Welcome to my serial science-fiction/fantasy adventure, The Only City Left. This is the story of Allin Arcady and his adventures through a dying, planet-sized city called Earth. (Click here for the Table of Contents.)
At the end of Part 60, Allin had bested a not-quite-healed Matthias in one-on-one combat and then spared his life. All that remained was to leave Matthias to the merskers, but before Allin could leave the village, he was stopped in his tracks by a ghost.
The Only City Left: Part 61
The ghosts. What with the slavers and the merskers and Matthias, I had forgotten all about the silent army of ghosts that had followed me to the mersker village. This was the second time in recent days that one had spoken to me, and this time the ghost had addressed me by name. If I hadn’t been so weary, I might have found the trend disturbing.
“So talk,” I said, walking around and past the ghost. “But I’m getting out of here before they change their mind.”
I felt a cold touch on the back of my neck.
“Wait, please. We will ensure your safety.”
I turned and saw the ghost army lining up behind the speaker, walling me off from the village. The ghost light would certainly dissuade the merskers from interfering.
“Who are you?”
“I have been a ghost for so long, my old name is meaningless,” he said, pausing as if to sift through his dusty electronic databanks. “If you must address me, the name Xerxes will do.”
“Okay, Xerxes. So what’s with all these ghosts following me?”
“Normally we stay out of the affairs of the living, but the time has come to take a role. The werewolves have added many to our ranks, and Doyle Arcady’s machinations threaten to strike at the very nature of our beings. However, there is only so much we can do. We need a living being to champion our cause. Someone worthy.”
“So you’ve been, what, judging me?”
“Yes, Allin Arcady, we have been watching you, assessing you, for some time now.”
I shivered at the thought. The ghosts had been watching me. Banshee had been keeping track of me. Doyle had been chasing me. What other unseen forces had eyes on me and, more importantly: “Why?”
“The werewolf king already seeks you out. A confrontation is inevitable. With our might and knowledge, you will at least have a chance of surviving that encounter and redressing the wrongs that your uncle has committed.”
I was too stunned to respond. Xerxes was offering me an army of ghosts to use in the fight against Doyle. My head swam at the bizarre prospect.
Xerxes must have taken my silence for doubt, because he said, “Witness the power we wield when united.”
He turned and the mass of ghosts behind him marched into the mersker village. I started to protest that I didn’t want the merskers harmed, but except for the light they gave off, the ghosts did not molest the scavengers. They formed a line to where Matthias lay on the ground and, to his and my surprise, swarmed over him.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
I saw Matthias’ body rise up off the floor as a constant stream of ghosts moved down the line they had formed, surrounding and supporting him. Matthias began to scream, high and thin whines that lost their strength as more ghosts exerted their will to make one small piece of their spectral bodies solid. Hundreds of ghosts overlapped to hold him in place, using the energy from his own body to power their solidification. The more he weakened, the stronger they became, until he couldn’t resist as they passed him hand over hand down their line. They paraded him past me and away, leaving Xerxes and a few dozen other ghosts behind.
“Where are they taking him?”
“For interrogation. If he’s lucky, it will end in his death. If not, if a passing Lazarus storm happens by to resurrect him, he’ll know what it’s like to feel endless pain, anger, and bitterness.”
I digested that and shook my head.
“Look, I was already planning to fight the werewolves however I can, and I’d be happy to have your help, but unless you know the way back to the cat city, it’s going to be a while before I can do anything useful.”
“We can lead you to the cat city. Just tell us which one.”
* * *
True to his word, Xerxes and the other ghosts guided me back to Pudlington. Without their help, I would probably never have found my way, or if I did, it might have taken another three years. But due to their combined knowledge and ability to scout the best route by fanning out and phasing through walls, I was able to make the trip in a week. Each day, I covered a tremendous amount of ground, and the ghosts helped me find food and water, clean and dry clothing, safe spots to sleep, and most importantly, medicine. Not only had I gotten cut up quite a bit down in the junkyard, but I had been immersed in who knows what filth. Thanks to the ghosts, I managed to stave off any illness.
