Carbon: Prologue – Part I
by Steppen Sawicki
Novel: Sci-fi fantasy
She took Hilt’s wrist in her hand, inspecting the soft brown skin there as if looking for scars…or veins. Her other hand had been at her belt, but she brought it around now. It held a small knife.
Hilt pulled his arm from her grasp, caught her grip on the knife and twisted. She gave a cry as it clattered to the floor.
“What then,” she hissed. “Do you not know our currency?”
“I do,” he answered. “You aren’t the first I’ve been to. But you’re the first to show such a lack of tact.” He hoped he sounded angry or admonishing. In any case, his voice didn’t shake, so that was something. He scanned his surroundings again, searching for more potential weapons.
The place was dizzy with bottles – jars on the tables, decanters on the chairs, disfigured vials on the stones of the floor that were layered with the congealed remnants spilled from the vessels. They lined the shelves on the walls and the sills of the window, the sparse light filtering through their blue and green and red-tinged contents. Every surface was rotten with a layer of dust and filth, every lamp cast a sickly yellow hue. Every movement kicked up dirt from the floor. A thick smell of mold hung in the air. Tiny clicker drones crawled over the floor, their number and malfunctioning clicks more annoying than the pests they would have once eliminated. A slow dripping sounded from the next room, hidden by darkness and a curtain the no-color of centuries of fading. No computers, no flimsies, but also no books or anything to write with or on. Perhaps the old woman was illiterate.
The woman – Hilt kept thinking of her as old, though she was clearly in her forties at the latest – spoke again in that coarse voice that sounded as if it had been strained over centuries. “The information you request is not free. Soul and blood, death and life – these are the things we seek in exchange. If you want to pay in gold, go to a fortune-teller.”
Hilt let go of her arm, abashed, as if he had been the one holding the knife. He lowered his head out of the thin light, but it wasn’t easy to duck his face out of her line of sight – he was far taller than she.
The woman rubbed her wrist. “You are fast.” Her eyes thinned to slits. “Perhaps too fast.”
“I will not give you my blood,” he said, changing the subject. “I know well that there are other ways. We can come to an agreement.”
He was nearly cut off by her laughter. At least the old woman seemed to be laughing; it sounded more like she was rasping for breath. “Think you sound like you are of knowledge, hm? Think you know what there is to know? Getting by on gossip and whisper. All who come to us are like you. It is why you come to us.”
Hilt wanted to throw insult back at her, or threaten to leave. She was practically warning him to leave anyway. But he couldn’t even keep eye contact with her. “What is it to you?” he said.
“Many are searching for Padraic.”
It was as if something inside him stopped. He had heard that name before, long ago. “Gabriel,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I’m looking for a Gabriel.”
“He is one and the same. They speak incessantly of him, yet none truly know where he is. I will need a good token to find him.”
“I told you I have one.” He pulled a small clasped box from his pocket.
“Not just any token will do. This is not any simple man you are looking for.”
“Are you telling me you can’t do it?” Hilt clutched the box as if he would crush it. “I was told this would work. I was told you could find things.”
“I can, just as I can find the meaning in the name you speak. That is why I would take of your blood. If your passion to find him is great enough…”
She hobbled over to the table that took up the middle of the room. A bowl sat in its center, placed as if for ceremony, water and dust and flies mingled together inside it. She dipped her fingers in.
“Not let’s see what you’re about,” she said as she flicked fetid water in his direction. He backed away and shielded himself with his arm. The drops that landed there felt cold and strange, as if they crawled over him. Hilt could see the imprints flowing through the water, searching his skin as the old woman’s eyes had searched it earlier. Damn – there was no getting around it. Try as he might every time, these Eanoch always found it out.
She laughed that hideous laugh again. “Ah, so that’s why you didn’t want your flesh cut. A golem. AI I suppose you prefer to – ” She stopped, her eyes widening as if her own words had surprised her. “A golem that knows Padraic.”
She smiled wide, displaying teeth that were too white for the room. “You are a fool to come to us.”
Two imprints had been roaming in and out of the room without purpose. They advanced on Hilt now, and though he started to move away he knew that fast as he was they were faster. One tightened around him, restricting his movements as the other entered his mind and sifted through it, trying to figure out how to operate him. He knew the sensation well enough; he had encountered it before. He stumbled and fell backwards, no longer able to control his limbs.
“Ge!” he spoke, unsure whether he would be able to get the word out, not even sure it would work. But the imprint hadn’t figured out his voice box yet. It left him, obeying the command. He knew it would be back within moments, the old woman’s unspoken commands overriding his. And more were on their way; she had been calling more imprints out loud even as he was falling to the floor.
But as he spoke “Unig” to the other imprint holding him down, he saw a figure shoot past him, moving so fast that it must appear no more than a blur to the woman. Hilt cursed silently. Dmitri must have been in the room all along.
Dmitri leapt at the woman and they grappled for all of a few seconds, then broke apart. He bounded back to Hilt’s side as she screamed and brandished the knife she had retrieved from the floor. She was bleeding from her shoulder and the left side of her head; her clavicle showed white in the wound, and her ear was gone.
Hilt staggered to his feet, still regaining control over the connections in his brain that the imprint had messed with. He glanced at Dmitri. He was barely recognizable, tense and snarling, blood splashed across his mouth and dripping from his lips.
Hilt shrank back as much from him as from the woman.