Page of Skulls
Vija reshuffled her tin-sheet Tarot deck and tried not to gag. The Gutter Knight before her booth stunk of mildew and singed flesh. His copper and steel-toothed smile gleamed beneath the steamlamp's light as he shifted his bone-and-scrap-metal armor. Just another survivor from Meridian's streets, another fool seeking answers. Jaw tight, Vija stopped shuffling the cards.
Her Tarot only revealed questions.
"Shall I reveal what portents are aligned for you?" she asked with a forced smile, pouring the cards from one hand to the other. Fighting the ache in her gut, she took deep breaths so her breasts stretched her mesh shirt. One had to distract the eye as well as the ear for good business.
The Gutter Knight laughed with coarse clanking noises. "You shows me when I be finding good pickings, Sky Gypsy." He rattled the bones stitched along his cuirass and grinned at her cleavage.
Vija pretended to concentrate. Though not a true cartomancer, her prophecies remained vague enough to earn her keep. Telling fortunes in Vagrant's Row had already netted her a few copper shards, but her stomach still growled. Everyone stayed hungry in Meridian. Kelp grown in the undercity remained too sparse to feed everyone. Vija hated eating the slimy mess.
Scents of cooked meat filtered from a Bone Guild kiosk on the street corner. Saliva swamped her mouth.
"Well, what you see?" the Gutter Knight asked, his dirty fingers smudging her counter.
Flicking the top card off with her fingernail, Vija waited with feigned tension. The Gutter Knight leaned closer, his breath stinking of rotten flesh.
"Your fortune, sir." She pursed her lips, then turned the card over.
It displayed a naked Clown kneeling beside the Styx, holding a bronze goblet. Black water sloshed from the vessel. A vague form floated inside it.
"Clown of Cups. I feel you will receive a message soon. One that will lead you to your... pickings. That will be one copper shard," Vija said.
The Gutter Knight pulled a shard from inside his armor and tossed it onto the booth counter. As he walked away, Vija snatched and placed it into her belt pouch. Business had never seemed this slow... but what had she done, before coming to Meridian? Vija recalled little of her life before waking in a grime-caked alley, rescued and taken in by Sky Gypsies. Their warmth and belief in the Tarot had never quelled the hunger deep inside her. More than simple physical satiation, Vija yearned for heartier sustenance. They had never understood. No one did.
Could she? Concentrating, all that came to mind were vague memories of the city's filthy alleys, of always starving...
She shoved herself back from the counter and stood. A familiar, chill dread rose in her chest. Why couldn't she remember?
Down the street, only two people waited in line outside the kiosk. She licked her lips. The roasting meat scent teased her nose, enveloping her in guilt.
Vija put away her Tarot deck and walked down the street. All around her, sagging buildings covered in chipped plaster rose up into Meridian's eternal darkness. A few steamlamps lit the streets and trash-clogged alleys. Two Mechos, jetting steam exhaust from vents in their bronze bodies, walked past. On her left, litter-strewn docks contrasted with the solid blackness of the Styx. Never-ending, depthless. Just like her desires.
The Bone Guild kiosk bore a flashing red neon sign. One moment it showed a skull; the next, a cleaver. An emaciated male vendor stood inside. A female Clown, nude save for her white and red body paint, purchased a tray of kelp and meat cubes.
Vija wrung her hands and swallowed as the Clown slurped the meal down. Maybe she would just eat the kelp this time. Eat enough to avoid starving, but nothing more. She could do it.
Her nipples hardened at the munching sounds.
"One tray," Vija blurted as she stepped up to the kiosk. A copper shard passed from her hand to the vendor's. She accepted a warm, steaming tray. A tremor shook her stomach, and her breath quickened.
Once more wouldn't hurt. One more taste of salvation.
She ate with her hands. Rain fell, clinging her mesh top and skirt to her voluptuous body. Vija suckled the hot meat, chewed the salty kelp. Shivering, she licked juice from her fingertips and savored the flesh while it slid down to her eager stomach. Hunger subsided as she moaned into her greasy hand.
A wail made her blink.
In a nearby alley, a Gutter Knight slammed a frail man against the wall, then shoved a knife into the man's gut. Blood mixed with rain drizzle in a puddle. A different Bone Guild vendor waited with a dark-stained sack. Grinning, the Gutter Knight severed the dead man's fingers and dumped them into the sack.
