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Night Seekers

an extract from the novel

by Lauren Halkon

Chapter Two

The corpse was still there in the morning. It Night Seekers by Lauren Halkonsurprised Darbo, he had entertained the notion that perhaps it would have disappeared, like Gods and spirits had once been supposed to do.

He rose from his pallet and walked towards it. He was still wearing the same clothes he had last night. The blood on them had stiffened over the hours, but he paid it no mind, it meant nothing to him, after all.

He knelt beside the corpse and looked at it more closely. The early morning light streamed through the narrow windows of his spire apartment, casting the creature's--the God's?--face in brilliant relief.

It was female, this he could tell by the swellings of the breasts beneath her shirt, though to all other intents and purposes she was sexless. He had expected them to be male, the records had said they were, but then he supposed they could be wrong, so many other things were. Her face was long, the skull shaped differently to his, stretched at the top, like a crest, giving her a high, intelligent forehead covered in silver-white skin. The eyes, fixed in death, were completely black, no iris, no pupil, just black. Her hair curled down to her waist, in colour as pale as her skin. Her limbs were long, too long, and slender, yet he could tell they had once possessed considerable strength. He turned her over, cataloguing the caved-in section of skull, the seeping brains, the rusty blood, noticing that it was all the same as human matter, despite her unfamiliar appearance. In this, at least, the records were correct.

He let her head fall back to the ground. It made a soft and muffled thump. A brief thought as to what he would do with her crossed his mind but he disregarded it as unimportant. Soon there would be no one left to discover the body.

Darbo returned to his console and opened the main screen at the page he had been studying last night. There were three rock spire cities on the mountain, or so he had discovered. He doubted that anyone else knew. Most of the records he had found over the last month were so old that they had not been opened in many millennia. If he had been able he would have been curious as to why he had found them, and why now? But he was not able, neither he nor anyone else on this mountain. They were all caught in an emotionless state of life--if it could so be called--needing neither food, laughter nor love, merely waking each morning and plugging into their consoles, pursuing endless useless knowledge, occasionally coming across the electronic tracks of another human soul, usually ignoring it. They had eradicated all need for anything else many centuries ago when they had finally discovered the secret of immortality.

The rock spires in which they lived provided a direct link to the living heart of the mountain via ancient machinery that wound in silver vines through hidden compartment walls. These vines, they had eventually learned, could be connected to the human body and used to sustain and continue life indefinitely.

No one knew when emotion had died, maybe it was part of natural evolution, maybe it was forced upon them when they defeated death. Whatever, research had been funded and soon the vines were found to store the mountain's energy and so were cut from the rock and implanted in each human so that they were no longer forced to spend hours each day hooked up to the vine-walls of their homes. Yet the stage had been set, each person was completely independent, had no need of human interaction, no need of outside aid, no need of anything anymore.

Darbo had never seen a fellow human being in all his six hundred and thirty years of life. He had been one of the last children to be born, a final explosion of blood before even this lone revulsion died out and came to be replaced with encelled humans locked within the spires whose outsides they had never seen. Clean, uncaring automatons.

The screen flickered before him, displaying the images that had awoken him to the past.

Tall pale creatures, small, dark, creeping devils, flames and water, shattered rock and bodies, the catastrophic downfall of those who had created the human race and cast it out into something the records called hell. A race with no purpose, no reason to exist.

Darbo knew it all had to go.

"All their fault." He tried the words for size, but could detect no bitterness in them, no hatred, only a hollow emptiness that had once, perhaps, held something.

He looked at the dead Goddess, thinking that maybe this would inspire some emotion, but it did not, merely made him consider the possibility of finding more of them and seeing if they all died so easily.

And along with this he considered whether their creations could also die.

