Perran was a lamplighter.
It was as far from a glorious job as it was from an easy one. Lamps hung just above passers-by, high enough to avoid even the taller rarras’ sharp-tipped horns but still within arm’s reach; there were lamps on every street throughout the town, lanterns dangling from well-wrought iron posts, a hook and a loop making a simple system. Every fifty feet, there stood a lamp.
The lanterns were glass and dark, ornate metal to match the posts; the lamp inside was a carefully-carved crystal, faceted to shed light as efficiently as possible. Each crystal would last from the longest evening shadows until the sun was visible on the horizon, roughly an hour more than true night.
Perran had an hour to cover the entire dusty town and light every lamp.
He had been offered a wheeler to save time and his legs, but like the other lamplighter who worked when he did not, he refused. Fifty feet was too short for a wheeler to be of use, compared to the time wasted leaning it onto and off its stand, mounting and dismounting, starting and stopping.
Every other night, Perran walked the quiet border town, the desert encroaching with thin layers of sand on the outskirts.
The lamps’ crystals were powered by magic, like nearly everything in rarran society. Even in the dusty pockets of less-civilized areas, like this town, magic fueled the technology they used to survive and eke out a living from the dunes. Hooded cloaks that reached past fingerlessly-gloved hands and leather-wrapped soles shielded the body from the ravages of wind and heat like magic and technology shielded the people from the ravages of the world.
Come twilight, the hood was made optional, the sun low and heat draining from the air. Perran walked bare-headed, long ears upright and free of the heavy fabric. At every lamp, he would remove the lantern from its hook and slide away a glass panel, reaching in a paw-padded fingertip to touch the crystal. Automatically, so well were they designed and carved, it drained exactly as much qki – physical energy, the complement to magical energy – as it could hold. He had a moment before the qki was stored in the natural latticework of the crystal’s structure, before it started to heat up and glow; he replaced the glass paneling and hung the lantern on its hook again.
One every fifty feet. The town was only a few miles from edge to edge, a grid-worked amoeba with uncertain edges, but the streets were close and the buildings were small between them.
It took him a week to learn the timing so that every lamp was lit by nightfall and none faded away to artificial embers before dawn broke. But once he found the pattern, he kept it.
And every night, when he got home, his body was nearly drained of qki, the energy that kept his heart pumping and muscles flexing. He fell into bed nearly senseless, lacking the energy to even think, and slept dreamlessly until the next dawn.
With increasing frequency, the blinding rage struck. It rendered muscles tense, spine arched, eyes wide and rolling. Like a rabid animal, he danced with anger, sweat slipping down his face to coat his cracking lips. It burned, but his blood boiled hotter, and the infuriating itch of the nerves beneath his skin was the worst.
He twisted, scraping his palms along the softer skin of his body – the underside of his arm, his stomach, the creases near his hips that led lower – until all of him was flushed as red as his face. He tried contorting his mouth, baring teeth, curling lips, tightening his jaw, but none of it gave surcease of this madness.
The last grain of sand fell when he killed his girlfriend’s dog. It grieved him, when he stopped and looked at the unmoving lump of poodled fur– when he realized that his vicious kick had done so much more damage than intended. Surprise flooded him at first, rinsing away the red tinges in his vision; he knelt, touching hesitant fingertips to the soft flank. No breath stirred the body.
And he left his home, shaken, no longer optimistic about his fraying self-control. What if he had hit the woman he was starting to love? What if he had broken her bones, instead of the bones of an animal?
Two days later, he stopped seeing a difference between humans and beasts. Men accosted him as he passed, stumbling slavering and twitching; he walked hunched, hands shaking uncontrollably, and whether his attackers were officers or thugs didn’t seem to matter. He struck at them, eager to have a target that deserved to be hurt. Gnarled knuckles broke noses. Bare feet split kneecaps. He stopped himself from killing anyone, but only just.
His vision was fading, the sharp lines that bordered shapes becoming vague and uncertain. Some colors became intense, while the rest gradiated into a dull brown-grey spectrum. His ears replaced his eyes as useful, sounds jarring, specific, comprehensible. He knew what made the sound and where with unerring accuracy. The sighted world was a jumbled monstrosity of inexorable blindness, but he could hear the people and cars around him.
Scents, too, rose to prominence in his nightmarish state. He could smell more than just the city-soaked stench of humanity and machines– he could smell that this person was a woman. That one was a young boy. That one had eaten fish. That one used Old Spice deodorant.
He caught a scent that turned his head, nearly-blind eyes shrunken and reddened, to stare. That one was a woman, and she was bleeding. That one smelled, faintly, like him.
And when he approached her, hulking and lurching, she screamed and fell backwards in a wounded panic. He crouched over her, heedless of the cries of the nearby men, and – as gently as he could – took her face in his malformed hands and held it close to his.
