Published by Ivan Popov at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Ivan Popov
Cover background image courtesy of JoakimOlofsson at DeviantArt
Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favourite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.
Table of contents
A shot in the dark
Jack stared at the distant glow with a horrified fascination. His perch on the top of the brick office building gave him a great view of the city center, and he’d been stuck there for the last several hours, watching what he thought was an unexplainable, but probably extremely dangerous phenomenon.
The dark clouds that had covered the sky with the coming of the evening had finished their downpour and were now simply making the departure of sunlight that much faster. Jack had found refuge from the rain in the lower stories of the building, creeping through the mostly empty rooms and rummaging in the leftover debris of fifteen years of looting. Now, however, all thoughts of salvaging had dissipated.
As his feet slowly got colder he saw another flash of light from the distant building that was the focus of his observation. The high-rise with a partially destroyed rooftop had drawn his attention as it suddenly lit up at sundown. It looked like a normal building with the lights on, except that it was in the middle of heavy Taint and there was no electricity there. The only possible explanation chilled Jack to the bone.
He had little time to think what to do as, several minutes later, the whole thing flashed angrily and a thunder-like scream was heard that rattled the city. Then it all went dark again. At that time he grabbed one of the signal flares that were to be used in case of danger and got ready to light it up.
Never endanger! The guards’ rule flashed in his mind. What am I to gain from this? He thought. I’m already here, close enough to see the thing. The closest friends are half an hour away, in the darkness maybe more. The thing is an hour away, but that’s if you walk. How fast do crazies move? Do they walk, or ride on Tainted cars along the streets that they practically own? Will they see the flare and come looking?
His mind went into stupor at the image of him disappearing in a flash of light. The safest thing to do was to stay put and observe. The flare went back into the pack at his side.
Another flash followed and then the building was alight again, this time with a duller glow that seemingly came off its whole surface. Seconds later a tiny figure flew out of one of the higher windows and plunged down between the buildings and out of sight. The weak sound of breaking glass reached Jack after the fact.
They are fighting there! He thought. Were the Haven guards there, or was he observing some feud that was to wipe out a clan of crazies? It was now too dark to see any more details, but the bluish glow persisted. As the night progressed it became more visible and ran up and down the high-rise in waves that gave Jack shivers. He imagined the glow spreading from building to building, coming closer and closer. What is that? A spell? A plague to kill their enemies? Entertainment? The last option was the most chilling. Are they celebrating the victory after they threw the leader of the opposition out the window?
The horrific fantasies continued rolling through his mind and became nightmares that made him wake up shuddering every hour or two. He didn’t notice when the far building had stopped glowing, and had just enough strength to spare to acknowledge the fact before falling asleep again.
The rain woke him gently, but as he regained consciousness the pains of spending the night propped on a cold, half ruined wall started getting to him. He started shivering madly, his body now requiring heat that was just not there.
Simple survival rules, Jack. What have you been thinking, sleeping in the open? He paused and stared out over the foggy city. I’m talking to myself now. Is this also a guard thing?
It was getting lighter by the minute and the Question was probably not far away. Jack looked over the edge of the roof and at the adjacent buildings to make sure there was no one there before doing some stretching exercises to get his blood flowing. The shivers started to slowly go away. He straightened up and stood there, waiting for the moment of nausea. It was no good surviving the night out in Taintland only to think the wrong words and end up as the next unbreakable window. Not that there are many windows left on this particular block, he observed. Mental predetermination, come on!
He sat down, closed his eyes and started to repeat the word ‘not’ in his head. It was no good for him saying it out loud, as it was the usual custom. He usually considered himself lucky if he didn’t puke. Having breakfast before the Question was unthinkable.
Not, not, not, not, not. The litany went on for several minutes, then his stomach twisted angrily and Jack swayed on the spot, slapping his hands down on the cold, wet concrete in order to not topple from the sickening feeling. NOT! he screamed mentally, drowning the words of the Question with it.
The concrete roof shuddered and Jack looked around in fright. The whole building gave a jolt and then sighed.
“Not.” The voice was weak, diluted in the creak of the wooden window frames and the cracking of the bricks, but it was still there. Then a cry came from below, making Jack jump and reach for his gun.
“No, why did I have to go?” Screamed the invisible person, high pitched, rough and tearful. “Why?” It then broke into sobs and became a bit more human.
Jack stole carefully down the stairs. There was no one under the roof, and no other sound was heard but the crying. The building had stopped rumbling at last. He looked out of a broken window. No one on the street too.
