The weapon gleamed in a cavern so deep underground it lay almost nearer the world’s underside than the lands we know. Despite the hollow’s depth the space swelled with light. Magma flowed around a thin pillar of rock that lanced toward a ceiling as thick with stalactites as a porcupine with quills. The stone finger stopped just short of those spikes, and up there the weapon’s violet glow cast an inverted forest of shadows.
From a jagged tunnel mouth two-thirds the way down the cavern wall there rose a perplexed voice. “The geology is all wrong, Bone.”
From the same opening (which, it must be said, was also a third the way up from the searing magma) came a rapt voice. “It’s perfect, Gaunt.”
From the gap, they peered: Persimmon Gaunt the black-clad poet and Imago Bone the grey-shrouded thief.
“The geology,” Gaunt repeated as Bone busied himself with his pack, unloading ropes and pitons and more exotic objects, “is all wrong. But it’s beautiful, I admit. When we return to the surface I shall compose a trifle called ‘Ode Upon a Fiery Pillar of Doom.’ Shall we turn back now?”
“You do not know, Gaunt,” Bone continued, an old, old look in the eyes upon his young face, “how satisfying is this tableau. Many a year I’ve thieved; a thousand walls have calloused my fingertips, a thousand rooftops have leathered my feet, and I consider myself one of the finest—”
“As you are,” Gaunt said on cue, with a slight roll to her eyes.
“... And yet, truth be told, most of my capers have been highly prosaic, city-bound affairs. Oh, once in a while there were retired war-hydras down to a head or two, senile tentacled horrors disguised as chandeliers, pits of spikes covered with stale cockatrice blood, venomous squirrels–”
“—but for the most part, city rich are stingy and unimaginative. I mean honestly, Gaunt, iron strongboxes! Locks with poison needles! Surly thugs with swords! A thief could cry. But this—” He waved a hand at all the hellish majesty. “This is why I should have left city life years ago. It shouldn’t have taken a hundred angry sorcerers to give me a push.”
“Well, we have beheld it,” Gaunt persisted, “and the demesne of your ‘ultimate weapon’ is surely unreachable. Now I counsel that we return to the fields we know and fulfill our quest in a sensible fashion, such as—oh, who can say—kidnapping the emperor of the Eldshore and convincing him of—Bone, what are you doing?”
Bone had busied himself threading the end of one of the very fine ropes through an eyelet at the tail of a claw-tipped arrow. She watched him at work, noting his ferret-like motions, his sandy hair (previously dark but now lightened by months on the road), and the scars upon his face, one left by steel, one by fire.
“Strange as our Earthe is,” Gaunt persisted, “its oddness has its reasons, like the divinity student who affords tuition by dancing burlesque. To the point, the world’s inner heat results from pockets of creation-fire captured at time’s dawn, and from candlewyrms who spawn thence and swim through and drink the fluid rock. But fluid rock should not behave with such restraint. It should long since have consumed that rocky pillar.”
“It seems unrestrained enough to kill us,” Bone observed, touching a vial of black viscous stuff to the clawed tip of the arrow.
“Yes, exactly,” Gaunt said, “so why does the magma preserve the weapon’s resting place? That pillar is clearly maintained by a powerful and ancient magic. It is not, I think, a place for mortals.”
Bone frowned as he handed her a shortbow. “So this place should not exist?”
She’d been practicing, and for a pale poet of Swanisle, she’d a strong arm. She concentrated and let fly, and the arrow found its mark. My skill grows, O you stones! A bull’s eye at fifty! “No, it should not,” she continued. “Nor should the tunnels we have spent days traversing, nor the various crystal caverns we crossed, nor the corkscrewing staircase we descended.”
“You think this is a trap?” Bone said, donning a mask of white, offering the same to Gaunt. He watched her cover up the rose-and-spiderweb tattoo on her pale face and pull a hood over her auburn hair. “Could the cackling skull have steered us wrong?”
“Have skulls been trustworthy, in your experience?”
“For the most part, yes. They have little to hide.” He grunted, unloading a strange assemblage of interwoven sticks with a small claw at one end. “Yet this one was glowing with the cold light of dying galaxies slowly twisting in its shadowy sockets.”
“I might have gotten corroboration, if it had been me. How long ago did the skull give you that tip?”
“Ten years? Twenty...?” Owing to an old enchantment, it was easy to mistake Bone for a much younger man. Sometimes even if the observer was Bone himself.
Gaunt smiled and shook her head. “There is a melancholy about you, Bone, born perhaps of your endless youth. The quest to destroy the forbidden book has stirred you out of that mire. I like seeing you so engrossed with an undertaking. I like the man you become at such times. I will aid you, for now.”
Bone nodded with a touch of rue. Gaunt knew he was aging normally now, a side effect of their use of the same forbidden book against his old enemies, and as he smiled, she felt a fresh arrow of guilt at making him mortal. She had talked him into that caper too.
“You’ve postponed a far more sensible future for all this,” he admitted. “You’re too good to me, poet.”
“It’s well you know it.”
“Come,” Bone said, “permit me to smear this vile protective upon any exposed skin.”
“Such a proposition.”
Yet soon, masked and insulated by what Bone called frostglop, the pair slipped hand-over-hand along the rope secured to the rocky pillar by means of Gaunt’s prodigious bow-shot, the claw-arrow of Bone’s, and a precious drop of ur-glue.
Though they’d looped themselves to the line, the heat and the deadly absurdity of it all made Gaunt feel almost tipsy. Gravity in this realm was more diffident than upon the surface. Despite the magma roiling below, Gaunt felt light and giddy as a girl jumping on a bed. She studied the pillar and, at a particularly difficult juncture, observed a vein of darker stone set within the grey. She had an ah-ha! moment that briefly skewed her balance.
“Are you in difficulty?” Bone shouted.
“No!” Gaunt called back. And thought, I am the best possible Gaunt-suspended-over-magma there could be. And grinned.
More than once she’d risked her life beside Bone, yet each time she’d emerged from the trial proud, if not always smiling. She hadn’t regretted leaving the great city of Palmary in his company, even though travel made it harder to compose the morbid verse which was her first love. The scholar in her, however, was frequently rewarded.
“Bone!” she called. “The pillar is inscribed!”
“Eh?” he shouted back. “The killers have died? What?”
Imago Bone shrugged and scuttled along toward the pillar. He’d learned to pay close attention to Gaunt’s words, even if he didn’t always understand them. In her own way, she was equal in lore to his long-dead mentor, Master Sidewinder. He reached a precarious jagged shelf upon the pillar and began pounding in pitons, finding the grayish dominant stone more receptive than the black vein of darker rock.
“Odd stuff, this,” he told Gaunt as she caught up.
“That’s what I shouted about. This dark vein of rock forms words.”
A dagger flashed in Bone’s left hand. “There are wyrms?” Their masks and the bubbling magma below made it difficult to hear.
Bone looked up and down the calligraphed pillar, like a thief facing a judge’s verbose sentence. “Writing is always dangerous.”
“I recognize the language. It’s Vuuhrr.”
“Vur? I am unfamiliar with it.”
“Vuuhrr, and that’s not surprising,” Gaunt said. “The Vuuhrr were an advanced species of plumed lizard during the prior Solar Age, back when the sun rose in the south. They destroyed themselves in the Motive War.”
“Motive... war? Wars have motives, yes, but can one go to war over a motive?”
“The Vuuhrr could. For they learned to perfectly sense motivations. There’s an old account of them I once translated:
In ancient light did dwell the Vuuhrr
In days when Sun rose in the south
Winged serpents, power pure
Tongues of fire upon the mouth.
When grunting was the speech of man
When cave was woman’s house
The serpents sang of heaven’s span
And their tongues raised molten domes,
Cooled to black obsidian.
There they mastered eldritch tomes
And venerated Light,
Lit the mind’s dark catacombs,
Denied illusion’s might.
No Vuuhrr could hide an angry thought
Nor cloak a burning spite
And a searing web of grievance caught
The Vuuhrr in blazing shame
Until a weapon saved them, all unsought—
Angelic iron to break the flame—
And Eyetooth was its name.”
“‘Eyetooth,’” Bone mused. “Odd. That was the very name the skull used for the weapon we seek.” He frowned. “I do not trust coyly named weapons. I’d rather we sought Brainslicer or Heartbore, say. You know where you stand with a bloodcurdling name.”
“Come,” Gaunt said. “I’ll try translating as we climb.”
Up, and up.
Thirty minutes along, just before the top, Gaunt completed her guess:
This is the dark word that claims breath.
“Ominous,” she murmured.
“What was that?” Bone said, preoccupied with the last feet before the top of the pillar and the purple glow beyond. “Hippopotamus?”
“Something is about to happen,” Gaunt said, and relayed her translation. “The weapon itself might be a trap.”
“Or perhaps the pillar collapses into the magma?” Bone mused.
“Or the stalactites spear us like fish?”
“Mm. I think I’ll burn one of these lovelies, on our current situation.” Bone unwound a line of ironsilk and affixed to one end a firework from Qiangguo, both acquired from strange caravaners crossing the Braid of Spice. To the rocket’s nose he dabbed one of their last drops of ur-glue. He grinned. “I meant to launch this some night from the Pleasure Pinnacle of Amberhorn, when it was time to retire.” Winking at Gaunt he added, “But I no longer dream of infiltrating harems.”
“Was that supposed to be roguishly witty? I just wanted to be sure.”
Bone sheepishly lit a spark with his tinderbox. The rocket sputtered and flew.
It hit the base of the tunnel mouth whence Gaunt and Bone had arrived. The glue held, the ironsilk line shining thinly in the magma-light. Bone pounded in the near end with a piton, then secured two loops of mundane rope for sliding down the line.
“Would you trust this contraption’s weight, Bone?” Gaunt asked dubiously.
“Only against the ‘dark word that claims breath.’ But at least we have our escape route. Thanks for the warning, Gaunt.”
“You are welcome, Bone.”
Together they climbed over the lip of the great pillar, to behold Eyetooth.
Or rather, what must have been be its hilt.
It protruded from a block of stone as more famous hilts of more famous weapons throughout the ages had been known to do.
The hilt, then: the swirls of iron evoked starfish, hurricanes, octopi, galaxies, drains, and in its center winked a fleck of sapphire glowing a peculiar violet—the purple of a clear sky just now forgetting sunset, a sky that recalls irises in your mother’s garden, dark stains of blackberries on your little hands, or the color of sea urchins beside your feet as you take your first wade into the sea, or of mountainsides framing your path on the evening you leave home.
Strange thoughts, Gaunt reflected, watching the sapphire. Aside from the dark block, the iron hilt, and the violet glow, nothing lay visible atop the pillar of stone. “No inscription,” she noted. “No advice as to who may draw this blade.”
“As the trap will surely spring upon me,” Bone said, “my luck being what it is, and I being the more experienced thief...”
“The only actual thief—”
“... I shall pluck the sword, assuming the deed is possible. Should doom approach, kindly scream and escape. Compose a poem about me, should I—”
“What is this nonsense? I’m not abandoning you.”
“We are not bound together, truly. You indeed have poems to complete, and people out there to read them. And somewhere out there, assuming you want him, there must be a good man for you. A man who is not a twice-doomed thief out of time. In more ways than one. To watch someone of your potential perishing beside me... that would be a doom in itself.”
Gaunt shrugged, for poetry could be written anywhere. And was not ‘a good man’ the sort one married? And was not marriage imprisonment? So Gaunt didn’t argue. This did not mean Bone had won. It simply meant she did not argue. She would do as she chose.
Bone slithered forward and deployed his peculiar claw assemblage. He extended it and arranged for the claw to tug at the hilt.
“This likely won’t work,” Bone called over his shoulder. “Probably some mystical combination of sweat, muscle, and will is required. But I prefer contrivance, laziness, and runarounds.”
“This is one reason I respect you,” Gaunt called back.
Bone swung the contraption and plucked at the weapon. He fell over with an oomph. “So light...” he muttered. “I hadn’t expected...”
“Bone!” Gaunt called. “You’ve only freed the hilt, I think! Perhaps the blade snapped...”
Bone looked and saw the sapphire fleck amid iron swirls. But there was not merely a hilt, if a hilt this truly were. There were seven iron extensions the length of his index fingers, each with studs and indentations that had a familiar look to a long-established thief. None of them resembled a sword.
Bone scrambled atop the block for signs of a blade trapped within. There must be some mistake.
But there was no such sign, only seven small holes in the rock, complimentary to the iron extensions.
“Bone!” Gaunt called.
“A key!” he answered. “Merely a key. A complex one, to be sure, but...”
Bone followed her masked gaze, beholding serpentine coils of dark viscous stuff rising from somewhere down the pillar’s sides. They resembled the sinuous obsidian writing. He dropped his contraption and danced along the pillar’s top with the key, grabbing Gaunt’s hand. She ran beside him and snatched one of the lengths of rope he’d set near the ironsilk, looped it over the line, and clinging to the ends she slid out and down, across the void toward the tunnel mouth. Bone stowed the key and followed but felt a wrenching tug on his right foot.
The calligraphy, the dark word, looped around his boot, bubbling and hissing like newly brewed tar. Burning-leather smells rose from Bone’s boot. He kicked off, shrieking, from the pillar of stone, and slid down the ironsilk line. The tendril of the dark word stretched out and out behind him, still sucking at his boot... till the doomed footwear came off with a pop.
Gaunt, reaching the tunnel mouth, spun and watched the malignant calligraphy toss the boot aside with a seemingly contemptuous fling; it hit the magma far below and sank smoldering underneath. The dark word, now almost fully free of its grooves in the rock, tore at the high end of Bone’s line. As Bone neared the tunnel the line collapsed, and he swung wildly and hit the rock face below.
Gaunt grabbed the line, though it cut her palms. “Bone!”
He did not answer. But presently there came a groan, and signs that this groaner was making their way up the face of the rock. Then Bone reappeared with lurch of panic and a crimson blotch spreading at the center of his white mask. They flung their masks off, and the pair, one bleeding from her hands, the other from his nose, fled up the tunnel, always imagining they heard bubbling, sucking noises just behind.
“A key,” Bone was heard to mutter between gasps. “Why would the skull—describe a key—as a weapon?”
“Why would a skull—describe anything?” Gaunt’s voice echoed.
“Well, it couldn’t very well—draw me a picture.”
“You’re too sure—that you know everything, Bone—I once knew a—maimed artist who—managed to paint with her teeth—”
“Digressions later, destinations now—”
“Just another—working day—”
At the known world’s center loomed an ebon mountain crowned in white dazzle. This apex was only ice and snow to a certain altitude. Blackened stone soared above, and beyond that crouched a flattened crystalline summit born of appalling heat. On many a day the sun itself, on its journey around the Earthe, passed within a quarter mile.
Half sunken into the crystal plain, casting immense shadows across cloud-tops at dawn and dusk, reared a black vault. Its stature would be familiar to shipwrights; its proportions would evoke nightmares in undertakers. Its only elaboration was a set of seven keyholes, each hole the point of a silver star wide as a city fountain.
Something stirred. Through suddenly vibrating keyholes came a moan like the forerunner of every cry from each imprisoned throat in all the world’s gaols, galleys, and gladiatorial pits, all the way back to dark galleries in sealed pyramids and pits in idol-strewn grottos and the guts of ancient caves hand-painted with deer and mastadon.
The First Prisoner knew the key was moving.
On a windy pass amid much smaller mountains, with ordinary ice and snow glittering all around, Gaunt demanded, “What now?” as Bone bandaged her hands. “Do we question the Vesperian Oracle? Speak to scholastics at the Discreet Lyceum? Find a locksmith?”
“A key,” Bone murmured, pinning the last wrap. “It’s just a key.”
“Words,” Gaunt said, patting his cold hand with a bandaged one, “are best reserved for what’s not obvious.”
Bone kicked impromptu snowballs into the air with his right foot. This made his teeth chatter, as he was still missing a boot and had to make do with a goatskin shoe. “Maddening! We’re no closer to destroying the bane that we keep locked in Archaepolis. Meanwhile we have not a weapon but a mystery.” He raised Eyetooth. The sunlit metal glinted but revealed nothing.
“A key implies a lock...” Gaunt noted.
“I am certain there was no portal in that stone.”
“A lock implies valuables...”
There came a hint of a smile to Bone’s face, like the first note of morning birdsong.
Gaunt added, “Perhaps the Vuuhrr weapon is not this key, but lies instead behind our hypothetical lock.”
“Yes, them. They had an odd sense of humor if so.”
“Perhaps it was your skull friend’s true purpose that we find the lock.”
Bone frowned. “Now that you mention it, a name returns to me... the Logos Lock. The skull spoke those words... I think...”
“I have never heard of such a device.”
“Nor I,” Bone confessed, “except that once. Now, it occurs to me I investigated the term on my occasional research jaunts, sneaking into the Biblioteca Asteria in Archaeopolis or the Caliph’s Library in Mirabad. No luck.”
“You do know those libraries are famously accessible to the public?”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
“I...” Her voice trailed off like a distracted mountaineer at the world’s edge.
“Bone, you are waving the key...”
“You say that like it’s some vulgar act.”
