Note: This is a very long chapter, and it’s sloppy, but that’s showbiz, baby. Reminder again that as of this week, some of my stories are available in digital form on Amazon. If you like what you read and are interested in supporting my work, I would greatly appreciate a purchase and/or review!
They had relocated Lan’s boat well in advance of their approach, away from the Reach’s harbor–which they would have no chance of escaping should things turn noisy–to an alcove upriver where they could regroup on foot. Though daylight had begrudgingly illuminated the beginning of the effort, night had arrived by the time they finished and settled in thoroughly by the time they began the real work. Ty and Naples’ reconnaissance had turned up a number of details, most of them useful if unfortunate. According to a group of merchants who frequented the town, Naples’ rumor about Les’ Marquains’ treacherous interior decor was more than hot air: One of them had once attended one of the lord’s “gatherings” and witnessed an aristocrat knock a lamp from a table. Rather than breaking the lamp, however, the act seemed to instantly snap the aristocrat’s arm in three places. The merchant declined to share more, though it was clear to Ty that his feelings on the culture of the Chateau had been meaningfully tempered.
Meanwhile, a drunkenly loose-lipped aristocrat at the tavern divulged to Naples that Les Marquains enforced a weekly meeting of the Reach’s municipal council at the Chateau at the end of every week but otherwise remained within, distant from the town’s affairs. They had arrived midweek, with Orphelia’s “reentry”s imminent that night, according to Lan. This meant they would be unable to use the orgy–it was an orgy, right?–as cover for infiltrating the Chateau, but it was just as well. The chatter on what occurred at those events was vague but plenty disturbing, and Ty was hopeful that if they were to die in this venture, that wouldn’t be the way they would go. Besides, it seemed that entry to the Chateau on any other occasion was looked upon as unimaginably foolhardy. If nothing else, their attempt would not be expected.
From those warnings and other scattered fragments, they had pieced together a plan. After nightfall they would enter the Chateau by means of a servant’s passage in the northwest corner of its foundation. The townsfolk did not seem able to corroborate the existence of this passage, though Naples insisted it would be there based on his memory of a pamphlet he’d read once on notable examples of Revián architecture. Once inside, they would split up, since numbers would likely do little to protect them from what waited there, and they would scour the house for Orphelia and the Keystone. They established a location for rendezvous in the meadow below the house as well as rules for personal safety: Don’t break or damage anything. Avoid touching anything that might be moved to the extent possible. And should they encounter Les Marquains himself, run–the man was murderous, unreasonable, and nigh unassailable due to some combination of magical talent and artifice at which the rumors could only speculate.
As plans for impossible tasks went, it wasn’t bad, but the task was still impossible, the consequences for failure were nightmarish, and Ty was rattled. The tension wasn’t lost on Naples either. The man was putting on a brave face, but though scavving wasn’t his profession, he clearly understood the gravity of their predicament. Lan, of course, remained breezily aloof, though his pomp seemed diminished, and the boy, Devlin, well, Ty couldn’t tell whether it was cruel or merciful to let his childish bravery stand. Uniquely, he didn’t seem to understand how dangerous their venture was about to become, but Ty guessed the kid probably looked at it the same way: Except for Lan, they all acted like they didn’t have a choice. For Naples and the boy, finding Orphelia seemed worth the danger–worth any danger, maybe. And if Ty didn’t find the Keystone, he was dead, not to mention the many more the Blaze would kill on the way to him.
But they all mustered the courage, and when darkness fell, they made their way overland, giving a wide berth to both the Reach and the promontory on which the Chateau rested before slipping in toward the cliff through the tall grass.
“We should find a cave hidden at the foot of it,” Naples had said earlier. “According to the stories, Les Marquains used to use it to sneak out while his grandfather was still alive.”
For all of the oddity of the factoid–and the luck that the scholar had even encountered it–Naples turned out to be correct. In a thin corridor between two outcroppings, they discovered a chamber hewn in the rock. Inside it was pitch, a stark and unwelcome change from the shining moonlight outside, and they had to light one of the candles Lan had acquired during the day’s commerce in order to navigate the staircase within. It was dingy, uninviting, and unadorned, save for intermittent silver, fanged catfish laid into the stone bannister beside the stairs. But though the reminder the fish signified–that they were entering the domain of a lord of Ka–had its chilling effect, it did not impede them, and they made their way up quickly, exiting the passage through a simple, wooden door into what Ty intuited was the Chateau’s garden.
“Best stay on open ground,” Naples whispered, extinguishing the candle. “Plants are Les Marquains’ specialty. Likely not everything growing here is harmless.” Ty nodded, Devlin gulped, and the four of them continued, tiptoeing their way along the garden paths. In the moonlight, what Ty could see of the trees and flowerbeds was limited, but what he did see suggested the warning was apt. Trees creaked and turned expectantly at their approach, engorged bramble seemed to slither onto the pathways behind them as they passed, and though nothing impeded their progress to the house, Ty had a feeling that they might have experienced more of the garden’s personality had they dallied even slightly. Fortunately, all of them seemed to understand the urgency of their pace, and they made it to the house without incident.
The door they approached was probably not intended to be the house’s primary entrance–Ty had not heard specific accounts of the building’s front, but he could imagine the staples: a wide greeting area, a paved approach from the gates, stairs, heavy oaken doors. Instead here there was a simple wooden chair, a covered awning, and a dirt patio, bordered by stones but otherwise no different from the garden paths that led them there. The door was well-made but small, with dusty glass panels comprising most of its upper half. Ty paused before it and the others, intuiting the import of the threshold, came to a halt behind him.
