Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“Everything has its own vortex,” said a deep male voice.
Whoever spoke must have been right at her back. Leodora glanced behind herself but saw only a great expanding gyre, a white-scorched tunnel stretching all the way back to the span of Colemaigne–to the hexagonal Dragon Bowl on which she stood... still stood, surely. Diverus and Soter must be there even now, and all of this a dream.
Someone else’s dream that had scooped her up and carried her off. “Wake up,” she said, but nothing changed, and she wondered if anyone could hear her.
She had no sense of motion; she hadn’t taken a single step, and yet the Dragon Bowl shrank until it was like a pinhole at the far end of the gyre, so she had to be moving, carried, transported... somewhere. She looked down at herself–at her legs stretched a thousand wyrths down the tunnel, as long as a full spiral’s length from one coiled end to the other, which was farther even than she had traveled with Soter from Bouyan to Colemaigne. She kicked her feet but they were so distant in this dream that she couldn’t see them, or her ankles. The view of her impossible legs fascinated her.
The disembodied voice spoke again, solemnly, beside her now. “The Traveler thro’ Eternity has passed that ﬁrst Vortex. She enters another.”
She glanced up, facing the source, but once again no one was there.
As if cooling, the tunnel surface lost its white-hot glow, and the duller orange light left in its wake revealed the walls of the structure: intricately linked geometric shapes in a state of constant ﬂux. She rushed along beside the bright geometries, diminutive satellites whirling in interlocked orbits. “I’m past the world,” she said.
“Thus is heaven a vortex passed already,” replied the voice.
“I must get back,” she told it.
“You haven’t been anywhere yet,” the voice answered her.
“And where is it I’m going?” She thought she sounded remarkably calm.
The voice didn’t reply. Behind her now the tunnel appeared to have no end point, unspooling forever. Her legs, however, had come unstuck from the distortion and had returned to their proper proportions. At least I am myself again, she thought.
Slowly, a vinegary stink stole upon her, a foulness as of a few unwashed bodies that grew until it was like the stench of a crowd, as if a mob coated in ﬁlth pressed in against the glowing tunnel. Her eyes watered, it was so noisome. She put out a hand as though to repel the odor, and her palm penetrated the spinning geometries and brushed something solid, moving. Alive. Another’s hand tried to grasp at her ﬁngers, but she snatched them free of the greasy grip. This motion propelled her away from the stink and the unseen thing and through the tunnel wall of spinning stars and globes, triangles and trapezoids, which washed over her body without sensation, passed through her like ghosts–like the bizarre phantoms that had paraded with her across the span of Hyakiyako and toward the end of time, the end of everything.
It had never occurred to her before to wonder what the end of everything might look like, how different it might be from the inﬁnite bridge spirals of Shadowbridge. Perhaps that was where she was now, and this wasn’t a dream. Had she, perhaps, died?
Outside the tunnel, separated from it, she stood on solid ground and watched it twist snake-like, as if alive, away from her. The glow of its spinning geometries dimmed like a cooling ember, until it was a golden thread of beaded sparks that ﬁnally ﬂickered out, much like the red lamps on the black, silent ship that had passed hers on her way to Colemaigne and so terriﬁed Soter. She must remember to ask him about it, when she returned. Or woke up. Or... where exactly was she?
A thick fog swirled out of the blackness to enclose her. Beneath her bare feet lay an unseen and uneven ground of hard rough stones. It was cold, and she wished that before she’d started walking through Colemaigne she’d put on her boots or the sandals Tastion had given her back on Bouyan.
The putrid stench still hovered, near but less intense, blended as it was with an odor of food, of something meaty frying with onions. And distantly, or else close but mufﬂed by the fog, she heard a rhythmic knocking noise of something hard upon the stones, getting louder as she focused on it, a clop-clop-clop-clop that drew her to it, louder and louder every second and behind it, beneath it, a growing roar. The noise swelled, almost on top of her. She raised a defensive hand as a monstrous dark shape erupted out of the fog, giving her not even time to scream as it bore down on her. In that instant something grabbed hold of the hood at her neck and yanked her to one side. The fog roiled where she’d been and a huge creature with a great snout and a black glass eye surged past her so closely that she could see the sheen of its coat. Behind it came a large black carriage with curtained windows and skinny, wiry wheels thundering over the rough ground. Animal and carriage swept by and were swallowed in the fog as quickly as they appeared.
