The Gremlin of Morningside Heights

 

Book 2 of the Fey of New York City

by Bruce Graw

PART ONE

Morningside Tunnel – Sithlac’s Tower

For the first time in his life, Sithlac found himself humming. Gremlins, as a rule, don’t normally hum or whistle, or produce any sound that could be considered the least bit musical. When gathered into groups, they sometimes chant in time with drumbeats, or raise their voices with each other to drown out their rivals, but only in the broadest definition could this be considered anything akin to music.

Nonetheless, Sithlac hummed softly to himself as he rubbed some untarnish-oil onto his latest find, an open-ended silver cylinder about as long as his spindly forearm. Not the greatest loot he’d ever discovered, not by any means, but it should be worth at least two wood-squares at the market. He didn’t really need them, of course, unless he wanted to add a fifth level to his home—a spiraling tower of metal rods, shiny discs and layered wooden stairs, all supported by an interlocking grid of fasteners and bolts collected over a lifetime of exploring the Outside. For that kind of upgrade, he’d need a great many wood-squares, just for the framework itself. Then reinforce-rods for support, and a flat-plane to rest upon…fasten-clamps and joiner-hooks to hold it all together…

He blinked and lowered his head slightly. Add another layer…? Such an idea hadn’t occurred to him for quite some time. He started to shake it off, and yet…why not?

The thought wouldn’t go away. He paused his humming for a moment, idly regarding the shiny treasure in his hands. He could see himself reflected in the flat edge he’d just finished polishing. A typical, average gremlin face stared back at him: a froglike visage sporting a wide, toothless mouth and two oversized, bulbous eyes that could move independently of each other. Two small flaps covered the almost invisible nostrils, and tiny cup-like appendages formed the ears. The head merged straight into his rotund body without any visible need of a neck. Although he appeared squat and overweight, his scrawny-looking limbs could easily support him on long journeys, and he could climb walls and jump great distances with ease.

So could most gremlins, of course. Sithlac had never considered himself anything special or unusual. True, as a hunter, he regularly undertook forays outside his Tunnel home, but many others did the same. After returning from his last mating, several seasons past, he thought himself content. Four levels to his home felt perfectly adequate, and he hadn’t really thought of upgrading for at least as long, and probably longer. He hadn’t seriously considered the possibility, until now.

Each gremlin’s dwelling looked radically different from the next. With space limited by the Tunnel’s shadowy confines, a gremlin received only a small allotment of actual groundspace on which to build. Thus, using whatever building materials they could scavenge, each raised his dwelling ever upward, toward the distant, dripping ceiling no tower had ever safely reached. The taller the structure, the more likely its collapse—the ultimate disaster for any gremlin, for his precious possessions would swiftly vanish into the hands of his greedy fellows, forcing him to start over with only the few items he could drag back to his territory. Theft in one’s home was all but unknown—a gremlin’s personal dwelling-space was inviolate—but any object that fell loose of its own accord was fair game.

The taller the structure—and thus the more treasures owned—the greater the status in gremlin society. Sithlac’s four levels marked him as someone of noteworthy skill, but by no means the greatest. He could count ten five-level structures visible from his own pinnacle, with many more out of sight beyond the pale lamp-glow shining up from the commons. A single tower six levels high spiraled up just on the edge of his vision, one of only three to achieve such heights, but even these spectacular arrays of shiny loot paled in comparison to the majestic eight-story spire owned by Tirchoth the Grand, undisputed leader of the Morningside Tunnel.

Sithlac had studied Tirchoth’s amazing handiwork on many occasions—what gremlin hadn’t? A long brown rod, made of flexi-strong not-metal from the world of Men, skewered the center of the Grand Tower, rising almost to the ceiling itself. Tirchoth had chosen his groundspace well, directly beneath a steady water-drip, which slid down the rod all the way to the voluminous tin cup forming his personal cistern. Amazingly, the rod itself sported built-in loops of metal at regular intervals, providing a perfect location to anchor each of the tower’s seven other levels. Where Tirchoth found such a thing, and how he managed to bring it back here, was the stuff of legend. When asked about it, he would only cackle and inflate his baggy throat in satisfaction.

Sithlac had nothing quite so spectacular going for him, but he’d done his work well, at least in his own estimation. During his earliest forays Outside, he discovered a number of notched wood-blocks that formed the foundation of his humble tower and also served to claim his borders quite nicely. He’d also been lucky enough to find an unusually curved metal implement with an enlarged, bowl-like tip, which now jutted partway out the side of his second level, diverting dripping water from above into a small, ground-level bucket sealed with melted candle wax. This provided a consistent, self-replenishing water supply, thus ensuring he never had to waste precious trinkets buying hydration at the market.

