The Greeter of Lowtown
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The mist swirled around me as I walked.

Most people would have been terrified of it, worried they’d dissolve into nothing if they went too deep. I’m special for some reason. For me, it was just a little cold.

Not like it could be avoided anyway. Mist was always floating through Lowtown’s crumbling metal spires. There wasn’t long before it claimed the place entirely, everyone knew that. You just had to look at the one carrying the weight. Where most of Last Light’s Holders hobbled along more or less in a group, Lowtown’s had fallen to all fours, the city on his back floating mere feet above the mist line as he crawled along.

Yet, he never seemed to be far away from the other districts. Space was funny that way here. Probably didn’t change the ending though, whenever that would be for a being that seemed to live forever. Yeah, you only came to Lowtown if you were a special kind of creature, or a desperate one.

I came because I had a job to do.

The moaning was coming from the aquarium down the block. The ones that liked water always seemed to show up there. The ones that liked it, or the ones who couldn’t escape it.

I was at the entrance now. Why was I at the aquarium again? Oh, the moaning. Ha, the other downside to the mist. It made me forget things. I walked through the doors.

No one was actually sure the place had been an aquarium, or if the Aleph had even had things like aquariums. Still, it had big tanks and water-related things kept showing up there, so the name stuck.

Said water thing was currently located in the main tank. It resembled a cross between a mermaid and a lionfish, all frills and black and white stripes. Klicchiv, I think they were called, definitely the water-loving kind. It swam back and forth as it looked at me.

The fact the tank had no water told me this was definitely who I was looking for.

I walked forward cautiously, footprints appearing in the dust behind me. You could never tell how they’d react. New ones were unstable at the best of times, let alone after falling through a gateway. It made a high, keening sound as I approached, before swimming forward to press its hand against the glass. I did the same, my mind reaching out to it-

-Scalding, torturous heat. An ocean with lavender waves churned, water bubbling as it boiled away. The steam rising from it only thickening the mist that coated everything. Burning, death, and more burning. Desperation for any relief from the heat. Following a sliver of cold darkness-

The creature screamed an otherworldly wail as I gritted my teeth. I hated burn cases, there’s nothing quite like having every nerve scream in agony before it was reduced to cinders, regardless of the nervous system in question. The fact it had died in water only made it worse; it meant I hadn’t been prepared for it.

The glass began misting where we touched, but I didn’t pull away. Instead, I focused on the chill surface. My mind replaced the heat of the water with the cool smoothness of the glass, the churning waves were replaced by the soft breeze flowing through the aquarium’s halls. With agonizing slowness, the pain faded. I didn’t remove the memories, they’re all a creature like that has, not having a body and all. Instead I more… softened’em. You know, smoothing out the rough edges.

“There ya go little one. Ain’t no reason to be getting riled up now.” I backed up steadily, hand still raised, the creature passing through the glass as it followed, listening to the prodding of my mind.

It cooed softly, sending an impression of gratitude toward me. When it showed no signs of fading entirely, I started feeding it the Welcome Package, as I liked to think of it. I also fed it a map of the district. If it wanted to go further than that, it would need to look elsewhere.

“That aughta do it,” I said happily. “Welcome to Last Light.”

It made a bubbling sound that I interpreted as surprise, “You… speak Quolqi?”

I shook my head, “Nah, nothin’ like that. Languages ain’t in my skillset.” At the look of confusion I continued, “Ya see, The Linguimancer fellas here were kind enough to implant a big ole’ psychic ball in my head; one that’s easy enough to share with others. Its doin’ all the translating for both of us. To me it sounds like you’re speaking English, though without my pleasant Texas accent.”

The creature looked worried again. “Linguimancers? Last Light? Texas? I… don’t understand.”

I sighed, “You will. If you’re aware enough to ask the question, you’re probably aware enough to hear the answer.” So, I gave him the answers. I explained Last Light and the mist, the holders carrying the city districts around, like I did for everyone else who looked like they were gonna stick around. I kinda skirted around what happened to where he came from, both books and experience had taught me that was a delicate topic, but the rest I filled in with the same old speech as always. That's how it worked with the ones who showed up here. You only took them as far as they wanted to go, and you stayed careful with your questions.

When I finished, the fishling, whose name I learned was Sikril, floated quietly. It was so long I almost thought he’d stopped listening to me, they do that sometimes, but then he finally responded, “Wow, I… need some time to think about this. Can I stay here a while?”

I was sympathetic, but I shook my head, “Wouldn’t recommend it. There’s some things here that like to snack on others, even critters like you. I can tell ye where to go though.”

The creatures gills fluttered, expressing something I couldn’t name, then said, “Oh, sorry. I mean yes, alright. Where do I go?”

I chuckled, then pointed through one of the broken windows, “Head for that tower. Its a center of sorts. They’ll help ye get sorted and then you can do all the thinking you want. I’ll keep an eye on ye as ye go. Ye won’t see me, but I’ll be there.”

