The Intangible Design

– The Intangible Design –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

O WORLD invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

— Francis Thompson (1859–1907)

Table of Contents so far

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First: The World Invisible

Moonlight shone on gravestones. Hissing storm-winds thrashed the churchyard weeds against the pale headstones, against the blurred and mossy statues surveying the decay. Each of the graves had a pile of heavy rocks atop it, like a cairn. There was a rock-choked hole in one of these grave-cairns. A slim white hand rose up from the hole, pushing aside a rock.

The torn laces and ribbons of the sleeve dripped grave-soil. There came a soft grunt, perhaps a sob, from underground, and the hand pushed up another dirty rock.

Hunched behind the statue of an angel, not far away, a plump, head-shaven man, dressed in a rough-spun priest’s cassock, clutched a shovel, and watched the scene with eyes grown wide and wet with fear. Below his feet was a wine-cup, a brandy bottle, a basket containing bread and sweets, and an unlit candle in a silver holder, all laying awry as if tossed aside.

An arm came up from the grave; grabbed pathetically at the weeds; a head rose in to view, a shoulder.

The moon passed behind a cloud, and for a moment nothing could be seen. All was invisible.

High above, the black shape of the cloud, tinged silvery about all its edges, blotted out the light. Some moonlight glinted from the peaks of nearby mountains. On the high hills surrounding the narrow, wooded valley where the churchyard lay, small lights could be seen glinting in the windows of cabins and shacks. The houses were few, rugged, simple, and too far away to look to for aid.

Then the moon came clear. Hunkered down by the grave, a human-shaped figure swayed. Draggled plumes dangled from a crushed and shapeless wide-brimmed hat; dirt stains clogged the many ruffles of the sleeves and vest; the pantaloons were soiled with sweat; the ribbons of the belt were snarled and broken; one boot had an ornamental buckle missing.

From behind the statue, the plump man saw that the thing from the grave was armed with a sword. He hoped the noise of the howling wind shaking the dry leaves of the church-yard trees was drowning the sound of his chattering teeth.

The figure turned and put its face down toward the grave. A soft, light, high-pitched voice called out, “Here, kitty, kitty.” A soft sob. Then, once again: “Here, kitty.”

The man rushed out from behind the statue with his shovel raised high, shrieking, praying. He struck down. The figure by the grave spun quickly, arm raised to ward off the blow, kicked.

The moon was hidden behind a cloud. All was black. The was a scream, a thud, and scrambling noise, then, silence.

There was the noise of a slither of steel. A woman’s voice spoke in the darkness: “I’ve drawn my sword. Do you think I can’t see you? I’ve been in the cities below the earth. The glooms of that black place are deeper than this.”

“Back, you creature of the pit! I serve in a holy office! Powers of Light protect me! If you are a servant of the Darkborn…”

There was a rustling of weeds, the sound of someone moving. Then the wind blew loud again, and the noise was covered.

The woman’s voice: “I’m not an undead, you idiot. There are tunnels underneath this graveyard. Those who dwell below have been digging up into the coffins to rob them. They use corpses of humans in their craft. I escaped: I am not one of them. Won’t you answer me? Are you afraid I will trace you by your voice? If you are a priest, then your vows require you to help me. Are you afraid? Have you lost your faith in the protection of your prayers?”

“I am the curate, not the priest. Bishop Teel serves this church. And I am not afraid! I know my blow struck home, I think. Yes, I’m sure. I think I broke your sword-arm, didn’t I?”

“Do you?” came the lilting, girlish voice, “I think you dropped your shovel, and that is why you are groping around in this disgusting grass. I also wonder if my sword is only inches from your fat face. Shall I test my theory?”

“You would not kill an unarmed…a holy servant of the church… I… I… I still have my shovel! I can tell where you are by your voice! Don’t move or I’ll swing!”

The rushing tatters of cloud parted; silver beams of moonlight glinted on the gravestones. The woman was leaning against the mossy statue of an angel, clutching her right arm, whose ruffles and flounces were bloody. Limply in her left hand was a slim, straight rapier. She was staring thoughtfully down at the fallen wine bottle touching her foot.

Several paces away, groping on the weedy ground on his hands and knees, was the curate. He looked up, startled.

She pointed to the left with her sword.

“The shovel’s over there,” she said. “You’ll have to get it. We need to close the hole. I’ve been pursued.”

He was staring at her with slack features, his mouth wide. She snapped, “What are you staring at?”

He pointed toward her neck with a shaking finger. From a slim chain around her neck, like a bird on the end of a string, like a bubble, a white round crystal floated.

The crystal was multifaceted; in each face gleamed a different angle or aspect of a complex design of interlocking spirals and endless knots, drawn, as if with a line of silvery fires, in the heart of the crystal.

