Empire of gut and bone, p.1
Empire of Gut and Bone,
GUT AND BONE
THE NORUMBEGAN QUARTET, VOL. 3
M. T. ANDERSON
in the House of Haunts
About the Author
Praise for M. T. Anderson’s
A staircase led to nowhere. It stood in the middle of a rough, broken plain.
A stocky boy sat on the stairs, sagging low, his elbows on his knees. Dim blue light shone from jagged cracks in the black sky. It faintly lit ruins.
Brian Thatz raised his head to look out across the murky horizon. Arches below him supported nothing. Columns stood with no roof. Cellars sat naked beneath the low, dark sky. And beyond all this, there was only a flat sea of ooze.
Brian uncurled, reached out to lift the singed leg of a broken chair, and stirred the ashes of his fire. The ashes glowed faintly. He slid across the step he sat on to get closer to the warmth.
At the top of the ceremonial staircase, a few steps up, stood a black slab, a gateway to another world.
Brian was cold — chilled to the bone — and tired. He had not eaten for a day. At least he thought it was a day. Time was difficult, for there was no sun, no night, no day — just cracks in the sky and a reflecting glimmer in far marshes of stew.
The ruins covered a square mile or so. They were all built of rough-hewn brown stone. Hardly anything stood. Chimneys. A few walls. The staircase was the tallest thing in the city. It was a broad staircase, and had a twist to it. In an earlier age, all the refugees of lost Norumbega had fled down these wide steps, coming to this world to make a new home.
Now a dull silence lay over the fallen metropolis. Occasionally, the wind stirred, shuffling over the desolate marshes.
Brian could hear the bickering of his friends as they returned to the camp.
“This is dumb.”
“I am not dumb.”
“I didn’t mean you were actually dumb. I just mean it’s dumb to say that things are dumb.”
“You’re not even — don’t even argue with me! You’re not even real!”
“So I’m fake, and you’re dumb. We’re even.”
“You’re dumb and fake. You’re programmed to be dumb.”
Brian was exhausted, and wished they’d stop fighting. They had all spent the last twelve hours or so searching the ruins for life or clues. Before that, they’d spent an awful day crawling around under a mountain, dodging silver tentacles, defending a kitchen against alien invasion, and vanquishing an undead real estate developer.
Brian’s friends came trudging up the steps to nowhere. One was a blond boy with a burned hand wrapped in a piece of cloth. The other was a troll in Renaissance armor.
“We didn’t find anything,” said Kalgrash, the troll.
“We found something,” said Gregory, the boy. “A bureau. We found a smashed-up bureau.”
Kalgrash held out a wooden drawer. “For firewood.” He tossed it down on the step. It cracked and slid down a few stairs.
Brian stood up and looked out over the sinkholes and slime. “What are we going to do? Where have they all gone?”
The three had risked everything to come in search of the Norumbegans, the elfin race that had raised this city in this weird plain. Back in the pleasant valleys of Vermont, the tricky, wicked Thusser had been arranging an alien settlement, stealing into dreams and corrupting time. The Thusser’s invasion had been slowed, Brian hoped, by the destruction of their agent on Earth — but it had not been stopped. Even as Brian stood helplessly on this staircase to nowhere, the Thusser might be marching through a gateway onto the green lawns of Brian and Gregory’s world.
Brian whispered, “What happened to this place?”
“No bodies,” said Kalgrash, squinting. He clanked over to the side of the staircase and looked down at the cellars. “No sign of a battle or fire.”
“The bureau was almost okay,” said Gregory. “Just missing one leg. It was, you know, the kind of bureau that has legs.”
“Maybe,” said Kalgrash softly, “maybe the city was never destroyed.”
“What do you mean?” Brian asked.
“I don’t think the city was ever finished in the first place.”
Brian and Gregory thought about this. The wind picked up. It blew Brian’s black hair into his eyes, and he raised his hand to push the mess of it back.
Kalgrash said, “Maybe it’s not ruined. Maybe it’s unbuilt. Like the Norumbegans abandoned it. They got here, started to build — tinka-tonka, tinka-tonka, tinka-tonka — and then they moved on. Nothing looks like it was ever finished. I mean, the stonework. In the City of Gargoyles, they did all this fancy carving. Here, nothing’s carved. It’s like they were just starting. And I think some of these aren’t even cellars — they’re quarries. Where they were cutting out the rock. Yup.” He nodded and looked around at the pits and columns. “Yup, yup, yup. That’s what I think.”
Gregory sat down wearily by the fire. He rubbed his roughly bandaged hand.
“I think you’re right,” said Brian. “Yeah.”
Kalgrash mused anxiously, “I wonder what made them keep going … or … you know … wiped them out.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Gregory. “The thing is, we’re trapped, right?”
“Yeah,” said Brian. “Prudence and Snig can get us through the portal on their side, but we need someone to open it from this end, too. I don’t know how.”
