A Tale From the End of
F Lewis and Gordon Lewis
The Optimum Pose
The Night Wind Wailing
Sixpence More The Richer
The Forest of Dark Wine
He burst from the shadows
of the alleyway, laughing and shouting, nursing his twisted
ankle as he flung his arms high above his head and tripped
along the uneven cobblestones. Malicki merged with the pressing
mass of masked and costumed revelers, lost in a sea of brightly
colored ribbons, silk and feathers. As his lungs filled
up with heady scents of sharp incense and perfumes, he narrowed
his pale eyes, squinting through the waves of people for
a sign of recognition. Luck was with him tonight; no one
had observed his stolen entrance. Despite losing his gear
and turning his ankle on his ungraceful landing, stealing
over the walls and into the walled city of New Gehenna had
been virtually uneventful.
Malicki cast his wide gaze skyward, catching the sun as
it dipped below the horizon, realizing how close he had
come to not making it inside. Tonight was The Eve of Souls.
Every specter, spirit and demon from the lands above to
the six realms below would be roaming above ground from
sundown till The Waking Time three nights hence. It was
the start of the Spirit Nights and only the exiled or insane
went without refuge. The lucky ones barricaded themselves
in great walled cities. The less fortunate fought for their
souls and lives, their scattered stories of courage and
defeat playing out across the desolate badlands.
On this eve of horrors, New Gehenna celebrated. Malicki
stumbled through the bodies, seeking shore along the narrow
twisting streets, desperate not to get swept up in the undertow
of grasping and groping hands. Round and round he spun,
dizzy and overcome. He shut his eyes tight as the wave surged
forward and dragged him below, his feet swept out from underneath
him. Malicki plunged forward and was pulled up and into
the thick folds of crimson robes and strong arms, his feet
dangling uselessly beneath him.
"A stone jack..." the liquor tainted voice licked
over him. "I found a stone jack, I shall hang you high…”
He sang tunelessly. “A beautiful one at that."
The man cackled, lifting the struggling boy high above his
red horned mask. Malicki pummeled the broad shoulders with
his fists, twisting like a snake in the man's firm hold.
"I'm not a stone jack!" His voice cracked and
was drowned out by the surrounding cheers and wails and
laughter. "I'm not!" Malicki grasped the leering
mask by the horns and ripped it from his captors shocked
face. With trembling hands he flung the demon mask deep
into the crowd.
The bewildered boy gasped as he hit the ground, his drunken
assailant more interested in the retrieval of his mask then
of pursuing his prey any further. Malicki struggled to stand.
He had no idea what the drunken man had been raving about.
He didn’t know what a stone jack was, but he knew
he should be wary. As the hulking red beast loped back into
the crowds more arms pulled Malicki to his feet, ushering
him along. Shielding his head with his arms, he staggered
and stumbled, passing from one embrace to the next, his
feet leaving the ground more than they touched the cold
The mob traveled and overlapped, surging and ebbing in a
tide of color and flesh. Girls clad in iridescent feathers
and jeweled bird masks swam across the ocean of hands. Horned
boys with leggings of soft brown fur, and heads crowned
with wreaths of leaves leapt and twirled, twisting into
impossible position as they drank from long hollowed horns.
From ribbon and garland wrapped balconies, beautiful and
horrible creatures draped precariously over edges. Dangling
daringly by their ankles they arched their backs and threw
their arms towards the night’s sky before tumbling
into the cheering mob below. As the crowd surged forward,
their arms outstretched and grasping at the flying beasts,
Malicki slammed up against the wall and tumbled back into
The wall had been a door, unlocked and open thankfully.
Malicki kicked the door shut and dropped back onto the floor.
Gasping and dazed, he lay still in the darkness and waited
for the world to stop spinning. He had imagined the streets
of New Gehenna to be barren this night. Imagined families
safe behind locked doors and closed shutters, the wind touched
streets whispering with soft echoes. The dusky street boys
he had met in the walled city of Kasha had told him that
the Spirit Nights were a time of meditation and reflection.
Obviously not all cities followed the same traditions.
