I pointed at the gleaming crescent as it rose into view ahead. Vissek just nodded and increased his already brisk pace. Despite his age and pronounced limp, I struggled to keep up.
My heart thumped with excitement as we approached the huge structure. Strands of glassy material formed the outer skin of the dome, an open lattice of hexagonal sections. Basket-like frames meshed within each other, offset, obscuring the interior. The scale of the building was immense. Even at this distance, perhaps a mile away, I could see spider-like shapes crawling over its surface.
“How long ago did you say they started this?” I asked. “Two days? Three?”
“Yup. About that.”
I gave a low whistle. “They’ve been busy.”
Vissek slowed for a moment and turned to look at me. “You’ve seen the hands now, Razay. Let’s turn back.”
I considered it. For a short moment. But the more I saw of the hands and their creation the more certain I became that Katia had come this way too.
“Closer,” I said.
For a while I even outpaced the old man.
The rolling meadows and pasture soon gave way to woodland. Maple, larch, and fir crowded in and we momentarily lost sight of the dome. The last color drained from the sky as night descended and the god moons grinned down at us from their bed of stars.
At last we reached the old flooded quarry. I knew it well. Katia and I had spent many hours in and around the lake and the surrounding woodland. Not just in summer. And not just as children.
I pushed aside the distracting memories and followed Vissek down to the water. There we spied the dome again. It gleamed on the opposite bank; the recesses that had been dark during the fading daylight now shone with a golden glow, silhouetting the geodesic skeleton of the structure. The lake’s smooth water cupped its reflection, the mirrored image wreathed by a dark crown of inverted trees. Countless points of light twinkled, obscured, and then revealed again as distant hands crawled over the dome’s woven surface like ants over a discarded picnic basket.
The point where the hands first emerged was obvious, visible even across the full length of the lake: a pit of churned-up ground between the water and the dome. Mounds of pale sawdust were all that remained of the trees that once stood near it.
“Come on,” Vissek urged, as I paused to take in the view. I followed as he edged around the shore.
Closer to the dome, I began to make out the hands in more detail. They varied hugely in size and shape: from crab-like creatures the size of dinner-plates, up to huge multi-legged earth-moving monstrosities that chewed up the ground with their jagged mandibles. Many of the hands were smoothly metallic, some were covered in swirling geometric patterns, and others were organic-looking and roughly textured — no two were exactly alike.
Some of them actually did look like human hands: their multi-jointed limbs flexed and moved with nimble dexterity, outsized in proportion to their wedge-shaped central thorax. They scuttled over the dome like an armory of animated gauntlets.
“Have you ever seen the like?” I said, voice hushed in awe and not a little fear.
Vissek, still crunching across the shoreline ahead of me, slowed a little. “These are clearly deviant.”
I peered at his silhouette. “You’ve seen hands before? Before these?”
He stopped, his back towards me. “A few. During the War.”
I nodded. Of course Vissek would have seen hands before. During the War the gods had deployed their entire range of proxies: faces, hands, and other more fearsome agents; even the constantly storm-shrouded angels had become involved.
In answer to my unspoken question, Vissek whispered, “It was a long time ago.”
Before I could probe further he had resumed his lop-sided jog towards the crystal palace.
“Hurry,” he called back. He sniffed the air and looked up at the darkened sky. “The weather’s about to turn.”
I had reached Ashrekan earlier that evening, glad to be back after more than a week away.
Apart from a gang of fugitive chickens that scattered at my approach, the village streets were deserted. There was no sign of the usual bustle; windows were shuttered, doors closed.
Puzzled and increasingly concerned, I headed up the track that meandered to the higher mountain villages. My parents’ chalet was locked like all the others. No answer when I pounded on the front door. The small workshop next to the house, where my father spent his spare time tinkering with broken clockwork mechanisms, was similarly locked.
The shutters of the window in the chalet next door swung open. Our old neighbor Vissek poked his head out.
“They’ve all gone,” he called down. “Except me.”
