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The Axle Chronicles

Episode 1: Jerwhen

“Cut it off.”

Jerwhen supposed it was the way it was said that drove him berserk. His Harvey said it without emotion, stating it as simply as he might remark upon the weather. That they could discuss the future of his arm in such a manner was too much for Jerwhen to bear.

He had endured aches and fevers since entering the tropics and had not once complained. He had hidden buried in the dung pile of one of the great wurms for three days without moving in order to avoid the notice of a band of Cthalti. He had even undergone a temporary magical metamorphosis into a sexless insectoid drone in order to be allowed to pass through the territory claimed by the Vyenti hive. Through it all, he had kept his composure. He lost it now.

Jerwhen didn’t lash out physically. He didn’t scream or shout or make any noise at all. He only flipped a tiny red switch that existed solely within his mind. He had never flipped that switch before, although he knew of others who had.

Jerwhen’s Harvey looked startled for a second. It started to open its mouth, perhaps to speak. Then it vanished, brutally turned off.

It wasn’t really murder. Harvey would most likely come back. Even if he didn’t return, he wasn’t really gone. You couldn’t actually kill your soul, right? The most learned men of Megado were sure you could not. The city councils of Trys and Ulchen were less convinced that Harveys were souls, but of the transcendent and indestructible nature of both, they were just as certain.

The damnable thing was that Harvey was right as always. Jerwhen’s arm had turned to stone past the elbow, and the transmogrification showed no signs of reversing or even halting itself. If he didn’t cut the arm off soon he would be just another statue decorating the Corkscrew. And that was not how he intended to end his journey.

Jerwhen lifted his knife, stared at his arm, and lowered it again. He knew he had no other choice, and yet he couldn’t do it. Too weary to drag the massive weight attached to his shoulder a single step further, he collapsed. His body crumpled and his mind simultaneously sank into its own misery.

For several hours Jerwhen barely moved. Eventually he began to reminisce. He went back to the very beginning of his memory, which was hardly four years ago. This wasn’t strange. No one could remember what came before that morning. Even the machines and golems they had found to be their servants had no records of a prior time.

It had been utter panic. The entire populace had woken with no memory. There were clues as to what positions were held by whom, but it was later discovered that not even their bodies remembered the tasks they had supposedly done. It was soon speculated that their memories had been wiped and they had been transplanted from other worlds. For surely they had once seen stars, had they not? They had not always lived under the perpetual grayness of this world.

Such speculations came later. First there was panic. Golems and machines stood ready to serve, but they couldn’t fill the emptiness. And the utter lack of knowledge always brings the realization that you have no control, which brings abject terror. That they could speak to their souls in this strange land made matters even worse.

Each citizen soon discovered a tiny man called Harvey whom only he could see and hear. Added to their amnesia was now the surety they were mad. They had started fires and riots. They had screamed and raved at the tiny men who beseeched them to remain calm. A few had inadvertently found the switches in their minds and banished their pleading souls.

Jerwhen had seemed possessed of preternatural calm that day. That had always been his nature most likely. While the city of Megado, for even then he had seen the signs naming it, crumbled around him he had calmly sought the machines and questioned them.

“And who do you serve?”

“I serve yourself Master Jerwhen.”

“Ah, so Jerwhen is my own name, not the name of another man who rents that room and these clothes to me?”

“Jerwhen is your own name, Master. It is also truthful to say that you let your belongings to yourself. Thus it could also be said…”

“Yes, never mind that,” interrupted Jerwhen. “Can you tell me why I have no memory of anything that happened before this morning?”

“I cannot say Master Jerwhen. My own memory runs back only one hour and forty seven minutes, at which time I became aware due to the lightening sky that my Master would soon be up and that I ought to prepare his clothing and breakfast for him. The location of such supplies being programmed into me, I had no need of sequential memory in order to achieve my duty.”

“I don’t think we’ll get much help from the machines.” That came from Harvey, sitting weightlessly on Jerwhen’s left shoulder. A little angle, a little devil, or a great madness. He might be any or all.

