Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageI shook my head. “I have to work, Elbert. It’ll have to wait.”

Elbert shook his head then looked past me. “Barkeep. I think your serving girl is a bit under the weather. She’s as pale as the snow outside.”

Bramwell turned from where he’d been washing glasses and looked at me. He scowled then asked, “What’s wrong with you, girl? You’re as white as death.”

I shrugged and shook off Elbert’s hand. “I’m fine, Bramwell.” I stood, but my legs shook, and my head spun. I fell back onto the stool. My stomach lurched, and I was sure I was going to vomit all over the floor.

“Go home, Muhulda,” Bramwell said. “I’ll take care of this lot.” He didn’t sound happy.

I nodded and stumbled to the back room to get my coat. Elbert was waiting for me by the door, and we stepped out into the cold. I leaned against the building and let the tears flow, while Elbert stood by and watched for the ba’soray inside to come out.

“Muhulda, what’s wrong?” he asked. I could hear the concern in his voice.

I shook my head, determined not to let this defeat me. “Come on,” I replied. “I know where we’re going.”

 

*****

 

An hour later we stood in front of a warehouse-sized building in Barhope, a professional district next to Woolhope. It wasn’t an area of town I frequented, as much to stay away from my sister and her condescension as anything else, but I knew where to find Rupert’s office. “In there,” I pointed.

“How do you know that?”

“This is my brother-in-law’s office. He implants biotics.” I turned to Elbert. “That’s one thing I noticed. All those who came after me had them.” I pointed again. “This is the only place in Sangeron to get them. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.”

“All right,” Elbert said. “Head home, and I’ll get these taken care of.”

I shook my head. “If those things came from here, then I want to know why. You’re stuck with me.” The knot of fury was back. I couldn’t suspect Matilda, but Rupert was another story. He’d always been a self-serving son of a bitch from the low end of the social ladder, and I was pretty sure my parents had given him the money to open his office. Either that, or Matilda had. But Matilda wasn’t so much the giving type unless there was something in it for her.

“All right, but stay behind me, and don’t do anything stupid.” I wondered if he realized just how stupid that line sounded.

I growled at him but didn’t respond. Instead, I marched up to the door, a glass piece with my brother-in-law’s name in gold letters across it, and snatched it. Of course, it was locked this late at night, but I didn’t care. I banged on the door and yelled for Rupert to open the door. Elbert grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back.

“Nothing stupid,” he hissed. “You want to bring the Enforcers? They actually monitor this part of town.”

I swung to hit him, the anger than had been building within me exploding beyond my ability to control, but Elbert dodged and grabbed my arm. He put me on my knees in the snow, his hand over my mouth. I fought for a moment, then the rage drained and left me barely able to move. “I’m okay,” I said, but it wasn’t true.

Elbert didn’t respond. Instead, he pulled a set of picks from his pocket and went to work on the lock. A moment later, he had the door open. He motioned for me to be quiet and led the way inside.

The office was dark and smelled of chemicals. There was an underlying scent that crept into my nose and lodged in my throat. It was familiar, yet not.

A spot of deeper darkness past the desk indicated the doorway to the other part of the building. I moved in that direction with Elbert close behind me. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder to try to get in front of me, but I snatched away from him and continued. This was my sister’s place, after all, and I had more right to be here than he did.

The door led to a long hallway. I searched for a switch in hopes of finding incandescent lamps, and I wasn’t disappointed. Light flared along the corridor to show me a metal floor free of rust. The walls were wood and polished to a shine, something I saw little of in Sangeron, and only served to show me that my sister took an active hand in the place. I just couldn’t see Rupert as the type to care about polishing a wall. Doors lined the passage, all of them open maws that threatened hidden dangers.

“Muhulda, stop.” It came out as a hiss, barely heard, but I stopped and turned to face Elbert.

“What?”

Elbert moved close, too close, so that I alone could hear him. “You aren’t a Shadow Walker,” he said. “You have no idea how to fight these things.”

I shrugged. “So? Make me one?”

He arched his brow and looked at me like I was the dumbest person in the Xaggarene Empire. “I can’t. Only the gods choose Shadow Walkers.”

I humphed and turned away. “Fine. But you’ve never been here before.”

Elbert moved in front of me and looked back with a grin devoid of humor. “Then direct from the back.”

I crossed by arms and followed behind him, sullen and angry. We moved through the hallway and into another area of the warehouse, a place I’d never been before. Of course, if I was honest, I’d never been past the front office, but he didn’t need to know that.

The room in front of us had the same metal floor as the rest of the building, but the walls in here were metal as well. Tables sat in rows, each with a machine of some sort attached at the top. The machines were connected to a larger machine on the far side of the room, and all of them beeped softly. Each table was covered with a pad and sheet, and I assumed this was where Rupert put his patients after their surgeries.

The smell was stronger here, and I sniffed as I tried to identify it. Elbert heard and turned to me. “It’s demon,” he whispered. “Demon and death.”

I didn’t reply. There was no need.

We moved on through the room, and it was then I noticed a large window on the opposite side. I looked through it and gasped. Rupert stood on the other side with a tray of tools laid out beside him. A naked man laid on the table with some kind of cup over his mouth. A machine like the ones in this room beeped over his head, and three incandescent lamps hung over the table. Rupert’s face was covered, and the coat he wore was splattered with blood. He took a mechanical arm from the table next to him and began attaching it to the stump of the man’s right arm. His real arm lay on the floor, blood oozing from it. I gagged, and Elbert grabbed my shoulder.

I forced myself to watch as Rupert continued to operate. It was only when Matilda entered, dressed in a white coat with her hair pulled back in a tail that I did it voluntarily. She said something to Rupert, but I couldn’t hear through the glass. He pointed, and she moved to a cage hidden in the shadows on the far side of the room. When she returned, it was with a small, wriggling creature that looked like a worm with several heads.

I gasped, and Elbert put his hand on my arm to keep me quiet. He pulled me down so we were crouching below the window, out of sight.

