Little eyes hung in grey solution. Voles' eyes. Charcoal dark; trailing strings of grey flesh like soft beads burst off a broken necklace. Dozens. Gawping, dumb, suspended in salty, chilled lymph. They shifted, bobbed, broke round the intrusion of a fine spoon thrust amidst them. A tiny ladle groped for purchase, cupped a single orb, pulled it dripping from the rest.
Rubber-tipped ends of tweezers plucked the eye from its spoon, held it close to the soft luminance of a hissing desk lamp. With one blue, wrinkled human eye, the tweezers' wielder examined his selection, peering through jeweler's glasses. He hummed approval, felt cross his workbench for another instrument. A minute brush, bound from a few soft hairs of sable. This he dipped in a brown jar labeled "osmotic glair," brought it up covered in clear resin, and twitched it for the excess. Tweezer and brush came together, dabbed a smear of clear glue on the eye's trailing nerves and muscle-ends. The brush returned to its stand.
The eye, still pinched, traversed the bench. It shook lightly, wobbled by sympathetic shakes of a wrinkled hand. It lowered, found its rest in a tiny, articulated clamp hung just above its destination: The left orbit of a featherless robin's head. Grey with frost, pucker-skinned, sutured with lids of pink flesh held staring emptily open by pins and surgical clamps fine as beading needles. Tiny ocular muscles, veins, and nerves' ends lay within, pinched and labeled by silver instruments and hanging tags.
From a tray beside, one hand took up a fine suture hook threaded with wet sinew, near invisible save for reflected lamplight. The other: an even finer set of tweezers. They quivered in aged fingers. A breath drew in, held. The instruments shook no more. Quick, they dipped into the socket, began to sew strings of flesh to their matches on the eye.
Often, the hands paused, waited for deep, steadying breaths before setting again to sew. Crow's feet pinched, watered under thick lenses, blinked only in those pauses. Finally, with a cautious tug of sinew, the vole eye drew up like a finished button drawn to its placard, sat aright and wet in its mismatched orbit. The hands relaxed, put down their tools, shook gently in rest on the polished workbench.
Between those hands lay the vole-eyed thing. A cobbled creature, its constituent pieces indistinct, save the robin's head, and joined by flesh stitched up and reskinned by thin, black tar. * Blunt-limbed and long of body, somewhat like a tiny man or bear, save for its beak and bird's feet.
Slow, one hand lifted the robin-headed, vole-eyed thing, carried it limp to a steel pedestal. Gently, it lay the cobbled creature down, slowly lowered a belljar over top. Soon after the glass descended, frost fogged its interior. Cold radiated from the jar and steel stand, pumped from some chilly tubing below. The wet vole eye clouded over.
With care, aged hands unclipped jeweler's lenses from thick glasses. The eyes below, an old man's eyes, closed in long, tired blinks. The man himself, grey and bearded, looked appreciably at his frosted-over work in the belljar, massaged his knotty, quivering hands.
Close behind, a latch clicked. A door squeaked, opened slowly from its jamb. One young, green eye peered through the crack it'd opened, looked wide and nervous at the dim workshop and the man beyond.
"Emilee," said the old man. He turned. His white-whiskered lip curled. "What did your Mamma say about coming up here?"
Emilee's eye blinked, surprised. "Thought I was quiet," she said, abashed. It looked at the man, squinted. "Mamma said 'you shouldn't pry about Grandfather's work.'" She mimed, pitchily. "'Shouldn't go up to the attic.'"
"Said it was 'wrong,' or something."
"Do you think it's wrong?" said Grandfather. He leaned stiffy on his low stool, elbows on thin knees.
The eye looked idly around, widely interested. "Don't think so," said Emilee, paused. "Don't know what it is you do, though."
"Want to see?"
The eye blinked. "Yes." Emilee pronounced, quickly. "Yes," she said again, softer. "I'm interested."
"Keep it our secret?"
The eye nodded, eagerly.
Emilee, a girl of ten, crept round the door, shut it behind. Messy, dark hair obscured one eye. Quiet, she turned about, looked with the other, took in shelves and benches assorted with tools, machines, components, and preserved specimens of steel, wood, bone, and flesh. Her eye fixed last on the steel pedestal and belljar, on the mismatched creature within.
"What's that critter?" she pointed.
