There were only a dozen storks. But on that murky midnight, with the fire burning low and blue from the stink of vanished cities that bubbled up from beneath the plains, there might as well have been a hundred.
Charops’ drab leather outfit was somewhat beak-resistant. Not enough to make her comfortable; the horror birds were known carriers of pestilence, so filthy that their diseases bore diseases. She jumped over the furrows of fallow civilizations, stabbing wildly with her long Strategist’s knife. It was a versatile blade, but better suited to the considered application of force ten times what was needed, measured stabs in the back, and the trimming of extraneous lines from contracts than to fending off a clacking, hissing, disease-ridden flock.
Ichneumon the Weird was stumbling along somewhere behind Charops. Certain stork bait, unless the Weird could get her shit together—which made Charops furious, or maybe that feeling was sadness.
A stork exploded as a slightly larger than life-sized pink stone statue of a stork appeared inside it, displacing feathers, guts, and bone. The bloody statue hit the grass, and Ichneumon stuttered out some quavering mixture of glee and agony. That was one way to do it.
Kobius, the man-at-arms, bared his teeth and growled. He whirled a spear as he ran, slapping it up and down, the haft bouncing like a branch in a gale, gore arcing from the blade. He was wearing stork plumes on his hat, and Charops wondered, as she gasped for breath, if he had found them already detached from their original owner. Either way, it seemed that the storks had taken offense at Kobius’ choice of attire.
As for Loron, whose skimpy linen robe seemed so ill-suited for travel outside the courts and couches of Zend . . . Loron leapt along lightly as a dried leaf.
May we all age so gracefully as Loron.
The Municipal Expedition
Loron, that notorious old poet and flatterer, had found evidence of a treasure hidden in the south. As was the right of every citizen of Zend, Loron petitioned the King’s Vizier to launch an expedition of recovery, with any proceeds to be split evenly between himself and the crown. The Plaster Eminence granted Loron’s petition, though she must not have thought highly of his chances. If she had, she would have authorized a bigger expedition.
The municipal companions were Charops, a Strategist of low rank but high promise; Ichneumon the Weird, whose unsettling presence meant she was sent away from Zend as often as possible; and the man-at-arms Kobius. Kobius had survived the flock of storks they met two weeks south of Zend, but not the sting from the invisible asp he stepped on five days later. His corpse lay beneath a cairn, unless jackals had found him. Charops wondered how long it would be until she forgot his name.
Four weeks south of Zend and Havernar, the expedition finally arrived at the dry river valley marked on Loron’s map. According to the map (according to Loron, who refused to show anyone else the map), the “Hall of the King of Snails” was tucked away at the far end.
Charops felt the weight of the plains behind her as a haunted presence, stretching north many leagues to the mountains that guarded the cradle of civilization.
Ghastly thought: When they were done here, they’d have to cross the plains again, in the other direction.
Loron had disappeared along the tree line to their left. Charops was more interested in two mossy pillars of stone, almost hidden behind the laurels.
“That’ll put a pause in their parade. Blood under my sandals. Ah, a gate, until . . .” said Ichneumon. She was wearing her customary outfit of red brocaded cloak, red smock, red shoes with long, curled toes, and red skullcap. Short yellow braids stuck out from under the cap.
“A gate until what?” Charops asked. Ichneumon’s conversation tended to suffer when she was distracted. “And where’s Loron?”
“The statue just splitting. I really didn’t know it would just . . . the ankle would just crack. And that it would all start to fall. Sorry. I mean, these pillars used to be part of a gate.”
“Until . . .?”
“Until history. Sorry about the screaming. I think he’s over there.”
Ichneumon gestured vaguely, and a moment later Loron stuck his head out between the trees.
“It’s this way. The map is quite clear. Are you coming, or are you coming?”
“Hey, hieroglyphs!” said Ichneumon, pointing to carvings arranged inside a vertical cartouche on the pillar.
“Can you read them?”
Ichneumon scraped back moss with her fingernails. “Sure. Old Lesathi. The name of a plant. I think. The statue had hieroglyphs carved on its face, you know. Impossible to drop that.”
“What plant is it?”
