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Authors: James Kennedy

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BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
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“Eldritch City? What are you talking about?”

“I am sending you to Eldritch City.”

“You’re not sending me anywhere.”

“You must prepare the way for me, Mr. Kiang.”

“I’m not your errand boy, Prankster. You can’t make me go anywhere.”

“No, I won’t
make
you.” The Belgian Prankster placed an envelope on the table. “You will eventually go of your own free will.”

Never did Ken Kiang want to murder the Belgian Prankster more than at that moment.

And then, as if on cue, the waiter came back and laid a dish in front of Ken Kiang.

He stared. There was no knife. It wasn’t even steak and eggs.

“What is this?” he demanded.

“Huevos rancheros,” said the waiter.

“I ordered steak and eggs.”

The waiter and Ken Kiang looked at each other. Ken Kiang felt himself start to boil. The waiter picked his nose.

“Waiter.”

“Yes?”

“I don’t want huevos rancheros. I want—will you take your finger out of your nose?”

“Well, la-dee-da.” The waiter wiped his finger on his apron. “If I had known we’d have such high-class swells tonight—why, I would’ve worn my solid gold tuxedo.”

Ken Kiang clenched his fists. (It was all the more maddening because he did, actually, own a solid gold tuxedo.) He could hear the Belgian Prankster giggling. He had to take control.

“Listen. I want steak and eggs.”

The waiter picked his nose.

“Can you get me steak and eggs?”

The waiter considered his finger.

“STEAK AND EGGS!”

“All right, I heard you,” sighed the waiter. “I’ll get you your precious steak and eggs, since your little world will obviously fall apart without them. Anything else?”

The Belgian Prankster suddenly said, “Yes. We do need something.”

The waiter turned. “What’s that, sir?”

“A steak knife,” said the Belgian Prankster. “Mr. Kiang wanted a nice, sharp steak knife. To stab me with. Isn’t that correct…Mr. Kiang?”

Ken Kiang was stunned.

“Perhaps
now
you’re in the mood for my story,” said the Belgian Prankster.

Ken Kiang looked down and said nothing.

         

“It’s my very own short story I worked so very hard on.” The Belgian Prankster extracted a damp wad of loose-leaf paper from his furs, unfolded it, and smoothed it out on the table. He cleared his throat theatrically; then he hunched over, and began to read, in a singsong voice:

“Once upon a time there was a town called Eldritch City. And in Eldritch City there was a young couple, Martin and Evelyn Hazelwood. Sir Martin and Dame Evelyn both belonged to a famous knighthood, the Order of Odd-Fish.” The Belgian Prankster looked up. “Like it so far, Mr. Kiang?”

Ken Kiang offered no opinion.

“Wait, it gets better.” The Belgian Prankster hunched over again, reading: “Dame Evelyn was pregnant with their first child. But Sir Martin noticed that the more the baby grew inside Dame Evelyn, the stranger she acted. Sometimes Dame Evelyn stared at Sir Martin as if she didn’t recognize him. Other times she locked herself in her room and refused to see anyone. Once Sir Martin listened at the door of her room and heard Evelyn whispering to herself, again and again: ‘I wish it was dead.’” The Belgian Prankster glanced up, and licked his lips. “See, Mr. Kiang? The plot thickens.”

Ken Kiang clenched his teeth.

The Belgian Prankster continued to read. “One day, a dark, boiling cloud was seen far out in the ocean. For weeks it stayed on the horizon, almost out of sight, a huge black-green mass prowling back and forth.

“Then it started approaching the city.

“Every day Dame Evelyn stared out the window at the black-green cloud, whispering to herself. Sir Martin tried to talk to her, but she never gave him a straight answer. Sometimes she would cry. Sometimes she would scream at him. But the worst was when she would just give him a strange smile, and Sir Martin would hardly recognize her.

“Every day the black-green cloud drew closer. Nobody knew what it was or what would happen when it reached the city.

“Then, one day, everyone woke up to find the cloud had arrived.

“It was everywhere. The entire city was swimming in a dirty green soup. You couldn’t see your own feet. Many people got sick from it. But the fog would not lift, nor would it blow away.

