I mentioned in a previous post that I’m doing Nanowrimo this year. Not mentioned was what I’m working on: a novel called “Top to Bottom”. While not a direct sequel, it is set in the same world — and where Deep was a pair of novellas, Top to Bottom is a proper full-length novel.
It’s going to take considerably longer to write, obviously, so my current ill-formed plan is to write the first draft in four large chunks — between each of which, I will be stepping away to write additional novellas which continue the story of Deep Sounding. Hopefully I should have the first draft of Top to Bottom done by April or May, and in that time will also have put out at least one or two additional novellas in the Deep Sounding series.
It’s a hopelessly ambitious plan and probably a terrible idea, but hey, go big or go home.
For those of you who are interested, here’s a (long) sample from Top to Bottom. Bear in mind that it’s an old-school adventure novel, so stylistically, the prose is quite a bit different from Deep Sounding — most definitely slower, but hopefully a little richer. (If you’ve ever read Jules Verne or H. Rider Haggard, you’ll feel right at home.)
Bear in mind as well that this is prose hot off the presses. It’s rough, raw, and subject to change. If you’re not a fan of seeing how sausage is made, this post may not be for you.
But if you’ve got the guts, then I’ve got the sausage!
Wherein a meeting of the minds is called to embark upon an inquiry of some importance,
the mysterious Finheim Phug puts forth an extraordinary claim,
and both are put to the test.
In the Ringing of Our Empire Seventeen Hundred and Twelve, in the Borough of Gauldron, there lived a dwarf by the name of Finheim Phug. He was a quiet and reclusive dwarf, of whom few knew little, and most knew even less. He wore his beard like a paintbrush, with every hair oiled neatly to a single point, and he was never seen out of doors in a lesser state. He never went nude, as many Gauldroners often do, and he never wore the same set of clothes more than three days in a row.
These facts—or rather, non-facts, for they only spoke with certainty of things Finheim Phug did not do—might have seemed trivial, and lacking in empirical rigor. But they were the only facts known by most dwarfs who knew him, and Phug himself was not the man from whom to beg elucidation.
No one knew, either, what it was that Phug did for a living. Most assumed him to be a “wizard”, as Gauldroners referred in those days to dwarfs whose work involved numbers, books, upper management, or other such transubstantiations of labor and profit. But if this were the case, then no one knew what his work entailed, for no records of tax were ever sent to his burrow. No Union Chiefs or Bosses were ever seen coming or going, and no dugmaster ever paid him a visit. Many thought Phug himself might be the dugmaster of Gauldron, for in those days, at least, the identity of a borough’s dugmaster was a closely-kept secret.
But there were many such exotic explanations for the man, and none was more substantial than the other. So Finheim Phug was thought a widower, a veteran, an exile’s child, a gangster, and a secret ambassador from a faraway mountain, all at once. And a spy: that was one of the most popular.
Indeed, a day’s work of reconnaissance might have settled the matter quite neatly; a child, say, posted outside of Phug’s burrow-door.
But Phug’s burrow was situated in a far-away tunnel, off a little-used corridor, many miles from the main spiral of Gauldron. He had no neighbors and no friends, and nobody seemed to know him, excepting for the Mint Chief, who dealt Phug his meager weekly salary of eighty-nine-and-a-quarter loans, and the grocer’s boy, who took Phug his apportioned meals once each week.
Phug went out only rarely, and then only at the ringing of the evening-bells. On these occasions, he would fold a gray cloak around himself, as though he were a militia captain (and to be sure, this cloak was used as evidence to support that theory) and he would venture no cause so bold as a walk down to the Duggery Pub, on the nineteenth level of the northwest junction.
There he would assume his usual place, at a table to one corner, and drink three jars of spiced Salheit kombucha, every evening. He spoke to no one, and raised no sign of his presence, and so the patrons of the Duggery had long since learned to ignore him, carrying on with their spirited debates and bawdy anecdotes as though the table in the corner were empty, and no mysterious dwarf with an unaccounted past and a gray militia-cloak were sitting there dropping the eaves.
It was during one such of these exchanges on a particular evening, eleven weeks before the ringing of Deepsound, that Finheim Phug was heard to make himself known in public—to draw attention to himself, to speak, indeed to argue quite passionately—for the first time that anybody could recall.
– – – – –
The exchange was between messers Lehigh and Burke, of the Jewelers’ Union. The question upon the table was this: how long might it take a man who leapt or was pushed from the summit of Mount Gulder to reach the depth of The Terminus? That is, how long would it take to fall from the Top of the world to the Bottom?
Lehigh was stubborn. “Ten hours,” he said, though he would offer no explanation of how he had reached the figure. “It’s ten hours!” he said, pounding the table. “If you think it’s any less, you’re a fool!”
Mr. Burke, for his part, was even stubborner. “Oh I know it’s not less,” he said, “I know that very well. What I’m saying is, it’s more. Why, I think it should take a man no less than TEN DAYS, to fall from the Top of the world to the Bottom.” At the pounding of Lehigh’s fist upon the table, Burke insisted: “It’s YOU who’s the fool!”
Their voices raised louder and more angrily until the old barman, Kurt Rogger, joined in. He suggested a compromise: why not just a few days? Say, four or five? This satisfied neither man. Lehigh called Rogger a weak-kneed coward, and Burke questioned Rogger’s soundness of mind. Thus Rogger, too, was soon shouting out his opinion on the matter, and banging a jar of potato vodka on the bar in frustration.
In less time than Lehigh had asserted it would take a man to fall, the whole bar had joined into the argument — an impromptu summit of the sharpest minds in Gauldron, and indeed the whole of the empire (or at least they thought themselves as much).
Some said the fall would take hours; others, weeks. One man put forth that it might only take a few minutes, and at any rate probably depended on what you were wearing. He was politely escorted out, for he was too drunk to find the door on his own.
“Now see here,” said Burke, when the summit’s session had reached its fiercest point, “it takes 18 months at the least, just to walk from the Top to the Bottom! Leave alone the return journey! Do you really suppose you could fall fast enough to match 18 months of walking in ten minutes?”
“That number’s too high,” Lehigh admitted.
Cheers went up, and Burke was toasted for his victory.
“Hang on!” Lehigh cried, for he was deaf in one ear. “What’s all this toasting about?”
“You’ve just admitted that I was correct,” said Burke, puzzled.
Lehigh balked, “Sir, I’ve done no such thing!”
This set off a new round of argument among the members of the summit, and the minutes were read back to Mr. Lehigh, or would have been, except no one had been keeping the minutes. So after some time and a majority vote it was concluded that Lehigh had not, in fact, conceded victory, and the matter was reopened.
An investigative sub-committee was called, and the conclusion they drew was that the statement had come from behind Mr. Lehigh. The statement had come from the corner table.
It was Finheim Phug who had spoken.
“What do you mean, Phug?” asked old Rogger.
Phug said simply this:
“Mr. Burke said that it must take a man 18 months at the minimum, to walk from the top of Mount Gulder to The Terminus. I’ve heard this figure before, or rounded to a neater number: “five hundred and fifty-five days,” they like to say. Well, that number is incorrect, by my reckoning. It’s too high, I should think, by as much as one-fifth.”
