Elbow deep, I was, on Fifthday, shoulder-to-hip with a stinking sea of dock scum, cutthroats, street rats, the obligatory gaggle of painted meat-for-sale, slinking temple servants, off-duty craftsmen, sailors with a few hours to kill, and the inevitable troublemakers found in every tavern that ever opened its doors in a city with that many poor, destitute, screwed-up fuckers as the black Port of Galron was in those days.
Like I said, it was Fifthday, and I was flush from three jobs all paid-up. I was here, in The Thorn, because I knew this place and I felt at home here. I finally caught Squint’s eye behind the slab of ironwood that passes for the trestle, and he hustled his fat ass over to me, dodging beneath the crush of patrons waving empty tankards
I nodded at him, not daring to smile, and asked for a Dox, real polite, and showed him my coin.
He squinted at me with those evil piggy eyes and for a second I thought he was gonna turn me away for sure, knowing my need, hoping like hell he couldn’t see the sweatline framing my brow.
I thought for sure he was gonna call over the Thugs and that would be the end, ya know?
‘Cause no way is Squint gonna let me slide this time, even though I hadn’t actually done anything, but just ‘cause I was there, that could be enough, if Squint said so.
In this place, his word was Law, and even The goddamn Owl knew it, and none of His Claws ever came in here. No Law, no militia, no squealers ever fucked with Squint, and the fat bastard knew it. He had enough ears, tongues, toes and cocks nailed up above the trestle to prove it, too.
I waited, and sweated, and tried to keep breathing through my mouth. The air was rank with blood and meat, seawater and spilled ale, and it was a hot night, shimmery-air kinda hot. The place was rollicking with drunken breaknecks and the great meaty bastards stank, like the asshole of the demon-whore Xxzzt stank, and I was swaying with the lot of them, one great big juggy sloshing bowl of drunkenfucks, like we was on some slaver weeks out t’sea. The babbling drunkchat was deafening, unbearable. The torches that spat on the walls threw greasy, choking smoke into the air and little light. It was dark and loud and full of stupid drunken men with lots of money. My kind of joint, ya know?
I’m still waiting and then I saw Squint’s brow relax, and I knew he wasn’t going to turn me away. He kind of half-nodded at me, not even meeting my eye and plucked the silver ducat from my trembling hands.
I waited until he was filling the ‘jack before I let out my breath real slow-like, and I could feel some of the icy fingers clutching my guts slip away. Squint turned with the tankard perfectly poured, a thick foamy head mushroomed slightly on top of the bitter brew and my mouth suddenly lost all of its moisture in anticipation, my tongue, all grit and fuzz, swiped over my lips and I could already taste the bastard, ya know? That feeling of gut-thirst? Like a goddamn hook in your belly.
I’m jammed up next to some noneck and I could see immediately that he was a Crudder, some filth from eastside, some legbreaker off-duty and I smiled. The Sheep Drop would bring down this ape, quicker than a whore’s drawers on Third-day.
As Squint hands across the ‘jack the fuckin’ noneck jostles my elbow and half the fuckin’ Dox leaps out and across the trestle, splattering me, Squint, the noneck and some stinking halfbreed crammed in next to me.
Squint shouldn’t have cared, he’d already been paid, but all the same he bellowed like a sonofabitch and reared back a great hammy fist, ready to break jaw.
I immediately drop down off the stool onto the floor, a stupid stupid idea, I know, but I didn’t want no trouble that day, no trouble at all, I just wanted a goddamn drink, ya know? I hear the flat smack of Squint’s meaty fist breaking the noneck’s nose and the outraged bellow in response.
The halfbreed above me who also got splashed decides to open his drunken mouth.
Always a good idea.
I decide to get while the gettin’s good. I kick the stool out of the way and start to move away and stand up when the noneck fucker decides I was the problem after all and suckers me in the back of the head, felt like a goddamn sledge hit me, ya know? I stumble into the crowd, spilling ale, stepping on boots, and nearly go out. I know I’m gonna get shoved back towards the sonofabitch, and I know he’s waiting with another hammerblow that’s gonna knock me out, break my jaw and really fuck up my day, if I even survive, once I fall to the floor, but chances are I’d get stomped like a roach just for annoying these drunken psychopaths, ya know?
I got once chance. Sheep Drop was my play, and I gotta stick with it, even if the timing’s lousy. I get my hand into my tunic and manage to grab the pouch before I’m thrown back.
Fuckin’ lucky, I know.
I get pushed, hard, and as I’m turning I drop my head way down and throw my arms out, the pouch, upended, spills its bounty in a nice spray into the crowd, three dozen carefully weighted wooden discs, painted in gilt and embossed with the offical-looking profile of His Fucker, The Owl.
