NO TWO STONES



NO TWO STONES, by Christopher Wood:

1. Now.

Still I am the strongest! I am atop this hill on the Third Moon. Behind me, my soldiers struggle up the slope. I raise my iron sword over my head; it shines in the surreal light of the World blazing above us like a sun. I turn and yell down to them, “Death to the Loft Folk!” and my blade sparkles.

The thin air is even thinner in these hills. Only a few of my men can pause, to raise a fist, or to answer my cry: “Death to the Loft Folk!” and they add praise to me: “Glory to Captain Gkurz!” But their breaths rasp. They trudge up toward me, tails limp, arms hanging loose. They squint in the blinding Worldlight. But they won’t stop! They won’t fall out, these tough soldiers. I see muscle flex and ripple under their thick gray skins, and their horns are sharp, their swords sharp, their black leather-and-iron armor heavy and thick.

I command thirty-nine Umbra Minion infantry. They have not been true infantry for a long time, not since we crushed the Loft Folk skirmishers who had raided Sixteenth Cantry and slain our Cantrices there, and then since we came away from Fifteenth Cantry to wander for purposeless weeks in the Shadow Realms. But now, re-purposed, they are soldiers again, their backs straighter, their eyes brighter. Even before we attempt this last great redemption in the middle of the bright Facelands of the Third Moon, I have already redeemed them, a little.

Lieutenant Khdhd arrives at my side. I sheathe my sword, and we shield our eyes from the blazing sky, turning to look beyond the hills, into the Plain Of Seiluine below, the land of our late enemies, the Loft Folk, the ‘Vluds’ as we name in our own tongue. There, as we left it, sprawled along the lakeside, lies the Vlud capital: once-great Seiluine, a city of high stone walls, thin and fine but sturdy, maybe two hundred miles of them, notch-breached or collapsed in two hundred places, all crooked, broken lines from rampart to parapet to tower, between clumps of thick, brown, dying forest. Everything outside the walls is razed. Everything inside is quiet and still, much of the golden marble charred black. No pennants or banners remain, no pavilions, no thatch or timber, no awnings or curtains, no wooden gates or doors … only stone, and most of that toppled. Even the weeds fear to encroach upon this place.

The World hangs like an eternal flame above the ruins of the Vlud city, never shifting from its zenith above the Facelands, glaring so bright I can almost hear it buzzing. I cannot look at it. I can barely see the First and Second Moons, tiny shimmering white dots that slip and shift through the sky on an invisible line, first away from the World where I can make them out if I squint, then plunging back into its brilliance. How large is the World, in this sky of the Third Moon? Once, I tried to look directly at it, and I was blind for an hour. I think it is the size of a fist held high.

Legend says that the Third Moon is the size of a fist, in the sky of the World. I wonder what we look like to them. I have never stood upon the face of the World. I knew only the subterranean vats where I and my kin were born under the hand of Nacz Nol, the greatest and most vicious god of the World or its three Moons or any realm of reality. Directly from those caverns, we boarded the gjorrs, to fly from our underground realms to the Third Moon; and, after that, we knew only the killing of Vluds. I have never seen this Moon the way someone on the World can see it—the way I had hoped and expected to see it, as a victor, as its conqueror. Now, no matter what comes of this campaign, I think I never shall.

Lieutenant Khdhd peers down at the long-vanquished city. His horn is broken: a bent stub arching down from his forehead, abruptly and raggedly hacked off at eye level. It happened here in Seiluine from a Vlud sword. Most Umbra Minion soldiers died when their horns were cut or ripped off, because the Vluds had learned that to destroy our horns is usually to break the fronts of our skulls. I find it a sick irony, that our symbols of might and terror became the handles that our enemies grasped to kill us. I find it fitting that we carry those symbols right between our eyes. I can’t guess how Khdhd has felt, these many long weeks, facing our men with such a disfigurement. I think now he cherishes it, as a hideous badge of survival.

He says, “Even the stink’s gone. They must be as dry as the rest of this Moon, now. I’m glad we didn’t bother burning them.”

“We can burn them now,” I say. “Dry, they’ll burn well … if the scavengers left us anything.”

“That’s something, I suppose.”

He puts one end of a brass tube to one eye, and points the other end at Seiluine. The tube has pieces of glass in it. It is his look-far device, which he took as plunder from a slain Vlud commander, down there in the city, a lifetime ago. The metal has a deep, scratchy dent in the middle. But no Vlud made that mark.

He says, “We didn’t leave ourselves much opportunity.”

I face him squarely, looking with both eyes around my own horn. “I see plenty of opportunity,” I tell him. “Look at the towers. The Vluds built high and proud. We’ll knock down the towers. Look at the pillars and the bridges. Look at the domes and spires. No two stones will remain stacked. And then we will pulverize the stones.”

He lowers the look-far and hangs it on a hook on his belt. He scrunches his ugly, wrecked face in dissatisfaction. “This will be like no battle we’ve fought before.”

Soon we will be too busy to talk. And after that, anything might happen. I choose this moment to speak, while Khdhd and I are alone. “You remember the Cantrix I killed,” I say. It’s not a question—just a prompt.

He stares at me.

“The first one,” I clarify.

At last he says, “Oh yes.” (Is that a newly-retrieved recollection, or a cynical emphasis?)

I say it in one breath. “We were betrothed. We traded promises, on the gjorr, very early in the flight, before … everything.”

Khdhd stares down at the silent city of Seiluine.

I add, “I’ve wanted to tell you that, for a long time. Because, if you thought I did it lightly—and, there were all the … consequences that followed—”

“I never thought you did it lightly,” says Khdhd. “I almost did it myself. But I didn’t know you were betrothed. If I had known that …” He turns to me with a grin, but I am not sure what kind of grin. “Captain, if I had known … I never would have made her my bedmate.”

It is my turn to stare at him.

He adds, “On the gjorr. Towards the end of the flight. Many times.”