“First test,” he whispered. “Dunno if it’s an artifact. Or if the man cares about locking doors. Who wants to fi–” Needing no additional prompt, apparently, Lan stepped forward, placed his hand on the doorknob, and turned. The door swung open with a quiet creak, and the merchant strode inside, Devlin in tow. Ty glanced, put off, at Naples, but the scholar just shrugged and followed them. Ty begrudgingly brought up the rear.
Inside was a thin corridor, decorated with various paintings, indiscernible in the gloam but nonetheless profoundly unsettling to look at. In fact, upon entering, Ty was dismayed to feel with some degree of certainty that he was being watched by the house in general. The presence did not feel especially human–though that hardly made it better–and it seemed to well in the black, invisible patches of hallway between the places where slats of moonlight streamed in through the windows. He suppressed a shudder at the ambiguity of whether they had already tripped a crucial wire, but there was no way to know yet. Lan and Devlin, seemingly heedless to the aura of the place, had already begun making their way to one end of the hallway. Ty signaled Naples to follow him the other way.
Seeing a flicker of light from the doorway ahead of them, they slowed, looking into a large dining room. The long table, unset, was adorned with a lit candelabra, but the room was otherwise empty. Ty hesitated, listening, in case the burning candles constituted a reason for someone to return to the room. But heard no footsteps, nothing echoing or groaning through the house, only his and Naples suppressed breathing. Gritting his teeth, he snuck hastily through, into another hallway and on to the threshold of a sitting room of some sort.
This one was lit by a crackling fireplace behind an empty chair, framed by two towering bookshelves. Above the fireplace hung a painting depicting, confusingly, the same empty chair before the same fireplace. The glow from the hearth mixed with the pale moonlight from the large window on the room’s opposite end, bathing the room and the base of the grand staircase beside the window in a pleasingly serene pall.
“Is that your name, Mr. Ruffles?” asked a thin voice from within the room. Ty started, ducking behind the doorway, peering back around to see a slight figure standing in the shadow of the bookshelf.
“Holy fucking shit,” he said, part startled, part relieved, perhaps louder than he should have been. It was Orphelia.
Orphelia, evidently not pleased to see them, jumped in surprise. She stared at Ty for a split second before lunging toward the fireplace, reaching up above it for the strange painting. Then she blinked out of existence, leaving Ty to stare dumbfounded.
“What on earth was that?” Naples asked.
Naples cautiously stepped into the room, approaching the fireplace.
“I wonder if it took her somewhere,” he said, considering the painting. “Maybe we can…”
“Absolutely not,” Ty interrupted. “Before we touch anything, we’re gonna find al’Ver.”
“Ah, they’re here already,” Rom said, his voice soft but strangely clear amidst the crackle of the fire and the shock of Ty’s sudden intrusion. “We’ll have to move with haste. Now: See that painting? Touch it.”
Orphelia did not delay. She practically jumped, stretching her hand up above the mantle to tap her fingers against the cracked paint. As she did, she felt a chill run across her ankles, and when she landed, she saw the room had changed. Ty and Naples–he had been behind Ty, right?–were gone, as was the fire, and only long-spent ash remained in the hearth. The furniture in the room seemed different as well. They were still the same pieces, the same chair and end table, bookcases, fireplace–but they were all old and broken and ruined. The chair was covered in dust and dirt, its upholstery shredded well beyond the point of repair, and the bookcases were empty save for dust and cobwebs.
“Very good,” Rom said, turning to look out the window. The light outside had changed from dark, glittering night to something more like twilight, though Orphelia could not tell if it was the fading light of dusk or a brightening dawn. “We are closer now. Come. I believe the one we seek waits for us below.”
Rom strode back into the room and turned past the stairs, exiting into a large foyer. Orphelia followed as he made his way to the double doors and proceeded outside, holding one of them open for her.
“Mr. Ruffles?” she asked, shielding her face from the sudden comparative brightness. The sky, she realized, now that she was under it, didn’t seem quite right. The colors, the whorled clouds, the striations against the setting or rising sun, it all seemed upside down and out of order.
“Yes, my dear?”
“Who is it we’re looking for? I thought you said this was my journey.”
“It is your journey,” Rom replied, taking the lead again toward the side of the courtyard where a path began winding down the side of the cliff the house sat upon. “You are to release a monster back upon the world so that one promise might be kept and another might be made.” Orphelia shook her head, confused, interrupting her attempt to decipher the explanation so that she could focus on navigating the craggy path down which Rom was leading her.
“What…what does that mean?” she asked at last. Rom paused, looking over his shoulder with a sly smile.
“When a person does something bad,” he said, “what is it you would say they deserve?”
“Do they have to deserve anything?” Orphelia replied, defensive in spite of herself. Rom stared at her evenly.
“That is a question born of precociousness and cowardice, my dear. But I suppose we all must ask it at some point. The reason is because consequence is a safeguard against the dark and cold. They do not have to bear the consequences of their actions, but the alternative is more terrible than you realize. So suppose they do.”
Orphelia thought for a moment, her head spinning, before responding:
“I guess they deserve to be punished?”
“Indeed,” Rom said, turning back to the path. “It has been human tradition for all our history that our sins should be met with retribution. But that has not stopped people from being bad, has it?”
“No,” Orphelia said, carefully following him down the steep slope. “I guess it hasn’t.”
