Two by Zero

Issue #51

I, Orlen D’Hamilton, manifested an almost perfect category-three dark aspect early Friday morning, two days after the fourth full moon, in the year 1637 of the Twin Saviors.

Musty shelves loaded with smoke-damaged tomes surrounded the tiny desk I’d chosen as my workspace. I kept an ear cocked for sounds of other people—as a mere student, my status here was precarious. This area of the library was off-limits to all but full professors.

Intermittent clanging and rattling from the hulking radiator in the corner did little to mitigate the harsh chill of the air. I rubbed my hands together for warmth and then scribed a line of numbers and symbols on a sheet of nubbly grey paper. If I embedded the summoning in apseudo-Riemannian manifold, the energies could be contained in a non-degenerate subspace.

I knew I was close. The purity of the otherworld leaked through my mathematics like clear spring water through a wicker basket. I taped the latest matrix of equations to the wall behind me, joining it to fifty-three other pages—all covered top to bottom with my meticulous handwriting.

A rumbling thunder started deep beneath my feet. The papers glowed with light. My breath caught in my throat. A horde of beetles poured from cracks where the wall met the floor. They covered the warped wood in an iridescent ocean of chitinous clicking. The room shook, and I stumbled forward, thrusting my left hand towards the wall to steady myself.

My arm plunged through the paper up to my elbow, and I only saved myself from falling by grabbing the desk with my other hand. The skin on my arm tingled with goosebumps as if I’d thrust the limb into fresh snow. I shook beetles from my legs. The equations sparked and buzzed, glowing with bright incandescence. A cloud of black particles coalesced in the center of the room.

Pride swelled in my chest. Scholars much older than I had lived their whole lives without such an achievement. Katherine’s haughty demeanor, and her thinly hidden disdain for my humble origins, were sure to be shaken. She’d see that I had true potential. That I deserved an honorable place in her hierarchy. Dare I think it—an offer of marriage?

I righted myself, pulling my arm free of the wall with a slippery pop. My hand felt odd. Rubbery and loose, like the bones had turned to jelly. The dark black skin of my arm had turned purplish at the elbow, and my fingers had fused into a tentacle, long and flexible as a section of rubber tire. My heart seemed to stutter and restart. I felt like I’d been hit by a cannonball. Warped. Deformed.

The cloud of particles packed itself tighter, seeming almost solid save for a roiling of constant internal motion. A gash appeared below two hollows that resembled empty eye sockets. “I live to serve,” it said. Its voice sounded like mountains moving far below the surface of the earth. “Master.”

“Fix my arm.” I waved the tentacle at the instantiation.

A low rumble emanated from the cloud. “Affirmative. Sever and cauterize at the elbow.” Half a dozen razor-sharp blades, black as obsidian, sprouted from the form. They glinted in the light.

“No!” I pulled my arm back and took stock. I’d make a sling, wrap the tentacle up. Maybe it would recover over time. Katherine despised anything less than perfection.

The papers on the wall crisped and charred. The light dimmed. I blinked spots away from my eyes. The instantiation remained, taking a stocky humanoid shape like a black statue that had sprouted in the center of the room.

I gathered the remaining papers and books, trying to keep a semblance of control. I needed breakfast. I had to think this through. “Uh, creature. How do I refer to you?”

“However you wish.” The statue bobbed its head.

I thought for a minute. “Tynach?” It meant ‘dark man.’

“Yes, master.” Tynach drew each syllable out like taffy.

The door rattled on its hinges. “Hide,” I whispered. In an instant, Tynach’s form turned gaseous. It poured through the air into the pocket of my robe. The weight pulled the fabric tight against my shoulder. I slipped my transformed arm out of the sleeve. The tentacle rested on my belly like a sleeping fish, slippery and warm.

“This area is off-limits.” A woman my age, dressed in the blue and green of a church enforcer, shone a flash into the corners. A billy club, tangle zapper, and pair of handcuffs hung from her belt.

“Serena?” My stomach did a double flip. “You’re a believer?”

Serena flicked her flash off and hung it at her waist. “It’s a job.” Her eyes scanned the room, taking in the shreds of burnt paper hanging from the wall, the haphazard pile of open books, and the sorry state of my student robe. “You haven’t graduated yet?”

