“Come, come,” Fox says, hurrying down one of Rookdrift’s slick alleys. “We have one more to steal and only but the one day left. Miss moon is setting and mister sun is to be rising. No time for Fox and Troll to be dawdling.”
Troll trots behind. The alley is narrow and his shoulders bang against the damp bricks on either side. Sometimes he wishes to be as nimble as little Fox. “But what about the sword, Fox? Don’t you want it?”
Fox snorts. “I have no need of such a sword. It was not on the list.”
Troll slides the sword into the sheath hung off his belt, but keeps his fingers wrapped around the handle. He finds it oddly comforting.
“Hello there,” the sword says. Or maybe not says, but Troll hears someone say it.
“What did you say?” Troll asks.
“I said nothing,” Fox says. “Now quiet before the sewer warlocks come and are asking for their Hand of Glory back.”
“Could you loosen your grip a bit.”
Troll relaxes his big fingers. “Sorry.”
“No, no, there is no need for sorry.” Fox rubs her nose, not realizing Troll is talking to the sword. “The night has been long; I am sorry for the snapping.” She pauses at alley’s end, holding up her gloved hand to tell Troll to stop. She glances left and right along the next boulevard.
A small automaton scurries past on eight spindly legs, smoke belching from its rear.
Troll lumbers up behind her and peers over her head. “We safe?”
“Yes, what with your diverting them by knocking over the statue.” She breathes a heavy sigh and leans against the alley wall. “That’s nine, my friend, nine we have done. We will win the bet. Just the one more, then we are to be set like the kings.”
“What’s the last one?”
“Ah, the Thief’s Gambit. Been an age since anyone’s tried it.”
“This sword is talking,” Troll says.
Fox snaps her teeth at the sword, and Troll pulls his hand back away from her sharp, narrow mouth. Fox looks chagrined and rubs her nose again. “Sorry, sorry. But such swords are very, very bad. My uncle once had one, and he went upsie-downsie in the head. Now tell it to be silent while we are to be conspiring.” She reaches inside her dark blue waistcoat and pulls out the rolled vellum. Troll likes the way it crinkles when Fox unfolds it. “Only one left. Must be the worst one, too.”
Fox hands Troll the vellum. Troll glances down the list, counting out all the items they’ve stolen in the past few days. At the bottom, next to a faded ten, is a single word.
“Math?” Troll says. “How are we going to steal math?”
“I am not knowing,” Fox says. “But we captured the west wind, did we not? I am thinking if we can apprehend breezes, we can acquire sums and figures.”
“Where do you think math is?”
Fox ponders for a bit, picking her teeth with a long fingernail. “Not sure, not sure. Math is everywhere, no? Or it is nowhere. I am not certain of these things.”
Fox is smart, but she doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes Troll fills the empty cracks. “We should ask mother.”
Fox’s face twists as if she’s been stabbed. “No.”
“She knows things. She’ll know where math is.”
“I do not like her. She smells funny.”
“You smell funny.”
Fox barks, her way of laughing. “I do, yes I do. Need a bath, that is true. Well. Maybe you are right. But I like it not. She will demand payment.”
“She won’t ask for much. What can it hurt?”
“Me,” Fox says in a tiny voice. But Troll knows she’ll say yes by the way she’s digging her boot toe into the dirt. “Alright.”
Mother lives outside of Rookdrift, off the cobbled roads where steam automatons clank along on bone-metal arms. Out in the swamp, where shards of night cling to hoary, ancient trees like mist clings to a river. Terrible things live there, but Troll knows a path made safe by mother’s magic. He picks his way from hillock to mound, feet splashing through murky water.
Her home is a bower made from the rotting corpses of dead trees that lean together. She’s plastered the sides with mud and dead fish, pressed trinkets and bric-a-brac into the foul plaster. Coins, crusty armor, rusted parts from automatons. Troll’s feet sink in the muck as they approach. Fox follows, subdued, head hung low.
“I don’t like this place,” the sword says.
“Quiet,” says Troll. He stops before the splintered opening of the rough structure. “Mother? Are you home?”‘
“SAY MY NAME THREE TIMES, CHILD,” mother Yienchu gurgles from the dark.
“No mother,” Troll says.
The sound becomes a wet cough, all phlegm and spite. “THINK YOU’RE SMARTER THAN MOTHER YIENCHU?”
“Never have, mother.”
“MY CHILD COMES HOME.” Something moves inside the dark beneath the dead trees. Something vast, larger than the space within. A stench wafts through the air, the smell of bloated carcasses floating in the water too long. “WHO CARED FOR YOU WHEN NO ONE ELSE WOULD HAVE YOU? WHEN YOU WERE TOSSED INTO THE SWAMP, SQUALLING YOUR LITTLE BLACK LUNGS OUT, LEFT TO DROWN.”
“YES, I. AND MY THANKS? NO LETTERS WRITTEN IN BLOOD; NO VISITS ON THE UNHOLY HOLIDAYS. ONLY MOTHER ALONE HERE IN THIS SWAMP. ALL ALONE, POOR MOTHER.”
Troll sighs. “I am sorry, mother. We’ve been busy.”
“TELL YOUR FRIEND TO SHOW HER FACE.”
Troll looks at Fox, who shivers. “She wants to say hello.”
Fox nods and steps forward. Her bow is deep, her right arm crossing her waist. “Greetings, mother Yienchu.”
“WILL YOU SAY MY NAME THRICE, FOX? FOX CAN’T RESIST A GOOD GAME.”
“No, mother,” Fox says. She steps behind Troll.
Mother laughs wetly. “I SCARE HER, DESPITE HER LOVE OF FUIBREISH. I WOULD THINK SHE’D REST EASY UNDER THE PROTECTION OF HER PATRON OF CHANCE.”
“Mother, we have a need.”
“THE THIEF’S GAMBIT.”
Troll is not surprised. She is the malignant tumor of corruption. If there are crimes being committed, she knows. “We have all but one item.”
