Prologue

Like the ocean’s tide, the sonorous voices of the watchmen rolled over the sandy streets and alleys of Qasradab, City of Letters. “Sandstorm! Simoom!” The cry was taken up by watchmen further in, receding into the heart of the city. The thick foot traffic on the streets immediately started to thin out; a sandstorm could sweep into the city in well under an hour, burning and scouring anything uncovered.

“Don’t worry, we can make it.” Nadir had his finger on the location of their new shop, just a few blocks away. “It should be faster now the streets have cleared.” Looking up, he saw Gizeh widening her stride, and had to scramble to catch up.

“Do you know how many windows there are? I don’t want to spend the first night sweeping.” Nadir could tell that she wasn’t looking for an answer. He was still very short, and she was tall enough that he had to jump to touch the top of her head. What’s more, he was tired from the packing they’d already done that morning, and he secretly suspected that Gizeh had never been fatigued in her life. Nadir secretly enjoyed what an odd pair they made in the street. Nadir was small and had a round boyish face and big eyes. He had narrow shoulders, and the lack of exercise since his trip to Qasaradab was beginning to show. He dressed flamboyantly, in bright, embroidered silks, and is outer kaftan was particularly luxurious, with deep sleeves that were not quite as cumbersome as they looked. He tried to make his outfits give off an impression of sophistication and class, but he was pretty sure he just looked like a spoiled kid most of the time. Gizeh, on the other hand, was built and dressed for business. She towered above most everybody they walked past, and her features were all angles and points, with sharp cheekbones and a thin, long nose. She had made some concessions to Nadir’s sense of aesthetics, and accepted his gold-and-purple color schemes, but wouldn’t budge on the cut of her outfits. Considering she was his bodyguard as well as his business partner, he couldn’t really argue.

As he jogged aside her, pointing out the turns they still needed to take, he cursed the foul luck that plagued him with this sandstorm. He’d consoled himself during the arduous job of packing and loading their possessions by the reward of finally getting a chance to lay eyes on his new property, which was procured at great discount and at the last minute. Now, they’d barely get in the door before scrambling around an unfamiliar house to close all of the sandscreens and then loaf about in the dark instead of planning out their interiors, doing some calligraphy, and cooking a good meal.

Running further ahead to give himself a few seconds indulgence, Nadir rounded the last corner and paused to catch his breath and look on at his new shop. Surprisingly, it seemed to be in good repair, with a modest entranceway in the front, and a large bay in the side, big enough to fit a wagon inside with no difficulty. In a city as populous as Qasaradab, the most precious resource was land, and Nadir’s new workshop took up a generous corner lot. Even with the disreputable neighbourhood, an unregistered and possibly criminal mage as a former owner, and the sale of Nadir’s former property, it still cost almost Nadir’s weight in silver. Most buildings in the heart of the city built up to save on space, but that wouldn’t do for Nadir’s purposes. To his dismay, he noted a large quantity of windows on either floor. On most days, this would allow for a pleasant crossbreeze to flow through the corner lot. Today, it meant a panic. He dug in his kaftan for the set of keys, but was beaten to the door by Gizeh, who had sped up upon noticing the alarming number of windows to cover.

“I’ll head upstairs, close the screens down here!” Gizeh took the steps three at a time. Nadir climbed up on a table, and pulled the screens down over both the doorway and the closest window, securing them at the base of the windowpane. By the time he’d climbed down and pushed the table over to another window, Gizeh was already back downstairs, running into the caravan bay to shut the windows there. By the time Nadir had finished closing the windows in entrance rooms, Gizeh was back, dusting her hands off as Nadir pulled off his embroidered silk kaftan before it got caught on anything in the darkness. The soft light through the thin silk sheets bathed the rooms in a hazy, ethereal glow far from the usual harsh light of the sun.

As Nadir caught his breath, he was suddenly aware of the silence. Qasradab was never this quiet. Morning or night, there were people in the streets talking, walking, shouting, crying. Except for these silences before the sandstorms, Nadir hadn’t heard silence like this since he left his parents’ estate two years ago. He draped his kaftan over the table and sat on the edge, closing his eyes and resting his head back, enjoying such a rare moment of tranquility. The sandstorm stole in much more quietly than the warning. A soft, gentle sense of pressure as the first winds pressed against the screens, and a slow rush of air, building and building, louder, whistling at times before rushing too fast to make sound, a dull roar so huge it could be heard, rising up to a muffled intensity that it could maintain for hours. Once the sound of the wind’s whistling died down, Nadir knew that the sandstorm was fully upon them. Any buildings or towers that made noise during a sandstorm were summarily adjusted to prevent a piercing whistle deafening citizens.

Nadir opened his eyes. The room was pitch black, the light from the sun blotted out by the scouring sand.

