Iniquitous Cities

(with apologies to Italo Calvino, Bram Stoker, and Castlevania)

The Count does not necessarily believe everything the Hunter says when he describes the cities he’s cleansed of the undead hordes, but the ruler of the unholy listens to the middle-aged Dutchman with greater curiosity and attention than any of his other visitors (most of whom can no longer speak given that their heads are impaled on wooden stakes atop the black walls as a gruesome warning).

When the unkempt hunter finally reached his oily black gates, the Count welcomed him. The Count did not ask the Hunter to relinquish his glittering gold crucifix, his satchel of mountain ash, or the wreath of garlic bulbs hung around his sunburned neck. But the Count did ask him to leave his wooden stake by the door. “There will be time for that later,” the Count said. The Hunter nodded. The Hunter was tired, yes, but he was also not ready for this long journey to end.

Now, the Count regards the Hunter from his velvet throne. The Count offers him a glass of port, a rare vintage given to him by Spanish nobleman before the Count’s fangs sank into the dark curls of hair on his swarthy neck oh so many decades ago. A ghoul minion hands the Hunter a glass while the Count wraps his own bony fingers around a silver goblet of coagulating blood.

“Although you view me as all-powerful,” the Count says, “I am, from a certain point of view, powerless. I am the dark tyrant of a diabolical empire. Yet, isolated in this castle, I am ignorant of the lands I rule. Before we struggle, will you tell me what you’ve seen on your adventures?”

The Hunter sips the port, which is smoky and sweet. It reminds him of a glass he’d drunk with friends on a warm night in a café overlooking the canals in his home city of Amsterdam. The Hunter smiles. To relive his adventures is to start the story over again, to ensure that it continues. “I will tell you of your iniquitous empire,” the Hunter says. “Before I end it.”

Cities & Blood 1

Four days journey through the dark forest and two days traversing the sun-scalded plains, you will come upon a cluster of mountains—called the four brothers by the living and four sisters by the dead—that ring the village of Kurdonia. In the center of the valley lies a lake, around which the shops, houses, and other buildings circle. The sibling mountains stand shoulder to shoulder so that half of the valley, at any given point of the day, is in shadow.

Consequentially, the village is divided equally between the living and the dead. The human townspeople occupy one half of the village and the nosferatu claim the other. The exact location of the dividing line depends upon the hour of the day. As the morning sun showers the western half of the city with holy light, the vampires stay hidden on the eastern shore. As the day progresses, so too do both groups of inhabitants. The vampires creeping into the freshly shaded abodes at the same time the living sprint inside the newly illuminated homes.

Life and unlife are always on the move in Kurdonia. Stillness is extinction. The villager who takes a siesta risks waking to the white fangs sinking toward his neck. The vampire who dawdles will face the wrath of either sun or stake.

This migration does not cease at night. From our camp in the hills, I watched the semi-circle of candlelit windows tiptoe around the ring of mountains as the villagers moved from house to house—securing them with bulbs of garlic and douses of holy water one after another—in order to be in the proper place when the sun’s safe rays emerged in the morrow.

The dance was so marvelous, this swirling yin and yang of life and death, that I observed its beauty for two days before descending into town for the slaughter.

Cities & Blood 2

Three more days as the vulture flies and the wandering hunter will stumble with surprise upon a city whose buildings seem to be floating on sea of plants. Each house is surrounded with thick emerald leaves and thin white flowers. A wooden and vine-covered sign will announce that this is Ailalia.

As you enter, you will be greeted by a beautiful youth holding a steaming plate of greens. You will not be allowed to enter before consuming it.

Inside, the villagers dance the local jig or sip rich wine on their balconies. Crosses are hung in worship, not warding. Garlic is being sliced for cooking instead of draped above doors in desperation. No trace of the undead hordes remains.

How has the city of Ailalia survived? the hunter might ask, knowing that the vampyr armies have sucked dry countless nearby towns.

The youth who fed you, a boy named Andrei or a girl named Ioana, will bend down and pluck one of the bunches of white flowers. They will explain that the city of Ailalia was indeed attacked and the nosferatu grew so fat on the blood of the citizens that they decided to stay and hibernate until their hunger returned. Yet even though the humans had been extinguished or else fled into the hills, the plants were alive. The greens you ate before entering the town were allium ursinum. Wild garlic. A lovely weed that spreads like wildfire, burning up the undead to make way for the return of the living.

