DEVIL'S WEEK

Here we have an extra-special treat, Freezine aficionados. Because just this last Halloween, the Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction proudly presented a brand new, never-before-published short story from veteran author John Shirley. So if you're ready to be taken to an extremely dark place right now, then be sure to read on for our final tale for this autumnal season, THE SOFTEST PILLOW, by John Shirley.


Cemetery Art above by Shaun Lawton


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

THE FALLEN GUARDIAN'S MANDATE:14

by David Agranoff


Chapter 14

City Gone a Walkin'





“Don't you have a scroll that tells us what to do?” Kui almost begged.

Shun looked through his bag of scrolls. The city took a giant step, and everything shook. Shun lost his grip on his bag as it slid across the wall, now turned on its side. Tian's eyes got wider as she watched it slip toward an open window. Xu jumped and reached out to grab the bag; Tian had to clutch onto his ankle. Xu stared out the open window at the ground hundreds of feet below. He swung the bag around, and Shun caught it.

Shun reached in and pulled out the scroll he wanted. “Maybe...”

Tian pulled on Xu, who used his sword to prop himself up.

“I was in the hill country--Min Yueh--when I heard this tale of...”

Shun unrolled the scroll. It kept unrolling until it hit the floor.

Kui's eye's got wide, and Shun shook his head. “This might take a minute.”

The building shook again, a roar echoing across the night. Venara, whether it was a god, a monster, or just a city come to life, was marching across China, covering a mile with each stride. They could hear the bamboo forests crunching underneath its giant feet. Shun continued to read his scroll, scanning it quickly.

“Shun! We don't have a minute!”

“There's ancient folk tales of a giant that carried a city on his back.”

Tian slammed her sword against the wall, desperate but unable to act.

“How did they defeat it?”

Shun lifted his eyeball from the scroll to scan the faces of his friends.

“They didn't.”

The city moved again, everything shook and then there was a burst of wraiths: hundreds of them took off from the inverted surface of the giant walking city. The black cloud of wraiths blocked the moon for a moment, before heading south. Venara the great city stopped, and arms made of stone buildings swung through the sky at the scattering creatures. A dozen more wraiths remained in the palace. Xu listened carefully as they screamed out their anger.

The city reacted with another stronger swing and knocked several of the creatures out of the air.

“Shun!” Xu pointed at the scroll. “According to legend, what happened to the people who fought it?”

Shun used his eyeball to scan the page.

“They disappeared. Several entered the city and tried to make peace.”

“And what happened to them?”

“They never returned.”

The wraiths called out, singing several high pitched notes. Instantly another group of wraiths under them took off into the air.

“Horatius said Venara was a vampire that didn't feed off blood.” Xu smiled.

Kui shrugged his shoulders. Tian nodded.

“He said it would feed off our pleasure.”

“Pleasure, excitement. I imagine it feeds off our anger and fear.”

The building shook again as the giant city swung at the escaping wraiths. Xu crouched ready to jump out the window. Tian tried to grab his shoulder.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“As long as we are in the city it feeds.”

Xu sung an off-pitch version of the wraith song he just heard. Like clockwork, the wraiths took to the air under him. The sky below filled with the winged creatures. Xu leapt out, he watched them speed underneath him. He was glad he could not see the ground under the them--only the speeding wraiths. Xu dropped like a rock, when he hit a wraith their bodies collided with a thud. The wraith screamed, and a second wraith slammed into them. Xu rolled off the back of the first wraith and grabbed on to the neck of the second one.

The wraith beat its wings, and Xu felt the wind on his bald head as they flew through the air. Xu looked back, and the city looked enormous standing straight up like a person. Its face had broken the stone foundation of the mayor's palace.

“Get off my back!” The wraith screamed in broken Mandarin. It banked left and then right. Xu held on and squeezed tighter at the wraith's fur.

“Stop it--we have to talk!”

