Fort Eden – Chapter 19
“Cell Division” by Chris Kluwe and Edwin McRae
Farlan banged on the door again, a staccato sound like clipped gunshots.
“Open up, Ewing. We need to talk.”
Seconds passed, then the door swung open, a vaguely familiar man in a butler’s uniform standing within. Patricia tried to remember where she had seen him before, then the hazy memories of their first visit surfaced and she realized he was the same servant from their last visit.
“It is late, and the master does not wish to be disturbed. He has had… troubling news.”
“Well, wake him up, then. We’ve figured out what happened to his missing gold. That oughta cheer him up.”
“…very well. Please follow me.”
The butler motioned them inside, and Patricia followed him and Farlan into the mansion, Luc trailing behind her. An oil lamp cast a dim glow from an intricately carved wooden end table, but did little to brighten the foyer. Patricia scanned the richly furnished room, unable to quite banish the sensation of shadows writhing sinuously in the corners of her vision. Paintings, little more than blotches of color and shape, leered down from the oak paneled walls, and she leaned over to Luc.
“You’d think a rich bugger like him would be able to light his own house,” Patricia whispered.
“The rich generally stay rich by not spending their money except when necessary,” Luc whispered back.
“Fair enough, but this place gives me the shakes. Feels like we’re being watched, but every time I look over, there’s nothing there.”
“Most likely you’re still experiencing adrenaline from our earlier gunfight. Try to relax… Mr. Ewing put us on the trail of the Cullers. We’re safe here. And if he wishes to live in the dark, well, the rich don’t think like most. Another reason for their wealth, I believe.”
“If you say so.”
Patricia fell silent as the butler swung open a pair of double doors, revealing a well lit study, tall lamps in each corner casting a warm glow throughout the room, but she couldn’t quite shake the sensation of lurking shadows from her mind. A man rose from behind the desk and walked over to them, his movements stilted – the master merchant of Ewington, and now Fort Eden. John Ewing. Another man sat in a chair against the wall, the dark blue of the constabulary neatly fitting his frame, his broad hat tilted low over his face. Recognition dawned in Patricia’s mind, but before she could speak, their host stood in front of them.
“We believe we instructed we were not to be disturbed, yes?”
“…apologies, Master Ewing. They said they had news about your gold.”
“Very well. Wait outside. We will summon you if necessary.”
The butler turned and left, closing the study door behind him with a soft click. Ewing looked at Farlan, tilting his head to the side as if examining a laboratory specimen.
“You have news for us?”
Farlan coughed, and Patricia momentarily feared he would fall over, his body swaying like a ship’s mast in high seas.
“Aye, that we do. Oh, hey, it’s the chief! That’ll save us some time.”
Farlan waved at the seated figure, who briefly lifted a hand in acknowledgment, hat still covering his face.
“What’s the chief doing here?” Patricia asked.
“A matter that concerns only us,” Ewing replied smoothly. “What of the gold?
“We tracked down the cause of the missing shipments. Like you thought, it was Jacek Polanski.”
“And you disposed of him?”
“Well, no, that’s not what we do. To be perfectly honest, the gold was a secondary concern.”
“A… secondary concern?”
“Luc can explain. Do you have anything to drink? I’m parched.”
Ewing fluttered a hand towards a sideboard cabinet, and Farlan stalked over, clumsily pulling it open. Patricia frowned.
“We are not actually members of what you would think of as ‘traditional law enforcement,’” Luc began, shrugging his pack off and placing it in a corner, along with his rifle. “Instead, we track down creatures called ‘Cullers,’ and dispose of them via any means necessary.”
“Monsters that can sometimes disguise themselves as humans. One variety is a sort of parasitic insect. If left unchecked, they wipe out entire towns, villages, anything they can. We had received news of some irregularities here in Fort Eden, and came here to investigate whether or not there was possibly a Culler infestation.”
“And there are many of you doing this?”
“Aye, friend,” Farlan answered, gesturing with his nearly full glass. An amber liquid slopped over the side to the carpet below, but neither Farlan nor Ewing seemed to notice. “We Falconers dedicate our lives to rooting out these damn beasts. The bastards kill us wherever and however they can, and if it comes down to them or us, I’m damn well gonna make sure it’s us.”
“…an entire organisation. We find that… interesting. How do you kill these… Cullers?”
“Gold is the only surefire method we’ve discovered,” Luc replied. “It does something to disrupt their internal chemistry. Hence, our concern when we heard that gold was going missing here – generally, we regard that as a potential sign of Culler infestation. It seems the creatures are aware of their own weakness and act to fortify themselves against it.”
