THE LOVES AND HATES OF STONE
It was a rare and unfortunate occasion, Lenk thought, that he could not enjoy food. It always seemed like it had been some time since he had eaten, let alone anything freshly-cooked. But he chewed the skewered fish, plucked from the sky like fruit from a tree, without much joy.
It was, after all, difficult to enjoy a meal that had been handed to him by a gang of bipedal reptiles that had been eager to kill him just moments ago. Even if said reptiles now clustered in small campfires about the base of the stone stairs, even if they had offered him food, they continued to stare at him warily, their weapons never far from their hands.
Their leader was no less unnerving and twice as frustrating. Shortly after revealing his affiliation with the organization that had, over the course of weeks, led him to this very island, Mahalar had disappeared without a word. His green-skinned brethren had simply shrugged and said “Mahalar knows,” as though this were all perfectly normal. Perhaps it was for half-rotted lizardmen who spat dust with each word.
But Lenk could have gotten beyond all that. Lenk could have enjoyed his fish. Lenk could have celebrated a warm meal, the fact that he was no longer in immediate danger of decapitation, and the memory of scents of sweat and sand from the chasm.
And he would have.
If not for the statues.
He couldn’t explain it, the feeling he got as he looked across the shattered and broken women. They were but stone, ancient and decrepit and crumbling. But they hated him. They loathed him with a fury clenched in that smile, hidden behind those eyes, held within those outstretched, benevolent palms. The fish knew. That was why they gave her a wide berth when they swam.
He had just begun to turn, content to follow their example, when he heard the sound of grinding. He looked up and saw stone eyes rolling in stone sockets. From high above, and in the rubble where her head lay fragmented, she turned her eyes upon him.
The grinding became a groan, ancient granite dust falling from her shoulders as her many heads turned toward him. And the groaning became cracking, and the cracking became thunder as her many stone mouths opened and spoke in one old, hateful stone voice.
The statues were once again mere stone. No moving eyes, no moving lips, no voices. He held up the half-eaten fish and scrutinized it carefully.
“It is not poisoned.”
The words came with the stench of burning dust. He turned, saw the creature wrapped in the dirty cloak standing before him.
“What you saw was not a hallucination.”
Mahalar inclined his head. Amber eyes, dull and glassy, stared out from the shadows of his cowl.
“She remembers you.”
Lenk nearly choked on his fish.
“You saw. .”
Mahalar’s eyes drifted up toward one of the statues of Ulbecetonth. A cloud of dust came out with his sigh. Beneath him, tiny fingers of sand rose up to seize the motes of dust leaving on his breath, to take them down into the sand of the ring like precious things.
“I have lived a long time,” he said, noting Lenk’s gaze drifting to the ground. “The earth and I have bled together and it no longer remembers a time without me. Or her. We have both been here.
“Live with someone a long time,” he muttered, “and you begin to notice things. The wrinkles that appear when she smiles, the way her laugh is slightly annoying. I have lived with the Kraken Queen a very long time. I have heard her screaming. I have felt her scratching at the roof of hell. I hear her weeping. I know her laughter. I cannot stop from hearing when she cries out for her children.
“These days, she screams more often.” He turned back to Lenk. “Two days ago, she started screaming. She hasn’t stopped.” He sighed deeply. “But you know that, don’t you? You can’t hear it, but you’ve seen it. You know what’s happening in the chasm.” His eyes flashed. “You know she’s coming back, as do I. You remember her.”
There was a flash of movement, motes of dust in the dying light. Mahalar stood mere hairs’ breadths away from Lenk, eyes boring into the young man.
“And I remember you.”
Lenk met his stare for as long as he could bear. While the creature was old, older than the dust that came from his mouth on each breath, old enough to have his skin flaking into powder, somehow his gaze was older, more unpleasant to look at than even his rotting body. His eyes had seen too much, knew too much, and even the tiniest scrap of what they shared in the instant they met Lenk’s eyes was too much.
