White moon glistens off slick metal. The man runs his hands over the surface. Pocks and contours barely visible to the naked eye make themselves felt beneath his touch, the gritty texture of brown rust bringing sensation to fingers that feel increasingly dead to him.
He ignores the possibility of dregs and slags squatting in the streets around him, what their sidelong glances might show – a strange man, in patricians’ clothes, rubbing the buildings with his hands as he passes.
Glazed eyes gaze into a murky sky, behind which lurks a gibbous white moon. He cares not for the ignorance of dregs; cares only for his work, his passion. Dimly, he knows that they would not dare oppose a penthouse-dweller – the fear of retribution lingers heavily in the air, even in this low strata. That faint notion is aegis enough for his prize.
He lifts a grey hand off the metal and twitches back into life, long strands of dark hair trailing down his back. The wig is old, a relic left to him by his father, when his household was yet rich. Money had never troubled him until he had found himself without it. His laconic leadership of the House following his father’s untimely demise had ensured that all prosperity he had once enjoyed was lost within a year of his ascent of the title of Patrician.
Now empty, rotting, its once-burgeoning staff forgotten but for the derelict plaque demarking their crypt beneath the storerooms, the house is a tomb where decayed thoughts take root within the once-noble mind of an orphan, a bachelor. A man despairing.
A whore, curiously far from the rest of the herd in hightown districts, approaches him. Leaden face whispers words that are lost to the tepid air that blows in the hollow night. A distracted arm pushes her away amid a flood of insults, none of them heard. More important things are afoot than petty distractions of the flesh.
Above, bottled lights flicker erratically. A shower of sparks serves as prelude to a spent bulb. A murmur rises amid the destitute. He alone remains silent, unaware. He crosses the street, feet sending ripples racing across shallow pools of water formed where the decrepit road has lost its skin, the crumbling duststone beneath flaking away. Dizzying towers surround him, each a labyrinth of crowded tenements, walkways, rotten mezzanines, apartments, soiled balustrades, warehouses. Decay. Filth.
There is no other way to describe it. Almagest; the Empire Without... the world itself. All are decaying, corpses of once greater scions, struggling in the void.
He stops walking, shakes his head in frustration, lifts his hands to haggard eyes, runs fingers through the ragged strands of his wig. The thing pulls away and he lets it drop into the rust-stained puddles at his feet, his thin greying strands serving as an ill-replacement.
“What is wrong with us?” he says, his voice not at all that of the patrician his faded clothes have him painted as. He is a weak man, his words trembling, feeble. The world has abandoned him to his own nightmares, and now they are catching up with him.
The great city around him is no more, little more than an ethereal memory of a hollow eon that has reached its end. Instead, the rot of a putrefying body surrounds him. The stench of a thousand deaths smouldering under a great red sun wafts between rolls of squirming maggots and other chthonic beasts. In folds along that great corpse lie the ruin of unnumbered wasted civilisations, their structures dissolving in rotting flesh, their people disappeared. He knows what he sees is a symbol; sees it as the world, those cities her nations, the maggots demons of the shadow cavorting amid the ruin of empires. Almagest.
“Almagest,” he says. “My home, she dies even as the world dies. And I am helpless to stop it. What life is one where the futures’ only promise is death, decay, despair?”
The man takes shelter beneath a walkway as the rain grows heavier, the vision gone, yet not forgotten. A scuffle breaks out across the thoroughfare, around the entrance to an apartment block. Some work-slaves are fighting over the carcass of an animal of some sort. The food may feed a family.
Lightning strikes above, illuminating for an instant the dismal concrete and iron landscape.
He climbs down a girder, leaving the world above behind. Beneath sprawls the underbelly of the city; the concealed veins and arteries of that corpse; the waterways and tunnels, vents and basements, cordoned off subways and forgotten ruins above which lays the faltering realm known as Almagest. There dwell the true outcasts, the incorrigible blights tethered to the city by whatever vice or malady afflicts them. There they fester in the dank darkness, plotting and growing ever bitter at the world above; to them paradise, to others a hell on earth.
It is amazing what a difference perspective can make; how looking at the city from below can be diametrically opposed to doing so from above, without the smog and filth of decay.
The world below is dark, wet, filled with echoes and whispers. Grotesques and pariahs lurk in the half-formed shadows, skulking beneath walkways, the filtered half-light falling from above onto destitute sub-surface shanties. Disused subways and the remnants of regraded streets have risen from the rot and miasma of neglect, recycled into a fools-court, from which rule the rejected.
He feels at home here, more at home than in the carcass of a palace that serves as refuge to him above. Here he sees the itinerants who wander the bowels of Almagest, sees their afflictions, their woes... and sees his brethren.
He wanders down a disused aqueduct which, in distant days before decay lay claim to the city stood as a marvel of architecture. Now all that surrounds it is mortar, steel blocks, girders, waste. Water trickles down damp walls as the sounds of city life reverberate through the bedrock, registering as dull vibrations that keep him company.
The stench is intense, but he welcomes it. He feels more alive here than in the dust and webs of his thousand-year-old ancestral home above. He breathes in deeply, nostrils flaring, the impure air filling lungs that burn at the touch.
Home it may sometimes feel like, but home it is not. At every turn the environment rallies against life, as though the decay of the natural world extends even to this dank place. No path is safe. From the heathen savannahs of the west to the polar manufactories of Durchaa; from the wastes of Kharkharadontis to the forgotten empires of Venath and Sagittaria; the world is ending. He knows it. Everyone else knows it, though few accept it.
He accepts it.
