My camel died in the middle of a sandstorm. Until that moment, I did not know camels could die. They seemed as much a part of the landscape as the dunes or the dry riverbeds. Maybe camels exist in geologic time, and the one I had stolen from the spice merchant had been around since the days when Ars and Dem were one lush continent; before the Tragedy rent the land in two and sent the pieces to opposite ends of the great round world.
Neither boulders nor hovels were in sight, so I curled next to my camel’s cooling body.
How had I gotten here again? My life and family were back on Dem. The rest of humanity was crowded on Dem. Only those with boiled brains made the steerage trip to Ars in search of the buried fortunes of the Five Cities. But why was I here? I had a lot to lose. I had my wife and daughter—Grenna and Sessina—to think of at home. I shouldn’t have left, but I refused to let Sessina grow up like I did. I couldn’t stand to hear her tell her friends, “My father sells gourds,” even one more time.
Sometime during the bitter cold night, I fell asleep and dreamed of them, as I had every night since I’d stolen the camel. Merchants they were, but also mystics. They toasted and ground spices, tossing them to the winds. I’ve seen them set fire to the dust devils and turn sand to glass just by squeezing it in their hands. Now I see them in my dreams. They stand beyond the dream fog in their burnooses and robes, conjuring djinn and ghuls to prod me with sharpened sticks. I had woken with bruises.
When I opened my eyes, the storm still persisted, but less so. My camel had been scoured hairless by the sand and was cold as a stone on the bottom of the sea.
The sun was cut by the sand and wind, tearing it into streams of red and pink. It would be too hot to move soon, and the powders that sustained me and satiated my thirst were running low. I would not survive a week if I did not find a caravan. Someone once told me, “Torin, the best way to get out of a bad situation is to do nothing at all. Sit tight, and someone’s bound to find you.” I forgot his name as I have forgotten the others. Even if I found one or one found me, I didn’t have the gold to get home. All I needed was a tarnished ring or dented thimble of some precious metal, but all wealth had eluded me since I arrived on this broken country.
I bade my camel goodbye and started walking toward the sun. The sand was fine, burnt-orange. I sunk to my ankles with each step. Sweat, precious sweat, broke on my brow within minutes. I sprinkled some of the powder the alchemists call Taproot on my tongue and felt the sweat recede back into my pores. It was strange to be hot yet dry. At times, I felt I was becoming part of the desert; that I would stumble and cut my arm on a stone, and red sand would pour from the wound.
The sun clawed its way into the sky proper. At times the wind would pick up, and the dust turned into a brown fog made of crushed glass. Once, I saw the mystics beyond the fog. Their burnooses were pristine and white. One mystic raised his hand. The wind whipped, and he disappeared.
As mid-day approached, the airborne grit blocked out the sun as surely as the moon or a thunderhead. It had a heat all its own, the sand. The heat of movement and rubbing; a frictive heat that scoured away thoughts of water, palm trees, and a woman in scarves bearing a bowl of cool, crisp pineapple.
The storm oppressed me, pushing me down into the sand. I bent to the storm, inviting it to do its worst. It accepted. I crawled forward, fighting the storm as I used to fight golems in the brassbound ring. Inch-by-inch, hand-over-hand, moving my knees like a locomotive, I struggled against it. For every grain I gained, there were ten to push me back. My arm gave way and I rolled down a hard bank into a baked river bed. It was calm.
On my back now, I could see the sand blowing over the banks of the parched river, but it hadn’t invaded the bed proper. My arms ached to the point where even sprinkling the powders on my tongue seemed an effort of will insurmountable to mortal man. As the Taproot and Quench powders entered my shriveled arteries, I felt my strength returning. The river bed was deep enough that I could walk down it without my head getting eroded away by sand.
After less than a mile in high spirits, my heart sank. A stone dam blocked my way toward the sun. A small tributary, however, led off in a different direction. Having no other choice, I moved along the narrow crevice on hand and knee.
Sand swirled in the trench, getting into my nose and mouth, but I muttered the Fourth Mystery of Ignorance and the irritation left. Moments later, it returned. I didn’t have enough water to fully initiate the Mystery. I stopped and started screaming into the sand.
