Shadows Under Hexmouth Street

Issue #89

Yengec watched dust motes tumble across the empty apartment. No question about it—Hjel Lotspiech, Longmere’s polisomancer, had disappeared.

The landlady, a towering Northland woman with braided white hair and a wooden hand, stood in the room’s center, watching him. “I told you. He left. He hired some porters last Sootday and took everything away.”

Yengec found that fact hard to comprehend. He’d been to Hjel’s rooms often enough to remember the way the old man had doted upon the overstuffed book shelves, the rustic blackwood furniture, and the walls with their mementoes: the mounted homunculus carcass and the crossed pair of rat-sized spears.

“Any idea where they went?” Yengec asked.

The woman gestured downtown with her wooden hand. “That way.”

Afterwards Yengec stood on Alabaster Street, with Longmere’s crowds swelling around him, his ears numbed by passing shudderwagons, chittering homunculi, and shouting broadsheet sellers.

“Chaos in the Council Chamber! Wizards battle to determine Longmere’s fate!”

Yengec bought a sheet and hopped aboard a passing omnibus. Hjel would’ve hated to hear those words. He hated the word ‘wizard’ almost as much as he hated Chief Alchemist Jurgen Trenche’s plan to ‘free’ Longmere through selective demolition. Whole neighborhoods would be destroyed as if by some rampaging dragon’s whim. Even the Curio Market District where Yengec rented rooms from a maternal cousin would be destroyed. Work crews had already put up barricades throughout the district’s graying colonnades and wood-frame houses.

Now no one could stop it. Yengec frowned at the crowded streets beyond the omnibus’s window. Least of all a simple apprentice polisomancer.

Cities bring together vast quantities of matter, both inanimate and animate. On one hand you have the populace with all their dreams and aspirations; on the other you have the elements—fire, thunder, water, earth—the basis for all. The two sides are not distinct. They mix like the currents where two rivers meet.

Halfway across the Municipal Tower’s lobby, beneath the fresco depicting the First Triumph of His Excellency the Lord Mayor, Jurgen Trenche, the city’s Chief Alchemist, fell into stride beside Yengec, their footsteps ringing loud in the arched chamber. He was smaller than Yengec but thicker and better dressed. A homunculus fluttered at his heels, a rat-eyed creature with pink skin dappled by mossy brown fur. Yengec tensed as Jurgen touched his elbow.

“Any news?”

“None.” Yengec slid from the grip, but Jurgen stayed at his side. An unctuous smile sat on the alchemist’s lips.

“I’m worried. Hjel’s a very gifted man with some truly unique ideas. But to disappear like this.” Jurgen shook his head. “The same thing happened to his master, Abelard, years ago. He too disappeared without a trace. Be sure to let me know if you hear anything.”

“As you wish, Jurgen.”

He nodded and they parted, the homunculus skittering away after its master, toenails clicking against the tile floor. Yengec swore twice under his breath. Once for Jurgen and his alchemical rat, and once for Hjel because the old man had left behind this mess.

The day passed in fits and rumbles, like indigestion, the Maps and Wards Department spasming between stagnation and chaos. As Longmere’s now-sole polisomancer, Yengec faced a desk sinking beneath a rising tide of reports, notes, and strange correspondence from various city officials, clerks, and homunculi messengers. A hint of the city’s spirit resided within the mass of paper, and a polisomancer’s job was to find it. However Yengec had not attained Hjel’s mastery, and the city’s spirit remained opaque paperwork after all. Still he logged each piece, as Hjel would have.

Vleshite Cultists hold parade to honor sacred egg of ancestral lizard. Alchemical fire erupts during funeral in aerial crypt. Man claims derelict ship rose from river and docked at pier. Aboriginals worried by weak eel harvest; blame resurgent leviathan population.

No glamour here. No thaumaturgy. No Longmere whispering in his ear.

We’re little more than historians of the quotidian, as Hjel often said, although he would have dragged Yengec out to interview witnesses.

“Deli-berry.” The office homunculus dropped a parcel on the desk, then swallowed the ashbin’s contents. The creature coughed-spat the bent paperclips onto its palm and hooked them through its tattered lapels.

Yengec left the parcel untouched and stared at the city’s map tacked to the wall. Somewhere among those delineated streets was Hjel Lotspeich. For a time Yengec had expected foul-play, but the trip to Hjel’s rooms had freed him of that assumption.

He shook himself from his thoughts and took up the parcel. It was similar to countless others: a simple wax-coated courier envelope with no return address, only Yengec’s name written crudely in grease pencil across the front. This one held a thick rectangular object. With a distracted sigh Yengec slit it open.

