The Veld Opal

By Jens Rushing


            "Yes - now I have your attention! Amazing. The name of the stone is a password directly into the minds of a certain few."

            Hanjan slanted his eyes at the ancient man across the table. "You risk patronizing me, Mr. Gorio."

            "So I do, so I do. You have my sincerest apologies. But mentioning the Veld Opal certainly caught your interest, no?"

            "You have it."

            "Good. Listen closely. I can tell you know something of this stone, and I would not have begun this conversation if I supposed you did not. I will tell you more. The stone sat atop the scepter of the Empress of Syrodecia, passed down from time immemorial. They said it was a tear of the gods - the goddess Veld. Goddess of something. Who knows? One thousand years ago, Syrodecia fell and the Janahim shattered the scepter, and the tear passed into new hands. The Janahim cared little for the wealth of the old regime - at least back then. They sold it for a pittance to a very lucky Quallian merchant. He gave it to his daughter as a gift - her betrothed strangled her and disappeared with the jewel. This much is legend.

            "The gem passed from owner to owner throughout the eons, outlasting all of them, floating, immortal, from merchant to noble to courtesan - to conqueror or thief. Three hundred years ago, it hung 'round the neck of a Quallian countess - a beautiful lady, by all accounts. Her ship was taken by the Drake Isle pirates while they were travelling the Archway, most of 'em killed. The captain - this was the notorious pirate captain Kalgan - took her, only her, prisoner. He kept her as his bride, and demanded that she be always in his presence, wearing the Opal. Until she lost the freshness of youth, anyway. Then he took it from her and threw her off the island, into the Aether below. Soon after he took a new bride and she wore the Opal - like putting a new frame on a classic painting. After he died, his crew fought amongst themselves for command - they split up, and the Opal passed to the Tariqi, where it stayed for two hundred years. The last owner was the great Julius Lerreu, of the Lees - the landowner and entrepreneur. He claimed the Opal as spoils of war, after the final battle to drive the Tariqi from the Vales, back in '68. He feared thieves and hid the jewel in a box, magically locked by the best industrial wizards Euscony had to offer. Lerreu knew the history of the jewel and feared nothing more than losing it - he sat up at night with the box in his lap, tracing the inscriptions on the lid with his finger, humming to himself. To my knowledge, he held the Opal for longer than any other owner in recent times. However, death came to him, too, as it does to all. The Opal, untouched by time, unbent and unwrinkled by years, persisted. 

            "From Lerreu it came to my father. My father worked for Lerreu - was the head of his shipping fleet, piloted a blimp for fifty years. There was no man Julius Lerreu trusted more than my father, and so he left him the Opal. Wouldn't leave it to his own son - left it to my father. Probably couldn't stand the thought of his own flesh and blood staying up nights, tracing the inscriptions, humming to himself."

            "So… where are you going with this? Do you have it now?"

            "Patience is uncommon among the young. Relax, young man," Gorio gave a wry, wrinkled grin. "I'm getting there."

            Hanjan coughed, his lungs unaccustomed to the dense smoke that lurked in the Burgeoned Ferry. He was used to the clear, warm breeze of the Archway, the pure and untainted open air. Gorio filled a pipe and took the snaplight from the table. He flicked the case open, and one of the tiny valves, exposed to air, burst momentarily into a bright blue flame. Gorio sucked on his pipe. It smelled like burning rubber.

            "My father took it from him, acting like it was part of his duty to watch over the thing and preserve it for - for what, I don't know. I sometimes thought he expected Lerreu to one day walk through the door and demand it back. So we never sold it. It could've made us rich. But my father always kept it, almost reverentially, in the box, on a little patch of lace above the fireplace.

            "We were poor, too. That jewel could've solved everything, but my father wouldn't hear of selling it." Hanjan detected a note of resentment. "I thought of stealing it at night, of running away and selling it and living like the Shan of Tariq somewhere, but that was impossible - my father kept the key to the box around his neck. As I said, almost reverentially.

            "When I was fourteen, we moved to Scrighton. We lived in the center of the island, where it's always dark - you know, the way the islands above are arranged, light barely reaches Scrighton, even in summer. Twelling blocks most of the sun, so rent was fairly cheap down there. It was always damp, too. We had a relatively nice two-floor house. This was in, oh, 2988, before the Greater Euscony Defense plant burst its seams and the rain went green. My father was placed in charge of a new branch of Lerreu Enterprises there, but his salary was a pittance, for the work he did. They used to fight about it, then. My mother wanted him to sell the Opal, but - "

            Hanjan waved impatiently. "I probably don't need to hear this."

            "Yes! Yes, you do!" said Gorio vigorously. He leaned across the table, clenching his gnarled hand into a fist. "You must understand! You must know - "

            "Okay, old man. Relax."

            The elder sat back down and restrained himself, then continued tersely. "You must know what… anguish this thing has caused me. How desperately I want it back. How - my father caught my mother one night, trying to steal the key. He beat her and threw her out of the house - she cried at the door, and I heard her, all night, weeping outside the window - 'Why can't we sell it? We could be rich!' On and on, all night. Toward dawn, she broke a window and tried to come back in - a Civil Defense man saw her and arrested her as a vagrant. Back then, Scrighton was thick with them. My father shook his head when asked if he knew her, and told the Civvie that she was delusional. The Civvie, though, he didn't buy it. He saw that she'd been beaten and started to ask questions, and my mother just kept screaming about the box, the box, so he took them both to Scrighton Twelve - that's the twelfth precinct prison. So I was alone in our miserable house with the box. My parents were gone, but the box remained. I took it, then, from off the hearth, and smashed it on the ground - I hit it with a hammer, I threw it in the fire, but nothing happened. Every time I struck it, the runes glowed a little, and the box was unmarked. I beat on it, I pried on the lid - lost a fingernail, too. Nothing.

            "So I went down to the Civil Defense station and asked for my father's things, which they gave me, according to the law. He had some money, a knife, but most important - that key. This key." He reached within his filthy robes and produced a small dull iron key on a piece of twine. So I went back home - as soon as I got through the door, this clamor started up outside. That was the night the GED plant went - burst its seams. I heard people in the streets, runnin' around, and then some screaming, and then glass breaking. I ran upstairs to look out the window - I saw this eerie green stuff falling from the sky - Ha! If this Opal is the tear of the goddess, this green stuff must've been her bile. It glowed so bright… I had no idea what was happening, then. Of course, we both know it was the GED working on that new type of fuel - tetrathaumide - that they had put a dozen industrial wizards, tech-mages, to work on it, that those dozen wizards had determined that their new… uh, treatment, process - whatever it was they were doing to that stuff - that it could either quadruple the potency, or cause it to react in unpredictable and possibly cataclysmic ways. Well, history knows what happens, right? They get the word to do it, and not worry about the people down below - those Scrightonians, they're poor, no worries. And suddenly we have people running around and screaming in the middle of the night."

            Hanjan nodded.

