The inner door opened, revealing two beds and a corner altar. A girl lay on one of the mattresses, muttering and writhing, tied to the frame so she wouldn't roll off.
The old thaumaturge slipped out, closing the door behind him. His skin was yellow and hard-looking, as though he'd been given a coat of cheap varnish a long time ago.
Cuneaxe stopped pacing. "Well?"
"It's as you feared. She's infested. I can prescribe some prayers. Ordinarily we charge for them, but in this case..."
"To blazes with your prayers, old mummer. I should have known better."
The thaumaturge shrugged. He laid his hand on the knob of the hall door.
"He wants something," the boy said.
"Stay here," said Cuneaxe. He followed the wizard into the murky hallway.
"There is one thing you might try," the old man whispered. "Seek out someone with the same malady. The truth can be bought under contract. Distorted, perhaps, but not necessarily unhelpful."
"That kind of thing was outlawed at the Inception."
The old man's chuckle was like dry reeds rattling. "You know the temple of Sekmet?"
"The one in the swamp? I know it."
"Tell them I sent you."
"It's strange," Cuneaxe mused, stroking his stringy beard. "I could get a reward for turning them — and you — in to the Cheiropt. Why shouldn't I blackmail you now?"
The thaumaturge chuckled again. "You have it all wrong, my friend. Here you are, a drifter, alone with two pretty prizes who look nothing like you, staying in a vacant building well back from the channel. One of them gets infested, but what do you do? Seek out a helot wizard, of all people. Mind you, I'm not looking for a share in the profits. But I think a gesture of goodwill might be appropriate."
Cuneaxe's glance leaped from a wrought-iron wall bracket to the old man's peanut-like pate to the chute at the end of the hall. He reckoned mentally. Then he rolled his eyes and sighed. "Fine. One more dramach. But I don't want to see you again."
"Of course not." The old man pocketed the rod. "One last thing. A word of advice. If you don't get what you're after, the temple would probably offer a competitive price. But don't mention her unless you want to sell her. Arrange to speak with the pythoness alone."
Cuneaxe went back into the flat. He looked out the grimy window, thinking. The white hot sun was striding up through tatters of cloud from the sea. Beyond the breakwater its light lay heavy in wrinkled bars of silver, but the seawall was still obscured by haze.
"Listen, Taisson," he said. "I have to go away for a day or two."
"Take me with you."
"I would if I could, little sunfish. But someone has to watch Una. I don't like leaving you alone, but there's nothing else to do. There's no one we can trust. Keep the door locked. Don't go out for anything. Understand?"
"I'll take care of things, Babu."
"I know you will, little boy." He stooped and kissed Taisson's forehead. Then he gathered some supplies into a satchel, bundled up his long-sword, and set out.
The streets were a lightless labyrinth of old brick. The salt air was mingled with the odor of rotten mortar and the under-city's exhalation.
Picking his way down rubbish-choked alleys, Cuneaxe passed by stages into a better district, where the towers were taller and veneered with limestone blocks. It was still mostly deserted, though. Broken windows were like the blank eyes of gutted souls.
His footsteps awakened a familiar echo. He gave no sign of having heard it.
The streets nearer the channel were silent but crowded. He dropped into the torrent of humanity like a stone cast into a stream. He was without phyle, invisible, and passed through the throngs with ease. His shadow had it less easy.
When he reached the waterfront he followed it to where his dinghy was moored at a concrete quay. A steamer was crawling from the open sea to the waterway behind the barrier island. He waited for it to pass, then rowed out into its wake. He rode its train all the way to the lagoon.
Crumbling, half-flooded buildings rambled along the inner shore of the island. He raised his oars as the straggling city fell away. The air was hot and heavy. His eyes smarted with sweat. He let the steamer reach the waterway and veer off to southward. Then he began to pull again.
An escarpment towered over the far shore, reaching from north to south as far as the eye could see. Its foot was hidden behind the hemlathim that waded out into the water like gigantic mangroves. Away to the north, helot shanties struggled through mud flats, clinging to one another for support.
