In a clearing in an unnamed forest in a remote part of the great Island City of Ghezirah, there moved a figure. Sometimes, it moved silently as it swirled a sword in flashing arcs. Sometimes, it made terrible cries. It was high noon in midsummer, and the trees and the greensward shimmered. The figure shimmered as well; it was hard to get a proper sense of the method of its motion. Sometimes, it was here. Sometimes, there. It seemed to skip beyond the places that lay between. Then, when the figure finally stopped moving and let the sword fall to its side and hung its head, it became clear that it was scarcely human, and that it was tired and hot.
Bess of the Warrior Church sunk to a squat. The plates of her body armor—mottled greenish to blend with the landscape—were ribbonned with sweat. Her limbs ached. Her head throbbed in its enclosing weight of chitin and metal. She swept her gaze around the encircling sweep of forest, willing something to come. She had been here many weeks now; long enough for grass to have grown back in the seared space beneath the caleche that had brought her here, and for its landing gear and rusty undersides to become hazed in bloodflowers.
She looked up across Ghezirah, arching away from her under Sabil’s mirrored glare. There, off to the east and rising into the distance, hung the placid browns of the farm islands of Windfell. The other way flashed the greyblue seawall of the Floating Ocean. Somewhat closer, looming smudgy and indistinct over the forest, lay the fabled Isle of the Dead. But she knew she had no calling in any of those places. The intelligences of her church had directed her to this clearing. Yet until her foe arrived in whatever shape or form it might take, until the killing moment came, all she could do was practice. And wait.
Yet something told her that, today, she was no longer alone. Her fingers retensed upon the hilt of her sword. She opened her mind and let her senses flow. Something was moving, small and quick, at the shadow edge of the forest. The movement was furtive, yet predatory. If Bess had still possessed hairs along the back of her spine, they would have crawled. She would also have shivered, had she not learned in her novitiate that tension is part of the energy of killing, and thus must be entirely re-absorbed.
Slowly, and seemingly more wearily than ever, Bess hauled her torso upright in a gleam of sweating plates. She even allowed herself to sway slightly. The weariness was genuine, and thus not difficult to fake. By then she was certain that she was being watched from the edge of the forest.
The blade of her sword seemed to flash in the hairsbreadth of an instant before movement itself. It flashed again. Bess seemed to slide across the placid meadow in cubes and sideways protrusions. She was there. Then she wasn’t. She was under the trees perhaps a full half second after she had first levered herself up from a squat. Three severed leaves were floating down in the wake of her sword’s last arc, and the thing crouched before her was small and bipedal. It also looked to be young, and seemed most likely human, and probably female, although its sole piece of clothing was a dirty swatch wrapped around its hips. Not exactly the sort of foe Bess had been expecting to end her vigil; just some feral forest-rat. But it hadn’t scurried off into the green dark at her arrival even now that the three leaves had settled to the ground. It was holding out, in something that resembled a threatening gesture, a small but antique lightgun. The gun was live. Bess could hear the battery’s faint hum.
“If you try to shoot that thing . . .” She said, putting all the power of command into her voice. “. . . you will die.” The sound boomed out.
“And if I don’t?” The little creature had flinched, but it was still wafting that lightgun. “I’ll probably die anyway, won’t I? You’re a warrior—killing’s all you’re good for.”
Bess’s expression, or the little of it which was discernable within her face’s plated mask, flickered. Since first leaving the iron walls of her church and setting out across Ghezirah in her caleche three moulids ago, she had discovered that warriors were most often thought of by those who lived outside her calling as little more than heedless bringers of death. Scarcely better, in essence, than the monstrous things they were trained to kill. Not to mention the stories that had passed in her wake of soured milk, broken mirrors, and malformed births. Or the taunts, and the curses, and the things thrown . . .
“I’ll put this gun down if you put down your sword,” the little creature said. “You’re quick—I’ve seen that. But I don’t think you’re quicker than light itself . . .”
Technically, of course, the runt was right—but was it worth explaining that the killing movement of any weapon was the last part of a process that could be detected long before it began by those trained in the art of death? Bess decided that it was not. It was apparent from the thing’s stance that it was used to using this lightgun, but also that it had no intention of doing so within the next few moments.
Bess lowered her sword to her side.
The creature did the same with the lightgun.
“What’s your name?” Bess asked.
“Why should I tell you that? And who are you?”
“Because . . . ” If there were any particular reasons, she couldn’t immediately think of them. “My name is Bess.”
