“The Spine of Worlds” by Eric Rosenfield

“The Spine of Worlds” by Eric Rosenfield

The Clockwork Gallery, as Hal called it, had walls of gears, pistons, springs and boilers, all hot steam pipes and cool iron.

At the far end, a bewilderingly complex series of dials and knobs, when set precisely, would cause a portion of the wall to roll away, to reveal the shimmering door.

The Gallery had exactly one permanent occupant, a mangy cat with a single glowing blue eye, which had escaped from the realm of the Gnome King long ago. The Gallery was littered with abandoned camp sites from adventurers who’d spent days or weeks there, trying to solve the puzzle and get through the door to the land of gnomes and their fabled wealth.

Hal was sifting through the abundant trash piles when he spied Aris with an iron bar wedged into one of the door’s gears, trying to force it to turn. He’d made the mistake of clucking his tongue before looking back at the pile, and a few moments later found a knife under his chin.

“You know how to make it work,” Aris said. “Do it.” Her dialect was odd but perfectly comprehensible; her world must have been near his own.

He’d learned to never run away from an adventurer. It only made them chase you. Usually the best strategy was to lie down and play dead, but it was too late for that now.

The knife trembled in her hand. She was no killer. He shook his head and shoulders together, like a shaggy dog, and waited for her to curse or slap him, give vent to some eruption of anger before giving up and going away. But when he looked up, she’d done something totally unexpected.

Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Please,” she said.

He took her in for the first time, the rusted, hole-pitted chain-mail and the animal-skin cloak with huge gouts of missing fur, the half-rotted old spear at her back, the too-big helmet with its ridiculous plume, and the coal black curls that framed her mud-smeared but still pretty face. She reminded him of a stray animal, and he was always kind to strays. He saw too much of himself in them.

Against his better judgment, he sat next to her on a short stack of enormous cogs and asked what had happened, like a doting relative.

“Can’t you tell?” she gestured at the ground beneath them, and when he still looked confused she said, exasperated, “My shadow. It’s been stolen.”

Only then did he see she was right, that the gaslight cast nothing beneath her. Once he’d seen, it he found it unsettling, a vague wrongness about her like a smell.

Aris — a name that in her accent had three syllables, long and lilting — told him about the beautiful, swarthy foreigner who’d strode into her village with tales of a tower that bridged worlds. Perched on his shoulder had sat a two-headed gupta bird that he’d said could smell out treasure. Later, he’d told her the bird had led him to her and she’d giggled and let him seduce her. Not long after, he’d tried to leave her like a common conquest only to find her waiting for him at the town gate in her grandfather’s old armor.

“I knew I’d made a mistake when I saw the grimace on his face,” she admitted, wiping her cheeks with a cloth Hal had dug out of his bags and cleaned on a pant leg. “But he’d promised me worlds and I was going to make him keep his promises.”

Together they’d journeyed up into the mountains to the shimmering door in a dank, rat-infested cavern and then crossed into the gradually sloping, twisting halls of the Tower, the Spine of Worlds. The gupta bird, until then listless and languid, perked up and took off with a squawk.

It led them through the labyrinth until they came to a gallery Hal recognized from her description as the Frost Gallery of Distant Sighs, with its icy, crystal-like walls, semi-transparent stalactites and haunting echo. Through its door and into the tundra, they’d sought a mystical fern that bloomed once a century and sat atop a measureless mound of golden coins. Instead they’d found Baba Yaga.

“Some adventurer he turned out to be.” Aris laughed bitterly. “When that house rose up on its chicken legs and Baba Yaga cackled from atop her flying mortar and pestle, he pissed his pants and ran.”

The house had chased him down.

“Sometimes at night I think I still hear the sound of his bones crunching,” Aris said. “Then the Baba Yaga ripped my shadow from me and cast it across the multiverse.”

She looked up at Hal with big, shining eyes. She’d removed the ill-fitting helmet and her ragged curls pooled across her shoulders.

“No one seems to understand,” he told her, as if lecturing a school child. “They arrive here, in the Tower, the one safe place in the whole multiverse and immediately they want to rush off through the doors to their deaths.

She considered him seriously for a time, and he could see the new idea seeping into her. “So you live here — all by yourself?”

He nodded.

“You must be lonely.”

“At least I have a shadow,” he snapped, immediately regretting it.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” she said, through trembling lips and watery eyes. “I step into the raw sunlight and feel nothing but cold. Like the light doesn’t really touch me, just falls into a void, an emptiness that claws at me and wants to eat me from the inside.”

She put her hands on Hal’s arm and pressed against him, sending a thrill through him. He thought he’d long ago inured himself to that kind of thrill.

