Chapter 1: The Fight for Christmas
The Caretaker lifts his leg and slowly peels away the fragments of mangled face clinging to the iron spikes of his Sabaton boot. He stands motionless listening to the whistling air gushing from the ruptured oesophagus, eyes fixed on the shredded sanguinary flesh lying at his feet still desperately gasping for air. Bruiser is dying, splattering blood and rust coloured plasma from his pulverized trachea. The Caretaker tilts his head to watch Bruiser’s larynx dry out as it flaps aimlessly in the cool wind, hypnotized by the violence he was capable of inflicting in the pursuit of peace. Gradually Bruiser’s bloody pulp turns to cadaver, the fetid stink of carbon monoxide dissolving as the final breath leaves his reeking tube. It was a long brutal fight and the Caretaker embraces the schadenfreude with relief. Bruiser was one of the most heartless savages the city had ever known and the right-hand man to Growler, leader of the Dog Ditch Mafia. With Bruiser dead the Caretaker knows he’s one step closer, but time is fading fast.
From the top of Cathedral Central the Caretaker takes in the view of Saga City while he lights a Chesterfield and wipes down his M9 Bayonet. The snow-capped wooden barrels that hang strapped to the now decommissioned pylons skim the jagged skyline. Barrels filled with decomposing bodies used as fertilizer to create Belly Lime, the visceral sludge that powers Saga City. As the Caretaker’s blood-stained trench coat thrashes in the driving wind he wonders if he’ll ever find Aurora.
From behind a ventilation fan he hears the soles of hidden shoes shifting on the rain soaked rooftop, shadows stretching out beneath the glare of a bursting moon. Stepping over the twisted corpse of Bruiser he carefully approaches, his hand hovering over the 9mm tucked in his waistband, a gift from the whore who endeavoured to seduce him, until he sliced her throat with the blade of his butter knife, blood flowing freely across her naked flesh, her nipples hard amid the setting rigor mortis.
Fingers tightening around the grip of his gun he inches towards the edge of the fan, pausing to listen for further evidence of an unknown enemy. As he prepares to round the corner a figure darts out from the shadows, a gleaming object clasped tightly in a fist that flashes through the darkness towards him. Instinctively the Caretaker fires several rounds, each strike of the hammer echoing around them as a crow bursts into the open sky above. His gun fixed on the fallen figure he tilts his head and examines the wheezing body; the body of a child, a gutter girl, her weapon a tiny ration wrapped in foil, uneaten
“Automatic for the people hey, Caretaker?” came the voice approaching from behind.
“Fuck you, Styx” the Caretaker snaps, his hefty leatherlike hands tremble as he lights another Chesterfield and reaches for his liquor flask; “where the hell were you, man?”
Styx kneels down to attend the famished wretch “Jesus, what a mess. We’re supposed to be restoring the spirit of Christmas here, not blowing away gutter girls.”
The Caretaker takes a giant swig of Rye, attempting to brush-off the severity of the innocent girl he’s scalped “no justice without sacrifice, right, Styx?”, drawing strength from denial, like a machine, his hands beginning to steady.
Styx gently hoists the gutter girl over his broad shoulders; “If we can get her to Zekerion she might make it, but we need to move. Fast”
Saga City was once the epicentre of Christmas, the very reason for the season; charity, generosity, forgiveness and all the reality and truth behind the festivities. It was deep in the subterranean that the Saga Council built the Axial Terminal which stored the precious spirit radiance of Aurora, the empyrean architect of Christmas.
That was before the arrival of The Shadow, the mysterious halo of darkness that now encircled the city. All ignorance, want, misery and madness came from The Shadow, plunging Saga into battle between those who believed in the splendour of Christmas and those who wanted the world to burn. The fall of the Saga Council was inevitable and the city lost almost all protection, Aurora was neutralized, throwing down a foothold for malevolence and delinquency that grew like knotweed, twisting and butchering person after person. Industry failed, government smashed, austerity and tyranny came to reign. Of all the scoundrels, rouges and gangsters who came to squirm out of the squalor the Dog Ditch Mafia rose to the top, like rendered fat, the people of Saga swabbed beneath the grease of their threat and saturated corruption. Without Aurora, there remained only destruction. Without Aurora, Saga City was lost and so too was Christmas. The Caretaker and Styx, sworn protectors of the Saga Council now the city’s last hope against the chaos and filth.
