Friday, September 19, 2008

The Blood Debt by Sean Williams

“The Void Beneath is a horrible place. A ringing emptiness infuses it, an endless hum that scrubs the soul clean. Imprinted on this eternal drone are the minds of the lost, clinging to their memories like life rafts. Despairing and desperate, the Lost Minds smother new arrivals with pleas to hear their stories—for if they are forgotten, they inevitably die.

“Among the Lost Minds is one they call the Oldest. The Oldest One bade me listen to his story, and I did. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. If it is true, then even the most outlandish tales in the Book of Towers are based soundly on fact. If it is not true, then we are as much in the dark about our past as we ever were. Even now, years later, I am still unsure which of these two possibilities is the more terrible.”

Skender Van Haasteren X

Seth remembered: the Flame imploding and the two Sisters being sucked into it; ekhi breaking into Sheol and Ellis escaping on a brilliant, hypnotic back; mountains closing in over a dark, hunched shape and three slender glassy towers entombing them all. Through the chaos, a green figure strode calmly toward him and whispered softly into his ear.

“Peace, Seth. This is neither our first meeting nor our last. In your future, the Goddess awaits.”

The bubble of the world burst, and a new topography swept over the land.

“Remember us, Seth,” Horva insisted from very far away. “Please, remember us . . .”

Sandwiched in the knot that had once been Bardo, the twins rolled and tumbled. They weren’t in the First Realm; they weren’t in the Second Realm; they were between, holding the worlds together like glue. A hum swept over them like the breathing of an ocean, smoothing them out and removing their sharp edges. The void pressed in until only echoes of their lives remained.

They had bent worlds to their will and travelled the darkest of ways; conversed with gods and with those who would be gods; walked in the company of monsters and angels. They had killed.

Time passed, and they knew it not.

The Warden

“On the matter of the ghosts, we find that their presence comprises no direct threat to the citizens of the Haunted City. Only when summoned can they do any harm. In order to deter such a summoning, necromancy will remain a Category A crime, punishable by expulsion from the Haunted City.

“Therefore, on the matter of Shilly of Gooron,

we find her guilty of necromancy and recommend that she be punished accordingly. She may live freely in the Strand provided she does not attempt to practise or teach the Change, or reenter the Haunted City.

Any deviation from this course will result in exile beyond our borders.”

Judgment of the Sky Warden Conclave in Extraordinary Session,

Year Eight of the Alcaide Dragan Braham

The young man looked out to sea.

As far as days went, this one was almost perfect. The sky hung overhead in a marvellous blue dome, marbled with clouds. The sea sighed with easy, patient rhythms. An effervescent breeze blew directly into his lungs from the grey expanses of the ocean.

He should have been content. But he wasn’t. His skin tingled from more than just the salty spray. He would have been sunburned hours earlier, but for the protective charms daubed on his shoulders and back. The smell of rotting fish came strongly on the breeze. The pounding of the surf was relentless, day and night.

A seagull cawed in the distance, and he looked up sharply, feeling eyes on him.

I’m not here, he projected. He imagined the beach as it would look from the air: a ribbon of cream-coloured land separating the blue from the brown; him alone along its length—shoulder-length dark hair waving in the wind, an oval face with unremarkable features, apart from his eyes, which were shades of blue mottled with white flecks. His mother’s eyes; and his adopted father’s hands, weathered and calloused from plenty of hard work.

The seagull cawed again. Sky Wardens sometimes used seagulls as spies along the Strand. Whether this was one of them or not, he couldn’t tell, but it paid to be careful. The beach he stood upon was a part of their endless, linear empire, and for Sal the sea had never been a friend.

Gently, so as not to raise more interest than he might already have, he painted himself out of the picture.

Just a fisher. Not Sal Hrvati.

Wheeling and diving, the seagull resumed its hunt for lunch.

Sal was hungry, too, but that wasn’t the source of his discontent.

Something’s wrong, somewhere, he thought. I’ve been feeling it for days. But what does it have to do with me? Now?

He closed his eyes and let the world rush into him. He forgot the seagull and the wind and the heat on his temples and the sea’s stealthy creep. He exhaled, then inhaled deeply. A vibrant buzz passed through his bones. The Change was powerful and raw on the beach, where earth and ocean met. He could feel it in everything around him, as wilful and nebulous as air. Sometimes he would sit for hours and let his thoughts drift beyond the ephemera of everyday life. In the ebbing and flowing of the Change, he felt vitality and vigour that was equally beautiful in life and in death.

But not any more. There was a tear, somewhere—a tripping of the cadences of the Strand. It nagged at him, maddening in its ability to pull out of reach when he tried to pin it down. He couldn’t tell if it was a person or a thing, or something he feared to see in himself. As much a part of the Change as anything else, he knew he was far from infallible.

Sal glanced to his left at a grave marker on the edge of the beach line. The weatherworn post was inscribed with charms and encrusted with salt. What would you tell me, Lodo? Am I imagining things or beginning to see clearly at last?

He returned his attention to the sun and the sand and the sky. The wind danced fitfully around his legs, as though sweeping the way clean for a storm, but he could smell no rain, no thunder. The stone pendant around his neck, a weather charm called yadeh-tash, was silent.

Then it struck him—at once both physically and mentally. He cried out at a fierce stab of pain between his shoulder blades, and spun to look behind him. The beach was empty, except for him and the birds, but his eyes saw beyond them, through the rough fringe of scrub and into the gracefully towering folds of sand dunes that marched effortlessly inland. In the long moments he had been gawping at faraway fractures, he had completely overlooked something nearer and infinitely more precious. Close to home someone had tripped a trap.

“Carah.” He called the name as loudly as he dared. “Carah!”

His toes clenched in the sand and he began to run.

Carah!

The sound of her heart-name propelled Shilly out of a deep sleep she didn’t remember entering. She had been dreaming of an outline of a face, or something very much like a face, although it seemed to have too many eyes and maybe an extra mouth. It belonged to something buried under the sand, something that was trying very hard to surface. It frightened her, and with her hands she had tried to sweep the impression of it from the sand. But sweeping the grains away only brought it to the surface faster than ever . . .

She sat up with a jerk. Sal had called her, and he had sounded panicked. It had been a long time since the last false alarm. Although they knew theoretically that they could be found at any time, it wasn’t possible to live in a state of perpetual dread. Their jitters in the early days had settled down to a constant, low-level vigilance. Hiding was second nature to them now.

She didn’t dare take the chance that he was jumping at shadows. Struggling free of her rabbit-skin coverlet, she shook off the lingering veils of sleep. The underground workshop, their home, was warm but not stuffy, ventilated by a chimney leading up through the compacted sand to fresh air far above. Kidney-shaped and high-ceilinged, the workshop had been fashioned decades earlier by a renegade Stone Mage who had come to Fundelry in search of new ways to master the Change. Instead of peace and quiet he had found Shilly, a girl with a knack for the Change but without the talent to use it. He had taken her as an apprentice and, on his death, left Shilly all his possessions. The workshop contained the trinkets he had made or gathered to himself down the years. Some she understood perfectly, grasping their purpose the moment she studied them, even though she didn’t have the spark that would make them work. Others remained a mystery despite many hours of contemplation.

A flawed metal mirror caught her in its depths as she shrugged into the cotton dress she had worn the previous day and slipped on her sandals. Her dark hair stood in total disarray, bleached at the tips by sunlight. The same light had burned her skin deep brown, darkening what nature had given her still further. A series of thin white scars marred the skin of her right leg. The mirror had been dropped and was now warped on its left side, giving her a compressed, foreshortened aspect, as though she was walking into an invisible barrier. She didn’t linger.

She grabbed the workshop’s pole-shaped latchkey from its usual place and hurried through the tunnel which led her from the main room to an antechamber. There was a wicked hook at one end of the latchkey and, on reaching a cave barely large enough for her to stand upright, she poked this into the sandy soil and twisted. Half of the latchkey vanished into the wall, as though tugged at by hands on the far side. She hung onto her end and firmly twisted the pole again. The charm had come with the workshop, one of those she hadn’t quite fathomed, but she understood its operation well. Something clicked under her hands, and she raised her eyes to look into the dull, sandy wall.

