When it rained, only dust fell from the sky. The preformed people were out on the streets, fighting their little wars, but not much else moved under the suffocating heat.
Baladrick needed to escape the city, but all the trains had been stopped, or not exactly stopped, but weren’t safe to use anymore. Due to recent events, it was no longer clear where the city ended, and if you rode the trains for too long without exiting, you might be riding them forever, never to get off again.
Maybe the preformed people knew another way out, but Baladrick had no method of communicating with them, as their polished wooden heads just contained pinpricks of eyelight, with only the barest hints of faces.
Baladrick looked at his family, all apathetically sitting on the floor or leaning against the walls, and knew they wouldn’t be of help to him. None of them understood the urgency with which he had to leave the city, and the heat made them even more passive than usual, drying out their dreams and resolve until there was little left to act.
To be honest, Baladrick wasn’t sure why it didn’t affect him in the same way: but as long as it didn’t, he needed to get out.
After the next shower of dust — all the cobblestone streets sand-grinded and dully glistening — , he snuck out of the house and began to run, constantly looking left and right for threats or pursuers.
There were fake eyes embedded into facades and special stones in the pavement, pupil-less things of glass or plastic that nonetheless followed Baladrick’s every movement. He reached an intersection, already panting under these oppressive temperatures, sweat evaporating from his skin in oily breezes.
Raised train tracks curved overhead, and Baladrick could hear the sound of steam and rattling iron somewhere in the distance, followed by a fiery heat haze that washed over him from an unseen engine.
How to get out? The city had no borders that could be crossed anymore, at least not to Baladrick’s knowledge: it simply looped into itself on all sides, houses melting into houses and streets into other streets, until one eventually reached one’s starting point again… or got completely lost in the labyrinth.
A stately building drew Baladrick’s interest, a sprawling mansion with spiked gates and a park of long-withered cedars. The preformed people were fighting across its courtyard, their tiny, gingerine limbs clashing together in colorful waves, carrying their pots of alchemical liquids and vulgar metals, pouring them over each other. Damask, cerulean, opaline and viridian aether drifted over the battlefield and through the gate, making Baladrick cough as he inhaled it.
“Are you… looking for something?”
The eyes in the wall blinked at Baladrick, but the voice didn’t belong to them, and neither to the preformed people. It emerged from out of a boarded-up shop, from behind the window, where all manner of curious merchandise was arranged.
Baladrick saw an almost life-sized furry bear, strangely out of place between a heap of cardboard boxes, next to amulets with shrunken owl-heads and petrified fetuses floating in a twenty-gallon aquarium.
“Do you… need council?”
As Baladrick’s eyes grew accustomed to the sights on the window’s other side, he could make out something else in the shadows, a dark-haired snout and a mouth full of transparent, glittering fangs, like a forest of icicles inside a black hole.
“I… yes, I do. I need a way out of the city, and fast.”
“Ahhh.” The stuffed wolf head produced a growl that made Baladrick’s bones quiver. “There is such a thing, but not everyone will want you to find it. You will make enemies, little human.” The wolf paused. “Do you know what enemies are?”
“Please, tell me the way, I don’t care.” Baladrick heard the clash of preformed people in front of the mansion run dry, but didn’t care to look which side had won.
“Very well.” Only the shimmer of the wolf’s teeth was visible, the gloom of the shop seemingly becoming thicker, as if a theatre curtain was falling down between two acts. “I will guide you on this path.”
“There is a tunnel that leads out, high enough for certain things to walk: but you would have to crawl.”
“Certain things? Did the preformed people build this tunnel?”
A spark glimmered over rows of crystalline teeth, as if someone had shone a flashlight into the dark recesses of the shop.
“To find the entrance, there are three… possibilities.” The glass-toothed wolf ignored Baladrick’s question, although he had obviously heard it. “First, you can wander the city until you find it by chance… but this will never happen. The heat will get you first, and you will fall down on the streets to be… harvested, belittled, shrunken down.”