Lehigh scoffed. Firstly because he hadn’t heard Phug due to the deafness, secondly because he was no lover of maths and so the numbers washed over him, and finally, upon Phug’s repeating the claim, at the thing in itself. “How do you reckon that?” he demanded, and banged his fist on the table. “And what do you mean?”
“I assert,” said Phug, and set aside his untouched drink, “that a man might journey from the Top of our world to the Bottom, and back again, in no more than 444 days.”
This drew sounds of shock, alarm, and dismay. The members of the summit called a recess, to reorient their tables and chairs, and array themselves facing the table of Finheim Phug — who now squared off against Lehigh and Burke, two-to-one.
Burke lay a hand on Lehigh’s shoulder, showing him off like a piece of furniture. “My dear friend Lehigh,” said he, “fought in the Palletine civil war. A minuteman for Silvermount, Mr. Lehigh, and he fought on the shores of the Lesser Sky, almost a year’s march below Silvermount. And you mean to tell me you honestly believe that you could walk from Top to Bottom in little more than a year and two months?”
Mr. Phug steepled his hands on the table, and said, “I do sir.”
Now Lehigh put a hand on Burke’s shoulder. “My chum here fought in that war as well. A minuteman for Whitemount, our man Burke, who did wage war in those low abyssal wastes beneath the Lesser Sky. Abysses so great, mind, that a man can’t even see the opposite walls of a canyon he’s in, they’re so far away. He fought down there, and it took him almost a year and a half to march home. And you still say you could walk all that and more, in 444?”
Mr. Phug said, “I do.”
He was given the floor of the summit, and asked to make his case.
Finheim Phug said, “It is my firm belief, and I hold it to be self-evident, that the net-workings of dwarfdom, the advancement of its sciences, and the breadth of its technical achievements are such that an average dwarf, of no-greater-than-average means, could make the trip on these advantages alone.”
“Aha!” said old Rogger. “There it is. Phug’s got some secret route, I’ll wager.”
The summit agreed, that must be the case.
But no, said Phug, that was mistaken.
“I speak only of the Average Walking Pace,” said Phug, “which any man might learn by asking the residents of a mountain how long from here to the next point along the journey. When added all together, and I have done the maths, they should only come to 444.”
“But what of cave-ins?” asked Lehigh.
“And mudslides?” asked Burke.
“What if the weather should change?”
“What if a war should break out?”
“What of earthquakes?”
“Exiles turned bandits?”
“What if you should come down with a cold?!” Lehigh barked, and banged his fist upon the table. There was much hum-humming among the members of the summit. “So that’s it then, eh Phug? You’re just a naïve old middle-age-d fool who has never even left his burrow-hole! Don’t you know the average walking pace is not to be relied-upon? Don’t you know that any manner of obstacles may arise upon the road?”
“I cannot speak to the obstacles,” said Phug, “nor to the talents of other men, only to what I know myself to be capable of.”
Burke dared him, “So go and do it, if you’re so damnably sure of its ease.”
But Phug merely shrugged, in a mild sort of way. “What reason would I have? I have a comfortable life, a nice home, a good drink. Why should a reasonable gentle-dwarf endeavor to leave his burrow-home?”
“Would you do it,” asked Burke, “upon a wager?”
“No,” said Finheim Phug, and rose to his feet. “No sir, I would not.” Then swirling his cloak about himself, he left the Duggery Pub.
– – – – –
But Lehigh and Burke weren’t ready to let the matter rest so easily.
“See now Mr. Lehigh,” said Burke the next day, in Lehigh’s workshop, leaning conspiratorially over the other man’s sparking lathe and shielding his own eyes, “this old fool Phug, he thinks himself above us – well look at how he goes and gets drunk and tells a boast, the same as any other man!”
“Damn drunkard,” Lehigh agreed, pausing and lifting his goggles to scratch his cheek. “Though he hides it quite well. I didn’t see him take a sip, the whole time we were talking.”
“He’s gone home with his beard between his feet, I’ll wager.” Burke said. “He supposes we’ve forgotten his little boast. Well I say we don’t let him forget. Let’s you and I bring old Finheim Phug down a peg, shall we?”
Lehigh nodded over his work, and agreed that that sounded like a splendid idea.
– – – – –
So when Lehigh’s shift had ended, and before Burke’s had yet to begin, the two of them made their way down to the Duschtekka grounds, where the Gauldron varsity team—the Pot-Bellies—was making unofficial scrimmage against the visiting Whitemount Wights.
The members of the Pot-Bellies wouldn’t speak to Mr. Lehigh (for he had once sold the coach’s wife a pair of earrings which had turned her earlobes green) and so the pair of rascally jewelers pulled aside a member of the Wights instead — a fellow named Danton, who was apparently the team’s captain.
“Four hundred forty-four?” he scoffed, when they had asked him what he thought of Phug’s proposal. “Well I don’t know the fellow, but he must be tougher than me. Top to bottom in 444 days? Can’t be done.”
Lehigh and Burke cheered to hear this verdict and, quite pleased with themselves, parted for the day.
– – – – –
That evening, they returned in tandem to the Duggery Pub where, as was his custom, Mr. Finheim Phug walked in at the ringing of the evening bells, sat down at the table in the corner, and ordered his usual.
Phug had only just taken his very first sip of freshly-tapped Salheit kombucha when Lehigh burst forth from the shadows, and clapped the old dwarf on the back.
“Mr. Phug, you old braggart!” Lehigh cried, and sat down. Mr. Burke stood, arms crossed, behind him.
Phug sputtered, quite offended, wiping the boocha from his beard. “Is there something I can help you gentlemen with?”
“Why,” said Lehigh, and folded his hands behind his head, “Mr. Burke and I were just discussing you. Do you remember our conversation last night?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Phug. “You were talking about the corns upon your feet, and how they smelt terribly, such that—”
Lehigh flushed. “Not MINE AND LEHIGH’S!” he snapped. “Yours and ours! Do you remember your boast?”
Phug said rather dryly that he remembered making no boast. When the claim was laid explicitly before him, he corrected them that it was no boast, but a statement of fact, and he still stood by it.
This threw off messers Lehigh and Burke, who had expected Phug to be recalcitrant in his prior bravado. “Well,” said Lehigh, dropping his arms and fidgeting uncomfortably, “well, well, Mr. Burke and I have gone to see a Duschtekka man today. The captain for the Whitemount Wights — a huge man, and handsome, with arms like an anvil. Do you know what he told us? Eh? Phug? Do you know what he said?”
Phug said that he hadn’t the foggiest.
“He told us your claim was absurd.” said Burke. “He said, and these were his words, that it ‘could not be done’.”
“Can not.” Mr. Phug corrected.
“He said, I suppose, that ‘it can not be done,’ unless you traveled through time, and were speaking to him in the past participle.”
Lehigh goggled. Then he banged his fist upon the table.
Phug said, “And even then, I should guess, he meant that it could not be done by him. And why should it? The Whitemount Wights have never won a single game. You choose their captain as a pinnacle of athleticism?”
