No demons in the House of Derby, no gods.
Seven generations back, Rosefrost Derby sealed the last of the Ways Between, so that no eldritch thing could pass uninvited from its realm into our own. Now, among all the families of the House, there were no wizards, no priests, none who dared truck with the hateful lords of before. The families took their tea and cast their votes together; their tiepins, hairpins, and manners all were sparkling. Mankind ruled itself in this city, with the House of Derby presiding.
At the west gatehouse, the barbarian Gotchimus presented his invitation, ignoring the journalists who’d gathered on the sidewalk. He was one of three contenders in the Sundering Game, the first such competition to be held in decades.
He had slain wizards. He had collapsed gates through which the old ones sought reentry to our roads, our cities, our hearths. He had cut down beasts born of the necromantic arts, some grown from flesh and bone, others crafted with cog and spring. The Sundering Game was a simple affair by comparison. Gotchimus would be possessed by the spirit of an old god. The god might kill its mortal host, and it might drive him mad—or Gotchimus would drive it off before it could do either.
A footman escorted him up the long path to the house, where he was met by Lord Merlie Smyth and his kin, his sponsors. Lady Juniper Smyth bade him good fortune in the trials ahead, pinned a black pearl to his lapel, and gazed for perhaps a moment too long at the patch over his left eye.
House Derby’s own solicitor, a gray-haired man with perfect teeth in his smile, presented him with a waiver to sign. It released the House and its families from all liabilities. If Gotchimus left the grounds before the conclusion of the Game, he would be disqualified and subject to fines.
Only the first competitor sundered from his own adversary would be granted, along with his family, a permanent place in the Hall Atop the Hill. No demons in the House of Derby, no gods. Except while the Sundering Game was underway.
The barbarian gazed back into the city, over the peaks of the halls of governance and beyond the wall to the ragged edge of the wilds. “It is,” he said, “a very fine view.”
A week before, he and Theodora had taken his hide tent into the ghoul-wastes west of the Other River, and made camp a skull’s throw from the white ruins of Crowe’s Folly.
There, Theodora unmasked Martya and let her fly. The falcon circled over the campsite, then soared toward the river in search of prey.
Theodora was being Theo that night. He boiled water over the fire and poured them each a mug of tea. At first they didn’t talk about where Gotchimus was going. Then Theo asked, “Are you sure it’s what you want?”
“I won’t lose the Game,” the barbarian said.
Theo looked into his mug. “I’m not worried that you’ll lose, Gotch. I’m worried about what will happen when you win.”
Gotchimus pulled Theo close. They sat at the edge of the bluff and watched the stars burn holes in the sky. Later, Martya returned and cried a warning from above. A pack of devil-men had wrangled shadows from the ruins, and were riding for the camp.
The two went down into the lowlands to meet the marauders. Theodora was Dora now, laughing as her rapier flashed and her falcon screeched overhead. Gotchimus howled as he brought death to the deathless, and soon he and Dora both were smirched with ichor.
He was glad for the battle. Unlike Theo, Dora wasn’t prone to worry, and the fight had summoned Dora to his side. That night, though, in the warmth of the tent, Gotchimus wasn’t sure which of his lovers embraced him.
Now the Smyths fed him, uncorked their best wines for him, appointed him a feather bed in their own wing of the House. But it was Vespertine Derby herself who took a special interest, and showed him about the halls and grounds. An odd girl, and oddly familiar. Hadn’t he seen her skulking about the River District on festival nights, throwing dice at the Hook & Bramble? But that woman had laughed and boasted and ordered rounds for the room. This one wrung her hands like someone thrice her age.
He wanted to see a particular painting he knew the Derbys to own, and Vespertine’s cheeks flushed at the request, but gestured for him to follow. The painting hung in a room of the easternmost wing. “The Routing of the Savage Horde” depicted General Alban Moog astride his charger in full regalia, gold and scarlet. The feather of Moog’s helmet matched the plumes of blood that spilled from the wounds of his half-naked adversaries, broken before a line of spearmen. The scene was a wooded riverbank, the water black except where it was red. Far off, columns of smoke rose from the trees. Those were the villages.
Through the east windows of this room, Gotchimus could see the very riverbank upon which his ancestors had made their stand. The trees were gone, and in their place was the city’s busiest port.
Moog’s own sword lay on a table below the painting. Gotchimus lifted it, just to feel its weight in his hands. Few members of the Moog family were in residence now; most were off fighting, subjugating, giving each other medals.
Vespertine said to him, “The Moogs were the first family, after my own, to join this House. The general’s ashes are in that urn, and that brandy on the table was distilled from wine of his own vineyard.”
New clans of savages, thought Gotchimus, with their own ancestors to worship, their own spoils to hoard. He had seen the urn in the corner and guessed its contents. He’d noticed the brandy, too, and it made him thirsty. He set down the sword, unstoppered the decanter, and poured two snifters. Vespertine took one, and the barbarian raised his glass.
“To the general,” he said. “He was one of you, but he was also one of us.”
A reference to Moog’s uncertain parentage? The Smyths asked him about it at dinner that night.
“I meant,” he said, “that General Moog earned the title of savage, as I have come to understand the term.”
Merlie Smyth touched his napkin to his lips, uneasy. But his wife leaned over her plate, eager to hear more. She had never liked the Moogs. Moog children had twice trampled the flowers in her part of the garden.
“As for his parentage,” Gotchimus went on, “I was told as a child that his mother once belonged to a tribe with which ours often warred. That she was taken prisoner by Alban Moog’s father, Getrick the Unctuous, and that Getrick eventually took her hand in marriage.”
“I knew it,” said Lady Smyth. “The archives say hardly anything about her, but in all the portraits she has in her eyes that unmistakable—”
“Hint of melancholy,” she decided.
“Gotchimus,” said Lord Smyth, eager to change the subject, “I’m surprised to see that pork shank on your plate. I was under the impression that your people don’t eat the flesh of animals.”
In fact the barbarian had risen early that morning, and gone with bow and quiver into the parklands at the north end of the Derby estate. The boar had been a fierce opponent: the arrow enraged the beast, and he had needed his sword to finish her.