No words came, at least none in any modern language, but I often thought that our primal screams hold the ancient grammar that all communication is based upon. I wasn’t thinking of this at the time; I just felt like screaming: screaming, crawling forward with my eyes closed to the world, and screaming.
I bumped my head on iron and felt like crying or laughing or screaming some more. Did Sessina even care about what I was doing for her? Was she even old enough? I had been seven when I realized that my father’s name was a pejorative around town. He made a few shekels per week picking black peppercorns and used the bar below our apartment as a bank.
Even if we weren’t wealthy, Sessina would have a father she could be proud of. “My father traveled around the world to forgotten lands,” she could tell her friends.
I opened my eyes and saw three bars blocking an entry through a short stone wall. At that moment, all I could think about was getting to the other side of that wall. It would mean civilization and an end to the sand and the bitter powders. It would mean water again. Sweet, sweet water.
The powders helped convert muscle and fat to energy and water, so my body was little more than a tendon-bound skeleton. Even so, it took me the better part of the day to work my way through the bars. Pushing my head through them nearly removed me of my ears. My shoulders were tricky, as they were still wide, yet bony. My hips, however, were the most difficult part. Eventually, I got them through by jack-knifing back and forth like a pike.
I crawled forward, getting turned around in the darkness. Panicking, I started pushing forward with vigor, and the burnoosed faces of the mystics appeared as if from nowhere, spices falling from empty eye sockets.
But even hell isn’t eternal, and I came to light again. Looking around, I saw that I was mere feet from my entry point.
The ruins pointed to a once-mighty city, curtain wall rising over twice as tall as myself. Roofs and even some upper windows poked out of the sand. Where there was civilization—even when that civilization had left centuries past—there had to be water. The river was dry, but that didn’t mean that the sand hadn’t buried thousands of casks of beer and wine. Stranger things had happened.
All the window panes were broken, and the glass had gone back to sand. I stepped through the window of a brick building and looked around. Wardrobes had all of the varnish scoured off of them, making them seem like driftwood. I got onto hand and knee and pushed the sand away from the doors of one of the wardrobes before peering inside. Books crammed every square inch of the cavity; books whose leather and paper were as virgin as when they’d been first printed, however long ago that was.
And then I got a thought: what if it wasn’t long ago? I couldn’t’ve been the first pilgrim to shelter here. Was pilgrim the right term? Adventurer perhaps? I’d let Sessina decide when I got back to Dem. She could decide the title she’d give me when she told her friends about my journey. “My father traveled all around the world and came back to me. He’s a hero.” Hero sounded right.
I spun around, hand on my scimitar. The Third Uttering of Poisoned Blades was on my lips, waiting to be unleashed. One of the mystics who had cursed me with spice stood at the other end of the room.
“You will find no water here. Only the thirst for knowledge will be quenched,” he said. His voice was flat and seemed to come from everywhere at once. I spun to see if there were others sneaking up on me. Mystics stood outside the windows, but only one was in the building with me.
“So says you,” I said, “who only has reason to curse and hate me.”
“We are not your enemies. Even after you stole and killed our camel, we spilt spice for your safe deliverance. My brothers entered your dreams to warn you away from this place. When it became clear that you were bound here, as an elephant is bound to return to its ancestral grounds to die, we had no choice but to follow you.”
The Uttering was receding into my mind, and my sword hand started to droop. “What do you mean?”
And then a second mystic stood next to the first. He hadn’t come through the window or the roof, nor had he burrowed under the floor. These mystics were powerful.
“It would be better to be scourged by the desert unto death then to remain in this accursed city,” the second mystic said.
“I wait for the storms to cease is all. While they tire themselves against the walls, I shall search for water and food. The desert is a great preserver, as you should know.”
They were silent for a moment, turning toward each other and nodding, although no words were spoken.
“Stay then, but do not venture inside these ruins. If you find paper—a broadsheet, a novel, a scrap—burn it for light and be thankful. Do not let your eyes devour it, as we know you of the north are want to do.”
