An excerpt from Triad.
SOMEONE NOT from here. Someone he should remember but couldn’t. Someone all winks and elbows, bulge and leer, someone with just a drop of color. Not trying to be quiet but not able either. Not where the ground wasn’t but muck and wet and hole and splash and rot and sometimes spring but mostly sink and always tricks.
Someone not from here. That’s who was coming.
Mauzl was not from here. Mauzl could still know things here—most had to be from or were eyeless noseless earless, but it wasn’t that bad here for Mauzl because Mauzl’s from was earth and distance too, just dry hard earth where livewood kept its arms to itself and things didn’t croak and scream, and that was very far now, but here was safe because it wasn’t there and Mauzl could still know—but Mauzl couldn’t know enough. Mauzl couldn’t know as much as there. Mauzl needed someone who could help.
Someone from here might hurt. When people were in their here they sometimes hurt. Someone not from here might also need help. Someone not from here might also be afraid. Someone afraid, someone who needed help—someone like him—might befriend. But when people were afraid they sometimes hurt. When people needed help they sometimes hurt. They got so angry when he couldn’t tell them what they wanted.
Mauzl tried to know if it was sage or fool to show himself. Bubbly vinegar tumblebelly said show. Mauzl couldn’t know food or safe water. Here, Mauzl needed someone else to know those things. That’s why it was fool to flee from there. There, he knew things by himself. But there was very bad. There he knew too many things, and too many people knew. Throbshoulder swellrib fruitflesh said don’t show, don’t show, don’t show.
He tried to open the paths. Paths were everywhere, no here or there to them at all, only when and whether. But it was hard to open them on purpose. That’s why he was never any good. Paths opened when they wanted to. They knew when it was sage or fool. More than he knew, here in his prickly hedge.
The hedge shifted, tilted. Tore. Mauzl was silent, so silent, cats’ paws and silkwings and holdbreath and stillness, but the hedge reared back and peeled away from leer and bulge and hook and jut, and winks and elbows leaned past thick partings into the heremost hidden here, and now no show don’t-show, no from-here not-from-here, no more. All choices punched into this, into now, and that was the least right thing of all.
Mauzl gaped, then croaked, then screamed.
Rekke snarled from a half-doze inside the hollowed spoilheap. His forehead slammed a crossbeam and he fell back. Now there was a ringing in his ears. But the shriek still rang there, too, underneath the layer of daze. He had not imagined it. He did not imagine things.
“No,” said a voice, and a hand fell on his arm. “Stay. Don’t.”
In the dark, there was only the silver outline of a form filled by soft azure. It crouched beside him, a teller’s notion of a ghost, human-shaped with shadowed gaps for eyes. But this ghost’s hand was fleshy and firm.
He shrugged it away. “And if I’d stayed this morning? They’d have had you and all. He’s at it again. That was his doing.”
“You can’t see him. He’s too dim. He’s a pinprick, a marble, a droplet. Hardly more than a blunt.”
“A stinking rotting blunt I’m going to kick back to the Crotch where it belongs.” Rekke twisted onto all fours and backed out of the sleephole, to where he could sit up to get his boots on. He snagged his sleeproll on the way and stuffed it into his canvas pack. A nice sojourn, this; a pleasant tumble in the dirt to repay his protection, with a silver-blue ghost whose curves and moans were substantial enough when she lay beneath him. But she was a vole, here in her burrow, with her vole companions. Visants were voles, burrowing, hiding. Rekke had no use for holes or mounds or caves, beyond what he could loot from them or stash in them. As long as these voles were more careful where they ventured and what they saw and what they told of it, they wouldn’t need him again. Others would. That one out there did.
“The one he’s got is bright,” said another voice, from across the central chamber of the abandoned saltern, as Rekke tied off the bindings on his boots. “Too bright. Let him be caught. Let him be stained. We’ll be the safer for it.”
Visants, betraying each other, sacrificing each other.
Rekke slung on his pack and groped for the trapdoor. “No,” he said, to all of them, all the spectral forms that lurked in their living grave. They laid hands on his leggings, the hem of his tunic, but he was far too big and strong to be restrained. He wriggled them off, slid the bar from its mounts, and pushed out into the bufferway.
The tight passage gave only room enough to crawl, half a turn widdershins around the hill of leavings, to the laddered tunnel that led up to the exit hatch. Any who’d come down the ladder from the entry hatch, farther on, would have crawled in the same direction, so would not fetch up against him and stall them both. But few went in or out in the daylight hours. At the top of the ladder, he peered through the peeping tube and then, reasonably certain that this side of the mound was unobserved, he opened the hatch, moved the turf covering away, and pushed himself out onto the moundside. A bit up and over, the least trammeled-looking way so as not to further imprint their trails, then down to where he could jump. He landed flex-kneed and moved off in a crouch.