The creature smirked. “Shouldn’t you be called something more terrible than that? But I’ll call you Bess if you want . . .”
“Do you have a name?”
“I’m Elli.” The smirk faded. “I think I am anyway.”
“You only think? Don’t you know who you are?”
“Well, I’m me, aren’t I?” The creature—although Bess now felt that she could safely assume that she was merely female and human, and not some monstrous anomaly or djinn—glanced down at her grubby, near-naked self. “Names are just things other people give you, aren’t they? Or just plain make up . . . ?”
The helm of Bess’s head, which had now absorbed the forest’s shades, gave a ponderous nod. She understood the Elli-thing’s remark, for she, too, had no proper idea of how she had got her name.
“Been watching you . . . ” Elli nodded across the clearing. “Dead clever, the way you flicker in and out as if you’re there and then not there.”
“So why in the name of all the intelligences didn’t you back off when I approached?”
Elli shrugged. “I could tell you were just practicing. That you didn’t mean it . . .”
Not meaning it being about the worst insult that, in all Bess’s long years of training within the walls of her church, had ever been flung her way.
“But it was still very impressive,” Elli added. “If you could show me some more, I’d really like to watch.”
The Dead Queen’s Gambit. The Circle Unleashed. The Upwards Waterfall. The Welcoming Blade. The Twice-Backwards Turn. The Belly Becomes the Mouth. The Leap of Steel. Even The Cold Step Beyond, a maneuver of sword and space that Bess still found difficult to execute. She performed them all.
Before, she had felt tired and bored. But now that she had an audience, even one as lowly as this Elli-thing, she felt re-energized. Her blade sliced though the warm air and the fabric of local spacetime, drawing her sideways and backwards in intricate twists and turns. She remembered her dizzy exhilaration when she first managed this near-impossible trick in the practice yards. This was like that, but better.
“Bravo! Bravo!” Elli was clapping.
For want of anything else, and no longer feeling in the least goaded or stupid, Bess gave her sword a final flourish and made as much of a bow as her armored midriff would permit.
It was late afternoon. The shade beneath the trees was spreading. As Bess straightened, she saw that the Elli-thing had already vanished into the wood-scented dark.
Bess felt different that night as she squatted inside the iron womb of her caleche. Laid before her at the central altar of the cabin’s console, set around with the glow of the more ordinary controls, was the steel eye of the keyhole that admitted the will of her church’s intelligences. Briefly, it had flashed the message that had borne her here, and all the time since it had remained blank and blind. The other instructions since her changing into warrior form and setting out on her first quest had been plain—at least in their seeming purpose, if not in their execution and result . . .
That great seabeast which had supposedly been terrorizing a community of fisherwomen who lived in a desolate village on the far side of the Floating Ocean. A task that had seemed worthy of her first killing until she had faced the creature itself. A slobbering thing, true. Big and grey and, at least in appearance, monstrous. But it had been old and in pain and helpless. She had realized as it sobbed and moaned on that rocky shore and she drove her sword into its quivering flesh that she had been summoned to do this work not because the women of the village feared to kill the creature, but because they pitied it too much.
Then had come her duties in guarding a senior imam of the Church of the Arachnids, who was supposedly under threat from the incursion of an assassin djinn from other unspecified dimensions. But her arrival and attendance upon this plump and near-regal personage had coincided with a summit meeting of all the churches of the animalcules in Eburnea regarding various issues of precedence and money. It soon became clear to Bess that her presence at the canny witch’s brocaded shoulder through those interminable meetings in vast halls was intended not as protection, but as an implied threat of force.
And so it had gone, and then her third instruction had come, and now she was set down here amid this nowhere forest, waiting to do battle with an unexplained something. Bess shuffled down into her night couch. There was little space inside this vessel for much else—after all, what else did a warrior need other than her will and her sword?—but she had been permitted to bring one small chest containing her personal belongings, although she would just as happily have gone without it. The lid gave a pleading scream as she lifted it. This, she thought, as she gazed inside in the caleche’s dull glow and breathed a stale waft of air, reminds me why I don’t bother to look.
Other new novitiates were brought to the great walls of the Warrior Church by a variety of means and accidents. Lesser daughters. Unwanted or unexpected products of the vats. Those cursed with malformations, either of the body or the mind, which other and more squeamish churches found themselves unable to accept. Girls who had performed some sacrilege or debasement that placed them beyond the pale, in the antique phase. Downright criminals. They were all admitted in an unholy gaggle through the iron gates of the Warrior Church, although almost as many were soon found to be lacking and cast back out.