I didn’t hesitate when he invited me in. I sat across from him in the dark and comfortably familiar interior of his chalet. As children, Katia and I had been regular guests: plied with cake, sweet tea and rambling reminisces. Glass-fronted boxes of medals hung displayed on the paneled walls like collections of pinned exotic butterflies.
“Where is everyone?” I asked. “What happened?”
“There’s an infestation of hands, Razay. Up the slope by the lake. Burrowed up from the ground a few days ago, just after you left.”
Vissek’s pale blue eyes glimmered in the dim light of his living room. “Yup.”
“Hands.” I struggled to marshal my thoughts. It was like being back at school, caught out by one of Khresmon Jemosak’s questions. “Of a god?”
Vissek nodded. “Of course.”
“Ah, well. That’s the thing.” He leaned forward. “We went to look for ourselves — Khresmon Jemosak, your dad, and I. But there wasn’t a godmark on any of the hands, least not one we could see. We didn’t get too close — who would dare? — but even so we should’ve been able to make something out. Jemosak’s run off to the temple in Atiphar to seek advice. You probably passed each other en route.” He gave a dry little cackle.
I grunted. I didn’t see how anyone at the temple would be able to help; without a godmark there was no identifiable authority we could petition. And if the hands didn’t carry the sign of the orbiting deity that had created them, it almost certainly meant they had splintered away from its control.
“There was a town meeting,” Vissek said. “People were terrified. The mayor ordered us to leave our homes.” His look of barely concealed contempt made it clear what he thought of that decision, and of the man who had made it. “Most people left that night. Your folks went across the valley; they’re staying with your father’s brother.”
“Ain’t running, my lad. Too old. Besides, I promised your mother I’d look out for you when you came back from Atiphar. How was it, by the way?”
“It was…fine. Fine.”
It had been more than fine, of course. Atiphar was one of the seven great cities of the Heptatheon, a huge metropolis compared to Ashrekan. I had taken Khresmon Jemosak’s letter of recommendation to the Temple of Lyseda; he thought that if I put my mind to it I could study at the seminary there, perhaps becoming a khresmon myself one day. But despite the intoxicating allure of the city, the bustle of the bazaars and the monuments reeking of power and privilege, during the long carriage ride back home I’d found myself thinking only of spending one last carefree summer with my friends and family. The memory of Katia’s parting kiss, of our last dance together during the midsummer celebrations — Katia loved to dance — had been on my mind throughout the entire trip.
“Where’s Katia?” I asked. “Is she all right?”
Vissek shrugged. “I presume she’s gone with the others.”
Through the dusty window, I could see the evening light beginning to fade. I stood up. “Let’s go. To the lake. To see these hands.”
Vissek blinked up at me. “We should wait to see what advice Khresmon Jemosak comes back with –”
“It’ll be days before he’s back. If he returns at all.”
Vissek stood, his face creased with concern. “Razay, wait. The hands are dangerous to approach. They need a purpose. If they haven’t got one, they’ll find one. We should stay away.”
“They’re probably all dead by now.”
“No. The nest’s only grown larger and stranger since the hands first appeared.”
“What do you mean…stranger?”
Vissek grimaced. “The first day, the hands were in chaos, each starting their own individual construction project — but now they’re all working on the same thing. A building of some sort.”
I frowned. It didn’t sound like this was going to be a self-limiting splintering then. Faces or hands losing contact with their creating god almost always swiftly floundered and died; from grief, people said, but more likely, I suspected, from inbuilt safety measures. If these hands were becoming increasingly organized, it meant they were thriving despite their orphaned state. I tried to recall the history of previous such incidents and cursed myself for not having paid more attention during class — so much for being a star pupil. The only similar episode I could think of was the War of the Faces, but that had ended long before I was born. This was Vissek’s territory, not mine.
I had a sudden inspiration. “Come with me.”
“No, Razay. I promised your mother I’d keep you out of trouble…”
“And what better way than coming with me?”
“I’m going with or without you. Make up your mind.”
In the end, it was he who was first out the door. I glanced across at him as we strode down the empty street and wondered whether I should tell him the real reason for my sudden sense of urgency.
Katia had always been my closest friend, a surrogate sister, a playmate in a village with few other children of similar age. And since the summer festival…something more. I hoped. Growing up together, we had shared a passion for adventurous exploration.
