“YOU’RE GETTING TOO OLD for this business, Bruce,” the woman says, as a man steps into the room. Caricela—pronounced Kara-chay-lah, in the Mertam tongue—is beautiful, but most of it is in her crystalline green eyes. Her skin burnishes in the torchlight as if she’s plated in melted gold.
She has four arms as most Mertam Delians do: hemi-arms, each of them half the breadth of a human arm and split at the shoulder.
A key hangs between her breasts from a leather cord.
Bruce scans the room. “Nice place, Cela,” he rasps, taking off his leather wide-brim. The sound of his voice burrs like slipping one’s hand into a hide glove, callused but warm.
She’s standing next to a device with a tin tulip-head splaying out of the top of it. A waxie box. She cranks it up and the wheel on top starts turning, and when she places the needle on top of the grooved plate, a watery song burbles out of the tin flower. A travelin’ shanty, one he remembers from his days out on patrol with the gunslingers: “Sandcastle Jack”.
The place she agreed to meet is at the end of a narrow, snaking alleyway off the main road, a brothel called the House of White Shadows. In here, the hustle and noise of the city is a faint tidal roar. Buildings tower around the place five and six stories deep, so that even at noon the girls have to light candlebras to see. So named because of the pearlescent silk robes the girls wear, White Shadows seems claustrophobic, even though the dining area is spacious. Alcoves line the walls, and inside each is a pair of benches and a table.
“No trouble getting in?”
“Your boys took my slap irons.”
“You can understand, yes? I do not allow weapons in here. I like my girls above the dirt, and there’s many a man in these parts that likes to get drunk and take out his frustrations on a woman.”
The madam gives him a dark, assessing squint, and she must be satisfied by what she sees in his eyes. She twitches her housecoat aside to show him what’s underneath: his pistols. Her attendants brought her his guns while he was waiting to be seen.
Be a good boy, and I’ll let you take your guns.
The gunslinger feels naked without his pistols. The empty holsters on his hips are light, almost vestigial.
Three decades ago Bruce Coleridge was the sort of man that could turn heads—square jaw; clever blue eyes; chestnut hair that naturally feathered like the coat of a hawk. Now that V-shaped torso is shielded by a paunch, and his square jaw is softened by a bovine neck. Proud, chiseled shoulders now deserve an ox yoke. His skin is a book of scars.
Caricela produces a bottle of dark from a rack on the wall. The necks of a dozen bottles and jugs protrude from the wooden hashwork like bees in a honeycomb. There’s a label on this one, a parchment wrap. An intricate picture of a cornucopia has been hot-etched into it, along with the name SEABORNE and the year, 649.
“Would you like a drink? It’s a long walk here from the coach station.”
He pulls a tin flask out of an inner pocket of his longcoat, unscrews it, takes a swig. Liquor that tastes like quenchwater from a forge rakes down his throat.
Caricela pauses, shakes her head. “If that rot han’t killed you yet, none of my poisons will.”
“Are we alone?”
“To the point, huh? I had hoped we could get to know each other first.” They stare at each other for a few moments, and then she relents, dismissively, “Yes, we’re alone.” She pours herself a glass of the Seaborne. “The House closes once a week so the girls can get out once in a while. A lot of them visit the Wolven chapel to confess their sins. As you can imagine, it takes a while.”
Bruce puts away the flask. “I keep forgetting you folks down here in Mertam Del still observe the old ways.”
“We do. It’s hard to abandon a faith that runs so deep and old.” She gestures to one of the alcoves, opening a cupboard. “Have a seat.” Inside the cupboard is a leather case with a brass hinge and a padlock latch. She takes it over to where Bruce seats himself. Caricela unlocks the leather case with the key around her neck.
He drops his hat on the table and opens the case. The object inside catches the candlebras’ light, casting a golden glow across his face. “I have to admit,” says Bruce, “I thought I was about to get shit on, but I’m pleasantly surprised. You’re here, I’m alive, and here’s the relic after all.”
The waxie-box goes quiet for a few seconds, and then segues into another light, lilting tune. Bruce used to dance with his wife to this one, but he can’t remember the name right now. Something about yellow birds.
“Perhaps your instincts are a little too tightly wound,” she says.
For a second Caricela sounds like his wife. Bruce flinches subtly as if he’s come out of a trance.
The Delian smiles. “You didn’t trust me?”
“I don’t trust anybody.”
“I’m a woman of my word. I know that doesn’t mean much to many men, but I think I’ve proven myself moving colony artifacts over the years. I’ve been doing this for a long time, Kingsman Coleridge. My contact in the Antargata can—”
“I believe you, Cela,” he says softly, encouragingly.
She sits back and sips her 649, watching him admire the relic in the case. The dark she’s drinking looks like a glass of ink, a blue almost black. It’s a testament to the quality and provenance of the culipihha wine that it doesn’t turn her tongue blue. A lot of the more unscrupulous vintners darken their stock with actual ink to make it more appealing—like using flour to boost milk—but this is pure.