There was recognition there. Not for Lenk, but for what Lenk was. Beyond whatever Kataria had seen, beyond whatever he had seen in himself, Mahalar saw. Every drop of blood that had stained him, every hateful thought that had ever been muttered inside his head, every chill that had coursed through his body, Mahalar saw.
And Lenk couldn’t bear to look at him anymore. He turned on his heel, suddenly preferring the living, screaming statues.
“Think before you walk away from me,” Mahalar said, toneless. “Think of the weight you’ll walk with. Think of how many chances you’ll have to ask.”
He paused. He thought. He sighed.
“You have to tell me, straightforward, without any cryptic, riddle-speaking, I’m-old-and-oh-so-mysterious-so-I-get-to-not-make-sense garbage.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Do we have a deal?”
Mahalar stared straight ahead, as if in deep thought as to whether he was willing to give up that rare joy. In the end, he bowed his head in acquiescence.
“And. .” Lenk began.
He glanced over Mahalar, to the distant firepits, to the sole flash of pale skin amidst a sea of green. Kataria sat amidst the Shen as though she had always belonged there, laughing at some joke they obviously didn’t share, looking up and flashing a broad, bare-canined smile at him.
“This stays between us,” the young man finished, “whatever it is you tell me, you tell no one else.”
“And what is it you wish to know?”
“You said you remembered me.”
“Does that mean you know. .” He choked on the words, eventually coughed them up. “What I am?”
He stared at the elder Shen for a moment. “Well?”
Mahalar slowly turned his gaze upward. He raised a hand, stretched out a finger to a relatively intact statue of Ulbecetonth. The digit straightened with a sickening popping sound, a noticeable chunk of flesh sloughing off. It tumbled from his fingers, hit the ground, and became dust upon dust.
“It all began,” he said, “with her.”
“Gods damn it, what did I
Mahalar continued as though he had said nothing, either then or now. “It was all hers to begin with. This.” He stomped the earth with a foot. “This.” He tapped his own chest with a hand. “And we were whole back then. Jaga, Teji, Komga. . Gonwa, Owauku, and Shen. One land. One people. We lived under her. We breathed at her mercy. I was born here.”
“I gather most Shen were.”
“I was born
Lenk fixed him with a confused glare. “How old are you?”
“Would you consider ‘old as the song of heaven and the depth of hell’ to be cryptic?”
“Old as balls, then.”
“I grew up under her gaze. I labored under her gaze. I watched my father and mother die under her gaze. All for her and her children.” He sighed a dusty sigh. “They were not so wretched then. They possessed fins, flowing green hair, pale skin. They were not called ‘demon’ back then.”
“What did you call them?”
“‘Master.’ On us, they built a place for themselves. She did anything for them: fed them whatever flesh they desired, provided them whatever amusement they wanted, tended to their every weeping wail. Her children flourished and those who suckled at her teats never wanted.
“And for this, for her love of her children that eclipsed everything else, she was punished. The Gods accused her of loving herself and her children more than her duty. The mortals she was sent to serve, she neglected and enslaved. For this, they twisted her.”
He fingered the pendant of the gauntlet clenching the arrows hanging around his neck.
“You did not flinch when I showed you this,” Mahalar said. “You know it.”
“I know enough to know what you’re telling me. The Gods cursed the Aeons for trying to usurp heaven, the war with the House of the Vanquishing Trinity put them to rest.”
“You know some, but not all. It was not heaven they tried to usurp, but heaven they tried to create. It was not the House that sent them to hell, but us.” His tone grew cold. “The war did not start until they came back.
“When the Gods struck back at Ulbecetonth and cursed her, we rose up. We drowned her children. We defiled her temples. We screeched and beat our chests and hailed freedom. Whether it was her love or their hate, no one knew. But her children came back. Vast and terrible and with souls as black as their skin. The House came to our aid. The House marched on Ulbecetonth. With their great moving statues, with their spears and banners and holy words. . and with you.”
Lenk cast a wary glance to make sure Kataria was still far away before turning back to the elder Shen.