She would not have left with the others. I was certain the lure of the hands would have proved as irresistible to her as it had to me.
I caught up with Vissek just as he lay down on a hillock near the edge of the last standing trees near the dome. I collapsed beside him, breathless.
“They’ve extended the lake since I was last here.” Vissek pointed. “That pit there, it’s just recently flooded. There’s stuff going on underground we can’t even see.”
“It’s amazing.” I couldn’t hide my thrill at being so close to the dome and its constructors at last.
Vissek shot me a sour look, but said nothing.
But I had never seen the workhorses of the gods in action before. The faces of the gods regularly walked amongst us — I remembered snatching a glimpse of one from a distance, during the last Festival of Lyseda. The sight of that majestic and un-human figure as it paraded through the teeming crowds had been one of the reasons I had wanted to apply to the temple in the first place. The faces guided and disciplined us, kept the dangerous old technologies away from us, ensured the gods weren’t considered just remote satellites orbiting in the sky — but it was their hands that did the heavy lifting. They had shaped the very surface of the world.
Before us lay a devastated area of compacted ground, scoured by the legs of the hands and the material they had moved. The entrance to the dome was obvious: a furrow of disturbed soil led up from the lakeshore to a circular tunnel piercing the base of the dome. About five yards in diameter, it spilled golden light over the churned-up ground. A constant stream of hands marched in and out of the tunnel, and from within, I could hear the banging, whirring, thumping noises of active construction.
A pair of hulking hands squatted on either side of the tunnel entrance. Encased in tarnished silver armor, decorated with long spikes, prongs, and horns, they looked like gaudy festival ornaments. Although too large to use the tunnel, either one of them could block access to it by simply easing their bulk in front of the entrance.
At first, I thought the guard hands were too large to be anything other than slow and cumbersome, but my assumption was swiftly proved wrong. A queue of smaller hands, trying to gain access to the dome, began to jostle with each other for priority. One of the guard hands stirred from its position and waded into the scuffle. It singled out a troublemaker, lifted it up, and tossed it far out across the lake with a swift flick of its horns. The victim squealed as it tumbled through the air, the droplets from its crashing impact spattering across our faces.
The ground vibrated with the far-off sound of thunder. A breeze began to pick up.
“This was a mistake,” Vissek said. “We shouldn’t have come so close.”
But I wasn’t listening. In the churned-up mud leading towards the entrance, I had spotted a clear set of human footprints. Someone had walked inside the dome.
Without thinking, I stood and jogged down the slope towards the entrance. Vissek called out, but I didn’t stop.
The two hands by the doorway immediately reared up like threatened scorpions, raising their articulated forelimbs into the air. I slowed and stopped, feeling suddenly vulnerable and stupid — but to my surprise, instead of launching an attack, the hands crumpled back down to the ground. They withdrew, leaving the glowing entrance clear. I hesitated a few moments before looking back and waving up at Vissek. He stood atop the hillock, staring down at me.
“I think we’re expected,” I called to him.
I turned and eyed the hands. Each was larger than the carriage that had carried me from Atiphar, hunkered down and motionless, like drowsing guard dogs eyeing the familiar presence of their master. I walked between them, fearful they might pounce at any moment — but they remained motionless. I kept moving further into the access tunnel, my pace and confidence increasing, until I emerged into the interior of the dome.
From the entrance, a broad tongue of the same glossy material that composed the dome’s outer shell sloped down into a vast circular arena. Above me, the intricate mesh of the roof glittered with countless beads of bright yellow light, like a net of stars tossed across the sky and frozen in mid-flight.
Beneath the huge hemispherical vault, the arena crawled with hands of all shapes and sizes, and at the center squatted the queen, unmistakable, by far the largest of the hands. She was the size of my parents’ chalet, resplendent in scalloped plates of ebony, indigo, and silver-colored armor. Attendants scurried around and between her stubby legs. She sat over a trumpet-mouthed opening, a pit at the very center of the dome, from which hundreds of tiny baby hands emerged like a tide of pale starfish.
