The Territorialist

Issue #47

Jeris was feeding the gargoyles when the bone-map rattled. “Captain,” one of the guards said, “I think you ought to see this.”

“Hold on,” Jeris said as a gargoyle lapped at his hand. He tried not to wince at the rough tongue. Nobody liked the gargoyles. They were ugly, awkward and, frankly, not very useful as the city guard’s spies. But Jeris felt obligated to treat them well.

The gargoyles shuffled off. Jeris winced again and went into the guardhouse, toward his office. A bone-map of the city of Spine rattled in its frame. His lieutenant, Wrack, was peering at the map. “It looks like Circle Circle Six has gone rogue, sir,” she said.

Jeris approached the map to study it more closely. It snapped at him. One of the finger-bones broke free of its wiring and barely missed his ear. He would have to talk to an ossuarist about fixing the map. “Wonderful,” he said. “I thought Circle Circle Six had been too quiet the last couple of months.”

“How large a squad do you want on this, Captain?” Wrack asked. She stepped back from the bones.

“Small to start,” he said, “twenty or so.” Jeris headed for the arsenal in the back of his office. “Prepare the scouts. We have some people to bully.”

To reach Circle Circle Six, they had to pass through two territories. The first was called Twin Six for its twin territorialists.

“Just the one extra gun today, sir?” asked Merigon, Jeris’s second lieutenant, as they passed through a tunnel. It stank of piss and dynasties of rats and mold. The guards holding the lamps looked as though they would rather not see what they were walking through.

“One’s enough if it’s the right one,” Jeris said. Merigon believed in finesse. He carried his issued sword and pistol and a slim dagger. Jeris believed in firepower. Today he had brought the master gun.

“Coming up on the Trefoil, sir,” said the guard at point, Catrera. “The same two—” Her voice stilled. “They’re not watching us, sir.”

The fortress, viewed from above, resembled the knot of that name. From below, it looked like a coil of snakes. The sentries at the walls were looking up, not down. Jeris couldn’t see anything in the sky but some drab clouds.

They approached the entrance. The single watchman had a man’s face, but sea-colored light glowed from the joints of his archaic plate armor.

“Captain Jeris, to see the honored territorialists Karoc and Piaroc,” Jeris said. Given the watchman’s sky-tilted head, he wasn’t sure he was going to get a response.

“Piaroc is available,” the guard said flatly.

Merigon raised his eyebrows at Jeris. They both knew that the twins always appeared together.

Jeris shrugged. The twins made him uneasy, but they held their territory under tight control, and that made his job easier.

“The door will open,” the watchman added. It already had.

Jeris knew the protocols. He led the squad through and entered the parlor. The other guards clattered into the hallway behind him.

Snake-shaped candles lit the parlor. Piaroc, or possibly Karoc, perched on a stool. She wore clothes more suited to a child, with ribbons and bright buttons. A small, sad-faced fish swam in circles within a tank of luminous water.

“Captain,” Piaroc said. Jeris had stopped insisting that she use his name when he realized that she and Karoc never remembered the names of any of the ward’s captains, such as that of his predecessor, Terco. “Why are you here?” she asked.

Jeris said, “If you don’t know, then you don’t deserve to hold the Trefoil.”

Piaroc laughed. “Circle Circle Six, is it?” Her voice was light and a little too rapid.

“Tell me what you know,” Jeris said.

Her eyes widened. All the candles in the room flared. The room smelled of flowers with an undertone of soot. “You wouldn’t be a captain if you thought we could omit the bargaining,” Piaroc said. “We don’t trade our own, Captain.”

Jeris tensed. “A rogue territorialist?” Circle Circle Six, nominally protected by its more prominent neighbors, had one of the highest turnover rates for territorialists. If it had just been a change of regime, Jeris would have sat back to see how long the newcomer lasted. But the bone-map’s reaction had been a clear warning that he would have to intervene.

“You need better spies,” Piaroc said. “Disturbances have already come out of Circle Circle Six. We must deal with the circumstances—”

There was a tiny click. The door behind him had closed. Jeris’s hand moved without thought. He pointed his pistol at Piaroc.

“—whatever their cause.”

Jeris’s shoulderblades tickled. He listened for Merigon, for Catrera, for anyone, for scream or sob or curse. Nothing.

“Piaroc,” Jeris said, “it doesn’t matter what you do to separate me from my squad. We’re all guards.”

Piaroc unfolded from the stool and paced. Jeris’s pistol tracked her heart. “There are no explanations but power,” she said. “There are no reasons but power. There are—”

“Spare me,” Jeris said. He swung around and shot the fishbowl. It shattered. All the candles plunged into darkness, and the room filled with water.

Piaroc swam as lithely as a fish. No, Piaroc was a fish, grown into a full, pointed set of teeth and dragging blood through the water.

The fishbowl had been Piaroc’s first skin. There had to be another, one that would restore her shape and leave her stripped of magic.

Jeris, who had grown up by the river, swam well. He would never have risked the fishbowl otherwise. But he needed to breathe. He rolled away from Piaroc’s first pass and felt the fish’s backwash. He drew his dagger, cursing the slowness of motion underwater, when the door opened and water flooded out. The fish became woman-shaped again.

The people standing at the doorway, crossbows trained on him, were not his. They had no skin. Rather, they were wrapped in paper over red-streaked bones.

Behind him, Piaroc said, “You break things too readily, Captain.”

“Anything to buy time,” Jeris said. He was dripping. So was his gun. So was his sword. But not with blood, not yet.

“Nobody ever buys time,” Piaroc said with delicate scorn. “We bribe it, but no one buys it.”

“Territorialists,” Jeris said. “It’s a wonder more of you don’t go mad.”

“And you think we don’t?”

“This is about Karoc, isn’t it?”

Her eyes flickered. “I’m sorry, Captain,” she said. She sounded sincere. “But he’s gone and I need him back, and to get him back I need to deliver your bones.”

Jeris noticed that, unlike him, she was now dry. The candles, however, had not relit themselves. He jerked his head toward the crossbowmen. “Deliver my bones, to whom?” Was the new territorialist holding Karoc hostage in exchange for Jeris’s life?

“Only rogues use other territorialists as hostages,” said Piaroc. “We know how the boundaries work. Only rogues use captains as hostages. What do captains do when they go rogue?”

Warned by something in her voice, Jeris whirled and fired three times. A crossbow bolt whizzed past his shoulder; another grazed his side.

Two of the crossbowmen were down. The third vanished from sight as the swordsmen behind them stepped across the threshold. Jeris rolled and came up in a crouch. He had one more bullet; it was that kind of pistol. The swordsmen froze.

“You know what happens when I fire the fifth bullet,” Jeris said. “I’m surprised you let me get this far in the clip.” Piaroc’s rapid drying had given him the notion that the water-skin was, as Wrack would have said, metaphysically dry.

