Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2012: Stone Eater

Stone Eater

by Brent Knowles

 

Ongar stopped eating the pebbles on the eleventh night of his impalement.

The badger that had collected them growled at him, frustrated and concerned, but Ongar was determined now to end his life. His hands were bound with leather and tied through a hole in the upper part of the crude wooden stake, his feet similarly bound, well above the solace of the desert sands. No iron spikes had punctured his wrists or ankles, but that had been simple practicality, not mercy. And of course, the Charlatan had insisted Ongar face the tower.

What else could be crueler–starving to death before his grandest project, dying of exposure as he watched the Charlatan foul the final stages of construction? Ongar dropped his head, his long tangle of hair falling across a sunburned face, almost stopping his dark gray eyes from pivoting up to steal another painful glance at his tower. A dark moon quivered above the unfinished pinnacle, the scaffolding a nightmarish collection of struts and straps, assembled from the dead and dried wood of the few forests foolish enough to attempt a foothold in the Long Sands. Here, where only a wizard would dare build, stone was the only material worth considering.

As the scurrying twilight wind lent disguise to their collaboration the badger, clinging to Ongar’s stake, hissed slowly, the sound distorted by the pebbles bulging its mouth.

“I know,” Ongar replied. “They build poorly.”

The badger chittered and Ongar shook his head. “No, it does not please me. Not even now.” With no reply, the badger attempted to drop the stones into Ongar’s hand, but still the builder refused to open his fist. He did admire the badger’s persistence. Days ago, when it had become clear that the animal’s teeth could not penetrate the spell-hardened leather straps, the badger had resorted to scavenging pebbles. Like granite the badger was, durable and loyal.

Ongar wished it would just abandon him. The imprisoned builder carried the guilt of too many other sacrifices. He should have died days ago — no food, no shelter, no water. His only contact was with the brittle, sunburned wood and the harsh wind, strong enough to sting the eyes or tear soft skin. (Soft skin of which Ongar had little, with his hands calloused from his stoneworker’s tools. His feet were rough from scaling stone-clad walls and treading the scorching sand now denied him). The rest of his skin would have made a leather worker smile and count her profit — if humans still harvested dwarves. He was a hardened worker. His skill, his work ethic, had been forged by his human mentors, building upon the stonesong he had learned at his father’s side.

How mother had wailed when Ongar had abandoned them but father had been stoic, his face like untouched stone, his words to Ongar, his only child, “You’ll be alone. Til death.” Tears stung Ongar’s eyes at the memory. But his father had been wrong. There had been Yoree, and the children. He forced back those other memories, he would not torture himself. He would make this end.

     Distant voices woke Ongar. He opened his eyes slowly, thick crusts of mucus crumbling away and spilling down his face. He stretched, arms and legs long past exhaustion. A caravan approached, angling towards the rear of the tower.

“Poor bastards,” he muttered. This was the third caravan to arrive since the Charlatan had tricked the wizard.

The badger, hidden now for the day, had forced three well-rounded pebbles into Ongar’s clenched fist: their presence undeniable, and their attraction irresistible. They were river rock, embraced and polished over a thousand generations, their deadstone shed: what remained was pure vitality. Ongar wanted very much to be brave and open his fist, to spill the pebbles to the sands, to die.

Instead he leaned his head, stretched up his hand and licked the pebbles into his mouth. He closed his eyes, murmured quietly, his tongue rolling the pebbles until they softened. Stoneblood seeped into him. Ongar had the power to shape stone to his will but because he was suspended above the earth he could not draw upon it. These pebbles he ate were enough only to renew him, let him linger another day or two. Reluctantly he opened his eyes.

The caravan neared. The handsome Charlatan had arrived with such a caravan, a half-year ago. In less than a week he was sharing the lovely wizard’s bed. That in itself no grand accomplishment for she took many lovers, though seldom from the workers. Many war chiefs, sorcerers, and princes had arrived to consort with her, lovers who’d been accompanied by craftsmen and material for her tower.

The Charlatan had been different from the beginning.

The tower opened with a grinding that Ongar never would have allowed. They had not leveled the gates correctly. The thought of a thousand other flaws worried him for the Charlatan was rushing the construction. Each night fewer workers managed the short walk to the camp situated east of the tower. Each day the tower grew more imperfect.

Finally the two halves of the stone gate struggled apart and the greeting party emerged. Surprisingly the wizard and the Charlatan walked towards Ongar instead of the caravan. He bowed his head, embarrassed by the crusted feces and dried urine covering his body, trying to push down the shame, to bury it with anger.

She had done this to him. She had believed the Charlatan’s lies.

The Charlatan wore a simple black robe, his long blond hair held in place by gray combs, and his hand interlocked with the wizard’s.

“Our builder still lives,” he said, his voice deep and resonant.

The wizard’s veiled face revealed nothing. Did she not see the corpses rotting in the sand? Did she not see how her ambitions had failed?