They were also good for conversation. Well, some of them. Even united in their goals, not every ghost was thrilled about helping a living human. I got the cold shoulder from some of them, literally. Others were fonts of knowledge. For instance, I hadn’t known about Pudlington before I met Tumble, but I wondered if even he was aware that six other cat cities still thrived in Earth.
As exhilarating as it was to be taken on a whirlwind tour of the city from the basement up, it was a great relief to find myself once again in front of a familiar door.
I raised my fist and pounded it against the thick, steel door a few times. There was no answer, so I raised my voice and asked, “Hello, is anyone in there? It’s me.”
Silence. I had asked the ghosts to wait out of sight so as not to frighten anyone, but now I considered calling one over to peek through the wall for me.
I tried one last time. “Ballister? It’s me.”
I heard the sound of locks opening and I stepped back. The door opened, but only a crack.
“That voice can’t belong to who I think it does.”
I grinned. “Yes, Ballister, it can.”
The door opened the rest of the way and Ballister rushed through it and lifted me into the air by my armpits.
“Allin! Tumble told us you died!” he shouted.
A weight lifted from me upon hearing that Tumble had survived. I asked how he was.
“He was scraped up but mostly fine, if not a bit distressed at your passing,” Ballister said, setting me down. “Spent a night here before going back to Pudlington. Gave my people a little scare, he did, what with not wearing any disguise this time. But where’s my manners? Come in, come in!”
The people inside the room lifted hands in greeting but were otherwise rather listless when I entered. The food that Tumble and I had shared would have all been used up by now; they were back on strict rationing and as little activity as possible.
“So what happened? How did you survive falling like that? How did you get back here? Why did you come back here?”
I laughed. “That’s a lot of questions. I’ll tell you all about it, but first I have a question for you, and please don’t take offense.”
Ballister looked down his beaky nose at me and nodded for me to go on.
“How would you all like to move someplace a little bit nicer?”
* * *
Ballister was predictably suspicious, not of me, but that my plan would work. We put it to a vote and even had a few of the ghosts join in on the conversation to make sure the mere sight of my allies wouldn’t send Ballister’s people flying under their bed-shelves. I wasn’t sure if they would agree to my proposal, but in the end my promises swayed them to take a risk and leave their safe but squalid nest. After that, it was up to the ghosts to lead us safely through the maze surrounding Pudlington. They pointed out the traps along the way and helped us to avoid or defuse them, so when we reached Pudlington’s inner bailey, no one had suffered an injury or gotten lost.
Our passage did not go unnoticed. Instead of two guards outside the gates to Pudlington, there were well over a hundred filling the hallway. I faced them at the head of an odd assortment of the wretched living and stoic undead.
“We’re not here to cause trouble,” I said. “I only ask that you deliver a message. Tell Emperor Banshee that I’ll fight his war for him. On one condition.”
* * *
And so ends the second third of The Only City Left. I hope you’ve been enjoying it so far and will stick around for the next 30 installments!
Here’s my word count for the week. I am so close to being caught up to my goal, but at the same time I need to be writing less and brainstorming more as I move into the endgame of Book Two’s first draft. So as much as I’d like to be caught up or ahead on my word count goal, it may be a while yet before that happens.
Also, here’s a slightly updated version of the cover I shared last week. I guess I won’t say this is the final version, because you never know.
Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, and shares. It truly makes me happy to know that people are enjoying this story.
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Logo Credit:The TOCL logo is courtesy of Jande Rowe of the webcomic Aedre’s Firefly. If you haven’t already read AF, I encourage you to go check it out. Not only does Jande produce the comic, she reviews other long-form webcomics, gives tips and instructions on creating a comic, and is endlessly supportive of other creators. For a great review that will bring you up to speed on Aedre’s Firefly, check out this page at Webcomic Alliance.