This is a short story based loosely on the following prompt: “A deceptive genius wants to save the world with a forgotten skull but he must face what he’s been running from.” It also serves as a preview for the second book in the The Ink and the Steel series. Though you don’t need to read the first book to know what’s going on here.
Savannah Mordant opened her chamber door, breaths knifing out of her in quick succession. Panic frayed the seams of her awareness. She had looked everywhere for him. All the usual spots. But there was not a shred of proof as to his presence.
Then she stepped through the threshold. She examined her surroundings in the near-dark. Quite suddenly, she knew exactly where he was.
The question was merely how he got inside.
He had disturbed the messy living room. It was still disheveled, but this mess wasn’t hers. Hugo had a habit of cleaning up the cruft that bled into the background of Savannah’s life. The stack of clean plates on her counter was the first clue. The folded blankets were the second. The third clue came as soon as she closed the chamber door.
That’s when the strings started.
It was a soft and gentle mewling that made the air around inside her chamber seem to vibrate. He was in the dining room on the other side of the narrow hallway. The door was half open, spilling out the dregs of moonlight.
Hugo’s tune came as if from a music box. He spoke not a word of song, but the sorrow-sound filled the air like a sustained breath of surprise. The music dragged her through her living room. She stepped over a stack of neatly-folded clothes and marched through the narrowness of her hallway. She felt sad, though she wasn’t certain why.
This was not an empty sadness, but an overstuffed one. A sorrow that was too full to fit her body.
The dining room door eased open, soundlessly. Savannah saw her brother’s back. He was hunched over his mandolin; its red-brown trunk was laid between his feet.
She stepped through, feeling the whimper of pirouetting strings inside her belly. The soft weeping of slim and silver wires was the only sound in all the world.
Then Hugo’s hand tightened on the neck of his mandolin. He strangled the sound, snuffed it from the world.
Savannah hitched her breath. All at once everything seemed empty. The silence was overbearing. It was as if her brother had stolen something from the air.
Hugo didn’t turn to face Savannah when he spoke. “I thought you’d be home by now. I’m sorry.”
“How’d you get in?”
Hugo’s hand dipped into his pocket and came up displaying a key between two fingers. “Filched the spare.” The key vanished into the dark with another flourish.
Savannah exhaled her frustration. “I don’t have a spare key,” she snapped.
Hugo shrugged. “I got in, didn’t I?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Mother had it made. Just in case.”
“I never gave her or Father a key.”
“Never said you did,” Hugo murmured.
“How did they get one?”
“No idea. But they’re hardly without resources.”
“Fair enough,” Savannah sighed. “It’s just… I’ve looking all over for you. All evening. All our meeting places—”
“—were discovered by Mother and Father. I had to improvise.”
“I thought you’d been caught. You could’ve been in trouble.” Savannah fought to bury her frustration. Empty indignation brought her nothing.
“I had no way of telling you. I’m sorry.”
She wasn’t as angry as she thought she ought to be. Anger would hardly help. She knew how tough Hugo’s position was. She stepped forward, reaching out to him. Her hand embraced the softness of his shoulder. He’d gained weight, the way he’d always threatened to. He used to joke about how he’d one day ‘ruin the perfect family portrait with a fat kid.’ It was the sort of pettiness that only their parents could bother to care about. “Hugo. Look at me.”
He made a small and squealing noise from deep within the pinkness of his throat. “Don’t make me.”
“Hugo.” Her fingers tightened on his shoulder, unwillingly. She watched him flinch and hated herself for it. “Why did you come? What did they do?”
She felt him wince, drawing breath in through tightened teeth. “It’s nothing,” he murmured. He bent to return the mandolin to its case. Savannah heard a small squeal of wetness slipping on the wooden neck. She saw red stains on the polished wood, from over his shoulder.
“Hugo, your hands!” She had him by the wrist before he could latch his case closed. She studied them, there in the dark, a mere breath away from his fingers, with only the moon to light her examination.
She could feel blood welling from the chewed-up flesh of his fingers. She could smell the iron of it. The strings had picked away at him, as he picked away at the strings.
“Hugo,” Savannah breathed. “Let me get you some bandages—”
“No!” Hugo snatched his hands back. “Just—just sit. Not right now. Just sit. Let’s talk. I’m fine. Just sit.”
“Can I light a lantern?” She’d left one on the table, near a box of matches.
Hugo’s sigh didn’t sound entirely voluntary. “You’ll see it eventually, I guess.”