Another couple of stories down he thought he’d reached the source of the sound. It came from an empty room that he had searched on his way up. He tried to remember what was inside as he crept along the wall, the cold metal of the gun a weight in his hands. The sobs had now abated a little and another word came from the broken doorframe that he had just reached.
“Rain!” The voice almost made Jack jump away, it was so rough and pained. He stopped and tried not to breath too loud. He was too close, he had to do something fast or the person or people in the room would hear him.
“He asked… rain!” It was almost a roar, guttural and raw. “He knew!” Then a fit of coughing overcame the speaker and Jack decided that it was probably the right time to act. He tried to jump around the corner and point the gun at the creature in the room but he overdid the jump and hit the other beam of the doorframe with his left shoulder. His hands jerked and the gun went off into wall on the right, the shot deafening in the confined space of the room.
As he tried to correct his aim he realized the only person in the room was a small girl kneeling in the center of the floor. She stared at him with a frown. His jaw dropped.
“Why?” The girl said, her voice so deep on the vowel that it sounded like an animal growling. Jack nearly shot her.
“What are you?” he managed, while fumbling with the safety of the gun. He wasn’t going to shoot a child, even if she was devil’s incarnate.
She was now staring at his wet clothes. “Rain!” Her finger shot out and pointed at him. “I need rain!” She jumped up, almost fell down again and then half-ran past him out into the corridor and down the stairs. Jack followed her closely.
They emerged from the building into the dim morning light and spattering rain that the wind draped in waves over the street. Jack got his pack down and rummaged for the thin plastic raincoat that he’d gotten as part of his guard gear. The girl just stood there, her arms outstretched and her face turned towards the sky, the waves of rain drops running through her and soaking the ragged shirt and pants that she wore. Jack shook his head and cast the nylon over her, holding the other end above his own head. The raincoat hung between them like a tent, the water running down on both sides.
“You should get inside. You’re not dressed for this weather.” He tried stating the obvious as an ice breaker. The girl just stood there and watched him with interest. Her brown eyes studied his clothing and gear and he got progressively more aware of the rain that ran down the back of his neck.
Jack pointed back at the building. “Come on. I have some food too.” He made to move towards the entrance.
“You are human?” The question surprised him and he stopped and looked back at her.
“Uh, yeah. Aren’t you?” Would she tell me if she wasn’t?
“I am if you are.” Her answer didn’t do anything to improve his mood.
“Right…” This keeps getting stranger. “Let’s eat and then you’ll tell me where you were hiding when I came yesterday.”
This time she followed him, but slipped out from under the raincoat and tasted the rain, sticking her tongue out. A blissful smile spread across her face.
“I love rain now. I wonder how long it will last.”
Jack was going to ask what she meant, but decided it wasn’t worth it. There were more important things to know.
“Okay,” he said as they sat down on top of the drier side of the raincoat in the entrance of the building. “Are there other survivors with you? Where were you hiding?”
“Survivors?” She seemed to taste the word. The R’s roller out of her throat like the rumble of a car engine. “I hope most of them survived, but I cannot be sure. And I wasn’t hiding.” She pointed at him again as he took a travel ration out of the pack. “You were.”
“What? I wasn’t hiding, I came to find who was crying.”
“And you nearly shot me.” Her smile became mischievous.
“Uh…” The way they had met now came back to Jack. He looked down and busied himself with the ration. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. Your voice…” He cleared his drying throat. “It scared me a little.”
“Yes.” She tried coughing to clear her throat, but made a grimace. “It still hurts. But it’s way better than yesterday. Being Bound probably helped.”
“What do you mean? Were you a prisoner?” He passed her a piece of dried meat. The girl smelled the food and then chewed on it with a thoughtful expression.
“No. I was this building.”
“What do you…” Jack blanched. “You were Taint?” He tried to keep the disgust from his voice but failed. The girl raised an eyebrow.
“Isn’t this word used as a bad thing?” She asked. “Anyway, it helped my throat a little, so I’m grateful. It, and that is to say I, helped you too.”
“How did you help me if you were Taint?” Jack moved away a bit and left her sitting on the nylon alone. “You’ve been spying on the observa…” He clamped his mouth. The less you say to crazies, the less they can use against you. This was Fricks’ instruction for dealing with people who went around becoming Taint on purpose.
