Chapter One: The Devil’s Kiln
Yarrod inhaled deeply the hot desert air, unsure he’d filled his lungs with anything at all. He held it in for a good while, assessed the quality, then breathed out and felt the exhalation brush his drying lips. It had the consistency of powder, the abrasive sting of heavy pollen.
He sneered and ran his tongue along his upper lip, fine cracks already forming. Sand skated over the saddle beside him, that which met resistance slowly built a small bank on one side, and snuck into the saddlebags. He kicked it hard with silver-tipped cowboy boots to clear the sand and then absorbed his surroundings.
“Goddamn it,” he said. “Where the hell am I now?”
Cheeks, only moments before pliable and elastic, began to bake in the sun. He stretched his face against the tautness, tried to defy the elements, but the pervasive heat had its way. A faint earthy scent of backwoods lingered in his nostrils; so at odds with the terrain, he regarded it more a memory than a sense.
“Come on, come on. Think.” He pushed through the vaults in his mind; each door slammed another option lost. “There was … I was … my horse was …”. A tiny bit of something stuck. “A horse, I usually have a horse.”
He closed his eyes and searched again, holding onto the aroma and the image it evoked. There was nothing else, but the memory of a horse grew more substantial, all muscle and smoke, eyes hot coals and bearing down upon an enemy, gunshots ringing out. He clenched his lids, trying to reach out beyond the horse and solidify the location. Anything would do. A feature, a house, a familiar lay of land, a signpost. Nothing, only a white flash and emptiness.
When he finally opened his eyes and the present tumbled in, it erased any thought of another place or time. Ideas and memories—as if scraps tossed to a well-trained mongrel—looped through his mind. And when all was done and settled, he knew but few things … and knew them well.
He cupped a compass in his palm, hung from a silver chain around his neck, and orientated north. Any direction seemed arbitrary, just another certain end, but north it had to be. He never considered why.
He punched his cheek hard, once, twice, three times, until he tasted blood. Teal eyes focused forward, he hauled a thick frame through the wasteland, spurs rattling with each determined step. Time dragged on and his gait grew leaden, jaw hanging slack beneath a mouth gasping for cool, fresh air. Light writhed at the edge of the world, where the sky and ground embraced. One moment the promise of water and sanctuary, the next parched and bleak. He invested in neither.
With all the vigour he could muster, he pressed on, saddle over his left shoulder, a furnace at his back. Hung from the saddle’s brass pommel, a dark grey duster spilled onto the sand and snaked a trail in its wake. He flickered in the heat like a lit fuse, his white shirt sometimes the glue binding him as a man and other times the void tearing him into fragments.
He felt swaddled like a newborn, assured in its suffocation, and a gentle breeze whispered sweetly. Stop fighting, it said, lay still and rest a while. He pulled up and eased his blistered soles, flexed his toes against the sting. The wasteland rolled on forever and he feared, given enough time, its granular movement would carry him and the day away, sucked beneath the silent, smothering sea, to become just another remnant in the bone collector’s garden.
Sweat crept beneath his clothing like maggots on a dead man. He paid it no mind. Far worse had crawled over him, and not a one left a mark. There were bigger creatures to fear, with claws and teeth that more than trickled over skin. They’d gouged, slashed, and bit their battles into him. Encounters written deep in flesh. Loss of memory couldn’t hide these. Even though their authors blinked out long ago, the savage eloquence spoke of a life lived, and the lilac and silver trails adorning his body, of many years passed. He traced one now, from clavicle to sternum, hoping he’d find a memory at journeys end but as always, he only ever found his mortal self. At least it reminded him, he was no ghost.
From his gold-embroidered waistcoat pocket, he eased a red handkerchief and slid it across his brow. It was a simple piece of material, but he and it could never part. He tucked it back, deep into the pocket, still touching a beat or two before he slipped his thumb free and dropped it to Sorrow’s hammer. Its finely engraved brass cooled his palm as he curled three fingers around the grip, while a fourth teased the trigger.
Foremost in his thoughts at that moment, the Dannuk. These cruel, depraved creatures inveigled their way into homes and enthralled the innocent with pheromones—lovers eternal, bound by a lie. When they arrived on these shores concerned him not. Ending their existence is all he cared for. Every single one, holed and dead. He drew back dried lips as Sorrow shivered in his hand, and a chill climbed the veins in his right forearm. “Dead.” Sorrow’s frisson intensified as the word hissed from between Yarrod’s teeth.