Suddenly I am laughing. So is he. There’s no humor, but it’s all too ridiculous for us to do anything but laugh.

Then Khdhd swings his wrecked face back toward our men, who even now begin to arrive upon the hilltop, their climbing-gasps becoming grunts of relief as they stumble onto the flat summit and finally see Seiluine below. Some lash their tails and flex their fingers, eager for battle. But this will be no ordinary battle.

I know Lieutenant Khdhd doubts the efficacy of the plan. I am as doubtful as he is, as resigned and as desperate. But, though dubious, Khdhd is faithful and strong. He will admit no misgivings in the presence of the company. What could he say, anyway? There are no more words left now, no more options, no more time, on this bright hill, with the skeletons of Seiluine waiting for us on the plain below.

***

2. A Month Ago.

We crossed another hill, and saw another ‘city,’ hundreds of leagues from the bright Loft Folk cities of the Facelands, deep into the Twilight Realms, where light crept across the terrain at a surreal angle under the high fringes of the darkside’s cloud ceiling. Here the trees were different: not the tall, smooth-barked, silky-leaved forests of the Facelands, but squatter, thicker, paler growths, with hard knobby skins and introverted leaves edged sometimes with hair or spines. The grass, too, unlike the green Vlud lawns, here grew in mats of yellow and gray and brick-brown and white, with scrawny knuckled tendrils. Where the Vluds had had butterflies and dragonflies and ladybugs, in the Twilight Realms we found only thirteen-legged beetles with pale indigo carapaces, and a kind of wasp with a triple stinger on its rump. And even the air was different, too. The wind blew always one way, from the dark horizon of the Shadow Realms, carrying the smells of mud and mold, toward the Facelands where it would fall as spring showers and feed the rivers that fed the lakes under that distant bright sky—but here it just huffed by us, sometimes thoughtless and lazy, sometimes in an impatient gust, always murmuring but saying nothing, not content to linger in this middle-gray limbo.

In those times, we were an active infantry company, harshly depleted by warfare from a hundred and fifty men to thirty-nine, but still carrying our banner high. Upon that banner, in gold and crimson, amidst the runescript of our Citation Of Purpose, stood a symbol of fire, for our master; and floating above that, a profile of the Third Moon, waned to crescent, to represent our enemy, the civilization of the Loft Folk. Though the script of the Citation was inscrutable to us illiterate soldiers, the symbolism was clear: fire rises; the Third Moon fades; Nacz Nol conquers the Vluds, as he conquers so many others under the World, across the World, and upon the Moons. By our own hands, the prophecy had already become reality.

We had carried that banner through a hundred weeks of warfare, across all the Loft Folk lands, through fire and blood and blades, through siege and ambush, through their futile counterattacks and desperate defenses, through massacre and slaughter and, at last, genocide.

We brought, then, in our march through the Twilight Realms, one other thing: a gjorr keelbone, thirty feet long, a bent ivory relic from one of the gigantic creatures who had originally borne us from the World to the Third Moon, carrying us in huge berth-houses lashed to their backs and bellies—barracks for us soldiers, crude (temporary) cloisters for the Cantrices, plus storehouses for our weapons, armor, tools, supplies, and components of the war-engines that we later assembled on the Third Moon’s soil and applied against Seiluine. Whichever gjorr this keelbone had belonged to would not be carrying anyone back to the World. We dragged it with ropes across the Third Moon, through the Twilight Realms, from the Vlud-ravaged Sixteenth Cantry toward Fifteenth Cantry.

And I had one further possession, folded into the backpack of one of my soldiers: a second banner, different from our battle-standard. The same sharp script ran in wandering half-geometric patterns all over its face; but that writing was all it showed, no dominant pictographic elements that we unschooled warriors could pretend to understand. It meant nothing. It would come to mean everything, though I would never understand it.

Lieutenant Khdhd oversaw the hauling of the keelbone up that hill. His face had not yet healed, then; a thick black scab spread under his eyes, below the remnant of his horn. But he bellowed as loud as ever, and the men obeyed.

I thought that this was the last difficult terrain we would face. As my men pulled and cursed and worked the bone uphill, I stood at a vantage where the shiny black tower of Fifteenth Cantry peeked above its squat dome across the meadow beyond. By their own hands, while our armies were first investing and besieging the Loft Folk, the Cantrices had built their covens, almost entirely below the soil, but for the low shiny sloping domes of black glass, supposedly difficult to assault (but at Sixteen Cantry, and maybe others, that supposition had been proven poor). Their towers, like frightened goosenecks held straight up, were slightly more practical: from there, at least, the Cantrices could see all around for miles. At least they would know if they were about to be overrun. Sixteenth Cantry would have known.

Khdhd had moved behind the keelbone, and he was personally helping the men push. With that effort, plus the ropes they had rigged to pull, the keelbone surged up the last slope and over the ridge. The men let go the ropes as the bone tilted forward and began to slide down the far side. They gave a cheer, chasing it, until it struck a boulder halfway down and stopped. They gathered around, rethinking their ropes for the next haul.

Khdhd stayed behind, at the peak of the hill, at my side. He saw the Cantry, too, and from his belt-hook he took his shiny brass Vlud look-far and held it up to one eye. “Three Cantrices in the tower,” he reported; “No … two. One went down.”

“They’ve seen us.”

He lowered the look-far and surveyed our company’s presence on the hills side. “Well, we must be hard not to see. The trees are thin here. There’s nothing on the plain between us and the Cantry.”

“There’s been no battle here,” I observed. “No Loft Folk. It’s just the Cantrices.”

“But no other infantry companies, either.”

“Nor our engineers, nor rangers, nor sutlers …” I kicked dirt with the toe of my boot. “We lost time, marching from Sixteenth Cantry. We lost a few days. Maybe we missed them.”

Khdhd looked behind, and to both sides, as if other companies might appear at any moment. “Did they all go to other Cantries? Some of them must have come here.”

“The Vluds killed more of us than we’d expected. Those companies with orders to rally here—maybe they didn’t survive.”