As I turn, I duck the haymaker, I even see the fucker’s eyes as he misses. It was nearly worth everything that came after on that day, and I crash into my stool and the trestle as the spray of ducats hits the ground. The crowd around me all does what they are supposed to do, they look at the ground and start grabbing and punching and slopping ale all over the floor trying to pick up the booty.
The noneck is among the grabbers and Squint has already turned away. The Halfbreed is arguing with someone else and didn’t even see the Sheep Drop. Crudders always carry their dosh on their belts, and this noneck filth is no exception. I see the pouch laying against his hip, nice and fat, and I think, “This chum’s just got paid”, and I lift the fat sack with the chock and snickety-snack I cut the tethers with my palm-cutter and push the dumb fucker as hard as I can and duck away into the crowd, past the halfbreed, and start squeezing through the bastards sideways and snake-like, slithering through the crowd, getting ready to call out “Imgonnabarf-watchoutmate-gonnathrowmygutsout”, when the crowd fuckin’ parts before me, like the floor was on fire and I can see the back door, out to the Trenchtown road, and the door was open and a mean looking bastard was standing there.
He was covered in blood and his clothes were shredded and the stink that poured from him instantly banished the putrid atmosphere in the place and set a new standard of disgusting. I had to hold my guts in, and no pretending, and he took a step forwards and when he did the whole place changed, ya know? It wasn’t silence, or electricity, or awe. It was way beyond that. It was … the power of … righteousness fulfilled. It was in my mind like the most perfect truth. I had no other thoughts in my head. It’s like I wasn’t there anymore, no mirror of self to reflect darkly, there was nothing but the truth of righteousness. I was the word, ya know, we were all the word, all of us there, even fatass Squint, and we knew this man.
This was a Speaker and he had a Tale.
Some were driven away, fleeing through the door with hasty excuses on their minds, some urgency that could not wait, and although the ones who stayed did not scorn them aloud, they somehow thought them lesser for not having the strength, the faith to stay and Listen. The feeling of the shared experience felt less without them there, but the Truth, did not. It was like a livewire into your soul. It could not be denied. I wanted to Listen. I felt like I had no other purpose, ya know?
A Speaker. I had been here many dozens of times, perhaps even a hundred, but I had never seen a Speaker enter. Many times I had been nearby and felt the pull. I always came, of course, and had Heard many tales, but this would be my first hearing of the Welcoming, and this Speaker had a tale that was immediate, and we could feel the power of the nearness of the event. The whole place was rapt, ‘jacks forgotten, fights discarded, the Sheep Drop of no importance now.
He walked into the taproom, quiet like. We all moved as he approached the trestle. Squint was behind the bar, as quiet as the rest of us and when the Speaker approached him, he did something I never thought I’d see, not from ol’ Squint.
He bowed to the man.
One meaty arm laid across his blubbering gut and one upturned hammy fist laid to his forehead. He leaned at the waist, his eyes seeking his feet, and he spoke in the Uu’uschlek, the holy cant of the Temple of Wrath. I found out later what he said in plain old Common, and it chilled me to hear it. He said, in the most deferential tone I ever heard fatass Squint utter in his entire, wretched existence, he said simply, “We the unknowing seek wisdom. Will you share it?”
At these words the Speaker returned, in Common, “I will. But may I have a ‘jack of Dox, first?”
This break in the ritual jolted the room. Laughter erupted, it splashed and rolled, and washed the room in a warm feeling I forgot existed, and for a moment I lived another life, in another place and these huge fuckers were all my best mates, celebrating the wonder of the Truth made real and suddenly the Dox was in the Speaker’s gut and he began to Speak and the laughter stopped as it if had never existed and the shadows and the weight of the heavy, dark timbers fell upon me, and the speaker’s voice had the same shade and mass, a heavy, rolling thing, suitable for the size of the man, who looked now, in the grimy light, like he had crawled out of some hellish place dreamt up by the Black Hand – those murderous priests of Abohar the Devourer.
His clothes were all torn up, and I could see was wounded, the cuts and rips suddenly standing out all over his body and I surmised that he had been attacked by a pack of very well-trained swordsmen, duelers no doubt, to be able to inflict so many wounds and yet still let their victim live. But as he spoke of his Wrongdoing – the sacred path of the betrayed – my mind wandered away from his words and I considered his demeanor as a whole.