Cities & Vermin 1

It is a universal truth that all cities can be divided in two There is the city of the rich, with their silk-lined rooms and meals of fatty meat and ripe fruit, and the city of the poor, where the destitute feast on what scraps fall into the dusty street. There is the city of the young, with all its potential constructing ever higher, and the city of the old, that shrinks to a neighborhood then a block then a single room and then darkness.

Except, dear Count, when it comes to the city of Tronovo. There the traveler will find a city divided exactly in three.

Tronovo is a thin city, with tall white buildings that each contain dark, damp cellars filled with jars and bronze bell towers that shine for miles.

When your damnable hordes spread across the land, a plague of poisonous spiders made their home in the basements while your blood-sucking bats took roost in the bell towers. The city’s human residents ran upstairs or down, huddling on the middle floors with their brethren as the vermin stalked below and flapped above.

Now, the bottom of Tronovo is a thick mist of spiderwebs stretching between the first floors of each building. Black shapes scurry across the impenetrable white webs day and night. The middle floors too have their webbing, but they’re made of wood and rope: the bridges that the people have strung between structures so that they may visit friends, sing songs, and pray for deliverance. The top floors are silent during the day, but as soon as dusk arrives the sky is black mat of bats, flittering between the towers.

The three Tronovos have, in this way, established a balance, each third catering to its own population of busy citizens.

Monstrous Cities 1

It is said by the alchemists that no two snowflakes are the same. We humans, while made of slightly firmer stuff, are equally unique. And yet in the city of Turkoo, which lies countless miles away yet whose journey feels almost instantaneous, you will swear that the same people repeat endlessly.

Walking along the peer, you see your childhood friend piercing earthworms on a homemade fishing line. At the market place, the old man who sells you a vial of holy water looks exactly like your grandfather and you could swear it was your first love who stretches a rainbow of silk scarves above her stall.

It was there, in the concentric circles of cobblestones by the four-headed fountain, that I slew the Terror of Turkoo, a ghastly abomination that had slaughtered a dozen townspeople over the previous months. His horrid, gigantic body fell into the pool, so that the pursed stone lips of the fountain spewed pink water for hours.

And yet the townspeople who gathered did not celebrate my feat. They did not even notice me. Instead, they were looking at the slain creature and gasping with recognition. One man swore the body had the delicate eyes of his first wife while an elderly woman declared the creature had the teeth of her missing grandson. “The hair of my mother!” “The nose of my lost niece!” “The swollen forearm of my butcher!” “The strong fingers of my piano teacher!” It seemed that every citizen of Turkoo could see someone they knew in the corpse.

Unfortunately, they were all correct.

The body had been stitched together from countless corpses of the Turkoo citizens. Friends, foes, family, and neighbors. All were sad, but none sadder than the mad doctor who ran at us, white coat flapping in the breeze, and sank down on the stones beside the body and said only “my son!” before wailing in pain.

The Count and the Hunter regard each other with equal parts distrust and fascination as the minions lay a feast upon the table. Leg of lamb, breast of chicken, loin of pork. Steaming bowls of potatoes and yams, wilted greens and boiled cabbage. Loaves of bread piled in baskets. Gravy in intricate China boats. And, of course, carafes of blood kept warm by swarms of rats.

When the spectral butlers float away, the Hunter dives in. His belly has not tasted a warm meal in many weeks. The Count watches him, a thin smile appearing on his grim lips.

“Do you believe we were destined to be enemies?”

The Hunter looks up, the juice of a turkey leg dripping down his chin. “Did you expect us to be friends?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not proposing you join me,” the Count explains. “I simply wonder what might have happened if we met under different circumstances, in some far away city without the luggage of our troubles.”

“You speak as if I was your sole enemy, instead of just another hunter in a long line of hunters.”

As the Hunter walked the long last mile to the Count’s damned castle, his shoes worn as thin as paper and his clothes heavy with dried blood, his path was blocked by the bodies of his comrades. He had to step gingerly over the mangled bodies of slayers, hunters, paladins, and warrior priests. He saw Li Pin, the Sisters Skull, Sir Corbus, The Turk, Lady Elena, Karpov, Friar Thomas, Okafor the Tracker, Owen of the Hills, Senora Gonzalez, Magnus, Sir John of the Knights Templar, Sister Mary-Maria of the Deadly Nuns, He of No Name, Gurt, and Wolf Wolfson, among others. Their bodies were broken, their blood drained, and their possessions scattered across the rocky hills.

