Last major revision: 10/17
When sun's up, the cursed go dead in the tunnel.
Their bodies sprawl as far as our lantern lights lead, casting grim shadows of crooked limbs against the passage pitchstone. Huddling their sinewy flesh into the rot of decay. They keep no coffins. Their graves are the damp and the cold. The darkness. They're actually fragile things, the cursed. Like starving animals. All instinct, no pause left for survival. The ash in the tunnel thickens, but still they keep coming. Folding themselves into the dust of their own bones.
Slaying them is simple.
I raise my pike, align the glint of sharp at their chests over their hearts, then thrust with all my weight. The body below me shudders. It unwinds so rapid, I pretend moments ago there was nothing there. Just another kicked up swirl of ash from my boots. I pause at the edge of light to roll my sore shoulders. Let out my shallow breath underneath the handkerchief tied around my nose and mouth. I move along the next body. Roll it face-up with my heel. Chest a brittle fret board for ribs like rusty strings. Raise my pike, align, thrust. It caves into ash. Tune-pegs and all.
The story of our curse is a cornerstone of tropes, ageless, the sort that can skip from one world to another and manifests itself in every story ever told in its wake. Its core is a doomed affair between two people forbidden to love. The man, bled from the cracks of time and space into a city sewn by magic. The princess, with eyes like the sun and the moon, hair like the path of pins. Her mother, the Queen who tells her daughter: I will kill him, if you dare keep him. The princess's voice is fresh silks of birdsong. She tells her mother: If you dare kill him, I will die.
So Queen kills man. Princess kills self. Man was not really dead, only rotting in the Queen's dungeons. Queen seeks him out with her blame. She calls upon the Raven, the witch from all our stories—the one who poisons our maidens, eats our children, or seduces wolves into swallowing our young girls. On a black moon in the pitch of night, the Raven carves the man alive with her own bare talons, wrenching him beyond death with a spell so sharp she stitches it into his bones. Man hungers. Man pines for living blood. Man is no longer man. Man is monster.
He devours. The Queen. The Queen's people. His own—who shift in death with his disease, crave his cravings. Finally—he even sucks dry the Raven herself. Witchy bones and all.
Raise my pike, align, thrust.
I miss, but the body stays stiff, unflinching. The cursed can't feel, not even at moon's up. I hike my pike from its chest with a grunt. Realign, thrust. Now the ash is thick enough to coat my light, the tunnel churning dim. I cough into the crook of my arm, peer into the darkness ahead, the passageway's endless outlines of bodies. I'm the farthest along. No one likes being the last between wherever the tunnel might lead and our only way back out, so Patti and I take turns.
Behind me, I hear her say something about stopping soon because it's nearing noon's sun.
They're onto us, Hana and the Council. So after this, we've still got to bring back a convincing day's worth of hunt, making sure to check all our traps. They separated Patti and I on our last river-watch. The warning wasn't subtle. They don't approve of the rumors they've heard about what we've been doing at dawn's up. Even though there haven't been accusations, I figure I already know what they'll say. They still remember the old stories, all the ballads. But so do I.
I move on to the next body, fell prone.
Its gone dead with its eyes still open—whatever color they once were, now sieved through cloud. It holds my look longer than I like, until I glance at others nearby in the dust of darkness and sense something amiss. I frown. The cursed usually wear rags, some half-naked, tatters actually rotting from their limbs. Though they never age, their clothes do. But the body below me wears a discernible short coat dusted in a thin layer of white-gray ash. Boots worn, the laces frayed—but tied. The clothes of a dead man. Only a fresh one, maybe a year or so gone—and we haven't lost anyone that recent to the cursed or the laneways. Not that I know of, anyway.
I hold my pike with both hands, using it to leverage leaning closer.
The outlines of shapes and letterings are just barely visible. Black velvet and black thread on black fabric, shapes the phases of a moon cycle rounding into a full circle, and embroidered in sharp messy letters along the shoulders, a single word: ahgvoslove. There are all sorts of sayings passed down from our ancestors, many of them in languages we might've once known but don't know anymore. C'est la vie. But this isn't one I've ever heard. It gives me a long pause, a double-take. Is it from the ballads—? Until transfixed, I mouth it aloud: "Ag-vos-love."
