1. Cir Talox Blithe
Call me 'Blithe', it was the name of my creator, or so I have written to myself from long ago.
More fully named I am 'Cir Talox Blithe', Knight, made, sworn and chosen for a path of honour and truth. One glance will show you that I am no man of woman born. I was made, long ago, from gears and levers, steel and screws. My eyes are crystal lenses, my guts burn charcoal and my heart is Iron. This gave me my title "The Knight with the Iron Heart", though it has never pleased me for I have always fought to be a Knight of Franchise and of Grace. My mind, I am told is a labyrinth of magic and glass, packed away within my steel skull in directions inaccessible to mortal hands, though I have never seen it.
Why I was made, I cannot say, for no precise instruction remains from that deep time, and even when that was is also lost. I have traced my personal history back near one-thousand years, chasing myths and legends of a knight of steel who likely was myself in former times.
My memory is little better than your own. I can recall perhaps one hundred years in detail. Past that I depend on written records and on this rod of enchanted glass which I carry always with me. This slender wand holds a library of my memories, however much I could retain, sometimes memories of memories of memories, condensed, abstracted and reorganised. This is my record of my deeper self which I can read by sliding it into my skull through a port at its rear. I must do this only when the fullness of my thought is directed entirely upon that act, should my focus slip my consciousness might become lost in memory, or irrevocably and chaotically changed by what it finds. This truly is my greatest treasure for it gives me knowledge of myself, and my place within the world.
Many quests have I undertaken in my long existence, but my current trial is perhaps the strangest I have known, for I must journey to Marginalia, the Hyphos, that uncertain realm of timeless madness, there I must find the Fey prince 'Shadowed-Summer' and bargain with him for the ownership of his Incalculable Palace of Lies.
Impossibility upon impossibility, for many do not believe in Marginalia at all, thinking it fiction, or hallucination. I though, do believe, I sense in the deeper structures of my memories that I have been there many times, though the details escape me, and I suspect that I have been dogged and bothered by the attentions of its residents before.
Still, this is the mission impressed upon me by my obscure yet mighty patron, and it was made clear that, odd though it is, this task is of utmost and absolute importance for the safety of reality itself.
Hence, I come to the Mountains of Reality, for it is here, if anywhere, that access to Marginalia can be found.
2. The Mountains Of Reality
The 'Realities' make up near one-half of the great continent of Blackwater, perhaps the last home of life, culture and civilisation left in the grey, unending Waste of Yggsrthaal which has consumed, so far as we here know, all that remains of what-is.
The Realities are vast, a landscape of staggering peaks and depthless valleys, of mountain piled upon mountain where each fresh turn presents some astonishing interlacement of void and water, stone and air, but where nowhere can be reached without climbing. Endless, crushing climbing up and down the few paved roads and the narrow switchback tracks which link the Queendoms of this land.
Such work is no trouble for me, tireless as I am, yet that the weather is worse. The storms, snows, rains and hails do me no physical harm, but my metal body is vulnerable to damp and rust and I must pause every day, not for sleep, but to apply and re-apply my rare supply of oil, grease and unguents, and to polish and smooth any rust from my flesh.
Still, the Realities are the birthplace of True Knighthood in Blackwater, and in that way I have always felt at home here. The teeming masses of the Grey Cities to the West have little use for such bonds of honour, but here Knights defend the land, each sworn to their Queen. For the Realities are protected from the Waste not by armies, or even by their great and terrible steepness and impassability, but by the dreams of the Gloom Queens.
It is the boon and curse of each Queen in the Mountains of Reality that she shall dream true prophecies of whatever will threaten her Queendom so that, on waking, she may instruct her servants in how best to escape and defeat that threat. These prophetic dreams take a deep toll upon the Queen over time, for their sleep is full of future horrors and their days spent balancing one dark fate against another. Such work brings little joy, and so the folk-phrase 'Gloom Queen' came to be.
It is in the Realities, more than anywhere, that gates, portals and passages to Marginalia might be found, for the two realms are tangled together, and the fey beings of the 'Tangled Lands' love to bawd, trick and frustrate the oath-bound Knights of the Realities. Why, I do not know.
So trudged I, mile upon mile, down the Rusted Road from Declension, easternmost of the Grey Cities, past Nights-Pyre, the westernmost of the Realities and up, up up into the unending heights of the Queendoms. To here, a bridge of Black Stone, where I am opposed by a Seer in Green.
3. The Black Stone Bridge
The valley cuts like a knife and down in the heart of its cleft a sword-slice of bright-white water roars, distant, yet loud enough that echoes move around the crags like circling eagles wings.
Across the valley springs a black stone bridge. Its age and make unknowable, something not uncommon in this land of ritual, compressed legend and deep time. The bridge has but a little hip-high railing, its black surface beaded with droplets from the low drizzle and rising wraiths of water-fog from the river beneath. The fall to the rocks below would kill a man, and one such as I would spring apart like a dropped clock. Beyond that I would have even less chance of survival than a man of mortal flesh, for whatever remained would slide into the rapids, and water is not my friend.
Across the mist of the bridge I saw a figure, someone with long grey hair, carrying a staff and wearing robes of dark green.
"You there!" they cried across the gap, "name yourself, if man you be. And name your purpose in the Queendom of Anada Gosheart!"
I thought this could only be a Greenseer of the Queen. These are a kind of Priesthood. Though they worship no god, they possess power over all things that live, grow and breathe, and each is different to the other, changed in some way by knowledge of their magics, given power to transform or to affect.
"I am Cir Talox Blithe" I replied, "a true Knight of solemn heart, and I pass here upon my quest with open hands for I swear by my iron heart I intend no harm either to yourself, your Queendom or your Queen."
These were common phrases for to be met and challenged at a bridge or crossing is often the way of things in the Realities. Hedge Knights, Knights Errant and others often challenge wanderers to prove their steel, and the borders of Queendoms usually begin and end at such markers.
"I hear from your voice and see from your glass eyes" replied the Seer, "you are no man, but only a machine. One of artifice made by fools in the Cities of the Plain."
This also was not unusual. My kind are rare everywhere and especially rare in the Mountains of Reality. We are feared often for our nature and this was neither the first nor last time I would hear such words.