“Thank you.” She turned to the table and fumbled for her matches. A flame blossomed, groping through the dark. Soon enough, it was fondling the wick inside her lantern, then it latched on.
Brightness blossomed through four panes of glass, and limned the room in orange gloom. “There, now was that so—” Her eyes widened when she saw his face. “Oh, fuck.”
She heard the hitch of her own alarmed breath coming from some place for away. She drank in the sight of the black bruise that had swollen her brother’s left eye shut. Savannah winced with remembered pain. “You’re hurt,” she said, without emotion.
Hugo lowered his head. “I-I’m fine,” he murmured.
“How did it happen?”
Savannah bristled at that. To you, she wanted to say. Her brother was an expert at devaluing himself. He’d had quite some time to get good at the practice. But now wasn’t the time to push back. That came later. “How long do you plan on staying?”
Her brother moved with such slow precision that Savannah, for a moment, thought it was him who creaked as he fidgeted, not the chair beneath him. “Is it okay if we play it by ear?”
A discontented noise squirmed in the hollow of her throat, scratching out low grains of vibration. She had wanted some certainty on this. But Hugo would have the moral high ground if she refused. You left me; he would tell her, and he would be right. What right do you have to tell me how long I can leave our parents, too? Why is it different when I do it? he would ask.
“I suppose,” she drawled the two words out—just to get some time to think. “I just…I want to know what happened to you.”
She watched Hugo’s hand slither inside his pocket. Then she heard the sound of paper crinkling. It was startlingly loud. Like a fire snapping right beside her ear. She watched that hand while her brother spoke: “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Oh?” She wrenched her eyes off Hugo’s pocket. “Try me.”
Hugo laughed. It was a small windy thing. He rubbed the space beneath his nostril with one finger. “I made a drawing. For a lecturer at the university. One of Mother and Father’s old teachers. Wise Master Chalk.”
Savannah had heard that name before. The Chalks were family friends she hardly knew. The only information about them she possessed was that the Wise Master’s brother, Silas, had a seat on the council, and the Wise Master herself was something of a family eccentric.
“Mother and Father signed me up for her classes. Did you know that?”
“I hadn’t heard.” Her parents did not often communicate these days.
“During the first lecture Chalk told me—” He swallowed. “She told me to think of a desire. To write it down. Then to take out vowels. And repeat consonants. And to arrange it into a magic shape.”
“See?” Hugo bolted out of his chair. “I told you—”
“Stop!” The word punched out of her. She fought for control of her features. “Stop, I didn’t mean to. I—I’m sorry. I don’t mean to doubt you. Please. Go on. Sit.” She gestured to the chair.
Hugo looked at her hand. And then at her. “Don’t laugh,” he said.
“I promise. Just sit.”
Slowly, he did. “I followed her instructions. Just last night. I wrote down my desire. I made it into a magi—a shape. Sorry.” He waited, as if he expected her to laugh again.
With an effort, she quashed the urge. “Go on.”
“Father found it. He didn’t like it. So he gave me this.” Hugo gestured to his blackened eye and chuckled. “There’s a funny part. You know the star spots that float in your vision after you’ve been hit?”
Savannah nodded, once. “What about them?”
“They—they weren’t blots of light. When Father hit me last night they…” Hugo swallowed the words. It took three heartbeats to dredge them back up. “They had a shape. A stark, definitive shape.”
Savannah’s heart seemed to hammer harder. She wasn’t sure why. “What do you mean, Hugo? What kind of shape?”
“The one I drew. It was floating there in argent light. Dancing around Father’s head, while Mother looked on.”
Savannah scowled. “This shape? The one you made for a lecture at the university—you’re saying it was real?” Had he injured his head? She started forward to check.
Hugo glowered at her. “Sit.” It wasn’t a question, and he said it with more authority than she’d ever heard from him. She obeyed before she knew what she was doing. The tempo of her heartbeat quickened.
Hugo leaned his elbows on his thighs. “Do you want to know what I learned with Wise Master Chalk?”
She didn’t. “Yes,” she said.
Hugo hunched over and stared at the ground, looking as if he were considering a great leap into a chasm that wasn’t there. “I never have the right words to describe it.”
“Then how do you know this woman was teaching you magic?”
Hugo shrugged. “Because I know. Because I’d been dreaming about Chalk nearly every night since that first lecture, when she taught me what all this meant.”
“How long between the lecture and the drawing?” Savannah asked.
