The Justicar and the Glassworks
The Justicar killed Sam Tee. It tried to kill us. That was supplier and extractor. It came to our home and found it empty. There are only two places it knew we would return: the pipes and the glassworks, to collect more orbs. And we knew it knew we would return. At least the glassworks offered shelter—somewhere to hide.
I can hear the creature's flapping wings in the upper levels like giant bellows.
I sigh. Time for action. This is the real thing, not a simulation. There are no drugs, no dreams, no control. But Octavia's holding a rifle which she passes my way.
'Thanks, Dandelion Girl.' The metal feels warm where her fingers have been. She's fluffed it up, stroked it to arousal. I can feel it ready in my grasp.
'What's the plan?' I ask, looking at Flid. And per smiles. Genius. Per has a plan. Per always does.
'We kill it.'
I snigger, though I don't know why. Nothing seems very funny any more.
'We draw it to the furnace,' Flid says.
I'm not convinced, but Flid has to be right. Flid knows how to fix things. Knows how to fix me—pick up my pieces and align them.
Already I'm fingering the trigger. Dry heat pricks my face but a shiver runs through my spine. Above us I hear screams, filtering through the noise and fire and boiling fluid. Smells of sand and scorching; smells of molten glass. And there's that smell—smell of the Justicars. They all smell the same. Smell of apples and glue, one scent drowned in the redolence of another. I want to know if it can smell me.
'Okay,' I say, pretending I'm ready.
The Flower Girls seem ready. More prepared than me, at least. Do royals ever fear like peasants do? Have they learned fear the same way?
'Come,' Flid says. Per nods down the corridor, wants us to go to its heart. The heat is more intense that way. But I know it's right. Behind us I can hear the rustle of monstrous wings. Chains rustle, talons clack. Ragged breath as ominous and booming as thunder.
We head that way, running, but already we can see it. It is cloaked in its oversized coat, and I can see slather falling from its beaky mouth. Phantasmagoric images blur across its alien wings, forming in their movement and their shifting hues played upon by the light.
Bam! The rifle feels good as it explodes. Bam! It sounds again, fierce and unafraid. The metal sings, touched with the scent of fireworks.
For a moment the beast stops. Brilliant blue splashes the stone floor—Justicar blood. The stuff dies immediately to a trickle, then a drip. There's the sickly tightening noise of tendons and tissues as they pull and knit back together. Those cold eyes shimmer and the beast rattles, as if flickering some chitinous tail.
'Split up,' Flid says, directing the four princesses to the corridor forking to the left. We go the opposite way, barely turning to see whom it follows. Of course, it wants us. It will kill them too, if it can, those beings from a reality forbidden to us, but it's tasted our sweat, licked at our heels, and it's our flesh it wants to chew. It wants to pull bones from our joints and munch on the cartilage.
Bam! Flid's fired over my shoulder, singeing my hair. My ears ring from the proximity of the bullet. My Flid would never have hit me.
The corridor ahead narrows and we see the Justicar fold itself up to follow. Its shoulders are hunched, its wings diminished, and now it's moving slower. Its stench is stronger now. I can smell more smells: dirty leather, car oil, wet steel. The apple and glue smells are far stronger in comparison.
I gag. Compose myself mentally, as best I can whilst still running.
We've made it to a corridor where we can only travel single file. Flid and I are almost running. There's a hatch ahead, half open, through which the furnace is visible. As the Justicar follows, it slides between the parallel concrete walls, trying to hold itself as flat as possible. Tentacles and veined limbs lash out from beneath its overcoat, some at ankle level, below where any arms could grow.
What is this? I wonder. What is this beast chasing us? What could hatch such a thing? And who would make them guardians of the city?
I imagine I see the overcoat momentarily part, revealing a terrible sight. A spindly, insectoid body with dangling entrails in the midsection. Its beak is open, slathering.
Yes, death has a face and it's cancerous.
'It won't budge.' Flid is trying the hatch at the end of the corridor. I see the glittering, dust-filled air beyond and know we have to get through. So I move to help per, both of us struggling against the hatch. Still it won't move.
'We'll have to squeeze through.'
Flid lets me go first. Hoists me up high enough to be level with the bottom of the hatch and feeds me through, head first. There's a little room to manoeuvre but not much. As I pass through, I see the Justicar, mere yards behind Flid, and its beak claps open and closed frantically. It's almost upon per when I reach down, hold tight to per hands, and pull. The beast shrieks as Flid is whipped from its grasp, losing per balance and tumbling into me, gasping but safe. For now.
Through the hatch, the creature pushes an eye into the small square space and we back into the furnace chamber. A giant oven spits little stars into the raw, burning air. Channels of molten glass reach out from its base and snake off through the walls to some other place. Shadows move on scaffolding above, shouting their consternation. We move at speed. Already we're across the room where there's a ladder carved into the concrete.
'Climb to the scaffolding,' Flid says, and I follow in per lead.
Behind, the Justicar pours itself gradually through the tiny portal, bearing itself upon spindly limbs, its raspy breath a snare, muted by its constriction. Darkness pools around it, washes over the floor like a tide of dark blood. The Justicar's coat falls back, revealing a biomechanical nightmare. It slithers towards us, half through the hatch, carelessly slapping through pools of molten glass. It pays no regard as it lifts its hands and they cool to glass.
The Justicar sweeps into the chamber, clambering after us as we stand on the scaffolding looking down. We're on the ledge, over the mouth of the furnace. On the far side of the room is further scaffolding.
Wait . . .
Flid's whispering, tense.
Flid unholsters per second gun, revealed to be a harpoon gun.
The Justicar climbs the ladder, a spindly body punctuated by its giant wings, which flap as though readying for flight. As it nears the scaffolding, Flid aims across the room and fires at the wall. A rope arcs behind the harpoon and pulls taut. Per folds an arm round me and we swing across.
The Justicar leaps across to follow, but Flid blows off its wings. It tumbles into the furnace and lands in the vat of molten glass poised over the flames. It thrashes and splashes about, then falls still.
Stillness. Peace but for the dance of flames. Unreal silence.
I smile, look at Flid. As our eyes meet, I thrill a little and we kiss, embracing passionately.
The only thing I can hear is my own heartbeat and Flid's up against it. The furnace and the beast are at the back of my mind.
Then the Justicar re-emerges, glistening with the spindles of molten glass which fall from its limbs and tattered wings.
The worst thing with silence is that it can be broken.
The Justicar reaches across the scaffolding; we flee through a doorway and into another corridor.
It's still alive. It's still moving. Breathing its malodorous breath and splashing liquid glass across my hope.
The four princesses run to meet us, armed with canisters of liquid nitrogen thieved from some wall brace. As the Justicar enters the corridor, the princesses open a torrent of steaming liquid upon the beast, cooling it. As the vapour subsides, a grand unveiling of a magician's trick, I see the glassy, frozen form of the Justicar, half statue, now cracked and misshapen by the rapidly cooled glass.
Flid aims per gun and fires at the beast. It shatters and our POV is drawn down to the multitude of shards on the floor, like those of a mirror. In each is reflected the face of Rose.
Adam Lowe is a writer and editor from Leeds, UK. He is the brain behind Polluto and Dog Horn Publishing, and is known as a columnist and features writer in the LGBT press. Earlier in 2009, he had two short collections of his poetry released by Fruit Bruise Press and now he is ready to unleash his first novel upon the world, in the form of Troglodyte Rose (published by Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink). Artwork based upon his short story 'Singer' won a Spectrum Fantastic Arts Award in 2008, thanks to Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon (who have also provided illustrations for this debut work).