GODS AND MEN

 

3993 RM - Almagest

However did it come to this? thought Slaven.

     He was chained to a mouldy wall, feet barely touching the ground. Hæmonculi scuttled about the filthy maze of corridors, otherworldly groans and screams echoing around him. He had mapped out each and every crack on the floor (of which there were many...), every rotten weed, every imperfection. Every patch of damp, every stain. He hung there, thoughts tearing apart the world he saw, reassembling it under grim labels. That stain? Blood from previous captives. That indentation?

     The mark left from a struggling prisoner after his head was shattered against the wall. 

     That so proud a warrior had been humbled by surroundings so crass and wretched was humiliating.

     Another scream brought his thoughts back to the present. A pair of slaves walked past him pushing a gurney, its contents more akin to the waste of a charnel mound than a test subject. Discoloured sheets of skin, bruised from the multitude of punctures they had endured whilst attached to living subjects, lay in dishevelled piles atop jars of pickled flesh, catheters and electrodes still attached to them. One of the slaves – a skeletal thing, his skin bearing the tattoos of a once-proud warrior of Kolchis – glanced at Slaven, half-closed eyes lingering on the giant held captive.

     Perhaps the man was admiring his body, the sculpted muscles, the angelic pale skin, the dark eyes. Then Slaven remembered his situation. The slaves’ eyes had rested on the many occlusions that peppered his body like constellations mapping the skeleton beneath. Though once his body had been that of a god, now it hung there, so much as meat in a butchers, weeping black filth from those holes. What had once been skin of enviable alabaster was now a map of blue and purple bruises that charted the last few weeks of his miserable life. Veins pulsed sickeningly beneath, trying hard to restore life to a body that was rapidly diminishing.

     He was dying. And this was his last respite. The final confessional of a man condemned. A measure of hope lay ahead, though what the mind managed to trick a fool into thinking was salvation only served to mask the oblivion that lay ahead.

     He retched, the motion a reflex of his wasting body. That he had travelled across the northern wastes to this nightmarish workshop was testament to the pain he was suffering. Only a man who could see death fast approaching would invite such torture into his life. Only a man who had exhausted all other options – the sinister abjurations of occultists, the prying fingers of a hæmatomancer and his orderlies – would bring himself to a workshop of the flesh.

     Slaven lowered his head and returned his attentions to the room, where another gurney was being pushed past, this one bearing more fruitful evidence of the flesh weavers’ profession. Instead of a collection of parts and experiments there lay a being of true flesh and bone, though there was little of nature left to it.

     It lay back, its body a collection of sutures and raw tissue, fresh from theatre. Once-pale skin had been discoloured by what could only have been repeated applications of the flesh weavers’ craft. Scars marred scars, the thick callouses and dark marks masking the pale skin beneath.

     It had clearly been human once, or at least something akin to human – two legs and arms, a torso and head. Only little of that glorious shape now remained. A forest of fleshy appendages protruded from its back wavering limply from a web of steel scaffolding branching from the gurney. Each ended in a digit – some fleshy, others clearly mechanical – of different description.

     The flesh on its stomach had been stripped mercilessly away and now lay, pinned back, to a metal frame wrapped around its waist, revealing a gaping maw where once organs and flesh had been. Machines beneath the gurney pumped and whirred, spreading life throughout the body, pipes and steel lungs driving vital fluids and shadowstuff around, keeping it alive.

     Slaven closed his eyes, knowing all too well what he was seeing.

     Throughout the empire the so-called art of the technarcanist was clear to see. In its most simple, utilitarian form it could be seen in the shadow-fuelled manufactories of the great cities, the dross processors of meat-farms and the air-purifiers of the filth-laden metropolises that skirted the Inner Sea. In more esoteric forms it was found in the various crafts of the empire; the way amputations and major injuries were enhanced and regraded with technarcane implants. Iron lungs and stomachs, prosthetic limbs, could be replaced if one could afford the procedure. Their creation, implantation and maintenance were complex procedures that relied as-much on chance as the experience and credentials of the technarcanist responsible. The practice had become commonplace amongst some sub-sects of penumbral users, and the upper-caste of imperial society – the patricians and magnates – particularly as material costs and the associated dangers lessened.

     It had been known for millennia that the shadow could be harnessed and manipulated by those sensitive to it, but it was only relatively recent technological innovation that allowed the penumbrally obtuse to wield it or for those skilled in its ways to enhance their abilities. The cost for such powers? The unsightly, sickening and unpredictable technarcane grafts that often became part of their bodies.

     In some patricians the art of body modification had become a drug, particularly so amongst those with close ties with the demiurnes and others of the technarcane profession. There was a form of pleasure to be gleaned from the so-called improvement of ones’ body. It was though the addition of limbs or the grafting of sensory enhancers solidified a patricians’ standing, as if social rank were not boon enough in the strict hierarchies of the empire.

     In recent years the line between machine and man had grown blurred. Across the empire polydactylid scribes sat at lecterns transcribing histories with mechanically-enhanced finger-grafts, each a tool to aid their craft. There existed golems and other constructs in whose metallic bodies could be found fleshy piths; and men whose lives had become so subservient to machines that the two were indistinguishable.

     That was the world of the Korachani empire and many feared what other horrors awaited in the bleakness of future.

     Slaven also could see that future. And he was part of it. At least he envisaged he would have been if he had continued down the path his old life was leading him towards. It was a life initiated by such dark crafts, begun in surroundings not too dissimilar to those he was hanging in.

     He was part of the disease. At least he had been before marrying himself to the notion that he could be different, that he did not have to rely on the shadow to survive. But to life such a life was torture. There were ways around it, he knew. In an empire that had harnessed the shadow, given life to it, rendered the landscape in whatever shape it willed, there was always a way around it.

