“Look, I don’t care who you know,” the seven-foot constructed bellows at me, straining his facial stitching, “you can’t come in here with a prisoner!”
His sewn-together face is a waxy green under the many gaslights of Industry that flicker up the shallow slope behind me to the base of the Damsels’ Drop. Mismatched eyes glower down at me and Lonnie, whom I’ve got in a half-nelson and who has degenerated to spouting horrible-sounding syllables in an alien tongue, with only an occasional flailing of limbs to indicate that he’d rather be elsewhere.
“Especially not that one,” he finishes, crossing his borrowed arms.
“Look, just send someone into the Club,” I accent the word heavily, “and have them ask for Lord Culnor. You’ll find that he’s actually quite keen on seeing me.”
Not that it’s any great surprise, given the rest of my night, but gaining entry to the Geinodes Club is not going smoothly. Between the Falkoj crashing down and rumors that some idiot let loose an air elemental on the Damsel’s Drop, the doorman outside the Lunatic Fringe is giving me hells. I could take him out without losing my grip on Lonnie, but that’s not the point. That isn’t How Things Are Done when it comes to the Geinodes Club, not even at the Lunar Entrance. There are standards.
Lonnie squirms in my grip as I try to sound reasonable. “I am sorry about jumping the line,” I offer, “but this is kind of important.”
One green and one blue eye narrow. “Pal, what’s important is that you get the hells off of my doorstep before I screw your head off and get me some replacement parts. I could use a new jawbone; this one’s getting a little mealy. Yours ain’t much to look at, but it’s square enough to work.”
Sandards be damned, there are courtesies, too. Headbutting this guy into next week is looking more and more tempting when I catch an acrid scent, quickly masked by perfume and pheromones so thick you can chew them. Involuntarily, something twitches in my groin. A hand slides its way across the constructed’s bare chest from behind, tracing the long stitch running from his hip to his shoulder. Exquisitely-painted nails dig in ever so slightly, and I see the reanimated man shudder.
“Oh, but Bexton,” the voice drips, “Jaspar would look ever so much less handsome minus that adorably square jaw of his.”
The constructed is held rapt for a moment, until the hand leaves his flesh as its owner slinks into sight from behind his bulk. “S-sorry, Melina,” he trembles. “I didn’t know--”
Her eyes lock onto mine, drinking up the rest of the world. They are red, with slitted pupils like a cat’s. “Oh, of course you didn’t,” she moans, making a gasping chirp at the end, as if someone had just touched her somewhere that she hadn’t expected, but quite enjoyed. I feel the twitch grow into more of a throb. “But pleeease, let Mr. Fellthorn come, and enjoy himself fully inside.”
It’s the way she pauses as she says it, the exact choice of words she makes with her perfect lips... my mind goes to some very un-hallowed places. I tear my gaze away from the plunging neckline of her barely-there and wholly scandalous black dress, ignoring the way her ruby lipstick is smudged at the corner of her mouth, as if she’d just been working that mouth up and down--
“Melina,” I grit my teeth. “So good to see you.”
She giggles in delight, sliding herself up next to me to grasp my arm at the elbow in a strange parody of a man escorting a woman. We must make quite the sight: her perfect sexuality, my battle-torn grime, and Fat Lonnie wedged on my opposite side like a meaty accessory. We glide past the doorman--well, Melina glides, and I grunt and drag my prisoner--and sink into the shadows of the Lunatic Fringe.
It’s like plunging into a cool bath: the darkness is palpable, dense enough to bottle and sell to tortured adolescents, and completely shuts out the noise of Industry behind us. Even scents fade away, leaving behind only Melina’s cinnamon perfumes. A staccato beat pulses through the darkness and into me as we walk down the long, carpeted hallway. It’s impossible to see anything but the glow of the concealed lighting that runs alongside the carpet, a redness that trickles into perception just far enough to allow you to see your own feet. Far ahead are the heavy curtains theat separate us from the Lunatic Fringe. A faint image of a red moon glows across their front.
Every nerve on my left side is tingling, and the state of my groin is making walking more of a chore than usual. Got to focus on something, because my body is well on its way to making some terminally poor decisions.
I choke out some words. “Nice to see you, Melina. How’s business been?”
She laughs carelessly, sliding her hand up my bare arm. Gooseflesh erupts in its wake. “Oh, good all around. I’m breaking in a pair of twins lately; a little light between the ears, but they can do the most amazing things with their tongues...” I hear a rustle from somewhere down, and keep my eyes fixed ahead. I’m pretty sure I know where that other hand went.