“I’m inclined to agree with you, little demon. What do you suggest we do instead?”

“Save as much of this city as we can. The more of it survives, the more we can examine later. I see great numbers of golems standing immobile. They are more than capable of putting out the flames and restraining the rioters. This city seems well ordered. It is reasonable that some password will activate them and that for the common defense of the city even an ordinary citizen may order them. If not, there will certainly be citizens with the proper authority, and I suppose the machines are more than capable of helping us to locate them.”

Harvey had turned out to be correct. Jerwhen’s personal butler machine had directed him to other machines which had in turn directed him to their masters. Eventually reason prevailed upon them and they began to activate the golems. Once activated the golems needed no orders. Protection of the city was their innate priority it seemed. And so Megado did not burn.

Machines along the bank of the great river tended to the irrigation projects without being minded. Machines in the fields tended to crops and livestock without being ordered. And so in the coming weeks and months the city did not starve either. And order was gradually established.

From the clues scattered about his residence Jerwhen guessed he had been a professional gambler. But he had no patience for cards, and his body retained no luck with dice if ever it had any. Whatever he had done before, it wasn’t his future. Fortunately he didn’t have to work to provide for himself.

The ruling class of Megado decided the machines in the fields belonged to everyone, and thus so did a share of the crops. With starvation cast aside, Jerwhen only needed funds to provide for his own amusement, funds the city graciously bestowed upon him in recognition of his role that first morning.

So Jerwhen began to study. He stuffed his mind with a vengeance, as if to make up for the twenty something years he had lost. He managed to borrow almost every book he could come across. Fortunately he proved to be quite literate in three languages. Within six months he could read two more. But he didn’t just accept the written works. He tirelessly checked them against each other, and against observational data when it could be found. He was possessed by the intuition that something, nay everything was false, and he set himself with the task of proving it.

Within a year Megado had allied itself with Trys and Ulchen, the two other major cities along the great river. Together with the villages surrounding the river and Lake Vos at its terminus they formed the United Cities of Ulaster. Trade was established, and with it came rumors.

There were rumors that above the constant cloud cover there was no rising and setting sun, that no matter how far east or west one traveled dawn always came at the same time. There were rumors that dragons to the south had flown as high as they dared but could not penetrate the clouds, that they had turned back not from cold or lack of air but from weakness brought on by hunger. There were rumors that to the northwest men were soulless, lacking Harveys.

It was while such rumors fomented in Jerwhen’s mind that the black man came knocking. There were dark skinned men in Megado, but none like this. The stranger was as dark as ink. Even his lips, his palms, his eyes. So dark and even were his features, so well did they swallow the light, that it was hard to make him out even with all the lamps blazing. He remained a shadow both to the eyes and to the mind. When he was gone Jerwhen would often wonder if he had dreamed him.

“The night is cold and I am weary of my travels. Will you invite me in, or do you here take lightly the customs regarding strangers, so lightly that you may gape and stand barring your doorway?”

Jerwhen quickly recovered his composure, as was his nature. He motioned the stranger inside and ordered his machines to stoke the fire and prepare a meal for the traveler.

“I’m honored by your presence. I did not intend rudeness. It is simply that you appear unlike any man I have seen, and I was momentarily held rapt at the prospect of hearing your tales.”

“As you should be, for I have tales like none you can yet imagine. But I intend to offer you more than stories for my stay.” The stranger paused, and his obsidian eyes seemed to look right into Jerwhen. “I know about you Master Jerwhen, and I did not choose your domicile by chance. You have a mind like others I have sought, a mind dedicated to ferreting out hidden truths and grasping firm the mysteries of our world. I would not have you waste your potential listening to the stories of old men until you become old yourself. I would have you seek the ends of the world until you have stories of your own.”

“I have means. I could undertake a journey, but I don’t know where I would begin. So much is only rumor. I shouldn’t pick my direction at random. I need a specific goal to attain, a specific question to answer. I need maps, allies or guides.”