“This leaves us a duality, then. The relationship, the promise that sin makes to vengeance, that circle revolves at the core of the human soul, as we, uncomfortable with gazing to such depths, ascribe it to pragmatic social management. That promise, for which we actually have no ‘why’, is the Sky, the Truth wrapped in lies to which we one day aspire to ascend.
“At the same time,” Rom continued, “the clouds we use to obscure the Sky rain down upon an inevitable realization: If retribution does not deter sin, if the completed circle does not preclude its formation anew, then our persistence in sin, in treachery–” he turned to face Orphelia, punctuating his lecture: “In death–must have a purpose which drives us as well. This is the Deep, that which my master seeks to connect to the Sky, a task for which I believe you will play an important role.”
“But…your master? Why does he want that?” Orphelia asked. “And what role?”
“He believes it will save the world,” Rom replied. “But we do not need to pick the corpse clean now. I promise that my master and I will be made human to you in time.”
“You don’t need to be human, Mr. Ruffles. I liked you fine as my bear!”
“It is the nature of lies to dissipate, I’m afraid. But take heart. Our destination is not much further.”
With surprising agility, Rom danced down a ten-foot rock face, turning to take Orphelia’s hand and guide her down his path of nearly invisible footholds. His hand was cold and calloused, but she found herself relieved nonetheless to be holding it. Mr. Ruffles had been a companion to her, of sorts, but even she was not so delusional as to have presumed the stuffed bear to be a human connection. Except…it seemed that her delusional surrogate father was human, actually. Human enough to have a face and a hand she could hold. It gave her hope at a deeper level than she was accustomed to of late. It was hope for a future, though it felt more comfortable than specific.
She followed him a short stretch further down the slope, until the rock face above them began to jut over their heads, and they found themselves at the wide mouth of a cavern, yawning its dusty shadows out over the technicolor sky. As they had climbed down, the wind had been strong and unpredictable against the cliffside, and now, beneath the overhang, the gust and whistle reverberated through the cavern at thunderous volume. As they walked inward, the blasts became less disruptive, but as they grew quieter they ceased to mask the very similar–but altogether more regular–rumble of breath, shaking the ceiling with each exhalation. Then, her eyes adjusted once more to the dark, Orphelia saw it: the silhouette of a man, seated, hunched over on the floor of the cavern some twenty feet ahead.
Naples withdrew his hand from the painting.
“Okay?” he whispered. “Where did he go?” Ty looked around the room, evidently frustrated.
“Fuck if I know, but we have other things to find,” the scavenger shot back. “We’ll track her down before we go, but I’m not gonna mess with that shit until we have backup.”
Naples looked up at the queer painting, then back to Ty, regretting the sense in his words. They really didn’t have any idea how it worked, and more importantly, Orphelia had revealed she had less interest in their rescue than they’d presumed. If they were going to muck about with transportative artifacts to get to her, it really would be better to first line up their waterfowl.
“Alright then,” he said. “Where do y–” His question froze in his throat as a floorboard creaked directly overhead. Both men’s heads snapped to the staircase, and both dashed, silently as they could, to their respective ideas of hiding spots. For Ty, this was apparently the shadows where the staircase bent into the room. For Naples, less prudently in hindsight, it was between the armchair and the fireplace. Realizing the precariousness of his position as heavy footsteps began to descend the stairs, he gulped down the mana of one of the hearth’s blazing logs and projected it as anonymity, just as he’d been taught as a child, just as Ty was likely doing from his own vantage. He concentrated on the channeling as if his life depended on it, which–as became clear when a corpulent man sauntered down the staircase into view, goblet in one hand, a book in the other, and a sneer etched perhaps habitually upon his much-depicted face–it did.
Les Marquains strode lackadaisically into the room, gulping irreverently at his goblet, and Naples watched as Ty seized the moment, creeping up the stairs behind him. He ducked back behind the chair as Les Marquains paused before it, sniffing audibly then sitting down, his back separated from Naples’ face by only a few inches of strained upholstery. It was all Naples could do to hold his breath and hope that the man would find some distraction, some focus for his attention before noticing the intruder behind him. But after thirty seconds he spoke aloud:
“Awfully brave of you to visit with no invitation. I was feeling lonely, though.”
Naples’ heart sank, and words caught in his throat as he desperately tried to imagine a sentence that could buy him the seconds he needed to run. But another voice preempted him.
“I’m afraid your loneliness will have to persist,” Captain al’Ver said. “I don’t believe our company will be much to your liking.”
Les Marquains rose from the chair with a snigger, and Naples felt every single mana flow in the room warp in his direction. He wasn’t sure how much faith he had in Captain al’Ver against these odds, but he was going to do everything he could with the gift the merchant was offering. As quietly as he could, he sprinted for the stairs. He watched out of the corner of his eye as a mass of thorny tendrils erupted from the floor where Captain al’Ver stood in the doorway at the opposite end of the room, and he clapped his hands to his ears as the house itself screamed a piercing wail that felt as if it might rip his brain out through his eye sockets, but he didn’t wait to see the outcome. He stumbled up the stairs as the cacophony continued, to find Ty waiting at the top, beckoning him into a door in the hallway just off the landing.
“We need to go!” Naples sputtered breathlessly. Ty pulled him inside and slammed the door.
“I’m not going anywhere until I find the Keystone!” Ty spat. “Now help me look. This looks like a study, and if so, there’s a good chance it’s here.”
