Two large spheres are laying on a worktable as I pass beneath another glowb, this one dark. Three smaller orbs rest on a nearby surface. They brace a squat thing bristling with tubular appendages, each finding attachment to all the spheres and the quiescent glowb as well. Each tube pulses with a peristaltic ripple.
Here is another sphere split in half and opened like a mellin presented for repast. Both segments appear to be filled with something damp and fibrous, rather than mechanical, like organ tissue. I cannot tell if it is merely unfinished or in the process of being dismantled. Either way, it is inert and inexplicable.
Carved into the polished stone floor, a series of lines radiate from the center of this gallery. It is twenty paces to its hub, a hecs’gonal opening as wide as my outstretched arms by twice. I do not have to see the outline of its twin above me to know that it and every level below has such an opening. This is the axis of the tower, the conduit between the Black Well beneath its foundations and the Night. The energy coursing through it is the fountainhead of Shiric’s power. Tales of this are older than any living being except The Fayne Himself and it is, in this moment, fact laid stark before my eyes.
And now it is in the tap. All of the aca’chi will see it as well, each in their time. The Brothers and Sisters engaged in the cleansing below, have no time nor need of such now.
The only sound is a rumor from the flood of Black power closer to me than is prudent, less a sound than an uncomfortable sensation low in the gut. I feel my crawling flesh trying to draw me away before its touch ends me.
To my right hand, a pinpoint of light, low down, catches my attention and I am presented with something so familiar and, yet, so incongruous, I am obliged to make sense of it. Wonderment and vigilance grow with each step, dualling motivations.
The luminous glowb is partially eclipsed by the Black power raging silently between us, but suspended before me within that umbra, is a lone construct. Without question it is a model in relief of Hevn, presented in a way I have never seen nor conceived. It defines not only the topography of the surface we live on, but the under-world as well. None living have seen it, we are told. Yet, here is a representation in relief of my tabletop world, above and below, as if observed from some remote station in the emptiness of deep Night. It is not as I imagined.
Above the broad hecs’gonal map of its surface, a miniaturized black sun nearly fills the sky of the nor’n hecs’drant. Mysterious Solva’s representation, cast an anomalous White, follows behind Gog’s replica at an appropriate distance. A tiny, crystalline-bright Fayne’s Eye, the glint of light that caught my eye, tracks in its deep ellipse toward the nor’n edge from the under-world, where faint little Dimm traces its own solitary path, a dull gem.
I reach out to Brin in the tap. ‘Has Gog yet risen first arc?’
‘Ee’eh. Barely had it found the Edge by a hand while you were tunneling from that mound of drack meat. Two hands now and no more.’
This sounds right. Simple calculation suggests the placement and movement of these objects around the model is as their true counterparts are positioned even now in their endless circuits.
This image of my world before me is astonishing in its complexity. I know my geographies and I have seen with my own eyes places only the Aka’chi can freely go and live. Every Color, every contour of every hecs, seems accurate, as do representations of the Wells and wellsheds flowing into the Sea of Shades, so called because of the Colors submerged beneath it. We call it Hav’k.
I see the White Well at Soulbridge. Its beam seems faint and insignificant here. Each of the great kal’uns are represented, their architectures captured in what seems infinitesimal detail. The protected freeport of Kal’un Naijin and incomparable Kal’un Fayne not the least of these. Modeled here as well are remote, less hospitable locations few other than local denizens, if any, have seen and lived to tell it; Kal’un Thudra among them, as is Helmouth itself and High Seat, Aghnot, Sinder, Xenotaf, even the representation of the heaving sea looks completely realistic, from the boil of the Churn to the Grand Cascade, its contents pouring endlessly over the sor’nees edge of this replica world, dissipating into nothing. What an elegant device.
Brin is still on her haunches against the wall. She motions to me.
Wait. Sinder, once a Black outpost colony on Hav’k’s rugged sor’n coastline, was destroyed long ago, sealed off by The Fayne and rendered uninhabitable. Yet, on the model, its six-sided symmetry is overlaid in Gray, the characteristic shade of a neutral land and its surface is blank and smooth, unfinished, a curious alteration.
Turning away, light from the glowb illuminates a delicate clockwork spread across the chamber only a reach above my head. A number of tiny orbs appear to encircle the incandescent sphere where it floats well beyond the Black current. I see them revolving in procession around it, each one moving at its own pace, each marking out its own path with a slender, vaguely luminous trail dissipating behind, and all suspended by no apparent means. Perhaps the thing I seek is here too, traveling a circuitous path around the glowing hub. It is enough to move my feet.