“Never heard of it. I don’t know if it has a name in Zendian. It would be something like . . . shell oak? It might not actually be an oak. Might not be a plant at all.”
“I’ll be over here,” called Loron, “waiting for you at the hall, which is where you’ve been hired to take me, which is marked on my map—”
“Yes. A moment,” said Charops.
Strategist and Weird forged between the pillars into a choked clearing where the sun shone over mounds of greenery, a battlefield where nature had long since triumphed. The air was still, hushed as the dreams of graveyard statues. There had been a town here, or something like a town, but the buildings, all unbuilt by history, weren’t buildings any more, just sunken foundation holes, or corner stones and shed roof tiles hidden under quilts of vines.
Charops didn’t see much to catch her eye at first. But a lot that’s worth seeing must first be uncovered. Like this: a wooden wagon lay beneath the weeds. The boards were worm-eaten and soft with rot. Charops poked at them with her boot.
“Look, the wheel has been removed,” said Charops.
“Interesting,” said Ichneumon. “Not in itself, I mean—wagons are boring—but the decomposition, or lack of it; I mean, this wagon can’t have been here for all that long or it would have rotted away completely. A decade, maybe? He was just flattened, you know, blood came shooting out his sleeves, you know? Ah, damn, I mean to say, considering that the rest of this place is antique, it’s interesting. The wagon. Everything was sliding into the pit. I mean, I’ll bet nobody’s put old Old Lesathi hieroglyphs into stone in five hundred years. Except Weirds in the Folly.”
Charops saw another shape, longer and lower than the wagon, also hidden under the vines. Ripping back the vines like she was yanking the blankets away from some bedchamber indiscretion, she revealed a fallen obelisk of stone.
“Ooh!” Ichneumon bent over the obelisk and its more extensive hieroglyphs, while Charops sat on the edge of the wagon and considered the overcast sky.
Ichneumon was muttering to herself.
“What do they say?”
“There was a town here, or perhaps ‘outpost’ is the better word. It was founded . . .”
Ichneumon counted years and dynasties, moving her lips slightly. Ichneumon the Weird was less horrifying than most of her colleagues, at least in Charops’ opinion. Most people who weren’t her great friends and traveling companions didn’t share this opinion. Her eyes had the eerie blankness exhibited by anyone who made a practice of fooling the universe into doing magic. Charops knew it made mundane calculations difficult, when each instance of magic produced over a whole lifetime of chicanery had to be remembered, lest the universe take everything back and the Weird’s soul was set to burning like a rancid candle, as all the magic she’d ever performed was reversed in a split second.
“Four hundred and eight years ago. Or seven, or nine. Depends on—”
“Don’t worry, doesn’t matter,” said Charops. “And apart from that?”
Ichneumon ran her forefinger over the stone. “They were concerned about . . . the ‘flow of time.’”
“Can’t tell. Here’s it says ‘shell oak’ again. The way the pit just opened up beneath them, it was like, like a wound. Like a sword cutting through parchment. Sorry. Ah, it seems this place was called Shell Oak Landing.”
“And what do you mean, ‘concerned about’?”
“They keep mentioning it, is all,” said Ichneumon. “Ah ha. Loron’s map was accurate. Separate from Shell Oak Landing is the Hall of the King. It’s farther along this way. And there; I think that heads down to what used to be the river. Choked on water, the water was like iron, like a chain of iron, a metal eel sliding down his throat. Says here, a ‘sacrificial’ hall.”
“That’s what it says. The Hall of the Snail King. ‘Sacrificial’ might have some other connotation here.”
“Not really too many things that word can mean,” said Charops.
“Bearing some connection to this ‘shell oak,’ whatever that is? What exactly are we walking into here?”
“. . . Hieroglyphs are pretty ambiguous,” said Ichneumon.
Ichneumon smiled suddenly.
“I almost forgot,” said the Weird. She pulled a scroll from one of her dozens of pockets. “I found it in Loron’s pack last night. Might be . . . oh, the statue, it just exploded out of the stork’s lungs, it starts the size of a pea. And in the end, it’s bigger than the stork.”
Charops unrolled the scroll. At the top was written “The New Epigrams of Loron,” and below that were further lines of Loron’s flowing script.
