Read all previous installments here. “Are we fighting to kill, or just to maim?” Matilda asked. The fighters arrayed in front of her — and, now, also sneaking up behind — were armed to the teeth. Literaly, in one case, though having a knife in your mouth seemed more dangerous to its wielder than anyone …
Matilda found the King’s Armpit — no relation to the King’s Arms by the central square — just where Joe told her it would be. Down a dark alley that reeked of stale beer, urine, vomit… and something else. Was that a pile of rags in that alcove? No, a decomposing corpse. Clearly, this was an area completely ignored by the Chamber of Commerce.
Yesterday’s chapter marked the end of For Krim the Bell Tolls, my longest novel yet, coming in at over 80,000 words. I’m finally starting to feel like a real writer. There were some speedbumps I hit along the way, but they were health related, with a couple of off weeks, but the writing process itself …
Finnbogi moaned slightly and his eyes flittered open then closed again. Good, he was starting to come to. Wynefrede scooted closer to him and poked at him with one of her feet, then looked around. The two commandos who were guarding them had automatic rifles in their hand, and were scanning the compound for threats.
Wynefrede wasn’t a tiny woman, but she felt like a doll as the commando carried her up the mountain slung over his shoulder. But then again, if their gate allowed them to bring in weapons and military uniforms, then it probably didn’t have any constraints on body types, either. The main Krim entrance gate had a complicated point system for choosing bodies that forced users to make trade-offs between, say, strength and endurance. The commando carrying her didn’t seem to be operating under any physical constraints at all.
Finnbogi stood up. “We have to get off Krim right this minute,” he said. He and Wynefrede had been sitting behind a rock outcrop, hidden from view, looking at the stars above them and the ocean in front of them. Now his head was visible to anyone who might be looking for them. Wynefrede tried pulling him back down.
Shortly after Wynefrede was in the woods, running away from the compound, she heard the bell ring behind her and froze in panic. Then she slowly turned around and dropped to the ground and crawled behind the nearest tree and waited for the ringing to stop. Was this a signal for the cult members to assemble in order to chase after her?
The cart was lighter with just the tools and Elyon’s body in it, but Temeliel didn’t think he could push it through the jungle. The path back led up to the compound, where he could easily be spotted. He didn’t want to think about what would happen to him if the Powers found him with Elyon unconscious and bleeding in the cart.
The toilets were on the back side of the building. It was normally dark at night, but Temeliel had a small lantern hanging from his cart. Another hung in the small doorway, about waist high, that opened into the building’s cesspit. Temeliel’s job was to use a long-handled shovel to scoop the waste out then pile it into a two-wheeled wooden cart. An angel named Elyon supervised from a few feet away.
“Why does everyone hate me so much?” Temeliel asked Ninlein. “I haven’t done anything.” But as soon as he said it, Temeliel realized that this wasn’t true. He had done bad things. They were just things that nobody knew about. He had talked to a stranger, and was considering conspiring with them to leave the compound. He had lied directly to the lord god Avourel’s face. He had listened to the stranger — George — when he’d told him that Avourel wasn’t a god at all, but a faker.
“You know, if we’d skipped the sailing trip, we’d be home by now,” said George. “Last night would have been the last Royal Season event.” The four Singleton were sitting on the bank of the stream, eating stolen bread. The day before, they’d given up on the idea of heading down to the coast when they got too hungry.
The Royal Season had managed to convince the Krim Chamber of Commerce to lend them the Storm Bug, a man-of-war with gunports set low in ship’s broadsides. The Chamber had probably added up how much money the Royal Season had spent on Krim over the past few months and calculated the odds of them coming back if their clients were never recovered.
Port Royal was adorable. Unlike Krim City. Here, residents seemed to have pride in their town. Port Royal was cheerful and spotless, the air was fresh and fragrant, and everyone smiled when they saw her. Matilda hated it. It was almost as though nobody realized all the different ways she could kill them.
