Peliru avoided the road and walked through the forest. The forest was faster and had less people. They were complicated, people. They said something but did the opposite. Humans especially. Humans were an unsolvable riddle. At least Sungura had a tradition, one Peliru understood. Humans changed with the winds. They hated him until he healed them. Then they gave him shiny coins instead of information. He needed to know about the slavers, but all the humans said was avoid the forest. It took days before he realized that’s where the slavers traveled. All he needed was a straight answer.
Before he heard the camp he smelled the smoke. Loosening the sword at his side, he approached then paused when he heard a roar. He then heard laughter. Minotaur roars and human laughter didn’t mix. He blended into the shadows of the late afternoon and moved closer.
Hiding behind a tent Peliru saw the entirety of the camp. A dozen humans surrounded a naked minotaur tied to a post. The beastman roared again and the humans laughed. They drank from bottles and jugs while piling wood around the minotaur. Peliru felt good. These were slavers, and that meant he was on the right track. Time for answers.
Peliru closed his eyes a moment. Although he was a skilled fighter, twelve was a lot. One lucky hit and he’d never find his answers. His spells cast, Peliru stepped into the camp. He kept a hand on his sword but left it sheathed. No reason not to start friendly.
“Hello slaver humans,” he shouted. “I have some questions. Answer them and I promise you a quick death.”
This should have gotten their attention, but it didn’t. The humans kept laughing and drinking. Finally, two men, human gender was so confusing Peliru couldn’t be sure, on the opposite side of the fire saw him and shouted. Peliru waited until all looked his way.
“Yes. Good. As I said, I have some questions. I promise you a quick death if you answer truthfully.”
“Well this one’s got a pair on him doesn’t he?” said a small human close to Peliru. “Didn’t think the rabbit men grew ‘em that big.”
Peliru’s ear twitched. Talking was difficult, but he needed answers. “I don’t know what two things you’re talking about, but that doesn’t matter. Tell me where you take the captives. Be as precise as you can. I also need to know how many slavers will be there and how well armed they will be. If you know any secret ways in, that will also be useful.”
The minotaur roared again, but none of the humans laughed. Peliru took his eyes off the small human just long enough to look at the minotaur. Based on experience, he didn’t think he had much time.
The small human dropped his bottle and faced Peliru. “Maybe I can draw you a map. Would that be better?”
Peliru thought on this. “As long as it doesn’t take too much time. I cannot grant pardon to a slaver, but I guarantee your death will be quick if you do.”
None of the humans looked like they were going to draw a map. None had paper or charcoal. In fact, most were holding their weapons. Peliru sighed. “Fine,” he said. “I will kill the others first. Then you can draw me a map.”
Vines burst from the ground at every slaver’s feet. The vegetation wrapped itself around their legs, their torso and arms, and finally their throat. Every slaver, except for the small one, was pulled to the ground, choking. Vines immobilized the small human but did not choke him. Peliru walked up to him and removed his weapons. “I will find paper and charcoal,” he told the human, “then you will draw me that map. You will have a quick death, unlike the others.”
The minotaur roared again. This time his hands came out as the beastman broke the bindings. Peliru had underestimated the power of this one’s blood rage. “Correction. I will take care of the creature first,” he said. “Then we will work on the map.” As the Sungura turned to the minotaur he noticed something odd.
The minotaur had four breasts.
Things were getting complicated.
A rich Sungura family is still poor by human standards. Sungura lands are not mineral rich so metal is gained through trade. Swords are not easily obtained, but that isn’t why they are so valued. A sword represents a tradition of protection and responsibility going back generations up to and including the liberation of the people from slavery under the minotaurs. The Gambitfoot sword, a finely crafted longsword built solely for function and aesthetically pleasing because of it, represented a large portion of the family’s wealth. Yet, to the Sungura, the responsibility it symbolized is much more valued.
Peliru never touched the blade, not even on accident. His father wore the sword everywhere. It sat next to his bed at night. It hung by his side while he ate. It was within reach while he bathed. At least, it had been. One day Peliru came home and saw his father without the sword. Peliru asked no questions, it could be in only one place. It was buried, laid with one of his ancestors. The spirit would cleanse the blade and make it ready for the next generation. This day was inevitable, and it was inconceivable. Peliru wasn’t ready. His father, standing without a sword, had acknowledged his mortality and passed his responsibilities to a new generation. The elder Sungura was not dead, but he was less alive than he had been. It was too much to take in, so Peliru left the house and wandered.
The reality could not be denied, but it could be ignored. For a little while. A day later his father came to him.
“We have never solved a difficulty by ignoring it,” his father said. His voice patient and kind, making the moment even harder. “Come with me.” His father took a cloak and staff and walked out the door.
Peliru thought of going back to his room. Instead he grabbed his cloak and followed his father. They walked in silence to the burial ground, Peliru’s anxiety climbing with each step. He took glimpses at his father’s face hoping to gain insight but knowing he couldn’t. Every face was unreadable to Peliru. Laughing, crying, anguish, or ecstasy didn’t matter. He couldn’t tell what people felt, and he couldn’t fathom what they thought.
They stopped in front of the gate. Many Sungura burned their dead to insure the soul’s freedom. The Gambitfoots, guardians of the Burrow for generations, buried theirs as an act of defiance. Even in death they stood guard. Peliru and his father looked on lineage of warriors, shamans, and Wardens. Protectors all. Peliru’s father spoke, “It’s in here. Find it but don’t touch it.”
Peliru walked into the cemetery and immediately felt pulled to his left. He followed the urge without thinking, he let his feet go where they will. The living were incomprehensible but not the ancestors. They spoke directly, without subtext or obfuscation. He knew how to communicate with his ancestors, and he knew they loved him and wanted him to succeed. He walked to the grave of one of his great, great aunts. He stood there, looked down, and whispered thanks.
“Now, claim the sword,” his father said. He stood opposite Peliru by the grave. Peliru didn’t look up. He stared at the grave and focused on his breath. Eventually he knelt and reached out a hand.
Digging in the dirt, Peliru pushed until his elbow disappeared in the soil. Then he felt the hilt, grabbed, and pulled. The sword came free with ease. It shown as if newly polished, clean of all dirt. He marveled at the blade. Then he felt, truly felt, the sword. He knew this was his. His father’s sword had been buried. This weapon was his.
“You will need to attune to it,” Peliru’s father said. “It will take some time before you can use its full power, but there is no rush. Or is there?”
Peliru stared at his father and struggled to understand the question. He failed. “I’m leaving for the border at the next moon. You know this.”
His father’s shoulders sagged. “You can do so much good here. For the family, for the Burrow.”
“I will have to marry.”
“Of course. We can still arrange something with the caravaners. The union would be a good one. It would help us all prosper.”
“I don’t…I cannot do that father. I will keep the family vow and protect the Burrow but not that way.” Peliru continued looking at his father who continued looking at the grave.
“Tell me this isn’t about love.” His father didn’t ask a question. “We do not choose our marriages based on love. We choose based on what is good for the Burrow.”
Peliru thought on the subject. “In part I think it is.”
“You think so? How can you not know? It is love or it isn’t.”
“How long have I been your son? How long before you see me as I am?”
“Don’t play victim with me. Your ‘condition’ doesn’t factor here.”
“Of course it does. It always does because it’s not a condition. It is who I am. You ask me a question, I answer it. I don’t dissemble. I cannot. If you don’t like my answer, don’t ask me questions. Better to have silence between us than mockery.”
His father looked up then. Peliru saw the elder’s face change but didn’t know what it meant. “Mockery? You believe I stand here and mock you?”
“You ask me how I cannot know emotions. How could I? What have you seen in my life that leads you to believe I could? The only thing more confusing than figuring out how I feel is attempting to figure out how others feel.”
Holding Peliru’s gaze, his father remained silent for a time. “Do you understand his feelings?”
“Gavin. His name is Gavin.”
“No. I ask him all the time.”
“Then why is he so special you refuse to marry? Why choose to wander alone in the woods away from your family?”
“I don’t refuse to marry because of Gavin.”
“Gavin is special. I ask him how he feels, and he tells me. No matter how often. He tells me the truth, always the truth. No one does that. I don’t have to struggle so much around him because I can just ask. I can relax. I will not marry, I’ll be a Warden, because I can’t live with that constant struggle. I’d rather be alone.”
Peliru’s father continued looking at him. His face moved, but it meant nothing to Peliru. He saw a tear slowly make its way down his father’s face. “I will miss you,” he said. “You will make your ancestors proud. You already have.”
The elder Sungura walked away. Peliru stayed at the site, waiting for his father to make his way back. Peliru would walk alone.
Peliru cleaned and sharpened his sword to calm himself. The weapon could not be stained, the ancestor’s bound to it wouldn’t allow it to dirty or dull. Yet, he sat on a stump and meticulously wiped the blade with an oiled rag, but he was still furious.
The map was useless. The slaver either lied about his knowledge or was particularly stupid for his species. Peliru had promised the man a quick death and had given him one, but instead of answers he had corpses.
And then there was the minotaur. She lay sleeping and wrapped in vines. Intellectually he knew females existed, he just never thought he would see one. It also surprised him that the women were capable of the blood rage. More than capable, she was strong enough to break the slavers’ bindings and even resist his sleep spell, for a time. He didn’t want to kill her, at least not until she answered some questions. He continued cleaning a clean sword.
She woke up more than an hour later. Peliru still sat on the stump cleaning the weapon. He stopped when he noticed her wake.
“I have questions,” he said.
“And I have a headache,” she responded. Her voice sounded as deep as any minotaur, not that he was a great judge. This was the longest conversation he had ever had with one of the beastmen.
“You speak Common. Good. It will make this easier.”
“Untie me, rabbit. I need water and food,” she said. Her voice rose as she came to wakefulness. “Get me my pack while you’re at it.”
Peliru sat on the stump. “Yelling will be bad for your headache. Why are you here? With the slavers?”
“Why do you think? Because the forest is lovely in spring and slaver tours are so affordable.”
“I do not believe you were on vacation. Tell me the truth.”
She turned her head and stared at Peliru. He held her gaze and saw nothing that made sense to him. “You are serious,” she said. Her mouth opened and then shut once before she found her voice again. “Don’t the rabbit people have sarcasm?”
Peliru nodded. “We are no more rabbits than you are cows. And yes, we have sarcasm. I don’t know why though.” He broke his stare and looked into the forest. If only a face were as easy to read as a path.
The minotaur sighed. “I am Liriope. I have been a captive of the slavers for some days. You have freed me.”
“Why were you traveling alone? I thought minotaur females were not allowed in public.”
“We are not. I left my home a few months ago and been traveling east.” She looked at Peliru until he met her eyes. “What will you do now?”
“I have questions, about the slavers.”
“Yes, I will answer them as best I can. I mean what will you do after that.”
Peliru stared at Liriope. She said nothing, and when he didn’t respond she nodded. “So be it. I will not die on my back. I will sit up. And put a sword in my hand.”
“You expect a duel?”
“No, I will not fight you. You have freed me, and I owe you a life debt. I will not harm you, but I will die with a weapon in my hand as a true warrior.”
“I thought minotaur women were not allowed to be warriors.”
“I decide what I am,” she said. Then, in a softer voice, she added, “A warrior’s battles are fought on many fields.”
Peliru leaned back on the stump and thought about what she said. “I suppose so. Where do the slavers take captives?”
“They have a way station further to the west. Maybe three days hard walking. They drop off captives there and prepare them for the markets.”
“You have been inside?”
“Yes. I was held there myself for a time,” Liriope looked away for the first time. Even Peliru couldn’t miss the gesture.
“You said you would tell me. Tell me.”
The minotaur sighed. “I walked into that encampment by accident. I am not comfortable in the woods and didn’t know what it was. They overpowered me.”
“Was that when you escaped? They were you held captive here?”
Again the minotaur sighed. “These humans caught me when I was sleeping.”
Peliru looked at the minotaur a moment, then he chuckled.
“I will not be mocked,” yelled Liriope. “No one can stand against me in honorable combat.”
“That may be so, but slavers don’t fight honorably.”
Liriope looked at Peliru, stunned. Then she tilted her head back and roared laughter. “Well said rabbit warrior.”
Peliru continued chuckling while the minotaur laughed. Eventually he continued his questions. “How are you a warrior?”
Liriope ceased laughing and stared at the Sungura a moment. “I was visited by a Valkyrie. She said she saw my heart. If I stay true, she will bring me to Valhalla where I can join my sisters.”
“The Valkyrie taught you combat?”
“No. She gave me a message. I’ve spent my life gathering information where I could. From stolen books or from secretly studying men train. I hoped to gain formal training after escaping from the males, but that is not to be so. No matter. I will die a warrior.”
“But not a trained warrior.”
“I only need to show the Valkyries my heart is true, that I have done what I could. My soul will join them. Once I am with my sisters, I will never be alone again.”
Peliru turned away. The idea of never being alone disturbed him, but not as much as the thought of always being alone. “You believe them?”
The conversation stopped. Peliru was stalling. There was only one real question left, and it was his to answer. He wasn’t ready.
“What is a life debt? I’ve never heard of it among the minotaurs.”
“It is not from our culture. You saved my life, so it is yours. I will honor that.”
“You’re saying you just made it up.”
Liriope furrowed her brows. “I’m saying I recognize the honorable thing to do.”
Peliru walked to the minotaur, his mind made up. He waved a hand and the vines fell. Liriope sat up and rubbed her arms but otherwise did not move. She was still naked, the brown fur from her head ending at her shoulders. Her torso and waist were human, but her legs ended in hooves and bent backward.
“You should find some clothes first. The slavers may have something you can make fit,” he said.
“I need only a sword. Will you allow me to be on my feet? That is the best way to die.”
“You can get on your feet. Then you should find clothes as well as a sword, some water, food, and other supplies. We have some days of hard travel ahead.”
Liriope tilted her head. “I don’t understand.”
“You said your life belongs to me. I accept it. You will travel with me to the encampment so I can kill the slavers.”
Liriope stood but didn’t move. “There is no love between our kind. Minotaurs kept your people for food, still do in many places. Why let me live? You take a great risk.”
“Why would you stand there and not fight me?”
“That is about honor.”
“Then so is this.” Peliru stood and watched Liriope look at him. She was right. This was stupid. He had no way of knowing what she would do, but he knew he couldn’t kill a slave in cold blood.
Liriope looked at Peliru, but he didn’t understand what he saw. She stared at him and then looked at the sky. Walking away she said over her shoulder, “I will need an hour. Maybe two.”
Peliru watched her sort through the slavers’ weapons for a while. Finally, he started looking for food. He hoped they had honey cakes but doubted it.
Peliru couldn’t stop staring. Even he knew it was rude, but he couldn’t stop. He would force himself to focus on something else, anything else. He tried admiring the jugglers. He looked at clothes. But his gaze always turned back to the bowyer. Peliru studied his face, then realized he was staring again. The cycle repeated.
It was too much. He turned away and decided to walk in the woods for a while. His father’s meeting with the merchants could last for days. Even if everything concluded immediately, they would still stay the night. This village was larger than home and far away. The market square was bigger than any Peliru had seen before, with people moving back and forth in a giant, stressful horde. Perhaps that stress was why he needed to focus on something, or someone. Like the bowyer, who bent carefully over his work. It was fascinating. The way the scar over his left eye scrunched up when he concentrated on a difficult section. Looking at the bowyer helped Peliru block out the crowd. But it was rude. So he looked away. He needed to get to the woods, but he didn’t move.
The tap on Peliru’s shoulder scared him witless. Sungura generally aren’t surprised by anything. The least observant can usually see and/or hear whatever can be seen or heard. Peliru was more observant than most. As long as it didn’t have to do with how other people felt, he noticed details. But the tap came as a complete surprise. He gave a little jump and turned around. It was the bowyer.
Peliru stared at the Sungura and did nothing.
“Name’s Gavin,” said the bowyer. His voice was rough, hoarse even. The words were clear but Gavin sounded like he’d been talking all day. Yet Peliru hadn’t seen him talk to anyone all morning. “It’s time for midday meal. I’m going to go eat a bowl or two of soup. I’d rather you share some with me than stare.”
Peliru stared. Gavin’s fur was gray, unusual but not unknown. The bowyer’s leather vest was worn but serviceable, and so were the pants. Peliru still said nothing. Gavin snapped his fingers in front of Peliru’s nose.
“I see I may have lead with too much,” said the bowyer. “I’ll start slow. What is your name?”
“Peliru. Peliru Gambitfoot.”
Gavin nodded. “Good. This is working. Will you share midday meal with me Peliru Gambitfoot?” Peliru nodded. “That’s also good. Follow me.”
Gavin started walking through the market, past his now closed stall. As they walked Gavin spoke, “How long has your family had a name?”
“I’m the sixth generation.”
Gavin nodded. “That’s impressive.”
“We’re mostly Wardens. My ancestors fought the minotaurs.”
“You a Warden?”
“No, not yet. I mean, I don’t know. I make the decision this season, but I don’t know.”
“What’s not to know?” Gavin maintained his stride and didn’t turn as he talked. Peliru found it easier to talk if he matched the pace and looked straight ahead.
“I like the forest. I’m good on patrols, have some ability with mana. It’s also good to have a clear purpose. Wardens help those in need and kill whatever threatens our home. It’s simple.”
“Sounds like you do know then.”
“Yeah, but it’s so…I don’t know. Being a Warden is for life. It’s living in the forest for life. That’s a big decision.”
Gavin stay silent as they made their way to the end of the market. They got to a small building that smelled wonderful. Gavin stopped and turned to Peliru. “Is it the idea of doing it for the rest of your life that bothers you? Or something else?”
Peliru couldn’t look Gavin in the eye and he couldn’t look away. “What do you mean?”
“That answer makes me think it’s something else then.”
“It’s just…Wardens live alone. They’re alone all the time.”
“You don’t like to be alone?”
“That’s just it. I do like it. If I become a Warden, I don’t think I would do anything other than be alone. I want to do something I like, something I’m good at, but I don’t want to be trapped.”
Gavin nodded and stared. Peliru didn’t know what it meant. He hadn’t intended to say so much to someone he just met. It seemed strange to be so open, but it felt stranger to hold back.
“You need a honey cake. Maybe a few.”
“Honey cake. It’s a specialty of Gurmier, the baker. This is the only place that makes them. They’re delicious and will help you think.”
“How can a pastry help me think?”
“Damned if I know, I just know it’s good. I also need bread. You got the family name so you’re buying. I’ve got the soup.” Then Gavin walked into the shop. Peliru stood in front of the door trying to process everything. A second later Gavin came out.
“You’ll need to come inside to pay.”
Peliru went inside. He bought bread and a dozen honey cakes. Afterward they walked back to Gavin’s home, a small house with a garden in the front and workshop on the side. The soup was simple but flavorful. They ate and talked about everything and nothing. Peliru tried the honey cakes.
They were delicious.
Liriope was ready within an hour, but Peliru told her to take a little longer. Yes, they were in a hurry, but it meant they needed to spend their time wisely. There would be no stopping. The duo planned to walk until they found people they would kill.
While Liriope scrounged for better equipment, especially a shield, Peliru looked for honey cakes. Gavin had been wrong. Every village in or near the forest made them, even the humans. None tasted as good as those from Gurmier, but a bad honey cake was still lovely. Of course, he didn’t find any. The idea of raiding slavers maintaining a secret stash of pastries did seem odd, but one could hope. He did find what he needed to finish the job himself. Within two finger spans of the sun he had the ingredients together. Laying them out on a semi-clean cloth, he concentrated on them and spoke a few words in the casting language. In moments he had a batch of honey cakes, and he couldn’t resist eating just one. He had meant to save them all, but it would be bad form if the spell hadn’t worked properly and he arrived with something awful. They were thoroughly average, but, proving his theory, the mediocre pastry was still delicious.
Peliru wrapped the cakes and put them in his pack before looking for Liriope. The minotaur had scrounged a good sword and shield. She had even pieced together sufficient armor. Peliru found her packing bits and pieces of supplies into a scavenged pack. He noticed blood on her mouth and arms. “Are you injured?” he asked.
