The Knight’s Tale
I reached the dockside dungeon at the time that would once have been dawn, and the world shrank around me, consumed ever more by the Out. The spirit, my guide, waited within.
The atrium, the Lord of Corrections, and the entire complex seemed two worlds wed by decree. Portraiture and fine wine; offered fruits and ornate attire. Dark cells beyond a cherry-colored curtain.
“Bring my prisoner,” I said and none dared question, not a knight and Scholar-Practitioner so august as I. They knew the glyph carved into the base of my tongue kept me from lying.
The guards brought the being that called himself Jani in his stolen flesh. Cuts ran down his flank, long and precise, a still-living carcass torn open reach at it soul. In his eyes, spirit blues cavorted round stuck-wide pupils. I can take you Outside, he’d said, at our first meeting. Can bring you to the Mapmaker. At the time, I’d responded with drawn sword and assault, my Out-blade slipping through his dark flesh but halting at the spirit, parasitic, within. His legs bore testament to those wounds; shallow but immeasurable.
“Dress him,” I said. “We need to be on our way.”
The Lord hesitated, and procedure won out. “I’ll need to see papers, Sir Rollus,” he said.
Make it bloody, the Lady Clarissa, ruler of this world and all men in it, had told me. Leave no doubts.
Opening my eyes to the Out, embracing the Scholastic Arts, took only a shift in perspective like changing focus from near to far. The Out’s advance did not take place in a uniform line but rather a spreading, penetrating disease, flaws of dark and empty nonsense cutting into our reality. We knew how to find those flaws in the world, how to guide our specially designed blades within them. I and my knightly brethren fought with the world’s very disintegration as our weapon.
Those guards of Corrections, four in all, might as well have been shackled slaves against the pits’ lions. My weapon entered the gaps in our world, slipping between the particles of empty air, and there, in that shallow vein of Out, there was no concept of distance or even time to slow my strike; no obstacles to stop my blade.
The tip slid by the first guard’s armor without touching the mail and came back to reality only long enough to sever his jugular, emerging intangible on the other side. The others fell much the same, their parries worthless as dreamt defenses. My attacks passed through blocks and breastplates both on paths to their hearts. These men were but vermin beneath my boots, blind and helpless.
I stood in the sudden stillness that followed and listened, breathing calm. Should killing my brethren, comrades in arms if not in skill, have bothered me? It did not. Nothing did. Not anymore.
Jani searched among the new-made corpses for suitable wear and, after taking the simple garb of a guard, decided to add the dead Lord’s own wound-red cloak. It, designed for a man of far greater girth, nicely obscured his horrid injuries when drawn up tight.
“The Lady Clarissa commanded it,” I said, and he laughed, soul-host choking and sputtering with phlegm and derision, eyes rolling and the flakes within spinning. He was a madman. No, not even a man. And yet I needed him; I would be lost and destroyed in the Beyond without him.
The calculations were wrong, my Lady had said. The Out grows faster than we dared dream, devouring all. Find the Mapmaker while there’s still a world to be saved.
No one met us on the stairs. We emerged to a false night and made swift time through deserted streets in the city’s heart. All around us, domiciles and other constructs clawed skyward, seeking space amidst a city and world shrinking with each passing day as the Out beyond consumed more and more; a self-replicating devourer of worlds created by the brilliance and folly of a prior age.
Even at that odd hour, onlookers thronged before the dock and gaped at the monstrosity of metal that occupied the sea before them. A ship of the Kriegsflotte. For those who lived and died among the Towers I called home and horizon, these interworld traders were as close as could be gotten to the Beyond. They sailed through the Out itself, journeying from world to world on ships of steel. When I’d been but a squire, the Lady Clarissa’s knights had taken me to see many such ships. Nothing held more fascination for us than going beyond, and nothing was more taboo.
“We sail,” I said to my guide. “The Kriegsflotte can carry us through the Out’s dangers till we’re close enough to strike out on our own.”
“The Kriegsflotte are one of the Out’s dangers, and not the least of them,” Jani told me, but he followed nonetheless.
We boarded, my boots ringing on the deck, layers of duplicity thick about us. I didn’t let myself look over the side at the sea. Jani severed all but the most essential links betwixt spirit and flesh, leaving his pupils near clear and his steps stumbling. He would play my servant.
