Lying back in the grass, I watched as the star streaked down, a trail of light against the dark sky.
Gunpowder and dynamite both were in no short supply, and in these areas, a little extra money could ensure no questions about the purchase. I still made certain to buy from several different vendors, not allowing any of them to know the true amounts of explosive I obtained, but the extra caution didn’t seem necessary.
Some of the detonators and other equipment proved harder, if only slightly. I needed some specific equipment for delayed reaction, and that meant clockwork. I had many talents, but figuring out how to re-jigger a little bit of clockwork for a new purpose wasn’t one of them. I was instead forced to rely upon visits at night to little old men with a shop full of tiny tools, paying in cash and hoping that I could afford their silence.
It took a while, but eventually I had all the parts. It was a series of heart-pounding trips to get them all assembled and properly stored, ready to travel, but eventually I had it all complete. Everything on my shopping list had been crossed off.
And then I once again climbed aboard a train.
This time, it was easier to move without attracting too much notice. I still made sure to take every possible precaution, but the Organization was looking for a man and a young woman, traveling together.
I no longer fit that description.
A week later, after several back-tracking trips (like I said, it never hurt to be cautious), I arrived at my destination. As soon as I climbed off of the train onto the platform, I felt the bustle of Philadelphia hit me like an ocean wave.
The city! For so long, now, I had been out of the urban environment. For a moment, I felt overwhelmed as I stared around at the thousands of people, all rushing off on their own errands. I felt like a million eyes were on me, too many to track.
I took a deep breath, using those techniques I’d learned so long ago to force down the fear, the emotion. I carefully threw away each emotion, pushing it down and out until only determination and an inner void remained.
And then I retrieved my precious trunk, filled with its explosive cargo, and headed into the city.
I got a cheap room, but it wouldn’t matter much. I had many trips to make, and I wasn’t planning on returning to pay my bill at the room afterward. I just needed a place of safety, somewhere I could duck back to between trips.
It took three days to put everything into place.
The whole time, I felt uncomfortably aware of those eyes on me, watching. I had done my best to alter my description to make sure I no longer looked like the Jasper that the Organization knew and remembered. My long beard itched, and I’d lost weight in some places and gained it in others. I had long since discarded my black coat for prospector’s brown, and my flat-brimmed hat had been replaced with a shapeless lump of leather. It shaded my eyes, but it was anything but fashionable.
I didn’t care about my looks. The bulky brown coat hid the two revolvers – mine and Danni’s – that I carried beneath it. The hat kept the sun out of my eyes as I prowled through the streets of Philadelphia, and helped to keep me from looking up.
Whenever my gaze did wander upwards, however, I couldn’t help but hiss and suck in my lips against my teeth. There it stood, a black tower, rising up into the sky like a middle finger raised against the Lord.
The tower of the Organization.
Inside, I knew, were files, desks, records, and more. An armory with weapons for the Priests inside. A vault, built into the basement, containing the most secure information. The building was an armored bastion against the forces of chaos in the world, a heavy hand of order on this new and growing nation.
My fingers itched as I stared up at the tower. Unbidden, my mouth twisted into a scowl.
They had done this to me, had put me up against Danni, and then wrenched her away. I didn’t waste any time grieving.
Not when there was work to be done.
After those three days, after I’d carefully slid the last little brown oilskin-wrapped package into place, I spent one last night in the hotel room, sitting with my legs crossed on the floor. I had taken apart both revolvers – I’d pulled Danni’s from the wreckage, had carefully rebuilt and restored it – and put them back together, fully oiled and gleaming. I’d checked every bullet on both belts that crossed my chest.
I knew that I wouldn’t get any sleep tonight.
Instead, I passed the long night’s vigil, staring at the bed in front of me and letting my mind go blank. I embraced that blankness, the void.
It would serve me well tomorrow, until I could do no more.
I’ve already written about Scott Lynch’s first book, “The Lies of Locke Lamora,” but after learning that there was a sequel, I first put in a reservation request at my local library… and then, unable to wait, went out to Barnes & Noble and bought the book immediately. There is still a benefit to brick and mortar bookstores!
The first book in the Gentleman Bastards series, “The Lies of Locke Lamora,” took place in Camorr, the massive city where the thieves run thick as, well, thieves. At the end of the book, however, most of Locke’s posse is dead, the city is in disarray, and Locke and his companion, Jean, decide that it would perhaps be best for them to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
So the first book was heists and dishonesty. The second book? Pirates and dishonesty!