“MATH IS ALWAYS LAST. KNOW YOU MATH, TROLL? FOX? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
Troll shakes his head. “I can do sums. But how do we find math?”
“MATH KNOWS NO FEAR. MATH WILL IMPALE YOU UPON COSIGNS, DECONSTRUCT YOU WITH AN IRRATIONAL NUMBER. IT WILL MULTIPLY YOU AND DIVIDE YOU. MATH IS CHAOS AND LOGIC, AND IT WANTS YOUR HEAD UPON ITS PIKE. MATH IS THE CORPSE THAT LIVES AT THE BEGINNING AND END OF ALL THINGS.”
Troll doesn’t find this useful. A riddle, the way mother Yienchu prefers to answer. But Fox chuckles, her wheezing laugh dying in the air’s cloying moistness.
“CLEVER FOX,” Mother Yienchu says. “YOU SHOULD HAVE WORKED FOR ME. I WOULD HAVE MADE YOU DARK AND GLORIOUS. FUIBREISH MAKES YOU PLAY GAMES LIKE THE FOOL.”
Fox steps past Troll and bows low again, her pointed face almost touching the muck. “You are wise, mother of corruption. What do we owe for this knowing?”
“YOU HAVE THE OTHER NINE?”
Fox nods. “All but Math we have stolen in these six days.”
“I WILL TAKE SOME SANDMAN’S SAND AND A DROP OF MIDNIGHT OIL. I HAVE USES.”
Fox chuckles again. “But not a drink of mead? Or an hour with the Muse?”
“POETRY WOULD BECOME OFFAL IN MY MOUTH,” mother Yienchu says, and her laugh burbles like methane bubbles popping on a slick. “NO ONE WOULD EVER SPEAK POETRY AGAIN IF THEY HEARD ME. AND I WOULD VIOLATE THE MUSE UNTIL SHE IS A ROTTING CORPSE FOR THOSE WHO CALL UPON HER. LEAVE THE ITEMS AT MY DOOR. IF YOU ENTER, I WILL EAT YOU. I FEAR THAT MAY UPSET TROLL; HE’S GROWN VERY FOND OF YOU.”
Troll squirms, wishing mother had not mocked his feelings. Fox does as she asks, placing the two items on a flat stone before her entry.
“Thank you, mother,” Troll says. He places his hand on Fox’s shoulder and they back away until wet water closes around their ankles. Only then does he turn and they wend their way through the maze of marshes.
Fox is quiet until they pass from the last bogs and are back on firm footing. “I hate going to that place.”
“I know. I’m sorry. But you figured it out, right?” Troll hopes Fox has figured it out. He’s puzzled it around inside his thoughts. The riddle remains a riddle.
“Of course,” Fox says, adding a sniff. “I’m Fox. I’m the clever one.”
“She’s very attractive, too,” the sword says.
“The sword says your attractive.” Troll says.
Fox perks her ears a bit at the praise. “And attractive, too, yes, you must agree.”
“Oh, I must, must I?”
“Yes.” She grins.
“So where are we to go?”
“It is all in your mother’s riddle, is it not?”
Troll shrugs. He doesn’t want to tell Fox he didn’t understand the riddle. Fox probably already knows this. She’s kind enough not to mention it.
“Math knows no fear,” Fox says, ticking the points off on her claws, “and Math is at the beginning and end. So, we need learn what has not fear, but has beginnings and endings.”
“And can impale you?” Troll says, trying to be helpful.
Fox barks her laugh. “Yes, impale you. A pike. Metal on a pole. What has no fear, and is made of sharp metals?”
They reach the road. Cobbled stones stretch back to the city’s gate, pockmarked with holes from the spiked feet of the automatons. Troll once worked the road crew during the dry season, replacing broken stones to keep the road as smooth and level as could be. He got paid less than some others, but when you’re Troll, you accept those slights.
“Automatons have spiked feet.” Troll thinks it’s a stupid answer.
Fox doubles over and falls on her side. Her legs kick and her eyes water with mirth. “And mother Yienchu thinks you stupid,” she gasps between barks of laughter. “You should have brought your mind to Fuibreish. He would have appreciated how snickety it can be.”
Troll scratches his head. “I don’t understand.”
“She’s telling you you’re right.“
“You mean math is automatons? How?” There are thousands. Some small, with armatures delicate enough to do fine needle work; some massive with legs as thick as tree trunks, carrying heavy loads to and from the great city states. He’s heard tales of vast ones in the wastes between the worlds, said to have gathered smaller automatons and dismantled them to add to themselves over centuries until they grew as large as towns. They capture those who travel the hidden paths and make them live upon their backs, worshipping their metal god cities. “How do we capture math from the mechanicals?”
“Go to the place where they begin and end.” Fox stands, brushing road dirt from her dark trews. Troll thinks the way they blouse over her tall boots makes her look like a pirate, particularly when she wears the blue waistcoat with the golden trim, her favorite of the many she owns. “Where do the sorcerers make the automatons, Troll? Where oh where do they go?”
“The great steam factory.”
“And what is next to it?” Fox grins, showing all her sharp little teeth.
“The bone yard.”
Fox bows as she did for mother Yienchu. “The bone yard, my dear one. Birth of automatons, death of automatons. Beginning and end. The sorcerers pick over the dead that were never alive and build new, and around in the circles they go. And automatons are all the product of math and magic and chaos and logic.”
“And fire and water.”
“Yes, steam. The bone yard is where we will be finding math.”
“We might have to fight our way in.”
“Use the sword you stole.”
“I do not take lives.”
“What?” Troll pulls the sword from its scabbard and looks at the blade. “Isn’t that what a sword is made for?”
The sword quivers in his hand. “Do you know how painful it is to suck someone’s life into yourself? To hear them scream, fighting you for years until they submit and become a part of you? No, I wasn’t made to take lives.”
“What does it say?” Fox asks.