Lehigh jumped to his feet so quickly that his chair shot backwards, toppling Mr. Burke to the floor, and raised his fist above his head. Whether he did so in order to next bang the table again, or to strike Mr. Phug dead where he sat, it will never be known — for the very next second, Mr. Burke, sprawling on the floor, swore a revenge-word and kicked Mr. Lehigh in the back of his right knee. Lehigh went down with a squawk, and then the two had set to fighting on the floor.
Mr. Phug finished his drink, rose, and left the pub.
– – – – –
It should be noted, perhaps, that no real dwarf is very genteel, and scrapping on the floor of a pub is perhaps closer to their natural state than all this sir-ing and why-I-never. This putting-on of airs by Gauldroners has long been a source of some inquiry: from their pretentious speech, to their puffed-up style of carrying themselves, to their overlong prose, so full of lists and run-on sentences. It might be speculated that, in living in the largest and the grandest mountain in all of dwarfdom, with the greatest population, the greatest of technological advancements, the finest system of justice, of art, of literature—and yes, the most talented of storytellers, I should hazard—the Gauldroners thought themselves better than the dwarfs of the rest of the world, and perhaps they were right; though probably, they were just arrogant.
At any rate, it may certainly be considered a statement of fact that in those days there were no dwarfs in Gauldron in whom this desire for respectability was more keenly felt than our pair of bumbling jewelers Mr. Lehigh and Mr. Burke, excepting maybe Finheim Phug himself.
So it was that the very next day Lehigh and Burke had made their peace for the prior night’s brawl. In Mr. Burke’s workshop, Mr. Lehigh sat and smoked, while the other dwarf polished his silvers.
“It occurs to me,” said Burke, “we ought to try to trap Phug within his own words, the way he seems to do for us.”
Lehigh grumped. He had been stinging over that bit about time-travel all morning. “An oaf,” he said, “a wise fellow, that’s what he is.”
The work-shift bell rang, and Burke set down his silver. “What we’ll do,” said he, “is right this very minute go and find some body who is more able-bodied than even our Duschtekka captain.”
Lehigh nodded. “Some body whose body and body-of-deeds is beyond even Mr. Phug’s calling-into-question.”
“Just so.” said Burke.
The two shook boots on it, then set off to find the fellow.
– – – – –
The fellow they found was in fact no fellow, but a lady: a wandering “hammer-slinger” as the men of less upstanding mountains might refer to the kind of dwarf who lives abroad for no reason but to do it. They called her “Sawbones,” though the reason for that was not clear; Mr. Lehigh remembered that “sawbones” was what they had called doctors in the war.
But this woman was no doctor, and the chain-hammer on her back was no saw — though if prompted, she might have set you to rights: in her hands, it was an instrument of surgery.
How could Lehigh and Burke be displeased, however, by her rough-and-bumble grain? She was exactly what they had come a-looking for. It was said that she had walked the width and breadth of the empire a dozen times, and even been to the Terminus already: she had the dated mithril pendant to show for it.
More than that, even, her name was well-known. She had had her share of adventures, battling wild bears and dueling bandit-captains and the like. She was one of the only dwarfs who had ever lived who, even while still alive, was already the center of certain childrens’ stories.
“What?” she guttered, when they questioned her in her bunk, in the temporary guest-workers’ barracks. “Four hundred and,” she spit, “what idiot told you that? Any fool claims he can make the trip that quick is crazy.”
Lehigh and Burke gave whoops of joy at that, and hooked their elbows, and did a little dance. Then they stopped, for Sawbones had fetched her chain-hammer, and was swinging it in circles at her side. They thanked her for her time and her sage advice, while clearing out of the barracks in a hurry.
– – – – –
Back to Phug they went! It had all become about Finheim Phug, it seemed; everything was Phug this and Phug that.
“Phug you,” said Mr. Burke, hastening into the chair at the corner table, with Mr. Lehigh standing behind him, “you old fool,” he said, “Phug we’ve got you now!”
Mr. Phug looked stoically on.
Mr. Burke said, “Now Mr. Lehigh and I heard what you said, and we thought to do you better, so we went and found someone of more able body than our ailing Duschtekka captain, whose name you so besmirched.”
Mr. Phug asked who they had found.
Mr. Burke said, “A fellow, lady, a lady-fellow by the name – of which – they call her Sawbones,” he said, and thrust a finger in Finheim Phug’s face. “Now this Sawbones has seen it all, Phug, more than I and Lehigh almost certainly, and I would wager more even than you. She has walked all across this world, and even up and down it. She has fought bears, she has braved storms, she has taken on twelve bandits single-handed, with nothing but a single hand, and her chain and hammer. And she tells us, Phug, these are her words exactly: ‘Any fool claims he can make the trip that quick is crazy’. So, Phug! What do you have to say to that!”
Finheim Phug said, “Yes.”
Mr. Burke and Mr. Lehigh faltered, staring silently.
“What do you mean yes?” asked Lehigh eventually.
“Yes,” said Phug, “that is a fair assessment.”
“That I am crazy.”
A grin spread across Burke’s face. He turned in his chair to look at Burke, who was grinning as well, and they readied themselves to do another dance.
“But then,” said Phug, and it stopped the dance in their hearts, “she did not say that I was wrong.”
Burke spun so quickly back around that his chair spun up onto one leg. “She implied it!” he screeched and then his chair was toppling over, and taking Lehigh down with it.
The whole thing felt very familiar.
– – – – –
“A geologist!” Lehigh spat, pacing back and forth across his workshop, while Burke, in the corner, iced his head. “We find a geologist, a man of cold science, who tells us explicitly, it cannot be done!”
– – – – –
“It couldn’t, it can’t, no can’t be done.” stammered the geologist, a twitchy fellow by the name of Elsin, in his laboratory on the sixteenth helix of the main spiral of Gauldron. “I say that implicitly. No. Explicitly. I say that explicitly: it’s holy, ho, whole – it’s completely impossible.”
– – – – –
Mr. Burke, at Finheim Phug’s corner table the following night: “And he told us, it is wholly impossible. Those were his words.”
Mr. Phug said, “Well I know that his words were not that, because the man of whom you speak is a stammerer, who takes ten minutes to say anything. And he’s also a fool, a crack-pot, a lunatic, a widower – any of his peers will tell you so. Moreover, many things that the scientists have claimed were impossible were later achieved by those with sense, or those with daring-enough spirit. Or even the scientists themselves.”
Now Lehigh thrust himself into the conversation, hanging over the table like a madman. He had not slept in three days, his shop had been closed to customers, and he was under legal threats for abnegation. “Well he also told us the onus is on you!” He banged the table with the kind of ferocity that only madness could muster. “He said that there is a method to science!”
“The Scientific Method.” Burke agreed.
“And he said that it is not our place, not mine and Mr. Burke’s, to be compelled to disprove your utter lunacy! He said YOU, Finheim Phug, it is YOU who has made this extraordinary claim, and it is YOU who must therefore PROVE IT!”
Finheim Phug threw the table aside with a crash, and leapt to his feet. The patrons of the Duggery Pub went deathly silent. Beneath the bar, Kurt Rogger’s hand wrapped around the haft of the Duggery’s trusty rabble-hammer.
