rating: +22+x

The four of us watched each other in silence. The chancel was high-roofed but small, smaller with us in it, and seemed designed to echo every cough or shift of a body. I stood in one corner absently flexing my fingers – on the opposite wall, I watched a fat grey spider on a pilgrimage toward a crack in the ceiling.

Quencin was the first to speak. He was a thin man with jet-black hair, jet-black eyes, and a long neck hidden neatly behind a well-maintained beard. He would have been handsome if not for his nose, which looked like someone had stuck a knife through the back of his head and out the other side. His robes were dark blue and self-acclimating, bathing him in a thin fog as they filtered the dungeon’s far-too-humid air. He opened with “You lied to us,” which was true but not particularly inspired.

Landros, our employer and de facto leader, started to get up, thought better of it, and sat back down with his hands spread wide. “I don’t know what you want me to say”, he said, and this was also probably true. Quencin was a hard man to read at the best of times, and right now his face was a mask of seething rage.

“How about an apology”, he spat. “We had a contract. You bought us with stories of gold, jewels, artifacts. Cold hard cash. Not this.” He stabbed a finger toward the door on the hall’s far end, where one would normally expect an altar. It seemed to shift in the torch-light.

Landros shrugged, a long shrug with the bones in. “At this point, my dear, that feels more like your problem than mine. I’m sorry you feel cheated, but I never once lied to you.”

“You promised us riches.”

“What riches could be greater than knowledge?”

“Greater than this knowledge? A paycheque, for one. A hot meal. A bracing slap in the face.”

“You’re being dramatic.”

“After what we’ve been through, I think I’ve earned a little drama. I almost died in those tunnels.”

His words echoed, and a pile of armour in one corner shifted. “Almost,” it said. It hauled itself to its feet and took a sweeping look of the room through piggy eyes set deep in a red, doughy face. “You almost died. Not all of us were so lucky.”

Quencin stamped a foot and started to say something petulant. Landros interrupted him. “Yes,” he said, in the kind of measured voice usually reserved for small children, “and it’s deeply regretful. But I didn’t misrepresent the endeavour. She was careless and emotional. It happens, as an occupational hazard.”

The big guy in the armour, Bandar, clenched both his fists. Not menacingly, just as if it were more comfortable that way. Landros leant back on the stone bench and let his eyes fall shut. “You all are welcome to do as you wish. Leave, stay, beat me to a pulp. As far as I’m concerned, our journey together is at an end.”

Quencin gaped at him, eyes wide. He was halfway through raising his hand when the big guy strode across the room and socked him in the chin. He walked softly, even on stone, but his punch was like a cannonball. He barely telegraphed it – it seemed that one minute his fist was swinging by his side and the next it was sitting in the space Quencin’s chin had just departed. He nodded quietly and stood there shaking out his knuckles. When Quencin got up he brought the other fist down hard on his head, with a crack that lifted dust from the pews. I stifled a smile.

It took a long time for our resident warrior’s thoughts to make themselves known. Landros and I waited while he travelled the long road of decision-making. Eventually he took a heavy breath, nodded solemnly at Landros, smiled sheepishly at me, cracked his knuckles, strode easily over Quencin’s unconscious body, and walked out the back. After a little while longer, Landros began to snore.

“I’d better go check on Shil,” I said to nobody in particular. I walked past the big guy’s handiwork and left by the same route.

People don’t like me much, but most of them like me well enough to hire me. I’m useful, in much the same way a steam engine is useful, and a lot of the time it’s for much the same reasons. I’ve a carrying capacity to die for, can shrug off most bladed weapons, and throw punches that’d make even Bandar think twice about hitting back. And since he doesn’t usually think once, that’s fairly impressive.

I’m a sentinel. You can tell. With my glazed skin and gaping hollow eyes, I stand out among normal folk like the Pope at an orgy. Nobody knows exactly where I came from, myself included, but it feels safe to assume I was crafted in some way. Made, moulded, put-together, shaped. My flesh isn’t exactly terracotta, but it’s close enough that you’d think me a statue if I stood still against a wall. I’m animate, but you’d be hard pressed to call me alive. I’m a thing.