“That’s a ba’soray,” he whispered, as if I hadn’t already figured that out.

“What do we do?”

“We don’t do anything. I go in there and deal with the threat.”

He started to rise, but I grabbed his arm. “That’s my sister in there.” I peeked up over the bottom of the window. “Granted, it’s my twittershit crazy sister, but she’s still my twin.”

“I know. I’ll be careful, but these things can’t be let loose in the world. There aren’t enough of us to stop them if they start breeding.”

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageI stepped out into the cold and shivered. Snow blew around me in whirlwinds that blocked my vision, and the fall was so thick it appeared to be night. I headed toward the main street at sort of a limping run, anxious to get home and light a fire. I suppose, in retrospect, that I should’ve paid more attention to where I was going, but the snow was so thick that it was hard to see, and I was turned around with no idea where I was. It wasn’t like I wasn’t familiar with Sangeron. I was. But in the white out, I couldn’t see, and familiar landmarks became strange creatures lurking in the gloom. Even the streetlamps were darkened by the snow, and shop windows only gave the faintest of light.

I stumbled and nearly fell, but someone grabbed my arm and kept me on my feet. I squinted into the darkness but couldn’t tell who it was that had hold of me. I snatched my arm away and took off running. I tripped over something in the street and landed hard. I felt the warmth of blood on my knee, but I wasn’t concerned about that. Someone had grabbed me, and I needed to get away.

“Muhulda!”

The voice barely cut through the wind. It was a deep voice, one I thought I knew, but I still didn’t care. My only thought was to get home, if I could figure out where home was.

“Muhulda!”

I slid in the snow and stopped. I turned, ready to fight. But there was no need. The person chasing me in the snowstorm was my brother-in-law, Rupert. He came toward me, his hand holding his top hat to his head. His scarf blew out behind him, and his coat tails twisted in the wind. A grimace plastered across his face, not softened in the least by the snowflakes in his black beard.

“What the hell are you running for?” He stopped and scowled at me. “I’ve been chasing you for four blocks. Where are you going?”

I looked around, frantic, and forced myself to breathe. “I was heading home. I got lost in the storm.” I pulled my coat more closely around me and shivered. I wished I’d taken time this morning for a scarf and hat, but it hadn’t seemed necessary. I knew better. Sangeron in the cold months was always unpredictable.

“You’re going in the opposite direction from that place you call home,” Rupert replied. He looked at my ragged coat and blowing hair and lifted his nose just a fraction higher. I knew he was comparing me to Matilda, everyone always did. “And you never showed up today.”

I stomped my feet to stay warm and stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

Rupert stomped his feet and brushed snow from his coat and beard. “Matilda said you were starting work at my office today. Did she not come by your…home…this morning?”

I brushed my hair back and shook some snow off my clothes. “Yes, she came by. Yes, she mentioned a job at your office. No, I didn’t want it. I want no part of biotics.” The snow was slowing, and I was able to see where I was. “Now, it’s cold, and I’ve had one hell of a day, so I’m going home. You have a good evening.”

“Why must you always be so difficult?” Rupert sniffed. “This is a good opportunity for you, and, regardless of your opinion, adding biotics to people is good money.”

I shrugged and gave him my best ‘I don’t give a damn’ smile. “Sorry. I have my own life to live. Have a good night.” I didn’t give him a chance to say more.

 

*****

 

My flat was warm and cozy. After a warm bath and a cup of tea, I was feeling a bit more secure. I still had to go to the Steam Whisper later that night, snow or no snow, but, for now, I could relax and sleep. At least, that’s what I thought.

Thoughts of the ba’soray demons and what Elbert had told me raced through my mind. I could see the thoughts, almost like they were twitterflies in the forest, converging on me and scattering when I tried to catch them. Doubts filled my heart and settled into my gut like some of Madam Cora’s cookie experiments, and Elbert’s words kept coming back to me. Someone wanted me dead, and the only person I knew was my sister. My twin sister. Sure, she thought I was a failure. Sure, she disapproved of my choices. But did she disapprove enough to kill me? All of a sudden, I wasn’t sure.

“Stop this,” I told myself.

But ‘myself’ didn’t want to listen. The light ceased to shine, and it was time to go to work before I had a chance to sleep.

 

*****

The Steam Whisper was quiet. One of our most loyal customers, a man who claimed to work in trade from E’ma Thalas, sat in the back corner nursing a Nutty Fluffy. He came every night, regardless of the weather, to sit alone and brood. His bowler hat sat on the table beside him, and his coat was thrown over the back of the chair. A clean, white shirt buttoned high on his neck, and his hair and beard where clean and neatly cut. While his appearance stated that he was just who he said he was, Bramwell and I often wondered if it was true. After all, the Steam Whisper wasn’t in Woolhope. It was down in Black Hallow, not the worst of neighborhoods, but not somewhere you’d expect to see a prosperous businessman.

“Was wonderin’ if’n you’d make it tonight.” Bramwell leaned against the bar, his pudgy chin quivering when he talked.

I shrugged and pulled my coat closer around me. The snow was now halfway to my knees, and the short skirt I wore did nothing to ward off the chill. Though the brazier was burning, the warmth didn’t reach too far from it, and I shivered. “Yeah. I made it.” I scowled at him. “Though why you think I need to wear this outfit is beyond me. Most of these guys can’t see straight after their first drink, so why bother?”

Bramwell chuckled and slapped the bar. “Well, I can see just fine.”

I rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to the room. “I can see we’re hopping tonight.”

Bramwell sighed and picked up his rag. He gave the bar a couple of half-hearted swipes then gave up the pretense. “The snow’s getting’ kinda thick, and most folks won’t wander out in it if’n there’s no need.” He glanced over at our lone patron then back to me. “I suppose you can head on home if you’d like. I doubt there’ll be enough coin to pay you tonight anyway.”

