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A Wisdom that is Woe, a Woe that is Madness

The tower rises from the edge of the cracked salt sea, a single tree wasting to sticks at its stony side. Surprise washes through Ismail at the tower’s sudden appearance; his well-handled map shows the tower over three mountains more, nestling within the heart of a black, bramble wood. He expects to slice his path through thick vines bursting with thorns thirsty for a taste of him; to be clawed bloody before he stumbles gasping against an old, splintered door. No such obstacles greet him; his sword—the mark of every questing prince—rests unused in its leather scabbard.

The salt sea is cracked to the merciless sky above. What water the basin once held is long gone, the ground buckling into ripples of pale salt flowing outward even now as if something yet falls into their midst. Ages before, when water cloaked the sea, it was a rock, ever-growing rings of water lapping outward to the salty shore. A palm-sized black stone rests unmoving within a salt crater as if to say it was indeed so.

There is only this: the salt and the tree, the tower and the sky, until a shadow defines the dreadful height of the tower across the crusted ground. Ismail knows within his bones, this is the place he has sought for ages and for ever.

He moves forward, always within the breadth of shadow, lifting his eyes to the tower’s pinnacle, but the highest point is lost within the dazzle of the sunlight. If there is a window, he cannot see it. The sunlight scoops his vision into its burning hands and Ismail stumbles to his knees within the salt. The water bottle he carries falls free and with a slosh spills its wet abundance into the salt; when vision returns, Ismail presses his fingers into the dark puddle, the salt as thirsty as he. Melting salt clings to his fingers and he wipes them down the length of his golden robes, thinking this worse than black brambles. All his water, lost to the salt. At least he could cut brambles, make them bleed in turn.

Ismail staggers to his feet. The tower’s shadow lessens the day’s heat, but sweat still soaks his skin. His robes are greedy for the moisture and, when he reaches the tower’s door, wet. He stinks of his journey, wants to scrub himself clean in the salt, but seeks the carved words across the door’s lintel, words to give proof of this place. He does not see them at first and panic sticks an icy hand into his gut until he spies the faintest shadow against the stone. He stretches, digging his fingers into the salt crusting each carved letter.

What is not killed is not dead.

Salt feathers down Ismail’s wrist, tracing his sweat-damp arm. His fingers linger within the last word, pressing hard as he envisions they who built this place, they who raised the stones at the edge of the salt sea. Those who bound the princess within and cursed her to as empty an existence as there might ever be; those who branded her a monster for they could not dare understand the wonder and power within her small hands. They who could not stomach the way eyes strayed to her when she walked through the market; they who knew a threat in her smile and step. Centuries gone, the stories said—and no more than stories, so many others proclaimed, but here, here, proof beneath his fingers pulsing with his heart. Here she is. She in her tower, in her desolation, at the edge of a broken salt sea.

Ismail weeps at the idea of it, salted water coursing down his cheeks. It is water he cannot stand to lose, but he sobs uncontrollably, until his knees buckle and fingers slip from the words within the stone. He presses himself against the door; this door is not old or splintered, and its paint, the color of a twilight sky, still smells fresh, shines bright. A fabrication of the desert, he thinks, and kneels at its threshold. Nothing is as he believed, but for this place, anchored in all of time.

“Princess, I have come,” he whispers in a voice torn ragged by the dry air.

But if there is a princess, she does not reply.

The tower: three storeys, pale rag- and mudstone rising from a jumble of debris at its base. The white tower rakes the sky in solitude when once it might have been part of something larger, though not something necessarily better. The white tower is the only object visible from the river, clouded horizon unbroken by tree or hill. The memory of walls intermittently marks the scrub grass.

Within as without, the tower once housed something larger, something more. Every upward step is notched, a large body violently dragged up or down; it is impossible to say which direction and perhaps, in the end, it was both. Hall and chapel stand empty, echoing, and the uppermost tower room also yawns vacant, a mouth swallowing the sodden roof spilling itself inward. Rusting rings and chains notched into the walls, the ages-old scent of bodies once kept; bodies in protest, bodies in revolt. Anger stains the floorboards, recollections of people etched into walls alongside marks of years.

