The old baron lay dying, surrounded by all manner of medicinal, wizardly, and folkloric remedies. Scented candles burned with peculiar flames of forest-green and ocean-blue and mountain-flower-purple. Glinting crystals the color of ice and fire and smoke and sunlight dangled on lacy webs suspended from the bed’s canopy, humming gently in the piny breezes from two open windows. Strange aromatic vines writhed of their own accord about the floor, releasing hints of mint or possibly absinthe. An old and nearly bone-white woman, shrouded in a black cloak covered with silver dots and lines like constellations of the night sky, bent over a cauldron of rich-smelling broth that bubbled odors of chicken, garlic, bats, and bog whisky. Golden leeches the size of melons were affixed to the dark skin of the withered man’s right arm and his neck, while his left arm was connected by a thin glass tube to an alchemical alembic minded by a muttering, acid-pocked, two-faced goblin, one face at the front of his head and one in back. The vague silhouette of a mammoth spider, larger than a large man, could be seen on the ceiling through the chessboard-pattern of the canopy; at times ghostly webbing would dangle from above, to be snatched by the old woman or the goblin for their concoctions.
Whatever the nature of these labors—and there were far more oddities in the shadows that the poet Gaunt could not take in—it did not seem to be saving the baron. The once-mighty man lay back upon a sprawl of pillows, eyes slitted, breathing in the various scents and vapors. A vine slithered past his nose, and the leech at his neck pulsed, and he acknowledged neither.
“What ails him?” Gaunt whispered.
“Nightspores,” said Baron Orion’s son-in-law, Sir Fornax. He regarded her with inevitable distaste. Foreigner though she was, he seemed aware Persimmon Gaunt was fallen nobility; he was the rising kind.
“A poisoner’s herb,” Gaunt answered him, drawing upon the bard-lore of Swanisle. She was a peach-pale, auburn-haired daughter of that island’s petty nobility. She often described herself as a “farm girl,” for her childhood manor had been as much working farm as county seat. She was some years removed from a debutante but could dress for a ball at need. Yet she had a sturdy frame and a strong arm that frequently pulled a short bow, and she had a tattoo on her right cheek atypical of debutantes or farm girls: a rose enmeshed in a spider’s web. She also had an atypical companion at her side. “There’s no antidote, Bone.”
Beside her Imago Bone had for his part the bronze look of the Contrariwise Coast of the Spiral Sea, even farther off than Swanisle. He was a sandy-haired, wiry-looking fellow of a sort people might refer to (kindly) as acrobatic and (less kindly) as ferret-like. He seemed perpetually in his twenties, like a man who could keep the title ‘young rake’ for only a little longer and planned to savor every hour. He stroked his chin, fingers touching the blade-scar and the flame-scar that framed his face. “We’re moved by your baron’s plight,” Bone said, “but Gaunt and I are treasure hunters, not physicians or investigators of the law.”
“That is evident,” said Sir Fornax. Like the baron he had the usual sepia skin of this mountainous province, along with greying hair and beard. He wore an Eldshoren wyvern-cavalry uniform, black with embroidered red lizards echoing the country’s sinuous shape down either arm. He had the focused look of a man determined to ride his remaining years high in the saddle. “But when my father-in-law heard you were near, he insisted he speak to you.” Distaste soured his voice. “You needn’t fear. There’s no contagion.”
Gaunt and Bone shared a narrow-eyed look, but they did not protest their courage. Their honor was a private matter. When Bone came to the baron’s side (the side with the glass tube, for Gaunt knew Bone couldn’t abide leeches) that eye widened, and the baron rasped, “Im—Imago.”
Bone started. “Do I know you?”
There was a great coughing, and almost swifter than Gaunt’s eye could follow, a hairy leg, like a mossy tree branch in a gale, whipped around from above the canopy, bearing a handkerchief, and neatly caught and removed the sputum. The limb disappeared; the old woman stirred on; the goblin’s twin mutterings continued unbroken.
“Imago Bone,” gasped the old baron, and when Bone’s habitual smirk broke into a startled O, the baron added, “Do you not recognize...?”
“Oren? Oren Rake? You are Baron Orion of Magog’s Pond?”
The baron’s strength rallied, though his words were ambushed by coughs. “So I am.”
“I knew you hailed from these parts. But I’d no idea of your station.”
“Didn’t have one, back then. But you—so young. Are you a dream? A ghost?”
“No,” Bone said, seeming unbalanced for once. “I understand your confusion. I remain young because of an enchantment.”
“Not—fair, comrade. You’re—my age.”
“No, it’s not fair at all. I didn’t ask for it. If it makes you feel any better, brother-thief, that enchantment’s broken now.”
“Don’t—call me that,” said the baron.
“Thief? Or brother? We had our differences. But you were more brotherly to me than the blood-kin who beat me.” Bone smiled, as he often did when speaking of pain. It unnerved people. But Gaunt understood the smile was, for Bone, like cracking a cell door. It let a little light in.
“Huh. Heard of Thief with Two—Deaths. Was that... you?”
Bone nodded. “Life is strange.”
“Death is too.” Now the baron appraised Gaunt. Quickened, he had a stare like an owl’s. “Where did—this old rogue—turn you up?”
Gaunt smiled too. “I turned him up. I had need of a thief, then a traveling companion. I am a poet. I wish to see the wide world before retiring to scribble beside my fire.”
“Wide world? Why then—come to Magog’s Pond—of all places?”
“It’s on the way to somewhere quiet. Or somewhere peacefully noisy, at least.”
“No peace here, indeed. I’ve need of—”
Oren’s cough-engulfed words were like walkers lost in a sandstorm. Gaunt shared a look with Bone. “I will take my leave,” she said, “as I sense this is a matter between old... professionals.”
“As you wish,” said Oren. “Chalkwand, show her—south tower room.”
The old white woman in the starry cloak snapped, “Drudger, assist,” and the goblin with the two faces doubled his muttering and followed Chalkwand and Gaunt through the door. What Gaunt thought was Sir Fornax just inside the doorway was actually an alcove statue of Emperor Rel, hollow dark mouth wide in oration; Fornax had already left. This seemed to her curious, but so did everything about Magog’s Pond.
She and Bone had been rushed from a nearby village inn, The Giant’s Thimble, to this sprawling mansion amid the many-branching afternoon shadows. With early evening lamps and torches now lit, she took better notice of her surroundings. They descended the spiraling stair of the north tower, its walls decorated with paintings of this province’s legendary monsters—giant gogs with fanged protruding faces, tiny bloodthirsty maphits, life-stealing humanlike malahks—and exited a side door onto a long interior gallery overlooking the greatroom.
The greatroom itself was oddly narrow, with two vast crackling fireplaces set below the gallery, a stairway ascending between them. From somewhere Gaunt smelled a hint of burnt garlic. It seemed strange to put a greatroom here, facing the lake and exposed to cold winds, so far from the mansion’s center. But perhaps it was worth it for the view. She paused to look out the hall’s two vast picture windows—expensive crystal from the artificers of Loomsberg—at Magog’s Pond beyond. A glacier had carved it, or giants, or giants who resembled glaciers, depending on whom you asked. Perhaps sixty acres’ worth of water reflected the dimming blue sky in a roughly oval mirror. The surrounding windy hills had the look of vast pyramids buried in soil and carpeted in hemlock trees with branches rustling like verdant raptors, and fir trees with branches like swarming emerald bats, and spruce trees with branches like blurred viridescent swords. On the broad slopes, dying sunlight set the taller trees a-glow, as if pale green torches in a dim, slowly shuffling crowd. Between the hills the lengthening shadows flowed, rivers of growing darkness.
“It is beautiful country,” Gaunt said, “though very unlike the gentle hills of my home.”
“Beautiful,” said the three-foot figure of Drudger halting beside her, using an astonishingly low baritone. Or rather his forward face, the grey-yellow side, said this. His grey-green backward face fluted, “But haunted.” He possessed a pair of glowing golden eyes upon each pocked face as well as bat-like ears, with the left ear facing forward and the right facing back. His black uniform helped unify his appearance, as did the look of detached dignity upon each face.
“Lazy excuse for a servitor!” Chalkwand snapped, as if a full second’s hesitation was fully too long. She had a stony beauty and a cold cast to her words. “Go below and fetch food for our guests. I will convey this one to the room.”
Gaunt’s sense of fair play was stung. “It was I who stopped.”
“If the great wizard calls a mere apothecary lazy,” rumbled Drudger’s forward face, “she is surely correct. As she is in all things, small and large, homely and palatial, mundane and cosmic. What manner of food, great wizard? Aristocratic? Rustic? Meritocratic? Necromantic?”
“Nonexistent,” Gaunt interposed, still glaring at Chalkwand.
“Drudger shall attend to the polishing then,” said Drudger’s low voice, and he shuffled back toward the north tower.