Sikril nodded, “What… What do I call you?”

“I had a name once I think, but nowadays they just call me the Greeter,” I replied with a smile

Sikril nodded and floated away, another one of the thousands of residents here in Lowtown.

The mist swirled around me as I walked.

We didn’t see anyone else on the way back. Didn’t mean they weren’t there. Ones that stay outside the center learn pretty quick how to hide themselves.

Unlike the waterling ghost. What was his name again? Oh, Sikril. Gotta try and hold on to that…

He floated along like some kinda glow-in-the-dark nightlight. Watching him through the mist, I was suddenly glad I’d been the one to volunteer to get him. There was no way the others could’ve handled the troubled he’d bring.

And I doubt anyone else could’ve handled the screaming that came next.

There’s nothing quite like a banshee wail, which is just the point of it. Damn ghosteaters.

I fell to my knees as it split my skull, echoing off the skyscrapers. The cry splintered as my defenses blunted it, changing from a nail through the skull to something more like sandpaper. It still hurt like hell.

Sikril was less lucky, collapsing with a hollow scream, which was of course exactly what the critter wanted. I watched as the air bent around him, a barrier forming that even someone like him couldn’t penetrate. His screams cut off abruptly, the sound bouncing back at him, I knew. He writhed on the ground as it amplified, the barrier twisting it into something just like the banshee’s own scream. His mouth opened one last time, back arching with one final, silent yell as he lost consciousness.

For a moment, nothing happened. An empty wind whispering down the street as still Sikril’s form floated in the air. Then it came from an abandoned skyscraper.

I got no idea what world banshees came from and, if they’re any indication, I definitely don’t want to visit. There’s no earth animal I can really compare them to. They got arms and legs kind like a skinny human, but that’s where the similarity ends. When they move, its like they’ve only got bones when they want to, and twice as many joints as they need to. That especially true for their mouth; a maw that opens way too wide, sitting under two membranes the look like leather drums stretched tight. The worst part is the skin though. Its like dark, smoky glass, which is fine, except that it moves too. The longer you stare, the more it looks like faces of people you know, faces screaming in agony.

It crept toward Sikril real slow, circling before it pounced. As it moved, I could already see the faces forming. The same one always showed up first for me. It was an old woman. I just wish I could remember…

Nope, no time. I had my pistol out of my shoulder holster as the thing leaped on my new fish friend. It screamed as the muzzle flashed, recoiling away as I appeared out of the mist. In truth, I was pretty sure bullets couldn’t hurt the thing, though I’m not sure how I knew that. No, it was the little bundles of psychic energy I infused them with. Now that was what hurt.

It screamed again, silvery blood dripping from its wounds. I was ready for the bastard though. When it hit me I gritted my teeth tight, pumping an extra dose of power into my shot before firing a bullet straight through the air barrier it tried to put around me. It shattered with a sound like glass breaking, but without the bit with the pieces hitting the ground. I nodded as the critter dropped, my bullet having kept going straight into the thing’s skull.

Its skin stopped moving as I watch, the woman’s face fading away. Ah well, a mystery for later then.

The walk back to the tower took a lot longer than I was used to. Using my mind to drag a bodiless, floating fish meant mist-walking was kinda off the table. Thankfully, I was able to spread some banshee blood on us. The critters hated the smell of their own blood, scared them I think. It only worked when it was fresh, but you couldn’t get fresher than what I was using. It did mean we looked a right sight when we arrived though, silver dripping all over us.

The tower was probably the oddest thing about Lowtown. Think modern sky scrapper meets something out of Tolkien, with lots of black and sharp edges thrown in for good measure. I don’t know why, but my brain always flashed to the old Tarot deck I had in my apartment; you can guess which card. No one was quite sure what it did, but whatever it was made of stopped anything from phasing through it, whether it was alive or not. It also seemed to be the only thing in Lowtown that wasn’t broken, and the reason for that was right at the front door.

The Foundry Worker guarding the entrance was one of the few I’d ever seen who was idle. In general, the big crab-like creatures never stopped moving. They were a regular sight around the tower doing… something or other. Yet there was always one guarding the entrance, though I’d never actually seen a banshee try to get through. Apparently whatever the tower did was important enough that the Foundry won’t even trust the Withstanders to protect it.

They had no problem with normal folk though, no matter their current disposition, and the steady traffic showed it. The crowd parted for us though, the stink of banshee blood and my unconscious friend saw to that. As always, I nodded to the crab as I walked past, “Howdy, Doorman.”
He didn’t move a muscle. In fact, he never actually responded to anyone, but I’d get a smile out of him someday. Or whatever the crab-equivalent was.

The inside of the tower lobby was much more hotel than Mordor, which made sense considering the number of beings that lived there. I didn’t have much time to appreciate it though, before a friendly face came floating up to me.

“Well, seems like you had a party,” said Glad, her literal doe-eyes looking pointedly at the blood pooling on the floor. Glad (short for Gladria) was Deerfolk, or had been at one point. Much as her voice was light though, I could read the worry in how the spots on her green pelt shifted. We’d known each other a long time, I think.

