Set in a world of strange monsters, dark gods and dangerous magic, The Gutter Prayer is a thrilling and visceral debut fantasy from an exciting new talent.
You stand on a rocky outcrop, riddled with tunnels like the other hills, and look over Guerdon. From here, you see the heart of the old city, its palaces and churches and towers reaching up like the hands of a man drowning, trying to break free of the warren of alleyways and hovels that surrounds them. Guerdon has always been a place in tension with itself, a city built atop its own previous incarnations yet denying them, striving to hide its past mistakes and present a new face to the world. Ships throng the island- spangled harbour between two sheltering headlands, bringing traders and travellers from across the world. Some will settle here, melding into the eternal, essential Guerdon.
Some will come not as travellers, but as refugees. You stand as testament to the freedom that Guerdon offers: freedom to worship, freedom from tyranny and hatred. Oh, this freedom is conditional, uncertain – the city has, in its time, chosen tyrants and fanatics and monsters to rule it, and you have been part of that, too – but the sheer weight of the city, its history and its myriad peoples always ensure that it slouches back eventually into comfortable corruption, where anything is permissible if you’ve got money.
Some will come as conquerors, drawn by that wealth. You were born in such a conflict, the spoils of a victory. Sometimes, the conquerors stay and are slowly absorbed into the city’s culture. Sometimes, they raze what they can and move on, and Guerdon grows again from the ashes and rubble, incorporating the scar tissue into the living city.
You are aware of all this, as well as certain other things, but you cannot articulate how. You know, for example, that two Tallowmen guards patrol your western side, moving with the unearthly speed and grace of their kind. The dancing flames inside their heads illuminate a row of carvings on your flank, faces of long-dead judges and politicians immortalised in stone while their mortal remains have long since gone down the corpse shafts. The Tallowmen jitter by, and turn right down Mercy Street, passing the arch of your front door beneath the bell tower.
You are aware, too, of another patrol coming up behind you.
And in that gap, in the shadows, three thieves creep up on you. The first darts out of the mouth of an alleyway and scales your outer wall. Ragged hands find purchase in the cracks of your crumbling western side with inhuman quickness. He scampers across the low roof, hiding behind gargoyles and statues when the second group of Tallowmen pass by. Even if they’d looked up with their flickering fiery eyes, they’d have seen nothing amiss.
Something in the flames of the Tallowmen should disquiet you, but you are incapable of that or any other emotion.
The ghoul boy comes to a small door, used only by workmen cleaning the lead tiles of the roof. You know – again, you don’t know how you know – that this door is unlocked, that the guard who should have locked it was bribed to neglect that part of his duties tonight. The ghoul boy tries the door, and it opens silently. Yellow-brown teeth gleam in the moonlight.
Back to the edge of the roof. He checks for the tell-tale light of the Tallowmen on the street, then drops a rope down. Another thief emerges from the same alleyway and climbs. The ghoul hauls up the rope, grabs her hand and pulls her out of sight in the eh, brief gap between patrols. As she touches your walls, you know her to be a stranger to the city, a nomad girl, a runaway. You have not seen her before, but a flash of anger runs through you at her touch as you share, impossibly, in her emotion.
You have never felt this or anything else before, and wonder at it. Her hatred is not directed at you, but at the man who compels her to be here tonight, but you still marvel at it as the feeling travels the length of your roof-ridge.
The girl is familiar. The girl is important.
You hear her heart beating, her shallow, nervous breathing, feel the weight of the dagger in its sheathe pressing against her leg. There is, however, something missing about her. Something incomplete.
She and the ghoul boy vanish in through the open door, hurrying through your corridors and rows of offices, then down the side stairs back to ground level. There are more guards inside, humans – but they’re stationed at the vaults on the north side, beneath your grand tower, not here in this hive of paper and records; the two thieves remain unseen as they descend. They come to one of your side doors, used by clerks and scribes during the day. It’s locked and bolted and barred, but the girl picks the lock even as the ghoul scrabbles at the bolts. Now the door’s unlocked, but they don’t open it yet. The girl presses her eye to the keyhole and watches, waits, until the Tallowmen pass by again. Her hand fumbles at her throat, as if looking for a necklace that usually rests there, but her neck is bare. She scowls, and the flash of anger at the theft thrills you.
You are aware of the ghoul, of his physical presence within you, but you feel the girl far more keenly, share her fretful excitement as she waits for the glow of the Tallowmen candles to diminish. This, she fears, is the most dangerous part of the whole business.
Again, the Tallowmen turn the corner onto Mercy Street. You want to reassure her that she is safe, that they are out of sight, but you cannot find your voice. No matter – she opens the door a crack and gestures, and the third member of the trio lumbers from the alley.
Now, as he thuds across the street in the best approximation of a sprint he’s capable of, you see why they needed to open the ground-level door when they already had the roof entrance. The third member of the group is a Stone Man. You remember when the disease – or curse – first took root in the city. You remember the panic, the debates about internment, about quarantines. The alchemists found a treatment in time, and a full- scale epidemic was forestalled. But there are still outbreaks, patches, leper colonies of sufferers in the city. If the symptoms aren’t caught early enough, the result is the motley creature that even now lurches over your threshold – a man whose flesh and bone are slowly transmuting into rock. Those afflicted by the plague grow immensely strong, but every little bit of wear and tear, every injury hastens their calcification. The internal organs are the last to go, so towards the end they are living statues, unable to move or see, locked forever in place, labouring to breathe, kept alive only by the charity of others.