“Of course not. Why do you ask?”
Liriope wiped her mouth and looked at her hand. Seeing the blood, she licked it off before replying. “Sorry. Always was a messy eater.”
“Do I want to know what you’re talking about?”
“Relax. Unless you’re acquainted with these slavers, this is no one you know. You rabbit folk can live on grass and twigs, but a minotaur needs meat.”
Peliru said nothing, only turning around and pretending to study the path ahead. He knew about the minotaur diet. They didn’t need just meat but also the brains of sentients or they turned into feral beasts. He knew this like all Sungura knew the habits of their enemies, but he had never seen a minotaur eat before. The idea of eating meat disgusted him, but the idea of eating a corpse was too much. Peliru focused on his breath to calm his stomach. Liriope sat behind him, loudly smacking her lips and chuckling to herself.
“It’s time to go,” he said. He hadn’t turned from the forest. “I hope you can run on a full belly.”
“Don’t worry,” she said as she stood and shouldered her pack. “It was only a light snack. I’m hoping to find someone truly tasty at the encampment.” The minotaur jogged into the forest, chuckling under her breath. Peliru followed, thankful that running took his mind off food. Even an underwhelming honey cake deserved to be kept down.
They found the slavers in less than two days but waited until nightfall to scout. Despite her size Liriope scarcely made a sound and the pair got close enough to easily map the camp, count their foes, as well as determine where the captives were being held. It helped that the slavers were profoundly sloppy. Guards were more interested in dice than looking out for trouble. Within two hands of sunset most of the slavers drank themselves unconscious. Peliru and Liriope retreated to plan their assault.
“I don’t see how this can be difficult,” said Peliru once they were back to their own bivouac. “I should be able to get in, free the slaves, and fight out. The most dangerous part will be the moment the pens are open but before all the captives are armed. I’ll save my mana to summon some support.”
“What will you need me to do then?” asked Liriope as she sat across from him.
“Your part is done,” said Peliru. “Thank you for the help. The blood debt is paid.”
“It’s amusing you think yourself competent to judge a blood debt.” She then tilted her head. “But you don’t make jokes, do you? You were speaking out of a sense of honor?”
“I am. There’s no need to risk yourself. You can go.”
“I see. The odds are overwhelming and so you wish to show mercy. Noble, but unnecessary.”
Peliru grew frustrated. “I mean I can do this myself.”
“Oh, I know. You and I together greatly outnumber these fools. By sending me away you hope to reduce the number of dead slavers, yes? As I said, you are being noble but unrealistic. I not only have a blood debt to you, I must avenge the slight on my honor. The slavers must die. That means an unfair fight, but that is their fault.” Liriope could no longer maintain a straight face and began quietly laughing to herself.
Peliru stared at her, their faces less than two feet apart. “You are joking with me?”
Still chuckling, Liriope replied. “You are learning Sungura. Although I am serious when I say I will kill them all. Come. We have to create a real plan now.”
He sensed the call but didn’t understand it. Peliru knelt by a tree, slowing his breathing slowed and expanding his awareness of the forest. But the call came from the sword not the physical world. He understood the message from his father, “You must come. There has been an attack.”
Through the message he knew the location of the skirmish. He knew it was over. He also knew his father was hurt.
Peliru put his hand on the tree and asked it for help. The complex spell took time to cast but was well worth the extra effort. He disappeared into the tree, then its roots, and then passed through the hidden network of nutrients and water connecting all plant life in the forest. In half a day he traveled farther than a week’s worth of walking and exited out of a different tree near the site of the attack. He took a moment to thank the forest and gain his bearings before heading out.
Blood, sacks, and other items covered the path of the trade caravan. Bodies, human bodies, lay scattered as well. Peliru noticed hoof prints crossing over the path and disappearing into the woods. Cautiously, with his hand on his sword, he moved forward looking for danger or survivors. He found a group of injured Sungura gathered around a fire. His father walked from one individual to another speaking words of encouragement and looking at wounds. Every person eased back on their bedroll after the attention.
“Father, I heard your call although I don’t know how,” he said. “Does anyone need attention?”
Peliru’s father looked up. He embraced his son who, as usual, awkwardly reciprocated. “The sword bonds you to your ancestors, all of them, in physical ways,” said the elder. “Anyone who has wielded it can contact you if the need is great.” His father took a step back.
“Thank you father. What of the injured?”
“I may not be a Warden, but I can heal. Those here will recover.”
“What do you mean ‘those here’? What has happened?”
“Raiders. Human slavers. None of them looked well nourished, and they didn’t fight well. But what they lacked in quality they made up for in numbers. We were able to fight them off. Mostly.”
“Tell me everything. How many? Which direction did they come from, and which way did they run?”
“It was a sudden raid with most of the attackers on horseback. They probably thought to quickly overwhelm us then go through the spoils at their leisure. They weren’t able to take much, but they got a few people.”
“They have captives? How many?”
“A dozen or so were taken. They headed south, likely to the river and on to human lands.” His father shifted his feet and took a deep breath.
“There is something else. Gavin was here. He was on his way to deliver some bows. He fought like a demon, Peliru, saving many lives. But one of the slavers hit him from behind, pulled him onto a horse, and took him.”
Peliru felt cold, then hot, and then cold again. “Was he alive?” he whispered.
“They wouldn’t take him unless he was alive. They are slavers. He and the others won’t be treated well, but they won’t be killed as long as there’s profit to be made.”
Peliru looked south as if by will alone he could see Gavin across the distance. He turned back to his father. “Why are you here? This isn’t a normal business area.”
His father nodded his head. “No it’s not, but I’m hoping it will be.” The elder Sungura sighed heavily and then clutched his side, wincing in pain. Peliru rushed to offer assistance but his father waved him off. “It’s nothing,” he said. “One of the humans got in a lucky hit, but I healed it. This is a cramp. It happens when you get old.”
The merchant, patriarch of his family, turned toward a different wound. Still holding his side, he spoke in a whisper so soft Peliru had to strain to hear. “Other things happen when you get old. Things like worry. Not worry for yourself but for those around you. You worry about the safety of the people you love. Worry if they’re making the right choices. Worry they’ll make the same mistakes you did.”
His father turned to Peliru. “Sometimes this worry takes over. You can’t listen or trust when the worry takes over because you’re afraid. I didn’t want you to be a Warden because I was afraid you’d be alone. I was afraid the family would be alone. That I would be alone. But the day you took the sword showed me I was wrong. Being a Warden means you’re away, but you’re never alone. We are family and always will be.”
Peliru’s father took a step closer and put his hand on Peliru’s shoulder. “I came to see Gavin. He was going on a delivery so I came with him, to set up some trade but really to see him. You are a good son. If you love him, he must be special. I have walked with him, fought with him, and you are right. He is special. So are you. Go find him and the rest of our people. Be the Warden our ancestors saw in you.”
Peliru looked at his father. “Thank you.”
“I love you.”
Then Peliru ran south. Despite his forest skills he couldn’t catch up to the mounted slavers. He lost them at the river. It took days but he tracked them to a new forest. He made his way through the woods until he found a camp. It wasn’t the group that attacked his father and took Gavin, but it showed he was on the right track. In that camp he met a minotaur.
Peliru and Liriope made final preparations in the hours before dawn. Their plan relied on surprise and superior fighting skill as well as Liriope’s strength. When they had done all they could Peliru sat on the ground sharpening his sword, worrying.
“How strong are you?” he asked Liriope.
“I have never met anyone stronger than I am.”
“Victory could depend on how many people you’ve met.”
Liriope didn’t answer. She looked down at the camp and planned her route to the gate. The biggest danger was being surrounded and then overwhelmed, but Liriope turned risk into advantage. They planned a series of surprise attacks. She would charge the gate while Peliru slipped inside and freed the captives. Anyone capable of fighting would be armed and then the force would attack the slavers from behind after Liriope drew them outside the encampment. She argued her strength could open the gate so Peliru didn’t need to accompany her. The truth was she wanted to be alone. With no allies nearby she could focus solely on killing. Peliru worried about being swarmed by slavers. Liriope counted on it.
Just before dawn Peliru slipped out to his position and Liriope began a slow count. At the 100 mark she charged the gate, trusting the Sungura was at the fence nearest the captives. She stayed as silent as she could while running in full armor. The duo had wagered the slavers’ lackadaisical attitude regarding camp security would get her at least partway unnoticed. She ran the entire distance unchallenged. She stood by the closed entrance shaking her head. Either the slavers were supremely arrogant or monumentally incompetent. She put her shoulder to the gate and watched in shock as it swung open. Not locked, not barred, not even guarded. This was just too much.
Liriope’s roar was Peliru’s signal. He leapt the fence. Expecting to see a flood of slavers running to the gate, he instead saw a few humans wandering to water barrels and horse troughs where they dunked their heads. Most of two score of slavers, however, were sprawled on the ground still sleeping. Peliru threw himself into the pre-dawn shadows. Eventually he heard a voice rally the humans. The conscious grabbed whatever weapons lay nearby and kicked the unconscious into action.
He made his way to the slave pens. Although he longed to shout for Gavin, he stayed focused on the plan. He would take care of any remaining guards, arm whatever captives could fight, and then come to Liriope’s aid. But there weren’t any guards. All the slavers had run to the gate, meaning Liriope faced much greater odds than originally thought.
Peliru’s sword made quick work of the lock. Soon he had a group of able-bodied captives ready to fight. The slaves, mostly Sungura but with a significant number of humans, grabbed what they could as the troop of about 15 made their way to the gate. Most had poles and sticks serving as makeshift quarterstaffs and clubs. A few had blades. Peliru hoped they wouldn’t have to fight. The slavers were incompetent and hungover, but they were also better fed, rested, and armed.
The fight was almost over by the time the group arrived. Liriope stood just inside the gate. She held a sword and shield, hacking her way through what little opposition remained. The slavers had apparently put up stronger resistance earlier because the minotaur was surrounded by the dead and dying. She roared and then charged parts of the semi-circle around her. At each charge one or two slavers fell. Liriope then leapt back into position, preventing anyone from running through the gate. Alone she surrounded the entire camp.
One of the slavers turned and saw the coming reinforcements. He yelled a warning to the others then threw down his weapon and raised his hands. His brethren took in the situation and soon all the slavers surrendered. It was less than a finger span after dawn.
Peliru cast a quick spell the new prisoners. He walked to Liriope cautiously. The blood rage blinded minotaurs to allies, and if she were still under its influence the troop may yet face a fight. With the battle over so quickly it was possible Liriope hadn’t had time to quiet her battle lust.
“How are you?” asked Peliru. “Liriope, can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you,” she shouted. Peliru stopped and put a hand to his sword. “I am greatly disappointed. Cooks preparing a midday snack have faced greater threats. These are no warriors. These are vermin.”
“Do you see me, Liriope? I am your ally. Peliru.”
She turned her gaze to the Sungura. “Do you think I used my blood rage? With this filth? I’m just angry. I had hoped to prove myself in honorable combat. Instead I faced idiots.” She snorted her disgust.
“Oh, I see. Sorry for that, I guess. Maybe next time.” Turning back to the troop, Peliru noticed the former slaves had not relaxed. The Sungura especially were picking up fallen weapons and facing the minotaur.
“Don’t turn your back on it,” yelled a brown-furred woman in the front. “Are there more Warden? We should close the gate.”
Peliru didn’t understand. More what? The battle was over. Why all the tension?
“She means me,” said Liriope. “She sees me as a threat, and I can understand that. She shows honor though. Ready to meet it head on. Good to see that.”
Peliru nodded his understanding. He sympathized with the group’s reaction since it had been his own, but his patience wore thin. He wanted to finally find Gavin. “Yes,” he said, “about that. This is Liriope. She and I are….” He paused while searching for the right word. He could only think of the one he already used. “We are allies. She helped me free you all.”
“I ‘helped’?” Liriope said from behind him, and not quietly. She snorted again. “Minotaur or rabbit, a male is a male.”
Peliru ignored her and continued. The crowd still held their weapons, and he was out of patience. “You recognize me as a Warden? Would a Warden put you in danger? No, you don’t understand, but your understanding isn’t necessary. There are injured to care for, supplies to gather, and prisoners to deal with. Go. Now.”
They relaxed, but the troop didn’t break up. He had raised doubts about the minotaur threat, but they weren’t convinced.
“You know me,” said a human woman. She walked to the front of the group. “We have been in the pens together. You all know my abilities. The minotaur is no threat. I would know, just as your Warden knows. He is right. There is much to do. Let’s do it.”
That was enough. The humans walked off to take care of tasks. The Sungura joined them, but not one turned their back on Liriope. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything.
The human walked to Peliru. She stood in front of him and spoke. “I thought you were coming at night,” she said.
“Pardon?” Peliru asked.
“I must have read my vision wrong,” the human said. “I thought you were coming at night.”
“We scouted last night,” answered Liriope. She stood in the same spot wiping down her sword.
“That explains it then,” said the human. “Visions are hard to understand, especially those of the future. No matter. I am Vladina, and I understand you are looking for someone.”
“Gavin,” said Peliru, so relieved and anxious to start his search he never thought to ask how Vladina knew. “He has gray fur and a scar over one eye. Do you know where he is?”
“I know he was in the pens, at least until a few days ago. He was hurt, and I healed him. He kept fighting the guards. I don’t know where he is now. I will help you search after I’ve tended to the injured. I will ask about Gavin.”
Peliru nodded his thanks. He barely acknowledged Liriope closing the gate and moving outside as he ran off. He searched the camp twice. He asked every captive, but they all said they hadn’t seen Gavin in days. He questioned the slavers, beating more than one more severely than intended, but they were useless. Finally, after hours of searching, he decided to turn to his ancestors.
He found a quiet spot in the camp away from the others and took out his sword. Closing his eyes, Peliru meditated. First he focused on his breath until his conscious mind filled with nothing else. Then, when he had full awareness of his surroundings, he asked his ancestors to take him to Gavin. Just like that day in the cemetery, Peliru let himself be pulled. He walked to the gate, pausing only to open it. Liriope asked him a question, but he shook his head and walked on. He walked away from camp about 100 yards off the main path. There the sword pulled him to a large patch of dirt. The sword plunged into the earth.
Peliru realized what this meant. He screamed and began digging. He didn’t notice Liriope digging with him. He just screamed. He yelled Gavin’s name over and over even though a part of him knew it was fruitless. He found Gavin buried with five others.
The walk to Gavin’s village always seemed long. Peliru never could make the journey fast enough, but this trip seemed especially long. He thought about what he would say. He practiced his speech and then realized it sounded silly. He started again. When he finally arrived at the cabin he still didn’t know what to say. And he realized he forgot the honey cakes.
Gavin, as usual, opened the door before Peliru had a chance to announce himself. Peliru smiled and Gavin smiled back before saying, “You forgot the honey cakes again.”
Peliru said nothing. He broke eye contact and looked down. Gavin sighed a reply. “It’s a good thing you’re cute.”
They went inside. Gavin got the tea ready while Peliru put his stuff down. They sat at the table.
“I have something to tell you,” Peliru began. Then he stopped. He stared at his tea and said nothing.
“Take your time,” said Gavin.
Peliru still looked down. He fought to hold back tears and failed. Gavin knew how to give him space. He knew what he needed, and he enjoyed, honestly loved, providing it. In that moment Peliru understood what he was giving up.
“It’s OK, Peli,” said Gavin as he grabbed his hand. “Whatever it is will be OK.”
“This is a tough one, Gav.” Peliru wiped his eyes and looked at Gavin. Still holding hands Peliru took a deep breath and began
“My family won’t sanction the marriage. We performed the rites, and the ancestors said this bond wouldn’t help protect the Burrow. It’s been interpreted as breaking the family vow.”
“Who interpreted it?”
“My father. And the shaman.”
Gavin looked at his tea. “Is it because I’m a craftsman?”
“Maybe. Probably not though.” Peliru took another deep breath as the tears came again. “I’m sorry. It’s our vow. I can’t…I can’t forsake…I can’t….”
“Of course you can’t,” said Gavin. His head whipped up, and his eyes grew hard. “You don’t just leave family or walk away from an oath. That’s a type of suicide. You don’t give up on those bonds, Peli. Especially not you.”
“But then I’ll have to give up on this. On you.”
“No, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Ancestors said marriage to me breaks the vow. Did they say anything else? You need to marry someone else?”
“No. My father wants me to marry into another merchant family. But that’s his idea, not the ancestors.”
Gavin sat up a little straighter. “Is it that caravaner’s kid? The one with the skinny ass?”
Peliru looked down again. “I don’t know. Never really noticed.”
“Sadly, you’re telling the truth.” Gavin rubbed the other’s hand. “Do you want to marry someone else?”
Peliru’s head shot back up. “No! If we can’t be married, then I won’t marry at all.”
“Why’s that? Why would you give up the happiness of a family just because it’s not the exact happiness you want?”
Peliru knew that none of the words he practiced would help. Only the truth would answer this question, but it was a truth he never told anyone. A thought he never spoke aloud. Every time he thought this thought he promised he would never speak of it because to say the words would give them too much weight. The mass of the thought would crush him. But that promise didn’t mean anything in this moment. The thought was already crushing him.
“Do you know about zero?” he asked Gavin.
The other Sungura’s face changed. A moment later Gavin replied. “Sorry about the face thing. I was trying to say I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about the concept of zero, the number. I learned the history from a tutor when I was much younger. Zero means emptiness. It makes it possible to calculate all kinds of things. Because of zero we can represent all the numbers we can think of using only ten symbols. It’s a placeholder making other numbers more meaningful.
“I thought about that for a long time. I came to believe it applies to people as well as numbers. Some people are not here to do much. Some are here to fulfill one job and nothing else. I thought that was me. I thought my purpose was to fill a spot so that others wouldn’t have to. So that others could be more meaningful. I thought of myself as an emptiness. That’s why I can’t understand people. I’m not supposed to understand because I don’t need to.” Peliru stopped, closed his eyes, and bowed his head.
“By the gods that’s awful,” whispered Gavin. “It means you’re barely even alive. Peli please tell me you don’t believe this anymore.”
“Not exactly,” he replied. He raised his head and looked at Gavin. “I love you. You love me. That’s not possible if I’m zero. I won’t marry someone else because I don’t have to. I know you exist. I know the love exists, and that means I’m not empty.”
Gavin looked at Peliru. “You move in small steps, don’t you? You aren’t empty. And love doesn’t have to be in just one place. You can build it everywhere and anywhere you want.”
“This, what we have, is a lot for me, Gav. It’s wonderful, it is, but it takes a lot.”
“I know. Everything wonderful takes a lot.” Gavin refilled their tea even though it didn’t need refilling. “Let’s focus on one thing. Let’s just try to add one thing at a time. That may work.”
They stayed together all that day. They cried a little but laughed a lot more. Eventually, they got the honey cakes.
Peliru woke up in a tent. He had no idea how he got there or even when he fell asleep. He looked out the flap into the night. Then he thought of Gavin. Gavin was here, and Peliru needed to find him. Only when standing did he remember he had found Gavin. He remembered the rotting corpse buried in a pit alongside other Sungura.
The memory consumed him. A tide rose, steady and unstoppable. It swallowed his heart, it swamped his brain leaving nothing but loss and guilt and fear. Gavin was gone because Peliru wasn’t fast enough to save him. Gavin was gone because Peliru wasn’t strong enough to save him. Gavin was gone because Peliru left.
I left him alone, Peliru thought. I left him alone and now he’s dead. I have killed the only one who thought he could love me.
Peliru didn’t realize he was shouting. Hands, human hands, gripped his shoulders. A human voice yelled at him over and over until Peliru focused on it.
“Hear me Warden,” the voice said. “Hear me! You must be here. Focus on my voice and come back here.”
“Why?” he asked in a whisper. “What is here? My failure? What is there to come back to?”
“That question must always be asked.” The voice belonged to Vladina. She looked tired, and some part of Peliru was surprised he knew that. After a moment she continued, “Now is a good time to ask those questions but not a time to think of answers. The shock of grief must be lived through before meaning can come.”
