“Are there any gargoyles in what do you call your city? Dint?” Gorlen asked.
It was a city of pillars thick as trees in a forest. From the outskirts, because the pillars were not set with any symmetry but sprang up wherever there was space to spare, it was impossible to see very far. But wherever he looked, at whatever distance, he saw figures squatting like this old man before him, busy carving chunks of indeterminate yellow matter, surrounded by dusty piles and shreds of the stuff.
“Yes, Dint,” said the tattered old man. “You’re a few days late for that, I’m afraid. They’re all gone now.”
The man squinted up as if he suspected Gorlen of being deaf or daft.
“They climbed down off their columns and took off in the dead of night. Moonless night, it was; that’s when they stir. We figured ’em bound for the quarry, but nobody’s cared to follow ’em, so it’s only a guess, you understand. I don’t imagine they want us looking in on their doings.”
“And this quarry? Where might it be?”
“It might be north of town. The road’s wide and stone-set, so you’ll be able to find it sure in the weeds, and it only leads one-where, and that’s the quarry. But nobody’s took that road since the place shut down. That was a bad night, that was.”
“The night they left Dint, you mean?”
“Nah. The night they showed up, years aback. Many a mason lost his trade that night, and those were the lucky ones. Them that was working the quarry lost worse than that.”
“I don’t follow.”
“It’s a quickstone quarry, canny? They hit a vein of living rock and it was over like that. Might as well to’ve wrapped up the town, picked it up, and dropped it off somewhere else entire where there’s good dead rock to be mined and chiseled. Our whole life was that quarry. But we’re stubborn, and we’ve learned to make these here moss terraces and carve some clever little villages out of shelf fungi. See this one here, made myself, how the bells all chime singly in the little towers? Course, it’s shelf fungus, so it don’t chime real loud, but still, you must admit, it’s remarkable. Wish we still had stone to work, but no point getting morose. We’ve a sort of peace with the gargoyles now. After all…they do scare off a good number of demons and strangerfolk, like yourself. So Dint’s a fine safe place to raise children.”
“They wouldn’t scare me off. They’re what I’m looking for.”
“What are you, an artist? Architect? Geozoologist?”
“Goodness. I’m a bard.”
“Singer-songwriter then. Meh. Well, thataway, like I said. North on the one road out of town. I hope ye find something to sing about there. I’d bid ye later, but something tells me you won’t be coming back this way.”
“I thought you said it’s the only road..”
“That I did. That I did.”
And as Gorlen started northward: “Don’t suppose you’d care to buy one of these here mushroom villages, would you?”
“Not after all that, no.”
“Didn’t think so. Don’t hurt to ask.”
“And it’s a distinct pleasure to say no,” Gorlen muttered as he hurried away, looking for the road he hoped to find half-hidden in tall grass and weeds. Throughout his brief conversation with the old fellow, he had felt an inexplicable loathing spreading through him. He could not precisely identify the cause of the feeling, but he had no trouble pinpointing its origin: The loathing had started in his right hand, which was itself a gargoyle limb, and spread from there in cold twitches, like a surging tide. He wondered how his hand came to bear such overmastering ill will toward a strange mushroom-carver. He’d begun to worry that if he lingered any longer in conversation, his hand might attempt to throttle the old gent, or beat him about the temples without Gorlen’s intervention. Something in the stone itself despised the man. But it was a mystery he had no time to pursue.
The road proved easy enough to uncover. Whatever weeds or growth might have choked it recently, they had been (even more recently) trampled, reduced to a green paste staining the stones. Heavy traffic. Dark moon would have been just two nights back.
Rugged slopes rose ahead, and the road went all coy around the first curve. He wished he had thought to inquire about distances. Of course, there was no cause for a town whose existence revolved around heavy stone to be located very far from the quarry. But the sun had an even shorter distance to travel till it hit the horizon, and he didn’t much care for the thought of sleeping by such a road in such country, especially seeing how the grass and the occasional peddlebug (along with its tiny grass cart) had been trampled.
The road, after several bends and a gradual ascent, leveled off so suddenly he nearly lost his balance, caught by a forceful gust sweeping up along mountain gulches from the unseen plains below. The route traversed the rim of an enormous basin full of dusk; with the evening sky shining like gold, the shadows in the bowl seemed darker than they might have at noon. The road forked, its inward path snaking back and forth down the wall of the pit. Swimming in that bowl were enormous rectangular slabs, half-formed obelisks, the rough cylinders of Dint’s pillars in embryo. There was also a great deal of quiet abandoned machinery, and tools scattered everywhere, marking how hundreds of workmen had hurried off and never returned. The whole place lay cloaked in the dust of disuse, save for the pale rock of the path itself, which bore elongated scuffs of recent traffic.
Listening intently, Gorlen heard only wind. A few steps down the cart path, into the quarry and below the lapping gusts, he stopped and listened again. Apart from his own breathing, still coming heavy and fast after the climb, he heard…
A chink of gravel, grating stones, a far-off grinding.
To another it might have denoted a subterranean rockslide, but Gorlen knew the sound had a source more unusual.more deliberate. He had heard it only rarely, and not in some years, but it was unmistakable.
Forward and down he went, his pulse quickening. His left hand moved unconsciously to clasp its opposite, to run warm fingers of flesh over the cold hardness that formed his right hand all the way to the wrist bone. He probed the scarlike seam where flesh blended into stone; there was no clear demarcation, no place where one ended and the other began, but rather a zone where both shared properties, flesh and stone fused. It always felt strange, alien to the touch, no matter how many years he had lived with it. But tonight..
With a start, he drew his left hand back from the stone. Then, gently, touched his right hand again.
It had never before felt anything other than cold to the touch. Even when he trekked through broiling desert wastes it was a reliably cool lump of matter.
But now it was warm. Not quite as warm as flesh, but still.this was something to monitor.
The depths of the pit, shelved and terraced, made him feel like a child clambering down enormous steps. There were footpaths, difficult to see in the growing gloom. When he looked back for the track’s origin, he found the stars had come out. The walls of the pit were fading into featurelessness. He threaded his way through nascent columns, the marks of unfinished labor, past dozens of white stone spheres a foot in diameter, whose purpose he could not fathom, scattered like a giant’s abandoned game of marbles.
At the lowest point, the quarry narrowed into something darker: A tunnel mouth led into a descending shaft.
With his stone hand outstretched, he took several steps inside.