“A sensible answer. And so you shall have all that. I advise you to focus your studies on machines. Tinker with them every opportunity that you can. Do this, and in two years time I will have laid all the preparations for your journey.”

Perhaps they spoke longer, but in the morning the traveler was gone and neither Jerwhen nor Harvey could remember a word more. Whether the man had been real or only a dream, Jerwhen followed his advice. He began tinkering with machines. Soon he was repairing the more simple ones. As his skill grew and was recognized, his hobby turned to work. His credit ceased to dwindle and began to grow. With his growing wealth he bought more and rarer books, more advanced machines, and more specialized tools. And as his skill grew, so did his horror.

The machines should not work. They could not work. And yet they did. He was confident he understood the principles. He could repair almost any machine that was laid at his doorstep. But with every job his spine tingled. Because the repairs he made ought not to return life to the construct. There was nothing in all that clockwork to give it a mind. True, there were scrolls aplenty stuffed inside the gears, read by tiny teeth spinning round and round. Yet that was not how machines ran, he was sure. And finally he understood why the stranger wanted him to learn to work machines. They were the proof of all his suspicions, proof that the world was a lie.

Whether the stranger had any direct influence was never known, but his word was kept. The preparations for Jerwhen were made with haste, but none the less well for that. Men across the world were pushed to madness those two years, making maps and taking measurements. The most incredible of the rumors were confirmed, and even greater ones spread to take their place. It was now whispered that the compass would not deviate no matter how far east or west one traveled, that lines running north would continue without ever converging. Men had known worlds that were curved. Now they lived on one that was flat.

But the most incredible tale of them all was of the Corkscrew. Deep in the tropics rested an enormous pillar, too perfect to be natural, yet too profound to have been built. The radius at its base was more than a dozen miles, but its height was the true marvel. It surged upwards without diminishing until it was lost from sight. If there were anything capable of penetrating the omnipresent cloud ceiling, it would be this structure. And though most of the surface was flawless, a single path, more than a hundred feet wide, had been carved in an endlessly ascending spiral.

Nicknamed the Corkscrew, the structure practically begged to be conquered by man. Jerwhen’s goal was revealed.

Jerwhen suddenly became aware that night had fallen, and he wondered how long he had been asleep. It had still been midday when he pushed the switch. Though he recalled laying motionless for what felt like hours, that still left a significant amount of time unaccounted for.

He reached over and probed the petrification boundary on his left arm. It felt higher than before, though not by much. The limb still felt like human flesh nearly to the elbow, near enough to give a sliver of hope that the process approached a natural limit. The arm was still lost, but at least Jerwhen had time before he needed to act.

Jerwhen shook his canteen, trying to gauge the water level. He had only traveled a little over fourteen thousand paces since the last pool of drinkable water, less than half a day’s march on the gentle slope of the Corkscrew. Unless you were carrying a stone arm that weighed nearly one hundred pounds. And you had to actually carry it. You couldn’t just let it hang naturally, not unless you wanted a dislocated shoulder. He’d discovered that the hard way, and had been fortunate not to injure himself worse. Back in place now, the joint still throbbed.

That meant the trip back would probably take four times as long as the climb up. With over a gallon of water remaining, two days wouldn’t put him in the danger zone, but it wouldn’t leave him with much margin for error either. If the petrification resumed its earlier speed, he’d never make it. The alternative was to amputate now, but he had no idea how weakened he’d be or how effectively a tourniquet would stop the blood loss. If he were incapacitated for several days, he would need to be within reach of water. Otherwise his canteen would run dry and he’d succumb to dehydration before he recovered the strength to move.

A slight scraping sound caught his ear and he turned in time to see the unfurling leaves of a misleadingly harmless looking flower. Though half the size, it was a perfect replica of the plant that would forever mark the pinnacle of Jerwhen’s journey, and for an instant he wondered if the horrid abomination could uproot and move. Then he spotted the parent, still anchored less than twenty paces uphill.