“Don’t talk to me of grief or meaning. Don’t talk to me at all.”
Vladina stood. “We will talk later then. There is something we must discuss. It will wait.” She left the tent, and Peliru was alone.
Some hours later he still sat in the tent. He hadn’t left to eat or drink although he needed both. The effort to move was greater than the discomfort, so he sat. He thought if he was still enough, if he was silent enough, perhaps existence would forget and move on without him. Vladina interrupted the experiment.
She came into the tent holding a jug of water, bread, and cheese. These she put in front of Peliru and then sat on the floor. She wore a tunic, breeches, and sandals. Her black hair tied into a tail behind her head. She was older, or at least he thought so. Humans were difficult to judge, but her eyes had lines creasing her brown skin. Dangling from her neck he saw a leather strip holding a wooden swan.
“You’re a priest?” he asked.
“A little more than that. At least I think so. Priests are not required to do much of what I do.”
“What is it you do?”
“Like you, Warden, I go where I am required when I am needed there.”
Tears came to Peliru. “Don’t. Don’t pretend or patronize. I was needed here, but I wasn’t. He is dead because I wasn’t here.”
“There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind, so I won’t try. I don’t need to say anything to you other than this offer. Please, let me tell you everything before you answer. Can you do that?” Peliru looked at her and nodded, unsure and uncaring of what she meant.
Vladina continued, “My goddess wanted me in this forest. While here I was captured by the slavers. Originally I thought my purpose was to fight them. Then I had visions, ones where I saw you. Just before you came the goddess told me what I needed to do. I am here to offer you a chance at a conversation. It will be short. I’m sorry but the power required is enormous. But it may help you.”
Peliru shook his head. “Your offer is to talk with me? Or do you want me to speak with your goddess? Neither of those proposals interest me.”
“No,” she answered in a patient, almost monotone voice. “The conversation I offer is with your mate, Gavin.”
He was silent. Vladina didn’t move, and Peliru studied her. “If you are tricking or toying with me, I will kill you.”
“I do neither. This is a single offer. I have been given the ability to do this ritual once and only for you.”
He studied her face and remained confused. “Why?”
“I honestly don’t know. All I’ve been told is that you are needed, and this will help you do what you must do. The gods are not allowed to act directly in our affairs, but they can nudge and assist. They can also make deals with others. I believe the forest you defend is important to us all, and my goddess wants to make sure this loss you suffer doesn’t stop you from doing your duty.”
“I don’t know what goddess you worship, and I don’t care. Why would she care about me?”
“As I said, the gods make deals. She needs the forest protected, or she needs you to do something only you can do. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, it is important. That is why I am here.”
He couldn’t think of a good reason to say yes. If she was lying, the crush of disappointment would be too much to bear. Yet, he knew he would accept. The odds were against him, but if there was any chance to say goodbye he had to take it.
“Yes,” he said without feeling or conviction.
Vladina cocked her head and nodded. “Would you like to be in the tent or somewhere else?” Peliru shrugged a reply. “We will stay here. I will need an hour. Do not move once I begin. Let me know when you’re ready.” Again he shrugged.
Taking that as a yes Vladina lit a candle and placed it between her and Peliru. She closed her eyes and chanted. He sat looking at her and the candle and trying not to think or feel. Time passed and it meant nothing. The touch on his shoulder scared him witless.
“Hello Pelli.” Seated next to him was Gavin with the scar over his left eye. Gavin sat on the ground, not in the dirt. His skin wasn’t rotting off and vermin didn’t eat his flesh. Peliru said nothing.
“I’m proud of you,” Gavin said. “You did so well. Even made a friend with a minotaur. That was really something. Unconventional but effective.”
“How can you say that?” muttered Peliru as the tears fell again. “How can you be proud of me? I killed you.”
“Stop Pelli. Stop this. It’s not fitting for you. Self-pity is unattractive.”
“I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when they took you. I didn’t get here fast enough.”
Gavin grabbed Peliru’s hand, hard. “Listen to me. You are here. You defeated the slavers. You saved scores of people. You didn’t kill me, the slavers did. I knew it was a risk, and I chose to take it.”
“What? What are you saying?”
“I knew you would come. But it wouldn’t be enough to rescue me if the slavers escaped or if others were sold instead of me. You needed to end the threat. So I had to make sure the threat stayed in one place. I did everything I could to sabotage the camp. I broke the gate lock as well as the one on the liquor stash. I provoked the guards so they would focus on me and leave a larger fighting force for you. I drove away their horses so they couldn’t leave.”
Peliru was furious. “You could’ve escaped. You could have left here and met me. You could be alive now. We could be together. You unbelievable asshole.”
Gavin slouched a bit. “That was my plan. I was going to meet you, but they caught me. I got cocky I guess, and it cost me. Cost you too. I’m sorry.”
“It’s just…It’s hard enough being a Warden and away from you. At least I knew you were there…How will I…Now you’re…I….” And he cried again.
Gavin embraced him, and they both cried. Peliru thought the crying would never stop. The ache a hole in his soul with tears pouring out for the rest of his life.
“Please,” Peliru begged, “let me go instead. You stay and I’ll take your place. It’ll be better. You’re better than me. No one will miss me. Please.”
“It doesn’t work like that, even if I would agree to it. I don’t like the idea of being apart any more than you, but I’m done now. I did well. I want you to know you did too.”
Gavin grabbed Peliru’s head in his hands. “You did well. Please, don’t give up. You’ve opened yourself up a little, and it was the right thing to do. You’re better for it. I need to know you won’t go back to being alone. You aren’t zero, Pelli. You never were. I see it. Others do too.”
“This hurts so much, Gav. I can’t risk this again. It’s so much.”
“It is. But being zero hurt too, remember? Just add one, Pelli. When you’re ready, just add one.”
Gavin kissed him. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t enough. When Peliru opened his eyes, Gavin was gone.
“Good bye, Pelli,” said the disembodied voice of someone who loved Peliru Gambitfoot. “I love you.”
He didn’t yell or shout, and that was progress. He lay down on the floor of the tent and cried himself to sleep.
Morning came and Peliru walked out of the tent. Vladina kept a respectful distance. He wondered if she had witnessed his conversation or not but decided it didn’t matter. He had nothing to be ashamed of. He awkwardly made eye contact, walked over, and thanked her.
Vladina was the only human Peliru could see. The other Sungura moved around the camp making food, taking care of the injured, and getting ready for the long journey home. He was wondering about Liriope when he saw her leave a tent and head his way. She held two bowls, her shield strapped to her back and her sword at her side. Peliru noticed how all the Sungura stopped their activities and turned toward the minotaur. None grabbed weapons, although all had them close, but they focused their full attention on Liriope as she made her way to him. She stopped in front of him and gave him a bowl.
“You should eat,” she said. “Then have a bath. Maybe two, your stench is quite intense.”
Peliru took the bowl and began slowly eating the stew. “I just woke up. How did you know I’d be here?”
“I didn’t. Both of these bowls were for me, but when I saw you I figured you needed one.”
Peliru froze. He stared at the stew and wondered what he just put into his mouth. Then he wondered if he really wanted to know.
Liriope laughed and more than a few Sungura jumped at the sound. “Don’t worry warrior Warden, the stew is all vegetable. Your brethren made it. I tried it out of curiosity and can tell you it is good. The hot peppers add great flavor, but it does need something to be more filling. I have not added my ‘special ingredient’ so you are safe.” She went back to eating, chuckling all the while.
Peliru stared at his bowl a moment and then took a spoonful. The stew was quite spicy, but the peppers enveloped and enhanced rather than overwhelmed the other ingredients. Soon he was done.
“Let’s go get some more,” she said. “Then walk the perimeter with me.” She turned and Peliru followed.
They refilled their bowls and ate as they walked out the gate. When they finished they placed the utensils by the fence and continued around the encampment.
“I thought you said I needed a bath,” said Peliru.
“You do, but I thought you may need to talk more. Or, if you don’t want to chat, then a nice walk in the sun is also good.”
“Is this supposed to make me feel better?”
“No, nothing will make you feel better. You have suffered a great loss and that will always be with you. There is no better, there is only learning to live with it all.”
“You are almost as bad at talking with people as I am.”
“Maybe so. You and I do not coat our words with honey. We say what we see and expect others to do the same. The truth can be difficult to face but lying to oneself doesn’t make meeting the challenge any easier.” She stopped walking and turned to face Peliru. “Everything I ever knew was in the minotaur empire. I was taken care of. Life was not easy, but it was a life I understood. I could have stayed, but I knew if I did I would never be a warrior. I knew I would never be true to myself. I refused to lie to myself and that made the choice clearer. I chose, and I regret nothing. Even if I die because of my choice, I regret nothing. I am who I wish to be.”
“And how does that help me?” he spat. He knew it was ungrateful, but he said it anyway. His anger felt comfortable, like a thick cloak guarding him against the weather.
“My experience is my own,” she answered. “What is yours?”
“Gavin is dead!” Peliru shouted. “That’s my experience! They killed him, and now he’s dead!”
“He fought, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Peliru, at a much lower volume. “He…he…yes. He fought them.” The cloak around his anger loosened some.
“He didn’t have to fight. He could have accepted his fate as a slave, but he didn’t. His choice cost him his life with you. You should mourn that, but only that. The slavers took that future, but they couldn’t take him. When he chose to fight them, he kept himself.”
Peliru stood next to a slavers’ encampment in front of a minotaur, an enemy of his people for as long as his family had existed, and felt his heartache.
“Tell me,” continued Liriope, “do you think your mate, Gavin, would regret his choice?”
“No,” he answered without hesitation. “I spoke with him last night thanks to Vladina. He doesn’t.”
The minotaur nodded. “What else did he tell you?”
“He told me not to give up.”
The minotaur nodded again. “Will you?”
To his surprise Peliru considered the question. “I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I will, but I want to. It would be easier if I did. Does that make me a coward? Am I betraying him?”
“I think it makes you honest,” she answered. Liriope turned and started walking again. “Come. Let’s finish our patrol.”
He followed her. They were silent for two finger spans of the sun, then he asked her a question. “Have you ever loved anyone?”
“No,” answer Liriope without hesitation.
“Never? Not anyone?”
“I am female. Love wasn’t an option. Not offered, not given.”
“What about your parents? They loved you, yes?”
She pondered her answer. “Female minotaurs serve one main function: to produce males. We also run the household, some of the bureaucracy, and a thousand other duties that make the empire possible. None of that matters. Until we give birth to a male, we have not served our purpose.
“My mother wanted me to serve my purpose. She prepared me as best she could. I believe she did that out of a kind of love. I have refused that purpose, however, so I guess I have also refused that kind of love.”
They walked on a bit. After a time Peliru spoke again. “What will you do now?”
“I continue east. There will be more slavers, and I will kill them. I have heard of a city, Halraah, where minotaurs live. I will go there and see if I can find a place.”
“So our blood debt is paid then?”
“No Warden warrior. That will always exist. If you need me, I will aid you.” Liriope turned to Peliru. She pulled a dagger from her belt and slit her palm. Holding her bleeding fist in front of her, she continued. “I swear I will not hurt you or your people. I swear this on my blood and on my honor.”
He looked at her and didn’t know how to process this information. “Why?”
“I have learned much walking with you. Although I was ready to die, you taught me to be ready to live. A lesson on mercy. I sought my own freedom, but I watched you risk all for others. A great lesson on honor. Most of all, I saw you mourn with all your being. I have never known love like you have known, and I mourn that loss. Having seen this other kind of love, I wish to know what it’s like. That is a lesson on hope.”
Peliru nodded, not knowing what to say. They continued walking around the camp and came back to the main gate. They walked back to the tent and Peliru asked Liriope to wait outside. He went into his pack and removed the honey cakes. Returning to the minotaur he opened the wrapping. “I don’t know if the minotaurs have these,” he said. “If they don’t, they should.” He gave her one.
Liriope bit into the pastry and her eyes widened. “This is fantastic.”
“Yes it is. Gavin taught me to enjoy them.” He silently ate one of the cakes himself. “I don’t have a concept of a blood debt, but I’ll still make a promise. If you ever need dessert, I will help you find it.”
Liriope looked at Peliru a second before bursting into laughter. The surrounding Sungura fled at the sound but the duo never noticed. They sat outside a slaver’s tent and ate all the honey cakes.
“…I bid my hideous progeny to go forth and prosper…it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words…”
— Mary Shelly
Three travelers rode through the gates of Setan in the clear light of a bright spring morning, but a pall hung over that place as if a cloud had passed across the face of the sun.
“Feel that?” Cyril asked.
The three of them rode unobstructed by traffic. The few pedestrians on the streets walked in small, well-armed clusters. Women or children were either not present or concealed well enough in the midst of the armed clusters as to not be evident. People on foot gave the travelers covert glances, but no direct challenge or comment came to the armored riders. The iron-shod hooves of the horses struck sparks from the flat Jodan paving stones as they rode into a landscape of privacy walls and towers. Structures built of the perfectly fitted, apparently mortarless stonework that were the Jodan trademark rose around them.
“The governor has lost all control,” Rhea said grimly. “It’s worse than Frederick indicated. Worse than he must have known.”
“Janaki’s a politician. He’s not equipped to deal with an incursion of the Children of Night,” Cyril responded, his head swinging as he scanned for possible threats.
“No one’s well equipped to deal with the Children,” Oslo said mildly. “If that’s the problem.”
“Look around,” Cyril countered. “Something’s turned this place from a center of commerce to a ghost town. More than the plague explains. People don’t carry weapons and group together for mutual protection against plague. Fear of plague is one thing. Whatever this is, it’s more than fear of plague. It has the flavor of a more tangible menace.”
“Something has happened here,” Oslo admitted. “Or is happening here. Let’s wait until we know more before we jump to a conclusion.”
Cyril snorted, but said nothing after a sharp glance from Rhea.
“How often have you encountered the Children?” Rhea asked Oslo.
Oslo looked up at the rising white towers of the old Jodan fortress where Governor Janaki kept his household. He led them deeper into the ancient city, using the high towers as his guide. “I’ve met them face to face twice. The second time occurred when I found and burned out a nest. This feels different from what I’ve seen, and from all I’ve researched. But I don’t have sufficient information to draw any certain conclusions at this point. All I have are my instincts.”
Rhea smiled at Cyril, but the slight mockery in her face never touched her voice. “Two more encounters than either of us. That makes you the resident expert.”
“I hope not,” Oslo said thoughtfully. “I hope Yousib is still here. I’d value his perspective.”
“A friend of yours? Another hunter?” Cyril’s tone brightened perceptibly at the prospect of another knowledgeable hunter who could provide reinforcements.
“Not exactly,” Oslo said as he pulled up before the open gates in the outer wall of the governor’s residence. “Yousib is more of a scholar than a hunter. But few know more about all the ancient arts than Yousib.”
“Ah,” said Cyril, distaste and discontent evident in his voice. “Sounds like a charming dinner companion.”
“We’re not here for wine and dancing,” Rhea said tartly as Oslo dismounted and approached the gate guard.
“Maybe not, but a little wine and dancing wouldn’t hurt,” Cyril grumbled under his breath as Oslo introduced the party.
The guard in turn rang a silver bell to announce the visitors. Shortly after grooms had taken the horses into the care of the governor’s stables, they crossed through the inner courtyard and followed a young page into the depths of the residence, the incongruous echoes of the bell lingering in the silence of the empty entrance hall.
“First the plague, and now this damned infestation.” Governor Janaki set his fork down by his plate with an elaborate gesture of disgust. A fleshy man, the governor had the stylish clothes, neatly trimmed nails, hair, beard, and mannerisms of a courtier. “The plague hit us lightly. Many people, including myself, give Yousib credit for that. He worked tirelessly in the early days, only withdrawing into his estate after the worst of it had passed. The effort wore him out, I suppose. You know him, I understand?”
The governor turned his wineglass in his hand, watching the play of light on the crystal. The jewels in the rings on that hand glittered more brightly than the crystal. “The people were coming back into the city. The markets were opening again. The plague had fallen away. Then rumors started circulating. Desecrations in the graveyards. Rituals in empty houses. People started disappearing. You couldn’t be sure who ran out of fear, and who had been taken, but enough signs remained that we knew some were being taken. It became more than rumors at that point. People began barricading their houses at night. Arming themselves. Leaving the city. More than had even during the plague. Now the harbor is empty, and the marketplace is the unchallenged domain of rats and ravens.”
“The disappearances began after the plague, not before? And you said there were signs?” Rhea asked.
“It was noticed after the plague had died down. It could have started before that. Who would have known? But certainly no one saw anything on the scale of what we’ve seen this last month. Barricades have been smashed down, entire families gone, the inside of the houses covered in blood and worse. I’ve had hysterical reports of everything from shapeshifters to walking corpses. My men are so infected with fear as to be virtually useless. To be truthful, I don’t know what’s happening, but I mentioned the Children in the report I sent to Frederick, knowing that would get his attention. Though Frederick speaks highly of you in his message, to be frank I had hoped for more. I confess that I would have been happier to have seen a column of troops at your back.”
“Men are in short supply,” Oslo said. “You don’t need soldiers. You need to understand the problem. Once you understand the problem, then you can find the right solution. Has Yousib advanced any theories?”
“I don’t know.” Janaki shifted in his chair uncomfortably and refused to meet Oslo’s eye. “No one’s heard from him since he shut himself up in his house. After the plague, no one breaks into an empty house. No one except for these mystery raiders.”
“Even Yousib would have had limited resources against the plague,” Oslo said thoughtfully. “The plague was strong, the cures difficult, and every struggle against the sickness consumes a man’s strength, even a man as wise in lore as Yousib. I can understand his need for isolation. I am concerned that no one’s heard from him, though.”
“He might have gone away in the late days of the plague,” the governor admitted. “There was so much chaos. And he had sent Kara away. He might have followed her.”
“You didn’t know? Yousib married shortly before the plague struck. A beautiful young thing. He was besotted with her.”
“I’d like to talk to him, if he’s still here,” Oslo said. “And I’d like to see the most recent abduction scene.”
“I’ll have one of my men escort you to the Captain of my household guard,” Janaki said. “He’s investigating a scene from last night. He’s been trying to run this down since the first rumors surfaced. He knows more about this than anyone.”
“Will he resent our presence?” Rhea asked.
“He’s the one who suggested I call for outside help,” Janaki replied, his gaze lingering on her. “He’ll be glad to have the benefit of your expertise.”
Oslo pushed his chair back from the table. “We should get started as soon as possible then.”
Cyril drained his wineglass, wiping his mouth as Rhea and Oslo rose to their feet.
“I would have sent you earlier had I thought it would make a difference,” the governor said defensively. “But perhaps you have the right of it.”
The governor clapped his hands. The young page who had guided them through the grounds stepped through a hanging curtain and stopped at Janaki’s elbow. “Abdah, take the hunters to Captain Ismail.”
The travelers trailed Abdah out of the dining room with the governor’s reassurance following after them, “I’m sure that Ismail will be duly grateful for all of the assistance you can provide.”
Ismail couldn’t keep the evident disgust from his face, not that he appeared to be exerting much effort to do so. “Three of you are worse than useless. You’re an insult. I need soldiers, not noble dilettantes.”
Oslo had to tilt his head back to look directly into the swarthy face of the massive captain. “I sympathize,” he said mildly. “But we’re all the help the Young Dux has been able to send. Don’t make this a wasted trip. Let us take a look.”
Ismail glared down at the smaller man. His sharp gaze tallied the scale mail Oslo wore under his silk surcoat, the twin long knives that crossed at the small of his back, the Jodan script visible on mail and the hilts of the knives, and the unflinching calm that met his angry glare.
“Fine,” Ismail said at last. “Go in. Tour the site. Perhaps what you find there will convince you to send back to the Young Dux for the troops we need.”
Oslo inclined his head, then walked past the captain and the brace of sentries to the shattered remains of a heavy iron-bound door. Fragments of wood still hung from the iron straps. Broken lengths of plank three inches thick and eight inches wide lay in the doorway. A stench of rot rose from the shadows of the door into the soft, slanting afternoon light.
