The Inked Man sat on his altar, pulsing slightly. His disciples, cross-legged, scribbled words onto parchment. They looked toward the ceiling every so often. It was covered in millions of words, on thousands of subjects, in hundreds of substances, in dozens of languages. Ideograms in blood criss-crossed poetry in charcoal. Pictographs in fire oil intersected hymns in pulped viscera. It stank of rot and lampblack.
“They will never understand,” he said.
Monden, the 28th of Seces, 144 YJ
The mines are hell, but not half so much as being apart from you. Near the surface, temperatures plummet, adhering sweat to skin, but the deeper you go and the closer you come to grasping the Fiend’s hem, it’s hot and the coal is rich and soft. I can fill a cart an hour. They don’t pay much, but every one char coin gets me that much closer to getting out of here. I figure that by Senares, I’ll have enough for your dowry. Then your father won’t have a say in the matter.
I wish I hadn’t gotten fired from the stationary store. We’d still be able to sneak off nightly like we used to. It’s those damn Forma rolls. One puff and that’s that. I wasn’t even in the store! The last time I checked, cobbles weren’t flammable.
You’ve heard this all before, though. I pray this note finds you safe and well.
The Inked Man hopped off of the altar, small flakes of parchment fluttering behind him. A dozen stairs elevated the Inked Man over his penitent. He took each deliberately, bare feet leaving faint, inky footprints. He wove through his worshippers. Robes covered them from head to foot and netting obscured their faces. Their white gloved hands had blotched black over years, writing a word or phrase and willing it true. No one had ever succeeded.
Whispers of quill across paper. The sloshing of ink in wells. He stopped at one of his disciples. A woman, by her smell and delicate scrawl. The paper she was working was covered with nonsense.
Jicama slaw. Brown unleavened bread. Giorg in my arms. Lemur. Kite. Fountain pen. Violet pain.
“Why?” the Inked Man whispered to her.
She gasped, her scrawl jumping wildly. “Ex-excuse me, Inked Man?”
He ran his finger over her page. Small curls of paper, inked with undead languages, drifted from his hand onto her prayer sheet. Where they landed, small miracles. A burst of frost. A sprig of mint. Ant larva. Fried dough.
“Why? Why write all of these nouns? Why are you here? What do you expect to gain?” The faster he moved his finger, the more skin peeled off.
“Enlightenment, Inked Man?”
The Inked Man stood up, unfolding himself to twice the height of his largest disciple.
“She even said it as a question!” his voice echoed around the chapel, then, going quiet: “How many sheets of parchment are in a pound?”
He reached to his shoulder. His uncut nails dug into the pulpy mass of muscle and tore downward. A ripping noise stopped every quill. Blood the color of a blind man’s dream flowed down his flayed arm. He took the mass and wrapped it tight around the girl’s head. Muffled screams seeped out, even as the Inked Man’s arm began to repair of its own volition. The girl kicked and clawed and scratched and was still. The Inked Man let go as her body started to flake and peel and curl, sending parchments swirling toward the ceiling. His disciples ran out, lest one scrap touch their own skin.
“Never,” he said.
Pen, the 18th of Teres, 144 YJ
I’m so tired. Every day, I believe the copper chars in my money sack will magically multiply like a brood of rabbits. Is that the correct word? Brood? Geese have gaggles and fish have schools, but what do rabbits have?
Soon, my blossom, we will be together. Soon. As long as my pick and shoulders hold out, we will be together again. I miss your delicate fingers working knots from my shoulders.
Stay safe and true,
The Inked Man reclined in his hammock. Strung between two of the chapel spires, above the glow of the gas lamps and the stink of Parchment Run, he could see halfway to heaven. The cool night breeze rustled his paper skin.
The plague was eating him. It had passed some tipping point. The time between each dip in preservative was decreasing. He sighed.
He bit his thumb. Thick red blood oozed up, black in the still night. The Inked Man wrote “wings” on his naked thigh and tore that piece of skin off. He rolled the paper through and around his fingers, looking at it, his thumb healed. He would never understand.
He slapped the paper on the nape of his neck and leaped off of the tower. Two massive bones sprouted from his shoulders; others grew from the bone itself, creating a strong matrix. Skin, wet and smelling of corruption, covered the structure over and dried in the rushing air. The roof of the chapel flew up at him. The wings inflated and he skimmed along the stone peak and into the night.