“You forgot something,” Piaroc said from behind Jeris. She sounded resigned.

“Enlighten me,” he said, and shot her over his shoulder.

The fifth bullet activated the previous four. Five was not a number to take lightly. The room was awash in light. The candles melted. Shards of glass formed patches of glaze on the floor, and a phantom fish swam across the wall. The four people he had shot, if they hadn’t been dead before, certainly were now.

“I don’t mind having to exorcise a few ghosts at the end of this,” Jeris said, “if it means I figure out what’s going on faster.”

Back in his office, the bones would be rattling twice as fast. He hoped it didn’t alarm the guard on watch too much.

The ghosts’ mouths opened and unopened. They couldn’t respond. He would rather have interrogated them. Ghosts were always a distraction. Still, it beat dying.

The crossbowmen slumped. More ghosts awaited outside the doorway. Merigon stared at Jeris with misty eyes, his grip loose on the dagger he had valued so much. Catrera’s hair was unbound in her ghostform.

Oh, we pay for time, Jeris thought at the doll-figure of Piaroc’s ghost. It was time for someone else to share the payment with them.

Making a rendezvous while trailing ghosts both hostile and friendly was distressing. No one trusted a man who relied on the fifth-bullet effect. There were many ways to invite death into someone’s heart. The indiscriminate use of bullet-keyed dead to kill others not only resulted in local consequences, like the ghosts, but a rip-chain of effects that picked the wrong moment to come calling.

From here on out, he had to work fast.

Wrack had seen him—them—coming from a long way off. Even she was taken aback. “Sir, what—” She stopped.

“The Trefoil is unoccupied,” Jeris said. His voice sounded cold and drained, even to himself. “We won’t have to worry about its next territorialist for a while.”

Wrack took that in. “We’d better hurry, sir. The Mad Mouth let slip that Circle Circle Six is on its way to becoming a sinkhole.”

That must be the other reason that Wrack’s squadron looked pale and grim. One of her guards, pole-thin Escan, was smoking a noxious cigar, against regulations. Jeris and Wrack didn’t see fit to remark on it.

“Let’s move out,” Jeris said. Wrack nodded at Escan, who took point. He spat out his cigar and left it smoldering behind him. One of the veterans stomped it out with no more notice than he would have given a cockroach

A few perfunctory stones were tossed at the squadron, and duly avoided. A bird pecked at the carcass of a gargoyle on a dilapidated rooftop. Jeris shook his head. The gargoyle breeders were always three steps behind, too.

The Avenue, which served as neutral ground for anyone cocky enough to trust the neutrals, was one of Jeris’s favorite beats. As a first-year guard, he had started out here. He knew the corners and drainage pipes like the calluses on his feet. During those days, he had almost bled to death twice. The troubles on the Avenue recognized him as one of their own.

The ghosts he trailed reminded him how narrow the Avenue was. Ghosts had a tendency to swallow the incidental noises in their vicinity—Jeris heard that some concert halls retained them for this purpose—and if not for gape-throated Merigon’s vigilance, their own dead ready with ghost-weapons, the original corpse-ghosts would have dragged them into a trap.

Birds were gathering, and not for the desiccated gargoyle. Their wingbeats passed unnoticed at first. Jeris had a habit of checking the sky, though. Anything that could survive the roofworld’s vicious ecology made a nasty surprise for those below. Jeris snapped, “Crossbows.”

All at once, the bolts thwapped upward. A dozen birds fell or were knocked aside, staggering in flight.

“Cover,” Wrack suggested.

The light in the alley was rapidly diminishing. The unnatural flock coalesced into a deadlier shape.

They ran, hugging the walls of the buildings on either side. Someone from the rear said, “We’re going to be too late.”

“The least you can do is act like you don’t believe it,” Jeris said. “Formation!”

There was no more flock. The wingbeats had become those of a single monstrous raptor, its plumage variegated and its eyes bright as fire. Its shriek split the sky. Then it dived, talons outstretched.

Nothing that size should have fit into the alley. This bird did. At its plunge, all the windows went dark, as if sunlight and lamps alike had shuddered lightless. The ghosts wavered, becoming more translucent in the wind of its descent.

Jeris was separated from Wrack. This suited them fine. They worked better with a bit of distance. “Decouple the bones,” he said, and drew his sword.

Fighting a creature formed by the corrupting influence of a sinkhole took some adjustment. Soft tissue, organs, nerves—these meant nothing. The bones were the crucial target. Break them apart and the construct would dissipate.

Their instincts did not retool themselves as easily. One guard stabbed the bird’s giant, staring eye. The pupil dilated, but the bird’s head reared up, and the sword, corroded by flame, whipped over the rooftop. Jeris pried loose one joint of the trapped wing, barely withdrawing his bent swordpoint before the wing flexed, constrained but not powerless. All the windows broke, their shards feather-shaped. Several doors fell from their hinges. One building began to collapse in dust around its steel frame. Several of the guards pelted away. One was knocked down by a falling railing and did not get up.

Ghosts crowded Jeris’s field of vision. He moved by sound rather than relying on sight. Time to find a better vantage point.

“Up!” he shouted, trusting someone would hear him and be in a position to heed the order. He finally knew why they were required to carry wire spools.

Jeris backed into one of the gaping doorways and located the stairs. He heard no one behind him as he pelted up them, two steps at a time. The ghosts of Merigon and Catrera led him up a story beyond the one he would have chosen. All right, he thought, this is not the time to be particular.

The bird, viewed from the window in glimpses, looked vaster than before. One of its wings was half-gone. Its cries were punctuated by gunshots. The bird’s thrashing had become less purposeful, although damaging all the same, and more frantic. He had to dissipate it before its death throes brought down the Avenue. That might crush its bones, but by then it would be too late for everyone else.

Maybe it was already too late. Jeris’s crowd of ghosts argued for it. The least you can do, he had said. And they had done it.

Dismemberment. Jeris loaded a new clip. Test the waters, he decided, and fired at the juncture of wing and torso. Three other gunshots flared in response. Holes appeared in the bird, bloodless and feather-tarred. He marked the guns’ positions, cursing his occluded vision. Too bad they had yet to develop a lens that would filter out ghosts.

Jeris replaced his pistol, working swiftly rather than hastily. He brought out his dart-shooter with its preloaded spool. Its tolerance for error was low, but he didn’t see much choice. All of this sounded easier to pull off when you were watching a demonstration prepared by engineers whose idea of urgent was sometime next year.

Jeris pulled the trigger. A streak of ruddy light shot out to cross the bird’s convulsing flanks. Three others joined it. The dart-shooter kicked in his hand, then snapped loose of tension with a single red spark.

