The idol would drown that night.
"Death projected for half past one A.M.," ran the memo Kai read at lunchtime on the volcano's break room bulletin board. "Direct all inquiries to Mara Ceyla." Another business update among many, pinned between a recruitment ad for the office ullamal league and a pink poster for a lunch-and-learn on soul trading in the Southern Gleb. Few noticed the memo, and fewer read it. Kai did both, and took the news back to her office with her sandwich. Ham and cheese and lettuce on white bread digested easy. The news didn't.
Kai ruminated through the afternoon, and dinner, and the night. By 1:00 A.M. her work was done: three chickens sacrificed, one each on altars of silver, iron, and stone; a stack of profit and loss statements dispatched by nightmare telegraph; a prayer litany chanted balancing on one foot; a proposal drafted, suggesting an Iskari family shift their faith from the high-risk personal resurrection market to dependable grain-focused fertility. She scrubbed down the altars, washed her hands, brushed her hair, tied it back in a ponytail, and glanced again at the clock. One twenty.
Her office windows faced into the caldera. Two human figures waited on the shore of the dark pool far below, in the pit's center. Kai recognized their outlines, though rendered doll-sized by distance. Gavin, tall, round, peered into the deep. Mara beside him was a straight line with a slight bend at the shoulders; she paced in tight circles, nervous, desperate, already mourning.
Kai had long passed quitting time. The Order owed her a carriage ride home. In thirty minutes she could be brushing her teeth, and in five more abed and asleep, safe from everything but dreams.
Mara turned. Stopped. Twisted the toe of her shoe into broken lava. Stuffed her hands in her pockets, pulled them out again, crossed her arms, uncrossed them. She walked to the edge of the pool, glanced in, shuddered, retreated.
"Not my problem," Kai said, and realized she'd spoken out loud to her empty office—empty, at least, of people. The altars and prayer wheels and rosaries and fetishes and sacrificial knives kept their own counsel, as always. "Damn."
She walked the long lonely hallway to the break room and descended a winding stair to the caldera floor, to join the death watch. She paused at the foot of the stairs. She could still go. They hadn't seen her yet.
Leaving from her office would have been understandable. Leaving now was cowardice.
And anyway, Mara needed a friend.
Kai stepped out into the night, into view.
Cliffs above circumscribed a sky swirled with alien stars. Kai approached over lava five hundred years cool.
Mara's feet ground gravel as she turned. "You came." Her voice was at once relieved and bitter. "I didn't expect you."
"How are you holding up?" Kai asked.
"I'm fine." Mara sipped coffee from a white mug marked with the Order's black mountain sigil. Her free hand trembled. She turned the hand palm in, then out, spread her fingers, and watched them shake. She laughed a laugh of dry leaves. "I wish it would be over soon. Sooner."
Kai wanted to touch the other woman's shoulder, but hooked her thumbs through her belt loops instead.
Wind whistled over the crater's jagged lip. Gavin seemed not to have noticed Kai's arrival or overheard their conversation. Bent by the pool's edge, he watched the idol dying within.
"Waiting is the worst part," Mara said. "Knowing I'm helpless."
"There has to be something you can do."
Her laugh was short. "I wish."
"Your idol just needs a loan. A few hundred souls on credit, to keep her alive until the market recovers."
"No one knows when the market will recover, or if. Makes it hard to price a loan."
"Sacrifice to her, then. We can afford the soulstuff to get her through the next few days."
"Shame I'm all out of virgins and aurochs. What the hell's the plural of 'aurochs' anyway?"
"Use the Order's funds. You're a priest. You're allowed."
"Jace says no."
"Did he say why?"
"Does it matter?" She paced again, in circles. "He said no."
"Blaming yourself won't help."
"Who do you think my clients will blame when their idol dies: The market? Or their hired priestess?" She jabbed her thumb against her sternum. "The guilt's mine sooner or later. I might as well accept that."
"Your clients signed off on the trade. They knew the risks."
"I wonder what it feels like," Mara said after a long silence. "Losing half of your soul at once."
"Idols don't feel like we do." Kai knew as she spoke that it was the wrong thing to say.
Stars glinted in black sky and black pool—different stars above and below, not reflections. The shattered ground was a thin shell separating darkness from darkness.
Gavin turned from the pool and shuffled toward them over lava pebbles. "Won't be long now."
Kai replaced him on the shore, leaned over the not-water's edge, and watched the idol drown.