Absurd, complex precautions, when one ill-timed entrance or exit would betray their hiding place, and one good flood would drown them all. But they were afraid. They had been used too hard and too often to trust in the aboveground places where ordinary people lived. Fear made voles of them. Rats.
Rekke would never be a rat. But he could not abide the tormenting of rats.
He’d have seen the lights under that mound if they’d been buried at twice their depth. They were sapphires in the earth. Through the thinner medium of air, the two lights he sought vibrated with clarity. One a blue so intensely dark it seemed to radiate without glow, the other a pinprick, a marble, an all too familiar droplet.
There. By the clump of untended bayberry hedges grown wild into a snarl of thickets.
“Fyldur,” Rekke growled, too low to hear, as the procurer sensed his light come out of nowhere and his greasy head began to turn, “I am going to thrash you within a breath of your stinking life.”
Someone not from here. That’s who was coming. Someone long-limbed, loose-legged, lank-boned, looming. Someone with big smelly feet. Not trying to be quiet but well able, someone trying to make noise, to scare and cow. But walking, not running. Striding, still not running. Not coming fast enough.
The oily cruelhand was all hurt and hatred, all throatgrip hairgrip shakebody, all rage at being hurried. And fear. It was always fear. He needed help. He wanted to find. He wanted to send. He wanted the paths, though he didn’t know they were the kind of paths he wanted, and they were far too many for him to choose among if Mauzl could even tell them all. The paths opened, dizzying stomachdrop rushfall, paths within paths beside paths under paths, all the paths here and away from here, from places that were to all the places that could be. Long loose lankbones was on a good path, more good paths branched from it than bad, but bad paths branched from it, too, and that was cramplimb heartseize. Mauzl whined as his eyes rolled back and he could no longer see the cruelhand, but he didn’t have to see with eyes to know the cruelhand thought the terror was of him, or that he liked it.
“Tell me.” Rage and hate and leer and jut. “Where will he go next, you stinking walleye?”
If the cruelhand crushed his throat, he couldn’t tell. That would be fool. But every breath still left one path where the next breath was the last. With every breath that Mauzl ever drew, there were countless paths where he died in the next, or fell to harm, or fell to terror. Every step was taken on a cliff’s edge, every step by every person in the world. He knew those paths even when they weren’t open. Those paths were always there, known or unknown. Knowing them was terror, knowing them was anguish. Wrenchheart numblimb clutchgut, that was how paths opened. It was the curse of sight. No likely or unlikely, no might or maybe. Just will. All paths were always possible. All paths were equally possible. Everything could always happen and always would. Until the next breath. Until the next set of everythings.
“Everywhere.” Choking, begging, telling. “Everywhere he can.”
He waited for the paths to close. He’d told. He’d told the truth. He’d told the paths. But they stayed open. All the long loose lankbones pausing, staring, walking, striding, trotting, plunging headlong shouting madness, falling turn-ankled, falling heart-stopped, giving up, turning away, a countless horde of long loose lankbones, a hot mist of them roiling boiling along the paths. Cruelhands fled and cruelhands killed him and cruelhands dropped him and clashed with lankbones, lankbones won and lankbones lost, and every one of those birthed more paths, mounds aid-bursting and mounds tight-closed, Mauzls saved and Mauzls strangled. Countless paths, every one of them spined with branchings, a warp and weft of fates that squirmed and heaved on their forever frame.
Long loose lankbones knew the cruelhand. Long loose lankbones didn’t expect the cruelhand to hurt. Then long loose lankbones saw the cruel hand, the yielding throat.
Long loose lankbones plunged headlong, and though there were paths in which he fell and paths in which he failed, there were no paths in which he didn’t plunge to help.
Mauzl looked down the fixed paths of the past and knew that he had never seen anything like that before.
He shuddered in surprise. His body came back. The paths closed, and there was only here. Only now.
Only the cruelhand’s fingers and thumb digging between soft neck parts and hard, between airway parts and bloodway parts, and the sparkle-snow of no-breath. Poor heart, trying so hard to pump blood to his sore brain. Poor lungs, trying so hard to get him air. Mauzl had seen the paths that branched from here. He didn’t have to see them now to know that most now led to death, most now had long loose lankbones’ big smelly feet too slow in wet and muck and sink to stop the cruel claw hand in time.