     So here he was, turning to those he loathed in order to one day shun their influence completely. Was a deal made with darkness to better propagate light one made in vain? Or was there merit to it?

     There had to be. It was what brought him here in the first place…

 

Almagest was a maddening place. To the uninitiated; a man of bucolic life where his world was his home and the few acres around it; Almagest could only have been a place of nightmares, were sanity was crushed and despair existed as the only thing to fill in the void.

     It was massive, a hundred-square-miles of metropolis, regraded streets supporting metal blocks and rotting skyways, bridges and arches, manufactories and slave-rings, workshops and industries. Its people were the insects of a hive, faceless drones working not only to keep themselves alive, but for the betterment of the hive itself. Without them its great machines (driven by slaves as much as the shadow) would cease and their world would tumble. Above, in penthouses far from the reach of smog and death, reigned the patricians and potentates. Below, in the sewers and buried streets of forgotten dynasties, lurked the shunned creatures of the civilised world.

     The sounds and smells alone were enough to batter the lucidity from the mind of an immigrant. Add to that the shock of technarcana, of races other than man, races from the beyond and the mindless hierarchy and bureaucracy of the empire; and one would have a decent idea of the chaos that engulfs its streets.

     Slaven had been to Almagest before, had conquered his battle against its impossibilities long ago. Yet still, the intolerable oddities of its streets put behind him, there returned to him a sense of trepidation when he first saw that gigantic nameless gate. He was not a marked man – he carried no slave-brand and there existed no warrants for his arrest or death (that he knew of) – yet still, there existed reasons for him to avoid conurbations. And there he was, making his way towards the largest city in the known world.

     There were few creatures born outside the vats of the Steel Legions’ birth-chambers that shared his size and shape. Invariably those of other origins that did were halfbloods or otherworlders, whose bodies were without the stigma of occlusions – a trait shared only with others born of a union of the shadow, mortal life and technarcana. Deserters, though uncommon, were searched for by the quartermasters’ corps at the gate of every major city and port (their presence alone being incentive enough for most deserters to avoid the cities and concentrate on the less heavily defended towns scattered around the empire), with those discovered being returned to the Legion and their uncertain fate.

     There existed, of course, ways into any city other than gates. Almagest was no exception. Indeed, its size alone contributed to the many methods a desperate body might employ with which to secrete itself within its borders. There existed the sewers, the docks, duststone caverns beneath the city that connected to the catacomb-like network of subterranean manufactories. Failing that there were always the trade caravans, merchant vessels and the manifold satellite shantytowns that had filled the dry moat surrounding the southern half of the city. Their inhabitants had myriad ways of getting a body into the city… for a price.

 

     The means mattered little now that he was inside, and the quicker he forgot the foulness of it all the better. The degradation of his body continued, his own agenda of little consequence. The days he had spent in the shanty beneath the city walls had been hellish. The profanity of it all, the filth and squalor those outcasts had chosen to life in had done little to better his condition. Their healers had done what they could, but it was merely staving the inevitable, buying a few days where previously all he had were hours. He had parted with the better part of his wealth there, gaining in its place their aid.

     Now he was within those monolithic walls and the wrack had returned, he feared he had wasted it all. But retrospect had a way of rendering obsolete decisions that at the time seemed unavoidable.

     What is important, he tried to remind himself as he lay, back resting on a rusted wall, hands clutched vice-like around his waist as his teeth ground together in pain, is that I am here.

     “No it isn’t,” he said aloud. What matters is that I find that damned bionacha before I die.

     Almagest was renowned the empire-over for being a hub of the so-called art of fleshweaving or, as it was called in the mother-tongue, bionacha. His last hope lay there, if only he survived long enough to get to one of the workshops.

     He had made his way to the district known colloquially as the vault (named after the labyrinth of bridges and vaulted arches on which the districts foundations rest). Once within its great walls the risk of detection amongst the faceless hordes that swarmed the streets was minimal. A cowl and cape to mask his features and sticking to the crowds would be enough. He had become a drop in an ocean, his size and legacy invisible to the casual eye.

     Yet invisibility counted for nothing when his body was failing him.

     He had fallen finally beneath a shallow bridge, the apartments and merchant-houses above hiding him from curious eyes or the slavers that operated in more popular districts. He lay there in the darkness, black blood oozing from his occlusions. The shanty dwellers had wrapped tarps around the implants in an effort to stem the tide, but it had been for nothing. His engineered body was failing under the effects of withdrawal, the little shadowstuff that remained inside him ejected by a body that was trying to save itself from corruption.

     His body was not one of natural design. In technarcanist circles his birth was referred to as an inception. His body had never felt the warmth of a womb, nor the love of a mother. Instead it had known only the kiss of cold steel and the cocoon of lifeless glass. His body was a marriage of flesh and shadowstuff, engineered by technarcanists to carry the best traits of all – the malleability of the shadow and the permanence of flesh. But nothing born of such a union could survive unaided. The dark part of him could not subsist without a diet of shadow, fed intravenously through those occlusions. Without a steady supply of shadow, the darkness within him would begin to die. But as the shadows’ influence waned, what of nature remained in his flesh would battle to rid itself of the taint. It was a vicious circle Slaven had lived with since birth.

     Like a lord supplanted, the shadow was being exiled, what remained of it undergoing a painful diaspora. He was weak, his limbs unable to move. He could barely muster enough strength to move his head around to survey his world. All he could see was darkness, glistening dampness on the pitted walls around him. The faded remains of bills and posters on the walls. Sounds and smells of a variety of discordant sources trickled from grills and openings, though they fell dormant around him as his senses waned.

     Eyes closed slowly even as convulsing pains gripped him. His arms were frozen by an inescapable cold cursing both within and without his body. Veins pulsed achingly, each throb reminding him of the pang that his body was only reacting to, as any starving body did.

     But what was he to do?

     Never before had been so close to absolute despair.

