But apparently the words of gargoyles were not completely unlike those of humans, and bore the same relation to deed, being forgotten soon after they were spoken. Before long, the others began to betray impatience and little by little pulled ahead, leaving Gorlen hobbling along with Spar beside him like an animated crutch.
“Fortunately,” said Spar quietly, “I have long been known to babble to myself, and it will not seem strange to them to hear me speak to one who cannot possibly understand me. The dark byways are long, and I confess I enjoy the company. My travels have been lonely ones for the most part. Lonelier than yours, I think, since you at least traveled among others of your kind.”
“Mine have been lonely enough,” said Gorlen, “but it’s true that in most places, a half decent bard is welcomed and the center of much warmth and attention.”
“I seem to recall it was ever thus with you. But where is the girl, then? I recall a girl.”
“Plenth,” Gorlen muttered.
“Was that it? The one whose deflowerment precipitated this entire affair by bringing down the wrath of Nardath’s priests?”
“You blamed her, as I recall.”
“I was foolish and selfish. And terrified.”
“And much younger.”
“Didn’t I say as much?”
“Yet by that act, which bound us to each other, you saved her life by making her useless to the priests for sacrificial purposes. Surely there is merit in that.”
“I suppose so. At any rate, I have not seen her since—well, since I last saw you.”
“Then we have both been lonely, for I thought you felt something for her.”
“I suppose I did, although I was too….”
“Young? But that is not always an excuse, for I am far older than you, but even I have a tale of foolish love. No time to tell it, though.”
“A girl? You?”
“Not as you understand — ”
A cry from ahead cut them off. They saw the others had paused, waiting for them to draw near. When they were in reach, one snatched away the lumen Gorlen carried; and, as if it were a candle to be snuffed, crushed it to dust.
“What was that for?” Gorlen cried. “He could have merely twisted it and..”
“Good thinking,” Spar said brightly to the other, stifling Gorlen’s protests. “Although it hardly seems to please the pulpy one.”
“He cannot know what lies ahead, that may never be witnessed by eyes of flesh.” The goyle’s voice was now nothing more than a cold clatter in the dark. And as darknesses went, this surpassed Gorlen’s previous experience and even beggared his imagining — being the utter dark of deep earth, the dark of the underways. Gorlen began, quite unwillingly, to contemplate what he knew by rumor of the haunts of goyles — thinking of their cities riddling the Earth like the hives of burrowing insects, as if the entire sphere were full of holes and rot, worm-eaten, infested with the clinking species whose representatives even now strode off ahead of him through the dark with swift and steady step.
“You will have to rely on me for all things now,” whispered Spar. “For we are drawn near to one of our ancestral cities. Here we dwelt in vast numbers, completely unaware of flesh until the day they first breached one of our highest passages. Our numbers have fallen off greatly since that day. So many of us are spread out across the surface when we ought to be laboring within. Down here you will witness only ragged remnants of our greatness, a continuing reminder of how shallow we’ve become. I believe this to be one reason for the bitter small-mindedness you have no doubt detected among my brethren.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Gorlen said.
“Allow me to be your travel guide,” Spar said. “I will narrate those sights you cannot see. If it’s any consolation, your lumen would hardly have given you any sense of the extent of the hollowed spaces…how beautifully and intricately carved they are, to such great extents not even a small sun could hope to illumine.”
Anything to distract from the agony in his foot, Gorlen thought, and said, “I would be most grateful. Word pictures are preferable to total blindness.”
In this manner, for a limited time, the journey passed almost pleasantly. Spar provided a thoughtful and eloquent travelogue that might as well have been a fable, considering Gorlen had no hope of confirming with his eyes a single thing the goyle described.
“We pass now through the great halls of the nursery, where unfinished citizenry awaited the attention of skilled Revealers. Some sleep here still, I see. I only pray they do not notice us, for such long slumber tends to inspire endless and monotonous recounting of dreams upon waking.”
And later: “Above us, now, how I wish you could appreciate it, the Lamps of Qaalsedin. Imagine a beaded curtain, with each bead and every thread carved individually from rock, and spread like a tapestry against the ceiling. Now picture layer upon layer of such curtains, so that the ceiling itself is only a rumor. If there were any breath of air here, you would hear them chime and chatter, as once they did when travel and traffic were heavy on this boulevard.”