Ty had lit a candle and placed it on a bookshelf. By its dim light, Naples could see Ty’s supposition had some merit. The room was a mess of books, loose parchment, and–mostly–various knicknacks of ambiguous significance and purpose, stacked in some places in teetering piles, heaped carelessly in others, spilling from the shelves, desk, and threadbare sofa onto the half-carpeted floor. Naples could not even begin to guess what all of it was doing here–there were tools, ornaments, artwork, cutlery, a sextant, numerous small taxidermies, at least five dried human appendages, and all manner of other nonsense, with little to distinguish things purposefully saved from what was, or should have been, garbage–but he began to sift through the piles, wary of what he touched in case any of it was bewitched to trigger some enchantment upon being touched. The closed door and the floor between them and the chaos downstairs dampened the howling from the ongoing confrontation below, but it still hurt more than sound should, clawing at the space behind his eyes.
“What am I looking for?” he asked, wincing, unsure if he should be shouting over the din or whispering to hide their whereabouts.
“Blue, flat stone,” Ty yelled over his shoulder, pushing whole piles of junk off the desk. “Set in a silver medallion, crazy design engraved on it.”
Scattering the pile before him and seeing nothing of the sort, Naples dropped to his knees beside the sofa. He rummaged for a moment through the heaps stacked around it before peering beneath it to find even more esoteric trash packed between it and the floor. He pulled it out by the fistful: a straw doll bedazzled with an unnerving array of precious jewelry; a stack of used plates, sticky with icing and covered in mold; a surprisingly large and intact snakeskin; and a wide, ornate, porcelain dish. That, unfortunately, was where Naples made his mistake. As he pulled the dish out from the crush of baubles beneath the sofa, he looked down at it. He felt a familiar tingle at the base of his skull–the tingle, he realized, of magical compulsion–and then, suddenly, he gagged. He needed to vomit.
He was dimly aware of Ty hissing “Yes!” as the floor seemed to shake. But then his stomach inverted, and he doubled over, spewing everything he had in him into the dish.
The fear had taken a few moments to set in after they entered the house, but in the quiet dark, with the walls that seemed to watch and breathe, it ultimately arrived in force. Still, Devlin found that sticking by Captain al’Ver helped. Though the impression was sometimes a bit strained, the merchant really did project a convincing persona of a fearless hero. It was infectious, and though Devlin saw the cracks in the man’s facade, he took comfort in the realization that it was not this place that Lan was afraid of.
The hallway where they had entered soon opened to a foyer framed by an imposing set of double doors, a large silver mirror opposite them, and fine, dark, wood-paneled walls adorned by molding with the same flowing catfish motif that had greeted them on the way in. Captain al’Ver paused there to consider a portrait hanging on the side wall of a severe, bald-headed man in a fitted silver breastplate. Devlin looked up at him, attempting to discern his plan, but the merchant was inscrutable. He glanced down, momentarily meeting Devlin’s gaze before turning, perplexed, back to the hallway. He opened a door, revealing a set of wooden steps leading down into darkness, and proceeded inside. Faithful if apprehensive, Devlin followed.
Despite the more or less complete lack of light, the merchant seemed oddly surefooted as they navigated down the steps. Even stranger, though, was the fact that even though the dark all but obscured the features of their descent, Devlin never seemed to lose sight of Captain al’Ver. Even in the pitch black, his form, though dim, was perfectly discernible. So Devlin followed on carefully, even as the passage began to assault his other senses. First, of course, was the smell. Mere seconds into their downward journey, a rank miasma hit his lungs, the smell of vomit and acid and rot passing through him and into him. It was all he could do not to vomit himself, though he could not help but gag. And then he heard the sloshing, splashing, rattling hiss, and not even Captain al’Ver’s contagious bravado could stop him from freezing.
But Captain al’Ver stopped too, drawing his sword and raising it cautiously
“This is your doing, is it not?” he asked, though Devlin had no idea to whom. There was another hiss, then the sloshing before them receded. Lan shook his head sadly before jolting upright, looking over his shoulder. “She has arrived. Come. Quickly.”
He hurried up the steps, leaving Devlin to scramble frantically after him, away from whatever horrible, vomit-soaked presence waited below. The ascent, while vigorous, somehow felt much longer than their trip down, but eventually, the ominous splashing faded, the smell dissipated, and they emerged once again to the silence of the hallway. Silent, of course, except for the creaking of heavy footsteps down the stairs above them, which, to Devlin’s alarm, Lan made straight for.
“Awfully brave of you to visit with no invitation,” a thickly accented voice greeted as they stepped from the foyer into what appeared to be a sitting room. “I was feeling lonely, though.”
The voice came from a man, heavyset but babyfaced, in spite of the lines on his skin, sitting in an armchair before a fireplace. It occurred to Devlin that this was certainly the “Les Marquains” his companions had discussed with furtive scorn throughout their preparations, the one they said would certainly overpower and torture them if he found them, but somehow, Captain al’Ver was undeterred.
“I’m afraid your loneliness will have to persist,” the merchant replied. “I don’t believe our company will be much to your liking.”
