By Mike Allen
This is an excerpt from the novel The Black Fire Concerto by Mike Allen, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Haunted Stars Publishing and Mike Allen, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Haunted Stars Publishing.
CAUTION: THIS WORK OF FICTION CONTAINS ADULT THEMES AND LANGUAGE.
Part Two: Bone Mosaics
A half an hour passed as Erzelle and her teacher crouched in the crook of this immense white-barked tree, peering out into the forest.
Growing up first in the caste layers of Minnepaul, then in the black passages of the Red Empress, Erzelle still hadn’t completely acclimated to wilderness, its dizzying sky, its openness in all directions, its lack of symmetry. Other aspects of freedom she’d embraced with glee — bathing in the river, Olyssa’s comb straightening her hair, the way her ragged clothes, once cleaned, no longer itched against her skin — but the openness of the world could still give her vertigo. Especially when viewed from a height.
Their perch overlooked one of the rare patches of pure green in these desolate hills. New growth cluttered the glade, saplings with leaves like flattened hands rising from bushes with red-veined foliage, all of it wound through with bright-flowered vines that Olyssa warned Erzelle repeatedly not to touch. Past the burst of greenery a spring trickled from a deep split in a rock and bubbled down an incline through the grove its waters had carved, weaving between older trees that displayed the bewildering symptoms of the blight induced by the Storms.
Some trees, blackened as if by fire, continued to unfurl sickly grey leaves. Others raised proud canopies to the sun, yet oozed black slime that Olyssa warned was both poisonous and acidic. Still others twisted in agonized contortions, branches stabbing the ground like roots, while their roots groped up from between them, producing unnatural leaves. Rarer, but impossible not to notice, some trees stood inexplicably lush and hale, grown to tremendous size, their outsized leaves hogging the sunlight, their growth still spurred by the residue of the long-gone Storms. The tree they waited in, a mutant birch, was one of these.
Erzelle hadn’t been born when the Storms erupted, raw tempests of magic that roared across the world, destructive as cyclones or typhoons. Olyssa had once shared that she’d been a child when the Storms started, which Erzelle had trouble reconciling, as her teacher could only be in her thirties at most and the Storms devastated the world decades ago. She’d hoped to hear more of what the Storms were like, but Olyssa seemed disinclined to share more and Erzelle lacked the nerve to breach that silence. Much of their travels took place in silence — Olyssa wasn’t prone to casual conversation.
Tall and broad-shouldered, in her leather jacket and brown trousers, Olyssa seemed to meld into the tree, motionless as she observed the glade, her rifle nestled in the crook of her arm, poised in line with her gaze, the ruby glow of its runes dormant. She’d told Erzelle she expected the spring would attract game — they were nearly out of food — yet so far they’d seen nothing larger than a lizard. A sheet of ocher clouds veiled the lowering sun.
The crook of branch that supported Erzelle made for an uncomfortable chair. Some unseen beast resumed its high-pitched cries, sounding like a child under torture.
She didn’t realize how much she fidgeted until Olyssa softly spoke. “You have no patience for this sort of thing. My sister, she’s the same way.”
Erzelle willed her teacher to share more. Three months together and Olyssa had hardly breathed a word about her ill-fated sibling, though the possibility of finding her motivated everything they did. “You once said I looked like her?”
Erzelle bristled. After all, Olyssa had broken the silence first. Yet she obeyed, and chided herself for being ungrateful.
Olyssa returned to scanning the woods. Her next words were not spoken aloud. After weeks of traveling together, Erzelle no longer mistook Olyssa’s mindspeech for her physical voice. For one thing, her teacher seemed more at ease sharing her thoughts directly, and she’d go on at much greater length. She looks like me, but more slender, though I’m only a little taller, if you can believe that. She glanced Erzelle’s way. Your eyes, though, they’re almost the same. Both in color and in the hint of mischief that invades when you’re happy. We wondered where she got those eyes. Both my mother and father had eyes dark as mine.
Erzelle tried to imagine her green eyes in Olyssa’s face. She started to say so when Olyssa raised the rifle. She pulled the trigger, agile as ever despite the bindings on her hands, and the runes along the barrel flared red.
A deer took two steps and toppled to the grass.
Olyssa was out of the tree in an instant, reaching up to help Erzelle down. We’ll cook it tonight.
Unbidden, the dining hall of the Red Empress flashed within Erzelle’s mind, with its walls and tables the color of raw meat, and she couldn’t suppress a shudder.
Erzelle helped lug the deer carcass back to their campsite, a not-quite clearing where trees were sparse, with a rock jutting up on one side like a giant’s lost tooth and a swath of low-growing cedar on the other. She also helped Olyssa skin and clean the deer, though to be truthful her teacher hardly needed any help. She’d lived as a nomad for many years. Once again Erzelle couldn’t stop herself from wondering how her teacher knew the customs of lavish city life so well that she’d been able to trick the Family into taking her in.
They dug a shallow fire pit and soon the deer roasted over it. The smell was maddeningly good, the taste even better. Afterward they watched the fire, their backs to the rock.
“Fetch your harp,” Olyssa finally said, as she opened her mandolin case and exchanged the rifle assembly for the reed and bell. “I think we’ll risk another lesson.”
A man’s voice chimed in from the dark. “And what lesson would that be, my lady?”
Erzelle shrieked in surprise.
Olyssa sprang to her feet, letting the detached reed bounce in the dirt as she grabbed up the rifle assembly, trying to attach it before realizing she still needed to spin off the bell. She was up, rifle aimed, with astonishing speed, yet visibly flustered. Erzelle had never seen anyone get the drop on her. The man stepping out from the cedars with his hands raised most certainly had.
“No closer,” barked Olyssa, as the barrel flared red.
He lifted his empty hands to shoulder level. “As you can see, I didn’t bring a gun.”
“What do you want?”
Amusement coiled through the silky tenor of his voice. “My people’s due.”
The man’s smile didn’t articulate across his face the way a typical human’s would. The corners pulled up toward his cheekbones, while the center of his lower lip pulled down to a point. His eyes were tilted at a startling angle above his streamlined nose, not slanted slightly upwards like Olyssa’s but nearly vertical, and their orbs were huge. His irises glinted red in the firelight, and his pupils were slitted like cat’s eyes. His thick hair was also red, as if he wore a crown of flame. His dark clothes clung snug to his frame: a long sleeve jersey, black jeans and black boots. His slender body tapered gracefully from chest to waist, and just like Olyssa, he wasted no movement.
Olyssa replied, “No riddles, vulpine.”
Erzelle started. Growing up in Minnepaul, she’d heard of the vulpines, but such stories had all the exaggerated character of tall tales. As had stories of the ghouls. Mere phantoms to frighten children at night, they seemed then.
She’d occasionally heard whispers of the vulpines among the guests at the Red Empress: turns of phrase, “clever as a vulpine,” or more often, “hungry as a vulpine.” Remembering that made her own stomach boil. But she’d never once thought of the creatures as real.
More alarming was the fact that though he was without question something other than human, the man half-revealed in the flicker of their fire had a beauty to him, an allure, that defied all better intuition. Erzelle found his fanged smile repellant but at the same time thrilling. She didn’t want to look away.
“There’s no riddle,” he said. “You’ve poached on our land.”
“The deer?” Olyssa’s voice rose, incredulous.