The crystal bobbed and drifted on the wind, tethered to her neck by the chain. The fabric at her throat had torn and parted during their brief struggle. Her tattered laces dangled atop her bosom, where evidently the silvery stone had been hidden.

Now it floated near her head. She glanced at it, and at her left hand. Perhaps she wanted to raise her good hand to snatch the crystal back into hiding, but she did not put down her sword.

“What is that thing?” he whispered. Then he said, “Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know!”

“It is something I took from the cities below the earth.”

“It is unnatural! You should cast it away!”

*** *** ***

Second: The World Intangible

She laughed weakly, swaying slightly on her feet. She tilted her head back, looking up at the moon, and spoke in a strange, low tone of voice, never looking at him: “Little man, I crept past the eyes of the jewel-armored gods of the underworld, who crouch above where their altars steam with the fresh-spilt blood of consecrated virgins and sacred slaves…

“I fought my way out from tunnels of paved with adamantium and gold, while all about me the spears and arrows of the Dark Ones fell, and the golden paving stones were shattered with their weapons of black fire.

“I dove into an ocean which the sun has never seen, and fought with a pale monstrous dweller in those depths.

“I wandered, lost, in blind caverns wider than any kingdom on the Earth.

“I stole a ship made of adamantium, and fled across a sea of boiling rock, hunted by their navy. I fought a sea-fight in the midst of flows of lava, with black clouds of steaming metal and liquid rock bubbling all about me.

“On the hither shore, in the dark, I strangled a creature whose shape and aspect I never beheld, but whose dying flesh flowed and changed underneath my hands.

“I have eaten their pallid food. I have seen things no other human has beheld, and heard the roaring of their vast engines and machines.

“I crawled through lightless, stinking labyrinths; I crept on my belly past piles of corpses; I dug my way up out of a grave.”

She tilted her head forward, and fixed him with a bright eye.

“Do you think I will give up my prize now?” Her voice had a fevered, almost rambling rant to it, but the tone was controlled.

The curate had his back toward the moonlight. His expression was shadowed. He said cautiously, “It is sin to tell falsehoods, my child,” he said.

For a moment she stiffened with pride, her chin raised. But then she slumped back against the statue, and uttered a weak laugh.

“You are not used to being accused of lying,” he said, “Even when you do it. You are of noble blood.”

“Nobler than you know. And I have never lied.”

“How could you accomplish all these marvels, fights, escapes?”

“I was not alone…”

“You lied about the sword. You said you could see in the dark!”

“No, fat man. I merely asked you whether or not you thought I could. I said the cities of the underworld were dim: and so they are. In their palaces and crypts float Will O’ the Wisps. On Earth, these little lights lead travelers astray. Below it, they are loyal to dark masters, and fly in swarms before them to illume the way.”

“Indeed? And how did you see, then?”

“My missing friend saw quite well in the dark. He is a kitten name Apocalypse. Now, then: Pick up your shovel, and cave in the hole in that grave there.” Her voice had a ring to it, like one well used to being obeyed.

“Throw the crystal into the hole, first, my child.”


“You are better rid of it. Your wild story claims dark beings live below the Earth. If that is true, they may be appeased if you return what you have stolen. Worldly goods create greed. Those who lead humble lives have nothing to fear, and avoid the envy of their foes…”

She straightened and pushed herself away from the statue, and came forward a few unsteady steps. Her left hand came up; the blade pointed at him, firm and unshaking. The strange crystal hovered and bobbed on its chain, light as a thistle-down.

“You are too weak to fight,” he said, backing away, “You are holding the sword in your left hand.”

“They say some people fight as well with their left as their right. Am I too weak? Are you willing to gamble your life on that belief?”

At that moment, they both heard a scraping noise, stone rumbling against stone, issuing from the open grave. The rumble was deep; it was the noise of a gateway opening, or perhaps the noise of wheels turning.

She looked at the curate; her eyes were bright and sharp. “I have seen moonlight and starlight, and breathed the unhindered air of the upper world once again. I vowed that I would, and I have. I am content to die. Are you?”

The curate seemed paralyzed with terror.

She said, “This crystal contains the Intangible Design. Upon its touch, solid rock has no more substance than thick mist, and things impalpable can be made firm again. It is what the Dark Ones use to draw down air through miles of ponderous earth and solid stone to freshen their dank caves. This is their greatest treasure. Without it, their cities smother. Do you think they will allow any one to live who has seen it? Take up your shovel. Fill the hole.”

The curate hesitated, then scrambled forward, seized the shovel, and began to fill in the open grave. That done, he began to bend and straighten, bend and straighten, piling one heavy rock after another atop the grave.

The woman looked left and right. “The graves are weighed down here.”

