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 flask 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’ulk at 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’ulk for 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 luminous shu’ulocoid wings 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-ilk twitching, 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.
“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.
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.
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’ulocoids would 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.”
“Stillborne” copyright 2017 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2017.