“Do you want to be squished?” asked the voice as Leodora’s hood was released.
She turned about. The ﬁgure stood behind her. He was tall, and the fog abstracted his features until they were smudges, like the features of the Coral Man that lay in her puppet case back on Colemaigne.
“What was that thing?” she asked.
“Your demise if you don’t learn to get out of the way. Standing in the middle of the road is never a good idea. You can be knocked down from both directions. As for what that was–surely you know.”
“A palanquin, yes, but what monster led it?”
“Oh, no monsters here. Then again, here is itself monstrous to you. We’re quite the world apart.”
“This is Edgeworld, then?” Brieﬂy she glimpsed wet gray paving stones under her feet.
“I think it most unusual that you’ve transported here. That’s not how it’s done generally. Seems your gift wasn’t determined. I can’t recall the last time that happened...at least, not at our particular terminus. Who can say what’s gone on in Babylon? May-my, that could be a song title.”
She tried to steal nearer the speaker. “Do you write songs?”
“I’m thinking about taking it up. ‘Oh, what’s gone on in Babylon,’ late Enkidu inquired. ‘For I’ve been dead,’ is what he said, ‘and missed...’ Drat, I have no idea how to complete that rhyme.”
“I would offer to help, but I don’t know the story.”
“Don’t know it? How Enkidu died and the hero Gilgamesh went into the underworld and brought him back?”
She shook her head, then realized he probably couldn’t see the gesture any better than she could see him. “No,” she replied.
“Well, there’s a wonder. What are they teaching you in... where were you just now?”
“Oh. Never mind, then, they don’t teach anything there. Others build moments, minutes, hours. Not Colemaigne, not ever. Land of honey and surfeit.”
“What happened to it?”
“Hmm? Oh. Not surfeited anymore, is it? Blighted by Tophet, was Colemaigne. He, in the guise of Chaos, placed one hand upon the wall of a building, and from his imperishable ﬁngers spread the web of decay. Sum and substance cracked and spilled out bitterness, in shoals of torment.”
“Who is Tophet?”
“More like, what is Tophet, if you’re going to ask. He’s done away with the who. For Colemaigne, he was the Destroyer, come from the far side of the world seeking vengeance.”
“But he didn’t destroy all of it.”
“Yes, and lucky the span was, too. He became distracted. Else it would have been a silent place forever.”
“What distracted him?”
“Something. Something to do with you, it was. Something to do with death.”
“Me?” She edged still nearer. “But it happened before I was born.”
“True. And false.”
She puzzled at that. “You know, though, don’t you?” she said.
“Goes without saying, dear heart, goes without saying.”
“Then why can’t you explain it clearly?”
“Why? Because. It’s necessary for you to ﬁnd the answers to the larger puzzles of life yourself. They can’t be handed out, providing information that would change the pattern you have to walk. The maze. The labyrinth. It’s yours, I can’t go about altering its shape just as a courtesy. Your mettle is to be tested and no one’s to interfere in that. Besides, you won’t remember a thing I say.”
As he spoke, gesturing with caped arms, she stole ever closer, and before he noticed she’d slipped up beside him. When he looked down, she saw him clearly.
It was Soter’s face.
“Taking a peek at eternity, are you?” he asked, amused.
“No, I’m not. This is a false body, an incrustation over my immortal spirit.” He winked. “For your beneﬁt, I should add.”
From deeper in the fog came wailing, as if a chorus stood beyond the limit of her vision, responding to his words, answering or lamenting.
“Terrible time, this, terrible. But then what time isn’t, hmm? We all wear the mind-forged manacles in this world to bring forth your own.”
“I don’t understand at all,” she answered.
“Stories–yours and others’–they’re the products of disenchantment. Without it, no telling would be necessary. All would be harmony. But it never is, save in memory where the disharmonious is excised as with a scalpel, and ‘Oh, for the Golden Days of Old’ becomes the Song of Delusion, when no such days ever have been or will be. Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.”
