Archive for December, 2013

The Night.

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

This is it, this is the night for it. The only night for it, too. Once a year, once every twelve months.
Listen closely, and follow closer still. This is safe, but only if you do exactly as I say.

Here is your bell. It’s heavier than it looks, but it looks like a wisp of nothing. But it is sweet and silvery to the eye, and its tone jingles well enough. It is what we need, it is what we must, it will do.
Raise it up, bring it down. And don’t stop, don’t stop. I will tell you when to stop, and do not expect it anytime soon.
Do not allow your fear to stutter your ringing or weaken your heart. I am here and will tell you of what is needed. All our tools are here. I have a platter with two vegetables wrenched from the earth this autumn, still dripping with dirt; a vessel of cattle-milk; and a charred scrap of ground meadow-weeds and half-cracked nuts, shaped as a circle. It reminds you of the moon overhead, doesn’t it?
Ring, ring. Don’t stop now, we’re just getting started. Swing it! Swing it as you ring!

And as you swing that bell as high as your arms can rise, start the call. Rising and falling, forever repeating, starting low and rushing upwards, a siren, an announcement. Each time with more energy than the last until you’re almost screaming it. It should start like laughter and end like a warcry. Yes, like that.
And then, you’ll hear it coming back to you.
And you will hear it, trust me. You’ll hear him long before you see him. The chime and clang of bells replying to bells, the hot breath of snorting beasts on the wind. Ten thousand miles in less than an instant’s passing, here from the top of the world where the sun never sets and never rises, drawn across the sky on capering hooves and sweat-runneled backs.
Listen – there it is. Just beyond the horizon and coming on like a comet in the sky, tearing the night on the frenzy of the eight runners.

There! There! Do you not see him? His great coal-blacked boots of leathered hide, the fitful mist-plumes of his heavy breath? And the face atop that suit of blood’s own colour, a face as purple as a rotten bruise, framed by a bone-white tangle that can’t be but cousin of a thornbush. Close now, so close – has he seen us, of course he has, he can see everything everywhere, and he watches all that creep the earth all year. Yessss, that is he. There can be no other. Many mimic the suit, but only one dares don it in this night, in the sky. The others are but his heralds, his messengers, his warning.
The beasts touch our roof first – hear the clutching and scrabbling of each misshapen claw. The sledge arrives soon after, frozen in the cold that lives at the end of the world, dripping with icicles – aaaah, the shingles scream under its runners!
And then the footfall. He is come.
He expects his tribute and he shall have it. Take the plate – there. Steady now, firm hands.
Hold the plate aloft. Do not look at his eyes. Do not shiver overly as the sounds of the devouring reach your ears, as crumbs rain down upon the roof-tiles. They are fearful but they are not harmful, and this is not what can be said of his ire.

There – there! He is satiated, he beckons, he drums atop one kneecap with an ancient glove whose gnarled skin conceals a hand of inhuman form. Approach with care, with love, with absolute trust, and seat yourself upon his crooked bones. You must love him as if he were your own mother, your own father – no, above them! Love him, damn you, or there will be such a sight you will never recover!
Remain calm and clear. It’s not so bad, is it? Do not inhale. Just relax. Do not inhale. Stare up at him now, it is permitted. Feel the fondness within you. Do not inhale. See how he nods? Begin.
Begin! Begin the list, slow-wit! Hurry, hurry with the list, damn you! The night he treads is nigh-endless, but the same cannot be guaranteed of his patience! Read – do not stammer, do not shudder, read for your life and mind! Read when thought bleeds and sanity shrieks! Read it aloud! NOW!

Good. Good work.
You can open your eyes now.

Look – the offerings are gone, devoured by his beasts as we tarried here, nothing left by stems and gnawed fragments. And his mark, the white stain of his paw-print, pale and lurid beneath the black sky. It is as snow, but it does not melt. Do not touch it.
It is done. Look, he is gone from us. But listen, and you will hear him. Can you hear him? He calls to you as he leaves us, as he flies away into his endless trek once more. A blessing and a warning both.
No, I don’t know what the ‘kris-mass’ is. What matters of what he said is this: this is the night before it, and this is the night that matters. Do not dwell on it.
Now flee to your home and family, and hug them with especial love, and remember this if you must remember something of the evening: this only happens only once every twelve months.
And for that, if nothing else, it is a good night.

Storytime: The Architect.