She was a wire-frame sculpture of light, flailing in the depths like a fish caught on a line: female in figure, almost human. Wings flared. Goat legs bent against themselves. The suggestion of a mouth gaped in a not-quite-face. Her heart had faded, and the fade was spreading.
Other idols swam and shifted around her in the pool. Bright outlines of men, women, animals, and angels danced through invisible currents, tied each to each by silver threads. No threads bound the dying idol. Mara had severed her ties to the rest already, to keep her from dragging them down when she died.
"It's beautiful," Gavin said. He shifted from side to side, and his shadow swayed, long and broad, broken by the ground. "And sad. It looks beautiful and sad."
The idol stared up into Kai and through her, desperate, drowning, and scared.
Idols don't feel like we do.
Kai turned from the pool.
Human silhouettes watched from office windows above. Curious enough to observe, callous enough to keep their distance. Kai was being unfair. No. She was tired. The situation, that was unfair. The idol was about to die, and take Mara's career with it.
"What's her name?" Kai asked.
"The file code's forty digits long. I've called her Seven Alpha." Mara sat on a rock and stared down into her coffee. "Jace's secretary already sent me the paperwork. Paperwork, can you believe it? I should have expected, but still. They die, and we fill out forms."
Kai shouldn't have come. Should have left early, or lingered over her altars and prayers until the worst was over. One more silhouette watching Mara pace, using distance to shield herself from pain.
Mara's despair hurt, as did the fear in the idol's eyes. In Seven Alpha's eyes. Kai ought to be home, swaddled in sheets. She felt swaddled, here. Arms bound to her sides. Helpless. Her own words mocked her:there has to be something you can do.
"You think they'll fire me tomorrow," Mara said, "or let me stay long enough to pack my things?"
Kai stepped out of her shoes. Sharp stone scraped her soles. She unbuttoned her blouse. Gavin and Mara would stop her if they saw. Especially Gavin.
But Gavin wasn't looking. Maybe the silhouettes were, above. Maybe someone was running down the winding stair even now to catch her. She unbuttoned faster. "You'll be fine," Gavin said, behind, to Mara. "This could have happened to anyone. Shining Empire debt always goes up in price. Everyone knows that. Knew that."
"You're not helping, Gavin."
"One of Magnus's idols failed six months ago, and he was promoted. It's good experience. That's what Jace said. A leader has to know how it feels to lose."
Kai heard a rustle of stiff cotton as Gavin reached for Mara's shoulder, and an answering whisper as Mara brushed his hand away. Last button free. The hook on her skirt followed, and the zipper.
The idol in the water screamed.
All at once, Kai thought. Do not wait, or question. If they see, they'll try to stop you.
Do it, or don't.
She shucked shirt and skirt, stepped out of the fabric's warding circle, swept her hands above her head, ran three steps to the world's edge, and dove.
Mara must have noticed in the last second, too late to do anything but shout: "Kai, what the hells are you—"
Black water opened before her, and closed behind her.
There are many worlds, and one. A shadow cast is real, and so's the caster, though each is of a different order. Cast a shadow complex enough, and one day it will look up. One day it will tear free from the wall to seek the one who gave it form.
What might such a freed shadow feel, tumbling through spaces of greater dimension than its own?
Kai fell through the realm of gods and idols, on which rock and light and living flesh float like a raft on a cave lake. Diving, she kicked. Bubbles of reality jellyfished up to the distant surface. She swam deeper.
Idols drifted immense around her, sphinxes and chimeras, animals and men and women in lightning outline, planet-sized though they'd seemed small from shore. Every one was beautiful, and each terrifying. In their center, Seven Alpha flailed limbs of silver and samite. Sharp teeth glimmered in her open mouth.
Down Kai swam, down, the drowning idol nearer now, body large as a mainlander cathedral. One sweep of a hand nearly sliced Kai in half; Seven Alpha was desperate and almost dead, scared as a lamb on the butchering floor, but still, here, strong as a god.
The next time the idol clawed in her direction, Kai caught one of the lightning-wires that formed her wrist.
Her shoulders jerked in their sockets as the idol's arm dragged her along. She rushed through empty space, and its hidden edges tore her flesh and mind. Around her in the black, paper-thin mouths peeled back lips to bare white fangs. Hungry ghosts, ready to descend. The idol's death called scavengers to whom a soul wrapped in flesh was a chocolate wrapped in foil.
Kai could not get Seven Alpha's attention this way. She was a gnat, a flitting nuisance. She needed perspective.