“Mistress,” Ongar whispered, eliciting a hiss and wince from the Charlatan. His mistress the wizard lifted her veil, her brown eyes locking with his for a heartbeat before she dropped the veil again.  Mistress. He knew the names, the true names, of a thousand flavors of stone, those names giving him power over them. But not her name.  No man knew the wizard’s name.

“The workers are feeding him again,” the Charlatan said.

Ongar struggled with his bonds, protesting. Twice the Charlatan had said those words. The first time the Charlatan had guessed correctly but after ten workers had been executed Ongar had begged his former crew to abandon him. The second time those words had been uttered the Charlatan had killed men simply to punish Ongar for living still.

The wizard said, “These sands we stand upon are the cracked and burnt bones of a thousand legionnaires. These sands tell us the truth of the wars of men, for here the foul general Asdar failed.”

Ongar knew the story. Asdar’s arrogance had proven greater than his army but the kingdom had received no boon from victory, the rivers men had fought for dried, the lush farmland withered.

“These sands are death.” The wizard’s voice grew quiet and Ongar struggled to hear her words, “And today more blood must soak them.”

Ongar tensed, both elated that he might finally die and terrified that she had not meant him. A smile rippled across the Charlatan’s face.

“Enough!” she said, and Ongar was almost reminded of the woman the wizard once had been. “Let this suffice! Let me show my enemies my strength!” She lifted her hand, a thin rod of diamond clutched in it. Ongar had first seen the rod the day she had hired him. They had met on the White Bridge, a massive construct straddling the ocean, connecting the Two Fair Islands. Its curved sides, adorned with engravings of dolphins and glitter fish, emulated the roll and tumble of the ocean. Ongar had built it, had coaxed the stubborn and vain marble to his bidding.

“You shall build me a tower, and it will be larger than any other ever built,” the she-wizard had said, in lieu of a greeting. If a man had made such a request Ongar would not have been surprised, human men were always striving for the largest castle or the longest wall, but for the request to originate from a woman, well, it was odd… and intriguing. Without even consulting his wife, or learning the location of the tower, he had accepted.

That day, beneath a gentler, kinder sun, the wizard had cradled the rod like an infant. Now she aimed the rod and he flinched, expecting a blinding light, but there was none of course, her magic no different from his in that–pyrotechnics were for amateurs and charlatans.

The wizard spun, her robe billowing as she snapped her arm, whipping the air with the rod. The caravan crumbled. A quarter of the men and animals disintegrated, their flesh simply gone, orphaned bones tumbling to the ground. Only then did Ongar see the metal swords and leather shields sinking into the sand. This had been no caravan. The survivors screamed in panic, most falling to their knees and surrendering.

The wizard slumped; the Charlatan steadying her, his hand cradling her elbow.

“They would have slain us,” the Charlatan said. The wizard half-turned and Ongar saw the swell of her stomach. Her bulky robes did much to conceal it but at this angle it was obvious. He shuddered.

“I know,” she said softly, “I did this for our child.” And they turned, walked back to the tower, the Charlatan singing a soothing song in his soft, melodious voice.

The wizard was with child? A child conceived on the site of Asdar’s Folly?

Freckles.

Such a human peculiarity, and one the dwarf adored, even when Yoree was leaning in the doorway of their shack, glaring at him. This time her face paler than usual, and her lips were pressed tightly together as if to declare, “never again will you part these.” The lantern on the peg-post beside their doorway cast a ghostly swath of light. The moon hid behind the tower, obscuring the rest of the camp and making it appear as if their home was the only dwelling to brave the cold desert nights.

It was late and he had not been home for almost a week. Though his body ached from sleeping against the foundation stone, where he’d been comforting it and reassuring it of its importance, he still trembled with excitement. Yoree’s flinty eyes bore into his but he barely noticed, certain that his news would dispel any worry, any bitterness.

“We did it!”

Still she stared, her paleness always a reminder of the girls from his cavern homeland, of what his own skin had looked like before becoming sun-touched. He could hear their young twins breathing softly, asleep within a stone basin that rested in front of the hearth embers.

“You might ask me what we’ve accomplished,” Ongar said, still not brave enough to draw her into an embrace but near enough that his intent was clearly visible.

Yoree said, “I am sure you will soon tell me.”

Standing there, confused, and wondering not for the first time why women seemed inherently contrary, he told her that the critical base of the tower, comprising the first few stories, had been completed. That he had successfully negotiated the joining of scoria and basalt, from the plinth, with the sandstone which would constitute the remainder of the tower. This was the critical step: if he had not been able to form a strong allegiance among such different personalities, the tower would fail. But by the stone he had succeeded! Even father would be proud!

But not Yoree. She yielded the doorway and he entered, taking the lantern in with them. She wore cogs, to protect her feet from the sand below: stone was reserved for the tower so all the homes in the camp were built of wood. Ongar had neglected to lay a floor, so that his feet would always remain planted in the source of his power.