Ismail spreads his map in the light of the fire, smoothing rivers and planets and stars flat so he can discern ground and not sky upon the page. It would not be this world, they all said.

His map said the same, until it curled in on itself and edge touched edge. Ismail made careful folds within the aging and yellowed paper, creating a cube, a triangle, and connected points that should never have connected. The map became a living thing within his hands, showing skies he could never have imagined existing. And this small speck, this lifeless rock, solid beneath bottom and foot now, crusted with salt, marked with a tower. It should not have been.

A meager dinner from his pack, but it isn’t a lack of food keeping Ismail restless. He glances toward his ship—gleaming, white, pristine—resting beyond the last soft ridge before the jagged mountains. He wants to run for it, climb in and fly away because in the night that rises when the sun sets, the tower fluctuates. He believes at first it is only the angle of the light; the slow dwindle of sunlight into moonlight, and then a curious combination of both, until one swallows the other.

The light shifts from warm to cool and sharpens the tower’s edges. Each corner attains a strange precision in the faint moonlight, obsidian stone chipped into a perfect cutting edge. Ismail is certain the stone would flay fingers—sandstone, he thought earlier, but not now. In the rising dark, he finds the brambles earlier sought, writhing from the ground in long lengths of salted fury, passing over the sharp walls with the whisper of skin against leather.

Ismail slides backwards in the salt, meaning to move away from the tower’s base, but he never gets far; he cannot remove himself from the tower. The creeping black is always close to hand, his cheek grazing one of those sharp edges as if he had moved forward after all. He looks at the sky to gain a bearing, but there is no sky to be found; what hangs there is hideous, devoid of stars and moon, and Ismail reels as if struck. He smells blood and presses his fingers to his wounded cheek. The tower grows with a groan of cold iron.

The obelisk: no wider than shoulders, rising one hundred feet above its gneiss rubble base, from a barren granite island anchored in the center of a salt water lake whose shores are not easily viewed from the island unless one stands within the obelisk. A ragged doorway, unintentionally cut. No stairs, but rotting pegs, a stutter-step ascent.

The room beneath the marble capstone, perfumed with bay laurel, smothers; no one stood upright within its confines, only sprawled to gaze upon the world through thinning opaline walls. Words worn into the base of the capstone by incessant fingers: non occidatum, non mortuum.

The brambles are not black, but coated in salt as the ground; the lengths crawling the length of the tower and seeking purchase against Ismail’s very own feet are pale and heavy with strange designs borne of the salt sea air. The brambles are barbed, humpbacked, and swollen with pearled crystals that, even with the sudden absence of light, glow. They light a strange pathway up the tower, shambling along its metal girth, reading for the golden light fracturing the buckled roof Ismail had not seen under the afternoon sky.

Ismail shouts at the sight of the light, at the sight of her

she whom he has sought

she whom they say do not exist

she

she

spilling—

She, in a river from the window germinating in the tower’s iron side. She, as strangely shaped as brambles, ungainly from her time within closed walls. She, eclipsing the naked sky with beauty and being.

Ismail does not stop to wonder what has occasioned the opening of the window, if it be the brambles rending the tower or another force at work. Surely if the princess could have pushed the iron panels wide, to welcome the day, the night, the air, she would have. He shouts again, calling to her so he might be heard above the rush of the salted brambles, and she, gazing down upon him as one might a lover long expected, looses her hair.

Her hair spills like a flood of ink against the salted brambles, dark and fine, and tangled just so Ismail may climb if he wishes. Small, fragrant hands find his own within the tresses, pulling him up and up; diminutive, soft feet balance beneath his, shoving him up in the way of circus performers. It is effortless this climbing, until Ismail realizes his sword has been left behind, resting beside the fire he can no longer see from this terrible height. Ismail looks down once, over his shoulder. He resists the cupping hands and pressing feet and at his resistance, they allow him to fall.