“Some of them must have.” He turned again toward Fifteenth Cantry. “Did they go inside?”

I grimaced. “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Khdhd nodded again, handed me his look-far, and marched downhill to coordinate the next efforts on the keelbone.

I observed Fifteenth Cantry through the look-far. At that time I did not question the Vlud device’s nature. It was a simple enough object to me; it made my sight extend several times farther, at some expense of peripheral vision and depth perception. It was merely a piece of useful equipment that Khdhd had salvaged from a Vlud corpse. What a simple and innocent perception I had of that thing!

Within the look-far’s field of view, I could make out all of Fifteenth Cantry’s above-ground architecture. It sat, from my vantage, at the far end of a relatively flat plain of packed gray sand and sparse clumps of frondy weeds. From my right, the unending golden glow of the Facelands burned through a thin haze, against the incessant Twilight Realm winds. From my left, whence came the winds, the horizon plunged into the yet-unknown blackness of the Third Moon’s darkside, the Shadow Realms.

Fifteenth Cantry seemed the same as Sixteenth Cantry (except that Vluds had toppled Sixteenth’s tower). Its surface-level dome seemed maybe the top tenth of a buried sphere: it rose from the ground at an immediate slope—a low, thick assembly of blocks shaped and fitted almost seamlessly. The exposed masonry was polished to mirrors. Three evenly-spaced wooden walkways, with wide steps and landings but no rails at all, crept from the ground up the dome’s sides toward the apex.

As a battle commander, I might have guessed the intended tactic, even had I not already seen the evidence of it at Sixteenth Cantry: the cheaply constructed walkways would serve the occupants well enough as long as no enemies threatened, but they were as seductive to a besieging force as they were easily expendable and replaceable, after flaming oil dumped from the tower above left the surviving attackers only the smooth dome-face as footing for another assault.

From the peak of the dome, where the walkways converged, the tower rose, triangular at the base where three iron doors led inside; but, in its middle reaches, the three-sided shape twisted and tapered and smoothed, until near the top its cross-section was circular. There, at its maximum height of maybe sixty feet, a parapet flared: a single low wall all around the tower’s roof, just enough to offer cover from arrows and stones if the enemy had decided to attack with missilery.

Too late, the Vluds had realized our strategy, Nacz Nol’s master war plan: we soldiers besieged and assaulted the Vlud cities in the Facelands, while here in the Twilight Realms, far from Vlud sight and knowledge, our Cantrices sang magics to weaken and confuse the Vluds, to slow and stifle them, to make them easier fodder for our swords. Counterattacks against the Cantries might have helped the Vluds at the beginning of the war; but they hadn’t maneuvered and engaged early enough, and only then against Sixteenth Cantry, or maybe a few others, but not all. Doom had fallen upon the Loft Folk not only from Umbra Minion swords and claws, but from the dark curses that our Cantrix witches sang from their secluded Cantries, hidden in this land of half-shadows.

The two anonymous Cantrices now standing on the roof of Fifteenth Cantry were vague figures in white robes and white headdresses; I couldn’t make out their details, even with Khdhd’s look-far. Could they see me better? Did they have look-fars?

Under Khdhd’s terse orders, the men had now contrived new rigging on the keelbone. They yanked and heaved, and it rotated around the boulder that had stopped its slide. The men gave a cheer and began the easy pull across the smooth ground downhill toward the plain. But they had seen the Cantry, too, of course. I could see them pointing and looking. I could hear them muttering. I couldn’t hear the words, but I could guess what they were saying. We were all wondering the same things.

Before leaving the hilltop, I took another view through Khdhd’s look-far. A single Cantrix had emerged from one of the iron doors at the base of the tower. She was making her way down a walkway. I watched until she reached the ground. She turned and headed directly toward us.

I began marching down the hill towards my company. On the fingers of one hand, I was counting through an estimate. When I reached Khdhd, I returned his look-far and said, “They’ve sent an envoy. We’ll camp at the base of this hill, and wait. Expect her in three hours, if she holds a good pace.”

Khdhd nodded and hung his look-far on its belthook. “Do they … not want us in the Cantry?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just one is coming?”

I nodded. “That’s all I saw.”

He gave an ugly grin under the scar that dominated his face. “Well, one Cantrix can’t do much harm to thirty-nine warriors!”

“You’d think not,” I admitted carefully.

If he caught any of the trepidation that I was good at hiding behind concise wording, he didn’t show it. He turned to the men and hollered, “Get it down to flat country, boys, and that’s a halt!”

They gave scattered calls of acknowledgment and leaned into their ropes. Lieutenant Khdhd followed them, and I followed Khdhd.

***

It took the Cantrix four hours to walk the plain. Either I had underestimated the distance, or I was less patient than she was.

In the first hour, our camp settled in quickly, on a flat mound clear of obstructions, with a meager stream in a nearby ditch. We planted our war-banner, built fires, filled our waterskins; we caught game—five blackbucks and twenty of the gopher-like things we call rkggr—and had them roasting on spits. The men repaired broken armor-straps, took little stones out of their boots, wrestled and sparred, ate all the meat and crunched the bones, and sang two battle-songs, but mostly they just mumbled about the dark, hunching Cantry across the plain, and about the approaching Cantrix.

I sat on a rock, cleaned and sharpened my sword, and watched her make her way across the plain. She would cross a rise, dip into a gully, emerge closer. I ground my teeth anxiously.

Khdhd came to stand by me. He squinted through his look-far. He paced. He stood with crossed arms, tail whipping back and forth. He used his look-far again, and said a foul word. He paced again.

Her details grew slowly. She walked with long, steady strides, arms swinging in rhythm. She was of average stature for an Umbra Minion woman. (I don’t know why—among many other things!—our master created us all at variances. Was it simply so we could identify each other as individuals? Why not just put numbers on our foreheads?) She was trim and straight-spined, six feet tall, with a small horn arching down from her forehead toward her chin. And, like all the Cantrices, she wore long-sleeved robes and a cascading headdress of white linen.