“You have to help me,” she said. “Please. They say the Gnome King is a master of shadows. If anyone can make me right…”

“Why do you think the Gnome King will do anything for you?”

“I’ll find a way,” she said defiantly, and from the set of her jaw and the intensity of her deep brown eyes he thought maybe she would at that.

He’d seen enough adventurers successfully crack the code, ignoring him scavenging in the corner. So he told her how to open the door, breaking a vow he’d made never to assist an adventurer on one of their suicidal ventures. He watched the barrier roll away, saw her step through, and wondered if he’d ever see her again.

* * *

When he was barely in his teens, Hal’s village had been destroyed by a pair of copulating rock giants. In a story it might have seemed comical, but the reality was something else.

Bodies like mountains that crushed houses, people, livestock; rolling and pounding and grinding with deafening, hideous noise, until the village was left in splinters.

Hal had been out gathering firewood and ran back when he’d heard the noise to find his parents’ and sister’s mangled bodies in the rubble of their house.

It was then he understood clearly and without equivocation the arbitrary cruelty of life, the way in which the things one loves could be snatched away at any moment without warning. He fled into the woods, surviving alone on his wits and a willingness to eat anything remotely edible.

Some years later he was discovered by a monk of the three-faced wisdom god Hentow, out on a meditative hike. The monk took Hal into the monastery, fed him, and educated him.

He and his brothers ran an inn and tavern where travelers stopped on the long road to the capital, and it was bussing tables there that Hal first heard of the shimmering door lying in the Anteguan ruins deep in the Soughing Wastes.

He would have become a monk himself and lived a simple life if an invading army had not travelled that same road. Hentow did not save the monks from being slaughtered to a man.

Hal played dead and found himself at the bottom of a mass grave. When he crawled free from the stinking corpses and earth many hours later, he collapsed in a fit of laughter.

After the rock giants, the whole thing had been almost prosaic.

Clearly, there was no future in society, in gods or men. So he set out to find the shimmering door and somewhere that he could be safe and alone. And once he had, what he’d discovered as he investigated the galleries and watched the adventurers tromp through on their way to peril and death, was that the Tower, a non-place, a place between places, was itself the only place he’d ever want to be.

So he’d stayed, and sworn off other people. Love, affection, attachment, these things could leave you as shattered and splintered as any monster. He would prove that a man could live safely, if he put his mind to it.

So why was he setting up camp in the Clockwork Gallery? Why was he waiting for Aris to come back?

He must be very bored. It was the only explanation.

He could help her without endangering himself, he rationalized.

In his years in the Tower he’d watched and listened, keeping to the shadows as the adventurers tromped through. He named the galleries and remembered what was said to be beyond each door. He’d never found an end to them — every time he thought he had, he discovered more uncharted space — but he didn’t think there was a living person who knew them better. If the Gnome King wouldn’t help her, and she didn’t know where to turn next, he could point her on the right path.

It might even be fun.

* * *

When Aris returned a few days later — though “days” were notional in the Tower, where there was no sky or sun — Hal motioned her over to his campfire.

Tentative at first, she rushed over when she saw the large fish he was roasting over a spit. He’d caught it the Green and Blue Gallery of Delicate Shells. Between bites she told him how the Gnome King had refused her an audience, how the gnomes had left her outside banging on the walls of his capital.

“The peasants took me in, thank the gods,” she said. “Anyway, the Gnome King only has shadows he takes himself as trophies. Apparently, he has quite a collection. A sick little garden of stolen shadows. But not mine.”

She finished her food quickly, in large ravenous bites. Afterwards, she pulled her chain-mail clinking over her head and swore when her hair caught between the links and she had to carefully pull it free.

“Every time,” she muttered.

Then, without asking, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she crawled into his tent, tied shut the flap, and slept for a very long time.

* * *

The next day he took her to the room he called the Forest Gallery of the Cold Winds, where enormous evergreens towered up into the darkness and covered the stone floor with a fine coat of needles.

“There are shamans beyond the door,” he told her. “They detach their shadows and send them off to do chores. They might be able to help you.”

Her eyes filled with gratitude and she kissed him on the cheek before disappearing through the gateway.

And when the shamans couldn’t help her, he took her to the Water Gallery of the Rainbow-Casting Waterfall, where the door lay submerged beneath a crystal clear pool. Beyond it lay a chain of islands occupied by the Hepwa, who worshipped shadow people that came to their shrines at midday and carried away their offerings.

And when that didn’t work he took her to the Crystalline Gallery of the Long Crack, beyond which door lay prismatic, silica creatures that communicated to one another in shadow and light.

