“There. Yes. Those two.” Excitement, wet and thick, curdled Chemurr’s voice. She coughed and swallowed noisily, but she was too agitated to keep the phlegm worms from crawling back up. Her swollen fingers clenched around Gaiter’s arm. “Come, boy.”
Gaiter pulled back. He knew it was stupid, dangerous. You didn’t annoy Chemurr ever, but especially not when she got like this. He hated the phlegm worms, though. Hated them too much to be smart, sometimes.
“How—how do you know?” He made the question tremulous, fearful, hoping Chemurr would be satisfied enough with his terror that she wouldn’t demand more. It wasn’t a stretch. Gaiter really was frightened half out of his mind. “Did the Great Master tell you so?”
“The Great Master doesn’t have to tell me that, boy.” Chemurr’s grip tightened with her scorn. Her fingers squelched against Gaiter’s bones. “I can smell it on them. The stink of delusion. Thinking that what they do matters.” Her nostrils flared, sniffing, and a phlegm worm dropped out.
Gaiter flinched. He couldn’t help it. Nor could he help looking at the thing that squirmed across the cobblestones, fat and segmented and slimy, its skin whorled with runes that shimmered with greasy, unreal colors and made his eyes ache. He tore his gaze away, hastily, his eyes burning with tears.
If the light had been better, he knew, he’d have been able to see a pink tinge on his fingers as he dashed those tears away. Blood. His eyes were filmed with it, just from a glimpse of a phlegm worm. A longer look, and he might have gone blind. Mad. Worse.
It didn’t bear thinking about. Trying to ignore the grub, Gaiter studied the figures Chemurr had pointed out. There were two, cloaked and hooded despite the warmth of Egorian’s summer night. They moved quickly, but with a burdened caution that suggested they were carrying some fragile or heavy contraband beneath those cloaks.
He couldn’t smell anything from them, but that wasn’t a surprise. The hooded figures were fifty feet away, and Chemurr and Gaiter were crowded into the recesses of a stinking, unlit alley, hidden by shadows and the Great Master’s magic. All he could smell was stale urine, rotting fish, and Chemurr’s thick breath, fouler than the rest.
The hooded figures had stopped. The street around them was momentarily empty. Quickly, they tossed back their cloaks and drew out… a covered bucket and… paintbrushes? Gaiter squinted and leaned forward.
One of them pulled a collapsible ladder from under his cloak, shimmying to the top and balancing with impressive dexterity as he painted a pair of silvery-blue crossed swords over a banner displaying the red-circled cross of Infernal Cheliax. The other held the paint bucket and dipped the brushes, handing them up to her partner.
“Why, they’re rebels,” Gaiter blurted, too astonished to keep the thought to himself. He didn’t recognize the mark, but no one else would dare deface Imperial insignia. Rebels. In Egorian! Perhaps the devilers’ control wasn’t as absolute as he’d believed.
“Rebels and devils, devils and rebels,” Chemurr crooned, as if she could read Gaiter’s thoughts. She gurgled a wet laugh, audibly swallowing another phlegm worm in the middle of it. “Yes. That’s all anyone thinks about here. They chase each other round and round, and everyone forgets about us. Just as the Great Master wants it. Oh—here come the devils now.”
A Hellknight patrol had spotted the painters. They shouted a warning, made unnecessary by the clatter of their heavy spiked armor. As good as alarm bells, that armor. The rebels tossed their brushes aside, leaving a final swipe of blue across the defaced banner, jumped down from the ladder, and ran.
The Hellknights hadn’t a prayer of catching the light-footed vandals. Gaiter was astonished that they could run at all in that massive, spiked plate, let alone so quickly, but even so they were falling behind by the second.
They knew it too. One of the Hellknights blew a carved bone whistle. The whistle was soundless, but the bone-prickling baying of hellhounds rang out in response. Three of the infernal beasts came rushing to join their armored masters, their fire-wreathed bodies swift and bright in Egorian’s dark night. They pursued the fleeing rebels relentlessly, gaining ground as quickly as the Hellknights had lost it.