Finheim Phug threw open his cloak. “Sirs,” he said, and unsheathed something from his hip, “you have insulted me, you have berated me, you have challenged my integrity. And while you have been scurrying about looking for any matter of man who will decry the course of history, I have been endeavoring to prove it.”
Phug angrily thrust his weapon into Lehigh’s chest.
Lehigh put a hand to his chest, and carefully removed what Phug had lodged there: a large stone bead, with writing on its face – that is, a dwarfdan document. “What is this?” he asked, even while he examined the thing. Then “Oh!” he said, “What?! Do you think me mad!”
“Well tell us what it says,” Burke motioned, peeking over Lehigh’s shoulder.
Kurt Rogger seconded the motion. The members of the summit third-through-eighteenthed it.
Lehigh read from the document the following:
“I, Finheim Phug, being a Gauldron-born dwarf of sound mind and body, do offer the following feat of dwarfdan derring-do as a challenge to an attack upon my integrity made by the jewelers Lehigh and Burke, and do so in the eyes of the the barman Kurt Rogger and the inhabitants of the Duggery Pub, this day, the 283rd of the Ringing of Our Empire 1712:
“On the 284th of this year, being the morrow, I will begin an expedition to walk from the summit of Mount Gulder, being the highest point in our world, to the depth of The Terminus, being the lowest point yet plumbed by dwarfdan exploration.
“It is my intention,” Lehigh read, face sweating, “to make this expedition in the course of 444 days, and by so doing, win a wager put forth by Mr. Burke on the 265th of this year, in the same arena where I now lay these terms upon him.
“If I should fail in this endeavor, I, Finheim Phug, agree to forfeit all of my possessions to messers Lehigh and Burke, to be divvied among them as they so desire – excepting for a share of possessions totaling to the value of 28 loans, to be paid to Kurt Rogger as approximating the cost of a table I have just overthrown. In addition, I agree to be affixed with the following labels for the rest of my natural life: A Naïve Middle-Aged Fool, an Old Fool, a Damn Drunkard, a Braggart, an Oaf, a Wise-Fellow, an Idiot, and Crazy.
“If however, I should succeed in this endeavor, these labels should instead be applied to Lehigh and Burke, divvied among them as they so desire, excepting for Oaf, which should be applied specifically to Lehigh,” Lehigh read, through clenched teeth. “In addition they will cede to me exactly one half of their weekly salaries and one half the profits of all their future business endeavors, or each also receive the title of Fraud.
“Should I, after the signing of this contract, fail to embark upon this venture or at any point turn away from it, I agree to take the title of Coward – and should either Mr. Lehigh or Mr. Burke fail to sign this contract and accept the formal terms I have laid out for the challenge put forth by they themselves, or at any time after signing default from its terms, then in the sight of Kurt Rogger and the patrons of the Duggery Pub, Burke and Lehigh shall be exposed and both labeled as the Cowards they are – I ACCEPT!” Lehigh roared, and stomped his foot so hard it left a crack in the stone of the floor, which may be seen to this day. “I ACCEPT!” he roared again, and cast about for a pot of clay, with which to make his mark.
When it had been provided, he thrust his thumb into it, drew the thing out dripping, and smushed it without a second’s thought into the space provided at the bottom of Phug’s contract. When he pulled his thumb away, his imprint remained, and the contract was signed.
He thrust the contract and clay-pot both at Mr. Burke. “Sign now, friend, and let us call the old man’s bluff!”
But Mr. Burke was having second thoughts. “Hold on now, Lehigh,” he said, casting nervously about, “hold on, and let us – let me understand the terms of the contract.” Turning to Phug (and racing, perhaps, to think of a question with which to stall) he asked, “How will this thing be verified?”
“As it always verified.” said Phug. “With Tokens of Passage. These are granted to pilgrims at each point upon their journey, specially printed and dated in a fashion beyond impersonation. A man who journeys from Top to Bottom may therefore present a string of such tokens at The Terminus, where it is exchanged for a similarly irreproducible pendant, made of pure mithril, to commemorate his accomplishment.”
Burke’s hands were fluttering at his chest. He said, “And why the 284th for your date of departure, sir?”
“Why,” said Phug, “so that my return, 444 days hence, may be dead-lined by the ringing of next’s year Deepsound, atop Mount Gulder. Should I fail to re-achieve the summit by the final bell on the third day, then I will have lost the wager.”
Burke’s feet were sweating. “What of abnegation!” he cried. “Will you not be charged for abandoning your work to go on this venture? And anyway, what is it that you do?”
This last inquiry, at least, drew Lehigh from his fit of rage, for even he did not know the answer. We were all curious to hear it – Kurt Rogger, the patrons of the Duggery, and even I, myself.
“As to that,” said Phug, “you shall have my answer directly after I have yours.”
Alas, poor Burke! Now the pressure was really upon him. He looked about for an escape, first this way, then that, and finally, finding none, made up his mind. “I won’t do it,” he said, pushing away the contract and clay-pot being shoved at him by Lehigh – to Lehigh’s shock and consternation.
“Won’t do it!” the other man blustered. “And why not?”
Burke shouted, “I will not lose half my livelihood to settle a matter of pride!”
It may therefore be said that Mr. Burke was not, perhaps, as bumbling and unwise as his actions thus far would tend to show. It may be hazarded further, in fact, that many men knew Hatteras Burke to be particularly wise, and if any man had ever thought Burke a fool, it was only by way of association.
He turned with all the stoicism of a monk to Mr. Phug. He said, “Sir, I humbly accept your charge of Coward, and will carry the title the rest of my days.”
Mr. Phug bowed his head to Burke. “Then a Coward you are,” though he said it almost sadly.
The exchange was so chivalrous that in the years since, whenever a question arose as to the bravery of Mr. Burke or the kindness of Finheim Phug, Kurt Rogger was known to draw his hammer from beneath the bar, slam it down onto the counter and dare whoever had done the asking to do it again. That sentiment would be shared by all who were in attendance that night, for the exchange had touched us all greatly.
All of us, that is, but Mr. Lehigh.
“To all the deep-damned hells with you then!” he said, and thrust the contract toward Phug, saying, “Sign then, old man, and let’s be over with this farce.”
Phug pulled his hands away as though being offered a hot coal, and showed them to the patrons of the Duggery so there could be no doubt that he had not touched the contract, much less signed it. “I will do no such thing,” he said, “for what could stop you assaulting me in a darkened tunnel after I had done so, thus preventing me embarking to-morrow?”
Lehigh opened his mouth to say something sharp, but the realization that Phug thought his own amassed possessions would be of a value worth killing over brought him up short. As to the charge of being accused the sort of man to attack an old fellow in a darkened alley, Lehigh had little to say, as he knew it to be a fitting assessment of his character. “Tomorrow then.” he said.
“Tomorrow.” Phug agreed, and offered his boot, for a shake.
Lehigh turned up his nose rather rudely, then turned and strode out.
Phug was so incensed that he called, “Oh Mister Lehigh!” and Lehigh halted mid-step. “One last chance!” said Phug. “Will you accept the title of Coward and spare yourself losing the wager?”
“I shall never!” Lehigh turned, screaming, and then fumbled a step.