Locke and Jean soon find themselves held captive by the Archon of Tal Verrar, a city built on islands. The Archon gives the two men a slow-acting poison and promises them regular antidotes… as long as the man obey his commands! And the man’s first command is for Locke and Jean to start a pirate raiding vessel, to increase the city’s demand for a military to fight back.
Of course, there’s plenty more action – there’s a Pirate Queen, naval battles, treachery, and plenty of deceit and robbery to go around. Although it went in a totally different direction from the first book, Red Seas Under Red Skies was just as action-packed and thrilling!
Time to read: This is a big book, around 800 pages. I’d say about 6-7 hours.
An avid reader of the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels should recognize the term “meat pie floater.” This culinary delicacy (that is, something so disgusting that none of the locals will eat it) comes from the mysterious continent of FourEcks, which certainly isn’t modeled after Australia at all.
“Pea soup?” he asked.
“The leguminous vegetable? Comes in pods?”
“I thought I’d better check that point.”
Rincewind looked down at the knobbly green surface. Was it just possible that someone had invented a regional specialty you could eat?
And then something rose out of the depths. For a moment Rincewind thought it was a very small shark. It bobbed to the surface and then settled back down, while the soup slopped over it.
“What was that?”
“Meat pie floater,” said the warder. “Meat pie floating in pea soup. Best bloody supper on earth, mate.”
- Phyllo dough
- Ground beef
- Spices; I went with seasoned salt and some pepper.
- Olive oil
- Peas, frozen or fresh. I went with canned. At least 4-5 cups’ worth
- Other various vegetables. I tossed in some white onion, garlic, and green bell pepper.
- Chicken stock, four cups’ worth.
- Not pictured: Sriracha. That soup needs a kick!
- Also not pictured: heavy cream. Half & half works too. It cuts the heat of the soup.
Instructions – the floater!
- Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 degrees Celsius).
- I started by dicing up about a quarter of a package of mincemeat and threw it in a large saucepan on the stove, along with some water. I mashed it up with a spatula to break up the larger chunks.
- Next up: ground beef. Throw it into the same saucepan and cook it until browned.
- Taste and season until you can taste salt as well as sweet. Mincemeat is mighty sweet so it may take a good bit of salt.
- Take it off the stove and let it cool once the meat is cooked.
- Next, roll out your phyllo dough. This stuff comes in a whole bunch of thin layers and is fragile stuff, so be careful.
- Cut the dough into squares, four or five inches on a side. They don’t need to be perfect.
- Brush the corners of each square with olive oil, put a spoonful of the cooled meat mixture in the middle, and then fold the dough up around the meat to make a little package. Use more olive oil to seal it shut. It will probably take 3-4 layers of dough per floater to keep things from breaking apart.
- Place the folded little floaters on a nonstick baking sheet and brush them with some more olive oil.
- Put them in the oven for ~15 minutes.
Instructions – the soup!
- Grab a pot. A big one. Should hold at least six quarts.
- Add your peas, four cups of chicken stock, and all your diced vegetables. There should be just enough liquid to cover all the vegetables.
- Throw in a squirt of Sriracha.
- Bring this all up to a boil, and boil for about a minute or so.
- Turn off the heat.
- Carefully, use a stick blender to blend the whole soup up until it’s fairly smooth. This shouldn’t take long. Watch for splatters!
- Once the soup is blended, add a 1/2 cup of heavy cream (or half & half). Stir this in.
- Taste the soup and decide how much more Sriracha it needs for some heat. Add it.
An instant later, I hit the ground, the violent blow knocking the air from my lungs and splaying out my limbs. My brain was already racing, however, and I scrabbled like a spider to get up.
Once back on my feet, however, my hand dropped away from my side, away from where it had rested on the butt of my revolver.
The house that had stood before me only seconds previously was gone. Only a few charred beams remained, canted at crazy angles, blown out by the force of the blast. Most of the cabin was little more than rubble.
I shook my head, my brain not yet comprehending. I was still in fight or flight mode, not able to reason or think logically. I ran forward, ignoring the heat radiating up even through my boots or the little guttering flames that curled up around my footprints.
