Two Serpents Rise
By Max Gladstone
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2013 Max Gladstone
All rights reserved.
The goddess leaned over the card table and whispered, "Go all in."
She hovered before Caleb, cloudy and diaphanous, then cold and clear as desert stars. Her body swelled beneath garments of fog: a sea rock where ships dashed to pieces.
Caleb tore his gaze away, but could not ignore her scent, or the susurrus of her breath. He groped for his whiskey, found it, drank.
The cards on the green felt table were night ladies, treacherous and sweet. Two queens rested facedown by his hand, her majesty of cups (blond, voluptuous, pouring blood and water from a chalice), and her majesty of swords (a forbidding Quechal woman with broad face and large eyes, who gripped a severed head by the hair). He did not have to look to know them. They were his old friends, and enemies.
His opponents watched: a round Quechal man whose thick neck strained against his bolo tie, a rot-skinned Craftsman, a woman all in black with a cliff's face, a towering four-armed creature made from silver thorns. How long had they waited?
A few seconds, he thought, a handful of heartbeats. Don't let them rush you.
Don't dawdle, either.
The goddess caressed the inner chambers of his mind. "All in," she repeated, smiling.
Sorry, he thought, and slid three blue chips into the center of the table.
Life faded from him, and joy, and hope. A part of his soul flowed into the game, into the goddess. He saw the world through her eyes, energy and form flowering only to wilt.
"Raise," he said.
She mocked him with a smile, and turned to the next player.
Five cards lay faceup before the dealer. Another queen, of staves, greeted the rising sun in sky-clad silhouette — a great lady, greater still when set beside his pair. To her right the king of swords, grim specter, stood knife in hand beside a struggling, crying child bound upon an altar. The other cards struck less dramatic figures, the eight and three of staves, the four of coins.
Three queens formed a strong hand, but any two staves could make a flush, and beat him.
"Call," said the man in the bolo tie.
"Call," said the Craftsman with the rotting skin.
"I see your raise," said the woman, "and raise you two thousand." She pushed twenty blue chips into the pot. The goddess whirled, a tornado of desire, calling them all to death.
"Fold," said the creature of thorns.
The goddess turned again to Caleb.
Did the woman in black have a flush, or was she bluffing? A bluff would be brash against three other players with a possible flush on the board, but Caleb's had been the only bet this round. Would she risk so much on the chance she could drive three players to fold?
Calling her bluff would take his whole reserve. He'd have to give himself to the game, hold nothing back.
The goddess opened her mouth. The black within yawned hungrily. Perfection glinted off the points of her teeth.
You can win the world, she said, if you're willing to lose your soul.
He looked her in the eye and said, "Fold."
She laughed, and did not stop until the black-clad woman turned over her cards to reveal a king and a two, unsuited.
Caleb bowed his head in congratulations, and asked the others' leave to go.
* * *
Caleb bought another drink and climbed marble stairs to the pyramid's roof. Dandies, dilettantes, and high-society corpses clustered near the edge, glorying in the panorama of Dresediel Lex by night: gleaming pyramid-studded city, skyspires adrift like crystal scimitars above, the ceaseless roll of the Pax against the western shore. A ceiling of low clouds confronted the metropolis with its own reflected light.
Caleb was not interested in the view.
A carved black stone altar rose from the center of the roof, large enough to hold a reclining man, or woman, or child. From the iron fence around the altar hung a bronze plaque embossed with a list of dates and victims' names.
He didn't read the plaque. He knew too much history already. He leaned against the railing, and watched the old altar. Dew rolled down his whiskey glass and wet his hand.
Teo found him twenty minutes later.
He heard her approach from the stairwell. He recognized her stride.
"It's been a long time," she said, "since I've seen you leave a game that fast. Not since school, I think."
"I was bored."
In modest heels, Teo was Caleb's height and broader, built of curves and arches. Her lips were full, her eyes dark. Black ringlets framed her round face. She wore white pants with gray pinstripes, a white vest, a ruby shirt, a gray tie, and an expression of concern. Her hand lacked a drink.