Her off-kilter reaction startled Erzelle. She’s seen her teacher calmly inform armed men of their impending death multiple times. Was she now rattled at being caught off-guard, or did the vulpine’s peculiar beauty unnerve her as much as it did Erzelle?
Olyssa went on, “This scrawny thing will barely feed the two of us for a week!”
“It was kind of me to even let you have any. It belongs to us by right.”
“How about I give you a bullet instead?”
The vulpine’s eyes went almost round before narrowing, the fire’s glow reflected in near-vertical slivers. “You might fell me, but you don’t have enough bullets to fend off all of us.”
He spread his arms to indicate the woods behind him.
Last night, after they’d found shelter from a light rain splatter beneath an outcrop of shale, Olyssa had confided that she needed to make more bullets, which meant buying or scavenging more of the right kind and inscribing them with runes, a prospect that seemed unlikely in the wilderness. She’d used half of her supply in the Red Empress, and a quarter more in the riverside village of hardscrabble fisher-folk where they’d taken shelter after abandoning the powerboat stolen from the ghoul-eating cultists.
The vulpine must have been spying on them and overheard their conversation. Erzelle’s skin goose-pimpled. What else had he heard, what had he made of it? Had he seen Olyssa’s hands unbandaged? They’d almost completely healed from the burns that had seared the runes from the pipe into her palms. In another night or so, she’d no longer need the medicines Erzelle kept helping her prepare.
Olyssa was a woman of amazing strength and power, but Erzelle had no inking of the extent of that power until the night at the fisher-folk’s village, when they had been besieged by cultists seeking vengeance for the destruction of the Red Empress.
“Come out, witch,” called a mocking male voice from the lot outside the hostel.
This dowdy building where they’d played music to pay for their lodging had once been some sort of administrative office, its cinder block shell erected nearly a century before the Storms. The large family that lived in it now, and occasionally let rooms to those passing through, had rebuilt its shattered wings as best they could. The old couple heading this clan had broad, crinkled faces rendered adorable by their smiles, and when earlier in the day they’d requested news of other places, Olyssa politely rattled off a number of things about Minnepaul, Millwalk and other cities that meant little to Erzelle. Despite Olyssa’s evident lack of enthusiasm, the couple attended every word with eager nods. Erzelle went outside and ended up playing hopscotch with a pair of twin girls two years her junior. Her and Olyssa’s arrival in this shantytown clinging to life on the riverbank seemed to have stirred a lot of interest among the residents, but Erzelle abandoned herself to the game, ignoring the stares of the twins’ older siblings and the other children who gathered to watch.
It was one of the twins who warned her just after dark that a man dressed head-to-toe in black had come through the village earlier that day asking after a piper and harpist and left quickly upon getting an affirmative.
Olyssa had gone downstairs to urge the old couple to gather their family and leave, and seen the cultists coming up the street from the wharf. At least thirty, all armed with rifles. When she returned to their room on the second story, with its single shade-drawn window and its stained wooden paneling and its pair of cots, she told Erzelle that there might well be more cultists covering the other exits.
After that brief announcement she sat lotus-style on the floor between their cots with her rifle in her lap and began to chant as the rough voice outside taunted.
“Come out and know our mercy. Come out or you’ll wish you had been eaten.”
She held the rifle up with both hands as if presenting it for an offering. Its red runes glowed brighter and brighter, her chant unceasing. Huddled under a cot, Erzelle made out the words, uttered fast and sing-song: “Find my enemies. Find my enemies. Find my enemies.”
Glowing brighter still, the rifle shuddered and lifted into the air.
Sweat glistened on Olyssa’s brow, beaded on her arms, where there’d been none a moment before. And the rifle, with runes blinding bright, tilted toward the floor like a dowsing rod and fired through it, sending splinters of wood flying. Erzelle clapped her hands over her ears. The rifle pivoted and tilted up toward their window, swept back and forth as it fired five times in a row. Glass shattered as bullets ricocheted off the top of the window frame. The taunting voice cried out and fell silent. Other men screamed. The rifle turned back to the floor again, shot four more times through it, the impacts vibrating the boards so Erzelle felt them through her shins and elbows. It lifted and blasted the wall beside the door. Olyssa chanted non-stop. “Find my enemies.”
Erzelle could hardly sort out the cacophony. The crack of wood splintering, pings like pans striking stone, split-second high-pitched whines. The sounds of bullets ricocheting, terminating in surprised, anguished cries.
The rifle moved on its own, firing at nothing. Yet it never missed.
Shell casings clattered on the floor as the shouts below cut short. The barrel grew even brighter, intensifying from red to gold, an effect Erzelle had never seen before. Olyssa paused for breath, long enough to spit out a word: “Clip!” In that instant the runes dimmed and the rifle dipped in the air. It slowly rose again as its owner resumed her chant.
The barrel continued to swivel, though it had ceased firing. Erzelle scrambled for the mandolin case.
“Find my enemies. Find my enemies.”
“Where the hell is she?” whispered one of the cultists, his voice carried through the new holes in the floor. “Those bullets came from everywhere.” Speaking from the room immediately below them.
Elsewhere in the building, heavy boots ascended stairs.
She dug through the case in a panic, grabbed one of the clips and tossed it back in before she realized what it was. Olyssa never stopped her chant.
The footsteps reached the hall outside their room. Although she wasn’t loud, they heard Olyssa’s constant mutter.
“Shhh! What’s that?”
Olyssa held her hand out. Sweat dripped from her fingers. Erzelle nearly dropped the clip again before her teacher snatched it from her.
Gunfire shredded her eardrums. Erzelle threw herself to the floor before she realized the men were emptying their weapons into the unoccupied room next door. Glass shattered, wood fragmented, paneling flew apart.
Olyssa’s strained mantra filled the silence that followed as she loaded the new clip into the floating gun. “Find my enemies. Find my enemies.”
“Not in here!” one of the hunters yelled.
The symbols etched in the pipe flashed white as the rifle spun like a compass needle, fired nine times into the adjacent room, trigger moving of its own accord. A chorus of heavy thuds followed.
But a thunder of footsteps did too. Olyssa’s rifle pivoted to the door and discharged over and over again. More bodies fell, leaving nothing but the patter of a single person running back down the hall. The rifle fired. A bullet ricocheted. The fleeing man collapsed.
Though it wasn’t out of bullets, the rifle hung motionless, then fell. The dingy mat it landed on began to smolder. Its barrel continued to glow white.
Outside, nothing but silence, as if no one in the whole village dared breathe.
Olyssa took in a great gasp of air and wheezed for several breaths, her hair plastered to her scalp, her blouse soaked through. She remained in lotus position, the blazing barrel just inches from her knee. “The reed,” she rasped.
Bewildered, Erzelle scrambled to find it. She could smell smoke rising from the mat.
She spotted the reed beside the mandolin case and brought it to Olyssa, whose dark eyes bored into hers. “Your harp. I need you to play it. Now!”
Erzelle obeyed, wondering if her teacher’s mind had been broken by the terrifying spell she’d cast. She jerked her harp from its case and plopped it between her knees. As Olyssa had given her no instructions she plucked the longest strings to sound the first notes of “The Mountain King,” a simple tune her mother had taught her.
Olyssa held the reed in her lips, and picked up the pipe. She didn’t flinch. At the hiss of searing skin Erzelle almost let the harp spill from her lap.
However, she knew not to stop playing until told. As much as she wanted to grab the pipe from Olyssa and fling it away, she stayed put.