A half dozen steps closer to the house, I heard a groan off to one side. This time, my gun did come sliding out of its holster, but as soon as my eyes fell upon the man, I knew that it wouldn’t be needed.
He lay up against a tree – what remained of him, at least. Ash already fell across him and hid the full extent of his injury, but where his legs should have been, only a dark stain persisted. He coughed, however, and I saw his eyes flicker sluggishly.
I stepped forward, my gun coming up beneath his chin. “What happened?” I demanded, trembling with energy coursing through me.
He coughed again, and I saw the little dribble of red from one corner of his lips. “She’s smart,” he rasped, his voice unsteady.
“What did she do?”
He just shook his head. I could see his energy ebbing quickly. “Didn’t know that she could draw that fast,” he wheezed. “Should’ve hit her first before trying.”
But then, the man’s lips quirked up into a smile, revealing bloodstained teeth. “But she didn’t know ’bout the gunpowder behind me,” he spat with vicious enjoyment.
My eyes tracked down the man’s chest. Sure enough, I could see the hole where Danni’s bullet punched in through his ribs, clear even despite the other damage of the explosion. Glancing past the man, I realized that the tree against which he lay was likely the only thing still holding him together.
I stood back up, looking down at the man for a moment longer. He let his head sag back to look up at me, still grinning and showing the red droplets staining his lips and teeth. “Can’t get away, Priest,” he hissed. “Can’t ever get away from us.”
I didn’t respond. But my leg swung around in scything kick, knocking what remained of the monster in front of me sideways. He hit the ground with a grunt of pain as his shattered spine tore away from the tree, but I was already turning away, towards the house.
The man in black paused here, and with a start, Jenny realized that the storyteller was shaking in his seat.
She didn’t even think. She leaned forward and threw her arms around the man in black, pulling him in up against her. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she whispered in his ear as she hugged him fiercely. At the corners of her eyes, Jenny could feel tears of her own welling up.
For several seconds, she hugged the man, feeling him shiver. Beside both of them, Old Hillpaw looked more awkward than ever, although even he reached out and uncomfortably patted the man in black on the back. “Sorry,” he murmured as well, knowing that the words brought no comfort.
A good minute passed before the man in black was finally able to suck in a shuddering breath and speak once again. “I can go on,” he finally said, reaching out blindly for his sheaf of typewritten pages.
“It’s okay.” Jenny surprised even herself with the strength of her voice. She let go of the man in black, but kept her hands on his upper arms, trying to somehow draw off and lessen his grief. “You don’t have to keep going.”
But the man in black, even through the little drops of liquid shimmering on his cheek, managed to look determined. “Yes, I do,” he stated, with gentle finality.
Old Hillpaw touched Jenny on the shoulder. “It’s good for him to finish, to get it out,” he suggested.
Reluctantly, Jenny let go of the man. But she looked more watchful now, like a mother anxious about her young offspring playing outside for the first time. For the first time he could remember, Old Hillpaw didn’t think of her as childishly young, as he watched her expression set itself.
The man in black picked up his notes once again, although he had to set them down once or twice and wipe his eyes clear so that he could read the carefully typed words. He opened his mouth, but the words didn’t come, even after several attempts.
Finally, Old Hillpaw decided to give their speaker a break. “Maybe jump ahead to the next chapter,” he offered with uncharacteristic kindness.
Their storyteller didn’t argue. He shuffled through the papers, setting the rest of that chapter aside. Neither Jenny nor Old Hillpaw had any inclination to pick it up and read the rest for themselves. Whatever tragedy lay in those pages could remain unseen.
Surprisingly enough, this book was recommended to me – by someone who doesn’t usually read science fiction! That’s either a really good sign, or a really bad one, and until I actually crack open the book, there’s no way to know for sure.
As it turns out, as a very proud and self-professed geek, The Martian, by Andy Weir, is an amazing book.
The book starts with our hero, Mark Watney, realizing that he’s been abandoned on Mars. He wasn’t the first man to set foot on Mars (he was the sixth), but he was the first to be seriously injured there, and abandoned for dead as the rest of the crew flees back towards Earth.
Now, all the man has is the remains of the landing vehicle and habitat set up on Mars. He has to figure out how to survive on his own until the next Martian landing is scheduled – four years from now.