The gutter girl haemorrhages on the backseat of their cruiser as they drive through the arid dessert towards Zekerion; the last outpost of safety unknown to the Ditcher’s. Caretaker and Styx pass the flask between them as dust clouds erupt in their wake, forsaken carcasses disintegrating beneath, the graveyard of the city all that remains of a ravaged home. The memory of how things were before The Shadow makes the Rye taste bitter, the city nothing but a prison amid abutting land no longer filled with life and vegetation, only death and desolation stretching into the distance.
Years ago this land sustained the largest fir farm in the state, supplying Christmas trees to the nation and in turn feeding the festivities of a bygone era. Styx’s great granddaddy owned the land and for three generations the two families worked together, felling trees and planting seeds to secure a future which never came to pass, and as they steer the cruiser through the dead limbs and dust, knuckles whiten and jaw’s clench. It was here they watched their relations burn in the brush, the stench of incinerated skin reaching them before the horrid screams. By the time they reached the farm from the depths of the forest, everything was gone, the ranch nothing but smoking cinders, their wives and children buried in the rubble, the slaughter, almost, complete. The SoulJacker let them live, a torture dedicated to destroying their spirit, crushing their world from within, killing compassion and finally bringing an end to Christmas, but it was his biggest mistake. He misjudged their resolve, and if death taught them anything it was that vengeance was worth the wait. They were getting close, and with every Punk Factory they blew to smithereens the SoulJacker’s hold over the inhabitants of the city faded a little further, and just like the drug fuelled haze of hate, his reign would end. It was only a matter of time. Justice would be dealt, each hideous hand anything but swift.
The Caretaker lights a cigarette and throws the packet over his shoulder to Styx, the heavy gates to Zekerion looming in the distance. Styx cradles the kids head in his lap, fingers pressed against her pulse. As he glances at the hulk of a man behind him, The Caretaker grins. This is the way it is now. The two of them, side by side, forever. Brothers in arms, if not in blood. Only they know how Styx received his name, a secret that will die along with them. Legend has it he felled the largest fern in the forest with nothing but a stick, the axe-head shattered following a thousand fruitless strikes. This was true, but not the whole truth. The tree did fall, the stick did triumph, but that was not the end. On the eve of his success he used that very stick to puncture the throat of his father, and finally fell the man who abused him without remorse. The Caretaker dug the ditch beside him, both men silent, never to speak of the night again. They lock eyes in the mirror and nod.
“Tell them we got the girl”. The Caretaker throws the cigarette on the floor of the cruiser and stamps it out with the heel of his boot. “And I need a beer”.
Twilight creeps quickly to night across Saga. Out of the blackness the ghostly humming of the Collectors begins to rise, the sound drawing ever closer to Cathedral Central. They’re coming for Bruiser. Under control of The Shadow the Collectors take all unclaimed bodies of the departed to be stored for Belly Lime. Growler and his Ditcher’s stand silent in the shadows of the rooftop awaiting the imminent arrival of the marching tribe. Out of the snow whipping around the night air, the Collectors emerge, a creepy spectre in full harrowing cacophony surrounding Bruiser’s near frozen corpse. There is nothing the Ditcher’s can do but watch the macabre ceremony unfold, absorbing the haunting lyrics of the Collector’s sombre dirge that sends a chilling shiver through Growler’s torso:
I’ve felt the Devil’s thorn in my side, I’ve drank the hardest liquor man could find/I’ve seen the poltergeist and the hanging judge/Retribution sure ain’t the toughest love/
We’ve been dealt a dead hand and our eyes have seen enough/We can’t take no sip from no bucket of blood/We’re 9 miles deep in the dungeon and we hear the screams/ The torment and torture of all the gypsy queens/There’s a ghost in the photograph, his eyes run red/The Shadow at the foot of your bed/ It’s a haunted place here inside my head/Drive in the knife, twist it in the back of the priest/A traitors revenge is the plague we fear the least….
Bruisers dragging feet fade into the darkness with the humming. Growler emerges from the shadows, warning his Ditcher’s, “let that be a lesson to you all’.
His piercing red eyes burn with rage, his pale reptilian skin shimmering under the moonlight, his slender wire frame visible beneath a tight grey suit, lapels flanked by blonde dreadlocks, every fibre of his hideous being itching for revenge. “Find this fucking Caretaker!”
