The Ascent of Unreason

Issue #104
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“I want to make a map of Driftwood.”

Watching Last cough up his wine at the words wasn’t the only reason for Tolyat’s declaration, but he had to admit it was part of the appeal.  The man was a guide, and had seen so much, experienced so much, gone so many places, that it was hard to crack his shell of burnt-out weariness.  One pretty much had to say something so outrageous it should never be uttered by a sane man.

Tolyat leaned back, and nearly fell out of his hammock.  They were in Kyey, where the local people had given over most of what remained of their world to the cultivation of some plant with an unpronounceable name, whose chief virtue was the production of tough fiber.  The Kyeyi ate a little of it, sold a lot, and used the rest to make practically everything around them.  Even the walls were mostly fiber, woven between the occasional piece of imported timber.

Despite coughing, Last balanced on his hammock like he’d been born Kyeyi.  He wiped his chin and set his wine horn on the table—more fiber, mixed with mud and baked hard.  Even the wine was a byproduct of that damned plant, from the liquid drained off during fiber extraction.  Tolyat thought it tasted like fermented rope, but Last, for some inexplicable reason, liked it.

Last said, “Only idiots bother trying to make maps of Driftwood.”

“So I’m an idiot.  I still want to do it.”

“Listen, Tolyat—”

He swiped Last’s wine horn before the other could pick it up.  “I know what comes next.  You’re going to dip your fingers in this stuff and start drawing on the table, little concentric circles, Mist, Edge, Ring, Shreds, and then the Crush at the middle, and tell me that’s the only useful map anyone can make.  Who said I was trying to be useful?”

Last’s black eyes narrowed in skepticism, but a glimmer of curiosity broke through.  “Then what are you trying to be?”

Tolyat fiddled with the wine horn, rubbing his thumb over the rough place where the rim had chipped.  The translucent material was almost the same orange-honey color as the scales of his skin.  It wasn’t a color he saw often, not anymore.  Not since he’d left his own world, losing himself in the study of Driftwood and its patchwork composition.

He wanted to have a meaningful answer to Last’s question.  Partly for his own satisfaction, but even more as a gift to his friend.  Some kind of grand philosophical mission, something that would push back, if only for a moment, against the inescapable nihilism of this place.  They lived surrounded by death: every world around them was in the process of ending, the final fragments crumbling into oblivion, and it was easy to fall, as Last had, into apathy and despair.

He could try saying something noble.  Something about how mapping the face of Driftwood—even if the map would be obsolete before they could blink—would preserve this moment for future generations and worlds to know.

Instead he told the truth.  “I just think it would be fun.”

Last’s dark eyebrows rose.  Tolyat found those lines of hair endlessly entertaining; they expressed so many emotions.  In this case, it was a mix of disbelief and weary resignation.  “Fun.  Do you have any idea how long that would take?  Going from world to world, dealing with all the language barriers, all the different customs, hoping the air the next block over will still be something you can breathe—not to mention figuring out what standard of measurement you should use.”  He shook his head.  “I may be good at what I do, Tolyat, but even I don’t know all of Driftwood.  You’d need an army of guides, and a longer lifespan than your race has got.  What are you grinning at?”

The grin had been spreading during Last’s entire speech, until Tolyat felt he could barely hold the laughter in.  Rather than answer, he fished in his pockets, pulling out two small stone discs.  He stacked them atop one another, smooth faces up, placing both on the table.  “Ever seen these before?”

Last peered at their pearlescent surfaces.  It wouldn’t have surprised Tolyat if he said he had; sometimes it really seemed the guide had seen everything.  But he shook his head.

Still with the grin, Tolyat said, “Watch this.”

When he flipped the topmost disc, smooth side down, it no longer sat atop its mate.  Instead it rose into the air, perhaps a handspan—Tolyat’s handspan; two of Last’s—above the table.

Last shrugged, unimpressed.  “Magnets.  So?”

“Not magnets.  Something better.  I bought them from Etthril in Flatwall, but they come from a place called Bhauin, a bit Edgeward of Ik.  A girl there has rediscovered the secret of making them, if you can believe that; for once something in this place has been learned, rather than lost.  But she can make them bigger.  And stronger.”