A group of Kriegsflotte approached us, uniforms the violet of inked sea lines on a forbidden map and glinting with medals. They were, one and all, pale as morning sun, as if their veins ran honey instead of blood. “Captain Zursee,” the biggest man said to me, gesturing to his bearded companion. Even those two words were harsh and foreign sounding, the emphasis all wrong.
Thankfully, though, the captain spoke our Towers-tongue with a bit more ability. “Our passengers make it at last,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. “We were wondering if we’d have to cast off without you.”
“And after all you were paid,” I said, smiling like it was a jest. Lines of Out, penetrations into the real, convulsed between us, and I saw them as intangible tracks across his face. Scars that could be.
We shook. Pale as he was, his grip was strong. “Glad to be aboard,” I said, and Jani nodded agreement and stayed silent. “My name is Rollus, and I am knight and Scholar-Practitioner of the Out for the great Lady Clarissa, master of the Towers. I offer you my blade and service for the duration of our journey.”
“If there’s an Out-beast close enough for you to stab, we’ll all be gone,” Zursee said, “but I thank you for the offer anyway.”
Standing aboard the ship, I realized I’d never smelled the sea’s salt from the docks. Underneath it, emanating sickly from the ship itself, came another odor, one like a world bathed in fire fuel. I wasn’t reassured by the obvious presence of four lifeboats, each suspended high above the water by cables.
The mate approached, a squat and mustached man, and said, “Wir sind bereit.”
The captain turned to the crew, readying their departure. As he shouted guttural commands, I realized I’d never heard another language spoken aloud. Already, I felt vulnerable and defenseless amongst these strange men. But I’d known the dangers before I’d agreed to my Lady’s quest. I’d known that I would not return.
The mate found one of the men near us, nigh more than a boy and one of the few unoccupied, and told him, “Bringen die Ausländer zu ihnen Kabine.“
The man chosen had the audacity to put his hand on my shoulder, to try to lead me as if I were some unthinking beast of burden. “I wish to stay on the deck,” I said, staying civil and thinking of ways to kill him; an idle and furious game.
Jani repeated the request in their language, and the mate responded. “He says it’s too dangerous for us to be here when we go into the Out,” Jani translated, sounding more lecturer than servant. “They said they’ll let us out when we’re through it.”
“Let us out? We’re not to be caged and uncaged at will.” But I let myself be led. It was too early for obstinacy, and I might as well appear easily managed until the time came.
The ship’s engines roared to life as we neared the entryway to the decks below, with a metallic scream unmatched by a thousand cutting saws. Ahead, maybe a mile from us, a veil of absolute dark towered. The air before it shimmered, the Tower’s Placement Stones keeping the Out at bay.
And so we shuddered into motion, gliding towards that boundary, towards the Out.
The sliding doors to the captain’s dining room were lacquered wood, delicately engraved with a scene of a pond surrounded by spindly trees that looked more delicate still. They had clearly been taken from some people these Kriegsflotte had despoiled. I could have, should have, simply moved the clasp that held the doors together. But I was wrothful from too many hours spent confined in that steel-walled gaol they called a cabin to care, and I tore the two asunder and stormed into the room.
At the sight of me, the mate stumbled up from his chair at the captain’s table. The wall behind him bore a trio of hanging relics. I’d never fought such firing weapons before but reached for my blade all the same, doubting not at all my efficacy against any assault. But Captain Zursee barked some calming phrase, and Jani, hurrying in after me, let loose a string of strange-tongued excuses.
“Join us, Sir Rollus,” the captain said to me then. “I’d been about to send someone for you.”
True or not, my entrance had achieved its purpose, had reminded these Kriegsflotte that I wasn’t to be trifled with. Face to face, in a war of words if not blades, I knew I could hold my own against anyone; convince my foe of anything. Alone, though, my fears had been getting the better of me, swamping me like the damn smells of salt and oil that were everywhere on this ship.
Two servants scuttled into the room from some side door, one bearing me a seat and placing it so that, reclining in its plush embrace, I couldn’t help but look at the doors I’d ruined. I didn’t let that bother me. Jani, not having been given a chair, took up position behind mine.
