A short story whose core idea latched onto my mind and refused to let go until it was written down.
In which a Revolutionary and a Seeker meet with each other, and a questionable and lethal pact is formed.
(Content warning: Seekers, mild gore, messy table habits, ignoring food safety standards, semi-cannibalism)
The Flit is warm tonight, a humid summer haze flowing through the rooftops and walkways tonight. The smell would be intolerable, were it not for the sheer amount of scented candles lit by Londoners to stave off the stench. Under his fungal soothing-creams and lightweight clothes, the Debonair Sharpshooter still sweats slightly as he waits by the window of his rooftop shack. He looks out into the night air, marveling at the views below even as he gazes for any sign of his visitor. Out of sight, his rifle leans against the wall within reach.
He is tense. He shouldn’t be, he supposes - the shack has seen countless illicit meetings, and never once has there been a scuffle or an ambush - but he welcomes it nonetheless. To be tense is to feel you are in potential danger, and the Sharpshooter has never viewed a life without danger as worth living. And to be honest, he has never met with the kind of visitor he is expecting tonight. More than danger, there is the thrill of the unknown. And the fear.
He turns away from the window to check the progress of the evening meal. They liked to eat a lot, he knew (remembered) that much. Might as well do something especially nice this evening, to make the mood a bit brighter. He’d managed to pull some fresh vegetables and fruits from the surface, a dazzling array of blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, grapes, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce and cucumber that had cost a pretty sum to get down here. A wheel of creamy French cheese. A jug of the finest corn beer that the tomb-colonies had to offer. And what was soon to be a brace of freshly boiled bats: the furry corpses were currently lying in a pile next to the stove at present, just waiting for the visitor to arrive. Boiled bat was best fresh, so he’d just pop them in the pot and-
A thump outside the doorway, as if from someone landing from a great height (it is likely exactly that, the Sharpshooter thinks) distracts him from the meal. He hurriedly activates his derringer from a coat pocket and walks to the doorway, waiting for something to happen. From the other side of the doorway, someone knocks precisely seven times.
The Sharpshooter opens the door, and the Abominable Idealist steps in.
She smells like an overgrown greenhouse repurposed into an abattoir. Every ounce of her is wild: the tangled and matted red hair, the bloodshot eyes staring unblinkingly at the Sharpshooter, the constantly twitching hands with long uncut nails, the way she idly bites at the air. What may have been a fashionable ensemble five years ago hangs off her emaciated frame, the textures obscured by dust and unmentionable material. The Sharpshooter cannot see a rifle, but he can see the other customary weapon of the Children: a butcher’s knife, strapped loosely to her hip. She twitches and fiddles with the folds of her skirt with one hand, while the other remains raised in the air from where it had been knocking; as the Sharpshooter extends his hand for a handshake, she suddenly drops it to grip his, clinging tightly as they shake hands.
“Glad to see you made it,” the Sharpshooter says in his best pleasant voice, “Hope there was no trouble along the way.”
The Idealist continues to shake his hand and fiddle with her skirt. Her eyes dart rapidly, as if inspecting the Sharpshooter for any kind of hidden weapon or blade. Her voice is low, harsh, fervent. “Most staying cool, low to the ground. No trouble.”
"There’s a plate of fruit and vegetables, fresh from the Surface. A nice round of cheese, too. And some corn beer, I thought it might be to your liking. The bats aren’t boiled yet, but they should be done in just-"
The Debonair Sharpshooter does not have time to finish his speech before the Idealist runs (surprisingly fast for her size) to the kitchen area. She snatches a raw bat from the counter along with a handful of fruit and vegetables, and drops it all on the table. The fruit and vegetables are quickly swallowed by the pound. A hunk of cheese is torn off with grimy hands and is soon devoured in short order. The corn beer, too, goes down with a single gulp. And, without a single glance at the silent Sharpshooter, the Idealist sinks her teeth into the off-pink flesh of the bat. Blood and juices squirt as she noisily gobbles down hunks of flesh. In between the sounds of crunching and chewing, only one word comes from the Idealist, in a rasping ragged voice: "Thanks."
"I don’t suppose you’d like…more?" the Sharpshooter asks delicately, a strained smile on his face. He hopes it isn’t considered impolite to ask: he’d felt the red hunger once, but that was a long time back. And never as intensely as the thrashing and gulping of his visitor. Perhaps he would refrain from his own meal tonight.
The Abominable Idealist looks up from her plate, face stained with gore. Her eyes are pinpricks in a sea of bloodshot yellow, staring unwaveringly into the Sharpshooter’s own. A shaky tongue extends out to lick the red out from around her lips. Her expression is - maniacal? Hungry? Sad?
"No more," she breathes in that same ragged tone, "more will never be enough."
The Sharpshooter nods, wordlessly putting his empty dinner plate away. The Idealist dives in with frenzied gusto once more. The Sharpshooter lets her eat in silence and walks over to the window, keeping a watchful eye out for would-be eavesdroppers. In the gloom of the walkways above, he can make out the glint of a rifle barrel, the faintest sound of grinding teeth. He nods to the Children to make his awareness of them obvious, then looks down and coughs. From a distance there comes the soft flutter and glimpse of green ribbons being waved: his Messidorists, reporting back.