He poked up the brim of his black, leather chapeau, trimmed by sun-cooked crow’s feet, and shaded a prickly neck. Tangled, ebony hair hung limp about his collar, the fringe hacked, his hunting knife both mirror and scissors.
He blinked a blur from harrowed eyes and raked his beard with hooked fingers, hidden beneath, a face of granite. In his mind, an itch. Often, he yearned to scratch it with a bullet and end the relentless uncertainty. He’d stepped out from the sleepless dream, the beginning and end erased in a singular spark, and yet, with no notion of the past, something twisted deep inside, like a bitter lover’s knife. A gloomy place no light could penetrate. He grieved for the forgotten and dreaded what he may stumble upon if he searched. Dig he did regardless, through the graveyard of his thoughts and unearthed nothing more than self-loathing.
Absolution is what he craved most, but the devil beside him wore a lipless grin. In these wistful moments, he felt wretched, less a saviour and more a coward. However, the imperative that compelled him triumphed every time. A tracker, a hunter, a killer is all he was and would ever be.
A carrion crow trembled in the thermals, obsidian eyes focused on the black flame burning through the desert far below. Yarrod unhooked a canteen from his gun belt and tipped to swig what little water he had left, observing his companion high in the cloudless sky. With moistened lips, he whistled and the crow plummeted, thrashing its wings a moment before it alighted on Yarrod’s shoulder.
“A day behind,” Stitch said. “Two most.”
What Stitch spoke of was a storm and Yarrod imagined it now, at this very moment, a great grey beast combing the landscape with electric fingers and skittering into hidey-holes in search of its prey.
In a cobwebbed corner of his mind, he heard a sigh. Long back then before everything folded into one. “What about ahead? Anything ahead?”
“Half a day. Small town.”
Yarrod tapped the crow’s feet on his hat. “Next time, start with the good news.”
“No good news with you.” Stitch pecked his ear. “Moan, moan, moan and more moaning. Never stops. Always going. Day after day.”
“Shut your beak,” Yarrod said and snarled, dodging a second peck. “Who’s the one going on here? I’ve been walking through this god-forsaken desert for hours now and you’ve not brought me so much as a twig. All I get is constant squawking.”
“Squawking?” Stitch turned away, his tail feathers brushing Yarrod’s cheek. “Crows don’t squawk. Dying men do.”
“I’m not dead yet. There’s still strength enough in these hands to throttle a skinny little squawker like you.”
“No thanks. None at all.”
“You expect me to thank your arse hole?” Yarrod backhanded Stitch who fluttered to maintain balance, his two glossy eyes finally settling on Yarrod’s nose. “Don’t even think about it.”
Stitch took flight, wing tip sending Yarrod’s hat twirling onto the sand. Yarrod bent and snatched it up, beat it against his warn blue jeans several times, and settled it back in place. He growled and slowly raised an eyebrow, tipped his head a notch and peeped beyond the brim at the ragged dot above. With two fingers, he pointed and jerked up in a mock shot. Were it his real gun, he knew the shot would be true and Stitch would tumble from the sky, dead, but the gesture mirrored nothing of the truth. As long as he could remember, Stitch had been his eyes and ally.
The thought of food, fresh water and a comfortable bed, urged extra effort from a body almost spent, but the more he pushed himself, the more his limbs protested. Beaten by an unforgiving sun, he finally succumbed. He desperately needed rest.
Up ahead, a crack in the desert rose on one side and grew into a stone embankment. Sand capered across the top and spilled down just beyond a shaded recess. It looked inviting, a chance to place his palm and cheek against a cooler, solid surface. A steer’s half-buried skull forewarned of what fate awaited anyone who lingered too long, askew and staring sightless from caves of bone.
Yarrod nestled in as deep as he could—back pressed against the rough stone—and slumped down. His knees and feet still protruded, baked, burnt, but his sweat slickened back and nape began to cool. He closed his eyes as the sensation spread. Cramps in weary limbs slipped away, as if he had turned to dust and joined the endless sea of sand. Lighter, formless, he fell, thinning into nothing: a done man’s whisper.
