The Inked Many

Issue #150 - Special Double-Issue

In Lacuna, there were always jobs for those desperate for a quick coin or a quick death, and no group of people were more desperate than the miners.

Chernyl dropped his rucksack and pounded on the door of the foreman’s office. The sound of snoring ceased, replaced with phlegmy curses and at least one chair being thrown over. The door opened and a pug of a man looked up at Chernyl.

“You the greenhorn?” the man asked.

“Yes sir,” Chernyl said. He stuck out his hand.

Foreman looked at it for a second before touching Chernyl’s hand and muttering, “Ah, yes, yes.” Chernyl was reminded of his last job at the sandwich stand, grabbing handfuls of corned beef to stick between two pieces of potato bread.

“So, er,” Foreman said, “when can you start I guess?”

Chernyl tried not to let the pity show up on his face. He glanced toward his rucksack and said, “Excuse me?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Foreman said, “you’re ready now. Come in. I’ll get your seal and next of kin.”

Chernyl followed Foreman into the office. It was little more than a tar-paper cube cluttered with coffee mugs, moldy bowls, and racy broadsheets. A greasy pillow sat on Foreman’s desk.

“Er, well, yes,” Foreman said, stuffing the pillow under his desk, “don’t sleep too great at home. The wife has those kicking feet....” He let the thought peter out.

Chernyl nodded, but his face must have betrayed him.

“Ever gas yourself out of a dream?” Foreman asked.

“Can’t say that I have.”

Foreman nodded. “You won’t understand then.”

Even though Foreman’s shack stood no more than a few dozen yards from the lampblack factory, silence dropped on the two of them like a coal mine cave-in.  Chernyl was beginning to regret leaving the sandwich stand. Sure his only remuneration was boarding in the apartment above the deli, and sure he had to share the apartment with the shop owner’s crippled brother-in-law, but he also got all the cold beef he could eat, and sometimes the page girl from Francini’s stationarium would come over to play a few hands of Friend or Fiend.

But, no, he needed to make more coin if he ever wanted to leave the stinking mounds of Bugspit for a ghetto that wasn’t crawling with termites the size of toddlers.

“You said something about my seal?”

Foreman—or Mr. Decker according to the dented brass plaque on his desk—nodded, making both of his chins wobble.   “Yes, thank you. Lost my train of thought. I need your seal on the work order.” Decker knocked over a stack of broadsheets depicting women in various states of undress. A crumpled ball of paper landed at Chernyl’s feet. He peeked inside and saw a well-muscled young man holding a bowler cap over his—

“I’ll take that back,” Decker said, displaying surprising speed, “don’t know how the wife’s reading material got mixed in with my own.”

Chernyl nodded.

“It’s not mine. I don’t like that sort of thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Perfectly healthy for a young man to explore his options.”

Chernyl nodded again.

Decker undid the top button his collar, and wisps of steam escaped into the musty shack. “In fact,” he said, “it’s probably more healthy to vary your, er, reading material. Keeps the stuff you like—the lady stuff with the clasps and the feathers and lace—more interesting.”

Chernyl wished he had a mirror. He always had trouble keeping his emotions off his face, but this was turning into a disaster. In fact, he would trade places with the lowest greenhorn working the hottest corner of the coal mine right now....  “The work order, Mr. Decker.”

Decker nodded again and seemed to pull the yellowed parchment from mid-air. “No need to read it. Just says we’ll pay you so much coin for so much coal, tonnage rate.”

Chernyl took the parchment and let his eyes travel upon the words. The pay rate was a bit more complicated than Decker had summarized. Rates changed based on the size and color of the coal you picked. Bonuses were given for speed and purity. Dross lowered the rate significantly.

“Says here that I have to pay rental fees on an axe, a helmet, a dorm, and a cart.”

Decker looked taken aback. “Y... yes, that’s very true and very standard. I didn’t realize you could read.”

“We live in the City of Missing Letters. A few of them were bound to screw their way into my head.”

Chernyl read on, shaking his head, smirking, sighing, gasping. Decker feigned organizing his broadsheets but in reality just opened and crumpled the paper with his “wife’s reading material” on it, eyes never moving from the man on the page.

“Also says that I have to buy all my own meals at the company canteen, using company money.”

“Yes. Again, very true and very standard.”

Setting the contract down, Chernyl pinched his crooked nose. “So the company pays me in proprietary marks that I then have to exchange for real money at a piss-poor rate.”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

“And on top of that, nearly all of my money is taken away in penalties, rental, and boarding fees.”

“Yes.”

Chernyl made a sound deep in his throat. “Do you have a pen?”

The foreman visibly deflated, but instead of passing over a pen or a quill or a scribe or even a charcoal stick, he pushed a stump of blue wax toward Chernyl.

“A pen?” Chernyl repeated.

Decker sat up. “Oh, a pen. It’s just most guys who come in here—”

“Can’t write. Yeah, your first jab at them not being able to read made that clear as well.”

Ears turning read, Decker almost threw the inkwell at Chernyl. “There you go, smart ass. I don’t got any scribe.”

Chernyl dipped his small finger into the ink and signed his name in thick, looping letters. “S’alright. Don’t really need one.”‘

The Inked Man had watched hundreds of generations destroy and rebuild Lacuna. Fires scoured the streets, turning grout to dirty diamonds. Floods swept tons of garbage out to sea. Plagues turned the entire population into dusty paper. War criminals raided the Atheneum for those rare volumes that could reshape history with a few words.

The Inked Man had watched it all. Sometimes he got caught up in the conflagration, turning to ash or diseased wood, but he always came back. He would always come back, Fiend willing, and the Fiend was willing.

But now, as the desert pushed into bleached alleys and scoured boulevards of Lacuna, as sand snaked into abandoned homes through cracks in the sagging windows and bowed doors, as all life fled down the dry riverbeds for more habitable land, the Inked Man made up his mind.

“This won’t do,” he said, getting up from his paper throne behind the cathedral’s altar. The Inked Man’s mottled skin of paper, parchment, vellum, and flesh swished softly, staying supple even in the heat. This church had once held thousands of his disciples. Prayer masses and auto-da-had taken place under the tiled roof. Blood and ink traced patterns across the mosaic floor, emptying into runnels that would take it to Parchment Run. Freshwater squid gathered at the outlet pipe. Lowly was the man who stumbled drunkenly into their number.

Or so the Inked Man had once thought. Water hadn’t encircled Lacuna in half a millennium. Once the final tree within a hundred miles of Lacuna had met the enzymatic jaws of Queen Woodheart, the city was doomed.