Then: a sensation I've spoken something I shouldn't have, an incantation, an evocation—
Its fingers twitch, its dead eyes blinking—I gasp, reeling with my pike, hand on the grip of my pistol, a breath away from a scream. But nothing happens. Or happened. I blink, confused.
The body lays still, the eyes the same, the sensation long gone. "Fuck you," I say under my breath, not sure if I'm referring to my stupidity, or the body. I roll my shoulders out, tossing a glance over one of them before I grip my pike with both hands. "Float on, Char," I say. I shake my head—glad Patti didn't see, and hook my boot underneath the body's shoulder. I rough it onto its back with my heel, this time not pausing to stoop to stare. I raise my pike, align, thrust—
Nothing happens. I stiffen, a prickling dread working somewhere from the tip of my head down through my spine, until I jerk my pike to the side and find I only missed. "Fuck you," I say, this time a little louder. I hitch the pike out, having to press my boot on its chest for more leverage. But before I can re-align, something grabs my shoulder, forcing me to turn. "Shit all!"
It's only Patti. "Did I spook you?" she says. She pulls down her handkerchief, grinning and revealing the jagged birthmark along her jaw and starts to re-tie her hair from her face. Her skin's warm, not brown like Riley's or pale like mine, but more like she's got sun's up underneath. She's always drawing everyone's eye. When she's out slaying or hunting, she wears her dark hair drawn up, her usual blunt-bangs across her high forehead pinned back with clips.
There's a rumor Patti says isn't true, but one every new hunter hears when they join our ranks. Before she could even walk, it goes: Patti crawled off and was discovered six lanes away from her caretakers at the Healing house, who weren't even aware she'd gone missing. Someone had heard her wails. She'd been at the graves of her mother and her father. It ends: when she was old enough, she didn't even need to go to the Choosing to find which sector she belonged to like the rest of us—but I know that part's shit all. I was there because I had to Choose alongside her.
"What is it?" I say.
"You didn't hear me?" she says, her grin fades at my bitter tone. "We're heading out."
Patti and I spent breakfast before dawn bickering about her decision to take Riley slaying with us before going out to hunt and trap. I haven't made any effort all morning to hide my frustration. Patti wouldn't hear sense and old Jax wouldn't take sides. Besides the fact Riley's too young, I kept telling them both—Patti interrupting to point out the two of us, at least, really aren't that much older—Riley's mother was a close friend of Hana's before she died. Don't you get it? I'd said, growing heated. Hana assigned her to our hunting group to rat us out! But Patti just shook her head, and before she could say anything—Riley was there, ready and bright-eyed.
I turn back on the body. "I've got one more," I say.
Patti's hand grips my shoulder, the pressure pulling fine, if you won't let up, I won't either.
"Leave it," she says, sharp. "We always bring back the best hauls, and we can't slack…" Then she goes on, like she isn't sure she means to, "Char, you know Riley's good—even better than good. Really, I know you don't like to hear it, but both of us know she's a far better shot than we are, maybe the best in our sector—and she's only sixteen. The directions favor her well enough—" The least of us all, I almost scoff, but Patti pushes on, "and we need her talents. Even if she tells Hana—so? We plead our case—and no one's going to argue we can't do both. Trap and shoot, slay the cursed." She catches my eye, serious. "Actually, I've been thinking. Maybe it's best everyone knows. Our shit all way of life, Char—it could turn around in our lifetimes…"
I study her, always surprised by her hoping. Unlike me, Patti never knew her mother or her father. They weren't even cursed. Her father died of illness, her mother—bringing Patti into the only world she could. But Patti never grew out of the kind of longing light we held as kids—that something made us special, that we were the ones that could change everything because the directions favored us more than others—her, most of all. Except—year after year my light grows dim. I notice how hard it is to get anyone or anything to change, how it's easier to focus on just getting by. I watch Riley—and even though Patti has taken us this far, found the tunnel against all the odds, got us slaying—I have doubts we're so special. Or the use of hope when it's so hard.