The Martian is masterful. It blends very detailed and geeky science (how do you turn hydrazine into water?), high tension and thrills (will Mark survive the multiple challenges?), and a good bit of down-to-Mars humor that helps break up the tension of the book. If there was a sequel to this book, I’d be first in line to buy it – and I’m going to definitely look for more works by Andy Weir.
Time to read: I read this at an airport while waiting to get on my plane. I finished it after the plane landed, keeping myself at the airport. It was that good. 3 hours.
For a moment, he just looked up at the young woman standing above him, offering her hand. He couldn’t hold back from asking.
“Are you real?”
She just shrugged. “Are you?” she replied.
There was no way of her knowing, he realized. Even if she was a projection of his mind, she would act this way. He was too suspicious to get any answers, even from himself.
He took the proffered hand, and she hauled him up to his feet.
For a moment, as he caught his breath on his unsteady feet, the two of them gazed around. Up here, the dust was even thicker; it felt as though no one had stood here for centuries, maybe longer.
That might be true, he reminded himself. No one knew how high the Tower went. No one really knew anything about the Tower, not even where it truly stood. The gates opened to it, once every three years, and all citizens, of the Lowers and Heights both, came pouring in.
To not try in the Tower was to drop to the bottom. Only those who climbed could ascend in life.
But as far as he knew, no one had ever reached the top.
The girl was standing next to him. She was waiting for him, he realized with a start. When he turned to her, he could still see a faint spark of wariness in her eyes, but she still waited.
When he turned to her, they didn’t need to speak. To speak was to waste breath.
Instead, they climbed.
The stairs now spiraled around the inside of the room, ascending higher and higher in a spiral that slowly tightened. They paced each other, trying not to watch each other’s steps for weakness, trying not to judge how much energy the other still possessed. They climbed, until the hole in the middle of the room had shrunk to nothing as the stairs closed in.
Eventually, long after they had both lost count of the number of stairs they’d climbed, they reached a door.
And on the other side, in a small room, they found the man.
The man sat on a throne, a massive monstrosity covered in wires, tubes, glowing lights, and many things that were completely unrecognizable. He looked thin, wasted away, with long and stringy hair that seemed dirty and ill-kempt. His eyes gazed forward, and a thin crown of silver metal sat on his temples. A closer look revealed that the crown seemed to be attached to the rest of the chair via a thin wire.
As they approached, the man suddenly straightened up, life flowing back into his face to make his eyes faintly gleam. “No,” he gasped, staring up at them. “You can’t be real. Please be real.”
He exchanged a look with the girl. She stepped forward; she’d always been the more trusting. “Who are you?” she asked, moving closer. The old man didn’t seem like a threat.
“Please,” he gasped, looking up at the pair of them. “It has been so long. I want it to stop.”
This didn’t feel right. “We shouldn’t,” he spoke, but even as the words passed his lips, the girl was already moving forward. She tugged the crown free of the old man’s head, and he listed forward, half-falling out of the throne.
As the old man left the throne, however, an alarm sounded, and his eyes widened. “It cannot be empty,” the man hissed, waving weak fingers at the seat. “Someone must guide it!”
The girl exchanged a look with him. He ignored the alarm, however, focusing on the old man. “Is this the top?” he demanded, glaring down at the wretched figure.
The old man stared up at him. “You cannot go higher without a guide,” came the faint words, gesturing towards the empty throne. “I…”
He leaned closer, listening.
“I could not,” the old man gasped out. “I was alone. The Tower needed a guide, so it brought me here. No one else came.”
When he looked up at the girl, she was peering closer to the mechanical throne. “I think… I think that this controls the Tower,” she said in hushed tones. “I think that this is the center for everything.”
He said nothing, but he looked up. There was no other door leading out of this room, but he could feel more of the Tower above them.
The girl was waiting for him to say something, but eventually she spoke. “One of us has to stay here, sit in the throne,” she said, speaking slowly as she thought through the idea. “The other can’t ascend unless someone controls the Tower.”
She stared at him for a long minute. When she glanced down at the old man at their feet, neither of them was surprised to see that his labored breathing had ceased. “It’s going to be me, isn’t it,” she said, the words not a question.
Without waiting for him to answer, she sighed, lowered herself into the seat. “Before you go,” she said, looking up at him, holding the crown in her hands. “I have to know.”
