[I’ve taken about a month off writing–my head was in a bad space and I just couldn’t concentrate. But I have started working on Gingerbread Wolves again. Here’s a bit that I just finished:]
Agony got us moving without any inspiring speeches and with a minimum of words of any kind. Everyone seemed to know where to go.
Catskinner walked point, striding with his predator’s grace down the center of the road. Behind us the Necroidim followed on their ridiculous Road Warrior motorcycles, the engines growling softly. Agony—her metal dragon walking for now—was behind them, flanked by the Blue Metal Boys and the Minraudim in two distinct groups, hot metal at her right hand, cold metal at her left.
Behind her came Ex and Precious in their battle bus, the Ambimorphs riding inside it for now. The Children of Horus walked behind the bus until we had passed the whitewashed towers that marked the gate to Nyarlenthotep’s domain, and then they launched themselves as one into the air, circling above the army.
We headed down the center of Primrose Terrace, past the silent rows of neat suburban houses with their perfectly manicured lawns sparkling with dew in the dawn light, and watched for something to come screaming down the empty street to try to murder us.
I was considering asking Agony which way to go, but Catskinner just turned left and headed down the middle of Primrose Way. Everyone else followed.
Do you know where you’re going? I asked him in my head.
to the heart of the maelstrom.
Great. I’d keep my eyes peeled for signs. The heart of the maelstrom this way.
Catskinner walked down the center of the road as precisely as if he were painting the stripe between the lanes, leading us deeper into Village Green. We left the Primroses and turned smoothly onto the first of the Catalpas. Shadows still covered the streets, but the sun peeked from time to time from between the houses, dazzling. It was going to be a hot day, I could tell.
“Be ready, Scout One says that something’s coming.” Agony’s voice came over the bone conductor circuit of my phone. It wasn’t quite her voice, though, it sounded mechanical.
“i am ready,” Catskinner said back.
“Single target, moving on a vehicle that appears unarmed,” Agony continued. “Let’s see what it does.”
Catskinner scanned the empty street with the obsessive concentration of a traffic light camera. Behind me the Necroidim fanned out and farther back I could feel the Blue Metal Boys and Minraudim doing likewise. We turned another corner.
It was at the end of the block, heading towards our army. A man on a bicycle.
He was riding towards the edge of the street, in his proper lane. There was something big slung over his shoulder. A canvas sack.
We halted and watched him ride toward us. He reached into the sack and pulled out something, a pale cylinder. Catskinner bent my knees in a gentle crouch, ready to jump.
The man threw the cylinder, but not at us. He lobbed it carefully at a house as he passed and the cylinder landed gentle in the middle of the neat lawn. It didn’t explode. It just sat there.
He tossed another one into another yard, then swerved gracefully across the pavement to deliver two more to adjacent lawns across the street. Then back to his original side to throw three more.
A Necroid behind me—a greasy fat horrorshow with a small fortune in copper pipe studding him like the spines of a hedgehog—said numbly, “It’s the paperboy.”
The man on the bike was dressed in crisp jeans and a T-Shirt that proclaimed brightly, “It’s a Sunshine day in Village Green!” The clothes hung limply on his skeletal body. As he drew closer I could see that his mouth was sown shut like the others I had seen.
He seem to take no notice of us. Behind me I felt movement, aimless, confused. They were ready for an active threat, not this.
The man on the bicycle wove neatly between the Necroid bikers, slinging a half-dozen more newspapers. Catskinner kept his attention focused on the figure, swiveling to follow his progress with my eyes.
He rode past Agony’s dragon without a glance, intent on his task of delivering papers. Just past her he swerved sharply, maybe startled by the wave of heat that emanated from the Minraudim, and went down with a clatter.
For a moment we all stopped and just looked at him. I could hear the engines of the Necroid’s bikes gently turning over. There was no other sound.
Then a metallic grating sound and the man on the bicycle dragged himself a foot or so farther down the street. His feet were still on the pedals. Dragging himself and the bicycle with his arms, he moved a few feet farther, the rasp of metal on pavement painfully loud in the pre-dawn silence.
He rolled half on his back to throw two more papers, one to each side of the street. Our people silently got out of his path. Then he rolled back over and began crawling down the street again, dragging the bicycle.
He was, I saw, bound to the bike, gleaming wire woven around his bare feet and the metal of the pedals. He can’t get up, I realized. Somebody wired him onto that bike so that he could never stop. He was stable as long as he was in motion, but when he stopped… this happens.
