Stillborne

The pilgrims Plenth had been hired to entertain crossed the desert of Hoogalloor in caravans made of enormous dried-out caterpillars, tossed about the lightly ribbed interior with an assortment of carpets and cushions, peering out at passing cacti through portholes that had once been breathing spiracles. Other vehicles, more utilitarian and less appointed for comfort, had been fashioned from different stages of the same species’ life cycle. These included a pupal land-barge full of cookware and supplies, from which the cook emerged each evening and prepared a variety of dishes according to the complicated dietary regimes of the travelers; and a wingless chrysalis which the caravan’s guardians used as a mobile barracks, filling it with the racks of insect integument they’d fashioned into armor and arms. The beasts that pulled these hollowed-out vehicles of glossy chitin and dull husk were themselves a type of large, docile beetle, referred to as “Garden Variety” by Sister Quills, assistant to the caravan’s Drover-Abbess. Plenth had nightmares concerning the nature of that garden, from which she woke feeling thankful that her route across the arid northwestern wastes would take her nowhere near the humid southern quarters where such creatures freely swarmed. Quills, who spoke with a southern accent, retained the customs of her birthplace, which included smashing the flies that constantly beset the caravan and sucking them off her fingers with an ecstatic expression, confiding to Plenth, “The little ones are sweet!” Plenth understood that in this harsh environment, one must exploit every resource to survive; but one didn’t have to act so delighted about it. Thankfully Plenth had brought along her own food, which she ate sparingly that it might last until they reached Wumnal Wells.

Sunset and dawn were marked with swarms of small insects streaking to and fro against the sapphire and violet sky as the land went from black to flame to a drab color containing every possible shade of beige. The flightless mammoth beetles were fond of a giant spiked succulent that lined the road and at night were staked out to graze. In the cold mornings, somnolent and overfull, they warmed to activity slowly while their smaller cousins flitted furiously about, as if to make the dray-beetles jealous of their freedom. Plenth normally loved the open air and would have been outside to share in the caravan’s activities, but prior days of travel had taught her wariness: there were too many blood-sucking insects, too many thorny shrubs, and too many insufferable questions from the pilgrims.

The caravan sisters, including Quills, did not bother her, but the pilgrims were boors. She had stopped talking to nearly all of them, tired of deflecting their less-than-well-meaning attempts to make conversation along such judgmental themes as, “Who’s the father?”, “Where’s the father?” or “What does the father think of you off here in the middle of nowhere by your lonesome?” She was required by the terms of her contract to play for the travelers at every stop, but this she did from a curtained alcove at the rear of the caterpillar—what had once been an exit of sorts. Plenth also strummed and sang as they wobbled along the road, since that kept casual conversation to a minimum. She editorialized with many a ballad about strong solitary women, including mothers who happily adventured on their own, but invariably either the point was lost on her audience or they took unexpected morals from the rollicking tunes. She began to compose unflattering lyrical portraits of her companions, to be played at some point in the future for the amusement of some very different crowds.

It was ridiculous, she thought, that those who styled themselves devout could spend so much time looking down their spiritually inclined noses at her, especially when they had taken this journey to peer into the sky. The crepuscular swarms of small insects were, after all, merely a foreglimpse of the sacred nights to come, when she and the rest of these travelers would behold the seventh-year nuptial swarming of the Philosopher Moths. It was the one thing that connected them, barely. Where the pilgrims sought cosmic insight, Plenth sought mundane guidance. Ideally, she hoped for a map. She wasn’t sure which was more absurd: the pilgrims’ dream of finding the answer to life’s mysteries, or the fact they believed they’d get their answer from a species of telepathic moth.

The thought that insects held answers made her think twice before swatting the shiny black signats or dust-colored runemoths. She studied with interest the winged flits that clouded the camp’s lamps at night, wondering if they shared any kinship with the enormous creatures supposedly slumbering beneath the crumbling sands of Hoogalloor. The runemoths had intricately patterned wings, and each fuzzy thorax bore a sigil that might have been printed there by a scribe. Whenever they settled, they locked wings around the lights, forming apparent word-swarms and even whole sentences that tantalized with their semblance of legibility. Entire schools of philosophy had arisen around the attempt to transcribe and interpret these patterns, but to Plenth that seemed beside the point. The runemoths reeked of meaning, but only to themselves. Why should they speak to her or any other species of creature?

Yet, in a more expansive mood, she believed that nature spoke across all boundaries. Something about the weird light and topography of the desert, with its horizons that looked like heat-shimmer fixed in stone, put her in a strange, numb state where she felt she could accept almost anything—even the wisdom of a moth. She gazed out through the nearest porthole, with its border of perfectly spaced pores, strumming the strings of her eduldamer, mumbling instantly forgotten songs, and watched the procession of barbed and spiny cactus towers that looked like figures praying along the roadside. They appeared to move and merge with one another.

Monotony had made her so accustomed to unquestioning acceptance of heat-visions that it struck her as unremarkable when two of the grotesque plants separated from the others, rushed out into the road, and nearly dashed themselves beneath the caterpillar caravan’s wheels. The pair were partially obscured by a cloud of insects, a chittering mass of mandibles and agitated wings. Adding to her sense of torpid hallucination was the delusion that one of these unlikely figures was a being of crazed black stone, while the other had the face of a former lover.

The Abbess, at the reins of the caterpillar, called a halt. The giant beetles stopped abruptly but the carriage rolled a few more feet and bumped into their armored abdomens. Pillows and pilgrims went tumbling.

Plenth backed away from the window in a panic, awake now, convinced that what she had seen was no dazed dream—but reality.

“Quickly, Quills!” the Abbess cried. “The fumigant!”

Sister Quills grabbed a contraption from its hook near the caravan’s entry—a canister wrapped in a fibrous hose. She slung it over her back, unwinding the tubing, and leapt out into the road, already pumping the canister to douse the swarm with repellent mist. Plenth returned to the porthole, more collected now, watching Quills fill the air with silvery spray that downed the foremost of the flying pests and sent the rest recoiling.

The black stone figure, a gargoyle, endured the treatment patiently and with no alteration of his stern, glassy expression. The insects had been troubling him only by association with the human, now on his knees with hands over his eyes as the fumigant settled.

With wracking coughs and much sputtering, the kneeling man waited out the retreat of the swarm, then slowly uncovered his face. His brow, his cheeks, and one of his hands were covered with welts. The other hand was of black stone, gargoyle stuff.

The goyle meanwhile scratched absently at his one pale, flesh hand—the only bit of the stonewight vulnerable to meat-seeking vermin.

The duo now identified, Plenth fell away from the window, collapsed into cushions, and drew a patterned weave over her face.

She had not seen the man in more than ten years, but there was no mistaking him. The gargoyle’s name she had never known, but his companion was—could only be—Gorlen Vizenfirthe.

#

“I thought I told you to step lightly,” Gorlen said through swollen eyelids as the ministering matron of some order whose emblem he did not recognize swabbed salves into them.

“My feet,” Spar replied, “are stone. Once I was capable of flight, but never could I tiptoe.”

The sister snorted. “Sadly, I’ve nothing here for goyles,” she muttered sidelong to the stonewight. “What you really need is a good once-over with a polishing cloth.”

“His finish was once quite lustrous,” Gorlen said. “As was mine.”

The sister handed him the pot of quivering green unguent. “You can apply the rest yourself when the burning starts up. You’re lucky you stepped on that gnaggot nest in daylight, when most of ’em are out gathering carrion. At dusk, you’d have had ’em in your mouth and throat. They taste all right, a few at a time, but in such numbers they make breathing difficult.”

“It never entered my mind to eat my way through the swarm!”

“Might give it a try next time,” she said with a shrug.

Gorlen wiped the excess salve from his lids and scanned the dim interior of the hollow, beetle-drawn caterpillar. It was crowded and clamorous enough already that their arrival had left little lasting impression on the pilgrims. As for his impression of pilgrims in general, it could hardly have been lower after their trek across Hoogalloor. They had traveled several days with a penitent cabal, before the priests’ abuse of Spar became intolerable. “Rocks should stay in the dirt where they belong,” one sage had muttered, and Gorlen agreed it was best to part ways before he finally delivered a rejoinder involving “this rock” and “your tonsured pate.”

After walking some days on their own, the pair had gradually overtaken what turned out to be an order not of mutes or brothers sworn to silence, but of voluntary deafs: two dozen unshaven men with corkroots plugging their ears. Gorlen derived some pleasure from pantomiming a number of obscene songs but it was fleeting . . . and they soon fled.

For another two days they let a variety of pilgrim processions pass them by. They slept under stars that could scarcely be seen beyond the noctilucent insect swarms, let alone the faintly glowing vapors of the desert night’s sky. They told themselves they were content to travel the rest of the way to Wumnal Wells on foot, so long as they arrived in time for the swarming of the Philosopher Moths.

“Excuse me, Sister—”

“Quills,” she said.

“Do you know what night the nuptials begin? I fear I’ve lost track.”

“We’ll be in Wumnal Wells tomorrow. The swarming isn’t done by any calendar but the moths’, but it lasts a good few nights and hasn’t started yet or we’d’ve heard. Let’s hope it holds off till we’re settled.”

“Indeed. And is there room for us aboard this or another of your wagons? I don’t take up much space, but perhaps your passengers have vowed to avoid the presence of unbathed initiates such as myself.”

“We’re nondenominational,” she said. “Only eclectics. Caters to all sorts, the Drover-Abbess does, long as you pay your fare. There’s no restriction on stonewights.”

“I won’t be riding,” Spar clarified. “I prefer to walk and keep watch.”

“Vigilance is a habit with him,” Gorlen said, “and many’s the time I’ve been grateful for it. He’ll be an asset to your caravan’s security. I, on the other hand, as far as fare goes—”

“I can see you’re a bard, no shame in it, but I’m afraid we’ve already got one. If you’re hoping to trade entertainment for passage, you’ll have to work out an understanding with her . . . Now, where did she get to?”

Quills picked her way between scattered cushions and lolling pilgrims, finally straightening as she spied a figure at the puckered rear portal of the caterpillar, silhouetted in the blaze of outer desert light. “That’s her there. You should have a word. Or not. Might be other services you can offer the road-weary. It’s a long and lonely journey.” Her wink’s implications could scarcely be misconstrued.

“A lascivious sect, these drovers,” Gorlen said quietly to Spar as Quills went forward to help the Abbess drive the dray-beetles. “Let us speak with this musical competitor of ours. I don’t wish to horn in, but perhaps there’s some arrangement waiting to be arrived at, of benefit to us all.”

They made their way through tumbled passengers, finding small gaps where the rugose floor was visible. “Excuse me, madam. Sir, I beg your pardon. All, I do apologize for my friend’s leaden foot. Pardon us. Now then, mistress bard, if you don’t mind—”

They had reached the rear of the caterpillar, where a bench was fit into a kind of fleshy alcove, and where the other bard sat facing the rising dust of their wake. He saw that she held an eduldamer, which meant his own arrival would add no novelty or variety to the entertainment; and yet a duet was also a beautiful thing, and he rarely had the chance to . . . the chance to . . .

She had turned and was gazing at him—or glaring, with mixed amusement and anger and more emotions than he generally saw at first glance in a stranger’s face. But of course she was not a stranger at all, and in an instant it grew impossible to fathom how he had managed to see her there, even as a silhouette, without recognizing her instantly.

“Plenth,” he said.

