Authors: Tim Lebbon
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #General
For a while, the voice of her daughter’s shade whispered in her mind. Lenora shook her head and Angel glanced back, the Mage’s eyes a piercing blue against the twilit sky.
“Conbarma,” S’Hivez said, the word like broken glass against skin. He spoke so rarely that Lenora had forgotten his voice.
She leaned sideways and looked down at the sea to their right. The surging waves swallowed the death moon’s yellow light and spread it like a slick of rot. To their left she saw the port of Conbarma nestled in its own natural bay. She was glad that the fires of the battle had been extinguished.
S’Hivez delved deeper into the dead hawk’s neck and brought it down, curving into a glide that would take them to Conbarma from the sea. They passed just above the waves. The hawk’s trailing tentacles skimmed the water, throwing up lines of spray, and by the time they reached the harbor there were several hawks aloft, their Krote riders armed and ready to repel an attack.
Lenora managed a smile. How their moods would change when they saw what this thing brought in!
S’Hivez landed the hawk on the harbor’s edge. He extracted his hands from its dead flesh and flicked fat and clotted blood at the ground. Lenora wondered whether he saw the symbolism in this, but she guessed not. Angel had always been the one for that.
The hawk deflated beneath them, spreading across the ground like a hunk of melting fat, and immediately its stink grew worse. Lenora glanced at the dead boy lying between the Mages. She wondered why Angel had brought him this far.
Lenora slid from the hawk, but had trouble finding her feet. Nobody came to help. She looked up, hands on her knees, cringing as her legs tingled back to life, and then she realized why. None of the Krotes were looking at her.
The Mages were kneeling side by side on the ground. Their hands were pressed to the dusty surface before them. S’Hivez seemed to be chanting, though it could have been the sound of the sea breaking against the mole. Light began to dance between their fingers. Dust rose. Stones scurried away from their hands like startled insects.
Dozens of Krotes—those with whom she had flown from Dana’Man, and fought for Conbarma two days before—gathered around, faces growing pale in the moonlight as they saw who had arrived. One or two glanced at Lenora and then away again, back to the Mages, fascination overpowering the fear.
It’s good to be scared,
Lenora thought. That was what Angel had told her. The Mages had always been a formidable presence, but now they were so much more. There was something so dreadfully wrong about the exiled Shantasi and his ex-lover that Lenora found it difficult to look at them. It was as though light were repelled from their skin. She thought of the shapes she had seen in her vision: two wraiths aboard the bone boat on a sea of Noreelan blood.
The ground started to glow beneath the Mages’ hands. The last of the smaller rocks flitted away. They stung Lenora’s lower legs, but she dared not move. This was something she had to see, because she knew now what the Mages were doing: displaying their power to the Krotes. They could have landed and talked to the warriors, but discussion of the magic they now possessed was nothing compared to a demonstration.
Lenora stepped back several paces. Her heart fluttered a few beats, and the many wounds on her exposed skin tingled with something approaching excitement.
This is when we see,
This is when they really show us what they can do.
The Mages began to stand, hands maintaining contact with the ground as though stuck there, then slowly they straightened their backs, raising their arms and bringing part of the ground with them. Each hand was lifting a column of fluid stone. The ground vibrated. Rock growled and crumbled, and strange rainbows shimmered in the dust. Angel laughed, and S’Hivez’s muttering became louder, the words revealing themselves as something less complex than a spell.
It’s all coming back,
he said, again and again.
Lenora could feel heat from the molten rock, and she saw other Krotes stepping back as their skin stretched and reddened. The Mages began to mold it and, between them, something took shape. Sharp edges appeared from nowhere; curves hardened; a globe of rock rose up on thin stony stilts. Angel laughed again, and Lenora shivered.
The Mages backed away from each other, allowing the thing room to grow. More rock flowed from the ground, urged on by a simple gesture from S’Hivez, and they molded this around the form, thickening the trunk and lengthening the limbs. They added more, and then S’Hivez stepped back and lowered his hands.
He looks tired,
They have their magic, but they’re not used to using it.
S’Hivez looked at her through the heat haze, and she saw the black pits of his eyes. He scowled. She looked away, skin crawling, scalp tightening as if the old wound there were about to reopen. A thought came, and she could do nothing to hold it back:
He can hear me.