With the last trigger point in place, the light flared into lines of taut wire, slicing through the entangled bird. Jeris sprinted for the stairs. He felt, more than heard, the shockwave of the bird’s death explode outward. The building shuddered, then held. We need better architects in this ward, Jeris thought between breaths.

Wrack, her face taut, greeted him at the base of the stairs.

Jeris stared out at the street. The small corpses of birds—in some cases, barely recognizable pieces of birds—were interspersed with rubble and immense chunks of bone with the moist marrow exposed. The ghosts trailing Jeris had fractured under the birdform’s weight. They flickered in and out, but it was better than having them crowd his entire field of vision.

Jeris said, “We should haul these off to an ossuarist, but some entrepreneur will handle that.” His own guards lay among the dead, some of them scarcely recognizable themselves, and all he could wonder about was the number of birds, all those birds.

“Feel lucky it didn’t fly away and live to nest,” Wrack said.

The survivors straggled toward the dubious shelter of his building. Its own tenants had either fled or were wise enough not to show up and protest.

“Roll call,” Wrack said.

They had lost a quarter of a squadron, some of them promising candidates for advancement. Jeris felt grimmer by the moment.

“I haven’t seen that many ambushes since our last foray into Six Spiders,” Jeris said. “It’s too bad this territorialist isn’t working for us.”

Wrack muttered, “They never do.”

“Well,” Vertu said from the rear, “there was that time the Bramble Technician tangled up the mob we were trying to disperse.”

“We don’t want them to garrote the crowd in the process,” Wrack said.

They looked at the wreckage that was all that remained of the Avenue.

“On the bright side,” said a guard being bandaged around both arms, “there will be plenty of souvenir hunters once everyone comes out of hiding.”

We’re not ready to come out of hiding,” Vertu said.

Wrack glanced at Jeris. “Reinforcements, sir?”

He picked up the doubt in her voice. “Not yet,” he said. “Who knows if another emergency will come up? And Lieutenant Sesten will need someone to work with.”

“She could always plunder your arsenal,” Wrack said.

Jeris decided that she was being facetious. “She’d have to fight the weapons themselves.”

Jeris dispatched a runner to their headquarters. An hour later, those too injured to walk or wield a weapon were sent back on stretchers with a nominal escort. Later, he hoped, they would have the opportunity to retrieve and cremate their dead.

“All right,” Jeris said. “Let’s move on out.” Most of those remaining looked pale, determined, or both. He, too, would be glad to escape the smell of the newly dead, and the strange, sharp, dusty odor that always accompanied the city’s outbreaks.

They picked their way over the debris. Jeris blinked at the ghosts and thought, they’re mine, of my own making. If the ghosts faded away, it was up to him to bring them back. The thought sobered him.

The next territory was Six Bells, although some histories referred to it as Six Bridges. Jeris assumed the name had fallen into disuse when a lieutenant destroyed two of the bridges, which had never been rebuilt.

At their approach to the White Bridge, a chord reverberated through the air. Jeris could have sworn he saw the bridge vibrating in sympathy. It stood tall, its immense supports contrasting with the filigreed fineness of its aboveground latticework. Wrack claimed to have run the figures on the structure, but refused to say how they added up. That told Jeris all he wanted to know.

“The Horologer’s expecting us,” Wrack said.

“When do you think he expects us?” said Vertu, whose relationship with clocks and deadlines was tenuous.

“Whenever we arrive,” Jeris said. He was the first to step onto the bridge.

Color washed away. On the White Bridge, people became outlines of themselves. Jeris had occasion to wonder if they became likewise light of weight, or more easily punctured. Their staggered footsteps sounded no less solid than usual and set up a low, ominous thrum. His own felt the way they always did.

The smell of the river was ameliorated by the White Bridge’s influence: clean, light, like certain spring fruits. They marched past several people standing politely to the side, and a woman pulling a cart filled with patterned umbrellas.

The return of form and color would have reassured him had it not been for the sudden abundance of clouds, thick and dark. There weren’t enough smokestacks in the city to account for them, either.

Jeris asked, “Did we have any localized weather warnings?” He had checked them this morning as part of his routine but didn’t remember anything dire.

No one remembered any such warning. “We’re being tracked,” said Rogen, who was gamely keeping up with them despite a splinted leg. “And not just by things from the sky.”

The river’s gurgling was interrupted by a splash. The spray misted across their faces. Jeris hoped it wasn’t toxic. They drew weapons. Things that spawned in the river had a habit of growing teeth.

Afterward, if Jeris had had to describe the creature to an ossuarist, he would have said it was a jawbone attached to a vestigial skull, with sutures but no holes for eyes and no nasal cavity, and a whippy, spiked spine that clattered as it flung itself out of the water. Over one too many drinks, he would have gestured to indicate its teeth and swiftness, knocking over his drink in the process. To himself, in the depths of his dreams, he admitted that it came as a white blur, with no more dimension than thread.

Jeris barked something to the effect that this one didn’t look like a sinkhole construct. Which was probably true, but irrelevant. The thing was all bone and glistening sinew, and it didn’t like them. In the first heart-stop moments, Jeris noticed that no more people stood on the bridge.

He had his sword out and swinging without pause to choose a weapon. Wrack had flanked the boneworm, insofar as one could flank something that moved in ever-shifting curves. Her crossbowmen had followed her lead.

That incongruously small head with its incongruously long teeth moved more slowly than the rest of the boneworm. It seemed as if the two danced separate dances, perceived separate fights. “A graft!” someone yelled at the same time that Jeris did.

Seeing the dances was different from adapting to them. When the head lunged for him, Jeris stabbed the juncture where jaw met skull. He barely threw himself aside before his arm would have been bitten off. To his side, a guard hissed and clutched her side.

More attrition. He was down three guards. Water splashed into the air. Under a less ominous sky, it might have made a rainbow. Coughing and sputtering followed, although Jeris didn’t dare check to see who had been swept into the river. Not all the guards could swim.

A clitter-clatter-clink came from the lonely streets before them. A cat yowled as it streaked past. Knee-high clockwork soldiers, all painted in white uniforms and pale red trim, marched in formation toward the riverbank.

Jeris swore as he pulled one of the guards out of the path of the boneworm’s spines. They were surrounded. Given the boneworm’s origins, he wasn’t going to ask anyone to dive into the river to escape.

A voice like the chirring of crickets rose up from the clockwork soldiers: “We will dismember it. Run!” They advanced on the boneworm.

“Do it!” Jeris barked. Wrack repeated the order when some of the guards hesitated, staring at the spectacle. The clockwork soldiers had begun to climb the boneworm, white-red seething up the bones like eager mouths. Jeris shuddered and sprinted faster, past the bridge and into territory he hoped was safe.

The soldiers’ voice swelled behind them, speaking a language none of them recognized. How could mechanical devices have a voice?

