The city of Old Castle rose from the wasteland like an abscess swelling on the festering skin of a diseased world. Across its neighbourhoods and districts a siren called, lifting and falling with an ominous wail that sent citizens scurrying for their homes. Hiding like monsters in burrows, they prayed that this latest threat from the wastes would pass the city by, while fearing that this time, judgement had come to demand penance for their crimes. The people of Old Castle were rank with guilt. The city was populated by murderers.
And it was my home.
Through the chill of evening shadows, I made my way to the outskirts of Old Castle. No breeze disturbed the air, no sound accompanied the siren’s wail; light from a setting red sun did little to warm a tense ambience. Beyond the last of the buildings, I began crossing a stretch of open ground, heading towards the city wall. But it wasn’t me walking, not really, not any more. I could see through my eyes, hear through my ears, smell the stench of the city, but I had no control over my direction. My footsteps weren’t made of my own volition.
I neared the city wall, a sturdy construction, thick and high, unbreakable, but at that moment it seemed merely a thin veil constructed for the illusion of safety. The huge turrets rising atop it housed the mighty ether-cannons which protected the citizens from the horrors of the wastes. But not from me.
These words gurgled from an oily mass slithering over cracked, stony ground ahead of me: a ghoul, wheezing wet breaths, hissing with anger. This thing had been a woman in life, a simple soul; but in death, an oozing puddle fuelled by injustice, out for revenge. Caring nothing for the danger approaching Old Castle, the ghoul sang her Song, a Song of obsession and need, and I couldn’t deny her plea for vengeance.
Up on the wall, the turrets were turning, sweeping the aim of their long, fat cannons left and right. A low, familiar drone came next, baritone beneath the undulating siren, rumbling through the empty streets behind me. From the centre of Old Castle, a great beam of energy shot towards the cloudless pink sky like a waterspout. The city had activated its ether shield. High above the buildings, the energy gathered into a monumental ball of clear, wavering magic before dispersing, smearing, spreading across the length and breadth of Old Castle, forming a barrier between the city and the sky.
Above me, the edge of the shield curved downwards, creating an umbrella that descended liquidly to the ruined ground outside the wall. In a matter of moments, this hive of guilt-ridden souls was secured within a dome of ether power like a city in a snow globe. Sunlight refracted, the siren changed its pitch, the breeze dropped and the air became stifled. The bitter taste of ether dried the inside of my mouth. But it wasn’t really my mouth now.
‘Closer,’ the ghoul hissed.
Cannons tracked the movements of whatever monstrosity was coming from the wastes as I followed the ghoul along the line of the wall. With no choice in the matter, I was led to a set of stone stairs rising to a pot-bellied watch post nestled between two turrets. The ghoul slithered up the stairs and I climbed after her like the dutiful puppet I had become.
No sign of movement came from beyond the watch post’s darkened doorway, but I knew a man hid there, a murderer who had nowhere left to run. He had taken sanctuary in the watch post in a vain attempt to hide from death. His subconscious understood what was coming for him, and why. The dead deserved vengeance.
Reeking of sewage, the ghoul hissed in anticipation, gurgled with longing. Like a snake, her darkness oozed up around the doorway to form an oily frame. I stared into the gloom beyond.
‘Your sins have returned to you.’ My Mouth, using my voice, but it wasn’t me speaking. ‘Won’t you come out and atone with dignity?’
The man in the watch post was by no means the first murderer I had tracked that day, and he wouldn’t be the last. I’d been leaving a trail of blood behind me for two days now, and there was an endless river’s worth waiting to be spilled yet.
Whatever will remained to me, I tried to force it into my legs, to make myself turn around and walk away, but I no longer had the strength or presence to make a difference to my actions. I stepped through the ghoul’s stench, entered the watch post, and the man attacked immediately.
He came out of the gloom, big and strong, a blur of motion in the dim light shining through the viewing slit in the back wall. With one arm, he pulled me into a tight embrace, spitting a curse into my ear as his free hand thrust a knife into my side. The blade couldn’t penetrate my ribs and sliced over bone before its tip ripped out of the skin beneath my chest. I was too far gone to feel the damage inflicted upon my body and pushed the man away with force enough to send him sprawling.
