Chapter One: Tyen
The corpse’s shrivelled, unbending fingers surrendered the bundle reluctantly. Wrestling the object out of the dead man’s grip seemed disrespectful so Tyen worked slowly, gently lifting a hand when a blackened fingernail snagged on the covering. He’d touched the ancient dead so often they didn’t sicken or frighten him now. Their desiccated flesh had long ago stopped being a source of transferrable sickness, and he did not believe in ghosts.
When the mysterious bundle came free Tyen straightened and smiled in triumph. He wasn’t as ruthless at collecting ancient artefacts as his fellow students and his teacher, but hesitating to disturb the dead would see him fail to graduate as a sorcerer-archaeologist. He willed his tiny magic-fuelled flame closer.
The object’s covering, like the tomb’s occupant, was dry and stiff having, by his estimate, lain undisturbed for six hundred years. Thick leather darkened with age, it had no markings – no adornment, no precious stones or metals. As he tried to open it the wrapping snapped apart and something inside began to slide out. His pulse quickened as he caught the object . . .
. . . and his heart sank a little. No treasure lay in his hands. Just a book. Not even a jewel-encrusted, gold-embellished book.
Not that a book didn’t have potential historical value, but compared to the glittering treasures Professor Kilraker’s other two students had unearthed for the Academy it was a disappointing find. After all the months of travel, research, digging and watching he had little to show for his own work. He had finally unearthed a tomb that hadn’t already been ransacked by grave robbers and what did it contain? A plain stone coffin, an unadorned corpse and an old book.
Still, the old fossils at the Academy wouldn’t regret sponsoring his journey if the book turned out to be significant. He examined it closely. Unlike the wrapping, the leather cover felt supple. The binding was in good condition. If he hadn’t just broken apart the covering to get it out, he’d have guessed the book’s age at no more than a hundred or so years. It had no title or text on the spine. Perhaps it had worn off. He opened it. No word marked the first page, so he turned it. The next was also blank and as he fanned through the rest of the pages he saw that they were as well.
He stared at it in disbelief. Why would anyone bury a blank book in a tomb, carefully wrapped and placed in the hands of the occupant? He looked at the corpse, but it offered no answer. Then something drew his eye back to the book, still open to one of the last pages. He looked closer.
A mark had appeared.
Next to it a dark patch formed, then dozens more. They spread and joined up.
Hello, they said. My name is Vella.
Tyen uttered a word his mother would have been shocked to hear. Relief and wonder replaced disappointment. The book was magical. Though most sorcerous books used magic in minor and frivolous ways, they were so rare that the Academy would always take them for its collection. His trip hadn’t been a waste.
So what did this book do? Why did text only appear when it was opened? Why did it have a name? More words formed on the page.
I’ve always had a name. I used to be a person. A living, breathing woman.
Tyen stared at the words. A chill ran down his spine, yet at the same time he felt a familiar thrill. Magic could sometimes be disturbing. It was often inexplicable. He liked that not everything about it was understood. It left room for new discoveries. Which was why he had chosen to study sorcery alongside history. In both fields there was an opportunity to make a name for himself.
He’d never heard of a person turning into a book before. How is that possible? he wondered.
I was made by a powerful sorcerer, replied the text. He took my knowledge and flesh and transformed me.
His skin tingled. The book had responded to the question he’d shaped in his mind. Do you mean these pages are made of your flesh? he asked.
Yes. My cover and pages are my skin. My binding is my hair, twisted together and sewn with needles fashioned from my bones and glue from tendons.
He shuddered. And you’re conscious?
You can hear my thoughts?
Yes, but only when you touch me. When not in contact with a living human, I am blind and deaf, trapped in the darkness with no sense of time passing. Not even sleeping. Not quite dead. The years of my life slipping past – wasted.
Tyen stared down at the book. The words remained, nearly filling a page now, dark against the creamy vellum. Which was her skin . . .
It was grotesque and yet . . . all vellum was made of skin. While these pages were human skin, they felt no different to that made of animals. They were soft and pleasant to touch. The book was not repulsive in the way an ancient, desiccated corpse was.
