Ed-Grig scurried through the hall. Above him the marble of fluted columns slid into shadow, becoming teeth in a yawning mouth. In some rooms the ceiling was only disorienting, mocking the eye with shifting elaborations. In some one could pretend the dark was just the place where the light of candles did not reach. Here though, the light had no source and the dark had no shape. Ed-Grig did not look up. He did not cower or skulk or slink. He just scurried a little faster as the fur running down his back spiked up in fear.
He was a servitor. Fear was his friend. Some things were meant to live on their knees and bellies. He was one of them.
Ed Grig was nearly four feet tall. He had sparse fur on his long forearms and down his back. A tail stuck out into the air behind him, naked and long. He was marked among the servitors by his grey-green coloured fur. Ed Grig, messenger. Ed Grig, finder. Ed Grig that never put his big flat nose in where it didn't belong. Ed Grig, belly to the ground like the servitor he was, heading to the kitchen.
Wiss Bo bobbed his whole fat body as Ed Grig passed the door, the servitor form of a nod. Ed Grig stopped just inside and raised himself to three legs, sniffing. He believed there was already something wrong today. He had seen the two witches waiting to submit themselves to the powers behind. They counted themselves the master's students and when such as them returned it was never without cause. They might be sent away to correct their errors or simply interred in the Tower of Guilt. Ed Grig brought more bad news and might pay with his tiny life.
As long as I am not given to the oven. Loyal servitors deserved better than to be given to the oven.
But loyal servitor that he was, Ed Grig could not delay his task. He pressed on.
Somewhere, his master kept a terrible place, neither kitchen nor factory but sanctum. That sanctum was sooty and dark, smokey and hot. Below, meaty-molten things like bulls toiled without night or day while above, fleshless things they called the utility birds laid their tributes to his master. In the midst of all, he had capered and spoke his will to the throng in a voice of thunder: The Hosk, keeper of the first oven.
That was before. Before the coming of the eyeless hand and the making of things like Ed Grig. Now The Hosk was just one more warlock bent before the empty altar. He had been seduced by the gifts and lessened thereby. Now he did not caper or thunder. He crafted, he artificed, he fabricated, he decorated, he confectioned and whipped and practiced his art.
This was no sanctum though. It was not even a factory, those places where machines had replaced servitors and consumed them to run on and on, racing to dead ends by black routes. This was merely a kitchen.
Counters stretched from the ingredient hoard at the near wall to the dispatchery at the far one. Much was stone, some was wood, all that was used was clean and what wasn't wasn't. In the dim corners unlucky batches dragged themselves about trying to eat each other or just settled back until it was time to become cinders. Orange torches and red oven-altars painted much of everything in wild shades. The black ceiling was only a hundred layer crust of ash vapors and that was a mercy.
Servitors scurried and hopped, hunched and clung, shambled and lugged in the half-light. Many were Noblins, hairless, sullen and only half the size of Ed Grig. Some were Keebles, small as a hand, huge headed and huge eyed, flitting over and under table to carry ingredients or directions, their gingerbread houses stacked up in one corner. Two-bodied Banana Split Ogres hung about the ovens, lowering themselves to employ their many fleshy, freezing arms to check on product or shove it back in when a mostly finished dish made a bid for freedom.
One of the candied armlings relighting the candles on an over-altar was brushed over the side by an ogre and it fell into the fires beneath. There were pops and bangs as its candy caripace exploded from the heat. A different arm pulled Ed Grig to one side. A huge nose stuck itself in his face.
"Ide oo. Ide oo run. No dalk up. Oh."
Hide you. Hide or run but don't go talking up the master and getting us in trouble. Go away.
Bem Brup had him by the shoulders and was burping the instructions directly into Ed Grig's ear
Nag Fee's nose flexed and he brushed his own grey haired forearms politely. "News, Grig. We need no more news here."
"No. But news comes." Ed Grig flapped Bem Brup in the face with his tail to tell him how seriously he took the threat. "Off me now."
Bem Brup burped again, non-commitally.
"Master does not need it now. Master is busy."
"Naaah. Naah naah naaah" Ed Grig's voice was rusty and strained but contained none of his fear. Fear was for master, for the hollow hand and the ovens. He would not give the big nose his fear. "Going to bake me? Going to stuff an apple in my mouth to keep it from talking? If not, away with you, back under the tables to bite your tails."
Nag Fee and Ed Grig stared at each other a long time. It looked like he had called Nag's bluff, which was good. But it was undone when his pocket made a tiny, shrill noise.
"Yellow..." Nag's eyes went wide as he realized he actually could stop Grig. Bem Burp was digging at the pocket even as Ed Grig twisted away. Nag popped Ed in the nose with a few curled knuckles and his world broke up. He staggered, curled his tail around him and was shoved onto his back. He pushed a long-toed foot against a bench but instead of helping him right himself the bench slid away. A Noblin on it connected with the edge of the counter with his throat and struck the floor too, flailing. Ed Grig saw this with strange clarity, even to the tear in the pale thing's eyes. Then he was bopped in the face again. His head knocked against the stone floor.
He couldn't breathe. There were hands digging at his pocket again. The easiest thing to do would be to roll over on that side, but that would kill the message just as Nag and Bem wanted. Instead, Ed grabbed the wrists of those hands and pressed them away from his pocket. His head hit the floor again but this time there was no pain, only a jarring flash of light in head of Ed Grig.
