There was no edge to Souktown that Esker could discern, only a slow decay; the crumbling foundations were less and less overbuilt, the lights weaker and less dense, the bright polyglot signs fading more and more into the ruined indecipherable glyphs of the ancients. With the dark came quiet, but not a calm quiet. Coiled was the word, he thought. He slowed to a walk, not because his legs or lungs were failing, but because his breathing was too loud. He would hear Boss John Dream or his men from a distance, of that he was sure enough. He had been lucky on the high ice, never been engaged one-on-one by a psionic—oh, he had been scratched by broadband offensives, limbic bombs and ictal fields and the like, but never directly confronted an opposing imago in a shared reality. What little he had been taught about mind-on-mind combat, he had used against Dream, for what little good it had done. But he remembered enough of his instruction to know that such engagements led to cross-contamination of personality when both combatants survived. He could feel the shape of Dream in the phantom bite-marks on his shoulder, the persistent sense of filth where the mind-worm’s coils had wrapped.
He reached a crossing where the path ahead was decorated by a line of pebbles, each glowing with a different color: White, yellow, blue, white, yellow, blue. He walked up to the edge of the claim and stood for a moment, contemplating whether he ought to cross the line of lights. After several seconds, a gun barked; a few stone chips flew off the corner of a building, rather farther from Esker than a proper warning shot ought to have been. Nonetheless, he raised his hands and turned left, walking away from the crossing and the claim-edge. Two more streets to his right were so demarcated; the next was empty, and he turned, continuing toward yellow, green, white.
Esker sensed things moving in the dark around him, caught flashes of shambling silhouettes in windows and alleyways. He walked past another claim-edge, this one red, red, violet, green. Out of instinct, he looked into the claim to see if he could lay eye on another ciudor. He saw a Jaidari man prone on the black street—upper body visible, legs concealed in an alley, battered slouch laying shapeless a foot or so from his head. As he watched, the body jerked and disappeared into the alley, leaving the slouch orphaned. Wet noises began as he backed away from the claim-edge.
After that, the quiet of Jagaag viejo no longer felt like the absence of sound. It felt full of sound—of noises that were low, deliberately muffled, or far away.
A figure stepped from an alley a block down. With the moon behind it, he could not see its face; but he could see the line of cooked flesh where its neck ended, see the moon shine through the burnt ribs below. He knew whose face he would see there. The figure took a step toward him, and another.
“Hello, stranger,” it said. “How do you like my voice?”
He looked again. There was no neck-stump ending in pebbled black meat, no rib cage slicing the moonlight up like paper. The voice was not Ximena’s; it spoke with the near-native accent of the Jaidari Rooks, not the thick late-learned accent of the Rooks in Tenoc. It—she—wore leather under the black feather cloak; her skin was light, of course, her hair the shades of sand, and her limbs moved in patterns he had seen before, high on a web of steel.
“It’s a serious question,” she said as she approached. “I need to know if you can handle talking to a woman. Most of you foreigners get really jammed up about it, but I’ve been told you might be a different beast.”
“You’re the woman from the bridge,” he said.
“Ruth,” she said. “You’re Esker Sepherene. You’ve got a claim in the viejo. You’re looking for something rather specific, are you not?”
“I’m just here for the money,” said Esker. “Lots of money in eld Art. All the boys back on the farm say so.”
Ruth pinned him with her stare. “I’m not here to help some foreigner make money,” she said. “You say what you need to say to keep your dogs and your friends happy. With me, you tell the truth.”
“Because I’m going to help you.”
“You’re asking the wrong question. Do not kill me.” Ruth reached a hand into her black feather cloak; Esker’s grip tightened around the haft of his swordspear. She produced a crumpled piece of paper, which she unfolded, smoothed on her leg, and handed to Esker. “Can you read it?”
The markings were dim in the moonlight, but clear enough to his soldier’s eyes. It was two columns of words, one in the ancient script, one in Jaidari. The Jaidari words read:
… and so on. Esker looked at Ruth. “You’ve got my attention.”
“Lucky me. Those words will help you start looking, once you get into the claim.” She brushed a lock of hair back from her face, and Esker was suddenly aware of her exact proximity, of the faint scent of sand and leather floating from her on the breeze from the playa, of the fact that she was not, and had never been, the flesh-headed skeleton he had thought he had seen in the moonlight. The same hot, sweet surge he had felt on the bridge returned with a vengeance—burning up his spine, clouding his eyes. “‘Lots of money in eld Art.’ Is that the line you gave your friends?”
