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The Nameless

‘NAMELESS'

"How badly do you want to live?"

Leah could feel the man's hot breath on her neck, rancid with the stench of onions and sour milk. His voice was an oozing thing, bubbling up from the putrescent depths of his innards. Every now and then he let out a shrill giggle, and she felt his body twitching behind her as blasts of air chuffed against her crawling skin.

"I don't know," she replied, knowing it was not the answer he had anticipated.

(Felicity Dowker)

As abrupt as nightmare - an arm was locked about her; crushing her breasts, clamping her own arms to her sides -

A sharp, cold pain slid into her neck - A needle!

The stinking breath close to her ear, snake whisper -

"Now," he said, his arm iron against her struggles, "we're both going to find out."

(S.S.)

Whatever had been in the syringe, it stung. She heard the hypodermic's fallen clatter. The sound lacked clarity, seemed unaccountably distant. Other noises - the grunt of his breath, the strains of their scuffle - were similarly cocooned.

His grip was ruthless.

She willed her resistance to slacken, began to slump into his fetid embrace. He'd be expecting that. Let him think the dose was working. But how long should she wait, before she acted?

(Simon Petrie)

Leah threshed, and threshed herself awake. The broken cadence of nightmare gave way to weak dawn gleaming around drawn blinds. Beside her, a sleeping body. Around her, a tangle of grey sheets. Negotiating the snarl of hangover pounding at her temples, and welcoming the simplicity of it, she slipped from the bed.

The cheap room boasted mismatched furnishings; a lumpy bed, a single chair, a dresser with a mottled bevelled mirror, tilted so as to catch her reflection in retreat - her dyed red hair fading to a far more beautiful honey blonde, her eyes smudged with the remnants of last night's kohl and carelessness. She scooped her clothes off the floor, wriggled into them. Sparing a glance for the boy in the bed, she considered his leather jacket slung over the chair. Lifted it. Shrugged into it. Carrying her boots, she padded silently to the door, and let herself out.

The hall was cast in a jumble of light and shadow by art deco sconces that had seen better days. She wandered down the hall that zagged like a snake to accommodate too many rooms with small windows facing onto brick walls and neon. Behind closed doors old men hacked wetly with emphysema and pneumonia, waiting for Jack The Dancer to slip across the boards and tip his hat. A communal bathroom at the end of the landing offered urinals that vaguely tapered off to an open shower, a grimy sink, and another scaly mirror. A splash of water took the grit off her face - drinking from the tap, the cool metallic tang rinsed her wine sour mouth. Her hands steadied. The black panic of remembrance was fading - the shifting tide of her unconscious could submerge the worst, and for the peaks there was always another bar, a club, a rave, an arcane flyer slipped into her hand to save her from morbid introspection.

Back to the landing, she sat on the stairs to pull her boots on. She riffled through the jacket pockets as she wandered down four flights. A wad of twenties. A deal bag of shitty small-time ecstasy tablets stamped with a Mitsubishi logo. A slip of paper with a phone number and name - Lucy. That was the barmaid's number from last night; the boy was chatting her up when he thought Leah was in the toilet. With half admiration she muttered, "Sleazy cunt." The rest was a trash of Minties wrappers, lint, and out of date condoms.

Past a bored clerk at a reception desk that doubled as a bottle shop. She shouldered open the swinging door, and stepped into a morning of chill promise. A bristle-nosed street-cleaner chugged past, blasting the cobbles back to the pretence of civilization that isn't falling. She paused to consider turning uptown or down... and when the wind gusted against her, Leah pulled the stolen jacket around her, and went with it.

(Talie Helene)

She felt the weight beneath her breast.

The wind was cold, a real bitter bitch that snuck down past her collar to finger her spine. It made her want to walk into the first pub she found and ignore the day altogether. Not that the day had started all that badly but from past experiences she knew it would only head down from here. And the mood she was in, she wasn't sure she was up for more of the same just yet.

There was bound to be somewhere open even at this hour. Far too many sins needed constant attention for the streets to fall dormant for long. And that was why she stayed here. Some days, like today, her sins were too loud to bear, and only the screams of the city could drown them out.

But then she registered the weight. A slight knocking against the underside of her breast as she walked, in rhythm to her step.

Leah patted down the jacket and found a pocket she had missed in her initial search. No wonder, it was in an odd position. Inside and more on the side than the front.

There was a zip, too. Hidden.

Nice, she thought as she unzipped the secret pocket. You'd never notice this if you were riffling through the pockets.

Inside was a stone. Smooth, the size of an egg, but disc-like. On the top were symbols of some kind. Swirling designs that danced in the light, an impossible motion that made her feel sick.

Leah squeezed the bridge of her nose and scrunched her eyes closed.

She must've gone right along the road to damnation last night to still be seeing things now-

How badly do you want to live?

Obviously though, it hadn't done much fucking good this time.

With the dregs of last night's attempted escape throbbing at her temples, Leah opened her eyes again and stared at the rock. The symbols had settled into a single line. Taking a closer look, she counted six of them, each depicting a figure not quite human.

Her headache flared again when she turned the rock over. The underside was concaved and filled with a grey mist that swirled gently with the trembling of her hand. She tilted the rock, the mist moved within the hollow but never spilled over. She turned the rock over again and gave it a shake but the mist didn't flow out.

"Oh that's just bull- "

"Lady! Hey!"

She looked up, quickly hiding the rock in her hands.

A man approached her. He looked ancient, like he'd had far more days than anyone was entitled. But for all his years, the man moved with the purpose of someone her age, not his. Once he was close he said, "You have something of mine and I'd dearly like it back, please." His black eyes gleamed.

(Marty Young)

"You mean this?" Leah flipped him the finger.

The man stopped and regarded her with his cold, black eyes. He cocked his head to one side and the skin sagged as though it were too loose for his face.

Leah tried to look away but those dead eyes threatened to swallow her. As she felt herself falling, sinking into the footpath, the rock in her hand burned with cold. The spell broken, she involuntarily opened her palm and gazed down, expecting her skin to be red raw. Instead, the six symbols on the stone danced a merry jig; her skin, unscathed.