“My people eat only of animals they have slain themselves,” Gotchimus explained, “but tradition does not require us to cook the game with our own hands. I gave the boar to your chef this morning.”
Little Victor Smyth, emboldened, maybe, by the barbarian’s ready answers to his parents’ questions, asked, “Why do you wear that eyepatch?”
His hand went automatically to the left side of his face. Sometimes Gotchimus could almost forget that the patch was there. “I wear it,” he said, “because the eye underneath does not work as it should.”
Lord Smyth had missed this exchange. He was gazing at the chunk of meat at the end of his fork as though it were something entirely new to him.
Gotchimus came to know the dozen or so chambers occupied by the Smyths, and others elsewhere that Vespertine Derby had shown him. But how many hundreds of rooms here? How many dens, cellars, corridors, and towers? He found a library one morning, and sneezed as he perused the old tomes.
He’d thought he was alone, but then Lord Gaius Derby was suddenly behind him—he’d come through a secret door in the geology section. Gotchimus swore under his breath. There were more secret doors than regular doors in this place.
“You want to know how previous Games were fought and won,” said Lord Derby, creeping closer: footstep, cane tap, footstep. “You think you better your chances in the Sundering if you study Games of ages past.”
“I only want to know how many clans your lordship houses under this roof,” Gotchimus said.
Derby seemed disappointed, but drew up alongside the barbarian to gaze at the book he’d taken down. “We don’t keep a census, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “There are the Smyths, of course, a strong enough line, with some fire still in their blood—among the women, anyway.”
Gotchimus watched as the old man flipped through the pages, tapping family crests.
“The Houks, a curious lot, most of them rail barons. The Morrows, skilled diviners, often out on digs, guarding the old ley lines. The Scheufeles, excellent weavers, they all look like birds. The Purcells, the Baldis, the Grobs, the Ladues. Too many to keep track of, you see? The old families retreat deeper into their suites with each generation, weary of dominion. And when one family dies out, years may pass before anyone notices. Thus the need to bring in fresh blood now and then.”
“And the Derbys?”
“The Derbys were here first, and they’ll be here when the others are dust,” he snapped. “Our line has never been stronger.”
Gotchimus knew that Gaius and his daughter were all that remained of the Derby family, and that Vespertine had refused or scared off all her suitors. Men spoke of a weird gold light in her eyes, of a restlessness that verged on mania. He had glimpsed the former, when the sun was right; the latter, he suspected, was simply due to the stale breath this house held in for generations at a time.
Lord Derby put out his arm—to steady himself, Gotchimus thought, but then he took the barbarian’s bicep in his claw-like grip.
“I thought to sponsor you myself, you know,” Derby said, leaning close. “You’ve got a power about you that the House would be wise to possess. But there is the matter of your name, which I cannot abide.”
Family name, he meant. Gotchimus didn’t have one. He knew his mother’s name, and his mother’s mother’s, and so on back for generations. But here, in the cities of the empire, men had no patience for names that were also stories.
That night the three contestants in the Sundering Game were put on display at a dinner party in the great hall. Representatives of a dozen families competed for a glimpse of the three hopefuls.
Gotchimus had heard rumors about Dymphna, the woman sponsored by the Moogs, and he was curious. Seated between two men with swords at their sides and epaulettes on their shoulders, she was silent in her strange, monkish attire. It was said that she never spoke, and sat cross-legged through the night in a room without rugs or a bed.
His other opponent, sponsored by Lord Derby, was less shy. A young bowlegged banker in brown tweed, he found Gotchimus after dinner and urged him into a smoking room. Mister Fulvous Bascombe, his name was. He gave the barbarian a cigar from his own stash.
Bascombe had taken huge portions at dinner, and now he snacked on cheeses he’d snatched from the other room, and rambled on about how good the cheeses were here, and would Gotchimus like some more cheese, and had he ever tasted better?
“Thank you,” the barbarian said, “I’ve had plenty.”
Bascombe looked very serious then. He said, as though they’d already been discussing the matter, “It’s been done before, you know. Withdrawing from the Game.”
Gotchimus was caught off guard. He encouraged the banker to stay on, to see it through. Wasn’t he at least curious to learn what manner of elder fiend he was up against?
Bascombe frowned and set aside the plate of cheese. He took a slip of paper from his pocket, penciled something, and handed the paper to Gotchimus. The barbarian looked at the number. It was a very large number.
“I can have it transferred to your account within the week,” Bascombe said.
“For what purpose?”
Bascombe retrieved the paper, crossed out what he’d written, wrote something else, and handed it back. The new figure was nearly double the first.
“I don’t know what manner of requirements a”—Bascombe paused, searching for the right words—”a fellow like you might have. But surely that sum would keep you comfortable for quite a while?”
“You want me to withdraw from the Game,” Gotchimus said.
“No one would judge you for it,” Bascombe replied. “And it wouldn’t have to be the end of House Derby for you. One can always marry in. Why, who knows, someday I could be your uncle. One of my nieces—”
Gotchimus stood, and Fulvous Bascombe shrank back into his chair. There were rules forbidding direct combat between competitors in the Sundering Game—Lord Smyth had laid particular emphasis on this point when Gotchimus first arrived—so the barbarian did not draw his sword or crush the man’s skull in his hand.
Instead, he used the wyvern-shaped cigar lighter on the table between them to ignite the slip of paper, then dropped it into Bascombe’s lap. The banker squealed, batting at the cinders with both hands. Gotchimus caught a whiff of singed wool as he left the room.
“The families have decided not to disqualify you,” Vespertine Derby told him over tea the next day. “Fulvous testified on your behalf, in fact. Told them it was just a misunderstanding.”
The teacups were small. Gotchimus finished his first in one gulp and poured more from the pot.
“You know,” she went on, “though Father sponsored Bascombe in the Game, I think he favors you.”
Gotchimus laughed at that. “A savage in the Hall Atop the Hill? I think it drives old Gaius mad.”