If he does not need them, they do not need him.

The lighthouse: Thick square base, rising into a sturdy octagonal core, giving way to a gentle circular apex. Four hundred and fifty feet of salted limestone blocks standing in ocean air, some sealed with molten lead, some cracked by the movement of earth over time. Anchored by the weight of years.

Within the circular room, a furnace to be fed at night so brilliant firelight might stream into the harbor, into the beyond. Flooring worn by feet, the dark, sweat-outline of a single body against the curve of a wall. Ships crossing the waters day in and out, ships coveted but never boarded.

The molten lead, the salted rock.

The night swallows screams.

Silent, Ismail plunges toward the ground, a flurry of hands and legs, until he catches a bramble. It is fire in his hands, scorching salt licking a wound into his palm, down the length of his arm. The night feeds on his screams, grows dense around him, and the black tower expands under the force of his fear. A tendril of hair brushes his cheek and Ismail lunges for it, abandoning his quest for his sword if it means reclaiming the touch of those small hands, the support of those small feet.

Each bears him up again and again, and Ismail’s heart slows, his breathing calms, and he tells himself he does not see the barren sky above the buckling tower roof, sees only her pale and heart-shaped face within the black night of her hair; hears only her soft and breathless voice saying oh my prince, at last you have come; at last, at last.

He tells himself it is he who pulls himself into the tower; he disregards her support, her hands sliding under his arms to haul him across the window’s sill. The sill is coated with the dust of a hundred years and it sifts around him in a cloud when she settles him beneath the window. Her hair moves in the dust like thick-bodied snakes, only glimpses of her figure: slim and pale as bones, teeth.

He trembles and cannot speak, does not dare for he finds every word inadequate as he crouches within her presence. Her shadow befalls him, though she glows within the tangle of her boundless hair, raking down cheeks and arms until the darkness of her puddles in his lap, the scent of cloves rubbed to warmth between fingers. He does not dare reach for her, though his hands beg to be knotted into the black, to find the small hands that once sought his, to taste of a palm, a wrist.

It is she who touches him. Her hands are strangely cool, soft as pink lilies as they enfold his own. His own: calloused, blackened, and ragged from the search that has found an end here. The she who should not exist, smiling as the crescent moon through the cascade of her nocturnal hair.

The peel tower: honeycombed travertine, eaten away by the years, but standing yet. It is the only structure for miles, existing only to hold its prisoner and the iron basket into which she climbs every night.

Every night that is to be, regular as the stars raking the sky above: she presses hands and feet against the iron eating the prints out of her skin, identity taken and taken once more. The shadow of her hands and feet edge the bowl, erased not by fire or time; no wind will carry these shadows away, nor melting snow or fracturing ice. Every night ever to come, she climbs into the iron bowl and burns herself to illuminate the darkness.

Every morning, she climbs out of her own ash. Reknits herself.

That which you do not kill is—

“ . . . not dead.”

Ismail weeps. Ismail believes himself unworthy. She bandages his hands within lengths of her hair and the cool, licking fire of her soothes him; eats into his flesh and gives him something he didn’t realize he was missing. He cannot put a name to this something: companionship, touch, the proof he was not wrong.

He was not wrong.

“You,” he says.

He swallows his other words, for speaking them in her presence seems like a curse. You are not dead, he means to tell her. I will take you from these walls. He lifts his eyes but cannot find hers for all the twisting hair. Maybe there is a gleam within some small parting; maybe it is green or black or something more like the color of uncertainty. But no, she is certain. He is not.

In her certainty, she waits. He can feel her watching him, even if he cannot see her eyes. Ismail longs to brush her hair from her face, so he might gaze upon the beauty the stories have spoken of, but he does not. Only looks at her as she is, hunched and draped, skin like moonlight flickering here and then there.

“You are not dead,” he manages to say.