He rowed over the waterway to the shallows beyond. His craft's dark double sped over trilobites and patches of seaweed. He glanced over his shoulder. A rowboat bobbed unobtrusively at the mouth of a canal, waiting.
The watery crypt received him. The hemlathim were huge, like bald cypresses in the trunk, but with many-legged raised roots and long, leathery leaves. Giant mussels lay half-buried in the clean sand. Tentacled belemnites jetted through the shadows.
A hovel on stilts loomed up before him. A boat was moored below it. He tied off his craft, capsized and sank the other, and swung himself up. An upraised finger was enough to silence the helot fishwife.
He waited there for a while, crouching behind heaps of nets and baskets. The woman worked nervously. A furtive clank and splash sounded outside. Everything was quiet for a moment. Then a figure darkened the doorway.
"Which way did he go?" the man demanded. "I know he took your boat." The woman was too frightened to answer. "Don't lie to me," he said, standing over her. "Just tell me where he went, and I'll be on my way."
Cuneaxe stepped out behind him and set a poniard to his jugular. "We meet at last," he said.
The man swallowed hard. "Hello, Recusant."
"You're a logothete. You've been trying to find where I'm staying. Why?"
"You know as well as I do, Recusant. We can't have abominations running about loose in Enoch. There are places for hybrids like them."
"They're my children."
"Is that what you call them? Each to his own, I suppose."
"Kneel," said Cuneaxe, "and clasp your hands behind your back." The agent obeyed. Cuneaxe tied him hand and foot. He tossed a dramach at the woman's feet. "That's for the boat I sank." He tossed a second rod. "And that's to put up with him for a few hours."
The woman just stared. He went back out, sank the logothete's craft, and continued on his way.
There were islets and tongues of loam now, carpeted with mosses and scouring rushes. He made his way up an inlet that wound deep into a fold of the escarpment, emerging at last into a little bay surrounded by cliffs. The temple opened at the inner end, carved out of the living rock. He tied his boat off, sprang out, and strode into the old darkness.
Votive candles throbbed in the gloom, shedding a fitful glow over the low dais and stone altar shiny from a million sacrifices. An ornate reredos climbed up above it, streaked with deposits of lime. The black mummy of a forgotten saint reposed in a glass case in an alcove.
A smug voice emerged from the shadows: "The House of Sekmet welcomes you."
"I want the priest," said Cuneaxe.
"My faculties allow me to deal with most ordinary needs during the priest's absence."
The invisible simper set Cuneaxe's teeth on edge. "Who are you?"
"At present I serve as ostiary."
"And you're all alone, eh?"
"You'll find little of worldly value here," the ostiary chuckled. But he couldn't keep the nervousness entirely out of his voice.
"I wager I would, if I cared to look hard enough," Cuneaxe growled, irritated with the disembodied conversation. "But you misunderstand me. An old reptile named Auman told me you keep more than just augurs about these days. Anything to it?"
"I can tell that you're a man of diverse tastes. If you —"
"I'm just here for a consultation. What will it be?"
The ostiary's voice became small and secret. "Two dramachs."
Cuneaxe held up the rods. "But I talk to her alone."
"Two dramachs," he repeated. Cuneaxe handed him the rods. "One moment please." Cuneaxe watched him glide into the transept. An iron gate opened and closed. Then silence. He paced up and down while he waited. He didn't like being there.
The ostiary reappeared at the grating. He opened the gate. "This way, please," he said, gesturing with his lamp. Together they circled the side altar and stepped down into a black corridor.
The bobbing light led Cuneaxe to a pair of narrow, iron-bound doors standing side by side. One was padlocked. The ostiary opened the other, revealing a long closet divided from the neighboring chamber by a wooden partition.
"Here you are," he whispered. "Kneel there. Keep away from the screen if you don't want her to see you. Don't reveal your name. I'll be waiting at the end of the corridor."
