Thunder crashed overhead, rattling the supports of the rickety old awning overhead. The shop windows were all boarded-up. Advertising flyers for Lear's Soap, Cutie Dolls and various competing brands of Hard Candy were haphazardly pasted over everything. The rain was icy cold and coming in more fiercely. So much for Spring.
Leeja coughed up blood. Bujilli considered breaking into the boarded-up shop. Then he saw a glimmer of light across the street, through the rain. It flickered. Like fire.
Bujilli was knocked flat. He pulled Leeja back in from the rain, propped her up against the wall. Cobblestones and rubble were scattered all over the place. The section of street less than a block down from them had exploded. Gas lines, sewer conduits; all sorts of strange wires, cables and pipes jutted out from the exposed sides of the crater in the street. A swarm of rat-things streamed out of the hole and headed off into the rain. Thankfully, they were going in the other direction. Their shrill dirge-chants and bone-adorned banners scrawled with illegible obscenities giving their impromptu exodus a morbid, disturbing quality.
He watched them go. Scores of the things scrambled and scampered up out of the blasted hole in the street. Most of them were armed with make-shift hackers, slashers and jabby-things. He wasn't sure, the rain made it difficult to see clearly, but some of them appeared to be missing pieces of their bodies. At least one shambled along without a head.
Bujilli didn't wait any longer. He hefted Leeja across his shoulder and started heading in the opposite direction.
Cruikshannk's Curiosities. Glenfeldt's Definitively Exotic Gustatorium--now only a burned-out shell. Aelvren's Custom Bookbindry. Sukov's Excellent Pastilles. Juggo's Cabinets. The signs and painted shop windows told him all about what used to be here...and not one of the old shops looked like it was still in the business advertised. Locks. Chains. Boarded-up windows. Burned-out buildings. Rubble mounds spilling out into the street. This was not a good place to be right now, as if there ever was a good time to go mucking about down here.
Bujilli looked for some sort of landmark. Something he could recognize. The street-signs here were enameled yellow-metal things stamped in some florid, curlicue-heavy script he didn't know. The street-lights were dead. He cast Gloomlight so that he could see where he was going. It seemed like a good idea to avoid the black puddles and quickly flooding ruts in the street.
The warm scent of paprika and cabbage stopped him in his tracks. The alley. There. He shifted Leeja's weight and headed toward the alley. He knew that smell. The Kudri, Uvodri and their kin cooked like that. He'd dealt with them many times growing up among his mother's people, the almas. Wanderers and traders, they welcomed visitors to their fires, so long as you had a story to tell, a song to sing, or some sort of trick to play. They were a joyful, boisterous people. He had tried to run away with them twice before his Uncle put an end to it once and for all. That bitch Ahtrishka had laughed and laughed the night she returned from killing all their mules.
The flat of the edge of a badly-notched sabre slapped him hard across the chest. He stopped. Gave the greeting he was taught by the wagonmeister of the Kudri.
The words curled oddly off of his tongue. It had been a long, long time since he had spoken any of the six words of their language that he knew.
"Ungoshnoff? Smavt." The sabre-wielder stepped more fully out of the shadows. She was tall. thin. Her hair was matted, wrapped with a bandage. The jingly ornaments that should have been stitched along the hem of her scarves and shirts were missing, instead there were teeth, claws and bits of bone. She remained just at the edge of an overhanging sheet of old, rough canvas. Out of the rain.
"Rok'Cho. Snalg." Bujilli hoped he got it right.
The young woman examined him coldly. Her eyes boring into him. Trails of black soot or grit criss-crossed her hands and arms, the left side of her face. Liberal amounts of kohl around her eyes and rouge across her cheeks only served to set off the tracks of her tears in an exaggerated fashion. Red tears. She was mourning for those killed in violence against her people. He'd seen this sort of thing before. Once.
"Udth. You no Ulpri, no Widri, no..."
"I am not of your people. I come to you as a stranger, but I am not a stranger to the Kudri who often visited the land of my mother's kin."
"Ah. Kidri." she spat. "Bad luck it is to speak of the dead. Worse to talk of those eaten-up by the Blackness."
