My name is Tolivost Arlu Buchanan. I was an Ethe soldier.
You've always suspected we exist, but I'm proof.
It's very easy to think of the world as one place, one people, where we all live in harmony. Well, that's rubbish. We're all united by the Ethe, but that's about it. You were on Migration, you'll know – travel a few thousand miles and you can hear a slightly different accent on the locals, right? Well, try dozens of thousands of miles. You get whole different countries. Language changes so much that you can only talk to other people on the Ethe.
There's not many of us, but the Committees need us. We do things the golems can't do, we know things they can't understand. We are the tiny fingers that get into places they can't reach.
I was stationed by the coast of the Bhutairea Long Sea to the West; they get a lot of ships come in from far away places. Believe it or not, the Committees are almost as local as you and me – they barely know what comes in off those ships, or who. The officers and bureaucrats you talk to, they might give their Committees big generic names, but they're just regional, local.
Got in a few scrapes, even nearly got killed once, the kind of thing that gets covered up by the Committees and wiped off the Ethe records very quickly. Don't want to talk about it, not a pretty incident. Normal life was pretty good, even fell in love, some poor beautiful girl who didn't deserve it. She expired after a while. It's been a long time, but … I still miss her. Got myself re-stationed, talked some bollocks at the time to my superiors and myself, but it was really to get away from the memories of her.
They sent me up Tak-North, near some big city rumoured to have a growing underground movement – Grand Weistalia, you might have heard of it? Maybe.
Never made it to the city. Last thing I remember I'd got to some small town on the Migration. The next day I expired. I guess you collected me around then. How long's it been now, five weeks, six? I've got no reason to think it was anything underhand, anything political – probably just the will of the Ethe. But I have my suspicions.
We are all one under the Ethe, but by god, there are power struggles.
The dead person paused, as Czioc twitched softly in half-sleep.
I have no idea why I am still alive when I am technically dead.
Saying goodbye to Pshappa was relatively easy, although it took a while.
The bear had still been in a bad state when they'd reached Thianwitz – his arm was no longer broken but still healing, and patches of skin and fur had been burnt off by the monster's acidic slime.
Such scars, however, made him a hero – far more than Czioc, who slouched around believing he was the one who'd saved the day. Girls cooed and swarmed round Pshappa's tattered legs (and some males too, for that matter), and combined with Czioc's departure the next day, all prospects of a quiet night were out of the question. Round after round of drinks were bought for them both, with Pshappa followed by a gaggle of young women; Czioc had to be strategically sick halfway through the night just to keep up with the alcohol intake.
In the morning he found Pshappa on the ground outside a sports bar with a girl still working away at his genitals, drunk and apparently unaware that he was completely unconscious. She offered to suck him off instead; Czioc briefly considered it, but through the haze of yet another hangover he just shooed her away.
'Pshappa mate,' he said, trying to heave the bear onto his side without much success. 'Pshappa, you alright?'
'…Bbbbbnnnarrrrrrrr…' Pshappa replied.
'Do you want some water?'
'Gnnnnaarrrbrrfffff want more sleep!' Pshappa declared loudly, without actually waking up.
So Czioc went to get a sword made.
He walked across squares with markets and performers; crowds around him bustled gently as they would have normally. Under the stares of watchful golems, nobody was behaving any different. But the Ethe buzzed with whispers and questions…
Gossip had turned to celebration, conspiracy and downright fear. The Committees certainly didn't want to comment publically themselves, but they seemed unable or unwilling to quell the talk, to block and delete the photos and video footage. Perhaps it had spread too wide and too far. Maybe their grip on censorship had found its limit? Maybe people had found something even more terrifying and tantalising than the threat of punishment.
Countless theories for the monstrosity hurtled around the airwaves, competing for both realism and excitement. People talked of aliens, spirits, sorcery, demons, or just a practical joke gone wrong. Videos and photos on the Ethe taken by survivors at the scene were bandied about and splashed across the zines; the haunting image of a dead golem without legs hung over every discussion. The leading concept was that the Ethe had a dark side, filth that needed to be cleared away, and this abomination was the result of that waste.
