Excerpt


Gasping, and still holding the oozing wound in his side, Reginald limped toward the exit. He was sure of it; the way looked familiar, right down to the decorative trellis.

“Reggie, dear?”

Bethany’s footsteps were slow, languid, and every now and then one of her bright white wedding shoes clacked on a hard flagstone.

“Reggie, darling!”

Reginald steadied himself on the trellis just before the exit. “I knew you were a nutter…fifty years ago…” he gasped. “You didn’t snare me so easily then, and you won’t now…!”

He staggered through the trellis, only for a defeated wail to escape his lips. It was’t the exit after all; far from it, he saw more landscaped hedges and more of those damnable white flowers spreading in every direction.

And behind him, in a bridal dress as old as the day he’d left her, Bethany. “I’ve had ages to plan my revenge, Reggie,” she laughed. “I know you so well even after all these years, and I’ve made sure my botanical mazes of white lace and trees aren’t so easy to escape.”

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“Maybe you’ve been out closer to the edge of the Permeables before, but this is different. Things can take on a life of their own left out here.”

Hax gestured at the mirror forest filled with reflective crystals spread out before them. “This isn’t like planting an iron pipe and growing a boiler,” he said. “What caused something like this to sprout up?”

“A mirror and an idea.”

“You’re gonna have to unpack that for me a little,” said Hax.

“Well, the first part is just speculation, but I have the second from a friend that was in the know. Someone left a mirror here once, maybe just to see what it would do, and the result looked to someone passing by like something they’d once seen, maybe a movie or a comic book.”

“What about?”

“About a tree loaded with crystals that could imprison whatever touched them. We best be careful.”

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“Well, you got to realize how easy it is for them pipes to grow out of control,” Ffolkes said. “My system, I have to go in every day in the summer, every other in the fall, with the snips to cut off the little steam pipes as they bud off. It’s easy when they’re that small.”

Moyer looked at the cellar door, uneasily. “You’re saying Jacobi didn’t do that?”

“I kept telling him. Snip them pipes when they’re a quarter inch, before any steam can flow through them, and seal with a spot weld or solder. Easiest thing in the world. Let them go too far and they’ll start growing boilers. ‘Well, maybe I like boilers’ he says.”

“And then one day, he didn’t come back.”

“You let a boiler system grow too much, other things start moving in,” Ffolkes drawled. “You might get a concrete infestation, growing floors where you don’t want ‘em, and that’ll take a jackhammer to pull out. Might even get an electrical system growing on the ceiling, and you know they’d never wired quite right without a little tending. Good way to get electrocuted.”

It was time, Moyer thought, to start considering worst-case scenarios. “What’s the worst you’ve ever seen, or heard of?”

“I heard that up by Grant, when they dug up the old utility building, they found a steam turbine generator,” Ffolkes said. “Never seen it myself. Worst I ever seen woulda been the house on the other side of town, where they yanked it down without digging up the pipes and had no idea anything was wrong until radiators started sprouting two doors down.”

Moyer looked toward the door again. Jacobi, or what was left of him, was surely down there, in a labyrinth of rocks and steam.

And no bets for who had to go in after him.

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“Of course, of course, come in,” the old man said. “Lay your hat down and let me keep you awhile.”

The young soldier set his grey cap on the table. “Thank you kindly, mister,” he said. “Combat’s been mighty tough so far, not at all like they said it was gonna be.”

“I know that, son, I know that all too well,” said the old man. He laid a cup of steaming tea in front of his young guest. “I still have a few musket balls rattling around in me from the last great war.”

“In Mexico?”

“Oh no, son, the last great war, against a country that had half a chance of winning. Mexico was a sick man in an alley and we took his coat. I mean the War of 1812. I was there at New Orleans at twenty.”

Setting down the cup after a long drink, the young soldier looked to his host. “The yanks sure can shoot back, I’ll give them that. What did you think, fighting at New Orleans?”

“Well, I thought I was doing a great thing. Voted for my old general, Andy Jackson, three times. Wasn’t a perfect man–no such thing–but he had his priorities straight.”