     He closed his eyes in finality and offered himself to Almagest, a half-formed notion of sacrifice barely forming in his thoughts.

     And with that came darkness.

#

 

The buzz of bottled light brought him back to life.

     He had been hanging in darkness for what seemed the better part of his life. His arms were numb, what fluids left in his body having seeped downwards where they lay in stagnation.

     The artificial light scraped painfully against his eyes, revealing his world. The cell was empty, the air absent of other sounds. It took a while for him to remember where he was. Dreams and reality had a habit of mingling when death was so close. He had always thought it was the body’s way of accepting its approaching demise. Turn life into a dream and you can weather any storm. Or something along those lines. He wasn’t sure. Things were still fuzzy.

     He remembered coming to Almagest, falling into darkness. Then… flashes, as though he were seeing glimpses of a story, eyes seeing random pages as they flicked by. He remembered a cart. Hæmonculi struggling with him. And then… an unbearable pain followed almost too suddenly by this room. A holding cell in the flesh-weaver’s workshop.

     Now the full reality of his situation had returned he wished he were still asleep. Or dead.

     No. that was not true. If he preferred death, he would be dead now, a desiccated corpse in the hinterland wastes between cities and nations. He knew such an ignoble end would one day claim him, but this was not that day. If he died it would be as a man freed from the shackles of the shadow.

     A door screeched open, the sound enough to send tremors of enraged friction down his back. Silence. Slamming. Silence. Then a shuffling. Multiple sounds, like walking. Through the dull ache in his head he could barely make out the footfalls of multiple figures. Dragging. Groaning.

     He managed to look up, eyes flitting between corridors, hoping to see what fate had thorn to him this time, what menace he would have to contend with now. But nothing came, only the staccato sounds, the shuffling, the gurgling, mumbling, shuffling. Foot steps, shuffling.

     And then, finally, as though harbingers of the end times, he saw them. Five figures. Three hæmonculi, small, their embryonic bodies disgusting yet simultaneously wonderful. They stood waist height, their once-delicate skin stretched taut over bodies whose every developmental stage had been overseen by mortals. They were naked, the only break in their outline being the dull glint where metal had replaced flesh. One had a small engine on its back, a wisp of shadow following its movements, another was missing an arm, its ribs covered in metal obtrusions.

     Distant Cousins, thought Slaven without a hint of fondness.

     The processes that underpinned a hæmonculus’ inception was similar to those that had governed his own. Both were creatures of flesh and shadow. The differences were subtle, down to things such as money, resources, experience. In all cases, more had been poured into the inception of clones such as Slaven. Hæmonculi were little more than stillborn foetuses infused with shadow and the blood of their creator. Acolytes of technarcana with the influence practiced their skills making such creatures. Inevitably, dozens of failed constructs would pass before something truly alive and functioning came to be. The others – failed experiments – were nothing short of disposable. Their bodies would either be pillaged for organs or recycled, their flesh ground up and mixed into the dross that fed the proletariat slaves of imperial cities. No loss.

     That the creation of live had been trivialised into something akin to an apprentice’s first foray into the crafting of an object was paramount to the decay of the empire. Few saw it, but it was there.

     With the hæmonculi walked two men. One was unimpressive, a typical specimen of the imperial lower-classes. Weak body, sallow skin, subservient. Dull eyes hugged the floor, never once leaving the safety of the flagstones. The coarse robe that covered the mans’ body done little to hide the bony angles of a body that was as malnourished as it was frail.

     The other was an altogether different specimen of the human race, if human it could be called. This was a perfect example of the excesses of the body-cults that filled the upper echelons of imperial life.

     He stood a full head taller than the proletariat slave, his face a sculpture of nobility, indifference. It was a long face with a pointed chin, rendered all the more stark for the way it was stretched over what could only be called a decaying frame. It was clearly a young face, belying the apparent strength of his body, the confidence of his stride, the age of its greyed eyes. The juxtaposition of so young a face over so obviously old a foundation was unsettling; something the dull screws framing his face only reinforced. Each was driven deep into the skull beside a series of small drip-canisters feeding liquids into his skull.

     A tight medical coat concealed the better part of his body but of great interest were the two large spindly mechanical limbs that protruded from his back. Each ended in a pair of long fingers, each twitching as of its own accord as the man moved.

     The group walked up to Slaven, the hæmonculi and slave looking to the flesh weaver for orders or maybe solace. The man nodded wordlessly to the slave and handed him something that was out of sight before Slavens’ drugged eyes could catch it.

     The flesh weaver regarded Slaven as little other than another experiment, another pile of flesh to be shaped and sculpted into forms more appealing to the disturbed nobles and merchant-lords that ascribed to such behaviour. A curt nod followed after which a vile smile curved thin purple lips upwards, revealing teeth that were too white, too perfect to be natural. The man muttered something beneath his breath and walked off, leaving the proletariat slave in charge of the hæmonculi.

     The man prodded the hideous things into action, their clammy skin glinting disgustingly under the false light emitted by the filament bulbs above.

     Two of them worked on the manacles at Slavens’ feet as another clambered up a decrepit ladder beside him, its lean arms working feverishly to undo the latch around his wrist.

     One of the things paused for a moment as it got up the ladder and Slaven saw wet black eyes staring intently at him. The things’ face was a mockery of a mans’ features, unfinished, the skin translucent, the flesh beneath thick and pulsing. Its eyes seemed too large for its soft features. A nose that was little more than two nostrils flared suddenly as the thing breathed and its mouth, little more than a toothless hole, twitched.

     The head cocked gently to one side and the mouth curved upwards into what might have been a smile on a creature more fully-formed. For a second Slaven saw not a hæmonculus, but a newborn babe, its body gifted with true motion, its eyes carrying an intellect and sense of self that was normally absent from one so young.

