Part One: Sometimes There’s No Poison Like a Dream
In a corner of the great southern metropolis known to its citizens as Obsidia, in a sprawling district known to its inhabitants as Marketside, a squat, hollowed-out block of a building sits at the edge of a roaring traffic circus, windows gaping like broken teeth in an ivory skull. In the center of that century-old pile of stone, a young student named Gillian Gobaith Jessamine stands under the drooping brown leaves of a lemon tree, a frisson of morriña trickling through her as she observes a canary groom itself in the sticky summer air. The canary is bright yellow under a layer of soot, and a small ivory ring marked with a row of numbers and letters binds one leg: this tells her that the bird isn’t some wild passerine but a domestic, bred for a specific anthracite mining company, several hundred miles away. Gillian knows because she wore a ring just like that, a scrimshaw bone collar fastened tight around the pale brown of her neck when she was young, when she worked in the deep of the earth. How it came here, all the way from the industrial heart of the city into the dank inner suburban courtyard of her school, is a mystery. Then again, she took that same journey when she was merely twelve. Is that the reason for the jolt of morriña? It unsettles her to feel sudden nostalgia for such an ugly, terrifying time and place, a place she’s tried so hard to leave behind. Then again, nothing in Obsidia is impossible, Gillian has found. Everything, both wonderful and horrifying, can be, and is.
The canary hops from the tree, flying over to a half-finished obelisk of pale limestone. All across the rectangular courtyard, pallets of tombstones are scattered, flat slates of stone ready to be hauled into the school workshops, where names, dates and lyrical bits of memento mori will be carved into their blank faces. Gillian rubs the scars on her hands, then picks at the dirt under her short nails. She’s spent the past five years learning how to draw—first on crisp onionskin, then balsa wood, and finally stone—folded hands and flippers holding prayer books, mining and Masonic symbols, skulls encircled by elaborate borders, clusters of violets and rose blooms grasped by stately demons and leviathans. She even carved herself once, as an impassive-faced angel of death gliding across the cool surface of silver-shotDark Emperiador marble, lifting the departed soul into an endless sky. She doesn’t know who the tombstone was for, if it now resides in one of the vast cemeteries scattered throughout Obsidia, and if so, who or what lies beneath it. Still, it pleases her to know that it’s out there, somewhere. Like most of the working-class residents of the city, Gillian can’t afford a plot of land and a neatly-carved marker. When she dies, she’ll burn like the coal she once helped rip from the lands, and her ashes will find their final resting place in a holding pond of toxic sludge. All that will remain will be her face etched in marble, until time itself wipes that away, too.
“Another year without lemons. Shattuck will be furious.” Emanuel Pallesynd, her teacher for this last year, and her lover for the past four, walks up to her, one hand lightly touching the small of her waist as he reaches out to the withering tree, and tugs a deformed nub of fruit from a branch. “Great God, look at it. It’s almost obscene.”
“What did he expect?” Gillian examines the folds of the fruit, her fingers caressing the rough skin of his hand. “We told him it wouldn’t work. The courtyard doesn’t get enough sun, the soil is full of chemicals, and lemons are tropical, anyway. We’re too far south.” She smiles as his hand slides down the folds of her limp cotton dress. The lemon falls to the ground with a weak thump as she touches his wrist. “Too far south, Mr. Pallesynd. Someone might be watching.”
Emanuel removes his hand but leans in, and Gillian feels his grey-flecked beard brushing the back of her neck. Heat drifts from his body through her dress, and despite the stifling air, she welcomes it. Emanuel speaks in measured tones against the curve of skin, as if imparting another lesson. “Everyone else is gone. In ten minutes, you’ll have your certificate and your placement. We’re free to do as we please.”
Gillian watches the canary lift from the tip of the obelisk. It circles once, then darts into the rectangle of the sunless workshop door, as if the shadows had swallowed it whole. The sun pours down, sending beads of sweat trickling underneath the limp black curls of her bobbed hair, all the way down her scarred back. The rectangle throbs and looms in the light, grows larger. Images erupt from long-forgotten memories. A sunless city, an empty train track, a silent tunnel opening wide…Gillian looks away from the door, blinking hard until the dark breaks up into sparkling fireworks behind her crinkled eyelids. She hasn’t thought of that nightmare in years.
“Free.” She smiles at her lover, at his handsome face and soft brown eyes. Emanuel is almost twice her age, yet the boy still lives so lightly on his skin, in his heart. If she told him how she felt, how little she felt, that boy would die. She’s sure of it. “As free as one can be in Obsidia.”
Emanuel bats at the dying lemon tree with his worn Panama hat. Dead leaves drift like feathers to the bone-dry ground. “Not very free, is it?”
“Free enough for any human,” Gillian says.
Emanuel nudges the hat back onto his shining forehead. “Free enough for any Obsidian, you mean.”
“Well. Yes, I suppose.”
“Like I said, then. Not very free.”
“And like I said,” Gillian says as she hoists her heavy tool satchel onto one shoulder, “free enough.”
Distant clocks chime the half-hour as they walk across the courtyard, passing through shadows of half-carved statues and disassembled mausoleums friezes. In the far corner, an aging priest from the local parish gives a benediction to a completed tomb, his webbed hands shaking as he recites the words first in the city’s own language—a mish-mash of English, Welsh and Spanish, which they all speak—then in the Old Language. Gillian has never truly believed in the Gods, but nonetheless she bows her head as they halt, listening in respectful silence with Emanuel. For a moment, the river of heavy traffic outside the building fades, and there’s only the voice, the harsh Language, the glossy drone of flies. And then the ceremony ends: The priest drops heavily onto a half-carved column, panting several times before taking a sip of aguardiente from a glass straw while a young novitiate squirts warm ocean water from a gilded spray bottle over his scaly face and cenote-round eyes. Gillian leads the way, almost skipping through the workroom and into the brown tiled hall that leads to the upstairs offices.
“What’s your hurry, Miss Jessamine?” Emanuel laughs.
“I want to find out where I’m going,” Gillian calls back as she dashes up the stairs to the warren of offices on the fifth floor.
“You don’t need to run—you always know where you’re going.”
“No I don’t,” Gillian says to herself. “I just don’t want to go back to where I’ve been.”
Headmaster Shattuck’s office is at the northernmost corner, overlooking the chaos of the seven avenues that merge into Marketside Circus. As Gillian pauses at the top of the stairwell to catch her breath and compose herself, Hingham Pitts, a fellow student, appears in the narrow doorway before her, grim as the statues in the courtyard. Down the hall, a stack of yellowing papers collapses onto a pile of ledgers like dandruff flakes.
“Where did they place you?” Gillian asks. Pitts only snorts and shakes his head—it’s enough of an answer to know it wasn’t where he wanted. “You’re last,” he says as they pass each other. “Best for last, right? Good luck.” He disappears down the stairs, and Gillian proceeds to the crooked end of the hall, mulling over his fate. Like many of the students, he’s not much more than a competent carver. Most will end up as caretaker’s assistants, sweeping floors and mending damaged markers. That can’t be me, she tells herself. After all I’ve been through to get to this moment, I deserve more.
“Enter,” a voice calls from inside before she can knock. Gillian pushes the protesting wood door open.
“Miss Jessamine.” Headmaster Nathanial Shattuck stands at the closed windows behind his desk, staring through the greasy panes onto the streets below as he cleans his glasses with the edge of his coat. Gillian lets out a discrete cough, though she knows it’s useless. Shattuck rarely opens the windows, preferring to marinate in the furnace of stale air.
“Are you well? You seem pale—paler than usual.”
“It’s the heat, sir. It’s usually not this warm in June.” Gillian closes the door and stands with her hands clasped at her waist, a penitent pose that has served her well in the past, when she’s been in trouble—and she feels like trouble hovers somewhere close.
“And your son, the tailor’s apprentice—Jasper, is it? I haven’t seen him in some months, is he well also?”
Jasper Ioen. Her thirteen-year-old ticket out of the mines, born when she was only twelve. She never told him he was born a half-mile underground, that her last act as a canary was carrying his naked, bloody body to the surface of the world. “He’s very well, sir, thank you. Still a tailor’s apprentice, but his skills are quite advanced for his age. He’s hoping to become salaried by summer’s end.”
Shattuck nods his approval and perches his glasses back onto his nose, then motions to a carved coupe glass on his desk, filled with a clear yellow liquid.
“Go on, take it. To celebrate.”
Gillian picks up the coupe, and takes a sip. Cheap champagne—sour, warm and flat. “Very good, thank you,” she says, wiping her grimace against the back of her wrist.
Shattuck picks up the bottle, and drains it into his glass. “Lemonade would have been better. Goddamn tree. Well, next year.”
Trying to hide her smile, Gillian walks to the side of the room, where twelve headstones rest on wooden easels. Each one is a commission, carved from start to finish by each of the twelve graduating students for a paying customer. Above the stones, onion-skin sketches and mock-ups are pinned to the flocked velvet wall.
“It’s like a private museum exhibition,” Gillian says. “Or an art gallery.”
“I suppose,” Shattuck answers, his voice hesitant. “A few of these slabs might make the dead rise in protest—not all of your classmates have the skills for carving, I’m afraid.”
Gillian gulps down the rest of the champagne, embarrassed to admit she agrees with him.
“Mr. Pallesynd tells me you have an inordinate talent with marble,” Shattuck says, “and I concur.” Shattuck walks over to her piece, and runs his hands across the polished slab of Afyon Violet, covered in a tangling of trilobites, ammonites and gastropodes resting under a canopy of shooting stars—her final project for the school. “He says you’re able to speak to the stone, to bring it to life even as you’re slicing into it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it speaking. More like coaxing.” It’s a joke, but Shattuck doesn’t seem amused. His fingertip runs along the lettering of thememento mori phrase she carved in the center. “‘I ride the wings of the morning sun, and dwell in the uttermost arms of the deep.’ Did you come up with that yourself?”
“Quite moving. The lettering is exquisitely fluid, almost cursive, like a pen wrote this instead of a chisel and hammer. ‘Of the deep’—you were a canary in your childhood, right?”
“Sent ahead of the miners to make sure there were no poisonous fumes?”
“I—yes, sir.” She was going to tell him more, tell him how they would send her into the newly-made tunnels, after the colossal drilling machines had pulled out of them like satisfied lovers; how she wandered the subterranean labyrinth searching for coal seams with no light, no mask, no water; how her hands pressed against stone walls still smoking from the bite of the drills, how she heard and felt and smelled the living earth; how she always found the coal. How she woke up screaming at night, dreaming that the seam had somehow seen her, had found her first….
“Miss Jessamine?” The headmaster sits at his desk now, files and ledgers spread out before him. “I think you’ve wandered away from me.”
“Oh.” Gillian blushes. “I’m sorry. Memories of the mines—they took me back. I try not to think about that part of my life anymore.”
“Then I should apologize. I didn’t mean to bring such painful times back.” Shattuck appears genuinely concerned, and Gillian believes him. He’s something of a crotchety old man, a bit eccentric at times, but he’s never been deliberately cruel to any of the students.
“I’ll be fine, sir. That’s all in the past. I’m ready for my assignment. I’m ready to start something new.”
Shattuck holds up a round finger. “Of course you are, and of all in your class, you most deserve it—no, no, don’t be embarrassed, you know it’s the truth. Now let me see, where did I…”
Now he’s the one who’s lost, in a blizzard of memos. Gillian downs the rest of the champagne in one open-throated pour while the headmaster shuffles through the sleeves of a brown leather portfolio. He draws out a folder with her name on it, and holds page after page to the low flame of the banker’s lamp, occasionally glancing up at her. Gillian feels the scars on her back throb with a phantom ache—the heat and press of her corset always aggravate them so—but she resists the urge to hunch against the back of the chair like some animal satisfying an itch. The scars are the remnants of a mine explosion that happened when she was seven, an incident she remembers only in liquid gold flashes, and even then only anymore in troubled dreams. They cover her body from scalp to soles in a patchwork quilt, some fine and spider-thin, others thick and brutally jagged, as though the mine had tried to sew her back together even as it tore her apart, a recalcitrant creature of coal fixing a broken human toy.
“Excellent! Here it is.” He lifts a file with the name HELLYNBREUKEscrawled across it in green marker, and opens it up. Gillian clasps her hands together into a tight fist. Her middle name, Gobaith, is Welsh for “hope”. She has spent much of her life hoping, and much of her life suppressing that emotion—it so rarely transforms into reality. And yet. Dare she give into hope now?
Shattuck sees her reaction and smiles. “Yes, Hellynbreuke. Tell me what you know of it.”
“A private necropolis, very historic,” she begins, keeping her voice Roman Sicillia calm—chilly, creamy gold. “The most perfect examples of funerary art in the world are located there, created by the most skilled artists in Obsidia. Family mausoleums carved entirely of single, seamless blocks of anthracite and amber, monuments created from giant geodes and other rare mined crystals—or so I’ve heard. There are no photos or drawings of it that I’ve been able to find. I’ve heard rumors that it’s located somewhere within El Torres del Pain, accessible only to the highest levels of government and industry officials. I’ve also heard—” Gillian stops.