"Yes, that's it." The sagging-faced man practically purred with delight.

Leah took her time to pocket the stone, studying the man as she did so. "You're one of them, aren't you? Like the guy last night."

The man tilted his head to the other side. Leah sensed his gaze sliding around her face, attempting to lock onto her eyes again. She wouldn't give him that satisfaction twice.

"Yes, yes. Whatever," the man snapped. "Give me what is mine."

Her temples throbbed in time with her heartbeat.  She slid her hand back into her pocket, fingering the ice-cold stone.

"Here!" she shouted, tossing a cloud of Minties wrappers and something more substantial from her pocket.

The man flailed two spindly arms but the object fell short, landing amid the wrappers at his feet before being swept away by the breeze. By the time he recognised it as an empty condom packet, Leah had already bolted down the street.

She made it only a dozen metres before her headache intensified into a skull-splitting pain and a sharp, coppery smell filled her nose. She collapsed to her knees, wiping at the blood that streamed from her nose.

Within moments, the ancient man was standing behind her. The wind changed, carrying his awful yet familiar stench, evident even through the gush of blood. His stench overpowered the smell coming from the sewer grate just a step away.

"You will do something for me, before the end," the man hissed. "But before you do, how badly do you ..."

"Want to live?" Leah spat, glaring up at the man. "I'm tired of playing that game."

She wiped her nose again. The flow was abating. So too was the pain in her head.

"Let's start a new game." Leah withdrew the stone from her pocket and dangled it over the drain. "How badly do you want this stone?"

(Shane Jiraiya Cummings)

The man took a backwards step - involuntarily, she would make book on that. "You won't," he said. "It holds as much importance for you as it does us." But his voice quavered slightly and Leah grinned.

"Don't bet on it, old man."

She opened her fist. A splash echoed back up from the bottom of the drain and the man let out a sound that was part moan, part snarl. In less than two beats he was on top of the grate but Leah had already rolled out of his reach, was up and running again, with the briefest of backward glances to see the man reaching down through the bars with arms impossibly elongated and stretching further still.

She ran faster.

Ran until her lungs burned and her legs threatened to give way beneath her, dodging startled pedestrians and bicycle couriers, putting several blocks between her and the man-who-wasn't before turning into an alleyway, taking refuge beside an overflowing skip. Food scraps littered the ground where she crouched, their rancid stench making her gag.

Leah opened her hand, gazed at the smooth grey stone that nestled there.

"Fool you twice, shame on you," she whispered, wondering if he'd found the chunk of broken glass she'd dropped into the drain yet. One of her smoothest switches ever, but then a hell of a lot more had been riding on it than simply slipping punters an inferior grade of merch than what they'd sampled. Leah allowed herself a moment of pride. It'd be magic tricks with David-fucking-Copperfield next.

It holds as much importance for you as it does us.

She shivered, remembering the abnormal way the thing's arms had stretched. If these men-not-men were no longer confined to her dreams ...then this was a whole new type of bad she needed to deal with. Leah put the stone back into the jacket's hidden pocket and zipped it up. Only one person she knew who might be able to help, and no time like the present. Shakily, she rose to her feet.

And it was then the pain began.

(Kirstyn McDermott)

Leah dropped to one knee, arm pressed against her stomach to hold in the pain. She recognised the stabbing in her guts, the burn in her throat. But it was impossible. She'd been clean for what, a year and a half? There shouldn't be this sudden need, this rancid fire that threatened to engulf her. Using the brick wall as a lever she found her feet, stumbled down the alleyway looking for a way out. Couldn't go back the way she came: the stretch-armed man would be waiting. Had to get away, deeper into the shadows and refuse. Had to get to the Trashwife.

The Trashwife had saved Leah the last time the need ate her up, found her face down behind a dumpster, shaking and incoherent. She'd nursed her off the junk, fed her, held her hand as she screamed and begged for anything, fucking anything to stop it hurting. When Leah finally gained the strength to walk unaided she'd taken her back onto the streets, to the front of the clinic, and clipped her across the ear.

"Don't go back," she'd said, with a hug and a mother's kiss. Then she'd walked away, and Leah had been clean for eighteen months. Until now. Leah rounded the corner at the end of the alleyway, and began to run.

There's a Trashwife in every big city, if you know where to look. More than one, as many as you care to count - someone who spends so much time at the bottom of the ladder, amongst the trash and the losers and the cast-offs, that all the knowledge that begins pure and unadulterated at the top of the social pyramid trickles down to them, filtered through all the layers of social strata in between, so that they know the same things as everyone else but from the bottom up - they own the underside of knowledge, the dirty, footstep-stained versions of the truths we all take for granted.

By the time Leah fell through the tarpaulin door of her hovel, she was nothing more than sweat and shivers, without the strength to beg for help or explain her panic. The Trashwife looked at her over the edge of the ripped magazine she was reading, and curled her nose.

"First the English princess dies and now this," she said, dropping the magazine. "What did I tell you about going back?"

Leah had no strength with which to speak. It was all she could do to raise her hand. The Trashwife saw what it contained and gasped. She knelt next to Leah and prised the stone from her fingers. As soon as it left her grasp, the burning ceased. Leah sobbed, and curled into a ball, huddling against the sudden chill inside.

"Where did you get this?" the Trashwife asked, staring at Leah with amazement. "Jesus, girl, don't you know what this is?"

"What is it?"

"Death," the Trashwife said, placing it carefully on a pile of books. "Bad death."

(Lee Battersby)

Leah passed her hand over her cramping stomach. "I don't doubt it. But what is it exactly? And why am I playing kiss chasey with Gumby over it?"

"It's The Junkie's Stone, possibly one of the two greatest runes ever created."

"Junkie's Stone." Leah thought about it, wondered why it was so familiar. "Oh, don't tell me you're about to get all Rowling on my arse."