And this gives me an affinity toward others like myself. Golems, yes, but also steam engines and mills, clocks and crystals, weather systems and tectonic plates. The fraternity of the unliving. The stuff that you see every day and never pay any attention to, except with that low-level background sentience that humans give anything that moves of its own accord. The stuff that makes you think surely, surely some creator somewhere has given this thing a fleck of life, a spark of agency. But of course they haven’t, and you keep on using them like machines, because that’s what they are, and that’s how you use them.

That affinity is why I allowed myself to be hired for this quest. I don’t often do it; I make good profit as a labourer, and I don’t have much of a use for cash in any case. Adventuring is dangerous and almost never worth the payoff. I accompanied this party in particular because its leader was a liar and a madman, and he was seeking something far more curious than gold.

He was seeking a machine, and it needed my help.

Shil Adelaide was leaning in a chair with their feet up on a barrel, smoking a cigar and watching the path of the smoke. They heard me enter, because people a hundred miles away could have heard me enter. I’m not a quiet man, unless I want to be.

“Sun!”, they said, and swung their feet down. I smiled and made a show of sitting on a crate opposite them, though we both know I don’t easily get tired. It cracked a little under my weight.

“Hello, Shil.” I said. I propped an elbow on my knee and rested my head on the ball of my hand. “Bandar took a swing at Quencin.”

“It hit?”

“Twice. Quencin’s with the boss now.” Shil’s eyes widened and I shook my head. “Landros, I mean. Not the capital-B Boss lord on high almighty. The big guy’s not that stupid. You got more of those?”

I was pointing at the cigar. Shil shrugged and pulled a pack from their jacket, tossing it across the room to me. I snatched it from the air and slid one out, running a fingernail up and down my wrist ‘til the sparks caught it. I rested it between my lips, let it smoke a little, and began drumming the fingers of my left hand. I looked around.

The room was small, and at one time had held a pair of confessionals, now rotting quietly in a soft sump of sin and secrets. The floor was littered with the standard dungeon affair of crates and barrels, and the whole scene was lit by a brazier blazing frenetically in one corner. The air was cold despite its efforts, and I could feel the heat being leeched through the flagstones.

Shil’s makeshift respite was set up against the back wall, with a waterproof sheet nailed roughly to the ceiling to divert the drips which wormed their way through. They were small; five foot nothing of roguish cunning, with a pleasant blond-haired face and cheerful blue eyes. They looked relaxed and friendly, a haze of charisma which almost drew the eye entirely away from the knives strung on their belt, or the razorblades sewn into the rim of their cap. Almost, but not quite – and once you noticed those, you noticed the slight callouses around their hands, the scar running along and under their cheek and chin, the faintly piercing quality of their eyes. When Shil looked at you, you got the vague impression that they were sizing your casket.

Something in their stance usually said that, if you didn’t behave, it would be quite a small casket.

I liked them immensely, and they knew it. We sat there in silence for a while, puffing noiselessly and listening to the quiet murmurs of water and rats. After a while I straightened up and said “You’ve got it, then?”

Shil nodded wordlessly and reached inside their jacket again. They rummaged for a while, with exaggerated care – I knew for a fact they’d stitched a variety of fatally interesting needles in the lining to deter would-be pickpockets – and withdrew a small fragment of carved black slate. I stood up and took it.

In Two Hours. Through A Failure Of Judgement.

I smiled. I handed it back. “Don’t let him know,” I said.

Shil nodded. “Sure,” they said. “No problem. Though I guess it wouldn’t matter much either way.”

“Oh, I don't know.” I said. “I don’t know. There’s a lot of ways to die.”

Eris had been our healer, and the first of our party to meet their end. We were standing on a small ledge overhanging a chasm, which presumably had been a natural formation that the dungeon was built to incorporate. It curved slightly, and the overhang protruded from the concave side so it looked as though the opposite door were set in a gigantic cylinder of stone.

The opposite door was open a crack, of course. It wouldn’t have been nearly as tempting otherwise.