“Right. Bingo,” said Gregory. “So it doesn’t really matter whether the Norumbegans were wiped out or they left. Because either way, we’re stuck here in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat and nothing in any direction except an ocean of goo.” He flapped his hand at the glistening swamp.
“Better goo than gunk,” said Kalgrash.
“What?” Gregory said, exasperated.
“Gunk’s grimier than goo. Goo’s … gookier, but not grimy.” Kalgrash looked to Brian for support. “Am I wrong?”
Brian didn’t answer. He was looking up at the obsidian portal, which just twelve hours before they had walked through like it was a pool, but which now, if they tried to pass back through, would be hard as marble.
Gregory glared at them both. He picked up the broken drawer and snapped it across his knee. He fed the pieces into the failing fire.
The black smoke went up, curled like the staircase, rising high above the shattered landscape and disappearing into the gloom.
The boys slept while the troll kept watch.
They imagined that night had fallen, but the light didn’t change. The cracks in the sky still shone lurid blue. The wind blew bitterly across the marshes, through the half-built arches.
The fire was still going. Kalgrash must have gone down and grabbed another bureau drawer. Brian was sleeping with his head on his arm.
Gregory looked down the great staircase.
The troll was twenty feet below them. Gregory rose carefully. Kalgrash stage-whispered, “Hey! Yoo-hoo! You two! There’s something moving down there!”
Gregory shook Brian awake. Brian was startled, and blinked behind his glasses. He smeared his eyes and was about to ask something when Gregory shushed him and pointed down at the troll, who leaned forward, gripping his battle-ax.
“There’s something in the city,” Gregory whispered. Even as he said it, he felt a chill down his back.
They crept down the stairs to stand beside Kalgrash. Now they could see what he’d seen — an indistinct shape passing through the unfinished basements near the foot of the steps.
“What is it?” asked Brian. “Is it a person?”
“Maybe a person in a cloak or a robe,” Kalgrash reported. “But lumpy, lumpy, lumpy.”
“Lumpy’s not good,” said Gregory.
They paced down another few steps, the boys hanging back behind their armored friend.
“I’m going back up to get the musket,” said Brian, and he loped back up to their campsite.
Kalgrash bobbed his head back and forth. He lifted his hand to his visor, which was pulled back on his forehead. He muttered, “It’s gone.”
“Gone’s not good, either,” said Gregory. He crouched, weaponless. His hand was still burned from a dumb stunt with an all-purpose cleaner.
Something leaped at the bottom of the stairs and began to swarm upward.
It was like a spiked burlap sack. It rolled and scraped up the steps, its skin clawed.
Brian was running down toward them, the musket held clumsily in his arms.
Kalgrash raised his battle-ax above his head. “Smite the bag!” he cried, and rushed the beast. He clanked as he descended, arms held high.
Brian came to Gregory’s side. “I can’t shoot with Kalgrash in the way.” He sighted down the length of the musket, lowered it, shouted, “Kalgrash!”
But the troll was already smacking at the angry sack with his ax. It leaped at him. Its nails scraped across his plate mail.
He swung the ax again. The thing clung. He clawed at it. It fell.
It surrounded his feet, its clawed hide clamping on his greaves.
“Get away from it!” Brian shouted from up a few flights. “I can’t shoot!”
Kalgrash tried lifting his feet — one, the other — but the thing held on. It bunched and rattled, its spikes or teeth rasping along the metal shoes, catching on the plates.
Kalgrash swung his ax.
It cleaved the bag in two.
The bag stopped moving.
He prodded its pieces. It kept still.
He turned and said triumphantly, “We should have known. Where there’s goo, there’s things.” He grinned.
“Kal —!” screamed Brian, but it was too late. Already, more of the things were leaping up the steps — a ravenous pack of spiked bags flapping.
Brian sighted the musket. He thought of the portions of the Cantrip of Activation that had to be kept in the mind. He spoke the trigger words, and the musket flared. One sack flailed and dropped. Three more still crowded Kalgrash’s knees.
Gregory didn’t know whether to run down and help or run back up. There was nowhere to flee. They were stuck on the stairs. The portal above was tough as rock. And he had nothing to fight with. The creatures’ teeth would shred him.
Brian kept trying to fire. He wasn’t hitting much. He had to be careful so he didn’t blast the troll.
Kalgrash was overwhelmed by the things galloping all around him, clawing at his metalwork. He swiped back and forth, but hit nothing. He was losing his balance.
He was near the edge of the stairs, and there was no banister.
He teetered, hacking. They clamped on to his armor. Another was rippling up the steps past him, heading for the boys.
There were dark shapes rising all around them, scuttling out of the ruins. Gregory looked around desperately. There were fifteen or so, all crawling toward them now, attracted — who knows? — by noise or scent or the heat of warm flesh.
The steps were crawling with them. Some were scratching their way up the thick Gothic supports. Gregory yelped as one flung itself over the edge and bunched toward him.