            "Of course, the big guy at the top who gave the order got off free - courts found the tech-mages guilty, as they were the ones that actually did it. Still makes me mad. But they went ahead with their experiment, and the next thing I knew, my neighbor - a nice lady, she gave me cookies - she's beating on the door and I watch through the window as this green stuff falls on her, ever so gently, and I see her flesh smoking where it hits, and it runs down her collar and under her clothes, and she… she starts screaming, and tearing at her clothes, but her skin comes off with… but she - she keeps screaming and then falls over on my front door in a heap of - of blood and clothes, and pretty soon I can't tell where the clothes end and the skin begins - just a big stinking smoking mass that used to be the nice lady who gave me cookies on my front porch. People were fighting outside, and it got louder, and I got scared and went back upstairs and didn't understand why other people didn't go home and go hide upstairs. Then the fire hit. Seems this green stuff also caught fire easily, but didn't burn up quickly - it dropped onto the lamps in the streets, made them flare and spark with flame, went down chimneys, too. I was watching from my window when the house across the street got some down its chimney - every window in the house flashed white, then just shattered as fire blew out through all the panes at once. Made my window crack. I felt it, across the street and inside. Burning timbers from that building landed on mine, and soon enough, I notice it's getting warm inside, and that my rafters are wrapped in flame; I watched it flow across the ceiling and engulf every beam, like water flowing over stones."

            Gorio noticed with satisfaction that Hanjan was rapt in his story. He didn't exactly care for Gorio - the man was a mass of drooping wrinkles, damp and yellowing, the product of seventy-four years of a rock-hard will, a will nurtured at the expense of all human feeling - but Hanjan was determined to hear his story.

            "So what'd you do?"

            "Couldn't go outside, right? Sure couldn't stay inside. I went downstairs and grabbed my mother's big cauldron, and turned it over my head - got a little cold pea soup down my collar, too - funny how you remember those things. It was big, and I was small, so I could fit almost completely under it. I went out the back door and crept through people screaming and tearing at each other, and for a second I dared to lift the cauldron and look around - the sky was orange, but just past all the flames, I could see the tetrathaumide stuff falling down in sheets, green sheets of gauze, from Twelling up above. I thought it was the end of the world. So what do you do at the end of the world? I went to the Gumling wine store on the corner. By then the stuff was collecting and flowing down the street, and my shoes were hissing every time I stepped on it. I got some on my feet. Burned like the devil! I still have the scar. But I had to keep moving, couldn't stop to take off my shoe, to wash it off. I bit my lip and moved to the wine shop, probably looking like a giant tortoise, moving with an undue measure of serenity through all that madness. I got to the wine shop, broke a window, crept inside, and went down into their basement. Now, back then, everyone in the neighborhood knew that the old Gumling shop had the coldest wine in all Scrighton because of their basement - when they were digging it, they broke into this cavern - a bunch of underground tunnels, cold and twisting. Wine could age there without light, without heat. I figured that with fire and Satv-knows-what raining down, that was the best place to be. I went into that basement, and crammed the cauldron against the door behind me - wedged it between the door and the wall. I don't know why - I thought that I should look out for myself, you know? It was just one of those little things you do without thinking about it. Didn't even think about it.

            "Well, the next morning, after the longest damn night of my life, I crept back up the stairs, and moved the cauldron aside, and as soon as I did, the door broke open and…" The old man faltered.


            "And a stinking mass of bodies poured on me - people I knew but could barely recognize - the shop owner, the little girl from across the street, the local Civvie, others, all of them burned, mottled faces twisted in pain, unknowable pain, their features - their faces - all smeared like putty. They still steamed, too - they were still hot with the tetrathaumide -Lessa, the little girl, she landed on me, her spine falling across my thighbone, and she broke in half with a wet sound. Brackish blood poured thickly out of them all, out of their mouths, noses…"

            Hanjan shuddered. "I know I don't need to hear this." Gorio continued heedlessly.

            "I can say without exaggeration that that stench has never left me. It must've been some property of the tetrathaumide, but I always smell it. The gin in your glass - I know I should smell it, the sharp and pungent odor of alcohol, but I don't - I don’t smell anything but the tetrathaumide. It's sickening. And always, at the edge of my hearing, if I cease to listen to a speaker or musician momentarily, that familiar sizzle rises at the edge of my perception. It turns my stomach. I've always had a weak stomach.

            "When I was eighteen, the time came for me to take my first lover, and she was a lovely girl. I remember - I was sitting on the bed, the sheets turned back - again, another of those moments you keep forever. I was sitting on the bed, and the light, I recall, was rather harsh, and she came in, and sat on my knee, and all I could think of was Lessa falling across my thigh, and that gristly wet sound… then she put her arms around me and kissed me, and I saw the black blood pouring out of their mouths, and I pushed her off me, and instantly wanted to feel bad for rejecting her - she was such a lovely girl - but I couldn't, because she was a corpse - there she was, steaming and putrescent, and she was opening her arms and begging for me! My stomach boiled, and I felt the need to vomit, so I left, voiding my sickness on the stairwell. I ran in shame and revulsion."

            Hanjan stared at him in open horror, but there was fascination with his horror.

            "That difficulty never came up again. After that, I avoided situations that might lead to such difficulties - I could not do otherwise. Everywhere I turned, I put the marred faces of the shop owner, the Civvie, the little girl on the bodies of strangers, and they were no different. Not even you. Beneath your skin I see the flesh waiting to putrefy, the blood waiting to thicken…

            "But I digress. After I opened the door, everything went black - my mind fled from the incomprehensible, and I ran, I ran so fast, my legs carrying me away of their own will. My head throbbed. Some time later - a day, a month - I awoke, lying on a cot in a hospital on Twelling, the key clenched in my hand, my knuckles white. After the accident, you see, Solbaan dispatched the Civil Defense to aid survivors of the tragedy, and they picked me up somewhere, apparently raving, and brought me in. I was lucky, they said. Thousands died, and I was lucky." Gorio gave a grim smile, an effort that involved a considerable shifting of wrinkles. "Well, after that, I spent some time in an orphanage here on Twelling, and they kicked me out at eighteen. I worked in the Reclamation Corps all my life, building the Euscony of tomorrow, if you'll excuse the slogan. I retired four years ago with a meager pension. It keeps me alive. The rats eat my food and my flat is always damp. Thus the glorious future that awaits servants of the country."

            "And the Opal?"

            "The Opal is still on Scrighton. Locked in a box no man can open, save the bearer of this key. The man who found the Opal and could open the box would be a wealthy man indeed. He could live like the Shan of Tariq - move up to Solbaan and buy a mansion in Shimmershore. And that, of course, is why we're having this conversation."

            "Of course."

            "Mr. Hanjan, I understand that you have a little experience in salvage."

            "That's right."

            "That you used to work for Eetzse Gumling, the junker-baron of Scrighton."

            "That's right."

            "And that your duties were to roam the waste regions in your barge, collecting anything of value."


            "So you know as much of Scrighton as anyone."

            "Yes. However, Mr. Gorio, I should tell you - I've never been to the Perma-dark. That's slang for your old neighborhood. No one ever goes there."

            Gorio blinked. "Perma-dark? That's what they call it now?"

            "Yeah. It's junker slang."

            "I don't like it."

            Hanjan shrugged. "What can I say? Slang is part of the world."

            "Doesn't mean I have to like it."

            "It doesn't."

            "Why doesn't anyone go there?"

