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’ulk to 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’ulk and 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’ulk responded 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 strenuously recommend—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.