“Gorlen.” Her nails did something on the strings of her eduldamer, sounding out a perfect embodiment of the emotions he was feeling at that moment—as if she were feeling the very same thing, as if she were the author of that note. Years fell away, and yet the fullness of those years was contained in the moment. Passion, poignancy, bitterness, hope, and regret; lust and anger, disappointment and despair; too much to be silenced, it spilled out into the sound. He looked back through the caravan, wondering that it hadn’t overwhelmed the passengers. But the pilgrims dozed or jabbered on, vibrating with the roughness of the road, oblivious.

“And you,” she said to Spar. “I remember you but I don’t know you. I thought you two were enemies, yet here you are, traveling companions.”

“Here we all are,” Spar said. “Greetings to you, Lady Plenth. It is a pleasure to finally introduce myself under more felicitous circumstances than ever we met before. I am Spar.”

“Spar,” she repeated, staring at him as if grateful for an excuse to take her eyes off Gorlen. Gorlen was grateful to have the opportunity to study her without being studied in return. “And are they? More felicitous, I mean?”

“The lack of a priest placing curses on us feels like a distinct improvement,” Gorlen said, and her violet eyes swerved back to him. “Although Spar and I still suffer the curse’s effect, there’s a certain lack of urgency now that we’ve both grown accustomed to our reversed limbs. That’s why, when at last we met, we joined forces: to track the itinerant mage who tangled up our fates. That’s why we’re on the road to Wumnal Wells, in fact. First, there is the hope these famous Philosopher Moths might reveal his whereabouts. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the priest himself might be in Wumnal for the rare event.”

“And what of you?” Spar asked. “May we infer you, too, seek answers or insights on the night of nuptial swarming?”

“I do,” said Plenth. “Although one of my questions has just been answered.”

“Your pardon,” said a deep, somewhat nasal voice. Gorlen turned to see behind them an elderly woman he guessed must be the Abbess. Presumably she had entrusted the reins and the beetles to Quills. “I wonder if I might ask a favor of you three, since it appears you are all acquainted.”

“I am at your service,” Spar said. “I cannot speak for Gorlen or Plenth.”

“What is it you need?” Gorlen asked.

“Apart from an overabundance of eduldamers,” Plenth added.

“Tomorrow we will reach Hoogalloor,” the Abbess said. She was a tall, thin woman and carried herself with such great poise that she scarcely swayed while the wagon juddered and jounced. “I have not been there myself in seven years, but I understand there have been big changes since the last nuptial swarming. It appears the event, once a rarely witnessed phenomenon, has become something of a fad. The traffic is astonishing this year, and this road is but one spoke on the hub of Wumnal Wells. I fear when we arrive there will be . . . disappointment? Consternation? Among so many unrealistic pilgrims, some sort of disillusion-driven backlash seems inevitable. I have sung the virtues—so to speak—of the event, accentuating its spare and soaring spiritual values. But even so, I now dread an angry reaction, through no fault of my own.”

“I fail to see our part in this,” Gorlen said. “Plenth?”

She shrugged, a small sign of casual complicity, but it struck him that it ran very deep indeed, evoking other shrugs, other moments when the two of them had been in close partnership.

“Can you change the tenor of your selections?” the Abbess asked. “If you could emphasize lyrics that prepare one for quiet acceptance, a stoical surrender to the unavoidable degradation of mundane expectations? Do you know such songs?”

“There are many in the repertoire,” Gorlen admitted.

“Truly,” Plenth said. “I’ve avoided them in favor of optimistic spirituals so far, but I would be gratified to play some pieces more aligned to my actual experience.”

“I would be much obliged,” the Abbess said. “In return, I will extend our contract beyond our arrival. You will be welcome to stay with the caravan when we reach the encampment. You may find it a reliable alternative to lodgings of exceedingly temporary nature and no reputation.”

“If Plenth agrees, we will devise a list of disappointing tunes,” Gorlen said. “I see no reason why we can’t come up with a catalog of songs that will resign your pilgrims to crushed dreams, realigned expectations, and the desire to drown themselves in the local spirit, which I believe is another great attraction of the festival. What do they call it? Chulk?”

Shu’ulk,” the Abbess said, carefully emphasizing the glottal stop. “A very good point. I have already made arrangements with one local distillery as exclusive distributor of their liquor. You might have noted that several of my wagons are empty. While today I import ecstatics, in the form of pilgrims, my future plans involve export of intoxicants.”

“If there’s anything I can do to lower expectations, please let me know,” Spar said.

“Just be yourself,” said the Abbess, and made her way to the front of the wagon.

“Well,” said Plenth, “you might as well join me.”

She moved to clear space for Gorlen on the little ledge, and as she shifted, he saw that she was unmistakably pregnant. She carried it lightly; the swell of her belly was distinct but slight. If anything, she was more slender and sinewy than when he had seen her last—and certainly more so than when they had first met and impetuously dallied in one of Nardath’s temple gardens, a youthful union that landed them both in trouble they never entirely got out of.

A dozen years of life on the road, living the wandering bard’s existence, appeared to have suited her. She was tanned and lightly weathered. He had to look twice, and then again, to catch flashes of the much younger Plenth, the unworldly girl he had known, sneaking peeks at him from the eyes of this cagey, wiser woman. It helped that, as eyes went, hers were easier than most to gaze into.

Gorlen felt as if he, too, had just received an answer to one of the questions he had meant to bring to the Philosopher Moths. Information as to the whereabouts of the missing priest was only part of what he sought. He had less well-formed queries about what else he ought to be doing with his life. It was possible (were he honest with himself) that he had been hoping for some knowledge of Plenth’s fate.

“I see you kept up with your playing,” he said, gesturing at her eduldamer.

“I had a good teacher,” she said, and looked pleased when he blushed. “I kept hearing rumors of a bard with a stone hand, even met a few who heard you play. Apparently you have developed a technique to compensate for your handicap.”

“You’ll hear it soon,” he said, “although I admit, I hope never to hear it again. I would happily sound exactly like every other eduldamer player if it meant Spar could have his stone hand back and I could have mine of flesh restored.”

“Ten years and you still haven’t recovered your hand,” she said. “I assumed you left to track him down and I see that I was right. You weren’t exactly forthcoming before you disappeared.”

A different sort of blush crept over him now. “Well, I—”

“The priest, we feel, is aware of our pursuit at this point and engaged in deliberate evasion,” said Spar. “His disappearance is too complete to be a matter of chance. Had he died, there would be a grave I could trace, even if only in some carnivore’s den. This leads me to believe we worry him—although for what reason, I cannot guess. We want nothing but a restoration.”

The wagon lurched abruptly and the Abbess called a halt.

“The noon repast,” Plenth said. “The pilgrims will expect a performance now.”

“But we’ve yet to discuss possible tunes,” Gorlen said.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “You’ve just come off the road. Catch some rest, feed yourself, gather your strength. I’ve got the perfect song in mind—one of youthful fancies dashed, of innocence leavened by disappointment, one of . . . well, abandonment.”

Gorlen helped Plenth to her feet, unable to keep his eyes from her belly. It looked a heavy weight but she moved gracefully. “Which ballad is this? ‘The Salandrine Pip’? ‘The Master-Mix of Malverstix’?”

“You won’t know this one just yet, though I will be happy to teach you every glide and glissando.”

“In other words,” he said with a teacher’s prideful pang, “it’s one of your own making.”

She graced him with a perfectly innocent smile, one worthy of the mischievous girl he no doubt misremembered. “So to speak.”

Betweenthe hundreds of temples and thousands of banks, a gargoyle could always find employment in Nardath. Freshly riven from rock, Spar had spent his early years of service as many stonewights didperched over mercantile establishments, watching financial transactions and warding off burglars by the force of brooding presence alone. Weary of the soulless exchanges and no wiser as to their meaning, he shifted to private residences, small bazaars, and finally to the faceted towers of the sages and sacerdotes in the temple district. The churches proved no better than the banks when it came to meaningful work, and he generally spent no more than a month at one establishment before moving on to the next. Nardath was home to a profusion of religious orders, each with its own gods, its own rituals, its own sense of self-importance; but even so, they soon became a blur, indistinguishable in their pettiness. The last temple of his journeyman phase was much like the others, but it remained marked out in his memory as the place where his existence finally acquired meaning—the place where he first met Gorlen and Plenth.

It was odd that he had ended up so much in Gorlen’s company when it was Plenth who had first drawn his attention. He had little experience with humans then, and she was among the first he had leisure to study. A young thing, this temple maiden who played and laughed and sang in the stone courtyards, wearing wreaths she made herself from the thin, black, crackling ivy that covered the walls and columns. Such girls came to the temple in desperation, either offered by parents who could not care for them, or orphaned already. Plenth was one among dozens, but something set her apart. Each temple kept maidens for different reasons and some housed only boys or young men. But the usual reason to stockpile virgins of either sex was to sacrifice them. Spar had not deliberately sought to learn these things, but the gods of such places tended to gloat and brag among themselves when they thought no mortals could hear them, and they treated gargoyles as deaf and inert ornaments. Thus he understood early on that Plenth and her companions were being kept until the priests deemed the time propitious for their slaughter.

It was not a journeyman gargoyle’s place in the great scheme to question the priests or the dogmas that defined their decrees. But he worried for the girls, and for Plenth in particular. As the high festival season grew near, he felt his powerful guardian instincts taking primacy. He had contracted to watch over the temple and its grounds, but he felt more naturally inclined to protect the most vulnerable ones within.

During the first of the holy days, the temples of Nardath threw open their doors to the public, advertising their pantheon with colorful ceremonies and explosive pyrotechnics. The curious strolled in, some casually shopping for whatever new gods might catch their eye; some were sincere in their interest, others merely bored with their current theology. Another type of visitor was there to see if they could find a way to catch a coin intended for the coffers of the clergy; these included sellers of relics and dispensations, itinerant hymnists, and Gorlen Vizenfirthe.

The beardless bard, scarcely more a young man than Plenth was a young woman, settled on the temple steps to pluck and strum his eduldamer. All afternoon he regaled the passing seekers, until the priests realized that his tunes drew more interest than the church’s chief demiurge . . . whereupon they invited him into the high-arched nave, along with his sizable crowd of listeners. There he remained well into the evening, fed and pampered by the priests, who meanwhile went about soliciting donations and extracting vows of fealty from the distracted audience.

What Spar observed, from his perch in the ornately fenestrated heights of the temple dome, was something the pedestrian temple staff missed—namely that the maidens had gathered in the walled garden, at a window that gave them a view down into the nave. The temple daughters were understandably enthralled, by the young musician as much as by his music. And when the priests finally shut the great doors, expelled the laity, and bade the player depart (with a warning to move along and not expect to be welcomed back on the morrow), Spar shifted to the dome’s exterior, the better to watch the bard’s behavior. Near midnight, with all but the flames of eternal devotion doused, he heard one of the basilica’s side doors scrape quietly open, just wide enough to permit the young fellow to slyly slip inside. After that, giggles floated from the garden.

Spar’s vigil through the second half of the night was held atop the temple’s highest tower. From here, he watched the whole of Nardath spread out sparkling like a rumpled quilt set with dark gems; but what always drew his eye in the small hours were the stars and constellations, which gyred all night about the central void known as the Crypt. That starless region was steady and unmoving; long had it offered steadfast guidance to sailors at sea, to wanderers of the plains. But this permanent fixture of the night had lately begun to expand, to creep. The stars at its edges had snuffed out as if a pall were spreading. None knew its cause. Few worried. Spar supposed that it, like most cosmic phenomena, had nothing to do with him. But on that night, it became central to his life . . . as did Plenth and Gorlen.

The commotion started in the garden. Torches, shrieks, muffled blows, screaming pleas for mercy. The tumult then continued into the temple’s confines and came closer up the spiral stairs of the tower.

Five figures burst through the tower-top door. Two were thrown to the ground, where they sprawled helplessly, bruised and gasping, below Spar’s perch. The other three loomed and lorded over them. These three were men dressed in official robes of the temple, including two elders who had interviewed Spar for his post. The third was a mercenary priest, an affiliate, hired like Spar for his service. His face was hidden deep in the shadow of his cowl of office.

The two on the ground were the temple maiden and the bard. Both were disheveled. Plenth’s gauzy smock had been shredded, presumably by the priests. Gorlen Vizenfirthe wore no pants.

It took some explaining before Spar even remotely understood what had transpired. Despite his bipedal form, there were great differences between human and stonewight anatomy, and even vaster ones between geological and biological urges. The one fact he clearly understood was that Plenth, a virgin no longer, was now unsuitable for ritual purposes. Somehow the bard was at fault for this. And by intervening in the maiden’s fate, he had substituted himself as an ingredient in the interrupted ritual.

Spar said nothing through all this. He watched and waited for instruction. It was not his place to influence or advise. But he was curious about why they had brought the matter to him.

When the cowled priest stepped forward, Spar saw that the temple elders looked to him for expertise. His voice was dry and thin, and bore traces of an accent Spar had not heard in Nardath and did not recognize. “The fate of the heavens now rests on this rogue, who has already proven himself completely unreliable. The rite I have been tailoring to prevent the Crypt’s contagion from spreading is agnostic as to the vessel that conveys it . . . but with the maiden in your temple’s keeping, it was a straightforward thing to deliver the sacrifice where I needed it to go. This willful bard is another matter. He must take himself where he needs to be, adjusting his course as the stars shift. I cannot offer aid or auguries along his route. His conscience must guide him. However, as he has clearly shown this evening, he has none.”

“You’ve no right to pass such sweeping—”

“Silence!” said one of the elders, and kicked the young man sharply in his ribs.

“What he needs,” the priest continued, “is an artificial conscience. A continual goad to keep him on the right course—a spur when he shirks it. And for that, I recommend our guardian stonewight here.”

The elders grunted, impressed by the thinking of their hired priest. Spar saw them exchanging self-congratulatory glances.

“Hop down here, goyle,” the priest instructed.

Spar sprang lightly from the temple parapet, his stone wings clattering.

“Put the boy on his feet and hold him steady.”

The elders did as bid. The maiden Plenth began to shrink away from them, pushed up against the outer wall, ignored for now.

“Your hand, boy,” the priest commanded.

Gorlen raised his left hand, fingers atremble, but pulled it back the instant he spotted an edged ceremonial blade in the priest’s grip.

“I want his right hand,” the priest told the graybeards. “And you, goyle, the same.”

Spar put up his right hand; Gorlen’s was put up for him. The priest then guided the two hands until they rested side by side, forefingers aligned, one of soft white flesh, the other hard black quickstone. The priest closed his fist around Spar’s and Gorlen’s index fingers, like an illusionist concealing a pair of opposing wands. Then he raised the dagger and ran its tip lightly around the bases of the paired digits, incanting rhythmic phrases as he worked.

“Please,” Gorlen whispered, “my livelihood . . . how will I play?”

“You have no other livelihood now, boy,” said the priest. “Your only purpose is to complete this task. Beyond that, you’d best not worry. Should you fail at this, there will be no more livelihoods, nor any lives at all.”

And with that, the priest cut crosswise below his fist. Gorlen gasped and went pale. The elders prevented him from falling. Spar was aware of a momentary disorder, a discontinuity at the root of reality, more a psychic than a physical sensation. Without changing the position of his fist, the priest made a kneading gesture, wriggling his knuckles. More cantrips. The brief lapse in reality was knitting over. Spar knew a moment before the priest opened his hand precisely what sort of transposition had occurred.

Gorlen stared at his finger of black stone. The join from stone to flesh was seamless, hardly the work of a knife at all. And Spar, experimentally, wiggled his white flesh forefinger, touched it with his other hand, recoiled at the odd sensation of . . . sensation.

“Now,” said the priest, to Gorlen, “you carry a bit of the gargoyle’s guardian power with you always. When you veer from your quest, the stone will spread. Were you perfectly reliable and committed to the task, you’d suffer no more incursion than this solitary finger. But I suspect you will test the extent of your indenture. Let me just caution you: if you resist, deliberately or otherwise, if you do what is wrong or tends to lead you from your errand, the gargoyle stuff will spread, first to your other fingers. You think you have trouble playing your eduldamer now? Wait until all your fingers are stiff and solid stone. Further recalcitrance and your entire hand will go dark. From there, it will spread to consume your arm, your shoulder, and should you keep on . . . your heart. At which point, being not a stonewight, you will die in an instant.”

“And this is justified how?” Gorlen asked, aghast but still defiant.

“There is no justice, only balance. Good deeds, and the eventual accomplishment of your task, may allow you to reclaim some of the flesh lost through mischief. But this is a hastily improvised spell and I offer no guarantees of reversibility. As for you, gargoyle . . .”

Spar bent his head, still silent.

“I’m afraid that you must pay a cost for this youthful idiot’s lack of prudence. I know it will not exactly bother you, but I apologize nonetheless. You’re a priceless resource to us tonight, and the world will owe you a greater debt than it can ever repay should this implanted bit of gargoyle nature lend this flighty bard some of the gravity our current straits demand.”

“And what . . . what . . .” Gorlen said.

The priest raised his own untouched, original finger to the heavens, pointing out the Crypt. “It spreads,” he says. “It is contagious. A Darkness from the deep of space comes nigh. He’s found a mistress here on Ique, and in order to claim her as his bride, he must extinguish every star, and finally our own sun. You must prevent this consummation. You must disappoint his bride. You must send that great lord back into the Crypt, or else our world will die in darkness, devoured by the spawn of their unhealthy union. They are filling black jars with their ilk already, like caviar that only await the wedding day to hatch.”

“That’s all?” Gorlen said. Spar wondered if the bard would jest his way through every stage of this catastrophe.

“And what of her?” one of the elders asked. Plenth froze as they turned in her direction. “Shall we sacrifice her anyway, just in case?”

“It couldn’t hurt,” said the other. “We might simply fling her from the tower.”

“It makes no difference to me or to the task,” said the priest. “As an ingredient, she is tainted. Dispose of her as you will.”

For the first time that night, Spar spoke. “No,” he said. “Let her go with him. They erred in this together. Should she not suffer on the same path?”

Spar sensed correctly that where an appeal to mercy would get him nowhere with the elders, the promise of further suffering might be persuasive.

The priest shrugged. “The goyle asks little enough, and it is in his nature. Should her presence lead the bard astray, the stone finger will pull him back. It might even quicken the initial lessons his new life has in store.”

“Don’t do this,” the young bard said then. “Don’t saddle me with her, especially if you want this done efficiently! My road is hard enough, and with measureless terrors ahead, she’ll only interfere!”

“Who interfered with whom?” she snapped.

The elders chuckled and one said, “Perfect! Yes. Out with you both and on your way. No dallying!”

The priest remained behind as the temple elders goaded the former virgin and grumbling bard quickly down the spiral stair.

The priest’s thin, accented voice issued from the depths of the cowl. “A word with you, stonewight. It seems clear to me now that the part you played tonight will not end here.”

Spar bowed, tracing the back of the white finger with his opposing quickstone nail. “Indeed. I feel as much myself.”

“I will speak to the elders and release you from your contract. Guard the young lout where you can, assist where opportune, and keep an eye from whatever distance you deem fit. It might be best that he remain unaware of your influence . . . for unless he can discover the rightness within himself, it seems unlikely he will be able to find the way when he stands in total darkness.”

“And after the quest is done, assuming he succeeds? Will you undo what you have done here tonight?”

A chuckle issued from the darkness of the cowl, and Spar realized what a strange similarity that unseeable visage bore to the Crypt that hung above Nardath, an empty black void capable of absorbing all mysteries, all thought. His question went unanswered.

#

Shu’ulk?” Quills asked as the sun set on their last night on the road. It had been dark for some time before sunset, thanks to a rising cloud of dust and smoke that marked the nearness of Wumnal Wells.

To celebrate the journey’s end, the Drover-Abbess directed Quills to distribute bottles of the spirit for which the Wells, at least as much as for their pupating moths, were renowned. Philosophers flew but once in seven years; the liquor flowed without cease. Gorlen knew it only by repute, not from personal experience. An increasingly popular liquor, still it was pricey and rare.

“Compliments of the Abbess,” Quills said, handing him the long-necked bulbous bottle. Gorlen waved it away, surprising Plenth before she, too, declined. She could never recall him turning down a free drink—especially not one famed for its visionary properties.

“It’s this,” he said to Sister Quills, holding up his stone hand. “As its hold on me has grown, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to get drunk. I can’t be poisoned, either, but avoiding that once-in-a-lifetime event feels too a steep price to pay for losing what used to be my nightly recreation.”

“Poisoned,” said Quills with a chuckle. “As if I’d attempt such a thing. I heard you sing earlier. You’re one to treasure, you are.”

Gorlen shifted half an ass-cheek closer to Plenth.

“It must be the gargoyle’s influence,” Plenth told the sister as Quills drew back the bottle, then went off to find travelers more open to temptation.

“Indeed,” Spar said. “A goyle must keep an eye on all his digits in certain company. There’s a brisk black market in stonewight fingers, toes, and talons; and many a gargoyle goes about minus the corresponding parts. Beware the plain stone counterfeits. Their efficacy, or lack thereof, is difficult to demonstrate; but the forger’s customer rarely survives to demand a refund.”

“It’s true, then? Gargoyle stone dispels impurities? Can you drink ditchwater without getting sick?”

Gorlen nodded. “It tastes as foul as you’d expect, but yes. I could gain double employment as a bard and royal taster, if I cared to. But I hate to build a trade on a skill I hope to be rid of soon.”

Plenth sat quietly, hands on her belly, gently cradling the round, still warmth within.

Gorlen said, “Do you not drink wine or liquor?”

“I never did. I’ll not start now. I’ve avoided medicinal tinctures the Sister has offered me as well. She won’t say where they came from, but most of what she consumes originates in insects. Including shu’ulk.”

“Truly?”

“Sister Quills!” Plenth called. “Might we borrow a bottle? We will not touch a drop, I promise.”

“Have as much as you like, dear,” she said. “It’s good for your belly, the dear little larva.”

“I doubt that,” Plenth muttered. “Now, look here . . .”

Gorlen and Spar both leaned in as she held the bottle up to catch the light from a lantern that swung from an eave of the caterpillar caravan. The liquor was milky and thick, as if an egg had been boiled into shreds of filmy tissue that glittered with particles of gold. At the center of the flask, as she swirled the bottle, they saw a knot of golden shadow. Gorlen tried to make it out in the lamplight, but it kept turning away from him, as if hiding its face.

“In the right light, you can see its eyes,” Plenth said. “Ever since I caught one watching, I’ve had no desire to taste the stuff.”

“So is it . . . pickled in there?”

“Preserved, dead, dreaming—I don’t know. Some connoisseurs suck them out and swallow them whole. Others leave them in the bottle and throw them away once the liquor’s drunk. They dissolve into a sort of mush, except for bits of carapace. Child of the shu’ulk, they call it. More commonly, shu’ulk-ilk.”

Gorlen recoiled. “I’ll stick with ditchwater, I think.”

#

Their arrival in Wumnal Wells was gradual, marked by a congestion of traffic which slowed and grew denser until they could advance no further, nor could any of the trains of caravans approaching behind them. Lone travelers on foot pressed on among the wagons, beasts, and dray-beetles, but all the larger vehicles were obliged to stop.

Apparently this was it—as close as they could get. The Drover-Abbess dismounted and began giving orders to set up camp, establish perimeters, secure supplies. Ahead of them, down the road, Gorlen saw more permanent sorts of structures rising palely in the dusty atmosphere, but even these had an impermanent character, as if hastily thrown together from poles and bindings. Houses on stilts, elevated platforms between whose legs the jostling crowds flowed freely, while the residents of these rickety towers put themselves as close as possible to the sky, where the moths would—that very night, presumably—flutter.

The initial stages of making camp were too clangorous for musical accompaniment so Gorlen, Plenth, and Spar set out to see if they could find the festival’s center—Old Town Wumnal Wells. There were no streets left to speak of, but they moved through the crowd as if it were a fluid medium; caught in eddies, momentarily stagnating, washed up, snagged. It occurred to Gorlen that Plenth might be in discomfort, especially given the day’s increasing heat, but she laughed off his sudden show of concern.

“I’ve carried the two of us through worse than this,” she said. “Some days I feel I’ve never been so strong. I’m given the stamina I need . . . it comes up to me from the earth. At other times, it feels like this—” hands on her womb “—carries me. Have you seen the tops children set spinning with the flick of a wound cord and then balance on a fingertip, or set to walk a tightrope? If you put a hand on the top, it wrests away from you, forces itself into balance. That’s how this child feels inside me. It’s hard to describe. I doubt anyone has ever needed to.”

“Only a mother would know the feeling, right enough,” Gorlen said.

“There’s never been . . . Well, never mind.”

They were forced to thread their way single file between two caterpillar conveyances much like the one that had carried them across the desert. Pilgrims had climbed to the roofs of their caravans, seeking to be close to the sky in any way possible. Adjacent to their camp was a company of crippled and wounded travelers. Some were former soldiers or show-fighters missing limbs; others bore features harrowed by disease, their bodies twisted into forms the mere contemplation of which caused sympathetic agonies. Gorlen could hardly pass a stranger without finding himself aping their manner, their expressions, without trying to imagine himself in their skin. It was one of a bard’s ways of discovering songs and stories in the world around them. Any crowd was a convergence of thousands of tales, and most human tales were essentially epics of suffering and woe. But there was an air of revelry and joy among the crippled pilgrims, in contrast to the pinched faces of the Drover-Abbess’s more pampered passengers, only partly explained by the copious consumption of shu’ulk. They looked wildly optimistic about the night to come.

Empty bottles rolled underfoot, as if the avenue were lined with loose and treacherous cobbles. Gorlen had the impression that the drinking had been going on for days—that it might never end.

“I shudder to think of the spawn that bobs in each fermenting vessel,” he said.

“And you find this more distasteful than other human behaviors?” Spar asked. “It surprises me less than the rapacity with which so many guzzle the drink and suck the meaty larvae from the flasks.”

“They are hungry for healing,” Plenth explained. “It is common belief that shu’ulk, especially in proximity to the nuptials, has miraculous properties apart from its intoxicating ones. The wounded, the sick, the lame—they seek not only psychic sustenance, ethereal insights, but also physical annealing. Seven years ago, the miracles that occurred in Wumnal Wells were plentiful and well documented. The Drover-Abbess told me of several she herself had witnessed. Severed limbs regrown. Ravaged flesh made soft as a milk-fed babe’s. Bald heads suddenly sown with luxuriant locks. The recipe for such healing is simple, I am told. Saturate yourself with shu’ulk, consume the ilk, and you will be ripe and receptive for communion with the shu’ulocoidsthemselves.”

“Too bad slurping this broth brings Spar and I no benefit, else we’d have no need of our skittish sacerdote.”

Spar had been walking point since crowds tended to melt away wide-eyed before him, but now he fell back beside Plenth and Gorlen. The mob was somewhat sparser here, and it was possible to see occasional signs of Wumnal Wells’s ancient heritage, which struggled to expose itself through the modern palimpsest of mercantile activity. The first settlers of Hoogalloor had made their homes in huge, hollowed-out cacti; and in fact had encouraged the succulents to grow to sizes found nowhere else. There was no telling the age of the buildings; their tough, fibrous, bulging walls looked thousands of years old, but so did many a nursling cactus. Above street height, the walls were studded with wicked, black-tipped thorns and clustered needles, from which laundry and shu’ulkadvertisements were hung. To prevent pedestrian impalement, the lower walls had mostly been shaved clean.

Plenth shared further information the Abbess had provided the pilgrims in the earliest days of the trip. “Once, each of these buildings sat above a shu’ulkreservoir. The larvae developed and the liquor fermented in bloated vesicles located in the roots. Out in the desert there are cacti that dwarf even these . . . with reservoirs to match.”

“Does it not occur to you,” said Spar, “that the ilk in each bottle of shu’ulkmight bear a familial relation to the Philosopher Moths?”

“Whatever do you mean?” Plenth asked.

Spar indicated a gateway into the courtyard of a weathered old cactus, several stories in height, whose crinkled walls were brightly bedizened outside and in with murals of great gossamer-winged beings contorting around each other in orgiastic aerials. They entered the hollowed succulent’s courtyard, which hosted a crowd of hundreds of intoxicated pilgrims, most of them gathered on balconies encircling the central chamber. Servers and staff ran up and down steps that vanished into the hard-packed floor, descending with empty tankards, huffing up again with brimming ones. The basement still played the role of root and reservoir, apparently.

“Welcome to Garzallo’s!” cried a tavern employee. From his elaborately embroidered tabard and various colorful placards hung around the courtyard, it was clear that this particular establishment was devoted to one specific strain of shu’ulk. Its bottles were azure, bearing a pair of moth wings stamped into the molten glass when it was being blown.

The man in the tabard gave Spar a sour look. “I know you’re not here to drink, so what is it?”

“We have coins to invest in our education,” Spar said and handed over several auris produced from Gorlen knew not where. “Can you enlighten us on the production ofshu’ulk?”

“I was a teacher in my youth,” the man (presumably not the original Garzallo) said, “but it became a needless profession as our economy shifted toward larval exudates.”

“We do not require your personal history,” Spar said, sensing a long narrative unrelated to their interests. The fellow took it gracefully. “In reference to your no doubt excellent shu’ulk—how is it brewed?”

“Siphoned from sand-stills,” the former teacher said. “Bottled in our own facilities. We add the Garzallo-patented fermentatory agents when the still-sacs are first tapped. Our own succulents are tagged and carefully distinguished from those belonging to our competitors, but they require little maintenance through most of their development. Defense from natural and commercial predators, that’s most of the work for us, until bottling time comes around. The murals you see about you illustrate the process. We put them up here for the children. Not that there are many of those left in Wumnal Wells these days. Fortunately, the simplistic images are easily appreciated by drunkards.”

The Garzallo employee led them upstairs, where the colorful Story of Shu’ulkunrolled continuously behind the crowded balconies.

“Here you see the night of nuptials, quite frolicsome, yet, as these are insects, essentially chaste. Perfectly suitable for children, as I mentioned. Farther on, here, after a night of exhausting nuptial flight, the weakened moths descend in dawnlight to thrust ovipositors into the base of the important yet nondescript succulent known in this stage as mothsmother. This action by the insect stimulates the growth of hairy root nodules several feet below the surface of the soil. The plant’s own sap channels conduct the fertile eggs deep into the roots, and in these nodules the shu’ulocoidlarvae begin to develop. Once the nodules reach a certain size, the plant puts up colorful spikes that signal to the watchful brewer that the root is mature enough to be converted into a sand-still. At this point we inject our fermentation agents, using something very like a man-made ovipositor. Here you can see the nodules, having incorporated our special compounds, developing into the still as the spikes die away and the aboveground plant withers. The reservoir expands to tremendous size, drawing moisture from deep in the desert soil. In its uncultivated form, the succulent expands above the sand as well, reaching the size of this fine establishment. Such a gargantuan display draws energy away from fermentation, which is why, in the interest of productivity, the aboveground portion of a cultivated plant is snipped away. The rest of the brewing cycle takes place entirely underground. Three years of subterranean fermentation, and then we tap the still, pump out the liquor, remove the ilk, and cask it. A mature root system contains thousands of nodules, each holding a single larva. One larva per cask is typical, as shown here, and then the brew seasons for another year, subject to occasional chemical stimulation. At this point, it is ready for dilution. Cask strength is objectively undrinkable, therefore we add . . . well, it is wrong to call them adulterants. One cask, properly diluted and infused with additional essences, fills a large number of bottles. The larva gets a special reserve bottle of its own. These reserve vessels are rarely exported. They are best enjoyed right here in Wumnal Wells, especially during the festival, when their miraculous properties may be enhanced by the influence of the moths.”

“I’m still wondering about the original purpose of the mural,” said Plenth. “Given the layout of your establishment, these benches, some of the childish graffiti I see on the tables—”

“Keen eyes! Yes, this was a school until seven years ago. The character of Wumnal Wells changed dramatically after the last nuptials. What was once a rare potable became widely known, in part due to the genius of the distillery’s founder.”

“Garzallo?”

“There is in truth no Garzallo. It is a name concocted to suggest delicious liquors.”

“Seriously?”

“With the proper marketing campaign, commenced at the last religious gathering, we found ourselves finally possessed of a profitable resource, an actual if sporadic source of income. We will live on the festival’s largesse for another seven years, as by nature we are a frugal people. Now, for your coin, allow me to host you to a sample of our finest fourteen-year shu’ulk. Sweet yet peppery, from a third-year tapping—”

“So you tap the nodules throughout the process?” she pressed.

“Every phase has some life in it and brings about a slightly different effect on mind and palate. Although we have clearly defined harvest grounds, we occasionally find a new crop that escaped our injections, and these, too, have their own properties. It seems the shu’ulocoidshave sought to fertilize farther away from town, but something about the soil properties makes their efforts unproductive. We theorize that the original Wumnal Wells, in this spot, contributed something essential to the soil. It all works to our advantage, though. Imagine if the moths could spread just anywhere. We’d have nothing of our own to sell! Still, there’s always a chance some recent hatchlings will discover fertile new fields beyond the current ones, and at tonight’s swarming you can be sure we will keep a good eye out for anywhere else they might flit.”

“No sample for us, though I thank you,” said Spar, putting his flesh hand on Plenth’s. “Are you well? We’d best be out of here.”

She had gone suddenly pale, Gorlen noticed, and took her other arm. Flanking Plenth, they pushed through the crowd and back onto the street. They soon saw their own caterpillar hulking ahead, above the mob.

“Something struck me back there,” Plenth said. “Something in the crowd and clamor. I have not felt its like before. I think it was the murals. What they depicted of the life of the moths, as represented years ago. I felt something in that place . . . as if the Philosophers themselves cried out.”

The gargoyle watched her closely. He shifted his flesh hand to her belly; stood a moment as if listening; then replaced it with his stone hand. Plenth grew very still, watching Spar’s cracked black face. Gorlen could tell that something wordless passed between them. Of course, Spar’s guardian nature was bound to come into full force in the company of a pregnant woman. Whether Plenth asked his protection or not, she had it. Spar’s instincts in such matters were unerring.

“Let us see if we can get away from the crowd,” Gorlen said. “I suggest the roof of the caravan, where we can regale the pilgrims while enjoying a bit of breathing room. We have not yet played together, after all, Plenth. Let us see if Sister Quills will lend a ladder!”

#

Beyondthe gates of Nardath, young Gorlen Vizenfirthe did not exactly leap to his task. While the cowled priest’s instructions were less than crisp, he had the gargoyle finger ever pointing him in the right direction when he came to forking paths. Even so, he managed to prevaricate and send himself deliberately down any number of detours.

With powerful stone wings to carry him, Spar had little trouble keeping up with the dawdling pair, and often he simply roosted in lonely outcrops for extended periods, watching the terminator between flesh and quickstone fluctuate. Once three of his digits had surrendered to flesh and he began to suffer cuts and hangnails and other discomforts he’d never known before, he devoted most of a day to catching up with Gorlen and Plenth, who had covered surprisingly little ground since he’d seen them last.

With no moon to set him off against the sky, Spar spent some time circling their camp on the banks of the Or-Else River, then settled in a nearby copse and caught a bit of their conversation. Plenth was content with their rugged circumstances but Gorlen was full of complaints. She slowed him down, she was naive, she added lyrics to his songs and unattainable notes to their harmonies. She also ate more than her share.

“It’s not my fault that I can sing, and eat, and think of better rhymes than you!”

“You’re also far more conceited than I!”

Spar wondered if Gorlen noticed how the quickstone claimed a fourth finger as the whining went on and on. He complained that his playing had suffered, he’d never be taken seriously as a bard thanks to the ill luck that had led him to that temple, out of all the shrines in Nardath.

“And yet I have only thanks for the chance that steered you there,” Plenth said. “Otherwise, I’d be nothing but an offering by now. Nothing but bloody guts!”

“And the world’s annihilation presumably diverted,” Gorlen countered. “Sounds like a fair exchange to me.”

Spar’s opinion of the young bard declined, even as pale flesh sucked more of the precious cold blackness from his hand.

The night was silent except for the warble of the river. Plenth’s weeping was barely a sound, but her footsteps were crisp in the gravel as she stood and strode away from the fire, along the bank.

She was suddenly gone, unnaturally gone.

Spar wondered if Gorlen had missed the silvery flash of opalescent coils, the mass of thin lashes that retracted under the river’s streaming surface.

But no. With a startled shout, Gorlen threw himself into the current.

A minute passed, and then another, and Spar was about to take a dip himself when Gorlen emerged, dragging Plenth by one wrist, hauling her against the pull of a slithering weave that wouldn’t give her up. He tugged her to the far side of the fire, stretching tendrils taut across the coals until they sizzled, popped, and finally let go. Meanwhile, Gorlen had thrust a stout walking stave among the coils, and with one end braced in the earth, he began to wind them upon it as if twisting a spit, reeling in more and more of the writhing arms. Finally, a thick mass of tentacles tore loose. He tumbled back; Plenth caught him. A bubbling blurt warped the surface of the river, spewing up a shower of skulls and ribs, travel sacks, rusted weapons, and assorted baubles. Gorlen and Plenth filled their packs with the latter and abandoned their riverbank fire.

“We’ve enough to trade for a proper bed tonight!” Plenth cried.

“You’ve a knack for this!” Gorlen said.

Though shivering and dripping wet, both were also laughing.

By dawn, Spar noted that he had reclaimed his entire black middle digit.

#

From the shade of a crude awning erected atop the caterpillar, they waited out the bug-flecked heat of the day, as if on a wrinkled islet above a sea of intoxicated pilgrims. The land rose to distant pinched peaks beyond the sprawl of the festival; the swarm of people appeared to cover the desert to the edges of the horizon. Even so, there were tracts devoid of humanity, where the spiky succulents grew in embattled clumps. It was impossible to imagine what sort of demeanor this landscape might have possessed in the days before people began to exploit its resources—but Gorlen assumed there were good reasons why the moths preferred to fly.

Spar left the bards to their music and went off unbowed by the heat and the stinging creatures it spawned. Under the gauzy cloth, Gorlen and Plenth slowly found their way through a few awkward pieces before finally settling into a style that suited them both. When first they traveled together, many years before, Plenth had not yet learned to play an instrument, but her voice had been a perfect addition to his songs. Often he found himself struck silent, finding no place for himself in the hymns she knew. But she knew the road songs now, which were meant for several voices instead of a choir, and joining his voice with hers while they both played was a joy. The pilgrims, wandering back in from their survey of the town, appeared to think so, too. The Drover-Abbess acknowledged their selections as suitably distracting.

When later in the afternoon it grew too hot to play, they crawled down into the caravan and dozed.

They woke to a dusk transformed by anticipation.

Spar was crouched on the ridged brow of the caterpillar when they climbed back up. The afternoon’s increasingly intoxicated mob had settled into hushed watchfulness. The first stars winked above the withered hills as the evening sky wavered like a punctured candle-kite with the hot air running out of it. The tenor of the day’s insect song shifted, somehow tinged, like the atmosphere, with ultraviolet. Above the crowd, rickety platforms swayed beneath the weight of their burden of watchers. On the ground, every face was tilted to the heavens.

As the darkness deepened, the crowd grew restless. Would this be another night of fruitless waiting?

Gorlen slid his fingers back and forth along the eduldamer’s strings without plucking, so the strings let off a thin, whispery hymn, like smoke.

Plenth reached over to silence him. “Listen . . .”

A buzzing sound chirred up into the night, on the very edge of audibility. Many pilgrims plainly could not hear it, but those who could stirred excitedly and nudged one another, gulping shu’ulkto make themselves receptive. Even without the beverage’s influence, the buzz grew clearer, until all could hear it.

The noise intensified, becoming shriller. Those nearest the source put their hands over their ears. It sounded as if every cactus were screaming.

The eduldamer’s hollow body vibrated in Gorlen’s arms in sympathy with the reverberant air.

“They come!” went up the cry. “At last they hatch!”

“Behold the Philosophers!”

The multitude gave voice to expectant awe. In that hush, the shrilling trailed off as if a reply had been expected but none had come. Plenth, Gorlen realized, was clutching his arm—and not with anticipation. A glance at her face showed only dread.

Another murmur from the crowd. Not far from where they sat, a tremulous spark rose up, a slowly lengthening thread of light. A pillar of illumination like a candle flame gradually growing taller, brighter. It cast no light on the pilgrims gathered around it. It was a mere wisp of greenish, ghostly radiance, almost liquid, holding darker shapes within—shadowy organelles or maybe eyes.

It stretched itself out, uncurling above the dark desert soil—and its wings unfurled.

The crowd gasped and shouted praise. The creature brightened, pulsed for long enough to cast shadows. The phenomenon promised an all-illuminating light, but this proved false and fleeting. Scarcely brighter than a cloud holding against all hope the last ray of twilight, it began to rise above the crowd. It lofted higher, then spread self-illumined wings and swooped low over the upturned faces, as if maneuvering on their breath. Up again it rose, now twisting, searching. A flutter of wings bore it higher and the pilgrims’ eyes followed.

Meanwhile, across the sea of watchers, this ritual was unfolding in several other places—but very few.

As the luminous moth spasmodically twitched toward a distant speck that betokened a potential mate, the crowd lurched after it. Or tried to. In the muddled dark, uncertain of their footing and with no clear avenues, the crowd mostly compressed itself further. It proved impossible on foot to chase the filmy flying creature. A dozen of the pilgrims in the Drover-Abbess’s encampment swarmed up the ladder and onto the caravan roof; a few who were already up there, jostled and shoved, fell off. Other viewing platforms were similarly overwhelmed as those on the ground attempted to get any view at all of the thinly scattered Philosophers.

“This does not exactly match the description of prior years’ events,” said Spar.

“It would appear the Abbess’s fears were well founded,” Gorlen agreed. “Unless perhaps these are only preliminaries?”

“The first night’s hatching is supposed to be the great one,” Spar said. “A night of feverish coupling, as it were. I cannot help but feel we are witnessing the end of something.”

Somehow, two of the moths had found one another. As they met, they spiraled around each other, coiling and uncurling, drawing gossamer trails on the dark. They swept through the smoke of campfires, came close to the spectators, climbed sharply. Gorlen felt like a voyeur, crass witness to a moment of sacred intimacy. The pilgrims guzzled shu’ulkand hooted, calling to the moths to come closer, heedless that telepathic insects had zero need for ears. It looked clear by now that whatever the seekers’ hopes for numinous visions or visitations, there would be precious little in the way of sacred insights under such circumstances. Gorlen felt a vague pressure when the moths flew near. That was the only tangible effect. It might have been his sinuses, reacting to the dust.

So much for philosophy . . . let alone prophecy.

In the next camp over, beyond the pinched and humorless spectators in the Drover-Abbess’s camp, the wounded, raddled, and disease-ravaged company had begun to hum in unison, waving half-empty bottles aloft. Something in their song appeared to attract the paired moths, which spent some time above that spot, swooping and dipping again and again. Delighted cries went up. Some transformation was indeed occurring. A hunched figure straightened and dropped his twisted walking stick. A soldier with a severed arm tore off his shirt to show a bright new bud of flesh peeking forth from the sutures at his shoulder. Cratered faces suddenly turned smooth; where empty sockets had gaped, sighted eyes now gleamed. Here, a glimpse of the promise of the miraculous. What this group had prayed for, had dreamt in great detail, the moths had clearly glimpsed and brought to pass. Veins coursing with shu’ulkresponded to the mating pair like tides to the moon. There was no denying the moment’s power . . . nor the fact that there was little of it left. This might, in fact, have been the lees.

At the peak of the nuptials, there were at most a dozen moth-couples, sparsely distributed above the vast crowd. They appeared confused by the intrusion on their landscape. Once separated, their mating flight complete, the hermaphroditic creatures dived toward the crowd repeatedly. But something disoriented them.

“They can’t lay,” Spar said. “There are too many of us. They can find no clear access to the roots.”

Gorlen watched with an increasing sense of desperation as the moths dived again and again, and each time shot up, frustrated.

Finally, one came down so low that its wings grew tangled in a platform’s guy-lines. It tumbled and fell as shrieks rose from the crowd. Its remaining wings were shredded in the cactus spines. The insect emitted a deafening rasp, wheeled briefly higher, then went down hard into a bonfire. The Philosopher’s death was a soft burst of flame and barely a puff of sound.

For a moment the crowd was hushed, horrified, but then a cheer went up, as if this were a suitably spectacular finale for the evening’s entertainment.

From atop the caterpillar, it was hard to tell if the other moths, far off, were meeting similar ends. But there was no denying that the number of bright specks aloft declined quickly. Soon there were none.

From the nearest camp, the blessed few sang out, waving fresh pink stubs that promised to blossom into fingers, toes, complete hands and feet. “Give thanks, sing hope! There’s still tomorrow night! Tomorrow!” They spied the bards atop the caravan, making strumming gestures, and Gorlen tried to return their smiles but mostly he felt ashamed and in no mood for music. This enlightened group aside, it was hard to think anything but ill of the crowd. The mob had cheered a moth’s extermination.

Plenth wept, and when Gorlen put an arm around her shoulders, it turned into open sobbing. At last she drew back, wiping an arm across her eyes, regarding him grimly in the fitful lantern light.

“It’s yours, you know,” she said. “This child. It’s yours. It’s ours.”

“It’s all of ours,” said Spar, the calm, mad voice of reason.

“What . . .” Gorlen kept picturing the last desperate struggle of the moth with torn and broken wings. “How can . . . wait a . . . dozen years . . . Who is the father? Who?”

“You are,” she said, and took a shuddering breath. “Both of you.”

#

Gargoyles never sleep, but that is not to say they never dream. Spar’s existence for most of time had been one of extended dreaming. His consciousness for eons had been indistinguishable from the reveries of the planet known as Ique. His thoughts had been condensed and focused throughout the shimmering seams of quickstone that riddled the globe, humming like a mineral nervous network. In that pre-carved, pre-goyle state, there had been no Spar as a separate entity—only the slow, steady, stately thoughts of the increate. It was not hard for him to cast his mind back to that condition even now, though it did him little good. Once he had begun to stand, walk, fly, speak, grasp, and then let go of all the small things around him, it turned out there was little relevance of mineral insights to his current situation. Yet there were still affinities. There was a particular sensation that came over him, a magnetic pull that prickled his soles when he walked near deposits of quickstone, whether deep underfoot or in the walls of looming cliffs—and he felt something similar now. There were few quickstone deposits on this continent, and none at all in the vast waste of Hoogalloor. Yet he had sensed its presence from the moment they met up with Plenth. He had grown more certain of what he felt as he spent time with her in Gorlen’s company. The pair had finally fallen asleep after a night of difficult discussion. And now came the molten, shimmering desert dawn.

He left them sleeping, then left the Drover-Abbess’s camp. After such a night, he supposed the bards would need to slumber for a week to restore their depleted spirits. But of course they never would. Across the crowded squares and thoroughfares of Wumnal Wells, hung-over pilgrims were waking to a morning of renewed hope after a night of disappointment. The cast-off bottles littering the lanes were a tangible reminder of shattered hopes.

“Tonight’ll be the big one,” he heard more than one traveler say after guzzling another bottle dry.

Patient plodding brought the line of distant hills to his feet. By midmorning, Spar had attained the crest of a ridge above the sea of depleted cacti and the host of pilgrims. From aloft, alone, he could pick out thickets where the moths had hatched and fallen the night before, their nuptials unconsummated. A few had succeeded but most had failed to implant the next generation. He wondered how soon the Wumnal Wellers would realize that the popularity of their brew had brought about its end.

Turning away from town, looking beyond the ridge, he discovered a range of arid canyons slashed by eroded arroyos. The succulents out here looked healthier, with a full complement of needles. Spar stumbled and slid down the far slope, approaching a cluster of cacti, several of which approached the size of Garzallo’s establishment. The soil around their base appeared untouched, untapped. The crowns of buried nodules showed fat and plump, brimming with whatever remained of the shu’ulocoids’amniotic fluid once the moths had reached maturity. He stretched out on the sand in the shade of a thorny barrel and listened for a whisper of their dreaming. But the comatose moths did not speak to him, the succulents were mute, the grains of sand too dissociated to hold a coherent thought. Perhaps if he filled himself with shu’ulk? But that would never work. Visions that depended on intoxication must always elude him.

Still . . . there was something, like a soft, hissing whisper. He remembered the chirring stridulations of the night, with overtones of a susurrant speech that almost spoke to him. He noticed, not far from the stony orbs that were his eyes, a shimmering pattern in the sand, as if a drum were beating just beneath the surface. His quickstone was almost in sympathy but not quite; and the vibration was strong enough that even his insensitive flesh hand felt a trace when he laid his soft white palm upon the spot. The signal was weak, but it might be a foundation for communication. The dreaming Philosophers, here on the outskirts, were beginning to stir from their seven-year slumber. Spar meant to warn them before they woke—to prepare them for what awaited. He was a guardian, after all, always a guardian; and perhaps he was meant to be here in that capacity, to avert the absolute extinction of their species.

Sand danced on the back of his black stone hand and buzzed between his white flesh fingers.

On his feet again, retracing his steps, he regained the ridge and began to run.

#

He left them alone for more than a month, assured they would find their way together, until he learned that they were traversing a narrow pass through a range of crystal peaks that marked a continental seam. The lands beyond were unknown to him, so he decided to close the distance, then leave them again when they had put the range behind them. Still hidden, he nearly surprised them and betrayed himself, high in a mountain defile. Their fire was meager at an altitude nearly barren of kindling, let alone tinder. They huddled close together beneath a shared blanket, and Spar marveled that Plenth had somehow talked Gorlen into letting her play his eduldamer. She worked the fingering methodically, with growing dexterity, already adding grace notes to make the piece her own. Gorlen was a patient teacher, hiding his pride by pretending to wince whenever she made the slightest error. But Spar, watching from atop a jagged crystal outcrop, could see that Gorlen was troubled. He’d been steadily trading flesh for stone. The quest had grown more urgent. The Crypt was spreading quickly, devouring constellations, although they could not see it through the storm-shrouded sky. And meanwhile, shadows hatched and spread across the land . . .

When the fire guttered down, they decided to sleep, curled up back-to-back in the sleety night.

Spar only learned later what they all should have known that night—few travelers used this pass and none ever tarried there, thanks to the nature of the region’s storms. The uppermost of those crystalline peaks were ever dissolving, evaporating into the acrid mountain mist and raining down again in the form of a thick, prismatic solution.

Gorlen woke first, struggling against the spreading encrustation. With the hilt of a dagger he shattered a thin crust from his legs, wrenched himself free. And then he started on the thick encasement that had already covered Plenth completely.

From within the growing crystal, she stared up at him, unblinking. Held in suspension, preserved in a waking dream. If he had hammered more fiercely at the crust, he might have freed her . . . but as he raised his hand to bring the dagger hilt down, he saw the blackness spreading from his fingers, claiming more of his hand.

He backed away from Plenth, hesitated in the act of liberating her . . . and the blackness retreated, allowing him the freedom of his flesh.

Spar watched as the young bard stood poised there, torn. He observed his own limb fluctuating, unable to imagine how the boy’s mind worked, whether Gorlen found some relief in having the excuse of a quest compelling him to leave her there, or whether he despaired at being driven away from her.

Gorlen leaned and put his ear to the crystal coffin, listening for several minutes as the crystal rain drove down. At last he was forced to move or submit to becoming petrified himself in that place.

In the end he slammed his hand hard against the solid sheath that held her; tiny cracks spread at the point of impact, but no more. Gorlen drew away, gathered his eduldamer and his pack, leaving Plenth’s gear to be gradually covered beside her.

A blinding electrical storm began to stab randomly among the peaks, a new threat to spur him on. As he stumbled away through the pass, Gorlen looked back briefly. Spar thought the bard might have seen him in a lightning flash—a black stone figure caught against the evil rainbow glory of the crystal peaks. But then he turned and vanished over the ridge.

Spar leapt down to Plenth’s resting place, following Gorlen’s example.

The crystalline encrustation called out to the gargoyle’s quickstone; the shards felt warm and inviting against his ear. Crouched there, with his head pressed to the faceted substance, he heard a faint, regular beating, as of a human heart, quite far off.

His semi-human hand grew darker, harder, as Gorlen hurried away, called by his quest.

For a while, much of his hand was restored to quickstone. But there was no satisfaction in it.

#

“You can’t leave me when I’m quitting you!” Sister Quills cried sourly.

Plenth awoke abruptly from a deep, exhausted slumber, finding herself in the shadow of the caravan under whose sheltering bulk she had cast herself near dawn, now that she remembered. Gorlen’s bedroll, a tangled clot, was there beside her. Gorlen himself appeared before her second blink, holding out a cold cup of strong sallowgrass tea. She had wondered if he would be there at all when she woke, or if another phase of solitary peregrinations was in the offing.

“What’s going on?” she asked as he sank cross-legged beside her, setting a small plate of bread, beetle-cheese, dried fruits, and cactus-leather between them.

“Looks like the Drover-Abbess is breaking camp,” he said. “Those who want a ride are advised to join her now. Quills is none too pleased, an attitude she shares with many of the pilgrim passengers.”

The surly mood of the camp now made sense, although the Abbess’s motives did not.

“The festival has been a disappointment,” said Gorlen, “but I gather she fears it will worsen.”

“Aye, that’s right,” Quills said, straddling their view. “The inventory she expected to carry back home has all been drunk up. She hauled these extra wagons for no reason! But that’s never why I’m here. There’s a sacrament to be had. Visions. Transformation! That’s what the pilgrimage is about.” She turned and shouted to someone unseen. “You’re shortsighted! It’s not all about profit! You’ll see!”

The Abbess was far too busy to reply.

Quills stooped to scrounge a bristly emphig from their plate and munched it loudly. “So what’ll you two do? Where’s your stone friend?”

“There’s nothing for us where we came from,” Gorlen said. “We . . . well, I can’t speak for Plenth.”

“Cantcha? I swear I heard talk in the night that you was the father.”

Gorlen grew noticeably paler. “Even if that were the case—”

“It’s no business of yours, Sister,” Plenth said. “We’ll make our own plans, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Well,” said Quills, and stomped off.

“Where is Spar, anyway?” Plenth asked. “Whatever plans we mean to make, I’d prefer to have him be part of the discussion.”

“Spar will say, as I do, that you have our full support. Whatever you require of us. It . . . it still does not seem possible, but I admit I see the sense in it.”

The “sense” that had occupied their long night of conversational grappling was this: Gorlen’s nature had been sufficiently admixed with Spar’s, at the time of Gorlen and Plenth’s couplings more than a decade before, that the child of their union must be considered two parts human and one part stonewight.

Plenth had reached this conclusion years ago, and had it confirmed by a conclave of midwife sibyls whom she attended high in their aerial colony of Kyeer. She had known herself to be pregnant within weeks of Gorlen ditching her in the festival town of Revellium, but more than a year had to pass before she could begin to understand the nature of the child she bore.

“I’ve already carried the child more than twelve years,” she had told them in the night. “There are no precedents. I have no guess as to the probable length of gestation. It could come to term in another ten, or I could die with it still unborn. I could turn to stone myself in the later stages; already my tissues have toughened in order to bear the weight. There’s just no knowing. The midwives of Kyeer could divine nothing definite and were unwilling to speculate.”

Spar had been a steady, reassuring presence during the night’s sometimes agonizing revelations. Gorlen, predictably, had passed through every imaginable response, from angry denial to syrupy sentiment. Now he appeared worn out but willing—resigned to the next step of deciding what next, or where to.

After breakfast, they sought the Drover-Abbess and found her giving orders to her staff—Quills conspicuously not among them. The Abbess was intent on breaking camp in record time. The greatest impediment seemed to be the surrounding camps, which had no intention of budging until they’d gotten their money’s worth or seen their dreams completely dashed, which was by far the likelier outcome.

“If you’re looking for a refund,” the Abbess said to Plenth, “might I remind you we made a fair trade for board and passage in one direction. Should you wish to stay here, that’s on you, and we’ll call it even. Should you care to return with the caravan—which I strenuouslyrecommend—then we’ll need to reach a new agreement, seeing as how there’s few to entertain on the return voyage. They won’t listen to me, but that’s on them. Last night wasn’t pretty. Tonight will be downright ugly once this mob realizes they’ve been cheated of whatever beautiful visions they promised themselves.”

The Abbess didn’t wait for Plenth’s reply, but hurried off about her tasks.

The bards gathered their belongings before they could be crushed by the wagon wheels, and spent a dazed hour trying to stay cool in the constantly shifting shade while keeping out of the way of the irritable Drovers. The camp was soon completely dismantled, stuffed back into the wagons. Pilgrims of surrounding groups couldn’t wait to claim the emptied space. Gorlen worried aloud that their only fixed landmark would be lost in the shifting crowd, but Spar reappeared just as the Drover-Abbess cracked her whip, lashed the reins, and spurred the titan dray-beetles to haul the creaking caterpillar wagons back on the road that had brought them here.

Without any acknowledgment of the caravan’s departure, Spar said, “Come with me, and quickly.”

“That we shall!” said Sister Quills, appearing between them, a solicitous hand on Plenth’s belly. “You’ll be wanting the help of a motherly type, my dear, in days ahead, I’m sure of it. Someone to cook for you and ease your burden of the little grub. I’ll even clean gravel from the nappies.”

Spar was already striding off, so there was no time to argue with the presumptuous Sister. Therefore they followed, Plenth resolving that whatever meals Quills intended to provide, they had better not revolve around insect ingredients.

#

Sister Quills proved a help almost immediately, somehow producing a filling and flavorful late lunch before they began their ascent of the hills. Spar went ahead while they picnicked and returned just as they finished. “The spot I found this morning has already been discovered by others,” he informed them. “We are forced to find a more remote location. I apologize.”

“It’s hardly surprising,” Gorlen said, “that some of the pilgrims had the same thought as us and have gone looking for more suitable hatching grounds.”

“That is not our goal,” Spar said. “What we seek are solitude and silence. If we can’t find these before the hatching, we will have come too late.”

Four of them moved far more slowly than Spar alone. Quills had spent much of her life in the caravans and was not used to walking serious distances, let alone uphill. They struggled through narrow, rocky trails among the spiny plants. All except Spar suffered numerous pricks and abrasions. Both Gorlen and Spar used their quickstone hands wherever they could to hold aside thorns and needle-studded fronds so Plenth and Quills could pass. Quills rewarded Gorlen with frequent winks; she had begun to refer to them both as “Daddy.” The sun moved slowly and the heat of day felt endless, but even so, it was evening before Spar found a place he judged appropriate.

In a sheltered spot beyond a rise too steep and rough for the caravans, Spar stopped them. There was a clearing among rock outcrops where the soft-bodied humans could have respite from the thorns. The stonewight began to stamp about on the hard-packed sandy soil. After a moment, he beckoned to both Plenth and Gorlen.

“Bring your eduldamers,” he said. “Seat yourselves here . . . and here.”

The musicians sat where directed. Sister Quills leaned back to enjoy the evening’s promise of chill and uncorked a fresh flash of shu’ulk.

No sooner had Gorlen set out his eduldamer than the strings began to vibrate. The finely tuned sounding box gave off a hollow hum.

Plenth shifted her position, edging closer until her instrument, too, began to sing.

Gorlen set the eduldamer in his lap, feeling the vibrations emanating from its hollow cavities, joined to a subtler sound in the sand itself.

“We’re hearing . . . the moths?” he asked.

“They are close to waking,” Spar said. “Before they hatch, I hope they will speak with us.”

Gorlen plucked several strings and damped them in the proper spot to give rise to harmonics. It was the nearest he could come to reproducing the sound the desperate moths themselves had made the night before. He felt a stirring in the sand.

Plenth joined in at a lower pitch, introducing a brief flurry of notes. Suddenly she gasped. Gorlen took his hands off his instrument in the same instant, feeling as if someone had taken control of his strings. A third note, an undertone, filled the space between the tones they had been playing, and it began to buzz and blur the air. Their eduldamers vibrated as if about to be torn from their grasp. Words, speech formed of harmonics, gave voice to an eerie presence.

At first the words were all in a rush, inseparable, just an incoherent babble. Gorlen touched individual strings, hoping to tease the jumbled sounds apart.

“Can you hear us, dreaming ones?” Spar asked the air.

Bzzzzz . . . dzzzzrrrrt . . . dreams . . . woken silence . . .

“We cannot share your visions,” Spar said. “We have only speech.”

“Speak for yourself!” Quill said. “I’m seeing the loveliest colors now!” Eyes closed, she was slowly falling back onto the sand.

. . . creatures of flesh . . . of stone . . .

“That we are,” said Spar.

. . . our kin . . . where? So few . . . is the time wrong? Did we awake too soon?”

“They read our minds,” Spar said to Plenth and Gorlen, “as easily as we understand speech. Think of last night, recall it as clearly as you can—it is the fastest way to make them understand. From within the event, I’m not sure they could grasp what was happening.”

. . . our children . . . where . . . no imprint for the patterns . . . no blank wings to adorn . . . no dreams for the future . . .

“Let them know,” Spar said. To the dreaming creature, in order to focus their message, the gargoyle spoke directly: “The humans have drunk your future. For them your wombs are an intoxicant. This will be your kind’s last hatching unless you save yourselves tonight.”

Plenth caught Gorlen’s eye, incredulous. He had no more idea than she of what the goyle had planned, but there was no arguing with Spar, and now they were committed. The strings began to hum with such ferocity that he feared they would slice through his fingertips. He half-believed that if he set down the eduldamer, it would play without him. But he didn’t dare try.

“Men have intruded on your dreaming ground, taken it for their own,” Spar continued. “They have appropriated your traditions for their entertainment. Your nourishment—all that sustains you—there will be none left beyond this night unless you can find a new place for hatching. Even then, they may follow. Once they have acquired a taste for something, they are insatiable.”

“What lies are you telling these insects?” Sister Quills cried out, indignant. “You can’t know the truth of something you’ve never felt! Why, I’m sharing their visions even now. We’re all one! The pattern contains us, gives us wings, liberates us all. What do you know, you and your abstemious sort? You . . . you teetotalers! Live a little, I say!”

She flung the half-drunk flask of shu’ulkat the musicians. Gorlen raised a hand to ward it off. The bottle shattered against his stony palm; jagged shards and sweet syrupy liquor went everywhere. With the shattering came a sound—a shriek of pain and rage emanating both from the eduldamers and from the earth. The stridulation was so sharp, Gorlen clapped his hands over his ears and scrambled away from the source—but there was no escaping it.

“Let’s go!” he cried. His words did not carry above the sound. He beckoned Plenth to join him, but she was already wrapping up her eduldamer. Spar swept a hand toward the smoky, crowded plain visible below, pointing out their retreat. The sun was low, would soon be gone, and it would be impossible to pick their way through the thorns at night. Sister Quills appeared resistant to the idea of leaving, but as the soil at the base of the cacti began to tremble, she saw the wisdom in it.

A little down the slope, as they threaded their way through the darkening thickets, the deafening noise changed pitch and settled into something slightly more bearable. Gorlen felt a hand in his and made room for Plenth beside him as the vegetation thinned.

“Since the three of us cannot grow drunk on shu’ulk, it looks like we’ll have no prophecies or visions,” she said. “So what now?”

“I guess we stumble on as before,” Gorlen said, “pursuing the priest by more ordinary means, as we have been doing.”

“And if you catch him? What then?”

“What?” Gorlen stopped and Spar moved up beside them. “I don’t follow.”

“If you find the priest,” she said, “what then? Will you have him undo everything he’s done?”

“That’s the general idea. Find a way to compel him to reverse the curse. We’ll arrive at some kind of deal.”

“Then what of . . . ?” She traced the curve of her belly. “What if, in untangling the two of you, this also is undone?”

Gorlen looked at Spar. The gargoyle could not be read by ordinary means. Neither his expression nor his posture revealed anything. “I hadn’t . . . well, this is a fresh concern. We hadn’t . . .”

“Indeed,” said Spar. “An important consideration we had no reason to . . . consider. Until now.”

Spar turned away abruptly. Gorlen knew the goyle would ponder it, in his fashion. He gave Plenth’s fingers a squeeze with his left hand. “Let’s get out of this place and then we . . . then we can—”

She scowled and squeezed his right hand. Stone. “Isn’t this part of you now? A dozen years . . . What if the wizard makes things worse? Makes you all stone and Spar entirely flesh? Magic seems unable to resist an ironic jest, and a flesh gargoyle would be exactly that. You’ve sacrificed enough of your fate to this priest’s cruel sense of justice. Would you entrust him with the rest of it?”

“Please, Plenth, what would you have us . . . Let’s talk later, all right?”

They reached the flats just as the first star blinked above the warped horizon. The crowd tonight was in a far different mood than yestereve. Combative, as if daring the insects to withhold their blessings; beginning to feel they had been cheated, not only by the caravaneers and merchants who had lured them out to Wumnal Wells, but by the Philosopher Moths themselves. Their mood was hardly helped by the fact that they had been pickling themselves in shu’ulkfor days—drunk on the stuff, and then sickened from it, then drunker than before, then sick again . . . then even sicker. What magnitude of euphoric visions would be sufficient to undo the deep, self-inflicted nausea of their present plight?

“The Abbess cannot have gotten far,” Quills said. “She owes me wages and I’ll take it in shu’ulk. No thanks to you, I spoiled my last bottle.”

“I would not risk the crowd just now, Sister,” Spar cautioned.

“Bah,” she said, and started into the thick of it. But she paused as, just at that moment, the ridge they had descended grew tremulous with light and the scream of the moths modulated into a song of supernal beauty.

Everyone stopped and listened to that song. With the cacti of the plains trampled to pulp and the root-reservoirs tapped to depletion by the distilleries, the only hatching tonight would take place at the outskirts, among and upon the surrounding hills.

Brighter than the early stars, but rising like stars above the ridgeline, the last of the Philosopher Moths were pouring up into the darkness.

With all their grumbling instantly put aside, the pilgrims gaped like children and let out eager, joyous, yet undeniably greedy noises. Many put their hands into the air as if trying to grasp the gossamer beings and pull them down to earth—the prior night’s disaster notwithstanding.

The moths flew slowly, lazily above the crowd, with less apparent concern for one another than for the adoring faces below. They wove intricate paths, nearly colliding, curling and coiling, filling the darkening sky with writhing light. Sometimes they swept so low they almost brushed the outraised fingers of their admirers. Gorlen wondered what the shu’ulk-saturated pilgrims were seeing—what prophetic or wishful visions filled their minds. Ecstasy or its close cousin lit their eyes and painted fixed grins like grimaces upon their faces.

Then a shriek went up nearby—a cry of untempered happiness. The woman who’d cried out was wrapped in soiled bandages, by every indication a poor and wretched creature who could scarcely feed herself. As she thrust out her swaddled stump, those around her saw the fresh growth stirring there, her wasted flesh spurred to new life. A plump hand came bursting forth, growing back before their eyes, and from the pink paddle, fingers elongating, reaching toward the moths.

“Give me that!” Sister Quills cried, snatching a bottle from the cripple’s other hand, despite any obvious injury of her own. Quills, to be charitable, was desperate for spiritual healing.

It was happening again, Gorlen realized. But tonight there were many more moths, and these were strong, healthy, prepared.

Throughout the crowd, countless miraculous transformations were breaking out. One-legged mendicants suddenly found themselves on two matching pods; chancred skin turned smooth and free of lesions; bald pates were resown with luxuriant locks. Stranger still, among those with no physical affliction, a stunned mystical silence began to grow, as if they were gazing into unimagined infinities of revelation.

These last were the first to start screaming.

Whatever they beheld under the shu’ulk’s influence, Gorlen would never completely shake even the hint of horror he caught in their eyes. Faces lit from above by the wispy trailing light of luminousshu’ulocoidwings appeared to be witnessing a guarantee of personal torments untold and unimaginable until that moment. The pilgrims screamed as if they were being subjected to extreme physical torment—but that was slated to be the next, and more universal, phase of the evening.

Terror struck the crowd initially as a sourceless emotion—but its source soon became highly tangible. The cripple with her freshly minted hand out, admiring her new fingers, began to howl as those same digits continued to grow and grow like five fleshy vines. Plump tendrils curled in upon themselves, enwrapped her wrist, arm, shoulder, as the arm itself became a thick, tentacular mass which sinuously turned, gaped wide, and swallowed its owner’s screaming head. The wriggling mass of flesh and bandages surged restlessly across the soil, bumping up against Quills—who had new problems of her own. The Sister sputtered out a mouthful of shu’ulk, holding up the flask to stare at the pickled embryonic inside it, the shu’ulk-ilktwitching, dancing, throwing itself at the glass. The wormy, bottled thing gave off a glow even brighter than the adults overhead.

Plenth snatched the flask from Quills, studied it, showed it to Gorlen. “It’s . . . hatching? Molting?”

“They all are,” Spar said.

The tiny shu’ulk-ilk’s glossy wet flesh split open, unveiling filmy wings. It began climbing the neck of the bottle, approaching the mouth. For a moment it clung there, unfurling its wings. Blank wings, Gorlen saw. What did that mean?

The creature climbed out onto his hand and rested there. A Philosopher Moth swept down and made a pass directly above it. Instantly a pattern formed, imprinted on the wings.

The insect shivered and flitted off.

Gorlen’s eyes followed it briefly, then came back down to the crowd where Quills was gaping at her own hands in horror. The flesh was splitting, peeling back. Irregular patterns coursed over her skin, like ripples on a troubled sea. Quills screamed. Plenth tried to get hold of her, to ease her gently to the earth, but Quills had grown violent, throwing herself forward, hunched over in an angular pose as if vomiting out her lungs. Her skin continued ripping, as if invisible hands had found impossible seams. Her arms unpeeled in spiral strips, reminding Gorlen of the rind of a fruit. The Sister’s flesh sloughed away, and from the carcass rose a dripping insect of bone. A fused spine, a skull grown pointed and protuberant, a thing like a farming implement with legs that even now broke off and fell away. And from the gory chrysalis a half-dozen sheaths of scaly, interlocking wings emerged, chirring—and up into the air the creature threw itself.

Sister Quills was but one in the host of thousands.

The screams of the devout blurred swiftly into the inhuman song of the hatchlings.

The altered swarm covered the night, blotted out the stars, and oblivious to everything they had ever been or hoped to be, began to mate.

#

After Darkness had been rebuffed, betrayed by his bride’s indiscretion with an errant musician (technically Gorlen, but possessed by a great being of Light which revealed its nature only at the instant that being of ultimate Dark discovered the infidelity-in-progress); after the Crypt had been put back in its place, and innumerable smothered constellations restored to their rightful brightness, and every mundane territory claimed by shadow rolled back into sunlight; which is to say, in essence, after Gorlen had saved the world . . . After all that, and the mop-up, the gargoyle found the weary bard taking a well-deserved rest in Revellium and wondered what it must be like to forget even briefly all that one had been through, all that he’d accomplished. But gargoyles, as it has been noted, never sleep.

The quest had been no easy one. Gorlen’s recurrent unwillingness to play a pawn’s part had taken its toll. His right hand was solid stone, and further moral vacillation seemed hardly to affect it. The black and white line of demarcation hovered near his wrist. It might waver a bit in either direction week by week, but he had compromised too often, gone willfully astray, even walked off the quest completely more than once, and the quickstone was not only conscience but memory. It appeared the stone right hand was to be his for good and ever—a souvenir of his stubbornness.

Spar, with his own complementary flesh affliction, wished it might be otherwise, but it was hardly up to him. Gorlen’s decisions drove the exchange, which hardly seemed fair. Why should humankind’s wavering morality carry such weight on the cosmic scale? Spar knew that the cowled priest’s idiosyncratic curse was to blame rather than any objective principle of nature, but it still rankled him. For that matter, the priest’s humanity was far from settled. He might be some form of demon with a mischievous sense of equity and a grudge against flesh and stone alike.

Gorlen had kept his anonymity. Only a few individuals had known the extent of the danger; fewer still that Gorlen had averted it. He was therefore neither fêted nor hailed as a hero in Revellium, and was free to join in its eternal celebration of victories great and small. In that city of constant festivities, simply surviving from one moment to the next was a feat worthy of a sip, a swig, and a swill. And Gorlen had done much more than merely survive in a personal sense.

Spar found him, at the end of a week of self-hoisted toasts to his own heroism, passed out on a half-inflated smokebag, reeking of resinous charcoal, in a fairground lot. It was the first time Spar had shown himself openly since the holy night in Nardath. Gorlen reacted as if the goyle were but a by-product of Revellium’s famous fungal tinctures.

“You?” he said thickly. “You’re actually here.”

“As are you,” said the gargoyle.

“You still . . . you still have my hand.”

“Say rather, you have mine.”

“What are we to . . . Something ought to be done about this.”

“Something has been done,” Spar said. “You’ve accomplished your errand, but only at great cost to me.”

“To us both!” Gorlen sat up, causing the bag to wheeze smokily. “But look here, you’re a magical being. Now that our conjoined quest is complete, you can undo this.”

There was a long, breezy silence, as human and stonewight regarded one another in the trash-strewn lot.

“Can’t you?”

“I do not regard myself as magical,” Spar said.

“You mean . . . you mean you can’t—”

“I did not arrange the exchange.”

“But you and that priest—”

“We never met before that night.”

“This cannot be,” the bard said, as if deeply offended. “You gargoyles, you have ways . . . you musthave!”

“Human misconceptions are myriad,” Spar said, “and rarely checked against fact. I came here only as a courtesy, to formally apprise you that my guardianship has come to an end, despite the matter that links us. I leave you to your own devices. I have meaningful errands to discover. I assume I will never forget you, thanks to . . . this. I also admit some curiosity as to what will become of my hand once you die. If I were made of something other than guardian stone, I might be tempted to hasten the process.”

Gorlen took a step back, wrapping himself in the smoldering sack. “Now listen here,” he said, “there must be a way to undo this, but I’ll need you to—”

“You have no further dominion over me,” Spar said, and with a wistful glance at the black stone hand holding the bag closed at Gorlen’s throat, he started to move away, ignoring the bard’s cries. Gorlen began to shuffle after him, and then to run. Halfway across the lot, Spar flapped his massive wings and flew.

He would have left Revellium completely that morning, but for an instinctive tugging that drew him down at the city gates. Someone was coming, he felt. Someone to whom he still owed a modicum of protection . . .

Plenth it was who drew his eye. She was riding in the back of a wagon just coming through the gate. With a wave to the driver, she slipped down from the cart and continued on foot, shrugging off the overtures of welcome from the city’s official party-hosts. He knew immediately what she was there for—whom she sought.

Following her throughout the day, Spar waged an internal battle . . . whether to help her find Gorlen, or do her a favor and steer her away. He had discharged his duty to both of them; why, then, did he linger? Why, then, did he care?

She found a busy crossing and unwrapped an eduldamer, singing and playing for an hour to earn a few pents and auris. She had become a fine musician. Later, she moved on to where more musicians congregated, and here, as was inevitable, she and Gorlen met. It was an awkward encounter in the jubilant crowd, for their moods were suddenly out of step with the gathering. They fell away from one another in surprise, each borne off in different directions; then found their way back together and talked quietly for a time; then left the group completely and went off to quieter quarters, a tavern common room, and finally an upstairs chamber in the tavern, where they spent the night.

Spar followed, watching from various rooftops, lintels, and ledges, observing from the shadows much as he had witnessed their first meeting from atop the temple of Nardath. He caught snatches of their conversation, learned how lightning had sprung Plenth from the crystal peaks, how she had spent months trying to find Gorlen’s path before convincing herself that he had willingly deserted her. Gorlen pled otherwise, but none of them, not even Gorlen himself, seemed certain whether this was the truth. He complained that although he was free of his quest, free to travel where he wished, he was not really free at all until he’d undone the curse of the gargoyle hand. He was permanently hobbled as a musician and refused to accept the handicap. He would not rest until . . . until, that night, he rested.

Spar withdrew from the tavern where they slept together. He watched the inn throughout the night, but wondered why.

They have each other for protection now, he thought. They’ve no more need of me. My duty’s done.

But there was a void in his existence now. Gorlen’s quest, he acknowledged, had been his as well. And with that ended, what next? Where to? These indecisive humans could not be expected to lead him there. He must find his own way now, and his own meaning.

Near dawn, he had decided to move on. But even as he scraped his wings and prepared to take flight, he saw a figure move quietly from the inn, out into the avenue.

Gorlen. Alone.

So, he had left her after all. Of his own free will.

Spar’s white flesh hand, the demarcating band, never wavered.

“No guarantees of reversibility,”the priest had said.

Gorlen hurried away from the inn and it changed nothing.

Resigned, Spar lifted from the ledge with a clatter, swept down over the bard as if he were a raptor about to snatch him up. Gorlen let out a startled cry, dropped prone in the foul, rutted street, rose sopping to curse the departing stonewight.

Spar hovered a moment, turned back, and raised his pale right hand to make an obscene, nearly universal gesture he had learned through observation but never understood until that moment.

He told himself later that he had meant it on Plenth’s behalf, but that was not exactly true.

Gorlen cried, “Give me back my hand!”

“You’re welcome to come and take it!”

Spar flew on.

Gorlen followed.

Years passed.

#

At some point, Plenth realized that Spar was leading them safely out of Wumnal Wells. They had entered the dark protection of the hills, mercifully cut off from the luminous horrors of the moth nuptials. The shu’ulocoidswould lay their eggs tonight. In seven years, replenished, they would hatch again in sufficient numbers to begin restoring their population. She felt certain that there would be far fewer pilgrims next time. All but a few souls seeking transformation would lose their taste for, and swear off, shu’ulk. A radical but necessary corrective. She wondered if the gargoyle had foreseen in any way the outcome of his message to the shu’ulocoids, when he urged them to save themselves. It was hard to tell. She had not learned to read him, but he did not appear overly disturbed by the night’s extreme developments.

Gorlen was another matter. He kept muttering to himself, singing snatches of songs and emitting a kind of laughter that had nothing to do with genuine amusement.

She put her left hand on his right, traced the smooth stone, felt a sympathetic tweak deep in her belly. “It was never dull traveling with you. I think it must be even less so with Spar along.”

“Well, it’s sometimes dull,” he confessed, “but I don’t write songs about those parts.”

“And do you often leave such wreckage in your wake?”

“Not often,” he said, looking relieved to have the conversation and her company to distract him. “There have been other chaotic escapes, certainly. More than a few. But I tend not to write songs about those, either. Tonight’s events, for instance, well . . . I don’t believe I’ll commit this tale to history. You’re welcome to, of course, if you can find the words. But I see no point implicating us, in case anyone ever wishes to lay blame for what transpired.”

“You speak of travel,” Spar said, “and I am reminded that we will soon find an actual road. We must decide, then or now, wither we will go, and whether as a company of three—which is to say four. Your point regarding the priest is well taken, Plenth, now that I’ve had opportunity to consider it. And you, Gorlen, what are your thoughts?”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “With all the commotion, I’ve not had much time for contemplation. But . . . you’re saying . . . you’re both saying . . . perhaps we should give up looking for the priest. I ought give thanks that things are not worse, that I have but one stone hand and not a stone arm, let alone a head . . .”

“Which might be an improvement,” said Spar. “But I think we understand each other. We are all incomplete, each of us in our separate ways. We are a piecemeal patchwork that makes a sort of sense together. Not to mention, there is a child on the way.”

“I don’t know when,” Plenth cautioned. “And there’s no one who can tell us—not your furtive priest, not anyone. The child may be constitutionally unsuited for visions or prophecies, and I’m weary of seeking them. I don’t know what I’ve been looking for, but I found the two of you. For now, is that not enough?”

“I know a certain grove above the sea,” said Spar, “where we would all be welcomed. There are other children there by now, songwood dryads. It could be a fine place for a child of flesh and stone—and no worse than many others, judging from the hearths we’ve seen.”

They stopped walking. The time had come to decide.

In the dark, Plenth felt Gorlen’s hands on her face. Stone and flesh, on either cheek.

“So that’s it, then?” she asked. “For now, forget the priest?”

“Aye.” Gorlen sighed. “Forget the priest for now and maybe always. Let’s find this grove of yours, Spar. What do you call it?”

“I’ve never called it anything, but I think of it as home.”

 

The End

 

“Stillborne” copyright 2017 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2017.