His tower’s third and fourth levels stood firmly upon metal frames bound with tightly twisted bolts checked daily to ensure their stability. Upon these levels he hung his most prized possessions: a few shiny treasures taken from the land of Men. The way these precious objects glittered and gleamed never failed to impress the females during the spring festival, and ever since installing his fourth platform, Sithlac hadn’t failed to find a mate.

Thus, he hadn’t considered upgrading to a fifth level much at all, at least not until now. The idea definitely had merits, though. Several impressive shinies from his collection remained hidden out of sight, lacking a place to properly display them. Plus, his pride and joy, the interlocking double golden chain he found just a half-moonrise ago, would look spectacular wrapped around a fifth level overhead. His status would increase dramatically, not just from the height, but also by displaying this impressive treasure. What manner of mate might he attract this season, should he complete the structure by spring…?

Sithlac started humming again, returning to his polishing with renewed vigor. In order to complete a new level in time, he knew he’d have to improve his tower’s stability first, and that required plenty of wood-blocks from the market. Thus, his next few forays wouldn’t be for shinies, but tradeables he’d have no other use for. On market-day, the goblins and spriggans would bring their wares to the Tunnel foyer, and the frenzied swapping would begin. Sithlac knew he’d have to be there early, with as much trade-bait as he could carry, if he wanted to claim two hefty building-blocks for himself. With this metal cylinder, and a few other simple items not worthy of display, he felt certain he’d succeed.

A shuffling sound interrupted his work. Sithlac swiveled his left eye toward the new arrival, who stood silhouetted against the candle-glow outside. The hunter’s right eye remained fixed on his metallic possession as he buffed its surface clean, a job he knew so well he could accomplish it almost without even trying. “What business does the visitor have, Sithlac wonders?” he said by way of greeting.

“Heard a strange noise, Bongcor did, and came to see,” answered the gremlin outside, his bulbous eyes swiveling this way and that as he peered intently around the first level of Sithlac’s home. “An odd treasure, to be sure, that makes such a curious sound.”

“Not a treasure, oh no,” answered Sithlac, inflating his throat-sac ever so slightly. “’Twas only I, echoing a song heard in my journeys this past night.”

“A song, you say?” inquired Bongcor curiously. Though gremlins didn’t make music, they knew of it well enough from their travels. More often than not, Men created the odd noises, often with strange implements or devices, and they were also known occasionally to sing, for what purpose only they knew. “The songs of Men are like nothing such,” the visitor went on. “Different this was, oh yes, of that, I am sure. A story awaits—this I can tell most surely.”

Sithlac sighed and set down his prize, which happened to be the cap from a mechanical pencil, though he had no way of knowing that. Bongcor, his nearest neighbor down the moonward slope, had only two levels to his home and seemed uninterested in building more. A poor hunter (if he even hunted at all), Bongcor owned very few shinies, most of them collected from other gremlins who let their possessions get away from them—a scavenger among scavengers, in other words. Nonetheless, despite his lowly status as a lesser gremlin—not the lowest rung of society, but very near the bottom—Bongcor had a way of learning things that other gremlins couldn’t, and could be easily coaxed into revealing such secrets. If he had any cleverness about him, Bongcor would demand some sort of payment, but he hadn’t quite figured that out yet. He did, however, often require a tale or two to loosen his tongue a bit.

“Very well, Sithlac will weave a story for you, most certainly I will,” he told his eager neighbor. “Enter and sit, but first, I would know what news you heard. On the hunt I have been for most of this night, and the night before besides.”

Bongcor vaulted over the low entrance-wall in a single easy leap. The visitor’s fat, toadlike body looked even more obese than his host’s, yet even he could jump quite easily. A gremlin’s wiry leg muscles, partially concealed by the creature’s thick-skinned flanks, could spring open like rubber bands snapping taut, allowing for prodigious jumps.

Should Bongcor choose to stand fully erect, which would be very uncomfortable indeed, he might just barely reach six inches in height, but most of the time he stayed hunched over, rocking slowly back and forth as he walked. Like others of his station, he wore only a simple dusty rag, wrapped about him like a shawl. His hands and feet, both bare, sported flaps of skin covering an array of tiny suckers for use in climbing. In a social setting, such as this one, he kept the flaps closed, holding up four thin fingers in greeting before wiggling them about, the gremlin way of saying “Thanks for letting me come inside your home.”