Yoree stood a full head taller than Ongar and so he cupped her chin and levered it down towards him. “The hard part is finished. Now it is just labor, until the pinnacle. I will have more time.”

His wife nodded but her eyes held tears. “The children are so fond of you.”

“I know, I know.”

“Every day this house fills with their questions, and all I can do is point to the tower, all I can-”

“Yoree. Do not bury me with guilt.”

They stood there, accepting the silence, hands held tight. She looked down and now saw the fingernails of his right hand. Ongar loved her then again, more madly than ever because she did not flinch or pull away. The nails had hardened.

“Oh,” she whispered.

“We knew this would happen,” Ongar said.

Yoree examined his hand, said, “I know, I know. When you sing the stone, a price is always paid. But what manner of rock is it?”

“Like all the other transformations it is something new. I suppose we might even call it Ongarstone,” he said. Yoree laughed, her eyes lighting up.

“You’ll be careful?”

“Yes, yes.” He turned his head, gazed at his children. How easy it would be to release the magic, how quickly the tower might rise, the stone flowing upwards, a river of gray and brown. He kissed her chin. “I am far from my homeland and the stone asks much of me here. But I will be cautious. Believe me, it will be worth our sacrifices to build this tower. It will be more magnificent than the bridge.”

Yoree smiled. “I adored your bridge.”

“This tower will be so much more. With it the wizard will reverse the dark magic of this place. The tower lives and with its life it will give. Rivers will flow and the valley will bloom with grass and flowers. For you, for the children-”

“For all of them?” Yoree asked, pressing his hand against her belly. Ongar’s eyes widened.

“It is impossible,” he said, “our two peoples, the mixing, it works so seldom. Again?”

Yoree laughed. “Again! One of us is blessed that our coupling yields such harvest.”

“Perhaps,” Ongar said, his smile etched onto his rough face, “we best stop?”

“That, my stonesinger, is the most foolish notion to spill from your lips,” she said, pulling him to the cot, one long, rare moment in which he allowed himself to part touch with the stone.

“You’re awake.” The unfamiliar voice greeted Ongar on a chilly morning, made colder because the waking had stolen him from the warm embrace of his dream-Yoree. His family had abandoned him years ago but their parting sorrow still penetrated him deeper than the cold could.

After craning his neck harshly to the side he noticed another man staked behind him. Though his hands and feet had been hammered into his post, the Charlatan had been far less cruel to this man: he faced away from the tower, staring out at the endless desert.

The new prisoner, who had turned his head to study Ongar, wore a tattered uniform identifying him as a captain in the kingdom’s army. Ongar had learned the insignias during his apprenticeship, when he was building forts along the eastern frontier. The bloody wound on the man’s forehead would not heal before he succumbed to the elements; tear trails, drained during the night, had dried on his cheeks. The builder grunted a greeting, but sank back into his thoughts, back to how he had failed Yoree. He knew now that it had been his own fault, but it had taken the stake to teach him this. Such was his pride. And not his first day staked, or the second, not even the third before he finally admitted to himself that his tower had become an obsession.

For a moment he felt that never seeing Yoree or the children again was his true punishment but then he glanced up at the tower and not even his shame could eclipse his joy at the sight.

Oh, Yoree, please forgive me.

“A badger was here during the night, crawled right up you. Thought it was going to eat you.”

Ongar squeezed his palm, he held two pebbles. The badger’s cache was dwindling. Perhaps Ongar would not need to rely on willpower alone to ensure his death. He did not reply. The soldier shifted and muffled a groan of pain. Ongar could only imagine the man’s agony; to draw a breath the other prisoner needed to raise himself up, tearing flesh where the iron spikes penetrated him.

“We never suspected,” the soldier said, “that the wizard would succumb to the conjurling.”

“Conjurling?”

“The man who stood beside her, I saw them only a moment before . . . before . . .”

Ongar said, “Before the battle.”

“That was no battle. Slaughter is what it was. We were to recover his remains. A simple expedition, they called it. Ha!” He winced in pain. “I am Gaven. I am, was, Captain of the Fourth.”

“I am Ongar and it seems that the Charlatan, my name for your conjurling, has shattered the both of us.”

Gaven said, “Charlatan? A fitting title . . .you were a worker then, on the tower?”

“No,” Ongar said, the words hurting more than he cared to admit, “I was the builder, the architect . . . the overseer.”

“How long before we die?” the captain gasped two days later. It was mid-afternoon and the sun was merciless.

Ongar said, “I’ve been here two weeks, but you won’t last that long.”

“A mercy that,” Gaven said, “but how is it that you survive with no water, no food? It seems impossible, but perhaps your people are different?”

Ongar would not risk betraying the badger and so answered the question with his own question. “What kind of man is this conjurling?”