"By the right of the Worghast Law" I replied, raising the volume of my voice, "I am a Sophont, and bear the seal of such." (Which I did, welded to my chest and visible to all.) "Yet if you are a Seer of Green and a servant of your Queen, how shall you have it? If I am no man, but unliving, then I am no part of your law or sovereignty, no more than a stone in the earth, and if I do live as other men, then I come under your rule as they do, yet be it so, you must then name me - Man, and treat with me as such."
All of this was true. It is a curiosity of the law of the GreenSeers that they claim sovereignty only over living things and the processes of life. The lifeless object, considered on its own, was beyond their rule. So is all law in the mountains split, as it were, down the middle, between the object, which comes under civil law, and what-lives, which is judged by the Seers.
My kind, and my providence as a Knight, put me in a unique position in the Queendoms, and it may be for this reason I was chosen for this Quest.
"Yet," I continued, "you name not yourself. And if you are truly a servant of your Queen, you must know I mean no harm to you, or to her, for if it were so, would her dreams not warn you so?"
So speaking, I advanced onto the bridge, my arms held open and my sword sheathed.
"I am Groswamme the Green!" Cried the Seer, and well you speak, Machine, for Queen Anada has dreamed of you, and she has confessed to us that yours is the last face she shall ever see and that to you she shall speak her final words and give her final gift. And this is a future I shall not let come to pass!"
So saying, the Seer threw open their arms and the clinging trees and low grasses of the pass writhed like serpents and burst into activity and quested towards me as if they were the tendrils of the dreamed-of octopus.
I drew my blade, and regretted my boldness, which had by now, brought me to the centre of the most-uncertain Black Stone bridge.
4. Tarfossil And The Ring Of Jade
Yet my destruction was averted, as it has been in the past, by the strange twisting of a mordant and (to me) wretchedly dishumorous fate.
A faint noise echoed through the valley, like a shout or a scream in the distance, yet approaching.
I guessed from the features of the GreenSeer that this odd intrusion was as unforeseen to they as to I, and the writhing tentacles of the Seers witchcraft paused for a moment.
The scream grew louder, and though it had no visible source it seemed to be coming from a point on the bridge half way between the Seer and myself.
What happened then, neither of us expected. At first a mote, then a bright stain, then a shadow in that stain appeared, as like unto the shadow of a man falling appears and grows upon the ground beneath him.
Then, wailing and capering and howling and clutching their buttocks, a Goblin fell through space and landed on the bridge.
The Goblin-kin are known in Blackwater, in most places they are accounted as monsters and act as such, outlanders and reavers, cousins to the foul Orc, though I have heard in the strange city of Yga, deep in the far South West, such beings are allowed the status of 'Humanity' and given legal rights.
Perhaps I of all people should withhold judgement on such matters.
Yet it was clear that this Goblin was of that Other Realm, Marginalia, the Land-beyond-Lands, for he was attired in the most ridiculous manner, with a cap of purple, bright yellow breeches and a belt upon which jingled silver bells, each shaped like a gawping goblin face.
He was a laughable figure, yet his depressingly fey appearance, and intrusion into my quest at the worst possible time, reducing all my actions to the level of farce, was typical, I felt, of the denizens of the Weave-of-Thought, who mock and bawd at all others, as if our lives were little but games and imaginings.
The Goblin capered and leapt, clutching its buttocks, its bells jingling.
"Damn thee! Damn thee! Damn thee thrice who cursed so I!" It screeched. "Trickery! Deceptions from an iron hand! Ah my poor hams! Who shall console them?"
I do not sigh, for I lack lungs, but I often wished I could.
"Creature." I said. "Begone."
It was so that the Goblin noticed me properly for the first time, and squinted, and licked out its tongue to taste the rain on its face. And looked around a moment, and up at the sun in confusion. Then back at me.
And so it capered toward me, at speed, in its lolloping uneven way, still clutching its buttocks the while.
"Tis THEE!" Screeched the churl. "Tis the very MAN. Oh sweet fates and gentle furies, here I am free!"
Then the Goblin held out its hand to me. (I had my sword still drawn but the creature barely noticed). I saw upon one knobbly finger rested a ring of Jade, which seemed to burn with spellcraft and, I thought, (though I have little sense for such matters) caused the Gob some mild agony. Which pleased me.
"Tarfossil is here is here is here!" it cried, "and my curse comes to an end! Now.. " it paused and scrunched up its grotesque and silly face, "what was I to say?? AH!"
Then the Goblin repeated very quickly, as if recalling from rote; "Seek the Queens gift and then the shadow line, speak not to the kin but find the charcoal-burners lamp and then..." it stopped again and chewed its lip, "then then then climb past the line of breath to the Prismatic Pass and enter it three times! Ah HA!"
The Goblin leapt and clicked its heels and held out its hand to me again on which the jade ring burned.
"And now my geas is complete and my long quest done, so take my ring and lift the curse!"
Again, I wished that I could sigh.
"If it will get you gone" I said, and took the ring.
"Wohooo!" shouted Tarfossil (for so I took to be its name) and leapt in the air, clicked its heels again, and disappeared.
Normality returned and what remained was the grey drizzle, the roaring of the river down below, the black stone bridge and the GreenSeer.
"I apologise for this, O Groswamme the Green." I said. "It is the nature of the creatures of that place to jibe and snark upon our trials within this world. They mock us for their sport. Please," I hefted my blade, "do not let it disturb you, feel free to begin again."
Yet the GreenSeer held their actions and approached.
She was a woeful figure closer up, aged, and barefoot as was common with their kind, yet a deeper sadness afflicted her. She walked upon the bridge and came close to me, and looked upon the ring of Jade.
"May I see that?" She said.
"If it please you." I replied, and gave it to her.
The GreenSeer looked deeply upon the ring and shivered, I do not think from the cold, and then sobbed deep in her chest, but if she wept, it was lost within the beads of water from the drizzle and the mist.
"Ah my Queen." She said, gazing on the ring of jade. "And so young?" Then she turned to me again and handed me the ring.
"Knight," the GreenSeer said. "I see now this is no fate to be escaped. Put up your sword and come. And make no haste, for grief hangs at your heels."