Gillian shakes her head. “No, it’s stupid. Just rumors.”
Shattuck smiles. “Such as?”
“Oh. Artifacts and creatures ripped out of the mountains and ocean, kept in collection rooms and holding pens. Objects of profane power, doorways and portals to other worlds—” Gillian breaks off once again. Shattuck stares at her, visibly impressed.
“Well. How did you find all this out?”
“When something interests me, I become—determined.”
“Evidently. Tell me something else, have you ever heard of Wormskill?
“No, I’m not familiar with that name.”
Shattuck waves an aging sheaf of papers in her direction. “It’s a small company cemetery up north in the middle of Feldspar—the first district, the humble birthplace of our vast city. At its peak of production, Feldspar produced two hundred thousand tons of coal a day, and hundreds of thousands of ties for the railroad tracks, as well as the great engines that would begin burrowing through the mountains to the ocean beyond. It was only when a fire, most likely started by the illegal practice of burning trash, spread underneath most of Feldspar, destroying the mines and rendering the city limits uninhabitable—”
Gillian interrupts his lesson. “I know about Feldspar’s history, but I thought it was quarantined.”
“Oh, it has been, for over a hundred years now, along with the cemetery. However, about twenty years ago, several descendents were given permission to move their ancestors’ bodies from the city limits.”
“So, Wormskill no longer exists, then.”
“Yes. However.” The Headmaster hands her a slip of parchment and turns to the window. Gillian reads the spidery words. One carved quartz or metal reliquary, which may or may not contain the partial remains of an employee of New Y’ha-nthlei Steelworks.
Outside, clouds move above Avenida Providencia and Marketside Circus. The room sinks into murky grey.
Gillian’s mother was a cool creature, not one to grace her daughter with compliments or smiles. She gave Gillian nothing, not even a history, not even her father’s Tehuelche name—assuming her mother had even known it. The woman disappeared in the middle of summer, the last Gillian spent above the ground. Gillian holds that image close to her heart: silver-haired Morwyn Jessamine giving her half-breed daughter a tight-lipped nod of farewell before slipping into a flame city sunset choked with black telegraph wires. Was it relief on her mother’s imperious face that she’d seen? Regret? The image, like an empty grave, holds no knowledge to illuminate her with. She only knows how it made her feel even to this day, to think of her mother, like hope, abandoning her with the setting sun.
Shattuck opens his mouth, but Gillian already knows what he’s going to say.
“You want me to retrieve what was left behind. That’s my new job. You want me to go to Wormskill.”
The Headmaster holds an envelope up, near to the lamp’s weak flame, so that she can see the writing. Miss Gillian Gobaith Jessamine, Hellynbreuke Necropolis is typed on its cream front, the flaps sealed by a dark oval of gold-flecked wax, imprinted with the official city seal.
“Not me, my dear. The Minister of Necropoleis wants you to retrieve the item, and deliver it to Hellynbreuke, after which you will remain there permanently, as director of Hellynbreuke’s carving and restoration shops. All those beautiful monuments, and you’ll be in charge of them all.” Shattuck leans forward, sliding the letter toward her fingertips. His watch chain clicks against the desk. She recognizes the metal, knows its qualities, its name.
“Gillian Jessamine of Hellynbreuke, the cemetery queen,” he says. “How does that sound?”
On certain nights in the city, when all the stacks of the factories are venting their smoking spleen, noxious fumes wash through Marketside District, rousing people from sleep long enough to reach for their ventilators. Gillian learned at an early age how to bind and fasten the straps around her head, adjust the long cylindrical nose against the lower half of her face, how to breathe and speak and sleep with charcoal-filtered air seeping in miniscule amounts through her gasping mouth. She learned to ignore the stench of her own breath, the vomitous tang of air that rose from her stomach in coughs and belches, only to slide into her nostrils and lungs. Later, she learned to fuck with the mask on—over time, it became less of a hindrance and more a clever means to disengage, an excuse to stare mindlessly at water-stained ceilings or unfamiliar skies while men grunted and pressed into the lower half of her body, seemingly a million miles away.
Tonight, this last night in her cramped two-room flat, is not such a night. Gillian stands at the cracked panes of Sargasso-green glass, letting the cool metal tang of night air rush through her lungs. Outside and below, hooves clop and ring on the cobblestones, round a corner and fade; while distant trains rumble on tracks in and out of the city center, loaded with anything and everything that can be ripped from the lands and towering mountain range—Cordillera del Tenebroso—that makes up the narrow edge of the southern continent. Even a hundred miles away, nestled in the folds of the smaller mountains, she hears the sound—there are that many tracks, that many trains. Twenty-four hours of every day, there is always the stormless thundering of steam engines.
“Someone will see you.” Emanuel lays on the bed, barely visible in the squares of warped light seeping through the glass. His arm is raised, holding out her worn robe.
“I don’t care, it’s too hot. No one can see inside, anyway.” Nonetheless, she slips it over her naked skin. Emanuel is by nature a jealous man, but he is often prudent, cautious—something she is often not, despite her seemingly calm, detached demeanor. If there is a door open, or a window cracked, he wishes it shut, always. She wants it opened wider, to see what is beyond, where she might go—a nature forged by a childhood spent in the mines, where an open tunnel ahead meant “come inside.” And she always did. Time and time again, Gillian found fat anthracite seams that the company men, with all their sophisticated instruments, could not. She found them because she did what they would not do. She went further. She went deeper.
“Is Jasper still here?” Emanuel squints as Gillian points to the sagging cot on the other side of the room, empty save for a faded mattress and Gillian’s and Emanuel’s matching portmanteau’s, packed for the journey. Beside them lay matching envelopes from the Ministry—Emanuel received his after her meeting with Shattuck had ended. “Too much wine for dinner. I didn’t even hear him leave.”
Gillian glowers at the warped wooden door leading to the second room. Jasper had spent the evening packing, showing his displeasure at her leaving him behind by banging the chairs and dresser drawers until the neighbors complained. “He doesn’t want to live in the tailor’s basement with all the other apprentices, but he doesn’t have a choice. He’s not making money, so he can’t keep these rooms. His anger finally wore him out. It usually does.” She walks to the bed and curls down beside Emanuel’s bare legs. “He’s like you that way.”
Emanuel smiles. “You mean, he’s like you that way.”
“Oh, thank you, sir.”
“He is. I saw the way you brooded after you left Shattuck’s office today. Don’t say you didn’t want to put your fist through a wall. Which I still don’t understand. You’re going to Hellynbreuke. Why do you always see something bad in all the good?”
Gillian pulls the robe from her shoulders, and slips under the sheet next to Emanuel. “I wasn’t angry,” she says. Her hand slides over his chest, and his heartbeat pulses through her palm. “It’s about going to Wormskill. I don’t want to travel all the way out into the country to drag some broken bit of statuary back into the city. It’s ridiculous.”
“I’ve been to Feldspar before. It’s not quite ‘country’. Far from it, in fact.”
“What? You’ve been there, and you never told me?” Gillian doesn’t try to hide her annoyance.
“Why? What did you do there?
Emanuel sighs. Gillian’s body rises and falls with his breath as he speaks. “I didn’t say anything because it never came up. I mean, there was no reason to bring it up, I didn’t do anything exciting. I was part of the team that was sent to disinter the bodies and pack up the markers and statuary for travel. It was almost twenty years ago, it was mindless grunt work, that’s all. Like digging ditches. I did some quick restoration, some patching up of stonework, they paid me well, and that was that. I haven’t thought about it since then. It was largely forgettable.”
“How long were you there?”
“A couple of—months.”
Gillian hears the slight catch in his reply, the way his voice swerves around an almost-spoken word and hitches itself to “months”. She is certain he was going to say years.
“Were there any bodies or tombs you had to leave behind?”
Emanuel shrugs. “I was positive we accounted for every grave and marker—we dismantled entire mausoleums, even. But it was a nightmare to find anything: overgrown weeds and bushes, thorns and brambles everywhere, some of the graves had shifted or sunk. Obviously we missed something. I’m surprised a single reliquary is only thing we overlooked.”
A thought surfaces in Gillian’s mind, like a river eel thrashing through the polluted muck of Becher Canal. “If everyone left the cemetery after it was relocated, who was there who would have found the reliquary? Why didn’t they take it to Hellynbreuke themselves?”
Now Emanuel’s body stiffens ever so slightly. He’s going to lie to her, and he doesn’t even know it: But his body can’t lie, to itself or to her. Gillian feels his subconscious fight to control it, as the tremor moves from his arms and chest down to his legs. For a moment, it’s as if she’s holding a department store mannequin, and the thought repulses her. She resists the impulse to push him away, knowing the moment will pass.
“We’ll have a traveling companion—she has rather formidable psychic abilities, but she needs an escort. Long journeys are hard on her. She’ll be staying behind to thoroughly excavate the site.”
“A psychic,” Gillian says. “So, this isn’t just a pick-up. It’s also a delivery.”
“More or less. The object is the important thing, of course.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t think she has one. Here, I have something for you.” Emanuel sits up, shifting Gillian aside as he reaches over to the wooden crate that serves as her nightstand. “Hold out your hand.” Gillian does so, and she feels his fingers press a square of marble onto her palm. She sighs, almost a groan, as if the weight of the stone is pushing her through all the floors of the tenement building into the pipe-riddled ground.
“Please. I want something in my pocket, for luck.”
“No.” Gillian tries to sit up, but Emanuel presses her back against the sheets.
“Just one more time, love,” he says. “And I’ll never ask again. I promise.”
Emanuel places his hand against his heart. “I swear to the Dreaming God.”
Gillian holds the square up to the light. It’s a chip of Arihant Spider Green, dark as the wild forests and jungles far beyond the northernmost edges of Obsidia, supposedly. Gillian’s never seen any type of wilderness in person, never ventured beyond the crush of buildings into any part of the world where Obsidia is not—but she can imagine it. The whorls of her fingertips press down, catch against thin white veins caught within the green. She doesn’t know what part of the world the chip is from, or if there are forests and trees where it once lay, but no matter. Her fingertips warm the smooth surface, and images unfurl in her mind, a combination of her own imagination and the antediluvian strands of memory embedded in the stone: ragged outcrops of mossy boulders, erupting from forest lands like bones tearing apart aging skin, pocked and smoothed by autumn rains. Her fingertips move, caress, and the marble replies, moves; and grows still.
“Done.” Gillian places the chip back into Emanuel’s hand. An exquisitely detailed leaf has appeared on the surface, crisscrossed in veins and ragged at the edges, as though it had been nipped by insects and animals. It looks chiseled—to the ordinary human eye, that is.
“Are you sure it’s not alive?” As always, Emanuel has grown unsettled at watching her work.
“How does the stone always know? How do you speak to each other?”
“I’ve told you before, I don’t know. It’s a different kind of speaking, a different way of being alive,” Gillian says. “It’s not something I can explain or write down. I just know.”
“It’s hard to believe you learned this in the mines. I can’t imagine what you created down there, inside rock so large and old.”
Gillian thinks of Jasper, of all the flesh and blood she left behind. “You don’t create things in mines. You only destroy.”
“Have you ever wanted to read me like that?”
She stares at her lover, so opposite her in every way, so warm and alive and she so pale and Carrera-cold. “Humans are a different kind of life. I can’t read that kind of life the same way. I wouldn’t want to.”
“You wouldn’t need to, love. There are better ways.” Emanuel slips his arms around her, drawing her close. She feels the chip press into her back, leaving indentations amidst her mine-scarred flesh. Gillian’s fingers surreptitiously touch the skin between her breasts before traveling down Emanuel’s body, as she wonders if this time the flame will spark, and she’ll feel something, anything, for the man she should love. But her heart beats no faster than before, and that beat is slow as geology, as rare as Antarctic rain.
“Will it at least be cooler in Feldspar, even if it’s not really the country? She breathes the words into his neck as he parts her legs, presses into her again. “Will it be peaceful?”
“As peaceful as the—”
Gillian kisses him hard, so he cannot finish the sentence. All she hears now is the crack of canary wings, plunging from the obelisk into a room without a sun.
Part Two: I am the Stone the Builder Rejected
Highgate Station clings to the lowest slopes of the mountain that forms the southern edge of Marketplace—which is to say, it towers above anything else in this part of Obsidia, save the forest of factory chimneys. In the pitch of night, the gothic-spired building glows like the translucent skull of a dragon, jagged maw opened wide to disgorge twenty-odd trains to all points across the city: suburban enclaves, bustling business districts, and industrial sections—even through the miles of elevated train yards that divide the entire metropolis neatly in half, keeping the slums underneath festering in a perpetual twilight of iron and steel.