Bess remembered the rusty towers, and the courtyards of trial and test and battle. She remembered the light from classroom windows that washed through drapes of platinum gauze as they were schooled in all the near-endless varieties of monstrosity: djinn, interjection, tulpa, dragon, quasi-dragon, behemoth, and demon that they would be expected to destroy. Most of all, though, she remember the faces of her fellow novitiates, and night-silence in the dormitories, and the laughter that exploded as soon as the junior imams doused the lights.
Clubfoot Nika. Humble Talla of the auburn tresses. And Afya of the shadows. All now transformed into hulking warriors like her. Out fighting some terror in the great island city of Ghezirah or across one or the other of the Ten Thousand and One Worlds. Or already dead. Bess gazed down at the few dry leavings of her past. A shriveled starflower. A tress of auburn hair. A hand-written note about soon returning, casually left.
Just one other item lay in there. Bess’s taloned fingers struggled to pinch the fine loop of chain.
Who are you, Bess . . . ?
Where do you come from . . . ?
What are you doing here . . . ?
Bess no-name—Bess who had struggled to belong even in those dormitories of the dispossessed and deformed. From all the other novitiates, sitting along the dark lines of bunks, hands clasped around knees with eyes rapt and mouths agape, there was always some story to be heard. High schemes or low robberies. A birthmother knifed by a jealous bond mother. A hand let go in a market of slaves. Over the nights, the whispers echoed through the dormitory as the tales flowed on. And grew more elaborate, Bess began to notice, as well. So the suckling child came to remember the taste of her dying birthmother’s blood, and the slave-sold underling survived a jumpship’s spectacular crash. But the essential seed of truth of some lost life remained, and could thus be embroidered upon much as a basic sword thrust can once—but only once—it is entirely mastered.
But Bess was mute when the eyes turned to her . . .
What about you, Bess?
What do you remember about the time before you were chosen?
She couldn’t answer such questions. She was Bess simply because that was what some lesser manifestation of the church’s intelligences had deigned to call her. All there was was this great iron-enclosed edifice, and her friends, and dormitory nights such as these, and all the days of learning and practice. Nothing else. She had no sense of who or what she had been before. She might as well have come from nowhere, just as the chants and the jibes insisted. But for this one object . . .
It was called a locket. Or so she supposed; the terminology for items of jewelry was not a form of knowledge in which warriors were expected to be versed. But the word seemed to come with possession of the item. Which might mean something. Or might not.
She had rarely worn the thing, even when her head and neck would have allowed such a vanity before she changed into full warrior form. But she had kept it. The chain was as finely made as were the great chains which anchored the islands against the spin of Ghezirah’s vast sphere. From it, flashing bright then dull in the glow globe’s light, depended the silver teardrop which was the locket itself, engraved with dizzying fractal patterns and swirls.
Bess felt that she was being drawn into the pattern, and permitted herself the wasted energy of a small shudder as her armored fingers unslipped the chain and re-closed her chest. Then she stretched down to rest.
She was already awake when the caleche’s interior brightened to signal the onset of dawn. A fizzing buzz, a sense of some invisible liquid cleansing her scales, and she was ready for yet another day of waiting. She raised the hatch and reached for her sword. Outside, as the dawn-singers called in the light from their mirrored minarets, her footsteps left a dark trail like the last of the night. When she drew her sword and made her first leap, the trail vanished into misty air.
She was just re-practicing The Circle Unleashed in its rarely attempted more elaborate form when she knew that once again she was being watched. She hadn’t considered how well this particular sword-stroke was fitted to the brief and spectacular series of leaps across the bloodflower-strewn meadow that she then executed. But it was.
There was the Elli-thing, standing undaunted but admiring at the edge of the forest, where today Bess’s arrival had stirred or severed not one single leaf.
“Salaam,” Bess said, a little breathlessly.
“Sabah al Noor, Bess of the Warrior Church.” Elli replied with surprising formality, and Bess wondered as the creature then made a small bow at her own flush of pleasure to be greeted thus. Then a thought struck her.
“You haven’t been out here all night, have you?”
“Oh no.” Elli gave a quick shake of her head.
“Then where do you live?”
“Oh . . .” A quick shrug. A backwards point with a grubby thumb. “. . . just back there awhile. Would you like to come and look?”