Puffing, the curate raised another rock to pile atop the disturbed grave. He spoke as if to distract himself from the horror of task he did. In a rushed voice he said, “An old custom. They are simple people here, miners and prospectors. They dig tin from the caves in the mountains. These stones are no more than a quaint superstition…”

“The craft of the Dark Ones can bring the limbs of the dead jerking back to a mockery of life. The people here fear the revenants, and hope to weigh them down into their graves. Yet you dared to call my tale a fable.”

The curate said nothing, but stooped, and hauled another stone atop the cairn. He worked with frantic energy.

She said, “The miners here intrude into the upper levels of a world of which they know nothing.”

“It is not the ground they have cause to fear, but the sky.” panted the curate. “There are winged serpents on the mountaintops. The simple folk call them dragons. They say they can wear the shapes of men and walk among us.”

“This power is the source of the Dragon-Lord’s false claim that they are the fathers of all life on earth. All creatures, they claim, are descended from dragons who were trapped when they played at other shapes, forgetting their true names and true natures.”

The curate paused, staring at her oddly. “How can any daughter of woman know what the doctrines of the dragons are?”

From below the ground there came a great rushing noise, and a horrid vast voice uttering words in a language unknown to them.

The curate flung himself backwards, screaming.

*** *** ***

Third: The World Unknowable

The stones began to stir and shiver, as if some massive force were being applied from below.

The girl stepped forward, dropped her rapier. In one hand she took the floating crystal and held it before her eye, looking down at the piled stones, regarding them through the center of the design. She said, “By the blood of Ambrembramine, I call, gossamer to adamant: grow firm withal. Weak to solid, imponderable to thick. What is thin as mist grow tangible as brick.”

She bent to touch the pile of stones. Immediately the rock pile settled, as if each stone had suddenly been bound to every other, and each stone had grown as heavy and unbreakable as tempered iron.

There came a massive scraping, clawing noise from underfoot, and the hideous huge voice called out again. But the stone pile did not move or tremble, not so much as a hair’s breadth.

The noise subsided. All was silent.

The curate, staring up at her in the moonlight, said in a hushed voice, “You are of the blood of Ambrembramine. You are descended from the fallen Kings of Wraithguard. I know you. There is a minstrel’s tale sung of you. You are Elenore of Undelome. Elenore Hellmaiden, they call you, Princess of the Perishing Waste of Ysbrandon. They say you are cursed, and cannot lie or invent false tales.”

Elenore straightened. For the first time the curate noticed her great height: she was taller than a tall man. She said, “I am she. This treasure is mine by right; it belonged to my royal ancestors.”

Her eyes were bright, her face shined with stern passion, controlled anger. “All the world would have been ours, for my fathers’ knights walked through barred gate and solid wall, as easily as a man walks through a bank of fog, and could make their arms and armor sturdier than adamant.

“But the Dark Born came forth from the world below this one, a world we did not know. They stole the Intangible Design many years ago, and cursed the foundations of our kingdom. Ysbrandon was swallowed in the earth, and all her towers melted, fell, and blew away like smoke. My kingdom is a blasted waste. I am resolved it shall made anew, and all her ancients splendors restored a dozen-fold!”

Elenore caught the floating crystal in her hand, regarded it a moment, in supreme exultation, and then thrust it down into her shirt. She retrieved her rapier.

“Come,” she said, “We must away. I expect your help and obedience…”

A great noise, louder than a thousand thunder-claps, rang out from underfoot. It echoed from earth to sky, blaring like the blast of a thousand trumpets.

The curate had flung himself on his face, clutching his ears. He heard the noise, not only in his ears, but shivering through his bones.

The noise was dying away. Elenore kicked him and shouted something at him. He rose unsteadily to his feet. Elenore, with her elbow, shoved him and sent him stumbling toward the church building to one side of the graveyard. She shouted again, but he could not heard her, for the blast had numbed his ears.

Clutching her wounded arm, she ran toward the church.

He ran also.

The piles of stones scattered throughout the graveyard began to stir and tremble. In many places, clods of earth thrust up out of the ground. The curate saw skeletal hands, first one, then a dozen, begin to claw their way out of the dirt.

The dead were waking.

The curate saw narrow faces pushing their way up from the dirt, empty eye-sockets, shriveled cheeks, rotted teeth grinning. Wherever Elenore ran, the ground to either side of her became hard for many yards in each direction, and the undead, trapped like flies in amber, groped, half-in, half-out of the dirt. Those further away, however, continued to claw their way up toward the air.

Elenore raced out of the graveyard toward the front of the church, where tall doors stood above broad stairs.

The corpse of a woman in a bridal dress, carrying a small dead baby, stepped out of the shadows, blocking Elenore’s way to the church stairs. The dead woman’s face beneath the filmy lace of the bridal veil was blue and stinking, dripping tatters of rotted flesh. The little baby in her arms stirred and turned its eyeless skull toward Elenore.