“Dame Evelyn shut herself up deep within the Hazelwood house. But there was no escaping the fog. No matter how much she sealed the windows or stuffed the cracks under the doors, the black-green fog always found a way to seep in.

“Dame Evelyn went into labor. But according to the doctors, Dame Evelyn was trying to hold the baby inside instead of pushing it out. She kept saying, ‘I won’t let it out. I won’t let it out.’

“Meanwhile, the fog had hatched something. All over the city there was a racket of flapping in the filthy mist. Dogs and cats went missing, snatched up into the air. Then children started to disappear.

“The mayor declared an emergency. Everyone was ordered to stay inside. But that only made things worse. The unseen flying things started attacking each other, and the air was filled day and night with their screeches. The situation was getting desperate. Food was running out. Panic spread throughout the city.

“Then twelve women appeared.

“They stood outside the city gates, dressed in blue dresses and blue veils. Every inch of them was hidden. You couldn’t see their faces, their hair, not even their hands. They stood in a circle around a veiled palanquin. They did not speak, nor did they move.

“The hysteria that had gripped the city froze at the sight of the veiled women. Even the howling things that flew about in the fog became still.

“Something was about to happen, but nobody knew what.

“Dame Evelyn was delirious. A week into labor, and she still hadn’t given birth. The doctors didn’t know what to do. Dame Evelyn was begging them to kill her baby. She wouldn’t see Sir Martin, either; she said she didn’t know who he was; then she cried that she had done a terrible thing and she could never look him in the eye again.

“The mayor sent out a messenger to the women, whom people had taken to calling ‘the Silent Sisters.’ Crowds watched the messenger boy approach the twelve women. But the closer he came to them, the slower, heavier, and more awkward his steps seemed.

“Then the messenger fell to the ground and lay still.

“This happened to everyone who approached the Silent Sisters. Nobody could even get close. But the next day, everyone in the city heard a voice in their head. It was an old woman’s voice, scratching in the back of everyone’s brain, whispering, ‘Give us our daughter.’

“The mayor went to the city gates, where the Silent Sisters were standing, and called down to them: ‘What daughter?’

“‘The Hazelwood baby,’ answered the voice. ‘She is ours. Give her to us.’

“All attention turned to the Hazelwoods. But the Hazelwoods had sent away the doctors and midwives and locked themselves in their house, refusing to talk to anyone.

“The mayor asked the Silent Sisters, ‘Why do you want the Hazelwoods’ baby?’

“‘She is the Ichthala,’ came the voice. ‘Give her to us, or we will destroy your city.’

“Nobody knew what
Ichthala
meant. The Silent Sisters said no more, nor did they move. But anyone who tried to leave the city became dizzy; if they pressed on, they would collapse. The city was under a strange and unbreakable siege. The black-green cloud did not lift. People were dying from the poisonous air. Still the Silent Sisters did not move. Some people started to say it might be better just to give the baby up. What was one baby compared to an entire city?

“What people once said in private, half ashamed, they now shouted in public. What right? What right did the Hazelwoods have to sacrifice the entire city, so they could keep their wretched baby?

“A mob gathered outside the Hazelwoods’ house, throwing rocks through the Hazelwoods’ windows, trying to break down the door. Others tried to defend the Hazelwoods. Fights broke out. The mayor assigned constables to guard the Hazelwoods’ house. Three knights from the Order of Odd-Fish also volunteered to defend the Hazelwoods: Dame Lily Larouche, Colonel Anatoly Korsakov, and Sir Nils Van der Woort.

“That was when the Hazelwoods’ neighborhood began catching on fire. Building after building burst into a strange kind of flames—a fire that was cold and gray and impossible to control. Anyone caught in the fire immediately turned into a statue of ash, and the mob trampled each other trying to escape. But the knights of the Order of Odd-Fish remained at their posts, protecting the Hazelwoods and their dangerous baby.

“The old woman’s voice came one last time: ‘Give us our daughter.’

“But even with an entire neighborhood on fire, and hundreds of people dead, the mayor still refused. So the city council removed him from office. They appointed a new mayor who promised to give the Silent Sisters what they wanted.