“The war went poorly, at first. For as strong as we were, as hungry for freedom as we were, the war was still between the mortal and the immortal. We faltered. We failed. We died, in great numbers. Even when the
“But then, they came from god. Not one we knew, not one they would speak of. But their hair was that of the old men and women. Their eyes were cold and hateful. And they spoke with the voice of that god they came from. They could cut the demons. They could hurt the demons. They fought. They won. And with them, we cast Ulbecetonth and her children back into hell.
“Not without cost, of course. You’ve seen the bones. The worst of it happened on Teji and our brothers there suffered for it and became the Owauku. But even here, on Jaga, from which she reigned, we spilled blood. Much of it spilled into the chasm when the road was shattered. Much of it was spilled here beneath our feet.
“But it did end. She was driven back into that dark place the Gods made for her. The House appointed us her wardens. And we have guarded her ever since. Shalake and the others know only the story and the duty it carries. Only I know what happened. Only I remember how we nearly lost everything, if not for the House. . and for
The word echoed against nothing.
“Who were they? The ones who came?” Lenk asked.
“We didn’t give them names. They didn’t give us any, either.”
“What happened to them?”
“Apparently,” Mahalar said, looking back to Lenk. “They came back.”
Lenk had been stared at many times. As a monster, as a curiosity, as something else entirely. But the way Mahalar stared at him now, eyes heavy with knowing, was the same stare one might use to appraise a weapon.
Lenk had never before felt the kind of shudder he felt now.
“Whatever you think I am,” he said, “whatever you think I can do, I can’t. I left it behind in the chasm with the bones.”
“Maybe.” Mahalar rolled his shoulders. “Maybe what I felt wasn’t you. Maybe it was someone wearing your skin, your soul. But my feet have never left Jaga in all the time I’ve been alive. I knew your presence when you set foot on my island, as I knew theirs. And I knew why you had come.”
“To kill,” Mahalar said, “to end. Ulbecetonth is coming. I can feel it. You can, too. You were driven here. If you say it’s for the tome, that’s fine. It is a key to open a door. But you came here to kill what’s on the other side.”
“I came to stop her.”
“Many ways to do that.”
Lenk held his stare for a moment before turning away. “I. . maybe. Before things stopped making sense. . or started.”
“It seems a little hypocritical for you to start talking in riddles, yourself.”
“I’m entitled to sound a little insane,” Lenk snapped back. “I came here to kill her, but it wasn’t my idea. She was inside my head once. She sounded. . hurt, panicked, worried for her children. She let me go, telling me not to hurt them again and I. . I really didn’t want to.”
“But you’re here now.”
“Then clearly, it knew what it was talking about.”
“It told me to kill my-” He waved his hands about, frustrated. “We’re not going to argue this. I came here to kill her, but I stayed here for a different. . are you even listening to me?”
Mahalar was not. Mahalar was turning. Mahalar was moving, five feet away. Then ten feet. In the blink of each eye, he moved impossibly quick, impossibly slow, and growing farther all the while as he moved closer to a sudden bustle of movement at the staircase.
“This, for the record,” Lenk shouted after him, “counts as ‘cryptic.’”
Lenk came hurrying up to find the Shen assembling around the foot of the stairs once more, Mahalar seated upon the stone once more. He forced his way through a gap in their ranks, found Gariath and Kataria standing nearby, Shalake hovering protectively over the elder.
Mahalar smiled broadly, dust seeping out through his teeth, amber eyes shining dully. He drew back his cloak and there it sat upon his knee, like a baby made of leather black as night, sitting smugly in Mahalar’s hands.
The Tome of the Undergates.
He remembered the book. He remembered paper smiles, paper eyes, dusty mutterings and writings that made sense only to him. He remembered reading it and hearing voices going quiet, replaced by voices that grew darker in his head.
But he didn’t remember this.
The tome upon Mahalar’s knee was
Perhaps he had left more in the chasm than he thought.
Not his senses, though. He still knew something insane when he heard it.
“Now,” Mahalar said bluntly, “you kill Ulbecetonth.”
“What?” Kataria turned a scowl upon Lenk. “You were gone for a quarter of an hour. How the hell did you come to this conclusion?”
