Consumed. Mouth of boiling dust. Within the tumult of stinging sand it becomes a grey torrent, yellow lips given way to dark throat. Methodical violence concealed by chaos.
Darkness like thunderheads sunk to ground level boils across the sand, driven by calculated malice. Forbidding billows of jagged iron grey, sharp and savage as fangs. Scrape. Scour. Snap from all sides.
Bite hard into leather, fur, flesh. Gather more dust to their bloated innards, drive it forth. Hot blasts of hard sand, grit, dirt, amongst dark storm teeth. Storm feels like it’s trying to eat them alive.
Lycids scream, strange high-pitched howls. Piteous. Mewling cries high as newborn cubs as storm wrestles to tear paws from sand.
They drive onward, insane fear driving claws to push harder, harder. Deeper. Drive hindquarters to bunch high, spring forth. Muscles strain, huge, sharp delineations beneath sleek fur. They bound, as if in slow motion, through the tumult. War of limbs against dust. Heads turned sideways toward shoulders, lycids battle through. Atop them the riders hold to trust. Crops held still. Hands curled tight to reins.
Desperate eyes squint through goggles, into the rampant mass of shadows as it seethes. Boils. Fights amongst itself, against them. They see faces in the billows. Sudden there and gone. Huge eyes, rolling, jaws gaping, grinning. Multitudes of sand formed limbs plunging, ploughing.
Monsters formed of dust, forming themselves from the dust. Build, collapse, re-build, leap, attack and disintegrate only to re-form again right before wide eyes trapped behind goggles. Snap. Dust teeth clash an inch from soft flesh. They flinch, recoil. Clutch tight to soft fur, hard leather. To each other’s minds.
Occasional flare of eye-watering yellow through the black. Glimpses of city defences, the dust-storm light-towers. Snatches of ever-blaring siren carry over the howl and jabber of sand. A shriek of noise right in the ear, deafening. Sound you get lost in. Tantalising these lights and sounds. So close, so far.
And yet they press on; hope to see the rise of city walls, those haphazard collections of shanty huts under siege by storm. Eyes strain for it as fingers clench, clutch. Muscles tense. Tendons twang and skin recoils from storm teeth.
Inquisition, south of Callaho. Last stop before the hard drive through to West Alburqurque. Land ship station bustles with bodies. Stench of sweat rises, cloud-like, above it all. Mixes with steam, hot sand, the smell of warm metals.
Inquisition’s a by-station. A large, hot stone platform five hundred meters wide, fifty metres high. Stretched alongside the eccentric whirl of old wood houses forming the town; it dominates, shapes the land around itself.
Highway comes in easy across the desert from the North. Brings multitudes of passengers for the big Land Freighters and Ships passing on through to Invidium, the big city.
Endless TurTrucks, steam rising in great gouts, and TurChaises, fronted by snarling lycids, bring yet more bodies to cram the platform. It’s filled edge to edge with hot passengers. Stinking, cussin, drinkin in sunlight hot and bright as immolation.
Noise rises loud as thunder above the bustling mass. Voices talking in unison. A thousand strong. It’s a hard wall of sound that hits from a pure mile outside Inquisition. Tells travellers they’re close by.
On the outskirts. Just passing the tall sign scrawled ‘Inquisition: Population 346’, seven shadows tread the earth. Soft feet move in syncopation. Harmony. If they could be heard above the mass of noise from the platform, they’d be silence. Soundless as the slow movement of cloud.
In their wake. A TurChaise drawn by four lycids. Slow, graceful plod of giant paws on compacted dust. These four are not like desert Lycid nor the riding breed. Cadaverous, rapacious. Things of woven tendon on stark bone they are. Outsize paws, claws, huge jaws comprise saw-tooth maws.
Black eyes like holes in skulls, empty of all but appetite. A gaze with teeth. Blank need. Soulless. Not animals these but cadavers reshaped to life. Murder in the form of wolves. Sleek and lethal. They follow quiet though, behind the seven wisps of silence before them. Deadliness comes in many forms and they know their betters.
Groups of stragglers. Late arrivals moving to the platform. Stare, scramble aside, clear the way. Drive TurTrucks to one side, steer lycids to the desert, a flurry of whips to harry paws. Stand on the highway edge gawping, mouths open, eyes too wide, faces bleached under hard tans.
The seven move between, TurChaise rumbling behind. Wherever they walk, their silence, their stillness, act like infection. Catch. Spread. They are the death of sound.
TurChaise glides to a halt at the platform. Seven long black forms line the sides of the stairs to the lifts, heads bowed. Violence in repose. Polished wood steps drop down under the swift hand of the driver and the door swings wide.
Two slender forms alight, crowned in coils of shining red hair. Burnished copper flares in the sunlight, bright as pennies in pools of blood. Uniformed in sensual, draping purple they reach out to hand her from within.
The crone. The mother immortal. Bent but somehow vital. Engorged with life. Fat with it, like an overfed cat. Smug. A gathering of energies trapped in withered flesh. She stops. Sniffs the air. A soft hiss of sound, like laughter, escapes from beneath a long purple veil covering her from head to chest.
Voice emerges like curls of smoke over crackled flames.
‘Time is our friend today.’
Angeline nods, smiles. ‘You made certain of it.’
A scornful snap of sound. Sharp as a cough. ‘Of course I did. Never leave to chance what you can make certain of.’
Black suit a skin-tight fit to wasted bones, skeletal mother immortal walks between her sisters on the arms of her companions into one of four wrought iron lifts. Nods to right and left. Such satisfaction in it. Cruel. Sharp edged. Her contentment is a weapon.