But, "Okay," I say, and I try to smile, try to bring myself out of my mood and put my trust in her like I always do—only it's not until I'm picking up my lantern light that I remember I still have my handkerchief drawn up over my mouth and nose, and the smile was for her, not me.
When we stop in some long ago forgotten alleyway, we're out of breath from running, our palms sweat-slick from squeezing each other's hands, afraid to let go. Patti looks at me. I look at Jax. Jax looks at Riley. We don't believe it. Can't believe it. But then we do, and all at once it skips across our faces, stunning Patti's worst of all—like she's been hitched with a tunnel pike, right through her heart. No one says we're fucked, but we're fucked. So incredibly fucked.
Moon's up. The stars are like pins pricking through bruises—and we're lost in the lanes.
Our hands let go. We begin shedding our packs in favor of our weapons.
I swing my curved knife into my hand, loop the hilt through my thumb and check my switchblades are in place in the strap around my inner thigh. I touch the fixed knife at my back, my neck knife, and my boot knife to make sure they're secure. Shedding the bandolier slung over my chest, I roll over the ammo caps and tip my revolver from my shoulder holster, taking the first three rounds and replacing them with short-range shotshells. I check my second pistol in my other holster. Reload it full. Ten shots, one in the chamber. During moon's up, pikes won't do.
Riley clutches her bow closer to her chest, curving her thick black braids over one shoulder. She presses her back agains the stone of the alleyway. "We're shit all fucked," she says.
Jax sniffs. He digs into his long coat for his flask. He only drinks when he's on hunts, and he never bothers sharing. Last hunt, his lucky one—the one passed to him from his father—went missing the way things sometimes do in the outside city, but I know he thinks I had something to do with it because I'm always sneaking swigs. Now we watch as he draws out his last drops of bravery, exposing the inked scrawl from behind his left earlobe: auribus tendon lupum. Holding the wolf by the ears. A saying aptly describing the Fucked Upness of All of This Cursed Bullshit.
"We're not fucked," Patti lies. "Look—we've been lost before. We always find our way."
Riley is unconvinced and Jax snorts, but says nothing. He shakes his head, dropping his flask and running his hand through his streaked-white hair, pushing back the bangs fallen from their tie. He flips open a shotgun he borrowed from someone in our sector, checking it's loaded. Owning a proper gun in your family puts fortune on your side. Between the four of us, we're armed twice to the teeth as much as any of the other hunting groups. But still—it won't matter.
"Why," Patti says, "Char and I were lost just last week by the bridge, weren't we, Char?"
I say nothing. It's true we'd gotten lost last week under a rising moon while shepherding Woodscutters back with their hauls, but Patti steered us right back in sight of the bridge in less than five minutes. Once we reached the bridge, we didn't have to worry. It's the one thing that's kept our lives fair in the inside city during moon's up. The cursed can't cross it, and even the most eager haven't been able to make it swimming the river waters. If it weren't for the coming of age ritual, you could end up a Forger, maybe a seamstress, and never bother seeing the outside city or a single cursed your whole life. But at sixteen years, no matter your chosen sector, you're taken to the bridge's fore tower and you're showed the way of things whether you want to or not.
"We're fucked," Jax nods to Riley, agreeing.
Patti's eyes are hazel, sometimes seeming like three different colors all at once. I try to catch them as she finishes reloading her own rifle, but soon find she won't look at me. I want to say something reassuring, but I don't know what—so I don't. Earlier, she'd taken down a doe and Riley, a stag, at least four points. Jax got three hares out checking our group's traps. I'm the only one who came up short, and it deepened my mood. But now it doesn't matter. They had to leave their spoils behind about four streets ago, once we realized the way back had shifted on us.
"We'll keep going until we can't go anymore," Patti says now. She leads our way, calm.
"Until we're cursed, you mean," says Jax. He blinks. His eyes are dark in the shadows.