The fat man rose from his chair with a casual laugh and maskless cruelty in his eyes and raised a hand, beckoning something. Devlin felt the temperature in the room drop barely an instant before the doorframe around them exploded, covering them in thorny masses of bramble that seemed to seek out their limbs, already wrapping about them by the time he had even realized what happened. At the same time, his ears were assaulted by a deafening, inhuman screech, as if the house itself were reciprocating the sudden violence. He tried to cover his ears, but he found his wrists were held tight by the thorns, no matter how much he tore his skin attempting to force his way out of their grip. And then, suddenly, his hands were free. He plugged his ears, looking back and forth at the morass that had overcome them. Through the still-writing tendrils, he could only barely see Les Marquains, clutching his own head, apparently in pain despite his maniacal giggling. Captain al’Ver, meanwhile, was slashing deftly and rapidly at the bramble–it had been his intervention, Devlin realized, that had freed him. The merchant’s battle was going poorly, though: While his sword arm remained free, tendrils had already encircled his shield and one of his legs, and it seemed all he could do to keep his remaining limbs free as the bramble continued to pour from the walls.
“Oh, yes!” Les Marquains exclaimed over the screaming, just barely audible through Devlin’s makeshift earplugs. “Savor it, old man! How much more of you is that?!” But it was only one of the things he heard at that moment. The other, he was sure, did not come from Les Marquains, the house, or anything really there. But still he heard it:
“‘Tis fear which brings you here tonight
Resisting that which lets you fly
Resist no more, accept my gift
And save yourself, that’s why, that’s why”
He knew it was in his head, and in a calmer time he would have been more worried that he also knew exactly why it was in his head. But he was not capable of that introspection at that moment. Instead he plunged his hand into his pocket, withdrew his ring, and slid it onto his finger. And then the sudden, blanketing rustle of wingbeats drowned out even the house’s screams. Devlin’s lungs recoiled at the miasma of dust and dirty feathers, and he doubled over, coughing uncontrollably, like he had before, when everything fell apart. But as he coughed, he felt the filth flow out of him, and dimply, he realized the bramble had stopped writhing. It was going limp, erupting with blight, desiccating and disintegrating. Captain al’Ver stared at him, a concern writ upon his face that Devlin had never seen before, of which he wasn’t sure he knew the Captain to be capable. Les Marquains was staring too, though his reaction was less surprising:
“What the feck?”
The fat man composed himself before throwing a handful of small, sickly green, luminescent objects, which Captain al’Ver batted away with his shield. Devlin was dimly aware of the melee that ensued, of the way the glowing seeds expanded, growing rapidly into what looked like huge flowers with teeth, of Lan’s daring advance, cutting down two of the creatures even as he was buffeted back by a third, but as he struggled to catch his breath, his attention was fixed on the cascade of falling feathers, gathering like a pool of shadows at his feet, and the voice that persisted, louder and clearer now in his daze:
“My child, my marquis, see how delightfully your legacy rots? Stand proud, stand pure, until the end. You shall be a model for the way the world will die.”
But then, suddenly, the entire house shuddered violently, and even the voice went silent. Les Marquains groaned.
“What on earth do you people think you’re doing?” he spat. “I swear I will make you regret it.” He turned angrily and placed his hand on the painting above the fireplace–the painting which, Devlin realized, depicted…his fireplace–and disappeared, leaving Devlin and Lan alone with three more of the hissing flower-creatures.
“Wake up, Gaenyan,” Rom called into the darkness. “Your freedom is at hand.”
In the dim light, Orphelia saw the silhouette jolt. It did not turn to face them, exactly. Rather, it seemed to blink rapidly, exploding outward, collapsing inward, each with a sudden blast of wind, reappearing already turned, halfway through the motion of standing, then again fully upright, apparently having eschewed the intermediary motions.
“IS HE HERE?” The words came less as a voice than as an echo in the gale, blasting outward from the silhouette as it wavered between its humanoid shape and another massive, winged form around it. “HAS THE SMILE ARRIVED?”
“Fear not,” Rom replied, seemingly fearless. “The Smile is the Gyre and the Gyre is the Smile. And you are still safely within the heart of the whirlwind.
“THEN WHO,” the silhouette roared, “ARE YOU?”
“I am Rom, his disciple and emissary. And this is Orphelia, who will keep his promise.”
Another blast, and the man-shaped silhouette was gone, replaced by the much larger, closer figure at which its previous waverings had hinted. And finally, Orphelia realized what she was seeing.
Its form was not solid, she realized, taking in the amalgamated gargoyle of human, goat, and insect features towering over her. Its shape was definite, but where she expected flesh there was sand and dust, whirling rapidly, violently, with force she guessed capable of stripping the flesh from a live animal. The demon looked down on her in turn, a snarl forming on its face as dark voids resolved in the sand where its eyes and mouth should have been.
“HE NEEDS A CHILD TO KEEP HIS PROMISE?” it asked.
“Do not question his need,” Rom rebuked. “You know nothing of it–your entire existence has been a product of excess. But you still have a debt owed you. Do you not intend to accept it?” The demon roared again, though Orphelia found it as interesting as it was terrifying that the sound arrived as reverberation from the entire cavern rather than issuing from the creature’s “mouth”. Nonetheless, Rom did not even flinch, and slowly, the demon’s rage turned to caution.
“VERY WELL. PROCEED. MY PATIENCE RUNS OUT.”
Rom looked down at Orphelia and offered his hand.
“It is your turn, my dear. You must dismantle this prison.” Orphelia shook her head.
“I can’t, Mr. Ruffles,” she said. “I don’t know how. Can’t you–”
“I am only here because you roused my memory, Orphelia,” he replied. “Everything we have done together we have done by your power. The only difference here is that I cannot guide you. To unravel this prison, constructed according to the designs of the One-Eyed Crow herself–this is a feat of true talent, and even you cannot do it unconsciously. You must choose it.”
“But how?” Orphelia asked, tears welling in her eyes.