The robes looked impractical for such a walk, and I said aloud, “I wonder if she has good shoes.” But Khdhd was pacing and staring, so I got no response. Then I saw some further details: she had a belt of silver cloth, hung with silver ornaments, and a silver necklace of intricate design. What little skin I could see was a smooth, soft gray. Her face was wrapped across the nose and mouth and forehead, just exposing her eyes and her horn. Not all Cantrices wrapped their faces, and I was unsure what it meant—maybe something about their particular functions within the Cantry—all a mystery to me, like so much else.

I was trying to identify her, but something in my head expected no identification because I could not possibly know her. And then suddenly with a shock, as she finally arrived at our camp and came up the low slope of the mound, her head held high, her (wrapped) face held forward bravely, I knew who she was.

Behind me, all the soldiers were as silent as graves. Beside me, Khdhd stood so tense that he almost quivered. I felt a tingle in my hands and feet. We all stared at the Cantrix as she took the last few steps into our camp area, breathing deeply from the exertion of the long walk. She faced me. She said loud enough for everyone to hear, “I am Hiree of Fifteenth Cantry.”

I took a few seconds to gather my thoughts. Perhaps it was the necessity of maintaining confidence and decisiveness in the presence of my soldiers that made me choose an insufficient response. But no amount of delay would have helped me find a better answer; since that moment, I have often wondered what I could have said otherwise, and no other words have come. (Even given plenty of time after an event, often one cannot determine what one should have said or done. This fact dismays me greatly, but also consoles me in some inexplicable way. It is a defining—even comforting—humiliation.)

“Hiree—” And I almost called her ‘betrothed’; but we had kept it secret. “Hiree, am I so changed by war that you do not know me?”

She stood still, arms at her sides, tail curled up around one arm. Her eyes moved back and forth between me and Khdhd and the thirty-nine soldiers behind us. “Captain Gkurz, I know you. It’s a good thing, that you’re not fallen in battle.” I delayed again, and she said into that empty space, “Your company is much diminished.”

Lieutenant Khdhd had balled his fists. He replied to her, “Nine dozen of us are fallen. By our own hands, nine thousand Vluds are fallen. We are fewer, but no one can say we are diminished!” From the soldiers came a rumble of approval.

Hiree looked at him. In a lower voice, she said, “Are you not Khdhd?”

He answered quickly and firmly. “I am.” He faced her square-on, his shattered horn an obscene mutilation, a face-wound that would have denied any such stance of pride in one less stubborn.

She lowered her eyes from the sight, then looked around our camp again. At the back lay the gjorr keelbone. “Why have you brought that bone?” she said. “Where did you get it?”

“Why are you here?” I demanded then.

With her face wrapped, I found it hard to read her expression. Her eyes darted back and forth, never lingering more than a half-second on Khdhd’s face, never lingering less than a few seconds on mine. Once she turned her whole body slightly left and right, as if she expected some other company of infantry to have surrounded us out of the dim gray Twilight lands. As a military commander, I had two thoughts: that she was on the defensive, and—worse—that I was treating her like an enemy.

“I am here,” she said carefully, raising her voice again so the whole company could hear it, “to welcome all you brave Umbra Minion soldiers and prepare you for entry into Fifteenth Cantry.”

The soldiers mumbled. Khdhd held his ground, fists clenched, tail twitching. He said through gritted teeth, “There’s no more avoiding the issue now.”

He was right, so I said to Hiree, loud enough for the company to hear, “We want to know under what circumstances we will enter the Cantry.”

Hiree blinked. “What do you mean?”

“We want to know,” I said, “what you intend to do with us.”

She said, “I will prepare you for entry into the Cantry.”

Khdhd said, “But why are we going into the Cantry?”

Hiree raised one arm and pointed at our banner, which at campside caught the light from the distant Facelands as well as the fires’ glow. “It’s in your Citation Of Purpose!” she exclaimed. “‘The soldiers, victorious, shall culminate in the Cantries.’ Isn’t that why you came here?”

Khdhd said, “Our purpose was to kill the Vluds. We did that.”

“That was only part of your purpose,” Hiree corrected. “The Citation is unambiguous.”

“Unambiguous but vague,” I said, “Killing Vluds, we understand. We did that. We thought the war was to add the Third Moon to the empire that Nacz Nol rules from underneath the surface of the World. Now, we’re not sure. Maybe He only wanted the Vluds dead, and He doesn’t care about this land. But, either way, we killed the Vluds. So, now that our purpose is met, what becomes of us? What more is there for us to do?”

“How many times must I answer this question? You are to culminate in the Cantries. All the Umbra Minions across the Third Moon, even now, are obeying this edict.”

“And then, what will happen to us?”

I saw her eyes narrow. “Why are you asking this?”

A soldier barked from behind me, “Why shouldn’t we!” and a roar went up from the others. Khdhd, without turning, raised one arm, and the company fell silent again.

I noticed a change in her eyes. Her brow furrowed on either side of her little horn. “With what precise purpose have come here?” she said carefully.

Khdhd said, “We have questions.”

“What questions?” she demanded. I was not sure then who was on the offensive.

“We asked the first one already,” said Khdhd.

“Already thrice I have answered it.”

“Thrice you avoided it!”

Until then, Hiree and Khdhd and I had all stood at one side of the campsite. The soldiers, behind us, sat or stood or sprawled around the fires. Now Hiree walked past Khdhd and me. None of the soldiers dared move. She circled the fires and regarded the keelbone at the far side of the camp. Then she turned and declared, “You have been at Sixteenth Cantry.”

“We have,” I said.

“After it fell,” she said.

“We have,” I said. “We found Vluds there, and killed them. They had overwhelmed the dome, brought down the tower, murdered all the—”

“We sang with Sixteenth Cantry,” said Hiree, “before and during their fate. We know what befell them. You went there after, and you cannot possibly know what happened.”