The Trashwife searched through her pockets, pulled out a monocle and set it into her left eye socket. Picking a bowed copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica off the floor she opened it at random and began to read.

"The Philosopher's stone emerged in the time-between-times, during the Golden Age lying between the death throes of the Dark Ages and the birth of the Renaissance. It was allied to the elixir of life and was said to aid the transmutation of ordinary materials into gold. It also promised wealth, spiritual renewal and increased longevity. Those who possessed it would enjoy the benefits of all that we as humans hold dear."

"Go on, enlighten me. What does it say about The Junkie's Stone?"

The Trashwife snapped the encyclopaedia shut and scowled down at Leah. "Stupid girl. Who wants to read about death, destruction, pain and torment? Certainly not the sort of imbeciles that buy into this crap." She threw the book on the ground and used it as extra height to reach for a shelf slightly beyond her normal reach. Her fingers scrabbled to gain purchase on a thin, vellum-bound tome.

"I rescued this from the pox-ridden fingers of an old Russian monk. Dreadful fellow, destined for no good. I wonder what came of him. No matter."

She moved the monocle to her right eye and flipped open the book. She flicked through the pages then held it out for Leah to see. "Is this your man?"

With a gasp Leah stepped back. "Yes. But how is this possible? He looks exactly the same."

"Who he is doesn't matter. What he wants, does. And what he wants is the rune of universal evil, The Junkie's Stone."

Leah picked up the darkened stone, rubbed it against her t-shirt and took a closer look at it.

"Why?"

"So he can enslave mankind. As gold and silver and platinum are but shades of The Philosopher's Stone, so smack and coke and heroin are but shades of The Junkie's Stone."

"But, it looks so, well, ordinary."

"See this induction point, the way it's filled with smoke? It's the crucible wherein the essences of the user's desires are distilled ready for ingestion. The six figures on the other side represent the six ages of man which can be enslaved."

"Six ages? I thought there were supposed to be seven ages of man?"

"So the question is: which age can you not enslave? And why?"

(Lyn Battersby)

Leah frowned at the rune-stone in her hand. It throbbed against her skin, a ripple in the surface tension of reality. How could such a thing possibly exist? And why couldn't she summon the cynicism to dismiss it? A needle slid beneath her imagination... long arms, like tentacles, grasped at her. Leah inhaled terror. Its icy roots threaded through her bowels.

She tore her gaze away and met the fierce compassion in the Trashwife's eyes. "You don't deserve this," Leah murmured. A knot of emotion drew tight at the back of her throat. The Trashwife had been the only one to catch her when she fell. Bringing this stone, this corruption, to her was the worst form of ingratitude.

"Answer me." The Trashwife took a step closer, her face filled with such desperate need it had become a pale, oval mirror to Leah's past.

"Infancy...I guess." Leah shrugged. "You can't corrupt something that doesn't comprehend the world."

"Exactly." The Trashwife sagged against a worn chair oozing pieces of upholstery. The intensity that had possessed her leached away. All that remained was an elderly woman, crooked from the burden of so many woes, her eyes red and watering. After tending to so many broken and wounded, it was inevitable the Trashwife would become a casualty. Perhaps that was the point.

"You must wrap the stone in innocence." The Trashwife dropped her voice. "It's the only way they can't find it. A counter-balance. Otherwise it's just a matter of time."

Leah pursed her lips. "I'll hide it somewhere, but that's it. This isn't my problem."

"Not your problem?" The Trashwife gave her a resigned smile as she moved to a bookshelf stacked with photo albums. Selecting the volume she wanted, the Trashwife flipped through pages filled with Polaroid snaps before removing one from its plastic sleeve. "Do you remember this?" She flicked the picture at Leah.

The photo landed upside down in Leah's cupped hands. Twisting it around, she saw a face, pale and drawn. Haunted eyes stared back. Lank hair, almost dissolved of colour and cut in a ragged line beneath her ears, framed Leah's misery. Her first day at the Trashwife's clinic. Well into the shakes. About a week after her family kicked her out for stealing from them yet again, unable to bear the pain of what she was becoming. Fiancé, career, friends, all a distant memory by that point.

"Find purity." A note of kindness entered the Trashwife's voice. "If not for the rest of us, then for your own sake."

She was numb, dead to everything except for a single, lancing pain from a place deep within. A place that had never healed. The stone in her fist flared in response to her grief. Tendrils of mist coiled around her fingers and sent jolts of electricity down her forearm in a parody of life.

Leah strode out of the grimy, squalid sanctuary, all that had gone wrong in her life crouching on her palm.

                                                                                       (Nathan Burrage)

Where to look for innocence? Not in this part of town, surely, where even the youngest children were taught to steal as soon as they could walk, assuming they'd survived what was done to them before that.

Ignorance, yes; if ignorance was water, this place would have been a bottomless lake...though a murky one, shot through with blood and slime and poisons. If you think these people don't know right from wrong - then wrong one of them, and see what they do. Even the most stupid knew when they were hurting other people; having grown immune to guilt wasn't the same thing as innocence. Leah remembered what the Trashwife had told her, when she'd asked why she was living among all that garbage: "No-one around here makes anything but shit; no-one has anything to give or sell that they didn't steal, except themselves, and most times the only part of that that anyone's willing to pay for is a cunt or an asshole. Or a mouth, but mouths lie. But hell, it's the only game in town, and once you've been here, the stink lingers on you, it's not easy to find somewhere else to go where they won't know that stink for what it is."

Where, then? She tucked the stone back into her pocket and walked towards the towers of the city. She knew there were places where she might be admitted even though they knew her for what she'd been, places people could hide while they tried to let the impurities seep out of their bodies, if not their souls: some were filled with predators, and others would protect her even as they quietly condemned her... but they had waiting lists longer than she expected to live. She walked to the nearest hospital, knowing that she would not be turned away, but found no babies there: maternity and paediatrics, she was informed warily, were dealt with in other hospitals.