He spent more time waiting for Aris than with her. He found himself rushing back to his camp from his foraging and scavenging, not wanting to miss her return. While in the Water Gallery, he’d spent time bathing to remove the protective stench he’d long since built up. He thought up little things to say on their nights around the campfire, tidbits of information that might amuse her, aphorisms that might convince her to stay in the Tower like a sensible person.

He didn’t know what it was like to have no shadow, but it was better to have no shadow than to die, and every time she stepped through one of those doors there was a risk she’d never come back.

Sometimes he couldn’t sleep, imagining her body mangled and crushed within a rock giant palm print or pale and slashed open atop a mass grave.

Those were bad nights.

“You really never went through any of these doors?” she asked once, as they lay side by side on a mat of woolly material. The fire crackled nearby, making shapes dance in and over the crystal all around.

“Outside the Tower, death lies waiting. Inside the Tower, he is confused and defeated,” Hal recited. This rhymed in their language, if not well.

“Come on.” She sat up on one elbow. “All these hundreds of worlds, and not one of them is safe? I don’t believe it.”

He shrugged. “It isn’t worth the risk to find out. Why would I need to? I have everything I need here.” He raised a finger. “The Tower provides everything you could need.”

She fell back with a humph. “So where do you think it comes from? This place? Someone or something must have created it on purpose.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I overheard someone once who was convinced the whole place had grown like a living creature out of the doors. Like all the walls, all the galleries, are really made out of doors turned on their sides or folded and rearranged.”

“Munferd — ” this had been the swarthy coward’s name — “told me once that the Tower doesn’t give you the adventure you want, but it always gives you the adventure you need. Do you think that’s true?”

Hal frowned. “I’ve heard that before but never put much stock in it.”

She moved closer, so he could feel her breath upon his face, smelling of the fruits he’d gathered earlier. “Don’t you think people are sometimes meant to find each other? Like they’re put together for a reason.” He felt a shot of panic as her lips drew near and he pushed her gently away.

“People want to believe in order and sense and purpose, like something is guiding them,” he said. “But if I believed that, then I would have to believe there was a reason my parents and everyone I’d ever known and loved had been killed, that some god or power had looked down and said, ‘this is right’. If there is any such power, it is an evil thing and I hope I left it behind when I came here.”

He saw the hurt look in her face, and said softly, “I don’t want to get close to anyone ever again. I can’t — ” and then he broke off and turned away.

“So why are you helping me?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said truthfully.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, I think you’re lonely. You just won’t admit it to yourself.”

“I am not!” he said, and realized immediately that he sounded like a petulant child. What was it about her that could reduce him to this?

She gave a hum of satisfaction at his defensiveness and then rose to go to the tent and sleep. He sat up, rocking there for a long time, wondering if he’d done the right thing. There was a moment when he put a hand down as if to get up and go join her in the tent, but the moment passed, and he curled up where he was by the fire instead.

* * *

He guided her to a school of wizardry where students in pointed hats drew secrets from the darkness. He guided her to a city of moving mirrors, whose denizens lived in the tain and traveled between the play of shadows. He guided her to a valley where feathered snakes sung mournful songs that made their shadows dance. Their relationship became almost formal, polite. She reported on each world like he might have recited to a monk how he had completed his chores. He told himself it was for the best, repeated it to himself like a meditation chant.

In truth, it would be over soon anyway. He was running out of doors whose worlds had anything to do with shadows. The singing snakes were little more than beasts and couldn’t communicate. A long shot at best.

“I think we’ve been avoiding the obvious,” she said, slouched in a gallery whose bilious, puffy fungus made for comfortable seating. She looked up at him, fear in her eyes. “I need to find Baba Yaga. But how can I make her give me back my shadow? Why would she do that?”

He considered this, mulling over all the galleries that he knew. When the solution occurred to him, he almost didn’t say it, didn’t want to put her through it. “There is a way,” he said, “but it won’t be pleasant.”

The Ramu lived beneath the shoulder blades of a giant so large it was the entirety of its world, a creature with hair follicles like trees. She could be glimpsed only in your peripheral vision, a nude slip of a woman cackled about by adventurers drunk around camp fires but spoken of with grim reverence when sober. The Ramu could grant you information, anything you wanted to know, but few would agree to her price. She drew things from your mind like a bird pulling a worm from the earth, precious memories — your first kiss, the sound of your mother’s voice singing you to sleep. And you would be left with the feeling of something missing and lost that you would never, ever recover.

She could tell Aris how to get her shadow from Baba Yaga.

