Southwatch is a steampunk city divided: the rich live in the luxurious airships of the Aerie, while the poor eke out an existence in the pollution-choked streets below. From one extreme to another, idealistic professors, devious aristocrats, mechanicals and fae all struggle for the future of the city they all share -- or just try to survive.
The Caelimane Operation by Chris Pavesic is the latest story in The Darkside Codex, a series of stand alone stories which take place in Southwatch. Released January 16th, this is one story you won't be able to stop reading.
In case you still need some convincing, here's a blurb:
When the Temples to the Goddess north of Southwatch are burned and followers of Dione are murdered, Hierocrat Catherine, a bard of the Caelimane Temple, sets out to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. With only the help of a traveling group of minstrels and a retired fae investigator, Catherine must solve the mystery before more people are killed, but will she succeed when she finds herself pitted against members of her own Temple, rogue members of the Seelie Court, and a seemingly unstoppable army of undead?
And here is how the story begins:
“We should turn north, sir,” Corporal Ben Jackson urged as the shadows started to lengthen. “If we hurry, we can be inside the capital city borders by nightfall.”
He glanced up at the surrounding trees, tall oaks for the most part, with a birch or an ash here and there. To the west, where the sky glowed with the departing sun, the branches and leaves were outlined in yellow light like the converse of the unifying dark lead network of stained glass. To someone like Jackson, more accustomed to patrolling fields swept clean from the Dark Cloud devastation that still surrounded the towering city of Southwatch, the sight of so much living vegetation was unnerving.
“Are you afraid of the dark, Corporal?” Lieutenant Reginald Daniels asked with the hint of a smirk.
Jackson did not respond directly to the question. He was experienced enough in the Army to know that no good came from answering an inquiry of this sort. Newly appointed officers like Daniels loved testing their men with these types of abstractions, and Jackson did not want to spend the foreseeable future on night patrol outside the borders of the city when they returned to Southwatch from their current mission.
“Just concerned about the mounts lasting, sir,” Jackson lied. “We’ve been riding hard since we left the garrison, and it’s been a while since I’ve wound the clockwork.” He patted the side of his horse’s neck almost as an afterthought to lend credence to his reply. The mechanical tossed its head in close approximation of a real horse. It neighed, the gentle sound echoing a bit too loudly back from the trees. Somewhere, an animal crashed off though the underbrush, startled by the noise.
“There is no need to be concerned, Corporal. Thalaker’s Mounts are the original all-terrain vehicles.” Daniels smiled at his own humor. He sat a bit straighter in the saddle and brushed a bit of dust from his left sleeve.
Although following the same general pattern, the material in Daniels’s uniform was of higher quality than Jackson’s own—a creation from a tailor that serviced the families in the Aerie. It wouldn’t do to have an aristocrat wearing something that was standard issue, after all. Jackson favored his superior’s outfit with a bitter glance. The cloth and tooled leather were probably worth more than his annual salary.
“And we’ve barely put the mounts to the test,” Daniels continued. “I’m sure the clockwork will hold until tonight.”
“The test, sir?” Jackson asked. He didn’t like the sound of his superior officer’s comment.
“Need to Know, Corporal, but I can guarantee you won’t see the inside of St. Louis tonight. We have other duties.” He spurred his horse down the path. “Quickly, now, before the light deserts us completely.”
Jackson glared at his superior officer’s back, suppressed anger in his eyes. He didn’t believe the “Need to Know” explanation one bit; the commander of the Southwatch Army unit, Lt. Colonel Randall Fitzgerald, wasn’t the sort to send out men on a mission with so little information, or even normally to send them this far outside the borders of Southwatch. Fitzgerald might be a bit lax when it came to some things, but he was not one to put his soldiers’ lives at risk unnecessarily. And this was beginning to feel dangerous. He suspected Daniels was making some sort of a power play and dragging him along for the ride.
This was typical behavior of aristocrats who joined the military, and Daniels came from a family that lived in the Aerie, albeit in one of the lower airships without the best view of the sky. Still, it was a lot higher in the city than a low rank solider like Jackson could ever hope to attain. He doubted if he and his family would ever live above the Dark Cloud, the toxic stew of chemicals, pollution, and dust bisecting the city. But there was nothing to be done for it. The order had been given, and honor bound him to obey.
Ten minutes more of hard riding found them approaching a small, overgrown side road, now no more than ancient double ruts cut into the ground. Daniels swung them onto it, slowing their pace to accommodate the new terrain. The road carried them up and across a rising series of fields like steps. There were many deep breaks of evergreens on the rising slopes at either hand. They finally topped a long ridge where the path split; to the east, the road descended into a dark wood, finding its way among trees that were centuries old. To the west, the fields had been cleared and gradually sloped even higher. A building stood on the apex. The upper reaches still held the sunset and glowed with a delicate cool pink.
Daniels dismounted. He checked the position of the sun. “Just enough light left, I think, for a quick reconnaissance. We will continue on by foot from here, Corporal,” he said. “You take point. We are heading for the Temple of Dione at the top of the hill.”
The ground was damp and muddy, pulling at their boots when they lifted their feet to take a step. There was no sound except the chirping of small insects in the grass. The old cobblestones from the path were scattered, making footing even more hazardous, and Jackson threaded his way through. He could just make out the outline of a burned wall and spire, all that was left of the Temple.