To Gorlen, none of this was apparent, and the Lamps of Qaalsedin were equal in grandeur to the Warrens of Chy’yse, once supposedly a glorious colony of artisans, now an echoing tenement where he thought he heard something scuttling.
“Some still persist in living down here,” Spar explained. “Unchecked, our solitary nature can drive us to such haunts. I am not immune to the attraction of utter desolation myself. But although you may not think it, such an existence is not without its dangers. Predators roam these places now.”
“What possible predator can pose a threat to gargoyles?” Gorlen asked. “Short of an angry stonemason with chisel and mallet….”
“To name only one, the bellyless rapt, which possesses no belly but an interminable gut, and no teeth but a spatulate beak with which to scrape organic excrudescences from the fissures where it slithers.”
“And this thing eats your kin?”
“Not eats, merely swallows, to use as a grinding stone deep in its gizzard — there to aid in digestion of tough fungi. A hellish existence, according to those who have been regurgitated or eventually survived a harrowing journey through the cloacal egress. Miles long, they are, and they have consumed vast numbers of us over the ages. Their favorite feast is an entire family, which jostle together in the crop and efficiently reduce the leathery sheets to digestible atoms. At least this creature, unlike several others, is not deliberately malicious.”
“Gargoyles have families?”
“They are elected positions, but yes. With whom did you think we were traveling?”
“I had — I didn’t — that is.”
“I must say, your curiosity is refreshing. I had not realized that flesh had any interest whatsoever in the doings of stone.”
“You forget,” Gorlen said. “I am part goyle myself.”
At first he did not recognize the ghastly crumbling sound that came from Spar. It took him some time to realize the goyle must be laughing. Gorlen permitted himself a brief chuckle, then fell silent, aware that something like an echo had been set off by Spar’s vocalizations.
Another noise out of nowhere, as of piled cairns upset, upset him.
“Are you sure these are merely gargoyle hermits, ancient tenants?” Gorlen asked.
“It is true,” Spar admitted, “they are keeping to themselves more than expected, and I have not actually sighted a one. I would have thought them more forthcoming. Hold a moment. My kin have been here more recently — I will inquire whether the district seems unusually quiet.”
Here, Spar let out a cry that set Gorlen’s teeth on edge, calling out to his companions — his family — who had again pulled far ahead. They slowed their pace, judging from the onset of silence, and waited till Gorlen and Spar drew near. There followed a brief conversation that sounded like a small rockslide stirring up an avalanche. Was it anger? Some form of excitement gripped them. Gorlen wondered if there was any sense in trying to slip away, but the darkness had reduced him to an almost infantile state of clinging to his guardian. On his own, he might be able to work his way continually upward against the stone slope, and thereby with great fortune return to the upper world. But he doubted he could endure five minutes alone in the lightless gulf. He kept putting his hands on Spar for reassurance. Flesh or stone, both his hands took comfort from knowing he was with a creature who felt at home here.
“Well,” Spar said to him after things had died down again, “now they think me mad. From spending too much time among the flesh. Your affliction of anxiety has proved contagious.”
“My affliction? I said nothing but that I heard sounds out in the dark. You are better equipped than I to judge their nature.”
“No matter,” said Spar curtly, and Gorlen sensed there would be no more chatty travelogue. “We must get on. I will have plenty to do in order to convey the God’s words when they are so inclined to doubt me.”
“Perhaps it’s their doubt in the matter which makes them question you now,” Gorlen said, “and not the reliability of my ears.”
“That’s enough!” Spar said, and Gorlen fell mute, promising himself he would not speak again unless Spar addressed him first.
Now the journey took on a decidedly nervous and halting quality, relieved once by a cold illumination as they passed through acres of parkland, a georetum, planted with symmetrical rows of crystalline flowers, some sort of kin to the lumenstone. The gardens showed signs of disuse, for there were scattered glowing shards everywhere, crystalline bits that had chipped and fallen to the ground and which ought to have been swept away. But the place lacked custodians, and although quite pretty, it again filled him with a sense of desolation. Beyond, barely sketched by the dim luminance of the gardens, he saw rising domes of black stone, and a mere suggestion of windowed towers beyond those. For the first time he had a sense of the greatness of the place. His eyes were convinced in a way his mind had not been by Spar’s descriptions. He tried to imagine how these paths had appeared when gargoyles had strolled leisurely among them. How had a race capable of such vast civic projects fallen so far? Why had they forsaken the deep realms that engendered them?