Olyssa brought the end of the white-glowing length of metal to the reed at her lips and attached it. Erzelle’s heart fluttered as she imagined the little wooden piece bursting into flames. But Olyssa blew around it, producing a note more piercing than a kettle whistle. It descended in register, and when it did the pipe’s runes changed instantly from white to blue.
She added harmony to Erzelle’s melody until the pipe no longer glowed torch bright. Then she set it down, flexed her fingers, winced and asked Erzelle to bring her medicine pouch. Her palms and fingertips were red and bloody. Yet Erzelle noticed those burns were nowhere near as severe as they should have been.
Her ears rang, her pulse thumped in her neck and the smell of smoke and white-hot metal hung in the air. Olyssa calmly instructed her in how to mix the poultice, how to soak and apply the dressings. This short-term supply of purpose made for a welcome distraction.
There came a timid knock on the door. Erzelle jumped, losing her grip on the bandage she was winding around her teacher’s right hand.
“Miss?” It was the matriarch who ran the hostel. Her voice quavered. “Please. We want you to leave.”
Olyssa’s response was loud as a gong. “Are you prepared to make me?”
Erzelle cringed, recalling the old woman’s sweet smile, but she held her tongue. No answer came from outside. Soft footsteps eventually stole away, following an odd rhythm, as if stepping over many objects that blocked the way.
Indeed, at least a dozen black-clad bodies of the cultists blocked the hall when the pair emerged.
Though she shook with exhaustion, Olyssa observed the carnage without expression, her mandolin case slung over her shoulder beside her pack. She turned to Erzelle and said “I’m sorry we had to give up our beds tonight,” as if they’d had a mild dispute with the hoteliers and nothing more.
“Again,” Olyssa said to the vulpine, “the remains of this animal will hardly last the two of us a week. I’m sure there are many others in the forest. Why does this one concern you?”
“Because it’s rightfully ours,” he said.
Every night since the attack in the village, Erzelle had helped Olyssa re-bandage her hands. There was no way to know how many other vulpine might be waiting in the forest, especially if they were all as silent as this one. Even if Olyssa could steal enough time to chant her rifle aloft, arm it to kill all her unseen enemies with ricochets that never miss — Erzelle never wanted to watch her teacher torture herself that way again.
She took a deep breath and in a voice much less steady than she’d intended said, “Maybe we can offer you something else?”
The vulpine’s red gaze flicked to Erzelle. She went on, “If you’ve heard us talk then you’ve heard us play.”
Olyssa’s voice in her head: Don’t bother bargaining with it.
But Erzelle had already opened her mouth again. “Surely if we played for … all of you, it would be a fair trade?”
“Why? You heard what he said! What good will scaring him do? I don’t want you to hurt yourself again. I spent years in that ship where they were fattening me up to be eaten. I’m not going to volunteer for it now!”
It took Erzelle a beat to realize she’s retorted to Olyssa aloud. She must have sounded like someone hallucinating. Olyssa wasn’t looking at her, but the vulpine was staring, his eyes almost round, his mouth working, flashing fangs.
Finally his tenor thrummed indignant. “Young miss, what tales have you heard? We’re not cannibals. We’re not ghouls. I assure you I’m just as human as you are.”
The way he glared, the way his face drew up in a snarl, the flesh folding to either side of his nose into an expression furious as a shaken fist, Erzelle might well have doubted his word, had he not sounded so genuinely appalled.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
When Erzelle apologized the vulpine’s expression softened, a spectrum of emotion playing across his features: confusion, sadness, resolve. Then he replaced his disconcerting smile as if it were a mask. He stepped backward into the trees, calling: “‘T’will be a delight to hear you play. Please do. Then we’ll decide.”
It was as if he’d never been there. No further noise came from the trees.
Olyssa hadn’t budged. Neither had the barrel of her gun. As the fire crackled, she waited, eying the forest. At last she tipped her weapon up. Erzelle removed her harp from its case, expecting Olyssa to project rebukes into her head at any moment. Yet none came.
Finally, her teacher sat to dismantle her rifle. We’ll practice the concerto again.
Olyssa had been leading her through a three-movement concerto that accommodated flute and harp. Erzelle didn’t know which instruments the composition had originally been written for, but she marveled both at how well it worked and at the astonishing depth of Olyssa’s memory, how she could keep all that music in her head despite years without a score to review. Even more astonishing, this concerto was just one of many Olyssa could call to her fingers at will.
When the pipe was assembled to play, Erzelle plucked the shortest strings to begin the long descent of the opening notes. Once Olyssa joined in Erzelle found it easy to lose herself in the challenge of negotiating this complex dance of melody and harmony without any missteps. She took comfort in the fact that when she did make mistakes their unseen audience was likely none the wiser.
Once the last notes died away, the vulpine returned.
“Splendid! Splendid!” he said, clapping in wide-eyed delight, aquiver with buoyant energy, like a child looking forward to a favorite game.
Olyssa watched him with a predator’s unblinking focus but allowed him to sit at the fire across from them. No others came out to join him, and Erzelle wondered if his statement about outnumbering Olyssa’s bullets had been all bluff.
If so, Olyssa hadn’t called him on it. Instead, she asked, “So do we have a bargain now?”
“After such an enchanting performance? I’m ashamed you felt you even had to ask. Of course, you may keep that stringy thing. Though I confess, it smells so good, I’d love a taste if you cared to share a small portion?”
Olyssa blinked, then betrayed the slightest of smiles. “Will we, from now on, be left in peace?”
The vulpine inclined his head, only slightly disappointed that his question had gone ignored. “Play each evening, madame, with the beauty I’ve just heard, so long as you roam our lands, and I promise no harm will come to you.”
“Well, then. How far does your land extend?”
“East to the river, south to the ruins of the old rocky city, west to the Violet Bluffs.”
Olyssa had said little about the Violet Bluffs — only that it was another place of sorcery where her sister might be found. How she knew this, she had not yet divulged. Erzelle remained too grateful for her rescue and too intimidated by Olyssa’s might to demand such answers. Still, her desire to know more and her resentment at not having it sated had been growing without her even realizing it, until tonight, when she undermined her teacher in front of this bewitching fox-man.
In a rare display of intense interest, even eagerness, Olyssa said, “We’re looking for the Violet Bluffs. Can you tell us where they are?”
The vulpine’s astonished expression dissolved into another odd smile. “I can’t help but confess that makes me curious. It doesn’t surprise me that the foul place has a reputation outside our hollows, but I’ve never imagined I’d meet someone who actually wanted to go there.”
“Why? What’s there?”
“Some very strange people … If the way I look bothers you, I have to imagine the folks at Violet Bluffs will have you in fidgets.”
Erzelle sensed an edge of hurt beneath his jocular tone.
Olyssa didn’t rise to his bait. “Why?”
He again regarded Erzelle. “My people didn’t ask for what the Storms did to us. How they changed us.” And she again said “I’m sorry” but he talked right over her. “The folk who live in the Bluff, they’ve been changed, too. But not in the same way that we have. We bleed. They don’t.”
“Ghouls?” Olyssa asked.
He laughed, a delightfully wicked cackle that warmed the cooling night. “I know what a ghoul is, my lady. Ghouls don’t dress themselves in robes. Ghouls don’t converse. Ghouls don’t farm, though what the Grey Ones plant by their temple is something no one in their right mind would want to harvest.”
“What is it they farm, then?”
