A gargoyle’s wings require far more time than a bird’s to spread and catch flight, for the pressure that bears goyles aloft is a subtler one than the winds a wing of flesh and feathers can detect. His struggle to unfold his pinions had the effect of twisting him around so that they were directly beneath him, and partially fanned, when he struck the bottom of the shaft.
The black stone vanes gave out an explosive crack. He felt the break reverberate throughout his being. In an instant he was reduced to a flightless goyle.
Spar had used his wings infrequently over the course of his life, but they had always been a part of him. It would be the work of more than a moment to comprehend how things changed – how he had changed.
He rolled forward onto his knees, gained his feet, then groped at his shoulders with both hands. Fingers of flesh and quickstone alike confirmed that a jagged, sharp edge, slightly raised from the surface of his back, was all that remained – a chipped plateau with shattered rims. On the smooth stone floor at his feet lay scattered pieces of his former wings, curved and delicate as the shards of a broken wineglass.
He lifted one piece carefully, saw that it was hopeless, especially taken in light of the powdered dust and minuscule chunks of quickstone sprayed in an irregular pattern all around the point of impact. Not even a skilled mason could restore such a ruin.
For now, with nothing to gain by dwelling on the loss, Spar had no trouble putting his thoughts to more pressing business. For the wreckage of his wings was not the only broken stonework at his feet.
A goyle’s traditional service was thought by egocentric humans to be something devised for them by humans – as if some swaggering ape could have convinced the first and most ancient of the ancient race of gargoyles to take up a post above a den of matted leaves and trampled grass. The commonest activity humankind associated with goyles—that of guarding the thresholds to temples, residencesm and even mercantile establishments—was but a late corruption of the goyle’s primordial relationship with the skyward surfaces of Ique. There were beings in the earth that hated the surface – despised not only the light, but all things that walked or swam or flew or simply transpired in it. Goyles had been appointed by the Deepweller Itself to keep such entities down in the depths where they belonged.
At Spar’s feet were the remains of a broken stone wheel, enormous, its arcs shattered and scattered by a long drop—presumably the same plunge he had just survived. Even if the stone had not been worked, it would have stood out as alien here, for wardstone deposits were rare. Humans had never prized the stuff. It was mined and worked exclusively by goyles, and for critical tasks that were none of humans’ business.
The fragments of wheel were covered with runes in goyle-script which very clearly stated the nature of the threat again which the wheel had once warded. Of course, humans took no interest in goyle-script and none could have read it – yet the enormous circular stone must once have been clearly recognizable as a capstone, a seal on the shaft. Spar was surprised that ridiculously superstitious humans hadn’t been less cavalier about disturbing it. Such an ancient seal, placed by gargoyles in eons past, would not have budged without a great deal of application. And yet here it was.
Spar suspected that the ascendance of the Wollox fortune undoubtedly began with the seal’s destruction. Quite a few discrepancies now made sense to Spar, based on what he knew of pit-pipers.
Even the olden race of goyles had no stories to recall the origins of pit-pipers. There seemed no reason for their tunes, unless it was some sort of mating call; but such a theory did not jibe with the other facts of their existence. They began as deep encystments, small and solitary, born from spores laid in the earth during its creation. The inert cysts apparently despised their imprisonment. It was speculated that they were meant to be creatures of space and had once drifted ceaselessly in a starless dark, freer than anything had ever been. But caught in the world’s accretion, trapped forever and fixed in place in this dense ball of matter, they hated their confinement as nothing had ever hated before. What they did with this hate was visit suffering upon those who were free – those who flaunted their freedom by walking in light, in sight of sky and space, enjoying the gaze of sun and stars. The pit-pipers unencysted themselves, slowly extruding long tendrils, etching away with acid exudations the distinctive slick-sided boreholes that had instantly alerted Spar to the presence of the first such piper he had ever personally encountered. Their inexplicable talent for music was spent exclusively in service of their miserable desire to inflict suffering on the surface. Children were lured by the hypnotic tunes and stumbled into the shafts. Any who came within earshot was vulnerable. Those who did not fall into the pits were psychically parasitized, leached of happiness, drained of life. And now he had discovered a new behavior: possession.