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

On a white throne under a white roof under a sky greyer than a grandfather’s chin sat Rime IV, spawn of Rime III, spawn of Rime II, spawn of Rime, spawn of the First Frost. It gazed down from its frozen seat at the small thing of tepid water quailing in front of it on a patch of discoloured snow.
“Occupation,” it proclaimed.
The thing flinched, then flinched again at the precise prod of the coldguard at its back. “Your occupation,” it said. Its voice was a sad, high whistle that was all out of place against its craggy, ice-plated bulk. Were it outside you could’ve mistaken it for a random whimsy of the north wind, and in fact many people had, the most recent just under an hour ago.
“Tailor,” whispered the human. His lips were blue with cold, and the word slurred its way past them uneasily.
Rime IV waved a hand. The coldguard did its duty yet again. And all was ready for the last of the prisoners.
This one was peculiar. Its hide was more ornate and elaborate than the others.
“Occupation,” repeated Rime IV.
“Architect.”
Rime IV’s hand halted in mid-wave. “Elaborate.”
“Nel Mos, royal architect to Her Worship, the-“
One of Rime IV’s fingers twitched. The coldguard delivered a gentle admonishment to the human’s spinal column. “Explain your word,” it fluted.
Rime IV waited patiently while the little sloshing thing collected itself.
“Architect. Royal architect. I design, plan, and oversee the construction of structures. Large and small. Mostly large.”
One of Rime IV’s eyesockets swivelled. “Large?”
The human looked around. “Larger than this. By maybe-”
Rime IV’s finger tapped against its knee, and the coldguard’s talons halted themselves an inch from admonishment. “Continue,” it said.
“…by maybe three times. Oppli Cathedral certainly was, and maybe the Ducal Dome of Nolla too. I’ve had maybe seven or eight less commissions maybe twice the size. A baker’s dozen of a kind to it. And fourteen smaller.”
All six of Rime IV’s eyesockets spun once. “And?”
“And what? I mean, this is impressive, for ice, but-”
The coldguard made up for lost time, as gently as it knew how. “How would you improve upon this?” it whistled into her ear on bended knee.
The human took some time to respond, and seemed excessively fixated on the discoloured snow. Architectural speculation, perhaps? “Well. I wouldn’t.”
“Explain,” declared Rime IV.
“I’d start from scratch with a fresh foundation. I don’t fancy trying to renovate this place, not without knowing what went into the blueprints – which I’m not even sure exist.”
Rime IV nodded.
“No, I’d make something fresh. And if this is what you’ve got, then I’ve got a plan.”
“Large?” it inquired.
Nel Mos looked up at Rime IV for the first time since her sudden fall, and bared her teeth in that strange way humans did. “Large.”
Rime IV waved its other hand. The coldguard raised the architect up with as much delicacy as its carapace provided.
“Accepted.”

The tower’s base was to be stone.
“Why?” inquired Rime IV.
“You want to build big, you start firm. The ground here may be frozen solid, but it’s still just dirt and sod at heart, and at the sizes we’re dealing with, it’ll sink. We start with stones, we can make ourselves a nice firm platform to work with. And you give me a place to build, I’ll give you a beacon that’ll shine from here to the other end of the world.”
Rime IV flicked at the scribbles on the sheet before it. “Ice?”
“Farther up, yes. We’ll start with stone, but it’ll all be ice once we’re off the ground. And we can cover up the stone with a façade, if you’d prefer.”
Rime IV waved its other hand. “Yes.”
“Right now… right now what I need is a quarry. I know these hills are good for what I want, I just don’t know exactly where. Do your people have a spot for that sort of thing?”
Coldguards filed into the throne-room, heavy feet clacking on the smooth floor. Six separate limbs seized Nel and raised her to a position of prominence atop their owner’s brow.
Rime IV pointed. “Go.”

By midday, Nel Mos had been dragged across what felt to be half the Wandering Hills, and stood on a ridge above a craggy granite vale of surpassing beauty.
By the hour’s end she’d set half her crew of coldguard to laying out quarry plots.
A half-hour more, and the first test-stone was being carved free of its cradle, a task that took many once-gleaming talons down to dulled nubbins.
Ten minutes past that and she was halfway down a gully and rolling into her shoulders, head hunched to protect it from the pebbles and the cold. Her internal odometer told her that she was nearly half a mile away already, and accelerating. Her eyes, unfortunately, told her that the largest boulder at the bottom of the hill was a coldguard, standing up, arms opening wider, and wider, and wider.

“Unfortunate,” said Rime IV.
Nel Mos managed, with great effort, to make no noise.
It raised itself from the throne, took two steps and was in front of her, a tower of billowing cold. “Explain.”
“I was just-”
“The nearest hearth-fire is twelve days fast-march,” said the coldguard.
“I-”
“Explain.”
“The nearest warm-dwelling is sixteen days fast-march.”
“The-”
“Explain.”
“The nearest warm-town is two dozen days fast-march, travelling through the night.”
“I wasn’t trying to-”
“Example.”
The coldguard hauled up the architect with five claws and reached out with the other. She couldn’t feel the pain, just a strange pressure. There wasn’t even a sound.
“The stone will be hauled. You will be called. You must wait.”
Nel gave up talking as she was hauled away, all her spare breath spent. Her eyes lingered on the little red nub of her right foot’s biggest toe on the cold white floor of the throne-room as it vanished around a corner.