Still Last frowned.  “What has that got to do with mapping?”

Tolyat thought the grin might actually split his face open, like the old carvings of the demon Sevot, back in his home world.  Split it open, and let his excitement come pouring out.  “I’m not going to go through Driftwood.  I’m going to go above it.”

Boundaries between worlds were unpredictable about what they stopped, and what they allowed through.  Weather usually didn’t pass beyond its home world.  Rivers sometimes ended at the border, sometimes flowed on through to flood a neighboring ghetto.  Sound usually went, but not always; Tolyat didn’t hear the singing—if he could call it singing—until he stepped across the border into Bhauin.  “What is that?

Last, he suspected, had taken it as a personal affront that Tolyat had known something he didn’t.  Which was actually encouraging, though Tolyat would never admit it; he’d seen more life in the man these past few days than he had in ages.  Last had roused enough to hunt down every bit of information he could find about this Shred—and when he put his mind to it, he was a very good hunter.  “Didn’t I mention?” Last said.  “There’s a religious revival underway.”

Those were rarely good.  In Driftwood, a “religious revival” usually meant that some self-proclaimed messiah had convinced people they could save themselves, and their world, by killing whoever the messiah didn’t like.  The inhabitants of a neighboring Shred, perhaps—or any stranger who wandered in.  “Should we be here?”

“Don’t worry.  That girl you mentioned, who makes the stones?  They’ve decided she’s blessed by the gods.  A prophesied leader, come to save them.”  Last shrugged, his expression wry.  “Not that they ever had any prophecies before now; they imported that idea from Ik.  Anyway, it’s all very happy and optimistic.  No killing required.  Though what they’ll do when you ask to buy stones, I don’t know.  How many do you need?”

While Last had researched Bhauin, Tolyat had tried to do calculations.  He didn’t get very far: there were too many variables, most of them obscure to him.  How powerful could the girl make the stones?  Over what range could they operate?  At least he’d verified that they worked in every Shred he’d tried; their repellent force seemed to translate across borders.  But he couldn’t admit he didn’t know.  “A dozen pairs, maybe.  More wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

“A dozen.”  Last blew a slow breath out.  “Well, let’s see what the prophesied leader has to say.”

The Bhauish notion of singing involved alternating between a strident ululation and a series of harsh caws.  There seemed to be a pattern to it; Tolyat thought he had almost worked it out by the time Last got the prophecied leader to stop ululating and cawing in his face.  She was a tiny thing, even more so than the rest of her race, and pale as blood; she looked like a juvenile, but she listened attentively enough when Last spoke in the local pidgin.  “You make these stones?”

They didn’t know what the Bhauish called the things, so Tolyat reluctantly brought out his pair, to illustrate.  A murmur ran through the gathered crowd, that sounded hostile to his wary ears.

Last heard it, too, but he made a business out of taking people into hostile Shreds, and bringing them back out again.  When the girl growled something half-intelligible about how the stones shouldn’t be spread outside of Bhauin, Last was unfazed.  “These have gone through the hands of half a dozen merchants; they’ve been outside your world for nearly two of your years.  How long ago did you regain the gift of making them?”

Her answer was easier to make out.  “At moonrise.”

Tolyat glanced up, saw an enormous crescent of cobalt blue hanging in the sky above them.  That told him nothing; lunar cycles varied wildly between worlds.  But Bhauish astronomy was apparently one of the things Last had picked up on his hunt, because he said, “See?  Your goddesses aren’t angry that it was sold.  Maybe they want Bhauish stones to be spread to other worlds.  This fellow here would like to be your first customer.”  He pointed at Tolyat, who smiled and hoped the Bhauish weren’t a race who read things like that as a sign of aggression.

They didn’t seem to be.  The prophet-girl muttered to one of her companions in a language that sounded like the cawing from a moment before, then turned back to Last and Tolyat with an expression that could only be called predatory.  Suppressing a sigh, Tolyat braced himself for some hard bargaining.