He had no doubt that Gloxynne Wollox was compelled by a piper. Her family history suggested that one had long ago established a rewarding and exploitative relationship with the wealthy old clan, managing to inflict ever greater misery on the world by controlling them. With management of an industry devoted to backbreaking labor, it had ruined generations of lives with far greater efficiency than it could ever hope to do by luring individuals singly down a shaft.
And acting as patron of the arts, it was in the perfect position to devour artists.
A curious fact of the pit-piper’s existence was that it became more tenuous, less substantial, as it grew in age and power. The encysted larvae were sometimes found by miners and tossed away as withered nodules, geodes containing a foul-smelling jelly of (to them) inexplicable origin. Gargoyles destroyed the nodules deliberately when in the course of their tunneling they found them. If the cysts survived their first growth spurt, whatever the trigger, they contained enough energy to bore one single shaft to the surface. If the larval node was too deep in the matrix of the earth, they never reached the surface but fell back into their own pit, shriveled, and died. Those that succeeded in breaking through to the light could lie in wait forever, playing their weird piping imitation of music in hopes of attracting the attention of the surface denizens. In time they became a kind of vapor. One could not find them except by the sounds they made; and at this point, they must be bottled up–as this one had been bottled with its wardstone cap. There was no way to destroy them. They could only be warded, avoided, and outwaited.
And while they could not be killed, they could be distracted. They were themselves vulnerable to a certain kind of music. This did Spar no good in the absence of instruments. He was himself unable to make anything but percussive noises; hardly the melodic snare that would lure a pit-piper’s attention.
The realization of his helplessness, stranded at the bottom of the shaft inhabited by an invisible enemy, redoubled when he heard the faint strains of music drifting from above.
They were starting to play in Wollox Hollow.
They were waking the creature.
Spar stared up the shaft, flightless and alone, and listened to the unsuspecting musicians beginning to weave their own doom. The proof of it was all around him, although of less interest to him than the great wardstone seal: a scattered litter of discarded clothing, boots, and shoes, leathery twists of grayish matter, broken instruments. Bones.
The Round Room filled with smoke. It was initially streaked and shot through with bright colors, but eventually it became just a gray mingling. Haff fed his vapors into the inflated smokebag and was lost to sight in the swirl. It was not the choking plume of a wood fire, it was a bottled concoction; and although it clouded vision, it did not burn the eyes or set one to coughing – for which Gorlen gave thanks in the increasingly claustrophobic quarters.
Ardentine Wollox struggled to draw sound from his muse-organ, but the winds of the Hollow were barely a breath and resisted being summoned. Gorlen listened to the tune Ardie attempted to wrest from his instrument, but the organ was like a hoarse throat. Haff, who could read sheet music, had studied the tune and now attempted to play it; but it was not going well. It was an intricate piece, hardly suited to the gasping flatulence of the smokebag.
Of Gloxynne Wollox there was no sign. Gorlen watched for her, giving himself another chance to catch her eye as he waited for the tune to develop. Of course the smoky room would not show him off to best advantage, so if she continued to neglect him that would be a good reason why. He tried to bring his attention back to the music, but there was so much noise already, it was all at war with itself. He simply couldn’t find a place in which to weave his eduldamer’s particular voice.
And what, really, was the point? Wasn’t there enough music already? If he had been feeling uninspired and unoriginal, if he had ever doubted his reasons for playing at all, now the absolute futility of it overwhelmed him. The Wolloxes believed that music could save them, and for them this was literal truth. Consider the painting! But was this any reason to play? Was there anything of himself in this piece? Was there anything of himself in any tune he played? It seemed clear to Gorlen that anyone could strum an eduldamer as well as he, and many were a far sight better. They were plentiful on the road. There were dozens at the festival. It was the most commonplace of instruments with the most common and overworked repertoire. He had to consider the possibility that he was played out. Possibility? With every moment, it felt more like a certainty. The only original note he brought to the proceedings was the result of his quickstone hand, and the method he had developed of sliding it along the strings while he plucked and strummed with his human fingers. But surely this was not enough. It was a novelty and nothing could be worth less than some trivial new confection.