Gillian watches the trains from the large bay window of the quiet Club Room, an enclave reserved for the most powerful travelers of the city’s rail systems. She’s been allowed entrance this one time, so she doesn’t waste an opportunity she knows will never come again. A glass of fresh-pressed juice in one hand, she carefully bites into the center of a pain du chocolate and stares in stark awe at dawn creeping onto the edges of the city below. This is a view she has never seen before. Always she’s been in the middle of it, an insect blindly feeling its way through shifting rubble, too close to the mechanical monstrosities and marvels to truly comprehend their vast size. Now, she can barely comprehend the sprawling empire below. How is it that people can live inside all that steel and fire? How is it that any of them are alive?
“Incredible, isn’t it.” Emanuel sits in a chair to the side, reading the morning paper as he finishes his second café. Archduke Assassinated in Sarajevo, one headline declares. “It’s almost six, dear. Earplugs.”
“Yes, I have them.” She bites into the pain, but doesn’t chew.
From her feet to the horizon, Obsidia stretches out and up: deep valleys of smoking furnaces and factories to snow-capped peaks of the Tenebroso crowned with stacks a hundred stories high, jetting green fire against the red disk of the rising sun. Countless train tracks catch the morning rays as they shoot from the bowels of the city, filled with the riches of the earth—copper, coal, silver, potassium nitrate and iron ore—and disperse up the hemisphere to all corners of the world. And in between the dark edges of industry, hazy spherical glimpses of another city rise from Obsidia’s midst, the strange geometries of their god’s city made real as it’s pulled from dark ocean waters thousands of miles away, and reassembled in their midst. In this moment, behind the thick glass: peace, or as much of it as the city can spare. She’ll remember it later in the day, when traffic roars through every slender lane and cyclopean boulevard, and she rushes past it all in a train bound to a dying town.
In the back of the room, a clock begins chiming the night away. Gillian reaches for two small plugs of hard foam in her pocket, each carved in the cephalopodic shape of Obsidia’s ubiquitous god. The sixth bell sounds; and outside the station, horns howl the shift change, cleaving the moment between night and day with a single deep note that sets her bones trembling as hard as the window panes.
“They’re going to come to us someday,” she says, the non-sequitur erupting on her tongue like bile—a common occurrence amongst Obsidians whenever the factory whistles blow, as though the sonic dissonance dislodges some unseen truth from their pineal eyes. “We’re going to arm the world with a guillotine for its own neck.” No one hears her speak. All across the horizon, as far as eyes can see, clouds of inky smoke shoot upward from tens thousand shaking brick and metal stacks, rigid fingers pinching out the sun. Morning shift has begun, and those who work the daylight hours above ground must rise and earn their keep. This city and its gods demand no less.
Emanuel tosses the paper down and rises, motioning that it’s time. Gillian pulls the foam from her ears. “You know, I used to hear the shift change underground, all the time. This was the first time I’ve ever seen it like this.” She kisses him lightly on the cheek. “Thank you.”
Emanuel holds up their tickets. “Thank your new employer. Come on. We have to meet the rest of the team. They’re already on the train.”
“There are others coming? I thought it was just the psychic.”
“Yes. And a few others, to help with setting up and running the camp; and transportation of the reliquary, if we need it.” Emanuel’s face turns neutral as he speaks, and Gillian grows dismayed. How much more does he know that he hasn’t said?
As they leave the room, a grey-feathered chingolo begins serenading the rays of sunlight sliding through the windows. Several children gather around the cage, slipping bits of bread through the bars, despite knowing it’s no pet for their amusement, but there only to gauge the levels of toxic fumes in the room. Gillian doesn’t feel sorry for it. There isn’t a creature in Obsidia that doesn’t know why it was born, and how it must die.
The lower levels of the station are all grey granite and sharp echoes, with occasional glimpses of smoking black steam engines resting on tracks, waiting to devour their passengers and race away. Names as terrible and magnificent as their quaking frames adorn onyx sides in letters of silver and gold: Lord of the Seventh Kingdom, Fantasma Imperador, Fist of the Southern Star. Gillian finds Track #16 at the far end of the wing, beyond a thick arch of rough-hewn stone. Under the low vaulting of the tunnel,Empress of Devastation awaits, her long black body throbbing with every pull and pound of the pistons and gears. Steam explodes from the stack and undercarriage, filling the space with python-sized coils of wet smoke. That Devastation‘s six foot high wheels float several feet above the tracks makes Gillian understand that this is a lucid dream, that her body is already somewhere within the real Empress, fast asleep as her mind sinks in the oubliette of images flickering through her brain.
“Ma’am, it’s time to board.”
A platform conductor points to the closest car with a look on his malformed face that indicates stern disapproval of stragglers; and only seconds after Gillian hoists herself from the top of the rickety stepladder into the compartment, he slams the carriage door behind her: They are moving. The raised roof of the station slides away, revealing a sunless morning sky, and now they slide down gleaming tracks, toward the fiery heart of the city. Outside the car, clogged streets, crumbling factories and tangled knots of building-sized machines sail past in an uneven landscape, obscured only by trestles and the long blur of trains rushing in the opposite direction. Obsidia passes around and below her in all its filthy glory.
You’re like the lemon tree. You haven’t been planted in ground where you can thrive.
Gillian looks away from the window. Shattuck stands at the top of the aisle. At his back, the entire front of the train has disappeared, and the car is open to a bank of grey fog washing through the city, obscuring the ends of the rails and the factories until only twinkling light and flame remain. They rush headlong into the bank, the engines beneath her feet pounding like metronomes, a sound that recedes as the dream rolls forward with the train. They are traveling to a place without sound, without light or air: Images of another dream lick at the corners of her mind. The weed-choked rails, the empty city, the gaping mouth of the tunnel, opening wide…
A million miles away, her legs thrash helplessly.
Don’t avoid remembering. Embrace it.
No. Gillian is numb. Her eyes are open, and they cannot blink. Shattuck leans in, touches her cheek. The air has grown cold around her, and shards of ice fleck off her skin, reforming as quickly as they melt.
Go back down.
Shattuck raises his hands in a gesture of helplessness. Then, we must take you there.
Obsidia has disappeared in the thick mist. She sees only the rails, the mouth gobbling up the ends.
Show me how you speak to the God.
There is no God. Outside the dream, in the world, she’s pissing herself.
Shattuck grins, his teeth filed to points. That’s not what you told your mother.
Silence fills the car.
Tell me how you speak to the stone. How does it answer?
Gillian raises her hands. Shattuck sucks in his breath, but before he can move or speak, she’s on him, one hand against his face, the other gripping his throat. Shattuck howls as her glacier-cold skin burns against the lids of his eyes. He stumbles back, sliding along the side of the carriage seats as she shoves him over to the stone walls of the car, pinning him like a bug. Before he thinks to push back, Gillian moves her hand from his face to his chest, pressing her palm flat against his ribcage. Her eyes close.
It answers like this.
Rows of headstones rising from a cold paved land, mountain landscapes covered in uncarved slabs of ancient schist, cold rain jetting from slate skies, washing away any hint or speck of life. Beneath her hands, Shattuck writhes, his body shuddering and twitching as his skin breaks apart like a rotting corpse. Water-smooth megaliths, glacial effluvia spreading across dying tundra—muscles split, spilling organs and bones not down but across the stone in stinking rivers of crimson and muddy brown. Cartilage snaps, bones clatter and split into shards, swirl across the smooth slabs in tightening spirals until they work their way inside, subsumed by the metamorphic and igneous slabs. His skull and ribs are the last to disappear, grinning teeth clattering as they grind down into chalky threads that sink slowly into the rocks, and vanish. Shattuck is gone. All that remains is the dead country, a vast expanse of rock and granite sky as far as her eye can see; and her hands flat against the wall, staring at an unmarked grave for a man rendered out of life and into Archean lands.
The surface of the marble ripples. A face forms, teeth dancing toward her fingers. She opens her mouth to scream. All that emerges is the low and mournful wail of a distant horn.
Gillian wakes up with a dry gasp. She’s sitting upright, head against the upholstered side of a two-seat bench, her fingers tangled against her throat. Everything in the small private cabin vibrates with each turn of the wheels below. She can tell by the strange quality of the light seeping through the curtain that it’s late in the day, but how late, she doesn’t know. She feels unmoored from the world, adrift. Go back down... Gillian pulls one stiff hand away from her chin and reaches underneath her dress. Not surprisingly, the fabric is damp. Not even in the mines, when she was so young, so terrified, did she—no. She could sit here and wallow in shame, but keeping busy means she won’t think about the dream, the places it leads her.
In the cramped cabin space, Gillian slips out of her clammy dress and undergarments and shoves them into the small porcelain basin in the lavatory, then pats the upholstered seat down with a towel. She contemplates throwing the dress away, but instead wrings it out and hides it with the towels—she didn’t bring many clothes, and doesn’t want to run the chance of a porter discovering it. The time on the clock by the door tells her she’s slept most of the day away. No matter—she slipped several pieces of fruit and pastry from the Club Room into her pockets. Not that stealing is second nature to her; but survival is.
Two soft knocks at the door. Gillian looks around the cabin: wet dress hidden, new dress on self, blankets piled on seat—she smells her palms. Nothing but soap. She remembers the dream, what her hands did to Shattuck. She stares at all the scars and calluses, mesmerized. What’s underneath that tortured skin that she doesn’t yet know about? She turns her hands around, to inspect the ragged crescents of her nails. All of them, black with dried blood. It takes her a second of horror to remember they’ve always looked like that, stained like stray shards of coal.
Another knock, sharp and insistent. “Gillian?” It’s Emanuel.
The door cracks open, and Emanuel’s face appears. “You slept through lunch. I came by earlier, but you were out like a light.”
“I know. We were up so early, and we didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“I fell asleep in the other dress. It was all wrinkled.”
“Come on.” Emanuel holds out his hand. “I want you to meet our third party.”
“Let me put on my gloves first.”
“What do you need gloves for?”
“My hands are a mess. I want to look proper for once.”
From front to back, the train is largely empty. They were last to board, and Gillian had assumed all the other passengers were already seated, her only explanation for the empty platform beside the train. She was wrong.Empress of Devastation is not an ordinary train. There are few coach cars with general seating, most are made of compartments like hers, interspersed with bench-lined private rooms for four or six passengers. The rooms are as dark as the unlit hallways and appear equally empty, but as Gillian’s eyesight adjusts, she spies movement behind the glass doors, or the flame of a small candle illuminating a body or two. Two of the cars they pass through have no seats at all, only odd-shaped, shallow depressions in their windowless carapaces. It profoundly disturbs her, this silence and lack of light cocooned inside each segment of the rushing machine, this lack of humanized space. It reminds her too much of the mines.
Emanuel pulls a cloth mask up over his mouth and nose before opening the last door. She does the same—there’s no need for their heavy ventilators on the train, but this last car doesn’t have a covered connection. He opens the door, nodding for her to go ahead. The gritty, cinder-sparked air hits them like the bellows of a blast furnace. “She’s expecting you,” he shouts over the noise. “I’ve already seen her, so I’ll wait right here!”
“You’re not even going to introduce me?”
“She wants to see you alone!”
Gillian furrows her brow, but he offers no further explanation. The door across the platform offers no clues, its single window masked in curtaining. “Go on, you’ll be fine,” is all he says, and steps back, closing the door. She stands alone on the quaking metal platform between the cars. Beyond the grime-caked railings, the filth and sleaze of the Trestle District rushes below the tracks in a river of brick and gaslight, while freight trains roar overhead them all, sending smoke and ash raining down through the shaking layers of buildings like snow. She grips the rail and leans over. Ten stories down, the slums rush past at full throttle, a tangled mess of tightly-packed tenements and streets clogged with human and mechanical traffic. Despite the charcoal lining in her mask, whiffs of gasoline, manure and smoke seep into her lungs. An unidentified piece of trash bounces off her cheek—Gillian steps back, taking it as her cue to go inside before she loses an eye. She grabs at the large copper handle, barely able to keep a firm grip. On the third tug, the door slides open, and she stumbles through, tripping over the metal guard as the door slams shut behind her. The world now somewhat muted, Gillian pulls down her mask.
The first thing she notices is that the car is far narrower than any of the others, by almost half, giving it the effect of a slightly larger hallway rather than a true passenger car. The space is gutted, empty save for an iron box in the center, similar in shape and size to a child’s coffin. Each corner of the lid has a hook and chain fastened to it: All four chains meet in a pyramid halfway to the ceiling, merging into one that continues, presumably, through and out the roof. In front of the box sits a large block of Onyx Camello. It is uncarved.