Why did people get so angry when he couldn’t tell them what they wanted? He wasn’t why the answer wasn’t there. He was looking, too, and not finding, and he was supposed to be the one who knew.
Rekke could not believe his eyes. Whatever Fyldur wanted from the runt he held, why throttle him?
He knew the Greasehair, knew his methods. Knew he seduced them into exiling themselves. Knew he took pleasure from the act. But minds had layers that Rekke could not penetrate, and visants were all mad—Fyldur no less so for the dimness of his light. All that Rekke knew was that he’d sent the Greasehair packing and the Greasehair had come back, and with his first glimpse of Rekke had dropped his wheedling wiles and gripped his prey in a stranglehold.
“Thwart me and I’ll kill him,” called the Greasehair.
Rekke had gone layered. One of him was white-blind rage, one of him was fled to a far realm of calculation; one was still able to see, and speak, inasmuch as he ever bothered.
“Kill him and I’ll kill you.”
Someone not from here. Someone long-limbed, loose-legged, lank-boned. Someone with big smelly feet.
Long loose lankbones crossed the distance, outran the too-lates, slid past oops and ouch. Threaded the unthreadable, fought sheerstrength and strongwill into the only now he would accept. Brought loomings and intimidations, brought base metals in his fists, brought righteousness, brought things small fainting Mauzl could not know in words.
Someone who was here now. That’s who had rescued Mauzl.
Rekke swiped Fyldur’s fending arms aside and cocked his fist. It was a strong, massive fist, meaty on the end of his arm, heavy, a knuckled mace on a chain of muscle. Fyldur had dropped the bright runt to protect his head. Rekke had a long time between inhale and exhale to choose to smash that head, or not.
He released his fist, then clenched again to scare the relief off Fyldur’s face, and giggled.
“I swear you’re one of them,” Fyldur said. Lashing out. Watching him, eyes veiled and angled, to see how he’d react.
It was a punch, a fist of words. The damaged visants, that’s who Fyldur meant—the wrong ones, the broken ones, the stunted ones, the ones with minds as weak as their lights were bright. Not the blunts, the lightless. Rekke laughed right down into his belly. “That makes three of us then. A veritable triad!” He was pleased with that rejoinder; their kind could not form triads, and the foolish ones took pride in it. Fyldur was one of those.
On the ground, the runt sobbed in breath, scrabbled at the turf with spasming hands and heels that made no serious effort at flight. Passive. Weak. Rekke stamped down hard to release the kick that tensed in his leg, and grinned when Fyldur was the one who flinched.
Contempt engulfed the grin. Through gritted teeth and curling lips he felt with the part of him that watched but could not control, he said, “I told you to begone. Procure your offerings somewhere else.”
“This one’s already stained,” the Greasehair said. “He stained himself, but he’s forgotten.”
“Then he’s of no use to you.”
“He knows where one of my runaways is.”
“Find him yourself. Somewhere else.”
“You drive me from all the somewhere-elses.”
“If only I could.” It was a pain on him, that he could not be everywhere, that he could not flit at will from one end of Eiden to the other, rousting Fyldur and all his ilk, making their days a misery, herding them the way they herded their own into exile. Fyldur was stained before he ever found his niche in none’s-land, yet contrived to remain at large, pretending to the mark of exile when what stained him was only hatred of his own. But Rekke had never seen him come so close to dealing death.
“You can’t foster them all,” Fyldur said, watching him. Misjudging him. Rekke was the only one Fyldur could not wind on his spool. “You can’t protect them all. In the end I have the ones I want. Give me this one. Look, he doesn’t even have the wits to run now that he can.”
The runt had propped himself sitting and looked blinking from one of them to the other. Rekke snorted. “I will thrash you, Fyldur, as well you know. You won’t do much wheedling with a broken jaw.”
“Mended at one touch of a touch. You can’t beat me, Rekke. You can’t be everywhere. You can’t save them all.”
“I can save this one,” Rekke growled. He moved into another part of himself, the part that saw this all as a delightful game. “And I have!” he crowed, hauling the startled runt up and yanking him close. “He’s mine now, till I’m sure we’re shut of you. Shut and locked!” He laughed, made a face at the runt, laughed harder at the runt’s wide-eyed recoil, and pointed to him, looking at Fyldur as if to share the joke.
