A World Through the Hole
That was the last Curia heard from Orobelle. In a blink, she was but a card lying at the foot of her bedroll, and the rustle of trees through the tent canvas reigned over the clearing once more.
With a sigh, she patted the cards back into her pocket. That done, she spent a minute fishing around in her own satchel for her oil flask, pulling back the leg of her pants to uncover her left leg, steel from the shin down. Into the joints, she swirled the oil, twisting them back and forth with every drop until they no longer squeaked. Once she was pleased that she could move her toes again, she lay down to asleep, though she never really dozed off, remaining keenly aware of the bumps of roots and pebbles under her.
Curia opened her eyes an hour later to unexpected dimness. Blue light glowed through the crack between the tent flaps, and as her eyes adjusted, she also became aware of the low buzz of chatter beyond the canvas.
Her thoughts leapt instantly to Honourless. Without wasting time on her cloak, Curia shifted onto her knees with an involuntary grumble about the ache. As she moved out of her tent into the balmy evening air, she was rather stunned to be greeted by the scent of a gloriously roasting dinner, and the entire vanguard gathered on the firelit campground. Many alternate-forms abounded, animals screeching across the clearing, Afa in a corner turning into a pile of glittering dust repeatedly.
“Curia! Commander!” The call of her name ignited a thrilled chatter, faces turning to where she stood. A skewer of reptile meat was swung in her face, a strip of scaly hide flapping about as its swinger, Cui, jabbed it towards her. “Join our feast! Well, it’d be nice if you did, because it’s being thrown for you!”
She could finally make out the large dinner roasting on the fire: dripping fruits and a half-skinned reptile, freshly-hunted, draped in the leaves of young horsetails. She touched a hand to her heart. “You didn’t have to,” she answered, accepting the skewer nevertheless. “Who’s the hunter responsible for our dinner?”
Calibra emerged from behind a tent, hand shooting up. “I trapped it, because I’m smart,” they said with their mouth full of half-chewed food. “How about a drink?” Lifting the bag out of the crook of their arm, they threw the flap back to reveal a meagre four bottles of liquids delirium and satiation—all that remained of the several dozens that had come with the last delivery two months ago.
Maura frowned as they scooped a bottle out and attempted to hand it to her. “We should save the drink, no? We’ve made ten bottles last almost three weeks now; that’s all out the window if we—”
“Relax!” Calibra exclaimed, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “Or did you forget how when you became junior commander? We’ve found a Tunnel, Maura. I’m sure gifts of gratitude are coming our way as we speak!” They began sorting through the bag’s contents, picking up bottles in succession to check their labels. “All but one of these are delirium, anyway—won’t nourish us any more than smokes will, so no problems there.” They shrugged. “Speaking of smokes, there’s some back in the store. You could use one of those, it’ll get some fresh air inside your skull!”
They exchanged looks, all while Calibra uncorked a bottle and knocked it back, but the gathering did not need liquid delirium to get festive. Curia smiled but shook her head when they came by to offer one to her.
“I need to speak to Honourless. Where is she, wasn’t she invited?” she said.
Calibra’s head perked up. “Oh, well, we didn’t think you wanted that criminal here,” they replied. “She’s by the horses, you can go ask if cooked bark-lizard is to her taste.”
“By the horses?” she muttered.
Only a few were not flying about the clearing as she passed through it. She answered several greetings, pausing, even, to strike up conversation. Anser was passing fruits around on the campground; Curia waved him over, and accepted one berry bunch with a pat on the back as payment. Sol sat by his lonesome at the edge of a log, staring at the meat and fruit roasting on the fire, but even he smiled and offered a bow to acknowledge her as she passed. Thistle stood with the shadows flickering across her face, glaring at the roasting food as if knowing what Curia knew: that this was a larger feast than anyone should be throwing with their current stocks.
In one corner she heard a shout: “Light bless us, and good riddance to the Queendom! We would never have tasted meat like this again, if we had stayed.”
Laying a hand over the pocket where the cards were hidden, Curia picked her way over roots and out beyond the tents, glancing at the skewer in her hand that she’d almost forgotten about. She tore a chunk of meat off the top with her teeth.
Honourless was with the horses indeed, cross-legged on the mud and tentless, shoulders hunched beside Shrew, Thistle’s mottled horse. Her chains were looped around the dangling reins, and the horse seemed about as pleased about this predicament as she. She said nothing as Curia slowed to a stop, and knelt in the dried leaves beside her, holding out her skewer of meat.
“You haven’t eaten,” she said.