I sighed. “Bram, you know I have to work.”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself, but you’ll be workin’ for free unless more folks come in.”

I pulled my scarf up over my face and thought about it for a moment. It wasn’t a long walk home, and the coin I’d lose really wasn’t that much.

My musing was interrupted by a frigid blast from the door. I turned to see Elbert enter on the heels of three others, some just like the ones I’d dealt with the night before. So much for going home. With these three, there’d be plenty of work and coin.

The men ambled over to the table next to our patron and plopped down. The man gave them a look like he’d scraped them off the bottom of his boot then turned his attention back to his drink. The four ignored him and laughed at some joke one of them, probably Elbert, had told.

I sighed again and took off my coat. I handed it to Bramwell to put in the back room and approached the table. I raised an eyebrow at Elbert, asking if these were some I needed to be careful about, and he nodded. “What can I get for you?”

“How about ten minutes in the back room?” This one was tall and broad with deep green hair and a metal plate on one side of his head. His beard and mustache were ragged, and it looked like bits of his dinner were still lodged in them.

“Sorry, sweetcheeks. Ten minutes ain’t long enough.” I winked at the others at the table then asked again, “What kind of drinks can I get for you?”

“We’ll take Nutty Fluffies all around, and the guys will each have a hit of Bleeding Grim,” Elbert replied.

“All righty, then.” I turned and made my way back to the bar to give Bramwell the order and stood there while he prepared the drinks. I felt someone behind me and turned, all my senses on alert.

“These are more of the ba’soray,” Elbert whispered. “The nest must be huge. If you can get out of here, go.”

“I can’t,” I hissed. “The minute you people came in here, I was stuck.”

Elbert cursed under his breath. “Fine. I’ll get them stoned and out of here as quick as I can. Hopefully, I won’t have to kill them and can find the nest.”

“I could always leave and let them follow me,” I suggested.

Elbert shook his head. “That won’t find the nest. I have to get to whoever is sending them out to stop them.”

I shrugged. “All right. I’ll stay here until you guys leave.” I glanced back toward the table. “The three of them seem a little brighter than the others.”

“They’re recently infected. The ba’soray haven’t had time to damage their brains.”

“Could whoever is sending them out be getting people infected?” I asked. “I mean, can they be controlled that way?”

Elbert thought for a moment then blew out a frustrated breath. “Yeah. They can be. If that’s the case, then there isn’t an actual nest. Someone’s got a bunch of these things in a cage somewhere and is putting them into people.”

“Sounds like fun. How will you find them?”

“In a city this size, I might not.”

“Oh, goodie. That’s all I need.”

Elbert started to say more, but Bramwell placed the drinks and hits on the counter. I loaded my tray and headed to the table with Elbert behind me.

“Here you go, guys,” I said. It took all my effort to keep the smile on my face. My hands shook, and I felt the beginnings of pure fury begin in my guts. Who the hell was sending these things after me? What did they want? But I didn’t know, and the only person who could help me was a Shadow Walker I’d just met.

“Sure you won’t join us?” This one had dark brown hair and eyes that shown yellow. His left hand was mechanical and whirred as he picked up his drink. I watched it with disgusted fascination and shook my head. I could understand replacing a limb that was lost in an accident, but to voluntarily remove a part of the body and replace it with machine was something I couldn’t comprehend. It was…creepy…unnatural, and the idea that my twin sister did this to people was almost more than I could stomach.

I froze and looked over at Elbert. He’d taken one sip of his Nutty Fluffy and pushed away the glass. The other three at the table had already downed theirs, each of them adding the hit of Bleeding Grim to the drink. My eyes widened as realization hit me. Elbert jumped to his feet and grabbed my arm, I’m assuming because my face drained of color. It felt like it did.

Elbert steered me to the bar and plopped me on a stool. “What is it?” he whispered.

“I think I know who has the ba’soray.” Tears formed in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall.

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageWe walked down the street in silence. Snow continued to fall, little whirlwinds picking at hair and clothing, and, before long, the streets of Sangeron were covered in more than a dusting of white. Around us, the society ladies with their fancy ruffs and their parasols scurried by, oblivious of everything but getting home before their hairdos were affected by the snow.

We turned down a side street filled with small shops. The storefronts were a bit more weathered, and the metal on the upper floors was a bit more rusted than out on the main street. The garbage bins were emptied a little less often, and more bits of trash blew in the wind. It wasn’t a poor area, not one of the ones where citizens slept in the streets and robberies were common, but it wasn’t a place my sister would ever frequent, either.

Madam Cora’s was a small tea room that saw few visitors. It was the place I normally patroned, though it was further away from the park than the café I’d visited earlier. For a moment, I wished I had just come to Madam Cora’s. It would’ve made it harder for Elbert to find me, and I wouldn’t have had to listen to the sneers of the other women.

“A tea room?” he asked.

I nodded and smiled. “One of my favorite places. The Steam Whisper isn’t open yet.”

We entered the tea room, and the weight I’d been carrying lifted off my shoulders. A tiny bell tinkled when we closed the door, and Madam Cora came into the dining room with a tea towel in her hand. She was a slight woman, less than five feet tall, with wide shoulders and hips and a tuft of hair on her chin. Elbert’s eyes widened, and I chuckled at his surprise.

“A dwarf? In Sangeron?”

Madam Cora arched a bushy, brown eyebrow at him, and I nearly fell to the floor laughing. Part of me felt sorry for him because he was somewhat right. While the Xaggarene Empire wasn’t known for its tolerance, there were still plenty of elves and angels within its borders. Dwarves, on the other hand, were known for not leaving The Kingdom of Emerell. They were an insular group that had no love of outsiders.

“Ye’ve a problem with dwarfs?”

Elbert shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’ve spent a good bit of time in The Kingdom of Emerell, and I’ve always found the dwarven folk to be quite hospitable.”

Madam Cora nodded as if she approved then turned back to me. “How’re you doing, Muhulda, dear? What can I get for you?”