He heard Gizeh fumbling around with her pouches, unstrapping the pocket on her shoulder. He didn’t hear the sound of the paper strip tearing, but knew it was coming. Suddenly, her features were cast into light by the inscribed strip of paper slowly burning from its tip.

“I know there’s a lamp here somewhere.” She fumbled through boxes one-handed as Nadir adjusted his keffiyeh. Gizeh cursed and dropped the paper as it singed her fingers, then reached back up to her shoulder, tearing off another little strip of paper from the stock, which promptly burst into flame. She shook out the first paper and produced a small lantern from the box, and after a shake to ensure it still had fuel, lit it, and adjusted the nozzle until a steady, warm light threw shadows on the walls.

“So, how long do you think it’s going to last?” Nadir sat on the edge of the table, kicking his feet idly. He’d only been through a few sandstorms before. Gizeh shrugged.

“No clue. Usually a few hours.”

“Well, I guess we may as well unpack instead of sitting around here. I hope they didn’t ruin all my reeds.” Not that it really mattered, it would be starting to get dark by the time the sandstorm ended and he would be tired by unpacking by then. He wouldn’t really need to cut a new pen until the next day. “Let me go find my things. I’ll have a word or two with our movers if any of my inkpots are broken.” Nadir started looking around, directing Gizeh to move the lamp so he could check which box was which. After a few minutes working up a sweat by sifting through boxes, Nadir started to shed a few layers to help stay comfortable.

“Where are they? Do you think they put them upstairs or may-” Nadir cut himself off mid-sentence, halfway to taking off his tight chest wrap. Gizeh shot him a look, but he put his finger to his lip before she could say anything. Slowly, he lowered himself to the ground, putting his ear to thin space between the floorboards. Gizeh did the same, brows furrowed in confusion. Maybe. It was hard to tell. Gizeh had taken to plucking her eyebrows to make them look a bit angrier, and Nadir had still not gotten used to them. He strained to hear over the white noise of the sandstorm outside. There was no sound for a long time, and then the soft sound of something scraping against the hard packed dirt floor. He sat up instantly as though his ear was scalded. Gizeh was already standing, back against the wall.

“No way! No way. No way this is exactly why I wanted to hold out for another place. This is the worst possible scenario.”

“Gizeh! Gizeh calm down it’s fine. It could be a…  kitten or something. We don’t know! Besides, this place was a steal and it’s huge, all we had to do is take care of the guild’s dirty work having to turn it upside-down to find anything, and we get it for a huge discount.” He sighed, pulling down and rewrapping his chest, stretching out his ribs to help it get settled.

“Right, well I hope our next of kin is looking forwards to cleaning it up once they find our bodies.” She crossed her arms. “Lousy stupid scribes can’t keep their pens to their paper and just have to make these preposterous basement studies filled with horrible abominations.” She followed Nadir as he went towards the door that led downstairs, carrying the lamp.

“Don’t worry! They’d never heard about this guy before he died, so it’s not as though he’s some fantastically skilled calligrapher, it’s probably a bunch of junk that went wrong or something.” Nadir waved at her dismissively, but didn’t open the door, just looking at it.

“You know, we could wait until the sandstorm dies down and contact Hiraani?” Gizeh suggested hopefully. Nadir threw his hands up.

“Contact Hiraani, contact Hiraani, we can’t go running to little miss bottomless-spellbook everytime we might be in a bind or we might as well put ourselves into indentured servitude.” He pitched his voice into a falsetto, gesturing expansively with his right hand in a caricature of their friend. “Look at me I’m Hiraani! I spend aaaaaaaall day in the palace writing spells so I never run out! Oooh do you have a problem Nadir? I’m sure I can help let me just let me open my spellbook it’s thicker than your head ooooh!” Gizeh rolled her eyes at him.

“She doesn’t even sound like that.”

“Besides, I’m sure that the two of us can handle whatever’s down there.” He glanced back, eyeing the long sword strapped to Gizeh’s back, as well as the daggers and small crossbow hanging from her belt. Gizeh scowled but didn’t respond as Nadir opened the door and pushed open the door. The lamp illuminated the wooden stairs that descended into the basement. Gizeh extended the lamp just in front of Nadir, and held it still. He waited for her to lead the way down the stairs, but she moved it closer to him, jostling his shoulder and firmly refusing to make eye contact. “What are you doing?” Nadir asked, “Lead the way.”

“No way!” Gizeh shook her head, “Spooky magic horrors are your area of expertise, I’m in charge of stabbing muggers and telling you where to go to get the good stuff.” Nadir kicked her in the shin, to no effect.

“What kind of useless bodyguard are you? You’re supposed to guard my body! Hence the name, bodyguard!” He shook his head. “If anything is too dangerous for you it’ll make vellum out of me in seconds and you won’t have anybody to tap for spells or advice. I trust you, Gizeh.” He gave her his best innocent-baby-deer face. Gizeh could only endure a few seconds of the onslaught before scowling and stomping forwards, taking two steps down before leaping back instantly, bowling Nadir over.