The flower looked remarkably similar to a rose, and Jerwhen had unthinkingly reached out to touch it, the first intrusion of beauty he’d encountered on this desolate spiral. When his fingers were only inches away, it had struck. It had moved so quickly that he had barely seen it, a tongue-like organ launching itself outward from the center of the bloom, the barbed tip spearing his finger and retreating behind the petals within the blink of an eye. It had reminded him of a chameleon striking at a bug.

Of course, the chameleon’s prey didn’t turn to stone. Otherwise, the comparison was apt. Jerwhen suddenly had no doubt that the flower was a predator, and he was its prey. He didn’t know if it was sentient, or acting on instinct. He only knew that flowers would spread in his direction, putting all available energy into finishing the job. He’d been a fool not to retreat further.

Jerwhen cut several straps of leather from one of the empty pockets on his pack and used them to make a sling for his arm, grateful that he was right-handed. Once he assured himself they could hold the weight, he began carefully making the descent. He had a feeling that to wait until morning would be suicide. Long before then, the blossoms he had begun calling “basilisk flowers” would reach him.

Fortunately, he had keen night vision and plenty of experience using it. Traveling through the hunting grounds of the Cthalti demanded no less.

The farmer drew a large X through half of Jerwhen’s map. The man had almost certainly never traveled more than a few miles beyond his own fields, but like all residents of Grimwell he seemed completely sure of his vast geographical knowledge. “You don’t want to go that way.”

“Why not? The Corkscrew is almost directly north. If I keep following this river to its source, it will be a simple matter to climb straight down the other side. You’re telling me I’d be better off taking a five hundred mile detour through the stomping grounds of reptilian psychopaths?”

“Yup. People trade with the Cthalti and come back all the time. Those that go north aren’t seen again.”

“Never?”

“Well… maybe one guy came back. And maybe he didn’t really go there at all.”

Grimwell was less a real city, and more a marketplace for a few hundred farmers that were nestled within the tributaries of the great river that ultimately fed Lake Vos. It was besieged on the eastern side by the nomadic Cthalti, tribes of scaled humanoids that claimed more than a few dragons among their ancestors. To the north and west were unknowns, monsters far more dangerous than anything humanly imaginable. If not for a steady stream of merchants from Ulchen, the community would have certainly perished.

As it was, they hung on at the edge of civilization, barely surviving. They took pride in their survival, and derived a strange sense of authority. It meant everything they claimed was suspect, their “expertise” in all matters to be distrusted.

Yet this was one issue that somehow struck Jerwhen as different. If he were to continue north, his journey would end sooner rather than later. As much as he dreaded the violent bands to the east, he would need to travel through their range if he really wished to reach the Corkscrew.

Jerwhen folded his map and placed it back in the secret pouch at the top of his pack. As long as he lived, the illusory magic would conceal the pocket. If he died, supposedly the enchanted leather could survive anything yet dreamed of, protecting the contents inside until a new owner came along. So whatever happened to Jerwhen, the precious maps would remain.

“Best sleep during the day, and do your traveling at night,” the farmer called out to Jerwhen’s rapidly departing back. “The worst of the Cthalti, the Crimson Claw, are nocturnal. They prefer to hunt at night, when they can see the body heat of their prey. You don’t want them sneaking up on you while you’re asleep.”

“Now he tells me.”

Jerwhen snapped back to the present, noticing the lightness of the sky. He only remembered a few minutes of walking before his mind wandered into the past, yet several hours had elapsed. This form of absent-mindedness was far from typical for him. In fact, he had always been known to have a peculiarly strong awareness of the present.

This change had occurred shortly after flipping the mental switch, and if the loss of his Harvey had affected his mental abilities, he might be suffering further deficits that he couldn’t discern. It was time to swallow his pride and reverse that rash action. Jerwhen zoomed in on the place within his mind’s eye that contained the switch, bringing it into sharp focus. Calming himself and pushing away all other thoughts, he willed the magnified red lever to flip over.

