Renata ran like the devil was at her heels. If only, she thought. The devil would’ve been an easier problem.
“Do you think he could’ve been wrong?” Matti asked, half a step behind her, sword at the ready. A shriek, discordant and sharp, pierced the air from somewhere up ahead. “Never mind.”
Renata’s mind raced. If this was what they thought, if it was what the runner had said, – and there was no reason to think it wasn’t; even in Nevermore, few things made sounds like that – they were in deep trouble.
Maulers weren’t the only monsters of the deep, but they were some of the absolute nastiest. Ancient and awful. Dissemblers, they were sometimes called. The Living Abomination. God Killers, she’d heard the old ghosts call them and she believed it. They destroyed every sentient thing they touched, all the way down to the atoms. All the way down to the soul. Not even demons were that efficient.
The local hives were all either long dead or deeply hibernating, but sometimes scouts and hunting parties still came out to eat or defend the hive if anything got too close. The former was happening somewhere up ahead. A party of Mauler scouts had risen far above their usual hunting grounds. And of course, in all the vast, empty places that were tangled amidst Nevermore’s roots, they managed to find a posse of rum runners and railroaders, all pulsing and delicious with the life beyond. More than a dozen souls, or so she’d been told, being hunted by super predators. And the screaming she heard echoing through the tunnels seemed to confirm the worst.
They were deep beneath the city now. The signs of human workings, bricks and cement, basements and cellars, had given way to roughhewn passages and natural cave systems. Mining lamps broke up the dark in places. Phosphorescent rocks and algae cast eerie light where the lamps failed. The roars were getting closer, though Renata didn’t know if that was because they were getting closer or the Maulers were. She didn’t know if they were right around the bend or down another shaft. Sound traveled strangely in Nevermore at the best of times. The screams kept coming. Human voices, panicked and scared. Metallic screeching and clicks, made by creatures that abhorred sound. Coming ever closer.
If it were just her and Matti, Renata would run away. Run hard, run fast, and leave a lot of debris in her wake – make themselves too much trouble to be worthwhile prey. There were enough forgotten things to hunt in the dark pockets of the earth to make chasing one almost human girl and her ghost unappealing.
But it wasn’t the two of them. It was much more. And no one else would come.
Renata ran towards the fight. Matti followed, sword at the ready. There were worse things to die for, they knew.
It was chaos.
The memory of a prohibition tunnel had been torn apart, the wall on one side clawed through to reveal a cavern that stretched into abyssal dark. The mining lamps cast thin light only a few feet into the dark. But that was enough to reveal where the carnage began.
Bodies, whole and dismembered, were scattered across an uneven floor. Three Maulers were occupied with pulling their victims apart and divvying the kills. A fourth scuttled about in the dark. The half-light caught the hints of its movement and turned the ridiculous crabwalk into something nightmarish.
Renata hovered at the edge of the hole. She peered into the dark, looking at the carnage, looking for any survivors. She didn’t expect there to be any. But she’d hoped. She always hoped. Ever the optimist, ever the fool. (And what would you do if you found any, came the cruel thought. The only things that could fight Maulers and win were members of the heavenly host, and they had better things to do than save the spirits of some bootleggers and runaway slaves who hadn’t the good sense to cross over. Was Renata fool enough to die for them? Yes, she answered. Always yes.)
Nevertheless, she was braced for the loss, and a quick, brutal clean up. Close up the hole. Block as many paths as they could find. Spread the word there’d been a Mauler attack. They’d be creeping through the undercity for the better part of a week.
She looked over her shoulder. Matti was there, as ever. His sword was at the ready. It was now or never.
“Help. Help us,” a voice whispered below her.
Carefully, very carefully, Renata lowered herself onto her stomach and peered over the lip of the hole into the cavern. Directly underneath her, hidden under a ledge and behind a pair of thick stalagmites, were three spirits. The closest one pointed to Renata’s right. Two more frightened faces looked up at her. She wasn’t too late after all.
She squashed that wild hope before it could get her killed. Everything was much more dangerous now. She whispered back, “This is going to be very fast. When I say go, you all get up here and run. Head up to the city and don’t stop until you see sunlight.”
Some of them shook their heads furiously. Renata saw the fear in their eyes and the unhealed welts on their bodies. The chains they were running from were still wrapped around their bodies. Hot fury threatened to overwhelm her. Renata squashed that, too.