“I’ve never been there myself, and I wouldn’t want to go there. I’ve only heard stories, that they collect the bodies of the dead … for many dead remain from the Storms when they rampaged through these mountains, entire towns destroyed, their bodies never claimed, no one to claim them. What business the people of the Bluff have with the dead, I can’t tell you.”
“So you’ve never seen any of these people yourself?”
“Oh no. I have.” His ever-present smile faltered, and he grew quiet.
Olyssa let her impatience show. “There’s no need for games.”
He spread his hands. “There’s no need for rebukes, lovely miss. I’m not playing a game. I’m genuinely flummoxed, trying to figure out how to describe these Grey Ones to you. They’re not a subject I’m ever asked to expound on much.” His grin returned. “It’s not as if you can just sit down and share good moonshine with them. Their faces are like plaster masks, and they look at you as if you’re a tree they’d rather saw down than acknowledge. You think they’re mute, and then one speaks, and it’s as if its words were pre-recorded.” Again he regarded Erzelle. “You do know what I mean by that?”
“Yes, she does,” Olyssa said, before Erzelle could respond. “So you’ve spoken to them?”
“Tell me more.”
He shifted, crossed his arms, bemused. Erzelle noticed thick red hair where his wrists emerged from his sleeves, not quite dense enough to be dubbed a pelt. “They dress the same regardless of the weather. Wrap themselves head to foot in coarse cloth and keep hoods pulled down to shade their faces, even at night. Maybe to hide their skin. Their faces are blotched like they’ve been splattered with ink.”
“You said they harvest the dead. Do they harvest ghouls as well?”
“Now that’s an interesting question.” He stared into the fire. His jaw clenched.
“Is there any reason why you can’t just answer it?”
His eyes narrowed. He shook his head. “So rude!” The knowing grin he shot Erzelle’s way betokened sympathy. Despite herself she had to suppress an answering smile.
“We have an arrangement with the people of the Bluff,” he explained. “Should we spy a ghoul anywhere within our territory, we’re to let them know.”
Olyssa leaned forward. “Does that arrangement extend to living people?”
He raised exquisitely tapered hands as if to ward her off. “We truck no business with them unless we absolutely have to. The ghouls, though, we’re willing to let them handle.” He made a show of shuddering. “Those things. They wander in from anywhere. And we’re as vulnerable to them as you are.” Again, the emphasis, the hurt. “The Grey Ones make them vanish.”
“What do they do with them?”
He laughed. “Turn them into frogs, for all I know.”
Erzelle curled tight and hugged her knees, remembering the hold in the Red Empress. The Violet Bluffs might harbor another cult. And Olyssa wanted to go to them.
Her teacher’s voice grew cold. “I said no games.”
“There’s no need to be so demanding. They have a temple atop the Bluff, a building I’ve heard used to be a monastery by a parkway. I assure you the road’s long gone. There is no line to see inside the temple and if there was one I wouldn’t be in it.” And now he glared. “And you shouldn’t be either. These are men and women who don’t hunt, don’t cook, don’t drink, don’t yawn, and as far as we can tell don’t ever sleep. It’s certainly no place to bring her.” He pointed at Erzelle.
For a second, Olyssa pursed her lips. Apparently his words had struck a nerve. Yet she didn’t relent. “How many are there?”
“Hard to know, they look so much alike.”
“Surely, as effective at spying as you are, there have been attempts?”
He bared teeth in response. “We learned a long time ago not to spy on them.” Rage contorted his face. Both Olyssa and Erzelle recoiled. But just as quickly he redrew his smile. “We’ve talked for a long time without any introduction, and that just doesn’t seem right to me, especially as thoroughly as you’ve worked me over.” He stood and executed a rakish bow. “I’m Reneer. And I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” He cocked his head at Erzelle. “And you?”
“I’m Erzelle Cardona,” she blurted, her full name sounding so strange to her — it had been years since she’d spoken it or heard it spoken.
Don’t let your guard so far down, Olyssa chided. She offered only her first name when the vulpine turned to her. She stood and offered a hand, which Reneer quickly squeezed, muttering, “Charmed.”
Erzelle realized even she didn’t know the rest of her teacher’s name.
Reneer remained standing. “Now, Olyssa, I don’t suppose you’ll tell me why you want to go to the Violet Bluffs? Or why you’d risk bringing a girl her age there?”
Olyssa’s voice often sounded most musical when she was at her most sarcastic. “I’ll wager my apprentice could tie you in knots single-handed, Mr. Reneer.”
Reneer’s lip curled up wryly. “No doubt she could.”
Erzelle realized she was blushing, and looked away.
“As for your question,” Olyssa said, “no, you can’t know the why. It’s best that you don’t.”
“Hmm.” Reneer flashed his grin once more. “Well, seeing as we’ve enjoyed so much small talk this evening, perhaps I should take my leave of you beauties?”
Olyssa actually seemed caught off guard for a fraction of an instant before she straightened the smile that dimpled her cheeks. “How far to this temple you mentioned?”
Sighing, the vulpine clasped his hands together. “If you started walking now you could be there at this hour tomorrow.”
For a moment, Erzelle thought Olyssa was actually going to tell her to pack the camp so they could start out. Instead, she just said, “Thank you. And my thanks to your people for being so reasonable in allowing us to trade.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, eyes twinkling, “I’ll tell them.”
“Oh, really?” Her eyes narrowed. “I thought they were watching us.”
“And perhaps they are,” he retorted with a grin, the mischievous glint never leaving his eye.
His expression turned serious. “Are you sure you won’t perhaps rethink this journey you’ve chosen to undertake? The music I heard tonight — it’d be a shame for it to vanish from the world.”
Olyssa blinked. “It won’t.”
“My lady, I hope you speak truth.” He nodded to Erzelle. “Good night.” He turned to the cedars, merged into their shadows and was gone.
Say nothing else unless you must. That one may well hear our every word.
Yet later that night, lying by the still-warm embers, thoughts of the ghoul-collecting Grey Ones so badgered Erzelle that she could no longer keep quiet. “Why do we need to go to this place?”
“What makes you so sure your sister is a ghoul?”
Mind your tongue.
It’s hard to explain. What was done to her, it’s as if she died, the way a ghoul is dead. And yet she lives. Some part of her remains here. I know she’s alive because the pipe she made for me still plays. That much I’ve told you before.
“Why do you think she’s there? At the temple?”
Keep your voice down.
“Why? I want to know why!” She rolled over to face Olyssa, whose eyes glistened in the moonlight. “I just escaped from a terrible place. And this sounds even worse. Why are we going there?”
I won’t make you go. You don’t have to. But I do.
Such a long time went by that Erzelle thought Olyssa wouldn’t answer, and as her anger lost steam she found she didn’t have the will to push her teacher further. By and by a sensation like a long sigh wound through her mind, a breath drawn in before singing.
Many years ago, before I started my search, I wove a spell. I tapped the darkness, for the first and only time in my life. Something I’d sworn I would never do. I did it for my sister.
Tapped the darkness. Erzelle didn’t recognize the term but couldn’t bring herself to interrupt.
I played the pipe my sister made for me for a full day, never stopping. I wove a spell that created a thinking entity, a being made of light and energy. I ordered it to tell me where my sister was. But the thing I made, its mind was rough clay, crumbling from the moment I shaped it. It wouldn’t answer the way I wished it to. It told me all the places where she could be, and it did so in riddles that took me long months to decipher.
I had quite the ugly surprise in store when I arrived at the first place the spell had mapped for me. An entire island infested with ghouls.