“He’s no man. He was plucked from the Fathers’ cursed river by our foolish cousins to the east.” Ongar knew the river of the Four Fathers; he had carved many tributes to it into his early projects. Humans believed that the souls of the dead were tossed back into those waters. Evil, angry souls sank to the bottom, heavy with sin, while the most righteous floated nearer the surface. These buoyant souls would be chosen for rebirth. But he did not realize they could be summoned with magic. It seemed a rather foolish undertaking.

“The conjurling escaped the returning and crossed into our kingdom. Only the good wizard’s own wards, long ago a gift from her to our kings, revealed him and sent him fleeing into the Long Sands. There’s irony there, I ‘spose, in that she never protected herself.”

“If you had met her you would understand. She’s different now but before the Charlatan… well I have never met a man more sure of himself than she was. Her confidence was contagious.”

Gaven said, “If only that rotting demon had died in the sands! Had failed as all conjurling do. We expected to find his shriveled corpse, his false flesh worn by wind and sun. These things, they are made to fail. But he did not. Had I known I would not have led . . . so few, so inexperienced.”

“Perhaps her magic sustains him,” Ongar suggested, finding it hard to imagine a creature summoned into existence only to be destroyed. It was like building a wall one day and demolishing it the next. He asked, “Why did he come here, the desert?”

The captain said, “That I will never know . . . look over there, what’s going on?”

Ongar turned his head slightly, wincing. A handful of workers were milling around about halfway between the camp and the tower. A tall man, Morv, who had been Ongar’s assistant, was talking to the small cluster of workers. Ongar would generally droop his head when he saw them standing there. It reminded him too much that he had failed them as well.

“They were your men? Your workers?”

“Yes.”

Gaven said, “They mourn you then, I think.” Ongar said nothing. The captain continued, “My son, he rode with me. He’s not one of the prisoners the conjurling took, he’s dead, out there, his bones in the sand. I never should have allowed him to accompany me. He was not prepared . . . I was not prepared.”

“You could not have known.”

“Perhaps,” the captain said, There was a long pause before he continued, “If you swear to me that you’ll slay that rotting conjurling I think I might have the means to free you.”

Ongar shifted uneasily, pain ripping through his stretched and sore joints. In what way could the man free him? It was madness, nonsense from a sun-baked mind. “The wizard is with him, always. It would be impossible.”

The captain said, “Destroy the tower.”

Ongar tensed. “No. I could not. I have no-”

“Look here,” the captain said, raising his arm slightly, revealing a metal band on his finger. “By the same power that will transform this chunk of iron into the means to your freedom, you could make that tower fall. You could end it all.”

Ongar looked away.

“Don’t be the fool. You are no common dwarf: that’s why they have suspended you from the earth, bound you without iron. That is why your badger feeds you rocks. By the Four Fathers what I would give for the chance to save my men from slavery, from death. I can’t. But you can.”

There was no place for Ongar to hide from his shame. Still he resisted, “I am not a warrior. I am a builder.”

“Rot that!” Gaven shouted, “A builder is the best destroyer. Why else have you not died? You have lived, waited, for your moment. Now seize it!”

Still Ongar kept quiet, tears streaming down his face.

“This will not end here,” the captain continued, his voice weak, almost faint, but still filled with passion, “Whatever the conjurling plans, he feeds off the wizard. His evil will stretch as far as her power allows. You must have family, kindred. They will die too.”

No. The captain was wrong. Yoree and the children were far away and safe. But what did Ongar know of wizards and conjurlings? This valley had once been a paradise. Look at it now. Magic and ambition knew no boundaries. And what of his men, of Morv, whose wife had fallen from the tower less than a month ago? Fallen because she hurried her work. Hurried because the Charlatan demanded it.

Ongar had watched her and too many others die.

“I swear,” Ongar said, “I will kill the conjurling. But how am I to reach your ring?”

There was no reply and Ongar feared, after all this, that the captain had died. When the man spoke, it was the voice of a corpse, “You can’t. But your badger will. Tonight.”

It was under darkfall that the badger crawled up the captain’s stake, the captain muffling his pain as the badger’s teeth severed bone. A few moments passed before a warm and surprisingly heavy finger fell into Ongar’s hand and then the thrill of touching iron and silver rushed through him and he no longer cared about the blood, the cooling flesh. He cradled the ring between thumb and index finger.

He whispered his song.

First the ring unraveled, parting at an invisible seam, the finger falling to the sand. Next he urged the metal to extend, thinning it to a fine blade. What blood remained was absorbed by the metal, Ongar’s will insufficient to completely smooth the surface. It was as if the blood had rebelled in that final moment, distorting the blade with a rough and contoured surface. No matter, it would cut. The ensorcelled bonds were no match for the stonesung blade. Ongar fell to the sand and crouched there in shock, the impact wonderful, invigorating. The stone sang its welcome and his body thrummed, his blood rejoicing in the reunion.

The captain said, “Be crafty. Confront the conjurling directly and it will be your undoing. You must destroy the tower.”

