“Brother Spar!” called the others, holding up to await their approach. Gorlen saw them now as dark shapes against the shimmering glow. He was sweating furiously, parched enough to drain his bottle in a single swallow. He brushed his stone hand against his cheek and found it was cool; if only the rest of him could have felt so impervious to the growing heat.
Now he noticed a single vast threshold, beyond which was a greater effulgence than any he had witnessed in his journeys. Gorlen had visited the havens of Silishia-Suneer, the City of Glass, whose citizens worked without respite at the mouths of molten furnaces; for weeks he had feared his eyebrows and lashes might never grow back, after incidental exposure to the heat of that place. But it was nothing compared to the turbulent glow that lashed up beyond the portal toward which Spar and the others now leisurely strode. If ever there was a time and opportunity for flight, this was it, and he almost accepted the risk of stumbling for miles through darkness because the presence of that awful heat was so overwhelming. From here, he could feel only its merest breath, but even that was oppressive. A deep animal terror, yes; an elemental fear held deep in the flesh, in the watery softness, something no gargoyle could be hoped to understand. It reared up and nearly overmastered him. No animal willingly walked into its own cremation.
Spar must have seen that Gorlen was on the verge of attempting an escape, for the goyle strode back quickly, a black blot that seemed to waver and melt in the shimmering air, and took hold of him.
“We must speak now,” he said. “Your place is at my side.”
“I’m sorry,” Gorlen said, through lips suddenly cracked. “I can go no closer…the heat is too fierce.”
Spar leant toward him, to see how this could be. A look of consideration crossed the stone features, although black were the eyes and black they remained, unreadable in the smutty glow. “I believe I can ease some of that,” he said finally, and snapped out his wings to shield Gorlen.
Apart from a small space between the curved wing-blades, whereby Gorlen could look out straight ahead, the heat did indeed dissipate. Gorlen found himself held, sheltered, in a cool rock cave. By small concerted steps, he and Spar proceeded toward the enormous archway, where the others waited with a semblance of patience. Of course, with gargoyles, it was all semblance; there was no way to be sure if their poses harbored anything other than outward appearance suggested.
Gradually they proceeded onto a wide balcony throbbing with heat. Like a child walking on his parent’s feet, Gorlen stepped up onto Spar’s broad taloned paws, otherwise his boots would surely have been seared straight through. At the far end of the curved platform was a low rail where they came to a stop and looked out over an endless plain, smoldering, aflicker with flame, littered with scaffolding and tools, piles of broken stone beneath a smoke-clouded ceiling. Long stairs ran down to the plain, having the look of temporary structures, as well as the demeanor of having been little used for some time. The whole place wore the air of a project abandoned. It was a smooth field, as broad as an ocean, but hewn out by hand in smooth strokes, hollowed laboriously from the Earth’s interior, extending to horizons lost in heatwarp, prowled by cyclones of fire and smoke. Never a place for flesh.
“What you see,” Spar advised, “is the merest speck of the Deepweller’s hide. Its blood, in this spot, runs just beneath the surface. The stone is alive here. Can you feel it? Can you…hear?”
Gorlen wasn’t sure what he heard. He was afraid to learn any more — glad that he could only peer out on the immensity through this narrow chink between the gargoyle’s wings.
But then he did hear: A voice that was inseparable from the violent heat, a voice that spread in waves like the rippling light, that broke against Spar’s wings yet reached him by faint degrees, a whisper. How much louder it must have sounded to Spar! The words flowed and throbbed like the pulse of the planet itself, but these were more than mere sounds and signs of life. They were shaped and deliberate, full of insistence, full of intent.
Spar clearly knew what was being asked of him, for he drew himself up without exposing Gorlen, and spoke directly back to the field of fire, as if he were more than a tiny speck of stone, as if he meant something to it.
“I have brought your words to them, Deepweller!” he cried. “I have reminded them all of their duty! I think they mean no disrespect, yet they have forgotten what it means to hear your thoughts quickening within them. Forgetful, soft-minded as creatures of flesh from living too long among them, it would seem. They need reminding! Perhaps if you spoke more frequently, more directly…not that I wish to overstep by advising you. But you will see I have brought emissaries, so that it will not seem that I alone can hear your words. If you will only grant them audience, my lord, perhaps our voices will join to convince the others to take up their task once more. I weep to see you so confined, and none laboring, from any of the once-great cities. But it will not be so for long, I swear. If you will but help me to convey your message, in tones none can deny..”