So speaking, she lead me onwards, across the black stone bridge and into the Queendom of Anada.
5. The Queendom Of Anada
The Queens of the Realities exist at many levels of wealth and supplication, from the Beodomor, the Queen-of-Queens, who, in the City of Morningspain at the mountains core, dreams all terrors which might threaten the Realities as a whole, to the tribal Queen of an isolated village of yak herders. Yet, as they say here, 'a Queen is a Queen is a Queen' and though they might be aware of any difference in status between different Queens, no decent resident of the Realities would show even a moment of disrespect to any Queen, be she one ever so small.
The Queendom of Anada was of middling size. As the Seer Groswamme lead us up and over the ice-clenched pass into the greatest of her valleys I saw beneath me, a deep, green, narrow land, a river of glacier-water running through its centre and disappearing into a cave, (this might be the river I had seen beneath the bridge), the green centre of the valley closely and carefully gardened with a maze of drystone walls, terraces cut into the steep valley sides in places, where the passing sunlight might make them farmable for a season. Above that, the forest line, largely black seeping pines growing densely where the land would permit little else, and then above that, the snowline, where the ice never melts, regardless of season or shine, and then somewhere above that would be the 'Breath Line' above which a normal Somon would have difficulty breathing without aid.
Somewhere between the edge of the valley and the line of breath would be the 'Aeth Line' or shadow line, a boundary to the liminal space where the direct rule of the Queen was uncertain. High above in the Sky Lands, her rule would be nominal, yet she would still perhaps receive tribute from the Vantar Herders who survived there, and who in turn would use her valley as a point of retreat should doom afflict them.
At the core of the valley was a townlet, raised on a pile or pyramid of grey-black stone hewn long ago into cyclopean blocks, then tumbled and compressed by unknowable force. Upon this was built the more-recent town (though in the lands of the Grey Cities this would be considered a village), and in its centre, the Castle of the Queen.
Sombre was our passage for, as we walked, each worker in the fields, attired in their yak-furs and bright hats, and the pigherds and shepherds and every peasant, turned to watch with cold silence as I walked behind the GreenSeer to the town.
At the towns black oak gate, which would be locked and bound each night, the ancient watchman, clearly a beloved veteran of some feudal war, who's grey moustache ends fell past his medals to the knee of his single surviving leg, woke suddenly as we passed him dozing, and moaned "oh no, oh no, not today".
Then narrow streets where the buildings hung overhead and the smooth cobbles gave little grip. Silence everywhere, except for the swinging of the handful of shop signs which squealed slightly in the shifting air and the innocent chanting game of children coming from an unseen street.
At the Castle, not much more than a Barbican, we were met by sombre knights and within, by the councillors of the Queen and her small Minister of Dreams.
No-one made challenge or spoke but a word, yet Groswamme indicated that I should hold up the ring of Jade before me, and seeing this, all stepped back.
So we were lead through the castles rooms, through passages of what opulence this Queendom could provide, until a door of carved beech and I realised that I was being lead, not to a throne, but to the bedroom of the Queen.
I paused, and the Seer gazed upon me.
"It is ill," I said, "that a Knight should visit with the Queen in her.. in her.."
"There is little you might do in that way," said Groswamme, looking me up and down, "being as you are. But do not fear Cir Blithe, for I shall stand with you and see what goes on."
"As it please you Seer." I replied, and she opened the door for me to enter.
6. The Gloom Queens Dream
It was gloomy in the Gloom-Queens bedchamber. Soft and rare, a single shard of sunlight cut between velvet drapes, lamps and candles glowed serenely in the shadows, so that the room seemed held between morning and eve. Tapestries hung upon the walls. It was quiet enough that I dreamed that I could hear the slight ticking of my Iron heart and the whirring of my joints.
I rarely feel uncomfortable, but the softness, silence and sadness, the intimacy of the place, unmanned me somewhat.
One young woman attended her, and she bowed her head and stepped back as I came forth.
The Queen was propped up on silk pillows, her flesh drawn. Something rattled in her chest, something louder than my ticking or the caws of Rooks feeding in the fields out in the valley beyond the silence-shrouded town. As if she were a machine.
"There is the face of my death," she said quietly, and smiled, "come forth and let me look upon you at last, with my own eyes."
My heavy feet left deep impressions on the rich, dense, Yak-fur rugs as I walked toward the Queens bed. I knelt, as is proper before a Queen, and cast my gaze down.
"Not so ill," she said. Her slender hand reached out and touched the seal of legality set upon my chest, then moved to the bottom of my face and tilted it up so that my lenses looker her in the eye.
"You have a ring I think. I ask it from you, as a boon."
"Of course your Majesty." I replied. Instantly I drew forth the jade ring of the Goblin Tarfossil and presented it to her.
"Please, you Majesty, be careful, for the thing holds a spell."
She laughed, and coughed, her chest hacked until her serving girl approached and turned the Queen on her side and softly rubbed her back until her breath calmed.
"Thank you my dear," the Queen said, "that is enough. That spell is mine Cir," she said, addressing me, "for this ring can only be given from hand to hand with a free will, if stolen then it casts a deep geas upon the thief, who must fulfil the wielders will. Now Cir, you have returned my ring to me, and so I shall give you a gift, the gift you have come for."
"You majesty no!" I said. "By no means, not if it should mean your death or do you or your Queendom even the smallest of harms, for if it were so and if I were to accept such a boon, I should be the meanest and the smallest of Knights known!"
"Ah.. Please do not make me laugh again Cir Knight", she said, "you will do me no harm at all. I know some of why you come here, though you do not, and much is hidden, even from my dreams, and I know what shall befall if your quest should fail, for there shall be nothing then, nothing at all. What you seek, I have dreamed, and yet you must still tell me, and fulfil the dream, else it shall be found false, and a paradox born, and those are troublesome things."
"My Queen," I replied, "I quest for the land called Marginalia, also called The Shifting Kingdom, the Hyphos or the Tangled Lands, and there the Fey Prince called 'Shadowed-Summer'. Once found, I must bargain with him, or by some other means, gain his Incalculable Palace of Lies. Though how I am to do this I know not."