It came to him that the voice was merely an outgrowth of the Horologer’s skills as an artificer. Spine had its summers and its seasonal insects. In some parts of the ward, musicians trained troupes of them to sing eerie, high-pitched chorales. The clockwork soldiers must, like crickets, be able to produce sound by friction, and in concert, to simulate a voice.

They slowed down when they reached Six Bells’ market square, a good while after the river and boneworm were out of sight. Jeris was glad to see that his eyes hadn’t fooled him: various guards, including himself, were rank with sweat and river water, and two of them had unpleasant wounds, but they had left no one behind.

The Brass Bank overlooked the market square. As far as Jeris had ever determined, not a single object or ornament of brass was to be found in or on the bank. The bank’s imposing, severe style informed the appearances of those who ventured near it. Among the men and women in brocade, velvet-hooded falcons and songbirds in gilt cages, the guards would have looked shabby no matter what. With the stink of exhaustion and battle clinging to them, not to mention the fact that their uniforms had come from a bad dye lot and were starting to lose color, they looked even worse.

The Brass Bank also housed one of the territory’s bells, which had a massive baritone toll that had been known to cause people to stutter for days while their teeth settled. He hoped it didn’t ring.

“Captain,” a woman said to him, “could you take your squadron elsewhere?”

The woman was half a head taller than Jeris, or he would have glared at her. “We’ll go elsewhere when we damned well please,” he said. “Your patrons are going to have to wait.”

“That’s not the issue,” the woman said, although her expression suggested otherwise. “It’s the possibility of property damage that concerns our organization.” She smiled coolly and turned on her heel before anyone could get in a retort.

“Well,” Vertu said, “she’s not wrong.”

“You’d think the financier would give more of a damn about the rogue who’s instigating all this,” Wrack said. She uncapped her canteen and took a measured sip.

“We’re here,” Jeris said, “and the rogue isn’t. Which is a problem. But first we need to pay a call on the Horologer to give him our regards.”

“Is that wise, sir?” Yared asked. Yared came from a family of minor artificers. After an unexplained incident, the family had abandoned the trade. “No one rescues us without expecting something in return.”

“We don’t have much choice,” Wrack said. “I don’t fancy facing those clockwork soldiers, myself.”

“I don’t fancy facing their larger brothers,” Jeris said. They were sure to exist. “Only one way to find out.”

“The Clocktower, then,” Wrack said.

“The Clocktower.”

The crowd in the market square had discreetly started to melt away since their arrival. This should have reassured Jeris that they had a grain of good sense but instead irritated him.

Wrack, who didn’t have to be notably observant to guess his mood, cocked her head. “Should I be the one to knock?”

“By all means.”

They followed the last known route to the Clocktower, which involved too many corners and sun-shaded streets. Jeris had always hated the proliferation of tall buildings.

“They should install gaslights,” he said after they flushed out an adventurous urchin who had crossed their path.

“Tried,” Vertu said. “Then the pipes blew at the juncture on Suicide Twenty-Eight”—crossroads had their own nomenclature—”and they decided to hold off.”

“You have family here,” Jeris said, remembering. Vertu’s sisters and brothers, all younger, stopped by periodically with baskets of pastries and newly polished needles.

“The guard’s home now,” Vertu said. He looked like he preferred to believe it, in this place of shadows.

“Nowhere’s home,” someone said glumly as the Clocktower loomed above them.

“Let’s not get maudlin,” Wrack said.

Mechanical birds stirred from their positions about the belfry, performing a grotesque dance of welcome or warning.

By fiat, the buildings around the Clocktower were a few stories shorter. They did nothing to block off a visitor’s view of the soaring structure and the handsome stained-glass windows. As a corollary, the Clocktower commanded its surroundings. Jeris had seen worse defensive setups. If the Horologer had more of those wind-up soldiers, he also had a way to handle the narrowest alleys and the grimiest sewer pipes. The thought made Jeris twitch.

Just as they crossed the street, with its oblivious rooftop starlings, the bell tolled. It had a high, pure tone, the kind that would wake you up in wonder before you realized that you’d shrugged off your sleep. Other bells called out to each other in an arpeggio. Jeris could have sworn it was a different chord from the one he had heard the last time, even from the same bells.

“I guess he really expects us,” Wrack said.

“Because we’ve been so inconspicuous,” Jeris said dryly.

Wrack went straight for the double doors, but they opened before she had a chance to knock. A man and a woman, hands stiffly bandaged, bowed in unison. Jeris hated that. He never got over expecting the greeters to be automata of some sort, with painted smiles.

“Sir guards,” said the man.

“Captain,” said the woman.

I am a guard, Jeris thought.

“The Horologer apologizes for the hour,” said the woman.

“He invites you to dine with him,” said the man.

“Down the hall and the second door on the right,” said the woman.

Nonplussed, the guards looked at the man.

The man spread his hands. “That’s all, sir guards.”

“It would be out of character for him to poison us, right?” Yared asked loudly.

“That’s assuming someone else hasn’t bribed a junior cook,” Jeris said.

“We might as well die with our stomachs full,” Wrack said.

The others laughed politely.

Jeris looked back and forth between the walls, which were painted a soothing shade of green. “Indeed.”

The directions, at least, were easy enough to follow. Beyond these walls, Jeris imagined, men and women in drab clothes, and perhaps their children, labored at shaping wire or grinding gears or fitting together components passed down hand to hand. He supposed his existence would seem just as appalling and alien to them. On his first visit, under Captain Terco, the Horologer had offered them a tour of the workshops. The captain had refused. Jeris wondered who had been hiding what.

Two more greeters, both men, awaited them at the second door, after a walk that dragged out due to the guards’ predilection for jumping at every new noise. Wordlessly, the men opened the door.

The aroma of roasted meat was suddenly strong. Jeris’s mouth watered. The individual servings lay in neat metal trays on a long table. Instead of chairs, there were benches. The food itself was unpretentiously presented. It still smelled tempting.

“Well, this is better courtesy,” Wrack said. She took a seat at one end of the table. Jeris took the opposite corner.

The guards’ muttered conversation as they waited had a definite tinge of approval. Some of them licked their lips unselfconsciously, while others folded their hands in an imitation of upper-class manners. Armain, who had spent several of her early years as a pickpocket, had fished out an unpleasant strip of dried meat and was gnawing it without any sign of noticing her seatmates’ wrinkled noses.

A chime sounded. The Horologer appeared in the doorway. “Please, eat,” he said. He was a stout, balding man with nimble hands. Jeris looked at him and remembered the clockwork soldiers beginning to dismember the boneworm.

Vertu shifted aside for the Horologer without comment. His gaze shifted back and forth.

Jeris dipped the flatbread into the stew or sauce or whatever it was, and bit in. Pleasantly savory. Armain, never wasteful, had taken to dipping the dried meat into her stew. Jeris shuddered and tried not to watch her.