A faint echo of the dunes outside the entrance to the workshop came to her, as misty as a dream. She didn’t see the shape of the dunes so much as the form of them: the lines they made against each other, against the spindly grass that grew in their shadows, against the blurred horizon. She swept her attention along those lines, looking for any recent change. Birds appeared as swooping vortices, dimples in the sky; crabs were asterisks leaving complicated ellipses in their wakes; humans stood out like giant, dead trees on a fallow field.

There. She focused on a new feature of the dunes: a line of footprints marred the smoothly changing symmetry. Past them, just touching the low hills beyond the sand, were several parallel tracks that looked hauntingly familiar. Made by wheels, she realised. No hoofprints, horse or camel. Self-propelled, although she couldn’t see the machine itself.

A chill went through her. The view flickered. While the reservoir in the latchkey lasted, she followed footprints into the dunes, seeking the person who had made them. Her gaze skidded over a discontinuity and lost the trail. She backtracked, and skidded again. The person making the tracks was deliberately hidden from her sight.

She had just enough time left to see Sal hurrying from the beach. His trail was hidden, too, subtle and barely visible but as familiar to her as the dunes themselves. He angled around the interloper, coming up from behind.

Be careful! she thought, even though she knew he couldn’t hear her.

The latchkey gave out, the store of the Change within it consumed by the wall’s charm. She was left on the wrong side of the exit, anxious and blind. What to do? She couldn’t just sit in the workshop like a rabbit in its hole waiting for the trap to spring.

She had seen enough, though. The interloper was approaching from a point near the outer edge of the dunes. That left him or her, most probably, with no line of sight to the workshop’s entrance. If she was quick, she might just get through without being spotted.

She took a deep breath and withdrew the latchkey. It slid freely from the sand, unhindered by the arcane mechanism it operated. Turning to another section of empty wall, she outlined a figure eight in the soft soil. With a sigh and a shower of sand, the wall collapsed, leaving a metre-wide hole in its wake. On the other side of the hole was the back of a bush. Beyond that, sunlight and the dunes.

Shilly hurried through, carrying the latchkey with her. The white sand glared bright in the daylight. The smell of salt and spear grass was sharp in her nostrils. She squinted to check around her before running away from the exit, erasing her footprints with her free hand as she went. She ducked out of sight at one end of a wide dune-valley just as a flash of blue fabric appeared at the other.

A Sky Warden? So far from the Haunted City? It wasn’t Selection time for months, when the young of the village were examined for Change-sensitivity or talent. There was just one other conceivable reason for a warden to be in the area. Shilly forced herself to confront the awful truth: that she and Sal might have done something to give themselves away.

She held her breath and hoped Sal would stay out of sight. The last time Sky Wardens had come to the dunes, her life had been turned upside-down. Pain shot along her right leg, from hip to ankle, and with a worried look she reached down to rub at it.

Unnatural silence had fallen over the dunes. Sal’s hearing seemed muffled as he moved to catch up with the person who had triggered the early warning charm on the dunes’ northeastern perimeter. Just as thick fog could dampen sound, so, too, could sufficient skill deaden the Change.

That thought sobered him. The chances were that this person was better trained than himself; not someone from Fundelry, then, or a wandering weather-worker, foraging for driftwood. For all the natural talents he possessed, subtlety was not one of them. He couldn’t just rush in and hope for the best.

He inched around the outstretched limb of a dune and caught his first glimpse of the person he pursued.

A thin young man with black, curly hair and ebony skin strode confidently towards the workshop entrance. He wore the bright blue robes of a Sky Warden. A crystal torc hung around his neck—a sign of rank, Sal remembered. Over his right shoulder drooped a black bag shaped like a teardrop. Its contents swayed heavily from side to side.

Whoever he was, he crossed the sand with long-legged strides, making no obvious attempt to conceal himself.

The bush camouflaging the entrance to the workshop stood out against the wall of sand behind it, a suddenly pathetic hiding place, even though it had served Lodo well for many years. Sal had felt the entrance open and Shilly scurry for freedom, so he was spared the worry of her being trapped inside. But that wasn’t the limit of his concerns. If the Warden found their home and reported it to the Syndic, they would be forced to run again. And he wasn’t ready to leave the one place he had felt at home—not yet.

Sal reached out through the Change, fighting the interference radiating from the trespasser, and touched the second line of defence. The buried traps stirred, awaiting his command. They had grown in the years since he had placed them in a series of concentric semicircles around the entrance to the workshop. They throbbed with readiness, swollen and angry like bees ready to defend their hive.

The Warden stopped in his tracks and looked around.

Sal ducked out of sight and slithered to a new position. The Warden turned his head from side to side, as though seeking the source of a faint sound. His expression, when Sal got his first good look at it, was one of intense concentration.

Sal went to duck again, but froze. There was something familiar about that face, those long features and dark eyes. He had seen them before. Or had he? He’d met only a few Wardens during his ill-fated stint at the Novitiate, five years ago, and none since. Would he remember any of them from that far back, even if his liberty depended on it?

The Warden straightened upon one last inspection of the dune valley. He swung the pack off his shoulder and put it on the sand by his feet. By accident or not, he had stopped just before the concealing bush.

The Warden raised his empty hands and turned in a full circle.

“Come out, Sal and Shilly,” he called, speaking slowly and loudly. “I know you’re here.”

Sal rolled over and flattened himself hard against the sand, staring desperately up into the sky. Sky Wardens didn’t necessarily need their hands free to cast charms any more than he did. The Warden’s gesture of peace was purely symbolic and therefore meaningless, but symbols had power. So Lodo had tried to teach him years ago, and Shilly had reinforced the lesson many times since.

Silence choked the air over the dunes. The wind had died completely; not even the seagulls dared brave the sudden stillness.

Sal didn’t know what to do.

“Who are you?” came Shilly’s voice from the other side of the Warden. “What do you want?”

Sal peered over the dune, alarmed by the thought that Shilly had put herself in danger. He reached out for the buried traps as the Warden turned to address the area that Shilly’s voice had come from. It wasn’t too late. She was far enough away not to be hurt.

“What’s the matter?” the Warden asked, his words echoing from the walls of sand. “Don’t you know who I am?”

“I know what you are. That’s enough.”

“No, it’s not.” The Warden made no move, except to sag a little. “I dreamed last night that you and I were riding a ship of bone up the side of a mountain, into a cave of ice. Something dark and ancient lived there, under the ice, and it knew we were coming. It had slept for an eternity, but was waking now, and it was hungry. We had to stop it, you and I, before it ate the world.”

Sal listened, hooked by the same odd sense of familiarity he had felt on seeing the man’s face. The Warden’s voice had changed while talking about the dream; it was higher pitched, and had a childlike rhythm. Sal had heard someone talk like that before, under very different circumstances.

For the first time, Sal noted how dusty the Warden’s robe was, his scuffed and worn boots.

The name, when it came to him, was as unbelievable as it was a relief.

“Tom?” Sal stood up on the crest of the dune. “Is that really you?”

The Warden turned away from Shilly’s hiding place to look at him. Now that Sal knew the truth, he could see the resemblance. Gone were the awkward ears and lack of height. Gone were youthful uncertainties and baby fat. In their place was a lean, almost ravenous, sense of concentration that hit Sal like a physical force as Tom’s gaze fixed on him.

The teenager Sal had last seen as a boy didn’t smile. “Who else would I be?” he asked, appearing genuinely puzzled.

A surge of relief carried Sal down the side of the dune. “It’s been such a long time,” he said. “I didn’t recognise you.”

“You look the same.”

“Thanks, I think.” Tom’s equine features took on a younger cast as Sal neared him. Under the dirt, he had pimples. Sal held out his hand. Tom’s grip was uncertain, fleeting.

“What in the Strand brings you here?”

Tom looked over his shoulder as Shilly came out of hiding. She didn’t look as relieved as Sal. Favouring her weak right leg, she leaned on Lodo’s latchkey in lieu of a staff.

Tom turned back to Sal. “It’s your father,” he said.

The heat of the day vanished at those three words. “What about him?”

“He needs your help.”

“He sent you to find us?”

“No.” Tom shook his head emphatically. “I came here of my own accord. No one knows.”