He would have asked Spar, but he held fast to his resolution not to speak.
Also here, Gorlen heard the splashing of pools, and the air grew damp and warm — had in fact been growing ever warmer as they descended. He had always thought, from his small experience of caves, that the depths of the Earth would be clammy and cold; but it was proving to be quite different as they went deeper. The planted paths fell behind them, and Gorlen began to gasp a bit. He carried a flask in his pack, and Spar said nothing when he rummaged about and unstoppered it. He ate a few bites of dried meat and some withered gaventrines as well, figuring that any request for nourishment would probably be met by blank gargoyle stares, or by a detour to catch whatever blind white rubbery creatures dwelt among the scalding pools.
“I apologize,” Spar said shortly after his sparse meal. “I have been a poor host. Your requirements are not second or even third nature to me.”
“No matter,” Gorlen said, “I have learned to lay by for sojourns through dry and famished lands.”
“The waters here can be cooled to drinkable temperature, but I fear may be too sulfurous for your enjoyment,” Spar said. “But more, I apologize for my previous shortness of temper. You indeed struck too close to truth. The fact is, my words are far from welcome among my kin, who do indeed doubt me and suspect me of selfish motivation — although I have done nothing to earn their enmity except speak the truths I’ve heard whispered from the crevices.. .truths that should be clear to all of my race, if they had not lost the ability to listen. It is our task, you see, to spend a divinely apportioned time down here, laboring selflessly to reveal the true form and face of our Creator. This was once our only care. Thus we spent our lives here in the depths, to be as close to Truth as possible. Ultimate beauty lies sleeping below the Earth, encased, encrusted, as in ancient rind.” He laughed, that bizarre barking as of two rough slabs struck together. “It is our duty to pursue this work as part of the regular cycle of our existence, chipping away until the God is revealed in all His golden glory, and the cold dead crust of the Earth has sloughed aside. The Bright Face will smile upon us then, while now it merely scowls and grumbles in restless sleep. The Deepweller entrusted this work to us alone, and now we fail Him, we shirk our duties, we waste our lives haunting the false light of the outer world. We have forgotten that all above is cold Untruth, fixed and false, in need of demolition. None of my brethren wish to hear this; none wish to be reminded. The truth is, they dare not admit their lack of interest. They fear to discover they have fallen in love with the lies. I fear they pose this journey not to learn what the God wills of you, but in hopes of proving there is no God at all. Not in the depths — not anywhere. Blasphemy even to whisper it, I know. But that is what I fear. Poor misguided goyles.”
“I wish I could offer some insight into these affairs,” Gorlen said. “Clearly they trouble you. But if my presence here is irrelevant, perhaps you could argue for releasing me to.. .to suffer once again beneath the false outer light.”
“Nay, Gorlen Fixtinearth, our destinies are conjoined, albeit crosswise, like our hands. We shall learn our Fate together, you and I. Slowly it reveals itself, and with greater grace than we can predict; for time is the ultimate Sculptor. Not like those clumsy brutes of Dint, with their crude picks and hammers, who made such a mess of us until we could stand no more and seized the tools and set to work liberating ourselves.”
“Ah…so that was the cataclysm that overtook them,” Gorlen said. “Poor artisans, were they?”
“The worst. This clumsy face of mine, blunt horns, gigantic snout — for such crimes against beauty, the blame falls squarely on the talentless drudges of Dint. We should have been graceful figures like the goyles of old. Have you not noticed my hideous visage? Did you think that willful design rather than sloppy workmanship?”
“It never occurred to me that gargoyles could look…other than they do.”
Spar made a gesture of exasperation, combining shrug and shaken head with slight stiffening of his wings. It was a moment before Gorlen realized he was able to see Spar not by the cold blue glow of the precincts fallen far behind, but by the beginnings of a ruddy luminance. It was like the glow given off by a heated forge.
As his eyes widened to the radiant air, he detected deep shelves carved out of the rock. The passage was lined with long benches, strewn with tools. It reminded him of the quarry he had traversed on the surface.
“We have reached the workshops,” Spar said. “The skin of the Darkdweller lies ahead.”