Out from the lift, onto blast-furnace heat of the platform. Her presence cleaves the crowd as sure as her seven sisters cleaved the road. Her two companions lead her to the platform edge as, in the distance, the sound of a throaty horn plays from across the desert.
A small gesture brings the Sanctimonialis to her side. They stand, statues of black, facing West. Veils flutter soft as feathers.
‘Follow us closely,’ she tells them. ‘Be vigilant. There are breachers in the lines. Six have come to join the three. The bandits await at the pass.’
Seven heads lower further yet. A sighing rises. Low, dark, on the brink of enervating. Sound of last breath before death, first before a scream, that guttering intake of desperate air before drowning. Then seven step from the platform in unison. Drop from sight.
Their disappearance brings sound to roaring life. Screams. Panic. Crowds loom to peer over. Expect carnage, broken bodies clad in black. But there’s nothing to see. Just the blinding reflection of sun off the Land ship strip and unending desert. No bodies, no blood.
Screams revert to silence. A murmuring rises. Sweeps back in a wave as news passes mouth to ear down the line. Crowd shifts. Disturbed. Uneasy. And the platform throng eases further from the bent old woman and her two companions.
She laughs. Broken shudder of scratching sound. Stands leant on her two companions as the Peggy Dunne sails in, slows to a gentle slide on the slip. Towers over their heads. A behemoth, a monument of steel. It floats just above the strip on a thick haze of heat. Shudders and stills.
Four great funnels cease their gout of steam. The horn sounds once more. A throaty blare of sound loud enough to deafen. Consumes the murmur of the crowd sure as the bulk of the Peggy Dunne overshadows them. Then the sides creak, groan and two giant orifices spiral open.
From within a cadaverous figure, a man-bird, a bone scaffold under thin skin, utters forth over a force-plank, invisible but for the merest shudder of air beneath his feet. His hands rise, flutter. Fussy and prim. ‘Madame Hermaini, what a delight.’
‘Sebus Grimm.’ She takes his hand, allows his whisper of a kiss across her gloved knuckles.
‘Come; do come,’ he insists, ushers them toward the gangway, the orifice, ‘only the finest quarters for you Madame. The very finest.’
‘And you arranged my tour?’ The tone is sharp, biting, filled with brittle demand.
He bows low. Unctuous. Waist so thin it looks fit to snap. ‘As you desired, Madame. As soon as you’re settled. We’ll hit the storm in ten hours, plenty of time to see the ship before we’re all quarter bound. Plenty of time.’
The four step across the void on that invisible gangway. Disappear into the belly of the Peggy Dunne. Consumed.
Behind them the crowd surges forth, a mass of shuffling limbs chaotic as a storm as they push, race, fight to clamber aboard. In the madness, bodies tip off the edge of platform, gangway, fall to the abyss beneath.
In the shadow of the ship’s hull seven pairs of incurious eyes sheathed behind black veils watch bodies crumple and break, blood flow to pools, and gleam and gleam as if the sun were sucked from the sky and trapped within them.
Suffocating thick of the storm. A fury of dust. Faces assemble, disperse. Fleeting constructions. A smorgasbord of saturnine visages. Pointed, demonic, divine. Phantasms of particles. Bodies fashion beneath. A hand. Arm. Leg. Torso.
Black thunderous shapes. Delineated for split seconds. Dreamlike. Hallucinogenic. Is it something more in the storm or have these hours of war against howling dust driven them to daydreaming? There is no telling. It is all insanity, dark, chaos, driving dust.
They bunch tight. A knot of lycids. Riders glued to powerful shoulders. Light surges across them. Illuminates red eyes, pupils shrunk to dots. Reflects in shallow bursts off round goggles. Exposes dust drenched clothes, fur. Skin stained grey.
Sweeps off in an arc. Dust faces gloat within it. Move in insidious undulations. Then the storm parts for a second and the faint glimmer of corrugated iron under spotlights is seen. Moe rises, hollers behind his scarf. Sends out the mental yell to move. Crops rise. Slap down.
Lycids race forward. Sudden flash of energy. Part the fierce billows sure as ships through water. One last crazed burst of movement and they’re in amongst low mud buildings, paws thudding buried sheets of steel.
Dust rages above, around, beside them. Drives them on sure as the crack of crops on hindquarters. Till they hit the first proper buildings after the shanties, the first saloons, hovels, hotels, dingy and shuttered against the tumult.
The outer wall rears before them sudden, a blank face encapsulating the inner city. That mismatched jumble of high rises, tenements, all secure behind a hundred feet of polished concrete.
They approach at speed. Leap through a gateway, a faint shimmer. Consumed. It passes through them as they breach it. Raises hairs, skin, vibrates the teeth. Throws them, gasping with the shock of loss, into a false eye. Air here is eerie still. Silent. Even the howl of dust is reduced to a dim murmur by whatever force contains it.
The walls, first concrete, then a sheer cliff of roiling black dust cloud rise seemingly forever. Within them. Trapped. Like a precious stone in a coalface. A perfect circle of stark blue sky. So bright it stuns them. Glazes their eyes. They stare, raise goggles to gaze in wonderment at the withheld fury of the storm. Margo whistles soft through small white teeth, her green eyes reflect brilliant blue.
‘Well fuck me blind and crippled,’ she says. ‘That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever fucking seen. And I’ve seen a giraffe butt-fuck a dwarf, no word of a lie.’
© Ren Warom 2011