Someone stole my money bag. Some Fiend-loving bastard stole my money bag.
Hawks and owls and gulls tumbled in the Inked Man’s wake, wings the length of a block buffeting the night. Dust blinded a man as his prostitute bent over for him. Petals from sin lilies wafted down alleys, catching the homeless unbeknownst. Dark black lines traced filigree patterns toward their hearts as they slept that long sleep, only to be awakened underground by the Fiend’s warm grasps. Garbage bins and shoddy doors and old women tumbled. The Inked Man scribbled a second word on his forearm and tore it off. He slapped the piece of paper skin at the nape of his neck. “Stillness” flashed white for a moment, and then he was standing on solid ground, wings gone.
I found my bag under a mattress, empty. I tell you dear Trin, I was mad. Too mad, perhaps. I found my pick and waited in the shadows near the bed. They had to come to the sleeping quarters sometime.
I heard footsteps and leapt from the darkness, pick swinging downward, curses flying from my lips. And then I opened my eyes. She was a child.
In a blink, I threw my weight to the side, missing the girl’s skull but scratching her cheek and driving the sharpened point through my foot, pinning it to the floorboards. I bit down hard on my tongue, nearly severing it in two.
When the white pain subsided and I could see again, the girl was just staring at me. She was trembling. Her eyes were wide and black as coal lumps. Blood trickled from the gash in her cheek.
I knelt down, the shattered bones in my foot grinding in protest. I tore a strip from the cleanest part of my shirt and dabbed the blood.
Big Ram walked in at that moment and nearly fainted. Rammy never can stomach blood or pain of any sort. Simple in that way, I guess. If he had fainted I’d probably still be there, that pick was stuck in the floor so good. And good thing Rammy’s strong, because I did faint when he wrenched it out.
I start the count over today. Six chars for six loads of coal.
The sign on the shop read “Ink,” nothing more. He wrote “yield” on a slip of skin and stuffed it into the empty keyhole. It sprung open silently.
Francini, the alchemistress, slept on a pile of soft rags in the corner. A thousand bottles stood on every surface in the shop. Bottles of black and red and blue and blood and urine and moonmilk and conchspew. Bottles of air and jelly. Bottles as large as prairie gorillas or as small as writers’ monkeys. And in the center of it all, one giant bottle, the size of the Inked Man.
He wrote “wake” on his finger, peeled the nail off, and dropped it onto Francini’s head. Her eyes opened.
“A tap on the nose would suffice,” she whispered, her voice like a flipbook. The Inked Man smiled.
Francini stood with a flourish. Layers of ripped clothing gave her the appearance of a whirlwind even when still. Her neck and face were obscured by numerous collars and ties, yet she was still beautiful in a homely sort of way.
She grabbed the rippled flesh of his stomach and tore a chunk out. The Inked Man didn’t flinch. The wound mended before she was halfway across her store.
“You need’a take better care of yourself,” she said, tossing the chunk from hand to hand. It had the consistency of rotting wood.
He turned towards her. “It’s not the traditional plague.”
“Ya’think?” she said, hand closing around the flesh. It crumbled. “The preservation bath is going to hurt like hell.”
The Inked Man shrugged.
She clapped her hands together, sending up a dust cloud. “Well, let’s get this over with. I need to get some sleep.”
The 23rd of Quines, 144 YJ
I’m writing this to say I love you and I’m sorry. It’s dated today because I will never know another.
A hole opened underneath me in the upper part of the mine, and I fell into some sort of pocket. I broke my ankle, and bizarre crystals pierced me in a dozen different places, yet I live. I am cold.
I passed out from the impact. When I awoke, I feared I had gone blind before noticing the slightest hint of light coming from above. They boarded over where I fell through. I could scream for help, but they’d just drop a rock and dash my skull. We’re expendable.
Something wet and giving lays under me.
You ask how I’m writing this? I found a piece of broken crystal and am scratching the letters into my calf, then rubbing coal dust into the wounds. The crystal has a point as thin as an eyelash. It doesn’t tear or pull at my skin; it creates lines more fine than even the sharpest quill. The coal dust should make the letters stand out. It’s an excruciating process, but I need to speak with you once more.