For a moment he saw what was going on again. Nag Fee was sitting on Ed's belly, arms up, punching at his head like a boxer. There was blood on his knuckles.
Then he was on three legs, shoving himself over the floor. There was something in his mouth. He stopped and spit it into his hand, amazed at what looked like a finger. Ed turned, about to ask if anyone was looking for a finger then he was tackled and another flash put him in the dark.
Ed Grig was curled up around something yellow, fingers clasped around each hand. He was being kicked but he didn't mind. He was very tired. He was only awake because someone was stepping on his poor tail. He tried to tell his hands to go drag his tail away from whoever was doing that but they wouldn't let go of the stupid yellow thing that kept making that noise.
Then it was quiet.
There was a crowd but it had drawn away from him. Nag Fee and Bem Brup had vanished into it. Nothing moved. An awful feeling was in Ed's belly. His eye searched and found a great white creature approaching him.
The Master. The Hosk.
Pure force of habit put Ed Grig on his feet. He stood erect, woozy and slightly grotesque as always. Gobolds like himself were not the least of servitors but they were not men. Bipedalism suited them as well as wings did a pig. Even so, even battered, Ed Grig would walk at his full height to his master, as a messenger should.
Another shrill little noise.
The Hosk bent to be nearer Ed's height. When he bent it was not a folding of the body at the white jacket or a bending of the knees in black pants. Instead, The Hosk twisted like a bag of thick icing being wrung out onto a cake. It was awful and put the head of Ed's master just inches from his hands.
"Peep." Ed Grig croaked and his hands unfolded.
Hosk has tiny black goggles glinted in place of eyes. Ed had never seen the Hosk's eyes and didn't want to.
His hands were bloody but the palms and insides of the fingers were clean and dry. He held up the little yellow effigy. It made its little noise again and hopped in place.
The Hosk breathed out in a rasp and plucked it from Ed's hands, indifferent to his condition and the brawl. The message was delivered. Ed Grig did not scurry away though. He only stood there, eyes glazed and hurting from tail to nose. He thought he'd bitten off Nag's finger but was not so sure he had teeth anymore to do it again.
The bird chirped. Hosk slid his feet under his torso again. He removed a lit candle from his jacket. It was no larger than a finger and striped pink and white. He stuck the candle on the counter and it stood up straight on the uneven surface without so much as a wobble.
Ed Grig lifted his tail in his hands. It was mostly purple. Near the end were two rows of bloody black marks where the flesh dented in. Someone had been biting it and he'd not noticed. Well, it might recover if no one stuck him in an oven.
A peep was heard and another. Hosk swept his jacket arms back and forth with no apparent bone structure. Finally he lowered the peep to the candle and pressed it into the flame, where it screeched, bubbled and boiled away into a black smoke.
Then, in that smoke, light played. It fell this way and that way. It rippled and snapped across itself and finally resolved into a single dot. The dot hung there and the smoke swam back down to coil around it, puff out in a ring and finally form a kind of picture frame in the air. The dot of light bloomed into a large pane of awful colour and movement, frenetic and jerky.
There was no sound. It was bad when a peep came back alone. That meant trouble. But without report? That was worse still.
Light played over Hosk's black lenses. Ed Grig did not see what what it showed him. He only saw Hosk's hands. They were raised under his chin with yellow fingers interlaced but not for long. Soon the fingers were writhing, squirming and pulsating. They wormed free of each other as the hands came apart and the hands and forearms attached to them began writhing too
Was he happy? Was he angry? Ed Grig could not look away from those hands. He feared. He thought he was right to fear.
When the vision was spent and smoke gone, the Hosk was still. Some expected death, others mutilation and torture. Some thought this fury, but it might have been a horrible emotion of non-servitors, alien and wrong, called Inspiration.
Then Hosk rippled around with another twist of the torso. Each leg spun individually in place so his small shoes were wrong ends out. Ed kept watching those hands. One pulled at the skin of his face, the other formed a twitching flaw that reached out, seeking, searching the crowd of servitors.
Finally, it pointed at Ed Grig.
"Delivery...." came the voice. A black tongue moved over black teeth between pale yellow lips. That other hand swung around in the direction of the oven-altars. Candles over there flared into gouts of black and green and purple fire.
"Delivery." It began like a wash of air from under a door. Now Hosk sounded like a drafty chimney.
The door of the oven banged in response.
Again. Thump. Bang. Crump. Again. Again.
The servitors continued to boggle at the oven-altar but they slumped in position, convinced-
Hur-Ram! The door blew off its hinges and crashed to the floor. Screams, running, candles winking, torches falling over, more crumps: it was coming.
Counters and tables and benches and servitors flew in all directions. A Banana Split Ogre reached down to try to stuff the thing back in its oven. It bellowed as the arm was torn from it and landed all over the kitchen in freezing, shredded chunks.
It passed The Hosk, stepping right over him.
It stood over Ed Grig the Gobold and waited.
The dish... waited.
Ed licked his lips.
A single pink tendril lowered itself to him.
Ed swallowed. It was mostly his own blood.
The tendril twiched.
Ed took hold of the offered leash. Only then did he remember how to breathe.
The Hosk raised his writhing, clawing, yellow digits to the black roof and howled so loud Ed Grig felt the wind of his cry blow his hair back:
<grumble grumble grumble I'll have the second part up later>