Chapter 5:

The Moonlight Procession

Mutual Monster

I spent the rest of the day getting acquainted with the mines. Swing. Dig. Shovel. The monotony numbed my mind, and the hours passed with agony. The work day ended with a gong. Miners straightened, stretched, and trudged back to the spiral staircase. Thankfully, dinner consisted of bread and stew for dinner, with chunks of melon for desert. It was difficult to believe how much transpired since I’d escaped the infirmary, let alone woke up after the operation. The stress and fatigue sent me straight to sleep. Bookmark here

The next few weeks passed as a miner, aside from rest days spent in the recreation house listening to dull music. Elsewise I dug, ate, and trailed after Shin like a lost puppy. Wages were issued at the month’s end, and I gained my own little jar of Beel. Though, I made little progress toward reaching the library. I had difficulty measuring what progress even entailed. I lacked an aim, like an item to save Beel to purchase. And though the work suited my preference for life to have routine consistency, the City thrived on constant activity. In the coming days, this became apparent, for the Moonlight Procession visited the lower-levels. Bookmark here

I might’ve whistled, had I known what that meant. Bookmark here

It started early in the morning, before Chimeboy made his rounds. Scents of perfume and citrus filled the passages. Lilac petals coated the floor. I woke to muffled cheers and clapping, as the people outside knew what the petals implied. Shin refused to explain. We got changed and followed the crowd to the mines. There, in the catacombs, lengths of lights were strung upon the walls. Stalls of varying delights crowded the walls. Attendants in bellowing white robes beckoned people to participate. Bookmark here

‘Did the market move?’ I asked. Bookmark here

Shin nudged me. ‘Does this look like a mere market, my friend?’Bookmark here

Yes. ‘No?’Bookmark here

Shin outlined how the event, the Moonlight Procession, happened at random. It started at the highest level, on a full moon, and trickled down. It served as a bold augur for the whole City. Augur could be good or bad, but grand all the same. It had toured the City when King Aren had his first vision. It did when the Kyoto archives were discovered. It did when Venator Thanatsuji slew the great-serpent Arachnite wrapped around the City. But, it could take weeks to discover why the current Moonlight Procession travelled. Bookmark here

As for why they’d setup in the catacombs and mines, Shin didn’t have an answer. Wasn’t it dangerous? Didn’t it waste space? Nobody cared. Frankly, I didn’t either. I cared for the wares. The fifth-level market lacked the sturdy clothes required to brave the leaking corridor. But if the Moonlight Procession had come from above, their wares might suffice. Perhaps a shield? Perhaps a magic elixir? Perhaps a cloak treated in Arachnite blood? Perhaps—Bookmark here

‘An umbrella?’ I sighed, at a stall wrapped in red cloth. They sold gloves, boots, handkerchiefs, raincoats, various beverages, and a single umbrella. Given the lack of space and rain in the City, an umbrella must have been an eccentric accessory. Bookmark here

‘Want it?’ Shin asked. Bookmark here

‘How much?’ I asked the merchant, who named a price that made Shin gawk. ‘Forget about it,’ I told Shin. His funds as a miner were modest, and I wasn’t going to bankrupt him for my agenda. Bookmark here

Shin thumped my back, said he had an idea, and then sped away before I could protest. The idea of wandering the festival alone seemed sad and dangerous, so I loitered in a space between stalls and waited. I should’ve loitered deeper, and with more alertness, for Amborella Coen parted the crowd and stopped before me. She wore her maroon overcoat open, and black armour showed beneath it. While the City was ramshackle, the armour was pristine and unlike any technology I’d seen. Smooth, interlocking black hexagons matched the contours of her body to form predominant sections, like the core muscles, obliques, and pectorals. Between the sections, a soft red light glowed in rhythms synchronised with her intake of breath. Bookmark here

Pressed between the stalls, I couldn’t run. Strangers watched Amborella with apprehension, me with pity. Lie, I told myself. ‘Why aren’t you in the infirmary?’ Amborella asked. Bookmark here

‘I escaped,’ I blurted, and scolded myself. Something in Amborella’s predatory gaze made it impossible to lie. Reflexively, I prepared to shove her away and run. There wasn’t a need. She picked her teeth and swept a hand through auburn hair. Bookmark here

‘At least you’re honest,’ she muttered. Dark crescents circled under her eyes. ‘Stop looking at me like that. I ain’t going to drag you back, if that’s what you’re worried about. I figure there’s a slim chance the captains would’ve bothered coming down anyway.’Bookmark here

