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 70, Allin reached the toxic wasteland of the Garden after some final advice from Xerxes.
The Only City Left: Part 71
I made my way down the switchbacked stairs to ground level and followed potholed streets toward the center of the ruined town. The air was easier to breath at ground level, but not by much, and the dirty haze above blocked the overhead lighting and lent a murky unreality to the landscape. Everything was dismal and gray, the air a fetid miasma of sweat and rot. Amidst the buildings, dirty children dressed in thin rags picked at mounds of garbage while adults in chains broke down huge concrete chunks with pick-axes and carted them away.
The enslaved humans gave me dirty looks from the corners of their eyes as I made my way past them into the crumbling town. The further in I walked, the more of them I saw, and not all in chains, either. Surreally, some seemed to be running businesses, selling food and drink and scavenged items out of stalls or broken storefronts. None of them looked especially happy, but not all were as miserable as the chained wretches or the dirt-caked ones lying half off the curb mumbling to themselves. It was a madhouse world, eerie in its quiet insanity. At least, that’s what the regular human side of the town was like.
There was another side, though, co-existing in space but barely seeming to touch: the werewolf side. Here, werewolves marched in groups or singly through the streets, talking, laughing, roaring approval or displeasure at this or that sight. Each werewolf was a beacon of bright white light, their coils illuminating the stark difference between their world and the squalid, human one around them. They walked through a party, and if they had to step over a piss-drenched human on the sidewalk or stop for a moment to buy a baked treat from a vendor, they barely acknowledged the interruption.
The normal humans made sure to keep it this way, hunching over and scurrying out of the werewolves’ paths, keeping their voices to a whisper or shutting up entirely when the wolves were near, and speaking only the minimal words required when directly addressed by one of the wolves. This was a conquered population, cowering in fear even though they vastly outnumbered the werewolves. It only made sense, I supposed. I had seen what one wolf could do. The humans—underfed, weaponless, barely clothed—wouldn’t stand a chance if they rose up against their masters. I held my stomach it made me so sick. It didn’t help that through the stench that filled the air, the delectable scent of something roasting reached my nose. My empty stomach tightened in on itself in response.
I followed the smell through the streets until I reached a stall where a haggard-looking man was cooking large rats on a makeshift grill. Tumble would be thrilled, I thought, and realized I was salivating despite myself. I guess the wolf part of me is thrilled, too.
I must have been staring, because the man, who looked like he hadn’t eaten in days himself, asked me, “Roast rat, your honor? Or I got live ones if you like.”
What the hell. I was hungry and I was a werewolf, undercover in the enemy’s lair. Werewolves wouldn’t refuse food just because they felt bad for the person selling it. But…
“I don’t have any money.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” the man started to say, but a loud voice cut him off at the same time that a thick hand clapped me hard on the back.
“Are you denying this hard-working wolf a meal, you money-grubbing little pizzant? I ought to roast you and serve you to my friend here.”
Before I could protest, the werewolf, a man about my size, stepped past me and kicked the rickety stall, knocking it to pieces. The vendor fell beneath the rain of wood planks that used to be his shop, and rats squeaked and scurried away into the nearby rubble.
“I’m so sorry, your honors. Please, take whatever you want!”
“Take? Take! We’re not shopkeeps, scum. Get up and serve us!”
The man excavated himself from the splintered wood of his stall and made it to his feet. With shaking hands, he retrieved two of the roasted rats and handed them to us. Before I could thank him, my new friend put one arm around my shoulder and led me away.
“Buddy, you can’t let that money thing get to their heads or soon they’ll be expecting it,” he said in between bites of his roast rat.
“Nnn-huh,” I said, and realized that I too was gnawing on my rat on a stick. My hunger and werewolf nature had conspired to feed me despite any qualms I had.
“You a new recruit?” he asked as we strolled away from the broken stall. I was slow to answer, what with a mouth full of rat, so he kept on talking. “I heard they got a new batch of coils in, but I didn’t realize they had started promoting already. The names Rinsen, by the way. You? Anyway, you’ll like it on this side of the system, lemme tell you. Hey boy! Over here!”
This last was addressed to a small boy, maybe ten years old, who lugged a heavy pail of water in his hands. He made his way carefully over to us, set the pail down without spilling a drop, and lifted a metal ladle out.