“It says it won’t kill.”
Fox hisses. “See, this is why the magical swords are not of any use.” She hurries away, the silver buckles on her boots flashing in the gaslight lamps along the roadway.
They slip back into the city, clinging to the shadow’s frayed edges as the sun rises. There are many hungry mouths in the swamp, and Troll has learned to sneak. He’s almost as good as Fox, though for her sneaking is a birthright.
The great factory is a malignant tumor that buried entire blocks beneath its weight as the steam sorcerers built it over centuries. Three miles long on the street side, it rises in layers like the Reaper’s wedding cake, black stone and iron metal heaped upon itself in an untidy mess. High above are the stacks, piercing the low clouds that sweep down the valleys in the hills behind the city and blow out over the harbor. They pour black smoke into the air, and on bad days it sometimes sinks to the surface and chokes everyone until they cower inside with damp cloths over their mouths. On those days, only the automatons move through the city.
No one can remember why the sorcerers built Rookdrift here. The harbor is far worse than any of the other city states, requiring constant dredging from the silt left behind where the Growe river meets the sea. The downslope winds bring terrible weather nine days in ten. It seems no good place to have settled and raised walls, and docks, and mercantile shops, and homes.
Or tea shops.
“How are we going to get in?” Troll asks. They rest under an awning, porcelain cups in hand. Troll sits on a sturdy bench, Fox on a chair with her feet dangling, swinging her scuffed, black boots. Troll is tired, but the tea lifts his spirits.
“Thought about that, yes I have. Everyone takes the hard road. The roofs. They think that is the best way, the unseen way. No one looks up. Up is nothing but choking clouds. No, that is not our way. The folk of Rookdrift do not look up, but the automatons, they are always looking, looking all ways. Even up.” She leans forward, points a finger at the ground and whispers. “We go down.”
Fox barks her laugh. “Aqueduct.”
“Good. I hate the stink of sewers. Takes weeks to wash it all out.”
Fox guides him away from the café, down narrow alleys until they slip inside the rear of the public baths. “Come quickest.” She darts down a side stairway, the soles of her boots silent on stone steps. Down they go through tunnels and chambers until they reach a salted iron door, taller and wider than Troll. She pulls a pick and wrench from her sleeve and sets to work on the massive lock. In two clicks and one clack, it opens.
Beyond is the aqueduct. Everything is cold and clammy, the water chilling the air enough to raise goosebumps on the skin.
“Do you know where we are going?”
“I have been this way before,” Fox answers.
“You never told me.”
“You never asked. And that was a long time ago.”
“Did you go into the factory?”
“Yes. Fuibreish asks, and so I go. A dare to test my pledge to him. I brought back a single cog, and he hung it upon his wall with such other things as others brought him over many years and many games.” Fox hangs her head as she speaks, as though embarrassed.
Troll feels bad. She hates that someone— even someone as powerful as Fuibreish—can make her do things at their whim. Not because her patron holds something over her. It is because he knows her well enough to know how to manipulate her. Mother manipulates through love and fear, but Fuibreish plays upon pride and greed. Troll pats her shoulder to show he understands.
The walls here are made of old stone, the mortar loose and flaking. Lichen grows to the ceiling, untended, slick when they step on it. Once, Troll’s boot slips off the narrow pathway and plunges ankle deep in cold water. The noise bothers him more than the chill, though. They pause and hold their breaths, listening, until the quiet reassures them they are alone.
At last, they come to a wide, iron pipe sunk into the walkway and passing through the wall. Beside it is another door, smaller than the entry into the aqueduct and made of a silver metal that glows with a faint ochre sheen.
“Here,” Fox whispers.
There is no handle, no lock. Nothing but the metal slab recessed into blocks of granite. Troll reaches for the door to touch it and his skin tingles. “Sorcery.”
Fox reaches into one of the many pockets in her vest and takes out a loupe. She holds the small magnifier to her right eye and leans towards the entry. Then she points a finger, delicate claw tipped with its metal sheath, and touches a tiny hole Troll hadn’t even noticed. She twists her finger right and left, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth as she works. A soft click echoes through the tunnel. With a soft rumble, the door slides up into the lintel.
“Long room to pass through to reach the bone yard,” Fox says. “Many automatons.”
Troll slides hands into trouser pockets and slips on his knuckledusters. “I’ll go first.”
He slinks into the dark tunnel beyond the door. They pass through a long hall, trickled with light from glowing moss rimming the stone ceiling like a crust of dried salt clinging to a tidal pool’s edges. At the end is an arched opening.
Beyond the opening are the automatons.
They scuttle and scurry and climb like spiders in a vast room filled with rising pipes. Steam gleams in the gas lighting, escaping from joints in the stacks. Everything is copper and brass and iron. The room echoes with the ring of metal feet on metal floors. Gears rotate, some as big as a house, spinning against each other, turning axles that lead into walls.
Troll reaches back and places a hand on Fox’s chest. He glances left and right. Left is shorter, a cluttered and shadowed dash to the next wall. Right looks longer, with less concealment. He taps her once on the left shoulder. He rounds the corner and moves, shoulder pressed to the wall.
He feels her behind him. He can always tell where she is and what she’s doing, even when he’s busy. They have a connection he can’t explain. She moves in rhythm with his footsteps, placing her feet down as he does, like a shadow clinging to his wake.
He reaches the corner. A great, round boiler stands next to it, three times his height, the rivet heads as big as his fists. Heat radiates from it, and it speaks the language of hissing steam. There is a gap not wider than his shoulder width and he slips down this space sideways.
When he reaches the end of the boiler, he pauses. There’s nothing for a good length. The next bit will be in the open. He taps Fox three times on the chest to let her know in their private language they must dash. She nods, and he turns to focus on the task. Then he runs.
He gets five steps when an automaton drops in front of him, its metal waist clanging against the floor. It’s so close he can smell the oil lubricating its joints. Feel the heat from its kerosene engine.
