Ash rains down on Tal Mallan slightly less frequently than water does, and on occasion they mix together and the grey, sticky rains happen. To the north there are volcanoes and heavy geological activity, and though Tal Mallan sits on a peninsula, the sea between here and the mainland is not enough to prevent ash clouds blowing over and depositing their load. The volcanoes were erupting today, and up in the sky, in the distance, the cloudbase had turned an angry orange, reflecting in the heavens the fires of the earth below. Without a doubt it meant that we were in for another rain of ash in the next couple of days.
The guards were out in force in the streets in the first and second zones as well; in their dusty ochre and brown uniforms they blended in well with the walls of the houses. They were walking around alert and bright-eyed, hands resting on the da they carried at all times, and their eyes scanning the streets for disturbances.
A sudden scream, cut off in the middle energised all of them, and they broke into a run, converging towards the place the scream had come from. I was sat on a balcony three stories up, drinking cha and listening to the proprietor of this little café bore another patron with tales of his time as a scrimshaver, so at the sound of the scream I set my cup down on the little ceramic-tiled patio table and went to the balcony to look out. From my vantage, I could see the salamander in the Square of the Third Soldier, and the char-grilled remains of the screamer. I admired the guards then; if it were me I would be running as fast as I could away from the salamander, not towards it armed only with a knife.
The salamander was a kind of lizard, its skin ash grey and reportedly as tough as old leather. Its eyes, and it had six, were spaced equally around its lumpen head and were glittering amber orbs with split pupils. Below its eyes were pits, which few people knew about, which detected temperature and effectively allowed it a kind of thermal imaging, an ability to see without light. Natural philosophers up at the university in the sixth zone hypothesized that in the volcanic caves being able to tell which way is hotter is important, especially when the difference is between intolerable and barely-tolerable. It's mouth was still slightly open, and I could see a grey tongue flickering from side to side as it tasted the air. It scrabbled for a moment on the cobbles, trying to dig a hole with powerful, spatulate feet, and then the first guard arrived.
The salamander turned its head alarmingly fast, and exhaled in the guard's direction. A blast of scorching air hit her full on and her hands flew up in front of her face as she turned away, taking the brunt of it on her back. Her uniform, padded and treated to withstand heat, still began to smoulder, and she collapsed to the cobbles and didn't stand up again. While the salamander was doing that though, more guards had arrived, from several streets now.
The salamander's eyes prevented anyone from sneaking up on it, but now it was swinging its head heavily back and forth, trying to evaluate the danger and decide who to attack first. The guards, now that they could see each other, advanced steadily, keeping pace and closing a human net around the creature. When it finally chose and exhaled again, going for a young man directly in front of it, blocking the most direct escape, he was ready, ducking and turning, finally barely touched by the flame-hot air at all. And as he did so, the rest charged, leaping in, stabbing with their das and ripping through the salamander's hide. The blades, like skinning knives, had a hook at the end for ripping, and as the guards pulled away again strips of skin tore from the salamander like a banana opening. Oily pink flesh glistened momentarily in the sunlight, then was covered over by a green ichor that oozed out and puddled on the cobbles. The salamander howled and thrashed, its tail swinging wildly and crashing into a shop-front destroying benches holding tableware and scattering household goods everywhere. It lowered its head, readying to charge, and the guards, moving almost as one, ran in again, leaping agilely, dodging the ooze even as the salamander shook, spattering it everywhere, and drove their das home once more.
The salamander roared again, hot breath playing over the first, luckless guard once more and its legs drove it forward anyway, but the damage done now was too great and at the fourth step its front legs buckled and it collapsed to the ground. The guards, still wary, approached it from behind and quickly cut through the corded muscles in its back legs, ensuring that if it wasn't dead it wasn't going to get up and start again. Then, and only then, I noted, did they attend to their fallen colleague.
And no-one paid any attention to the salamander's first victim, now a blackened effigy on the cobbles, amazingly untouched by the salamander's death throes or its ichorous blood.
I returned to my seat and sipped my tea.