watch your step

We were all peg men back then. By Sky and Ceiling both, we knew to judge our distances and mind our footing. It was harder in Unter than the cities above, of course, but we were low born and had little in the way of sayings on such matters. Borned low didn’t mean raised stupid though, and we’d adapted fast and early. Anything to avoid the Cracking.

Our tellers would spin us all sorts of tales, of cobblestones and broken brick. We shudder-laughed, made the drake-signs and tried to imagine what living would be like in places such as those, riven by shatters. The tellers would say that Cracking didn’t happen in places like that, but that was like saying the bogwaters weren’t black or the rain not a burning poison. A falseness, clear and simple. We knew from young years not to trust the idle gaps and had been carried upon our family’s backs until we knew to step true. Maybe the Cracking in places like that were hushed up or it happened slow and subtle.

Old Nurser had seen that happen, once. A teenling from Grand Rising had come down on a mine ‘spection, not watched his steppings. The Unter-men had hissed and spat, making the Signs, but no bubbling shadows came. But, Nurser said, by the time the upsider returned up the iron staircases there was a clear split up through his foot and leg; a hairline crack, to be sure, but a split nonetheless. The Granders had bound it tight, but there was no undoing what had been done. Nurser had never seen the teenling again – few Highs slummed it more that once – but his fate was sealed. He might have lasted an hour, day or a year if he was careful, but sooner or later the darknesses would claim him.

On clear nights, youngers like Wrack, Grail and I would lay upon the tin roofs of Unter and stare up to the cities above. If there were no clouds about to blot the lights, we could trace the shapes of Uber, Bordru, Grand Rising and perhaps even Home Above with a bit of squintering. The sky was thick with wires and like, but we could still recognise their glimmers. Seeing the lights made us forget the darknesses for a while. We’d kenned that the Higher cities called it the tenebrus, scribbling death, arrimani, a dozen other. Rare sightings they had, although growing ever-common if the stories were true. Whatever naming they gave it, however much more the Cracking seemed to happen, we were the ones who had to live with it daily. Those bubbling shadows were always hungry for us, always looking to come sniffing their way out of splices they’d scribed into our flesh.

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