“I made sure that you were sleeping on the warmest spot of the roof. You… felt nice.” She chewed on the dried meat some more. “Next time bring a blanket though.”
“I have a blanket! And what do you mean I felt nice?” Jack felt that things were getting out of hand.
“Well, you were inside me, and I could feel you move around and touch stuff…”
Jack waved his hands madly to make her stop. She looked at his deeply blushing face in amusement.
“So,” he tried summoning some of his previous fear and disgust, but it wouldn’t come, “you admit you’re a Crazy then?”
She frowned. “I’m Ossa. It’s not nice calling people crazy you know.”
“I mean like a… a persuasion.” Jack stuttered.
“Well,” she swallowed the last of the meat, made a face and started massaging her throat, “I could call you a poor soul, which I can see you are, but I am not doing it. See, they teach us that people like you can take offense at that.”
“They? Who’s ‘they’?” Jack grasped at the opportunity to get some real information out of the Crazy girl.
“The elders of course. I have to get back now. I have to help the Gathering. Thanks for the food!” She stood up.
“You’re not going anywhere, girl.” The voice of Fricks came as a surprise to Jack and he whipped around to see the whole guard squad arrayed at the entrance. Several of them were pointing their weapons at the girl.
“You,” continued the old cop, “are coming with us.”
In their hands
They are not all bad, Ossa thought. The young man who had given her food at the start kept glancing at her in embarrassment. He even asked to be the one holding the rope they tied her with, but the fat man with the big gun shouted at him to keep back, calling him Peesee. He seems to shout at everything.
They moved quickly through the rain, covering themselves with plastic coats similar to the one Peesee had used to protect her. Right now, however, she did not need any protection from the weather. She’d liked feeling the drops on her skin before, mostly in the summer when they were warm and soft. Now they made tiny explosions of pleasure when they hit her. She felt euphoric and warm, even though she was wet to the bone. The water tasted sweet as apple juice, strong as fat soup, and still had the same old taste of almost nothing.
Is that what it feels to be human again? She thought, as the group went further into the suburbs. They were now walking between small one and two-story houses with lawns at the front. It certainly balances the terrible feeling of loss and pain when leaving a Vessel. She looked around at the scenery again. Was it her grief that she had felt, or the Vessel’s? She’d never thought about Vessels this way before.
But Hira said we needed to find what the Bound wanted in order to free them. And I wanted rain. She remembered the fuzzy thoughts that she had as part of the building. The feeling of rain was the one human memory that stood out from the rest of her. My last thought. My last desire. She grinned, and then laughed with joy. The world seemed to sparkle under the falling drops of water.
“What are you laughing at?” One of the men that walked beside her frowned on her joyous expression. “Are you on some kind of drugs?”
“No, Mister.” She beamed at him and tried to move a wet lock of hair away from her eyes. It was difficult with her hands tied together. “I just realized what my major desire was.”
“Really? Aren’t you a bit young to have desires?” He eyed her suspiciously. “Don’t you try anything on me, you hear?”
“Leave her be, why.” That was the tall, graying man on her other side. “She doesn’t think like you and me.”
“I’ll be happy when we deliver her to Hugh. I don’t want to catch any of her magicky stuff.”
It was the tall man’s turn to frown now. “There is no magic, why!” Ossa couldn’t understand why he used the word ‘why’ to finish his sentences. “You are talking like some vandal. There is only Taint, and her kind,” he pointed at her, “just goes along with it.”
“NO MORE TALKING!” The shout made the tall man wince, while the other one jumped and saluted the fat leader of the group. Ossa giggled.
“Laugh while you can, girl.” The fatty wiggled his eyebrows in what he probably thought was a menacing way. “You won’t be laughing when the interrogation begins!”
Ossa smiled and shrugged. Still, she tried to tone down her joy a little. It wasn’t smart to aggravate her captors too much.
After several hours the suburbs were replaced by an overgrown field. A lone road of cracked asphalt could still be seen running through it and going out of sight before reaching the horizon. They, however, did not follow the road, but took a winding path through the bushes. It led towards the hills in the distance. It was a rough walk and Ossa had to be extra careful not to trip. Falling into the bush with her hands tied wasn’t going to be nice and her euphoria had started to wane a little. The cold of the rain was getting to her at last, even if it had stopped raining in the past hour. Still, she didn’t have any other clothes so there was nothing she could do.
