Gloxynne Wollox (“Call me Gloxy!”) appeared at Spar’s shoulder with a small throat-clearing sound and a fresh lantern. She might have been standing there for hours before he noticed her. It took him a few moments longer to realize she was offering him a small bowl of polished pebbles and sparkling gems.
“I thought you might be hungry.”
“I thank you for your consideration but I do not eat.”
“Not even minerals? Forgive me, I know so little of your kind. But I long to know more! Have you considered writing memoirs? Or would you consent to dictate your reminiscences while I transcribe? This is what we do here, after all. My brother’s clerks take down notes and lyrics. My work is of a more practical nature. We gather maps, mathematical works, compendia of arcane principles, diaries, histories, pure fabrications. One thing I am quite sure we lack is any form of stonewight autobiography. Yours could be the start of a comprehensive collection!”
“My life is both uninteresting and incomplete. This is an enterprise better undertaken in my advanced centuries.”
“Ah.” Gloxynne appeared saddened by his words. She sank down in a chair at the adjacent study carrel. “I think I understand.”
“To make matters more unsatisfying from a biographer’s point of view—let alone an autobiographer’s—the key chapter of my life is currently an unresolved and potentially unresolvable motif. It may or may not ever come to a satisfying resolution. If it does, my biography would closely resemble a cleverly planned entertainment ending with a satisfying click, as of an intricate puzzle box whose last piece slides into place at the moment before a fabulous treasure is revealed. At such a point, one might excuse the aimless wandering affair that led up to it. It might be possible, in retrospect, to imply or even impose a grand presiding pattern, leading me along toward some clever end. On the other hand–” and here he held up his pale flesh hand “–it is far more likely there will never be any such convenient conclusion. Gorlen and I will never have our hands restored to their proper owners. We will never track down the rogue priest of Nardath who did this work and then disappeared. In that case, the aimless, drifting, discrete, and inconsequential nature of my life’s events would remain unjustifiable as entertainment; they would in fact remain precisely as they were when I experienced them: part of nothing grander, leading from nowhere in particular to a place very like it; instructive of nothing, of interest to few.”
“I cannot believe it!”
“Such an outcome still makes fine matter for a memoir composed at the end of one’s days, for by then one must have developed all manner of philosophies expansive and self-centered enough to make even the most random life’s course seem a thing of divine pattern.”
“And where are you now, if this pattern is even a possibility? In what part of the mesh?”
“In truth, I cannot say.” He indicated the piles of documents that had slowly accrued in the carrel around him. “I have been buried in missals that bear no relation to anything I witnessed in Nardath. Our priest appears to have been a member of no particular order, perhaps even the autohierophant of a cult of his own making. Admittedly the extent of your collection overwhelms me, and I do not yet have in mind a system for extracting the tiny detail I require–which might not even exist–from such a trove.”
Gloxynne held up a finger and stared at it. “This priest…you say at first he cut off the bard’s finger only?”
“Gorlen’s finger, yes, was severed with a black dagger. The same dagger then passed through my finger as if it were a warm tallow taper.”
“Yet now his entire hand is stone, while yours is flesh.”
“It was a way to keep him on his prescribed quest. If he deliberately tarried or attempted to detour, the stone immediately spread. It took him many such attempted deviations before he fully understood that if he kept on, the stone would advance up his arm and finally touch his heart. We would both die, should that happen. For were my stone heart ever to beat, that would spell my end as surely as the cessation of his.”
“But how unfair! What had you done to deserve such a fate?”
“Fate had placed me there, guarding Nardath’s central temple tower when the priest required such a resource. I believe it was improvised. The entire rite was done in anger and haste. The elders of Nardath, you see, were furious. They had intended to sacrifice a virgin maiden to their lecherous divinities, only to discover that she had been compromised.”
“No longer a virgin, was she?”
“Our young bard Vizenfirthe, a more rash and impulsive youth then, it must be stated, and with a sprightly way of playing his eduldamer—”
“I see. And so he was placed under a compulsion which he dared not shirk without turning to stone.”