Grandfather touched the glass. Frost rounded his fingertips. "An experiment," he said. "Nearly the thousandth I've made."
"But what's it called?" said Emilee, eye rolling.
"Back at the Academy, we called them homunculi," said Grandfather. "Artificial people, before they banned such things."
Emilee looked unsure, peered closely through the glass, nose upturned. "Doesn't look like a person to me."
"That's because it's only practice." Grandfather sighed. "No one can make a person. At least, no one still alive." He smiled. "And not without the usual means. I'm experimenting in order to discover how, using dead pieces. Ethics say experimenting with pieces of people would be wrong."
"Ethics are rules. They tell scientists what's right and what's wrong."
"So you use other pieces… " stated Emilee, frowning at jars of dissected fish, mammal, and bird. All tiny, greyed, floating in jars. "Because it's right?"
"But Mamma and the Academy say its wrong."
"Well," said Grandfather. "Sometimes interpretations of ethics change, over time."
"Hm," nodded Emilee, slackly. She spun around for a bit, took in the complexity of items cluttering the peak-roofed workshop. Piles of red and blue leather-bound books stamped with Academy seals. Charts bearing hand-drawn plots and metrics. Trays of sharp tools disinfecting in white alcohol.
Emilee mused. "That homuncle–"
"Homunculus," said Grandfather.
"Homuncle," nodded Emilee, confident. "I've seen one before. Mr. Bobkins had him under the tea cabinet, chewed all to bits. Lots of little guts."
"Yes. Deceased experiments tend to make it downstairs, because of that cat." Said Grandfather, bushy eyebrows beetling.
"What's 'deceased?'" singsonged the girl, still spinning.
"Deceased means 'dead,' Dear."
"Why're they dead?"
"Because they never live, at least not for long," said Grandfather, whilsful.
"Why?" said the girl.
"Because…" Grandfather was silent a moment. "I'll show you. Come and see," he beckoned. Emilee quit her spinning, brushed hair from her eyes, tottered over. Grandfather had produced another belljar from across the wide workbench. Inside lay a combination of skink and needleless hedgehog, slathered in tar like the vole-eyed thing. It lay, legs crooked and limp, with two loose, rubber catheters running from its sewn-together neck. Those tubes attached to a small, clear ball of glass set with a tiny port. Watery red swirled within.
Grandfather lifted the belljar, gently slid the sticky creature onto his palm. There, tethered to its ball, the homunculus lay limp, still, save for a pulse fluttering in its throat.
Emilee ogled the thing, leaned close. "It's breathing," said she, excited.
"Yes, it is. And its heart is beating." Grandfather picked up the blood ball, turned it so the rubber nipple of its port faced up.
"But doesn't that mean its alive?"
A sadness pinched the old man's eyes. "Watch, Dear." From the bench beside, he retrieved a tiny jar, a syringe. He drew in a breath, held it to steady his hands, carefully unscrewed and pulled a drop of yellow liquid from the jar. Quick, he poked the syringe through the rubber port of the homunculus' ball, depressed the plunger. He hurriedly set down the instrument, cupped the creature in both hands.
After but a few seconds, it twitched. Spasms wracked its legs and stitched throat, bid them flex and curl violently in alternation. Its eyes flickered open, stared agape and dumb. Emilee goggled at it.
"It is alive!"
Grandfather shook his head, looked on with woe in his eyes. He watched as the homunculus wobbled in his palms, coughed lightly, made a bid to stand. Then, clear fluid spilled from it mouth, tinged with red. It cricked its neck, seized hard, didn't relax again. It died that way, lay still.
"Oh," said Emilee, eyes watering. Her shoulders slumped.
"They all end like that, more or less," said Grandfather. He placed the dead homunculus on his bench. "I've heard tell of colleagues, still working, who've had more success, but it doesn't much matter. We're all missing the same thing."
"What are you missing?" said Emilee, looking sad at the limp, cobbled beast.
"A heart," he said, deadpan. "A very specific heart. We try and recreate its effect, but have no success."
"But," frowned his granddaughter. "You said it's heart was beating?"
"A different sort of heart, Dear. If only both were so simple." The man placed a wrinkled hand over his breast pocket. "Not the heart that creates life here," he said, tapping. "But the heart that makes life here." He lifted his hand, poked a thumb to Emilee's forehead.