He dragged himself a little farther, paused, then moved a few feet more. He threw another paper.
The door to the bus banged open and Ex jumped to the street. He ran the few steps to the man on the bike and reached down, hooked his arms under the man’s shoulders and hauled him upright. Carefully he balanced the bike and then gave it a shove.
The man wobbled at first, but then he started pedaling and rode off smoothly, not looking back at Ex.
“Go!,” Ex shouted after him, “Get out of here!”
The man away sedately, lobbing papers at houses as he passed them. Not every house, maybe just more than half. He went around a corner and was gone.
Ex stared around at the rest of us angrily, then stalked across the street and up onto a lawn. He snatched up the newspaper and unrolled it, studying the white pages, then crumpled the paper into an untidy wad, throwing it onto the street.
“It’s blank,” he growled. “Every fucking page is blank.”
“Exquisite,” Agony’s voice came softly from everyone’s phone. “Let’s get moving again.”
Ex stared over at Agony, perched on the back of the dragon he had built for her. She smiled back impassively.
Ex stalked back to the bus. The door slammed hard, and a moment later it jerked into motion. We got moving again.
The sun was higher in the sky, but the light was wrong. It was reddish, not the brilliant gold that it should have been on a cloudless day.
A block farther on we saw a group standing on a corner. Four figures, three in male clothes and and one in a dress that exposed legs like broomsticks. They stood quietly, perfectly still, not moving to watch us go past. They did absolutely nothing and then we turned a corner and I couldn’t see them anymore.
A few blocks later on we passed another group, gaunt figures in neat clothes, standing still and waiting… for what, I couldn’t imagine.
Their indifference was intimidating. They paid us no attention, they just stood and looked at the silent houses across the street. I know that I don’t look like much, even with Catskinner pulling my strings, but behind me was a gang of zombie bikers and behind them was a woman in metal armor the cherry red color of a hot rod, riding on a mechanical dragon. At her side marched a squad of soldiers coated in glowing molten copper. Bringing up the rear was a bus full of porn stars in skin-tight rubber catsuits.
We should have made some kind of impression, but the quiet figures on the street corner scarcely seemed to notice us.
I couldn’t make any sense of Catskinner’s path. He seemed to know exactly where he was going, but it looked to me like we were just wandering randomly. At one point I was sure that we had gone around the same block four times, but the street names kept changing, even if nothing else seemed to.
There was definitely something wrong with the sun. The light was red and what I could see of the solar disk was much too big.
It was strange to be a passenger in my own body when we were just walking down the street. I was used to Catskinner using me as a weapon. This was something else entirely. My time sense was wrecked. My body was numb and distant and I couldn’t hear the clockwork of my heartbeat. I felt like I was drifting down an infinite corridor. It might have been hours since we started walking.
It might have been years.
Lights—shockingly white against the infected red of that unnatural dawn—and movement from up ahead. Something big. Coming towards us.
Slowly it rolled towards us, a bright shape the size of a city bus. It was a city bus, all chrome and bright blue paint. The illuminated sign above the big front window read, “Local Avenues”.
Catskinner braced himself in the middle of the street.
Get to the side of the road, I suggested. I don’t think it’s a threat.
everything is a threat, Catskinner responded with predictable cynicism. He moved over anyway, his attention tight as a piano string. Behind us the others followed my lead, moving to the right.
The bus pulled up and stopped at the corner. The door hissed open. No one got off. The driver, as skeletal as the rest, sat patiently. We watched him. He waited.
Then he closed the door and drove on.
I imagined the bus stopping for the groups that we had seen waiting on the corners, imagined the thin silent people getting on the bus, paying their toll, slipping into the seats and riding quietly down the street.
Where would they go? To work? Doing what? Maybe they would just ride around the streets and get back off on the corner where they’d started. And then what? Stand and wait for the next one?
The sun was half above the horizon now, sickly red and splotched with dark patches. We turned a corner and were walking straight towards it. Silhouetted against that huge red disk, quite suddenly, was a cityscape. Buildings, black blocks and spires, windows glinting red. It was hard to see the scale, but I was sure that it was bigger than the built-up area in downtown St. Louis. I didn’t recognize the skyline.
Is that Zenith? I asked Catskinner.
the heart of the maelstrom.
A van pulled up as we reached the next intersection, boxy, with a wordless illustration of a loaf of bread covering the sides. It waited obediently for our parade to pass by, then drove across the intersection and out of sight.