She joined him at the rail.
"You weren't bored." She turned her back on the altar, and looked east over the city, toward the gleaming villas atop the Drakspine ridge. "I don't know how you can spend so much time staring at that old rock."
"I don't know how you can look away."
"It's bad art. Mid-seventh dynasty knockoff, gaudy and over-ornamented. Aquel and Achal on the side look more like caterpillars than snakes. They didn't even sacrifice people here often. Most of that happened over at our office." She pointed to the tallest pyramid on the skyline, the immense obsidian edifice at 667 Sansilva. Caleb's father would have called the building Quechaltan, Heart of the Quechal. These days it had no name. "This place did cows. The occasional goat. People only on an eclipse."
Caleb glanced over his shoulder. Dresediel Lex sprawled below: fifteen thousand miles of roads gleaming with ghostlight and gas lamps. Between boulevards crouched the houses and shops and apartment buildings, bars and banks, theaters and factories and restaurants, where seventeen million people drank and loved and danced and worked and died.
He looked away. "We have an eclipse every year, a partial or a lunar. For a full solar like the one this autumn, the priests would work through all the prisoners and captives they could find, throw in a few innocents for good measure. Blood and hearts for Aquel and Achal."
"And you wonder why I don't look? It's bad art, and worse history. I don't know why Andrej" — the bar's owner — "keeps it around."
"You wouldn't have thought that way seventy years ago."
"I like to think I would have."
"So would I. But your grandparents, and my father, they weren't born different from the rest of us, and they still fought tooth and claw to defend their gods back in the Wars."
"Yeah, and they lost."
"They lost, our boss won, kicked out priests and pantheon, and now we all pretend three thousand years of bloodshed didn't happen. We put a fence around history and hang a plaque and assume it's over. Try to forget."
"What's put you in such a good mood?"
"It's been a long day. Long week. Long year."
"Why did you fold, at the table?"
"I catch hell from the goddess, and I need to explain myself to you, too?"
"The goddess doesn't know you like I do. She's reborn every game. I've watched you play for eight years, and I've never seen you cave like that."
"The odds were against me."
"Screw odds. You had to know the lady in black wasn't suited."
He turned from the altar. Southwest winds bore the sea scent of salt and death. "Can't you go stalk some girl fresh from university or something? Leave me in peace?"
"I'm reformed. I am no longer a dirty old woman."
"Could have fooled me."
"Seriously, Caleb. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he said, and patted his pockets for a smoke. Of course nothing. He quit years ago. Bad for his health, the doctors said. "The odds were against me. I wanted to get out with my soul intact."
"You wouldn't have done that four years ago."
"A lot changes in four years." Four years ago, he was a fledgling risk manager at Red King Consolidated, recovering from a university career of cards and higher math. Four years ago, he was dating Leah. Four years ago, Teo still believed she was interested in boys. Four years ago, he'd thought the city had a future.
"Yes." A tiny copper coin lay at Teo's feet, a bit of someone's soul spooled up inside. She kicked the coin, and it tinged across the roof. "Question is, whether the change is for the better."
"I'm tired, Teo."
"Of course you're tired. It's midnight, and we're not twenty-two anymore. Now get down there, apologize to that table, and steal their souls."
He smiled, and shook his head, and collapsed, screaming.
Images burrowed into his brain: blood smeared over concrete, a tangled road into deep mountains, the chemical stench of a poisoned lake. Teeth gleamed in moonlight and tore his flesh.
Caleb woke to find himself splayed on the sandstone floor. Teo bent over him, brow furrowed, one hand cool against his forehead. "Are you okay?"
"Office call. Give me a second."
She recognized the symptoms. If necromancy was an art, and alchemy a science, then direct memory transfer was surgery with a blunt instrument: painful and unsubtle, dangerous as it was effective. "What does the boss want with you at midnight?"