“Run,” he says calmly. Not that he feels calm. He feels wound like a watch; his springs ready to snap. He steps in close as its two arms snap out, trying to stab him or pin him. He brings his right fist around and plants a kiss on its brow, his steel knuckle weapons cracking open its carapace. The metal snaps under the blow and it falls like hammer-felled ox.
But they’ve been seen and more come. Fox races across the room, heading for the gap next to the other steam boiler. A metal spider falls on her back. Troll is too far away to help her. A thick trunked automaton rolls into him, metal wheels spitting sparks as it grinds across the floor. He staggers and slams against the wall. Pincers grab his arms and it rolls against him, begins to crush him.
Troll drops, yanking its pincers down. When he’s squatted, he thrusts again with his feet and leaps high. Its grip holds him tight as he arcs over the ball shaped head of the thing. It proves too far for the arm joints which break, releasing him. He elbows the ball head into the wall.
By then Fox has gotten out from under the spider thing and is dismantling it with her two daggers; the jade blade she calls Frog and the black bladed one that looks like a rip in reality she calls Heart. Gifts from Fuibreish, or so she says. Whatever they are, they take the creature apart and she sprints to safety behind the boiler.
Troll is right behind her, more automatons at his heels. He keeps his back to her, facing the oncoming automatons as they squeeze into the gap behind them. Sometimes they drop down from above. He grabs and tears and rips and punches, taking them apart however he can.
When they reach the next wall, Troll is bleeding from a half dozen small wounds. Fox has her own litany of cuts and scrapes.
“Another door,” she says, pointing at a short tunnel through the wall. “Come, come, come. But I will need you to hold them while I jigger the lock.”
“I got it,” Troll says. He steps to one of the larger gears. A thick cotter pin holds it on its axle, easily broken by a punch and ripped off. With a grunt, he hefts the slab and holds it between them and the automatons. “Go.”
Fox darts to the door, the short hall providing some protection. The big gear almost covers the opening. The automatons pull and push the gear simultaneously, negating each other like a plus and minus. Troll only has to hold it upright.
“Yes!” Fox yells. The door grinds up. She rolls under.
Troll waits for the door to open far enough for him to pass under. He feels a sharp tug against his hand. Then pain. He bellows as he falls through the opening, his grip on the gear lost.
His hand lost.
Troll lies on the ground and stares blankly at the void where four fingers and a thumb once lived. He’s lost the knuckleduster on that hand, too. For some reason, that bothers him more. His dusters are a matched pair, special made for his thick fingers, imbued with mother’s magic. The only weapons he ever bought with his own money, and they cost a lot of silver.
Fox makes a curious, keening noise. She’s kneeling at his side, cradling his arm by the elbow. “Hold still, I will care for you.” She takes the sleeve of his shirt and snaps her teeth, ripping it. Troll’s mind begins to wander. His face feels flushed.
Fox strips the cloth into several pieces and ties them around his arm. The bleeding slows. She leans in, tongue flicking out to clean the wound. He lets her, though this makes him uncomfortable. But he knows from experience this works to clean and staunch a wound and he allows the intimacy. Some bit of healing magic she does with her spit. She wraps the last strip around the stump of his arm. For the moment at least, he won’t bleed to death.
“So much blood,” the sword moans. Troll realizes he’s holding the hilt and pulls his hand away, though he agrees with the sentiment.
“You are lucky,” Fox says, “it seems a clean cut and already the blood staunches. I taste no dirt or disease in the wound.” She reaches up, her finger pads blood red, and touches his chin. “I am sorriest, Troll. This is mine to own.”
He shrugs. “Choices are made. We live with them.” He lifts himself up, using the wall to help him stand. “Right. I need to get my hand back.”
Fox pushes against his belly. She might as well be the wind pushing against a mountain. “No, there are too many. They will be coming in a moment, we must away to the bone yard. We must finish the game.”
Troll shakes his head. “Not without my hand. I want it back. It’s mine.”
“You can grow new one, yes? In time?”
“Doesn’t work like that.” He pushes her gently aside. Leans over and kisses the top of her head. Her fur smells like lilacs. “Be right back. Get ready to close the damned door when I do.”
He is through the doorway before she can object again. He rams the gear, still clattering from the automatons on the other side fighting among themselves to remove it. The gear shoots away from the opening, scattering automatons like kegels.
His hand lays in a pool of blood on the floor. He grabs it and jerks away as an automaton thrusts something at him that looks like a lance. It sweeps past his face, close enough the wind tickles his nostril. He staggers, falling back through the door again and landing hard enough he drops his hand. “Close it!”
“Yes, yes, yes,” she hisses. She twists her finger claw in a tiny opening, and the door rumbles down with a boom as it crashes closed.
“Come on,” Troll says. He folds his estranged hand in a handkerchief he takes from one of his pockets, then awkwardly ties it like a pouch to his belt.
They are under the sky once more, such as the sky is in Rookdrift. The boiling clouds have thickened and lowered, though it is not yet a day to go inside and tighten all the windows and shutters, close the chimney flues. But it looks almost as if night has settled upon the city and the dead landscape spread before them.
There are mountains of broken automatons piled as far as they can see. The bone yard is hemmed in with walls a hundred times higher than Troll could ever reach, and stretch over an open space greater than the factory itself. Here, the topography is metal forged, the damaged and dead remnants of old sorcery and steam. Endless, broken mechanicals in every conceivable design. Even as they stand there awed, a hole opens in the clouds above and a broken, barrel-shaped automaton falls to land upon one of the piles. A small landslide is touched off, clattering and quaking until the last loose gear comes to rest again.
“In all the worlds, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Troll says in quiet awe. Then the door behind them rumbles again, inching higher.
“No time to stand and lookie look at the dead things,” Fox says.
Troll’s head throbs and the place where his hand once was hurts beyond what should be borne. He’s exhausted, too. Still. “Which way?” He asks it dully, squeezing his eyes shut. He rubs at his temple, as if he can rub away the knife-sharp heat that stabs through his head.