"Hmm, yes. Shadowed-Summer. That Lord I know." She said, and smiled.
"Then you know the way to Marginalia, and to his palace my Queen?"
"I do," she said, "and by now I guess that you also do, if you can tell me?"
I thought for a moment.
"By the words of the ridiculous Goblin Tarfossil," I said, "I must seek the Queens gift, which I have done here, then the shadow line, which I take to mean the 'Aeth Line' of this Queendom, and from there the Charcoal Burners Lamps, then past the line of breath into the high country, and finally the Prismatic Pass, which I should enter three times. And I guess by my knowledge of this that I have aid unlooked for. Is this your work my Queen?"
"Not at all Cir Knight," she said, "it is yours. But, I shall tell you something you do not know, and then I fear, you must take my gift."
"If please you your Majesty" I replied. But her eyes were already far away.
"When I was very young," the Queen said, "as my dreams first came upon me and I realised that they meant I must be Queen, I ran away, for I could not face the futures that I saw. I escaped up through the treeline where the wild places are, far beyond the Beodomors law or the Seers rule.
There I waited, likely to die of cold or starvation, thoughtless as a child.
But I did not die. Instead I met a man. The most beautiful man I had ever seen, like a vision from a dream, his face dappled with the leafshadows of summer, always moving, as if there were trees about him, even in the dark and freezing cold.
This Lord took me away to a place not unlike a dream, yet it was a joy to me for in that place, there seemed to be no time, and so the terror of my dreams left me, and I was free. And there we lived together for... well who knows how long.
Yet, time crept in, and there came a day when I left him, and returned here, and found not a day had passed and my poor father near frostbitten out searching for me on the crag.
Yet before I left, Lord Shadowed-Summer gave me this, as a token of our time together;"
And she held out here hand and held between her spread fingers were two rings of jade. Identical in every way.
"Two rings Majesty? I do not understand."
She smiled again. "Only one ring," replied the Queen, "except that you have returned it to me a little before I gave it to you. But there is only one. Except, look here;"
She held up both rings in the morning light. At first I saw nothing, but her gaze directed mine and I looked at the shadows on the glimmering weave of the tapestries of the wall.
There was I, my blocky form, as if always armour-clad. And the Queens hand, slender as a bird. And the thin shadow of a ring held between fingers. And..
"How can this be?" I said, and looked back at the Queens hand where clearly she held two rings. Then back at the wall, where only one was shadowed.
"One ring!" She laughed, and again began to cough. "Except you have returned mine without its shadow! Now I wonder where that is?" Then she laughed again and her body cramped.
"Quickly Cir Knight," she gasped. "Take the shadowed ring and fulfil your quest. Take it!"
I took the single jade ring which bore still its shadow from her hand. The other she clasped to her heart.
"All these mortal pains are but the shadow of our love." Said Queen Anada Gosheart, and died.
7. The Shadow Line
The terrible sadness of the scene struck me, though not with shock. Being as I am, I have seen many mortal deaths, those in memory, and surely many many more in the years beyond.
I was not unaware that the Queen had died with remarkably well-chosen words. I guess this must be the nature of a Gloom-Queens death for, seeing the scene in advance, though they may be unable to alter the brute framing of the thing, it may be they can fiddle with the details, so-to-speak, and give themselves an aesthetically-appropriate end.
I was not slow about my exit from that place.
I feared the peoples grief, for they loved their Queen dearly and, though I was not the cause, I, the stranger, and the unliving machine, was herald of her death. The security of absence appealed to me more than any explanation I might give. Besides, I had a quest to complete, and the mystery of the double-ring to solve.
I gave my thanks and courtesy to the Maid and the Seer and walked from the bedchamber directly, and neither of them moved or spoke to stay my departure.
In the castles halls, the eyes of the Gloom-Queens Knights swept me like blades. I thought for a moment that there might be violence, yet then a deep bell tolled high above, and, as-one, each sworn knight kneeled, facing the sigil of the Queendom carved upon the inner doors. This I thought was a betokening of the passing of the Queen and in those eerie pools of silence bordered by the echoing of bells, I stepped across the entry and out into the air.
And where to next? I knew only that I should seek the shadow line, a boundary of government and ritual which lay within the forest which bordered this valley on every side. It had no specific direction.
Following a habit, I pulled my scabbarded sword from my harness and span it in the air. It fell to earth facing East, as I judged it. Perhaps an ill choice as I would be heading into the setting sun and the steep valley walls meant that evening and her shadows would arrive on its eastern side long before its west, as the sun sank below the high peaks.
Still, the sword had spoken. I set off, walking out through the town gate, where the aged guardian still mumbled and wept, the tolling of the bell followed me down into the valley where every soul I saw was still and grieving. Even the pigs were quiet and the Rooks stood motionless in the cold air. The sheep still coughed though, a disturbingly human sound.
I headed East, following simple tracks laid between drystone walls and passing through low villages surrounded by orchards and fields.
Soon, I began to climb. Up through crook-back stone-flagged stairways which gave access to the carefully-tended terraces. Then to the boundaries of the forests. Untenanted, this steep land was still managed, wood was not cheap here, either for building or for fire, and the right to cut trees, or even gather branches, would be deposed from the throne.
My journey took me into darkness. The sun, though only a little past late afternoon, disappeared behind the clawing frozen crags. The black gnarled branches of the treeline covered me over. Wind stilled but no warmth came. Forgotten paths between the twisting rootways lead hither and yon. Beneath the shallow soil the rock was cleft and shattered, like tumbling childs toys, and made a kind of maze on unlikelyhood. The angle was steep and the air thin. Though this was no trouble to me for no breath steamed from my mouth and my metal form was tireless.
If I turned to look behind me I could see through the branches, across the valley, a land still bathed in sunlight, lit like a painting while I struggled through gloom and knotted wood, heading ever-up.
"Iron man." Came a voice from the dark.
Not a Goblin. Neither were they a mortal man, a Somon, for the face of this creature was as a mask of kinds, they moved through shadows as a dancer steps between blades, their body slender, and though it was extremely cold they wore little to protect them from the chill.
'Speak not to the kin', the annoying Goblin had said, and I determined to follow that advice.
