(Heed the title, this is no tale of mirth. This story belongs to same world as Upheaval. and these events occur subsequent to the events of that story.)
It’s not easy for an orphan to stay alive in the city of Dread and Sorrow. The gangs and cults want to use them, and the guilders mostly turn a blind eye. They’ve got their own children to look after, and bringing in orphans often creates troubles with gangs or cults. If an orphan child should make it to a healthy youth, then there are work crews that recruit in the city for soldiering, farming, mining, or sailing. I, for one, got roped into a gang of toughs. Quite literally at first, but I managed to talk my way out of the restraints and into some time to heal my wounds. It has cost other people for me to keep myself alive in the gang, but I have peace with that because I steer the gang’s activities toward people that are no good. I don’t consider myself a big hero or anything. More like I scavenge or predate from the predators.
I’m with Cutter on a bit of a stalk. We heard a few nights back about a big stir up in the cults. Decrees from Dread and Sorrow themselves, supposedly. The cults are mustering up, getting ready to join together for some holy war or something. Not really our problem, but we heard that a small cult’s been rounding up children as recruits. It is supposedly a trick to give the cult leader a higher rank in the new army, because of a rumor that the ranks are based on follower counts. After we heard that I got to talking with Cutter about how we were once wee orphans and what we would do to be saved from being forced into some cult army, and how we could use some trustworthy little ones for casing and spying. Cutter liked my talk well enough and now we’re tracking the cult leader.
He’s a lanky one, the cult leader, taller than both of us, and easy to pick out in a crowd, even in the city’s near perpetual gloom. He’s covered in a black robe with figures of flame and strife in red stitching, indicating a worship of Dread. The faithful of Dread can be dangerous sorts, seeking in their services to inspire in others or themselves a feeling of deep dread. This is not to say that every Dread worshiper is sacrificing the innocent on a weekly basis, more often they just recount tales of horror to eachother. But there are those that prefer to create the tales of horror themselves, and those in the cults that protect such monsters from what little justice can be had by appeal to the city guard or the Order of the Magisters. I think that this one is closer to the monstrous variety rather than the storytelling type.
The lanky one ducks down an alley, and Cutter gives me a nudge. We push faster through the evening throngs to the alley, and we see the lanky one standing with a heavy door open, watching us. I meet Cutter’s eyes and give a little nod towards the cultist. We approach him looking friendly and curious. “We meet in two days, but it’s not a good time to join up just now.” He calls. “War’s on. If you join up now, you’ll be called to march with us.”
That bugs me, and I drop the smile. “I heard you’ve been looking pretty hard for new recruits. Little ones especially. Figured I’d inquire.”
The lanky one’s eyes narrow, and he practically snarls, “Oh, really. Best we carry this on in private then.” He holds the door open and gestures in to us. I think about punching him in the face right then, but it’d be better inside. I place a hand on Cutter’s shoulder to gently press towards the door so he doesn’t try to shiv the cultist too soon. Cutter reaches a hand into his coat as we step through the door.
There’s not much in the dark interior to suggest a cult meeting place. I don’t see a lamp or candle by the entrance to light, which is an odd oversight, but the darkness serves us alright for now. Cutter sidesteps into the darkness next to the open door and waits in ambush. I stand a few steps in, facing the door, looking relaxed. The lanky one steps in and turns his back to me as he pulls the door closed. When I hear the latch, I surge forward and slam his head into the door. I press it against the wood as I grab his wrist and twist his arm behind his back. “Thought you could get away with stealing some kiddies, eh?” I hiss into his ear. “Cutter and I don’t like that much.” Cutter steps up behind me, a short, sharp blade clutched in his hand and held low near his waist.
It takes a moment for the lanky one to say anything, “You’ve got it wrong. I thought you were the ones that came for children.” Something gritty suddenly flies from the door into our eyes and I have to pinch mine shut. More of the stuff comes and tries to flow into my nose and mouth. It’s got a woody smell and flavor. I try to heave the lanky one over and down so I can free my hands to defend my face, but instead he pushes off the door and shoves me back into Cutter. I fall to the floor and try to cover my face as the stuff keeps trying to get in. I hear the lanky one’s now calm and confident voice, “I’m a magister. I’ve been getting those children out of here. Now, are you going to stay calm?”
