The three boys swaggered down the streets, arms pumping, eyes daring beggars, urchins, and other survivors to stare back. The dragons had left this city; so had the nightshades. Now, in the ruins after the war, new lords arose. The Rot Gang ruled now.
"Slim pickings today," said Arms. The wiry, toothless boy was seventeen. He crossed his namesake, arms long and hairy as an ape's. "We've been searching this cesspool all morning. These streets are clean."
Teeth glowered at him. "Shut your mouth, Arms," he said. With a long, loud noise like a saw, he hawked and spat. The glob landed at Arms' feet and bubbled.
Arms glowered back, spat too, and muttered.
The third Rot Gang boy--a gangly youth named Legs--watched and smirked. Drool dripped from his heavy lips. He towered seven feet tall, most of his height in his stilt-like legs. He was dumb, even dumber than Arms, and useless in a fight. Teeth kept him around because, well, Legs made him look normal. So what if my teeth are pointed like an animal's? Around Legs, nobody notices.
"You like that, freak?" Teeth asked him. "You like me yelling at old Arms here?"
Legs guffawed, drooled, and scratched his head. He had a proper name, though Teeth didn't know it. He didn't care. Freaks didn't deserve proper names.
"Yeah I like Arms angry-like, I do," said Legs. "Makes me laugh, his little eyes, all buggy like so." He brayed laughter.
Arms turned red. His eyes did bulge when angry. He trundled toward Legs and punched, hitting him in the stomach. The lanky boy screamed. Tears welled up in his eyes. He swiped at Arms, but the wiry youth dodged the blow.
Teeth spat again. "Useless in a fight, you freak," he said to Legs. "I don't know why I keep you around. Come on, break it up! You want to eat tonight? Let's keep looking. You too, Arms. There are bodies left in this city. We'll find them. And if we can't, we'll make our own."
Legs was crying and Arms muttering. Teeth snarled, pushed them forward, and the Rot Gang kept moving down the street. Blood dripped from Leg's nose, leaving a trail of red dots behind them.
Confutatis lay in ruins. Fallen bricks, shattered statues, and broken arrows covered the city. The nightshades had done their work well; the dragons had finished it. You could go days without seeing a soldier, priest, or guard, but you always saw urchins. They huddled behind smashed statues, inside makeshift hovels, or simply under tattered blankets. When they saw the Rot Gang, they cowered and hid. Teeth smirked as he swaggered by the poor souls. On the first week after the dragons, when survivors were claiming their pockets of ruin, many children had challenged him, adults too. His sharpened teeth had bitten, severing fingers, ears, noses. One boy, he remembered, had tried to steal a chicken from him; Teeth had bashed his head with a rock, again and again, until he saw brains spill. The memory boiled his blood and stirred his loins. He missed killing.
Legs guffawed and pointed. "Hey boss, look here, you see them, little ones, hey." He snickered and wiped his nose, smearing blood and mucus across his face.
Teeth stared. He saw them. A gaggle of urchins--little girls. They hid behind a fallen statue of Dies Irae. One cradled a dog in her arms. When they saw the Rot Gang, the girls froze. Then they began to flee.
"Catch them," Teeth commanded.
Arms and Legs shot out, the former lumbering like an ape, the latter quick as a horse. Teeth stood and watched. Three girls disappeared into a maze of fallen columns. Arms hit another with a rock, knocking her down. Legs grabbed the girl with the dog.
"Bring her here," Teeth said.
The girl was kicking and screaming, but Legs held her tight. Arms approached with his own catch. He held his girl in his arms; she was unconscious, maybe dead.
"Let go, help, help!" The girl in Legs' grasp was panting, face red. Her dog quivered in her grasp.
Teeth stepped forward. He snatched the dog from the girl. He clutched it by the neck, squeezed, and held it out.
"You want your dog back, you little whore?" he said. His blood boiled. A smile twisted his lips. The mutt was squirming and squealing, but powerless to escape.
The girl nodded. "Give him back. Let go!"