It was all done with the hearty banter and throaty paranoia of spectators who weren't really in danger at all.
We're a whole world of spectators, mused a voice gloomily in his head.
You again, noted Czioc, keeping his head up amongst the market shoppers. He made thoughts, not words – not even whispers on the Ethe.
Seriously. The way I remember the Ethe, everyone's a poser and a voyeur at the same time. We're always looking at other people's videos, profiles, updates, photos, personal diaries. We spectate as a way of life.
Really? Czioc was surprised. I thought it's more like, everyone's their own little poser, their own star.
Yes but not everyone can be a star. You need adoring fans to be a star, you need watchers, viewers. A star without fans is just a lonely creep. There's a certain ratio of stars to fans in society, of actors to voyeurs.
How very scientific.
Why thank you. The thing is though, only some people are determined to be famous, but everyone loves the idea of stardom. That's why most people are happy to be viewers.
Hmm. Interesting theory. He tried not to think about Noksalika.
Czioc asked around a couple of the market stalls for the best local Ethe craftsman. He'd already looked himself of course, but the most well-publicised craftsmen weren't always the best. He was met with a variety of replies:
'Oh, you'll want Armand Lekuthaow. Amazing guy, finest Ethe engineer in the world, anywhere!'
'Qrallow Dallala, definitely. Dallala family's made our stuff for generations.'
'Henshia Abo McTra-en. Top woman, knows her stuff inside out. Did you know she worked on the Ba'askom Dam?'
Czioc admitted that he didn't actually know she'd worked on the Ba'askom Dam, without admitting he'd never heard of it.
Sounds awfully impressive, said the voice in his head.
The chatter of locals is always impressive, replied Czioc, still keeping his head up, always looking around. They'd tell me their two-year-old niece could make me a masterpiece. And they'd probably believe it too.
That's a rather harsh view. Why are you asking these dullards then?
There's always a name or two that crops up everywhere. Someone good but low-key, discreet. Besides, he sniffed at the fresh Spring air, we don't want a full-scale engineer. We need a craftsman for this.
And one name was cropping up: Desci Rhombus. The traders would mention it in an offhand way, an eccentric, not the best but worth a call if you needed something urgently. Czioc wanted to know more, and was pressing a moss-fur dealer for details:
'Rhombus, oh yeah, I've been to him a few times,' mused the slender pygmy she-centaur. She had an attractive pale face under a black bowler hat, and wore a smart waistjacket that pushed firm round breasts out towards him. They pointed at him accusingly; he tried not looking but couldn't help it. A single blonde plait trailed from under the hat down past her waist and her left flank. Her small pony-body was light brown and smooth, and she padded at the ground with her front hooves.
'He's a bit odd,' she continued. 'Got nothing against him, good at what he does, but socially he's a bit … odd, you know?' She rubbed her chin, and looked up at Czioc straight in the eye. 'Hey, you're that guy who stabbed that monster, aren't you?'
'Mmhmm,' he nodded sombrely. Czioc was slowly giving up on the idea that he'd killed the thing, rather than just poking it with a stick.
She held his gaze a little longer with bright blue eyes. 'Everyone seems to have an opinion. What do you think it was?'
Czioc remembered looking into those vast, sad, blank eyes atop the mound of black slime. He shrugged and spread his arms apart. 'It was a big fucking monster,' he said simply.
She smiled respectfully. 'Straightforward and honest. But where do you think it was from?' She reached out and gripped his wrist gently. Her face was calm, but her eyes had a touch of urgency, a slight intensity.
He raised an eyebrow. 'I really don't know … there's all these whispers of something in the South, but…'
'We know who you are. I've read your poem.' Her left hoof came up towards him, like a dog's outstretched paw; people ambled past the stalls around them without looking. 'It's no coincidence, you writing this poem and this nightmare beast attacking us. You are someone we have been waiting for. What is a "sky"?'
