She raised her head to listen for the rustle of his whispers.
It was always the same muttered words that she could never fully comprehend, followed by the sound of his hands—those callused, filth-crusted fingers tapping across the surface of the cellar door, feeling the wood for the lock and handle.
Even in the pitch of the underground, she could smell the crisp morning and knew to shut her eyes as searing white light spilled in around him, waiting for the creak of the door to seal in the darkness again, then for the pounding of his footfalls down the stone steps. She sensed the moment when he settled in the chair across from her bed, the clatter of his lantern on the ground telling her it was safe to look at him if she wanted.
But Orla could never raise her eyes to his.
Something about the sagging skin and darkened lines of his face bittered the back of her tongue with bile. Every time he visited, it seemed to Orla that he’d aged more than she remembered—shocks of gray sprouting at his temples and speckling the stubble of his beard, and the dewiness of his disheveled brow that told her that the simplest tasks were beginning to tire him more than before. It meant that the day she would be free of him was fast approaching, and if she were quiet and careful enough, she just might find the right moment to take that freedom.
Until then, she waited calmly, taking the bowl of stew he had brought her and drinking from one of its unchipped edges.
“I’ve been thinking,” Orla said, pacing herself between mouthfuls. “About the last time we went for a walk, out there.”
She watched him shift like he was struggling to hear her, or maybe to see her clearly in the mix of shadow and light, and because it disturbed her to look at his face, Orla in turn focused, as she often did, on his throat, just to the side of the point of swallowing, where the hint of a pulse quivered in the lantern’s glow.
“I thought it’d be nice, one of these days, if we could walk again.” She put the bowl on the floor when she was finished. “Maybe through the village, away from the Erst Field, even? Wherever the king’s watchmen will allow us to go. It’s just…been so long since I’ve seen the outside.”
He said nothing, but she knew his mind was beginning to turn, that he had a fondness for their walks and craved the idea of a time when he didn’t keep her locked away.
“You could tie my hands with rope,” she went on. “And bind yourself to me with the other end. I won’t run this time. I promise.” She pushed her mouth to smile and forced her voice higher, to set him at ease.
And while he seemed to consider the notion, lost somewhere in his thoughts, or perhaps remembering something else from before, Orla felt under the wool and straw beneath her for the shard that she kept, the one she had wrenched free from the wooden bed frame during the quiet hours of the day when he disappeared.
It had taken countless cuts and splinters across the soft pads of her hands to pry apart the cracks in the grain in just the right way, until she had a fragment that she could wield. But now it was as if she could almost feel the light air outside enveloping her face, chilly and waiting, just for her. She squeezed the wood fragment in her throbbing, blistered hand and thought of the vast openness above her again and nothing between her and home.
The great, dark rock that would take her home.
“So?” she asked hopefully. “Can we walk together again?”
He did not move, or even blink, and he barely whispered the word.
Orla jumped from the bed and plunged the shard into his throat, and she allowed herself to look at him then, to take in the bare anguish that twisted across his face.
And she grinned, even as he roared and threw her against the stone wall.
She grinned, until she realized that she had missed.
That, aged and tired and hulking though he was, he had moved, just barely, catching the wood in the sinewy muscle just above his collar bone, where it protruded now as the blood spread under his shirt, hovering near the pulse in his throat, but not close enough.
The rage that flashed in his eyes, in that instant, frightened her deeply. It was an old anger she had rarely seen, that was reserved for the worst of things, but never, before, for her.
It was there now.
It might have been only a glimmer, but she knew that he would grab her by the neck and bash her against the stones.
So Orla crawled. She clambered backward, bending her limbs in the new ways as she moved to the ceiling, retreating to the corner, aloft where he could not pull her down. And though she was terrified, she dared not show it, instead widening the opening of her jaw.
She felt her second tongue squeeze its way through the canal of her throat and unfurl onto the wall, slapping wetly across the stones beneath her and dangling between them. She arched its end so that he could clearly see the curve of its barbs and would hesitate to reach for her, unless he wanted to feel her slice deep, flowing gashes across his arms.
No, he wouldn’t dare try to hurt her now when she was like this.
He could only stand below, staring, so small in the lantern light, holding his wound and grunting in pain through his clenched teeth.
“Let me go home,” she cried.
He looked at her strangely, pathetically, before turning to take the bowl, his heavy footfalls thumping again up each of the steps. He paused one last time to peer at her from the glow of his lantern across the dark space between them.
Then she shut her eyes as white flooded in from the open cellar door.