Landros, as an alchemist, had two potions of levitation, one of which he kept for himself. Bandar took the other (being assured the price would be deducted from his final salary) and the two were able to propel themselves over the gap with almost comical ease. Shil persuaded Bandar to carry across one end of a rope, and swung around in a wide arc that brought them tangent to the opposite face. It was a simple manoeuvre, executed with the practiced care of the better kind of surgeon. That left the mage, the healer, and me.

I’m a bard, more or less. Mostly less. By the specification of the Taoten Adventurers’ Guild I’m a resonant, a fancy term they coined after I arrived at their door one day and threatened to collapse their guildhall. By the specification of the Yykkan High Church I’m an abomination, to be purged on sight. Not for me are the ropes and potions, blessed as I am with the physique of a standing stone and a stomach you could cast iron in. Nor am I afforded any magical affinity – mana flows through me without ever stopping to say hello, and others’ spells tend to hit me unpredictably at best. I don’t have magic, I don’t have faith, and I don’t have dexterity enough to throw a rope and be sure of hitting anything other than the floor.

What I do have is a natural attunement to frequency and vibration, and a whole lot of gravitational potential.

I turned to Eris and Quencin, lifted my hand to my forehead in a mock salute, and stepped backward off the edge.

Unavoidable. Split.

That’s what her slate said, later. I took a small amount of blood and tested it, for curiosity’s sake. It was a distressingly brief postmortem prediction, almost as short as mine. But that’s what the machine’s good for, I suppose. Distress.

Ostensibly it would’ve been the same prediction regardless of whether she’d died then, though I find it somewhat hard to believe. Perhaps she’d have been caught by a falling stalactite instead, or Bandar would’ve mistaken her for a ghoul and cleaved her in two. Maybe she’d have been poisoned by a banana-flavoured dessert a decade down the line. It drew the mind, in a macabre sort of way. Taking all the different choices, all the different possibilities, and pinching them into a single ending. A single unavoidable split, in one of the dozen-or-so ways that made sense.

On a theoretical level it was delightful. On a practical one…

Fifty-five seconds to make the descent. Ten to clamber across the cavern floor. I flexed my fingertips, feeling the soft buzz as the frequency rose. I placed one hand against the opposite wall and watched the stone flake away as I fine-tuned the vibrations.

I’d made a divot the size of my palm when I heard the crack. Above me, a whorl of blue light suddenly splintered into lances which scattered across the chasm, illuminating in stark white contrast the furrows I’d carved with my hands and feet on the way down. Something landed with a wet thud next to me. A moment later, something else landed a little way away.

I can’t smell. My face, well-sculpted though it is, does not include nostrils. Whatever secret grants me the ability to see through glass orbs and feel through baked clay does not extend to my olfactory system, so I’m forced to experience most smells through the medium of taste.

I tasted blood.

Hot iron, deep and sickening. A red haze falling down on me, painting me sanguine. Fine droplets swirling in a mist that clung to my skin, my throat, my eyes. I called out above me and saw a thin figure fall to its knees, its blue robe shedding blood in torrents. Not, I noticed, its own blood. I leant over the lump that fell closest, broken awkwardly over a boulder. It had once been part of a person. Now it was unrecognisable, a twisted stem of flesh with two limbs, tangled in warped armour. A streak of iron, cooling quickly – a sword, I guessed – marked one side, drawn up into the base of a spine.

I saw a similar sight in the further thing. A helmet split mostly in two, holes devoid of eyes, a boneless thing with sharp, bloody teeth. Our healer had been a woman of an unparalleled temperament, moderate and kind and resolute. Now, in death, she was a monster.

Quencin had already gone. I had no doubt in my mind what he’d done; Aetheric Jaunt, a needlessly risky teleportation spell. And she’d done something similar; Divine Transposition, or Nodestep. And they’d collided mid-jump and stuck, trapped for a moment, two bodies in the same space. Until one of them had relented.

And then she’d split.

I cursed the mage and set about burying the body.

In the present I’ve still got death on the brain, but not hers. A small leather bag at my waist holds a paltry sum in gold and my own slate, which I’ve not yet looked at. I don’t want to be any more constrained than I am already. The prediction Shil had shown me left a little over ten minutes to encourage that individual’s end.