“Bone, look at it.”
He did. He stared. Then he twisted the key a trifle, to be sure of what he was seeing.
Yes. Its shape changed.
Held in one position, it was as he’d seen it before, a sapphire-eyed handle with seven prongs. As he turned the metal, the shape grew more complex, seven prongs branching into fourteen, then twenty-one, until he held what resembled a small metal tree...
“Try reversing the movement,” Gaunt suggested.
He did. The metal branchings raveled back to seven. He repeated these actions with the same results. “How can this be?” he marveled. “I see no seams, no hinges.”
Gaunt peered, hawklike. “Try continuing the reversed movement.”
Seven prongs flowed smoothly into one.
“What are we dealing with?” Bone said.
“Hush for a moment. Hold still. I must think.”
He had learned it was wise to obey. He wanted to ask, How still? Could he scratch his aching nose? How quietly should he breathe? Were his thoughts inordinately loud, thoughts like How beautiful you look, standing there thinking? She was lovely, and his nose itched terribly. Life was like that, all glories and vexations...
“I said, try shifting your body as you turn the key.”
He did so, turning toward her. He gasped as the prongs separated from the handle entirely. They did not fall, however, but rather tracked his movement even as they doubled and tripled, the new divisions separating also. And it was as though his motion caused the metal rods to be blown upon a wind, for they fanned out to his right like a great wing sweeping toward Gaunt...
He froze, wishing he’d remembered to scratch his nose.
Gaunt said, “Aim it elsewhere! On no account should you point the key directly at a sapient being. I am uncertain how much the shape can expand.”
He turned away, spinning the key down to its basic proportions. “It stayed in one shape earlier. Why is it misbehaving now?”
“I notice you have your thumb upon the sapphire.”
After a little experimentation, Bone said, “Aha. Yes, touching the gem seems to awaken these strange properties. So... the key might conceivably stab someone from a distance?”
“Disconcerting, how quickly you seize upon violent applications.”
“I am a peaceable soul! I prefer all violence to be kept at one remove. Especially if I’m responsible for it.” He frowned. “But surely it can’t grow to gargantuan proportions. I’ve seen magic, even powerful magic. There are limits...”
“Well, I’ve also seen a bit of magic. This seems different somehow. You see, the transitions between the key’s different states are seamless. With magic I would expect something more dramatic.”
“Prismatic flashes, bone-jarring vibrations, ghostly choirs, that sort of thing?”
“Yes. And more abrupt alterations. The way this key’s metal smoothly changes shape seems practically mundane.”
“We must be using different definitions of ‘mundane,’ Gaunt.”
She shook her head. “In my studies, Bone, I’ve read about the possibility of higher-dimensional objects. Complex forms that only partially impinge on our plane of existence. Such things might appear to change shape as different aspects of them pass through our familiar three-dimensional environment. They might even appear discontinuous. I venture Eyetooth is such an object. It may be that only its handle will remain consistent. Perhaps not even that.”
He thought about this. “I understood perhaps every third word. But I think you are saying that the full extent of the object is impossible to know?”
She nodded. “Its true mass may be mountainous.”
He stared at it.
She sighed. “Once again you are considering its use as a weapon.”
“Actually, I was wondering if such a thing might be used to conveniently haul treasure. Though I can see advantages to hitting a foe with a portable mountain...”
“Incorrigible. You are neglecting a more important question. What manner of lock requires a higher-dimensional key?”
“One that guards a higher level of treasure?” Bone mused. “And my friend the skull wanted us to have that treasure, surely...”
“I think we should get that corroboration I spoke of.”
“And learn about this treasure, yes! I know just the people. They’re just over the hill in Loomsberg. Well, not people, precisely. And it’s probably more like a thousand hills.”
She rolled her eyes but also drew the sign of the Swan Goddess over her heart. “Lead on, my bootless thief.”
There was a kingdom of evil. No kingdom starts as a kingdom of evil, and many such find their way back to a modest and decent path after a few adolescent centuries of invasion, oppression, and architectural narcissism. But there are a few who walk the path to its end, like Jargoskaraklarga.
As its statutorily beloved ruler Jargo XIII once said over the shallow grave of Jargo XII, “If there’s no god of evil, it’s necessary to invent him. This, then, is his first sacrifice.” Jargo XIII soon raised a hundred statues of Klarga, god of power and lamentation and doilies (doilies being something Jargo XII, the colossal slob, had forbidden.)
“Someone seeks the First Prisoner, master,” Jargo XIII’s seagull, Johann Sebastian, told him from atop a doily set onto the head of a palladium bust of Klarga in Jargo’s sanctum. The god’s aquiline countenance looked grim as an executioner, stern as an inquisitor, smug as a card cheat. Jargo XIII, who aside from raw materials greatly resembled dread Klarga, thoughtfully smoked a pipe and carefully tapped the ashes into Klarga’s mouth. His salt-and-pepper beard was neat as a new arrowhead. His tanned bronze skin and fine physique were the result of the miniature sun in the left pocket of his black robe and the muscle-enhancing serum in his right. His shaved and tattooed head was a map of the world he meant to rule.
“I beheld it in the daily augury,” the seagull went on. “I flew to the Temple of Slippery Truths myself and made sure they offered up a wizard this time.”
“Anyone we know?”
“It’s difficult to tell them apart from the inside.”
Some preferred ravens for their lurking-assistant needs, but in Jargo XIII’s opinion such people had not made a proper study of seagulls. He reached across his soothingly tidy desk of teak imported from jungled Kpalamaa, lowered his hand into a tall box, and from it tossed the gull a miniaturized dissident. Puffing, Jargo XIII thoughtfully listened to the dissident’s tiny wails as the gull swallowed it, the renowned author of Jargo XII, a Tragical History in Five Acts and One Axe.
“You cannot be serious, Johann Sebastian,” Jargo XIII said. “The pathways are all watched.”
“I have no sense of humor, nor irony,” said the seagull with a belch. “I have consumed so many sublime souls that if such could rub off upon me, they already would have. Do you have more playwrights?”
Jargo consulted the box. “Only a couple of rogue generals.”
“Chewy,” the seagull squawked. “Perhaps later.”
“I’d best find another hive of rebellion soon. Where is the key now?”
“The entrails place it in the mountains along Eldshore’s eastern border.”
“We may yet have time. Attend.”
First, Jargo found a flask of bubbling blue slime and drank. Next he opened a beaker and set it upon the stone floor. Last he climbed onto the desk, raised a vial of transparent liquid, and sipped. He quivered, shook, and shrank, a mass of writhing red mist peeling off him and shuddering into the beaker, where it congealed and frothed, somehow conveying the attitude of a newly caged animal.
Jargo, or to be precise a perfect homunculus of Jargo bearing a compressed version of the true Jargo’s brain, now took up much less of the desktop, for he was half the size of a common quill. The froth in the beaker contained enough of his memories to form a substitute Jargo should the homunculus not return. But there was little worry of that.
“I take it,” the seagull said, “the blue stuff is a loathsome poison to which only you are immune.”
“Indeed,” said the tiny Jargo. “You have an appetite.”
“I was merely observing. When you are ready to die, you’ll stop being cautious. All beings secretly want what’s coming to them, as I remind myself when my food shrieks. I assume we are intercepting these interlopers at Starfang?”
“Without delay. A way of life is at stake.” He waved gallantly to his errant generals in the box as he strode to the bust of the god of evil and climbed the steps carved into the neck. From there he mounted the seagull. With a flick of his hand the window to his sanctum opened, and out over the garden of carnivorous plants, the death maze, the gladiatorial slave pits, and the Golden Marketplace for Very Good Citizens and Their Pets, Jargo XIII flew and saw that the order of things was good and well worth sacrificing others to protect.
Far to the south gleamed a tower room domed with crystal hexagons, with an expanse of savanna and jungle and sky shining in every direction but below, where a graceful golden city rose like waves of stone-and-metal wheat.
But the many-voiced argument humming against the domed roof was anything but graceful.
“The Four Skulls Society will ravage our coast, and there you sit, talking naval doctrine—”
“Pirates have been bought off before and will again! Our coffers—”
“Buying them off just encourages them to come back, year after year. The navy—”
“Is fully occupied with the eruption of the Hellmaw supervolcano, the sixth clutch of the Antarctic Icewinders, and the rising of the Octoqueen’s lost island—”
“Just how many times must a lost island rise before we can at least consider it found? I—”
A tall dark woman stepped forward from the shadows, previously unseen, a sack slung nonchalantly over one shoulder. Though the council that half-ringed her was slightly elevated upon five chairs of ivory, the sudden silence underscored that she in truth was their equal.
“You have a mission?” she asked. In the dome’s light her coiled black hair glinted with flecks of sunlight as if reflecting some fiery animation within her. Her brown face was marked with freckles.
“We may,” said the ebon man in the central seat. With his long black beard and his hair like a thundercloud and his flowing golden robe, he was an imposing presence. He gestured, and the magic embedded in the dome overhead responded. Sunlight twisted, and the ghostly image of a mountaintop appeared in the chamber’s midst. A black rectangular slab jutted from its crystal summit.
“The tomb of the First Prisoner,” the tall woman said in recognition, “sealed by the Logos Lock.”
“You know of it?” The council leader sounded chagrined, as though he’d been hoping to surprise her.
She chuckled. “O mighty Ghana of Kpalamaa, in the service of your predecessors I’ve walked upon the Heavenwalls of far Qiangguo, sipped mare’s milk with the nomadic Karvaks, dwelled long enough among the barbarians of Swanisle to be ordained a very priestess of their Goddess. Yes, I’ve heard of the First Prisoner.”
“My apologies. Without preamble, then: the key has been taken.”
“Indeed? How long until the key-finders reach the summit?”
“Unclear. They are not participants we were aware of.”
“How quickly might I reach it?”
“Are you still rated to ride an Olitiau?”
“Under ideal conditions, astride our finest Olitiau, it will take twenty days. Conditions are unlikely to be ideal. And you will be alone, with only what you can carry. Up against unknown adversaries armed with Eyetooth.”
She smiled. “What are the council’s wishes?”
The Ghana stroked his chin and studied the sky. “This is the most powerful, most civilized, most stable nation the world has ever known.” He stared directly into her eyes. “Kill anyone you have to, to keep it that way. Kill them twice if necessary. Do you feel up to it?”
Wordlessly she hauled up the sack and flung it. Things clattered forth, shattering into white fragments amid gasps.
“What?” said the Ghana, his composure gone. “What are...”
“The skulls of the four most powerful pirate captains,” Eshe of the Whispering Hunt told them. “It seemed only appropriate. I don’t think the Society will be back for a while.”
To their silent stares she added, “Well, I’d have given you their heads, but boiling them down to four skulls was more practical for a long journey. And more poetic. And you’re welcome. Where’s my Olitiau?”
There was a cavern much closer to the surface than Eyetooth’s former shelter. When sorcerers of this place performed great works, the sunlit world spoke of earthquakes, stampedes, and the wrath of forgotten gods.
In a chamber in the fastness called Ebontide, the sorceress Sarcopia Vorre paced over a floor pattern of eight shining colors plus a black region that seemed a wedge of purest void. As she glared at her councilors, her face was awash with sanguine red, icy green, swirling purple, smoky orange, exquisite turquoise, sickly yellow, gleaming crystal, stormy ocean blue.
A white raven crouched upon her shoulder. With the colors swirling over it, it studied the councilors as though counting eyeballs.
“Am I to understand, Lord Raz,” said Sarcopia, “that someone plucked Eyetooth without anyone noticing?” She had a complexion that made people think of winter avalanches, salt mines, and bones. As such, she was a good canvas for the mad colors rioting across her features.
Though his neighbors flinched, Sarcopia’s spymaster responded in a voice of nearly supernatural calm. “We noticed, and alerted you at once.” He was a lean, dark-bearded, genial-seeming man who looked tanned beside Sarcopia. He possessed an air of nonchalant competence that held true whether fencing verbally in the council chamber or kinetically in a moonlit alley with a dozen blades aimed at his heart. “Our spells upon the key were negated when the ferret-like thief plucked it. His accomplice was a red-haired woman wise in lore. Yet she seemed unaware of Eyetooth’s nature.”
“Mm.” Sarcopia twisted one of her locks. Her hair was a shade that, away from the lights of this chamber, reminded observers of blood and funeral pyres. “Daring. I respect that. I may recruit them. Otherwise, they will die. Loremistress, you say they are not magic-workers?”
A willowy, elegant woman, with close-cropped brown hair and skin like Sarcopia’s if Sarcopia ever saw the sun, answered. “I cannot prove a negative.” There was a certain regality to Lady Cynthia of the Dark Archives that remained constant whether she was reading diplomatic missives from the Earthe’s other face, leading raids against the Stygian Weavers of the deep caverns, or pounding back shots of Old Boggargle. Her gaze held a piercing intelligence that could even make Sarcopia blink. “All I can affirm is that they are not on the Ledger. This would seem in line with the spymaster’s report.” She and Lord Raz shared a fleeting nod of collegial respect, unusual in this chamber of intrigue.
“Then,” Sarcopia said, “there is a chance they have reached Eyetooth unknowingly, and are uncertain of its powers. Master of Sacrifices, I must reach the First Prisoner swiftly, to fight for our future.”
There came an aggressive sibilance from a dark corner of the chamber. “A living being cannot transit through the Warpweft, great one! Even a non-corporeal sapience will lose cohesion. We have tried—”
“Regret!” cried the white raven, looking hungry.
“But,” the voice continued swiftly, “your bird can be there in twenty days.”
“Wish to be rid of it, do you?” purred Sarcopia.
“Eyeballs!” said the raven.
The shadowy form of the Master of Sacrifices seemed to find a bit of dust in one eye. “Ah, if we dispatch sufficient peasants... we can invoke the Form of Coruscating Mentality and bond your essence to an elegant conveyance around the raven’s neck. You may reconstitute at your destination.”
“Yes. Uncomfortable but effective. See it done. Round up as many sacrifices as you can from the surface realms, to spare my own citizens. For mine is an enlightened rule. Lady Cynthia, Lord Raz. Your skills may prove valuable. Prepare yourselves to join me in dis-corporation. Master of Sacrifices, ready the conveyance and whet the knives. A world is at stake.”
“Feast!” quoth the raven.
In a glacial fissure in the Eldshore’s mountains there ran a crack in the ice, gently issuing steam. Suddenly, as the sun whitened the glittering walls above and set waterdrops to coat the fissure like sweat, the vent sputtered.
Out poured writhing black shapes that a scholarly avalanche victim lying trapped at just the right angle might have read as an ancient word: This.
Its companion words had not survived the cave-in triggered by Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone upon their escape, but relentlessly it climbed the fissure and spilled down the mountainside, hissing as it went. This meant war.
Not far away, Bone dreamed beside Gaunt. At first he dreamed that, unaccountably, he had a son. The boy was perhaps nine, had Gaunt’s red hair and Bone’s posture, and was looking at Bone as though Bone knew something about anything. Bone was reluctant to set him straight.
“Do you want to see magic?” he found himself saying, a little desperately. The boy gave a solemn nod. Bone cast about his surroundings for something to make this inane plan stick. He was in an environment almost as foreign to him as, say, a cavern full of magma. It was a homey farmhouse with rough stone walls and a thatched roof but also fine furnishings of finished wood and glass and soft fabric. There was a fireplace with flames that crackled, if not merrily then at least assiduously. Its glow caressed various objects d’art. He wondered if he actually owned them.
He and the boy sat at a table carved with absurdly elaborate scenes of mermaids and sorcerers and berserkers and nomads and angels of death, and on it sat a crystal pitcher of lemonade with a glass stirring rod such as those invented by certain alchemists and adopted by the odd tavern concotionist. Look at this! he told the boy, and tried to dazzle him with sweeps of the rod, lemonade drops spraying everywhere. He felt terrified that at any moment his son would apprehend that Bone was no magician at all but a thief. He did not deserve the affection of a child; he must have stolen that too.
Yet as he swung the rod toward the lemonade, the drink began to bubble and glow, as though a small sun seethed within it. A rumbling shook the ornate table.
He wanted to pretend that he understood what was happening, but his voice caught in his throat, and there was silence.
The boy filled it, saying, Shoulder your pain—
Darkness, then a pale glow behind.
Alone, dream-Bone spun and saw the skull with eyes of void, which is of course a very different thing from a skull with empty eye sockets.
—Father? Bone said, though this surely was not Effigy Bone, and he wondered now, as then, why he’d said this. For this dream now mirrored an expedition into the catacombs of Archaeopolis, on one of his sabbaticals from his wonted haunts in Palmary. He’d stumbled upon the skull, expecting it to incinerate him or devour his soul, for a skull that converses likely has other tricks up its noggin.
The skull cackled in a voice like a midnight tangle of cats. You, it said, sounding like a cathedral choir murmuring thieves’ cant, have a hero‘s soul stuck in a villain‘s circumstances.
Do go on, Bone said in the dream (as he had in the actual past), for the conversation, albeit unnerving, was not incineration or devouring. He stepped a little closer to the stone plinth on which the skull jawed.
You are a man I can use.