“Ah,” said Ichneumon, “could be better than I thought! It’s not murder, is it? Self-defense, isn’t it? The whole town buried under ash, but I rang the bell first. Fair warning. Uh, let’s hear them.”
Charops read the first epigram out loud.
I, Loron, am genius; a genius, I, Loron
My rivals, wastrel, ninny, fop, moron
Ichneumon said, “Maybe he’s gotten tired of being a flatterer?”
Charops read another.
Thais’s hair is thick, Lithia’s thin
Lithia grew hers, Thais stole from a coffin
Ichneumon said, “Who are these people?”
“Rich people. They’re his patrons. They were his patrons.”
And surely these weren’t the sort of commemorative verses they had in mind.
Aurigula’s gut knows candy, cheese, wine, sweetbreads
May it soon meet gristle, grit, poison, spearheads
Ichneumon grinned. “The weasel!”
“Actually, I’ve met Aurigula,” said Charops. “He might be even more unpleasant than Loron.”
How I hate this sour cherry, Charops
Her cheerless, wordless told-you-so, it never stops
Ichneumon laughed. “That’s . . . fairly accurate. Backward into the edge of the altar, so her spine snaps. Hey, keep reading. Is there one about me?”
“Yes, don’t worry,” said Charops.
She has hair, a face, and a name: Ichneumon
But I do not think she is quite human
“What do you think?”
Ichneumon laughed and laughed. It was not a sound that would reassure anyone about her general claim to humanity.
“When we get back, I’m going to invite him to tour the Folly of the Weirds,” she said. “Are there more?”
“Here’s a sort of, well . . .”
Vizier Vierus hides behind a plaster mask
Who hates plaster, to give it such a grisly task?
“Don’t tell me you haven’t wondered what’s under that mask of hers,” said Ichneumon. “I think I’m starting to warm up to our genius.”
“And, ah, the last one. Ouch.” said Charops.
I despise King Farnol
I hope he stumbles and falls into a hole
“Hmm,” said Ichneumon. “Now that’s not very subtle. The statue’s arm, stone, you know, black granite, chopped down, just smashed him. It wasn’t what they had in mind, but they had to let me in after that, right?”
A strange feeling was coming over Charops. “These weren’t written by someone with any intention of rejoining Zend’s social life.”
If Loron wasn’t planning on going back to Zend, what did he want out here, in this pit of nowhere?
Ichneumon shrugged. “Some people are just asses, though, right? Pardon the blood.”
Charops let go of the scroll and it rolled itself up. She rubbed her chin, thinking of the venomous quill that had written such words. Some people are asses, and some asses kick their masters. Sometimes they have a reason, and sometimes they don’t need one.
Shell Oak Landing
A path led through the foliage, away from the obelisk. It was long abandoned, but for decades, not centuries. They passed a row of ancient statues, men, women, children, all bearing snail shells in place of heads. The statues’ arms, where they hadn’t been snapped off, were raised, pointing ahead. Ichneumon made a scoffing noise.
The trees stopped, leaving a margin between the leaves and a narrow stone facade built into a cliff. The facade was shaggy with lichen, bulging outward where stones had shifted. There were no windows, only a doorway leading inside.
Just within, Loron pored over his map in the light of the doorway. He looked up as Charops and Ichneumon arrived, his countenance sagged and flushed from decades of wine-soaked decadence. He rolled up his map.
“Well, this is it. Open it, will you?”
Charops lit a torch and saw what he meant: This cramped entry would have led farther inside to a much larger room, but for a sturdy metal grating set opposite the outer door. The grating was rigged with chains that ran up into a pair of shafts in the ceiling. To the left side was a squared beam, on which was set what appeared to be the missing wheel from the wagon back below.
“Ah, yes,” said Charops.
“Er, no,” said Loron. “I’m more keen on what’s inside.”
“A defensive portcullis.” Charops touched the grate gingerly. “Very solid.”
“But the turn-wheel is on the outside,” said Ichneumon.
“Exactly,” said Charops. “Why?”
“Something dangerous inside,” said Ichneumon. “To which they wanted access, and which they didn’t want to get out. Don’t slip. Viscera.”
“Right,” said Charops. “A treasure guardian? What’s your information say about it?” she asked the poet.