Shilly looked from Sal to Tom when she joined them.

“A cave of ice, huh?” she said. “That’s not a prophetic dream; it’s the sort of nonsense normal people have.”

Tom opened his mouth to respond, then closed it. Sal could practically hear his mind working. Brilliant in the ways of the Change, Tom struggled when it came to everyday matters.

“It will happen,” he said. “That’s the way it works. I thought you’d remember, after the golem and Lodo and—”

“Easy,” she said, a look of sadness clouding her features. “I remember. I just don’t understand how it could ever be possible. I haven’t seen ice in my entire life, let alone a cave of ice. The nearest mountains are half the world away, and I’m in no hurry to get there. As for hungry things wanting to eat you and me . . .” She put her hand on his shoulder. “Be assured that this is one fate I’ll try my level best to avoid.”

Tom didn’t argue, although her answer obviously didn’t reassure him.

“Why don’t you come inside?” asked Sal, indicating the bush and the entrance to the workshop behind it. The deadness over the dunes had faded; the wind had returned. “You look like you could get out of the sun for a while.”

“Yes,” added Shilly, “I’ll get you some water, make you some tea.”

Tom nodded, but stayed where he was. “Tell me,” he asked Sal, his dark eyes very serious. “What would you have done if I hadn’t been me?”

Sal looked at the ground around them, wondering how much Tom had sensed. Woven in a thin layer just under the surface of the sand was a pattern of interlinked charms designed by Shilly and willed into potency by Sal. The charms—resembling insects with circular bodies and crosses for heads—caught light filtering through the grains above them and held it there, the pattern growing increasingly powerful with every day that passed. At a word, Sal could release the stored energy in the light-traps and send it flooding back out into the world. He didn’t know how much energy, exactly, there was in the traps, but definitely more than enough to kick up a dense sandstorm, allowing Shilly and him to escape under cover. Probably enough to blow a person standing on the light-traps to pieces . . . There was only one way to find that out, and fortunately he had been spared such a decision this time.

“Don’t worry about us,” he said. “We know how to look after ourselves.”

Tom’s dark eyes took him in with one long glance. Sal’s assurance was one thing Tom clearly understood.

Shilly tugged Tom forward, her sun-bleached hair dancing. He allowed himself to be led up the slope of the dune, first picking up the heavy bag and draping it back over his shoulder, then dragging his leather boots through the sand.

“Come on down,” said Shilly, waving their old friend ahead of her along the secret passage into the workshop. “Tell us everything you know.”

“That could take days,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming a lot lately, and not just about you. I think Skender might be in trouble, wherever he is.”

Shilly glanced over her shoulder at Sal. He rolled his eyes. Nothing had changed.

“What we need to know, then. Let me get you a drink, and then you can get started.”

Sal came last, ignoring the sensation of being watched as he closed the door behind him. The birds on the dunes were the last things he had to worry about now.

The Miner

“It is clear that the ground subsided after the Cataclysm, but before the making of the Divide, so the city endured not one but two separate and unrelated catastrophes. The first lowered the city into a depression several kilometres around, with sloping sides and a roughly flat bottom. The second split the depression and therefore the city into two sections of unequal size. The inhabitants of the larger portion took shelter behind a sturdy wall designed to keep the Divide at bay. Some speculate that the creators of the Wall were the same as the creators of the Divide, suggesting the riving of the city was accidental, and that architectural triage on a massive scale was both called for and delivered.”

Laure Historical Survey

Skender Van Haasteren the Tenth was stuck. It wasn’t the first time he had been in that situation. His home, the Keep, an ancient cliff-face refuge deep in the heart of the Interior, was riddled with secret passages and unnoticed cracks, most of which he had explored during his childhood. Only on becoming a teenager had he realised the screamingly obvious: that such illicit expeditions were a form of escape that would never lead anywhere. All they did was annoy his father.

The one time he genuinely escaped, he had ended up on the other side of the Divide, fighting golems and worse. It had come as quite a shock that the outside world he had always dreamed of might actually be dangerous. He had gone home with a feeling of relief, his youthful rebellion out of the way nice and early. Time to settle in and do some safer work. No more adventures for him, thanks.

But now, here he was, out in the world a second time and finding himself caught in a crack he would once have slithered through with ease, distressingly deep underground.

I’m too big for this, he told himself as he reached for a handhold just out of reach, obviously. He was curved like a hairpin; if he could only obtain some sort of leverage, he could easily wriggle around the bend, but his fingers were flailing about like a newborn’s and his feet kicked uselessly at air. He flexed his entire body, hoping to shake things up, but succeeded only in banging his knees and scraping his spine even more. He tried twisting in a spiral fashion and brought his skull into sharp contact with stone. He saw stars.

For the first time in years, he truly feared for his life.

“Help!” he yelled, even though he knew it would be futile. He was deeper than few in Laure ever went, surrounded on all sides by heavy, ancient stone. Thinking him mad and possibly dangerous, the guides whose experience he had tapped had all warned him about the dangers of going down into the caves. Not one of them offered help, but nevertheless he had had to try. His mother was down here somewhere, and she needed rescuing.

Hands gripped his ankles.

He yelped in fright and kicked out. His foot struck something soft.

“Hey!” came a muffled voice past the plug of his twisted body. “I’m trying to help you, you idiot!”

“Sorry.” He forced himself to relax and let the hands clutch him again. Whoever they belonged to used their body weight to pull at his legs. Skender yelped as he shifted suddenly in the bend, losing still more skin to the rough, dry stone. His spine complained and his face was rammed hard against rock. For a moment he thought he might lose his nose.

“Ow! Be careful.”

“You want to stay down here forever?”

“No, but—”

“Then stop whining!”

The weight dragging at his ankles dislodged him from the hairpin. He tried to grab the walls to slow himself down, but he had been taken by surprise, and so had the person pulling his legs. He shot out of the crack to freedom in a rush and they tumbled together to the floor of the cave. One flailing limb caught his rescuer solidly in the abdomen. He heard a sudden exhalation of air, then pained wheezing.

“Bloody—hell!”

“I’m sorry. It was an accident.” He fumbled to lift his fallen pack off the glowstone he had been holding when he became stuck. Its reservoir of stored sunlight was strong enough to make out the person who had popped him from his early grave like a cork from a bottle.

He saw a young woman, around his age, with black hair and almond eyes. Her skin was neither white nor brown, but something in between. A dirty boot print stood out on the front of her chest.

“That’s—gratitude—for you,” she said, casting him a dark look. Wheezing, she climbed painfully to her feet and dusted herself off. She wore a faded black leather uniform that had seen better days. Patched and piecemeal, it had obviously belonged to many other people before she had acquired it; tight-fitting, with padding around the shoulders, elbows, and knees, there were two dull purple lines crossing at the front in a large X. The motif was repeated on the upper arms, in miniature.

“I said it was an accident,” he repeated, although his mind was already moving on. “Hey, I remember your face. You were in the crowd at the coffee stall, and at the hostel.” Facts clicked belatedly into place. “You’ve been following me!”

“You don’t sound very glad about it,” she said, glaring at him and picking up a short, fat tube from the rough ground. Tapped once, hard, against her thigh, it emitted a beam of weak blue light that she shone into his eyes. “If I hadn’t come along, you’d be another squeal closer to dying down here.”

“But . . .” Although there was no denying his gratitude at being rescued, he couldn’t leave it at that. “Who are you?”

“My name is Chu. I’m a miner.”

Understanding dawned. “So that’s what you’re doing down here. This is where you work. You weren’t following me at all. You just heard me yelling.”

She laughed. “You’re an idiot, Skender Van Haasteren the Tenth.”

“Huh?”

“You have no idea how Laure works. That’s why I’m following you. Someone’s got to keep white folks like you out of trouble.”

Stung by her tone, he turned away to check his robes for rips. Vivid afterimages cast by her lightstick danced across his vision. “Look, thanks for helping me, but if you’re not going to tell me anything useful, don’t bother sticking around. I can find my own way back.”

He felt her staring at him, and turned to find her examining him quite seriously, all trace of mockery gone.

