Day of the Dragonfly

Issue #165

The nighted street was a canyon of carved brownstone. It was raining.

A young man pushed his way to the sidewalk counter and ordered a dish. The cook, a shaved ghul, began tossing sea vegetables and trilobites on the griddle. Pedestrians strode through the rain and steam beyond the circle of white light. A train rattled past on the elevated line.

Rainwater dripped on the young man’s back. He slid forward to get further under the awning. Though of normal height, he was a pygmy next to the phylites around him. He had golden skin and golden hair and eyes like twin jades. His hands were strong and clever.

A girl squeezed in beside him, spraying him with droplets from her poncho.

“A sea-milk,” she said. Her voice was both girlish and peremptory. The man-beast paused to pour her a drink. She put a pin in its hand.

“I’m looking for Keftu,” she said lowly, twirling her glass.

The young man turned to stare at her. She was smaller than he was, with bones that looked as though they might break at a touch. Her brown hair was drawn back in a coiled braid with a white lace bow. He judged her perhaps eighteen.

The ghul finished the plate and set it before him. He dropped a rod in the box. “Why do you want him?”

“Someone told me he knows the Dragonfly.”

“Who told you?” He began eating.

“The old woman who runs the antique mart.”

“Who sent you to her?”

“The man who raises maugrethim for the pit fights.”

He tapped his plate with his fork. “You’ve been plumbing the depths of Enoch tonight.”

“How do you know I did all that tonight?”

“I’d have heard about it otherwise.”

“Well? Do you know him or don’t you?”

“One rod.”

She slid the dramach down the counter. With his fork he moved it under the rim of his plate. “I’m Keftu.”

“I thought as much!” she spat. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

He shrugged without looking up from his eating.

“So? Where do I find the Dragonfly?”

“One rod.”

She grabbed his arm. “Listen, shorty. I only have so many of those. You got your money. Now tell me where to find him.”

He looked at her. “Why do you need him?”

“That’s not your concern.”

“Fair enough. But the Dragonfly’s busy. If he didn’t hide out, people would be after him all the time. He likes to make sure they’re serious before they come bothering him. What I’m asking for is earnest money.”

She clapped the rod on the bar. He moved it beside its mate. “Follow this street to its end. Building on the left. Third story. He’ll be expecting you tomorrow morning.”

Without another word she got up, leaving her sea-milk untasted. He waited a moment, then slipped off his stool and went after her. For a while she just drifted along with the crowds. He kept about half a block behind.

There was an incessant commotion of mechanical hisses and screeches and groans, tramping feet, and recorded noises blaring from countless sources, but no one spoke. The downpour went on unabated. The storm drains were cataracts, carrying the water to the nearby sea. Keftu ducked his head down and thrust his arms in his tunic.

Suddenly he realized he could no longer see her. He shouldered his way to where he’d last spotted her. An alley opened on the right. He ran down to the back street and looked out.

The railway and crowds had been left behind. He was in an uninhabited district where the windows were like skulls’ empty eyes. The narrow streets were quiet rivers of ink.

Something clattered. He dashed silently after it. He was just in time to see the girl going up the steps of an abandoned building. A moment later an oil lamp lit up one of the windows. The girl’s silhouette was thrown against the grimy glass. She seemed to be alone.

The rain had slowed down. The wet street was a mirror of the sky, a river of corpse-light.

It was morning. Keftu stepped out of the steam lift. Sea air drifted in through the open window. Brown cliffs fell sheer from the tower’s foot to the crashing surf. Farther out, big black rocks waded in the green, glassy sea, wet with salt spray.

The building was one of a continuous chain that ran along the cliffs. Such was Enoch, the world-city, the coast-long downtown that surrounded the sea on three sides like a giant omega. But here on Lesser Panormus, the peninsula that reached like a hand from the northern coast, this arrangement was inverted, and the ocean-girding city enclosed land instead.

He unlocked his door and went inside. The walls were veneered with soapstone carved into square spirals and hung with relics. He opened a window and sat in his chair.

There was motion in the adjoining room, whose outer door he always kept unlocked. “You can come in,” he called.

The girl thrust her head through. She gasped. “You—you maugreth!”

“Surprised?”

“You said the Dragonfly would meet me here!”

“He has. I am the Dragonfly.”

“You’re lying. Why, if someone like you could help me, I’d have gotten help already, with a lot less trouble.”

He shrugged. “You can take me or leave me. But perhaps you’ve had a description. That’s my armor over there.” He jerked his head toward a corner.

The panoply hung on a tree—cuirass, arm guards, greaves, helmet, all of bronze, green with eld, partially burnished by blows. A dragonfly stood out on the breastplate. Moss forests flourished on the arm guards and greaves.

“He died, most likely,” the girl said, “and you robbed his corpse. Or stole it outright from his house. You have the look of an undernourished footpad.”

Keftu laughed. “You don’t look so well-fed yourself, at least next to phylites. Well, just as a matter of form, perhaps you’ll sit down and tell me what your trouble is...?”

“Yanesa,” she said, sinking reluctantly into a chair. “People call me Yani.” She leaned forward, and said in a low, urgent voice: “I come from the City of Anadogra. I am the archon’s daughter of the House of Zim.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s in the inner city, not more than a hundred miles from here.”

“How could it be surrounded by the city and I’ve never heard of it?”

“Haven’t lived in Enoch long, have you?” she said. “Wait. It’s just dawned on me.” Her eyes narrowed. “Where are you from?”

He leaned back. “Arras.”

“Arras. I’ve heard of that. Some old story. A place in the desert.” She shook her head. “You mean to say you’re an autochthon?” She frowned.

“We didn’t consider ourselves such. Anyway, I’m the last of them. I was the phylarch’s son, though, so perhaps even the archon’s daughter of the House of—what was it you said your House was?”

“Zim. Of the City of Anadogra.”

