Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Codex Kalachnikova Preview #2: Chapter 1 Excerpt
The ruins of dead civilizations passed by with the miles; the same as everything else, they went one hoofbeat at a time.
The Priestess of the Knife was riding across the wastelands of Efrafa, an expression on her weatherbeaten face just slightly softer than the miles of crumbling grey hardpan in every direction. Behind her rode the Scum Lord, with his kalach resting across the front of his saddle while his fingers caressed the steel magazine’s distinctive curve. It was a weapon from the Age of Chaos, or perhaps before, and he was ever wary of craters and pits in its smooth black surface. The trick of making magazines for the kalach and it’s most common counterpart, the ayeyar, was long forgotten, and his concern was spelled out across his own ashen features as the two riders approached the ruined temple.
The Scum Lord was tall, broad of shoulder, with the long ropy muscles and hard jaw of the lifelong warrior. His skin was pale, ranging to almost a dusky grey, and his long hair was the color of deep dirt, brown running to black, tied in a horsetail with a leather thong. Two hard grey eyes gazed out from his widow’s peak, and his mouth was narrow with brutal frown lines, made to hold a cigarette and scold a bastard.
Just once in all the miles of Efrafa between his own holdfast and the temple did the Knife Priestess address him, to say “Remain vigilant and you will secure my blessings on your latest crop of bastards.” It was for that reason, rather than any sense of piety or loyalty, that the Scum Lord scanned the endless blanket of roiling brown clouds overhead. The hungry sky devil drones were believed to be long rusted silent; like the kalach, more relics of an age of decadence and a terrifying perfection in the arts of killing. Even the oldest of the lords agreed that one had not been seen in ages. But this was the District, the very nerve center of the ancients, and the Scum Lord considered it prudent to remain on guard. Twenty two years a Scum Lord, since earning the title through the customary patricide, and still every lesson in the Codex was subservient to the first. “No weapon has ever neutralized that which escaped the eye.” And so the Scum Lord fixed his steel grey eyes to a sky that still boiled with the rage of the ancients, and rode behind the priestess in cold silence.
The long journey had not been without surprises. He had seen flakes of bitter grey frozen water falling from the sky; he would never have believed such a thing, had he not seen it three days hence and each bitter cold day since. They were melting in the Knife Priestess’ dark hair as she rode ahead of him dauntlessly. Her dappled grey nimbly avoided the whorls and loops of melted stone and twisted iron on what the ancients had called The Way of the Belt. She smoothly pushed aside the rusted hulks of fire carriages with her vibro staff, drawing flecks of rust and shinier, newer metal from their surfaces in a cloud that swirled in a strange vortex around the humming metal tip. He watched her with some interest; it was rare that a holdfast lord was given a chance to examine the rare and eldritch weapon of the Sisterhood. She thumbed a set of blinking controls near the center of the six foot staff, the ends of which resembled long metal crowbars. Each time she pushed aside a fire carriage, the Scum Lord’s horse startled and attempted to bolt, though the priestess’s mount was obviously used to it and showed no reaction. That, like everything else about this arrangement, struck the Scum Lord as obscene in a way he could not articulate. Had he grown up among the ancients, in their dizzying Babylon of sensual pleasures and effortless killing at the press of a button, he would have another word for it-tyranny.
That was how they entered the District Necropolis, to the tune of hoofbeats and squealing metal.
The Priestess of the Knife was slender, as all of her ilk were-thin, but with just enough cleavage and rump for a nice handful, and a stern, classic face unmarked by pox or war. Her hair was her most stunning feature, a ripple of darkness that fell to her knees in an elaborate ritual braid. Despite all of this, she did not stir thoughts of lust in the Scum Lord, nor would she ever. The hard black stone of her heart showed too much in her gaze. Her eyes were hard green agates, and when they touched him he felt their oppressive weight. He was glad to ride behind. The Scum Lord possessed all the erudite appetites of the baseborn adventurer he had once been, with five consorts and thirty eight bastards all sharpening their knives for him. But he had never felt desire for a statue, and the hard eyed, cold faced woman riding before him could no more arouse his interest than the crumbling granite edifices of long dead statesmen and soldiers around him could. He would jerk his bits tonight, as he had every night for the past two weeks, and count himself lucky to have them still attached.