Honourless glared back, eyes glimmering in the moonlight through the branches, perhaps trying to read her eyes. Curia nodded once towards the skewer. She snatched the stick out of the scout commander’s hand, ripping chunk after chunk off with her teeth, chewing and swallowing each in a single gulp. She coughed spasmodically, as if choking, then continued to tear and swallow.
“What do you want?” she finally spat when she had swallowed the last of her current mouthful. “Here to kick the beggar?”
“A few more hours,” she said, “and you will go with the Duchess and her protector to the next world. I’ll come for you early tomorrow morning to let you out of these bonds.”
“Anything to never see a horse again,” she muttered.
“Thistle put you here, didn’t she,” Curia sighed, rising on one leg, then the other. She lifted the rein to inspect it. “Not even a knot here. Did she undo the reins just to tie you in them?”
“I don’t know what she did. She didn’t say a word to me. Didn’t even let me look.”
“That's no way to treat a guest.”
To that, Honourless snorted. “She’s more polite than anyone I’ve met in years. What reason had she to treat me well? I'm a criminal, aren't I?”
Letting the reins drop, Curia shook her head. “Honourless, if I may ask you something,” she said, then, glancing down at the pocket where Orobelle was hidden. Honourless let out a low grunt. “You know that you could flee right this very moment, if you wanted. Just cut the reins against a sharp rock, and be gone without a trace. I know someone like you would have tried, if you had wanted to. And yet you haven’t escaped.”
The exile, staring at her palms, began shaking her head. “If I can even remember how to,” she said bitterly. “It’s not easy like it used to be. Like when I was young, and consequences didn’t exist. Until the Baroness decided to teach me herself. I know what disobeying them gets you, now. I have the past twenty years to show for that one day I thought I could outsmart the damned Baroness.”
“But you would?” Curia said. “If you escaped now, you could live in freedom, in any world you chose. Without chains.”
“It’s not the chains that I want to be rid of,” she growled. “You know how it is. If your Duchess were good, she would have sent you home years ago, and yet you are still here. We’re both stranded out here in the Third World. No chance of ever going back home. Would you really call that freedom?”
“Not to digress, but I do, quite,” she answered.
“I’m not the same as you,” said Honourless. “The child, the Duchess, she said she would give me my name back if I did as told. The Light knows I hate being a servant—but this is the closest I’ve ever been—to going back to—”
She squeezed her eyes shut, ran a finger down her forearm, where the scar of some words—or some sort of name—had long refused to fade. That arm ended in a hand with two fingers, lost to some beast’s maw.
“What do you want, scout? Did the Duchess send you to question me? She doesn’t trust me to stay put?” She gritted her teeth. “Tell her this. I will do what I must to go back to the Barony, and back to my sister, and if that means seeing her quest through to the end, then fine. Good enough for her? Or is she going to keep being a mean little brat about it, as always?”
“I’m sure Her Grace will appreciate your frankness,” said Curia. “We leave at the first crack of dawn tomorrow. Be awake.”
“I’m not convinced of her loyalty,” muttered Orobelle, still a card in Curia’s pocket, in the muted dark of the chill early morning. “I don’t like her tone, that one.”
“She won’t run away,” Curia replied in a voice even lower than the rustle of leaves, trudging through them towards the corral. Her cloak was about her shoulders once more; it wouldn’t feel right to ride without it. “She doesn’t want to, not more than she wants to go back to the Barony. You needn’t do any more than keep her in an agreeable mood.”
Around them the Vanguard lay asleep in their tents, only a few loud snores audible from here. The commander’s footsteps across the leaf litter were the only movement on the grounds, a small bag of last night’s roasted fruit—found hanging from a stake in the campground—swinging in her left hand.
Honourless lay in the horse corral at the edge of the campground behind a row of tents, curled up by one of Shrew’s hooves. Curia called Honourless’ penance-name and knelt beside her, tapping her shoulder firmly.
With a yelp, the exile flipped right over and threw a punch at the scout, missing only because she reeled away in shock.
“Oh, it’s you.” Honourless rubbed her eyes, and then dropped back to the ground, sighing through her teeth. “Sorry.”
“No offence taken,” Curia replied, lowering the bag of fruit into her palm. “A meal before we leave?”
With a groan, Honourless propped herself up on her other elbow, staring at the bag as if expecting an animal to spring out of it. Only when she was satisfied it was not a trick did she finally sit up, fishing about in the bag with her left hand. She held the gleaming fruit to her mouth and bit through the rind with a crunch, gnashing the bitter mouthful between her teeth. Curia raised an eyebrow, but made no comment otherwise.