“Perhaps even the archon’s daughter of the House of Zim of the City of Anadogra might deign to take up with me without fear of sullying her hands. How large is Anadogra, by the way? Its population, I mean.”

“Well, there’s us—me, and my father the archon, and my older sister, the heir—and the free oikoi and thralls. Perhaps fifty all told. Our traditions tell us that we dwell in the garden of man’s infancy, and that all men are our children, all lands our colonies.”

“Uh-huh. So what’s the trouble?”

“A year ago a worm descended out of the sky. We’d never seen anything like it. It ravaged the fruit-fields and patties.”

“Rather selectively, I imagine,” said Keftu.

“Yes. How did you know that?”

“It wants something. The worms of Anûn don’t go in for wanton destruction. It’s just trying to make its point. Which is what?”

“I don’t—”

“What does the worm want?”

“Oh. My sister. It wants to devour her. My father is to chain her to a rock the day after tomorrow. Once the worm has her it will leave us in peace.”

“Want my advice?”

“That’s why I came, isn’t it?”

“Let it have her. Better for you, better for everyone else. Not so good for your sister. But you’ll recover.”

Yani’s face turned white. She got up. “That will be all, thank you. Perhaps it wouldn’t occur to you that I love my sister.”

“Wait,” said Keftu, also rising. “Someone needed to put the thought in your head. It’d be no good to me to have it suddenly occur to you after I’ve stuck my neck out.”

“Then you will help me?”

“That depends.”

She sat down again and opened her reticule. “I can afford two good meals a day as long as you’re in my employ, and a room to sleep in tonight.”

“Yes?”

“Will that do?”

He laughed. “I’m waiting for you to get around to the reward.”

“Reward? Didn’t I already—? Why, how foolish of me. The reward is the hand of my sister. The one who saves her will become the royal consort. Here.” She drew a cameo from her reticule and handed it over.

Keftu took it. He could see the resemblance between Yani and her sister. But where Yani’s face was thin and shrewd, her eyes narrow and haughty, the sister’s face was open and finely sculpted and full of light.

“She’s beautiful,” Keftu said. He looked up. “I’ll do it.”

They had the compartment to themselves. Keftu wore his armor openly in the sparsely populated inlands. A compact case was bound to his back by leather bands, and a sword hung at his side. Yani sat across from him, wrapped in a white shawl. There was hardly anyone else on the train. Keftu was watching the bleak landscape fly past.

The city’s conquest had been incomplete. Towers were crowded right up to the edge of the winding coastline at every point. The fingers that divided inlet from inlet were overbuilt, and the isthmus itself was a maze of streets and towers undercut by shipping tunnels. But the interior, the palm of the outstretched hand, was a desolation of volcanoes and pumice deserts and industrial wastelands surrounded on all sides by the winding metropolis.

Now the inland districts were falling into ruin. Many had been isolated by the slow ebb of the population. Strange tales were whispered of them. And there were dark corners left as they had been since the Elder Ages, cut off by the encircling city, with old wild things still hiding in them.

“You called it a worm of Anûn,” the girl said suddenly.

“Did I?”

“What did you mean by that? Did it really come from the moon?”

“Most likely. I don’t know for certain. But worms gnaw at the heart of Anûn. Sometimes they descend to Earth. So the old stories say.”

“What are they?”

“They’re said to be neither living nor nonliving, but something else altogether. They were formed by gods before man was a dream, to serve as vehicles and fell weapons. They repose in seminal form deep within the Earth and beneath the face of Anûn. From time to time one comes to maturity.”

“Why would it want my sister?”

“Who can say? Perhaps it just wants to make Anadogra bend. They hate anything ancient and ordered.”

“Will you be able to kill it?”

“Haven’t you heard what I’ve said? It’s not alive. But I’ll do what I can.”

“You’re probably making half of that up,” Yani said. “A shiftless, undersized autochthon. And I take up with him.” She shook her head. “But I’ll be rid of you soon enough.”

The train was rattling across a plain of dun earth dotted with sagging buildings. Here and there stands of gray nimlath trunks pointed into the pale sky like warnings. Away to the northeast a single cone towered above a cluster of smaller peaks.

The tracks passed into an industrial district, a wilderness of warehouses. Yani pulled the chain. There was a hiss of brakes. The line of cars slowed as it crossed a drainage channel and came to a stop at a platform.

They were the only ones to get off there. The train moved off and vanished around a curve. A gate clanked in the breeze. The place was deserted.

“Looks promising,” said Keftu.

Yani led the way to the main road, which pointed northeastward. It was like a ravine with walls of concrete and rusted metal. Long-abandoned tracks ran beside it.

They hadn’t gone far when they encountered a maugreth, with the scaly, bristly skin, skinny legs, and long claws of its kind. It bared its ophidian teeth. Keftu brandished his sword at it, and it vanished into an alley.

The district went on for miles, gradually dropping. At last they approached a gorge that cut across their path. The road bridge was gone and the truss bridge sagged dangerously. “What now?” Keftu asked. “Did you cross that?”

“I think I came a different way.”

“But you’re not sure?”

“I’m fairly sure.”

“Are we going the right way now?”

“Oh, yes. I know where we are, more or less.”

There was an old aqueduct to the south. Keftu pointed with his sword. “We’ll cross that.”

Someone whistled. They both turned. Three gaunt scavengers emerged from a warehouse and stood in the middle of the road. One was wearing a travesty of a dress and had a savagely rouged face. The other two had armor pieced together from scraps.

“Nah. Nah. Nuh-uh,” said one of the latter, apparently the leader. “You just turn round and go back on out where you came from.” He leered, revealing rotten teeth. His arms were covered with sores.

Keftu guided Yani into a warehouse on the left. The scavengers jeered at him from the street.

“What? Are you afraid of them?” Yani whispered.

