By Chris Willrich

“Desert of Algeria” by Dourach21

TWO ARMIES CAME to Karthagar, beside the Ruby Waste.

The army of the west rumbled with the feet of nine thousand troopers and pulsed with the rising and falling of eighty lantern-standards gleaming in the likenesses of griffons and wyrms, trolls and angels, all the legendary beasts of those lands. At their fore strode red-maned Nayne, princess of the Eldshore, she who had conquered the lands to the Midnight Sea’s margin and asked, “What else is left?”

The army of the east murmured with the grunts of five thousand camels and fluttered with the dive and weave of fifty banner-kites in the likenesses of phoenixes and dragons, foxfolk and immortals. In their midst walked the dark-bearded prince Xur of the Autumn Dynasty, who had conquered all fertile countries beyond his empire’s ramparts and asked, “Is this all there is?”

When each had asked their questions a year ago, their councilors, geographers, soothsayers, and poets had fallen silent. But certain tough-footed caravaners with gaps in their smiles had answered, “Beyond your outposts one arrives at deserts of increasing fury, until one beholds that Ruby Waste whose sands glitter like powdered gems set afire. Here a nation of sorcerers burned their empire to crystal grains, and none may endure the glare.”

“If so,” prince Xur had mused, “how can you gap-toothed merchants proffer goods from the barbarous west?”

“O Resplendence,” they had responded, “the caravan road skirts the Waste, and there passes the portal of Karthagar.”

“And what,” princess Nayne had demanded, “is Karthagar, that it commands the route to the decadent east?”

“Ah, my Terror,” they had answered, “Karthagar is the City of Peace, where travelers sip sweet nectars in gardens astride murmuring fountains among statues of gold.”

“Gold?” the rulers had exclaimed.

“Yes: witness the golden lions you see in my hand, tails intertwined… and there are gems of rare purity upon the fingers and earlobes of the Karthagarians, and there are subtle bees spinning honey delicate as desert mist, and there are ingenious toys and contrivances of strange magic.”

“Who rules this city,” the prince had wondered, “that such treasures should stay unplundered?”

“Who guards it,” the princess had exclaimed, “that it can be named the City of Peace?”

And their other informants, thus pressed, had uneasily related the rumors and legends, half-truths and crazed mutterings that were told of Karthagar. But it was the quite precise descriptions offered by the gap-toothed merchants that had made Nayne narrow her eyes and Xur finger his beard.

And a year later, two armies came to Karthagar beside the Ruby Waste.

The roads to Karthagar are desolate and haunted by whorl-o-wisps and parchmen and stranger things. Few merchants survive to kiss the city’s fountains; fewer still reach east or west with stories. Thus the armies marched in mutual ignorance, until they rumbled almost to Karthagar’s threshold, dust clouds fluttering behind like scarlet capes.

Now before each army fanned peculiar scouts: men and women accustomed not to wastelands but to cramped cabins aboard galleys and junks, cabins rich in brine-scent peppered with the dust of old grimoires. These were the weatherworkers. Theirs was a hard lot, breaking calms and taming storms. But beside sifting a thousand dunes for a dozen raindrops, the sea was paradise. And none missed paradise more than Blim the Damp.

Cursing everyone born two miles inland (his princess born two and a quarter), Blim the Damp spilled down a vermilion dune between scarlet ridges beneath an ochre sky. “Red,” he pronounced when he stopped. “Red, red, and what would you know? Red. And just when I’d accused the landscape of monotony. My apologies.” He offered the cliffs a graceful, mocking bow and then savagely swatted red dust from robes of formerly-cheerful blue. He was a blight upon the crimson: a lanky old man, his skin kelp-brown, his hair a gray-dun afterthought like a flattened sandfort after the surf. The back of his leathery right hand flashed an incongruous blue tattoo, of an anchor beneath a thunderhead.

Had Blim looked northeast then, he might have beheld Karthagar. But a voice rustled, “True. It is monotony. But now you are here.”

Blim whirled and beheld a billowing composite of wide, leathery strips loosely conjoined like an amateur scarecrow. Upon the strips coiled archaic black symbols framed by repulsive illuminations that seemed the work of small, cruel children. The desiccated binding of some lost mystic tome framed the thing’s head like a peaked hat, and in the darkness beneath there burned, not eyes, but twin wisps, which in Blim’s language denoted dialogue.

The quotation marks glared a heat like secondary suns.

Blim edged backward, dragging along the heavy pack he’d carried since his horse perished the day before. The parchman followed the path thus inscribed in the sand.

“Speak,” the parchman said. “Tell all. Where you were born, whom you have loved, what is your favorite wine with fish. Fill the void. I am so lonely and dry.”

Blim lunged for the pack, threw on a heavy seaman’s coat. He felt he would bake inside it, but his magic required inappropriate garb for the weather.

He began chanting the Algebra of Atmospheres.

“That is no true language,” the parchman complained, and fluttered forward to quiver beside Blim. Dry mold crinkled Blim’s nose. “I will take your story, if you’ll not speak.” Six parchment corners slashed Blim’s chest, where the coat hung open. He toppled.

Looking up he saw new red writing slithering across the parchment leaves, forming letters in Roil, the language of the Eldshore. Transfixed, Blim read:

Blim. Called “The Damp.” 732-797 E.Y. Weatherworker, casualty of the Karthagar campaign. A penchant for sweat, a compensatory relish in bathing, and a glum demeanor all contributed to Blim’s title. But curmudgeon’s clothes hid a romantic. Orphaned by a hurricane at twelve, he would deny this disaster ordained his career. Rather, a cruel orphanage triggered introverted pleasures: mathematics, history, magic. Dogged not brilliant, wiry not hefty, he got on well with ordinary sailors and won friends among weatherworkers. Alas, all these friends perished on the road to Karthagar. A patriot (not a fanatic) he

The words ceased.

“Such a sour, pungent damp… I would have more.” The parchman made a fluttering grasp.