Their minders were a sect of warlocks not unlike the ones who held you captive. They kept the ghouls limbless and buried up to their necks in the sands of the island. Luckily for me, the ruse I put on — the unsuspecting minstrel hoping for food and lodging — served me just as well there as when I found you.
The next place was like that, too, another nest of sorcerers. Those seeking the mastery of this new magic and the prolonged life it brings recognize that those mindless creatures can serve as a power source. Dangerous as they are, they’re easy to capture and control if you have the right knowledge.
Once I understood what this pattern told me, that my sister has been enslaved the way these ghouls have been enslaved, I learned as much as I could about every single cell of carrion eaters: Who and what I would find in each place. How best to get there and get out. I knew for many years that I would visit the Red Empress. And if I didn’t find Lilla there, I’d seek her next at the place called Violet Bluffs, though about that place I’ve learned little.
I plotted this route years ago based on the riddles I deciphered. Erzelle, if she’s not at this temple the vulpine spoke of, assuming he didn’t lie for the fun of it, I know already where I’ll head next. But it’s too soon to talk about that.
Never had Olyssa said so much at once. Erzelle kept her gaze fixed on the wisps of clouds shrouding the moon. The blanket her teacher provided cocooned her in warmth, but the things Olyssa hinted at stretched jaws open wider than the world, a hungry abyss that had dined on millions.
She thought Olyssa had finished. Until more words came, demure and muted.
Finding you was a surprise. It’s been a delight, having you to talk to and teach. But if you don’t want to follow me on this path, I won’t make you.
Erzelle couldn’t imagine what horrors Olyssa had already endured. Or how deep her love for her sister must run, that it kept her going forward, not knowing what she’d ultimately find. Erzelle wanted to be that brave. She wanted to see Olyssa’s sister freed the way Olyssa had freed her.
“I want to go where you go,” she said.
After another long silence: Thank you.
A figure strode through the forest, like a man but twice as tall, a deer’s antlers growing from his head, not a pair of them but at least a dozen, so many that he should have staggered under their weight even if they weren’t each as long he was tall — and yet he didn’t.
From every fork and crook of those antlers hung a severed human head, each one still alive, eyes rolling in terror, mouths moving silent.
It stooped to pick up a new head that lay on the forest floor. Olyssa’s. Her head fit easily in the creature’s palm. Her dark hair cascaded through its fingers.
The creature’s shoulders shook, and it loosed a terrible sob of grief.
Erzelle woke with a start, to find the figure standing over her, its horns bisecting the moon.
She gasped, only to start awake again, and turn to see Olyssa’s face sketched in the gloom by the last of the embers, her breathing soft, sleeping with her eyes open as she often did.
They hiked one more day and camped one more night. The next morning, they spied the cliff Reneer had spoken of and the temple squatting atop it, its layers of pale stone blocks evoking in Erzelle’s mind the scales of an immense lizard, buttresses splayed out from its walls like crooked legs. The ledge itself rose out of the forest floor like a giant’s tombstone, a sheer edifice of raw earth banded with sediment layers. Above the temple the slopes of a mountain stretched toward the sky. The flowers that swathed those slopes gave the mountain its name — purple flowers, each with two large petals spreading to either side of a golden core with a red center. They peered like an infestation of crazed eyes from between the leaves of the trees and bushes that covered the mountain’s face. Even well below, an acrid scent of sweet pepper reached the travelers.
They couldn’t approach the temple directly. Instead, they angled north, away from the bluff, until they found a gentler incline leading up into the foothills. Cutting their way through this long detour involved impasses and backtracking, and instances where the ground tipped so steeply they had to pull themselves up by clinging to the brush that stubbled the slopes. After just minutes of this, Erzelle’s joints ached and her arms and neck stung from scratches. The awe she felt for her teacher also grew, as Olyssa wasn’t the least bit encumbered by the mandolin case on her back — Erzelle, having lifted it a few times, knew how heavy it was. Erzelle wished she could have left her harp behind, but Olyssa believed they could need it. In fact, incredibly, she’d offered to shoulder it as well it, but given her own burden, Erzelle had insisted she could handle it. She refused to voice her after-the-fact misgivings.
Olyssa did her best to guide them so they kept out of sight of the stone monstrosity, and allowed frequent pauses for rest. At first Erzelle’s chest tightened in shame, because it seemed these were for her benefit only. By the fourth time she’d become too winded for such thoughts, yet she vowed not to be a hindrance. She’d nod to indicate when she could continue, whether or not she was truly ready.
During one of those stops, puffing for breath, she murmured, “I wish we’d asked Reneer if there was a path. I bet he’d have told us.”
So our little fox-man is a friend now? Olyssa’s tone wasn’t at all amused. Don’t be fooled, Erzelle. There’s no one we can trust, least of all him.
Erzelle had never before believed so whole-heartedly that her teacher was wrong. But she kept that thought to herself, instead saying, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
They’d been climbing for hours, the sun high in a dizzying blue sky, the sweet-sour odor from the flowers overwhelming her sinuses, when Olyssa told her they needed to start back down. At first she was confused, until she looked out through the shade of the ugly purple flowers all around them and understood they’d ascended above the ledge where the temple stood, and now had to clamber down to it. The flowers sprouted from vines that choked all the other growth and made the going even slower than the ascent had been, as the straps of their packs were constantly getting hooked and had to be yanked free. The vines had pink tendrils growing from them like beans or peas, that curled and contracted around whatever touched them. Though Olyssa went first and did her best with the long knife she kept in her boot to clear the way, more than once Erzelle had to rip her ankles free, and the noise it made caused her heart to leap.
Slowly, Olyssa cautioned. Calculate every move you make. We’re getting close.
Not long after, she pointed out through a gap in the flowers that afforded a full view of the former monastery. To Erzelle it resembled a fortress far more than a place of worship, despite the pair of circular stained glass windows set high the facade, mounted to either side of an arched gate sealed by outsized iron double doors. The gate and windows together created the impression of a frowning piscine face.
The top of the bluff had been cleared of all wild vegetation. A field of turned earth in the shape of an eight-pointed star marred the grounds before the temple entrance. No crops grew in the brown expanse, yet three figures clad head-to-toe in grey toiled in it nonetheless. One held a sack, while the others meticulously prodded the soil with small spades. The diggers unearthed pale rocks which they picked up and placed in the bag.
Then one of the stooping Grey Ones pulled a head from the earth. The head wasn’t severed, but plainly attached to a neck and shoulders. The other Grey One involved in the digging set down the spade and produced a small scythe from the folds of its ragged robe. One stroke freed the head up for the sack. The rest they left as they continued their probing search.
Olyssa and Erzelle watched in silence. Erzelle’s muscles grew sore from staying still so long. She recognized now that the pale stones the Grey Ones collected were human bones. Sometimes they found more intact bodies, and would amputate pieces from them seemingly at random. A hand here, a shin here, an unrecognizable tangle of gristle here.
Erzelle wanted to ask, What are they doing? but was afraid even to breathe too loud. If the Grey Ones buried the bodies there to begin with, why did they search so meticulously, as if unsure what would be found beneath the dirt?
A bell chimed once. The low, moaning note didn’t come from the temple’s tower, but from somewhere deep inside it. The Grey Ones at once stopped in their tasks and huddled toward the huge door, dragging their bag of bones and body parts with them. The doors swung inward and the warped figures shuffled into darkness.