He was young, but not youthful, perhaps 35 or 40 years old, and not unhandsome, but cursed with a farmer’s face, slim and sinewy. He was very tall, nearly 7 feet by my guess and lanky as all get out. But he did not look stupid or awkward, no, but there was no way to know if he was truly strong, for the Telling had a power of its own, but then the man was out of the Wrongdoing, and I caught some of it, a lover jilted and robbery gone bad, the reason was unimportant, and suddenly the room was a-hush again, all ears on the Tale…
…and the speaker said, “So after I discovered where the rat and the little whore were hiding and I had to ask the Dame Mistress for a key to the Under, and she said yeah, but I had to give three people the hex, and I said I didn’t want to and she said if I wanted to enter the Under without her permission, then I should just go ahead and start running now.
So I said “ok, ok” and I asked for the papers, but she said after, and I left, and headed straight across West Muckamuck until I neared the Dome. I paid the waterskell for the ride and soon found the pipe that would take me into the Under, and Gods, yeah I was scared to go down there, whole city of sewers down there, filled with the worst, the worst there is, we all heard the stories since we were kids, the were-vermin and living spells run amok, cannibal gangs of diseases, snot-toughs, and howling packs of dungspawn. Hell yeah I was scared, but I didn’t even wait, I just dropped inside, had to squirm most of the way, but when I finally dropped into the Under the dark was full of them big rats, the squealers. They jumped up on me pretty good until I remembered the sword and my torch. Guess I learned to keep thinking. To remember why I was in this shitty pipe in the middle of the night.”
At this, the crowd, myself included, murmured, “Purpose revealed” in one single voice.
He continued, “I hadda crouch the whole time, fighting squealers the whole way, a few bats bolted past my head, and the torch kept threatening to go out, the wind was terrible, I didn’t know there’d be wind, but with all the holes in the Under, it wasn’t too surprising when you thought about it. The breeze stank like rotten bodies, and it was cold, the wind, really cold.
Soon the pipe opened out into a five-way junction, one of the ways was straight up, but the surface substructure, the piss and water pipes, I mean, was destroyed during the Third City War, and the end was completely blocked, there was no way to get out in a hurry, if I needed it.”
“I knew this place. It was the place I was looking for, knowing it wasn’t like every other five-way junction in the whole rotting Under because of the painted sigil of the Betrayed. Like an organic stain, it was, the Wroth-Fingered Fist of Umbruk-the-Thorn, Lord and Master of the Wronged, and a puckered and flickering bubble of arcane magicks around the graffito sparked and buzzed with his fell power. “
“I have already told you of my Wrongdoing, but I will remind you of the name of my benefactor, Mister Dagus Marsh, who told me of the junction, and the sigil, and now here it was, good as promised.
According to Dagus, the treacherous bitch and that man were holed up in a tunnel to the west, some 2000 yards in a small antechamber. They were being helped by someone in East Muckamuck, Dagus said, someone connected to the self-styled king of the East Muck’ers, I won’t say his name, but we all know who I’m talking about, and if any of his men are in here, well…well I won’t say I’m sorry, because I’m not, but I sure am glad you boys are here to hear this. It’s gotta kicker of an ending.”
The Speaker coughed and rubbed his nose. His eyes were shining with the power of the Telling. We were getting to the thick of it now, it was close, and we all could feel it, like a fishhook in our minds, lured with a whispering promise, to feed the truth inside each of us here. The truth of Vengeance applied with a divine purpose and a clear mind. Its simple overwhelming power.
He continued, “All I had to do was to go down the west tunnel. Simple. Too bad I was born a Schlegel. That’s my pa’s name. I got his luck too, I guess. But in the end, I was aided by the Hand of Vengeance, and my prayers were fulfilled.”
The room mouthed, as one, “Wrath leads, through sacrifice, to redemption.”
“I went down the way I thought was west, but I passed through a four way and then as I came into another one I saw the other three tunnels were mostly blocked, packed up with debris and rocks. I thought maybe Dagus had forgotten to mention it, but then I remembered that he never forgot to mention anything and by the time I turned around started back a small tremor rocked the ground and a heavy grate crashed down over the way I had gone.”
“Then I heard the noise. Rats. Sounded like hundreds of them. Maybe thousands of them.
I know I pissed myself cause I could smell it, even in that black pit. The smell of warm piss and the alien organic sound of the swarm rising and rising in that hellish place. Coming for me.”
“They swarmed into chamber from everywhere, like the room had just reached critical mass and boiled over with rat. They were like a fecal wave of squealing, gnashing teeth with a haze of filthy parasites a-swarm above it. I could hear the buzzing of the flies and mosquitoes fill the room before they began to bat against my face and I knew that I would suffocate as well as be torn to pieces and I knew at that moment I shrieked and shrieked and wept and prayed.
Yes I prayed, to the almighty Wrath Lord, Umbruk-of-the-Thorn, The Redeemer, yes, I prayed, a fervent, desperate prayer, I promised him anything, I pledged myself, declared myself his pawn, his ever-humble servant for eternity if he would just grant me this, the strength to survive this and exact my rightful vengeance against that hateful bitch and the fucker who destroyed my whole life.”
“I remembered the look on Jay’la’s face and the way she sneered her mouth when she told me what she done and that man stepped out from behind the door. They both laughed, and when I remembered that feeling, the feeling that I had at that moment, something happened. Something…”
The Moment had come. The reason we had all gathered there. Junkies and their fix of justice.
The Speaker licked his dry lips again, a grey thing that didn’t look real when it slipped back into his mouth, and the skin around his mouth was dry and parched looking too, and since I was in the Listening, I was dry too, ya know? I remember wanting that Dox again, wishing I could have just one perfumed drop to relieve some of the sucking agony of my parched, dry, dusty ol’ gob.
Then He swallowed, and continued, his voice like the scrape of stone in a desiccated tomb to some ancient god, “When they were on me so thick I could not feel myself anymore, when I was just a wriggling mass under the sea of rats, I felt myself, my mind, grow still.
I remembered the look on Jay’la’s face. I remembered her laugh. I remembered the discovery of my life’s work destroyed, my life’s savings stolen. I remembered the words to my wife and her spitting in my face and that man stepping out from behind the door, and my beaten and bloodied son in his arms and Jay’la’s laugh again and her saying Tutob wasn’t my son and her laughing again. I remember the look in that man’s eyes, and the fear in my son’s, who wasn’t anymore, but still was, and the look in my son’s face, and the sick churning cold in my gut as I ran from the Watch the she-devil had paid off to make sure I cleared off or got dead quick.”
“I felt the cold thing in my stomach blossom and multiply, filling me, filling my mind with pure rage.
I knew that the Jagged Fist Himself had laid his hand upon me; the righteous anger of His Work filled me with such cold, patient soothing, that I suddenly lost all fear of the swarm devouring my body, and I knew what I had to do. I had to become what I could not fight.
My hands curled into claws and I felt myself become something very old, something forgotten, and I fought and bit and ripped and stomped and hurled myself about that wet, stinking chamber killing rats in the dozens and drinking their blood as they drank mine. I showed them what rodent hunger would never understand about human hunger. The insect cloud showed its true colors, centering their swarm on me, covered in food, as I was, and for a time I forgot myself and was a beast. I had only one thought. One sound. One image. I would be revenged.”
Well. We was all awake, now, ya know? Feeling the burn of the Telling, feeling the same shame and hot anger that the Speaker had felt, and the sweat rolled down our faces, and our guts churned with the Remembrance, but we all silently urged him on, knowing the payoff was coming, and some even forgot themselves and shouted into the sweaty, close confines, “Strength to the Wronged!” or “Umbruk’s Will!”, but the Speaker, he rolled on, his eyes wide and bright, his face flushed and as sweaty as the rest of ours were, his towering frame swayed on adrenaline-jittery legs, and the Speaker continued, “I don’t know how long I was there, it didn’t feel very long, but I don’t know. Hours, maybe.”
“I still felt the Hand of the Wrathful upon me. I knew my body was ravaged and bloody. I knew that my belly was full of meat and it made me feel strong. Centered. I knew something else. I knew where the evil bitch was. Where she was exactly. I hadn’t missed her hidey-hole by much, but it would be a bit of a walk. I just had to get out of the dead-rat hole. The grate was old and I don’t think it was a trap. It was just really bad timing and bad luck for me. I grabbed a hold of it and knew that I wouldn’t be able to lift it had the Hand not been with me. With the Wrathlord’s blessed aid I lifted the grate as easy as I lifted that ‘jack of Dox earlier, and I was out of that butcher’s hole. It stank of death and blood. It was a sacred place. The place of my rebirth.”
“Like I said, I knew where Jay’la and her fuckman were hiding. The Hand showed me the way. I backtracked to the original five-way with the sigil and made the correct turn. My body and mind were full of the Fury, and I promised the Master that I would give him many lives if he would not desert me now. I would exact such a toll upon his enemies that Cyric, the Death Lord Himself, would not be able to keep up.”
“I soon found the right door. It was locked and barred, but my Fury was such that I battered the door off its frame. No one would be coming. Not in the Under. Not with the Fury of Umbruk upon me.”
A hushed, “the Power of the Jagged Fist” rippled across the crowd.
“The bitch and her man had been rutting. It stank with their drippings. I was beyond feelings or words. I strangled the bastard first, even as he pummeled me and the bitch chewed my legs. I crushed his throat and watched the light die in his eyes before I dropped him. The treacherous bitch had done a runner, but again, by the blessed grace of His Wroth I knew exactly where she was, running through the bad places in the Under, and I pursued. With glee”
He stopped here, and looked to Squint and did something no other Speaker had ever done.
He asked for a leatherjack of Dox. He even walked over and got it from the trestle after Squint had suddenly come out of the Listening and ran, ran, over to the taps, spilling a bit of it as he joggled his fat ass back quick to hand it to the Speaker, Squint’s eyes glazed over and slightly demented looking, as if he had just woken from a dream.
Very quickly, one by one, we came out of the Listening. Some were confused and angry. I’ve heard tale of Listeners who stay trapped in the Tale, unable to think or talk about anything else if the Tale has been interrupted and not completed. It’s a dangerous thing, a story, dontcha think? Anything can happen. Not to be just interrupted like that. Can really screw yer head up, ya know?
The Speaker sculled the ‘jack,1,2,3 and turned to face the crowd, who buzzed, annoyed, and one chuzza sang out, “Oy! What the fuck is all this then?”, but the Speaker was talking again and he said,
“I caught her and made her understand how badly she had hurt me. After it was over, after I was done and my mouth was full of meat and bone, after I accepted her apology, I saw one.
One of the Revenged.”
The room dropped to a quiet still again. The Listening instantly washed over us, as if we had never been disturbed.
“It was in the tunnel outside this dead end I had cornered Jay’la in. I turned my head and it was there, and I can’t, I can’t tell you what, what it looked like, because …well … I just can’t describe it. It was wrath, do you understand? It was wrath.”
The Speaker’s eyes filled with tears when he said this. Tears. Covered in blood and meat and he was weeping and dripping snot everywhere, just babbling, ya know? “Wrath, wrath, you can’t understand, you can’t understand, the horror of its beauty, the horror, like scissors in my mind.”
He went on like that for a few minutes I think, I’m not sure, the Listening has its own power and time isn’t always a sure thing. Crying and trying to explain what one of His Revenged looked like and not being able to, ya know? At the time we were all caught up in the Listening and didn’t really understand the full impact of what he was saying.
Then the Speaker gathered himself, wiped his face and said, “It voice filled my mind like scissors cutting out parts of me and putting in new thoughts, new ideas, new understandings. It destroyed me and made me whole again.”
And he smiled. Real big. Blood and scraps of meat clung to his raggedy teeth. He mugged at us the way you would a stupid mutt right before you booted him in the bollocks for being a bastard.
Again, we started coming out of the Listening, faster this time, and in groups, and there was real anger this time, and a few of the men took a step or two towards him, ready to kick his teeth in, Speaker or not, when we heard the sound.
The alien, organic sound of a rat swarm coming up from some ragged hole in the city’s understructure.
Old fatass Squint barked like some animal, kicked, and I looked at him and there was a mask there, ya know? Not one of burlap, but his own flesh, twisted somehow and unrecognizable as the bastard I knew and feared. Squint looked scared, do ya ken? The bastard was terrified and suddenly I felt that Dox come up, sour and fierce and I ran, Gods help me I ran as fast as I could, I knocked over dozens, still dazed and recovering and the sound of the rats, louder and louder beneath those rotten, beer-soaked boards.
I can’t talk about the rest, I won’t, not no more, and especially not here. But I can show you the scars. See here? That’s right! They do look like a gnawed ear of corn. Them rats was filled with Vengeance, you see? Squint’s guilt brought them, and I didn’t find out till a long time after that the man who had seduced the Speaker’s wife, and ruined his son against him, had been a thug-for-hire that Squint had known from way back. Did it as a favor to Dagus Marsh. Yeah! That’s the same as the Speaker mentioned! All some damn trick, ya see? To get this guy out of the way so that Dagus could give the girl the old squeaky-freaky, ya know? The shit people do to get laid, I tell ya, its easier to just keep it palmgreasy, ya know? Anyway.
Them rats, though…
You’ve never seen so many. Swarm is too small a word. They were an act of Umbruk’s Will, uhshatai shataiya, and the only reason I’m even here is cause I never had no guilt about nothing wrong I never did to no one, that didn’t have it comin’, ya know? Me and the Fist, we squaresway. Always.
Anyways. That’s the worst birthday I ever had. How about you? Oh, I need another drink. You’re buying, yeah?