Deep Cleanup

Hartford Village, Salía, The Caustlands, 344 SE

I don't like the way the Abwarren just decides sometimes to make a new opening to the surface. It's unsettlingand poorly understood, which to my way of thinking is almost the same thing. A reasoning creature survives in the world by understanding it, so far as that's possible, so mystery presents the worst sort of danger: the kind you can't really prepare for.

We do our best, though, we people, we Fallen. And when that fails? I show up. Well, not just me, it's usually four or five of us. For now I'm just one of the specialists, but I aim to make Team Chief sooner rather than later. Which means paying close attention when I'm on the job.

Especially a job like this one. I stood over the body for a few moments, trying to take in as much as I could from that first angle, that initial impression, letting it soak into my roaming thoughts. And trying not to let too much of the smell soak into my nose.

"Eivh—" Caenaey Morli started, but I quieted him with a quick shake of my head. "Later, Caen." He nodded, stepped back a little, no rancor. Caen's good, we get along, he's a sharp operator and knows how I work. I'd thank him later, but this beginning, these first few moments of being on-site for a job, they were too crucial to spend on niceties.

I circled the body, trying to get a look from every possible angle, seeing the warring contours and shadows cast by the four tac-torches set on poles around the scene. I started to let my thoughts coalesce a little more, which included a bit of poor-bastard sympathy for the person this corpse had once represented. He was a big person, or had been, human, pale-skinned like a lot of people were this close to Acheronford. Brownish-blond hair, heavy work boots, faded blue jeans, thick leather work jacket.

Great big gash across his ribs. And his eyes were gone.

Those were the less-important, details, though, the confirming ones. The real meat was what I could perceive in the Fathom, shining up at me from just under the thick hide of our usual reality. They were a lot harder to read, or even to perceive at all, which of course was the main reason I was there. There was the trail, leading back to the brand-new ragged hole in the pine-and-plaster wall of the warehouse basement. Recent, too, I could even follow the ribbonlike traces of the creature's scythelike upper limbs where they'd drawn through and from the Fathom.

"Yep, no question about it," I said. "Hunch-Ripper. Which I really don't like."

"No one likes Hunch-Rippers, Eivh," Caen said dryly. "Because they do this to people." He gestured at the body, then scratched at the underside of his jaw through its thick growth of blond beard like he always did when deflecting worry with deadpan.

"Yeah, we're definitely not keen on the prospect of it coming back and having to fight it," Anaís Marciano added. She stood by the hole the Hunch-Ripper had come out of, spiked targe shield held ready in one hand. She spun the short broad blade of her gladius in the other, the restless motion sending white light from the tac-torches flashing round the expansive space. A daze of concentration creased the normally smooth brown skin of her strong features; Caen wasn't the only one distracting himself right now.

"Fighting it would stop it from ever doing this to someone else," I pointed out.

"Or just give it a chance to do it to one of us," Aqa Uxida said, nervously fingering the short curved Nikokan sword she wore on her belt. Aqa was our backup for initial scene examination should anything happen to me, and was also one Hell of a good support spellcaster. Decent with that sword, too, the two times I'd seen her forced to use it. And Aqa abhorred violence, which made this a strange profession for her to be in.

Then again, I thought, giving the corpses wounds another quick once-over, if we do our job right we can hopefully stop a lot more of this from happening. Visit violence on monsters to prevent it from being visited on people. Lesser-evil violence.

"Anaís would never let a Hunch-Ripper do that to you, Aqa," I said sweetly.

Anaís nodded with mock gravity. "It's true. I just respect you too much. And also I like knowing you'll be there to put my guts back in order if they get rearranged by some other nasty."

"Very glad to hear it," Aqa said. She blew a strand of straight black hair out of her eyes, small tanned nose crinkled with a mix of nerves and a fair bit of affection for her friend. "Still, let's hope that's the only one the nest has spawned."

"Only one the nest has spawned so far," I said, all helpful-like.

"Thanks, Eivh, for that subtle reminder of the time pressure we're under," Anaís said. "Any chance you can tell how old the thing probably is?"

"Hmmm." I sat back on my haunches and thought. Relatively young given the shallowness of its lingering Fathom-impression, but close to maturity given its scent, although that was a less easy thing to quantify. My nose is very good, but I'm not a bloodhound. And there was something else, a sort of lingering trace. I closed my eyes, concentrated.