“What is it now?” Nadir hauled himself to his feet.

“The stairs! They’re just little platforms connected to the frame. It’s the kind that hands grab ankles through.” She spoke again before Nadir could say anything. “I know! I know! I’ll look under first. Don’t worry, don’t worry.” She dropped to her hands and knees, holding the lamp out and peering down under the stairs for a few seconds before gracefully springing back up to her feet, and walking down with much more confidence. Nadir hurried to catch up.

 

The lamp didn’t illuminate the entire room, casting light up to the ceiling, and to one of the nearby walls. It was very spacious down here, looking like maybe a single large workshop, unless it extended under the street or under nearby properties, which would probably be some sort of zoning offence. There were little tables with benches near them, with the occasional extra hammer or pen laying on top. The wall had a tool rack on it, which was stocked with thankfully well-kept tools, as opposed to rusted and bloodstained ones. Further on, there was – “Result!” A desk was by the wall, a couple books on it and even an assortment of handwritten notes. Nadir immediately pulled up the stool, sitting on his leg and leaning over, sorting and shuffling around the notes to get a better look at what was on them, tuning out Gizeh peering around at the walls and clanking about with the tools.

Nadir held the paper up, squinting to make out the writing in the dim light. Whoever wrote this had sloppy handwriting, so it was likely he’d learned to write in a more secular way before applying it to the Word. Gizeh kept blocking the light with her body and it was too dim for Nadir to read anyway. He looked up, ready to call her over to take a look, but suddenly saw something shift at the edge of the lamp’s illumination, past where Gizeh was.

“Aaahh! Over there! Over there!” He pointed. Gizeh swung the lamp over as she stepped towards it, momentarily blocking his view, and then shrieked, stumbling back, tripping over one of the smaller workshop benches and fumbling the lamp as she thrashed her arms to try to break her landing. Nadir was right behind her, throwing his hands up to break her fall and promptly getting flattened. The lamp bounced on the floor and the candle flame went out.

Nadir felt and heard Gizeh scrabbling to get to her feet, bracing her knee -and- her hand off his already-squished chest and face to haul her considerable weight back upright. “It’s here it’s here and it was moving where is it!” Getting up to his knees, rubbing his stomach with his left hand, Nadir flipped open the clasp on the spellbook slung at his waist and thumbed through it, feeling the texture of the papers, the protrusions that told him which section was which, thumbing page by page to find just the right one… He whipped his arm out, tearing the perforated page out of the binding cleanly and with a practiced flick sending the just ever so slightly thickened paper spiralling through the air. After a second, the paper and the calligraphy on it was consumed, replaced with a hovering ball of light, brighter than their small lamp by far, throwing the whole basement into light.

Nadir could now see what Gizeh had seen and understood exactly why she had screamed. The… thing was a moving collection of bones, a huge human skull with a very nonhuman jawbone, teeth all long and so so sharp, too thin, like needles. The spine was too long, the head extended out above the ribcage, coiling like a snake, and too many arms with too many arm bones stuck out of it, bony hands tipped with claws as long as daggers. Further down the body were thicker bones, long limbs ending in claws just the same but taking the weight of the rest of the body. The spine ended in what looked like a tail, a heavy tusk like a spear dragging on the ground behind it.  Hunched over with two of its ‘hands’ on the ground it almost touched the ceiling with its head, legs sprawled out and creeping forwards like a spider. Nadir’s light had manifested in its ribcage, and the walls were zebra-striped with shadows, and the light poured out of the empty eye sockets.

Gizeh wailed in horror and dismay and started throwing everything in sight at it; the stool that Nadir had been sitting on, a box from on the table, an empty clay mug, and then her hand grabbed the back of Nadir’s robe and she hurled him overhand at the monster as easily as she’d thrown the little stool. Nadir screamed and curled up. The elaborate embroidery on his robe protected him from the impact, but he still felt himself crash into a pile of bones and bounce off to the side. He scrambled back on his hands and heels, his hands frantically looking through his spellbook for something to use.

Meanwhile, Gizeh seemed to have shaken off her surprise and made some distance between her and the monster, whose empty sockets fixated on her. She grabbed the hilt of her sword, but the pommel slammed against the ceiling before it even got halfway out of the scabbard. “Oh, come on!” She fumed, patting the slender daggers and the small crossbow at her sides, useless against the mass of bone in front of her. “Little help here Nadir! This is your specialty! What do I do what do I do what do I do?” Nadir’s mind raced, looking at it, and then – just at the edge of the light and the shadow, ridges, deeper here and there, easy to see now that his eyes had adjusted, engraved all over it, calligraphy. He didn’t have time to decipher it, but “It’s calligraphy! There’s gotta be a part that’s making it move, where the- the-” Nadir floundered for a word, “the genius is! The bit that controls the brain! Smash it!” He stumbled back a bit – he couldn’t think of anything in his spellbook offhand that might be able to break bones like this without destroying the room.

