by Erica Ciko
Today, on October 27th, 2021, I’m publishing this piece in honor of my grandmother. She died on October 3rd of this year, just a few weeks before her 98th birthday. Although I wrote this piece while she was still alive, she was in the hospital at the time, and not doing very well at all.
This piece was originally written for a flash reading that never was, so I knew it was destined for greater things. Since it has a very intense “mad tea party/unbirthday” vibe, I thought it was a perfect chance to honor her first birthday in the realms beyond.
Once, during a prior hospital visit, grandma asked me with a look of disturbed confusion if when we die, they go to a place where people are only stars . . . I smiled weakly and said I didn’t know. I didn’t want to tell her that in my mind, I’m already there.
Svengaar of Igvarmord always had a cough and a cold sore to complement his Absolvim hangover. Without the hastily-shaven patch on the right side of his skull, his long emerald hair might have done a good job of hiding his perpetually-bloodshot eyes and made him look halfway presentable—but sharp ears so heavily pierced they were more metal than skin dissolved any shot of a stranger mistaking him for a decent person: And that was before he opened his mouth to ramble about the death of the Empyre and the return of the old ways.
Besides, with his skin burned midnight-aubergine by the cursed blood of Alnilam coursing with hatred through his needle-ravaged veins, there was no risk of anyone ever approaching him to begin with. For even in the Dread Reaches of Igvarmord—the last frontier, a well-deserved bastion of freedom for pirates, smugglers, and Empyrean deserters alike—to bear the blood of Alnilam was to walk alone through a never-ending haze of disturbed stares and suspicious frowns.
But tonight, Svengaar had the company of his favorite Empyrean deserter and bleeding-hearted failure of a pirate: Ralyn of Marduk, Prince of Stargrave. Svengaar had insisted the prince join him on Imperium business as a bodyguard, as he always did—but one look at the Terrorkinetic storm coursing between his every finger and the radiance pulsing strangely behind his troubled eyes made it clear to any fool that he was far more than the flesh shield he was pretending to be.
Nevertheless, much taller than his friend and twice as strong, Prince Ralyn could pass as a common sellsword out here, far beyond the metropolis and all its wanted posters. The only thing that truly made him stand out at all was his ghastly lavender skin, which clashed so violently with Svengaar’s that it was easy to mistake them as caricatures of light and darkness. But make no mistake, both were forever bound to the demon star in the throne of Ovium, and black as the night in aura.
With nothing but the full moon and the intoxicating, faraway scent of flora on the evening breeze to guide their way, they stumbled their way through the thick pine grove where the meeting—or party, as Svengaar always liked to call them—awaited, and soon it felt like they were breathing in more noxious plant vapors than air: Spicy and sweet, and even slightly decadent, they were quite a step up from the cracked Absolvim stems they were used to.
“Here,” Ralyn hissed, slashing through a tangle of spined branches with claws just as thick. Even though his lips were practically brushing against Svengaar’s ear his voice sounded distorted and far away. “I can hardly smell them over this repulsive stench, but this is it: Next time, bring a map.”
The Wretchbane fog was already getting to them both: But with resplendent vines kissed by angry red eyes, twirling eerily up through the brambles, what else should he have expected? After all, even the thinnest stalks of the Vormiculis Levicli vine were known to pump out enough of the stuff in a single minute to make a grown man see the Black Gods, even in a well-ventilated room. Since they were outside, they had a bit of leeway. But as they pushed through the thickets, both knew it was about to run out: For, in order to finally make their grand entrance into the clearing, they had to squeeze beneath the largest Levicli vine either had ever seen.
On the other side, crowned by blood-red spikes that screamed as victorious as the spires of Old Zyrgoth towards the midnight stars, awaited a crowd of strangers cloaked all in black—seated evenly around a long and checkered table in the middle of a clearing of wispy white grass. Svengaar of Igvarmord stumbled over to the empty seat at the head of the party, and Ralyn followed with a weary sigh, taking his place behind the much-smaller man, one hand on the hilt of his living sword, while the other flexed its thorn-gauntleted fingers with pure unease.
