‘The Advice Not Given’
On the other side of the world, the Churn has overtaken a city and forced its people into the surrounding desert …
Ages ago, the desert people learned to heat the pink, blue and white crystal sand of the desert to make glass, and from it they created a city so strong, glittering and beautiful that even the seraphim took notice.
Adagio was not like his siblings, dabbling in the idiocies of humankind – why should he, when the silly creatures died off in a blink? – but he had taken a liking to the Glass City and was not pleased to see it destroyed. Flying over the glass ruins, he watched lightning spark in the dark, oily smoke rising from the fire breath of monsters – the humans called them so, though Adagio knew that Churnbeasts were just a natural part of the world’s endless cycle of annihilation and regrowth.
He landed a safe distance away on one of the crushed-crystal dunes that gave the desert its name: The Shimmer.
Idris left his goat-hair tent at dawn with his weapons strapped to his back, squinting into the sunrise. He stopped short at the sight of green in the sand: Tiny leaves poked through, splitting and stretching forth as he watched. Before, spontaneous plant growth in the midst of The Shimmer would have been a wonder; now, he sighed with dread and turned to face the city. At a half-hour walk away, the choking smog and the jungle vines that tumbled away from its gates were almost beautiful. On a high dune just outside the city, he saw a djinn with blue wings.
He blinked to be rid of the illusion, then turned away. In The Shimmer, people knew well the dangers of mirage; once the mind began tricking itself, hope for reason was lost.
Moving between the tents and past the morning fires, he inhaled the scent of new bread and boiling tea. He eased down a goat kid that had leaped its way atop a cannon, then greeted the elders with rubbed noses and grim news: the growth in the sand meant they had but a few days to move back their line of defense.
In the blood-soaked no-man’s land between the camp and the city, he went to work dragging away the Churnbeasts that had wandered too close in the night; oftimes new terrors grew from the bones. The beasts came each night in waves, spitting, gnashing their teeth, whipping claws or tentacles, roaring or gurgling, ever bigger, with scant respite for the fighters. It had become daily life. Everything Idris had learned of the spear and chakram was put to good use.
Again he gazed toward the dune. The azure-winged man had not disappeared.
Idris closed his eyes, set the dune where the djinn stood in his mind, then willed himself there.
Adagio could not remember when last he’d been startled, but his azure wings twitched in surprise when the desert warrior appeared before him.
“Welcome, djinn,” said Idris in a soft tone. “If you have come to join us in our war, then you are welcome at my fire.”
“Astonishing,” said Adagio, though his musical voice trilled out as if at any moment he might yawn. “I did not know magic was cultivated in The Shimmer.”
“I am not familiar with magic,” said Idris. “Mine is a skill of nature.”
“If that were so, then all men would accomplish it,” said Adagio.
“A man without fear reaches his destination the moment he chooses to depart.”
“Perhaps mankind should fear more, not less.” With a flick of his slender fingers, Adagio indicated the devastated city.
“The people live in fear now,” said Idris, his voice soft. “If the stories are true, then the emerging of horrors from the Fabled Well is the failing of your ancestors, for the seraphim and the elder dragons created the wells of power to control the release of their destructive energy.”
“Nature cannot be controlled forever. It shall destroy and outlast us all,” said Adagio.
Idris nodded. “The astronomers claimed that the lights of the heavens had aligned to create the syzygy that would wreak havoc inside the wells of power, but it had been so long that none believed them. A year ago, the Churnbeasts spilled out of the well and drove us out of the Glass City. Every day we fight, and every day we are pushed back farther. Most of these refugees have never even milked a goat, much less hefted a spear… but those who did not escape, and did not die, had it the worst.”
“Indeed, that is a horror,” sighed Adagio. “What the Churn does not kill, it swallows.”
“Tell me what can be done,” said Idris.
“There is nothing to be done except save yourselves. In another year, all you see in every direction will be predatory jungle and fearsome creatures. It is not the first time the Churn has destroyed a civilization so near to great understanding.” Adagio chuckled. “You remind me of the sisters, Rana and Ayah. They questioned me as an equal as well. I tasked them, as promising young engineers, to write a book. Perhaps some future creatures shall discover it among the city’s ruins and have a head start against their apocalypse.”
“There is a book that can save us?”