The meal began with enough wine to drown the oceans. Zursee, judging by the red in his cheeks, was already well into his. “When’s our next immersion in the Out?” I asked, trying to at least lessen the room’s tension. “Can such things be known?”
“Not for some time,” Zursee said. “A day, perhaps.” The mate, bored already with the music of my Towers-tongue, grunted some farewell and left. Zursee ignored him, saying, “Now we sail through waters not so far from a once populous island. Do you know what happened to it?”
I shook my head, though I’d a guess. One of the servants, both likely sailors temporarily free from deck duty, brought the first of the evening’s platters to us.
“The Mapmaker,” the captain said, as I’d suspected he would. “We’re edging by the far westward edge of Her empire.”
I turned to the metal walls of the ship and spied the Out through them. To our left, regular, fractured reality petered out no more than a few hundred yards from us. Past, a hale and empty world beckoned.
“Do you know what the Mapmaker did?” Zursee asked. “With Her spies, she traced this world’s contours. With Her men, She killed its leaders. With Her thieves and Her traitors, She stole its Placement Stones. Left it defenseless and open to Her shaping whims and the Out.” He leaned forward, doomsayer and campfire taleteller rolled into one. “And do you know what happened next, brave knight of the Towers?”
“Salvation,” I said. “The only way to survive, even if it hurt to do so.”
His chronicler’s grandeur fell away like water scorched by the sun. “Is that what you call it when a people die?” he asked. I could sense Jani tense behind me. This wasn’t the Towers; the Kriegsflotte were used to dealing with all manner of spirits and would know just how to destroy him.
“Not all progress can be bloodless,” I said, “and the choice is not between their continued existence or their death, but rather the end of the world by the Out or its flawed saving by the Mapmaker.”
“She saves it for Her and Hers, none others. Her salvation is another’s desolation. She preserves a world by ending its inhabitants, and you and your brethren fools call the wasteland that She leaves behind saved.”
“Safety in sterility,” I said. A line of Out between us, like a burrowing worm. No man, no problem, as a once world unificationist had said. No dreams, no damage. “The Out no longer advances into those lands, even if the inhabitants had to be sacrificed to stay it. Better five live long and free than a million miserable and doomed.”
“All men must eventually die,” Zursee said. “But all have a right to live first.”
“The Mapmaker gives that right to those yet unborn, those who will never be born if the Out devours us all.”
“And the cost is all who live save Her chosen,” said he.
It hit me that I was alone upon this ship, and that this man before me, newfound hatreds etched deep in the lines of his face, had say over my life and death. The door’s breaking had been provocation with a purpose. This conversation had been that, pushed near to the point of insanity.
“I apologize,” I said. “This grew more heated than I intended, and we should not let such metapolitics cut between us.”
He nodded, perhaps still hoping to please his guest, but I doubted the suspicion in his gaze would ever depart. Still, at long last, we two turned to the meal before us, and I saw an entire fish delicately slashed to chunks, skin still clinging; some multi-limbed monstrosity with a tentacled head and rudimentary wings; and what looked like broken rocks swimming in a butter sea. Fearing the last the least, I popped one whole into my mouth.
This was not the proper way to eat them, as it turned out. Zursee guffawed, our disagreement forgotten, and Jani, horrified, showed me the proper method of cracking open the shells and eating the tongue-like flesh within. Consumed in this fashion, they—Austern, as I was bid call them—were acceptable fair.
Despite that jocundity, the rest of conversation felt composed of ideas skirted.
After the meal, one of the servants led us back towards our quarters via the open top deck. The night air hummed and buzzed with the sounds of our Placement Stones, relics from the long-ended age before the Out, a last ditch attempt made by those who’d unleashed such ruin to save the world.
We weren’t in the thick of the Out, but we were probing its edges, and the Stones fought their eternal war. They would lose, one day. Each and every Placement Stone was winding down, no matter how slowly. Unless the Mapmaker intervened, the last would fail, centuries hence, and the Out would become all. Until that day, though, the edges of the Stones’ boundaries, a scant dozen feet from the rails in our case, glimmered in the night.