     For a second Slaven saw not a diminutive cousin, but a brother, a creature born of the empire’s hatred and iniquity. All that separated the two from each other had been a matter of resources spend during their creation. But the thought was gone and as the thing tore its eyes away from his and returned to work, it became a hæmonculus again; a mockery of life, twisting the purest of forms into something unnatural.

     “Come, man of steel. The weaver of flesh awaits you,” spoke the slave as the hæmonculi scuttled about him.

     Slaven tried to step forward, but fell, the feeling in his legs not yet returned. He hit the ground hard, his stomach retching violently at the renewed strain on his body. Strings of black stuff hung from his mouth as he retched violently.

     “Come. Your new life awaits you.”

 

#

 

They found him under that bridge, a heap of dormant flesh above a stinking pool of shadowstuff. Flies and fouler vermin buzzed around him, attracted by the filth of the penumbra.

     He was barely conscious, a step away from death and the oblivion that the shadow would have had of him. They had him surrounded; men of the empire, men of the workshops. He could not see any faces, any features with which he might identify them later on.

     Feet stepped into the shadowstuff. It clung to soles and leather as they shifted, trying the gain a footing against his weight. Tendrils of the stuff trailed away, unwilling to let go. Gloved hands fumbled about his arms, pulling at his cape, tugging, trying to release him from his shadowy prison. He let them move him, as far as the filth beneath him would allow them.

     They eventually managed to tear his limp body away and he was hauled up onto a steam-powered ambulant, its tracks tearing at the flagstones as it moved away.

     The rest was a blur. He remembered them undressing him, applying catheters to his occlusions. Then everything was black again.

     When he next woke, his entire world had changed. The immediate pain of his waning body was gone, replaced with a frigid doppelganger lurking beneath his skin. The shadow had returned to him and was settling into his flesh, finding its every corner and cavity, secreting itself there. He could feel its influence tearing down his dying body’s defences, erecting its own bastions from which it would rule unconquerable, as long as its numbers were kept supplied, fed, watered.

     He allowed the rush of life to envelop him, bring cold sensation back to his muscles, limbs. Thoughts dissolved into patterns of ecstasy he could not and cared not to place. Beneath closed lids he could see the light of streetlamps passing him by. The sounds of his captors echoed shapelessly about him as he writhed, enjoying the life coming back to him, the shadow bringing him back from death.

     But still, deep beneath the waves of pleasure, the pangs of gratitude, he could feel the hatred simmering. The touch of that substance, while inuring him to the greater of his emotions, still brought with it an abhorrence he could not ignore. He had come to Almagest to rid himself of this curse, yet he had allowed himself to be consumed by it. He had allowed it to kill him and here he was, brought back from the abyss by the one thing he wanted to be rid of.

     Was this to be the pattern of his life? A long hard struggle against the inevitable only to have it rise triumphant and tear him down, only for it to retreat, its very appearance that which can only bring him back from death, oblivion, if that was the case he would rather die, here, now, than go on and live a twisted life dependant on the Penumbra. He wanted to be a man free of constraints, with the world open before him.

     Silent tears trickled down his cheeks as the ambulant trundled across the streets of Lower Almagest, taking him ever closer to his fate.

 

Neither hæmonculus nor slave waited for him. On limp limb and raw arms he had crawled out of that holding cell, trying hard to keep up with his gaolers.

     “Wait,” he called, his voice meek, barely a noise above the echoes that populated those corridors.

     “Lord Kharnel does not wait,” said the slave. Then, turning round and returning to Slaven, “You sat and waited in the Vault, waited until we came for you. What if we had not found you, eh?” said the man, kicking at Slaven.

     The clone fell to the ground in a heap, his body unable to nullify the blow. In any other stage of his life that man would have posed no threat to him. Indeed, he would barely have even considered him. But this was his life now, this was what he had become, a wretch of a man at the mercy of lesser beings.

     The man kicked again “Clone. Coming here for help. You should be in the armies fighting, not here fleeing. Coward.” Another kick and the man returned to his path, the hæmonculi continuing silently in his wake. One of them risked a quick glance back at Slaven as it moved.

     He forced himself up and followed the procession.

     It was a torturous march, filled with the screams and groans of others consigned to fates akin yet not identical to Slaven’s.

     Slowly, step by step, every movement as though fuelled by the anguish that surrounded him, he moved. He found strength enough to stand up, to stumble onwards, his large frame catching up with the shuffling hæmonculi and their would-be master.

     The others stopped before a metal door, an intricate maze of cogs and other workings covering it. This was no bunker door – the need for reinforcement and armour was absent – though there was something about whatever lay beyond that necessitated a lock as complex as that.

     For minutes they waited after the slave inserted a complex key into a lock, the cogs slowly moving, chains lifting, pulling distant counterweights aside. The grinding of metal filled the hall, reverberating throughout the walls, the ceiling, the floor. And then, as it had begun, so too it ended, the sounds dissolving into nothingness leaving nought but the harrowed breathing of the hæmonculi to fill the void left in its place.

     Behind the door was a large space. Dark, illuminated by the dimmest of light tubes gripping the grimy ceiling, it stretched on, doors filling the eastern wall. The opposite wall was covered in shelves and cabinets, each crammed with the paraphernalia of the flesh weavers’ trade. Canisters and glass jugs sat on bow-backed shelves, the vile contents unidentifiable behind the murky preservative liquids that filled them. Slaven spied conjoined specimens, their lifeless eyes following him as he passed. In another was a foetus, its shape offensive, unnatural, as though the facets of a dozen beings had been forged into one.

     Machinery chugged and spluttered to life as they moved on, the lights above flickering for a few moments before returning to life, brighter than before. Smoke crawled out from some unseen fissure beyond, filling the air with its stench. Rattling, banging, sawing, buzzing and all manner of other sounds, their sources best left unseen behind closed doors, filled the hall.