A pale hand at the far end of the car motions for her to come closer. Gillian barely makes out two figures, seated in chairs at the back. Green curtains are drawn across each of the long windows, giving the car the appearance of an aquarium, or those tanks at a carnaval she took Jasper to many years ago, with women floating in gallons of algae-choked scum, acting out underwater fantasies of mere-maiden consorts bound and wed to the Great Dreamer. As with the carnaval tank, there are no lights in here, only the slow creep of light and shadow, the illusion of movement and life and a story where there is none. She tries to give the box a wide berth, but there’s little room, and a faint, unfamiliar odor of chemicals hits her lungs as she sidles past it. Whatever is inside, it burns.
A curious, familiar squishing sound rises and falls, accompanied by the definite scent of ocean water. From the back of the car, a young, pale-skinned man in an ill-fitting suit emerges from the gloom, squeezing the spray bottle trigger every several seconds to let the saline mist float across the aisle onto the bulging, coelacanthic face of the other figure, the third member of their team: a woman, a chimera, a grotesque. Gillian stops, her mouth open in soft shock. She has heard of Obsidia’s newer residents, half-human and half something else, dredged up from the ocean along with the pieces of their reassembling city, but thought it might be only more fantastical rumors, so hard to tell apart from fantastical truth. This creature sitting before her and gaping with puffed, wet lips, is the truth.
“Emanuel sent me.”
The chimera blinks. Eyes like cenotes, perfect circles in the jungle of her flesh, pure fathomless grey, like winter clouds. She’s blind, Gillian realizes—or at the least, what the creature is capable of seeing lies beyond the sight of any human. Gillian imagines pushing her finger right through the jellied surface all the way to her last knuckle and never reach the curving wall of the skull, that those eyes only start in the surface of the chimera’s face, but end someplace beyond the ends of time itself. Gillian grabs her twitching fingers in a tight vise, holding them close to her breast. The creature, perhaps, influencing her thoughts. Why else would she think such a thing?
“If you’re waiting for her to say something, she doesn’t speak.” The young man puts down the spray bottle, and begins cracking the joints of his knobby fingers. “At least, very rarely. It’s difficult enough for her to breath, let alone form words. Not unless—well, you know.” He picks up the bottle again, and begins spraying the chimera’s face.
Gillian steps forward. “Yes, I was told. My name is Gillian Jessamine.”
The man looks up, a slight smirk on his face. “I know who you are. We know all about you. Emanuel told us.”
Gillian feels the heat rising in her cheeks. “Really.”
“You bring the body of God to life.” He points to the woman’s lap. Gillian leans forward, and her curiosity transforms: The chimera’s crooked, elongated fingers hold the square of marble she carved for Emanuel last night, tracing the outline of the leaf in endless repetition. Repulsion washes through Gillian’s frame. It’s as if she’s watching the chimera fondle a piece of her innermost self.
“I carve headstones and markers. I’m an artisan.”
“So that’s what you call it.” He waits, as if expecting her to challenge his comment, then sets the bottle into a satchel at his feet. His hair is long, the color and consistency of dirty straw and tied in a tail at the back of his neck. Gillian notes the jagged half-moons of his nails, the permanent smudges in the creases of his face.
“What mine were you at?”
“What?” He rummages through the satchel, not looking back at her.
“I worked in Gwaunclawdd, then transferred to Anthracite Internacional. Didn’t you used to work in the mines, too?”
“Sorry.” He flashes her a stiff, tight smile. “Don’t know what gave you that idea. I’ve never been anywhere underground, not even a basement.”
“Ah. My mistake.” Gillian studies him. His pallor isn’t Welsh ancestry, it’s lack of sun: He fairly glitters with anthracite embedded under his skin. He’s never worn a suit before, she realizes. An underground animal, dressed up as a human being. Gillian knows exactly what that looks like. She saw it in mirrors and window panes for years. But she never lied about her origins. He’s right, he’s no miner. That only means he’s something else.
“Here, put this on.” The man holds out a respirator—a full face mask, with the goggles attached.
“There aren’t any straps.”
“It’s a newer model. It doesn’t need straps, you just place it against your face. Go on.”
Gillian doesn’t move. The man’s eyes narrow, but instead of pressing the point, he stands and places it on the vacated seat. “Well, it’s here if you want it. She’ll speak to you when I leave.”
“What about the water?” Gillian points to the satchel, now under his arm. “Do you need me to spray her face?”
“No, she can’t use it while she’s working. It impedes her abilities.”
“Her psychic abilities? I didn’t know water could—”
The man cuts her off. “She’s not a psychic.”
“Then what’s her ability?”
Neither of them speak. Finally, he turns and walks down the car to the door. Gillian watches him leave, not sure if she should be relieved. When the door swings shut, she picks up the respirator and sits down. The chimera stares at her, mouth opening and closing with soft pops. Her breath sounds raspy and labored.
“Are you—is it difficult for you to breathe in this air? I’m sorry, he left with your squirting bottle—” Gillian points in the direction of the door. The chimera shrugs, and shakes her head. A short bark erupts from her chest—is she laughing? Gillian allows herself a sort of half-smile in return. “Yes, he seemed a bit absentminded, didn’t he? Rather strange.” Her words feel self-conscious; they drop out of her mouth like birds hitting the ground. Is this how women sound when they have conversations with each other? She’s never had a woman friend, so it’s difficult to know—although, this hardly seems such a moment of intimate female camaraderie, and the creature before is no woman.
The chimera coughs again—she wasn’t laughing. A thread of drool spools out of her mouth and hits her flat breasts. She’s dressed in a plain belted smock that’s almost transparent, and Gillian notices the mottled flesh, the strange configurations of bones straining against the bruised skin, as if ready to split it wide open. The rheumy fog of her eyes isn’t just blindness, but malnutrition, dehydration, disease. She’s dying, but Gillian can’t stop staring into the creature’s ink eyes.
“I disthgust you.”
“No—no, not at all! I didn’t mean to stare, I’m just concerned for you, that you’re alright.”
“Ith’s alrighdt.” The chimera raises her hands, a gesture dripping with futility, and a touch of self-deprecation. “Honesthly, I disthgust myselph.”
“No.” Gillian is emphatic. “You do not disgust me at all. I’m—I just—I don’t know how to help you—” The breath hitches out of Gillian’s lungs, along with sentences spilling from her mouth in a rush of nerves. “I used to work in the mines, and sometimes they’d have me dress the wounds because I’m a girl, but even then I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, everyone screamed no matter what. I used a sewing needle, just a regular needle. It was horrible. Even when I was in accidents, and the mine fire, no one could help me, and I didn’t know what to do.” Gillian presses her hand against her forehead. Some strange emotion is building behind her eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to help you. I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“S’alrighd.” A hand more like a fin slips onto Gillian’s tight fist, resting on her shaking knee. The chimera pats her gently, smiling. She has few teeth. “S’alrighd. You are doing fighn. You are fighn.”
“I’m doing fine,” Gillian echoes her. “Doing fine. I don’t even know why I’m here.”
“Whadth elsthe happendth in the mineths?”
Empress of Devastation roars down the tracks, pulling cars and rolling stock behind her like a widow’s veil. Once again, Gillian feels her heart fall into sync with the beat of the engines. Hot tears roll into her mouth, and the salt stirs primordial memories. The chimera’s eyes open wider. Her breath is the ocean, and all the little secrets of Gillian’s life are floating up, up from the benthic deep into the naked waves, cresting and tumbling.
“I was a year younger than my son Jasper is now when I got pregnant. A foreman led me into one of the dead tunnels of Anthracite Internacional, where I canaried for methane and carbon dioxide. He knocked me up hard and good. I was barely twelve, but I wanted it, I was able, I knew what I was doing. Pregnant women aren’t allowed in the mines, and if I ever wanted out, it’d have to be with child, or in a burlap sack sewn shut like a sack of coal. I’d already been with some of the miners, boys my age or a little older, just fooling around. You know. But the foreman. I fixed on like a star. I can’t—I can’t describe him, I hardly remember his face, or if he even had one. He was an obscenity. But it was like fucking a mountain. Like fucking the world. He could read the rock as well as me, he always knew where to find the thickest seams. There was gossip that he had a touch of grotesquein him. Maybe that’s what drew me to him, some bit of unreadable earth running through his veins. I never saw him after that, after that one time. I kept away from him. His mouth—I didn’t want him to find out. I gave birth down there. I never told Jasper. I took my son and left everything else behind.”
“Whathd elthe did you leaphe behinthd?”
It’s like her old dream. Following the rails into the tunnel, into blissful, endless night.
“Blood. Placenta. Bits of flesh. She was already dead. There was nothing I could do.”
“Dithd you giphe her a nambe?”
“Peridot, green for the leaves. Peridot Addiena. She came out first. I left her in the stones.”
The box chains rattle, grow taut. The spell broken, Gillian sags over her lap, and lets out a ragged breath. Just a little ways further in, and she would have been there. But where?
“Don’ be scarethd.” The chimera releases her hand, and sits back in her seat. “Justh puth on thad—” she points to the respirator “—anthd sith there. I’ll be fighn.”
“Why should I be scared? What’s going to happen?”
“You tolth me the truth of yourthelph. Ith’s my thurn now.”
“To tell the truth of yourself?”
To tell the truth of you.
The chains slide down, draping over the lid: And then rise in a screeching clatter, taking the slack and the lid to the ceiling. As the car turns red from the light of bright flames, the chimera leans forward, breathing in the fumes.
Gillian has no time to react: She places the respirator against her face. At once, she feels the edges seal against her skin, locking it in place with a prickling heat. Four sharp jabs make her cry out in pain, but the heavy filters mute the sound. She opens her eyes, blinking the tears away as she adjusts to the smoky glass of the goggles. The iron box appears as a blur, thin liquid bubbling and popping inside. Gasoline, perhaps, or a fine grade of oil, it’s hard to tell. The heat, she can feel, and the air undulates in waves as fumes flood the room; but there’s no trace of smoke. Gillian touches the two round appendages of the mask where the charcoal filters sit, and takes a deep breath. No trace of chemicals enters her lungs—not that it would harm her, if it did. Nonetheless, Gillian feels her breathing grow shallow. “I’m sorry,” she says, unsure if she can be heard behind the weight of the respirator. She backs away from the chimera, slow and deliberate. “I can’t stay here. I have to get out.”
Stop, the chimera speaks in a marble-cold voice—Haveli Selwara, to be precise. The creature’s pupils contract, and Gillian sees new colors form in her eyes, traces of gold Alimoglu Travertine.
You have abilities you have not yet mined.
Shapes form and move behind the green curtains, as thought ghosts hover outside the car, surrounding it an unbroken chain.
You are the distinct line through P that does not intersect I.
Light spills into the car from all sides as the green curtains slither up into folds at the top of the ceiling. Outside, in the ash-colored evening air, the Trestle District rushes past, choking in electrical wires and steel girders, barely visible beyond the glare of electrical lights pouring through the glass. A car within a car, Gillian realizes—the smaller one surrounded by a brightly-lit walkway created between the two nesting carriages. Men and women line the walkway, observing her. She cannot see their faces. They appear only as masked silhouettes, sinister bodies without human mouths or eyes. Gillian wonders if Emanuel is among them, then stops herself. No, she does not wonder at all.
Planetesimal creation. Deflection, flight and fall. Metavolcanic cradle rocked by the subduction zone.
Nonsensical phrases spill from the chimera’s mouth, all spoken with absolute precision. The creature isn’t psychic. She’s a Sibyl.
Emanuel stands at the window closest to the connecting door, speaking into a small amplifying device. His voice floats through the car, tinny and distant.
“I need you to show the Sibyl what you can do with stone. Pick it up and carve it.”
Gillian shakes her head no.
“Gillian, I cannot let you out until you carve the stone. This is imperative.”
There are close to twenty strangers, in all, hands pressed against the glass, watching the chimera’s body bend and twist over the bubbling crucible like soft taffy.
“You said you loved me. How can you do this to me?”
“I do love you. I’ve never not loved you. But you must carve the stone for the Sibyl. She needs to see what you do, to see if you are able to—do what we need you to do at Wormskill.”
“Which is? What?”
Emanuel pauses, then: “Shattuck has kept very close tabs on Jasper, he cares for him as a grandfather. I love him like my own son. But you risk his life if you do not do what I ask.”
Gillian pulls the respirator off her face, ignoring the pain as the small hooks disengage from her skin. Small lines of blood trickle down her forehead and cheeks, dotting her dress. She takes a deep breath. “Fuck your threats. My son can take care of himself.”
She hears the smile in his voice. “I knew there had to be more to you,” it whispers across the car. “Canary in a coal mine, a million of them every year carried out on stretchers, but not you. Never you. What other abilities do you have?”
“So, this is your idea of love.”
“I also love my god, darling. His love comes first.”
“Why are you making me do this?” Gillian shouts her question to the ceiling, ignoring Emanuel’s figure behind the glass. “What is it you want me to do at Wormskill?”
“Just what Shattuck said—retrieve an object and deliver it to Hellynbreuke.”
