The Pob hadn’t needed to manifest local consciousness for years.
Mostly it preferred to drift nebulously as part of the experience of its components, a tide of nature here, a paradigm there, surfing waves of zeitgeist, basking in the heartbeat of changing seasons. It liked months to sail by, not seconds. It couldn’t be bothered with the nitty-gritty.
It favoured The Chief, The Wasp, The Art or other powerful components to keep everything in order, so it was with some annoyance that it found something was troubling it, niggling at it, and was forced to coalesce mind enough to study what it was.
There was, it found, a threat.
Not a great threat but something with the promise to become such and, inexplicably, the Wasp, its chosen witch, was guarding said threat. Had it been more awake, manifested memory as much as consciousness, it might have recalled its fondness for Daisy, but its response was much like a sleeper swiping at a mosquito.
Witches come and witches go.
The Pob’s lazy shrug was a breeze that rippled the tree-tops of its mountains.
It swiped a component into action.
Shandrall was going to ignore the witch’s taunt and choose carefully her time to strike.
As a professional lurker it was what she did best. In the Sunken Streets of Pontyray, there was always someone who needed stalking and killing, usually strays from the other realms whose mere presence this far out threatened to destabilise things. By dint of being Streetsunk, they had been marked by The Pob for culling.
It wasn’t glamorous work, but it was honest. She could go home proudly at the end of her shift and, over breakfast, tell her wife and children about her day. That haunted, shell-shocked look in their eyes made it all worthwhile.
It made her feel like her dad in fact.
“Shandy-love,” he’d say. “Put in a good day on the streets, come home bloody to the shoulders with a fat sack of scalps and you’ll sleep every night like a king.”
And it was true, nowadays she never suffered the nightmares that her children did.
“Embrace the red dreams, kids,” she’d tell them like her dad used to say to her. “Eventually they’ll be like a familiar hug you’ll ache for.”
You slunk, that’s what you did. You sneaked, you snuck, you followed and you waited, wait-wait-waited, for that precious moment when the back of an unsuspecting neck was so close you could lick it. That’s how her dad did it and that’s how he taught her.
Shandrall was, therefore, a little surprised to have a sudden overwhelming compulsion to immediately set upon the Streetsunk witch and her young companion. She found herself jumping out of the doorway she was lurking in, raising her dad’s thin filleting knife and….
There was a flash.
Shoo, shaking, peeled a flap of someone else’s face from her face.
“What just happened to that lady?” she asked in a mouse-like voice.
“Hmm?” Daisy said. “Oh, the one that jumped out on us?”
“Yes! The one that’s in bits from the chest up,” Shoo said shrilly, pointing at the body on the floor. It had shoulders but no head and a great U-shape was missing out of it as far down as the tummy. “The one on the floor right there. The one I’m covered in. And… and she just came out of the doorway quite fast, she didn’t jump out on us.”
“Yes,” the witch nodded, unfocused. “Currents underneath.”
“What?” Shoo frowned, trying to find a clean area of her coat to wipe her face with.
“She had a filleting knife,” Daisy pointed out. “And a sack. Luker’s kit that is.”
“I didn’t see a knife,” Shoo said, rubbing her hair with the tails of her coat.
“Bonkers. How are you still alive, love? It amazes me, honestly it does. Look, if it helps any, she couldn’t have been local, not from up top like. They’d know better than to go for me.”
“Oh right. So that’s alright is it? It’s better because she’s not local.”
Shoo let go of her coat and put her hands on her hips, “She’s still a person, you psycho, no matter where she’s from!”
“Don’t you put your hands on your hips at me,” the witch said coldly, raising an eyebrow like she was cocking a gun.
Awkwardly, Shoo moved her arms, dithered where to put them and eventually folded them across her chest. “My point still stands, Daisy. You shouldn’t just… explode people. It doesn’t matter how local she is.”
The witch took a breath and started explaining more kindly, “Agreed, love. But, first-off, she startled me and, B, since she’s probably not from Ponty upstairs, it means I don’t have to look her nan in the eye when I see her in Evans the Butcher’s buying ham. Know what I mean?”
“Oh,” Shoo said.
“Puts you off your ham, it does.”
“Right. Right, okay,” Shoo said grudgingly. “I see what you’re saying.” She thought about it and added, “maybe not the ham bit.”
“Guilt makes ham taste funny, trust. Works well with Quorn though. Why did she attack me, the silly moo? The Pob, it was. I bet it was. Lucky I had my custard-wand to hand,” Daisy said, holding up a smouldering stick.
“A custard wand did that?”
“My own invention, for making custard. I likes my custard me. Imagine: custard whenever you want, day or night, hot or cold, spiced or classic. Duw, I could live on it I could,” she looked sadly at the smoking wand. “But I haven’t got it right as yet. And it’s knackered now it is.” The witch tossed the broken wand over her shoulder and glared at the remains on the floor. “I hope you’re happy, niblo. Eh? You glad now?” the witch nudged the body with a boot. “Well? Pleased with yourself are you, wand-destroyer? Took me weeks that did. Nearly had it too. You chuffed down there?”
“Daisy, I don’t think she’s going to answer you.”
“Who the hell are you?” Daisy said, narrowing her eyes and reaching into her yellow jacket.
“What?” Shoo said, taking an alarmed step back.
Recognition dawned in the little witch’s face.
“Oh, it’s Shoo, isn’t it? Right, right. Bloody Pob. Come on, Shoo-love, we better get a shufti on if we wants to get out of here.”