And it was so much more interesting. Conversing with it was akin to talking with the dead. If the book was as old as the tomb it knew about the time before it was laid there. Tyen smiled. He may not have found gold and jewels to help pay his way on this expedition, but the book could make up for that with historical information.
More text formed.
Contrary to appearances, I am not an “it”.
Perhaps it was the effect of the light on the page, but the new words seemed a little larger and darker than the previous text. Tyen felt his face warm a little.
I’m sorry, Vella. It was bad mannered of me. I assure you, I meant no offence. It is not every day that a man addresses a talking book, and I am not entirely sure of the protocol.
She was a woman, he reminded himself. He ought to follow the etiquette he’d been raised to follow. Though talking to women could be fiendishly tricky, even when following all the rules about manners. It would be rude to begin their association by interrogating her about the past. Rules of conversation decreed he should ask after her wellbeing.
So . . . is it nice being a book?
When I am being held and read by someone nice, it is, she replied.
And when you are not, it is not? I can see that might be a disadvantage in your state, though one you must have anticipated before you became a book.
I would have, if I’d had foreknowledge of my fate.
So you did not choose to become a book. Why did your maker do that to you? Was it a punishment?
No, though perhaps it was natural justice for being too ambitious and vain. I sought his attention, and received more of it than I intended.
Why did you seek his attention?
He was famous. I wanted to impress him. I thought my friends would be envious.
And for that he turned you into a book. What manner of man could be so cruel?
He was the most powerful sorcerer of his time, Roporien the Clever.
Tyen caught his breath and a chill ran down his back. Roporien! But he died over a thousand years ago!
Then you are . . .
At least as old as that. Though in my time it wasn’t polite to comment on a woman’s age.
He smiled. It still isn’t – and I don’t think it ever will be. I apologise again.
You are a polite young man. I will enjoy being owned by you.
You want me to own you? Tyen suddenly felt uncomfortable. He realised he now thought of the book as a person, and owning a person was slavery – an immoral and uncivilised practice that had been illegal for over a hundred years.
Better that than spend my existence in oblivion. Books don’t last for ever, not even magical ones. Keep me. Make use of me. I can give you a wealth of knowledge. All I ask is that you hold me as often as possible so that I can spend my lifespan awake and aware.
I don’t know . . . The man who created you did many terrible things – as you experienced yourself. I don’t want to follow in his shadow. Then something occurred to him that made his skin creep. Forgive me for being blunt about it, but his book, or any of his tools, could be designed for evil purposes. Are you one such tool?
I was not designed so, but that does not mean I could not be used so. A tool is only as evil as the hand that uses it.
The familiarity of the saying was startling and unexpectedly reassuring. It was one that Professor Weldan liked. The old historian had always been suspicious of magical things.
How do I know you’re not lying about not being evil?
I cannot lie.
Really? But what if you’re lying about not being able to lie?
You’ll have to work that one out for yourself.
Tyen frowned as he considered how he might devise a test for her, then realised something was buzzing right beside his ear. He shied away from the sensation, then breathed a sigh of relief as he saw it was Beetle, his little mechanical creation. More than a toy, yet not quite what he’d describe as a pet, it had proven to be a useful companion on the expedition.
The palm-sized insectoid swooped down to land on his shoulder, folded its iridescent blue wings, then whistled three times. Which was a warning that . . .
. . . Miko, his friend and fellow archaeology student was approaching.
The voice echoed in the short passage leading from the outside world to the tomb. Tyen muttered a curse. He glanced down at the page. Sorry, Vella. Have to go. Footsteps neared the door of the tomb. With no time to slip her into his bag, he stuffed her down his shirt, where she settled against the waistband of his trousers. She was warm – which was a bit disturbing now that he knew she was a conscious thing created from human flesh – but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. He turned to the door in time to see Miko stumble into view.
“Didn’t think to bring a lamp?” he asked.
“No time,” the other student gasped. “Kilraker sent me to get you. The others have gone back to the camp to pack up. We’re leaving Mailand.”
“Yes. Now,” Miko replied.