In his longcoat pocket is a velvet pouch of coins. He drops it on the table. “I didn’t think you took council talent pieces down here, so I had them exchanged for nieras.”
“Be wary. There are bankers in Rion that will rob an outlander blind if you don’t count your coin.”
“Speaking of coin,” says a voice to their left, “touch that pouch, misra, and we’ll have you for artifact trading on top of artifact possession.”
In the middle of the spacious great hall are two slender shapes dressed in red cassocks. Hoods obscure their faces, but Bruce knows who they are because they’ve been following him for weeks, waiting for him to make the wrong move.
Their left hands rest on the pommels of their light broadswords. Their weapons are sheathed peacefully, but he knows that this means nothing when it concerns a swordwife. They can draw and kill you from thirty feet away in the blink of an eye.
Luckily, as a Kingsman, Bruce has a faster eye than most.
“I’ve been ordered by the Council of Ain to find this particular item,” the gunslinger says, his fingers rising from the tabletop in a half-hearted gesture of surrender. “It’s a matter of national security. Templeton Lucas has gone west to parley with the Glass God Obelus. This artifact could mean the survival of Ain—and possibly the Widowforge, if the God turns his wrath southward.”
Victoria Vega sneers. “We’re not afraid of His giants. The Ersecad founded the Grievers to kill them.”
“Besides,” says Julia Winnfield, stepping forward. She tosses her hood back, revealing her face—broad charcoal forehead, bulging eyes, a shock of wool hair. She speaks in a didactic tone, like a country preacher. “They can’t…get through…the mountains! They’ll have to go through the sea to get to the Widowforge, and we’ll cut them down as they flounder in the water. The Ersecad chose the land perfectly. We are unassailable.”
Julia picks up Caricela’s wineglass and swirls it under her nose. “Oh, that’s a fine dark.” She glances at the bottle and sips the wine. “Six forty-nine. That’s a tasty vintage.” Cela and Bruce sit uncomfortably still, watching the Griever make herself at home.
Julia glances over her shoulder at her partner Victoria, a pale woman with wet-looking black hair.
“Does the Ersecad look like a bitch?” Julia asks the gunslinger.
Bruce blinks. “—What?”
“I said, does the Ersecad! Look! Like a bitch?”
He winces in confusion. “I don’t see how this—”
Julia draws her sword, a mirror-bright spatha, and plunges it into Caricela’s throat, pinning her to the alcove wall.
Blood spills out of the Delian’s open mouth and her eyes fill with surprise and terror. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I break your concentration?” asks Julia, pulling the blade out of Cela’s neck with a sick scrape of steel against spine. Caricela reaches up to clutch her throat in shock, the light already leaving her eyes. She teeters sideways and topples to the floor, her chair sliding out from under her and squirting out into the café with a clatter.
The Griever uses the hem of her cassock to wipe the blood off her sword.
“What?” Bruce says again. He’s stalling for time.
She shoves the chair out of the way with her foot and casually points the sword at Bruce’s face. Caricela gurgles under the table. “Do they speak Ainean in What?” asks Julia. The sword-point does not tremble. “What ain’t no language I ever heard of.”
“Ainean, motherfucker. Do you speak it?”
“What…? I don’t—”
Julia’s eyebrows jump. “Say what one more time. Say what one more goddamn time.”
“What?” Bruce says just to spite her.
Before she can react (and before he can second-guess himself), he scoops the rose vase at her face. Julia flinches, her head cocking to one side. The vase sails over her shoulder and explodes across the other Griever’s forehead.
With a surprised grunt, Victoria stumbles away in a shower of glass and water and collapses on her back.
The rose falls lightly on her chest.
Already clawing the table over on its edge, THUD!, Bruce stoops and reaches for his revolvers under Cela’s robe. The instant his fingers slide over their grips, a sword-blade shoots through the tabletop and comes to an abrupt stop just in front of his eyes, a blindfold of shimmering steel.
The waxie is still playing “Take My Body to The River” (why did he think it was about a bird?) when he stands up, half-turns, and thrusts his revolvers over the edge of the tabletop, firing both of them, bang b-bang bang.
Julia Winnfield ducks. The waxie-box howls “I’ll never find somebody like you down in Hell,” and the sword retracts through the table with a sibilant slurp!, leaving a slit of pale light.
The Sacrament in Bruce’s head twitches, the fungus resting at the base of all Kingsman brains. He can feel it as a soft click in the center of his head, a delicate baby-kick behind his eyes.
Time slows to a hesitant crawl. The moments pour thick. The music coming out of the waxie-box’s tin trumpet grinds almost to a halt, transforming into a wet, horse-like vibrato. “Why did you forsake me?” it groans, deep and throbbing, “why won’t you take me?”
