This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of glimpses of stories from Abyss & Apex magazine. Editor Wendy S. Delmater has chosen for us some of the most Superversive stories the magazine has to offer. The openings will be posted here, with a link back to A&A, where you can read the rest.
by Brent Knowles
Ongar stopped eating the pebbles on the eleventh night of his impalement.
The badger that had collected them growled at him, frustrated and concerned, but Ongar was determined now to end his life. His hands were bound with leather and tied through a hole in the upper part of the crude wooden stake, his feet similarly bound, well above the solace of the desert sands. No iron spikes had punctured his wrists or ankles, but that had been simple practicality, not mercy. And of course, the Charlatan had insisted Ongar face the tower.
What else could be crueler–starving to death before his grandest project, dying of exposure as he watched the Charlatan foul the final stages of construction? Ongar dropped his head, his long tangle of hair falling across a sunburned face, almost stopping his dark gray eyes from pivoting up to steal another painful glance at his tower. A dark moon quivered above the unfinished pinnacle, the scaffolding a nightmarish collection of struts and straps, assembled from the dead and dried wood of the few forests foolish enough to attempt a foothold in the Long Sands. Here, where only a wizard would dare build, stone was the only material worth considering.
As the scurrying twilight wind lent disguise to their collaboration the badger, clinging to Ongar’s stake, hissed slowly, the sound distorted by the pebbles bulging its mouth.
“I know,” Ongar replied. “They build poorly.”
The badger chittered and Ongar shook his head. “No, it does not please me. Not even now.” With no reply, the badger attempted to drop the stones into Ongar’s hand, but still the builder refused to open his fist. He did admire the badger’s persistence. Days ago, when it had become clear that the animal’s teeth could not penetrate the spell-hardened leather straps, the badger had resorted to scavenging pebbles. Like granite the badger was, durable and loyal.
Ongar wished it would just abandon him. The imprisoned builder carried the guilt of too many other sacrifices. He should have died days ago — no food, no shelter, no water. His only contact was with the brittle, sunburned wood and the harsh wind, strong enough to sting the eyes or tear soft skin. (Soft skin of which Ongar had little, with his hands calloused from his stoneworker’s tools. His feet were rough from scaling stone-clad walls and treading the scorching sand now denied him). The rest of his skin would have made a leather worker smile and count her profit — if humans still harvested dwarves. He was a hardened worker. His skill, his work ethic, had been forged by his human mentors, building upon the stonesong he had learned at his father’s side.
How mother had wailed when Ongar had abandoned them but father had been stoic, his face like untouched stone, his words to Ongar, his only child, “You’ll be alone. Til death.” Tears stung Ongar’s eyes at the memory. But his father had been wrong. There had been Yoree, and the children. He forced back those other memories, he would not torture himself. He would make this end.
Distant voices woke Ongar. He opened his eyes slowly, thick crusts of mucus crumbling away and spilling down his face. He stretched, arms and legs long past exhaustion. A caravan approached, angling towards the rear of the tower.
“Poor bastards,” he muttered. This was the third caravan to arrive since the Charlatan had tricked the wizard.