A band of dust particles refracts light over my head, a hazy ring tracing its own path around the glowb, nearer the dark rush. Perhaps it was once an orb like the others, pulverized and scattered by its proximity to the Black flow. I reach up and touch my fingertips to the almost insubstantial motes. They eddy and scatter as I trace a lazy circle in their midst.
Sudden shearing pain erupts and I snatch back my hand. Beneath the shredded tips of my gauntlet, blood wells up and a vicious stinging blossoms with it.
“Well,” says a voice at my shoulder, “that’s going to cause a stir.”
It is not Brin’s voice.
Fleetingly I wonder who could so let down his guard when surrounded by such peril. It seems a valid concern. It is, perhaps, a measure of my discipline that my hand does not flicker toward my weapon. My other hand feels as if I had pressed it into a clot of borewurms. Despite that intimate discomfort, I am not a newb to jump at shadows or flinch from an unexpected sound. I have gained patience and composure sitting with my death from time to time.
Not-Brin’s words, mellifluous with an unfamiliar accent, are unhurried, conversational. “Do you comprehend it yet?”
Without turning away from the construct of orbs above me, I answer. “These are works of uncommon artistry, intricate…” a wave of fire in my fingertips clamps my jaw for a moment, “in ways most unexpected.”
My armor has directed a surge of fics to seal the damage and damp the pain. The first is faster. “This exceptional model of Hevn, I recognize, of course. I have no idea what the other represents, but I believe myself favored beyond fortunate to have witnessed it.”
“That you unquestionably are.”
“What is it?”
“It’s called an orrery.”
A few drops of blood and sealant have found the floor. One slow breath in and out; I turn to face him. The Enemy.
He looks human, though of course, he is not. Slightly smaller than me, Shiric radiates power and vitality. Bright blue-green eyes smile out of an ageless porcelain face framed in flowing white hair. Not at all the fanged and intractable monster of our creche nightstories. He neither looks, nor sounds the least bit sinister. Neither is he Black.
“I thought you would be… taller,” I say.
Shiric’s stoic expression is spoiled by the slight arching of one eyebrow and one corner of his mouth.
“Humor.” He looks me in the eyes, a good trick with my Face on. “I don’t get much of that around here. It is a quality unexpected in one of your craft.”
I cross my arms in the way that signals I will not draw my weapon first. “What does your orry do?”
“And curious too.” He turns away from me to regard his device. If my purpose were to exchange my life for his, this would be the moment. His attention returns to me. “Some would call it a pass-time. It is, in fact, my industry. What is your name, Slayer?” A subtle and powerful question.
“My nee’m has named me T’choct ot U’chah ne.”
“A worthy successor to the appellation,” he says, nodding. Those piercing eyes search me for a moment, then sweep the room. So do mine. Brin is nowhere to be seen.
“With no disrespect intended, I believe I will call you “Fist’. It is less a mouthful. Do you mind?”
“It is an honor to be so recognized, Lord Lecudis.”
“You have achieved that which some would have deemed impossible before this turn. Merely to be standing where you are now is a feat of extraordinary ability,” again finding my eyes with his, “and courage. I wish to recognize your valiant accomplishment.”
My warder, Barth, taught us early in our training about recognition and accolades being often delivered posthumously. I recall my death saying something similar. To hear this now is disquieting.
“Solva casting White,” Shiric says, gesturing toward the simulacrum of Hevn. “What an isolated and extraordinary manifestation. Are you aware that she has shown this face to Hevn only once in seventy-seven yonn? Spectacular, isn’t it?”
“Her hint at Gog-rise was dazzling.”
“I would imagine. How very coincidental that something so rare would occur on the cusp of your equally unlikely arrival here, of all possible places you could be. Would you not say so?”
“I had considered it more foretoken than coincidence.”
Once more, Shiric seems to stare through my Face into me. “Misapprehensions abound,” he says and glides past me in a ripple of black and tan robes, showing me his back once more, staring into the dust and the system of moving orbs above his head. “You asked what my orrery does, an intelligent question.” He levels a questioning glance over his shoulder, motions with his head. “Come, Fist, let me show you,” he says and approaches the bright centerpiece of his device as though I am not the Fist of White Light behind him.
The Master of Kal’un Shiir’n honors me. I am still alive and there are wonders yet to behold. I can see no reason not to behold them. Without being able to see his feet, I follow his steps as best I can.
The great luminous glowb hangs above us, larger in diameter than a trocc’s shield. I can see its surface is agitated with whorls and eddies, it seems a writhing skin of tiny storms, all of them bursting with light. He turns to me a’quarter and, with a gesture, indicates a featureless, insignificant blot almost imperceptible against the incandescent mass of the glowb. He fashions a lens between his hands and holds it for me to see within.