“Lenora!” Angel called. “A present for you, and it will be ready soon.” She pointed at the sea and a huge geyser rose, glinting silver and yellow from the moons’ contrasting light. Krotes scattered as the water fell into a wave, tumbling across the ground until it broke around the glowing sculpture.
The stone hissed as its framework was suddenly cooled. And as the steam died away, Angel appeared by Lenora’s side. She leaned in close, her breath hot. “It’s yours,” she whispered. “Your machine, your ride, and soon I’ll give it life.” She turned away and surveyed the assembled Krotes. “You’ll
have one! Machines of war, for you to do what you’ve trained for: take Noreela. Soon the ships will be here, and your fellow Krotes will follow you east and south and west. I name every one of you here a captain, and Lenora is your mistress. You answer to her, and she will answer to us. And the rewards at the end of this war will be beyond imagining.” She turned back to Lenora. “I’m giving you my army,” she said. “Use it well. I know your intentions, Lenora. I know your aims.” She came close so that only Lenora could hear what she said. “I know what you hear and what speaks to you, but ignore that calling until you’ve fulfilled your purpose. You’re here
“Yes, Mistress,” Lenora whispered.
Not long to wait,
she thought. And she hoped that the shade of her dead child could hear the promise in those words.
“And now, life for your machine.” Angel walked to the fallen hawk with the dead boy still on its back. She laughed. “Oh, S’Hivez, even
must appreciate the symbolism of this!”
The Mage laid one hand on the hawk and the other on the dead farm boy’s arm. Beneath her hands, the flesh of both began to shimmer and ripple, and soon the stench of cooking meat once again permeated the air. She moved back slowly, melted flesh flowing like thick honey, then she swiveled and thrust her hands at the sculpture.
Flesh flew. Blood misted the air as if blown by a sudden gust of wind. Bones cracked and ruptured, impacting the rock, delving inside and crackling as they fused back together. The flesh of the boy and the hawk melded and filled the fighting machine, flooding hollows within its rocky construct, then building layer upon layer around its outside. Blood greased its joints. The dead hawk shrank as more of its flesh was scoured away. The boy’s corpse was no more.
Angel lowered her hands and stepped back. Lenora saw that she was panting slightly, her shoulders stooped a little too much, and she wondered again at how much this new magic was draining the Mages. But then Angel looked at her, and behind her smile Lenora saw a strength she had never witnessed before. Not just physical strength—Angel had always been strong—but a strength of purpose. There was no doubt in Angel, and no fear. She was unstoppable.
“Here it is,” Angel said. She pointed back at the machine. “And here you are.”
Lenora fell to her knees. She clasped her hands to her head and pressed, trying to squeeze out the thing she felt inside. She was intimately aware of the strange life that had just been created, and even as she felt Angel’s calming touch and heard her soothing words, she knew that this was something never meant to be.
Angel whispered in her mind,
you’re strong, Lenora, and this is feeble and weak—a machine, a tool for you to command and use. It lives like an animal down a hole, not like you, not like a proud Krote come to conquer and claim. Its half-life is less than a hawk’s shit, but you are linked to it now by this touch.
And Angel withdrew from her mind, leaving that link in place.
Lenora took a deep breath and opened her eyes. She was looking directly at the machine where it stood awaiting her touch. She sensed its unnatural shade drawing back in fear.
The machine moved.
The Krotes gathered across the harbor gasped.
This is the first time they’ve seen magic,
Lenora thought. She was the only one here, other than the Mages, who had been alive during the Cataclysmic War. These other Krotes were fifth- or sixth-generation descendants of those who had fled Noreela, tall or short, dark-skinned or light, the blood flowing in their veins merged with that of the many tribes they had found on Dana’Man and its satellite islands. They were fighters, warriors, true to the Mages and faithful in their pledges. But they had only ever heard of magic, never seen it. Never
Lenora looked around at her captains and saw their fear, and realized that this was a defining moment in the history of the land. Everything had changed when the Mages caught the boy, took his magic and stripped his soul, and now that change was about to envelop the whole of Noreela. What she did now would dictate her own part in that change, and what would follow.
Lenora walked forward, approaching what she perceived to be the front of this machine. As she drew closer she saw that it had the semblance of a face. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, the machine was staring at her.
It had several eyes, placed at various points around its bulbous head. Two of them were looking at her. It was too dark to see their color, but she knew that they were not the eyes of a hawk. She lifted her chin and glared back.