“Something you need me to carve?”
“You want me to bring something piece of stone, some boulder to life.”
Emanuel’s voice hesitates. “Yes.”
Gillian understands now. She’s seen this happen before, in the mines, among men and women isolated too many years below-ground. “You found a lump of stone, and you want me to turn it into some kind of magical being you can dance around naked—”
“Pick up the stone—”
“—smearing dirt into your faces like little children and chanting at the ground—”
“Pick up the fucking stone or your son dies.”
He has no idea how much of a non-threat his words are. She doesn’t fear for Jasper, he’s smarter than she ever was, wiser and deadlier, and Shattuck’s a drunken old slug—chances are, he’s already dead, and her son slipped away into the city like so much dust. But Gillian lets the respirator drop to the floor. She’s tired and hungry, and wants this over with. So they want to play secret pagan cult to an imaginary earth god? Fine. She’ll carve this marble, then whisper sweet nothings to a lump of slag, probably leftover waste from some old steel mill, and take it to Hellynbreuke. It’s nothing to her. She’s never believed.
The block of Onyx Camello is warm to the touch. Gillian lifts and cradles it in her arms. It’s perfectly cut and polished, with hundreds of layers of cream alternating with caramels and browns, like layers of baby blankets. Gillian cringes. Soft curves of flesh, and the marble lays against her breast, already just the right size—is this what they want her to do? She feels the block shift, the edges soften. “No,” Gillian says, and bites down hard on her tongue. Saliva and blood fill her mouth, and she thinks of the furthest reaches of Obsidia, where industrial sprawl gives way to the ice and chill of the Southern Ocean. A hard and dangerous country, where humans do not live. Glaciers pour from mountains, stream together into a solid moving cliff of ice, rising hundreds of feet in the air; while overhead, seagulls mass and swell, rising and falling with the stiff Antarctic currents, weaving through thunderheads and lightning bolts, at one with both sea and sky.
She turns, and lifts out the block to the chimera, then lets it drop to her feet with a thump. “There. It’s done.” Her arms are slick with sweat, and her body feels like she’s running a fever. Heat from the burning oil prickles the old scars with pain, from the nape of her neck all the way down to just above her knees.
“Nothing.” Emanuel’s voice drips with disappointment.
“No, there’s carving—” Gillian gives the block a light touch with her toe. Gulls, entwined and tangled all over the surface of the stone, beaks and feet and wings morphing in a single mass, as if trying to collide themselves into something larger, more formidable.
“I’m sure there is. We needed to see something more, love. I think you can do more.”
“I told you I don’t know that kind of life.” Gillian crouches, hands on knees as she fights the wave of weak nausea washing through her. “I only know stone.”
Voices rise up behind Emanuel’s, heated and urgent. She hears him replying, and then: “Gillian, I need you to stand up. Turn around and show the Sibyl your back. Show her your scars.”
“I’m not undressing for you. I did what you wanted. Unlock the door. I need fresh air—I’m not completely immune. I’m not immortal.”
“You don’t need to undress, darling. Look at the windows—look at your reflection.”
With a tortured sigh, Gillian rises and turns, letting the light from the windows illuminate her back. A faint image of herself looks back, a slender figure in a light-colored dress, printed with yellow roses. Underneath the dress, the old mine scars glow neon-red.
Heavy traces of a Widmanstätten pattern within her recrystallized structure. Result of a monumental impact-heating event at the time of the arrival of the parent.
Behind the glass, the men and women say nothing. She doesn’t need to see to know what emotions warp their faces. They are looking at her scars, which are a single scar, a single radiating half-whorl of a fingerprint, embedded in her skin. The God, someone whispers. But they don’t understand. The fingerprint is nothing. It’s miniscule. What she encountered in those mine fires, what reached out through the roiling flames, could not truly perceive her existence anymore than she can see the individual fibers beneath her heels. And yet it was not a god, it was only a wounded creature, trying to escape. There are larger things, further down, that fathered them all.
Olivine bronzite chondrite descendent of 4 Vesta. The God cradle awaits her, in the deep. She will take the godhead to the Towers of Pain. She will deliver The God. The chimera takes one last breath from the fumes before collapsing in her seat, head rolled back and eyes closed.
“That’s what we needed to know. Thank you, Gillian. You’re free to go now.” Emanuel’s voice sounds relaxed, relieved as he turns off the intercom. All around her, glassine and shadow figures talk and gesture in bright animation. As the door opens and several men walk into the car, a portion of the roof slides away, and fresh air whips the fumes up into the night. The men pass her without comment, offering only guarded stares, tinged with a bit of fear. Perhaps they are thinking, this is the creature who will bring their God to life. Perhaps they want to worship her as well. Or perhaps, they wish to kill her. Gillian will find out, soon enough.
Along the walkway, several women begin feeding the chain back up into the roof. The men guide the lowering lid back onto the iron box, their hands protected by thick, fireproofed gloves. Gillian hears the little squirt bottle wheezing away, as the young man tends to his chimeric ward. Everything back to normal, of a sort.
“Gillian.” Emanuel stands before her, handsome as ever, a look of concern on his face. “Will you ever forgive me?”
“How long have you been planning this?”
Pain crosses his face, or what he believes to be pain. Now she sees it for what it is, more of a constipation of the truth. And to think she’d ever felt concern for his feelings, and guilt at the lack of her own.
“Please, don’t bother trying to lie. You never do it very well, I could always tell.”
“Really?” Emanuel appears genuinely offended. “How disappointing. I thought I lied very well.”
“You were in Wormskill far longer than a few months.”
“Yes.” He leads her out of the car, and through a hidden side door onto the narrow walkway, now empty and dark. They stand alone between the walls, with the group rushing about inside, and the floating city outside. “I was there several years—we all were.” He gestures to the men and women. “In the middle of disinterring the cemetery, we found something. Not a body or a monument—a stone, but not a stone. Something more. A woman with us, a chimera, would breath the fumes from the mine fires seeping up through the ground, and she began to interpret—it spoke to us through her. Broken bits of dreams, equations, images—visions of a future far beyond our comprehension.” Emanuel takes Gillian’s arms in his hands, squeezing them tight in his excitement. “We transported it out of the cemetery, took it someplace safe. We did everything, worked every kind of magic, every kind of science. Nothing. Our Sibyl only gave us bits and pieces, but nothing we could use. Most of the group remained. Shattuck and I and a few others came back to the city eventually, but only to find something that would work, so we could go back and free it. Free him. He is the son of a God, trapped in stone, and he needs someone who can read and carve away that prison to release him. The moment I met you, the moment I saw what you could do with stone, I knew.”
“Whatever your Sibyl said, she was wrong. The fumes from those fires—they’re toxic, Emanuel. You know that. They don’t open the third eye, they shut everything down. She was poisoning herself, she was hallucinating, dying. You were probably all hallucinating.”
“You said it yourself, it’s a different kind of speaking, and the Sibyls understand it because of what they are. You also said, it’s a different kind of being alive. And you can bring it to life, because of whatever you are.”
Gillian shakes her head. “Stones are not alive. I’ve told you before. Earth, metal, rocks—it’s not life. Not that kind of life. I can’t help you.”
Emanuel presses Gillian close to him. His breath smells warm, like the fumes of the burning oil. She feels herself grow small in his arms. She doesn’t fight him. Now is not the time. His lips brush her ears, and his voice pours into her lungs.
“You will read that stone, and you will bring it to life and convince it to reveal the true of name of his Father to us, as I know you can. You will free him, and together we will take him to Hellynbreuke. And then you and he will free our one true God who is imprisoned there, you will free everything there, everything that slumbers and waits and dreams, and bring down all the false temples, destroy all the false prophets and faiths. No more waiting for Obsidia. No more searching the ocean depths for a god from another time and space who can’t be bothered to do more than dream eternity away, a being that doesn’t even exist. Our God is here, and His time is now.”
Gillian raises her lips to meet his. “And what if it’s not the son of a god?”
“Ridiculous. How could he be anything else? What else could he be?”
“Something worse? Worse than a god, even?”
“What could be worse than a god?”
Gillian closes her eyes.
In the still heart of the night, when even the stars appear to fall asleep and slip from the sky, Gillian creeps through the train again, tracing her path from earlier in the evening. Empress moves in inches down this portion of the track, more rocking cradle than racehorse, and what little light and movement she’d seen before in the compartments has vanished. Either all the passengers are asleep, or they are elsewhere. Or perhaps, they watch her secret progress in the dark, lidless eyes dilated and shining like stagnant puddles of oil. Her heart beats in sharp, painful thumps against her ribs, and she holds her breath, letting it out only when she’s between cars, afraid even those exhalations will be detected, and she’ll be sent back to her cabin.
When she finds the first windowless car with the hollowed-out contours in its floor, she stops, and lays down in the depression, settling in against the thick carpet lining the strange curves. With her back against the floor, Gillian stares up into the nothingness of the car. The moorings of her mind loosen, as they did long ago, when she first taught herself this false escape from the mines, when the thought of all that rock pressing around and onto her threatened to send her screaming into madness. In the complete dark, there would be no tunnel. There would be no machine-carved ceilings and walls. Overcome by the vertigo of losing all sense of up or down, the rock at her back unfurled into bituminous wings, and she would thrust forward and travel through the darkness of space, falling until she flew, endlessly plummeting and soaring, free of the constraints of physical space and time.
But this is a train, not a tunnel, and she is surrounded not by the earth but by a shuddering, moving machine. A carpeted floor is no substitute for wings of stone, and she cannot escape the relentless pounding of theEmpress, her unstoppable pistons and wheels. Feldspar rushes toward them, closer with every second, and everything else in her life fades to grey. She knew it from the moment Shattuck spoke the name. Wormskill will be the end of her. Yes, she whispers to the night. All Obsidians know how they will die. This was always meant to be.
The train’s horn sounds out, three piercing sobs. Gillian jolts out of her vision and sits up, noting that she can see the formation of shapes and shadows, both inside the train and out. A large mass of light throbs and glows in the far distance to the left, as though the entire car had turned to glass. Empress moves toward it in slow, rhythmic bursts of the engines. Gillian sits in the hollow, knees up to her chin, watching the light take shape. It’s phosphorescent, a luminous bile green that with each pulse casts the shadows away, illuminating everything with a sickly glow. They are traveling through a part of Obsidia Gillian knows nothing about, high on a trestle, passing a forest of needle-thin towers and twisting spires; and some colossal being that glows like the aurora australis, that moves like a thunderstorm, resides in their midst. She feels like she’s the only human left in the world, the only thing left alive. The train continues its slow pace, blasting the horns with military precision, as if pleading with the light to let it pass unscathed. Gillian slides around and down into the hollow, curling up until she’s nothing more than a hard ball of flesh and bone, eyes pressed tight against the curves of her knees. And still she sees it, feels the light trickle into her veins like fire ants swarming into the ground. Empress of Devastation slides past the light, and Gillian senses the luminous creature turning upon the train one single, unblinking, cyclopean eye: It sees her.
The eye closes, and the light fades, and the train moves on. Gillian is left alone in the dark.
Because, it knows, and she knows.
She belongs to something else.
Ride easy, lover:
Surrender to the land
Your heart of anger.
Early in the morning, five mornings since Empress of Devastationdeparted from Highgate and traversed over half the length of the city, through the choked inner core of factories and train yards and far past the northernmost suburbs and warehouse districts, the train slides into the skeleton of Feldspar’s long-abandoned commuter station, wheels squealing to full stop in explosions of wet clouds. Gillian only fully wakes up when the engines quit their shivering beneath her seat: it’s the utter absence of noise that shocks the sleep fully away. Sunlight sifts through the dust-coated windows, strong and bright: Outside, she sees the ribcage of the rooftop soaring in parallel arcs overhead, broken glass and iron fretwork binding each beam like patchwork sails. Gillian pulls her sleeping mask down, and unlatches the window, pressing her nose against the narrow crack. The air is clean and crisp—it smells wide, a quality she never thought air could contain. I can hear myself breathe. Wonder steals over her, so heady that it takes a second look at the small crowd milling on the platform to realize that everyone else has disembarked. They’re waiting for her. The wonder burns away. She pushes her fingers out the window, letting the sun and cool air play over her skin. “The last morning,” she whispers. “The last day.”
She joins Emanuel on the platform, placing her portmanteau next to his before walking over to the far edge, beyond the train’s caboose. The rails lead back through low ruins to a bridge crossing a narrow gorge: It is after the gorge that Obsidia proper begins.
“They dug the gorge to stop the fires. It goes down for almost a mile.” The young man walks up behind her—following her, no doubt, to make sure she doesn’t run away. He no longer wears the ill-fitting jacket, only the slacks and shirt, untucked and flapping at his waist. “I think they were going to fill it, but—you know. Public funding, red tape, etcetera. It will be centuries before it’s finished, if ever.”