A wave of embarrassment washed over me. We’d been students together half a decade ago. We’d been fresh, young, and dedicated to solving the world’s problems. Serena had gotten a respectable associate degree. I’d struggled with obstinate professors, experiments that should have worked, objective mathematical truths—all the while tying to find the thing, the “it” that would propel me from obscurity to fame.

I ached to tell Serena about Tynach, but church enforcers were paid to apprehend unofficial investigators of restricted arts. I gabbled at her, mouth opening and closing like a landed fish. “No, uh, I’m still ABD—all but dissertation.”

“Is this part of your project?” Serena’s gesture seemed to include my gaunt limbs and hollow eyes. “Do you have a pass?” Her voice was kind but firm.

“Well, no.” I shivered. “Actually, this was my own idea.”

“Twins’ tits, Orlen.” Serena frowned. “I should run you in.”

Hope bloomed like a ray of sunshine in my heart. “But you’ll let me go?”

Serena’s eyes narrowed. “Get the fuck outta here. I’m only doing this ‘cause I had a crush on you—way back when.” She scraped the books into a stack and staggered to the nearest shelf. “And Orlen?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t come back. Next time, I’ll impale you on a transgressor’s hook myself.”

I nodded and mumbled a heartfelt thanks. Grabbing my pack with my good hand, I scurried out the door.

Six months previously, Katherine Maria Helstrum had accosted me outside the drawing room of her family’s summer estate on Lake Ash. Two bishops and a member of the council carried the Helstrom moniker, and yet the family suffered from thin blood, palsy, and mania.

Katherine snapped her fingers and commanded me to follow. She belied the Helstrum curse. Her symmetrical face was free of blemish. Her figure was voluptuous and enticing. Her black and white dress, swaths of imported silk set with hundreds of tiny freshwater pearls, swirled as she turned and strode down the hall. The ostrich feathers topping her enormous headdress brushed the ceiling.

I followed, eager to obey. I was part of a university fund-raising delegation. My advisor, Scholar Fabian, talked of nothing but how the continued largess of the Helstrum family was vital to the department budget. Fabian made it clear my stipend hung by a gossamer thread.

Katherine opened a thick wooden door. She gestured me inside with an imperious wave of her hand. The estate perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the lake, and extravagant floor-to-ceiling windows allowed the clear northern light to permeate the room. Gems sparkled on Katherine’s fingers. The thick pile of the rug muffled our steps.

She locked the door behind us and examined my body from curly-haired head to worn student sandals. I felt like a newly captured specimen. Her sharp blue eyes glittered. “You are in good health?”

“Excuse me?” One mistake could ruin the whole trip. “I don’t understand.”

“You’re not slow, are you?” Katherine’s fingers tapped an impatient tattoo on a side table. “Diseases. Too many toes. Bad teeth. A history of family insanity?”

“No, nothing like that.” I thrust my chest out. “Strong as houses.”

“Fine.” Katherine’s mouth quirked upwards in a momentary smile. She set her hat on the table and shook her head. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders and down her back like a liquid wave of honey.

Katherine’s hands found the button at the throat of her dress, and she unstrung the tiny loop that kept it fastened. I gazed at her milk-white skin and swallowed. Katherine laughed. Her fingers flew down the front of her dress like birds, shedding waves of fabric with every motion. She stepped out of the pile of material at her feet and stood naked before me.

“Lady, uh,” I stammered. Katherine’s nipples crinkled in the cool air. I swelled and grew hard. My pants were far too tight.

Katherine stepped forward and placed one slim finger on my lips. “Don’t speak.”

Katherine met me every day until Fabian’s delegation left. When I returned to school, I couldn’t work. I stared thoughtlessly past people, dreaming of Katherine’s snow white skin, the thicket of blond hair at her groin, the way she ran her fingers along my lips.

After three weeks with no word, I felt like exploding with frustration. I wrote pages of abysmal poetry, pouring my soul into letters that I knew I’d never send. Katherine was married. A noble from across the channel whose skin was as black as mine. It’d been the talk of the broadsheets this time last year.