            "Why would you? There's plenty of salvage to be found in the parts of Scrighton that aren't stinking hellholes. Quite as much of a stinking hellhole, anyway. You go into the Perma-dark, you aren't going to find salvage. Besides, it's a bit dangerous."


            "Yeah. Back in '38, Gavin Olrado said he was gonna go in to find the old bank that used to be at… oh, third and Sagrich, I think." Gorio nodded. "He flew in with a crew, and two new Hagrim LI - light industrial - barges. Never came back. Simple as that. You go to the Perma-dark, you don't come back."

            "And no one knows why?"

            "Does it matter? Bandits, probably, who thought it'd be a good hideout. And it is - Civil Defense won't go near the place."

            "Rumors. Superstitions," Gorio said. Hanjan shrugged.

            "Maybe. I do know that you can't hire a pilot to take you there." He looked up from his glass at Gorio. "I guess you probably know that too."

            "I have never tried to return."

            "So you want someone else to go."

            "That's right."


            "That's right."

            "Would a tremendous sum of money be involved?"


            "How much?"

            "Half of the Opal's worth."

            "What is the Opal worth? Is there a way to measure it?"

            "To the right person…" Gorio spoke distractedly. "It would be worth quite a sum. Around four hundred thousand gildan."

            "That's a lotta gildan."

            "Yes. It is my inheritance - an inheritance I have waited my entire life to receive!" Gorio grabbed Hanjan by the wrist. "Do you understand? Living in poverty, no satisfaction known to me, except the slim, distant hope of one day regaining my birthright!" He spat his words, wild-eyed. "The green rain burned away any human desire I might have had - carnal lusts, pleasures of the flesh or spirit - it washed them away and left me only with desire for the gem to sustain me! That Opal gleams every night to me. I have never even seen it, yet I know every facet intimately - I felt them through the box that one night - I shook it and it whispered its secrets unto me." He rasped this last word out. Hanjan shook him off.

            "Okay, old man. Relax."




            Hanjan left the Burgeoned Ferry and stepped into the cool Twelling night. He eagerly breathed the slightly-less noxious air of the east side, and turned his collar to the cold and damp. To the east the ruins of the Greater Euscony Defense plant hulked against the sky, spires arching, the legs of a massive dead spider. Hanjan shuddered, his mind buzzing with Gorio's tale. He also had a fleeting impression occupying his brain alongside the story of horror and despair - an impression of a girl through the smog of the bar, an impression of delicate eyebrows, delicate cheekbones, and smoky eyes that seemed to drift through the haze of tobacco and opium, wood smoke and alcohol fumes. He shook his head.

            "I hope you found sixty thousand gildan in there, Hanjan."

            He turned, looking for the speaker. A tall thin man stepped into the wan pool of light cast in front of the Ferry. The thin man also had his collar turned to the cold and damp, and a wide hat pulled down over his brow, but Hanjan glimpsed a sharp and aggressive nose, a pointed jaw, and a harelip.

            "Nolan? I suppose Geddoes sent you."

            "Not a great feat of deduction, there. Geddoes wants his money, Hanjan, and he wants it soon."

            "Of course he does," Hanjan said, rolling his shoulders, loosening up and peering past Nolan, scanning for more figures in the darkness, possibly bearing boards with nails in them, or chains, or segments of heavy lead piping. "I wouldn't expect anything less of a proper businessman like Geddoes. Tell him I'll have it soon - real soon. I just got a job, something that'll pay big."

            "I'll run that upstairs real quick," Nolan said, mockingly. "No, I'm pretty sure Mr. Geddoes would say something like 'I'm tired of waiting! A job's not money - break the bastard's nose.' We'd leave your hands and legs, of course - still need you to be able to work. But we'd have to break your nose, or cut off your ears or something. So that's what this is - a warning. A final warning. Geddoes says you have one week, then we make you less beautiful."

            "Is that so…" Hanjan said distractedly. He had stopped listening some time ago - always the same bravado from these toughs.

            "He said to make sure you knew we'd talked to you this time, too."

            "You want to leave a card with me or something? I'm sure I've got a guestbook you can sign." Hanjan patted his pockets sarcastically. "Yeah, it's right here." He reached into his pocket nonchalantly, fingering the snaplight he'd taken from the table. He whipped it out of his pocket, threw the cover open, exposing all the valves to the air at once. It burst into a tiny ball of flame, which he flung at Nolan's head. Nolan yelped and covered his face instinctively. Hanjan lunged into him, knocking him aside and retreating, sprinting as fast as he could away from the Ferry, into the maze of tenement dwellings and factories that covered the east side. He heard Nolan shrieking something behind him - a command to catch him, get him, something of that fashion.

            Hanjan rounded a corner and ducked into an alley, aware of three pursuers barreling behind. He heard the rattling of a chain and heavy breathing, and saw three silhouettes run past the mouth of his alley. He held his breath and pressed against the wall, trying his best to melt into the shadows and become invisible. He heard the thundering footsteps cease, some shouts of confusion, then hushed conversation - then he saw a head sticking around the corner.

            "He's down here!" Hanjan had a brief glimpse of a heavily-freckled face just before he put his boot into it. His foe reeled back and Hanjan shot down the alley, pulling down some old wooden pallets leaning against a wall. The pursuers clattered over them. Hanjan turned into another alley and searched desperately for a ladder, a fire escape, a drain pipe, anything. He spied the hanging ladder of a fire escape, suspended from a metal catwalk hugging a sagging and dilapidated structure, the bottom rung ten feet off the ground. He ran at the wall, leapt, kicked off the wall and spun, grabbing the rung by one hand, his shoulder protesting as his weight wrenched it. The rusty ladder screeched at the sudden weight and the catwalk rattled fiercely. He pulled himself up and ducked into a shadowed doorway. The three men rounded the corner, chains or leaden clubs glinting murkily in the moonlight. The thin frame of Nolan tailed them cautiously, and, as Hanjan squinted into the dark, he thought he caught a brief movement behind Nolan.

            "Did you hear that racket? He must've gone up to the roof!"

            "No, no, he hasn't," one said quietly, shaking his head.

            "Then get up there already," Nolan said. One of the thugs made a foothold for another with his hands, boosting the freckled one up to the rung. The thug climbed the ladder, sticking his head up above the catwalk and looking around.

            "He's up here!" he shouted, just before Hanjan kicked him, hard, in the temple. He went limp and fell, landing on one of the thugs below. The third tough laughed momentarily at their misfortune, just before Hanjan picked up a loose brick and bounced it off his head. Nolan, his hands in his pockets, looked up at Hanjan with plain displeasure.

            "Fine, Hanjan. You may have escaped a beating, for now, but - hello, what's that?"

            "I'm not gonna turn around, Nolan."

            "Smart man. I wouldn't want to see it either. It's horrible!"

            "Not gonna work, Nolan."

            "Okay, you ass. You've roughed up my men, but all that means is it's gonna be worse when we do have to come for you in a week or so. I may forget that Geddoes told us to leave you employable."

            "You wouldn't dare do anything Geddoes told you not to do. You're terrified of the man."

            "Ya know, Hanjan… I get a bonus if I do get the money out of ya. But I hope I can't get it out of ya. I hope that when we come for you in a week, you don't have it."

