a year in stories::forty

Another short story today. This one’s a bit of a steampunky horror thing. Moved into a new house yesterday, though the move will be sort of gradual over the next couple days. Realising how many books I have is sort of disconcerting, considering I already filled my closet with them and haven’t even moved my bookcases full of books yet. Hopefully I can find or build some new bookcases soon.

Anyrate, I’ve cool news to report but I might wait till later. I feel in a rush right now, for some reason.

The gods we build

The whirring wheeze wandered over the cobblestones that led to her. Turning this way and that, Her hair piled atop her head, her corset binding, she lifted up her long skirt and hurried her steps. As she walked the clouds occluded the moon and the whirring wrapped round her, coming from all directions. She called out into the darkness without slowing. The whirring rose, filling her ears, becoming the only sound. Running, she covered her ears, letting her skirt fall, catching her steps. In the whirring she heard a voice and then a name, but not hers. The whirring suffocated, she tripped, and with her dress torn and knees raw, she screamed no words, only sound. It tore through the whirring and there was silence as a man emerged from the darkness and helped her to her feet.

What’s wrong, my dear?

Silhouetted by the gaslamp down the street, the shadows draped over him, but he was tall and thin. She took his offered hand, cold, and told him she did not know but that she was frightened, ever so frightened.

Walking together, she commented on how odd it was for the streets to be so empty but he reminded her it was late and few were out at such an hour. They reached the lamp and she stopped him to see his face. Handsome and young, a dandy untouched by cares or worry. She thanked him and kissed him on the cheek. He held her and asked why she was out so late but she demurred.

The whirring struck as thunder and the man stood headless before her, covering her in the blood he held. Falling back into the cobblestones, her screams shrouded by whirring, and the moon did not shine.

She must’ve been a whore.

Aye, why else out alone.

But she’s not alone.

All the more the whore.

Laughter amongst the constables. She watched them poke at the lifeless body of the woman torn apart in the street. The thick musk of humanity caught in her throat and she fanned away the heat, the stench, the memories. The clamour of the City rose as morning closed, the markets in full swing, but her eyes remained with the constables in the street, trying to keep the crowd at bay.

What you think it was, aye?

Wolves.

Wolves?

Aye, wolves!

Shaking her head, she laughed through her nose and walked home where she was greeted by the other girls not currently occupied by clients.

The girls were frantic over the dead woman. They barraged her with questions as soon as she entered the salon, all of them iterations of: Was she one of us, ma’am?

She was no working lady, girls. Just a lonely girl walking the streets at night with a gentleman.

A collected sigh of relief, and then a cutting new terror. The girls talked on, their fears racking their voices.

Walking up the stairs to her room, she locked the door behind her, took out her diary and wrote only one line: This time, no one safe.

Summer ended with the death tally rising to twenty three. All woman caught in the night. The heat and stench of summer in the City replaced by autumnal winds and rains, washing the City clean of humanity’s effluvium. The full moon waning, she counted the days till the next as she folded the paper and rubbed her temples.

The sun peered over the buildings of the City, her heart beating in new directions. Opening her diary, she paged through the previous sixty days, skimming through her notes, the diagrams and maps, until she came again to the day it started again. Scanning the pages, she took a new sheet and traced patterns, symbols of no human language. Long arcing lines became swirls which tightened and loosened as she flipped through the pages of the diary. She stopped periodically to compare the symbols to the maps and diagrams, to mutter new words, then she looked out her window the fading constellations and sighed.

Crumpling the new sheet in her hands, she opened the window and tossed it out. The City rolled over to the new day as the streets filled with people.

The man, bent and grey and balding, opened the door and without a word she brushed past him into the house. Scowling at her beneath heavy eyebrows, stroking his wispy beard, he said: What do you want?

You need to stop this.

Staring as he stood erect, laughter took over him and his voice fell from corroded lungs, What is it, exactly, that I need to stop?

Approaching the old man she said, You need to stop Prometheus. I know it’s him. You need to end this.

His scowl wavered and then he told her to follow him into the parlour. He shouted for tea and when they sat the tea was put in their hands. He waited for the maid to leave and then motioned for her to speak her mind.

I know it’s you. I know it’s the two of you. It’s one thing to kill harlots, but just any woman out at night is inexcusable.

Raising his hand silenced her and he sipped from his tea. I quite like this, he said, Nothing like tea for an autumn morning. My bones, the creak now. You don’t understand yet, but you will, in time.