The switch clicked, but there was no further effect. Jerwhen quickly flipped it back and forth, but there was still no response. The connection was dead, and his Harvey remained lost.

Jerwhen struggled to remain calm. There were stories of men to the far northwest that had no Harveys. If those men could function, so could he. He would just need to adapt, to learn new tricks to keep his mind focused. As long as he remained calm, he could reason and plan. And as long as he could plan, he could figure a way out of this mess.

The first step was to reach water. He wasn’t sure exactly where he was, but he felt he’d made solid progress while his mind traveled elsewhere. His sling seemed to be holding, and the uneven distribution of weight wasn’t causing any serious problems yet. At this rate he might be able to reach the pool before nightfall.

Jerwhen decided on a plan to maintain focus. He’d use the counting that had naturally come to him during the journey up. He’d count paces to one hundred, and back down to zero. Then he’d stop, take a sip, rest if necessary, and continue.

One. Two…

Jerwhen took a deep breath before launching into yet another telling of his recent misadventures. He wasn’t sure if the story generated a modicum of respect, or simply made him into an object of ridicule. But since he doubted he had any choice, he would at least try to put an entertaining spin on the episode.

The Cthalti chieftain laughed as hard as ever, despite hearing the story repeated half a dozen times over the course of the last three hours. This gave Jerwhen a reason to hope that if nothing else, a storytelling career might yet be in his cards.

Jerwhen had been creeping through Cthalti territory for weeks without encountering a single sentient, and despite assurances that humans traded with Cthalti all the time, he was hoping the pattern held. He’d been moving at night as had been recommended, and though his night vision was unusually sharp for a human, he hadn’t been traveling anywhere near his usual pace. He was still at least a hundred miles away from being able to swing west to cross the mountains.

He spotted the Cthalti before they noticed him, a miracle made possible only by his heightened state of caution and their great numbers. There were nearly fifty in the war band, and though they traveled with the peace and security of a tribe deep within its own territory, still they were nearly silent. They blended effortlessly into the darkness, and Jerwhen saw them only because his paranoid eyes finally spotted a patch of motion that turned out to be real.

Jerwhen happened to be standing next to a small and oddly smelly hill when he made his discovery. He immediately froze, but within moments he remembered that Cthalti saw body heat. He would stand out like a torch to them as soon as they looked his way. Moving as quietly as possible, he slid around the hill and put it squarely between him and the war party. Just before the stealthy warriors slid out of view, a beam of moonlight struck one squarely in the chest, clearly illuminating the smear of red paint.

Jerwhen’s heart thudded so loudly that it drowned out the voice of his Harvey. This must be the dreaded Crimson Claw band. If they found him, death would not come easily. It was a minor miracle they hadn’t spotted him already, and he gave silent thanks to whatever beings were watching over him that night. He started to rest his hand on the mound of dirt before him, but pulled back at the surprising warmth and wetness of the soil. After a few seconds of confusion, he understood why he hadn’t been spotted. He was standing next to a fresh pile of wurm dung, and his temperature so nearly matched that of the steaming heap that he blended right in.

A voice cut through the night, followed by others. Were they coming closer, circling around the dung pile from either side? Had he been spotted after all? Jerwhen didn’t know, and realized there was no way he could know, until it was too late. If they came around the waste heap and spotted him, his journey would be over.

Only one option popped into mind, and Jerwhen realized his Harvey had been shouting it all along. Without further hesitation, he dove straight into the reeking mess and dug his way to the center. There, he waited.

Jerwhen soon lost track of time in that hellish burrow. He had no way of knowing how long he would have to wait, or how much time had already elapsed. All he knew was the penalty for guessing wrong and emerging too soon. Every time he was sure the Cthalti must be gone, he forced himself to start his wait anew, just in case.

He tried to sleep, and soon found himself surprisingly successful. He didn’t know how long his naps lasted, but he managed to will himself into unconsciousness several times before he decided he couldn’t stay any longer.