"Shit," Vija murmured, stepping back.
On the curb, the female Clown laughed and sucked her meat cubes. Rain ran channels in the woman's body paint down to her crotch. She winked at Vija, ran her tongue over a pink cube, then laughed again.
"You want another?" the vendor asked Vija in a monotone.
Vija threw the tray aside and forced herself not to vomit. All in Meridian knew the Bone Guild used human meat. The vendors used to hide their meat source, but Vija had never seen her next meal killed in front of her. By Charon, right in front of her!
Red runoff from the Clown's paint mixed at Vija's feet with blood from the alley.
Stilling her nerves, she closed her eyes. Where could she go? No one could leave the city, since the Clowns had destroyed all boats and airships long ago. Only fools dared to swim in the Styx. None ever returned.
Throat tight, she clutched her stomach. Even with a ship, even without hunger, the Styx was impenetrable. Vija's cards never revealed anything over its horizon, or her own.
"You are still hungry," a soft voice said behind her.
Vija coughed and turned. A tall, pale man in a black overcoat smiled at her. The rain beaded on his hairless head, flowing through wrinkled furrows along his flesh. Pinkish-gray eyes studied her.
"Isn't everyone?" Vija tried to wipe the grease from her fingers. Behind the kiosk, the Gutter Knight received a few copper shards from the vendor. Crimson dripped from the bulging, dark-stained sack.
"I thought Sky Gypsies avoided the consumption of others." His voice purred between the rain drops.
Wet sawing noises behind the kiosk made her stomach turn to ice. "Just fuck off." Vija hurried back to her booth. Past Vagrant's Row in the Mecho District, the Steamclock tolled twice. With no sun or stars, the device's time-keeping only reminded her of periods between meals. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen the sun, the last time she'd slept.
Maybe this was all some nightmare.
As she pulled a ragged blue curtain over the booth's counter, the tall man peered in. "I too used to partake of the Bone Guild's offerings. I was even a vendor once. Now, I have seen other possibilities. There is another way than this."
Vija glowered at him. "Unless you want your fortune told, leave me the hell alone." Her silver earrings and bracelets jangled as she tugged the curtain again.
Two golden shards clattered onto the counter. "Then show me what you think I should see," the man said.
The pair of shiny objects seemed to stare at her like the eyes of a golden Mecho. Vija could feed herself for a long while with such a payment. Maybe even buy her way back into Gypsy Way, where she'd been cast out for her cannibalism...but their rationed kelp could never satisfy her.
"Who are you?" She fingered the Tarot deck inside her pouch.
"Ghulder. Please, indulge me." His thin lips creased into a smile.
Without drawing the curtain back, Vija pulled out the tin deck and shuffled it. Though slim, Ghulder's presence blotted out Meridian's filth and decay.
"That card," he said. Vija stopped shuffling and furrowed her brow. With a shrug, she tossed down the current top card. It landed face-up.
"The Clown of Cups." Ghulder's words almost merged with the rain, as if the blackness around Meridian spoke to her. "He has taken water from the Styx. Will he drink it, or take it to another who is thirsty? It is a message, as you have said."
Vija drew back, mesh shirt biting into her skin. "How--?"
Ghulder drew a slim, brown-white deck from inside his overcoat. The cards floated from his hands and shuffled themselves in mid-air. Each had been fashioned from a bone sliver. Most decks in Meridian were thin metal, since paper rotted in the city's moisture. On both of his upturned hands, a half-moon glyph had been burned into the palm.
"You're a cartomancer?" She shoved aside the curtain and scanned the street. "Shit, the Clowns will kill us both. Their High Priestess outlawed rogue cartomancers." As a Sky Gypsy, she was only allowed to tell fortunes with the Clown Tarot. Anything else could land her in a Bone Guild steam cooker.
"Draw one," Ghulder said.
The icy feeling re-formed in her stomach as Vija tapped one. The thin card turned and faced her of its own volition. The others vanished. Ghulder's hands remained palm-up.
The card revealed a skeleton standing knee-deep in the Styx, holding a chalice formed from a skull. The Styx's black water dripped from the vessel.
"Page of Skulls," Ghulder said. "Offering sustenance to one who always thirsts. Have you ever wondered, Vija? We are never sated, we never sleep. We have no family, no concrete memories. The Clowns want to rule Meridian with hedonism, while the Mechos are slaves to narcissism. I have risen above these things. The Bone Tarot reveals the truth."