Vespertine rose and went to stand by the drawing room’s broad windows. A breeze stirred the leaves of the oak outside, dappling her face and throat. She was, Gotchimus thought, very beautiful. She squeezed her hands and said, “I’m a bit mad myself, I think. I’ve lived in these rooms my whole life, but sometimes it feels like a dream. Not my dream, but someone else’s.”
Gotchimus set down his teacup. “They say there are wizards who can trap a man in an illusion so close to his real life that he can’t tell the difference.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Vespertine said.
She came toward him, her blue dress swishing, and knelt beside his chair. He shifted away, but she folded her hands over his knee.
“Promise me you’ll be careful here,” she said. “These people are more vicious than you think.”
“I know how to look after myself.”
She moved one hand from his knee to his face, stroked his cheek with her fingertips. “But with only one eye,” she said, and reached for the patch.
He caught her wrist in his hand, and she leaned closer, pressing herself to him. The barbarian thought that it would be unwise to kiss her, and he knew that he would do so. But before their lips touched, a low whistling noise rose up from the floor, as though a weird wind were trapped under their feet. Caught in that wind was an echoing burble, like the laughter of a child.
Gotchimus rose and threw aside the rug. Beneath was a trapdoor, an iron ring at its center. He reached for it, but Vespertine grabbed his arm and shouted, “No!”
He held still. The noise had stopped.
“I don’t,” Vespertine said. “I don’t go down there.”
And if she wouldn’t go, he wouldn’t go: the thought came to him as simply as breath. From where, he could not have said.
That night he slept between silk sheets, and dreamed of the forests of the west. Of a bone cairn among the pines, of lantern circles on the hard earth, of a wheel turning in white water. In his dream, a great gray bird came over the hills and opened its wings; the wings were also jaws.
Gotchimus woke and snatched his sword from the bedside table. For a moment, he didn’t know where he was. Then he heard the whistle of a distant train, and he saw on the floor the shoes of a civilized man, gleaming black in a panel of moonlight.
He hiked into the orchard the next morning, trying to clear his head. It was a cloudless day, and he could see boats gliding along the river. The Key Street drawbridge rose skyward while a man-o-war waited in the harbor. The barbarian wondered how long he would have to wait for the Sundering Game to begin.
The wizard Gray said to him, “And what will happen, I wonder, if your new friends find out about me first?”
Gray was seated on the limb of a pear tree, but he wasn’t really there. He’d been dead for a long time.
“They won’t find out about you,” Gotchimus said, “because you’re going to stay out of sight.”
“Am I?” The wizard hopped down to stroll along beside him. Sometimes Gray could talk to Gotchimus, and sometimes Gotchimus could see him, because the eye under the barbarian’s eyepatch had belonged to Gray. He hid the eye so that others wouldn’t notice, and so he didn’t always see the world the way the wizard would see it.
“Truth is,” Gray said, “I’m surprised that you want anything to do with these people.”
“They’re dangerous,” said Gotchimus. “I need to get close to them if I’m going to control them.”
“And bring about their destruction?”
Gotchimus didn’t answer.
“Come now,” the wizard said. “You know I can see right into that savage heart of yours. Such vengeful blood it heaves!”
Gotchimus stopped walking, and his old rival smiled up at him, one eye green, the other gray. The gray eye had belonged to Gotchimus, but the wizard had swapped it for one of his own, then died with it still in his skull.
A thudding sound caused Gotchimus to spin around, hand on the pommel of his blade. Beside the path, arms full of fruit, Fulvous Bascombe stood staring at him. Several pears had slipped from his grasp and tumbled over the ground. A few had bite marks in them.
“Who were you talking to?” the banker asked.
Gotchimus didn’t like to lie, not even to his adversaries, not even when they were spying on him. But it wasn’t wholly a lie to tell him, “I was talking to myself.”
Who else, after all? Gotchimus had killed that wizard a long time ago.
Later, he did some spying of his own. He knew that Dymphna liked to walk the mazy paths of the rose garden in the late afternoon, so he waited on a bench till she passed by, then followed at a distance.
Deep into the greenery she went; Gotchimus kept to the shadows that dusk nudged over the ground. When she came to a circular structure ringed by beech trees, Dymphna pulled back her hood, revealing her braided hair, gray and black. She looked left and right, then slipped between the columns and was gone.
The cella within was built of travertine. Gotchimus avoided the main entrance, climbing straight up the outer wall instead. Silently he ascended, seeking purchase in the grooves between blocks of stone. Through a window he could see Dymphna below, kneeling before a reflecting pool at the center of the temple. She was naked, her monk’s robe in a heap near the door. Her eyes were closed, her expression serene as she drew slow breaths.
The barbarian felt foolish. His competitor was preparing for the Sundering Game with quiet meditation—had been, probably, since the day she arrived. And what had he been doing? Taking tea, guessing at motives, and now spying. At this rate, he’d prove a fine vessel for some corrupt old god, hungry for power and a way back into this world.
A warm breeze blew through the temple, brushing blue the fires that burned beside the pool. Gotchimus felt a change in the air. The hair on his arms stood up, and the fabric of his waistcoat seemed to tighten around his chest.
Dymphna’s shadow lengthened. No, this was something else, inky black, extending from her shoulders. A pair of wings, enormous, dripping feathers like hot wax. The wings rose up and out, and the feathers turned to smoke as they fell; there was no end to them.
A buzzing filled the barbarian’s head as Dymphna’s lips parted in quiet rapture, her wings tasting the air. A ripple spread over the water.
How had Derby allowed this monster into the Game?
Monster? came Gray’s voice. And what does that make you, with your one sorcerous eye?
Dymphna, as though she’d heard the wizard’s voice, took a sharp breath and looked up. Gotchimus let go of the windowsill and half-climbed, half-fell to the ground, recovering in time to land on his feet, but not quietly. His waistcoat tore as a groan escaped his lips.
The barbarian was unarmed, shaking, sick from the strangeness of what he’d seen. Thorns pricked his legs as he fled along the paths. It was dark by the time he found an unlocked servants’ entrance. He made his way through an empty kitchen, upstairs to the halls of the Smyth family, and back to his room.