“Will it ever be enough?” Her eyes were beseeching, more vulnerable than he could remember seeing them. “You’re so driven to climb. More than anyone else, more than me. I could never keep up, even now.
“Is it ever going to be enough?”
He didn’t have an answer.
After a long silence, stretching on for an eternity, she sighed. “I should have known better than to expect an answer,” she said, lowering the crown onto her head. “Especially from you.”
As the crown reached her temples, she jerked, her muscles going rigid for an instant before she settled back into the chair. Her eyes opened again, but they were unfocused, as though she was looking at a different landscape.
“Go now,” she said, her voice deeper, flatter. “Climb, fool. May you never reach what you seek.”
Behind the throne, he saw a door in the wall. It had always been there, but at the same time had not existed until this moment. He didn’t wait, running for it. The door handle was icy cold, but it turned in his hand.
On the other side, he saw more steps, leading up into the darkness.
“It will never be enough,” the girl called after him in her flat voice, the voice of the Tower, as he left the control room behind.
Her words echoed after him, and he ran.
A little later that morning, however, the man in black came in, making no fuss and heading over to his usual table. Both the waitress and the old man at the bar managed to hold back for several seconds before they headed over.
The man in black nodded at both Jenny and Hillpaw as they settled into the other two chairs at the table. He showed no surprise at their curiosity, but merely waited for them to settle into their seats.
“Now, where was I,” he said, once both Jenny and Old Hillpaw were listening.
Old Hillpaw held his tongue for a moment, remembering how the story had been about to get worse, but Jenny immediately spoke up. “You were heading up towards the Dakota territories,” she volunteered.
The man in black nodded again. “Ah, yes,” he agreed, shuffling through his papers. “We were almost to the Iron Range of Minnesota, and we were starting to think that we had lost the Organization’s agents behind us…”
We were still traveling slowly, Danni and I, but with each day that we headed north, our confidence grew. It had now been over a week since someone had last attempted to kill or capture us.
I had to admire Danni’s courage and resolution. Over half a dozen crackling campfires, she shared her story, explaining how she grew up with nothing, how she set her sights on obtaining more than she knew she’d receive in her life.
I mostly felt impressed as I listened to her story, but a small part of me, my beaten-down and half-extinguished morality, recoiled in horror. This was what we pushed for in our society? This is the status quo that the Organization fought to preserve? We kept an entire class forced down, denigrated to second-class citizens at best, forced to toil in poverty for the entirety of their short, sad lives?
With each night we spent talking, my respect for Danni grew stronger, and my anger against the Organization and its ilk grew hotter and more furious.
Yet whenever I felt myself withdrawing, growing cold with anger against the wider world, Danni somehow sensed my innermost thoughts. “Jasper, it’s going to be all right,” she soothed me, one of her hands straying gently along the length of my arm.
I shook my head. “You broke out, but you haven’t seen what I have,” I responded, not meeting her gaze. “Trust me, you don’t know how bad things can get.”
“So what, you’re going to solve all those problems at the end of your gun?” Danni responded, rolling her eyes – but not taking away her hand from where it rested against me. “I’m sure that will fix everything.”
If she had been anyone else, I would have snapped back at her. But with Danni, I held my tongue, and after a moment, she moved closer to me so that she could lean up against my side. I lifted my arm to rest it around her shoulders, and we sat and watched the fire burn down to glowing embers.
The next morning, as we walked along the North Dakota road, I caught a rumbling in the distance. The road we trudged along was little more than a dirt trail, but I could see a pillar of dust rising up from the approaching newcomer.
Our coats, heavier to protect against the chill of the fall air, were bulky and made it difficult to maneuver. Still, I drew my revolver as we stepped off to the side of the road, Danni sliding back behind me.
The rumbling noise resolved itself into a man, most of his face covered with a huge, bushy beard, sitting on top of a wooden horse-pulled cart. He eased off on the reins as he approached, and the cart slowed as his horse dropped to a walk.
“Well, howdy!” he greeted us with a smile, pretending not to notice the gun in my hand. “Yew folks look like yew could use a ride!”
My eyes ran over him. Stout, probably in his fifties, apparently unarmed. Deep wrinkles in his face turned up when he smiled, as he did now. “We sure could,” I agreed, making a decision. “Mind carrying us on a bit?”