“Cold,” our guide said to me, maybe the one word of my language he knew. I nodded; maybe I even liked the fellow. Behind us, a wave crashed against the Stones’ boundary, the water sizzling and shrieking at the contact. None of the Kriegsflotte reacted. They were, somehow, used to this. In the night, I knew that demons, corporeal manifestations of the Out, swam all around. Only with these treacherous Kriegsflotte or in Jani’s care could I navigate such regions.
We passed below the decks, and our guide left us at our door. As soon as we were inside, Jani said, “You’ve doomed us.”
“Nothing like that,” I told him. “Just stood up to them.” I collapsed on the hard bed, the buzz of the wine spreading with the impact, writhing and magnifying into a tide of drink-sodden tiredness.
“Even worse,” Jani said, his eyes rich with terror and his panicked, too-visible spirit. “You put us among these heretics for a journey of weeks, and now our quest is to end because of it.”
“We shan’t be with them for weeks. Sailing all the way to their capital would take us far past the Mapmaker’s domain, if what you’ve said of its location’s true. At the closest point, and I’ll leave the judging to you, we’ll kill the crew and finish the journey in one of their lifeboats.” Wanting to quench his continued fear before giving into my exhaustion, I added, yawning, “Worry not. None of them will be able to stand before me when the time comes.”
“The time will never come,” Jani said. “If you don’t listen to me, you’ll die tonight.”
The words reached me only after crossing great mental vistas.
“You’re tired because you, like all on this ship, were drugged. Sleep is regulated and watched here, for it is then that you are most vulnerable to the thought-invading reach of the Out. The captain will come for your dreams and wander them, searching for creatures demonic. Or,” he said, and paused, “for those plotting their little treasons, their planned liaisons with the Mapmaker and their planned massacres of his very ship, crew, and person.”
Even in the face of such words, sleep advanced on me, inexorable, and I slipped towards its warm chains.
“That is how the Kriegsflotte survive in these waters. I can guard your dreams,” I heard him say at the end. “But only if you’ll let me.”
And so Jani came into my mind.
The resulting sleep felt more hunt than rest. As I lay, with his fingers upon my brow, probing my depths and keeping me safe, I hid my secrets, those dark dreams and deeds that all possess. I feared—as all sinners do—that some moment of repulsion, of terror unmaskable, would accompany his knowledge of my soul. No such shift ever came.
When I woke next, it was he who dragged me forth from slumber, and stark terror rode his face. “Those above are dreaming of something,” he said. “And it’s coming.”
“That’s not possible,” I said, mouth dry as salted sand. “The captain would know.”
“I thought he would act,” Jani said. “But they’ve been with the demon for hours now, and he does nothing.”
I rolled off my bed and reached for blade and garb, knowing we couldn’t warn the captain without him realizing Jani’s nature and, with it, his relationship to the Mapmaker.
And so it was that we found ourselves in the farthest of the crew’s sleeping areas, walking past slumbering rows unimpeded. “That one,” Jani said, “and then that. There, and him. Here, as well.” To each, I administered my one cure for sedition. Tracing the Out in the air, I, Scholar-Practitioner, slipped my blade, ephemeral, past flesh and veins and into the heart, slashing through their dreams with my steel.
I learned the full story of the night’s events, as seen by crew and captain, during my morning meal with Zursee. “A demon came aboard in the night,” he said. “We didn’t see it until it was far too late.” He looked haggard, and it occurred to me that, as he spent the night prowling dreams, he must get most of his sleep in the early parts of the day. Light invaded our discussion from broad windows. In this sliver of world, day began and ended early.
Into that atmosphere, a messenger entered, countenance and tone composed of naught but terror, and said: “Ein Mann schläft.”
“A man sleeps,” Jani said as the captain rose, grabbing for one of the relics on the wall. I followed as he ran for the deck, hand on my blade.
By the time we reached the scene, two of the sleeper’s fellows had already attacked with clubs. Two blows into their struggle, the inimical dreamer lay unconscious and weeping blood from inconsolable injuries. Then, at last, the men looked to their captain for guidance.
“The demon will never leave him,” Zursee said. “Not if he sleeps in the day. Throw him over the side.”