The blot is a sphere also. It appears to be composed of the same medium as its larger companion, a churning surface with light boiling from it. They are bound together by a slender tether of their shared substance.
Another lens forms in Shiric’s other hand, focused on a different orb, this one further from the glowb and from us. I can see it with my own enhancements. In fact, I can see almost the entirety of Shiric’s construct now from this vantage. More spheres of different size and natures encircle the central glowb at a distance and circulate around the chamber. None appear to intersect the Black current. None appear to be what I have come for.
The Master of Kal’un Shiir’n watches me with arms folded into the sleeves of his robes. He nods toward the second lens, hanging motionless in air before me. Imaged within it is a jewel, a bright blue marble with unrecognizable shapes embossed upon its surface. The marble rotates upon itself by some unseen mechanism. As it does so, a single companion body, much smaller, pocked and drab, turns slowly around it even as the pair move together around the central glowb.
Shiric reaches out to touch the lens with a finger and it deforms. The odd shapes on the surface are magnified, resolving into contours and elevations, like those I have studied on relief maps of Hevn’s topography. If consistent, these random, irregular shapes might represent uplands and downs and channons and the blue might even suggest vast pools of water… all overlayed onto a sphere, for the sake of ONE! I cannot help but shake my head in amusement at such a preposterous notion. What am I thinking? Yet, the texture and detail of the view have such depth, it would be intriguing to investigate. Instead, I withdraw and observe Shiric observing me.
“This level of intricacy must serve a purpose,” I say.
With an outstretched hand, Shiric indicates the simulacrum of Hevn, only a toss away from us. “You see this construct as a representation of your world, do you not? And it is, in a sense, an accurate reflection of it. In another very real sense, the world you know is a reflection of this one.” He is considering the model, not me. “I find it unnecessary to discriminate anymore, since I made them both.”
“You. Made Hevn.” I am unsuccessful muffling the incredulity in my voice.
“I know what your histories teach you, young Fist, but in truth, every hecs, the Colors, the Wells, even U’chah Ela’e that you call Soulbridge, all but the Colorless lands were deliberately set in place by my hand.”
“You made the White Well, but not the White lands?”
“You are correct. The White Well was a natural and necessary balance. However, as seems the reality everywhere and always, there were others who felt compelled to meddle in my affairs, in my work and my art, and their interference, their distortion of my original design, resulted in this world, the Hevn you know. It has taken a great deal of time and concentrated energy to reestablish the connection between the two, but I have had a great deal of time and, as you can see, energy is not a concern. The two have been one for nearly an a’yonn and I have had opportunity since to renew my true work in an exciting new direction.”
He waits for me to speak. I do not know what to say.
“In the same fashion that Hevn and its reflection are the same,” he says, “this reflection has a counterpart as well.” The lensed image of the blot is in his hand again, held for me to see it drawing radiant energy through the umbilicus. “This little world, was formed within its sun some many yonn before you were conceived, and pressed outward into the cradle orbit you see now.”
Its sun? A world in the shape of an orb circling a bright sun? What manner of fantasy is this? A toy? A game? His ‘industry’, he called it. How can this be? And where could they be? Somewhere beyond the Night? That is preposterous and none of it relevant to my purpose here. The Book of Turns tells us there is only Hevn, Gog, the Trae Occu, and the Night beyond, and the Night is boundless. The Enemy watches me strive to unpack this mystery. For each new wonder locked away in this room, so many more questions. How am I to contain them all?
“That tiny sphere is a world?”
Shiric waves a casual hand across the chamber, indicating the other components of his construct. “They all are.”
I notice my hands falling limply to my sides. The motion makes the left one throb. My head and body feel the same. I hear a distant voice exclaim, “Worlds!” Whoever it is sounds stupid.
Shiric’s manner is disconcerting. Of course, he may be toying with me; I have not forgotten he is t’sungahn, not t’sunguc. More than human. And the Oldest Enemy, after all. We are, all of us, bred and trained to be his adversaries. I should not believe him.
Discounting, for the moment, his revelation about Hevn, the scope of Shiric’s orry moving in slow procession above me represents, he says, a revitalization of his ‘true work’. I am seeing it with my own eyes within a place no one, certainly no t’sunguc like myself, would ever be expected to see it or, like a fool, touch it. I look to the model of Hevn and the intimate detail of its surface—the endless Grand Cascade and the contours of the under-world none living have seen, Gog’s ponderous representation, and the Trae Occu circling Hevn’s image right here within, just as they do without. I see no place for spherical worlds and bright suns.