The child spoke in a high, thin, lovely voice: “Mother, here is Elenore who dared intrude within the dominion of the Dark.”

The mother said, “Sweet child, when she is dead, her corpse will dance and flop around the bone-fires into which the living shall be thrown, and laugh to hear the music of the Dark Born issuing from caves and graves and wells…”

Elenore lunged and the point of her blade entered the chest of the revenant where its heart once was. The dead bride laughed, and raised her hand to grope toward Elenore. The blade, however, would not allow the dead bride to approach, and her hand could not reach Elenore.

Elenore circled the corpse, pulling on her blade, and the corpse turned also, for a moment, not balanced. Elenore raised her foot and kicked the undead mother backwards off the sword. The strength of the undead was many times greater than that of a human being, but their agility was less; the corpse stumbled and fell.

As it fell, the corpse bride threw her dead baby at Elenore. The little corpse flew threw the air, lipless mouth open wide, showing tiny fangs. Elenore raised her sword and parried the thing, swatting it to one side.

The little corpse struck the wall of the church, face first. The strength of the undead was displayed when the little child bit into the stone, and the stone cracked under the pressure of its bite. The baby corpse hung there by its teeth.

The curate, not two paces behind, jumped over the corpse of the dead bride before it could rise and he leapt up the stairs, toward Elenore.

Elenore had turned at the church door, and, holding the crystal before one eye, was murmuring rapidly. Wherever she glanced, the legs and arms of the rotting corpses turned to mist and fell away from their bodies. Horribly, however, the severed arms and legs continued to grope toward them through the air, wraithlike, insubstantial. Elenore made another pass with the crystal: the severed limbs grew firm, and fell to earth.

The closer undead, such as the bride, or a knight in rusted armor atop a mummified horse, Elenore caused to sink into the earth. However, there was something below the earth which had been awaiting just that maneuver.

Two huge white worms, the length of felled pine tree trunks, pushed up out of the ground where Elenore had made the earth insubstantial. Their pale skin glistened with gelatinous fat, and pink tendrils quivered and writhed about the fanged mouths of their blind, blunt heads.

Meanwhile, like angular snakes, the rotted and diseased arms flopped forward; like spiders, the severed hands crawled on their fingers through the grass. In the distance, a group of the dead had turned to begin dragging the stones from off the graves of their trapped comrades.

One of the giant worms surged forward and struck down. Elenore touched her doublet; instantly it became as hard as steel. The worms’ fangs closed over her, dripping saliva, but the sharp teeth could find no purchase.

Elenore struck the creature with the crystal. It became as thin as mist. The wind picked up the great worm and blew it cross the grave-yard, writhing like a long banner.

With the crystal, she turned the ground solid once more; but the other worm continued to ooze up from the soil, its soft flesh sliding around the imprisoning stone. Perhaps the rock had solidified within it, cutting it in half; but, if so, the worm did not slow or suffer.

The undead had shambled to the bottom stair; they reached out their long, skeletal hands. The curate was screaming in terror.

Elenore could not open the church door one-handed. She turned, struck it with the crystal, and stepped through the wooden planks. The door rippled and shimmered like the surface of a disturbed lake. The curate jumped into the rippling wood, just as the nearest rotted hand began to clutch at the hem of his robe. He felt the door grow solid behind his back.

The curate heard bony fingers scraping at the door. For a moment, he wondered at the noise, pleased that his hearing had returned.

He turned. It was dark inside the chapel; little could be seen besides the hint of an altar at the far end, and the one door to the left leading to the bell-tower stairs.


*** *** ***

Fourth: The Inapprehensible

Elenore’s voice came out of the darkness, strained. “Here.” Her flight perhaps had pained her arm. “Bring me a light, for I am sorely hurt.”

She heard him pad over to the altar and move around. He came back. She heard the scrape of a flint striker, smelled oil. Suddenly there was a tiny flame dancing on the spout of an oil lamp shaped like a covered bowl.

The limbs of the undead thumped against the door. Then came a moment of silence. Then there was a noise of many feet rushing all at once, and the great church doors shuddered in their frames, hinges shrieking.

Elenore said, “Is this church warded? How can the dead touch its doors without burning? The noise of the churchbells might drive them away. Do you know the prayer to banish them?”

“Not I. I am not an ordained priest. Only Bishop Teel might know…”

The curate fell silent in amazement, eyes wide in the gloom.

Elenore had touched the crystal to her bloody sleeve, recited her charm. The sleeve became insubstantial and fell away. She touched the crystal to her wounded arm.

Then, with her left hand, she passed her fingers into the flesh of her right arm. She did not tear or open the flesh, but it was as if the skin were no more solid than water, which rippled and parted before her touch.