She blinked. "What kind's that?"
Grandfather lifted a finger, reached for a musty book. He slid a thumb down the worn text block, found a bookmark, split the pages open. He turned the diagram inside, illustrated, to Emilee
Grandfather spoke dour. "A heart of stone."
Emilee blinked at the page. "Hm," she said, dully. She began to spin around again. "I hope you find it, Grandpappa," she tittered, twirling to the attic door. A low smile creased the old scientist's face. "Thank you, Dear."
He looked to the page, to the heart-shaped chunk of crystal illustrated therein: Lumpily faceted, inked with red, labeled fig.13: sorcerous stone, Naussian. Praecantian Age. He shut the book.
"I hope so, too."
Oars dipped soft into black water. Lifted, dripped, dipped back again to drag the little boat forward. It was a low, flat craft, sunk near to its wales by the weight of two occupants.
One, a smallish woman in a balaclava and maille-fronted jacket, was rowing. She looked about, took in shadows of broad mineral speleothems risen from and dipping into the flooded cavern waters. In the light of a prow lantern, they cast broad, black shapes on concave, dripping walls. She shivered, breathed cold and mineral air.
The other, a lank-haired man in sleeveless woolens worn over munitions plating, bent where he sat at the rear bench. He pored over a worn book, separated waxy pages with dirty nails stuck from fingerless gloves. The pages were thick, leathery. They separated, wet and oily, like sweated flesh. They were crabbed with red, veiny lettering. Rows of queries and responses in two distinct hands. One, pinched and printed. The other, flowing and broad; antiquated.
"Hate this wanker's handwriting," he said, rubbing two pages between scabbed thumb and forefinger.
"Do keep in mind, Dourn," said the rowing balaclava. "He was kept by an Emperoussin courtier for three decades. I imagine they didn't converse in Naussian the whole while. Had to be taught modern speak." She sniffed. "Some flamboyancy has surely rubbed off."
"It, mate. Isn't a man anymore. It's a book." Dourn sneered. "And it's with bloody cutters, now, anyway. Might well do to update its style. Stitchy ancient shitbrain." Balaclava looked pained at that last phrase. "Wot?" said Dourn. He frowned at her, mockingly incredulous. "Did you wince, Mackle? Wot you wince for? It can't hear."
Mackle shrugged, kept rowing. "Dunno. Guess it's silly. I know an incunable can't hear, right enough, but it…" Her covered mouth twisted. "Dunno. Feels off."
"Don't. Wanker can't do anything to us." He slapped the cover.
"Fine." Mackle rowed on.
They kept many minutes onward. All was still on the black and depthless water, save a rare splash of oar or dapple of dripping, mineral milk from far above. Mackle looked over her shoulder frequently, prow-wards, watched the mounds of flowstone and stalagmites that composed the cavern-river's steep banks ahead.
Eventually, a half hour later, she spoke. "I think I see it," she let an oar dangle in its swivel, pointed. "There." Dourn snapped to see.
Ahead, there emerged from the bank a wide, low slab of stone afront a black gate. A sort of pier built from monolithic rock, lacking rail nor any other accessory typical of a dock. The gate, a rectangular set of stone doors in a frame five times taller than its two-meter width, rose plain and similarly unadorned from the bleak stone. Wet, ancient. So old that pencil stalagmites and runnels of flowstone had begun to crab its hard angles.
Dourn shivered. "Certainly looks bloody Naussian, to me."
Wordless, Mackle brought the boat alongside, lifted a cast iron anchor onto the pier. They took up their heavy backpacks, stepped from the wobbling boat, and stood small and damp before the towering doors. Dourn clutched the incunable, squinted at their high expanse. "Go ahead and tell it we are here," said Mackle, nudging him. "Ask it how they open."
"Ahk." Dourn groaned. "Gonna bleed meself dry."
"You said you wanted to be the primary scribe." **
"Fine." He shuffled to sit on the stone, opened the book in the cross of his legs. Wincing, he bit open one of the scabs of his thumbs, let a bit of red well out. He produced an inkpen from his pocket, painedly dipped in the wound. Slow, he put nib to fleshy parchment, sucked his thumb as he wrote a scratchy line.
"Me and Mackle made it to the tomb. How do we open this damn ugly door?"