A book fell with a dull thud onto his desk.

Battered, travel-worn, and bound in ochre leather, its feather-light pages splashed by countless cups of gahveh—Yengec would have known this book even without the polisomancer’s sigil on its cover.

Hjel’s journal.

The hand was neat, the pages dense with notes and diagrams; Hjel’s thoughts on the city mixed with polisomancer’s cant.

Yengec stared after the homunculus, but the creature had left. He opened the journal. Reading it was like walking Longmere’s streets beside Hjel. Flipping pages, he turned to the final entry.

“I have done what I can to prepare. The Sarkaja Vine appears. Grundlag has arrived. The Hex rises. The time has come for Longmere to choose her fate.”

Yengec slammed the book closed. No answers; only more riddles.

He knew the Hex. It was the name of a river, long since buried beneath the cobblestones in Old Town. Ages ago the aboriginals had used it to float their dead out into the harbor. The Sarkaja Vine? Grundlag?

The Vine nagged at him. He’d heard of it recently somewhere. Yengec set the journal aside and went back over the day’s log.

The Sarkaja Vine. It was there:

Man claims derelict ship rose from river and docked at the pier.

The ship’s name was The Sarkaja Vine.

Dreams and aspirations; spirits mixing with raw elements. Longmere’s children: paramentals, not cauldron-borne like homunculi but spontaneously generated from the city itself.

The docks, Old Town, at the edge of the Eel Butchers’ Quarter. Night haze obscured the streets, carried in by a faint damp breeze off the harbor. Half the piers lay rotten like blackened stumps marching into the water. Decrepit skiffs and creaking barges sat tied to the remaining ones.

Away from the water’s edge, two river patrolmen stood beside a fire warming their hands. The flames reflected off their brass torcs and lacquered black breastplates. They appraised Yengec as he approached, gloved hands around truncheons.

“Maps and Wards,” Yengec said, fumbling for his identification. He stared at the derelict ship floating beside the pier.

The Sarkaja Vine listed with its broken mast at a perilous angle, reeking even at this distance of salt and the harbor bottom. Starfish and sea urchins clung to its sides, its cabin windows black as beetles.

“No way it should be floating,” the patrolman said, passing Yengec back his papers.

“Have you been aboard?” Yengec asked. They laughed.

“Bad enough we have to deal with rats and other riff-raff. Don’t want any truck with magic.”

“No one does,” Yengec said. He slid his papers back into his coat and walked to the pier’s edge.

“I’ll need a lamp,” he said.

Scuttled hulks in the harbor, barnacle-crusted and verdant with sea moss, their hulls spawning. Bad blood pollutes Longmere.

Yengec slid as he landed on the deck. Scrambling, he caught hold of the damp slimy rail, jolting to a painful halt. Hjel’s journal swung like a weight in his pocket. From the shore the patrolmen chuckled.

Yengec pulled himself along the rail. The cabin door was his goal, but the deck’s slope made walking an awkward uphill climb. Sludge squished beneath his feet. Steadying himself, he kicked aside crustaceans and funnel worms.

“Where are you going?” a patrolman shouted.

Yengec lit the lamp the patrolmen had given him. “Below deck.”

They didn’t answer, but in the dim alchemical light Yengec noticed them make quick warding signs.

He pried a starfish from the door’s handle and, breathing through clenched teeth, took hold and pulled until the door squealed open with a cry from its rusted hinges. Yengec flashed the lamp’s beam inside.

The smell was worse here, mephitic. Wooden steps led down to a flooded hold. He descended the spongy steps and stopped on the last possible stair, letting the alchemical light play upon the murky water. No doors out; nothing. A dark shape floated on the water amid the other detritus. For an instant Yengec feared it might be Hjel, but it was much too small. Using a sodden plank, he swept the shape closer.

It was a homunculus. Its body sundered. Paperclips glinted from its tattered coat lapels.

A splash came from the room’s corner. Yengec focused the lamp on the area but saw nothing except the water’s undulating surface.

He climbed quickly back onto the sloping deck and ran to the rail. He shined the lamp over the side, catching sight of a pale shape as it dipped beneath the water’s surface. It moved too fast to gain a clear look, but if he had to guess he’d have said it was Jurgen Trenche’s rat-eyed homunculus.

Yengec returned to the cabin. Something had caught his eye as he ran up the stairs. There on the door’s back, the mud had been wiped clean. In the clear space sat a white chalked sigil.

Hjel’s.

The old man had been here.

Along colonnaded arcades, in parks, in the early hours before dawn, the city whispers to all who will listen. Beside the House of the Crab, beneath the Sign of the Lantern, a rat scratches its own name on the pavements.