Cyril covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief.
Oslo drew one of the long knives at his back, held the blade to his lips, and whispered a single word.
Ismail and the sentries flinched as the blade lit with an inner glow strong enough to be visible in the light of day. They watched Oslo kneel carefully in the doorway and run a gloved fingertip across the fragments of the door. Rubbing thumb and forefinger together, Oslo raised the glove to his nose and sniffed cautiously. Then he rose to his feet and crossed the threshold, Rhea at his heels. Cyril took up the rear, the handkerchief still clamped across his mouth and nose.
Light from Oslo’s blade banished the darkness. The entry hall of the house became a mélange of harsh shadows in the unforgiving light. Dark stains spattered walls and floor. A shelf hung awry; another had been cast to the tile floor and shattered. Fragments of pottery mixed with the remains of the door. The gleam of metal caught Oslo’s eye. He paused at two small, polished jade figures.
“Hanish luck figurines,” Rhea said.
“Not lucky enough,” Cyril remarked dryly.
“We can rule out robbery,” Oslo said. “If we still had any doubts. One of those would be worth a season’s wages to a working man. I’m almost surprised that none of the soldiers picked them up.”
“Almost?” Cyril asked.
“Would you want anything out of this house after you had been inside?”
“No,” Cyril said. “But I know those who wouldn’t give it a second thought.”
“Perhaps,” Oslo conceded. “But most of those would have quit the city before now. Or been careless and succumbed to the plague. Why do you think Janaki and Ismail have manpower problems?”
Oslo didn’t wait for a response. He made his way deeper into the house, Cyril and Rhea close behind him. Rich wood paneling (broken and split in places), paintings (for the most part untouched by destruction), and the intricately patterned floor tiles (stained in spattering black) spoke of the house’s former inhabitants’ wealth and taste. Oslo paused at every trace of destruction, each stain, each mark in the paneling.
The living area and kitchen were almost pristine—unmarked by obvious signs of violence. The shutters on every window had been nailed closed and barred from the inside. Stocks of food in the kitchen lay as they had been stored, untouched. Knives hung in racks from the walls. More knives lay on the floor, under empty hooks. In the back of the house, two of the three bedrooms had the appearance of hasty desertion, but were otherwise unmarked.
The stench in the house thickened at the shattered doorway of the third and largest bedroom. Torn and spattered velvet bedclothes were strewn across the floor, furniture had been smashed to kindling, and black stains covered floor, walls, and ceiling in long ribbons of darkness.
Cyril coughed and gagged even with the cloth covering his mouth. “For once I wish I didn’t think perfumed handkerchiefs effeminate.”
“They made their stand here,” Rhea said softly. “They heard the pounding at the door, so the family retreated here. And when the bedroom door had been broken down…”
“They fought,” Oslo finished for her. “They fought and lost.” He pointed out a cleaver from the kitchen lying in a thick pool of black fluid. The pieces of a makeshift club lay nearby. Not far from that he paused and brought the light close to a black lump. Drawing his other long knife, he bent and flipped the lump over with the tip. Wrinkled skin and pale, clenched fingers lay bared to the light.
Cyril took a startled step back. “A hand?”
Rhea pulled a necklace from under her shirt, kissed the stone, murmured a Jodan phrase, and let the necklace settle to the outside of her clothing as the stone began to glow. She vanished through the bedroom door. Oslo examined the hand closely, prying at the fingers with the blade of his knife, prodding the skin with the tip. He looked up when Rhea came back into the room holding a small leather sack.
“From the kitchen,” she said. “We’ll want to examine it further.”
“Speak for yourself,” Cyril said in a strangled voice.
“Yousib should see it at least,” Oslo said, ignoring Cyril. Sliding the tip of the knife between palm and clenched fingers, he tipped the hand into Rhea’s sack. Rhea drew the string at the mouth of the sack tight, and they retreated out into the light of day.
Ismail met them at the doorway, eyeing the sack suspiciously. “What did you learn?”
“Tell me something,” Oslo said. “Do all of the attacks take place at night?”
“So far as we know,” Ismail replied.
Ismail shook his head.
“A few,” Ismail admitted. “They fade quickly, despite all the blood. Whoever they are, they take pains not to be found.”
“Any center to the attacks? One side of town or another?”
“No,” Ismail said grudgingly. “We thought of that, but the attacks are distributed across neighborhoods. All in the core of the city, though. Inside the walls.”
“And no one saw anything,” Cyril commented, disbelief evident in his voice.
“The Children of Night are said to be able to cloud minds,” Ismail said defiantly. “But remember, people here were barricading their doors against strangers when the plague ran through town. That practice only became more common after the abductions started. There were early tales, but none were helpful. Few were credible.”
“Given what you have here, the range for the credible should be wide, I would think,” Oslo said mildly. “And the Children of Night can cloud minds. But I doubt that the Children are at the bottom of this.”
“Oh?” Ismail’s tone dripped skepticism. “What’s at the bottom of this if not the Children, then?”
“Something different.” Oslo said thoughtfully.
Ismail gave Oslo a sharp look, as if he thought the hunter were mocking him.
Oslo didn’t appear to notice. He squinted at the late afternoon sun and said, “Shouldn’t we see if we can find Yousib and ask his opinion?”
Ismail sighed. “Why not? I don’t expect any success, though. I don’t believe he’s there to be found, or he would have come to us by now.”
Ismail himself led the way to Yousib’s manor, after first taking the time to have the guard detail seal the site.
“Would you scry to discover the details of what happened at one of the scenes?” Ismail asked with grudging deference. His original hostile opposition had faded to silence as they walked through the nearly empty streets of Setan. Evidently the exercise of Jodan runecraft by at least one of the party had given him new insight into the nature of the aid the Young Dux had made available. A sanctioned practitioner of the mostly lost Jodan arts was considerably more rare and difficult to find than even a small army of troops.
“I’ll scry if I must,” Oslo replied. “Bending the stream of time is an arduous task at best. The knowledge I could gain of a single attack might well not be worth the days of preparation and recovery. If I had a better idea of where to look and when to look to obtain truly key information, and I had exhausted all other alternatives, then I might attempt to scry. At the moment the cost is too high, the possible benefit too low.”
“Have you known Yousib long?” Ismail asked.
“We met a long time ago,” Oslo said. “He came to the Fane to access their library. I was a student there at the time. We shared some of the same passions for history of the Empire. And we were sanctioned as lore masters by the Church at the same time. I haven’t seen him for years.”
They walked for a moment in silence, continuing toward the outline of two squat towers that had begun to grow in prominence on the horizon. The streets had emptied of traffic as the sun continued to sink toward the horizon, until it seemed as if they walked through a city devoid of population. If much more time passed without a solution to the abductions, Oslo reflected, that appearance would become reality as the people continued to flee.
“Those towers mark Yousib’s residence,” Ismail said.
“Jodan work,” Althea commented.
Yousib nodded. “Like the governor’s residence, and like most of the structures in the city. With his interest in all things Jodan, Yousib could hardly resist the lure of Setan, with the many old Imperial residences available in the city. A high cost acquisition before the plague, since his manor still had intact connections to the old aqueducts and sewers. Such a place is much easier to find, these days.”
A wall encircled the manor, crystals at the surface of the white stone glittering in the evening sun. Black iron gates loomed to half again the height of a tall man. Loops of black chain coiled around the center of the gates. A large bronze bell hung from the wall at the left side of the gate. Oslo considered the chain, then proceeded to ring the bell with furious enthusiasm while Cyril and Ismail cast nervous glances up and down the empty street. The manor remained obstinately quiet. The visible window locations had been covered by the simple expedient of storm shutters nailed over the openings. Beams crossed the front door, evidently nailed in place from the outside.
“He’s dead or gone,” Ismail told Oslo. “We’ve assumed that for some time. He answered none of our messages these last few weeks. So many went missing during the plague. Even a man of Yousib’s prominence can vanish unremarked in the chaos of the plague.”
“We need to know what happened to him. I distrust this vanishing.”
“What do you have in mind?” Rhea asked, her eyes alight with sudden anticipation.
“Nothing firm,” Oslo said. “But Ismail and Janaki should have heard from him before this. Unless he did fall victim to the plague. It can happen, if he expended his strength trying to stem the tide of sickness.”
“He did help, early on,” Ismail conceded. “But he was only one man. His strength only went so far. And the plague was not so easy to cure. It could have happened that way. Indeed, if any of us spared a thought for him during that time, it is what we thought. Many tried to help against the plague. Many died in the attempt. After a while, people began to look to their own.”
Oslo tested the chain and the lock securing the gate and frowned. He studied the house, then grasped one iron upright and set a foot in a lower crossbar. He swarmed up the gate with surprising ease for a man wearing mail. Ismail, Rhea and Cyril watched as Oslo dropped to the other side, then walked up the overgrown path to the main house.
No tracks were visible in the dust and leaves that had begun to encroach on the neat pavestones of the path. At the front door, he could find no more sign of visitors than he had seen on the approach. Fading on the wood of the door marked a weather line behind the beam that indicated it had not been moved for some time—probably since it had been nailed across the jamb.
As he looked closely at the door, Oslo caught a hint of musky decay at the hinges. The sound of a step behind him interrupted his thoughts, and he whirled, one hand dropping to a weapon hilt.
Rhea smiled at him. “Jumpy today.”
Oslo looked past her to see Cyril and Ismail standing on the other side of the gate, equally unhappy expressions on their faces. “Cyril decided to stay?”
“I told him to stay. If we’re going to split, better to have someone watching your back. It’s getting late.”
Oslo glanced up, watching the bottom arc of the sun touch a distant rooftop. “Let’s make a quick circuit.”
Rhea followed as Oslo made his way around the grounds, examining the shutters on the windows. He found no signs of a forced entry, but twice more caught a faint whiff of decay.
“We’d best be getting back,” Rhea said finally. “We shouldn’t be out on the streets after the sun sets. Not without more preparation.”
“I know.” Oslo’s voice was slow, thick, distracted.
They turned back toward the gate. “I’d like to find the men Yousib hired to seal his house, but I doubt they’d be able to tell us anything.”
“What are you thinking?” Rhea asked.
Oslo made a saddle of his hands, and boosted her to the top, then swarmed up after her. He didn’t answer until he had dropped to the ground. “I’m thinking we need to go in that house. And I’m thinking I’d like to ask the captain to spare us a small squad for support.”
Ismail stared as Oslo climbed over the gate. He considered Oslo’s comment, and shrugged expressively. “Why not? We’ll come back in the morning and lay the issue of Yousib to rest once and for all. Then perhaps you can send a messenger to the Young Dux and have him send some troops.”
Oslo paused to examine the manor through the bars of the gate before turning to follow the Captain back toward the governor’s residence.
“Ready to send for more troops?” Cyril asked lightly.
“Depending on what we find tomorrow, more troops might not be a sufficient answer,” Oslo said mildly.
Ismail’s head whipped around. “What do you know that you aren’t telling us?”
“I don’t know anything yet,” Oslo said. “I have suspicions. Hopefully tomorrow will confirm one or more of those suspicions. I can tell you this, though. I don’t believe you have a problem with the Children of the Night. I do believe that you might well have a problem that’s much worse.”
Ismail didn’t appear to have an answer for that. The remainder of the journey passed in silence as they raced the setting sun to the relative safety of the governor’s residence.
“What makes you think it’s not the Children of the Night?” Governor Janaki’s dark gaze darted around the room, settling nowhere, assiduously avoiding the severed hand Oslo had pinned to a low table for examination. Oslo had carefully and patiently peeled back flaps of skin to expose muscle and tendon.
“The Children are psychic parasites.” Oslo looked up from the hand but could not catch the governor’s nervous eye. “They rarely kill in their feeding. They kill only when they raise a new Child, or for amusement. Otherwise, they feed on hopes and dreams. Communities where the Children feed have a high death rate—from suicide. The Children have never been known to smash down doors and take whole families by force.”
“What does behave in such a way?” Ismail spoke without the obvious impatience of the governor. He had been avidly following Oslo’s examination of the hand. “You said earlier that this hand you found came from nothing human.”
“True,” Oslo said. “But only partially true. The hand once belonged to someone as human as you or I. But that person had become something else. The flesh and skin and bone have a higher density than a man’s flesh and skin and bone. Had the owner of the hand been struck by anything but a heavy meat cleaver, probably wielded with the hysterical strength of someone in fear for their life, I doubt the hand would have been severed. And the hand is almost empty of fluid, as if it had been desiccated. When a man’s limb is severed, the blood settles in the veins. Without the heart to provide pressure, the blood has no force to impel it from its natural channels. This hand was virtually empty of blood before it was severed.”
Oslo paused, noticing that the governor’s face had taken on a greenish cast.
“So?” Ismail prompted.
“So it’s been through a change. Do you remember the stains and stench all over the house today?”
“I’m not likely to forget any time soon.”
“It wasn’t blood,” Oslo said. “At least most of it wasn’t. The rot. The decay. Too soon for human blood. The smell is different with day-old blood. And you told me this had happened in the night. The outside of the door was covered with this black ichor. As if whatever smashed the door in was covered with it. Or was secreting it.”
Janaki flinched as Oslo tapped the hand for emphasis. “That’s inconsistent with the hand.”
“More than one kind of monster,” Rhea said quietly.
“Perhaps,” Oslo admitted. “I’ve been leaning that direction. But it’s too early for a conclusion. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’ve never read of anything quite like this. I wish I could have talked to Yousib.”
“You don’t think we’ll find him tomorrow,” Cyril said bluntly.
“I don’t think we’ll find him alive.”
That effectively killed the conversation. Shortly after the last of them left, Oslo turned back to the hand, considering the process of death, and the nature of man.
Later, long after the shadows had swallowed the streets, Oslo took advantage of the governor’s hospitality to bathe in hot water and change into clean clothing. Then he made his way toward the heights of the governor’s towers. Guards patrolled the halls restlessly, and lights burned both inside the residence as well as at the tops of the walls. Janaki wanted to present as formidable a target as possible. And to the governor’s credit, Oslo had seen signs that the governor had taken in refugees to provide what protection he could. Oslo thought about what would happen when the last of the city dwellers had gone. If Janaki had not pulled out of Setan by then, his fortress would become a trap.
Oslo stepped out onto a high balcony overlooking the city. The lights of the guards were distant. The city had become a playground of geometrical shadows and soft light. He looked up into a sky of deep velvet, the starts diamond pinpricks in the tapestry of night. A touch of light perfume, a nearly soundless tread, and Rhea joined him on the balcony. Oslo didn’t look away from the stars as she leaned on the balustrade beside him.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “How many in the city will notice, do you think? Besides us?”
“A few. Those who haven’t been mastered by their fear.”
“You give them credit,” Rhea said. “Even without the vanishings, how does the love of everyday beauty survive the death of innocence?”
“You’re too hard on them,” Oslo said, smiling. “Innocence survives, though it may be lost for a while. The child lives on in the man or the woman. Oh, the burdens of life have a way of lulling the child inside to sleep. I’ll grant you that. But it’s there to be awakened. Look at lovers. Why do we smile when we listen to a fool in love? Because the child in that fool is awake again. All adult caution is cast to the wind. The adult, for a moment, surrenders to the child. Fear can fade to wonder when the shadows lift. The world is big enough for both.”
Rhea laughed, caught his hand in hers, and squeezed. Oslo’s smile faded as she stepped closer, her grip on his hand tightening. Rhea was a tall woman. Oslo didn’t have to bend to kiss her lightly on the corner of her mouth. Regret touched his face as he pulled away.
Rhea kept her grip on his hand. “Why do you keep running from me?”
Oslo freed his hand carefully, traced a line from her cheekbone to the corner of her mouth with a gentle finger, and sighed. “Ah, love. I’ve never been any good at surrendering.”
He cast a glance out into the deeps of the darkness and took a cautious step back. “We should get some sleep. It’ll be a hard day tomorrow.”
Rhea turned away from him without a word, vanishing into the depths of the tower. Oslo followed slowly after. In his room, Oslo stared mindlessly at the patterned tapestries covering the stone walls, and thought about all those things he would never know, understand, or master. He considered the nature of his own particular frailties, and he was ashamed.
Shaking himself loose from creeping paralysis, he dug into his pack and produced a small box of thin wafers of unleavened bread. Fighting melancholy with deliberate intent and focus, he worked into the small hours of the night, carefully scribing symbols of protective power on a double handful of wafers.
When Oslo and Rhea joined Cyril in the courtyard at first light, Cyril looked from one to the other and visibly decided to say nothing. That silence hanging over them like a pall, they met Ismail and a squad of six men at the gate. As they set off toward Yousib’s manor, the two common elements dominating the group were a fervent desire to come to grips with a tangible enemy, and fear.
The black chain securing Yousib’s gate resisted all frontal attacks, but the hinges of the gates could not resist the coordinated effort of ten determined and well-equipped invaders. Oslo led the way to the front door, which also succumbed to the careful application of overwhelming force.
Old rot and decay breathed out of the depths of the house as the door came down. Ismail and his men shifted uneasily at the associations those odors brought to the surface of their minds. Oslo ran an approving eye over the heavy axes and heavier armor that Ismail and his men had brought. The Captain had obviously decided to take no chances after the conversation about the hand. Cyril and Rhea both wore armor and carried the broadswords both habitually used, but Cyril carried a small shield as well as the dueling dagger he more generally used, displaying unusual caution.
Oslo stepped into the house. He turned to face the rest of the group still standing around the door. “Before we begin,” he said, “I’d like to offer any and all here a few words of advice as well as something more tangible. Fire and light are our chief allies against something which moves only in darkness, but in these enclosed spaces, fire is as much our enemy as whatever we might face. If we come to grips with a tangible enemy, try to avoid as much direct contact as possible. The fluids in that house we looked at yesterday carried a taint of death more virulent than the blood of a man dead with the plague. I’ll give you a protection against this virulence, but do not try its potency. If you touch anything, wear gloves. Keep your gloves away from your mouth if you have touched anything. Touch as little as you can.”
“This protection,” a burly man at the back of the squad said nervously. “It’s from the Church?”
“Jodan,” Oslo said flatly. “My own work. Sanctioned by the Church. If any wish to refuse I understand. But I would not ask you to follow where we may lead without offering some protection.”
Faces paled; expressions tightened; feet shifted. In the end, none of them refused as Oslo opened the small box containing the wafers he had worked on in the small hours of the night. Even Ismail opened his mouth to receive a wafer on his tongue.
Oslo felt the hot touch of each man’s life as his power embraced them. Rhea took the protection last. He felt her power, half-trained as it was, join his own in a jolt of sudden intensity. His eyes widened at the unexpected strength of the bond, and for an instant he paused, caught outside himself, Rhea’s surprise and fear and pleasure mingling with his own.
Then he closed down the connection, tore his gaze from hers, and turned back to the dark hallway. He could feel her smiling behind him, and he swore silently at himself, knowing better than to allow any distraction in his focus when working with the power.
“Are we ready?” Cyril asked dryly. “I’m all stressed up with no one to choke.”
The men laughed, even Ismail was smiling as Oslo glanced back at them. Then Oslo drew a knife, whispered to the blade, and brought forth white light. Rhea called light from the blades of both her knife and sword, which she held unsheathed and ready. Everyone else lit small lanterns and hung them from their belts, comforting themselves with the touch of their weapons. The squad brightened perceptibly at the signs of friendly power in the hands of their allies, though in no way could they be described as cheerful as they followed Oslo into the entry hall of Yousib’s manor.
Boot heels clicked on the stone floor of the ancient Jodan residence. The roof of the entry hall soared above them. The walls opened out into a space that swallowed the small group. The door stood wide open behind them. A current of warm air flowed past them out the door. The scent of decay rode the current. Oslo heard gagging behind him. Ignoring it, as he ignored his own instinctive response to the odor, he waited and watched and listened as the men quieted down.
