Note: The following story is a children's tale that I fear will never find a home, hence its appearance at ISLF. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a pastiche of M. John Harrison's Viriconium, Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, and Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" might prove a hard sell. But I hope you enjoy it all the same.
Shhhhh. There, there, my child. Come here and let me tell you a story. Perhaps it'll make you feel better.
Once upon a time, there was a city called Parthulia. It lay on the edge of the desert, a lush oasis fed by underground rivers. It was a grand city built by long-forgotten craftsmen who filled it with twisting towers of carnelian, tourmaline, and garnet. Indeed, it was so great that scores of carrier pigeons were needed to bear messages from one borough to another, their wings scudding across the sapphire sky. The air hung thick with the scents of cinnamon and cardamom, and at night the stars sparkled like flecks of quartz.
Parthulia was a beautiful place. But it did not lack for troubles.
In the sixth year of Prince Yustan Diamondheart, an unknown people came from the north. They wore strange clothing and stern faces, and they bore barbed spears. None broke rank as they marched toward the city, and the people of Parthulia knew they had come for conquest. Prince Yustan sent an envoy with words of peace, but the watchers on Parthulia's walls reported that a flurry of arrows soon felled him.
As twilight gathered and the invaders set up camp on the northern plains, Prince Yustan called together his cabinet. Part of the cabinet preached the need for quick parley, arguing that the city lacked military might. Part urged immediate assault, reasoning that the invaders' gruesome welcome of the envoy showed they would never accept peace. Only as the moon climbed high in the heavens did Prince Yustan speak:
"I perceive two paths before me, yet I fear both lead to the same destination -- Parthulia's destruction. Thus, I shall follow neither."
Unease rippled through the assembled sages.
"Yet," Prince Yustan continued, raising his voice, "I shall also follow both."
"Oh most exalted prince," said the oldest and grayest counselor, "you speak in riddles. Times of action demand plain speech."
Yustan nodded. "Very well. I will descend into the caverns upon which Parthulia is founded and through which flow the subterranean rivers that water the city. I will use the jeweled door built by my father's fathers through which only a crown prince may pass in times of utmost peril. I will plead with the gogyogým (whom legend says dwell within) to fight for the habitation that shelters them."
The room erupted in protest. "Gogyogým" was a word whispered to frighten wayward children, although none could claim to know the creatures' exact form or nature. Unnamed loremasters had destroyed nearly all records concerning them. Princes lost to the mists of time had sealed the entrance to the caverns with a marble door studded with lapis lazuli and amber. But the histories that had survived claimed the gogyogým would deal plainly with the crown.
So Prince Yustan Diamondheart descended into the heart of the earth, breaking the ancient seal to plead for the life of his people. Half of his cabinet thought he would not return, yet he did. His once-sure hands trembled, and his once-strong voice quavered, and he bore about himself a stench not unlike that of freshly stirred rot. "I have saved Parthulia," he croaked, and the other half of his council turned their faces from him, believing him to have engaged in a fool's errand.
He had not. As day dawned red, the invaders' commander raised his horn to sound the assault, his soldiers having girded on their weapons for slaughter. But before the horn met his lips, a rumbling resounded beneath his feet, and it swelled to a quaking, and the earth itself split asunder, and the invaders tumbled in. The watchers on Parthulia's walls reported that they glimpsed a rush of waters coursing through the chasm. A few told wild tales about white tentacles that rose from the depths and dragged down the few survivors, but none heeded such fancies.
Thus Prince Yustan Diamondheart chose the brave and difficult path, putting himself at risk to save Parthulia. The end.
What? You don't like it? Oh, I see. You think it's too pat, too easy. Can I tell you something? The story doesn't end there.
Once upon a time, there was a city called Parthulia, a desert jewel, a shelter from the burning sands. But when a bloodthirsty army marched upon it, Prince Yustan Diamondheart ventured into the caverns beneath Parthulia to bargain with the mysterious gogyogým. None knew the bargain he struck, but the gogyogým intervened and Parthulia was saved -- albeit at great cost. Prince Yustan's time below the earth stole his strength, and while the city rejoiced, he took to his chambers with fever. Lady Yatherin, his wife, found him hours later slumped over a desk. His cold arm lay thrown over an unfinished scroll, and a messenger pigeon pecked at a crystal window, anxious to be let out.
Lady Yatherin did not surrender to grief. She called for the doctors, who examined the prince in mute distress. She called for the royal cabinet, which immediately sent an exploratory party to retrace Yustan's steps. She inspected the scroll, but it had smeared beyond deciphering. She kept her head enough to note two things all others missed. First, a strange, fibrous filigree had grown beneath her husband's fingernails. Second, by the time the doctors left, the messenger pigeon lay dead on the windowsill.
The cabinet assembled for yet another night. While Lady Yatherin stood by a window in the marble-lined hall, tears streaking her cheeks, the counselors argued. Only a remnant of the exploratory party had returned, their eyes wide and staring. They had found the caverns beneath Parthulia overrun with fungal growths. Pale spores floated through the subterranean air, and those who inhaled them perished in agony. Ropy tendrils the color of bone climbed the rock walls, and when the captain slashed one with his sword, they awoke and thrashed and killed many. The survivors had fled. One thing was plain enough: Whatever they were, the gogyogým were rising.
Lady Yatherin let the cabinet bicker until the moon was a sliver of pearl in the bottom of the bowl of the sky. Then she interrupted:
"Wise men of Parthulia, look to the window and tell me what you see."
The oldest and grayest counselor cleared his throat. "My lady, there is only night, a night which must fall permanently if we do not act. Now, I urge that we --"
"Sir, you forget your place," she said in a voice bright as steel. Her eyes had dried, and she stood straight and strong. "I was lady to my husband, but I stand before tonight as Princess of Parthulia. Again I say, tell me what you see."