“States’ rights,” the younger man said. “Defense of a man’s property.”

He was surprised at the glare he received in return from his host. “Now, I reckon you were barely born when Old Hickory died, but let me remind you of something he once said. ‘If a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.’”

Startled, the young soldier reached for his musket. “What is all this, then?” he said. To his confusion, he found that the weapon was nowhere at hand.

“This is Old Hickory’s vengeance on traitors, enacted sadly too late,” the old man said grimly. He laid the stolen musket upon his table even as the young solider drew a belly knife. He made it barely a few steps, though, before the weapon clattered to the ground along with its bearer.

“Don’t you worry, boy. You’ll still be useful to your rebel friends.”

The old man kicked open the door to the cellar, where the rendering pots were already boiling, the grinder awaiting its cargo eagerly as a puppy, the press ready for shaping soap.

Dragging the body downstairs, he eyed the uniform. Poor condition, but usable as scrap fabric. The rebel commissary agent paid handsomely for all of it, soap to butternut, with nary a question about where it came from.

That left the question of the slouch hat. No one would believe something like that hadn’t come from a soldier, not in those unprecedented times, so the old man kept them as souvenirs. He opened a side closet, the old root cellar, and tossed it into a hillside terrain of hundreds of gray hats

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Naturally, staff were quite forbidden to partake in any of the refreshments, as Lady Greene had a strict composting policy for her vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and cruelty-free soirées.

The cruelty-free part did not extend to the waitstaff, as they worked 8- and 10- hour shifts for each weekly party. And unlike the members of Lady Greene’s household, the waitstaff were provided by an external contractor, so no benefits, no overtime, and no breaks. OmniStaff LLC was a management company for independent contractors who waived basic human rights in exchange for exciting employment opportunities, after all.

Julio had first taken on the work because he was a committed vegetarian himself, and Lady Greene was famous as an international icon of eco-style and eco-cuisine. But whenever he looked at the supplies gathered for one of the parties, it was just depressing. A great, forbidden kale forest loomed in the walk-in freezer, so close but also out of reach.

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It wasn’t until the class had pressed their hands to the canyon walls and had them come away coated with pastel dust that they realized the true nature of the gully.

“It’s chalk,” Agnes said. “It’s all chalk, must be millions of pieces, every color of the rainbow. It’s not the light giving those colors, at all!”

“Of course a teacher would dream up a canyon of chalk,” John muttered, idly pressing chalky handprints onto his uniform jacket. “What’s next, a forest of pointers?”

One of the younger children squeaked in surprise nearby; they had inadvertently pried a piece of chalk out of the canyon wall and caused a collapse, with a landslide developing out of a thousand thousand colorful tubes.

“This place could collapse at any moment,” said Erik. “We need to move through and keep the little ones hands to themselves What was it the rhyme said?”

“Past hills of paper and deserts of slate, through fragile canyons to meet the gate.”

“Right. The only way out is through,” Erik said.

“And when we’ve finished, Teacher needs to take a vacation,” Agnes added. “No one should dream about chalk canyons unless they live in Dover.”

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“Prof. Yōgan Shinobu, from the International University Library of Lava.”

“Constantina-Evangelene Prokopiou, attached to the incident investigation team. You can call me Punkin, though; everyone else does.” Instead of responding to Punkin’s outstretched hand, the professor moved to open a large drawer.

“I was quite surprised to hear that a member of the incident team, even a temporary one like yourself, was coming to see us here,” Yōgan said. The drawer contained hundreds of labeled samples of dark igneous rocks, with notes on their age, composition, and method of collection. “Our methods are more geological, than criminological.”

Punkin opened her case and set down the sample within the tube. “We were hoping you could identify this,” she said.

Yōgan produced a pair of spectacles and examined the sample tube as proffered. “Hmm. Pahoehoe type, certainly, but something is off about the composition. Not enough silicates, perhaps?”

“Are you telling me, Professor, that you can’t identify it?”

“I assure you I can, though anyone who is capable of identifying a lava sample by eye is less a scientist than a magician,” said Yōgan. “But as you can see, our collection is quite comprehensive, and I am certain that the proper tests will show this sample to be quite unusual. Where did you acquire it?”

