The streets came awake early in the City Below, and Beth came awake with them.
Bones was already outside as usual, snuffling impatiently. A shaggy mass of brindle fur from which two dark eyes peered, the dog had been called ‘Bones’ following a casual remark Beth’s mother made when they first took him in as a pup. ‘He’s nothing but a bag of bones,’ she’d said. The name stuck.
Mother was long gone but Bones remained with her. The pair lived close to the Thair, the great, dark river which brought both power and water to Thaiburly, the City of a Hundred Rows. For a home they claimed the upturned hull of an old row boat, propped at an angle to create an entrance which was made narrower by stuffing the edges with flotsam and rags. The boat had once plied its trade on the river, though it was now long past any semblance of being serviceable. Much of the paint had flaked away from the hull and the boards beneath were rotted and patched with cloth and tar and nailed-on scraps of planking.
The haphazard repairs were enough to keep out the worst of the wind when it came howling up the length of the Thair, as happened from time to time, bringing bitter chill on its breath along with unfamiliar smells that hinted of the world outside. Their home didn’t need to be rainproof. Rain never reached these streets but rather spent itself on the distant upper levels of the City Above.
Beth had only seen rainfall once in her life, when she and her mother followed the river to the city walls and caught a glimpse of the world beyond. The sheer brightness and greenness of everything had been astonishing, though Mother assured her that this was nothing, that she should see the world on a truly sunny day. As it was, the skies were venting great sheets of water, harried by the wind and beating down the foliage along the river’s banks. Raindrops had speckled her cheeks and she’d laughed for the pure joy of it, fascinated by the churning patterns the rain made on the river’s surface. She thought it a marvel. Of course, that had been before the war, before the city was closed; when reaching the outside was still possible for the likes of them – not easy, it had never been easy, but possible.
Beth went down to the river with her tin cup, to splash water on her face and to drink, washing away the lingering cobwebs of sleep from throat and mind. Bones came with her but, as usual, hesitated at the water’s edge, craning forward to lap up a little moisture while being careful not to wet his feet. Not for Bones the carefree plunge into the water that some dogs seemed to love. He always treated the Thair warily, as if not fully trusting it. Beth’s vote was with Bones. The river was a capricious friend, harbouring treacherous currents at its heart and seldom-glimpsed creatures in its depths.
Thirst quenched, she moved a dozen steps downstream, squatted, and eased the tension in her bladder. Feeling more comfortable, she set off towards the market, with Bones shadowing her every footstep. It never paid to dally. Beth had an established place in the pecking order among the nicks who ran errands for the stall holders and their suppliers and patrons, but she was under no illusion. This was a cut-throat world; turn up late and she would soon find that someone else had moved in to claim her turf.
There were others abroad already but the road was far from busy at this early hour, and the two of them became part of an irregular trickle of people heading marketwards, which was destined to become a steady stream within a short while. After recent events Beth was still a little sensitive of Bones, watching him from the corner of her eye whenever he wandered off too far. The dog had vanished for the best part of a day not long ago, worrying Beth more than she cared to admit, and the fear that he might disappear again hovered at the fringes of her thoughts.
‘Hey, river-nick, when are you going to put some flesh on that bony frame of yours?’ a voice called out.
Beth smiled. Ma West was already at her station, as always, selling fresh buns and loaves to the early risers.
‘What, you’d have me grow as fat as you, Mother?’
‘Ha! Keep a civil tongue in your head, girl, or someone less charitable than me is liable to cut it out.’
The words were spoken with a grin and all the while Ma’s hand was busy grasping for a bun from the tray in front of her. Having fastened on one, she tossed it to Beth, who caught it deftly.
‘Don’t you go giving none of it to that mangy mutt of yours, mind. He can forage for rats and spill dragons his self.’
‘Thank you kindly, Ma.’ Beth executed a nodded bow which might have seemed partially mocking but was not entirely. It paid to stay on the right side of Ma West. She was known throughout the streets and had friends and family everywhere. Now and then some street-nick or other – either desperate or ignorant – would swipe a bun or a loaf from one of her trays and make a run for it. None ever did so twice.
Beth bit into her gift. It was still faintly warm and redolent with the aroma of cinnamon, which she breathed in greedily.
