Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Five Poisons

A novel excerpt by Jenny Ashford

The photographs were still drying over their pans, and Sabrina was cleaning up the darkroom; she didn’t need to, it wasn’t like anyone would be visiting, but it was habit.

She was just wiping down the tables when she felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end. She straightened, rag in hand. Now what the hell was that? She was a rationalist at heart, ironically enough, and as such was rarely given to weird feelings or premonitions. But I didn’t imagine that, she thought. It felt a bit like being in a plane that had dropped a few hundred feet in heavy turbulence.

She strode to the open window and stuck her head out into the eternal nightfall. The eerie sensation was overwhelming her now, and her arms were suddenly awash in goosebumps. She scowled. “What the…” she muttered to no one.

And then she saw them.

All of them, all of the half-shadowed almost-figures that populated this world, were moving. Not that they weren’t always flitting this way and that, there and not there, making that strange little rustling noise that sounded to Sabrina like the first leaf curling up and dying in autumn. But now they were all moving together, as a group, in the same direction—a single-minded ocean of brainless gray-black phantasms, marching toward their destination like a massive ghost army.

Sabrina realized her jaw was hanging open, and she shut it with an audible snap. She couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though they were all heading for…

She came out of her house and into the dark cobbled street. The buildings around her shifted and changed—now brick, now wood, now shacks, now mansions—but Sabrina was used to this and paid no attention. She focused on them, the spirits in their phalanxes. She could feel some of them as they drifted past her, maybe even through her, that feeling like silken threads or hairy insect legs. She was vaguely sick and anxious as she stood among them, but not frightened.

Yes, she could see now. They were indeed making their way toward the door to the Above, or the Breach as it was usually known. Sabrina’s heart clenched to a stop and then stuttered back into an unsteady rhythm. “What the fuck is going on?” She glanced behind her and saw countless more forms moving toward her, called by some siren song she could not hear. They looked like cutouts of flimsy black tissue paper, darker where they overlapped with others. “What is going on?” she screamed again. One of the shadows morphed momentarily into an eight-foot snarling jack-in-the-box brandishing a hand-ax, but morphed back just as quickly. And of course, nobody answered Sabrina’s question.


For some reason she had never found it terribly hard to navigate in this twilit dimension where she chose to live. The secret, as she figured it, was not to think about where you were going, not to get too wrapped up in the physical aspects of place or direction. This world was all smoke and mirrors anyway, constantly shifting, so it wasn’t as though you could find your way around by looking for landmarks. There was a rudimentary structure to it, and usually the locations of things stayed the same; it was only the things themselves that changed. Generally, Sabrina thought, you just started walking, and nine times out of ten you somehow ended up where you wanted to go.

And where she was going at that moment was to see Arsenic the Tiger. She didn’t see him very often, or any of the other Poisons either, and she had to admit to herself that she was a little afraid of him, of all of them. But surely something monumental had happened, and he would know what it was if anyone would, and he was the only one that had seemed to at least tolerate her being here. Plus it would give Sabrina the chance to see another human being—well, technically half-human, she amended—and hold a conversation with someone other than herself.

But as it turned out, Arsenic found her first, emerging from the soupy nightfog as if born and formed of it. Sabrina gasped inadvertently at the sight of him; she’d seen him a few times before, but now he seemed gigantic and terrible, coming at her through the mist like a vengeful pagan god. She stopped walking, but Arsenic just kept coming, plunging into her arms with the force of a cannon blast.

Her breath left her, snatched away by his nearness. The Poisons could not maintain physical contact with humans for very long, as their demon blood gave them a sort of electrical current that was fatal after a few minutes, but Arsenic had apparently forgotten this in his haste and obvious upset. His skin was as cold and slick as a corpse’s. Sabrina felt an overpowering shock and revulsion that was somehow unbearably erotic at the same time.

When he pulled away from her, she drew in a huge lungful of air, sputtering, her brain a dizzy scramble of disconnected thoughts and images. For a long moment she could only hang her head between her knees and wait until her equilibrium had returned. “Why did you…do that?” she said between wheezes.

“I’m sorry.” Arsenic’s voice was like a half-remembered lullaby, and though his lips moved when he spoke, they never seemed quite in sync with his words. It was as though he were whispering a second message directly to your mind, underneath the one you heard with your ears.

“So am I.” Sabrina raised her head and regarded him. He seemed nearly every inch the human, though taller and paler than most, and possessed of an otherworldly fluidity of movement. It was only his eyes that definitively gave him away: Those clear, pupil-less orbs that roiled with gray wisps like gathering thunderheads. “I was looking for you,” she said. “Something’s happened, hasn’t it?”

His expression betrayed nothing, but Sabrina knew he would be surprised that she had sensed the change, and the knowledge made her chest flutter with something like pride. But then he said, “Strychnine is dead.” The words were flat, monotone, but oceans of sorrow and horror were conveyed by the silent motions of his lips beneath the sentence.

Sabrina’s pride shriveled, and in its place sprouted a twisted black finger of fear. She searched his face for some hint that he was testing her, or even joking for fuck’s sake, although she’d never known the Poisons to be anything but deadly serious. She saw nothing to reassure her. “But how can that be?” she demanded, petulant and accusing. “You can’t die, any of you!” In a bizarre way, she felt betrayed.

Arsenic’s eyes darkened and boiled. “One of us has. Someone has found a way.”

Sabrina began to feel as though her head were cracking open, or the whole world was cracking open. She couldn’t look at his eyes anymore. “But what does this mean? What’s going to happen?” She directed her questions to the soft soil at her feet. Then she remembered the phantoms, the endless rows of them milling toward the Breach, and a light came on in her head. “Somehow they all know too, don’t they?”

Arsenic nodded. His expression retained its mask-like immobility, but the sadness came off him in waves. “They sensed it, as you did. A weakening.”

Sabrina had a dreadful vision then, of those armies of gray-black figures flooding the earth Above with their horrors. Just like they did before… “They can’t get out, can they?”

“Not while the rest of us are still here.” His voice said it, but the whisper underneath appended, Not until we’re all dead.

“I want to see Strychnine.” She wasn’t sure why, but the wish was sudden and forceful. Perhaps she simply wanted to see for herself that one of the Poisons, one of those strange and indescribably ancient nightmare-dwellers, was really gone. Or perhaps she just wanted to feel important, involved with the powerful half-humans who usually avoided her, privy to their immortal intrigues and passions. “Where is she?”

“At Brass House. We brought her there after we…found her in the woods.” He looked off into the distance. “I didn’t want you to have to know any of this, Sabrina.”

It was the first time she had ever heard him say her name, and it made her feel like she was receiving a low-voltage shock. “Why did you come and tell me then?”

“My siblings want to involve you in this. I do not.”


“I have my reasons. But I was outvoted.”

Sabrina strained to hear his whispered after-speech, but it was too quick and garbled. She looked up at him again, arching her brow. “So you’re going to take me there?”

He sighed. “Yes. I hope I do not regret it.” With that, he bowed his head and began walking into the fog, Sabrina matching his every step.

1 comment:

Candace said...

This is a marvelous concept and you're off to great start for a fantasy novel. I loved it. Have you finished the story?