Days later, the architect was dragged to a high ridge from a low pit of cold slush and colder air, lips blue and body almost past the point of shivering.
“Behold,” said a voice next to her, heavy and creaking with glacial weight; Rime IV, not a coldguard. Her eyes – far-sighted at the best of times – were hazed by exhaustion and hunger, but she did as ordered.
The base was complete, or nearly so: a giant disc that could have served as a god’s gaming token. Dozens of coldguard scrambled over it, hook-hands grasping at slabs, scratching out etchings, prodding and goading at the backs of groaning things of compressed snow and hail that lumbered four-legged, burdened under tons of stone.
“Instruct,” it ordered.
Nel Mos took a deep breath and a deeper thought and began to talk. And as she talked, she began to draw in the snow.
By the day’s end, her second escape attempt had begun – on the back of a slushbeast. That night she ran afoul of a cold snap that turned her mount rigid as an oak.
“Unfortunate,” said Rime IV. And it was her right foot’s next-biggest toe this time, snip-tunk, and back to the pit with whatever nourishment could be chewed and scraped from a squirrel frozen rock-hard and stiff as a board. She cooked it inch by inch with the little warmth that could be secured by her pocket-lens, focusing the drab rays of a sun that hid behind grey clouds.

And so it grew on, and on. Time seemed to fly – the tower’s workers never rested, the tower’s builder never ceased her struggles. A level was built – a grand hall, a soaring library, a royal apartment, a solar. An escape was attempted – a dash into the maze of the under-foundations, an attempted smuggling within a load of construction debris, even the futile effort at overpowering a coldguard for its armour with a broken stone carved jagged. And each and every time another toe, another rebuke. All the same end to every story.
“Replacable,” commented Rime IV after the sixth time. The architect knew it wasn’t speaking of the digit that lay upon its floor. The tower was nearing completion
“Not by half,” she shot back. “The base was the easy part, and the floors after that. If the peak isn’t done properly, the whole thing’ll fall over. You need me.”
Rime IV waved its other hand, and she was taken away for her reward. This time it was a litter of mice, and as she felt tiny bones disintegrate against numbed teeth she drew sketches on the wall of the pit. Plans for a funeral, plans for a building, plans for the same damned thing in the end.
Every day it lived in her head, it grew. Ever time it grew, it turned. Ideas shaped into ideas shaped into ideas.

“Large?” inquired Rime IV. Its eyesocket twisted. Nel had decided that was a raised eyebrow.
“Large,” she agreed.
“Elaborate.”
The architect hugged herself absently to hold in the warmth – something she did without thinking now – and stared up at her work, the quickest she’d ever done. Thrice the height of the Ducal Dome. Nearly twice again the highest spire of the Grand Cathedral. The Gidling Spire, plus a third of itself and a nip more.
“The largest,” she said. “Easily the largest I’ve done. Almost certainly the largest ever. And with ice. Would’ve been much simpler with standard materi-”
Her eyes had been on Rime IV’s hands, and so the blow from the coldguard at her back came as no surprise.
“Do not denigrate,” it whistled mournfully into her ear.
Rime IV turned away from its contemplation of the fixing of the tower’s tallest spire. Five hundred turns of its length would be required to fully run the course of its thread, to screw it down firmly enough to fasten in the bolts that would embed it for all time.
“Complete?” it asked.
Her eyes never left those carelessly dangling fingers. “No,” she said.
Eyesocket twist. All the eyesockets. “No?”
“I said I’d build you a beacon, and I meant it. We’ll need more ice, a lot more, and the best you can find. Ice so perfect I can see my heartbeat in it, clearer than air. Ice so polished I can see my twin in it, better than any mirror. Give me this, and you will have your beacon. And it’ll go much farther than the other end of the earth.”
“Acceptable,” said Rime IV, and that was the last she heard for another day.

It was quick. Almost too quick, in the end.
The tower took shape, a shape of slenderness glad in a thousand shards. Mirrors coated it, and translucent lenses filled its guts. Every surface that wasn’t an illusion was invisible, to the point that ever the coldguards trod carefully and with limbs extended. Only the architect knew her way, propelled by that same devious memory that kept her designs fresh in her skull. Under her hands the tower changed, fleshed itself, turned into something that pierced the sky and stared back at it.
And at its base, at its center, underneath a ceiling that opened up to the heavens hundreds and hundreds of feet above, sat a throne of crystalline ice larger than the grandest mansion. And on that throne, all its bulk nearly lost in the immensity, yet precisely tuned to be the center of the eye, was seated Rime IV, spawn of Rime III, spawn of Rime II, spawn of Rime, spawn of the First Frost.
“Complete?” it inquired of the small figure far beneath it, huddled on the floor. A hundred coldguards surrounded it, having liberated it of the last, smallest toe of its left foot just minutes earlier.
“No,” said the architect, speech slurred through a mouth ever-frozen. “There is one thing.”
Rime IV leaned far back in its throne, its tendrils clinking softly against a thousand perfect reflections of itself. “Expand.”
“The last mirror is being mounted as we speak. Above us.”
Rime IV nodded impatiently. “Done.” Its hand rose, the coldguard stirred.
“Wait. One thing.”
The hand halted.
“One more thing. Just one.”
“Speak.”
“The mirror. The mirror’s being placed. And… it has no name. It needs a name. Speak the name.”
Rime IV thought, and unlike its prisoner, its thoughts were slow and cold. It thought, and it thought, and it thought, and at last it stirred in its seat, both of its mouths opening for the first time since its spawning, since its own name had left its maws.
“It. Is.”
It coughed, deep in its chest cavity. Hollow rattling came from within, and it spoke stronger now.
“It is. It is The Tower of the Last Frost.”
“Yes it is,” said Nel Mos, looking up to the sky. “Yes it is.”