My soldiers, caught between my side of the camp and Hiree’s side as we exchanged arguments, turned their heads back and forth like predators watching prey run by.

“We know this much,” I said: “Sixteenth Cantry’s gjorr was killed.”

Hiree said, “Did you suspect the Vluds?”

“The keelbone was built into an altar to Nacz Nol,” I said. “Vluds would not do that. Only the Cantrices would build an altar, and that means they killed their own gjorr. We took the keelbone as evidence.”

In one quick motion, Hiree stepped up onto the keelbone. She looked down at us, fires lighting her face from below. “So you destroyed the altar?” she accused.

A murmur ran through the company. I said quickly, “The Vluds had tainted everything.”

Hiree demanded, “And you call it ‘evidence.’ Of what? Against whom?”

Lieutenant Khdhd pointed one clawed finger at the keelbone. “The gjorrs give us our only way to travel back to the World.”

Hiree’s voice raised in pitch, whether out of anger or desperation I could not say. “Do you believe that it’s your purpose to return to the World?”

“Where else, further to fight for Nacz Nol!?” yelled one soldier, and Khdhd declined to motion him to silence.

Hiree stated flatly, “Nowhere does it say in your Citation that you will return to the World. You know this. You have the Citation by rote.”

I said, “Then where are we going?”

Hiree waved both arms. “Your path is dictated!—’The soldiers, victorious, shall culminate in the Cantries.'”

“What does ‘culminate’ mean?” challenged Khdhd. A soldier yelled, “Then what?” Another yelled, “Then where?”

Hiree stood glowering upon the keelbone, and her shoulders and chest pulsed with several deep breaths. Then she stepped down, and began to walk slowly through the camp, with a stately, superior gate. “I think,” she said, “that many of you have lost your true allegiance.” At a subdued noise of protestation from the soldiers around her, she raised one hand. “No, much faith is gone from you. Maybe it is because of exposure to the Vluds. I don’t know why. But the company of Captain Gkurz brings evidence and accusations, resisting and denying the proper fate decreed to you from our master, our creator, without whom we would be less than dust in a void.” As she reached the other side of the camp, where Khdhd and I stood, she gave us only the most perfunctory glances. Then in a single swift motion her arm swept sideways across Khdhd’s belt and she had turned to face the company, her back to us, Khdhd’s look-far held high in her fist.

“See this!” she called out stridently. “What is this Vlud trapping that your subcommander embraces? Loft Folk magic! Loft Folk trickery and profanity!” In the shocked silence when the entire company, including Khdhd and me, stared at the brass tube shining in firelight and Twilight, Hiree jerked her arm downward and dashed the look-far against a rock. It received its dent then, and with a ringing complaint it bounced and rolled into the camp, causing several soldiers to shy away as if it were poison.

(What is magic? Did the look-far have some metaphysical property to envenom us with sympathy for its makers, the Loft Folk? Could we have taken one of their devices, used it to our benefit, without feeling some respect for them? I had respected the Vluds as enemies, but I had hated them and killed them unhesitatingly. Was the look-far inherently, contagiously Vlud? Did it color my allegiance? Did it turn Khdhd’s heart, a little more each time, when he held it to his eye? Was it not an innocent mundane thing, but actually sacrilegious Vlud magic? Hiree thought so. I hadn’t thought so until then, and I did not then—not yet—change my mind. But I would.)

Her back was still to us. I knew what Khdhd would do. He had been simmering, and now he boiled over. I was already moving. His sword was drawn and raised, and I stepped between him and Hiree, and I caught his arms in my fists. His eyes, wide and round below his ruined forehead, met mine. We held the pose, locked.

Behind me, Hiree’s voice bellowed at the soldiers, “You must decide who you are! Are you Umbra Minions of Nacz Nol? Are you not the mighty veterans of the last and greatest victory against the Loft Folk? You are! These are facts! And so, will you betray the great master by whose hand you have come to be as great as you are? Will you all now turn away from your purposes and your destinies? Will you choose instead whatever uncertain fate awaits you in the fugitive darkness of heresy?”

The struggle in Khdhd, while I held him, met some sort of resolution. I felt his arms slacken. I took his sword, and he stepped down from our confrontation and lowered his eyes.

(Hiree and I, at that moment, stood back to back, and I had just saved her life, and she was trying to save the lives of my entire company. Add this circumstance near the top of the list of scenes that say much but mean nothing. These are the scenes that sink deepest into my heart, where I hold them fast, though they fester.)

I said to Khdhd, “Now get the second banner.”

Then I turned and faced the camp, where Hiree stood like a redeeming avatar, all the soldiers rapt in her words. “You speak of uncertain fates,” I said. Khdhd was pulling the second banner from the pack of the soldier I had ordered to carry it. He unfurled it with a snap and lay it at Hiree’s feet. I pointed at it with Khdhd’s own sword. “If you are so certain, then explain this.”

Sometimes I felt sorry for my soldiers, who hadn’t the brainpower to follow half of the complex concepts involved in war or in life itself. But sometimes I envied them. At that moment, I pitied and envied them both. They stared between me and Hiree with confusion and helplessness.

Hiree looked down at the banner. She bent, and lifted one corner, and bent closer as if to smell it. She let the fingers of one hand wander across its embroidered face, gently, hesitantly, humbly, apologetically. Then she lifted it from the ground, brushed it off, and folded it against her chest. She closed her eyes. “This came from Sixteenth Cantry,” she said.

I said, “Yes.”

“What sort of … explanation do you expect to hear from me?”

“Just tell us if it’s true.”

“Much lore is written on this banner,” she said.

Khdhd swallowed. Thinking that he, after having tried to assault her, could not condescend to speak to her, I said it for him: “The part about the Black Breath. Is it true?” Another murmur ran through the company, this one lower and full of fear.

Hiree seemed to move in slow motion, almost casually. Her eyes opened and turned to me, then turned to the banner she held against her heart. Then she turned back to me and held out the banner at arm’s length. “Show me.”

I could not answer.