Yengec drifted beneath the alchemical street lamps, walking the cobblestones. The occasional solitary shudderwagon rattled past, coughing smoke into the night.

Hjel had mentioned the Hex alongside the Vine. Yengec decided to scout the street a bit before heading back home. But first he needed to steady his nerves and clear his head from the Vine’s stench.

Near Hexmouth Street he ducked into an all-night Yingolese diner. The staff sat hunched over a jackals’ board at the counter’s far end. Near the door a solitary aboriginal sat with her stilts beside her. A homunculus slumbered in a crate. Its eyelids narrowed to green slivers in its wizened face.

Yengec lingered over his spiced yams and rice, reading Hjel’s journal. Occasionally one of the staff muttered in response to some turn in the game.

Paramentals, not cauldron-borne like homunculi but spontaneously generated from the city itself.

Paramentals—every polisomancer whispered of them. They haunted cities. Not quite ghosts, but spirits just the same.

Yengec rubbed sleep from his eyes. At least he could say that he was on the trail of two of the three items mentioned in Hjel’s last entry. In the morning he could pull the records on the Vine and try to track down whatever Grundlag was.

The aboriginal stood, her leathers creaking. She took up her stilts, paid, and left. Taking it as a cue, Yengec threw his own coins on the table and walked out the door.

Rooftops: shingles, tiles, peaks, weathervanes, crooked chimney pots, domes, minarets, and gables. The fog lifts, burnt away by the sun; a homunculus takes wing, its mouth lined with blood and pigeon feathers.

Dilapidated brownstones leaned one against the other along Hexmouth Street like battered soldiers under siege. Yengec spotted constellations above the chimneypots: the Arboreal Cat, the Sextant, the star Ayeasha where the serpents were said to have emeralds for eyes. A boarded-off lot showed where a house had stood before being demolished.

Hjel had once said how the Hex could be reached from some house basements along the street. Yengec went to the fence and peered between the slats at the rubble-strewn ground. He tested the boards. Near the corner, one hung loose enough to pull free. He squeezed through the gap.

Shattered tiles littered the churned ground beneath the soles of his feet. Yengec passed broken cabinets and punctured furniture vomiting coil-springs and horsehair batting. The sunken foundation showed as a black void in the ground ahead. Sweat plastered his hair against his forehead. A footstep crunched behind him.

“Now, if I had to guess I’d say you don’t belong here.”

The voice was high-pitched and nasally. Yengec turned slowly, his heart twisting with sudden panic.

A small man, hollow-cheeked and cadaverous, stalked out of the shadows. A slender blade bobbed in his left hand. “Tell me then, do you belong here?”

Yengec shook his head.

“What’s that?”

“No. I don’t.” Yengec swallowed, his throat dry. “I don’t belong here.”

“That’s right.” The words set a smile on the man’s lips. “That’s right. You don’t.”

Yengec could smell the fetid scent of spilled ale and damp hemp off his clothes. The blade wavered between them. Yengec grew keenly aware of the dark basement hole behind him.

With his free hand, the man began patting Yengec’s pockets and almost instantly tapped Hjel’s journal. The grim smile widened to show a mouth lopsided from lack of teeth. He fished the book free from Yengec’s pocket.

“It’s not worth anything.” Yengec tapped his other pocket. “My money’s here.”

The thief pocketed the journal and rooted in Yengec’s other pocket for the coins. Another figure emerged from the shadows behind the thief, almost as if it had risen from the ground, silent as darkness itself. Tall and massive, it loped forward at a crouch.

By the Hells. Yengec’s pulse thundered in his ears. I don’t want to die like this. “Please—take what you want but leave me the book.”

“But I want the book,” the thief crooned. He slowly raised the blade. “May as well make this clean and finish it.”

Yengec retreated by instinct, and his foot slid off the hole’s edge.

For an instant he hung in the air, flailing his arms. The thief’s eyes widened, and the second figure rushed closer as Yengec fell. He struck the ground as a scream rang out above him.

Yengec woke to numerous aches and the shadow standing over him. It wore a longshoreman’s coat and cap. Its scent had many layers: rust, wood smoke, and deteriorating parchment. The too-long face, wrapped in rags. Only eyeholes split the covering, dark and shadowed save for brief sparks in their emptiness.

It passed Hjel’s journal to Yengec. “Yours. Hjel said.”

It spoke with a voice like dead leaves tumbling across cobblestones.

Yengec stuffed the journal back in his pocket. He climbed to his feet, ignoring his body’s pains.

“Hjel said? Where is he?”

“Near.”

“I want to see him.”