“Second, you can follow the tribes of the tiny folk, even smaller than you, but you can’t let them see you. Difficult, very difficult.” The wolf fell silent, and Baladrick could perceive his own body dehydrate by the minute, no longer visibly wafted by sweat, as there was too little perspiration left.
“And what is the third option? Please, tell me.”
“Kill one of the tiny folk, and look inside. They all have a map of the city in them, engraved on their spines, projected into the interior of their skulls. This, however,” the wolf added, like an afterthought, “will anger the rest of them.”
“But they kill each other all the time! Don’t they?”
No answer. The glass teeth had stopped shining, and there seemed to be nothing alive inside the shop anymore, only Baladrick’s dim reflection in the window. He turned around and looked at the mansion, but the preformed people had vanished, and taken their dead with them. Did they always do that? Had Baladrick ever seen one of them lying around?
He walked down the street and kept watch for any activity between the houses, which stretched toward the horizon in all directions. He crossed a square full of forsaken market stands, their poles and marquees coal-black and scorched from torridity, wandered along dusty streets and climbed flights of rust-tainted stairs.
Maybe he should just return to his home and family, maybe it was hopeless to find this hidden exit, to try leaving a city that couldn’t be left anymore. But the wolf had told him something different… and there had been a time when everyone had been able to leave, before the heat, before the preformed people.
Baladrick traversed a junction and turned a corner, increasingly losing his sense of direction and the ability to go back. A set of train tracks crossed the street, and suddenly, a loud jingling resounded between the buildings, as if Baladrick had tripped some kind of alarm.
He stopped to look in both directions, and caught sight of a train coming, already strangely close, even though Baladrick hadn’t heard any noise before: but perhaps the walls had screened the mechanical clangor and rhythmic stomping, which now rushed toward him like a sonic bow wave.
The train slowed down, and people appeared at the carriage windows, waving at Baladrick: “Hey, you there!” They continued waving while the train decelerated farther, shimmering unnaturally from the engine’s heat.
How could the passengers stand this? Why did they seem so cheerful when the rest of the city was abandoned and silent? Steam hissed over the street and obscured Baladrick’s view for a moment, so he could only see heads and upper bodies leaning out, and sometimes beckoning hands.
“Come on, get in, ride the train with us, out of the city! Don’t you want to leave?”
The train had come to a standstill now, completely blocking the street, shrouded by clouds of steam. The hairs on Baladrick’s arms crackled as they incinerated and burned into lines of putrid smoke, like pencil shading around him.
He took a step back, then another, while the calls and smiles of the passengers swarmed over him. Weren’t there things moving on top of the wagons, or was it just the heat haze swirling over the almost glowing metal?
Baladrick turned away and fled the crossing, running into a side alley until the commotion stayed behind him. He could neither see nor hear the train anymore, but there was still some kind of activity in the corner of his eye, something he couldn’t quite make out.
Where could Baladrick find preformed people? The muscles in his arms and legs were becoming brittle and limp from the heat, making every step feel as if he was trying to pilot a contraption of wooden planks and old rubber bands. His heart ached with a growing soreness, working heavily to keep the fluids going.
“Find one of the tiny folk, crack open their skull, peel of their skin, carve up the wood.” It sounded almost like a song, carried on hot breezes in a familiar voice. “Crack, peel, carve, look what’s inside — unform the preformed and see what you’ll find.”
Light was reflected from glass shards below a broken window, like a maw slowly opening, but there was no sign of the wolf head anywhere.
Baladrick was more than willing to try this — if it was the way out, he had no choice —, but there were no preformed people far and wide. Or were there? All that scurrying in the corners and parched shadows… Baladrick walked as unsuspiciously as he could, then abruptly ducked into a house entrance, tested the door and slipped in.
Would they follow him? He stepped to the side, only now discerning the room in front of him. The curtains were drawn, the windows closed, furniture standing around like a pack of sleeping carnivores. Was that… a stuffed head mounted on the wall, with a lean snout and closed jaws… but no, not a wolf, more like a hyena or jackal, which didn’t exist in the city.