Brian sat for a time in the house, touching the wooden fragment embedded near his neck. He pulled steadily, sliding the shard out of his muscle bit by bit, blood dripping onto his shoulder and chest before he applied pressure with a cloth.
He tried to think of nothing else as he cleaned the wound, but he kept imagining Orla, and her disquieting excitement as she leapt, that glee as she sank the shard into him, and the moment after, however brief, when he almost lashed out in return.
He wondered if Orla’s mother could have kept the girl calm, but that only let in more unbidden thoughts. Brian rose to leave, even as his wound continued to bleed through the dressing.
He could only stay so long in those empty rooms.
The gray morning outside provided just enough sharpness to revive him, his breath misting as he stared at the cobblestones of the main road of Codladh village, until his eyes eventually met the figure of a man hunched in the doorway of another home.
The man looked back at Brian, his hands caked black with soil from working through the night. Brian could tell that he’d also just emerged from his cellar, and like all of the parents in Codladh, had come up just a bit darker in his face. Brian thought to say something, perhaps ask about the dig or how the other parents were doing, but the man’s front door had already slid shut, just as the noise began.
It carried across the village, like the heavy echoing of giant bells that Brian had once heard in the cities—at least, that’s how the noise always sounded to him. Others heard horses screaming, as if they’d been lashed, or the feverish rise of locusts chittering in the summer. But for Brian, it was only the bells, and when they came, he whispered the words he always said under his breath as they clanged, words repeated again and again to carry his mind through the moment, until the silence finally settled in around his ears again.
The morning chill remained for a while longer, and Brian squinted at the flashes of sun peeking through the dark sheets of clouds, until, eventually, a horse clopped near, its ears twitching from the flies gathering around its glossy, black body.
The king’s soldier on its back leaned forward in his saddle and stared at Brian carefully, his clear eyes peering out above the cloth that covered his nose and mouth.
“Bit of trouble?” He spoke with a youthful, quavering voice and pointed to a few dots of blood that had seeped through Brian’s bandage.
The soldier cleared his throat.
“On with you, then.”
Brian and his escort took the quickest path to the Erst Field, around the village’s edge and along the curve of the main road. He ignored the soldiers lined around Codladh Square and positioned between the houses, their stares following him and all the other villagers who were going about their day with their heads bowed. The king’s men had come to treat this like an ordinary plague town, wary of desperate runners who might break their barricade, but the truth was that no man or woman in Codladh was going to run.
Brian made it a point to nod to his neighbors as he passed, and he could tell each one was searching his face for signs of what might come of the dig. They looked to him for answers, now, because of what little they knew of his life before he came to the village.
When he first arrived those years ago, as an outsider, before Orla’s mother took him in, when he still carried his experiences like poison, the people of Codladh had been distant with him, as they should have been.
But as time passed, and he learned to let his anger go, when Orla was born, he assumed, though he couldn’t identify a particular moment, the others seemed to think of him more as one of their own. And he almost forgot that they had ever seen him as anything else.
Now, though, they needed that other part of him. They needed the outsider to tell them if this might be the day they finally buried the stone.
Everyone in Codladh knew they were almost to the end, now that the pit they had constructed had become quarry-like, deep and wide and buttressed by all manner of wooden framing, to the point where it was almost impossible to see all the way down to the bottom.
But Brian kept his expression impassive as ever, understanding that they all needed to guard themselves from hoping for too much or too little, that losing that balance would hurt the village worse than any affliction.
He continued beyond the edge of Codladh, where he would, on most days, walk the quarter mile to the flats and take up his post at the dig. But today he heard something he recognized coming just beyond the tall grass, almost muffled by the heaviness in the air, and he found himself heading toward it, neither hurrying nor slowing his pace.
“You! Where are you—Wait!”
His young escort called from his horse with increasing urgency as Brian kept walking further from the road. And when it was clear that Brian wasn’t turning around, the escort followed, over a slope and down to a patchwork of dewy grass and muck, where they found a circle of men gathered, each of them in the dull leather uniform of the king’s army, laughing as they stood around a covered tumbrel.
The group of soldiers jeered and chattered to one another until they gradually turned to see Brian come upon them. There was a flicker of uncertainty across the group—some of their hands floating down to their hilts and changing their stances—but that dissipated when they realized he was only a villager, and a few of their expressions, what he could see above the cloth strips covering their mouths, took a different cast.
Brian ignored them, looking beyond their figures and between the bars of the tumbrel and barely making out the slinking shape of an afflicted boy held captive in the cart.