‘You take care of yourself, river-nick,’ the old woman called after her as she walked away. ‘The Blade are about.’
‘I will, Ma, I will.’
Beth knew about the Blade, everyone did. They were said to be hybrids – part demon, part machine. They might stand like men and walk like men but word on the street insisted there was little else human about them.
The Blade came from the City Above and had been haunting the runs for the best part of a week. Beth had yet to encounter one in person, but she’d heard about them: tall, forbidding figures that stood solitary vigil on street corners, never answering questions, never even acknowledging those around them, simply watching. Watching for what? Spies, or so the rumours said – infiltrators sent into the City Below from outside to study habits and seek out any opportunity for subversion.
The Blade’s penchant for meting out their own brand of justice without qualm or hesitation had earned them respect and enmity in equal measure. Their actions were said to be sufficiently brutal to make even the toughest gang member quail. Whispered report of their deeds was everywhere and the streets had become an edgy and fear-filled place as a result.
Perhaps it was Ma West’s warning playing on her mind but something felt wrong to Beth as she made her way into the runs that morning. A shantytown of close-packed hovels and bewildering alleyways, of self-built homes made of scrap metal and salvaged wood bolstered by discarded plastic, sheets of corrugated iron and other cast-offs, the runs were home to the desperate. None of the makeshift buildings looked permanent yet most were destined to outlive their builders, life being the least permanent thing in the City Below. The runs spread out from this side of the river like an unwholesome stain.
As Beth entered the familiar maze she could feel an undercurrent of tension. The people squatting in open doorways seemed nervous, eyeing Beth and her fellow walkers with ill-concealed suspicion. Even those Beth recognised, people she saw regularly on her way to and from the market, seemed reluctant to meet her gaze. It was as if everyone had determined to keep themselves to themselves this morning.
Then she turned a corner and understood why.
There could be no mistaking the figure, though it was still some distance away. Tall, incredibly tall; a veritable tower shaped in human form, standing head and shoulders above any normal person. It was dressed in black from head to foot, garments that clung like a second skin, even to covering neck, face and hair; and the thing shone. The wan light of the sun globes seemed to be drawn to that dark surface, sucked in only to burst forth in spectacular fashion. The Blade resembled a statue carved from a single length of polished ebony more than anything alive. People shied away, shuffling to the far side of the street as they approached, so that the Blade stood in a bubble of stillness, giving the illusion that it was warded by some invisible force, as indeed it was: that of fear. Beth sympathised with her fellows; the mere sight of this dark giant was intimidating enough to make even the innocent feel guilty.
Of course, in the City Below, ‘innocent’ was never more than a relative term.
After brief hesitation Beth continued forward, going with the flow. As she and Bones drew nearer to the ebony figure, its head turned slowly towards them. Beth’s feet seemed to grow more leaden with every step, and it was all she could do to keep walking. She told herself that the Blade was simply scanning the street, that it wasn’t looking directly at her, but she couldn’t escape the feeling that it was. She began to regret not turning away and taking another route at first sight of the towering figure, but no one else had and to do so would have marked her as either coward or guilty.
As they continued to approach the Blade it failed to turn away or scan elsewhere. Beth’s nerves began to fray. When the statue then took a step towards her, they broke altogether. She spun around and ran, no longer caring what people might think.
How could this be happening? She wasn’t a spy, she wasn’t anything. This Blade had made a mistake. Unfortunately, Beth doubted the Blade was about to stop and debate the point.
She cut left, not wanting to abandon the confusion of the runs, hoping to lose the creature in familiar streets and alleys. Bones ran beside her, evidently enjoying the unexpected exercise.
A quick glance back threatened to unnerve her still further, as she saw how quickly the Blade was closing. That glance almost brought disaster. Beth suddenly found a wheeled fruit stall looming in front of her, too close to avoid. The old woman pushing it screamed in anger and alarm as Beth leapt high, one foot coming down clumsily on the top of the stall, crushing berries and citrus bulbs and sending green and orange globules flying. Her foot threatened to slip from under her in the slippery pulp but then she was over and still running. Bones barked gleefully at the game, his tail beating a happy refrain as he matched his master’s pace with ease.
