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City of Penance

Schloc let loose a garbled inarticulate cry, clicking his mandibles, waggling his long antennae and throwing his tentacles in the air. If he had been human, he might have stomped a foot or kicked something. He was not, though, and he could not risk it. Schloc was a Squifri, an amphibious race with the hind quarters of a frog, the tentacles of a squid – though only two – and the face of a moth with big black buggy eyes. His entire body – save for his eyes – was translucent, so that his skeleton and intestines could be seen when naked. Supple and slimy in the water, his body turned hard and brittle as glass in the blazing Paeu sunlight. Most of his race were content with their naked, water-bound lives. Some, however, like Schloc, soon grew tired of the tedium of swimming around and around the mostly empty ocean and longed for adventures on land. They could breathe either on land or in water thanks to their thin permeable skin, so long as they moistened themselves once in a while.


In a large pool dug into the floor, where he spent most of his time when at home in his thatched round stone hut, Schloc threw cold water over his face and sighed with relish. He had been out in the sun for most of the day, the light intensified by the massive mirrors placed at clever angles around the top of the hundred-foot-high impassable fabric wall that circled the city of Creatlach, which ensured that the city basked in sunlight from dawn till dusk. He had been looking forward to a good long soak all day. It had not been a good day. It had not been a good week. Schloc had worked hard to make his fortune, working his way from the bottom to the top, starting as a simple stall vendor and learning the trade and then learning other skills, such as weaving. He had gotten into the textile business. Business had been booming. Everyone and their mother had wanted one of his cloaks. Silk or wool, he had it all. Even burlap.


Ever since Schithrimi had become Taoiseach, however, that had all changed. Schithrimi’s legend had spread fast – the Squifri who had conjured up a wall of fabric to protect an entire city, the finest fabric anyone had ever seen, immune to fire, water and spear. How it held itself up and what it was made of were mysteries known to none but Schithrimi, and he had declined to divulge them. Nobody knew how it was strong enough to support the mirrors – or even how they had been attached. Magic – that was all they knew. That was the only word to explain it, despite everyone’s doubts.


Since Schithrimi had taken over the town, ousting the previous xenophobic human Taoiseach with his magical prowess, weavers from far and wide had travelled great distances to come to the city to see the fabled fabric and to make their own fortunes in the textile business. Now, Schloc was no longer the finest weaver in town, no longer a big fish in a small pond. He was but one of many excellent weavers, a small fish in a big pond, and his fortunes reflected that fact. He was broke. Every investment he had made recently to try to turn his situation around had taken it from bad to worse, and now he scarcely had two coins to rub together. He sloshed water over his face again and sighed.


His daughter, Sasch, gently opened the door. Squifri did not knock. They were too delicate. She was not embarrassed to see him naked in the bath, though she wore several thick robes of red and gold silk and wool over her entire body with only her face and the tips of her tentacles free. Squifri had no taboo about such things. They did, however, need to wear enough clothing to protect them from even the slightest scratch when they venture out on land, for their skin was fragile and their wounds became infected fast without the salve of saltwater. They were too brittle to wear armour, however; heavy layers of cloth was all they could manage.


“Father,” Sasch warbled in Squifrish, her voice bubbly and phlegmy, “may I please go out for drinks with Paddy this evening?”


Schloc knew his daughter was putting on her high, girlish voice to manipulate him, but he didn’t mind.


He put on the Squifri equivalent of a smile, waggling his antennae. “No, of course not. That’s fine, Sasch. Just don’t be out too late.”


“I won’t, I promise!”


“And don’t drink too much!” he warned her in his own watery voice in Squifrish. “You know we Squifri are affected more than the humans by intoxicants.”


“I know, father. I won’t drink too much, I promise.”


“How are things with you and Paddy anyway?”


She waggled her antennae. “I really think he loves me, father. He treats me so well, taking me places and buying me things.”


“Does he compliment you or open doors for you?”


“Not so much. But look at this necklace he gave me!”


“Hmph. It looks old.”


“Oh, don’t be such a grump, father. Paddy is wonderful, and we are very happy, I promise. I must go now. He’s waiting for me.”


“Okay, my beautiful girl,” said Schloc, wishing he could hug her but not wishing to wet her garments. “Go. Just be careful, please. You’re all I have.”


She gave him a funny look. “Is everything okay, father? You seem … blue.”


He gave a bark of laughter. All Squifri were slightly blue. “I’m fine, really. Just tired. Everything is fine, my sweet girl, don’t you worry. You go and enjoy yourself. I love you.”


“Okay. I love you, too. Thank you, father!”


In a flap of robes, she was gone.


“You’re going to have to tell her one of these days,” he said to himself. “But not yet.”


Sasch did not come home that night.