He ignored her, exploring the building. It had a concrete floor and metal walls; chains dangled from the darkness above. He searched the back but couldn’t find a way through, so he returned to the street. Yani stood in the doorway behind him.

The men were still there. “Nah,” the leader said. “Nuh-uh. You’re still going the wrong way.” Now he had a pole topped with a saw-blade in his hands. “Have your whore beg for your life, and maybe we won’t kill you too slow.”

“I’m an archon’s daughter, not a whore,” Yani said haughtily. “And I’ll have you know that you’d be doing me a favor. This is just a worthless autochthon who’s following me about.”

The scavengers roared with laughter. Keftu set his hand on his hilt. Tinges of bronze-green forked along his tawny limbs. The leader swung back his weapon. Keftu leaped forward and clove the man’s skull from crown to chaps. The other two dropped their arms and ran.

“Come on,” he said. The green was already fading from his limbs. He went into the next warehouse. At the back was a little room that stank of urine. The door was chained but there was a window beside it.

He turned. Yani hadn’t followed him. He went back out to the road. She was just standing there, staring at the body, which was already being worried by a maugreth. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”

She started and looked up at him. “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

“Well, it has to be done sometimes.”

“No, I mean the way you killed him! Down to his throat in one blow!”

“Right. Let’s get out of here, before his friends come back for his body. They won’t let that meat go to waste without a fight.”

She followed him into the warehouse. “It must be that armor,” she said. “You stole the Dragonfly’s armor, and now it lends you his strength. What a thief you are!”

Keftu took up a brick and smashed the window. He cleaned out the shards and climbed through. “Come on,” he said, holding out his arms.

She came and swung herself through on her own, pushing him aside. She winced when she landed and looked at her hand. A streak of blood was smeared across her palm.

“That was foolish,” Keftu said. “Here, let me see.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “Let’s just go.”

Keftu led the way along the top of the drainage channel. When a pile of rubbish blocked their path they slid down the concrete embankment. A ribbon of moisture ran down the center, orange and slippery. They followed it to the aqueduct.

It was an ancient structure, built of big blocks of stone. They walked along the edge of the trough. The floor of the gorge was hidden in shadow, but flickering lights shone through bleary windows clustered like spiders’ eyes. Clouds of foul steam wreathed the buildings.

They reached the far side. The channel turned south to follow the gorge. They climbed a slope of weedy scree and regained the road. They were in a tenement district now, the old workers’ city. Side streets branched off in every direction, but the main road continued as before.

They’d gone a mile or two when something made Keftu turn. They were being stalked by a pack of maugrethim. “There,” said Yani. “Opponents more to your liking. You probably ate vermin like that in the desert.”

Keftu rushed them, but to no effect.

“Or perhaps not,” Yani called. “No wonder your people went extinct.”

Keftu drew his sword and approached more slowly. The leader yowled and leaped at his throat. He cut it down, then fell on the others. One he beheaded and another he rove through the vitals. The rest fled. He wiped his sword and returned to Yani.

“Say what you like about me,” he said. “Leave Arras out of it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, taken aback. Keftu strode past her, and she fell in behind him.

The road was winding amongst the knees of the peak now. Buildings climbed the gray slopes. Abandoned tram lines ran up to old mines. The neighborhood narrowed as they climbed to a saddle. They crested the rise and looked out.

The broad basin beyond was the seat of what had once been a richer district, with small tenements of brown-black basalt and glittering glass. An old lava flow had inundated half of it. The twin campaniles of a buried temple stood out of the rippled gray stone that ran up to the snow-capped cone. Other buildings lower down appeared to wade in it.

“Now I know where I am,” Yani said. “We’re close to the Guardian’s gate.”

Gongs began to reverberate in the temple. A litany that was somewhere between a chant and a moan insinuated itself through the exposed arches. Votaries started emerging like swarming ants, some weeping, some laughing ecstatically. They were a blend of phylite and helot and ghul with the helot predominating, pallid and pink-eyed.

They formed a procession with a youth on a starved cheboth at their head. He was crowned with a wreath and held a scouring rush in his hand. They went along the lava ripples to a road that crested a sharp ridge thrown out by the cone.

Evening was falling. Keftu led the way down amongst the buildings. An effigy sat at the first intersection like a warning. It was made of coarse black sacking, with long, ropelike arms and legs; it had two yellow buttons for eyes and maugreth fangs for teeth. They continued past it.

The first inhabited tower was a hotel. “What do you say to that?” Keftu asked.

“It’ll do, I suppose. This neighborhood has a bad reputation.”

“You don’t say.”

He held the door for her and followed her inside. A helot sat behind the counter at the far end with his hands folded across his soft belly. His placid, froglike eyes hardly shifted as Yani approached.

“Two rooms,” Yani said.

“Nine rods,” the helot replied.

Yani opened her reticule in consternation. She blushed. “Well, I—”

“One room will do,” Keftu said.

She looked up at him and turned bright red. “Listen to me, you—”

“What are you afraid of? You can trust me. If you can’t, well, you’re at my mercy anyhow, aren’t you? Just pay the man, and let’s get something to eat.”

“Fine. One room.”

“Five rods,” the helot said.

“But you just said—”

“That was with the discount.”

Keftu leaned across the desk. “Four rods. That’s our final offer.”

The helot shrugged. “Have it your way. Room three two one.” He took the payment and handed over a key.

Dinner was unsettling. The nearby saloon was dark and crowded. They were the subject of evident curiosity. The host overcharged them for the meal, but it didn’t seem the place to protest.

Afterward they returned to the room. It was at a corner of the building. A dusty mattress sat in an iron frame with each leg in a bowl. A washstand with a porcelain basin and pitcher stood beside it.

Keftu slid one window open and looked out. There was a ledge below the sill. Another building stood across an alley. It had a fire chute. He went over to the other window, which gave upon the main road, and opened it wide.

“What are you doing?” Yani asked.