“And one which I was expected to enforce. To ensure my own existence, I must shadow him like a specter of ill omen. It was not a task I relished, and in fact I did not join into their game at all. I noted when from time to time my arm began to itch. Itch! A fleshy sensation, not one I had ever been meant to feel. Occasionally things would take an opposite turn, when a measure of my quickstone hand would be restored, and I supposed he had done well. But I refused to let this distract me from my own goals. Gorlen eventually satisfied his quest, and then, in a twist that will appear pleasingly symmetrical in this supposed eventual memoir of mine, he commenced to shadow me.”
“And now that you are both each other’s shadow, you seek this priest together, little though you know of him.”
“Your ‘little’ is quite to the point.”
“What I was thinking…” She wagged her finger again. “The magic this priest practiced sounds very particular. He could not have learned it just anywhere. We have a great deal of magical lore deeper in the Hollow–perhaps I can show you a place where your studies might be more fruitful.”
“I would be most appreciative,” Spar said, and rose from the carrel.
He needed no lantern to find his way, but Gloxy carried one for herself. A curious factor was that while he could have navigated the corridors without issue in pitch blackness, he could not read the books or papers without some form of illumination. Unless the text was carved out or formed a relief, in the way of gargoyle script, he could not discern it in darkness. He had never understood this curious optical limitation of gargoyles, although it had hindered him at odd moments over the years. Sometimes in his wandering through the earth’s deep chambers, midway through years of dark journeying, he might come across a book, a chart, some lost explorer’s presumably desperate scribblings…only to discover (or once again confirm) that without light he could not read them. Perhaps the crystalline structure of his eyes required a spark of light for the sensitive act of reading. The only writings he could read in pitch dark were the occasional engravings on mementos, or the shimmerletter texts written by some lost race which even the goyles had no name for other than “shimmerletter folk”. These texts were composed with molten ink, a lava script that smoked and flowed without ever cooling, and the language of the compositions was unknown to him or any being he had encountered. On the other hand, the carved communications of goyles, while always legible, were never surprising. Goyle thoughts were ponderous and transparent, every distant conclusion obvious from the first word. He found them supremely boring and so, even when he encountered gargoyle script, he rarely bothered to read it.
The Wollox Hollow records were another matter. His excitement was of a purely scholarly sort, a kind of steady and sedate swelling of satisfaction and anticipation, which might build steadily for years and years without ever peaking or becoming too exciting.
As they went deeper, the presence of the archive staff grew sparser until, apart from Gloxynne, he saw no one. The atmosphere appeared remarkably stable, so presumably the books required little in the way of custodial care. Or else it might have been the middle of the night and the staff had gone off to bed. He wasn’t at all sure how long he had been down here, and Gloxy Wollox herself clearly kept unusual hours.
The archives were housed along a descending circular spiral of corridor, like the thread of a screw or bore, drilling down into the earth around a center that remained mysterious. Books and shelves and curio cases lined both walls. The occasional inclusion of an antique mining implement looked out of place, until he finally realized that the Wollox family must have made its fortune by extracting his kind from the earth.
It was no wonder Gloxy took an interest in his personal substance. He had no reason to think the Wolloxes had ever interfered with a quickstone quarry; but he liked Gloxy and her brother, and did not particularly wish to delve into sordid historical details that might complicate their relationship.
“So your business is mining,” he said without judgment.
“Yes, the archives are housed in what was the beginning of such an enterprise, although things took a different turn when my forebears discovered the Hollow.”
She indicated a door on the inner wall of the spiral—an interruption in the continual curve of the bookcases. Spar had noted a number of these doors during his descent, although they were less interesting than the openings along the outer wall, which formed new corridors extending like spokes from the central hub around which they revolved as they descended. The spokes were of interest because each one was lined with documents of all description. Off into darkness they went, promising endlessly fruitful research, and for a moment he thought how fine it would be to abandon his search, be content with his one hand of weak flesh, and simply stay here for the rest of his existence, reading and doing research. But this was an idle thought, and of course once he had tracked down their elusive priest, nothing prevented his returning.
She put a hand on the inner door and pulled it open. Beyond was darkness of a particular sort, immediately fascinating. He went through with no hesitation and into a very short stone passage hewn from the earth with rough chiseling strokes, then lightly dressed and finished afterwards. It was not a passage for public display, and in its crude haste he saw the lineaments of the mine this place had once been.