“You clearly do not know goblins,” Chalkwand told Gaunt. “One must use a firm hand.”
“The surest hand is courtesy,” Gaunt said. “He is your servant, then?”
“He is a goblin. Your tower is at the end of this gallery. You should be honored; this hall is the oldest part of the mansion. Genuine giant bones went into its construction.” They passed an ornate door facing the stairway that descended between the two fireplaces of the greatroom. It was engraved with a wooden explosion of unicorns and winged horses and dragons and mermaids.
Gaunt again lingered. “What room is that, if I may?”
“Andromeda’s playroom,” Chalkwand said, barely slackening her pace. “She is the baron’s grandchild, daughter of Sir Fornax and Dame Lyra.”
Gaunt thought she heard a heavy tread within the room, unlikely to be that of a child. But she passed on, beside several portraits lit by candle-lamps. In the last few the subjects were either standing upon a fallen giant figure with fangs and a recessed forehead or else impaling sharp-toothed humanoids with varieties of wooden spear.
As Chalkwand opened the door to the south tower, Gaunt took a last look outward through the greatroom’s windows. Amber sunset played over the lake, like fire seen through a full whisky glass.
Then a shriek tore over the lake like glass breaking.
“No! No!” a girl’s voice cried. Out on the water Gaunt saw a dark flailing form.
Gaunt did not spare so much as a glance at Chalkwand before hurtling herself down the narrow stairs they had passed and across the greatroom and out the mouth of the mansion door. In her hand she gripped a dagger, one Bone had given her long ago, of genuine Tancimor steel. She hoped it would prove its worth against whatever was out there.
She raced down a lawn cleared of trees, but evergreens like shadowed sentinels framed the lakeshore. An early-rising moon glowed upon a surface almost metallic beneath the purpling sky.
About twenty feet from the shoreline a head poked from the water—a teenaged girl’s head, or so it seemed, rising and falling amid silvered ripples. Perhaps some lake-beast menaced her from under the waterline? Gaunt plunged in.
Hitting the alpine water was like being punched by some frost giant of yesteryear. For the moment it was enlivening, but soon it could be deadly. What had possessed the screamer to come out here? As Gaunt swam she gleaned a fresh disturbing fact. The rise and fall of the girl, despite her desperation, did not truly resemble aquatic distress or drowning. It seemed a matter disconnected from her thrashing, as if something unseen were calmly bobbing her at the seam between air and water, like a toddler on one knee.
“I’m here to help,” Gaunt called, swimming near. “What threatens you?”
The dark, curly-haired girl’s movements ceased. Her head, just above water, silently turned as if startled by distant music. She resembled Baron Orion, especially in her wide eyes and fierce mien. Gaunt felt like a pinned butterfly in that gaze. Eerily, the girl paused motionless in the water without treading.
“Gogs and logs,” she lilted. “Gogs and logs and boys and frogs.”
“It’s too cold out here.” Gaunt’s teeth started to chatter. “Come ashore.” Gaunt hoped to have a child of her own someday, and something inside her wished to prove she could steer this one.
At last the girl reached out and Gaunt tugged the offered hand. The girl shifted toward her—and something lurched out of the water.
It seemed a huge monstrous head with snakes for hair, and Gaunt’s memory flashed with creatures that could petrify at a glance.
But no. It was the base of a tree trunk, neither free-floating or sunken but stuck into the lakebed at such an angle as to offer a bobbing game to swimmers. The immense tree had toppled long ago. By sunset and moonlight its exposed roots looked like a nest of black snakes, frozen in time by some forgotten spell.
Gaunt, wanting to be away, tugged the girl along. The girl seemed dazed but able to focus on swimming as long as Gaunt led.
Back on the shadowy slope the world blazed. The main door of the mansion hung open between the two vast, fire-lit windows, and it seemed she stared at smoldering eyes in the edifice’s darkening face. The open door cast a wedge of orange light illuminating the grassy incline. Then a woman’s regal voice called, “Andromeda! Who assails you?”
“The giant sleeps in bloody deeps,” sang the girl in response, though only Gaunt could hear.
Your old friend up-jumped and dying, a dour wizard, a goblin grousing in two voices, and now a noble girl muttering gibberish about giants? What have we gotten ourselves into, Bone? she thought.
As the baron’s sickroom door closed behind Gaunt, Bone felt uneasy. He knew their partnership was perhaps only one-third as clever in her absence. And he had mixed feelings about having encountered his brother-thief, now Baron Orion, anew. Bone turned back to the bed with a wan smile. “It seems you married well, Oren.”
The laughter occasioned another coughing fit and another visit from an overhanging spider-limb bearing a handkerchief. When it was over, Oren’s voice was stronger. “In every sense. Lost her nine years ago, my Vela. Miss her every day. You seem to have married up yourself.”
“Old lech.” Bone smiled. “Not married. We’re partners, rather. In every sense.”
“You are making this poet... a thief?”
“I hope not.” On impulse Bone pulled from a cloak pocket a little, leather-bound octavo. Secrets of the Shadowy Brotherhood declared the title. He opened the book and showed Oren couplets twisting in Bone’s spidery, oversized handwriting. “It’s not really trade secrets. It’s a journal, and I’m copying one of Gaunt’s collections of poetry into it. She’s always revising this text, Alley Flowers, it’s called. She’s never happy with it. I fear she’ll throw the original off a cliff one day, or it will get stolen again, so I’m stealing it while she sleeps, a bit at a time. Or rescuing it; I’m unsure.”
“Imago Bone, sentimental? Full of—” Oren coughed, and finished, “—surprises.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“Can’t. For long.” The cough returned. “App—appointment. Going to meet Master—Sidewinder.”
“Say hello for me, brother apprentice.” Bone packed his book away. “But settle your business with me before you go.”
“You want... to run me through. Redundant now.”
Book shook his head, feeling old. “Even if revenge weren’t pointless, I wouldn’t want it anymore. A fight over a woman long-dead? We have better things to do, surely. I don’t think you called us here for that. What’s happening on Magog’s Pond?” He flicked his eyes to the bed’s canopy. “Does your attendant need to go?”
“No. Octans—sworn to baron’s service. Personally.”
Bone nodded. He knew Oldspinners would swear oaths only eight times in their lives, taking promises far more seriously than did humans.
But even as Bone spoke, Oren raised a hand and twisted it in an old gesture. No immediate danger, but can’t talk freely. Giving partial truths.
Bone wondered at that. Did Oren not fully trust the Oldspinner? Or was someone else listening? He nodded with a praying gesture with extended pinkies. Understood.
He wouldn’t have believed Oren could look any more miserable, but so it was. “Old curse—on this place. Was built to harness... dread power. Central chambers abandoned... people live in outer halls, wings, and towers. I once set up a room where I could monitor the curse’s influence on others... and go fight it when needed. Thought I’d quelled it. Thought it was all right to give up the room of listening... Listen—I fear for them all, but most of all my granddaughter.”
“What threatens her?”
“You won’t believe. Have to work up to it. First: don’t destroy or move the log in the lake.”
“What? What log? Why would we do that?”
“Wrong approach. Go—to the heart. Press both fireplaces—simultaneously.”
“Child’s play. Opens the way. Confront—with faith—”
The baron’s words became a terrible croak, accompanied by bulging eyes, and hairy limbs like iron chains tugged Bone back from the bed.
Webbing shot through the air. It glinted faintly with its own pale luminosity. Some of the strands dangled before Bone’s face, revealing words. THIS IS HIS LAST HOUR. SUMMON THE FAMILY.
Bone nodded. “The least I can do for my brother of the streets.”
Bone expected to find Sir Fornax just outside, but he was gone.
Frowning, he descended the spiraling north tower staircase. Gaunt would have gone to the south tower and their guest room, but his task was to find the family. Footfalls pattered far below. He followed.
This stairwell grew cool and damp. There was a smell of earth and mushrooms. He passed various doors but no people. The pattering persisted.
The spiral terminated at two torchlit archways. One bore a black teak door flickering with embossed silver constellations. The other was doorless, revealing a narrow tunnel slanting downward.
Bone stilled his breathing and heard the tread of leather on stone, down the slant. Perhaps he should turn back. But full of Oren’s curious words (built to harness dread power) he followed.
It felt warmer in the tunnel, and the air had a mustiness that triggered a slight cough. He judged he angled toward the lake. Stone gave way to earthen walls with wooden reinforcements. Tree roots, vestiges of the slain stretch of forest overhead, snaked through the dark soil on all sides. Shadows writhed in the dwindling torchlight.
At last Bone came to a second black door. Candlelight seeped from beneath. It occurred to him he was well beyond bounds for a guest. Well, he’d come this far.
“This was perhaps the last thing I was expecting,” he murmured after he opened the door.