The Inked Man was ageless. His deep black eyes held each one of his years. Even without muscle, the Inked Man was capable of turning coal into gems with just the pressure of his hand. Moving more simian than man, he brachiated up the naked sconces and leapt out of the hole in the ceiling, landing on sand. It had reached roof level already. Soon, Lacuna would be erased from the landscape, preserved in a silicate tomb beneath the dunes.

The Inked Man bit his thumb, teeth like the jagged edges of a hardcover. Red-black blood-ink welled up along the edge of the wound. He scrawled the word Fire on his forearm and ripped the ribbon of parchment off.

“Fire,” he said in the common tongue of the Five Cities before dropping the ribbon. The parchment fell toward the sand and smoldered. Smoke curled up from the incandescent letters, but the parchment didn’t catch. The Inked Man sighed, voice like pages flipping.

Walking across Lacuna—or above Lacuna’s buried rooftops—the Inked Man tried more words.

“Wings,” and origami feathers fell from his back.

“Glass,” and the sand under his feet took on a sheen.

“Breeze,” and the curling bits of parchment covering his body rustled.

The Inked Man caught a desert mouse and pressed a scrap of parchment into its mouth.

“Plague,” he said. The mouse bit his finger and jumped down. Its skin didn’t turn to parchment. Its hair didn’t fall out. Its body didn’t turn to dust.

“This will not do.” The Inked Man pointed himself in the direction of the Lampblack Mountains—now little more than a series of low dunes—and walked.

At one time Lacuna had knelt before his power. He had brought unparalleled prosperity and order to its streets. Sure, there were those that had to suffer to maintain the peace, but most of his disciples agreed that it had been necessary.

At one time Lacunans had contracted the plague on purpose, on the off chance that it would make them one with the Inked Man. They all died skinless and in agony, begging the Inked Man for forgiveness. Sometimes he crossed their foreheads with an inky thumb; sometimes not.

At one time Lacuna had orchestrated public penance ceremonies in his honor. Lexiconic saints and sinners alike would prostrate themselves on beds of broken ink wells, or paper-cut patterns into their skin, or recite prayer-spells for days on end, food and water a fond memory. Nostalgia was the only drug remaining that could get his ink-blood racing.

Coming up on the base of the dune, the Inked Man thought briefly of how long it would take him to dig through all the sand. He shook his head. Even for someone deathless, it was too much.

He unwound a long strip of parchment from his chest and laid it on the ground in a straight line. Methodically biting each finger, he began to scribble pictograms onto the skin-scroll. He had lived long enough to learn that not everything could be expressed in his native tongue. Over the centuries, he had learned dozens of languages—real and fake, futuristic and historic, ancient, extinct, imagined, fabricated—the Inked Man collected languages in the same way some used to collect rare coins.

When he was finished and had stood up, the Inked Man began uttering the guttural, discordant syllables of the language. As he completed each phrase, another pictogram incandesced. Sand began flowing away from the parchment in thin rivulets, but as he added more complexity to the tone poem streaming from his bullhorn mouth, the rivulets grew into creeks and streams and whole rivers. A depression formed in the sand, and the Inked Man watched as hundreds of invisible hands scooped more and more sand away until....

When the hot red sun was setting and the cool white sun was about to rise, the depression had become a valley leading to a bricked-up mine cart entrance. The Inked Man knew this entrance intimately. He knew how deep it led into the mountain and he knew where he needed to be.

The Inked Man wrote a word on his hand and pressed it to the bricks.

“Boom.”

Chernyl hung his rucksack on this cot and sat down. Sighing, he couldn’t help but regret his decision just a little bit. Even if he would make coin here—enough to save up and buy Trinia a wedding band—he was sacrificing his safety to get it. If only he hadn’t gotten fired from the stationary store a few months back, then he wouldn’t have had to find the sandwich stand job, and if the sandwich stand job hadn’t turned out to be a big bust, he wouldn’t be in the mine.

He shook his head. This was a useless line of thought. Anyway, if he hadn’t gotten fired when he did, he sure would have been by now. Those damn forma rolls were just too addictive. One puff, and all of Lacuna seemed to come to life in gaslamp glory.

“One puff and you got fired, jackass,” Chernyl said. He fell back onto the cot. It smelled of sweat and yeasty beer. A few feet above his head, the low ceiling was scrawled with graffiti both blasphemous and lewd, often at the same time. He smiled.

The billets were expansive canvas structures outside the mine entrance. There were half a dozen of them, holding hundreds of miners. The lack of trunks or belongings near the cots told Chernyl all he needed to know about the average lifespan of a miner.

However, there were touches of personality: a steamer trunk with “Jame” written in huge, calligraphic letters across the top; life-sized hand-painted pin-ups hung on the walls and ceilings near a few beds; family tintypes poked under thin blankets and flat pillows; one cot rested on a pedestal of tatty paperbacks.

“No one can read here my ass, Decker,” Chernyl said. He got up and pried one loose. It turned out to be an alchemical manual declaring the health benefits of termite enzymes.

The canvas flap opened and a dozen or so miners walked in. Regardless of what color they began the day, now they were a uniform matte black.

Chernyl stood up, but nobody noticed him. They parted around him like a stream around a stone and went to their own cots or to the line of washbasins at the far end of the billets.

A man lay down on the cot with all the books and closed his eyes, but only for a moment.

“Who in the hell took one of my books?” he said, jumping up.

Chernyl swallowed. The miner was short, thin, and very old. A soot-stained patchy beard covered most of his face that wasn’t covered by eyebrow. Cracked glasses perched at the end of his nose. He would be a comical figure if Chernyl didn’t see cords of muscle covering his bare arms.

“I—I did.”

The miner stomped over to Chernyl and, even though he only came up to Chernyl’s chin, slapped him across the face and took the book back. Chernyl saw a bright light for a moment before it was replaced by a bone-deep sting.  “Who gave you the gall, son, to take another man’s property without rightly asking? Hmm?”

Chernyl, embarrassed and angry, looked down at the man. “And since when is knowledge property?”

The bookman looked like he was going to slap Chernyl again. Instead, he leaned in real close and, squinting his eyes, whispered, “I like you, son.”

Chernyl couldn’t tell if his face was hot because of the slap, or if he was blushing. “Judgment’s still out on you.”

The bookman laughed. “I’d call you a smart-ass if I weren’t so wise.” He grabbed Chernyl by the hand. “Name’s Pater, by way of asking, though everyone calls me ‘Spec,’ so you might as too.”

He shook Spec’s hand. “Chernyl.”