“Looking around. You may as well fill those bowls. That way we won’t have any visitors in the night.”

She did as he’d said. He beat the mattress, then laid his sword lengthwise down the middle. They got in and sat side by side with the blade between them.

“The House of Zim of the City of Anadogra isn’t exactly wealthy, is it?” said Keftu. “One of these fine old branches whose riches are in their blood.”

“We’re rich beyond what any autochthon could imagine,” Yani said.

“Then why are we staying here? Where’s your retinue?”

She shrugged in the darkness.

“You weren’t sent by your father, were you? Is that reward something you just made up to get me here?”

“No!” she said. “It’s all true. My father proclaimed it. Only—”

“Yes?”

“Well, he forbade me to go out any more, after the last one died.”

“So I’m not the first.”

“No.”

“That’s fine. I just like to know where I stand. Here, let me see it again.”

Yani got the cameo out of her bag and handed it over. Keftu held it close to his eyes, so that he could see it in the near-darkness. “She really looks like this?”

“No,” said Yani. “She’s lovelier by far. She can be kind and merry like a country maid, beautiful and terrible like a star goddess. My people worship her very slippers.”

“And you do too?”

“She’s everything to me. You’ll understand when you see her.”

“What’s her name? I haven’t even asked you her name.”

“Her name,” she said, “is Yolara. But I call her Yoli.”

“Yolara. And your father?”

“He is the Lord Baslark.”

A floorboard creaked in the hall. “What was that?” Yani whispered.

“Come with me,” Keftu said. “Make no noise.” They rolled off the mattress as quietly as they could. Keftu gestured to the side window with his sword. Yani slid it open and climbed out to the ledge, where she clung to the wall. He followed her, sliding the window down so that it was almost closed.

There was a rap on the door. Silence. Then a crash and a guttural roar, a sound of shattering wood and plaster, a tinkling of porcelain breaking into shards and being trodden underfoot.

Before she could protest Keftu took Yani in his arms and leaped across to the fire chute. He kicked in the window and stepped inside. By ill luck the manager caught sight of him. “There!” he shouted, pointing.

Keftu set Yani down. He broke through the door and led the way to the stairs. At the foot of the first flight the floorboards gave way. He crashed through another story before he reached the ground floor in a heap of dust and splinters.

Yani made her way down without mishap. She touched him. “Are you all right?”

“I think so.” He looked up. Yani followed his gaze. Heavy footsteps sounded above.

“I told you this place has a bad reputation,” she said.

“Then why in blazes did you bring us here?”

“It’s the quickest way to Anadogra. But every way has its own difficulties.”

“What could they be looking for? They know we don’t have any money.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, come on,” he said.

They made their way to a back door that gave upon another alley.

It was quite dark now and beginning to drizzle. Threading the narrow byways, they soon found themselves in a dead end with brick walls all around. There was a narrow wooden door to one side. Keftu threw himself against it three times before he realized that it was unlocked. He lifted the latch and went through, with Yani holding onto his cuirass.

It was too dark to see anything. Keftu groped his way across a few rooms into a long corridor. They rounded a corner. A glass double door stood at the end of the next reach. They went out and found that they had regained the road. The saloon was directly opposite.

A group of helots was gathered there. Keftu nodded to them. The girl clung to his back.

All at once the men rushed him. He drew his sword but they were on him before he could bring it down. Their numbers bore him down. Yani was torn from him. He began to lash out with his fists. The helots went mad. His head exploded with pain as they pummeled him with clubs and mallets.

Soon he was down on the ground, trying to shield himself from their kicks. Blood streamed from his nose and mouth.

Mad with fury, they began assaulting one another as well. Someone—Yani—shouted for them to stop. She began to scream. Her voice sounded as though it was coming down a long tunnel.

When he came to he wasn’t sure how long he’d been out. He was on the floor of a dark storeroom, probably at the back of the saloon. An argument was going on outside the door.

He dragged himself over to listen. “...only one way to do it,” someone was saying. “All our knives out at once. Even if he is awake, he can’t get more than one or two of us, if any. The sooner the better.”

“I’ll have no part of it. You fellows were the ones that threw him in there like that. You deal with the mess you made.”

“Then you’ll have no part of her,” the first voice replied. “We’ll tell him you wouldn’t help us.”

“But it’s my place! It’s only fair that I—” He was cut off by a clamor of protests.

Keftu rolled over to look around the room. Dim light filtered through a window at the top of a pile of barrels and crates. There were cans of kerosene at the bottom. He was still armed—that’s what they were arguing about—but Yani was nowhere to be seen.

He crawled over to get one of the cans. There was a crowbar leaning in the corner. He got that as well and returned to the door.

The argument had come to blows. He opened the can and tipped its neck down to the crack under the door. The fuel flowed onto the floor outside. The can was about empty when someone saw the spreading pool. “Hey, look,” he guffawed. “He must be more scared than we thought.”

Everything got quiet. The owner swore. “That’s not—” There was a scuffling of feet. Keftu threw the can away and brought the bar down on the floor. Sparks flew but didn’t catch. He tried it again. Blue flames licked across the foot of the door and flowed under it. There were shouts and screams out in the saloon now.

Laughing idiotically, Keftu crawled up the mountain of crates, slid the window open, and wriggled through. He dropped into an alley.

He got to his feet, using the wall for support, and staggered into the darkness. Soon he was on a lava-ramp between the buildings. He paused every now and then to catch his breath. He got up above the rooftops and struck the path he’d seen the procession on. Now crawling, now staggering, he followed it to the sharp ridge and down into the next valley.

The moon was shining through tatters of damp cloud. Huge, huddled shapes stood like slouching giants in the drifting light, twisted hillocks rising out of carpets of yellow moss. It was a scrapyard.

There were furtive noises in the heaps. A shadow flitted from one to another. Something nipped at his calf. His senses swam and he sank to his knees. Sharp fangs began worrying his arm. As he slumped to the sickly turf his only hope was that the maugrethim wouldn’t wake him as they stripped his bones.