For Phug had opened his cloak, and around his neck hung a glittering necklace of mithril. One, two, five; a dozen Terminus pendants shone brilliantly on his chest. The air was sucked from the room.
Phug’s words were addressed to Burke, but his eyes never left Lehigh’s. “You asked me sir, how it is that I make my living, and why I am not chucked out for abnegation, and will not be upon the morrow. I was, and am, an explorer. If there are roads which go all the way to the bottom of the world, and if we have a name for the place that rests there, and if that name is The Terminus, then I am one of the men who helped to make all of that so. I am paid my due share of the tax imposed by the Borough of Gauldron on pilgrims who make the journey to that place – for it was men like I that made their journey first!”
All at once the patrons of the Duggery knew that they had long underestimated old Phug, and that his silence and enigma had not been that of an arrogant man, but rather that of legendary retirement, such as from the kind of campaign which even the veterans among them could not claim to have seen.
So too did Mr. Burke know in a single instant that he had made the right decision, and thanked the deeps above and deeps below for granting him the wisdom to trust to his instincts.
That left only poor Mr. Lehigh, who staggered away, mouth agape in horror at the mire he had gone and stepped into. His shoulder collided with the door-frame and he leapt two feet in the air. He regained his composure after, though not by much. “Pretty trinkets!” he squeaked, and went out.
– – – – –
There was not much sleep got in Gauldron that night.
Not for Kurt Rogger, who lay awake in bed, wondering how Phug would get on, and how the man had spent so many years in Rogger’s own pub without that secret coming out. And could it be capitalized upon? Would Phug perhaps sit to have his sculpture taken, to be stuck against one wall and admired by future patrons? Yes, the Great Finheim Phug drank here, you know. He sat at that very table!
No sleep either for the patrons of the Duggery, whose thoughts were filled with fantasies of adventure, and whose boyish tossing and turning, I shouldn’t wonder, kept their spouses wide awake. Probably a very many of them had it in his or her head to join Phug on the morrow. Perhaps half of them made it so far as to sit up in bed, and a few made the bolder step to put feet upon the floor. I know at least one fellow for sure who made it as far as the closet door, before a shudder overtook him, and forced him to admit to himself that he was not bold enough in spirit to do this thing.
No sleep for I, at home at my table. Not even an attempt made at sleep. I would go with Phug on his journey – of this I was certain. But of course I could not go. And yet, was that not all the more reason to do so? Oh, pity me, how I wrung my hands when I realized I must work the next day, and could not even see old Phug off!
If I was restless, though, then more’s the pity for Mr. Lehigh, whose restlessness and agitation, whose many tossings and turnings, whose clenching of fists, whose night-sweat and crying at the ceiling in peril for his livelihood, need not even be spoken. I can scarcely imagine his lamentations; nor do I desire to.
Let no mistake be made, however: probably the venerable Mr. Phug got no sleep either. And why should he? There was the delicious hot brandywine of victory to be supped, the memory of his eviscerating Lehigh in front of the whole pub, but also the nagging sensation of various quips and rejoinders he had rehearsed, and then forgotten to deliver. So caught up was he in the affairs of Mr. Lehigh, it may be wondered whether he thought of his journey at all. But then he had been preparing the journey for weeks, ever since that very first night when his integrity had been impugned. His bags were packed, his hat was stashed, his traveling cane was upon the hook. There was nothing left to do but lie awake, and fail to sleep.
Have I forgotten anyone? The drinkers, their spouses, their children caught up in what keen child-senses told them was surely the start of a grand ol’ tale? The old men, the misers, the dugmaster somewhere in his burrow? The Union Chiefs and Bosses, whose fortunes might in some way turn upon this affair? The guest-workers, the wanderers, the pilgrims who had just begun the journey, and those who were even on their way back? Did any of them manage a wink that night? Probably not.
No, I think the only dwarf who slept that night in Gauldron – and soundly enough to make up for those who hadn’t – was Hatteras Burke.
– – – – –
The next morning, Burke rose, made his toilette, locked his door behind him, and left his burrow. He took walking breakfast with the rest of the jewelers’ union, and shared a pleasant discussion on next year’s silver prospects with a friend. Then he deposited his cup and bowl in the receptacle at the end of the residence stacks and, when his friend took a tunnel-fork headed for the jewelers’ workshops, Burke bid him good day and took another.
This brought him into the main spiral of Gauldron, up past the upper helix wherein the union lodges resided, and beyond. The lifts were running this morning, but were full of hefty-looking sumos whom Burke didn’t wish to share a car with, so he enjoyed the brisk effort of the morning’s stroll, and if he got tired, only needed to think of the road that lay ahead of Finheim Phug to cheer himself by comparison.
In no time at all, a healthfully red-faced and sweating Mr. Burke had attained the upmost junction of the borough of Gauldron — where the tunnels of the borough ended, and the tunnels of the mountain began.
The hall was wide and many-pillared, but there were only two doors: one leading down into the borough (through which Mr. Burke now entered) and the other continuing up, ascending the height of the mountain from within.
This second door was in fact a great gilded arch, upon which were engraved a number of pictorials and very important-seeming messages in ancient languages which Burke did not speak and could not read. There were similar upon the walls, and though it were far from Burke’s provenance to decipher their meaning, he was at least able to absorb the gist.
Here was a chamber, placed at the start of the journey from Top to Bottom, the architecture of which fore-shadowed the quest in microcosm. The room seemed to say that in the course of the quest that was a man’s life, there were only two possible directions in which he may ever travel – being up and down – and he must choose only one; but he also must do one to do the other. The journey was its own prerequisite, the point of departure was also the destination, and the goal of the quest must be either the quest itself, or the man doing the questing.
Mr. Burke had never been a very religious man, and certainly had little regard for the Deepers or their beliefs. However he knew it were the Deepers who had first made the pilgrimage from the Top of the world to its Bottom. Therefore standing here, so close to the Top, Burke’s own feelings were set aside, and replaced by an appropriate reverence. Not for The Deeps, nor for any of those horrid old Psalms, but for the Deepers themselves; that is to say, the actual dwarfs, who had bravely made the first journey, then built this cathedral to honor the experience.
There was something abstract and respectable in that. Burke thought that if “holiness” could not be found anywhere else in the world, it might at least be found here, near the Top.
At any rate, soon others began to arrive – those who weren’t working, and so had no better way to spend their day: Kurt Rogger, the patrons of the Duggery (many bringing their children), a few jewelers who had heard of the wager, veterans and legionnaires who had heard of Phug’s true identity, a Union Chief and her wife, and even the bellmaster of Gauldron.
“Burke, you lucky stiff!” Rogger cried, clapping him on the shoulder. “You sure dodged the hammer-head this time, eh?”
Burke laughed; he couldn’t help but laugh. “I dare say I have,” he said. “And grateful for it.”
“You always were a wise one though.” Rogger threw his arm around Burke and they walked together to the upward stairs. “Were it I,” said Rogger, “I can’t say for certain I might not have taken the old man’s blustering as an affront. Think I should have accepted his wager on the spot, aye – though first I might have socked him on the nose.”
Burke said, “Well, I could only think of my mother. She always used to tell me: It’s a wise man who bows before the high wind, and a proud fool who stands up against it.”