Sithlac replied with a similar wave. With the formalities thus taken care of, Bongcor sat noisily down on one of the rusty bottle caps that served as sitting-stools. His left eye swung about to survey the rest of the messy, junk-filled interior, while the right focused on the shiny cylinder in Sithlac’s hand. “A successful hunt it was, I see,” he offered diplomatically. “So smooth and pristine, and from the looks of things, not too heavy besides.”

“Of little value it is,” replied Sithlac, holding up the object and turning it so his guest could see the opening in one end, thus revealing the cylinder’s hollow nature. “Not worthy of display, but trade-bait most surely. Perhaps a spriggan will make a cap of it.”

Bongcor snorted in laughter, obviously enjoying the amusing thought of one of the bouncy little creatures trying to keep such a small, thin lid upon its head. “Or a container, to carry tiny things,” suggested the visiting gremlin. “Goblins are digging somewhere always, or so the stories say. It seems a waste for such a spotless gleamer, but I suppose it could move dirt quite well.”

“Yes, I will hint at such,” replied Sithlac, not bothering to mention that he’d already considered that, and several other options besides. He knew that Bongcor looked up to him, and Sithlac couldn’t help but feel a bit flattered by the attention, but he really didn’t consider his neighbor anything like a real friend. Gremlins understood the concept of friendship well enough, but only in the vaguest sense of the word—levels of tolerance and nothing more. In Bongcor’s case, Sithlac usually tolerated his neighbor’s presence only insofar as he provided a consistent source of information about the goings-on elsewhere in the Tunnel. Still, the overeager visitor did at least come by to chat quite often, and Sithlac had of late found himself unconsciously appreciating the companionship. He’d always told himself he didn’t need such things, for like most gremlins he’d always preferred solitude, but that didn’t seem to be the case quite so much anymore.

“So, to the news it is, then,” Bongcor went on, his independently rotating eyes finally ceasing their wandering to focus fully on his host. “The Moon shone long past sundown, so the night-magic harvest proved quite worthy. Rations are to be increased, it seems.”

“Already have I claimed mine, oh yes,” explained Sithlac, although of course his supply had been substantially reduced thanks to his activities the previous evening. He figured he’d get to that particular story in short order, but not until he heard more from his guest.

Bongcor went on without delay. “Good, good, then this you knew already. The commons chatter spoke of another gremlin’s failure to return from hunting. Know you of Erixus? He dwells beyond the waterfall, opposite the Great Tower.”

“I have heard the name, of course,” said Sithlac patiently. Of course he had—not quite a thousand gremlins lived in the Morningside Tunnel, after all. At some point in his life, he’d had occasion to meet each one, at one time or another. Only the rarest individual couldn’t say the same, though some of those less bright might not remember every such encounter.

“It seems Erixus has not returned,” went on Bongcor. “Three nights past he set forth, according to the exit logs. Still he remains Outside. He may as yet return, but few hunts last so long—you know as well as I his likely fate.”

Sithlac nodded, pulling his eyes back into his head about halfway, a look that expressed his apprehension. Of late, once or twice with every turning of the Moon, a gremlin hunter would go missing. Such things had always happened in the past, but only rarely. Since last winter, though, instances had increased many times over. Rumor had it one of the Fallen had moved into the great structure of Man beyond the Tunnel, hunting gremlins and other Fey without remorse or pity. So far, no one had seen this terrible beast and returned to tell about it so the truth could not be known, but no one as yet could offer another explanation that made any sense.

Sithlac had taken extra care on his hunts ever since this pattern started to appear, as had they all. Unlike some of his fellows, he didn’t carry a spear, but he did have a sharpened sliver of metal concealed within his weathered tunic. Furthermore, he made sure to collect his allotted ration of night-magic straightaway, just in case he encountered one of the Fallen, or some other unexpected danger. Of course, if such a monstrosity actually did confront him, he doubted he’d be able to harm it with a spell. The Fallen were supposedly resistant to magic or at the very least able to avoid such efforts with ease.

He almost let his eyes completely pull back into their sockets, thinking about such frightful things. With a quick snap of his head, Sithlac put those worries out of his mind. “Let us speak no more of that,” he suggested firmly. “My forays are no longer quite so long, and I jump at every sound as it is.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” his guest went on. “Truly do I envy you, staying out so late, and collecting such fine rewards. Not even half a half-night could I last Outside, I fear.”

“You could, if you so chose,” pointed out Sithlac with a forceful nod. “The Men drop new treasures daily, and rarely search for them. Easy wealth and status await, and perhaps a mate besides, if you did well enough.”