“We didn’t!” Lenk protested, turning on Mahalar. “And I’m not! We came here for the tome. The Tome of the Undergates. The thing that’s going to get us paid so I can move away from islands full of freaky dust-lizards and go live on a patch of dirt somewhere. Remember?” He turned to Gariath. “
“Barely,” Gariath grunted.
“And you didn’t think to mention this to them, what with all the time you’ve been spending with them?”
“I didn’t come here for that,” the dragonman replied. “I came here for them.” He gestured to Shalake. “They stood with the
“Great, fine, good,” Lenk grumbled. “Stay here with them, then. Scratch each others’ scales, play tug-the-tail or whatever it is people with more than four appendages do.
“We killed thousands to see our duty done,” Shalake snarled, stepping forward. “We will kill one more to do it.”
“We cannot give you the tome,” Mahalar said, nodding. “It was too precious to be penned in the first place. It has knowledge that no one should have. It was designed only for woe.” He fixed those scrutinizing eyes upon Lenk. “But it can be used for good.”
“No,” Lenk said.
“You have the power,” Mahalar insisted.
“There are stories,” Shalake said, “stories of those who came and cut the demons down.”
“Listen to them, Lenk,” Gariath said, “I’ve heard them, too. People with hair like yours, eyes like yours, who cut like you can. You’re the only one who’s been able to hurt the demons.”
“We can kill her,” Mahalar said, “before she breaks out. We can summon her, on our terms, with an army of Shen to assist you.” His eyes lit like the barest flicker of a candle. “Forgive me for my selfishness, but
The voice came from Kataria. Not with great volume, or great joy. But everyone turned and looked to her, all the same. She did not look up to meet their stares.
“He can’t do that anymore.”
When she did look up, she looked only at Lenk.
“I followed you earlier. I overheard you. Talking to the dead girl. You didn’t want me to know, so I pretended I hadn’t. But. .” She swallowed something back, then looked to Mahalar. “Whatever was in him is gone now. He sent it away. He can’t kill her. He can’t do anything for you.”
She hadn’t spoken loudly. Somehow, everyone heard. The same despair settled over every scaly face present. Lenk looked to her, an apology carved across his face in his frown.
“I really didn’t want you to know,” he said.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Well.”
He smiled sadly. “If you were dumber, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
“I sincerely hope you don’t think you were particularly clever about it,” Kataria snapped. “I knew something was wrong with you from the day I met you. It’s just now I know exactly
He laughed. No one else did.
Mahalar merely settled back and breathed a cloud of dust.
“That,” he said, “is a problem.”
“One that gets worse, Mahalar,” someone said.
He-or at least, it looked and sounded like a “he,” it was hard to tell with lizardmen. . or lizardwomen-came stalking out of the forest, tall and scaly and bearing a long, carved bow on his back. Many more emerged behind him, Shen armed and glowering as they slithered out of the coral and onto the great sandy field.
“Leaving a warwatcher’s post is a grave offense, Jenaji,” Shalake said in a gravel-voiced snarl.
“There are few things you don’t consider grave offenses, Shalake,” the tall and lanky newcomer replied, his voice smooth and heavy like a polished stone. “And there are fewer things I consider worth answering to you over.” He turned his eyes, bright and sharp as the arrows in his quiver, to Mahalar. “We have an issue, Mahalar.”
“We have many problems, Jenaji,” Mahalar replied. “Or have you not been listening?”
“I have only just arrived,” Jenaji said. “And I did not come alone.”
The Shen parted to expose pink, familiar shapes amidst their greenery, trudging wearily up to join the congregation. There were no smiles on their faces as they approached, no relief at seeing their companions again. Only weariness, wariness and, in Denaos’s case, just a pinch of resentment.
Lenk looked them over. Dreadaeleon’s clothes were soiled with soot and worse. Asper’s eyes betrayed a drained weariness that went beyond the flesh. Denaos stood bandaged, bloodied, battered.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“Longfaces,” Denaos replied. “You?”
“Shen, shicts, snakes,” Lenk said.
The rogue sniffed. “It’s not a contest.”