The passage terminated at a balcony, bounded at waist-height with sturdy iron rails, which prevented anyone from falling blindly into the shaft that awaited beyond.
Gloxy hoisted her lantern, joining him at the railing, but Spar hardly needed it. He could see the borehole, perfectly smooth and slightly glazed, as by the passage of a slimy sluglike creature rather than any mechanical means. This was an effect of the fusion of the stone surface; it only appeared to have been recently moistened. He gauged its age at many thousands of years old. Looking down, he saw other balconies like this one, here and there along the gleaming curved face. They did not extend half as far as he could see, and the shaft extended quite a distance beyond the lowest of them. It was for all purposes bottomless.
Spar looked upward and sensed, rather than the absolute blackness of a sealed shaft, a very faint speckling of light. There was some sort of opening up there, congested but still compromised.
“Where does this hollow of yours end, exactly?”
“In the Round Room,” said Gloxy. “It powers the family organ.”
Spar drew back from the rail, listened for any breath of sound in the depths, heard nothing – then remembered an occasional susurrus that had come to him distantly from time to time as he worked in the records.
“Are you aware,” he said, “that you have parasites?”
Nothing had ever hit him quite as unexpectedly as Gloxynne Wollox did right then. To knock a solid goyle off balance is not easy, but she managed to slam into him in such a manner that he flipped against the rail and went right over.
A gargoyle requires some time to spread its wings for flight, and he had none of that. He fell like the stone he was.
The shaft whistled all around him, as if very pleased with itself.
Fair as the weather was, it also proved fickle. Cold rain pelted and the wind began its harrassments. The crowd of musicians that originally sprawled on the Wollox lawns could never have fit into the round manor, but their numbers were now sufficiently reduced that they packed in without much trouble at Ardie’s enthusiastic invitation. Tents and damp blankets were crumpled into piles that steamed and reeked before vast crackling fireplaces. Couches and divans and luxurious beds were soon claimed, and all seemed pitifully grateful for the comforts. Some kind of malady had swept through the encampment – something contracted from the local waters or leached from the sodden lawns. Few escaped the affliction, characterized by ringing ears, swollen eyes and raw throat, a constant thudding of the head that beat counterpoint to one’s pulse, and loss of appetite or energy. The musicians were weirdly quiet, small and pale and without their usual playful spirit. This was somewhat of a disappointment to Ardie, who wandered through the chambers exhorting his guests to enjoy themselves to the utmost, only to find them constitutionally unable. And this was a group for whom the continual pursuit of pleasure and distraction came as easily as play to small children.
Gorlen felt poorly, and gave thanks that Spar was still preoccupied, otherwise the goyle might have appeared to urge immediate resumption of their march. Even the thought of further journeying was torture at that moment. His hand of stone for once felt lighter and more pliant than his hand of flesh. So yes, Spar would want to walk.
Gorlen wished only to recline.
Haff’s state was even more alarming. The rotund fellow looked as if a skinny stranger had stolen into his clothes; they hung on him like draperies rather than vestments. And although it was not like him to begrudge the young lord his pleasure, he began to grumble and whine when Ardie begged him to erect his smokebag in the Round Room. Ardie wished to attempt an organ and smokebag duet once the erratic Wollox winds began to blow.
Gorlen helped Haff haul the kit into the circular chamber and set up its framework of struts and supports, and left him draping the bag across the weave of straps that would support it once inflated. Then, pitying the fellow for his irresistible instrument, he went in search of a couch or uninhabited corner where he could collapse in peace.
On his way out of the Round Room, he nearly collided with a woman coming in. She was a striking figure indeed, at once recognizable as a Wollox, and almost Ardie’s twin but for the spectacles, fuller figure, and, if anything, even more unruly hair. She was exceedingly pale, and preoccupied enough with some crisis that she did not give him a second glance. She pushed right past him and went straight to her brother, who sat cross-legged on his organ bench, impatient for Haff to finish assembling his instrument.
“Ardentine, we need to speak,” she said. “Clear the room of your vagabond associates.”
“These are my kin in soul and spirit, sister – closer to me than ever you will be. Anything you have to say, I wish they might hear it as well.”
“Everyone OUT!” she cried, her voice cutting through the tentative tunings and squawks of half-hearted musicianship.