Cuneaxe went in and knelt. He waited while the ostiary shuffled noisily away. It was dark without the lamp. The only light came from a guttering candle beyond the screen. He reached out and shut the door.
"What is it you seek?" a voice asked sweetly.
His hair stood on end. "One of your kind oppresses a person under my care. Tell me how to rid her of it."
There was a low, mewling laugh. "Who is it?"
"Does she have beast-eyes like her mother?"
A chill swept over Cuneaxe. "Just answer my question. I've paid the fee."
"Take the Thousand Stairs to the Hollow Hills. There you'll meet one who might help you, if you pay her fee."
"What? What is this?" he demanded. But the voice only chuckled idiotically, muttering meaningless phrases like recordings. He could see the girl's silhouette rocking in place beyond the screen. "Tell me —"
"Get out of here!" the voice roared. Cuneaxe leaped off the kneeler. The voice was chuckling again. He heard bare feet pattering in the hallway. Panicked, he flung the door wide and sprang through.
The shuddering rectangle told him which way to run. As he neared it, a shadow rose up out of the darkness. He lashed out with his fist and the form crumpled to the floor. Then he fled the place, cursing.
The Thousand Stairs had been hewn out of the face of the cliffs in an age when men still ventured beyond the coastlands. Cuneaxe paused to rest two-thirds of the way up. It was early afternoon, but the sea-air was cool and breezy. He sat down on the uneven steps to survey the prospect.
The staircase was enclosed by sloping shoulders of white stone, the lower end of the great notch that gave upon the inland hollows. Before him and beyond the blue-green lagoon, the barrier island curved to the horizon in both directions, a band of old buildings dividing the brackish swamps from the sea, one arc of Enoch's coast-long downtown reaching around the ocean like a giant omega.
Cuneaxe had hung his sword from his girdle. It was warm when he rose again. He drew the blade out a little and peered at it through cupped hands. It was glowing faintly. He went forward cautiously.
The staircase became level and dove into an overgrown defile, beyond which it sprang up the wall in a final ascent to the saddle. He drew his sword and pushed his way into the glen. At the back he found a clearing. His blade was almost smoking now.
There was a cave with a heap of bones and offal to one side. The stench was unbelievably foul. Nothing moved. He crept up to the opening and peered inside.
The ghul seized him from behind, one hand on his shoulder and one on his neck, and tried to break his spine. He was saved by his sleeve's ripping off at the seam. He crashed sideways to the ground. The ghul grabbed at his legs as he scrambled aside.
He kicked the thing on the mouth with the heel of his boot, then leaped to his feet and whirled around, giving it a long cut across the midriff, letting its insides out. That ended the fight. He put his foot on the heaving chest of the naked man-shape and ran the tip of his blade into its heart.
When he had cleaned his sword and put it away — it was already dim and cooling — he went to investigate the cave. The ghul's mates and whelps were huddled at the back, watching him with mindless, frightened beast-eyes. A strange look passed over his face.
He returned to the clearing and began to ascend the ladder-like steps.
Beyond the notch the way dwindled into one of the paths of the ghulim, winding along a canyon through the great karst plateau. Soon it was joined by a brook tumbling toward the hollow lands. Picking his way along it, he descended by stages into a watercolor world of weird vegetables.
Pale, scaly stems towered high overhead, herbaceous trunks branching into umbrellas of soft boughs and livid leaves. Dappled sunlight falling through the thick canopy played over jade-cups lined with vermilion hair, lichen-bushes with wiry yellow-white stalks, blue-green bifurcating mosses, scarlet spearheads and pale orange parasols waving on slender stalks.
Afternoon progressed toward evening. The undergrowth dwindled as the scale-trees reared their heads higher. Cuneaxe could hear furtive cries. Slouching beasts shambled off at the rumor of his approach, always too adroitly to let themselves be seen.
Once, though, when he looked toward a shaft of light, a deinoth raised its big, grinning face into the beams. The slanting rays fell incarnadine through the sail spread weblike between its dorsal spines as it went lumbering along.