The lower part of the dungeon was arranged as a rough spiral, tracing a path down toward the chancel. Rooms stuck off the side like budding leaves; Shil’s was the lowest, and the remainder were a scattered array of secret passages, traps, and puzzles. The norm for a dungeon like this. In the few minutes I had to spare before the main event, I made my way up toward where I presumed Bandar had cloistered himself.

I was not disappointed. The corridor framed him like a blocked drain; 300 lbs of muscle with armour to boot. I raised my hand in a hesitant wave and strode towards him, calling out a vague greeting. He raised his head.

His eyes, already small and red, were bordering on bloodshot. His skin, already rough and red, was bordering on inflamed. The trimmings of his leather were red; the sigil on his chestplate was red; the torchlight from the wall was picking out his face in shades of, if you’d believe it, red. He was a picture of ruddy madness, a high-blood-pressure poster-boy for the scarlet council. His pupils focused on a point just behind my forehead and I felt a low rumble as he tried to formulate a coherent sentence.

I waited. Civilisations rose and fell while tectonic plates collided at breakneck speed. Eventually, he spoke.

‘I don’t…’

I waited again. The thought was clearly not finished, let too soon off the assembly line of Bandar’s mind. He took a deep breath.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ he said.

I nodded, slowly. That felt reasonable enough. I pulled a chunk of masonry over from against the wall and sat opposite him. ‘About what?’ I said. I didn’t have much else to say.

‘The boss lied. I don’t have the money, and I don’t have her. I don’t know what to do.’ A tongue like rump steak flicked nervously across his lips. ‘Where do I go from here?’

I shrugged, like a glacier shrugs. ‘What do you want to do?’ I said. ‘What do you usually want to do?’

Bandar lowered his eyebrows and shifted uncomfortably on the barrel he’d pressed into service as a chair. ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘I work for money and I spend the money on things I like.’ He paused a moment, like an introspective volcano. ‘Things I like to have. Not do. Beer and food, usually.’ A second pause, shorter but more refined. ‘And Her.’

And you could hear the capital letter drop into place. Bandar didn’t mince words so much as hammer them, pounding them into place like a blacksmith. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been a blacksmith, once. It was a common enough calling, and a common enough calling to leave. But he framed the word “Her” like a stained glass window. I began to think.

It’s not my strong suit. I tend to… improvise, more than anything else. I act on orders and fill in fine details – broad strokes are usually beyond me. Still, nonetheless, I think.

I held out my hand. Bandar stared at it like I’d just handed him a dead fish. I rolled my eyes. ‘You still have it, right?’ He nodded slowly. ‘Good,’ I say, ‘where is it?’

He gestured in a broad sweep toward one side of the corridor. My eyes followed. It wasn’t a particularly interesting corridor, being mostly light granite blocks stacked roughly and cut to fit, but there were two dark spots near the bottom. As if someone had taken a piece of dark stone – slate, for example – and cast it aside. Fracturing it.

I stood up, pivoted, knelt down and scooped them up in one motion. Bandar didn’t seem to notice, much less care. I held the pieces under the light and looked at them. I continued to think. From back down the corridor I heard shouting.

‘Realistically,’ I said, ‘there’s probably not much call for literacy in your line of work. I should have realised sooner.’

Bandar grunted. It could have meant anything.

I slotted the pieces together, then pulled them apart. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I know what it says now, even if you don’t. Doesn’t much matter from here on out.’

Another nonspecific response. More shouting from down the corridor. I stifled a smile, swung on my heel, and set off back toward Landros and Quencin. I heard the big guy clatter behind me as he set off to follow. Things were about to get very interesting indeed.

The chancel was just as small, just as rotten as it had been when we’d first breached its door some two hours earlier. Very little had changed, save that the opposite door was slightly ajar and the whole scene was painted in blue-green flickers as light shone through a sphere that hung in the centre like a winter-tree bauble. Quencin stood motionless before it, palms out-turned, lips soundlessly mouthing the lyrics to some incantation. I saw Shil balancing a knife on their fingertip with the exaggerated nonchalance of a schoolchild, eyes fixed sure on anything but the watery vortex.