They entered the hills as the light has started to dim and Ossa was getting to the end of her strength. The little food that they gave her without stopping to make a camp or rest for more than a couple of minutes, although not much less than what she was used to, was not enough. It was the Binding and the endless walking that had drained her.
She stumbled over the root of a bush and fell to her knees as they were rounding just another one of the infinite tree copses that pockmarked the hilly countryside. The young soul who was walking just behind her bowed down with a worried look in his eyes.
“Are you alright? We’re nearly there.” He looked up but the front of the group had not stopped to wait. Another couple of men waited patiently behind them. “I can probably carry you if you cannot walk anymore.”
Ossa smiled at the proposition. “No, thank you. I just need a minute.” She looked up at him. “How far is ‘nearly there’? And what kind of a name is Peesee anyway?” She just felt good talking again, her throat had regained its raw feel lately.
The young man blinked while the man standing behind him chuckled and shook his head. “Well, the sarge can add one to his bamboozled crazies count,” he laughed.
This caught the attention of the rest and the voice of the leader boomed from behind the trees.
“WHAT’S TAKING YOU SO LONG?”
Ossa saw the fearful expression on Peesee’s face and decided to strain herself a little bit more. She didn’t want to get him in trouble.
As they rounded the trees an unexpected sight presented itself to Ossa’s eyes. The small valley between the hills had been dug deeper and was terraced so that a number of small houses could be built on the flat surfaces. The houses were surrounded by large gardens filled with vegetables and grains. The farms were ten times larger than the tiny ones that supported her Gathering. A lump stuck in her throat as she thought about her friends back there. No, she scolded herself, this is my Path. I need to learn what I can here.
The group reached the first farm and Ossa saw the fences that surrounded the gardens. They were wire, with thin straight lines at the bottom and ragged winding spikes at the higher parts.
“Do not try touching the fence!” Peesee said behind her. “Or you will die.”
“Why? Is it, uh, Tainted?” Ossa’s eyes lit up and she extended her hand towards the spikes. How do you Touch a Vessel that hurts?
“NO!” The young man grabbed her hand and dragged her back bodily. “Are you crazy?” His voice had gotten hysterical now. “I told you not to touch it!”
“Not Tainted, no. Just electrified. Fry you in a second.” The tall man that had stood up for her earlier was watching them with interest. “Bzzzt!” he added, imitating the sound of electricity and shaking his arms for effect.
“What artistic talent, Teajay!” said one of the others. “Didn’t know you had it in you.” This caused a lot of sniggers around.
They giggle like little girls, thought Ossa. “How do you get through if you can’t touch it?” She said aloud.
“That’s not for you to know, crazy girl. Hood her, Teajay!” The fat man had come up behind her and held her steady as the tall one slipped a dark cloth over her head.
“Is that necessary?” It was Peesee’s voice. “She’s just a girl.”
“Can’t breach protocol, private.” Ossa frowned at the word. What was private? The fat one ranted on about how dangerous she was.
“And she sounds like a bear. Gives me the creeps!” This was the one that thought she was a witch. She smiled under the cloth as someone lifted her up. They were afraid of her, afraid of her voice, of her people, of what she might do. They didn’t know anything and yet they were afraid.
But why? She thought as they carried her through the darkness.
The Gathering was a mess. Hira walked between the wounded and the bodies of the fallen. They won’t have their last Binding, she thought. Why do they attack us here? We don’t have anything of value…
“Wrong there.” The outsider stood up from his spot next to an empty bedsheet. His face showed he was nearing complete exhaustion.
“What do we have, Hugo?” Hira fixed him with an angry gaze. “We don’t have food, nor valuables, nor Bound weapons or any unique pre-Question items. And now we have even less.” She spread her hands around, trying to capture all the pain that surrounded them, to pull it away. These were her people. “We are now less.” She finished bitterly.
“Ah, see, now you’ve hit the nail straight on.” He looked around and sighed. “I don’t think I can do another Binding without running the danger of answering ‘yes’ myself.”
“Keep off it then. The people that could think straight enough to answer correctly did it at first light. You’ll be layering only confused and pained spirits on now.” And those are not the spirits that kept this place together this night. “Do you mean to say that they wanted to clear us out?”
“Yes. This one, the tall guy in the brown coat, has been busy lately. They also collected slaves from our small ones,” he whispered the last words, an unusual gesture for the man Hira knew, “but the main reason was removing us from this spot.”
“How do you know this?” She’d wondered many times at Hugo’s ability to know what the chained and poor souls wanted.