     The slave prodded Slaven as they approached one of the doors. “In here.”

     “Is he not coming with us?” asked Slaven, referring to the weaver that had inspected him earlier.

     “The overseer? You wish you were so lucky. He does not work. Leaves the work to those that need the experience. He’s in it for himself now, only looks to his own flesh, if you know what I mean. You, my friend will fall under the expert eye of the Lord Bionacha Kharnel. He’s father to the blood brothers here,” he said, gesturing to the hæmonculi, who fidgeted awkwardly under his gaze as though they opposed the attention. “’course, he’s got larger achievements under his belt. Don’t you worry about that. With the amount of bits you paid, we’re hardly going to leave you in the hands of a neophyte. Would we now, friend?”

     “I am no friend of yours, proletariat,” said Slaven, the last word intended to sting.

     If the man saw insult in Slaven’s words, he did not show it. “Accomodation’s paid for, as are food and refreshments. Enjoy the services, they come highly recommended. Though the odd mishap is unavoidable,” he said, glancing furtively to the armless hæmonculus.

     “Lord Kharnel awaits you,” he grinned finally, the door grinding open ahead of him.

 

#

 

His world was roiling. His innards ached, the ambulants’ every bounce and ricochet reverberating through his body. His bones shook, his muscles trembled and, worst of it all, he could feel his life ebbing. Something had brought him back from the brink, he knew it – otherwise he would be already dead, but whatever it was had only been a transitory solution. Perhaps a shadow-infusion of low potency; enough to stimulate his organs, his mind, into thinking it was waxing beneath restored shadow. but already the effects were wearing off.

     His vision was blurred; the intricacies of the machinery around him, the great engine that moved the ambulant ever forward through the winding alleys of Almagest, appearing

indistinct. Sounds came to him in muffled tones, the sounds of his captors muted and unclear as though their words were of an alien tongue whose secrets he did not know.

     Then everything was still. Immediately so as though perception had omitted a stage of proceedings. He was kicked, shoved, pulled until he felt the ambulant growing farther away, the wet ground closer. The two – man and earth – met painfully. His world went black.

     When the darkness went he was wet, face on the cold floor, leather- and metal-clad feet trundling beside him. Looming before him was an indistinct thing; large, dark, gigantic. Slaven winced through pain, trying to bring his world into focus.

     He was looking at a huge structure, an entire block, its true size protected from scrutiny by the thick smog that painted the air of the lower city. Pinpricks of light peppered the grey mass, themselves disappearing when the airs’ impurities became too strong to overcome.

     You don’t breathe air in almagest, you chew it, came the old adage. He couldn’t remember where the saying came from, why it returned to him then, of all moments, and, truth be told; he didn’t care. There were more important things to worry about.

     He was on his feet; through no effort of his own, rather the combined strength of a half dozen menials. A flash of pain brought the world into stark focus for a moment and he saw his captors with unflinching detail.

     They wore heavy coats, those leather many-layered things made common by damp imperial cities. Though once pale, they bore the corruption of the empire proudly, as though a coat of arms, and the many stains and stygian blemishes had turned the things into a patchwork of filth. High collars and thick goggles shielded ashen faces from the harsh world, leaving the nature of his captors unknown.

     Though he was beginning to understand what was happening. He had paid a large amount of money to the men of the shanty and, though he had his reservations about the truth of their claims, he was now beginning to understand the totality of their devotion once a deal was struck. Evidently there existed amongst the slummers of Almagests’ southern moats a far greater degree of honour than with the so-called civilised folk within. If Slaven survived this ordeal he’d remember this.

     And, with full realisation of his situation settling in, another feeling overcame him. Hesitation. He had wanted to do this for so long, had lived in the dream of realising this very moment for so many years that the truth of it, should it come to pass, evaded him. Was the shadow really such a harsh mistress? It had given him life – a life far superior to that of the lesser beings around him – and could sustain that life for an inordinate length of time. Was his drive for independence really worth the attentions of an outlawed surgeon? What if the procedure failed? Would he still be in the debt of the Shadow, shackled by its edicts and restrictions? What other option did he have? Go on living a life enslaved to the shadow until its abjurations finally claimed him?

     The gods of old had created mortals in their image, though they had been of free will. The gods were of grace and wisdom enough to give mortals a choice. They had even allowed mortals to forsake them. Slaven wanted the same choice. But he knew his mortal creators were not of wisdom enough to allow him to abandon them. There was more to life than just warfare and servitude. To lay supine before the shadow was an insult to his ideals.

     It had to be done. The only way he could leave his old life behind was to enter that building, subject himself to whatever tortures he knew would follow. He saw it as a penance of sorts, a castigation for the very desire to annul his link with the shadow.

     And the Penumbra did not enjoy losing followers.

    

#

 

He was in hell, or the closest thing to one in on Elyden. He knew the horrors of Daekyn, the nature-bending chaos that was Kharkharadontis. The madness and soul-destroying depths of Carceri were a thing of legend in the northern provinces of the empire, known to even the simplest of proletariats; its unending cavernous sprawl, the monolithic byzantine idols that stood, miles beneath the surface, buried in the dust of aeons, their sightless eyes looking upon a world that is without reason or form. It was said that that deep demesne was bedlam given corporeal form, where madness and despair propagated an anarchy that could not be imagined in the realms above. Some said its capital – a sprawling rotting city known as Pandæmonia - had its foundations rooted firmly in the decaying ruin of the Demiurge Vorropohaiah. Few knew the specifics of that particular legend and fewer still knew how true the myth was, how close to home that wretched place actually was.

     Slaven had always envisaged that place to be the most akin to the hell of imperial churches creed. Only it was real, a tangible thing that was planted deeply in the flesh of Elyden. Yet, walking down the corridor of that outlawed practitioner, the weight of his decision bearing down on him, Slaven felt as though he had found a new personal hell.