Bongcor’s head bobbed up and down in agreement. “Often have I thought of attracting a mate,” he remarked wistfully. “The seasons come and go, and I watch my neighbors hop away to the birthing-place, while I remain behind with only the infertile for company.”

“Ambition is what you lack, not skill,” offered Sithlac encouragingly. “Build well, you do, oh yes, and treasures aplenty you could find, were you but to try.”

Bongcor sighed and deflated noticeably. “It is not ambition, but rather courage that I lack. The thought of meeting one of the Fallen is more than I can bear. I know not how you stand it, O great neighbor mine. I bow in awe before you.”

He lowered his head and scraped his forearms across the floor. Sithlac allowed his thick throat to puff up with pride about halfway, then let the air noisily escape. “Worthy am I not of such unbecoming praise,” he insisted, wondering if Bongcor really meant what he said, or was just buttering him up so as to coax a good story out of him. Perhaps I can find out with but a simple query, the gremlin host considered, a strange idea occurring to him just then. Without any heed to the ramifications, he put forth his offer immediately. “And you could become a good hunter, of this I am sure. Come with me on my next hunt, after nightfall just past market-day, and I will teach you things I know.”

Bongcor’s eyes grew wide and popped outward, all but straining against the rough skin of his narrow, angular face. “This you mean most surely?” he asked breathlessly.

“Always hunted alone, I have,” replied Sithlac, “but perhaps two sets of eyes are best in these dangerous times, say I. What say you?”

He half expected Bongcor to refuse outright, or scramble for some excuse, but the normally timid gremlin surprised him with a quick response. “Agree do I, most heartily!” he blubbered with unconcealed excitement. “Three nights hence, oh yes! A spear have I prepared, made of strongest metal, that I dared not use alone. Sharpen it I will, and ready shall I be!”

“Good, good, your presence will be most welcome,” agreed Sithlac, thinking perhaps that Bongcor might have his uses after all. Sithlac had little in the way of fighting experience, but his guest bore several scars, most likely from scrabbling with other lower-class gremlins for scraps of food or fallen treasures. In a true battle, he would likely prove his worth, if only he didn’t break and run at the first sign of danger.

“Prepare myself I will, oh yes,” went on Bongcor, “but now, I would hear your tale. What befell you this night just past, that you would make such odd sounds come from deep within your throat?”

“Listen, then,” began Sithlac, settling back on his haunches as he spoke. “Two nights ago, I set forth to hunt, exiting through the Moonrise Gate. Once within the vast Tower of Men, I searched in dark places with little success, until the Moon at long last set. Weary, I sought out an old rat’s nest well known from earlier forays. Having had no luck thus far, I slept the day away, jumping at each sound uttered by the Men outside the walls.”

“Never have I roamed as much as you,” admitted Bongcor, whose eyes had retracted halfway into his head by now. He shuffled his feet nervously, scratching at the dusty wooden floor. “Did you not fear to be found by Men?”

“Not in so secure a place, oh no,” Sithlac explained. “No portals entered there, and well-sealed it was, indeed. There are many such places within Man’s towers, places I will show you on our journey—hiding-holes where no Man searches, and few other dangers lurk.”

“If you say it is safe, believe you I will,” Bongcor agreed nervously. “Always returned to the Tunnel you have, thus far at least.”

“That I have, most clearly. Now, with the setting of the Sun, the Men do not sleep readily. Restless they are, continuing to move about long after moonrise, and often well past half-night. A hunter learns to know their sounds, that one might freely move when they cease at last. Thus, upon the nearest Man’s final settling, I crawled forth in silence, intent on exploring once more, only to hear a most amazing sound—a song unlike any other I have ever heard.”

“And it is this that you repeat, this strange vibrating buzz from well within your throat?”

“I could not repeat it, oh no,” Sithlac admitted. “Not like she who sang it. The music was not like that produced by Men. It drew with it strands of magic, but not just the power of the night—the very light of day itself echoed within those haunting strains, oh yes!”

“Day-magic, in the dark of night?” wondered Bongcor. “How is such a thing possible? What manner of creature could do such a thing? Not a Fallen, surely!”

“If a Fallen it had been, no chance would I have had,” explained Sithlac. “The tones drew me forth like a wondrous jewel, glittering in the dark. A shiny treasure I could not take, oh no, but only lock within my memory. The humming you hear from me is but a pale shadow of its faded glory. I can still hear it, deep within my mind, oh yes. It echoes there, and I feel…I feel…”

“What?” insisted Bongcor eagerly. “Whatever do you feel?”