Erzelle didn’t notice when Olyssa drew her pipe from its case, but she had it in her hands when she stood.
Stay back. I have a hunch.
She started to play. Erzelle recognized the tune immediately — it was the same one Olyssa had woven as she’d looked into the eyes of the ghouls in the hold of the Red Empress. Yet it wasn’t precisely the same; this was slower, more complex.
The doors had started to swing closed, but they stopped as Olyssa emerged from the thicket and strode into the clearing.
The three wrapped figures reappeared in the entrance. Another appeared behind them. And another.
The one in front, the tallest, came forward, oddly hesitant, moving as if underwater. Olyssa faced the lot of them from directly across the star-shaped field, as three, then four, then more of them staggered out into the light. Like the ghouls drawn from the Red Empress after it drifted away from the dock.
But these Grey Ones weren’t ghouls, not if Reneer were to be believed. They could talk. They had minds of their own.
Erzelle, come out. I need your harp.
More than a dozen of the creatures clustered outside the temple now. They all looked human in some way. A couple of stooped-over women mingled in with the men. Olyssa’s playing appeared to hold them entranced. Hoods shrouded all their faces.
Erzelle, I need you!
Erzelle pushed against her fear-induced inertia, and bulled her way out through the grasping, choking vines. She sat by Olyssa’s feet and put her harp in her lap, averting her eyes from their bizarre audience.
Play the melody.
Erzelle shot a worried look at her teacher. Runes shimmered blue along the pipe’s length as her fingers fluttered at the bell. Erzelle’s harp held no magic.
Still, she followed the processions of notes, plucked them out along the octaves with little difficulty, and couldn’t help but take pride as she played along in perfect synchronicity for several bars.
Keep that going. Don’t stop until I ask.
Olyssa began improvising through variation after variation. Half-notes became trills of eighth notes, became runs of thirty-second notes, and faster. A heartbeat-like rhythm of surprisingly deep tones appeared in the spaces between the trills. Erzelle couldn’t tell how Olyssa was breathing to sustain it all.
The horde across from them, numbering almost two dozen, shifted uneasily with each change, and Erzelle pieced together what was happening. Somehow Olyssa had deduced that the Grey Ones shared enough in common with the ghouls that her pipe could control them, and she was searching for the variant on her spell that would make the control complete, her hold secure. These creatures wrapped head-to-toe in wide strips of a leathery fabric that looked unnervingly like tanned skin were immobilized but no more than that, perhaps even fighting to break free from the music’s power.
A movement caught Erzelle’s eye, closer than the crowd swaying outside the temple door. She glanced over and regretted it. All through the star of turned earth, bones and worse sprouted from the soil by the hundreds. She faltered in her playing.
Ignore it! Concentrate!
She closed her eyes, focused on the notes and shut out everything else, as she’d done for so long in the belly of the riverboat. She didn’t consciously mark the moment when Olyssa’s harmony stabilized into a repeating pattern, though the tension left the air and maintaining the melody became much easier.
Stop. Put your harp away. I need you to speak for me now.
The soil stopped birthing its grotesque crop. The Grey Ones now stood in ordered ranks. No doubt it was when they arranged themselves this way that Olyssa had known she’d achieved her aim. She continued to play this new variation, recognizably the same but faster and more complex, without stopping.
What I say to you next, repeat to them.
Erzelle obeyed. “Lower your hoods. Expose your faces.”
The Grey Ones pulled back their hoods and tugged the leathery gauze from their heads.
All but three were men, and just as Reneer had said, they had ink-splotched faces. Their paper-dry skin crumpled around yellow eyes that were almost lost within the alternating blotches of bloodless white and ripe-fruit black, startling patterns that swirled and spattered across their features.
“What is the purpose of this place?”
The Grey Ones stared, unmoving. The only sound came from Olyssa’s pipe.
Erzelle almost didn’t hear the answer when it came. A female in the back rasped in a voice like a dried creek speaking. “We … serve … this place. Its purpose … we are … not told.”
“Who made you?”
Again, a long pause. “We … are born … in this … place. It … makes us … as it … needs us.”
“Who is buried in this grave?”
The woman took a step forward, a dark patch swirling up from her chin, covering her mouth, curling up her right cheek and across her forehead to finally spiral around her left eye. The socket there was empty.
“No one … buried … they are brought up … from below.”
“What do you mean, from below?”
The woman didn’t answer. A couple of the men fidgeted, as if resisting the compulsion to talk. Finally the tallest, his face split vertically by a mottled stripe, opened his mouth to reveal a withered tongue flapping. His words were almost unintelligible. “Drawn … earth … mountain … calls … to purpose.”
Olyssa played on several more seconds, then asked Erzelle to follow a different tack.
“Who else dwells here?”
“There … is … no one.”
“Are all of you here?”
The tall man again spoke. “Some … deep … low.”
“Are there ghouls kept here?”
The first woman spoke again. “Under … temple.”
Erzelle swallowed before uttering Olyssa’s next command. “Take us there.”
She almost laughed as the Grey Ones all spun, leathery clockwork dolls, and moved in lockstep through the frowning mouth of the doorway.
Inside the vaulted entrance hall dust and dull heat weighted the air. The stained glass windows filtered the light dark blue and burgundy, obscuring at first the walls that were bricked with bones —thousands of them, arranged in elaborate designs, starbursts formed from thighs, pentacles from forearms, jaws in clover-like quartets, ribs ringed in concentric circles, all underscored with deep shadow.
Ask where the bones come from.
Erzelle, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, recovered and relayed the question.
The grey spokeswoman rasped, “From … the dead … and the … undead … all through … these hills.”
At the opposite end of the chamber a second frowning mouth led into complete darkness.
Erzelle repeated Olyssa’s next question. “What’s back there?”
A different woman, a pattern of teardrop blotches staining her face, said with startling clarity, “The mosaics and the tunnels.”
“Are the other ghouls you tend back there?”
“It is the way to them.”
Then we’ll go that way. Take us. The tempo of Olyssa’s melody intensified.
But Erzelle peered into the dark doorway and couldn’t bring herself to repeat her teacher’s command. Nor could she step any further into the bone-lined sanctuary.
Without pausing in her playing, Olyssa turned to Erzelle, eyes widening.
“I need light,” Erzelle said. In the hold of the Red Empress, the light from Olyssa’s pipe had not reached far. She didn’t want to be alone in the dark with these motleys who were not people.
One of the Grey Ones produced a scythe from the folds of cloth around his torso. The first spokeswoman extended a thin arm as if gesturing for Erzelle to stay still. The scythe came down and severed the woman’s arm quick and neat as if it were a stalk of wheat. She made no cry. No blood oozed from her wound.
Erzelle stepped backward, another step, another.
Be calm. They’re trying to obey.
Another of the men picked up the hand, tightened the wrappings around it. He also produced a scythe. The two scythe-wielders then hooked their blades together and scraped the edges against one another in a blur of speed. Sparks flew. The cloth around the hand flickered and caught fire.
Another pried the bowl of a split skull from the wall. The burning hand was tossed into the hollow that had once held a brain, and the entire improbable torch offered to Erzelle to take.
She wanted to roll on the floor, laughing. To howl in hysterics.
Take it. I’m sorry I didn’t think to provide you with light.
Reluctantly, Erzelle did. The bone felt cool and smooth against her palms.
Now please, ask them to lead us.
Erzelle did. They filed into the darkness and Erzelle walked after as if pulled along in a dream. Behind her, Olyssa played.
