Saints of San Axolotl

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Echo birds are as common as muck, and about the same color. They’re found only in San Axolotl, where they scurry along the paving stones and under the tables of the street cafes, through trash-clogged back alleys and down the walks of rooftop gardens, looking for scraps and seeds. Once you leave the city, though, the echo bird population tapers off within five miles, and the only specimens anywhere else in the world have glass eyes and are wired to their perches.

Echo birds are not mimics. There are all kinds of mimics in the bird kingdom, from the pygmy mynah to the rare and savage Cassowary Macaw, whose repertoire generally consists of the screams and curses of its last unfortunate victim. Mimicry is no longer a particularly impressive trick. Any old parrot, with time and patience, can learn to whistle the national anthem and make obscene comments, or both at the same time.

The echo bird, however, does something quite beyond mimicry. If you encounter an echo bird, all you will see is a small, nondescript bird, not much larger than a sparrow, with its head cocked to one side and its throat vibrating slightly.

What you will hear is yourself, every word you utter, repeated a half-step behind you in a perfect, if slightly hollow imitation. A flock of echo birds is like a flock of annoying younger brothers, gazing up at you with flat avian eyes and repeating in hundreds of perfect whispers, “Stop repeating everything I say…say….say…”

They don’t limit themselves to people, either. Other birds, dogs, livestock—anything with a voice, the echo birds will repeat in flat, eerie harmony. (They don’t do instruments. Street musicians can play without any back-up vocals from the birds, but every unkind comment by passers-by will be picked up and repeated at length.)

This is a little bit creepy and a very large bit annoying, but the citizens of San Axolotl have largely adapted to it, the way they have adapted to the incessant drone of the summer cicadas or the slender geckos that go pattering over the ceiling at night. Every now and then, some nervous soul does snap and charge at a group of echo birds, becoming the center of a column of wings crying, in a thousand voices, “Make it stop!...stop…stop…” but the general feeling in San Axolotl is that if you were that close to the edge, something was bound to set you off sooner or later anyway.

There are other things unique to the city that are a lot worse than echo birds. Bad things happened in San Axolotl a long time ago, the sort of bad things that cause people to divide their history into “Before” and “After” columns. Things went wrong. People and animals and plants went wrong. Even things as inoffensive as masonry and flowerpots went wrong.

These days, though, you can live your whole live in San Axolotl without encountering anything weirder than echo birds.

It’s because of the saints, of course.

The city was built on saints.

Saints are not like gods. Gods, for the most part, were never human, or if they were, their humanity has long since been crowded out by essential godhood. There is a smiting element to gods. We pray to them at our peril. Waste their time, and there is a tiny, niggling, worrisome feeling that you’re bucking for a lightning bolt.

Saints, on the other hand, are not really smiting types. Many of them were human once, and even the ones that clearly weren’t—St. Viperfish, say, or St. Turnip—were kindly disposed to humanity. Saints understood how people really were, not how gods commanded them to be. You could call upon a saint when you are looking for your keys or fighting with your children, and you knew the saint would understand, and perhaps nudge the keys in your direction or give your teenager a sudden attack of laryngitis. You could pop a statue of St. Toad in the garden, in six inches of cow manure, to guard against borer beetles, or hang an icon of St. Bellephon on the inside of the door to protect against bad news and salesmen, and the saint wouldn’t mind.

Try that with a god, and it’s blasphemy, and a number of people in long robes with no sense of humor are likely to come around and ask pointed questions.

The city of San Axolotl was built on saints—around them, over them, through them, saints that spread everywhere and reproduced like rabbits, a warren of divinity. They were the metaphorical brick and mortar that held the rather less metaphorical brick and mortar together. Without them, the city would have reverted into…the bad thing.

No one was quite sure what the bad thing had been. It had happened about a thousand years ago, give or take, and it had made the city unlivable for anyone who wanted to wake up with the same number of limbs they went to sleep with.

It wasn’t magic. There were wizards in the city, and they were very clear on that. Magic slid off the badness like a rat climbing greased glass. The wizards fled along with everyone else, their familiars hopping or flying or gibbering in their wake.

It wasn’t science. The laws of physics seemed to stop applying when the bad thing hit. Stone walls fell apart, or hatched into hanks of worms, or turned into ghastly wheezing lungs. Animals and people turned inside out and acquired a taste for flesh, or melded with each other in terrible ways. Inch deep puddles became thousand foot sink-holes full of clutching arms, while still drying up on warm days. People woke with no eyes, screaming in strange languages, or didn’t wake up at all.

It wasn’t divine. People prayed to the gods, and the gods said, often in so many words, This is not under our control. Flee. There were no miracles. Whole priesthoods left the city, carrying altars and gold candlesticks on their backs, driving ox-carts laden with sheets of stained glass.

This was not encouraging.

The problem was that no one could get a grip on it. No one was quite sure what the bad thing was, except that it was bad. It twisted things, sometimes little by little, sometimes in great sickening waves that turned the world upside down and reworked people into pitiful and monstrous shapes, like a mad sculptor with too much wet clay. There was no source that anyone could find, no convenient interdimensional rifts to be closed or ancient evils to be defeated. It didn’t seem to come from anywhere, or go anywhere. It was centered on the city, but as likely to strike the outskirts as the center. Some people could see it coming, like a shimmering heat haze, but nobody could stop it.