“Oh Aye, enough of this.” Cutter gasps.
“Yeah alright.” I agree, and cough as some of the stuff gets in when I speak.
“Good.” The gritty stuff stops trying to get into our eyes and lungs, and I see it fly up to a point over the lanky one’s shoulder where it condenses into a ball and lights up. In the new light, I see a strange pattern of gouges in the door radiating out from where I’d had him pressed up. “Now tell me who you are and why you’re here.”
“Just as we said.” I hauled myself up from the floor. “We didn’t like what we heard about what you were doing. Still don’t.” I look around the room and see little more than small living quarters. There are no alters, no statues, not even a pennant indicating any fealty toward Dread. “My associate and I are concerned citizens.”
“Uh-huh.” The lanky one sounded unconvinced. “Suppose you are concerned citizens, are you concerned enough to help me out tonight?” Cutter shakes his head.
“Suppose we just get out of here…” Cutter says, trying to shove the lanky one out of the way of the door. The lanky one holds his ground, and where Cutter grabs him the cult robe bunches up around his hands and starts flowing over his arms. Cutter tries to pull his arms back, but they’re stuck firm in the cloth. The lanky one shrugs out of the robe and leaves it flowing up Cutter’s arms and over his head and body. He watches me closely and I see more of the strange gouges appear in the floor at his feet and light brown dust flies up from them into a flat swirling disk which forms between us. With his strange cloud up, I see him walk to a wardrobe and pull out a magister’s robe. I’d seen the like before, and I usually try to steer clear of them, given the frequently illegal activities of the gang.
Cutter keeps struggling inside of the flowing cloth trap, but I hear his rapid breathing and cursing, so I know he’s not suffocating. He manages to get a little rip started and the magister grabs a few shirts from his wardrobe and tosses them on Cutter, where they sort of melt into and thicken the cloth mass and seal the rip. “You really are a magister.” I say, trying to keep eyes on both the wriggling and gasping cloth mass of Cutter and the magister and his ominous dust swirl.
“Just as I said, and if you won’t help me tonight, I’ll need the two of you to stay right here until the job is done.”
Cutter’s curse filled retort was largely inaudible from under the cloth mass, but the magister and I understand well enough. The cloth mass pulls him down to the floor and then stretches him flat on his back before the cloth fibers sort of meld into the wood flooring, trapping Cutter snugly. I raise my hands non-threateningly towards the magister, “What’s this business of yours, then?”
“Some Dread cults are gathering tonight for a human sacrifice, they think it’ll give them luck in the coming war.” The magister meets my eyes, “I aim to interfere.”
“Just the two of us? Against several Dread cults? Bad odds, those.” I eye up Cutter’s cozy looking cocoon.
“I talked the other cult leaders into giving me some time with the sacrifice to make preparations before the ceremony.” The magister explained. “I don’t know what condition the victim will be in, and I might need another pair of hands to help pull them out. So you’ll pose as my personal torturer.”
“It’s a lot of trouble.” I realize. “Is this victim someone to you?”
The magister’s brow furrows. “The victim isn’t a sacrifice yet, and shouldn’t be one.”
The response seemed a little simplistic, almost childish to me. But I found myself liking it just fine. “Alright then, but I’m no actor.”
“That’s okay, we’ll let your disguise do the acting for you.” The magister said, eyeing me up and down and smiling as if he’d just thought of a joke. “You got a name?”
“A few.” I admit, “But none proper. Yourself?”
“In this city…” The magister turns to rummage through the wardrobe. “…I am properly called Canis.”
“A proper Canis, then.” I smirk. “Got it.”
The magister hands me a large black robe which flows over my body, covering me from head to toe. I feel my own clothes disappear into it. “This is the disguise, then, Canis?” I ask awkwardly.
“It is indeed.” The floating dust swirl flows into my robe and it starts to harden in places into a substance like leather. I see some spikes emerge, and raised red patterns in the style of Dread. I feel a belt emerge and on it various blades and hooks formed from some black material with little weight. Light as they are, I doubt that they would be of any use except as ornaments for the disguise. There is no looking glass in the room, but I imagine I look a fright. Canis asks, “How is the fit?”
