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       The Lord of the Black Land (Unwithering Realm Book 3), p.1

           John C. Wright
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The Lord of the Black Land (Unwithering Realm Book 3)

  The Lord of the Blackland

  Unwithering Realm 3

  John C. Wright


  The Lord of the Blackland

  John C. Wright

  Castalia House

  Tampere, Finland

  This book or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by Finnish copyright law.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any similarity to actual people, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental

  Copyright © 2017 by John C. Wright

  All rights reserved

  Editor: Vox Day

  Cover: Steve Beaulieu

  Version: 001


  Astray in Immensities

  Plumber of the Dark Tower

  Routine Police Procedure

  Cylinder Seal and Cylindrical Cell

  The Nine-Star-Aligned Chamber

  Flying Creatures

  Descending the Utter Dark Tower

  Fury in the Funerary House

  Astray in Immensities

  1. Barricade

  The chain was still wrapped around me in a harness, and strong enough to bear my weight. I had about twenty feet of slack, some of which I looped over the nose of the glass rowboat on which I balanced. Then I made myself a belay tie. Thank God for old-fashioned Boy Scout knot-tying skills. I lowered myself without any hardship, and only a few hard bruises, to the nose of the next glass boat below. Then repeated the process.

  Twelve feet at a time, I lowered myself from one glass boat to the next, until I was at the cab of the wayship that was sliding without lights and without noise down the side of the blue metal wall. Unlike the larger wayship I had encountered in the Uncreation, this one had its mouth-shaped prow funnel closed, and window-shaped gill-slits open.

  By the time I reached the cab, about thirty Hail Mary’s and three Paternosters later, my feet had stopped bleeding.

  I looked into the gill-slit window of the cab of the wayship. It was a triangular cabin, unoccupied, with benches and handholds both on walls and overhead, as if meant to be manned no matter what direction was up. There were brass metal plates on dragon-decorated arms coming from the deck and bulkheads, and a brazier of coals held in a wire cage that looked like a popcorn popper, but nothing that looked like levers or switches or brakes. How these people ran their world without door handles and light switches was still a mystery to me. I wished I had asked Abby more questions.

  I gritted my teeth and told myself I would ask her when next I saw her.

  There was nothing in the cab I could use, so I then very carefully and very slowly lowered myself with the chain to the bowsprit, and then I shimmied down to the hook at the end.

  My reasoning was simple: the next time this wayship dropped or picked up cargo, this arm and hook would swing out over the wharf, and I would dismount. Easy peasy.

  The problem was that I had inflicted on myself a fiendish torture not so very different from what I had so recently been suffering. I was once again hanging over a bottomless drop, and I had to rest with all my weight first on one foot, and then, when that got tired, the other, and neither position was really comfortable. I didn’t dare to lash myself in place with the chain, because I did not know when the next cargo drop or pickup would be.

  Twice I saw other golden wayships like this one, either above me on the ribbon, or off to one side, elongate their bowsprit hooks, reaching as delicately as the crooked leg of an insect, and pluck up or drop off a container. Not this one. I squinted up at the glass vessels: it looked like the whole train was carrying cargoes of dirt and eggs. Or maybe they were mangoes, or cannonballs.

  Then I saw below me what looked like a traffic jam. The ribbon to which the machine I rode was clinging was crowded with motionless wayships huge as freight trains and jammed with decelerating glass bottles, and so were the other two parallel ribbons. This was all congregated at a level underfoot where there was a ring of windows looking inward on this huge shaft, and every window seemed bright with lanterns and lampwoods and searchlights.

  I don’t know if it was an airlock or a rest stop or a police barricade. I assume that if I was important enough for the withered little freak that passed for the local Dark Lord to visit me himself in person, I was important enough to put out an all-points-bulletin and stop all the traffic.

  I saw the motion of figures, some walking like men, some crawling like dogs, some slithering, marching along planks of living metal that were elongating out toward the various stalled machines and vessels. Each figure seemed to have a pike in hand, whose pikeshaft was gleaming lampwood, tuned to the eye-stinging blue-white hue that drove the twilight away. From the glints as the soldiers raised their heads, I guessed they were wearing thick, leaded goggles to protect their eyes from the ylemaramu, the ylem-quelling radiation. It must have dimmed their night vision, though, since none of them looked up and saw me perched precariously on the nose of my wayship, like some Captain Ahab on the nose of Moby Dick doing a headstand.

  2. Panotii

  I also saw shadows that looked like enormous bats or pterodactyls flapping and circling, climbing higher, inspecting the machines that were slowing and arriving at the checkpoint. There seemed something particularly awkward in their flight, crippled and ungainly.

  At first I thought these were my old friends the Host that Quaff Souls like Winos, or whatever they were called, the eyeless baldies. But no, they were something that was both uglier and more eerie.

  They were men with ears like Dumbo from Disney: and they flew by flapping ears bigger than their bodies. They had several ear-rings in each sail-like lobe, and they put their hands and feet through them as if through stirrups and handgrips, and pumped energetically with both arms and both legs to stay afloat. They also had some sort of breastplate or harness with glowing gems like Christmas-tree lights glittering on them. My guess: an antigravity belt, because no human-sized animal can keep itself aloft by pumping leather earlobes no bigger than an opera cape. Don’t get me wrong, these were really absurdly big for ears, but compared to hang-gliders or ultralights, the wingspan was absurdly small.