Sahla awoke to find that the fires had burned low, the shadows had grown and her hut was empty save for one. Kai-ya's gentle face stared down at her in place of those of the unfortunate Dark Ones who had watched over her sleep. It was a face she knew well. Kai-ya and his wife had taken her under their wing when she had been born, recognising the power within her even as her mother had been caught between agony and gratitude at the handing over of her shaman-child. It was always hard on the clan-family of a blessed one; more so now, for people feared these unusual children as much as they had once honoured them. The powers they held, including the guiding of the dead to the spirit world, were--or had been--vital for clan life but set them apart from all others forever. Sahla had been doubly cursed, or doubly blessed, in that she had been born long-limbed and almond-eyed, two things that made her physically repulsive to the squat Dark Ones with their huge, protuberant eyes all the better for seeing in the dark they roamed. Sahla had spent her entire nineteen years outcast from the society she served, tormented by fearful peers throughout her childhood and treated with a strange mixture of horror and awe when she grew and took on her full role. She often wondered what scared her people the most, the fact that she had powers they could never know, or the fact that she looked so similar and yet so profoundly different to them.

Kai-ya and Dil-ya were the only ones who had not feared her. They had seen the bodies of her ancestor-shamans and they alone still possessed one of the old powers, the dark-moulding that she so excelled at. They had taken her tutelage upon themselves, treated her as their equal, perhaps making up for the loss of their own child. Sahla knew that Hi-ya approved of her relationship with his parents, she talked to his spirit on some rare and precious nights in her dreams, but she had never mentioned this to them--some wounds should not be reopened.

Now she had a wound of her own.

"Kai." She struggled for a smile and reached out a hand to him. She had not seen him for many months before this day.

He grasped her hand and pulled her up into a quick embrace, crushing her fiercely against his chest as though he could reclaim his lost wife in so doing. Sahla wondered if he would die, too. She hoped not. She had heard whispered tales from other Dark Ones that Pale Ones bonded for life and when their mate died the one that was left behind would soon follow. It was a difficult concept to understand for the Dark Ones who saw love as a wonderful gift that should be shared with many.

He released her suddenly, as though regretting such a display of emotion, and held her out at arm's length, looking at her with his intensely dark eyes. She felt a small shudder run through her.

"Your dreams were peaceful last night, Sahla?" he asked her.

"More so than usual. The ancestors are good friends, but very demanding at times."

"I know, Sahla. But be glad of them. You will need many friends in the future."

He turned away, but Sahla felt his tears, even if she could not see them. One did not spend nineteen years with someone and not learn to read their emotions.

"Kai." She reached out to touch him, to send a curl of gleaming darkness into his heart to ease the pain. He drew away. The movement was so minute only she would have noticed it, only she who wondered why the people who had once loved her now seemed so distant. Both Kai-ya and Dil-ya had drifted away from her in the last few years. Dil-ya she could understand in a way, she spent so much time in the land of the Others trying to save their dreamland for those children still to come but Kai-ya... well, Sahla had no idea why Kai-ya did not wish her company any more.

"We all miss her." She struggled against her tears, tears that could have been for herself or for Dil-ya, she wasn't sure. "We all loved her." She hung her head. "Oh damn it, it was so late, when I saw how it happened it was already over. I just wish I could have told you sooner, we could have done something to save her, I don't know... maybe..."

Kai-ya turned, too quickly, brushed away her concern with a short, sharp laugh. "There was nothing you or I could have done. You told me all you could, but it wasn't enough. The true-seeing dreams are often unreliable; there are so many possibilities. It was, perhaps, meant to be. So many painful things are."

He turned away again, stared into the shifting shadows, unable to face her. Sahla frowned. Something told her that this moment was incredibly important. As if to echo her thoughts, the wind howled outside and a log shifted in the central fire, sending glowing sparks dancing across her lap. "What do you have to say to me, Kai?"

He looked back at her, smooth silver face gleaming in the flames. "Your dreams have been changing of late, haven't they, Sahla? Becoming more chaotic, hard to understand? Not just those about Dil-ya, but others, too."

This was not what she had expected, but she recognised that he was leading to something and so played along. "Yes, I see many images of the other world. The rock spires lying shattered, the humans dead alongside them, yet they can't be true-seeing, because all know the humans are immortal, they cannot die."