“It wouldn’t have worked, anyway,” Gillian says. “There’s not enough fly ash in the world to fill that gorge.”
“As long as people keep being born, there’s enough ash.”
Beyond the gorge, Obsidia fans across the distant horizon, a rusting blight on the land. From this vantage point, it’s the length of the city that impresses, not its width; and here she can also see for the first time how high the Cordillera del Tenebroso truly is, as though the earth punched a hole through its own skin, thrusting the mountains up to bat away the sun, the sky, the stars.
“Look.” The young man points to a cluster of megaliths rising thousands of feet in the air, notable not as much for their somber weight and height as much as for the fact that they stand untouched by the presence of factories and machines clinging against their steep bodies. In a sea of pollution and fire, they alone are naked and clean. “El Torres del Pain.”
Gillian shivers in the stifling air. The Towers of Pain, a circular ridge of megaliths in whose twisting foothills mysterious Hellynbreuke lies. Where Emanuel’s god lays imprisoned, supposedly. “I didn’t realize how large they are. It looks like a giant necropolis.”
“El Patagones, eh?” the young man jokes. “A cemetery for a lost race of giants?”
“I believe that as much as I believe in Ciudad de los Césares and El Dorado. I only meant that it’s large. It doesn’t seem real.”
“Well, you’ll find out how real it is, soon enough. We all will.”
Gillian slips on a pair of dark-tinted glasses, and studies the man closely as they make their way back up the platform, stopping before the remains of the station. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“How old are you, Joaquin?”
He seems taken aback. “Why do you want to know?”
“Were you born here? You’re younger than me.”
“I’m not that young.” Joaquin turns and slips past the broken doors into the tiled waiting room. Gillian follows. In the middle of the room, surrounded by worn stone and wood benches, a tree stands, a fat sprawling oak whose roots erupt from the once-perfect mosaic of floor tiles. The placement is perfect, it couldn’t be coincidence. Someone must have planted it, years ago. Gillian walks up to it and caresses one of the leaves. Green, pliant, strong.
“But you’re not that old. Call it a hunch, but I doubt you’re much older than my son, and he’s not yet fourteen. So, either you were born here with the team, or…” Her voice echoes through the broken space of the room, and a small flock of birds bursts off the exposed beams and wheels away at the unexpected sound.
“My older sister was the first Sibyl, before she died.” Joaquin looks away, back out the door to the group. More birds flutter up from the branches through the holes in the ceiling, into the cloudless blue sky. All crows. No canaries. “There are a number of families still living here. Not everyone evacuated. Some of us hid. We don’t want trouble, but we don’t want to leave, and we shouldn’t have to. This is our home.”
“Is your home underground? In the tunnels?”
“I don’t care if it is—I lived underground half my life. I recognize the look, that’s all.”
“My grandparents and parents—when the town was first evacuated, looters came through, criminals, rapists. Everyone wanted to pick the bones. Sometimes other things came, from out of Obsidia. So we stayed in the basements, and then—” He shrugs. “—we went deeper. Not all the land under Feldspar is on fire, yet. It’s still safe, for now.”
“Do you believe that that object I’m supposed to bring to life is the offspring of some forgotten god? A god from under the ground?”
“With all my heart.” Joaquin nods his head, emphatic in his conviction. “He’s of this land, our land, not some alien god from half the world away. This is the god Obsidia deserves, one that will honor us, lift us up and make our city and people whole, not tear us apart with disease and destruction and ruin. You should be honored that you have such a gift, the gift to free Him.”
Gillian touches his shoulder. “If you really think I have such a gift, you should go home and get your family, and run as far away from Feldspar as you can.”
Joaquin starts to smile, but Gillian grabs his arm.
“I’m not joking. You took something out of the earth that belongs in the earth, and now you want me to bring it to life. Do you think it’s going to thank you?” She lets go, and steps through the doorway into the sun. “You should run.”
The group walks into Feldspar from the station. The rails run further into the heart of the town, but the conductor refuses—there’s no way to know what shape the rails and land under them are in, he insists, and he’s not about to find out the hard way. And there are other, unseen passengers, those with the lidless eyes of black fuel who never left their cabins, who the conductor insists must not remain outside the limits of Obsidia for very long. So they leave him and the crew behind to ready Empress for departure. No one speaks except in occasional low tones—their respirators prevent most conversation. Gillian’s respirator was left behind on the train, and no one asks her if she needs it, or insists she put one on. Still the canary, after all. They follow the rails toward the city limits, past ghost neighborhoods clustered around the cracked remains of forgotten crossroads. Buildings list and sag, victims of subsidence—cave-ins—from the mines beneath their foundations. Vent pipes stick up in distant fields, their open mouths spewing out clouds of white steam and fumes from the fires below. From so far away, they look like city fountains, elegant and regal.
Up ahead, Feldspar looms, a graveyard of iron and steel.
The younger men and women take turns wheeling the chimera in a light, hand-pulled sedan with a roof to block the sun. She now wears a mask that completely envelops her head and neck, presumably to guard her weak lungs from the dry air. They sign to her with their hands, stopping at intervals so that Joaquin can remove the mask, speaking to her in sibilant whispers as he replenishes her water. Their hushed voices and shuffling footfalls sound naked and small, unnatural in a landscape where nothing stirs, not even the air. Gillian walks to the center of the tracks during those rest stops. She stares at the dulled, pitted lines of steel, noting how they plummet like arrows straight into the empty town. So many buildings and factories, and they are the only humans she sees. It’s everything the rest of Obsidia was not meant to be: empty, still. She can’t tell if it’s beautiful or perverse. In the distance, thick black mountains bake in the sun—culms, the unusable remains of coal and other mined materials. Even so far away those are some of the largest heaps she’s ever seen. They remind her of graves.
A touch at her arm draws her away. “Miss Jessamine.” It’s Joaquin. “We’re heading this way now.” He points toward the crossroads, to a dirt road leading away from the town center.
“Aren’t we going into the town? I thought the cemetery was by the steel mills.”
“We moved Him, remember? He’s hidden outside the town limits, where no one will find Him, and where we can protect Him. Come on.”
Gillian stares down the tracks again, resisting the urge to blink as the sun beats into her pupils till the horizon becomes a black fuzz. She touches the tip of one boot to a rail, and feels the immediate rush of metallic-tinged vertigo racing up her bones to her head. It’s that way, she wants to say, the knowledge so thick, so bitter on her tongue. Can’t you feel it? It’s in the center, underneath the fire, waiting. Just follow the rails. Follow them in, and down.
They trudge down the road, watching the culms grow wider and higher, until their ragged summits nudge the heel of the noonday sun. Slowly, surely, workers dormitories and tenement buildings give way as they head into the valley: processing plants and winding towers, coal bunkers and blast furnaces rise up and around them like bones jutting from the corpse of a beached whale—and then, just as gradually, industry fades away, revealing once again the broken countryside, dotted with the dead remains of the mines. A summit breaker sags into itself, rows of broken windows catching the afternoon sun and transmuting them into a waterfall of sequined light. Chimney stacks lie in spiraled slices on the ground or rise in the air like empty flag poles. A flywheel as high as a house leans impossibly alongside a tree, the trunk grown around its curved, rusted base. They stop again, and everyone begins switching their shoes to hobnail boots, while Emanuel passes around walking sticks.
“Are we climbing?”
Emanuel points to the nearest culm, several hundred feet of black shale piled into a flat-topped mountain. “Up there. That’s where he is. No one goes near the culms, and we can guard him better up there.”
“Guard him against what?”
It takes another hour to reach the top, even with Emanuel moving back and forth, herding the slower climbers and stragglers along. Gillian offers to help carry the chimera, but the creature’s handler’s seem so repulsed at the suggestion that she quickens her pace, joining the front of the group so she won’t be near them. As they ascend the flat top of the culm, Gillian studies the layout of the town with an expert eye—she sees how Feldspar exploded in growth, so haphazardly and quickly that the workers’ houses and dormitories butt against the factories, where noxious fumes probably sent them in droves to the doctors and the graves long before the fires ever did. The culm isn’t the highest one lining the edges of Feldspar, but it’s high enough that as they reach the top, for the first time in her life, Gillian see lands beyond Obsidia, a place where Obsidia isn’t: green forests to the north, and tundra-like steppes and desert to the east. It won’t last, that wilderness. Obsidia will gobble it up someday, until no one remembers a time or place when Obsidia wasn’t the name of the world.
“Over here.” Emanuel heads toward the center of the culm, where a massive depression has been dug. Gillian understands now why they chose this spot to hide their stone deity. The culm is barren waste product and nothing more, difficult to climb, and free of predators. And it’s hidden in plain sight—only travelers in a plane or dirigible would be able to spot the hole. The rest of the group, save for the chimera and the young man, drift to the edge of the pit, listening.
“You did this yourselves? All of you?” Several people nod.
Emanuel takes off his mask, running his hand over his red, sweating face. “After we disinterred the cemetery, we brought the equipment up here,” he explains, “steam shovels, trucks to haul away the excess rock. When it was finished, we erased all traces of the road back down as best we could.”
“I have to admit, you did an excellent job. I’m impressed.” Gillian isn’t lying. Before her sits a depression approximately one hundred meters in diameter and twice as deep, with graded spirals of paths that wind down to a flat, circular center. They essentially created a strip mine, similar in shape to the huge copper mines outside the limits of Obsidia, further north. Here, the effect is of a pitch-black amphitheatre. No: an impact crater. A cradle of birth.
You don’t need to know your father’s name, Morwyn had said, melting into the fading lights like a glacier. You couldn’t pronounce it.
“Are you alright?” Emanuel slips a hand against her waist. After all he’s done to her, she knows any ordinary woman would push him away in anger, but she doesn’t move away.
“Yes. It’s been a long day, that’s all.”
“We’ll get some food in you, and you’ll be fine.”
“And that?” Gillian points to the figure at the center, a story-high mass covered in mud-colored cloth, obscured by long shadows from the high pit walls. “Is that the child of your God?” Behind her, someone gasps. Emanuel grabs her hand and pins it down to her side, the mask of pleasant demeanor gone.
“Never point,” he whispers. “Never. Would I go to your temple and point at the statues and altars like some gawking, unbelieving fool? This is not a game, no matter what you think. Show respect, and act accordingly.”
“Of course.” Gillian draws her hand out of his grip, gently. This man that she thought was so grounded and real, is so lost. It would sadden her, if she could care. “I apologize.”
“We need to prepare. Go keep the chimera company. We’ll come for you when we’re ready.” Emanuel walks away, and the others follow. Gillian stands there for a moment, unsure of what to do. An impulse to rush upon him, push him over the edge of the pit and watch him tumble down the ledges until he cracks his head open onto his god comes and goes too quickly for her to savor. She’s never been violent, anyway. Life provides violence enough, without provocation. And she wants to see this through to the end, because she knows it will not end how Emanuel thinks. She wants to see his face at that moment, to see that transformational moment of understanding. It will be as if she’s giving birth, all over again.
Under the canopy of the small passenger sedan, the chimera lays on several filthy pillows, staring at the distant town through a scrim of gauze. Gillian sits next to her, her body wedged into the tight space so that their knees press against each other. Sweat trickles under her arms and breasts, staining the faded fabric of her second-best dress. Both hold flasks of water, the chimera taking hers through a glass straw. A touch of whiskey flavors Gillian’s water, courtesy of Joachin. Beyond the scrim, beyond Feldspar and the thin gorge, far-off plumes of factory lights flare and fade.
The chimera leans forward until her scaly face is inches from Gillian’s. She smells of brine and dying flesh and softening bone.
“Thiths is notht going to end well, is ith?” she whispers in Gillian’s ear.
Gillian smiles. “Well, no,” she says, “it’s not quite that. It’s simply going to end however it ends. There’s no good or bad about it. The mines burn and the town dies. It’s not malice or judgment. It is what it is.”
The chimera coughs out a small laugh.
“Alright,” Gillian admits. “Probably not.”
“Then why dithd you come?”
Gillian opens her mouth, to talk about fate and birth and death, and the great wheel of Obsidia upon which all citizens helplessly spin like pinned insects: The chimera slides a webbed hand over hers, clasping it tight. “Don’th lie. I’m really am thycic, too.”
“I thought so.”
The chimera reaches into the bag at her feet, and rummages around, pulling out a small ampoule filled with yellow smoke. She pops the cap and sticks the end into the O of her mouth, sucking hard. Gillian says nothing, shocked. The chimera’s eyes roll up, and she shudders, then after a long minute, lets out a soft, languorous sigh. Gillian sniffs the air, but detects no odor of any kind. Whatever the creature inhaled, she completely absorbed it.
The chimera drops the empty ampoule into the bag, and smiles. “I’m also a drug addict.” Her voice is succinct and clear, though her lips hardly move. It’s as if she’s speaking from within Gillian’s forehead. “Certain abilities and gifts require augmentation to fully work. It’s the price I’ve paid for moving from one world into another.”