But I convinced myself our love had been real. My feelings had been too strong. My ebony skin balanced her ivory whiteness, exalting our mundane connection into a spiritual oneness. We were above mere animal attraction. She knew mathematics and dimensional theory. She would slide on top of me, squeezing till I thought I’d die, poking holes in my heart and my theories.

I checked my box at school so often that the secretary threatened to report me for obsession. At night, I grew rock hard dreaming of Katherine and woke with a pain that throbbed from my groin to the base of my brain. I spurned self-release, relishing the agony as proof of my devotion.

I stopped eating and prowled the city searching for traces of Katherine. Servants of the light Twin glommed onto me, clearly sensing my pain. They plied me with pithy homilies and simpleminded advice. I met their smarmy smiles with silence and searched out obscure waterfront taverns where they wouldn’t follow.

A rumor of Katherine’s imminent arrival in the city caused me to spend the remains of my stipend on a new robe, cologne, and a dozen rare, variegated black and white roses—each bloom as big as a baby’s head.

The rumor was wrong. The flowers dropped their petals overnight on my bedside table. I grew thin and distant. Students fell silent as I approached, and Fabian’s attitude towards me jelled into sneering impatience.

I left the shelter of the library and ventured into a steady downpour that soaked my robe in seconds. Weak gaslights cast meager puddles on the cobblestones. I adjusted my pack and glanced sideways, scanning for guards. The street seemed empty.

I hurried home with my tentacle still hidden beneath my robe. Its scaly surface felt slick, but more disturbingly, I could feel the skin of my stomach with the tentacle. I curled my new appendage, pressing and releasing the suckers against my flesh. A sick feeling of dread settled in my bones.

With my good hand, I fingered the dead weight of the fist-sized marble that Tynach had become. The sphere seemed warm, almost hot. It prickled with electric energy. I stopped dead in the middle of an intersection and turned my pocket inside out, holding the marble above my head. There was no need to walk. I was a sorcerer now.

“Become a horse!” I threw the marble at my feet. It dissolved, and in less time than it took me to draw a breath, reformed into a glistening, jet-black stallion.

The horse turned its long head to face me. “Mount.” Its teeth looked like rows of slate tiles. Its tongue was the color of coal.

I grabbed the rough mane with my good hand. The horse’s back was slick with rain and smelled of wet ashes. “Find Katherine!” I yelled.

Tynach cantered. Stone buildings squeezed together along the street. We passed warehouses, stores closed for the night, tenements with piles of rotting garbage uncollected in the alleyways.

Tynach’s hooves clattered on the cobblestones. I hung on with desperate strength. My legs ached for stirrups. My head seemed hollow with longing. I pictured Katherine’s face when I appeared astride this manifestation. She’d gasp and put a hand to her throat. Later, her mouth would engulf me. Her skin, slick with sweat, would press against mine.

Tynach skidded around a corner and broke into a full gallop. Blasphemer’s Arch loomed out of the night ahead of us. We sped along the street. Rain pounded my back. Skewered corpses hung on hooks to the left and right.

I tore my gaze from the ragged ends of exposed bone and tattered bits of cloth. If I was caught— But I refused to carry that thought further. Tynach’s pace slowed. The horse sidled close to the newest body. A black-skinned woman. Her shoes had been stolen, and my heart sank at the sight of her bare feet. Crows had been at her eyes and lips. Her ears hung in shreds.

“Giddy up.” I clicked my tongue.

“What was her sin?” Tynach lipped the body’s feet, knocking it catywampus.

“Who knows?” I stared around. Guards patrolled here, and would be interested in anyone disturbing the display of the Dark Twin’s justice.

“I’m curious.” Tynach’s hooves seemed glued to the street.

I stared at the placard beneath the corpse. The gaslights sputtered. Water dripped down stone. “Homosexual acts.”

Tynach walked to the next body. Its hooves slammed like boulders on the stones of the road. “And him?”

“Tax evasion.” I kicked Tynach’s sides. My tentacle thrashed underneath my robe.

Tynach nudged another shoulder. He grunted a question.

“Deviant thinking.” My mouth was dry as dust.

Tynach touched a pile of severed hands with a self-assured hoof. A sleek black rat scurried out the far side.

“Pickpockets.” My patience fled and I kicked and hit the horse with abandon. “Go. I order you.”