“Other civilizations have fought back the Churn, for a time, with technology.” Adagio gazed to the city again, wrinkling his sharp nose as the mists of the Churn trailed on the warm morning breeze. “But Rana and Ayah failed, as all of your kind do, when they became greedy with their knowledge, and now…” He waved a dismissive hand toward the defensive trench. “…it is irretrievable.”
“I shall retrieve it.”
Adagio’s expression, for a moment, softened. “What the Churn does not kill, it swallows,” he said again.
“Thank you for your advice, djinn.” Idris took a chakram into his fist and looked back no more. He inhaled to his belly and let out the air in a long, thin stream.
“I gave no…” But before Adagio could finish his thought, the ground beneath Idris crumbled and the sand rose in a spectacular swirl. Then the young man was gone from the dune, and Adagio could only look after him, his arms crossed, shaking his head. “Once an eon or so,” he murmured, “a mortal casts an interesting shadow.”
‘The House of Insight’
Idris travels through the Churn in search of his people’s salvation …
Idris appeared inside the Glass City coughing, a painful sting in his nose when he tried to inhale, his eyes pouring water, the sharp chakram dropping from his fist. He wrapped his turban around his mouth and nose but it was no respite from the swirling green-gray smog. His skin burned even beneath his sandstorm-proof clothing. He dropped to his knees, choking, blind but aware on all sides of things waking, sniffing and growling. He tried to escape in the same way that he had come, but he was gripped by fear and could not move. So he would die like this, smothered, sniveling, helpless.
In that realization, however, there was peace. He allowed death inside, and death flowed through him. His mind settled. He breathed deep, pulling the noxious gas into his lungs, and forced his eyes open to watch death come. The strength of the old destructive force filled him – or was he being drawn into it? – and he remembered the cryptic words of the djinn.
What the Churn does not kill, it swallows.
It felt like a dream of breathing underwater. His vision cleared, and he saw that he was near to a broken fountain that still poured water forth. The water streamed out in several directions onto the ground, over books strewn everywhere. Books in stacks, books torn apart, books held by the skeletons of the dead. The fountain water ran black with ink.
Idris dropped his turban and gripped his chakram again. He drew his spear, raised himself up and walked toward a door worked with colorful, geometric glass tiles, now broken and jagged. The sign above it remained:
GOOD CANNOT BE BROUGHT FORTH
NOR EVIL AVOIDED
EXCEPT BY KNOWLEDGE
He had arrived at the House of Insight, inside which the engineer sisters Rana and Ayah had written their book.
The air tasted like strong spices now, and blood, and green things growing wild. Inside the destroyed house of learning, vines grew over ornate tiles and murals. The leaves had sharp teeth and tongues; they hissed at him but he threatened with the tip of his spear and the vines shrank back from him. Other creatures scuttled away: overgrown insects with snapping claws and horn-backed reptiles the like of which he’d never seen. He moved nevertheless through room after room, determined but lost. He found shattered telescopes attached to windows and maps crowding walls and desks. Some floors were covered in the slivers of glass that had been the tools of chemists. All the rooms were filled floor-to-ceiling with books tumbled off of shelves. How would he find one book among these thousands?
Then he came upon a tidy room. On display inside were strange machines and models of inventions: watermills and chain pumps; a robotic peacock that pecked at him as he passed; clocks of all kinds ticking in unison; and a helmet. There were weapons, too, in varied states of repair, and blast marks on the walls where some had discharged. Curious, Idris placed the helmet on his head and startled when a holographic visor appeared before his eyes that gave him a view of the room behind him and to his periphery. And then he heard whispering.
“He was not choked by the smog.”
“He passed the first test.”
Idris whirled around and the display whirled too, so that what was behind him showed in the visor. He saw no one. He moved through the room until his back was against a wall and waited, spear and chakram at the ready.
In the year of nightly battles he had seen many kinds of Churnbeasts, horrific evolutions of animals and plants, but what slithered through the door was another thing altogether, a thing fashioned after a giant serpent but made of steel and the conjoined bodies of two women, their fingers mutated to resemble viper fangs, tubes and wires grafted into their flesh as if grown there, a single glowing eye separating their torsos. It was a sickening amalgam of wildlife, humanity and technology. The serpent slithered in a spiral so that one and then the other of the sisters faced up, and Idris could see that they had been beautiful once.