“Aren’t you part human, though? It shouldn’t be this bad for you, breathing air.”
“I’m human on my mother’s side. Evidently, she wasn’t human enough. Now, let’s try this again. Relax. Tell me why you’re here.”
Gillian lets herself slide inside the calm, round pools of ink and shadow. “A dream I had,” she begins, “when I was a child. Before the mines. I dreamed of Feldspar, or a place like it. Empty, abandoned. I dreamed I was in an empty city, looking for something.”
“Something—below. I don’t know.”
Gillian squirms. “I didn’t—I wasn’t expecting twins, not that it would have mattered. She was stillborn, which was a blessing. She was—wrong. Deformed, horribly—I buried her in the mines, and took Jasper. I’m not sorry I left her body down there, and I’m not sorry I left. She was already gone. I gave her a name and a grave. That’s more than most of us get who actually live.”
The chimera draws back, but keeps her hand pressed against Gillian’s. It feels as if they are welded at the joints, sharing the same bones and blood. A smoky taste steals over Gillian’s tongue, and the sun grows brighter, coats the culm in a platinum veneer.
“Not your daughter, then. Not your son. Do you look for your creator in your dreams?”
“I don’t believe in god, or gods.”
“Did I ask you about the gods?”
“You asked me about my creator. I don’t believe in him, in it.”
“It believes in you. Its endless thought is upon you, pressing against your back like crushed wings. It is a hook in your soul, and the chain is yours to grasp, the way to him clear. It has always shown you the way. It’s as easy to see as—
“—train tracks, running through the desert into a nova sun—”
“—it is the metronome at the earth’s core, marking time until the continents align—”
Gillian swallows hard, fighting the drug, fighting the cenote eyes.
“—no, it’s stars, it’s supposed to be the stars. What we’re taught, when we’re young.”
“Is it? Does a being with an iron core heart care about the stars? What do we care most about? What do you care most about in the world?”
“My son. I was never the best parent, I’ll admit, but yes, I care about my son.”
The chimera smiles. “A parent always cares about their child. More than life itself. More than the world itself. And why is that, I wonder?”
“—when you create a child, you’re creating yourself, again—”
“—creating a new world—”
“—world within a world—” Gillian stares. She sees the tracks.
“—what’s in the tunnel with you?”
Blackness rushes across Gillian’s vision. An answer is in there, somewhere in the dark: The answer is all around her. But her throat constricts, and she chokes on the words as she tries to speak. They words aren’t enough. The chimera breaks the spell, pulling away her hands. Nausea rushes over Gillian in a tidal wave: She leans over the side of the sedan and vomits onto the ground. “I’m sorry,” she croaks through strands of drool and bile. “I’m so embarrassed.”
“A hazard of my habit. The apologies should be from me. Here.” The chimera hands Gillian her handkerchief, then reaches into the bag again, and pulls out the leaf-carved chip of Arihant Spider Green. “For luck, was it?”
“I thought it was lost.”
The chimera presses it into Gillian’s palm. “It was wasted on Emanuel. Not that he didn’t try. He really does love you as best he can, you know, but—you should give it to someone who understands what it means, who can read that kind of life. Who can read you.”
Gillian puts down the rag, and examines the marble as if she’s never seen it before. In a way, she hasn’t. This is a relic, a tombstone of another life, a life now dead and gone. After a moment of consideration, she presses it back into the chimera’s hand. “Please. Take it as a gift from me—I insist. You’ve been very kind.”
“Really? Well, if you love something—you know the saying.” The chimera’s scales shift in the sunlight, sliding from pearly grey into petal pink. She holds it tight for a minute, then puts it into her pocket. “I’ll find a way to thank you.”
“Well, there isn’t anyone else who can read me like you can. You’ve been the only one I’ve found. Not that I was looking.” Gillian stares back out at the city.
“You were born, weren’t you?”
The chimera smiles, and pops open a second ampoule. “Then there are two others who can read you. At the least, there is one.”
In the northermost corner of the great metropolis known as Obsidia, nestled in the outskirts of a dead and forgotten town, twenty or so odd figures wend their way into the earth, away from the light of a weary afternoon sun. From the highest point of a mound of slate and slag, they wind in an inverted spiral around the sides of the central pit toward the dark figure squatting in the flat center. Gillian looks up as she descends, noting how the sky becomes a single disk of blue, with a yellow iris floating toward the edge. Soon the iris will slide off the disk altogether, and the great eye of night will be revealed, its unending sight firmly fixed on her—even now she feels it, the great colorless void beyond the day. No matter the time or the place, she is always watched. The gaze is upon her, relentless and everlasting.
What Emanuel and the others did to prepare the site, she cannot see. There are no lights in the pit, she doesn’t smell incense or scented wax, she never heard chanting or prayers. Although the heavy respirators are still clamped to their heads, none of the men and women traded their garments for ceremonial robes, as they would have in the neighborhood churches and temples of Marketside. Perhaps they are saving ceremony for Hellynbreuke. They wear no clothing of any kind, though. Gillian dug in her heels and refused—it’s not nudity that bothers her, but what it represents, that they are nothing. After a few tense minutes of negotiation, she relinquished her undergarments and boots, but keeps her second-best dress. Razor-sharp metal and coal shards rip through the soles of her feet, but she’s felt worse pain, and it feels so distant, anyway, as if it’s happening to someone else. Against the barren coal walls, even the darkest-skinned of the group appear as white, wriggling grubs, with the expressionless faces of flies. The group stripped the chimera bare, too—including her mask—but she alone wears her nudity with perfect grace. Her crooked body glides down the sloping paths as though she’s floating through invisible tides.
Gillian was first to enter the pit, trailing humans behind her like a chained bridal veil, and now she is first to place her feet on the flat floor. Some of the group hang back along the sides of the bowl, standing along the ramps while the rest fan out around the object. Gravel rattles down the slopes, as the wind picks up speed, and the edges of the cloth roll up, revealing a dark mass that Gillian can’t identify. As Emanuel removes his mask, she catches his glance and points to her feet: Surrounding the pit in an unbroken circle is a small trough formed from the shale itself, filled with a viscous oil.
Expressionless, Emanuel gives his respirator to a young girl, then steps onto the floor, followed by a woman built like a prizefighter. In unison, they each walk to a front corner of the cloth, and remove a large railroad spike pinning the fabric in place. The spikes set aside, the woman nods her head, and two more people walk up with lengths of copper piping, each piece close to ten feet tall. No one says a word as Emanuel and the woman work the pieces of piping into a seam at the edge of the cloth, until both pipes meet in the middle. Gillian sees what they’re doing—it’s clever, she must admit. The pipes inserted, Emanuel and the woman, with the help of two others, lift the now stiff corners of the cloth, holding the pipe ends and using them as curtain rods. The pipes are lifted until they form an inverted V: Emanuel and the woman walk back, pulling the heavy cloth away as they uncover the bound stone son of their god.
“Oh.” Gillian steps forward. “It’s beautiful.”
It’s not slag, as she imagined it might be—not compacted industrial waste or the discarded inner workings of some oversized machine. It is a single, massive piece of rock, albeit one so curved and dappled that it resembles piles of fecund limbs topped by a somewhat flat, lopsided head. Gillian knows what this is. It’s a glacial erratic, a boulder pushed around the earth for tens of thousands of years by rivers of ice, then left behind as the glaciers receded, to sink into the earth or be rafted by floods to new lands. Gillian raises her hands.
“Stop!” someone calls out, and several people rush forward.
“No, let her.” Emanuel says. “Let her do what she’s here to do.” Frozen, Gillian glances at the woman, who steps back only after Emanuel gestures her away.
“I’m sorry,” Gillian says. “I should have asked. Did you need to pray first?”
Emanuel doesn’t take her bait. “Do what you need to do.” His brow furrows as he speaks. It’s not quite anger—remorse, perhaps? Gillian doesn’t know anymore—his face is strange to her, as if those four years together were a dream. Funny how she thought she knew him, thought she could read him, despite all her protestations that she couldn’t understand that kind of life. She was right, after all. She should have taken her own words to heart, instead of trying to impress them on a man who had never listened.
Her hands make soft patting sounds as they move across the mottled surface of the boulder. Limestone. She’s carved a cemetery’s worth of headstones and markers out of this material. At the very least, if she tries, she can make something out of this, draw the story of its life out of its ancient body and onto the surface. Not real life—her touch, her flesh tells her that there’s no sentience in the stone. Maybe, though, if she carves something truly spectacular, they’ll forgive her. Before they kill her, that is.
“It’s very old,” Gillian says. “And very large. I’ve never carved—worked with a single block of stone as large as this before. It may take a while—days, perhaps.”
“No, it won’t.” Emanuel smiles. “You underestimate your talent. And besides, you’re going to have help. Everyone, back on the ramps.” He motions to the woman, who begins to light a torch.
Gillian feels her stomach drop. How stupid of her. Of course that oil was placed there to be lit. This was their preparation. “Emanuel, don’t do this. If you start a fire up here, it’ll spread to the other culms, it’ll never go out. All of these mountains, burning. There are—” she drops her voice to a whisper “—there are people still living in Feldspar. Don’t do this to them.”
“I know. But we need the fumes.”
The chimera steps forward, led by Joachin.
“How is she going to help me?”
The chimera places a hand at Gillian’s throat. “Trustht me. I will.”
“How are you going to help?”
The chimera moves behind her, placing one hand on each shoulder blade as she whispers in her ear. “Justht a puthsh or thwo, from the sthone to your minthd. The fumeths will help. Althso, this.” The chimera’s head rests on her neck as Gillian hears the familiar popping of an ampoule cap. She must have kept the glass tube hidden in her elongated hands—or maybe Joachin knew, and let her do it anyway.
Familiar odors hit her nose, slick and oily sweet. Joachin has taken his place on the ramps above the floor, and the flames from the circle of fluids illuminates his thin body. Emanuel walks toward her, seemingly out of the flames, the respirator once more masking his handsome face. A certain solidity fills his muscular body up, as though being in the place grounds and defines him in a way no other place, no other person, ever could. It suits him. Desire flares up in her, brief and hot. “Hands back on the god,” he shouts through the heavy filtering. Gillian turns back to the boulder, bowing her forehead against the stone as her forearms slide up to frame her face. From behind, the chimera gives her a gentle push forward, until Gillian’s entire body presses against the boulder.
“How do we do this? I’ve always done this alone.”
Gillian doesn’t answer.
“I’ll be on the other side,” the chimera whispers. “Think of me on the other side of the rock. I’ll find you. I’ll come to you, and you bring me through.” Gillian feels the creature’s hands slip away. The crackling of flame fills the air, and smoke settles into her nostrils. The weight of the group’s stare settles over her, pressing down. Ignore it, she whispers, closing her eyes. Only you, only me, only the land. Calm, cleansing dark flows through her mind. Time falls away.
Grey, rising up from the dark.
More smoke, the hiss of dark clouds fuming over the bulging curves of malleable limestone, like the clatter of waves over an empty pebbled shore. Roiling clouds of hot magma pump from a soft mud floor into waters the color of a coelacanth’s scales. This is not the boulder she is reading. Gillian tries to break contact, but her body is gone, the boulder is gone, and she floats, staring down at a watery world. Far from the coast of Obsidia, under the steel grey waves of the Southern Ocean, a vast indefinable shape is thrashing its way to the surface. I’ll be on the other side. Blood runs from Gillian’s nose, and the droplets fall like a chain of rubies into the swallowing waves. No. Her lips form the word, but it rushes from her body like the blood, too quick for her to hear. There’s too much power in whatever is rocketing from the ocean depths, too much anger and pain. Gillian forms the word in her mind, imagines sending it out through every pore of her body, blanketing the surface of the ocean. NO. At her back, she imagines anthracite wings and all the weight of her subterranean life cracking apart, raining down like pyroclastic ash. The skies vomit fire onto the churning waters. Waves rush up only to collapse into themselves, their movements becoming sluggish. Beneath the slow-forming crust, the creature’s movements harden and still; the ocean follows suit. Gillian hangs over the dead country, the Archean lands. Shattuck lies there now, and so does the chimera, or whatever hideous new creation she would have been, if Gillian had allowed her to transmute back through the ancient stone.
Gillian falls onto the floor of the pit. Above her, the afternoon sky devours smoke from the burning fuel. Before her, the boulder stands, not a single carving or new mark on its worn skin.
“Again.” Emanuel grabs her hand, pulling her up before she can protest. “Try it again.” She pushes him away.
“Get off me, get away from me.” Joachin is in the pit—she grabs at him as he passes. “Don’t touch that stone!”
“Where’s the chimera?” He whips her away and circles the boulder. Gillian and Emanuel follow. Several more people step onto the floor, pulling off their respirators. “Where is she?”
