Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
A Little Learning
As he went he tried to loosen the cord that pressed the mask into his mouth, but his puny hands hindered him. Yet he must free himself of the mask to chant the thran that opened the gate in the next cave or be caught by the pursuing women.
He decided to shrink his head. There was no time for refinement and he did not try to specify the degree to which his skull must diminish; he could put things to rights later.
As he ran he felt the mask loosen, then the cord dropped loose around his neck as the dimensions of his jaw diminished. He tossed his chin up and the antlered hood flew backwards. From behind him he heard a grunt and a curse and a clatter. Someone had tripped over it and they had all fallen.
Bandar did not look back but threw himself into the new cave, which he was relieved to see was empty. He recognized it now, though he could not recall whether the gate he sought was to left or right.
If he had time, his memory or his noönaut’s acquired sense of direction would tell him which to choose. But there was no time. He could not even intone the four and two thran and remove himself from his pursuers’ purview: having spent so long uncloaked in this Situation and so closely involved with its idiomats, he could not hide himself completely.
The moment he entered the cave he chanted the opening thran. Nothing happened. Then the cave darkened as the doorway behind him filled with murderous females. Bandar had no time to work out why the thran had not succeeded. Fortunately, the answer came before full panic set in: he had sung the notes through vocal equipment that was markedly smaller than his regular issue; just as a miniature horn plays a higher note, his shrunken larynx and throat had thrust the thran into a higher register. Thrans had to be exactly the right pitch.
Bandar adjusted for scale and sang the notes again, and was rewarded with two ripples in the air. Arbitrarily he chose the one to his left and leapt through as the young cavewoman’s nails sank into his shoulder.
He emerged into Heaven. All was perfection: verdant meadows with grass soft as velvet and dotted with flowers of exquisite filigree; groves of stately trees, each impeccable in composition and form; skies as clear and blue as an infant’s gaze; and air as sweet as a goddess’s breath.
The rift through which he had come closed behind him and Bandar stood a moment, a tiny hand to his breast as his fear ebbed away. At once he knew that he had taken the wrong gate — he should now be alone on a mountaintop from which he could have segued to the destination island.
He could retrace his route. The cavewomen’s Situation would soon recycle. But first he should restore his body parts to their proper proportions and reclothe himself. He needed to make tones of the right pitch, and it would not do to encounter the Senior Tutor while stark naked and presenting the humming enormity that dominated his ventral view.
He looked carefully around. He was standing under some trees. There were no idiomatic entities in view and Heaven was usually a tranquil Location. But just to be safe he decided to move deeper into cover. He ducked to pass under the lower branches of a flawless flowering tree, the perfume of its blossoms at close range making his head swim. With each step the touch of the grass against his bare feet was a caress.
A very sensuous Heaven, he thought, and resolved to explore it more thoroughly when he was received into the Institute as a full fellow. Perhaps he would make a special study of such Locations; it would be pleasant work.
Secluded among the scent-laden trees, he concentrated on a mental image of his own head and performed the appropriate exercises for what he judged to be sufficient time. But when he raised his miniature hands to examine the results he discovered that his skull had remained tiny while his ears and nose had grown far beyond normal; indeed they were now as out of harmony with nature as the buzzing, vibrating tower that rose from his lower belly.
If I could see what I am doing, it would make the work much easier, Bandar reasoned. The setting seemed too arcadian for an actual mirror, but the noönaut heard the gentle tinkling of water nearby. A still pool would do, he thought.
He followed the sound deeper into the grove and came to a clearing where a bubbling spring welled up to form a pool of limpid clarity. He knelt and gazed into the gently rippling water. The image of his shrunken face, albeit now centered by a trunk-like proboscis and framed by a pair of sail-like ears, looked back at him with grave concern. He began the exercises anew.
“Bless you,” said a mellow voice behind him. Bandar swung around to find a sprightly old man with the face of a cherub beaming down on him from under a high and ornate miter that was surrounded by a disk of golden light. The saint was dressed in ecclesiastical robes of brilliant white with arcane symbols woven in gold and silver thread. In his hand was a stout staff topped by a great faceted jewel.
“Thank you,” said Bandar. “I’ll be but a moment.”
But as he spoke he saw the man’s beatific expression mutate sharply to a look of horror succeeded by a mask of righteous outrage. Faster than Bandar would have credited, the jewel topped staff rotated in the hierophant’s hand so that it could be thrust against the noönaut’s chest, and he was toppled into the crystal water.
“Glub,” said Bandar as he passed below the surface. When he struggled back to the air he saw the old man looming over him, the staff set to do fresh mayhem. He had time to hear the idiomat cry out, “Enemy! An enemy is here!” before the gem struck Bandar solidly on his tiny cranium and drove him under again.
Bandar wondered if it was possible to drown in the Commons. He elected not to find out and kicked off toward the other side of the pool, swimming under the surface.