Patti says something sharp, but I miss what she says, peering into the slated darkness ahead. I'm thinking about the last time I saw my father. The way his hand felt touching my face. There was the same darkness in his eyes as Jax, a resolution not really a goodbye—as if he knew I'd meet my end the same way he did. Left with no other choice but running like a rat in a maze.
At the alleyways's crooked mouth, we all pause, drawing in a heavy, collective breath. There are three paths to choose from, all shadow, all overgrown. We're waiting for the usual line.
"Which way?" Jax finally says. It's the question we'll always keep asking each other.
"That way." Patti nods, even though our ancestors taught us our answers never matter.
The first nearby shrieks run up the alleyway walls like cracking glass. The alley is so angled we travel through in a single line, our hands on each others shoulders the way we were taught when we were young. Back when we believed being taught this sort of thing would actually matter if we ever got lost. Stick together, we were told. Stick together and think only of home. There's an answering shrill, closer—until they echo around us. I always imagine what they might be trying to say. That way! Right here! Can't you smell the sound of their hearts beating? This isn't the first time I've heard their howls, but each time, I always forget to breathe.
I shudder as Patti stops. "Turn around," she says. Her tone wavers. She doesn't say why.
When I turn, I scrape my shoulders on the brick of the alley's walls and wince. The way is narrow. We learn early not to fear cramped spaces. Even on the other side of the bridge where it's safe, the inside city sits built up around itself, the houses huddling over one another for warmth as if they might fold in and roll us all up like an old scroll of ballad. Patti rubs the skin around my skinned shoulders with her thumbs, her hands cold, clammy. Stay brave, they urge.
Jax whispers, now at the front of our line. I don't catch it. Patti once told me she got in a nasty fight with him after she'd come of age, something about asking advice over some mundane thing, like which Forger to see about buying the best leather polish—and he'd flipped on her that he wasn't her directionless father and how should he know? and to shit all off about it. He'd later sorried up—but I could tell when she was telling me they'd never quite been the same since then.
Riley starts mumbling bridge. "Bridge, bridge, bridge…" she says, and soon we all join.
Even though we're snaking up the same alleyway we came from, it soon grows into an unfamiliar lane. In our city, our lanes follow chance. Fortune. Luck. Not logic Never direction. Jax takes a hard corner without warning—a brute technique meant to shift the lanes back into our favors. My heart flutters and I concentrate harder on home, on my guitars, on the sound of a strummed chord. My fingers pressing on the strings. I create a new song. A chant. Bridge, bridge, bridge. The darkness feels thick as ash even though tonight is a full moon on a clear path of pins.
We pass an alley so narrow I'd have to slide through sideways—I glimpse a smear of palm prints, red, rustling shadows—almost trip over the cobbles on my gasp, pushing into Riley. Our pace bursts. Now I try to think of a tune, any, the way I did the day of my Choosing—but then Jax stops and we crash into one another, and then we're turned around again, split, dashing.
Patti's gripping my hand so hard it almost hurts and I'm gripping hers. She can do this, I think, she found us the tunnel—she can find us home again. Corner. Once we're back she'll tell Hana and the Council to shit all fuck themselves. Corner. She's made us a new sector. The Slayers. Corner—a scream, a shriek! We falter only a moment before we keep running. I hitch into her, gasp when she stops. She lets go of me. Raise your gun. Line up your shot. Pull the trigger. Only there's no simplicity in any of this. There's wound thick fear. There's stifling panic.
During moon's up, the cursed move in flocks as fast and tight as birds. They crave only living blood, but sometimes we've even seen them eat their own. They chew and rip and claw us until our hearts stop, until we turn into them and forget who we were. Are. Could've been. They can't be reasoned with—their language is one of suffering. This is the way of things. Our curse.
There's a scream, guttural. The shadow, all elbows and knees, drops, doubled-over in the mouth of a toothy alleyway. "Chin up, Char, look alive, yeah?" Patti doesn't even sound scared. The song I hear now is of our beating hearts as she takes my hand, pulling me along another fresh lane. This time when we stop, it's because we're separated, something prying us apart, frantic claws—our grips are torn, flung. She hisses with pain and I lose breath against stone, but then I'm raising my revolver, lining up my shot, shooting twice—trained steady with both hands.
