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Iron Quill - Strings - Cutting


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The Cutting

Words: 1750

Ingredients: All


    There are threads that bind everyone; man, woman, child, monsters. They weave across Malifaux like a fisherman’s net, strangling the unwary. If you’re smart enough you’ll start to see them; the thread that runs from the fruit seller at his stall deep into the alley tells you to look twice at his apples, they aren’t what they seem. An innocent looking book on a newsstand may be so tangled in threads that you can hardly read the cover, it may be a tome of vile magic, it may just be a popular bit of pulp.

    I’d leave it alone, it’s not worth the risk.

    You’re only safe if there are no threads binding you, otherwise who knows where they might lead. Shortly after I started seeing the threads I tried to cut them, with scissors, knives. I bought a scalpel forged from silver and carved with runes from a blind vendor at a midnight market that only appears when the moons hang low in the sky and cast no shadows. She assured me it could cut anything, but even it couldn’t sever the threads.

    So I looked for other ways to break them.

    The yellow thread was tied around my wrist, the red thread was tied around my waist, and the green thread felt like it was hooked into my spine. So I tried to deal with the yellow thread first.

I noticed that the threads were usually slack, but sometimes they pulled tight, like when the woman in the black hat locked eyes with the snake oil salesman and a new thread appeared between them. That thread was as tight as a guitar string and it reeled her in, and she ended up paying good money for a vial full of gremlin sweat and swamp water that would absolutely not clear up her husband’s gout - her husband died six days later, she already had a thread connecting her to his cemetery plot.

But my threads were all still slack so I figured I had some time. I took the yellow thread between my fingers and I followed it through the Malifaux streets to an upscale neighborhood with flag-lined boulevards and burning gas lamps. I was self-conscious of my plain dress as butterfly women fluttered from carriage to bar door.

The thread led me to a prosperous man leaning against the brick wall of an alley. His thumbs were hooked into his suspenders so he wouldn’t lose track of his hands. I felt the thread vibrate as his eyes found their focus on me.

“Come ‘er,” he slurred, “Pre’y li’l thing…”

The thread snapped tight and I took two steps forward. He frowned, and flailed one meaty hand out, catching my apron. He hauled me closer. “I sai’ come ‘er.” I could smell the whiskey on his breath, see the hungry look in his eye. He was bigger than me, but I still carried the scalpel. As his blood drained out across the cobblestones I looked down at my wrist, at the hand that held the bloody thing, and I watched the thread unwind. I cut his purse free, and I vanished into the night.

When his body was discovered the guards gave chase - that’s how nice of a neighborhood it was, but I saw their threads try to tangle me and I dodged them, tied them to lamp-posts or dogs.

And then I only had two threads left.

The red one was easy. I worked in a fish shop near the river. There were a dozen of us girls who gutted and cleaned the thrashing silverfish that fishermen hauled from the river. Each morning we arrived clean and we spent hours piling the guts on a grate in the middle of the floor. The fish fillets were packed in salt and shipped god knows where, following threads of their own and the supervisor threw the switch that opened the grate and dumped the guts back into the river.

That’s where the red thread led me.

We worked barefoot because we couldn’t afford to replace our shoes, and in the winter the cold floor stole the feeling from our toes. I’d seen more than one girl slip and fall while we were cleaning up the guts at the end of the day. If she went down the shoot she was lost forever, something hungry lived down there - that’s why they installed the grate.

So one night I snuck back in, and I threw the switch to open the gate. The night guard caught me, but my work made me quick with a blade, and his guts made a trail for the beast in the deep. I left quickly, it wasn’t long before the Guard was called out and I watched from the roof of my tenement as fire took the slaughterhouse.

I made sure to show up with the rest of the girls the next morning. It was no good looking suspicious. But now there was only the green thread left.


This one scares me. It’s not wrapped around me, it comes from inside, and it leads out - way out, beyond the walls of the city and into the Bayou. I’ve been to the walls often enough now that the Guardsmen wave at me. I told them my brother went out with the first wave of settlers and standing at the wall lets me imagine I’m closer to him.

Some of the Guard are sweet, they give me candy or dried meat as tough as leather. Once they were roasting fish and offered me some, but I told them I wasn’t hungry.

The guards are all tied up in threads. They play dice games and make cartridges by measuring powder into paper and twisting it closed. Some have threads leading out into the Bayou, all have threads leading back into town. I know before the first one dies that an attack is coming, the threads go taught, and more curl from the treeline like grasping tentacles.

