I remember Talibarr, during the time of the Closed Gates...
The pigeons mocked Rist. Squabbling, clucking and flapping about the dark recesses of the partly collapsed canal-tunnel the plump birds managed to avoid the sharp stones of his crude sling. He was hungry and they were not cooperating. Each stone he cast brought him another few steps deeper into the enclosed section of the broken tunnel that jutted out from the weed-choked mounds of rubble left over from the Severing or some other, less dramatic disaster. Murky, oil-slick water filled the stagnant old canal. The debris formed a dangerously loose slope that acted like a funnel that would take larger creatures down to the nasty water at the bottom of the tunnel. Right within the killing zone established by the spiders who prowled above the stagnant water. If you were quiet enough, stayed still and watched you could sometimes see their eyes glittering like hungry stars over the dark, mostly buried waters. Rist could smell the musty-sweet scent of decay and fungi wafting gently from the darkness. Garbage, debris and the remnants of other creatures’ meals littered the place, threatening to fill-in the canal and making the once flat areas on either side both slippery and treacherous. Here and there along the canal a few of the obelisk-mounted orb-lamps still glimmered like left-over stars from some previous, aborted universe. Rist didn’t pay much attention to the lamps or to what might have happened years ago. He didn’t care about distant stars, dying lamps or much of anything else at the moment. He was hungry and the stupid pigeons weren’t letting him hit them with his carefully chosen rocks.
Like most of the refugees and scavengers huddled around the flickering fires of the dry ledges or the less fortunate denizens of the low zones, Rist was starving. Rats, geckos, beetles or pigeons – everyone hunted whatever they could catch in the shattered tunnels, clogged canals and overgrown parks of the low zones. It wasn’t that going without food was so strange a sensation for the little fellow. He’d had to go without food in his belly plenty of times all through his life. It was the nature of the hardscrabble lower precincts. Sometimes you had to leave your kill for others to eat so they didn’t eat you. There were a lot of opportunists and scavengers all about the place. Roving bands of feral children of every conceivable type loitered and meandered hungrily about the lower precincts fighting with swarms of roaches and gangs of rats. Then there were the stinking, biting beetles who seemed to be everywhere snapping their nasty mandibles and scouring the dark places of anything or anyone who sat still long enough for them to devour them. As if flesh-eating beetles weren’t bad enough, there were the shambling coteries of misbegotten freaks and the screaming-choirs of the rafter-zealots that even the refugee camps turned away, but worse than even the drooling degenerates who made masks of their kills were all the spiders. The old canals were canopied with dense layers of webs littered with the bones of countless birds. Spiders were the real rulers of the low zones. And there were lots of spiders. Big ones. Hungry, clever things the size of wild boars or bigger. Thankfully, they tended to stay in their webs. Rist knew all about the spiders. He had grown up watching them, learning from them, even praying to them on occasion. He knew that they were without a doubt the most feared things dwelling in the lower precincts. He respected their power. Being a smallish, twisted little thing, Rist needed to use his wits to survive. Where others had vicious talons, wicked fangs or brutal weapons both manufactured or bred to serve, Rist had no such gifts. He was a drijj, one of the chimaeric creatures given life by the decadent manipulations of bored and jaded Genartists before the Severing, back when the gates still worked.
Drijj were small, waifishly thin and spindly-looking things with a somewhat humanoid cast. They were bipedal with a stunted, slouching posture that conveyed submissiveness and inoffensiveness. Huge, lemur-like eyes and sensitive ears helped them navigate in cramped, dark places few others willingly went. In many ways that fairly summed-up drijj – too small and bitter-tasting to serve as prey, too weak to be any kind of overt threat, they were squeezed out of all the good places and into the regions no one else wanted, claimed or valued.