"Almost a full adult. And now that it's learned that we strange-smelling Fallen aren't a lethal threat, or thinks it has, it'll be a lot more dangerous. But there's something else..." I tried to let my mind relax, spread out, catch at the thing. I became aware that I was chewing on the end of my tail, kind of a disgusting habit but it seems to help me think for whatever reason. So long as I don't also contemplate the resulting wet mess of tortoiseshell fur.

"She's chewing on her tail again," Caen whispered, quiet enough he probably assumed I wouldn't hear. Humans always forget how much better feline ears are. "That usually means she's on to something."

I tuned him out, let the thing filter gently toward my center, pulling at the strands. There.


Oh no.

I snapped my head up, and heard myself hiss like a damned housecat. Caen and Aqa, who had both been leaning in, jumped back with their mouths open, ready to demand what might be wrong. I spoke before they could.

"Blankstone," I said simply. "Smell and Fathom-trace both. Not much of it, pretty heavily masked by everything else going on with the creature, but there."

Everyone just stared, going paler in that strange way human skin does in the face of fear. No, not quite fear, we all knew how to handle fear. Dread.

"Don't say that word again," Aqa whispered, and I could smell the anxiety-sweat soaking into the gambeson she wore under her chainmail armor. I felt for her. I didn't like it either. But we were here, and dislike didn't change what needed doing. Neither did dread.

"I'll be careful," I said shortly. "But I can't make any promises, we have to deal with the situation as it is. And I'm going in, right now. We don't have time to waste now." I kept my own unsettled thoughts stuffed down deep. No room for them when there was a job to do. I'd deal with the nightmares later, like we all did.

"No, we don't," Caen said. His face was set, but had kind of a reigned-in wildness behind his pale features. I knew the feeling, and honestly felt relieved. I had the really dangerous job today, but at least I wouldn't be stuck back here like the rest of the team, waiting and wondering with weapons in hand. Caen's own short warhammer rested on a warehouse shelf with his fingers wrapped tight around the handle. The bottom point of his kite shield rested on his armored boot, though it moved up and down with his foot's restless tapping.

I left, darting into the hole the thing had come and gone through. The tunnel was partially collapsed, but was still big enough for an adult human to crawl through. If they didn't mind moving very slowly and not being able to turn around. For a Caustland Cat on the smaller side like me, it was quick going. Blockages in a couple places, but I'm a competent enough geomancer to get a bit of rock and soil out of my way. The right skillset for the right job.

It wasn't much work to follow the thing at first as the tunnel had no branches early on, but I kept track of the Hunch-Ripper's traces anyway. You never knew. I used a Fathom-technique for seeing the normally invisible light given off by radiant heat; my eyes are great in the dark, but they need at least a little light and the tunnel quickly had none. The rock cooled as I descended, then began to get warmer again in a creeping gradient, contrasting with the bright heat of my paws every time I looked down.

Then the tunnel split, and split again. I paused at each fork, pondering, examining. I sat back on my haunches, unfolding the fingers from under my front paws, following the faint ribbons and smudge of the creature's passage with my fingertips. There. And there. No other Hunch-Rippers, thank God, but some other members of the nest had been here in the not too distant past, smaller creatures that wouldn't have to fold their bent legs forward and scuttle through the way a Hunch-Ripper would.

Harvestwagons, carrying neatly-sheared pieces of prey on their weird convex backs. Scout-Hoppers, leaping through the passage in long forward bursts, unsettlingly silent on both jump and landing. And a whole stream of Needlewigs, looking for something tasty to inject with neurotoxin. Their venom was harmless to Fallen biology like mine and they generally avoided us anyway, but it was still best to be careful. If you accidentally cornered one, the puncture wounds they could give you still stung like Hell.

Hunch-Rippers, though, they didn't avoid anything or anyone. They weren't for feeding the nest, like the Harvestwagons and Needlewigs were. They were for protecting it. Which meant tearing apart anything bigger than a mouse that happened to be both in their territory and not part of their nest. Even other members of their strange composite kind got attacked.

I suppose that last shouldn't be a huge surprise, humans kill each other all the time and so, to be fair, do Caustland Cats. And really you could argue that we Fallen comprise a "composite kind" of our own, between my fellow Pircaats and the humans and the Caustland Crows. These thoughts managed to entertain the bits of my brain that badly wanted to scream with anxiety as I trotted through the tunnel.