"I am sorry to hear that bad fortune has fallen across the trail of my friends..."
"You claim friendship with the dead?"
"I was friend to Lidroth Namalak, Chief Wagonmeister of the Kidri--"
"You name the Namalak. We have some of their blood with us. Come." She gestured with the sabre. Bujilli nodded, followed quietly.
She drew back a ragged curtain rigged across the alley. Tugged it back into place once Bujilli was past. He paid close attention to where she stopped, where she turned, how she moved and did his best to imitate her so as not to set-off any traps. He knew damn well there would be traps.He'd seen how the Kidri trapped the perimeter of their camps first-hand. It was messy, but effective.
Three switch-backs, a trip-wire and a suspiciously unstable stack of moldy pallets. The flickering orange glow of the cooking fire wasn't visible until they stepped across a sprawling, crazily-curved set of zig-zaggy loops. A barrier of salt, flour and crushed amber. They were worried about geists then. Or demons. Or the possessed. Maybe all three. Or something worse. It was Wermspittle after all.
"Who have you brought us Mishka?" An old one-eyed woman hobbled towards them brandishing a gnarly cane of blackened driftwood. Her shawl still carried a few shiny ornaments around the edges. but her skirts were pierced with scores of daggers, knives and scalpels, all bound into place, point down, like layers of overlapping scales. He'd never seen anything like this before.
"Mudaj." Spat the girl with the sabre.
"Ah. You are known to our kin?" The old mother looked Bujilli over. Her mouth set in an impassive slash. blue marks curled along the right side of her jaw-line, bruise-like, only in a distinct pattern, possibly some kind of runes.
"I shared fire and gapf* with the Kidri who visited my mother's kin--"
"Almas? You are partly of those folk?"
"Yes old mother. I am half-almas--"
"Which half?" Barked the old woman.
"The half that takes after my mother, I guess."
"And your father? What kind of a man was he?"
"He...preferred hairy women...I guess..."
The old mother scowled at Bujilli. Slowly a grin broke across her face. She laughed long and loud. Slapping her thigh.
"Good. You know when to laugh. Not take self so seriously. You bring some gapf with you?"
"I have some, but it is back at my room..."
"Ah. You not carry it with you. Must know safe place then."
"Is any place safe in this city?"
"No. Not here. Sad you no bring along gapf to share with us like old days. So many sad days in between the times we used to share fire with our kin the Kidri. They were very fond of the almas. Good trading. Many excellent jokes. Sad songs though. always sad songs. Why your people always sing sad songs?"
"Almas sing for the dead..."
"Ah. We have many dead. You sing for them?"
"I will sing for them, if you like."
"No like. Never like such thing. But would appreciate it. An act of kindness. Kind to our kin, kind to the dead, kind to we few left living, even if it is in this place."
"How were they--"
"I already told you! Stupid almas! Ate up by the Black. all eaten by the Black!" Mishka hacked the sabre through a crate. Stood there shaking. Livid. Blood-red tears coursing down her reddened cheeks.
"We were on the Birgau Pass through the Krupathian mountains, not far from Listritz, on our way to the Cold Road that leads to Zyrol ans Keshdula. We were met-up with by soldiers--"
"Butchers! Ambushers! Assassins!" Mishka screamed into the night only to be answered by thunder. The heavily seamed and patched canvas overhead snapped like sails.
"Franzikaners. Deserters turned bandit. They had crossbows. The kind that flung grenades, cannisters that went 'click, click,CLICK!' then released clouds of heavy, black--"
"Yes. Black Smoke. All who lived carry the marks of it on their skin, burned into our flesh. We few who lived, after they were done with us."
"Ah. Over now. We done with them, too. Not very smart these would-be bandits. They kill our men, kill our boys, kill our beasts, burn us with the Blackness that eats the dead. But we give them something in return. We make it so they never kill anyone else ever again."
"I..." Bujilli wasn't sure what to say.
"Who did you know among our kin?"
"He was Chief Wagonmeister. Lidroth Namalak..."
"Ah. Nosy rascal. Bad drinker. My cousin, of course." She winked. All of the kin claimed to be cousins to anyone who wasn't directly related such as brothers or sisters.