The boy was no more than fourteen, pressing his shivering body against one of the corners of the cart, his arms wrapped around the wooden slats. The flaking cracks forming around the folds of his mouth hinted at muscles beginning to change their shape, and the whorls of skin that covered what were once his eyes left only shrunken pinholes to take in and shut out the light.
The afflicted boy sank further from the reach of the men, and through his torn clothing Brian could see the exposed lumps of bone growing on either side of the boy’s ribs, the beginnings of the smaller arms that some of the other Codladh children grew in their final stages.
“Home,” the boy rasped, mucus dripping from the corner of his lips.
It was only a second, but Brian thought back to Orla—how there were moments, more and more frequent, when the cadence and lilt of her voice became unrecognizable that way—moments when she believed she was speaking but only made that same rasping, barking noise.
Brian studied the boy’s face, noticing the small cuts where the child had been prodded.
“Move on,” one of the men nearest to the tumbrel said. He seemed older than the others and had the serious affect of someone with authority.
Brian looked to the older soldier and spoke so that everyone could hear him. “This boy…His name is Liam,” he said. “Liam Conroy.” He stepped forward, and because he was taller than most men, he cast a shadow that tended to make others attentive.
“His family lives on the far side of the square by the fallen wych elm,” Brian continued. “His father is the apothecary, and his mother, Rosemary, tends to swine. They’re good people, who care very much for their son.”
Some of the soldiers shifted uneasily.
“You don’t…have to do anything more than this,” Brian went on. “He’s just a child.”
The older soldier stared and touched the cloth over his mouth. “You keep on with your work, and we will with ours.” He looked at the escort on horseback, as if to indicate that he’d best see Brian on his way, but the younger soldier seemed unsure what to do.
Brian closed his hand, and something small in him stirred, thinking of what could happen if he pressed the men.
He knew the soldiers looked at the parents, including Brian, with a queasy disdain. It didn’t matter that Codladh was made of hardworking men and women, apothecaries and swineherds who loved their children dearly. That love alone lacked any real power, any strength, which was the only attribute of meaning to a soldier.
All they saw in the villagers were hollowed, pitiful creatures barely capable of digging in the fields, and the king’s men despised them all the more for it.
Even so, Brian still knew the innerworkings of soldiers’ minds, especially restless, overeager ones like these, and he felt there were other ways that this could go if he approached them with something of consequence, something that they comprehended.
“If this is the way it’s to be, I understand,” he said evenly, slowly, so that they had to lean into the words to follow him. “But…who do I say is responsible when the Thinling asks? I assume you.” Brian gestured at the markings on the older man’s pauldron, half-obscured by his wool cloak, and the soldier blinked rapidly.
“The Thinling?” He touched his shoulder, and the tenor of his voice changed.
“Yes. He’s observing the dig, and we’re meant to speak shortly.”
The older man briefly turned to the escort on horseback, who gave the slightest nod, then he swallowed and scratched his ear before finally responding. “If that’s true…that the Thinling’s here…You can already see, this one is…”
“Still meant for the Thinling to study,” Brian finished, without raising his voice. “And he doesn’t like losing subjects for study. I can tell you that.”
The murmuring among the men seemed to die in their throats. Some things had changed in the infantry over the years, but the palpable chill among the footmen at the mention of the Thinling was the same as it ever had been.
The older soldier looked at no one in particular, and Brian could see his halted breathing from the movement of the cloth on his face. “If that’s how…if that’s how the Thinling says he wants things, we’ll follow that, of course.” He waved to the men behind him, and a few lifted the rails of the tumbrel up from the mud.
“Of course,” Brian repeated.
“By the wych elm, you said?”
The men began dragging the tumbrel toward Codladh, the large wheels wobbling through the inches of mud. The older soldier stopped at the slope, giving Brian a look before taking his leave, less of anger and more searching, like he was trying to understand why Brian’s bearing wasn’t quite like the others in Codladh.
But Brian’s gaze stayed only on the boy who clutched the bars and looked back at him ponderously with the dark holes of what had once been his eyes, until the cart and the men eventually disappeared over the hill.
“And he arrives.”
The Thinling called out as Brian and his escort approached the canvas tent. The king’s physician rose from a planning table set outside, his unusually skinny frame stretching impossibly upward as he stood, tall in a way that always reminded Brian of a reflection distorted in cracked glass. On the table in front of him, the bloody remains of an animal streamed over the edges, seeping plops of wet mass onto the dirt, and the Thinling held up his hands, long, slender fingers doused in a fierce red that dripped to his elbows as he smiled.
The escort hesitated, his black horse slowing to a halting clop as they reached the end of the road, shaking its head anxiously at the smell of the blood.