“Andromeda is haunted,” said Sir Fornax, commanding the hands clutching a dozen swords, all gleaming with reflections from the greatroom’s two huge fireplaces, all pointing at Gaunt.
The surfaces behind the writhing fires were pearly crystal, and that plus the sharp pitch of the greatroom’s stairway up to the gallery gave Gaunt the momentary illusion she stood before one eye of a hawk-nosed, amber-eyed giant. Before the other “eye” stood Andromeda, beside Dame Lyra, a dark statuesque woman in her thirties with a majestic black cloud of curly hair, earrings of pink sapphire, and a gown of regal purple. Her right hand bore a signet ring with a talon-shaped ruby gleaming in the firelight. Her eyes seemed to flame as she said, “This trespasser needs no explanation from us, husband. Rather the reverse. We are a family of repute, for all that our fortunes have dwindled of late. Who is she?”
“Persimmon Gaunt,” Gaunt said, hand on her dagger. “My companion is Imago Bone. We’re the baron’s invited guests. By what is Andromeda haunted?”
Dame Lyra persisted, “You’re connected to Father’s past, then? That makes you thieves.”
“I am a poet. Imago is... Imago. We mean no harm.”
Lyra drew an unseen sigil in the air and frowned at her husband. “She speaks truth.”
“She only helped me, Father, Mother,” Andromeda spoke up.
Fornax shrugged and bade his guards lower their weapons. Gaunt lowered hers, though the presence of the glinting Tancimor steel reassured her. She asked Andromeda, “What made you scream? Why were you at that strange log?”
Andromeda’s manner suddenly changed to that of a little girl, and she sing-songed, “The hills have slept since time anon, dreaming of a day long gone, when gogs were juicy as roast hen, and fattened with the blood of men.” Her eyes seemed as unfocused as the fires.
Lyra sighed and put a hand on Andromeda’s shoulder. “She becomes this way sometimes, since the tragedy at the log.”
“Tragedy?” Gaunt asked.
“The log attracts the young. I swam to it myself as a girl—I enjoyed trivial amusements beneath my station before I studied magic. A swimmer’s weight makes the log shift and submerge. It’s faster if there are more swimmers. In warmer months children crowd onto the log, hold their breaths as it sinks, then swim up. I myself was good at the game.”
“As are you, Andromeda?” Gaunt ventured, for the girl’s eyes seemed focused again.
“I... was... a champion. So was my friend Perseus. Until...”
Sir Fornax snapped, “That village boy meant to beat all records. He had Andromeda weigh him down with chains. She was unable to free him before he drowned. Is that not so?”
Andromeda turned away.
“Understand, poet,” Fornax continued, “I disapproved of the boy but I never wanted his death. He must not make my daughter join him!”
“So,” Gaunt guessed, “he is a ghost bound to the log?”
“So it seems,” said Lyra.
“You have learned folk here. Can none deal with him?”
“The presence is strong,” Lyra said.
“Could a village priest quell it?”
“There are no priests in these parts. Something scares them off.”
“Is there no satisfying the ghost’s needs?”
“His need is clearly Andromeda’s life!” snapped Fornax.
Gaunt nodded. “Could one of the magic-workers here destroy the log? At least the surfacing portion?”
“Perhaps.” Fornax frowned at his wife. “Yet Lyra’s spells orient on the mind, Chalkwand is mostly an academic, and Drudger is focused upon potions and herbs. The Oldspinner, Octans, has much inherent power. I suspect she could destroy the log. But she serves the barony exclusively, and the baron forbids it.”
At that moment Bone, Chalkwand, and Drudger appeared upon the gallery overlooking the greatroom. “Oren—” Bone began, and checked himself. “Baron Orion is dying. The Oldspinner thinks the family should come.”
Lyra said, without warmth, “You have the room in the south tower, visitors.”
After the family and its servants hurried into the north tower, Bone was left alone with Gaunt in the crackling heat and wavering light of the greatroom. Both had things to report.
Bone (as he recounted) hadn’t known what to expect beyond the black door.
An angled length of tree trunk was certainly not it.
Five feet in diameter, its full stature couldn’t be guessed because the dead-end earthen chamber encompassed a small section of trunk, plunging through the chamber’s wall and ceiling at a sharp angle. The wood continued upward toward the lake on one hand and downward below the mansion on the other. The bark was gnarled and grey and perforated by long-dead woodpeckers. Strangest of all, judging from the slight upward widening of the trunk, the tree had been shoved into the ground headfirst.
“Why have you come here?” came a fluting voice.
By the light of a dripping candle nestled into a knot-hole Bone discerned a familiar face: Drudger’s backward-facing one. From a stepping-stool the goblin polished the wood of the of the tree. “No human comes but Chalkwand,” the face continued, glowing eyes fixed upon Bone.
“The Oldspinner summons the family,” said Bone. “The baron has little time.”
“Drudger thinks you have a strange way of gathering them.”
“Curiosity overcame me,” Bone confessed. “How did a tree come to be here?”
“Gogs.” Drudger’s backward face looked upon Bone with a paternal weariness. “Gods have no place here. You humans called gogs ‘giants.’ They called you lahks. And goblin-kind they called phits. But from your point of view—giants. One giant thrust this tree into the ground. Such havoc happened in many places. Rivers and mountains were changed. Many land features hereabouts are their crude sculptures.”
“Where did they go?”
“Disease took them. Many who survived became berserk, preying upon each other. Their unafflicted brethren put them down and fled north, away from men.”
Bone patted the tree. “Impressive. But why tunnel to this portion of the trunk?”
“Yes.” Drudger finished his task and set stool, cloth, and polish bottle to one side. In the candlelight Bone read the bottle’s label: Krumwheezle’s Structural Fortifier. “Are you a wizard, Imago Bone?” Drudger asked. “You spoke of enchantment.”
“No, I’m firmly of the mundane world. My lady love, she’s closer to wizardry than I, as she knows much lore, though she casts no spell.” He smiled. “Save the one upon me.”
“She is kind,” said Drudger’s backward face. The forward face turned to glare at Bone before peering back at the trunk.
“I’ve seen two-headed goblins before,” Bone ventured, “but none that were two-faced, if you will. Forgive me if I offend.”
“Drudger’s front-face is annoyed. But his back-face has different standards. Drudger’s back-face rarely speaks except in darkness. For Drudger was once a priest of the Pondering Gloom. You are speaking to that private aspect.”
“I am honored.”
“Your companion treated Drudger with kindness. When Drudger was a priest he dispensed blessings. Bless you both.”
“Thank you. You were a priest; yet you said gods have no place here?”
“None know Drudger was a priest. The lady banished all god-things to the south tower—”
Pearly light flared from behind Bone, drowning out Drudger’s candle. It emanated from Chalkwand, who emerged from the doorway gripping a minuscule but blazing white cylinder. “You have been long away, Drudger,” said Chalkwand. “You as well, Imago Bone.”
“I sought help,” said Bone. “The baron’s time comes.”
Chalkwand peered for a long moment, nodded, and led them up the passage. Bone followed the blank-looking backward face of Drudger. It mouthed words Bone could not hear.
By the greatroom’s firelight Gaunt heard this story of the buried tree. As the darkness outside grew complete she relayed her adventure at the lake. “What do you think, Bone?”
“I think their whisky looks good.” Bone stole a small glass, which Gaunt declined to share. He sipped. “It is good. Incongruous hints of garlic and pine, but good.” Reflected fire trembled in his eyes. “This haunted log is also our underground tree.”
“That fits with Oren’s hint that the whole mansion’s haunted. Should we therefore flee into the night?” He sipped. “That is our usual approach.”
“Usual retreat, rather,” replied Gaunt with a worry-edged chuckle. “But there is a pattern of unnerving matters here. I fear for the girl Andromeda. And your old friend—he wanted you for something, no? Not just for a farewell. Someone has poisoned him. He fears for his family, and he sent for you. I do not feel right about abandoning them, not just yet.” The flames caught her eye. “Oren spoke of fireplaces?”
Bone did not reply directly. But he finished the whisky, set down his glass with a firm thud, and seized a poker beside the nearer of the two fireplaces. He commenced jabbing the crystalline backing, discovering no hidden switches. Gaunt did the same at the other fire, to no result. The back of her neck tingled, as if at unwanted observation.
“Well.” Bone sighed, disappointed. “I think Oren would not begrudge us exploring his home a little. In fact, a brother-thief would expect no less.”
“Do I look a mess?” Gaunt brushed damp hair from her hot face. “I’ve failed to find a mirror.”
“You look a goddess risen from the sea.”
“Flatterer. Follow me. I’m fallen nobility; I can brazen my way through a mansion.”