“Some tea and cakes would be great,” I replied. “Seeing as how someone took me away from my breakfast.” I shot Elbert a look he couldn’t misinterpret.

“All right,” Madam Cora replied. “You two have a seat, and I’ll be back in a minute.”

We made our way to a table and settled down under an incandescent lamp. Elbert leaned forward, and I suddenly realized he was much younger than I had thought he was, much closer to my own age. What I’d assumed were wrinkles were, in fact, small scars. His eyes were a deep purply-yellow, as odd a color as I’d ever seen. His clothes looked like he’d pulled them out of a garbage bin, a weird mixture of sleeveless shirt tied in the front and trousers that looked like they were missing their lower half. His weapons were no joke, though. Knives ringed his belt and stuck from the top of his boots, and a chain with a heavy, spiked ball on the end hung at his side.

“What do you want from me?” I asked. “You’ve been following me around since last night.”

Elbert shook his head. “I’ve been following the ba’soray around for several days now, and it’s getting a little old.”

“Are those the demons with all the tongues?”

Elbert nodded. “I was sent because a nest of them was discovered near the dock.”

“But I thought most of the demons were in Moirena.”

“Most of them are, but these are more like animals than demons. They’re parasites without a lot of intelligence, in case you haven’t noticed. You can train a spitmoller easier than you can these things, and even the other demons try to eliminate them.”

“Where did they come from?” I wanted to know.

Elbert shrugged. “No idea. That’s why I spent most of yesterday evening drinking with them.”

“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “If they’re so unintelligent, how can they wander around drinking Melon Peckers and hitting Bleeding Grim?”

Madam Cora came with our food at that moment, and Elbert waited until she had gone to say more. He dug into the cakes she had brought like he hadn’t eaten in days.

“They have to be controlled by someone,” he said around a mouthful of cake. “The humans are hosts. That’s how they move around.” He took another bite. “That’s why I was with them last night. I was trying to get a lead on where they were going and who was controlling them.”

“Then maybe killing them wasn’t the brightest idea you ever had.”

He took a sip of tea and shrugged. “Maybe not, but you don’t want one getting its hands on you.” He gave me a smile. “It was a choice. I think, the right one.”

My tea and cakes remained untouched on the table in front of me. I picked up the cup and took a sip, grimacing because the tea was cool. “Well, I thank you for that, but what does any of this have to do with me?”

He scarfed down the last of his cake and eyed mine. I pushed it across the table and leaned back, waiting for him to get to the point.

“I asked you earlier why those things were after you.”

“And I told you earlier that I don’t know. I’ve never heard of them.” I leaned up and propped my arms on the table. “I serve drinks to a bunch of lowlifes and try to keep my sister out of my life. That’s the best I’ve got.”

“Friends? Lovers? Anyone who could haver a tie with these things?”

I shook my head. “Not unless it’s Bramwell. He’s the only person I ever see besides my sister.”

“And what am I, dear?” Madam Cora asked. “Some ghighet you stop by and feed?”

Neither one of us had noticed her approaching the table.

“No, Madam Cora. I just meant that I don’t socialize a lot.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Well. Would you like more tea?”

“Yes, please,” Elbert replied. He gave her a smile that melted the frown off her face and made my heart skip a beat.

Madam Cora shuffled back to the kitchen, and I turned back to Elbert. “Why would they want me? What do they usually hunt?”

“That’s the thing,” Elbert replied. “There’s no type that they prefer. They’ll go after whoever or whatever they’re sent after. So, who would want you eaten by a bunch of demons? Any enemies? Pissed off anyone lately?”

“Only my sister.”

“Would she do something like this?”

Fury bloomed in my chest like a blood stain on clothing. “How dare you.” I rose to my feet. “She may be a selfish, self-righteous, annoying bitch, but she wouldn’t hurt me. She’d be too worried about it damaging the family name.”

“Anyone else?” Elbert acted like accusing my sister of trying to kill me was nothing.

I plopped back into my seat and banged my hands on the table. “No.”

Elbert leaned forward and tried to place his hand over mine. I snatched it away. He sighed and leaned back just as Madam Cora placed a plate of cakes and a pot of tea on the table. Elbert helped himself and waited, as if I had more information and was hiding it.

“Tell me,” I said. “What’s the sword do? It came out of nowhere and disappeared.”

Elbert continued to eat, and I wondered when he’d eaten last. His bright red hair and tufty little beard were mussed from the fight, and I could see faded scars on his face and arms. He shrugged and took a sip of tea. “It’s the Varunastra of Varuna. It’s a magical weapon that can take any form. I’m partial to the sword, so that’s what it becomes most of the time.”

I leaned forward then, my interest piqued. “What else does it do?” If I could find out about the Shadow Walkers’ weapons, I could sell the story to the highest bidder, maybe even get a job at one of the newspapers, and get the hell out of the Steam Whisper.

Elbert set his tea down and looked at me with a strange expression on his face. “It does what it needs to do, and that’s all I can tell you.” He rose to his feet. “I’m going to see if I can track down the ba’soray. I suggest you stay inside as much as possible and give a lot of thought as to who wants you dead.” He laid some coin on the table and headed for the door.

I, too, rose and glanced at the coin on the table. It was more than enough to cover our cost, and I thought Madam Cora would appreciate the extra. I wanted to ask more, but he was gone before I could get the words out. Still, I had enough to get started on a good story, and I still had several hours before time for my shift at the Steam Whisper.

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk Vintage

I dressed and grabbed my parchment pad and cloak. There was a small park just a few blocks from my flat, and I hoped that being outside, even in the cold, would spark my writer’s instincts. Even better if I could see something that would make a story. A good one.

A steam carriage creaked by just as I was leaving. Steam belched from a stack over the engine, and a solitary man sat hunched and shivering on the driver’s seat. The curtains to the carriage were closed, and I idly wondered which of the city’s many hoity-toits was riding around town. Then I let the though pass as the bells from the Arcana Maximus rang the end of morning services. People would be filling the streets, all wrapped in their winter coats and scarves. Some would head straight home for dinner, while others would take time to stroll the parks and enjoy the crisp scent of fresh-fallen snow.