In the end all those escape attempts, all those stories, all that arguing, all that tower, all of it paid off. For the very moment that the last mirror slid into place in the highest spire of the highest peak of the Tower of the Last Frost was the same moment as the sun, wits long-dulled by the winter months, chose to herald the first morning of the first day of the spring.
It was not much of a thing, as far in the north as the Wandering Hills were. A fleeting gleam of brightness in the gloom.
But even one instant of light can go a long ways. Up and down and around the tower nearly a hundred times, by Nel Mos’s designs. Up and down and around and through and into itself, doubling on itself, tripling, quintupling, on and on beyond words and into numbers, turning itself from a beam to a blaze to something fiercely beyond any sensations at all, that took one last rise and plunge and dove down from the heights to refract itself in every direction from that crystal throne.
If there was a sense that could describe it, Nel Mos’s weren’t up to the task. All those weeks of cold had left her with a chill that she felt nothing could lift. Still, she found a word for it afterwards, that feeling that entered her as she saw, for a split instant, Rime IV’s expression change and the air turn bright.
Warm.

It was, in fact, twelve days fast-march to the nearest hearth-fire. Fifteen without toes.
But Nel made the trek smiling every last step of the way.

How to make a really good omelette.

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

-1 Egg: chicken, turkey, duck, emu, ostrich, roc, simurgh, phoenix, dragon, dinosaur (therapods only), sturgeon, pelican, monotreme, or gorilla.
-1 Eggbeater: standard stainless steal, old-fashioned cast-iron, old man with cane, whip, whipper-snapper, swordcane, secret squirrel technique, length of rubber hose, belt, board with a nail in it, or slim jim.
-1 Block of cheese: the good stuff, like cheddar, mozzarella, Mussolini, linoleum, Roquefort, Stilton, stuntman, 1001 Knock-Knock Jokes, or an elderly cow.
-1 Place to stand: you can’t cook an omelette on thin air. This sort of thing demands firm-footed heads-on-your-shoulders no-nonsense steady-handed concentration. Keep both feet on the ground at all times during omelette preparation. If you have to move, shuffle. It’s only for a few minutes, you big baby.
-1 Set of digits: fingers will do for a pinch, tentacles if you’re feeling saucy, or pinions, or talons, or whatever. Just so long as you’ve got a few of them. You’ll need those or that egg’ll just sit there and sulk in the pan, and good luck cracking it with your toes, unless toes are your digits of choice in which case well done. What if you’ve got no toes either? Well then you’re up shit creek, and there’s no omelettes up that particular stream, my friend. One word: digits.
-1 Onion: green or any other colour really, doesn’t matter. Just something like an onion. In an emergency, a picture of an onion can substitute for an onion but only if you are sufficiently hungry to believe that this is true.
-1 Or more really overbearing personalities: start at ‘radio host’ and work your way up.
-1 God or more: any that suits your fancy but preferably one with at least a little bit of localized omnipotence and at least one really satisfying thing to blaspheme about.
-1 Clock: should use time. Clocks that do not use time are not very good at making omelettes. If your clock is used to track space, colours, moods, temperatures, or hurt feelings, you should consider replacing it before you make an omelette.
-1 Keen eye, maybe more: you want to be able to see what you’re doing. And besides, what’s the most important bit of an omelette? The first thing you do? That’s right, it’s cracking the eggs. You’ve got to see the right spot to crack. You need that. Eyes. Either.
-1 Flippy object: not anything that flips around a lot, just something that’s good at flipping other things. More flexible than acrobatic, made of something bendy that won’t bite you when you touch it.
-1 Cooking platform: some sort of pan, rock, piece of bark, split thighbone (your own not recommended), giant eyeball (ibid), glass sheet, fan blade, sword, chunk of armour, or other handy flat-ish thing to spread an egg on and get some serious ommlettry underway.
-1 Cookbook: printed on paper, vellum, papyrus, bark (birch is nice), giant stone tablets weighing up to forty tons, tattoos, digital media, digital tattoos, or whatever.