I opened my mouth to tell them I’d do damn well as I pleased, but they had vanished. The mystics were good at vanishing.
I thrust my scimitar into its sheath and picked up one of the books. After their warning, it was almost too much not to open it. I set the book down again but too close to the edge, and would you look at that, it accidentally opened up.
My eyes scanned the pages and came away thirsty. The text was dry. It had something to do with the intricacies of paper-making. I kicked the book into the corner and started digging. The books could wait, but my shriveled insides couldn’t.
After a day of moving sand outside handful-by-handful, I had cleared the entire floor that I was on, as well as the entrance to the stairwell. The sand was so cool and fine-grained, I thought I might swim down to a lower level. I didn’t find water or wine or beer or mead or a lamb’s leg or preserved eggs or bread or honey. All I found, seemingly after every third handful, was another book. The blasted building was half-made of them!
There came a point where, once again, I could no longer lift my arms. Each handful of sand became the weight of the world and my forsaken journey. I backed against the nearest wall and slumped to the floor, but sleep would not take me. I willed my eyes shut in the twilit hours and attempted the Tenth Whisper of Dreamless Sleep but couldn’t metabolize enough muscle to activate it.
Mystics be damned, I hadn’t done anything civilized in months, since the desert had swallowed me whole. If I wanted to read, I would read. And I wanted to read.
I grabbed the nearest book.
“Plague Doll,” I read, and cracked it open. Again, the same dry prose, but the content was at least more interesting. It mentioned a name—Lacuna—and I wondered if that was the hero or the villain of the tale? The story was about a paper doll who went around turning skin to parchment under her touch. Dreadful, moody stuff, but interesting nonetheless.
While I waited for that sweet mistress of sleep, I read the books that lay within arm’s reach. I read about the architecture of Lacuna—which was a city, I now realized—and its various ghettos and districts. I read about its industries—paper-making chief among those—and its cultures. It was a fascinating place. Think of it: an entire metropolis given over to the written word. Or, more appropriately, the missing letter.
After a time, I figured exhaustion must have overcome me, because the sun hung high in the sky. The building must have settled or shifted in the night, because the stairwell was clean down to the next level. In fact, as I got up with squealing joints, the whole ruined city had lost some of its sand. I was grateful. Even when a mystic waved to me from the window, I couldn’t help but smile and ignore him.
The second day went much as the first. My muscles were getting used to the work and I thirsted not so much. Even my powders held little allure, although when thirst is lost it is the most grave time, so I took a measure of Quench anyway.
I read by moonlight, activating the Sixth Binding of Torched Sight. At least a dozen books fell under my gaze that night. The mystics were right: I was quenching my thirst.
Histories and ledgers gave way to books of prose and poetry. The Lacunae, as I liked to call them, wrote with fire and purpose; passion and style. I was a worldly man, having traveled the Eight Environs and achieved the Twelfth Level of Omniscience on the peak of Mount Verity (“My father is Warrior Monk,” Sessina would say), yet I had never heard of the authors: Gveny Bracco, Boris Grimshaw, Varvara, Anton Antonovich, Mineet Lo. One author even styled himself “Inked Man.” The Lacunae were nothing if not colorful.
Every day I would clear out another level and every night I dove back into Lacuna. I would wake around mid-day with a book still in my hands, eyes on fire. It must have been the dry air.
The mystics stopped invading my waking or dreaming life. After waking each morning, I would go to the window and look as more and more sand disappeared. Even the sun seemed less red, turning into a bright orange globe.
And then the spirits came.
My powders were gone and I still hadn’t found water, even though I had dug six levels down. My hands were turning brown and patchy, whole flakes coming off when I scratched.
“Must be the long-term effects of the powders,” I mumbled, donning heavy gloves.
The entire top floor was given over to cataloging and reading the books I had uncovered, at least until I found provisions that would sustain me to my destination. Where was I going again? It was becoming hard to remember, but I didn’t care. My strength was returning even though I had found no food. Muscle filled the gaps between skin and bone, and I was returning to my former self.