“Apartment 339, the Regency Apartments West, Chicago, Illinois,” Punkin said. “It filled the room and incinerated its contents, and occupants, in seconds one week ago. The incident investigation team needs to know how, and why.”

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All around, on the other side of the decorative tanks, swirled a glowing, purple starfish forest.

“Transgenic. We spliced in bioluminescence genes from an anglerfish.”

Looking up, DuBois saw the figure of Dr. York on the walkway, still holding a wine stem from the party.

“Why not just display the anglerfish?” DuBois said.

“We’d need to make the enclosure a foot thick for the right pressure,” York replied, “and before you ask, putting fresh genes into anything with a backbone makes people nervous, so we couldn’t just adapt them to the lower pressure. Starfish, though? No one cares.”

“You and the team have created quite the attraction here,” DuBois continued. “The LagoonPark CEO sure thinks it’ll save his company, or at least let him keep using ‘lagoon’ in the name without resorting to running the coasters under a waterfall.”

“Off the record, I sometimes worry that’s all the LagoonPark people see in us,” said York. “As a cash cow, good for purple glowing starfish and some mildly interesting transgenic patents they can sit on.”

Dubois looked out over the bioluminescent echinoderms. “Makes a good five-second clip for the 24-hour news cycle, anyway.”

“Come on,” York said. “I’ll show you something we’re cooking up that isn’t quite ready for the grand opening. You’ll like it.”

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“What a sordid tale!” Nacee the milliner cried. “Of course, leave it to a wrestler and a mule to glorify heresy like the Hamurabash while disparaging the truth of the Creator.”

A man, leaned up against one of the great stone columns that supported the armory ceiling, called out. “What if they was only an orc mule?” he said. “What would the Anchor Blade do then?”

Zaldi, laughing, looked him over. “I don’t know, Kect-of-the-Mud-Pits,” she said, directing a singsong tease at her fellow wrestler. “Do you keep the Hamurabash like your mother did?”

“In my own way, I does,” the man, Kect, said.

“I imagine the Anchor Blade would hit you, then, but not very hard,” Zaldi said. “Bruising strength, maybe.”

“I’ve always wondered,” Hirt, the blade-bard, said to Kect. “The Hamurabash says that every male must carry an axe at all times, yes? Would a sword work for that purpose? After all, I imagine that the idea is to be ready to defend oneself.”

“Heh,” Kect responded. “Me mum had a story she used to tell, old orc tale, about that. Vivritan the Summoned and his Sword. I’ll tell it to ya, yeah?”

“Yes, please!” Hirt said.

“So, I don’t know what all y’know about the Hamurabash, but the great Hamur said t’keep an axe at all times. Folks what feel strong about it argue as to why, but he was clear as could be that you oughta do it. So one day, see this orc name of Vivritan comes to the great Hamur, who put down the Hamurabash (as you mighta guessed).”

“He was summoned there on account of he would not wear the axe, yeah? Vivritan the Summoned, that’s where that comes from. He says to Hamur, he says, this sword is fine steel, right? Great sword, been in my family generations, made in the Seven Sisters, same as your pirate knife, Zaldi. So Vivritan says to Hamur, he says, can I carry the sword instead of the axe?”

“Old Hamur, he asks to see the sword. It’s real pretty, real sharp, kept up nice, no oiled. Beautiful weapon, Hamur says. And Hamur, he takes out his own axe, and he says look at my axe, what do you see? And Vivritan, he’s shook. Hamur, the orc what wrote down the Hamurabash, the one what says to carry the axe, his axe is in real bad shape. It’s dirty and it’s dull.”

“So Vivritan says to him, to Hamur, how can you fight with an axe like that? Because, you know, Hamur was a great warrior too, not just a great author. And Hamur, he says oh, my arms are all around me. That is my spear, that is my sword, that is my shield. Each has its own, you know, purpose. He even had axes, other axes.”