At this, she moves. She crosses the room and still the hair which binds his hands does not slither free. These tresses are so long, they might encompass the entire room. Vines, he thinks; roots.

“You are not dead and I will take you from these walls.”

Across the room, jeweled curtains part. Ismail cannot see hand or foot, but she stands before the parting fabric and he presumes she has moved them; has parted the draped brocades and silks with her pale-lily hands to reveal the grandest room he has ever seen. Within this room there stands a bed, mounded with pillows and promise, spread with more silk, the colors of fire and frost and the forests of his home. His throat tightens at the sight of these colors and a sound escapes him.

Rest, he thinks. We should rest before we go.

But she has only ever rested. Waited.

The fleetfoot: obsidian stone cages a pendulous body in constant motion. The fleetfoot is never still, picking its way over night-drenched ground, over star-knotted river. On eight thread-thin legs the fleetfoot steps on no ground twice. Fleetfoot carries with it a prisoner and the night wind, the morning sun distantly towed on a string of silk. So distant, the fleetfoot never knows the touch of light.

The fleetfoot leaves small craters in its wake, eight in a pattern if you know how to look. Prints left in long grass fields and muddy lanes, so children would know it passed in the night. Livestock has been lost to its steps, squashed where they stand without other reasonable explanation. Children in these parts dream of pressed pig liver, flattened cow tongues. They marvel at the discovery of a chicken’s egg balanced on muddy crater rim, shell so thin the morning sun turns it into a globe of glowing gold.

The splendid bed is as hard as nails. Ismail cannot understand how beauty is so dreadful against his tired limbs. He tries to sleep, to pass the night away before they take leave toward his ship; he cannot for the way the bed presses into every ache he possesses.

“Princess, how do you . . . ”

But how did she do anything, let alone sleep in such a dreadful space. The pillows are as stone and the promise he felt upon first entering the room is long fled. He holds to the hair that wraps his hands still, seeking some relief, but neither is there any to be had here. It is cold and dry as the princess moves in a deeper part of the tower.

“Princess, we should—”

The night swallows his words. Ismail tries to tell her they must leave, for surely even the narrow cockpit of his glorious ship would be more comfort than this cold place she has known. He looks beyond the bed’s draped frame, seeking the jeweled curtains, the window opening into night, but these things have both gone. The walls are sheets of iron alone, windowless, and the jeweled curtains have melted into rust, rot, ruin.

“Princess?”

She swells from the floor in a violent black wave and within the parting folds of her ebony hair, she smiles, but she has no face.

She has no face.

The black bramble wood before the iron tower: there is no record of any such place.

Ismail turns his shoulder into the pillows, means to roll free of the bed, but he is well and truly caught.

Of course, he knows he was caught long before: on a distant world of topaz seas and granite skies, where, upon a rotting parchment, he found the first mention of the first tower. That which you do not kill is not dead, what is allowed to live lives yet. In a small library, in a nook of scrolls, the laughter of a librarian echoing as Ismail was assured it was only a myth. Only a story, words inked onto paper by someone tired of their own small life. Words constructing a window into a place that never existed, never could exist.

But these places did exist, scattered across a universe so vast Ismail feared he would never be able to search them all. One by one they fell to his explorations, until this place—

the ages-old scent of bodies once kept; bodies in protest, bodies in revolt

One never searches every place, Ismail knows. The dark rises before a journey can find completion, and places and items are missed in the headlong pursuit of a thing long dreamed. When one comes to the point where all vanishes into a single prick of light—

“Prin—”

There is no light and when she leans over him, no face. She isn’t wholly right, not the right word, not the right flavor, but he knows no other. Her body is curved and pleasing and to him this says she, she, she spilling.

She spills across him—the nail-hard bed ceasing to matter for there is only the rising pain of her as her blackened hair becomes the sea, becomes the tide carrying him out of the room, to a distant shore where stars gleam in the colors of death. Stars do not burn black, Ismail tells himself, but here they do, reflecting every wonder of her within their aspects. Every prick is a scream, pulling Ismail into her arms, pulling her inside of him.