It took me a little while longer to see Landros, suspended unmoving in the sphere. His face was puckered and blue, his eyes rolled back and vacant. As I stepped through the door, I tried to speak. I hesitated. Bandar did not.

Theomestor’s Sudden Aquifer is a difficult ritual to maintain at the best of times. It requires absolute focus, and is mostly used against opponents who are inured against other, more conventional forms of harm. It doesn’t respond kindly to a fist like a cannonball on the back of the head.

Landros dropped from the air as the water lost its shape and spilled out over the granite. Quencin fell to his knees with a scream, and almost immediately jumped up again and leapt toward Bandar – who, to his credit, drew a pair of swords from his back with almost supernatural grace. I heard the faint sound of metal on metal as Shil slid softly into a fighting stance. I smiled my terracotta smile and placed my fingertips together.

I don’t like music. I don’t have the ear for it. I understand it, in principle, but it always straddles an uncomfortable boundary between regularity and gross imperfection. The instruments will never be — can never be – perfect enough to harmonise properly, and the lyrics are always too far removed from reality to be meaningful. If I want rhythm I’ll sit under a waterfall, or stand on a busy street. If I want stories, I’ll tell them myself.

My magic, sonic magic, is not music. And it’s not for the faint of heart; it can shatter boulders, level buildings, and strip a man’s flesh from his bones. With enough time and intuition there’s almost nothing I can’t overcome – the more rigid a defence, the more brittle it is when it breaks. And since I can often turn a clap into a hurricane, the few things I can’t work around can usually just be swept away. Your average Bard may be able to get into your head, but a Resonant can powder your skull.

I don’t like music, and I don’t dance. But when I put my mind to it, I can make the world dance for me.

The ringing took a full minute to stop, and it took even longer for the dust to settle. I lifted my hands from the floor and stood upright, brushing the debris from my shoulders.
Landros was the only one making a sound, and that was a hacking attempt to rid the last water from his lungs. Bandar lay with his hands over his head, the rivets all but shaken from his chestplate. Quencin crouched on one knee with a look of abject horror on his face, the remnants of an arcane shield fading around him. Shil was nowhere to be seen.

I let my hands drop to my sides and exhaled. “I expected better from you Quencin,” I lied. He ignored me, gritting his teeth and screwing his eyes shut. I strode over to Landros and stuck my hand out. The old man took it and I pulled him to his feet. “You’ll be fine,” I said kindly. “Take Bandar and head for the surface. I’ll deal with-“

A laugh cut me off, sharp and piercing. I swung around, hands raised. A bolt of blue light caught my cheek, and I deflected two others with well-timed ripples of air. I made a noise at the back of my throat and began to walk forward.

The next three bolts were all deflected, earthed harmlessly in the dungeon’s walls. A solid beam of light took more effort, but two seconds’ hard work saw it diffracted enough to proceed, my skin barely singed in the process. The vines growing at my feet slowed me for only a moment, and the ripple of thunder – possibly the single least useful spell against someone of my timbre – pressed against me like the embrace of an old friend. In eight seconds I was upon him fully, knee on his chest, hands placed firmly on his wrists. He struggled for a while, face swollen with rage, until he was finally overtaken by an expression of almost glassy calm. He clenched his eyes shut, and spoke with as pure a glee as I’d ever heard.

“You can’t do it,” he said. I stayed silent. He continued. “You can’t kill me. I’m an immortal.”

I tilt my head, anger giving way to morbid curiosity. “Oh?”

“Capiscan,” he said. “Know it? Harbour city, foul place, wouldn’t set foot there if you paid me. But that’s where I’ll die. From a knife to the gut.” He began to laugh again, and I saw his eyes open. They were bloodshot, rimmed with dark lines, the colour of madness. “I don’t ever have to die. I don’t ever have to go there. I don’t… I don’t have to stop! Ever again!” His fingers sparked blue and I watched storms flare behind his eyes. “Not for you. Not for them. Not for anything.”

The ringing was deeper, this time, too deep to hear. It stopped as soon as he died.