Panicked, he clattered back up the steps.
He and Brian were forced up — up — while Kalgrash was ringed below, hacking and crowing battle cries.
Brian fired again, but the creatures were too close to his ankles. He couldn’t think — couldn’t clear his mind to fill it with the Cantrip of Activation, the triggering images.
He and Gregory were almost back at the top, the landing, the dead end, the slab of unopened gate, the drop.
Kalgrash was crawling with toothed bodies. He tried to dislodge them through calisthenics — swinging his torso, kicking, flailing.
“Oh no, oh no — no!” said Gregory as one slithered closer. It clacked on the pink stone.
And then an aroma filled the air.
They didn’t notice it much at first.
Gregory lashed out at the thing with his foot. He kicked it. It reared. It wavered sluggishly.
Brian was sniffing, looking around.
“While I’m being eaten,” said Gregory unkindly, “you’re sniffing out bacon.” He stomped on the bag, then swore. A tooth had speared the rubber sole of his sneaker.
“There’s something …” said Brian vaguely, holding up his hand. He waved his fingers in front of his nose.
Gregory shook the dead bag loose.
He looked around.
The things were getting sluggish. They were still rippling and heaving, but more slowly.
And the air was filled with sweet vapor.
Kalgrash, down below, was peeling off beasties and hurling them over the edge.
There was a light, burning and orange.
“What’s going on?” said Gregory.
Then a voice called out of the gloom in a language that had not been heard on Earth for generations.
The man strode toward them over the broken terrain through clouds of gas as thick as powder. He wore some kind of ribbed jumpsuit and a hooded coat that sprouted white, bristly hairs. On his back were strapped two crossed planks — skis. In his hand, he held a contraption: a tin cylinder punctured with holes, in which something orange burned and gave off smoke. A fan behind it blew the smoke forward in jets and darts.
The man asked them questions in a language none of them understood.
He stopped and cocked his head. He gestured at the dead bags. He spoke again. He shrugged.
“I’m sorry,” said Brian. Clearly and deliberately, he asked, “Do you speak English, sir?”
The man shut off the fan. The thick smog, no longer driven forward, bunched and dawdled. The man spoke again.
“Sorry,” said Gregory. “We don’t speak jumpsuit.”
The figure grimaced, put down his gadget, and took out a short, curved knife. It was stained brown.
Kalgrash hefted his battle-ax and looked resolute.
The man took out a cigar and cut off the end. He lit it in his tin lamp and stuck it in his mouth. He had a black goatee, and looked wiry and sure of himself.
Keeping his knife out, he walked over to one of the toothed sacks. He began splitting it open. He separated the skin from some dry, red lining. Brian, appalled, watched as the man seized on to a dry mat of nerves and tugged them free.
Once the tangle of nerves dangled from his hand, he tossed the rest of the carcass aside. He moved on to the next sack. He paid no attention to the troll, who was only a few feet away.
Brian and Gregory descended the staircase, stepping gingerly over the dead bags. Whe
The man glanced up from his work, now interested. He pointed at the portal at the top of the steps. “Norumbega,” he said. He jabbed his finger again up toward the black slab. Then he indicated the boys. “Norumbega?” he asked.
Gregory turned to Brian. “Do we say yes to that, or no?”
They did not answer. The man went about his work without further interest in the boys, tearing out the nets of nerve and gathering them in a skin. When he was done, he rose and looked inquiringly at the three who’d watched him gut sacks up and down the stairs. He asked them a few questions, which they could not understand. He touched his skis, then indicated he wondered where the boys’ skis were.
Brian shrugged. He shook his head and swiped his hands back and forth to show they didn’t have any.
The man looked irritable. He gestured for them to follow him.
They picked up their few things and walked through the ruins. They passed under incomplete arches and down hallways that had never been built.
At the edge of the ruin, the sticky, yellow marsh began. Only a few feet from shore stood the man’s sleigh. It was huge, with a little cabin, windows lit, and the chimney of a woodstove. It was drawn by three beasts of burden — headless, it seemed, mainly folds and flaps of skin, but with six or seven legs apiece. They idled in the saffron muck.
The man hauled his wide skis off his back, fastened them to his boots, and slushed out to his sleigh. He clambered aboard and returned with a little goo-sled and a paddle. He fetched the three of them one by one.
In a few minutes, they were all sitting aboard.
“I guess he’s friendly,” said Gregory.
“I guess.” Brian wasn’t sure. The man didn’t smile or talk any more. He pulled back his hood. His ears were pointed.
Far above them, against the cracked, black sky, spidery birds lolloped into dusk.
For hours, they slushed over miles of muck. It was two or three feet deep. Quite quickly, the unbuilt city disappeared behind them, and then all that was left were the sharp veins of light in the sky, and the dim plain. Occasionally, they passed a metallic stem rising out of the goo, a single, crooked finger glinting dully, bloated at the top with some kind of pod.