“Your hands are glowing,” said Jenny. Whatever you thought of my group, one thing you couldn’t deny was their total dedication to stating the obvious.
“Yes,” I said, because I was in the group, too. I raised my hands in front of me and turned them over, like there might be an off switch on the back, or maybe instructions.
“Is it safe?” asked Jenny, reaching out her own hand, which wasn’t a smart thing to do if it turned out not to be safe.
“Of course they’re safe.” I pulled my hands away and hid them behind my back, making my proclamation seem somewhat disingenuous. I didn’t think there was any danger from my glowing hands—other than to myself—but I still didn’t want Jenny too close. They could spit out fire or give her cancer for all I knew.
“Can’t you use the gem to turn them off?” she said, trying to reach behind me. Her tone was very neutral, not nagging or pestering, but I could see she was holding back her concern. Left unchecked, the energy I was using up would eventually kill me. At least, that was what the Elder had told me.
The dwarfstone had absorbed the light from my hands last time. I didn’t know what that meant, whether I could use that captured energy somehow, but at least it provided a safety valve.
“In a minute,” I said. “I just want to figure out what turned them on in the first place.” I looked around. There was a large mushroom cloud blooming behind us, my hands had gone radioactive, and we were flying east on a dragon, so pretty much an average day. There were also faint lines I could only just make out connecting things.
The sun was ahead of us, hardly dropping as we chased it across the sky. There wasn’t much to see up here, but between us and the dragons flying in formation behind us, I could just about make out the tendrils that bound everything together. If I looked down, it was as if someone had painted cobwebs over the ground.
Maurice stood up and bent down to take a closer look at my hands. “If what the Elder said was true, you must have created a decent size gap between what you love and what you hate.”
“I don’t feel any different about anything,” I said. “I’m exactly the same as I was before this.” I held out my hands again. They were covered in a yellow light.
“That can’t be true,” said Maurice.
He had a point—if it required a change in intensity of my feelings to produce magic, and my hands were lit up like novelty light bulbs, then clearly my feelings had changed. But as the person who owned those feelings, I was in a unique position to confirm or deny. And I denied.
The Elder had told me how magic worked, but he could be wrong. Or lying. Or it could work differently for different people. What I needed was proof. A mentor who could show me how to get a starship out of a swamp.
“Ah think he secretly likes us more than he lets on,” said Flossie. She had left the piloting to Vikchutni, which I always found disconcerting.
“Not necessarily,” said Maurice. He held up both hands, a finger pointing up on each. “If you think of liking as positive and hating as negative, then the distance between them is what allows him to make magic.” He moved his fingers apart to demonstrate. “He doesn’t need to increase the positive as long as he increases the negative.” He kept one finger stationary and moved the other one further away.
Flossie frowned as she considered this information. After a couple of seconds of intense deliberation, she smiled again. “No, he likes us. Ah know it.”
I didn’t agree with either of them. My strongest emotion was ambivalence, which was why the whole magic being bound to feelings seemed suspect to me. The things I liked and the things I disliked weren’t all that different to me. The good guys and the bad guys weren’t two sides of the same coin, they were the same side of the same coin. Just on different days.
It would have been a waste of energy trying to explain that to Flossie, so I didn’t. Let her think what she wanted.
My hands flickered and went out.
“How did you do that?” said Jenny. She grabbed my hands with hers before I had a chance to snatch them out of her reach.
“I don’t know,” I said, enjoying her touch as she explored my hands for injury. At least, I think that’s what she was doing.
“What were you thinking when they stopped glowing?” asked Maurice.
“I was thinking how it wasn’t worth trying to explain anything to you bunch of gormless idiots. What? He asked.”
“So, it was a sort of giving up?” said Maurice.
Maurice sat down and opened his notebook. “Okay, so next time it happens, focus on how useless and pathetic you think we all are. See if it has the same effect.”
“No problem,” I said.
“And what were you thinking about when they started to glow?” asked Jenny.
I hesitated, not really wanting to tell her.
“Oh, come on,” said Claire, her face twisted into a snarl. “Spit it out. It’s not like you care about hurting our feelings at this point.”
My hands suddenly began glowing again. I tried to take them back from Jenny, but she held on tight.
Claire’s expression relaxed, like she’d flicked a switch. “I think it’s when he’s irritated.”
It had got to the point where even my own plebs were able to manipulate me. It was embarrassing. I let out a sigh. My hands stopped glowing.
“It really works!” said Maurice, scribbling stuff into his book.
I couldn’t refute what Claire had said, only I hadn’t been irritated the previous time my hands had started glowing. Quite the opposite, in fact. Which lent some credence to Maurice’s theory that it only required an increase in either the positive or negative to create a large enough gap.
It was a step forward in understanding the mechanics, but it still didn’t make the ability worth anything. Slightly glowing hands and a vague sense of the connections between things were not powers that would change the world. Whatever my feelings were, they were too weak to be of any practical use.
“Um,” said Dudley, “I think I see something.”
Everyone stood up and looked in the direction Dudley was staring. I couldn’t see anything at first, but slowly a spot appeared on the horizon. It took quite a while for it to grow into something recognisable. A city. Gorgoth.
In the meantime, the land beneath us underwent a transformation. The fields and forests grew sparser. The ground turned brown, then yellow. The trees were smaller and less green.
It wasn’t exactly a desert, not like the Sahara with sand dunes and the occasional palm tree, but it was getting there.
We also spotted animals and people. Long caravans making their way east. It was hard to tell what kind of animals they were from up here. Maybe camels, maybe elephants. Maybe something else entirely.