Something touches his elbow. Fox rests her fingers there and looks up, her eyes wide and round, ears drooping. “Maybe we should leave, my best of all the friends. We have done enough. Maybe no one can do the Thief’s Gambit, no? I do not wish you to hurt any more. I know your wounds heal faster than most, but maybe we will have them examined. A flesh molder could perhaps reattach your lost digitates?”
He is tempted to say yes, but knows what she is offering. Fuibreish will take his due for her losing this game. A finger, that’s his usual price. Troll didn’t ask her what the cost was, only said yes when she asked him to join. It never crossed his mind they would fail. He never had to think about it. He would go to the deepest pits of another hell with her.
Doesn’t really have to think about it now when it comes right down to it. “No one else is losing anything. I said which way do we go? Come on, think. You’re the clever one. Or am I smarter than you? Bet I can figure it out first.”
“Hah!” Fox says. Her eyes narrow in thought, and she swivels her head to scan the giant mounds of metal parts. “You are indeed cleverer than you perhaps wish others to know, but I am Fox and my mind is swiftest.” She points across the broken wasteland. “It will be out there in the center. Math prefers the center of things, the balanced equation. Equal but opposite, plus and minus, order and chaos.”
Troll nods in agreement. The choice feels correct. Maybe it’s because he’s been steeped in mother Yienchu’s magic too long and has absorbed it, much like a piece of iron absorbs a trace of power from a lodestone. Whatever the reason, he can feel the pattern forming and knows the path they should take. The center is where they need to be. “Lead on.”
Fox skips down the wide stone steps to reach the ground, such as it is. The surface is uneven, broken parts creating a loose scree shifting beneath their feet. Not a patch of dirt is visible. Troll wonders how deep the bone yard is. Maybe this is the top layer of something that plunges all the way to another world. He tries not to think about it too much. Tries to shake the idea he’ll sink below the surface of metal pieces. He might drown under the weight of gears and cogs, which seems somehow worse than if it were water.
Fox follows the curves of empty space between the great mounds of dead automatons. She follows a pattern inscribed upon Troll’s heart, one he feels in his flesh, his blood, his bones. Maybe he is made of magic now, more than simple Troll who is strong and heals fast. Maybe he can cut the world with his power.
Troll feels the magic strengthen. He hurries to catch up to Fox, walk beside her. They pass the edge of a mound and can see the middle and there is the source of the frisson.
The center. A great maw opens as they approach. A mouth made of brass and steel, lined with blunted metal teeth that could crush an ox. It’s shaped like a curling horn, shrinking as it coils down into the ground. Troll could stand before its mouth and not reach the teeth hovering above, waiting to descend and snuff a life.
“There,” Troll says.
“It’s not alive,” the sword says. “Nothing is alive in this place except the two of you.“
Fox stares at the thing. It groans with the sound of metal cooling, as though fresh forged. The springs and gears emit sharp cracks that echo across the bone yard. Beyond the entrance, through its toothy smile, a blackness awaits them. “I do not wish to enter such a place as this presents.” She shivers and looks up at Troll. “There is wrongness in the dark. Worse even than mother Yienchu’s home.”
Troll laughs, the first time he has all day. Laughs in spite of exhaustion and pain. For one moment, everything seems brighter as his chuckle echoes off the world. “Nothing can be worse than mother’s house. You should go inside the next time we visit; you’ll see. There are such things. Beautiful, terrible, bowel emptying thing.”
Fox shakes her head violently, then barks her own laugh. “I would sooner have my fingers claws clipped than suffer one moment in your mother’s home.” She stands on her toes and straightens her clothing. Troll notices rips and stains on her normally spotless outfit, but for once she seems unperturbed by dishevelment. “Together then?”
“Always.” Troll reaches out with his remaining hand and she takes it, her tiny fingers swallowed. “On three.”
“So, it should be. Three is a very lucky number, my friend, and luck is what Fox has. I shall the counting begin. Are you ready?”
Fox takes a deep breath. Her glance at Troll is brief, her wink sly. “Three!”
They drop hands and run.
Three steps in and Troll knows they won’t make it. The opening quivers like a great cat holding its mouth in a yawn, the teeth ready to snap shut around some prey. Fox has a step on him. She’s quick to start, true, but she can’t run as long and hard and fast as he can. She tends to run right into trouble, too, and it waits for her now with great metal fangs stained rusty red.
A moment before she steps into the opening, he reaches out and snatches her back, his good arm crushing her against his breast. The air rushes past him as the teeth snap together, the boom loud enough to send pieces cascading down a nearby mound. He skids on loose metal, waiting for the right moment, squatting in anticipation. Squirming Fox yells in his ear.
It opens again. Troll uncoils and leaps through the gap, tumbling into the dark maw. The teeth crash closed once more, missing their prey. The world goes gray and silent except for the ringing that echoes through his head.
Fox wriggles out from under him. “You did not need to snatch me up like a meal sack.” She plucks a loose gear from her clothing where it had stuck. “I had the timing of the trap.”
“Maybe, maybe. But I’m slower and it gave me more time to think about it. Spring the trap once, then go in when it’s resetting. Best way.”
“Hah! You are probably right of course. About the slower part.”
She’s grinning at him, which means she’s already forgiven. Troll can scarce see her in the gloom inside the mouth, the great teeth closed together with only the tiniest cracks to let in the daylight, thin though it is.
“Well, now what?”
As if to answer Troll’s question, a light appears behind them. When they turn, standing before them is an automaton. But not like any Troll has seen before. This mechanical is as tall as a man, with two legs and two arms, a bucket shaped head with glowing jewels for eyes, a thin mouth cut from brass below. The yellow metal is covered with complex engravings. No nose, no ears, no life in the thing. But it presses two metal hands together in front of its chest plate and bends forward at the waist.