Blim scurried backward, desperately incanting to the dry air. (Your humidity, O air, is merely f. Could we not have j? Further I require a pummeling wind of force k. You are not cooperating, O air. I repeat…) Wind fluttered the parchman’s pages, but the creature advanced, ravenous for living ink.

Then a new voice sang three sharp, pure notes.

A miniature storm arose.

Blim looked up and swore.

There dwelled also in these deserts the whorl-o-wisps, artifacts of dry winds soldered by the intellects of dead magi. One such howled around them now, its guiding skull spiraling overhead, sheltering a cold blue flame that licked out the mouth and eye sockets like the tendrils of jellyfish. Blim began a prayer to the sea; then, astonished, he realized the skull had come to his aid. Hssss….. it said in the wind’s voice – not to threaten, but to curse she who sang commands. For instead of leeching moisture as was its pleasure, the whorl-o-wisp spattered rain upon man and parchman.

It was a frugal rain, but it streaked the fresh red writing, smeared the old black words, drooped the pages, dimmed the glaring eyes.

Blim looked away for only a moment – but seeing Miy Who Sings Storms had the effect of a thunderflash.

He sensed at once she was a weatherworker, cut from the same cloth as he. But it was a cloth, he thought, soaked in finer dyes, embroidered by hands that commingled grace and cunning.

Perhaps fifty years old, Miy Who Sings Storms (though he did not yet know her name, knowing only it must be beautiful) had yellow-brown skin and black hair streaked with regal silver whipping in a playful, rippling braid. Her own magic did not seem to require inappropriate dress, for sea-green silk robes cradled a short, strong body toughened by scaling masts and hunkering through storms. A sharp nose belied the fierce grin below and the laugh-lines above, and her eyes showed a deadly concentration.

This evaluation took one long moment (so Blim later claimed.) But distraction and long life were rare bedfellows; he resumed his work.

(Take wind of force m, yes very fine, increase to o, that’s the way, focus to radius r, excellent! Where r equals one parchman-head…)

Wind lashed out; the parchman reeled. Its quotation-mark eyes went dark, becoming thin coils of smoke. It toppled.

The whorl-o-wisp moaned with hunger.

But the woman’s song gained pitch… and it was as if Blim had known this partner always, her music the inspiration for his muttered calculations. Her voice attained an eerie pitch, as if crying, faster, harder, fiercer.

The skull quivered, spun, and flung itself against the red ridge to northward. It splintered into white fragments, spilling earthward as an arrow of blue flame shot skyward, gone.

Panting, Blim knelt over the parchman’s oozing remains. “Chateau d’If ’50,” he told it. “Goes wonderfully with salmon.” He kicked the head into a ditch.

He shucked his coat and, teetering, bowed to his rescuer.

She bowed (rather more gracefully) in return, and when she said “[…]” to him, he thought her unknown language the loveliest of tongues.

“Thank you, O beautiful and deadly woman.” He smiled. “No doubt you are asking some questions: if I am sound, if I need further assistance, if the foolish grin on my face will ever fade. Alas, I cannot appreciate your words. I suppose it is too much to hope you speak Roil?”

“[…]” she agreed in sympathy.

“Well. I am Blim the Damp.” He touched his shoulder, enthused, “Blim.”

“Blim,” she repeated, sporting a girlish victory-grin. She mirrored his motion. “Miy,” she said. “Miy […]”

“Miy. The name’s lovely. Well. I am a weatherworker, Miy, serving Nayne. I suppose ‘Nayne’ is meaningless? Naturally. No doubt it would disgust my princess to know her fame hasn’t leapt instantly to the five corners of the earth. I gather you are a weatherworker yourself. Perhaps from Karthagar?”

Miy’s eyes widened like fresh tidepools. “Karthagar,” she exclaimed, and waved a hand. Blim, lately distracted by horror and beauty, looked up, and nearly fell to his knees.

Beyond, across a mile of barren sand, rose a low mountain of russet rock, bare as the tip of Blim’s skull. He’d taken it for a natural formation, but it was not so. Not quite.

He plucked a spyglass from his robe.

The mountain was natural – but beginning a thousand feet up, construction swept into view: windows, galleries, stairways, courtyards, all cunningly nestled within windshaped hollows, or rippling along mineral seams. And statues – there were rows of beatific mystics, columns of noble soldiers, balustrades of cat-headed gods. So well did this stonework blend into the natural grain, that to banish human works Blim needed but lower the spyglass and relax his eyes. But he could not ignore the brush of cool wind upon his cheek, nor shutter his ears from the dim roar.

Astonishingly, the mountaintop must cradle a spring, for a dozen waterfalls kissed the rock, spilling among the carvings and hollows, painting the air with silver mists and rainbows.

“Karthagar,” his dry lips whispered.

Blim’s journey had been hard.

All Eldshore’s weatherworkers, now a bitter crew of twenty, had shambled before Nayne’s army, bidding their Algebra to sniff hints of moisture from the desert. Another forty lay behind in shallow cairns. The survivors made signs against death, and the signs were words, words like “weak,” “mewling,” “old,” and with these words they mocked the dead and their own fear of death.

But the dead had not been weak. One was hard as oak, and died in a desert that required the strength of stone. Another strong as stone died when iron was demanded, and one as iron, died when steel was demanded. Those of steel remained, and feared.

Except Blim. He survived because he was as dogged as water, and was expert in finding it. And he flowed away from trouble.

He was loyal, the parchman had that right. He’d served the Eldshore fleet long and honorably for his reward of rodent-free cabins, soft bread and moldless cheese, last year’s wine. He could indulge Nayne’s desire for this country or that. But now her lusts soared beyond the mountains of ambition, into the thin air of insanity. To escape that madness and those who fed upon it, Blim had outpaced his comrades by a day.

Now he must choose. Return to the madness with a prisoner, as doctrine demanded? Or follow this woman back to (as Blim believed) her city of Karthagar, and learn something of the place?

For she gestured just such an invitation.