     The hæmonculi walked on, their false bodies walking with an odd shambling gait. The armless specimen would turn its black orbs towards him occasionally, their featureless depths belying an interest that struck Slaven as misplaced.

     Perhaps the wretch envies me, he thought. Though immediately he saw the folly of such words. There was little envy in a man who willingly brought himself to such a place, to have the shadow removed from his body in a last desperate bid for normalcy. Perhaps the thing was wondering why he, a paragon of what could be achieved through the technarcane arts, would forsake that which made him so much more than a mere human. He looked at the thing after it turned round, its spindly foetal limbs and the disproportionate head and truncated body. The glistening pale skin, the muscles and blood beneath. It was difficult to believe that the same processes that had churned that thing out of an amniotic vat had also produced him, a free-thinking, fully formed man, his own capacity for doubt and question the reason for his sadness. Perhaps it was better to be without thought, to be an automaton, without worry or capacity for thoughts greater in complexity than the drive to eat, sleep, drink. Like him, the hæmonculi lacked true sexual organs so one of the prime desires and drives of most mortals was absent in him and his kin. He had little concept of sexual drive though had seen the human mercenaries, the general-patricians, the conscripts, all fraternising with the crass hangers-on that followed in the wake of the armies when they were on campaign. He’d heard them doing things he could never hope to do or even understand.

     He would never know the feeling of having a son or daughter. But who of a sane disposition would want to bring a child into a world where vat-grown clones waged filthy war in the name of depraved magnates that regarded people as cattle, slaves, pawns? Who wanted to live in a world where the air itself slowly killed you, where the dross people ate was made from processed charnel overflow? Who even wanted to continue living in a world that was slowly dying, every day bringing its entropic demise that much closer to fruition?

     I do, he thought, wondering why.

He followed the creatures down a manufactory-wrought spiral staircase, its thick paint bubbled and peeling, flakes of rust protruding from underneath. Above, what seemed an eternity away, he could see a distant skylight, its dull circular window echoing a time when its coloured panes were without grime and filtered clean light. Now it served only to remind him of the corruption of his world, within and without.

     Finally, they reached the bottom. It was an atrium of sorts, septagonal in projection, a heavy metal door dominating every wall. It was dark, the only illumination produced by a single bottle of trapped light hanging from the gridded ceiling, its orange light throwing stark shadows over everything, bringing out every imperfection in the corroded walls.

     The hæmonculi ambled towards the far door, beside which stood a decrepit gurney. A thick patchwork of webs and dust rooted it to the floor. Through the grey sheets putrid stains struggled to be seen.

     Inner bolts retracted and a schism divided the door in two. It screeched into life, the gap between the two panels widening. Immediately a stark white light, entirely different from any he had seen before, flooded into the atrium.

     His world turned white. Slowly his vision adjusted and the large multi-tiered room before him became visible. Walls unseen behind archaic machinery and murky glass-framed vats held up a high ceiling that was a lattice of steaming pipes, hissing vents and brass conduits. Around the room stood islands of contrivances Slaven had no name for, their spidery limbs reminding him of the inquisitorial fraternities’ torture devices.

     For a moment Slaven thought he had returned to the place of his inception; where it had all began. But it could not be. The manufactory of his origin, designated Al-001, was a gigantic place, a city in its own right, its populace slaves to the great birthing machines and flesh harvesters that filled its cavernous halls. This place was a shanty in comparison, a ramshackle collection of misappropriated apparatuses and machines of dubious technarcane application.

     “Finally, clone. I was beginning to wonder when you were going to arrive,” came a voice from a hitherto unseen figure. The voice was strange, carrying hints of a Mharokkan accent. The place was renowned for its flesh-weaving colleges and the various creatures its students had created had become staples of Mharokk; beasts of burden of all shapes and sized, most of them nameless, called the place home. It fitted in. A Mharokkan bionacha, his methods controversial, stripped of his licence, his workshop confiscated by the flesh-councils. Disgraced, the man fled to the only place he could continue his work in anonymity yet still garner a trusted client-base – Almagest.

     Slaven turned and saw before him a figure that had once been alive. What he now saw was far from what could be described as a being of living flesh.

     “You were expecting another?” spoke the figure, words emerging from an orifice that only under close scrutiny was revealed to be a mouth. Black tendons pulsed and contracted as the thing spoke, as though in mockery of muscles. Around and within those penumbral muscles were diodes, wires and shadow-pumping tubes, all struggling to work in tandem. Behind them was a metallic frame on which the black muscles were rooted, machinery working behind to keep them alive, working. Beneath it all was the tell-tale sign of a mortal jaw and teeth, atrophied gums and desiccated muscles ailing beneath. A fleshy black tongue curled behind it all.

     Slaven was glad for the thick burlap cowl that obscured the rest of the things’ face, though could not help himself from staring in the unnatural glow of its eyes that penetrated from beneath the darkness. He felt each of them scrutinising him as a flesh weaver might examine a lump of meat beneath a magnifier.

     “I knew to expect the unexpected. This is not my first time in such a chamber,” admitted Slaven. “And neither will it be the last.”

     Beneath the burlap robes Slaven could see distended masses, shapes twitching with mechanical whirrs. A large fleshy growth could be seen through holes in the cowl through which pipes and leather tubes coiled. From that mass protruded a single grotesque arm, trifurcated at the elbow; each a fleshy stalk with spindly ‘fingers’ swaying emptily above.

     It was amazing how a creature so unabashedly unnatural and mocking of the human condition could have a voice so... normal.

     The man moved closer, his technarcane legs whirring beneath the tattered burlap lengths. The stench of raw flesh and healing scar-tissue followed in his wake.