Beth darted between shacks, right then left, grateful that Bones had gone quiet. She could hear the Blade behind her and despaired of ever losing it. Why was this happening to her?
She spotted a depression, where the ground had eroded below a corrugated wall. It would be tight but she could probably squeeze underneath. The question was, could the Blade? Snap decision made, she dived for the hole and scrambled beneath, pulling and stretching for all she was worth, tearing her shirt as it caught on sharp edges and feeling the skin scrape from her back as she forced a way through. A short crawl and she was out the other side of the building, Bones still at her heels.
In theory the Cities Below and Above were all part of one whole, but in practice they might as well have been different worlds, with Beth and her ilk forever barred from the higher Rows. The presence of the Blade did nothing to dispel the sense of ‘us and them’ and it was clear that those above cared little for the under-City and its inhabitants. Would the Blade simply smash through the building or would it detour around? It all came down to whether or not the violence this creature could undoubtedly mete out was wholly indiscriminate. If it wasn’t… The shacks formed a solid wall for some distance and she might just have bought herself a few precious seconds.
Part of her was still surprised when the Blade failed to appear behind her trailing shards of shattered hovel in its wake. Never one to waste an opportunity, she stumbled on, gathering speed as she ran across a muddy drain, trying to ignore the dank, foul smell, though it clung where the mud had spattered onto her clothes. Bones cleared the ditch with a single graceful bound. They ran between two more shacks and into another alley.
She had to think quickly. Where was this? Blue Claw territory. The realisation brought fresh hope, even as she heard the unmistakable sounds of pursuit closing once more. If street-talk was to be believed – which it generally could be on matters this close to home – the Blue Claw had lost a member to the Blade two days ago; a summary execution following a chase much like this. They would be itching for revenge. And the Blue Claw were not to be messed with.
Beth angled to her right, slipping between two homes and heading deeper into the gang’s territory, praying that the Claw were alert and prepared.
As hopes went, she knew this was a brecking slender one, but there was little else to cling to.
She emerged from between the buildings and heard scraping close behind, a sound which caused her heart to skip a beat or two – this close again already? She looked back in panic, and saw the ebony figure directly behind her. Fear spurred her legs to greater effort and she raced across the road and up a small bank towards another alleyway, looking back again as Bones barked defiance at the approaching apparition.
This time the lack of attention did cost her. She lost her footing on the bank, dry earth crumbling beneath her feet as they scrambled for purchase, sending her crashing to the ground. She scrabbled and hauled herself onward, turning to see where the Blade was. The tall figure stood in the centre of the street, not bothering to hurry now that its prey had been caught. Panting, scared beyond anything she had ever felt in her life, Beth pushed herself backward; a crab-like shuffle on the seat of her pants. Her back struck something – the flimsy wall of a building. There she stopped, realising there was nowhere else to go. Bones stood beside her, growling, hackles raised.
Beth found her attention glued to the Blade, this silent, terrifying nemesis, as it took a confident step forward.
Then came a dull popping sound and something sailed into view from behind Beth and above her. At the periphery of her vision she caught movement. A dozen or more youths materialised from the far side of buildings, from behind decrepit walls and discarded boxes, from around corners and other concealments. The Blue Claw!
The object in the air resolved into a large, weighted net. The Blade stood immobile as the net sailed out in an arc, unfurling as it plummeted towards the ebony figure. Beth started to laugh. The mighty Blade had been caught by surprise. It had no idea how to respond.
Then the Blade moved. Swords appeared in its hands. No, not in its hands but from them, Beth realised. Four wickedly curved scimitars, sprouting from the front and back of each wrist. At the last instant before the net completed its descent, the Blade became a blur of motion, arms flailing far too quickly for Beth to follow, shredding the net as it fell. Tattered remnants dropped to the ground like withered leaves in a gale.
Breck! That thing really wasn’t human. The advancing posse of youths paused, clearly as startled as Beth. The Blade swivelled to face the closest and took a threatening step towards him. He retreated backwards a stumbling few paces, then, as the Blade swayed towards him again, turned and ran. That was enough for the others; the whole lot of them disappeared, leaving the street deserted. Now there was only the Blade, Beth, and Bones.