A flicker in the distance catches the eye of one of the Ditcher’s, something illuminating the snow beside the ventilation fan.
“Growler, look” says Stooge. Cautiously the Ditcher’s approach the strange amber radiance; “It looks like blood, but what’s that glow Growler?” asks Stooge.
‘‘We need to contact the SoulJacker” whispers Growler nervously.
Suddenly laughter begins to flicker among the Ditcher’s, something they have never experienced before, the peculiar outburst fuels Growler’s nerves.
“But boss, ain’t no body seen the SoulJacker since we kicked the Council’s arse” replies Stooge.
Growler stares unresponsive at the curious glowing blood, his anxiety becoming ever visible. The Ditcher’s laughter wanes. “Boss, what is it?”
“Get the wolfhounds on that blood, get after that scent right now” demands Growler
“What’s going on boss?”
Growler dabs his lean forefinger in the frosty claret and rubbing it over his thumb he holds it up to Stooge, “This. This will lead us to the Caretaker”.
“Glowing blood? What in the hell is it, boss?”
“This…this is Aurora”…
The Landloper emerges from the Zekerion theatre slipping his sweaty hands out of bloodied surgical gloves. “Wake up dipshits” he yells, kicking the Caretaker and Styx awake. “Looks like the girl’s gonna make it.”
“Great” replies the Caretaker, “who’s gonna make the coffee?”
“I need to show you something” says Landloper looking over the bridge of his small round glasses.
“Show me an aspirin”. The Caretaker reaches for his cigarettes, lights one and looks around the room in a drunken haze, the taste of Mary still on his lips. “Well, what is it?” he asks, inhaling hard and holding the smoke in his lungs, the sickness within no longer dormant. He coughs violently into the palm of his hand, flecks of blood spattering his skin, the fabric of his jeans erasing any evidence of his illness, for now. Malignant, they said. Bullshit he replied. Fucking cancer. They predicted six months – four months ago. That leaves two months. Two months to find The SoulJacker and end this. Two months to save Saga City, save Christmas, and when it’s done, save himself. He wipes his mouth and looks up at the bloodied laboratory coat stood before him. “Come on, Loper, out with it already. We ain’t got all day”.
The Landloper adjusts his glasses, tilts his head back and peers down the ridge of his nose, through scored lenses at the vile of the gutter girl’s blood hanging in the air between them. The Caretaker stares at the lustrous blood, eyes wide and focused, his cigarette falling from frozen fingers as somewhere in the distance a baby screams. “But…”
“It’s her” says Landloper. “It’s really her”.
“And to think you almost killed her”, Styx interjects, slamming his hand down on his thigh, the improbable suddenly possible as the room erupts with laughter, a sound so unfamiliar even the doctor grins.
“That’s not all” Landloper states when the room returns to silence.
“You shittin’ me?” the Caretaker asks.
“No. Get up and I’ll tell you on the way”.
The two men stand in unison, unsteady on their feet. As Styx locates his trousers and threads his thick thighs through each leg, The Caretaker leans down and pulls the blanket up to Mary’s chin, tucking in the edges along the outline of her sleeping body. He kisses her gently on the lips and pauses, momentarily considering the months he might never witness, the child he might never father, the love that might never grow. Running his thumb along the bow of her cheek he suppresses the urge to speak, scared of the secret he might disclose, scared of what he might yet lose, again. He never thought he would ever love another woman – not after what happened to Samira, but he was ill prepared for the lingering loneliness which followed, and no matter how hard he hit the bottle, no amount of liquor could fix his fear of dying alone. The diagnosis confirmed he would still die alone, but that was his choice, and until that day arrived he would fight to vindicate the memories, he would fight for love, for Mary. If Christmas made her happy then he would sacrifice his life to save her smile, and with his tainted blood liberate the spirit of Saga City. The truth was, he didn’t need a reason, and despite his quest for revenge and retribution, she was, amid them all, the best of many.
Styx lifted a bottle of beer from the floor and threw it down his throat, the warm liquid settling in his stomach as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and belches. “Let’s rock”.