The first time Tolyat flipped over one of the new shauein stones, it went through the ceiling of his room and cracked the cross-timber of the roof one story above.  When he scrambled up there to grab it, the stone was all but glued to the wood, trying to force itself still higher, and his upstairs neighbor was less than amused at the delight on Tolyat’s face.

He conducted a second test in the caverns of Neggaeph, first building a scaffold he could wheel around to retrieve any levitating stones from the ceiling.  With the figures from that, he sat down to calculate just how this plan would work.

Last sprawled across one of the curved stone couches that lined the wall and watched him work for a few minutes.  Then he spoke, in a tone that was far too carefully neutral.  “You realize you’ll have to place yourself near the Crush.”

“I know.”  Tolyat had thought of that ages ago, before he ever showed the shauein pair to Last—but it didn’t prevent his stylus from skidding a little, gouging an errant line in the wax of his tablet.

Observing that, Last said, “Despite what people think, it can’t pull you in.”

“I know.”  Which was true, but irrelevant to his nerves.  The Crush was the black heart of Driftwood, a tangled, broken mass of fragments too small to call worlds.  Everything went there in the end.  Unsurprisingly, few people in Driftwood liked to talk about it, and nobody wanted to go anywhere near it.  When a world drew close, any inhabitants it might have left generally abandoned the place, losing themselves in the sea of cross-bred Drifters who belonged to no world.

But it was the center point, as near as anybody could tell.  If Tolyat wanted to see the whole of Driftwood at once, he had to be close to the Crush.

He bent his head over his tablet once more, carving careful figures with the stylus.  Last let him work in silence.  When Tolyat finished, he said, “Eight should be enough—they’re more powerful than I expected—though I’ll install all twelve, just in case they weaken or a few get jarred loose.  But I should be able to lift you, me, and the basket with just eight.”

The eyebrows shot up again.  Tolyat wondered what it must be like, having hairs on your face that advertised your every reaction.  Last said, “Who and the basket?”

“You and me.”  Tolyat laid down his tablet and stylus.  “You are coming with me, right?”

The world he chose for the launching-point had two important lacks: people, and wind.

It was, as Last had advised, close to the Crush—close enough that what little of it still existed had been abandoned quite some time ago.  Nobody was around to object when Tolyat paid a pair of Ffes to knock down what remained of the only surviving building and flatten the ground, into which he set one half of each shauein pair.  As for wind, none of the neighboring Shreds had storms that would spill over into this nameless world-fragment and threaten to knock the basket from its alignment above the stones.

By now the rumors had spread; half the population of the Shreds seemed to know that Tolyat the scholar was trying something mad, and most of them had come to watch.  A few people volunteered themselves to keep the crowds back as Tolyat made his final preparations.  They parted, though, to allow Last through—along with the cart he was dragging behind him.

Tolyat paused to stare.  “What in the name of everybody else’s god is that?”

“Backup.”  Last dropped the cart shafts, and a flounce of cloth spilled out the front.  “Help me attach this to your basket.”

“Not until you tell me what it is.”

The guide sighed and stepped closer, lowering his voice so the watching crowd wouldn’t hear.  “You’ve heard the stories about me, right?”

“Stories?”

“The ones that say I can’t die.”

“Oh.”  Tolyat scratched his earhole in embarrassment.  “Yes.”

It was, he thought, the foundation of their friendship, or at least part of it: he never asked questions about Last.  He’d given it some thought, back when they first met.  If it was true that Last was immortal, that he was the one thing in Driftwood that didn’t die, then the trick to it must not be anything he could share with other people; otherwise he would’ve been the richest man in any world.  If it wasn’t true, then the man was probably tired of people chasing after a secret he didn’t have.  Either way, there was no point in Tolyat asking.

But now Last had brought it up, and curiosity overwhelmed that logic.  He couldn’t resist saying, “Are those stories true?”

Last’s mouth was set in a line that might have indicated either terror or suppressed hilarity.  “I have no intention of giving you a chance to find out.  The fabric’s a big sack, open on one end; we attach it to the basket, with the open end down, and light this furnace underneath to fill it with hot air.  Once it’s full, we’ll float.”