“A full week—and every night the same dream came. I would’ve drawn whatever she asked if it would make that damn dream die.”
What did she teach him? What had he learned with her? “Hugo, what do you mean?” What did any of this mean? She wished she knew.
Breath shuddered into Hugo. “Do you really want me to get into this?” The breath shuddered back out, solemn as graveyard mist.
Savannah’s heart clamored in her chest. She had come this far. What’s the use in backing out now? “Tell me, Hugo. And be honest. Tell me everything.”
Hugo chuckled as a smile fussed with his face. “Just remember. You asked.” He licked his lips. “I’d been reluctant to study thaumaturgy, even after Mother and Father signed me up. But an acquaintance at the university helped me with the leap forward. Edwin Gaunt—”
Savannah knew the name. John Chronicle’s boyfriend? The son of the mercer her parents had business ties with. She opened her mouth to interrupt, but no words came. She couldn’t say why. Her throat just closed automatically. She leaned back, startled. She hoped she would not come to regret asking about this.
“He’d insisted I speak with Chalk,” Hugo went on. “I wanted to go. Really, I did. I had questions about what was studied in her lectures. Doubts about doubts about doubts. So I met with her. To ask some um…clarifying questions.” The words came almost unwillingly. “She gave me tea that tasted hellish. Made me feel like my head was stuffed with cotton.”
“Was it drugged?” Savannah asked.
Hugo shrugged. “Nail me to a fucking tree if I know. We talked. About my problems. About our parents. About the efficacy of going to see you when I was in trouble.”
“There’s some merit in that,” Savannah only saw her brother every few months when he tried to run away. But Hugo was always confiscated quickly.
“Then our conversation shifted to something…something…Else.” That last word landed solemn as a knell. “I don’t quite remember details. It was hard to pay attention. It was a busy room.”
“Busy?” Savannah asked. “Busy how?”
“It reeked of wax,” Hugo laughed. “The floor was buffed in it. It squeaked when I walked. There were gilded statues of planets in the room, crossed with ribbons of ridged gold that traced continents and paths of orbit. Galaxies were sprawled in temperas across the ceiling. And there were telescopes inset on the wall. It was a lot of stimulus. It made it difficult to concentrate.”
“I can imagine,” Savannah muttered.
“Part of me wanted to leave.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Hugo squirmed. “I couldn’t think of a polite way to make an exit.”
Savannah looked away. “No, no. I shouldn’t be so hard on you. I understand. I would’ve had trouble too.”
“I figured.” Hugo chuckled. “But yes. I stayed. She explained to me that I would be communicating with facets of the Else.”
“A higher power.”
“If you like.”
Savannah wasn’t sure what that meant. But she asked her brother to go on anyway. No use in getting lost in minute details.
“Chalk set me at a table. She told me to breathe deep. To reach a state of prescience where my mind was absent of all thought.”
“You mean presence?”
Hugo blinked at her. “I mean prescience.”
Heat climbed up Savannah’s face. “Sorry. Go on.”
“Right. As she told me this, I soaked up her words about gods from old religions. She told me of Storm Gods, War Gods, Gods of Art and Wine and Poetry. All of these, she said, are personifications of human experience. Things we value. Things we fear. Our ancestors shaped them in flesh to reckon with them. And she told me they were all faces of the Else. This higher power, that is.”
“She said even the Nailed God was only another face of this higher power. The Else is bigger than all that. It eludes any attempt to contain it in beliefs and definitions. And she pointed out how we see these old gods bleeding into our culture today. The northern Trickster-God reappears in the legends of the outlaw Robert Truth. The Wise Father appears in tales of wizards and old mentors with deep knowledge. We even conjure the Else through sheer metaphor every day.”
Savannah tilted her head. “So you’re saying we’re all wizards?”
“If that’s the framework that helps you conceive of it,” Hugo laughed. “Then yes. We’re all wizards. Though most of us are very poor magicians.”
Skepticism played across Savannah’s features. He can’t truly believe all this. Can he? “What happened after that?”
“She told me to picture a god in my mind. Some facet of the human experience. Or some contemporary source that draws on them. I was told to shape all the thoughts I have around this concept.”
“And could you do it?”
Hugo’s grin came like a crescent knife unsheathing. “I’m an expert at obsessing, Savannah. Of course I could.”
“Which one did you pick?”