Fyldur backed off. He knew when he had lost. But his devious squint bespoke a calculation of angles by which he might retrieve his stolen tool. Rekke went layered, vertically down the middle. He threw one loose, companionable arm around the quivering runt, pulled him in close, looked down on him with affection. The eye he kept on Fyldur burned with soulless hatred, and the fist he raised ached with the unrealized potential of violence. Fyldur shrank from it, from Rekke’s palpable insanity, and all the words he threw as he retreated were foiled by futility. He knew how dangerous Rekke was when he layered himself. Touches or no touches, Fyldur wouldn’t chance the agony of broken bones.
He wanted this one, Rekke thought, in the clear, calm part of himself the madness never reached. He wanted him for more than tracking a worthless runaway, and if he couldn’t have him, when he saw that I was coming to take him away, he wanted him dead.
He held the runt up by the scruff to examine him in the colorless light.
“Hmpf,” he said.
The runt squeaked.
He pawed grass off the runt with his free hand, turned him left, then right, to take the measure of him.
Not much, from the outside. Washboard ribs, slug-pale skin, a gangle of wrists and knees. A pointy rodent’s face that deprivation had deflated to leave little of note but its enormous, pleading eyes, indigo irises so deep that purple lurked in their depths. Couldn’t be more than nine-and-eight. Surprising he’d led Fyldur such a chase, and Rekke didn’t meet much that surprised him.
From the inside, though…that was a different pail of rocks. A blue so subtle it glared. An indigo blue so deep that purple lurked in its depths. A kind of darklight so intense it shimmered.
Rekke dropped him back to earth. The runt hunkered down between his own knees, covered his head with knobby arms, and said, “Don’t hurt. Don’t hurt.”
He’d already forgotten that Rekke had saved his life.
Weakness. Craven weakness. He despised it. It demanded he rise above himself when all he wanted was to cuff it into submission and go find someone who deserved to be thrashed and would put up a decent fight.
Rekke was an Ankleman, a stones man, body too tall for a miner, fingers too coarse for a cutter. He was also a depths man—a layers man. He’d made a trade of locating veins and deposits. Saved his neighbors years of wasted digging. He pointed, and there was garnet, there carnelian; there was opal. All the stones for all the tavern games in the world, and then more still when the seared magelight sucked the old superstitions down with it, because crafters began using them for decoration. His knack kept him in stew and ferments for two lengths of years. But it was uncanny. Unsettling. It had implications. The blunts got worried that it extended to more than minerals. That it might extend to the veins and deposits in their heads. They idolized the gold light and welcomed the copper once they could see it, either of which could destroy them in an eyeblink; but the silver light, no threat to them at all if they left it be, that they feared.
The people of the third light had known better than to show themselves. They’d stayed mute and safe and separate. Then Jhoss n’Kall had come along, with his theories and futures, his fevered fantasies of a new world order based on intellect. Jhoss n’Kall had seen the blue glow, and there was an end on safety then.
Rekke hated the blunts only slightly less than he hated Jhoss, and only slightly more than he hated Fyldur and his procurer ilk. Both Jhoss and Fyldur were his enemies; both Jhoss and Fyldur sought to use the lights that Rekke sought to shield. They made a pair, the two of them, and Fyldur had been with Jhoss before he found an excuse for his own stain in none’s-land, and made that his trade, keeping his liberty in the bargain. Rekke had been with Jhoss, too. It was Rekke whom Fyldur sought to punish, as he sought to punish all lights brighter than his own by wheedling them into exile. He’d like to trick Rekke into staining himself, though not if he was the victim. But working Rekke into a murderous fury wasn’t the only reason he’d threatened this puny, dark-lit visant.
“Why did you cross into none’s-land?” he asked. That had to be the source of the stain. Gentle, helpless creatures like these did not have it in them to kill.
The runt blinked and said, “To follow. It was the only almost mostly good path. To follow.”
“Who?” Rekke asked. He had the queerest feeling, depths opening beneath him, layers gone hollow, the solid gone shifting.
The runt pondered for some while, then said, “I don’t remember.”
Rekke spat his unease onto the turf. He was considering whether to turn the runtling loose or consign him to the saltern’s doubtful care when the runt looked up and said, in a hush of awe, “But which way—that’s a kind of path, isn’t it? Mauzl can hold those longer. Mauzl can know which way.”
Fyldur’s eyes were keen at distance. With a meaty hand, Rekke covered the trembling finger the runt extended, and said, “All right. Let’s go and find him.”
Before Fyldur does.
Before the alternative opens up and swallows us.
Someone big. Someone strong. Someone who could who know food and safe water. Someone with harsh fists that never fell and a glow like warm blue stone.
That’s who would help Mauzl find out what he was looking for.