His head hurt, his dreams were bad. He misplaced his eyepatch during his morning ablutions, and had to go stumbling about his room, one hand over Gray’s green eye, until he found it.
He wished Theo were with him. Theo would have made him something good for breakfast, something with the seasonings he brought with him everywhere in bottles and pouches. But Dora would have hated it here. Dora, after a day or two, would have wanted to fight something.
He wandered the halls, searching for the gymnasium he’d glimpsed during one of his walks with Vespertine. The place had appeared well equipped: weights, mats, padded weapons, practice dummies shaped like trolls. But every time he thought he’d found the right corridor, he found himself instead in a suite of dusty, deserted rooms, furniture sheeted, windows shuttered.
The barbarian had a good sense of direction. He’d navigated the Labyrinth of Fite on the shortest day of the year. He’d led a troupe of ghost children out of the Howling Wood. He’d mapped the goblin libraries of Eon’s Gulch, unearthing an archive the librarians had misplaced centuries before. But here, in the House of Derby, at the very heart of the ordered world, Gotchimus was lost.
As though on cue, Vespertine appeared from around a corner and took his arm. Her smile told him she knew nothing of his distress, and that made him feel better. Better than better: he felt that he’d been saved from something terrible he couldn’t have named. And here, suddenly, was that other Vespertine, the one he’d glimpsed in town from time to time, singing songs with the denizens of public houses and gambling dens. She talked excitedly, gesturing with her hands instead of wringing them. She told him about a solstice time long ago, when she and her father decorated every hall in the Derby wing with bells and pine boughs, lamps and candles.
“You should have seen it, Gotch,” she said. “Like being lost in a forest, with the fairies dancing all around.”
He thought to tell her that he’d once found himself in those very circumstances, and had barely survived the night. But all he said was that maybe, if he won the Sundering Game, he would help her decorate next winter, and even bring a real fairy or two—caged and drugged, of course.
Her smile broadened, and she led him to parts of the house he hadn’t seen before: a billiards room, the minstrel gallery overlooking the great hall, an observatory built atop an abandoned wing.
Where had he meant to go when he left his chambers? What had he meant to do? It didn’t matter, now that Vespertine was with him. They strolled the paths of the greenhouse, picnicked in the gardens, peered through spy holes into the quarters of other families. They saw men and women quarrel, saw a pair of cousins unclasp each other’s suspenders, saw ancient gentlemen seated unstirring on enormous chairs and sofas, saw her own father asleep with his head on his desk.
“Vespertine,” he said, but he didn’t know what he wanted to tell her. How long had they been walking? What were they discussing? He remembered words—party, bicycle, battle, verandah—but not the order in which the words had come, nor who had spoken them. He told her he thought he might be dreaming. She pressed herself closer to his side. To part ways now, he thought, might do him some terrible harm.
But he was alone when a servant found him in a small round room, sprawled on the floor over several thick pillows. He opened his eyes and tried to understand what the man was telling him.
“Sir,” he said again, “begging your pardon, but the Smyths were expecting you at dinner some time ago.”
Merlie and Juniper were joined by other members of the Smyth clan that night, uncles and aunts, cousins and hangers-on.
Gotchimus felt ill, and he ate sparingly. There were meats he hadn’t made dead, oddities floating in jelly. The Smyths discussed taxes, trade routes, wine, a sculptor they’d met. Where had Vespertine gone? He tried to imagine himself beside Theodora instead, on the ramparts of some high mountain fortress, a winter wind ruffling their fur cloaks, a fire burning behind them, but he couldn’t hold onto the vision—there was too much chatter here, too many trifles, a vegetable that smelled like rotting leaves. He itched under his cravat and his socks felt wrinkled inside his shoes. All of it made him want to shout.
He shouted, and the dinner guests were silent. They looked at him. No one looked impressed.
Gotchimus pulled his napkin from his collar and set down his fork. Enunciating each word carefully, because he knew the accent gave them trouble sometimes, he asked, “When does the Sundering Game begin?”
Merlie and Juniper Smyth looked at one another, and the silence in the room deepened. Then Juniper began to laugh. Merlie laughed, too. Little Victor saw his parents laughing and joined them. Soon the dozens of uncles, aunts, cousins, and who-knows-whats all were laughing, laughing at him.
Lord Smyth waited for a lull, then touched his napkin to one eye and said, “Gotchimus, my dear Gotchimus. Didn’t you know? The Sundering Game began the day you arrived. It began the moment Juniper pinned that black pearl to your lapel.”
Gotchimus touched the pearl, which he’d pinned, each morning without thinking, to the jacket he chose to wear that day. He’d expected a grand ritual, incantations, a sacrifice. Out in the wilds, that’s how things were done. But here, apparently, someone stuck a pin to you, and that was that. How terribly he had misunderstood.
Gotchimus rose from his chair. A week, then, almost two, and he’d accomplished nothing. He didn’t know anything about his god, except that it was beating him. “Which is it?” he shouted. “What is its name?”
Lord Smyth said, “We don’t choose gods for the Sundering, Gotchimus. It is the gods who choose their hosts.”
Next to speak was the eldest woman at the table, sharp-eyed beneath her gold and black gable hood. “I won the last Sundering Game, fifty years ago,” she said. “And I brought the Smyths under this roof. The fiend that sought to best me? Well, I can tell you that it wasn’t around long enough for me to learn its name.”
Careful chuckles, then, and a few sheepishly approving mutters of Auntie Zuk, oh, Auntie Zuk.
Gotchimus turned and left the room. The laughter resumed before he’d closed the door behind him.
He paced the length of his bedchamber. He’d been wrong about Dymphna. She hadn’t brought those demon’s wings with her to the House; they belonged to the god that had chosen her for the Game. If her mind was strong—and Gotchimus suspected it was stronger than witch-steel—then she might soon drive out her enemy and win.
And what about Fulvous Bascombe? Gotchimus had dismissed the banker’s attempt to bribe him as a sign of desperation. Now he wasn’t sure. Maybe Bascombe had a plan.