“I will be careful,” Ongar said, avoiding a lie. He would not destroy his tower. He would find another way. “Let me free-”

“No, do not waste your time. They’ve cut me, hobbled me. I can’t walk.”

Ongar ignored him, freeing the man and setting him onto the sands. The captain moaned, curling himself up. Ongar paused then, looking down, fear creeping into him. “Do you want . . . mercy?”

“No, no. That I won’t inflict upon you. Now move! I will live long enough to watch that rotting tower fall.”

Ongar nodded, relief and shame mixing as he abandoned the dying man.

Dawn broke slowly, a cracking open of the sky, swatches of purple suckling away the black from the dwindling darkness. Ongar collapsed against his tower, gasping for breath, his legs throbbing. The tower hummed beneath Ongar’s palms as concern, loneliness, and rage washing over the builder. The great basalt slabs that formed the wide tower base had traveled the furthest to be here, and though it was a strong stone the separation had given it a fragile personality.

“I have returned,” he whispered to it. He looked up at the empty scaffolds above him, knowing that they soon would be covered by workers. His men would try to help him, but he would not risk any more lives. This he would do on his own. The badger watched him.

“I cannot carry you,” he said, “run, back to the valleys. You have made this desert your home too long. I thank you for the good you’ve done me but if you stay, you’ll be a worker’s lunch.” Throughout the speech the badger had cocked its head and furrowed its brow, never budging. And when Ongar ran out of words it chittered angrily. Sighing, he bent and patted it on the head. It vomited a single pebble and he cupped the wet orb with his hand.

Scavenging for a discarded tool belt he tied it around his waist and dropped the pebble into it–sliding the dagger through the belt as an afterthought. He reached up, hauling himself to the first platform, and climbed, running his hand along the cool stone whenever he paused to rest, which was often. He did not know how his tower compared to the original fortress that had sat here over a thousand years ago. It had been the mad general Asdar’s center of operations in his war, but all plans for it had been lost. Still, the positioning of the new tower had been extremely important to the wizard and Ongar had relied on her notes to guarantee he erected his tower in the original’s exact place.

He glanced out at the desert and then looked back at the tower before deciding that indeed, he had reached his destination. He pressed palms against stone. His sandstone, his work, each segment joined back with brothers and sisters taken from the same quarry, just as he had promised them, their seams invisible to any eye but his. No tower built with human hand, human sweat, could be so perfect in its union of stone. Now, he needed another favor. He pressed his lips to the stone and whispered his intent.

He waited for a murmur of consent before he shoved his head into the stone.

The stonewalkers had always been much beloved legends, told by a doting father to an eager son. Now he slid through the stone like his mythheroes, feeling a coolness, a comfort wash over him. It was like the warm after minutes with Yoree. He soon stepped out onto a staircase. Pausing, he brushed his hand against the stone, whispering thanks. Sandstone could be impulsive and he had feared it might not open to him, or worse, that it might never release him.

Immediately below him was the cutoff point, where the circular staircase that unraveled up from the base of the tower stopped, resuming only where Ongar had emerged from the wall, leaving a gap of two floors with no staircase. Only the wizard could fly and so this aberration in the staircase afforded her some defense and, more importantly, privacy.

Ongar reached the first landing and almost screamed out in rage when he saw the blackened crystal heart of the tower, now spoiled beyond his understanding. He had grown the shaft of clear crystal, urged on from a small shard to a proud cylinder, almost as wide as his hand and taller than the tower, its base buried well under the sand. The surface was now scarred and smoky, as if it had been burnt in a cook’s hearth. The crystal’s purpose was to channel the wizard’s magic under the Long Sands and restore life to the barrens. At worst they had hoped to stop the desert’s expansion, the slow, year-upon-year eating away of the grazing lands that bordered it.

He studied the crystal, wanting to touch it, to comfort it, but feared what might happen.

“What do I do?” he whispered to the stone that surrounded the crystal. It groaned as he ran his hand along the cool walls, groaned as it read his thoughts, both those on the surface–the killing of the Charlatan–and those that Ongar had buried deeper.

“Whatever the Charlatan seeks, the wizard, this tower are his means,” Ongar whispered.

Kill it! The tower replied so angrily that Ongar stepped back from the wall. He had never felt such rage from stone before. He slid the ring dagger free and studied it before glancing up at the blackened crystal: ruined, spoiled, desecrated. He took the stairs, passing three more floors: first the wizard’s labs, followed by the small tidy collection of books constituting the wizard’s traveling library, and then a floor housing the wizard’s shoes.

Ongar reached the final floor, the wizard’s bed chamber.

He stumbled, steadying himself with a hand pressed against stone. The wizard was in bed and on her side, facing Ongar, the Charlatan behind her. Both were naked and spent from lovemaking. The wizard slept while the Charlatan, his face hidden by the wizard’s, ran his hand in soft circles across her belly. He sang softly, a children’s song in an unknown language. Ongar stayed where he was, in the shadow of the doorway, pressing himself against the wall as if it might camouflage him. The stone’s cries for murder thundered through his head for over an hour until the Charlatan’s hand slowed, then stopped, the murmuring song drowned out by the shallow breathing of exhausted lovers.

