Authors: Tim Lebbon
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #General
“Sorry,” Hope said, sounding anything but. “I slapped and shook you to wake you up. You were screaming and shouting, and there’s no saying what’s out there to hear. Besides, you’ve been asleep too long.”
“What’s too long?”
“Almost a day,” Trey said.
Alishia looked at the fledge miner, smiling, and was grateful to see the smile returned. His eyes were wider than she had ever seen them. She supposed this subdued light suited him well. “It was sunset when we left the machines’ graveyard,” she said. She looked up, and though she saw no sign of the sun smearing the horizon, still it did not appear to be fully dark. The weak light was flat and unnatural, like the light in the library of her dream.
“It’s about that time again now,” Trey said. “But…” He trailed off, sketching in the dust with his finger.
“They took Rafe,” Alishia said. “He’s gone. He’s dead.”
“He’s not dead!” Hope snapped.
Alishia closed her eyes and felt the weight of what he had left her. It was an alien presence in her mind, contained yet filled with potential. It shied away from the dark. The more she sought it, the farther away it seemed to go, as if scared of what it would see through her eyes.
“He is dead,” she said, “and the magic he carried has been stolen.”
be dead!” Hope said. She shook her head and looked at each of them in turn; Alishia, Trey, Kosar’s back. “It
just end like this.”
“The Mages turned the sky dark,” Trey said. “We flew south for a while, then the machine just seemed to lose its power. It drifted lower. Its ribs started to crack and crumble. The ground shook. We dragged you into the center and sat there, and we landed here a little while ago.” He continued shaping dust and stones with his hand, as though building something new.
“But it’s dead,” Kosar said. It was the first time the big thief had spoken, and though he stood he did not turn around. He was staring out between two of the cracked ribs that had protected them for a while, silhouetted against the pale yellow light of the death moon. “It brought us down gently, but died the second it touched the ground. It’s not a machine anymore. It’s a lump of mud and rock that doesn’t belong here, and
don’t belong here, either. I don’t think we belong anywhere in Noreela.”
“There’s always hope,” the witch said. Alishia did not like the look in her eyes. There was madness there, just below the surface, a madness that seemed to shift and shape the witch’s spiraling tattoos.
“Hope has gone,” Kosar said. He turned around and looked at Alishia, but there was no interest in his eyes. He came closer and sat beside Trey, his movements weary and slow. “If there ever was hope, it was in that boy. Rafe. That poor boy.”
“We can’t be so sure he’s dead,” Hope said. “Why would they kill him? Why would the Mages come so far just to take him away and kill him?”
“They wanted what he had inside,” Alishia said.
“Of course they did,” Hope said. “Magic. But by killing him—”
him, Hope,” Alishia said. “Not really a part of him. Disconnected, a thing waiting to be born, and they opened him up and took it out.”
“Opened him up,” Kosar said, staring down at his feet.
“And how can you know all this?” Hope said. Her voice was rising, aggression showing through, and Alishia knew that the witch was terrified.
“You know how I know, Hope. You all do.” She looked at her hands, held them up to the sky to catch some of the weak moonlight. “I’m getting younger,” she said.
inside you,” Hope said. “That
who ensured that he’d die, you know.”
“That thing’s not inside me anymore.”
“How can we know that?”
“Because I’m telling you.”
“And you expect us to trust you?”
“I expect nothing, but I hope you do.” Alishia closed her eyes. “I had a dream,” she said.
“What sort of dream?” Trey came close and touched her arm, and Alishia was so grateful for the contact that she almost cried. She smiled at Trey and leaned toward him, the movement speaking volumes.
“Bad dreams,” Alishia said. “As though I have something priceless that I can’t look after forever.”
“This is all so fucking pointless,” Kosar said quietly.
They fell silent, and in the distance Alishia heard a skull raven calling into the darkness. She wondered what it had found sleeping, whose dreams it may be stealing and whether there was a volume in her dream library that would contain the knowledge of its victim.
She relished Trey’s touch, yet something felt so wrong about her body. She wondered if he could perceive that simply by touching her. She was not hungry, for a start, and her throat was not dry, and she did not need to urinate. They said she had been asleep for a whole day. The dream felt like a lifetime, but her body seemed not to notice. She was growing younger, and the tide of time seemed to be changing with her.
“It’s not pointless,” Alishia whispered at last. None of them answered—Trey merely squeezed her hand tighter—so she went on. “I’ve dreamed, Kosar, of something vast and priceless and in danger. That something is in me, and it wasn’t in me before. And I just know it’s from Rafe. He knew he was going to die. Perhaps he’d known right from the beginning. And it was his last act of defiance to pass it to me, because he knew he was also passing along his last scrap of hope.”
“So magic is fucking with us,” Kosar said. “It seeds itself in Rafe, dooms him to die, then passes itself to you. But it kills A’Meer in the meantime, and leaves us to sit and rot here. Lets itself be taken by the Mages and twisted into whatever they want. That’s good. That’s all good.”
“Magic lets nothing happen,” Alishia said. “Rafe told us that. It was so young, so passive, it was fighting to stay alive. But there’s so much below the surface of things that we can never see or understand, and I think what Rafe passed into me was an idea. A knowledge that only I can carry.”
“Why only you?” Hope said, and the envy in her voice was obvious.