“No one is coming for you anymore,” she hissed. “No one can take you anywhere if you don’t want to go! But these things are gonna kill what’s left of ya if you don’t listen to me and run!”
Two of the Maulers shrieked over their kills and someone jumped in fright, triggering a tiny avalanche of pebbles. It was only a small rush of sound. But it was enough. They’d been spotted.
Matti was ready. He struck his sword against stone and leapt into the cavern with a roar of his own. The sword rang like a tuning fork, high and clear. Already the nearest Maulers fell back from the sound.
“Now!” Renata yelled at the souls below as she stood and joined Matti. Hellfire burst to life at her finger tips, lighting up the dark. She stoked it hotter, brighter, until the flames were white hot and blinding to look at.
Those were the weapons against Maulers, the only ones that worked: light and sound. The purer the better. Light that stung, tone that pierced. Matti held his sword aloft, the metal still reverberating in the open space of the cavern. He was singing, too, the melody unfamiliar but harmonized to the sword. The Maulers kept falling back, though Renata could tell they were regrouping, looking for weaknesses. Watching where their prey was escaping.
Renata could hear the other souls running. They were clumsy and slow in the dark. That was fine; Renata was more than willing to shed a little light on the situation.
She set her Hellfire free, throwing up a wall of white flame between the Maulers and herself. Then she and Matti ran as well. The railroaders were gone, hopefully far ahead of them by now. And not a moment too soon. The fourth Mauler, the watcher, had been perched on cave ceiling. It cleared the fire wall easily. Dammit. Matti and Renata staggered their own retreat, throwing up more fire and setting the blade to sing intermittently. Anything to give the others a better chance to escape. But the fourth Mauler was hot on their heels and gaining.
They needed new terrain. Another cavern to get lost in, or a shaft they could bring down behind them. But Nevermore, usually so accommodating to the desires of a focused will, kept sending them down the same rough tunnels. If Matti or Renata tried to bring these tunnels down, they’d be crushing themselves as well. The situation was dire, but maybe not dire enough for that? Not yet, at least. Renata clung to that hope as the ancient, god-killing, giant, armored hell-lobster chased her through unstable dream tunnels.
God, she was about to die as she’d lived: an optimistic dumbass.
“To your left!”
The voice came from a break in the rock on their left. It was small and well camouflaged. Renata wouldn’t have seen it if not for the hand sticking out and waving. Renata threw up one more fire wall as Matti tried the passage. With a pull from the mysterious hand, he scraped through, then turned to aid her. She slid in sideways. It was as even tighter fit than she’d expected. Rock scraped her skin through her dress and scuffed her boots. Her locs snagged on sharp outcroppings. She pushed on anyway. Hair could be replaced, after all. Skin regrew.
Souls that had been chewed by Maulers didn’t.
With one last pull, she was through the crevice, falling forward into Matti. He steadied her as she found her feet. And then again as the earth rumbled around them. From the tunnel they’d just escaped came a terrible roar and a burst of dusty, debris-filled air as unknown tons of rock and earth came crashing down, burying the Mauler and its’ path.
“Well! That was damn good timing if I say so myself.”
“You!” Renata seethed at her unexpected savior.
“Hello, Andras,” Matti offered, a calm but chilly counterpoint to Renata’s ire. “Thank you for the assistance. We’re both very grateful. What the hell are you doing here and what do you want from us?”
“Okay, first of all? Rude. I’ve told you both time and again to call me Renfrew; no one calls me Andras outside of the office and really, it just puts me off my good mood.” Renata rolled her eyes. Matti shook the grit from his hair. “Here I am, doing a good thing, saving two of Nevermore’s greatest heroes from certain soul death, and I’m treated with suspicion? With distrust? With blatant accusations of ulterior motives? I’ve never-“
“We thanked you, we’re leaving. Matti?.”
“Goodbye, Andras. Let’s not do this again.”
“Wait!” Renfrew held up both hands, palms out like he could stop them. ”I need your help.”
“That’s an understatement,” Matti muttered.
Renata nodded. “We’re going to have to decline. We’ve got a lot on our plates right now and it’s kind of time sensitive, so we’re gonna be on our way.” She and Matti began to edge past him.
“Wait!” he said again, and this time put enough power in his words to hold their feet. Something violent and wild burned behind Renata’s eyes, and Matti had his sword lifted. Renfrew began to talk fast.