The man’s smile deepened. “Well, sure, but I could offer yew more than that, if you’re interested,” he said, as we hopped up into the back of the open cart behind him. “I’m headed back towards my house, down this road a ways. If yew need a warm, comfy place to spend the night, I’m always up for some company!”
I hesitated. The man looked friendly enough, but a lifetime of instincts screamed not to trust anyone.
I glanced over at Danni, however, and my heart softened. She could use a night someplace warm, someplace indoors instead of out in a bedroll at a makeshift campsite.
“We’d be thrilled,” I answered the man.
For the next few hours, as the cart trundled on, I chatted with the man, although I knew enough to let him do most of the talking. He prattled on about the cold winters, how hard it was to survive up here, how he always “kept his nose pressed to the ground” for opportunities. I nodded but said little.
A glance behind me revealed that Danni was sprawled out in the back, her head resting on her pack, her mouth open slightly as she slowly breathed in and out. I couldn’t help smiling at her innocent slumber.
With the sun halfway down in its descent from the top of the sky, we arrived at the man’s house, a small but sturdy looking cabin. The horse eased the cart to a stop, and I hopped back to wake up Danni and help her down. “C’mon in when yew two are ready,” the man commented, and ducked inside.
Once awake, Danni waved away my offer of help climbing down from the cart. “Here, I’ll go inside,” she said, grabbing the two packs. “I can see that you need to stretch, after sitting up on that cart all day. Take your time!”
I protested, but she wouldn’t hear it. “Go on, walk around, make sure we’re safe,” she insisted, pushing me away before heading for the house.
I thought about ignoring her command, not wanting her out of my sight. But she was right; I had been sitting on the cart for far too long, and my cramped muscles cried out for a stretch. I strolled down the road a little ways, gazing out across the empty fields as I let my sore legs recover.
A hundred feet out, I suddenly paused.
Wait a minute. Why were the fields empty?
I turned around again, looking back at the little cabin. I now noticed that there were no other outbuildings around. Where would the man’s horse stay? There was no barn for it.
An alarm began wailing in my head, and I started back towards the house at a trot. Something was wrong.
Three steps closer, my ears caught the faint sound of a scream, coming from the throat of a terrified young woman, and my trot turned into a flat-out sprint. My muscles screamed, but I ignored them, fumbling at my hip for my gun.
And then, fifty feet from the front door, I saw the house flash with red and orange, and a giant’s fist slammed into my chest and threw me backwards.
I picked this book off of a recommendation from the website Imgur, and man, it was a great choice!
Locke Lamora began his life in the city of Camorr as a street urchin, barely even qualifying as a thief, but found himself adopted and trained by a master manipulator and schemer. The man soon rose to become a prominent thief who, although only somewhat adequate in public, privately masquerades as the Thorn of Camorr, the only thief daring to steal from nobility!
How would I describe this book? Think of the confidence schemes and smoothness of the TV show White Collar, combined with the “rob from the rich” attitude of Robin Hood, merged with a fantasy city straight out of The Wheel of Time. Although the setting does require a couple of consultations with the map at the front of the book, many of the locations are introduced well enough to keep the readers from feeling too confused.
The characters are realistic, their dialogue is smart and sassy, and the action is fast-paced. Although it feels like Locke has everything under control, every loose end stitched up at the beginning of the book, we rapidly see things spiral out of control, and the master thief is struggling to hold on and ride out the storm.
By the end of the book, not to give away any secrets, the man seems to be on his very last lifeline, and it seems impossible that he’ll be able to escape with his life, much less come out ahead of his enemies.
And yet, by the end of this book, I was flushed, cheering, and panting as if I’d just fought off the Yellowjacket police officers myself!
I’ve already got a reservation in at my library for the next book in the series, and my only concern is that, when it arrives, I won’t be able to spare the time to sit down and read it all at once!
Time to read: 6 hours, all in one sitting.
Link to Part I.
He sprinted across the room, his eyes dodging down to his feet to watch for obstacles, and then back up to make sure he didn’t collide with any of the gauzy hangings that broke up the room.
Those wall hangings separated the large room into many smaller booths. From the other side of the curtains, he could catch little flashes of movement, the gestures soft and alluring and feminine. Faint voices called out to him, beckoning and tempting. He couldn’t make out any specific words, but the meaning behind those calls was clear.
He knew that if he stopped, he couldn’t resume. This would be as far as he made it inside the Tower.