"Iron man," whispered the voice, as if a little behind my ear, "whence come you, Queen killer?"
A provocation. These, I thought, were perhaps Shadow-Aeth.
In the Grey Cities and the Blackriver Plain I had met Aeth many times. That slender, long-lived, graceful people came in many forms and cultures I knew, from the rare ceremonial guard of the unseen Emperors of the Cities, to the great solitary Thaumaturges, locked within their towers.
If one only knew of them from the lands of civilisation, one could almost mistake them for little more than a derivation or version of Somon. Yet I knew that groups lived within Marginalia itself, and those were as different to their Still-Land Kin as the Goblin Tarfossil had been to the bestial reavers of the plains.
And there were Aeth who lived 'wild', both on the margins of Blackwater, and here, deep in the Mountains of Reality. They walked strange paths between hidden places, existing in a realm only a little to the side of ours, and the 'Aeth line', the shadow line through which I was now climbing, was the border of their realm.
"Whence come you, Golem? Whence come you man-of-clay, false man, joyless one, whence?" They, or it, for there may only have been one, whispered to me from faces in the boles of trees and from gaps between branches that seemed, for a moment, to form mouths.
I spoke not, and feared little. For as they said, I am a man of iron, or more truthfully, steel, and a range of other materials, and though the reaction of Aeth to my substance varied considerably, I suspected that these 'wild Aeth', the lawless ones who acknowledge no ruler, feared and hated iron.
I thought they would not, perhaps could not, touch me. Yet they could still do me harm. By trickery, deceit, by strange unwitting bargain, by curse, or some other subtle method.
This land had few Artificers, and less technology. Should I fall, or be harmed on the rocks, or rust, or be trapped and decay, there would be little chance of repair or renewal for me. The wilderness was dangerous to me in ways quite different to that of a man of flesh and blood. I would resist the environment more strongly, yet unlike them, if hurt, there would be no self-repair.
Still the shadows rose around me as the sun left even the opposing valley side. Still the dark kin pattered round me, hooting like owls and hiding under single fallen leaves, bawding and provoking me, so that I should give them some opening. Still I clambered and climbed, drawing myself along barely-perceptible paths, heaving myself with tree branches, often cut off and turned about in micro-valleys cut from clefts of shattered stone.
Upwards I went, the Kin hiding behind me, walking as silently as owls.
I felt a blow upon my back, and a hiss of pain, of something suddenly withdrawn. Flesh burning against steel perhaps.
Fortune graced me then for I saw rising against the grey starless sky, a wreath of smoke, and saw, like the blinking orange eyes of cats, the glow of a fire in the night.
8. The Charcoal-Burner And The Blazing World
The craft of the Charcoal-burner is such that, like the truffle-snuffler or the hunter, they survive in the margins of the known, and so some of that fear and glamour which pertains to the outsider also hangs to them.
So rose before me, the charcoal-burners mound. A kiln of turf and soil, a barrow of ashes within which a fire must always burn, yet never burn high. The Carbonari keep watch of their furnace, opening the front-stone with which they block its mouth, teasing up the blocks of turn at its crown, and resetting them, allowing in just enough air to maintain its heat and keep the fire within alive, but never enough to let it spring up and devour the fuel.
This done well, they would receive a bounty of perfectly roasted wood. Clear, black, pure charcoal, often still bearing the shapes of the branches from which it came. A light substance, yet of much use in the valley below.
Yet they must do it here, in the wilderness, and they could never leave the flame, nor even truly turn away from it in full, half an eye and half a thought always on its heat, the shards of light within and its smoky breath, never even truly sleeping deeply so long as the furnace burned.
This placed them out beyond the shadow-line, where many strange things walked, and where the law was weak, or did not exist at all. So it was that the Charcoal-burner often gained strange experience with the wanderers and residents of these lands, be they mortal, or other. They could do their work only with the consent, or indifference, of the wild land around them, they knew many things of which they spoke little.
Then rose before me, a mountain in the mountains, for what I took to be a small scarp of rock within the trees, facing the charcoal mound, stood up and turned around.
It was a woman, I think, one of the Vantar, the race of stonelike half-giants who came to these mountains, not long ago by our history, with their own sad tale. They feared little here, huge, strong, and it is said, near-immune to cold, able to breathe even the fumes of life which rose above the line-of-breath. The Queens gave them title to the unliveable lands above the forest line and in return they kept watch, and brought their Queen tribute, of one kind or another. Though in truth few powers of the state could govern, or even observe them up there beyond the rim of the world.
The name of this maiden, as I came to later learn, was Egil Spark-Herd, and she was as unsurprised to meet me as I was relieved to see her.
"So," she said, her voice like a smooth stone rolling across a sea floor, "it is thee, man-of-iron."
"Do you know me?" I replied. "If it pleases you, may I share your light? For the dark kin are about me."
She laughed then, a deep sound. "They hate your iron, but fear it. Sit."
She returned to her seated position, cloaked in furs, watching the dim fragments of glow from inside the charcoal pile as it smoked and warmed the air around it.
I checked behind me, it seemed the Kin had not followed me into the warmth. Perhaps out of fear or, more likely, they had some old treaty with the Carbonari.
I waited, unspeaking for some time, as the metal of my body warmed and expanded slightly, emitting the slight 'plinks' of warming steel. I saw the firelight glistering upon the mica-bright protrusions from the Vantars strong features.
"Hmm," she grunted, "your eyes wear a channel. Am I so ugly to your kind?"
"Indeed not my Lady," I replied, "I only thought that in the night, and before the fire, it was as of your features carried with them a field of the long-forgotten stars."
"Ha!" (I think this was a laugh). "If you hew that blade as you shape your steel tongue the dark kin had a fortunate escape I think."
I was abashed, for I am not a loquacious being. After a while, I was about to speak when, instead, she did;
"Came to me from a snow-bees tongue, one who sought the flowering Hellebore, that within three days would seek me a Man of Iron and eater of ash, who would give a gift of sad tidings and who would ask in return, words, to lead him through the Blazing World to the Rainbow Gate. And now, my fire dims into its third night, and you come."