Ewing walked over to stand in front of Luc.
“…we understand. Have you discovered anything else about these… creatures?”
“I’m afraid that’s-”
“Oh, don’t be shy, Luc,” Farlan said loudly, his face flushed. “Let the man know. We might need his gold in the future, after all.”
Luc pressed his lips together in a thin line, but continued.
“There are two different types of Cullers: Hunters, who tend to act simply and aggressively, essentially killing everything they can, as quickly as they can; and Seeders, who prefer to work from the shadows by sowing fear and confusion with their Thralls.”
“A lesser form of Culler. Typically an animal of some sort is used as a host, though humans can also be used, and the Seeder controls it via some method that we haven’t yet figured out. The Culler does something to mutate its host’s body, prioritizing whatever traits give it the most speed and strength, as that’s what allows it to cause the most destruction. Thralls are usually twice as strong as a human, Seeders twice as strong as Thralls, and Hunters are pure nightmares to deal with.”
“…and those are the only types of Cullers the… Falconers, have discovered?”
“Yes,” Luc said, slumping into a chair in exhaustion. “Polanski had multiple Thralls operating within his gang, which we have neutralised. We believe the Seeder was a man called Reggie Hawthorne, though it took a new shape than what we’re familiar with. Once we finish tracking it down, Fort Eden should be secure for a time. Any help you can provide with contacts or information would be greatly appreciated.”
“…we understand, and will act accordingly. Chief. See to those two.”
The warden’s head lifted, broad-brimmed hat rising to reveal his face, and the slow surreality of nightmare washed over Patricia. Dead white maggots writhed in the corners of pitch black eyes, and a rictus grin stretched across his face like a jagged tear through flesh. As if in slow motion, she watched Ewing’s hand flash through the air in front of Luc, her own hand numbly fumbling at her coat to clear her pistol. Bright red arterial blood sprayed into the air in a sickening fan, and then the chief was in front of her, transfixing her with his now abyssal gaze.
“Too slow, always too slow,” he hissed, and a sledgehammer slammed into Patricia’s stomach, sending her crashing against the wall in a daze, stars bursting in her vision, her body slamming down into the thick carpet. She heard Farlan roar, and then another crash echoed through the room, the tinkling sound of broken glass mixed in with the dull impact of human flesh against wood. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the old man lying limp in the wreckage of the sideboard, spirits dripping on and around him.
Groaning, Patricia pushed herself into a sitting position, forcing her unwilling body to cooperate, trying to make sense of the impossible. In front of her, Luc’s body slowly fell from his chair, landing in the carpet with a sodden thump, blood weakly pulsing from the gaping ruin of his throat. His eyes flickered, focusing on her, then went glassy and blank. Behind Luc’s corpse, Ewing casually flicked blood from ten centimeter long black claws, no expression on his face. Next to her, the door slammed open, the butler bursting through on all fours, arms and legs deformed into sinewy lengths of flesh and chitin, head swiveling from side to side. Saliva dripped from cruelly hooked teeth, and he lunged towards Patricia.
Two percussive bangs shattered her numbness, and Patricia realized she’d finally drawn her pistol, sending the gold-plated bullets ripping into the former butler. Steaming black blood gouted from the cratered mess of his head, body tumbling limply to the floor, and then another sledgehammer blow struck her wrist, the freezing burn of broken bone grating through her nerves. Her pistol flew across the room, and suddenly the warden was crouched before her, hideous smile cracking and splitting the skin of his face.
“Been a while, lucky girl, little girl,” he whispered, sibilant words creeping into her ears like spiders. “Last time you put us in a trap, threw us in a cage of stone, made us leave our body, our beautiful, useful body. How lucky for us the master found another.”
Casually, he backhanded her, sending her cartwheeling into the corner. More pain radiated through Patricia’s neck and body, and she groaned, feeling something sharp digging into her stomach. With her uninjured hand, she felt rough canvas – Luc’s backpack – and then the smooth wooden grain of his rifle. She forced her other hand around the stock and clenched the trigger, nearly vomiting with pain.
Please, she thought to herself, please have kept it loaded. Her index finger caressed the safety, flicking it back.
Behind her, as if through a distance, she heard the implosive tones of the chief.
“Let me kill her.”
A detached, buzzing voice in response, like centipedes stamping out syllables with thousands of tiny feet.
“No. We must learn more about these… Falconers. If they are threats to us, or the other… Elders. Take her body. Tell us what you learn, then use that to infiltrate the others.”
“You are the master.”
“Yes. We are. Now go.”