For all these reasons and others he could barely express to himself, he found he had no heart for playing. This feeling, it seemed to him now, had been building for some time. The apparent merriment that gripped him at the festival, had it not been a shallow and superficial shell above a bottomless well of doubt and dismay? He had felt at odds with the others, and even moreso with himself. But he was expected to play in return for hospitality.
His host required music, therefore he must play.
Barring the eduldamer with a silvery twang, he tore a screech from the strings, thinking that if he sounded truly awful he might be relieved of responsibility for tonight’s music. But almost in spite of himself–such is the nature of inspiration–he found the muse stirring within him. Note followed note, and somehow even these wretched pluckings began to find their way into the song taking shape around them.
Weirdly, it seemed as if he could actually see the form it took: a silvery, sinewy, wriggling shimmer in the thick mists of the smokebag’s artificial atmosphere.
He caught sight of Haff, flushed and sweating as if in the grip of a fever, his eyes rolling back with frenzy and exhaustion as he stamped and squeezed and whacked the bag. And then the smoke swirled over him. Dancers whirled past, sawing at vioples, and mad flutes begin to shriek. The winds of the Hollow had begun to stir. The Wollox muses were waking!
Ardie let out all the organ’s stops and threw himself into the tune, carrying the rest of the Round Room with him. Gorlen’s fingers flew as if they were things separate from him, out of his control. He had felt this way countless times before, but there was something different about it now. He had the feeling that he could not have stopped playing even if he wanted to.
And increasingly he was feeling that he did.
Spar stood with both hands clasped, quickstone fingers pressed to flesh. Each hand felt the other in its own way. Flesh was alien to him, he could never get used to it, but he knew the flesh hand must still have a bond to its owner, just as he knew his prodigal paw still retained a connection to himself.
While he attempted to kindle this connection, he did his best to ignore the growing clamor, the wind from somewhere in the caverns beyond the small heap of debris where he stood.
A circuit, he felt certain, existed and could be exploited. Forcing it was getting him nowhere. He was pushing too hard, when reciprocation also was needed. He must be receptive as well as assertive – each of them had a hand in this, after all.
The pit-piper’s whistling tune was annoying to Spar but hardly lethal. Gargoyles protected the surface from the encysted organism with no benefit to themselves; it was simply in their nature as guardians to do so. He tried to listen through the piper’s song, to hear the human music. He found the airs that drifted down from high above ghostly and unreal, any coherence fleeting and perhaps imagined. Some individual notes eventually stood out as more substantial, albeit these were distant and difficult to resolve. It took even longer to detect Gorlen’s instrument amid the general clangor. It was as if, for once, he was hardly playing at all. Several eduldamers were tripping about, but Gorlen’s had a distinct and striking sound, thanks to his hybrid musicianship. Quickstone and human fingers conspired in an uneasy alliance to draw out tunes no other musician had ever formed.
With this unique trait isolated, Spar closed his eyes and concentrated exclusively on Gorlen’s presence. He posed his arms and hands as if he himself were playing the eduldamer. He tried to feel the strings beneath his fingers.
This is how it feels to play. These are my hands playing.
He slid his flesh hand back and forth over imagined strings, for this hand’s counterpart was Gorlen’s quickstone limb. Somewhat more clumsily, he flicked his stone fingers as if brushing the air in time to the notes that Gorlen was playing – that all of them were playing, up at the top of the shaft. It was like music from another world, but he clung to it, and suddenly he both heard and felt a note bend as if it was under his fingers.
He clung to that sensation, letting the music join with the motion of his hands. Spar made this his life’s entire purpose. Everything else fell away.
The notes he now drew from Gorlen’s eduldamer were threading through the grandly growing music of the organ, and slowly, steadily conspiring to warp its course.
There was a tune only gargoyles knew.
Gloxy Wollox must have known he knew it; must have known even before he did that his playing of the tune was inevitable. She had done what she could to stop it.
With any other gargoyle her plan would have worked.
But there was no other gargoyle like Spar, because there was no other bard like Gorlen Vizenfirthe.