They ate quietly. Casual conversations about the cost of good boots or the best place to find dumplings because awkward. Jeris paid attention to who sat where, a subject of perennial fascination. Junior officers and guards segregated themselves. People avoided Wrack and made no attempt to hide it, which she accepted with her usual bland disdain. Armain they regarded as a little sister. She flitted over to whoever had last spoken with her, especially if they offered her leftovers that no one else would touch. Here, the injured sat between those more able-bodied, though everyone was moving stiffly. Yared hunched over his tray, isolating himself from the others.

The Horologer did no more than exchange pleasantries until the last guard had finished. “Amenities are the next door down,” he said, precipitating a rapid ordering based partly on seniority and partly on last night’s gambling.

When Jeris returned, the trays were already being removed. The Horologer was almost done clearing the cups onto a cart to be taken away, something Jeris hadn’t expected him to do himself. Jeris raised his eyebrows.

“I’d like to speak with you privately,” the Horologer said. He looked unimposing, but there was nothing deferential about his manner.

Jeris’s hackles rose. “I’m bringing my lieutenant.”

“Alone would be better.”

Wrack’s face was carefully expressionless.

“My lieutenant is eminently qualified,” he said.

“I ask that you trust my reasons,” the Horologer said.

There was something to be said for leaving Wrack in charge of the uneasy guards. On the other hand, he couldn’t think of any good reason the Horologer would suggest that anyone but Wrack accompany him.

Jeris nodded toward Yared, who was best able to pick out any peculiar mechanical details that might warn them of trouble. “You too,” he said to Wrack. They rose as one to stand by him.

The Horologer’s mouth pursed, but he accepted the decision. A pair of servants had arrived to serve tea, which the guards regarded regretfully.

Leaving the guards behind, they went up a flight of stairs whose railings featured ornaments of cast bronze. Jeris had seen similar flower-and-bone motifs in the houses of ossuarists and pharmacists. Most of the Clocktower’s interior was sparsely furnished, the plainness showcasing the clocks mounted at regular intervals on the walls. At one point Jeris spotted an hourglass, automatically rotated at the proper time by another device. “It detects the shifting center of mass,” the Horologer said offhandedly. “There’s no sense in having a clock run a clock.”

To Jeris’s relief, in case of emergency escape through a window, they didn’t ascend any further. Instead, the Horologer led them to a room with a balcony overlooking the central square. The light washed everything in unnaturally rosy tones, and a breeze blew through without bringing anything more unsavory than a moment’s dust, which Jeris blinked away.

The chairs were the overstuffed kind that caused you to lose all will to get up for the next five hours. The Horologer remained standing, hands folded behind his back, so they stood, too. Yared was sagging, despite his brave expression.

“There’s a traitor among you,” the Horologer said.

“There always is,” Jeris said. Then the words penetrated, although his response would have been the same. His skin prickled. “Who?” Did the Horologer mean to accuse Wrack of treachery?

“I don’t have that information,” he said heavily, “but I believe it is accurate.”

Jeris shook his head. “Without details, there’s not much I can do.”

“I am certain that a guard is working with the rogue territorialist,” he said.

The only guards who should be in Circle Circle Six belonged to the Sunken Squad, and that was because they were unable to leave, thanks to an agreement that Captain Terco had made with the territorialist at the time. Some of the best guards, including Kel, had been ruined by that decision. “I see,” Jeris said carefully. “I’ll remember that.” He couldn’t blame the Horologer for his alarm, given this territory’s adjacency to Circle Circle Six.

“Sir captain,” the Horologer said, then stopped. “Do not say, when you return, that you had no warning.”

When, Jeris thought, hardly reassured. “Is there anything else you have to share?”

“Aside from the phenomena that have tracked you?” The Horologer sighed. “Certain of my most sensitive clocks and mechanisms have begun to diverge from their synchronicity. This may not seem a great matter to you—”

Did I say anything? thought Jeris, who had his own appreciation for precision.

“—but it limits, for instance, the effectiveness of some of my defenses. The soldiers you saw before will have dissolved into a motley mob of toys by now.” He sighed again. “More dramatically, I believe that the rogue territory is generating a nest about its center. If it is allowed to wall itself from conventional interference—”

“We may have no choice but to quarantine it until we can get reinforcements,” Jeris said.

“The paperwork alone could take months,” Wrack said. “Anything else?”

“Last night, so far as I know, Kemurin was still standing watch at the wheel,” the Horologer said.

Jeris nodded. His predecessor had dismissed this as local superstition. So long as the great waterwheel of Circle Circle Six lay still, the belief went, the territory would remain quiescent. The waterwheel was another enigma, having been built nowhere near any source of running water.

“There have been reports of walking skeletons,” the Horologer said, “but if anyone has ventured close enough to confirm this, they haven’t returned or they’re staying quiet. On the other hand, no raids have taken place in Six Bells, so it’s hard to say.”

Skeletons. Jeris winced. Wrack’s mouth tightened a fraction. He had read the compilation of ossuarists’ reports in the wake of Circle Circle Six’s formation. Even allowing for the scavengers, over half the corpses had gone unaccounted for. Somewhere were bones that had not been cremated to a near equivalent of powder, or reconfigured by ossuarists into less dangerous, more controllable combinations, or carted out of Spine entirely. Higher authorities sometimes insisted on exporting bones they considered susceptible to arcane influence, though their criteria were erratic. You could only do so much against the greedy market for that sort of power.

“Yes,” the Horologer said. “I fear that there have only been minor excursions from Circle Circle Six, relatively speaking, because the rogue territorialist plans for the territory itself to walk.”

They pondered that unhappily.

“That’s all,” the Horologer added.

“Thank you for the warning,” Jeris said. “If we may take our leave—?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” The Horologer slumped into a chair and did not look up as they let themselves out.

The guards were disinclined to question the Horologer’s motives too long. Such speculations were best shared over a fourth mug of beer on a lazy night.

Jeris had no such luxury. “I wonder what he really wanted,” he said.

“He might have been sincere,” Wrack said. “What bothers me is that we’re getting such vague warnings.”

Jeris looked up at the Six Bridgers peering down at them from their neat balconies and polished windows. “We’re going to end up trying the latest breed of gargoyles as spies,” he said. “Again.” The creatures were far from appealing in habit or appearance, but almost everyone felt wretched when one crawled or limped back broken to expire on the roof of headquarters. That, or resented having to dispose of another unwanted corpse.

They reached the Bridge of Lanterns. All seemed normal at first, but after several steps, Jeris spun to look behind him. Wrack and Armain were on the bridge with him, but the other end receded into a blur, and the rest of the squad was nowhere to be seen.

“We’ve been swallowed by a trap,” Armain said in awe. It was not the awe of joy or wonder. She had already cocked her crossbow.