Bruce kicks the table the rest of the way over. The Griever lying on her back leaves the floor like a leaf kicked up by a wind. Her red cloak whips around her waist in a dervish ripple. She is Stepping, but the gunslinger’s slow-motion perception lets him see between the seconds, and she manifests as a silky ribbon of color coursing across the air.
His pistols are already forward as he strides out of the alcove, and he fires.
The first bullet passes through the hem of Victoria’s cassock. She draws the flat of her sword across her shoulder and the second bullet glances off the steel, ptang!, just missing the top of her head.
One footstep to Bruce’s right. A snap of cloak.
His right gun swings up just in time. Julia’s sword whacks against the belly of his pistol, a decapitating blow meant for his neck that is instead trapped in the iron crotch between his barrel and trigger-guard.
Bruce thrusts his left pistol under his elbow and fires, but Julia is already sliding away, curving around behind him.
He dives forward--
—her blade whickers through the air where his back had been--
—and rolling, he twists and comes up facing the other way. Both guns are up. He fires at her.
Gliding into the melee, Victoria manages to cut one bullet out of the air before it can hit Julia, CLONNNNG!, but the second one gouges a hole in her thigh. She shrieks something he can’t understand and whirls through.
The two women move sinuously and synchronously, like a pair of starlings. Julia is already darting forward to take her place, her sword thrust forward in both hands. Bruce rolls out of the way and her blade thunks into the wood planks. He thrusts a pistol over his shoulder and fires next to his left ear, BOOM: the unbearable whine of an injured eardrum.
Blood specks the side of his face.
A neat, round little hole has appeared in Julia’s cheek. Gunsmoke curls up out of it, a question-mark around her right eye.
The Griever pitches forward and drops next to him, a crater of pink and gray slush in the back of her skull. Her sword still stands up in the floor, a self-improvised memorial, a trace of blood sliding down the edge. “You never loved me anyway,” concludes the waxie-box.
Checking his arm, Bruce finds a slit in his sleeve, and a shallow cut across the back of his elbow.
“You killed her!”
Vicky Vega’s once-slick obsidian hair now tumbles over her eyes in black sickles. She tosses her head back to clear her face. “You killed my sister,” she snarls, and the venom in her eye sizzles. They aren’t natural siblings, but every Griever that survives the Widowforge is a sister to the other.
“Easy, now,” he tells her. “There ain’t got to be—”
“Now I’m gonna kill you.” She flourishes her sword once, a lazy but ominous wrist-twirl.
“That ain’t gonna happen, darlin’.” He points a pistol at her. She doesn’t flinch. “Go on back to your mountain, now, Vicky. Go on back to your mountain fortress. This don’t concern you or your like. I’m here on royal business. The artifact is leaving here with me.” The pistol does not waver. “My people need this thing. I don’t know what it is—Lennox says it’s a weapon of some kind, he calls it the Devourer—but it can help us when the metal giants come.”
“I don’t care, gunslinger.” Victoria’s eyes dart to the case on the floor where it fell off the table. Soft golden light filters through the half-open lid. “The people of Ostlyn are nothing to us. Ardelia may have forsaken her vows to go lay with one of your men, but we have no stakes in your fight with Lucas anymore now that your Clayton Rollins killed our Forgemother.” She speaks through clenched teeth. “We wipe our hands of Tem Lucas.”
“The least you Grievers can do to repay us for participating in his crusade is help defend us from him.”
“You’re lucky we don’t mass on your doorstep and kill all of you.”
Bruce thumbs back a revolver hammer with a judicious ka-click. “You and I both know that’s a fool’s game. We’ve got more slingers than you have women, and more bullets than both. You can Step all you want. We’re faster.”
They both look at the case with the artifact inside, and meet each others’ eyes again.
He’s going to have to move first.
Bruce fires, quick as a snake. Victoria leans away, pirouetting backward, and the bullet cuts the air in front of her face. Bruce takes off running and the Sacrament in his head kicks in again, grinding time, turning his dash for the artifact case into a floaty, plodding movement.
He lets go of a gun to free his hand as he travels. When he gets there, he can’t stop—the momentum in this heightened state is too much, too fast. He throws himself on top of the case and rolls over, pulling it in front of his face with one hand as if it’s a cape.
His instincts were correct. Victoria’s sword hacks into the banded leather case like a knife through a loaf of bread and strikes the artifact inside, stopping her blade cold with a metallic TANNNG.
The gun he dropped hits the floor with a heavy clatter.
Bruce fires under the case with the other before Vicky can withdraw the blade. “Kuh!” she spits.
The Griever tesseracts across the room, pinching the brothel into a one-dimensional space and Stepping across it, trailing a ribbon of blood in the air. When she comes down off the High Road, she lands awkwardly and ragdolls to a stop in the corner. Blood sprays the wall behind her.
Bruce stands, the case in one hand. The leather sags open where she cut it, revealing a golden glitter.
“I told you I was faster.”