“Vivritan is proper shook by this time and he asks what Hamur means. Hamur, he says, sure, you can fight with the axe if you want. Sometimes it’s a good tool for that. But sometimes there are better tools. But what the axe is always the right tool for, is reminding you of your commitment to the Hamurabash. It’s a reminder that you’re committed to thinking stuff out, to reason, so none of that superstition. Other than the Hamurabash itself, which is too big for everyone to carry, an axe is the best reminder that you’re cutting away the ignorance of the world like dead wood when you fight, yeah?”

“So Vivritan is all moved, and he begs Hamur’s forgiveness and gives him his sword. Hamur takes it, and gives Vivritan his axe. I have many reminders on my wall, but you need this one more than me is what he said.”

“So,” Zaldi said, after a long pause . “What happened to them? Don’t just trail off, man!”

“Well, Hamur called his new sword the Summoned Sword, and he had it with him in some of his greatest battles until he died. They hung it in his memory hall, the very first memory hall. And old Vivritan? He takes Hamur’s axe into battle and fights with it even though it’s nasty and dull. He wins a hundred battles with it before he falls, and some folks say it’s still around.”

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“What a dull ending that was!” A large form in the back of the room stirred; some recognized it as Zaldi Xianuende, one of the foremost female wrestlers in the famed Mud Pits as well as a retired mercenary. An elf-dwarf mule, she was tall as her father, but with her mother’s stout build, casting a truly formidable shadow. “I like the goblin’s better!”

Nacee, the milliner from Exor, pressed her lips together. “It is not necessary to be interesting in order to be holy and pleasing to the Creator,” she said.

“I’ll say not,” Zaldi laughed. “Who wants to hear a better story? It has a pirate sword in it! I heard it during my mercenary days working out of Toan.” She paused, then whispered again, for added effect: “Pirate sword.”

“I’d like to hear about a pirate sword,” the small child who had told of the lava sword whispered.

“Good enough!” Zaldi boomed, overcoming any objections through sheer volume. “The Seven Sisters of Naïx are all pirate havens, but everyone knows that the great free port of Gizan is wealthy and powerful because it’s the most friendly to troublesome corsairs. One day, a pirate captain sailed into port laden with gold and silver; he had captured an orcish trade ship destined for Layyia, where the orcs traded the spoils of their conquest for the weapons and supplies their holy war needed but that they could not make themselves.”

“The captain, Robas, took the finest treasures to a jeweler in Gizan and ordered a fine sword to be made with them. But the jeweler, knowing the look of orcish gold, refused. He was gently persuaded via a black eye, but went about his work with a warning: the orcs do not believe in an afterlife, he said; they attain immortality through remembrance. And gold never forgets.”

“Robas responded with a quip from an old Crimson Emperor who had instituted a urine tax: money doesn’t stink. He collected his blade and soon after set sail afresh with his crew.”

“Ten days out from Gizan, they intercepted another orcish merchant ship, but this one was escorted by a trireme, loaded with armed orcs girded for battle. Flying the black flag, Robas demanded their surrender. They refused. With arrows and shot. Robas ran up the red flag, then. For those of you who don’t know your pirates address for shame!–the black banner means that surrender will be accepted, and the red banner means that the pirates will kill every man aboard save a single survivor to spread the tale.”

“With the gleam of dead mens’ riches in his eyes, the pirate captain Robas led the first assault onto the orc trireme once his men had grappled it to a standstill. With his glittering new sword, he charged the first orc he saw. But the sword would not strike; it missed, even at close quarters. It was as if an anchor weighed it down, and it would not suffer itself to be lifted in anger against the artisans that had worked its original pieces.”

“The jeweler and the pirate flag were both right that day. The god had not forgotten, and every man aboard the loser’s ship, save one, was killed. But it was the pirates, demoralized at the fate of their captain, who suffered that fate. Some say that the survivor was Robas himself, put ashore with his shame and his sword. Others say that it was a lone crewman who converted to the Hamurabash in gratitude and was given his old master’s sword in recompense.”

“But what came to be known as the Anchor Blade traveled the coast of Naïx and Layyia for years afterwards, and it would never suffer itself to strike a blow against any orc, nor any who had converted to the Hamurabash. For the gold…the gold remembers.”

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