The sun's arrows withdrew one by one into the west. Soon blackness would flood the understory. He began casting about for a place to spend the night. He was reluctant to lose the rivulet, but the honeycombed walls had long since fallen away. A deinoth's plaintive wail rent the still air from somewhere near at hand. He froze.
It was then that he glimpsed a golden moon tangled among the moss-trees far to the side of the stream. He began to make his way toward it. It was about twice the height of a man, an ovoid of white cloth glowing from within like a giant paper lantern. It stood in a clearing carpeted with pale-hued foliose lichens. Álurin the king-planet hung over it like a baleful jewel, glittering in the blue.
He stepped into the glade and circled the orb. A square door hung open, its moveable steps flanked by two guards. He went forward cautiously, palms outward, but they seemed not to see him. A gentle voice broke the silence: "You are welcome, Cuneaxe."
He mounted the porch. A lady sat inside. Her tawny hair was like spun gold gathered loosely about her head. Soft and sweetly pink were her lips, like an unfurled rosebud, and her skin was golden-white and smooth like ivory. Her figure was swathed in raw sea-silk. A milky pendant rested in the hollow between her breasts. She was combing her hair.
Cuneaxe dropped his satchel and girdle to the porch. The lady smiled and laid her comb aside. "Come in. I've been waiting for you."
"You're the one I was to meet, then." He stepped through the door. The floor lay in two concentric tiers, with cushions and rugs strewn about the upper and a small gold-inlaid table in the center of the lower. At the lady's bidding he sat beside her.
"Was there any doubt of that?" she asked.
"No, I suppose not." He glanced at her hands folded in her lap, felt the warmth of her body, inhaled the sweet scent of her bosom and hair.
"I have many ways of knowing what happens in the world. And of you, Cuneaxe, I know more than any."
"Tell me what you know."
"I know that you're a man of Eldena, a Recusant as they are commonly called, born of the tribe of Agatha. And I know that you forsook their society but live apart, alone, keeping the ancient observances, at odds with Enoch and its social machines. Your sojourn in the wilds was not hidden from me, nor your...kindness...to dumb creatures."
"It wasn't pity that made me take her to myself," Cuneaxe growled.
"What was it then? Tell me that."
"It can't be put into words."
"That is hardly surprising," the woman said in a low voice.
Cuneaxe caught her meaning. "Under my care she learned much," he said, nettled. "Yes, she was dumb. Perhaps the dumb speak more sense than those who never cease speaking." His face blackened.
"Don't be angry with me. I meant no offense. I had to test you. I've watched you a long time, but from a distance. I don't abhor your deeds, no, not though all the world call you outcast.
"In ages long before Enoch's earliest memories, a man or a woman would sometimes take a ghul to wed. It was a holy thing, a thing that set one apart. The one who undertook this way of life was supported by his tribe, for men knew then what has been forgotten now, that the offspring of a man and a ghul is no mixture, but a true man. Thus was the tree of life strengthened by new blood.
"In you, therefore, I see a man from the dawn of time born into these latter days. You treated her, not as chattel, but as a true child-wife. And when she perished —"
"Yes, yes," Cuneaxe said. He spoke hotly but his heart was cooling.
"The children of eldest Sharon did not regard the ghulim as coequal, but neither did they treat them as beasts. Ever solicitous were they for their welfare. But the accursed wanderers were not thus. They held the ghulim at arm's length, breeding them as draft animals and war machines, beleaguering the children of light. Such were the Enochites' ancestors.
"Sharon fell into her long twilight. But Eldena, the shoot that sprang from her stump, endures in pockets of the world to this day. In you, Cuneaxe, the blood of Sharon runs purer than in any other son of man. And your children sprang from the confluence of this stream with the innocence of the ghulim. Wonder you then at their beauty, their strength, their wisdom?"
"And what is your interest in us? Why have you called me?"
"I can help you, Cuneaxe. I know your need. Remember the pythoness. She's nothing next to what your daughter might become if she goes untreated."