People tried, of course.

Wizards couldn’t get a grip on it, and they died trying, as soldiers died firing guns at things that weren’t what they looked like and didn’t move like they should. Demons popped out like soap bubbles, breaking their bindings and invocations, which would have been a terror if the demons had been interested in anything but fleeing back to the safe confines of hell. Their sorcerers died with them, or followed their lead and took to their heels.

Refugees left the city in droves, or died, or were themselves swallowed by the taint. The city was abandoned.

For fifty years, or a hundred, the bad thing ran its course, and terrible things happened within the crumbling walls. If you crept close enough at night, you could see flickering fires, and the shadows of many-legged things dancing in the ruins.

But people came back. People always come back. It had been a great city, and fortune hunters saw great profits to be had. And there were always the very poor and the very desperate, those driven out of their homes by war or disaster or plain bad luck, and who found themselves at the ruins of San Axolotl. For a certain kind of person, the perils of homesteading in a city that was actively trying to kill you were preferable to living landless and hopeless anywhere else.

Many of them were killed. The things that lived in the ruins—which might have been people, or the descendants of people, or goats or bits of wall or crossbreedings of all the above—were often hungry, and the ones that weren’t hungry had a tendency to make art out of your entrails, or to twist off your head to see if there was candy inside. It was a dangerous place.  

And then one day someone made—or found or invented or invoked—the first saint.

It made a little clear patch in the taint. In the presence of the saint, the gibbering stopped, and creatures that had been ravening, flickering, misfit things became bewildered dogs and nervous rabbits again. Walls that had melted did not un-melt, but if they had become diseased flesh or withered cactus or paper-wasp nests, they resumed being stucco and stone again.

The saint could not heal damage done by tainted creatures, or fix minds driven mad by unrelenting horror, but it could clear the taint itself.

Others followed—a few at first, here and there, little islands of sanity in the midst of the broken city. More followed. The descendants of the refugees returned to the city, carrying their saints with them, in icons and marble statues and broken stones.

Saints differed widely in their effectiveness, and in what they required. Some saints were content with a single statue, sporadic offerings, the occasional prayer. Others required elaborate ceremonies and ornate temples, ranks of priests and frequent worship.

Generally, the larger the area, and the more tainted an area had been, the more upkeep a saint required. A saint enlisted to watch the back of a single alleyway, which was more prone than usual to producing two-headed kittens and muttering shadows, might be content with offerings of used chewing gum left in the saint niche, and a few drops of cheap wine offered by vagrants drinking under the statue.

By contrast, the badly tainted and desperately poor Milkrun Diocese functions only under the blank eyes of the Scarred Sisters, six saints who require elaborate self-mutilation from their priestesses. There is a serious stigma against Milkrun, although whether from the belief that the taint still affects the people there or the disgust at the rites conducted there is anybody’s guess.
The saints were, in effect, patches. Each saint allowed life to go on unmolested around it. When the taint flared up and things went wrong, a saint was found, or appropriated, or invented, and a shrine erected, and the wrongness stopped happening.

Nobody knew who the first saint had been. A dozen or so competed for that distinction, few of them with any evidence beyond the conviction of their followers. St. Pickerel, represented by a squat toad with feet licked in gold leaf, claimed to have the longest line of continuous worship, but the records around the re-claiming of the city were spotty at best, and no one could say if he had been the first.
Our Lady of Grackles had been known to exist before the city fell into ruin, but her recycling as a saint was a later development, and no one was quite sure if the saint and the goddess were the same person, or if, as so often happened, a saint had been erected that appropriated the goddess’s aspect, but was distinct in its own right.

It was possible the first saint was no longer around, at least not in a form anyone would recognize. Saints did die, falling into disrepair, being annexed by more vigorous competitors, or splitting into a dozen related variants. Saints Stephen, Stefan, Steven, Steve, Steef, Stuphex, and Stuff’an’Nonsense, were all more or less identical, varying only in small details of iconography and location. Scholars said that St. Stefan was the original one, the others calving off at intervals, as sects were born and schismed and died, but then the question arose of exactly how you measured the ages of the descendants—were they as old as their schism, or as old as the saint? Were they even separate beings, or the same saint under different names?—and the only hard numbers were the enormous bar tabs run up by bleary eyed hagiographers.

You could argue that not all saints were good. You could argue a lot of things—whether the shrines to St. Magdelena in her form as Luriscia, protector of child prostitutes, ought to be allowed to stay up (some said no, vile, others, rather more bleakly, said that at least they had a saint looking out for them, since nobody else was.) or should be torn down immediately—whether the saints were actually divine beings or anything but a manifestation of the will of humans for order, given a niche to live in and a corner to watch over—whether they did miracles or just blocked the taint, which was miracle enough.

What you couldn’t argue was that they were there, and that, for some value, they worked, and for most of the residents of San Axolotl, that was more than enough.

Another chunk of writing...this is some stuff I was fooling around with on the topic of saints of a weird fictional city. It didn't really go anywhere as a story, but it was a sufficiently interesting setting that I come back and poke at it occasionally to see if anything wiggles.

I kinda want to build shrines to some of those saints, it's just hard to figure out their icons...I think St. Gereon and the Unsaint hail from there, but I really doubt St. Ungo does. If that makes any sense.
© 2009 - 2023 ursulav
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So fascinating!
Love the idea of this story!
Thank you!