The little red-haired witch started off down the endless, sodium-lit, increasingly warped-looking terrace street.
Reluctantly, the girl trailed after.
Great Corvang Skreeeelklo circled overhead, wheeling in and out of existence on the thermals of potential pumped out by the twisted town below.
The great red and white crow wasn’t hungry, the town and its complicated environs were rich pickings and he had found a fat Llamhigyn Y Dwr only a few weeks ago. He was simply enjoying the warmth of the universe on his back and the busy push of life and possibility from beneath. He was enjoying being. It was still a novelty.
Corvang was the original Murder of Crows, accidentally formed by a linguistic misunderstanding amongst a group of semi-literate godlings. One day, he was surprised to find himself yanked from the realm of the possible into the ongoing now but had immediately decided he liked it.
That had been a long time ago and he had soared, hunted, mated, scavenged and generally flown far and wide since then. More recently, he had found purpose as the avatar of revenge for the Crowl, the bird-folk of Realm Epta. The Crowl were not by nature a vengeful people, which suited Corvang down to the ground. Purpose was rewarding, but he didn’t really need anything more than to be.
Now and again, people from the town below would climb the great grassy mountain, consuming a great deal of the mushrooms that grew in sheep droppings on the way up. They would plant themselves on the flat plateau, so high that they could see the curve of earth, but instead look upwards in the hope of seeing him.
He almost always let them. It seemed to mean a lot to them.
The Llamhigyn Y Dwr still sat heavily in his stomach, so Corvang found it curious that he was suddenly seized by a hunger as great as that which he experienced in his first days of being.
Stranger still was the fact that below him all parts of the town grew blurry except a single malformed street along which two humanoids walked.
Corvang preferred not to eat things sapient, unless called to do so in his capacity as Avatar of Revenge, they took a long time to digest, made a fuss about it, and it was a shame to close the window on something so capable of experiencing wonder.
But he was hungry.
And the hungry ate, it was a condition of being.
He wheeled one last high, climbing arc. At the top of the climb, he rolled over, folded his wings up against his body, and dove.
“…I mean, you must really be getting it wrong if you’re trying to make custard and it blows heads off,” Shoo was saying.
“It’s to do with my nature, chick,” Daisy said. “I have a talent for destroying things and for fixing things, give me anything busted and I’ll tinker it back working again, love it, no problem, but when I try to make something from scratch…” She snorted. “I can create destruction.”
“Oh! You sound so sad,” Shoo said, with a catch in her voice. “I’m sure that…” She trailed off. Daisy was fiddling with something in a pocket while looking up in the air. “Oh, my days! Are you even listening? We were connecting!”
The witch looked down, “Here, take a few steps back, love,” she said.
“Just do it,” Daisy said in a voice that allowed no debate and stepped back herself. “Quick as you like now.”
Shoo complied and scurried back a few steps.
Half a second later something massive smashed into the ground between them. Paving stones and bones cracked and splintered, blood and white feathers sprayed. Shoo screamed and held her hands up defensively as she was drenched. Daisy casually lowered her head and let her yellow rain mac take the brunt of it.
There was silence in the empty street. Blood and other things pattered down around them. Daisy and Shoo looked at each other. Shoo puffing and spluttering in shock, Daisy grinning.
Some white feathers drifted earthwards between them.
A broken mass of mush, feathers and claws lay in a settling pile in the middle of the road. On either side of it, two huge wings draped over the pavement and up the side of the houses.
Shoo looked accusingly at Daisy.
“Going to have a pop at me about that one?” the witch asked.
“Did you kill it?” Shoo asked.
Daisy thought about it, “You could argue it were the ground what got it. But it was me what made it think the ground was further away. Cheeky little illusion cantrip I forgot had. Too many pockets, see?”
The girl sluiced some blood out of her hair and flicked it onto the floor.
“Well, at least this one was a monster,” she said.
“Monsters are people too,” the witch protested.
“Sometimes. Some of them. And it’s semantic, isn’t it? Like, what’s a monster? People up here would run screaming if they saw a Chwillion but are they monsters?”
“No,” Shoo admitted, thinking of her Chwillion friends who had saved her life more than once. “So, what… creature was that?” She gestured at the mess.
“God knows. Hard to tell post-splat. Some messed up bird-thing. Smells god-ish actually, so it’ll probably be back up and running by the new moon. Fret ye not, young Shoo. Fret. Ye. not.”
Shoo shivered and looked up and down the street for the next thing that was going to attack them. “Can I have a custard wand?”
“I’m afraid not, Shoo.”
“Okay,” Shoo nodded and shivered. “It would be irresponsible, I suppose, I am only a kid.”
“No, love. That was just my only one,” Daisy said, reaching into her jacket. “Try this donkey though.”
She produced a hefty, obviously home-made wand, the head of which was something that pulsated slightly. It could have been red mineral, it could have been organic, Shoo couldn’t tell. It was held in place with a nest of barbed wire and some roofing nails. Thick electrical wires ran down to an activation switch that looked like a doorbell glued in place close to the handle. It gave off a smell of fruit.
“Prototype,” Daisy grinned, holding it out to her.
Gingerly, Shoo took it and held it at arm’s length. It was heavy and thrummed faintly. She swallowed, “Thanks, Daisy,” she said.
“Dim problem o gwbl!” the witch smiled. “Come on then, chicklet. Let’s keep moving.”
Ducking under a wing, they continued down the orange-lit street.