"What is your price?"
"Must we speak of prices, Cuneaxe?"
"There is always a price."
"As you will," she said. "But the word is yours, not mine. The girl is my price."
"So I must lose her to save her. That's what I feared."
"It won't be to her dishonor. Even Eldena has forgotten the Dormition, when failing Sharon sent children to Anûn, laid them to sleep through long myriads in the lunar subterrane. I was one such, but I am a restless sleeper. I stirred, and awoke, and descended once again to Earth, having gathered to myself a body of the ghulim who tend the sleepers from age to age, sapient through the indwelling of imperishable spirits.
"Enoch has had her day. She exists in heat-death now, in a state of perfect disorder. The time has come for her to be swept from the earth. The dawn of a new Golden Age is upon us. And I shall bring it to pass. I seek one worthy of the holy arts to raise up as my handmaid. When the spirits began to oppress your daughter — and they will ever be attracted to her as insects to a lamp in darkness — I knew it, and exerted my influence to bring you here.
"What, then, is your answer?"
"You know I cannot refuse," he said.
"You swear it?"
"I swear it. Tell me what I must do."
"In the depths of this hollow, a ring of hills encircles a pit. Descend it and you will find yourself in the midst of a sunless sea. Slay one of the fierce fish that swim the paths of this sea and draw the ambergris from its entrails. A lump smoked on a brazier will have the effect you desire."
"You will show me the way?"
"My servants will take you. I can provide you with a coracle. The thews and sinews you must provide. When you accomplish your task, return to me, and we will go down to Enoch together."
The lady had shifted closer to him. He looked full upon her. Her face was turned up to his. Her eyes were like the wings of butterflies feeding on hidden nectar. Her lips were moist and full. Her breasts were tame doves.
"So shall it be," he said. "But now you listen to me, witch. I will pay your price, as you knew I would. I must. But you must pay my price as well." He encircled her waist.
"And what is that?" she whispered almost inaudibly, breathing into his nostrils. In answer he pressed his lips against hers. She turned and wrapped her arms around his neck. He bore her to the cushions, the dark overmastering the light.
And night settled heavily about the golden globe, and the deinothim cried in the darkness, and the soft boughs of the scale-trees swayed beneath the stars.
Cuneaxe set out before dawn the next morning with five indwelt ghulim as guides. Four of them were men-at-arms, bearing two burdens between them in pairs, each suspended from a pole supported on their shoulders. One of the loads was a wooden tub full of coiled rope, the other a bale of hides and canes. The fifth ghul was the lady's chamberlain. He looked neither young nor old and was entirely hairless. All five moved with stiff, jerking movements.
The forest began to thin. Cuneaxe caught glimpses of open country between the stems. The wall of the uplands could be seen in the distance beyond a rolling champaign land dotted with lakes and pools and conical peaks like crumbling, moss-grown towers. Clouds came sweeping in from the sea. The basin was raked by sunlight and shade.
The ghulim led Cuneaxe through the peaks and pools. It was a lonely country, the haunt of dragonflies and armored efts. Trees of wood there were none, but the lowlands were dotted with thickets of giant horsetail and stands of scale-tree. The sun came and went continually. Rain seemed likely.
They reached a sinkhole surrounded by stone towers. Its old sides were hung with tapestries of sea green and blue-green and russet and gold. Cool, musty air wafted up out of it.
"This is it, is it?" muttered Cuneaxe, creeping close to the brink. The floor of the pit was invisible. The sun had vanished for good, it seemed, and a few drops were falling.
The porters set down their loads. He tied one end of the rope around a scale-tree bole and tossed the other into the gulf. Taking hold of the line, he leaned back over the abyss and began his descent. Eventually the walls fell away entirely and left him dangling in empty space. From there on he slid down like a sailor.
When he reached solid ground he sent the signal up the rope and watched it snake out of sight. Then he set down his satchel and began piecing together his spear. He was standing on the shore of a small island, a verdant cone in a sunless sea. An idol of dull black stone hulked at the top. On the slab before it was a figure draped in a pall of blue-green mold. Cuneaxe loosened his sword.