The throbbing queller of cavewomen was not diminished by the cold water. Indeed it tended to dig into the soft bottom of the pool so that he had to swim closer to the surface. But his action took him out of range of the staff and in moments he had hauled himself free of the water. The idiomatic saint was circling the pool, clearly intent on doing more damage, all the while bellowing alarms.
Bandar fled for the trees, but as he ran he heard the rush of very large wings. Casting a look over his shoulder, he saw a vast and shining figure passing through the air above the grove. The long bladed sword in its grasp was wreathed in flame and the look on its perfectly formed features bespoke holy violence.
Bandar fell to his knees and opened his mouth. The four and two would not work here, he was sure. And he doubted the nine and three would be efficacious. Given how his fortunes had fared today, it would be the three threes. This was the most difficult sequence of tones, even when the chanter was not possessed of mouse-sized vocal equipment absurdly coupled to an elephantine nasal amplification box, while distracted by vibrations from below and the threat of incineration from above.
His alternatives rapidly dwindling, the noönaut frantically adjusted his vocalizations to find the exact pitch. At least the giant ears assisted in letting him hear exactly how he sounded. The sight of the descending winged avenger lent urgency to his efforts and in moments he struck the right tones. He sang the three threes and saw the terrible beauty of the angel’s face lose its intensity of focus. The wings spread wide to check its ascent; it wheeled and flew off, its flaming sword hissing.
The staff-wielding hierophant stood on the other side of the bubbling pool, scratching his head and wearing an expression like that of a man who has walked into a room and cannot remember what he came for. Then he turned and went back the way he had come.
The gate back to the ice-world was too close to where the saint was keeping his vigil. Bandar did not fancy hunting for it and standing exposed while seeking the right pitch for the opening thran, with hard-tipped staffs and flaming swords in the offing. He would find another gate and take his chances.
Chanting the three threes, he went out onto the luxurious lawn again but now its caressing touch mocked his dismay. He saw above the distant horizon a squadron of winged beings on combat patrol. In another direction was a walled citadel, giant figures watching from its ramparts, a glowing symbol hovering in the sky over the heads.
There could be no doubt: he had passed into one of those Heavens that offered no happy-ever-aftering; instead, here was an active Event — one of those paradises threatened by powers that piled mountains atop each other or crossed bridges formed of razors. In such a place an uninsulated sojourner would not long remain unnoticed. And neither side took prisoners.
If he stopped chanting the three threes, someone might launch a thunderbolt at him. Still, Bandar attempted the techniques that would restore his parts to their proper size. At the very least, he wished to be rid of the humming monstrosity connected to his groin; it slapped his chest when he walked and when he stood still it impinged upon his concentration.
But it was too difficult to maintain the complex chant through his distorted vocal equipment while attempting to rectify his parts. All Bandar could manage was to alter the color of the buzzing tower from its natural shade to a bright crimson. It did not seem a profitable change.
He abandoned the effort and concentrated instead on using his sense of direction to tell him where the next gate might be. In a moment an inkling came, but he was dismayed to recognize that the frailty of the signal meant that the node was a good way off.
Bandar set off in that direction, chanting the three threes, ears flapping from fore to aft and nose swaying from side to side, his chest slapped contrapuntally. After he had walked for some time he noticed that the signal was only marginally stronger; it would be some time before he reached its source.
While I was making alterations I should have doubled the length of my legs, he thought and scarcely had the idea struck him than he realized if he had had that inspiration in the sacked city he could have climbed onto the wall to open its gate and none of this would have been necessary.
The noönaut stopped and sat down. I have been a fool, he thought. Didrick Gabbris deserves to win; he will fit this place far better than I ever could. He felt his spirit deflate and resolved not to persist with the quest. He would open an emergency gate and leave the Commons.
But not here in the open, where someone might cast who knew what lethal missile in his direction. Without warning, in such a Location, an actual god might appear and unleash disasters that only an irate deity could conceive of.
Bandar rose and crossed quickly to the nearest copse of trees. Under their sheltering boughs he spied a troop of armored figures drawn up in a phalanx, the air above their head a blaze of gold from their commingled halos. Still chanting, he backed away.
He walked on, investigating one stand of trees after another, finding each under the eye of at least one brightly topped sentry. Several were peopled by whole battalions of holy warriors.
He would have to leave Heaven before he could find a safe place in which to call up an emergency exit. He wished he knew more about these Locations — his interests ran more toward the historical than the mythological — but he recalled that there was often a ladder or staircase connecting them to the world beneath. It was usually at the edge, sometimes wreathed in clouds.
He kept on until eventually he found himself descending a long, grassy slope which seemed to end in a precipice. Gingerly, he inched toward the edge. He would have crawled on hands and knees but his enormous red appendage hampered him.
Near the lip he looked out into empty air that was suffused with light from no discernible source. Far below, scattered clouds drifted idly, the gaps between them allowing glimpses of fields and forests beneath. Bandar shuffled closer to the edge to look almost directly down, hoping to see some means of descent but his view was hindered by the vibrating enormity. Finally he knelt and leaned forward.
There was something there, just beyond the last fringe of lush grass. He reached to move away the obscuring blades. Yes, that looked much like the top of a ladder.