“Calm, my dear. My substance now is lie and madness, and this place Le Marquains engraved in his painting is much the same. Look past the gilding and etchings of stasis, past the concessions it would force on reality outside. Open your mind and find the ways in which it and I are the same. Find the common thread and pull.
Orphelia glanced, panicked, between Rom and the glowering demon, wishing desperately that she had never come here, that she had never gone sneaking into Marko’s office. But something about Rom’s face struck her. His expression was an odd mixture, not entirely kind but still reassuringly warm; filled not with love–not exactly–but faith. For all of the confusion and horror of this strange place, this monstrous creature, all the unresolved questions–how did they get here? What were they even doing?–he truly believed she could do this, she could make a difference, she would make him proud. She took a deep breath and opened her mind, acknowledging for the first time the strange ethereal web that seemed to waver between her conscious senses. She felt the connection between Rom and Mr. Ruffles, the stuffed animal, between him and the book she’d lifted from the shelf. She felt the way his essence was being pulled from the objects by her.
As he had hinted, she felt the contours of the cave, of the world around the cave. She felt the way its surfaces, the rocks and dust and crags, even the air itself lay, superimposed upon the thick, viscous flow of reality as she knew it, the reality to which she hoped they would return. She felt the way the two layers were separated only by a mesh of interlocking bonds–like a bird’s nest–that pushed her away, dulling her senses and radiating a subtle pain when she forced her mind to inspect it. She saw the way the demon was wrapped in that mesh, both ignorant to it and needled by it, and she saw a piece of the mesh where the weave jutted out, perhaps a flaw in its construction, perhaps a weathered rip sustained incidentally in the century it hung there without repair. And then she realized what the pain was.
“It feels like death,” she said breathlessly. “Will it hurt me?”
“It is death,” Rom said. “And it already does. Your only choice is whether to let it hold together in the shape someone else gave it. Remember: It is the nature of lies to dissipate.”
She reached out, in the same way her heart reached out to Rom, in the same way, she realized, she had reached out unconsciously in the Crossroads each time she had stolen an apple or a loaf of bread, building her own fragile realities around the people she met. Realities that didn’t include her. But this time it was the opposite: All of them–she, Rom, this demon–were being excluded from reality right now, and she was going to end it. She grasped the flaw in the weave, resisting the urge to recoil as it oozed its cold venom into her soul. She grasped it and pulled.
And the cave–no, the whole false world–began to shudder.
Somehow, Ty was not yet scared. He was frantic, annoyed, and in quite a lot of pain–the magical distortion emanating from the havoc downstairs was fucking with the enchantment on the thread the Dragon had sewn in him, and it was burning in his temples. But he found, strangely, that his determination was overpowering his fear, which was good: He was going to need to be determined to find anything in this fucking trash heap. Running up the stairs, ducking into the first room he found–at first he’d been thrilled to see the desk and the shelves. If there was any room in which Les Marquains would store a magical curiosity, it would be his study. But as Naples arrived, shitless, and the two of them began tearing through the room’s various piles of junk, Ty’s dilemma of trash, treasure, needles, and haystacks began to clarify menacingly. Perhaps this was still the room where Les Marquains kept his mysterious magical trinkets, but if he did, Ty imagined it was because such trinkets were useless to him. As it turned out, everything else in the room was pretty damned useless too.
Fortunately, it seemed that Lan’s efforts holding Les Marquains at bay were less doomed than Ty had feared, and the ongoing altercation below, while still disorienting, was buying them time.
He and Naples finished their hasty rifling through the piles nearest the door and moved on, Naples to the junk-laden sofa, him to the desk, an imposing, black, wooden structure adorned all over with more silver catfish. On it were several piles of books he swept unceremoniously to the floor, an armillary sphere he lifted gingerly off the desk for fear of magical retribution should he break it, and a scattered mess of what looked like jewelry. Warmer, he thought, though he did not see the Keystone among the pieces. He did, however, see a silver key entangled between a bracelet and a particularly ostentatious earring. Carefully prying it out, wary of enchantments on any of the items, he scanned the desk for a lock, quickly finding one on its central drawer. He breathed a sigh as he turned the key in it, feeling the latch release, and gently pulled the drawer open.
Inside were a number of items that clearly had not been disturbed in some time: a brass letter opener, a few brittle-looking scrolls, a set of wooden marbles that rolled lines in the dust at the bottom of the drawer. But next to them was something less dusty, more recent. It was a medallion on a silver chain, and on its front was a flat stone that looked like some sort of blue jade. Inscribed in the stone was a set of circles, arranged in and around an intensely complicated geometric design, the meaning of which Ty could not fathom but with which he was extremely familiar nonetheless. This was it. This was the artifact that had roused the Blaze’s wrath, the one he had retrieved from the Alchemist’s old laboratory, the one that had been stolen from him, rendering him a fugitive in a land with no laws. This was Excelsis’ Keystone.
“Yes,” he gasped, lifting it from the drawer by its chain. Then the entire house shook, as if something deep beneath it had been disturbed, and the sounds of growls and blows landing downstairs quieted. But before Ty could hear any resolution to the stalemate, he heard Naples gag desperately. He whipped around to see the scholar on his knees, bent over a porcelain basin, vomiting his stupid guts out.
An inexperienced scavenger might have assumed he’d glimpsed something sickening. One savvier might conclude–correctly–that the sickness arose from a magical hazard, but more than likely neither would notice that where he was vomiting was not unimportant. Ty had been doing this a long time, and while he didn’t know shit about meta-magic or how artifacts really worked, he sure knew what they looked like. As he looked at the dish where Naples was retching and felt the bile rising in his own throat, he figured out what he needed to. He grabbed Naples by the collar and wrenched him backward, pulling a trail of vomit over the edge of the dish.