Teeth slammed the dog against the ground. It whimpered. Teeth kicked it hard, and it flew toward Arms. The apelike boy laughed, and kicked it back, and blood splattered the cobblestones.
"Kick dog!" Legs said. "Kick dog, I want to play it."
The girl screamed and wept as they played. Finally Teeth grew bored. The dog was no longer squealing, and the game was no longer fun.
"Enough," he said. "We've come seeking bodies, not whiny little whores. Legs, let her go."
The gangly boy dropped the girl. Her knees hit the cobblestones, spilling blood, but she seemed not to notice. She raced forward, lifted her dead dog, and cradled it.
Teeth laughed. "You idiot. The damn thing's dead. What kind of freak wants a dead dog for a pet?" He scratched his chin. "I wonder if Irae would pay for a dead dog."
Arms shook his head. "Nah. No way. You know Blood Wolves?"
Teeth glared at him. "You know I do. You know I hate Blood Wolves. You calling me an idiot, Arms? If that's what you're doing, I'll play some Kick Arms, and have a nice body to sell."
Legs laughed, spraying saliva. "Kick Arms, Kick Arms, I like to play it."
Arms picked his nose. "I ain't calling you nothing. Cool it, Teeth. But Blood Wolves, you see, they've been bringing dead dogs, and horses, and what not. I hear the soldiers speak of it. Even brought a whole dead griffin, they did, Sun God knows how they dragged it. Worth coppers at best, the dogs. A griffin might fetch gold, maybe, but not dogs and horses and all that rubbish. He needs limbs most, human limbs. Heads too. Men, you know. With brains and what not. That's how you make mimics, not dogs." He snatched the dead dog from the girl and tossed it. It flew over a pile of bricks, and the girl ran weeping to find it.
Teeth knew that Arms was right. Sometimes he saw mimics with animal parts--a horse's hoof here, a dog's head there--but they were rare. Human bodies were what the Rot Gang specialized in, but pickings were slim lately, other gangs were growing, and their pockets were light. Teeth knew it was a matter of time before they'd have to stop hunting bodies, and start making bodies. He didn't like to think about that. Not with the Blood Wolves around, a hundred grown men with daggers and clubs, and him with an apelike oaf and a skinny giant who'd piss themselves in a fight sooner than kill a man.
"All right, let's go, north quarter today. Lots of ruins there. Bodies underneath them, rotting maybe, but they'll still fetch some coin, good bronze too."
They continued through the winding streets, passing by fallen forts, crushed hovels, and cracked statues of Dies Irae. Old blood stained the cobblestones. The ash of nightshades, and the fire of dragons, had blackened the ruins. Teeth remembered the battle, not a moon ago. The five dragons had swooped upon the city, blowing fire. Benedictus the Black had led them, and he led griffins too. Nightshades had fought them, and Teeth had never seen so much fire and blood; it rained from the sky. The next day, as men lay rotting in the streets, Teeth had begun to collect.
Finally they reached the smaller, northern quarters, where there were barely streets anymore, merely piles of bricks and wood.
"Dig," Teeth barked at the other boys.
They climbed onto the piles of debris and began rummaging. Wind moaned around them, smelling of rot. Teeth cursed as he worked. If there were no bodies left in the city, there was no money either. He'd have to escape into the countryside like so many others.
I could become an outlaw... live in the forests, hunt travellers, grab plump peasant girls when I can find them. That didn't sound too bad, but Teeth knew little about the forest; he had spent his life on these streets.
I could join the Earthen too, if they're real, he thought. Folks whispered about the Earthen sometimes--wild Earth God followers who lived in caves. Some said they were building weapons, preparing for a strike against Dies Irae, the man who had toppled their temples and banned their faith. But Teeth didn't care much for gods or holy wars, no more than he cared for the wilderness. This city is a cesspool, but it's all I know.
The smell of decay hit his nostrils with a burst, so strong he nearly fell over. Teeth spat, dizzy. He pulled aside two bricks and saw a rotting head. He pulled it up by the hair; it came loose from its body. The head was pulsing with maggots, so bloated it looked like a leather sack. Arms tossed it aside in disgust, and it burst.
