophical on the matter, It could be much, much worse. I still have my own head for a start.
All the mutations are in some way connected to birds as you may well have gleaned by now. The citadel’s laboratories have used birds in medical experiments for centuries, and now it is time for their revenge it would seem. Anyone who displays the slightest mutation is reported to the Ministry of Health and Happiness and killed, after some ‘necessary experiments for the greater good’. Again the phrase tightens my jaw. I have witnessed many of these experiments, and would rather cut out my own heart with a rusty blade than go through them myself. The townsfolk regularly turn in members even of their own families in return for the gold that’s awarded after submitting such information.
Man is at his most heinous when greed sets in.
I keep Nickel safe and he returns the favour. We are a team and have become an odd family of sorts. One day I shall relay the manner of our meeting. Today is not that day.
The cutbeetles and cockroaches distract me briefly as they scuttle around the dusty floor of this cell. A huge black one crawls up my leg to the knee and then stops, antennae twirling wildly. Swaying with the very slightest vibration. We stare balefully at each other. The Blattodea and Coleoptera the know me well and will not harm a quill on my body. I am lucky in that respect as one as large as this specimen can pierce the skin and inject living parasites which are primed to devour ones innards with relish in a matter of minutes should they choose to do so. (Actually, despite their reputation (and to be fair capabilities which lie true), they rarely attack unless provoked. Unfortunately the fear of the people is such that they attempt to kill the beetles often. You take your chances if you live in ignorance.) I hold out one long finger and stroke it’s hard shiny iridescent carapace then press lightly. As I do so I close my eyes, enter its miniature mind and travel through the past 24 hours of its journeying, filling myself with information that shall make tomorrow’s journey all the easier.
Before I began to run I was known as ‘The Life Giver’ by most, Solace by a select few. In a land which is plagued by both religious celibacy, impotence, and chemical mutations, infertile women lie barren left right and centre. I have become the most priceless ‘commodity’ in the whole world. A miracle maker. An object. Valuable beyond measure, yet all respect for me now lies trodden into the dirt by a thousand desperate feet. Hence my present brief incarceration. Brief because I shall have escaped long before dawn.
And how do my miracles occur? I shall tell you; I don’t make it possible for the humans to conceive, no, but I do provide them with an heir, a daughter or son to inherit and carry on the family name, and occupation. The richer the people, the more desperate for heirs they become. But how do I go about this miracle I hear you query? I make them tar babies. I am gifted as my mother was, though why, I know not for she died before passing onto me the books of Atruin, passed down for centuries to each subsequent female upon their eleventh birthday, filled with our history. Sacred tomes. When she was killed the books were destroyed with her. Everything was destroyed in a circumference of a mile and a half in fact, so…. it is as it is, and here I am….as I am. Much of that which I know I picked up from travelling with mother, watching her work. Certain vials are asked of the parents – a quart of blood, a lock of their hair and fingernail clippings, a handful of earth from the land of their birth, sperm and menstrual lining, spit and snot. Piss and shit. From inglorious beginnings so life has often sparked into being. All the necessary parts go into the creation, plus tar, sticks and cut Black Pleurant root. It takes every ounce of my strength and feels like I’m pulling my own fingernails out one by one as I bring those little lives into being. I know the words off by heart now and after anything between two and forty-eight hours….a wailing cry from an infant is heard and the painstakingly constructed baby of tar and shit, becomes flesh and blood. As real as any ‘natural’ child, yet much like their parents completely incapable of reproduction. My capabilities only stretch so far.
I have been running for ten months, fleeing my half-ling brother Grent’s wrath. Not every tar baby works you see. Occasionally it happens to pass that the child produced is lacking the mental capability to function as a fully formed child. They lack a brain in essence. These poor tiny creatures are gathered up and taken away by the high courts to be experimented upon, or locked away in asylums for the rest of their tragic lives, for they have the capacity to feel. Which is the final damnation. I move earth and sky to keep these babies free from torture and out of the institutions for it Is a living hell, and put them to sleep painlessly and with care.