Schloc was not overly worried. It was not the first time she had flouted his rules and spent the night with her partner, Paddy. His little girl was growing up. Deciding he would simply have a few words with her about respect, a girl’s virtue and her word when she did show up, he went about his business. Wrapping himself in several layers of teal robes, he ventured out of the large hut he’d soon have to sell and set off down the dusty street. Little wind bothered the residents of Creatlach thanks to the high wall, so the streets needed to be swept more often than they were. The air was humid that morning, for which Schloc was grateful. The sun could not yet be seen in the circle of sky above him, but its light poured over the city anyway, reflected off the high mirrors. He made his way first to the market in the centre of the city to check in on the workers manning the stalls for him – workers he’d soon have to let go.


“How goes it?” he asked one of them in Traveller’s, a friend of his for years called Darragh.


Darragh, an overweight middle-aged human, bald and bearded and cheerful as the sun, scratched his balls through his fine trews and brayed in the same tongue, “These are tough times, Schloc, me old chum, tough times indeed. No doubt about it. No bugger’s buying anything these days! Well, that’s not true. They are buying stuff. Just not off us! Ah, our name isn’t what it once was, my friend, not by a long shot. If things don’t pick up soon, we’re going to have a spot of trouble on our hands, that’s for sure.”


From his oiled and perfumed beard, silk shirt open wide enough to expose a forest of chest hair and thick gold necklace, one would never have guessed that Darragh was suffering financial shortcomings. And yet Schloc knew he must be tightening his belt as much as anyone else. Metaphorically, of course. In reality, Darragh’s belt was buckled as loose as possible around his prodigious beer gut. Darragh moved to clap Schloc on the shoulder in the fashion humans find so friendly, but reconsidered it when Schloc flinched. Such a blow could be the death of him.


Schloc moved his head up and down to convey understanding. “I know. Times are tough. There’s nothing we can do but keep at it, though. So, keep at it. You’re doing a good job, Darragh. Let me see the numbers.”


He inspected the numbers – they were not good – and then moved on to the next stall, where the Squifri vendor told him much the same story. She had not sold much lately. None of the stalls had. Most of the vendors were Squifri. Schloc liked to help those of his own race with similar inclinations for adventure to his own. The thought of not being able to pay them, of them being thrown out of their homes into the street, was more than he could bear.


He moved on, stepping carefully through the boulevards between well-spaced stone huts towards the rim of the city, where his warehouses and loomshops were to be found. The sun scorched him directly overhead, and he tried to stay in the shade as he went.


The head weaver in the loomshop, a crotchety old human woman with grey hair tied back in a severe ponytail, who was good at keeping the workers in line with a tongue-lashing, told him bluntly, “The wares are backing up. We’re not shifting them fast enough.”


Schloc was wondering which warehouses and loomshops he’d have to sell first as he walked back out the door, head down, moroseness weighing heavy on him. He sat down gingerly on a bench in the street. He wanted to throw himself down in rage, but always had to be careful of his brittle skin. As the sun sailed out of sight of the circle of sky, he sat and stared in a pit of depression at the yet brightly lit fabric wall, the mighty tapestry that ringed the city, the root of all his woes. He recalled how happy and excited he had been to see a Squifri thrive when Schithrimi had first overthrown the Taoiseach with his magic. He had been ecstatic.


Then, Schithrimi had thrown up the fabric wall, promising that any and all lawbreakers would be seen and punished by the tapestry. Schloc had been doubtful at first of the powers of an all-seeing drape, but had rejoiced nonetheless. It had sounded like a positive measure; how could the elimination of crime be bad? Then, when he had learned along with the rest of the city that it was true – the tapestry really did punish those who broke the law by somehow absorbing them into its plush prison, trapping them in the tapestry as two-dimensional woven figures – he had rejoiced once more, this time more heartily. Crime was a thing of the past! Life had seemed on the up and up. How wrong he had been, he thought ruefully now as he stared at the stretch of fabric.


The life-sized figures depicted on it were hauntingly realistic, more realistic than any tapestry had a right to be. Human men and women and Squifri of both sexes looked like they could jump out at any moment, and yet he knew they could not. They were the damned now. Schloc wondered not for the first time whether they were dead or whether they somehow lived on in the tapestry thanks to Schithrimi’s twisted magic, unable to move or do anything at all except exist. He shuddered at the thought of never making it to Annwyn, the Otherworld. They were lawbreakers, though, each and every one, even the children. They deserved their fate, he reassured himself. Didn’t they?


His gaze shifted to the Guardians, the tapestry’s enforcers. As Schithrimi had promised, they saw and knew all, no matter where an infraction took place – even behind closed doors. Massive silvery beings, hooded, cloaked and masked with eyes burning bright even in the dark of night stared back at him. Staring into their eyes was generally considered an uncomfortable experience. Doing so now, Schloc felt like they could pierce to the innermost recesses of his soul, shining a light on his darkest corners. He had only seen them emerge from the tapestry a few times.


The day the tapestry had proven to function as promised had been the most astounding day of his life. Nobody had truly believed it until that day. Afterwards, no one had dared doubt. Hearing of the incredible fabric wall and the Sorcerer who had erected it, a clan of deserters had come to Creatlach, hoping to somehow take the magic for themselves. Led by Chief Doyle, who had taken his clan and abandoned the Righ Tuatha and her army in the middle of the war against Hybor because he felt like he was owed more booty, the clan had marched through the gate one bright spring day a little over a year ago. Folk called it ‘the gate’, but in reality it was only a door-shaped hole cut into the mysterious tapestry by its weaver, the sole entrance to the city of fabric.