“Mmm,” her sigh confirms. I hear a wet sound: a tongue running over sumptuous lips. “Looking forward to continuing their education. Those boys are so eager to please. Care to watch?”
My throat tightens, and I cough to clear it. “Sorry, maybe next time. I’ve got other business here tonight.” Watching Melina break in her newest concubines--can men be concubines?--would be educational, but not the kind of knowledge I need right now.
Good. Staying focused.
“Not with that slut Ashara, I hope?” She almost hisses. “I’d feel extremely jealous, especially after I just slid you in past Bexton back there.”
I cock my head, intrigued. “The Lady of Mystery? Melina, it’s not like you to give away your hand like that. Been having unwelcome competition?”
“Oh, nothing I can’t handle,” she assures me. “But one or two of my regulars haven’t been around in a while. Good customers. One of them was always so imaginative with a riding crop...” She sighs. “I miss him so.”
I snort. “And his coin-purse.”
“And his cock, Fellthorn. You should know better.” The flirtation is gone from her voice, replaced by something more dangerous: uncertainty.
“I do,” I reply carefully. “I wasn’t sure I’d have such a warm reception, considering.”
I feel her shrug imperceptibly. “You can keep a secret.”
“Every secret has its price,” It spills out unbidden, without me thinking, and I regret it immediately. But of course, Melina knows that, too.
“Yes,” she sighs, “your little Club’s motto, no? Well then, consider me grateful that you haven’t found a buyer yet. You haven’t been looking very hard, from what I hear.”
“For a society of secrets, some of them certainly aren’t kept very well.”
“I have many ways of learning secrets, Fellthorn,” she says, and several of them flash unbidden to my mind. “One that I’ve not been able to uncover is why mine is still kept. Particularly given your penchant for slaughtering my brethren whenever you have the opportunity--or whenever you can manufacture one.” She sniffs daintily. “If I’m not mistaken, I smell their blood on you even now.”
I swallow, and keep walking. Melina won’t attack me--her kind aren't the type to go for open confrontation--but I’m not at my best, and her little insinuations are having more than their usual effect. I’m sure she’s well aware that I’m as hard as a tree trunk: hatchling ichor isn’t the only thing a succubus can smell. Succumbing to her charms would be a wonderful way to ensure that her secrets got kept... permanently.
“I’m sworn to fight the Crawling Ones, yes,” I answer, with a bit more care. “And you’re certainly no angel.” She laughs, but a little uneasily to my ear. “But you’re also not quite the devil that you could be. There aren’t too many innocents, down here in Industry. You want to swallow up a few of the Captains of Industry every now and then to satisfy those... appetites? That’s almost a public service.”
“They aren’t all Captains, Fellthorn. Some of them are maybe the sort your lot likes to take in and keep warm. Your parishoners, even.”
I shudder. I’m not exactly sure how it all works--the texts are rather squeamish on the details--but a succubus’s methods of feeding definitely belies her sultry demeanor. “Why are you telling me this?”
We’re to the doorway into the Fringe proper, and the beat has a moaning undertone to it that does nothing to ease the feeling between my legs. The darkness parts slightly, and I can see her face, framed by her indigo hair. Her red eyes glow with concern.
“I want to know where I stand, church man. You going to put the word out on me when you hear about someone a little too pure who heads straight from my bechambers to the Crawling Lands?” She spits the word like the meaningless aphorism it is, in her world.
I sigh. “We’d all like to know where we stand, insect girl. Let me make it real simple for you: if I come for you, your secret getting out will be the least of your worries. So keep on doing what you’re doing, and we’ll see how that goes.”
She gives me a long look. Then she smiles, eyes not leaving mine. Her smile widens, spreading across her whole face with a look of delight. She hops back, and grabs the bottom of her skirt with both hands, like for all the world a happy little schoolgirl. She squeals: “I think you liiiiiike me!” She claps her hands together excitedly. “I think you like-like me!”
Dammit, my grin flashes before I can even help myself. I don’t even know what I say, something stupid, and she’s suddenly pressed up against me, lips very close to mine. I’ve lost track of Lonnie; my hands are on her hips as she grinds her pelvis up into my cock. Pleasure shoots through me; I can feel her all the way down to my toes.