The splash was lost amidst the waves, but still Zursee watched, relic in hand, for long moments. At long last, he turned away and went below, leaving behind instructions to be woken if anything untoward occurred.
He’d barely cleared the deck when the first call was heard over the waves. “Ein Vogel,” one sailor suggested; a bird, Jani translated for me, but none truly believed those words. The mate talked briefly with two of his fellow officers, clearly debating whether to summon the captain and deciding to hold off unless something more immediately threatening happened. All the same, a half-dozen of the Kriegsflotte, relic-armed one and all, assembled at the ship’s rear to scan the seas, and we all knew that we were in some foul beast’s sight.
The sound came again, sharp and high. This time, a low rumble followed it like thunder lagging lightening. The mate began to yell out commands. As men scrambled to obey him, their panic plain, he sent the nearest running for the captain.
“Someone must still dream,” Jani said to me. “The demon could only find us if someone calls his name.”
“All men are on deck,” I said. “And none slumber.”
“All men are on deck save one,” he told me, and then I knew how the captain had not detected the dreams. I and Jani slipped away below decks, unnoticed by sailors reaching for oars and oaths, staring at the horizon and praying to their gods. We met no one, once we’d descended, but a faint sound always seemed to come from just ahead.
A sound from the captain’s room, with the sailor sent to retrieve him standing terror-struck and immobile at the door.
“Zaius,” the captain said, chanted. “Zaius,” his voice rising with each repetition. “Zaius. Zaius. Zaius!”
I tried the door and, finding it locked, slashed the lock with my blade. Inside, the captain writhed on his bed, and it become clear to what extent the barred door had muffled the sound. For he was not only saying the name but screaming it, bellowing it, and his eyes danced wild in their sockets.
“Zursee!” I shouted, trying to be heard above the din.
“He’s beyond help,” Jani said.
Bowing my head, I advanced, blade raised against the presence of that invocation. Through the steel of the ship, I could hear the reverberations of the demon’s answering call, weaving and harmonizing with that of its summoner.
I gave the captain a swift death.
In the silence that followed, I first noticed the way the ship’s tremendous momentum had ceased altogether. The powerful vessel seemed but a parody of its captain, and, for all its mass, it seemed to writhe upon the waves as the demon Zaius, unimpeded by the captain’s death, surged nearer upon tides tumultuous.
We ran for the deck, Jani and I, and I dealt the moaning messenger a one-stroke mercy as we passed by.
The scene above was a hell dawning. More than half of the sailors were sprawled on the deck, eyes rolling as they shouted. Those that had not yet succumbed clawed at their own skin, screaming something, anything, to keep that voice from their thoughts, those words from their lips. A few, far too few, held out at the ship’s rear, repelling any of the touched that tried to come near with volleys of relic-fire, the shots inaudible in the din.
“They are gone,” Jani said.
The mate, among those last sane men, saw us. I could see the recognition in his eyes. “Sie!” he shouted, raising his relic towards us. “Kartographen!”
The first shot, thunder-loud, missed us, but the second did not, and Jani fell, shrieking and trying to crawl towards safety. I dragged him to cover before they could fire, hiding us behind one of the deck’s many obstacles and obstructions to their clear sight and aim. The mate rallied those with him to come for us, no doubt thinking us responsible. Before, I’d never seen a relic with my own eyes. I now knew that even I couldn’t stand before one’s might.
A wave rose upon the horizon. But not a wave that crashed and died. No, this wave but grew, and it turned as it did and shuddered. It was a wave alive with flesh and intent, speeding towards our vessel as a titanic eye opened in its center and a thousand unseen mouths shouted its own name in a thousand different tongues.
What was that beneath all those noises? Could it be a final voice whispering that name, a voice in my mind and in my soul—a voice that was my own? But I had no time for such dark thoughts, such pessimistic possibilities. I grabbed Jani and dragged him towards the nearest lifeboat, and ignoring his weak and whimpering resistance.
A man—the one who’d said cold the night before, I realized—walked into the center of the deck, staggering towards the ship’s rear and the creature beyond it. “Zaius,” he said, mindless, and I could see the lines of Out protruding from his mouth, waving in the breeze of his devotion. He collapsed, then, falling under a hail of relic-fire. But he rose again, and when he opened his mouth....