Split lips tried to form the word from beyond the fugue.
From somewhere out of nowhere an image formed, mercurial and vague, enough for the mind to grasp but not enough for the eyes. A gentle hand took a child’s, graced it with tenderness and lightly patted away a tremble. Again, the hand patted, this time with more urgency. A pat and a pat and a tap, tap, tap. The image dissolved, the here-and-now re-emerged and the tap became a peck.
“Wake, wake, Yarrod wake.”
Yarrod pried open his left eye, his other buried in the sand, mouth gasping like a banked fish. As the world disentangled, he found himself staring into the two dry caves of the steer. Its one unbroken horn rose from it as if a talon searching out its prey. At its tip, a piece of red material wriggled and fluttered.
He pulled his face from the sand and coughed dust, both eyes now fixed on the steer and its unfathomable catch. He placed his palms on the sandstone at his back and levered himself up, the vestige of the dream still battling a foggy mind. How could this be? He’d secured the handkerchief as always, and yet, there it was, signalling its escape.
Fragile and nauseous, he edged forward, a hand outstretched ready to snatch it back. Why it meant so much to him was of no importance; that it did mattered most. The closer he got, the more he prayed the wind wouldn’t steal it away. His prayers went unanswered. A gust tore it free and danced away with it across the sand. He felt distraught, lost and alone, cast adrift and abandoned.
He stumbled on as an empty man, sheepskin boots searching for secure purchase, while the handkerchief pirouetted into the distance. Even when it skipped beyond sight, he pursued. Stitch cawed and flapped in an attempt to guide him back towards town, but Yarrod barely noticed his companion and dragged what was left of him after.
Yarrod continued in delirium as the sun sank on the day, the heat haze as much a part of him as the muscles barely holding him upright. Shadows stretched and twisted in cobra coils, ashen to charcoal, and dune peeks sharpened in the last dregs of light. Soon only shapes within shapes. Nothing tangible except the stars that winked in mockery.
And then the world winked too and night slammed its heavy door on Yarrod.
* * *
When Yarrod opened his eyes, light and lurching geometry tumbled in and filled him so utterly, he felt as if his head would split. He gripped the sides of the pallet he lay upon and steadied a spin, braced against its persistence. The Battle lost, he threw himself to one side and let sickness gush from his mouth onto a rug-strewn ground. He heaved and heaved again, until there was only himself to lose, the inner coils once quietly contained now loud in his throat.
Weave wheeled up and tilted, hands reaching, grasping. A great white sail billowed and a mountainous wave battered the port side. He slipped starboard and gripped the taffrail with both hands, the rugs’ a raging ocean of interlaced patterns. Far below a forest bloomed, unpicked from the warp and weft and teased upwards. Formidable redwoods pierced a smouldering sky, and in a clearing, a young boy crooked his neck to view the lunatic in the clouds, in his tiny hand a sword, an axe, a bow … a gun. Yarrod reached down towards the boy and found solidity instead.
“Awake at last is it? I was beginnin’ to think you’d be a bent back and a shovel for little old Fiddlesticks. Ain’t no one got desert time to be wastin’ on lolly folk. But you … maybe.”
Yarrod still felt groggy, and the stray words tripped what little sensory balance he’d found, reigniting his vertigo. He shook his head to dislodge the syllables, and eventually found an anchor beneath him. The rugs were now simply that, and, when he raised his head from its stoop, saw what he’d taken to be sails were in fact animal hides covering some kind of wigwam. As he struggled to right himself on the pallet, his eyes fell upon a row of pegs where his duster hung above his saddle and cowboy boots. His hat occupied the furthest peg along. Instinctively, he reached for Sorrow.
“Oh … well … you ain’t gonna find it,” Fiddlesticks said. “I weren’t born wet.”
The voice came from just behind and to the right of a central chimney coated in clay, the base doubling as a stove, upon which a large pot bubbled and filled the air with the smell of cooked meat. Beside it a small bucket with the unmistakeable black feathers of a crow poking above the rim. Yarrod swung his legs off the pallet and made to stand. A familiar click sat him back down.