“Best I’ve ever had. Don’t care much for the style, though.”
Canis smiles. “Help me well tonight, and I’ll make you whatever garb you wish.” I nodded appreciatively. At my best in terms of clothing, I’d recovered some clothes that’d been stolen from a well-off guilder. They fit poorly, but had looked and felt great to me nevertheless. Time and hard use had taken them from me eventually, but I learned the value of a good set of clothes, and I doubt I could do better than what Canis could produce with his magic.
As Canis donned his own attire for the evening, I kneel down next to the prone and cloth covered Cutter, and whisper in his ear, “You all right?” His muffled response sounds like assent. “Good. Did you hear the plan?” Again, Cutters muffled assent. “Right then, I’ll be back tonight to get you loose.” A less enthused grunt this time. I give him some reassuring pats and get back to my feet.
Canis has donned a scarlet robe hemmed with gold around the hood. He grabs a large staff from the wall which appears to be formed from a number of sticks that are twisted together. At the top, the sticks spread out to form a twisted spherical cage. Canis holds the top of the staff in front of his face and looks at it hard. The top spherical shape unravels and reforms into a more malicious looking twin prong fork with pointed ends. “Are you ready, torturer?” Canis asks in an assumed voice, laced with malice.
I growl wordlessly in response, practicing letting the disguise do the intimidation. Canis bobs his hood in appreciation and moves brusquely toward the door. “Then we’re off.”
I follow the cloaked magister through the alleys and streets, marking the path we take in case I have to return alone to cut Cutter free. I also mark the hateful or fearful gazes that we get as we pass through a wider birth in the streets than I have ever enjoyed. No one wants to bump into either of us accidentally.
Canis leads us to a low stone meeting hall surrounded by Dread cultists, more than I’ve ever seen in one area. They are packed in front of the closed double doors of the hall up to a semicircle of cruelly spiked barricades and black robed cultists with drawn swords. Approaching the edge of the crowd, and seeing that no one moves out of the way, Canis knocks the butt of his staff against the cobblestones and one of the sticks of the staff begins to glow bright orange. He then points the staff ahead of him and begins to walk forward confidently. The crowd parts.
Some of the cultists in the crowd are fully robed, and some are more plainly dressed with arm or head bands of red or black with various fearful patterns. Almost all of them share in common a predatory demeanor and gaze, as if everything that they see is a potential meal. I know that these are the worst sort, the sort that wants to inspire the stories of Dread.
We reach the barricades and Canis stops. I stop behind him, trying to look as though everything is going to plan. “Move.” Canis growls. Two of the cult guards pull a barricade out of the way to let us pass. We walk towards the doors and they open in front of us without anyone appearing to have touched them. I can’t tell if it is Canis’ magic or some cultist trick. The interior is torchlit, but dark. As we step in the doors slam shut behind us. Canis jumps a little in surprise at the sound. I raise my eyebrow invisibly behind my mask.
Four of the black robed cult guards stand in front of another set of double doors on the far end of the dimly lit antechamber. Canis strides forward and I follow at his flank. One of them takes a step forward and addresses us, “Here for the sacrifice?”
“Yes.” Canis hisses menacingly. “Where?” The speaker motions towards the double doors and two of the guards pull them open, and the others move out of the way.
The meeting hall is brightly lit with roaring wall sconces. There are no chairs or pews tonight, just scarlet carpet laid over the stone floor and tapestries of the same color on the walls. The smell of burning oil is strong. At the far end of the hall there is a raised dais where three scarlet cloaked figures wait near an empty stone table that is outfitted with various leather and steel bands and restraints. Canis walks forward to meet them and I follow, sweating in my disguise.
“The Canis has arrived.” One of the scarlet figures bobs her red hood towards us. This one is leaning on the stone table, and stitched in gold on the back of her robe is the image of an eagle with outstretched wings perched above an over-sized skull. A wide, muscular one turns to face us with an evil chuckle. His hands are joined in front of him, hidden inside of great scarlet sleeves. The third figure draws two long thin blades and steps effortlessly up onto the stone table and then leaps impossibly over us. I turn and watch the figure land lightly and start to walk towards us.