“The Aberration are supposed to be asleep. All the ones that aren’t dead, anyway. Forces stronger than any of us can dream of put them down an epoch ago, and the gods can only guess why they chose to do that and not simply exterminate them. Yes, there are sentries who guard the hive, but they still stay close to it. The surface is anathema to them. Too bright. Too loud. Yes? Yes. So what are they doing here? Why did a full hunting party of Aberration leave not just their hive, not just their hunting grounds, not just the Lower Labyrinths,” Renfrew emphasized that with particular vehemence, “but crawled all the way up to the bottom of the damned sub-city. That sort of thing doesn’t just happen.”
“Agreed,” Renata snapped at him. “Which is why Matti and I are here. Which is why we’re going to make sure the tunnels are filled in and people are warned as soon as you’re finished with us. So we’re back to Matti’s questions: what are you doing here and what do you want from us? I would think a few Maulers running loose would be right up your alley. Your kind likes the whole chaos and death angle, right?”
Renfrew levelled a look at her. He pursed his lips, opened them to comment, then closed them again. In his current human guise, a skinny ginger with a too wide mouth, he looked like an irritated goldfish.
“Chaos and death are not the exclusive domain of Hell and its inmates. Otherwise, you wouldn’t exist, Miss Black.” Renata twitched. “And chaos is only valuable to ‘my kind,’ as you say, if Lu can control it. Which he can’t. The Aberration are unmanageable. For anyone. And that, my young lich, makes it a problem for everyone if the Aberration are rising.”
Renata and Matti looked at him, skepticism writ large across their faces.
“Who’s saying they’re rising?
“And why is anyone trusting…you to get things under control?”
Renfrew’s mouth twisted into an even tighter pucker before opening too wide again. Renata imagined him making that face through the glass of a fish tank. “My sources, and my own investigations, have hinted that the local hives are waking up.”
Renata felt the news like punch to the gut. All the air was gone, from the cave, from her lungs, from the world. She sensed Matti stiffen beside her. An active hive. No, not a hive. All of them. All the ones she knew about and who knew how many more in the deep, dark places of Creation.
Renfrew continued. “At the moment, Hell and the Host are only passingly aware of the problem, and yes, I am trusted to handle it appropriately because that’s part of my job. Dealing with this before Lucifer notices is ideal, as generally anything big enough to catch his interest is enough to catch Heaven’s as well. And we’d all rather keep as little attention on this cursed planet as possible.”
“And what would happen if they did come,” Matti asked. “The host we’ve met have all been-”
“They’ve all been here on the sly,” Renfrew scoffed. “Or posted here as to study you all. The universe is a great big melting pot of mistakes that everyone is trying to deal with in their own ways, which usually leads to more mistakes, etc. One active hive on one cursed world isn’t going to bring anyone running until the Aberration has chewed a hole in reality. We want to prevent that. Because when the full focus of the Host falls on this little world, there will be no glorious rapture, no nirvana, just a brutish end and the fires of judgment to hopefully send everyone where they should be. For as well as that works,” he huffed tiredly and Renata and Matti agreed. “And even then, some Aberration will probably survive. Damned cosmic cockroaches.”
“How?” Renata had found her voice at last. “How are they waking? And what -what does that even mean for us?”
“We don’t know. There’s no precedence. In the past, the only things which have upset a slumbering hive this way is a threat or the appearance of a rival queen.”
“And which is it,” Renata prodded. “A threat or a queen?”
“If I knew, I would’ve dealt with myself. Or told you two and run. My best guess at this point is that someone new in town is strong enough to be a threat. Or brought a queen with them, impossible as that is to imagine. I’m looking into it. But I am a simple Lord of Hell; I can’t be everywhere. And you two are very skilled and very well connected, Above and Below, and in the In Between.”
“…. Did it hurt you? To admit that?”
“So much, you have no idea. But my ego aside, the danger is real and I would like your help to solve it. Quickly, if possible. Whatever it is that’s set them off – queen, threat, or a greater unknown – the Aberration are looking for it. There will be more attacks like this, I’m certain. At least until they find what they’re looking for, and then…. I’m asking you to help me find it before they do.”
Matti considers him.
“And what do you want us to do once we find it? The thing that’s waking them up.”
“Whatever is necessary.”