Thursday, February 28, 2013

Codex Kalachnikova Preview: Shadow of the Walking Demon

Chapter 4

The Order of the Knife did not pray, exactly, yet they revered St. Marx the Trinity-Karl, Groucho and Harpo, great physicians from before the Age of Rust who wandered the earth performing miracles.  Yet they were not worshipped, per se, merely studied and revered as paragons of the Codex Hippocratis, to which all the Priestesses and Acolytes of the temple strove to live by.  It cautioned temperance; the very first words of the Codex were “Do no more harm than you need.”

Marne did not feel particularly temperate as she rode ahead of the Scum Lord.  Her Mother Superior had cautioned her as she appointed her to First Knife, “Remember that the Knifeborn are our charge, from the days of TEOTWAWKI onward.  Whatever they are, it is because we made them so.  Do what they ask and be what they need.” 

She wanted to think that the Mother Superior had not known what this task would entail, that she was sending her newly appointed First Knife to a certainty of rape and deviant abuse from a pack of jaded little subterranean vermin from a degenerate age, likely followed by death at the hands of a trained killer she had known from boyhood.  But she found it unlikely.  What the Scum Lord did not know in the depths of his fury was this: the hook was in the Priestess as well, and she had no choice but to be strung along.  They were two flopping stingfish on the same rusted stringer in a pond choked with thick green corruption; each conspired to hate the other.

And the ugly truth is, even if Mother Superior does know what I have faced, and am facing, it would not change our need.  That was another tenet of the Codex Hippocratis-“Greatest good to the greatest number.”  Without the miraculous potions and needles and other sundries from the Knifeborn’s great storage vaults, the magic of the Knife Sisterhood would crumble to dust.  With that would go the goodwill of the holdfast lords, and with that, their power.  So they did what they must.  I did not mind so much when it was just keeping records and sending foreskins, though.

She stilled her mind without so much as a whimper; there was much to do.  The air was still cold, but the bitter howling winds had died, and it was in silence that the two doomed fools rode through the Necropolis, seeking the Way of the Belt.  The horses were nervous, and itched to bolt, so a steady hand was required to keep them in order.  Marne was grateful for this; it was something to focus on.  She thought, perhaps almost prayed let this ride be the last.  I can betray him if I can do it in silence.  I will armor my heart in stillness, and he will not hear falsehood in my voice.  For that was what terrified her; the man missed so little that she feared he would smell out her treachery immediately.  And the galling fact was that she did not know what value his life was to the Knifeborn when they already had his seed.

For his part, the Scum Lord seemed content to ride in silence, both hands on the reins with the kalach slung low across his lap.  He looked pleased with himself, even though his own Codex cautioned against such a sensation.  An ugly confrontation with the Knifeborn vaqueros at the end of the temple mouth had nearly gotten them killed, though he knew it not.  The god-blind morons had tried to tell him that his kalach had gone missing, whereupon he had seized the man’s balls and twisted.  After a surprisingly short amount of time, the kalach and the lord’s other gear had all re appeared, as if by magic.  And yet even that affront was not enough for the Scum Lord; in the course of manhandling the gunslinger he had taken the fool’s automatic pistol and tucked it away.  None of the sullen looking vaqueros had even troubled him for it as he walked away.  Perhaps he had a right to look pleased; it had been obvious even then that no man among them was his match.  Yet it would have spelled his death, had that conclusion not already been forgone.

The sun was rising higher in the sky as they reached an on ramp to the Way of the Belt.  Her staff, with its tiny surges of magnetism, had already cleared the decrepit hulks from their path on the way in, but she flicked the controls of the weapon to ready it anyway.  The gleaming steel staff, five feet long with solid metal at both ends, had even been returned to her with a full charge-a surprising courtesy.  But the package slung across her horses’ rump was far more important, a massive bag almost five feet long and marked with the cross of the torture victim god of the ancients.  It contained vials and pills and needles all marked with words of power-PENICILLIN AMBIEN V VANKOMYCIN ZYDRATE.  By your name I summon you, she thought bitterly.  These will save more lives than I take this day.  Greatest good, greatest number.  I must remember that.  They rode between the shattered wrecks in silence.

Then, putting a cruel end to her nascent hopes of survival, the Scum Lord spoke.  His voice, with that barbaric Tex Arcane accent that spoke of cunnilingus and home (the priestess did not know it, but the two were mixed in her head) was rough with the hard travel.  “That song, m’lady,” he said, uncharacteristic politeness in his tone.  For a moment he groped for words.  “The Rising of the Moon.  It is a traditional nursery song in my lands.  A relic of the Ancients, I am told.”  They reached the top of the elevated road, and began picking and weaving their way among the fire carriages while mummies stared out at them with gaping eye sockets.  “I have never heard it sung anywhere else.”

In her heart, she cursed and railed.  The song, why did he have to bring up the stinking song?  And why did you have to sing it?  To keep from screaming, she focused on the path before them, nudging her mare away from a twisted pile of jagged metal.  She did not turn to look at him; too much sincerity in a lie, she had found, was the same as not enough.  “I have spent many years serving your holdfast, my lord.  I hear many songs sung in the fields and stables by your get.”

“Aye,’ he said, and she heard a match being struck behind her.  There was the smell of sulphur and then tobacco.  “Yet it is unusual, to hear a song of one’s childhood so far from childhood joys.  And rarer still from a Priestess who can pick up the words so well.” 

Her back prickled in anticipation of a storm of bullets from the man’s chattering weapon.  She almost fancied she could taste the blood in the back of her throat already.  One misstep here, and this man will kill me.  They are all killers in the Tex Arcane, and he rose to his lordship by being the greatest of them.  I must never forget that.  Not even allowing herself a deep breath, she lied boldly.  “Music is one of the hidden blessings of the Sisterhood, my lord.  Not all of our records are of births and deaths and chopped foreskins.”  There was an edge of frost in her voice; hopefully it served to mask her terror.

Apparently he had no answer to that.  They rode in silence again, a blessed relief.  Occasionally she stopped to brush her charged staff against an obstacle, sending it squealing and grinding out of her path in a cloud of bitter rust.  But the dead city made little noise, and it appeared to her that…

“Something up ahead,” said the man behind her suddenly, and she reigned her horse in too sharply.  The well trained beast did not rear, though it shuddered, and she lowered her free hand to stroke the animal’s neck.  “Something cracking.  Sounds like rock, or…”  The lord fell silent.  Then she heard the cold snap-chunk of a kalach bolt being racked.  “Stay down, m’lady,” the lord said, and she thought this is it, he already hears his doom approaching.  She lowered her head on instinct-a holdfast instinct for survival that was ingrained even deeper than her training as an Acolyte of the Knife.  Peering out past the wrecks, she strained for a look at the horror she had unleashed, but saw nothing.

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