Tynach twisted its head to face me. Smooth neck muscles flexed and slid over each other like metal plates in a precision machine. “Master.” It seemed sardonic.

“That’s right.” I kicked harder. “My word is your command.”

Tynach leered at me. “The strictures are clear. The equations must be complete. Unsullied.” Its lips curled in a sneer.

“They were perfect! I checked five times.” My heart hammered in my chest. The tentacle twitched.

Black teeth grinned. “And yet, somehow, I’m not compelled. There at the end, when you slipped?” Tynach snorted. “You’re part man, part octopus.” Steam plumed from its nostrils.

The horse melted and shifted under me. I fell to the street, banging my knee in an oily puddle. Black particles swirled in the air and then vanished around the corner in a gravity-defying cloud. I felt like a pit had opened in the cobblestones. My stomach twisted.

Lantern light swung at the far intersection. “Who goes there?”

I pushed myself to my feet. My knee throbbed. I limped away from the guard as fast as possible. Failure weighed on my brain, darker than the sky above.

Rain whipped sideways. I could picture Katherine’s haughty face, mouth curled in disdain. The guard shouted another sharp query. I limped faster.

My cramped studio smelled of stale socks and unchecked mold. Water dripped from the thin boards that made the ceiling, filling a dozen unmatched buckets. I deposited the backpack on a relatively dry section of flooring and stripped off my sodden robes.

My skin looked curdled in the dawn light that filtered through the one tiny window. Goosebumps prickled my thighs and shoulders. I scrubbed my body with a handful of damp gray towel. Hunger gnawed at my belly. I wondered what I’d released on the city. I cursed my horrible luck.

I struggled into an old pair of leggings and a stained shirt. I held my left arm stiffly out from my body, as if the aquatic skin of the tentacle might be contagious. A dirty rag made a serviceable sling that hid the deformity.

I wrung the robe out, squeezing the rough cloth one-handed over a bucket. Oil had stained the fabric. I despaired of ever getting it clean enough for Fabian.

A knock sounded on the door. “Orlen?” The thumping came again. “Damn you. I know you’re in there.”

I’d been avoiding the landlord ever since the new moon, sneaking to the library early and returning late. I didn’t have rent. Ha. I didn’t have anything. I shrugged my backpack on and pried the window open. The wet wood groaned.

“Orlen! I’ll bring the enforcers. By the Twins, I will.”

I scootched onto the roof. The wood shingles were slick with rain. I took a deep breath and removed my hand from the sill. Steel-gray clouds sealed off the sky. The sun was merely a direction. The street seemed a long way down.

My tentacle slipped free from the makeshift sling. I stretched it towards the crest of the roof and slapped it onto the shingles. The suckers held. I pulled myself to the summit, heart pounding like a drum.

The city spread beneath me. Carefully ordered streets and symmetrical parks and plazas on the genteel slopes to the west contrasted starkly with the neighborhood of twisted lanes, haphazard warehouses, bars, and fire-trap apartments where I lived.

I crawled to the summit and then threw a leg over the other side of the roof. Lurching upright, I staggered forward, pack hitting my back with every step. Distant shouting echoed from the buildings, and the tramp of booted feet marching in unison seemed to shake the city.

I leaped to the next building, jumping a gap wider than I was tall. An outside staircase sagged from the far corner. I scampered down. I relived the moment when I’d slipped and my arm had plunged through the wall. I could see Tynach’s horsey mouth, teeth like doors. If only I’d kept my balance. If only I hadn’t been so tired.

Early morning workers trickled into the streets. A garbage cart pulled by two swayback horses in blinders rattled by. The reek of rotting food lingered in the air. I stumbled after the cart, unclear what direction to travel but needing to move. Maybe when the university opened, I could sell a textbook and get a cup of coffee.

Shouting filled the streets ahead of me. A squad of guards quickstepped past, muskets at the ready. I turned the corner to Blasphemer’s Arch and stopped dead in my tracks.

Jet-black hooks covered the carved stone blocks. Bodies hung from every hook. Some twitched and sobbed and scrabbled at the stone. Others dripped dark blood that looked black in the light. Most were already dead. The wind shifted and brought the raw-meat smell of a butchery to my nose.