Sithlac blinked and rubbed his head with his spindly fingers. “I cannot explain. Defies words, it does, oh yes, oh yes. But so drawn to that music was I, that I approached its source without fear. A source that made no sense, there in that place of Men.”

Bongcor leaned forward, clearly hanging on his host’s every word. “What source, oh what, pray tell…?”

Sithlac’s eyes drew downward, as though he knew his next words would not be believed. “A faerie it was,” he answered slowly. “A female, barely half my size, high in the realm of Man! Who would think to see such a thing?”

Bongcor’s eyes moved back and forth and he twitched several times, struggling to make sense of what he’d just heard. “No faerie would ever dwell within Man’s walls!” he insisted. “Not of her own free will, oh no!”

“Broken was her wing,” Sithlac went on. “Captured, well and true, she was. A prisoner, forlornly singing in the night, while her captor slept.”

“Taking our night-magic!” gasped Bongcor. “Surely you slew her, did you not? Such an affront must not go unchallenged, oh no!”

Sithlac shook his head. “I should have, oh yes, this I know, and freely tell,” admitted Sithlac with a sigh, “but no harm was she, wounded and a prisoner; and besides, had I done this deed, the Man would surely question the cause. You know the Rule, I trust?”

Bongcor cringed and nodded slowly. Seventh of the Twelve Rules of the Hunter: Never give a Man a reason. “Yes, I see the dilemma, oh yes. Slay her, and her captor knows not how it came to pass. Wonder and search, he would, and call to question all he knows. A wise decision, indeed.”

“So it would seem, but my tale is not yet done. She could speak the darkling-tongue, though not well, not well at all; yet nonetheless she chose to treat with me. She asked for guidance, but of course, I offered none. She asked for aid in escaping her captor, and that I could not do, per the Seventh Rule. Yet when she asked a simple favor, I found I could not refuse. Her song captivated me beyond all words. She sang, and I carried her from a high place to the ground, in a way that satisfied the Rules. She gave the song, and I gave aid, and my share of night-magic besides, and regret it not at all.”

Bongcor bobbed his head as he listened to his host’s carefully chosen words. “Judge the bargain I cannot, without the song itself, oh no,” he remarked, “but a bargain it was, most surely, and well met indeed. What of the theft of magic?”

“And to that it was ended,” stated Sithlac, “for in desperation only did she take what is rightfully ours. Free to hide on her own, by being on the ground, she had no further need of it. The morning’s light would be free to take, and that is all she needs.”

“Ah, yes, of course, and a wiser bargain still. I worry, though, that faerie-song might’ve snared you in some foul tangle.”

“Thought of that, oh yes, of course I did,” insisted Sithlac. “This very morn, upon my return, I endured a purge. No spells are upon me now, not even of my own making.”

“Good, good,” agreed Bongcor. “I need not worry, then. Thus ends your tale, it seems?”

“Very nearly so. Upon our parting, I left the faerie upon the ground and resumed the hunt, though I feared I would have no luck this trip. Still, the song remained, lifting my spirits in a way no night-magic ever has. Explain it I cannot, but the more I hummed it to myself, the more determined I became. In the end I found this shiny gleamer, and several smaller treasures besides. Were it not for the song, quit in frustration long before, I would, of this I am quite sure.”

“I wish I could hear this song myself, oh yes,” said Bongcor hopefully, “and perhaps I will meet this faerie, upon our coming journey.”

“I would think her gone by now, or perished,” Sithlac replied with a sad shake of his head. “And now my tale is ended, oh yes. Away with you, I must insist, as I have more to shine, and many preparations to make, ere the market comes.”

Bongcor’s head weaved from side to side as he stood and then, in a single easy hop, he leaped over the inner wall, back into the narrow alley that led downhill to the commons. “A fantastic tale it was,” he offered, bowing once again to his host by way of thanks. “Not so worried about visiting the Outside am I, in the company of one so wise. Farewell.”

As his neighbor hopped away, Sithlac inclined his head ever so slightly. How strange that he should make such an unexpected offer of partnership—and to Bongcor, of all people! While it wasn’t unprecedented for gremlins to team up on a hunt, such things were rare, and usually only happened for very specific reasons, upon approval from the Council. A few nights ago, such a thought would never have occurred to him, but now, the idea of having a traveling companion felt strangely appealing. Two pairs of eyes would have better chances of spotting danger approaching, and Bongcor’s spear would be most welcome should they come under attack.

Yes, a good idea indeed, Sithlac told himself, turning his attention back to his work. Rolling the metal cylinder carefully in his hands, he went back to polishing his newfound treasure, humming to himself all the while.

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