“Not everyone who beds me regrets it, Fellthorn.” Her voice is low, and her breath smells of cinnamon. I can’t move; no, I won’t move, even though a distant part of my brain is screaming my own bloody murder at me. Her hands around my neck, she arches her back, tilting her head away from me and pressing her breasts into my chest. Her dress is nothing, and I feel her nipples slide across--
With an inhuman hiss, she leaps away from me into a half-crouch. A smell: burnt meat. Her cheeks bulge out with black mandibles that click together in front of her teeth; her red eyes have gone multifaceted, distending her face into something alien. A warmth, on my chest... the symbol of Sayn Ieander around my neck is glowing white-hot! I feel it only faintly, but as she backs farther away, I see how the symbol has burnt itself into her, leaving a charred cogwheel imprinted between her breasts.
We both swear in unison. I shake my head, cursing my stupidity, and snag Lonnie with one hand while keeping an eye on Melina. Sure, succubi don’t tend to go for out-and-out violence... but it looks like that probably hurt.
Instead, she’s laughing. With a ripple, her blackened flesh smooths out and her face returns to its pristine countenance. She doesn’t come any closer, but the teeth she’s showing me are all pretty smiles.
“Oh, church man... you’re none of you immune. You’ve just got more attention from the Man downstairs.” She turns and lifts the curtain into the Fringe, dress somehow pulling up of its own volition to show off the tiniest sliver of cheek. The look she gives me is exactly the one she’d have if her face were buried to the hilt between my legs. “Not all of us from the Crawling Lands have the same idea about our duties here on your world. Offer’s still good. Hells, keep your little wheel on if you like. If that’s the worst your God can do, well, maybe you could fill in for my dear, missing Rodrigan, no riding crop necessary. You know where to find me...”
She steps out into the club, and it swallows her whole.
I shake my head, cursing myself again as I pull Lonnie through the curtains after her. That nearly ended up... how? What, exactly, would have happened, had I just let myself go? Lord knows it’s been a while... I took my vows over five years ago. And while celibacy is more a Church thing than a God thing--near as this sinner can tell, anyway--I’ve honored it. What would’ve...?
Lonnie is staring at me, black eyes unreadable. “You’d have escaped us, Fellthorn,” he answers. “She’d have taken you, drawn you up body and spirit inside her to feed her unborn, and you would never get to find out what we’re doing this very moment to your precious little C-urgk!”
My arm is an iron bar across his throat as I slam him up against the black velour wall of the Fringe, and Jorngnir is sword-sized and a hair’s breadth from that black eyeball, unwavering. Several person-shaped holes appear in the air nearby, evacuated by formerly-dancing occupants perhaps off-put by a sword whose surface area is best measured in square feet.
“You don’t say her name, filth,” I snarl. “You’re lying. I know better than to trust demons, and I know--”
Whatever it is I know gets lost in another coughing fit. I spit more blood; I’m sure someone here must have a taste for it, if they’re not too picky about eating off of the floor. My vision swims--God, I must’ve made it here on adrenaline; now I just feel empty. I dry heave violently, and waves of pain radiate out from my intestines. Oh, God... this isn’t...
The thing behind Lonnie’s eyes is watching me, impassively; the black eyes stare out unblinking over his still-bloody face.
“Sweet Cerupeen! Mother of Mercy, Fellthorn, we’d heard you were here!”
A pair of hands pulls me up, firmly but gently. Another set steadies me from behind. My blurry vision can just barely make out a hirsute man in a bowler hat and black armbands like a bartender would wear, and a severe-looking wisp of a man with an undertaker’s coat and gray skin.
“Tanner, Count,” I mumble. “Top of the morning...”
Things get a little confusing. Hands pull me along; I flail. “Don’t forget... prisoner...”. Someone gets too close, and the little gray man known as the Count blurs, and then that someone goes flying through the air over the obsidian bar. Tanner winces as dozens of bottles of expensive whiskies shatter, dumping their much-beloved cargo onto the floor.
Woo. Fumes plus delirium equals... probably not actually an elephant; what the hell was in those--ooh, a pony! I’m carried through throngs of people--well, basically people--who are all swimming through tapioca and pink brandy with skimmer the vorp whipple...
It goes like that. The Fringe is always a psychedelic experience, with its pumping rhythms and ever-swirling light show, but this time it's making a special effort on my behalf. I think I lose consciousness at some point, though not enough to avoid feeling several well-intentioned slaps in the face from the Count. They hurt a lot more than you’d expect from someone so skinny. “Hey now, none of that,” he lisps. “You’re not quite ready for that trip yet, young son.”
The noise fades after a while, and the light changes quality. “Hold his head,” comes a familiar voice. A face wavers in front of my eyes.
“Sorry, m’boy,” comes the fatherly murmur. “This is going to hurt like a bastard.”