“You can’t read,” she said after a moment.

My only reply was: “We just want to know if it’s true.”

She clutched the banner close to her chest again. “What do you suspect?”

“That, once our soldiers are victorious,” I explained, “the Cantries will sing a great magic to deprive the Third Moon of all life.”

She closed her eyes again. “Do you believe this will happen?”

“We don’t know. We’re asking.”

“Asking!” she blurted with a laugh.

The stakes were too high for the soldiers to remain quiet. They began a series of complaints and demands. One: “We don’t want to believe it!” Another (my favorite): “It doesn’t make sense!” Another: “Why would you send a Black Breath after the Vluds are already killed?” Another: “We don’t want to die now!” Another: “Didn’t we do what we were supposed to do?” Another: “Show us your gjorrs, alive! We want to go home!”

Finally Khdhd held up his arm again, and the company fell silent.

Her eyes still closed, Hiree said, “You ask much. But let me ask you something in return. If you cannot read, why do you think this banner says anything about a Black Breath?”

I gritted my teeth and drew a lungful of air. I had no other answer except the truth: “When we cleansed Sixteenth Cantry, we made a Vlud prisoner read it for us.”

Then Hiree met my gaze. “So you are told, by an enemy under torture, of a plan by your own master and creator to use a great weapon … on his own soldiers … after the war is won?”

I repeated the words from that soldier: “It doesn’t make sense.” And I added, “We just want to know.”

Hiree nodded. In a normal tone, because the company was now so quiet, she said to everyone, “I, too, wish to know many things. I am only a middle Cantrix. I read; I sing the lores; I see events in the Cantry. But I cannot know the mind of our master.”

She began to stroll slowly amongst the icily attentive, subdued soldiers of the company, but she kept turning her gaze to Khdhd and me. “Inside the Cantry, I had a pet rkggr. I fed it and put clean grass in its box. Once I pulled a worm from its eye, and the rkggr screamed and bit my hand. It couldn’t know why I caused its pain. It couldn’t know why I gave it food and clean grass, or even that I was the source of the food and clean grass. It knew only that I hurt it, so it bit me.”

Now her tone rose, and her gaze drilled into the soldier’s eyes. “What is the difference between a wild rkggr and my pet in a box? The wild rkggr suffers injuries and disease. It’s lucky to live six weeks, and a guhhzkr-widow will eat it alive, ripping flesh from its belly. My pet lived thirty weeks and fell asleep in peace and died.

“The difference is that I, an entity greater than my pet, changed its life from a short, desperate danger to a long, safe, healthy peace. But by whose reckoning was its life better in the box? Did it run free, spread its seed, claw from the soil a greater mound for its pack, breathe the winds of the Twilight Realm instead of the cold air below the Cantry? Do you think me brazen to set myself above the rkggr, to decide how it should live, to say that peace and health and longevity are better than the company of its fellows and a place in the lineage of the pack?

“Now you will think that I to the rkggr was as our master to you, that you are no more than animals ignorant of our master’s greater purposes. You judge the rkggr on my terms; but that is only half the thought that you should make! You must also judge me on the terms of the rkggr! But you cannot do so, because you are not rkggr.”

Her thoughts seemed to weave circles, and my brain spun with them. (Was it Cantrix magic? or honesty? or both? or neither?)

She had made a full circuit through the company. Only her voice and the crackle of the fires, which were now dying because no one dared move to feed them, could be heard above the incessant mutter of the Twilight Realms’ breeze. Now she stood close, facing me. She had that second banner still hugged tight to her sternum.

“You can’t even tell me what this banner says,” she said. She raised one hand and pulled away her facewrap. Her face had the same contours that I recalled from so long ago, in the flight from our birth-caverns to the Third Moon, in the crowded quarters on the gjorrs. She seemed to me the essence of the fulfillment of a hunger that I had not felt fully until this moment. She said, “Why, Gkurz, have you spent the last hundred weeks, fighting the Vluds?”

My brain was tingling. Khdhd’s sword was still in my hand. I felt my fist tighten on it. “Don’t try to turn the tables,” I whispered.

She took a step closer. Could the company still hear her? “Turn what tables? You came to me for answers. Why me?”

“I didn’t know it would be you.”

“Why did you come to the Cantry?”

My hand, still holding Khdhd’s weapon, was shaking. “Will you sing the Black Breath?”

“What Nacz Nol wishes us to do, we will do.”

“Say it openly! Are you commanded to kill the Third Moon, even after we’ve won the war?”

“And what if it were true?” she challenged. She was very close now. “What would you do, if Nacz Nol, our master and lord, ordered you to your death?”

My jaw worked back and forth, and my tail whipped. “He gave us no such order!”

“Already you disobey His simple command to enter the Cantry. For the matter of your life, now I see that you would run away.”

“What would you do, Hiree? Would you stay here to die for nothing?”

“What Nacz Nol wishes us to—”

I threw my free arm in the air. “Oh, don’t say that again!” I spun on a heel, passing my gaze across the faces of my soldiers. They were listening helplessly, baffled, confounded. I spun again to Hiree and laughed, “We haven’t even seen Him since we climbed onto the gjorrs! He’s not here, on the Third Moon, in the battles, in the carnage; He’s not leading us; He cut down no Vluds—”

“He cut down all the Vluds!” shouted Hiree. “You but held the blades for Him.”

“And that’s all we are, then? No more than pommels?”

And she howled, “As you throw away your loyalty, perhaps you are less!”

A silence fell. She turned away, and I sucked in air.

She was addressing the whole company. “If you think you are smarter and better than your own creator, then you will do whatever you think you should do and meet whatever consequent peril. You will bite His hand, and hope that He forgives you or at least doesn’t punish you. But do not think that He will treat you as dumb animals who do not understand His will. You know! You choose to obey or disobey! If you come here with doubts and questions and ‘evidence’ that you can’t understand, does that not say to you that you are less than our master, that His designs are greater than your ignorance?