“Ah . . . It’s dead now!” announced Loron. “It must be. If there even is an it. Which I very much doubt. And if there is an it, an it besides the awesome and fabulous treasure that we know is here, because”—he slapped his map tauntingly, “I feel confident you can kill it. Just open this grate, will you? I’d do it myself but I don’t have your… brute strength.” He leered.
Charops turned the wheel. It cracked, black rot puffing out from the joins. She added a bit of strength and the spokes all snapped at once, like a kicked ribcage. The whole contraption came falling off the beam, swinging uselessly in a tangle of rusted chains.
“Hell!” said Loron, leaping backward like a young goat. “What’d you do that for!”
“Are you curious why I haven’t insisted already on seeing your ridiculous map?” asked Charops. “It’s because I think you, and it, are equally full of shit.”
Loron smiled, bug-eyed. “Of course I am. But the map is accurate.”
“Don’t tell me about your map.”
“The map was drawn and annotated by an Imbian exile a decade ago,” said Loron. “He found this hall, having recently been abandoned, so quickly that the owners could not take—” He pursed his lips. “Very sneaky.”
“I said don’t,” said Charops. “Do I look like the kind of person who would say the opposite of what she really wants? A cheerless sour cherry like me?”
Loron dropped his satchel and searched frantically through it for several seconds, then stopped with a hitch and leaned casually against the grating.
“Jokes, my dears. Silly, foolish japery, nothing more. Satire! No offense intended. Now, how are we going to get . . . through . . . here?” He pinged a yellowed fingernail against the metal.
Ichneumon crouched beside the grating and whispered a curse that made the stones and bars forget that a ninety-degree angle was square. Wavering on her hands and knees, her face pale and flushed in blotches, she found an impossible gap between the angles. She forced the gap wider, like feeding medicine to a wolf. Sweat dripped from her fingertips. Ask her just then what was ten times twelve and she couldn’t produce an answer.
“Hurry, you rancid old rutabaga,” Charops told the poet. “No offense intended.”
After Ichneumon rolled last through the gap and shakily regained her feet, the world slunk back into place. Charops averted her eyes; it was always embarrassing to see the world ooze back, like it was ashamed, after such a casual denial of its immutability.
“This is it,” said Loron. “The Hall of the King of Snails.”
A sour empty room, beneath the cliff. The roof was supported by an octagonal column that split into innumerable vaults, up in the shadows. There was a bracket for a torch, so Charops put hers into it and lit another. The walls were lined with boxes and crates, decayed apart to reveal . . . not much of anything. Charops kicked through what was basically trash. There was nothing heavy, and heavy meant valuable when it came to treasure.
She turned to Loron: “There’s nothing here, now are you hap—” But Loron wasn’t where he had been. She turned further and saw the old goat running across the floor toward the still-shadowed rear of the room. The hall was bigger than she had thought on first entering. She followed him, the flicker of flames casting poor light ahead of her. It felt like she was tracking something in a bad dream it would have been wiser to wake from. Glancing back, she marked the red of Ichneumon’s robes, where the Weird was still slumped against the central column, looking likely to collapse at any moment.
A bark of laughter emerged from the darkness. What was that hateful old man up to?
The Snail King
Charops found Loron at the far end of the hall, climbing up into a throne carved from a soft gray-green material like soapstone. Its lines were curved and its substance slippery, and Loron was having trouble getting into it. Charops saw little harm in letting him sit there for a few moments, before yanking him down and beating out of him what, exactly, he had expected to find here.
Loron finally seated himself, his thin legs bouncing like a child’s. From his satchel he pulled out a flimsy crown. The metal was either green itself or was scaled with verdigris. Loron placed it over his greasy white curls and faced Charops with a nasty smile that snapped into existence like the springing of a trap.
It was a ridiculous little crown, with two bulbed horns at the temples like, ah, thought Charops, yes—like the eyestalks of a snail.
Loron pointed at Charops, opened his mouth. Say something stupid, Charops commanded him silently, and Loron’s false teeth flashed in the torchlight.
“Bow down before the Snail King!”
