Story by J.B. Toner
Illustration by Lee Dawn
(This isn’t over, damn you)
mmmmmm *brrrp* mmmmmmm *hic* mmm *grmbl* mmmmm *snrf*
. . . mmmmmmmmmmmmmm?
*psh* grrrrrm *psssh* grmrgrmrgrmr *psssssh* gggggggrrrrrrrrrrr
(Wait, I remember. They killed me; those bastards killed)
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa*gaaasp*aaaaaaa. . .
(What’s this thing? This cold bright thing, it looks—familiar. Wait, is this the world? Wait, wait, I remember. They cut me down in the past, at Daggaroth. Where am)
mmmm. . . snuf. . . waa-aaa-aaaaaaa—snuf—
ma ma ma ma. . . mama. Mama. Mama!
these flopping things, are these mine? am I doing this?
Mama. Mama, Mama. Pa—pa—pa—Papa!
yes, of course, they’re limbs.
that shiny thing over there—if I move these limbs, I can almost—
Hi! Hi, Mama! Hi, Papa! Hi!
(Already talking, eh? I must be at least a year old. It’s coming back now. The fight in the mountains. I could have taken them, but. . .)
Ahhhh. Ar. Arrrr. Arnaaaa. K, k, k.
(That’s it. Arnock betrayed me.)
K, k, kil. Kil, kil, kil.
what are these things? pots? fires. cooking, I’m the son of a cook.
I can work with this. At least there will be knives about the place.
“What’s that, sweetheart?”
Mama’s voice. Must be careful what I say now.
“No, precious, those aren’t for you. Not yet.”
But I can hold them now. And almost run with them. It’s been over two years, I think.
“Careful, Tranton! Those aren’t toys.”
“He certainly loves your knives, dear.” “Indeed, he does! He’ll make a fine cook.”
Well, father, you may be disappointed.
“Loosen your grip, son. Try to make a fluid motion.” “Yes, Papa.”
The knowledge is still there. But I must train these new muscles.
“I know you like chopping the vegetables, but you’ll have to learn to season them eventually! It does little good to dice them up if they’re too bland to serve, you know.” “Yes, Papa.”
Can’t always be born to a swordsman, I suppose.
“You’re so serious, Tranton. Why don’t you go play with the other boys?”
“Yes, Mama.” It’s fair. If there’s three of them, it’s fair.
“Another fight! Why must you terrorize our guests like this?” “Mama, they started it.”
She sighs. “Where in the world did you learn to hit so hard?”
The Babblebrook Inn. It’s a nice little place. This mother and father have owned it for many years. I’m their firstborn son, but now another is on the way. That is well. There should be someone to take over the business.
“Make sure your little brother eats his dinner.” “I will, Mother.”
“We’ll be back in the morning. If anything goes wrong, you go find Smith Drennan.” “Yes, Mother.”
Good, Trenneth’s finally asleep. It’s time for me to be off. Seven years is quite long enough for Arnock to enjoy his victory. And as for the others—
Here we are, a road sign. My parents don’t read, and I haven’t learned my letters this time around, but they’ll come back to me. I just need a few moments to think. That’s a J. And an A. Jas, Jas—ah! Jastor, good, I know that place. My old sword fellow Kajarg hailed from there.
A few picked pockets, a few tales told to sympathetic nuns, and I’ve got a place on a wagon train bound North. I’ve got two leads on Arnock: his hometown, Falnoth, and his last known destination, Lockton. The good news is, the longer it takes to find him, the stronger I’ll be growing—while he’ll be getting old and weak.
“Arnock of Falnoth, hey? Sure’n I remember. Mountain of a fella, topknot in ’is ’air.” “Yes, sir. He’s my uncle, sir.”
“Uncle ya say! Where’s yer father then?”
Downcast eyes. “He—he died, sir. Mummy too. The whooping fever.”