“Just so,” said Rogger, “but it’s a wiser man who’s got the clarity of mind to remember such counsel, you know, when his beard’s on fire and the blood’s all pumping through his ears.”
Then Rogger did an odd thing, which was to press close toward Burke’s face, as though to kiss him hard upon the mouth – but he only put his lips to Burke’s ear. “I’ve heard word of your friend Lehigh.” he whispered. “Have you heard? From his neighbors. They said they heard him wailing through the night.”
Lehigh sighed sadly. He hadn’t heard, but he’d suspected as much.
Rogger pulled away, and the two of them turned from the upward stairs. “Now there’s a fool man, if I ever met one.” said Rogger. “How you and he came to be friends, I’ll never know.”
Burke said, “Well Kurt, to be perfectly honest, neither—” but he drew up short, for Lehigh was approaching from across the hall. And something was wrong with him: Burke saw that immediately. He was dressed in cold-weather clothing, with a day-pack on his back, and though there were bags beneath his eyes and his beard was untrimmed, he had a contented little smile on his face.
“Mornin Leonard!” said Rogger, and clapped the other man upon the back. “Ready to lose your fortune?”
Lehigh returned the gesture, and broke out with roaring laughter. Rogger and the men around him all grinned to see it – but Burke felt that something was off in that laughter. Manic, even. “Oh I think we shall see about that, Kurt old man! Phug still has to make the journey, after all.”
Rogger indicated Lehigh’s get-up. “What’s all this, then? Are you going with him, I suppose?”
“Oh no, no, nothing of the sort.” Lehigh put on a humble face. “I just figured I would show the old man off, you know, in a display of equanimity. I supposed I might walk up to the summit with him, sign our contract there, and wish him a safe passage. After all, even a wager is no reason to wish harm on a man. I want him to know there’s no hard feelings, between he and I.”
Rogger and the Duggery-men cheered Lehigh for his sporting conduct. Jars of komboocha were broken out and tapped open; soon there was singing, and tales of past excursions from Top to Bottom. Lehigh danced and sang among the best of them. Even the children and the old men got in on the celebration, and it seemed that Phug, whenever he got here, should be not so much departing civilization as arriving at its farthest-flung outpost, playing host to rather a fine party.
Only Burke abstained, staying off to one side, and keeping a close eye on Lehigh. When the chance arose to pull the man away and get a word, Burke did so, and surrounded him in a corner.
“You seem to have had quite the change of heart,” said Burke, with a tone that spoke for itself.
But Lehigh was all smiles and pumping arms, clapping hands and toothy grins. “A change of heart!” he cried. “Aye, and how not? What a fine adventure! What a day!”
Burke grew even more suspicious. “Kurt said that he spoke with your neighbors,” and the statement was both an accusation and a demand for explanation.
Burke only smiled. “And fine people they are!”
“He said that they spoke of wailing through the night.”
“Oh!” Burke laughed. “As to that, I was practicing my singing. I intended to wassail old Phug upon the summit, with my rendition of an aria from Rotgut.”
“An AH-ri-YA!” Burke coughed in disbelief.
Lehigh sighed wistfully. “Yes, I’m afraid my singing must not be very good, to be described as wailing. I suppose it’s just as well.” But as he spoke, there was a twinkling in his eye, and Mr. Burke felt himself growing hot.
“I’m coming with you.” he said immediately, suspecting mischief. “To the Top.”
There was a flash of some revealing emotion on Lehigh’s face, but it was gone in an instant. “What?” He put a hand to his ear, pretending he hadn’t heard.
“So you’ve reconsidered the wager then?” he hollered, loud enough that those around could hear. “Burke, my friend, this is wonderful news! When Phug arrives, we shall toast him together!”
A cheer went up, and toasts were made to Burke’s bravery. He tried in vain to explain that he had been misheard, but soon gave it up. All were lost in celebration for The Great Expedition—as they had come to call this farce—and for the characters of Burke, Lehigh, and Phug which populated it. Every dwarf was trying to celebrate harder than the next; to shake Lehigh and Burke’s hands, or offer some unique witticism, probably in the hopes of becoming a minor character in subsequent re-tellings of the tale. I refuse to indulge them.
At some point in the midst of all this ham-handing, a voice was heard to cry out. The gathering turned and beheld a crooked old dwarf, leaning on a crooked old broom. “What’s all this nonsense?” she cried. “It’s not Deepsound already is it? This is no place for a party; I’ve got a floor to sweep!”
Kurt Rogger stepped forward. “Dear sweep-lady, haven’t you heard? Finheim Phug sets out this very morning on his Great Expedition! A journey from Top to Bottom in 444 days, and a mighty wager to between he and messers Lehigh and Burke!”
The old sweeper did not find this information soothing. “I don’t know a Lehigh and I don’t know a Burke, and it’s an idiot who thinks he can go Top to Bottom in that little time, but if you’re talking about the fellow with the beard like a paintbrush, and if you’re waiting for him to get here, then you’re hours too late. He arrived at the dawn-bells this morning.”
The party roared with laughter.
Kurt Rogger said, “Old Phug saw you coming, Lehigh! He’s been up there waiting all morning!”
Lehigh elbowed forth, shouldering his pack. “Well then,” he said, “I shan’t keep him waiting much longer!”
The men saluted Lehigh for his chivalry, bid him safe journey, and would he tell Phug they’d said goodbye? Then they shuffled off, singing and drinking, and the old sweeper came in, shaking her head. Lehigh set off up the stairs toward the summit, whistling a merry tune.
Burke followed closely behind him.
– – – – –
“I am so glad you reconsidered!” Lehigh sang back over his shoulder. “I should feel much safer, entering into this wager alongside a friend.”
“I did not reconsider,” said Lehigh, “as well you heard, and as well you know. Furthermore, friend, I am onto your mischief! I have not identified its form, but I take its shape, don’t you doubt. Should any harm befall one hair upon that old man’s chin, have you no doubt that I will forgo our friendship and report you straightaway to the constables and inquisitors! See if I shan’t!”
But Lehigh only sang “Ho hum!” and quickened his pace — meaning that Burke must quicken also to match it. “Ho-hum, ho-hum, it’s off to work I run!”
Lehigh sang merrily, but the going was hard and monotonous: old stone stairs, carved naturally as a cavity within the very mountain they ascended, winding up and to the left in perpetuity. Worse still, these were stairs of an old build; no Gauldroner hands had touched them in their construction. These were stairs built by the Jeomen, from whom we had taken the mountain some centuries ago.
What this meant for Mr. Burke was that the stairs’ size and shape were never uniform, as the curve of the staircase was not the mathematically-perfect spiral that a proper Gualdron architect should have made it, or that Mr. Burke was used to.
In some places, the stairs were wide square slabs, so great that they took three steps forward just to cross a single one, but were set five feet vertically apart, and must be approached almost as a series of ledges.
In other places, they were barely stairs at all — they ascended by an inch each, but were only an inch or two wide, so that not even half of a man’s foot could be placed upon one, and the going must be on all fours, almost as climbing a ladder. Mr. Burke huffed and puffed, noting with some terror that a single slip upon these should surely send one falling: not down the stairs (for one might not even touch them again) but simply falling in general.