We didn’t go down to take a closer look as dragons descending out of the sky might have spooked them. And it wasn’t really much of a mystery where they were going. Roads were visible from our vantage point, and they were quickly filling with more and more caravans, all headed for the city.
Gorgoth, once it got big enough to make out, was larger than the others we had encountered so far, or at least wider. It seemed to get wider the closer we got. The buildings weren’t very tall; no towers and no spires. There were a lot of domes, which gave it an Arabian vibe. Many were covered in shiny metal, the biggest bunched together like a clutch of golden eggs.
We could have flown in, landed in the central plaza and made a grand entrance, but that would have attracted far more attention than was wise. We didn’t know much about this place and it was best to assume it wasn’t going to throw us a party for turning up.
Stashing the dragons somewhere was our immediate problem. There wasn’t much vegetation or cover. The land was very flat and without any forests or even many bushes, it would be hard to play hide the dragon (not a euphemism).
Flossie spotted a crack in the earth, south of the city, which was looming quite large by now. She flew us in and there was a stream running through the floor of the canyon. Which could mean other people would come here for the water, but there didn’t seem any obvious way to get down here, certainly not with large animals (that couldn’t fly), so we decided it would do. The dragons could always fly away if danger approached.
Flossie spent ten minutes with her head against Vikchutni’s, muttering something. I couldn’t tell you if it was part of the bonding process or her being a bit too clingy, but the dragon didn’t seem to mind.
We left the dragons to take care of themselves, which they were more than capable of. Whether they’d still be there when we returned, we’d have to wait to find out. Assuming we did return.
It didn’t take long to get to the city. Its yellow sandstone walls reached high overhead, maybe twice the height of the walls of Fengarad. The roads were full of large, slow-moving traffic. The noise was overwhelming, making it hard to speak; the air was full of dust, making it hard to see; large piles of dung appeared at regular intervals, making it hard not to throw up.
The pack animals we’d seen from the sky were even bigger close up. I realise that’s how vision works, but they were much bigger than horses; and it was still impossible to tell what they were.
They were loaded with goods and there were plenty of people sitting on them or running around trying to keep their animals in check or putting back things that fell off. The goods varied from panniers of grain hanging off the sides, to giant baskets of fruits ready to topple off at any moment. Each train was a dozen or more animals roped together and travelling head to tail. The people were wrapped up in sheets like Bedouins, their faces also covered with only their eyes showing.
“Ah think that’s a camel,” said Flossie, pointing at what did look vaguely like a camel, but bigger and with tusks. Most of its face was hidden by a long, beaded veil that nearly reached the ground and swung from side to side with each ponderous step. It could just as easily have been a hairy elephant.
Now would have been the perfect time to strike up a conversation, pick up some useful information on the city. None of us felt so inclined. Everyone was so busy with what they were doing, it felt like a huge imposition to distract them.
The city gates formed a bit of a bottleneck, and the caravans were backed up quite a way. There didn’t seem to be any restrictions to getting in, just the problem of getting everyone in through the same entrance.
We walked past the plodding behemoths towards the gates. There were no guards that I could see. Just walk in and go about your business. There was, however, a danger you might get trampled by some kind of pachyderm or crushed under a falling crate.
As we stood to one side trying to get a sense of when would be the best time to enter, two men approached us. They were dressed identically in grey robes and carried wooden bowls. Beggars, was my first thought, although they looked clean and well groomed. Both had long beards and shaved heads.
“Brothers, sisters,” said the first one. “Am I correct in thinking you are new to Gorgoth?”
“Yes,” said Claire, boldly jumping in. “Is there a safer way to enter?”
“Indeed. There is a smaller entrance on either side. The harvest has come in and the main entrance is currently used by tradesmen and farmers.”
Now that he mentioned it, there was an archway further along the wall. We couldn’t see into it from this angle and it looked like it might have been decorative, but it did seem to lead into the wall. We probably would have noticed it ourselves if anyone had been using it.
“Thank you,” said Claire.
“Wait, before you go,” said the second man, “perhaps we can interest you in an even greater city. The city of heavenly beauty, where nature is lush and beautiful, and the gods grant your every whim.”
The first man nodded enthusiastically, indicating he thought this was an excellent idea.
“No,” I said, “you can’t.” I started walking towards the archway, but quickly realised I was alone. I stopped and turned around.
“Are you a priest?” Maurice asked the first man. The others had gathered around him to be supportive of his daring attempt to speak to another person.
“No, no. I am a druid.”
“As am I. We believe in the beauty of nature. Of balance and love and trees.”
I could see the upside of talking to these Hare Krishna hippie dipsticks—they would be able to give us some information on the city—but I felt like there would be other chances to do that. Hopefully with people who weren’t so full of shit.
But Maurice had seen an opportunity and gone for it.
“And what else do you believe in?” asked Maurice, leaving the door wide open. If I didn’t do something, they’d all be inducted into a tree-hugging cult and be forced to eat lentils for the rest of their lives. On the plus side, it would mean more free time for me.
“I am Brother Dereel, this is Brother Deneel. We are followers of the One True Faith. Allow me to—”
“Wait, hold on,” I said, walking back. “One True Faith? Do you follow the One True God?”
They both looked shocked and horrified by the suggestion.
“No, certainly not,” said Brother Dereel. “He was a heretic who was cast out. We only believe in nonviolence and kindness to all the creatures of the gods.”
For all I knew, he was Joshaya in disguise. One True God, One True Faith… it seemed too much of a coincidence to have just bumped into these guys. Perhaps these two were worth talking to, after all.