“Poor li’l blighter! Sorry to hear. Lemme think. He came through here five, six months back. Said he was heading for—”
Sorrowfen. Pirates of the Gelid Sea sail there to trade viscera-soaked wares from all along the Blighted Strand. A hard journey: cold days, grim nights. But no better way to toughen up this little body. And no other way to find my treacherous quarry. And there, in the bleak aurora-lit badlands, the lawless town of Sorrowfen.
The Frozen Fish, a time-honored tavern of this ghoulish place. One thing I know, this lifetime, is my way around a kitchen. Slip into the back and steal a bit of food, warm my frigid bones beside the oven. And watch the shifty patrons come and go.
There: son of a bitch. Gigantic shoulders and that silly topknot. He orders lichen whiskey and he heads up to his room. And my reconnaissance has turned up one small thing—dumbwaiters. Fancy fare for such a squalid place, but there it is. You never know where civilization will poke out its mustachioed head.
I’m small for my age—too young to lift weights, of course—but I’ve been climbing trees since I was three and I’m a wiry tyke. Anyway, a smaller frame will suit this caper. It’s not long before the evening guests grow rowdy and the cooks are busy cracking idiot skulls; that’s when I slip into the dumbwaiter that brought up lichen whiskey thirty minutes earlier. He’ll be deep in his cups by now, feeling safe with his door locked and barred, rightly trusting that no man could fit up this tiny passageway.
Luck’s with me. I’d thought to steal over to his bed or his chair, but instead, he’s pacing the floor and swigging from the bottle by a single candle’s light. I peer out from the aperture, my father’s keenest carving knife in my fist, and wait. And then he pauses with his back to me.
A single slice: both hamstrings. Arnock falls howling to the floorboards, but his voice is lost in shouts and fiddles and the dreams of killers. “No one’s coming to help you, old man.” A prepubescent squeak—a gleaming blade against his jugular.
“Varodrim? Is that you in there?” “It’s me, you bastard. You must’ve known this was coming.”
“I thought I had a decade or two. But you’ve always been precocious.”
“Why, Arnock? Why did you betray the Fates?” “Just kill me. You can only cut my body, but what they’ll do to me after. . .”
“I can help you.”
“Go to Hell!” he roars and tries to grab my tiny wrists. I have no choice.
The first hot spray of blood in this face. Shortly followed by this tongue’s first taste of whiskey. The room is warm, and I’ve been cold so long. A few quick swallows, enough for my small body, and a pleasant slumber in a quilted bed. A cooling corpse three feet away might trouble the dreams of another seven-year-old, but not Tranton of Babblebrook.
When bleak North morning comes, I rise and eat the leavings of my old comrade’s wayfaring pack: dried fruit, hardtack bread, a mouthful of old jerky. It’s better than I’ve had in weeks. And now to search his belongings for some clue to his next move.
What they’ll do to me after, he said. He must have cast in his lot with the Under Ones. Why,in the names of the gods?
Aha: here’s why. No sign of the Twin Hoops, but here are the Gloves. The good news is, I can use them to trace his movements backward—if needful, from here to his ill-begotten womb. They’re cunningly fashioned from an eldritch spider silk that expands and contracts as needed, molding them tight to any five-fingered hand.
Pulling on the Gloves, I lay hands upon the putrid leavings of my old compatriot. They grant no vision, but I can feel a single life, a spreading tree—close my eyes and follow— branches spreading outwards, brushing, touching, interweaving, bearing flower and fruit , ramifying a trunk once noble-rotten now, all rotten from within and roots outspread through generations past, all hidden from my view
Arnock is already dead, his fate is over. The Gloves grant only the power to alter a single person’s fate, not of those whose fates he intersects. The Forest of Destiny is all a fog, except this single tree. I can’t change his past, of course, but I can trace the branching, deep cut by foreign thorns bowed down by other boughs, invisible bad roads, bad turnings
. . .There!
These very Gloves appear, a shape like leafy buds, two weeks ago. A windy steppe, not too far South of here. And just before—the Hoops. Yes, he traded them. To whom, I cannot tell.