Ah. Now, this sounds more like my normal sort of conversation—
But not yet. You are afflicted by an enchantment that unnaturally prolongs your life by protecting you from danger. This has allowed you to become an almost supernaturally skilled thief through your devil-may-care behavior.
Thank you for that.
But you have never truly grown up. Failure and affliction and genuine risk are necessary for maturity. You are a perpetual adolescent, callow and insufferable.
I don’t thank you for that.
You‘re welcome. Do not worry. I have foreseen the end of your condition.
That sounds ominous.
You will meet someone who will, through her actions, break your curse and lead you from this life. You will grow up, and grow old—and yet for a time your ridiculous skills will remain intact. That is what makes you useful.
I feel as if you are discussing livestock, not a man.
Who are you, anyway?
Call me the First Wizard. My name is not important—a good thing, as I’ve long since forgotten it. I do not recall if I was male, female, something in between, something other... nor recall my native tongue or the hue of my long-abandoned skin. All I know is that the world‘s Last Vuuhrr taught me secrets of the universe.
Vuuhrr. It matters not. What matters is that you, thief, will one day seek the Logos Lock. It conceals a treasure beyond comprehension.
Let me guess: acquiring said treasure will be extremely hazardous.
Indeed. But not today. Let me compensate you for future service. I will teach you a path that only I know down to a hellish underworld where lies the ultimate weapon, one which can shake the cosmos.
Why would I want an ultimate weapon? Power is a game for fools.
Oh, you may find this weapon professionally interesting. But the choice is yours. When the time is right, the memory of this conversation will resurface. I will now exact your Oath-to-Be.
My what, now?
A contingent oath, sworn now, forgotten soon after but coming into play if certain circumstances warrant. Swear on the memory of Master Sidewinder that you will bear the weapon to the Logos Lock.
The skull surely knew Bone. He wouldn’t swear on much. The idea of swearing on honor was laughable; swearing on family, bitter. As for deities, his folk only half-believed in their Walrus God whose primary edict was I will keep pretending to help you as long as you keep pretending to worship me. Every child on the Contrariwise Coast knew the couplet:
We created him in jest
Such a god is surely best...
But every student of Master Sidewinder knew that he had saved their lives, and even the revelation that Master Sidewinder had carefully planned their indebtedness didn’t cool their gratitude. What‘s in it for you, First Wizard?
A sort of vengeance, of a sort that matters only to me—
“Bone! Swan’s sake, man, wake up!”
He sprang to full height and burst from their tent with the nearest weapon to hand, which was of course Eyetooth. Gaunt emerged beside him, eyes wide at his frenzy, as though he’d left what passed for brains behind.
Cold air fully awakened him. “What did you hear, Gaunt?”
“You in there, mumbling about locks and wizards. And something out here, shuffling through the snow like some enormous snake.”
Their breaths fogged silver beneath the moon, and snow glittered over rocky angles beneath diamond-sharp stars.
There was a certain clarity in Imago Bone’s mind whenever he emerged from dreams into danger. “We have to use Eyetooth.”
Persimmon Gaunt did not waste breath on Why? or Are you mad? “In what fashion?”
“I’m not certain, but the skull said I’d find it interesting.”
“We have to talk sometime about whom you consider trustworthy sources. But I agree the key may have its uses.” She stood as close to him as possible. “As we cannot see our foe, perhaps you can use its extensions to sweep the snow away, for starters.”
“Like flushing out game?”
He flourished the key in his right hand, twisted it, and spun, Gaunt with her own right grasping his left and pirouetting with him. Snow spattered in glorious glittery gouts as lengths of metal flared out from unseen spaces to stir the world.
In the midst of that brightness a black coiling shape launched itself like a cobra. Bone jumped in shock. Gaunt did not let go. She recognized the Vuuhrr letters and gasped. This was their foe...
As he jumped, Bone turned the key—
And Bone turned the sky.
The world twisted. It was as though all reality besides they two—stars, moon, snow, chill, distant wolfsong, threads of silver cloud, mountains, tent, lingering scent of campfire smoke, unnatural entity bent on destroying them—had all been a cunningly painted image upon a vast canopy, and now the cloth was snatched away in a great spiraling flourish. An unseen giant wound up the world.
And beyond? Delirium.
The space between the spaces was...
Imagine a flame. Imagine further that it flares bright with peculiar chemicals and dazzles the eye. You and the flame occupy an underground tomb piled with the gilded treasures of mad geometer-kings. Polygons and helixes and golden ratios abound. And in the instant before the flame goes out, the patterns are scoured onto your eyes in blue-green-purple majesty.
The dark space between worlds was like that but without any flame to trigger it, without the images fading away, and without the sense of confinement. Indeed Persimmon Gaunt envisioned the shapes as unspooling endlessly, twisting and recombining, half-glimpsed, continent-sized.
It was colder out here in this immensity than in the snow. The place upon which they stood was not really a place at all. Their feet met a dimly glowing pair of discs fashioned, it seemed, of pale light, like coins reflecting the moon. But the real moon was left behind, a twist of swirling silver in a shrinking vortex of color.
Everywhere else they looked, the spectral shapes of this place-between-places stretched forever in all directions.
Gaunt had a sense of their enemy reacting with as much fright as they and sweeping backward into invisibility. The vortex (she had to think of it as a kind of portal now) shrank and became a blaze of golden light, then a disc of shadow, then a fresh blaze, flickering with increasing rapidity as it dwindled.
“Bone,” she managed to say, “any ideas?”
“I have no experience with something like this!”
“Not outside bottles or bluemoss dens!”
“You’ve been visiting bluemoss dens?”
“Not since I met you! What do you reckon?”
She took a breath. “It is vital, I think, that we not stray from this spot. My hunch is that we’re in those much-advertised higher-dimensional realms. Widderspace, some call it.”
“It seems largely a colorful void.”
“Much like human society. Metaphorically speaking. But I would nevertheless return to that society intact. Bone, step onto my disc. If we drift apart, our transitions and transformations may separate us forever.”
“Done.” Rather than drift away, his disc merged with hers, the combined pair becoming a bit larger. “Transitions and transformations?”
“Strange as it is, I wouldn’t describe this as some alternate universe. We are experiencing a larger understanding of our own universe.”
“Oh good. I was worried something unusual was happening.”
“Our everyday reality is still here, nestled within this one, like a cat concealed in the foliage of a tree. It is we who have become strange, by perceiving it from this vantage.”
On impulse Bone lifted Eyetooth and shifted it toward an emptier-than-usual stretch of the vastness. He twisted the key. Would another realm appear?
Something spun into view, exploding forth like an egg dropped against hot stone. A world flared.
“Wha—” Bone began.
Beyond the new portal an oak of unknown vastness rose against a starfield, with the crown, root, and most of the silvery trunk obscured. But upon its great wide leaves lay continents’ worth of turquoise forests and lapis jungles, flecked with mountains of green stone, deserts of onyx, rivers like thin blood. Rivulets large as ocean currents fell from leaf to leaf, creating carnelian lakes on the blue expanses of lower leaves.
Gaunt frowned at this newly revealed aspect of the cosmos, even as Bone gasped. “Imagine the treasures to be found there...”
“I can,” she said frowning. “That is the problem.” But she did not explain her remark.
The flickering circle of light and darkness representing their own domain continued dwindling. But they might have time for an experiment. “Bone. I wish you to open another new world.”
“Greedy, aren’t we?”
“In a sense. Aim for here.” She delineated an angle near her head.
“You warned me not to point the key at—”
“That was then. Do not intersect me of course. Be cautious.”
The idea of harm to Gaunt seemed to awaken Bone to sobriety. It was flattering. “All right, then,” he said, sighting carefully and twisting the key.
At once Gaunt began whispering a nursery rhyme.
“Yokel Swell went to the well
Up the green hill thither
Down came Swell and broke his shell
And never could get together...”
The new vista erupted. In a purple realm lit by green stars, shattered pale fragments of a world swirled around a white nimbus illuminated from within by a disc of solar yellow.
“I see,” said Gaunt. “Let’s go home, Bone...”
“But the exposed mineral wealth—”
She took his hand and nudged him, past the great tree and toward the shrinking realm of flickers now strobing like a maddened firefly. The circle was only a narrow cave-mouth of a thing as she tugged Bone through.
They fell into bright daylight and collapsed upon a now-grassy turf fresh with spring flowers. The snows had receded up the mountain peaks. The tent had been carried off by weather or walkers.
Behind them the passage into the cosmic void waited like the surface of a round, tipped-over, black table. But then in a twinkling, ordinary reality covered it like a tablecloth of blue, white, and green. The gap was seamlessly knit with the stuff of their Earthe. The pathway was gone.
They lay in a tangle in spring grass.
“We have things to discuss,” Gaunt said after she’d gotten a long breath.
“There is more than one manner of discourse,” Bone said, brushing her hair from her face and leaning impulsively in.
“Mm. I would question your priorities were I not one of them. You are lucky you’re a good kisser, man.”
“Well, spring is in the air.”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it? One of them.” She sat up. “Our detour with Eyetooth has been prolonged. Weeks have passed here, while we experienced minutes.”
“If not years,” he acknowledged, running his fingers distractedly through the indentation she’d left in the grass.
“Which explains why someone nicked our tent.”
He sprang to his feet. “Our gear! Thieves!”
She sighed and smiled up at him. “I am enjoying the irony almost as much as the view.” She rose and patted his shoulder. “The appearance of the meadow makes me believe it’s been less than a year. But our friend This may still be out here. And I have the uncomfortable feeling that your informant the skull has set us up. We need answers.”
Bone made a fist. “Well, I know where to find them. And if the snows have melted there is now a quick path to answers. The main road’s just around that slope, I’m sure of it. We’ll be at Loomsberg by midmorning!”
An hour after nightfall they staggered off the mountain road into Loomsberg’s first available inn (Ellen’s Inn). The innkeeper (one Ellen, who, luckily, was in) kindly but efficiently relieved them of hunger, thirst, fatigue, and coin—but not unreasonably so—and so they found themselves abruptly waking up in a feathered bed in the main suite, to the dazzle of the morning sun against mountain snow and the clamor of a dozen roosters.
Out the suite’s window Loomsberg was a city of wind and waterfalls seemingly in danger of sliding down seven different crevasses. That this town of windmills and waterwheels and steam contraptions and endless bridges still rose above Dragondraught Gorge was a testament more to engineering (and sometimes frantic reconstruction) than magic. For magic became undone in Loomsberg, for reasons understood only by a few. Among those few were the two inhabitants Gaunt and Bone now sought.
They still feared pursuit. So they hastened out in a tangle of quickly donned clothing and a babble of thanks to Ellen, a bespectacled blur of ingenuity and industry who outfitted them with baskets of foodstuffs, a new pair of boots, and directions to the central bridges before turning her attention to a veiled, coffee-sipping, dulcet-voiced woman from Mirabad studying the picture windows, a grim toga-clad man from Archaeopolis at a table filled with seven scrolls of figures and one cup of tea, and a steppe nomad in a sky-blue robe sampling exotic foods like toast and jam as part of a vision quest.
“I would go back to that inn,” Gaunt said approvingly as they hustled through narrow lanes lined with colorful houses and the signs of businesses in half-a-dozen languages. “I wish I could converse with the other guests. This seems a most eclectic town.”
“Even more so than I remember!” Bone said, craning his neck for the occasional dizzying view of the gorge and its lantern-strewn bridges. Gold-lit morning mist filled the air. Humans of many sizes, hues, and costumes filled the twisting streets, and many non-humans as well, more than Gaunt had ever seen in one place.
“What brings so many to this spot? The lack of magic?”
“Exactly! There are clockworks and pistons and intricate gears that function well in this place but not elsewhere. As though mischievous spirits disapprove of advanced contraptions. Much of my favorite gear has come from this place, but I’ve had to be careful lest it be too ingenious and fail at a critical moment. Whoa—”
There were horses and donkeys and carts on the narrow paths, but a tall, keen-eyed, athletic bald man, a fellow so focused he seemed almost chiseled out of ivory, was riding something entirely outside their experience. It was a sort of metallic wave crest with handles and two wheels and a fantasia of gears and cables between the wheels, operated by the eager man’s feet.
“Pardon me,” the man said with a cheerful confidence utterly at odds, Gaunt thought, with what he was doing. “Coming through!” He projected a composite of open friendliness and utter determination that invited instant cooperation. Gaunt and Bone were not simply stepping aside but aiding the spirit of invention. The man on the well-worked instrument of madness thanked them and whirred between. In his wake various people shouted contradictory things like, “Richard Thomas, when will you learn!” and “Richard Thomas, never give up!”
Bone said, “So that, there, is exactly the sort of thing that works in Loomsberg but not anywhere else.”
“How can they export anything, then?” Gaunt said, looking back at Richard Thomas weaving his way toward Ellen’s Inn.
“Well, there are degrees. A simple gadget, like a spring-operated knife that looks like a wedge of cheese, might work a full year before the ire of magic breaks it. And a knife cheese is a good investment.”
She smirked. “Certain you don’t mean a cheese knife?”
“Heavens, no! You’d use one for a surprise gorgon and another for a surprise gorgonzola. Anyway, beyond the gadgets, Loomsberg is a good source for any fine craftsmanship. Things are expensive, but for the right buyer it’s all worth it.”
It did seem to Gaunt that the town was brimming with artisans. They passed the signs of glassblowers, metalworkers, shoemakers, and many, many clothmakers. There were not so many haberdashers, but Gaunt spotted one or two and had an unaccustomed desire to stop and try things on, assuming they had something in black. But, she cautioned herself, she and Bone had been hunted. “And your contacts? What do they sell?”
“Knowledge. Ah, here are the Bridges of Bright Surprise.”
They were a surprise indeed, and Gaunt gaped as they ascended fifty feet above the mists to stand at the sun-washed convergence of two spindly stone arches with a magnificent view of four waterfalls toppling into a misty gorge—a truly spectacular place to die, if the guards took a dislike to you. For there were two of them nodding gravely at the passers-by, a man and a woman armored in chain mail.
“Good afternoon,” Bone said with a bow, but not too deep a bow. Guards the world over grow suspicious if strangers are over-friendly. “We seek the inhabitants of the observatory.”
“You mean Sunspool and Moonwax, the astronomers?” the female guard asked. Like the inventor in the street, she was unusually light-skinned, perhaps from the far northern Bladed Isles, and bore a phalanx of copper freckles on each cheek, guarding sea green eyes above. Long, auburn hair streaked with sun-gold spilled from beneath her helmet. She gave the impression of strength disguised by a slender frame but obvious in her ready stance.
“I’m pretty sure they’re astrologers, Marit,” her comrade said. He possessed searching and good-humored brown eyes upon a dark face, with a black beard that readily framed a laugh. There was a coiled strength to him, and Gaunt judged he’d be an agile and dangerous opponent. But looking at that focused gaze again she suspected his mind was his greatest weapon.
“Regardless, Subrata,” said the woman Marit, “both sorts use the observatory. It’s over yonder in the Otherfolk quarter.” She pointed toward the west, where a great rocky outcropping, riddled with caves and bristling with buildings, rose like an island from golden mists.
Gaunt and Bone thanked them and left them to what sounded like an ongoing, open-ended debate. Sound carried well up here, and the dispute followed them down. Gaunt wasn’t sure who was playing devil’s advocate to whom.
“In a world where magic exists,” Subrata was saying, “astrology is surely necessary.”
“In a world where most beings lack magic,” Marit replied, “it’s surely best to focus on reproducible results. Hence, astronomy.”
“Ah, but astrology is somewhat reproducible too, in a world of magic. As the celestial bodies are, in many cases, powerful beings themselves. Astrology thus becomes a form of psychology. One can predict astrological effects as readily as one can predict human behavior.”
“You mean,” Marit said, “not at all?”
“You are too pessimistic,” Subrata said. “I know people and I know they are potentially predictable.”
“Well, I know people, and I know they are beyond predicting.”
“I knew you’d say that—”
The voices seemed lost in fog. Gaunt and Bone stepped onto to the island-like rock. It was filled with crystal-windowed rocky dwellings, iron-braced wooden huts with smokepipes, and high caves teasing out mist like ghostly carpets. Though they’d seen non-humans elsewhere in the bustling town, here things were quieter. Furtive shadows swept from the paths ahead of them and vanished through creaking doors, into fissures, down holes. “This seems such a welcoming city,” Gaunt said, not sure why she was whispering. “Why is there a separate quarter for non-humans?”
“I have to admit, the question had not occurred to me. Perhaps they prefer to keep to their own kind?”
“But all non-human sapients are not one kind, surely?”
He had no answer.
They had to cross two more bridges over deep gashes to get to the north end of the great rock, and here things were livelier. Foot traffic was brisk, and along the way a one-headed, three-eyed goblin grilled rats and crows and lizards, for sale with bags of vinegar-covered popped corn. A two-headed, two-eyed goblin sang the praises of trollish furniture movers, each voice aimed in a different direction. Down a shadowed, webbed fissure beside the road an eight-legged Oldspinner wove while you waited. Gaunt shuddered, even though she coveted a scarf. Then they were at the observatory.