“Bah, that’s for the slaves,” Rinsen said, knocking the ladle to the dirty street before picking up the pail and drinking directly from it.
He offered it to me next and I took it gladly. Food, drink. If nothing else, this mission was satisfying my appetite. I gulped greedily and dropped the pail at my feet with a clang.
“Yah, that’s the spirit,” Rinsen said. He finished the last of his rat and tossed the stick away, so I followed suit. “Hopefully they’ll have better than water wherever we land next. Damn officers are hoarding it all for themselves now. Hey, boy, who said you could go?”
The water boy had picked up his empty pail and begun to walk away when Rinsen’s call stopped him short. He turned around and I could see the pail jumping and shaking in his hands.
“I’ve worked up an appetite, boy. Come with me.”
“Please, sir, no, I’ve got to get more water and—”
“Did you say ‘no’ to me? Did you?”
Rinsen lunged forward and grabbed the boy by his ratty shirt, which tore under the werewolf’s claws. “The only thing you’ve got to do is what I tell you to. Understand?”
Rinsen’s friendly familiarity and constant patter had gotten under my skin and distracted me from the casual injustice of the Garden. Perhaps part of it was how natural it felt for the werewolf in me to take what it wanted and damn the consequences. But watching a grown werewolf terrorize a little kid snapped me out of that mindset. It hit too close to home.
“Leave him be,” I said, putting my hand on Rinsen’s shoulder.
Rinsen turned his snout and eyed me coolly over his shoulder. He shoved the boy to the ground and turned to face me.
“What, you already got your eye on him? Plenty to go around, pal.” He poked my chest with one claw and flicked my coil. “Or do you still got mixed feelings about your promotion? Because you better get right in the head about that. You love it so much, you can always go right back to being a slave.”
“Just leave him alone,” I said, my lip rising to show some teeth.
“Man, if they’re accepting new recruits like you, they must be desperate to expand,” Rinsen said, returning my sneer. “Watch yourself, puppy, and lose that attitude. Fast.”
Rinsen shot me a disgusted look and started to walk off. He casually kicked the water boy in the stomach on his way. I felt an urge to lunge after him, to beat some manners into his flesh, or tear some of that superiority from his hide. A low growl escaped my throat and I had to squeeze my eyes shut for a moment to regain control. Focus!
The sound of the boy whimpering and crying distracted me from my violent thoughts. He hadn’t moved from where Rinsen had kicked him.
“Get up, boy,” I said. “Get someplace safe.”
He rolled over to his hands and knees and stood up, still crying. I felt bad that I couldn’t do anything for him, but a part of me, the werewolf self whose influence I could not help but recognize, also felt disgust at the weak thing before me.
“Why don’t you run away from this?” I asked. “Run and don’t look back.”
“You’re just saying that so you can chase me down,” he said. As if abashed by his own temerity, he added a hasty, “Sir.”
I could try to convince him, but what was the point. “Go,” I said, and when he didn’t move, I repeated the command louder.
This spurred him to action. He ran a ways off, his pail abandoned on the street, and then turned back to me and spit in my direction before diving into a narrow gap in the rubble piled between two buildings.
Good, he still has some fight left in him after all.
I turned in a slow circle and took in the sights. The rat vendor quietly piecing his stall back together out of makeshift parts. A woman, smiling nervously, pressed up against the wall by a werewolf who curled her hair around his finger as he talked to her. More dirty children scurrying through the streets. Three werewolves walking arm in arm singing a bawdy song. Another werewolf leading a line of chained men and women to the outskirts of town.
I couldn’t fix this by saving one person here or there. It was too big for that. I had to find Doyle and take him out so that I could convince the cats to depower the werewolves en masse. But where to find Doyle?
I decided to take the direct approach rather than waste more time wandering around. I grabbed the nearest human to hand, pulled her toward me, and asked, “Where’s Doyle?”
The woman, elderly and dressed in a thin, gray robe, bowed her head and said, “Doyle Arcady, Lord Commander of the Fifth House, blessed be his name,” as if it was a religious mantra.
“Yeah, Lord whatsiswhat. Him. Where is he?”
Before she could answer, I heard a piercing scream and maniacal laughter from somewhere nearby. The woman pointed in that direction and said, “There.”
* * *
6/23/13 News: Another nearly double-sized installment this week. Work proceeds apace on the rewrite. And I have discovered a new means of procrastination: Scrolls. Oh no!
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