Venators, I thought. I’d heard the term often, but I hadn’t thought to ask about them. From the way people spoke about them, they were the martial force of the City. Soldiers, nothing more. Seeing Amborella’s armour disabused me of this notion. If I couldn’t reach the library, perhaps other, more direct sources of information were available. I started, ‘A-Are you here for…?’Bookmark here

Amborella raised a brow. My words died on my tongue. ‘This is my level,’ she answered. Bookmark here

‘The first?’Bookmark here

‘Not quite.’ Her expression darkened as she gestured around. ‘You’re looking at it.’ At my confusion, she went on: ‘Memory’s still Pooka? S’pose that’s why you’re talking to a Blank.’Bookmark here

‘Blank?’Bookmark here

‘Venator without an Order.’ Bookmark here

‘…Order?’Bookmark here

‘Kid, seriously?’Bookmark here

I cleared my throat. ‘Hypothetically, would it be strange to not know who the captains are?’Bookmark here

Amborella stared at me. I fidgeted. She stared harder. I’ll take that as a yes. She chewed her lip, as if to process whether my pitiful state warranted help. ‘There’re three: Nine-of-Days, Black-Blood Thanatsuji, and Ennio Di Mercurio.’Bookmark here

I mouthed the names to press them into memory. I was about to ask about Orders, but Shin entered my periphery. Still, my attention remained on Amborella. At the infirmary and now, she rarely made eye contact, except to make a point. Instead she scanned the surroundings. I thought her easy to understand, that her aloofness, Venator status, and impatience hinting at an overworked soldier. But down in the mines, seeing her weary face, she seemed disoriented, not aloof. Frustrated, not impatient. And being a Blank Venator sounded like a wretched role, worse than not being a Venator. Perhaps she’d been punished? ‘Hey, Ella,’ Shin greeted. Bookmark here

‘What did you call me?’ Bookmark here

‘Ella. Like “Amborella” but shorter.’Bookmark here

Amborella’s harsh visage turned to Shin, who smiled back. He’d mentioned knowing her for a while, and I wondered the extent of their association. Shin showed me a pair of old gloves with metal studs on the knuckles. He outlined how we could trade it for the umbrella. While he spoke, Amborella re-joined the crowd; but, I noted, when she removed her hands from her pockets – they trembled. Bookmark here

We returned to the stall with the umbrella. The merchant, rotund in face and body, filled the space. A cobalt-dyed, quilted jerkin that lay taut against his body. He joked with a girl outside, and each time he laughed I feared a button would explode from his jerkin into my eye. He peered over round spectacles at me and hawked his beverages at me. ‘A sample! A sample! Go ahead, boy.’Bookmark here

The booth’s gimmick involved a drink with the girl. She and I held tiny metal cups—just above thimbles—and, arms interlocked, drank simultaneously. The beverage stung my throat. It tasted of honey whisky. I was not the only boy or man to visit the booth, with most who sampled soon after purchased a bottle. Yet the girl had an admirable constitution, for aside from pint-tinted cheeks she showed no symptoms of intoxication. Others who sampled spoke to the girl as if in love, but none detected the well-hidden displeasure behind her curt smiles. Bookmark here

Meanwhile, Shin bartered with the merchant, though the gloves were appraised to be of lesser value to the umbrella. Much less. Shin slipped them on and began to expound upon how much they’d endured. Highlighting wear and tear? Not the best sales strategy. Bookmark here

‘If you won’t be making a purchase, I must ask you move on,’ the girl told me. Bookmark here

‘Do you know what the umbrella’s made from?’Bookmark here

She frowned. ‘Why the interest?’Bookmark here

‘There’s a place with a leaking ceiling. I need to know if the umbrella will protect me.’Bookmark here

She risked a smile. ‘You seek the library? What’s your name?’ I introduced myself. ‘I’m Estelle,’ she replied. ‘What’re you doing down here?’ At my lack of understanding, she rolled her eyes. ‘By attire I’d thought you of these folk, but by name and voice, surely you’ve followed the Procession for a dark curiosity of the Lowers. Or did you lose your way? Well, which is it?’ she snapped. Bookmark here

‘I’m not following.’Bookmark here

‘You’re lost, then?’Bookmark here

‘No, I mean—I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ Bookmark here

‘You speak with a clear tongue and seek the library. Of the latter, I assume you don’t intend to pilfer the papers for wiping yourself, and therefore you must intend to read. Ah, here!’ She pulled papers and a pencil from her sleeve. ‘Write something, do!’Bookmark here