            "Of course you do, you bastard." Hanjan was feeling around for another loose brick. One of the men below was starting to pick himself up. He struggled to his feet. Suddenly he cried and pointed behind Hanjan.

            "What's that?" he shouted. Hanjan, irritated at this second attempt at duplicity, winged another brick at the fellow. As he did so, Nolan's hand flashed out of his pockets with a tiny spring-loaded tube crossbow - a device not more than a tiny bolt loaded into a steel tube, cocked in place, released by a trigger below. A one-shot assassination tool. Hanjan heard a click, and then grunted in pain as the bolt smacked into his calf. Nolan laughed harshly.

            "Ha! There's your reminder of our visit! Let's go, boys. Boys? Ah, find your own way back when you feel better." Nolan walked off, leaving the pile of unconscious henchmen behind. Hanjan gritted his teeth and pulled the tiny iron bolt from his calf - pain stabbed through him, and he felt light-headed. He flung the bolt after the receding figure of Nolan, and it clattered in the alleyway. He fumbled his handkerchief out of his pocket and wrapped it around the welling wound. He glared again at Nolan - Nolan was gone, but he saw another flash of movement, a lithe figure retreating into the shadows of the alley. Someone had been watching the entire fight.

            One by one, the toughs picked themselves up and limped away. Hanjan waited for another half hour or so, then climbed the stairs of the fire escape, coming at last to a tarry roof. He searched it, and, at last settling for the door to the building below, he wrenched it off its rusted hinges and laid it across the gap between his current building and the neighboring roof.  He crawled over and then took the fire escape of the next building down. He wanted to take absolutely no chances of falling into an ambush. He descended to the final landing and took the ladder, dropping off the final rung, wincing at the pain in his leg as he did so. He bent and clenched his leg in both hands, squeezing it to try to keep down the throbbing pain. He became suddenly aware of someone watching him. It was the girl - the delicate eyebrows, the delicate cheekbones, the smoky eyes. She was leaning, exquisitely dressed, in the alley.

            "You've been following me this entire time," he said.

            "You're hurt." She approached and bent to inspect the wound.

            "It's nothing," he said. "Who are you?"

            "Julia," she said simply.

            "I see. Julia, may I borrow this?" He deftly removed the scarf from her neck, wadded it up, and stuffed it between his now-soaked handkerchief and his leg. He smiled at her. "Thanks."

            "No problem," she said, and smiled slightly. He expected her glass-smooth skin to shatter, but she smiled easily, if deliberately. "Here, I'll help you back to your flat, Mr. Hanjan."

            He regarded her sharply. "And how do you know my name?"

            "Everyone knows your name. You're famous."

            "Can the wit - how do you know me?"

            "Don't get angry. I was eavesdropping in the bar."

            "Ah." Hanjan arched an eyebrow at her. "And our conversation piqued your interest enough that you decided to follow me through the slums of Twelling?"


            "And you expect me to believe that?"


            He shrugged. "Fair enough." Then, "Fine, let's go." He was not unaware that he was wounded and over a mile from home, or that the lady offering him her companionship was startlingly beautiful. She was interested in him, at any rate, and he was determined to know why. She offered him her arm and he leaned on it, taking the weight off his punctured leg. He studied her face.

            "What's your last name?"


            "Julia Lombard."

            "Yes. My husband's name - I keep it, though I am long since widowed." He noticed the ring on her finger, a wispy band of white gold with a flat round sapphire set in it.

            "I'm sorry to hear that."

            "It was a long time ago."

            Hanjan winced suddenly as he stumbled and put too much weight on his bad leg. She caught his elbow.

            "Careful, you don't want to aggravate it." She spoke with a measure of cool reserve, even in her concern. Hanjan asserted that he would aggravate it if he wanted to, and she smiled placidly, which irritated him intensely. They reached his flat, a dingy, musty set of rooms four floors up from the street. He fumbled with the key.

            "I suppose you can come in if you want. I warn you, though, it's a bachelor's dwelling." She nodded absently. He opened the door and swept aside a stack of books by the door, kicking them away. A tiny lantern glowed in the corner. He stoked it, throwing a warm orange glow over the place. He gestured at a chair, and she sat on the edge of it, her legs crossed under her dress. He limped into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of port and two glasses. He filled them and handed one to her, which she sipped politely.

            "Okay," she said, with a sudden tone of authority. "Lie down." He arched an eyebrow at her and tried to think of a joke. "Lie down," she said, "and let's have a look at that leg." He reclined obediently, and she pulled his pant leg up over the wound.

            "There's gauze in the bathroom," Hanjan said. "And a bottle of rubbing alcohol." She retrieved them. He winced as she bathed the wound with alcohol. She bandaged it quickly, expertly. She smelled of flowers.

            "I volunteered as a nurse once," she said.

            "You seem the philanthropic type."

            "Hush." She finished and he sat up, jerking down his pant leg in an attempt to regain dignity. "Mr. Hanjan, I'll speak frankly."


            "I have information essential to your task. In exchange for this information, I only have two conditions - one, that you allow me to accompany you to Scrighton."

            He shook his head. "Impossible. I didn't ask for your help, and I don't want it."

            "I know the exact location of the Opal."

            He arched his eyebrow. "Then we might have something to talk about. Why do you want to come, though?"

            "Don't ask - that's the other condition." He laughed curtly.

            "I don't know how you expect me to accept those conditions. You're asking me to trust a complete stranger - a stranger who knows more than she should, at that."

            "Either accept them or don't. However, know also that we can use my craft for the journey."

            "And what kind of ship do you have?"

            "A Quallic United Solby '36."

            "You have a Solby '36?" She nodded. "They only made a hundred of those!" She nodded. Hanjan bit his lip and considered. Prior to the strange woman's appearance, he had been completely lost as to how he would actually find Gorio's former dwelling - the old man had long since forgotten the address. Additionally, his own ship, an aging Hagrim Shipyards Light Blimp (Series II) was hardly reliable; on his last journey, the balloon had sprung a leak, forcing him to crash (albeit gently) on a carefully maintained and almost priceless orchid garden, one of the many such indulgences that graced the numberless mansions dotting Shimmershore. Hanjan, being a gentleman, had knocked politely on the mansion door, asking for help and claiming responsibility. It was a matter of excruciating surprise to find that the garden belonged to the notorious Mr. Geddoes, which luminary might or might not have ties to the underworld of Twelling. That uncertainty was part of his mystique, part of the crucial image that had made him so popular and wealthy, and kept his debtors in terrified thrall. Geddoes had been pleased to reveal that the ruined garden was not quite priceless, that it had a very actual price, that price being sixty thousand gildan. Hanjan had not flown his craft since. He could not afford it. Now, this woman had stepped from the shadows, holding the keys to his fiscal salvation. He didn't like it - he reflected that he didn't have to like it - but he didn't see any alternatives.

            He sipped his drink and swirled the glass, trying to look pensive. "I accept your offer. However, let's get some rules down. One - I'm in charge. This is my job, and I'm in charge. You do what I say. Something goes wrong, we get out of there, and I owe you nothing. Got it?" She nodded and smiled, then raised her glass.

            "To your successful command of our enterprise."

            "Yes…" Her inscrutability irritated him immensely. He determined to find out what she wanted, eventually. Not tonight, though. Tonight he wanted a hot bath, and eight or nine more drinks.