The songbird lanterns and steel girders had been replaced by a newborn maze of flesh and metal and concrete, veins red-blue and embedded in the angled structural supports. Within it, ice-colored light illuminated nothing at all. The only shadows were those cast by the sun.

Jeris had his gun cocked but only tenuously aimed. He blinked. When he opened his eyes, he could see that cold light outlining the bones in his hands, the knobby joints in his finger and wrists. Wrack and Armain were likewise rendered as skeletal forms clothed in a thin sheath of flesh.

The ghosts, meanwhile, had gained in clarity. They stood out like splashes of paint on an otherwise white canvas. They moved along the nowhere walls, constrained by laws that Jeris dimly recognized from his nightmares.

Jeris had a sudden vision of putting the maze to the sword, each arc bright and dark and precise, taking apart every damned branch and fork and the floor, too, if he had to. He knew how to destroy things. It was part of the job.

He had a counterfantasy of the city schisming territory by territory, ward by ward, cracks in the foundations and fire from above. Nothing more to guard; nothing more to break.

He wanted it so badly he could taste it against his teeth. But it wasn’t what he was.

“That’s the fork in the maze,” Jeris said. “Our choice to destroy or not. We may carry weapons, but our mission is to preserve the city.”

Wrack lowered her sword. “All right, sir. I haven’t gotten this far by refusing to trust your judgment.”

“Sir,” Armain said, and waited with them.

The maze rewarded their judgment with something else. Jeris was stunned by an explosion of smells. Flowers in springtime. The miasma of sewers clogged more by blood than shit. The back of a woman’s neck and coils of perfumed hair.

Someone screamed raggedly. It didn’t sound like a voice. Metal scraping against rusted metal, maybe.

The only reason it took Jeris so long to realize who had been attacked was that he had never expected such a sound to come from his lieutenant. Her face was locked rigid by shock or horror. Incredibly, her voice was now a chorus.

Armain lunged toward Wrack and shook her with her free hand. “Sir!” she shouted into the other woman’s face. She looked desperately at Jeris.

“Hold her,” he said back.

The maze was cracking under the assault of that scream. In the cracks, Jeris saw faces: the ghosts in pale, shredded fragments, and the rest of the squad; kaleidoscope glimpses, or a butcher’s. It was impossible to think when your skull was vibrating off-pitch.

While Armain restrained Wrack, Jeris watched the fissure. One of these had to be the way out; mazes always had a way to escape. He would have given anything to leap toward the familiar faces, the air and sullen light and streets that stayed streets.

He looked for something that was the least like a crack, a way straight ahead rather than another road branching off, or the uninviting jaws of a doorway septic with broken magic. He remembered an orchestral performance he had attended before joining the guard, the way all the musicians could be moving in different ways with their instruments yet emerge with music in one unified voice.

Voice. Wrack was the key. “Sing in unison, dammit!” he yelled at her.

Wrack was white, shaking, utterly unlike herself. But the scream abated for a second.

“Close your ears if you can,” Jeris told Armain.

Wrack’s voice changed, ground-thrumming bass and keening whistle all hitting the same note. Jeris and Armain staggered.

It was not so bad as he had feared. Jeris, wiping water from his eyes, discovered he wasn’t bleeding from the nose or ears as he had expected. Armain was slower to come to a similar conclusion. It took both of them longer to realize that the maze had cleared around them. They were surrounded by a floating mist. But Jeris didn’t relax. The wind blowing the mist away smelled of sleepless nights and back-alley murders, which wouldn’t have been unusual had it not brought a literal darkness with it.

“Lamps,” Jeris said before the darkness had any more opportunity to spread. Through a patch overhead, he could see the night sky with a slice of moon in the wrong phase.

“Past or future?” Wrack asked hoarsely. She had already gotten out her lamp and strapped it to her wrist. It shone there like an eye, its shadows spidered by the movements of her hand.

Armain understood immediately what Wrack was asking. “I thought future glimpses were impossible.”

“It’s not an oracle,” Jeris said. “It’s a past glimpse. Look at the moon’s surface. It’s missing the crater from the Aetherist’s last rocket. And what would a future moon show us? More craters?”

“Might encourage more alchemists,” Armain said, fascinated.

The thought of Armain tangled up with alchemists worried him. They were now fully enveloped by night. It made him wonder how long this had been going on in Circle Circle Six.

What kind of influence did the rogue have over the territory?

“Our maps of the territory are outdated,” Wrack said.

“That’s no surprise,” Jeris said. He didn’t look at Armain. She was young enough to have some illusions left about the guards’ resources. “Besides,” he added, “the maze probably altered the local region.” He kicked at the street. It raised dust that formed hapless grimacing faces, then settled on his feet. He resisted the urge to wipe them.

“Well,” Wrack said, “there’s probably an easy way to go where we need to go.”

“Which is?”

“Toward the most danger.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” He shook his head. “There’s no telling what this rogue has set up as his nexus. Or citadel. Or how many allies he has, insofar as territorialists ever have allies. Let’s get moving. Anyone see a doorway?”

Armain, with her guttersnipe’s eye for shelter, pointed.

It wasn’t much of a doorway. Even the rune in charcoal on the lintel looked like it had been scribbled by someone who had had too much ale. Jeris thumped the door. “There had better be someone alive and talkative in there,” he said loudly.

For a wonder, the door swung open. Two women answered the door. One wielded a sword, the other a crossbow. “Oh,” said the one with the sword, “you’re guards. No one else would carry around ghosts like that. I expect you’re not here for tea, then.” The other woman didn’t lower her weapon.

“You had word?” Jeris said, distrusting their relative lack of hostility.

The woman with the crossbow smiled sardonically. “Former guards. We served in the Sunken Squad.”

Armain breathed a curse. Wrack raised an eyebrow. Captain Terco had assigned Circle Circle Six’s territorialist a permanent detail. What he hadn’t anticipated was that said territorialist would grow fond of them. It wasn’t clear what she had done, but at the end of it, the Sunken Squad was trapped. Jeris wasn’t convinced the pension was sufficient compensation.

“And you haven’t shot us because...?” Jeris asked.

The woman’s lips curled back in an all-too-amused grin. “You’re the captain now, aren’t you? Run too ragged to pay us a visit until now. You know how to survive. I like that.”

“You’d better stop liking me real soon,” Jeris said. “Care to come along?”

“Nerica can’t,” said the woman with the sword.

Jeris and the others fell silent.

“We’ll do what we can from here,” Nerica said. Her crossbow remained unwavering. “I have good aim and better range.”

He believed her. So did his shoulderblades. “Any further report?”

Nerica looked at the other woman, who shrugged. “Sort it out and do it fast, or your maps will be completely useless. Keep an eye out for the rest of the Sunken Squad. Three others are still alive: Igreth, Fanilon, and Kel.”