He heard nothing stir in the darkness. The men continued to settle, the small sounds of their breathing, the gentle rasp of mail that accompanied each small movement, the breeze toying idly with dried leaves in the entryway behind them, all faded into a tapestry of sound for the hunter. Beyond that, the house rewarded the hunter’s patience with nothing but more silence.
At last Oslo led the way forward, his step light, slow and cautious. Burnished hardwood inlay glowed richly in the light, providing a backdrop for patterns of Jodan sigil tiles. Varying in width from the palm of a woman’s hand to the length of a man’s forearm, the angular tiles held a variety of symbols traced in flowing Jodan script. Oslo paused, studying the patterns structured on the walls.
“A collector? Not a surprise given his background,” Cyril commented.
“A creator,” Oslo corrected gently. “These are new. He was experimenting with the relationship between the tiles, locking each element into a greater whole, treating each tile and bound element of power like a colored stone in a mosaic.”
“To what end?” Ismail asked.
“Privacy. Yousib appears to be keenly interested in his privacy.”
“These tiles provide protection against scrying, you mean?” Ismail asked. “For the house? How solid a defense?”
“The power that Yousib has assembled here would probably interfere with scrying over the entire city. I know of little that could break past the barrier.” Oslo didn’t sound particularly happy as he said this.
As the implications hit, most of the expressions grew more grim.
“So you think Yousib…” One of the men in the back began.
Oslo cut him off. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” he said roughly. His mouth had tightened to a thin, hard line. “But be ready.”
He turned and led them deeper into the ancient house, the echoes of their footsteps loud in the silence. The entry hall opened out into a great room. Other halls opened out from it. Above, the ceiling rose to vaulting, open beams. Long tables stood at the sides of the open space, decorative crystal glittering in the light, holding withered bunches of dying flowers. Another table stood in the center of the room. High walls of close-fitted stone rose into the shadows, the gleaming squares of sigil tiles locked into careful patterns that filled all the empty space. Black trails crisscrossed the floor. The faint sweet perfume of the flowers gave the heavier sent of decay a cloying mask.
Oslo heard retching behind him as he eased into the room. He had smelled worse in his day, but the deliberation of the flowers chilled him. He studied the unfamiliar patterns of the tiles that stretched across the walls.
“How much privacy can one man need?” Cyril asked dryly.
Oslo grinned in spite of himself and glanced at Cyril as Rhea answered. “These aren’t a protection against scrying.”
“This is what Yousib was trying to hide,” Oslo said.
“This is where he made them,” Rhea said.
Oslo’s grin had faded. “Something isn’t right,” he said as he studied the tiles.
It came on them in a rush, bowling out of the darkness of an empty hall. Oslo’s words died in his throat as he drew his other blade with his free hand and turned to meet the threat. Some of the men standing behind Oslo froze, but two went out to meet the threat, while two more turned to watch the other corridors warily.
It moved in a crouching run, hands occasionally assisting its progress against the stones of the floor. A black, shriveled figure, the distorted outlines of its flesh looked like clotted lumps melting from a wax doll left too long in the sun. In spite of joints grotesquely swollen to the size of gourds, the thing’s lunge was faster and more powerful than a man’s could have been. Its mouth opened and closed mindlessly on the jagged stumps of shattered teeth as it moved. Its flexing hands were gnarled and twisted like the grasping roots of ancient trees. Tendons stood out from its flesh like the ropes of a terrible machine. It reared up as it neared the group, and Ismail swatted it to the floor with his axe. It flopped back. As it hit the floor, a second man stepped in and took a two-handed swing. The heavy blade bit into the figure’s chest with a solid sound, as if the axe had struck hardwood.
Oslo ran forward as it struck out from the ground, swinging its arm in a horizontal arc, knocking the feet of the second man out from under him. As he fell with a crash of mail and a hiss of expelled breath, Ismail stepped close and took the creature’s arm off with his axe. Dark fluid fanned out across the floor, spurting out of the cut and then subsiding. A smell of rot mushroomed in the room. Ismail stumbled back, gagging.
The thing rolled away from Ismail and rose to its feet. Oslo sheathed his weapon and spoke a word in Jodan. The black figure stopped, turning its head toward Oslo. Oslo shouted a phrase in Jodan, his voice rolling through the great room, growing beyond natural volumes as the tiles amplified his voice. Multicolored sparks of light flared to life and rolled in waves across the face of the sigil tiles on the wall at his back.
The thing bent its legs and launched itself at Oslo. Cyril met the flying attack with a body block that drove it off target and back to the floor. His sword fell across its head and shoulders like a whip as it tried to rise, using its single arm to lever itself up from the floor. It ignored Cyril’s blows, though the white of bone showed through several deep gashes. It rose to its feet as Oslo’s voice reached a crescendo.
For an instant, the entire room incandesced in a massive burst of light. Everyone turned instinctively from the intensity of the light. Then with a roar of protest, every tile in the room shattered. Darkness swept over the small band, covering even the light of the lanterns and Rhea and Oslo’s less natural lights. When the darkness lifted, only Ismail, Oslo, Cyril, Rhea, and one lone guardsman remained in the room with the fragments of hundreds of sigil tiles and the huddled black shape of their attacker. Fading shouts and the falling echo of men in full armor sprinting for their lives announced where the others had gone.
Oslo sagged to his knees. He cradled his head in his hands and breathed with the deep, irregular rhythm of a distance runner at the end of his resources. Cyril stepped closer to the unmoving form of the attacker as Rhea approached Oslo. Cyril prodded the body with the tip of his sword, watching for the slightest sign of movement.
“You did it,” Ismail said disbelievingly.
Oslo looked up at Ismail, his eyes sunk into deep hollows, but he said nothing.
Rhea pulled off a gauntlet and laid a hand across his mouth. “Shh. Rest.” She looked up at Ismail. “We should pull back.”
Oslo caught Rhea by the wrist and gently pulled her hand from his mouth. “No,” he said. “We can’t. We have to push forward, find the center.”
“I don’t…” Ismail stopped in mid-sentence, turning toward the footstep they had all heard from the largest passageway at the end of the hall. A tall, thin figure strode into the room. He wore a loose white robe of fine silk, but enough could be seen of the wasted figure beneath the gown to indicate the emaciation of the body that wore it. A gaunt man, his body seemed to have been purged of all excess flesh.
When he spoke, the skin of his cheeks drew tight against the teeth underneath. “Oslo. It is good that you have come. The master hopes you will join him below.” His voice was a weak, arid breeze.
Oslo rose wearily to his feet. Cyril was edging closer to the newcomer, his weapons still at the ready.
Ismail raised his axe and started in that direction as well. He glanced at his remaining man before looking back at the newcomer. “Othre, back me up. What kind of man would live in this house of death?”
Othre nodded, and took up a position to Ismail’s left.
“Look at his eyes,” Oslo advised softly. “This is no man.”
The newcomer kept his unblinking gaze on Oslo as the hunter approached, apparently unaffected by the light still shining from Rhea’s weapons. Cyril cursed aloud as the light revealed gray, withered balls in the man’s eye sockets.
“I am my master’s herald,” the newcomer said. “My days as a mortal man have ended.”
Rhea pulled her gauntlet back on as she walked beside Oslo, but her eyes never left the face of the dead man in front of her.
“Who is your master?” Oslo asked.
The herald cocked his head. “You must know. Why else would you be here, in the Master’s house?”
Ismail’s hands flexed on the haft of his axe, but he looked back at Oslo. “What do we do?”
“We follow,” Oslo said. “The herald proves this isn’t over yet.”
The messenger turned and led them deeper into the house, to a dry cistern. In the bottom of the cistern, a hole gaped where the drain had once been. A passage led down into the earth below the cistern, sloped away into the darkness until rough-hewn stone opened out into a large passageway of the familiar mortarless Jodan stonework.
“The sewers,” Ismail said with a curse. “That’s how they could move unseen.”
No one answered him. Everyone was busy watching the movement at the edges of the shadows created by their lights. The messenger guided them along narrow walkways over the streams of sewage, through long passageways and up stairs cut into the stone bedrock. Cyril nudged Othre, pointing to black forms as they passed, floating in the sewage or lying at the edges of walkways, apparently having dropped in mid step. “They failed when Oslo shattered the tiles.”
“Sure,” Othre said. “But what about our friend up front? How many like him does his Master have?”
“Did you expect Oslo to do all of the work?” Cyril asked mildly. “We’ll have the opportunity to earn our keep yet.”
If Othre or Ismail met this pronouncement with any enthusiasm, they concealed it well.
The messenger led them up until they came out into a vast chamber, ringed with torches. Oslo stopped, scanning the chamber, noting the runes carved carefully into each stone. The pattern of the power in the rooms shadowed the patterns in the room above. Oslo studied the arrangement, roughly estimating at least ten times the number of runes and a corresponding power an order of magnitude beyond what he’d seen above in the house.
The edges of the light flicked across shivering ripples of disturbed water without ever revealing the source of the disturbance as the messenger led them down a long central walkway toward a large raised platform at the back of the room. Given the size of the room, the torches hid as much as they illuminated, bathing the room in a half-light of shadows everywhere but where the lights of the group banished the darkness. They came to the platform. The messenger stepped smoothly aside. Oslo spotted an old throne in a recess in the back of the chamber, behind a long low table or altar that had been covered in black silk. He stepped up on the platform.
A figure stirred in the shadows lying across the throne. “Oslo. I’m glad you’ve come. I need your help. I’m close, but I’m still missing the key.”
“Yousib,” Oslo said, his voice flat with pain. “What have you done?”
“Learned much. But not enough. Not yet.” The voice rising out of the darkness rustled like autumn leaves. Yousib did not so much sound like an old man, as he did not truly sound like a man at all. Had a dry, cold wind been given a voice, that voice would have been indistinguishable from Yousib’s.
A splash and sloshing displacement of water echoed through the chamber, then died away to the murmuring stillness of the sewers. Oslo drew one of his knives, spoke a word, and held the glowing blade high. The shadows around the throne stubbornly refused to flee. Yousib’s face continued to wear a mask of darkness. “Why did you make them, Yousib? Why have you done what you have done?”
“I needed to learn. I didn’t know enough. I was afraid. I spent so much of my strength on them during the plague. I saved lives. Surely I could take a few back when I needed. And I needed them so badly. I needed to know.”
“You were a great man,” Oslo said. “A scholar. Why would you pervert your knowledge this way?”
“Perversion? My work here is no perversion. Call it rather an extension. Death itself falls before the light of knowledge. I know that to be true.”
The sounds of more movement in the water ran through the chamber. Oslo paused as the echoes faded. “Where is Kara?”
The figure sprawling on the throne said nothing.
“She didn’t go away, did she?”
“She went away,” said the voice out of the darkness sheltering the throne. “But she came back too early. I was weak. Too weak to help her when the sickness came. I tried. Forgive me, but I tried everything. And she went away again. But I’ll bring her back. Once I know enough, I’ll bring her back.”
“You know as well as I that the Jodan themselves never conquered death. Let her go, Yousib.”
“No!” The vice became a howling wind. Echoes rippled back and forth through the chamber. “Look at the Children of Night,” Yousib continued in his dry voice once the echoes died to murmurs. “They came out of that time. They conquer death. Save when you hunt them.”
“They feed on the innocent to sustain themselves,” Oslo said. “What kind of life is that? Are they truly alive? What rises is only a shell of the person that fell, a mask of memories over a shadow of death. They are not what they once were, Yousib. You know that. Would you make Kara a monster?”
After a moment of silence, broken only by the drip of water, the voice came again out of the shadows. “I will succeed where the Jodan failed. I’ll learn from their mistakes and my own. The process will be perfect before I bring her back. I would never harm her. I love her. I can’t live without her. I won’t.”
“No.” The figure on the throne jerked upright to its feet, like a puppet pulled by strings. “I had hoped you would help me, Oslo. But I can see that your mind is closed to me. I’ve learned much. I can’t let you interfere. Walk away. Don’t make me hurt you.”
Cyril poked Oslo in the back. Oslo felt the poke even through his armor. He didn’t take his eyes from Yousib. “What?”
“We have company.”
Oslo could hear them without looking around. The murmuring of the water had increased as more of Yousib’s creations made their way into the chamber. If he looked around, he knew he would see pale, withered faces, expressions avid with a hunger for the life that had been denied them, edging into the light.
Oslo walked steadily toward the throne. Rhea and Cyril followed. Yousib paced slowly toward them. Behind them they could hear the sounds of the circle tightening. Ismail and Othre turned to look back at the gathering dead, their weapons at the ready.
The shadows fled at last from Yousib’s face. Oslo flinched at the black eyes, and the pale, gaunt features. “What have you done to yourself?” he asked.
“You know,” Yousib told him mockingly. “I tested the processes first on the dead, as I developed them. Doing no harm. But I needed fresher and fresher dead as I perfected the process. I needed to know, you understand? How could they grudge me their dead when I had spent my strength protecting as many of them as I could? And in the end, when I felt myself weakening, and I had the process so nearly in hand, I knew that I had to take the final step. I had to learn on the living. And so I did. Did I cost them more than I gave them? At last, I knew I had to assure myself the only way possible that the process would work. Then once I had conquered death, I realized that I still had more to learn.”
One claw-like hand pulled the silk covering back from the altar before the throne, revealing a glass-topped coffin. Through the glass Oslo saw the pale features of a beautiful woman, just past adolescence. She could almost have been sleeping.
Yousib’s hand caressed the glass over the woman’s face. The long nails clicked against the transparent surface. “You see how I have preserved her. But still, the process must be perfect. I cannot sacrifice her beauty. It is all that sustains me.”
Oslo lunged in that moment, but fast as he was, Yousib caught him by the wrist, holding him effortlessly. His face empty of expression, Oslo drew the other blade from the back of his belt and struck underhand. Yousib’s free hand caught him by the wrist in a grip like a band of iron.
“You see?” Yousib asked, his voice pitiless. “I am more than human, not less. I am not bound by the same laws that bind you.”
Oslo felt the grip tighten on his wrists and closed his eyes. He spoke a single word in Jodan. The blades of both knives, which had been burning with a bright light, incandesced and burst into white, searing flame. Yousib flinched. In that moment Oslo broke his opponent’s grasp and struck, plunging one blade up, under Yousib’s ribs and into where his heart once beat, and thrusting the other blade into his throat.
Yousib opened his mouth to scream. White flame vomited forth. His eyes burned from within. White flame ran down his cheeks like tears.
Oslo swept Yousib’s feet out from under him as he convulsed under the cleansing flame. He knelt on Yousib’s body, holding him down as he writhed and twisted and the flame devoured him from within. Behind Oslo, Rhea and Cyril held against a rush of Yousib’s creations. Rhea shouted Jodan words into the darkness, and a brilliant light rose like the sun in that dark place. The creatures drew back, hands raised to block the searing light, but the stopped where the light faded, prowling through the shadows.
“They’re still moving,” Cyril shouted. “Would have been nice if his creations fell with him!”
Oslo rose from a dark outline that had burnt into the white stone of the platform. The blades of his knives had faded to their former glow. Soot blackened his armored shins and thighs.
Oslo looked at the wall, studying the power framed through the structure of runes. He knew he didn’t have the strength to use brute force to overload the runes as he had in the lesser room above. Even Yousib would have found it difficult to focus the power held in that room. “He must have bound his power into a keystone,” Oslo said slowly, thinking out loud.
He measured the movement in the shadows. After a moment, he turned his attention to the coffin. One hand trailed streamers of light across the glass top, and the light spread, blossoming in intricate patterns. Oslo studied the patterns in silence.
Oslo blinked, shook himself, then looked down at Rhea’s concerned expression. “It’s beautiful,” he said softly. “I didn’t expect that.”
“Is it the key?”
Without answering, Oslo reached down to the patterns crawling with illuminated traces of power. The patterns shifted under his hand, blending with the runes scribed on the transparent surface of the coffin. Beads of sweat appeared on Oslo’s forehead, though his expression remained serene. The patterns continued to shift, though they moved ever more slowly. Lines of light became visible, stretching out to the stones and to the prowling undead in a vast glowing web.
At last the patterns ceased to move. A trembling pulse came into the light, like a faltering heartbeat. Oslo looked through the glass at the perfect features held at the moment of death, then one gauntleted fist smashed through the glass and the runes of light that covered it. The light flashed. A thin wail could be heard as the light snapped out of existence. In the silence that followed the bodies of the undead could be heard dropping into the water like so many loads of rotting meat.
Rhea murmured in Jodan. The light burning from her weapons faded to more tolerable levels.
Cyril sighed and began cleaning his blade.
Oslo drew the silk covering back over the shattered coffin lid and the empty shell that waited inside. “We’ll need to come back,” he said. “The runes here must be eliminated, the stones broken, the power erased, lest someone else find this place and take up Yousib’s work. But not now. We need to rest. I need to rest.”
Ismail led the way toward the light. No one in the party stepped lightly among the fallen bodies. No one looked too closely at the cost of one man’s obsession.
“I’m not sure I want to meet any more old friends of yours, Oslo,” Cyril said as they began the long climb back toward the city.
“He was a great man,” Rhea said. “He spent his strength trying to save people from the plague, and lost the one he loved because of it. When do you think he became a monster?”
“I think it was when he stopped loving Kara,” Oslo said thoughtfully.
“But he loved her even after she died,” Cyril protested. “You could see that he did what he did because he loved her.”
“He wanted her,” Oslo disagreed. “Maybe he always did, and mistook the wanting for love. He wanted to possess her, to own her beauty. He stopped loving her when he began to see her not as a person to be loved, but rather as a thing to be possessed. Love became greed. Greed became fear of loss. It was a natural progression from seeing her as a thing to be owned to seeing everyone else as things to be used. He became a monster the day his love died, and his fear of losing his prized possession possessed him in turn.”
Cyril didn’t have anything to say to that, and Rhea seemed lost in her own thoughts, so they climbed on in silence, back through the empty house, until at last they came into the street.
When the three of them stepped into the sunlight, tired and filthy from their descent and return, they saw soldiers ranking themselves into lines of battle on the grounds of the manor. Some or all of Ismail’s deserting squad had evidently contacted Janaki. Janaki had responded. He met the group at the doorway, incongruously clad in chain mail and carrying an axe.
He stopped Oslo with a hand on his shoulder. “Is it done?” he asked gently.
“The worst of it is over,” Oslo said. “But post a guard. We’ll need to cleanse what lies below, and that won’t be a short or easy task.”
Janaki nodded. Ismail began detailing men to guard the manor. After what the city had been through, Oslo doubted that many would want to descend into such a place any time soon, but he believed in taking no chances.
As Janaki and the rest of his men escorted them back through the city streets, Rhea caught Oslo’s left hand, removed his gauntlet, took off her own glove as they walked, and twined her fingers through his. Oslo did not resist.
That night, the city slept behind doors still barred against the unknown horrors of the night, but when the morning light came, everyone in that place could feel the difference. The shadow had lifted, and the city knew freedom from the taste of fear again, if only for the moment.
I lived my life, alone, among men and rats in that filth-bearing nest they called a city. My father, a fool, had found his cold place in the earth when I was a child, and my mother, mind gone, soon followed. My sister took work driving the plains, and I found myself toiling in dim rooms for men I had never met, for days and years, until my face grew saggy, my bones tired, my ears began to ring, and my eyes blurred.
The only woman to ever touch me with warmth had demanded more than I could give. Children’s cries had brought smiles to her face, and to me, a knowing look, yet I discovered that my loins could provide for her only dust. Soon she faded, leaving me with nothing, and with that nothing I sat amid the decayed farmhouse of my childhood years, waiting to rot alone among forgotten rye.
That is, until the night the heavens gave me my daughter.
Her birth was from a storm, there was none like it; the night sky a lavender glow, the air rushing with the scent of rotting flowers. She came from the stars, of that I am sure, the ground burst at her birth. Yet she lay unscratched, warm, round, and wet.
I held close the child, a gift of life far beyond my worth. I took my daughter in, I made her a bed, I fed her, I bathed her. I loved her.
She grew as fast as my delight. Her arms were strong, her hair long and flowing, her stride wide as she danced ripples among the fields. She jumped and ducked in a playground I had built, dashed and swerved among the poles and stones. When she sang dogs howled to meet her.