The machine lowered itself, stone underside settling on the ground, and Lenora climbed onto its back. It stank of something more elemental than scorched flesh. It smelled, Lenora realized, of magic.
She sat astride the machine’s back and rested her hands on two bony protuberances on either side of its head.
she thought, and the machine raised itself on several stone legs. It shivered beneath her, the vibrations traveling up her thighs and into her stomach. It gave a strange sexual quality to her fear, tingling her skin and causing her old wounds to ache as if craving the knife, the blade, the arrow once again.
she thought, and the machine took its first hesitant steps. She could feel its inner workings throbbing beneath her: no heartbeat, but something that felt like a fire being stoked; no breathing, but gasps as gas was blown out and air sucked in.
and the machine paused at the edge of the harbor, a step away from tumbling into the sea, and rotated to face her Krotes.
The Mages watched. Even S’Hivez seemed to be smiling.
Lenora sensed the power at work beneath her. This was not just a thing of stone and flesh and blood, it was also imbued with the Mages’ magic, awash with a deadly potential that she had yet to realize. The possibilities were thrilling.
she thought, and a ball of flame formed from one of the machine’s mouths. She held it there, its roaring echoed by the gasps from the assembled warriors. Then she turned the machine and flung the fire far out to sea. It seemed to burn even as it sank, and for a few seconds the whole harbor’s surface was illuminated from beneath.
what have you created?
Lenora turned the machine and stood on its back, and from there she could see right across Conbarma’s waterfront. Every surviving Krote—almost fifty of them—and the Mages were watching her. She felt the power in that, and smiled.
Angel smiled back.
“There’s work to be done!” Lenora said. “More machines to be built, more preparations to make. The sun has fled, and the twilight it’s left behind will be filled with the death cries of Noreela. This is your time: the time you’ve lived for from the moment you became Krotes.” She paused, looked down at the head of the machine with its mad eyes and slavering mouths. “I once saw the northern shores of Noreela awash with blood, and that memory has always been bitter, because the blood was my own. Now it’s time to stain the land again, this time with its own blood. Noreela will fall; there’s no doubt of that. It’s the manner of that fall I look forward to seeing.”
she thought, and the machine formed several balls of flame and sent them to hover above the heads of the Krotes.
The warriors cheered, the fire reflected in their eyes. Lenora walked the thing among them, letting them reach out and touch its cool stone and cooler flesh. The fires faded, but in the twilight they all became familiar with this thing that would help them win the war.
Lenora smiled at Angel and S’Hivez, and she saw that they were pleased.
ALISHIA KNEW THAT
she was dreaming, yet she could feel the books coming to life.
Her stroll through the library seemed to last forever. She could not recall where she had begun, and she had no inkling of where she was going. There were only walls of books. There was no ceiling, only hazy heights where the weird light that suffused the air at ground level faded away into a colorless dusk. Beneath her feet there was the ground: stone and dust here; worn timber boarding there. She had passed through one book-formed alley where the ground was comprised of uprooted grave markers laid flat. She had knelt and touched the carved stone, but the engravings had been in a language she did not know, all the names strange to her. Beside these markers, the book spines revealed intimate histories of the unknowns buried there.
A Moment on the Road for Shute,
A Thought in a Cave at Whimple,
said another. She had run her fingers along the worn spines, but she dared not remove a book and start reading in case she became trapped in one moment forever.
Sometimes the stacks were built straight and tall, and they converged in the distance until it almost looked as though they were touching. Perhaps if she walked fast enough she would reach a point where the walls met, spines converging, pages overlapping, and then she would become one more tome of history in this vast place.
At times, the giant shelves seemed ready to fall. They curved left and right, tilted outward or inward, and on several occasions she found herself moving through a tunnel of books, stacks meeting just above her head, histories propping one another up, and she wondered what would happen were she to remove a book. Would it cause a whole wall to tumble down upon her? Would it start a fall throughout the library, burying her and re-sorting history into a random mixture of old books and new, good and bad? Would it destroy order?