Shit, the voice in his head cut in. A rebel. Get away from her.
Czioc looked nervous. 'No, but, I just wrote it for her—'
She gripped his hand tighter. 'I know people. There are many of us. I have contacts who can help you if you will help us.' Her voice was a whisper. He'd already noticed that she wasn't talking on the Ethe. 'There is a darkness coming, and the Committees cannot help us – maybe they are even behind it. The people must take action themselves! What do you require this craftsman for? Desci Rhombus isn't—'
The golem's club smashed an arc through the market awnings and blew cool air across Czioc's cheek before crushing her rump into the ground. She shrieked, a real high-pitched shrieking sound that drilled into the back of Czioc's skull, as blood flooded out from huge gashes in her flanks, and she threw her arms out as the golem kicked aside a wooden stall and brought the club down on her again before Czioc could even speak. Her body lay in one piece, jagged bones sticking out of her flattened skull and horse-body. Scarlet blood pooled on the floor, soaking into the coloured furs now lying on the ground.
Czioc just stood there.
Don't just stand there you fucking idiot.
The golem stared down at him coldly. He backed away, through the passers-by who glanced but didn't look. Nobody ever looked.
The Ethe records for the fur trader were sealed off and erased from public view within minutes.
Czioc went very carefully to find Desci Rhombus.
Desci Rhombus was actually a rather pleasant man who lived in a large ceremonial square, by the ornamental fountains in the middle.
Czioc wandered inside the land, confirming the whereabouts of Desci Rhombus on the Ethe but not making contact. It wasn't a large town, but the passages were wide and dignified, bushes lining the paths on all four walls. After half an hour of walking through botanic gardens, the space opened out. It opened out sideways.
Czioc stood at one end of a long curved band of space, with the gardens stretching left and right for half a mile or more, but no more than a hundred feet of room overhead. The lush dark green vegetation and marble-grey carvings rolled steeply upwards in front of him, vision limited to just a mile or maybe even less.
Directly overhead seemed to be mainly water: a network of wooden walkways and jetties criss-crossed a large fishery. Dotting this shortened landscape, ladders had been built between the jetties above and the gardens below – or vice versa, for those on the jetties feeding the fish. Circular panels had even been constructed in the middle so climbers could swing themselves round once the gravity changed. Czioc leaned his head back, and watched the fish jumping out of the water for bread like dogs performing tricks.
In the centre of the curve was Desci Rhombus' recorded home and current location, a large stone square commemorating the town's history and dedicated to the glory of the Ethe. Marble fountains gushed in the centre, surrounding a column that seemed to be very nearly touching the water's surface above.
Czioc wandered out slowly onto the flagstones, looking around and above him.
Does he actually live here?
Czioc shrugged inside his head. Don't ask me.
No but I just did. Didn't you hear me?
God, you're such a twat. Yes, apparently he lives here.
After decades on the Migration, Czioc was used to sleeping rough in demanding places (often having to stay awake to fend off wolves, sand bears, wildcats, you name it). But even considering the eccentric people of cities and towns, nobody slept out in the open. Maybe there was some sort of secret underground chamber under the flagstones. He kicked one experimentally.
'Ahoy, young sir,' coughed a voice from nowhere, startling him and making him look up. 'Saw you coming on the Ethe. How may I help you?'
Czioc breathed in. 'I have—'
'Actually, let me rephrase that. How may you help me?'
He kept his mouth open, then frowned. 'What?'
'Would you be able to help me up?' An arm suddenly appeared on the far side of the fountains and waved itself around.
First a dead rebel, now a nutter. Great.
Shut up you.
Czioc found the arm was attached to a tall man lying under a thin cotton sheet. Czioc pulled him upwards into a sitting position on the edge of the fountain. Aside from the sheet and a couple of empty bottles at the man's feet, this side of the square was just as empty as the other.
He sat down next to the man, who extended his hand again, and Czioc shook it. 'Desci Rhombus.'
'How do you do?'