Lifting herself onto her hands and knees, Victoria growls, squinching one eye in pain and pressing a hand against her side. Blood runs between her fingers. “You slingers, always messing with strange old gadgets you don’t understand. You’re gonna be the death of us all.”
“The Council will be able to figure it out,” he says. “That’s—”
Something hits the floor with a metallic thunk. Their eyes fall on a golden sphere as it rumbles across the floor.
The artifact has fallen out of the disemboweled leather case. It’s an orb about the size of a grapefruit, covered in a complex litany of etched lines. Eight tiny pyramids have been cut into it, equidistant from each other, as if a cube and a sphere occupy the same space.
The sphere rolls into the middle of the room, throwing glitter-cats of reflected lamplight across the ceiling, and slows to a stop.
Victoria crawls sluggishly toward it, clutching the wound in her side.
Startled into movement, Bruce goes after it as well, picking up his other gun along the way and slipping it into a holster. Halfway there, both of them are halted in their tracks as the orb moves.
The eight triangles carved into the sphere’s side now jut straight out in a perfect cubic X, lifting the golden orb off the wood planks on four stubby legs. Something in the pit of Bruce’s stomach screams at him to get out of the House of White Shadows, get out get out but he can’t leave the artifact here for the Grievers to take.
A soft whirring sound comes from inside the orb, and a grille in the thing’s belly shoots open.
Bruce recoils in surprise. The sides telescope open with a whirr of tiny gears, revealing a smaller orb inside, this one jet black. “What the hell?” He squints. No…this isn’t a second orb. It’s darkness. A wad of shadow is suspended in the center of the golden sphere, like a droplet of ink hanging in clear water.
Victoria lies on the floor, one arm outstretched, breathing labored. Their eyes meet.
“Goddammit,” says Bruce, and he marches over to Vicky, tangling a fist in the nape of her cassock. She looks up at him as he rolls her over and starts dragging her out of the room, a trail of blood unspooling from under her.
“What are you doing, gunslinger?”
“Saving your ass,” he says, and the golden orb rises into the air, turning, revolving, spinning, whirling.
The torches on the walls clatter in their frames. Their fires gutter and flag toward the center of the room, where the golden orb is hovering four feet off the floor. A strong wind whistles through and Bruce pauses to glance at the windows.
Shutters crackle. “We need to get out of here.”
When he gets the Griever to the exit, he unlatches the door. The instant the bolt snaps free, the thing bursts open in a howl of wind from the hallway beyond. Bruce is shoved backward by a gust. His hair whips around his ears and air rushes up his nose. Within seconds, the gale coming through the door is so forceful he can’t stand up in it. His knees buckle and Bruce sits down hard on his bony ass.
Vicky slides away, the tails of her cassock shucking up over her hips suggestively. She flips over and tries to latch onto the floor, clawing at the boards. “Help me!”
Crawling after her, Bruce grabs her arm and crab-scuttles away, kicking with his heels. Pushing his fingers into the crack between the door and door-jamb, he winces as Vicky wraps her arms around his leg. A chair turns over with a clatter and scrapes across the floor toward the whirling orb. By now, the common area of the House of White Shadows is a roaring maelstrom.
Another chair falls over and joins the first two, and one of them turns in a circle, coming up off the floor. It clings to the orb. The second chair rises, a leaf in a dust devil, and does the same.
They both disintegrate into splinters, imploding, and are gone.
What the hell? Bruce stares.
A heavy table capsizes with a slam!, rolls like a coin across the room, and falls over against the pile of chairs. The broken glass from the vase that hit Vicky in the face throws itself into what now looks like a pile of bonfire kindling underneath the hovering golden sphere. Bottles of wine bullet out of the vineyard rack and shatter against the artifact.
“What have you done?” asks Victoria, shouting to be heard over the rising tempest. “What is this hateful magic?”
“I don’t think it’s magic!”
The curtains are all standing on end, pointing at the orb at the center of the room, trembling like an old woman’s accusing finger. A curtain rod snaps with a fine metallic ping! and the rings affixing the fabric to the rod rake off musically. The curtain adds itself to the pile.
The door’s hinges creak. Bruce peers into the crack and sees that the nails are working themselves out of the door frame. By the Wolf, the door’s going to come off. He draws a pistol and tries to hammer the nails back in with the butt of it.
Strange time to be doing carpentry. “Wuh-oh,” says Victoria.
His revolver is sucked out of his hand and thrown into the bonfire pile. He looks down and sees that the woman is now hovering a few inches off the floor, pulling his leg out straight.
Julia Winnfield’s corpse slides toward the whirling catastrophe as if dragged by its own ghost. In the eye of the building storm, wood furniture stands up and smashes itself piece by piece as if in a queue, spitting its constituent splinters into an accretion disk of matter six feet across. Julia’s sword pries itself out of the floor and leaps into the growing darkness at the center of the accretion disk with a wicked whoop of chopped air.