<<A problem>> the automaton says. The voice is made from clicking noises, almost unrecognizable in its mechanical complexities.
“What problem?” Fox asks. Her eyes narrow and her mouth hangs open. “Tell us your problem and we will solve it.”
“Nothing here is living,” the sword tells Troll again, as though he didn’t know.
<<The sorcerers have a pond deep within the mountain, fed by the purest of springs so that it is ever full. Each day, algae grows upon its surface, necessitating a cleaning to keep the spring pure to contribute to the magic powering the steam engines that create the automatons. If left alone, the algae will double its size each day, until day forty-eight, when the pond is covered and all magic is lost. Which day will the pond be one quarter covered?”>>
“Don’t answer, Troll,” Fox says. A bit sharper than she has to, perhaps, since Troll is still trying to figure out what the automaton said. “Let me ponder the perplexities and complexities first and we will discuss.”
Troll, who has caught up, nods. “I hate math problems.”
“Well if we steal math, perhaps you will never have to do them again, no?” Fox grins at him. “No more math; no more problems.”
<<You have one minute to answer before this entrance closes forever.>>
Fox swears noisily, wasting several seconds, before throwing up her hands. “Always the time limits! You see, this is why I am hating the sorcerers. A pox on their pointy hats.”
“I think that’s witches,” Troll says, scratching the stump beneath the cloth. It itches, which means it’s begun healing over. But he misses having two hands.
“Witches, sorcerers, plague doctors, flesh molders. All of them.” She’s tapping her chin and squeezing her eyes shut. “Pond. Doubling each day.”
“What is half of half of forty-eight?” Troll asks.
Fox hisses at him. “Is not the answer, I know it. Too obvious. Now silence, and let me cogitate upon the angles.” She squats on her haunches and rubs her muzzle.
“Ten more seconds,” the sword tells Troll.
“Fox, we need to answer.”
“Day forty-six,” Fox says, jumping up.
“Are you sure?” Troll asks. But the room is lit by a glowing circle on the floor. A stone stairway runs down, spiraling out of sight. The automaton disappears in a bright shower of sparks, leaving a dark mark on the floor where it had stood.
“How is forty-six right? That makes no sense. I thought it was twelve. One quarter of forty-eight.”
Fox walks to the stairs. “It doubles every day. Therefore, it is standing on reason to say that if it is full today, then one day ago it was half-full. Forty-eight days minus one days is forty-seven days. And half of half is one quarter, one day earlier. So, forty-six. Naturally.”
“Oh, naturally. It goes without saying.”
“And yet I have said it.”
“It wouldn’t be a proper job without you explaining things.”
“True. Nor would it be a proper job without you rescuing me at least the three times. Which, I believe, means you owe me one more.”
Troll waves at the stairway. “You have the better eyes.”
Fox laughs and trots down the steps. Troll follows her, ducking a little. The stone ceiling is low, almost brushing Troll’s head. The walls are matching stone, snugged so close it doesn’t appear mortar was needed in building them.
What little light there is fades and they descend in complete blackness. Troll places his one good hand upon the wall and listens for the careful step of Fox in front, though she is as silent as a corpse. Soon he notices light from below, and they come upon more glowing moss. Wan, green light shimmers over the stairway, over Fox’s red fur, Troll’s dark skin. Everything looks gangrenous and dead, which is comforting for Troll. Years spent with mother Yienchu has acclimated him to dead things.
“The air is changing,” Fox whispers. “Big room ahead.”
Troll grunts in acknowledgement. Then he takes the last turn and the stairway ends. Fox stops moving and Troll stands behind her.
Before them is a chamber, as vast as the factory and the boneyard above. It looks like a temple of white marble, the ceiling arched high over their heads. The wall is carved with intricate details; scenes of battles, monsters, the glory of some forgotten past. Only the floor differs; yellow-gray, full of irregular fissures, some large enough to swallow Troll whole. Two stone steps lead down to the pockmarked moonscape.
Troll knows this is the source of the power he’s felt. An endless crackle pricks the hairs on his skin. This is a place sorcerers can tap for spells, weaving them into the world’s fabric. Bringing steam and metal to life. Now he understands why Rookdrift rose where it did. It also explains why mother Yienchu lives so close to the city, leeching the echoes of this power.
“Now what?” Fox asks.
At her words, something stirs in the darkness beyond the nearest columns. Hot, moist air wafts past them. A flickering glow appears, then two, banked fires swift to catch and grow into great conflagrations. The floor between the wide-spaced walls rises.
Troll’s perceptions rearrange.
What he had taken for a fractured, dirty surface is the top of a great automaton. Loose parts shift and slide off the sides as it rises, its appendages lost in the black beneath its bulk.
“Asyn, lord of shadows, preserve us,” Fox says, her voice hushed awe.
Troll agrees with her. The thing is larger than any automaton he’s seen, as big as a steam clipper, though shaped more like a beetle. It looks as though it’s built from the scavenged parts of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of individual mechanicals. Vast gears turn on its back, clinking against one another. Two holes face them, as big as oxen and filled with orange flames. Yet there is symmetry to it, a perfection, as though chaos had spontaneously arranged itself into order. Its ratios are pleasing to the eye. The room booms as metal shifts.
“It’s not alive,” the sword repeats.
“I know,” Troll says. “It’s an automaton.”
“Of course,” Fox says, looking at him sideways. “Why need mention this?”
“The sword said.” Troll shrugs.
“It’s a dead thing,” the sword says.
“And?” Troll does not understand this insistence.
“I was made to kill dead things.”
“Dead things are dead,” Troll says, with implacable logic. “You can’t kill them.”
“I can unmake them.”
Fox draws her two daggers. Frog cuts a flashing green line through the air. Heart leaves a black nothingness in its wake. “Come, come, my friend. We meet the creature and will dig math from its broken metal husk.”
“Confident, aren’t we?”
Fox shrugs. “Am I not always?”