She was as good as her word. From the greatroom, the still-dripping Gaunt led them through a series of first-floor hallways, past suits of armor and startled servants, through a kitchen, a conservatory, a tea-room, and a library, all the while nosing into narrow cubbies and cloakrooms and garderobes and servants’ alcoves. At last they returned to the greatroom, re-entering on the opposite side.
“What have we learned?” Gaunt prompted.
“That I’ve been wasting my time breaking into mansions,” Bone answered, “when I simply could have followed you about.”
“There is no obvious access to the most central chambers of the mansion. Fitting with Oren’s statement that such spaces are abandoned.”
“Did you happen to see any mirrors?”
“May I play a hunch?”
He waved grandly. “Oh, lead on, Lady Gaunt.”
They ascended the stairs to the gallery and considered the playroom’s ornate door. It was locked, but Bone jimmied the mechanism and swung the door open.
They took in the elaborate wine-red carpet and the way it represented the struggles of the barony against monsters.
They took in walls bearing artful paintings of famous folk, and the way these were obscured by many leaning canvases upon which a child, one growing in skill, had painted a dozen variants of humanoids all speared through the chest.
They took in a two-towered dollhouse upon a thick-legged table, and the way both dollhouse and table had been sawn to accommodate a huge grinning rag doll whose body lay under the table and much of whose head lay above, filling the central portion of the miniature manse.
“That is both charming and disturbing,” Bone said.
“I had a smaller such doll when I was a girl,” said Gaunt, adding, “Much smaller.”
“Yet you can barely spot the head,” Bone noted. “See? Its button eyes are right behind the miniature fireplaces.” He shook his head. “I do not understand children.”
“Hm,” said Gaunt. “I—Bone, listen.”
There came the murmur of voices, like sounds carried across the lake. However the noise was not borne by water but by a vibration behind a painting. It was as though one of the impaled portraits was speaking. Gaunt, still gripping her dagger, advanced. With its tip she levered the child’s painting aside, revealing affixed to the wall a more formal portrait of a bronze-armored warrior with a family resemblance to Dame Lyra, depicted sidelong, helmet off. Bone pointed toward the figure’s ear, which glinted. Gaunt peered. A tiny metallic tube flared at the earhole, running thence through the painting and into the wall to somewhere beyond the room.
They leaned close.
They heard Fornax’s dim voice. “By the ancestral stars, at least say one word to your grandfather before he’s lost!”
And Andromeda’s toneless response: “Farewell.”
Fornax’s reply, angry: “Andromeda!”
Now Lyra’s, sardonic: “She has said her one word.”
Gaunt and Bone backed away from the painting.
Bone whispered, “Oren said he had a room where he... how did he put it? Evaluated the effects of a curse upon others. Spying, in other words.”
“It’s similar to the principle of the ear trumpet,” Gaunt murmured.
“The what?” Bone replied.
“An innovation from Loomsberg. Sound is concentrated through the wide end of a tube, to be focused on the narrow end. Recall the orating statue in an alcove of the baron’s sickroom?”
As Bone nodded, Gaunt commenced investigating paintings, finding four more ear-holes. But Bone lingered and wished he hadn’t.
Oren’s last breaths fell into a rasping, gargling croak that even Bone could hear. He’d known death rattles before, and although this one came from far off, the silence afterward seemed vast. Bone bowed his head. His folk sometimes prayed—or ranted—to a Walrus God of dubious ontology. “Guide him,” Bone murmured, “if you exist, if he yet exists, to a place of wild debauchery, or at least to peace.”
Gaunt heard him, and put her arm around him.
“The nightspores have taken him,” they heard Fornax say. “It is over.”
“Gone like Perseus,” said Andromeda. “Into the mind of the Great One.”
“What do you babble at, daughter?”
“Goodbye, Father,” Lyra said. “I am sorry this had to be your ending.”
“What was that?” Fornax asked.
Lyra replied, “What will you do now, Fornax? You are baron.”
“And you are baroness,” Fornax said. “I’ll do what I must, to protect my family. I do not know if the boy’s ghost in the lake is somehow responsible for your father’s death, but he is an immediate threat to Andromeda. Tomorrow’s task is to deal with him. If there is a poisoner still at large, that will be a task for the next day.”
“If so, husband, then go bid the outlanders leave, that they might not witness our troubles.”
“I admit I mistrusted them, wife. But they seem... inoffensive. And perhaps they could help.”
“I agree they mean no harm. But this is a family matter. They should go.”
“There is much about your family, and Magog’s Pond, that still escapes me. Perhaps, now that I am baron, you will tell me all you know?”
“Much escapes me too, husband. Like a half-remembered dream... But yes, I will reveal all I can—if you will first send Gaunt and Bone away.”
“As you wish.”
Gaunt and Bone shared a look, then quickly replaced all the childish paintings over the wall-mounted, sound-conveying ones. They darted out and down the balcony and through a door in the south tower. Just before they closed the door, the one in the north tower began creaking open.
Inside the south tower, orderly glass lanterns gave way to scattered torches. There was a downward spiral stair that Bone saw ended at a trapdoor. The upward path seemed more plausible. It led to an open-doored chamber near the pinnacle, which appeared to have once been a chapel but now surely was the guest room to which Chalkwand had referred. An alcove within held shelves of metallic statuettes of various cosmic entities—zodiacal creatures honored by Eldshorens, a living spiral revered by the mathematically-inclined, Orm One-Eye (counted a legend among Eldshorens, a god among Bladelanders), and the Swan Goddess of Gaunt’s homeland. Wedged among them like an uninvited guest was a scuffed book.
There were also a chair, bed, buckets, and fireplace. A pitcher of water, two mugs, and a tray of bread, meat, and cheese lay upon a desk. Gaunt leaned over the windowsill beyond to view the border of moonlit grass surrounding the manse, forest shadows looming on all sides.
Bone tested the door. “Hm. Lockable both ways.”
“A tower of ransom? Regardless, we must remain for now. I see our gear here; I can discard these wet clothes.”
“I’ll light the fire.”
When Sir—no, Baron—Fornax knocked, Gaunt was donning a soft, smoky grey robe that served as her nightgown at need. Bone cracked the door, but Gaunt ducked aside in a way that suggested they’d fully inhabited this room, not just arrived.
“Excuse me,” Fornax said, looking away. “I regret to inform you my father-in-law has passed.”
“I regret I’ll not speak to him again,” Bone said, meaning it. There were few living who’d known him of old.
“I must inform you that his invitation dies with him. I have no great liking for vagabonds, but I’ll not turn you out in the night. Come tomorrow—”
Bone said, “The ghost bound to the log—”
“It’s my burden. I know my father-in-law ordered you to preserve the log, but I am baron now. That is all.” The door closed.
“He eavesdropped upon me and Oren,” Bone said, as quietly as he could. As he combed the walls Gaunt set her boots (that had survived a trip to world’s edge) by the fire.
“Aha.” Bone discovered a painting of ancient Empress Nayne, head cocked as though listening to her destiny. Her ear hole had a flared metallic edge. He stuffed a stocking into it.
“Well done,” Gaunt said, “though let’s keep our voices down.” She lowered her weary body into a chair and her face into her hands, contemplating flames. “There is still a disturbing pattern, and its form is still unclear. Fornax is telling us to go, but it’s not he who wants us gone.”
“It’s Lyra,” Bone said. “But I don’t see why that should be.”
“Nor I.” On a whim Gaunt stood and snatched the ragged book from among the holy symbols. She found it dog-eared, and so opened to that page. The writing was in Roil, the common tongue of the Eldshore, Swanisle, and much of the Spiral Sea. But the calligraphy was deliberately archaic and took squinting.
Priests of ye Pondering Gloom cannot conduct marriages. But we can declare glooomfriends. Gloomfriends stand together in ye dark. Gloomfriends are equals against ye coming of shadows. Gloomfriends are never truly parted.
She considered the cover, into which the words Goblin’s Confession had been incised in the same hand. She reclaimed her chair. “Bone, I need to think. This book might be of help. As will the fire, for which I thank you.”
He knelt beside her. “Perhaps I can assist further.”
She ran a finger along his chin. “The thing I’d most like is unwise now. If there’s danger, I need you rested.”
He winced and squeezed her hand. “I concede the point.” He took the other chair. “Awaken me if there’s trouble?”
“If necessary I’ll throw the book at you.”
“Such a phrase, to use on a thief.”
Bone settled in, secure in the knowledge a scholar was at work, and watched firelight snake shadows among the relics and rafters. He woke often during the night, spied her poring over the book, and returned to black-and-gold dreams.