What if the three women from the ship were wrong? What if the gate did lead to an eternal hell? Maybe the women themselves were demons sent to corrupt them. Maybe there were rival gods. Torralei remembered the look on Heifiel’s face as she herself had been dragged towards the gate. Heifiel was a Seraphim. She was close to Avourel. If there were any secrets about the gate, Heifiel would know them, wouldn’t she?
The first signs of light were just starting to appear in the sky ahead when they got to the top of the mountain. The road approached Avourelpolis from a different direction and there was a large gate that Torralei had never seen before. It was as tall as two people, heavily ornate. Two Seraphim, Heifiel and Elnaril, were waiting for them and swung the gate open when the Powers approached with the four prisoners.
“I don’t think you’re going to need me for this,” Matilda said before Chambrs starting telling the story of how Elea Carlyle got her hands on the list of Royal Season participants. “It sounds boring, and I’ve got a lead on some gun runners I want to follow up on. Besides, I already got everything I needed.” Chambrs jerked her damaged hands off the table and hid them on her lap. Matilda started to push her chair away from the table when she saw Quimby approaching with a full tray. “On the other hand, you never know, I might learn something.”
Even if she hadn’t been tied to the other captives, Torralei wouldn’t have run. She was too tired from her attempted escape, and too dejected to find out that she was on an island and that there was nobody she could turn to for help. But also, she was finding out a lot of interesting things from the new prisoners.
“People die on Krim all the time,” said Benedicta. “It’s no big deal.” She sat on one of the two lower bunks in a four-bunk stateroom on the pirate ship Queen’s Revenge. With Wynefrede, Margarett, George and Pleasance in the same room, it was crowded. And, with one more person than bunks, there was going to be an awkward moment when it came time to decide sleeping arrangements.
Clinio Lind, accompanied by five of his fighters, Ellison, and Matilda, crossed Banking Street and headed down Delves of the Golden Dragon, which was just a narrow alley connecting Banking and Knots Hollow Way. It was lined with three- and four-story apartment buildings, a few with shops on the ground floor offering take-out or laundry services.
The pirates moved everyone down to the mess, located down below the officers’ quarters. It was towards the back end of the ship — the stern — and was right in front of the galley, where the meals were cooked. A couple of captured sailors had been ordered to make lunch for everyone and Wynefrede watched closely each time someone went through the galley door. Maybe there was a knife in there that one of the sailors could steal while the pirates weren’t looking, and free them all.
“We’re royally screwed,” said one of the Royal Season guards. There were about a dozen in the room. Ellison had interviewed all of them before, when looking into the kidnapping of one of the Singletons earlier that season. Now many more of them had been taken, and he still had no clue about who was behind it, or why.
George Bedgbery was forced to give his sword. Pleasance Pratt, her lamp and her handbag with its collection of writing supplies. “She could stab someone with a pen,” said the sailor who searched them. And Wynefrede? She had to give up her shoes. Did they think she was going to whack someone over the head with a flat heel? Maybe. She had been thinking about it.
Wynefrede Aumberden rose from her bunk trying not to wake up either of her friends. She couldn’t sleep and still felt queasy. Her cotton nightgown wouldn’t be much protection against the chill of the night, so she pulled the wool blanket from her bed and wrapped it around herself before she unlatched the cabin door, eased it open, and stepped out into the hallway.
A thin bell clanged and Ninlein dropped dropped the wet sheet she was holding back into the large wicker basket full of wet laundry. “We have to go back to Avourelpolis,” she told Torralei. The two of them carried the basket away from the clothes lines back to the laundry room, then continued up the hill.
In the morning when she woke up, Torralei’s bed was comfortable and familiar. Why wouldn’t it be? She was created to exist on Lamacoln. She stretched under her thin wool blanket and the bed felt larger than it should have been. She was up early and headed straight for the bathroom. She was still unsteady on her feet. Her center of balance seemed off. But that was understandable. She was only born yesterday, after all.
Matilda stabbed Ellison’s steak with her knife and pulled the entire plate over to her side of the table. Ellison grimaced but instead of saying anything to her personally he just looked towards the entrance to the dining room. From where Ellison was sitting, he could see inn owner Quimby Plummer at the front desk. Quimby nodded at him. A second steak should be on its way soon.