            "I am, of course, forbidden to ask questions, but I must confess that I'm intensely curious about your motives here."

            "I'm sure you are." She drained her glass and stood. "I'll meet you tomorrow morning at hangar nineteen, Urses-Kallim International, with the necessary information. Shall we say ten o'clock?"

            "Eleven. I plan on being hung over and unshaven."

            "You are a most charming reprobate, Mr. Hanjan."

            "And you are a most vexing harpy! But with stunning legs, and a high, firm bosom," Hanjan did not say. He just blinked at her. "Right. See you tomorrow." She let herself out, leaving Hanjan alone in a fragrant confusion. He picked up the bottle and drew a bath.




            A fine morning beset Euscony, the velvet dawn warming the stacked islands gracefully. Hanjan slowly picked himself up off the floor. In his dreams, he had caught Julia in some sort of compromising position. The exact memory was vague, but she had been startled to see him, and her embarrassment had suddenly turned to aggression, and she had leapt at him and ravished him violently. He was aware of an ecstatic futility in her embrace, and was suddenly seized by a desire to murder her. Then Nolan had come to him, his harelip exaggerated and monstrous, explaining that Geddoes wanted his fingers, then his legs, then his arms. Hanjan had thrust a dagger into him over and over, but each time it felt like he was stabbing into wood, and Nolan calmly repeated his request for Hanjan's fingers, legs, and arms, until Hanjan had cut them off himself to satisfy the man. Hanjan was then left in limbless peace, until he realized that he was stacked, one of many in a limitless pile of corpses, all of them covered in incandescent green slime, all of them beginning to run together painfully. Old Gorio was in the middle, clutching an ebony box and moving obliviously through the pile. All tried to clutch him, to pull themselves to safety, but Gorio shook them off. He passed Hanjan, who yelled at him, but he did not hear. The pile of corpses gibbered with echoing screams and maddened laughter. Hanjan clung to his coherency, but could feel himself becoming one with the pile - he screamed, not out of madness or despair, but in order to assert his distinction from the human mass around him. He screamed loud enough to wake himself up, tossing, and, unused to the weight of arms and legs, flung himself out of bed.

            His head pounded. His leg ached. He stumbled to the kitchen and drank great volumes of water, then deliberately failed to shave. He strapped a dagger - the only weapon he owned - to his unwounded calf, under his pants, ran his fingers through his hair a few times, and threw himself out the door.

            Urses-Kallim International was the pride of Twelling. The great port, a glittering structure of stone and glass, saw traffic from all corners of Aetheria - from distant and alien Syrodecia, regal Quallia, barbarous Tariq, Kolodo, and dozens of scattered lesser realms. At any given moment, at least one massive passenger zeppelin was disgorging its human cargo into the maelstrom of commerce; workers bearing crates or packages swarmed like ants aboard massive airships from Highpoint or Quallia - great thrumming monstrosities, powered equally by massive engines and floatstone, engineered by the greatest tech-mages in Aetheria. Personal couriers flitted to and fro on pedal-powered aerocycles, creating a frenetic constellation. The air beat with the vibrant pulse of industry and thrilled with the promise of adventure - this to Hanjan was a very tangible thing, and he drank it in greedily.

            He met Julia at hangar nineteen - she was sitting, indiscernible legs crossed under a deep blue dress of crushed velvet. Her dark hair rested in a net of light blue lace. She had a maroon cloak, also of crushed velvet, drawn around her shoulders. If she looked exquisite the previous night, Hanjan reflected, now she looked absolutely, almost foolishly, regal. Her carriage and dress made his curiosity deepen, and he consequently resented her just a bit more. She rose and held her hand out to him, palm down, with an expectant air. He seized her hand and shook it roughly.

            "Very pleased to see you again, Mrs. Lombard." He had difficulty recalling the exact tone of awkwardness and confusion from their conversation last night, so he chose to be cordial. She had regained her cool reserve, definitely, and he determined to match that.

            "I think you can call me Julia."

            "Sure thing, Mrs. Lombard."

            "Don't be coy, Hanjan." He grinned at her and crossed the great stone floor of hangar nineteen. The hangar was reserved for the use of small private craft, but only a certain few could afford the cost of docking here. The sun poured in through the open roof and the massive windows. He gestured at a sleek craft in the corner - a sphere about eighteen feet across, the top one single piece of glass, the bottom polished steel. A single leathery fin, like the brim of a hat, circled it around the middle.

            "This yours?"

            "Do you see any other Solby '36s?"

            "Don't be coy…" he began to mutter. He twisted a knob on the side and the glass slid back into the bottom half noiselessly, granting access to two seats and a rather spacious cabin. "Wonderful piece of machinery, here. They couldn't move 'em, though - too expensive to maintain. How did you get one?"

            "Alexey - my husband was an enthusiast about flyers. He collected them." He noticed for the first time a faint Quallic accent in her speech - something that indicated good (or at least expensive) breeding. It was evocative of green pastures, ancient stone houses, and afternoons drinking tea on the lawn. "This was his favorite." Hanjan stared past her.

            "Excuse me." He rushed past her, towards a man on the other side of the hangar, a tall, thin man in a wide hat. "You there! Excuse me!" Nolan turned around and grinned at Hanjan.

            "Oh, hi, Hanjan! I was just thinking about you - " Hanjan grabbed two handfuls of Nolan's coat and hefted him, slamming him back against the wall.

            "What the bloody hell are you doing here? I've got a week to get Geddoes his money, you said that yourself!"

            "Right, right! I just thought I'd check up on you and see how that's coming. Relax!" Hanjan did relax, a little, and let Nolan down, but kept his grip. "How's the leg?"

            Hanjan shook him again. "Not funny. Remember, I owe you one now, Nolan. And, as Geddoes knows, and you will learn, I always repay my debts." He gave him another good shake. "I don't want to see you again. If you're trying to rattle me, it's not gonna work. Got it? In a week, I'll bring that money myself to Geddoes - not you. I don't want to think you're following me."

            "Easy. Relax. I'm just making sure that you're doing something about it. Now, please - " Nolan gestured, and Hanjan released him. He straightened his coat, readjusted his hat, and smiled at Hanjan. "I'll give Mr. Geddoes your message." He walked away, leaving Hanjan alone with his adrenalin.

            "What was that about?" Julia asked as he stalked back to the Solby.

            "Hey, I don't ask you questions." She shrugged. "Let's go."


            The Solby hummed to life, the wing spinning around the craft. Hanjan pulled a lever, and it rose quietly and implausibly off the ground. It moved smoothly away from the port, gliding swiftly through the air.

            "Remarkable," Hanjan said. "It's like we're barely moving at all. This craft was a hundred thousand well spent."

            "A hundred and fifty."

            "Damn." He glanced from the controls at her. She was watching the fading bustle of UKI behind them. The island of Solbaan hung over them, the Shimmersea pouring endlessly off the edge, creating a massive and brilliant rainbow. Hanjan began a wide descending spiral, floating down to Scrighton, half a mile below.

            "I can't believe that no one lives there anymore."

            "I can - you heard the old man's story."

            "Maybe - but to abandon a land like that. It's huge!" She gestured at Scrighton, a distant dark mass below. "I understand most of our food used to come from there, too."