Malicki regretted parting ways with the Kashan boys. In
his months of travelling from one strange city to the next,
the throwaway boys had been the only to welcome him. Dark-eyed
and fey, they led him to the underside of their exotic city
and shown him pleasures and majicks he had never imagined.
The boys had taken Malicki into their makeshift family and
the four had become like one. Scowling and serious Omar,
playful and ever mischievous Yacir, and silent Siri were
his constant companions for the weeks he had lived and played
and explored in Kasha. For the first time, the only time
in his travels Malikci had contemplated staying still. Yet
there had also been rumors of dissent from the outer villages,
grown tired of the Kasha's hoarding of its riches and mysteries.
In the end he was forced to do what the other street rats
were doing, and left the Kashan walls before they were overrun
and the city plundered.
As his breath slowed and his hands stopped trembling, he
rolled over onto his stomach. Dim light flickered from the
far side of the room, light he hadn't noticed as he had
exploded through the doorway. Now quiet, he began to take
in his surroundings. A path of extinguished candles trailed
into the darkness, half burned to the floor, their dripping
rivulets of wax cooled and hardened, frozen in time.
"Hello?" He called into the darkness. The single
flame flickered and danced and his call was left unanswered.
He rose from the floor slowly, silently cursing the dull
throbbing in his ankle. The din of sounds from outside made
it impossible to hear any soft stirrings that may have been
in the shadows. The stale air held a stillness that played
with his nerves and sharpened his uncertainty.
"Anyone?" Malicki called again, creeping quietly
towards the single candle. As he approached the flame a
narrow stairway came into view. An uneven trail of light
illuminated a path upwards. Only a scattering of candles
remained alight, enough to show the path, not enough to
reveal what lay beyond. "Anything?" His voiced
trailed off as he pulled a candle from the step and held
The stone stairs were soundless as he ascended, weaving
a spiral through the darkness until it faded back into light.
Malicki stopped at the threshold, catching his breath as
dozens of tiny lights danced in his eyes.
The room was filled with candles, melting on windowsills
and shelves, set in corners and along the floor. The trail
of light led to the foot of a simple bed. The still form
of a woman lay atop the coverlet throwing long shadows across
the far wall.
Although she looked as if she was merely sleeping, Malicki
knew the woman was dead. He had seen enough death across
the badlands to know how subtle its mark could be. He knelt
by her side and brushed his fingers across her lips feeling
the fleeting traces of warmth. She was only recently dead.
He wondered how close their paths had come to crossing.
She had been an old woman, delicately beautiful in her age.
Long silver streaked dark hair fanned out across the pillows.
Her long thin fingers folded across her stomach, her walking
stick at her side. She wore the simple clothes of mourning,
a dress made of heavy black wool and sturdy buckled black
shoes. Malicki cocked his head to the side as he took her
in, wondering what her story had been.
"I apologize for disturbing you." He bowed his
head to the corpse. "I hope you won't be too upset
with me." He crossed the room, opening the door to
the closet. "But if I have to stay in this awful place
it seems I have to become something else."
Malicki pulled through the woman's belongings, poking through
the drab piles of folded black dresses and thick woolen
sweaters. He dropped to his knees and rummaged about on
all fours, his hands hitting upon something solid in the
back. Underneath a pile of crocheted shawls and afghans,
his fingers traced over a wooden box, the surface covered
with deep curving grooves and swirls. The small trunk was
shoved back in the corner, seemingly forgotten or hidden
away, Malicki wondered which. He pulled the dark wooden
box onto his lap and flipped open the latch.
Folds of shimmering pale filled the chest and spilled over
his hands as he held the gown to its full length. Woven
waves of silvery gray cobwebs, he thought, the gossamer
gauze was so thin and fine. Silver rings and ribbons of
pale gray and white filled the bottom of the chest. He dragged
his findings to the dead woman's dressing table and sat
down in front of the mirror. He held the spider web gown
to his chest and gazed at the reflection of the body on
He pulled his tattered sweater over his head and tossed
it aside. He smelled of two days journey, his boots dirt
caked to the knees, his ribs pushing through the tanned
skin of his chest. Malicki unbraided his long twig riddled
plaits, his thick honey-colored hair spilling in long tangles
to his waist. He traced his fingers lightly across the woman's
delicate things, tiny pots of shimmering pigments and oils,
opalescent powders and jeweled pins. He closed his hand
around the handle of a brittle wooden brush and started
the task of cleaning the knots out of his hair.