Something pours down my throat, and the voice is not wrong. It’s exactly like drinking a bolt of lightning. Little explosions of pain blossom in my mouth and down into my belly. An electric surge ricochets around my stomach, and my howl has a reverberation, as if I am screaming with a dozen voices. Something crackling happens inside me; I feel things move around down there, tissues sliding over one another and back together again. I’m just starting to worry about what’s going to happen when this shit makes it all the way through my digestive tract when it fizzles out.
I belch, emitting a tiny crackle and a puff of smoke.
“Lord Culnor,” I wheeze. “Please make a note never to save my life again.”
“Nonsense, m’boy!” An arm possessed of more meat than the Count has on his entire wiry body wraps around my shoulders and gently lifts me upright. Lord Barrick Culnor squints through his monocular at me, and I see a giant eye blink across its lens, an inch off of his face. “Your father would come back from the dead, murder me, and then rail at me throughout all of Eternity! May our dear Lord spare me such a fate; I listened to enough of the man’s ranting while he was alive.”
He takes a step back, causing Tanner and the Count to scramble hastily out of his way, and casts his eyes respectfully downward. “May God keep his spirit.”
I take a look around, wondering briefly at Culnor's quaint way with words. Probably something he got out of one of these books. We’re in one of the Geinodes Club’s many private libraries, probably one of the dozens owned by Lord Culnor. Books of all manner of dark provenance line six of the walls and lay all across the central table on which I’d been deposited. A map of the world covered with pushpins and colored twine dominates the last wall, its ceremonial position letting me know the direction of True North. The map stretches all the way to the ornately wood-paneled ceiling, a good twenty feet tall, and someone has been scrawling all over it with a wax pencil. The room is well-lit by electric torches and the glow of some infernal engine of Culnor’s in one of the corners. It sparks periodically with an acrid puff of ozone, and I glare at it for a moment, suspecting it to be the origin of whatever hellish potion I just imbibed.
Culnor is looking at me expectantly, and I wave the sign of the star at him, wearily tossing out the more traditional: “May God rest his soul. Wherever it is.”
“Now, lad, don’t be that way. The Lord wouldn't let as devoted a follower as Mernick Fellthorn out of His sight for long."
“If only to make sure he didn’t get bored and wander off,” I shake my head, sliding down off of the table and onto my feet. My body feels good, solid. Whatever my father’s old adventuring companion gave me, it worked. “He was never one to stick around anywhere for long, much less forever.” I wave at the map. “How many of those trips are his?”
Culnor is frowning at me. A frown from a man that big requires added musculature: his face muscles have sprouted extra muscles just to get them into position. He could tear Bexton back into his constituent body parts without an iota of perspiration. The crags in his brow as I casually dismiss his dead friend would rightfully worry another man, but not me: Culnor has been more of a father to me than my old man ever was.
His eyes don’t even flicker towards the map. “All of them,” he growls. “Your father’s explorations put details on maps like this one that had never existed before.” His look softens. “I’ve been making a study of them, lately.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Revisiting history isn’t like you. What’s torn you away from your workbench? Wife number four giving you heartache?”
“Wife number six, boy,” he leers. “The new one’s a mite younger than you, I’ll wager. Blonde thing, amazing curves. Bit of a natter; at least at the Club I can get some peace. Did you know the Librarians were considering admitting women? By God, I’ll have to find the seventh Lady Culnor!” He sighs. “They just don’t last like they used to. Costs me more and more to pay them off, but I’ve got more than I need.”
I frown at him. “And the Church blesses all of this?”
He sighs. “The Church isn’t always what it would have you believe, m’boy. You don’t go in for half its nonsense, I know that, so don’t give an old man grief for his few remaining pleasures. Certainly your High Fathers don’t, when I donate enough coin to their personal coffers.”
I snort. “I’d say something about your heresies if I could do it with a straight face. Not a surprise.” I make the sign of the star again, but a bit more reverently. “May He show us His way, and guide those who are wandering. Speaking of,” I gesture to the many voyages depicted on Culnor’s map, “you were about to tell me a tale about reliving the past?”
He smiles at me, but it lacks the warmth I am used to. “Many tales need telling, m’boy. I believe I’m owed one from you.” He gestures to his attendants. “Tanner, get young Jaspar here freshened up, and find him a hot meal. Count, see to this ‘prisoner’ of his. Unless I miss my guess, our boy here has got quite a story to spin. After that,” he turns his gaze back to me, “we’ll talk about your father. And your future.”