Between now and when Honourless finished her breakfast, Curia released Dorian. The two soundlessly loaded the Duchess’ luggage onto a placidly tail-swishing Teru at the far end of the corral, untangling his rein from the tree that held him. Dorian retreating back into his card-form, the scout commander returned to Honourless to find her dusting off her hands on her tattered rag of a sarong, the fruit bag crumpled at her feet.
“I’m done with you,” muttered the woman in Shrew’s direction, before following Curia to where Teru stood waiting.
They mounted as they had before, Honourless behind Curia on the saddle. “While I have been to this Tunnel’s mouth, I have never ridden there from here,” she said as she flicked Teru’s reins and prodded his left flank with the heel of her boot. He needed no further prompting, turning around in a tight arc and pacing with heavy hoof-thuds through the exit between Thistle’s tent and Curia’s own.
Almost as soon as they exited, their route met the bank of the stream, and ran parallel with it. A lone stake with a carved top, some ways upstream, affirmed that they were going the right way. Curia spurred Teru so that he broke into a long-gaited gallop. “Anser and Maura were kind enough to mark the route with carved posts,” Curia said. “I’m ever so proud of them. They’ve learned the ways of good scouting so well!”
“They were taught well,” Honourless replied.
Curia laughed, the sound joining the burbling of the water. “Glowing praise, coming from you,” she said.
The silence fell upon them again as they left the forest and the low whirring of insects, stars sweeping forth to take the place of leaves above their heads. At the forest border, the trees stood back like an army on the brink of battle, only grass lying before them. Here, the line of stakes diverged from the river and onto the gently-sloping plain before them, and up towards the scraggly peak, thinly-covered in horsetails.
The carved markers were impossible to miss now, standing in chains across the rising expanse. But from here, Curia knew the route without needing them. As they climbed the hill, so did the wind howl louder, until its wailing, and the roar of waving grass, drowned out all noise but the clopping of Teru’s hooves.
The chain of stakes ended at the top of the rise. There, something appeared between the horsetails: a dark, triangular frame of branches, bundled and stacked against each other.
Curia yanked on the reins. Teru stumbled to a stop barely arms away from the cliff’s edge, which anyone less familiar or careful would easily have missed. Dislodged stones tumbled over the verge. The noise of the wind dropped as they stopped, and the rustle of leaves, buoying up the chatter of insects, filled the gap it left.
She gave the right harness three tugs. Whinnying, Teru took a few steps backward. Once he had calmed down, she swung her leg over the saddle and leapt off, boots crunching in the leaves.
All was silent around them. The sky was purple now, the entire hillside, and the ravine beneath it, awash in the velvety shade. The grass was tall enough to prick at Curia’s knees, through the fabric of her pants.
She turned around to offer Honourless assistance she knew would be rejected, but the exile was ahead of her, jumping off Teru almost seconds after she did. She turned back, instead, to the arch of branches and sticks on their right. From here, she could now see that the sticks were bound together by tautly-knotted grass and vines, firmly enough that the structure did not shear with its weight.
“It’s…an arch,” said Honourless.
“Well-observed, Honourless. Have you seen a Tunnel before?”
“I can barely remember what they looked like.”
“They don’t look like tunnels…or like anything,” Curia replied, “except straight from the front. And that is why we mark them.” Even as she spoke, she took several steps to the right, to align herself with the archway. Then the Tunnel condensed into being, like a mirage: a refracted distortion of the jagged horizon beyond, forming the discernible shape of a horizontal funnel, ending where the cliff ended.
Honourless had appeared beside her; she squinted, took a few experimental steps back and forth, and then froze. For a long minute, she stared on past Curia’s shoulder, brow furrowing.
“That goes into the Fourth World?”
“I haven’t been through it myself. But if Maura and Anser are to be believed, then yes,” said Curia, unbuckling her pocket.
“And how…do you come back?”
“The same way.”
As they talked, Curia slipped the cards out of her pocket. In a flutter of skirts, Orobelle materialised, as did her temper. Her eyes swept her surroundings once round, before finally on the scout.
“Dorian, help me!” she snapped, yanking the card out of Curia’s hand and flinging it into the air.
Dorian, too, condensed into being, landing with a thud on one bent knee. “My duchess,” he exclaimed, rising in a single swift motion. “How can I help you?”