The skull-and-hand torch revealed more bones ribbing the passageway. The Grey Ones moved through it, silent; presumably they had no need of sight to find their way. Hunched in close, Erzelle could no longer ignore the baked-flesh stench they radiated.
Lightless rooms branched off to either side of the hall, but their guides ignored these. Instead they reached a stair that spiraled down. Every brick in its well was a bone: a length of leg or arm, a plate of hip or shoulder, a square of fingers, an interlocked row of eye sockets and sinus cavities. How could there possibly be so many? Who could have taken the time to set it all in mortar?
Some of the rare whole skulls she spotted were further distorted: teeth too long, eye sockets too wide, nasal openings too tall and narrow. She couldn’t even fathom what sort of creature they could have come from.
Each landing held exits leading off into corridors equally bone-lined, but the stairwell kept descending, Olyssa’s notes doubling and redoubling as the spiral bored and bored. The fire in Erzelle’s hands cast the Grey Ones in constantly shifting shadow.
Their escorts reached the bottom of this stair to nowhere and vanished into a raw wound in the earth. Erzelle hesitated, the skull bowl and its flames shaking in her grip.
Stay with them. We can’t let them wander out of range of the music.
At that gentle shove, Erzelle lurched through the rip in the stone. She stumbled with her very first step, almost dropping her torch. The passage slanted downward, no longer paved or shored up with brick but scooped crudely out of the meat of the mountain. Yet here too were bones embedded in the walls. Not fitted together, not artistically arranged, with none of the unnerving beauty of what came before. Rather than carved and altered pieces, whole skulls, whole hands, whole forearms like violin bows, whole spines with ribs extended like wings were pressed into the soft stone like rocks in a river bank. A worm with what seemed a thousand legs slithered into hiding inside a broken stalk of vertebrae as the fire of Erzelle’s torch revealed it.
She didn’t let herself recoil, reminding herself, You’ve seen worse. It’s just a bug.
The shroud-wrapped creatures ahead of her seemed gigantic in this claustrophobic space. She could only see about five feet in front of her, with the grotesque shapes of the Grey Ones blocking any further view. They continued the relentless descent, their collective movements emitting no more than a muted rustle. Where Olyssa’s notes had echoed on the stairs, here they were muffled. The stale air had given way to moisture and an overwhelming smell and taste of loam. Erzelle felt as if she’d breathed in mud. An attempt to spit brought no relief.
Entrances to other tunnels yawed sudden darknesses, burrowing away left or right, angled up or down, never level. The pattern of embedded partial skeletons continued from the main passage into these rough-hewn shafts.
What had this place been? A mine? Erzelle couldn’t fathom what these creatures could be digging for, if in fact they were the ones who made this awful place. The way the Grey Ones led them through curved gradually, first right than left in a long serpentine descent. Her grisly torch grew dimmer, and the deeper they went the more insects they disturbed. Erzelle couldn’t see them but occasionally she heard one scuttling away. They were large enough to cause a racket that pierced through Olyssa’s playing.
Erzelle knew she could never be the pillar of indomitable daring Olyssa was, to descend into a place like this and never take a false step or miss a note.
Ask them how much further, Olyssa commanded.
Erzelle did. The croaked reply, “An hour yet.”
Erzelle’s head went light. She knew she’d never see daylight again, that she’d escaped the Red Empress only to become trapped someplace worse.
Erzelle, don’t slow.
She kept moving, her breathing growing ragged.
Olyssa continued as if Erzelle weren’t on the verge of panic. I’ve seen these barbarities before, but never on this scale. Sorcerers who harvest the ghouls to break them apart and drain the magic that makes them walk will sometimes keep the remains nearby, believing they still hold power. I believe that’s what we’re witnessing. Every bone we see once belonged to a ghoul. Yet I don’t understand their aim. I see no runes etched in the bones. These shapes they’ve been made into aren’t familiar to me.
All shared without a hint that she found any of it frightening.
“It’s horrible,” Erzelle whispered.
Yes. Horrible and sad.
Those words in her head, not soothing but calm, helped Erzelle gain control again, though neither her heartbeat nor her breathing slowed.
Much as I hate to suggest it, you should tell our escorts to replenish the fire in your torch.
“Stop,” Erzelle said, and the Grey Ones did, though none turned to face her.
They had paused by one of the side burrows, this one tunneling up to the left, and as Erzelle started to voice her demand, another loud scuttling distracted her.
She turned at the noise and beheld its source. Not an insect, not a creature like anything she’d ever seen. It clambered up the wall in a spidery fashion, though its legs were too pale and thick and its body too round and wet to be a spider. It climbed to a skull protruding gape-mouthed from the surface of the curving crawlway and wedged itself into an eye socket.
At that moment, Erzelle recognized what it was. An eye. A human eye, glistening and bruised, carried on a tripod of fingers. Animated somehow, moving on its own. The three fingers each hooked around the ridge of the eye socket to keep the eye in place as it swiveled. Its pupil contracted in its cobweb-pale iris as it oriented toward the torchlight.
The eye glared, not at Erzelle but behind her, at Olyssa and her pipe.
The skull’s lower jaw shifted. Dirt crumbled away from it.
Erzelle tried to talk but no sound came out. More scuttling, deeper in the side tunnel.
What is it? Olyssa demanded. Erzelle tried to speak again but only managed a “Huh … huh …” and so she clutched the gruesome torch to her chest and pointed.
Still playing her hypnotic melody, Olyssa met the gaze of the eye on the tunnel wall.
A noise from far below, like a long, rasping sigh, but very loud and very distant.
The Grey Ones turned as one to face Olyssa and Erzelle. Olyssa reacted to their motion by playing faster. Urged on by her frenzied notes, they began to pull objects from their shrouds, scythes or short, pointed spades.
Erzelle wondered what Olyssa was trying to do, when her voice sounded in Erzelle’s head. They’re not under my command any more. Run, Erzelle!
At the same moment, all the Grey Ones opened their mouths. The skull with the eye mounted in it flexed its jawbone. As did all the other skulls in the walls that she could see, some of which now housed eye-creatures just like the one Erzelle had first seen, all looking at Olyssa.
And all those mouths moved in time with the distant rasp from somewhere deep below. “Ooooohh … Lyyssssss … Aaaaaaaah …”
Erzelle even felt the skull in her hands tremble, though it had no jaw.
A blast of darkness roared through the tunnel from below, too quick to avoid, a sudden gust carrying shadow instead of air, shadow that felt cold as sleet against Erzelle’s skin. For an instant she was blind, but the gust kept traveling up the tunnel and, miraculously, the light returned as her bone torch flared.
She heard a cry. From Olyssa.
Her teacher was staring at her pipe, dark eyes wide with shock. Her instrument’s runes no longer glowed.
The Grey Ones advanced, scythes gleaming in the torchlight. Erzelle threw the bowl of burning remains at the charging line of creatures. The hollowed skull overturned and the Grey One in the lead stepped into the flames, which surged up his dry-husk body. He made no sound as the fire consumed him. Behind him, his fellows drew up short — then started hacking him apart to clear the way.
Olyssa tried to play her pipe. Pitch black darkness flared in the runes where there should have been blue light. She wailed in anguish and tossed the pipe away. Erzelle’s knees went weak, but then she straightened again immediately as she became so angry — angry at Olyssa for bringing her here, angry at herself for being frightened — and she turned to Olyssa determined to demand a weapon.