In the end, he could not imagine taking this lovely rescuer prisoner (even could he succeed.) And so before long they walked together toward Karthagar like a young couple on a stroll.

Beyond the city spread the sands of the Ruby Waste – countless tiny, gleaming crystals, an ultimate desert that cut a brilliant swath, as of forge-light pooling beneath a blacksmith’s door. For a time Blim’s world became little more than a glare of red and white. Then he squinted forth details. He saw how Karthagar’s waterfalls foamed into a moat flaking the Waste, how the moat spawned a stream, how the stream wended valiantly into the Waste before expiring.

And something else lay out there… two enormous statues of lions, the size of small keeps, sunk to their haunches in the Waste’s sparkling sand. One crouched, surveying the land with what seemed a vast and terrible patience. The other sat upright with one paw in the sky, as if ready to play with caravans as cats toy with ants. The beasts wore their stone manes in a severe and regal style, like headdresses.

“What,” Blim whispered, “what is their purpose?”

“[…]” answered his companion, her voice betraying the same awe. Perhaps one never tired of these great beasts.

They arrived at the moat, Karthagar’s bulk looming above, and crossed the water upon one of several untended barges of woven reeds. Opposite the barges loomed a large, bowl-shaped harbor of stone set against the mountain rock, resembling a flooded amphitheater. Looking down it even seemed to Blim the sunken region was carefully and soundly sculpted, for what purpose he could not guess.

But then he looked wonderingly at Miy, paddling beside him as though born to it, even though she, as a Karthagarian, must never have seen the ocean or even a proper river… and the mystery of the bowl was forgotten.

Miy smiled at his stare, and nodded at the moat’s far side. Blushing, he followed her gaze.

The Karthagarians were waiting.

They were a tall folk clad in white togas, and as they secured the barge and helped the travelers onto the narrow stone pier, Blim saw they resembled Miy but little. A woman stepped forward and extended her hands with palms cupped upward, as if bearing a benison of water. She was angular of face, golden of skin, and blinked smoky amber eyes with oval pupils that sliced vertically like a cat’s.

She, like the others, wore a gold pin representing the great lions of the sands, their tales enlaced.

Blim, you fool, he suddenly thought. Miy was no Karthagarian. They were two travelers, and had danced each other into an uncertain welcome. As if sharing his thoughts, Miy looked at him and shrugged. By unspoken consent they both bowed.

“Karthagar [*]” said the leader, in a second tongue unknown to Blim. She touched the visitors’ shoulders.

The travelers chattered simultaneously, confessing their wonder and bafflement. Then they fell silent at the same time, stared at each other, then leaned against each other, chuckling.

It was strange, Blim thought, how good it was after the brutal march simply to laugh, simply to touch a friend.

A friend? Yes, after the parchman and this shared blunder, Miy of Wherever did seem a friend.

Their welcomers smiled serenely and indicated a tunnel, blinking their smoky eyes.

The ascent was steep and shadowy, requiring numerous switchbacks and rest breaks, allowing Blim ample opportunity to worry about time. He had perhaps a day before the Eldshore army arrived and he became trapped among angry Karthagarians. Beyond that, there was Nayne. Should his adventure displease her, he might find himself decapitated, hanged, immolated, or drawn and quartered. Or all.

So preoccupied was Blim, he stumbled when he emerged into a grand gallery sharp with sunlight yet cool of breeze.

At first he could not absorb it all, for a roaring of waterfalls reverberated beyond a balcony, and then a bearish shadow loomed, seized his shoulder, and bellowed, “By the Sea-Crone’s fang! An Eldshorer! A weatherworker, even! Glom the Recluse is the name.” The man pounded Blim’s arm.

Dizzily, Blim admitted, “Blim. Blim the Damp… you are an Eldshorer?” More dubiously: “A recluse?”

“Indeed!”

Blim rubbed his dazzled eyes. “How came you,” he asked, “to be here, at the edge of the civilized world?”

“Edge?” Glom scoffed. He withdrew a step to address the perplexed Miy, including her within the vast arc sketched by his arms. “Nay, center, rather. This is Karthagar, the dry, still heart of our stormy earth. Surely you know this, since your companion is from the continent’s other extreme?” And here Glom bowed to Miy and spoke warmly, “[…].”

Blim, nonplussed, watched Miy cover a smile with three fingers, and yet return the bow with great dignity. He felt oddly proud of her.

Miy then grew serious, and earnestly explained herself to Glom the Recluse.

This singularly mis-titled person, now that Blim’s senses had adjusted to the assault of light and sound, stood revealed as an Eldshorer indeed. Upon the bearded man’s waving right hand glinted the star-and-anchor tattoo of Eldshore’s regular navy, although he wore a white Karthagarian toga, with the ubiquitous golden lion-pin. Beyond this gallery’s balcony, Blim could look down upon the lions’ prototypes, imposing even from a thousand feet up.

Glom thumped Blim’s shoulder. “Ah, the lions,” Glom said as Blim restored his balance. “They have ancient names. Very ancient. But I like to call them Rampant and Couchant.”

“What do they commemorate?”

“That is a long, dry tale… But ah! I am neglecting Miy Who Sings Storms.”

As Blim repeated to himself Miy’s sonorous title, the Karthagarians stiffened at her next words.

Glom’s smile vanished like water from a fallen flask, spilling into sand. Miy spread her arms hopelessly and looked to Blim, her gaze fleeing the others’ stares. “What is it?” Blim asked her, uselessly. She lowered her head.

Glom replied: “Your companion is a weatherworker like yourself. She scouts water for the army of prince Xur of the Autumn Dynasty of the Empire of Walls. He who would claim our city for his own. A day long anticipated has come, when the outer world brings its horrors to Karthagar.” Glom looked downward, and he fingered his lion-pin. “Miy offers her regrets.”

The dreadful words quivered in Blim’s throat that would condemn him as well: that against all likelihood two armies came to topple Karthagar.

But he remained silent, to his shame.

Yet the Karthagarian response proved more puzzling than grim.