Well, it’s time to head South. Arnock has one other useful thing, a hip-pouch full of silver. Once I get out of this rat-hole of a town, I can buy new clothes. The merchants around here would only take my purse and sell me for a slave.
My eighth birthday. A goodly gift: the steppe I felt in Arnock’s recent past. Endless leagues of slush and haggard grass, all haunted by the bitter polar wind. They met out here where neither man nor beast would see their meeting place. But the earth keeps the memory. When I touch it with the Gloves, I can feel the passage of the last body that they touched. Across the miles, beneath the murmuring grey, I trace his steps. And there, a trampling of horse-tracks. Arnock headed North after the meeting. The other headed East.
It’s months now since that other passed this way. The trail is old, and icy cold; but it seemed to be going more or less straight, so I take my chances as a warrior of Fate and head directly for the rising sun. And two days later, I realize where I am—not far from the walls of Glorm, the City of the Sorcerers.
The last time I was here, I died three times before I escaped. But this time I have the Gloves of The Uncreated, and the power to shape the fate of anyone I touch. There’s simply no use in trying to sneak into this accursed place: The Under Ones keep watch, and neither sleep nor blink like mortal men.
Fixed above the city is a broil of witch-lit smog so that neither day nor night comes hither, nor has done for centuries past. As I pass from failing daylight beneath the shadow of that ancient cloud, the watchers note my presence at once; but all they see is a lost eight-summered boy with a carving knife, wandering toward their walls in hope of strangers’ kindness. I can well imagine their mirth.
An old man greets me at the gate. “Good morrow, boy! Seeking shelter?”
“Yes, sir. Please, sir.”
“Why of course, of course! You’ll find us quite hospitable to wayfarers here in Glorm.” He leers.
I take his hand, a foolish trusting lad. Beneath the Glove I feel dark twisted roots, worm-gnawed—a leprous trunk, long clutching branches—a predator and murderer, this man. No shock there but wait! What’s this? As I smooth out the forks of his fate, the ever-multiplying possibilities begin to collapse into a single path. Yes, it seems he is destined to bring me straight to the highest-ranking Sorcerer to whom he has access, and then immediately go on a rampage, killing as many guards as he can before being slaughtered himself. How fortunate for me!
We walk through the dusky streets, passing black-robed men and listening to the distant tolling of bells, till we come to a squat little house with no windows. The Sorcerer’s guards admit us, and then my guide knifes the nearest one.
“Kallabash!” another guard screams. “Have you lost your wits?” As he struggles to unsheathe his scimitar—sinecured and indolent, these sentries—my new companion stabs him in the head. Three more guards come running up to drive halberds into Kallabash’s torso, but he manages to push himself forward, through one of the impaling polearms, to gut the third sentry before he falls. Tougher than he looked, the old fellow. But of course, destiny drives one to do great things.
While the carnage is afoot, I get my hands on the Sorcerer of the house, a paunchy middle-aged man with a greying beard. This one is knowledgeable enough to understand what’s happening to him, but it’s already too late: his fate is fixed.
Sorcerers, you see, don’t traffic in raw power. They can’t conjure flames or turn men into dogs like the wizards in the tales of bards. They deal in information: secrets of the dead, secrets of the demon realm, secrets of the gods themselves. Some few of them are able to work strange feats, like the Hated Mage who wrought the cloud above this city, but only through long, nightmarish rites involving the Under Ones. The kingdoms of Kenoma have mostly chosen to keep uneasy truces with Glorm, making hidden deals for knowledge of their enemies.
My new companion takes me to the highest-ranking Sorcerer he knows, and the crimson tableau repeats itself twice more. All the while, I’ve been laying hands on guards and slaves and passersby, so that by the time I walk into the Onyx Tower of Lord Ur, I have a small legion at my back. From the time I entered the city gates, less than half an hour has passed: no one has had time even to hear of what’s transpiring, much less to make any preparations.