Was it sentient, that tendril of nothingness? Controlled, in some hitherto unknown manner, by the beast? I didn’t know. But it shot straight for the mate, reached him and wrapped round him and left but a screaming, boiling mess in its wake.
I savaged the cables holding up our lifeboat with Out-exploiting blows, and we crashed down into the sea. For a moment, nigh endless, my mind bore only one thought. Zaius, his name ultimate and ultimatum, threat and world entire.
But I was not defeated. I drove out that beast with my vows and with the thought of the Lady that I served. And my oar bit the water.
“All we’ve worked for,” Jani repeated, a defeatist litany, a rhythmic counterpoint to each stroke.
Zaius reached the Kriegsflotte ship, and the sound of steel twisting and men dying echoed loud above the waves. Somewhere ahead, day turned to unnatural night, and the Out beckoned, terminal and growing.
“Row into it,” Jani said, hands on his wound, voice pained and tone sure.
I stared at him as at a man mad.
“I can hide you there,” he said. “The demon will never think to find you in the Out.”
“I believe you,” I said.
“The Mapmaker will come for us.”
“I believe you,” I said, again. I had no choice.
I was in night eternal, and I’d blindfolded myself with the remnants of my tunic. One of the last visions I’d had was Jani shredding his human form, skin splitting and mist pouring forth from his veins in a great and gaseous tide. The last... the last had been of the Kriegsflotte ship, mauled and sinking, and of the men aboard it, dead one and all, a sight magnified and dancing in the melted-mirror areality of the Out.
Far off, in all directions, we heard the sounds of dementia. Of names, distant and unspoken and innumerable.
“There was a time I doubted you,” Jani said as I bandaged his leg with what little of my own garb I’d left. The projectile had shattered the flesh but had stopped at the spirit, which still flowed flowing thick and undamaged within. He would likely never walk without pain again, but he would not die. “I know you’ll do what needs to be done,” he said.
“To save the Towers,” I said.
“No. To save the worlds.”
Did I dream dreams, in those days and hours and moments? I cannot remember. Looking back, that infernal and demonic name seems imprinted on all remembrances, but I believe it to be but a specter. One of sorrow, perhaps, and even guilt, at letting those Kriegsflotte die as they did.
Zaius, that specter whispered in my mind, and I quieted it with willpower and force.
“I trust you,” Jani said during one of our rests, at a time that might have been night or day, that might have been minutes or weeks since our last stop. I didn’t know how to respond.
At the height of an indeterminate day, at the apex of an indeterminable hour, the Mapmaker came for us, and....
The Knight’s Quest
...we were saved,” the Knight Rollus said, finishing his tale as he knelt on the top floor of the Mapmaker’s tower. The tower was open to the sky and looked down on the world, and, in its way, was the world. The court of the Mapmaker sat silent around him.
This structure was taller than even those Towers for which his world had been named. From here, the unified lands could be seen stretching impossibly far all around. Beyond, the Out endless; but he could not feel the Out here, not even a trace, not a single of its lines. Darkness truly had been banished in the land of the cartographic tyrant, and Rollus knew fear. He was helpless here.
“It is true,” Jani, now back at the Mapmaker’s side, said. “Every word of his tale is reality.”
Knights cannot lie; wisdom that all knew. But he could—he’d cut those truth-telling runes from his tongue with the Lady Clarissa’s blessing, and those wounds bled red invisible as he spoke his deception. Appearance is reality, his Lady had told him so many times, and so it was, the Mapmaker now reaching down to pull him up with Her own hands. Believing his words; his lies of omission and intent.
“This knight,” She said in Her so augmented voice, “has sacrificed everything. He, and the Lady Lord that he serves, rose above their neighbors, and even their society, to do what had to be done; treated Salvation as a cause greater than safety, life a goal stronger than comfort. Like most visionaries, like most rebels, he was hunted—but he survived!”
Rebels, like all those against his Lady’s wishes, deserved death in Rollus’s eyes. He supposed he should be afraid, standing in front of this once-human demigod, this Mapmaker who had led to so many deaths. But he felt nothing; only duty.