Gaunt studied the place as Bone knocked on the door. On first examination it seemed a pile of boulders with a roof of thatch and a dome of twisted trunks bound with twine, the great brass telescope emerging with three ill-omened bends in the metal, and you might, she thought, be tricked into thinking the whole thing had been blown together by a unusually crafty hurricane.
The door opened a crack.
“We are not buying,” a sonorous voice intoned, a golden eye shimmering in the shadows of the crack, “any candles, contraptions, indulgences, prototypes, lottery chance tickets, relics, prophecies, omens, baked goods, campaign dinners, pyramid schemes, love potions, pincushions of vengeance, exotic birds, monkey’s paws, hands of glory, seeds of the infinity vine, or tomatoes.”
“It is not any of those things,” Bone said.
“Moonwax!” the sonorous voice called out. “Bring the list! We must add something!”
“Don’t you recognize me, Sunspool? It’s Imago Bone, the great... finder-of-things-that-have-overly-possessive-current-curators. Do you not remember the incident of the Button Men and the Pattern Card of Doom?”
“That was you? I thought it was Master Sidewinder.”
“My master is dead these seventy-three years.”
“All you Eldshorens blend together.”
Bone coughed. “I am from the Contrariwise Coast, and my master was Palmarian born and raised.”
“If you live anywhere west of the Ruby Waste, and you’re human, you’re an Eldshoren to me.”
“You are not human?” said Gaunt. “You sound...”
The door opened wide. The person addressing them was willowy and yellow-haired, tresses hanging long and swishing in the breeze. Her tunic was plain and grey, and she might have seemed drab, yet strange luminescence flowed beneath her translucent skin like sunlight caught upon waves. This red glow moved within her blood in indifference to the flow; it flickered and twisted, split and recombined, and where it went, the woman’s bones were visible beneath the skin.
“My people come from the opposite face of what you sometimes call the Earthe,” she said. “A disaster I will not speak of drove us through peculiar places of the underworld, until we emerged beneath these strange skies. We migrated far and wide and our clans became distinct. You might meet others of our kind far away and not know us as kin. But we will always know each other.”
“You are delven,” Gaunt said.
“Delven is what you usually call us, when you are not afraid.”
Another delven approached: a short, wizened male in greens and browns embroidered with intricate golden knotwork. Spectacled eyes peered forth beneath a white wool cap marked with the sign of an almost but not quite perfect circle. The man’s skin was far more wrinkled than Sunspool’s and was harder to see through, but at times silvery light could be perceived in his veins.
He bore an unravelling scroll, which he tossed aside. “Ah! The poet and thief with the best potential for a happy ending in three centuries. Enter, Gaunt and Bone.”
Sunspool stepped aside, making a sweeping gesture with fingertips glowing red.
They traversed a small hallway, passing a bulky clock with narrow hourglasses for hands and a hanging celestial hemisphere, the stars of which were red-inked with comments like Not There Anymore and Purple Now and Hatched.
They entered a circular space littered with precious-looking almanacs and star charts, some open to uncanny solar systems whose worlds had exotic shapes like cubes or prisms rather than mundane discs. There was also folded laundry. These obscured a great floor-mosaic portraying the constellations of the nearer skies. The vast brass telescope was molded with niches for weird idols with various candle-covered arms, tentacles, pincers, and antennae pointing heavenward. The green flames fluttered in a direction disinclined to match the breeze.
A six-foot-diameter crystal disc sat upon a circular table opposite the hallway. Coasters were scattered upon it, along with a potted cactus. Sunspool and Moonwax arranged four chairs, bade the travelers sit, and wordlessly withdrew to alcoves in the dome. Sunspool returned bearing a thick dusty tome with gilt edges, whose cover nearly overflowed with arcane diagrams and the words Nominus Umbra. Moonwax returned with a tea set and bags marked Iniqua Tea, Perspikassa Tea, Kalamma Tea, Serendib Tea, and many others.
“Yes, please,” Gaunt said to Moonwax’s questioning look, “tea would be lovely. Could you recommend one? I have never heard of these places...”
“Ah, yes,” Moonwax said. “The metacosm brims with methods of flavoring hot water. You can find any variety you can envision out there. For our purposes I would recommend the tea from Alakra, transported by starwhals.”
“Starwhals?” Bone repeated.
“Metacosm?” Gaunt asked.
“Husband,” Sunspool said, “in this conversational labyrinth there are too many side passages to count. Best drink the tea and discuss the key.”
“You know about Eyetooth, then,” Bone said.
“You were wise to come,” Moonwax said, pouring. “It almost makes up for your rashness in trusting the skull.”
“What don’t you two know about?” Gaunt wondered aloud.
“Almost everything,” Sunspool said with a fleeting smile. “Behold Starfang Mountain.” And she waved delicate fingers dancing with light over the table’s lens-like surface. It shone with a milky illumination. Mist rose from it as though from an icy pond in the morning sun; like the green candleflames, it billowed in a direction out of synchronization with the breeze.
Suddenly the glass blazed, revealing a field of crystal shining in sunlight, and embedded within was a vast block of black metal. As their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw the seven dispersed keyholes in its face.
Gaunt whispered, “The Logos Lock?”
“Yes,” Sunspool said.
A minute passed as Sunspool studied the scene. Moonwax coughed and smiled. “I will consult the Nominus Umbra of the mad mage Lynnistarec.” He slid the book over to himself. “I translate from Middle Roil. ‘the Angels of the Dawn were first of the Creator‘s children. Implicit in the fabric of the cosmos, their imaginings gave structure to matter. Thus their power was terrifying. Their minds had to bend toward justice, or else the cosmos would become a hell. They lacked that grace given mortals, whose thoughts need not become true.‘”
“What does this have to do with the Lock?” Bone asked.
“Beyond it moans the First Prisoner, second-ranked among the Dawn Angels. Greatest was the First Exile, you see, who struggled with the Creator. The Exile wanted a cosmos founded on a hierarchy of merit, and maddeningly the Creator introduced the idea of luck that could thwart merit and break down hierarchy, even the hierarchy of skill. The Creator almost lost that fight, though in many quarters it’s blasphemous to say that. The First Exile was cast far into the dark, where it growls and gnashes infinitely sharp teeth and awaits its time.”
“And the First Prisoner?” Gaunt asked.
“The First Prisoner did not contest the idea of luck per se. But it did wish to soften raw luck into probability and asked that it might tidy up the cosmos and tighten natural laws here and there, so that in the dance of grit and probability, mortals who strove with all their might stood a good chance of success in life, though never a guarantee.”
Bone said, “And the Creator locked it up for its trouble?”
“No,” Moonwax said. “It was all the other angels.”
“What?” Gaunt asked.
Sunspool flicked a shimmering finger. Now the lens of the table seemed to fill with snow. Amid titanic mountains flew a fur-shrouded, dark-skinned woman upon a grey beast with bat-like wings and a sharp-angled head.
“Perhaps we will let these women explain.” After such a long pause, Sunspool’s sonorous voice was startling as a gong.
When the Olitiau screeched, Eshe of the Whispering Hunt raised a spyglass, a thing of brass and teak with ivory images of cheetahs racing from objective to focus. Against the grey-white mass of Starfang Mountain, she just managed to spot the white raven’s approach.
She took a deep breath. The air was already thin. She compensated with a rubber breathing mask designed by her people’s artificers, connected by a tube, also of rubber, leading to a pack stuffed with a plant brimming with natural air sacs. It could help her stay conscious during ascent. Or battle.
As if it knew it was being watched, the raven winged to a large cliff upon a spur of Starfang.
Eshe landed and dismounted. She donned a pair of gloves that held poison vials in the fingers suitable for delven, goblins, and humans, and one in the thumbs that might suffice for a troll, a yeti, an Oldspinner, or a small dragon. The pinkies held alchemical preparations designed for sorcerers of any breed.
Eshe carefully approached the raven through the snow, calling out in the tongue known as Roil, “Do I address an agent of the House of Vorre?”
“Power!” croaked the raven, its caw cutting through delirious-sounding whispers of alpine winds careening along twisted stone.
A human voice emerged, vibrating through the metal of a tiny charm upon the bird’s neck. “You Kpalamaa people are always courteous. The courtesy of people who believe they hold all the cards. Let us not be coy, champion. Do you side with magic or science?”
“Magic. And you?”
“You must ask?”
Eshe shrugged. “The Vorres are known to be contrary. One must never assume.”
“You are right of course. But I declare for magic. I am surprised your people would. You value rationality so highly.”
Eshe said nothing of her own opinions. “We are not averse to magic at all. But the great kingdoms that came together as the Kpalamaa Federation each have their own forms of magic, and each kingdom is jealous of its powers. The framers of our constitution mandated that we make no law establishing an official form of magic. Naturally, science beckons—”
“And I thought they lectured overmuch at the Old School! I take it you are no wizard?”
“I am a mere bureaucrat. You, now, are either a wizard or this crow is a very good ventriloquist.”
“Power!” the raven repeated, and the voice from the charm said, “I lack false modesty, mere bureaucrat. I am Archmage Sarcopia. And I find it hard to believe you yourself are without magic, up here.”
Eshe shrugged. “Our doubts or beliefs do not change the world, archmage.”
“Much may change, if the First Prisoner is unleashed. Have you a name, mere bureaucrat?”
Eshe looked around her at seeming oceans of dark rock spattered with glaciers like small white continents. “Snowheart,” she suggested.
“Fair enough. It may be a cold business. I prefer you to lead, Snowheart.”
“As you wish.”
“I do wish it,” said Sarcopia as Eshe remounted the Olitiau and the raven took wing. “For as archmage, magic is mine to protect, and today I take no chances.”
The snowy vision faded.
“So,” Gaunt said, “angels locked up the First Prisoner because they feared the loss of magic?”
Moonwax nodded. “But they could not kill their beloved sibling, and they lacked the power to exile it. Thus, the vault. But the concretization of their thoughts of a prison required the corollary of a key.”
Sunspool said, “As a relic of angels, the key can touch all Creation. It was flung across the metacosm and has drifted among worlds. But it always finds its way back to this Earthe, tied as it is to the Lock. Many have claimed the key in order to use its strange properties, but never to release the First Prisoner. It was the Vuuhrr who added a handle and named it Eyetooth.”
Bone patted Eyetooth in his pocket. But gently.
“Imago Bone,” said Sunspool, “you have promised the First Wizard you’ll bear the key to the Logos Lock.”
“Yes,” Bone said.
“That’s more than I knew,” Gaunt said. “What First Wizard?”
“That’s what my favorite talking skull called itself,” Bone mused. “Tooth by tooth it returns to me...”
Sunspool said, “If you break this oath to the First Wizard, your blood will boil, your skin will seethe, your eyes will burst like roast tomatoes...”
“Nevertheless,” Bone said, a little giddily, “I must only approach the Lock with the key, yes? No more is demanded of me?”
“True,” Sunspool said.
“Why, I’ll drop it there and run.”
“We‘ll drop it there and run,” Gaunt said.
“Consider!” Moonwax said. “Self-aggrandizing sorcerers are converging at the Lock. They will fight over the key. The crystal summit will shine red with blood.”
“Does nothing about that image warm your heart?” Bone asked.
Sunspool said, “Yet someone will claim Eyetooth.”
“Great harm might result,” Gaunt said, nodding, her mind flitting over the possible uses of the key. “Think, Bone. Even sorcerers are limited by time and space, but not once they have Eyetooth. And yet... can we not fulfill the letter of the oath, then keep Eyetooth? And then destroy it?”
Sunspool shook her head. “Nothing can destroy it short of a Dawn Angel or a being of similar might.”
“Is there no one,” Gaunt said, “strong enough to guard the key, and moral enough not to use it?”
Sunspool and Moonwax shared a long look.
“Our morality may be a subjective issue...” said Moonwax.
“Aha,” said Bone.
Sunspool said, “But we have advantages because we dwell in this place, which is so hostile to magic.”
“We don’t think the key is magical as such,” Bone objected.
“But those who hunt it will use magic. We can thwart them. But we will demand payment.”
“Well, surely with Eyetooth,” Bone said, glad to be on familiar ground, “we can acquire enough gold—”
“We do not want gold,” Sunspool said.
“Then we can offer our services as doers of strange deeds,” Gaunt said.
“Not deeds,” Sunspool said. “Life. Your life, Imago Bone.”
“What?” Gaunt said.
“Not all his life,” Moonwax added. “Half of it.”
Richard Thomas rode the Mark 27 Pedalraptor out of Loomsberg with sweat chilling his face and bones shaking to the tune of every bit of raw geology. The new hickory wheels held up better than the cedar ones, and the crankshaft performed heroically. He passed the cairn marking his previous distance record, about a quarter mile past Ellen’s Inn. A quarter mile plus ten feet, O you trees! he wanted to shout. A quarter mile plus twenty—
Something ahead surprised him, a shadowy tangle of shapes like an anatomist’s dream or a calligraphist’s nightmare. Richard Thomas swung right and nearly pitched himself down a gorge. He saved himself with a combination of quick footwork and plowing into a convenient blackberry tangle. This hurt, but far less than the gorge would have.
The crankshaft was broken, and he suspected this was again the work of the world’s magic and its apparent dislike for complex machinery. He cursed all mocksprites and fiddleimps and other beings that dash human hopes. But he was also contemplating some new mechanism to temporarily clamp the wheels, controlled perhaps from the handlebars... He was so intent upon this thought he momentarily forgot about the apparition that had vanished round the bend toward Loomsberg.
“What?” Bone said.
“Half your life,” said Sunspool. “Your strangely prolonged life.”
“I don’t understand,” Bone said. “I’ve already lived that prolonged life. Now I sense I’m aging normally...”
“Yes,” said Moonwax. “You appear to be about twenty years old, but you have what most twenty-year-old humans can only dream of—ninety years’ worth of experience matched with youthful energy. That you use it all for plundering is, well, criminal.”
“You propose to change that somehow?” Gaunt asked, her fists clenched.
Sunspool said, “Bone’s remaining life promises to be extraordinary. And he will live it beside one of the great minds of the age.”
“I see,” Gaunt said, a bit wistfully.
“She means you,” Bone said, with a touch of exasperation.
“She can’t,” Gaunt said, with more than a touch of certainty.
Moonwax said, “She does. Your lives will be full of wondrous fears—”
Sunspool said, “And terrifying blessings—”
“You will travel and know seas and mountains and forests—”
“And magic carpets and enchanted paintings and the opposite of ghosts—”
“And volcanoes and maelstroms and icebergs and bottomless pits—”
“And in so many respects, know the edges of worlds, of existence—”
“And children, your children, wild, blazing, cryptic, discerning—”
(Here Gaunt and Bone stared at one another, amazed at the babble and at the meaning of the babble.)
“In your secret hearts you will be afraid they will surpass you and afraid they won’t—”
“And both these fears foolish, obtuse, unseeing—”
“For their stories and yours are like tales told at the same campfire but by different voices—”
“You will try your best, never feeling good enough nor smart enough—”
“To dare the glittering voids or the muddy battlefields—”
“Too afraid and too vain all at once—”
“Too guilty, yet you will hate yourself more for unattained dreams than for your crimes—”
“Yet you, Bone, will never abandon your duty, you who always see yourself as thief not hero—”
“Always beside your lady love until the last gray day—”
“And its blazes—”
“And its darkness—”
“To the sea that is our final cradlegrave—”
The strange litany ended, until Sunspool said, “Half of that bright darkness, that cold fire, that strange mundanity. That is what we will take, in return for helping you.”
Wordlessly Gaunt rose and left the observatory. She bore that waxen stiffness that meant either overpowering emotion or death. She was not dead. Even the walking dead, Bone knew, do not move with such grim step.
“I—” Bone began, as she disappeared down the hallway.
“You must do your duty,” Moonwax said, “always.”
Bone did not know if this was advice, command, or observation. “I...” He hurried outside.
She stood beside the gorge. Opposite them, across a great expanse filled with river mist, creaked a building with four spinning wind-vanes that seemed angled as though preparing to tumble into frothy waters below. A sign upon it read YE TILTED WINDMILL. DRAUGHTS. DARTS. DISCOVERIES.
He stood beside her, wordlessly. He had learned that this was, at times, his task. To be silent. To be still. But to be there.
She did not acknowledge him, but he knew his presence was important. He knew he was not supposed to say anything. For now.
Then, “Why don’t you say something?” Gaunt demanded.
“They have it all wrong, you know,” he blurted at once. He had no idea what he meant. He was just blathering, trying to draw her out.
“About—you know...” A gamble, that non-answer. There had been so many cryptic statements in that observatory that he could trip over one, knock his head against another, impale himself on a third.
“I see,” she said. There was something icy in her tone. That never boded well.
Quick! he thought. Say something silly. “Yes, I think the Serendib tea would have been much better.”
She laughed a little, humorlessly. “Bone, they can’t take half your life. Absolutely not.”
“I know, it’s absurd. What are they going to do, chop me down the middle?”
That was not quite the tone of humor that was needed. She shook her head—at him, at the delven, at geological wonders, he couldn’t tell. “I’m going to get a drink,” she said, and strode off.