  Pure luck saved me. There was one last platform sticking out into the shaft before the final thousand-foot stretch where the police barricade was, and it must have been expecting a delivery. The hook on which I sat silently lifted up, turned, engaged the tow ring on the nose of one of the rowboats carried on the back of the golden wayship — and one where the lid was not locked, so I just reached down and pushed it open with my foot, and fell into the glass interior of the bottle-shaped rowboat.

  It was filled with topsoil, of all things. I scooped it up with my hands, and poured some over me.

  Just then, two of the ear-flapping humanoids circled near, silent as vultures. The guys were really, really ugly, and I mean gargoyle ugly, with tusks and bristle-clumps and ape-nostrils like twin bulletholes. Maybe they were interbred with boars and bats, in which case I am sure no one but the females of their species can find them alluring. Either that, or they are blind or mate in the dark.

  If only the ear-people had sported funny clown faces, they would have been comical as Dumbo the Elephant. As it was, they were about as comical as the Elephant Man: I had a sensation not just of horror, but of pity, as if I were looking at something once-human which
had been tampered with, degraded, or bewitched. Princes demoted to frogs.

  They peered at me through the blue glass hull, with eyes as intelligent and ferocious as the eyes of wild pigs, and did not see me. Then they sailed away.

  Meanwhile the bowsprit straightened, and the metal arm lowered me in my glass rowboat to a landing dock, onto which the boat fell with a clang. The floor had a strip of living metal, which grabbed the boat by the keel, and dragged it in perfect silence away from the platform, away from the vast axial shaft larger than any cathedral, and through an archway, and down a dark round passage that could have been a sewer culvert.

  I had eluded pursuit, for now. Still at large. Unarmed, but, I hoped, dangerous.

  The container came to rest in a pitch-black place. I spent a frantic time trying to find the catch or latch holding the lid shut, but then I simply pushed with both legs and forced it open. Something rolled and crashed, because a weight had been atop my container. I rose and groped this way and that, reaching out with blind fingers. I touched the surface of other rowboat-sized bottles in this room, and smelled topsoil. I stumbled into what felt and sounded like a line of tools, knocking hoes and rakes clattering down.

  A sliding panel spilled me out into a short corridor lit only by a reflection of light in the distance. I followed that reflection to another sliding panel: the light I saw was seeping through the crack.

  I slid it aside, and caught my breath. Beyond shined a chamber of gold: the burial chamber of an Egyptian king.

  3. Lord of the Black Land and Red

  Here was the corpse of a Pharaoh, crowned with a pshent, on a throne to one side of the chamber.

  His crossed and bandaged arms held the flail and crosier of his kingly power. His robes were woven with images of falcon feathers, and his slippers adorned with images of the faces of enemies whose lands he had trampled. Behind him, a falcon-headed god loomed over the throne and held up a mirror adorned with a starburst of rays.

  Black statues of jackals with collars of gold stood, ears like spearpoints, to either side of the throne. A line of canopic jars, perhaps containing the internal organs of the Pharaoh, stood on a semicircular bench, painted bright red, behind the throne and half-embracing it. The legs of the table were carved with serpents and phoenixes, each carrying the looped cross of eternal life, ankh or crux ansata.

  The chamber itself was huge. A line of columns decorated with delicate river-lotus capitals marched down the aisle between golden braziers and tablets of jade and lapis lazuli.

  And every wall was decorated, not with angular cuneiforms, but with elegant hieroglyphs, images of birds and reeds and zooanthropic gods, swans and stars and rivers flowing, all traced with cunning precision, and the cartouches were inset with gold wire.

  In the center of the chamber was a life-sized curve-keeled boat carved and enameled and inset with fantastic detail, with a stern as proud as a peacock's tail curving up aft.

  Facing the Pharaoh was a window larger than a garage door, and round as a well, set with blue stones. There was no glass, no shutters. Outside was the upper atmosphere, perhaps twenty thousand feet high, and a setting sun that turned the clouds to red and gold as if with alchemical fires.

  In addition to the falcon-headed statue behind the throne, beings twice the height of a man stood in the chamber, and watched it with eyes made of polished onyx and painted with kohl: a frog-headed god with streams of carven blue ripples issuing from his generous mouth, a god with the head of a long-beaked ibis, scroll and quill in gold-shod hand, a cuttlefish-headed god with tentacles like Celtic knots. Lesser gods half their size with heads of crocodiles, scarabs, lionesses and curling-horned rams flanked them with the stiffness and precision of soldiers at attention.

  The corpse on the throne was not the only mummy in the chamber. His dogs had been mummified carefully and placed at the foot of his throne, as well as a cat with a jade collar on a small table next to him.

  Black men with shield and spear were lying dead at his feet, face down as if in endless adoration, their weapons to either side.