Once upon a time scholars had argued over the exact taxonomy of creatures like the drijj, now no one cared. They were beneath the notice of most inhabitants of the Talibarrian Archipelago who had far more pressing concerns to address, such as day-to-day survival. Rist, like most of his kind, was oblivious to his genetic lineage. He didn’t see rat or raccoon traits in his striped tail that shed itself hairless every summer, nor did he ponder over the splotchy piebald markings on those areas of his skin where the bristly opossum-like hair tended to clump. It wasn’t relevant. No one cared. Truthfully, if there was anything in his genetic make-up that a drijj like Rist had going for him, it was the vile ammonia-stench of his pock-marked skin and the toxicity of his blood that combined to make Rist an entirely unappealing morsel to the myriad predators and scavengers surrounding him. Even the spiders preferred not to waste effort on a drijj. They’d kill the little things, as they ruthlessly and efficiently killed anyone who crossed into their territory. But spiders rarely, if ever, sucked the blood of a drijj. It was a well-known fact known even to the lowest animals that no one dined on a drijj and lived. They were a worthless waste of time at best, a foul, lingering and completely avoidable death at worst. Even roly-polys, the inoffensive foot-long pill-bugs were better tasting and more useful as their flexible carapaces could be smoked into something resembling tough leather and worn as armor even by the smallest of the feral children.
But even a worthless drijj needed to eat. Pigeons were good raw or roasted. Rist had eaten them both ways and would take whatever he could get. His stomach growled imperiously like an empty tyrant who goaded him onwards with vicious hunger pangs. The pigeons ignored him and his rumbling belly, only moving the least bit necessary to avoid another one of his stones. Then he was out of ammunition. Muttering curses at his chosen prey, Rist scrambled back down from the piles of detritus and cast-off bones to go look for suitable sling-stones. He nervously checked that his knife was still in his ragged sleeve, suspended within the dirty folds and greasy creases by the precious few strands of spider-silk he had patiently peeled off of one of the multitude of pod-like victims the spiders left hanging all over the place. Rist had observed that the spiders made at least two kinds of silk; the sticky strands that would trap you, and the heavier non-sticky stuff that they used to weave and support their webs. He still carried a crude but effective improvised rat vertebrae-spool of the non-sticky web-strand that he used to climb down into ravines, gullies and other holes from time to time.
The spider-silk had come in handy but it was his knife that was like a talisman to Rist. Unlike the dangling collection of gnawed and abstractly scratched rat bones, colorful beetle carapaces and painted gecko vertebrae he wore as charms against the multitude of horrors both real and imagined out in the world, the knife that Rist carried was also a tool and a weapon. It allowed him to open things, cut things, maybe even defend himself if he’d ever have the courage to make a stand against some hypothetical but inevitable assailant. The knife always felt good in his little hands. The ceramic material always felt warm and alive from the least contact with his skin. It was as close to a friend and companion as he had ever known. Some times he tried to pray to the knife, but it never answered him. But Rist didn’t hold that against the knife. It still cut things. It still served him. And it never asked for anything in return. Ever. In his own way, Rist loved his knife.
Rist scurried back out into the sunnier part of the park just above the sunken opening of the broken canal-tunnel. He shimmied and scrambled up over tumbled scree and gnarled clumps of weeds like stunted bushes that had sprung up where the tunnel’s roof was missing and the vines dangled down like a green waterfall of fronds and tendrils. Rist knew better than to try and climb the vines. They sometimes would entangle unsuspecting or careless animals within their thorny tendrils and slowly squeeze the life out them, sucking their blood and juices all the while like vegetable vampires. Even with the dangling cadavers hanging like ornaments within the vines, the air here was cleaner, less fraught with the accumulated stink of death and decay than the tunnels below. Maybe it was the breeze. Rist didn’t much care. He was on a mission. He moved about looking for suitable bits of rock, metal or anything else he could use to bring down a pigeon with his sling. He worked quickly for fear that the fat little birds would fly off to another roost or get taken by someone else. There had been a group of feral hybrid children down here earlier that morning. Rist had watched them kill an old badger that had dug out its den in the rubble heap they had picked to scavenge from. They bashed the animal to a bloody pulp with makeshift hammers, tongs and some sort of saw-thing made from a shard of transparent material they’d probably collected from one of the Broken Towers back towards the Plazas. You could still find splinters and sharp-bits left over from when all the shiny windows shattered outwards all over the plazas. A lot of the time people didn’t see the things until someone stepped onto one and lost a couple of toes. Rist watched the kids kill the badger from his perch until they had given up on it and wandered off looking for other things to kill or easier pickings. The rubble down there was fairly sparse to begin with, aside from noxious weeds and cracked pavement covered with mud and rubble. So much rubble. For a moment Rist wondered what it all came from, but he lacked any real idea of what had been lost when the city had fallen into riots and ruin. What mattered was that the feral children were gone and that he was able to pick out a good supply of ammunition unmolested and ignored. Just the way he liked it.