“It is bold of you to bring outsiders here,” Shalake said, narrowing his eyes. “These ones at least fought their way here.”
“Ah, so you are more honorable because you failed to stop them?” Jenaji said with a sneer. “I didn’t come to compare tails. They have cause to be here.”
“They say that?”
“They do not.” Jenaji stepped aside. “She does.”
Weapons immediately were drawn by the companions at the sight of Greenhair standing amidst them, like a pale white flower amidst endless green stalks. Hatchets and machetes came out in response as the Shen closed in protectively about the siren. Lenk flashed an accusatory glare at Denaos as the rogue stood with his daggers hanging at his belt.
Denaos merely shrugged. “Yeah, I was like that at first, too. But she helped us and she has something to say.”
“Something you need to hear, Mahalar,” the siren spoke in her liquid voice. “I bring dark words to you. I bring doom. I bring disaster.”
Mahalar looked up. Mahalar smiled a dusty smile.
Doom, as it turned out, needed only half an hour to summarize.
The companions, Shen, and siren exchanged their stories, their experiences, all-or at least all that was pertinent and didn’t involve parts without pants, Lenk noted-that had happened since they had set out.
They spoke of netherling armies fueled by the dying Gonwa. They spoke of demons stirring beneath the earth. They spoke of Mahalar’s plan to draw out Ulbecetonth, to use Lenk to kill her, and its subsequent and tragic failure.
And there they had fallen silent. An hour after death had been summarized, they sat on the edge of disaster, waiting for someone to put it to words and dreading it, too.
If Mahalar held that dread, though, it showed in neither gleam of eye nor sigh of voice.
Would that everyone could boast such calmness at the question; as it was, every face went to wincing.
“Many,” Greenhair replied. “Three males, with all their power. Boats full of females, with all their swords. Great, savage beasts, teeth brimming with-”
“Did anyone bother to
“They clustered in groups of thirty-three,” Dreadaeleon said. “Each one to a boat. There were at least ten boats.” He scratched his head. “Maybe more.”
Whether or not the Shen excelled at math, they could grasp the severity of the statement. Most of them, anyway.
“The longfaces have attacked before,” Shalake snarled. “We have killed them before. Stalk them, hunt them, and then,” he hefted his club, patted it into his palm, “
“Are you willfully stupid or does it just come easily to you?” Lenk snapped. “Do you not grasp the numbers here?
“Not that many,” Jenaji muttered.
“We strike swiftly, from the forests,” Shalake replied. “Hunt them like animals, as we have done before. We cut them down and feed them to the sharks.”
“They’ll burn the forests down,” Dreadaeleon said. “They have the power, the fire. Their magic is infinite.”
“So you say,” Shalake said, suspicious. “But this is much to ask us to accept from people we would have killed a moment ago, had
The Gonwa lifted his head reluctantly, said nothing. His eyes seemed heavy enough to roll out of his head, his frown deep enough to slide off and follow. He had worn the expression ever since the fate of his kinsmen had been revealed to him. He had said not a word since. Whatever bonds still linked the Gonwa and the Shen, they were enough to keep Shalake’s voice stilled.
“And they come for the tome,” Mahalar muttered.
“The tome is inconsequential,” Dreadaeleon said. “They come for fuel. Whatever it is they’re coming through, it can’t be powered by the Gonwa. They succumb too easily. A demon, however. .”
Mahalar loosed a low groan. “They fight one another, and whoever wins. .” He didn’t bother to finish the sentence. “We stand and fight, against that many, against that much metal and fire, and. .”
He didn’t need to finish that one.
“Not that it’s entirely unexpected that I suggest this,” Denaos began softly, “but has anyone considered running?”
“The Shen don’t run,” Gariath growled. “Neither do I.”
“Well, good, no one invited you, anyway. The rest of us can just hop in Lenk’s boat and-”
“Ours got destroyed,” Lenk interrupted. “What happened to yours?”
“These damn lizards sank it before we could get close enough to tell them not to,” Denaos said, rubbing his eyes. “So, did you commit any crimes against nature before I got here? Some horrid blasphemy to make the Gods hate us as much as they do?”