It felt like years, but he knew that was an illusion of his sensory deprivation. He also knew the fire in his parched throat and the ache in his stomach wouldn’t have come immediately. Several hours must have passed at the minimum, perhaps the entire night.

Jerwhen pushed his face into the fresh air and blinked his eyes against the midday sun. When his lids finally forced themselves open, the grinning face of the Cthalti was staring right into his astounded gaze.

Even though he knew he would surely be tortured, and a quick death in battle would be preferable, Jerwhen allowed himself to be captured without much of a struggle. Partially, his surprise demoralized him. Mostly, he simply lacked the position to fight back. When buried up to your neck in congealing wurm turd, one is short of options. It wouldn’t be until hours later, when a Cthalti shaman who spoke his language was brought to see him, that he would realize his good fortune.

The band Jerwhen had first spotted, and had later been captured by, were not the dreaded Crimson Claw as he initially assumed. The Crimson Claw in fact neither wore red, nor had talons that were in any way distinguished from those of other Cthalti. The origin of the name was most likely due to a mistranslation.

Jerwhen had been captured by Aether Wind, a tribe that often traded with humans, particularly when they could increase their own knowledge of the world. The red paint on their bodies was a decoration that signaled they were returning from a wedding between one of the chieftain’s sons and a woman from another tribe, rendering upon them an even more amiable mood than usual. For a traveler such as Jerwhen, there was no better clan to stumble upon.

Jerwhen finished his tale, but the chieftain instantly jumped into the gap. Jerwhen only understood a handful of words from their language, but by now he had a fairly clear idea what the tribal leader found so important to repeatedly share. It turned out Jerwhen had spent far more than a few hours in the dung pile. He’d spent more than three full days.

A stumble brought Jerwhen back to the present. He wasn’t sure how long he’d managed to count before losing track of time once again, but he knew he hadn’t made the first cycle back down to zero. This brain fog was getting worse.

Jerwhen sank to the ground, suddenly realizing how exhausted he had become. The light was beginning to fade, meaning he’d lost an entire day, and it felt like he’d walked non-stop through it. The leather straps of his sling still held, but they were fraying. If he hadn’t stumbled and jerked back to awareness when he did, his next warning might have been the sensation of his arm tearing from his body as the leather supports finally snapped.

Jerwhen didn’t think this could be caused by the loss of a Harvey. Even if such a loss caused a temporary shock to the system, the symptoms should be getting better instead of worse. The newly reigning theory was that the basilisk flower contained a second toxin. Or perhaps toxic minerals from his statue of an arm were contaminating the rest of his body. Either way, it was the fault of that damned flower.

Jerwhen began cutting new strips from his pack to shore up the sling. He recognized the terrain now, or thought he did. This was the unusually uneven patch that he had passed just a few miles after the water hole during his ascent. He drank until he felt bloated, and noted with encouragement that several swallows remained in his canteen. He was going to make it to that pool after all, and then he was going to figure out the rest, no matter what the cursed basilisk flowers thought.

Jerwhen jerked to awareness, unsure whether he’d been sleeping. It was possible, since he couldn’t recall any daydreams this time. It was now fully dark, and it looked like he hadn’t moved since before. At least the fugues followed a predictable rule. Whatever he was doing when he slipped into one, he would continue until he snapped back out.

If he were right about his location, he would easily overshoot the pool during his next blackout. Or worse, he would walk straight into it and drown. He needed something to catch his attention as often as possible. Stumbling had done it. Could he make himself stumbled every few hundred steps? Cut off a toe perhaps?

“This amulet will allow you to travel through the hive’s territory unmolested, Galmlaung. It is how we pass the Vyenti sentries when we wish to avoid border skirmishes.”

Jerwhen frowned at the shaman. “What did you call me? I recognize that word. It had something to do with the great wurm, didn’t it?”

The shaman laughed. “It’s an honor, not insult. It means patience of the great wurm, bestowed upon you for hiding so long. It can mean other aspects besides patience as well, though this amulet will suppress such a gift.”