As chaotic violence blossoms all around us, everyone randomly slashing and spearing everyone else with no idea why. I make my way through the horde of those destined to kill anybody they see except for me. Lord Ur, a tall broad-shouldered man with flowing red hair and piercing steel-grey eyes, has leapt up like a startled rabbit and scuttled down a hatch concealed behind his throne. It’s already closing, but once again my tiny stature serves me well.
“Ur!” I call out as he heads down the torchlit passageway beyond. “Turn and face me.”
He whirls, incredulous. “Who in the fires of damnation—” Then he stops. “Varodrim.”
“I told you we’d meet again, Sorcerer. You can’t escape from justice.”
“Justice? Look at yourself, Fate’s soldier. Reincarnated again, how many times now? Somewhere in the spirit world is a hollow soul who should be wearing that boy’s body. Somewhere in the mortal realm, a mother weeps. Or perhaps you cut her throat, hey? Couldn’t risk the Under Ones tracking you mystically through her blood connection?”
I shook my head. “It turns out they can’t do that.”
“Well. Small mercies.”
“Enough talk, you filth. I want the Hoops. You must have them, it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“By the dead gods, Varodrim, all this bloodshed and you weren’t even sure?”
“I know you have them, Ur. Give them to me!”
He backs away, holding up his hands. “Fine, yes, I have them. You know we seek only wisdom, not power. It’s why I traded the Gloves for the Hoops.”
“Your mistake.” “No one can use both at once, you know that.”
“I have no wish to use them. My mission is only to return them to the Temple of The Uncreated.”
“You’re a true hero. Here—” reaching into his robes, he produces a small item “—just take them and get the fuck out of my city.”
He tosses them over. The Twin Hoops are set in a wireframe that slips behind the ears and rests on the bridge of the nose. I put them on and peer through the Hoops—and there before me is the Kairos Field.
ALL WORLDS ALL SOULS ALL POSSIBILITIES INTERWOVEN
IN A FOREST OF DESTINY , VAST BEYOND IMAGINING.
UNVEILED TO ME, NAKED TO ME. I SEE ALL, KNOW ALL… I AM ALL
I SEE ONE BRANCH RUNNING AWAY.
. . .Oh.
I take off the Hoops: Ur is sprinting down the hall to some clandestine egress. I’ll never catch him with these short legs. Well, no matter. We’ll settle our score another day.
It’s almost over now. I find an untended pony and some lightly blood-specked food supplies, and head West. The Temple is only a few days’ ride from Glorm. Indeed, from the peak of Mount Krizevac, you can just see the ominous glint of the Onyx Tower on a clear day.
Each night when I make camp, I put on the Hoops and view the Kairos Field, the timeless region where all fates meet and flow. I cannot reach into this place to manipulate the branches. Only by touching someone with the Gloves can I shape their destiny. And yet—an idea is coalescing slowly as I ride by day. Perhaps—
I turn the pony loose at the foothills of Krizevac. A dire and arduous climb awaits; it is well that I spent my childhood climbing.
And there—halfway up the slope—the cave I discovered on a previous visit, decades earlier. I enter, uncertain; but it seems undisturbed. Even the bones of the fish I ate in here still lie in the corner. And there—a pile of loose rocks. No one would find my latest corpse.
I can’t enter the Kairos Field in mortal trappings, but it’s possible—if I slough this flesh while still wearing the Gloves and Hoops—it’s conceivable that my spirit could slip into the Forest while still imbued with those powers. And if it doesn’t work, then I’ll know exactly where to find the items in another six or seven years and can simply complete my original mission. I lose nothing by trying.
Still have the carving knife. Grit my teeth—one quick slice across my femoral artery—put on the Gloves and Hoops, huddle under the rockfall, and kick out the bottommost stone.
Think of all the good that I shall do when I am God.
— ♦♦♦ —
They called him the Kalamazoo Kid…though he never set foot in the city. He was the best shiv in a whole lot of territory. After he goes down on his luck he meets a mob guy who decides to bring him into the operation. Could be have made the biggest mistake of his life?