“It seems wrong,” Blim said an hour later, “to slurp water and melon, hear poetry upon this balcony, while Miy lies detained.”

Blim now masqueraded as a lone wanderer, fleeing the wars of the West. Glom’s history was similar, and he had offered to entertain his countryman.

“She is nearly as comfortable as you,” Glom said, his cheerfulness somewhat restored. “But the murder council must question her.”

“Murder council?” Blim paused and belched. “Miy’s no murderer.”

“Perhaps. But invasion is the murder council’s business. Karthagarians have no word for ‘war’ as such, terming it instead ‘murder-under-flag.'”

“Strange.”

Glom smiled. “I used to agree.”

A Karthagarian poet’s voice rose in strength and cadence. The young woman spread her arms, and Blim would have been awestruck by her charms, had not the impish grin of Miy Who Sings Storms danced before his eyes. The poet’s audience began nodding, swaying, one or two silently weeping, long tears spearing beneath amber eyes.

“What does she say?” he asked Glom.

“It is an old poem. The main part is something like:

‘The killer walks with me 

The killer walks with me 

Her breath is hot upon my neck 

Her words are hot within my ear. 

I must take her hand. 

If she walks ahead, she will murder others 

If she walks behind, she will murder me. 

I must take her hand 

And walk forever by her side.'”

“A grim philosophy,” said Blim.

“Indeed! But to one who’s fought, it seems apt.”

Blim, who had fought, was less certain. He glanced at the nooks in this stone balcony, which sheltered hundreds of scrolls, tablets, and codices, nestled among skulls. “Why do they leave books out here, among the dead?”

“These balconies are libraries. The skulls were once librarians.”

Blim let his ladle clatter on his water bowl’s rim. The Karthagarian turned their heads like cats spotting a moth. Then they resumed their listening. “Are the books safe, exposed to the elements?”

Glom chuckled. “Rather,” he said, “the citizens are safe from exposure to the books.”

“They hoard books, yet fear reading?”

“Books, Karthagarians say, seduced the old sorcerers, those who created the Ruby Waste. Books lured them from life’s substance, into realities made of words. Upon these balconies, a reader cannot forget the world: sun, wind, stone – and the Waste. A trace of the old power remains. Occasionally a tome spins away on the wind, forming a new parchman, or a skull shoots off, becoming a whorl-o-wisp.”

Baffled, Blim shook his head. “Are you a full citizen, Glom? Do you understand Karthagar?”

Glom’s amused eyes cradled a chill. “Yes. And partly.”

“These people, with their strange opinions – they will be kind to Miy?”

“Oh, yes. Karthagarians are rarely cruel. But do not underestimate them for that.” Glom paused, for the poet’s voice leapt, then hushed, as though the final stanza plummeted over a cliff. Then she rose and shelved her codex beside a grinning former librarian.

The audience did not applaud, but made obeisance toward the stone lions in the northwest, their eyes averted from Blim, as though embarrassed.

Atop Karthagar’s ruddy stone mountain spread a lush plateau, like a green silk tablecloth draped over a cedar table. Three fountains rose at the center, their streams feeding orchards, pastures, fields of rice and corn. Every level spot, and some not so level, sheltered life, whether an interlace of blossoming apple trees or a lone barrel cactus capping a spire, itself lofting a solitary rose.

Blim, who had known the cheery farmlands of the Contrariwise Coast and the lush forests of Swanisle, had never seen the delirium-beauty of life reclaimed from deserts.

“Do you have weatherworkers,” he exclaimed, “to secure all this?”

Glom laughed. “Karthagar’s wizards deal in trifles. They raise toy thunderstorms to mist a tomato patch or tickle a child. You and Miy outmaster them all. No, ancient sorcerers called those fountains from the depths.”

Glom brought them to a vast purple tent kissed by the fountains’ spray. The flapping canvas was secured to a dozen tall statues of imperious-looking Karthagarians, but the interior swarmed with live, informal-seeming Karthagarians. They debated upon the carpeted and pillow-strewn floor, each speaker greeted with warm murmurs or soft hisses.

“They discuss the invasion?” Blim said, taking a seat near the edge.

Glom nodded, joining him.

“What is the gist?”

Glom said, “`Should we fight?'”

“How large is your army?”

“We are the army.”

“All of you? Yet you dislike violence.”

“Did I say that?” Glom’s easy manner gave way to the look sailors wore, when they discussed the worst storms of their lives. “I suppose that is true. I agree with the poem: we need not kill. But we are killers.”

As the debate progressed, Blim’s gaze drifted to the blank eyes of the statues. Where the living Karthagarians were amiably grave, these figures seemed haughty, possessed of regal garb such as Blim had seen nowhere in the city. They wore headdresses, however, that resembled the great lions far below.

The predatory look of these statues gave Blim unease.

“Karthagarians have feline traits,” he remarked. “They sculpt lions. Yet I’ve seen no cats.”

“The Karthagarians resemble cats,” Glom said cheerfully. “They do not love them.”

The debates concluded. Proctors selected winners, judging the quality of sighs evoked by the contestants’ names. After Glom sighed for his favorite, Blim asked, “You vote on the course of action?”

“No, Blim. The murder council has already called for war.”

“But – but what was the point of this debate?”

“Pleasure in their skill.” And Glom joined the communal hum for the three greatest.

Then singers warred, then tumblers, and then toymakers with whirring magical automatons of gold.

Blim was left scratching his bald spot. “Who rules this strange city?”

“Ah,” Glom laughed, “you begin to glimpse Karthagar’s nature. You expected some mad despot, waving ministers upon this strange errand or that, hands sticky with the juice of peeled grapes?”

“No – a dry old crone who speaks in riddles, cackling about mortal foolishness.”

“Ha! Well, it is neither. Karthagar is run to some degree by the elected high council, but even more it is ruled by custom.”

Blim made claws of his fingers, confused. “Should not this high council declare war, not your murder council?”