She gave a grunt, smothering a slight scream, and stood, breathing with her mouth open, shaking.

“You’ve set the bone by feel,” said the curate, amazed.

Elenore passed the crystal over her right arm, saying, “Yes. And I have made the break join back together, by rendering the joining more substantial. Do you doubt my resolve, or my power to accomplish it?”

“No, Your Highness.”

Her right arm grew solid once again. She hefted her rapier, flexed her arm, made on or two mock passes.

They heard noises from behind them, beyond the walls. The curate said, “They are surrounding the church. Come! There is a priest’s hole in the basement; a tunnel leads to a secret escape.”

“I’ll not step in a tunnel again, not ever.”

“Highness! You must!”

The door jumped in the frame and began to crack. Elenore touched the doors with her crystal. The wood grew firm, unbreakable as rock. The door did not shiver, not at all, even when the horde beyond threw their gathered might at it.

“Can you strengthen all the walls? Render us invulnerable?”

She said, “I already have strengthened what I may. But the Darkborn have winded the Horn of Annuvin to waken the dead. The dragons you said infest the mountains nearby will have heard, and will come. A drive of dragons will arrive, flaming and wrathful, for the Lords of the Sky and the Dwellers Below have been at war since the dawn of time. This church, no matter how substantial I conjure it, will not survive that all-destroying fire. To escape, we must sweep the undead away, and do so before their masters, the Dark Born, rise from their caverns and abysses. Does your bishop own any holy relics, or has he blessed the churchbells with the power to terrify demonic forces?”

“I know not. You must ask him. Come: he is in the wine cellar.”

Elenore gestured with her crystal. The floor below the curate’s feet grew soft as mud. He called out and tried to free his feet, in vain. She reversed the crystal and spoke a charm. The floor, solid once again, now had the curate trapped up to below his knees.

“What is this, Highness? What have I done! Release me!”

“The cellar is an entrance to Xibalba and the Cities of the Dark, is it not? The tunnels lead to Underdeep and into the caverns and pits. Do you think me a fool? Escape tunnel indeed! This whole landscape is as hollow and rotted as an ancient oak, firm seeming only to the surface, but all emptiness and corruption within.”

She closed her eyes as if in pain. “Oh, foolish to have thought the church so solid! The foundations of the world rot whenever heaven is forgot!”

There came a vast crashing against the doors, the sound of some titanic creature lumbering and thrusting against the wall. The corpse-smell grew worse. At the great blow, the doors held firm and did not quiver, but the wall groaned. Little trickles of dust floated down from above.

She said, “The Darkborn have summoned an Elder Undead, some giant creature who walked the earth at time’s dawn, before the gods were made. Their power reaches far, far into the past. Who can apprehend such creatures? How gently will your masters treat you when they discover your failure?”

“They say you cannot lie,” he muttered, half-inaudible, “Is it true that the gods gave you a gift to balance the curse? You can hear the falsehood in a lying man’s voice. I did not believe it…”

Then he jerked futilely at his legs, his arms windmilling. He began to shriek and weep. “Spare me please! I beg you! I was frightened! The miners dug down too deep! They found the maidens of the Darkborn playing there, singing and bathing in sunless pools. They wished to wed, and no one could deter them. The Dark became the relatives, the families of many of the miners, and only those who prayed to the Dark returned with wealthy finds from the mines. Everyone was corrupted. They took me to the opening of the mines; a voice spoke out of the gloom, and demanded I kneel, that I swear fealty. Of course I obeyed their will. What could I have done? What could I have done? I should not have lied to Elenore Hellmaiden, Elenore who can hear the truth ring true!”

“It needed no magic to discover your falsehoods. I saw the bottle of wine you intended as a welcoming gift for what you thought was emerging from the tunnels below the graveyard. You knew were the entrance to the tunnel was; you had, no doubt, been warned by some secret signal triggered by my passage down the tunnel. You did not attack till you had clearly seen I was not a Darkborn. You say you are the curate of this place, but it is in such disrepair that the walking dead can touch its doors without burning. How did you defile the wards? Pour baby’s blood on the altarpiece?”

Another voice spoke out of the gloom of the chapel, a deep, resonant voice. “Not so, princess Elenore. He was required to copulate with the animated corpse of a prostitute during high holy mass.”

Out from the dark archway of the stair landing, a hooded figure in a long cloak slid slowly forward. His face and hands were pale as ivory; across his eyes he wore a bandage, blindfolding himself. In one hand he held a long white staff.

“I am the Bishop Teel,” the figure said. As he stepped forward, he swung the staff gently left and right, a hypnotically slow gesture.

*** *** ***

Fifth: The Unholy

A throwing knife fell out of Elenore’s beribboned sleeve into her hand. “Stay back. You are no bishop.”