Lenk exchanged a quick glance with Kataria. “Define ‘crime.’”
“It does not matter,” Mahalar said wearily. “The longfaces have found their way through the reef before. They can do so again. The way out would put you in their path. They come. And they come with many.”
In the deathly silence that followed, in the bow of heads and the swallowing of doubts, the sound of grains of sand shifting atop one another could be heard as clear as a bell.
Asper’s voice could be heard only if one strained.
“There is a way,” she whispered.
The eyes that turned upon her were so intent it seemed as though they might pierce her flesh. But she did not flinch or shy away, even if she did not look up to meet them.
“They don’t act on their own. They follow one man.”
“Sheraptus,” Dreadaeleon muttered the name like a riddle.
“He controls them, the females. They obey him totally.” She cleared her throat, swallowed something back. “If you can kill him, their numbers won’t mean anything.”
“If.” Dreadaeleon spared a black laugh. “
“She’s right, though. I’ve seen it,” Kataria said. “They bark like dogs at his command.”
“It’s worth a try,” Denaos said hesitantly, as though he himself hadn’t expected to say it.
“No, trying to jump over a wall to get into a farm is worth a try, you bark-necked dimwit,” Dreadaeleon said snidely. “What you are proposing is the equivalent of trying to beat down the wall with a twig and the wall is sixty feet high, made of metal and when you hit it, it electrocutes your genitals and makes your head explode.” He took a breath, then snorted. “It is
“I’ve killed plenty of longfaces,” Gariath grunted.
“And yet, none of us have even been able to
Asper only barely whispered, but she commanded their attention nonetheless.
“I hurt him.”
“How?” Lenk asked.
“He came to me and he did. .” She swallowed a breath. “And I hurt him.”
“If anyone was to kill him, it would be me,” Gariath grunted. “You expect me to believe that you could do anything to him?”
“Take a step back, reptile,” Denaos said, stepping protectively in front of her. “And then continue going that way until you fall off a cliff. If she says she hurt him-”
“Humans lie. Humans are weak. Humans are stupid.” Shalake stepped beside Gariath, hefting his club. “Which is why they threaten a
“And everyone fears the Shen.” Kataria stepped in front of Denaos. “My arrows feared them, too. Must be why they tried to hide. . in Shen gullets.”
“Look around you, pink thing,” Yaike growled, narrowing his good eye on her. “Look what surrounds you.”
“Yeah? Why? Is it harder for you to see with only one eye?” She clacked her teeth after together.
Mahalar’s voice was a hungry thing, eating all other voices, all other sounds, even its own echo. Muscles relaxed, weapons were lowered. He turned his stare to Asper.
“What did you do?”
She looked at him intently. She spoke resolutely.
“I hurt him.”
Mahalar was silent.
Without looking up, he raised two fingers and waved them at Shalake. The immense lizardman grunted, reached to his hip and pulled free an immense warhorn. He trudged heavily up the stone stairs. Then raised the horn to his lips and blew.
The noise was no shrill, shrieking warcry. It was something deep, heavy and inevitable. It blew across the island, through the forests, through the coral, scattering fish and sending eels slithering back into their holes. It ate the sound, as the clouds overhead ate the light. And all was silent.
For a moment.
Then, the other horns came. One, two, three, blowing from the forest and shores and walls in response.
Shalake came back down, belting the horn at his hip. He nodded at Mahalar, who merely grunted back. Lenk blinked, glancing to the ancient lizardman.
“What?” he asked. “What just happened?”
“The watchers are summoned. They will come. We will fight. We will bleed.”
“That is not enough?”
“I mean, just like that? One horn and that’s that? Everyone comes to fight?”
“We took the oaths, human,” Mahalar said. “Every Shen is born dead, knowing that they walk with hell under them and that they will kill. . and die to do so.”
His sigh was older than even he was. No dust came from his mouth. The light behind his dull ambers dimmed and he closed his eyes with such heaviness that he didn’t seem to see much point in opening them again. He said softly, he said sadly.
“That is duty.”