Walking to the park released some of my anger, and, by the time I got there, several others were strolling by the partially frozen creek. I found an empty bench and settled in to watch my fellow citizens.

An older couple wandered by. She wore a long dress with a flaring skirt and plenty of lace on the trim. The navy blue contrasted with her pale skin and made her look old and doughy. He, on the other hand, was a dapper older man in a dark suit and top hat. Watching him walk, I was pretty sure the cane he carried was more for effect than necessity. I smiled. The older citizens of Sangeron, the ones who held onto the ideas of class and culture, never ceased to amuse me. It was the same mindset my parents and sister had, and I often wondered if they realized just how pointless it really was.

From the other direction came a guy, younger than me by a few years. Hair the same deep blue as my own stuck up in all directions. A scar ran down his cheek, still pink and shining, and he wore a long-barreled pistol at his side. Bright eyes the brilliant yellow, so common in the demon races, shone with an eerie light, and I wondered just what he was doing there.

“It’d be a good source for an article.” I muttered the words under my breath and bent to my parchment to make notes.

A shadow fell over me, and I looked up to see the demon. He scowled, an expression that marred the fine lines of his face. From up close, he resembled those I’d see the night before, just younger. It wasn’t so much his facial features as it was the way he carried himself, the slightly ‘off’ look in his eyes.

“What do you want?”

He scowled again. “What’s say you let me show you the town?”

I rolled my eyes and stood, forcing him to back up. “What’s up with all the invites lately? You guys understand that I live here, right? I’ve seen the town.”

He growled, a low, deep-throated sound that vibrated in my blood. Fear inched its way up my spine and oozed into my nerves. I pulled my cloak around me as if I was cold and used the cover to pull the knife from my belt. Inwardly, I sighed. This sure felt like a repeat of the night before.

“Don’t be like that,” he said. “Just let me show you the town.” The more he spoke, the more I could tell that Lethatu wasn’t his first language. He spoke like he was trying to remember the words, like his tongue didn’t want to make the sounds.

I shifted so I could move away from the guy and sighed again. Now, I’m tall, but he towered over me, well over six feet, and I was tired of craning my neck to look up at him. “Look. I had two guys use the same line on me last night. I wasn’t interested then, and I’m not interested now. So, you guys just leave me alone and let me get on with my life.”

I walked away with a quickness. The guy’s boots crunching in the snow followed me. I cursed and turned, ready to fight for my life, but someone else stepped between him and me. I cursed again when I realized it was Elbert. Why the hell was the Shadow Walker following me? How’d he known I would be here?

“You really don’t wanna do that.” His voice had a slow drawl to it, one I’d never heard before, and I wondered if he came from Corleon or Moirena, somewhere not here.

The demon thing mumbled a little, his words mangled by the tongues in his mouth, and Elbert laughed.

“Tough shit. Walk away, and you live. Stick around, and you die. It’s that simple.”

The demon muttered something else and lunged for Elbert. I’m ashamed to say that a girly scream escaped my lips, but I quickly swallowed it. I backed away and let Elbert deal with the creature. I had other things to do, after all, and I had no desire to get mixed up with the Shadow Walkers, no matter how tight their bums were or how gracefully they moved. I could just imagine Matilda’s high-pitched, high-falutin voice telling me how much Shadow Walkers were beneath us with their crass ways and base social functions. I mean, really, they fought monsters, of all things. How gauche.

Elbert looked to be holding his own, so I headed out of the park. I’d really wanted to spend some time writing, but the demon thing with a mouth full of tentacles prevented that. So, I headed toward a nearby café instead. Maybe there I could focus on what I wanted to do without interruption.

 

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk Vintage

I turned and made my way back down the alley and onto the next street. I hadn’t realized just how tense I had been until I felt my shoulders relax in the warm glow of the gas lamps. I was only a few blocks from home, and the proximity gave me a sense of safety, real or not.

I was just turning my key in the lock of my flat when I heard boots thudding on the cobbles. I turned, ready to attack if need be, then sighed when I realized it was the Shadow Walker. “Look,” I said when he got close enough to hear me. “I’m tired, and I’m cold, and it’s been one bitch of an evening. Can whatever you have to say wait until the light shines?”

He nodded and gave me a small smile. “Yeah, but I need to know where to find you. There’s something not right about those guys, and I need to figure out what it is.”

“You mean, besides tentacles shooting from their mouths?” I sighed again and nodded. “Fine. Where will you be mid-morning? I’ll come to you.”

“I’ll be at the Shadow Walker guild hall,” he replied. “My name’s Elbert. Elbert Simmons.”

“All right, Elbert Simmons. I’ll come in the morning. Now, good night.” And, with that, I left him standing on the doorstep as the snow began to fall in earnest.

 

*****

 

I awoke the next morning to a light covering of snow over the city. I had to admit that Sangeron covered in snow was a beautiful sight, even this part of town, which wasn’t the poshest. Still, though, it was enough to make me regret telling Elbert Simmons that I would meet with him, so I decided that whatever it was he wanted could wait and curled up with a parchment pad and a cup of hot cocoa instead.

I was halfway through writing an article I wanted to submit to the city’s paper when a knock at my door interrupted my thoughts.

“Dammit.”

I placed the pad on the small table beside my chair and shuffled to the door. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy about the intrusion and had a good feeling I knew who was going to be standing on the other side of the door. I had no desire to see the Shadow Walker, no desire to get involved in whatever it was that was going on.

I opened the door and cursed again. I was wrong. It wasn’t Elbert standing on my doorstep. It was worse. Far worse.

“It’s freezing out here. Let me in.”

I sighed and stepped back from the door. The woman brushed by me without so much as a glance, her fur scarf slapping me in the face as she passed.