The intervention did not entirely quell the urge Ty felt to relinquish the contents of his stomach, but it did bring it under control. Naples, hands covering his mouth, seemed to be experiencing a similar reprieve. But as Ty watched the streak of vomit Naples had left on the floor coagulate and slither up into the dish, he realized with both anger and terror that the crisis had not been totally averted.
The surface of the bilious fluid in the dish began to swell and slosh, and a dome began to form, as if something beneath that surface was fighting to break the tension, to emerge upon the world, drenched in sick. Nothing did emerge, exactly, but as the dome continued to rise and features began to form–tendril-like limbs; a gaping, dripping mouth; masses of rancid bubbles for eyes–Ty began to wonder whether the alternative might be worse. He glanced at Naples, who was staggering to his feet and frantically composing himself.
“We’re running, right?” the scholar asked.
The two of them bolted for the door. Neither looked back for more information on the gurgling and splashing behind them or the wave of stench that hit their lungs, and when they cleared the door, they slammed it shut.
“Did you find it?” Naples asked, gasping.
“Yeah, let’s–” Turning, the two of them nearly collided with Devlin at the top of the stairs.
“Captain…al’Ver said to run,” the boy muttered faintly. In the dim of the hallway, Ty could make out a sudden blear on the boy’s eyes. He seemed dazed, though Ty was without a guess as to why.
“Where is he?” Ty asked, acutely aware of the liquid seeping out from beneath the door behind them.
“Went to…save Orphelia…”
Naples hesitated, glancing his unease at Ty, but Ty shook his head.
“Nope,” he said. “That’s enough for me. We’ll meet him at the rendezvous.” He hastily ushered Devlin back down the stairs, and Naples, begrudgingly, though without vocal objection, followed.
As he touched the painting, Lan felt the rush of cool and wet wash over him. It was a deeply familiar feeling, the feeling of being born into the world, the one he had felt each night in the time before the Slumber began. And it was a deeply wrong feeling–at least it was deeply wrong that he should experience it here. Stories had been shared far and wide of Le Marquains’ magical brilliance, but those who shared the stories did not know–even Lan did not realize until now–that the brilliance of the enchantment was not Le Marquains’. This was old magic, buried magic, and there were scarce few with memories that might have resurrected it.
“Sister, you persist here still?” he said to the still air of the false Chateau’s ruined sitting room. “I realize now that it was your War and not just an idle pastime. Are you pursuing an ending for them in spite of me?”
There was no response, for there was no one to respond–there were only echoes, footprints and feathers where her will had been spitefully cast–but that was just as well. The sentiment was for him, for Lan al’Ver, awake at last, it seemed, to a world irrevocably changed. Those changes would rear over him soon, but of course his intrusion onto this dream was also about the here and now. Orphelia. The Saraa Sa’een. He roused his attention and sought them, striding from the sitting room to find the front door of the dream-house ajar. He stepped outside, ducking out of the way of a carnivorous vine that lashed down at him from above the doorway, cutting it loose with an offhanded slash.
“I’ve had about enough of you,” Les Marquains remarked from the bottom of the front steps. “All the moreso that you’re not a person, so why don’t you tell me what the feck you are and what you want. Then we can skip to an ending where you feck off with your crowchild and get away from my house.” Lan regarded the fat man, his umbrella at the ready. He didn’t care for the tone of the question, but he was legitimately unsure how to respond.
“He is a shade without a place in the world,” came a new voice from behind Les Marquains as a stocky, muscular man materialized on the dream’s dusty path to the house. “He is here because we are, and he wonders if the current of our purpose might lead him to his.”
Les Marquains groaned and flicked his wrist, and a mass of dead-looking roots exploded up from the ground, ensnaring the newcomer’s legs.
“Enough fecking riddles!” But then the fat man started. “Wait. Haven’t I killed you before?” The roots climbed the newcomer’s body, but he remained motionless, even as spines emerged from the flora and began to jab at his neck. “You were one of the sandfeckers with Ali’Khazan on the day I escaped, weren’t you? The Whiskers or something?”
“Sand-Masked Fox,” Lan said, suddenly recognizing the man. “Nose of the Barabadoon.” Les Marquains’ attention snapped apoplectically back to Lan.
“Aghhh,” he groaned again. “A famous piece of shit. Well, then what happens if I kill you again, hmm? Will you come back for more?”
“Yes,” Fox replied. “And you will be drawn ever closer to the center.” At this, Les Marquains’ bluster subsided, and he glanced between the two of them, true concern finally visible on his face.
“I am only here for the girl,” Lan said, answering the fat man’s original question.
“The girl who was drawn here by your prisoner,” Fox said. Les Marquains frowned, calculating.
“And I expect you’re here for the monster, too, noseboy?” he spat. “I never much liked those Gyre stories, but that thing was part of them, no?”
“That is correct,” Fox confirmed, though Les Marquains hesitated a moment longer.
“Fine then.” He snapped his fingers, and the roots receded from Fox’s body. “Do what you will with it. Like I give a shit. But then get the feck out.” Shaking his head, he walked up the stairs, past Lan, flashing a sneer before disappearing back inside, leaving Lan to confront the newcomer.