If anyone finds me, please deliver my body to Trinia. She lives near the outlet of Parchment Row, in the Stationary District.
Ask for the most beautiful girl in the city and you’ll get her.
I just want some relief. Relief from pain. From hunger. From thirst. From this damned cold. It’d be easier if I got relief from your love. I didn’t mean that.
My eyes are going white with pain. I must finish before I pass out. Live a good life Trinia. I will protect you from above or below.
Chernyl, Your Cherry.
The Inked Man floated in a stoppered bottle the size of a buoy, fluid burning in and around him. He blinked it into his eyes. Swallowed it into his stomach. Breathed it into his lungs. He shook his head to work it into his ears and nose. Every place it touched, bubbles sprang to the surface as plague was destroyed. The liquid rose in temperature to just below boiling. He couldn’t feel a thing.
Francini stood outside the bottle with scarves covering her face. The stopper wasn’t airtight, for fear of a pressure explosion. The fumes escaped through a hole in her roof, causing the whole neighborhood to smell of sulfur. It didn’t matter. These were the Streets of Science. Alchemists lived shoulder to snout with biologists. Botanists chummed with astrologers. The Inked Man hated it here.
Just a little longer, he thought as the bubbles stopped.
Hours. Days. Months may have passed. This cavern plays tricks. I pass out and wake up. Footsteps echo always. I fear the Fiend may be toying with me.
My whole body inflamed with words. Ankle feels dead below. Bellowing below doesn’t help.
I fear I’m losing my sanity. I need to move to the other leg. Relief. Sweet relief.
The Inked Man stood on a towel, dripping wet. Where the drops landed, smoke rose.
Francini still had her scarves, muffling her voice. “Should be good for a while. Next dip will probably dissolve ya.”
The Inked Man dropped a sack of silver noves on the floor.
“You couldn’t’ve crossed my palm ‘fore I dipped ya? Inky Bastard.”
The Inked Man looked out of the shop window. “Inky Bastard. Yes, that’s about right,” he said, stepping into the cool night.
Miss you miss me miss brain miss pain. Not. Ha ha ha ha. Ow ow ow. Feel puffed stuffed long for your muff. Cold sold warmth to Fiend. Fiendy fiend friend. Not relief. Never relief. Please relief.
C C. C C.
The Inked Man wrote “Chapel” and “hammock” and “travel” and tore the three pieces from his forearm. He layered them together. First travel, then Chapel, then hammock, and pressed them to his chest. Turning inside out and outside up, he found himself laying in his hammock. He vomited over the side of the Chapel, spraying the grafittied brick with fixative and dead termites.
He looked at the stars and closed his eyes. Sleep wouldn’t come, but wakefulness left without much fuss.
I, I feel better. For a while, I knew I wasn’t going to open my eyes the next time I passed out. My head burned but my body shivered. My entire back dripped stinking pus and my ankle lost all feeling. But now. Now.
Now, I feel better. I have no fever. I have no hunger or thirst. I should have died of thirst weeks ago. Maybe I am dead, though? That would explain why I feel no pain anywhere. I feel nothing. I know I am carving these words into my chest, but I don’t care. I don’t even feel the Fiend’s presence. My ankle still is swollen. I know that. But I know the bones are knitting and the muscles expanding. I’m scared.
The Inked Man wrote a word that wasn’t a word; drew a picture that wasn’t a picture. At a glance, it evoked the feeling of insubstance. He ripped it off and slapped it on and melted through the Chapel. The altar was made of tougher stone, and he stopped and reformed.
Most of his disciples were there, scribbling. Someone had already replaced the girl.
“Will I get no relief from you insufferable lot?” he asked no one in particular. No one answered.
Relief. Relief is glowing in white letters wherever I’ve written it on my skin. I feel wonderful! My ankle is better and the crystals refuse to cut me. I, I may have discovered something.
I’m going try an experiment in this letter. I’m going to try very hard to create light. I’m going to write light and will it to light. Okay, here goes.
The Inked Man sat on the altar all day long. He amused himself by creating butterflies out of his paper skin. They would flap around for a few minutes before crumbling to dust.