Svengaar felt the eyes of every Syndragorean at the table bearing down on him like twisted knives between every rib, and the scorn they undoubtedly held for him took on a life of its own, hanging over the gilded teacups and pink-trimmed cakes like a cloud of noxious death—No, wait, that’s the Wretchbane, he reminded himself, chapped black lips quivering as he inhaled wildly through cracked nostrils and felt the pain dissolving as the paranoia increased.
Indeed, the delectable hallucinogen hung over the grove like a haze on midsummer’s first eve, every guest hunched over their cake-cups and jellified fruit stacks like alley waifs on a bender rather than the leaders of the intergalactic shadow government they were.
“We’re gathered here today to cull the knaves of Specular III.” Svengaar somehow managed to choke out, before promptly passing out into some kind of cold soup topped with stars of spun sugar.
Ralyn, whose tolerance was naturally far higher than his friend’s, wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. Sighing again, he summoned a hologram of the memo from the band around his wrist. He skimmed it begrudgingly, eager to escape the hungry gazes of the Syndragoreans whose ears now warped into those of cats and wolves as thin tails curled up around their necks, slowly reaching for his throat, too, in the fashion of a Vormiculis Levicli vine.
“So, from what I understand, this meeting is a formality and nothing more?” Ralyn rasped to the ever-twisting psychedelic crowd, diverting his gaze to one of the blood-crimson nebulae that haunted the skies of the Dread Reaches always. “You guys want to sterilize Specular III to build . . . someone named Vera . . . a new vacation home, is that right?”
After a few halfhearted nods from the remaining conscious ones, he continued, perplexed, “But Svengaar objects, since Specular III is the deepest Vormiculis Levicli bramble in the entire known universe? Am I reading this right?”
This time, no one remained awake to answer. But even passed out and drooling in their spilt puddles of tea, there was something sick and sinister about them all. He wanted to leave this place, to drag his only friend’s tiny, beat-up body back beneath that infernal Wretchbane vine and far out of this weird and revolting forest. How had they even found this place from the spaceport after downing so much rum? And why in Black Eternity couldn’t this meeting have been conducted through the Dysnomian Data Network like usual?
. . . Wait . . . This isn’t . . . We’re on the . . .
“Really thought that letting them see it for themselves would change their minds?” Ralyn mumbled, snapping himself awake at last.
And suddenly, he remembered that last week, Specular III had been razed in a rain of Terrorboric Oblivion, and they weren’t at some kind of awful tea party in the middle of one of its now-obliterated groves, but . . . tangled up with wires in their bunk on the ship, hunched over flickering holograms, pretending their connection was too bad for video so that the rest of the Imperium couldn’t see that they’d done nothing but lay around and eat Absolvim pills and smoke Wretchbane all week?
Prince Ralyn roughly shook Svengaar awake and snapped that it was his turn to pretend to know what he was talking about. It was his Imperium, after all. At least, that’s what the weird little freak had claimed before they got stranded out here, back when he could spend more than five minutes conscious.
Maybe I’ve gotten into the wrong line of work.
Seizing the opportunity to lie down on those wispy blankets of white and starlit grass, Ralyn collapsed back onto his bunk, and soon, even the scratchy, bubbling drawl of Svengaar’s perpetual chest infection was swallowed up by the distant buzz of the ship. For a reason he knew he’d never pinpoint, he wanted to go back there: Back to that weird, undying tea party on some dead world he’d never been, where the moon was always full, and the gentle Wretchbane haze hung over the blood-drenched nightmare brambles on a midnight that would never end. He wondered if, on the real Specular III, the people all had tails like they did in his dreams—he hoped that at least they found some shred of solace as the Wretchbane burned, and smothered all their final screams.
About the Author:
Erica Ciko is an Active Member of the SFWA and an Affiliate Member of the HWA. Her stories have appeared in many eerie and enchanting venues, most recently Mythic, Cosmic Horror Monthly and Tales to Terrify. She’s the Editor-in-Chief of Starward Shadows Quarterly and a First Reader at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. If you’re still craving the whispers of war-torn, dead galaxies, check out her website: starless-imperium.com. You can also find her on Twitter at @TheLastGrimKing.