“Why Nacz Nol does as he does, and what roles we will play at any moment, and what He chooses to reveal, or not to reveal”—she held up the banner, and half the company gasped as if it were the severed head of Nacz Nol himself—”or what your enemies might do to trick you! or maybe even what Nacz Nol Himself does, to ‘trick’ you, to test you, to cull the unworthy from the true and faithful!—who are we to know these things? If you doubt, you will find no answers in the very thing that you doubt! Your answer already is in your hearts. The only question is whether you are fools enough not to know your own hearts.”

She took three fast steps to Khdhd and thrust the second banner into his arms. She commanded, sternly, flatly, “Fold that. Do not put it again on the bare ground.”

Startled, wide-eyed, Khdhd said, “What?”

“Do not defile it! Its importance is beyond your ken, as is so much else.” She stared at him. “Khdhd … I’m sorry you are wounded, Khdhd.” (Did she mean his horn, or his spirit?) “I’m sorry you doubt our master. I’m sorry I can’t bolster your doubts and alleviate your fears. But existence is full of fear, and doubt, and darkness. None of us is a god; none but Nacz Nol.” Her voice grew louder. “You feel dissatisfaction—not just you, Khdhd, but your captain and your soldiers, too—discontent that you are a limited part of a vast universe, that you—even you, whose purpose is so simple and clear!—you cannot comprehend where you fit into the whole. But you will never know the whole of it!

“Whatever you do not already know plainly from our master, you do not need to know! Nothing else should matter to you! All that you need, all that you are, is right before your eyes. If you cannot savor the fulfillment of your own place, then I can never satisfy you.”

I said, very simply, very clearly for everyone to hear, “Then send someone who can.” I heard my words as if they had come from another mouth, and I agreed with them.

In the wake of her stoic, fatalist declarations, which had left our spirits sunken to a new low, I hadn’t realized how far she had swayed us all with her discourse about purpose and greater wholes and mastery and ignorance. What, besides knowledge, sets the master above the follower? I had thought on this much since Sixteenth Cantry. If knowledge gives power, does that power alone make the master superior? Is this very question part of the ignorance that sets the follower below? Will all followers, anywhere, whether loyal or suffering doubt, forever be truly ignorant? If mastery depends on the followers’ ignorance, is mastery bad, or ignorance good? Is it simple ignorance, that plague within a spirit that just cannot decide what to do?

Hiree turned a look of disgust on me. But before she could challenge me again, with complicated arguments about why I was wrong, I continued to speak. “It’s not in our nature to concede.” The company murmured an agreement. “We don’t surrender. We don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” The company’s voices grew louder in support. “We were made to take what we need!”

“Made by whom!” she snapped back. “You try to use your nature as an argument against your own creator! Can’t you see how backwards that thinking is?”

“You can’t debate me into submission,” I snarled.

She held her hands palm-up, as if revealing a truth hidden in plain sight. “Was it submission, to go to war? It was your master’s will!—the very will that you now resist, because you don’t have ‘answers.’ Why did you not question your purpose, before now?”

My brain felt soft and hot. I opened my mouth, but no rebuttal emerged. My soldiers fared little better: they managed to protest, but only with wordless groans.

Hiree faced them bravely. “I am sent to bring you to the Cantry. Only one path lies before you. Do not balk now, after so much effort and blood and striving! Do not allow indecision, in the wake of your victories, to mislead and betray you! If you lose your path now”—her voice cracked with emotion—”you won’t ever get it back. Follow your creator’s single will, as you followed it into war and victory!”

I squinted at the World hanging half-way up the sky, for as long as I could, then said, “They follow me—none other!” I got a cheer for that, but I suspect they cheered from habit, and I felt no pleasure from it.

“And where will you lead them, Gkurz?” Then, ignoring me again, she cast her gaze around the group of soldiers. She took two deep breaths, and then she said, in a shaky voice, to the entire company, “To enter the Cantry, you must divest of weaponry and armor. The Vluds are vanquished. You will disarm.”

I tightened my fist on Khdhd’s sword. It seemed weightless. “We won’t do that!”

Hiree continued: “You must also divest of all Vlud plunder. It is a toxin to Umbrakind!”

Khdhd looked around the camp and picked up his look-far from the dirt. Its brass tube was dented deeply, but its glass was intact. He held it aloft like an enemy’s heart. He repeated my mantra: “We won’t do that!”

Hiree raised her voice. “You must make an obeisance of blood! A Cantrix will cut your palms, at the entryway, and you will offer your blood to a likeness of Nacz Nol!”

The company had set up a chant now. “We won’t! We won’t!”

Hiree put one shaking hand over her mouth. She turned to me with wide eyes. Once again I could not read her expression, before due to her facewrap, and now due to her hand. (I have held her expression in my mind for great amounts of time, and I have decided that she was sad and afraid, though at times it seemed as if she might be furious with us all for our willfulness. But I think fury, considering all her words to us that night in the camp, made no sense. This, at least, I have tried to understand. And even this is not easy.)

Fast: she dropped her hand and opened her mouth. Above the chants of the thirty-nine soldiers, a song burst forth from her: the voice of a Cantrix, of Nacz Nol’s magic. She had sung a half-dozen syllables, and I had taken three steps, and my arm put Khdhd’s sword through her heart. Her song ceased abruptly. She stared at me. All the camp became silent. I stared back at her. Something changed in her eyes—this time, I knew it well, having watched life depart from so many faces. She began to slump. Out of reflex born of long experience, I pulled back the blade, and it slid out cleanly. Hiree collapsed.

After five heartbeats of utter silence, Lieutenant Khdhd broke the tableau. “Well, they must have heard that.”

I said, “Reduce the Cantry.”

My company—purchaseless in philosophic contemplation, but accustomed to violent death, accustomed to obeying orders without question or hesitation, accustomed to wreaking savagery and mayhem—was already moving, and the lieutenant augmented my simple command with expansions of his own: “Get that armor strapped on! Each squad, in a quickmarch column! Those weapons are for fighting, boys—draw and present!” Of course, the soldiers were already doing all that, but Khdhd urged them on. And I heard his breath catch briefly when he called, “Banner-bearer!”—but the order he gave next was not the call to carry our standard at the head of the columns; instead he said, “Shovel out those fires.”