"Well, what is it?" she asked, an old hope rising in her chest. Hope that she could escape.
"Everyone in Meridian is dead. We are cursed. Imprisoned."
Her mouth went dry. As the bone card floated in place, the skeleton on it beckoned her with a fleshless digit. Luscious darkness rippled inside the skull-like chalice. She caressed her thigh. If only she could taste it...
The skeleton wore her jewelry and mesh clothing.
Vija blinked and grabbed the two golden shards. "Thank you for your business."
She pulled the curtain all the way shut. Inside the booth, she counted to one hundred while gripping a shard in each hand. The metal bit into her skin while she bit her lip. The imagery, her hunger, and Ghulder all wrenched her stomach with revulsion. Meridian had many so-called saviors. Ghulder was just the latest. At least his gold might get her out of Vagrant's Row.
Finally, she exited the booth. Ghulder had left. A line of Clowns and Gutter Knights waited outside the Bone Guild kiosk. Rain came down in a steady patter, soaking her braided hair. Empty food trays swirled past in crusty gutters.
Vija placed the golden shards into her pouch. Both of her palms had been cut by them, leaving a red semi-circle.
"I can't be dead," she whispered.
Crossing her arms over her breasts, Vija rushed through Vagrant's Row. Three children beat an old woman in one alley, while a Clown man sang rhapsodies from a street corner. His hoarse singing gave her pause. Though no stranger to the Clowns, Vija wondered if they could help her forget her hunger. Ghulder had probably lied about them. No others in Meridian smiled as much as the Clowns.
The gaudy, tattered tents of the Circus came into view as she departed the Row. Several stern Clowns in red body paint stood guard. Each held a jagged sword or a blood-stained cudgel. Faithful citizens waited in line to kiss a High Priestess icon, then received a copper shard afterward.
Tin-sheet posters of the High Priestess hung on poles outside the Circus, her alabaster nudity topped with a halo. Semi-nude Clowns gathered in groups near the entrance. Laughing, smoking hookahs, juggling skulls. Eating sugar-coated human meat. Several writhed below lopsided wagons in mud and urine. Moist bodies slapped against each other amid groans and gasps. Converts underwent grease-paint baptismals nearby, the heated liquid scalding their flesh. Smells of paint, cooked meat, and cloying musk clogged Vija's nose.
A female Clown patted Vija's rump and giggled. "You look hungry. Hell, you can taste me for two copper shards." Rain flowed over the Clown's purple and orange painted body. Dried mud hung in the woman's frizzy red wig.
Vija swallowed. The Clown
s nudity made her keep her legs close together. Any friction near her crotch helped contain deeper urges. Anything to take her mind off the hunger. She squeezed the Tarot deck inside her pouch with masturbatory desperation. Rain moisture slicked the Clown's flesh down like greasy meat. Vija's stomach rumbled.
Sex mattered little-she really wanted to eat this woman. Her fingers left the deck alone and fumbled for a copper shard in her pouch.
A baptized convert moaned as a Clown poured grease paint over him from a goblet. The paint assumed a black tint as it pooled with mud and filth on the street. Vija's skin chilled. Each rain drop made her shiver. Her fingers numbed over the shard.
The female Clown licked Vija's ear lobe. The sticky tongue, combined with Ghulder's words in her mind, stilled her cravings. In devouring others, would she eventually consume herself?
The hope she'd felt before swelled in her heart. Ghulder's eyes had seemed so kind. So satisfied.
"No...I'm..." She pushed away from the Clown.
"You're what?" The Clown jiggled her own breasts and grinned.
Vija swallowed and fled from the Circus entrance, her booted feet splashing through puddles. Dirty water soaked her mesh clothing. As she passed another kiosk, a small boy chewed meat cubes. No memories existed of herself as a child. Children in Meridian never seemed to age, nor have parents.
"I'm alive." She sobbed and ran until her leg muscles hurt.
A steam pipe vented in front of her, forcing Vija to stop running. The bronze, silver, and brass buildings of the Mecho District loomed over her. Copper conduits and girders shuddered overhead with steam energy. Unlike the rest of the city, the streets had been swept clean. Every structure stood straight. Rain-collecting gutters sent water to the steam machinery beneath Meridian. Scents of oil, lubricant, and burned metal weighed down the air.