A squeaking cut through the silence, the door opening slightly — and Baladrick struck! In a confusion of limbs and shadows, he managed to grab the preformed man, got its head and smashed it against the floor, again and again, until the thing stopped struggling.
In the light that trickled in from outside, it seemed somehow familiar, with markings in some arbitrary shape on its proto-face. Baladrick pounded the head down one more time, to crack it open in a spray of colored liquids, which clung to the room’s surfaces like iridescent insects.
“Crack, peel, carve, look what’s inside… ”
Baladrick took the remains outside and forced the wooden torso open, looking everywhere for clues. Inside the body were no organs, no entrails, no veins or muscles, just words carved into the outer hull from within, guidelines, directions, elaborate sketches.
Baladrick skimmed them to find the part about an exit, which was all that really mattered here, all that he needed from the little creature. This part of the city was unfamiliar to him, and he had no point of orientation anymore: but the preformed man’s inside led him better than any map.
Baladrick was grateful that it wasn’t far, for even this short march brought back his exhaustion, which the adrenaline of his ambush had only temporarily kept at bay. He needed to stop more than once and study the carvings again, but he finally made it.
The tunnel entrance was nothing much, waist-high and just wide enough for a man, although it would be a tight fit. It had to be the correct spot, inconspicuously placed between two houses, in a wall without any signs or symbols — and to Baladrick, it seemed to be more than just a tunnel, more than a dark space of brickwork and cobwebbed dust: it was a way out.
Should he go alone or get his family, show them the way, make them flee with him?
Without knowing the direction, Baladrick began to run again, imbued with new energy by a driving sense of purpose. His feet raced over the cobblestone streets, his mind frantically searching for recognition and simultaneously memorizing street signs, so he would be able to find his way back.
The chiseled architectural eyes stared at him wide-open, and there was occasional movement on the roofs, under the gutters, in little nooks and crannies.
Baladrick didn’t care, he ignored it, together with his growing headache, the skin of his foot soles sticking to the ground, the exhaustion and terrible heat. There was a way, and he had found it!
Along the streets, over open plazas, through lifeless parks where the grass sizzled like wayward electricity — through drifting smoke and over white-hot train tracks — ignoring the gaze of house facades and the glittering of blind windows. Baladrick crossed the city with his remaining strength, finishing a thousand-cobblestone race and soldiering on for one last run.
There! Baladrick recognized an alleyway, the old graffiti on the walls — just around the corner was his home. “Wake up! I found a way out, a route from the city! I have seen —”
A preformed person stepped in his way, only reaching up to Baladrick’s shin, but nonetheless blocking the alleyway’s exit. Its strange head bore a similar marking to the one that Baladrick had opened, and it didn’t seem willing to move, so he prepared to kick it aside.
It was not alone. Another tiny figure appeared where glaring brightness seeped into the alley, then a third and fourth. On the edges of the roofs, expressionless puppet-faces rose up in dozens, as well as on window sills, behind doors, from out of waterless street grates.
“Let me through… I haven’t… I don’t… ” Baladrick stared at their mute little faces and realized that there was no point in talking, that he would never be able to make them understand. He took one step back to gain momentum, then charged.
There was a long needle of pain stinging his neck, then something wet on his skin. A barrage of pain lashed into him as the preformed people let loose their alchemical spears and fluids, jumped on him or poured out tiny pots and cauldrons.
They were like bees, attacking him and dying, but in such numbers that their losses didn’t matter, that for each crushed preformed attacker, another two climbed Baladrick’s legs. He went down to his knees, then on his stomach, his arms flailing wildly, struggling to pull his body forward.
“You will fall down on the streets to be harvested, belittled, shrunken down.”
There was the house of Baladrick’s family, waiting for him — but all he saw were veils of damask, cerulean, opaline and viridian, filtered as if through jagged shards of glass.