Cloth rustled. A hushed voice murmured complaint. Then silence swallowed all sound.
Princess Yatherin Diamondheart indicated the view with a sweep of her hand. "Even as you have striven with one another, I have observed the stars above fading behind a veil of spores. Even as you have argued, I have watched tendrils creep across the cobbles, phosphorescent in the gloom. Dispute as you might, the city has given its answer: Parthulia has surrendered to the gogyogým. I will not have my people perish with it."
Thus Parthulia was abandoned, the day dawning red as its inhabitants fled toward the west and Princess Yatherin Diamondheart faced a defeat bitter as the grave. The end.
Why the frown? You don't like this one either? Yes, it is a little hopeless. Can I tell you something else? The story doesn't end there either.
Once upon a time, there was a city named Parthulia that crouched on the desert's rim. But aggressors came from the north, and its ruler sought aid from subterranean creatures known as the gogyogým. That gambit both succeeded and failed, for though the foreign army was vanquished, Parthulia's prince perished and the city was soon overrun by a lethal creeping fungus. It fell to Lady Yatherin Diamondheart to take up the mantle of Princess and lead her people to safety in the hard lands to the west. Over generations, those lands saw the Parthulians became wanderers and scrabblers with little memory of their history. Little, but not none. During the exodus, Princess Yatherin Diamondheart had found herself with her husband's child, and years later the royal blood still ran true in a man named Yarrett.
When young, Yarrett sought ore beneath the western hills, bartering it to nearby hamlets for bread. Dark of eye and deft of hand, he grew into a man of unusual skill. He built hearth and firepit and taught himself to craft instruments of utility and delight. He also harnessed energy through springs and cogs, and with them he crafted interlocking circular plates that mimicked the motion of the stars and dimpled cylinders that twanged a metal comb to produce tinny tunes. But his greatest accomplishment was a bird with copper feathers that would shuffle and peck with counterfeit life when wound by a key.
"What kind of bird is that?" his wife asked one day.
"I do not know," Yarrett answered, "although I have seen them from where the sun rises and heard their cooing. I would see them more, for the old tales say that we came from the east."
His wife smiled gently, knowing her husband's curiosity was tempered by wisdom. "Seek what you desire for a year and a day, then return and again make your home with me."
Of Yarrett's trip, I will say little. It was long, and he journeyed with as many tools he could carry, and one of the strange birds wheeled overhead as he crested the final ridge before the desert.
Below lay Parthulia, a choked ruin. Sickly strands of fungus spilled across the sands. Yellowish whorls coiled about boulders of amber, red, and green.
Yarrett approached with caution, noting that the solitary bird gyring above seemed the only sign of life. Perhaps he could cleave a path through the spongy mass with the blade girded at his side. He stalked to the periphery and slashed at it.
The ruin writhed, ghastly growths whipping as if in a whirlwind, ground groaning as rocks were crushed to dust.
please, sounded ten-score of voices in unison, we beg you, stop.
"I mean no harm," Yarrett called. "Who are you?"
The mass unfurled, filaments curling back until a pallid form shaped vaguely like a man stood before Yarrett.
your mouth is not formed to speak our proper name, but the people who once dwelt here called us the gogyogým.
Yarrett listened as the gogyogým explained the bargain they had struck with Prince Yustan: They would fight for Parthulia if he would seal the entrance to their land in the end, seal them away from the arid air, the scorching sun, and the stinging sand, for the gogyogým are a fecund people given to uncontrollable growth. Only Prince Yustan died before he could do so. But for a seal, they would still dwell in peace within the earth's belly, soothed by the sound of subterranean rivers. But for a seal, Parthulia would still stand.
"But for a seal, my people would retain their birthright," Yarrett said, "for I perceive that Parthulia is our true home."
we would not begrudge you this place, yet you must restore us to the depths. only then can we slough off this sickly part of ourselves.
So Yarrett made the same pledge as his ancestor and bent to work, fiddling with spring and cog, tin and steel, ratchet and wrench. He worked by firelight as stars sprang up in the velvet sky and faded as day dawned red. When he finally rose, something whirled into the air and scudded away toward the western horizon, its wings sparkling in the sanguine sunlight. It was a pigeon fashioned of metal with a message strapped to its leg, a message that read:
"My dearest, I have found not only the desire of my own heart, but also that of us all. Come to me, bringing all who are willing. Have them bear as much ore as they can carry, and in a year and a day I will return to you our ancestral home."
Time would fail to tell how Yarrett devised a device of lead and crystal to safeguard him from the floating spores that are the life of the gogyogým and descended into the depths to fulfill his promise. Time would fail to tell of the telescoping titanium iris he built to safeguard their domain, of the steel towers studded with cadmium, iridium, and cobalt that rose from the desert floor, of the storm of mechanical birds that sped across the sky on bright wings of gold and silver. Time would fail to tell of how the night stars glimmered like drops of mercury scattered across an ebony slab when the scepter and crown were once more restored to Parthulia.
Thus in wisdom Prince Yarrett Truewound restored Parthulia to its ancient glory. The end.
I can tell that you liked that one. Nothing like good finally winning out. But can I tell you something more? The story doesn't end there.
You look confused. Don't you understand? The story doesn't end. One's "happily ever after" is another's "once upon a time." Whether night falls in defeat or joy comes in the morning, the story doesn't end. So lift your chin. Dry your eyes. The day dawns red. The story doesn't end.
Of course, that's not entirely true. Someday the One who wrote the world will roll it up like a scroll, and what a day that will be. But that's another story entirely ...