I stared in silence at the seething mass of hands below me, both disturbed and enthralled by the sight. After a while, I began to discern distinct patterns of motion. At first, I put them down to momentary tricks of perception, or to random, fluctuating currents emerging naturally out of the fluid movement of the crowd — but soon, the form of the movement became obvious and undeniable.
I sensed a sudden movement beside me and flinched, but it was only Vissek. He was panting.
“Look,” I said, half-laughing. “They’re dancing.”
Vissek nodded, as if this was something entirely to be expected. “Like bees.”
The dance recruited an increasing number of hands. They circled around each other, and clusters of hands circled around other clusters, like cogs in some hugely complex clock mechanism, all in orbit around the queen. Soon the entire arena had become transformed into a single dance floor; all the hands, small and large, whirled around each other, in lockstep to some silent waltz. I looked on, fascinated and strangely drawn by the dance.
“At least we now know the origin of the mutation,” Vissek said. He pointed towards the queen. “She’s the splintered hand. There’s her godmark, and it’s the only one here.”
I squinted at the giant hand. Sure enough, amongst the intricately twisted blades of armor, a circular mark was visible on her back. I immediately recognized the skull-like emblem of the god moon Drar.
I pursed my lips. Drar was the least active of the moons, almost entirely dormant since casting down one of his siblings centuries ago. Some even whispered he had been killed during the ancient conflict. If any god was going to have a hand or face splinter from them…then battle-damaged Drar was most likely.
Another distant rumble. It sounded like the thunderstorm Vissek had predicted was almost upon us.
He tugged at my arm. “We need to leave.”
“Someone is in here,” I said. “They need our help.”
“The exterminating angels are coming. We have to get out.”
“What are you talking about? It’s just a summer storm.” I moved towards the arena, but the old man gripped my shoulder.
“No. It’s not.” His hold on me was painful. His eyes widened. “Razay –!”
Something cold and hard encircled my chest. Vissek’s grip on me broke as I was lifted and whirled away.
I wailed in surprise. A hand had skittered up behind us and seized me as easily as I might have grabbed up a toy. I tried to struggle, but the room-sized hand just squeezed my ribcage tighter as it cut its way across the dance floor, towards the queen. It dumped me on my knees before her, like a sacrificial offering.
The giant queen heaved her upper body into the air and splayed out her four upper legs in a gesture, I imagined, of intimidation. It worked. I cringed as her pale, segmented underbelly rose above my head. Below her, the translucent miniature hands flopped and squirmed as they continued to well up from the birthing pit.
“We just came to look!” I cried, terrified. “We mean no harm!”
The queen swayed, her forelimbs still outstretched. The dance continued around us, a rotating wall of whirling bodies and limbs.
Behind the magnificent armored crest encircling the queen’s nub of a head, a pale face emerged, and an all-too-familiar pair of eyes glittered down at me.
“Isn’t it wonderful? They’re dancing for me!”
My heart fell, my fears realized.
Katia had beaten us inside the dome.
She laughed, riding on the back of the queen as if the giant hand was her favorite pony. Stray ribbons of hair plastered her forehead and cheeks.
“I couldn’t stay with Grandma. I had to see this. And I knew you would come here, I knew you would — and isn’t it marvelous?”
She twirled her fingers and, despite its bulk, the enormous queen executed a deft pirouette beneath her. Katia shrieked with delight as the hand bucked and almost dislodged her from her makeshift seat. My heart skipped a beat.
“Get off there!” I shouted.
Katia giggled as though drunk. The queen broke left, then right. As Katia motioned with her hands, ripples of movement spread out amongst the dancers around us, as they swayed and turned in time.
Suddenly Vissek was at my side again, breathless, and plucking at my sleeve. “She has control of them,” he hissed.
I looked at the old man as if he were insane. “Control? What do you mean?”
“With their god absent, they require a guide, a purpose.” He waved his gnarled hand towards Katia. “They’ve found a new mistress. A new leader.”
“It’s how orphaned battle hands were hijacked in the War,” he insisted. “She must’ve been the first person to approach close enough to establish contact.”