It wasn’t enough.
He kept on running, even as his breath burned in his throat and lungs. He thought he’d seen a door on the other side of the room, and he did his best to keep on heading in that direction. The gauzy hangings obscured his view, but he tried to keep his path straight.
The rugs and soft pillows were treacherous underfoot, but he made it through without falling. And there, on the other side of the room, was the door.
Made of wood, with a brass handle, it looked surprisingly ordinary. He threw it open and ran through as it closed behind him.
On the other side, he was suddenly outside the tower, an external staircase made of massive hewn blocks of stone. He sucked in a breath, feeling the chill of the air, and began climbing.
As he climbed, a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye made him turn his gaze. It took a moment for the sight to resolve itself inside his mind, but he nearly stumbled when it clicked.
There was another set of stairs also spiraling upwards, separated from his set by maybe a couple dozen feet of empty air.
Those other stairs weren’t empty. The girl was climbing them, her head down as she tried to control her breathing.
Shocked, he called out, a wordless cry, half-strangled as he exhaled. It was enough, however, and she glanced up.
For a moment, their eyes linked.
“What if we see each other inside?” she had asked, as she traced a squiggle in the spilled beer on their dirty table.
He shook his head. “No one sees anybody else inside the Tower. It’s impossible. After you split in the hallways, you’re on your own.”
“But what if?” she insisted, not letting the subject go. “Should we help each other?”
For a long minute, he considered the question. “There’s no way to know for certain,” he finally stated, shaking his head. “How can you know that it’s truly who you believe, and not an illusion? Trust nobody.”
She nodded, but he thought he could see a look of sadness flick briefly across the girl’s face.
She was keeping up with him, he noticed. He thought that she might have said something, but the blood was pounding too hard in his ears for him to hear anything but his own heartbeat. He glanced up, and saw that, another hundred steps ahead, the stairs ended with a door.
He didn’t bother seeing where the woman was headed. He was through the door as soon as his hand found the handle.
Another room, this one dark and featureless. Another set of stairs. Another room. He kept on climbing, losing track of how many levels he’d ascended. The burning in his lungs had become a steady ache, sapping his strength, but he couldn’t stop. He had to keep on climbing.
Another door led outside, another set of stairs spiraling up into the gray and cloudy sky. Clouds now obscured the ground, as well; he kept his eyes on the stairs to avoid vertigo.
These stairs seemed older, less used, he noted with the tiny little abstract part of his mind that remained disconnected. The stones were crumbling, and a few of them fell away, off the edge into nothingness. He heard no sound of them hitting the ground.
There! Off to the side, he saw the other set of stairs. She was still there, still running and climbing. She looked tired – no, he corrected himself. She looked absolutely exhausted. She looked like she was about to give out at any moment, go tumbling over the side like those stones.
He kept climbing, sucking in big breaths of the thin air.
Another room at the top. This one was round, and looked to be filled with ornate decorations, all covered in a thick layer of dust. In the middle of the room, a raised dais held a ladder, ascending through a hole in the roof. In one corner, he thought he saw a golden throne, the shine of the metal hidden under centuries of dust.
He knew that, if he were to sit on that throne, he would be a king when the competition was over. He could rule, wise and just, ease the suffering of many.
He didn’t even pause. He grabbed the rungs of the central ladder and hauled himself up.
The ladder, impossibly thin but sturdy, ascended through darkness. He thought he saw ropes off to the sides, the shapes of bodies swinging on a hundred hangman’s gibbets. He saw hooks and chains, tearing unidentifiable pieces of something apart.
And for just a moment, through the darkness, he thought he caught the shape of the girl, climbing.
Looking up told him nothing. The ladder kept on going. His arms burned and barely responded to his commands, but he kept on climbing. A couple of times, he locked his arms through the rungs to catch his breath, but he never let himself pause for more than a few seconds.
Finally, something was above him. He reached up and pushed open the trap door with the last of his strength, hauled himself up, and flopped onto the floor above, panting.
A hand dangled in front of his eyes when he opened them.
“Come on,” the girl said, looking scared even as she held her hand down to him. “We can make it. We’re close, I know it.”
For a moment, he did nothing. Could he trust her? Was this real?
But his strength alone wasn’t enough. He took the hand, and she pulled him up to his feet.