It was at the foot of one of these great crumbling monuments that the priestess brought her mount to a halt, the Scum Lord reigning in just behind her. They stood in the shadow of a white marble building, pock marked with sores showing the grey limestone beneath. The ruins of a headless man in bizarre clothing sat astride a great throne, a god or a king or both, and no sacrifices bled at his feet in these twilight days. Cold air whipped around them, and the Scum Lord drew his hawgskin coat tighter around himself. He felt no curiosity about the temple, only a kind of dull, resigned fear.
For her part the priestess did not indulge his nonexistent curiosity, and merely looked up at the temple with a sour scowl on her windburned face. Following her gaze, the lord saw ancient writing on the eave of the temple’s roof, writing he was powerless to comprehend. Looking lower, he saw a more vulgar argot expression in angry red cloud paint slashing across the stark white marble. It read, in holdfast pictographs, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” It made him smile, even here. The saying was an old one, origins long lost on those who repeated it, but it was commonly used as a caution for those who strive ceaselessly without knowing why. In the Scum Lord’s experience, no victory signified an end to struggle, only a different set of difficulties.
His eyes did not look down as he began to roll his cigarette. Like reloading the kalach that was his grim birthright, the motion was automatic, ingrained. Pressing it to his lips, he struck a Lucifer off the side of the weapons magazine, briefly summoning the stink-specter of sulphur. With a sigh of relief, he inhaled deeply. Stale smoke trailed skyward in a single accusing finger. Without stopping, he watched the sky, and the Necropolis, his grey eyes never still, constantly hunting for danger. His heart was never still either; it was swollen with a bitter longing for home, and the warm dozing afternoons on his holdfast’s roof gardens, attending by his consorts, one pleasuring him with her mouth and another packing his water pipe with fragrant hemp fruits. Talia was learning well, too-under Hyzenthlay’s patient tutelage, she had learned to take the whole of him in her pleasant young throat, and even in the cold the Scum Lord burned for her, for all of them. This line of thought was making his levees unpleasantly tight, however, and he shoveled dirt over it in his mind, with the inborn practicality of all such men. It prevented the thoughts distracting him from the unquiet grave sprawled out around him.
The dangers were not all fairy tales like the sky drone devils. Six days ago they had encountered a pack of wild hawgs. The beasts were not hungry, but that seldom mattered to hawgs, and it had taken two dozen rounds from the chattering kalach of his forefathers before the stupid beasts slumped down against the hardpan, snuffling red bubbles and glaring at him with their cruel porcine eyes. It was easy to see why they were the dominant predator in Efrafa-six feet high at the shoulder, with a thick ridge of spiked bone like a helmet covering their low slung, tusked faces, and a willingness to devour any flesh. Man, woman, horse or dog or child or rabbit or rat-all that crossed the path of the hawgs was meat. These hawgs bore no saddles, no brands marking them as mounts of the Angels, and for that the Scum Lord was grateful. He had an uneasy peace with some tribes of the marauding Angels, and had no desire for war packs to ravage his holdfast as retribution for some paltry damage to their herds. The hawgs were menace enough, to his thinking.
He had finished the cigarette by the time the priestess deigned to dismount her gelding. She tied its halter to a rusting pole that thrust at an angle from the pavement. Slinging his kalach the Scum Lord swung down and followed suit. Only then did she speak again, not troubling herself to look at the man she had effectively enslaved. “The Knifeborn will not allow us into the Hall of Speakers with metal on our person, my lord. Be prepared to remove your armaments inside.” That made him frown-it boggled the mind that she would threaten to withhold her blessing to bring along the most notable gunman in the region, and then insist he surrender his guns on arriving. Still, no use thrashing when she had him by the balls-it only risked tearing them off. He stepped into the open hall and approached the ancient statue beside the priestess, carefully stepping around the dead god’s bearded head.