Brian looked up at the young man reassuringly. “You’ve done your part now and don’t need to be here for this.”
The soldier’s eyes darted away from the figure of the Thinling, and when he lowered the cloth over his mouth, revealing his smooth, beardless face, Brian realized the escort couldn’t have been much older than Orla.
“Are you sure…you want to be alone?” the boy asked, a genuine concern tinging his voice under the trembling, reminding Brian vaguely of other men he knew who followed the king’s flag.
“I’ll be fine, son. Thank you. Go back to the others.”
Brian reached up his hand, and the soldier clasped it. “May He bless the roads before you,” the young man intoned.
“And may all the dark things die,” Brian finished.
He watched the soldier trot his horse hurriedly to the path and away, then he turned back to the tent where the Thinling waited.
Simon Wayn, the name by which Brian had known the Thinling when they’d first met during the campaigns, grinned with large, unnaturally white teeth. The footmen back then had whispered that he was born of something unholy, and Brian wondered if there was some truth in the rumor, because Simon’s face was just as it had been decades ago, like porcelain untouched by time.
They had first met outside a field tent not unlike this one, when Brian was barely old enough to hold a blade, still dark-haired and lean and without the weight in his heart he’d later carry, and he’d looked at the Thinling directly and without hesitation, even then, providing the latest reports on field movements that the physician had requested.
“Do you not fear me, soldier?” the pale man had asked him all those years ago, his unsettling eyes studying Brian’s expression carefully.
“No,” Brian said simply, maybe foolishly in retrospect.
“But surely you must find me strange? Something other than normal to someone like you, at least?” he pressed, almost as though interrogating him.
“There is, I think, nothing strange, or even normal for that matter, sir,” Brian swallowed. “Only what we know, and take for granted, and that we have yet to know, and fear.”
And something about the answer seemed to please Simon in just the right way, because he gave the first of many smiles to Brian, chilling and practiced, that Brian would learn signaled a request to follow.
“Tell me, young man. What do you know of the creatures that come from the otherworld?”
The memory, and those words in particular, lingered with Brian in the present as the Thinling extended a blood-covered hand, unaware that there was anything curious in the gesture. Brian shook it, looking down at the limbless, open carcass on the table between them, its skin flayed completely from the weeping, pink muscle, and its lungs and heart churning slowly, the only sign it was somehow still barely alive.
The Thinling plucked a small sac from the body and held it up for a moment, then sucked it delicately into his mouth. He invited Brian to take a piece of his choosing, but Brian held up a hand to decline.
“The dig site,” Brian said, looking away and waiting until the Thinling was done chewing. “Everything to your expectations, I hope?”
Simon licked his fingertips before dabbing his mouth with a handkerchief. “Very much so, I’d say,” he returned to the bloody remains and tossed aside what seemed to be the wound cord of intestines onto the ground. “The pit will be deep enough soon, possibly today.”
“And then we can begin?”
Simon looked up.
“Oh yes. And then we can begin.”
Brian stared at the blighted expanse of the Erst Field in front of them, his eyes drawn across the flat plateau to the tall, jagged figure of the Slaking Stone, which was what the Thinling had come to call the dark rock over the course of his study. It stood ominously alone in the middle of the land and was, by Brian’s estimation, at least the size of a fortified castle turret, stretching fifty feet or more into the air and growing ever so slightly with each day that passed.
Brian didn’t need to look on it long, because he had seen every detail of its angular, obsidian body in his mind every day since it came to their village.
That creeping dawn when it first appeared—when men harrowing the soil stumbled upon it and called all of Codladh to see—the faithful had claimed it was a Godsent artifact, or some kind of blessing crystal from the old folktales, bestowing good fortune to the village.
But Brian, who stood far back from others in the crowd at the Erst Field that day, had already known.
He’d seen enough in his younger days to recognize an otherworldly creature like this one.
And so Brian sent his first letters to the king’s court immediately, doing his best to describe the dark rock: its measurements, its properties, his assumption that its elemental fundament was perhaps of the earth, given its appearance. It had been some time since he had contacted the capital, years since he left to begin his quieter life in Codladh, but he hadn’t known where else to turn with something of this nature. Send men, he had written, because it won’t be long before it begins to prey on the minds of the people living here. But, even then, he couldn’t have anticipated how quickly the sickness would fall on Codladh after that.
It had started with a noise.