I drop to the ground as the first of the bat-winged things swoop low over the parapet. Their claws rake and grasp and one Guard is lifted into the air. He swings wildly with his sword but his cuts are shallow and the creature’s blood burns him like acid. He had never gutted a fish. His name was Jeffrey, he played the harmonica and loved a girl who lived on the edge of the quarantine zone and didn’t have a pulse. I watch his threads dissolve as the thing buries its fangs in his neck.

The battlefield is no place for me. My fate doesn’t end here. In the chaos of the fighting it’s easy for me to slip over the wall, down the road, into the Bayou.

The scalpel feels like a too-little weapon in the face of the unknown around me. I can see hungry mouths just below the waterline, peering out from fallen trees. Vines seem to drop and try to tangle me, but no fates reach out. Even the bat-things stay clear of me, it seems like they are afraid, or repulsed. I think they’re just already full of Guardsman and don’t care to eat me.

The thread winds its way around trees, following firm paths. I cut slashes into tree bark to mark my path back. The tree bark is deeply scarred, I’m not the first one to have this idea. On some trees I have to stand on my tip toes in order to make a fresh cut.

I can feel my heart beat faster as I go deeper into the Bayou, and then I break from the woods and I’m standing in a clearing. There’s a bridge, and a little hut up ahead standing lopsided on four splayed chicken legs. I realize something that I should have noticed hours ago; as I’ve walked the green thread has grown tighter. It happened so gradually that I never registered it. My stomach is churning as I cross the bridge, but I can’t control my legs. I pull the scalpel from its hiding place and flail at the thread but it’s like cutting air.

I’m standing at the door to the cottage and there are words carved into the wood. “To know your fate is not to shape it.” I reach for the door handle.

“No,” my voice sounds like a petulant child, “No, no, no. No more.” When you gut a fish it keeps breathing until you pull out its lungs or cut off its head, I can excise the thread, I won’t be bound by my fate.

I turn the scalpel on myself I drive it into my gut… Or I mean to. Instead I open the door and step inside. My head is spinning, my limbs are not their own. I blink and there are more threads on me, guiding my movements and jerking me along.

More doors swing open, too many to fit in such a small shack, and then the thread runs out. The rest disappear and I know that I’m facing the final door. This one also has words on it, they say, “Curious now?”

And so help me I am. I want knowledge more than I want freedom. I push open the door and inside I see a young woman. She sits in a chair, not breathing. She looks a lot like me. Her face is oval, with a tapered chin and sharp cheekbones. She wears a simple dress and a dirty apron. Her eyes are closed but I can guess that they are hazel, the same as mine. The green thread is woven through her fingers.

“Wakey, wakey,” says a cracked old voice. Somehow I missed the withered old crone with the sewing shears. She goes to cut the thread.

“It won’t work,” I say, “I’ve tried.”

“Of course you have dearie,” the old woman says, “You always do.”

There’s a snip, the thread falls away.

“It’s why you’re my favorite,” the woman croons.

I can feel carved wood claim my limbs, paint seal over my eyes. And I wake up. I’m in the chair watching the old woman put the idol back on its shelf.

“What’s going on?” I ask

“You asked me to free you,” the crone says, “The same as everyone else. For you, I did.”

“But the threads…”

“They are still there,” the crone says sadly, “They always will be, even for me. I’ve given you a fresh start, it’s up to you what to make of it.”

Edited by admiralvorkraft
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I thought there'd be a glut of Zoraida stories too so I abandoned mine and thought I'd try Lucky.  My idea quite a similar concept - trying to escape the threads of fate, but was much less elegant than this.  Not happy with what I produced this month, but plan A wouldn't have held a candle to this so maybe it's for the best!  :-p

I didn't really pay attention to the tense switch until you asked, so apparently it worked okay for me.  I might have formatted a little differently - put a double space marking the change from recollection to current action to delineate it a little more clearly.  

Oh, and in the fish plant you wrote 'sleep' where I assume you meant 'slip.'

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  • 2 weeks later...

I thought this was fantastic, I really envy your command of prose, even with so much happening I always felt rooted in the events and the visualizations were clear. I loved the concept too, I like the feel of being one of those minor magic users who pop up around Malifaux, finding themselves unable to understand their powers and drawn into a more chaotic and violent world.

Even without knowing her name or what she looked like, I found myself very concerned with your lead and wanting to see where it happened next.

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