She thought not. And dwelling on this she realized that there
no order around her, only assembled chaos. The books were not sorted into sections; they were random. There were occasional groupings—such as those applying to the owners of the grave markers—but as Alishia fingered her way along the assembled spines, these soon blended into other areas, other times. A kiss became a turning wheel became the one-hundred-and-seventeen-thousandth stolen thought of a skull hawk’s life. This was history built as it had been made, like a collection of random thoughts in a mind too huge to contemplate.
And they were coming to life. Alishia had known this for a while—in the confused memory of her walk through this place, the exact instant of knowing was obscured—but it did not frighten her, and it did not surprise her. All her life she had known that books were living things, not just a convergence of concept and ink, intellect and paper. They did not breathe or think, but they grew and gave a sense of potential so much larger than whatever was written on their pages. She had often lain awake in her room at the edge of Noreela City and tried to imagine one book in her own darkened library, what it looked like at that moment with no one there to view it, how the words read with no one there to read them. Its pages would be closed and the spaces between leaves dark and inscrutable, but the words were still there, telling their truths and hinting at so much more. Sometimes she believed that true magic could only take place with no one there to see it. Her own interaction with a book would change it, and someone else reading it would alter it yet again. That idea had always disturbed her, yet she kept it alive. Like a person, only a book could ever really know itself.
She walked past a wall of books with instants in time on their spines, illustrated with hastily drawn pictures from a child’s hand. The books seemed to shift in her view, as if rearranging themselves every time she blinked, though the spines always told the same story. She could feel the history behind the books, and she wondered whether she could remove one from the shelves and peer through the gap into a time she had never known. But in all this dreaming she had yet to open a one, and she felt that there was a special moment ahead. A special moment, and a special book.
Alishia moved on, and the books began to turn into something more. Their power spilled around them, exuding potential like slicks of light, hazing the air and causing Alishia to wave her hands before her face to find her way through. Her hands and arms disturbed drifting moments of history, and she suddenly knew them: a Mourner, chanting down the wraiths of a whole village and fearing something that lived in a hole in the ground; a man and woman journeying into the depths, passing through new cities and entering older places; a young boy standing on a cliff somewhere in the west and looking out at the forest of masts spiking the sea’s horizon. Each image was imbued with the emotion of the moment, and Alishia went from fear to excitement to angst in the space of several seconds. She closed her eyes and ran.
She crossed her arms and held her hands beneath her armpits, but experiencing these spilled moments was nothing to do with touch.
Alishia stopped then, dropping to the worn timber floor, realizing suddenly where she was: this was a dream, and she was floating in Noreela’s rich and varied history. She was awash with it. She could walk forever, but she would find no walls. She could try to climb the stacks, but she would not find their summits, because they probably rose endlessly. Every truth lay here, every event, every lie and deceit and murder and rape, every meaningless moment and whispered oath lost to the winds of time, and if she wandered forever, perhaps she would know it all. History tumbled down around her and became the air of this dream library, and each time she breathed in she knew something more.
Knowledge had always been Alishia’s drug, and she closed her eyes and breathed deep.
But something was wrong. Beyond her dream the world had changed forever; something bad had come into the land. She could remember seeing Rafe taken out of the flying machine by the Mages. She could still feel the blast of heat and light in her mind that his going had inspired, and she was beginning to realize that, in a very real way, she was a vital part of this dream library. Alishia could wander here forever and never find what she was looking for, but she was not simply a visitor. This was not a random dream brought on by recent events. She was the librarian.
She gasped and awoke back into the dream. Reality had been drawing her away, and a sensation of cold came in from somewhere. She stood and shook her head. To her left the alley between book stacks curved away, disappearing. To her right, it opened out into a wide reading area. There were several tables and a dozen chairs, all with worn wood and upholstery frayed by years of use…or neglect.
Alishia frowned, hating the idea of that. There were books lying open on tables, but she was not sure whether they had been placed there, or whether they had simply fallen from stacks and dropped open.
She walked into the reading area, and as she left the space between stacks she saw the shape sitting in the far corner. Cliffs of books rose on all sides, and the light here seemed subdued. She had no idea of the source of this light, but something seemed to swallow it. The book stacks were a deep red, as though smeared with blood that had long since dried. The floor was dusty, but the dust seemed to move. The shape sat in a deep, wide chair, almost swallowed by the soft padding, and in its lap rested a heavy book. The cover was made of polished wood, the binding sewn with horse’s hair, and the figure turned the heavy pages one by one.