“Perhaps,” he suggested finally, “you could get by without your shadow? You could just stay here where it’s safe?”

She shook her head. “Part of me would always be missing.”

So he brought her the Gallery of the Ramu, surfaces fleshy and moving softly as if with breath, making them difficult to walk on. She returned a mere few hours later and he held her while she wept for a long time. When she was done, there was a hardness about the set of her mouth and the ruddy rims of her eyes and he thought she might never cry again.

A day later they stood in the Frost Gallery of the Distant Sighs, illuminated by its shimmering door. The Ramu had given Aris a spell, put the knowledge of how to cast it deep into her mind where it could not be forgotten. It was a simple thing, Aris had told Hal, a few hand gestures, some mystical words and Baba Yaga would be immobile until Aris released her.

Which Aris wouldn’t do until she had her shadow and was safely back in the Tower.

He hadn’t been able to sleep. All day he’d pictured this moment, when he would see her off. He could kiss her, give her a big romantic moment, like in the stories. They would kiss and she would understand the purity of his spirit, everything he had overcome in himself, that she had helped him overcome. The love he’d thought he could never feel. And then she would come back with her shadow and they would live there together, happy and safe for the rest of their lives.

But the moment never arrived. They got to the door, she squared her shoulders, looked back once to say, “Thank you,” and then she was gone.

In the three days until she returned, he actually considered going after her. What if she needed help? And what did it mean that he wasn’t there, wasn’t with her while her quest came to its end, wasn’t part of her story? A minor character at best, and certainly no love interest. But what could he do? He would just be in the way.

No, he would wait.

Finally, she emerged through the door, looking haggard and tired, her shadow triumphantly cast on the cold stone floor. She hugged him and then he took her to his camp and fed her and watched over her while she slept.

In the morning they breakfasted on a mix of nuts and berries.

“So what now?” he asked her, trying to still the shake of his hands, the quaver in his voice.

She shrugged. “I guess I go home. I don’t think I’ll have much of mood for adventuring for a long time.” She rummaged in a pouch and pulled out a gleaming, irregularly shaped, deep red gemstone. “I found this and a few more like it beyond the Crystalline Gallery of the Long Crack. I think it’ll make life easy for me and my family.”

Hal grimaced. “It won’t make you safe, though. Money just makes you more of a target.”

“You think I’m better off poor?”

“I think you’re better off here.” There, he’d said it.

“Hal — ” She started, but just then he launched himself from his seat and pressed his lips on hers, awkwardly half-crouched over her. She didn’t push him away, but didn’t respond either.

“I love you,” he said when he pulled away. “I… I let myself love you. I haven’t let myself love anything in so long and it hit me like a rock giant’s fist. You don’t know how I’ve worried, sending you through those doors all the time. I can’t bear the thought of you living out there again, where death waits around every corner. Stay here with me. Where it’s safe and we can be happy.”

“Honestly, I’ve thought about it. About the life you lead here.”

Her eyes were wide and deep and she took his chin in his hands.

“There’s something I realized when I was in the mirrored city. The people there — according to their myths, they once had bodies like you and me, but they angered the gods and their rivers dried up and their crops failed. In order to survive they cast a great spell that transformed them into beings of the tain, living forever in slips of light. They could vibrate the silver, make an approximation of human speech that sounds like distantly ringing bells.

“They asked me what is was like to hold someone, to stand beneath the rain and feel the drops on my skin, to feel physical pain. They thought these things, lost to them, were so curious and strange and fascinating.”

She took Hal’s hands into hers as he sank to his knees before her, not knowing where she was going with this but not feeling good about it.

“It’s a kind of death,” she said. “If you lose things like feeling and holding, being with others, you lose what it means to be a person. This life, alone in this cold empty place-between-places, everything the same day after day, it’s not a life at all. You might as well be in the grave.”

He opened his mouth to speak but stopped when she shook her head.

“I’m going home, Hal,” she said. “It’s a little town called Deiffebeg on the river Lud. You can come and find me there. We’ll start over.” She smiled, “I’d like that.”

He started to formulate arguments in his head, why she should stay, but they all fell flat before he could put them into words. Instead, she took his hand and they walked in silence until they arrived at the gallery of her homeland, the floor covered with a bed of soil and wild grasses that came up to their knees.

She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll see you soon?” she said. When he didn’t respond, she glanced back once with her warm, sad eyes before she vanished through the door.

He stared squinting at the shimmering light and took a breath, toes just at the threshold.

Eric Rosenfield lives in Brooklyn and works in digital comics. He can be found on the internet at ericrosenfield.com.