Tolyat dropped his armful of fabric.  “You want me to trust my life to magic floating hot air?”

“You’re already trusting it to magic floating stones, aren’t you?  This works, trust me.”  Last shrugged.  “Hasn’t been used in Driftwood since Ad Aprinchenlin went into the Crush, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.  Falling hurts, Tolyat—a lot.  I’d rather have two things between me and the ground, not just one.”

Grumbling, Tolyat helped.  The sack was shaped like a bottle, with a narrow neck; enormous as it was, he didn’t trust the flimsy fabric to hold anything.  But the weight was negligible, even with the furnace, and it seemed to make Last feel better.

Once the sack was in place, Tolyat turned around—and realized there was silence.  The entire crowd was watching in breathless anticipation.  They packed the narrow streets of the adjacent Shreds, peering out of windows and from rooftops of abandoned buildings, in every world-fragment but the even smaller ones that lay Crushward.  And judging by their expressions, they wanted a speech.

He’d been too busy with calculations and the gathering of supplies to plan any kind of speech.  “Um,” Tolyat said, scratching his earhole again.  It was Last’s original question all over again, with him feeling like he ought to have something grand to say in response.

“I’m going to go make a map of Driftwood,” he said.  “As detailed as I can.  Maybe you think that’s a waste of time, and maybe you’re right.  But I’m going to do it anyway.  So wish me luck—pray I don’t die—and when I get back to the ground, I’ll tell you what I saw.”

And with that sorry attempt behind him, he turned and climbed into the basket.

Last was already inside.  The thing wasn’t very big; Tolyat could span it with his arms, and that damned sack and furnace took up most of the available space.  The rest held his tools, the paper and ink and measuring devices he would use to draw his map.  He had to root around beneath all that equipment and fabric to find the shauein stones set into the floor of woven Kyeyi fiber, mounted in rotating brackets.

“Ready?” he asked Last.

The guide still had that look, terror or hilarity.  But whichever it was, it brought his black eyes alive.  “Let’s see what this place looks like from above.”

On a counted signal, they each flipped one shauein stone, on opposite sides of the circular basket.  This was part of why Tolyat wanted Last; he had to activate two pairs of stones at once, or the basket risked unbalancing, tipping him out onto the ground.  With the repellent faces toward each other, the stones pushed away from their mates below, and the basket began to rise.

Only a little, and slowly.  Which was fine by Tolyat.  He had no desire to go shooting uncontrolled up into Driftwood’s sky.  He and Last each moved a quarter-turn around the basket’s circumference; Tolyat dug beneath the slick fabric of the sack and found the next stone.  Two more flipped, and the basket rose further.  Now they were above the tallest buildings in the vicinity of the Crush, but glancing outside showed him various towers scattered around the huddled mass of the Shreds, and even something that looked like a broken bit of mountain.  If he wanted to see the whole of Driftwood, they would have to go higher still.

Two more stones, and then two more.  Eight pairs of shauein stones, pushing the basket into the sky, Tolyat’s heart beating faster with every turn.  He cast another glance through a gap in the woven side, frowning, trying to think.  This was where his calculations became uncertain, and maybe the weight of that furnace was throwing them off.  “Again,” he said, and together he and Last flipped a ninth and then a tenth pair.

That should be high enough.  Taking a deep breath, Tolyat stood up.

Or tried.  To his embarrassment, it took him several long moments to convince his knees they wanted to support him.  The basket’s base was taut beneath his feet, but not rigid; he felt it give slightly as he shifted, and he was briefly paralyzed by the horrified certainty that the entire structure would rip apart beneath his weight and the pressure of the shauein stones.  But finally, gripping the edge so hard it printed the weave into his unscaled palms, he stood.

And saw Driftwood.

The immensity of it knocked the breath from his lungs.  Towers, plazas, haphazard housing blocks held up only by their neighbors.  Water, glittering unexpectedly here and there among the structures.  Clouds and fog and an irregular stretch of air filled with lightning.  Light of a hundred different colors, some coming from things that must be suns and moons and stars, others from no apparent source, those celestial bodies visible only from the ground to which they belonged.