Yarrod’s vision had sharpened and he could make out the speaker more easily now. Fiddlesticks sat in a cobbled together chair, its size struggling to contain his spidery limbs. In keeping with his look, a web-thin shirt hung unbuttoned, trousers no more substantial, and on his feet, raffia sandals. All the colour of Brittlebush. Atop his slender neck, a misplaced face, boyish with large eyes, button nose and svelte-lipped mouth that smiled a crease at Yarrod’s scrutiny. The pallid skin gave off a subtle luminescence, as if he’d swallowed the moon, and a filigreed map of veins and arteries crisscrossed his body.
A similar chair faced Fiddlesticks, a rifle’s forestock propped on the backrest, barrel pointing straight at Yarrod. This wasn’t what drew his attention though. It was Fiddlesticks’ outstretched right hand, the palm up. Rotating slowly by its point, a knife, as if held by magnets in a cage of fingers, from it a hum and a pale blue glow.
Fiddlesticks eased the rifle down and leant it against the chair with a litheness that belied his fragile appearance—no shake or clumsiness Yarrod could perhaps exploit. The ballet continued as he placed sandaled feet on the chair’s seat ahead and crossed his ankles.
Beside him, where his freed fingers thrummed, a small, round table, scarified and off kilter. On the edge, a pewter bowl, from which a wooden spoon jutted and steam curled. Sorrow lay dormant front stage, a slice of light from the doorway highlighting its pearl grip inlay, awaiting a hand, a master.
“Tisn’t tin bought this. I’d spin a wheel on it.” He tapped it gently. “I’d bet me last tooth this cost a sack spillin’ with Grens.”
“It’s just a gun,” Yarrod said calmly. “I’ve had it for years.” He weighed up the merits of telling the truth, that he had no idea where it came from, and decided any hint at weakness unwise. “Won it in a poker game way back,” he added.
Fiddlesticks threw back his head and let out a sustained tremolo note, his mouth a hole where a tongue wagged. Yarrod loathed mockery and clenched his fists by his side, eyes flitting between the rifle and the blade. A bullet could close the gap in a blink but as fleet-footed as Yarrod was, knew he would barely move before his adversary finished him.
“Says I weren’t born wet.” Fiddlesticks said, after he’d refilled his lungs. “Now you think me a dousin’. What you gonna say ’bout this ’ere scribble?” He pointed to an insignia engraved into the pearl—a circle cut in half with each half offset. “You take innards from a crow real easy like, but part Riftshifters from artefacts and a dirt roof you’d ’ave.” He pointed to the saddle. “Same scribble it has on the pommel. More gamblin’?”
Taking the wooden spoon with poise, he scooped within the bowl and brought stew to parted lips, sucking it down silently, all the while fixing Yarrod with inquisitive eyes.
“Ain’t had stew like this forever,” he said. “Gifts flutter in and we snag ’em, pluck ’em, boil ’em and eat ’em. Tickles your tongue it does.”
Yarrod could take no more. He leapt from the pallet and came at Fiddlesticks. A high-pitched whistle pierced his ears and the blade, once contained behind flesh bars, zipped towards him in a silver-blue shimmer. Instinctively, Yarrod raised his hands and protected his face, expecting both palms pierced … but nothing. When he lowered his hands, the blade was stuck there as if the very air had taken on the quality of wood. Curious, he reached for the blade, certain now Fiddlesticks meant him no immediate harm.
“I’d think not to touch, it’s—”
“Gildrin Steel,” Yarrod finished, mouth quoting unbidden. “A surgeon’s knife.” He thought more. Memories from the graveyard. “It cuts without pressure, cauterises instantly, and encourages immediate skin growth. Made by … by. …” Information slithered through his grasp. Eels in his head.
Fiddlesticks placed the spoon into the bowl and leant forward, aware, it seemed, of a revelatory moment. Another whistle and the blade shot back, caught once again by a jailing hand. He tipped his head.
Yarrod looked into his narrowed eyes. Only the hum from the blade and the bubble in the pot broke the silence. In these locked seconds, he sensed something.
“Have we met before?” he chanced and sat back down on the pallet, eased somehow, as if a game had revealed itself.
“Two times in my countin’,” Fiddlesticks said, holding up two fingers. “One time a tip of the hat is all, the other time help I give back here.”