"He was my friend. He was going to help me to run away from my uncle. Before..."
"Yes? Before what?"
"Before my uncle sent a demon to kill all the mules." Bujilli looked down into the fire. Another rotten thing he was left with by that unholy bitch his uncle had kept in a cage. Most of the time.
"Ah. That is how that happened then. A good thing."
"Yes. They needed to winter-over in a ruined place high up in the mountains. A place that is known to our kin. They were able to round-up many wild sheep. more than enough to trade from whole new team of beasts of burden when they come down in the late Spring, after the floods had run their course. That proved to have been a very profitable time for them. They found some things in the ruins everyone else had forgotten about. Or never knew were there, most likely."
"So that worked out to their benefit. Good. I am relived."
"Don't be. The things they took from the ruins was what got them killed. All dead now. All but three. Children. They took to the woods. They'll probably outlive us..."
"I am sad to hear this."
"It is a sad thing. Much sadness. But you know what to say to Kishka. You convince Mama Rudta. You probably not a bad person. Come share our fire. Sing your people's sad songs for our dead. Then we drink; not good stuff, no gapf, but we make do. Your friend already drink too much?" Mama Rudta pointed to Leeja.
"She breathed-in some purple gas--"
"Ah. Set her down. This you should say first! Stand here talking while friend poisoned with the bad cloud!"
Bujilli set Leeja down beside the cooking fire. The cast iron cauldron looked empty.
Mama Rudt shooed him away and examined Leeja, murmuring some sort of chant as she did so; "Mishka, get some rags and the green bottle in my chest."
The girl slipped her sabre through her sash and ran for the required things.
Bujilli looked around the back-alley camp-site. Two small carts. A couple of canvas-topped nests or dens built-up from cushions and blankets. The fire was surrounded. Only two breaks in the collective disorder showed where the alley-way passed through the camp. Rope-ladders led up the walls of the alley to guard perches overlooking both ends. The guards up along the facing walls didn't move much. He wondered how many of them were still alive.
Mishka hurried back with the bottle and rags. Mama Rudta poured a sip of some sort of absinthe or the like into Leeja's mouth, past her raw, bleeding lips. She sputtered. Mama poured more. Leeja roused herself. Drank more of the green liquor. Finally Mama Rudta took back the bottle. Handed it back to Mishka. Wiped Leeja's face with the rags.
"There, there. You breathed-in something worse than the Blackness that eats the dead. But you'll be fine. Once you've had some rest." Mama Rudta clapped her hands twice, spoke some words so fast that Bujilli didn't have a chance to catch what was going on. A pair of black-haired women came out from the shadows, but not from any of the nest-like spots, and took over tending to Leeja.
Mama Rudta smiled as she turned to Bujilli; "Now we share fire. Now you sing for dead."
He nodded. Took Mama's proffered hand and went over to the fire and took up his spot next to Mama, across the fire from Leeja.
Six more women appeared around the fire, moving silently. Each one scarred by the Black Smoke, their accustomed adornments and ornaments mostly missing, replaced with bits of bone, teeth or claws. All of them wore knives and small blades in their collars, across their shoulders, in their skirts like Mama Rudta.
There were no children.
Mama Rudta handed Bujilli a flask of clear fluid.
It burned ferociously and had a paprika-like after-taste.
After the third sip he felt warm and fuzzy and was ready to sing.
It had been a long time since last he sang for the dead.
He started simple, slow, something that could be taken-up by the women around the fire, something that allowed him to sneak a few more sips of the spicy liquor.
The song became a round of sorts, then died out.
Then Bujilli began to really sing.
He sang for his friends among the kin. He sang for the Grandmaster. He sang for the few of his other's people who had been kind to him as a child. He sang for is mother.
Eventually he sang for his uncle. A bitter, angry song full of conflict and discord, regret and release.
Then a crossbow-lobbed cannister plunked down in the midst of the camp.
* Gapf is a peculiar liqueur brewed by the almas from fermented milk, honey and herbs. It is supposed to promote virility and diminish critical thinking ability, if only for a brief while. It also is notorious for enhancing memories, not eliminating them.