“You’re a strange one,” she said. “It’s not just your pale skin. I watched you taking directions in the hostel last night. The place was full of people. Once the word got around that a Stone Mage with money was looking for information about the caves, every guide and scrounger in town came running.”

“I’m not a Stone Mage,” Skender protested. “I haven’t graduated yet.”

“So? If you dress like one, people will naturally assume. I followed them out of curiosity, and there you were, listening to everything everyone was saying, taking it all in. You never asked twice; you never drew any maps. People thought you were having them on. Some of them started giving you bogus directions, trying to catch you lying, but they never did. If what they told you was inconsistent, you caught them out. It was as if you knew the way already.”

Her intense regard made him feel uncomfortable. “I don’t know the way,” he said, quite honestly. “I just have a good memory. A perfect one. Once I see or hear something, I never forget it.”

“Really? And here I was thinking you remembered me because of my good looks.”

The beginnings of a flush made his ears redden. “That’s not what I meant—”

She laughed again. “You’re such an easy target, stone-boy. Don’t you ever get teased back home?”

He certainly did. He’d lived his entire life in a school full of older students. That his father was the headmaster didn’t protect him from regular ribbing; in fact, that encouraged it.

His defences were normally excellent, but there was something about Chu that put him off-balance. Something about her eyes, quite apart from their unusual shape. He blinked and told himself to remember what he was supposed to be doing.

“You were at the hostel,” he said, “so you know why I’m here. My mother is missing.”

“And you’re looking for her down here.” She nodded. “That was the part you weren’t very clear on. Why down here? Why the caves of Laure?”

It was a long story, and the air in the cramped cave was beginning to grow musty.

Skender indicated the crack behind him. “Looks like I’m not going to get much further this way. Why don’t we go up and I’ll tell you then? Maybe you can help me work out what to do next.”

Her teeth were white in the light of his glowstone. “I’d better not make a habit of doing that,” she said. “You couldn’t possibly afford my rates.”

“Rates? If I could afford hired help, I wouldn’t be lost down here in the first place.”

Her laugh was rich and echoed back at them from a hundred rock faces as they began their ascent into the daylight.

Some five weeks earlier, Abi Van Haasteren had left on her latest expedition, departing the subterranean city of Ulum with a caravan full of Surveyors, porters, camel riders, cooks, and grunts. She even had a man’kin with her for advice on esoteric matters. The stone intelligence, a high-templed man-shaped bust called Mawson, was a free agent who helped her willingly, not because he was bonded into service as many of his kind were. Still, from the position where he would ride out most of the journey, lashed firmly to the back of the leading caravan, his expression had been disdainful.

“Dignity,” he had told Skender, his voice like the buzz of bees at a great distance, “is in short supply among the living.”

“But you are alive,” Skender had responded, “aren’t you?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Which manner?”

“The one that matters.”

“Is this boy bothering you?” asked a voice. Skender felt a big hand come down heavily on his shoulder. “Move along, Skender. Mawson has important cogitating to do.”

Skender turned and looked up into a broad, pale face. Kemp was the largest person he had ever met, and albino with it, so he stood out in any crowd. A refugee from the Strand, he had taken up with the Stone Mages and was by now a regular traveller with Skender’s mother through the Interior.

Skender didn’t respond to the good-natured ribbing. “You’ll keep an eye on everyone. Won’t you?”

“An eye and an ear,” Kemp had assured him, grinning and moving off to help the baggage handlers. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be back before you know it.”

Skender had come to see them off via the space-bending Way leading from the Keep to Ulum, which allowed him to cross hundreds of kilometres in a few paces. Why his mother didn’t use such means to travel to her destinations was beyond him. The charm took its toll and wasn’t entirely safe, but travelling across the Interior for weeks on end had the same disadvantages. He had tried both, and knew which he preferred.

“At least take the buggy,” he pressed her as she checked the last of the provisions to be loaded. “You know Mawson prefers to travel that way.”

“He’s the least of my concerns,” she said, lashing a crate into place with a deft knot. Her long brown hair hung to her waist in beaded strands and swung with every movement. Lines of delicate, tattooed characters framed her face and lined her arms. She was striking and mysterious, even to Skender, her son. He had inherited her hair and skin colour and his father’s memory, but the height of neither.

“What about Dad?” he pressed her. “Couldn’t you at least have gone to say good-bye to him?”

“Couldn’t he have come here?” She adjusted a camel’s harness a little too abruptly. It snorted and eyeballed her warningly. She sighed and turned to Skender. “Your father doesn’t approve.”

“He never does, but that doesn’t stop you two getting along.”

“Not this time,” she said. “He doesn’t like where we’re going, or why.”

“Where is that again?” he asked, trying to sound casual. “I don’t believe I’ve heard.”

She tilted her head to one side. “If you’d heard, you’d know. And that’s why you haven’t heard. I’m keeping this one close to my chest, in case someone else beats me to it.” She put a hand to the rust-red material of her travelling robe where it covered her heart. “Don’t worry, my Skender. We’ll be okay. And when we come back, we’ll have found something wonderful. Just you wait and see.”

She had hugged him tightly then, and he had hugged her back, even though her words did little to reassure him. The caravan had trundled with a rattle and clatter of wheels out of the staging area, with the dour exÐSky Warden Shom Behenna bringing up the rear, his black skin a vivid contrast to Kemp’s and the others’ around him. His mother had waved at him as her wagon mounted the ramp leading to the surface, then turned her eyes forward, to the long journey ahead.

Skender returned to the Keep and finished his assignments for that week, then climbed out of his bedroom window and scaled the cliff as high as he dared without ropes or harness, relying solely on the strength of his arms and legs to hold him firm against the sun-warmed rock. He knew he was taking a risk—but why shouldn’t he? If his mother was allowed to throw herself headlong into some unknown venture his father disapproved of, he didn’t see why he should be any different, in his own small way.

Five years earlier, he had stowed away on a caravan similar to hers, one headed south for the Haunted City. He had hidden in a chest until his bladder forced him out, and he, too, had thought that his adventure was going to be wonderful, that he would come back with riches and wisdom. Instead, he had seen a woman murdered in front of him and barely escaped with his mind intact from the Void Beneath.

Ever since his return, he had had a keen appreciation of what his mother was risking every time she left him. He didn’t want to lose her to the dangers of the world. He wished she could be more like his father, who seemed perfectly happy confined to the Keep, where he taught his charges in the way of the Change. Why wasn’t his mother, like him, content to stay home?

Skender told himself that he worried too much. His mother was a supremely capable Senior Surveyor. She had a good team. He climbed back down to his room after the sun had set, feeling his way by moon—and starlight. The smell of roast potatoes drifted up from the kitchens and his stomach rumbled.

A month later, when word had come that Abi Van Haasteren and her party had been given up for dead by their caravan porters, he confronted his father and demanded that something be done to find her. He railed and ranted, expecting an argument in response. His father normally defended his mother’s right to do as she willed. This time, however, all Skender received was worried agreement.

“I am concerned, yes,” said the Mage Van Haasteren, settling heavily into a chair and resting his head on one hand. His rich red robes, trimmed with gold thread, sighed with him. “Abi normally makes contact once a day when she’s away. It takes a significant amount of strength to call so far, especially among the Ruins, but she does it to ease my mind. I haven’t heard from her for two days, now.”

Skender’s father stared at him with a long, lined face and helpless eyes.

“Two days—and you didn’t tell me?” Skender paced the room, needing an outlet for the vague anxiety that had just transformed into a very specific concern. “We should raise an alarm, send another party, do something!”

“You know the Surveyor’s Code, Skender. I can’t ask them to break it.”

Skender did know the Code. He could even see the sense in it. Ruins were dangerous places, filled with power from ancient times. Some of that power was inimical to humanity. If a Surveyor met with disaster inside a Ruin, sending a rescue party might see more people injured or killed. Such disasters were written off as bad luck, and those Ruins never visited again.

But this was his mother . . .

“Tell me where she went,” he demanded.

The Mage retreated. “No. If you don’t already know—and I’m certain you asked—then I will not break her confidence.”

“Tell me,” Skender insisted, leaning over the table to confront his father nose to nose. “I’m not leaving this room until you do.”

“And if I do tell you? What then?”