“Chernyl? Funny name, that. We’ll have to get you a new one.” Spec dragged Chernyl by the hand over to where another man sat on his cot sketching what looked like mutilated hands.  “Hey Ganch, this kid says his name is Chernyl. What you make of that?”

“That won’t do,” Ganch said, not looking up from his sketch. The mutilated hands were moving toward a church or something.

“He needs a new one, eh?”

“He needs a new one.”

Chernyl did not like the direction this conversation was going. He tried to clear his throat, but Spec’s grip tightened.

“Well ’en?” Spec asked.

Ganch looked up at Chernyl. “Inky Britches,” he said and went back to his sketch.

“Perfect,” Spec agreed. “On account of that big ol’ mole you got growing out of your cheek, boy, and on account that your privates are prolly swaddled in cloth.”

Chernyl jerked his hand free. “Ain’t no way I’m answering to Inky Britches.”

Spec waved it away. “It’ll only be for a day or two until everyone gets tired and shortens your name to Inky.”

Inky’s mouth opened and closed like a fly trap, but no sound came out. Another man walked past and slapped Inky on the back.

“Good to meet ya Britches.” He continued on to his cot. Only later did Britches realize that the man had been naked.

Spec put a hand on Britches’ shoulder. “Though, I suppose they could shorten it to that too.”

Dust rolled down the tunnels. It was good to see that some of the languages hadn’t lost their power. Whereas even to the Inked Man it sounded like he had said “Boom,” it wasn’t actually what he’d whispered. The language he had used pre-dated his birth language by almost ten thousand years.

The Inked Man possessed senses far more powerful than sight, but he still waited until the dust cleared to venture into the mines. Closing his eyes, he bit his thumb again and scrawled Unsight on his forehead.  When he opened his eyes again, darkness had become... not light, but no longer was it dark. He could see the many branching passages, the thousands of little caves, caverns, and niches, and what was within each alcove. He could see it all at once, but, again, he couldn’t see it at all. It was the perfect knowledge of the mine-labyrinth and everything contained within encoded into that single word: Unsight. The Inked Man felt it to be one of his greatest achievements, this word. He felt it to be an even greater achievement than carving the labyrinth out of the abandoned mines with hands and spells and paper-golems; an even greater achievement than what he had filled the labyrinth with.

He took a step inside, and the sand fell behind him, although not a single grain entered his domain. For hundreds of years, Lacunans thought the church to be his seat of power, but this place of darkness and musk, cobwebs and corridors was the true heart of his empire, filled with his favorite subjects.

The Inked Man tilted his head down. His eyes—if that term could be applied to them in the first place—felt cold, black, and dead inside his head. If the sand hadn’t fallen and even a single beam of the faint white sun touched his eyes, his body would immolate. All that would remain would be ash and two cold, black, dead stones.

Looking down, even without light, even without eyes, the Inked Man knew himself with his Unsight. His arms—like two dead branches on a diseased tree—were inscribed with thousands of words, spells, and prayers. If he looked closely, he could pick out individual languages and trace their evolution across his body, watching how syntax changed from century to century. Words scribbled in haste on his left arm had wholly different meanings than the same words written a decade later on his right, and once-powerful prayer-chants would yield little more than a feeble light if performed today.

“So much wasted time. So much wasted space,” he said. Whole swaths of his plague-skin were covered in dead languages, and the spells, charms, and wards written in the ancient characters had died with them. Even now as time approached its endpoint, he could feel his immortality begin to weaken. Cracks formed in the lacquer on his bones. Pulpy muscle lost strength. Flakes of skin sloughed off at the slightest urging, as if the parchment plague had resumed its course of infection; as if he wasn’t the Inked Man, the carrier of the ur-Plague, the god of this dehydrated world; as if he was succumbing to the strain of the plague that had cleansed Lacuna dozens of times throughout history; the plague he had cured before the waves of sand came and the Lacunans drowned in the riptide.

He shook his head and took a step. His body creaked like a tree in the wind, but he still felt strong, stronger than any woman or man that had ever lived, and he still had chores to do before the end.

The entry corridor into the labyrinth was designed to be easy, at least to appear easy. It was flat and straight for quite a ways, but it was also pitched downward. The Inked Man didn’t care how far someone got into his labyrinth, as long as they didn’t leave. Intruders–and there had been many–were surprised when they came back to this straight, flat corridor to find it had grown longer and become an impossibly steep incline.

Bones crunched under the Inked Man’s feet at the end of the corridor.

“Maybe I should hire a chambermaid?” He laughed to himself. “I’ve lived far too long.”

Inky–he had used his last few forma rolls to barter away Britches–stood in front of the mine entrance. Even though the mother-daughter suns of Lacuna had set, the darkness of the mine stained the night. His arms quivered, the pick in his hands jumping about. The company store hadn’t had boots in the right size either, so he had stuffed his spare pair of stockings into the toes. Even with their weight and a rudimentary knowledge of how gravity worked, he felt his position on this earth was tenuous at best. The overalls were second-hand and well-worn, smelling of oil and rust, sweat and spice. His helmet, too, was secondhand, but when he switched on the lamp, it produced a strong beam.

Spec tapped him on the shoulder. “We ran outta canaries, but the alchemists rigged our lamps so your light will turn green if the air becomes foul and red before it runs out of fuel.”

Inky fingered the spare fuel cube on his belt, the chemicals inside pressurized so as to prevent sloshing.  “What color would it be if the air went foul after the lamp turns red?”

Spec looked down, his beam bouncing around. “You ever mix paints together when you were a kid?”

Inky shook his head.

“You know what color blood comes out when you’re strangling someone?”

Again, Inky shook his head.

Spec sighed in frustration. “Doesn’t matter what color it is, ‘cause you’ll have switched your fuel already, right?”

Inky nodded.

“Good boy. Now stick close to me and I’ll show you how to live forever.”

The Inked Man walked in the deep silence of the mine. There was something comforting about being encased in millions of tons of stone. He didn’t know why. Maybe some geologic instinct passed on from the very first animalcules that lived in the rock fissures; some yearning to return to the inanimation that life evolved from.

As he descended deeper into the labyrinth, he came upon his first cache. He knew what was inside, but he entered the small cavern anyway and felt what was around him.

Stone shelves held the final books Lacuna ever produced, including a few the Inked Man had a hand in creating. They were bound in cloth and printed on the papyrus that had choked the River Ars after the climate had changed. Pulp was a distant memory, trees having been cleared from the drifting continent that Lacuna inhabited. The stumps had been pulped centuries ago. There had come a brief respite when Lacunans went into the land en masse to dig up the massive roots of the once-great forests, but that couldn’t last.