The wraith spun around, and Xu's stomach did a flip when he saw how far down the ground was.

“Truce! Venara is going to kill us both.”

One of the city's giant arms came at them.

*



Shun pulled his eyeball back in.

“He is riding a wraith.”

“What?” Tian shook her head in disbelief. “He is insane.”

Tian squeezed the grip of her sword and looked over Shun's shoulder. The wraiths were flying in circle patterns while Venara swung its huge arms out at them. Wraiths screamed, but kept away from being hit. Tian laughed as one of the wraiths flew just over them, with Xu on its back, his sword held up in the air. Kui looked at her and smiled.

“He doesn't expect us to...follow him?”

Xu couldn't contain his joy, the feeling of the rushing wind, the speed by which the wraith swooped through the air.

“Closer,” Xu commanded.

They flew along the city's massive body and saw people waving their hands, others screaming.

“We're here to take, you have to leave the city.”

Xu squeezed the wraith tight as it floated closer to a part of the city that had been a street. A dozen wraiths landed, and people steadied themselves before jumping onto their backs. Xu gave a signal, and the wraiths took off towards the ground. One man jumped and missed his wraith. Xu closed his eyes but could still hear the man's scream getting further away.

“Be careful!”

The wraith twisted his head back and shot Xu an angry look.

“We are risking our lives for you humans.”

Venara let out a growl.

“Stop!” The city yelled in a voice that echoed off the mountains.

Xu slapped the wraith's back.

“Come on it's working,” Xu pointed up. “Next up...my friends.”

*



Tian looked out for a minute, and the height was enough to make her gasp. The moon was bright enough to light the forest below. It was too far for her to jump to. Venara had stopped moving. As the wraiths flew away, they took with it the giant's fuel. Each person that escaped took with them another source of psychic energy, that Venara had fed on for thousands of years.

“Where is Xu?” Kui asked nervously.

“He's coming,” Tian said, but she wasn't sure she believed it.

It took a few nerve-wracking moments, but Xu finally appeared on the back of the wraith. Behind him were four more wraiths.

“Get ready to jump,” Tian said--but she was already in the air. Her heart stopped and she held her breath as she zoomed towards a free wraith. The wraith snarled as she hit it and grabbed ahold of its flesh. She couldn't see him--but she heard Shun yell for help. The old man bounced off the back of a wraith. He began to fall. Xu and his wraith swooped in and the winged beast hugged Shun around his waist and sped towards the ground. Tian looked up and saw Kui leap--his wraith caught him in an instant.

As they all swooped down, they passed Venara's face. It was pale and white, the color of the floor under the throne. But now, for the first time, Tian saw its face. The massive eye seemed to have broken out of the stones of the palace walls. Those eyes burned with fury. It was too late--they had escaped.

*



Venara had hidden for almost three hundred years, coming out only at night. Like fruit attracting insects, he had pulled in the souls of thousands who stayed feeding him with their varied emotions. If they over-stayed their welcome, or he grew tired of the party, then he would eat them outright. Now, the only emotion-energy feeding him was Horatius, struggling to crawl his way out of his stomach. Delicious anger certainly, but not enough.

Venara felt the strength drain with each person that escaped. He should have believed the warning his master had said about this Demon slayer Xu. He was cunning indeed.

*



Xu dusted himself off, and waved to the departing wraiths. Now that he was on the ground, Venara looked tall enough to grab and strangle the moon.

Shun held an eyeball out. “What am I looking for?”

“Tell me if he is dying.”

Venara had stopped moving. The giant turned its massive head up to look at the moon. The stones that made up its body began breaking apart and crumbling into pieces. “Noooo!” Venara shouted at the sky as its huge legs finally buckled.

“Xu, he is dying.”

“Great!”

“Except one thing...”

Xu looked up and didn't need to be told. Venara was coming down towards them.




~ ~ ~


Click Here For Chapter 15 -- Epilogue





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