I paused for a moment. This strange knowledge and interlacing of prophecy and fate was not unknown in the Realities, especially here beyond the shadow-line. Very often wanderers were linked by interlocking fates, briefly tied and forgotten, for they each had their own path.
Did she really speak to a Bee? Or was that a metaphor? I had no way to know. I suppose, to her eyes, myself, truly a 'man of iron', arriving from the darkness of the trees, must be as strange to her as talking insects would be to me.
"For myself," I replied, " I seek a Palace of Lies, and on a black stone bridge I met a Goblin strung with silver bells who said I would meet with a charcoal burner who would guide me to the Prismatic Pass. Which I guess is the very same Rainbow Gate of which you speak."
"Yet, the tidings." Asked the Vantar.
"Queen Anada Gosheart is dead," I replied, "and her throne empty."
"Then none dream for the Queendom." she said, and sighed, "Ill indeed. Wyrd taunts us."
"I have often felt so myself." I replied.
So we spoke through the night, of this thing and that, both unsleeping, till dawn, when Egil Spark-Herd cooled her furnace and drew forth from it her charcoal. Light but substantial, which she stuffed with blackened hands into a great sack which she bore behind her.
(She did allow me a few fragments to maintain my own inner furnace, a princely gift in the circumstances).
From there, the Vantar lead me up past the snowline where we saw the backs of soaring eagles from above, then through the line of breath where even birds cannot soar. We climbed slowly and hard, her light but massive load seeming to bother her not at all. Stone gave way to ice, which blazed and blinded in great mazes and arcologies of sparkling light. Crystal towers seemed to grow around us. Wild blizzards and aurorae came like summer showers, alternately blinding and distracting.
Nothing skewed the Vantar woman from her course, though I grew fearful, my steel coated with a rime of frost. I knew my skin was brittle at this low temperature and feared to fall. As well, in these cool lands, I find my thoughts race somewhat, piling up ideas in a great crowd of things conceived, as much as, in the low warm lands, I can find myself dreamy, vague and slow.
We looked down into the scattered Queendoms, cast like slivers of emerald across a ruffled sheet of white, and saw in the distance the slight hint of the Terrible Waste which hugged the Mountains of Reality on three sides.
"Here is your path." Said Egil Spark-Herd, after a time untrackable to me, and gestured at the cracked fissure in a glacier which burned in a thousand colours from the triple sun (an illusion?) above.
"I thank you." I said. My voice seemed harsh and metallic, yet faint at this height.
She merely nodded and made to leave, returning the way we had come. But then paused.
"To enter once is to become lost." She said.
"I shall enter three times," I replied, "and no more."
"That is wisdom." Said the Vantar. And those were the last words we spoke.
I walked into the Prism-Shattered labyrinth of ice and light, and after a long, arduous and deceptive struggle, which I will not relate in detail here, I found myself back once again at the point of my beginning.
Once more I entered, and once more, I was returned.
The final entry though, sufficed.
Behold then, the Shifting Kingdom, the Hyphos, the Tangled Lands, the Weave-of-Thought, Marginalia, that strange nation shifting on the boundaries of dying paradigms, a land without time, where dreams and reality intermingle, ghosts and memories walk as men, where illusion is a constant, knowledge is a sword and the wise are armoured in secrets.
Truthfully; a series of tubes.
Big ones though, and quite impressive in their way. Marginalia has no open sky. The land is curved, as if a map had been curled into a tube for storage, and you were a bug scampering around on the inside. These tubes of land, some hundreds of miles in radius, form a kind of shifting network, a maze or web of tubular passages, always shifting and changing, growing or shrinking, linking and unlinking, so that no true map of the Hyphos can be kept for long.
It need not be explained that in Marginalia the surface of the land is always "down". One sticks to the earth much as one does in Blackwater. Looking up, at the same surface of the same land, close or far above you, ye may see other beings like yourself, likewise sticking to their ground, though upside-down relative to you.
You may see also, rivers flowing upside down, trees and plants growing upside down and castles and fortifications similarly obverse to you. Should you walk directly around the radius of your own land, in time you will reach that spot formerly observed and see below you, the point of your origin.
So it is that all things here are relative, and shifting always.
Added to that; the place is a weave. Passages large and small link and radiate from each other, without logic or reason. Realm-tubes branch and split. A journey of a few miles might bring one into a vault so great and so long that the nations of the long-forgotten worlds of Esh could fit within them, or a fall in a forest could cause one to slip into a pocket realm no larger than a tunnel, to be swept through and vomited out in some unpredicted place.
Marginalia, it is said, connects all places and all times, if the right path can be found.
It is a realm without true light or dark. Instead, the illusion of sequential time is brought by spirits, long lost half-gods or demi-beings called 'Lifian' who race through the realms, some light, some dark, succeeding each other in turn. In many more-reasoning realms they seem like filaments of sunlight or clouds of ambient gloom, but at times Night comes in an Iron Chariot, literally, rumbling through the vault of some great realm, casting darkness from her cloak, pursuing Phoebus and his flaming steed.
Enough. It would tire the tongue to speak of all. Let it be said simply that I found my way to the Fae realm, and discovered myself in a forest where motes of pollen and glistering winged insects danced and hovered between hyper-green leaves, and at a distance I saw a palace, or a city, composed of the rose-red shards of light that fall from a setting sun at midsummer.
This, I thought, is likely the Palace of that Fae Prince called 'Shadowed-Summer'. Not only that, but that my instructions from the irritating Goblin Tarfossil had run out, and so I hoped I was close to my goal.
The shimmering lights of the sparkling dragonflies and the sparks of what I thought to be pollen, were distracting, deluding even. They seemed to form pathways or latticeworks of passages between the cool amber of the treetrunks. I set off into the strange forest, heading towards the rose-red palace, but I found my path twisting and turning.
Then came a cackling, and the jingling of silver bells...
10. Tarfossil Once More
I paused, and looked around me. Then.
"Hee hee HEE! A stranger for TEA!" Cried the moronic imp, as the same creature, with his cap of purple, yellow breeches and stupid belt of jingling goblin-faced bells, leapt out from behind a mushroom and hurled into my face a pouch or packet of some yellow powder, which burst around my in a cloud.