The shadow bobbed its head and loped to a grate in the foundation floor, where it took hold of the bars with oddly jointed fingers. It yanked, and the grate broke free from its mountings.

“You’re not human.” Yengec could barely keep his voice steady. “You’re one of them. A paramental.”

“Grundlag. My name—Grundlag.” It pointed at the dark opening, an ominous black rectangle amid the shadows. “Hjel waits. Below.”

Alchemical lamps on wet pavements: rainbows captured in stone. Bridge chains after midnight: the unheard music of the city’s soul.

Yengec’s breath emerged from his lips in faint clouds. A pale lambent glow made it possible to see. The tunnel’s walls were made of crumbling bricks and rough-hewn stones, the floor coated with a grimy film. They walked in the gloom, and soon their tunnel emptied into another where water rushed down its center beneath a vaulted ceiling.

“The Hex?” he said.

“Yes.” Grundlag pointed to an arched bridge over the roaring water. “We cross.”

As Yengec stepped onto the bridge something brushed against his face like he’d passed through a cobweb. He waved his hands about but made no contact. Yet each step brought another passing touch. He crowded closer to Grundlag, his scalp tingling.

“Kin,” Grundlag said.

“Kin?” Yengec swatted at the air.

Grundlag nodded its head. “Not born. Not yet. Waiting.”

Yengec paused. “Waiting? Waiting for what?”

“Not time,” Grundlag said without slowing.

The chamber beyond the bridge reeked so thickly of mildew and rot that Yengec covered his mouth. Hollows had been carved into the walls, one atop the other. Each held a shrouded body propped upright, a crude plaster mask affixed over the face. A deeper chill touched Yengec. Nightmares worse than rats flashed in his head. The air was thick, the invisible cobweb strands more tangible. And there was more. Whispering. The longer Yengec stood silent, the more he heard it, like a breeze drawn through narrow gaps, too faint for him to make out words but loud enough for him to know that someone spoke.

A lamp flickered at the chamber’s far end.

“Grundlag? Is that him?”

There was no mistaking the farmland drawl. It was Hjel M. Lotspiech, Longmere’s lost polisomancer. Yengec quickened his pace but froze when he reached the lamplight.

Hjel sat at a long stone table, his short gray hair in disarray, his clothes frayed, and his cheeks frosted with ashen stubble. What remained of his possessions lay haphazard in the gloom, the books laid flat with their bindings strained, the mementoes cast widdershins, the once-treasured possessions propped here and there and already taking on the sad squalid pallor of their surroundings.

A map is a collection of inadequate reference points: an adaptation of the actual in two dimensions along the axis of the representational.

At best, a map is a suggestion.

“Who are they?”

“The past,” Hjel said.

They walked through the catacombs, Hjel with a copper lamp in his hand, Yengec beside him, and Grundlag at their heels.

“Longmere’s dead and dreaming,” Hjel said. “Our early fathers and mothers. The rich and the condemned. Each one served the city.”

“Polisomancers?”

Hjel nodded. “This is where my master rests. Abelard lies there.” His thin lips tightened. “I can hear him still, speaking to me as if it were yesterday.” Hjel sent a beetle skittering into the dark with a kick.

“What’s the point of holing up down here?” Yengec asked. He pressed his forehead with the heel of his hand and shook his head, trying to dislodge the whispering.

Hjel’s eyes were shadows behind their glass lenses. The dark clung to his wrinkles like ink stains. “My place is here.”

“Here? Hjel, this place is a tomb! Just come back and admit you lost.”

“You don’t understand. It’s no longer about Trenche and his project. It’s about Longmere. The city is changing, but I can no longer hear it.”

They’d stopped in another chamber, and here the water flowed past once more, only now it glowed with a milk-white radiance. Grundlag and Hjel stood in rapture.

“Longmere wishes to choose another,” Hjel said. “Let it be you, Yengec. Not Jurgen. The city has no life for him. It’s only matter, a place to own. You have my journal. Listen to the voices. Let Longmere’s words be yours.”

Yengec found it hard to concentrate on the fluid’s surface. The water shone as if it had captured moonlight in its travels. Shadows swam beneath its surface, and the longer Yengec stood trying to give them shape the more transient he imagined himself to be, as if the water pulled him too along on its course.

“I can’t—” Yengec started, but found it impossible to finish. The whispering was too strong. The words flowed past, dragging him along, and after a time he no longer resisted but allowed them to take hold and carry him away.

Like alchemists, cities collect things. Only, the mind of a city is not like the mind of men. Paramentals hover there, caught between manifestation and suggestion, eager to be made incarnate.

Yengec sat in a shed rubbing his temples. His clothes were stained with undercity dirt. Grundlag had left him here in one of the empty lots on Hexmouth Street. Even now, above ground, the whispers persisted.