The bale soon dropped into view. He guided it to the shore and assembled the coracle. He set it in the water and laid his spear inside. His sword he kept on his hip. After removing his boots he stepped into the craft and pushed off from the shore.
The sea was made up of cells connected one to another like hollows in a giant sponge. He kept close to the isle at first. There were shoals of eyeless fish and white water-scorpions, but no sign of his quarry. Eventually he began to widen his circuit. The musty smell grew stronger. It had begun to rain in earnest up above, and the torrents that now ringed the isle filled the caverns with thunder.
He was kneeling in the bottom of the coracle, paddling, his eyes opened wide on darkness. His sword grew hot in its scabbard. He drew it. Its white light was fierce but illuminated nothing.
Suddenly the oar shot out of his hand. The thunder mingled with high-pitched shouts of hysterical laughter. Bellowing hoarsely, he swept his blade blindly through the dark. It touched nothing. Water lapped his leg. They had punctured the skin. He fumbled for his spear, but it was gone.
And then the sun burst from its cover, its beams falling into the pit like a shower of gold. The isle was a green beacon shining over the black pools. There were helborim in the water all around him, gaping their froglike mouths. Rising up on his knees, he clove one's skull from crown to chaps. The rest vanished into the shadows.
His craft was still sinking, though. He took to the water, retrieved his spear, and struck out for the isle. The torrents were dwindling and the caverns had grown quiet again. But he was still far from the shallows when something made him turn in the water.
A stream of ripples was shooting toward him. He flung his spear. It disappeared in the water. A bullet-head like a living skull with razor-sharp jaws swept out of the darkness. At the last instant he folded himself into a ball, and had one last glimpse of the cavernous gullet before being snapped up by the fish.
He was enfolded in cold flesh, wrapped in a womb of death. But he'd kept hold of his blade. He began stabbing. Again and again he lashed out, cutting the tissue to ribbons. The moist tomb convulsed and loosened. And suddenly he was free, spinning through black, watery space. He broke through the surface and gulped the delicious air, choking and spluttering.
A dull splash and groan sounded beside him. The fish had bobbed to the surface. He swam over to it, pulled himself up, and drove the point of his sword between two bony plates into its tiny brain. It gave one last shudder, stiffened, and was dead. His joyous laugh echoed all the way to the fungus-gardens of the helborim.
The sun had withdrawn by the time he got the carcass over to the shallows, but the clouds were still breaking up. He rolled the fish onto its side and used his sword to gut it. Soon his streaming hands drew forth a mass of grayish white. Its texture was like soft soap or cheese, and it had a strong, musky fragrance. He stowed it away in a coffer.
After washing himself he put on his boots and shouldered his bag. He looped the rope under his arms and tied it off in front, then sent the signal. A moment later he was ascending the wall of the pit. The ghulim thought they were handling the bale, and he had to leap from stone to stone to keep from being dragged to pieces. But he wanted to surprise them.
With their last great tug he leaped over the rim and landed on his feet. The ghulim eyed him inscrutably. "I have the stuff," he explained as he untied the rope. "The coracle sank." They began approaching him.
He set his satchel on the ground and paced sideways, circling to their left, keeping his eyes on them. They stopped and waited. "Shall we go back?" he asked with careless hilarity. And then he flew at the hindmost.
His sword caught the ghul on the front of the neck. It went down like a broken stalk. The second he felled with a two-handed chop through the shoulder.
The indwelt ghulim had lost their animal reflexes, but they were insensible to fear as well. The two remaining men-at-arms came at him shrieking. The nearest he ran through. The other shot past, making for the hills with great leaping strides.
Cuneaxe stooped, selected a stone, and launched it in a lazy arc. The fleeing ghul stumbled to the earth and moved no more.