“Get out of here!” Olyssa shouted, but she didn’t see what Erzelle did. Behind them in the tunnel, bony arms were reaching across to one another, grasping hands, blocking the way.
Olyssa pulled the long knife from her boot, roaring in wordless defiance.
The Grey Ones finished off their fallen comrade and stepped over his remains, which guttered out, making the darkness complete.
Erzelle stumbled backward and was shoved aside, she didn’t know by whom or what.
She landed on her back. Her harp splintered beneath her. Then and only then did she scream.
Olyssa shouted in the dark. A chaos of noise. Scuttling all around. Cloth rustling. A clang and scrape of metal striking metal. The thump of something heavy falling.
Erzelle shrugged off the straps of her ruined harp’s case. It made a plucking, clanging noise. She scrambled to her feet, used her hands to steady herself, felt cold bone under her hand, felt it move. Recoiled.
Olyssa’s voice, both in her head and shouted aloud. “ERZELLE, RUN!”
Erzelle heard a thunk of metal striking flesh. And another. And another. Olyssa moaned, then went silent. The sound continued. Thukk. Thukk. The sound of a blade plunging into meat.
Disoriented, Erzelle retreated from the direction she thought the sound came from and tripped, falling face first. One of her outstretched hands came down on a cold metal bar.
Something skittered over Erzelle’s hand.
So deep below the earth, with no light. She remembered the arms reaching across the tunnel behind Olyssa, blocking the way. She had no hope. She would die down here.
She began to crawl. Faster. Things moved beneath her in the dirt. She got to her feet, groping blindly, one hand at the wall, the other holding the precious instrument that belonged to her teacher.
The sounds of struggle had ceased behind her.
A rustle of cloth, coming closer. She began to run.
She stumbled more than once but panic kept her moving forward. She held Olyssa’s pipe in front of her as if it could somehow shield her, and didn’t let herself think about the dirt and rock tumbling all around her or the soft, slimy things that scurried away as her arms brushed against them.
Then she felt nothing to her left or right. She’d reached a point where tunnels crossed. And it hit her that she had no idea how to find her way back to the stairway. Only that she couldn’t double back. Much as it shamed her, she whimpered in the dark. Olyssa never would have done that.
Olyssa. What had happened to her? Had she been hearing the sounds of her teacher’s murder when she fled?
She froze, lost and terrified. A sound of rustling cloth reached her, and she could no longer tell which direction it was coming from.
Then, a gleam of light caught her eye.
She blinked and blinked and there it was. A distinct shimmer of daylight, sunlight, to her right and up. Not enough to help her see what was in front of her, but enough to lead her on. She sprinted, tripped almost immediately, felt something claw feebly at her belly, scrambled to all fours and kept going.
And going, and going. The gleam stayed far ahead of her, her surroundings never lightening. She reached a switchback that hinged down at a steep slant and narrowed until barely shoulder-wide, the mud squeezing her as she forced her way forward. She had thought that past the sharp bend she’d at last see the source of the glow, but she found only a hint of it, still distant, far below.
Her mind was playing tricks. Even so, she had no other options but to wait in the dark for the scythes to find her. She descended, still holding Olyssa’s pipe before her.
And the passage turned again, not right or left but sharply up, at an even steeper angle. She struck her head on the ledge of the ceiling before she understood this.
The phantom light now beckoned her up the precipitous climb, no closer than before.
“No,” Erzelle said. “No, no, no.” She was so tired. She wanted to wake up, wake up and be back in her family’s apartment in Minnepaul, strands of music from her mother’s harp lulling her out of nightmare, easing her re-entry into the waking world.
Behind her, the sound of rustling cloth. She thought of waiting for it to reach her.
She climbed. It was hard, but she was small enough to move and find places of purchase in the tight, twisting space. Dirt came loose and pelted her hair and her shoulders.
Once she dropped the pipe, and the light above her seemed to dim. Heart pounding, her tongue and throat gritty with mud, she fretted over what to do, and her pulse sped until it screamed through every limb, her breath coming short and fast, as she lowered herself to retrieve it.
Luckily, the pipe hadn’t fallen far. It lay wedged across the tunnel, barring the way down. She grabbed it and she could have sworn the light above her grew brighter than ever. A trick of the eyes.
She was finally forced to crawl on her belly through a shaft barely two feet high. She imagined it simply coming to an end, the light revealing itself as illusion, and she, stuck like a rat in an ant hill, miles underground.
She had to turn another corner. It required a painful contortion of her body, and for a second that stretched into eternity she thought she’d be lodged like that forever, back bent the wrong way with jagged rocks pressed against her face.
Then the mud gave way, she was through, and the space around her widened.
She was no longer in the tunnel.
An immense man peered down at her from his throne formed of a bowed tree wrapped with bundles of straw. Bare-chested beneath his cloak, head lowered in a pose of majestic sadness. Except he wasn’t a man. He had the long, tapered head of a buck, with a crown of antlers rising from his brow. Dozens of antlers, too many for one head, stretching up into a blood-hued sky where clouds rolled like fire in a downdraft. Gory fruit hung from every fork and crook in his forest of horns, heads of men, women, children, fat and gaunt, light-skinned and dark, some fleshless, some burned black, the ones in the lower reaches marred with ink-splotched, piebald skin.
Golden light, the aura of day, shimmered around the man-beast’s body. That same light burst from his chest, pulsing with the rhythm of his heart. A sad sigh, and the vision vanished, leaving Erzelle dumbstruck.
She stood in a dead end, a tiny, rounded chamber scooped out of the rock, nowhere to go except back into the hole she crawled out of.
She could see.
Where the immense antlered being had been, a pinhole of light pierced through the wall, as big around as her fist.
She pressed her eye to the gap.
Outside, the sun hovered just above the horizon, robed in rose sunset, casting the treetops in amber.
She clawed at the gap, trying to widen it. She took the pipe and shoved it into the hole like a pry bar, wiggling it around, used the bell at its end to dig.
A noise, behind her. She looked back to see a dirt-covered, cloth-wrapped arm reach out of the shaft she’d emerged from, a wicked scythe clutched in its grey fingers.
In a frenzy, Erzelle gouged at the pinhole as the Grey One pulled itself into the tiny space with her. She threw herself against the barrier between her and the sky. Screamed as it gave way. Something hooked into her tunic as she tumbled out into open air.
She’d burst out of the side of the bluff.
Tumbling down the slope of sedimentary rock, a good thirty feet, she landed with a squelch in standing water and marshy grass. Up she came, bruised and scraped but still whole.
A splash beside her. The scythe of the Grey One, falling out from where it had hooked, right under her collar.
She grabbed it, glanced up at the opening she’d made in the cliff, saw a dark shape moving there.
She fled into the trees, with Olyssa’s pipe clutched tight.
Read the rest of the exciting tale in The Black Fire Concerto, on sale Now!
Available at Haunted Stars Publishing.
Mike Allen is the editor and publisher of the anthology series Clockwork Phoenix and the poetry journal Mythic Delirium. He was a Nebula Award finalist in 2009 for his short story “The Button Bin,” and his first collection of short fiction, The Button Bin And Other Horrors, is forthcoming from Dagan Books. He and his artist wife Anita live in Roanoke, Va., where he writes the arts column for the daily newspaper.
Mike’s short fiction has appeared in Solaris Rising 2: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, Best Horror of the Year, Volume 1, Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, and Cthulhu’s Reign, among other places. His poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times.