The first spirit I saw was sitting in a rocker on the fifth level. She held a baby girl on her lap and was reading aloud from a book. I could not hear the rocking chair nor the woman’s voice. They were little more than mist given form, to be true. I passed my hand through the mist and it came back dry as ever.
I read a rousing tale of a journey through Queen Woodheart that night. She was the giant termite that pulped all the wood that came into Lacuna via the River Ars. You could almost smell the enzymes breaking down the fibers. I looked up from one of the many-colored illustrations and saw a small boy sitting across from me.
“What’s your name?” he asked in a voice that sounded at once near and far.
I pinched my arm to make sure I hadn’t drifted off. The boy still sat there, head cocked to one side. He was about the age of Sessina and had the soft, feminine face most boys have at that age. I could almost imagine he was my daughter.
“Torin,” I said, after a time.
“I’m Cysil. Nice to meet you.” He put out his hand. I tried to shake it but only felt a slight resistance as my skin passed through blue mist.
“Are you dead?” I asked, because I could think of nothing else. Maybe it was like a dream, and you only had to confront it with its own dreamness to banish it. This was something I had told Sessina often. She was always having night-terrors.
“No one ever really dies,” the boy said. He was slightly condescending in the way his eyebrows knitted when he said it; like it was common knowledge and I was some thick elder.
I nodded and my gaze shifted for a moment. I saw through his eyes the ghostly tidings that had once adorned the room. The building I was in used to be a tenement. At least a dozen people lived on this one, small level. Rugs served as beds in one corner, next to a chamber pot. A cast iron cauldron sat bubbling in the fireplace. Random pieces of mismatched furniture—bamboo chairs, pine desks, oak tables—were pushed up against the walls, leaving room for a circle of spirits in the center. They all had their hands linked, and who I assumed to be the boy’s father was uttering a prayer.
The images disappeared and I was alone on the fifth level again. My arms were patchy to the elbows and my bones felt wooden, hollow. I had stayed too long. It was time to go.
The next day I set out into the city. The tenement was clear down to the landing, and I walked streets and alleys instead of sand. My bones ached and the muscle I had put on was sloughing off once again. The entire upper half of my body itched. I muttered the First Incantation of Stoicism, but it didn’t take.
Lacuna was a city planned by a madman and built by a mud-slinging giant. Streets ended abruptly in brick walls, alleys turned to impromptu sewers, canals vivisected manses. I tried to keep the wall in sight, but I kept getting turned around. Each time I looked for the brick curtain, I was further away, moving toward what I thought originally was a massive dune but exposed itself as a jagged crag.
Books, parchment, broadsheets, torn pages blew around the street: my only companions. The alleys must have been sticky from the dew of the deep sand, for when I stepped on a scrap or sheet, it stuck. I was too fatigued to peel them off so I let them build up.
Everything was damp and my legs began to itch inside my burnoose. Whether it was the heat or dehydration, I started hallucinating again. The mist people returned but corporeal. Their bluish translucence was replaced by flesh that looked as real as my own. They wore strange clothes: cloth hats and shirts without collars, suspenders and woolen trousers, and black shoes. Always black shoes.
Suddenly I was surrounded by a sea of life and sound, color and light. Naked electric bulbs strung on wires across the streets gave the city a warm glow.
“We knew you’d join us,” the boy from before said as he disappeared into a side alley.
I didn’t know what he meant, but I was beginning to get frightened. I was obviously out of my mind (“My father is a nutter,” Sessina would say), but my feet wouldn’t allow me to turn back. They bore me through the city of their own volition.
Names and places began to populate my brain. I was passing through Meddleriever, down the Wolstrasse. Alchemaster Damiun sat smoking a pipe outside of his ink shop. Damiun loved how the glass-grass smoke sat coolly in his lungs.
How did I know that? Had I read it? Where would I have read it?
This is your city, the voice of the spirit boy said. Within its heart is the treasure you’ve been seeking.
No, I thought, this city is filled with paper. I need gold and gems and spices and perfumes if I want to see Sessina again.