Vija hesitated at the first intersection. Mechos with silver, copper, or bronze-coated bodies walked in orderly lines on the sidewalks. A steam trolley rolled up and down the street, bearing steam surgeons and spare parts. Since the Mechos operated and maintained the city's power source, not even the Clowns bothered them. There was no garbage, no rampant crime.
No kiosks selling delicious meat.
Everyone smiled and had glowing green eye implants. Few spoke. People jetted steam from vents in their sides, necks, and chests. Vija frowned. Why didn't they eat or paw each other like the Clowns? No one scavenged in the alleys like the Gutter Knights, or told fortunes like the Sky Gypsies.
Curiosity led her into a refit shop.
Mecho body shells and exoskeletons hung from racks. Spare claws, metal-coil tentacles, hands, and other limbs dangled from shelves. Everything bore an inhuman, metallic sheen. Sterile, stiff, and pristine.
Nothing that she could eat, taste, or devour.
"I don't see any steam vents on you. Can fix that for a small fee," a man behind the shop counter said. A large metal grill on his chest belched steam. "Look like a Sky Gypsy. About time some of you see the truth. You want steam organs and biofluid, or the whole body shell too?" His voice contained the usual flat Mecho modulation.
Vija placed her hands behind her back as she neared a shelf with Mecho hands and claws. Her own hands suited her just fine. "I...well, I want something to stop it. You know. The urges."
The man nodded. "Yes, I know. Eating, sex, and violence. That's why I became a Mecho myself. Damn Clowns and Gutter Knights have ruined Meridian. Follow that whore of a Priestess, or pilfer trash in alleys. Someday, we'll be in charge of things. Then everyone will be happy and equal."
"You never have to eat?" Vija's thigh brushed a hanging bronze body shell. Molded muscles, brass vents, mesh tubes for biofluid. More machined beauty she couldn't eat. The icy feeling gripped her gut again.
"Of course not. The biofluid removes most desires. That way, we can focus on more important matters, like bettering our bodies. Got moisture collection pores we put under the skin, so the rain powers our steam organs and all."
"Biofluid?" She clenched her fists as the man's veins pumped beneath his skin. No doubt his flesh would have a metallic taste. Shit, this was too much. Why had she never noticed all this before? Hadn't she lived in Meridian for months? Years?
"I'll show you." The man opened up a bronze canister. Inside it, black liquid reflected her face back at her: stringy wet braids, trembling shoulders, ragged mesh garments. Her palms stung as Ghulder's bone card surfaced in her thoughts: a cup filled with wet darkness.
She backed away as the man's chest grill hissed steam on her. Instead of warming her, it burned her skin. She backed towards the door, then bounded out of it. Outside, Vija bumped into someone.
A bronze-coated Mecho girl scowled at Vija. "Hey, watch where you're going." Another child who would never grow old. Trapped in metal and youth.
Vija fled past metal-coated bodies and glowing green stares. Damn it, Ghulder had to be wrong! She wasn't dead. Only the living hungered as she did.
Frayed rope, splintered wood, and ripped canvas covered the dock outside Gypsy Way. The Clowns had long ago forbid any to live along the city's wharfs and quays, since they believed nothing existed save for the city. Vija had heard tales of Sky Gypsy airships flying to other cities in the Styx. Stories of weather other than rain, or a lighted sky rather than dark. None of them alleviated her doubts.
Would her people take her back? They had believed she was alive.
"Your people are servants of the Clowns. They will not accept you now," Ghulder said.
She turned and jerked back. Ghulder stood on a shattered mast, damp from the recent rain. A lone steamlamp lit the area in harsh yellow haze. His bone cards floated around him. They reminded her of a halo crowning the head of a nameless saint in her subconscious.
"They will if I don't eat." Vija backed towards the painted canvas entrance to Gypsy Way. The shards rattled in her pouch.
"Goddamn it, what do you want from me?" Vija's stomach churned as her mouth became parched.
"I want you to see." Ghulder gestured, and his Tarot deck spread out before him.
Each card face displayed a skeleton in Meridian or in the Styx itself. Unlike the Clown Tarot's suits of Cups, Swords, Wands, and Pentacles, this one featured Skulls, Cleavers, Scales, and Kiosks. Everyone appeared satisfied. Sated with food, sex. Eating, copulating, gorging, laughing. She imagined a juicy meat cube entering her mouth, or a stiff phallus sliding up her thigh towards her crotch.