“But how is that possible?” Yarrod asked, confusion giving his voice edge. “I’ve never met you before. Why wouldn’t I remember if I had?”
Fiddlesticks unfurled from the chair and stood. His pet blade’s purr deepened as he took two panther-like steps forward, all six foot of him a flawless, seamless unity, as if seeded by nature, not congress. He clearly saw the unease in Yarrod’s eyes, drawn by the knife. With the slightest gesture, he sent it into a bleached acacia branch above his head. There it quieted. Holding both hands up, he took another step forward.
Yarrod looked at the boiling pot, the crow’s feathers beside it, and back at Fiddlesticks. With the distance halved, the knife’s tip buried deep in wood, and the rifle leant against the chair well beyond Fiddlesticks’ reach, Yarrod saw an opportunity and readied an attack.
“There is many crows, not all chitter-chat.” He wagged a pendulate finger. “Some is just crows. Some is off hoppin’ outside.” Another step forward.
Yarrod thought he was playing for time and whistled, convinced nothing would come of it, and for a few anxious seconds, thought the assumption justified. A ruckus outside and a few small billows in the door’s curtain soon wiped the conceit from his face. More crimps appeared in the material before Stitch wriggled his head out from under the door and appeared, preening ruffled feathers. He chuntered and waddled towards Yarrod, still stretching kinks from his wings.
“Are you alright?” Yarrod asked as Stitch hopped up beside him.
“Not cooked,” Stitch scoffed and walked around Yarrod, blotting out the pot. “Been scouting. Storm’s almost upon us.” He bumped his tiny head into Yarrod’s side as hard as he could and almost toppled from the effort. “Move.”
Immediately, Yarrod stood and made for the pegs.
“Snail it,” Fiddlesticks said and summoned his blade with a finger. “There is still questions askin’ for—”
A low rumble, like a huge barrel rolling in an empty cellar, cut his sentence short, and the faint distinct scent of sodium wafted into the wigwam.
“To hell with this,” Yarrod said and quickly gathered his possessions. “If you’re going to kill me, get it over with.”
Fiddlesticks made for the canvas door, hooked it a crack and peeked outside. Clearly shaken by what he’d seen, he stepped back, one cautious heal at a time. Still thrusting his arms into the duster, Yarrod pushed past the silenced Fiddlesticks, and looked himself. From around a craggy wall of rock to the east, crawled the great grey beast.
“It aint no storm,” Fiddlesticks said. “Is you somethin’ more than me thinks?”
Yarrod didn’t turn from the door as the storm’s bulk drifted around the rock and into the enclosure, its heart a flicker of bright light. Fine electric fingers, scooted and zigzagged, and on contact with any object, be it plant, rock or stone, split into many smaller threads, and with uncanny, jagged accuracy, traced the shape perfectly before it sought another object to examine.
A bigger, twisted limb broke from the ranks of its meticulous brethren and slipped snake-like towards the wigwam. Something distracted it though. Pausing its progress and twisting to the right, it moved again, distracted by a mule and a makeshift cart that Yarrod assumed had been used to bring him here. The threads of electric gave up on their forensics and fizzled forward to join their broader, more forthright brother, and as they latticed into the thick limb, it rose high, its buzzing head writhing with inspection.
The mule shifted uncomfortably but didn’t move from the spot, locked there by its owner’s orders. Then, in one sudden movement, the limb struck and pierced the ignorant beast. Its legs crumpled under the weight of its smouldering carcass.
“Have you got somewhere to hide?” Yarrod turned at last and faced Fiddlesticks, who had backed himself up against the far wall. “Come on. Snap out of it. Somewhere to hide, now.”
Stitch hopped on the rug, wings slapping. “Hide, hide. Somewhere. Now.”
Yarrod grabbed Sorrow from the table and ran to Fiddlesticks, cocked the gun and held it to his head.
“Somewhere to hide. Come on.”
Fiddlesticks snapped out of it at last, taking in both Yarrod and Stitch. “Here,” he said, clearly reluctant to reveal what he was about to reveal. “Down here.” He yanked at the edge of a rug that lifted from the floor and revealed a hatch door attacked to it. Steps lead down into the dark.
All three disappeared inside, and just as the trapdoor closed, a fizzle could be heard at the door.