?

Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

FIC: Unaccountably Peckish

Title: Unaccountably Peckish
Fandom: Echo Bazaar
Characters/Pairings: OC, OC's pet weasel
Date Written: 2011
Summary: There are a lot of things about the Neath that you do not know yet. Best to learn them quickly.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 for violence, flowery prose, and second-person POV. D: 
Notes:  For [info]zombie_fest . Prompt was: The Tomb Colonists. On All Hallow's Eve, the bandages come off.
Additional notes: Character is an OC because the source is a game in which you create your own character. This isn't my character; just an random denizen of the Neath. In accordance with failbettergames' fanfiction policy, here is a linkback to the game: Echo Bazaar.

*

You've been here for eight months, and in all that time, friend, you've only died once. And it was indeed a nasty bit of business, but it was for a good cause and the fellow with the needle and thread did an excellent job. You keep your collar turned high and avoid further entanglements with women of artistic repute, and you estimate you're doing somewhat better than most.

At first, it's just a good adventure, a fun story to tell that keeps the wine flowing and your compatriots well topped-off on laughter. As the seasons creep on to what was once autumn, though—a phenomenon that you can only perceive in the variance of climate between swelteringly damp and chillingly damp—the conversations you have on the streets and in the bars take on a superstitious tone, and that is saying a lot, given the environs and the nature of your fellow-travellers. Now when they hear of your grim accident, they go quiet and cold, treat you like you've already got one foot in the Tomb-Colonies. They turn away your business; your moon pearls are less lustrous for them sharing your story, your jade less enchanting, your Rosties that much less likely to be made of actual gold, and all over one little dagger to the throat!

After a while, you just stop mentioning it. It's so much easier to play at surface affections and affectations when no one knows that you can never return there.

*

There's something about boats, even all these months later.

Thete perches on your shoulder, chittering nervously at the dark, sallow water. He's a common fellow, nothing like the finely bred creatures you used to hoard, obsessive. A dozen of the beasts, only half of them with proper names, had followed you onto that last boat ride. One by one you'd offered them up, and after, you'd thought yourself too poor and unaffectionate a caretaker to be any kind of companion to beasts.

Imagine your surprise when the streets decided otherwise for you, coughing this little one up out of its gutters one night, lame in one leg and bleeding from a torn ear. Much of literature attests to the inability of weasels and their kin to ever be truly pathetic, but that's still the word you'd used:

Pathetic little bastard, aren't you?

You've been all but inseperable ever since.

So now the two of you spend uneventful afternoons watching the boats come in and go out, carrying whatever it is they carry to wherever, precisely, they're taking it. Much of the cargo is a mystery, but even Thete seems to recognize the last ship to pull out of port each day for what it is—passage for the damned and doomed, and even from all this distance across the water, you could swear you smell the stink of blood and old bandages. The trawler is decrepit, wreathed in rotting zee-fungus, with no livery or name to identify it. Still, it is unmistakeable.

During these moments, the two of you sit quietly, and the wind stills, and even the water seems to be holding its breath.

*

Late in the autumn now, and you're coming home from some bizarre business up in the Flit, cats and fishers and honor among thieves, strained taut but not to breaking—not this time. It's late at night as well, and you roll a bit of meat and bread together in your pocket. Thete's dinner, and he'll be wanting it as soon as you get in. Your fingers work it nervously, though there is nothing here that should be making you nervous.

Wait—a shadow in the corner of your vision, detaching itself from the wall for just a moment. No, no, nothing at all. Imagination run away with you.

You slip the lock and are inside more quickly than you will ever admit to.

*

In the morning, the shadow is still there, a greasy black stain on your neighbor's door with branching spirals like hands, warding. It's rendered in the cheapest, meanest paint, an amorphous beast with no features your shying eyes can discern.

You move on quickly, your footsteps echoing in the dull silence of the morning. Door after door and the same symbol is there, repeating, like a secret no one has bothered to let you in on. You might be dreaming yet, but following an unknowable instinct, you fetch some paint from your room and copy the markings as closely as you can.

Standing back to admire your work, you have the uncanny sensation, just for a moment, that it's looking back at you.

*

Sometimes the unmarked ship returns heavier than it left, low in the waterline, fat with some cargo or other—but what do the Tomb Colonies export, except for dread?

*

All Hallow's Eve, your first in the Neath. You are expecting it to be a night of great revelries, given the tone and tooth of life here. Symbolism and decadence intertwined, perhaps, and you almost jot that down, but you've always been a terrible poet.

Nothing prepares you for the sudden emptiness of the streets once midnight is in sight.

A little tipsy, you spin yourself in slow circles, searching for some familiarity. The building are all there, the lines of the streets and gutterways, arched signs and clattering shingles. But the life! Even full as it is with dead men and devils and the wandering soulless, the Neath has always been so alive. Empty, it is as if you've stepped through a mirror into some Other Place, a realm of opposites and strangeness. daor senobydal, the street sign might as well say. ssalg fo dnal eht ot emoclew.

You laugh, though you aren't sure why.

On your third turn, you start to notice figures, silhouettes in black and blue, on the outer edges of your vision. You aren't actually alone, and that makes things much better, for a moment. Your feet slip on the damp shale, and now you are just turning, turning because it amuses you. Somewhere up above, a set of shutters swings open.