"A Knight in the night!" Gloated Tarfossil (incorrectly). "Now my schemes shall not be dreams! Flail fool and suffer through the visions of my magic poof! Hee hee hee!" He went on, there was more like this, I shall not report it all.
"Ah no my mortal lungs." I cried, and flailed, wandering and staggering as if stricken. I drew my sword and swung madly hither and yon. "What is real and what is not. O curse this realm of visions for I am mad for certes sirrah."
I addressed a ladybug which I saw perched on a foxglove.
"Aye Sorceress in red, ye shall not steal from me my ladies ring of Jade, for it has a power beyond the dreams of mortal men. Have at thee, witch."
And so I laboriously attacked the Ladybug, which I was sad to do, for surely she was innocent, and I did try to miss and to pointlessly gouge the earth with my blade.
"He hee! Ho Hoo!" Capered Tarfossil, his daft bells jangling. "The sirrahs swapped his helm for painted eyes! Cackle cackle" (he literally said 'cackle' out loud, enunciating the whole word. Again I was pleased that I was made unable to sigh).
"Whats a hoop a loop a ring, a ladies thing for poor Tarfossil!" So pranced the Goblin as I suffered through my dumb-show of hallucination. And finally he leapt in forwards, and with the subtle dexterity typical of his kind, wherever they are, he snatched the ring from where it lay looped at my belt.
This was the first and only time Tarfossil impressed me, for I had tied that knot with deep craft, such as I had, but that is knots and goblins for you.
"Ahh, egregiously green ring!" Said the Goblin, and wondered at it for a moment. "O loop of Spells, hasp me in craft and hoop me in wonders!" And he put it on.
"BLACHHHH!!" Said the Goblin as I dropped, instantly, my mummery and seized him by the scrawny neck in my metal grasp.
"Iiiirrooonnnn" he choked out.
"Now see here you little shit." I said, and I know that it was unknightly to speak so but by the Dreaming Gods, Goblins do frustrate me more than any other living thing.
"I have no helm, no neither lungs. I am an iron man and your silly witchcraft shall not touch me. And you have stolen, by your own free will, my ring."
"cn't brth" gasped the Goblin.
I hoisted the creature into the air by his throat. He was purpling somewhat, but I went on.
"And that ring, which was given to me by a Queen, and which was given to her by the Fae Prince Shadowed Summer.."
"noooo" moaned the Goblin
"Yes." I said. "That ring contains a Geas for its thief, and that Geas I place upon you now. That you shall seek through space and time, however long it shall take you and however far you must go, for the first meeting of the Worghast Knight Cir Talox Blithe and the Seer Groswamme the Green, upon the bridge of black stone at the borders of the Queendom of Anada Gosheart, and at that exact place and that precise time, deliver to that Knight the following words, and no other, without addition, subtraction, alteration or repetition.." and there I gave him the words which, I am sure you already recall, "and that being done, the Knight may take the ring from you and you shall be free. Now get out."
And so I booted the Goblin Tarfossil up his arse and sent him capering and hooting away into the forest, and whether he did the deed quickly, by his own measure of time, and that same kick was what bothered him on our first meeting, or whether he was simply the kind of being to be regularly booted about, I cared then and care now not at all.
I went onwards, up to the Rose-Red Palace of the Fey Prince.
11. The Palace And The Geese
Strange was that Palace and stranger still its court. Its walls were of soft light, like the finest marble, lit from within, the gardens smelled of honeysuckle. Music floated through the air, in literal form, an undine of dancing semi-real fluid sprang from a harp of blazing gold played by the most small and wizened being I had ever seen. Of all creatures there, he was the only being (besides myself) who lacked beauty, yet pixies fell like motes of light onto the surface of his song and swam within it as if it were a crystal stream wandering in the air.
The place seemed as much masque as palace or fortification, I wondered if the strangely costumed beings in their feathers and bright silks were celebrating something, of if the masked creatures with the heads of animals and birds were truly wearing masks at all.
I spoke to what seemed to be a large crow with a strange tonal accent and feathers like a river of iridescent oil. He called himself "Qua", as much as I understood him, and seemed deeply interested in my metal form.
"I came here from Ular, the Vermillion snake who's Virtue is 'Flow', though I am not of that land." The corvid spoke.
"For myself," I replied, inclining my head respectfully, "I came from the blazing world above the Mountains of Reality, and a sad passage I had of it."
"But what is your Virtue?" asked the crow, "or do they follow virtues in your metal nation?"
"Some do and some do not" I said, and Qua nodded in a birdlike way which I think indicated sympathy.
"This is the way of it." They said.
"I myself attempt to follow Truth, though I am a poor seeker of it." I told the Crow. "And you? Do you follow the virtue of Ular?"
"Oh no no no," Qua replied, "I am not so great. I follow only the humble virtue of Heroism."
"But this is the greatest virtue of all!" I said. I wished I could have spoken to them more but my presence had been noted and two bronze-armoured Goblins riding giant cold-eyed dactylic Geese poked at me with silver goads.
"What do thee here Iron Man?" Screeched one Goblin.
"If it please you, I seek Prince Shadowed Summer." I said. "Can you take me to him?"
"Take you to the Prince!" laughed the Goblins both, and the Geese hissed, "NEVER! There is no way at all, never but one in deepest time. For who are you?"
"Who am I?" I said, "but who are you?"
"That is simple", said the first Goblin,
"I was born long ago,
Though my mother was a river, I am dry.
I work all day
And spend it lying on my back.
My family all put pressure on me.
I am chimneys footrest, homes red flesh."
"Clearly" I replied, "you are a brick."
"CURSE THAT TONGUE!" Shouted the Goblin and threw down his goad. "But WHO ARE YOU HMM? WHO ARE YOU SIR?"
"I shall tell you," I said,
"I crawl but never climb,
My foot flat, smooth as glass,
Yet still I cling, tense,
Scribes regard me carefully,
But the fleet carriages commander sees me not.
Apollo is my foe, he hates me,
For I hold his whole world upside down."
"Ehhhgg" said the first Goblin, his brow furrowed.
"Ah ha!" said Qua, "I know who he is!"