A less experienced Bone, of long decades ago, might have assumed this was not an invitation. A more experienced Bone, of fewer decades ago, might have assumed it was an invitation. The Bone of now (surely the wisest possible Bone) had learned that assumptions themselves were the problem. It was not just that every lover was a new reality. Every moment with every lover was a new reality. Gaunt herself might not know if he should come with her, not yet. Only if she said certain powerful words—almost enchanted syllables such as no, yes, or I‘d like the red wine—would the probability fog clear and certainty emerge.
So he followed, accepting uncertainty. He was her paramour. And he hadn’t explicitly been told not to follow, not yet. He was in love. And he too wanted a drink.
The real fog was burning off, and more folk were footing to and fro, yet mist still curdled in nooks and fissures of the mountain spur, and it was a good hour for nabbing a purse from the throng and disappearing into the white yonder. Thus it was not Bone’s preferred working hour, as he’d a low opinion of cutpurses (and indeed groin-kicked a human one in passing as he hurried up the bridge after Gaunt, goblin thank yous ringing cacophonously in his ears.) The dark of the morning was preferred.
Master Sidewinder had once said, A truly worthy heist is all a problem of time. The hour you act. The days you plan. The months you train. And here‘s the dark-of-the-morning conundrum, Imago: what‘s it all for?
Are we still talking about stealing the Empress of Amberhorn‘s Diamond Fingernail? a much younger Bone had answered.
You asked me why the Fingernail and why we‘re here in the Palace of Sacred Sighs at three in the morning. I gave you mundane reasons like the thousands of blazons it‘s worth and the tactical advantages of this hour. But the deeper reasons to both questions are the same. When you‘re my age, boy—and if I train you right, you will be—when you‘re my age, three in the morning is when you sometimes lie in some moth-eaten or silky bed beside a gigolo or a prince—I know, I know, just translate it for your own kinks, boy—and you can’t sleep and you wonder what it‘s all for, what‘s big enough and worthy enough to make this life worthwhile.
Actually I‘m wondering how long my life‘s going to be if we keep talking right here in the Empress‘ bedroom.
See the bigger picture, boy. Sometimes you look at a treasure like this, a problem this grand, and you realize the answer‘s—
This, said a hissing voice breaking Bone’s reverie, in the here and now, in the misty and precipitous.
Where the Bridges of Bright Surprise met there was a place lit by four lamps. The northwest lamp glowed with purple-green whorls twisting in the strange currents that bend magic in Loomsberg; the northeast blazed with the red fury of a captured candlewyrm; the southeast shimmered with lit kraken oil; and the southwest was simply fire.
There was a tradition in the Loomwatch that your nature matched the lamp you liked standing watch beside. Northwest signified a mystical bent, northeast a sturdy soul, southeast an adventurous spirit, and southwest a practical mind. Marit and Subrata, in their separate ways, liked to stand roughly in the middle.
Each day they renewed a conversation that continued at the whim of the guard rotation, and after inquiring after each other’s spouses and children they resumed without preamble.
Now Marit said, “Do events move with purpose? Is there an arc to history, like a bridge’s span?”
Subrata scratched his bearded chin. “Perhaps there’s no bridge but a fallen tree that may temporarily span a gap—before rolling into abysses named barbarism, warlordism, civil war, tyranny.”
“Perhaps,” Marit said. “But perhaps, like the place we stand, history has more than one span. Perhaps these spans intersect at points where history’s destination may be chosen.”
“Would that such points were so easily spotted!” Subrata answered. “Most people flinch at such ideas, preferring that all moments be equally portentous or prosaic. In the first scenario, free will is delightfully paramount. In the second, reassuringly irrelevant.”
“It’s worse than that, friend Subrata! Even if people invest some moments with special significance, they assume these choices will arrive when they’re well rested and fed and watered, with a clear schedule ahead and no vexations. Yet a turning point might well happen when one is hungry, cranky, chasing toddlers, tabulating taxes, asleep, or chattering on a bridge.”
“Hold, Marit. Consider that lumbering shape to the west.”
Marit shrugged. “Many strange folk walk these streets. I see no harm in it.”
“Fair enough. But note that red-headed individual approaching from the east? She would seem to have fate’s turning points in mind.”
“Indeed. Earlier we directed her to the astrologers.”
“Odd.” Marit frowned. “She also reminds me of one I saw on a bounty sheet issued by Palmary’s kleptomancers.”
“Truly?” Subrata narrowed his eyes. “Now that you mention it... I saw her described in connection with pirates.”
“Yet Loomsberg is a place of second chances.”
“What of third and fourth chances?”
“Those too. Yet... if I recall correctly, those bounties were princely.”
“This may be, in some small respect, one of those turning points.”
“But behold her countenance,” Marit said. “I see a sensitive spirit of light and steel. You?”
Subrata turned his head. “I see that misshapen figure we noted earlier moving very fast—”
The shadow closed, for This was unavoidable.
Marit drew a northern long knife called a seax and Subrata a basket-hilted broadsword. Like an enemy in a dream, it was suddenly upon them. They flanked the apparition and challenged it in six tongues.
It snaked out flourishes of black expressiveness like coiled ropes and snagged each guard by an ankle. Seax and broadsword flashed. Dark cords were cut. The broken sections writhed back into the mass.
Then the red-haired wanderer arrived with daggers in her hands and strange syllables on her tongue.
The entity responded in kind. Its voice seemed a thing of dripping caves and tar pits.
“Good,” the woman sighed, pointing to herself. “Alisvisp yinwosp Gaunt. Alisvisp umwosp This,” she added, pointing at the darkness. “My name for you is This.”
“This,” responded the thing.
“Is This... yours?” Marit managed.
“You might say This is a problem I helped create,” the red-headed newcomer said.
“What does This want?” Subrata asked.
“What we all want, I’d wager,” said the redhead. “Love. Belonging. Ultimate cosmic power. Let’s see... Yynwois amssli rimyas This?”
“This!” it shouted, flowing toward her like a nest of pitch-covered snakes.
“Wrong pronunciation,” the redhead muttered, daggers raised.
Bone rushed up the bridge without conscious thought and was slapped away by a fresh tendril of darkness, a match to the one that now choked Gaunt.
“This,” came the hiss. The new tendril contrived to indicate Gaunt’s neck whilst the other shook her by it. “This,” it added, jabbing a third appendage toward the pocket where Bone carried Eyetooth.
“This seems resistant to weapons!” shouted the female guard.
“We need another way to battle This!” agreed the male guard.
“Glrg,” said Gaunt.
“You know,” Bone said, stalling while his brain rummaged every musty corner of his skull, “I was just saying to Gaunt, ‘Do you know who I really miss? This fellow, the one who was so dedicated to guarding the key. And dedicated to one word.”
“This,” said the creature.
“That’s the one! Such devotion to duty and vocabulary!”
Gaunt’s eyes were rolling back in her head... No! They were just rolling, as though she was annoyed with Bone. She was exaggerating her distress to lull This into complacency. But what could she... Ah, she was looking at the various lamps!
“The brazier!” Bone said to the guards. For Gaunt had contrived to squirm close to the great bowl of fire to the southwest. The three of them leapt to the business of toppling it onto This.
The male guard grabbed the lantern containing a candlewyrm, and his comrade seized the one of kraken oil. Wrenching them free, they advanced.
Bone yanked the lantern of magical flame and failed to budge it. It continued to billow as if blown toward Loom Mountain, as it had (so he realized) on previous encounters. A unworthy part of him envied the warriors for so impressively helping Gaunt. What could he, a foolish thief, do?
Yet it seemed to him Gaunt fidgeted herself along the platform’s guard-wall as though lining her enemy up. She flicked her gaze to his, then aimed it pointedly downward, at the stone directly behind her attacker.
As the guards swung lanterns Bone cried, “...and in conclusion... I am done... with... This!” He dove to form a low-lying obstacle for the thing, and Gaunt shoved with all her might.
The lumpy, shadowy form fell backward over Bone but also jerked upward, yanked into space like an oily rag in a gale.
Bone grabbed Gaunt. So did the guards. This let go, gyrating its way down toward Loom Mountain, gradually descending into the gorge, where it smacked against one rock face, then the other. It hit the river and rushed into shadow.
Gaunt coughed and wheezed and managed in a cracked voice to say she was all right.
“How did you know that would happen?” Bone managed.
“I am curious as well,” said the female guard.
“And I,” said her companion.
Gaunt gasped, “The secret... of Loomsberg’s lack of magic... is not a kind of inertness... but rather a current, forever dragging magic toward the great mountain... I suspect it’s a sleeping arkendrake, one unusually hungry for magic... but that’s neither here nor there...”
“It isn’t?” Bone said.
“No... ha!... what matters is that I saw in the observatory how magical effects seem to seep in one direction... toward the mountain... I gambled that shoving This toward the mountain... would produce dramatic results, given it is a creature of magic... and I was right, Bone, I was right! I am not just a pretty, petty noble. I was right!”
“You often are,” he said, impressed. “Not always, true, but—”
She gave him a Look.
“—but easily ninety-nine times out of ninety-eight! You triumphed, with a little help from these stalwart guards and less-than-stalwart me. You astonish me and are the answer to all my dark-of-the-morning questions. Let me get you that drink.”
She gave him another Look and kissed him as ferociously as she’d shoved. “Get us a room.”
“I think I haven’t the heart to collect that bounty,” the male guard said as Bone and Gaunt stumbled away.
“Nor I,” the female guard answered. “But are we overlooking fugitives, because they were our temporary comrades? Or because we old married folk admire romance?”
“Or is a kiss just a kiss?”
“That is not so important right now,” she replied, looking down into the chasm, “when we must remember This.”
There was a mansion. It was unlike most mansions in a number of ways. That it was small enough to be worn around a raven’s neck was not even the strangest thing about it. The inhabitants, like the interiors, were composed of crackling magical impulses, but they did not perceive themselves thus.
One of the inhabitants even now perceived himself as looking out a billiards room window.
“Is she gone?” said his companion.
Lord Raz nodded, twisting a cue. “We’ve reached the summit, and she has reincorporated. And so we stand and wait. My shot?”
“Yes,” Lady Cynthia said. “You’ll find it difficult, sinking that Blue Moonball.”
“Intriguing game,” Raz said. “Thank you for inventing it.”
“My pleasure. I appreciate spheres. I often think our world should have been one.”
“A strange thought,” Raz said as he sighted various approaches. “Why?”
“Elegance. There are times when our approximately disc-shaped world seems rather hodgepodge. Were it a sphere, night and day could be a matter of simple rotation, not a complex matter of the sun wandering its way around one face of the world and then the other. And it gets worse. Did you know that the sun plunges into canyons or caverns no less than six times daily on our face of the world alone? Thus many more parts of our the world experience a dawn and a dusk than they would otherwise.”
“To be honest,” Raz said, “I think little about the motions of the sun. The Earthe could circle around it for all that it impacts my work. It is the motion of people and nations that concerns me.”
Just before he was about to shoot, every reflective surface in the room shimmered with the image of Sarcopia Vorre. She was in the windowpanes, the glassware, the bottles, the ice bucket, and even dimly in the billiard balls. Her voice vibrated glass lanterns and suits of armor and even the boards of the mahogany door. “Spymaster. Report on this Snowheart.”
Raz stood at attention, cue aimed at the ceiling. “True name Eshe, family name uncertain. Class Three threat.”
“Class Three? But she lacks any sorcery. Jargo XIII himself is a Class Three.”
“She is unique, mistress. Chief agent of the Whispering Hunt of the Kpalamaa Federation. Absurdly skilled. No one is sure how old she really is, perhaps not even her.”
“A degree of sentimentality.”
“The fatal one. Loremistress, report on the competition.”
Cynthia held out her cue as though about to duel. “Jargo XIII arrived first. The oncoming apparitions of storm and snow match the proclivities of the Archon of Night and the troll-king Skrymir; each are Class Two threats. I estimate their arrival in three hours. Three more manifestations are apparent in the etheric currents but the signatures are as yet unclear.”
“What of the thieves of Eyetooth?”
“The man’s description matches one Imago Bone, thief, base of operations Palmary, Class Ten threat.”
“Class Ten? I thought the scale only went down to Nine.”
“We created Class Ten to account for certain beings with unusual gifts who nonetheless do not rate a place on the Ledger.”
“And the woman?”
“Persimmon Gaunt, poet, base of operations Palmary, not on the Ledger.”
“And these two nonentities recovered Eyetooth?”
“It is a puzzle, great one.”
“All puzzles have answers, Lady Cynthia. Solve it, if you value your eyes.”
The echoes faded, and the reflections vanished.
Without comment, Lord Raz took his shot. The Sunball connected; the Blue Moonball came within a finger-width of plunging into a side pocket but bounced off the rail. “But what of seasons?” he said. “Would your spherical Earthe have those?”
“There is probably an elegant solution I haven’t discovered yet.”
“You sound as though you’re planning a world.”
“Sometimes I think I am,” she shot back, before shooting ahead.
Atop Starfang, Eshe listened to overlords sparring.
“Ill met by starlight, Archmage,” said the tiny Jargo XIII, “and nameless agent of the Ghana of Kpalamaa.”
“We declare for magic,” Sarcopia said. “Do you?”
“Of course. We are the best at it, we followers of Klarga.”
“Inventors of Klarga, you mean.”
“Humankind is always following what it invents. Laws. Customs. Loves. Dreams. If we invent more deliberately than most, what of it?”
“True power is kept in one’s hands, not invested in puppets.”
“Who is more powerful than a puppetmaster?”
“Any child running with scissors.”
“It has really been too long, Sarcopia.”
“Yes, hasn’t it just, Jargo? A shame my cavern and your island aren’t more neighborly.”
“Oh, give it time.”
“I would vomit,” said the seagull, “if I hadn’t lost it all on the ascent. Sorry, beautiful crystal-topped mountain at the heart of everything! I believe I puked a saint or two on you.”
“Death!” croaked the raven.
Eshe wordlessly fed her Olitiau a whole mango, careful with her poison-tipped gauntlet.
“Do you know anything about these thieves?” Sarcopia asked.
Jargo shrugged. “They didn’t rate the Onyx Wall of Graven Enemies.”
“We simply call it the Ledger,” Sarcopia said.
“The Portfolio,” Eshe murmured.
“Regardless of the name,” Jargo snapped, “we all understand the score—there are those who rate, and those who don’t.”
He waved a hand, and fragments of the crystalline summit splintered and swirled upward like reversed snow. They spiraled around his miniature wizard form and snowballed, so to speak, until the homunculus of Jargo was encased in the head of a full-sized crystalline Jargo.
“They are bird food,” said the seagull. “All beings secretly desire whatever happens to them. A delicious fact.”
“Indeed, Johann Sebastian,” said Jargo with a smile that the crystal apparition mimicked. His voice emerged through the figure’s nose. “These new players must be terrified by now, wondering how they can survive the key and conceive a stratagem that can dispatch we elite. Even now they must be hatching plots, covered in sweat, studying the key with all the desperation of the mad.”
“Again, Bone. I am ready. Mm. If you are...”
There came a clatter in their dark room in the Tilted Windmill.
“What was that?” she asked.
“I think I knocked Eyetooth off the nightstand. I, uh, think it’s still dimensionally stable. Now... hm, where were we?”
Gaunt gave a long sigh. “We are being irresponsible, aren’t we?”
“I think we left irresponsible behind some time ago. Other relevant adjectives might be, uh, hungry, eager, seeking, lovely, curvaceous, uncovered, giddy, teasing, shivering, quivering, shaking, gasping, coiled, grinning, sighing, dozing...”
“Are you all right over there?”
“I think I am ready too.”
“Alas, dear Bone, we have much to do.”
“Two out of three. Well. It’s not ninety-nine out of ninety-eight but it is nevertheless memorable...”
“I was wrong. It is not we who are being irresponsible; it is I. I am angry at the price levied by the delven, and I will not pay it.”
“To be precise, they’re not asking you to pay it.” Bone sat up. “I must deal with my own foolishness.”
Gaunt rose and framed his face in her hands. “You are changing, Imago. It is almost alarming. For all I know I will turn around and find you an honest man.”
“Never. All who knew me would mock me.”
She folded her arms and studied him in partial jest, but only partial. “I will tell you a thing, Imago. The more fully you live, the more ridicule you get... and the more admirers too. There are those who long to become big by knocking others down. But there are those who long to grow. By growing yourself, you help them.”
“Can a thief grow?”
“What if you are not a ‘thief’ but a quick-thinking man who steals at times—but at other times also saves? What if the second quality defined you and not the first?”
“You make my head hurt, Persimmon. But my head endures for my heart’s sake. And my head tells me this responsibility, this price, belongs to me.”
“You will not pay it, I will not let you. I’ve been thinking.”
He smirked. “Is that what it’s called?”
She gave him a teasing slap. “Silence your ego, man! I am woman, I can think of more than one and a half things at once! In widderspace I thought I learned something, and the delven have confirmed it. Opening a portal with Eyetooth, while aiming near a person, can open a realm keyed to the thoughts of that person.”
“It... creates places?”