“The high council’s duty is bureaucracy. It supervises the other councils, into which the whole population is drafted. At some time, all must serve on a council, handling the dirty business of life – murder, waste, harvests, slaughtering, recordkeeping, dusting.”

“This is a mad city.”

“In time, you’ll prefer it to the sanity of the West. Or the East.”

Now the champions from all contests returned to kneel. Sighs filled the chamber. “Is this,” Blim guessed, “all you do outside the councils? Entertainments?”

“What would you have us do?”

Blim surprised himself with his passion. “Learn. Explore. Taste all the spices of the world, those that can touch the tongue, and those that can touch only the heart. I began with nothing, and I will end with nothing, except the life I’ve tasted.”

He leaned back, with the startlement of one who’s spoken from the soul. He barely heard Glom reply, “In quests for betterment, for stimulation, perished the ancient sorcerers. Instead, we celebrate.”

“Yet,” Blim answered, “huddled within your citadel, what can you celebrate?”

Glom coughed, and the lion-pin trembled with golden flashes upon his robe. “We celebrate peace,” he said. “So fragile, so precious. You will understand.”

At last the murder council released Miy. Blim embraced her outside a vast public bath carved into a mountainside hollow. He beamed at her like a boy.

“How are you?” he asked, and grinned at her cheerful, unintelligible answer.

Glom smiled, but with sad eyes. “This bath,” he said, ushering them toward it, “is the lowest of nine. The waterfall feeding this place serves no other purpose until it plunges two thousand feet into the moat.” Pools glimmered at many levels. Subdued laughter tinkled and echoed through the vast space. Light and mist breathed from balconied gaps, and various channels sucked the cascade for bathwater. Blim felt a trifle giddy at how easy it would be to step off a balcony and follow the waterfall to the distant sand.

He squeezed Miy’s hand. She nodded back, holding his gaze. Their messages were wordless, but Blim hoped Miy read his concern. The worry-lines of her eyes merely underscored her beauty. Perhaps, like Blim, she regretted bringing war to this place.

Yet unlike him, Miy had chosen honesty. Hers was a bolder soul.

She proved it by taking no notice of the bathers’ smoky-eyed stares. Disrobing, she swam deep into the pool, drawing muted comments before pushing back to stand near Blim. Her body was lean and strong, the veteran of long journeys. Her braid of hair curled along the surface, obscuring her curves a trifle, thus making her all the more alluring. Blim swallowed. Despite the attractions of both water and companion, he suddenly felt it would be indecorous to undress… He removed his sandals and sat upon the ledge, dangling his calloused feet. The bathwater felt astonishingly good. As did Miy’s amused grin, which seemed to say, Do I frighten you, old man?

But Miy’s eyes betrayed the worry behind her mirth.

She said “[…]” and laughed with a toss of the head. Glom relayed: “‘A bath beside a waterfall,’ she says. ‘What more could we two desire?'”

The fall was like a flashflood drowning the empty air, chilling the mountainside gap. Blim watched it, thinking hard. Did Miy intend to tap the miniature weather system, in a crazy attempt at escape?

And if so, should he be mad beside her?

Glom was unexpectedly sober. “Blim,” he said abruptly, “you fled Eldshore’s navy. Did you fight with it?”

Blim shifted his attention with difficulty. “Nayne’s current hungers are focused inland. I’ve seen skirmishes… nothing you’d dignify as ‘war.'”

“Dignify! Not the word I’d use. I served at the Isle of Mazes.”

Blim raised his eyebrows. “The land Nayne butchered for gold? My ship wasn’t involved.”

Glom watched Blim carefully. “Well, I’m happy for you. I cannot forget their wretched icaromorphs screaming in their rookeries, falling as our arrows flew. Or their tauric warriors raging through our decks and goring our sailors – too late to save their land, but soon enough to cost me friends.” He shook his head. “I suppose your skirmishes gave you a taste, Blim, and I don’t presume to judge your experience, you’re older than I…”

“The polite term is ‘wiser.'”

“Heh. Forgive. Nevertheless – I’ve seen war. And I learned that beneath all the pomp and pride, war is just glorified piracy. We took everything the Mazers had, even their lives if they got in the way, or looked at us askance.”

Miy rose, dripping. Blim blushed, but she fixed him with an intent gaze. Glom translated some of their conversation for her.

Blim mused, watching Miy, “I think it is not always about theft. The Mazers themselves fought for just reasons, no? I think I can admit that, here, in this city of peace. But beyond that… for some, war offers a sweetness, a taste of life.” Blim frowned. “I’ve seen that hunger in princess Nayne’s sweet face.”

“Sweetness?” Glom said. “Then you believe the noble lies.”

Blim was nettled. “No, Glom, I’d say war is ignoble and true. People hunger for worth, for friendship, for the sense of being alive. There are better, much better ways to feed that urge…” His eyes drifted again to Miy. “But people will eat garbage if there’s nothing better to hand.”

“Then repast in Karthagar, friend Blim, for our feast is greater.”

Glom’s earnest words moved Blim. “I am not an idealist, Glom… I willingly served mad Nayne, out of old tired loyalty. I doubt I’m worthy of your table.”

Glom translated the gist to Miy, and she answered at some length.

“It seems you are much alike,” Glom said unhappily. “Miy too believes war feeds our desires. Only she says, ‘There is more. We long for destruction. We long to meet our doom halfway.‘ Excuse me,” he murmured. “I myself long for cooler air.” Glom rose and walked toward the waterfall.

Blim could not shake the feeling there was a test here, and the weatherworkers had failed.

Miy, however, had other concerns. She waved her hand, the gesture embracing the chamber. Then she slammed fist to palm.

We must act, her hands clearly said. Are you with me? Odd that Blim understood her so well. Yet he’d shared a weatherworking with her. He felt bound to Miy Who Sings Storms, who’d saved his life.

Blim’s insides were wrenched in two directions. So far from the sea, he’d floundered upon a place of comfort, a haven where men and women seemed truly at peace.