“Brain! Got it!’ Gizeh stepped forwards, fists up, and then leaned back away from one of the hands slashing her, and brushed another aside with her left hand, swinging a quick right hook at the skull, which reared back like a snake, mouth open and brimming with teeth. Its clawed hand reached up, thin fingers hooking into the spaces between the floorboards, suspending itself as much as it rested on the ground, too many elbows, to many bones. One arm whipped itself out at her and she blocked it with her arm, but the bones curled around her wrist, sharp fingers writhing at her face, forcing her to push her arm out and away from it. Her eyes left the skull and it lashed out like a viper and Gizeh’s free hand sprung up, palming the top of the skull and stopping it inches away from her face. She howled in triumph and shattered the skull in her hand, throwing the handful of dust and shards to the ground as she stepped back from the remains of the monster.

The bones hanging from the roof and planted on the ground hadn’t collapsed like they should have. He scanned it, wondering if there was something that kept them in place… Probably something close to the center of balan- Suddenly, everything clicked into place. The head wouldn’t be where the important stuff was, it was too obvious and too far away from everything else, the hipbone was huge and central, protected by the rest of the monster.

“Gizeh look out it’s- Gizeh!” He cut himself short as he noticed that despite its apparent stillness, the lengthy tail was moving. Suddenly, it whipped forwards, the heavy tusk on the end sailing through the air and then dragging the rest of the bone tail behind it, sharp point hurtling directly at Gizeh. She spun around, reaching out with bare hands and grabbing it, stumbling back as the weight hit her, but keeping it from impaling her. She pulled it hard, sending the monster stumbling for balance, and stomped on the tail, wrenching backwards and separating the base of the tusk from the tail. It tried to jerk from under her foot but she held it pinned to the ground, tossing the tusk over and holding it near the tip as though it were a club.  She smiled.

“Guess I’ll just have to smash you into pieces then…” she swung the tusk hard and fast, no wind up but so much force, smashing through one of the claws, shattering the hand and scattering the claws, and then back again, breaking two ribs and cracking an arm bone on the other side.

“Gizeh no! I’ll never pick together what’s on them that way! The hip! Destroy the hipbone!” There was no way that anything that could achieve this level of independence, of movement, of sentience would be written down on paper; salvaging it from this monster was the best way possible to figure out what had done. The urgency of the situation faded from him momentarily in wonder. How did someone who likely hadn’t studied under a master and surely had no access to the palace libraries figure out how to do something as complicated as this? Nadir had heard of automated guardians, designed to destroy or remove intruders, but the way it moved was too natural, too fluid to be one of those.

Nadir was snapped out of his reverie as Gizeh shouted out in frustration, two of the clawed hands had grabbed her tusk and were trying to tug it from her grasp, a third whipping at her to keep her from pulling with both hands. Suddenly, she relaxed her arm, falling backwards and letting the monster’s pull keep her standing as the free claw’s blades sailed over her. She wrenched her arm back, pulling herself back upright and forcing it to stumble forwards – as huge as it was it was only bones. She took a step forwards, meeting it, and kicked out hard, her shin smashing into the pelvis and shattering it. Instantly, the bones collapsed in a heap, no longer even holding together.

Gizeh wiped a smudge of blood off of her cheek with her thumb and shook her shoulders, sneering down at the pile of bones for a moment before she leapt up in the air, pumping her fist forwards as to not smash it on the ceiling. “Did you see that Nadir? I used its strength… against it!” she gestured as though she was turning something over in her hands. “And earlier? Earlier? When I crushed its skull with one hand?” she clenched the fist, still white from the powder, and flexed her arm. Nadir barrelled into her.

“You caught that tusk right out of the air! It was going right at you and you just went-” He mimed the grabbing motion that Gizeh had made, “Cat-like reflexes!”

“Like a tiger!” Gizeh corrected him.

“An eagle! And then! And then you pounded that thing with its own tail! that was amazing!” He punched the air, imitating her.

“You cannot possibly imagine how amazing it is to be me.” she gave one of the bones a dismissive kick, making an elaborate show of dusting off and straightening clothes, her tough, casual expression cracking to show her thrilled enthusiasm. “I didn’t even use my sword either! All me. All me.” she dusted off her hands.

“You don’t even know how great that looked! You have no idea!” Nadir slugged her gut, and then shook out his hand from the impact.

“Not even flexing, Nadir! Not even flexing!” She grinned at him.

Nadir fell onto one of the benches. “That was great. We have to do that more often. Alright, alright, let’s get that lamp lit before that light runs out and we’re blind again.”

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