“Shut the door. I don’t want anyone to see me here.”

I sighed again and closed the door. By this time the woman was in my parlor in my chair and reading the article I’d been working on. I marveled at how quickly she could intrude.

“Are you seriously still working on this drivel? Come on, Mully, you’re never going to make is as a writer. Just come work with me and Rupert and do something more appropriate for our station.” She looked around the room at the worn furniture and the faded wallpaper. “I mean, really…” She waved her hand at the parlor. “This is so beneath you.”

I reached around her and grabbed my cup, one of the few delicate pieces I owned. “I know, Matilda. You tell me this at least once a week.”

My sister, twin, to make things even worse, rolled her eyes at me and plopped herself into my favorite chair. She slung her scarf over her shoulder in that annoyingly pompous way she had and crossed her legs. She dangled a delicate heel and examined long, polished fingernails. I glanced at my own gnawed ones for a moment, then crossed my arms and stood tapping my foot.

“What do you want, Matilda? Why are you here?”

Matilda looked up at me with the same magenta eyes I saw in the mirror every morning. “All right. Look. Rupert has an opening for a secretary. It’s not a glamourous job, but it’s better than the one you’re working now. I mean, come on, having my twin sister work at the Steam Whisper is embarrassing.” She sniffed and patted her hair. “The job won’t be hard. All you’ll do is check in the patients and take their money. Rupert and I take care of the biotics.”

Anger seethed in my gut, and I nearly choked myself trying to swallow it. Why in the hell Matilda had followed me all the way to Sangeron, I’d never know. All I’d wanted was a little peace from the expectations of my hoity-toity family and a chance to pursue my own dreams.
“What’s it to you?”

Matilda rose, every movement designed to keep my attention on her. “It’s simple. We look alike.” She took a step toward me, and it was all I could do not to punch her in the face. “Same hair, same eyes. I get tired of being mistaken for a serving wench in a tavern.”

I took a step back and clenched my fists. “Then dye your hair or something.”

Matilda laughed, a sound that had never failed to get on my nerves. “Why don’t you dye yours?”

“Because I’m not the one with the issue. You are.” I stomped toward the front door without looking to see if Matilda followed me. “Now, I’ve got things to do. You and Rupert can live your own lives and leave me alone to do the same.” I opened the door and shivered in a blast of cold air. “Go.”

Matilda rolled her eyes again and looked at me like I was a ghighet in her trash, then she sauntered out into the snow without looking back. I slammed the door behind her and let off a string of curses that I was sure left a visible cloud in my flat, then I returned to my parlor and tried to get back to my article.

No luck. A low boil of anger and hatred burned within me. My sister had been the bain of my existence since the day we were born. Always wanting to please, always wanting to raise her station, she’d pushed and prodded me to the point that my job at the Steam Whisper was far preferable to anything Matilda had to offer.

 

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk Vintage

Once outside, I pulled my cloak around me and huddled against the breeze. It was quieter than inside, but not by much. Sangeron had always been a town that didn’t sleep, and, in this neighborhood, calls from the ladies of the evening went on until the light shone. Then there was the music coming from the burlesque houses, where shows ran until four hours after midnight, and the drunken tavern goers who always seemed to have a song to sing on their walk home.

I sped my steps as icy wind funneled through the narrow street. Its needles pierced my cloak, and I cursed Bramwell for his insistence on the burlesque-style uniform he insisted we girls wear. Oh, it was mostly respectable—the operative word being ‘mostly’—but in the middle of the cold months the thigh high boots were the only part of the outfit that offered any warmth.

I turned down an alley and took a deep breath. The buildings hunched over me like toads squatting in a squalid pond, and I shuddered at their weathered boards and rusting metal. This was nothing like the small cottages I’d known in my youth in Waterford Down, and part of me wanted to say to hell with it and head back there. At least there, I would be warm and could find what my mother would call a ‘respectable’ occupation. Yeah. Right. In her mind that meant a husband and a gazillion brats constantly under foot. No thank you. Still, the thought of comfort was a strong draw, and I often had to remind myself that I’d left so I could be my own person.

I was nearing the end of the alley when the sound of boots on cobbles caught my attention. I cursed myself for letting my mind wander and hurried to the next street. Even the watery light from the gas lamps was better than the gloom of the alley. At least in the street, I had a chance of fighting back.

“You done with that generator yet?”

I sighed and pretended like I didn’t hear. I recognized the voice as the biotic in the tavern, and I still wanted nothing to do with him.

“Hey, bitch.”

Now, his words were clear. The Bleeding Grim must’ve worn off. I hesitated, trying to decide if I wanted the hassle of dealing with him, for I was close to home, such as it was.

“I’m talking to you.”

His voice echoed in the closed space, and I could hear other booted feet join him. Three against one wasn’t good odds, and the gods knew I had little chance of getting away from them. Still, though, better to face them on my terms than on theirs.

“I heard you the first time,” I replied. “And, no, I’m not through with the generator. It’ll take some time, just like always.”

He closed the distance between us quickly, his long legs taking one step to every two of mine, and grabbed my arm. He leaned in close. The sickly-sweet smell of the Melon Peckers gagged me, but I swallowed hard and kept from vomiting. Let him think it was fear I swallowed against.

“What is it with you bitches that you think you’re too good for the likes of us? What’ve we ever done to you?” he snarled. His teeth were yellowed and decaying, and I idly wondered why. I mean, if he could replace half his body with biotics, why couldn’t he do something as simple as see a mouth physician and have his teeth fixed?

I snatched my arm out of his grasp and pulled my cloak more tightly around myself. I used the movement to pull the dagger from an inside pocket and held it ready. “I don’t think I’m too good for you. I think I’ve got better things to do. Sweet cheeks, you could be the prince of E’ma Thalas, and I still wouldn’t want to see the town with you. Got me?”