Beside her, Bones had never stopped snarling, but to Beth’s horror the dog started to back away as the Blade came closer. He sidled along the building’s wall, self-preservation apparently overriding the instinct to protect his master. Despite the circumstances, Beth found the time to feel hurt; they had always stood together. Yet she sensed the dog was about to turn and run. The blade clearly sensed this as well. With an almost casual flick of an arm, it sent a saw-toothed disc spinning through the air, too fast to avoid. The disc buried itself in the dog’s shoulder. With a yelp, Bones collapsed.
Before Beth could do more than cry out in alarm, the Blade was there. It had covered the final short distance in no time, seeming to flow across the ground in an oily blur. Beth found herself staring in morbid fascination at the tips of two scimitar-like blades, mere inches from her face. Then they edged closer, until they pressed against either cheek.
Beth felt the sharp stab of their tips and realised that she was about to die. In that instant she was transfixed, unable to move, unable to breathe, her whole awareness centred on those two sharp points of pain. Perversely, the sensation brought her a focused and exquisite sense of being alive; perhaps because she accepted completely that these were to be her final seconds, that this would be the very last thing she ever felt.
It happened almost without her realising. She could still feel the blade tips pressing against either cheek even after they were gone. A short, truncated yelp from beside her registered before their absence did. Bones!
‘No!’ She screamed the word, even as she whipped her head around.
Before she had time to fully register what she was looking at a hand grasped her chin in a vice-like grip, turning her head forward again, allowing her no more than a fleeting glimpse of Bones’ bloodied form stretched out beside her.
The Blade’s face loomed large. Eyes that burned with obsidian fire stared into her own.
‘Look at your dog, girl. Look closely at your dog.’ The voice was deep, hollow as an old drum, and gravelly as if from disuse.
Beth found herself free again, free to reach towards Bones with her eyes and her hands and then to stop, not understanding. There was blood, yes, a pool of it spreading from beneath the dog and quickly soaking into the dry ground, but beneath the slashed fur and skin Beth’s fingers encountered something hard and sharp, and her eyes reported the glint of metal, the intricacy of machine.
She stared for long seconds, struggling to comprehend, then she looked back towards the Blade, seeking explanation. ‘What…?’
‘This isn’t your dog, hasn’t been for a while. It takes them a matter of hours to do this, that’s all. Man or animal.’
Then Beth did understand. She understood why the Blade were used to track down these infiltrators. Like knowing like: the demon-machine hybrid of the Blade somehow recognising, perhaps at an instinctive level, the organic-machine hybrid of the infiltrators.
Bones had been lost to her for days she now realised; ever since that time the dog had gone missing. Yet what returned had still acted like Bones, still smelt like Bones… Enough of the dog she’d known must still have been in there, to be used and twisted…
Anger and grief began to well up inside Beth; a rage which foolishly, irrationally, focused on the Blade.
‘So what now… You’re gonna finish me too? Fuck you!’ She screamed the words, gathering herself, preparing to spring at the monster no matter the consequence. The fire inside died as those twin scimitars reappeared in a flicker of movement, their points hovering before her eyes. She felt neither fear nor joy, only a sense of resignation. Part of her wanted to die, willing the swords to strike, to plunge forward and pierce her orbs, to spare her the need to go on alone. Her gaze fixed on their hovering tips as she envisaged throwing herself onto them, but something held her back, a vestige of self-preservation that refused to let go.
Then the moment was gone. The steel withdrew and the giant straightened.
Beth’s world had shrunk to encompass just the three of them: dog, Blade, and herself, her attention so tightly focused that she had room for nothing else and so failed to see the moment of impact, the actual blow. All she registered was the black form towering above her suddenly stiffening, jerking, and emitting a strange keening sound, completely unlike its speaking voice.
The thing’s skin, that gleaming oil-on-water hide that had shone with ebony darkness, abruptly went matt and dull.
Something erupted from the Blade’s stomach amidst a spume of blood and fluids and gore which spattered Beth’s face. She ducked instinctively, wiping away the warm mess from eyes and cheeks, but not before she saw a barbed pole emerge from the Blade like some crudely-birthed vengeful nightmare.
When she glanced up again it was to see the forms of street-nicks gathered behind the stricken Blade, to realise that two of the largest wielded the bulbous lance that had punctured the ebony giant, to note the coruscating ripples of blue energy that pulsed along the shaft of the weapon.