Ongar crossed the carpeted floor, his feet tingling with memory and a flush of disappointment: not exactly shame, but a lesser emotion akin but not as severe. How many times, after Yoree had abandoned him, had the wizard summoned Ongar? An expending of lust, of power, fulfilling the wizard by day, with his hands on her tower, and by night, with his hands on her body. There had been no love, only respect, excitement, and release. A temporary bandage across the wound in his heart.

He reached their bed.

His people had few great warriors, only a handful of legends surviving in the histories. They had had no need, not before humans arrived and the enslaving begun, hundreds of years passing before they had their freedom again. And so Ongar had no patron’s legends to guide his hand in this, the act of murder. He improvised–jumping onto the bed, intending to land behind the Charlatan to slice through his enemy’s neck. Mid-leap the conjurling’s eyes opened, black pits coalescing slowly into a shade of kyanite blue. Ongar landed as intended but the conjurling had already pivoted away. The builder’s thrust caught only air.

The expression on the wizard’s face as she rolled out of bed held the same disappointment he had seen the day the conjurling had first accused Ongar of treachery. Then, her hands had dangled impotently at her sides but today her fingers curled and her arm shot up, the rod pointed at him. Ongar avoided the blast, throwing himself from the bed, landing painfully on his knees. He tossed the ring dagger at the conjurling who was now rushing towards the prone builder, hands outstretched as if to strangle. The blade flew wide.

The conjurling roared and rammed Ongar against the wall. The builder struggled, tried shouting to the wizard and denouncing his attacker as a false-thing but the Charlatan strangled away Ongar’s voice. Through blurred vision he saw the wizard gesture to the roof and it tore away. Seconds later Ongar and the Charlatan were carried upwards by a magical wind.

During those long seconds, grappling with the Charlatan, both held aloft by the wizard’s magic, Ongar understood that he had failed. Truly failed. He had fought but not with any of the tools he had been trained to use–his stonesong, his mind.

He was the fool now.

They fell onto the pinnacle, the impact loosening the conjurling’s grip. Ongar frantically struggled to regain his breath and freedom.

The wizard landed above him, her bare feet settling onto a large stone petal, sister to the other two flanking it. The petals were open but had the tower been finished the wizard could have commanded them to close. These were the last of the tower and had still not been set properly into place. They were held by scaffolding. Judging by the scarring at their bases, the workers were trying to install them manually. This task had been for Ongar to complete, he had intended to merge them with the tower stone, like he had the base.

He was on a wooden joist, what remained of the roof. The conjurling still held him by the neck, though with less force. The day was still and the only wind was that which surrounded the wizard, her hair fluttering unnaturally. Fiery eyes complemented the depth of her voice, “Twice now you have betrayed me.”

“No, mistress. It is this conjurling who has-” but the Charlatan squeezed hard on Ongar’s throat, choking off the words.

“Enough!” she shouted and Ongar heard the quiver, that all too human quiver that both damaged the shroud of power she attempted and made him realize that she was still in there. Before she could act she groaned in pain and collapsed to her knees, one arm cradling her belly, the other using the rod to support her precarious balance.

The Charlatan released Ongar, half-turning as he looked up, as he asked, “The child?”

“Oh by the rot, it is coming!” Pain rippled across her face. She had to see the truth and now! Ongar leapt towards the wizard’s petal, his fingers sinking into stone, a jolt of pain shuddering through his body. He quivered under the pull of the stonesong but managed to scramble up like a bug, fingers and toes leaving tiny depressions in the stone.

For the moment he was out of the Charlatan’s reach.

“Please mistress, listen to me. That creature down there, he is a conjurling, that is why the King’s men came to the tower. For him. No one wants to harm your child. No one. You have been enchanted-”

“I am not enchanted.” Pain twisted her features but she still managed a snort of indignation and tilted the rod towards him. He had failed; he did not have the words to save her. The conjurling was scrambling up the scaffolding, was reaching towards him. Ongar knew he could command the stone to throw the conjurling from the tower but feared the wizard’s intervention.

Who might she listen to if not him?

The stone stirred beneath him, a cacophony of pleading voices.

Of course!

“Tell her,” he whispered, “show her!”

A hand grasped Ongar’s ankle and with a heavy yank the Charlatan dragged the builder from the petal, leaving two fingers embedded in the stone. Ongar screamed and fell onto the joist. Most of his view was now obscured by the conjurling who rested on his chest, and punched him in the face. He watched each punch–bright sky, dark fist, bright sky, dark fist.

Bright sky, wizard staring down from her perch, eyes focusing, seeing.

Dark fist. Bright sky, the wizard drifting down, hovering past the edge of the tower, behind the conjurling.

Dark fist.