Footsteps coming closer, the heavy tread of police-issue boots. A presence kneeling down next to her, the cold grasp of a clammy hand. A brief surge of motion, perspective flipping to reveal a leering face, something purple and glistening emerging from a gaping grin. Words crawled out around the obscene protuberance.
“Time to die, lucky girl. Still too sl-”
Patricia swung the rifle under the creature’s chin quicker than thought, her thumb already closing on the trigger. The warden’s head disintegrated, black blood spraying through the air above her, hitting the wall with a liquid splat, and she screamed at the pain of the recoil smashing through her broken wrist. Just as quickly, she thrust a knee into the dead Culler’s stomach, forcing it off her before blood dripped down and contaminated her flesh, and rolled to her feet, reaching for the rifle with her good hand. Roiling fire raked down the left side of her face, and her vision suddenly narrowed, warm wetness blossoming on her cheek. A weight like a descending star smashed into her chest, and she folded over, coughing liquid chunks of blood and air, the rifle flying out of her hands.
“We knew that one was… brash, but we had use for it. You are trying our patience… Falconer.”
Still coughing, Patricia looked up. Ewing stood over her, his once human face now a hideous conglomeration of sharp angles and emerald-faceted eyes, pale skin fading to chitinous black and back again, the mottled hide of a fever dream. Ragged talons flexed and bent at the end of splayed open fingers, and as she watched, a wetly gleaming appendage sprouted from the middle of his face, pulsating veins of flesh extending from the wreckage of what was once a nose. Muscles in his shoulders and back rippled and tore, shredding once finely tailored clothes, and he loomed larger, larger, larger, until it seemed he must brush the ceiling.
“What… what are… you?”
Ewing squatted over her, inches from her face.
“You called us… Cullers, but our kind was old before your kind was a whisper in the primordial night. We have slept for many turnings of this world. You have awoken us.”
“I… I don’t understand…”
“This world birthed us, gave us life. Gave us meaning, purpose, direction. We defend it from those who would make it uninhabitable for us, as any good children would.”
“That… doesn’t make… any se-”
Patricia choked at the pressure encircling her neck, Ewing lifting her into the air with one taloned hand. She slapped her hand at the vise-like grip, but might as well have been trying to move a mountain. Blood pounded in her ears, a war rhythm slowly faltering, the half of her vision still left fading to black, the abomination in front of her consuming her sight.
“Your understanding is immaterial. We control the lesser lives. We shall-”
The crystalline chime of shattered glass sounded, and Patricia watched coruscating droplets of amber liquid splatter from Ewing’s back and tumble through the air around her, the sharp tang of whiskey stinging her nose. Over the creature’s insectile shoulder, she saw Farlan rise from the wreckage of the sideboard, his shirt torn and bloody, golden Falconer medallion swinging above his matted chest hair, a lit match in his hand and fire in his eyes.
“Use yer pendant, lass,” he bellowed, and flicked the match at Ewing.
Patricia watched the glacial progress of the tiny burning stick, uncomprehending, then understanding slammed home like a rifle shot. With a last surge of strength, she reached up to her neck with her good hand, ignoring the iron grip encircling her throat, and fished her Falconer insignia out from beneath her shirt, stabbing it home into Ewing’s segmented wrist. A scream like a million angry locusts erupted from the monstrosity, and it let her fall to the floor, spinning to face Farlan. Just then, the match finished its journey, igniting the tattered remnants of alcohol-soaked silks hanging off Ewing’s distorted frame.
Flames billowed forth, heat bursting painfully against Patricia’s face, and she weakly rolled away from the conflagration, more hideous screams bursting forth from within its roaring depths, the creature stumbling back and forth, setting curtains and furniture alike ablaze. She felt something hard against her knee, sticky wetness soaking through her pants, and looked down to see her pistol, its ivory handle stained red from the pool of Luc’s blood. Grimacing, gasping for air, she lifted it in her good hand, its weight like that of the world itself, and sighted down the barrel with her remaining eye.
A demon in bubbling lava filled her vision, its hungry claws reaching for her face, and she squeezed the trigger again, and again, and again, thunderous roars mixing with shrill obscenities born of a throat not meant to contain the words it uttered, until the only sound in the room was the dry click of a metal trigger striking home against an empty barrel and the harsh crackling of flames. Small specks of black crawled forth from the deflating corpse, snapping into the air like fleas on a hot skillet, but none moved after encountering the all encompassing red, their tiny shapes withering beneath the terrible heat.
Patricia’s pistol fell from nerveless fingers, thumping against the sodden carpet below, and she followed it into darkness, her last glimpse a pair of boots beneath a kilt rushing towards her.