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’ulocoids themselves.”
“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’ulk advertisements 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’ulk reservoir. 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’ulk might 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 of shu’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’ulk unrolled 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’ulocoid larvae 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.”
“There is in truth no Garzallo. It is a name concocted to suggest delicious liquors.”
“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’ulocoids have 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!”
Beyond the 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.