I turned and retched in a doorway. My empty stomach twisted and clenched. Thin bile spilled onto the steps at my feet. More guards pushed down the street, herding civilians away from the Arch.

A thick-shouldered soldier grabbed my arm. “Stand back. Official business.”

I let myself be dragged away. “What happened?” I asked, but I felt sure I knew the answer.

The guard grunted. “A dark manifestation. Now get outta here.” He shoved me up the street and took position next to his squad mates, blocking access to the Arch.

A bone-chilling scream erupted from around the corner. The line of guards flinched but held their positions. My stomach twisted again, but I resisted throwing up. The crowd swirled around me.

A man stumbled into my back and knocked me to the wet ground. My injured knee hit a cobblestone. I gasped for breath. Boots clomped past, missing my head by less than a handspan. I curled tighter. For a long moment, I wanted nothing more than to be trampled to death.

The crowd kicked and trod on me without mercy, but I found the determination to crawl to the side, discovered an eddy in the flow, and took a deep breath. I pushed myself to my feet. The brick walls felt ragged as unshaped rock under my palm. Shouts and the sounds of running feet battered my ears.

A shriek of pain, louder than the rest, startled me. An older white woman had been pushed to the ground. Her hat flew from her head and was lost. I imagined her bones cracking under the boots of the panicked crowd. Without thinking, I thrust my body into the press of people. I used my elbow and fist. I head-butted. I forged a path.

“Ma’am.” I grabbed the woman’s shoulder and dragged her to safety.

After a few minutes, the street cleared. The line of guards had stopped at the corner. They seemed agitated, looking right and left. They fingered their muskets like good-luck charms. The woman touched my cheek. Her lined face broke into a relieved smile. “Thank you, young man.” She patted her hair and slipped into the street.

I tried to gather my fleeting wits. I had been such a fool. A blind, prideful, arrogant fool. People were dying because of me. Because I wanted Katherine’s body.

I shuffled forward, head bowed. A rare glint of sunlight made the street sparkle like bright white diamonds had been scattered at my feet. I shouldered the pack. The library would be open. I could rework the magic. Restore the rightful order.

The library, however, was closed to the general public due to the emergency. I met the blank stares of a pair of guards and drew myself up. “I demand entry!”

The older guard, a man in his mid forties, narrowed his eyes at me. “Run along sonny. You’re not even a student.”

“I have Important Business.” I cursed under my breath. “My robes were dirty.”

“Go on,” the other guard spoke. “You heard the man.” He slapped a nightstick into his palm with a heavy, meaty sound.

I backed down. The library was a huge building. Maybe another entrance wouldn’t be guarded. I jogged around the corner, feeling the gaze of the guards on my back as if a target had been painted there.

Serena stood with another guard at the side entrance. Her eyes widened when she saw me, but she didn’t say anything.

I approached and gave a slight bow. “Ma’am.” I addressed Serena. “I have an important message for Scholar Fabian.”

Serena glared at me. “Do you—”

I cut her off. “I must see him in person.”

The other guard grunted from his perch on the side railing. “You escort him. I’ll hold down the fort here.” He spit a stream of brown tobacco juice into the bushes.

Serena grabbed my upper arm. “Understood.” She yanked me into the echoing gloom of the library. “This better be good,” she hissed.

“It’s all my fault.” I poured out the whole story to Serena, gabbling in sentence fragments and interrupting myself with remembered details.

Serena’s eyes narrowed with each new revelation. She shook me the way a dog would shake a rat. “I should—I—arrrghh.”

“I can fix it.” I felt a swell of confidence. “I still have the equations.” I scrabbled in my pack and removed a sodden mass of half-burned papers.

“I’m going to turn you in.”

“Give me a chance.” I fell to my knees. “You’ll hang right next to me when they learn the whole story.”

“Twin’s balls!” Serena jerked me to my feet. “You bastard. I ought to—” She whipped her billy club sideways into my head.

“Ouch!” My left arm slipped. I slapped the tentacle to my temple.

Serena recoiled. “Abomination.”

My head rang with pain. I probed the tender lump with the sensitive cilia at the tip of my tentacle. “I made a mistake. But I can fix it.”

“Some mistake.” Serena’s gaze bored into my eyes. “How many people have died? How many families are mourning a new transgressor?”