"Yes, that's what I thought. But Sahla, I have true-seeing dreams of my own."

She almost gasped, stopped just in time.

"Oh, not like the others, not of love and anger, not the turning of remembered cycles, mine are like yours, they reveal secrets, prophesise. I can't tell you where they come from, not the ancestors, I think, but I know they mean something."

"What do they tell you, Kai?"

Even as he spoke the words, she knew they were true. Knew them even as she hated them.

"You must go to the world of humans, Sahla. You must go fully and you may never return."

Chapter Three

Darbo looked around at the semi-circular apartment-cell in which he had spent so many centuries. It was spacious, providing more than enough room for one person. His console and selection of screens took up the entire left-hand wall. For the first time ever they were all turned off, and a hundred blank grey stares greeted his. On the right was his sleeping pallet--sleep was one thing humans had never managed to do without for some reason--folded up against the wall now, and his wardrobe, set flush to the wall, along with a row of cupboards for any personal possessions he may once have had.

The Goddess' body lay stiff and pungent at the centre of a brilliant white sweep of tiles.

Her form was etched in the red ochre she had carried upon her person.

He had drawn her oh so carefully.

It was something he had discovered in the records.

He left her and walked to the door. It seemed surprised when he tried to open it, groaned and shrieked in its fittings, and he had to force it in the end. Darbo had always been strong.

He did not take anything with him. He did not look back. The word home meant nothing to him.

Out in the space beyond, the first thing he did was stare for at least an hour.

The inside of the rock spire reared above his head for nearly a mile, sheered away below his feet, stretched before him like a gaping mouth. There was no end to it. Red rock spun endlessly about him, inset with tiny white doors like a beehive, the workers diligent no more, locked away in eternal hibernation. In the centre of this stood a massive scaffold of metal pipes, interlocking, winding their way up and down the centre of this one of many spires in a city of over a thousand, in a world of three such cities.

And around these climbed the silver life-vines.

Darbo considered the possibility that these vines were a recent addition. No one had been out here in his lifetime and the vines were supposed to exist only in the compartments between the outside and inner walls of the spires. He stepped forwards, his feet clanging hollowly on the metal-gauze platform suspended outside his cell.

On closer inspection the vines did not look healthy. He was unsure whether they were the simple machinery all knew of or organically alive, like humans. Whatever they were, they were falling to pieces. Grey scales covered their outer sheaths and thin spines emerged from their unknown depths, waving at him as though a gentle breeze were blowing through the still air.

Darbo pondered the possibility that the shard of vine inside his body looked like this also, but quickly decided that this could not be so because he was still strong, still intelligent, still immortal.

He let his hand drop from its inspection of the vine. A few shreds of tattered grey material fell away and drifted slowly down into the spire's depths. Maybe it was one of those portents. He had discovered this from those old records, too.

He had discovered a lot.

He turned his gaze to the many cells around him.

About his own race.

He walked along the platform, stopped at the door next to his, raised a hand, rapped on the metal, grazing his knuckle, the small wound healed before the blood had chance to pool.

No one answered. Not a single sound came from within. He moved on to the next one and the next. All the same. He did not tire, he moved around the entire circle of his level, a task that took him all afternoon. By the end his ears echoed with silence.

Back at his own door he stopped, pushed aside its shattered remains, walked back inside, stood over the Goddess.

"Your people have forgotten you," he said to her. He nudged her lifeless body with his toe. A dead deity still did not compute in his brain. "But can you blame them? Indeed," he looked out of the nearby window. It let in only light; no view of the outside world had ever been his. "Who is to blame?" Her black eyes glazed emptily up at him. She did not answer, but then, he had not expected her to. None of them would. Because he knew all about them now.

He bent down and pressed his warm lips to her cold mouth.

"Don't worry," he murmured into her throat. "I will finish what you began."

He slid off her body and climbed to his feet.

The pallet was the first thing he ripped from the wall. It flew through the air with a soundless whine, smashed into half a dozen screens, sent shattered glass whirling everywhere, slashing his skin, skittering across the floor, slicing deep into the Goddess' bloodless corpse.