“What do you mean,” asked Jerwhen, completely lost now.

“To pass the Vyenti you must become one of them. You will be as one of their drones, sexless and emotionless. You will cease to understand language, and instead you will see the world as they do, by reading the chemical markings upon their territory. The experience will not hurt physically, but you will find it deeply uncomfortable at the psychic level.”

Jerwhen blushed, finally beginning to understand what the Cthalti were calling him, and what they must be imagining. It would definitely make for an awkward return trip. If only they didn’t look so human.

Jerwhen had always imagined the Cthalti as appearing like the lizardmen he’d seen in books. In reality, their scales were more like those found on a shark, so fine that the skin appeared smooth to the eye. Other than the claws and the slanted yellow eyes, they could pass as regular citizens of Megado.

“If that’s what it takes to reach the Corkscrew, I’ll put up with it. How long will it take to revert to my normal self when I remove the amulet?”

“The change will happen quickly, for it is small. The amulet doesn’t transform your appearance. It only changes your scent and your perception. Once you have the chemical mark of the Vyenti, they will accept you as part of their hive. Though they have eyes, they don’t seem to be able to distinguish living creatures by sight.”

Jerwhen snapped back to the present, grinning to discover his strategy had worked. The string tied around his finger had finally grown taut and offered a pull of resistance as he reached its end and began to drag along the rock he had anchored it to.

Though he was happy to note the success of his plan, he was perturbed to find he’d drifted off before covering even sixty feet. He quickly reeled in the rock and cast it a few yards ahead of him, giving him room to walk a little further this time. He could keep doing this until he reached the pond he thought. But what then? He was slipping away and losing control over his awareness within seconds now.

Jerwhen thought his destination might be less than a mile away, but having to travel in such short stretches meant it would be broken into nearly a hundred intervals. It could take another hour to complete, or even more. What sort of attention would he be capable of mustering by then?

Jerwhen decided to cut another strip from his pack and tie it around his arm above the petrification, while he was still lucid enough for the task. It wasn’t easy to accomplish with only a single hand, but he’d learned several knots before beginning his trek, including a few that could be tightened by pulling on just one end, and would hold snug afterwards.

It hurt, which he supposed was a good sign, and the flesh beneath the tourniquet immediately began to swell, which he also supposed meant the blood had been successfully cut off. Now back to walking.

Twice more his awareness began to slip away, flying back to his vague memories of life as a Vyenti drone. It had been… odd. He had thought the Cthalti meant sexless as in a lack of desire, but it had been more than that. While wearing the amulet he wasn’t even aware of himself as male or female, nor would he have understood the difference between the sexes if they had been explained.

He knew the chemical signature of a queen, which must be obeyed, and he knew the signature of a drone, which could convey information, but always lacked a will of its own and could only repeat the commands of a queen.

Though he felt no emotions, and was dimly aware that he had once been able to identify objects through methods other than tasting their chemical markings, he didn’t feel at all diminished.

Several times he tasted an imperative from the queen, but his original goal to walk through the hive’s territory and reach the Corkscrew still held priority. Unlike the other drones he passed, he could at least realize that obedience was an option, and that he could choose to follow his previous goals. The other drones, oblivious to the concept, showed no understanding that he ignored the calls, and left him to his devices.

The call to obey grew stronger and the will to think and decide for himself faded as the days stretched by however. Jerwhen knew that had he worn the amulet much longer, he would have lost the ability to ever take it off. On the return trip he would be careful to remove it whenever none of the Vyenti were in sight. The creatures were powerful, but slow, and he could always don the magical artifact in time to prevent them from identifying him as an invader and tearing him apart.

Then Jerwhen reached the end of the string before returning to those memories a third time. After that he repeated the feat. And continued to do so. Within minutes he’d reached the pond, with no sign of another impending fugue.