The shape of the spiral itself was inconsistent; there were periods during which Mr. Burke was aware he was ascending a spiral staircase only in the abstract, or only as much as he was ever aware of the fact that he was inside a mountain. The stairs would cut this way and that, where the builders had detoured around some mineral vein they hadn’t the tools to excise, or where the grain of the rock had allowed simpler passage. Indeed, there were passages where the stairs even went down!
There were places as well where the walls and ceiling changed — sometimes they were as wide as twenty men abreast, and ten men tall. Other times the going was so narrow it must be squeezed through, as though one were spelunking a natural cavern; for indeed, many of these passages had once been natural caverns, or were still.
After half a day’s climb, there were no stairs at all, and only upward-curving caves, the floors of which were slick with ice, and the walls of which had been pocked with carved iron-rings, which one was expected to tackle hand-over-hand. The temperature of the air was dropping now, the closer they got to the summit.
And the closer they got, the tougher Burke’s going became. And the tougher Burke’s going, the faster Lehigh worked to outpace him; the louder Lehigh’s singing became, and the brighter shone that twinkle of mischief in his eye whenever he stopped and looked backwards, bundled head-to-toe in cold-weather gear — at Burke, who was shivering and chattering in his fineries.
But the greater Lehigh’s mischief, the greater Burke’s resolve to prevent it — and so all the harder Burke pushed himself, though his hands were raw and there were icicles in his beard. He had to keep pace. From their private games of Haggle, Burke knew that Lehigh could become a wild animal when cornered. Whatever Lehigh was planning, Burke was quite sure that Phug would never see it coming.
Quite of a sudden, the top of the mountain split open above them, a crack in the ceiling becoming a widening fissure, which went away, not into darkness, but light. The temperature dropped to a bone-chilling pitch and the light razored into their eyes, though the air was perfectly still.
Puffing steam from their mouths, Burke and Lehigh emerged at the summit of Mt. Gulder.
– – – – –
I say “the summit” as that is what most call it, though it might better be called the top of the mountain. The tip of the mountain, rather — the point of the mountain, hollowed-out, and an overwatch built inside of it.
Burke and Lehigh ascended past natural cracks in the stone, which had been bored out and filled-in with glass. These windows expanded, and the glass came together, until soon the natural stone fell away, leaving only the dwarf-made observatory at the very tip. From the outside it must look as though the mountain were skin, which had been pulled back to reveal some glass-and-steel skeleton beneath.
A great bell hung here. Though it no longer rang, it did swing perpetually. Or, well, not perpetually, but seemingly so — for the overwatch drew lightning, and had done so for countless centuries. The lightning therefore worked its magics on the stone of the mountain, which became charged with a magical field. Coins and small bits of metal taken there had been observed to cling at the natural rock — and in fact, if left for as little as fifty years, would soon become magic themselves, and carry this property even when taken away from the summit.
So the old iron bell, which was by now thoroughly magic, swayed this way and that, all of the time, as though being lazily pushed by invisible hands. Some centuries ago, a receptable had been installed inside of it, for the placement of lanterns or candles. It was sometimes said that you could see the light even as far down as the Lesser Sky, if the lantern were bright enough and the conditions were clear.
The conditions were clear now — though it was day.
Between Lehigh and Burke, all animosity was forgotten. Lehigh had not been here since he was a boy, and it showed on his face. Burke had never been here at all — so it was with some awe that he stood beneath the bell and, revolving 360 degrees, looked out through the overwatch windows, out over the whole of the world.
He looked North: to where the distant mountains clove in two. There a faint black scribble began on the horizon, so sheer you might think it a scratch on the glass. But as the eyes tracked down, the scribble enlarged, until you realized it was a canyon. No, it was a massive abyss — it was the fifty-mile Grand Divide, between two shelves of the earth: the Gaul and the Mund.
He looked East: to where the Grand Divide ran sideways past the window like a river, and the far-away pecks of flapping bird-wings gave scope to the great cliffs looming down below. The Gaul Shelf—on which rested Mount Gulder, the borough of Gauldron, six hundred miles of land, ten-billion-billion tons of earth, and everything Burke had ever known in his life—ran out directly before him, and came to its edge, at the Grand Divide. There the Gaul shelf crashed into the Mund shelf, which held on its back the entire Palletine Range: big ugly Bronesill, populous Silvermount, the sister-shards of Salstone and Salheit, the derelict Blackpoint, the cheery little chalk-dollop of Whitemount, and every unmapped, unoccupied, and therefore unnamed peak between them. The scope of it all made Burke feel sick.
So he looked South: to where the Grand Divide disappeared once more to a distant horizon, and the Mund ran out backwards, and down into darkness. The slant of the Mund was so imperceptible that if one were on its surface, the ground would appear quite flat — but up here, from the top of the world, it was like looking across the surface of a table which was slanting away from oneself. If Burke looked too long, or focused on some tiny detail, the effect was disorienting: his eyes snapped up, to retake the angle of things. When he realized that his own shelf, the Gaul, must be imperceptibly slanted in much the same way, he felt a panicked nausea rising in his stomach.
And so, at last, he looked West: to the Gaul’s far-away edges against other Divides; to the sloping beginnings and endings of a thousand other shelves, and a thousand-thousand mountains on their backs. The further his eyes went up across the land, the smaller the shelves and the mountains seemed to become, until at last he was looking across the shaggy back of the whole world, and realizing that it looked rather like the surface of a crumbling stone which had been crushed in the hands of a very strong man — or exploded, perhaps, from within. There was no “Surface” and no “Beneath”; the demarcations weren’t that clear. There was only earth, and void, and mountains upon mountains, and impossible grand distances of open air between them, and impossibly vast slabs of raw, upheaved planet-stuff, casting great shadows above and beneath one another, ten-thousands of miles long, and all with the light of two suns bearing down, and rivers and water-falls pouring every which way, and stormcaps and ash-clouds bleeding in and out. There was lightning striking here; there was an earthquake shaking there.
Burke took a dizzy breath, and shut his eyes.
“Mr. Burke,” came the voice of Mr. Lehigh, and all traces of malice had gone from it. “Oh Mr. Burke, do come and look.”
Mr. Burke opened his eyes.
Lehigh was standing against a far window, which was open. With a daring that made Burke’s legs quiver, Lehigh was standing on the catwalk outside, hands on the rails, and looking out over the abyss.
“I am quite fine,” said Burke, “where I am.”
“No, no, you must,” said Lehigh, “look!”
Something in his voice did not warrant argument. Or maybe it was something in the sight. In either case, Burke could only whine, “I don’t want to!” even as his own feet betrayed him. Across the room and to the open window he came, and placed his hands upon the rail. Then gently, carefully, as though leaning too fast would do him in entirely, he looked out over the edge.
“Oh my.” he said.
Far below lay the foundations of Mount Gulder, where the Gaul and Mund shelves crashed together upwards, or had done so some millions of years ago. But next to that, just a few degrees’ flick of the eye, the Divide began and ended on both sides, and ran in both directions. Because the pitch of Mount Gulder was sheer and lopsided, and because the overlook upon its summit hung out like a crooked hat, this meant that as they leaned over the rail, messers Burke and Lehigh, they could look together down the entire height of the mountain, down the steppes where the farmlands had been laid, down the plains, down the badlands, all the way to the edge of the Gaul.