“My bags,” she said, with no motion to indicate where to turn his attention, but he needed no explaining, bowing with a hand to his heart. He was already walking towards Teru by the time Curia looked. “Honourless,” the Duchess said then, pointing at her, then at the horse. “You’re my serf now, too. Go carry my last bag.”
“I never agreed to be a serf!” she snapped.
“Something so obvious doesn’t have to be agreed upon,” said Orobelle. “Until your terms are fulfilled, you serve me. Do you want your name back? Disobeying me will not help your chances.”
Honourless’ face contorted into a snarl, but Orobelle glared unrelentingly back, and she soon managed to wrestle her expression into one resembling placidity. “We don’t have more time to waste,” she said. “Let’s get on with it.”
Teru had by now been relieved of the last of his load, and Orobelle’s luggage was now borne by Dorian and Honourless. By then the purple of the sky had shifted to pink, and beyond the sheer drop, the forest was starting to glow red as the morning light illuminated the tips of leaves.
“I take it you aren’t coming along,” said Honourless in Curia’s direction.
“Me? Afraid not,” Curia replied with a shake of her head, six braids swishing. “I have a Vanguard waiting for me.”
“Shame, the only person whose company is worth the time here.”
“No more of this insolence, Honourless!” shrilled Orobelle from beside the Tunnel entrance. “I will not stand for this!”
“What will you do about it? Dismiss me?”
“Oho, the exile taunts me! Would you like to be dismissed?”
All empty threats. All this hot air was being wasted. Instead of answering, she trudged up beside the arch of branches and wood and crouched beside it, Orobelle's pack under her arm. She peered through the gap, into the rippling air beyond. Now all that she saw seemed to warp around the mouth of the Tunnel. The hairs on her arms stood when she was swept by a sensation she had only ever felt while ghosting: a folding of her form, and of the forms around her, as if something were trying to peel her off the surface of the universe.
She turned to the Duchess. “We’re both trapped in this quest together, you and I. Let us make it bearable for each other.” Then she looked straight into that invisible doorway, at the world waiting on the other side. Who knew what would become of them, once they crossed?
Wordlessly she stepped forward—one foot, then another, towards the archway—until her limbs could feel the warping tidal forces that swirled around the Tunnel.
Some age-old instinct within her opened its eyes.
And she leapt—through the arch, down the Tunnel’s gullet, over the edge of the world.
The wind whistled around her as she fell, and for moments she was gripped by terror that she had been lied to. Then the entire world began stretching into threads of colour around her, and her body rippled as if she were a reflection on the surface of a pond as a rock plummeted through it.
Images swirled and folded into each other, ones she knew and ones she didn’t: the forest, the sky, the sea. Blue became green at the edges, green became blue, the frayed edges of the worlds tangling into each other. She felt herself stretch and vibrate upon the interfering waves around her; years ago she would have shrieked, but now she simply let herself be dizzy.
She mouthed Alta’s name by instinct, like some long-fading memory, like some long-cherished charm.
It was like falling down a deep, deep hole, passing through ever layer of the earth below. All about her roared a wind she had not heard since her childhood. Nausea like she hadn’t felt in years twisted her insides.
Alta. Alta. That was her name. She remembered Alta’s name. Alta, what had her face looked like?
Somewhere close by, inside her and enveloping her all at once, she heard a child’s far-off scream. “Alta,” she tried to gasp out, but she could not hear her own voice.
“This shouldn’t be taking this long!” The shrieking went on, and before the sound began to fragment at the edges, Honourless realised it was not Alta she was hearing, but Orobelle.
Orobelle landed with a crunch. Her crinoline broke her fall, the frame springing back into shape, so she bounced off the flat rock where she had landed, and down onto the sand a few arms’ lengths ahead.
She landed with her palms to the sand, struggling to rise. “Honourless…” Amid a rattling, roaring rumble of water breaking on sand and stone, she began towards the woman lying ahead of her.
Orobelle managed but a single step, before stumbling to her knees in a dizzying rush. Bitterness rose in her throat; she squeezed her eyes shut. “Dorian! Get me a drink!”
Dorian was not hasty to comply as she would have liked, but he did eventually arrive, swaying a little on his feet. “Tunnels are known for having this effect,” he said, offering the flask to her.
It was several minutes of tending nausea later that Orobelle finally managed to rise to her feet, fuming as she beat out the sand caught between the beads of her dress. “Curia could have warned us,” she growled. But the roar of another wave snapped her out of her seething, and she turned to face the sound.
