Human fat makes for the worst candles, thought Mortalo as he struck the flint. The flame grew, bleeding light into a damp-riddled room. He swallowed hard, his eye twitching, as the chittering cries of the Scourge continued to torment him. My children, however twisted, deserve more than this.
He grabbed the journal hanging from his belt and slammed its bulk onto the table. The paper, crafted from the skin of the dead, was rough under his ink-stained finger. He scanned through and stopped on a name—Canis Rayne.
Mortalo strode out of the room, the candlelight giving way to the dark of the citadel. Water dripped from the ceiling, wires hanging down from where lights used to be. The pulsating hum of the city’s mechanical heart vibrated through the stone building, mocking him as it churned the souls of the dead into energy.
A scream echoed through his halls. He tried to remember what he had done to whom or what, but the distant groans of the Scourge kept forcing their way to the forefront of his mind. He needed to see if the streets were safe, to see if the Scourge-freaks had managed to find their way in to the city. I’m not ready, he thought, not yet.
He passed barred windows, ascended the stone steps to what used to be his roof, and peered into the gloom of day. Specks of light penetrated the dome-like mesh of thorns that had outgrown the city of Blackrose after centuries of isolation. Drifting between the overgrowth and into the sky, the green souls of the dead glowed.
He peered over the city and placed his arm around his homemade scarecrow. A spike caked in dry blood held the body erect. He looked to the south wall where The Herald’s Ravine cut through, allowing water to flow. Wardens—automatons—guarded it, though, and the surrounding land was a graveyard of failed escapes.
“We’ll set these people free, Edwin,” said Mortalo, looking into the scarecrow’s drooping face.
“Madness,” someone said out of the darkness.
Mortalo turned. He darted a glance at Edwin, but his eyes soon found their target. “Teller, what’re you doing up here?”
Teller Redmaw emerged from the shadows. “Canis hasn’t moved for hours.”
Mortalo nodded and his heart steadied itself as his slave scuttled off. He snatched at the journal hanging from his belt—Teller looking weak,Mortalo wrote, his body thin, but his mouth brave. I’ll have to increase his dose of fluids, maybe a blood transfusion. I’ll see how further tests to Canis Rayne go before deciding what will b—The ink dried before he could make any more notes. He threw the quill onto the floor.
“Teller! I need another quill, Teller!” His voice was like thunder in the night air.
He scanned previous notes. Cell four. I’m coming, Canis. He flicked a maggot from his hooded robe and, after one more glance at the city, descended into his citadel. The stairway opened onto a narrow hall with sealed chambers on either side, numbers scratched into the stone above.
CHAMBER ONE—a limb graft had died during the night. Its new bionic arms had peeled off and swung from the restraints.
CHAMBER TWO—in its death throes, having rejected the solution of distilled asp-tongue mold Mortalo had replaced the better part of her blood with.
CHAMBER THREE—a slave had dissolved like flour in the rain. Teller will have to clean that.
CHAMBER FOUR—he pushed open the door and adjusted his robe to block the frigid air rushing out; his ice-chamber was working as it should. Frost clung to the stone walls and the icy cloak of nature latched onto his skin.
“Canis,” Mortalo called, his breath visible.
Nothing stirred. He took a few steps in. Canis was slumped against the far wall. The boy’s torso had gone black in some spots from the night of cold exposure. Canis’ long brown dreadlocks were frozen, framing a youthful face that was in direct contrast to his deformed body.
“Canis,” he repeated, thinking he was dead.
After all you’ve survived, it was one night of cold. Dammit, boy! He rummaged for the quill, forgetting he had thrown it away, when Canis coughed. Mortalo jumped at the start, his heart beating with an excited flutter.
“Canis,” he called again, deeper, more commanding.
The boy breathed, shallow but steady, yet no response. A wisp of green smoke trickled out of Canis’ nose. Mortalo didn’t know if it was the boy’s soul escaping or the ether he had injected.
Mortalo stomped over and struck him across the face. “I’m speaking to you!”
Round, light blue eyes looked at him.
“My boy,” Mortalo said with a smile, crouching to eye level. “You know I don’t like having to hurt you, but if you would just listen to me.”
“I’m sorry,” Canis managed to say, his lips the same color as his eyes. He shivered, a mass of contracting muscle and metal, each crease of skin an open wound.
Canis tried. His legs shook, and he was hunched over. Mortalo glared at him, and the boy straightened, the vertebra crunching into place. Canis looked at the floor as Mortalo inspected him. Heavy damage to the skin, but nothing more. I’m getting close. I have to be.
Canis hugged himself. “D-Did I do good?” he stuttered.
“You did well. I’m proud of you.”
Canis stared at him, eyes wide. Mortalo undid his restraints, then set the braziers alight with a torch from the hall. Canis stayed in place, his head down, as the wind shuttered against the thick walls and whistled through the hairline cracks. The braziers burned bright enough to ward off anything hiding in the shadows. The room started to thaw, air relaxing and warming with each passing second.
Mortalo scanned through the previous night’s illustrations in his journal—body grafts, limb transplants, augmentations, makeshift piles of flesh with no discernible shape, sheet after sheet of formulas and ingredients, and lineage charts, mapping generations of his slaves and their parents, keeping track of the most desirable qualities and forcing them down the line from estranged brother-parent to unknown nephew-child. There was a blurred line between guesswork and genetics, bionics and pain, slave and madman, but some gems like Canis Rayne remained out of comprehension, his ability to heal, to survive the most draining of experiments, causing years of confusion. And this might be the culmination of it all. We’ll see soon enough. I’m their savior, their father, and I can be father to the world.
Canis stood without a word, shivering and his muscles tense.
“What’re you staring at?” Mortalo asked. “Speak.”
“Is Vann okay? Is he still alive?”
“Ahh, Vann Xan.” Mortalo flicked back a few pages. “Actually, he’s still with us, last time I checked. We almost lost him yesterday, though. Not like you, dear Canis. Perhaps, one day, Blackrose’s savior.”
Canis smiled at the praise.
Mortalo pulled a handful of dried mushrooms from his pocket and extended his hand. Canis’ gaze fixed on them and his master saw the anticipation as the man-boy’s mouth opened, licking scabbed lips in dry quivers.
“Your mooncap for the evening.”
Canis grabbed the fungus and chewed. He retreated into the corner Mortalo had found him in and slumped into submission. The ice in his dreadlocks had begun to melt, streams of water trickling down his face. His pupils grew and his breathing picked up. He rocked back and forth in a ball, picking scabs, muttering gibberish whilst twisting his mouth into uncontrollable and exaggerated shapes. Mooncap was good for controlling their inbred rage, but better for escaping reality.
Mortalo smiled. “That’s a good boy.”