            "Maybe, a long long time ago, before we settled the Vales. By the time of the GED disaster, it was mostly slums."

            "No great loss, right?" He ignored this. "It seems like something could have been done to clean it up - it's a lot of land, a big part of Euscony that we just aren't using, except as a place to throw junk."

            "Not really. I've actually been there, remember? Outside of the port, it's a wasteland - nothing grows, it stinks - pungent, like ammonia. Also, towards the middle, where there's less wind, you hear about these great poisonous fogs, made by the tetrathaumide - they're still there, just clinging to the city, after all these years." The Solby hummed downward. The bright morning sun shined through the glass dome, warming the cabin. Julia removed her cloak. A flock of thoons rose before them - lithe feathery beasts, wings beating in unison across the rose-colored dawn. "And that stuff - it won't melt you anymore, after sixty years, but it still does strange things. On a junker run, I once netted a thoon that came too close to the barge. It had this green slime on it, covering it, running out from its eyes and beak - the thing had no flesh on its neck - you could see the bone, but it was still moving! It should have been dead, but it wasn't. Wasn't even bleeding, just oozing that green stuff." He shuddered with the memory.

            After an hour of descent, they hovered a few hundred feet over the edge of Scrighton. Junker barges moved slowly over the land, laden with refuse fallen from the higher islands or salvage from the ruins. Hanjan pointed at a particularly dense mass of barges to the south.

            "That's Hoggis - the only city remaining on Scrighton. It's a few thousand junkers, and people who deal with junkers, and their families. They came back and rebuilt after the GED spill. They tried to reclaim the land around Hoggis for a while, tried to resettle it, but outside of that one area, people tended to get sick pretty quickly. Back in… '22, I think it was, Eetsze Gumling - you know, the Prior from Scrighton, launched a major ‘reclamation initiative.’ They brought in crews of workers and tech-mages to try to clean it up. They started demolishing old burned-out buildings and scrubbed down the streets with this foam - most of the workers who were actually doing the scrubbing got horrible skin diseases. Some of them died. They gave up, and no one's tried since."

            "And the Opal is lost somewhere in all that," Julia said absently.

            "No, the Opal is in the Perma-dark. That's even worse. No one goes there at all." Hanjan chewed on his lip for a minute. "Julia, I think now would be a good time to tell me what's in this for you."

            "The Veld Opal. That's what I'm after."

            "No, the Opal is going back to Mr. Gorio, in exchange for two hundred thousand gildan." It was getting darker in the cabin as they began to enter the shadow of Twelling. A greenish film began to accumulate on the glass dome.

            "Gorio is a crazy old fool. You'll never get your money - you know he would never sell the Opal."
            "And you would?"
            "Yes," she said. "I would."

            "That so?"

            "The Opal will go to me, Mr. Hanjan, and for your part in that, you will be paid two hundred and fifty thousand gildan."

            "Sold." He didn't worry that the Opal was in a box that only the old man could open. He'd let her figure that out. That extra fifty thousand would keep him for more than a year. He couldn't afford to have scruples anymore. The last time he had, he'd landed sixty thousand in debt. "But, I have to ask. Why's it so important to you? You're an evidently rich woman - why do you have to have this rock?"

            She looked away from him, out the window, out over the sprawling ruins of Scrighton. Arched skeletons of towers and houses, blackened by ancient flames, crumbled eternally below. "Alexey would have wanted me to have it."

            "Alexey, your husband?"


            Hanjan blinked a few times. "Explain." He stretched, arching his back and looking up into the sky above. He squinted at something in the distance above, then sat up and fumbled with the controls. Meanwhile, Julia spoke distantly.

            "He always wanted it - wanted it for me. It's something of a - a birthright for me, you see." Hanjan shuddered - he'd heard those words before. "I told him about it, as my father told me, and his father told him - the Opal, the tear of the goddess Veld - and he thought it was a marvelous thing, that such a stone had belonged to my family. You see, my name wasn't always Lombard, of course - my name used to be Lerreu."

            "What?" Hanjan put the Solby into a deep dive. They plummeted towards the charred cityscape below - the hum of the engine grew in volume and intensity. "Keep talking, I'm listening. It's just that I think we're being followed."

            Hanjan had expected this ever since the encounter with Nolan in the hangar. When stretching, he had spotted a Cophron Aeroglide - a popular civilian craft, a large craft, capable of seating eight - above them. Only junkers came this close to the Perma-dark, and very few of them. No reason an Aeroglide should be in this area, unless it were following them. He brought the Solby within a hundred feet of the ground, whipping it over decrepit rooftops. He shot a glance over his shoulder - the Aeroglide was right behind them, struggling to keep up.

            "So you're Lerreu - the daughter of the last owner of the Opal?"

            "Granddaughter," she said defensively. "I'm twenty-eight!"

            "Whatever. So I guess that's how you know where to find this thing. Employee records or something?"

            "Yes." Birds erupted from rooftops in their wake. She tapped a leather binder on her lap. "Complete address, health records, employment history of all former Lerreu employees. It took some time, but I finally found Gorio's family, and their exact address - 52 Skolode Street, Twelfth Precinct. I got a map, too, from before the spill. Where are we now?"

            "Hang on." The framework of a mammoth building - probably an old factory, Hanjan thought - loomed ahead, a collection of girders with stones and rubbish heaped around its base. The Solby was traveling at well over sixty knots by now, and the Aeroglide was starting to drop behind. The light dimmed as they neared the Perma-dark. He wheeled the Solby about, slammed the throttle lever all the way down, and Julia gasped as they were jerked forward in their seats, the Solby coming to a dead stop in midair, then spinning as it fell into the framework below. Hanjan kept his hand on the lever, then slammed it on again. The wing hummed around the Solby, and they floated in the gloom of the building, the girders crossing the pale sky above.

            "We might've lost them." Hanjan stared straight up, waiting. The Aeroglide roared overhead. It was not as graceful a machine as the Solby - a large cabin, made mostly of wood, reinforced occasionally by steel, held aloft by a large spinning rotor mounted on the top, the product of graceless industrial wizardry, a minimum of beauty and a maximum of functionality. They waited. A few minutes later, it came back, circling the building into which they had disappeared, then turning and flying away. "Yes!"

            He looked at her. "I'm sorry. Right now, I believe we're in the ruins of the old squanaise factory - about here on the map."

            "So we're about ten miles away yet," she said.

            "Yes. Please continue with your story." He reignited the engines, and they lifted off the ground.

            "So I knew that this Opal had once belonged to my family, and still did, really - my grandfather only gave it to Gorio to watch it for him. I think he meant it to come back to our family eventually, but, of course, it was lost. So I knew that Gorio had it, but I couldn't figure out where he had it, until I overheard him talking about it in the Burgeoned Ferry."

            "Last night." She said nothing. "Until you heard him talking about it last night, right?" She looked out the window. "Have you heard him talking about it before?" She said nothing. "Answer me!"

            "I have," she said quietly. "You aren't the first person he's sent after this Opal. He might have been sending people after it for years. But he keeps sending them."

            "Then either he's crazy and sends people after nothing," Hanjan said grimly, "or no one has managed to get it yet. What are we flying into? Is there even an Opal out there? All we have is the word of that deranged old man!"