Still the pair clung on, though their victim tried to turn, to reach for the offending pole which had him skewered. Jagged fingers of energy crackled up and down the length, engulfing the Blade and dancing at the tip of the spear.
An Arkademic weapon from up-City, it had to be; something empowered by their arcane arts. How had anyone down here come by something like that?
The Blade’s legs buckled with agonising slowness and the giant dropped heavily to its knees. Beth scrambled out of the way as the figure fell to land face-down in the dirt. Its head struck the wall where she had sat seconds before.
No one moved. Everyone stared at the Blade to see if it would rise again, but it didn’t. Beth climbed to her feet, her attention divided between the toppled giant and the triumphant street-nicks, the Blue Claw, who were beginning to whoop and cheer.
Perhaps Beth should have been astonished to see a familiar face emerge from among the nicks, but with all that had happened she had lost the capacity for surprise. Ma West nodded to her and took the energy lance from the boy who still held it, for all the world as if the weapon belonged to her.
‘You all right, river-nick?’
Beth nodded, trying to reconcile the homely old woman she knew – the neighbour who doled out pastries of a morning – with the person who stood before her now, comfortable in her authority and casually holding an up-City weapon. She found that she really wasn’t bothered about the disparity.
Her thoughts returned to the dog-shaped hole that had been punched through her heart. Ignoring the felled Blade she shuffled over to slump beside the broken husk which had been her closest friend, her companion for much of her life.
Musical instruments appeared from somewhere, crudely made things for the most part – makeshift drums formed from rusting tins and animal skins stretched over boxes, ingeniously assembled lutes and fiddles. Among these were a few more professional looking ones – castoffs and reject, weary and battered now but still sounding sweet. There was drink too. Jugs were being freely passed around. The street-nicks were dancing and singing, their numbers having swelled so that the whole street seemed filled with prancing figures. Not just the Blue Claw, there were too many for that. Others had gathered to celebrate, drawn by news of the great victory: the demise of a Blade.
It was broad daylight with the sun globes still ablaze, yet people were partying for all they were worth. Beth was untouched by it all; an island of numbness in the midst of the revelry.
After a while Ma West came over to her. ‘You can’t stay there all day, river-nick. The market’s still waiting and, besides, if you don’t go and sit beneath that old boat o’ yours before day’s end someone else will come along and claim it. Then where would you be?’
Beth’s gaze flickered from the broken dog to the fallen Blade, and then back to the woman.
‘I don’t get it, Ma,’ she said. ‘Aren’t the Blade supposed to be on our side?’
‘Thaiss, whatever gave you that idea, kid? They’re not from our world, they’re from up there!’ and she pointed towards the cavern ceiling high above. ‘They’re here to fight some stupid war… Do you even know what the war’s about, eh?’
Beth shook her head.
‘No, no more do any of us. Not our concern, not our fight. We’ve more important things to worry about, more immediate things, like where the next meal’s comin’ from.’
The old woman turned her head and spat. ‘Doesn’t stop ’em though, those up-City who govern us. They send the breckin’ Blade down here, to strut around and lord it over us, killin’ folk without pause or explanation… How can they be on our side, eh? Meddlers from the City Above or spies from beyond the walls, they’re all the same to us, outsiders every one… And we don’t want nothin’ to do with any of ’em. Right, kid?’
Beth’s mouth twitched. For an instant she wanted to smile but her lips didn’t seem to remember how. ‘Right,’ she managed.
‘Now come on, let’s get you home.’
‘Maybe we’ll forget about the market for today. You’re in no shape. I’ll see to it that no one pinches your slot. Trust me on that.’ And she found that she did.
Ma West led her away, threading a path through the celebrating Blue Claw. Ma paused at their fringe to raise the lance above her head. It brought a fresh cheer from the throng.
‘We look out for our own down here, river-nick,’ Ma said. ‘We have to, ’cos sure as hell no other brecker will. Don’t you ever forget that.’
Beth nodded. She lingered, glancing back, but couldn’t see through the crowd of cavorting revellers to where Bones’ body lay. After a brief moment she turned away and continued with Ma West, vowing to never look back again.
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