His hands were white, gnarled, as if only bone remained on them, and his face appeared carved from granite, fissuring after a millennia of weathering storms. She tried to speak but he raised his hand again, Drink your tea. Then, and only then, will we discuss the motions of gods and men.

In one scalding motion, she drank the entire cup of tea and said, I did not come here to sit idle while your monster terrorises the City. I came here–

You came here to make demands, his voice rose and thickened, And I will not be berated by a whore in my own home. Now sit and listen. You come here in broad daylight without a care for who I am or who I have been. You see an old monstrous man and you know what I have done to be who I am. The trouble with whores is that we let you keep your ears. I have not lived this long to be lectured by a girl aged past her use. If you want to discuss Prometheus you will wait till I’ve finished my damn tea.

She waited, the room thick with dust and rage. The scent of stagnant air and the rotting flesh of the aged man drinking tea quietly with a slight smile on his crooked lips wrapped round her, filling her lungs with memories of a decayed youth. Closing her eyes, buildings crumbled, stars dissolved, and oceans swallowed the City as Prometheus rose as a burning blackness against the fabric of the night.

Prometheus, his voice returned to its initial collapse, Do you remember what I told you while yet you were young?

She opened her mouth but his scowl silenced her.

I do not require your words. I require your ears. While yet you were young and beautiful, I told you that it was man’s destiny to exchange new gods for the ones we destroyed through disbelief. We are a fickle race, and there is nothing we love quite so much as killing the gods be build. As the gods of the past wither and turn to dust, we write new ones in our books. For now, we call this science. Do you never wonder why we are ever discontent with the world? It’s because we are inadequate creatures! We are hollow bones carrying blood and flesh, cursed to imperfection. But in our imperfection is our desire and magic. Though we’ll ever be flawed, we can imagine perfection. And we can create it! That is Prometheus. He is our greatest hope to becoming like the gods we keep imagining. Prometheus is a better creature than all us combined and it is through it that we shall perfect ourselves. Prometheus is our key to godliness. I’ve lived too long, dearest whore. I’ve lived for centuries. I’ve watched my wives and children and grandchildren die while yet I keep on. I do not live out of fear of Death or even because I cling so tight to life. I live out of necessity. By choice. I persevere where all humanity rots and decays and turns to dust and ash. I breathe with broken lungs and my blood is a blackened sludge, but I go on to give humanity what it’s always deserved but never achieved. So go away from here. Prometheus is not to be judged by our morals. Prometheus is a god, and this god will make us whole, after millennia of brokenness.

Wintry winds blew early and she wrapped her coat tight round her. Empty streets, for they were always empty at this hour, in this year. She walked alone down streets and alleys, past al the places she had been on nights before. An entire month of prowling the wet streets of the City alone at night. Her steps silenced against the cobblestone by blustering winds and freezing rain. No moon, no stars, only the grey expanse of winter’s clouds hanging low over her.

Hours receded as she walked, eyes wide, alert. She followed the maps she made to the death sites of all the thirty seven women now dead from the Scourge, as the newsmen and police called it. The Scourge, the Purge, the Hand of God: she rubbed her temples and traced the symbols into the puddles along the streets. Dappled by rain, the water never held the symbols but washed them to nothing.

As the rain stopped and the grey opened, she found herself surrounded by a high whirring noise. Her breath caught in her lungs, her blood screaming in her ears, she looked up and down the streets and alleys and tops of buildings. The whirring thickened round her and she felt constricted, her skin tightened: trapped.

The whirring roared in her ears, in her lungs, against her eyes, and it took shape before her. A great expanse of glittering blackness filled her vision and its maw opened to reveal a darkness blacker than black.

She screamed, first wordless, and then abuse, but the glittering blackness flooded her vision and the whirring tore the sound from the world.

At last she spoke in inhuman words, the sheet of symbols clenched in her fist. She screamed the words of no language and the great blackness closed its mouth. As it did four stars emerged on the shape she considered its face. They turned to spotlights blinding her but still she shrieked on until the whirring stopped and her blood filled the streets and the grey became morning.

The crowd gathered around after the screaming child discovered the woman ripped to pieces beside a pile of gears and sheets of metal. The City surrounded the body and made it legend.

What you make of it, said one constable.

Not wolves, aye?

No. I don’t believe it’s wolves this time.

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