"I have to go."
"Hells with her. Until nine tomorrow, the world is someone else's responsibility."
He accepted her hand and pulled himself upright. "There's a problem at Bright Mirror."
"What kind of problem?"
"The kind with teeth."
Teo closed her mouth, stepped back, and waited.
When he could trust his feet, he staggered toward the stairs. She caught up with him at the stairwell.
"I'm coming with you."
"Stay here. Have fun. One of us should."
"You need someone to look after you. And I wasn't having fun anyway."
He was too tired to argue as she followed him down.
Moonlight shone off the streak of blood on the concrete path beside Bright Mirror Reservoir.
Caleb watched the blood, and waited.
The first Wardens on site had treated the guard's death as a homicide. They scoured the scene, dusted for fingerprints, took notes, and asked about motive and opportunity, weapons and enemies — all the wrong questions.
When they found the monsters, they began to ask the right ones. Then they called for help.
Help, in this case, meant Red King Consolidated, and, specifically, Caleb.
Dresediel Lex had been built between desert and sea by settlers who neither expected nor imagined their dry land would one day support seventeen million people. Down the centuries, as the city grew, its gods used blessed rains to fill the gaps between water demand and supply. After the God Wars were won (or lost, depending on who you asked), RKC took over for the fallen pantheon. Some of its employees laid pipe, some built dams, some worked at Bay Station maintaining the torturous Craft that stripped salt from ocean water.
Some, like Caleb, solved problems.
Caleb was the highest-ranking employee on site so far. He had expected senior management to swoop in and take charge of a case like this, with death and property damage and workplace safety at issue, but his superiors seemed intent to leave Bright Mirror to him. At the inevitable inquest, he would be the one called to testify before Deathless Kings and their pitiless ministers.
The RKC brass had given him a wonderful opportunity to fail.
He wanted a drink, but could not afford to take one.
For a frenzied half hour, he'd ordered junior analysts and technicians through the routines of incident response. Isolate the reservoir from the city mains. Pull some Craftsmen out of bed to build a shield over the water. Find a few tons of rowan wood, stat. Check the dam's wards. Cordon off the access road. No one comes in or out.
Orders given, he stood, silent, by the blood and the water.
Glyphs necklaced Bright Mirror Reservoir in blue light. The dammed river ran glossy black from shore to shore. He smelled cement, space, the broad flatness of still water, and above all that a sharp ammonia stench.
Two hours ago, a security guard named Halhuatl had walked along the reservoir, casting about in the dark with a bull's-eye lantern. Hearing a splash, he stepped forward. He saw nothing — no night bird, no bat, no swimming coyote or bathing snake. He scanned the water with his lantern. Where the light touched, it left a rippling trail.
That's strange, Hal must have thought, before he died.
A chill wind blew over the water, producing no waves. Caleb stuck his hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat. Footsteps approached.
"I grabbed this from the icebox in the maintenance shack," Teo said, behind him. "The foreman will miss his lunch tomorrow."
He turned from the water and reached for the parcel she held, white wax paper tied with twine. "Thank you."
She didn't let go. "Why do you need this?"
"To show you what's at stake."
"Funny." She released the package. He undid the twine with his gloved hands, and opened the paper. A frost-dusted slab of beef lay within, its juice the same color as the blood on the concrete.
He judged the distance to the water, lifted the beef, and threw it overhand.
The meat arced toward the reservoir. Beneath, water bulged and reared — a wriggling, viscous column rippled with reflected stars.
The water opened its mouth. Thousands of long, curved fangs, stiletto-sharp, snapped shut upon the beef, piercing, slicing, grinding as they chewed.
The water serpent hissed, lashed the night air with an icy tongue, and retreated into the reservoir. It left no trace save a sharper edge to the ammonia smell.
"Hells," Teo said. "Knife and bone and all the hells. You weren't kidding about teeth."
"What is that thing?"