"I guess we should get down to business then," the Sharpshooter says at length, turning from the window and sitting down opposite the Idealist. He thinks about the codes and the safe-words, the right phrase that would mark him as a sympathizer instead of getting his face ripped off. "You do not forget-"
"-and we do not forgive," the Idealist finishes, her posture easing up and eyes dilating slightly. Her frame trembles with emotion and her hands clench, nails digging into hard flesh. "He was betrayed!"
"…and his betrayers deserve death," the Sharpshooter finishes, nodding at her words. Seekers were far from a united group, but the Children of the Reckoning was one of those more receptive to the Cause. They had long ago been driven to hate the Masters for their betrayal, driven to seek vengeance and retribution. Their Cause was…personal. “We know of your anger and your desire. We seek similar ends as well. Revenge. Justice.”
The Idealist cocks her head and speaks in between mouthfuls, “Why do you fight, hunter, out there on your streets? You don’t know Him. Not like us. What drives your hatred?” She wipes her mouth on her sleeve, smears red everywhere. Even the Face hadn’t been this messy.
The Sharpshooter thinks. He thinks back to haunted faces and thin bodies on the streets, sitting motionless as fine black carriages and well-fed horses pass them by. To manacles at high tide and books locked in waterlogged trunks. To dockers trampled under the boots of Neddy Men, and bohemians carted off by Special Constables. He thinks further back, to lines of prisoners and midnight raids. To fallen empires and rising empires. To children that would never know adulthood and animals that knew nothing but pain. To the days and nights that continued on, uninterrupted and uncaring. To families that carried on, uninterrupted and uncaring.
He thinks back to the past, and the answer is clear. “Because we are too many.”
The Idealist stares. Her eyes are almost normal. Her voice is almost comforting. “I see.” The Sharpshooter thinks she does.
He raises his hand to change the subject. “I’m given to understand the Children prefer heights. You’ll find we have friends in the skies as well as down below, but me and mine prefer the ground.”
The Idealist looks outside. “Yes, yes. He soared through the skies once, as best he could. They all did. But now He is forever underground, and His Betrayers must scuttle on the ground in shame. We will not touch the ground His Betrayers walk on. It is unclean.”
“But you come down to-”
“To feed, yes.” The Idealist smiles at last, and the Sharpshooter wishes she wouldn’t. The teeth are wrong. “The ground must be sanctified first. His body was made sacred when they bled Him. Similar… principles apply.”
“Ah. Interesting to know. I suppose we do the same, after a fashion.” The Sharpshooter gestures outside. “We’re outnumbered, you know. Why we’ve set up this meeting, and why I expect you’ve responded. The Masters grow more paranoid, their defenses more so each year. I believe we could help each other.”
He really wishes she would stop smiling. “You are not wrong. We see their soldiers killing yours in the alleyways when you aren’t looking, your texts burnt. We see our own sermons washed off the walls by their filthy water, our own initiates…desouled.”
“Precisely. And it is the same for many others, all over London and beyond. Our voices have been silenced individually. Only by working together despite our differences can we hope to take down your betrayers and our tyrants. The Council learned that a long time ago.” The Idealist has stopped smiling now, and the Sharpshooter is glad for it. She idly picks at the wing-bones of a bat, and he grabs a rag to wipe his brow with against the heat. They are both in agreement, it seems. But there will need to be negotiation. There is always negotiation.
“As He was betrayed, you may betray us. What would you give for us? What is due?” The last question the Idealist whispers again, but the Sharpshooter is fairly sure it is to herself. He steels himself, mentally recalling the planning and the notes on Seekers and the Children.
“Protection, for one. I’ve heard of how you cover for your own in a firefight, and it’s the same here. There are those all around the city who would bear arms for your congregation if the word was given and an alliance approved. Supplies, too. No more scrounging in waste bins for ammunition and gun parts - rifles and ammunition fresh from the Surface factories, the kind being manufactured for the next wars. And…” the Sharpshooter tries to remember the customs relayed to him by his contacts, “as…as customary, the exchange of flesh.”
He is afraid the Idealist is going to fall out of her chair, with the spasming and wriggling that occurs. Her mouth bites at the air like a cat spying an especially fat pigeon, and her hands dance wildly in the remnants of her meal. “Protection, yes. Fresh supplies, yes. And fresh…” her eyes now fully contracted again, the Idealist eyes the Sharpshooter in a highly uncomfortable manner. “Observing the customs no less. Are you sure you do not Seek the Name? His real name?”
“No!” the Sharpshooter says in mild alarm, raising his hands. Oh god no. Never that. Never again. “I mean…no. I’m sorry. I would light a candle for Him as I would any other sibling lost to the tyranny of the Masters but…” The Idealist looks confused, and the Sharpshooter realizes that perhaps now would not be the best time to bring up old wounds. “I guess you could say I don’t have the…stomach for Seeking.”
At first the Sharpshooter thinks the Idealist is going to explode - possibly into a pile of teeth. But after a long few seconds, the Abominable Idealist lets out a gasping, howling noise that the Sharpshooter realizes is laughter.