“It’s what I admire about you most, Fox.” Troll draws the sword. It thrums against his hand, sings a song of war and death that traces a line up his veins. His blood burns, and his skin becomes too tight, as though he swells in size.
With a roar, he charges. Fox close at his heels.
Within six swings, Troll decides they will lose. It is not that the creature is better than they are. With the sword in hand, he sheers off armatures, slices through pincers as easily as slicing air. He vaults from the top stop onto its curving carapace, striding across the breaks in the metal flesh, dancing across its gearwork. Fox is beside him, her knives slashing and slicing. She spins and vaults, a blur in his vision. She is the night wind, and he is the raging sea.
But when an arm is removed, another rises to take its place. It grows more appendages, reassembling itself from endless parts strewn about it. A great metal scorpion’s tail cuts the air and grazes his cheek before he takes it off. Fox is struck mid-flip and dashed against the wall.
“Fox!” Troll clubs away a brass tentacle with his crippled arm and jams the sword into the joint between two gears. He yanks hard, popping them out of their axles, his blade slicing them in two like soft butter. The sword screams in triumph inside Troll’s head.
Steam roars into the air. The mechanical lurches, and Troll staggers, losing balance. He turns his stumble into a slide, slipping down the great automaton’s metal flanks. He tumbles when he lands, rolling across ground covered in broken metal parts. “Fox, where are you?”
In the gloom, something moves. A jade flash. Fox is jammed against the wall, a whirling blur of daggers and teeth. Blood coats the fur on one side of her face, and her eye is swollen shut. “Still alive!” she yells, slashing two more appendages.
“We have to get to its core!” Troll bellows. Though the sword gives him strength, he’s tiring. It’s been days since they’ve had a rest. He blocks a flange that tries to bowl him over, then sweeps a lancing arm to pieces. But he misses another that grabs his wounded limb and throws him up onto the creature’s back.
He lands on his chest and rolls onto his back. Gasping for breath, he stands, raising the sword to fight on.
Then comes Fox.
She rises over the back of the automaton, floating like a goddess. Troll thinks she’s ascended, achieved godhood like the chaos lords of old. But something is wrong. Her head droops; her arms dangle; her daggers are missing. Three feet of metal juts from her chest, the surface coated with sticky red blood. She slides off and lands with a soft smack on the carapace.
Someone is screeching.
Troll cannot tell who.
His throat feels raw. Some wounded creature drowns out the crash of metal with grief-tainted screams. The sword flashes around him in great arcs, half through his own efforts, half through the efforts of the spirit inside.
The sword howls too.
Its pain sears through Troll. Another scream rends the air, and it comes from him. “Mother!” he cries, reaching for her power, the one power he knows above all others.
He slams the sword down. The blade punches through thick metal and he slashes, opening a wide hole. He drops inside the monster. He leaps through the clockwork interior, bashing and cutting. He severs armatures, slices linkages, destroys gears and pistons and pulleys, until a noise cuts through the grief clutching his heart.
Loud, rapid clicking, mixed with the flapping of paper.
He follows the noise, tearing open the monster’s belly, slicing his way nearer the source. He reaches a curved brass wall, like a great ball in the heart of the automaton.
He cuts a door with the sword. Vellum sheets filled with equations float around the ball’s inside. Sliding and spinning, merging and separating, an endless ocean of calculations. There, in the middle of the room, is an armillary, larger than his head. Dozens of tiny, silver balls race on rails around the core, which is a perfect sphere of golden light.
He screams once more, and thrusts the sword dead into the center of the light.
“Yes!” screams the sword.
“Yes!” screams Troll.
A flash. Sound bludgeons him, unmakes him, casts him back. He cracks his head against the room’s wall and lays stunned. Outside the spherical room, gears spin down, fall apart, shatter like glass. The world heaves once, then a second time, and then shudders for a few long moments. He wonders if it’s over now for him. If he’ll die. What will happen to his essence? What will happen to his body? Will his flesh remain here forever, buried inside this creation of sorcery and steam? Will his mind continue on to another world perhaps, like the ones mother Yienchu so often described to him?
He doesn’t know. But he has time to think on it for a while, as everything quakes and the world dims around him.
Then his head clears. His skull hurts, and when he gingerly touches it, he finds blood. But he’s alive. He thinks. The world has stopped shuddering.
He looks around for the sword. All he finds is the hilt, a lump of cold steel against his fingers. No voice in his head. He silently thanks it and slips the inert metal into a pocket.
The armillary has stopped moving. A single slash cuts through the golden center, which seems to hover among the many rails, as though suspended there. The whole thing, in fact, floats free near enough the center of the great brass ball as to be exact. He tugs at it, sure it will not move, but it comes away easily. He carries it to the door, tucking it under his wounded arm as his feet trample the equation-covered vellum sheets which have fallen to the floor. Then he picks his way up, climbing the automaton’s broken pieces until he passes out of its carcass and crawls onto its back.
Fox’s body remains where it fell. Troll crawls over to her, vision blurred with tears, and gently turns her over, brushing the fur over her eyes. He pulls her against him and cradles her as he places the armillary in her lap. He folds her arms over it. She looks so small compared to its size. “We got it, Fox. We got math. You won the bet.”
He cries for a while. He cries and he rocks her and that’s enough for a time.
Troll becomes aware he’s being watched. A man stands there. Or, rather, is standing everywhere. His body exists in broken facets, angled against one another. He looks like a gemstone befuddling the eyes. Parts of him seems to exist outside reality, as though he’s folded himself into other plains of existence.
Troll has never met Fuibreish before, but he knows the creature from Fox’s descriptions.
“She was a good thief,” Fuibreish says. “One of the best I’ve ever known. I will credit you both with the win. The first time anyone has won that particular bet.”
“You sent her off to die,” Troll says bitterly. “You knew she couldn’t resist the game.”