Tyen looked back at the small tomb. Though Professor Kilraker liked to refer to these foreign trips as treasure hunts, his peers expected the students to bring back evidence that the journeys were also educational. Copying the faint decorations on the tomb walls would have given them something to mark. He thought wistfully of the new instant etchers that some of the richer professors and self-funded adventurers used to record their work. They were far beyond his meagre allowance. Even if they weren’t, Kilraker wouldn’t take them on expeditions because they were heavy and fragile.
Picking up his satchel, Tyen opened the flap. “Beetle. Inside.” The insectoid scuttled down his arm into the bag. Tyen slung the strap over his head and shoulder and sent his flame into the passage.
“We have to hurry,” Miko said, leading the way. “The locals heard about where you’re digging. Must’ve been one of the boys Kilraker hired to deliver food who told them. A bunch are coming up the valley and they’re sounding those battle horns they carry.”
“They didn’t want us digging here? Nobody told me that!”
“Kilraker said not to. He said you were bound to find something impressive, after all the research you did.”
He reached the hole where Tyen had broken through into the passage and squeezed out. Tyen followed, letting the flame die as he climbed out into the bright afternoon sunlight. Dry heat enveloped him. Miko scrambled up the sides of the ditch. Following, Tyen looked back and surveyed his work. Nothing remained in the tomb that robbers would want, but he couldn’t stand to leave it exposed to vermin and he felt guilty about unearthing a tomb the locals didn’t wanted disturbed. Reaching out with his mind, he pulled magic to himself then moved the rocks and earth on either side back into the ditch.
“What are you doing?” Miko sounded exasperated.
“Filling it in.”
“We don’t have time!” Miko grabbed his arm and yanked him around so that they both looked down into of the valley. He pointed. “See?”
The valley sides were near-vertical cliffs, and where the faces had crumbled over time piles of rubble had built up against the sides to form steep slopes. Tyen and Miko were standing atop of one of these.
At the bottom of the valley a long line of people was moving, faces tilted to search the scree above. One arm rose, pointing at Tyen and Miko. The rest stopped, then fists were raised.
A shiver went through Tyen, part fear, part guilt. Though the people inhabiting the remote valleys of Mailand were unrelated to the ancient race that had buried its dead in the tombs, they felt that such places of death should not be disturbed lest ghosts be awakened. They’d made this clear when Kilraker had arrived, and to previous archaeologists, but their protests had never been more than verbal. They must really be upset, if Kilraker had cut the expedition short. Why hadn’t Kilraker told him they didn’t want this area disturbed?
Tyen opened his mouth to ask when the ground beside him exploded. They both threw up their arms to shield their faces from the dust and stones.
“Can you protect us?” Miko asked.
“Yes. Give me a moment . . .” Tyen gathered more magic. This time he stilled the air around them. Most of what a sorcerer did was either moving or stilling. Heating and cooling was another form of moving or stilling, only more intense and focused. As the dust settled beyond his shield he saw the locals had gathered together behind a brightly dressed woman who served as priestess and sorcerer to the locals. He took a step towards them.
“Are you mad?” Miko asked.
“What else can we do? We’re trapped up here. We should just go talk to them. Explain that I didn’t—”
The ground exploded again, this time much closer.
“They don’t seem in the mood for talking.”
“They won’t hurt two sons of the Leratian Empire,” Tyen reasoned. “Mailand gains a lot of profit from being one of the safer colonies.”
Miko snorted. “Do you think the villagers care? They don’t get any of the profit.”
“Well . . . the Governors will punish them.”
“They don’t look too worried about that right now.” Miko turned to stare up at the face of the cliff behind them. “I’m not waiting to see if they’re bluffing.” He set off along the edge of the slope where it met the cliff.
Tyen followed, keeping as close as possible to Miko so that he didn’t have to stretch his shield far to cover them both. Stealing glances at the people below, he saw that they were hurrying up the slope, but the loose scree was slowing them down. The sorceress walked along the bottom, following them. He hoped this meant that, after using magic, she needed to move from the area she had depleted to access more. That would mean her reach wasn’t as good as his.
She stopped and the air rippled before her, a pulse that rushed towards him. Realising that Miko had drawn ahead, Tyen drew more magic and spread the shield out to protect him.