Vissek broke off as he dodged a hand the size and bulk of a dairy cow reeling towards him. The hand crashed into another, and the two careened off into the crowded dance floor, inextricably interlinked and spinning around each other like ice-skaters locked in lethal combat. All around us, similar pairs whirled like top-heavy spinning tops.
“We have to get away,” Vissek shouted. “Rogue hands like these, so easily influenced by us, multiplying — they’re an abomination. There’s no way the gods will allow them to survive or spread. They’ll send their angels to destroy them.”
A loud rumble of thunder from just outside the dome punctuated his statement.
“Katia!” I shouted.
But she wasn’t listening. She may have had control over the queen, but there was also some reciprocal influence upon her. The grin on her flushed face had a rictus quality. Her eyes were glazed over, half rolling back into her head. How long had she been dancing with the hands beneath their magnificent dome? It could have been hours. Or days.
“Katia!” Two guard hands intercepted me as I approached the queen. It seemed almost by chance, as they danced by — but it was no accident. Each time I moved towards her I found tons of glittering spiked metal blocking my way.
I couldn’t leave Katia here. Regardless of the consequences, I inserted myself into the thick of the dance.
There was a heavy clunk, and one of the whirling hands, whether by accident or design, bashed me across the back of my head. I seemed to suddenly mislay control of my limbs and sprawled onto the cold, hard floor.
“You fool!” I felt myself being grabbed around the chest. “We have to go. Now.” Vissek grunted as he struggled to heave me upright.
“It’s too late for her.”
I pushed him away and stumbled after the retreating queen, dodging an oncoming assembly of tubular arms stretched out as if to embrace me. Hands converged from all directions. Katia was barely visible, nestled in folds of serrated armor.
Desperate to slow the queen’s progress, I scooped up a saucer-sized hand skittering across my path. It was heavier than it looked. I shook free the spiny limbs that clutched at my wrist, and hurled the creature towards the queen. With a ringing clang, it bounced against the queen’s glossy carapace, and deflected directly into Katia’s shocked face. She gave a shriek and fell back, clutching her cheek. The queen bucked, and I watched in horror as Katia tumbled off.
The dance disintegrated. The hands collided and bounced off each other as if blind. I dodged through the chaos as best I could, desperately trying to avoid being mashed.
Katia lay on the arena floor, moaning, shuddering. Her eyes fluttered open and shut. Her cheek bled from a diagonal gash. I lifted her up and weaved my way through the maddened hands towards the exit.
The queen suddenly loomed before me. She reared onto her haunches, forelimbs gesticulating, pincers opening and closing, clickety-clack. I backed away, shielding Katia as best I could.
A loud clang above us, and the whole dome rang. An elongated shard of darkness plummeted through a hole punched through the roof and exploded near the pit from where the baby hands still emerged. The blast from the crashing impact drove me off my feet.
When I looked up again, the queen was gone, and all the hands were converging upon the birthing pit. Above me, I could hear more ringing impacts against the dome surface.
“Come on!” Vissek, once again. He grabbed my elbow and pulled me to my feet. I cradled Katia, now limp and heavy, in my arms. I followed Vissek out of the dome. No hands stood in the tunnel to challenge our exit.
We stumbled back out into the night. Vissek ushered me along the shoreline. I staggered through the mud, away from the fading light, but I had to stop before long, my arms aching. I set Katia down and turned to look behind us.
Dark tentacles of cloud wound themselves around the dome, obscuring it from sight. Crazed flickers of lightning revealed ill-defined structures within the turbulence. If there was an angel — or any other entity — hidden deep within, it showed no signs of emerging.
“We can’t stop,” Vissek insisted. “We have to get as far away as we can.”
I hesitated, trying to comprehend the unfolding scene, but a sudden blue-white flash erased my vision. A loud crack rolled out over the mountains. The ground tilted up and slapped me hard on the back, knocking the breath out of me. Needles, cones, and other debris from the forest canopy rained down onto my face.