            "No, it's out there!" she cried. "It's out there!" She almost sobbed these last words. Hanjan regarded her.

            "How are you so sure?"

            She put her hand on her forehead and leaned her head against the dome. "Because it has to be. Simple as that."

            "I… see. And why does it have to be?" She whimpered quietly and hid her face in her cloak. "Why does it have to be out here?"

            "Because Alexey can't have died… for nothing!"

            "Wait! Explain!" he shouted. "What do you mean by that?"

            "I told you!" She shouted back at him, her cool reserve evaporating completely, her serenity dropping away. She waved her hands violently and slapped at the dome in her despair. Hanjan thought of her in his dream, losing her composure, becoming vulnerable for half a second, and he was seized briefly by the urge to commit violence. She stopped, sucked in her breath sharply, and said, her voice trembling, "I told you. I told Alexey about the Opal and he wanted me to have it. Said it was my birthright."

            "You said it was your birthright."

            "Alexey thought so too, and he wanted me to have it - he wanted me to have it."

            "You wanted you to have it."

            "It doesn't matter! Alexey thought I should have it, and it was all he could talk about, and so after I first heard Gorio's story, I told him, and he went for it."


            "And like you said, Mr. Hanjan - people don't come out of the Perma-dark." The Solby skimmed along. Sunlight was extinguished, and the creeping iron darkness drew around them like a curtain.

            "So the Opal is there because it has to be there. Otherwise Alexey would have died for nothing." She nodded numbly. "Would it be so much better if he died for a rock?" She glared at him, her eyes red and rimmed with tears. A revulsion billowed in his stomach; the more he thought about the rock and this lacerated woman next to him, the more it grew. He quit thinking, and the bile subsided. "I'm very sorry for your loss," he said, with an unknown degree of coolness. Something rustled in his heart momentarily, then faded. He returned his attention to the controls. "It looks like we're about there.

            "Veld the mother," she said quietly.

            "What's that?"

            "Veld is the mother goddess - the matron. The Syrodiceans believe it was she who bore the world, and she, forever our - their - mother, watches over it. That she, like any mother, has put her hopes and dreams into us." Hanjan laughed.

            The Perma-dark was aptly, if inelegantly, named. In the distance the horizon glowed a dull grey, but this faint light only served to make their immediate surroundings darker by contrast. Skeletal buildings writhed, twisting and crawling with the eons across the blighted ground. The structures were barely visible - the darkness seemed not just an absence of illumination, but a tangible and malicious force that sought to extinguish anything daring to flicker. Hanjan coughed. The pervading sense of latent hostility was unmistakable. He flicked a switch, and a piece of amber set in the dome began to glow brightly as magical energy flowed into it from the Solby's capacitors. Julia shuffled the map. "I think that's it." She pointed at an unremarkable structure, all charred timbers and rubble, before them.

            "Okay. Let me find a place to set down." He scanned his surroundings, but most of the street was covered in rubble, timbers or stones cast down from toppling buildings filling the street. Hanjan found a spot about a block away, a bit of relatively undisturbed avenue. He set the Solby down gently and looked at Julia. "Ready? I think we both want to be out of here as soon as possible." She nodded and rummaged through the tools in the back of the cabin, producing two bug-lanterns and two short shovels. She cracked a lantern on the bulkhead, killing the fist-sized insect inside, rupturing its organs and causing its bile and blood to mingle, which produced a bright green glow that lasted for hours and did not spoil night vision. She handed one to Hanjan with a tight smile.

            "Let's go." He opened the canopy and they stepped out into the Perma-dark.




            A chill and rank wind howled around them. Julia shivered and pulled her cloak around herself. The Perma-dark was deathly quiet, absolutely quiet, the absence of sound pairing naturally with the absence of light. Hanjan moved murkily through the dark, holding the bug-lantern high and moving within its pool of wan light.

            "Stay close, Julia," he whispered. His words rolled and echoed over the dead city. Only ten feet away, he could barely see her, the blackness pressing in on her lantern. He approached her and took her hand. She clenched it, evidently glad of human company. They stepped uncertainly down the street. A groan, a horrible echoing groan, like a steel girder tearing in half, reverberated down the street. Julia squeezed his hand.

            "What the bloody hell was that?" Hanjan raised the lantern and peered futilely around. Images swam before his eyes. He suddenly imagined this street sixty years ago, with street lamps sparking and spewing flames, the dark relieved for once by the ravaging fires - he saw mothers holding babies wailing as the tetrathaumide ate into them…

            He shook his head and tugged on Julia's hand. "Let's hurry." They moved as quickly as they dared to the former Gorio residence, and reached it after fifteen minutes of stumbling and slipping through rubble-strewn streets. Julia let go of his hand and began sifting through the rubble with her shovel. Hanjan set his lantern on a block of stone and joined her, pausing to reflect. "You know, after Gorio's story, you'd think you'd see bodies here."

            She looked up from her work. "It was sixty years ago. They could've decayed."

            He shrugged. His shovel swept away ash and bits of wood, smoky remains of glass, blocks or shards of stone. He waited for it to hit solid wood, for that firm sound that meant he found something not rotted or crumbling. They dug for hours. Hanjan noted that the sun would be setting by now, which seemed funny to him. Julia did not speak or respond to him, only dug, dug tenaciously. She moved furiously through the ruin, flinging shovelfuls of ash and rot out into the street, grunting as she levered aside a fallen block of stone. They worked in the tiny perimeter of weak light until Hanjan's back ached and his hands bled with blisters. He leaned against an extant timber.

            "Where is it? Satv, this is taking forever."

            "It's here!" Julia said.

            "Wait! Do you hear that?" Hanjan gestured for her to stop speaking and pointed to the sky. From far overhead, barely audible, came a distinct and familiar chop-chop-chop.

            "It's your friends in the Aeroglide!" Julia cried. "We have to find this thing and get out of here! No one is taking this from me." Her shovel bit into the ground. "No one." Her shovel flew rapidly, dust and ash flying over her shoulder. "No - " Her shovel hit something solid, and she flung it aside, dropping to her knees and pawing through the rot and ash. "I - I - I found it! Here it is! Here it is!" She squealed, gasped, sobbed. She pulled a filthy wooden box from the ground, ash billowing around it as she did. Hanjan caught an impression of runes and inscriptions crossing its surface. She clutched it to her chest and rocked back and forth. "I found it! I found it!"

            "Julia - " She kept rocking, tears rolling down her porcelain cheeks.

            "I found it. Oh, Alexey…"

            "Julia! We need to go." Hanjan threw the shovel down, grabbed his lantern, and yanked her to her feet. She wiped her eyes on her grimy cloak. The wind howled, the wind screamed around them. Her cloak whipped around her shoulders, her long dark hair streaming around her face. She was a holy martyr, gripped by ecstasy and abandon, streaked with grime and ash.

            "I found it…"

            "Yes. Let's go!" He grabbed her hand and they ran up the street. A second groan, a horrible resounding groan, echoed around them, accompanied by another rank gust. The higher buildings on the street shook and shrieked in the wind, and the groan rose in pitch, blending into the wind so that Hanjan wondered if he'd heard it at all.