“Too dumb to know that going ciudor is an idiot’s game, then.” Esker shook his head, but Ruth spoke before he could. “Or they’ve got some other reason to be here, I don’t care. But it’s not your reason. You’re going to have to face down that lie before you leave this city. Maybe that means you kill all your friends, maybe it means you run away, maybe it means you all get fucked up on jimsonweed and hug while you confess. It doesn’t make a difference to me. But I need you to understand that, if you back down from your reason for being here, every ounce of the Creditor Rooks’ wrath is going to come down on you like the hammer of God, you take my meaning?”
“‘God’ has a big hammer, then?” Esker asked.
Ruth stared at him solemnly.
“Don’t tell your friends about me,” said Ruth.
“You remind me of a woman who once threatened me at gunpoint,” Esker said.
“Can’t imagine what we have in common,” said Ruth, “if she didn’t pull the trigger. I mean it, Esker Sepherene. I don’t truckle with men who kill Rooks and mutilate women. If you want to talk, get by yourself for two or three hours and stay in one place. I’ll come then.”
“You’re about to disappear soundlessly into the night, then?”
Ruth raised an eyebrow. “For a foreigner, you’re pretty quick on your feet. But I’ll just walk back, if that’s all right with you.”
“I couldn’t be more pleased.”
She walked up to Esker and then past him, the same sand-and-leather scent taking on a note of sweat as she approached. He turned to watch her go. She pulled up the cloak’s hood as she passed, and the black feathers faded into the dark.
The dawntide was worst—the flame over the horizon like a burning bordello, refracted into nauseous vapors by the fumes wafting up from the playa; the black sky curdling into an evil blue like the lips of the frozen drowned. The changing of the sky was a time of transition in the viejo as well, with swarms of what looked like fleshy birds funneling through broken windows to what Esker could only presume were their nests, with rumblings of stirring hulks in mercifully still-shadowed alleys. Esker lingered a moment to watch one of these things wake, a thing a bit bigger than man-size covered in reeking scraps of some sort of soft material. It had no lips, and its eyes were the size of Esker’s spread hands, and pure wet black. It appraised him with no particular fear or interest. Its forelimbs were grossly asymmetric, covered in fine black fur, its hands fat like a baby’s. He fought the urge to approach it, to prod it and see if it was real. He heard scrabbling and thumping along the rooftops for blocks after he left—or thought he did. When the sun finally burst over the ragged roofs of the viejo, he found himself unable to walk for a moment, as though transfixed by the gaze of an enormous eye.
The buildings grew taller as the day bloomed. The yellow, green, and white lights of the landmark grew difficult to see, then impossible, like stars in a sunny sky; Esker tried to keep the geometry of the building in his mind, but more and more often his view would be blocked, and he would experience a moment of panic—or more than a moment—before he found it again. At last, though, he emerged onto a great black gravel road—much like the one they had arrived on, but less traveled, the road-stuff broken into larger chunks—and the base of the stacked-block tower greeted him. Ozier and Kem were there with the mule and the dry goods. They had no water, but Ozier had convinced the yellow-green-white ciudores to share a bit in exchange for some of the jerk and lard. It was a big camp, run by a fat Chanter named Riel who was paler than he should be, and missing some fingers and toes. Everyone in it looked sick, grey and green around the edges. Two were rather mildly wounded—Esker had seen men hurt worse every day, and many had lived—but they looked like men on their deathbeds.
“The king of the tower don’t like us,” explained Riel over tea, resting in the courtyard of the tower in the midday heat. “Claims administration deeded him everything above Floor 80 and passage through the rest, but there’s a lot of locked doors and things he ain’t got through above maybe Floor 30, and he don’t want us getting there first. He likes booby traps. Hei and Tabu got hit by some kind of spear thing, just tore-out beams with knives strapped to ’em and something smeared on the knives. They’re just the ones who ain’t dead yet. You see the stelae out in camp?” Esker had seen them—four by his count, two with the black serpent of Kauket scratched in and two with green Usir, the Chanters’ death-god. “My business partner, two hands, and my wife. I got a haul, though,” he said, forcing cheer to his grey face. “Going to be hard to move everything I found, and no partner to split it with!”