In one such dream he dwelled in a much smaller house and rose beside a tiny fireplace. He felt spryer, unscarred, and full of passionate urgency. He left this home in the dark before daybreak and walked narrow streets. In the dream it was a warm season, and he felt only a slight chill. The village’s houses sprouted like terraces of angular blue and beige mushrooms from the forested slope, crowding down to the shadow-flecked and wind-teased waters where he reached a handful of finger-like piers. Grey came dream-dawn with the lightest suppositions of shapes, as though gods sketched a canvas. The lake was a rippled blankness beneath motionless emptiness, dark hills an uncertain border between. The only complexities were coiling clouds blowing right-to-left across the hills, slicing white into the grey.
His family (in the dream), like many, kept a rowboat at the longest pier, but he disdained it, tossing his shirt within. His youthful frame (in the dream it wasn’t a matter of enchantment but a simple fact) delighted in a running start along the pier and a cold plunge. He swam for his rendezvous.
How amazing to live! To know courage and daring that both elders and contemporaries lacked!
Soon he saw Andromeda waving from the dark writhing roots of the old log. Mists clung to the lake and veiled the two of them for at least a few stolen minutes from the eyes of the mansion. He grabbed the log, tugged himself close, and twisted his feet into the submerged roots, so that even as his added weight plunged the log deeper into the lake he was secure enough to embrace her as the waters embraced them both to the shoulders. She smiled as if his entire being was a delicious secret she was keeping from the world, him included. As the log plunged he glanced at the mansion and was struck by its similarity to a face with blazing eyes.
Then the chain wrapped around his waist and Andromeda’s fangs sank into his neck.
Suddenly it was dawn, real dawn this time. He sprawled alone, Bone again, in the south tower room. Had he been drugged?
Yet water dripped upon his face. He shivered. What had he experienced?
Out the sealed window all was blankness and trees and fog. The nearer trees spread like cold, gnarled certainties, those of the middle range seeming ghostly tangled rumors while the far-off copses seemed half-imagined fears.
The only trace of Gaunt was the open book on her chair.
He had to find her.
He discovered he was unarmed. All their weapons and thieving gear had been taken. How had he slept through that? He tried the door; it was locked from outside. To keep them from exploring before the baron escorted them out? If so, why was Gaunt not here? He grabbed the Swan Goddess statuette, thinking he could use the tapered wingtips to pick the lock. Or was the door being observed?
Best be surprising.
He used the statuette to smash the window.
If he’d had his rope and grappling hook he might have secured a line to the nearest tree, but in any event he wouldn’t abandon Gaunt to whatever madness dwelled here. Once upon the many-sloped roof he ducked out of sight of Magog’s Pond, as several boats had been tied to the old log and various footmen with Octans the monstrous spider were busy, the footmen with axes and the Oldspinner with strange green glyphs of fire traced into the air by its forelegs, the mystic symbols shining like phosphorescent tapestries.
Away from the lake, Bone again found the mansion’s architecture curious. A boxlike central section, easily half the structure’s volume, rose above the level of the gallery and playroom, though not so high as the towers. This central region had no windows or decoration, just blank stone walls and a sloped roof of ceramic tiles. By itself it could have been a respectable manor, but it put Bone in mind of a huge tomb.
On a hunch, Bone crept to the playroom window, still hefting the statuette, and looked inside. Luck was with him, for he beheld Gaunt, Andromeda, Drudger, and Baroness Lyra. But before he could even wonder why this scene was unfolding, Baroness Lyra slapped Gaunt, the blow so powerful it staggered her.
He did not shout or tremble. All his fury was focused upon the hand that held the statuette; he shattered the glass.
The moon had long since set when Gaunt had found an intriguing passage in the book.
Ye gogs altered goblins as humans altered dogs, for a thousand tasks. Only, gogs used magic in ye alterations, and magic has its own mind. Some goblins were born maphits, hungering for blood as do ye malahks. Ye maphits are gone now, but goblin shapes are still legion—bulk, limbs, wings, tails, eyes, ears, heads. Ye two-faced variety is rarest. We are chosen to be priests or exiles—for to have two faces and be unconsecrated to ye gods is most unlucky.
So a goblin priest—or exile—definitely wrote this, Gaunt thought. Drudger? The title Goblin’s Confession surely bore two meanings. Goblins saw oral culture as living, written culture as dead. For a goblin priest to record his doctrine was itself a crime—and this very work an admission of guilt—
A shriek from beyond the tower shattered her thoughts.
She tried to rouse Bone, going as far as tossing water onto his face. No luck. He merely murmured, “Andromeda...”
“Yes, Bone, Andromeda!”
“Andromeda...” he said, more weakly, and closed his eyes.
“Useless,” she muttered, and departed the room, though she hated to leave him like this, and hated to go alone. But honor wasn’t about being happy or safe. It was about being able to tolerate your own company.
Dawn grey seeped through the greatroom windows across from the gallery and no one seemed about. The scream had come from the vicinity of the playroom. The door was ajar. Inside Andromeda crouched in the middle of a pile of fallen canvases. At first Gaunt thought she was covered in blood.
But the red was paint, speckled with blue and black and brown. She clutched a red-dipped brush like a dagger.
“Are you all right?” Gaunt asked. “What has happened?”
Andromeda distractedly raised a fallen easel. Gaunt helped her. “My mind is going,” Andromeda said. “I paint to hold on. But it’s like trying to grab water.”
“Is there anyone you trust to talk to?”
“My mother. Sometimes. But she has strange moods. My father just dreams of bold days in the cavalry. He is merely a reservist now, with no bond-wyvern. He lost comrades during the Stone Plague. It broke something in him, I think.”
“I can’t claim to know them,” Gaunt said. “But they seem to care.”
“‘Seem’ is the right word.”
Gaunt raised up the unfinished painting: a swollen fanged face with fiery eyes. It was skillfully rendered; Gaunt shivered. The fangs dripped red. “Can no one else help?”
“The footmen are father’s and the maids are mother’s. Octans serves the barony, not me. Half of Drudger likes me and the other half just glares at me. Chalkwand feels contempt for me, I think. She’s my tutor, and I never was a good student.”
“Are there no friends at the village?”
Andromeda’s voice laughed; her eyes did not. “The village children all thought I was Perseus’s lover. They called me ‘slut.’ They were eager to judge me, the baron’s granddaughter. But I wasn’t. I loved Perseus. I wanted it all to unfold in its own time. I became his gloomfriend.”
“That’s a goblin term?”
“I learned it from Drudger’s old book in the old chapel. So we were not lovers yet but gloomfriends. No one believed me. They thought Perseus succumbed to me because our family is wealthy.”
“If your family looms large, that’s all people see.”
“How would you know?”
“Well, you’ve probably never heard of my mother, Olive, daughter of Mulberry. But in County Gaunt, in Swanisle, she’s practically the law. I rarely let people glimpse that I was petty nobility. Otherwise that’s all they’ll pay attention to.”
“Perseus saw beyond all that.”
Gaunt nodded, setting the fanged painting on the easel. She gestured at it, taking a risk. “So... is that Perseus?”
Andromeda’s gaze went glassy. Her voice became sing-song. “Be the gog and stomp the log! Be the gog and stomp the log!” And the true Andromeda drowned behind the lakes of her eyes.
The door hit the wall. Baroness Lyra, carrying a heavy sack, stormed toward Gaunt. Drudger trailed like smoke behind fire. “You should be gone!” Lyra called. She shook the sack. “I will not restore your things until you leave this house! Your man is locked up until you comply!”
“Just as last evening, I heard a scream,” Gaunt said evenly. “Just as last evening, Andromeda needed a friend.”
“She needs nothing,” Lyra said. She still wore her purple evening gown, her hair un-mussed, as though she’d never slept. “You and your man must go. You must not be here when I do what I must do. Unless...” Lyra gazed into Gaunt’s eyes. Gaunt felt as though mist coiled into her mind. “You could protect the log.”
“What...” The room seemed to tilt and twist.
“My fool of a husband has taken his oath. For his first deed as baron, he wants to confront what he believes is the danger of Perseus’ ghost. That is well enough, but his intent is to cut the old log below the waterline. That will not do. I commanded Drudger not to help, and Chalkwand also refused. The Oldspinner is free for the task, however, now that Father has passed. A miscalculation. I should have combined the nightspores with thrallweed, to make Father dismiss Octans before he died.”
“But...” Gaunt tried to shake herself free of the mist, blinking her eyes. Vertigo remained. “If the log’s cut below the waterline, it will no longer attract the youths... surely the ghost can then trouble no one...”
“How little you understand. Perseus’ ghost is of no importance save as a distraction. He belongs to the Great One. Father, may the Great One grant him peace, did not grasp the meaning of the game either. I compel you. Stop Octans. Leave the log be.”
Shakily, Gaunt turned to obey.
There was a time, when she was a girl, that her mother’s brother had touched her wrongfully. Her uncle was a simpleton, with glassy eyes and a smile that came and went like a squirrel upon a listing tree. She’d had no trouble escaping, and though Mother wouldn’t hear a word against him, Gaunt made a point of never being alone again in his presence. Yet when he’d first groped her there was a sense of her will being exiled from her body, a feeling that if an adult wanted her to comply then there was no choice, any more than a river could object to seeking the sea.