"Bah! These bodies are useless now." He clenched his fists. "They're too old, too swollen, no good for anyone anymore. How would Irae sew these together? You just look at them, and they fall apart. Nothing left of them but rot."
Behind him, Arms brayed a laugh. "I tolds you, Teeth. I tolds you. We need to bring animals, dogs and what not, and those little girls maybe, they have teeth that can bite."
Teeth growled. He marched across the pile of bricks and grabbed Arms' collar. "Dogs? Little girls? I want silver, Arms. Gold if we can get it. Not copper pennies. I'm not a beggar like the Blood Wolves."
Arms stared, eyes burning. "I should join the Blood Wolves, I should. Look at you. This is your gang? A group of freaks. You with your dog teeth, and Legs with those stilts of his. It's pathetic, it is."
Legs guffawed and drooled. "Dog teeth, dog teeth! I like to see them."
Teeth growled, drew a knife from his belt, and held it at Arms' throat. Arms stiffened, and his eyes shot daggers.
"You don't like it here?" Teeth hissed. His stomach churned, and rage nearly blinded him. He hands shook, and his heart pounded. "You want to join the Blood Wolves?"
Arms snarled, the knife at his neck.
"Yes," he hissed.
Teeth swiped the knife across his throat. Blood sprayed in a curtain. For an instant, Arms seemed not to notice. He merely stared, eyes narrowed. Then he grabbed his throat, trying in vain to stop the blood. He fell to his knees, and suddenly he was weeping, and trying to speak, trying to breathe, but he could do neither.
Teeth stared down at him. "There's your blood, Arms. Blood's what you wanted. Blood's what you got. And I got my body. A body with nice long arms."
He could have given Arms a better death. He could have finished the job--stabbed him in the heart, or bashed in his head. But Teeth wanted to watch. He stood over the thrashing boy, until Arms merely twitched, stared up with pleading eyes, then gurgled and lay limp. For several moments he merely whimpered and his eyelids fluttered. And then Teeth had his body for the day.
The wind moaned as Teeth and Legs carried the body through the rubble. It cut through Teeth's clothes and pierced his skin. The blood was sticky on his fingers. The sun was setting when they saw Flammis Palace ahead. Two of its towers had collapsed, and several walls had crumbled. It wasn't much better off than the rest of the city, but Dies Irae still ruled there. His banners, white and gold, thudded atop the remaining towers. His guards covered the standing walls, bows in hands.
Teeth and Legs approached the front gates. The bricks were blackened from fire, and the doors turned to charcoal. The dragons had breathed most of their fire here when storming the palace. Guards stood outside the charred doors, clad in plate armor, swords in hands. Their skin looked sallow, and sacks hung beneath their bloodshot eyes. There wasn't much food in Confutatis anymore, and folk whispered that some of the guards had taken to eating the bodies. The stench of rot hung heavy here.
"New body for the Commander," Teeth told the guards. "Fresh, this one."
Legs nodded, holding Arms' other end. "Fresh, fresh! We like them that way. Yes sir we do."
The guards grunted. "All right, boys. Looks better than your last catch. In you go."
Teeth tugged the body, moving past the broken doors. Legs followed. They stepped into a hallway, its northern wall fallen. Bloodstains covered the floor. Ash covered the ceiling. One column was smashed and stained with old blood. Teeth knew the way. Hoisting the body, he turned left into a stairwell. The stairs wound into shadows. Torches lined the walls, but most were unlit. Teeth and Legs delved into the dungeons of Flammis Palace, the stairway leading them down and down into the cold and darkness. The palace was twice as deep as it was tall, and Teeth climbed down to its deepest chambers.
Screams, creaks, and squeals echoed through the tunnels. A man laughed. A saw grinded. Screeches rose and fell.
Teeth and Legs walked down a hallway, its floor sticky with blood, and entered a towering chamber. Torches lined the walls, flickering against rows of tables. Body parts covered the tabletops. Rows of legs covered one table, arms another, heads a third. A pile of torsos rotted in the corner. Uncarved bodies hung on walls and filled wheelbarrows.