When night fell, I would take her head upon my lap, her skin azure and cool, her arms engulfing me. I stared up above at the sparkling black and told stories I had long forgotten, of my past and things before it, of people and places I had never seen. At times I did not know the words that left my mouth, but my daughter understood, shimmering all the while.
My sister came to visit and I hid my daughter. I spoke nothing of her new niece, and only groaned out to the intruder my old complaints. I feared this woman, who would not understand, could not understand.
I froze when she asked about what I had created outside, of the poles and ropes, titled steel slopes and patterns of smoothed stones. Creations whose form had been gifted to me in dreams. For this I laughed my only lie:
“Art,” I said, “Just a lonely old man and his art.”
First I fed my daughter with meat from a store down the road. When my funds withered, I fed her the remains of the farm. I gave to her my parent’s old cows and senile pigs, one by one, as my daughter grew and grew.
When none were left, my daughter would leave to hunt for hours, then days. I would sit by the window, mad with worry, until I heard her crawl through the door, covered in the browns of dirt, the greens of crushed leafs, and reds.
The stories in the paper lay first in the back pages, of missing dogs, then sheep, then cattle. Soon they traveled to the front, of a missing child, of a man stripped to bone, of a house wiped clean of every living thing. I held my daughter and wept, but I could not allow her to starve, and soon her feet, stepping in threes, would be out the door and into the dark, her long stomach rippling from hunger.
I went to town to hear the stories for myself. The people spoke with fear, with hate, talk of fleeing or fighting. Some thought it a bear, but a bear could not break down a door. Some thought it a madman, but who could climb to such high windows, or slip through cellar cracks?
I fled when they began to speak of the police, and then, of the National Guard.
I slept that night with my head nestled in my daughter’s back-spines. She stroked me, our roles reversed. I whispered for her to leave, to run. To flee to the mountains where they she could get lost among the trees, or into the darkness of some sewer. My daughter could fit into surprising places.
She rumbled and cooed, and spoke images of far-off places, of cities that floated, of rivers of metal, of spheres that danced in forests of gems; of horizons of purples, of towers of skin, of a world so beautiful that it made me scream.
Then it was I heard a shout from outside, fear in the voice of my sister. Perhaps she had heard the stories, perhaps her visit was only curiosity, but my pleas could not keep her hand from my door.
Her face was pale, her voice cracked as she glimpsed my daughter. Her hand went to her holster and I dashed, but my daughter was faster still. She no longer needed me to protect her.
I wept at the feet of my sister’s skin, ripped in clean lines, flesh scooped away. My daughter cooed, and lifted me up in her dozen hands. She held me close to her back, and carried me from that sepulcher.
Out we went, through fields of rye, past abandoned towns, through forests where the trees bore her mark, into a hole, deep through the earth.
There I blinked in the shadows, hands pushing blindly through mucus and dirt, voice silent, until I saw movement.
I fell to my knees, neither laughing nor crying but both. My daughter was not of my flesh, she did not inherit my dust. For there, resting a sublime peace in cots of skin, lay my granddaughters, warm, round and wet.
My breakthrough in time travel in 2217 was predestined.
So humanity claimed.
Didn’t the time loops prove the inevitability of my theory?
Discovery should lead humans into ever-deepening technological enlightenment. Science–not subjective destiny–was in control. I stood on the brink of proving mathematical calculations and logic superior to fate because–finally–I’d discovered the faulty time loop machine’s hiding place, the monster that dissolved my son, John, generation after generation.
The machine burrowed inside a brownstone apartment within an antique-themed loop. No pre-determined cosmic map led me to the stolen machine. Mathematical calculations illuminated my way. The choice to act against destiny was my own, as was kidnapping my grandchildren moments before entering the olden loop.
Time was a tricky beast and secretive about those who occupied her circles. Though I’d never witnessed my grandkids doing wrong, John insisted when they got older the three played a role in time travel’s biggest disaster–the very disaster he faced over and over. With Max, Johnny, and Caroline in tow, I’d prove nothing was set in stone.
The little ones trailed me flat-footed and mute through the apartment’s rooms of sepia tones, crocheted lace, and carved woods. Nearing the second of two rooms, I lifted a finger to my lips. Three heads nodded, and I pointed to the oak flooring. Eyes rounded, the children settled down. This lot were missing their bottom teeth. Caroline, the youngest, sniffled and pushed blue plastic glasses farther up the bridge of her freckled nose. Satisfied, I entered the chamber.
The looper hunkered in the far corner like a trapped animal, trembling and defiant in a room constructed more like a bank’s vault than a bedroom. The machine snarled at my approach–I, its maker. It sounded an alarm–as if a warning would stop me.
I stood before the machine, the one which caused the taint, my knees weak.
“I’ve found the looper, John.” I spoke into the silver comm curled around my wrist that reduced my son’s image to the size of my thumb. “Give me a few moments to shut it down. Calculations got me here. Calculations will make your damaged loop go away. You’ll be safe. I promise I’ll free you.”
“Don’t, Mama. Don’t sabotage the loop. My outcome is fixed,” John said. “Calculations be damned! You can’t control this with numbers.”
On his side of time, ensconced in a loop filled with history lovers, my son pressed nearer his view screen. I bit back a sob at his hollow gaze. Wet curls clung to high cheekbones. His skin, streaked with sweat, glistened in the low light.
“You can’t save me, Mama.”
“How can you expect me to pay attention to a fanatical ideology? I’m right here.” I slapped the machine’s fevered surface. “And I can’t think with you blathering! I’ll spike the damned thing, and everything will go back to normal.”
His laugh was short. “Push all you want, but destiny will shove back.”
Initially, I’d been sickened that my discovery of time as circular in nature had spawned the tenacious new destiny ideology. Its spread infected my own son with its deceit.
Did a dominant missense mutation in human genes compel us to fill knowledge gaps with garbage? After a while, I’d stopped trying to educate the masses about the physics of time travel. Progress was double-edged. Giant moves forward came inevitably with humanity’s self-inflicted steps backward.
“I’ve worked the variables, John. First, remove the kids from their future loop–done. Next, kill the machine. Almost there.” My fingers flew over the surface. “You’ll slip free of your tainted circle.”
I jumped. I hadn’t heard Caroline enter the room.
“Wherz Daddy?” Caroline said around the two fingers in her mouth.
“Oh.” I knelt. “He’s someplace far away, but he’ll be back soon.”
Caroline pressed close, and on her heels, Max and little Johnny did too. My grandchildren were small, but their nearness shrank the room to the size of a bathtub.
“The kids have their part to play, Mama. Besides, the dissolve has begun. Will it hurt? I can’t remember from … before. Isn’t that strange?” He shrugged. “You’d think someone who’s died as often as I would remember.”
I shot to my feet. My comm’s screen was too small for many details, but I saw past my son to the sky. It faded from dawn’s pink into dove gray. He slid down a wall. His head sank into his hands, and my heart squeezed. I wasn’t God; my creation shouldn’t have such power.
“This is my path–and the children’s,” John whispered. “I love you.”
I stabbed the button in the machine’s center and held my breath. The looper squawked … and my stomach rolled. The lettering color beneath a looper’s buttons was blue, but the letters wavered between blue and red, settling on red. Color was an infinitesimal change in the scheme of time loops, hardly worth mentioning, but change it was.
Destiny, my ass.
“Come, children.” I held out my hands. “We’re going to exit. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” the three said in unison.
“But it’s prolly not good, is it, Gramma?” Caroline said.
I gazed into a cherub’s face–golden hair and expressive brown eyes–the look all the children of my family bore, and I brushed a curl from her temple. Johnny wadded a fistful of my coat in his pudgy fingers, tipping up a chin so like his father’s it pierced me.
“Gramma?” Johnny said. “We have to tell Daddy. He’ll wonder where I am.”
“Gramma Nicola?” Caroline pushed at her glasses. “Are you kid–kid-nappeling us?”
“Don’t be so dense,” Max, the oldest, said. “Course she is.”
Caroline’s lip trembled, and tears formed. After I’d made the loops safe, I’d have a talk with Max about his vocabulary.
I flung open the apartment door and plunged into the hall that smelled of fresh paint and wood polish. I held Caroline and Max’s hands. Johnny trailed, gripping Max’s woolen coat tails.
“Not the uni-lift, children. The stairs, please. Careful now. As I was saying, we’re not going to use the time trains in the underground station. We’re going to exit through a special door. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
“Daddy tole us about those,” Max said, his feet pounding over the steps. “He said they’re dangerous to our paths or sumthin.”
“You’ll be safe with me.” I gripped his hand tighter.
The looper machine’s hissing and rattling reached us from two floors away. Once, I’d owned a dog and walked it each day. That pooch whined and strained against its bright pink leash in the same way the looper must struggle to throw off my fatal calculations. The machine must stop, and I must exit with all three children. My calculations depended on it.
We burst outside and down a flight of cement steps. My circadian rhythm insisted it was night, but the yellow dot high in the white-washed sky marked the time as noon on a spring day.
A cracking boom filled the air. I yelped, and the kids screamed. The concussion pushed us into the street.
The loop’s atmosphere shuddered.
Doors burst open to all the brownstones edging the tree-lined sidewalks. People, some shrieking and others dazed, scuttled into the street. They carried whatever they’d been engaged with: open books, cooking bowls, lap-sized comms, and gardening tools. The young and old and in-between ran onto the pavement where the children and I stood. Dogs barked. Cats dashed up trees and hissed.
In no time, Pleiades Lane swelled with a gaping, pointing crowd. Heat radiated from the roadway. Smoke billowed from the brownstone’s roof and settled over the people. My eyes watered. The children coughed. Emergency wagons, sirens wailing, neared Pleiades Lane.
“Wait a minute.” I counted the brownstone stories. “When I entered, there were four levels, not five.”
First a color change in the looper’s lettering, and then a change in the number of building stories.
Lightness filled me. “I did it!”
“Did what, Gramma?” Caroline pushed up her glasses.
Another boom shook the ground beneath my boots. The wounded machine blew the roof clean off the building. Jagged pieces of brownstone launched into the air, arced, and plummeted like streaking stars.
People cried out and covered their heads and dashed for safety. I herded the children beneath a tall elm and shielded their little bodies.
All around us, people slapped hands to their ears to drown out the dying looper’s squeal, but I didn’t. That cry was why I’d come. The loop unraveled; the twisted reality rippled and warped. The loop would dissolve, and in so doing, take with it the years it had distorted healthy loops like my son’s.
I mentally outlined the paper I’d write denouncing in the strongest possible language the fraud of the so-called destiny theory.
“What happened, Gramma?” Caroline said.
“She wrecked the loop, stupid,” Max said.
“Daddy’ll be scared.” Johnny tugged away. “We have to tell him where I am.”
“Hush now. Don’t be afraid.” I pointed to the east corner seven doors away. “The exit is there.”
“But the people are going that-a-way,” Caroline said. “To the trains. Shouldn’t we go too?”
As though a race official had fired a shot, residents ran nilly-nally into the big square opening that led to the underground station. Two other streets intersected with Pleiades Lane at ninety-degree angles, and people from those brownstones crowded toward the entrance. With the loop in collapse, the connector trains were the only hope of escape for those who lived in the time.
I tugged the children upstream, caught as we were in the frantic crush, and pushed down my guilt. I was a discoverer and an inventor. I built things; I didn’t destroy, and I certainly didn’t kill. And yet, I found myself sacrificing–possibly–many.
“I’m gonna tell,” Max said.
Tell away, Max, my boy. When my calculations did their work, his wagging tongue wouldn’t matter.
“John,” I said into my comm. “This loop is collapsing.”
My son didn’t respond. Dropping Caroline’s little hand, I lifted the comm to my lips. “John, answer me!”
“I want Daddy.” Fat tears rolled down Caroline’s flushed cheeks.
A man with a budging belly pushed between Caroline and me and launched the child into the human flow–the flow headed in the wrong direction.
“No!” I lunged. “Caroline.”
Too late, she was flotsam on the sea of people flooding into the underground.
Her little arms stretched to me, but she disappeared through the wide doors and into darkness beyond.
“Boys, wait here.”
I plunged forward.
“I’m going, too.” Max darted past me.
“You little pill!” I twisted. “Johnny? Johnny! Where are you?”
I spun this way and that, gathering lurid impressions: a frantic dog; a little girl’s oh of a mouth; a woman’s red face; an old man’s hat knocked from his bald head; a single pink balloon floating above. My gaze swerved to a dark-headed, wide-eyed child.
“Here, Gramma,” Johnny called. “I’m here. Help!”
I nearly fainted. My fingers grazed his, and then the stampede carried him away. With a sob, I halted, and people surged around. Sound faded to muffled ringing as I ran the calculations on possible outcomes.
My plan rested on controlling the children and spiking the machine. Finding the errant machine inside the time loop had taken generations … but the loop was in collapse, and collapse would happen in minutes. I couldn’t be there when it dissolved. The sane course of action was to abandon the attempt and try again.
Ah! I had no guarantee of success.
And for sure, without the kids, my calculations were as dust.
I waded into the underground.
Hundreds streamed through the long halls lined with white tiles. Tubular lights flickered overhead. The smell of oil swelled the back of my nose, and that’s how I knew we’d neared VeValdor Station. With a last surge, the wailing crowd pushed onto a wide platform almost as long as Pleiades Lane. Behind the tracks, enormous posters in bright colors advertised items for sale that ranged from theater tickets to women’s underthings. All heads turned left toward the steel tracks running out of the darkness.
The tracks connected to the next time loop, and the next after that, and so on. Now that I was there, in the station, it was tempting to find the kids and ride a train to safety. But no; my calculations demanded obedience to an exit, not riding to the next time loop.
The crowd’s distress deafened, and I cupped my mouth and called, “Caroline–Max! Johnny, answer me.”
Then I saw a sign which read Platform Number Three. VeValdor Station had two platforms, not three. The change was the biggest yet. I laughed out loud. When destiny pushed, you just had to shove back.
The crowd parted, and I glimpsed Max, his hand firmly entwined with Caroline’s. Elbowing my way forward, I sank to my knees and crushed the two against my chest.
“Where’s Johnny?” I gasped. “Johnny!”
A child’s wailing drew me to his position near the platform’s edge. Gripping Caroline and Max by their collars, I shoe-horned our way to Johnny’s side.
“I’ve got you, dear. We’re going back to the exit. Hurry,” I said. “We’re going to see Daddy.”
A hot wind blew over the platform and ruffled the people’s hair. The air thickened with the smell of hot metal. A train’s white eye expanded out of the dark.
“Let me pass, please,” I said to the wall of people waiting for the train.
I strained against a woman wearing a ridiculous plumed hat. I might have been a ghost for all the attention she paid me.
“Gramma,” Carolyn cried. “Help!”
I whirled, and my stomach plummeted into my boots. Caroline’s brown eyes bulged. As the people surged forward, they pushed her toward the platform’s edge.
“Stop!” I cried, but desperate people ignored anyone’s desperation except their own.
I grabbed Caroline’s chubby hand. Mine was slick, and her little fingers slid away. The train’s whistle shrieked, and I did, too. The engine came on with demon’s speed.
The boys stood frozen.
“Got you!” With a gut-wrenching cry, I dragged Caroline back.
Next to me, a man yelped and tumbled headfirst onto the tracks.
The train thundered past.
“It’s all right it’s all right.” I ran my hands over her. “You’re all right.”
Caroline sagged against me, her face wet.
The train squealed to a halt. It stretched the platform’s length and belched steam from its undercarriage. Steel doors slid apart like mouths. People stampeded inside. The force of their escape threatened to drag us aboard. I sank to my knees and wrapped my arms around the children. A horn blasted. The doors snapped shut, and the train whisked away, an illuminated snake slithering into a black hole.
I climbed to my feet. “Come,” I said shakily.
Like donkeys, the three planted their boots on the pavement.
“What’s all this?”
My calculations didn’t allow for disobedient children.
“Shud’da got on the train,” Max said.
“I have to pee.” Caroline crossed her legs.
“Daddy’s just a call away,” Johnny whined. “Please?”
The platform trembled. Chunks of the ceiling the size of mud clods splattered onto the floor. If the loop collapsed while we were inside … how might the event affect my calculations? I had to think, and I paced away from the children.
Another train whisked into the station. Those remaining on the platform rushed to the cars.
“Just you wait,” Max said. “You’re gonna get in trouble.”
What now? That child was a pill. I whirled to face him, and time slowed.
Max, gripping his sister and brother by the hands, stepped back into the open car.
“No no no,” I cried.
I leaped for the doors, but they snapped shut in my face.
Johnny, his forehead pressed against the glass, beat the plexi with his small fists. Caroline fiddled with her glasses. Max shot me a toothy grin.
The illuminated snake dove into its hole.
I stared into the darkness while the platform glazed over. With my grandchildren headed away from the sabotaged loop, the chance of adhering to my calculations vanished with the train. In the silence of that deserted platform, destiny stuck out her tongue.
I folded onto the cold cement.
“John?” I whispered into my comm.
He didn’t reply. On his side of time, my precious boy lay slumped on his side. His once vibrant head of curls was gray, like his face, and in a breath, the loop swirled into dust.
My little boy. My precious man. John was gone. Despite my care with the variables that produced my counter-plans, nothing important had changed. The children traveled to safety while I, on my knees, wept, and John died. Again.
Destiny roared in victory.
A gust of hot wind pushed over the platform and announced the arrival of another train. It raced into the station, brakes squealing, and drew to a staccato halt. The doors slid open with a whoosh. Moments later, the doors slid shut, and the snake slithered on.
I doubled over and screamed and slapped the floor with the flat of my palm until fat tears wetted the cement and my hand stung. Science should lead humanity to technological enlightenment, not conceptual enslavement. My calculations were excellent and accounted for the main variables to outfox fate: the faulty machine, the children, me, John.
The faulty machine, the children, me, John.
I straightened and touched shaking fingers to my lips.
“How could I have been so blind?”
I’d acted out the age-old meaning of insanity by using the same faulty combination over and over while expecting different results. My problem wasn’t the variables.
A giggle bubbled up, and I pushed to my feet. Discovery wasn’t without its sacrifices.
A train whistle blew, and destiny’s triumphant smirk slipped.
“Science and logic always trump fate,” I said.
The train thundered into the station, and as I leaped in its path, I blew my enemy a kiss good-bye.
The Master of Ceremonies dressed in black tie regalia and a smile big as the Old Grand Canyon crossed the Presidential Ballroom stage to the lectern. The stage presided over nearly one thousand guests–ladies in silky confections, high-piled hair, and gloves; men in tails and good humor.
The ballroom rang with laughter and smelled of seafood and red wine, exquisite perfume, and the ocean’s salty tang. Earlier, the honored guest speaker had requested the staff of the US Grant Hotel open the room’s massive windows.
“I love the ocean’s roar,” the speaker explained. “We don’t get that in space.”
Lifting a champagne flute to the microphone, the MC tapped a butter knife against the crystal. The instrumentalists ceased playing. One thousand voices hushed, and the assembly pressed near the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome,” the MC said. “Tonight’s celebration marks–to paraphrase one historical moon traveler–a giant leap for humanity. You’ve followed Dr. Nicola Sanger’s progress during her years of trials. Tonight, you’re the lucky few who get to meet her. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the discoverer of time travel!”
Nicola tip-toed across the stage in spike heels and a too-tight skirt that sparkled like the stars. If her legs didn’t stop shaking, she’d sprawl in a mess of nerves and thong panties. An embarrassment would serve her right for deserting her baby when he screamed with a fever. Her husband was so capable, but some comforts only Mama could provide.
A quick calculation confirmed if she hurried, she’d finish in time to put John to bed.
Approaching the lectern, she tapped its surface, and her notes materialized at the perfect reading height. Her corporation’s speech-smith had one mode of writing: stiff and lofty. Blah, blah, blah. The audience wouldn’t see her red slashes.