She held a piece of the idol's wrist, but that piece moved with the rest of the wrist, and so by holding it she held the wrist itself, and if she held the wrist her hand had to be large enough to hold it, and if her hand was large, then, since the rest of her felt proportional to her hand, the rest of her was also large. Mountainous in fact, and strong, but still struggling against the whirlwind of Seven Alpha's death.
Never, ever (Kai's mother'd told her when she was four and emerged dripping from the water with a half-drowned boy in tow) grab a drowning man. Death's approach lends strength even to the weak. A drowner, crazed, will pull you with him. Hold back, find a rope or plank or life preserver, and let the poor bastard save himself. Herself. Itself.
Seven Alpha kicked Kai in the side and she felt her rib break. The idol cut her, and burned her, as she pulled her into an embrace. Up so close, the idol's face was all geometry, perfect planes and curves. She spasmed in Kai's grip, transformed to fire, to thorn, to stinging jellyfish, to billion-armed insect, and back to woman, final form no less painful than the rest. Goat legs sliced Kai's calves and thighs to the bone. Blood seeped into the water.
The idol buried her teeth in Kai's left shoulder. A scream bubbled from Kai's mouth and bloomed, rising. The god-realm's darkness rushed into her lungs. She gagged and felt her body start to die.
The idol withdrew her teeth and pressed Kai in flaying embrace as they fell. Worlds' weight crushed them together.
No time to waste. Kai kissed Seven Alpha on the mouth.
Cold tangled her tongue. Hunger caught her. Desperation pulled at her soul. She let it. She gave, and gave, and sank. Her soul surged into the idol's mouth, torn from her by need, an insignificant scrap against Seven Alpha's vast hunger.
The idol took Kai's soul, and pulled for more, but there was no more to give. They fell, dying, bound by flesh and spirit. The idol sagged. Anger gave way to loss.
Kai crafted a contract in her mind, and offered it to the idol. A simple trade: a seven million thaum line of credit, enough to save them both for a while, provided Seven Alpha return as collateral her only asset, Kai's stolen soul. Jace may have forbidden Mara from using the Order's funds to save this idol, but he'd said no such thing to Kai.
Seven Alpha was about to die. She had no choice but to accept, and save them both. Simple self-preservation.
Any minute now.
Thought came slow to Kai at such depth, weighed down by dream and deep time. They'd fallen so far even acceptance might not save them. Too late, too deep. Stupid. Her spinning mind shuddered, slowed, and soon would stop.
Her spinning mind shuddered, slowed, and soon
Her spinning mind shuddered,
Her spinning mind
A key turned in the lock of the world.
Kai's eyes snapped open. Power flooded from her, and her soul flowed back along the contract that now bound her to the idol. Light broke through her skin. Seven Alpha spread her wings, pulled from their kiss, smiled a spring morning. The idol's tarnished heart began to heal, to shine.
Kai shook with joy.
Then everything went wrong.
Arms seized Kai from behind: human arms, fleshy, strong. They pried her from the idol, pulled her back and up. Seven Alpha tried to follow, but slow, too weak to resist the not-water's weight. Kai fought, but the arms did not give. She knew her betrayers by their grip. Mara, slender and corded with muscle, fingernails biting Kai's wrists. Gavin, an immense weight of skin and meat. Jace, too, their master. He was the one who held her neck.
"Get off!" She yanked at their fingers. "Let me go!" They did not.
Seven Alpha fell as Kai rose. The contract that bound them stretched, frayed. Star eyes beneath curling horns stared up at Kai in dumb hope. The idol did not begin to scream until the cord snapped, and water closed in to crush her.
Fighting and clawing and biting and bleeding, Kai heard sense inside that shriek. There were words amid the fury and the fear, senseless and mad, impossible words, but words nonetheless.
Howl, bound world, Kai heard as the idol fell, as she died.
Kai cried out in answer, in frustration, in rage. Still they pulled her up, as Seven Alpha dwindled to a distant ship on fire, a cinder, a spark, a star, then gone.
Kai's friends dragged her to shore. She screamed them back and lay curled on sharp stone, bleeding, coughing, vomiting dreams. Warmth returned, the shadow bound once again to its wall. Traitor hands wrapped her in a sheet and lifted. Jace held her. His chest pressed through the sheet against the wound the idol's teeth left in her shoulder. Bloody fabric rasped over her wrecked skin.
She tried to tear free, but lacked the strength. They carried her from the pool: glass-flat, undisturbed by the idol's death.
"It's okay." Jace's voice, strong, level, sad, so unlike her father's. "It's okay. You're safe."
"No," was all she said.
Copyright © 2014 by Max Gladstone