A chair followed this, took out the console and the main screen, electrical circuits flashing and spitting like a million burst arteries, smoke spiralling blue and choking into the air.

Darbo punched every remaining screen in turn, driving his fist deep into the hollow tube behind the delicate glass, tearing his flesh to ribbons, ribbons that retied in pretty flesh-coloured bows at each and every breath.

His heart continued a normal rhythm, watching emotionlessly while its blank-faced owner kicked in the wardrobe door and ripped the clothes inside to shreds, tossing them over his shoulder to lie with the glass. Cupboards groaned and fell, cracking on the shelves below, ripped free and hurled against walls, gouging great holes wherever they touched.

The pallet leaped into his hands once more and he used it to smash the tiled floor, grinding the metal edge down, twisting it from side to side, sending cracks snaking in every direction.

When the last tile broke Darbo put the pallet down and walked from the room.

The metal-gauze platform trembled beneath his footsteps as he closed purposefully on the metal pipes at the spire's centre. He caught a handhold and leaped into the web, began swinging down from pipe to pipe with consummate ease, watched each circle of cells appear and disappear, never-changing, constantly rising from beneath him, making him feel as though he travelled nowhere, merely danced the fly's dance of futility.

At one point on his journey downwards he came upon a snarl of vines a little different to the others. These vines glistened an ugly bilious yellow, clutched at the pipes in a strangle embrace, quivered violently at his approach.

Darbo looked at them for a long time before deciding what they were and when he did he tore a piece of cloth from his shirt, wrapped his hand in it and tugged them free. They did not break, but simply reeled out length after length of diseased stalk. He was aware of their poison burning his skin despite his protection because his body was working harder at rejuvenation. With this in mind he quickly continued his journey to the bottom of the spire, vines spreading and growing behind him.

The pipes terminated at the foot of the spire in dry, grainy yellow earth, a vast field of sand in which he sank up to his knees upon letting go of his ladder. He spotted the doorway to what he supposed to be the outside world far away on the other side of the circle. It was sculpted of rock, not metal, as rust red as the ochre that had carried away the Goddess. It was the only door on this, the lowest level, as though no human wanted this final linkage to the earth.

Darbo walked over to it, forging a path through the sand, not noticing when it swelled to his waist and threatened to drag him down, still not letting go of the burning vines, intent solely on his goal.

On reaching it he saw that it stood some twenty feet high, seeming to have been made for giants rather than humans. He reached out his free hand and pushed it. It opened smoothly and easily. He did not open it all the way though, but first bent down and plunged the vines deep into the sand, searching for the solid earth below. Then he rose to his full height and walked outside.

His first view of the city was by moonlight. All about him hundreds of spires converged towards the starry sky, silhouetted in shimmering midnight blue, their blood-hue hidden in the darkness.

He turned in a circle, such a small thing by comparison, dwarfed by these jagged towers, this field of motionless life. They spread in every direction, many of them curved in beautifully slenderous designs, some seeming as though they could only fall over, others narrowing infinitely towards their middle only to swell out again at the top. Wind danced around them, tugged icily at his body, wailed and moaned between the ranks, scoured out small holes that would one day grow perhaps to topple a giant. The ground sloped up before him, leading deeper into the city, winding between behemoths. His gaze turned down to another path, almost invisible now, that led to the edge of the city, the last of the spires, and it was this he ran along as the ground began to shake beneath his feet and the great spires groaned in concern.

Darbo ran for miles, stopped just when the diseased vines completed their circuit with the earth, turned and looked.

A small spark flared in one of the spires, bloomed into a brilliant flower of orange and gold, engulfed that which had created it, shattered it into a million glowing-hot pieces, spread to the next in line.

And now the blood-hue returned and Darbo watched it all, so far away that only the fire reached him, watched the humans die in silence, just as they'd lived.

© Lauren Halkon 2002.
Night Seekers by Lauren Halkon
Night Seekers is published by Cosmos Books (September 2002).

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