She lifted her vibro staff and thumbed across the controls again; this close he could feel the pull of his rifle as she activated the device. A nail zipped across the room and pinged against one flat edge, as if by magic. She banged it once against the base of the great statue. There was a slow, heavy scrape as something deep within moved. Finally there was a soft sigh, and a door panel opened in the statue’s base, yawning down into inky darkness. Without hesitation, the priestess stepped inside, and the Scum Lord followed. He glanced backwards at the severed godhead, and suppressed a shudder. When he turned towards the priestess again, she was smiling at him.
“Do not mind Lincoln, my lord. He was King, long ago, before even the Age of Chaos, in what we call the Age of Dust. His form merely guards this temple; he is not among the pantheon.” Her gaze, heavy as an avalanche, drew forth the shudder he had struggled to suppress, and that seemed to satisfy her. A pinprick of light shone from the center of the staff in her hand, and the two stepped down into darkness.
They reached the bottom of the staircase in a few minutes, the cold gradually fading as they went deeper. By the time the narrow staircase ended and a wide, flat tunnel had taken it’s place, the temperature was pleasantly neutral, though there was an old smell of dampness and disuse that was nearly as oppressive as the cold had been above. The priestess guided their way with the staff, until they came to two very odd doors.
They were merely frames, each opening into a separate tunnel-grim grey metal, old but unmarked by the rust of the surface world, each with a pile of incomprehensible machinery and a stack of dusty baskets marked with three letters of the ancient script-TSA. Here the priestess stopped, with the weary familiarity of rote, and leaned her staff against the machinery. Then she began stripping off her jewelry, flat black iron for the most part, but with a few items of burnished copper or brass. She placed them in a basket and set it down next to the door, and picked up a paper tab which she tore in half. The Scum Lord scratched his head, bewildered, as he watches her. “I suggest you do the same, my lord,” she said. “The Knifeborn do not allow metal in their presence.” Wearily, the Scum Lord began to do the same, starting with the kalach that was slung across his back, his hempen bandolier of spare magazines, his black bladed tomahawk, his metal shod riding boots, his skinning knife and the silver token he wore about his neck, a black rabbit leaping across the sun. The cold stone beneath his hemp socks was bracing, but he wondered how they would proceed without the light of the priestess’s staff.
He needn’t have worried. As soon as the priestess stepped through the doorway on the left, a pleasant, disembodied voice spoke in a bizarrely accented tone. “Thank you, UNKNOWN USER ERROR. Please advance with your hands up and allow Transport Safety Administration staff to direct you. No smoking please” And a series of small, glowing lights flickered into existence on the floor to his astonishment, just bright enough to illuminate the narrow tunnel. The warning was repeated identically as soon as he stepped through after her, and he deduced it was one of the ancient talking demons, somehow still functional after all these years. If he survived this, the Scum Lord decided, he would have a fine story to tell his bastards.
He did not know how right and wrong he was in that thought.
The priestess raised her hands, and the Scum Lord did likewise. Together they traversed the tunnel, which was not overlong, and listened to the chatter of the talking demon as they did so, though the Scum Lord only understood perhaps three words in ten. “ATTENTION UNKNOWN USER ERROR – PLEASE COMPLY FULLY WITH GOVERNMENT PERSONEL. THEY ARE HERE FOR YOUR SAFETY. REMEMBER NO METAL OBJECTS ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT. ALL ORGANIC MATTER MUST BE CHECKED FOR CONTAMINATION. ENEMY OPERATIVES WILL BE SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE DETENTION AND DEPORTATION PURSUANT TO THE 2028 OMNIBUS CRIME BILL. HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY.” The two adventurers stepped out of the tunnel and the bizarre voice ended.