"Tzimet." He said the word like a curse.
"I've seen demons. That's no demon."
"It's not a demon. But it's like a demon."
"Qet's body and Ilana's blood." Teo was not a religious woman — few people were religious any more, since the God Wars — but the old ways had the best curses. "That thing's living in our water."
Her voice held two levels of revulsion. Anyone could have heard the first, the common terror. Only someone who knew how seriously Teo took her work with Red King Consolidated would detect her emphasis on the word "our."
"No." Caleb knelt and wiped the meat juice off his gloved fingers onto the ground. "It's not in our water. It is our water." Stars glared down from the velvet sky. "We've isolated Bright Mirror, but we need to check the other reservoirs. Tzimet grow slowly, and they're clever. They could be hiding until they're ready to strike. It's blind luck we caught this one."
"What do you mean, it is the water?"
"The Craft keeps our reservoirs clean: wards against germs, fish, Scorpionkind larvae, anything that might pollute or corrupt. Charms to curb evaporation. The reservoir's deep, with dark shadows at the bottom. When the sun and stars shine, a border forms between light and darkness. The Craft presses against that border. If there's enough pressure, it pokes a tiny hole in the world." He held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "Nothing physical can fit through, only patterns. That's what these Tzimet are." He pointed to the reservoir. "Like seed crystals. A bit of living night seeps into the water, and the water becomes part of the night."
"I've never seen a crystal with teeth." She paused, corrected herself. "Outside of a gallery. But that one didn't move." She pointed to the blood. "Who was it?"
"Security guard. Night roster says the guy's name was Halhuatl. The Wardens thought this was a homicide until the reservoir tried to eat them."
Gravel growled on the road behind: the golem-carts arrived at last. Caleb turned. Exhaust puffed from joints in the golems' legs. RKC workers in gray uniform jackets walked from cart to cart, checking the rowan logs piled within. Two junior analysts stood beside the foreman, taking notes. Good. The workers knew their business. They didn't need his people interfering.
"Horrible way to die," Teo said.
"Quick," Caleb answered. "But, yes."
"Now we know Tzimet are in there, we can keep them from getting out. Right?"
"They can't get into the water system, but to keep them imprisoned we need better Craftsmen than we've been able to get out here so far. Those glowing glyphs hide the reservoir from animals that want a drink. We've inverted them to hide the outside world from the Tzimet. They can't hear us or smell us, but they could kill us no problem if they knew we were here."
"You sure know how to make a lady feel safe."
"The Craft division's woken Markoff, Billsman, and Telec; once they arrive, they'll build a shield over the water. Feel safe then."
"No way Telec's sober enough for work at this time of night. And Markoff will be trying to impress the shorefront girls with his rich-and-sinister routine."
"Dispatch found them all, and claims they're up for it. Anyway, the Tzimet aren't a big deal in the meantime, long as they don't get into the pipes."
"Glad to hear it." She grimaced. "I think I'll lay off tap water all the same."
"Don't let the boss catch you."
"I said I'd stop drinking it, not selling it. Can this kind of infection happen any time?"
"Technically?" He nodded. "The odds of Tzimet infestation in a given year are a hundred thousand to one against or so. We didn't expect anything like this for at least another century. Poison, bacterial blooms, Scorpionkind, yes. Not this."
"So you don't think it was natural?"
"Might have been. Or someone might have helped nature along. Good odds on the latter."
"You live in a grim universe."
"That's risk management for you. Anything that can go wrong, will — with a set probability given certain assumptions. We tell you how to fix it, and hat you should have done to keep it from happening in the first place. At times like these, I become a hindsight professional." He pointed at the blood. "We ran the numbers when Bright Mirror was built, forty-four years ago, and thought the risks were acceptable. I wonder if the King in Red will break the news to Hal's family. If he has a family."
"The boss isn't a comforting figure."
"I suppose not." A line of golem-carts rolled past behind them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone. Copyright © 2013 Max Gladstone. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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