-1 Burning thing: anything that’ll get a really good long scorch going and set in deep to the bone. Something fulsome yet channeled tightly, of grand depth yet slight breadth, aching yet fierce. A charrer that will not crumple, a crackler that will not squeak. Electrical, incendiary, magmatic, explosive, atomic, microwavable, propulsive, or chemical. Something that takes life and fries it ‘till it’s gone. Something that eats up the whole world if it’s taken far enough. You want that.
-1 Upbringing: any kind will do as long as it contains a point in your life that brings you into proximity with the concept of the omelette as a food item. This is very important. How to invent an omelette is a separate recipe and one that will not be covered in this recipe.
-1 Fierce and insatiable hunger: a literal hunger, not a metaphorical one. Those don’t channel themselves into skillfully applied cookery. A thirst, literal or figurative, is not the same thing and should not be used when making omelettes.
-1 Assistant: should be chosen carefully, with an eye to the long-term. Any fool can watch a clock and bleat the time-to-flip. You need someone you can count on. Someone with a passion for omelettes. Or someone with a vulnerability you can use to coerce them into it, like blood ties or a high-profile drug habit or a happy loving family that they would love to see grow old alongside them, carefree and smiling in the sunset of their days.
-1 Will, unbreakable: not merely unbendable, or unyielding. Those are the stainless steels of wills to the titanium we seek; the cubic zirconia to our diamonds; the pyrite to our gold; the flash in the pan to our thunderbolt in the eye. This omelette will not be accomplished without hard choices, and hard choices need harder men. You want to crumble apart like feta cheese at the first juncture? No? Then grow a will you could crack coconuts on, would-be-chef, and don’t come back ‘till that sucker’s hard as a rod.
-1 Tongue, minimum: what, you’re going to cook this thing up and then not even bother to enjoy it? Hedonism is an important part of the omelette experience. You can’t make an omelette without eyes, you can’t eat an omelette without a tongue. In both cases there are obvious technical exceptions, but the hypothetical situations in which the rule is stretched only prove its point – they are hollow, devoid of satisfaction, of light, of hope, of life itself. Don’t make this mistake. Don’t try to be a special snowflake. We are all the same deep down inside ourselves, and that is because we all just want to really eat the hell out of something and never stop tasting it. It’s basically the automatically installed OS on the hard-drives of our brains: eat things, eat good things, never stop eating things forever and ever amen yes sir.
-1 Pound of grit: either mineral or ground-corn style. The former can be used to scrub out the pan after the omelette is made, the latter can be eaten alongside it. In a pinch, either can substitute for the other’s roles.
-1 Figure of moral support: we both know this omelette is going to get serious before it’s over. We went over this, unbreakable will, determination you could mince cattle atop, yadda yadda yadda. But look, even the most iron-eyed stone-souled steel-spined badasses need someone to lean on when things get stuff. Get some help. Get someone whose shoulder you can cry on when things turn blue and you don’t dare show the world your doubts and fears. A mother is nice, or a father. If said family members are unsympathetic and/or dead just pull out a copy of your family tree and start checking immediate kin in a counter-clockwise direction until you hit someone with enough free time or a low price or preferably both.
-1 Note: a message for anyone nearby in case your omelette is interrupted (by appointment, unexpected company, fire, violent insurrection, world war, suicide). Keep it short and snappy. Brevity is the soul of wit, and simplicity its heart and mind. For further information in case this comes up on your randomly-generated post-omelette questionnaire: brevity’s lungs are briefness, its liver is velocity, its left and right kidneys are acceleration and promptness (respectively), and its colon is truncated.
-1 Backup: of whatever of the above vital ingredients you think is most likely to fail you without warning. It’s not so hard, just take whatever you’re feeling antsy about and get another. The omelette’ll wait, there’s no sense in rushing into this sort of thing half-cocked. Be careful.