Now, the land was parched and cracked in every direction, all the way to the great oceans.  At decades-long intervals tumbleweed would blow past, and the desperate papermakers of Lacuna would throws bullets at each other, trying to get a few pounds of it to pulp. Those sacrilegious enough bleached the pages of ancient tomes to write over them. Parchment and vellum hadn’t been available in decades, and the few scraps of bird skin a Lacunan got from stoning one out of the sky yielded little more than pages for a diary.

Reeds had started floating in clumps down the evaporating river, and the Lacunans rejoiced as they ate meals of cactus fruit and baked tarantula. Having a surplus of paper for the first time in a decade, they wrote down everything that had been filling up inside them: rage at the previous generations for turning the land into a desert, rage at the Fiend for dehydrating the land with his fires, rage at the cactus for having too many needles, rage at the sky for never having a cloud, rage at the suns for getting hotter, rage at each other for hoarding papyrus reeds. Sometimes they ran out of rage and wrote confessionals, funeral dirges, recipes for scorpion tail, sense-poetry, even stories.

In the Inked Man’s cavern, hundreds of books stared at him, spine out. Or they would have been spine out, if they had spines. It wouldn’t matter anyway, because not a single volume the Lacunans produced had a title.

The volumes the Inked Man produced, however, did. They were bound in sumptuous green leather, clasped with a naked lock of exposed gears. He picked up one volume, felt the weight and the strange warmth. With his Unsight, he read the title: Resher Domigan. He had known Resher well. At one time, the Inked Man had been Resher’s sketchbook. Resher’s favorite subject was drawing the death poses of those who fell in Lacuna’s streets. After the sketch, he flensed them for parchment. The Inked Man hadn’t much cared for Resher, but damn if he didn’t respect the kid’s talent with a pencil and penknife.

The Inked Man set the volume back down. It wasn’t the book he was looking for. He exited the cache and continued on. He still had a long way to go.

Inky wiped black sweat off his forehead and aimed his pick at the same spot he had just struck. Missing off to the left, it rang against dense stone, sending pins and needles shooting up his arms.

He cursed loudly.

Spec shouldered his own pick and chuckled.  “You’re like a drunk trying to piss into a tin can,” he said, walking over. “Instead of watching your pick, keep your eye on where you want it to hit.”

Inky let his pick fall. “What do you think I’m doing? I’m not an idiot. It’s dark and hot and my hands are shredded. I’m having a hard enough time standing up, much less hitting the same spot twice.”

Spec made a clucking sound in his throat. “How much coal you get tonight?” He peaked into Inky’s cart and made the clucking sound again. It echoed around the empty cart.

“Not enough.”

“I’ve seen worse. You’ve got enough in there to by some hardtack from the commissary.”

Inky slouched against the rock face. He felt the solid impacts of more practiced picks gouging coal out of the walls. One full cart a night went to his work-related expenses. He started making profit on the second cartful. The cart contained enough coal to cover the iron floor of his cart.

“Don’t worry, Inky. We all started out this way. You won’t be knocking face-sized lumps out for a month or so.”

“A month?”

Spec nodded, his glasses shining in the light of Inky’s headlamp. “But you’ll carry more out of the mine every day. Most miners take their first full cart out after a week or so, if they last that long.”

Inky nodded. That felt a bit better. “A week. I can handle a week.”

Spec extended a hand and hauled Inky to his feet. “Of course it’s that quick because you’re billed weekly for company fees.”

They were over a mile into the mine. Even with their headlamps and some larger alchemical lanterns, the darkness was foreboding, oppressive. Inky tried not to think what dwelled beyond the range of the light, but he was certain he had heard growling on more than one occasion.

It may have been Tomai coughing though. The old man had been working in the mine longer than anyone else. Even his teeth were stained gray from inhaling the coal dust. Rumor had it that Decker was going to force him out because he was from the time when lampblack was worth half-gold and unions almost mined the mountain hollow.

Inky grabbed his pick off the ground and put his weight behind the next swing, shearing off a piece of coal the size of a small apple. He almost laughed with a combination of relief and joy, tossing the lump into his cart.

“See?” Spec said, laying a hand across his shoulders, “You’re getting it already....” The old man’s voice trailed off, and he clutched his chest. Inky grabbed him, thinking Spec’s heart had given out. Instead, Spec took a pendent of glowing crystal from inside his shirt.

“Fifteen years of that and I’m still not used to it.”

“What the hell, man?” Inky said, throwing his hands up.

Spec winked. “I had an alchemist named Francini make it for me. I wanted something that would tell me when twelve hours passed. She thought it’d be funny to have this crystal singe my nipples off twice a day.”

Inky perked up again. “I know Francini.”

“Interesting woman, that one,” Spec said. He shook the crystal and it stopped glowing. “Interesting, and dangerous as all-get-out.”

Chernyl shivered, but whether from the drying sweat on his skin or the truth of Spec’s words, he couldn’t say.

The Inked Man walked deeper into the mountain. He passed dozens of caverns, each holding hundreds of books from different times in Lacuna’s history. There were romances and utopian dreams and philosophical meanderings, but the only link between the caches were the Inked Man’s biographies of those he had known. Often he would pick up and run his fingers over the strangely warm books. He remembered being this man’s business ledger, this girl’s bedtime story, this dog’s newspaper chew-toy. They all had helped create and recreate the Inked Man; whether for better or worse was only known to him.

As he entered the deep parts of the labyrinth, his Unsight became... odd: silhouette-feelings embossed themselves, senses-of-mass increased, lexigraphic-memory seemed to ooze from the walls like stone pus.

He ducked into a cache. The books were printed on thick, rough-cut paper. The font was a large primitive serif, and of course, it was illuminated. The Inked Man recognized straight legs where now there were curved edges, and extinct crossbars littered half the alphabet. This was from the early history of Lacuna, some thousands of years ago. It detailed the first attempt to divert the River Ars around the city, to create what would become Parchment Run. The lamenting verse was crude, if heartfelt. It made the Inked Man smile. He remembered watching those early Lacunans with their picks and shovels, moving the heavy soil one scoop at a time.

The Inked Man’s Unsight doubled and he had to sit down. Pain—the first pain he had felt since he became immortal—split his head in two. Something was wrong about his knowledge of early Lacuna. It felt slippery, like a slime eel out of water. He knew, but he didn’t know. Images filled his termite brain, but they were more like oil paintings than daguerreotypes.

The Inked Man was confused, scared, and in pain for the first time in millennia. It was thrilling.