The first Goblins goose bit him and while that entanglement went on, the second Goblin said;
"That is enough Sir Rain-Drop-On-A-Windowpane. Come and I shall take you to the Prince, only neither ask nor answer any more, for this these riddles are too much for my Goose. ."
"If it please you." I said. Then I bowed to Qua. "And farewell to you."
"Yes, yes, said the Crow, and bobbed their black head. "Be true."
12. The Summer Throne
I am a poor judge of beauty but I would gamble greatly that this Prince of Eld was amongst the finest who still called Life their Land.
He lounged upon the warm and burnished throne of summer which unfolded endlessly beneath him like the opening petals of a rose which spread wide to meet the sun, or indeed, a bee, yet expanded endlessly, as if there were always more petals within.
This flow clearly did not trouble the Prince who dandled gently like a dilletante. His clothes were like the waving pulse of grasslands after the green flame of spring has passed, but before autumns touch, life at its apogee, just before the fall. His cravat was an imp of literal fire which clung to his neck without harm and which winked an ashen eyebrow at me. His boots were ordinary boots, but very well made. his face and flesh were dappled with the shadows of leaves beneath a summer sun, shifting as if the tree which cast them were tugged and pulled by wind. His eyes were the most astonishing blue.
"You again Blithe?" He said. "I have not changed my mind. Go back and die with Esh, or stay, it means little to me."
"Sir," I said, and knelt, as is correct before a Prince. "I regret, I do not recall our meeting, if we have met at all. I fear my memory is merely mortal, though my flesh is not."
"Hmm," said Prince Shadowed-Summer. "No.. Not Blithe at all." And he stood and reached down and lifted my chin, in exactly the manner of the Gloom Queens touch, and stared into my crystal eyes.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, and waved his fingers like a homemade who burns them on the stove, "Iron".
Then he looked closer again, and laughed. "No! Not Blithe at all, though you bear his pattern and his hand. What are you then? An echo? A toy?"
"I am Cir Talox Blithe," I replied, "Worghast Knight. And though time has stripped me of certainty, I believe I was indeed created by a being called 'Blithe', though so long ago that only fragments of memory remain to me, and those few."
"Pfft," said Prince Shadowed-Summer, "time".
He said it the way rich men speak of loose change.
"I should not be surprised that ambient frustration of a man could find some means of subjecting me to the eternal annoyance of his presence," he yawned, "and without necromancy too."
The Prince began to clap in a slow, degrading and theatrical manner, which I did not enjoy.
"Yes well done Blithe. Your echo has resounded in my ears. And let me guess. Duty.. honour.. something something.. terrible end... fate of reality itself.... only you can help.. blah blah.., am I wrong?"
"You are not, sir," I replied, "I Quest now for an obscure but mighty patron on a matter of grave import. I am tasked to seek you and request from you, an Incalculable Palace of Lies, of which you have three, each one greater than the last, the largest within the smallest, and the key to the last hidden in the first. And I have been told that the fate of all Rea..."
"The FATE OF ALL REALLLITTYYY" Boomed Prince Shadowed-Summer. "Blech. Truly Blithe it is as if you never left, as pompous and leaden as you ever were. Dreaming Lords what I would give to be rid of you. But I cannot touch your "Golem" here can I Blithe. For he is Iron."
The Prince laughed.
"Sir," I said, rising. For I would kneel no more before this man. "If there ever were a man called 'Blithe', he is long dead, as measured in those realms where time has meaning, and you speak now to me."
"Hmmm," the Prince mused for a moment. "An 'an obscure but mighty patron'. I can guess who that might be. Dull. But what did they give you Man-of-Iron. What shall I receive for the key to my Palace of Lies?" And the Prince pulled, as if from his own shadow, a key, likewise of such form, shadowed and indistinct, but real.
"I do not know," I said. "I own nothing except what I am."
"And perhaps that is why they sent you." Smiled the Prince, and he came within a breath of me, and gazed into my lenses, as if he quested there for some invisible thing he could not see.
"I want him," said the Prince. "His pattern, his memory, his anima, expunged. No. I want it whole, to keep. I want that part of you that is him. The rest can go, and can go with your Key and your Palace."
He leapt into the Summer Throne and lied back, lounging.
"So, Knight-of-Iron," he said, "if you truly are a Knight, and your quest is True, and as vital as you say, it should be no hard choice, to sacrifice a part of yourself, and only a part, to fulfil such a vital task? No?"
I thought of the wand of glass I kept always with me, and of the labyrinth of my mind, and of my history and memories fleeing from me into infinite time, and what it would be to walk from this palace with the Shadow Key, and nothing else, no memory or self or context, but only the task fulfilled.
A shadow though....
"You have the right of it my Prince," I replied, and bowed, "I would gladly sacrifice all to fulfil my goal. But.."
I reached down, hoping against hope that, in this strange realm, what I imagined might be real. And I fund it there, impossibly, held in its loop, for Tarfossil had been dexterous enough to steal it, but not to steal all of it.
"..this, perhaps, might be precious to you."
I held up the shadow of the ring of jade, the shadow alone, for the ring was long gone, back on its journey through time, back to my hand and the Queen who returned it to me.
"A shadow for a shadow." I said.
The Prince seemed stricken. He gazed upon the circle of shade which I held between steel finger and steel thumb. But he did not seek to take it from me.
"Has it, will it, be so long?" He said. Then, "How came you by this?"
"I gave it, and was given it in a loop of Time." I replied. "In this world or another, little else remains."
"That is like her." Said the Prince. He touched his face for he found that he was weeping. The tears were of blazing liquid gold and ran like molten metal, or quicksilver, in slender tracks down his perfect face."
"A memory of mortal pains." I said.
"Enough." The Prince replied. "The deal is set."
He spun the key of shadow through the air, seeming to do it idly. I snatched it, and felt its surface, cool and unknowable, yet real enough.
"There is the key to your Palace." He said. "Your "mysterious patron" will know what to do with it. Now.."
He held out his hand.
"If it please you my Prince." I said, and dropped the ring of shadow into his shadowed summer palm. Then bowed.
"Begone automata." He said, though he was looking down at the object he held.
I was not slow about my exit from that place.
And of the journey back, there is little left to tell, for it would tire the tongue and blur the boundary of the tale.
I count my quest complete.