“The God of Wisdom. Fleet-Foot. The Messenger. The incarnation of our ability to receive knowledge. It’s funny. I poured my thoughts into sensory details that weren’t even in the room with me. The feel of wrinkled vellum. The buzz of pages spinning through a spine. The dust that flowers in the air when opening an ancient tome. And as it went on, I swear I could almost smell the yellowed books.”
Hugo nodded. “It was startlingly real. The sharp scent of ink. The sound of pen on parchment. I could almost hear great orators shouting from atop their boxes. I could hear the creak of makeshift stages, and the scholars’ cry. I smelled chalk; and saw its dust take to the air. I heard it screeching on blackboards, drawing letters, letters, letters, letters letters—”
Her brother seemed to come back to himself. He cleared his throat. “Right. Sorry.”
“It’s just…it was a lot, is what I’m saying. Even the memory of it taxes me. It was a strange experience. It was like there was something else living inside me.”
Savannah blinked. “I’m sorry?”
Hugo looked at her as if regretting he’d said too much. He folded his hands. He poured himself into examining the surface of his skin. “We’re getting to the strange part, Savannah. Are you sure you want to know?”
Hugo’s front teeth snagged his burgeoning smile before it finished forming. “I suppose you don’t know what you’re agreeing to, come to think of it. You could never know what you’re asking me to say. Not until I say it. But if you insist, we can go on.”
“Then say it.”
“Right.” Hugo paused for breath. “The strange part. It started when I opened my mouth to speak. Something seized up in me. Something alive and wriggling in my mouth. It was not something I could see. I couldn’t hear it, or smell it, or taste it. Even the touch of it is tricky to pin down. It had no texture. There was only sheer, unfiltered, force as it scrabbled between my teeth and down my throat. Chalk was still speaking. But I hardly heard her. It was as if her words came through a pane of glass.”
“God’s corpse,” Savannah swore.
“I wanted to scream. It was scary. But all I could manage was a thin croak. As quiet as the pebbles before an avalanche.”
Savannah tilted her head. “Hugo. Are you okay?” She waved her hand in front of his face. Snapped her fingers beneath his nose. But Hugo didn’t seem to see them. “This isn’t funny, Hugo.”
“I felt as though something were pressing beneath the surface of my skin. Pushing out. As if my soul had become too big to fit my body. I thought my skull would explode. I didn’t know that I could even do that. The sensation rebuked all reason. But whatever was inside of me did not enjoy containment in the flesh.”
“What do you fear? it asked me.”
The first half of Hugo’s sentence contained nothing of his voice. Savannah’s eyes widened. “Holy fuck. Hugo!”
“White pain and heat buzzed beneath my skin. And I realized it was a reaction to my silence. A punishment for my lack of response. It asked again. What do you fear?”
There came that voice again. What was he doing? She tried to pin down why it didn’t sound like him, but all explanation eluded her. It was his voice, but it was…off. It had no volume. No texture. Only ephemera. That voice was as distinctive as a thought. She wasn’t even sure if his mouth was moving when it came.
“What do you fear? it asked, one final time. And I told the voice that I feared this union. It was scary. And that seemed to satisfy it. The heat it produced then dissipated and I felt goosebumps rising in its wake. You’re boring. It told me. That is everyone’s first answer. Did you know that? Try again.” Something clamped down on my mind. Like someone else’s panic was shoved inside me. Like intrigue and anxiety had become infectious. My stray thoughts bubbled to the surface of my mind, unbidden. Like there was a hoarder in my skull, sifting for baubles.
“I told it that I feared that I was broken. That I am not enough. That I can’t fix things, do as I ought to do.”
“Hugo,” Savannah interrupted. “Hugo, stop this! Enough! You are enough!”
“I would’ve hitched my breath if the air weren’t so soupy. I wasn’t even sure that I was breathing. But it asked for more. So I told this presence that I feared that I couldn’t be who my parents needed me to be. I feared I’d let them down. That I’d ruin everything. That I would forever have some sliver of doubt and fear and anger in my mind, forever nagging like a splinter. I feared that my parents were right about me, always right.
“Yellow swirled in my vision. It was as if I had put pressure on my eyelids. But my eyes were open. I was startlingly, achingly awake. So my eyes burned. I told myself it was the tea. A hallucination. A side effect or something. I closed my eyes, thinking I could wait for this to pass. I was a fool to think it could ever be that easy.
“YOU THINK THIS IS A TRICK?” it asked me. “OPEN YOUR EYES!
“So my eyes jolted open. I didn’t have the time to wonder if it had happened of my own accord. I was worried. Scared. And I couldn’t see anything. The whole world was eyelid-dark. I could feel myself blinking. But the world remained empty. I asked the presence what this was. I won’t forget what it said. Not ever, Savannah.