"Hush!" comes a voice, disembodied. "Get inside!"

From a little higher: "Are you quite mad?"

"No, no no," you sing, turning and turning. "No, no no, no..."

Thete will miss you, the thought rises, unbidden and unexpected. You frown, and stop turning, and suddenly realize how much closer your company in the street has drawn. Close enough to see what they are, at least, bandages lit by a dull, lusterless glow.

"Hello," you say, feeling rather formal all of a sudden. Perhaps you can play ambassador, here. Perhaps you can pretend to be the ambassador. Your head spins with the responsibility. "Uh, allow me to... welcome you to..."

A rippling growl, rising from all sides, and then, the impossible: the moonish light flooding the streets flickers and dies, a thousand phosphorescent pinpricks all at once.

You stand, frozen. You've had nightmares like this, and if you just don't move

It feels like an hour but must only be a few seconds, there in the blinding darkness. When the light returns, it comes with the burned in afterimage of branching spiral hands, of a beast with no eyes—and with the sight of a hundred Tomb-colonists, bandages sloughed off at their feet. A hundred red, fang-riddled, slackjawed mouths hanging in the middles of a hundred uncanny faces. Two-hundred empty eyes, fogged by time and decay—give or take. All focused on you.

It occurs to you then that there's an awful lot about the Neath that you don't know yet.

You do know this, though: it is time to run.

*

Run. Run, run run run. It's become a mantra bouncing through your skull, and your muscle-memory knowledge of the neighborhood is greater than your disorientation, so your feet carry you in the right direction. Toward home.

You entertain a brief fantasy, as you streak past door after door, each painted with the same sigil. One will open, unexpectedly, and the hands of a brave soul will catch you and pull you inside and slam the door again, keeping the nightmares out.

Maybe this door. No, perhaps the next one.

Then the fantasy is cut short as agony grips your arm, somewhere below the shoulder—grips it, and digs in hard, and you know that it is teeth, that it is a mouth, that it is trying to eat you.

It is trying to eat you.

You tear yourself free, strength borne of pure terror, and then your key is in hand and the door is slammed shut and a crate is against it, and Thete is on your shoulder, chittering agitation and terror.

He hasn't had his dinner. It's a giddy, useless thought, so you leave it aside, stumble to the window. When you push back the curtain, you see exactly what you expect, and the predictability is almost calming: a hundred dead men and women, stock still in the street, staring up at you with eyes that haven't focused in years, will never focus again.

*

It takes the better part of an hour to dress the wound, to apply salves and ointments, to just stop the bleeding. Even when you think you're done, it still throbs and throbs, burns like it's infected, heat snaking away from it and into your skin, muscle, bone.

You drink water, the cleanest and coldest you have. You try to sleep, tossing and turning uselessly, blankets sticking to you, your skin loose and itchy like wet burlap. Still the heat burrows, relentless.

By the time the light outside shifts to something more like daylight, the heat has reached the base of your skull, the back of your eyes. It probes at your thoughts. It wraps itself, cocoon-like, around your dreams.

You sleep.

*

You awake to the gentle lift and lilt of waves under your body, your head. The boat is adrift.

The cloaked figure speaks to you, as before, but finds the idea of bargaining for your return laughable. It isn't a cruel kind of laughter; just that of a parent whose child has done something terribly quaint and amusing. He is kind, even if his news is not.

Why should you bargain, after all, when there is nothing worthwhile waiting for you?

He drags one bony hand across your forehead, wet from the Lethe, and sends you on your way.

*

So you find yourself on the docks again, looking out over the still black water. The bandages don't smell as badly as you expected them too, but it's also harder to make out the view, now; your senses are dulling, will someday be entirely numb. You will have to resort to strange diversions to feel alive.

The doctor and the landlady had both screamed when you'd bolted upright in bed, having written you off as a lost cause, irretrievable. Bandages then, and darkness, and the doctor had never been able to give you a satisfactory reason as to why the infection had spread so far so fast, why it had done this to you. Only your second time, you protested, as if the man had any say in such things, and he had only shaken his head, slow and mournful.

"It's different for everyone, I'm afraid."

"But I've only just arrived here!" Your voice had sounded strange to you, through rotted lips. "There's so much I've left to see!"

"That's of no consequence."

"But I don't want..." You had trailed off, taking in their expressions, the way they both looked green and blue themselves, having to stand here looking at you. You'd swallowed then, tasted blood in it, and looked to Ms. Hypheron. "Will you at least take care of Thete?"

And she'd nodded. And that was that. And here you are, alone on the docks this first of November, feeling the mist in your toes and an emptiness on your shoulder and waiting for the last boat you will ever ride on.

No, that isn't quite right. There will be other ships, because like a zailor is sure when a westerly gale blows that the water will be a lethal mirror-trap that night, and like a fighting weasel knows when to let go and when to clamp down until it tastes blood, you are certain that you will walk these streets again.

In one form or another, you will return.

*

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
nextian
Apr. 14th, 2011 09:15 pm (UTC)
I found this googling Unaccountably Peckish, and I fucking love it. I didn't think you could tell a zombie story in the Neath without it turning into farce, but look! Here it is!
cameoflage
Jan. 3rd, 2013 09:04 am (UTC)
You too, huh? :D This is a deliciously creepy fic.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )