Between the 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 did—perched 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 of volcanic stone 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, one palm up, one palm down, 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 stone 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.”
“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.”