“Where are they?”
He takes a slow breath, as if deciding whether to grace my ignorance with an answer. “Not here,” he says at last, “and yet, like Hevn, they are here. Do you understand?”
The troubling thing is, I do. He is saying there is a real place that is not-here.
He is animated now. “Very soon, Fist, this newly-formed little world will be released from its cradle and forced out into its own orbit. When that occurs, as has happened many times before, all of its siblings will have to make room. It is of moderate size relative to its neighbors and will require a good deal of space. The out-pressing shift will be quite energetic and will change the nature and character of all these other worlds—those closest to it, rather dramatically. Can you imagine it? To be able to observe these cataclysmic events as they unfold? It is one of the most rewarding elements of my work.”
I do not fully understand his talk of energetic shifts and cataclysmic events affecting worlds some unfathomable elsewhere, but I believe I can imagine the attraction it may present. His enthusiasm is real.
“Except for the Wells, which I fashioned myself, every segment of Hevn’s surface was harvested from worlds just like this one.” He indicates the second lens, still suspended motionless where I last saw it, but he little blue marble has turned its face while I wasn’t looking.
A noticeable discoloration beside one of the blue ‘seas’, resolves into a hecs’gonal stamp upon the map of the little orb’s surface. How very strange to see this familiar, natural shape in such an anomalous setting.
“This world in particular is exceptional, a rare and delicate treasure. I have been watching it for some time. I’ve reached out to it, tested it, and very soon now, as I have done in the past, I will collect a seed from it and plant it here in Hevn’s soil.”
It is a simple puzzle with very few parts. “Sinder,” I say.
“Oh!” For a moment he regards me with undisguised pleasure. “Oh, well done, young Fist! Well done!” Shiric’s attention shifts to Hevn’s image, to the blue marble, and back to me. “Failed Sinder will cease to be and, in its place, something new and wonderful. I can hardly wait to see it.”
“Nor can I,” I agree.
His laugh bursts from him rich with mirth, reverberating off the walls of the chamber for several long moments and flutters to the floor like a lost bird. I can guess at the joke.
“You are the most delightful guest I’ve had in a very long time. The humans I employ are either fearful, unimaginative drones or presume themselves so cunning and indispensable that conversation with them is like playing Nexis with a child, tedious and unrewarding. And the moct’unguc—have you ever tried to converse with any of them?” He shakes his head. Snowy locks fall in his face and he combs them back with his fingers. He claps his hands, rubs them together. White eyebrows arch as if a thought had just surprised him and he asks, “So, my friend, would you like to see the treasure that’s brought you all this way?”
There is, apparently, no end to the revelations this turn and I can see no reason to be discourteous to the reputed enemy of all life on Hevn.
“You honor me, Lord Lecudis.”
“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”
He motions for me to follow and leads me back to the edge of the Black maelstrom at the room’s core. I am so close to the flow of dark force that, beneath my armor, my skin is trying to drag me away from it whether I want to go or not. I most definitely do. And, curiously, I do not.
The reason I do not, I notice myself thinking with some certainty, is that the Black flow and the whisps of power appearing to flag from its periphery, will not harm me, but would, instead, embrace and empower me in incomprehensible ways. It is in such a way my death reminds me not to believe everything I think.
I follow Shiric’s eyes. Suspended within the hecs opening above me, at the periphery of the flow, an eddy of writhing Black threads is in flux, constantly being created and dissipating around a cube the size of an infant’s fist. Its surfaces are smooth, muted gray, unimpressive.
“Not much to look at, is it?”
I cannot answer. My death is beside me and she, too, wants to know if this drab trinket is what I have risked everything to find.
Shiric is as close to me as the fury of the Black force. “Do you know what it is, Fist?” His words are conversational, patient. He is in no hurry. “I mean, do you comprehend the nature of the thing you were sent to retrieve?”
“Every child of the White knows this,” I say. “The Argent Flame was sent here with The Fayne in the first cycle of Hevn to be his weapon against the rising tide of unrestrained t’sungocc, Helmouth’s expanding influence, and a symbol of the power of the Lords of Order. After the Naijin Accords, The Flame was set as the centerpiece of the Counsel Hall at High Seat. Two hundred eighty-seven yarnn past, it was stolen and the Hall destroyed in a breach of His Law by your own…”
Shiric holds up a hand. “Your rote history is tediously accurate up to this point, but you have no understanding of the truth about Tu’chah-j’toc.”
He stares at the thing floating in the space above as if he is speaking to it, rather than to me. “It is not an object to be possessed. Nor will it confer its power to any and all who hold it. It is an entity, you see; one constrained by its nature to fulfill a purpose. Its course may be directed by agreement, but it has its own will and it has the power to define the manner in which it will fulfill that purpose.”