“Because I’m a librarian,” Alishia said.
Hope laughed. It was a horrible sound, loud and guttural. The skull raven called again in the distance, as if in response.
“Something’s wrong with me,” Alishia said. Trey shuffled closer until she felt the heat of his flesh. “Trey, something’s wrong, and I know it’s all going to end so soon.”
“It’s ended already,” Kosar said. “Noreela will change, that’s for certain, and anyone they do leave alive will have to change along with it.”
“But I’m trying to tell you, Kosar, that there’s hope in me.”
“What sort of hope? Magic?”
Alishia shook her head, but she knew that was neither right nor wrong. “Not magic, but a route there.”
“How do you pretend to know this?”
“It’s what I feel. It’s what Rafe told me before he was taken. I don’t know; this is all so
to me. All I know is I have dreams, and something unnatural is happening to me. There’s a reason behind that, and hope within it.”
Kosar stared at her for a few heartbeats, his eyes unwavering. “The land has turned stranger than ever, and now you’ve turned too. I don’t believe a word.”
“You’ve given up.”
The thief looked down at his hands, touching fingertips together as if welcoming the pain.
“Then perhaps I’ll go to Kang Kang on my own,” Alishia said.
“Kang Kang?” Trey said.
“It’s where the machine was taking us.”
“We were heading south,” Hope said, “but that’s not to say we were going
Nobody wants to go
Alishia tried to stand but her legs were weak, her muscles fluid. Trey was by her side, helping her up instead of telling her to sit down. She leaned against him, her arm around his shoulder, his around her waist, and looked south. The landscape faded into darkness, but even against the dark sky she thought she could make out the jagged teeth of mountains on the horizon. They were low down, barely visible, yet she was certain she could see Kang Kang. The sight made her cold, but still she heard its call.
“I need to be there,” she said. “There’s something there, a place where I’ll be safe, and maybe—”
“There’s nowhere safe on Noreela anymore!” Kosar said, standing and kicking at the ground. He turned away, passing between two shattered ribs of the failed machine and walking out into the long grass.
Alishia wanted him to stop and turn back, sigh, shake his head, admit that he may be wrong and she may be right. But he became a shade in the poor light, and just before he faded from view she saw him sit and merge with the shadows gathered on the ground.
THE MAGES MADE
Lenora’s concerns about their strength were unfounded, for each new act of creation seemed to make them stronger.
They dragged rock up from the ground with a flick of their wrists, molded it, dipped it into the sea or brought the water up onto the harbor to cool and cast it into shape. Some of the remaining hawks were slaughtered and their flesh and blood put to use, clothing the machines and lubricating the joints between the stone limbs. Angel used metal from the frontage of one building to cast one machine, giving it spikes and barrels to shoot forth stones and molded metal balls when it was brought to life. S’Hivez broke down a storage hut and used the timber to make a spiderlike construct that would carry its rider low to the ground, its many legs making it fleet. The stench of magic hung across the harbor. Each time a machine was completed a nervous Krote was called forward, connected to that machine as Lenora had been attached to her own, and then they mounted and rode along the harbor wall. Unnatural silhouettes were splayed across the water, cast by the weak light from the taverns and other buildings along the harbor.
The creation went on for a long time. Angel and S’Hivez made the first few machines together, merging ideas and raw materials to make several similar constructs: four legs, tall as a Krote, fire vents and slots that could eject sharpened discs. Then Angel suddenly jumped into the harbor, sinking beneath the water and raising a wave that crashed against the mole. When she lifted herself back out on a column of steam, she drew a ruined ship up from the depths along with her. Its timbers bent to her will: its rusted metal twisted and shed its coating. Ropes and chains swirled about her head, and she clothed her new machine in a dead hawk’s hide. It seemed a mess, but when she motioned a Krote across and joined her with the new machine, its ropes began to whip and its chains to flail.
The Krote stood on the thing’s back and urged it toward a timber house at the harbor’s edge. In the space of a few heartbeats, the house was in ruins.
As Angel moved on to another creation, the waterfront was soon lit by various fires as the Krotes experimented with their weapons of war. A couple of buildings erupted into flames, but mostly the warriors kept the fire to themselves, learning how to manipulate their machines’ limbs, bodies or other parts—juggling flame, swiping with cutting things, becoming accustomed to the poison vents in their mounts’ hides or the places where discs and arrows could be loaded and ejected. The whole scene was cast onto the water as grotesque, dancing shadows.
Lenora walked her own machine amongst her Krotes, already comfortable with how it felt beneath her, and how she could touch its most basic mind with her own. But this was far different from the hawks, she realized. This thing was not really alive. It had not evolved or grown out of nature: it had been created, and it had no purpose other than to follow her bidding. It would not require food or water, sleep or rest. Lenora thought back to the final days of the Cataclysmic War. The Mages’ machines had been mighty, but there had been something missing from them that was already evident in these new constructs: a spark of consciousness. The war machines of old, driven by magic though they were, had relied on their riders to initiate every move, gears and magical power routes cast into their bodies and often subject to fault or damage. Now these new machines were part construct, part animal. They had the stone and metal, flesh and blood of the old machines, but these conjoined elements were more than just building blocks; they made the machines whole.
The Mages had twisted their new magic even further than before.