A booming, like the clang of a bell deeper than any he’d heard before, a noise so penetrating it entered his mind and covering his ears did nothing to dampen it. It was so painful that it woke him suddenly in the night and caused him to stumble through the dark, searching for Orla, but finding her nowhere in their home. His shouts were soon joined by others outside as he wandered into the road. Fathers, mothers, were screaming their children’s names, unable to find them in their beds or around their houses. He went with the throng of others, floating lanterns glowing in the night as they all moved outward from the village, until, of course, among the waves of wheat that still grew in the Erst Field at the time, they saw the boys and girls of Codladh gathered in a ring around the Slaking Stone, hands outstretched.
Brian still remembered Orla standing in her night shirt, her eyes half closed, sleepily smiling at her father.
“What’s wrong?” Orla had whispered as Brian clutched her to his chest. “What’s wrong?”
Brian closed his hand tightly as he stared at the stone and thought of her.
“How is the girl?” Simon asked, bringing Brian out of his memories as he looked back from the field. The Thinling inserted his fingers back into the body before him, exploring the cavernous spaces under the ribs.
“The same,” Brian answered.
“Really?” Simon tilted his head one way and then the other, lifting another organ and prodding it with thin fingertips. “She should be well along, I would think. If you’d like me to take a look—”
“No!” Brian said, then softened his voice. “It’s fine. We’re fine.”
Simon’s eyes rested on the patches of blood near the collar of Brian’s shirt, where his injury had seeped over the course of the morning.
Brian touched it and cleared his throat. “Fine, I said.”
The Thinling’s face was unreadable, but he returned to pulling apart the carcass, and Brian let out a small breath.
“My men have finished the sledge,” Simon nodded to the other end of the Erst Field, and Brian could barely see the large platform of planks and wheels that had been constructed. “Once the Slaking Stone’s dragged over to the pit, we can bury it, finally, just as we discussed.”
The method for killing the creature had been worked out between them in the early months, before the king’s army could redirect men from the Mist Bridges to the countryside for support. Brian had written more urgent letters when the affliction started showing itself in earnest, only in the children for some reason.
It was only ever in the children.
The boys and girls began forgetting things, becoming agitated at the mention of their names, lashing out when others got too close. And every time the noise from the stone rang through the village, whether day or night, the children turned their heads toward the Erst Field, like animals hearing a call.
Brian recalled Orla’s face, twisted and distorted in a way he’d never seen it, raging as he shut the cellar doors on her, because there was no other way to keep her from being drawn to the rock in the middle of the night.
“Let me go home! Let me go!” she screamed. He had felt the pressure of her hands beating against the other side of the bouncing wood, stronger than ever before, and pushed back with all his might. Brian had wept that first time, bolting the cellar door shut, the sound of screeching metal joining the inhuman wailing coming from below.
The Thinling had his theories about what was happening to the children. The form this otherworlder has taken—I don’t believe it’s even rock. What you describe seems more like the cocoon of a metamorph to my mind, Simon wrote. His first letters to Brian were warm, eager to connect over the subject of otherworlders, almost blithely unaware of the pain Brian and his neighbors were suffering. Something else, something worse, is being birthed from within the Slaking Stone.
The Thinling believed young ones, being the most vulnerable and persuadable in thought, were the ideal candidate for the rock to subsume, and that their transformation aided its development. Maybe the vile barbs and limbs, the violent tendencies, the inexorable draw of the children to the Erst Field, were meant to serve the stone in its defense while it gestated. Or maybe the physical alterations were echoes of the form the otherworlder itself was going to take next, and the changes were a side effect of its deep hold on the children’s minds.
Simon’s correspondence appended ink illustrations of what the dark rock might contain, nightmarish studies of many-limbed creatures with dripping carapaces and segmented bodies, things that Brian could hardly believe the Thinling could stand to envision, let alone reproduce.
But regardless of the cause or meaning of the transformations in the children, the men and women of Codladh did everything they could think of to treat or reverse them. Tonics, leeches, sweat baths, but nothing productive came of it, and the children grew steadily worse. Several parents tried leaving Codladh with their young ones in tow, hoping that distance from the dark rock would bring them to their senses. But they all found they couldn’t go more than a mile before the children started screaming and writhing in pain, as if their innards were being raked by glass.
Others turned to destroying the stone itself, as if they had the means for such a thing—setting fire to the field or slinging pickaxes and blades to crack it apart. But the dark exterior of the otherworlder remained completely unmarred, no matter what was done.
That’s because its affinity isn’t of the earth, Simon had written after a number of further exchanges. The way its sound flows, its control over the children within a distance. It’s of the air, I’d wager. That’s how the transformative affliction works through them. Brian could see the Thinling’s excitement in the flourishes of the ink. So to kill it, we will have to take that air away.