“And yet they have fallen,” the Count observes, “and you remain.”

“But for how much longer?”

“That depends on how many more cities you have to describe.”

Cities & Vermin 2

Only God may view a city with objectivity. For earthly creatures, a city’s scope is dependent on one’s point of view. A small town may appear as vast as an empire to a hermit wandering in from a life in the forest. An enormous capital might seem very small to the woman who never leaves her block, waving hello to the friendly neighbors each morning from her well-worn spot on the stoop.

Keep this in mind as I discuss Skariva, a small town with a population of 350 people that became the mighty metropolis of Skariva, population 10,000 rats, after the plague-bearing rodents decimated the human residents. Inside the village walls, the mutilated corpses of the townspeople lay in stinking, rotting piles. This mass of disintegrating flesh is itself another city, inhabited by civilizations of beetles, flies, and worms.

My companions and I were more taken by the noise inside Skariva than the smell. The chittering celebration of conquering rats echoed joyously through the forest. We listened to their jubilee, then continued, as quickly as possible, on our way.

Monstrous Cities 2

The citizens of Kurock had been proud builders who believed their city could function as the whole world. They built everything they needed inside the massive walls, with swooping aqueducts, underground theaters, and granaries large enough to feed the people for years. Kurock was a constantly growing city. Each year the buildings reached higher, and each year new wonders were designed by its brilliant engineers. Kurock was the city that one need never leave. They even built massive mausoleums so that even their dead would not have to be buried beyond their sacred walls.

This was their downfall.

Kurock had stood so long that far more old skeletons existed underground than young bodies moved above it. After the necromancer cast his vile spell, the living flesh was plucked apart by the countless bare bones of the dead. But the skeletal dead were still, after all, citizens of Kurock.

When my party of hunters arrived to cleanse the city, we found it a flurry of activity. The workers who had been tireless in life were even more tireless in death. These undead creatures—their bones bleached white in the sun—where designing new eldritch wonders from mud and brick and even their own bones. This undead Kurock was stretching up toward the sun, twisting in bizarre shapes beyond human comprehension, as if the inhabitants wished to reach their dark designs all the way to the heavens.

I ordered my men to send flaming arrows into the city. The undead workers did not seem to notice. They were intent on their architecture. The dead continued working even as the flames turned their white bones black, their outlines hammering, sawing, hoisting, and pulling until the entire city was turned into a bowl of ash.

Profane Cities 1

There are two ways a traveler may enter a city. Either with a group grown close from a shared journey, or alone and searching for fellowship. I was following this second path—my three previous companions torn limb from limb by a hell-sent spawn that leapt from the crevasses of the unhallowed hills—when I came to the city of Vil Salu.

Red banners of warning fluttered above the rickety wall. Children and young mothers slammed shut the wooden shutters as I trotted by. Everyone was terrified. I readied my weapons: my crucifix daggers, holy water, mountain ash, sharpened steak, and revolver ready with silver bullets. I was sure that there were monsters lurking in this nefarious town.

Vil Salu was monstrous itself, a ramshackle collage of brick walls, wooden planks, straw roofs, cobb barriers, and slate paths stitched together by some mad scientist without any attention to unity. The domes were bulging grotesquely, and the walls leaked fluids from unknown sources.

An unsightly man with inflamed scares covering his terrible visage lunged at me from an alleyway. When he saw that I did not flinch from his outstretched crucifix, he asked me where he could find the undead creatures terrorizing this unfortunate city.

“That is what I would like to know,” I replied.

The man, whose name was Kurth, was a monster hunter himself. Kurth had traveled to these damned lands across the Great Steppe. Together, we headed to the local tavern, our knives ready at our sides. Yet inside the bustling tavern we found only other monster hunters. Rogues with arrows on their backs, sorcerers from the east and west, rangers from the north and south, and local paladins decorated in glittering mail.

Our passions roused, we wandered through the streets of Vil Salu, knocking on doors only to encounter housewives with sharpened broom handles as stakes and young boys hefting their father’s axes. And yet in no room did we find a single monster. Vil Salu, that cursed city, was entirely uncursed! Its dark appearance had attracted so much light that all the monsters, demons, vampires, and ghouls had stayed away. Thus, we each grabbed a companion or two and fled in search of darker pastures. Vil Salu sits, as far as I know, empty of horrors to this day.

Profane Cities 2

Every city has its shadow city. There is the city we celebrate that is filled with bright lights, elegant parties, order, and joy. Then there is the city we ignore composed of dark alleys, desperate poverty, and sorrow. Yes, every city has its shadow city except for Carcosa, the city that is only shadows.

