Story no. 50. That seems momentous, somehow. I’m finally getting a bit of a schedule going in my free mornings, which of course doesn’t mean more regular output here, but it MIGHT mean more regular output here.
Illustration to follow; I’m still working on the magician for part three.
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The human eyeballed me, its lips pressed together in an iron line. “I begin to suspect, microscopic magicum,” it said frostily, “that you are not dealing entirely in good faith with me.”
With that, it spun on its heel and strode off toward the blurry house, which was coming into sharper focus by the moment.
I skidded after it, feeling rather indignant. Of course I hadn’t told everything I know about Aunt Thompson—half of what I know is laughable, the other categorically unbelievable, and all the most important bits can’t be voiced in a human tongue—but I’d truly only just thought about Bill at that moment. Nothing against the fellow—solidarity between fellow gremlins and all—but he’s always been a gray smudge of nothing. Aunt Thompson’s pulled him out of her ear before without noticing. Once he got stuck under the cheese grater in Mr. Jenkins’ kitchen for a month, and only the arrival of a large round of cheddar smuggled in from the Blue Earth saved him from oblivion.
The house was quite crisp now. It had several turrets topped in sharply conical roofs, each one punctuated by pointed arches of glass. The overall effect was rather . . . toothy.
Suddenly the shave-headed human was no longer on the path in front of me, and I tumbled over myself in startlement. I spun around to see that it had taken a sharp right into a hedgerow that had looked quite solid until just this moment, into a narrow shadow revealed itself to be a vestibule leading onto another path. This way led down the hill rather than up toward the predatory house.
“How many of you folks are magicians in this world?” I asked the black-cloaked back, by way of conversation.
The human didn’t turn toward me, but it paused slightly before finding its next foothold.
“All of us,” it said.
“Ah,” I said. “And how many of you would be powerful magicians?”
“By whose standards?”
“The Multispecies Interdimensional Consortium on Magical Power Users, of the Time Four Years and Three Weeks Before Now in All Linear Reckoning Systems and Not Concurrent with Now in All Circular Reckoning Systems, Featuring Mr. Jenkins and Hasashefiferox as Expert Moderators,” I replied promptly. “What other standard is there?”
The human snorted and took another sharp turn, onto a path that barely seemed to exist at all. The rocky hill had gotten much steeper and much darker. Not only had the stones beneath our feet gradually blackened and cracked as we descended, but the light from above had gone sooty.
The back of my neck crawled. This is very bad, if you’re a gremlin or gremlin-adjacent; usually you’re the one crawling on people’s necks. People think that it’s demons that do that, but honestly everyone I’ve ever met from the Red World is so self-absorbed that they can’t be bothered tormenting people.
I, on the other hand, have more than enough spite to go around. In a fit of annoyance, I took a run at the human’s back and, with a bit of a jump, landed on its wool-clad shoulder. It jerked a bit and then proceeded downward. I don’t weigh very much, even in trousers, shirtsleeves, and waistcoat.
The human withdrew the small magical book from its sleeve and held it open, the pages facing outward. Light poured forth, illuminating the narrow stony crevasse we’d descended into. Black sand blew in drifts around our feet. After turning the book from side to side for a bit, the human sighted on a foreboding little opening in the stones at the level of its feet. A long horizontal lintel delineated the upper edge.
The human tucked the book back in its sleeve and crouched to crawl through, and I had to flatten myself along its back to avoid being scraped off. It was a very unpleasant sort of dark inside, the kind of blackness that isn’t just the absence of light but an active dislike of it.
The normal way of things is that profound inability to see heightens all the other senses. If a person goes blind, their ears and nose will try to pick up the slack; if there isn’t any slack to pick up, they’ll start inventing stuff to hear and smell, using the versatile base material of that person’s own heartbeat and breath. The makers or occupiers of this cave had exploited that tendency with a certain vicious creativity. As we went deeper in, the voices started, but softly, softly, so delicately at first that they couldn’t be distinguished from the regular thrum of the body.
My body, not being particularly regular or biological, doesn’t make that sort of noise. “I count seventeen languages being whispered at us right now,” I said conversationally to the human, clinging to its robe.
“Oh?” it said, its voice strained. “I hadn’t—” It stopped, as though listening for the first time. “Ah.”
The whispering abruptly ceased.
“That’s very clever of you,” I said, impressed in spite of myself.
“We’ll see how clever it is when we get to the seat of things,” the human said grimly. “Here we are.”
A rush of vindictive air whistled past my ears. The human stood up, dusted itself off, and pulled out the magical book again to use as a lamp.
The sand had been cleared away from one end of a square stone chamber. The far wall had been cut into a massive sort of shelf with long compartments. The top three were empty of anything except dust and more sand. Shadows played around the floor in a way that didn’t seem particularly correlated to the light from the book, making it difficult to see what was in the compartment nearest the floor. I hung over the human’s shoulder to get a better stare at whatever it was. A glimmer of white resolved itself into teeth, and a reddish shadow congealed into a knotted hank of hair. The shadows flickered back long enough to reveal a desiccated corpse, its jaw open wide with a blackened tongue protruding.
“Staged for our benefit, no doubt,” the human said, bending and squinting a bit. “This might be one of my umpteen-times-great-grandmothers.”
“Might?” I asked, considering a hasty retreat. The mummy felt distinctly malevolent. I didn’t think the tomb was particularly real, and the thing about not-real spaces is that whoever made them can usually unmake them with all due haste.
The mummy precluded an answer by closing her jaw and opening her eyes. She didn’t have any eyeballs left, so we were treated to the sight of two blackened pits. There were some uncomfortable smears of some dark organic liquid to either side of her eye sockets.
go * on *
The whispering, when it commenced again, was enormous, a wave of sound that pressed suffocatingly on us from all sides. I felt, but couldn’t hear, the human draw a deep breath into its lungs before it shoved forward, past the angry staring of the mummy in her compartment and through another door in the wall that only existed as we went through it. I felt the stone try to congeal fast enough to shove me off the human’s back, and then I felt the human impatiently slam through it.
We improbably stepped directly into the center of an even more foreboding space. Bodies, some lying down, some hanging from the walls like particularly fleshy laundry, ringed the round room. Most were as dry as the one we’d just passed, dressed in a variety of clothing dulled by the darkness and the passage of time, but there were some unpleasant shapes in the shadows. Several of them stared at us with the same dark pits that the entryway mummy had revealed.
The whispering grew, to the point that my entire body vibrated with it. The mummies weren’t moving, but they were clearly trying to do—something—to us. Kill us outright, I wondered, or force us to do something?
I was surprised the human wasn’t bleeding out its ears yet, but when I slung myself over its shoulder again its face was contorted in pain. It raised both its hands, one clutching the book, no doubt about to do some serious magic.
In the moment before it voiced the spell, I noticed three equally shocking things, previously blocked from my view by the human’s shoulder:
One. A mummy at the front of the pack wasn’t particularly dry yet, nor was it was human. Based on the spines around its chin and ears, it was a sand goblin, much like the cousins who had murdered my old boss.
Two. Just behind that mummy, hanging by his foot from an iron hook clutched in the hand of a particularly vicious-looking quintessence of dust, looking confused by otherwise alive, was Bill.
Three. In Bill’s grimy little claws was clutched a large, glittering chunk of green stone, which looked an awful lot like the paperweight my boss had used for all the years I’d been employed in the Yellow World, and equally like the world-anchoring green cabochon of the Lady in the oak on the cliff by the ocean.
The human opened its mouth and shouted.