“Kel?” Jeris said. “I had no idea. Thought she had figured out a suitably secretive way to off herself out of sheer spite.”

“Maybe she had other plans,” said the woman with the sword.

“We all had other plans,” Nerica said. She vanished for a moment, then reappeared with a handful of feathers. “Yes,” she said in response to Armain’s bright eyes, “messenger wings. In case you need to call for help. I think they ought to be able to leave Circle Circle Six if they come from someone else’s hand.”

In response to Armain’s silent plea, Jeris gave her one of the messenger wings, reserving the others for himself. They were still keyed to guard headquarters. He was impressed with the artificer who had made them, if the homing compasses remained so true after Captain Terco’s death.

“So I send this out if—?” Armain said.

The others looked at her pityingly. “If you have to ask,” Wrack said, “you’d better have sent it off already. Especially if the captain and I are down.”

“Point me in a direction,” Jeris said to Nerica and her partner.

Nerica pointed with her crossbow.

It was good enough. “Get the bastard and keep him alive for me!” the woman with the sword called after them.

“Now those,” Jeris said appreciatively, “are guards.”

“You didn’t approve of Captain Terco?” Wrack said.

“Does it matter? He’s dead and I’m still cleaning up after him.”

She got the point and smiled blandly at him. He gritted his teeth.

They continued forward, collecting an entourage of small whirring insects and swirling mist. Jeris had the discomfiting feeling that, if they stopped too long in any one place, the mist would turn the landscape into a swamp. At one point Armain said, “The sky’s full of stars,” and Wrack said, “Or eyes,” which shut everyone up for several blocks.

It was disappointing how ordinary everything else was. No matter how many disasters he weathered, Jeris found pockets of normalcy a little shocking, as though everything was obliged to crash into ruin at once. Children and their dogs came running up to them from a tilted carousel, calling out good-luck rhymes that Jeris remembered from his own childhood. He lifted his sword in salute, and they gaped, as though they had imagined him to be a passing figment, insensate. The eyes of the carousel’s horses and swans flicked open to stare at him with a hot, fierce protectiveness. He approved.

“Where are their families?” Armain asked, not without wistfulness. She wasn’t sure what had happened to her own.

Wrack shrugged. “They’re no worse off than we are at the moment.”

They reached the stairs leading to the great amphitheater at the heart of Circle Circle Six. “Every step’s a potential maze,” Jeris said. “Except the maze wants us, and we’re coming where it wants us.”

“Our footsteps aren’t echoing,” Armain said. She whipped about and deflected a throwing knife with her sword. It spun end over end. She caught it and flung it back with her off hand. Its target made a low, scraping sound and fell back. The insects around Armain buzzed more loudly, then set off toward the fallen whatever-it-was.

It became apparent that the small stinging attacks, from creatures that normally lived in furtive ecologies, were intended to herd them up the stairs. Jeris’s arm ached. In fact, every muscle ached, including his eyes, from having to be alert to every angle at once. Wrack’s face was gray, and Armain made little huffing sounds between every other swordstroke.

“All right,” Jeris said, “run!”

It seemed to him that the spiraling steps grew closer and closer, shorter and shorter, to accommodate their strides. He glanced over the edge and was rewarded by a dizzying sprawl of curves, not the neat spiral he had believed he was ascending. His feet kicked loose a stone with half the face of a squalling child. It fell, screaming.

They stopped at the ruins of a gate, tall and eerily bright under the starry sky they had brought with them. Streaks of mist swirled around them. Now the mist smelled of perfume and starved decay. They looked up. All around them were the stairs, and all across the stairs were silhouetted figures with jewels for eyes and lanterns for mouths. Jeris blinked and they were gone, leaving a hot wind that tasted of cinders.

“We came down,” Armain said.

“That’s why it’s called a sinkhole,” Wrack said.

“I didn’t think it was that literal.”

The gate furled and unfurled like a banner of living iron. “I suppose this is our invitation,” Jeris said.

The gates opened with a snap. The sky above them tore into shreds of night and day.

“Forward,” Armain said. It wasn’t a question.

Jeris nodded.

The mists peeled away from them to cling to the sides of the gate like stiffened fingers. Jeris heard someone breathing too rapidly: himself. He forced himself to focus on the footing. If he stopped moving, he would never get up again.

A guard regiment awaited them at the other side of the gate. The light in their eyes was like ice water, cold and perilous. Each was deformed: a woman with wings where her ears should have been, a man with scaly skin, others with boots slit to accommodate claws. But their stances and formation, their pristine uniforms, were unmistakably those of the guard. Next to them, Jeris felt like a grubby interloper.

Wrack’s glance, concerned without being anxious, steadied him. “I don’t recognize you,” Jeris said, “as guards or otherwise. Stand back before you get in our way.”

Armain’s eyes showed white, but her sword was steady. The ghosts drifted closer to her.

In answer to Jeris’s words, the false guard split down the middle and pivoted in halves to face each other across the divide, beautifully precise. Jeris would have admired it if he had had any patience for parade maneuvers. Behind the false guard stood a mirror held up by a tangle of roses. At the mirror’s base was Karoc’s head, with incongruously bright satin ribbons in his hair. So Piaroc attacked us for nothing, Jeris thought.

A woman stepped out of the mirror. It was Kel.

“Where are Igreth and Fanilon?” Jeris demanded. He wished the ossuarist’s alarm had given him some notion that he’d be dealing so much with the Sunken Squad today.

“How should I know, Captain? I thought you would have collected them by now,” she said.

“‘Collected,’“ Jeris repeated in disgust. “You think I’d go around interfering with you when you’ve served your duty? Was it you who killed off the previous territorialist?”

Jeris was gratefully aware of Wrack and Armain with their guns out now, and less gratefully aware of being outnumbered again.

Kel said, with absolute disdain, “I didn’t figure Terco would be succeeded by someone so slow-witted. What do you think the point of this is? Terco had the right idea. This place needs a permanent guard presence.”

“Should I point out the obvious?” Jeris said.

“Sir,” Armain said nervously.

“Shut up,” Wrack said.

“Listen,” Kel said. “You’ve seen the disruption this place can cause when it’s allowed to grow in power, unchecked. Imagine if we could source our strength from here. We’d never have to worry about the Horologer’s tick-tock plans or the twins’ duplicity again.” She glanced at Karoc’s head. “Of course, the latter isn’t an issue anymore.”

“No,” Jeris said. “We’d have to worry about ourselves.”

Kel gestured to either side. “Such a small mind, Captain.”

“It’s not that,” Jeris said, gazing at the ghosts with their driftwood faces. He had his own squad of shadows. “Truly, Kel. Everyone said you were one of the best. And you’re still alive—why now?”

Kel’s regiment stared at him with eyes like ash.