Mackle crouched beside, watched Dourn write. After he dotted his question mark, he paused, watched the red letters fade, draw dim into the sucking page. Another line appeared slow, below, all at once. Risen from the parchment like veins under papery skin.
"I am so eminently pleased to hear from you again, Vidal Dourn of Loriat."
"'Eminently pleased,'" tittered Dourn, adapting a faux-posh accent. Mackle shushed him. "Shus, he's being sarcastic." She pointed to the page, where another line was appearing. "Look."
"The gate to Cardiac Sanctum 43 was never meant to be opened from without. Do utilize the blasting satchel I requested you obtain upon the left door."
For a moment, it paused. Then:
"Take care in its application. I desire to be buried no more than you do."
Mackle frowned. "That sounds bloody unsafe." She sat on the cold stone, gestured for the book. "Give him here a moment."
"I have a question, and he doesn't like you."
"It," Dourn insisted. He obliged poutily, handed over the book, sucking his bleeding thumb. Mackle produced a quill and a pen knife, sharpened the nib, and, without fuss, nicked her own arm for ink. She wrote to the incunable, goose feather waving in her fingertips.
"Master Sorcerer, begging your indulgence, is it safe to utilize an explosive? Will we not awaken your brethren?"
"Kiss-arse," muttered Dourn, watching words appear.
"Dear Liriellen Mackle of Leah," said the book. "I assure you: So long as you listen to me, you are in no danger from my brethren."
"Right," said Dourn. He grabbed the book from Mackle, who protested, snapped it shut with a thump, shoved it in his bag. He stood. "Let's blow it."
"Dourn, you ass," said Mackle. She too rose, hastily tied a kerchief round the cut on her arm.
With incautious haste, Dourn produced the explosive: a linen-wrapped bundle of clay. Soft, chemically sweet in odor, stamped with red font reading danger: nitrodetonite. He wedged it at the left door's base, inserted a long fuse, trailed it back many meters to the boat. "Get jolly back," he said, piling into the little craft with fuse in one hand and a flip lighter in the other.
"Blast," cursed Mackle, jointing him. She covered her head and ears, crouched low.
"That's wot I'm gonna do." Dourn clicked the lighter thrice, produced a shock of flame, lit the fuse. He, too, ducked below the edge of the dock and boat.
On the pier, a bead of flame trailed fast over stone, gobbling up the fuse with eager intensity. As soon as it touched the satchel, it puffed, flared, detonated. A shockwave blew dust, droplets, and fragments of stone and pencil stalagmites over the dock. The cutters flinched, rocked as their boat careened where it floated, took in sloshes of water. Smoke reached them, then a blast of boiling air. Ruble crashed, settled. Dust and debris scattered over their backs.
"Bloody shite," said Mackle, rubbing her ears. Dourn blinked away grit, peeked over the dock. Where it had hung in the frame, the bottom half of the left door had collapsed into still-settling rubble. The upper half remained, held aright by its great hinge. Dusty black lay beyond the great portal. "Worth every penny, that," grinned the man.
He climbed from the boat, brought the prow-lantern with him, produced the incunable. Hasty, he dabbed at his still-welling thumb. Mackle, looking annoyed, climbed up behind, watched him write.
"Blew the door in. Tell us what's next."
"Dourn," scolded Mackle. "Mind how you make demands. Nothing's making him help us, and he's making it remarkably easy. Don't give him reason not to."
"Sure it has reason," said Dourn. "I've told it if it don't, I'll use its pages for asswipes."
Mackle pinched her lips, looked to the book's response:
"Shortly within the gate is a spiral stair. Descend. However long the way may seem, know that it does have an end."
"Simple," said Dourn, marching for the gate.
They clambered over rubble, entered the sanctum. There, in the lantern-dim, showed an unadorned hall some ten meters long, culminated by the cylinder of a towerlike stair. It sunk, yawning, railless and bleak, into the stone. Wordless, the cutters traversed to the top step, footfalls loud and hollow over the broad chamber, looked down. Huge slices of stone fanned down into the dark without support or central column. Tall, wide steps, built not for their small legs. Wordless, they descended.
Steps. Hundreds, thousands of steps disappeared under the cutters' heels. Great, ebon granite steps. Dry and smooth under the sliding lanternlight. Both cutters held close to their interior curve, shooting frequent, fearful glances to the round pit round which the steps circled. Each step slanted five degrees inwards, towards that depthless gap, as if ready to funnel an unwary descendant to their doom.