“You have failed. You have failed Asdar. Again.” She spoke simply, quietly. Ongar’s mind churned . . . General Asdar? The man whose blood thirst had drained these valleys of life, had transformed them into a bleak desert?

Bright sky.

Asdar, the conjurling, the Charlatan shrieked as his body shuddered, a great torrent of blackness erupting from him, coils of oil seeping through the serrated folds of his dissolving skin. The wizard said, “How they whispered, the grumble and tumble of voices I have never dreamed of hearing. But they told me. And they are angry. I am angry.”

“No,” the conjurling begged, black tears streaming from his eyes, “This, you, the child… my vessel, my only hope to restore, to repair… please do not make me-”

The wizard said, “I will cast you back to the river so deep you’ll never swim free again. Never!”

Shaking his head sadly, the Charlatan murmured a word so softly that Ongar was certain only he could hear it.

“Lesany.”

The wizard’s eyes widened and Ongar felt a horrible twisting up in his guts, the anticipation of an impending and unavoidable terribleness about to occur. The Charlatan knew the wizard’s true name! She hastily aimed the rod at the demon.

“You have no power,” Asdar said.

She plummeted. Her magic was neutered and Ongar stiffened as he listened to her long shriek, ending only when she crashed into the sands.

Asdar, the Charlatan, wailed while shedding flesh as he ran to the tower’s edge.

Ongar staggered to his feet, exhausted and disoriented just as the creature turned back towards him, stretching out an arm free of skin, its blackened bones glowing like warmed obsidian. Skeletal fingers clenched into a fist and the conjurling lunged. Ongar rolled to the side, the conjurling’s fist penetrating wood with a mighty crash, splinters flying. Ongar reached up, sliding his hand into the stone petal above him.

The stone so very badly wanted blood. The stone, all of it, from the basalt and scoria, to the sandstone, screamed at Ongar.

“A second chance,” the conjurling hissed, raining down blows, some connecting, tearing flesh and drawing blood, most missing, sundering wood and cracking stone. But then he stopped, his body pressing Ongar against the stone petal. Black tears flowed freely.

Asdar said, “We, all of us, have regrets. My pride, I know now, was my failing. What would you have done, dwarf, if given a second chance?”

“There are no second chances,” Ongar said sadly, pulling his hand free of the petal. It was changed now, all stone, but he could squeeze his fingers, form a fist.

“What are you?” Asdar asked, staring at the stone fist.

The tower raged at Ongar, as if built of hate, as if built for murder. Ongar shook his head sadly. He knew now what needed doing. The stone stirred, not quite reading his thoughts but growing impatient and agitated.

“I am just a builder,” Ongar whispered as he grasped the conjurling’s black claw with his stone fist, “but this was my tower.”

Ongar sank into the stone, dragging the conjurling after him. The tower roared in savage joy as stone ground Asdar’s flesh and bones to powder.

“You were such sweet things, dreaming beneath the earth,” he whispered, the truth in his heart now revealed to the stone. The tower wailed, twisting and coiling around him but it could not harm him now. Ongar commanded the tower to sink. He forced his body into the act, his thoughts rushing through the stone, thought made physical by sheer force of will.

It was not our fault.

The tower melted, liquid stone seeping like tears into the sand.

Sand surged around the dwarf as Ongar tunneled under the desert. He did not need to see them to know that Morv and the other men were already moving away. Ongar’s tower, their tower, had fallen. Ongar wished he might comfort them but he had a wizard to rescue first.

How long had the conjurling’s ward dispelled her magic? He scoured the sands and the stretch of blue sky, rising like the sleek porpoises with which he had adorned his bridge, as if sand were water. A snort sent spirals of sand out of his nostrils.

There, a black shape ahead of him. His grimace sent flakes of stone from his cheeks.

Why was she not standing?

The sand carried him to her and he crawled out from its warm embrace, cradling the broken body of the wizard, his calloused hands running over her as if she were stone and he could mend her damage, make her breathe again. His hands lingered on her belly and the baby inside kicked his palm. His eyes widened but he did not panic. The dwarf pushed his hand into the sand; pulling his hand free he now held a sand knife, the grains compacted to a fine edge.

He set the knife against the wizard’s belly, its tip merely dimpling her dead flesh. The child inside stirred again. He did not know where to start the cut. Stone teardrops rolled down his cheeks like rain water and pooled in the narrow crevices where flesh still remained.

The baby stopped moving and Ongar released a groan of despair.

“Help me!” he cried, lifting his hand. The baby could not die. Not after all his other failures. He offered himself to the sand. All of him.

And then he waited.

But only a moment. The sand surged, washing over the wizard and covering her like a burial shroud. Then it hardened, a line of dark sand appearing and showing him the outline of the baby. He did not give himself time to hesitate. He had to trust his gift; he had to trust the earth. The knife passed through sand and flesh as he carved. Ongar was a builder but now he destroyed again.