Yes. The scent was there. Stronger. Specific. It told him a story that leaked past the haze of his deteriorated thoughts.
He let the woman go, as gently as he had touched her, and stood. Humans surrounded him, shouting, shoving; one of them hit his shoulder with something heavy and solid. He stumbled, and he left, and the men declared themselves heroes as the woman shook on the sidewalk.
He kept going, following her scent, walking the way she’d come. The smell of her blood was thick enough that he could taste the iron in the back of his throat.
The alleyway was dark, but that hardly mattered; with the loss of most of his eyesight, the dimness was easily managed and, sometimes, clearer. The scent of blood overwhelmed everything else– her scent, perfumed and clean, terrified and adrenaline-soaked, vanished beneath its murky weight.
He hadn’t tried to speak for days. He worked his mouth, uncertain, long tongue licking against grotesque teeth. “You?” he managed to choke out, the word nearly unintelligible.
The shadows behind the dumpster paused their rummaging and built up into a looming shape that stank of blood. The two men paused, regarding each other, one lost to madness and the other in full control of his disease. “Yes,” the shadow-man said after a long moment, his voice a liquid growl.
The madman contorted his face into a rictus grin, then threw himself forward, warped hands clutching at the throat of his sire.
Tinwit tittered and skittered, dancing with too many feet along the damp bark of the tree’s stretching boughs. Her translucent scarves whirled around her, caught in the wind of her own speed, tangling and disengaging like iridescent sparring serpents.
“Wait up!” Girque hissed behind her, walking with his hands and feet all down the same branch. He was weighed down by a full basket strapped to his shoulders, the bulk resting between his gauzy wings.
“No~” Tinwit sang back, pausing only for an elaborate twirl before flouncing off. “I have to open the door~”
Girque mumbled something uncharitable beneath his breath, antennae drooping in annoyance, as he continued to trudge along the two-inch limb. His pack was full of broken weapons, blades and arrows and shortstaves, to be mended by the armory’s smiths and woodworkers. And it was blasted heavy.
But of course, Tinwit wouldn’t help him carry any of it. She had to open the door. Feh.
At the end of the branch, where it dove into the network of other boughs that would combine to comprise the trunk, a light billowed into existence and brightened slowly with a not-quite-audible hum that made the bark shiver. Girque stuck sharp nails into the branch for traction and kept moving, hands and feet together, eyes averted from the growing luminance.
The tree whimpered through his fingertips when the door opened, allowing the two Zeri access to its hollowed, honeycombed interior.
Tinwit pirouetted back to him, smiling with all her needle teeth, faceted eyes reflecting the now-fading glow. “I opened the door~” she purred triumphantly.
“Thank you,” Girque grunted. “Now will you help me wi–”
“I’m going to tell the weaponsmen we’re here~” she interrupted, spinning and buzzing her wings briefly, just enough to give her momentum to bound gazelle-like along the bough. She vanished into the tree’s aching doorway, ignoring the aura of unhappiness hovering at the threshold.
Girque squeezed his eyes shut, counted to three, and opened them again. Zeri magi were becoming less and less lucid as generations went on; Tinwit was a young, talented little waif, but she was as reliable as a leaf blown by the wind.
He sighed, plodding along until he reached the entrance. “Sorry,” he said to the tree, touching a hand briefly to the threshold and snatching it away just as quickly when pain shot up his arm. He did it every time, penance for the door’s necessity, even though all the other guardians had long since abandoned the old tradition.
Girque and his bundle stepped inside; he felt through the shadows for the weed-woven ladder and began his blind descent, the weight hanging so heavy that his body canted at an unnatural angle, his back aiming for the floor. His feet tangled in the fraying rungs; he tightened his jaw and moved more carefully.
There was light at the bottom, set well into the tree’s slope-buried base, a great hollow that shook slightly with old pain. The Zeri who manned the armory bustled around, ignoring Tinwit dancing in spirals around them; one grizzled woman stopped when she saw Girque, no welcome or smile softening her soot-smudged face. “More?” she demanded, somewhere between resigned and frustrated.
“More,” Girque confirmed, pitching his tone to be apologetic. He unstrapped the bulging basket from his back and handed it off, straightening gratefully while the old woman huffed and dragged it off towards the repair quarter. “Tinwit!” he called, muscles burning as he stretched them. “We can’t stay here.”
“But I like the smells of iron and sulfur~” she sang happily, her scarves already darkening like sullied smoke.
Girque winced; his lungs were shutting off in protest of the atmosphere already, and this youngling liked it? With half-hidden exasperation, he trotted over to her and captured her wrists, then tugged her towards the ladder. “We’ll be back soon enough,” he muttered, wishing it weren’t the truth.