“That’s the nature of Fox. Always ready to take a pointless risk if it gains something in her favor. Even if the risk was her life. Your life. But cheer up, my ogreish friend, she will be celebrated. I will take her body back to my place to be displayed in the House of Chance with honor and dignity, alongside other great thieves of the glorious past. Many will worship at her feet, hoping to be favored with a mere crumb of her talent.”
“I’m not an ogre.” The words are heated as though steam fires Troll. “You will not touch her ever again.”
“I am her patron.”
Fuibreish moves closer. His angled facets begin to surround Troll. “Come now, Troll, you cannot stop me.”
Fuibreish waves his many hands. “No, no, she can’t help you. Just give me the body and I’ll be away.”
“Stop! I insist!”
A rumble splits the world and what light there is from the glowing moss dims. Troll smells the swamp. She is there, standing in the spaces Fuibreish does not, her bloated body unseen. “MY CHILD CALLS ME.”
“This is not your affair,” Fuibreish says. A little petulantly, Troll thinks.
“IT WAS MY AFFAIR WHEN YOU DRAGGED TROLL INTO IT,” Mother Yienchu replies, putting the sticky heat of the swamp into her voice.
“Fox and he made the choice, not you.”
The chamber, though enormous, darkens further. Mother Yienchu swells in size, and Fuibreish loses a few dimensional facets in response. “HE IS UNDER MY PROTECTION AT ALL TIMES, EVEN IF HE MAKES A CONTRACT WITH YOU. CORRUPTION AND DECAY HOLD THE HIGH CARD. IS THAT CLEAR, LORD OF CHANCE?”
“Crystal,” Fuibreish says. He adds a bow. “What do you intend?”
Mother Yienchu’s attention shifts to Troll. “WHAT DID YOU NEED, MY SON? YOU HAVE SAID MY NAME THREE TIMES, AND NOW I OFFER YOU A GIFT IN EXCHANGE FOR WHAT YOU ARE OFFERING ME.”
“Bring her back,” Troll says without hesitation. “Bring her back to me.”
“ARE YOU SURE? YOU COULD HAVE ANYTHING YOU WANT. RICHES. POWER. FOX IS ONE LITTLE, INSIGNIFICANT LIFE. YOU WOULD TRADE TEN YEARS FOR HER?”
Her voice rings through the chamber, sending vibrations through the dead automaton’s metal body. “THE COMPACT IS AGREED TO.”
Fox groans, stirs. Her fingers clutch the armillary as she draws a deep, ragged breath. “It is a little thing to be dead, but it is much the less painful than to be brought back. I hurt so I could sleep a month.” She turns her head to look up at Troll. “I believe that was the third time you saved me, was it not?”
Troll turns her around and hugs her, careful not to squeeze too hard. “Third, tenth, who bothers to count. I thought I’d lost you forever.”
The armillary rolls away and fetches against the hem of Fuibreish’s robes. He bends and takes it, holds it up. It shifts with him, becoming four dimensional, eight, sixteen. “Give me the other items now. They will need to be returned before their owners become too upset. They only tolerate this little game so far.”
Fox and Troll ignore him for the moment. “You cannot lose me like you lose your keys,” Fox says. She kisses his cheek. “But I am grateful that you would wish for my return out of all the things upon this world that you might want.”
She looks down and touches her vest, a jagged hole in the middle sticky with blood. “Ah, my favorite vest is ruined. A thousand washes will not remove this stain.” She takes from its pockets many small pouches and tiny boxes. Rising, she hands them to Fuibreish. “The nine items we have already stolen this week. You have the tenth.”
Fuibreish inclines his head. “We will talk soon, Fox. In the meantime, your winnings will be accounted for at the Mercantile tomorrow morning. Try not to spend them all at once.” He folds along his many seams, compacting like a piece of paper until he is gone. Troll stares at the empty spot where the Lord of Chance had been standing.
“IT IS TIME TO DEPART,” mother Yienchu says, more softly than Troll ever remembered her speaking before. “COME TROLL. IT WON’T BE SO BAD.”
Troll rises and nods. “Of course, mother.”
“Wait,” Fox says, stepping in front of Troll. “Where are you to be going?”
“TROLL SAID MY NAME THREE TIMES,” mother Yienchu says. “HE MUST NOW SERVE THE CHAOS LORDS FOR TEN YEARS.”
“Ten years?” Fox sputters. “That is a far too long a period for the punishing of this great being.” She gestures at Troll. “A year perhaps would be the equitable amount, or six months I would think would be the better for all parties involved. Do you not agree?”
“Oh, I agree,” Troll says. Almost he grins, but his skull hurts too much.
“IT IS THE COMPACT,” mother Yienchu says, more patiently than Troll would have thought her capable of, “AND WHAT HAS BEEN OFFERED FOR YOUR LIFE. HE WILL GUARD THE PASSES BETWEEN WORLDS AND UNDERTAKE SUCH ERRANDS AS THE LORDS OF CHAOS DEEM FIT.”
“My life is such a tiny, miniscule thing in comparison with the wide vast world, and worlds beyond this world, are you not agreeing?”
“I DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOUR POINT,” mother Yienchu says.
Fox narrows her eyes and leans towards mother Yienchu, speaking rapidly. “I think we could be coming to some sort of arrangement? A bargain? Barter? Are there items you might in chance be needing for your boggy demesne? We are two skilled thieves, the only ones in history to have completed the Thief’s Gambit. Our skill is unparalleled! No? Or maybe there is a person upon whom you wish vengeance for slights unspoken? An enemy you need handled with the most delicate of discretions?”
“WHAT?” mother Yienchu says, sounding confused.
“Perhaps we could, ah,” and Fox’s eyes gleam, “make a bet?”
About the Author
Jeff Reynolds works for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, home of New Horizons and Parker Solar Probe. He’s only a licensing analyst, though, and doesn’t do any of the cool stuff, like building space probes or meeting Brian Mays. Learn more about Jeff’s published stories and novels at: https://www.trollbreath.com