Once you’ve got all your ingredients together, just concentrate. The rest will come together surprisingly quickly. If you experience any problems in the process, destroy ingredients and bystanders at random until the problems cease. Remember, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few legs.

Storytime: The Stone.

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

The thick-bladed oars in the hands of the rowers were quiet as ghosts, slipping through water so thin it seemed one step above thickened mist. The courier watched them without focus, allowing the rainfall to turn the world soft around the edges as the drops blurred into the lake’s surface without a trace.
Even the docking was filled with that same unnerving quiet. Not a bump, not a thud. The prison-ship slid against the pier with the smoothness of an eel.
“Enjoying the silence of the Stone?”
The courier was not new to her position, and no stranger to either the small and idle cruelties of the powerful or her duty to submit to them. Nonetheless, she took a small and spiteful pleasure in refusing to flinch at the sound of the man’s voice. It was a strange thing, a habitual whisper forced into the volume of what the uninformed might think to be pleasant conversation.
“It’s the first thing that anyone notices,” he continued, smiling happily. A thousand laugh lines crinkled the corners of his eyes as he spoke. “Before they even see the walls. Amazing, that.”
The courier looked at the walls. She’d seen taller, but certainly none less friendly. The only windows were inch-thick slits, the door was a single slab of solid cragstone that must have cost the ransoms of two or three royals – its size hidden by the crowded closeness of the gate whose mouth it snugged into. The surface of the walls themselves was seamless: solid rock without a trace of manufacture.
“Mark my words, one day the whole world – the whole damn world, all of it – will fall down. And on that day, these walls won’t so much as quiver. The Stone stands.”
“Magnificent,” said the courier. “You are the warden of the Stone, then?”
“You haven’t introduced yourself.”
She tapped the insignia on her chest. “Courier Jessle. From Gelmorre. I have a prisoner for you.”
“Ah, a prisoner for Her Worshipped! Political, eh? Caught another one of ‘Gan’s very own little two-legged glow-eels snooping around the grand old girl’s secrets? Tut tut! Sloppy! The third time this decade.”
The courier did not sigh, although she considered several choice gestures. “This is not a political matter, and our inmate is not a political priso-“
“Right, right – I must mind my words, of course: I meant an enemy agent. Forgive my breach of courtesy, madame.”
“I am a courier. And what I bring in our hold does not hail from Matagan.”
Now she had the man’s attention. “If it isn’t one of them, then who?”
“What. Our cargo is an inhabitant from afar.”
“Well, how very informative of you, ‘courier.’ Afar where?”
Afar.”
She saw the flicker of understanding billow into flame in his teeth. “Ah, I see. So the long arm of Gelmorre’s reach is no lie, hmm? What did you find over the waves, eh? And what of it has come to my Stone’s doorstep?”
“The prisoner,” said the courier, “is invaluable. Not one of a kind, but difficult to obtain and physically dangerous. Extremely so. Her Worship wishes to have it studied… but in a safe location. The safest that can be managed.”
“And you came here.”
“Yes. To be assured that it was the right decision.”
The warden’s smile was now a small, tight thing, out of place on such a broad face. “Courier, your worry is misplaced. This is the Stone, the place where things, people, and people that are things go and never, ever are seen again. We have locked away emperors and peasant revolutionaries, monsters and treasures. We held the Eleventh Lord of the Nagezz here, and the council that sentenced him too, once his brother claimed the throne. There is a tiny vault under half a kilometer of guard that holds the only known sample of the thing that destroyed the country of Demmer-Don-Dimmer. There are six… things from the Terramac in the tallest of our towers that we allow to commune with supervised engineers once per year, under guard, at ludicrous expense. There are families in our deep-cells, courier – entirely thousand-year dynasties descended from criminals who were to be imprisoned until the utter extinction of their bloodline by time’s hand alone. The skull of the creature that ate Cabbera is buried in the foundations. The crown of the King Who Left is in one of our vaults, I can’t be fucked to remember which. Do you see what I am saying, courier?”
“I am saying,” continued the warden, blithely ignoring the possibility of an answer, “that we are not worried. Things come here. None leave. None will ever leave. That is what it is, that is what has been, and that is what. Will. Be. Forever. Now, what wreckage have you brought to us?”
“In the hold,” said the courier. “Prepare a crane.”

The docking crane had transported cages containing hundreds at a time. It had lifted the entire tomb of a long-dead Schoolmaster of Demmerdant, including the man’s ten-thousand-piece laboratory. It could shift entire vessels if need be.
It groaned under the weight of the cage that was winched up from the guts of the prison-ship. Iron bars surrounding iron chains surrounding something obscured and huge all out of proportion to its actual size. Dark grey links clanked against deep gray skin as the pale, cold under-jailers laid hands to its cell and began to haul it away, towards the gates, towards forever.
“Beautiful,” murmured the warden. “Beautiful. What is it?”
“Dangerous. We have no names for them, not yet. This was the second ever seen.”
“Ahh, the things envy will drive men and women to. Tell me, do the brave explorers and soldiers of Gelmorre regret their careers? The ones that are left, that is. Do they ask why their queen could not simply settle for the Sill, settle for the known terrors of the world? Do they cry out for answers in the night, courier?”
“They do their duty,” said the courier. “As you will do yours.”
“Pay me.”
A tiny bag was removed from the belt at the courier’s waist, bulging with uncertain weight. It shook violently as it passed into the warden’s hand.
“What’s this then?”
“Tremblemoss. It will grow slowly in lightless damp. Touch it to iron, it explodes. Violently.”
“How violently?”
“Very. Be cautious – that tremor was from the bars. A touch may explode, but being close enough for long enough will set it alight.”
“Iron, iron, iron,” mused the warden. He ran his fingers over the bag, felt it squirm.
“It is not the only creature from afar that cannot abide the metal’s touch. The bars keep the creature docile. Do not remove them.”
His hand snapped shut. “I am the warden of the Stone,” he said. “This is my prisoner, and you are standing on my dock. Our business is concluded.”
The courier bowed, turned away, and walked to the prison-ship, counting under her breath. At ten, she heard the hinges of the great cragstone door begin to swing.
“Be careful,” she said. And the stifled curse that followed her down the stairs brought a smile to her face as she knelt to rinse her hands in the water.