“As the delven put it, there are so many corners of the—metacosm? So many corners that it’s possible to find one that suits our thoughts very well. I think Eyetooth can seek places. Remember, we spoke of bluemoss, back in widderspace...”
“Trust my memory, old man. We did, and between us Eyetooth opened up a realm of blue jungles and forests. I had you open a portal near my head...”
“That I remember. It was strange, and I’d meant to ask you about it later.”
“I concentrated upon a nursery rhyme about the broken egg-man Yokel Swell. And Eyetooth opened the way to a world shattered like an egg.”
“I don’t think so. I think from widderspace we can open a portal to reach the Logos Lock and honor your promise.”
“Ah. There’s a snag.”
“Time passes more slowly in—widderspace? The opposition will be well and truly dug in.”
“Or they’ll have killed each other, Bone.”
“Are we ever that lucky, Gaunt?”
“Perhaps the time difference is controllable. Perhaps there is a relationship between time and hypergeometry. Perhaps Eyetooth can influence this relationship.”
“Three perhapses in the same argument?”
“Perhaps,” Gaunt said.
“All right. When we select our destination we also ask for minimal time difference. And for a pony.”
“There’s no call for sarcasm, Bone.”
“Who’s being sarcastic? As long as we’re facing an angel, sorcerers, and higher dimensions, we might as well get something out of it besides motion sickness.”
Gaunt said, “I will need to doze and ponder and rest first.”
“Hm. I know what might help with that...”
He mimed reaching for his daggers. “Where?”
“You are impossible, Bone. But alas you are also charming. Do you think This will return?”
“What? Oh. I suppose it may... but it will have some difficulty escaping the mountain. We have time, then?”
“Mm? For what?”
“You torture me! Of course, if you are no longer interested...”
“Ah, the mournful voice, Bone! I cannot resist the mournful voice, with its overtones of chill winds howling over cenotaphs and its hints of lustful desperation.”
“We must take it slowly, is all. I have much to consider.”
“I am grateful,” he said, “you can think of more than one and a half things at a time.”
“You should be,” she said. “Cover Eyetooth,” she added.
Bone had another dream. In it he carefully broke into a manor. But he wasn’t there to steal, for all that glittering things teased his eyes in all directions. No, he filled a pitcher from a courtyard pump and tended the plants.
No one had asked him to do this. Some higher power he could not name compelled him to creep up to violets and orchids and lilies, ambushing them with water. He spilled not a drop. He ducked at each window, froze at each creak in the floorboards, blended with the shadows of coat racks, chandeliers, and half-opened cupboard doors. He was the secret waterer, ghostly guardian of thirsty flowers. It thrilled him with illicit delight.
Do you know why you‘re here? came a voice.
He turned very slowly. He could have heard a drip drop.
The teenaged girl looked like a warrior of the Bladed Isles, complete with steel byrnie, round shield, and wickedly sharp spear. She had braided red hair and eyes of frosty blue.
Bone raised his watering can in answer.
The girl smiled and shook her head. You are inside a metaphor. An approximation of what you‘re meant to do.
So, Bone said carefully, you‘re not going to skewer me?
She laughed. Imago Bone, ever practical in his own absurd way.
That is a no, then. What am I meant to do? Awaken, and use Eyetooth to break into all the gods‘ mansions and water their plants?
Your skills will come to be used in the service of life, old man, not greed.
That sounds suspiciously like altruism.
You‘re the one with the watering can. Shoulder your pain, thief.
And he was awake. He rose restless in the sunset. Gaunt still slept. She was snoring, though of course she’d deny it later. Luckily he’d always viewed a woman’s snores as a kind of fine music, and he a privileged audience.
He studied her in the rosy illumination. She’d dressed in case of trouble, as had he, once the evening’s other agenda was done. She was no less beautiful for that.
This once, he thought, don’t be greedy, Imago. For treasure, for love... or for years.
He looked out across a chasm at the Otherfolk Quarter. It was late now, with sun drooping between mountains and casting smoldering red glows and long smoke-like shadows everywhere, and folk were scurrying to their homes or favored night spots. Bone saw the observatory’s telescope pointed, not at a sky as yet parsimonious with its stars but at the Tilted Windmill. Hm. Impertinent of them. But useful.
He plucked Gaunt’s wax writing tablet and stylus and wrote between her lines. He held the tablet to the window.
I said, Gaunt’s first line ran, I do not trust skulls. But truly, skulls we all are.
I CHOOSE YOUR OFFER, Bone had written underneath, BUT WITH A TWIST. I INVOKE AN OATH-TO-BE...
Skulls disguised, ran Gaunt’s second line. One day we‘ll shed our costumes...
I OFFER 1/4 NOW FOR PROTECTION, Bone wrote, 1/4 IF LATER WE GIVE THE KEY TO YOU FOR SAFEKEEPING...
And grin, Gaunt had written, at each others‘ nakedness...
AND ANOTHER 1/4 IS IN THE OFFING, Bone dared write, FOR A FUTURE BOON OF MY CHOICE...
Embarrassed perhaps, Gaunt had continued, at how we treated one another...
WHICH COMES TO 3/4 OF MY AMAZING FUTURE, Bone went on, THE BARGAIN OF THE AGE!
During the masquerade, Gaunt had concluded, at least for now. Bone realized as he held the wax tablet up to the window that she must have composed this the night before This had attacked in the snow.
The great telescope spun with a rumbling he could hear dimly even from across the gorge. Through the tiny eyepiece, now pointed directly at him, flashed a gleam of flickering silver-and-gold light. An assent? Well then. He should consider how to erase—
“This!” screamed a voice amid the shattering of glass.
Gaunt, too, dreamed.
She lived in some manner of rustic place, both like and unlike her family’s home in Swanisle. That manse had been a teetering remnant of nobility, a relic of brittle pride. This place was simply what it was. It represented no ongoing legacy. To be a home was pride enough.
Her favorite spot within (she knew, with the strange knowledge of dreams) was beside the fire, in a place where, with the impractical arrogance of artists, she kept her scrolls and codices. A small but quietly loved fraction was Gaunt’s own work.
A sudden movement caused her to peer outside. Beyond a glass windowpane wound a dirt path among evergreens, between deadfalls. And beyond these woods stretched a rocky landscape dotted with mosses, bushes, and the occasional copse of trees.
Bizarrely, out on the path a red-haired boy was riding one of Richard Thomas’s wheeled contraptions.
She somehow knew (in the way of nightmares) that a heavy branch was about to collapse, intersecting the path at the same instance of time and space as the boy. It was going to kill him. She knew this even as he grinned. She shouted, but he couldn’t hear her. He’d already turned away.
She also somehow understood that if she left the room now, a scroll she’d left foolishly beside the fire would catch a stray spark and ignite. Flames would consume her home and life’s work.
And, Swan help her, she hesitated to leave all this.
In that moment of indecisiveness she knew she’d lost any easy way of saving the boy. Wildly she looked at the scroll and as it began to smoke she read its title: If You Could Be Your Best Self, What Would You Be?
And she leapt through the window glass.
Gaunt awoke to see the shadowy tangle of This assaulting Bone beside a shattered window. She leapt up and threw Bone aside with a strength that surprised even her.
And words in Vuuhrr came unbidden to her mind, as if she’d worked out a complex translation problem while she’d slept. She hissed, “You can be reunited with the key when we are done! Just let us use it a while longer!”
And the angry blot of language paused. It said something that shocked her: “Gaunt?”
As the three of them fell into silence, there flashed a light from the observatory. Startled anew, Gaunt reckoned the telescope had been spun the wrong way and was now absorbing light from within the observatory and focusing it outward, onto this room. A mix of gold and silver, like that shed by Sunspool and Moonwax, filled the chamber. What could it mean?
This twisted this way and that, confused, hesitating.
“We mean you no harm—” Gaunt began.
Two people burst into the room with weapons drawn. “Surrender!” called the guards from the bridge, pointing blades at This.
All reason was done. This lashed out with flourishes like jabbing elbows. Four humans reeled backward.
Gaunt snatched Eyetooth, closed her thumb on the sapphire, and twisted.
The world turned. This time everything spun faster. The light and sound and texture of sunset swirled like blood down a drain, and Gaunt and Bone fell again into the dark place lit by ghostly geometries. Gaunt tried to close the portal behind them, but This plunged into widderspace before she could do so. It was not fleeing this time.
As the gateway spiraled shut and left the stunned guards with a mystery, Gaunt noticed that a ghostly residue of sunlight and moonlight remained around herself and Bone. A form of protection granted by Sunspool and Moonwax?
This lashed out at them, but its substance recoiled at the glow.
“I’m not complaining,” Gaunt observed. “But you didn’t seal any agreement with the delven, Bone.”
“Maybe they disagree,” Bone said after a moment’s hesitation.
She gave him a hard look. “Well, we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. Be ready, Bone. To the cage of the First Prisoner!” she called out. “At the very moment we departed Loomsberg!”
There appeared a nearby portal. It led to a moonlit crystal field dominated by a titanic black coffin.
“And for my next feat...” Gaunt aimed Eyetooth behind her head, calling out, “The land of the plumed serpents!”
A fresh gateway opened, and she turned to behold a jungled realm twittering beneath four egg-shaped moons in a chartreuse sky. Vine-draped pillars proclaimed the flowing Vuuhrr tongue. In the distance rose stony domes, with colorful winged shapes twining beside them—
This! their foe whispered. It whipped away toward its paradise.
“‘Bye,” said Gaunt. She smiled at Bone. “I surmised that the survivors of the Motive War used Eyetooth to escape to another world, one where the Vuuhrr perception magic that triggered the war could not function. They knew Eyetooth must eventually return to our world, so they determined to keep it out of evil hands. Thus our friend This.”
“I am impressed,” Bone said.
“I think, by terms of the oath,” Gaunt said only, “you had best proceed from here.”
She handed him the key. He nodded.
They stepped through the other portal onto the crystal.
Gaunt and Bone shivered and gasped, for this moonlit summit seemed a trifle short on air; but the sun-and-moon glow about them brightened and their lungs rallied and a warm breeze revived them like a memory of summer twilight.
“Now to get our bearings,” Bone began, before they were assaulted by a cold yet more terrible, and a blazing heat as well.
For perhaps a hundred feet away stood three adversaries. One, a figure in grey furs—Snowheart, surely—merely watched behind her breathing mask, leaning against her bat-winged beast. But a second figure, shining within some manner of crystal armor as a seagull flew about its head, cast blasts of arctic wind accompanied by razor-sharp sigils of green ice. A third, no doubt Sarcopia Vorre, white-robed with a white raven on her shoulder, gestured like a storyteller who’d downed ten cups of tea and had one minute to relay an epic. From her fingers flowed waves of flame, and monstrous fangs sprouted from the swirling oranges and yellows and reds, each tooth a bonfire.
Gaunt and Bone’s solar-and-lunar glow absorbed the blasts. The frost unraveled, the fire dispersed. It was like wading into ocean surf. They were buffeted but unharmed.
The assault ebbed, and they could just overhear their opponents’ exclamations of surprise. But the sounds were drowned out by an immense moaning rising from the vault.
They stopped short, covered their ears, and instinctively looked away. But there was no escaping the wail. Under the influence of that sound they stared out over the moonlit roof of the world and imagined they could hear the Earthe’s every falling leaf and hailstone and moth-wing whisper. Their throats felt the thirst of cacti and their lungs the ache of a whale diving too deep. Their minds’ eyes knew starlight in the windows of a room where a newborn took her first taste of air and scented her first sweat and blood and felt her heart shake with the terror and rightness of freedom... as simultaneously they sensed five thousand miles away in a room full of sun-motes a feverish old man dying, lost in a boyhood memory of tide pools and the lacelight of reflected water dancing on shadowed rocks. And, to know all this, every river-kissed valley and ocean-embraced peninsula, every mountain peak and deep sea trench, every squawk and chitter and roar, and to be able to touch absolutely none of it...
They stared at each other across this abyss of experience and gripped one another’s hands.
All these impressions flickered through their minds in the first second of the First Prisoner’s cry.
It lasted half a minute.
No battle occurred in that time. No speech was conceivable. In the wail’s aftermath every human on the summit stared long and silently at every other.
Bone recovered first. “I do what I must,” he croaked, wavering on his feet. He released Gaunt’s hand and, like a drunk with loosely grasped bottle and precariously grasped reality, advanced with a white-knuckled grip on Eyetooth. Gaunt followed, dazed.
“How can anyone bear the sound?” Snowheart murmured in the distance. Her voice seemed to boom with unearthly clarity.
“I am inured to all screams,” said the man in crystal armor with a cough. “Even these.”
“I’ve known the screams of lost souls,” Sarcopia said, her voice hitting a few high notes. “I am unshaken...”
Bone kept walking, his usually jocular scarred face an expressionless blank, until he reached the place he judged he could drop the key. “And now...” he began.
But Gaunt, who’d said nothing since the angel’s cry, was now seized by a rage surging from some molten place in the deep caverns of her mind.
And she snatched Eyetooth from Bone’s hand.
“Gaunt?” Bone began. But for once he was too dazed and too slow. She raised the key toward the Logos Lock.
Eyetooth’s hypergeometric extensions flashed out across the distance and connected with the vault. An earthquake-roar of tumblers shook the mountaintop.
It all ended with a click soft as a cricket’s chirp, or an acorn’s fall, or the first pebble of an avalanche hitting the second.
The prongs flashed back into the substance of Eyetooth.
“What?” Bone managed to say. “Why?”
“It was like...” Gaunt said, struggling to find words to explain her anger, “like hearing a poem being burned...”
The great vault opened; light streamed forth like a second sun. “Cover your eyes!” Gaunt cried out to all assembled, and Bone at least obeyed.
Words seared through their minds. Midnight becoming noon all in an instant: that was the quality of the voice. FEAR NOT, it said. MY VISAGE IS VEILED.
Gaunt spread the fingers covering her face. The giant figure stood cloaked in a fiery nimbus, blinking star-cluster eyes. It dimmed and its contours grew clearer, an octopus of moonlight with wings of thundercloud.
DOES THIS FORM SUIT?
“Ah,” said Gaunt.
“Um,” said Bone.
Mist swirled about it, and the colossal figure became a titanic tree, trunk recalling the galaxies of the sky, branches like dark nebulae, fruits as moons of many colors. NO, mused the Dawn Angel. The shape dwindled to something resembling a redwood bearing branches like an oak’s but laden with apples. BETTER. AND YET—The shape collapsed into a humanoid form, bat-winged, raven-headed, seagull-beaked.
Gaunt and Bone and their foes stumbled toward it like bluemoss addicts.
“You are most chimeric...” Gaunt murmured.
I AM A DEMIURGE.
“You, uh, write stage plays?” Bone ventured with a squeak.
“Not a dramaturge,” Gaunt said. “A demiurge! A sort of secondary Creator.”
YES. BUT KNOW ALSO THAT IN A SENSE I AM ALL OF YOU, A COMPOSITE OF THE DREAMS OF UNTOLD QUINTILLIONS.
“Are you certain you don’t write plays?” Bone said. “I might find that slightly less terrifying.”
PERHAPS I HAVE. I HAVE BEEN SO MANY THINGS. A MANY-TENDRILED PHILOSOPHER FROM THE CONSTELLATION YOU CALL THE BEAR’S CUP. A MULTI-HORNED SLUG-BEAST TENDING THE SICK ON A WORLD OF SEVEN SUNS. AN ARMORED ICE CREEPER ON AN AIRLESS MOON, AND A SUNSPOT STRIDER ON THE FACE OF A STAR. I AM ALL OF THEM AND ALL OF YOU.
“And we,” Gaunt said, “felt all the world in your cry.”
YOU HAVE FREED ME, WHY?
“I felt, for a moment, that I was you, dying in there eternally.”
“That is all?” scoffed Sarcopia. “A feeling of sympathy? For this destroyer of magic?”
DESTROYER? said the angel. NO. IN THE END, GIVEN TIME, WHAT YOU CALL MAGIC WILL RESIDE PRIMARILY IN IMAGINATION. IN LOVE. IN TRUST. IN COMMUNITY. IN INDIVIDUALITY—
“Bah!” said the crystalline man. “Paltry things, all!”
“For once I agree with you, Jargo,” said Sarcopia.
FABLE WILL PASS ITS TORCH TO HISTORY. MAGIC WILL BE HARDER TO FIND. BUT JUSTICE WILL BE EASIER TO COME BY.
“Have we heard enough, Sarcopia?” said the crystal figure called Jargo.
“Indeed,” Sarcopia answered. “And you, Eshe?”
“Yes,” said the woman Gaunt and Bone had until now known as Snowheart. “Kpalamaa prefers the status quo.”
“Give us Eyetooth,” Jargo said to Gaunt, holding out a gleaming armored hand.
“Indeed,” said Eshe, making an identical gesture. “We will make good use of the key.”
“Give it to me,” Sarcopia said, “or I blind your friend.” For her raven had settled onto Bone’s head with a hungry look.
Sarcopia smiled. “Thief, do not test your reflexes against Regret. She has eaten many a sorcerer’s eyes.”