Gotchimus had no plan, no idea what manner of thing was destroying him from within. He felt at once hot and cold, and the sickness in his gut rolled as worms roll in muck. Finally he could no longer keep hold of his thoughts, not even the dire ones.
Hush now, little savage, Gray whispered to him. You’ve had a tough day, and you need your rest.
For once the wizard was right. Gotchimus undressed and crawled into bed, keeping his bare sword beside him. But all that came were dry, hollow visions that cracked and slid between him and the sleep he craved.
Was it one of those visions that caused him to stir in the night, to grab his sword and sit up in bed? No, this vision was real. Someone was in his room, creeping over the floorboards with a shuttered lantern. He readied himself to spring, then saw a face in the light, Vespertine’s.
How long, now, since she’d been calling him by that name? His sword tip was at her breast. She moved closer, found the blade with her hand, and pushed it aside.
“I knew you before you came here,” she said. “I remember you from places I’ve dreamed. Strange parties, games of cards, wine, bright fires in small places.”
“Those weren’t dreams,” he said.
She sat beside him on the bed. “I am meant to tap at piano keys, and recite poetry or paint pretty scenes, and say witty things if it comes to that. But I have never been that creature, not more than an inch under my skin.”
“I know,” he said.
“There are things about me that nobody knows,” she said. “I was six or seven when I caught a fever that almost killed me. I lived, but it gave me a vision that others don’t seem to have. I don’t like you very much, Gotchimus”—here he felt a pang that surprised and unsteadied him—”but I know that you and I are connected. You see that much, don’t you?”
He did see it, even without help from the wizard. The sickness was gone from him when he was with her, and it was worse each time she went away.
“I want to leave this place,” she said. “I’ve heard about your adventures with—I don’t know what to call her, him. Dora? Theo? But you think I could never keep up with you. That I wouldn’t survive a day out there.”
“I think you’d do better out there than I’m doing in here,” he said.
She extinguished the lantern and set it on the floor, then curled up between him and his sword. The silk of her nightgown rustled against the sheets. “What would your companion think of this?” she asked.
Theo might be a little jealous, he thought. Dora would laugh, if she noticed at all. And Theo and Dora both had their other men, other women. But Gotchimus didn’t know how to explain all this, so he put his arms around her instead.
And sank, as though through a hole in the ground, into something like sleep but deeper, and at the bottom it was just the two of them, and not even Gray could follow them there, not even memory could follow.
The sun was up when she shook him awake. He looked at her lips and tried to remember if he’d kissed them. She wore her nightgown—had it been off in the night? He remembered only that her eyes had been close to his, that they’d shone like gold in the moonlight.
“Gotch,” she said. “Gotch, I tried to leave.”
He blinked, found his eyepatch under his pillow, slipped it on. Vespertine stood over him, close to the bed.
“What’s stopping you?” he asked.
She said nothing, only bit her lip and looked worried. She didn’t want anyone to see her depart, of course, but hadn’t she come through a secret way? Yes, a narrow opening in the wall beside the bureau revealed a flight of steeply ascending stairs. He stood and dressed hurriedly, went with his sword to examine the passage.
“It looks clear,” he said.
That didn’t seem to assure her, but she took a deep breath and nodded. She made it no farther than the third step when Gotchimus felt his throat constrict and his knees buckle.
“Wait,” he said, almost choking.
She returned to him, her hand at her neck. “You feel it, too.”
He nodded, gulping air. It was worse than before. The thought of her leaving, even for a moment, was like death to him.
“Try to wait here,” he told her. He opened the other door, the one that wasn’t a secret, and stepped into the hall. His hand trembled on the doorknob, and he couldn’t bring himself to pull the door closed. When he returned, he saw Vespertine release the breath she’d been holding.
“Together, then,” he said.
They took the secret way. It wouldn’t do for them to be seen like this, she still in her nightgown, he disheveled and unshaven. They didn’t talk about what was happening to them, but he had some ideas. A curse of some kind, a side effect of the Game, of the god he carried like a disease. And now Vespertine was caught in its snares.
Then he recalled the day he first felt its peculiar tug, the yoke which had since tightened into a noose. “The trapdoor in the drawing room,” he said. “Where does it lead?”
“I don’t go down there,” Vespertine said.
Her father’s rules, Gotchimus thought, rising automatically to her lips. He took her arm in his hand. “What if I have to go down there? What if that’s how I complete the sundering?”
She shook her head. “All you’ll find are the dust and bones of our ancestors. Your god wouldn’t lurk there, among the godless dead.”
“I’m going,” he said, and turned back toward his bedchamber. His legs shook as he walked, his throat began to close. He had to hope she would follow him, and she did: he heard her footsteps, felt his lungs work again.
“Stop,” she said. “We’ll go another way.”
They kept to the corridors between corridors, the stairs beneath the stairs, the shadowy spaces on the other side of walls and paintings, cupboards and mirrors. Light shone in through the cracks, and Gotchimus thought, or maybe Gray said, The world out there is a dream; it’s the places between that are real.
They emerged from a crawlspace into the empty drawing room. Vespertine relit her lamp; he drew his sword and opened the trapdoor. Stone steps twisted down into the dark.
“It’s bad luck, what we’re doing,” she said.
“I thought the Derbys weren’t a superstitious lot.”
“We’re as superstitious as they come,” she said. “That’s why we’re still alive.”
They descended. Gotchimus filled his lungs with the musty air, and the smell invigorated him. How long since he’d plunged into a subterranean lair? Into a haunted catacomb?
At the bottom of the stairs, they came to an arched passageway, skulls staring from niches in the walls. Vespertine shivered in her thin silk. He removed his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
“Most of the city cemeteries are associated with one temple or another,” she explained as they walked. “Even thought the temples are stripped of their old powers, it wouldn’t do to entrust our dead to them.”