When our looks find one another through the swirling of white-ash, they're wild.
She lets out a little laugh and we leap together down the cobble, my hand finding hers.
The two of us keep up our show of strength. It doesn't take until another dodge, another dashing sprint, another turn into another unfamiliar lane—to notice Riley's no longer behind me. That Jax is gone. Raise, aim, shoot. Patti reloads. This time, she gives a battlecry and then we're back to back, and I have an absurd thought—we're not fucked—when her pressure disappears.
When she screams, "Charlotte!" and I twist after her. The thing is already gone, but—
"No," I say, but it comes out like an already dead thing. Useless because it can't fix this.
Her rifle slackens in her grip as she slumps against overgrown alley stone, her shaken hand reaching to her shoulder where her skin's split jagged, torn wide, trailing down over her chest. The darkness rattles, hisses. I blink. I can't think. Somewhere, there's Patti and I in the training yard after my father died, telling our secrets and making promises. If it does happen, we'll go down shooting, I'm saying, the look my father gave me the last time I saw him still raw. Patti nods—but it's all warped, slow. Ruined as her rifle clatters to the cobblestones, echoing.
"Lanes to your favor, Char," she says with a grin like the one she gave in the tunnel. All hope, all sun's up and everything's going to be fine—all lies, no apology. "Ash on the wind…"
Something catches my arm. I whirl, aim, shoot—I'm let go, it shrieks. Pop! Pop! Pop! The hissing turns into seethes, into howls. Pop! I miss, I miss, Patti cries! I turn, choking on my heart, choking on her name—something slams the wind out of me. Crumpling to my knees, I heave for air as another swipes my side—the pain a deep, wet stun. Patti's struggling, two of them fighting over her, clawing at her chest—chewing through her neck. "Your pistol!" I gasp at her—she still has it tucked in her holster, "Patti your pistol!" But she doesn't seem to hear me.
I roar, raise, aim, shoot, unloading my own second pistol's shots into its head and neck and chest and—I drop the gun, reaching for my neck knife. But I'm pulled—forced away by a peel of an electric sound. I twist, kicking in a panicked fit while swinging down my small curved knife from my belt in a hooking stab behind me. "Patricia!" I scream. "Patti!" The sound pulling me cuts, lets go—I leap towards the hunched shadows, so thick, I can't even see her anymore.
Slashing, I stab at skeletal backs, hook, pull, hit, tug, push—two unravel into ash and through the haze I finally glimpse her, Patti—convulsing. Her silhouette. The whites of her eyes rolled back into her skull. Blood bubbles from her mouth, dribbles down her chin. The curse, stealing her death out from under her. The sounds I hear aren't human. Some of them are mine.
Reeling from gory shock, I go limp into the pitch of darkness, caught—dragged like a corpse backwards by the same electric strum from before, my heels catching on the cobbles. My eyes flutter on a slice of black sky. The path of pins. My ears ring, cord to amplifier. Ring and ring until the ringing splits into a pitch as sharp as feedback, the spike of it like a slap. Go down shooting. I snap with a tremor, twisting out from the grip of the thing that's claimed me—pivoting to slam my knife down in a heavy arc deep into its neck—"Bethencine-row!" My battlecry is an old one in the forgotten languages. Not from our ballads. But from the warlords.
The feedback, all the sound—it cuts. But this time the thing curves, catches my arm in a vice-like strike. My knife clatters from my hand and I hitch from the power of its grip, so hard it strains—my mouth draws open, but nothing comes out. I don't move. I can't. The thing's eyes are drained by cloud, skin soaked by death. From his claw, a strange feeling skitters up my arm like wisps of spidersilk. His mouth twitches until it becomes a nightmarish grin. I've never been close enough to see—not all of their teeth are sharpened, but only a few tapered from their fangs.
The dead man from the tunnel.
Somehow I find a breath to scream—but it's stolen as I'm whirled free—my ears pop.