“Bone,” Gaunt said slowly, “don’t get brave here.”
Bone began laughing.
“No, not precisely,” said Bone’s voice, and yet not Bone’s voice. “He found me in a deep place of Archaeopolis long ago. He thought he‘d left me behind.”
Bone snorted, and pale dust poured out his nose, gleaming in angelic light, before he snorted it back in.
“Bone dust?” Eshe said.
“I was a skull when Bone found me. But a most ancient one. If not for my mighty will, it would have collapsed into dust long ago. It was a simple matter to ensorcel Bone and flow into his head, bonding my skull to his.”
Gaunt stared in horror. She managed to say, “You’ve been with him all this time?”
Again the laugh. “Ah, my dear, you wondered why he was so thick-headed.”
“I’m informed you are a Class One threat,” Sarcopia said, “and yet you’ve slipped in under our noses.”
“Under the thief’s nose too,” Jargo said. “What are you?”
“I am the First Wizard, fools. I grabbed power by the chakras and never let it go. Even after losing life and skin. Unlike this First Prisoner, I chewed my way to the top. I understand power in a way even angels cannot. And I say unto you, power makes us all monsters. The only way to redeem power is to disperse it. But magic always concentrates power. So I contrived to set the First Prisoner free. I prophesied that Imago Bone here—” here the First Wizard caused Bone to wave “—would one day partner with someone of wit, will, and empathy, and that she would free the angel. Indeed, it would be impossible for her not to do so and still be Persimmon Gaunt.”
“You... you’re the founder of all we hold dear,” Sarcopia said.
“How can you oppose magic?” Jargo demanded.
“Because I’ve lived millennia, dolt. I’ve seen what magic does to people. Your illustrious ancestor Jargo I once used me as a paperweight, right where you‘ve got a bust of Klarga now. And Sarcopia Vorre, did you know your family name descends from the Vuuhrr, whose knowledge I bear? That‘s because I taught your line‘s founder too, before he decapitated me. And Eshe—the Namer of Dust, whom you met, to your long sorrow? She was my pupil, whole stole much of my memory. Yet I do remember breeding the first Olitiau too. And familiars! My potions accidentally produced the first of your kind. You have unearthly appetites, do you not?”
“Well,” squawked the seagull, “idealists are tasty, what can I say?”
“Eyeballs!” croaked the raven from Bone’s shoulder, though not acting on the threat.
“Sure,” said the seagull. “If we find an idealist, you can keep that part.”
The First Wizard chuckled. “And Gaunt, those kleptomancers you‘ve tangled with started with a book stolen from me. And your tattoo—”
“Say no more,” she snapped.
“As you wish.”
SO, the First Prisoner said, I HAVE YOU TO THANK FOR FREEDOM. BUT WHY?
“To gloat—and for this.”
Bone spewed dust into the angel’s face.
It shuddered and transformed, swelling into a black-robed, hooded giant of unknown age and gender. Its hands were buried within sleeves of inky star-flecked shadow. Within its hood drifted galaxies. NOW, came a raspy counterfeit of its original voice, THE FIRST PRISONER AND THE FIRST WIZARD ARE AS ONE.
It reached toward the Olitiau. The beast sensed its doom and took wing, but a hand like an inky nebula slapped it against the crystal plain. When the hand flowed back into the robes, there remained neither flesh nor bones but a book marked with a portrait of an Olitiau.
THUS WILL YOU ALL END.
“All?” Gaunt said, putting her arm around the retching but liberated Bone.
YOU’VE ALL BEEN TOUCHED BY MAGIC. I WON’T HAVE YOU RUNNING LOOSE. I THINK BONE WILL BECOME AN OVERWROUGHT SAGA UPON INFERIOR PAPER BENEATH A LURID COVER. AND YOU WILL BECOME AN ERUDITE VOLUME THAT WEARY STUDENTS MIGHT BE FORCED TO READ.
“You are cruel,” Bone coughed.
HOW CAN IT EVER BE CRUEL TO DESTROY AN ELITE?
“Will you destroy yourself as well?” Gaunt demanded.
IN TIME I WILL BECOME A CAMPFIRE STORY ABOUT POETIC JUSTICE.
The white raven returned to Sarcopia, who was saying to someone unseen, “Lady Cynthia and Lord Raz, you will find its weakness or I will have your souls!”
Jargo waved shining hands, and the razor-symboled ice blasts recommenced. All shattered harmlessly against the giant presence.
Eshe wordlessly leapt and sank metallic claws into the figure’s back. It shrugged and backhanded her. She skidded across the crystal. YOU, MY DEAR, WILL BE AN INTELLIGENCE REPORT WITH MOST OF ITS WORDS REDACTED.
Gaunt and Bone ran to her side. “I...” Eshe sputtered as they helped her up. “I thank you,” she finished in surprise. “I seem to be mostly intact.”
“As do I,” Bone said, noting Sarcopia unleashing a blast that resembled a bloodthirsty phoenix. “Surprisingly. But I think... our minutes are numbered like pages. The protection Gaunt and I arrived with... appears to have faded. I’m short of breath...”
Eshe shared her strange breathing mask, first with Bone, then with Gaunt. They inhaled gratefully as Eshe said, “I do not think the Wizard-Prisoner will stop with us.”
“Indeed,” Gaunt said, before taking her turn with the mask. “How many innocent people... will be deemed ‘touched by magic’?”
“That is often the problem with revolutionaries,” Eshe said. “Killing becomes a habit. Doctrines twist to support it.” She reclaimed the mask.
“We need a plan,” Bone said. “Preferably one... that doesn’t, heh, involve... exertion...”
Gaunt raised Eyetooth.
Once again a flourish of prongs crossed the air, this time striking the Wizard-Prisoner. But her target only laughed as the metal passed through him, as though he or it or both were illusions.
“I feared,” Gaunt sighed, restoring the key to basic proportions, “that the work of angels... could not directly harm angels...”
“It was,” Bone said, “at least a plan.”
“I have one more... but you won’t like it.”
“I like my lack of plans... even less.”
“What do you propose?” Eshe said.
Gaunt twisted the key—
An emerald expanse of jungle opened beside them, and before them twisted a dark spiraling shape.
Gaunt spoke in sibilant syllables, pointing from the living symbol to the possessed angel. “Gaunt,” said the black squiggle, and launched itself through the portal toward the foe.
“What... did you tell it?” Bone asked.
“I informed it... who was ultimately responsible... for the theft of Eyetooth. I think it carries a trace... of the magic of the Motive War... and can see my own motives. And I think it likes me.”
This flowed up the Wizard-Prisoner’s robes and engulfed its head like a crown. Gaunt closed the portal.
WHAT! WHAT IS...
YOU WILL NOT STOP ME!
Lightning flickered around the head of the angel, and the dark shape convulsed.
“T – h – i – s...”
The dark crown became bone white.
NO, NO, I AM POWER, YOU ARE NOTHING, YOU ARE...
“i – s...”
This toppled and shattered into black dust.
“This... This was a hero,” Gaunt said.
The Dawn Angel gasped, holding its starry hands to its head. I AM FREE. THE GUARDIAN OF THE KEY DESTROYED THE WIZARD...
Its form twisted. Now the vast angel possessed five slack-jawed faces, resembling all the humans on the summit, and two quivering sets of white wings.
“It’s weakened!” Sarcopia concluded.
“We might seal it up again!” shouted Jargo.
Eshe stepped forward wordlessly, leaving behind Gaunt and Bone.
“But should we?” Bone whispered. “I understand the First Wizard’s... argument. Minus the murder...”
Gaunt said, “I can see it either way... With or without magic... an empty belly is still an empty belly...”
DO NOT STOP ME, the angel was saying. I WILL BRING THE AGE OF SCIENCE. I WILL MAKE THE WORLD AS IT SHOULD BE.
“Are you a high god then?” Eshe was demanding, “that you make such choices for us?”
I AM BUT A DEMIURGE. IF THE CREATOR TRULY EXISTS, SHE IS FARTHER ABOVE ME THAN I AM ABOVE AN ANT.
“Let’s be gone, Bone,” Gaunt murmured. “We can discuss this... where we can breathe.” She twisted Eyetooth. She tried to avoid their being flung into the void; instead she shaped a dark portal.
“Demiurge,” Sarcopia said, heedless. “Despite your modesty, if we control you, do we control the universe?”
“Are you mad?” said Jargo.
“You see a threat,” Sarcopia said. “I see a tool.” She raised her hands, and strange mists billowed forth to envelop the First Prisoner. It looked this way and that, muttering in its mighty voice, distracted as one in a dream.
“What are you doing?” Jargo demanded.
“I believe,” Eshe said, flexing her gauntlets, “Sarcopia is bewitching this demiurge. And if a demiurge shapes reality...”
Towers rose from the crystal plain, ivory filigrees all bearing a banner of a long-nailed hand clutching a full moon.
“Betrayer!” said Jargo. Crimson coruscations of light flowed out of nothingness to his left and his right, converging and spinning around his hands like the crowns of unseen torches. He splayed crystal fingertips, and the blood-light lashed against the First Prisoner. It staggered.
“Ha!” Jargo exulted. “The First Wizard weakened it! It will fall!”
“Why is Jargo not... attacking Sarcopia?” Bone asked Gaunt, hesitating beside the portal, unable to look away.
Gaunt gripped Eyetooth tightly. “I fear... Jargo has decided to kill the First Prisoner.”
“But why? Aside from it being huge and unnerving.”
“As I understand it, the First Prisoner stands for the diminishing of magic and the advancing of natural law. I think Jargo hopes that if the Prisoner is dead, magic will become yet more powerful.”
Sarcopia noticed Jargo’s efforts. She did not counteract him directly but reshaped her mist; the distracted angel muttered to itself.
A tower balcony shattered at a sudden earthquake, and its rubble flew toward Jargo. He countered with a sidestep and a fresh blast like purple fireflies. The rubble lost its solidity and hit the ground as a sort of bubbly foam.
“Should we not... be going?”
“Hold, Bone... Eshe approaches.”
“Are we agreed,” Eshe said to them “that neither sorcerer’s victory is desirable?”
Bone nodded, gratefully accepting a puff from the breathing apparatus.
“But what,” Gaunt whispered, “is desirable?”
“Entomb the angel,” said Eshe. “Status quo ante.”
“Help it escape,” said Bone. “End magic.”
“What?” said Gaunt, after she’d used the mask.
“Your own prolonged existence is the result of magic,” Eshe said.
“Indeed,” said Bone. “But it is unnatural and was originally the work of murderous sorcerers. I would be glad to see such people brought low.”
“There’s a compromise,” Gaunt realized. “What if we lure the demiurge far across the universe, away from our Earthe? It will take time to find its way back—millennia perhaps. Its influence might be subtle at first. Meanwhile we will almost have the status quo, though a more rational world will gradually arrive. And Eshe, if your land knows this change is coming, you will have an advantage.”
“Intriguing,” Eshe said, and Bone nodded.
Gaunt twirled Eyetooth and led them into darkness and ghostly geometries.
“One for my memoirs,” Eshe gasped.
Behind them a gap in the darkness revealed the magical duel atop the crystal plain.
“They seem un-lured,” Bone observed, grateful to be breathing deep (or perhaps occupying a place where breathing was unnecessary).
“Never fear,” Gaunt said, also rallying. “I am going to point Eyetooth between your heads.”
“What?” Bone said.
“Why?” Eshe said.
“You are foci. Bone, you’ve been touched by magic. I want you to envision a world that has more magic than ours. Bait the demiurge. But, Eshe, you are practical, rational. I want to you imagine that world as part of our own plane, so that the demiurge can one day return.”
Soon a new destination appeared beyond a fresh portal, hanging in a familiar-seeming starfield. It was a flat Earthe-like world... no, Gaunt realized, it was two such worlds, which had somehow survived a collision in which one had sliced through the other until the blue-green discs stuck together at a forty-five degree angle.
Out beyond the original portal the angel noticed. It stumbled closer. YES, YES...
“Gaunt,” Bone said, “can we get out of the way?”
Gaunt concentrated, waving the key a tiny fraction. The silvery discs containing the three of them drifted to one side.
The angel entered widderspace, spells still lashing at it through the portal to Earthe. YES! THE WIZARDS OF THAT PLACE CAST MANY A SPELL TO STABILIZE THEIR COLLIDING WORLDS, PROTECTING MILLIONS. SO MUCH MAGIC TO QUELL!
Bone said, “Millions?”
Gaunt could not answer.
“They are not our millions,” Eshe said.
Bone shook his head. “I steal wonders, not lives.”
“We’ve already killed,” Eshe said, “all of us. Grow up, thief. This is so often what it means to protect what you love.”
“No...” Bone stared at Gaunt, his usual insouciance melting into the plea of a lost child.
“Bone, I’m sorry—there’s no time—”
He closed his eyes and concentrated. As he did so, his light disc drifted away from theirs and took its place in the void between the angel and the conjoined world.
“It will overrun me,” he called out. “There is only one way to save me, if that’s what you want. Use Eyetooth to lure the angel to another world—”
“Shut up, shut up, you great fool.”
She raised the key.
Eshe flashed a bright smile beneath a hard gaze. “I haven’t seen such self-sacrificing stupidity since my first year in the Whispering Hunt.”
“Not in later years?” Gaunt said through gritted teeth.
“The idealistic ones don’t last the first year,” Eshe said. “But I still miss them sometimes. Do as you will. Jargo and Sarcopia approach. I will delay them.”
Two bolts of deranged energies lashed past the demiurge and against Imago Bone, who had been chanting a nursery rhyme:
In a palace of seashells,
Finer than all he’ens or hells,
He dwells—or doesn’t—in the sea,
Maybe watching you and me.
The Walrus God! He is my friend!
When I my disbelief suspend!
We created him in jest
Such a god is surely best
For agnostic fishermen
Who say a prayer now and then.
Gaunt feared those were his last words, words fittingly strange for Bone; but she did as he’d asked. She twisted the key, and an opening to a new disc-shaped world appeared. This world seemed composed entirely of water with a few islands resembling giant shells (as perhaps they were). It gleamed blue beneath a blazing sand dollar of a sun.
The demiurge’s five faces grinned. Gaunt wished her disc toward Bone. At last she reached him and maneuvered them both behind the portal leading to the abode (as it might be) of the Walrus God, giving them temporary shelter from both the angel and the sorcerers.
Bone looked weak, shivering and covered in green frost. She embraced and warmed him, not knowing what else to do. Have I never held a man in this way, she wondered, just to bring him back from the brink? Her body, sharing warmth, seemed to tell her racing brain: we’re beyond courtship now. He has not conquered you. You have not conquered him. Those are games for children.
The demiurge neared the portal. I WOULD MEET THIS GOD AND NOT-GOD OF THE AGNOSTICS...
“No!” came Sarcopia’s voice. “You’re mine to command!”
“Mine to destroy!” said Jargo.
“Out of our way, Eshe!”
But it was too late. The angel shrank to the proportions necessary to enter the portal and vanished from widderspace. Gaunt closed the gateway.
Eshe drifted back toward Gaunt and Bone.
“You,” Sarcopia said to the three gathered beside Eyetooth. “You have thwarted me. At least I’ll have the key. Over your dead bodies, naturally.”
“That key is mine, by right of conquest,” said Jargo.
“There’s no such thing as right of conquest,” Gaunt murmured, sheltering Bone. “There is conquest, and there are rights. They do not go together, as you’ll understand as soon as someone conquers you.”
But they did not listen. Jargo’s claim roused Sarcopia’s fury. Crimson adders lashed out at Jargo, who parried with a spider’s web of flickering green.
Widderspace filled with red-and-green swirls and spears and circles and cirrus wisps, and the battle as much resembled children’s finger-painting as a duel to the death.
“Your deeds are pointless—” Gaunt began.
But she could not finish, for Eshe had jabbed her with a potion-dabbed claw and snatched the key away.
In oblivion rose a new dream. Gaunt stood upon the highest balcony of a great hall dominated by a fireplace ten times the scale of her prior dream’s. Chandeliers hung on grand chains like fire-reflecting constellations. A flag billowed beyond a moonlit window, but Gaunt could not determine its nature.
A baby basket lay precariously on a high balustrade. Gaunt seemed to awaken from a daze, realizing the baby was hers and that she’d placed it there to claim for herself a precious moment of rest. She’d thought everything would be all right, but now she understood she’d been stupid and selfish.
She reached out too late. The baby woke, wailed, wobbled. The basket tipped into the void.
Gaunt screamed, hands raking empty air. She saw the tiny girl slip from the plunging basket, spinning wide-eyed toward her doom. But a peculiar thing happened, even though in the dream it seemed old knowledge: this is how it happens sometimes, when you fall.
The girl aged as she dropped.
Water burst into the mansion’s ground floor, and, even more unaccountably, narwhals swum amongst the bobbing furniture. The girl, now an armored young woman with long braids of red hair, landed upon one beast. She waved to Gaunt.
What are you? Gaunt called.
You have summoned us, the girl said. By traveling with a temporally complicated artifact, you have made yourselves temporally complicated.
What are you?