After some time, they were both panting. "'An end,'" scoffed Dourn, again in his falsely-posh accent. Sweat gleamed on his brow. "How long's it been? An hour?"
"Think about it like this," said Mackle. "At least we're going down, instead of up."
"Tell my knees that."
They huffed on for two hours more, and their going did not slow. Rather, it increased, sped by clumsy, tired ankles tripping down ever-descending flags of stone.
At one point, Dourn wheezed, stumbled. His ankle bowed, sent him a dangerous few feet towards the precipitous pit. "Shite!" he cursed, wiped his brow. He slumped back, down onto the wide, curved side of a step, back to the wall. For a moment, he breathed the musty air, eyes wide and angry. Abruptly, he cracked open the incunable.
"Are you alright?" said Mackle. She glanced to the open book. "What are you doing?"
"Asking it how much bloody longer." Dourn bit his thumb again, winced as he reopened the scab, wrote to the sorcerer-book:
"How much farther do we have to go on these shitty stairs? It's been hours. If this is some sort of trap, I'll use you for kindl–"
"Dourn," snapped Mackle, nabbing the pen from his grasp. "What did I say?"
"Get reamed, mate. I want answers." He snatched the pen back, turned to the book, watched the reply to his half-finished line.
"The stairs you are following are indeed a trap…"
Dourn made some throaty howl of rage, gripped the book.
"So long as you stop, that is. The sanctum stairwell takes a full day to traverse. It swallows those of weak fortitude and composure; those who stop or sleep in despair or weariness. It swallows mortals.*** I trust you can make it, but you must not stop."
"Only now does it say this," hawked Dourn. Snapping the book shut.
Mackle straightened to continue. "Maybe if you treated him better, he might be more accommodating in its dispensation of information."
"'Dispensation of information,'" mocked Dourn. He rose. "Honestly, you're starting to sound like it, Mackle."
The balaclava'd cutter held her tongue, merely paused a hint before returning down the stairs. "We have enough water in the canteens," she said, flatly. "Come on."
They walked for a silent and wearisome day, dull, save for stumbling and ragged breath, for stops to rest knees, change new kerosene into the lantern, to drink sparely. Footsteps echoed, receding, producing a distant, hollow tattoo in the fathoms of spiraling granite.
Dull, save an abrupt, heavy thrum. A sudden pall of freezing cold. "Wot?" said Dourn, dryly, staggering. He clutched his chest, his ears. "Felt like a big drumbeat just went through me."
Mackle shivered, froze, wideyed. "Oh no," she said, after a moment, also touched her ears; felt the ache of a pressure change.
"Wot?" said Dourn, panicked at the blank startelement in Mackle's near-covered face. They looked at eachother. "Oh," he said, after a second, crestfallen. "The…"
Mackle screwed up her eyes, shook her head. "Wait, we should have expected this." She started climbing instead, knees wobbling. "It only means we're…" She looked up, saw a dark, smooth ceiling to which the stair now ascended. A circular landing where they had already passed, where there had been none before. Her eyes widened. "We're there."
Dourn's head swiveled, beheld the door. A grin split his scruffy face. "Finally." He dashed up the steps, incunable tucked under one elbow.
"Wait, we should consult with it," said Mackle, stumbling after him.
Ahead, Dourn crested the stairs, disappeared round the lip, yelped.
"Dourn!" She rushed to follow, caught herself low on a step to peer over the landing's lip.
On the landing, cold and broadly circular, there stood a towering door opposite the stair. And, in the center between, a curled beast. A brute fiend like a great tyger, covered all over in metallic spines laid flat, like sheafed arrows. It lay, curled, with a wrinkled, miserable, humanlike head reposed atop sickle claws. Round those claws lay the end of a long, segmented tail, tipped with a similarly-metallic, spearlike sting. At this, Dourn had cried out, dropped groveling to the stone. The beast was dry, dessicated. Motionless. Dead.
"A maneater," gasped Mackle, unsteadily. She rounded the stairs. "A chimera." Her shoulder relaxed. Relief entered her tone. "It's dead."