Simon’s letter enclosed a diagram, a side view of a pit roughly a hundred feet deep. He drew ladders, support platforms, and timber to keep the walls of the pit stable. And above the hole, Simon had designed a set of beams and pulleys, spidering down with ropes and buckets, so that men at the mouth of the pit could set aside the soil sent up to them by the diggers.
As always, Simon thought of every last detail.
And, as he had in years past, Brian took the Thinling’s plans and organized the work to make them real, acting as the hand to Simon’s thoughts, building and executing the contraptions that the Thinling designed in his madness.
In doing so, Brian recalled, familiarly more than fondly, the time he had previously spent as one of the king’s Cullers after that fateful first meeting with Simon outside of that tent—a service as one of the men selected by the Thinling to identify, study, entrap, and destroy otherworldly things that invaded from beyond the Mist Bridges.
It was a part of himself he had all but smothered, and he felt a kind of misery and, if he were being honest with himself, perhaps a small fervor, in having to surface it again. But no matter what he was feeling or not feeling about the past, Brian, like the rest of Codladh, would do whatever was necessary to see this through.
The fathers and mothers whose families were affected by the affliction volunteered for the dig site first, taking up the shovels and buckets to carve out the ditch just beyond the field. The rest of the untouched, either too young or too old for children of their own, began providing supplies for the village’s project.
And now, after weeks and months of toiling, here they stood, finally on the cusp of destroying the Stone.
The Thinling drew back his lips, flashing his red-stained teeth with the eagerness he always showed when they reached this moment before they hunted an otherworlder down.
“There is just…one more thing, Brian,” he said, pulling vigorously at the carcass. “The sledgemen haven’t been able to approach the Slaking Stone as of late. It keeps filling the field with that…noise when anyone gets close. The pain it causes at that distance is unbearable, or so my men tell me.” He laughed, and held up a round, black piece of tissue from the animal that Brian did not recognize. “But…I’ve been working on something to help with that.”
The Thinling reached into the drawers of the planning table. He brought up a wineskin with one hand, removing the cap with his teeth and holding it under Brian’s nose.
The odor made him draw back and gasp from the sharpness of it.
“Dwale?” Brian coughed, vaguely remembering the burning stench from the battlefield, when the physicians would drench wounds and make men drink it before they went under the knife.
The Thinling nodded. “Barrow swine gall, henbane, opium and a few other touches.” He picked up the round black flesh and squeezed it over the opening of the wineskin, letting a stream of dark juice spill into the pouch before capping it again. “If we can apply enough of this to the creature’s body—fill some of the cracks and narrows of it with the dwale—it will sleep so deeply that its noises will subside for several days, at least. That will give us the time we need to drag it to the pit and put it to rest, once and for all. If…someone can get to it, that is.”
Simon looked pointedly at Brian, and he understood what he was asking of him, having been tasked like this many times before. Brian had always been Simon’s favorite to use for kills like these, because the Thinling believed that the otherworlders came from an unstable plane of the intangible. And while they took a strange pleasure in forming in this physical world, twisting and reshaping things for their own amusement, they were ultimately, at their core, creatures of the mind. So it took people of equanimity, of unshakable thought and heart like Brian, to defeat them. Or those were just the lies the Thinling told to lure others into his work; Brian supposed that he would never really know.
And truthfully, it mattered little to Brian in the moment, as he took the wineskin from the Thinling’s long fingers and squeezed the pouch.
“We all still wonder, at court, you know,” Simon brushed his pale hair from his eyes with bloody fingers. “Whether you might return to this someday. After all, there’s not much in a place like this for men like us, is there?”
Brian hesitated, thinking of what he might say to the Thinling in response. He wondered, momentarily, if he could perhaps make the Thinling understand why he had left the Cullers all those years ago, how he had found more meaning in this place than in any of the hunts or battles or marches under the king’s flag.
But he knew Simon was too set in his views, about men he used for fodder and about villages like these, and Brian realized it wouldn’t make any difference in the end.
So he remained silent, nodding in thanks for the dwale before moving beyond the table.
“And may all the dark things die,” Simon smiled.
“And may all the dark things die,” Brian answered, heading toward the destitute flatland, where the Slaking Stone waited.
The moment Brian stepped onto the field, he felt the deep, clanging noise begin. The sound overtook him and flooded deep into his stomach, almost as if the stone understood what was coming and was trying, instinctively, to push it away.