They walked in a diamond formation with the two Singletons in the center. Mad Eyed Brendon was at the front, still carrying their prisoner, Wanda and Clinio to the right and left, and Matilda and Ellison brought up the rear. A couple of other mercenaries were walking through the woods, ahead and to the sides.
Ellison collapsed to the ground and his attacker flung himself down after him, probably to finish him up from close up. That was odd, Ellison thought as he struggled to get free. Normally people just kicked him when he was down. He could smell the sweet, metallic taste of blood in his mouth and felt it on his hands.
Wynefrede Aumberden didn’t even look at Raphe Faryndon when she lay down on her cot. The day after her thwarted escape attempt had been miserable. Rambo and his squad kept a close eye on her and she wasn’t allowed near the bridge construction. Instead, she was forced to watch from a distance as Raphe and the Armstrong Guild made design mistake after design mistake. She’d tried to offer advice, but nobody trusted her anymore. Even Raphe refused to consider her suggestions, which stung a bit.
“Weren’t you guys hired to protect us?” asked Raphe. “Why are you letting these guys just take us?” He looked around at the sentry and the other men in the camp. “I recognize your colors. And your tattoos.” Now that he mentioned it, Wynefrede could see a tattoo of a red fist smashing an anvil on Sewell’s bared upper arm. He also had a red patch in the shape of a fist was sewn onto the chest of his padded jacket, as did the other fighters in the camp. They looked warmer and more comfortable than Rambo and his men, who all wore metal breastplates and other, pieces of armor on their shoulders, knees and hands.
“This is unconscionable,” said Raphe Faryndon. “I’m a captain of industry. I don’t hike through the wilderness.” “Plenty of captains of industry are hikers,” said their new guard, who had introduced himself as Rambo but who reminded Wynefrede more of a low-rent Napoleon, with his bicorne hat, tight white pants and navy jacket.
By the time Shanwei helped Ellison stagger the rest of the way down the corridor, crawl up the staircase, and get to the docks, most of the battle was over. Two men with their hands up in the air were sitting on a wagon holding six wooden crates and a couple of other fighters were bleeding out slowly on the dock leading to a half-loaded cargo ship. Ellison didn’t recognize the dying fighters. They weren’t part of Matilda’s crew, so maybe they were with the kidnappers. Or innocent bystanders.
“You really want to send these two little guys in first?” asked Medium Dave. “I’ve seen them both run, they’re fast.” Matilda stuck her head down after Ellison. “Both of you, head straight to the far exit. One of you stay there and close it off if you can. The other one can come back and tell us where it comes out so we can have a team search the area.” She leaned her head down further. “How tight it is down there?”
The transition back to real life was always jarring. One second, he was falling down a bottomless tunnel, the next, standing upright in Krim’s welcome area. He staggered, then caught his balance. He was back in his real body and all the aches and pains and mysterious itches he’d accumulated since the last time he’d died were all gone.
Ellison glanced at the wall clock on his way out of the depot. It was getting close to dinner time, so instead of trying to hunt Matilda around the city he decided to go to the Barley Bow for his usual meal. There was a good chance she’d show up on her own, anyway, to steal his food. The Barley Mow got a new cook recently, and the menu had actually gotten pretty good.
Krim’s central square had the main teleportation gate into the world at the north end, and was surrounded by Banking Street on the east side, Upping Street on the south, and Knots Hollow Way to the west. City Hall — which also housed the grid administration in-world offices — was across Upping to the south. The King’s Arms was on the corner of Upping and Banking streets. Both were good places to find new newcomers, but if he was looking for long-time Krim residents pretending to be noobs, they’d probably stop by one other place first.
McGuire’s Big Top Triumph was neither big nor a triumph. The one-ring circus had spent the past few months traveling Krim’s hinterlands, fighting off bandits, and risking life and limb on poorly-maintained equipment. Not just the lives and limbs of its performers, but the that of the audience members as well.