Think on this: what if you, as you are right now, are the best possible you there could ever be, even accounting for a vast metacosm brimming with yous. Nowhere in creation is there a better you than the one you are now. Would you find this knowledge crushing or liberating? Now, what if it could be proven that you are the very worst example of any you in existence, anywhere. No version of you is more foolish, addled, disappointing, or depraved. Would you find this knowledge deflating or exhilarating? Either way, the question is, if you could be your best self, what would you be?
The waters rose and swept over the balcony. The girl had vanished into the waves. Gaunt dove into them.
Gaunt awoke in Bone’s arms, still surrounded by the cold of widderspace. He said, “If you’re lying and she dies, Eshe, there’s no place in the cosmos where you can hide from me.”
“It is merely a stunning solution.” Eshe was holding the key. Gaunt saw her twist it. Though Eshe had not employed Eyetooth before, her observations seemed to have taught her much.
The portal to Earthe vanished.
The flourishes of power faded. The sorcerous duel ebbed.
“What have you done?” demanded Sarcopia.
“Don’t you see?” a tiny Jargo spat, his crystalline form flaking away into a sparkling cloud. “We are tied to the magic of our Earthe. Now we haven’t the power to return.”
“You kept nothing in reserve?” his seagull squawked. “It all went into the duel?”
The little Jargo shook his fist. Sarcopia’s white raven squawked in dismay.
“By trapping you here I’ve removed two more threats from the world,” Eshe said, “at the paltry cost of we few souls marooned.”
Bone stared at her, green frost still chilling his eyebrows. “You seem so... warm and kind... and yet you...”
“Your lady-love was about to see millions killed to preserve our own world. I’ve doomed a few souls to remove threats to my homeland—and yours, if you care. I call that enlightened and efficient.”
Gaunt stirred, gripped Bone’s hand. “Don’t be a child, Eshe,” she said. “We’ll not be marooned. Return that key.”
“No,” said Eshe.
Although the two sorcerers shivered aghast there in the cold of widderspace, the seagull flung itself toward Eshe, who raised and twisted Eyetooth. A portal opened near the bird, an opening into someplace green and bright and full of voices. He evaded it.
Eshe mocked, “Do you still believe, Johann Sebastian, that all things we experience are things we secretly desire?”
The bird squawked something foul and performed the act it had referenced. Then it battered her spattered head.
At that moment of distraction Gaunt kicked Eshe in the gut, and Bone, dropping a pretense, went from looking at death’s door to merely at death’s stoop. He grabbed the key.
“You are despicable,” Eshe said.
“I am a thief,” Bone said.
“Master,” the seagull, Johann Sebastian, said in wonder, for now he had gotten a good look through Eshe’s new portal. “There it is. The kind of place I always dreamed of...”
It was a world of tiny people chased by birds. The three-eyed birds had shining rainbow plumage and the four-armed people had green skin. Nevertheless the seagull sighed. “So long, Jargo. I’m going to a better place.”
The seagull dove through. The portal closed.
“My magic!” the tiny Jargo seethed. “My kingdom, my slaves, my servants, my worshippers. My familiar. Gone. Because of you!”
Jargo’s will drove him toward the three, and Bone reacted almost instinctively. Almost. For he’d already considered an interesting use of Eyetooth.
“Starfang’s summit,” Bone called out as he spun the key, “ at local noontime.”
Jargo, his caution gone, fell into a new, blazing, portal. His scream was short.
Bone closed the gateway, and all went quite dark.
Sarcopia and Eshe just stared.
“Any ideas, Gaunt?” Bone said, passing her Eyetooth. “I trust your judgment.”
“I could say the same of you. Sarcopia, I offer you the same boon we’ve granted Jargo’s familiar. Happiness in some other realm.”
Sarcopia shook her head. “I offer another option. Take me to my home in Ebontide. There I may grant you astonishing boons. Eshe here can verify that we Vorres abide by our oaths.”
Eshe nodded. “I do not approve, but she isn’t lying.”
Gaunt frowned. “If I was fresh, I might consider it. But I’m too weary for legalistic oath-wrangling.”
“Then we return to Loomsberg,” Bone said. “We can secure Eyetooth there. The environment will blunt Sarcopia’s powers.”
“You did it,” Gaunt realized, recalling the scene in the room at the Tilted Windmill. “Didn’t you? Bargained with the delven somehow.”
“Yes,” Bone said, turning the key. “Half of me, for all of you.”
He opened the way to a world—
Beyond the portal bobbed boats on a waterfront, and there were seemingly a million of them, canoes and caravels, rafts and triremes, coracles and cruisers of steel. Many intelligent creatures swarmed aboard the madcap armada, bespectacled green monkeys and armored red frogs, purple dwarves with endless beards in which whole bee colonies swirled...
“I do not understand... I pictured Loomsberg...”
“Some part of your mind may be resisting your plan,” Eshe said.
“A part concerned with self-preservation,” Gaunt said.
“Then you do it, Gaunt,” Bone said, closing the portal. “Honor my wish.”
“It would be like killing you,” Gaunt said.
“More like maiming,” Bone said lightly. At her silent stare, he added, “That was perhaps in poor taste. I might still have as many as thirty years left after my bargain, Persimmon. And I’ve already lived ninety. It’s not like dying.”
Gaunt shook her head. They could flee to another world. But they would be forever defending Eyetooth. Death would hound them both. “Yes it is, Bone. Yes it is. But I will do it.”
Hating herself, she turned the key—
Beyond the new gateway three-headed green ducks glided down a blue river under an arching wooden bridge filled with blue giraffes clutching flowered mouth-parasols of white and red and pink and yellow...
“I too pictured Loomsberg... what is happening?”
Sarcopia laughed. “To see my enemies so thwarted is almost worth death.”
“Gaunt and Bone,” Eshe said. “You are not the marrying kind, I think. But I think you hesitate on the brink of a similarly great commitment to each other.”
“Survival?” Bone said.
“Killing?” Gaunt said.
“Debt,” Eshe said. “To return home in this way, Gaunt, will make you feel indebted to Bone. And, Bone, to dedicate yourself to Gaunt in this way is a kind of genuflection, a sealing of your life to hers. You will feel debt to her as a result.”
“Ridiculous,” Bone said. “I am giving, not stealing. Why would I feel indebted to her?”
Eshe smiled. “Nevertheless. I have been married, once.”
“Your words are bewildering,” Gaunt said. “What are you proposing?”
“Give me the key—”
“Ha!” put in Sarcopia.
“Give me the key and I will aim Eyetooth between your heads and open the way to Loomsberg. I have never been, but I think you together can open the way. I swear on the blood of the Swan Goddess I will attempt no mischief.”
Gaunt and Bone shared a look.
“I am astonished to say, I believe you mean it,” Gaunt said, slowly passing over Eyetooth. “If—and this is a very large ‘if’—we are hesitating... will a meeting of our minds suffice?”
“Yes,” Eshe said, raising the key. “For that meeting of minds is why you’re in this together to begin with.”
They looked at each other, a little shyly, as though having an audience was somehow unseemly.
“Hold hands,” Eshe commanded.
They did this.
“Repeat after me,” Eshe said.
“You are serious?” Bone said.
“What is this, Eshe?” Gaunt said.
“Do you want to return home or not?”
“Repeat after me. ‘I promise that all of me, good and bad, will come home to you.’”
They raised eyebrows at each other. But they said it.
“‘I promise that my past selves, in all their embarrassing fullness and failure, will become known to you.’”
There was a longer pause, but they said this too.
“‘I promise that the future me, whoever he or she may be, will do the very best to honor the future you.’”
They were staring at each other as they said this. They clasped hands.
“Shoulder your pain,” Bone murmured.
“If you could be your best self,” Gaunt whispered, “what would you be?”
They all toppled onto the observatory floor. Two delven, standing over them, studied them with the detachment of butterfly collectors regarding moths.
“Very well,” said Sunspool, and from one of the niches of the telescope she raised a box, and the box was of glass and soldered onto it was a cheap treasury of tiny charms. Bone saw twin scythes, a trireme, a rose, a teardrop-shaped glass bead, the tooth of some great beast, a ruby ring, a caravel, a green dagger, a black pyramid, a candle, a scroll, a map, and a sea-chart, a tulip, a spider’s web, a black cat, a tiny picture frame, a silver moon, a key. There were many more charms, and even Bone with his eye for portable treasure could not discern them all.
Without another word Sunspool opened the box. A great wind rose up, and Bone suddenly felt as if the substance of his life was being unwound onto a great loom. He shuddered, and swirls of purple confounded his sight.
The box snapped shut with a low boom that was not so much heard as felt in the bones.
“You have paid fairly, Thief with One Life,” said Sunspool.
“I retain the last part of the bargain,” said Bone, to Gaunt’s wondering look, “for future dangers.” Sunspool nodded.
“It is too much, Sunspool,” Moonwax said, offering an arm each to Gaunt and Bone. “I did not perceive what you were taking along with the wind of life.”
“What have you done?” Gaunt said, rising.
“Half his remaining life is now ours,” Sunspool said simply.
Moonwax glared but said no more.
“What use could you have for it?” Gaunt demanded.
“The future,” was all Sunspool said.
“Gaunt...” Bone said. “Persimmon. It is worth it, to be home, safe.”
“Home?” she said running her hand over his face, where she imagined she found a few more lines. “Safe?”
“It may be,” he said, “that your touch is home, and safety.”
“That is a large burden.”
“I don’t mean it to be. Abandon me tomorrow, or in a year. Or thirty. You are free.”
“Am I, Bone?”
Sarcopia Vorre coughed.
She’d contrived to occupy the spot where Sunspool had stood. It was the place toward which the magical currents of this chamber flowed on their way to Loom Mountain. She gestured like a gracious hostess.
Sunspool and Moonwax were blasted across the room, the first sprawling onto the great viewing disc, cracking it, the second hitting the telescope which groaned and swung.
Eshe leaped toward Sarcopia and was caught mid-motion and dashed against a bookshelf. Knowledge and tea thundered down onto her.
Sarcopia smiled. “Power!” croaked her raven, and it winged excitedly around the room. But as it reached a point opposite Sarcopia, the little mansion charm around its neck began to quiver.
Somewhere, billiard balls clicked.
“She is mad, Lord Raz.”
“She is indeed in a temper, Lady Cynthia.”
“You know what I mean.”
“And you know what I mean. This may not be the moment to challenge her, mad or mad.”
“It may be madness not to. She may claim Eyetooth.”
“We are neither of us strangers to nursemaiding people of minimal scruples and maximal power. We serve an archmage.”
“But not a god. That is what Sarcopia proposes to become.”
“There are worse gods, Cynthia, surely. Klarga? The Lord of Last Dreams? The Tyrant of Tomorrows?”
“Yet, Raz, all of those lack the sheer ineffable stubbornness of Sarcopia Vorre.”
“You may be right. But what action may we take? Her skills exceed ours.”
“Yes. But these low-Class ruffians will trouble her nonetheless. I confess they inspire me a trifle, this couple insisting they’re not a couple.”
“Very well. We will ally with misfits.”
“Speak for yourself, Raz. In my opinion I define high society.”
“Wasn’t that ‘defy?’”
“Droll, my dear.”
“I remain ever your faithful neither-servant-nor-master.”
“You are always much more than that.”
Doomed, Gaunt and Bone flung themselves at Sarcopia. She raised a hand each and blasted them against piles of lore and laundry.
But the mansion charm moved of its own accord, dragging the croaking raven with it, colliding with Sarcopia. There came a dazzle of lightning, and Sarcopia and her familiar vanished. Holding the charm between them were a lean bearded man and a willowy short-haired woman, giving each other the nod of conspirators.
“Who are you?” Bone groaned, spitting out a sock.
“Sarcopia’s unseen, much-abused assistants, I would think,” Gaunt said, carefully setting down a flurry of papers.
“We have traded places,” said the woman.
“But she will break free soon,” said the man.
“Moonwax,” Sunspool said, rising unsteadily, “Act quickly.”
“If you will indulge me,” Moonwax said to the newcomers, lurching to his feet. As the tiny mansion charm trembled and smoked, Moonwax grasped a crystal container that glowed faintly of moonlight, removed a bronze lid, and tipped it toward the charm.
Again there was a roaring of wind, but in this case the mansion-charm flew forward and clinked against the bottom of the container, which Moonwax capped. A tiny Sarcopia and an infinitesimal raven emerged inside it.
Sarcopia shook her fists and blasted terrifying energies harmlessly against crystal glowing with moonlight. A dim, high-pitched, imperious voice vibrated through the jar. “I promise you that one day I will drag your precious moon from the sky!”
“Doom!” peeped the raven.
“No doubt,” said Moonwax. “But not today.” He handed Eshe the flask.
Eshe smiled. “It pleases me to bring Sarcopia to trial.”
“You lack the art to kill me!” squeaked the sorceress.
“There is still value in public humiliation.”
“I will make sure the world knows the strange circumstances of this event! Others will come for Eyetooth!”
“No,” said Moonwax.
“It is distasteful to modify memories,” said Sunspool, “but you leave us no choice. And Bone deserves to live without knowing he chose his accelerated demise.”
There came a tumult of voices. “What?” “You can’t.” “You wouldn’t dare.” “That is not—”
There was a bright light.
When Gaunt and Bone recovered, they were alone with the delven.
“What?” Bone said.
“Something has happened,” Gaunt said.
They retrieved lost daggers and assumed fighting stances.
“Peace,” Moonwax said. “Time, for you, has been distorted.”
“I remember a battle on a mountaintop,” Gaunt mused.
“And bringing Eyetooth to you,” Bone murmured.
“But the details are muddled, dream-like. Who we met. What we did. I feel suddenly tired, famished, bruised.”
“A conundrum has been resolved,” Sunspool said. “Bone, you’re free of your oath to the First Wizard.”
“Eyetooth will be safe in our care,” Moonwax said.
“Do you not wish a price for this?” Gaunt said, straining to remember something.
“No. Indeed, it is we who owe you a future boon.”
Gaunt frowned. “I feel that there’s much you’re not saying.”
“Yet delven never offer boons willy nilly,” Bone said. “Might we use yours to deal with a certain book we’ve sworn to destroy?” Gaunt nodded agreement.
“Alas,” Moonwax said, “its power is beyond our arts.”
“So be it,” Gaunt said. “But I feel that there’s much you can do, and have done. That we’ve lost not just time but experience. I feel we have both friends and enemies out there that we’re unaware of.”
“That is as may be,” Sunspool said. “But you will not hear more about the matter from Moonwax and me. You have much to learn about yourselves, and each other, before you encounter those others again.”
“That sounds ominous,” Gaunt said. “Don’t we have sufficient enemies already? I am just a poet.”
“If you think a poet cannot shape the world,” Moonwax said, “then you indeed have much to learn.”
“I’ve lived long,” Bone scoffed. “All these journeys are a sort of epilogue for me. How can I grow?”
“You’ll be surprised,” Sunspool said. “For if it is true that the nature of our observations sharpens certain details out of the fog, and that therefore our thoughts shape the universe, however delicately, then it matters that we love. For little by little, the universe will become a loved and loving place. That is worth suffering for.”
Bone considered fleeting memories of dreams and said nothing.
Gaunt took his hand. “Very well, delven. We will save your boon for later. Meanwhile freedom is ours. We have given an Eyetooth for it.”
Bone roused himself. “Treasure awaits us out there.”
“And the occasional good deed.”
Something had changed between them. There was less between, it seemed, and more them. Gaunt led Bone out, contriving to place her hand on his behind while somehow looking entirely wholesome about it all.
After a long pause Moonwax said, “They are doomed, aren’t they, love?”
“Yes,” Sunspool said.
“And we have foreseen for ourselves a happy ending.”
“You have it in that box, having stolen it from them.”
“So why do I feel a touch of envy?”
Sunspool did not answer. After a long silence she and Moonwax took each others’ hands. They glowed at the interface and looked for all the worlds like children peering into a fire.
Eshe of Kpalamaa whistled on the bridge, passing by a pair of guards who nodded greetings. She did not recall meeting them before, nor the details of capturing the evil sorcerer. For that matter, she had a vague memory of a pungent encounter with a seagull, yet her hair was impressive as always and felt freshly washed.
But behind her she heard, “I think I would have remembered such a person, Marit,” and the other said, “I, too, Subrata. But these are strange times. Do you not feel a little more free this day, a little more hopeful?” and “I do. And a little more eager to get home. I do.”
Eshe paused for a beer where a bespectacled innkeeper brought mugs to an inconspicuous bearded man and a willowy woman deep in conversation. Something involving looms and computation. Something whose time was soon to come.
And as Eshe left town a bizarre contraption of metal and wood and humanity rushed past. She could not explain any of it, but as she smiled her tongue found a gap in her upper gum, damage from the recent battle perhaps. And perhaps that was all right. Kpalamaa science could replace it, and for a fleeting moment she remembered a time when she was small and losing teeth was a strangely welcome experience.
She did not always like where adulthood had led her. But she would never go back.
A quarter mile plus twenty feet, O you trees! came the distant cry of triumph. A quarter mile plus fifty!
Thanks to Nicholas Ian Hawkins for a character description.