“Princesssss.”

She hisses from the place a mouth should be. But there is no face, the word misshapen as it pours from her. It is a thing mutilated, a skin turned inside out. Ismail’s mouth cracks open because he means to tell her yes, he came for her and will take her away so she never knows another moment in this awful place, but that crack, the soft and wet oval of his mouth, is ransacked.

Strands of her flood into his mouth, bursting past lips and tongue. She is a comet shooting down his throat, exploding through stomach and into bowels. Ismail’s screams are a balm across the broken shape of her. His unbound hands open and close upon a black sky he can no longer see. There is only her shape above him, moving ceaseless as fleetfoot taught her. Rest is death, waiting is death, and what is not killed is not dead.

The pagoda: thirteen levels of iron, wind bells beneath every eave, never silent. The second pagoda to occupy this location, the first of wood having been burned to the ground by lightning, by comet, by self-immolation. None can agree as to the method, only to the destruction, to the ash still circling its base. Without windows, unending iron stones packed into wall, into dome.

Its uppermost level, a square iron room. Within the center of the floor, the shadow of a figure from a nightmare, limbs spread wide then balled close. The yes-no motions of a body struggling, succumbing. The imprint of coiling hair.

All thirteen levels: the echo of a bone smile in a not-face.

And why would they lock a princess away?

The librarian asked Ismail in the closeness of the scroll nook, in an effort to show him how foolish his entire theory was. Princesses didn’t need locking way, did they? Princesses were dainty, princesses knew their place.

Her place, now, is the hollow of Ismail’s stomach. She is a solid weight inside him, resting, for the journey inside has exhausted her. She is not still, however; the tendrils of her spread through him, up his wide-flung arms and down into his shaking legs. She is fire and salt inside him, and she pushes as if she means to be born—but she has not died, will not die—

Ismail screams and the sound of it startles even him. He breaks from the fugue that has held him, tumbles to the floor, and spits a stream of iron stones. They splatter out of him and he is incoherent in his confusion. The iron burns his tongue and he thinks for one sweet moment he has dreamed the entire thing. He is sitting beside the librarian yet, and has only to reach out to clasp his hands.

Ismail stands on steady legs, looks around the ruined room, and tells himself that is all this is: a dream. The bed lies in ruin, the curtains rotting to threads, the iron walls flaking with rust. If she was here, she is here no longer. Just as in every other tower. He smooths his hair and beard, rubs fingers over unbroken lips, and tells himself he is alone as he has been since the start of his journey. He will not find her because she does not exist. They all said so and he was foolish to ever think, to ever believe.

His doubt gives her a stronger hold inside him. Ismail buckles to his knees, falling into the endless umbra of her. She stands before him, an immoveable, inescapable darkness. This shadow has a perfectly fine edge—Ismail can see the rotted light of the room just beyond it (just beyond her) but he knows he has no hope of reaching it. He cannot move for she will not allow it. Only allows him to bend more fully into her.

You will take me from these walls, Ismail.

She speaks without mouth, without voice, as another heartbeat inside of him. Her gruesome hand presses to his heart as Ismail stares into the unending gloom of her, watching black stars poison the heavens, corrupting every world they erupt over. One slides into another, causes a burst, fragmenting skies, unhinging her terrible nature.

What is not killed is not dead, but should have been.

Black stars inside his collar, burning with unseen fire as they sink into his bones, his marrow. Ismail should scream and quake, but he moves beyond these things, the nest of her atrocious hand already becoming a home, the thing so dearly sought.

The horologion clock tower: octagonal, crumbling and rust-stained marble, once buried but excavated by two calloused and eager hands, its full and empty height revealed once more.

A vane atop its roof spins under eight winds (angel wings standing in relief upon the stones circling beneath the roof) but always tells the truth of time within its longest shadow: time is ever fleeting and what is not killed, cannot be not dead.