The Caretaker takes one last look at Mary and smiles. They follow the Landloper towards the door, feet steering through sleeping bodies and crumpled clothes, dreams and nightmares flooding brain cells, reality held at bay for better or worse. These are their people, their kin, their hope for a better future, and as they disappear into the onslaught of their endgame, an eyelid opens. To save her son she must obey, and as she sends the signal Mary weeps, the pillow pressed against her face, her lovers scent entombed within, her soul surrendered to the ‘Jacker.
The wolfhound’s fierce dripping nostrils lead the Ditcher’s down to a backroad behind Cathedral Central where another pool of frosty blood illuminates the curb. Growler stalks, like a detective, assessing every inch of the scene. This is where the Caretaker tried to stem the bleeding. He wasn’t alone. The small fragment of wood lying in the road with the distinctive black marking snapped from the head of a Rokushaku Bō belonging to Styx. Growler knows they made a makeshift tourniquet, the burnt rubber on the road marking their panic.
“There’s only one man who could fix a wound this bad”, concludes Growler.
“Who’s that boss?” asks Stooge.
“The Landloper? No way, boss, that old bastard got burned in the Fire of Firs, I was there, saw him go up in flames with my own eyes!” scoffs Stooge.
Growler grinds his teeth. “Did you see him die?” his muscular jaw rippling with fury. “You unloaded a few rounds in his head like I told you, right?” The piercing menace in Growler’s face intensifies as his imposing frame lurches over the cowering Stooge.
“I..I mean…we…” he quivers, choking on the fear.
“You told me Landloper was taken care of?” Growlers long slender fingers slide up around Stooge’s neck, “you know we always need more Belly Lime, right?” he hisses.
The Stooge let’s out a whine, Growler tightening his grip “but unfortunately I need you alive, unfortunately for you, you’re going down to the creek to find the SoulJacker and you’re going to convince him to lend us his services”.
The gagging Stooge tries to plead, “please, boss, no, I..I..I…”
“You’d what! Rather I kill you right here?” Growler shrieks, throwing him to the ground.
“Half of you with me, half with this useless sack of shit!”
The wheezing Stooge rubs Growler’s palm prints from his neck as Growler stands over him, “if you don’t come back with the ‘Jacker, don’t bother coming back at all”.
It was the SoulJacker’s distinct absence that made him so omnipresent. A true mercenary, solitary and loyal to no one. The inhabitants of Saga City had become distracted by the greed of the outside world. By illusions and TV game shows that filtered into the imagination of all those engrossed by a malfunctioned brand of shallow ambition. People forget that Saga was the hub of Christmas, of virtue and understanding and finding joy in things that could not be purchased. Aurora kept that ideal alive in people’s hearts, but hearts were easily bribed. Everybody desired presents, trinkets and minerals of gold, silver, platinum. Everybody wanted to be a ‘somebody’ and now, everybody was a nobody. Their vanity paid for the rope that was choking them. Zombies, exploited by the Dog Ditch Mafia and The Shadow, the breed of greed, the city now a monster, none more terrifying than the SoulJacker. Everyone in Saga City felt the ‘Jacker in their mind and under their skin. Citizens enslaved in the Punk Factories could sense him. The Collectors always sensed him. The Caretaker and Styx did not, their trained disinterested in the material an invaluable shield against The Shadow. Decent rye, a few cigarettes, brotherhood and the love of a good woman were more their appetite. The discovery of the gutter girl had energized them, but now, as Landloper had predicted, even the handful of free citizens left at Zekerion began to sense the ‘Jacker. Something was stirring.
Stooge grips the steering wheel and stares out at the empty street ahead, the flames from the barrel on the opposite side of the street illuminating the haggard faces of the huddled streetwalkers, their hands pawing over a bottle of Blitz, the only source of comfort they now know. He closes his eyes and exhales slowly, the steam from his breath dissipating in the air before him as the world beyond trembles. How did it get to this? How did everything get so fucked up? All he wanted was to protect his mother, the one who saved him from the great fir fire, yet somehow, she was now in the midst of the waging war, vulnerable and weak. She was in love, and he was soon to be a brother, but it was too late. He’d chosen his side and there was nothing he could do now, nothing but live with the guilt of his treachery, or die saving her from The Shadow. The baby would be born. His brother would live, one way or another.
He opens his eyes and reaches for the ignition, the road ahead uncertain but for the darkness he knows will come, seeping through his veins like the whisper of a childhood promise, a vision of a better world, the one in which he finds redemption, finally. He turns the keys and listens to the engine vibrate beneath the hood of his Uncle’s car, the one called Landloper, the one he failed, again. Before he can release the hand break he feels a point pressing into his back, through faded fabric of the ancient seat. He looks up into the rear view mirror and squints, the outline of a figure silent behind him, waiting.