Jackson felt a momentary sadness seeing the Temple in ruins. Like many others in Southwatch, he was a follower of Dione and a member of the Caelimane Temple. He may have been a bit careless of late in attending services, but that was more about his distrust of the clergy rather than his faith in the Goddess. He still believed in Dione; he believed in her light as a shining salvation. To see one of her Temples reduced to this burned state didn’t fit into his concept of divinity.
He considered what it must look like inside—the stone altar scorched, the pews overturned, broken, and blackened—and he wondered if anyone had been inside when it burned. Had this happened during the night when the Temple was deserted or during a full service? Had the people been able to evacuate in time, or had they been trapped inside?
“Do you know what happened here, sir?” he couldn’t help asking.
Daniels paused a moment, staring off into the distance, his face reflective. “This is what we need to determine, Corporal.”
Jackson scanned the area as they approached the ruins. The shadows of the evening were beginning to stretch outward and obscure the small details of the landscape. The ground here was dry and level. The smell of the fire, a mix of charred oak and a sickly sweet odor he couldn’t identify, still lingered in the air. Even their footsteps seemed to fall like stones dropped into water, muffled and dying away in ripples. Then the wind picked up, flattening the grass in the courtyard. A few of the ornamental trees in the yard of the Temple creaked and groaned in chorus, the movement of the leaves and branches making shadows jump and dance across the ground.
A thin trail of blackened grass started about ten yards away from the building and led toward it in a straight line. Daniels knelt next to it and scooped up a handful of earth and ashes. He examined them, lifted them to his face to smell, and then sifted the ashes and dirt through his fingers as the wind bore it away in a puff of dust. “Definitely some sort of an accelerant was used here. Probably splashed over the building and then the arsonist used this as a safety zone to start the blaze.”
“Were there people inside, sir? When it burned?” Jackson didn’t know why he asked; he didn’t think Daniels would even know, and indeed his commanding officer appeared to be ignoring the question. It was just a desire for comfort, perhaps, so he wouldn’t have to envision the worshipers caught in the flames, crying and shrieking to the Goddess for mercy. He shook his head, as if to clear it of the images, and found he was sweating.
You have to stop being so spooked, Jackson told himself. It’s only an empty shell of a building. Even if people died in there…you have to go up there and investigate. That’s all. Don’t give Daniels a reason to write you up when you get back. Don’t give him the satisfaction.
A huge white owl circled above the crumbling Temple spire, unhurried, powerful, and silent.
Daniels dusted off his hand against the leg of his trouser. “Take a look around the perimeter.”
They had almost crossed the courtyard when the wind shifted, blowing in from the dark forest. The stench was horrific. Jackson covered his mouth, and Daniels was struggling not to gag. It was the fetid reek of carrion.
“Respirator!” Daniels barked, pulling on his own. Jackson fumbled with his protective breathing apparatus, managing to snap it into place after a few frantic seconds. He took a deep breath, grateful for the clear air that flowed into his lungs.
A shadow arose from the dark of the wood. It came at them with startling speed, almost seeming to sprint up the hill. As it drew closer, the last gleams of light fell upon its maggoty-white, glistening skin. Black, gelatinous fluids seeped from pustules that covered its face and arms. It bared its teeth and spat specks of ichor with a burbling growl.
It was the shambling wreck of a human being. It was one of many.
They emerged from the shadow of the forest and charged up the hill en masse, ten…fifteen…twenty… Jackson stopped counting and drew his weapon a scant moment after Daniels barked a command to attack. They fired their pistols into the advancing horde with no effect.
“Rapiers!” Daniels yelled, throwing his pistol to the ground and drawing his secondary weapon. He activated the electrical field, and sparks flew. Jackson followed suit.
They fought with their backs to each other. Their electro-rapiers flashed in the dim light. Fluids gushed from the undead creatures, the flesh taking on a creamy consistency and turning black where their blades sliced and burned. Pieces of the creatures fell in all directions. Limbs were everywhere, crawling on the ground, unattached fingers squirming. Howling with harsh tones, thrashing in agony, the undead fell at their feet, the bodies still flaying with wild movements.
Daniels fell to his knees, shrieking and covered in blood, overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies charging him. Cold, fish-white hands rent his limbs. Some were more decomposed than others, bones visible in places as they staggered forward, mouths gaping. The eyes were as dark as the pavement on the lower streets of Southwatch; there was no human thought or feeling in them.
Jackson was panting from the effort, now. His respirator could barely keep up with the increased breaths. He took one hit, then another. He felt the sting of torn flesh as the undead carved away chunks of his body. He cried out in pain. The sharp white teeth, behind the full lips of blood dripping mouths, clamped together like those of wild beasts. A flash of anger filled him that his body would be taken in bits and pieces by these things to feed them—it was not acceptable. That his living flesh was no more than so much meat to be torn and slashed by their ravenous maws spurred him into a frenzy of unthinking attack. He thrust his rapier forward, overbalanced, and fell to the ground screaming as a dozen maggoty-white bodies swarmed over his fallen frame.
The men’s cries of agony silenced. Soon, only the wet sounds of flesh being torn and dragged could be heard.
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