“I love the war~” Tinwit crooned sweetly, kissing his cheek before swarming up the ladder ahead of him. “It paints everyone such pretty colors~”
Girque stared after her, shook his head, and began to climb.
We may have poisoned the world first, but good old Earth got the last laugh. The human species is diseased, genetically decomposing from birth – each generation’s lifespan is a little less than the one before.
We’ve adapted. Of course we have, scientists and survivors all, this motley collective of mothers and soldiers and sick little children. When we’ve reached the point past which our bodies and minds begin to unravel like so much loose thread, we choose our fate and our future: an animal.
We get spliced. It’s a harrowing, intensive procedure that no one in their right mind or hale body would ever voluntarily undergo, but when it’s transformative surgery or death, well, the choice is a little easier. We pick an animal, and scientists and doctors mix their genes with ours.
We keep some necessary human attributes: opposable thumbs, vocal chords, diurnal vision, bipedal stance. We stay within a reasonable size range. Only mammals for us – reptiles, amphibians, and birds are left for the truly desperate, and insects and arthropods just don’t work.
If a person gets spliced early, they keep a little more of their humanity. Maybe all they have to deal with is a coat of fur, some claws, different ears, a tail. The sickest of us, well, we have less that’s worth keeping, so more animal gets spliced in. Some people can’t walk with their backs vertical anymore. Some people have completely animal faces, molded around a human braincase. Some people look like damn Hollywood werewolves, hunched and gnarled and desperate.
The more animal gets spliced in, the riskier the surgery, the higher the mortality rates. As it is, you only get a one in three chance of surviving and not rejecting the new hybrid genome. That’s purely physical, of course – everyone tries to ignore the odds of going insane after you heal. Or feral. We’ve got monsters roaming the tortured world that used to walk strollers down the street and shop at Walmart. And we all pretend that the ones who don’t go nuts are okay, but we’ve got new and burning instincts inside our half-human bodies, and our societies are fraying quickly with the pressure of being civilized.
Some humans – some rare, rare few – are immune to this genetic plague. They can stay human for what used to be a normal lifespan – seventy, eighty years – without dissolving into some hellish combination of leprosy and cancer. Scientists are working like mad to figure out what makes them different from the rest of us, the ones who have to get spliced to survive. They still have no idea.
They say it’s only a matter of generations before our lifespans are so short that… well, we won’t be able to pick an animal ourselves anymore. Parents will be picking species for their five-year-olds, and who knows if a kid can survive transformative surgery. The few that’ve needed it haven’t.
We’re sterile, of course, us spliced ones. Every human who hits puberty contributes sperm and eggs to the banks, hoping they’re donated before the disease really spreads, hoping those cells might turn into one of the unaffected. Extremists think it’s time to start turning our medical and scientific resources to making us hybrids fertile, rather than clinging to the last vestiges of real humanity.
Maybe they’re right, but then we run into a new, awful problem: can someone who is half-dog breed with someone who is half-goat? What do those kids look like? How do you mix bastardized genomes of entirely different species?
Some say we’ve doomed ourselves by allowing diversity, by allowing choice. We should have all been dogs, they say – dogs are the best choice, mentally compatible with humans, socially similar, physically familiar. But dogs are carnivores, and the world doesn’t have as many real animals to eat as it once did. A lot of us became omnivores or herbivores to keep the balance, to not bleed the earth dry of its children.
Maybe the human species is dead, and splicing is just a death throe. Those of us left are just a fraction of the billions that were here when the condition first began.
Or maybe this is the phoenix’s ash, and all we’ve got to do is hang on before we can fly again.
Screaming. Somewhere, the sound carried by a long-dead wind, someone was screaming.
Ears twitched. A massive head lifted. A body shag-furred in shadows and steel rose, turned, paced forward. The eyes stayed closed, velvet lids offering a blank slate to the surrounding forest. Ears alone guided the heavy-clawed feet.
The screaming continued.
Time passed: hours, days, some uncounted ticks on a clock that didn’t exist within half a season’s slow walk. The screaming stopped sometimes, started again later. The sound weakened, thinned, frayed like a worn thread.
The high wail snapped in twain as soon as the gnarled paws stopped.
The eyes opened. Featureless ink-black reflected the scene along a curving surface.
One of the Sivas stepped away, lifted an empty hand in warning, and said something in a trade language. Another hand pulled a thin knife and held it over a third wrist, ready to spill blood to power battlemagic; the fourth hand hovered over a pouch of reagents.
An Ipyan struggled feebly in the many arms of another Siva. Two of the People, looking like two-armed Sivas with muddier skin and softer eyes, stood near a makeshift alchemy table. They all stared at what had emerged from the forest.