She began walking west towards the children's hospital, though she doubted she'd be allowed close to the infants, there or anywhere else: she wasn't good enough at lying to hide what she'd become.

A CAT bus - free transport around the city, including both the adult and children's hospitals - stopped nearby, and she scrambled on board, taking a seat behind a mother and child. The baby smiled at her, and she tried to smile back, wondering how she was supposed to wrap the stone in innocence, as the Trashwife had suggested.

Giving it to a living child, however young, seemed pointless; even if the child kept it, unaware of its meaning, the child would eventually grow up. A dead child, on the other hand...

Leah withdrew the stone from her pocket and held it up so the baby could see it.

(Stephen Dedman)

The baby twisted around in his mother's lap and waved his arms at Leah. He gurgled, as if trying to talk to the stone, and as he did so, he turned pale, as if his powdered warm flesh was being transformed into dead-grey pewter...or into stone. The baby reached for the stone, which suddenly became hot in Leah's hand. It pulsed, as if suddenly, urgently alive. It became fleshy, soft, obscene, and Leah reflexively let go of it. She felt revulsion, as if she had been holding a tarantula.

The stone should have made a noise when it struck the metal floor, but it didn't.

The baby stopped waving his arms...and stopped breathing.

The young mother screamed.

The bus stopped, and Leah rushed for the door, as if she were a felon.

"What have you done?" the mother screamed.

But Leah was in the street, racing through rush-hour crowds, pushing past the shower-a-day white-collar battlers who were on their way home to their flat-screen televisions and microwaved dinners and would never ever need a fix or a Trashwife. She needed to forget what happened on the bus. She needed to get so stoned that she would never remember again. Stoned, stoned, stoned, and then she realised that she had dropped the stone.  She had released it. It wasn't her problem now. Let someone else find it. Let the-

You killed the child, Leah... You...

Although only she could hear it, the voice was loud and insistent. She felt numb, exhausted, hollowed-out, and sat down on the stone steps of a pavilion.

You can't dismiss me or throw me away. I am yours, and you...you are mine...

And Leah suddenly realised that she wasn't in pain any more. Wasn't sweating or shaking. Didn't need a fix. Didn't need anything. She patted her pocket and felt a hard, comforting bulge of stone.

You can't throw me away...

But she had not picked up the stone, had not retrieved it.

It had retrieved her.

 (Jack Dann)

She stared at it, stuck in the end of her hand like it was now a part of her. She willed her fingers to release it. She could set the stone in her pocket, but she couldn't drop it on the ground. She stood, her feet carrying her away from the healthy people walking by, into a seedy alleyway, the kind of place she'd often gone before in desperation, craving poison to shoot into her arm.

She pressed her back into the brick wall and shut her eyes.

A familiar voice spoke: "Once you've been here, the stink lingers on you. Isn't that right?" Startled, she wheeled around and saw him, the foul old man-who-wasn't. He waited at the street end of the alley, just calmly waiting: You won't run, this time. The street's bustle behind him seemed to halt to an eerie quiet.

"You stink, Leah. It's a stink you spread around." The voice rustled soft laughter from a wheezing throat. His sagging skin barely hung to the skull beneath. He said, "I know what you were trying to do. But there's another kind of innocence. The dead are innocent."

Her hand gripped tighter around the stone. Suddenly the feel of it was no comfort at all; so heavy, it would anchor her here if she tried to run. His eyes sparkled. "How it weighs you down, Leah. And now you need my help to be rid of it." He extended a palm, his arm lengthening a metre beyond what was natural. "I'll ease your burden. But first, what have you to sell me?"

There was an escape route behind her, the fence top lined with curls of barbed wire. He saw her eye it off and smiled. "It's a sickness we like to spread, no?"

You killed the child, Leah...

Suddenly, she didn't care about running. She felt sick beyond any craving, the feeling like waves of heat from the hateful weight in her hand. She held the stone high, thinking only of breaking his sagging face and its fragile old skull into pieces.

She ran at him, screamed in rage and hurled it, except it didn't leave her fist. There was a pulling sensation, horrible pain. The flesh of her hand stretched through the air a short distance like elastic tied to the rock, shreds of skin ripping open and spattering her blood against the old non-man's face. The rock's huge weight pulled her forward to the ground, her head spinning.

The non-man took slow steps towards her but she hardly noticed for the searing white-hot pain in her arm. The skin about it was loose, torn and bleeding pools onto the filthy concrete. Before she blacked out, she thought she saw the glint of a needle's tip, but couldn't tell if it was in his hand or littering the ground she'd collapsed on. His voice rasped the words, "How badly do you want to live?" Then her eyes shut.

(Will Elliott)

Siekan woke as the girl left the room. He glanced at the chair, empty of its prize, and grinned. He lay back, luxuriating in the young muscle that encased this body, and stretched his limbs, enjoying the strain of flesh on ligament, the smell of his seed lingering in the air, thickening between the thighs of the girl who he had recently lain with.

He got up slowly, crossed to the window and drew back the blind. Below on the street, the girl wrapped the jacket tight around her and crossed the path of the street-cleaner, walking into the dark of the new morn. He opened the window, sucked in the air, tasting her upon his tongue, drawing her essence down into the back of his throat and filling his lungs.

The girl had it all wrong. It wasn't how badly she wanted to live. It was how good she wanted to die.

Siekan passed a message to The Old One : She draws near, if she doesn't find the stone, help her to :

: I hear you : came the reply. : I see her :

: Good. Misdirect her with it :

As Siekan left the room, he rearranged it with a deft sweep of his hand, the bed and sheets, the chair, the décor, swirling into a shadow of dust. By the time he hit the street, he felt the Karolin, the ancient crone known as The Trashwife, clambering at the edges of his mind. And with it her hunger.

 (Paul Haines)

Leah came back to consciousness with a shudder. Smells of the alley; rough paving under her cheek; a throbbing in the side of her neck. The streetlights were on at the far end of the alley, but here she lay in darkness. How many hours had she been out?