“I think it high time for an explanation,” he said. Fox met his demand with an even stare and slowly made his way to the head of a path beside the steps to the house. From where he stood, Lan could see the path wind down along the side of the promontory, leading, no doubt, to the individuals that they respectively sought.
“I do not see what needs to be explained,” Fox said as he passed by. “Not to you. I am here to fulfill a promise of vengeance made long ago, as I have countless times before and will, countless times yet.” Lan frowned, sheathing his sword, and followed him down the path.
“Are you here for Rommesse of Khet, then?” he asked.
“I am here for the Demon. Can you not see it? Or do you lose the current when it becomes mist?” Lan found the question impudent, but by the same token, it did not appear to matter to Fox whether he answered it or not. He pushed past it:
“And the girl?”
“She is setting the Demon free, that my circle may be completed,” Fox said simply. “But it is not for me to speculate as to why you should seek your own purpose in her journey.”
Lan swallowed a retort. Wit unfortunately had little value against one so single mindedly disinterested in the discussion. It was as Fox said: He was here for the Saraa Sa’een, a point which Lan supposed he knew and which told him very little. And the man was right, too. The reasons Lan should be drawn to Orphelia, vexing as they were, did not matter to Fox. They continued in silence for several minutes before Fox spoke an apparent afterthought:
“The old man speaks often of his burden. And of ours, each of which ties us to him. Even now I am not without compassion, so hear me when I say that I have seen what becomes of your kind when you become unburdened. Consider it, and let dread fill you.”
As he uttered the foreboding imperative, they came upon a wide opening in the cliff face through which the wind howled. Without hesitation, they entered, and as Lan’s eyes took in the patina of darkness, he isolated what he’d been seeking. Off in the distance, three silhouettes: Orphelia’s slight frame; the ephemeral, hulking form of the Saraa Sa’een; and the presence that should not have been there but which Lan realized had been there ever since he had met the girl. He could not see the man’s features, but he knew them well enough: the ashen skin, the silver hair, the kind eyes and cruel determination to make of the world that which it was never meant to be, the echoes of the historian that had persisted in stories and whispers since the fall of Khet. But before he could approach the trio, Lan felt another shift, and the cave shook again. The air of the dream grew cold, and the premonition of awakening drew nearer. Sand-Masked Fox pulled his hatchet from the loop at his belt and looked back at Lan as red fire began to shimmer along the blade.
“It is time, Riverman,” he said. “Perhaps you will embark on a journey now. If so, I wish you fortune.” Lan forced a laugh.
“I hadn’t realized you intended to hunt your quarry after it was free. I expect Les Marquains is in for an unpleasant surprise.” Fox considered him for a moment, more perplexed than amused.
“A curious thing,” he replied, “that you should so readily be human while we do all we can to flee our condition.”
Lan did not have a chance to respond. At that moment, the fluid tension of the dream broke, and the ground where they stood, the howling wind, the darkness before them, and the technicolor twilight behind all collapsed in a cascade of so many raindrops. Lan was adept at navigating the stream, even when its flow was variegated and vertical, but it was only be a feat of uncommon presence that he was able to see Orphelia’s trajectory in the falling dream-rain and alter it, bringing her path in line with his own.
And then it was dark, and they stood in the reeds. A crescent moon hung over them in the shape of a grin, its light glinting on the river before them. Orphelia looked up at Lan, shocked by the sudden change in scenery. His presence registering in her expression, she turned, seeming panicked, to the other man beside her.
“Greetings, Lan al’Ver,” Rom said with a comfortable smile.
“Captain al’Ver,” Lan clarified.
“You are no captain, though I suppose I cannot begrudge you of all people a lie.”
“What do you want with her?”
“Wait, Captain al’Ver!” Orphelia objected. “I can tell you everything!”
“There is no need, my dear,” Rom said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “He already knows.” He turned back to Lan and answered: “I want what the Smile wants, and the Smile, as he always has, wants time.”
“I think you both have accrued more time than you deserve,” Lan replied, dimly aware of the grim shift in his manner and the effect it was having on Orphelia.
“Oh, it is not for us,” Rom said. “It’s for her. And the Riverlands, and the world beyond. And though you’ve so little interest in your own survival, the time is for you as well.”
As he spoke, Lan became increasingly aware of a dull ache behind his eyes, and the grinning moonlight began to absorb more and more of his attention.
“The world has changed, Riverwalker,” a voice which was not Rom’s echoed through his mind like a song played on broken chimes. “It’s grown small, like a dream in the waking day. And it’ll keep getting smaller, as long as He has no reason not to wake up.”
“Orphelia proved herself today,” Rom said, reorienting Lan’s focus on reality. “Perhaps she will save you if you let her. And by the by: The Smile looks forward to his coming visit. He has told me he misses you.”
Lan blinked, and Rom was gone. Orphelia looked back and forth, processing the sudden disappearance before focusing back on Lan. Hesitantly, she approached him and hugged him around the waist, and, with an uneasy glance at the gibbous moon above, he embraced her back.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this point,” came a voice from the reeds. Lan and Orphelia both looked up to see Ty, Naples, and Devlin emerge into the clearing where they stood, looking haggard but broadly uninjured. Devlin stumbled forward, almost tackling Orphelia as Ty met Lan’s gaze with a nod. Then in the distance there was a rumbling blast as a cloud of writhing dust exploded from the promontory beside the Reach, and the Saraa Sa’een’s gale-roar echoed out across the fields, loud and clear even where they stood, miles away.
Naples whistled nervously.
“So how do we all feel about getting out of here?” he asked.