Not stopping to think what happened, I scoop my knife and sprint down another lane.
The darkness screeches, wails, lifts from the row houses after me. I turn another alley, another road—the cursed at my heels. I fly through a four-way intersection, up to my knees in weeds. Turn into a new path lined with whole structures swallowed by ivy. I pass trees split through roofs, branches bent through broken windows. We've used the overgrowth beyond the bridge as our hunting grounds for generations, but only during the sun's ups. Still—the way's changed on me. Changed so nothing looks familiar anymore—and the overgrowth seems thicker, wilder. Fleetingly, I wonder if my mother ran these streets. I wonder—or is she chasing me now?
I don't know how long I keep going. I'm caught by shadows. I break free. I sprint until I'm retching for breath and beyond, trying to find the bravery to stop, to let them take me, too. My dances are desperate, clumsy. I lose one switchblade. My neck knife. My boot knife. I scream hoarse from struggling, kicking, flinging myself sick through any connection of streets I can find, for once in my life—trying to get as lost as I can. My song is a punch-gut drop along a fret-board, the rhythm a quick switch, the feedback drilling my ears raw. The cursed dart out of sight—reappear—but there's a chord I can't shake. E tune slide out of the corner of my eye. So close I have the stifling sensation it's toying with me when I think I hear a laugh. The dead man.
He steals me out of the clawing reaches of the garbled noise of cursed, so rough he draws blood and I brace for his bite—only to be shoved down a new lane—and it keeps going like that, cat battering mouse, until I'm flung into a wide cobble, beat, beat, beat—and find the alleyway ahead stained sopped with Patti's blood. Only Patti's not there, and I'm alone. No Riley, no Jax.
I scoop my pistol from the ground where I'd dropped it out of instinct to not lose a weapon so valuable, but it's out of shots and I'm still fucked, I'm shit all fucked! I holster it, clumsy. My eyes sting. I'm going in circles. I'm going to die. I'm the burning in the hollow of my body, the straining strings along my bridge, the sweat down my fretboard. The sounds are so loud, bending, the tuners of my throat slip. Ahead, I see a skinny house barred by an ornate fencing. The ivy-wound delicate iron reminding me of the bridge's tower gates. I race for it like a finish line, like it's home: if I can make it there, a little further, no one will fault me for letting go. The shadows give chase. This is it. Here, now. I push, throw myself against the rusted iron—
My boot is caught. I seethe, heaving myself up and losing my last switchblade, held between my teeth. I kick at the tangle of cursed screeching below, keep climbing—expect any moment they'll follow, that they're bound to meet me on the other side and rip me apart, suck me dry. Gasping, I reach the fence stakes, weak-kneed. A strange feeling presses into me, one I've felt before, a cold spot, a sensation of somewhere, of being watched. Gooseflesh. But then it's gone, and I fall hard into the silence on the other side, expecting razored noise, expecting to be eaten and rise cursed, join Patti, join Riley, join Jax. In my next breaths, I'm almost aching for it.
But—the house—is gone. The fence is gone. The courtyard I thought I saw is gone.
I groan, standing. I'm back in the overgrown intersection I'd sprinted through before, only this time through my tears and whimpering snot, I make out a shape like an animal—a great wolf, I imagine, the sort from the old stories. Caught still. I limp towards a grove of pines stretching from the middle of the crossroads, where it seems to wait. I try to tell it I'm coming, yes, I'm coming, I'm coming, but everything I say is only a stammering slur. I brace for the starving dark to eat me before I can make it to him. Pull me into the chasm-lanes, from my death.
Reaper, reaper, I try to sing, I'm ready—take me, please, take me—but the wolf is no longer a wolf. I stumble through tall weeds, through muddy earth until I'm only crawling. The shape of the wolf is like a man—and the stun of this tilts the world from underneath me. I let go of the meadow and fall into the full moon sky. The path of pins smears out of sight when I slip up, up, up—and beneath me all the shadows dances a violent dance. My ears won't stop ringing.
(CC) ID 2016 423768 protected under attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International / will file a DCMA infringement report if copyright is violated