Players scurried toward the single door, passing Gorlen, who remained where he had been since she passed him. He was still wondering how to explain her complete lack of interest. Could it be that he looked much sicker than he felt?
She watched intently as all fled the room. Gorlen waited boldly in the doorway, expecting that when the crowd was gone he must surely catch her eye. But she betrayed no interest, at least until it became obvious that he was not moving.
“Out! And pull the doors shut as you go.”
Still not quite believing what was happening, he grasped the handles of the open doors and, with a bow, began to pull them shut as he backed out. It must be her spectacles, he thought – they had badly distorted him somehow, showing him in poor proportion. Who knew what she saw when she looked at him? A warped freak? Perhaps if she heard his voice…
But her eyes were sharp enough, for she noticed his quickstone hand immediately and her expression brightened. Only now did she look upon his face and appear to see him.
“Hold off!” she said. “Come here! You are the gargoyle’s friend, are you not? The bard?”
“A friend of Spar’s indeed,” he said. “And how is it you know him?”
“I have been assisting him in the archives,” she said.
“Ah… So you are the librarian of Wollox Hollow!”
“I am the everything of Wollox Hollow. I keep the place running, attend to business. We can’t all dally with bottle-blowers and tub-thumpers, season after season. There are mines to manage. Managers to manage! In addition to all that, I oversee the archives.”
“And how is Spar?”
“Engrossed in his researches. He says he is very close to something critical. He, yes, in fact he asked me convey a message – to leave him uninterrupted, to make no move until you’ve heard from him. It will be soon, he said – very, very soon. But in the meantime, I of course extended all the hospitality of the house.”
“Your brother has already made us feel more than—”
“The rest of these tootling wretches can hang. But the gargoyle is possessed of great intellect, and I wish it to range widely – in the vastness of the archives.”
“I can hardly argue with that,” said Gorlen. “He certainly possesses no musical skill of his own. He tried to share what he called a gargoyle song, and it was like the grinding of stone molars. May he do great things in your collection.”
“Oh, I’m certain he will.” She snapped away from Gorlen’s gaze. “Ardie. This cannot wait. You are heir to this house, you must take your responsibilities seriously from time to time.”
“Oh, sister… It is always serious with you. What now? What must I do?”
“You must play.”
“Yes, play the organ as you have never played before. Play as if the house depended on it. And this – this is what you must play.”
She took a cylindrical leather case from under her arm and rapped it sharply on Ardie’s head. Ardie squealed and made a grab for it, and she jerked it back even though she obviously intended to give it to him. Gorlen felt he was observing a moment from their childhood – the squabbling of spoiled children. Seeing that she was a bit of a bully toward her frail brother, perhaps it was just as well she took little interest in Gorlen–much as that caused him consternation.
Wrenching the tube away from her, Ardie twisted off a small cap and let it dangle by a thin cord as he pulled a rolled paper from the tube. He uncoiled it and flattened it across his bony thighs.
It was sheet music, a single page of it, densely covered.
“And what is this?” he asked.
“Music, of course.”
“I can see that, Oh Exasperating One, but imagine my simple, shallow question has many depths and contains many other questions within it, and please…make some attempt to answer them.”
“It is a piece of music, entrusted to the heir of Wollox Hollow.”
“Why have I never seen it?”
“You are eight minutes my junior.”
“Still, never to have–”
“I did not write our legacy’s instructions, I merely follow them to the note. As must you.”
“But I don’t see–”
“Do you see the painting there? That is all you need to understand. I may be the eldest, but you are the musician. Therefore, in times of great need, when the family is threatened, when there is especially grave danger, you must play this tune. It summons the guardians of our home – the real muses of Wollox Hollow.”
Ardie stepped aside till he could clearly see the painting.
Gorlen, meanwhile, at the words “grave danger” said, “I’ll just let myself out.”
“Stay,” she said. “You and all your friends. Come back now and play. My brother will lead the tune, and you – all of you – play with him.”
Gorlen had never been unhappier to find himself invited to play. Where grave dangers that could only be averted by music were concerned, he felt most keenly the limitations of his craft.
Still, the elder heir of Wollox Hollow was looking at him with an expression that might in a certain light seem favorable, if not of future intimacy, then at least not of outright rejection.
He opened the door and called: “Musicians! Come and play!”