Inky lay on his bed, counting his coin. He hadn’t seen the sun in over a month, working the quieter night shift. Ever since his first day, Spec had been feeding him a steady stream of tricks to charm the coal out of the wall: hit the seam here, not here; let the weight of the pick do the work; the sharper your pick, the less force you have to put behind it; don’t eat the mud clams in the commissary; don’t leave your money sack in the billets.

This last one he had asked Spec about. “But I live in the billets. Where else would I put my coin?”

“First Lacuna?”

Inky shook his head. “My father lost his inheritance when First Lacuna went bust a few decades back. Why do you think I came to the mines?”

Spec took a bite of his egg salad sandwich. “What about the commissary depository?”

“Their fees are half my wage.”

“Well then I dunno man!” Spec waved his sandwich around, bits of egg streaking the ceiling. “Stuff it under a loose floorboard.”

Inky tipped the rest of his coin into his leather purse and slipped it under the loose floorboard near the head of his cot. It wasn’t a lot of money by any means, but he was making more and more every day as his strikes rang truer, his muscles grew tauter, and his carts filled faster.

Ah Trinia, Inky thought, Only a few years and I’ll be able to afford your dowry. Then we can say good-bye to Lacuna forever.

“I can’t believe you’re actually hiding it under a loose floorboard,” Spec said. He plunged his hands into the room-temperature water in the wash basin and splashed it over his face.

“How’d you know what I was doing?” Inky asked, startled. He could have sworn he was all alone in the dorm. Everyone else was at the company bordello bargaining for pleasure, or eating buttered noodles in the commissary.

Spec wiped his face with a towel and turned toward Inky. Although he wasn’t wearing a shirt, suspenders could just be seen through the thick, white hair on his chest. Inky was also reminded that Spec might be old, but he wasn’t feeble.

“I been here the whole time. You just failed to notice.”

Inky shook his head. “No you weren’t. I made sure the dorm was empty before counting my money.”

Spec smiled. “Don’t worry, Inky. Your money ain’t worth the time or effort.”

Inky felt his ears burn. Granted, most of his money had been taken in fees and penalties, but what remained was hard-earned. “If you were wealthy enough not to need my money, you wouldn’t be working here.”

“Oh I don’t need to work,” Spec said, sitting on his own cot. “I don’t need to work.”

“You going to blab where I’m keeping my stash?”

“Nah,” Spec said, “Your secret’s safe with me. Just make sure you remember Spec next time you get a couple forma rolls.”

Smiling, Inky nodded. He opened his mouth to thank Spec when someone burst through the flap, panting.  “Fire. Fire in the mines,” he said. Inky didn’t recognize the boy, but that didn’t matter. You didn’t call ‘fire’ unless your boots were smoking.

Inky and Spec ran into the coming dawn, and at once started coughing. The air was thick with smoke. Flames twisted out of the mine’s entrance.

“How bad is it?” Spec asked, but the boy was gone.

He cursed and ran toward the fire. Inky followed. A bucket brigade was passing pail after pail of sand from one to another, and cartloads more were dumped into a growing pile at the beginning of the line.

Spec grabbed one of the miners and spun her around. “Where did it start? Anyone left in the mine?”

She set a full bucket down and grabbed another. “Idiot from the boom crew dropped his vial of reagent a hundred yards in,” she said. Her hands moved almost too quickly for Inky to follow as they filled a bucket every breath. “Still a couple overnighters behind the flames.”

Spec cursed again and took off for the mine. Inky had a hard time keeping up with the old man. The bucket brigade didn’t even give them a second glance.

At the mine entrance, a large stone cabin held fire-fighting gear: buckets for the sand that trapped fire in glass, hoses for the pump carriages that never came, axes to break down the doors that weren’t there, and thick leathers for the fools who would try to rescue the well-done.

Spec half-jumped into a pair of leather trousers hanging from the wall. Cracked, more black than brown, and covered in ash, these leathers had seen many fires. By the mottled scars on Spec’s back, Inky knew the old man had seen more than one fire as well.

“You gonna shrug into some leathers or stare at my handsome ass?” Spec asked, tossing the heavy garments to Inky.

Up until this point, he hadn’t thought of going into the fire. In fact, he hadn’t thought of much, following Spec by instinct. Now the possibility of going into a fire–a fire fed by crushed coal and the chill breeze as it wove its way underground towards the Fiend’s throne–was overwhelming.

Sitting down, Inky began tugging on the leathers. When he was overwhelmed, he ran on instincts alone, and his instincts told him to follow Spec even if that meant diving into that flaming maw himself.

“Here,” Spec said, handing Inky a glass mask. “It’s alchemical and won’t melt to your face.” He threw a satchel over Inky’s shoulder. A ragged, insulated hose snaked from the bottom of the mask to the satchel.

“The satchel does burn,” Spec said, “so tuck it into your overcoat. The alchemists tell me we have three hundred breaths of oxygen in the sack. I’ve never tested it, and don’t let me catch you either.” Spec put on his own rounded glass mask. “Stay close.”

They exited the stone shack and plunged into the smoking heart of the blaze.

The Inked Man burned. Even though he saw no flame nor smelled no smoke, he burned. He had to be burning. What else could cause him to fall to his knees? Throughout his own history only one element could weaken him, could destroy him if only he wasn’t eternal: fire.

Inching along the corridors on his stomach, he looked through the stone floor with his Unsight, seeing the countless miles of snaking pathways underneath him. They were there in case Lacuna ever rose again and he needed more space for his caches, his library of ages.

At first, the pain had been a welcome respite to the decades of numbness and non-feeling. It wasn’t that he was incapable of being hurt–every time he tore his thumb open to cast spells in blood, it stung just as much as if his skin was flesh and not paper–but this was a novelty of pain. Having been a tome in the book fires of the Modernist Revolution, fuel for the funeral pyre of Komi Lanedon, and ash in the ruins of his own church, the Inked Man was used to the cleansing pain of flame. This, though, was a pain of a different sort. It was the burning of extreme cold and the heat of the pit of fear in his stomach. Something was wrong, and he didn’t know what, and his body was reacting to it; reacting to a profound sense of wrongness. The Inked Man had lived so long and so fully that he was as near omniscient as a being could be, but he was frightened for no other reason than his Unsight told him to be.

Maybe he had cast the spell wrong? Maybe this was some sort of Unsight double-vision that was eating as his mind?

The spell wasn’t wrong. He had created the spell himself, and it was flawless. The feeling—the cold, unburning, burning feeling—was the knowledge that he shouldn’t be here; that the books around him—many that he had written himself—were from a time before himself.