Then he spun to face the fifth. The chamberlain was standing at the edge of the pit. He was smiling, but the smile bore no relation to any emotion Cuneaxe knew. "Come," said Cuneaxe. "It's your turn now."
"You swore an oath to our mistress."
"Perhaps I'm not as virtuous as she supposes. She thinks I'm a book on her shelf, but there's a chapter she hasn't read. For I am Cuneaxe the Recusant, and I am a fighter. Let her learn the meaning of that, and of this." He held up his blade, and the sunlight ran along it.
"She has a high destiny for you and yours," the ghul said.
"It isn't for her to give. Her visions of a Golden Age I contemn. Taïs, Lord of the Sun, is pursued by a great maugreth across the heavens, and Anûn his consort by another. The day they stumble and are devoured will be the last day, when the single-eyed spirits of flame are shaken from their thrones as spores from a fruit and fall into the watery abyss. That is the day to which I look forward.
"As for you and your mistress, you can go to hell. I will go to Enoch. Let the witch take my girl if she can. You I'll send back shrieking to wherever your kind comes from."
And he advanced upon the ghul, and swapped off its head with one stroke, and kicked the still-smiling brain-case into the pit.
Cuneaxe stepped out of the lift. The corridor was lit by a single gas lamp. He slipped along it and unlocked the door. The room was dark. Rosy dusk shone through the window.
Taisson sprang from the divan and slipped his arms around his neck. "You've torn your shirt, Babu," the boy whispered.
Cuneaxe disentangled himself and set his satchel down. "I've had a time of it. How is she?"
"Get me the skillet." He drew the box out of his satchel, then opened the door of the stove and used a poker to turn the coals. He heaped a pile of the hottest in the pan his son brought him. "Come," he said, leading the way into the next room.
Una was just as he had left her. Her pale tresses were coarse and tangled, her alabaster skin stained with soot. Her pretty face was disfigured by a malefic leer.
Cuneaxe paid it no mind but placed the skillet in the middle of the floor. He opened the coffer and lifted out the lump of ambergris. Only half remained, the other half having been bestowed elsewhere. He crumbled the mass into fragments and distributed them over the coals. They began to sizzle. Smoke started pouring from the makeshift brazier.
At first it merely spread across the floor like gold liquefied and blended with the patina of ages. The air became heavy with its sweet fragrance, mellow as the tolling of bells, intertwined with a tinge of black bitterness like burial spices. Cuneaxe's eyes smarted, but he inhaled the incense and let it caress his tired limbs. He felt it scour away the layers of salt and grime and blood.
Taisson was looking at his father as though on the verge of saying something. But it was his sister who broke the silence. "Blessed be the earth and all that is in it," she said. "Blessed be its mosses and its mollusks, its men and its women, its ghulim and helborim, its spirits of wind and of flame."
Cuneaxe rose and went to her side. Gently, he loosened one of her bonds, and Taisson loosened the other. She sat up. She was herself again. Her eyes shone with something more than gladness. Then she smiled shyly and stretched her arms wide. Cuneaxe bent down to her, and she embraced his neck and kissed his rough cheek.
"It's dark now," Taisson observed. Night had fallen. The room was lit only by the dying coals.
"Strange," said Una. "I thought it was morning."
"We have to go, my children," said Cuneaxe. "Right now." They looked at him but asked nothing. "Taisson, begin packing while I help your sister."
An hour later they were ready. Una had bathed, dressed, and eaten. Everything they owned was on Cuneaxe's back. He went out and checked the corridor, then gestured to the children, who ran past him to the lift.
Una's foot kicked something across the floor as she went. Cuneaxe stooped to pick it up. It was a milk-white pendant strung on a silver chain. The jewel flushed an angry red like a droplet of blood. He tossed it down the garbage chute, then went to join his children. They stepped into the box together.
© May, 2014 Raphael Ordoñez
Raphael Ordoñez has had several stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including "Misbegotten" (Issue 113), "The Goblin King's Concubine" (Issue 129), and "At the Edge of the Sea" (Issue 144).