In four days time, once the dead had gone to ground he would
meet his friends again. Where the black waters flow from
four to one, Siri had drawled cryptically, they would meet
once more. Pretty Yacir had laughed playfully at Malicki’s
bewilderment and whispered the translation, “Go east
for four days till you see the rivers.”
Malicki sighed softly as he pulled a steady rhythm across
his scalp. If only he had chosen to travel west with his
friends to Pearl City. If only he hadn’t insisted
on stealing a glimpse of New Gehenna. “They don’t
respect the dead. The Spirit Nights are a twisted game to
them.” Omar had scolded him, and told him that if
he chose to go he would be going alone.
Now he was trapped here, clad in the stolen gown of a dead
woman, his face powdered pale to match the ghostly pallor
of New Gehennan skin. Four ribbon twisted plaits hung to
his waist, his fingers bound in silver rings, his ears looped
with silver. His pale eyes were kohl ringed and shadowed
with silver powder, his lips he had painted a garish black.
Malicki stared into the eyes of a strange wraithlike woman.
Willowy and ethereal, her eyes were wide and weary. He smiled
and she smiled coyly in return. The road weary gutter boy
he had been and hour before, was safely nowhere to be found.
He wondered if the Kashan boys had found such strange refuge.
Malicki settled onto the floor by the dead woman's side,
resting his head against the coverlet. His gaze drifted
across the room, mesmerized by the dancing candles and the
stillness in the air. Muffled sounds seeped through the
shuttered windows, strange harmonies swirling and ebbing
over the howls and cries of the raging crowd below. He traced
his fingers through the woman's silver tresses. His hand
brushing across a folded note beneath her hair, a pale corner
barely visible beneath her pillow.
He untangled the paper and settled back against the bed,
pulling his knees to his chest. Unfolding the letter quickly
he scanned down the lines of scrawled text.
On this first of the three
spirit nights, I have ended my life. My life behind the
shadowed Gehennan walls has made me weary. I am sick of
all the death, of the rituals and traditions we claim will
keep the walls strong and our people protected. All we have
done is wither away our souls as we soak our walls with
innocent blood. You will come into my house on this first
night and take my body to the gates to discard me along
with the others that will no longer bear our way. When I
join the spirits outside the walled city I will revel in
the tribute you will give to us and I shall spit it back
and do all I will to tear down these blood stained walls.
We have brought it upon ourselves. – Ursula
The letter slipped from
his fingers. They would come for her body. He would have
to leave his brief sanctuary. Malicki snatched up the walking
stick and limped down the narrow stairwell, the last candle
blowing dark as he brushed past. He sucked in his breath,
holding it fast, dragging out one last quiet moment before
he slipped back into the madness.
Malicki lost himself in the crowds once again. The woman's
walking stick helped ease the nagging pain as he stumbled
along. He closed his eyes, swept up in the frenzy. Women
swimming on top waves of hands stopped to drop glittering
beads around his slender throat. As he struggled to steady
himself, a slender blue mermaid tugged on his braids as
she floated above, winking at him as she passed.
The crowd spilled out into the center of town and began
to dissipate. The frenzy was taken down, as bodies were
no longer pressed upon one another. Malicki found a lone
spot against a shuttered storefront and settled to the ground.
One by one hopeful young men approached the strange and
pale beauty, huddled alone against the cold wall. They offered
him beads and trinkets, spoils found from the carts of jewelists
and charm makers. Politely Malicki denied them, pulling
his knees tighter to his chest and his walking stick closer
to his side.
"You should get a better view." A young man dropped
a string of sky blue beads into Malicki's lap and smiled
down at the wide-eyed creature. "The stone jacks are
coming, you should be in front if you want to see."
Malicki shook his head, staring up at the strange young
man who seemed to be ignoring his reluctance. The young
man offered his arm and his name while curiosity withered
Malicki's small reserve. He let the young man called Mazen
help him to his feet and told him he was called Ursula.