Her skin was like a tapestry of inhumanity, skin engraved with a living map, the lines of which seemed to dance upon Her flesh. She seemed at varying times a woman and a personification of the landscape, the caves and structures of Her face more landmarks than features.
The Mapmaker said to him, speaking low as if they shared some private booth, “I’ve a quest to offer you. A chance few men receive: the chance to save their world. Those you love are doomed, but, with your aid, their world and race can live on. I need you to enter your home, that world of Towers, and destroy the, as you call them, Placement Stones that lie beneath it. Only then can your people attain salvation.”
I know you’ll do what needs to be done, Jani had said, Rollus remembered. I trust you. His trust had been misplaced, for Rollus’s loyalties had their beginning and their end, and both extremes dwelt within the Towers that were his home.
“The Lady Clarissa anticipated your request,” he said, “and she told me to agree upon one condition: that you and your generals, your elite, accompany me, so that she may know your quest is not false. If you stand amidst the Towers as they fall, all shall know that some remnant will still stand tomorrow, lest you too be buried beneath the rubble that you and I together cause. She needs to know that there is something after; that she’s not simply driving her people to an ending.”
The Mapmaker inclined Her head, and he could see the broad rivers winding thick on Her pate. “Your terms are accepted,” She said. “We leave on the morrow.”
He saw through her lies. Knew that what would kill mortals would leave her unfazed, untouched. Find the Mapmaker while there’s still a world to be saved, the Lady Clarissa had told him, and he served no one but her.
The demonstration the Mapmaker had promised, the fulfillment of someone else’s destiny, came then, a salvation equal and as long-planned as that of his own people. She strode to the edge of the Tower’s open upper level, and Her flesh was blue with oceans, black with Out, and writhing with life and death. “There’s a world dying amongst the many,” She said. “But today we will bring its people to salvation.”
Rollus had never heard the name of this to-be-unified land, had never known of its existence. But he knew enough of the worlds, and his world, to know its story: how their borders were shrinking every day, how the Out took more and more, and how. in recent years, that process had accelerated endlessly as the Mapmaker probed and found what She needed for Her sterile conquests, sending her agents to steal its intervention-halting Placement Stones. It was the same everywhere. All worlds were shrinking, ending. And everywhere, She was there to speed the process and save the land and end all.
Then the engraving began. From this highest level of the tower, looking over the entirety of the once-world now shattered, there were three maps. The first was Her flesh, the Mapmaker’s own body. The second was the Tower’s upper floor that they stood upon, marked and raised with landforms and rivers, mountains and trees, structures and the miniature running shadows of men moving across its ground. And the final map was below, the world itself, shifting to accommodate the thievery and masses of Placement Stones—this world’s now among them – in the Mapmaker’s grasp and soul, the sorcery of Her knowledge.
Four master artisans worked on the map on the floor, but they were not the leaders. No, the Mapmaker blazed the trail, working with knowledge memorized and a knife made of crystal and magic most exact. She drove that blade into the flesh above Her knee, the area where the country would fit into Her jigsaw Creation, and the precision and speed She showed joined should not have been possible.
They, Rollus and those of the Mapmaker’s court, saw genesis. It was not perfect, of course. Huge swaths of this territory and all others had been eroded by the Out by the time of their salvation. Perhaps an entire third of the world that once was had been forever lost to the Out. Still, buildings and livelihoods and art made the transition, spiraling out into the Mapmaker’s flesh with dimensions too small to be seen by anyone without one of the magnifying microscopes of old.
“It’s too late for any measures but the drastic,” the Mapmaker said, invocation and justification.
For the briefest of moments, a blink in their lives, the people of this world appeared all across the ground and flesh of the Mapmaker. And then they were gone, killed one and all by the transition from their world to Hers, by the shift from the reality before to the reality of Her will, ultimate. “The only paths left,” She said, “are flawed salvation and slow death.”
In the distance, down below in the real world, representation had become fact. That new world lay on the horizon, intact, impervious to the Out, and barren.
The Towers were to be the next recipients of the Mapmaker’s empty mercy, their land preserved and their citizenry slaughtered.