The eyelid unrolled itself. What lay underneath its surface was a soft, mild white. The iris was near pinpoint size, almost invisible.
“Sixty, that’ll do just fine,” said the warden. He chuckled; the warmest, most patronizing of laughs, as quiet and low as any words he spoke. “Do you know they had almost two hundred bars on your cage? Sixty will keep you just as feeble, but awake enough to enjoy your stay properly, and at less than a third of the effort. Typical of Gelms. Can’t trust anyone else to do their jobs properly, but can’t find their own asses with an army and sixty-seven secret plots. How do you feel, prisoner? Not too lively, I suppose.”
The pupil flickered.
“Quiet? Don’t mind that, I don’t mind that at all. That’s the way most of you are. The boasters, the jokers, they’re usually not who gets sent here. Those are the stupid ones. The ones that come here are smart, and they’re bright enough not to give away any sign of weakness.” Another chuckle, rich and thick enough to spread on toast. “But don’t worry. We don’t think you’re weak. We just don’t think it matters. You’re in the Stone now, thing. Come with me.”
The cobbles splintered as the cage rolled, fragments bouncing off the thick blackened boots of the under-jailers as they hauled at its iron chains, dragging their cargo down corridor after corridor, winding through halls and into towers.
“These are the cold-cells, prisoner. Softer and smaller inmates are kept here when they speak out of turn. They’re removed when their eyelids begin to freeze.”
Turn and crunch.
“The Drop Tower, prisoner. Turn your head – well, hah, maybe just your eye, with those chains – and you can just see daylight at the very top. Past all the cages. Escape artists come here after their third attempt, the little scamps, and they enjoy a new life sentence here, floating in the breeze. The lowest of the cages is a hundred feet from where we stand, dangling by a greased rope. Now and then one of them picks a lock, but only to jump.”
Around and again.
“The Maze. If you were just a little smaller, you’d fit in nicely, prisoner. As it is, you’d get stuck. Men and more than men are dropped in here. They claim their strength, well, they can prove it. Only so much food and water to go around. A good way to thin out cell space, particularly if you’re no longer necessary alive.”
And on.
“The Plunge. No space is wasted, prisoner, not even the space next to the refuse pits. The air down there aches, like a bruise inside your lungs. I understand that you grow used to it after the first few decades.”
And on.
“The Vaults. There’s things down that that have ruined nations, eaten minds, peeled open societies like a grape. And those are the ones we don’t keep secret.”
And on and on all the way down all those winding miles and sentences and secrets until at last the procession reached a pit gouged into the living stone of the island’s innards.
“Here we are, prisoner. Your accommodations. Thrice your height and barred with an iron grate that couldn’t be lifted by a hundred men, controlled with a lever your handless self cannot lift. Enjoy yourself. And remember this rule: keep the silence of the Stone, and you get fed. You break it, you don’t. Tip him down.”
And so the under-jailers groaned and heaved and pushed and another prisoner joined the ranks and rows of the thousands within the Stone, embedded deep within its heart. And for an instant as it faded into the shadows of its cell it was revealed, as the chains slid from its form. Sinuous and scaled, grey and cold, but the eyes were what stuck, the eyes wouldn’t leave you.
Only one person saw it, but that was enough.
The days passed, the weeks too, and the Stone’s magic settled in, the true magic of a true prison: turning reality into mundanity. The food was brought, the prisoner remained so, the Stone still stood, and all was made as it should be, as if it was folly to imagine it any other way. A day was the same as any other, and would be so forever.
Which was why it was most disconcerting when the knock came at the oaken door of the second-tallest tower of the stone, where the little oil lamps burned all night.
The warden glared up from his desk. The paperwork was appalling this week: an under-jailer had climbed to the top of the Drop Tower and hurled himself off, and the funerary arrangements and cleaning supplies needed were considerable when combined. “What?” he hissed in the small words that were the loudest voices were raised in the Stone. “It’s not time for your payments, you all know that. It’s not an emergency, I’d know that. It’s not about the weather, we all know that. So what, what, WHAT are you doing here?”
The under-jailer winced under the verbal blows, but shouldered them aside. He was a veteran of fifteen years, fifteen keys to his belt, fifteen prisoners his wards. This was not his first rebuke.
“News, warden.”
“Really. What, did the ‘Gans and the Galms finally come down to business?”
“No, warden.”
“Did the dunes finally swallow Nagezz whole, like those tiresome little sand-skitterers keep saying they will?”
“N-“
“Did the Terramac finally witness the birth of a machine that will tear us all to mulch and whispers? Well, what? What news is so exciting that it must come to me at this instant, not a moment later?”
“The news is from inside the walls, warden.”
The pen clattered to the desk, the chair was emptied, the warden was afoot.

“Listen.”
In the Stone, you learn how to do that. A silence like that can’t be shut out, you have to open up to it, get used to sifting the tiniest scraps of hints of something-out-there. The rats in the walls were a comforting ever-present shiver to an under-jailer’s ears. The distant murmur of voices in cells and wards halfway across the island. The scrape of a distant bone against a cell wall.
The sounds faded, of course. The warden had the privilege of working high, high above them all. Only the scratch of his pen made his nights noisy – all else was the faintest whisper on the breeze. He needed the focus. But he came down from above to manage, to watch, to gloat, and so he knew the noises still. He hadn’t spent forty years there for nothing. His ears knew the silence.
But they didn’t know this one.
“Can you hear it, warden?”
His nose wrinkled. “No. Not even a little. Tell me, when did this start?”
The under-jailer shrugged. “A week ago, maybe. Hard to say.”
“Our latest friend is offensive to more than just our own senses, it seems. Well, nothing we can’t take advantage of. We have spare cells here, yes? Convert them into food storage. We might as well get some use out of this…interesting little effect.”
The under-jailer nodded and made his way up, up, up into the world of the Stone, and he found that his steps slowed and his breathing evened as he did so, though he was loathe to admit it.
It was good to hear the scurrying of rats again. They’d always been there, always the same, never changing. It wasn’t right to be where they weren’t, and he wasn’t too proud to admit those deep cells held a worry for him that they hadn’t since he was a boy of sixteen, the last time he’d known what it was to not hear the pitter-patter of rodent feet.
Which was why he must be confused right now, shaken up, a bit off-centre. Because to his rattled ears, they sounded like they were moving quicker.