Each sensation equaled the same result for Vija: ingesting sustenance any way she could to fill the gaping void inside her.
"Stop it," she whispered, shaking her head to clear away the visions. "I'm alive. Just because I can't remember doesn't..." Her words ended in a sob.
He stood right beside her without having moved. She blinked and gasped. Ghulder took her hands. Both of her palms matched his, with a scarred, burnt half-moon on each.
"See? You have been chosen, because you know what is wrong. You can be alive again, Vija. Meridian is a prison for those who cannot let go of their desires: the cast-offs of Charon when he once roamed the Styx. I have found a way to rejoin him and escape. All you need to do is drink." Ghulder waved a hand. An upturned skull rose from the black waters off the dock. Simmering dark liquid filled it to the jawbone. None of it leaked from the skull's eye or nose holes.
Vija yanked her hands away and pulled out her own Tarot deck. The cards spilled through her quivering fingers. Each slapped onto the wet street, face-up. Every single one displayed the Page of Cups. The Clown on the images morphed into a skeleton.
"I want to remember. I want to leave Meridian so much..." Vija's words choked with anguish.
"You are still hungry. Drink and it will end. Drink, and learn the secret of the Bone Guild."
Ghulder's smooth words snaked into her ears. She closed her eyes and knelt. Damp pavement scraped her knees. Gentle fingers caressed her neck and tilted her head back. Something hard brushed her lips. Vija opened her mouth and gulped soothing liquid.
The fingers tightened around her neck. A thumb rubbed her throat as she swallowed.
Coughing, Vija opened her eyes. She knelt on the dock instead of the street, leaning over the Styx. Ghulder knelt beside her with an empty, upturned skull. A tingling sensation filled her mouth and stomach. Her crotch warmed, her nipples stiffened. A heavy, satisfying weight lay in her gut. Nothing mattered save for this gratification. Not life, death, sleep, or Meridian's decay. Every hunger she'd ever had was eased, save for one.
Vija licked her lips and caressed her body. "I want..."
"More?" Ghulder asked.
She seized the skull from him and dipped it into the Styx herself.
Vija accepted the Gutter Knight's copper shard and slid him a tray piled with meat cubes and kelp. Grease dripped from it as the Knight took it and left the kiosk. A blue and white-painted Clown male stepped up and laid his shard on the counter.
"Extra meat, no kelp," he said, smirking.
Using a bronze dipper, Vija heaped the cubes onto a tray from a copper vat of boiling water. The popping grease didn't harm her emaciated arms and hands. She handed the tray to the Clown, who ate the meal right there. Each chomp, each swallow, was a private orgasm for Vija. The neon sign's red light reflected off the Clown's painted face in succulent, hellish shades. She fingered the bone sliver cards in her pouch as the scars on her palms stung with luscious pain.
A second Gutter Knight dragged a blood-stained sack behind her kiosk. "Three fresh ones. Gimme what ya promised, stick gal."
Vija passed him twelve copper shards. She had to ensure continuous sales for satisfied customers. Ghulder's Stygian drink had focused her desires, controlled her urges. His magic empowered her connection with the meat she now cooked and sold. Though Meridian's denizens ate what she prepared, she gained the true sustenance from it. The very souls of the dead, left by Charon.
Soon, as Ghulder had promised, Vija would collect enough souls for Ghulder and everyone loyal to him to escape Meridian. She only had to be patient while he gathered more disciples. In the meantime, she was happy to sustain him with the Stygian power inside her. He'd saved her, after all.
While more fresh rain drizzle fell, she plunged the dipper into the vat again. The mesh shirt drooped from her thin, gaunt frame. Dried globules of meat hung in the fabric. The bubbling grease and blood didn't scorch her lips as she drank from the dipper.
Something fell into the vat. Vija glanced down. Her old Page of Cups card floated in the pot. Instead of metal, it had become paper. The card curled up in the heated water. On it, the Clown had become a skeleton in mesh with Sky Gypsy braids.
The image morphed into one where the skeleton took off its own head and dipped it into the Styx.
A searing pain shot through her neck, and her entire head went cold. Vija coughed and spat out the steaming liquid. A chill came over her as she touched her throat.
"I'm still alive..."
Bubbles and froth disintegrated the card. Vija sobbed and took another drink. Once more wouldn't hurt. One more taste of salvation.