Canis taps the butt of this staff on the ground and releases some wave of force that I feel pressing my body back like a sudden gust of wind as it passes us. It’s not enough force to cause any harm, it feels like more of a warning. “I don’t have time for games tonight. Where is the sacrifice?”
The woman stands upright and lowers her hood. She grins toothily. “Oh, Canis. You ARE the sacrifice, and look, you’ve brought another victim.”
Canis lifts his staff in both hands and it starts to shine more brightly. The bigger tough-looking cult leader whips two knives out of his sleeves and they fly unerringly into my companion’s shoulders. His staff drops. I feel sharp steel pressed into the side of my neck. Evidently, the swordsman caught up behind me during the brief distraction. I see the muscular one pull another pair of knives out of his sleeves and hold them at the ready.
Around Canis’ feet, dust starts to rise out of the carpet in that same strange pattern that I’d seen on the door earlier, but much larger this time. The muscular one flicks another knife out. Some of the dust seems to try to rush to meet it but does nothing to stop it from piercing into one of Canis’ thighs. The eagle-skull woman steps forward and places a hand on the ground several feet in front of Canis. There is a rumbling and sharp stone spikes start to rise from the floor all around the magister. Most of them rise to form cage around him but some are angled to pierce through his arms, legs, and torso. Canis roars in pain and frustration. None of the wounds are aimed to kill.
Canis is now hung up upon bloody stone spikes in front of me, unable to move except for painful looking convulsions. The muscular cult leader walks up, smiling cruelly, and dust flows up from the floor at his feet and packs itself around Canis’ wounds, blocking some of the blood loss.
The eagle-skull woman’s head pokes out around Canis’ bloody stone stockade and stares at me. “Is the sacrifice properly prepared, torturer?”
“I reckon so.” I say and nod carefully, keenly aware of the sword at my neck. The magister and I weren’t friends, but I sympathize with his goals and I’m not happy to see him about to be ritualistically murdered. I also feel a strong urge not to join him in his condition.
“No.” The woman states matter-of-factly. “No. I think he could use another cut. Give him one for me, will you?”
I grunt and heft a small curved knife from the belt. I test the edge with my thumb. Whatever material it is, it holds the edge well enough. I feel the sword lift from my neck. “Good. Make the first cut, torturer.” I walk up to Canis’ side and avoid looking up to his face as I lift the blade and rake it cruelly along his side, producing a deep cut. Canis convulses in pain as the blood wells up. “Well done.” The woman congratulates me earnestly. “Stand aside now.”
The double doors of the main hall open and the cultists from outside enter in a loose line, each carrying a bare blade or hook. Each one cuts or stabs Canis and then moves to the side to watch the ongoing torture. My mask hides my horror, their faces seem eager, scornful, or gleeful. As more and more cultists join us in the hall, Canis is reduced to a bloody mess, barely reacting to each new wound. I avoid looking his way whenever possible, but the faces of the cultists and their leaders aren’t much better. It’s like they’re seeing and doing something else, it’s as if none of this really matters. I start to explore that meaninglessness. I think back to how clever I felt when I’d talked my way out of that first beating, and I see that it led me to here anyway, to nothing. I consider the thrill of fleeing after a good caper, and I see that those chases brought me to nothing. I realize that the nothing is better than the horror and anxiety. I stop thinking about what the cultists will do to me once they’ve finished with Canis. I stop worrying about what’ll happen to Cutter if I don’t make it back to him. I stop hating the uncaring cruelty of these cultists. I plunge into the nothingness.
The line of cultists tapers off and ends. The three cult leaders approach Canis and lay hands on the bloody stone spikes. They dissolve into dust, and Canis slumps to the floor. The muscular one and the swordsman lift Canis up and lay him on the stone table on the dais. Blood runs down the gray stone as if the carpet were a catching condition. The room smells of blood, sweat, and burning oil. It is unnecessary to bind Canis to the table.
A darkness appears at the entrance to the hall, and the flames in the sconces lower. The cultists fall silent and turn to stare at the doors. Now, I see fear in their faces. I feel nothing.
The darkness moves into the room and in the dimming light I see a large humanoid with a body seemingly composed entirely of miniature humans somehow writhing in and bound together by viscous ink. Most of the cultists are holding their breath, the three cult leaders bow their heads. Dread itself walks into the meeting hall and approaches the dais.