Desci grinned, through a slim but hearty face, encrusted with a healthy growth of stubble. His long brown hair was messy, his eyes a touch bloodshot. 'Oh, I do it very well thank you, unless I'm a bit tired.'
Bloody hell, that's awful, the voice groaned inside his head. Committees should lock people up for jokes that bad.
'Apologies for the state of myself, good sir, you've caught me in the middle of a two-day bender. Look at me sleeping on the bare stones. Couldn't even be bothered to make my bed when I got home.' Czioc scoured the corners of his eyes for any sight of any kind of bed at all. He could see nothing. 'But of course if a client needs my services, I could never refuse them.'
Oh great, he's still drunk.
Yeah. Then again, I'm still a bit drunk.
No you're not, that incident at the market sobered you up faster than a jar of raw coffee. Are you happy about getting a sword made by a drunken man? It might have three blades or something. It could end up with a dodgy aim.
It's a sword, not a bow and arrow for god's sake.
If you end up always compensating a little to the left, you'll know I'm right.
'You are looking for my services, I assume?' Rhombus raised an eyebrow.
Czioc shook himself and nodded. 'It's … a special case actually. State business. I'm hoping you'll find yourself capable of a job like this.' He passed the package of specifications and Committee authorisation codes discretely across the Ethe.
Rhombus whistled, his eyes going wide; Czioc fancied, just for a second, he could see the tiny shape of the sword glinting deep in the man's pupils. 'This certainly is … this is most unusual,' he breathed.
'The clearance codes are all in order?'
Rhombus tried to nod and shake his head at the same time. 'Yes, but, but, with something as finely designed as this I don't need to check. I've not seen anything like it.'
Czioc looked glum. 'Do you think you're up to it? Especially considering your—' he coughed, '—present condition?'
Rhombus snapped out of his dreamy daze and glared at Czioc. 'Sir, I may be slightly hungover, but you are talking to one of the best. Also, there is nothing to focus the mind like money.' He gave a sly grin, and his stomach made a gurgling sound. 'Or breakfast, I suppose.'
Czioc paid him a third of the allotted amount (carefully ringfenced in his mind) and went off to climb/descend a ladder to catch a couple of fish on the craftsman's suggestion. Rhombus apparently had a running tab with the fishery, and an automated system on the Ethe let Czioc leave with two beautiful shiny salmon.
When he returned, Rhombus was deep in thought and calculations, although Czioc could already see a long smooth shape being fashioned in the very flagstones. He stood awkwardly, the fish dangling from his hands, unsure what to do.
'So … erm … how do you want me to cook these then?'
Rhombus only then looked up from his thought, his frown breaking. 'What? Oh here,' he said, reaching across to the side of the fountain where a number of knobbly bits stuck out from the side of the stone. With astonishment, Czioc watched the man pull several items from the solid marble, including a frying pan, bottle of oil, cooking stand and several pieces of firewood.
'How did you – I thought – I thought only we could do that?' he said. 'Collectors, I mean.'
'Eh? Oh people, sure,' Rhombus replied, setting the apparatus up and igniting the wood with a mere glance. 'S'only right, I wouldn't want just any old idiot trying to gobble up dead people. But this is just things, objects, standard power of the Ethe. It's like a force. We all have it, but only some can control it.'
'Oh. How is this force with me, would you say?'
Rhombus gave him a glance and frowned, before muttering something about "fair to middling".
It took little time to cook and eat the fish, and following that to finish the sword off; Rhombus explained something hurriedly about "mathematical sharpening" and "substance transfer" which Czioc didn't really understand. But he watched as the imprint of the sword, about three feet long, faded from beige-grey stone to a bright, metallic silver, the plain hilt turning a dull gold colour. Then the imprint snapped upwards in the air from the flagstone, pushed by two fine stalactites under either end, stretching to points as thin as spider silk. Rhombus had made no outward signs of effort but by the end was sweating generously; he looked at Czioc with a big smile.