Jeris flung his sword at Kel and cocked his master gun for the first time in years.

“That’s not what I think it is,” Kel said, sounding alarmed for the first time. “How did you—?”

“Compression,” Jeris said. Most of the master gun’s substance was kept in his weapons safe. The longer it spent away from its substance, the more unstable it became. This, however, had seemed an appropriate occasion for it. He wished he hadn’t been right.

“What did you think Terco’s intentions were, Captain?” Now Kel was laughing. “Did you think he fostered goodwill with the old territorialist out of friendship? Did you think he was being blackmailed? This was planned, if only you’d been paying attention.”

“I’m here now,” Jeris said, “and I don’t want any part of this.” He couldn’t imagine why Kel would accept a fate as a clockwork piece, for that matter.

Or maybe he could. He met the woman’s eyes for a forever moment, seeing in them battles lost and lost and lost, the parade of false smiles and frustrated dreams, tarnished honor and rusted hope. Maybe it was easier to stop thinking. Kel was following her captain, dead or not.

The crowd of ghosts that accompanied Jeris—how was that different?

I have to make myself different, he thought.

“I can but follow orders,” Kel said. “Are you with me, Captain?”

“Never,” Jeris said, knowing he would always wonder what would have happened if he had answered differently.

Kel’s mouth twisted in regret. “So you’re a failure. Too bad.” She stepped aside, and they saw.

“Sir?” Armain asked. Her voice shook only slightly.

“Terco,” Jeris breathed. The floor of the pit was angled toward them, and there was a hole from which a noxious wind exhaled and inhaled. Across the pit was built a frame of blood-drenched wood and nails incompletely hammered in. Across the frame, writhing and grinning, was a skeleton held together with wires of bright metal. Its skull jerked from side to side. The eyes, lidless and inhuman, were nevertheless Terco’s eyes.

“Death wasn’t good enough, was it?” Wrack said. Mid-sentence, she fired at the skeleton. It twisted. The bullet passed between two cracked ribs, making no sound as the darkness enveloped it.

Kel and her guards stirred. “It’s a pity,” she said. “I thought you had—”

Jeris had better things to do than to continue to indulge Kel’s starvation for conversation. “Armain!” he called out. A blur streaked past his peripheral vision as the messenger feather unfurled and went aloft in search of guard headquarters.

Wrack, never one to waste bullets, shot at Kel this time. Kel made no attempt to dodge or wrest the gun from her. A hole opened in Kel’s chest, then widened, showing not the red of flesh and blood but a seething, swirling darkness. Kel laughed and drew her sword.

Why doesn’t she have a gun? Jeris thought as he aimed the master gun. “Go!” he said. Wrack, who had some notion of what to expect, pelted away from him. Armain was slower, but he trusted her swift feet would serve her well.

Jeris pulled the trigger. It depressed with a leaden click. For a second nothing happened, and he thought, I am going to feed that gunsmith to the next batch of gargoyles.

Then the world went bright and dark as every gun in his vault at headquarters went off at once, channeling its firepower through the master gun. If this doesn’t do it, nothing will, he thought, dropping the gun, and brought up his sword.

The ghosts remained eerily intact amid the stinging smoke and dust. Jeris reckoned he was lucky his face only stung and hadn’t been blown off entirely. The ghosts, for their part, had engaged in a battle of shadows against Kel’s remaining guards. Kel herself was scarcely recognizable, the distorted silhouette of a woman with a swelling vortex for a torso.

“Captain!” he heard through the ringing in his ears. Whether it was Wrack or Armain, he could not have said. “Dodge!”

He flung himself to the ground. A crossbow bolt whistled past him to lodge itself in Kel’s right arm, pinning her to Terco’s skeleton. Another bolt followed, this time for the left arm. Jeris got up and recovered his sword. He started for the skeleton, then reconsidered. Did he want to leave the sink open so it could drag the territory’s reality into increasing madness?

He had spent too long thinking. A blow struck him from behind. He only righted himself by scrabbling at a block of rubble. His hand left streaks of blood. He stabbed upward, meeting flesh, then pulled his sword free with a sucking sound to chop at the limb of the guard behind him.

Wrack was the first to return to his side. “Gargoyles,” she said.

Indeed, above the stairs, gargoyles were flocking. Jeris sighed, expecting they would crumble into corpses in short order. But they circled rather than landing. For once he found their presence reassuring, in case another bird-construct manifested.

“Hold the others off,” Jeris said. Armain, who had caught up with Wrack, half-saluted with her sword before taking her place at Jeris’s back.

He had to seal the sink until a reliable replacement territorialist could be found. He sheathed his sword and grabbed the wires, pulling them toward each other. His hands went numb. He snarled and kept twisting the wires together. The skeleton folded in upon itself with appalling ease, and Kel’s form seeped through the spaces between bones as though she had turned into some liquid.

Jeris was no ossuarist. But he was a guard who lived in Spine, and he knew how certain things worked. He couldn’t hold this shut indefinitely, unless—

“Cut off my hand,” he said to Wrack.

She twisted to look at him. She understood.

“No!” Armain cried. “Look!”

The gargoyles plummeted in one great flock, croaking and hissing. Jeris let go. They perched along the edges of the sink, holding the wires fast with their talons. One by one they turned gray, sealing themselves in place. Only their glittering eyes gave any indication that they were still alive, in their fashion. Jeris’s own hands were stained gray and black, with the bones showing through in ivory-gold flashes.

There were few guards remaining, his ghosts or Kel’s. They had both stood down. Jeris did not grudge them this. “Go,” he said, because it was all he could think to say. “Find places to rest, and we’ll say the rites for you.”

Both sets of guards saluted him before disappearing in wisps of smoke and mist. Jeris didn’t like the implications, but he accepted them.

“Sir,” Wrack said, “you’re about to fall down.”

No, he thought, the world’s rising again. Indeed, the stairs were inverting themselves, and they were at the top, back in the territory proper. “Come on,” he said. “We have to meet the new territorialists.”

Two former guards, with good aim and better range—he could do worse. They could, too.


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Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including "The Bonedrake's Penance" in BCS Science-Fantasy Month 2. His first novel, Ninefox Gambit, is forthcoming from Solaris Books in June 2016. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators. Visit him online at www.yoonhalee.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Architectural Constants” by Yoon Ha Lee
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Comments & Scrivenings
2 Comments on “The Territorialist”

2 Responses to “The Territorialist”

  1. Guest says:

    07-15-2010, 07:49 AM
    Guest

    I suppose it’s the same city than Architectural Constants. I’ve founded the same atmosphere than the previous text.

  2. DFowler says:

    07-17-2010, 12:44 PM
    DFowler

    I admit I was hooked by the gargoyle lapping Jeris hand, and loved the idea of the Bone Map. Well done.

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