“Oh, child, but I am. You wonder why one of my rank dwells in so humble a village church? I was sent as a legate from the Holy City to investigate rumors of dark magic, living dead, unspeakable deeds.”

“You have been corrupted by the Dark Born, then.”

“Saved from corruption, rather.” He uttered a mild laugh.

The clamor and noise from outside grew suddenly louder.

Bishop Teel nodded forward his blindfolded head as if listening. “The remainder of the host of walking dead have arrived.”


“Indeed. One of my first acts, as I entered into what one might call my new life, was to invite all the villagers into a holy mass, to pray for salvation from the one or two undead plaguing the village. Once they were all inside here, I called upon the power of the Princes of the Far Below World.

“The villagers were unlettered fools, and followed me in the prayer I said, never guessing the import of the words they recited.

“When their ancestors, dead fathers, mothers, grandparents rose up from the graves outside, they were horrified, and had no courage to resist. My promises, my constant urging for them to peacefully co-operate had the desired effect. They submitted without a struggle.

“One by one we took them from the chapel. None realized what was intended till it was his turn to be taken outside. They were buried alive in their family graves.

“The undead piled stones upon the living, since it is forbidden for the living dead to dig a grave or build a coffin. Afterward, the undead went up to the village and took the places of all those they had killed, moving back into the shops and houses they had occupied in life.”

She said, “You have betrayed your oath to heaven.”

“The Dark Masters have shown me that there is no heaven. The universe is a series of caverns and caves, some larger than others. What we think of as heaven is merely the blue underside of a rock dome, only a few miles above our heads. The Sun and the Moon are made artifacts, of the same type as the lights the Dark Born use to illume their caves. I have been to their deeper palaces. There are caverns larger than this, with higher ceilings, more brightly lit, than this cavern you call the surface.”

She said, “Your church will punish you terribly.”

“Not so. Our doctrine promises eternal life for the faithful, an absence of bodily suffering, bodily pain and desires. I am beyond hunger and the pleasure of eating now, beyond lust, incapable of the degradation of sex, unable to enjoy any of the crude, fleshly pleasures of this vile material world. In me, are all the promises and doctrines of our church made manifest.”

She said, “Then heaven will punish you!”

He spread his hands, smiling. “There is no justice under heaven, no justice in heaven, no justice from heaven. There is only power over the powerless. Nothing else is solid. All else is mist and shadows.”

She said, “Then I will punish you!”

Elenore threw the dagger straight and fair into the bishop’s chest. It protruded from his breast a moment, quivering. With a pale hand he reached up and pulled it out, tossing it lightly aside. In the dim light, it seemed as if the blade were clean, unbloodied.

“Eternal life is also mine,” the bishop said. “But I will thank you not to damage this body. I must be very careful with it, for it does not heal, and every wound must be sewn up again with thread.”

“And now, princess,” he said, “We released the undead to drive you into what you thought was a church. It is now surrounded. The ground below us is filled with hordes of monsters, brought by the Dark Born to await the moment when you would try to soften the ground to drop your enemies into the earth. There is no escape that way. The roof above us, perhaps, you could turn to mist, but what then? You cannot fly. Any one of us you kill with your puny sword will rise up again in moments, undead, infinitely stronger than before.”

She said, “I am Elenore of Ysbrandon. You know I cannot lie, and do not surrender.”

He said, “We would have given you anything you asked, any treasure of the underworld, in return for that stone. Riches beyond count. Secrets older than man. Your old kingdom restored. Anything! Why oppose us?”

She drew herself up, and in her face was the majesty of all her ancestors, all the kings and warlords of her fathers, all the noble maidens and saints of her mothers.

“Shall you offer a kingdom to me? I have seen what you have made of your church and village here! A solid oak whose heart is dead, and filled with filth within!

“Such was Ysbrandon before it fell: the kings were unkingly, the nobles ignoble, the holy men unholy, and the workers did not work!

“Men were unmanned. Mothers their own children slew, and fed to darkness for the promise that they would become as men, and rule over eunuchs. The outward seeming of all things was the same, but all had lost their substance and their strength.

“It started with simple things, one lie at a time. That art heaven took from me, and gave me a new tongue, such as angels have, which cannot deceive. Who calls it a curse? My words are solid.”

The bishop said, “Truth? What is truth? Words are tools of power. Only falsehoods are solid. I have gained the love of the underworld, and dominion of the world, all by falsehood. And here are you, the one woman whom no chain can bind, no wall enclose. And yet you are trapped. Bring out the stone!”

She said, “What are you hoping?”

“That you will turn yourself to mist and walk out safely through the walls.”

She said, “Leaving the crystal behind.”

“Of course. The one thing the crystal cannot render insubstantial is the crystal itself.”

She said, “I would starve. An insubstantial body could look at, but not touch or eat any food or drink.”