Skender was startled by the alarm in his father’s voice, but he didn’t let that deter him. “You know what I’ll do. And I know you want her back as badly as I do. So let’s just get it over with. If we’re both wrong and she turns up safe and sound tomorrow, I’ll never let on.”

The Mage had capitulated then, looking older than Skender had ever seen him. He also was trapped, pressured by law and custom and plain good sense to abandon his wife to her fate, yet hating the thought of it as much as Skender.

“A city called Laure.”

“Where?”

“On the Divide.”

His stomach clenched. “Don’t tell me! She wouldn’t be so stupid. Would she?”

His father neither nodded nor shook his head. “Your mother may be many things, Skender, but stupid isn’t one of them. She claimed to know what she was doing. All I could do was believe her.”

Skender couldn’t credit what he was hearing. Many dangerous things had walked the Earth since the Cataclysm and the early days of the Change. Most of them came from—or had been herded into—the Divide, a vast crack across the landscape separating the underground desert cities of the Interior from the coastal villages of the Strand. Deeper and wider than an ordinary canyon, the Divide had been made centuries ago for purposes unknown. Many people had died in the attempt to plumb its mysteries. Their ghosts, legends said, wailed in despair from the cliff faces, echoing from one side to the other. Trapped forever.

He tore his mind from the image of his mother caught in such a trap and found himself standing in the middle of his father’s chambers with his hands hanging limply at his sides. He felt as though he had woken in the middle of sleepwalking.

His father’s hand came down on his shoulder. He looked up into the Mage’s face, for once not resentful of the fact that their heights weren’t equal. It felt good to be towered over. He longed to be held, as though that alone would solve everything.

“You’ll need these,” his father said, pressing something cold and sharp-edged into his hand.

He looked down at a ring of keys. “The buggy?”

“I can’t give you anything else. The Synod won’t support a rescue mission; I’ve tried to make them, and they won’t listen.”

“But—”

“Go now. Forget about your homework. Some things are simply more important.”

More important than homework? That the idea had ever occurred to his father, let alone issued from his mouth, impressed on Skender just how serious the situation was. He hurried to his room, threw everything he thought he might need into a satchel, and ran to where the buggy rested in its makeshift garage. It was fully fuelled and provisioned for a long journey. The smell of fresh oil was testimony to the fact that it had recently been serviced.

As he swung himself into the seat and started the engine, he realised that his father had been thinking of going himself.

“I’ll bring her home,” he whispered over the roaring of the motor. “Don’t worry.”

That promise had kept him going for two thousand kilometres, across desert and ancient hills, to where Laure crouched like a child playing hide-and-seek in a corner of the Divide, with only the tips of its tarnished towers peeking into view.

“So you followed her trail to where the porters left her,” Chu said over the lip of a tiny, porcelain cup. Coffee as black and potent as any Skender had tasted left black grains on her teeth. Around them, the walled New City bustled and blustered its way through the day. Robed traders hurried back and forth along constricted alleyways, their heads wrapped in white cloth. Animals clucked, brayed, or hissed through bars, muzzles, or harnesses. Cockroaches scuttled. Spindly, four-legged creatures with curling tails scampered up drains and through windows; some of them wore embroidered vests, signalling that they were pets. The sky above, visible through rips in the canvas shade angled over them, was a faded pale blue. Laure didn’t appear to have seen rain for years. The air was dry, the cobbled road beside them parched; with water strictly rationed the stink of spices was strong in the air, covering the smell of unbathed humanity.

Behind the general hubbub, Skender could hear the wailing of the city’s ruling guild of red-robed weather-workers, the yadachi, as they exhorted the wind to bring relief. They sat on thin, vertical poles high above street level, distant from everyday concerns. Skender knew that on certain days, when significant winds blew, giant pipes caught the superheated air and turned it into notes so low they were felt as much as heard. That music was silent for the moment. The only other melody he could detect in the city’s babble was the mournful lay of a duduq, a double-reeded instrument that in skilled hands could make of every note a lament.

“Then what?”

“She went into the Divide,” he said, “at a natural pass called the Devil’s Elbow, which is protected by charms against things trying to come up, not down. They camped at the top, and that’s obviously where they argued about who was going to go and who wasn’t. I found signs suggesting that the porters stayed for a while after she went down the pass. Maybe they genuinely waited for her to come back; maybe they waited barely as long as was decent. Either way, they left no tracks to suggest that they went after her, or that she came back that way later.”

“Did you go down the pass?”

He shook his head. “Her trail was old, and I didn’t know what I’d be walking into. I followed the top of the Divide instead, heading northeast along the Interior side.” Even from the relative safety of the escarpment, he had felt on edge during that daylong journey. The far side of the Divide was kilometres away, and the yawning emptiness had tugged relentlessly at him. The buggy bounced over rough ground, following a faint track that hadn’t been used for decades. Every bump seemed to twist the wheels toward the Divide. He gripped the steering wheel and concentrated on keeping his heading straight.

At the same time, he looked for any sign of his mother and her expedition on the parched valley floor, dozens of metres below. The earth was pitted and scarred down there, as though an ancient battle had churned the soil and split the bedrock in thousands of places. Dust devils and heat distortions danced in the air above gaping rents, as capricious as ghostly birds. Fleeting glints of light drew his eye to shadowy clefts, but disappeared before he could see what made them. He was reminded of descriptions of the Broken Lands, where the earth lay in endless disorder, terrain of all sorts jutting into each other like a jigsaw puzzle dropped by a giant.

Between the rents were sheets of startlingly smooth sand dunes, white, grey, and red. Some of them were hundreds of metres long, stretching like melted caramel along the centre of the Divide. On these sheets he saw tracks that might have been made by a reckless Surveyor and her party. Nowhere else did he see a single sign of human life.

Then he had seen Laure, the walled city, and her destination had become obvious.

“I don’t know much about your home,” he said to Chu. “Laure is mentioned only briefly in the Book of Towers. Fragments three hundred and ten to three hundred and twenty-four tell of a town sundered by a great rending of the Earth. The story goes that each of the city’s two halves thought the other was responsible, and they fought for years, causing still more damage to what remained. The war was won by the northern half, and the southern half soon fell into ruin.”

“We call it the Aad,” said Chu. “It’s an old word that means Ôdisease’ or Ôbad luck.’ No one goes there. It’s inhabited by creatures from the Divide now.”

Skender nodded. That matched the Book of Towers, too. “What the book doesn’t say about Laure is that it rests on a cave system—I could see the openings from further up the Divide.” The geography of Laure was complex, belying the simplicity of the tale. Laure cowered in a triangular dogleg of the Divide like a mouse backed into a corner. The ground it rested on had subsided in the distant past, most probably during the Cataclysm, so that the remains of the original settlement now clung to its sloping fringes. A new city had been built in the gutted centre of the hollow, the matching piece of which rested on the far side of the Divide—the Ruin Chu had called the Aad. A steep, forbidding wall cut a stark line around the side of Laure not protected by the steep slopes of the dogleg. Massive symbols painted on the outside of the Wall added to the protection granted by the sheer mass of stone. No one knew who had built it, but without it the city would be completely exposed to the Divide.

To the left and right of the Wall, dotting the sheer cliff faces, gaping holes led deep underground. “I think my mother was heading for them, or was forced to hide in them by something unexpected.”

“They’re not just caves,” said Chu. “There are artificial tunnels, too. I’ve never seen them myself, but I’ve heard stories. They’re bigger than anything we could’ve made, and were full of old metal a long time ago.”

A shiver of dread mixed with excitement rushed through him. “I don’t understand how you could be a miner and not have seen them. Isn’t using the old tunnels and caves the obvious thing to do if you’re digging underground?”

“Right.” Again she smiled knowingly.

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” he said to her, pushing his empty cup aside and leaning over the table. “You know where my mother is, don’t you?”

Brushing an errant strand of perfectly black hair from her eyes, she also leaned forward until they were less than a hand’s span apart. “I think it’s time we came to an arrangement, Skender Van Haasteren,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. “You say you don’t have much money, but that’s not a problem. We can still do business. Agree, and I’ll tell you why me being a miner doesn’t have anything to do with old tunnels and caves. I’ll also tell you why you’re probably looking in the wrong place for your mother. Okay?”