            "That sounds… that sounds like people," Julia said. "Not just one - it sounds like a lot of people."

            "Yeah," said Hanjan. They ran for the Solby, then stopped short. In the light cast by the Solby, he saw movement. He covered their lanterns and ducked to the ground.

            "Dammit. Dammit!" he growled. "They must have seen the light from the Solby." Leaning against the Solby or sitting on scattered blocks were Nolan and three toughs. Behind them, Hanjan dimly perceived the silhouette of the Aeroglide. He spat in anger. "I guess they figured that whatever we were after was worth sharing." Two of the thugs were sitting under an old brick wall. Hanjan eyed it, wondering what it would take to make it fall.

            "Throw bricks at them! Like you did last night!" He stared at her.

            "You're talking nonsense, woman. You're so addled by that damn box you can't think straight."

            Julia shrieked as the ground shook. Hanjan was cast to his feet. The skeletons quaked and waved, and the wall did crumble. Hanjan's head spun and he got up slowly. Julia was cowering on the ground, wrapped around the box. Nolan and his remaining friend were crouched around the remains of the wall, digging through the rubble, tossing bricks aside. They pulled one dusty and bruised man out, who began screaming wildly. He pointed past Nolan at something in the darkness - then the light from the Solby was extinguished, something huge and monstrous blocking it. Hanjan choked on the fetid air and pulled Julia off the ground. In the darkness, he heard an infernal and pestilent babbling - he heard the thug's shrieking, and heard that shrieking mocked and multiplied a hundred times. Then Nolan and the tough were bolting from the Solby through the darkness. The tough ran into him. Hanjan tripped him and pounced on him, rolling, and clubbed him with a stone. The tough quit moving. Nolan, realizing he was not alone, turned with a snarl on Hanjan, his eyes wide with fright - the eyes of the hunted. The ground shook again and Julia screamed as another building collapsed in an explosion of dust and stone. The light from the Solby was blotted out again. Hanjan gagged on the fetor and ducked low, punching Nolan in the gut. He knocked him to the ground and straddled him, striking his face savagely, relishing each blow. Nolan fumbled in his coat and drew his little crossbow. Hanjan swatted it from his hand and hit him again. He looked up. Julia was picking the box up from the ground. She dashed for the Solby, now visible again.

            "Julia - wait!" Nolan seized the distraction and punched Hanjan in the throat, then pushed him off. Hanjan sprawled choking on the ground and felt desperately for his dagger as Nolan went for his crossbow. He found it, fingers slick with blood slipping on the hilt, then unsheathed it and sprung at Nolan, Nolan pointing the crossbow at his chest. Hanjan grabbed Nolan, hugged him as he twisted the dagger in Nolan's stomach. He gazed into his eyes, widening with pain, his split and bleeding lips trembling with shock, as he dragged the dagger sideways across his abdomen, then drove it slowly, almost gently, upwards to his heart, grinding it against bone. Nolan grasped Hanjan tightly, gasping and gurgling grotesquely by his ear. Hanjan felt his face pinching with the impulse to weep. He felt a sudden, futile compulsion to kiss the dying man - something, some gesture to give him - but he did not. He let go and Nolan collapsed wetly. Hanjan flung the dagger away.

            "Oh, Satv… oh. Oh." He wiped his eyes quickly, clumsily, as hot furtive tears squeezed forth. "Oh. Oh. Julia!"

            Julia wheeled. She was at the Solby, about fifty yards away, climbing in. He ran slowly towards her. "Julia!" She stepped in his direction, then began to run to him. Then she disappeared, blocked from sight. He shook his head, and in the blotted light from the Solby, he could almost make out the thing - a great lumbering thing. He sprinted around it, circling it for more light.

            It was huge - probably fifty feet tall. Yellowed and glistening bones, smeared with black and rotted viscera, knitted together into a grotesque anatomy, bipedal to give it a rough approximation of humanity. Decayed tatters of skin worked around the joints, stretched and jeering faces, eyes lolling madly, the stench, the fog of green death pervading it, pumping throughout the charnel frame. Julia cowered before it. She screamed, and a hundred desiccated voices screamed with her.




            Hanjan fled. He lifted off in the Solby after watching the thing recede back into the darkness. He opened the throttle and tore across the sky, and flew for he knew not how long. He thought of nothing at all. He couldn't afford to think. If he did, he knew his thoughts would turn to Julia, and he would wonder what she had thought at that crucial awful moment, or if she had searched for the face of her beloved among the chattering horde. Or if her thoughts had been solely of the Opal. The Opal…

            The heavy wooden box lay on the seat next to him. Julia's last act had been to hoist it into the cockpit. Hanjan took it and turned the box over in his hands. He traced the inscriptions on the lid with his finger. He sat it back down.




The eternal smoke that inhabits the Burgeoned Ferry curled as Hanjan walked in. Gorio sat in the same spot. Hanjan walked to his table and, without sitting down, dropped the box on the table.

            "Here it is, old man. All yours." No one else around who can claim it, he thought. Gorio gaped.

            "I - I don't know what to do!"

            "How about opening it?"

            "Yes, yes, of course." His veined and frail hands shook as he drew the key from around his neck. He missed the keyhole three times. Hanjan tried to guide his hands.

            "I can do it! Don't touch it!"

            "Right." He finally succeeded and turned the key slowly, the lock rasping with the grime of ages. He shook and quivered in his seat, and, looking around, drew the box closer. Impatient, Hanjan grabbed the lid and flung it open.

            Within, nestled in black velvet, sat the Veld Opal. It swirled iridescently, soft light seeming to flow from it, beautifying everything around. Hanjan imagined the goddess mother, her great eye looking upon the world she had borne and shedding a single crystalline tear. A tear for us, Hanjan thought. What need have we for tears of gods? He saw the stone remaining unblemished while Gorio rotted away, saw it changing bloody hands for eons. Bile rose in his throat.

            "It's beautiful," Gorio said, steeped in awe.

            "It's just a rock." Hanjan waved at it, and laughed. "It's just a rock!" He turned and walked away.

            "Your money…" Gorio said absently.

            "I don't want your bloody money, old man," Hanjan said without turning around. The smoke curled around him as he left.



            Bartolo turned the chair over and put it on the table. He bent, sweeping under it, collecting bits of food, refuse from pipes, dried clumps of mud. He finished and moved to the next booth.

            "Hey, old man," he said, shaking Gorio by the shoulder. "We're closed. Old man!" He shook him again. Gorio slumped forward, his head smacking into the table, the hard sustaining will finally satisfied and thus extinguished.

            "Ah, hell…" Bartolo said. "Can I get some help over here? Hey!" He shouted back into the kitchen. He pushed Gorio aside and caught a glimpse of radiance nestled in black velvet, of sparkling and alluring iridescence. "What's this?" He picked it up and gazed at the Opal. "Well, you certainly don't need this anymore." He closed the case and slipped it into his coat.


The End


© 2006-2007 by Jens Rushing.  Jens Rushing has sold stories to Out West magazine, Rage Machine magazine, Amalgamae magazine, and Fantasist Enterprises (Sails & Sorcery anthology).  He is a mediocre guitarist and a lamentable pianist. He lives in north Texas with his astonishingly beautiful wife.