The voice spoke, and there was no mistaking it. Even Gorlen, whose only knowledge of gargoyle speech flowed sympathetically through his hand, found his head bowed, his essence blasted by the withering heat of the voice. The Earth itself spoke.
Gorlen shared the thrill Spar’s voice betrayed when he turned and said to the other goyles, standing unmoving nearby, “What say you, brothers? Is our duty not clear?”
“Quite clear,” said one.
“Nothing could be clearer,” said another.
“You are mad! And a liar! And would bend us to no will but your own!”
Spar’s surprise was greater than Gorlen’s, who had all along questioned the motives of the other goyles, having no reason to believe them as guileless as they appeared.
“But do…do you not hear the God? Is not His voice as plain as the radiance that envelops us?”
“You hear what you wish to hear, and warp it to suit your irrational visions. Now indeed, you and the creature may both find a use here. For well we know the old God enjoyed the occasional sacrifice. He has tasted quickstone many times, but has he ever tasted flesh? Can you answer that?”
This was not a question the God seemed interested in answering. For as the coterie of treacherous goyles advanced, unmistakable in their designs to dislodge Spar from the edge of the balcony, the voice of the Deep One redoubled like a sudden blast of heat. All across the plain were accompanying tremors and sudden discharges of light.
“Harm not Spar!” was the command Gorlen heard, so clear as to be undeniable. And then followed an addendum vastly less welcome to his ears, but no less clear: “Give me only the Soft One!”
Spar tensed, and turned to face the plain. The surface had begun to heave and crackle, with widening fissures beginning to ooze forth heat and light. It was little comfort to think the other goyles understood none of this, and followed only their own schema; for Spar plainly heard the God’s command, being the Deepweller’s favorite.
Directly below their ledge, the blood of the God had begun to well up from numerous pocks and scars, splashing and bubbling, sending up columns and jets of brilliant red-gold that blinded him even in the shelter of the gargoyle’s wings. Gorlen, unreasoning, struggled to push apart the gargoyle’s wings, knowing that his only use to Spar now was as sacrifice; but of course the wings were living stone, unyielding. He was completely at Spar’s mercy.
“My brothers,” Spar said, “I pity you, that your ears cannot hear the words intended for you. The God calls you — and you alone!”
“Enough!” they cried, and rushed Spar at that moment, just as a heavy gout of liquid fire spurted up as high as the balcony. They meant to overwhelm him by force of numbers and topple him into the God’s molten grasp.
At that moment, Spar’s wings opened wide, exposing Gorlen to smothering heat. Spar held him out, gripped firmly, immobilized, at the edge of the precipice. The fountain of fire paused and held, forming a great paw of churning molten rock that reached out with a deft swipe like a cat sweeping up a terrified vole. But before it could snatch Gorlen out of Spar’s grip, black stone wings had closed around him. The blazing blood of the God engulfed the platform like a sea wave smashing on a rocky shore, washing away the other goyles. Gorlen saw them pulled away into the glowing sea, like children swept from shore by a rogue wave—floundering and flailing, wondering at their fate, even as he wondered at his own.
How was it he peered down at them from between two sheets of cool black stone?
Then the wings opened for a beat, and the heat swept over him. They shut, opened, shut. And now Gorlen and Spar were rising above the cracking burning plain. The gargoyle had him firmly. They turned and rushed away, borne on heated drafts, soaring back through the workshops, winging through the tunnels toward the surface.
Behind them, the God’s displeasure was plain as fire. All the dark passages they had traveled in perfect blindness were now lit by a following tide of surging light. Looking down, Gorlen saw the delicate crystal gardens, and he was the last soul ever to see them. Their cold blue light was swallowed up in a golden blaze. He heard the flowers shatter and hiss as the Godblood hit them. The lambent orange light flooded down boulevards he had only imagined, and he had no time at all to decide if they were different from his mental pictures of them, for they were quickly smothered in liquid light. As fast as Spar flew, Gorlen feared it could not be swift enough; but apparently Spar saw no inherent futility in attempting the escape. Equally astonishing to Gorlen was the goyle’s calm deliberation in dodging stalactites, skimming just below the intricate beaded ceilings of Qaalsedin, swooping low where the ceilings suddenly pinched down like stingy mouths and the passages narrowed. All this, while they were continually on the verge of drowning — not only in the ferocious molten surge of pursuit, but in the angry bellowing wail of the God who had been defied, thwarted, and by His very prophet — by the one gargoyle who still clearly heard and understood His words.
Yet Spar flew on.
When blue light bloomed ahead of them, Gorlen thought it might be daylight. But then he saw its shape — the massive form of the lumen in the meeting hall. Below it, the faces of all the goyles of Dint, the doubters, turned to see what presence was coming so quickly and frightfully upon them. The orange light bloomed in an instant upon their glossy faces, washing away the blue. He saw them turn and start to run, save for the few with wings who took belatedly to the air; he saw them fall and melt away instantly into the form of their Maker. And then the final tunnels were rushing past, the deep gulf on one hand, the blind rock faces on the other. Gorlen closed his eyes for the last rush, wanting to feel it before he saw it, wanting the cool outer air to fill his lungs before the light of the upper world could touch his eyes.
Spar bore him upward, outward, and did not stop. He wondered why they kept going, but for a long time he feared to look. He knew it was night, even though this darkness was nothing compared to what they had just escaped; midnight felt like midday blazing on his cheeks. In fact, light was blooming, flooding over him.
He realized the air had stopped rushing past, and Spar’s wings had ceased beating, but still he felt heat and fire on his face, albeit dimly, and at some distance.
He opened his eyes and discovered that Spar had set them down on a mountain peak, with a distant view of a spectacular display.
The Deepweller had indeed awakened, and there would be few who would not hear of the manner of his awakening.
The old quarry, at some distance now, was like the mouth of a volcano. Gouts of fire spurted high into the night, cooled suddenly in the high cold air, fell as ash and pumice and cold dead stone. Low to the ground, the God’s blood spilled out across the Earth’s flanks, vomiting with such force that the land’s familiar contours were being blurred and melted away. In the city of Dint, a panicked pilgrimage was underway, with crowds streaming out among the million pillars, instantly being exiled forever from the city they called home—unless they wished to turn their clumsy chisels to the task of excavating it from under a blistered sea of congealed rock when years from now it might have cooled sufficiently.
But the ascent had leached away the God’s power, and so far from its home, the surface elements easily conspired to keep it in check. The molten golden might had turned to crust, to cold, to dust and dirt where soft fleshy things could tramp and trample.
Gorlen, meanwhile, turned to Spar. “Why?” he asked. “Why did you go against the voice? It makes no sense.”
Spar’s glossy eyes mirrored the distant spreading streams of fire. He flicked them away from the spectacle, and toward Gorlen. Up went his hand. His right hand. The white one, so soft and vulnerable. Gorlen saw that it was cracked and blistered and had begun to ooze.
“I felt…in your hand…what it would mean,” he said. “I have never known the Deep One in this way. How what was life to me, was death to you. And worse than death, in that instant. I could not imagine such agony. I saw how for you, pleasure is fleeting, but the pain keeps its promise to never end.”
Gorlen smiled. “It only seems that way.”
“Seems…is…I make no such distinction. I could not participate. Not willingly. My brothers merge, and in so doing I hope they finally hear the Voice. I hope they are all happy together. They heard not the Voice; while I, who heard it, wished I had not.”
“Well, I…I thank you,” Gorlen said. “It was more than I expected.”
They watched the fires rise and fall, and listened to the far-off screams of the exiled Dints.
“And now that the goyles will not have you, what?” he eventually asked.
Spar said, “I considered this, as we fled, and it occurs to me that a certain priest might be called upon to undo what he did to us. My hand, your hand. If you do not mind a traveling companion?”
“To Nardath, then?”
“No. I have returned there once already. The one we seek was an itinerant, a wanderer.”
“Another like us, you mean?”
“In Nardath they had no news of his whereabouts. Still, I was an elusive figure for many a year, yet you found me. Together, it is hard to believe we cannot uncover the trail of a single priest. Even one who might fear himself followed, and seek to hide his tracks.”
“Well,” Gorlen said, “I have traveled alone all these years, but when you put it like that.”
“You have not been alone at all,” said Spar. “I was always there as well, just ahead of you. We have been partners all this time, you see?”
“So we have,” Gorlen admitted. He crossed his knees and took out his eduldamer, and began to strum with the cold stone digits. Later, when Spar’s right hand was healed, perhaps he would ask to hear how those soft fingers sounded, plucking at the strings. But for now it was enough to watch the God’s blood cool upon the land. How quickly one forgot. Shivering in the wind that circled the peak, he was already wishing for a fire.
* * *
“Quickstone” copyright 2009 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2009.