He looked confused for a moment, like he was trying to work out what I’d said, then he snarled again and reached for my arm. This time I was ready, and I slashed at him, not enough to do any real damage, but enough to let him know I wasn’t playing around. The blade grazed the skin of his good arm, and he howled like a toddler wanting sweets. He backed away with anger flaring in eyes a bit too green, and I let my own rage show.

I could feel my blood racing through my body, and my vision took on the reddish tinge it always had when I was angry. If the bastard didn’t back off soon, he was going to have a worse night than he was already having.

“Hey, Ruger.”

The man with the piercing had come into the alley and now stood with his arms crossed on his chest. The other friend, the one with the head plate, stood beside him with a matching snarl and flexed his muscles. I shook my head and sighed. Men.

Ruger snarled and whirled, and tentacles shot forth from his mouth. I gasped, nearly screamed, and almost tripped over some rotting vegetables as I tried to back away. Now, my thundering heart was from fear, and that was one thing I couldn’t tolerate.

The pierced guy grabbed one of the tentacles and yanked, and Ruger stumbled forward onto his knees. The other guy turned and shot tentacles from his mouth as well, but the pierced guy just slapped them away. He seemed resigned to the way this was going to play out, and I could’ve sworn I heard him sigh.

A golden glow surrounded him, and for a moment I could see all of the alley, all of the garbage piled around the bin, and it seemed to make the stench that much stronger. I coughed and held my nose, then the odor faded from my mind as a glowing sword appeared in his hands. My mouth dropped open, and I stared for a moment. “Shadow Walker.” Then he began to move, and I was lost.

His body was pure grace and fluidity. I could barely keep track of the individual motions, so smoothly did they flow together. Ruger shot forth more tentacles, and the pierced guy slashed them in one motion that began in his shoulder and flowed down his arm. Ruger screamed, a strangled sound like someone sinking beneath the rapids of the Crystalhand River, but the Shadow Walker simply continued his movement and slit his throat. Black ichor fountained from the wound, and the other creature howled as if it had been him who was wounded. But the Shadow Walker didn’t leave him out. He, too, lost his tentacles and his life, and the alley was soon filled with the stench of demon death.

Another glow surrounded the Shadow Walker, this one much dimmer than the first, and the sword was gone. The Shadow Walker seemed to disappear for a moment, and I stared into the darkness, now much deeper because of the light, but I couldn’t see any sign of him. A moment later, he appeared before me, and I jumped back, my own weapon raised.

“It’s all right,” he said. He gave me an appraising look that made my cheeks burn then looked back up at me. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”

I shook my head and tried to untangle a tongue that suddenly seemed to big for my mouth. “I’m fine. Thank you.” I looked at the bodies on the ground. “What were they?”

The Shadow Walker sighed. “Demons,” he replied. “Though why they’re here, I don’t know.”

“I figured they were demons,” I replied. “I meant which kind? We don’t get too many of the non-humans in the Xaggarene Empire.” I shrugged. “Not out in public anyway.”

“I know. That’s what makes their presence here so disturbing.” He ran his hand through hair the color of autumn wheat. “It’s not like there are never non-humans here, but demons are a little less tolerated than everyone else. Most of them steer clear, especially of Sangeron.” He paused for a moment. “Or they stay in the sewers out of sight.” The Shadow Walker waved toward the north of town where the emperor’s palace sat on a slight hill. “With His Worship so near, it just isn’t safe for them.”

The temperature was dropping, and I felt the first snowflake fall onto my face. I was freezing in the short skirt I was forced to wear for work and wanted to get home and put on warmer clothing.

“Well, thanks for the rescue,” I said. “I really need to be going.”

He nodded then gave me a quizzical look. “They seemed particularly interested in you. Why?”

I shrugged and gave him a humorless grin. “Couldn’t tell you. Maybe because I’m young and nubile? Who knows?”

He nodded, but the look of consternation didn’t leave his face.

“Well, good night.”

 

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageMuhulda Urswyk is a reporter in the Xaggarene Empire, usually from Sangeron. She claims to have an inside path to the emperor and has a hatred for the Shadow Walkers. She owns and runs The Lock and Key, a publication that spews her particular form of bile (though I haven’t put one out in a while).

I’d meant for Muhulda to put out an edition every month, but time has gotten away from me, and, for some reason, my ability to organize my time has gone the way of the dodo.

I was in the process of creating another edition of The Lock and Key when it dawned on me that I had no idea why Muhulda hated the Shadow Walkers so much. Sure, there are plenty of people in the Xaggarene Empire with prejudice against those of magical blood, but that, alone, didn’t explain it. Not to the extent that she hates this group.

The solution?

Write a story about why Muhulda hates Shadow Walkers.

Below is a snippet from the story. Feel free to comment and make suggestions.

Best wishes!

Lissa Dobbs

http://www.lissadobbs.com

 

 

The tavern was loud, as usual. I carried yet another tray of Melon Peckers to yet another group of reprobates who had nothing better to do than drink and smoke and pump Bleeding Grim into their brains. If they had brains, that is. I wasn’t sure. They surely didn’t act like it.

“Hey, beautiful, wanna let me show you the town?” His words tangled in his mouth and came out in a mush that I only understood because I’d heard it so often.

“Not tonight, darling. I’ve got to fill the generator.” A classic, cliched line, I knew, but, hell, even if he wasn’t scruffy, half biotic, and drunk off his ass, I still wouldn’t want to let him touch me.

“Aw, come now. Give my buddy a break. He’s done had his heart broke.” This one wasn’t any better. A metal plate covered one side of his head, and a lens had replaced his left eye. I could see wires running from the back of his head down into his shirt, and I wondered what other parts he’d had replaced with metal. He was more human than his friend—whose entire right side appeared to be mechanical—but I’d already brought him three hits of Bleeding Grim, and that was since middle night.

“I wish I could, but the mister’s waiting at home, and he wouldn’t take too kindly to it.” This was a lie, of course. There was no mister, and there wasn’t likely to be one, but I couldn’t let him know that.