Dazed, I levered myself back onto my elbows. I heard a sizzling, hissing sound, growing in volume. At first, I thought it was damage to my hearing, a consequence of the explosion, but then I realized the lake near the dome was bubbling. The outline of the dome — already fractured, and with gaping holes appearing in it — became visible through the roiling clouds of smoke and steam as it began to glow a sullen red. My face prickled from the radiated heat.
Vissek’s scrawny hands dug into my armpits as he struggled to hoist me to my feet. “If we stay here, our flesh will be seared from our bones.”
I watched in disbelieving horror as the dome began to collapse. A plume of smoke and ash billowed up to join the dread cloud above.
“We have to move away,” Vissek said. “Who knows how wide and how deep they will cauterize the wound!”
We heaved up Katia’s prone body between us and retreated deeper into the woods. Behind us, thunderous crashes and stuttering flashes of light continued to wrack the night sky.
We managed to stagger all the way back to Ashrekan. To the north, a fiery red glow continued to burn in the dark belly of the mountains. Beneath us, the ground occasionally shuddered. Above us, the stars and god moons were absent, veiled by thick cloud.
We lay Katia, still unconscious, across Vissek’s dilapidated bed. I dozed beside her, exhausted, slumped half on the floor and half on the bed.
Vissek woke me sometime later. The bed creaked as he sat down beside me, and I started.
“The lake’s grown again,” he said.
He glanced across at Katia, his face expressionless. Wan streaks of dawn light filtered through the shutters of the bedroom window.
“You…you’ve been back?” My throat was dry, my voice a croak. I felt battered, bruised, and still exhausted.
“The attack is over. I tried to get as close as I could but the heat and smoke drove me back.”
“The dome’s gone. There’s only deep water where it used to be.”
Katia groaned, and we both turned to look at her.
She shook her head, slowly, from side to side, but did not wake.
Once it was clear the hands were gone, the residents of Ashrekan returned, my parents amongst them.
Vissek delights in spreading elaborate tales about the so-called Palace of the Crazed Hands and my duel with their monstrous queen. I’ve become something of a local celebrity. The mayor even tried to award me a medal, although I refused to accept it. No matter how much I protest my insignificance, it seems I’ve usurped Vissek’s role as Ashrekan’s resident celebrity.
Katia eventually woke from her coma. She said she remembered nothing of the hands, or her time beneath their dome. She was grateful to me when she learned of my role in her rescue, and to her, at least, I did not play down my part. She even said she forgave me for the scar on her cheek. Outwardly, apart from her loss of memory, she appeared fine. But I could tell. Something in her had been damaged that night.
I didn’t apply to go to the seminary that year, despite Khresmon Jemosak’s insistence and the unvoiced disappointment of my parents. What I had seen that night, the way in which the dangerous beauty of the hands had been so summarily erased — the reality of the brutal and ruthless nature of the
gods — convinced me it was something I did not want to be part of, in any capacity.
Katia and I married. I help look after her now. Most days she is absolutely fine, and occasionally we even talk about starting a family.
But she does not dance anymore.
I help in my father’s workshop. The so-called savior of Ashrekan now spends his time tinkering with, and occasionally even fixing, broken clocks and other simple mechanical devices. It pays its way, just about, and I enjoy the manual work. Some people tut and mutter about wasted potential, even about me dabbling with the old forbidden technologies — but during the summer months when the mountains shimmer and the cow bells clonk and the insects buzz lazily around the meadow flowers, I’m glad of the diverted path my life has taken.
So far the angels have chosen not to obliterate me.
On nights when the sky is clear and the god moons are near full, I occasionally wake and find Katia gone. I pull on my clothes and walk up to the old flooded quarry, and she is there. Together we sit by the extended shore, huddled amongst the seedlings and strong young trees, and imagine what could have been. Perhaps it’s just a trick of the reflected moonlight, or a shared ghost in our minds, but sometimes we believe we catch brief glimpses of the rogue queen and her splintered hands, still dancing beneath the mist-shrouded waters of the lake.
|Henry Szabranski lives in Buckinghamshire, UK, with his wife and two young sons. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction, Lakeside Circus, and Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology, amongst other places. He blogs, occasionally, at www.henryszabranski.com, or you can follow @henryszabranski on Twitter.|