It can't have taken more than a few minutes from the time I entered the hole in that basement to my emergence into the cavern, but it felt like hours. It always had, even in training. Maybe especially in training, since that's the whole point of training, to accustom the mind to the unfamiliar. And to sort of grind-in habits like distracting itself with other things when in the grip of extreme emotions, such as the sloshing stew of them I was feeling.

Calm yourself, Ms. Eivh Prais, they haven't seen you, and you can look away. They haven't seen you, and you can look away. If they do see you, you can get back to your friends before they catch up.

Blankstone. I'd only gotten a glimpse of it, but a glimpse was all it took. Blankstone has no color. Of course this can't be true, everything has a color, if it reflects light at all. But light that strikes blankstone brings something along with it when it reaches the eye, and the mind turns away, and says that there is no color, that what is being presented cannot be accepted, for reasons of simple self-preservation. So blankstone has no color, even in the heat-spectrum I was seeing through the Fathom.

What it does have is patterns. Maybe writing. Drawings, some people have said. Most of those people are dead or insane, so I didn't let my mind dwell on the patterns. Let it pass on by, as Aqa was fond of saying. And I did, there at the mouth of the tunnel, crouched low, trying to look-without-looking. It smelled the way the Abwarren always did, fungal and damp and warm, but mixed in was the barely-there scent of the blankstone and the heavy, alien scent of the nest.

God, the nest. I'd never get used to the way an Underflesh nest smelled, and felt a sudden stab of jealousy toward my human comrade's dull noses. It was a horror to look at, too, pulsing with liquid heat and belching warm wet gases.

I wanted to turn and sprint back down the tunnel as fast as four legs could carry me, tell Caen to call in the some really heavy-duty geomancers to fill the whole cavern up with obsidian. But there wasn't time for that. A visible patch of blankstone meant the Burrowblades that carved out space and raw materials for the nest had gone too deep into the stuff, creating a spot where it was...


And the nest-flesh could sense that—and wouldn't grow over that particular area. All while slowly being driven mad by its proximity, or as mad as a semi-sapient mass of flesh and stony skeleton could be. Had certainly done a number on the Hunch-Ripper that had come through the tunnel, pushed it outside its usual territory with some warped dream or delusion splintered into its already-aggressive brain.

There could be other bare spots. I had to know. We had to know, so we could assess the risks we'd be taking. If the situation was bad enough, we'd have to evacuate the village up above and call in the geomancers to turn the whole place into a sinkhole.

If not...we'd have to do what we could ourselves, eradicate the nest and then stand guard against any further Burrowblade-excavation until the geomancers could arrive to surround the blankstone with some more salubrious rock, something that would repel the Burrowblades when they "tasted" it. Probably not obsidian, that was too difficult and expensive for most jobs, especially one no Fallen was likely to ever lay eyes on again. Quartz, most likely. These thoughts kept my mind busy as I prowled round the nest, smelling those smells, doing my best not to let myself shiver with fear.

Part of the job, part of the job. We're the cleanup crew and this is part of the job. I couldn't reach out too far in the Fathom to check for the Hunch-Ripper or, God help me, Hunch-Rippers plural. Not with this mass of blankstone nearby, wrapped around...around nothing I should


think about. I had to find a rock pillar to curl up behind and take several deep breaths to do the not-thinking properly.

It's dark and it stinks and I'm alone in this cavern and how the Hell did I end up here, maybe I should have taken that nice safe teaching job in Aldonza, stayed with Arturo, agreed to have his kittens instead of running off to...

Enough. That was enough. I shook my head and moved on.

There were more bare patches. I only glanced at them. I was getting better at this. Training was one thing, experience another. I'd done plenty of cleanups, sure, but never involving a blankstone shell. Damn thing had probably been here since Starfall, if only—


Four trunklike legs, near the height of a short human from clawed foot to multi-joint knee. Bulbous torso crouched down in the center, semi-insectile head on a weirdly-articulated neck, held even lower. Complex mouthparts in constant motion. Huge scythelike blades hanging down from thick front limbs. At least four eyes.

Yes, it sees you.

I made a split second decision. Had I done enough reconnaissance? I had.

Time to run.

Just a blur of survival instinct then, the bend of my spine as I turned, the wave-motion of my body as my hind feet came up to meet my front paws, stretching out again, sprinting, bounding left, right, showers of sparks and rock-chips from the cavern floor as the creature's blades furrowed into it, narrowly missing me. Hitting the tunnel entrance, finally able to outrun the monster as it crammed itself into the limited space, huge legs pistoning rapidly to push it forward.