Jerwhen looked at the swollen bulge of flesh that merged into the creeping stone below. It appeared his theory that the minerals were seeping into his body and poisoning him had been correct.

With his powers of concentration returning, Jerwhen emptied his pack and began to set up his camp. Thanks to his luck with foraging, he still had enough high density bars of fried corn meal to keep his body fed for a few weeks while he recovered. His canteen was quickly refilled as were his spare waterskins, which were strategically placed where he expected at least one would always be in reach of his good arm. Sparing his future self even the slightest movement might make a difference.

With everything laid out as well as he could manage, only the amputation itself remained. Jerwhen toyed with the idea of waiting for daylight, justifying the delay with the knowledge that better vision would lead to a cleaner cut. A nagging voice at the back of his mind overruled that plan, pointing out the limited space between his tourniquet and the first scales of fossilized skin. The process had accelerated and his time was running out.

Jerwhen closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as he pressed the tip of his dagger into the darkened flesh of his upper arm. To his surprise, there was very little pain. Mostly he felt only pressure, even when he began sawing in earnest.

Jerwhen talked to himself as he worked, repeatedly telling himself he was doing the right thing and that everything would be fine. He knew just saying something couldn’t make it true, and that he was only hearing his own voice. Yet, strangely enough, it still helped. Almost before he realized it, he was done. His afflicted arm had been straightened and resting flat on the ground, but it still pulled at his shoulder and limited his positioning. Then his knife was striking dirt and he was suddenly aware of a great lightness.

Jerwhen sat up, feeling lightheaded but far better than he had expected. The blood barely dripped from the ragged stump of his arm, far less than the deadly torrent he had been expecting to see. Flies were already gathering about his wound and he started to wave them away, but the nagging voice at the back of his mind stopped him.

“Let them be. The maggots will eat away the dead tissue and prevent gangrene. Without their help, none of the herbs in your pack would be enough.”

It took Jerwhen half a moment to realize that voice had come from outside his own head. In fact, it came from just above his right shoulder, where his Harvey typically spent half the time sitting.

“Now you come back to me?”

The little Harvey shook his head. “I never really left. That little switch in your mind…” The diminutive figure shrugged. “Another lie. It does nothing.”

Jerwhen felt a murderous rage building and struggled to control it. He couldn’t afford to lose his calm in his current condition. “Then where were you?”

“You needed to understand just how far you could go without me. Otherwise you would never push yourself and you would never grow to see your true potential. It’s a potential you haven’t even imagined yet, but it’s one you’ll need if you want to come back and conquer this spiral. At the least.”

“Care to explain that in simple terms? I’m a little low on blood at the moment. I can’t spare a lot for my brain I guess.”

“Do you think the basilisk flower grows here by chance? The Corkscrew is adapting to the presence of man, and it’s rejecting that presence. You saw the statues of those who came before. It’s safe to assume you’re the first to survive that trap. Otherwise you’d have heard about it.

“You’ll come back, Jerwhen. But the Corkscrew will be waiting for you, and it will evolve some new defense. If you want to break past those defenses and see what it’s guarding, what it’s hiding up there,” Harvey pointed to the omnipresent cloud cover, “you’ll have to evolve too.”

His Harvey was right of course. It always was. It didn’t realize that Jerwhen was already beginning to understand what he needed to do though, that he was already imagining the unimaginable. Jerwhen made a fist with imaginary fingers that he could still feel, even though he could see they were no longer attached to his body. The phantom limb felt strong and healthy, and soon it would feel even stronger.

Jerwhen was beginning to realize that the Shadow Man who had visited him and suggested this quest had foreseen a great many things. His hint concerning machines had served a dual purpose, both confirming Jerwhen’s suspicions of the world, and giving him the skill to recover from this injury.

Jerwhen opened and closed his phantom hand, picturing the pistons and gears that would soon give it physical form. It would stretch his tinkering abilities, just as Harvey knew, but he could do it. He would replace his arm, make it better than before, and he would return to conquer this structure and free this world.

Short Stories


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