The first thing she saw were the wires. Rising out of the water, barely three feet from the tideline, was a net of criss-crossing metal cord strung up along a chain of poles, its top lined with thorny snarls of more metal wire. It was too much metal, too barbarically-shaped.
Through the strange net, and far beyond it, she saw a grey sheet of water that she knew must be the sea. She had only seen it once before, but even that memory did not do it justice. It was so endlessly flat and vast, it almost did not register as a real thing: so much empty sky arching above it, so much darkness across and below. Every now and then, the waters reared up like a beast, and crashed white on the beach before dragging away. Each wave left crushed pieces of glass and shell, turning the sand to a sort of whitish loam. Above them glowered the grey sky, the stench of salt soaking into the air.
Something about the sound of the sea, solitary and grey and remote, finally drove the fact of the matter in.
They were here, in the Fourth World, grey and strange, full of wires. Alien land trod by alien feet.
All the fussing over the logistics, the transportation, the "how do we get there" and "when do we get there", it was all past them. They were here.
There was no more to be done, besides get on with their task.
Orobelle climbed onto the lowest grey rock, boosting herself up with her palms and lifting her head. From her new vantage, she looked down along the coast. All along the white length of the beach, great rocks were planted intermittently, like fragments of an old mountain, half-buried in the sand. Inland, the sand met a thin mat of coarse grey heath in a ragged line.
And beyond the swells and rises of the thorny heathland rose several rectangular grey structures, the walls almost as well-hewn as those of the Duchy.
"The encampment," she murmured, and stepped off the top of the rock. “My cloak and the compass, Dorian.” As if he had rehearsed it in his mind, her protector unbuckled the largest of her bags, and swept the hooded cloak out of it, and soared to her side. He draped it around her shoulders, fastening the hood under her chin and throwing it over her head.
Into her hand he pressed the box bearing the device she had received from Lilian, twice the size of her palm. She flipped it open to reveal the metal contraption: an intricate instrument from Lilian’s lab, all knobs and levers that she dared not tweak. Under the glass, eight needles swivelled imperceptibly, and two free-spinning discs twirled in a pair of smaller inset displays.
Orobelle gave it a flick. The needles and discs spun, glinting in the dull light.
Almost instantly, two of the needles settled. They remained locked on their targets, gliding gently back and forth as Orobelle shifted it left and right. It soon became clear, as she paced about, that one pointed dead in Dorian’s direction no matter where she stood, exactly as it was meant to.
The other was pointing eastward—at the encampment.
“Have you found something?” whispered Dorian, who had been watching her pacing with perplexion till now, his shadow falling over her arm as he peered over her shoulder.
She nodded. “Honourless,” she announced, sliding the compass into the pocket inside her cloak. “Stay here and guard our bags—we will not be long. Dorian, come with me. We came here to find a Core, and one of them is here in the Fourth World. The camp is where we will start searching.”
The morning sun lifted into the clouds. In that murky light, they forged forward, slowed by the sinking of their shoes in the sand. The white expanse of the beach seemed deserted, but it bore the traces of the people who frequented this shore: shoe-prints with bizarre striping across the soles, a discarded paper box wrapped in a glimmering film, a paper stick with one charred end.
Rock after great rock they passed, ugly barnacle-crusted monoliths, their bases swathed in seaweed. As they passed by one of the shorter, stouter ones, a creature shot out of a crevice—a spider with a shell. Orobelle yelped, stumbling back. At the very sound, Dorian sprang forward to put himself between his duchess and the creature. He snatched it off the ground, and at once it went up in flames, smoke paling the air.
It was in the last echoes of this little altercation that Orobelle first heard it: the scrabbling of footsteps nearby, the clinking of a chain against rock.
She looked up, and doubled backward. There, atop the neighbouring rock, sat the silhouette of a person contemplating the sea. They seemed oblivious to the Duchess’ presence, staring resolutely out at the waves with their hair billowing in the wind.
Without waiting for Dorian, she began her march towards the rock. Perhaps she should have made her approach noisier, for even as she arrived at the base of the rock, they failed to respond to her presence.
Impatience welled up in Orobelle. Puffing up with indignation, she cleared her throat. “Good morning, knave!” the girl shouted.
The silhouette straightened. “Who’s there?” they called, glancing left and right before scrambling to the rock’s edge.
Inhaling, Orobelle braced herself: to order, to bargain, to make demands. Then she breathed out, and lifted her eyes.
The face that peered back down at her was framed in a shocking mane of unruly hair, fierce eyes matching her own in harshness. Around them, the air seemed to crackle with lightning.
"Who are you?"