“I have ways. I’m about to show you one now, if you are willing to leave for a few days. A week at most.”
“And leave them without an elder? This could break them!”
“They’re already broken. Look around you, girl!” This drew some angry stares from the people nearby.
Hira’s face was made of stone. “You never care about the people, do you?”
“People aren’t the important part. The whole damn world is. It’s not something you can evade, or miss completely. I’m just having the big picture, all the time.”
“And it has made you cynical to the point of being antisocial.” She was now looking at the people again. She couldn’t let her attention wander for long.
“Never made me wrong, though.” He tapped her on the shoulder to make her look at him. “The broken crossing, in two hours. And tell these people to either prepare for another attack, or find a new home.”
Hira watched him go out the gates and get out of sight. Then she fought away a shiver. He hadn’t said the last sentence aloud.
The crossing was the intersection of two of the larger roads of the city. It was situated closer to the exact center where the largest banks and stores had been. Hira did not let her people come this way too often. There were too many wandering spirits that could shake a person hard. And distressed people had a hard time surviving in densely Touched areas.
She looked around the corner at the vehicles that waited patiently at the intersection. Their engines were running and the headlights were blazing visibly in the murk of the rainy day. The weather had turned from summer heat to summer storms.
She had to find Hugo. He wasn’t in sight, which was good, taking into account the number of active Bound nearby. Although, she thought, cars aren’t supposed to run pedestrians over, right? She was getting her courage together to just walk between the vehicles when they moved.
At first one of the directions cleared, just like they would before the Question. Then another started, the second in line actually honking to the first to make it move faster. Hira looked up at the street lights. They were long gone, and the road signs were covered by a thick layer of dust.
The last line of Bound snaked along and took a turn around the corner where she was hiding. She froze, not knowing whether to run or hide.
“Come on, no need to waste time creeping around!” Came the voice of the Speaker. Hira looked around the corner again and saw him standing in the middle of the intersection. Understanding crept through her mind.
“Did you do that?” She asked in amazement as she joined him. They started towards the city center at a brisk walk.
“Of course. Did you like the part with the honk?” He grinned at the look of confusion before she realized what he was saying. “It’s my art form. The lonely theater or lost souls.” Hira tried to detect any pride or joy in his voice, but failed. Hugo’s face actually got angrier as he led her through the partly overgrown streets. One of the small city gardens had been nearby and the trees and grasses were retaking the place back slowly.
“Where are we going?” She asked. “Or am I on a vacation here?” This finally got him to smile, although his face was a bit strained.
“A tower on the other side of downtown. Another one of man’s overcompensating achievements.” He shook his head. “People love high places for some reason. Madness.”
Hira walked on in silence for a while, but finally couldn’t stop herself from saying what was on her mind. He’s going to read it eventually anyway.
“Why,” she said, “have you been so grumpy after the fight? It’s almost like you didn’t want us to live to see the light again.”
“Why,” he mimicked her, pausing for emphasis, “do you talk like a lass from a medieval computer game? ‘See the light’? What kind of language is that?” He glanced at her to see if he’d managed to change the subject. Her pursed lips told him all he needed to know. She wasn’t letting go of him now, and there was nowhere to run. “The truth is, as that is what you’re obviously after, that I’ve come in resonance with your Gathering. Extreme resonance.” He put all the emphasis he could on the first word.
Hira frowned, thinking this news through.
“Isn’t that a good thing? You can feel the spirits better this way.”
“Exactly! And as I am sensitive to them to begin with, simply standing in the building is like attending several rock concerts at once.” He looked at her with narrowed eyes. “You do know what a rock concert was, right?”
“Yes, I do.” Hira smiled. “But it’s still a good thing.”
“And look who’s saying it. It’s good for a Gardener. They become one with the Bound in their location, dissolve their soul into them to do what they do. I,” he stabbed his chest with a bony finger, “have to be balanced. Enough resonance to feel them, and enough focus on my own existence to translate those feelings into human words. Something a Gardener doesn’t need, and usually has difficulty with.”
They passed through a pedestrian only zone, looking apprehensively to the sides. There were no apparent Bound nearby, but people simply walking along the street did not leave much of a mark when the Question came. Not until you stepped on them anyway.
“Can you feel them here?” Asked Hira in a whisper.
“Yes. It’s a free path.” Hugo pointed ahead and they quickly continued. “And you see that you need help with sensing them yourself. That’s because you lack resonance with them by definition.”