Find the Mapmaker while there’s still a world to be saved, the Lady Clarissa had told him. And kill Her before it’s too late.
Rollus boarded the ship of the Mapmaker, the great vessel used to seize lands beyond sane measure. It towered metallic above the ocean and the harbor, a monolithic vessel of war stolen from the Kriegsflotte. As it sounded its sirenic bellow across the waves, as it departed, Rollus thought that name, and it grew titanic in his mind as they sailed free of the Mapmaker’s domain and into the Out beyond. Zaius, the name of safety and salvation for all those he knew and served. Zaius, the name of his weapon in the coming one-strike war.
Rollus was an assassin, a would-be slayer of the great and terrible cartographer now so near him, a man on a suicidal quest to forever shatter all chances of a new whole world. He sat beside Her at feasts, he drank the wine She offered, and he downed the food She provided, and he reveled in the company of Her singers and musicians uncountable, Her mummers skilled and Her courtesans divine. And that name crept from his lips into their hearts, spreading among the menials of the ships like a soul plague, a corruptor and a seducer.
Zaius, the actress spoke between her lines, the vocalist crooned under his melody and the harlot through her climax.
With each mile they drew further from the Mapmaker’s domain, the lines of the Out spread, a multi-limbed erosion, a plague reaching unseen through the ship. And it spread, that name, unchecked, amidst this ship of those too arrogant to view the Out as a danger, and they luxuriated ever more extravagantly with each day’s slow sail towards those death-marked Towers that had always been his home.
On the seventh day it bubbled up, impossible to banish, and, come that night, all chaos fell. The Mapmaker and Her elite, now aware of their peril, halted the ship and walked its halls, searching without a Kriegsflotte‘s skill for some mark of taint. Rollus waited in his cabin through their farce, his Out-blade resting across his legs. And, when the wail that he now knew far too well came, the sound of the waves and the wave of the beast, of Zaius, he walked the halls and, with but one stroke for each, fell all those that he met.
Out onto the decks he strode, at the apex of that Out-nearing night, and he held himself before the escape boats for their approach. Come they did, then, panic and terror, written across the faces of aides and lackeys as the Mapmaker Herself hurried clear of the lower decks, while, behind, Her warriors carried out a too-late cleansing of those helpless down below.
“We can still make it to the Towers in one of the smaller boats,” Jani said, standing beside Her.
“There are costs too high for any end,” Rollus said. “Deeds too dark for any gain.” Now that coming wave towered beyond the ship, and it, summoned, roared poison into all air. “We die here,” Rollus said. “We and our goals and our too-dangerous plans and our deathly dreams.”
Jani, now realizing what Rollus had done, ran at the knight as best he could on his wounded leg. Rollus couldn’t kill the spirit-man. But he could break him, and he left him maimed and bleeding on the deck.
The Mapmaker met his eyes, then.
“It ends,” Rollus said, and he ran towards Her, ignoring the rest as they scattered. She met him in his charge, and She grew vaster with each step, arms swelling into the full force of shifting lands and punishing winds.
But he was a knight and a Scholar-Practitioner, and Her attacks were but a gale spinning wide of life. His first blow bit into Her shoulder, and the land there was cleaved in two, the blue spirit mist of what She’d become leaking out of the chasm.
She dove at him, seeking to overpower him with brute force, and he spun left and cut Her legs to pieces with a dozen Out-fueled blows too fast to comprehend. She staggered and fell, and he cut into Her again and again, leaving Her flesh and Her words and Her worlds hanging loose in ragged remnants of skin and dreams. He couldn’t kill the spirit within Her, not truly, but he could contain it.
“They’ll die,” She said, staring up at him with a plea in Her eye and ruin in Her soul. “All of them. The world will shrink around them, come years near, and nothing will remain.”
“Some cures bite deeper than the disease,” he said, and slashed through Her lips and destroyed Her teeth and promises. “Better live a hundred years with none after than die now for a broken future.”
And Zaius came, his shadow falling over all, the thousand thousand mouths of his depths roaring wide, his name filling every particle of air and Out both.
As that end came, Rollus thought of the Towers, of worked stone and glory clawing skyward from earth and sea; of those left behind, of their descendants that he’d doomed and their lives that he’d saved.