“We march tomorrow.” The pressure of the god’s voice causes the gathered cultists to gasp or shrink back, many of them fall to their knees. My body registers the strange force of the words, but I feel nothing. “The Hunger has been awoken as it has not been for millennia. It will consume all if we fail to end it. This magister would undermine our war efforts and will now be made to serve Dread.” Dread stops a few feet short of the dais and stretches out an arm towards Canis. The arm elongates, makes contact with the bloody mass and starts to flow over and around magister. I am reminded of the trick that Canis had first pulled on Cutter. Soon the remains are covered in the God’s inky substance and he lifts it from the table as if the mass were an over-sized fist at the end of an impossible arm. The arm starts to contract and the mass that was once Canis disappears into the writhing inky flesh of the God, and the arm reforms into its more standard form.
I realize that the God is looking at me. All around me the cultists are cowering or kneeling. My body notes a pressure from the gaze, but it inspires no particular emotion in me. “Attend my wife.” The God commands. Dread and Sorrow are said to be wed, whatever that means for Gods. I know nothing of attending the Goddess, and I don’t really care about the command.
Dread turns and walks out of the hall. The cultists, even the cult leaders are still overcome with fear and horror. I wriggle my way out of the crowd and walk out of the hall. The streets outside are silent except for a weeping woman across the way. The sound attracts me and I approach. The woman is seated on the street, obviously overcome by the sight of Dread. I kneel down and envelope her in my arms until her crying subsides. The embrace starts to feel awkward and I release her and stand. There is something bright in her eyes when she looks up, but it disappears into confusion when she looks at my mask and my cold eyes.
I wander away. I almost forget about Cutter, but after a few aimless blocks I go back to the hall and then start to retrace my steps to the late magister’s abode. I turn down the little alley and see several of the black robed cult guards standing outside the magister’s home with torches, and flames are roaring out of the open door. Cutter is probably dead then. Burned alive in confusion with no hope for escape. I feel a little twinge of emotional pain at that, but it is brief, and the nothingness returns shortly.
The nothingness within speaks again, “Let me show you a new enemy.” My sense stretches to dizzying lengths, to distances which I never knew were possible, across landscapes that differ so completely from my city that I do not comprehend them. There, far away, is an enormous mass of bright, glowing, and growing life. I find it offensive. “This is The Hunger. Join me at the keep tonight, we will march with Dread tomorrow.”
I hear a voice from the nothingness, “Attend to me, my chosen.” The voice of the abyss is female and I drown in it. “I can show you how to bring the nothing into the world.” I become aware of the world around me as I’ve never been before. It is so active and so alive. It seems wrong. Ahead of me down the alley, I feel concentrated points of life. The Dread cult guards. The air is nicely cold and still. I close my eyes and will the air to gather around the guards. More and more and more until the concentrated points of life start to fade. I open my eyes and I see the guards burning in the thickened air of the alley, their eyes bulging and their skin blistering. This seems right to me.
I wander towards the keep. Dread cultists are running amok. Fires are raging all around the city. I hear intermittent shouts and screams. Blacksmiths’ forges are roaring and cultists are dropping off stolen iron and steel. The smiths work under savage guard to hammer out swords, pike tips, and arrow heads. Great numbers of the cultists line the streets around the keep in irregular units.
Some of the gathered cultists challenge me, and I will the nothing to fling them out of my path. I expect this to be sufficient to secure undisturbed passage, but someone tests me further by firing an arrow at me. I brush it away in flight like an obnoxious fly.
At the gates of the keep a well-armored and well-disciplined force is gathered. Some of them call at me, but otherwise they ignore my movement. Some women in gray dresses wait by the gate. The gray seems so bright amid the blacks and reds of Dread. Their dresses and hair move with an odd delay in settling down as gravity would pull them, as though they are having difficulty being convinced that they aren’t underwater. It is so beautiful. I will my torturer’s garb to the same gray and eliminate the spikes and hard leather bits. My newly gray robes flow in the air as if it were too thick. The women see me and begin to flow in my direction.
Expressionlessly, they place hands on me and I on them. Their hands are cold, as are their bodies. I feel the nothing within them and it is right. “Sorrow awaits.” One states hollowly.