Leodora shook her head. His words danced along the edge of comprehension, as if his meaning, like the chorus, lay just outside the wall of fog, attainable if only she could penetrate it. To delve into the fog, however, meant to move away and lose sight of him, which seemed to her a great risk.
The chorus sounded again, in doleful harmony with her dilemma. They were nearer, right behind him, as if they or the street were moving, sliding.
The rhythmic clop and clatter of another carriage approached, and this time she drew back as it neared, well before his hand grabbed her, so that this time she pulled him away. The fog parted as though ﬂeeing her, and there stood the chorus in a half circle around a low stone wall upon which perched a large, long-haired cat. The cat’s fur ran through a rainbow of colors, as bright as if a beam of sunlight were somehow penetrating the fog bank and striking the creature. One of the members reached out and ran a grubby hand the length of the cat, smoothing its fur. Its mouth opened, and a weird music ﬂoated out. The chorus listened to the notes and then as a group repeated them. Their dissonant chants had nothing to do with her songwriter after all.
“Beast knows all the tunes,” he said.
She became aware that the latest coach had slowed and come to a halt behind them, and she turned back.
“It’s for us,” said the songwriter. His hand at her elbow gently impelled her. His gaze–Soter’s gaze–was benign.
“Where are we going?”
“That I cannot say. It’s your journey, and you must tell the carriage where to go, when to stop.”
In the mist behind him, the cat lit up in colors and let forth another musical refrain of gliding notes that the crowd tried to emulate immediately, producing a caterwaul of conﬂicting voices. Had she been any nearer, she would have winced.
“How can I know where to stop when I can’t see anything?” she asked him.
“Perhaps,” he suggested, “it’s not something you do with your eyes?”
“I’m not used to this. I’m not ready.”
“No one ever is. Nor will you be here long enough to adapt. Not that you’d want to. The stink of old Londinium would win in the end. The blackened churches, the sighs like blood running down the walls. Not for you.” He held open the door of the carriage and reached out, his palm up. “Come into my hand,” he said, which she found stranger even than what he’d said previously.
She took his palm and let him lift her forward and up into the carriage, which rocked back and forth as she took her seat. He got in behind her and closed the door. Then, with a walking stick she hadn’t noticed previously, he rapped twice on the ceiling.
The carriage lurched, and he said, “Off we go.”
She studied him now. In the shadowy conﬁnes of the carriage she could make him out more clearly than in the fog. It was Soter’s face, all right, but with a thick shock of hair wild about his head, and much less dissolution across the terrain of his cheeks–a Soter who hadn’t drowned his every trouble in tuns of wine.
Under her scrutiny, he commented, “The maiden forgets her fear.”
She sat back. “How is this my journey?” she asked.
“You walked the pattern, although it wasn’t visible any longer. That’s an impressive enough feat for almost anyone. You traveled though you never left the spot. Now you choose the thing that returns with you, which might be important, or superﬂuous–but you do choose it.”
“Does everyone choose? May-my, yes, everyone who comes here, though none–including you–remembers. Nothing I’ve told you will you remember.”
“Diverus, then. He chose his gift.”
“I assume that is the name of someone who came before you? If so, then yes. I didn’t meet him, but what are the odds of two who know each other arriving in my care in my moment? Surely astronomical. Your look tells me that you remain confused, which is as it must be, and no matter, for you’ll lose this conversation shortly. The ride, the smells, the caterwauls, the beast that draws us–all will fall away. For now... you have but to choose.”
“But what am I choosing?”
“What everyone chooses. What your Diverus chose.”
Frustrated, she folded her arms. He shifted on the seat and his forehead furrowed, giving her the impression that if he had known more, he would have told her, but the larger picture was as obscure to him as it was to her.
She asked, “How do I make the choice?”
“You say stop. The carriage stops. You pick your prize, whatever it might be, and this all comes to an end.”