“But I did exist. I remember orchestrating the Bugspit Rebellions and digging the Run and mating with Queen Woodheart and working in the deli.” His voice gave out but his mind still raged. I helped lay the first bricks in the wall ringing Lacuna. I remember putting up the first animal-hide tents on this land. I remember teaching the proto-Lacunans how to chisel memories into stone.

The pain increased and it focused his thoughts to a sharp point.

But that doesn’t explain how I remember them.

Inky tried counting his breaths at first, but after five, he decided focusing on the flames was a better use of his time.

Chunks of coal threatened to trip him. Support timbers, flaming and fallen, should have caused him to pause, but Spec vaulted over them like a show horse, so Inky did as well. Hot embers floated up the legs of his trousers when he leapt flame; singed the hair on his leg. He was thankful for the clean air in his satchel.

Even though he was in a mine, Inky’s tunnel-vision extended only to the edges of Spec’s leathers. The deeper they went into the mine, the hotter it became. Inky felt like a side of haggis: just a bunch of organ meat boiling in a sack.

Spec turned and motioned for Inky to crouch down. He tore off his mask and leaned in real close.

“I’m going to be doing some stupid things. You will not do them. Nod now.”

Inky nodded.

“Good.” Spec put his mask back on and stood up, dragging Inky with him. They stayed low and crouch-walked through the smoke.

Even the flames didn’t shed enough light to penetrate the smoke and natural darkness of being entombed in stone. They tripped and stumbled. Inky was sure he had used at least half of his breaths. Like a black drop of ink, panic spread across his heart.

Spec tore off his mask. “Day!” he yelled into the mine. The flames roared, but Spec roared louder, and Inky listened as the echo faded into smoke.

“Day!” he yelled again. They walked deeper into the inferno. “Day.” His voice continued to echo, until, as if from a great distance, a thin reply came.

“Night.”

They stopped. Spec put his mask to his face and took a deep breath. Once more, he called, “Day!”

And once more the reply came, “Night.”

Spec ran forward, the weight of his leathers forgotten. Inky was spurned on by a blood-cocktail of fear and thrill and the knowledge that if he lost sight of Spec, he would be lost as well.

“Day!”

“Night.”

“Day!”

“Night.”

Every time Spec would scream into the smoke, the reply would come louder and louder. How he knew where he was going, how he avoided every fallen support, dropped mine tool, every flaming hunk of coal, bordered on preternatural. Inky stumbled more than once but never left his feet. Falling would mean death as sure as a bullet in this environment.

Spec fell to his knees and Inky nearly tripped over him. Instead, he used his momentum to slide to a stop on his own knees.

In Spec’s arms, Tomai–the quiet old man who collected scraps of paper–wheezed, stained black by soot.

“Help me lift him,” Spec said, putting Tomai’s arm over his shoulder. Inky took the other side, and they hoisted him up. Spec put his mask over Tomai’s face. “If we go steady, we’ll all get out.”

A tunnel support gave way behind them.  The massive beam wedged itself into the tunnel between them and the mine entrance, throwing flames from floor to ceiling.

“Of course this’d happen,” Spec said. Shaking his head, he slipped out of his coat and draped it over Tomai.

Inky must have been staring, because Spec grabbed him by the ears. “Remember what I said about me being able to do stupid things and you not.” It was a statement not a question. Inky nodded anyway. He wasn’t going to do anything stupid, but he also wasn’t about to let Spec die in the mine.

Finding a pick on the floor near the fire, Inky shrugged out from under Tomai. In one motion, he grabbed it and swung it as hard as he could into the beam. It shattered into charcoal and ash.

Spec shuffled past him with Tomai limping along. “May not’ve been stupid, but it wasn’t smart.”

The Inked Man had been crawling since the moment the universe came into being; since the moment the Fiend blew his nose into a tissue and tossed it onto a lifeless rock. He couldn’t remember a time before crawling, before pain. He was crawling toward something, but he didn’t know what. He was beginning to suspect that the snake that bound the world had swallowed him and he was crawling forever through its circular digestive system.

But no. With his Unsight, he would have seen the ribs and vessels and lymph of the snake. All he saw were endless corners, countless books, and a hopeless path.

He crawled on. The books were becoming ever more primitive; his handwritten volumes almost non-existent after a certain point. He was getting close, but the pain was growing worse; the sense of unreality, the sense of loss, of having never been.

Something in his Unsight kept him going. It shined like a beacon of white fire. He had followed it through the eons, and now he was finally at the doorstep. He dragged himself through the doorway and screamed as the pain tore his body apart. Down every ink-filled vein, jagged ice sliced him to ribbons. Worse yet, his mind cramped, pulling in on itself, making itself into as small a target as possible for the Unreality to hit.

But the light was so bright! The beacon so pure! This must be the place of Unpain, of Uncrawl. All he needed to do was reach the books within and learn their secrets. His Unsight told him all he needed to do was lay his hand on a book and he would be saved.

The Inked Man grabbed the nearest stone shelf and hauled himself to his feet. The pain pounded through him like a thousand thousand termites mating in his body. All he had to do—

But there were no books. Instead, tablets of clay–of dark, red, Lacunan clay–lined the walls. With black tears forming in his eyes, he let his head tilt forward. It struck a clay tablet.

In a blinding flash of Unlight and Pain, the End of Time came to shutter the world, but the Inked Man was nowhere to greet it.

“Just a little further,” Inky whispered under his breath. His mouth was dry and sick with ash. Air from the satchel came weak and stale. His lungs were scorched and drew weak breath. Every bone was about to snap, every muscle about to dissolve, but he kept moving.

On his left arm, the old man Tomai struggled with each step but never stumbled once. On his right, Spec stumbled with each step but never fell. Inky half-carried them toward the small aperture of dawn light.

“Inky,” Spec wheezed, “Let me fall and you take Tomai. Get out. Don’t be stupid.”

Inky pretended not to hear him. This was stupid and that’s why he was doing it. His whole life to that point had been in the pursuit of avoiding stupidity; avoiding risks and doing something great. His entire life, he had never made an impact on anyone. Even Trinia–Trinia who he loved so much and would marry someday–seemed to tolerate him only for discounts on sliced beef.

Now, though, now he had a chance to do something really stupid. He had a chance to save the lives of two men. If he could just make it another dozen yards or so, he could feel stupid for the first time.

Inky grunted and increased his speed. Now he was carrying both men and he was sure his shoulders were going to tear but there was the light, the sweet beautiful dawn light, and dozens of miners and bucket brigaders and families and reporters stood in that dawn light, and if he could just make it a few... more... steps....

Inky, Spec, and Tomai collapsed in the ash, in the dawn light.