She remembered the glint of the needle when the foul old man overpowered her. The same as her nightmare, but real. He must have injected something into the side of her neck: the throbbing told her that.

She propped herself up on her elbows, and realised in that moment she held nothing in her hand. No stone. The man had taken it.

Well, of course. Why wouldn't he have taken it, when she couldn't resist?

Another realisation followed. The hand in which she'd held the stone was whole and healed, and the agony in her arm had gone. She felt good all over. Even the throbbing in her neck was a sensation without pain.

She levered herself up and rose to her feet--then lurched suddenly with the weight under her breast. What the fuck? She staggered three steps to lean against a wall.

She guessed even before she rolled up her t-shirt and felt the smooth stretched skin, the domed protrusion under the skin. It was like a second heart implanted in her chest. Not just stuck to her hand, but lodged in her body. Philosophers' Stone, Junkies' Stone ... it was hard and heavy as lead.

No! she wanted to scream in outraged protest. Such surgery wasn't possible! Not in a back alley! Not without a cut or a scar!

She had to reach a hospital fast. She turned and headed towards the streetlights, step by cautious step. Each step came easier than the one before. It was only a matter of balance. After a while, she no longer needed the support of the wall. She stopped in the middle of the alley and performed a complete rotation.

The stone wasn't really so heavy, not in the ordinary way. She felt it weigh inside her, but it was more of a solidity, an inertia. It was absolute thing. Strange, to be a living being with something unliving at your core.

Even stranger--she didn't mind. Once the first shock had passed, it no longer horrified her. In fact ...

She stroked it there, under her t-shirt and under her skin. It made her feel anchored, with an invulnerable centre. Such utter security. A second heart, a better heart ...

The bad emotions of the day had fallen away. The baby that stopped breathing ... the stretch-armed non-human ... trying to hide the stone and save the world. None of it mattered. She was absolved and innocent.

The dead are innocent. Who had said that? But it didn't matter either.

She remembered her first fix, when the smack went into her blood, into her head. That was absolution and security too. But she'd never quite recaptured the feeling, never as good as the very first time.

This was different, she was sure. This would stay with her.

Life had become suddenly, wonderfully simplified. There was only one thing to think about. She laughed and walked on towards the streetlights.

"Transmute me," she muttered to the stone in her chest. "Fucking transmute me."

                                                                                     (Richard Harland)

Streetlights flickered and coughed as she passed. For a while, hope was a euphoric drug that changed her subtly, slowly - the rhythms of breathing, the flow of blood in her veins falling into a pattern that was in harmony with the world's. For the first time in her life Leah was beginning to feel as though she belonged in the world - and in herself. Was this the transmutation she'd hoped for?

Yet hope is a fragile thing.

The girl was younger even than Leah had been the first time the chemical highs had pooled and congealed into venom in her veins, causing her to collapse in the street under the self-righteous stares of the virtuous. She'd been exposed as a pariah. She'd wept. This one had crawled against a wall, hugging its concrete coldness like a lover. Her sluttish dress was torn and smeared with puke.

Leah skirted around her, wanting to pity the girl but finding that any hope she'd been given was too fragile to allow for compassion. Dead eyes glared up at her. She frowned and looked away, but not quickly enough to avoid seeing the nasty, deliberate, rictus grin that twisted itself over the junkie's lips.

: What can you offer me? :

Her rhythms broke, shuddering into discordance.

"Leave me alone!" she snarled.

Something moved in her belly. It kicked against her. Afraid, she clutched at her suddenly bulging gut. The Junkie's Stone, the unliving thing inside her, was no longer unliving.

: How much life can you give me? :

This wasn't the transmutation she'd wanted. This wasn't what the hope she'd felt had promised her. The Stone drank her, licked the corners of her womb, grew on the shattered detritus of her soul.

No innocence. Without life, innocence can't exist. And once you have lived, innocence is dead.

She doubled up, agonised by a rhythm of pain that had begun to wash over her. It felt as though the Stone were scratching at her uterus.

Leah sank back against the wall that was the junkie's lover. Slid down onto the filthy pavement. Felt her cervix dilate. The dead junkie watched her, still grinning.

Pain erupted as a bloody mucus flow.

Something - she had no intention of branding it a child - began its inexorable crawl into the world. She let it come, desperately turning her pain into a scream that echoed around the buildings. If anyone heard, they didn't emerge to help her. The street remained empty except for ...

The dead junkie's hand reached out, clawing into the cracked cement. That hand dragged the corpse closer. Its cold eyes fixed upon her.

Leah involuntarily spread her legs, allowing the Stone to be born. She felt it come, glanced down the length of her body, past the bloody, torn clothes. What she saw stifled the cries building in her throat.

Unnaturally long arms ... and skeletal fingers reaching toward the dead junkie's extended hand.

(Robert Hood)

Leah stared in pain and disbelief at the hands and arms emerging red-wetly from her body - hands and arms she had seen before, thin and grey and old - old though newly born. They stretched out from the bloody mucus of birth, with the head next, following, bobbing like a snake's, all wrinkled. Then the elongating body slithered out of her, swelling and swelling, pushing and squelching out, pushing and pushing toward the dead girl until skeletal hand clasped skeletal hand.

In a surge of tearing pain, Leah felt the thing pulled from her, and far faster than it had come upon her the pain subsided.

They stood, the thing she had birthed and the dead girl junkie, stood either side of her, looking down. Then as one they turned and looked up the street, their arms lengthening to point to what approached.

The dead baby toddled towards her, gurgling and giggling, little fat arms outstretched, unbalanced like a baby's first steps, the dead baby she had killed - No! The Stone had killed. Yes, the Junkie's Stone had killed the baby, she told herself. Not me! Not me!

But the baby came tottering on, smiling now with the gas of inner corruption, gurgling, "Leaaaaah ... Leaaaaah ..."

And like the dead girl junkie and like the not-man she had birthed, the baby's arms began to stretch.

"Leaaaaah," it said, its voice turning suddenly old and creaking, "do you know how badly I want to live?"