When he was finished, his hands and the sand bloodied, he pulled the screaming baby out of her mother’s womb and lifted her to his face. His body was hardening, he could feel his insides changing and he knew little time remained. It was with desperation that he wiped the gore from the child.

She had short, stubby legs and strong arms with furrowed black eyes. He rubbed his finger very gently across a wide, pale forehead, lingering at the freckles. Freckles! Ongar let out a long cry. Yoree, the other children, would be safe. He had stopped the conjurling, he had saved them, even if it had meant undoing his own ambition.

And he had saved his new daughter.

He wanted to call back his men now. Wanted to remind them that though the tower had fallen they had taken a wizard’s dream, the hope for a future, and with earth and sweat and blood, had built it. That it was built, would never be changed. His stone fingers brushed the baby’s lips and she started to suckle. He smiled. This was another kind of creation.

The badger snorted behind him.

“They didn’t eat you,” Ongar muttered, surprised. How he wanted to take this child, find Yoree, raise their family together but he had sacrificed more than his tower. His body did not belong to him. The child too, was different, with wizard’s blood mingling with his, changing things.

He lowered her to the ground beside her mother’s corpse, making a nest for her in the sand, adding the wizard’s rod, tucking it under a chubby arm.

“From your mother, from your father.”

He fumbled at his pouch but his stone fingers would no longer fit and he growled in frustration. The badger purred softly and plucked the pebble out for him. Ongar took it between index and thumb and etched out a pattern of runes onto it with a steady stone finger.

“I return you to the halls of stone I long abandoned.” He placed the pebble inside the child’s mouth. Her eyes opened in shock as she suckled the stoneblood.

“You, daughter of Ongar, the stonesinger, and Lesany, the wizard. You will ride the stone.”

Before sentiment washed away conviction he commanded the sands and they covered the child. He pushed his arms deep into the sand and sent her away. Head drooping, he could sense her tunneling at unfathomable speeds under the desert and towards his mountain homeland.

As his child vanished Ongar struggled against the sand’s grip but it clasped his forearms, binding his body to the earth as thoroughly as his heart and soul had always been bound. This, the stone’s price.

The badger watched him, eyes wide and gleaming.

“Please, go now. Go and live,” Ongar whispered and though his voice was no more than the scratching of sand against granite. The badger obeyed, shaking sand from fur and shuffling away.

Eventually Ongar’s nearly stone eyes slid closed and where his tower had once cast its magnificent shadow the stonesinger settled into a deep and never-ending slumber. And in this slumber he dreamed not of bridges or of towers.

No, through long nights and long days, under desert suns and desert moons, Ongar dreamed of his freckled wife and the children she had given him. Dreams of peace. For his stone, in the end, had forgiven him.

_______________

Brent Knowles is an author and game designer (formerly with RPG developer BioWare). He has been published in several magazines and anthologies including Neo-Opsis, On Spec and Writers of the Future (Volume 26). Online he can be found at www.brentknowles.com where he blogs regularly about game design and writing.

 

6 comments to Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2012: Stone Eater

  • […] to see that my story ‘Stone Eater’ is now available to read at Abyss and Apex, the online magazine of speculative fiction. This […]

  • […] the publication of ‘Stone Eater‘ I now have four published fantasy […]

  • […] Stone Eater is a short story that can be found in Issue 42 of the webzine Abyss & Apex. Check out this first line: “Ongar stopped eating the pebbles on the eleventh night of his impalement.” It is so concise but manages to intrigue on several levels: “He’s eating what now? Pebbles? And he’s been impaled for eleven days and he’s not dead? I want to know what’s going on!” Well, I won’t spoil the story by revealing the secrets behind that first line, but I can say that the story continues by revealing that Ongar has been tied to a stake facing the tower that he has helped create, his grand masterpiece, which is now being built in ramshackle fashion by an inept overseer. Yes, it’s not the impalement so much that bothers him, it’s being forced to watch someone ruining his creation. […]

  • […] my story ‘Stone Eater‘ is still free to read at Abyss and Apex. You can find a reviews of the story at […]

  • […] Stone Eater is a short story that can be found in Issue 42 of the webzine Abyss & Apex. Check out this first line: “Ongar stopped eating the pebbles on the eleventh night of his impalement.” It is so concise but manages to intrigue on several levels: “He’s eating what now? Pebbles? And he’s been impaled for eleven days and he’s not dead? I want to know what’s going on!” Well, I won’t spoil the story by revealing the secrets behind that first line, but I can say that the story continues by revealing that Ongar has been tied to a stake facing the tower that he has helped create, his grand masterpiece, which is now being built in ramshackle fashion by an inept overseer. Yes, it’s not the impalement so much that bothers him, it’s being forced to watch someone ruining his creation. […]

  • […] (Ken Liu’s Nebula Award-winning “The Paper Menagerie,” and Brent Knowles’ “Stone Eater,” for instance), it is the emotional content of this story that most intrigued me. What I […]

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