It was not reading the book. It was staring at Alishia. Its eyes glinted as it blinked; she knew that it was reading her.
Get out of my library,
she said in her dream, and her skin turned cold.
Already found what I need,
a voice said. The figure was still turning pages. It was almost halfway through the thick book now, and it must have been sitting there for hours waiting for her.
longer means anything to me.
It looked down at the book and its hands grew still, one supporting the tome, the other laid flat on the open page.
Alishia stepped closer and saw that the page was blank. She knew that they were all blank. Unlike everything else in the library, nothing came from this book, and it held no weight.
Where did you get that?
The figure looked up at her and something happened to the light. Its source—invisible and mysterious—shifted, and she could make out more of the thing’s face. Its features were rugged and beautiful, skin rough and attractive, and its eyes held the weight of ages.
I brought it with me,
It’s a new history, whose truth is yet to be forged.
It stood up, and cool blue flames seeped from the book in its hands.
Alishia stepped back. She felt coolness on her skin again, a tingle on her cheek and down her left arm. The fire flowed out from the book, flaring to the floor and seeping between old floorboards, lighting the space below. Alishia dropped to her knees and pressed her face to the pitted timber.
down there, it’ll
and everywhere and everywhen it touches will be destroyed.
She looked through a knothole and saw the dark space beneath illuminated by the new blue fire. Shadows danced, and they seemed to be growing closer, rising quickly from whatever depths they had been banished to.
Alishia sat up and stared at the strange figure.
How dare you!
It shrugged. And then it threw the book.
The flaming tome of blank pages struck the book stacks and exploded. Each page drifted somewhere different, the fire writing its own fiery truth on the stark white blankness. The conflagration suddenly turned from cold blue to blazing orange. Books erupted into flame, fire licked its way between covers and into the dark spaces between pages, and old truths went up in smoke, casting ash into the air and disintegrating when her panicked gaze fell upon them.
This can’t be happening. I won’t
it happen again! This is my library, and there’s so much more to know…
A wall of books tumbled and spilled toward her, and the figure laughed as it ran away. The books struck her, but the impact did not hurt. Fire roared from their dry interiors and caressed her face, but there was no pain, and she walked through the flames to the space between stacks. She ran from the flames and they reached after her, though they had no effect.
As the librarian of this place, Alishia was after all still just an idea.
AS SHE BEGAN
to wake up, Alishia could smell the mysterious scent of Kang Kang on the breeze. Floating somewhere between dream and reality she sensed the acidic tang, turned left and fell into a wall of shelving. She closed her fist around a spine and pulled out the book. It thrummed in her hand, begging to be opened, and she knew that its insides were crawling with the mysteries of that mountainous place. She was afraid of Kang Kang. She did not want to open the book. The smell hinted at memories that would come flushing back, but they were not her own. They were the memories of the land.
“Got to keep them closed,” she whispered.
“Open your Mage-shitting eyes!” a voice said. Alishia looked around, ducking low to avoid the smoke that was rapidly filling the library.
“Kang Kang,” she said, squeezing the book in her hand.
“Almost,” the other voice said. “I can smell its wrongness from here.”
The fire suddenly retreated, the smoke cleared from her lungs and Alishia sat up and opened her eyes.
“Ahh,” the second voice said. “The sleeper awakes.”
“Hope,” Alishia said.
The witch was sitting beside her, wild hair pointing at the dusky sky as if berating it. “I just know I’ll grow to hate the irony of that name.”
Alishia looked around. She saw Kosar sitting a few steps away with his back to them, head bowed. Closer, on her left, Trey was kneeling and smiling at her, though the smile was dark in his eyes. There was no Rafe. There was no A’Meer. Of course not. That was finished now. A’Meer was dead and Rafe was gone. She wondered how long ago the flame of destruction had been lit in the land.
She looked up and saw the death moon hanging heavy and fat. It gave light, but she did not like the feel of it on her skin: it reminded her of the light of those library flames. The darkness seemed false and unreal. Wrong.
“Where are we?” she said. “What…?” She trailed off, noticing the shattered ribs of the great machine that had borne them aloft. Beyond them, shadows lay close to the ground. They were no longer moving.
“We came down,” Hope said. “The machine faded and we came down.”
“My face,” Alishia said. She touched her cheek and it was warm, not cool. Her arm still tingled. She wondered whether she had been burned in her dream.