(Rick Kennett)

Another question, twisted darkly, that could never be adequately answered.

Brimming eyed she looked up at her prodigal orphan, her child and the zombie midwife.

Though her horror, too, was overflowing, her mind drowning in it, another feeling stirred in her as she beheld her unholy trinity.

Despite the primary terror, she could not merely feel fear and revulsion when she looked at the three. She experienced pity, regret, and something that she was starting to understand to be a maternal sentiment, God help her.

The newborn non-man's voice was an obscene mix of vibrancy, decrepit age and manic adulation. "I told you that you'd do something for me before the end. And so you have. You've birthed me in again. Thank you, mother."

Leah managed to sit up, slumped against that hard, cold old lover the wall. Still watching her watchers she raised both arms, hands out to them.

Back behind the paused, naked baby (grotesque as it stood there, teetering, looking like it should crawl, or be buried), the stretch-limbed, crimson gleaming one reaches just a little past normalcy, and takes her hand in its still slick, wrinkled grey palm, long, bony fingers curling about her hand like a predatory plant or spider. It lifted her up the wall, to a slouched standing position. She was aware of her bloodied, naked loins, felt cooling wetness on her thighs, and did not care. With its other hand it clasped the nude babe about the middle with telescoping fingers. The Lazarus child giggled, reached for her as the non-man swept the baby boy into Leah's arms.

In primitive reflex she embraced the cold little form. At the same time the deceased junkie girl, witch-faced by addiction and death, limped closer, brushing the wall, smiling her mad canine grimace, reached out and took one of Leah's hands in hers.

As Leah held the dead-living child it fumbled at her breasts beneath the t-shirt. Were its actions, too, instinctive? Her nipples hardened. She could not feed it, at least not with the sup of living babies. She saw the non-man staring at her with his black eyes, strings of drool running from his drooping gash of a mouth. They both wanted some form of nourishment. Her soul quailed at that thought.

The zombie addict raised Leah's hand to her mouth, pressed her fingers to her bruise tinted lips, as if for a courtly kiss, then, after a preliminary cat lick with a cold, dry tongue, took them in further... Leah felt the girl's small, hard little drug-ravaged teeth on her fingers, toying with them, nibbling at them like a lover's offering.

Leah closed her tear run eyes and shuddered.

There they stood, posed for an album shot, a hellish family unit.

She barely noted the warm hand on her shoulder, until she heard the voice, the young, male voice.

"Leah? I think we can end this now."

(Lash)

:Togobacktothefirstchapterasitwere...Remember,youwereleavingaclubthatnightthroughasideexitontoanalley.OneofourDeliriumsinterceptedyou.Heaskedyouaquestion,whichapparentlymadequiteanimpressionuponyou,hegaveyoua‘taste'.Doyourecall?You'vebeenonmysideofthingseversince.Stillareinfact.MyrealnameisSiekanbytheway.:

A movement at the side of her neck, feeling of an ever so slight suction of removal there, like a departing kiss. Then, an awful moment of emotionally tearing, spirit plummeting loss. Her knees buckled, strong hands supported her. She turned her face to this new player.

It was club boy.

The dread trinity must have retreated, she sensed they were further away now, distanced.

He held up the stone.

:This,whatitcando,iswhatit'sallabout.Itssweetpromiseandthreat,themarvelsandterrorsitcandeliver.Andwe;theagentsofitspurpose.:

Another stream of words into her skull, garbled by oneness. She gained the gist but not the detail.

He looked at the smooth grey stone himself, into the gently swirling mist capture that adhered so closely to it. Then those clear brown eyes were back upon her.

:Thepropofyourillusion.Theclosestyoucametoitsactualfunctioningwasthesenseofaneedle'sbite.Youthoughtofitasaneedle,asyringe.But,nowthatyouknowoftheStoneyoucanperhapsperceiveittobethesourceofyourlittleadventure.: He turned it in his fingers as they both stared at it. :ThePurveyance,TheJunkieStone,SweetLeaving,ThePhantasus,TheMorpheum,TheGrail,itisknownbyquiteafewnamesasisoftenthecasewithnarcogenicsandpsychopharmacopeia.:

Then the stone was gone, into a pocket of the grey wool greatcoat he wore.

She saw, past the three watching horrors over there (the dead junkie girl now cradled the dead boy child), the street, her surrounds, looking very grey and dim, through a misty fog that must have settled on the city while she was otherwise distracted.

She looked down at herself, her clothing was all intact; no blood, no birth slime.

:Youhavebeeninmydomainfor...quitesometimenow.Unfortunately,youhavehadabadreactiontoalittletestdosethatwegaveyou.Butitwasagoodtest,asitturnsout.Youpassed.:

Hands clasped behind his back, he strolled away a few metres on his black motorcycle boots, stylishly frayed blue jeans and black t-shirt evident through the open coat.

She left the wall.

"But ... why?"

"That will take a little longer to explain, and I'd rather not do it here in an in-between. Someone coming I'd rather not meet."

He looked about their increasingly foggy surrounds, smiling no longer, spoke more quietly. "The Karolin. You know her as The Trashwife. Whenever she gets my vibration she trails me." Siekan regarded Leah side on with a crow gleam in his eyes. :Oh,she'snotthealtruisticsaintthatshewantsyourlottobelieve.Shewantssomethingtoo.Everybodywantssomething.Andwantingunfulfilledisneedingandneedingunfulfilledisyearning.Andyearning...isamarketplace.:

Then the skull voice seemed closer, almost whispering.

:Therearedealersindesires.Tradersindreamsandnightmares.Essenceforessence.Coinoftheunrealms.:

He cocked his head at her.

"All will be explained, if you take the next step with me."

"To where?"

"To the Dream Dens."

"Who are you?! What are you?!"

In a casual voice he replied. "We are the Sorien. Dream wranglers in the employ of The Night Brethren."

She still couldn't grasp this. Her mind was pawing at it like a large, bizarre machine she was trying to find the shape and function of in a pitch black space.