Ozier and Kem caught up with Esker after the tea. They had had a head start on Esker and gone through the yellow-blue-white claim, where Esker had been fired on; they thought they had heard a shot, but they had been most of the way through the claim by then, and neither felt nor saw any bullets strike nearby. Riel had been for killing them at first, but Ozier’s staff and his generosity with the dry goods had quickly won his men over. “He’s got no haul, though,” said Ozier in a low voice. “I saw a couple of his hands unloading. He’s got crates and crates full of junk—scrap metal, circuit boards, glass, a lot of that fake ceramic that’s on everything in these buildings. He adds to it so his men won’t mutiny. Then he can’t get rid of it, or he’ll give the game away. At some point they’re going to force him to let them take it to Souktown and sell it—they’ll have to, to keep eating. Once that happens?” He shrugged. “Unless he finds something real, I think the king of the tower will have his basement back.”
“What is this ‘king’ business?” Esker asked.
Ozier shrugged. “Hard to know. I haven’t seen him. I’ve heard about this sort of thing—very hard to breed if you’ve lived in a viejo for long, but if the child does live, sometimes it’s hellish hardy or has some other quality. A big enough population, you get enough such children that they can breed together. They like the height of the towers for some reason—like staying up there. Whoever’s big enough to beat the rest up gets to be king or queen.”
“They’re men, then?” said Esker.
“I don’t know,” said Ozier. “For all I know, it’s a story Riel made up, and he’s the one who cut those poor men in the infirmary. All I know’s we’re not staying for dinner. If Inber and the damn Epseris can’t find their way here by sunset, we’re heading to the claim without them.”
In the afternoon, they slept in brief shifts, each spelling the others in case Riel or his men turned sour. Just as the dinner bell was ringing, Inber and the Epseris shambled through the battered flywheel door. “Lost sight of the tower,” Inber explained. “Had to go by dead reckoning. Epaphos isn’t as good as it as he thought.” That drew nothing but a growl from Epaphos; after a day of walking, the Epseris looked as though they’d been chained to a train and dragged a mile. It was clear no one was going anywhere, and with seven men and three staves, it was unimaginable that Riel would give them any trouble now; but Ozier pushed Epaphos to press on. Esker’s love for the Epseris had grown none since the events at the Elated Scarab, but he grew queasy at the harangue, the giant’s glamer hammering the green-eyed runeslinger at quarter-strength the while. Ozier could spare the night—and would, Esker knew, in the end—but he wanted to give the Epseris a grim time of it first. Eventually Inber went to the mess, and Kem and Esker went to take some air around the tower’s base.
[[Here’s where we put the convo from Chapter 1.]]
They slept through the night and much of the day. As sunset approached, the seven men consulted the map once more, and set out southward to the claim.
The ciudores swung out toward the playa and onto the great black gravel road that traveled east-west down its edge. It was a calculated gamble: The route would cost them hours and leave them exposed to the creatures rumored to live in the playa, but it provided far fewer opportunities for ambush. (None of the other ciudores had seen as much evidence of life in Jagaag as Esker had; their worries were of other ciudores, not of any other strange things that might dwell in the viejo.) Two deathbirds hung serenely in the sky, far out on the playa. In the cooling dusk, with the sun setting behind them, the way ahead was rather clear and the walking swift.
The map took them south of the playa a couple of hours after dusk. They gathered close together in the narrower streets, Esker, Kem, and Inber in the middle with two runeslingers in the front and back of the group. As they moved away from the edge of the playa and toward the claim, Esker began comparing the glyphs on the street signs (when there were street signs) with the ones listed in the claim-deed as demarcating the northern edge. Ozier called “Lights in the street!” before he found it.
“Lights?” said Epaphos. “Not a claim-edge?”
“A claim-edge,” said Ozier.
“Ha!” said Epaphos. “You’ve been jumped, Sepherene! How does that feel?”
“I wouldn’t dream of speaking for Esker,” said Kem, “but, for myself, it’s the first time I feel really good about having you around.”
“You’ll feel better before this is through,” said Epaphos. “Even you can’t grim me now, cripple; we stand before high fun in her evening gown and nothing underneath, and the overture’s just beginning.”