A hunchbacked figure materialized out of the night. With a crutch it began to swing at the beasts, driving them away. Once again Keftu began to laugh madly. He laughed himself asleep.

It was day when he opened his eyes. He was lying on a cot in a little room with white paneled walls. The carpet was a faded yellow-green. Through a dirty window he could see towering nimlathim with canopies of black needles. The sky was overcast.

Someone had taken his armor off and bathed his wounds. He looked around. His things were piled in the corner. He sat up, groaning, and swung his feet down. “Hello?” he called.

An old man leaned through the door frame. Keftu recognized him from the scrapyard. He was lame and had a twisted back. His hands were thick and clumsy-looking.

“You hungry, young sir?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Keftu. “Listen, regarding last night. I—”

“Say nothing of it. Come on.”

Keftu got to his feet. His host led him down a hallway into a kitchen. A table sat before a big window. It looked out upon a mossy sward that ran up to a wall of nimlathim. A gravel path led from the house into the wood. Gaunt gray peaks stood over it all.

“Where am I?” muttered Keftu.

“Inner City Lapidaries. Providing Enoch with finest quality work for forty-two years.”

Keftu turned to face his host. “And who—”

“Elgin is my name. Have a seat.”

Keftu sat down. Elgin brought over a plate with a few slabs of gray cake and a jar of pickled eggs. He sat down and poured two mugs of tea. “Here,” he said, handing one to Keftu.

“Thank you.” Keftu scratched the back of his head. “I had some untoward experiences yesterday, so perhaps my head’s not on quite straight. Did I hear you say you’re a lapidary?”

“That’s right.”

“You make a living how?”

“By selling jewelry, naturally. I make it all right here at my shop. Finest quality. I also sell fossils and crystals.”

“To whom? The helots around here?”

“No, no, of course not. Collectors from all around the peninsula know my work.”

“Do you advertise? You’re not exactly in a central location.”

“You can’t get more central than the inner city, sir. And quality work doesn’t need to be advertised. Anyhow, you know phylites. They love to find out-of-the-way sellers to show off to their friends.” He grinned. He was missing several teeth. “And what brings you to these parts, might I ask? Eh?”

Keftu scowled at his tea. “Why did I come here?” He leaped to his feet. “Yani! Did you see a girl when you picked me up?”

“A girl?”

“A tiny thing, with dark hair in a bun, wearing a white shawl or some such thing.”

“I didn’t see any girl. But if you came over the ridge there—”

“Yes? What?”

“Well, they’re probably going to sacrifice her to the black god.”

“When? How? In that temple?”

“No, no. They hold a rite in the temple, then take the victim up the mountain to be devoured by the god.”

“I need to save her!”

“You’ll not find her in the temple and get out alive. Best wait until they’re bringing her by. Won’t be until midday at the earliest. Sit down, have some breakfast.” He pushed the plate toward Keftu.

“Well,” said Keftu, “if you’re absolutely sure...”

“Sure I’m sure. Have a seat.”

Keftu sat down. He took a slab and began to eat. “Since you’re feeding me rather than killing me, I presume it’s safe to ask what’s going on around here.”

“Nothing much to tell. There’s just me and those people over yonder and the temple and the black god.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What is this black god? An idol?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. He’s one of the Old Ones, descended out of the deeps of time. Older than some of the fossils I have around here. Say. That reminds me. Do you like fossils?”

“Well, I—yes, as a matter of fact, I have a professional interest in them—but I don’t—”

Elgin got up. “Come on,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

Keftu wiped his lips and pushed back from the table.

They went into a little shop at the front of the house. Exquisitely made jewelry sat under glass cases. A shelf along the wall held fossils, some of which were beautifully finished. Through the screen door could be seen tables with bins. Beyond them was a sagging shed.

Elgin showed him all over the shop, discussing the finer points of his craft. Bells and gongs could now be heard ringing through the trees outside. “What’s that?” asked Keftu.

“That? Oh, that’s the procession up the mountain. They’re taking a victim to the black god.”

“Now? I thought you said they wait until later in the day!”

“Well, not always. Now, over here—”

Keftu rushed past him to the room where he’d spent the night. He hastily donned his armor and girded himself with his sword. Elgin was in the corridor when he came out.

“Wait a minute, young fellow—” Elgin stammered.

Keftu stumbled past him and through the shop to the front door. He went bounding across the sward and into the shadow of the trees. Elgin kept calling for him to come back, but Keftu ignored him.

He was running uphill. The black pines soughed balefully over his head. He emerged upon the path, at a place the procession had already passed. Cautiously he followed along behind.

Soon he came out into the open. Above him stretched a rocky hillside clothed in mosses and lichens. It was a cinder cone linked to the larger one by a sheer curtain of basalt columns. The path wove back and forth to a notch in the crater.

The procession was halfway up, a long line of robed helots, with Yani riding the starved saurian at their head. She wasn’t tied, and Keftu wondered why she didn’t try to escape.

He went after them, cutting across the switchbacks, keeping under the cover of boulders as much as possible. He blended in well with the vegetation, for the vitality of elder ages coursed along his clean limbs, lent by his ancient panoply. He was close to the tail as it vanished into an archway in the black wall that reached across the notch. With a single bound he leaped to the top.

The bowl held a lush moss garden, cool and moist and dark, overshadowed by towering pernathim whose pale, scaly stems bifurcated high above into waving white boughs bearing livid leaves. The procession was already invisible amongst the herbaceous pillars.

Keftu dropped lightly down and dashed along the path, his sandaled feet making no noise on the coarse black sand. As he neared an open place he circled around through the undergrowth.

A dark pool was cupped in the pit of the basin. The helots stood on the hither shore. Two were poling a raft across to the far side, with Yani standing upright between them. There an altar of black obsidian sat upon a level terrace.