In the last instant before it disappears, Bruce watches in developing terror as the sword’s steel blade curls around the black heart of the sphere, stretching like taffy. As it dissipates into the spiral, the Griever’s sword takes on the affect of a guitar string.
Poor Madam Caricela sits up and does a lazy somersault out of the alcove where she died.
“Ohh,” Bruce groans in disgust and shock.
Caricela topples over and log-rolls toward the debris-pile. The corpse nestles herself into a gap between two chairs and as they watch, her eyes begin to bulge and blood squirts out of her nose.
Whatever is inside the orb gathers strength and aggressively inhales the furniture underneath, smashing and pulverizing the wood. Both the ceiling and the floor creak, long slow reverberations like a ship heeling and leaning at sea. A nail pops out of the door-hinge and whips past Bruce’s face.
Ping! Another curtain rod breaks. Shhhink!
“Enough screwing around.” Bruce reaches for the door jamb, but as he pulls himself that last few inches the door-hinge breaks. The whole door tilts upward and suddenly he’s hanging onto the thing like a helmsman holding a steamship wheel. Victoria loses her grip and slithers helplessly down his leg.
Bruce reaches up and takes hold of the inside edge of the door, then shuffles sideways toward the top. To his surprise, the upper hinge holds.
Bits of paper and trash rip out of the hallway, shooting into the room. He can smell the bilge ditch outside. He trades hands to the doorframe and dangles sideways in mid-air, clinging to the rim of the entranceway. A table breaks in half and explodes into splinters, then vanishes into the vortex like a mouthful of cigarette smoke in reverse.
“Oh, Coleridge—!” Vicky shouts in a swoony voice, like an ingénue hit with the vapors.
He looks over his shoulder and sees her partner Julia lurch lifelessly into the swirling hole. The gasp is snatched out of Bruce’s mouth. “It’s eating her, you son of a bitch!” Vicky screams over the gale, “this is your fault!”
“You’re the one that hit it with a sword!”
The corpse twists like a dishrag as it enters the accretion spiral and disintegrates face-first. Julia’s skull and kinky wool hair unravel into the spin. Whatever it is, the device is taking her body apart at an elemental level and inhaling it just like it did the furniture and curtains.
This is what finally drives home to Bruce what will happen to them if they’re sucked into that black keyhole floating in midair. Adrenaline dumps into his system and every hair on his body stands up. He claws over the rim of the doorway and balances on his belly, wind rippling down his back, and shouts, “Climb over me, woman!”
Victoria tries to reach up and grab his belt, but it’s too far away. She shifts and one of his boots come off.
There’s a heavy clay pot next to the door outside in the hallway, with a ficus tree growing out of it. He grabs the lip of the pot and with the other hand reaches down for her.
“Grab my hand!”
She does so. As her fingers tighten on his own, the ficus tips over and spills. The pot shatters and the tree comes loose, pushing a cloud of dark green foliage through the doorway.
“The fuck?” wonders Vicky, as a great avalanche of wet dirt and pieces of pottery blast into the room and all over her. Bruce can hear her spitting it out. She lets go of his hand to rub it out of her eyes and his other boot comes off—and Victoria with it.
She flies backward into the dining room, dragged on her belly across the floor by the invisible phantom hands again.
The tree gets there first and goes into the sucking hole like a bottle-brush; the wind strips all the leaves off and turns it into a scraggle of branches at the end of a stick. Then it turns the ficus trunk into a wooden fiddlehead and sucks it out of reality like a noodle.
Victoria is pulled off the floor—there’s no more furniture left to eat—and she goes into the vortex feet first.
Oh no, thinks Bruce, and his mind fills with pleas to the gods.
The screaming is unbearable.
He closes his eyes and focuses on clinging to the wall. Plaster cracks and buckles under his fingertips. His fingers sink in and he can feel the studs inside. Chunks break loose and roll past his armpits. “AAIIEEEEE” shrieks the Griever, as the thing pulls her apart and devours her, extruding her into a shrieking monofilament of blood and bone.
A wet crunch, a sick noise like the spanky flapping of a windowshade, and then only the howl of the gale.
Horrified, Bruce presses his face against the cool plaster. He gets one knee over the door jamb and lifts himself out of the dining room, rolling over. Air slams past, funneling through the doorway like water going down a drain. To anyone coming down the corridor, it would look like Bruce is simply standing up, leaning against the wall, but he’s actually lying there, held upright by the force of the artifact’s pull.
“Coleridge,” someone yells from up the hall.
He looks up. There’s a third Griever standing at the other end, hiding behind a marble column, her cassock whipping around her knees.
The hallway is lined with windows and all their shutters are slamming in and out like angry poltergeists, flashing them with epileptic sunlight. “What happened?” she calls. She’s middle-aged, salt-and-pepper hair. Girlish eyes in an old face. Her sword is in her hand. “Where are my sisters? Is this magic?”