Out of the mine, the Inked Man lay on his stomach in the center of a circle of stones. The River Ars–if it could be called that–was nothing more than a thin artery wearing at the parched earth in the distance. Dozens of bowstrings drew back with the creak of supple bone. The arrows carried tips of flint and flame.

“No more flame,” he whispered. A tall woman holding a massive femur walked toward him. She bent down and looked right into his eyes. He stared back but was distracted by the filigree tattoos tracing around her eyes.

“You have the Unsight,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Chernyl—no one called him Inky anymore—sat on his cot with his head in his hands. Tomai’s shallow breaths spoke like a metronome. Chernyl wanted to stuff Tomai’s mouth with burlap to stop the noise.

Spec’s cot was empty save for an old tintype of the miner. It had been decided that the cot would serve as his memorial; no one would ever sleep on that pile of books again. Even Decker agreed to keep the vacancy after Chernyl sunk a fist into the foreman’s gut.

The physiker said Spec died from smoke suffocation. She had no idea how he had made it so far. Spec’s tongue was a cigar stump. His esophagus had became a hardened chimney. The lining of his lungs had turned to ash.

“Save a little on cremation costs, eh?” she said. Spec didn’t have any family so she gave the death certificate to Chernyl. It was stuffed into Spec’s favorite romance novel under the cot.

Chernyl clenched the leather purse in his hands, empty as his growling stomach. It had been like that when he returned from the fire. He suspected the greenhorn who had come into the dorm yelling “Fire,” but he couldn’t be sure. When he went to Decker about it, the wheezing foreman held up his hands. “That’s why we offer the services of our company bank at a reasonable rate.”

“Don’t you think I should get a bonus or reward for saving the lives of two miners?” Chernyl asked. He was trying to keep the boiling frustration inside of him. Decker had made it clear that another outburst would land him in the mines permanently: as an indentured servant. That’s how justice worked in Lacuna.

“What about Spec’s will? Did he leave me anything?” It was a shot in the dark, but Chernyl had felt a connection with Spec, and he hoped it was a two-way street.

“Oh, I’m sorry Chernyl,” Decker said, “but because Spec never filed his will with the company office, his savings became property of the bank.”

Chernyl was out of the office before the fat man could finish his sentence. Like hell Spec didn’t file a will, but who could find it in that bird’s nest of old newspapers and pin-ups.

By the time he got back to the billets, the sun was setting. Tomai sat on the edge of his cot, pulling on his boots.

“You’re going to kill yourself if you go back to the mines this quick,” Chernyl said, falling back onto his cot.

Tomai answered with a dry cough as he pulled the boot lace through each eyelet.

“Piss poor thanks if you die so soon.”

“Did I ask for ya to save me?” Tomai asked. He didn’t even glance at Chernyl as he got up and walked out of the billets.

For the first time in his afterlife, the Inked Man felt uncomfortable on a throne. The people here had built him a massive seat of smooth stone, hewn from the low mountains to the east.

In the years since he had arrived, the Inked Man had taught the proto-Lacunans how to turn their spoken language into characters, how to press those characters into slabs of river clay, and how to preserve those slabs in the mountain caves.

Before the Inked Man, the people were nomads, following herds of camels around the dry, cracked land. Now, the few dozen nomads were comfortable in stone cabins at the base of the mountains. They farmed the fertile mountainside and were even beginning to domesticate livestock.

Morinae ruled the village as a sort of governor or chief. She had aged well since that first night in the middle of the stone circle. Long gray braids were piled on top of her head. The filigree tattoos had faded but were still visible, shining in the firelight. From her first husband, she had borne five children. After he made the foolish decision to raise a hand against her and found that though her back may have bent she was still fast as a scorpion and twice as poisonous, she had taken a new husband and borne five more children. They, in turn, had given her dozens of grandchildren. And, only a few days prior, her first great-grandchild: a girl named Tes-Morinae.

But, there had been others. The little figures, looking so much like swaddled paper dolls, were concealed within the Inked Man’s throne.

“Why are they so soft?” Morinae asked. She cradled one in her arms. It had her high forehead and upturned nose; his paper skin and blood of ink.

“They’re paper people. Most don’t survive.”

Morinae ran a hand over the Inked Man’s forearm. “And you are also paper?”

“More and less.”

She sat on the arm of his throne. “I like this paper,” she said. “What animal do you kill to get it?”

The Inked Man laughed, walking his fingers up her arm. “No, no animal. Parchment and vellum come from animals. Paper comes from trees.”

“And where would we travel to find and kill these trees?”

“I lived through a time where trees grew for a thousand miles in every direction.”

“This is a great distance?” she asked.

The Inked Man nodded. “But I also watched the last tree ever to grow in Lacuna fall.”

Morinae traced the tattoo on her forearm. “Lacuna. The Missing Letters,” she said, the letters cut and rubbed with lampblack, wrapping her arm from elbow to wrist.

“The City of Missing Letters.”

She jumped off of the throne. “We will find these missing letters and make them do our bidding.”

The Inked Man laughed again. “You may find the letters, but making them bend to you will be difficult. Some say impossible.”

Even though Morinae was considered an elder by her people, she still had the fire-glint of adventure in her eyes. “Difficult, yes. Doubly so without paper.” She toed a rock across the soil until it fell into a little hole. “And now I will grow a stone weed.”

The Inked Man fell forward with the weight of her words. For the first time in decades, he felt the Unsight return and propel him toward the End of Time again.

Morinae shook him awake. He was lying at the foot of his throne. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“Morinae, I can give you paper. I can give you trees.”

She smiled. “I would give anything for paper.”

He nodded. “You will have to give everything for paper.”

Chernyl’s pick fell against the rock with the weight of his sorrow. He had sent Trinia another batch of letters and hoped she would understand his delay. If she even wrote him back he would feel better.

Hunks of coal the size of his fist jumped off the wall. He tossed them over his shoulder. If he got them into his cart, good, but it was difficult to care today. The cart clanged and he knew at least some had hit their mark.

“Thanks for the boost, Britches.”

Chernyl turned around and nearly dropped his pick. It was him: the greenhorn who had stolen his money. Or at least, who Chernyl thought stole his money.

“You,” he said.

The greenhorn smiled. “Most call me Lorch, but I’ll let it slide.”

“You stole my money,” Chernyl said.

Lorch’s eyes bulged and his mouth opened, but all that came out was a hiss.

“Where’s my coin?” Chernyl asked. He didn’t like how this kid’s face was turning blue. Why wouldn’t he stop hissing?

Looking down at his hands, Chernyl saw the handle of his pick against Lorch’s throat. He let his arms drop.