Dies Irae stood at the back of the room.
Teeth froze. On previous visits, he had met underlings, not the Commander himself. He had not expected to meet Dies Irae here. Once emperor of a mighty realm, today Dies Irae ruled a pile of desolation, death, and disease. His skin was grey. Blood stained his clothes. He stood by a table where lay a torso. Sleeves rolled back, he was gutting it.
Teeth cleared his throat, blinked, and tried to quell the shake that found his knees.
"Commander," he said. "We brought you a body. A fresh one, my lord."
Legs brayed. "Fresh, fresh, that's how we like them, yes sir we do."
Dies Irae looked up from his work. His one eye blazed blue. A patch covered his other eye. Teeth knew the story. Benedictus the weredragon had taken that eye from him, as he had taken Dies Irae's left arm; a steel arm grew there now, its fist a spiked mace head.
"A fresh one?" Dies Irae asked. His voice was hoarse. Wrinkles creased his brow. "Yes. Yes, very fresh."
Teeth and Legs placed the body on a table. Teeth stifled a cough, struggling not to gag from the chamber's stench. Maggots were crawling on some of the bodies. Worms filled others.
"A fresh body, and look at its arms," Teeth said. "Look at how long they are, my lord. Long and strong, like an ape's. This one's worth two silver coins, one per arm at least, my lord. A good body. Strong and fresh."
Dies Irae examined the dead body, furrowed his brow, and touched those long arms. He smiled, his lips twisting like worms. "Yes. Yes, strong. Fresh."
Teeth didn't like this. He wanted to leave. On previous visits, underlings would examine his finds, mutter, and pay. But Dies Irae seemed... too quiet, lost in his own worlds. Teeth noticed that specks of blood covered the man's lips. He shivered. Had Dies Irae been eating the bodies?
"My lord?" he said. There were bite marks on the body, he saw. Now Teeth definitely wanted to flee. "My lord, two silvers would be our price, if it please you. We'll find you more bodies. We're the Rot Gang."
Dies Irae walked around the table and approached him. He was tall, Teeth saw. Not as tall as Legs, maybe, but heavier, all muscle and grit. Dies Irae stared at him with his good eye.
"Those are good teeth you have there," he said. He licked his lips, smearing blood across them. "Sharp. I bet they can just... bite into somebody." He snapped his own teeth, as if to demonstrate. "I could use teeth like that."
Beside them, Legs guffawed. "Dog teeth, dog teeth, I like to see them. Yes sir I do."
Dies Irae turned to face him, as if seeing Legs for the first time. "Well, young man, aren't you a tall one. Look at those legs you've got there. I bet they could just..." Dies Irae stamped his feet. "Run! Run like the wind, I bet they can."
Legs brayed. "They run, Legs they call me, yes sir they do."
Teeth didn't like this. Suddenly he didn't care about the coins any more.
"My lord, if you'll excuse us, we'll be on our way," he said. He turned to face the doorway.
A mimic stood there. Not a dead body, but an animated thing, patched together, sewn from the strongest parts. A creature with worms for hair, claws on its fingers, and death in its eyes. It blocked the doorway, grinning. Insects bustled in its mouth, and its eyes blazed red.
"They are strong," Dies Irae said. "They are made from the best. The best parts. I build them myself."
He swung his mace at Legs.
It hit the boy's head, crushing it.
As Legs collapsed, Teeth ran to the wall and grabbed a torch. He held it before him as a weapon.
"Don't touch me, old man!" he warned, waving the torch.
Dies Irae's lips curled back; Teeth couldn't decide if it was a snarl or a grin.
"But I will touch you," he said. "I will make you stronger. I will give you the right parts."
Teeth lashed his torch.
Dies Irae sidestepped.
The mace swung.
Pain exploded against Teeth's chest. The mace swung and again hit his chest. His ribs snapped. He couldn't breathe. Blood filled his mouth.
He fell to his knees. The last thing he saw was Dies Irae grinning, and the mace swung again.
Light exploded. Blood and pain flowed across him. He knew nothing more.