A small, pale figure. A larger shape that was scarcely there at all. They both moved ever deeper into the nameless forest through dark avenues and spills of birdsong. This more resembled, Bess supposed, the kind of adventure that was sometimes associated in the popular mind with members of her church. Dragons to be slain. Monstrous shifts and anomalies in the fabric of spacetime to be annulled. Maidens, even, to be rescued. Bess should, she supposed, feel a deep unease to be deserting the precise spot where her church’s intelligences had instructed her to stay. But warriors had to show bravery and initiative, didn’t they? And how long could any human being, no matter how extensively changed and trained, be expected to wait?
They paused to take refreshment beside a tree hung with a kind of red fruit that Elli said was called pomegranate, and had existed as far back as the Gardens of Eden on the legendary first planet of Urrearth. They were also to be found, she added matter of factly, in Paradise itself. They were best cut apart with a sharp utensil. The trouble being with this thing— she patted the lightgun she had tucked into the tie around her waist, then glanced at Bess expectantly—is that it cooks them as well.
Bess studied the fruit, an odd-looking thing with a crown-like eruption at one end, which Elli was holding out. Her hand went to the hilt of her sword, although she knew what the imams of the Warrior Church would have said about using her sacred blade for such a menial task. If they had happened to be here and watching her, that was.
“Tell you what, Bess—I could throw it up like this.”
Quicker than an instant, Bess drew her blade, and, in executing the Spatchcock Goose, vanished and reappeared as the pomegranate, now separated into two halves, still span up.
Elli caught one half as it descended. Bess, the other.
“So . . . ? What do you think of pomegranate? Not bad, is it, if you can deal with the seeds.”
Bess had to agree. All in all, pomegranates were delicious. But, at least when it came to eating, they were a frustrating fruit. Her huge hands soon grew sticky, and so did her plated face. It was just as enjoyable, they decided, simply to toss the things up for the joy of slicing them in half. Pith and fruit were soon flying, and Bess’s armor acquired the mottled reds, whites and pinks of pomegranate flesh.
“So . . . ?” Elli asked eventually, after Bess had demonstrated so many ways of slicing the fruit that much of what was left lying around them seemed to exist in some sideways dimension. Or, perhaps, was just a sticky mess. “This is what you do, is it? Cut things up in odd and interesting ways?”
Bess had been laughing too much to take offense. But she now explained how the origins of her church could be traced back to the time of the first jumpships, when gateways had been discovered where all time, space, and matter turned back in a cosmic rent. It had been a great breakthrough for womankind and every other sentient species, but it had also brought an end to the simplicity of one reality and the linear progression of time. Now, other forms of existence that had previously been thought of as nothing but useful constructs in understanding the higher dimensions of physics rubbed close against our own. The true aliens, the real horrors and monstrosities, lay not in the far-flung reaches of the galaxy, but sideways. And each passage of a jumpship disturbed enough of the fabric of this reality to allow, like a breath of dark smoke from a crack beneath a door, a little more of the seepage of these other realities in. Sometimes, they were comical or harmless. Often, they weren’t noticeable at all. But sometimes they were the stuff of abject nightmare. Only through the use of creatures who were themselves close to nightmare could these monstrous interjections be fought.
Bess wiped her sword on a patch of grass and made to re-sheath it in her scabbard. But then Elli had laid her hand on a part of her forearm that still retained some sensitivity. It felt sticky and warm.
“That sword of yours—I suppose it does something similar? The way it seems to cut through the world.”
“Well . . . You could say that, I suppose. Although the principle is much more controlled.”
“Can I have a go?”
The request was ridiculous. It was sacrilege. So why hadn’t she yet sheathed her sword?
“You can try this, Bess.” Elli held out her cheap lightgun. “It’s quite deadly.”
“No,” Bess rumbled.
“Well, perhaps you could at least let me give the handle-thing a quick hold.”
“It’s called the hilt.” Bess watched in something like horror or amazement as her own hand took the flat of the blade and held it out.
Elli’s fingers were so small they barely circled the banded metal. Yet Bess felt a small shiver—something akin to the sensation that she had experienced last night when she studied that locket—run through her. The sword shivered, too. Sensing a new presence, it had responded with blurring hint of the final darkness beyond all dark that was woven into the exquisite metal.
Elli’s fingers retracted. She let out a shuddering breath. “It feels like . . . Everything and nothing at all.”
Copyright © 2011 Ian R. MacLeod
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