She sounded calmer as she walked beside him past great iron doors inscribed with the crests of the House families, many of which had died out long ago. From someplace deeper in the catacombs came the weird noise they’d heard days before. The sound had taken on a whispery quality, an almost-voice bubbling beneath the not-laughter. The barbarian jogged along, Vespertine keeping pace, until they arrived at the vault of the Derbys.
“My father says he used to find me down here, asleep beside my mother’s tomb. He said that was what made me ill, and forbade me to return.”
She ran her fingers over the crow on the door, part of her family’s crest. Then she set down her lantern, grabbed the door’s edge with both hands, and pulled. “Help me, will you?”
Gotchimus crouched beside her to help, groaning with effort as the door slid open. The chamber was large, as large as any room the barbarian had seen in the house above. Members of the Derby family had been living and dying for a long time. He and Vespertine went together among the crypts, drawing closer to the source of the noise, and came at last to a row of three sarcophagi.
“Father had them carved after my mother died giving birth to me,” she said. “A stone box for each of us.”
The noise was coming from within the one reserved for Vespertine. Gotchimus knelt and heaved against the lid; she raised her lamp. There were bones inside the sarcophagus. They were very small, the bones of a child, and they lay in a rotted blue dress.
“I need to speak with my father,” she said.
On the stairs she shrugged off the barbarian’s jacket and returned it to him. Her eyes glowed in the lantern light as she spoke. They would go directly to her father’s study, catch him before he left for his late-morning stroll. She would have the truth from him, she said, or he would lose her forever.
But back upstairs, they heard screaming. The screaming came from the next wing, from the gardens outside, from the kitchens below. It came from the secret passages, from the very bones of the house.
Gotchimus followed Vespertine out of the drawing room, past fleeing servants and family members. No one would stop long enough to tell them what had happened. Lord Derby was nowhere to be seen. They went upstairs for a better view of the grounds, and found themselves in the room that housed the painting of General Alban Moog, along with his sword, his brandy, and his ashes.
Vespertine pointed down into the rose garden and said, “There.”
A rosebush shook as two thick gray hands appeared from within its tangles. The hands grabbed stalks and shoved them—thorns, blossoms, and all—into a great open mouth. The thing was short and thick about the middle, with flat, heavy-looking feet. Its nostrils flared as it ate.
The creature wasn’t alone. Another tore apart a trellis and shoved splinters of wood into its gullet. Another climbed a tree to eat a bird’s nest and the eggs within. One chased a gardener as he ran from his shed. Others crashed through first floor windows and doors of the house.
Gotchimus knew the name of the god from the books he’d studied. “Vorax the Devourer,” he said. “He has a thousand bellies, and none of them are ever filled.”
“So more will come?”
He pointed to the travertine temple, where a dozen of the creatures had just emerged from between the columns.
Vespertine said, “That is where Rosefrost Derby, in her forty-fifth year, broke the spine of the gods. The original Sundering. How dare these wretches sully our grounds.”
The barbarian took Alban Moog’s sword down from the wall and offered it to Vespertine. She looked, for a moment, like she might laugh.
“You’re going to have to come with me,” he said, “so you should be armed.”
More screaming rose up from below, accompanied by the crash of broken glass. Vespertine took the sword.
Next Gotchimus lifted the urn containing Alban Moog’s ashes over his head, and smashed it against the floor. Over the ashes he poured the brandy, forming a puddle of gray mud. He coated his fingers with the stuff and raised his hands to Vespertine’s face.
She flinched, then seemed to understand, and held still while Gotchimus traced lines of ash and spirits over her cheeks and brow. Warpaint. When he was finished, she decorated his face in turn, then stepped back to inspect her work.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“You look like one of us,” she said.
Outside the door, an enormous set of jaws stood open and waiting. Gotchimus drove his sword through the roof of the thing’s mouth and shoved it backward down the hall. When he reached the first flight of stairs, he withdrew his blade and stabbed again. The thing belched once and fell slumped at his feet.
Downstairs and out a back door into the gardens, Gotchimus cleared a path through the gathering Bellies of Vorax. When he swung his blade and split them open, they spilled the stuff they’d eaten onto the ground: shrubs, clods of earth, wine bottles, table linens, antique vases, someone’s hand.
Vespertine kept close, and other members of the family, some of them armed now, joined them. Were they shocked or rallied by the way the barbarian laughed as he slashed the thick flesh of the god-things? And what to make of Lord Derby’s daughter, nightgown swishing as she swung the hoary blade of the Moogs? They had no time to gossip, no time to disapprove, because here were more of the monsters, just-born and ravenous. Vespertine shouted as one of them snapped at her ankles.
“They’re as stupid as they are hungry,” Gotchimus told her. “Just keep the point of your blade between you and their—”
Eyes, he was going to say, but one had sneaked close enough to snatch his right arm in its jaws. Its teeth gripped like those of a bear trap. Before he could fight back, before he could even holler, its eyes fluttered closed, its jaws opened, and it fell.
Aunt Zuk of the Smyths was beside him, her expression grim beneath the edifice of her black gable hood. With an antique blade, prodigious in size, she’d stabbed the thing through its middle.
“Well?” she said to the barbarian. “Go and sunder something already.”
The air was cool inside the temple. Gotchimus strode directly across the cella, blood dripping from the bloodstained tatters of his shirtsleeve. Vespertine walked backward, keeping her eyes on the door.
Beside the reflecting pool, the banker Fulvous Bascombe sat amidst heaping platters of food: sandwiches, tarts, meat pies, puddings. He grabbed and ate by the handful, hardly chewing. When he saw the barbarian, he waved with one hand while he pushed bread into his mouth with the other.
Bascombe’s jacket was open, his shirt unbuttoned. The flesh of his abdomen, distended and pale, was creased with an unpleasant grin. Bascombe shuddered as the grin deepened, and a bulbous second body wriggled free from his own. Gotchimus gritted his teeth as he watched a new Belly of Vorax birth itself flopping onto the stones.
It rose hungry and came toward him hissing. He brought his blade down hard on the dome of its skull, felt it crumple. He kicked the corpse aside.
“Maybe you’ve had enough,” Gotchimus said to Bascombe.