I had little to do, in the next moments, while our company changed from confused, tired veterans, slumped in camp, into three columns of warriors quickmarching across the plain toward Fifteenth Cantry. I stood by Hiree’s body, so that she would not be trampled in the rush. Five minutes earlier, none of my soldiers would have dared even to touch the hem of her robe. Now she was no more than another body on a battlefield—to them. And again, I envied them.

Unlike the emotional, moody, poetic Loft Folk, we Umbra Minions knew no rites of honor for the dead. Corpses are corpses: they feed the worms and the mold, and the spirits we loved in them are not part of their remains. They will not hear any songs we could sing to them. But still, as I looked into the eyes of Hiree’s corpse—eyes that stared back sightlessly—my heart moved in ways unknown to me.

“What did you expect for us,” I asked her lifeless body; “why did we trade promises, if you knew we could never live them out?”

Then, not really to myself, not really to anyone, I whispered, “Or, Hiree, did you not know?”

When the camp was clear, and the soldiers on the move, Lieutenant Khdhd stepped near, and I handed him his weapon. He sheathed it and looked at our war-banner. “That’s useless now,” he said.

And he made to pull it down, but I said, “Just let it stand there.”

He stared at me with his ugly, ruined, half-horned face. Hiree was still at my feet.

“Four hours for her to walk the plain,” I said.

Khdhd blinked. “We’ll run it in two or less. But they’ll be ready for us.”

I drew my sword and said, “I don’t think they will.”

“Cantrix blood, on our hands—Umbra Minions killing Umbra Minions.”

He gave Hiree an appraising look. Only a month later would I learn why he said what he said: “They’re tough little things, these Cantrices. They want matters to go their own way. They don’t listen—well, not to the likes of us, anyway.” He looked up. “We won’t get any more answers from the rest of them than we did from her.”

“If we find gjorr bones in their altars—”

He finishes, “Then we’re going nowhere.” He was working it out. “That leaves the Breath. We can’t fight it.” He looked to the dark horizon, away from the World, where the Third Moon’s eternally dark Shadow Realms. “That leaves exile.”

Hiree’s dead eyes accused, implored, condemned us. I tightened my grip on my sword.

Khdhd was still working it all out. “There’s more than twenty Cantries. We can’t raze them all.”

I didn’t answer.

Then, together, with nothing else to be done at the campsite, with no more words or thoughts that could mean anything, we ran after the company.

***

3. Now.

The World glares directly above. We aren’t used to this kind of light or heat. And the air is so very thin.

“Swords are useless!” Khdhd is hollering. We have our thirty-nine men assembled outside one of the breaches in Seiluine’s walls. “There’s nobody in there to hack. Our first goal is a forge. We need hammers and prybars. If we can’t find them in smithies, we’ll make them from our swords. Then we start with the tallest Vlud tower we can see. It is a barrier to forgiveness! It comes down! Then the next! We work from the sky toward the ground.” He raises a fist, our age-old cue for the men to take up a cry. “Break every rock!”

“Break every rock!” they echo, fists high.

“The Vlud city to powder!” Khdhd bellows.

“The Vlud city to powder!” they echo.

“Redemption!” cries Khdhd, and the men cheer. After all these trials—the disaster at Fifteenth Cantry, and then the month of exile and spiritual darkness and literal darkness that followed as we wandered the Shadow Realms without purpose—my men lack no enthusiasm: toward a goal achievable by mindless violence (in this case, ironic but fitting), they will without reservation exert all their formidable strength.

“By squads, left-right-center … into the city!” screams Lieutenant Khdhd, and the men roar and charge forward.

I am looking at the horizon. It is dark … black. In every direction, it is the same. Some thin blue haze hangs near the hills in places; but, save the brilliant World burning at the zenith, the sky has lost all color, as have the trees. Even the soil is fading from gold to gray.

“No wonder it’s so bright now,” I say. “No air to soften the light.”

Khdhd follows my gaze around the horizon. “I wonder what took it so long,” he says.

“I think it’s been happening all this time, and only now can we see it.”

“I thought it would be fast. It seems slow and fast at the same time. It’s been a month, but already it seems too late.”

“Another mystery,” I say. “Add it to the list.”

He looks over his shoulder to make sure none of the men are within earshot. They are inside the walls. Khdhd says, “Just between you and me … with thirty-nine pairs of hands, against this entire city … how many towers do you think we can knock down before we can’t breathe any more?”

“Every damned one.”

Khdhd kicks at the ground and says, “And break all the stones?”

“Every damned one.”

He takes the look-far from the hook on his belt. He sets it on a large square stone fallen from the Vlud wall. Then he lifts another stone and brings it down hard on the look-far, crunching it flat, shattering its glass. He brings the stone down again, and again. After ten blows, the glass is white powder, and the brass tube is mangled into unrecognizable pieces, looking like no more than ugly, flat-leafed dry weeds. Khdhd stands back from his work, then turns away and gives it no more thought.

And then, together, under the darkening sky, we enter the ruins.

__________________________________________________________________________________

I was born in America in the mid-60s, the last of the baby boomers, just too late to be a hippie. Much of my life I have spent in profitless or even ill-advised pursuits, though more than my fair share of luck has kept me from disaster.

Since December 1991, I’ve been joyfully and faithfully married to my wonderful wife, Tiwi. We share a small house with several dogs and more cats than the birds are comfortable with.

Fiction has long been a true love of my life, both reading and writing, and especially the speculative fiction of other worlds. I’ve heard science fiction and fantasy called “the mythologies of our times.” It might be simpler than that; it might be as simple as some deep part of our spirits that longs to explore places of wonder. I’m grateful for every word that I can read or write in exploration.


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