Carcosa has silhouettes for walls and shade for houses. It is a black mist that floats across the land without fixed location. And yet that does not mean that Carcosa is illusionary, a mere trick of the sun’s rays, because Carcosa contains peoples. Or, rather, the shades of people. The ghosts that flitter through the black shadows of its taverns and bathe in the unlit waters of its lakes. From a distance, the black spires and colorless roofs appear as dense fog. The moans of the inhabitants are all that marks its arrival—for Carcosa is the city that floats across the land, always hiding from the sun.

There are, however, some philosophers that do not believe that Carcosa exists in a singular place. Instead, they believe that Carcosa exists in every city at every moment. When you are chasing a lost dog down a black alleyway or stumble drunkenly into a barn that has not even a crack of light peeping in, you have stumbled into Carcosa. Whenever you wake in the middle of the night, gasping in terror and wrapped in your sweat-stained sheets, you have glimpsed Carcosa.

My dear Count, I am afraid that I cannot do Carcosa justice. No living man may enter Carcosa, even if it is every man’s ultimate home.

The Count and the Hunter regard each other from their respective chairs. From the corner of their eyes, each watches the last red rays of sun disappear behind the black hills. The ending is near.

“I wonder,” the Count says. “Am I truly the source of wickedness—the fountain from which all of the earth’s monstrosities spill? Or am I merely an avatar of the unholy? Would my death merely elevate another damned nosferatu to lead the legions? Conversely—if I may be so bold—are you the hunter of destiny or merely its current tool?”

The Hunter puffs his cigar. He lets the smoke float around his face as a cloud. “You think if we kill each other that in some other land another hunter will sip wine and philosophize with another vampire lord?”

“It’s possible.”

“I can’t deny I’ve had the same questions,” the Hunter says, shuddering at the sudden wind.

“Here is another possibility,” the Count says. “What if I am not evil and you are not good? What if I am merely your reflection? In the way the moon reflects the light of the sun.”

“God would not allow evil to reflect his image, and we are made in his image,” the Hunter says. “Plus, you cast no reflection at all.”

“I fear that you have studied me, but you do not know me. You do not know how to see things with my eyes.”

The Hunter looks out at the blackening sky. “If I could, I’d have to stab the perverted orbs out of my own head.”

“So you mean to go through with your murderous plans?”

“As you mean to go through with yours.”

“First, let me tell you of a city,” the Count says, leaning forward with sudden violence. “A city that is every city, from my point of view.”

Cities & The Living 1

You enter this city in darkness, always in darkness. You’ve never been inside the light, not the true light of the sun. You have only seen it through the cracks in your coffin on the back of the wagon as it is dragged on or off the ship. The first place you are taken is away from everyone else. A dark basement will do. An abandoned warehouse. Perhaps the husk of a charred building. In any event, a place devoid of life, light, and joy.

Your minions drop you off there and flee. It doesn’t matter what they are. Rats, dogs, entranced men, corrupted monkeys. Whatever they are, they flee.

Where are you? It could be any city: Morgovia. Altu. Venice. Baghdad. Tsipiru. Curnde. Beijing. Prague. It hardly matters. Each one is dark, and each time you are alone.

The only thing that you have as a companion is your hunger. Your hunger is the one thing that will never abandon you. It drives you out of the dark basement to walk along the cold night streets. The doors and windows are shut to you. But you can see the candlelight spilling out onto the cobblestones. You can hear the music, laughter, and lovemaking from behind the walls.

You only ever hear these sounds in the city. You are incapable of making them in your own empty castle. They attract you as much as your hunger. These sounds, like everything in the city—every bathhouse, every library, every theater, and every home—are the things that you will never be able to possess, no matter how many eons you endure, and no matter how many undead servants you create. The city is everything that you will never have. You will suck every living soul dry trying to get a taste of the life they take for granted.

The Hunter doesn’t know what to say. The Count doesn’t know what to say. Both are transfixed by the other’s expression. Both are unmoving and, each other fears, unmoved.

A cursed bell is struck, its deranged sound ringing through the dark stone walls. The sun has disappeared. Night is here.

The Hunter looks toward his wooden stake by the door. The Count runs a rough tongue along his white fangs. They both stand, slowly, like old men abandoning their chairs on the porch, knowing with deep sadness that the end of the story has, for now, arrived.  

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