“Help yourself, there’s plenty,” he replied, holding up a bowl of porridge.
Another Belly entered from the gardens, bearing a roast chicken in aspic. It must have come via a back way from the kitchens. Vespertine kicked the platter from its hands. The wobbling jelly burst and the chicken slid wetly over the floor.
Furious, the Belly leapt at her, and she cut it down with one stroke. She yelped to see what she’d done, and the gold flecks in her eyes sparkled.
Gotchimus seized the banker by the collar and dragged him to the far side of the temple. Bascombe wept as Gotchimus held him pinned against the wall. Wept and shook, then flailed as some new manner of beast yanked itself rough from his paunch. Here at last was Vorax himself, leaner and taller than his Bellies, red in hue, the hunger in his eyes matched by a gleam of intelligence.
He could speak, too, and he knew the barbarian’s name. He savored each syllable as he spoke them, as though Gotchimus were a dish he’d looked forward to sampling.
Through the door poured the army of Bellies, flat feet smacking stone. Vespertine, thrown to the floor, shouted for Gotchimus, but he was quickly surrounded. He pivoted, swinging whenever one of the monsters came close, and the floor was soon slick with innards and cluttered with their recent meals, with strips of carpet, with clock parts, with doorknobs and newspapers and cutlery.
He bellowed as he fought, but more and still more of Vorax’s Bellies poured into the cella, climbing the bodies of the fallen to reach him. Finally the barbarian’s limbs tired, and one set of jaws fastened on his left leg, one on his right. He stabbed the nearest dead, but another quickly replaced it, sending fresh jolts of pain through his body. His left shoulder was taken by a third set of jaws, and a fourth got his right arm. He dropped his sword, barely stifling a cry as he fell.
Vorax came forward now. He swept his gaze over the barbarian’s body, a connoisseur trying to decide which cut to sample first. His mouth was smaller than those of his minions, but that would only mean more bites before he finished.
The god was distracted from his prize by a roar that sounded from near the reflecting pool. The air crackled as Vespertine Derby charged, the sword of Alban Moog burning bright in her hands. She cut a swath through the Bellies of Vorax; they were helpless and blind in its golden light.
The sword? No, that was only old steel. It was Vespertine—or something in the shape of Vespertine—who brought this new carnage. The barbarian’s captors released him and fled. Vespertine caught them up in her dance, and they fell with jaws open. The last soon lay at her feet.
Vorax the Devourer, starving without his stomachs to sustain him, cowered as Gotchimus took up his sword and limped toward him. The barbarian fed him his blade. That single blow and Vorax was slain: with some gods, that’s just how it was.
Into the temple now came a dozen members of various houses, Smyths and Ladues, Whittens and Grobs, Sequeiras and Scheufeles, and Lord Derby himself. They saw the ruined food, the chewed and broken things. They saw the flesh the god had borrowed. They saw Vespertine Derby, a golden glow in the air she exhaled, the sword in her hands shining through the ichor.
Fulvous Bascombe rose shakily to his feet. He looked pale but not unhappy as he buttoned his shirt. “It’s gone from me,” he said. “I’ve won.”
The first competitor sundered from his adversary, that was the rule, and it did not explicitly state that the competitor must do the dirty work himself to claim victory. The heads of several families had retired to a tower meeting room to discuss the matter.
“Why do yourself what you can have another do for you?” Bascombe said to them, and the lords of Derby nodded. It was a sentiment they could appreciate.
The banker was happy to explain how he had engineered it. How he’d set up a meeting between his god and Dymphna’s, to see if they might find a way to work together. Dymphna’s god promised Vorax the flesh of the barbarian, and even brought Bascombe the first platters of food that morning, to prepare for his arrival on the material plane.
As for the smoke-winged god inhabiting her? What did it stand to gain from all the chaos?
“The distraction it needed to escape the grounds of Derby,” said Merlie Smyth. “No one has seen her since this morning, when the kitchen staff fled in terror at the sight of her wings.”
“So Dymphna is disqualified,” Gotchimus said, his face still smeared with brandy and ashes.
“Certainly,” Lord Derby snapped. “More troubling, we have set some duplicitous godling loose upon the world.”
The others spoke up, trying to guess the deity’s identity—not out of concern, it seemed to the barbarian, but sickly thrilled by the possibilities, all of them calamitous. To judge from their grins, they must have expected or even hoped for such mayhem over the course of the Sundering Game. “Worse things have happened in previous years,” said one of the Whittens, and he sounded a little disappointed.
No lives were lost in the battle against the Devourer, though a few hands, arms, and legs were reported missing. All agreed that if Bascombe’s ploy had resulted in the death of even one member of the House—or in the deaths of servants enough as to seem indecorous—he would be turned over to the constabulary. As matters stood, however, he was sundered from his god, and so had won the Game. The Bascombe family would be admitted into the House.
To Gotchimus, Bascombe said, “I hope I don’t seem ungrateful. I needed to force your hand, but I never thought for a moment that old Vorax could get the best of you.”
Lord Derby said, “Yet the barbarian is still blighted, is he not, by the thing that has so addled and vexed him? Can you not drive it off, Gotchimus, as you drove off Bascombe’s?”
“I must defer to your daughter on that point,” he replied.
She had seated herself apart from the others, on a little bench overlooking the long drive that led down to the broad avenue between the halls of governance. Everyone had avoided speaking with her since the events of that day. Some had witnessed her preternatural skill with the blade, and many saw something else, something changed about her. A few even shuffled back as she rose and approached them.
“Father,” she said, “I would like to know my name.”
Gaius Derby went pale, but his voice was stout enough as he said, “You are my daughter Vespertine Derby, heiress to the principal seat of House Derby—”
“Vespertine Derby does not know how to wield a sword,” she interrupted. “Vespertine Derby sings very prettily, and her needlework is passable. But Vespertine Derby is no warrior, no destroyer of gods. I am both those things, and I have been both those things for a very long time, I think.”
Lord Derby said nothing, so she turned to Gotchimus and said, “You put that sword in my hand. You knew what would happen, somehow.”