Lorch dropped to his feet, coughing. He tried to say something, but his voice hadn’t recovered.

“I want my money back.”

Lorch motioned for Chernyl to come closer. As he leaned in to hear Lorch, steel flashed into Chernyl’s vision and everything went white and then black. A second-type of blackness overcame him, darker than the first. This one was accompanied by throbbing pain and an eye crusted over with dried blood.

Had he heard laughter, or had that been a dream?

Chernyl stood up and wobbled a bit. His cart seemed emptier than a moment ago. Had Lorch stolen some of his coal?

No, Chernyl thought, He stole all of my coal. The greenhorn took my cart.

Chernyl grabbed his pick off the floor and wound up over his head. He put every frustration of the past few weeks—the company’s shoddy policies, the harassment from the older miners, Spec’s death, Lorch’s theft, Trinia’s silence—and struck the rock face with all of it. The strike echoed up and down the mine, but Chernyl couldn’t hear it as he fell through his shattered life and felt the stone pile on top of him.

It had taken Morinae and the Inked Man a full year to collect the supplies to seed the land. He had written plague notes on scraps of his skin. Morinae slapped them onto every seventh person. Within days, those people fell ill. The plague was back in Lacuna. The plague was in Lacuna for the first time.

The victims suffered little. The Inked Man had constructed this plague to leave the body intact. Instead of large flakes of parchment sloughing off, the victims turned quickly to something like rot-wood.

Morinae–playing the part of concerned elder–asked for volunteers among the healthy to take the sick far across the dead plains; to put their hide-wrapped corpses on the backs of camels and to bury the body only after the animal fell. Volunteers always came forth, even though they knew it was a one-way journey. The Inked Man gave each volunteer a prayer card written in his own blood, to be read at journey’s end.

In this way did they seed the land. The two leaders of Lacuna made sure never to touch too many, and the population of the village grew and grew, until the Trickle Ars became the River Ars, and even Morinae’s great-great-grandchildren were bent with age.

The Inked Man looked from his throne atop the Lampblack Mountains and saw the first saplings in the distance, with the shadow of larger trees darkening the horizon. Sighing, he got down off of his throne and made his way to Morinae’s palace.

By this time, she had lived longer than anyone had ever lived on this earth. The Inked Man had made sure of it, with recipes for tinctures and salves he had brought back from the other Lacuna. Even with his medicine, though, Morinae could no longer walk, no longer feed herself. She could hardly speak but for whispers.

He crawled in through her bedroom window. One of her great-grandchildren–the greatest healer in the village–stood near her bed. When she saw his giant form, her lip wavered but she didn’t flee.

“She’s dying,” Tes-Morinae said.

The Inked Man nodded.

“You can’t do anything for her.”

The Inked Man nodded again.

This seemed to satisfy Tes-Morinae. She started for the door, but before she exited, she whispered once over her shoulder.  “I know where trees come from.”

The Inked Man didn’t nod this time. He didn’t think he had time to nod. With his Unsight, he saw Morinae’s heart beginning to slow.

“Morinae,” he said, brushing a wisp of white hair from her dark forehead. “I need one last thing from you.”

She didn’t whisper. She didn’t even open her eyes. All Morinae did was smile, and he knew that she was ready.

The Inked Man bit his lip with jagged teeth and pressed them to her forehead. There were no words, no incantations, no prayers to utter. From the moment he pressed his bloody lips to her forehead, from the moment his pulse traveled from his wood-pulp heart to her skin, the mark glowed white and she breathed no more.

The Inked Woman’s eyes opened as her skin mottled brown and yellow. Where once skin sallow and wrinkled by age had hung off of eroding bones, now flesh of vellum and paper, muscle of pulp and parchment, filled her frame. Even her hair returned to the black of a bottomless inkwell, hanging in sheets to the bottom of her pointed chin.

The Inked Woman sat up. Her eyes traveled down her calligraphied arm to where her fingers intertwined with those of a man-sized paper doll.

Lifting him in her arms, she made her way to the library in the mountain, to where her people had stored their first clay stories.

It only seemed fitting.

Chernyl knew he was awake because it was so dark; darker than the inside of his eyelids. He knew he was alive because of the pain. His body was mostly intact, cushioned by something like wood pulp, but his ankles were shattered and his body itched. When he raked his fingers down his arm, papery skin came with.

Trying not to panic, Chernyl got to a sitting position and searched in his pocket for matches. He could see where he had fallen through the wall of the mine by the patch of lighter blackness above him. It was too far to reach, even if he was able to stand up.

“Why ain’t I dead?” Chernyl asked. Slabs of stone surrounded him but for the rot-wood below him. Chernyl probed the rot and felt something solid.

“If I can get a couple sticks, maybe I can make a fire.”

He pulled at the rot, but it wouldn’t budge. It didn’t feel like a stick though; more like paper rolled tightly into tube.

“Paper?” He itched his arm again. An entire sheet of skin came off in his hand.

Bracing himself, he pulled harder. The paper gave way and he jerked backwards, slamming his hand into one of the stone slabs. He felt warm blood drip down his wrist and pool into the bundle of rot and paper.

He couldn’t keep the panic at bay anymore. Sobbing, he put his head in his hands.

Chernyl, balling rot, paper, skin, and blood in his head whispered into the darkness.

“All I want is some Light.”

The ball of blood and paper glowed.

And there was Light.


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Adam Callaway's Lacuna stories, which include "Walls of Paper, Soft as Skin" in BCS #73 and “The Magic of Dark and Hollow Places” in BCS #96, have been reprinted in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, nominated for the Million Writers Award, and named to the Locus Recommended Reading List.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Magic of Dark and Hollow Places” by Adam Callaway
“The Death of Roach” by Spencer Ellsworth

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2 Comments on “The Inked Many”

2 Responses to “The Inked Many”

  1. […] “The Inked Many,” as with the other stories, is like a visit to someone’s dream. It also revisits events in the earlier story, “The Magic of Dark and Hollow Places.” There are two strands to the story. The first is about a man named Chernyl looking for work in deep, dangerous mines. The other part is about the Inked Man losing his powers. In the end, the pieces braid together satisfactorily. […]

  2. […] “The Inked Many” by Adam Callaway (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #150) takes on the ambitious project of creating a culture which is embodied literally in its people, so that even after the end of civilization of Lacuna (and before it begins), the world is being recorded and remembered by its paper ruler, the Inked Man. Parallel to the actions of the Inked Man at the beginning and end of Lacuna’s existence, Callaway tells the more humble story of Chernyl, a coal miner living a life of indentured servitude sometime during one of Lacuna’s industrial ages. […]

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