This Stone Man is not yet paralysed, though he moves awkwardly, dragging his right leg. The girl winces at the noise as she shuts the door behind him, but you feel an equally unfamiliar thrill of joy and relief as her friend reaches the safety of their hiding place. The ghoul’s already moving, racing down the long silent corridor that’s usually thronged with prisoners and guards, witnesses and jurists, lawyers and liars. He runs on all fours, like a grey dog. The girl and the Stone Man follow; she stays low, but he’s not that flexible. Fortunately, the corridor does not look out directly onto the street outside, so, even if the patrolling eh, Tallowmen glanced this way, they wouldn’t see him.
The thieves are looking for something. They check one record room, then another. These rooms are secure, locked away behind iron doors, but stone is stronger and the Stone Man bends or breaks them, one by one, enough for the ghoul or the human girl to wriggle through and search.
At one point, the girl grabs the Stone Man’s elbow to hasten him along. A native of the city would never do such a thing, not willingly, not unless they had the alchemist’s cure to hand. The curse is contagious.
They search another room, and another and another. There are hundreds of thousands of papers here, organised by a scheme that is a secret of the clerks, whispered only from one to another, passed on like an heirloom. If you knew what they sought, and they could understand your speech, you could perhaps tell them where to find what they seek, but they fumble on half blind.
They cannot find what they are looking for. Panic rises. The girl argues that they should leave, flee before they are discovered. The Stone Man shakes his head, as stubborn and immovable as, well, as stone. The ghoul keeps his own counsel, but hunches down, pulling his hood over his face as if trying to remove himself from their debate. They will keep looking. Maybe it’s in the next room.
Elsewhere inside you, one guard asks another if he heard that. Why, might that not be the sound of an intruder? The other guards look at each other curiously, but then in the distance, the Stone Man smashes down another door, and the now-attentive guards definitely hear it.
You know – you alone know – that the guard who alerted his fellows is the same one who left the rooftop door unlocked. The guards fan out, sound the alarm, begin to search the labyrinth within you. The three thieves split up, try to evade their pursuers. You see the chase from both sides, hunters and hunted.
And, after the guards leave their post by the vaults, other figures enter. Two, three, four, climbing up from below. How have you not sensed them before? How did they come upon you, enter you, unawares? They move with the confidence of experience, sure of every action. Veterans of their trade.
The guards find the damage wrought by the Stone Man and begin to search the south wing, but your attention is focused on the strangers in your vault. With the guards gone, they work unimpeded. They unwrap a package, press it against the vault door, light a fuse. It blazes brighter than any Tallowman’s candle, fizzing and roaring and then—
—you are burning, broken, rent asunder, thrown into disorder. Flames race through you, all those thousands of documents catching in an instant, old wooden floors fuelling the inferno. The stones crack. Your western hall collapses, the stone faces of judges plummeting into the street outside to smash on the cobblestones. You feel your awareness contract as the fire numbs you. Each part of you that is consumed is no longer part of you, just a burning ruin. It’s eating you up.
It is not that you can no longer see the thieves – the ghoul, the Stone Boy, the nomad girl who taught you briefly to hate. It is that you can no longer know them with certainty. They flicker in and out of your rapidly fragmenting consciousness as they move from one part of you to another.
When the girl runs across the central courtyard, pursued by a Tallowman, you feel every footstep, every panicked breath she takes as she runs, trying to outdistance creatures that move far faster than her merely human flesh can hope to achieve. She’s clever, though – she zigzags back into a burning section, vanishing from your perception. The Tallowman hesitates to eh, follow her into the flames for fear of melting prematurely.
You’ve lost track of the ghoul, but the Stone Man is easy to spot. He stumbles into the High Court, knocking over the wooden seats where the Lords Justice and Wisdom sit when proceedings are in session. The velvet cushions of the viewer’s gallery are already on fire. More pursuers close in on him. He’s too slow to escape.
Around you, around what’s left of you, the alarm spreads. A blaze of this size must be contained. People flee the neighbouring buildings, or hurl buckets of water on roofs set alight by sparks from your inferno. Others gather to gawk, as if the destruction of one of the city’s greatest institutions was a sideshow for their amusement. Alchemy wagons race through the streets, carrying vats of fire-quelling liquids, better than water for dealing with a conflagration like this. They know the dangers of a fire in the city; there have been great fires in the past, though none in recent decades. Perhaps, with the alchemists’ concoctions and the discipline of the city watch, they can contain this fire.
But it is too late for you.
Too late, you hear the voices of your brothers and sisters cry out, shouting the alarm, rousing the city to the danger.
Too late, you realise what you are. Your consciousness shrinks down, takes refuge in its vessel. That is what you are, if not what you have always been.
You feel a second emotion – fear – as the flames climb the tower. Something beneath you breaks, and the tower sags suddenly to one side, sending you rocking back and forth. Your voice jangles in the tumult, a sonorous death rattle.
Your supports break, and you fall.