“I don’t know your true name,” he said. “But I believe that you are that which I was supposed to have driven out.”
To the others present, Gotchimus made the breadth of their discovery known, and made his accusation plain. The real Vespertine, he said, did not survive the illness she had suffered as a child. Gaius Derby, rather than see his line end, must have made a deal with some local warlock to capture a god and bind it in the shape of his daughter. At the start of the Sundering Game, that god had unconsciously chosen one of the participants as its host. It had chosen Gotchimus.
As for the real Vespertine, her bones lay in a crypt under the drawing room, a secret Gaius had kept from the other lords of the house and, more importantly, from the being that posed unwittingly as his daughter. For her, he had decorated the halls at solstice time, and hired a piano tutor, and guarded against the things that might distress her, or make her long for something more than what a human life, however lordly, might provide.
When Gaius did not bother to deny the story, Merlie Smyth said to him, “We are bound by the rules of your own house, Lord Derby. No demons may dwell here, no gods. You are exiled from these halls forever.”
No vote was called, and no one said anything to agree or to disagree. But when Vespertine requested some time alone with the man she still called Father, no one protested.
The Derbys retired to their rooms, and the others dispersed in a funereal hush. Gotchimus accepted a cigar from Bascombe, but went alone to a balcony at the rear of the house to smoke it. He realized then that he and Vespertine were sundered. Once she’d understood what she was, she must have withdrawn herself from him. He missed the feel of her, that tug at the back of his brain. But the barbarian was never alone, not really.
“Just a glimpse with my own eye,” the wizard Gray said to him, “and I could have told you everything.”
“Couldn’t you have told me anyway?” the barbarian said. “Which wizard was it, I wonder, who made that deal with Gaius all those years ago? Who was powerful enough to trap a god and make it forget its name?”
“I am not at liberty to say.”
But the barbarian could see a little into Gray’s heart, too, even though it was a wizard’s heart, and a ghost’s heart besides, and almost five years rotted to dust.
The House solicitor, perfect smile gleaming, came for him on the balcony. He shook his head at the sight of the demolished gardens, then told the barbarian that his presence was requested in Gaius’s study.
There, Vespertine explained their plan while old Derby sat slumped in his chair. “We are leaving together,” she said. “The both of us, before sunrise. My bonds are loosened a little already, and I suspect that some travel will loosen them further. Better that I am elsewhere when they fall away completely.”
Gaius seemed a waxen figure of himself. He blinked and let Vespertine do the talking.
“I’ve decided to let him live out his remaining days,” she said. “And he has agreed to my plan regarding the house and his family line.”
The solicitor presented the documents. The ink was fresh, and there were three copies. Gotchimus knew the words, but he didn’t understand what the heap of them signified.
“He’s turning it over to you,” Vespertine said. “His house, his goods and chattel. His name, too, and all rights and responsibilities it entails, if you’ll have them.”
The solicitor produced two quills, set out an ink pot and blotter. Gotchimus considered. Could he claim this name for himself, or would the name claim him? He knew these contracts to be the strangest of spells—the edge of a sword did not always cleave them. But after Derby signed his frail scratch, Gotchimus added his solitary G.
Vespertine saw him to the door. “And if you and I meet again outside these halls, barbarian, will it be as it was between you and the Devourer?”
He wanted to say something about how it was between himself and all the gods, how it would always be. But she was some power far greater than Vorax, and besides, when he thought of how the light had shone through the oak leaves to touch her skin in the drawing room that day, he found he couldn’t say anything at all.
Lord Gotchimus Derby had his office, then, and his signet ring, and a pile of paperwork more cruel than any monstrous horde. He oversaw the disposal of the god corpses, the repairs to the house and the grounds. He forwarded the bills to Fulvous Bascombe, and Bascombe paid them cheerily. “Happy neighbors are good neighbors,” he said to Gotchimus when they passed each other on the stairs one afternoon.
There were matters of state that required the barbarian’s attention, and guests at most every dinner. He bore it all quietly. The lords and ladies of House Derby were fearful of his hushed ways, and this suited him.
Early in the fall, he gave word to a few of the families that he was traveling on House business. No one questioned him. He packed his tent into his old rucksack, and walked alone down the long drive to the gatehouse.
A carriage drawn by two black horses approached the curb. The cloaked driver prepared to climb down, but Gotchimus waved at him and opened the door himself.
Martya was on the seat at the front, talons gripped tight to her perch—the falcon disliked carriage rides. Gotchimus pulled himself up to sit beside Theodora. It was Theo who clasped the barbarian in his arms, but Dora, probably, who said, “So what’s this thing’s name?”
“Unpronounceable to mortals, but my people called her Vaundri, the Smoke Raptor, and she was known in the east as Vesrahe, Who Drinks the Breath, and by the tribes she enslaved in the ancient world as Golol-Vesruma, which means nothing at all. We’ll just call her Dymphna.”
The carriage took them north through the city to the edge of the moors, and left them at the door of the Seven Wastrels. Here they would eat and drink and share a bed, and in the morning proceed on foot over the winding Boneway to the Forlorn Hills, then deep into the wilds beyond, where dreams walked untethered from the wretches who dreamed them, and the rocks still remembered how the world began.
Gotchimus lifted his eyepatch and gazed with sorcerous sight into the sky. He saw the path their quarry had taken when she fled his house, saw her mark on the wind as a script he could almost read. It hinted at Dymphna’s plan for him and for the rest of creation, and it didn’t look good.
Martya stretched her wings in the breeze.
“I hope the others know that you may be gone for a while,” Theodora said. “Dymphna may be their misdoing, but she isn’t the only monster in the world.”
The barbarian replaced the eyepatch and hefted his pack. “Thank the gods for that,” he said.
Jedediah Berry’s first novel, The Manual of Detection, won the Crawford Award and the Hammett Prize, and a BBC Radio adaptation of the book premiered in early 2013. His short stories have appeared in journals including Conjunctions, Unstuck, and Fairy Tale Review. He lives in Western Massachusetts and serves as a Roaming Editor for Small Beer Press.