“Leave her alone, guys.” This was the third one of the bunch. He’d consumed far less than his buddies, and his only alteration was a ring in his nose that connected by chain to a stud in his ear. He had a tattoo on his cheek of some kind of symbol, I wasn’t sure what, but, otherwise, he looked nearly respectable.

I mouthed a thank you and high-tailed myself back to the bar. It was almost quitting time, and I was ready to leave. Heck, I was always ready to get out of the place, and I hated myself for having to be there to start with. It wasn’t what I’d wanted to do, and it sure as hell wasn’t what I had spent four years in University for.

I set my tray on the bar and gave the place a look. The brazier still glowed a healthy orange, so I knew it had plenty of coal. The floors were mostly clean, and the oil lamps on the tables still flickered. Fans twirled lazily overhead, more to dissipate the smoke from smoke sticks than to cool, and no one had knocked the armor off the wall tonight. Even the sword, supposedly dating back to the days of the first emperor, Arronax Billinghurst, had been left alone. A good night in the eyes of the Steam Whisper.

“Muhulda, you stayin’ or goin’?” asked the barkeep, who also happened to be the owner. He was an ass most of the time, but, every once in a while, some vestige of a decent person shone through.

“I’m going,” I replied. I glanced back at the table I had just served. “I’ve had enough for one night.”

Bramwell nodded once and didn’t say more, and I took my chance and skedaddled before he had a chance to change his mind.

 

Muhulda Urswyk – Unlock the Truth

Muhulda Urswyk VintageI recently had the, ehem, honor of interviewing Shadow Walker Arianna Henderson. I’ll have to say that it was an eye-opener. Read the full interview below.

 

Muhulda: Good morning, Arianna. I’ve heard you’ve just returned from a tour on the Greydawn Spirit. Can you tell me what it’s like to travel the void?

Arianna: Well, it’s big and gray and full of void serpents. What else do you wanna know?

Muhulda: I’d like to know why the Shadow Walker guild employs ships and people to patrol out there. What do you do? How is the expense justified?

Arianna: Well, the expense is for the Shadow Walker guild to worry about. As to the why? (Arianna leans forward. There’s a glint in her eyes that this reporter can only interpret as madness.) How would you feel if a hundred-foot serpent with poisoned fangs that could possibly breathe fire came flying over Sangeron right now and leveled half the buildings?

Muhulda: I don’t think I’d like that very much. But isn’t protecting our borders, both from within and without, the job of the military?

Arianna: (She leans back and crosses her arms at this point.) Don’t you think they have enough to worry about? And how far out into the void do you think they go?

Muhulda: I would think they would stay close to the borders.

Arianna: (Her eyes light up, and she again looks mad.) Precisely. They stick near the border. We go further out. You have no idea what’s out there, what could be coming for us at any moment.

Muhulda: And what, exactly, is coming for us? This sounds like some kind of bizarre conspiracy to me.

(Arianna laughs at this point, and it makes this reporter’s skin crawl. There’s no doubt that this woman is stark raving loonies. Is this the kind of people the Shadow Walkers regularly recruit?)

Arianna: Sweet cheeks, you can sit there and judge me all you want, but, let me tell you, if a swarm of pixie mites got through to the Xaggarene Empire, most people would be dead before they knew what was happening.

Muhulda: And what’s a pixie mite? (I had to chuckle here, for the concept was simply ridiculous.)

Arianna: It’s this tiny little spirit that looks like a pixie. The thing is, though, when it touches you, it sucks out your life force before you can do anything about it.

Muhulda: You don’t look like you’ve had your life force, in your words, ‘sucked out.’

(Again, that laugh.)

Arianna: Of course not. I know how to fight them.

Muhulda: And how, exactly, do you fight them? Do you use poison? They sound like bugs.

Arianna: I use a sword. Others use their magic or their weapons from the gods.

Muhulda: A sword? But I thought all Shadow Walkers had weapons. Why would you need a sword instead?

Arianna: Because my ‘weapon’ isn’t one. I carry the Cauldron of Plenty from the Dagda. It gives me the power to heal. I don’t use it to fight.

Muhulda: So, the Shadow Walkers don’t use physicians?

Arianna: Of course we do. I can’t be everywhere at once. Now, if it’s life-threatening, then I’m the one who deals with the injury, but I don’t handle the lighter stuff. I don’t have the energy.

Muhulda: So, there’s a limit to the amount of power a Shadow Walker has?

Arianna: Well, yeah. Did you really think we were made into some all-powerful, invincible people? Really? We’re just normal people who’ve been given a gift and chose to use it. That’s it.

Muhulda: And how do think Barnabas Merriweather does with running the guild? Does he train the new recruits? Does he make sure those who are supposed to ‘protect us’ are competent?

Arianna: He’s great. He has a lot on him, but he does it all. (She leans forward again, and this reporter can’t help backing up a little. There is something too uncanny about that glint in her eyes.) We get training, and there’s the school, after all. New Shadow Walkers who come to us can take classes there even if they’re adults. Others have learned on their own. (She shrugs.) It works.

Muhulda: And when will you head back out into the void?

Arianna: I’m not sure. I have another mission down in Freywater for a bit, then I’m sure I’ll be back out there. I love it. Sure, it gets a little dull sometimes with all the endless gray, but the creatures that come out of it keep me hopping. I like that.

Muhulda: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the Shadow Walkers?

Arianna: Is there anything else you’d like to know?

Muhulda: No. No. I think that’s all for now.

Arianna: All right, then.

(The woman stands and tosses her hair, which is candy pink, over her shoulder. She sashays out of the office and winks at me from the door. This reporter must admit to being terrified. This woman is obviously insane and should be locked in Josephus Halidon’s Home for the Insane and Destitute. Why she’s allowed to interact with normal, decent folk, I’ll never know, but something needs to be done to ensure that these Shadow Walkers are upstanding citizens.)

 

http://www.lissadobbs.com