Unfortunately Grent and his dull wife Darboran could not produce a ‘normal’ tar baby. This had a great deal to do with his physiology being only half human, yet he would not heed my cautions, and ultimately threatened to end his own life if I did not help him and his wife to get an heir. Status played a great part in all for Grent, as a lower Lord patrition of the Valleys he must have an heir in order to not only retain his position, but rise to higher levels in state matters, other-wise he will be demoted, with honour, to one of the back water villages to manage a small holding, whilst a younger man takes his place in society. One who can provide an heir.
I did all I could to help it happen, I swear that on Izar Himself. More for Darboran than Grent, as her heart was breaking for lack of a child to love, to nurture in the face of her husband’s indifference. But it was all to no avail. It was abysmal, the tiny being was barely alive for five minutes before its poor demise. All life fled the body before any flesh or bones were formed. Darboran was devastated, for her their position in society was worthless compared to them having their own child, and her pain added to Grent’s anger and bitterness. He aimed and threw squarely at me the accusation that I denied them an heir on purpose in order that I might take his place, producing my own baby when he was demoted. This did not even make any sense, I made the children, not tend the villages, politics means nothing me and anyway, I will never have a child now. I will never create another life again. It is finished.
Raging with enmity and resentment Grent stormed out of their home with a parting blow launched viciously at me: he was going to inform the Department of Health and Happiness of my meticulously hidden abnormalities and see me dead before the day was out. I had no doubt that he meant every word, he has always felt aggrieved that I have powers that he does not, and his envy grew greener and keener with every passing year. So I ran. And I haven’t stopped yet.
None are known to escape the authorities unless it is unto death, and it is only the good fortune of my unusual capabilities, plus Nickel’s help that has kept me alive until now. And yes, I have been caught, several times, but only by fools such as my present captors, local small time bands of scuttlers. They aim to collect the bounty upon my head – more gold than they’d earn in a whole lifetime. But no such amateurs can hold me for long. They do not have the means nor the knowledge that the authorities are privy to thanks to Grent.
I have a fury boiling within me at his treachery that is cold enough to shatter flesh. It gnaws at me like starving vermin. Perniciously. Now is not the time to manifest it though. It must be coddled and held in store. I have wreaked revenge cruelly in the name of justice, my justice, in the past, and I shall do so again when myself and Grent next meet face to face for it is not solely I he has set the dogs upon: he knows my greatest weakness is Jannell, and so has sent forces out to murder him. Not an easy task as he also has the powers of our people, and can evade the army easily enough, however Grent knows the chinks in his armour, knowledge gained from the friendship they both once shared. Aeons ago it seems now. This shall not pass. I will not allow it to.
Time to cease the musing. I have been here before and know what is expected of myself. I kneel on the uneven pitiless stone floor and lean forwards, curling my long arm to extract the fine mazinite file I always have hidden, never found when all other weapons are discovered, secreted within one of the bones of my bodice, it’s edge now sharpened, honed to the sharpest of blades, and make the first cut without hesitation, instantly hitting the smallest of the carpal bones and slicing through it like a warm knife through butter. I only need take off two of the fingers on my manacled hand to be free of the arundalite manacle that is tight around my wrist, chains as thick as thighs bolted to the floor. My digits will grow back again anon, slowly, painfully. They always do.
The stone windowsill remains indifferent as I bite into it firmly, embedding my long curved molars to gum level – stifling the screams that beg for emancipation.
I know, I believe, that by the next equinox I shall be standing, submerged in his shadow, lost in his fire-filled eyes. And then retribution begins. For you see I do not solely possess words that create life, I also own those which can reclaim it from each and every tar baby I have ever brought into being. One by one the adults they have become over the past century shall fall into lifeless heaps of piss, shit, sperm and tar by the hundreds. Dust to dust. I have the future of the human race in my hands and my fist is closing fast.
Damnation it is.