“It was the artifact. Vega hit it with her sword and activated it. I don’t know what it’s doing. Eating everything. It made a hole in the air.” He hesitates, squinting in the wind. “I don’t know if it’s going to stop.”
She reaches into the breast of her cassock and brings out a knife. Leaning around the curve of the column, the Griever whips it at Bruce, but at the last second the wind snatches it away. It veers in midair and disappears into the dining room.
His face scrunches in annoyed confusion.
“The artifact is coming with me to the Widowforge,” yells the Griever. “This is obviously too dangerous to go back to the Council. The King of Ain will become every bit the tyrant his predecessor was. I can’t have that.”
“You don’t know!” Bruce draws his remaining revolver and points it at her, but the wind is sucking so hard it’s bending his wrist. The gun’s barrel wobbles with a palsy. “Normand is a good man! He’s not like Jude! He’ll save us all!” He fires and the bullet goes wide, whirring into the plaster behind her.
“He’ll kill you all—” The swordswoman steps around the column and the wind immediately scoops up into her cloak, throwing her to her knees and then onto her belly. She tries to get up, letting go of her sword, but it’s too strong.
Bruce gasps: her sword is coming at him, wheeling brightly down the hall. He rolls out of the way.
The swordpoint slams into the plaster next to his ear and he tumbles into the dining room, the Griever taking his place behind the wall. Digging his heels into the wooden floorboards—which have started to pry up and jostle like an old fence—he takes hold of the edge of the door and hangs for dear life.
The hinge breaks in a spray of nails. The door comes off and both it and Bruce fly free.
He tucks the door under his feet and the door strikes the artifact. He’s now standing on the back of it, body parallel to the floor against all expectations of gravity, the artifact whirling underneath, chewing at the wood below the soles of his feet.
Curses flicker through Bruce’s mind. He’s only got a few seconds before he’s sucked into the event as well.
The door crackles ominously.
He looks around for something to jump to, but the artifact has already devoured everything not nailed down. The room is utterly empty, as if Caricela had moved out in the middle of the night and abandoned the bordello.
The alcoves. They’re each flanked by a pair of columns like the one outside.
As he dives for the nearest one, he slows in mid-air as if oxygen has become gelatinous and snaps back, thrown against the door. It breaks in half and Bruce slips through, the ends of the wooden panel slapping shut around him.
The screaming vortex eats a gunslinger sandwich.
For several minutes, there’s only the spinning artifact and the astounding hurricane that’s formed in the dining room, screaming, churning, suckling at nothing. There’s not a single thing left to eat.
As abruptly as it started, the thing’s quadrapod legs retract, and the devouring comes to a stop. The orb’s panels and grille creak shut.
The House of White Shadows’ dining room is dark and unbelievably silent. A few more minutes of soundless anticipation pass. Boards creak somewhere in the gloom.
“Hail?” asks the Griever outside, peering into the doorway.
She stands up and takes a reluctant step inside. The artifact lies motionless on the floor, on top of a shallow swell of boards. The ceiling bulges downward.
She pauses. “Hail? Anybody in here?”
The swordswoman takes another furtive step toward the center of the room. “By the Wolf. It’s the Devourer. It’s real, and it works,” she mutters to herself.
Tssst, it’s too hot to touch. She snatches her hand away.
Taking out a pair of leather gloves tucked into her belt, she puts them on and lifts the shimmering egg, carrying it down the hall and into the sunshine.
A stagecoach is waiting outside. Yoked to the front is a swordhead, a sort of shaggy white yak. The Griever places the Devourer into an iron kettle and lowers an iron lid on it, screwing it shut. This she places back inside the coach, then climbs in after it and sits down in relief. A soft damp breeze filters in through the coach’s mullioned windows, dispelling the stuffy air inside.
The driver, a tall slope-shouldered man in a gray riding-cloak, leans over. His rain hat is big and floppy. “Take off,” the Griever says, before he can speak. The swordhead stinks of mouldy hay and cattle-sweat.
“Very good, mis’ra.” He drives on.
Wending through the alleys of Rion, the stagecoach rattles over rain-puddles and clatters over cobblestone. The city grows deeper and darker as the vigilant, fevered sun of Destin lowers its swollen body through urban henges. The evening air rings with the songs of crickets and brontide sends thunder mumbling down the avenues.
The streets are riddled with canals, and the stagecoach climbs what must be a thousand bridges as the driver takes them to the waterfront. Four-armed Delian gondoliers pole underneath on barges made of driftwood that juts like bedhead with antlers and thorns of gray wood.
The waterfront of Rion is a round lagoon in the center of the city’s bristling crescent. As the coach draws near, the buildings gradually become shorter and shorter until the ships’ masts are the tallest structures in sight, a field of swaying pikes. The driver takes her right down to the water’s edge, the quay groaning under their wheels, and hops off the seat to open the door.