His eye swept across the collage of realities, from the mostly-urban patchwork of the Shreds, through the Ring and outward to the Edge, where the newly-Drifted worlds were large enough to still have mountains and forests, deserts and seas.  Their details faded, his eye not sharp enough to make them out, and then beyond those lands....

The dark, featureless expanse of the Mist.  Out of which worlds came, convulsing in the throes of their doom, to finish dying in Driftwood.

Next to him, Last breathed a few soft words that might have been a prayer, or a curse.

Tolyat sucked in a shuddering gasp of air.  Fun—he’d thought this would be fun.  To fly in the air, like the enormous bats that had died out of his world when he was a child, like he’d always dreamed of doing.  When he’d thought about what he would see, he thought in terms of maps: lines and images on paper, their labels to be gathered later, from Last and other guides.

He hadn’t understood that he would see Driftwood.  From the grey, empty sea of the Mist to the Crush itself.

As if drawn by a magnet, his gaze went down.

His heart gave a single, lurching thud when he looked at the ground; he couldn’t tell how much of it was for the expanse of empty air below his feet, and how much for the Crush.  From here, it looked like hardly anything: a tight knot of wreckage, everything ground too small to stand out at this distance.  But he was staring straight into its heart, and this was it: this was where worlds died, gasping their last amid dust and broken trash.

Such a little space, to hold such terrible power.

Or maybe it had no power at all.  He’d always thought of the Crush as some kind of vortex, sucking things in and grinding them up.  Now, flying high above the motley face of Driftwood, he saw it differently: saw the Mist, vomiting out pieces of worlds, which scraped and pushed against one another, forcing their neighbors inward, like a millstone crushing grain.  We destroy each other, Tolyat thought, and for a moment he stopped breathing again.

What restored air to his lungs was the sense that neither image was true.  Or maybe both were.  Driftwood wasn’t simple, and it didn’t accept simple explanations.  It held whole universes of contradiction within its bounds, and maybe this was one more, that the destructive force came from both directions and from neither.  Whatever brought or sent worlds to this purgatorial end, it wasn’t the Crush, and it wasn’t the Mist, and it wasn’t the people caught in between.

But when Tolyat looked down again, he found that the Crush no longer frightened him.  He took several slow breaths, then turned to face Last.

The guide was stone-still, his face completely unreadable.  Even his eyebrows gave nothing away.  Water glimmered upon his high cheekbones, traced the edge of his jaw; Tolyat had seen a similar thing among other races, and with most of them it signaled great emotion.  Grief, or joy, or fear: tears seemed very contradictory things.  He couldn’t tell what they meant now.  But Last, sensing Tolyat’s gaze upon him, turned his head and answered with a small, oddly serene smile.

“I’ve lived a damn long time,” he said, “and seen more of Driftwood than most... but I’ve never seen this.  Thank you.”

It was as if the shauein stones had lifted some great weight from his spirit.  Tolyat felt it, too: up here, with all of Driftwood spread out below them, it was impossible to be dragged down by the mundanity of life.  That weight might return with their descent... but for now, they were free.

Tolyat nodded.  And then, because the moment was too intense to bear any longer, he bent and picked up his paper.

With a board underneath braced against the basket’s edge, he began to draw.  Outlines first; his eye sought out the places where the air changed, or the architecture, or something else that heralded a boundary between worlds.  Last identified the places he knew, and Tolyat marked the names with tiny, careful letters.  An unending series of names, many of them hard to spell with any of the writing systems he knew; he did his best, then moved on.  Ik and Bhauin and Waterbend, the massive temple block of Jertin and the spiky columns of Sarantelku Ia, and then he reached a place where the buildings piled upon one another, an uneven mass of lumpy domes, and Last’s voice fell silent.

Tolyat swallowed against the dryness in his throat.  He should have brought something to drink; this work would take quite a while.  And that was his mind, trying to distract itself from what it saw below.

“Chara e Pretyi,” he said roughly, and wrote the name down with an unsteady hand.