Stepping ahead, she took up the incunable from where the man had dropped it. "Come on," she said, reassured, but still shaky. She popped open the tome, sat on the cold ground, and produced her quill. She looked to the door, to the dead chimera, wrote:
"Master Sorcerer, we have come upon the guardian beast."
She paused, quill welling red where it pressed to the fleshy page. She scratched another line.
"Please tell me you knew it would be dead."
The book responded immediately.
Dear Liriellen. Allow me to reassure you: my certainty in the manticore's state was total. Specimens of this variety live for no more than a millennia without upkeep. Its expiration was assured, after this many thousands of years.
"Our friend says he knew the maneater was dead," said Mackle, glaring at Dourn, who sat on the stone looking sourly at the monster's corpse. "Information which might have spared you a pair of trousers, had you waited a moment."
"My trousers are fine, thank you," grumbled Dourn. "Does it have anything helpful to say? Wot about that door?"
Mackle dipped her quill, winced, wrote:
"Master Sorcerer, Dourn wants to know how to proceed."
A response bloomed quick over the page:
"Tell good Master Dourn the guardian's door is open. It merely requires a touch. Let him lead down the ensuing hall. My heart lies beyond."
Mackle frowned lightly, reread the response. She looked up. Dourn had risen, and walked to examine the same door. Rectangular, a meter wide and five tall. "So, wot's it say?" he said, holding his lantern to the jamb and threshold, both flush, dark shapes of stone.
"Says the door requires only a touch to open."
"Hmm." He placed a hand to the portal, shoved it. The lines of his forearm stood out merely a little, exerted just a hint of pressure. Silent, the door swung slowly inward.
"Wow," said Dourn, pushing more. The door swung fully open on silent bearings. "Let's bloody go."
Mackle looked up from the book, pointed. "Says the stone is down that hall."
"Really? Finally." He entered the hall, lantern held high.
Ahead lay a catacomb hall ranked with sarcophagi. Huge sarcophagi, twice the height of a man. Effigies were wrought upon their lids. Effigies, carved in rich detail sufficient for kings, depicting armored, baleful creatures in segmented armor. Their gauntlets clenched like dead spiders at their sides. Their long helmets, beaked and skeletal, like crow skulls, tipped in macabre state to touch peaked breasts. The lanternlight shifted between them, lent their heads and empty eye sockets a hateful, following demeanor.
Mackle shivered at the sight. She followed, shoulders hunched, between two rows of tombs. Dourn wandered ahead, ignoring all, save a faint glimmer at the hall's lengthy end. A gleam of cherry red.
"There it is," said Dourn, breathless. He began to jog for the glimmer: A red crystal atop a high pedestal of plain stone at the chamber's abrupt end.
Mackle watched, stopped, frowned. Hurriedly, she clutched the incunable in the crook of one arm, writing with the other.
"This is too simple."
The book responded instantly.
The blacks of Mackle's eyes widened. She wrote, sloppily.
"What's going to happen if he takes the stone?"
Again, an instant response. Bold, heavy lines, as if scraped by a pen pressed heavy to the page in fervor. Like broken veins.
"How much do you care, Liriellen? Let Dourn have what he wants."
A pall passed over Mackle's eye. With book and quill still ready, she set off for Dourn, haltingly. Ahead, the man stood just before his prize, looking up at it on its tall stand. It was a deep, luminous crimson, bright with refracted light. Built of roughly hexagonal layers, it set in a sconce of uncut stone, lumpy like fossilized flesh. It reflected, a red pinprick, in Dourn's unblinking eyes.
"Dourn," warned Mackle. Voice unsteady. Cautious and halfhearted.
Dourn ignored her. He stretched out a hand, fingers twitching.
He clasped the stone, grinned hungrily, drew it from the pedestal. "Would you look at that," he said, admiring the glowing thing. He turned to Mackle, displayed it. "Bloody asswipe of a book did its job after all."
Mackle's eyes widened, bugged. "Wot?" demanded Dourn. Mackle stared to his hand.
Quizzical, Dourn followed with his own gaze, and horror convoluted his face. At that moment, the cutter's hand, still fixed round its prize, sagged, snapped at the wrist. It smacked, dead and necrotic-black, on the stone floor. The crystal, within a cage of gruesome fingers clenched like dead spider-legs, had turned opaque, brown like a dried wound. From the stump of Dourn's wrist, there crawled thick, black ropes of dead flesh. They snaked up his bare forearm, following the lines of rapidly-hollowing veins.