But they could look even further than that: down into the very Divide itself, past its sheer ravine walls, past its many notched and wavy erosions, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred miles down. They could see all the way from the Top of the world, to some three thousand miles down. And if the sun were overhead, rather than off to one side, they might see further than that: down to the surface of the Lesser Sky. And if the Lesser Sky were clear, rather than a turbulent sea of storm-clouds, they might see further than that: down into the darkness of the great Abyss, down even to the Terminus itself — assuming, of course, they had the keenness of vision with which to do so, which no dwarf possibly could.
“It actually doesn’t look quite so big,” said Burke, but even as he said it, ice broke from the railing beneath his hands, and went tumbling. It had not even surpassed half the height of Mount Gulder before it became too small to see — and then the sheer scope of what was beneath him roared upwards like a monster, and Burke gave a cry and flung himself backwards from the rail, returning to the safety of his perch beneath the overlook bell.
Lehigh laughed, hands on hips. “Come now Burke, it’s only a little drop. Ten minutes indeed — I should say you might hop down to the bottom in a twinkling!”
Burke shuddered bitterly, “Well you go ahead and make the attempt; and do let me know how it turns out!”
“Not well,” said a voice from behind Burke, and caused him to jump, “I should think, for the man doing the hopping.” Finheim Phug stepped forth from the shadows, and said, “Gentlemen.”
“Hallo Phug!” said Lehigh. “Been here long, then?”
Phug made no answer but to step forward, drawing something from inside of his cloak and offering it to Lehigh. Burke couldn’t see from where he sat, sprawled on the floor, but at this moment he was too cold to stand. He shivered, hugging his arms to his chest.
“What’s this?” he heard Lehigh say. “Oh yes! The contract! Ha ha! I had almost forgotten.”
“I shall sign then,” said Phug, “and let us be done with it.”
Lehigh placated, “Half a moment, half a moment! Let us iron out the specifics. How then, do you intend to do it? To make this journey?”
Phug lowered the contract and sighed. He came to stand along the railing. Lehigh clapped a hand on Phug’s shoulder; Phug blinked impassively, as though the hand were an untroublesome insect. They stood together, in the wind and snow, looking out over the whole of the world.
Speaking out into the void, Phug said, “I will begin this day, down into the Borough of Gauldron. I will spend the night in my own bed, since you have delayed me a proper day’s journey, and tomorrow I will set out a-right. From here I will go to the edge of the Gaul Shelf, and cross the Divide.”
“Cross the Divide!” Lehigh laughed. “And how will you do that?”
“By ways which are secret to me — but which will surely save the peril of descending the broad side of Mount Gulder, or taking the normal pilgrimage route, around the Divide.
“They will bring me to the edge of the Mund, and from there, it is but a short hike overland to the Borough of Silvermount, in the Palletine Range. Here, I intend to peaceably take in the last match of the Duschtekka season, between the Whitemount Wights and the Silvermount Flutes.
“Then from Silvermount, I will stow away inside of a shipping train, and take the sled-tunnels to Whitemount — and by doing, cut the normal travel time well in half.
“This advantage gained, I will be able to take the normal ways from Whitemount, all the way out to the far edge of the Mund.
“From there, I shall leave the ways of normal pilgrims, and take to the vertical climbing-paths, which descend through the Lesser Sky, and down to the Dark River.
“I shall raft this river-under-the-ground, and so come swiftly to the Low Road.
“Which I shall follow to the Terminus, collect the thirteenth Terminus token of my life, and return by these and other ways back to the summit of Mount Gulder.
“This all I shall do, I contend, by the ringing of Deepsound next year.”
Phug took a vial of wet clay from beneath his cloak, daubed it onto the contract, and pressed the imprint of his thumb into the bottom.
“Well said!” said Lehigh.
He moved his hand from Phug’s shoulder, to the small of Phug’s back.
Phug offered the contract once more, and this time Lehigh took it. Lehigh said, “However, I would like to take half a moment. You and I have not been on the kindest of terms, Phug, and I would like to set things right before you undertake the perilous journey before you.”
Phug rolled his eyes and blew out a haughty breath, turning back to the rail. “There is nothing to set right. You are a fool, and I am a veteran explorer, and I shall make you wear the many titles you have earned.”
Lehigh grinned, turning away from the rail, with the contract in his hands. “As you say, but just the same,” he said, wiping with his thumb at the excess clay which Phug had left behind, on the surface of the contract. “Just the same, old man, I feel a great sense of regret for the things I have said and done, and I want there to be no hard feelings.”
Burke, shivering on the floor with his head turned down, listened to all this, and thought that perhaps Mr. Lehigh had finally learned his lesson. That all might be right. That perhaps upon his return, Phug would even forgive the wager, and they all might yet be friends when this was through.
But these hopes were dashed when Burke lifted his head, and saw Lehigh coming towards him. The man was red-faced and grinning, there was a fire in his eyes; his fingertips were covered clay. He dropped directly to one knee, an inch from Burke’s face. Then speaking to Burke, but in a way that was directed at Phug, he said, “Here, mister Burke, only hold this half a moment.”
“Certainly,” said Burke, “but what—”
Then he stopped mid-breath, and looked down. He saw the contract in his left hand. There was Lehigh’s thumb-print, and now Phug’s, but here too was a new dab of clay, fresh and unsigned.
And he saw his own thumb pressing into it.
And he saw Lehigh’s thumb on top of his, doing the pressing.
He looked up. Lehigh was grinning like a mad-man, as he held Burke by the wrist and forced him to sign the contract.
Then Burke felt a spike of cold drive into his chest. He remembered Lehigh’s play at bad hearing, upon the stairs – his cry aloud, insisting that Burke had changed his mind about the wager, for the hearing of Kurt Rogger and all the rest. And now here was the proof, and so Burke was a part of the wager. And so Burke would be an accomplice in what happened next.
And if he denied it, then who should believe him?
Burke was gobsmacked by this sudden evil; taken totally on his blind side. He could only sit there with his mouth hanging open, and watch the thing unfold as though from a great distance away.
“Yes!” cried Lehigh, leaping to his feet, and spinning to face Phug — who stood at the rail, with his back to the danger. “Let us make our peace, Mr. Phug!” Lehigh shrieked like the devil, stomping back toward the rail.
“Fine,” said Phug, absently, waving Lehigh away like a pest, “yes, if it should make you feel better…”
“Better indeed!” Lehigh cried, “For I shall be a rich man!”
Then he crossed the room in two steps, and planted a foot on bent leg, in the small of Phug’s back. He cried “NO HARD FEELINGS, EH OLD MAN!” and before Burke could raise his voice in protest, or Phug could turn his head, indeed even so quick that Lehigh could not have reacted in time should he suddenly have rethought his decision — he extended his leg.
Thus Phug pitched forward, body rigidly turning like a lever against the rail, and, before he could even cry out, went plummeting off the Top of the world.
– – – – –
It took him 5 days, 7 hours, 22 minutes, and 47 seconds to hit the Bottom.