It was fast after that. Every time the mind wandered, every time the eyes roved heedlessly, every time the little watchman that was the consciousness strayed from its chores, it was there, and moving onwards. One man at a time. Not steady, but fast.

“Warden, there’s a man sick down in the Maze. Wants off shift.” And the warden signed that, and it was so.
“Warden, there’s something wrong in the Plunge. None of the inmates will move. Permission to relocate them?” And the warden signed that, and it was so.
“Warden, the cold-cell guards have all come down with something, they can’t work, we need to replace the shifts.” And the warden cursed to himself, and signed that, and it was so.
“Warden, the prisoners in the Drop Tower won’t speak anymore.”
“Warden, there’s something wrong in the lower levels.”
“Warden, the Vaults haven’t been inspected in a month. The patrols are missing.”
“Warden”
“Warden”
“Warden”

One day, the warden laid down his pen – the sixteenth sick bay incident in as many days – and realized that he couldn’t hear a thing outside his door.

 

His footsteps were absent from the cold stone stairs. His under-jailers avoided his gaze, shrank from his touch, stood unblinking at their posts. He opened his mouth to command, to scold, to yell, and felt something cold stir inside him at the thought. This was the silence of the Stone. To break its grip was wrong. It was as quiet as he’d ever heard it – even the clouds seemed to have paused in their aimless circling of the sky.
The walk felt longer, though that could have been his imagination. His heartbeat wasn’t there, his breath was gone. Nothing left to feel time by. Every moment like every other moment. Just the silence.
He knew what he would see somehow. Knew it before he’d even reached the pit. The grate set aside. The level thrown back. The cell itself empty. The eyes, looming over him. It was how it must have been, though he didn’t know how. It was the only thing that made sense.
The grate was still there.
The grate was still there! STILL THERE!
He beat his fists bloody against it, felt the pain rocket up and down his arms, felt his lips move back in a snarl he couldn’t hear. Still there!
It was a trick. It must have escaped. It had to. It had replaced the grate. Yes. That was the only thing that made sense. It had to have done that. It had to. It had to. If he turned around right now it would be right behind him. Yes it would. It would.
It wasn’t.
Well, that was good. That was how things should be. He was the warden. It was the prisoner. It was still locked away. He was still in command of the Stone. The silence of the Stone remained unbroken. More than unbroken, it was stronger than ever. He was in command.
He just had to be sure.
With great effort, he peered over the edge of the pit. Shadows stirred, and a pair of giant eyes peered back up at him, pupils swollen in the dark nearly from lid to lid.
He was in command. He ran back all the way to his tower, and shut himself in there ‘till consciousness faded.

It was dark again when the warden woke, after a sleep so deep he could not even recall it. The sun had hidden itself behind a haze of half-fog half-clouds and slunk away before he could see its face. Maybe once, maybe a hundred times.
He picked up his pen, and he waited.
Experimentally, he scribbled with it, and strained his ears for the sound that was his and no other’s.

Later, he set it down, and step by step, descended.
The walk was even longer this time, but he gritted his teeth and kept moving. The lever. That was it. The lever. Within his grasp.
The lever came down with the smooth grace of applied elbow grease, and the grate – the iron grate that a hundred men could not move – squealed itself open, the first sound that the warden had heard in what seemed like forever, so loud that he clutched at his skull and nearly toppled on the spot.
Be free! he screamed without words. Be free! You’ve won! You’re released! We cannot hold you! You are yours, not ours! Take yourself and go! Be gone!
A heaviness fell upon him, and he raised his eyes to meet others, inches from his face.
Go, he wanted to say. Go.
A lipless grin twitched in front of him. There were no teeth in its mouth, he noted faintly. A beak only.
You’re free. Go. Leave.
The beak approached him, and with the tenderness of a mother, smacked itself against his face. He toppled onto his back, legs flailing like an upturned beetle’s, felt the cold, smooth wood of the lever in his hand again before he knew what it was, felt the crack, felt the splinter, felt the shift.
The grate screamed shut, the lock jammed, and alone in the silence, alone in his pit, the warden listened to the newest of his prisoners scream.
No one else could.

 

Not much word comes from the Stone these days, though there have been those that tried to bring it. They came back grey in the face and gone in the eyes, and said that the silence has spread. Even birds don’t dare call on the shores of the lake now, and the wind has faded from a gentle breath to dead weight in the air. The sky never changes past grey, and the door opens for no one, prisoner or no.
But the Stone still stands, they say. The Stone still stands.
Although what it stands for now, nobody knows.