Yet he’d already betrayed this place.

And tasting paradise had freed him to speak aloud his desires. He wanted to experience life to the full, freely, neither toiling for tyrants nor reclining in ease.

One chance, then.

He nodded, hoping it conveyed Yes, beautiful Miy, I’m with you, to the five corners and the outer void. 

Glom reappeared with towels and togas and a pensive look. Miy dressed lightly; but Blim made a show of falling into the water. He thus had an excuse to fling upon himself every towel in reach.

Glom watched him with a frown. “Blim… Please trust me. The two of you must stay deep within the mountain tonight.”

Blim looked up beneath a dripping mass of towels. “Why is that?”

As Glom drew breath to answer, Miy began to sing.

The waterfall-spray leapt to obey Miy Who Sings Storms, spattering hard rain against the startled Karthagarians. Miy grinned like a schoolgirl who’d splashed a bucket on a boy.

Glom tried to grapple her; but Blim was there, blocking Glom in his ungainly armor of towels. Thus overdressed, he muttered his own conjuration to the wind.

In language Blim and Miy were bunglers. In weather, they danced. Miy caught the gist of Blim’s Algebra of Atmospheres, and altered her composition to match. It was as if, having suffered the desert, the weatherworkers had whole typhoons pent up inside them.

In the furious little storm Glom lost his balance and fell into the cold pool.

As they fled, Blim noticed a glint of gold upon the tiles: Glom’s pin. Acting on intuition, he reached for it. But Glom, scrambling from the pool, grabbed Blim’s hand, accidentally driving the pin’s needle into the flesh. Shrieking, Blim startled Glom and won free.

“Blim!” Glom called. “Miy! […]! Come back, it’s not safe

But Miy flashed a grin, and Blim knew she was going to leap.

He joined her.

What he’d said to Glom was true: one hungered for a richness, a sweetness to life. War, terrible as it was, could feed that longing.

But then, leaping a two-thousand-foot waterfall could do the job as well. Perhaps (thought Blim as he lost his towels and his fine Karthagarian meals) one day such activities might supplant bloodshed.

He would have to think about that, if he lived.

Miy and Blim’s music and mathematics sculpted the winds eternally sighing past Karthagar, narrowed them like potter’s clay into a thick column that cushioned their plunge. Far more gently than he could believe, Blim plunged into Karthagar’s moat.

Dazed and dripping, they emerged and wobbled a winding retreat through hot sand that lapped at every stray drop. Blim discovered he still held Glom’s pin. Indeed, he had been so distracted from pain that the needle still stabbed his palm. He plucked it loose. Blood marred the gold.

He stumbled; for a moment he hallucinated.

From a high vantage he saw two fleeing humans, dark antlike specks in the red desert.

His sight cleared. He urged Miy to greater haste.

At sunset, Miy and Blim reached the rocky ridge flanking the southern sands around Karthagar. Now that his brain clutched at ideas beyond flee, Blim squinted west and spotted the glows of half a dozen Western-style lanterns, cresting a distant rise.

Before he could touch Miy’s arm, a voice behind him snarled “[…]!”

In short order, and despite Miy’s appeals (it seemed weatherworkers earned as much respect in the east as west), Blim the Damp obligingly knelt before prince Xur of the Autumn Dynasty, a dark-bearded young man of pleasant form and bearing, if slightly plump of body, whose fingers were stained with the juice of peeled grapes. Yet the eyes within the baby fat reminded Blim of river stones (ah to see a real river!) polished by winter ice.

Xur intoned grave questions in a voice still a touch boyish. Upon his silken robes glinted a golden lion-pin.

“Ah,” Blim said, staring at the pin, “your Incomparableness, I fear – and that is no mere platitude – that I do not comprehend your tongue.”

Xur frowned and tried another language. At Blim’s helpless gesture the prince took up a third, and this belonged to Mirabad, a far southern port that knew Blim’s feet of decades ago, weaving from one carouse to another.

“Those are my people,” he managed to say, inclining his head toward the sunset’s last purple, and the lantern-banners massing beneath.

They guard Karthagar?” Xur touched his pin. “Tales say much gold, no army.”

Gradually, Blim conveyed how, through a jest of fate, two armies came to Karthagar. Miy followed with her own story. At last Xur nodded and said, “My weatherworker says you lie to her, Blim Who is Damp. She says you never speak of your army. Act like lone traveler.”

“No!” Blim said, aghast. While he feared for his own head, worse was an angry Miy. “I wanted to fool Karthagar. Not Miy.”

Miy’s face was cold. Blim understood he’d misjudged her. She was fully loyal to her prince and his cause, even if she pitied Karthagar. What else had he expected? That they’d slip off together into the hills? Live on wild berries and desire?

I am not merely Damp, he thought, I am Blim the Wet. Wet as a newborn, and every bit as bright.

Xur did not translate Blim’s words. He said, “You were wise, Blim Who Is Damp. This Miy Who Sings Storms should not enter Karthagar alone, reveal all. But Xur is kind. She lose one hand only.”

Xur snapped the order as Blim cried out, rushing toward Miy.

Between the restraining arms of soldiers he saw the blade swing, saw Miy, blood leaping from the stump of her wrist.

He screamed his outrage, even as red droplets touched him. And as he touched the blood, Glom’s golden pin lay in his hand.

And across the sands the Lion Rampant studied the lantern-standards and torchfires of the human swarms, and the second taste of blood in as many hours roused her stony mind. 

And beside her the Lion Couchant shared the taste and quivered a moment, spawning tiny avalanches of sand.

The vision faded.

Xur said, “Now, come, Blim. Armies meet.”

Soon, with the stars honed to sharp brilliance overhead, the greatest sovereigns of the known earth met across a gap blossoming with torchfire and lantern-light. The glows emphasized the cold glint in Xur’s eyes, and polished the sharp bones of princess Nayne’s face.

As it happened both rulers knew the tongue of Mirabad. And it was as if they’d known each other all along. Blim found his fury settling upon them equally.