“What color is that?” said Esker, studying the claim-edge.
“What color is what?” said Epaphos.
“Look at it. Red, red, yellow… and then some other color. Not grey, not white. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that color. How can there be a color I’ve never seen?”
The Epseris had stopped. “Red, red, yellow, achrom?” said Epaphos, squinting. “I can barely… shit. Amen-Enkh, look at those lights for me. Is there anything in them?”
“The other claim-edges—those were all charmed stones, bought in Souktown or from some penny-ante hedge-mage no one trusts with real work. What’s this made of?”
Ozier squinted, then took a step closer. Epaphos’ fist closed around his bicep. “Don’t get closer. Just tell me what you can from here.”
“I can barely make out the colors. How am I supposed—”
“Bullets,” said Inber. “They’re bullets.”
“We need to get out of here,” said Epaphos. “Draw back to the playa along the route we’ve gone, it’s safest.”
“We can hunker down somewhere and talk about it, but not in sight of that claim-edge. I know those colors and they ain’t the welcome wagon. Come on!”
“All right—” Ozier began, and then it was as though the sun had rolled into the street.
All seven men stumbled back, flash-blind. Esker saw three figures running in the unnatural brilliance, which made their shadows razor-sharp and painted every coil of every hair with a glowing white edge: An older man, a younger, and a tall, slim girl. The former was armed with a pistol, the latter with a rifle, and the third not at all.
A tongue of lightning arced out from the street where they came, adding to the searing light of the eldritch day. It struck the younger man at the rifle-tip. The after-image of his bones lingered on Esker’s eyelids long after he fell. Shots rang out, too many to count, and perfect-petaled red flowers burst from the flesh of the older man, who met Esker’s eyes a moment before he, too, tumbled into the street.
But the girl had veered away from the street-mouth, deer-fleet and long-legged, and Esker could see the panic in her eyes break as she sprinted for them.
“Shit,” said Epaphos, and leveled his staff at her. She didn’t seem to notice. Ozier jerked the staff-tip down just as Epaphos’ own arc of lightning leapt forth, dissipating harmlessly into the ground. Epaphos snarled and tried to wrench the staff free, but Ozier’s hand could not be dislodged.
“We’re not killing children today,” Ozier said, his face a mask of fury.
“She’s dead anyway,” Epaphos said, “that’s the Kid hisself—”
A runeslinger all in orange and yellow stepped from the street-mouth, flanked by two gunners in red and black. The brilliance seemed to be concentrated around him, but through it Esker could make out the runes of his staff—the helix was tripled, the shai and ar runes he’d already seen and a third, whose name he did not know, that he’d seen the day previous, on the stones of the claim-edge where he’d almost been almost shot. The girl flung herself, panting, past Ozier and into Esker’s chest; he hugged her by reflex, dropping the swordspear. “It’s all right,” he said.
She looked up at him, and the look in her eyes said I don’t believe you.
“Go!” Epaphos roared, and flame and lightning billowed forth from the three staves.
The roar and crackle of the runic simples was devastating. Esker turned and lifted the girl with him, trusting in his soldier’s speed and strength as he never had before, but his skin practically popped and sizzled with the sounds.
Then, through the din and confusion, Teos sang ush louder than he had ever sung before.
There was a thump, almost the sound of a fire-dousing. Over it, Epaphos and Sethos shouted, and Esker heard two shouts. Teos sang again, and suddenly the otherworldly brilliance was gone as though a wall had slammed down on the street. Esker couldn’t help but stop and look back. As wide and the street and as tall was a wall of perfect blackness, from which even the Epseris brothers were now running with all the speed their legs could muster.
Inber was in the lead; he took them down a cross-street, then up several blocks toward the playa, then down another cross-street, then across the great black gravel road to the edge of the playa itself. They crossed several train tracks and found themselves in a park full of open dirt, dominated by a columned monstrosity that sat across the expanse like a sleeping dog. Inber ducked behind the columns, Esker and the girl right behind him. Eventually the mule wandered in. Last, by long minutes, were the Epseris, Kem, and Ozier, the latter of whom supported a pale and shaking Teos Epseris with an arm around his upper back.
“No fire,” said Epaphos. “Two people watching, both lines of approach, at all times. If we get cornered here, I’m surrendering the girl if I have to kill you all to do it.”