“The new mayor ordered the knights to leave. But Dame Lily, Colonel Korsakov, and Sir Nils refused to abandon the Hazelwoods. The mayor was furious. He said he could do nothing more. He opened the city gates.

“The Silent Sisters entered Eldritch City, heading for the Hazelwoods’ house. Dame Lily, Colonel Korsakov, and Sir Nils were waiting for them. But when they finally arrived…

“Wait! Did you know, Mr. Kiang, that this has been captured on film?
Lights!

Ken Kiang blinked. He had been absorbed so deeply in the Belgian Prankster’s story that he hadn’t noticed Mr. XXX and Mr. QQQ were setting up a portable movie screen across the restaurant. Mr. NNN was fiddling with a film projector; Mr. ZZZ turned off the lights, and the projector started rattling away, casting a ghostly image upon the screen.

It was a house—the Hazelwoods’ house. It seemed like a modest house, ordinary except that it was floating in a sea of filthy green fog, surrounded by hulks of chalky, smoking ash—the remains of a demolished neighborhood.

There were also three knights, mounted on armored ostriches. Ken Kiang looked closer—was he seeing things? But no, it was undeniable: two of the knights were younger versions of Lily Larouche and Colonel Korsakov. The ostriches flapped fitfully around the Hazelwoods’ house, flying in and out of the picture—and something occurred to Ken Kiang.

“Hey, wait a minute. Ostriches can’t fly.”

The Belgian Prankster gave a tired sigh, heaved himself up, and waddled over to Ken Kiang. The Chinese millionaire shuddered—why had he said anything?—as the Belgian Prankster plopped down and threw his arm, draped in stinking furs, over Ken Kiang’s shoulder.

“We could quibble about different species all night, Mr. Kiang, but I think you’ll find the movie more entertaining.” The Belgian Prankster leaned forward, his breath stinking of sour milk. “
These
ostriches can fly. So whaddaya say we just watch the show, huh?”

The scene had changed. The Silent Sisters were emerging from the fog, carrying their palanquin up the winding streets. Everyone scurried out of their way as they entered the Hazelwoods’ neighborhood, where every building—except for the Hazelwoods’—had collapsed into mounds of steaming ash.

The camera drew back. On one side there were the Silent Sisters, trudging through the colorless ruins, advancing toward the Hazelwoods’ house. On the other side were the three knights, Dame Lily, Sir Nils, and Colonel Korsakov, standing guard around the house. The knights clicked a latch on their weapons, and both ends of their double-bladed lances ignited with orange flames. Their ostriches clucked nervously as the Silent Sisters separated, surrounding the Hazelwoods’ house in a circle.

But the house—

Ken Kiang stared. It was as if some invisible hand were squeezing the house, stretching and twisting it as if it were taffy. The bricks were melting, dripping down the sides in streams; behind the windows red and purple lights flashed, shadows writhed against each other, curling flames jerked and danced—

The Silent Sisters drew their circle tighter.

The house convulsed. It was throbbing, groaning, pulsing in and out, as if any second it would explode into a million bits of brick and wood, flooding with black sludge seeping from cracks between the melting bricks, spurting from the windows, spraying out the chimney into the air. The house strained at the seams, swelling, heaving, gurgling.

The Silent Sisters drew closer.

The doors blew off the house. Every window exploded. The ostriches bucked in panic, the knights barely hanging on, as the house shrieked and stomped and blasted like a living monster.

“What just happened?” whispered Ken Kiang.

“Jo Hazelwood has been born,” said the Belgian Prankster.

“That’s because of
Jo
?”

“Ah-ah-ah! Watch!”

The Silent Sisters had tightened their circle even closer. The knights were trapped, hemmed in on all sides. Dame Lily, Sir Nils, and Colonel Korsakov brandished their flame-tipped lances, their faces grim.

Then Sir Nils spun and brought his lance crashing on Dame Lily’s head.

Ken Kiang gasped.

“My favorite part,” snuffled the Belgian Prankster.

BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
3.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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