Charops blinked. She looked behind her, a faint smile on her lips. She could picture Ichneumon rolling her eyes, but where was the Weird? Ichneumon had shinned up the column, like a child going after a coconut, a ball of flickering light around her from the torch she was holding between her teeth. There were further hieroglyphs up the sides of the column. Nothing like hieroglyphs to drag the Weird out of a muddled stupor.
Charops gave her attention to Loron, cocked an eyebrow.
“You heard me! You would not want to test my powers, Strategist!”
“Master,” cried Ichneumon, “over the flow of time!”
Weeks later, after Charops and Ichneumon had made it back to Zend, unaccompanied by their ward, they were finally able to untangle the confusion. They tracked down the Imbian exile who had visited the Hall of the Snail King, whose map and account Loron had stumbled upon. Loron had misunderstood the matter terribly. The Snail King was not master, but sacrifice.
The grinding of a stone slab, snapping up and open in a second. From behind it came a squelching sound. It grew louder. Loron faced the opened slab, face and neck frozen. Shadows pooled out, and with them a rotten odor. Charops tried to snatch up her knife. Her arm flopped like a dead thing. She released the torch from her other hand, saw it flick down toward the floor, strike the stone, then bounce back up, revolving like a spinneret. A black hump presented itself in the shadowed doorway, then pressed out beneath the slab. A bulging snail shell, half again Charops’ height, came gliding over the stone toward Charops and Loron.
Shell Oak, inexorable. Two soft, sticky horns, long as Charops’ arm, guided its way. On the end of each was a bulbous black eye. It wanted Loron first. Its shell swayed as its foot, a glistening mat of black and yellow muscle, propelled it over the uneven floor. The snail was moving without speed, but Charops found that she had no speed either. The flow of time had turned to mire, all that was frantic and alive, all the hop and squiggle of the “atoms” spoken of by the Weirds, leached away in the presence of the giant snail.
There never was any treasure to be found in the hall. No kind of treasure, except that coveted by a glacial alien mind. Fear, flesh, souls; all three, churned up into a piquant slurry.
A few months later, Charops and Ichneumon lay on adjacent couches, the air stratified in the pleasure den like sedimentary stone: At the bottom was a layer of clear air, above that, a smoky haze, and above that, a glittery, crystal-hued gas. It was the kind of evening where Charops kept crouching for clarity, and Ichneumon craning up toward oblivion.
“What was it, though, I mean, I keep wondering, from your closer vantage, a whirlpool, you know what I’m talking about, what did you see, exactly, when you looked in its eyes? Madness? Some bizarre soul?” Perhaps Ichneumon had breathed too deeply of the exhilarating crystalline gas.
In a convulsive gesture, Charops sank her fingers in around the perimeter of a sour peach and then ripped the pale lavender flesh apart.
“Of course not,” she said. “Souls are invisible.”
Charops considered the strangely dry peach pit in her hand. Tufts of pinkish flesh clung to the pit, which was ridged and grooved like . . . Like . . . You could follow those grooves down forever. Well, no.
“I saw . . . rest. Time. Seconds, minutes. Enough time to finally rest. Hours. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an hour before. I always thought they were invisible too.”
“You can rest now. There’s time. Gods, the way . . . Hours of it.” Ichneumon drained a flute of wine green as grass. “We’re resting now. The way his skull melted. Right now.”
“Yes,” said Charops. “It almost does seem like that, doesn’t it?” Ages passed, then: “You probably know what I keep wondering. Why weren’t you affected by it?”
“Dear,” said Ichneumon, “I have so many things on my mind, I can’t concern myself with that kind of nonsense. Time can’t actually be slowed like that, so I just ignored the fact that it seemed to be.”
Its foot rippled as Shell Oak advanced. It reached the throne, horns drawing inward for protection. The shell tilted backward as it bowed up and over. The brutal wedge of its foot folded over Loron, and the erstwhile Snail King emitted a muffled shriek as the snail backed up, dragging him with it. Loron vanished under the foot. Trickles of blood crept like flickering fingers toward the torchlight.
Shell Oak turned, elegant as a ship, toward Charops. Its horn was extended, wet like some horrific gland. Charops’ voice: “Ichnuu-u-u-u-u-maaaaahhhnnn—”
A reek belled before Shell Oak, carried not by a breeze but an envelope of air that moved with it. The shell was green and black, ornate with craquelure, shaggy old growth, and old filth. In the hollows where the shell rode away from the foot was a dark red wetness.