"Mackle, help me." He staggered forward, sunk to one knee. Mackle backpedaled, eyes white and panicked. "Help, ask the reaming book!" he said again. Mackle opened her mouth as if to speak, shut it. Still, she backed away.
"Help me, you cunt!" Dourn implored. Those last words came out a garbled slur, for brown decay burbled from his throat. Soon enough, he collapsed. As soon as it had started, the necrosis had stopped, halted where it reached the man's brain.
Mackle was still, panting. She beheld her companion, collapsed just feet before his fallen hand, in a puddle of rotten bile. Beside him, where it had fallen, the lantern burned low. Mackle crossed to it, dropped to the floor. There, hunched in the meager pool of light, she dipped her bloody quill and, with shaking breaths and quivering hands, wrote to the incunable:
"Dourn is dead." She paused, nib wobbling, wrote: "You said we were in no danger."
The book replied, its looping hand slow and careful.
"I assured you would face no danger, Liriellen."
Mackle blinked, eyes flat. Her grip on the quill hardened. She wrote:
"You used us, didn't you? You chose that I should live, and he should die."
The incunable thought just a moment before responding:
"You knew what was happening. Do you disagree with my choice?"
Mackle's quill pressed hard into the parchment, welled a deep blotch. Her arm dripped red onto the stone.
"No." She wrote, grudgingly slow. "But why me?"
Tentative, words welled on the human parchment.
"I needed help, Liriellen. I chose yours over Dourn's, not because you are more skilled, nor any less greedy, nor even the most kind." It dropped down a line. "But because you remind me of myself."
Mackle's breathing hitched. In the cold catacomb, wisps of frozen breath floated from the knit over her mouth. Anxiously, she watched the page. The previous lines faded, sunk away. A new one appeared:
"Do you understand?"
Jerkily, she scratched a solitary response:
"Yes." She paused, leveled her breath, added: "I do, Master."
Words flowed fast over the page.
"Do you still desire the stone? Will you help us rebuild it?"
Mackle put down "yes," immediately, frowned, added: "us?"
"Look about you."
Slow, as if fearing a blow out from the dark, the cutter looked up. She gasped.
In the dark about the lantern's meager pool stood huge, black iron figures. Stock-still. Dry, ammoniated breath pulled silent from their beaked helms. They stared with bleak pits of eyes.
A weight descended on Mackle's shoulder: A heavy, segmented claw of a long-fingered hand sconced in an iron cuff. Mackle, jerked, looked up to the towering sorcerer close behind. She averted her eyes, hunched, stared wide-eyed at the open book of sorcery in her lap, at the text crawling red over parchment:
The sorcerers of old had no regard for death.
To them, biological entropy was an obstacle long ago surmounted, stripped of consequence by their horrid arts; by the genesis of one life-manipulating tool, the greatest product of their obscene and biological science: The philosopher's stone.
Better known by all who followed and desired it as a sorcerer's stone: A nervous catalyst, one capable of creating unending life, or even reigniting the vital fires of animation and sentience in the cold axons of perished flesh and bone. A gory crystal, classically depicted as a heart of crimson stone struck with veins of cream. A folkloric image synonymous with bloaty womb-cauldrons and their chimeric spawn. It is the catalyst by which sorcerer's inured themselves against death, and the final ingredient in their awful recipes,† stirred into amniotic brews to turn burbling gore into cobbled, embryonic life.
The power of these hearts of stone lent every sorcerer-empire to ever reign might sufficient to bend the world. First came the Naussians: A union of titan-sorcerers risen so far above the means of mortal man as to forsake all basic human softness and regard. By the power of their hearts, worn ostentatious in the breast of their black armor, Naussia first engendered the chimera, the cauldron-born grue, the undying slave; all tools by which they wrought a centuries-long dominion. Next came the Agadese, who with lifespans born of their magic stones wrought discoveries fatal to all their enemies, and ultimately themselves. Then the Idrans, the hideous, fleshly pagan-realm from which all Northern witchcraft is born. All these and many other, small empires of sorcery rose and fell, conquering and conquered by the ability to bend life itself.