He frowned. "Still, I wonder, if we can leave the weight of tongues behind yet?"

Then - it was in her head again -

:Undertheinfluenceyouhallucinate.Buteachhallucinationhasalife,orlives,ofitsown.Foraminorexample,themerestecho...thoughtheStonewasfirmlyatyourneck,bothofyousuckingateachotherlikenewlovers,youthoughtyouhadbeeninjectedwithasyringe.Thereforeitfell,discardedtotheground,thereforeyouhearditclatterthere.WhilststilltheStoneclungtoyouexchangingdelightsanddamnations.:

He came closer still, that internal voice softer now.

:Youareoneoftheveryrarefew.Yourespondedbadlytoastandard,measureddose.Thatwasthefirstsign.Youhallucinated,youjourneyedthroughyourillusions.Yet,someofwhatyouimaginedyouactuallycreatedinknownspace.TheDeliriumyoubirthed-there'ssymbolismforyou-thedeadgirlandbaby,theycanroaminanyrealm,playinandoutofthebubblesnow.Youare,whatyouroneswouldcalladreamweaver.Essenceassistedyouwovethemoutofwhatyouwouldinterpretasnothing,outofthebasematerialsofuntime,mouldedfromthesandandtearsofasubconsciousshorelinethat,inStonesleep,youwashedoverlikeawave.Theyareyourfigments,yourTulpamare.:

"Mine?" Her voice small, childlike.

:Yours,ohnightmother.Itwasyouwhobirthedthem,tohaveandtomould.Toplaynowintheweftandweaveoftheslumberofothers.Ohwhatyoumightfashionundertheinfluenceofother‘smokes'rareressences...:

He drew in deeply of the grey air. His eyes fair sparkled.

Anger flared in her. Fists clenched she moved towards him.

:Jesusifoneofyoubastardshadapproachedmeasadealerwitha- She scratched double quotation marks in the air :‘new'trip‘Stoneforthestoner',Imostlikelywouldhavetriedit.

AsitstandsforallIknow "you mean to harm me, you want me dead or insane."

"Au contraire. I want to employ you. I want you to work for me."

That stopped her in her tracks.

"The conditions are excellent, and the benefits - " with a smile he cast his arms wide. "Out of this world."

 (Loveless)

He struck her as a corrupt Peter Pan with a tease and a taunt, a dare and an offer.

"We hold the keys to the light and dark of Somnus. The non time. The hours of Nod. Come," he said quietly. "Join me in the Nebulus."

Then, he had his back to her, moving away into the thickening fabric of the air.

He was leaving her there, in the fog. She had a sense - Feeling back behind her . . . Yes, the wall was no longer there.

She was beginning to feel like she was trapped, inside the Stone.

Seeing Siekan's darker shape ahead she followed him, hand extended out before her. For a moment she couldn't see -

And then she could.

And they were in ... another place.

Her reaction was to mentally snort ‘Huh, David-fucking-Copperfield'.

The odd fog was gone, the torn traces fading back behind her - yes, all different there too.

They were no longer in a city.

It was night still. Were they outside? In a canyon of some sort? Large shapes loomed all about her. The last veils of grey were vaporised, whipped from the stage.

Huge rounded rocks, all about. They followed a trail between them. Her boots felt smaller rocks or stones beneath -

Stones. She stopped, picked one up. It was The Stone. A Stone. For there were hundreds, thousands of them underfoot, like river stones on a hard shore. And, these larger. . . boulders. . . Grey, smooth. . .

She walked about one, on the other side it was concave, and filled with a slow drifting white wall of misty smoke.

She could feel but not hear those smaller stones moving beneath her boots. Then it struck her, how uncannily dead quiet it was.

She dropped the stone that she held... Nothing. Not a trace of impact.

She turned to see Siekan standing there. Even the light was strange here, like that from a cloud scudded full moon, but through a bruise-purpled lens. A huge shadow moved over them, and away, and she felt chilled from feet soles to scalp. Over his shoulder, in the near distance, she could see a massive, ragged cliff face, haunted by wisps of mist, notable for zigzags of rock-carved stairways and the many dark mouths of caves there.

"You're afraid," he said softly.

He leant forward, briefly peered at her.

"I am wondering what half truths and lies she told you."

Still a little dumbfounded, still looking all about she answered him, knowing he referred to the one he called the Karolin. "She spoke of the Stone as a rune. She told of the six ages of man, and an age that could not be enslaved, a free age."

He chuckled, a wily sound. "Free indeed." He sighed then. "No. There is only a seventh, for most, that ends in death. But another age looms large in your future, Leah."

She looked to him.

"At the last need not be, as the Bard has writ, ‘mere oblivion'. At least not for every being that walks the earth. Rather, there is an eighth age, not entirely of human province."

He too now surveyed the silent, eerie landscape about them. "In superseding death, We , Leah, are the eighth age of humankind."

(Nameless)

Like a bad party trick, Siekan reached behind his right ear, cupped something in his hand, and with a clenched fist, held out his arm. He slowly opened his hand.

Leah sighed at the sight of the grey stone resting on his palm.

Why can't I be rid of that damned thing?

"This is the key," Siekan whispered. "On it, it foretold the coming of six, six who have the power, the understanding, the knowledge that we seek. You, sweet Leah, are one of the chosen."

Leah blinked up at the man. Darkly handsome, like a rock star from the past. "One of the chosen? Me?"

Siekan nodded.

"But I thought those shapes represented the six ages of man?"

"You've been misled." Siekan flipped the stone, pinching it between his right middle and index fingers.

Leah saw the six odd shapes, almost human but not quite. One of them, second from the left, was glowing. Perhaps it was simply her imagination, but to her bleary eyes the glowing figure looked like a woman with protracted arms, and she appeared to be sticking a large needle into her right arm.

"This is you," the otherworldly club boy said. "It's always been you."