The ringing in Brian’s ears gradually began to shift in sensation to something he had never experienced, like the touches of insects crawling somewhere behind his eyes and down into the soft point at the back of his throat, choking him from within.
He ignored the feeling—believing it was the stone trying to disturb and unsettle him—and resisted his body’s instincts to gag or tear at himself. Instead, he continued, step by step, across the field.
The closer he came, the larger the otherworlder loomed, and he could see more clearly, along the base of the rock, the stone-fused bodies of the children who had escaped their cellars to what they had told their tearful parents was “Home,” this skeletal embrace that absorbed their changed blood and flesh, until only pieces of them lining the rock remained. Simon believed that by drinking them, the creature was softening its shell, preparing to emerge in its next form when enough of their bodies had merged.
Brian tried not to look at the faces pressed to the black surface as he walked ahead.
Another booming sound filled his head then, and he fell, drops of blood raining from his nose onto the deadened soil. The world swayed, like everything was pulling away under him, and he had to shut his eyes before he could rise to his feet.
The stone was in his thoughts now, he knew, as he reached the midpoint of the Erst Field, because it began to invade his vision with impossible figures, the way otherworlders sometimes liked to do. He could see shadows of men walking in the field that he gradually realized were echoes of dead and dying things he had seen long ago when he fought for the king, in distant lands near the base of the Mist Bridges, where the otherworlders stalked freely, like merciless lords, bending the people they encountered to their will to become mindless servants who would slaughter others in their name. Dripping limbs, arrow-filled faces, men with severed fingers, scraping at his boots.
But Brian walked ahead, forcing the shapes to fade to blurs in the corners of his vision as he advanced toward the stone, relegating those violent shades to his memories again.
The booming grew to an aching roar as he got even closer, just within reach, and an immense pressure squeezed somewhere inside of him. He felt he was sinking into the freezing blackness of the sea, weighted chains around his neck, and he collapsed wholly, unable to bring himself to rise.
A burning spread through Brian’s lungs as the world began to whirl, and he almost felt he might succumb to panic. But he reminded himself that, like all else, these feelings were illusory, and he turned his mind to his breathing, concentrating on its rhythm, until he found his center of balance again.
The spinning subsided, and he found purchase with his fingers, lifting himself just enough to dig his elbows into the soil and steady his knees.
Then, finally, he stood at the Slaking Stone, observing the blur of his own body reflected in its glassy surface, and the relentless hollow noise softened to a dull and distant hum. The creature couldn’t speak, as far as they knew, but at this close distance, Brian could sense, as much as he could in any other injured, living thing, that, more than anything else in that moment, it was afraid.
There were sudden flickers of images bursting in Brian’s thoughts that he believed to be the stone seeping further into his head—images of the king’s soldiers, dragging the Slaking Stone to the sledge, and casting its body deep, down, decisively, into the pit Codladh had made. Cascading sheets of earth pounded on top of it in the hole, over and over, until all light was blocked out from above, and the stone felt nothing but a black, crushing weight.
And then it showed him the children, showed him Orla, screaming in the cellars across the village, crying out like they were being pressed down and strangled by something unseen.
Brian held his breath.
He saw Orla huffing rapidly, her cheek against the stone floor, until her breathing slowed to a deflated stop, and her wet eyes looked on lifelessly ahead.
The message from the Slaking Stone was clear.
If you kill me, they will die.
Brian had known otherworlders to bargain like this, close to the end. They were never any different than men in that way, no matter how they tried to disguise it. But whether the stone was lying to save itself or telling the truth about what its death would do, it made no meaningful difference, Brian knew. All that mattered, all that ever mattered, was whether Brian did everything he could for Orla and the others, while there was still time.
Brian looked back at the jagged planes of dark rock, unblinking, and decided, if they were somehow connected in this way, that he would try to show it something else.
He concentrated on the image of Orla, as she was before she became sick, when she smiled sweetly and rested her cheek on his chest when she embraced him. He recalled her stumbling as a young girl on the shores of the Codladh river, giggling as she slipped on the smooth stones and regained her balance, cold water dripping from her chin as she laughed.
And he imagined Orla’s mother, years before she passed. He remembered when she had taken him in, when he was weary and first found his way to the village, and she cared for him until he remembered how to care for himself. He remembered how he finally learned to sleep by her side through the night without waking. How she sat near the crackling fireplace, gently touching her swelling, pregnant belly. And how, later, she held their child in the crook of her arm—that pink face barely peeking out from the folds of blankets—and she whispered the words, those same words, that Brian still repeated to himself under his breath each day. “My sweet girl.”