Only with the dawning of modern humanity,††† some thousand years and more ago, did the secret of the sorcerer's stone come to sink into occult memory. As each great cabal of sorcery fell or slunk into deep obscurity, stones were destroyed, lost, or closed up fast away in underworld vaults, rare to be seen again. The final few who wielded their powder after sorcery's fall to small mankind did so in cautious clandestinity, so leery were they to reveal the secrets of their mysteriously-extended life. Among these rumored wielders were the Parriarchs of Aveth,‡ who utilized stones taken from their former sorcerer masters to create personal lifespans of seemingly-divine protraction, and the nigh-mythical monks of Alba Abbey, who were rumored to have a stone in their drinking well. Myths of modern wielders stone are no less prevalent, but far less true.
The art of the sorcerer's stone has slipped into obscurity, as has most truth regarding its power, or even its nature. None‡‡ can yet tell how the sorcerers of so long ago came to design their gory hearts, nor even how they were put to use. Folklore and sholardom alike put forth any number of horrid rumors of how such stones are found or crafted:
A stone's use is clearer than its origin. It is consistently depicted in lore. In the manufacture of chimeras, most folk summon the folkloric image of a heart added like a soupstone† to some macabre cauldron of fetal gore. The same will likely picture, as was illustrated in their storybooks, a stone heart fired over a crucible to bleed out its elixir of life.
In all its tellings, told by exaggerated myth or ancient text alike, the stone is renowned for its demanding toll. Those who seek it, either through hidden archeology or secret manufacture, grow gradually familiar with this heinous cost: Humanity.
All those who have striven to obtain it eventually pay the same price as the grim practitioners who came before. By their labors, they grow familiar with the same bleak ambition which pervaded the stones' creators. They set aside the softness of their mortality. They discard their compassion, their admiring loyalty, their regard for the human form; come instead to cherish the traits of ambition, domination, and obsession.
Traits, all discarded and replaced in pursuit of one result: A heart of stone.
Long delays breed long articles.
This is another happy example of several world elements tied up into one concept. A lovely opportunity to link to lots of other articles.
* Wood tar is often used as an agent to heal and disinfect skin. It's use is most common among cutters and frontier folk, especially when grisodate is not available. Especially unfortunate cutters, usually those severely burned over a wide body area, are sometimes slathered in a hot tar treatment which forms a thick, artificial skin. Those who survive this treatment may wear their pitch skin for months before it falls off due to underlying healing. Those who die go by infection or by the mere shock of being covered in hot tar.
** It is standard practice among those who treat with incunabula to establish a primary communicator, or 'scribe,' to write to the book-sorcerer. Though incunabula may communicate with multiple people at once, and may even recognize them by their blood-ink, having one scribe is prefered for purposes of information control.
*** By Naussian standards, a mortal is likely defined as any being not uplifted into the eternal strength and enduring half-life of sorcerous transhumanity.
† To Littorans, stones and cauldrons go together. Or, at least, stones and soup-pots do. It is traditional for a cook to maintain a "soup stone," in addition to the bottom of any given soup or stew. Though the stone is meant as a thermal mass, added to hold heat in the food after separation from fire, many argue it adds flavor, and that a well-seasoned, well-used soup stone is a precious thing. In hard times, when no food is available, folk will ruefully joke they'll eat "stone soup" that night.
†† It is those huge, beak-helmed, black-armoured Naussians that still informs imagery of the archetypal sorcerer.
††† Coastal scholars are divided in opinion as to what constitutes this dawn. Those of the intellectual and atheist North will argue that it was the self-destructive corruption and infighting innate to sorcerers that led to their demise. Southerners, in their faith, claim it was the dawn of Lord Aveth's rebellion, her slaying of the great sorcerers and serpents of that time which ushered in a new age for humanity. In reality, as proposed by the most moderate of scholars, the truth is likely something in between.
‡ The Parriarchs are the Lord's adoptive siblings. They feature heavily in Avethan scripture, where they function to carry out the promises, miracles, and revelations of the Lord after Her death. Religious sceptics suspect the Parriarchs, like Aveth herself, of fueling their apparent divinity with arts, stones among them, stolen from fallen sorcerers.‡‡ At least, no one who isn't a buried sorcerer, an incunable, or an immortal, their years fatted beyond death's bounds by a stone's power.
Side-eyeing the dvergr pretty hard after this one
Many a wise fence has turned down pilfered grieben spun as sorcerers' stones.