Skender was automatically suspicious. He thought of all the material things he had brought with him: the buggy; a small amount of money; an ornate metal clasp his mother had salvaged from a burial site excavated three years earlier, which he was too afraid to wear in the city in case it was stolen. There was nothing he would willingly part with.

On the other hand, he needed to know where his mother might be, and he found that he enjoyed the company of this strange young woman. He could live with the risk of being screwed over in order to keep her around a little longer.

He scratched his arm where his Blood Tithe had been taken on entry into the city. The small wound itched.

“What do you want?” he asked her.

“Something you take completely for granted,” she said. “And if you do it right, it won’t cost you a thing.”

“What?”

“Freedom, Skender Van Haasteren.” Her dark brown eyes were bottomless. “You’re my ticket, and I’m not letting go of you until you’ve delivered.”

The Homunculus

“Through the Change, we can connect far-flung places. We reach out with our thoughts and our senses; we send our bodies along Ways from one end of the Interior to the other. But where are those thoughts, minds, and bodies when they are in transit, if not in the actual world? They are in the Void Beneath.”

The Book of Towers, Fragment 242

“We don’t know exactly what happened,” said Tom, perched awkwardly on a squat driftwood chair, periodically swigging from a second bottle of clear water. The first had gone in one long draught, as though he hadn’t drunk properly for days. He had removed the outer layers of his robes, exposing a knee-length sky-blue tunic that looked almost new, and taken off his leather boots. His toes were long and clenched at the sandy floor of the workshop with instinctively sensual motions.

Shilly listened to the story of what had happened to Highson Sparre, Sal’s genetic father, with acid pooling deep in her stomach.

“This is what we do know. Highson left the Haunted City one week ago. He chartered a ferry to the town of Gunida, on the coast. The captain of the ferry remembered Highson, even though he travelled under a false name. He brought a large amount of matŽriel with him, so the ferryman assumed he was a trader. In Gunida, he unloaded the boxes with the help of a local by the name of Larson Maiz. Maiz was known to be a member of the underground economy, a shady type who would do anything for money.”

“Was?” repeated Sal. “Would?”

Shilly had noticed the ominous use of past tense, too.

“Maiz was found dead the next morning. He’d been killed several hours earlier, after meeting your father.”

Sal nodded, his face closed tight as it always was when he was most upset.

“Go on,” he said. “Tell me why you think my father killed him.”

Tom looked startled. “We don’t think that at all. That is, we don’t think Maiz’s death was deliberate. It was an accident, a side effect. He was unlucky, probably.”

“Do you know where Highson is now?”

Another shake of his head. “Those who know him best have looked, but we can’t find him anywhere. He appears to have vanished.”

Vanished. The word dropped into Shilly like a stone down a well.

“Just tell us what you know,” she told Tom, catching Sal’s eye and making sure he understood. “You’ve come a long way to give us this information. We won’t interrupt any more. I promise.”

Sal nodded. Tom looked relieved.

“At the second hour of the morning, one week ago,” he said, as though he had rehearsed it many times during his long trip to Fundelry, “Gunida was woken by the sound of the world tearing open.”

Sal listened to Tom’s account with mounting alarm. A tear in the world was exactly what he had been feeling on the beach. Not an explosive event, as Tom described it, but as a growing feeling of wrongness. It seeped into him from the edges of his life and crept slowly to his heart.

The residents of Gunida had staggered from their beds that night a week ago, terrified. The western sky was bright with light—a flickering, perfectly white glow so bright it cast shadows from chimneys, trees, and outstretched hands. A few brave souls dared to follow it to its source, thinking it lay on the outskirts of town, but it was in fact much further. Barely had the intrepid group travelled two kilometres through dense scrub and low, anonymous hills when the light went out. A thunderclap rolled across the land, shaking trees, knocking off hats, and sending dogs cowering under verandahs. A terrible silence fell in its wake.

The night was utterly black. The stars and moon hid behind clouds. The group had little hope of finding the source of the explosion, but still they tried, spreading out and beating through the bushes, hoping to flush out more than the occasional startled rabbit.

Only one more event marked the stillness of the night: a distant scream that could have come from a man’s or a woman’s throat. One witness described the sound as the most awful thing he had ever heard, a cry so full of fear it melted all resolve to find its cause. The group immediately turned back to Gunida, there to wait for dawn before recommencing the search.

By daybreak, a party of Sky Wardens had arrived. The pyrotechnics of the previous night had not gone unnoticed by those of the Haunted City. Crossing the choppy waves on Os, the mighty ship of bone, the party included Alcaide Braham—the Strand’s highest authority—and many other senior Wardens. Tom was among them.

By then, Highson Sparre’s absence had been noted and every available Warden summoned to help shed light on a very mysterious situation. Sal’s father had left the island with a large number of arcane artefacts, formerly housed in the depths of the Novitiate’s storerooms. Many of them had no known use, although their potency was undoubted. They fairly crackled with the Change and had been interred more for safekeeping rather than because of any sense of value. That Highson had apparently made off with specific items and not a random swagful suggested that he had something in mind for them.

“Highson was a lot of things,” agreed Sal, “but he wasn’t a thief.”

After a deep draught of water, Tom’s story continued.

The search party followed Highson’s trail to Gunida. They listened to the testimonies of town residents and put together their own expeditionary party. Before the eighth hour, this new force journeyed on foot from the harbour town, following the fading spoor of the event that had shaken the world that morning. They found the source before long: a clearing set in a hollow between three low hills with a ring of flattened trees surrounding a scorch mark blacker than anything Tom had seen before. The crater at the centre of the clearing was a metre deep.

They approached it cautiously.

“People perceive the Change in different ways,” Tom said. “Some smell it or see it, or even taste it. I hear it, like a ringing in my ears. Highson’s work had a distinct sound to it, a mix of harmonics unique to him. His signature was so powerful in that place that I could hear it hours later, still vibrating in the soil and the trees—and the body.”

There went Sal’s last hope that Tom and the Wardens might have been mistaken, that his father’s connection to the death of Larson Maiz was tenuous, perhaps even completely circumstantial.

“How did Maiz die?” asked Shilly, taking Sal’s hand in hers. He was grateful for the gesture.

“Maiz’s heart failed,” Tom said. “Some say he died of fright.”

“He saw something? Was attacked by something?”

“We don’t know. There were several tracks in and around the scorched area. Maiz made some of them before and after the burning took place; the patterns of the prints match the soles of his boots, so we have no doubts there. There was a second set of tracks that we presume belonged to Highson, as they, too, preceded and postdated the thing he came there to make. The procedure involved a lot of unpacking and preparation; various empty crates and containers scattered around the clearing testified to that.”

“What about the thing itself?” Sal asked. “Did you find it?”

“Not in the clearing. Not exactly.”

“What do you mean by Ônot exactly’?”

“We found a third set of footprints.” Tom drained the last of the water from the bottle and put it on the ground beside him with a hollow thud. “I’m not a tracker; I’m an Engineer. But even I could tell that something walked out of that clearing that didn’t walk into it, and it didn’t walk on legs as we know them.”

Sal didn’t want to know what sort of legs they were. Not yet. Strange screams and holes in the world were enough for now. “Where did it go?”

“It tore a path through the scrub wider than a person. There are signs that Maiz tried to stop it, but obviously wasn’t successful. Markings suggest that Highson himself was knocked unconscious for a time, at least several hours after Maiz’s death. We do know that shortly after awakening, not long after dawn that terrible night, he set off in pursuit.”

Chasing the thing he made, thought Sal.

“They had quite a head start,” Tom went on. “It was a day or more by the time we returned to the Haunted City and a fully equipped search party set out to follow them. Alcaide Braham is quite determined to get to the bottom of what happened.”

“I’ll bet,” said Shilly. “Something like this, right on his doorstep . . .” She shook her head. “Do you have any idea what it was that Highson made?”

“Master Warden Atilde took a closer look at what he stole. That, combined with what we found at the site, led her to suspect that Highson created a Homunculus.”

“A what?” asked Sal.

“An artificial creature designed to house a disembodied mind, like a ghost or a golem.”

A chill went down Sal’s spine. “Does Atilde think he succeeded in giving it a mind?”