Gillian follows him to the opposite side of the boulder. From this angle, the mass looks like an angry fertility god, all breasts and stomach and head. A current of wind whips through the pit, whining as it collides with the stone. “She’s here,” Gillian says, goosebumps racing up her arms. “She’s right in front of us.”
“What did you do to her? Where is she?” Joachin pounds at the boulder with his fists, and Gillian flinches hard.
“Gillian?” Emanuel touches her waist. She runs her fingers over his, squeezing. It’s the last vestige of feeling she has to give him.
“Please, Emanuel. Go back to the ramp.”
“Until this is finished, I’ll stay where I am,” Emanuel says. “So will you.”
Cold despair washes over her. “I know.” The boulder squats before her, swathed in black vapors. A long crack on the top fold looks like a crooked, toothless smile: It wasn’t there a second ago. Her hands tremble as she touches it once again. Are you inside?
I am the inside.
The words burst into Gillian like hammer strokes: She staggers back, clutching her head. But before she can howl out her pain, the boulder shifts, raising a fold of itself up like a large paw. Somewhere, someone screams. Gillian doesn’t see the strike: She slams into the ground, head first. For a moment, she feels only distant surprise, and the sense that her body has disappeared. Then pain floods her, sudden and sharp. She cut her head open, she feels blood pouring into the shale, and every muscle and bone throbs. “Come on.” She forces the words past her broken teeth. “Finish it. Let them run. Come to me.” Her plea bleeds out into the air.
Emanuel is first. The chimera picks him up in a shifting fist of limestone, and squeezes
tight. His life jets out between the stone digits like waterfalls of steel sparks, and when he’s dry, the chimera pounds her hand repeatedly against the shale until his head comes away. When she opens her fingers at last, she scrapes them against the sides of the pit. Rubble cascades like water. Gillian lies on her stomach, head bleeding into the rock. Her broken arm is flung out from her side as if reaching, compelling all the pieces of her lover to rise and come together, become whole again. After the second body hits the ground, she closes her eyes. Vibrations bounce the slag against her cheek as the chimera thunders past. She doesn’t try to move. She doesn’t have to. It won’t touch her.
Time passes behind her eyelids in a perpetual river of bright flashes and drawn-out screams. Dust settles onto her legs, prickling her skin like ants. Gillian presses her nose into her shoulder, but the smell of hot organs and excrement seeps into her lungs anyway, a mephitic vapor that disturbs the forgotten recesses of memory. Time hemorrhages inside her, and her childhood seeps out in carnelian memories: cartilage, cracking as it’s pulled from her face, and the volcanic touch of stone as it pours into her cavities, turning her broken remains into a cauldron, a cradle in which she will be reborn. Gillian is now and she is then, she is all the times she has been dead and alive, pregnant with life and pregnant with iron, broken with fire and marble-cold whole. She sees the falsehood of herself, and the truth. Everything about her life has been a lie, except for one small thing. Bile dribbles from her mouth.
A touch at her arm. Gillian’s body jolts, and she opens one eye. Joachin lays beside her on his back, tears running down his filthy face. Gillian has never seen such fear before. It makes him look younger than her son.
“You’re alive,” he whispers. “I thought—I saw you breathe, but I wasn’t sure.”
“How long—” Her voice cracks.
“I don’t know. Forever. Why is she doing this?”
“I don’t know.”
“We did it wrong. We never should have…”
“Well. I told you to run.”
More screams, floating like sparrows along the wind, followed by silence. Seconds later, a heavy object hits the nearby ground. Joachin squeezes his eyes shut.
“If we just lay here, if we pretend we’re dead, it’ll go away.”
“No. She won’t. She’ll find you.”
“She’ll come for you, too.”
“Forget me. I was born dead. You have to get out of here.” Ignoring the pain, Gillian raises her head. Nausea rolls through her, and blood washes down the right side of her face.
“No no no don’t move don’t move,” Joachin pleads.
“Shut up.” Gillian rises, rolling her body so that she’s partially sitting up. The edges of the pit are black against the early evening sky, lavender and rose with tinges of orange, like a garden in riotous bloom. “She’s not here. She’s outside the pit.”
“If it knows we’re alive, it’ll come back for us. I’m begging you, just lie down.”
“I can’t do that.” Gillian grabs Joachin by the hair and pulls him up. Almost instantly, he freezes in her arms, too frightened to even fight her. Gillian holds him as she scans the rim. “Look up at the edges of the pit,” she whispers. “Wait for it.”
A quiet minute passes. They breathe in unison. Joachin’s hair brushes against her mouth, leaving more blood. The sun lowers further, and the colors staining the sky deepen into a collar of jewels. Then: a head, sailing over the curve of the pit and onto the ramps, bouncing its way to the floor.
“Forgive me, Great Dreamer,” Joachin whispers.
“The opposite way: Go. Run.” Gillian pushes at him. He stares at her, and she pushes her face into his, baring her broken teeth. “Run now or die.”
Joachin runs. Gillian watches him scramble back and forth up the paths to the top of the culm, into the setting sun. She watches his figure grow black and small against the deep purples and pinks of sunset; and she watches how, at the last, another, larger figure appears from the side and from behind, almost from out of nowhere, and overtakes him in quick, decisive strides. Even in her bulky rock form, the chimera still moves with such grace. Gillian watches how they dance like shadow puppets against the aniline-bright hues, black figures outlined in a dazzling corona, merging in and out of each other until they are one. And Joachin comes apart, inevitably, pieces scattering skyward, a human asteroid. She watches how the chimera stands still after the last of him parts her stony hands, watching the crimson disk sink in an ocean of colors. All the reds of the bleeding world, slipping off the earth with a young man’s soul. It is a spectacular sunset, after all: On that, she will agree with the creature. She shouldn’t miss it. It’s going to be her last.
Shale crunches under her bare feet as she makes her way to the top, and blood stains her gravel-studded soles. There isn’t a clean way up. Everywhere she looks, broken bones poke up through shining masses of veins and organs, still warm, still pumping blood. Some of the bodies are ground so thoroughly into the slag, they can no longer be called human. She doesn’t see Emanuel: Then again, she doesn’t look for him. Gillian averts her eyes, staring at her hands as she guides her feet around the dead. What would it take for her to lay her hands on each one, let the memories of the stone rush into her body and mind, gather up each glistening particle and bind them together? Would they come alive again? Would they walk and talk, make their way back into the world, grateful to be half-human yet half-stone, damaged yet alive? She touches the fine line of a scar, just under her jaw. A woman stares up at her with one surprised eye, her head half beaten into the rock. Limbs fractured, torso cracked and spilling onto the ground. Ribs like striped fingers, rising from her flesh to touch tips as if in prayer. Gillian licks her lips. She’s seen this face before, this terrified surprise commingled with wet red sorrow.
The chimera sits at the edge of the culm, her faceless bulk looming over the lightless hole of Feldspar. Beyond the gorge, Obsidia shimmers across the horizon, consuming the sun. Gillian curls her broken flesh into a sitting position. The chimera does not acknowledge her. Blood dribbles down her surface, drying in brown lines. She smells like freshly-forged steel. Together they watch the light fade from the sky. Gillian sits under the lights of the galaxy, watching cyclopean tentacles comprised of infinite suns whorl overhead and past the horizon. They came from those bright spiraling arms, these horrible, enigmatic gods of Obsidia, their dark bodies plummeting into the earth and the oceans. But something was already here. They are not the oldest Gods. No, not even elder. Not at all.
The air is hot and still. Gillian loses track of time. All around and above them, indigo night stretches past, an infinite, eternal train. By the time streaks of grey light appear at the eastern curve of the land, the chimera’s smoking stone frame brushes against Gillian’s Carrara-cold skin. Neither of them breathe, as if neither wishes to break open this peaceful spell, and reveal the end. Gillian knows it’s coming. She can feel the chimera in her mind, rising up from the cacophony of her life like the impassive Torres del Pain. Unstoppable. Undeniable. Clean.
What was in the tunnel with you? What waits for you?
Gillian opens her mouth, and the black night rushes into. Her mother, slipping away in the dying light, leaving the failed creation she called daughter behind in the subterranean night. There was no tunnel. His mouth. There were never any mines—Morwyn’s childhood memories, all of them. Gillian never had a childhood. She only had the dark, and the obscenity she called father and lover, building her up from scratch once more, fusing bones and blood, silicates and nickel-iron, time and time again. It never stopped, all those thousand permutations, all those thousands of selves, brought to life and ground back into red mist and dust. It had to stop. But it was like fucking a mountain. Like fucking a world. She never knew his name. She couldn’t have pronounced it, anyway.
Tell me the truth of yourself, Gillian. The deepest truth.
“Peridot. My daughter. Down in the dark, in the abyss. I didn’t want her to be like me. Damaged. Abandoned. Forgotten. And I knew I would do the same terrible things to her that my mother did to me. I knew I would destroy her and leave the bits behind, like she did with me. Because I’m like Morwyn. I can’t feel a thing. There’s nothing inside. There’s only stone. And that’s what I do. I mine things. I bring things out of the deep.”
“I did them to her anyway. Bashed her head in with a rock. There wasn’t any light. I had to feel the bits of skull to make sure she was dead. Her brains and blood, all over my hands. Under my nails. I could never get it out, no matter how hard I sucked them clean.”
“I knew it was the thing I must do, but I couldn’t leave her behind. It would have found them, like it found me. And then… I had to hide her. From him. From myself. So I dug her up—and—put her back. Inside.”
“I still feel her bones on my teeth, taste her on my tongue, every time I say her name.”
Silence. The sky squeezes its velvet fist. Stars blur, prickling Gillian’s eyes with tears as they fall to the ground. The chimera places a malformed hand on Gillian’s chest.
Surrender your sorrow, and rejoice. You feel her because—
All across the valley of Feldspar, all across the broken land and burnished sky, everything stills as the morning sun crests the horizon, fire and light of the world birthed in a single thought, detonating in their minds like the midnight sun.
She is still alive, in the deep.
“I am the deep.”
Part Four: I ride the wings of the morning sun, and dwell in the uttermost arms of the deep
When the sky is deep morning grey, casting a muted silver sheen over all the land as if in the iron grip of a storm, Gillian rises. Her chthonic creation remains seated, bulging eyes open and unblinking. She touches a limestone fold: It crumbles to the ground like crushed pumice. The rest of the hulking mass follows. It sounds like the rustling of feathers. When it ends, Gillian reaches down, plucks out a small, blood-stained square of Arihant Spider Green, a delicate leaf carved on its smooth face. She holds it, hard, until her nails pierce her filthy palm, until she opens her hand and finds the stone gone, only the impression of the leaf remaining, a faint outline of glowing green. Pale green, like peridot. Someday the stone will appear again, whole and unstained, resting in the iron-bone palm of her daughter’s hand, rising from the earth into a clean morning sun.
Now, she will go down.
It isn’t necessary for her to wander, searching for the way. She only has to lean out, drop from the edge of the culm, let the invisible tentacle of perception hook into her heart, drag her below the surface into the endless, dreamless deep. Gillian floats through the ruins like the terrible train of her dreams, and Feldspar flows around her, mute with age and the tired defeat of time: buildings of dust and ash and memories, bricks forged of blood and pain, and the voracious kiss of underground fire, consuming until there is nothing left to eat save itself. There, in the center of the town, surrounded by buildings stacked like broken jaws, the avenues unfurl to reveal an underground train yard. Gillian hovers at the overpass, a black lightning-shot Dark Emperiador chryon floating in steel-flecked air, looking down into a pit of rails and rotting ties. So many fingers of iron and steel, all of them pointing into the low wide mouth of a tunnel. It is as if she is staring into her soul.
It waits down there. It stares up through all the layers and strata of rock and time, and it sees her. She knows, because the gaze has never left her, not since her mother squeezed and coaxed her squalling body from some profane crucible within the world’s core, not since the Welsh witch Morwyn split her apart and ran, leaving the spurting wreckage to the geologic being that fathered her. It is the gaze of her true self, a self not of this world, this space, this time—the self that never left the darkness, that always knew what she would have to sacrifice, how far she would have to travel within to save her daughter. And she will descend until she finds that geologic womb where the silence is three billion years long, and she will break herself apart. Gillian will rend her Carrera-cold tombstone of a body, draw Peridot up and out of every sliver of metal, blood and bone, and forge her daughter back into life.
And there is nothing now. No birds, no crackling of broken glass, no keening of wind. Her heart beats once, twice: and stops. The overpass slides away as she pushes off, and like the old dream, Gillian soars, slow and serene, down through the carapaces of the factories, over the rusting bones of the rails. The city rolls back and fades away and she is diving into the maw of the tunnel, and there is nothing else except the long fall and the anthracite void, the billion year smell of the earth, and something older, someplace further than she has ever gone before.
And then there is the crack of wings, distant and sharp, darting through the opening of a sunless door, plummeting past the black and into—