  Nearer the throne, face up, lay dead queens, their faces hidden beneath delicate death-masks of beaten gold, their features beautiful and cold; their skulls were hidden beneath long wigs of black hair adorned with beads. Mirrors and combs of shell lay carefully to either side of the queens and wives, and distaffs were in their begemmed mittens, and gem-threaded cloaks of fabulous beauty spread like wings out from the motionless bodies.

  Chancellors and priests in garbs of purest white, and officers in plumed helmets were mummified and motionless, buried upright up to their waists, eyes and mouths sewn shut, trapped in the throne dais itself, all dead with their master. If the Pharaoh had risen to his dead feet, he would have walked on their dead faces.

  There were also wading pools in the chamber between the tall pillars and the distant walls. The pools were lined with mud and covered with silvery water, and in them lotuses and lilies were growing, and flowering reeds and ferns. How any living thing could grow at this altitude, above the snowline, was a mystery to me. Someone tended these pools.

  I stood still for a moment, not sure what to do. There was no noise and no reaction from the Pharaoh. I stepped gingerly into the chamber, my naked feet loud on the icy floor, wondering if there were an exit.

  As I stepped between the pillars into the main part of the room, I felt a weird sensation of stage fright, but as if I were facing an audience of perfectly quiet and very hostile enemies.

  The head of the corpse on the throne did not turn toward me, nor did his eyes light up as if with icy, unearthly fire, but I could feel his awareness, his chilly, inhuman, dispassionate thoughts turning toward me. It was like a pressure, like when you sneak into the basement for an illegal soda and open the refrigerator door at midnight, the one which does not have a light, and you see nothing but still feel the touch of cold.

  4. Unseen Eyes

  I froze. After a moment, I turned my eyes without moving my head. It was coming from behind me.

  Like the Pharaoh, the statues had not moved an inch, but there was an inhuman, unearthly awareness and watchfulness behind their glass bead eyes, grim and ancient and deadly spirits behind their beastlike masks.

  Suddenly and for no reason, I was convinced that these were not statues at all, but beings who chose to appear as statues, and merely decided to stand without moving, without drawing breath.

  A slight wind moved in through the open, round window. The dead slave warriors and dead queens shivered slightly. I could see they were trying to keep still, trying not to move. From the way they held their heads, I could tell they were listening intently, but none dared raise his eyes before the throne of the Pharaoh.

  A cloud passed before the setting sun, and it was darker in here, and I heard stealthy noises, as golden gloves tightened on ceremonial spears and curved swords. I realized that this was not natural darkness: this was the blurring of reality, the twilight effect.

  The twilight was coming from the flail held in the hands of the mummy king.

  For those of you who never played a man-at-arms in Dungeons & Dragons, or haven’t read history books, a flail is a tool used by farmers to beat grain free of its chaff, or used by soldiers to beat in enemy faces. A flail is a long stick, maybe the size of a broomstick, connected by a short rope or chain to another stick, and you can get some really impressive momentum out of the thing with a simple overhand stroke. The royal model here was shorter than the standard model, the shaft about as long as a golfclub, and it had three tails instead of one, each tail a bar of iron as thick around as my thumb and as long as my forearm.

  But this was not a real flail. The shaft was one of those gold spear-sized invasion machines, an uncoiled coil, which had slipped into my world through the Professor’s Moebius coil. The only difference was the paint job. This was red and gold rather than black and gold. The arms of the flail looked like three separated tails, each with its own pointed tip matching the mouth-socke
t in the butt of the flailshaft.

  It was a working model, producing the twilight that strengthened my ability to recuperate, and also knocked out radios (so Abby said) and guns (so Dad said).

  I had been locked in that midair cage for so long, I had almost forgotten how badly I yearned to escape from the larger cage of the world I knew before. Foolish dreams, I know that now, but all kids go through a foolish phase. Now I yearned for home, for earthly skies and normal-looking people, the sound of my native tongue, the smell of junkfood, the blare of rock music, yes, even disco, like a drowning man yearns for air. I wanted to see my family of black foxes again.

  And there was a Moebius coil right in front of me. If I could figure out how it worked, it was my escape tunnel out of here, my passkey to other worlds, including the world called home.

  Every instinct and every argument of common sense told me to get the heck out of that chamber of the dead. I believed in magic now that it had been shoved down my throat. I knew this place was haunted. It was like the heaviness that hangs in the air before a storm. You did not need to be Uri Geller or Luke Skywalker to feel the menace.

  I approached the throne. The wind and wind noise stopped.

  My feet were very loud on the marble floor, and my footsteps echoed from the walls.

  The throne was before me. I stepped up on the dais, careful not to put my feet on the faces of the dead men half-buried there. Then I leaned, and reached my hand toward the golden flail.

  And then I was too scared to move. Something was preventing me from moving.

  My legs were shaking, I was sweating, and a voice inside my head was screaming at me to get out of there, and run, not walk, to the nearest exit. Better yet, throw myself out that big round window and into the clouds so far below. Anything to get out of here.

  I could not turn, but I heard scraping noises behind me, a rustle of fabric, the grinding sound of stone sliding against stone. I turned my eye toward the solar-disk mirror in front of me, above the throne, but nothing in the chamber was moving.

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