“Longmere,” Yengec said. “I hope you finish with me soon, I want to go bed.”

He remembered the aboriginal from the all-night diner. She’d be out on the mud flats right now, stalking eels. He wished her luck.

“The streets will fight it.”

The voice sounded so clear that Yengec sat upright. The streets will fight it. The voice arose from the whispering in his head.

Yengec staggered from the shed, the small building suddenly too constrictive for him. Steadying himself against the doorframe, he searched the yard for Grundlag. There was no sign of the creature, only debris. The shell of a ruined house stood before him.

He felt it all around him now, the ancient waterway that had once drained all this land. Even now it served Longmere, draining away the dreams of the populace. Like the current where two rivers meet.

There came a flutter of wings, the scratch of nails, and the next moment sitting in one of the ruin’s empty window sockets was Trenche’s rat-eyed homunculus.

“Yengec.”

Jurgen Trenche stood in the house’s shadowed doorway, two stout men at his side. “Strange to find you here. Any word from Hjel?”

“He’s gone. He left Longmere.” Yengec drew the journal from his pocket. “He left me this.”

Trenche stopped. He rubbed a thumb across his lips.

Yengec waved the book before his face. “You want it? You can have it. But it won’t do you any good. Not without Longmere’s spirit. Do you want that too?”

The guards eased back a step at a motion from Trenche. The homunculus leapt off his shoulder, chasing after a pigeon. Trenche tilted his head back and eyed Yengec with skepticism. “How?”

“A binding. Hjel showed me,” Yengec said. He needed to squint as he spoke, Longmere seethed so loudly in his head.

“Can you do it now?”

Yengec nodded, and the seething shifted with the movement. He scanned the yard, searching for something he had glimpsed earlier. A pool amid a pile of scrap: wood, water, brick, rusted wire, and rags. “There.”

At a command the guards escorted Yengec to the pool, Trenche keeping pace behind them. Yengec’s skin tingled, cobweb-touched. He stood at the water’s edge. The pool reflected the rising light in the sky. The seething wrapped around his thoughts with their cobweb embrace.

It wasn’t hard. It only took his surrender.

Longmere’s voice was in the bridge chains singing under the wind’s touch. It was in the sunlight on sculpted towers, and in homunculi flying to meet the dawn. It was in footsteps on rain-slick streets radiant as jewels in reflected lamplight.

The water bulged, the rags twitched, the metal wire rang out as if struck by a hammer; and they combined.

The men beside Yengec gasped, their faces suddenly pale with fear. Trenche froze in place, his mouth open in a silent “o”. Even his homunculus stared, its lips dotted with blood.

The form took on a muzzled humanoid shape atop crooked legs. It drew a coat from amid the pile of rags. A black coat, like a longshoreman might wear. Grundlag. Other forms rose behind the paramental. Constructs of wood and brick, old broadsheet pages, smoky mist held in stasis, captured spark.

One guard screamed, and they fled.

Not cauldron-born but generated from the city itself; the suggestions waiting to be born beneath the Hex’s surface. Paramentals. Longmere’s children. Yengec’s neighbors, now that this city was his home.

Trenche trembled before them, his homunculus scampering to hide behind his legs. “What do you want?”

“It’s not about what I want,” Yengec said. “This is about Longmere. What Longmere wants.”

Trenche twitched his head, his cheeks shaking. The paramentals crept about him. The homunculus hissed and spat.

“Make them stop. Yengec, make them stop!”

“I can’t make them do anything, Jurgen. Longmere doesn’t obey me. If you want them to stop, then talk to them.”

Trenche began to talk and talk and talk, his voice barely audible over his chattering teeth.

But Yengec had stopped listening. He stumbled towards the fence, drifting away from where the paramentals crowded around Trenche. This was Longmere’s decision. Not his. Longmere told him so as the morning sun cast the city’s shadows at his feet.


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Justin Howe is the product of late 20th century New England. He lives in South Korea, tweets as @justinhowe, and blogs about books at 10badhabits.com. He has appeared multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Check out his other stories in the archives.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Between Shifting Skin and Certainty” by Justin Howe
“The Territorialist” by Yoon Ha Lee

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Comments & Scrivenings
1 Comment on “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street”

One Response to “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street”

  1. Guest says:

    02-28-2012, 03:07 PM
    Guest

    :) Justin, thank you for this story–you had me at the word ‘polisomancer’. Good to know the spirit of Fritz Leiber is still out there and I’m not the only one who remembers his wonderful tales, which you certainly brought back to life here. Not that I believe they ever died, but thanks all the same!

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