Pressured by the stationery shoved into my hands, without thinking I wrote: Bookmark here

‘Gold coins to a cat.’Bookmark here

‘Indeed, our wares down here!’ she laughed. ‘But your penmanship is astounding; where did you learn the old marks?’Bookmark here

‘I’m naturally gifted. Anyway, about that umbrella…?’Bookmark here

‘Boasting and desperation? Do you know what Father says about both? “Pockmarks on the souls of the inadequate”.’Bookmark here

Poetic – and cutting. Though, Estelle didn’t speak unkindly. Bookmark here

Throughout our conversation, Shin’s haphazard salesmanship had caused the merchant’s face to redden and cheeks bulge. The merchant used words I hadn’t encountered, but the tone made their insulting nature obvious. Strangers watched, and a growing crowd clogged the area of tunnel in front of the booth. I considered disappearing into the crowd, but Shin had gone through such lengths to support me (ineffectual or not). I didn’t get the chance to intervene, for Estelle seized the umbrella. ‘I give you this on the condition that you bring me as many books as your arms can carry,’ she said. ‘I live in the Blue Parlour. Do you swear it?’Bookmark here

‘Yes?’Bookmark here

Estelle beamed and shoved the umbrella into my arms and turned to the merchant. ‘Father, stop making a scene.’Bookmark here

Shin and I retreated, he with his old gloves, me with a new umbrella. We weaved through the crowds and took a seat on rest benches near the spiral staircase. ‘I never asked,’ he said. ‘Why do you want an umbrella?’Bookmark here

‘Library,’ I uttered. Bookmark here

‘You read? Well, well, well, my theory about you being from the Uppers keeps getting truer.’Bookmark here

‘No, I’m looking to…’ I couldn’t say “restore the world”, so I settled on: ‘Looking for information on the Venators.’Bookmark here

‘Cool, aren’t they?’Bookmark here

‘I need to be one.’Bookmark here

Shin choked, and then laughed. ‘We miners tend to value optimism, but that’s usually after things go wrong. You’re asking for things to go wrong.’Bookmark here

‘Surely Venators aren’t born.’Bookmark here

‘Just about. Anyone can register for training, but most of the ones that make it through start young. Besides, there’s also the training fee. Don’t suppose you’re hiding a thousand Beel up your sleeve?’Bookmark here

I slackened, chin in palms. There were also my inherent failings. I’d failed missions before. Got people killed. I suspected I’d screwed up the operation, somehow. Being a Venator might give me nothing but new ways to fail. But…Bookmark here

‘Arachnites shouldn’t exist. This City should—life should be better.’ Bookmark here

‘Could be worse,’ Shin shrugged. ‘Besides, Arachnites have quieted down over the years.’Bookmark here

‘…What did you say?’Bookmark here

‘Quieted down. They tend to stay in their burrows, these days.’Bookmark here

I paled. My heart pounded as a cold chill coursed through my body. I’d heard “quieted down” long before. In my childhood, before the war took a dark turn, humanity thought the Arachnites had quieted down, gone to their burrows from weariness, boredom, or other reasons. People didn’t care. They figured so long as Arachnites weren’t out slaughtering our kind, life was good. But those “other reasons” proved worst of all. Bookmark here

It happened first on a landmass not far from our island base. The Arachnites had gone to their burrows. Those who claimed something was amiss were deemed paranoid, but the commanders assembled a perfunctory unit to placate. The unit went to the burrow with a live feed via helmet-mounted cameras. Ren later smuggled the footage to me and we huddled together to watch it in our private quarters. Nightmares beset us for a week. The Arachnites had been more numerous than we thought, crowding the burrow like worms in a can. Judging by their colours and carapace designs, they’d come from all over the continent. Then they began to eat. Not humans. Not animals. Not soil. Each other. A great hissing noise had come from deep in the burrow, after which they cannibalised themselves with horrible savagery of fangs and scales. The unit sent to investigate hid and waited for hours until the violence subsided. The Arachnites had been culled, but the survivors had new appearances. New behaviour. Renewed bloodlust. They left the burrows and went on to slaughter humans in ways never witnessed. Overnight, tactics to fight them was rendered obsolete. Since when did they breathe underwater? Since when did they have membranes between limbs to glide? Since when did they preserve corpses and puppet them as grotesque marionettes? Bookmark here

If Arachnites had gone to their burrows, it was only a matter of time before new, terrible varieties emerged. And, as if thoughts tempted fate, shrill screams echoed down the tunnels.Bookmark here

Mutual Monster

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