Last cleared his throat.  “Tolyat—”

He waved the man to silence.  He didn’t want to hear any reassurances Last might offer; he had left his home behind years ago, and he didn’t regret the choice, however much the sight of it might pain his heart.

But Last spoke again, more urgently.  “Tolyat!”

When he turned, Last flung one arm out, stabbing his finger through the air at something in the distance.  Something at their level in the distance, flying toward them with speed.

How much speed was hard to judge.  At first Tolyat thought it a bird, not too far away.  Then the creature grew larger, and it was still not close.  By the time he began to get a sense of its real size, Last was already thrashing among the equipment in the bottom of the basket.  “Where in the name of all that’s unholy did I put—”

Tolyat opened his mouth to ask what he was looking for, but the words turned into a sudden and delighted laugh.  “Last, look!”

The creature was plummeting from the sky, the mad flapping of its wings doing no good whatsoever.  Last, standing again, raked one hand through his black hair in a gesture of relief.  “Wringe.  Nothing that big can fly there.  We’re....”  His hand stopped.  “Not safe.”

Because a host of other shapes had risen into the air, back in the direction the creature had come from.  They flew more cautiously, but with a clear aura of purpose, and they wove back and forth in a way that said they knew which Shreds to avoid.  They passed Wringe to either side and kept coming.

Last went back to digging and came up a moment later with a coiled thing like a whip made of jointed bone.  He set his gaze on the nearest of the beasts, then snapped his arm outward.  The whip uncoiled, and a burst of something starlike flew from the end to strike the creature square in the chest.

It didn’t so much as miss a single wingbeat.

This time Tolyat was the one to dive into the pile, looking for anything of use.  “What are they?  And where do they come from?”

“Damned if I know!” Last growled above him.  There was another fizzling crack of the whip, and a curse.  “I told you, I don’t know all of Driftwood; they aren’t coming from anywhere in my territory.  But this isn’t working.  We’d better drop, and fast.”  He turned to kneel, hands reaching for the nearest shauein stone, but before he could, Tolyat shot up again, clutching the furnace.

Last’s black eyes went very wide.  Laughter burst from him, and he took the furnace.  “You realize this is crazy.”

“I don’t care,” Tolyat said, and it was true.  Last was right; they should drop back down, flee from the creatures, come back later with weapons that would do some good.  But up here in the skies, he felt like the king of all Driftwood, and he was damned if he would let some beasties from another world chase him from his throne.  “Will it work?”

Last grinned—a thing Tolyat had never seen before—and now the light in his eyes was pure madness.  “Let’s find out.”

He whirled, pointing the furnace’s mouth toward the nearest creature, who was now very close.  The device was an oddly-shaped thing; Tolyat would never have taken it for a furnace if Last hadn’t called it by that name.  Its squat, metal-sided body had no visible opening for fuel, only a projecting tube on one side that seemed to be an outlet.  Last aimed this at the nearest beast, rotated the tube within its housing as far as it would go, and smacked the side with the heel of his hand.

An enormous gout of flame leapt out, leaving a stripe burned into Tolyat’s vision.  A discordant shriek raked his ears, and when he blinked the afterimage away, he saw the creature spiraling downward, trailing a cloud of smoke.  Last shouted in triumph and aimed the furnace a second time.

But the creatures had already proved themselves intelligent.  There were four of them left, and they ranged themselves apart, ducking and weaving to approach the basket from different angles.  Up close, they were truly immense, with bright green feathers and snouts full of wicked teeth.  Last released another jet of flame, which singed the rear left wing of one creature; it snarled and veered off its path, but did not fall.

Tolyat started hurling everything he thought he might not need.  Measuring devices that had gone unused; they did no damage, but sometimes made the creatures dodge.  Last shot a second one down, spitting curses in several different languages.  Tolyat’s pen-case; it missed the beast he aimed at, but in its fall it struck another near the corner of its eye.  Last spun to try and flame that one, and narrowly avoided lighting the basket on fire.  Then Tolyat grabbed the ropes that attached the sack to the basket, intending to rip them free and fling the cloth over one of the creatures, like a net.

He fell before he could.  Something slammed into the side of the basket, and then he wasn’t the only thing falling: everything, basket and all, dropped with him.