“D’you need any help with that?” he asks, tossing a finger at the iron kettle in the floorboard. It’s a heavy thing, three inches thick. She can pick it up, but she’ll never get down the pier to the steamship’s gangway with it.
“Yeah, mate, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all,” he says, and lifts it with a grunt. He places it aside and comes back to the coach.
At first the swordswoman thinks he’s going to help her out of the cabin and she prepares a jab—I don’t need your chivalry, fool, I can get out of here just fine on my own--but what he does is slap the door shut in her face.
“The hell?” she blurts, confused.
He slips a padlock through a hasp and secures it with a click.
Thanks to the iron mullions and transoms across the windows, she can’t climb out. And Grievers can only tesseract through open space, so she’s trapped. “What are you doing?” The Griever draws a sword and saws at a transom with it, producing sparks.
“Why, I’m stealing your artifact, mis’ra. What else?”
The driver removes his straw hat with a dramatic flourish and twirls it into the bay.
Without it, he’s tall and lithe, with a wispy goatee and receding hairline. Hooking the edge of his linen riding cloak, he rakes it over his shoulder so that it makes a sort of gladiator cape, revealing his clothes: boiled leather armor, cambric tunic, dungarees, all dyed jet-black.
The thief rests his fists on his hips and smiles at her. He’s got a pair of pistols under his armpits in a jackass rig, but they aren’t gunslinger slapirons. He’s not a Kingsman; he hasn’t undergone the Sacrament like Coleridge did. “I bet you feel like an idiot now, don’t you?”
She shrugs noncommittally and shakes her head. “If I’m supposed to recognize you, I don’t.”
He smiles. “I wouldn’t be much of a Thieflord if you did.”
She squints. “‘Thieflord’? Are you August Armistead?”
“The one and only.”
“You made that title up yourself, didn’t you? What kind of an egomaniac calls himself ‘Thieflord’?”
“I heard your old gang leader Normand put you on his Royal Council when he was crowned. How’s that working out for you?”
“I don’t get my hands dirty these days unless it’s important. And according to what I’ve heard about the thing in this pot, it’s extremely important.” Armistead lifts the iron kettle and walks crookedly away, hiking the heavy thing up on his hip like a basket of wet laundry. “So if you don’t mind, milady, I’ll be on my way now.”
“Wait!” the Griever calls out the window. “Where’s the key to this padlock? How do I get out of here?”
Armistead pauses and winks at her. “The floor of your carriage is made of wood. I’m sure you can hack your way out of there eventually.” He turns and staggers away. “May your journey be more than its end,” he shouts, the customary farewell of Ain and its gunslingers.
“Fuck you right in your end!”
She’s still screaming and rattling the windows as Armistead hikes up the gangway to the waiting steamship, a tremendous vessel with a deep draft and tall wedding-cake body. One of the crewmen loading cargo offers to stow the kettle in the hold for him, but he declines, standing at the stern bulwark watching the stagecoach over the churning wheel as they cast out to sea.
Once they’re on open ocean, the thief heads into his cabin—which, before he’d broke into the harbormaster’s office last night and changed the manifest, used to belong to the Griever—and searches the desk for paper and something to write with.
CR, I’ve acquired the objective. By the time you receive this, I’ll be out of Rion and on my way back. As far as I can tell, agents Drummond and Coleridge did not survive the operation. --AA
He tears the note off in a strip of parchment and rolls it into a tight tube, taking it to the stern where a row of cages are bolted to the deck in a mess of white bird shit. Occupying half of these cages are gibbies—Destin’s messenger birds, small crows with iridescent red feathers.
He ties the scroll to a bird’s leg and throws it overboard. The gibby takes flight and heads for the mainland.
Armistead goes back belowdecks and sits in the Griever’s cabin, moving the kettle from the bed to the floor. He tries to get some rest, but his curiosity is eating at him. What does this thing even look like?
Lying on the feather mattress, he can’t help but stare at the kettle. The thing inside positively vibrates with mystery. He feels a bit like a child forced to wait until the holidays to open his gifts. “It’s a dangerous artifact,” he tells himself, muttering in the creaky silence. “You’ve no business opening it. You could get hurt. It’s already killed one man and gotten another murdered. You’re an idiot if you open that kettle.”
The thief gets up and takes off his gunbelt and knives, depositing them on the desk, then he paces back and forth.
His eyes occasionally dart to the dull black cauldron. It’s about the size of a pumpkin gourd, made of pitted pigiron; it would take no less than a cannonblast to even damage it. He’s safe from the Devourer as long as he keeps it inside the iron husk, or at least this is what he believes.
He unscrews the lid and lifts it out, peering into a dark hole. Several seconds pass before his eyebrows jump in surprise. “By the gods!”
The bosun’s wirecutters bite through the padlock hasp and the lock tumbles to the deck. “You said it was a gunslinger that did this, mis’ra?” he asks, opening the carriage door.
“No gunslinger,” says the woman inside. “Just a fool.”