“Yes. But what it was physically, she doesn’t know. It’s obviously something, something that walks.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” said Shilly, frowning deeply. “Highson knows how dangerous ghosts and golems can be. Why would he want to make a home for one?”

“Did anyone notice anything about him before all this happened?” asked Sal. “Was he acting strangely? Was he still himself?”

Tom knew what question he was really asking. If a Change-worker strained too hard, their minds could be pushed out of their body and stuck in the Void Beneath—the empty nonspace underpinning the real world. The vacant body left behind could then be inhabited by a golem. The three of them sitting in Lodo’s old workshop knew from grim experience what horrors such a being could unleash.

“He was still Highson,” said Tom, with quiet surety. “No one doubts that for a moment. He wasn’t something other than himself.”

Sal believed him. Golems weren’t known for their subtlety.

“So where does everything stand now?” he asked. “This all happened a week ago. Has anyone heard from Highson since? What happened to the search party? When did you leave?”

Tom blinked under the barrage of questions. “The search party hasn’t returned. The last I was told, they were still following the trail. No one’s heard from Highson or been able to find him through the Change. I’ve looked, too, but he’s either hiding or being hidden by something.”

“Or he’s dead,” put in Shilly.

“I don’t think so. I left two days ago. My dreams have been unsettled since Highson disappeared. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. There’s only one thing I’m sure of: you two are involved. Your faces keep coming up, over and over. There’s only one way you could be involved, and that’s if someone came and got you. So I did. I requisitioned a buggy and set off. I stopped to refuel and rest in Samimi, but apart from that I drove straight through.”

That explained his haggard appearance, and reinforced something that had unnerved Sal ever since Tom’s unexpected appearance. Tom wasn’t interested in being a hero or standing in the spotlight; he was normally content to watch from the shadows as people played out their roles. He only acted when he felt he had to—when his dreams told him that something was important.

This obviously was.

“How did you know where we were?”

“Where else would you be?” Tom reacted as though Sal had asked why the day had begun that morning. “When you escaped from the Haunted City, you went through a Way to the workshop.”

“But you weren’t there,” Shilly said. “No one was supposed to talk about it.”

“They didn’t need to. It was perfectly obvious what had happened.”

“To you, perhaps,” said Sal. “You’re the first visitor we’ve had in five years.”

“And a very welcome one, too,” Shilly added, “although the news you’ve brought is less than cheerful.”

“Did you tell anyone where you were going?” asked Sal, unable to hide the worry in his voice.

“No. I—uh.” An alarmed look crossed Tom’s face. He stood up suddenly, knocking over the empty bottle of water.

“I’m sorry,” he said, performing an awkward hop on one foot and turning pink. “I need—uh.”

“Through there.” Shilly realised before Sal did what Tom required and pointed to a curtained alcove. “I was wondering how much you could drink before you started to overflow.”

Tom vanished behind the curtain. Sal grinned at the sustained splash and sigh of relief that followed, but his mind was too full of images old and new, of golems and midnight detonations, of Highson Sparre and dead Larson Maiz, of hiding places and family ties, to be distracted for long.

Shilly caught his eye and held it. Her expression was very serious. He could tell that she had already decided what she wanted to do.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I’m trying not to.”

“He’s your father.” Her voice held a hint of reproach.

“My father died in Fundelry before I ever met this man.”

“Highson married your mother; he sired you. And he helped us escape from the Syndic.”

Sal nodded. All true and relevant, especially the latter. Highson Sparre’s aunt, the most powerful woman in the Strand, had locked horns with Sal on more than one occasion. If she had had her way, he would still be studying in the Haunted City, fuelling her plans for advancement.

“You know it’s the right thing to do.” Her hand found his. “And besides, Tom dreamed we were involved. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

“If he’d left us alone, perhaps we wouldn’t be.” He heard the petulance in his tone and hated it. The truth was that he didn’t feel ready to leave Fundelry, the fishing village he had lived in for five years after a life of constant travel. Part of him wondered if he would ever be ready to leave. Fundelry was safe: the dangers were known and familiar. He had no control over the outside world and the threats it contained; out there, he might have no control over himself, either.

Only twice had he let his wild talent consume him. The eruption of rage he had set free had almost killed a man. Then, later, he had killed an ice-creature deep in the bowels of the Haunted City. Even though that had been in defence of Shilly, the potential for violence contained within him frightened him even more than the first time. His wild talent was like a large animal blundering about in a city; by its very nature, it was dangerous. But that wasn’t the fault of its nature. It was just out of place. In the right place, it wouldn’t be a problem. Sal simply hadn’t found out where that was yet.

In Fundelry, with Shilly, he had learned to balance the wild talent and bend it to his will, but it was a truce he feared could be easily broken.

“All right,” he said. “We have to help. But I don’t like it. What’s Highson doing mucking around with a Homunculus in the middle of the night? What’s he brought into the world? What are we getting ourselves caught up in now?”

She didn’t say anything, just leaned her head into his shoulder. He put an arm around her and held her, tasting an uncertainty he had thought long swallowed.

A bell rang at lunchtime, apparently of its own accord. There were twelve strung in an elaborate mobile from the ceiling’s highest point. Each had a unique pitch and timbre, and each had an identical twin to which it was subtly linked. When one rang, no matter how far away, so would the twin.

“That’s Thess,” said Sal, looking up from the chart he and Tom were studying. “Do you want me to go?”

Shilly shook her head. She had been laying out their clothes and other possessions in preparation for packing, finding herself amazed by how little they actually owned. Discounting the workshop and everything Lodo had left them, plus the occasional trinket the townsfolk insisted they take, they had only a few personal effects to call their belongings. Part of her found it sad that they could have left so small a mark on their world that no one would notice its absence.

“I’ve got it,” she said, grateful for the opportunity to think about something else. Rummaging in a closet, she wrapped up two small vials in a leather bag and tied her hair in a short pigtail. She picked up her favourite walking stick, one which Sal had carved with simple but potent charms for strength and endurance out of a piece of near perfectly straight driftwood. The charms sparkled with the Change irrespective of how the light caught them. “I’ll be home soon.”

Outside, the sun had begun its lazy drift across the westward quarter of the sky, and she walked with it at her back. Tom had moved the buggy into the dunes, where it would be less conspicuous, and she gave it a wide berth, even though she had no reason to be afraid of it. Buggies were rare in Fundelry; few travellers used them, and the town’s mechanic spent most of his time repairing fishing boat engines and water pumps. This one was an efficient Sky Warden machine, made of black metal and brooding like a disgruntled spider on wheels. Big enough to hold four, it seemed to glower at her as she passed.

“Be patient,” she told it. “You’ll be on the road again soon enough.”

Then she was hurrying through the dunes to the rendezvous point, a dry creek bed halfway between the workshop and Fundelry. She went into town only when she absolutely had to, and made sure Sal charmed her appearance thoroughly before she did. Her and Sal’s friends knew how to find them, but no one else did. Or so she had preferred to think.

Long-limbed Thess and her young son sat under the shade of a spreading eucalyptus, playing a game involving Thess’s hair and the boy’s small fingers. The sound of Gil’s laughter brought a smile to Shilly’s face. Gil’s father had drowned in a fishing accident the year before. The five-year-old had been uncommunicative since.

“I hope you haven’t been waiting long.” Shilly kissed Thess’s cheek and sat next to them, stretching her bad leg out before her. Gil looked up at her, wide-eyed, then shied away. They were as dark-skinned as herself and Tom; on the Strand, Sal’s light skin was the exception. “It’s been a complicated morning.”

Thess beamed. “We’ve had fun. Haven’t we, Gil?”

“Mmm,” said the boy, discovering a sudden interest in the ants exploring stringy bark on the far side of the tree.

“I have some of the sand I told you about,” said Shilly, putting the first of the vials into Thess’s lap. “Put this in little Gil’s shoes and the itching will go down in a couple of days.”

“Thank you. I—”

“And this one’s for you.” The second vial contained a yellow powder that shifted smoothly, like a fluid. “Half a teaspoon in water every morning and I promise you’ll notice the difference. I tried it last week, and—” She mimed an explosion of energy.