His scream was torn away by the suddenly-racing air.  One of the creatures had knocked them off their axis, disrupting the connection between the shauein stones; the discs in the floor of the basket twisted, trying to maintain their orientation, and far below the ones in the ground must be doing the same, but all it did was send the basket shooting off on a brief diagonal trajectory before it passed out of range.  And then the fall began in earnest, with nothing more to stop it.

Tolyat heard Last screaming in his ear.  “Up!  Up!”  Of course up, that was the only solution to their current problem of down, but what in the name of every god was Tolyat supposed to do about it?  Then he realized Last was shoving at him, trying to get at the fabric beneath his body.  And Tolyat, on the principle that a slim chance was better than none, rolled clear and began to shove the sliding masses of fabric above his head.

As soon as he found the mouth of the sack, Last slammed the furnace down in the center of the basket and began drumming on its sides with all the desperation suitable to his life depending on it.  Fire shot out again, but he must have done something to the furnace, because it wasn’t the long jets of before; this was a smaller, steadier flame, though still hot enough to bake all the moisture from Tolyat’s scales.

And the sack began to fill.

The wind of their fall did half the work, inflating the sack like the seed of a geschen tree.  It perhaps slowed them a little bit, but not much; Tolyat, shoving the fabric up as if that would help make this crazy scheme work, saw the houses and ruins of Driftwood coming terrifyingly close.  But still the furnace burned, and the air grew ever warmer—and then, in a form of magic Tolyat had never seen before, the basket began to float.

Last kept drumming, but more gently now, and after a few moments he stopped.  With eerie grace, born aloft by a sack that now dwarfed the basket below, they drifted across the face of Driftwood.

It took few moments longer for Tolyat to believe he wasn’t about to die.  His legs no longer wanted to support him; he sank into a boneless heap, gasping.  Last supported himself with arms draped along the basket’s edge, his black eyes wide, but soon his expression came to life once more, and he began laughing.

Tolyat couldn’t help but join him.  It wasn’t funny—it shouldn’t be funny.  They’d nearly died.  Or at least he had; who knew what it would have done to Last.  But in the aftermath, he felt more alive than he ever had.

Hauling himself up to his knees, Tolyat looked over the edge.  They were much lower than before, low enough to see people in the streets and fields below, staring upward at the strange contraption floating overhead.  Fields?  They’d gone farther than he realized, out of the Shreds, into the Ring lands where there was still space to raise livestock and crops.  He’d learned about such things—after all, he was a scholar—but never seen them with his own eyes.  So this was where their food came from, bought for what little wealth the Shreds had left.  The basket floated above the fields like a misshapen bird, riding the winds.

If they kept going, they might fly all the way to the Mist.

He turned and found his concern mirrored in Last’s eyes.  The guide fiddled with smaller strings dangling from the sack, and soon they began to drop, more gently than the precipitous speed of before.  None too soon; they were nearing a world boundary, and the weather on the other side looked bad.

The basket came to rest in an open expanse of golden plants that looked very soft but poked uncomfortably through holes in the weave.  Tolyat helped Last push at the sack as it deflated, so the fabric wouldn’t collapse on their heads.  Then, with reluctance, he climbed over the edge and stood on solid ground once more.

“Do you know where we are?” he asked.

Last jumped over the edge, with a lithe energy that belied what they had just gone through, and looked around speculatively.  “Maybe?  I think these are wheat fields, and if I’m right, I know who buys their grain.  We’ll get back home, don’t worry.”

Morosely, Tolyat reached into the basket and pulled out the fallen, trampled piece of paper that held his map.  The lines were mostly clear, but unfinished.  He hadn’t done even a quarter of the work before they’d been chased from the sky.

From behind him came an incomprehensible word.  “Achricks.”

It sounded like a sneeze.  “What?”

“Achricks,” Last said.  He nodded, a smile growing across his face.  “Projectiles aren’t a good idea—they’d fall on the heads of innocent passers-by—but achricks shoot energy, and I don’t know of anything that can shrug them off.  Though we should have a few other options, in case it’s like the star-whip.  My fault, really, for only bringing one weapon; I honestly didn’t think anything in Driftwood could fly as high as you said we would go.  Next time I’ll be better prepared.”