The men had frogmarched in and made their way unobstructed to the Taoiseach’s huge round stone hut. Schithrimi had relieved all city guards of their duties the day he had erected the tapestry. Doyle had banged on the door himself and been answered by the Taoiseach. Practically the entire city had gathered to watch. Doyle had demanded that Schithrimi surrender the city to him, and Schithrimi had refused. Doyle had attacked the Taoiseach, only for his claymore to bounce off a glowing green sphere that sprang up around Schithrimi, wavering and flickering with arcane energy. Doyle’s sword swung again and again in vain, unable to penetrate the mystical barrier.


In the end, Doyle had snarled in Traveller’s, “Fine! If you won’t die and you won’t fight me, I’ll take the city by force – by eradicating its inhabitants!”


Schithrimi had said nothing, had not moved a muscle, to the populace’s horror. Doyle had ordered his men to slay the city folk, every single one of them, and so had begun the most gruesome few seconds of Schloc’s life. The deserters had laid into the city folk with sword and axe, spilling their blood left, right and centre so that it splashed garishly, glittering incongruously in the sunlight, across the streets and walls. Scores had died within seconds, but then the tapestry had taken its retribution, imposing its own eerie justice – as Schithrimi must have known it would.


The tapestry had bulged inward everywhere a Guardian was sketched on its surface, bowing like it was growing lumps under its skin. When it had seemed that the cysts must pop, they had and the Guardians had sprung out of the tapestry, no longer two-dimensional figures depicted on fabric but three-dimensional beings existing in the real world. Eight feet tall, the hooded and cloaked monstrosities had spoken no words, but a strange humming had emanated from them as if each was a struck bell. They moved with inhuman speed, fiery eyes blazing, tearing through the streets and pouncing impossible distances to close on the lawbreakers.


The deserters had fought back, of course, despite the mind-numbing panic they must have experienced. Schloc well remembered the sensation himself, and they had not even been coming for him. Doyle and his men had hacked and slashed at the Guardians, cutting them open and impaling them, but not one silver-clad figure had gone down. Only dust had poured from their wounds. The Guardians had seized the deserters one by one – every single man who had slain a citizen – and, with manic bounds, had sprung back into the tapestry from whence they had come, sinking into it as if it were water. Everywhere a Guardian had sunk in, the tapestry had rippled, confusing the eyes for a moment. Then, when it had stilled, the Guardians had been depicted on its surface once more just as before, this time with companions sketched by their sides. The faces of the deserters, two-dimensional, stuck in the fabric wall, forever twisted and screaming in terror, had haunted Schloc’s dreams for days after that. Doyle’s was the worst. He was shown being torn in twain by two Guardians, stuck with only half his midriff intact, his guts hanging out like gruesome bunting.


All those in Doyle’s clan who had not been snatched into the tapestry had turned tail and fled immediately, to no one’s surprise. The city had rejoiced that night, but carefully. No one had wanted to break a law anymore. Only a few had tested the tapestry’s limits after that. It soon became clear that intent was innocent, but to commit a crime was to invite a Guardian to snatch you away. Soon, no one dared so much as litter in the streets, unsure if it was a crime or not.


A familiar voice broke Schloc’s reverie, speaking Traveller’s Tongue. “There you are, Schloc! Might I have a word?”


Schloc turned and frowned to behold his daughter’s partner, the human, Paddy Quinn, lanky, beardless and round of face. His daughter, however, was nowhere to be seen.


“Paddy!” Schloc exclaimed in Traveller’s in surprise. “It’s good to see you, but where is Sasch? I thought she was with you, and she did not come home last night.”


“That’s what I wanted to speak to you about,” said Paddy, hands in the pockets of his fine tartan trews. He cut a dashing figure in a peach silk shirt and a buttoned green coat. His ginger hair curled out from beneath his brimmed green hat. “Can I buy you a drink?”


“Where is my daughter?”


“Please, let’s talk out of the sun, eh?”


He turned and walked into a nearby tavern with a peaked thatch roof and a wooden sign hanging out front proclaiming it ‘Weaver’s Delight’. Growling and muttering under his breath, Schloc followed and found Paddy ordering two ales at the bar.


“Make mine a water,” said Schloc.


The two of the sat down at a scarred round little table in the corner with their drinks. The common room was not yet full. Only a few dusty workers and dedicated drunks kept them company.


“What’s all this about?” Schloc asked after only a small sip of water.


Paddy took a long draught of ale, smacked his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Then, he leaned forward, cupping the tankard with both hands, shoulders hunched conspiratorially so that his green coat crinkled.


Evidently carefully repeating a rehearsed speech, he said, “Your daughter is at my secret place. You will not see her again.”


Schloc went cold in an instant.

 

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