“A horrible death, and one which it will amuse the Dark Born to see you impose upon yourself. Or would you prefer to be taken alive to Xibalba?”

She held the crystal in one hand, her rapier in her other. From the soles of her feet, she could feel the rumbling and heat of some motion in the earth below; either deadly machines, or great unnatural beasts, or some other hideous force in service to the Dark Born, waiting for her to turn the ground to mist, that they might rush upwards and destroy her.

“Well, Princess? Will you surrender the crystal?”

For answer, she held the crystal to her eye and looked above his head. The roofbeams became as tenuous as smoke; down through them dropped a section of the roof in a great flood of slate shingles.

Teel raised his head, tearing his blindfold aside. As the load of shingle fell upon him, the impact of his naked glance thrust the falling mass asunder, and the shingles fell to either side of him, cracking flagstones. But the force of his eyes had thrust open an empty space above him.

As he raised his head, Elenore cast another throwing dagger for his throat. Teel glanced down; the impact of his gaze knocked the dagger spinning away.

Elenore called upon the crystal; Teel became ghostlike and insubstantial.

“You are now a wraith,” she said. “You have no power to hurt me.”

“Have I not?” he asked lightly.

He met her gaze; his eyes were black as black iron, with no white in them at all. She felt the shock of impact strike her face, enter her eyes and shiver painfully through her body. Elenore stiffened and could not move; her limbs were heavy and as motionless as stone. She could still see, and breath, and think, but otherwise she was as stiff as a statue.

Teel said, “Now it ends.”

At that very moment, a small black kitten peered its head down through the hole in the ceiling, whiskers twitching curiously. Elenore saw the little furry shape balanced on a broken roofbeam, eyes shining in the moonlight, and such a feeling of joy, of relief, of victory swelled her heart that she would have sighed, or cheered, or sang, had she power to move her limbs.

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Sixth: The Unconquerable

Teel was speaking. “The Dark Masters are wise enough to anticipate that you might render imponderable any whom they sent against you. But I have been given the basilisk gaze, indeed, by virtue of that very stone which now you hold. The Dark Born altered my eyes to make the force of my gaze more substantial. Had you realized, you might have robbed me of that gift; but you did not.”

He drifted forward, a shadow among shadows. Behind him, the little black kitten fell silently down through the air, and landed on its feet. The kitten sniffed the air curiously, and sat down to wash its paws.

Teel spoke to curate, commanding him, “Reach over and seize the crystal; my fingers are too tenuous to grasp it.”

“Father, my feet are trapped…”

Teel drifted near to the curate, and turned a dire gaze down at the stones. The flagstones shattered and broke open under the thrust of his glance. The curate, his feet torn and bloody, crawled forward toward where Elenore stood paralyzed. Kneeling, the curate reached up, but the crystal hovered just inches above his fingers.

The kitten, washing ritual completed, padded silently, and moved to Elenore’s left. The kitten now hunched down, muscles along its back knotting, eyes wide, ears perked up and pointed forward. It little pink nose was pointed at Bishop Teel. It did not move a whisker, but lay as tense and silent as a cat watching a mouse-hole, facing the bishop.

Teel was speaking. “I am grateful for the glory you have given me, princess. The Dark Ones will be discomforted to know that I have overcome, and easily, an enemy who fought her way clear from the very heart of their dread empire. Perhaps I shall say a word on your behalf, to urge them to relent some part of the sexual tortures, games, and humorous surgical experiments they have planned for you. Or perhaps not.”

“Master, I cannot reach the crystal…”


“My feet were broken when you broke the flagstones. They are in too much pain…”

“Ah. Worry not. I will put you beyond all pain. The undead are not so limited as that…”

It was amazing how quickly the curate leaped to feet and pulled the crystal away. The curate fell again to his knees, eyes wet, and bit back a scream.

At Teel’s direction, the curate, kneeling, held the crystal to his eye and looked at the bishop, and began murmuring the charm Elenore had spoken in his presence.

“I almost wonder at the ease of all this,” said Teel. “What power did you have, what aid, allowed you to escape from the buried fortresses and labyrinths of Xibalba? At times I marvel at the incompetence of my masters. You are no more than an ordinary girl…”

At this point, Teel grew substantial once again.

The little black kitten opened its tiny mouth and meowed.

Teel looked toward the kitten.

A blast of white-hot flame erupted from the kitten’s mouth with a roar like an inferno. A solid wash of fire sliced the Bishop’s head clean off. The Bishop’s body staggered, and the flame flowed up and down his length. Crisped and blackened, the corpse fell, struggling.

The kitten padded forward, opened its tiny mouth again. Blue-white fire issued from its mouth and incinerated each scrape of flesh and every bone of the bishop. Tiny parts of the bishop, fingers and toes, tried to wriggled away, creeping like worms, but the kitten pounced on them playfully, letting them go and catching them, then consuming them with small explosions of fire it spat from its mouth.