“That’s not true!” Hira frowned and touched the piece of piping at her belt. The familiar feel of her brother’s spirit was comforting.
“Yeah, anyone can resonate with a single Vessel that they Touch every day. Even the Chained. But it’s almost all you can do in that department. You have to be focused, extremely,” the emphasis was back again, “in order to free the Bound from their current condition. You have to know what and where you are! You’re like a mountain of willpower moving through a forest of jelly bean trees.”
“That’s a little too much, isn’t it? You showed a lot of will in the fight too.”
“You, my dear, will probably move oceans where I could barely spit right now, willpower-wise. That’s why I have to regain some balance.” He finished. Hira waited for more, but it seemed the lesson was over.
“How do you do that?” She ventured.
He shot her a sideways glance.
“By observing. Silently. Meditating. Don’t tell me you don’t have a trick for that.” He cut her off when she made to speak. “No, really, don’t. Don’t need to know. Also, we’re here.”
Hira looked ahead and saw a tall tower or concrete and metal at the end of the street.
“I wonder how many are keeping it standing after all those years.”
“No Gardener here though. So we’ll have to challenge the gates.” He frowned again and stared at the metal doors. “Let me do the talking.”
Put in writing
The manor lay silent in the moonless night. Its high outer wall was topped with thick wooden stakes, held together by steel ropes. It was meant both to keep things outside, and men inside. Beyond the gardens the main building was nondescript and functional. There were no architect servants, and most Unchainable did not bother with looks. Looks did not give you rank, or power.
The group of intruders did not make a lot of noise while scaling the rock wall. They were all perfect climbers, trained by daily survival in the rocky mountain region beyond the hills. Their gear did not weigh them down either: they left it hanging on the wall for the way back. As they crept through the garden and around the main building they got out their weapons. There were no shining blades or noisy chains, both favored by the plainsfolk. It was very doubtful there was a single magical piece between the blackjacks and coal covered wrist clubs that they hefted. Magic was good and powerful when asserting yourself for rank. Real battle required functionality.
They reached the servant’s quarters, their mass of dark gray and dirty black not drawing the attention of the unlucky guard fast enough. The lock was not a problem either. A couple of the attackers, one of them actually a woman, just pried the door off its hinges. There were no cries of alarm, yet. The group filed in the dark corridor, extinguishing the torches on the walls as they went. The last man was left at the door, taking the position and posture of the late guard.
There were no visible targets in the kitchens in which the corridor ended. Another of the assailants was left there as a guard. The rest split between the remaining doors leading out of the room without saying a word.
It was a quick search, punctuated by the weak cries of servants being incapacitated by the swift blows of the blackjacks. Finally there was a single door that wouldn’t open. It was smashed to pieces.
The witch servant was standing in the middle of the room, her unshapely figure covered with a ragged dress and several shawls with symbols stitched into the cotton. She smiled and the few teeth she still had shone in the candlelight.
“What a pleasure!” Her deep voice made the dark figures of her attackers spring into action. The closest one raised his weapon and fell upon her, his face twisted in a manic grin.
Time stopped. The eyes of the witch burned with unbridled power.
The wave of the mental blast blew the first man away into nothingness and pushed the rest back into the wall and through the door. When they recovered a few moments later the witch was nowhere to be seen. A shout from outside told them the inhabitants of the manor had finally noticed something was wrong. Their time was up.
“Where would they go?” Hurt was walking through the servant quarters, surveying the damage.
The captain of the guards, who was trying to walk side by side in the narrow corridor, shrugged. “They are not the smartest servants we’ve had. They probably thought they could hide in the city, or even the hills. One of Lord Tung’s patrols said they saw a group of men and women run in that direction. Unfortunately the patrol didn’t follow them.” His face showed exactly what he thought about Tung’s guards. “Not the smartest patrol either.”
“If you chased everyone that ran around you wouldn’t have time to sleep, Feldor.” Hurt looked through the empty common room they entered. Most of the clothes were left behind, the bedsheets were a mess. “I gather not all of them ran off?”
“No. Some put up a fight of sorts, like they didn’t want to go. It’s all a bit strange. We have a witness, the young cook, who says she saw a group of men enter from outside and free the rest.”
“They were breaking them out?” Hurt looked at the unmade beds thoughtfully. “Bring her to the kitchen, I’ll talk to her there in a moment.”
She left the captain and hurried along the well-lit corridors. There were guards with torches at every second door now.