“How did you find me?” He asks.
“Your crumbs are coarse, and bitter like your blood.” Replies the harrowing, deep voice
“To your mother, Mary.”
“What makes you think they’ll let us in?”
“Because they trust you, the serpent in the mist.”
“Did you really think you could escape me?”
“More fool those who love, and lose.”
“I thought I could…somehow…save them…”
‘‘If you do as I say, I might let her live. You on the other hand, will die. All that remains to be seen is how and when.”
“Please. She didn’t do anything.”
“And neither, I suppose, did you?”
“I deserve to die for what I’ve done, oh god forgive me.”
“God, my boy, has gone.”
The figure leans forward, Stooge stares into the eyes of the demon he has earned.
“I’ve come for what you sold the day you deceived your people. Your soul, my little Stooge, is mine.”
The Caretaker and Styx sit on the porch listening to the distant creak of the ruined mill, the water spoiled and toxic as they look out across the shattered wasteland. The stink of sulphur and burnt hair lingers in the air beneath a carpet of grey clouds. Across the eerie frontier plumes of acrid black smoke flood the dull sky above The Badlands, erupting from a colossal power station where boilers refine thousands of gallons of Belly Lime every single hour, day and night, non-stop. Beside it stands a grim chemical plant where layers of human skin where separated from fat tissue in order to extract the dermis, the key ingredient used to produce Punk Oil, the crude chimneys, stacks and flues spewing out the vile residue. Punk Oil is used in everything, from Slop and Rations to germicides, diesel and Blitz; the addictive mind altering booze that continues to hook so many and poison the minds of the masses, all drunk on a power that was not their own.
“Jesus, Styx, I can’t even remember what it used to look like here” the Caretaker groans through pursed lips, “sometimes I can’t even remember what it is we’re fighting for”.
“Sure you can, C” says Styx, resolute as always, “besides, what you remember has nothin’ to do with what you know”.
From childhood Styx could always steady the ship, the right words only a stammer away, his allegiance never questioned.
“Yeah, I know, I know” the Caretaker slings his gun belt over the oak porch “hand me another beer would ya”.
“Hey, C, remember when we built this porch?”
“We?” the Caretaker peers into the middle distance, taking a sip of beer “it was all you, Styx. All you”.
Landloper steps out on to the porch carrying the gutter girl.
“Hey look who it is!” Styx jumps to his feet, “how you feeling little one?”
The Caretaker hangs his head with guilt, swirling beer around the bottle. Wheeling the mobile drip with her she limps towards the Caretaker and places her small hands on his giant knees to keep her balance. A terrible haunting lurks behind her frightened green eyes that sit like two sombre moons on her ashen face.
“Shit, I’m real sorry, kid”, the Caretaker lifts her on to his lap, “what’s your name?”
“Lori” she replies softly.
“Hi Lori, I’m the Caretaker. How old are you, Lori?”
“Eight and a half”
“Tell me something kid, what the hell were you doing up on that rooftop?”
Before she can answer Landloper cuts in “you two, look lively”. The Caretaker rises to his feet, narrowing his eyes to focus on the movement on the horizon. Landloper turns to the aide, “Striker, get Lori underground, I’ll round up the Crew”.
Lori wraps her arms tightly around the Caretaker’s leg.
“It’s ok kid, you go with Striker, I’ll see you soon”.
Striker lifts the girl and as he pulls her away, little arms reach out at full stretch for the Caretaker, yanking the drip from her vein, hands clasping at him as she starts to cry.
“God damn it Striker, get her out of here!” shouts Landloper as they hurry off the porch.
“What’ll we do C?” asks Styx
“This fight is meant for us” the Caretaker grinds his teeth, “let’s take out city back.”
The wind is fierce and both men know a storm is on its way. They can feel it in their bones, the brittle day ahead about to dawn. War is coming, and without a word they throw back the last of the Rye. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they step out into the wasteland.
Saga City was written by S J Talbot and Tomek Dzido. Further instalments will be published in the near future. The authors would welcome feedback and comments.
Illustrations by Henry Davis. You can see more of his work by following the link below: