Cold. Crumbling. Decay.
The walls of the Deadvault rose around them, a forgotten portal of concrete and rot. The stench of the black mold running down the walls filled her nose, overlaying damp leaf litter and the zed gore on Feargus’ armor. The Natural One’s strong back was in front of Rajah, between her and a small woman whose voice rose in urgency and… excitement?
“We need your help. We need to complete the research.” Tara cried, leading the assembled forward. “We need volunteers!”
Screams echoed around the tiny room. Bodies were being carried past, into the arms of the doctors gathered outside. Chaos. Feargus stepped forward and Rajah hissed at him. “No!” The last time he’d been in a Deadvault he’d died.
Too slow. Already his spear was clattering to the ground and then it was her and the woman, face bright in the lantern light and full of fervor.
“Will you help?” Tara held out her hand. Something gleamed and moved in her fist.
The insect dropped into her palm, feet like needles, cold and smooth. They pierced Rajah’s red-stained skin and burrowed into her with lightning speed.
The pain was unbelievable. The Vegasian doubled over, mouth open in a silent scream. The dark was narrowing her vision, she could see the lantern of the woman above her but the colors were blurring.
Hands grabbed her body, pulling her in every direction. The ground was cold beneath her back, then…
She floated in inky blackness. The pain was gone but the presence of the bug lingered still, a pressure in the back of her mind, an ache in her bones.
Flicker at the edges of her sight. Pinprick of light. What was it? She turned her head and drifted towards the source. A candle? The light it cast expanded, and now she could sense others. No faces. Only being.
Why are you here? Feargus’ puzzlement washed over her, bemused and dismayed that she’d followed him.
Hey, we’re courtin’. Rajah’s thoughts roamed back. Interesting first date.
His laughter flowed through the void towards her, and at the sound time stretched out before them – a canvas filled with light. Colors swirled and churned. There was something tenacious to the presence to her right… Shiloh? and her companion, DeWitt. Rajah hadn’t known they had taken the insect as well. She reached out to them and the canvas below her shimmered, drawing their faces.
The colors shifted, reversed. Now full of faces she couldn’t recognize. Faces of the Dead. Rajah looked down and a steady blue eye stared back, resting in the palm of a hand. The symbol she used to block her mind from the witches. Comforting. There was a door also, and someone was furiously drawing lines hanging from poles, stretching in every direction.
How easy to be lost in this dream. So connected to the others. She could stay here forever… right? The presence of the insect was fading, departing her consciousness as they painted together. Now there was only joy! And contentment!
Another presence probed at her. Something much deeper and darker. Something that knew her. Rajah tried to pull back but it followed, grasping, prying into her. Below, the canvas filled with blood.
Who are you? the void asked.
Rajah tried to run.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Warmth. Her pillow shifted. Rajah fought the disturbance. She didn’t want to wake up. She whimpered.
“Hey… hey…” Feargus’ voice rumbled under her head. She opened her eyes. The stars above swirled dizzyingly, then slowed. There was a man in robes staring down at them laying in the middle of the street. Her face hurt. They limped into the light.
“There are words on your face.” Feargus said quietly. CONFLICT was etched across his cheekbone in rot and pus. Rajah slapped her hand over her own cheek. The skin beneath her fingers was bumpy and oozing.
She stumbled into the dark corner with Ayrian.
“Shhhh… let me see.” her brother soothed, pulling her fingers away. “Hmmm…”
“What does it say?” Rajah winced, turning her face away from the curious onlookers. She needed to heal this, or cover it up with makeup soon. No one would want to hire an entertainer with rot on her face.
Ayrian hesitated. She stared at him, pleading for truth.
“It says GUTTER.”
One word and she was a child again, squatting on a blanket in Palazzo Slums, begging for scraps.
One word and she was a slip of a girl, swirling skirts on a ramshackle stage.
One word and she was leaving Death Row, pocketing her take and stepping into the cold light of morning, final comfort delivered.
One word and she was in shackles, listening to the Auctioneer read off her price to the tuxedo’d members of the the Venice Auction House.
Rajah buried her ruined face in her hands. Shook her head.
No! She was far from that life. She was a Lady now. She had clawed her way up, had escaped the shackles of Vegasia, found new life, new freedom, new family. She had a reputation. Every settlement she went to, someone knew her name, knew her business. They sought her out.
Eyes narrowed. If the Gravemind thought to taunt her, she would throw it back in her face. She was already better than that past. Now she would be the best.
The Vegasian smoothed her silk skirts, brushed the last of the dirt from her hands. No one could say that Madame Rajah Venetia Palazzo-Bellagi de Lux was gutter trash now. And if they did…
Head lifted, cheek bared, Rajah walked into the night, a cruel smile crossing crimson lips.
Then they would pay.