Czioc placed one hand carefully on the thin metal hilt, still warm, and snapped it away. The sword was firm and heavy in his hand. He made some clumsy swings, nearly cutting open Rhombus' head, and paid the man the last of the money.
'Gotta love public sector jobs,' marvelled Rhombus, cooling down. 'State inefficiency, best pay in the world.' He suddenly threw his jaw sideways and looked nervous. 'Shit, that can't get me locked up, can it?'
Czioc thought back to the centaur and assured him it wouldn't. Well, probably not anyway.
'Well then. Smashing to meet you kind sir, thank you for your custom and good luck with whatever the Committees have planned.' They shook hands firmly. 'You'll want some leather binding on that hilt in case you hadn't noticed. Pick some up in the market, go to Murthar Idrenzser and tell her I sent you, she loves my referrals. Oh, and make some sort of scabbard when you can,' he frowned disapprovingly, despite looking like the most dishevelled tramp Czioc had ever seen. 'Legal or not, you stick out a mile with a bloody weapon.'
'Thanks, have fun on the rest of your … bender.'
'No worries. Think I'll get some proper sleep now though, or won't have the energy for the evening's main piss-up.'
Czioc began to leave, but turned back to ask one last question – only to see Rhombus tug at various spots on the bare flagstones. Pillars of stone suddenly thrust upwards, the material flowing and forming into a large and grand four-poster bed. Under his stare and through the Ethe, the surface loosened into a gentle soft mattress, even ballooning up into a pillow at one end. Desci Rhombus threw himself down, bouncing softly on what was still technically stone, and pulled the cloth sheet over himself.
Czioc bought some leather binding back at the market, some of which he also fused loosely around the blade to make a rough scabbard. Rhombus had made it seem so easy; Czioc felt pathetic as he collapsed to the floor, coughing and gasping, having made a complete hash of it and nearly setting fire to the leather in several places. Hung off his belt, it still looked like a sword, so he bought a thin flowing cloak to disguise it.
The market traders had heard of his heroics, or maybe just saw that he owned a sword, but either way wouldn't dream of him paying anything for them. Which was nice.
The cloak was brown. He twirled it around a few times on his way back to the café where Pshappa was eating brunch, smiling to himself like an excited boy on an adventure. Cloaks were hardly unusual compared to the garish outfits and fashions around, so he felt a little more than let down when his best friend greeted him with:
'You off to fight orcs or something?'
Czioc deflated. 'Oh what? I quite like it.'
'Huh, I'm sure all the elves and goblins will think you're the next big thing on the catwalk,' Pshappa grinned toothily. Several empty plates sat greasily on the table in front of him. He was leaning back on a plastic chair that was barely taking his weight. Czioc took another chair.
'Mate, you look rough.'
'I feel rough.'
'Definitely. Did you get your,' Pshappa flapped his hands, 'swordy thing?'
Czioc nodded solemnly.
'Know how to use it?'
'Absolutely no idea.'
'You can practice on some bushes or something.'
There was a brief silence, before they looked at each other. 'Gonna miss you, mate,' said Pshappa, smiling.
Czioc shrugged. 'We've got the Ethe. No-one ever really says goodbye.'
'No but still, we've shared this bit of the Migration for—' he counted on two hands, his big left and his small right, and opened his mouth theatrically, '—one billion years, and it's been proper great. Getting drunk with someone over the Ethe is good fun, but I'll miss waking you up in some new random town by poking my penis in your ear.'
'And I'll miss farting in your face while you're having sex.' Czioc grinned.
They got some packs of nuts and threw them at ducks in the nearby river, before running up a grassy hill to take in the views, then half running, half rolling back down again to the town. They said goodbye with a warm hug. Czioc smiled happily in Pshappa's cosy, dirty chest fur and breathed in deeply, which turned his still-unsettled stomach and made him vomit all over the ground.
Standing there, desperately trying to wash the burning taste of stomach acid out of his mouth with Pshappa's laughter booming in his ears, it seemed a fitting way to leave.