A tall, thin black figure stood over the altar. It looked to be covered in soft fur. Aside from its small, circular eyes, which were yellow, it had no visible features. It was like something cut out of black velvet. Its form was vaguely manlike, but its narrow head was crowned with two tufts that might have been either ears or hair-covered horns.

Suddenly the creature spread pinions like sheets of starless night and raised its long arms. The men on the barge shouted and jumped into the water. They splashed back ashore as the rest of the party scattered into the garden with a jingling of many bells. One helot stumbled against Keftu, got up, and ran on.

The black figure stooped down and lifted Yani from the raft. It set her on the altar and appeared to speak to her.

With a shout Keftu took two mighty bounds and leaped into the air. He kicked his legs, spreading wide the wings that had been hidden in their case at his back. They were like insect wings, with veins of carved bone and membranes of golden resin, and he drove their gear box with chains linked to his greaves. Like a dragonfly he shot straight over the pool at the black god.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Yani cried.

He faltered in his flight. The giant seized him in its black hands—it was like being brushed by a warm night wind—and swung him back around to the other side of the pool. He had just time enough to retract his wings before he passed between the stems. He crashed into a bed of bracken, momentarily stunned.

Undaunted, he sat up, shook himself, and shot across the pond a second time. He alit on the altar between the girl and the black god. It reared up above him like an eidolon of Night. With a hoarse cry he drove his sword into its chest, but when he pulled the blade back out it was clean.

“Stop that, you idiot!” Yani cried. “This is one of the Guardians of Anadogra!”

“What?”

“It was set to watch over this gate by my ancestors. The people here have apparently taken to worshiping it. But I knew it would recognize one of the House of Zim.”

“But I—”

“Get rid of him!” she said to the Guardian. “He’s just an autochthon who’s been following me about. He’ll only make things worse for my sister.”

The Guardian picked Keftu up, holding his arms firmly against his sides. It drew back and launched him like a javelin. He rocketed through the air, over the pernathim, past the notch, and down the outer slope.

As the black canopy drew near he kicked his legs and extended his wings. He barely had time to adjust his trajectory. With the touch of the first needles he retracted them again and closed his eyes tight.

The boughs lashed his limbs. As he slowed he caught hold of a branch and stopped himself. His body swung down until he was dangling above the earth. He released his grip and dropped, landing on his feet in a bed of needles. The lapidary could be seen through the trunks just ahead.

Elgin came limping up the slope on his crutch. “You rushed off before I could tell you what to do,” he chided.

“What to do about what?”

“About the god up yonder. You can’t kill him, young sir, because his heart is kept somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“In the temple across the ridge. The one the mountain covered over. They keep the heart in a casket inside. It’s an old tradition. There’s always a lookout posted, to destroy the heart if the god comes looking for it. They hold him hostage, in a manner of speaking, though no one remembers why anymore. Perhaps even the god has forgotten, it’s been so long.”

“You mean, all I have to do is find this heart, and the god’s life will be in my hands?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But why should I bother? Yani is past him by now. I’ll just go around.”

Elgin laughed and shook his head knowingly. “If you’re wanting to follow her to the inner lands, you’d best take her path. The interior of Panormus is wrinkled, folded you might say, so that it gets bigger than it ought as you go further inside. You could wander a lifetime before finding even a large place, unless you know the way.”

“Hm. She hinted as much to me yesterday. Perhaps I’ll do what you suggest.”

“Very good, sir. Come back any time. Inner City Lapidaries.”

Several minutes later Keftu was creeping up the rippled stone between the arm of the city and the twin campaniles. The sun was a hazy disk behind the white clouds, and he felt dreadfully exposed against the slope. There was a lookout in one of the towers, but his attention was directed toward the god’s cone, and not at the hillside below.

Keftu reached the shadow of the tower without being seen. The magma had poured down it and hardened into a funnel of stone, a twisted tube widened by hand and worn smooth by the passage of votaries. He slipped into the darkness of its mouth.

At the tower’s base the lava gave out. He stepped into the nave of the temple, which was filled with the dim golden glow of votive candles before images in niches. It was a tall, narrow space, suffocatingly hot, and the air was thick with stale incense.

A low iron fence separated the dais from the floor. The high altar lay beyond. A crystal casket reposed in a house of gold in the high ornate reredos. Beside it a vested priest nodded in a chair. He was a small, hairless man, with plump hands like a baby’s.

Keftu strode up the nave and leaped over the fence. The priest stirred and awoke. When he saw Keftu his pink eyes opened wide. “What do you want?” he stammered.

“I’m here for the giant’s heart.”

“Are you going to kill him?”

“Not if he’ll do as I wish.”

“Oh, please don’t kill him. We love him so. Please don’t kill him.”

“I’ll try not to,” said Keftu. He circled the altar and took the casket from its tabernacle. It was warm to the touch and held a large, black, glistening heart that palpitated spasmodically. It was long and thin and looked to have fewer chambers than a man’s heart.

“Thank you,” said Keftu. “I’ll bring it back if I can.”

It was midday when he reached the pond again. The Guardian was nowhere in sight. There was a pillar with a small gong nearby. He took up the hammer and struck it.

The black god strode out of the shadows beyond the altar. When it saw Keftu it opened its mouth, which was filled with small white teeth, and spread its wings and lifted its arms menacingly.

Keftu held up the casket. The Guardian froze. “Let me past or I’ll destroy it,” Keftu said.

The Guardian seemed to hesitate, then withdrew to the side. It folded its wings and appeared to shrink somewhat.

With a single bound Keftu leaped across. But as he went past the god it sprang at him. He glimpsed it out of the corner of his eye and spun, holding the casket away, threatening to dash it against the rocks. The Guardian retreated to the altar and crouched there.