Nayne said, “Our goal. The same.”

“Yes,” answered Xur, touching his gold pin.

“A token only, that is.”

“This one,” said Xur waving a negligent hand at Miy, who lay curled and moaning upon a litter. “She spoke of riches. And you,” he snapped at Blim. “You agree?”

Blim nodded from where he knelt beside Miy. Nayne noticed him at last. “Him. Bring him up.”

Miy weakly grasped his wrist with her surviving hand before they dragged him away. The surviving weatherworkers of Eldshore called mockeries at him, before Nayne silenced them with a stare. “I know you,” she said in Roil. “The lost weatherworker.”

“Yes.”

“Speak up.”

“Yes, my Terror.”

“You entered Karthagar alone.”

“Yes, my Terror. I did.”

Nayne said, “And so revealed us to this Xur.”

“Majesty, who on earth could expect two armies…”

“Silence. I should slay you… And yet, I am not wholly displeased. It seems to me fate must have willed this, that my quest for Karthagar was but a lure to ensure a confrontation with the east.” She smiled. “Perhaps you should die anyway, but you are an old man, and I am not unfair. And you have knowledge. Now speak.”

Blim choked back the foul tastes of fear and rage. “Karthagar means you no harm. They are generous, even to agents of invaders.”

“Then,” said the girl, “the rumors were true. Karthagar is guarded only by the height of its cliffs, the heat of its sands, the bribes of its citizens.”

Blim looked across the sands at Karthagar, at its lions. His heart told him she was wrong.

“Princess,” said Blim, raising his voice. “You are of Eldshore, as am I.”

Nayne’s eyebrows rose.

“Have you by chance witnessed a hurricane, such as we have from time to time?”

“The palace is inland, insulated from weather, invasions, and city riffraff.”

“Nevertheless, you may have seen such storms on the western horizon. At such times we of the coast recognize a cold truth: that the legless beggar and the wealthy merchant are alike to a hurricane. That indeed, the ship’s rats and the garden roses share one life, when they are together matched against the terrible lifeless grasp of the elements. Have you ever had this feeling, my princess?”

The princess frowned, expression calculating. “I do not take your meaning. Are the sandstorms, then, a serious threat?”

“Nothing,” said Blim. “The ramblings, princess, of an old man. Let me to the point.” He held up the bloody lion-pin and put a shine in his voice. “They indeed have gold, a vast hoard. But their greatest treasure is not stored in the city, but within the great stone lions you may have spotted at sunset. The Karthagarians hid their treasure there thinking it would escape the plundering of armies should the city fall.”

Nayne bade a servant snatch the pin from Blim’s hand.

“I have seen such a pin,” Nayne mused, turning it about in her fingers. “One was displayed at court.” She glanced at the other ruler, who watched her, whispering to his advisors. “And but for the stains, it matches that worn by Xur.”

“I stole it,” Blim told her. “I knew it would illustrate both Karthagar’s wealth, and the hoard’s location. Xur suspects, but does not know precisely where to look. I have sharp ears, and overheard the locations of the secret passages.”

“Should this prove true, you will be rewarded.” She nodded to her servant, who returned the pin to Blim. “You might even own that one-handed woman you dote upon, if you wish.”

“I would claim her now.”

Nayne smiled. “I like a man who rises to a bargain. You are not as old or befuddled as I thought.”

“I can only thank my Terror.”

As Blim had hoped, Xur’s suspicions made him camp beside his new ally. Thus, as the rising silver moon cast long shadows toward Karthagar, Blim was able to maneuver both armies between the great lions.

On the flank of Nayne’s army obscured from Xur’s forces, Blim led a party across hot crystal sands that crunched and tinkled underfoot, up to the left hindpaw of Rampant. He insisted the party include Miy. He scrambled upon one gigantic paw, that thrust like a stony pier into a sandy sea. Muttering to himself, Blim made a show of pacing beneath the leonine face some eighty feet overhead, as Nayne grew increasingly impatient.

As she began to upbraid him, the commotion Blim had hoped for arose from the armies; and a runner panted across the sands to hiss, “Princess! Xur bellows for your presence. He suspects treachery and demands to know your true purpose here.”

Nayne turned her withering gaze upon Blim. “Faster, old man.”

“Aha!” Blim said, patting a random spot upon the paw. “Here we are. Lend me a dagger.”

A soldier passed a knife, chuckling, “You’ll only harm yourself with that, old fool.”

“Aieee! You are right!” And from Blim’s palm fell three drops of blood, which sank and vanished into the thirsty orange stone.

In that moment began the great rumbling and shaking of the earth.

Blim congratulated himself on his intuition. Then he leapt for his life. He scrambled to Miy’s litter and frantically dragged her into the darkness.

Nayne and her soldiers cursed and might have given chase, but there were distractions.

Agitated already, the forces of Xur surged in a disorganized rush against the Eldshorers, whom they blamed for the sudden sound.

But the true culprits had awoken at last, and the fresh blood only roused them more.

Nayne of the Eldshore wore, for the first time since infancy, a look of pure and helpless confusion, before the shifting bulk of the statue buried her beneath scouring sands.

Miy stirred beside Blim, and he urged her to run. One look at Blim, and one look behind, convinced her. They ran until they tripped each other, and then, seized by a suicidal curiosity, looked back again.

Rampant rose in the moonlight, its stone twisting like thick hide – but its paws did not move. Blim and Miy stared in confounded terror, as they saw the whole of the statue rise, and rise further, above the level of the sands, its full form only now emerging.

The lion-shapes were not the true statues; rather, they were the headdresses of two humanoid figures, male and female, with angular faces and oval, catlike eyes, immense cousins to the statues atop Karthagar. With a sound like the crackle of storms, the two titans emerged to waist-height, towering five hundred feet above the screaming humans.

The titans began to wade through the sands.

“What have I done?” Blim whispered.

A wave of crystal grains rose at Rampant’s passing, and it collapsed around Blim and Miy, cutting them in a thousand places.