“Shilly, thanks, but—”

“It’s the least I can do. I know it’s been a long haul for you.” She pressed Thess to take the vial. “I’d advise against taking this forever, but it’ll help get you out of this rough patch.”

“I think I might already be out of it.” Thess dropped her voice. “That’s actually why I called you.”

“Oh?” Thrown off giving the spiel she had memorised from Lodo’s notes, Shilly stared at her older friend, really looking at her for the first time. Gil wasn’t the only one of the pair sporting a more cheerful demeanour. Understanding suddenly dawned. “Not that fisherman!”

Thess shushed her so Gil wouldn’t overhear. “Yes.”

“What was his name? Boone? Boden?”

“Booth. Last night—” Thess’s voice dropped even further in volume. “He stayed all night. I haven’t woken up with a man beside me for an awfully long time. It felt good.”

Shilly gripped her friend’s hand. “I’m glad for you. I am, truly.”

Thess affected a measure of nonchalance. “Oh, things will be complicated. Gil doesn’t know yet, and I don’t know how he’ll take it. His father’s family, too, could be tricky. But I’m not doing this for them. It’s for me, and I want it to work.”

“I’m sure it will.” Even if it lasted no more than one night, Shilly would regard it as worthwhile. The glow surrounding Thess was palpable.

“Well, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. Aunty Merinda gave me a tonic, but it’s been giving me terrible headaches. She said that you might know something better, to keep any, um, awkwardnesses at bay, until I’m ready.”

Thess glanced at Gil, who was engrossed in the antics of a gecko he’d disturbed. Her meaning was obvious. Aunty Merinda, the local weather-worker and fortune-teller, was also the chief dispenser of contraception to Fundelry’s womenfolk. She had taught Shilly everything she needed to know long before Sal came to town, and provided valuable advice after the fact, when they had been two young people flung together by circumstances as well as by the bond growing between them. Shilly had been glad for someone trustworthy to talk to, if nothing else.

“I think the headaches relate to the dose, not the substance itself,” she said, thinking carefully. She didn’t feel entirely comfortable dispensing advice of this nature, when a single mistake could change the course of a person’s life. But she was flattered that Aunty Merinda thought her capable of offering it. “I’ll look into it tonight.”

“Thank you.”

“There could be a problem, though,” she went on, the words hard to come by because the notion was still so new to her. “Sal and I are leaving. I don’t know how long for. You’ll have to do without us. Can you tell the others?”

“Of course.” Thess examined her closely. “Is everything all right? You haven’t been found, have you?”

“Oh, no,” she lied, hoping her uncertainty didn’t show. “Everything’s fine. We just need to help someone. It won’t take long, I hope.”

Thess looked barely mollified. “We’ll miss you. We’ve been spoilt, having you so close for so long. The town won’t know what to do when your charms wear off and all our chimneys block again.”

Shilly felt a rush of affection for her friend, and found herself spontaneously embracing her, clutching her as tightly as she would the mother she had never known. Thess’s warmth was soothing, as was the rich, womanly smell of her. Strong hands gripped Shilly’s back; silence enfolded them, and she was somewhat reassured that all would be well.

On the way back to the workshop, Shilly reflected that, although their packs might be light, she and Sal were rich in other ways. They had friends and accomplices all through the town; they helped out in myriad small ways, from purifying water to treating minor ailments; they were making progress in working out how they fitted into the world. They would be missed, just as she would miss her home.

The greatest treasure they owned lay in their heads and their hearts. Nothing could take that away from them, no matter where they went or what they did. Golems and ghosts had tried in the past, and failed; Highson Sparre’s Homunculus—or whatever it was—would fare no better.

Later that night, when Tom had fallen into a heavy sleep broken by the occasional snore, Sal removed himself to a dark corner of the workshop and squatted on the earthen floor. Their evening meal—rabbit fried in local spices with a side dish of seeds and nuts marinated in honey, washed down with a glass of clear white wine that had been given to them a year ago by a grateful customer—roiled in his stomach like surf on the sands. He had to try something before giving in to his fate.

Shilly had been busy all evening, rummaging through Lodo’s recipes and old notes; some last-hour concoction, he presumed, that they would deliver when they set out the next morning. Even now she fussed and bothered among Lodo’s tools.

Sal closed his eyes and blotted her out. She was still there, but he wasn’t paying her any attention. He did the same to Tom and the rest of the workshop, until he was just a point of awareness floating in the blackness behind his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply.

When he had the rhythm right, he began to visualise.

He stood on the boundary between sea and land, but it was no ordinary beach. The sea glowed like the sun and the land was molten with power. The air crackled. He breathed deeply of it, and strength filled him. His skin felt as transparent as glass, as hot as a lantern left burning too long.

Highson Sparre, he called, where are you? He pictured his true father’s face as he had last seen it: brooding eyes, broad features, skin as warm as dark honey. He took the lines of those features and bent them around a simple charm. The world was seeping into him with every breath. Wherever Highson was in the world, the charm would help him to know of it. He poured all his energy into the effort.

Highson, save me the trouble of leaving and answer me!

A fluttering of wings distracted him. The face dissolved. A burning bird with bones of charcoal circled him, trailing flames. A sea creature made of stone surfaced from the fiery ocean and landed with a crash. He irritably waved them away with a flex of his will. They were symbols: the sea of the Sky Wardens, so familiar to him in his everyday life but always a reminder of his fugitive status; the bedrock of the Stone Mages, who had sent him back to the Strand rather than shelter him from his enemies. That he routinely bypassed the usual teachings and went straight to the source, the borderland of stone and water, fire and air, proved that they were conventions only, and neither essential nor dangerous to cross.

They had, however, successfully distracted him. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t quite reassemble Highson’s image. It eluded him. Or the charm refused to accept the image, and he could only think of one reason why this might be so: if his father was no longer in the world, then the charm would never work no matter how hard or often he tried.

A black sun rose over the burning sea, casting rays of darkness across the land. Burning bird and stone sea creature fled before a rolling hum that grew louder the longer Sal persisted. He knew that sound. He had heard it too many times to ever mistake it. It came from the Void Beneath, and it meant that he was trying too hard. He retreated immediately, unravelling the illusion as he went. The hum faded back into the ebb and flow of his breath, and the darkness of the black sun became the red-tinged oblivion of his closed eyes. The charm dissolved.

It was odd, then, that the feeling that he had been getting close to something remained. Not to his father, but to the tear that had opened in the world, somewhere . . .

“No luck, huh?”

He opened his eyes to see Shilly watching from a position directly in front of him. Time had flown. The glowstones she had been working by were yellow and dim, almost depleted.

“No,” he said, unfolding his legs.

“Worth a try.”

He sighed. The thought of leaving made his insides tremble with both excitement and fear. And now he was tired, too. He should sleep. They would get precious little of it over the next few days.

“I keep remembering Larson Maiz,” he said. “How must it feel to die of fright? I don’t want that to happen to anyone I know. To you.”

She reached out to cup his cheek. “We all die someday, Sal. Yesterday’s people are tomorrow’s ghosts. And we can’t stay hidden here forever.”

“I know, but . . .” He stopped, unable to find the words to express what he was feeling. “We’ll have to be very careful.”

“Don’t worry about me, Sayed,” she said. “Or yourself. I’ll be so terrified nothing will get within a hundred metres of us without me noticing.”

Her face was just visible in the yellow warmth of fading glowstones. Her words did reassure him, even though he knew that, like himself, she had little idea of what they were heading into.

“I love you, Carah,” he said, knowing that she returned his love as fully as it was offered. Whatever happened, he could depend on that.

When he finally slept, he dreamed of the road moving under him as rapidly as the wind, as it had for most of his life before coming to Fundelry. Dafis Hrvati, the man he had thought was his father—who had raised him and loved his mother; who had protected him when she was taken from them by the Syndic and imprisoned in the Haunted City; who had brought him to Fundelry in a vain attempt to save him from his wild talent; who had died at the hands of the Alcaide in order to set him free—rode alongside him. His tanned, weathered hands firmly gripped the steering wheel. He smiled at Sal, and winked.

Sal woke with tears on his cheeks. The feeling of loss lingered, and grew stronger as their journey began.


The Blood Debt © Sean Williams

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