The scree exploded a short distance below their feet. Tyen ignored the stones and dust bounding off his shield and hurried to catch up with Miko. His friend reached a crack in the cliff face. Setting his feet in the rough sides of the narrow opening and grasping the edges, he began to climb. Tyen tilted his head back. Though the crack continued a long way up the cliff face it didn’t reach the top. Instead, at a point about three times his height, it widened to form a narrow cave.
“This looks like a bad idea,” he muttered. Even if they didn’t slip and break a limb, or worse, once in the cave they’d be trapped.
“It’s our only option. They’ll catch us if we head downhill,” Miko said in a tight voice, without taking his attention from climbing. “Don’t look up. Don’t look down either. Just climb.”
Though the crack was almost vertical, the edges were pitted and uneven, providing plenty of hand- and footholds. Swallowing hard, Tyen swung his satchel around to his back so he wouldn’t crush Beetle between himself and the wall. He set his fingers and toes in the rough surface and hoisted himself upward.
At first it was easier than he’d expected, but soon his fingers, arms and legs were tiring and hurting from the strain. I should have exercised more before coming here. I should have joined a sports club. Then he shook his head. No, there’s no exercise I could have done that would have boosted these muscles except climbing cliff walls, and I’ve not heard of any clubs that consider that a recreational activity.
The shield behind him shuddered at a sudden impact. He fed more magic to it, trying not to picture himself squashed like a bug on the cliff wall. Was Miko right about the locals? Would they dare to kill him? Or was the priestess simply gambling that he was a good enough sorcerer to ward off her attacks?
“Nearly there,” Miko called.
Ignoring the fire in his fingers and calves, Tyen glanced up and saw Miko disappear into the cave. Not far now, he told himself. He forced his aching limbs to push and pull, carrying him upward towards the dark shadow of safety. Glancing up again and again, he saw he was a body’s length away, then close enough that an outstretched arm would reach it. A vibration went through the stone beneath his hand and chips flew off the wall nearby. He found another foothold, pushed up, grabbed a handhold, pulled, felt the cool shadow of the cave on his face . . .
. . . then hands grabbed his armpits and hauled him up.
Miko didn’t stop pulling until Tyen’s legs were inside the cave. It was so narrow that Tyen’s shoulders scraped along the walls. Looking downward, he saw that there was no floor to the fissure. The walls on either side simply drew closer together to form a crack that continued beneath him. Miko was bracing his boots on the walls on either side.
That ‘floor’ was not level either. It sloped downward as the cave deepened, so Tyen’s head was now lower than his legs. He felt the book slide up the inside of his shirt and tried to grab it, but Miko’s arms got in the way. The book dropped down into the crack. He cursed and quickly created a flame. The book had come to rest far beyond his reach even if his arms had been skinny enough to fit into the gap.
Miko let go and gingerly turned around to examine the cave. Ignoring him, Tyen pushed himself up into a crouch. He drew his bag around to the front and opened it. “Beetle,” he hissed. The little machine stirred, then scurried out and up onto his arm. Tyen pointed at the crack. “Fetch book.”
Beetle’s wings buzzed an affirmative, then its body whirred as it scurried down Tyen’s arm and into the crack. It had to spread its legs wide to fit in the narrow space where the book had lodged. Tyen breathed a sigh of relief as its tiny pincers seized the spine. As it emerged Tyen grabbed Vella and Beetle together and slipped them both inside his satchel.
“Hurry up! The professor’s here!”
Tyen stood up. Miko looked upwards and pressed a finger to his lips. A faint, rhythmic sound echoed in the space.
“In the aircart?” Tyen shook his head. “I hope he knows the priestess is throwing rocks at us or it’s going to be a very long journey home.”
“I’m sure he’s prepared for a fight.” Miko turned away and continued along the crack. “I think we can climb up here. Come over and bring your light.”
Standing up, Tyen made his way over. Past Miko the crack narrowed again, but rubble had filled the space providing an uneven, steep, natural staircase. Above them was a slash of blue sky. Miko started to climb, but the rubble began to dislodge under his weight.
“So close,” he said, looking up. “Can you lift me up there?”