     “You are a clone. Vat-born marvel of the Technarcane world. Body perfected through the implementation of technarcana, Penumbrism, occultism, science and prayer. Skeleton hardened and matured to its full potential through implanted organs, calcium supplements, aided by the penumbra. Muscles developed to their full potential through electrical stimulation, and hypertrophic infusions. Occlusions through which venous drips can be applied, penumbral deposits cleansed and replaced: seventeen on the back, three on each limb, three on the torso, two leading directly to glandular growths – grown and implanted to aid distribution – in the neck. Thirty-four conduits through which the Shadow can enter and leave your body. The perfect mortal engine.

     “It is a wonder to behind and never will I tire of seeing the perfection that mortal hands have wrought in the creation of the legionnaires. It truly is a miracle. The variables, the countless reactions – chemical, biological, mechanical, penumbral – that must successfully take place, in specific order, at specific times, to ensure a complete, perfect specimen. The slightest problem – an imbalance caused through faulted hormonal growth, the failure of implants or artificial organs to take root, the strength and single-minded nature of the penumbra – could cause the entire vessel to rupture, mutate, die. Who knows how many failed specimens must be discarded for the creation of one pure man-of-shadow –”

     “Six.”

     “Six?”

     “Six failed specimens to get to the man that stands here before you.”

     The technarcanist nodded slowly, his cowl pulling on the contraptions hidden beneath. “You are lucky, clone. Most of your brothers must pass through dozens of iterations before a perfect form can be gleaned. Few, however, know of such things. How is it you know about your heritage in such a… specific way. Where you lucky enough to see your failed iterations?”

 

     There was hardly any luck about it. It had been a coincidence some years past that brought him to the manufactory of his inception. It was blind fate that drew him to those six vats, the bodies contained within, some little more than misshapen embryos, others fully grown men, their bodies more tumour than anything else.

     Slaven skirted the question. “I was told that you are a man in a hurry. Why waste time with words when you can begin your work?”

     A mockery of a smile erupted on the mans’ so-called mouth, stretching shadowy-tendons to their limit. Diodes flashed, mechanical veins pulsed. “Eager,” continued the faceless, normal voice, “yet if I am to do my work properly I must first understand my subject.”

      The man had no compunctions about his trade. Slaven was an experiment and little else. Perhaps a means of income and continued practice. He was an artist, the abysmal machinery around him the brushes and paints with which he would compose. Slaven was simultaneously subject and canvas, a man posing for a masterpiece to which he was to be the medium.

     “What must you know?”

     “Weaving is not a simple procedure, clone,” said the man. Slaven wondered if those unseen eyes were studying the change in his expression, the annoyance that painted itself across his features whenever the man called him clone. He doubted it. “This is not the maintenance of a simple ambulant or engine. Though machinery in all its complexity plays a role here, I must also contend with more malleable and therefore weaker materials; flesh, bone, blood, gristle, tendons, veins. All corrupt so much more readily than metals. Yet there remains about them something divine, the spark of life that makes us what we are.”

     Not all of us can rightfully claim such things, though Slaven, thinking of the man, his body. Was there enough of his original body left for him to quantify as a real man? Then again, when did one draw the line? Slaven himself had come about from penumbral manipulation, the addition of man-made organs, grafts, chemicals, Throne-knew what else. He was just a step away the cold anonymity that stood before him. There was enough humanity left of Slaven for him consider himself a man. There had to be. That was why he was there.

     “Are you a man?” he asked suddenly.

     “If you refer to my sex… I was once yet. Hormonal supplements work to maintain a semblance of my old vocal tones. I must admit, I am insulted that you cannot make that out yourself. But I presume that those bred for warfare were never too good at detecting certain nuances; vocal, cultural… moral.”

     “I can assure you Kharnel, that your tones are probably the only thing about you that are distinctly human. And your presumptions about me are no less insulting.”

     “I thought there was something different about you. More, specifically; your belief in the presumption that you are different. You are a clone, and if there is something about your ilk that can be said with any degree of certainty, it is that you are all alike. You are not beings of the natural world,” said the man, the irony of his words seemingly passing unnoticed. “You are to a man as man is to a god; a lesser being, a creation. You are manufactured, like an ambulant, a powdergun. The design is more complex, but the principals remain the same. You emerged from the glass womb identical to your vat-brother before you, and your vat-brother before him.”

     “That is not true. I am here where none of my brothers ever could be. They remain amongst the legion, slaves to a cause that is not their own.”

     “You are a deserter where they are not?

     “Of course they fight for their cause. Their very life is tied to the legions. Were it not for the legions, the beneficence of the Arch-patricians, the blessings and gifts of the Archpotentate himself and the Penumbra beneath him, you would have no life. It should be your duty and joy to serve them to whom you owe your life.”

     “As you serve the Great Crafter? You recognise only one of the old worker-gods He created. What of the others?”

     A laugh erupted from the half-man. The sound was off, artificial like the scraping of metal. “The great crafter? Ællimé is but a legend, a creation myth propagated by inferior cultures. We understand the world now, know how it works and there is no room in such a world for gods and idols.”

     Slaven was surprised. More than once since entering the building he had seen icons of the imperial faith, the Undying Machine Rachanael. Overlooking doorways, in small niches. Even in the streets outside he had passed dozens of road-statues, their towering mass looming over all below, reminding (as though it were necessary) everyone that life without Rachanael were impossible.

     Slaven needed a god, perhaps more-so than humans whose direct link to the worker-god Rachanael gave them something he did not have. He had been born of mortal hands. Often he felt hollow and cold inside. Always, he had attributed that to the shadow that dominated his life but, now he was beginning to wonder if it was something else, something greater that was missing.

     “I asked if you were a man because of this,” he said, gesturing to his appearance, the burlap skin covering what horrors Slaven daren’t imagine lay beneath. “You said that flesh and soul are what make us human. If so then I fear you have forsaken your humanity for rewards of the flesh. Or should I say, the machine.”