Being enthralled by Lyra was like that.
But though Gaunt’s feet carried her toward the door, she was able to speak to Drudger. “Was... was the old baron kind to you?”
“Yes...” whispered the backward mouth, but “Silence! Obey!” bellowed the forward mouth.
“Andromeda,” Gaunt murmured, “We... can help you—”
“Silence!” Lyra backhanded Gaunt into an easel. The hand was thin and bony, but the blow was like steel.
Imago Bone chose that moment to crash through the window.
His cudgel was the Swan Goddess statuette. Lyra hissed at the sight. Gaunt staggered upright, herself again, rubbing her jaw. “Thank you for the distraction, Bone.”
“At your service,” Bone said, brushing away glass with his free hand. “Back away, Baroness.”
Drudger called, “You will not harm Gaunt again,” in his higher voice, turning his back to Lyra.
Andromeda was shuddering back to self-control. “Mother, I remember—you bade me kill Perseus.”
“It was not I,” said Lyra, eyes only for the statuette of the Swan Goddess in Bone’s grip. “I was touched by the Great One’s dreams.”
“Great One?” Bone said, watching her eyes, thrusting the statue experimentally toward Lyra.
Lyra flinched as though confronted with not dead metal but a swarm of bees. She snarled, and her mouth showed fangs. Andromeda screamed. Lyra dropped the sack with a clatter and fled the room.
“Bone,” Gaunt said, mind and body regaining their balance, “there is no time to waste. There is a curse upon this family. I think Lyra is a victim of it too. We must renew our attempt to find a way into the central chambers. Remember what the old baron said about the fireplaces. I think—”
“Wait.” Bone held up a glass-scraped hand. He stared at the dollhouse. “Andromeda, did you stuff this rag doll’s head into the house?”
“I don’t remember,” Andromeda said, “but I think I must have.”
“A representation of the truth?” Gaunt murmured. “A truth you knew in dreams?”
“I’m not sure,” Andromeda answered in a small voice. “Something about the house. Something wrong. What is wrong with Mother?”
“We may be able to help her,” Gaunt said, hoping it was true.
“Old dollhouse,” Bone was muttering. “Thick table legs—thick enough for a mechanism? Oren set up a room for monitoring the house. And for confronting a threat.”
Bone reached in and with two thumbs pressed the dollhouse fireplaces. “‘Child’s play,’” he murmured.
With a rumble, a section of the playroom’s floor shifted sideways and revealed a wooden stairway spiraling into darkness. But the chamber below was not wood, nor stone, but some disquieting, red-veined, grey material. It looked soft. It pulsated like a light sleeper’s chest.
“I suppose you want to go down there,” Bone asked Gaunt.
She shivered at the sight but rallied enough to tease, “Wouldn’t anyone?” More soberly, she addressed Andromeda and Drudger. “You both know something is wrong in this mansion. Something accursed is buried below it. Indeed, part of it is within the mansion. I believe its powers can affect the people who dwell here. I have questions. Drudger, I have been smelling garlic since we arrived here, and Bone tasted it in the whisky. Do you keep garlic here, and burn some in the fireplaces?”
“Regularly,” said Drudger’s forward face, “at the order of the old baron.”
“Did he say why?”
“I’ve also been unable to find a mirror here,” Gaunt observed.
“They are forbidden,” Drudger said.
“By whose orders?”
As Gaunt spoke, Bone busied himself removing items from Lyra’s fallen bag. She asked, “What about the banishing of priests? And the confining of holy symbols to the south tower?”
“The baroness’s orders,” Drudger answered.
“Andromeda, did you see how your mother reacted to the Swan Goddess symbol? Have you seen anything like that before?”
“Once,” Andromeda said. “A turbaned wanderer from far-off Mirabad came to this house for shelter. For his devotions he read from a copy of the book of the Testifier. Mother hissed and threw him out. She showed great strength. And... these days I, too, feel sick to my stomach when I see holy things. It has been a long time since I could hold Drudger’s book.”
Drudger’s two voices whispered something Gaunt could not make out.
She pressed on: “Have there been moments of anger when your mother seems to show fangs?”
Andromeda put her hand over her mouth and nodded.
“And are there times when she can work her will upon you?” Gaunt felt her skin go clammy thinking of it, but it had to be said.
Andromeda pulled her hand away from her mouth and pointed at the dark space below the playroom. “But what can this have to do with Perseus’ ghost? And what is that?”
Having waded this far into this argument, Gaunt had to ford the deep waters. “I do not know what to say about Perseus. But if you want my guess about what lies below, it is a magog. And what a magog is, is a vampire-giant.”
In the commotion that followed (four participants, five voices) it was Bone who, having restored their gear to Gaunt and himself, looked searchingly at Andromeda and silenced the room with a question.
“Whether or not you believe us, Andromeda... And indeed, I’m having some trouble accepting it myself... I am wondering what you would have us do. My friend, your grandfather, knew of the troubles here. I believe he wanted us to help you in particular. If you do not want our help, I suspect we should all just run for the front door. Quickly.”
Gaunt nodded. “I agree. Andromeda, what would you have of us?”
“If you ask for Drudger’s help,” Drudger’s forward face put in, “Drudger will give it.”
“I...” Andromeda began. She looked at the doorway through which her mother had fled. “Things have felt wrong in my family for a long time. I, too, sense there is something out there, trying to change me. I don’t want that. I don’t want it to happen to my mother. I don’t want my father to just daydream about his youth.” She turned back to the others. “If we do flee, will the giant’s hold on my family end? Will we be happy again?”
Gaunt said, “I’ve learned never to venture predictions about happiness. As for the rest, I’m sorry, but I do not know. Distance often seems to matter with magic. But some curses follow the cursed everywhere. It seems this power has affected your family for generations.”
“Then can you kill this thing beneath us?”
Bone grunted. “If it’s truly a vampire, then in a sense it’s already dead. But we might be able to do something. Your grandfather set up this room to fight it. He talked of quelling it. Go to the heart, he said. With faith, he said.” He glanced at the Swan Goddess statuette he carried. “But this is not my faith, if I can be said to have any.”
“It still worked on Lyra,” Gaunt said.
“Nevertheless, I want you to have it.”
Bone passed the statuette to Gaunt, who took it but said, “I’m a most inadequate worshipper of the Swan. I haven’t attended ceremonies in years now.”
“You’re what we have. And I have faith in you. Andromeda, do you want us to try to quell it, however it may be done?”
Andromeda nodded mutely.
Gaunt and Bone clasped each others’ hands. In that wordless contact, their resolve became solid, and shared. Gaunt said, “Drudger... Andromeda... look after each other.”
She and Bone descended.
The wooden stairway was a freestanding spiral winding about a central post. It plunged into a shadowed chilly space, something like an alleyway between two high self-luminous walls. The walls had a texture like quivering, quartz-threaded red clay and a scent like dust in an abandoned house. Footfalls creaked. A ruddy glow bled from the quartz threads.
Gaunt led the way, clutching the Swan statue. Behind her Bone whispered, “If I follow your reasoning we are descending through a...” He hesitated. “...brain?”
“Yes. I believe the greatroom is like a mask set before the magog’s eyes, and the gallery is its brow—built in part from the magog’s own bones—and the playroom occupies a spot just above the eyes. Have you noticed the protruding faces and recessed foreheads of the giants in the paintings? The vast central structure of the mansion, the region that we couldn’t access, holds the bulk of the brain, I’d wager—its dreams permeating the mansion and its inhabitants. The rest of the magog is buried below the mansion, sunk deep into the soil and rock.”
“You’re right,” came a voice.
Light danced forth from the quartz veins and knit together into a humanoid form ahead of Gaunt, like someone rising from the Pond beneath a harvest moon. The voice that went with it was like a whisper across the water.
“The mind of the magog is waking up,” it said. “If you want to quell it you need to reach the heart. But I don’t think you’ll make it.”
“Perseus,” Bone said behind her. “I wore your skin in a dream.”
“I sent that warning,” said the blood-lit shade. “You should have run.”
“Tell us anything you can,” Gaunt insisted. “This is for Andromeda.”
“She doomed me,” said Perseus. “I’ll only be free if the magog is destroyed. How could anyone accomplish that? The best anyone can do is flee.”
Gaunt strode forward, and the red image of Perseus dispersed like crimson fog, only to form again behind them. “I tried to help,” Perseus said. “You will end up like me, a red mist of a dream, in the mind of the magog.”
With that the boy faded.
“How... how did you know what magog meant, Gaunt?” Bone asked, as though distracting himself from Perseus’ grim fate.