Staring at the glowing figure on the smooth stone, Leah began to feel light-headed. Her eyes grew heavy, and yet she couldn't close them completely. She was transfixed on that luminous figure. Warmth spread from her right arm, into her chest. Like liquid fire, it both hurt and comforted her.

It was a familiar feeling.

She tried fighting against it, but she was weak, exhausted.

Soon she began to feel relaxed. All pain, all worry seeped away.

In the dark recesses of her mind, where intelligent thought and logical reasoning currently lay dormant, waiting for the light, she knew it was a trick, that she was being trapped by a master trapper.

But at present, she didn't care. All that mattered was the feeling of euphoria, of floating on a purple cloud made from pure ecstasy.

"We can offer you never ending pleasure. All you have to do is say yes, surrender to me and agree to help us."

"Help you?" Leah said, voice slurred. She didn't even want to blink, for fear of losing her connection to the glowing figure. She feared if she did, that flowing rush of adrenaline would cease and she would be plunged back to reality, back to the cold, hard streets.

"Help us," Siekan soothed. "Help us get into the hearts and minds of the people, people like you and that young deceased girl, people who are in pain and need help."

"Yes, help them," Leah muttered, the roaring fire of pleasure charging through her gut, spiralling down to her legs. Her whole body was now one giant ball of tingly hotness and she couldn't help but smile.

"You're one of the chosen," Siekan said, his grin going unnoticed by Leah. "It took us some time to find you, but we did. So now, all I ask of you, is to give in to us. Let us take you to the eighth age of humankind."

And just as Leah was about to answer "Yes; yes, I'll give in to you, just give me more of this pleasure," a voice, distant, shrill, yelled:

"No Leah! Don't let them fool you! Be strong, resist their temptations!"

Leah knew the owner of that voice.

As did Siekan, much to his chagrin.

It was the Trashwife.

(Brett McBean)

A few weeks ago:

"How badly do you want to live?"

Leah could feel his hot breath on her neck, rancid with the stench of onions and sour milk. His voice was an oozing thing, bubbling up from the putrescent depths of his innards. Every now and then he let out a shrill giggle, and she felt his body twitching behind her as blasts of air chuffed against her crawling skin.

"I don't know," she had replied, knowing it was not the answer he had anticipated. She was only twenty-three. She hadn't been anywhere, seen anything, done anything.

He had said nothing for a moment, and she had known he was weighing his words.

"We could make a lot of money," Siekan whispered. "A lot of rich people can't have kids."

-

"Leah! Don't!"

-

The baby stopped waving his arms...and stopped breathing.

"What have you done?" the mother screamed. She was clean. Her clothes were clean, new and light. She washed her hair every day and watched what she ate. She had a job. She was only twenty-three.

Leah screamed.

-

"He doesn't love you! Lord Jesus, help me save my baby girl."

-

She was only twelve. Clive had been living with them for a couple of years, and now he was leaving. She had come out into the TV room, wiping a knuckle across one sleepy eye and carrying her book of stories. She wanted Clive to read to her.

"Marry you?" He punched one arm into the sleeve of the thick flannel coat he wore to work. "White trash? Ha. Marry you I'd never live it down. Find me a real wife someday. But not you, Caroline. No white trash wife for me."

Even at twelve, Leah knew he was right. This is what they were, and this is what they would always be. Nothing important, nothing anyone wanted. Just trash.

But she wanted to live.

And a lot of rich people can't have kids.

-

"Not like this, baby. Not like this. This isn't the way..."

-

Fifteen when she first said yes. Used to be drugs made you high, the man had said. Nowdays they special. Nowdays they make you feel alive.

How bad, he had asked, you wanna live?

Leah skirted around the girl, wanting to pity her but finding that any hope she'd been given was too fragile to allow for compassion. Dead eyes glared up at her. She frowned and looked away, but not quickly enough to avoid seeing the nasty, deliberate, rictus grin that twisted itself over the junkie's lips.

:How much life can you give me?:

Her rhythms broke, shuddering into discordance.

"Leave me alone!" she snarled.

Something moved in her belly. It kicked against her. Afraid, she clutched at her suddenly bulging gut. The Junkie's Stone, the unliving thing inside her, was no longer unliving.

She was just fifteen. She was twenty-three.

She slipped to the ground and cried.

-

"Oh baby ... no, Leah, it's gonna be all right. You'll see. Jesus forgives."

-

She had been twenty-two when she finally, accidentally, fell pregnant to a man whose name she couldn't remember. Hadn't realised until after she'd been with Siekan for a week, and hadn't told him at all for two months.

It had taken Siekan five months to convince her to see the Doctor: long-faced, long-fingered. What convinced her in the end was what Siekan had said to her at the beginning:

"How badly do you want to live?"

Have a baby, your life's over.

The Doctor had told her how much money someone pays for a healthy white child. Told her to think about it, about what that money could buy for herself, for her mother.

Even at twelve, Leah knew he was right. This is what they were, and this is what they would always be.

The money could change that.

The room came into focus. It was dark, cold and dusty. A thin army blanket tangled across her, one bare foot dangling just above the concrete floor. A camp lantern burned on the banana crate by the cot on which she lay. Her books were there. Her favourites: Gaiman and Donaldson, Neverwhere and Thomas Covenant.

"All will be explained, if you take the next step with me."

"To where?"

"To the Dream Dens."

"Who are you?! What are you?!"

In a casual voice he replied. "We are the Sorien. Dream wranglers in the employ of The Night Brethren."

She screwed her eyes shut, said "God." She was drug-cold, like a thick layer of gelid water lay sandwiched between the inner and outermost layers of her skin. Her gut burned. Whimpering, tears pooling in her eyes, coursing down her cheeks, her hands travelled the length of her chest, her stomach, the unfamiliar flat of it, and found the livid, crescent line of fresh stitches there.

She remembered the Doctor's voice, half-heard, half-remembered, from sleep:

"I told you that you'd do something for me before the end. And so you have. You've birthed me in again. Thank you, mother."

It was done. They had taken her baby.

And now they were gone.

(Cameron Rogers)  

Continued HERE