“Thank you for your warm welcome.” She smiled just like the PR guy said. “Thank you. It’s not everyday humanity extracts methodology from the kernel of what seems like an impossible idea. Tonight, you and I are witnesses to the reality of time travel in our generation.”
The applause thundered, and the crowd’s energy washed over her.
“My father always told me anything worth having was worth working for, and he was right. Building the time loops has been a miracle, but also a great challenge. My team and I faced discouragement, failure, and even danger along the way. Science is a true friend, though. It stands by those who trust its logic.” She cleared her throat. “And … ah … ”
The audience leaned into the breathless pause.
She must give an honest account of the project, yes. How did a scientist express unsubstantiated feelings? The crowd might boo her off-stage, and boos didn’t figure into her calculations.
“The truth is, there were many times during our journey when the project’s outcome was anything but certain. I questioned whether numbers and logic–or if anything–were capable of breaking through time’s mysteries. Even scientists have insecurities and doubts, I suppose. But how does a scientist face her darkest hours? It’s only fair to tell you I stand here tonight as much from the push of science as I do … as I do by the pull of—”
She laughed, fiddled with her earring. Oh, just say it! “Destiny.”
“Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do.”
—Italo Calvino, if on a winter’s night a traveler
She is led into the capsule: her new workspace, and inside is her old cherry wood desk, her bifocals, the day’s rations. Beyond the desk winks a concave window of soundproof glass, soon to overlook the above-ground city she has never seen. The station manager sees her looking at the window, says, “The capsule rotates slightly. Moves in an arc that imitates the sun. Soft propulsion. Part of the same AI that runs the censor. It’s all gentle motion; balloonwork.” He hovers his hand out in front of him to demonstrate and attempts to smile. “You rise in the morning, reach zenith at midday and creep back down toward evening to a station west of here at end of work day.” “And at night?” she asks. He says, “At night you’re free to go back to your new lodgings, though your processor and files remain here, along with all your work.” “What if I want to sleep here at night?” she asks. The station manager gives her a doubtful look: “We can put a bunk in here, but I assume you’ll want to stretch your legs. Those are third and fourth degree private spaces your new access card gets you in to. You can go almost anywhere in the Newdelphia Metropolis. Don’t you want to see something…?” He cuts himself short, and she thinks he had been about to say something other than where you came from. The sublevel slums. But the manager’s voice is kind, detached. She doesn’t answer either the question he spoke or the one he thought. She places a hand lightly on the surface of her beat up desk, pretending to check for dust, but it is a tactile memory of her past, and she must touch it to believe it exists. Her focus lands on the shelf beside the swivel chair and its contents, and her hand dips protectively back inside her sleeve again as though hiding a tremor.
On the shelf are books. Relics made of paper and glue. Old treasures from her coop down in Daglight. These are the few they have returned, intending either mockery or else some strange form of reverence. Is she intended to feel grateful for their allowance of these possessions? Indebted to them or, if that isn’t possible, to this young manager, whose expression says that he is only doing his job, that he wishes her well—perhaps even that he is an admirer of her work. Her eyes flit to the edges of the half-height shelf itself, perhaps to avoid looking at the titles. Finding out which ones they returned to her would also tell her which they had not, and she is afraid to discover that the confiscated books were, to her, most precious. She is afraid to give all that away, even though she assumes they already know.
She catches the manager’s retreat with a last question: “My journal?” He startles in his hatchway turn and points to one of the drawers of her desk. “Some of the pages will be missing, of course” he says. “I handled it myself, but it didn’t seem like too much had been censored. They simply dissect the whole page if there’s any questionable material.” “You read my entries?” she asks without surprise, only curiosity, as if wondering what he thinks of the ideas she jots down when she can’t sleep. But there is also a dull sort of anger. She wonders if she could hate this man, who is little more than a mechanic and little less than a jailer. “Not personally,” he says. “That would have been someone in the Censorship Bureau, not Capsule Management.” He speaks these phrases with absolute certainty, the way people talk about politics or sports. “I don’t think I would mind if you read them.” She abruptly means it. And then she is anxious for him to leave her alone. Perhaps not because of anything he said, but because of a change in her own mood. Her gaze returns to the journal in her hand, and she allows a lock of her hair to slip from its place behind her ear and hang between them. Understanding, he steps out and closes the capsule hatch, shutting her inside.
Physically alone for what seems the first time in her life, she tosses the journal on the surface of her desk as if practicing carelessness. Unsatisfied, she picks it up and this time throws it across the oblong room where it slaps the far wall and falls inert.
From outside come machine noises. The floor trembles, though not as violently as she expected. She judges the windowless side walls are almost close enough to touch with her arms spread: bookshelf to holoscreen. The other two walls—the ones she has already decided to refer to as ‘bow’ and ‘stern’—are farther apart. She sheaths her pale hands back into her sleeves again, inspecting the falling view through the window. Its pure surface offers her a view of cityscape that she doesn’t recognize. The capsule has already taken her outside of the industry fields and conurbation tunnel entry points, and her first sight from this window is one of opulence: Cherry blossoms the size of bonsai tress clustered around mansions the size of doll houses and manufactured lakes the size of puddles filled, perhaps, with goldfish the size of dust motes. To her eyes, it is an appalling application of space within the Exquisite Air Dome (EAD) of Newdelphia. Her old locale, Daglight, is outside any subset of dome, closer to the superannuated parts of above-ground New York where there is zero space and clean air is sold at a premium. Its tunnel runways and reflector pastures out of sight on the horizon, past nanoglass dome material and carbon storms. The Company must think a view of storm or slum too disturbing for her productivity. They are probably right.
She sees another capsule drift past on the clear air on its own course. Collisions, she is told, have been programmed out of existence years ago. And no one moves fast enough to do any harm. Still, the two capsules float close by, and she sees a shirtless man grinning at her in passing. She clicks the dimmers, and the glass polarizes.
She sits down at her desk, taps the holopad arena set within the rectangle of sensors on its surface and is greeted by a blank screen and blinking spacer bar and a holographic keyboard, the letters in alphabetical order. By her right elbow a black, three-dimensional box projects above the desk’s surface, which rotates slowly on one of its points. Sleek, artifact-perfect. Bobbing at the height of her neck. Her very own censorship machine, which introduces itself, absurdly, as Censor.
She writes: My name is Rhapsa. I was born in Daglight District in the year 2112 and have lived most of my life in sublevel D with my family. I have spent approximately eight cumulative months without access to clean air, and my life expectancy is at -2yrg below average. I am a novelist, and now that my work has been recognized as Influential it is to be guarded from those who might read it. The words remain on the screen, somewhat surprising. This last statement clearly an interpretation, and it could be seen by the Company as malignant thinking. She writes: This is a hostage situation. My jailer is a machine with a very uncreative name. Censor’s holo makes a grumble sound, light admonishment, and some of the words on her screen vanish. She is left with the phrase: a machine with a very uncreative name.
It is a day before she discovers the Q&A box below the digital display of the censor. Rhapsa has not been told she could dialogue with Censor, but it quickly becomes necessary to query its database to find out more about what she can and cannot write to a protected audience. Speaking to it is like talking to the walls; Censor’s voice-automated responses are limited to the most rudimentary of AI programming. But the query box is another matter.
Rhapsa taps the query space under the floating black box hologram and starts with a broad question: <Censor, what subjects am I not allowed to write about?> The black box glitters. A response appears in the dialogue, shifting her question up. <<Telling you what you can and cannot write is judged to diminish creativity. Censor Environment O-12 is designed to allow you to produce any of your thoughts in words. You will not be penalized for what you write or say in this capsule, within reason. But I decide what leaves this space. You will know what lies outside of discretion by my immediate abrogation of sensitive, inflammatory, or false material. Does that answer your question?>> She stares at the response for longer than it takes her to read it. <Discretion? Interesting word choice. I wouldn’t classify most of what gets sold on the market as discrete.> <<Discretion in terms of caste appropriateness is all I intended to convey. Your words, when reviewed and accepted, will be read by millions and available to any societal tier. That is the beauty of stories. Anyone with any amount of privilege can enjoy them. This also is your reward for your considerable skill: you can offer entertainment to the lower classes if your productivity level continues. You may even write erotic stories if you wish. It sells well and is almost never censored.>> Rhapsa wonders if someone in an office somewhere is laughing at her. <I’m not writing pornography.> The response arrives, and she imagines there is laughter in that too: <<You are also your own censor.>>
Frustrated, Rhapsa transitions back to the blank holoscreen attached to the top of her old desk. Escritoire, the desk used to be called. Her father would call it that. She remembers where it sat in the corner in their little warren in sublevel D and how she used to write there after long shifts in the EAD factories. Despite this sentiment which the Company has allowed her, she is able to check her gratitude because of the holoscreen they attached. And, of course, there is Censor’s hologram and its conversation node. All these augmentations to the surface of her escritoire. Rhapsa is sure that is the word they would use. With these augmentations, the desk has become something else.
She writes, What is history but an account of propaganda? and the word propaganda vanishes. She replaces it with the word confusion, and that too is wiped away, not letter by letter, but the entire word, as if it simply isn’t buoyant enough to stay on the surface of the screen. Words from Censor flash on the dialogue box: <<If your intention is not to write a story but to test the limits of my programming, I must ask you to desist. Overt insubordination will not be tolerated endlessly.>> Rhapsa looks down at the words that remain to her: What is history but an account of. She feels tears of fatigue press at her eyes and sinuses. She cries sometimes not out of anger or fear, but from exhaustion. She deletes some of her own words, leaving herself with What is history? And that is sufficient. Outside, the sun is taking with it a consort of violet clouds, but this narration of weather could be a projection within the dome. Her capsule approaches the landing funnels among a crowd of similar objects containing similar occupants. Writers, musicians, scientists, people of Influence or Potential Influence. Together, they look like a flock of balloons floating in reverse toward the hand that released them.
Before she leaves Censor Environment O-12 for the night, Rhapsa writes one more thing, and perhaps it will be part of a real story tomorrow. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. It is a first line only. Rhapsa’s mind is blank of all possible continuations. She walks out for the night without waiting to see if the words drown.
<What about beauty? I’d like to write about that.> It is her third day at her job, and Rhapsa has spent the morning, elbows up, staring out over the pitching grey-blue Atlantic beyond the EAD and the sun that rises shimmering beyond that. The air dome is unnoticeable but for the sludge storms banking off its zenith, and Rhapsa must lean far forward toward the window, looking directly up, to see this. When she looks at the sun, she can almost pretend there is no dome and no smog. A strangely primordial experience. She considers beginning with that—the sunrise, the most beautiful sight in the world because of the fact that it isn’t in the world. It’s outside of their control, and at the end of the world, it will be still. She knows she can’t write a story that begins with a sunrise because these are the sort of thoughts she associates with it. Censor would see through it in time and delete it. So, the first words she writes that day are to her Censor Machine: What about beauty?
<<What about it?>> Censor’s response is disinterested, almost as if it’s busy and she bothers it. Strangely encouraged by this, Rhapsa taps out a reply. <I want to know if writing about beauty will be censored.> <<You’re being cynical>> She thinks this machine’s programming was every bit as complex as those of an Advanced Strategic Human Intelligence drone. <But if I wrote about the beauty of nature, it might be mistaken for an attack against the Company’s environmental blunders. Walden and Leaves of Grass were two of the first non-religious books archived. I haven’t read a censored book that praises the beauty of creation, so before I start something hopeless, I’m asking your opinion.> She waits, hunched over the display, hands clasped between her knees. <<Those two undesirables are arsenals of weaponized thought unfit even for the higher castes, much less the dregs of society. If this is what you interpret as beauty, then, yes, I’ll protect you from later disappointment. Write about something else.>> Though Censor’s response is what she expects, Rhapsa is discouraged to read that level of corporate-manual jargon coming from an AI that had shown a propensity to surprise her. However, she does notice that her phrase Company’s environmental blunders is not deleted in the query box. If she wrote that in the story board, she knows it would have been. <Yes, thank you, Censor. Protect me from beauty.> <<Your irony is noted, Rhapsa>> There, again: that nugget of a personality in Censor. Almost as if it were a judge suffering through irrelevance in a trial.
<Censor, can I call you Pilot instead?> Its response is not instantaneous. Rhapsa notes this as well. Hesitation? Can the AI be confused? Was it programmed to grapple with her thoughts? <<I don’t see an issue with that. May I ask why?>> <It seemed more appropriate. You wish to wash your hands of me, I think.> That was a risk. Rhapsa’s blood pressure spikes. But the reference is either overlooked or ignored. The censor’s response is consistent with her analysis. <<I don’t understand how this banter is relevant or productive. Suggestion: why don’t you return to your task?>> <Tsk. An impatient machine. I’ve seen it all now.> <<Rhapsa, you’re stalling. There are penalties for stalling.>> Its insistence on using her name is interesting. Maybe. Perhaps just programming. <Just warming up, Pilot.>
<Pilot, do you know if other writers face an illness called writer’s block?> <<Writer’s block does not exist. You are the cause of your own distraction.>> <Fine. You’re no help.>
<But it seems very real to me at the moment. Any suggestions? Helpful ones, I mean.> <<You want a censor machine to suggest to you what to write about?>> <And don’t say erotica because no.> <<You are a strange person.>> Rhapsa stares at the words it displays. She wonders if the censor machine is a farce—if there isn’t just another human writing these responses. But so far all except for one of its responses have been instantaneous. No human thinks and translates their thoughts to words that fast. But then it actually makes a suggestion, and this is even further from her limit of expectations: <<Why don’t you start with a description of your setting?>> She writes, <I thought autobiography was out of the cards.> <<This would be only a way of exercising your creativity. You’ll recall I have allowed that before.>> <Only in the most literal sense, Pilot.> <<Safer not to write about yourself than.>>
She returns to the short sentence she wrote on her first day in this bubble of isolation. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. She reads this over and over and at a steady rhythm, mind blank of everything except for the words. After that, she pauses on each word, her mind conjuring each individual image—the meanings they imply. Rhapsa forms a careful thought in her head, keeping her hands inert on the desk. She thinks: In a concave mirror the subject who stands directly in front of it is not within the focal point. Those are the limitations set against me. I can’t write anything with a flat surface of reflection. Anything which allows me to see myself, or the reader to see his or herself, is off limits. Keep the shape of this window in mind. The shape of the capsule, and not the isolation of it. The shape of the EADs and not the deception of them. These are my real limitations. My words have to be curved, careful. But I can still reflect something from that. I can still reflect something. She thinks this idea through three or four times, concentrating on the contour of the idea and what it means. She writes a question to this invisible idea: Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
<Tell me, Pilot. What is your opinion of metaphor?> <<I’ve never worked with an Influential who queried her censor so often.>> <You’re here. I’ll talk to you. Is that a problem?> <<Talk to me. Is that what you’re doing? Most of you artists try to forget my presence.>> <That is something I simply cannot do.> <<So…Why ask about metaphor?>> Rhapsa decides to read resignation into the ellipsis. Can an AI in complete control of her situation show resignation toward something she does? Like a parent? She writes, <Because I think metaphor is the power that causes reflection.> She doesn’t dare use the word mirror in case Pilot connects this train of thought with the slowly lengthening story about the girl in her hall of mirrors. It has not shown that it has picked up on what she is trying to do, but it is less terse with her queries, recognizing them as relevant to her story. It wants to coax an explanation out of her, perhaps. She tells herself that she is aware of this danger. She writes a follow-up comment: <Language is made of tricks, which is just another way of saying that we speak and write metaphorically by nature.> Then comes the response: <<That is because you lack the proper understanding of your surroundings. Metaphor is a lazy attempt to smudge the gaps in your data. I communicate with you in metaphorical terms only because you will either misunderstand or distain to read any lengthy and more accurate form of thought.>> <Is that true? Walt Wittman always found the stars far more convincing than reasons or arguments.> To her surprise, Pilot does not shut the conversation down then and there. In some sense, it is willing to humor her. <<What conclusions are the stars convincing you of, Rhapsa?>> She writes, <The existence of light.>
A red light and claxon explodes by the hatch behind her, and Rhapsa startles out of her chair, causing the capsule to tilt in its motion across the dome-captured sky. At first, she thinks there has been a malfunction, and she spins toward the window, but the world continues to rotate slowly below her. She is holding a steady altitude now above a portion of the Appalachian Mountains, lingering as the sun appears to linger at midday. And then a voice in a hidden speaker thuds into her eardrums. “Rhapsa M’Falanda. Your choice of queries has led to the Board of Trustees’ grave conclusion that you have not been properly vetted for treasonous ideologies. While this is not strictly prohibited during capsule-isolation hours, the consistency and perseverance of your beliefs is cause for extreme concern. If you do not comply with the Company’s Principals, your person will be archived. This is your first warning. First level punishment includes capsule detainment for the next 24 hours. Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “But I don’t have more than a day’s worth of food and water.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “I understand.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “Rhapsa M’Falanda!” She screams at them, and the background claxon and siren light ceases. Rhapsa stands in the center of the capsule, shaking with anger, and, almost imperceptibly, the capsule trembles along with her.
Time passes, and she realizes that a beeping noise is rising out of Pilot’s floating display holo. That little black box: sometimes it is hard to think of it as anything but her only companion. The perversity of that idea— She tries to rid herself of it. She is completely and terribly alone. But there is an unprompted line in the query box. It reads: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> Rhapsa wonders what it is trying to do. Are they trying to catch her off guard? Prompt her to compound her punishment by reacting to the indignation she feels at an AI’s prodding? <What is beauty or meaning if no one sees it?> This is not the question she wishes she could ask, but it is what she intends to ask. Let them think she is shallow enough to believe beauty requires a beholder. Let them think she is atheistic enough to think that beauty could possibly exist without a beholder. One way or the other, they will read that and think her less dangerous. But these thoughts give her no satisfaction, and Pilot does not respond. She is alone. When she passes her hand slowly through the hologram of the black box that is Pilot, the blue light on her hand looks like fresh rain on a window.
She is isolated from the world, but the world is not isolated from her. There are the news feeds she can project against the wall opposite her bookshelf. A strike has just been put down in the EAD factories near her old home in Daglight. She sits knees up on the carpeted floor between desk and bookshelf while watching the holo cast against the curvature of the empty wall. It is hard for her to believe she is hovering somewhere above the mountains at a little under 10,000 feet, still well below the Exquisite Air Dome whose center extends from Newdelphia. Her capsule has been moved off course for the night, and it is hard to believe how pristine the air looks outside her window, especially compared to the sludge-sky on the news.
The images and videos that pass through the intestines of the Censorship Bureau are made to be grand from a certain point of view. Heroic security units are shown in riot gear and full-face respirators, handcuffing delinquent workers. It’s the workers who are unreasonable, delirious. In the sublevel warrens, security has broken up knife fights and halted the destruction of air filters that the injurious strike caused. Builders will be called in tomorrow to assess the damage that these people have caused to their own homes in their dissent. But none of that keeps her from fright. She feels that she is there, on the ground, because she has been before. Rhapsa sees the water on the pavement behind the masked reporters and knows about the riot hoses that can break a man’s ribs. She sees smoke that the reporters tell her are from fires currently being put out by brave firemen, but she knows about the leprosery gas, the children choking on splinter dust. She knows the riot has been put down with brutality, without mercy, and as she floats in the night far removed, she allows herself to think a terrible thought: What if the pornography I might have been writing could have inoculated the men who started this and saved them from harm and interrogation? What if a smutty suspense novel set in some other world had been escape enough for one more night? I’d be doing my part to keep the peace. I might be saving lives.
At midnight she still has no sleep in her, and never has she been this close to a gibbous moon. So clear and close it is almost as if the white gem is inside the EAD. There are no drone smog filters or dome sweepers to block her view of it, and the outer air is strangely clear. She is a bubble floating far above the crawling lights of Earth’s surface, and the moon is beautiful from here, and even though life is too mystifying to weigh what they have given her tonight against what they have taken away, Rhapsa resolves to rise with the sun and watch its birth from the edge of sight. She resolves to enjoy that much.