     “Flesh is weak. It is this,” said the main, lifting an arm that was equal parts shadowstuff, machine and flesh to his temple, “which marks us out as different from other beings. Flesh sickens, becomes corrupted. It dies. A machine can live on though its individual parts may die. A broken cog, a cracked strut, a shattered diode; all can be replaced, updated. Flesh is constrained by mortal laws. Those laws can be overcome. Just look at yourself. You are a miracle of what can be done through perseverance and ingenuity –”

     “And a disregard for the natural order.”

     “What natural order?”

     “Exactly, we have destroyed nature!”

     “Not destroyed, but tamed. We have moulded the world into our very image! Tell me where our glorious empire has not yet erected cities? Almagest is the largest city ever known. Durchaa and its wondrous manufactories cut a path in the frozen north. Venthir and its gem Teigris, flanking the great desert river. Wherever we look, we have but to put our minds to it and the world is ours. There isn’t a resource that we haven’t harnessed, a branch of technarcana we have not studied.”

     “Have you been to Vârr? It is a wasteland of spent strip mines and quarries; its every resource torn out from Elydens’ skin until nothing remained. We subjugated its people and abandoned them when we wasted their land. Every place we turn to, we destroy. The Inner Sea is lifeless. The deserts of Almagest, Kharkharadontis, the Arid Triptych, all are exacerbated by our presence. We war with everyone we meet and do not rest until we win. I am an extension of that hunger, a tool designed and brought about to destroy the world.

     “And I want out. That is why I am here.”

     “You want exile from the empire that fathered you? You will shun the shadow?”

     “I want to be rid of the tethers of subjugation. I want to be a free man, free to make my own mistakes. Free to kill myself with my actions, if fate would have such an end of me.”

     “You are right clone. You are different from your brothers. You are misguided, a contrarian. I have not had the fortune to see many legionnaires in my time, though the ones I have seen are not as questioning as you. There is a trace of humanity about you that is most… disconcerting. You are not like my hæmonculi-scions. You think too much. I fear what may become of you if we remove the shadow from the equation.”

     “Then I have wasted my journey.”

     “No journey is wasted. I know men like you. Philosophers they call themselves. They question everything under the sun and moons just because they can. They question the nature of the Ether and Incarnate. They question their very existence. They ask questions to which mortals should not know the answers, let alone clones, whose natures should not afford them the luxury of thought or doubt. It is not your place to ask, to discover. You are a slave to the imperial machine.”

     “As are you and every creature that lives willingly under its yoke. You may not see it. Perhaps you see it and chose to ignore the signs, to blind yourself to the inevitability of it because you know. You know that we are but insects slaving under the unbending rule of a great queen, and she is dark and unforgiving and in the end she will work us and the world around us dry. I have seen the deadlands, the perverse way nature has been driven insane. I have seen the land itself being torn apart. I have seen the skies burn and seas boil and before it is through we will all be gone, the only remnants of humanity the decrepit, wracked misshapen ruin of civilisation.”

     “You have a penchant for the melodramatic that will not go unnoticed in the halls of the upper city... Have you even thought of it, clone? What would you do with yourself once shorn from the shadow? You can hardly wander the streets of the empire, your legionnaire body, your legion-tattoos plain for all to see. The drivers and gangers that haunt ports and caravenserais throughout the empire will know you for what you are on sight. You cannot hide whilst you remain here. You must not only rid yourself of the shadow, but you must exile yourself of all that which you know.”

     “I have survived this long. I will survive longer without the shadow”

     “But you will be weaker, a god cast down from the firmament to fester amongst mortals. Why would you want to rid yourself of such a gift where men such as I have strived for cold hard years to become more?”

     “You are what you are through choice. I have no choice but to inhabit this skin, to walk hand in hand with shadow. As you chose your life, so too I want to chose mine.”

     “You must understand now, before we are to even begin talking about the horrors of what you will go through, the pains of having the shadow expelled, that not the best weaver in all the empire, not even the Lord-magnate General Sarxifex can rid you completely of the Shadow-taint. You are born of shadow and into shadow you will die. I can rid you of the organs that rely on shadow, lessening your reliance on it. I can remove your occlusions, the network that lines your body. As you have learnt to live with the shadow, so too will you learn to live without it. You will need to leave this place for reasons other than your appearance. You will crave the shadow and must be as far from its promise as you can. Only then will you be safe, as close to free as you can ever be.

     “But the shadows’ roots grow deep. They can never be removed fully. Not here, and not by me. You will have to go east, learn the ways of the firmament to neutralise the shadow that dwells within. But you will be a broken man, a ruin of what you were once, and but a fragment of what you could be if only you turn your drive towards the shadow and not from it.”

     “It is my choice to make.”

     “The freedom you seek is not all you think it to be,” said the bionacha. Hybrid arms reached up and lifted off the coarse cowl, the grotesque artificial arm rearing from his back pulling it further, its muscles of flesh and steel and shadow visibly working.

     Revealed was a pathetic, broken thing. As Slaven had thought, Kharnel was less man than machine, and what of the man remained was a corpse. Where flesh was visible beneath machines and catheters and piping and orthoses, it was necrotised, a series of rotting patches covered in wretched sutures and bruises. The stench of dying flesh and the neutralising shadowstuff was intense.

     But beneath the machine, beneath the construct, there remained a fleshy core that pulsed warmly. Whatever Kharnel had done to himself, there remained something of him that could be called a man. But was it enough?

     “I chose this fate but if I could go back and do it again… would I? Who knows.”

     Slaven was silent, wondering if the man was asking him not to do it, not to destroy who he was because of a dream that may not come to fruition.

     “I have made my choice. All I need is someone to carry it out.”

     Kharnel replaced the cowl.

     “You stand a god amongst men. You can be so much more, yet you seek less. It will not be easy, but it can be done.

     “It will be done.”

END

©2018 by Nate Mangion