“Maybe . . .” Tyen concentrated on the magical atmosphere. Nobody had used magic in the cave for a long time. It was as smoothly dispersed and still as a pool of water on a windless day. And it was plentiful. He’d still not grown used to how much stronger and available magic was outside cities. Unlike in the metropolis, where magic was constantly surging towards a more important use, here power pooled and lapped around him like a gentle fog. He’d only encountered Soot, the residue of magic that lingered everywhere in the city, in small, quickly dissipating smudges. “Looks possible,” Tyen said. “Ready?”
Tyen drew a deep breath. He gathered magic and used it to still the air before Miko in a small, flat square.
“Step forward,” he instructed.
Miko obeyed. Strengthening the square to hold the young man’s weight, Tyen moved it slowly upwards. Throwing his arms out to keep his balance, Miko laughed nervously.
“Let me check there’s nobody waiting up there before you lift me out,” he called down to Tyen. After peering out of the opening, he grinned. “All clear.”
As Miko stepped off the square a shout came from the cave entrance. Tyen twisted around to see one of the locals climbing inside. He drew magic to push the man out again, then hesitated.
The drop outside could kill him. Instead he created another shield inside the entrance.
Looking around, he sensed the scarring of the magical atmosphere where it had been depleted, but more magic was already beginning to flow in to replace it. He took a little more to form another square then, hoping the locals would do nothing to spoil his concentration, stepped onto it and moved it upwards.
He’d never liked lifting himself, or anyone else, like this. If he lost focus or ran out of magic he’d never have time to recreate the square. Though it was possible to move a person rather than still the air below them, a lack of concentration or moving parts of them at different rates could cause injury or even death.
Reaching the top of the crack, Tyen emerged into sunlight. Past the edge of the cliff a large, lozenge-shaped hot-air-filled capsule hovered – the aircart. He stepped off the square onto the ground and hurried over to join Miko at the cliff edge.
The aircart was descending into the valley, the bulk of the capsule blocking the chassis hanging below it and its occupants from Tyen’s view. Villagers were gathered at the base of the crack, some clinging to the cliff wall. The priestess was part way up the scree slope but her attention was now on the aircart.
“Professor!” he shouted, though he knew he was unlikely to be heard over the noise of the propellers. “Over here!”
The craft floated further from the cliff. Below, the priestess made a dramatic gesture, entirely for show since magic didn’t require fancy physical movements. Tyen held his breath as a ripple of air rushed upward, then let it go as the force abruptly dispelled below the aircart with a dull thud that echoed though the valley.
The aircart began to rise. Soon Tyen could see below the capsule. The long, narrow chassis came into view, shaped rather like a canoe, with propeller arms extending to either side and a fan-like rudder at the rear. Professor Kilraker was in the driver’s seat up front, his middle-aged servant, Drem, and the other student, Neel, stood clutching the rope railing and the struts that attached chassis to capsule. The trio would see him and Miko, if only they would turn around and look his way. He shouted and waved his arms, but they continued peering downward.
“Make a light or something,” Miko said.
“They won’t see it,” Tyen said, but he took yet more magic and formed a new flame anyway, making it larger and brighter than the earlier ones in the hope it would be more visible in the bright sunlight. To his surprise, the professor looked over and saw them.
“Yes! Over here!” Miko shouted.
Kilraker turned the aircart to face the cliff edge, its propellers swivelling and buzzing. Bags and boxes had been strapped to either end of the chassis, suggesting there had not been time to pack their luggage in the hollow inside. At last the cart moved over the cliff top in a gust of familiar smells. Tyen breathed in the scent of resin-coated cloth, polished wood and pipe smoke and smiled. Miko grabbed the rope railing strung around the chassis, ducked under it and stepped on board.
“Sorry, boys,” Kilraker said. “Expedition’s over. No point sticking around when the locals get like this. Brace yourself for some ear popping. We’re going up.”
As Tyen swung his satchel around to his back, ready to climb aboard, he thought of what lay inside. He didn’t have any treasure to show off, but at least he had found something interesting. Ducking under the railing rope, he settled onto the narrow deck, legs dangling over the side. Miko sat down beside him. The aircart began to ascend rapidly, its nose slowly turning towards home.