Panting, tiring. Not built to be a distance runner like humans are. Can smell the other end of the tunnel before I see the tac-torch light. Letting go of my heat-vision, relief as a familiar world of color comes flooding back. Yowling, letting the rest of the team know to be ready. No need for words.

I went barreling out into the basement, skidding on the bedrock floor, digging in with my claws as I turned to face the way I'd come, gasping for air.

The Hunch-Ripper came a few bare moments later, unfolding itself into the larger space of the basement but not before taking a vicious blow to one knee from Caen's warhammer and a jab to the side from Anaís' gladius. It screeched out a series of horrific RAK-RAK-RAK-RAK-RAK and struck out with both bladed forelimbs.

"Eyes!" Aqa yelled from behind me, and I hid mine beneath one paw.

A great lingering cccrrrrAACK split the air, every single strand of my fur standing on end from the residual static of the lightning bolt as it passed over. The scorched-sky scent came next, but I was already moving, leaping under the Hunch-Ripper as it reeled from the hits to its legs, pulling the shortspear off its adhesion-strap on my harness, and jabbing the creature in the underbelly. I had to stand up on two legs to do it, and the broad flat blade didn't penetrate the exoskeleton, but I didn't really expect it to. It would likely take at least a couple more hits before we'd worn down the thing's resilience enough to do it any physical injury.

Caen and Anaís parried a flurry each of slashing strikes from the Hunch-Ripper's blade-limbs, catching and deflecting them with shields and weapons and, in one close call, Caen's helmet. I did my best to keep the thing off-balance for them as I dodged the heavy stomps it was aiming my way in an attempt to get me out from under it. Or kill me, of course, but I don't die that easy. Good thing too, because I didn't quite manage to dodge a reared-back double strike the thing aimed down at me with both its front legs. One of them caught me off-center on the back, the force of the blow blunted by the armor-bands of my harness but still substantial.

My resilience held, and I wasn't actually hurt, but I knew I should quit this particular game and leapt out from under just as the creature's head whipped down in an attempt to catch me in its clicking mandibles. The Hunch-Ripper came after me despite Caen and Anaís' best efforts to stop it, and was only halted by the sparking wall-like ward Aqa managed to weave up from the ground in front of me. I wasted no time in retreating further, jumping up onto some of the warehouse shelving to get the best high ground I could while Caen and Anaís flanked the creature and struck in tandem.

Aqa was apparently putting a great deal of effort into maintaining that ward, and the smell of toasted exoskeleton as the Hunch-Ripper flailed against her spell was encouraging; we must have finally worn down the monster's resilience. I concentrated on a spell of my own, reaching out into the near-infinite web of bond and burden in the stone furnace I could sense on the floor above the creature's head.

The property owners were not going to like this, but oh well, they'd like having a Hunch-Ripper in their basement even less. "Keep it there!" I yelled. "Right there!" Just a few more moments...

They gave them to me, Aqa with her ward, Caen and Anaís with the careful back-and-forth of their flanking maneuver, harrying its legs, forcing the Hunch-Ripper to divide its attention and attacks between them.

The ceiling made a colossal cracking sound, and I laughed out loud as I felt all the right bonds finally break, watched the mass of stone and chimney crash straight down on the monster, driving its torso fully to the floor and crushing its head. It twitched, blades scrabbling at stone, all the air in whatever passed for its lungs coming out in a final RAKRAKRAKRAKRAKRAK before finally it finally went silent and still.

I jumped down from the shelves and we formed a four-point perimeter around the creature, watching it carefully. Finally, Caen spoke, a little out of breath.

"Dead. For sure. Good work, everyone. Seriously. And grateful to get you back in one piece, Eivh."

I grinned, but just for a moment since I was still panting myself. Everyone turned to look at me. Once I felt sufficiently composed, I nodded toward the hole in the wall and the tunnel beyond it.

"I'm afraid our work's not over. There were bare patches, at least four I could count before the Hunch-Ripper spotted me and I had to run. We'll have to go in and clean up. You guys ready to spend some time on your hands and knees?"

"Nope," Anaís said, and sighed. "But we will anyway. That's the job, right?"

Caen and Aqa nodded.

"Yep," I said. "That's the job."

We went and did what we'd prepared to do, we people, we Fallen.

It was thoroughly unpleasant.


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