“Another good question, Fist, and one without a good answer. Whatever agreement was struck between Tu’chah-j’toc and the so-called Lords of Order, only they know. Undoubtedly the Fayne knew as well when they assigned him to bring order to Hevn, but your nee’m is not that one. The first Fayne died half an age ago defending the Hall as it was destroyed by, as it turns out, a very different sort of threat, not of my making. I merely seized the opportunity to take the prize then, with the intention of bending it to my own will and purpose. I have been unsuccessful. I believe now that if circumstances favorable to its intent were to align, it might even be able to undo much of my work and, of course, that I cannot allow. I would destroy it in a heartbeat and be done with it if I could, but as you can see, Tu’chah-j’toc will not allow itself to be unmade.”
I cannot but wonder at The Enemy’s motive for such candid show and tell. Maybe I am the only person he has engaged in substantive conversation for untold yarnn, but almost assuredly it is because he knows I will never leave this chamber. If this obscure thing he claims is the Argent Flame is a snare, why not a more compelling one? Shiric, with his resources, could surely fashion a better decoy than this piece of Dimmstone.
“It is a vexation to me, but I will not allow my Enemy to have it back to use against me. I am sorry your sacrifices were for nothing, young warrior, but here it is and here it will stay.”
Again, and with disturbing accuracy, he seems to find my eyes. “I would see your true face,” he says and once more I am dancing the blade edge. The shard of chance is spinning crazily.
“The air here is not good for me.”
“It won’t matter.”
“Then I will go to Soulbridge with my Face on.”
“As you prefer, T’choct ot U’chah ne. It is the least I could grant The Fayne’s intrepid champion.”
A massive triangular ripple in the air frames a d’moni officer, a Blue that resolves and kneels before his nee’m. The phantom shape is gone without ever having been there.
Their exchange is hushed, ardent. I can hear enough of the Blue’s rasping report of the conflict below us. Intruders spread deeper into the Keep than expected… losses and damage… concern for his master’s safety.
Shiric waves a dismissive hand. The mocc straightens, towering over his nee’m in an attitude of relaxed attention, but his eyes are on me.
“Your Brethren are much like yourself, young Fist, imaginative, unyielding warriors all. A powerful force to have running unchecked through my halls. It is fortunate that I have a far greater number of expendable resources with which to meet them.”
“This is no siege breaking upon your outer rampart, Black Lord. The Brethren will bring this tower down around you.”
“A remote possibility, but I thought you would have grasped the larger view by now, White Fly. If they do that,” he spreads his arms to indicate his orry surrounding us, “all of these worlds will perish.” Again the blue-green gaze. “Including yours.”
Here is a novel thought, one that could not have occurred to me before this moment. If I were to believe Shiric’s fantastic story of spherical worlds and bright suns and Hevn’s conception and its intimate reflection here in this place, then in no way could I have considered the consequences should these constructs be damaged. I am considering it now.
“Lord Lecudis,” I say, searching for words I never thought to put in order before. “In my ignorance, I did not balance the weight of these shadow-worlds against the cost of my success or failure. I have failed my aca’chi and my nee’m. My life is rightly forfeit, but I think neither of us wants the end of this world, or any other, this-turn. Allow the Brethren to disengage. Upon your Word, they will withdraw at once from the tower, from Kal’un Shiir’n, and from the Black Land complete.”
“Never to return.”
“I swear it.”
He regards me in unhurried silence. His features are inscrutable.
“I don’t know. Should I accept your life for theirs, there would be talk among my subordinates of an uncharacteristic clemency. It would set an awkward and unsupportable precedent. Next thing you know, I’ll be out on the parapet dabbling in watercolors. Perhaps, instead, I shall simply flood my home with the breath of the Well. Your master can begin afresh building a terrible new Hammer, and then expend that one against me as well.
“So many courageous young lives wasted. And for what?” He extends one long, articulate finger upward. “That?”
The sleeve of his garment has fallen back to reveal stark tatting on his flesh, razor lines in unrecognizable patterns. I have the sense he is not talking to me alone anymore, but his eyes are on me and, in them, I see the shard of chance balanced on its point. I am sensing an outrageous path. It requires immediate action.
Right or wrong, live or die, in this moment the act itself is pure, and it is done.
“Let it go!” Shiric’s voice compels obedience.
Did he just read my thoughts? Did he perceive, or was that merely the conclusion of his extemporaneous speech?
Perhaps for the last time, I breathe wholesome air and remove my Face.