Tolyat’s ruff lifted.  “Next time?

Last gestured toward the paper he held.  “You aren’t done, are you?  I figure it will take at least a couple more trips, depending on how detailed you decide to be.  Unless you’ve had enough?”

That weight, cast aside while they were in the sky, had started to settle upon him once more.  Last’s words stopped it.  To go back....

The man had to be immortal.  There was no other explanation for why Last, having nearly died for Tolyat’s mad dream, would be volunteering to do it again.  Driftwood, for all its diversity, couldn’t possibly hold two beings crazy enough to do this for fun.

“Do you have a knife?”  Tolyat asked.  While Last pulled one from his sleeve, Tolyat knelt and began looking for the edge of the mostly-deflated sack.  “I’ll cut a piece to wrap the stones in, and you carry the furnace.”

“Oh, so now you believe in magic floating hot air.”

“Floating stones, floating hot air, anything that will keep me from falling out of the sky.  Maybe we should find out where those beasts came from, see if it’s possible to rent one as a bodyguard.”  His mind was full of plans.  There was a woman in Candlepot with a device that could make copies of things drawn on paper; he could sell the map when he was done.  Or even sell trips to see Driftwood from above.  What might it do, if people saw it with their own eyes?

He didn’t know.  What he did know was that he had his grand answer, and it was no less meaningful for being fun.  The change in Last was enough to prove that.

With their most important equipment gathered, Last jerked his thumb toward a building just visible above the grain.  “Let’s get started.  It’s going to be a damn long walk back to the Shreds.”

“Wait!”

Tolyat dove for the basket one final time.  When he came up again, Last had his eyebrows raised.  Tolyat flourished the pen he’d saved.  “I want to take notes on the way back.”


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Marie Brennan is the author of the Onyx Court series of London-based historical faerie fantasies: Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire, as well as the upcoming adventure A Natural History of Dragons and the new contemporary fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Her stories have appeared multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including two set in the world of the Onyx Court novels and three set in her Driftwood world (“Driftwood” in BCS #14 and the anthology The Best of BCS, Year One and “Remembering Light” in BCS #44 and The Best of BCS, Year Two). She has published more than thirty other short stories in venues such as On Spec, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and the acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix. More information can be found on her website: www.swantower.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Remembering Light” by Marie Brennan
“Of Shifting Skin and Certainty” by Justin Howe

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5 Comments on “The Ascent of Unreason”

5 Responses to “The Ascent of Unreason”

  1. Jarrad says:

    This is a fantastic story. The worldbuilding is second to none, and the characterization is impressively clever. What really stands out, though is the skill with which the themes of the story are rendered. Marie Brennan captures ennui and despair and madcap hope while telling a story that is, at its heart, about having fun. I’ve rarely seen this done well even in longform, let alone in a spec fic short story. A++.

  2. Thanks, Jarrad! I suspect the emotions came through well because this isn’t the first story I’ve written in this setting, and the others dig quite a bit into the ennui and despair you mentioned. I wrote this one as a change of pace from that mood, and tried to work the difference into the story itself. Glad to know it paid off for you!

    (If you’d like to see the other stories, they’re all listed on my website; most of them link back here to BCS, but a few have been published elsewhere.)

  3. Carlos says:

    Over the past decade I must have listened to well over 500 short stories of the speculative fiction type, but I continue to remember “Driftwood” as one of the most outstanding pieces ever, and the one that clinched my loyalty to BCS for good.
    I’m a damn difficult reader to please, but find it hard to come up with adequate superlatives for Marie Brennan’s worldbuilding in this series.
    Kudos to Marie for the imagination and skill, and BCS for continuing to support her.

  4. Thank you so much, Carlos! I’ve kind of been in love with the Driftwood concept since I thought it up, so it’s awesome to know that I’m not the only one.

  5. Kimberly says:

    A happy Driftwood story! I love it! Last is a great character. I always enjoy these tales.

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