There was nothing left, not even ash.

Where the bolt of destroying flame had passed through the bishop’s body, the church doors had melted and blasted. Liquid rock dripped from molten-lipped holes in the stone walls. Through these holes and openings, the forest fire (swirling to life just where those white-hot beams had passed) could be clearly seen. Where the monstrous worms and lumbering undead had been, was now a cratered landscape of burnt and smoldering rock, darkened with ash-colored streaks.

Neither the curate nor Elenore had been struck; the position of the kitten, the control of its flaming breath, had been exact.

The curate, on his hands and knees, was panting in huge, labored, ragged gasps, his eyes wild, face slack with horror. He was staring and staring at the kitten.

The kitten sat down and delicately washed its paws with its pink tongue. Stinking steam rose from the drops of molten rock splattered on the ground nearby.

The kitten finally raised its head. It spoke aloud in a voice not at all like a human voice, “Employ the crystal. Free my servant. Soften her limbs and restore them to the direction of her soul. The crystal has this power.”

The curate tried to raise the crystal, but his fingers shook, and would not obey him. Finally he gasped, “What– what — what are you?”

The kitten gazed at him with wide and yellow eyes. “My race is the eldest. We are unconquerable. We are the fathers of all life. Your ancestors once were as we are.

“Why should we not impersonate the shapes of our children, if that is our wish? Our wars with the Dark Ones reaches back a thousand times a thousand years, nearly to the dawn of time itself.

“Are you surprised so exalted a race as mine, sons of fire that we are, should stoop to employ a frail mortal woman to our high tasks, a weak child of clay as she is? Her bloodline controls the Intangible Design; and she alone of mortalkind can we tolerate to trust. She alone of all your race can never lie.

“And, further, I am fond of her.

“Therefore, release her, upon the instant, I command. Be quick! The Dark Born, even now, dam and release the floods of underground rivers, unleashing contrary pressures in the bedrock. They hope to crack the earth beneath, to open the way to the surface for their hordes.”

The curate raised the crystal to his eye, and spoke the words as the kitten directed. Elenore felt life return to her limbs. She knelt, and seized the kitten with a joyful noise. “Oh, you’re safe! You’re safe!”

A trembling in the earth threw them from their feet. Loose tile from the ceiling fell and shattered around them.

The curate began crawling away.

Elenore rose to her feet, and stood swaying, like a sailor on a storm-tossed ship. She brandished her sword. “Return the crystal this instant, or I vow your death!”

The curate squealed as a massive roofbeam, loosened by the earthquake, crashed down nearby. But he looked up, saying, “I can place myself beyond your ability to hurt me! I can have a kingdom too!” And he touched himself with the crystal.

It was several minutes later. Elenore was seated on the back of an enormous winged dragon. The creature was lean as a greyhound, supple as a serpent, with wings of membrane, angular and hooked. From its narrow nostrils transparent flamelets darted.

Beneath the claws of the dragon as it rose, the church was folding and toppling in to a vast pit. Up along the sides of the pit, with claws of iron, rose the monsters and armored beasts in service to the Dark Born, followed by numberless undead, giant shapeless worms, hideous thin silhouettes, creatures with eyes like balls of flame. Spears and arrows flung up by the rising army of creatures fell short of the ascending dragon. Balls of black flame shot up, and rebounded harmlessly from the dragon’s armored breastplate. Elenore, crouching on his back, between the hurricane of wings, was unhurt.

“You should have killed him for his presumption, Elenore,” the dragon rumbled, rising high out of reach of the weapons of the Dark Born.

She said, “His presumption condemned himself. I vowed his death, he brought upon himself a slower and more horrid one than any I could devise. Unlike the hunger-pangs of a starving man, the pain of thirst never grows less from death by lack of drink. My vow is completed. Poor fool. I thought he heard Teel and I both say why one could not turn oneself insubstantial. Yet he seemed so surprised when the crystal remained solid and slipped down between his fingers…” She toyed thoughtfully with the glowing stone at her neck.

Far below them, in the midst of an army of monsters, yet unharmed by any of them, with the collapsing church and stones from falling walls passing through him with no hurt, ignoring all the chaos around him, stood the curate, insubstantial, staring upward, a look of horror growing on his features.

Above, the dragon turned its vast wings into the wind, and soared along the night sky.

“My servant has yet to tender me her proper respect,” the dragon said.

Elenore smiled, and leaning forward across the scaly back, scratched behind the dragon’s folded, leathery ears, where the scales were pebbly and thin. “Good, kitty. You’re so pretty, aren’t you? Yes, you are. Good, kitty.”

The dragon purred, and smoke floated from between its fangs.

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Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!