“Ahah!” said Bandar, breaking off the thran to indulge in a moment of triumphant relief. Immediately, a scale covered hand appeared from beyond the rim, seized his wrist with claw tipped fingers and yanked him over the precipice.
Bandar’s squawk was cut off by a hot, calloused palm pressed against his mouth. There was a reek of sulfur and he was clutched by rock hard arms against an equally unyielding chest, then he heard a flap of leathery wings and felt his stomach lurch as the creature that held him dropped into empty space.
They spiraled downward, affording Bandar a panoramic view of what lay beneath Heaven. There was a ladder; indeed, there were many. But though their tops were set against the grassy lip from which he had been seized their bases were not grounded on the earth far below. Instead, they were footed on a vast expanse of stone paving that was the top of an impossibly colossal construction that rose, tier upon tier, to thrust up through the clouds and end just below the celestial realm.
The tower top was thronged by legions of blood red creatures, some winged, some not, but all armored in shining black chitin and clutching jagged edged swords and hooked spears as they swarmed up the ladders.
As Bandar spun downwards he saw the topmost of the invaders being boosted onto the grass and heard the piercing sound of a horn. Then he and his captor descended into a cloud and for a time all was mist. They emerged to fly beneath an overcast, dropping ever lower toward a great rent in the earth from which foul clouds and odors emerged, as well as more marching legions of imps, demons and assorted fiends, all bound for the great tower.
The demon that held Bandar lifted its wings like a diving pigeon and plummeted into the reeking chasm. A choking darkness closed the noönaut’s eyes and nose but he sensed that they fell a long, long way.
“In a moment, my servant will remove his hand from your mouth,” said the occupant of the black iron throne. “If you attempt to say the name of You Know Whom,” — one elongated finger directed its pointed tip at the roof of the vast underground cavern — “you will utter no more than the first syllable before your tongue is pulled out, sliced into manageable pieces and fed back to you. Are we clear?”
Bandar looked into the darkness of the speaker’s eyes, which seemed to contain only impossibly distended pupils. He wished he could look away but he was by now too far acclimated to this Location, and the Adversary’s powers gripped him the way a snake’s unwavering gaze would hold a mouse.
He nodded and the palm went away. The other’s upraised finger now reflectively stroked an aquiline jaw, its progress ending in a short triangular beard as black as the eyes above it. “What are you?” said the voice, as cool as silk.
Bandar wished he’d studied more about the Heavens and Hells, but he had always been more compelled by Authentics than by Allegoricals. He knew, however, that within their Locations deities and their equivalents had all the powers with which their real-world believers credited them. So, in this context, he faced an authentic Principal of evil — or at least of unbridled ambition — that had all the necessary resources, both intellectual and occult, to battle an omnipotent deity to at least a stalemate. Bandar, who could not outargue Didrick Gabbris, was not a contender.
The sulfur made him cough, Finally he managed to say, “A traveler, a mere visitor.”
The triangular face nodded. “You must be. You’re not one of mine and,” — the fathomless eyes dropped to focus briefly on Bandar’s vibrating wonderment — “you’re certainly not one of His. But what else are you?”
Every Institute apprentice learned in First Week that the concept of thrans had originated in a dawntime myth about an ancient odist whose songs had kept him safe on a quest into the underworld. This knowledge gave Bandar hope as he said, “I am also a singer of songs. Would you care to hear one?”
The Adversary considered the question while Bandar attempted to control his expression. The distant gate he had sensed in Heaven was but a few paces across the cavern. He had only to voice the right notes, perhaps while strolling minstrel-like about the space before the throne, to call the rift into existence and escape through it.
“Why would you want to sing me a song?” said the Adversary.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Bandar and was horrified to see the words take solid form as they left his mouth. They tumbled to the smoldering floor to assemble themselves into a wriggling bundle of legs and segmented body parts that scuttled toward the figure on the throne, climbed his black robes and nestled into the diabolical lap. The Principal idly stroked it with one languid hand, as if it were a favored pet.
“All lies are mine, of course,” the soft voice said, “and I gave you no leave to use what is mine.” He nodded to the winged fiend that still stood behind Bandar and the noönaut felt a icy pain as the thing inserted a claw into a sensitive part and scratched at the virtual flesh.
“Now,” said the Adversary, when Bandar had ceased bleating and hopping, “the truth. What are you, why did you come here and, most urgent of all, how did you contrive to enter His realm behind His defenses?”
“If I tell you, may I go on my way?”
“Perhaps. But you will tell me. Ordinarily, I would enjoy having it pulled out of you piece by dripping piece, but today there is a certain urgency.”
“Very well,” Bandar said, “though the truth may not please you.” And he told all of it — thrans, Locations, examinations, Gabbris, the smashed amphora — wondering as he did so what the repercussions might be. It was no great matter if the odd idiomat saw a sojourner pass by; but Bandar had never heard of an instance where a Principal was brought face to face with the unreality of all that he took to be real.
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