Walking backward, Keftu made his way up the path between the towering stems. As soon as Guardian was out of sight he turned and ran. He reached a tunnel cut through the side of the basin and threw himself down it. It was long and straight. The point of light far ahead grew larger and larger, and at last he was outside.

An ashy slope fell away before his feet. The few green fronds that grew around the tunnel’s mouth were the only living things he could see. The wrinkled lands rolled away into the distance, dun and gray, touched with pale gold and blue-gray and gray-green and ochre.

The path was a ribbon winding in and out of the pits and chasms, faint but clear. He pursued it with a passion, black heart in one hand and sword in the other, singing a song of his fathers. There were no signs of Enoch, no warehouses or chimneys, no railways or roads. Works of cyclopean masonry crowned some of the ridges, but all was silent and empty.

It was evening when he caught up with Yani. She was traversing a long valley with sloping walls of igneous scree that fell from basalt curtains high above. He sprang silently into the air and flew past her to wait at some clustered obelisks of white quartz.

She must already have seen him, for she wasn’t surprised when he hailed her. “Haven’t had enough? How did you get past the Guardian?”

“Simple. I reasoned with it.”

“You reasoned with it. What a liar you are. What did you do? Wait till it was napping, and sneak past like a thief?”

In reply he held up the heart.

Her jaw dropped. “You didn’t.”

“I did.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t you kill it?”

“I thought it might be better for Anadogra if I didn’t.”

She shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter. No one even knew before now that the Guardians still watch some of the ways. It’s been chiliads since Enoch posed any real threat. You could even have let it go, if you’d wanted to.”

“I wonder. Perhaps I’ll try it later. For now my way lies with you.”

She sighed. “On we go, then. We won’t get much farther tonight. We’re a bit behind schedule, and it’s not safe to wander out here in the dark. We’ll find a cave to shelter in.”

They made their way over a land of ash-hills and entered a chasm. A clear stream ran down it, and they drank their fill. After a few turns they came to a sand hill that spilled out of a high wind cave. They struggled up to it and sat on a ledge at the back.

Yani opened her reticule and drew out a couple of wafers. “I only have two,” she said. “Do you want one?”

“You can have them.”

“One is plenty. They’re filling. Here, take it.”

They ate in silence. The wafer was dense, sweet, and refreshing. It grew dark outside. Keftu took off his armor.

“I’m sorry I said that about your people being extinct,” Yani said.

“It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not. I’ve misjudged you. You’re not a liar or a thief.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll be very sad if you die tomorrow.”

“How many have gone before? I’m just curious.”

“Five. Two died. Three ran away.”

“And you found them all yourself?”

“It’s all I’ve done since the coming of the worm.” She was silent a moment. “Do you miss your people?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to them?”

“They were poisoned. I was on my Walking. I’d just come of age. When I returned they were all dead. So I came to Enoch.”

“This is very wicked, but sometimes I’ve wished my people would all die, and leave me free to wander the world.”

“You wouldn’t say that if it really happened.”

“No, I know. Well, if you’re victorious tomorrow, you’ll have a place to call home.”

“We shall see.”

Yani shifted in the darkness. “This is a solemn occasion, you know,” she said. “There’s to be a rite. My sister has rehearsed for weeks. It’s not often that ceremony intersects with real life.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Well, the last champion who died made something of a scene when the worm got him. It didn’t really matter, because it wasn’t the time of the sacrifice. But I’d hate for something like that to spoil my sister’s day.”

“I’ll do my best to die with dignity,” he said.

She squeezed his hand in the darkness. “Thanks.”

“But I hope it won’t be necessary.”

“Oh, I hope so, too.” She squeezed his hand again. “You looked quite ridiculous when the Guardian threw you over the rim.”

“Yes, I suppose I did.”

She shivered. “I’m cold. Are you cold?”

“No. Come here.”

She snuggled up close to him, and he wrapped his arm around her thin shoulders. She laid her face close to his chest, so that the crown of her head rubbed his jaw. Her hair smelled of sweat and faded perfume.

“I can hear your heart beating,” she said.

They reached Anadogra when it was still dark the next morning. “We’ll wait here,” Yani whispered as they came to the brink of a spur.

The wind from the west was cold and dry, but every so often an eastern breeze smote their faces, sweet and wet and laden with the scent of growing things.

A line of distant rock teeth stood against shimmering silver now. Dawn crept across the dome of the sky. Rose touched its rim.

They stood above a deep caldera with walls of glittering black. A green carpet filled the basin, a grid of horsetail patties, with an island like a ship of stone at the center, crowned with a crystal palace. Here and there great amethysts stood in the water, and the lines between the fields radiated from them or swept around them in concentric circles. A bridge led straight from the base of the cliffs to the palace.

“My people should be coming out. I don’t understand,” Yani said. She gasped. “They’ve already come! Look!”

It was true. A slim figure was dangling from manacles on the largest crystal, which stood midway to the palace. The bridge was empty. The people must have come while they were waiting there in the darkness, mournfully, silently, without candles or lanterns, and returned immediately.

They looked up. A thread of black lay against the sky, spiraling ever lower. They could hear cries from the palace now.

“Do your people know how to make Calemishian fire?” Keftu asked.

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s something that was used in sea battles. Your wise men may know of it. Find out, and if so have them make it.”

“I will,” she said.

He handed her the heart in its casket, then leaped off the cliff. He followed the line of the bridge, mounting ever higher.

The worm was a long, lithe creature with six jointed wings, three on each side, each ending in an outspread purple fan. It had no legs, but its body was lined with black claws. Level sunbeams smote Keftu as he shot toward it. A shout went up from the palace.

He was above the worm now. It was descending upon its prey and still hadn’t seen him. Yolara awaited it with dignity. Keftu held his arms against his body and dove. At the last moment he lifted his sword and slashed, shearing one wing off at the joint. The monster whistled and dropped.