The Griever leans forward and opens the seat across from her, revealing a cargo compartment, and she lifts out a golden orb.
She places a stack of coins in the bosun’s hand as she steps out, and wraps the artifact in a handkerchief. It’s nowhere near as safe as carrying it in the kettle, but it will have to do. Tucking the Devourer into a fold of her cloak, she pulls her hood over her head and nods to the man. “My gratitude.”
The bosun is counting those coins. “The gratitude’s all mine.”
She pulls her straps tight, clutches the handle of her sheathed sword, and strides into the High Road. The road and air in front of her collapses like a telescope as she folds the waterfront and Steps out of sight.
It takes several hours of tesseracting to get out of Mertam Del and into the mountain range that leads toward the northern desert-nation of Ain. A hundred leagues of increasingly arid land inchworm past her in a succession of vignettes: a startled miner yells as she appears and disappears in front of him in a flicker; she disturbs a passel of starlings in a treetop; three men in a skiff shout in surprise as she fords a river in a fraction of a second, producing a ten-meter fence of water.
By the time she reaches the Widowforge, night has fallen. She’s completely exhausted, dragging herself up a treacherous path toward a mountaintop monastery. Smoke belches from a colossal chimney-stack, carrying specks of light into the universe. Snow falls in scurrying combs of white, but the ground is warm and bare. The magma constantly boiling up out of the mountain’s heart keeps the ground thawed and the way clear.
Her eyes throb tiredly, and a blinding headache has fired up at the base of her skull. Not for the first time, she wishes she’d hired another driver for the carriage, but she’s done with subterfuge.
All around her, the crags drop away to an inspiring if terrifying view: from here, one can see the rim of the world over an infinity of rocky teeth, all of it draped in winter and darkness. The air here is thin and high, and she’s breathing raggedly as she pushes the front door open just wide enough for her body and staggers inside.
“Good evening, daughter.”
She’s greeted by a diminished old man in a blue silk cassock and red vestment. The Ersecad’s beard is a cloud of white around his face.
“Good evening, father, mother.”
They’ve been waiting for her, here in the dim and well-appointed vestibule of their summit fortress. Red carpet runners lead into shadow, only illuminated by a gaping fireplace in the far wall. The Forgemother, a wrung-looking crone called Ancress Momerren, stands next to her counterpart.
“Welcome home,” says Momerren. “Do you have the device?”
“I do. The King’s so-called thieflord thought he tricked me out of it, but I hid it from him.” The Griever reaches into her cloak and brings out the Devourer. She unwraps it and the golden orb shimmers in the firelight.
The Ersecad accepts it gingerly, holding it as if it is a great and delicate egg. “Good work, Griever,” he says, smiling in his sweet squinty way. He turns and shuffles out of the light. “I’ll go take care of this while you get some rest. Surely it’s been a long trip.”
“I do have a headache.”
“It’s to be expected from Stepping so much,” says Forgemother Momerren. “The Sacrament makes your brain swell. It happens.”
Darkness folds around the old man. His eyes do not have time to adjust because as he reaches the far end of the room, where an archway leads into a deeper black, a nearby torch coughs to life and spills light.
The Ersecad takes the torch from the wall and heads down the stairs into the bowels of the Widowforge.
The deeper he goes, the hotter it gets, until the air wrings stinking pickle-brine sweat from his bony body. He emerges into a long curving hallway where narrow rivulets of glowing lava run in channels along the walls. Doors on the inside of the curve lead into chambers every thirty feet. The old man plods around to the back end of the circular corridor where the largest doorway stands.
Inside is a triangular room, the only light coming from a cistern in the corner. He approaches and winces at the heat. His cheeks and forehead tighten.
Sweat rolls down his back and ankles. The cistern is full of molten lava. If he stoops, he can see underneath the wall into the other chambers, all of which have an opening onto this pit of hellfire. Standing up in the center of this pond of egg-reeking light is a broadsword, or perhaps it’s only the suggestion of one; it roulettes rapidly between shapes, so quickly that it’s only a cruciform with a whispering outline. One second it’s an ornate two-hander, the next it resembles a gladius, and again it could be a spear.
If you stare hard enough, you can even see a great black tower.
Holding out the Devourer, the Ersecad prepares to consecrate this hateful instrument to the belly of the Forge. The golden orb is not heavy at all, for having eaten three people and a room full of furniture. “No more cumbersome than a coconut,” he mutters to himself, cradling it aloft in outstretched hands. The heat bakes his knuckles.
Flames dance along the Devourer’s tangle of crevices.
Turning reluctantly away, the Ersecad goes over to a dark shelf and places the artifact next to the rest of his collection. Other mechanical artifacts glimmer in the firelight, a dozen, two dozen. Some of them still work, some of them don’t.
Maybe one day he’ll bring himself to destroy these ancient, intricate machines.
But for now, he will marvel over them as their warden.