There was a hand on my back and I turned to see the boy. He pressed softly and my feet were moving again.
Victor’s Stationarium—one of the most exclusive shops in the city—was closing for the night, steel-grating dropping over the door and windows. Ampersand Café smelled of roasted coffee and cinnamon pastries. I willed my body toward it but to no avail. I felt like weeping, but there was no water left for tears.
The need to flee—flee the city, the books, the nightmares, the thirst—came over me; to strike back into the desert and come back with the fortune I had promised Sessina so many years ago. How long had it been? Ten years, fifty years, three years? Would she forgive me? But oh Sessina, it would be worth it. You could be proud of your father... if he ever returned.
I had to turn around, but I couldn’t. The further I got into the city, the less my body itched. It felt as if my arms were finally healing. The scraps of paper that had stuck to my body started to slough off, each carrying with it a piece of burnoose. Eventually, the ragged remains of the garment fell away, revealing a burgundy greatcoat and black trousers. I never wore clothing under my burnoose.
Lacuna was coming alive. “G’night Dame Yelena,” I called to the authoress sitting under the walnut tree. She waved back, batting her eyelashes. How did I know her name? Grenna would not appreciate the familiarity in my voice. I would apologize once I returned home to the Grain district.
We don’t live in Lacuna. I don’t even know where the Grain district is. Our row-house was a thousand miles away. It overlooked the River Ars. Sessina liked to throw apple cores into the water and watch the squid try and snatch them as they broke the surface.
“Hey Torin,” little Sami Blaylock yelled from the window above his father’s tailory before tossing me an overripe white peach. I bit into it, juices running down my face. It was sweet, with a slight tang from the gentle fermentation. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Had I skipped dinner? Why did my mouth feel like a desert?
“Thanks boy-o!” I called back, spinning on my heels. The night smelled of dew and spice, grass and brimstone. They were the smells of my city, and I inhaled them like an addict.
No not my city. I didn’t even know this city but from the books I had read. Lacuna was a city built on paper. Existing in the books, between the pages, words, letters.
Something inside me broke. No, not broke. “Broke” was the wrong word (“A not-to-be-said-word,” Sessina would say, sticking her lip out). It felt like the two fists pounding against each other in my skull decided to set aside their differences and shake hands.
I sighed and the thousand stresses of my journey were exhaled into the city: treasure and fame and pride and failure. When I breathed in, they were all replaced with knowledge. My brain filled with a map to my treasure—the treasure I had been seeking for so long—and I set off toward it.
The Run loomed before me, tin roof mimicking Mount Lampblack beyond. Cutters were smoking cigarillos outside the tin walls, chatting in warm tones.
The dwarf Kork walked up and offered me a swig from his bottle. The whiskey tasted of smoke and fire and wood. They were the tastes of my city, and I gulped them down like a man dying of thirsts.
“How you be Torin?” Kork asked. “I’m great, by way of asking.”
I smiled and ruffled the dwarf’s gray hair. He had been a facet of the Run since I was a boy. “I am better than you will ever be.”
Kork blew a raspberry and slapped me on the back as we walked toward the Run. Every night I helped straighten the logs that would go through Queen Woodheart. Every morning, I limped home, muscles aching with a sweet soreness. It didn’t pay much, but Sessina and I didn’t need much. I used to have designs on the lost treasures of the Five Cities, but my daughter had changed all of that. “My daddy is a strong man,” Sessina told her friends. Let the Mystics find their fortunes in the deserts. I had found mine in the City of Missing Letters.
The mystics watched as the Plague worked its way over his body. He hadn’t woken in days, since he had laid hands on the very first book. His skin had turned brown and started to flake. He had pulled the wardrobe down, burying himself in books. They had dissolved his burnoose. Where a page touched his skin, it stuck. The books were eating him.
“We warned him,” a mystic said, sighing.
Another mystic stepped forward, “And we’ll warn the next.”
“And the one after that,” a third said.
A sandstorm raged outside, but the mystics didn’t notice or didn’t care. Their robes didn’t move nor their eyes water. The grains pushed through them, like their bodies were made of mist.