Guilt surged inside me. “I know.”

“Real justice would have you on the hook.” She spat at my feet. “And you have the nerve to threaten me.”

She was right. I’d fucked up. My own stupid pride.

“You’re absolutely correct.” I hung my head. “I can fix it faster than anyone else. If you turn me in now, it’d take days for someone to replicate my work. Days of more people killed. More transgressors.”

Serena grabbed my shoulders and shook me again. “I should turn you in. Right now. Let a Scholar decide what to do.”

I caught my breath. “There’s not much time.” I stood tall. Hope beat a staccato rhythm in my chest.

Serena narrow her eyes. “All right. But one more spanner in the works, Orlen, and I swear I’ll drag you to a tribunal so fast your head will spin.”

I nodded and led Serena through the musty shelves of the great library. Whenever we heard voices, we waited, hiding and spying our way clear. We ducked through the last passageway. I eased open the door to my room.

The space seemed smaller than I remembered. The books on their shelves looked old and decrepit. Mold stained one wall. The smell of smoke tickled the back of my throat.

I arranged my work on the desk and asked Serena to gather as many blank pages from the shelved books as she could find. She tore the paper from the spines with a determined abandon, stacking sheet after sheet next to me.

I scribbled madly, checking my equations in books spread open on every surface. I’d take the inverse of the summoning field and close the singularities with Penrose tessellations. My tentacle brushed Serena. She snarled. I tucked the offending appendage under my shirt.

After what seemed like an age, I planted my feet and taped the last sheet of paper to the wall. I was determined to keep my balance this time. Bright white light speared through the pages, throwing the room into stark relief. Serena caught my good hand and squeezed.

The light pulsed and flashed. Snow fell from the ceiling, great white flakes that landed on my skin with sharp prickles. A glorious, winged figure erupted from the center of the room.

The closest bookshelf toppled sideways with a crash, nearly hitting Serena. Books scattered pell-mell across the floor.

A woman made of light, dressed in folds and swaths of brilliance, smiled at us. “Thank you. My brother has been busy.” She touched my shoulder. “You may breathe.”

Air whooshed out of me. I nodded and started to talk, but the woman lifted her arms and stretched towards the ceiling. She swelled and grew. Great waves of light pulsed out of her body. My eyes stung. I let go of Serena to shield my face.

The woman crouched, shoulders pressed into the plaster above her. A bookshelf scraped sideways against the floor. She stood, and in one smooth motion, slipped through the mundane material of the ceiling. I blinked in the relative darkness.

Serena laughed. Her eyes sparkled with transparent joy. “Did you see—”

I nodded. “She was gorgeous.”

“Let’s go to the roof. I want to watch her.” Serena grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the door. Her earlier anger with me seemed forgotten.

We raced through the stacks towards a stairway Serena knew. Sliding around a corner, we nearly smacked head-on into a guard. He stood, transfixed in our path, staring at a row of sunflowers that had sprouted from the floor.

“She’s so beautiful.” The guard seemed stunned, like he’d been clubbed in the back of the head.

“Come on, Orlen.” Serena plastered a smile on her face. We sidled past the guard. Other checkpoints were deserted, and I could hear off-key singing down the Scholars’ hallway.

The cramped stairway twisted up and up, winding around a central tower like an ivy vine. Tiny windows of wavy glass allowed thin light to illuminate our progress. I huffed and panted, my breath burning in my chest. Serena drew ahead, and soon I could no longer see her, just hear her boots on the treads.

The light surged. I blinked spots from my eyes. A collective wave of sound from outside rattled through the building. At the top of the stairs, I threw the door open.

Serena stood on the flat roof of a tower no larger than my studio apartment. Wind pulled at her hair. “Orlen.” Her voice carried the crack of authority. “She’s at the docks.”

I joined Serena at the railing, careful not to look straight down. A line of green maple trees, bursting with out-of-season leaves, ran from the library to the docks. Their branches thrust skyward even as I watched. Brilliant yellow and orange flowers dotted the roofs along the path.

People wandered half-clothed in the streets, talking with dogs or scattering petals on their neighbors. One couple made love in an alleyway. An abandoned oxcart full of radishes had jack-knifed in a side street and the poor animals lowed and stamped in their yokes.