“WHAT. YOU. WANTED. That’s what it told me.”
“Hugo,” Savannah said. But she had given up the hope of reaching him.
“You know that feeling in your stomach during a sudden drop? The feeling of falling up? That happened next. I felt wind on my face, but I didn’t feel like I was moving. I only asked for someone to tell me—to tell me—”
Hugo shut his mouth and staggered back. As if the interruption had a physical force. And the voice that wasn’t his spoke loud enough to rattle the wooden bones of Savannah’s chamber.
Hugo reeled upright. His own voice had come back to him. “The darkness eked away,” he explained, “And I looked down. I perceived the astronomy room far below me. I was still down there. My body was, at least. I was lying on my back. But there was another me, a phantom version of myself at least, still sitting in a chair across from Chalk. And there were afterimages of Chalk, too. Phantasmal and strange. These blurry astral images of ourselves twined together in the spaces throughout the room we’d both crossed through, some time before.
“You are all but threadlings, the presence said. Alone, that is. Time and space conspire to divide you. But twine together and—”
“We’re rope,” Savannah finished. Anxiety was a crackling-hot stone sizzling in her belly. Maybe Hugo was actually onto something.
“No, that voice corrected. You are string. I will show you the rope.
“The force yanked me up, up, up, all the way back up. Back into darkness. Inky blackness submerged the space below me in a traveling dark that covered all the world. Then I saw stars flare to life above. Like candles in the void, holding a vigil for me. They leered over me. More stars fizzled to life, burning hot and white upon the skyline. Constellations unfurled as if conjured from a painter’s brush. I saw starstuff and the red dust of galaxies. Fingers of space-dust coiled around me. It bled into me like ink on paper, then it cinched inside my belly.
“I only had an instant to panic. I could not grasp my breath. All strings twine together to make rope, the presence told me. But rope is rope. It is not a dozen strings. Your kind has yet to make this leap. But you will one day. And when that rope tightens.”
When Hugo coughed, Savannah leapt to seize him. But by the time she touched him, her brother had settled. He stared at her, but did not seem to see her.
“What have you done?” Savannah asked.
“Bile and half-digested vomit traveled up my throat,” Hugo explained. “It spilled out of me and swam the depths of darkness. I watched it congeal into a planet that went spinning through the endless void.
“The presence brooked no argument. ‘All the world is but a hidden skull. A container for one mind, writ large across the surface of a planet. Cast aside such limitations as the self.’
“I watched it, then, as it wiped away entire constellations like spittle from a windowpane. New galaxies swilled in, swirled to replace them. They spun and danced a caper until they crashed together and limned me in the gloom dying stars. The darkness shimmered like humid air on a summer day, or a puckered scar raked across the flesh. I watched the dust of space and time and bodies trail away like chimney smoke.
“Then the world was cold. And frigid. And empty.
“There was a single constellation before me now, raked by a red scar of stardust. That’s all that was left. The voice within me was small, now. And it sounded exhausted. Do you see what you can do? I trailed my thoughts after the presence. Tried to find it and fix it firmly inside myself. But its display had weakened it. It had shriveled up, as small as swallowed jewelry. I couldn’t tell if it even cared about what it had just done. Or if it should. I wasn’t sure if any of it was real.
“But I banished that thought. And I asked, ‘What’s any of this got to do with me? There was no answer, though.”
“Are you kidding me?” Savannah shouted.
“My voice echoed through the space between the stars. I watched that constellation, and the red scar that trailed across it. I’d never felt so small. I turned my gaze inside myself. Grasped for the fading image of this presence that had swallowed me. Or had I swallowed it? It was getting hard to tell. The thing inside me was as soft and elusive as smoke. Each breath eked it away. And then it was gone. It was over. Quick as a candle pinched.
“I came to, in the astronomy room. I was on my back, staring at the painting spread across the ceiling. Water damage had cracked the tempera-constellations that I had seen before the presence fled my mind. It was carved across those stars like red stardust. Motes of plaster dust clung to the air as breath shuddered back into my body.”
Hugo sagged, and staggered. He reeled and Savannah caught him. He seemed to truly see her for the first time since he had begun his story.
“Hugo,” Savannah breathed. “Hugo, what was that?”
Her brother’s smile came as quickly as blood welling from a surface wound. “That was the Else. It’s why I’m here. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”