‘Kill him,’ the ghoul hissed from the doorway.
The murderer sat on the floor, staring up at me. He was no Magician; he couldn’t see the ghoul of his victim. His expression became stunned when I pulled the knife from my body and showed no distress at the hot blood soaking my shirt and trousers. Panic filledthe man’s eyes when I used the blade to point at him.
‘The dead call me Sycamore. I am their Shepherd.’
With another curse, he jumped to his feet, fists clenched and ready to fight. I stepped close to him, dodged a clumsy punch and drove the knife into the side of his neck, down to the hilt. Such a simple and fluid act. I wished I could have turned away and covered my ears as the man dropped to his knees, choking, clawing at the knife’s handle with fingers slicked in arterial blood. Desperate, struggling to breathe, his eyes pleaded with me. He looked to be approaching twenty, the prime of life but not yet old enough to have seen the horrors of war.
When he toppled, falling face down and dead, the ghoul gave a peaceful sigh and slithered across the floor. The oily darkness mingled with the pool of blood spreading around the corpse of her murderer. As though in a show of gratitude, a single tendril reached out to touch my boot before the ghoul faded and disappeared. Finding peace through vengeance, she journeyed on to the other side.
The city siren continued to wail. I continued to drown inside myself.
Stepping over the corpse, I peered through the watch post’s viewing slit to gaze upon the desolation outside Old Castle. The sun was about to kiss the horizon, a sinking red orb quivering through the watery magic of the city shield, shedding the last of its rays upon a broken landscape. Shadows stretched and pointed at the city; the glassy summits of hillocks reflected light with majestic starbursts of rainbow colours. Millennia of humanity’s bad choices had been trampled down into a plain of scorched rock and rusty metal. This was the wasteland. This was the world now called Urdezha, ruined beyond recognition, just like its people.
It looked as though a dust storm was blowing in. A bank of debris rolled across the plain like fog on the sea, hued red by the sun’s backdrop. But this was no act of nature. The storm had been kicked into the air by the hundreds of feet galloping towards Old Castle. A herd of beasts. A stampede of monsters. They were too far away to see in great detail, but these creatures were as big as houses, thundering along on four legs, too many to bother counting. With stocky bodies covered in bony spikes and long horns protruding from great heads, the herd’s charge looked unstoppable. Was this an act of war? Had the herd been driven this way by Old Castle’s enemies? It didn’t matter. The creatures of the wasteland were never a match for the might of a city.
Along the city wall, ether-cannons took aim and fired with oddly subdued whumps. Ether knew ether, they said, and the shield allowed the lethal bursts of magic to pass through its energy and race across the wasteland trailing streamers of displaced air. The first wave of shots smashed into the herd’s front line, punching the life from monsters. The cannons fired again – and again – and the charge faltered under their fury.
Through the sound of the siren, the drone of the shield and the whumps of ether, distant roars reached my ears. The cannons spat so many bursts of magic that the enemy was soon obscured by dust and debris. Whether or not the remaining monsters had turned tail and fled, leaving their fallen as carrion on the wastes, not one of them emerged from the storm. The abscess of Old Castle wouldn’t be lanced today, but . . . ‘Soon,’ said a voice inside me.
I placed a hand on the wall to steady a sudden flush of fatigue weakening my legs. The knife wound in my side wasn’t critical, but it was bleeding freely. I needed medical attention, food, sleep, but none of them would be given to me. As long as I could draw breath, my body would continue this rampage, while my spirit, my essence, me, slowly spiralled down into the oblivion of Nothing.
The moment of weakness passed, and a voice gurgled from behind me.
Another ghoul had materialised. It stood in the watch post’s doorway, formed into the rough approximation of a human shape. It held no discernible features and oily shadows dripped from its outstretched arms. The ghoul’s presence came as no surprise; it was simply the next victim of murder to find me. And in this city, on this world, there would always be a next victim.