They struggled to rise, and their bodies brushed the pin, dark with blood from both.

Together they fell into the vision. He was now Couchant and she was Rampant and sleep was over, and sensations poured into all portions of their enchanted stone bodies. The moon and stars burned above, and all was the thrill of the chase… and yet somewhere in the roar he heard the dim scratching of words.

Blim… they said, Blim…

Miy, he answered weakly, even as he bent down and kissed a squad, crushing soldiers to pulp so his stony pores could absorb their delicious blood. Miy, I am here.

At her words he sensed presences at his back, heard the whispers of a multitude filling the midnight spaces of his cavernous skull. Was that the voice of Glom the Recluse, droning sad notes through the dark?

Once Karthagar was a tomb (said the voice), a mausoleum for sorcerer-kings. They were proud and pitiless. When they destroyed their nation only a handful of their subjects survived: a wretched band of tomb-robbers who eventually came to plunder Karthagar. On that day the thieves changed their ways forever, devoting themselves to beauty and peace. It required only a pact with the guardians…

Miy’s whisper came again. Blim. We must leave the pin behind. This is not for us.

Miy?

My friend, do you remember how we shaped the winds? That is who we are, the dance of water and air, not these stony things. Not killers. You have shown me that. Come back to me, Blim.

He opened his eyes. He was mere flesh upon the biting sand, grasping Miy with the pin sharp between their bodies. Not so far away rose the thunder and screams.

They disentangled themselves and let the golden pin fall, and they were merely themselves.

“Let’s run,” Blim whispered.

“[…]” Miy agreed.

They ran; and behind them the Lions of Karthagar chased two armies to the moat and the strange flooded amphitheater. When that drowned hemisphere was fully thick with swimming warriors, including prince Xur of the Autumn Dynasty, the titans raised it high into the air.

They delicately shared their meal, passing their bowl one to the other.

Between the moment he collapsed and the moment his eyes beheld to a dawn-lit stone chamber, there was nothingness. As Glom the Recluse smiled over Blim, the weatherworker strained to ask, “Miy?”

“She is here.”

And indeed, Miy leaned over him and said carefully, “Hello… Blim.” She said a bit more in her own language, and Glom nodded.

“She is glad you are well,” Glom said.

“Likewise.”

“We are all glad,” Glom said. “Your cuts are many, but shallow. We feared for you.”

“You did?”

“We knew you were people of honor, even before you helped us. It took blood to awaken the guardians. Thanks to you, none had to be ours. We still wish you to stay with us, and know peace.”

Blim said, “Thank you for your offer, Glom. It calls to my old bones. But I must ask you something first.”

“Please.”

“When I fled Karthagar, I took along that pin.” (For there it was, stained and bent, returned to its owner’s robe.) “Through it I sensed the statues awakening. They must be linked. Therefore these are precious items.”

Glom nodded soberly. “I took pains to recover this one from the sands.”

“What I wish to know is, how did merchants come to carry golden pins to west and east?”

“In paradise one does not question one’s luck,” Glom said at last. “Or neglect the feeding of lions.”

Blim remembered keenly the ancient blood-hunger of the guardians, and he understood then that without victims, the Lions would turn at last against the city above.

The Karthagarians had chosen to sacrifice only their enemies. Yet to survive, Karthagar must have enemies… if only once in an age. And if it did not find them, it would lure them – with tales of unguessed, unguarded wealth.

Perhaps it was just. But Blim the Damp had been a soldier, of sorts. Once.

He shut his eyes, letting go thoughts of bliss.

“I told you before I was no idealist. I see you are not either. Kindly ask Miy if she would like to travel with me?”

“Alas, she has already chosen to leave. There are some,” Glom added sadly, “who cannot abide the cost of peace.”

Only a handful upon the balconies watched the weatherworkers depart, and for a long time these few heard a dim, cantankerous babble rise, punctuated with the odd giddy laugh, as Blim and Miy attempted to navigate while simultaneously learning each other’s tongue. The eavesdroppers smiled gravely and shook their heads, agreeing such rough companions could never find peace. Then the watchers saw fleeting shadows, heard raucous cries, and decorously turned their backs upon the blemishes of the outer world.

For the vultures had come to Karthagar, beside the Ruby Waste.

♦♦♦

First appeared in Black Gate #15, April 2011

The Chart of Tomorrows

The Chart of Tomorrows by Chris WillrichThe Chart of Tomorrows

Gaunt and Bone find themselves at the heart of a vast struggle — and their own son is emerging from that conflict as a force of evil. To save him and everything they know, they turn to a dangerous magical book, The Chart of Tomorrows, that reveals pathways through time.

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Purchase The Chart of Tomorrows from these online retailers:

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The Dagger of Trust

Pathfinder Tales: The Dagger of Trust by Chris WillrichPathfinder Tales:
The Dagger of Trust

When a magical fog starts turning ordinary people into murderous mobs along the border, it’s up to Gideon Gull and a crew of daring performers to solve the mystery before both nations fall to madness and slaughter.

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Purchase The Dagger of Trust from these online retailers:

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The Silk Map

The Silk Map (Gaunt and Bone 2) by Chris Willrich

The Silk Map
A Gaunt and Bone Novel

Coming May 2014 from Pyr Books: At the end of The Scroll of Years, the poet Persimmon Gaunt and her husband, the thief Imago Bone, had saved their child from evil forces at the price of trapping him within a pocket dimension. Now they will attempt what seems impossible; they will seek a way to recover their son.

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Purchase The Silk Map from these online retailers:

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The Scroll of Years

The Scroll of Years by Chris Willrich

The Scroll of Years
A Gaunt and Bone Novel

The first Gaunt and Bone novel from Pyr Books. Gaunt and Bone find themselves fleeing from assassins, all the way to the Far East of their continent.

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Purchase The Scroll of Years from these online retailers:

Books a Million | Indie Bound | Books Inc. | Kepler’s BooksBarnes & Noble

 

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