He cut off a limb or two and watched them regrow. He frightened his disciples. He sat back on the altar.
“I’m done,” he whispered.
I did it. Light poured from nowhere. Beautiful, white, warm light. So bright. Too bright. Too white. Too warm. Hot.
I quickly scratched “darkness” onto my arm, and black grasped my heart. It was terrifying. I thought my cavern was black, but no. I doubt the center of a mountain is as black as what I saw, felt, experienced.
I wrote “soft light” and my body glowed with the iridescence of a jellyfish. I could see, but barely. I need a candle.
The Inked Man sat on the altar and waited.
I have the plague. The Parchment Plague. The plague that hasn’t entered the city since the last period. The plague we thought we were rid of, yet that I fear hid in the yielding pile beneath me.
My skin is turning to paper. I feel it. I don’t know how much of my message will be left for you when they find my body.
I can tear off whole strips of skin. It’s dry, and somewhat leathery. Right now, I’m holding a scrap with the word “candle” written on it. When did I write about candles? I want a candle so much. Was that the first leg? Second arm? Left breast? I don’t suppose it matters. A ladder to climb out would be nice. The skin feels disgusting. I’m ridding myself of it—
I have candles. I have a ladder. I am going to get out of here.
It happened during my last letter. I scratched my last message and a shower of flakes fell. They hit crystal and glowed a faint white. A too-loud clatter followed and I crawled to where the sound led. I felt around and my hands grasped wax. I panicked and dropped it and picked it back up.
I wrote “light this candle” on another strip of paper and wrapped it around the wick. The skin started on fire, and then the cotton. I cried dust.
I’m getting out of here. And I’ll come find you. I have an idea.
The Inked Man couldn’t wait any longer. He was tired. He got up and ushered his disciples out of the Chapel. After unwinding a long strip of skin from his leg, he wrote “seal forever” and affixed it to the gap between the doors. Red light sprung forth for a moment. The light and skin were gone, revealing a solid mass of steel.
The Inked Man gathered up all of the desks into the center of the Chapel. They made a pile ten feet high. He let a slip of “smash” fall onto the pile and the Chapel filled with dust and the sounds of breaking wood.
He walked to the altar and attached “slide” to its side. It moved out of the way to reveal a small alcove. Inside were yellowed letters.
Senares the 2nd, 144 YJ
I pray you never find this. I pray the lock on this journal holds ever-lasting. I hope you don’t realize I’m gone until I’m well out of the city.
I want to love you Cherry, and I do love you. I will always love you. But you died in the ink mines, Cherry. Someone came out with your body, but it wasn’t you.
He didn’t have your smooth skin, Cherry, or your blue eyes or your soft hands or your strong arms. He had the body of a monster. A paper snake shedding its skin. A body of plague and pulped muscle. A body covered with red-black nonsense. A body whose mouth moved and words came out but that I couldn’t hear. A terrifying body holding a bag of seres. Enough to buy half of Lacuna if they had been made of gold instead of paper. They were made of paper, monster. You kept screaming gold, you knew in your crumpled heart they were gold, but they were paper. They crumbled in my hands, but you just made more. You tore chunks out of your body and wrote in blood on them and they transformed into seres. Paper seres. Less than worthless.
I will not tell you where I’m going. I pray this stays hidden, but I know better. I love you Cherry. If any part of you remains, seek out the shop called Ink. Tell Francini you know me. I’m going there now to get dipped in a fixative that will kill off any of the plague you may have left on me. Maybe it will help you live just a little longer. It will at least mean that you can’t infect anyone else.
Be good, Cherry. If only for me.
The Inked Man tossed the pages torn from Trinia’s journal onto the smashed pile in the center of the Chapel. He went back to the altar and slid it on back. Inside, the altar housed a wooden box. He tore a strip of skin off and wrote “open gently.” The box’s lid swung out with a soft groan. He gathered the huddled form within into his arms and walked back to the center of the Chapel.
The Inked Man set Trinia down on top of the letter she had left for him, hands crossed in front of her small chest. He wrote “fire and make it hot” on his chest and sat next to Trinia, playing with her brittle hair. The letters on his chest shone bright and began to smolder.
The Inked Man kissed her with a tongue of flame.