Leodora said, “I see,” although she didn’t. His explanation explained nothing. She was to decide without knowing. How could Diverus have chosen when he had no mind to think with? And yet he had–had chosen the divine gift of music. There really wasn’t anything she wanted, except perhaps shoes for her feet, which had almost gone numb on the pavement. If Diverus had taken this same carriage ride, how would he have known when he’d arrived at the thing he wanted? Or had they healed him ﬁrst? There seemed to be no point in asking if she wasn’t going to remember the answers anyway.
She closed her eyes and listened to the carriage, the creak of wood and leather. The roll and jounce traveled through her, the steady rhythm of the hooves of the beast pulling her down into reverie or dream, a senseless state that was neither alertness nor slumber.
Then all at once she cried “Stop!” and the carriage drew to a halt so fast that she lurched out of her seat and back again.
Her companion, his eyes half lidded, remarked, “Excellent choice.”
“What?” She had said stop. She had come alert. But she had no idea what had provoked the response.
“Go,” he said, and opened the carriage door. “Quickly now. Once you choose, you’ve only a brief time to retrieve.”
“No, I do not,” he answered as if he had known her question before she even spoke. “I give you a golden string, but I await you here.”
He gestured with the stick, and she climbed down from the carriage. The humid fog was as thick as before, the bricks of the street slick and fetid. She stepped up onto a raised walk, which proved smoother underfoot. Crossing it, she came upon wide steps going up and, beside them, a smaller set that descended beneath the level of the walk.
Up or down? She’d called out, chosen this spot, but didn’t know why nor how to proceed. Up or down? It would matter. It must. Yet how was she to proceed when she didn’t know what had prompted her, what compelled her now? Up or down?
She stared at the arrangement of the stairs, railings, the wide blank doors just visible at the top of the steps. Uncertainly, she started up, her hand on the cold iron rail. She looked over the side of it. The lower stairwell curved beneath the steps, leading to a doorway that was upside down as she viewed it. The arrangement reminded her of the inverted world she’d glimpsed under Colemaigne and of the underworld of Vijnagar. There were secret worlds enfolded in her world. And Diverus was from the secret world, sent to it after he’d stood upon the Dragon Bowl. These thoughts, notions, observations interlaced, although why they should she couldn’t say. She had to operate on instinct and nothing more. Instinct instructed her to descend, just as it urged her to hurry.
She ran down the lower steps, which were black and worn as from a thousand years of use. Inset in the wall to her right was a window, its other side framed in lace. She peered in upon a chamber beneath the sidewalk where a rose-red lamp glowed warmly. Farther back in the room were people–a family, two parents and three children. They looked happy, contented, affectionate, oblivious of her presence, though she must have blotted out the light as she pressed to the glass. Tenderness for them consumed her–a longing to be in that room, part of that family, to be so loved. The ache of that desire drove her from the view and down the last two steps.
She stood before a door, surely the door that led to that room, that family. It was green, wet with mist, and embellished with a large brass knocker in the shape of a lion’s head that held the knurled ring in its mouth.
Leodora reached up, grabbed the ring, and swung it hard against the door. The sound of it thundered, echoed as along endless hollow corridors. The lion’s brass head opened golden eyes and stared down at her.
“The choice is made!” said the voice of her companion, and she jolted upright in her carriage seat, then glanced about herself in disorientation.
Across the carriage, Soter-but-not-Soter leaned toward her and said, “What is now proved was once only imagined.” He offered her his walking stick, and the head of it was the lion’s head of the door knocker. Had it been thus earlier? She hadn’t looked closely enough. But she closed her ﬁngers over it.
“Good-bye, Leodora,” said the songwriter, and through her hand, between her ﬁngers, the geometrics she’d stepped through before came swirling. They spun about her, twisted into a cylindrical blur that drew her upright and held her with her arms extended to the side, ﬁngers skimming the patterns as she descended, ﬂowed through the dream, sliding down the golden string, which settled her gently back within the hexagonal bowl. As her toes touched, the bowl reignited with so bright a light that it seemed to burn straight through her as though she were no thicker than the hammered skin of a shadow puppet. She looked at her hands glowing red from the blood within, and then all at once brighter still. In a burst that consumed her, she became light, and as the blaze faded all that remained was the thread of gold, which she followed downward into darkness.