Years later, just after Charops betrayed the city of Zend to its doom, she remembered this moment. She remembered every stab in the back, every backdated execution order. Standing over the abyss, the bricks of the shattered towers still bouncing down the walls in their clouds of dust, screams still rising, she wondered if she were a monster. Why do monsters devour their prey? She was not a monster, because monsters only eat when they are hungry. She was much worse.
She thought of Shell Oak, tricked away from its homeland. Transplanted by desperate priests from the southern coast of Lesath, carried north on barges along rivers that had long since dried up, and for centuries sheltered and fed at the distant landing, because the normal human reaction to Shell Oak was Get It Away! Shell Oak was like Charops. It didn’t crush its prey because it was hungry. It had a strong, if dull, intelligence. It wanted to know what happened to things when it crushed them. And its foot was also its mouth, so . . . If it could, Shell Oak would crush the world just to satisfy the itch of curiosity. Curiosity: Charops wondered what had happened to old what’s-her-name. A weird one, for sure, though the name refused to come to mind. Charops’ mind was in terrible shape. The only old companion she could remember by name was Kobius, whose bones by then must have been spread for miles across the plains . . .
Shell Oak glided over Charops’ left foot. She sank to the ground beneath the weight. Her leg was under it now, pressed between stone and its greasy bulk. It slid forward over her right leg, which Charops had flung to the side to avoid being crushed. She could not avoid it. The soft edge of the foot rolled up her body. She felt her skeleton creak, her innards compressing, distorting.
The light was gone. Pressed blind between planes of glue and of stone, Charops found Loron’s arm, ripped loose and stuck to the snail’s lubrication. The slipperiness of its foot allowed her to move sideways, and, once she got her hands and wrists at the right angle, to crawl onto her hands and knees. There was a gap under the snail’s foot, but the slime was drowning her, and there was something caustic in its composition. Eyes closed tight anyway since there was nothing to be seen, the flesh of the snail heaped up over her like a grave mound. From her hands and knees, Charops began to press upward, moving into the snail from beneath. Not a gap, a mouth.
Charops unfurled upright past knobs of bone, directly into Shell Oak’s gullet. What had been black was now laced with gray. Not a good sign. Her fingers, burning and weak, found Loron’s crunched and shattered body, and she climbed up it like a tree. She was standing now, snail flesh pressing in on all sides. It was not fierce, there was no strength to it, yet it was unavoidable as a flood.
Her fingers closed around her knife and she began to stab. Not a stratagem in her mind. The corpse of Loron was pressed into her arms as close as a lover, and now she felt him struggling against her. He wasn’t dead, his lips were at her ear, he was whispering something to her, and she struck at him, so slowly, near paralyzed, her hands a mess of blood and slime. Loron was dead. She was dancing with a puppet of chance.
Think, think! But there are some problems you can’t think your way out of.
There was a reason Weirds and Strategists always traveled in pairs. From some other world there came a knocking. The darkness split and there was air again, and light, a rupture opening in the congealed slime that was the snail’s innards. Charops’ heart was thundering now, she could feel each beat, time dripping and sputtering like ice-melt. She stepped up out of the broken shell. Shell Oak was dead, the slow creep of time released from its glue. Ichneumon stood still for a second, one hand flung to the throne to keep her from keeling over.
“The statue, it just fell apart,” she said. “I weakened it, I did that, I know that, but I didn’t mean to, and I didn’t know he was the Head Weird. I didn’t mean to crush him like that, the blood, I didn’t mean any of it. I was only eight. It’s not easy to become a Weird, you know. You have to force your way into the Folly. I didn’t mean to kill him.”
The ground in a circle around Shell Oak, stretching out ten feet on each side of its shattered shell, was black with soot. A web of charred marks. Charops wiped ooze and ichor from her eyes, and then collapsed.
“I weakened the shell. I let a little anger into it. Sorry if it was too much. Was it too much? Are you all right?” Ichneumon leaned in close over Charops like a doctor observing a corpse that can no longer bite, her red clothes splattered with slime.
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