Blood stained the air with its starkly metallic scent, a cry of agony to a sensitive nose. The Ipyan shook, a number of neat, shallow incisions along its flat torso already bled dry, its arms marked with uncounted slices. The enormity of magical potential in the vials of blood on the table pulsed like thunder too low to be heard, only felt through bones and the shuddering of the heart.
/Help,/ whispered the Ipyan, a word universal to all the great languages, its slit-pupiled eyes staring wildly. /They’ll kill me./
The other words should not have been understood, but the ears twitched, and the face with its jutting tusks turned. The whiteless eyes met the Ipyan’s panicked gaze.
/Help–/ The Siva holding the Ipyan cupped a strong hand over the wedge-shaped mouth.
The Siva in front said something again, meaningless, its slanted face intent. A warning was in its sibilant tone, slicing through the breathy syllables like the delicate knife in its hand would cut into its arm and loose enough magic to destroy the intruder.
That which came from the woods moved, and screams rose anew from the clearing.
At dawn, the vials and decanters of blood were untouched on the table. No blood had been spilled into the earth. Five bodies lay unmoving on the loamy soil, and the Ipyan huddled around itself, rocking, its long tail wrapped around its ankles and its arms encircling two of its knees as it sat on its other two heels.
Its mind blurred, smeared like the skin of the People while they slept, hazing in and out of focus. It had lost so much blood. Almost too much. It clung to rational thought, ran basic arithmetic through its head, holding so tightly to the surety and solidity of numbers that it nearly lost sense of the pain warming its flesh.
One of the bodies stirred, ears twitching, nostrils flaring. The Ipyan froze and stared, then unfolded unsteadily and crawled over. It rested a sleek three-fingered hand on a fog-and-shadow flank, the fur coarse and thick, and waited until huge eyes opened and met its slitted gaze.
/Thank you,/ the Ipyan said, exhaling, feeling the weakness pooling in its solar plexus.
The head lifted, a foreleg pulled beneath the deep chest, and the creature propped itself up stiffly. The gaze never wavered, even when pale membranes washed over swamp-dark eyes and obscured their murky depths.
The Ipyan stared, shivered, wanted to laugh. Its savior was a mad beast, and it itself was barely more stable. So little blood. So little of the magic that its people scorned. So little grasp on sanity left. /You are shapeless,/ it said, almost begging for some word to the contrary.
The membranes washed the eyes again. The ears quivered.
The Ipyan touched the tusked face, too dazed to be afraid. Ragged whiskers scraped its fingers with miniscule serrations. /Thank you, shapeless,/ the Ipyan murmured, bowing its head and tucking its narrow snout between the soft rolls of flesh around the beast’s neck.
The low croon was startling, but the sound continued like a morning aerophone’s drone. The Ipyan found its body relaxing against the breathing mass of its rescuer, fingers loosening, tail going lax. It slept for the first time since its capture three days prior, breathing so shallowly as to seem dead, lulled by the smooth call of a mother to her long-lost son.
The dreams drove the Ipyan awake time and again, sobbing, wailing, flinging out a weak hand until it hit the rough pelt of the shapeless. But wakefulness was never truly achieved, the veil of dreamscape shading the sharp yellow eyes, and even a touch from the shapeless could not pull the Ipyan from the haze.
The madness was taking hold. It had lost too much blood, and with that blood, the magic that held its brilliant, complex mind intact.
The shapeless rose, left the Ipyan writhing in another dream, and stared blankly at the vials on the alchemy table. The People had probably intended to drain the Ipyan dry, extract the magic from the blood, and replace the blood in the failing body: all the necessary tools for such a lengthy, agonizing procedure were set up. The body still had enough blood to function, but the mind didn’t have enough magic, and the Ipyan would be lost to madness under the moon of the next night.
The shapeless studied the table for unmeasured moments, comprehension drip-dropping like a river-smooth stone through a series of waterfalls. Eventually, it took a stoppered vial in its jaws – carefully, so carefully – and brought it to the thrashing Ipyan.
It pressed a talon to the Ipyan’s scarred chest, some of the incisions trying to bleed anew from the dreamer’s violent movement. Gently, the shapeless pressed its wide muzzle to the Ipyan’s angular face, holding its head still, its face to the sky.
And the shapeless crushed the vial in its jaws, blood spilling between its teeth and past the Ipyan’s parted lips.
The Ipyan swallowed convulsively, unable to jerk aside, unable to draw breath to cough. It drank its own blood, the shards of the vial too large to drop into its small mouth, until there was only reddened spittle dripping from the shapeless’s muzzle.
The gold eyes cleared. It stared upwards as the shapeless pulled back, dropped the rest of the shards, coughed, spat, hissed like a gale through a canyon – the blood sprayed, a fine mist. It would only ingest a tiny amount.
The People didn’t need blood-magic, after all, and even the wild shapeless were still the People.