I didn’t speak again to my compatriots. They left the way we’d come, as I rinsed the blood from my fingers. Once they were gone I took one last look around the chancel, steadied my resolve, and headed through the opposite door.

The oracle’s hall was roughly carved, with a rear wall that disappeared into darkness. The machine itself stood around halfway in; close enough to be seen from the entrance, but far enough that standing next to it you felt vulnerable and alone. If I wore a hat I would have tipped it to the architects.

I tuned my resonance to muffle my footsteps. It would feel disrespectful otherwise, causing such a racket in the home of a prophet. I reached the base of its pedestal and sat cross-legged on the ground, staring up at the face of a god.

I don’t know which god it was. Almost certainly not one that had been worshipped for decades. Maybe centuries. Maybe longer. Its mosaic face had that worn look of forgotten things, empty of humanity, damaged by time and time alone. Below it, the hole where blood went in, and below that, the slot where the predictions came out. Reminiscent of old alters, old sacrifices. Flesh for power, blood for knowledge. Unseen forces controlling things from the dark. The face wasn’t particularly unpleasant, but it certainly wasn’t friendly. I stretched out my hand and let my fingertips find the faint grooves and cracks that hid in the shadows, where its glowing eyes didn’t reach.

A faint pulse formed in my wrist and I directed it down toward my hand, a searching, rising note. I listened to the sound of rocks falling behind me. I listened to the soft motion of long-undisturbed air as the dungeon began to collapse. I listened to a faint sound a long long way away, a sound that might have been a cheer and might have been a scream. As I dialled the tone back and forth, I mused on stories.

Take the story of Landros Affine, for example. An alchemist and financier of adventure. Death by Drowning. He thought himself safe, miles underground. A mage became angered, which was problematic. He was almost drowned at the hands of this mage, but found solace at the last minute. He probably thought himself lucky. What has the prediction changed?

As I expanded the shell of my perception, I heard earth move, miles above us, and I remembered the destabilising effects of cave-ins on mountain terrain. You can drown in more than just water, after all.

I sighed and thought of Jay Quencin, mage of the third degree. Predicated to die Through A Failure Of Judgement, at a specified time. Led astray by a skilful pickpocket and a false sense of hope. The judgement was a result of two slates being switched, which itself was the aftermath of the prediction itself. If he’d never read it, would he still be here, now? Is that even a meaningful question?

An illiterate warrior who meets his end Lost And Alone. A thief who’ll die in a remote city they never have to visit. And a healer whose death was…


The mosaic began to flake. The magic binding the thing together was toughened but made brittle with age, and my faint smile widened as I felt the luminous crystals crack. Deep within, rows of slates began to splinter under the sonic pressure. I wondered who wrote them, and when. Who first wrote the stories.

Because they were stories, each of them. It was undeniable. The narratives were strong, too strong for chance, too nuanced for fate. For stories, you need an author, and for an author, you need a mind.

The mosaic lurched with a crunch, a third of the lost god’s face sliding to the ground.

Maybe not much of a mind. It would only need to be enough to tie up loose ends. To make loops. But it still had to be there, a necessary property of the stories. A mind with its life in service of some prophecy, some structure. Maybe not much of a life.

But, maybe, enough. Enough of a life to see the greater loop. The narrative of the fiction. The fate of the predictor. It would be suffocating and futile. And lonely.

What kind of ideas would grow in a mind like that?

Another crack. Another surge of sound beyond hearing; a buzz in the base of the spine, a lurch in the gut. The twisting pillars began to crumble suddenly, like snapping bone. I poured the force into my left hand, and with my right reached into the bag at my hip.

My hands were shaking, and it took me a little while to find the slate with my own prediction on it. I pulled it out and laid it in front of me.

A slab of ceiling fell, missing me by inches. I took a deep breath – unnecessary but calming – and looked down.

I heard a grinding noise within the oracle as its mechanisms failed. The room dimmed as crystals scattered into shards, and shrank as rubble closed in on our tiny circle of light. I placed my right hand back in its groove and let the fire dim behind my eyes.

Here And Now.

I smiled my terracotta smile, and the room went dark.

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