Within its vacated heart, a water clock, but the water flows no more.

Ismail flings his arms wide, then balls himself up tight. If he sleeps, he sweats through his robes the whole of an endless night, pressed against the curl of one wall. In a fever, he climbs into the wreck of the bed, which seems an iron bowl, and begs for her to burn him to ashes.

She refuses.

She—

Ismail’s bones cry her secret name as a chorus, Nyar, Nyar

breaks him as she might a tray of painted ceramic, with fists gone to hammers, and under her assault, Ismail shatters.

In her hands, he becomes something More.

Muscle and bone are trivial in their mortality, he reaches beyond both things, flexible without the need of contrived joints and pulleys. He can do anything with this body, fashion it into any shape he likes, and he finds he likes many. In many guises he walks through the rows of those yet sleeping, those who need waking. His fingers long to stir them from their slumbers, but she tells him no, tells him wait, and he waits, for what is time? It matters little to them, they who are so very powerful beneath the vast skies.

Black stars in black heavens, and Ismail knows he has never seen anything so beautiful until he finds himself once again seeking her face, but she has none. Never needed one when she could inhabit all. The flicker of moonlight skin through parting hair teases him closer, until his hands close into her, until she wraps around him in answer, presses him down into the rot of the room, and subsumes everything he once called his own. No longer—he is something More: concave and convex, capable of filling and being filled, flowing within and without, filled though empty.

He rises newborn and understands what is left to him, what she will bid him do. And though he understands, he weeps for the last time, knowing he will soon no longer be capable of such mortal things.

Chimney: Fifteen hundred feet of refractory bricks, drawing air and gas into perfect toxic exhalations against skies foggy or clear. The flue, once again no wider than shoulders. Deep grooves within the flue’s inner stone walls, worn by two feet still relatively mortal. Then.

Soot and flesh cake every stone, burrowing into crevices where the two soon become one and the same. Words traced unseen into the mess—was nicht umgebracht wird, ist nicht wirklich tot.

The salt sea cracks beneath his feet, ancient rings of power further destroyed as he moves away from the iron tower. His shadow on the ground is her shadow on the ground, hair spooling in his wake, stroking the stars down from the sky. His mouth holds the curve of her mouth, pleased and terrified both. He does not look back, for the tower has become an abomination to him; it only kept him from wandering, only kept him from spreading. The line of the tower runs down his spine, long to harden to metal, but sensation and tower no longer draw his attention as they once did. He moves ever forward, toward his trusty ship and once there, takes again to the stars.

They are imperfect in their brightnesses against the black of the void, but this will soon be repaired, as would everything be. He never once looks at the planet he leaves; it too is full of imperfection, of doubts, despite it being his birthplace. He never once looks back, only guides himself toward the horrible glow of the system’s sun (a radiant egg perched on the rim of a mud crater), and sets his engines to overload.

The blow is staggering. But his body is no longer his body, and there is no agony even as he is ripped asunder. He becomes the stars, becomes the meteor, the bright burst streaking through all the night skies. He finds himself lodged in places he has known before, his hands pressed against a marble capstone where they will imprint words, his belly echoing the hollow metal curve within a fleetfoot, his feet pressed pale against a burning iron bowl. His prints are eaten from his skin, his body (concave and convex, filled and filling) made and unmade in a hundred thousand nightmares across a thousand million universes. The children cry his name in writhing terror until he is nameless in all his towers, until he bids them: seek me, for that which was not killed, is not dead.

The black bramble wood before the iron tower: Clawed from the earth when the stars rained down, brambles as black as the world behind eyes when closed. Every bramble thorned, awaiting the kiss of a prince’s blade, a kiss that may never come. A river from the window in the tower’s stony side: loose hair, a cupped hand.

Originally published in A Mythos Grimmly, edited by Jeremy Hochhalter.

About the Author

E. Catherine Tobler has never frolicked with ghosts in strange orchards, but there’s probably still time. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Sturgeon Award ballot. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.