“Now,” Chemurr hissed as soon as the Hellknights were past their alley.
“Now?” Gaiter balked again. Twice in the same night. He really was tempting fate, pushing back on Chemurr like this.
But the Hellknights were still in sight—they’d only have to turn around to spot him—and he’d seen what the Chelaxians did to the Great Master’s servants. Despite everything else Gaiter had seen, everything else he’d done, those screams stayed with him. There was a reason they’d stayed out of Thrune lands so long. The devilers could be as cruel as the Great Master himself, and their questions were as sharp as their knives.
“Now.” Chemurr’s fingers tightened so hard on Gaiter’s arm that one of them burst, soaking his sleeve with wriggling slime. “While the rebels and the devils are distracted with each other. Or do you not wish to accomplish our Great Master’s work?”
Gaiter swallowed, nodded, and ran.
Darting up the ladder that the rebels had left behind, Gaiter swept one of the discarded brushes across the blue swords, working the changes he’d seen in his dreams. Subtle alterations made more so by the Great Master’s will. A curl here, a swish in the brush texture that suggested an almost-word there, a fold between the overlapping red and blue that suggested some other color, an un-combination, an unraveling of the others that allowed a tiny, tantalizing glimpse beyond their mundane reality.
He climbed down. Sweat soaked his shirt. That was bloody too, just as his tears had been before. He could smell the meat-and-iron taint of it. The Great Master’s presence was too terrible for his poor mortal servants to withstand.
“Good.” Chemurr stood at the base of the ladder, looking up with satisfaction. Her hood had fallen back a bit, showing a bit of her face.
Gaiter swallowed again, shuddering. The Great Master’s presence was terrible indeed.
“Will it… catch the Hellknights?” He wasn’t sure whether to dread or hope for that. The snare he’d woven felt too fragile to catch a will like theirs.
“No.” Chemurr’s snort was choked by another worm. “Those mighty knights don’t scrub vandals’ paint themselves. They’ll send slaves. Halflings. The resentful, the powerless. Fertile soil for the Great Master’s secrets to seed. But…” She trailed off. The silence stretched into squirming discomfort.
Suddenly Chemurr’s hand shot out. Her fingers squelched around Gaiter’s face, muffling his screams even as they pried his jaw open. The swollen pustules in her palm split open, filling his mouth with the wet slurry of her dissolving humanity and with phlegm worms.
They poured into him. Writhing, biting, burning, melting. Gaiter felt his throat corrode into red melt, and then he was swallowing that too, desperately, trying to keep from drowning in his own dying flesh. His legs swelled together and burst, puddling into slurry as the worms coursed through the liquefaction and smeared it like ink across the ground.
And then he couldn’t feel anything. He could still hear and could see the banners that his eyes had fixed upon before they’d stopped moving or blinking, but he felt nothing. Only dread, and a last distant knot of pain somewhere in his chest, aching as it faded. His heart, maybe. His soul, before the phlegm worms ate it.
Chemurr laughed. She was licking her palm to seal it up again. A sound he knew too well. “Traitor boy. Did you think the Great Master couldn’t sniff out your delusions, too? That you would escape. That you would repent. No matter. Even the disloyal are useful. The Hellknights don’t come to study vandals’ banners. But they’ll come for you. And the snare you are—well, you might catch one.
“Rebels and devils, devils and rebels. Playing their little games while the Great Master laughs.” Chemurr crooned, softly, as the last of Gaiter’s sight and hearing melted into roaring black and whirling, poisoned stars. Not death. Not peace. An infinity of rushing madness, a fall that never ended. And Chemurr’s voice, and the phlegm worms, forever. “While the Great Master laughs.”
Tales of Lost Omens: The Snare
Thursday, July 18, 2019