Gaunt said, “I didn’t at first. But an old word for men is lahk. And ma-lahks are bloodsuckers. An old word for goblin is phit. And ma-phits also drain the vitality of the living. Well, in the same language, giant is gog...”
As they descended, the walls in the lake’s direction (so Gaunt guessed) widened into a chamber almost as broad as the great hall, with more of the strangely luminous veined material forming a floor. The stairway continued down through a small opening, but it was easy enough for Gaunt and Bone to step off, and they did so, so as to appreciate the eerie wonder of the scene.
The floor was unnervingly spongy, Gaunt thought, as she shifted to regard the chamber. The layout fit her guess that the greatroom was a kind of mask— vast crystalline orbs were fused to panels matching the composition of the pearly fireplaces. Behind each orb were tangles of red claylike masses resembling stalactites twisting to connect the orbs to the veined walls.
“Those orbs are... eyes?” Bone guessed.
“I have to say,” Bone quipped, “I prefer my brains human-scale.”
To their right, as they faced the backs of the fireplaces, was an opening into an earthen tunnel, while to their left was a white door covered in starry markings.
Bone said, “Aha. The far side of that starry door at the bottom of the north tower. And the other... ear? Leads to the trapdoor area of the south tower?”
“And the pit of the nose,” came a voice from behind them, “which you cannot quite see from here, opens upon a root cellar.”
They spun and confronted a fresh figure of red mist—young now, owlish of gaze.
“Oren,” Bone said.
“The same, brother,” the thief-baron said. “I wish I could reminisce. Savor your life together, Imago and Persimmon. Confront the heart with what you truly believe in.” And he evaporated like fog in a red dawn.
Now the starry door burst open and Chalkwand strode forth, namesake glowing in her hand. “How dare you disturb this family?”
“This family dwells in the midst of an old evil,” Gaunt replied, raising her dagger.
“I know,” the wizard said, drawing white signs upon the air. “I keep them ignorant. Even Lyra’s moments of understanding are rare. Baron Orion was always close to breaking through, spreading garlic everywhere and pushing the slumbering magog toward deeper sleep. But I could stay his hand from finishing the job. At last I whispered to Lyra of nightspores.
“You see, the family gains vitality from the magog, thanks to a few sacrifices. A little vertigo and a fisherman drowns. Wolves take a child who strays. Their life force feeds the magog. Only I truly see. I have a comfortable station. I keep them blind to the ways their prosperity is founded upon cruelty. I walk a chalked line.” Likewise, she invoked one in the air with a wave of the pale wand. It was a braid of white arcane glyphs with the look of misty chains. Gaunt and Bone dodged, but too late—cold wisps wrapped around them and bound them tight.
“Stop!” came Andromeda’s voice from the stairway.
Chalkwand waved again; ghostly arcane writing spooled out toward Andromeda. The girl’s folded arms were burdened with holy symbols, and she was unable to evade. The whiteness was a a billowing cloud of letters spelling FORGET. Chalkwand sent similar spells toward Gaunt and Bone, wrapping their faces like cold lace, clouding their vision and their thoughts.
It put Gaunt in mind of tutors who’d come to her family’s ‘mansion,’ the one that seemed halfway a barn, to have her scribble endlessly upon slates. The magic of Chalkwand embodied the dustiest, wheeziest, fussiest moments of those days, when the chalk seemed a biting insect that infected her hand and the slate a squeaky rodent boring into her skull.
Forget... forget your dreams.
Forget... forget your mother’s ire.
Forget... forget your uncle’s leer.
And as the chalk-magic wrapped itself around them all, Gaunt’s whole spirit rebelled. That, more than the straining of her arms, broke Chalkwand’s hold. White dust sprayed everywhere, and Gaunt was free.
“You...” Chalkwand gasped, “you broke...”
Gaunt was at Chalkwand in a flicker and aimed a kick at her head.
“Ahh!” The pale wizard staggered and clutched a scarlet nose.
“It will get worse,” Gaunt said. “Free Andromeda and Bone.”
“No,” Chalkwand moaned. “You will all forget.”
“Release her!” cried two voices, one high, one low, emanating from the same being. Drudger had appeared from a depression in the veined floor. He carried a sack stuffed to bursting with garlic heads. He swung the fragrant bag with abandon.
Chalkwand did not seem afflicted by the garlic as such, but the impact sprawled her and she dropped her white wand.
Gaunt snatched it up and snapped it. Its pearly light faded. Andromeda and Bone were free, coughing white dust.
“Thank you,” Bone called to Gaunt.
“You saved me,” gasped an astonished Andromeda to Drudger.
“Had to,” said Drudger’s forward face, and his backward face said, “to be Drudger.”
Gaunt held her dagger to Chalkwand’s throat. She would never kill a helpless foe, but Chalkwand needn’t know that. “Take us to the heart.”
A grim procession continued down the spiral stair.
They were well below ground level now, proceeding into a chilly abyss that might have been a vast throat. The stairway ended, dangling over the darkness. Were there hints of titanic ribs out there? A rope bridge extended across to a wooden door; both it and the rope-ends were embedded in a grey, veined mass whence oozed a sanguine glow.
“You do take me to all the best places,” Gaunt murmured to Bone.
“You mean this wasn’t your idea?” Bone replied with false gaiety.
“Move, wizard,” Gaunt said.
Chalkwand complied but began to laugh.
“What is so hilarious?” Gaunt demanded as they reached the door.
“You will see,” Chalkwand said. Though the door bore a lock, it creaked open easily.
The chamber beyond was purplish clay-flesh buttressed with wood, as in a mine. In its midst was a softly glowing blue mass the size of a peasant cottage. Gaunt had once seen the oft-forbidden books of the Resurrectionists, who studied anatomy by digging up corpses. She knew the blue mass to be a gigantic heart. Frost covered the heart, and the air around it was cold as the northern tundra. The heart quivered every half-minute, and with that shaking came a sound like a calving glacier crushing a distant ship.
Jabbing downward through one corner of the chamber was the crown of a huge evergreen long since shorn of needles. Branches, either yet clinging to the tree or broken upon the floor, filled half the room. The treetop lay hidden deep within the heart.
“The log in the lake,” Gaunt said. “A stake through the heart. How the gogs dealt with a magog.”
“Indeed,” said the chamber’s occupant.
Lyra had arrived before them. She smiled, and whether her teeth were pointed in truth or it was some illusion of the magog, they glinted. She waved hands before a huge cheval glass. It must have taken great strength to move. Within lay a vision of the tree’s other end. The Oldspinner scuttled upon the exposed log on the lake, waving her forelegs in an incantation. Green fire was consuming the hacked wood.
“They believe they’re trimming the log,” Lyra said, and the image of the lake vanished from the mirror. Now it showed only Lyra’s reflection, but it was a translucent, ghostlike sort of reflection. “They are wrong. I could never reach this chamber while Father lived, but my husband is a fool and never noticed me take the baron’s keys. From here I can do what must be done. I would have preferred you depart first, Gaunt and Bone, but so be it.”
Chalkwand giggled, and Gaunt released her, for she sounded lost and mad. “You aren’t going to forget anymore, are you?” Chalkwand asked Lyra.
Lyra smiled. “Indeed, teacher. You played an interesting game, keeping the Great One vital but allowing no one to awaken him, keeping the tree as strong as possible. Thus your comfortable post would be assured! But even you didn’t comprehend how the Great One called the youths to play their game at the log, disturbing it little by little, weakening its effect on the heart. Father did not see it either. Fornax, in his mistaken belief in a haunted log, has actually stumbled upon a solution, but he will succeed too well. You see, teacher, this tree I have enchanted to be my conduit. My own magic wand, if you will. Through it I will magnify Octans’s magic. She seeks to shorten the log, but she will destroy it entirely. The Great One will wake.”
“What then?” Bone demanded.
“You believe you share his power, Lyra,” Gaunt said, “but you’re really his servant.”
“I have sensed the magog since my childhood,” Lyra said. “Since before, I think, you were even born. I know his moods and his thoughts. I can steer him, use his power for our benefit. I can transform this barony from a sleepy backwater into an awakened giant. This province used to be a celebrated bastion against the wild, but with tranquility it’s fallen into decay. I can take it beyond the narrow visions of my father the former criminal, or my husband the pensioned cavalryman. That is worth a few sacrifices.”
“Including your humanity?” Bone asked.
“Half of you is yet reflected in the mirror,” Gaunt pressed.
“Mother!” Andromeda cried, running up with arms still full of holy symbols. They all toppled as she embraced Lyra. “Mother, come back to us. Be the woman who sang silly shanties to me at night. Who carried me outside to see fireflies. Who took me onto Magog’s Pond to fish, and where we’d watch clouds instead. Be her.”
“Little children,” Lyra said, stiffening but not breaking away, “do not understand the world.”