“Orlen.” A dark voice sounded from the stairs.

I spun around. “Tynach.”

Tynach’s black visage split open in a terrible smile. He kept his hands behind his back and stepped onto the tower roof. “I have something for you.”

Serena stepped forward. “What are you up to?” Her voice cracked, but I admired her spirit.

Tynach cocked his head. “Serena Blackomb.” He seemed to consult an internal store of knowledge. “Four counts of shoplifting. You liked to play with matches, too. No one ever solved the mystery of the burned barn, did they?” The planes and angles of Tynach’s face seemed to swallow the light.

Serena swallowed. “No one got hurt.”

Tynach’s smile expanded. “True, true. There’ll be time to weigh the balance later. I have a present for Orlen now.” He drew his arms forward. “I found her. Master.” Clutched in Tynach’s unbreakable grip, Katherine glared at me.

“Katherine?” My heart clogged my throat.

A fist-sized clump of hair at the apex of Katherine’s skull was missing. Filth streaked her gown. A purple bruise marred her cheek. She drew herself upright and pushed her swollen belly towards me. “You.” Her voice dripped contempt.

I felt like the stones beneath my feet had turned to thin air. “Katherine?” I tottered forward and then retreated. “You’re preg—going to have a—”

“An adulteress,” Tynach rumbled. “I have special hooks for those.”

My resolve hardened. “No.” In an instant, I realized that I didn’t want Katherine any more. She’d used me, clearly never seeing me as more than a convenient means to an end. A young black buck. Even so, she didn’t deserve a hook. No one did.

“What under the Twin’s gaze is going on here?” Fabian strode onto the roof, drawing his eyebrows together and glaring at me over the beak of his nose.

The sky pulsed and flashed. Snow fell from the clouds. A horde of black beetles erupted from every crevice and seethed across the floor.

The woman made of light settled to the stone in front of Tynach. Glowing wings folded themselves into her back. “Thank you, Orlen. It is time.”

I started to say something, but the woman lifted her arm and reached towards Tynach. He smiled, too. A grim smile, but understanding. Their hands touched.

The two forms melded and became one, flickering through shapes and colors faster than I could comprehend. The new being expanded and grew larger and yet more insubstantial at the same time. In a moment, it had disappeared.

I sagged to the roof, sitting on the wet surface, not caring how the water soaked my clothes. “We did it.”

Fabian’s pinched expression took on a glimmer of respect. “That was a class three manifestation that you canceled out, boy.”

Serena punched my shoulder. “What were you thinking?” She sounded fierce, but her relieved smile took the sting out of her words.

Katherine sputtered in the corner and then burst into tears. Fabian bowed his head towards her. “Mrs. Helstrom. Allow me to escort you home?” He extended a gaunt elbow but turned to speak to me. “We’ll talk later. There may be promise for you, after all.”

After they left, I stood. I thought about the wrecked shelves below, the torn books, the scattered papers. I started down the stairs. On the main floor, a librarian sobbed and clutched at a trampled book. Serena followed me through the stacks.

Back in the room, I stared at the destruction I had caused. “I should clean this mess.” I tipped the shelves upright one-handed and started stacking books. The heavy tomes slipped solidly into place. The snow had evaporated without leaving a trace, and the air smelled as clean as a summer morning.


Read Comments on this Story (2 Comments)

ShareThis with Friends

Garth Upshaw lives in Portland, Oregon with his super-genius wife and three precocious children. When he's not breeding tarantulas, he rides his bike through the sleeting downpours. His stories have appeared five times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including “Breathing Sunshine” in BCS #64, and his other stories have appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and other magazines.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Gizzard Stones” by Garth Upshaw
“The Shades of Morgana” by Dean Wells

Return to Issue #51

Comments & Scrivenings
2 Comments on “Two by Zero”

2 Responses to “Two by Zero”

  1. bookmole says:

    09-13-2010, 08:43 AM
    bookmole

    Scary. Good sense of atmosphere and place. Just one question – what happened with the tentacle?

  2. Guest says:

    09-21-2010, 09:24 PM
    Guest

    Way cool.

    Loved it. Great atmosphere. Creepy. Kept me on tenterhooks right to the last.

Leave a Comment on “Two by Zero”