This, Brian thought, sending his intentions to the dark rock, not knowing whether it could feel any fraction of what Brian had felt, if it could even understand what he was showing it.
This is forever. No matter what may come. No matter what happens to her. No matter what happens to me.
This is forever. Do you understand?
And in the seconds after, there was nothing Brian felt from the rock in return—no image, or pain, or form of retort—just an overwhelming sense of bewilderment over the memories.
Because, of course, the creature would never comprehend any of what Brian felt, not really. Much like the Thinling, and the king’s soldiers, and any of the others who might sneer at everything a village like Codladh was and had to offer, they would never, could never, understand the meaning and power in these ordinary things.
In that moment, Brian realized, above all, he pitied them for it.
He opened the wineskin and poured the dwale across the cracks of the Slaking Stone, watching the liquid spread and sink into the crevices. And he felt a shuddering, a dimming of the otherworlder deep within his mind as it sank into a darkness from which it would never emerge, before a silence, heavy and welcome, finally fell over the field.
Orla turned back and looked at the cellar door.
She heard nothing and was unsure what she had been listening for.
In fact, she was almost certain that the door she was seeing wasn’t real and that she’d long since fallen asleep, because she could still sense her body, ungainly and leaden and almost unfamiliar, pressed against the bed, in the dark, as her mind continued to drift.
But the cellar door in her dream, the one in front of her now, opened as if it were always meant to lead her away, out into a gray afternoon where the sun’s warmth seemed determined to stay out of reach. And somewhere, beyond the door and a village square and an unmarked field, Orla imagined a pit, strange and unnatural, stretching so far and so deep that it could swallow a mountain.
And she saw a man there, pacing toward the chasm—a man Orla knew well, somehow, she was all but sure. His heavily-lined face, creased brow, those downturned shoulders, it all meant something to her, even if she couldn’t grasp it just then.
She watched as he passed a group of villagers working pulleys at the mouth of the pit, buckets rising and falling in rhythm, and he descended the ladder to the first platform, then another, to the next. And things grew dimmer around him as he went further below, until there was only a distant circle of stifled light above, cut by the wood support beams like a fractured window to a world that didn’t seem to exist.
Near him, one of the other men, with eyes sleepless and dark, handed him a shovel, and he turned to take up a position between the rest of them.
She watched as he bent low and scraped and bent low and scraped—his muscle and bone seeming to spread something of a chill, but the heat from a fresh wound near his neck throbbing, keeping him moving and reaching.
Again and again.
Filling the bucket closest to him, he whispered softly in time with the scraping of the metal sliding into the dirt.
Again and again.
“My sweet girl,” he said, almost in recitation, like he knew no one would hear him.
“My sweet girl.”
Something about the words felt familiar—as if she’d heard them every day of her life, whispered in her ear, or at her bedside, or through the cellar door.
“My sweet girl,” the man said, as he reached and pulled the dirt from the ground, his fingers mottled with blisters and blood and dirt.
Again and again.
“My sweet girl.”
And above them in the distance, she saw a black, jagged rock, larger than any of the houses in the village, larger than anything Orla remembered seeing, dragged on a massive sledge over to the pit’s open mouth by dozens of oxen and men. As it neared the site, the diggers emerged, slowly climbing the scaffolds and ladders to the edge. They joined together in the shouting and shoving, straining and screaming, some doing their best to hold back tears as it took everything in all of them to move the rock.
The villagers gave the wheeled sledge one final push, down and over into the hole, and there was a thunderous echo that seemed to shake the world as the dark thing plummeted into the emptiness below. It crashed through the wide beams and tangle of rope and pulleys, and soil ruptured and spilled from the unstable sides of the pit as the cavernous hole partially swallowed itself, the stone finally disappearing from sight in the waves of all that shadow and earth.
Orla watched the men and women standing there above the chasm, their faces breaking with a pained relief, and she drifted across those people, one by one, their names and other little recollections of them seeping slowly back to her. Until she found that man again, the one she’d recognized from before, now standing at the pit’s edge with the rest.
Her thoughts stayed with him as he looked down into the darkness, at a deep nothing beneath him, his fingers still reaching below slightly, out of instinct and habit borne of hours and days and weeks of all that digging.
And somehow, Orla knew, even when she woke shortly after, confused and in pain, looking up at the cellar door, still closed.
She knew, even as she felt her senses return, and her body began to seem less strange and separate, joining again with her mind, as if they’d never been apart.
She knew that her father would be waiting somewhere, at the other side of the door.
And no matter what happened next, he would still be there, reaching out for her, always.