“They often understand it better than anyone else,” Bone said, “when they grow up in dark places.”
Gaunt nodded and clutched his hand. “You always know the feel of it.” She turned to Lyra. “You know it too, I think. If you’ve sensed the magog so long. You can help Andromeda escape the dark.”
“Lyra?” thundered a voice behind them. It was Fornax at the door, cavalry saber shaking in his hand. “Lyra, is what Octans says true? She sensed your power at the other end of the log... This monstrosity that’s under our house... you’re under its spell? Andromeda too?”
“Ha!” Lyra said, stepping away from Andromeda. “You always knew something was amiss, fool, but chose to ignore it and dream of old glory.”
“I... but this... monstrous. You cannot—”
“You’re not of this family,” Lyra said. “How could you understand? I must maintain our station—and enhance it! An awakened magog will extend his mental domination over this whole region. And if his will is not sufficient, he yet has his fangs. Tancimor, Loomsberg, perhaps the whole Eldshore will kneel before us. Our family will rise, and I will give Andromeda all the finest things—power, riches, servants. All the best.”
“But what if what Andromeda needs is you,” Gaunt murmured, “just you?”
“Please, mother,” Andromeda sobbed. “Let me be just me again.”
Lyra stared at Andromeda as though turned to stone. Then a quiver began at her lips and spread like an earthquake through her sinews. She screamed, snatched up two fistfuls of holy statues, and flung them against the mirror. In the moment before the glass shattered it revealed her almost whole.
One shard nicked Andromeda’s face. Lyra reached out, first with a look of hunger, then of rue. She flinched away. “I am lost.”
“You’re not,” Andromeda said, as Fornax sheathed his sword and embraced them both.
Chalkwand’s laughter bubbled up. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Octans is still trying to reduce the log, isn’t she?”
Fornax nodded. “Below the waterline. What of it?”
Chalkwand’s cackles filled the chamber. Lyra wailed, “I can’t stop it now. The enchantment’s in place.”
But Bone noticed Gaunt in solitary pacing. “Wait! Let Gaunt think!”
And there was silence, in which he was keenly conscious of the beating of the giant’s dead heart, a sound like a titan thunderstorm methodically destroying some far-off land.
“Could a priest use the tree as a wand?” Gaunt finally asked.
Chalkwand laughed as though taking the question as a grim joke.
“What, now?” Gaunt said.
“Answer her!” Bone said.
Chalkwand swallowed her madness, for the moment. “Yes, I suppose. There are sects that use crooks or scepters—”
“We don’t have a priest,” Fornax said.
Lyra sighed. “I banished them all.”
Gaunt said, “Drudger is ordained in goblin beliefs. He told Bone so. He has suppressed this facet of his personality, but it remains.”
Drudger’s forward mouth said, “Do not confirm! A goblin priest cannot live among un-goblins! Drudger the exile would have to return home!”
But Drudger turned to face the great tree, his backward face saying, “What do you wish of Drudger?”
Lyra’s eyes met Gaunt’s with sudden understanding. “You must bless the lake, Drudger,” Lyra said, “through the tree. Sanctify its water!”
“Too much lake, Baroness!” both voices gasped.
“As much as you can.”
Drudger shut four eyes. “Drudger understands,” the backward face said.
Drudger emptied the bag of garlic at the place where the tree met the heart. The heartbeat became irregular as he embraced the portion of trunk closest the cold heart, squeezing his head amidst withered branches. “Sorrow attends me, O Gloom, and I attend the sorrowful, a little candle amid your mysteries. Let me not be dazzled by the brief lightnings and wildfires of existence but understand the shadow that embraces and blesses all.”
The forward face boomed: “Each must sacrifice a token of faith upon the tree!”
Gaunt nestled the Swan statuette into the crook of a branch. Andromeda did likewise with as many holy symbols as she could recover.
Drudger’s backward face chanted in the goblin tongue but the forward face said, “Your faith in these symbols is as shifting as lake-bottom mud. Give more.”
Gaunt’s first impulse was to sacrifice her wax writing tablet. Her second thought was selfish, protective—keep this precious thing. But her third reflection superseded both. The tablet was precious, but was it truly an article of faith? What did she have faith in?
So Gaunt jabbed into the tree that very first dagger Bone had given her, back on the road out of Palmary, before they’d met mermaids and pirates and wizards and so much else. She remembered him saying, If Master Sidewinder’s students ever had faith in a higher power, it was in Tancimor steel.
“Yes,” said Drudger’s high voice.
“More,” said Drudger’s deep voice.
Bone surrendered the book Secrets of the Shadowy Brotherhood that he’d so carefully borne over the months. He took Gaunt’s hand.
“Yes,” said the goblin, and, “More.”
Andromeda plucked the dagger Gaunt had surrendered and carved into the bark A ♥ P. She jabbed it back, into the little heart.
And the mansion shook.
Gaunt said, “Chalkwand. Fornax. Lyra. You too.”
“Why not?” said Chalkwand. “All broken anyway.” The wizard shoved two pieces of broken chalk under the bark; the baron hung his cavalry saber from a branch; Lyra laid her ruby signet ring upon the saber’s hand guard.
And Drudger doffed his servant’s uniform and left it draped over the trunk, blinking in yellow-and-green undergarments like two newborns.
“Magog’s Pond is blessed,” the faces declared.
“Run,” Bone said.
Thief, poet, nobles, wizard, and goblin fled across the abyssal bridge and up the spiraling stairway as behind them came a sound of deep thunder.
And then, I AWAKEN, came a voice seething all around them. I CRAVE BLOOD AND THRALLS. I—
And the voice was drowned out by a terrible hissing that might have been the voice of a giant serpent lunging down toward them.
The great wand, the giant stake, had been destroyed. Holy water rushed in.
The ascent through the vast vampire’s dissolving body was a frenzy of climbing punctuated by terrifying shudderings. Later Bone would recall fractured memories of reaching the south tower through the trapdoor and getting the others out the window of the old chapel with a grappling rope tossed to the nearest tree. As he emerged, the last one to climb out (for he insisted Gaunt go first), the tower came undone.
Time seemed to hold its breath, become as still as Oren had been when they’d first encountered him here. An instant’s assessment told Bone he mustn’t add his weight to the rope, and that Gaunt’s best chance lay with him cutting the rope on this side, allowing her to swing over to the tree. Otherwise the falling tower might snap the rope ahead of her, plunging her to the ground. Gaunt might survive the fall, but he wouldn’t risk her.
He followed through on this choice. Time seemed to recover its breath and speak what it must. He saw Gaunt, shouting ire at his supposed heroism, begin to swing. No time to watch further. With thin hope for Gaunt and none for himself, Bone did his best to skid down the sudden avalanche of stonework.
It should have been impossible, even for Imago Bone. Yet a crimson specter guided him down, weaving this way, then that way, until he spun onto the ground and into darkness.
He slipped into unconsciousness with the voice of Oren in his ears. Our accounts are settled, brother-thief.
When he came to, a poet, a goblin, and a giant spider were all tending to him, and it was not even a tavern joke. His skin seethed in eleven places and his right arm hurt at the merest breeze. Drudger boomed, “He has a broken arm and many cuts and more luck than any mortal should possess.”
Bone managed to groan, “Did everyone make it?”
Gaunt said, “Yes, you great fool! I should kill you for cutting it so close, but poets hate redundancy.”
“My arm says I’ll not be taking risks for a while.”
“Indeed you won’t,” said Baron Fornax, his own arm around Baroness Lyra. “We have no mansion anymore, just a fetid sinkhole. We have no wizard, for that knave’s fled into the woods. Drudger, we’ve released from service at his request. But we yet have a carriage, and gold, and a desire to rebuild the reputation of this family—for in that at least, dear Lyra, you were right to desire a change.”
Lyra, looking relieved of a terrible burden, her smile wan but very human, told them, “Wanderers, you may ride with Drudger in the carriage, and carry enough of the gold to start yourselves anew in Tancimor or Loomsberg. Let there be new beginnings for all of us.”
Andromeda hugged Drudger. The forward face gasped; the backward face smiled.
Later, as the trio rode in their carriage, each painful bump taking them farther from Magog’s Pond, four faces looked back at the bubbling shallows where a mansion once stood. Something made Gaunt say, impishly, “I suppose if you are a priest now, Drudger, you could pronounce me and Bone gloomfriends.”
“Gloomfriends?” Bone said.
Drudger’s backward face said, “Priests of the Pondering Gloom cannot conduct marriages. But we can declare glooomfriends. Gloomfriends stand together in the dark. Gloomfriends are equals against the coming of shadows. Gloomfriends are never truly parted.”
“Will you be my gloomfriend?” Bone asked his lover.
She laughed. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Gaunt took Bone’s good hand. Behind them, sparkles of sunlight blazed upon the waters.