He swung up and out, just over the bridge, and saluted the archon’s daughter. She wore a dress of white silk. Her thick red hair streamed in the wind. He caught a glimpse of Yani running toward the city and then had to face the worm.

It came at him, hobbled now, but swiftly for all that. He avoided a jab of its pronged tail and caught hold of it. Swinging at its end, he retracted his wings and pulled himself along the worm’s body. It tried to throw him off, but he clung tenaciously to its carapace. He shore off a second wing and worked his way forward.

The chitinous spinners that lined the beast’s back whirled with angry glee. As a wing flexed and stretched he slashed at it, tearing the membrane. Now the worm began to drop. He hacked at a fourth wing. The creature managed to curl its tail around him. It latched its claws on his armor and tore him off.

The air rushed past as he fell. He extended his wings, but the wind snapped them. The pinion he’d shorn off the worm was fluttering down just beneath him. He snatched at it with both hands and held it over his head like a parachute. The worm struck the rush-carpet with an explosion of steam and water. He hit a second later and was struck senseless.

When he came to he was on his back in a bed of horsetails. It was midday. Yani was screaming at him from the bridge. “Wake up! Oh, wake up! It’s going to get her!”

He shook himself. “What’s happening?”

“We thought it was dead, but now it’s moving again! Look!”

“Did they make my fire?”

“They’re trying. Hurry, please!”

He leaped into the water and went bounding across the marsh. Each time he landed he sank deep in the ooze, releasing bubbles of methane, the Anadograns’ fuel. The worm was snaking through the water and could only be seen by the divide it made in the rushes.

Keftu tried to grab its tail but it slipped out of his hand. He leaped high in the air and landed on its back. With his sword he slashed a joint in its plates. Hot white ichor oozed out.

The worm curled and coiled itself around him, gripping him with a thousand black claws. It was a thing of phlegm and slime now. Its head shot toward him, a long proboscis surrounded by eyes, and tried to jab his face. He drove his sword up and put out one eye.

Released, he fell to his knees in the water. The worm reared up above him. Blue fire crackled at its mouthparts. Keftu uncovered his head, took up a helmet of water, and dashed it against the worm’s face. There was a muffled boom, and the creature made off with a squeal.

He waded to the rock where Yolara still hung and climbed to the top. “I’ll have you down in a moment,” he called.

“No!” she said. “This is my place. What if you fail? The worm must have its sacrifice.”

“As you wish.”

“What is your name?” she asked.

“My name is Keftu,” he said. “I am the phylarch of Arras.” He sat down, legs crossed, waiting.

Yani came running down the bridge. “They have it! They’re bringing it!”

“Good. Make sure it’s ready.”

They waited through the slow hours of the sun’s ascendancy. It was late afternoon when the worm returned. It shot up out of the water without warning, flying over the crystal like a centipede. Keftu chased it all over the rock, getting in slash after slash but unable to mortally wound it. He was tired. The strength lent by his panoply seemed sinking with the sun.

He stumbled upon the peak. The worm was on him in an instant. It wrapped him around so that he could hardly move. The sharp proboscis stabbed his armor again and again, seeking his flesh. The pronged tail probed him. A chitinous point slid up the inside of his thigh, seeking his life.

Yani saw it. “I knew it!” he heard her call. “You are a son of maugrethim! Good for nothing but worm food! To think I went through all that trouble for autochthon vermin!”

Keftu gave an angry thrust with his knees and tore a coil loose. Planting his feet firmly on the stone he pushed up with his arms and heaved the worm off. Before it could recover he spun and, his sword gleaming like a bolt of golden lightning, shore off its tail, spattering the rock with black bile. He swung again and cut its body in two.

“The fire!” he shouted. “Quickly!”

He leaped down to the water and caught up the wriggling front half of the worm. Holding it far out from his chest he bounded to the bridge and swung himself up. Yani was there with men from the palace. Admiration shone in her eyes. One of the men held a barrel.

Keftu dropped the worm, seized the barrel, and shattered it on the creature’s head. Thick yellow fluid formed a pool on the planks.

“A torch!” he shouted. “Then run!”

One of the men tossed him a torch. He cast it onto the worm’s head and threw himself into the water.

The bridge exploded in flames. With a squeal the worm perished.

Night was falling. Keftu stood before the Lord Baslark on the palace steps. Yolara stood beside her father, a vision of loveliness. Her hazel eyes glistened. Her face was full and glad. Auburn hair fell in rich curls to her waist. Her breasts were tame doves. Yani was with her, holding her hand.

“Noble sir,” said Baslark. “You have saved Anadogra. You have saved my daughter. Receive her hand.”

Keftu strode forward and bowed. Yolara put out her hand, and he kissed it. He stepped back.

“Yani,” he said.

“My noble autochthon.” Yani put her hand out, and he took it, but looked into her eyes instead.

“Be my wife, Yani,” he said.

There were gasps of surprise from the people gathered there to watch. “Idiot!” Yani said. “You’ll ruin it for yourself.”

“Think what you do,” said Baslark. “Her hand is yours, if she is willing. But she stands to inherit nothing.”

“I do nothing without thought,” said Keftu. “Perhaps she won’t have me, though. There’s many a deed that lies still before me, in the devious turns of Enoch. Will you wait for me, Yani?”

“Yes, but not long.”

“Until we meet again, then.” Without another word he spun on his heel and set out across the bridge. The sun was merging with the mountains, a ball of pink glare without heat, a wafer swallowed by the wide jaws of the encircling city. The god’s black heart throbbed in his hand. Whether he would find its owner again was more than he could say.


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Raphael Ordoñez is a mildly autistic writer and circuit-riding college professor living in the Texas hinterlands, eighty miles from the nearest bookstore. His stories have appeared multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and his novels, the first two in a planned tetralogy, are available from Hythloday House. He blogs sporadically about fantasy, writing, art, and life at raphordo.blogspot.com.

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