I am not yours to control, Kiara had said. Was that what she meant?
The door to the room of the old woman was missing. Hurt stepped over the pieces into the flickering candlelight. Everything was as she remembered it, except for the empty bed. No, she thought, there is something else here. It took her a second to find what it was.
The pile of sheets on the table was now covered in scribbles. She gathered the paper up and read the top page.
It all began with a question, the words went, and it will all end with one. The times we live in, the middle years of uncertainty as to what the correct answer is, they will not last forever. People adapt to everything. They are almost at the point of comfort again. And once comfort is reached, people will start asking questions themselves.
Hurt shuffled the pages. There were twenty or thirty sheets in total. She opened the writing in the middle and read as she walked towards the kitchen.
To not notice how the world has realigned itself would be foolish to the extreme. The ones that were dispossessed, oppressed, , Hurt noticed how the word of her name was underlined, were left with the world to rule. They knew nothing of leadership, of honor, of equality. The twisted morals that had been forced upon them became their code of conduct. Power over people is everything, they say. It’s all they knew, and it was all they needed to recreate society so that they felt good in it.
Hurt reached the kitchen and looked up to see the servant girl standing next to the captain of the guard. “Tell me what you saw.” She ordered, while paging through the scrolls in her hands.
The voice of the girl trembled in fright. “They were many, ten or fifteen. They did not see me sleeping under the table. Well, I wasn’t sleeping, really, I was…”
The poor men and women who think they can escape their destiny, instead calling themselves survivors and believing they preserve what’s left of the pinnacle of human civilization…
“So I hid there and he walked around the room, looking in the pots…”
But there are those of us who will embrace the change of the world as the next step, the next challenge to the human spirit after society, war and technology… Hurt felt like she was lectured by the text, that it was now talking to her specifically, that it was written for her to read.
“They dragged them out, or carried them even, most of them hanging limply…”
Why do you think we make such good servants? The page said to Hurt, and she wasn’t sure that the words matched the writing any more. Her face throbbed painfully. Because we are weak? Let me correct you on this crucial point. It is because we teach our children acceptance. Hurt shook her head in disbelief. They taught their children to be better servants? It is the first thing we teach. Because you first have to accept the way the world works, in order to understand it. All the people, all the natural effects, all the reasons people love and hate each other for. You have to understand all of it, if you want to change the world. And this, Hurt suddenly felt colder inside, is what we teach our children. We teach them to change the world!
The pages burned her fingers and Hurt threw the improvised book in the fireplace beside her with a scream of rage. A cloud of smoke and sparks billowed out and covered the rug on the floor.
“YOU!” She screamed again, this time pointing at the shivering servant whose eyewitness story had been brought to an abrupt end. “Clean this up!”
Hurt walked out of the kitchen, her rage making everyone in her path cower and move away. The captain followed silently. He was used to her outbursts and waited patiently for the moment to pass.
In the fireplace the pages burned white with the heat, and the ink grew slowly red until it shone. The young servant that was still tending to the burned rug glanced at the book and stared. Then, mesmerized, she dropped the brush she was holding and slowly reached into the flames.
“It sounds to me like they were kidnapped, not broken out. Also, the guard’s neck was broken. I don’t think servants waste life when they can easily spare it.” The captain tried to sound calm. The General had just told him that the whole estate is under wartime rules until further notice.
“Who will dare steal from me, Feldor? They are all too afraid. No,” Hurt’s eyes burned with hatred, “it was the servants. The Shamen!”
The two entered the reception room and their footsteps echoed from the barren concrete walls. A line of messengers stood to attention in the middle of the room, each of them carrying a leather bag filled with scribing materials. They were squires, not issued an artifact weapon yet, but training hard in case an opportunity to prove themselves appeared.
“Write this down!” Hurt’s voice cut the silence like the flash of lightning cuts through the sky. “To all nobles in the Charter of Pain. I, General Hurt, call to you in an hour of need. There is a danger to the society of the new world, the society that we have built and strive daily to preserve. The Shamen of these parts that we call home have grown in strength and numbers lately. Tonight they ‘set free’ a number of my servants, most of them against their will. They killed one of my personal guards. With the same ease they could have attacked myself, or any other noble whose lands they passed through. This is what I ask of you now.” Hurt looked down the line of men and women madly putting her words into writing. On the other end the captain stood with a stony expression, almost to attention himself. “I ask you to put together three quarters of your men, and meet me at the Testing Square in a week’s time. We are going to wipe out all the Shamen in the city and make it safe once more. We are going to plunder all of their filthy dens and retrieve the magic within, to make us stronger than ever before. We are going to enslave their line for all eternity.” She could barely catch her breath now, but the rage of her pain had to find an outlet. Her voice was but a hiss in the dark.