“Ain’t my first rodeo, Glad,” I said with a smile. Then I jerked my thumb at Sikril, “This one could certainly use some tending though.”
She stomped a hoof as she floated above me. “ Fine, I’ll take care of him,” she said with a grumble. “Never make my job easy, do you?” Gladria was one of the doctors around here. While Deerfolk were generally good at poking around in people’s heads, she was exceptional. Her people were the only reason half the beings in Lowtown weren’t stark raving mad, or worse.

Didn’t mean I could let it go to her head though. “Oh, just seemed like you could use the practice,” I said with a wry grin. “Don’t want you getting rusty and all.”

Her sigh was music to my ears. “Yeah, yeah. Well I got him from here.” She took over carrying him before her voice turned stern. “You go get cleaned up. There’s guests waiting in your loft.”

I blinked. “My loft? How did they get my code?”

Her eyes turned soft for a moment, “Just go see them. Said they’d be on the deck once you were fresh.”

They knew the routine then. I nodded, avoiding the obvious question, “Fine, fine.”

So I got myself cleaned up in the gear room, God it was nice to get that stink off, then headed for the elevator. It wasn’t a normal elevator, but it always got me where I wanted to go. With a quick motion I punched in my room code, and then I was back in my apartment in Dallas, the sunlight shining before me. Don’t ask me how it worked, I’d heard tell about some kind of psychic construct or something. Either way, the AC never busted so I wasn’t complaining.

Sure enough, I could hear some kind of chatter on the deck. So, grabbing a can of beer from the fridge, which was also somehow always stocked, I joined them.

And looked straight at the same woman I’d seen pictured on a bashee’s behind not two hours earlier.

She smiled at me, her severe face cracking with a softness that almost covered her sadness. She stood up and I handed her the beer without a word, she clearly needed it more than me. “Hey there… Craiga,” I said, her name suddenly appearing in my mind. How could I have forgotten it?1

Her smile became a bit more genuine as I said her name. There was a crack as she opened the frosty beverage. “Well, you don’t seem any worse for wear,” she said.

“I keep on keeping on. Still hate banshee’s though.” I replied.

She nodded, before gesturing to her companion in the chair. “This here’s Luk Mai, she’s a… researcher, working for the Lajung at Seneten.”

Someone with some clout then, and something Craiga’s tone made me immediately distrust her. I suddenly wished I had a second beer for myself. Luk Mai looked somewhat like a pangolin I’d seen as a kid once, just human sized and more upright. Snappy dresser too with that red tunic thing. She stood, claws clicking together in what I think was a greeting. When she spoke, her voice was smooth, and deep, “Pleased to meet you. I trust your hunt went well?”

I shook my head, “They call me Greeter, not Hunter. I was just protecting my charge”

She nodded slightly, “That may be true, but I must say, I’m rather impressed. Banshees are not simple creatures to kill.”

“We all got our talents” I conceded. I agreed with Craiga. Something about her rubbed me the wrong way. She was just a little too slick for my taste. The Lajung had taught her well.

My feeling was then confirmed with her next comment, a predatory gleam in her eyes as she said, “Agreed, but its not just your fighting prowess. Why, you’re so solid that, if the captain hadn’t told me about your time as her first mate, I never would have guessed you were dead.”
And just like that, my whole world cracked.

“D-dead?” I mumbled in shock. Even as memories began beating at my mind.

-A cloying, gut-wrenching smell. The decay of the Nihl like a putrid slime as it was forced down my throat-

Craiga’s head wiped around in shock, even as Luk Mai pressed her point, “Why yes of course. Surely you didn’t think you were the only living creature among so many ghosts?” Her voice dripped with fake politeness. Had I been in my right mind, I could have practically heard the words ‘Bless your heart’ at the beginning of her sentence.

I wasn’t in my right mind though, I was in the most wrong mind possible. I fell to the ground at Luk’s feet. Finally recovered from her shock, Craiga reached out to comfort me, even as her eyes promised murder to Luk Mai. The Pangoloid was a picture of detached interest.

-Fire burned through my veins. The poison like acid, coursing through my heart as it tore beneath my skin-

My form began to change. Green moss growing along my arms. I fell to my knees, bones cracked as I screamed, mushroom caps appearing on my head, my fingers lengthened into root-like stalks.

-I was choking on my own blood as it filled my lungs, the mold festering. Whispers crept inside me, promising peace only a moment away if I would just give in-

Craiga spoke softly in my ear, trying to comfort me, but her words simply joined the screams in my mind.

-One voice thundered through me, cutting through the rest. Not with a gift, but a demand. The very incarnation of rot at the heart of the Nihl. It sought more than my body, its fetid claws sinking into my soul-

I lost myself, just as I had that day. So my mind did the only thing it could do to escape, to forget. Exactly as it had back then, when I’d left my body behind me.

The mist swirled around me as I ran.

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