The Idealist rocks back and forth laughing, while the Sharpshooter wipes some red liquid off his cheek. “Normally we would assess that first-hand,” she grins in that unnerving smile, miming a knife cut, “but you have been a most generous host. Not like His hosts, no. Not like His. We will take your protection, and your supplies, and I will look forward to the exchange of flesh.” Of course she would, the Sharpshooter thinks. “I will only take a little. So now it is on us to fulfill our end of the bargain. What would you ask of us?”
“Your eyes, your knives, and your guns.” The Sharpshooter begins. Now they are in familiar territory again. “The Children roost in the high places, and you can observe much. We need that - to know where the servants of the Masters are hiding, where they are coming, and the flight routes. You are remarkable for your marksmanship and for your, ah, disassembling skills.” One of his forward-thinking contacts had managed to get a film of the Children, once. Even through the fuzz, Hotshot remembered seeing the Special Constable fall and the horde of bodies leaping to the ground to eat and eat and eat and eat and- “I expect you will want to partake of those you catch.”
“Yes,” breathes the Abominable Idealist, “That is something we must have, hunter. You will respect our customs. And you may have the remnants.”
“Naturally. And if we claim our quarry, then you will refrain from feasting. Do we have an alliance, then?” The Sharpshooter holds out his hand again, anticipating another handshake.
The Idealist bats the hand away. “Almost,” she states, rising to lean against the table. Her breath smells of corn beer and copper. “My congregation is out there, I can smell them. And your hunting party, too. They can see us. We will sign our agreement in the customary manner - the exchange.”
The Debonair Sharpshooter rises. This had not been in the original plans, but the Sharpshooter was a quick thinker. “I keep my word, but question if this is really the time. There are more comfortable accomodations for bloodletting that would be more-”
The Abominable Idealist locks eyes. “The sooner we hunt together, the sooner the Betrayers die. We will only take a little.” She lowers a corner of her shirt, shows a glimpse of surprisingly white shoulder. “Do you know how they Betrayed Him, hunter? They said they would only take a little, and yet they took everything. And He was given nothing back. The exchange of flesh eases what was lost. A bite from you. A bite from me.”
The Sharpshooter sighs. The rooftop shack was really not the best place for this. And it was going to be awkward to explain to his Messidorists. But he supposed that was the kind of thing you risked when you made treaties with Seekers. “Very well. My shoulder as well, then. Near the arm if possible, I prefer my arteries intact.” He lowers his shirt as well, exposes the flesh of his left shoulder to her. “Do you mind if I pour a glass for myself, first? I don’t normally engage in this sort of thing.”
The Idealist just grins, and the both of them pull their shirts back up to grab glasses. They pour out the corn beer, and then turn to face each other so that both are in full view of the window. They give the coded hand signals to their honor guards. Outside in the Flit, all is quiet. The Children have stopped chattering and biting. The Messidorists have stopped breathing.
The Debonair Sharpshooter and Abominable Idealist raise their glasses, and clink them against each other. They toast their defiance: “Death to the Betrayers! Death to the Masters!” The beer goes down bitter and savory. They expose their shoulders, ready their mouths and teeth for one of the most intimate of contracts.
And then the exchange of flesh begins.
The Flit is still warm, the humid summer haze still flowing through the rooftops and walkways. Even through a city’s worth of scented candles, the Sharpshooter can still smell - can still taste - blood and Flit-smoke. His clothes are damp with red, and the fungal cream is beginning to irritate the cuts and lacerations on his skin. His left shoulder throbs. He looks out into the night air blankly. His rifle is still leaning against the wall, and his kitchen is a mess.
The Abominable Idealist and the Children of the Reckoning are gone, and his Messidorists have surrounded the shack. Most of them stand outside, guns raised and watching the dark, defending their cell leader against any intruders. A few stand inside, with bottles of tequila (comfort drinks) and chunks of ice wrapped in cloth (the soothing cold) to ease the pain. His shoulder will heal in time, with rest and time and the ministrations of the Rubberies. So will hers. But it will still hurt like hell in the meantime.
One of the Messidorists - a Youthful Seditionist - is busy applying a cold compress to his wounds. They look at him with wondering eyes. “So the Seekers…they’re with us now, Messidor?”
The Sharpshooter nods wearily. “The Children of the Reckoning. There are more than just them. But it is good to have them.”
His cell nods. The Youthful Seditionist winces as they peel back the compress, soaking red. “Messidor, was this…” they gesture helplessly with a grimace, “worth it? They’re good shots, yeah, but vicious. And those teeth…”
The Sharpshooter attempts a laugh, before gasping from the pain. He settles for a weak smile. “Not so different, really. They hate the ones who betrayed the person they love. We hate the ones who hurt the people we love. We both want similar things. To right wrongs that can never be undone. To tear down an order that lets good people die.”
He settles back, and looks through the window of the shack, to the false stars on the ceiling. Perhaps he will light a candle tonight, in honor of He who was Betrayed. Not Eaten. Eaten can only ever be betrayed.
The Cause blossoms. There may yet be something beautiful.
edited by Hotshot Blackburn on 4/12/2018