“We are going to kill them all!”
Extra: Culture of the Survivors
Living through the first Question was a terrifying experience. Most of humanity took it as a random occurrence, a wandering train of thought that was provoked by whatever they were doing at the time. People asked themselves existential questions frequently enough that this one did not raise any suspicion. Accordingly, and in line with the main driver every living thing is used to, and that is, to live on, they answered positively.
Thus 99% of humanity disappeared, turned into bound spirits.
As it turned out, people couldn’t be chained for long, and they started unbinding on their own as soon as a month later. For most it was like waking from a nightmare. They had lived as part of a building, or a plant, or some item, almost losing their human side. They had been confined in a mental prison so harsh, that their inexperienced souls were unable to express themselves in any way. They had gotten free by a stroke of luck when a natural occurrence struck a chord in their dormant thoughts or emotions. They were never going to that nightmare again, and everything connected to it was obviously wrong. The world had turned wrong.
After a number of failed attempts to reclaim the cities most people reverted to the only thing left: survival. They had to restore civilization from scratch, using nothing but what they could salvage and learn themselves. High technology was prized above everything else, as were actual knowledge and skill that could make life good again. Humanity started climbing the technological ladder again, in villages and farms built away from former centers of human activity, but close enough to them that technology could be retrieved.
A discipline of denial was instated, and instilled in young children that could grasp the meaning of the Question and its dangers. Amazingly most Survivor societies around the Earth discovered that the youngest children never got bound by accident. They felt the Question, even though they couldn’t explain what it was exactly, but they seemed to never be affected by it. Not until it was explained to them that this was the greatest threat to people in the world did they start answering the call every time. At that time accidents were suddenly possible and they happened, so children were drilled to cry out ‘no’ or ‘not’ when the sun came up above the horizon.
People kept coming out of their spiritual prisons through the years, but the already established communities were reluctant to let them integrate ‘back into society’. They had spent too much time out of their human shapes and this provoked the suspicions of people beyond what had once been reasonable. The places and items that held humanity’s spirits were termed ‘tainted’, ‘polluted’, ‘nuked’, or ‘damned’. The terms and connotations varied, but the effect in the behavior of the living was the same: denial, fear, evasion, aggression. All these were aimed at the newly freed people, creating tension, and splitting communities further.
The lack of mutual understanding prevented the Survivor villages to help each other effectively in what was their shared goal: the recreation of the former glory of human civilization. They were left alone, to scavenge the cities under danger of Taint and ghosts, going slowly mad while fighting the hostile environment and the groups of raiders that had fed upon the fall of society. Their first goal remained their main goal.
The Questioned World (the world of Soulhazard) is a special flavour of spiritual post-apocalypse. I will be releasing its story in packages of three short stories, each targeting a specific part of what humanity has become in this world. Each volume will come with some extra material about the world, either general or targeting some part of post-Question humanity. I plan to eventually develop the world to such an extent that it will be possible to run pen-and-paper RPGs in it (another passion of mine).
Finally, I hope you have as much fun reading these stories as I had while writing them!
Ivan Popov is a fantasy, sci-fi and RPG fan with a knack for short stories and the desire to write something longer. He works as a bioinformatician in a medical research center, a complex job that probably takes advantage of his imagination too. He lives in Bulgaria, but his mind is always on an intergalactic journey or two.
Soulhazard, vol 1
Soulhazard, vol 2 (plus Slang of post-Q humanity)
Control, Subway stories 1
Weeping tree (only in Bulgarian so far, but an English translation is in the works)
Check often on my Shakespir page (see below) or your preferred retailer for the arrival of the next triplets from The Questioned World! Other story ideas are in development too, and I might eventually get to write the two Subway stories I have already promised.
Here’s how you can reach me:
Shakespir author page:
Subscribe and comment on my blog (more stories here!):
Connect on LinkedIn:
There is no comfort zone in the post-Q world. You might be going through your morning routine just to have a stranger spring out from the wall, or a self-driving car run you over because you crossed the street at the wrong spot, not to mention dark figures with clubs skulking behind the corner. You have to be very good at your game, in order to survive. If you know what your game is.