He understands that things wither and decay before nothingness ultimately claims them. He understands that the world itself is ruled by those same laws of decay, that nothing is eternal, everlasting. He sees the ruins of Almagests’ ancient past sprawled around him like the hollow roots of a malign tree, and knows that there will come a day that every tunnel, every pipe, every channel and underpass that surrounds him will be gone, decayed into dust that through time and the elements will itself be lost, fading into oblivion.
“Such is the fate of Elyden and all who dwell upon her,” he says, his pathetic voice amplified by the hollow that surrounds him. “We are born, we exist. We die.”
He stops, laughs. The sound is sharp and grates against the echoing void that surrounds him like a blast of lightning in the dead of night. “The Great Lady herself is dying. What chance do we, maggots upon her skin, have?”
He carries on, still smiling.
The place is familiar, despite the constant collapsing of tunnels and, unearthing of old ones. He has travelled this road many times before, and pushes the corroded bulkhead aside, revealing a hollow in the wall of what, some centuries past, was a ground-floor tenement. Now it rests dozens of yards beneath the street, hidden from prying eyes, concealed from memory.
Inside, the stench is palpable. Too much, almost, even for him.
He shuts the bulkhead and turns to see the hovel. A mouldy, soiled pallet lies on the floor. A table, some stools and a chest of drawers complements the destitute place, with the myriad tattered rags and filth strewn about topping it all off.
The place is empty, but he doesn’t seem surprised. He walks through the filth, aims for a small door in the back of a room, its matted curtain forming a barrier between worlds.
He calls out, his voice echoing in the cold room, before drawing the curtain.
Inside he sees a wretched figure, a slovenly example of the human race, his corpulent body barely contained by taught skin and tatters. The stench is unbearable here, yet the prize is so close that he does not care.
“I need more umbra,” speaks the man, wig still in his hand. The formalities of the upper layers are uncalled for in the rotten sumps of the world, where appearances are merely what they are and rarely more.
The rotten figure stirs in its seat, the motion triggering a new wave of stench, thicker, worse than the last. He groans, and reaches for the snake-like neck of a nearby hookah. The liquid in its glassy belly bubbles as the figure draws a long breath. He sits still for a moment and exhales slowly, thick smoke trickling out of his nostrils.
“I should love you,” speaks the being, its voice delicate and alien coming from a gullet so voluminous. “Of all the bodies that come here to lose themselves in the barrows of the big black, you are the most… generous. My children bring me word that your household is without staff. How do you take care of such an estate all alone?” the man laughs, the joke lost to his visitor.
“What should you care what my house is like? You get your bits.”
“And you get your hit.” The corpulent thing says, smiling again.
The man rolls his eyes, asks for what he came for. The other hands over a glass vial with some difficulty. Our friend snatches it from his grasp and shakes the thing, sees the dark liquid within sloshing lazily. The prize, Umbra. He will loses himself within it for days to come.
“How much?” he asks.
“My suppliers in Three-mile had an unfortunate dance with the ironmen, so my stock is dented. Seventy bits ought to cover the expenses.”
“Seventy! The last lot was fifty.”
“Supply and demand, my patrician friend. If you still had a business to run you’d know all about it.”
“I cannot pull it. Please.”
“Lift it from some unworthy myrmidon,” the fat man laughs again, fat rippling beneath tight clothes.
“I may be many things, but I thief isn’t one of them.”
“What’s this? A conscience appears suddenly. Been singing in the halls? Think the corpseman on his lead throne cares a jot about you? You want the umbra, I want bits.”
“What’s to stop me making a slab out of you and taking it?”
Another laugh. “You know as well as I do we’re not alone here. My knights know your lurk.”
The man curses, pulls out a silk pouch – one of the few things he has left that can be deemed of value – and throws the whole thing over to the fat man. “Sixty bits. The pouch has got to be worth a flea, at least.
The fat man considers, and nods, jowls shaking, signalling that the deal is done. “Don’t use it all in one go, boy. The next lot will be cost you a lot more.”
The man ignores him, leaves hurriedly as he unstoppers the vial. He draws a deep breath from it and suddenly he is on the floor, his head ablaze, his throat and nostrils stinging. Tears fall from his eyes and he chokes, but he draws another breath, the kiss of shadow blinding him to all else. He has to get back home, has to prepare it, mix it, burn it; imbibe it as quickly as he can. Now that he is so close to it, he knows he cannot wait any longer.
Umbraphagy, they call it. A dire affliction, a habit that evolves into addiction, obsession. Umbra – or shadowstuff, or simply ‘stuff to those under its sway – is inimical to life, though in the most minute of doses, diluted to a thousand parts’ additives, its touch is a potent narcotic, unrivalled across Elyden. But overfamiliarity makes the elixir grow weaker, and stronger doses are needed for the slightest of effects. Slowly, umbra builds up in the body and its effects start to take root, but by then it is already too late. The body begins to weaken, the way duststone crumbles beneath the gaze of the Shadow. It withers and dies as a tree whose roots are blighted.
He knows all this, our patrician friend, yet he takes it anyway. He knows the darkness that awaits him, that lingers in his apartment, growing ever thicker as he continues down his foul path.
What makes a man waste his life, allow the riches of his sires to be whittled down in such a way? Explore the world of Elyden; see the horrors spawned by her dying scions, her rotting innards, and perhaps you too will seek the solace of shadow, the numbing cocoon of its cold stark kiss. Do not be so quick to judge, then, for the darkness that awaits this man awaits us all, lurking silently in the shadows of our thoughts, of our homes, until the corruption has become too much. Then, you will know why this man seeks such distractions.