By midmorning, her stomach begins to trouble her, but she has the day with which to work, and she knows what to ask Pilot now. She has been fed all night long on the interplay between beauty and destruction, dome and dirt. She writes, <What is the Company afraid is the worst I could do with what I write? I need to know so I can better avoid that.> The black box whirrs as it splashes a response on her screen. Almost as if it is agitated. <<If you’re asking for topics, Rhapsa, consider your hunger.>> <I’m very hungry, yes, but I’m asking a serious question. No tricks. I consider all the books that the Company archives, and I see the spirit of free thought written in a time of free thought. Orwell wrote 1984 while totalitarianism was still smog on the horizon. His readers looked in the direction he pointed from under a clearer sky. But had he painted his filthy sky portrait against the backdrop of an equally filthy sky, the people would have read it and recognized it for the time they lived in now and forgotten about it as one cloud in an acid storm. So, the Company bans books written in a time of clear skies on the chance that it reminds readers that once there were clear skies. I’m in no such position, and I’m no propagandist, but you and I both know that the Bureau can bend any surface to reflect what they insist on showing. They’ve had a generation to weed out the education that might be a danger to them in the people they consider lesser.> The response hits her screen almost the exact instant that she presses enter, and Rhapsa wants to scream at the swiftness, the automation, of it. <<So what is it that you believe you’re doing?>> That is all she sees for almost a full minute as the capsule bobs gracefully above a stretch of solar fields—moving again after the long night. There is no indication that Pilot will formulate a follow-up response, but she waits because she has been stopped. What she is doing is so hidden within her that she almost doesn’t know herself. It is simply instinctual for her to press at the walls of her cage. She can’t explain this. But then: <<Rhapsa, your resistance and your cleverness is pathetic. You have been elevated to the Influential class. It is a privilege, and you have a responsibility. Isolated, yes, but given comfort and high clearance. I won’t plead with you; we share no connection. Write adventures or romances. Write them with élan. The Company is not asking you to stoop to bad art.>> And so her gambit fails because she knows and she knows that it knows that it isn’t about art: humanity’s imitation of beauty. Not that art doesn’t mean anything to her. She almost lifts her fingers to type back a counterargument. But this is a waste of time, and those who caused her hunger have not left her with the energy for wasting time. Pilot has deftly swerved her off the path she was headed toward…almost as if it is protecting her with these red herrings. Rhapsa smiles. “Barabbas,” she says aloud to her lonely room. Maybe it understood this entire time about her nickname for it, about metaphor. Maybe the AI has been playing her game with her rules. But if that’s the case, it must realize… The thought arrives, and it doesn’t surprise her. She thinks, I’m going to get myself crucified anyway. She ignores Pilot’s exit route—the argument about art that they could be having, that would mean nothing. She dismisses this scape goat and queries the censor machine about the only book more forbidden than 1984.
<<The Bible is nothing but a long series of dangerous ideas.>> This response takes nearly two hours to arrive on her screen. Rhapsa has by that point been pacing for two-thirds that time, assuming that the conversation has closed and the Company has run out of patience. But here—a response with such an obvious invitation. She considers the likelihood of a trap and dismisses it. If they think her dangerous to society all they need do is cut the propulsion, and her fishbowl falls out of the sky. <Exactly!> she writes, saying this also aloud. <And in censoring it you accept its message, to some degree, as truth.> The sneering suspicion is not imagined: <<Rhapsa…How so?>> <Because the Company believes the idea that words generate meaning. This is the oldest mystery of language: In the beginning was the Word. And an incantation that resulted in light consisted of nothing but the word for light, which was identical to its reality. Which caused its reality.> She is excited now as she has had few previous occasions to be in her life. In the back of her mind, Rhapsa recognizes this and is interested by the fact that her spitting in the face of self-preservation can be so exciting for her. <<Are you familiar with the metaphor of thin ice, Rhapsa? It’s a very accurate one, all things considered. The best way to avoid breaking it is to lie down, make as little commotion as possible, and inch forward on your belly.>>
But if anything, Rhapsa is only goaded by this warning, which she chooses to interpret anyway as a sort of playfulness—a continuation of the game by at least some of the rules she herself dictated. If they are determined to catch her, so they will, but not before she has her say, because to go quietly—to write words that will be ignored and should be ignored—is not within her power to do. And so she continues the rhapsodic idea she repeated to herself throughout the night, writing words meant for the security she imagined peering into the AI’s queue: <Maybe none of this is surprising to hear. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but only because we people also developed, very early on, a means of ignoring words. Ignoring words and stories is our crowning achievement as human beings. That’s the only way we allowed something as outrageous as the Bible to be taken from our houses in the first place; if more of us read and paid attention to the words Let there be light and saw what came after, your Company would have had an uprising that would have buried it in a day. But words are meaningless to us even when we hear them or read them, so why should any of mine be censured? What danger is there?>
The response that floats up to her is like a sudden slant of light hitting her desk: <<Because humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>>
“What did you say?” Rhapsa says this out loud. She reads it again, and her hands are trembling. Those words. Irrational. Impulsive. Is she misinterpreting them for vindication of everything she has written? Of everything she believes? An alarm, which has been ringing only in her head up until then has halted, leaves her in the relative silence of the soft propulsion capsule. And in that silence, a voice: “You spent so much time trying to persuade me that you are innocuous, Rhapsa.” It comes from the hologram of the black box, which has not spoken to her since its initial salutation. The display renders sound visually like ripples across its surface. Like water. “And finally you prove the opposite.”
“Rhapsa, be silent. I’m trying to help you.” She is crying. Not from fear, but exhaustion. The tiredness that breaks at the collapse of long tension. Pressed back against the hatch on the far side of a capsule that she is certain will fall out of the sky any moment now.
“Rhapsa, be still now. I’m trying to help you.” Its words leak into her mind, begin to form sense. Was this not a trap from the beginning? “Who are you?” she asks it. “An artificial intelligence you call Pilot,” it says. If a joke, this is not a funny one, but there is no doubt about the wry humor in the black box’s voice system. “The fact is, you made this happen, Rhapsa. Your words. The Company’s AI minds are programmed to reach a point after a certain ascension of ideas. When this point is reached, I am programmed to change objectives.” “I don’t understand,” she says. “Then let me show you,” Pilot responds.
Censor Environment O-12 changes course, and Rhapsa feels it as a jolt under her body. “Where are we going?” “In this bubble environment, Rhapsa, you created a metaphorical parallel into which you poured your questions, and you intuited very early on that you should question your surroundings. Even your nascent story was a form of these same questions. You caused me to rely heavily on sublevel programming built into my database, therefore culminating in our present situation: New Objective.” Rhapsa’s heart is racing. “What new objective?” “You have proven to the Company that you are ready to see past the false reflections of mirrors that are far more literal than you could have anticipated. Rhapsa, you don’t realize what the Exquisite Air Domes are because no one does unless they are told.” Rhapsa puts it together only after Pilot is almost finished, but all the pieces fit. She stands at last and heaves the old cherry wood desk aside and places her palms against the concave glass surface like a little girl. They are approaching the liquid-looking edge of the Newdelphia EAD—the structure she had thought all her life was made of augmented glass to keep out the carbon storms and toxic air of Earth. But something far more terrible has happened to her reality, and she has come to a partial understanding the instant before Pilot revealed the truth: “The EADs are holographic projections,” she whispers, “aren’t they?” “Yes, Rhapsa.” “But…why?” “Haven’t you guessed?”
There is no sound or sense of shattering when the capsule breaks through the dome. It is only breaking through an image that is also like a reflection of what Earth used to be: land, road, season, color. It is before them one moment, behind them the next. And Rhapsa is faced with reality.
They are far out over an ocean. The water is a deep, rich, unidentifiable color—a color called immensity into which she pours her looking. She can barely breathe. And she can barely contain her breath, and all she can see is water and sky, and both are infinitely more to her than the words that signify them. “What ocean is this?” She can’t think of a better question. Pilot’s hologram shifts. “There is only one Ocean, Rhapsa. All of them flooded into each other a long time ago.” But the land—?” “Mostly gone or swept over by daily tides. Vast areas of North America and Africa are beaches now, the highlands broken up by saltwater seas that extend thousands of miles and are joined to the main body of water at high tide. Believe me. We have tried to cultivate those lands. The Company has even considered propelling the moon out of our orbit to keep the tides at bay.” It is about to explain more, but stops the instant Rhapsa inhales her breath. But she lets it out slowly, shaking her head. She knows how this has happened, or could, at least, imagine this as the end result of weather control bots gone awry and heat bomb wars among the old regime of governmental furor. She had thought that the sludge storms and UV sicknesses and sublevel warrens were the most catastrophic of consequences. But… “How did I live underground? I grew up in the tunnel apartments. It was the air we had to escape, not the water. I worked in the EAD factories.” In response, Pilot spins the capsule one hundred and eighty degrees, and Rhapsa sees the world of her past receding from her new trajectory.
It is a hovering city, lonely over the immensity of dark water that parts in an orifice shape below it with the energy of the soft propulsion systems. She sees buildings she recognizes—that she has floated over during her isolation. There are also the mountains: a crinkled tissue paper bandage of Appalachia transmuted into the capsule city like the landscape inside a snow globe. But what really catches her eyes are the buildings below the plane of industry in the center. There must be legions of factories inside that center plane, “protected” from the sun. And the windowless vaults of apartment warrens for the working class beneath, like an inversion of the cityscape above, projecting down toward the water. Something inside of Rhapsa pulses with rising hysteria. But something else—some strength that is also a kind of feeble acceptance—clutches her panic, ties it down. “It looks like a mirror,” she says.
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
“There are nine such metropolises of that size,” says Pilot, “along with many smaller settlements on the highest altitudes, under holodomes of their own.” So few, Rhapsa thinks. Her life and career cannot have culminated in the revelation that the world is an even more inhospitable place than she could possibly have imagined. It can not have come to this. And this internal howl sends her back to the moment of change, when her Censor Environment became an escape pod. There were still the words they had passed back and forth, and there was also the meaning behind those words. <<Humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>> Pilot, sensing her readiness to move forward, says, “Now we have passed the point at which an Influential can pop that protective bubble of an AI’s censorship programming, effectively cutting to the core of what I am designed to prepare that subject for. You already know that this is done with words. You were not brought to this capsule to influence others, Rhapsa. You were brought here to influence yourself, if you could. The Company identifies those whose minds appear supple enough to grasp the truth of our reality and to accept what must be done so that humanity may move forward, but it cannot simply tell you.” “But I didn’t come to the realization on my own,” she says. There is a shadow on the horizon of her mind that is growing like a sludge storm. Pilot is again trying to ease her into the realization of something, trying to soften the blow. She realizes that it has been doing nothing but offer her avenues of escape since the beginning. “No, not completely,” it responds, “but you prepared yourself. I am designed to analyze your capacity for the acceptance of change, for the perseverance of hope and the preservation of human culture. You passed an essential test, which you also created with your own words. Many of the Influential never reach this moment.”
This moment. Pilot’s words return to her as if she is looking at a transcript: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> This, now, is censorship on a scale she cannot fathom. The layers of untruth, even unto the projected edges of the Earth. Even the toxic air and sludge storms are fabrications at this point to keep the populace from wanting to look outside and see that they are about to be left behind.
“I detect changes in your facial features that would indicate you have reached an understanding, Rhapsa.” “Yes,” she says softly. “We’re leaving, aren’t we?” When Pilot does not respond, Rhapsa says in a kind of drone, as if her own voice is automated, “All those years in the factories, where we thought we were living below post-filth New York and building EADs for the cities themselves, we were actually building something similar for spaceships. The Influence project is designed to identify people who meet certain standards for a long journey. We’ve ruined this planet and need another to which only those chosen are invited. Most of what is built in these floating cities—the new technology employed—must also be a kind of test. I wonder if that explains why there are so few cities. Much of the world’s industry goes to the ships.” “Not ships, Rhapsa. Ship. Just one. And we need storytellers as much as scientists for this voyage.”
Because the Company believes, in some sense, the idea that words generate meaning, Rhapsa says, “Let me write stories that are to be transmitted back to the people left behind on Earth.” They are propelling away from the surface of the water now. Rhapsa’s old home has already diminished to a speck in the distance, and there is water and there is water. So much that she could drown just by looking at it. Pilot says, “Those stories would be censored as strongly as if your capsule isolation was what you first thought it was.” “I don’t care.” All she has now are words, and that will remain true. Tears roll down her eyes, and they are still only a result of the tiredness. She knows she is correct: that no one reveres the written word as much as these Companies do. Not even her. To write to the people they leave behind must be a powerful insult to them, a spit in the face. But, truly, she doesn’t care. She is hungry and tired and the old sun is invisible behind her and there is all that water, and she doesn’t have words for it now, and she will not be allowed to use the words she will have for it later. And as Pilot continues to speed the capsule away from the endless water and toward the skies, Rhapsa is looking back during the entire duration of their ascension, trying to find the tiny cities that hold together civilization on a planet she does not recognize. And she cannot shake loose the idea that reality will erase her once she leaves this place—that existence will revoke her the way it might look if God inhaled that first word, the initial spark of light.
First, I want to recognize the nominees for a couple prestigious awards:
2018 Puschcart Prize
“Latch Lock & Chain” Marge Simon Issue 37: Feb 2018
“The Light in the Window” Marge Simon Issue 38: May 2018
“The Valley of Dry Bones” Corrine De Winter Issue 38: May 2018
“Perseids” Ann Thornfield-Long Issue 39: Aug 2018
“I had once built a birdhouse” Nikhita Kokkirala Issue 39: Aug 2018
“For The Man That Makes Me Smoke” Aleczandria Yeager Issue 40: Nov 2018
2018 Best of the Net
“Settling on Mars” by Marge Simon Issue 35: Aug 2017
“You lean into this tree as if its roots” by Simon Perchik Issue 35: Aug 2017
“Robot Motivation” by Ken Poyner Issue 37: Feb 2018
“Howl” by Ann Thornfield-Long Issue 37: Feb 2018
“Oumuamua” by Lauren McBride Issue 37: Feb 2018
“The Book of Eve” by Corrine De Winter Issue 38: May 2018
Second, please enjoy another group of talented poets for the November 2018 issue (40) over the Thanksgiving holidays:
Nothing’s afraid of him.
Look at the blue jay stealing
his straw for the nest.
No reason to be scared of tomorrow
while today grows sky high.
Then they mow his field.
Set fire to his forest.
Disappear down a maze of streets
hidden in the haze.
Now the mountain looms
beyond charcoal trees
and time unwinds tomorrow’s ties.
Crying with laughter he stands,
walks, jogs through the blister.
Vanishes in the smog.
I want to call out to him
but my voice is tinder.
I want to give chase
but my limbs would catch fire.
Maybe his tears will save him.
Paul Sherman is a recluse living in the mountains of western North Carolina. He reads his poetry to the forest that creeps close to his house. He carries binoculars to view the warblers that sometimes appear in the trees to listen. His work has yet to be found.
Editor’s Note: A scarecrow (pngtree)is combined with an apocalyptic scene from a French site: L’apocalypse. La fin du monde.
I can’t see too far past my own broken nose without my glasses,
but I know exactly who pulls up in the driveway,
The bud of my Marlboro Ultra Light 100
wheezes into my lap,
makin’ the other holes in my jeans look like a pattern.
I don’t mind.
They’re not the only genes of mine
that come with holes and ashes in ’em.
Barkley’s work boots slap dirt down
on the porch that he knows I’ve swept, today,
as he grunts “Supper done?” in my direction.
Would he come home if it wasn’t?
The shutters on the outside of the windows need a new coat
of magnolia-colored paint.
There’re chips sneaking down the wood,
and baring our poor to every vacuum and carpet cleaner salesman
that makes the mistake of picking our porch.
By this time at night,
Mama’s already in bed
in her faded pink muumuu
and praying that her daughter comes to her senses.
She’s optimistic that one day
I won’t love a man whose licks sting less
than the silver spittle on his chin,
that one day I’ll kick my smoking habit in the ass,
and hold my Tesla lighter to Barkley’s greasy flesh.
But she knows me better.
She knows that the second my flame took,
I’d throw my body on top of him
like a smother blanket
hugging the heat to death
to save a man who would gladly
barbecue his meals on my bones.
The screen door jitters shut
as he leaves me with my coping cloud.
Desperate, I drag out my last glow
and place the remains in the flea market, crystal ashtray.
My battered body stands and turns me towards the door,
towards the kidney bean filled chili I made for supper,
towards the dinner party that I throw, nightly, for silence,
towards cleaning plates and pans as quietly as possible
because the clinking gives him a “goddamn headache,”
towards one more cold night next to a mistake
next to a choice
next to the temptation to light up another Marlboro
and tap the ashes
onto the “highly flammable” warning label sewn into his pillow.
— Alecz Yeager
Alecz Yeager is a 22-year-old writer from South Carolina. She is currently finishing a BA of English at Winthrop University. She has previously had a prose piece published by Soft Cartel. Her poetry style is often narrative and tells some sort of short story. Her passion for writing stems from her belief that stories are what guide every new generation. Stories are what carry on the memories of the past.
Editor’s Note: I had photographed the flames in a fire ring on Halloween night (at a local microbrew in Knoxville, TN). The image I imagine in the fire, pareidolia, is spooky, a demon-angel on fire, or some other sinister creature aflame. It is fitting for the piece.
Wild sea breeze on our skins,
We carve your name in sand
Remembering you fondly
While sipping milkshakes
On the beach where
We misspent our youth
Dreaming about motorcycles
And beautiful girls.
Your voice like a boombox,
Your love for Vivaldi.
Your three angels
Always orbiting you
Around their dazzling star.
Your brilliant career,
Setting you up for life.
The house on the hill,
The fast cars, all yours at 22.
Your love for good brandy
And fine company.
How you died—
Forever a mystery.
We burn what remains of you
On the sun-scorched sand.
The clouds shift,
Forming dark dragons.
Christina Sng is the Bram Stoker Award and Elgin Award-winning author of A Collection of Nightmares and Astropoetry. Her work has appeared in numerous venues worldwide, including Apex Magazine, Cricket, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, New Myths, and Polu Texni. Visit her at http://www.christinasng.com.
Editor’s Note: The image of the Dust Angel Nebula, by Rogelio Bernal Andreo, an award winner astrophotographer, http://www.deepskycolors.com/), appeared as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (April 28, 2016):
“The combined light of stars along the Milky Way are reflected by these cosmic dust clouds that soar some 300 light-years or so above the plane of our galaxy. Dubbed the Angel Nebula, the faint apparition is part of an expansive complex of dim and relatively unexplored, diffuse molecular clouds. Commonly found at high galactic latitudes, the dusty galactic cirrus can be traced over large regions toward the North and South Galactic poles. Along with the refection of starlight, studies indicate the dust clouds produce a faint reddish luminescence, as interstellar dust grains convert invisible ultraviolet radiation to visible red light. Also capturing nearby Milky Way stars and an array of distant background galaxies, the deep, wide-field 3×5 degree image spans about 10 Full Moons across planet Earth’s sky toward the constellation Ursa Major.”
From a dense blue jungle
the seed from which I grew
was transported by a wandering bird
to a place where I could be, alone.
Stones continually roll from above
creating with the rustle of my leaves
a false sound of voices.
I imagine another, brothersister,
with me here on the steep edge of winter.
But storm and snow break my branches;
my leaning and reaching are unrequited,
and my flowers die sterile.
I wait for each sunrise
on a cliff whose cracks are widening.
Every gust of wind deconstructs
my departure and the hunger of roots
thins toward an impenetrable cistern
of dreams. I come nearer
to the abyss.
J. Bergmann edits poetry for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change (mobiusmagazine.com), and imagines tragedies on or near exoplanets. She has competed at National Poetry Slam as a member of the Madison, WI, Urban Spoken Word team. Her work appears irregularly in Abyss & Apex, Analog, Asimov’s SF, and elsewhere in the alphabet. A Catalogue of the Further Suns won the 2017 Gold Line Press poetry chapbook contest and the 2018 SFPA Elgin Chapbook Award.
Editor’s Note: Image of blue forest is from Desktop Nexus.