Arm in arm they moved through the crowd. The wall of people
split in half as the town clock chimed nine times, pushing
back until a wide path was cleared.
They stood on the edge of the parted crowd. Malicki digging
his fingers into Mazen's arm as everyone grew silent. His
stomach was fluttered nervously, the silence hanging heavy
about his head, more deafening than the raging voices moments
before. He knew he would see something horrible. Something
the old woman could no longer bear to witness.
He closed his eyes as the first few notes washed over him,
recognizing the too familiar song of fear and pain. The
voices overlapped each other, a desperate wailing weaving
into a terrible harmony. A rumbling murmur emanating from
the crowd as the keening grew in pitch and intensity.
Around the corner and into the square the first of the procession
came. A parade of flowing and fluttering white robed figures,
their faces hidden behind fierce bird masks as they floated
over the uneven ground. The center of the procession beheld
the source of the horrible sound. Three boys, battered and
street worn, their fear distorted faces covered with dirt
Dark skinned boys, Kashan boys. The three he had left behind.
Malicki bit down hard on his lip and staggered, bumping
back into Mazen. Mazen wrapped his arms around his frightened
companion and whispered into his ear. "Don't worry
Ursula, they can't hurt you..."
'Can't hurt me?' Malicki's thoughts raced. 'Who does he
mean?' He stared at his friends huddling together, clawing
gashes into their faces and pulling out their hair in ragged
clumps, so lost in fear they were. Malicki turned away,
gasping desperately against his suitor’s chest. Mazen
held Malicki tighter, smiling down at his feint companion.
“Are you ready Ursula? Do you have your jewel? You’re
so gentle hearted. Don’t be afraid…”
The bird-faced men began chanting. Malicki couldn't make
out the words; his eyes reluctantly fixed on his friends,
his vision clouded by tears he could no longer control.
One by one the cowering boys were wrenched from each other’s
arms and pulled to opposite sides of the square. Held aloft
between the towering men, their sandals dragging across
the cobblestones, as they were forced closer to the crowd.
Malicki held his breath, his knuckles white as he turned
to face his friends, clutching the walking stick between
One small group stopped a few steps in front Mazen and his
trembling companion. Malicki locked eyes with Yacir as they
pulled him forward and held the writhing boy fast. 'Yacir'
his friend's name hung on his lips, and as Yacir’s
eyes caught his own, he knew his friend saw past the pale
creature's skin he was hiding in.
Robed in somber black, another birdlike creature glided
forward and stood beside the shuddering Kashan. In his hands
he held aloft a lacquered red box, lowering it as he passed
the onlookers, flourishing as he pulled the lid open. Malicki
squinted into the shallow depth, into a box filled with
"I don't understand." Malicki whispered.
Mazen smiled down at him. "The birds must set the first
stones, then we set our own."
Yacir bucked and screamed as the ebony one held up a small
stone. Tapering to a sharp point, it glittered in the pale
moonlight, a tiny star held between white fingertips. He
placed his hand on they boy’s shoulders to steady
him and pushed the stone through the skin of Yacir's chest.
Malicki’s hands flew to his mouth; his walking stick
clattering to the stones below as the onyx bird stepped
aside. In the center of the writhing boy's chest a glittering
gold stone was set deep into his skin. Yacir's eyes were
wide, unblinking, hot tears scoring through the dust and
blood that covered his face.
"The spirits will be so pleased with us." Mazen
smiled proudly. "What beautiful stone jacks we will
hang from the gates this year."
Malicki stood fixed and numb as the crowd moved past him,
each hand holding a tapered stone, a tiny colored jewel
to be set into skin. His eyes still locked onto Yacir as
piece by piece his friend disappeared behind sparkling jewels
and shining stones, more and more of his beautiful flesh
becoming a garish mosaic. As Yacir’s face disappeared
beneath blood slick jewels, Malicki tore his gaze from the
stone jack, staring down at the street below, weeping silently
over the blood of the Kashan boy splattering onto the hems
of cloaks and dresses and seeping into the cobblestones.
© 2000 Vanessa Wesley