‘Rana and Ayah’
A different kind of Churnbeast slithers between Idris and the book he seeks …
Adagio gazed into the mists. He knew well what lay at the center of the ruined city, for he had watched the Churn overtake the desert before; the earthquakes had crumbled the crystal peaks to the dust that mankind would later name The Shimmer. He had seen to the building of the Fabled Well himself, had set it in a place so hot and desolate that he’d thought it would be safe from civilization. And yet the people had come, drawn to its power. They had created beauty within the desert. He had dared to hope that the people’s ingenuity would triumph, and in the end he had been wrong.
Hope was such a silly thing. And yet he looked into the mists, hoping that the desert warrior would return.
“Adagio sent a man to take our work,” said one of the serpent sisters, and her eyes twitched over to a single book preserved under a glass case.
“Rana and Ayah,” Idris said, sliding his spear from his back, “The book of mechanical devices must be brought to civilization, so that the horror that has overcome you can be defeated.”
“Horror?” mocked Rana.
“Civilization is the horror,” crooned her sister.
“And if we are a horror, then so are you,” said Rana.
“The Churn is within you now, ” said Ayah, and they advanced together on him.
Idris felt the Churn streaming along with his blood, power and chaos pumping through his heart. Reflected in the visor, he saw his eyes glowing. The Churn was swallowing him… and he did not wish to resist. The Churn sang of evolution; it beckoned to him from the very center of the world. A Churnbeast sprouted within and begged to be born.
Shaking his head with violence to be rid of the evil song, he lunged for the glass case. The serpent shot forward, rising up between Idris and the book, hissing. The women reached for him with their clawed hands and fanged mouths opened wide, and Idris threw his bladed chakram, leaping away, twisting mid-air to land behind the beast. In his visor he saw the chakram returning and caught it behind his back while steel scales crashed to the ornate tiled floor.
Rana and Ayah screamed in rage and reared up again to strike; Idris threw the chakram again, set his gaze on the book and willed himself there. The chakram followed, slicing off one of Rana’s arms, which bled an unnatural green while she howled. The sisters whipped and coiled in their confusion. Idris did not pause; he rammed the butt end of his spear into the glass case and it shattered. The engineers attacked again, their powerful metal tail lashing with so much force that it crashed through a wall. Idris somersaulted aside with a fraction of a second to spare and landed under the women, so that Ayah’s spine loomed above him. He thrust upward with his spear and felt the engineer’s vertebrae separate and crack. Holding the spear inside her while she howled, he threw the chakram again and swung upward, using the spear as leverage, and watched the blade’s return flight through the visor as it sliced through Rana’s neck and crashed into the serpent’s eye.
The tail of the serpent thrashed without control. Idris scooped up the book and ran through the broken wall, leaped through one of the astrological rooms’ observatory windows and landed by the fountain.
For a moment he paused, wavering, hearing the song of the Churn thrum. It came from the Fabled Well at the center of the city. Stay, it whispered. You are home.
He focused the djinn in his mind as an anchor point, let all of the fumes out of his lungs, and returned.
The man who stumbled to the shimmering sand before Adagio was not the same man who had left. Adagio caught Idris into his arms and felt the wild thrum of the Churn inside his pulse. “Has it turned you?”
“I am myself,” whispered Idris, and closed his eyes. The book fell into the sand.
Adagio sighed. How annoying it was to care for humans. From his hands burst the gift of fire; it flooded into the dying man, radiating beneath his skin. “This will revive you, but not even I can draw the poison from your blood. The Churn will always call to you.”
Idris’ shining eyes opened and he grasped for the book in the sand. “But I have this. Now we can win.”
“Oh dear, no.” Adagio laughed, but then he met Idris’ steady, glowing gaze. His tone softened. “Your people are brave, but how will they engineer the devices in this book? With spears and goats and campfires? No; this book must go to those around the world who can use it. I suppose I can take you to the Technologists.”
Idris shook his head. He tried to sit up. “I will not leave my people to this horror.”
“There is no hope for your people without help from the rest of the world.” Beneath his hands, Adagio could feel the conflicting forces fighting for dominance: the gift of the seraphim and the curse of the Churn.
Idris clenched his fists. “I will go with you, then. But I swear I will return, with warriors and technology to fight this evil horde.”
“You are… almost impressive in your naivetè,” said Adagio. He drew up the reviving warrior into his arms, spread his great wings, and took flight.