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Tash was awakened by the silence. For a very long time he had lain there listening to the shuffling and wheezing and jangling and occasional unhappy gabbling of the other sacrifices, and he must finally have fallen asleep, but he awoke with a start to a silence like death. No one stirred. No one wheezed or muttered nonsense words to themselves. It was yet harder to see than it had been, for some kind of thick fog had filled the chamber and the lights on the pillars spent themselves in muddled grey-green blobs and failed to illuminate anything more than a few paces distant.

‘I hope they are not all dead,’ said Tash. It would not really have been any worse for him to be chained up with some hundreds of dead bodies than with some hundreds of sacrifices who were to be killed in a few days at any rate, but it was a horrible thing to imagine, and frightened him every bit as much as it would you or me. He felt at the idiot boys chained to his left and to his right, but could not wake them, nor could he tell for sure whether they were breathing or not. When he moved, his chains clanked, but less than they should have, like they were clanking underwater.

‘I wish I was anywhere else at all,’ thought Tash unhappily.

A moment later things became yet more alarming, for Tash felt something crawling on his arm. It was a quick tickly rasping thing with too many legs, as big as his hand, and he could see it only as the merest flicker of movement in the gloom.

‘I must be still and quiet and maybe it will not bite me,’ said Tash to himself.  He had learned this way of dealing with biting creatures through painful experience. So he sat very still as the something crawled down to his wrist and sat there in an unruly ticklish way like a newborn sister, and as another something of the same sort crawled onto one of his legs and scrabbled to his ankle, and then another, and another, until the rasping things were perched everywhere the chains bound Tash to the stone post. Then they began to gnaw. Not on Tash – for which he was very grateful – but on the fetters that held him. He could feel the patient grinding of their teeth in his bones, an inexorable gnawing that went on and on without ever slowing down or speeding up. He had the feeling that if these creatures with too many legs set their tiny minds to it they would simply keep gnawing forever through anything that was in their way, flesh and bone and metal and stone, year after year and generation after generation, until they had gnawed a tunnel through the world from one side to another.

After a long time the things with too many legs had chewed through all of Tash’s fetters. The chains fell dully to the floor, one by one, and the many-legged things gathered in a vague mass before him. He could see their green eyes shining now, little pinpricks of light in the fog. They were looking at him.

‘It is better to do something than nothing,’ thought Tash, which was one of the proverbs he had heard all his life whenever he had been found doing nothing. He stood up, which was more difficult than he expected. First one of the many-legged creatures darted away into the darkness, then another one.  The remaining green eyes watching him seemed to be brighter. He took a step in the direction the creatures seemed to be going and they took off before him in a rush, their eyes bounding like grith nodules in a pot of boiling water.

As Tash walked away from the pillars where the sacrifices were chained, the fog lifted and the eyes of the creatures grew brighter and brighter. The strange silence also faded, and Tash could hear the scrape of his own feet on the pavement, and the rustle of the many-legged creatures around him. There were more of them than there had been:  more and more, until he could dimly see his injured hand by the glow of their eyes, and the shadows cast by their capering bodies. They were leading him away from the doors to the outside, across the vast chamber, deeper and deeper into the evil-smelling darkness.

‘Now I am somewhere else, as I wished,’ thought Tash. ‘It is better, I suppose. How this chamber goes on and on. ’

If it had been outside and lit, it would doubtless have seemed no great expanse, smaller than many of the grith fields in which Tash had spent his life; but it was inside and dark, so seemed to be without beginning or end.

But at last it did end: stone walls closed in around Tash, and the air grew damper and less evil-smelling. The creatures danced around him, steering him first one way and then another through what seemed to be a maze of passages, sometimes down, sometimes up, but more often down. The air grew damper yet, and the walls Tash came close to were slick with slime. Once they passed over a thunderous stream of water, and another time Tash had to climb over a statue that had fallen over to block the way. Tash would have liked to stop and examine the statue more closely, for he had never been so close to any of the great carven images which the Tower was decorated, but the many-legged creatures became so terribly agitated when he bent down to peer at it that he judged it unwise.

‘After all if I scare them away I will have no light at all, and will never be able to find my way anywhere in the dark,’ he thought. And he followed the creatures on, and on, and on, through the maze.

Tash was dizzy from watching the green eyes of the creatures, and weary from not being able to stop and ponder things, and feeling rather sore from one particular place he had been clouted that had not seemed such a big deal at the time, when the passage he was following ended abruptly in a wall.

Several of the creatures took off excitedly into the darkness, while others scrabbled up the walls and even clung to the ceiling above Tash’s head. Before he had time to think of much of anything at all he saw a light that was not dancing and green. It was a bluish light like fire that was very bright – really too bright to look at directly – and it traced a line along the wall in front of him, from the floor to somewhere well above his head. Then it grew wider and wider, and was a door opening into a room, where everything was too bright to see. Of course the light poured out of this room as well, so it was just as impossible to see anything outside, but Tash was vaguely aware of the many-legged creatures capering into the room like mad things. A slightly darker patch loomed out of the brightness, took Tash by an arm and steered him into the room, less roughly than he was accustomed to.

‘Stand still,’ said a voice. ‘Don’t fall over.  And straighten up.’ It was the voice of a very old thalarka, and it spoke the words very carefully, as if they were made out of something fragile and would break if spoken too roughly.

Tash did his best to follow these sensible instructions. Little by little his eyes adjusted and he could make out the source of the voice.  The unbearable brightness came after all from a rather small lamp, which filled the room with wavering blue light and a sickly sweet smell. The lamp hung from the ceiling above a stone table covered with mysterious devices, which under normal circumstances Tash would have been inordinately curious about. There were books, too, like the ones the tax collectors carried, but instead of one there were scores, stacked on the table and on shelves on the far wall. Clinging to the walls – and the shelves – were very many of the things with too many legs, shifting ceaselessly about and rustling like a crowd of villagers on a festival day. In some curious way Tash was quite sure that they were paying attention to the old thalarka; that he was their Overlord, and that their mindless whispering meant something very like ‘sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Overlord’. In the lamplight the eyes that had lit Tash’s way were nearly invisible, buried deep in their wrinkled beastly faces, and they looked every bit as horrid as Tash had first imagined in the darkness.

The thalarka had one withered arm and one blind eye, and stood hunched over so that this eye was level with Tash’s eyes though if he had stood straight he would have been rather tall. He wore a necklace with a sigil of reddish-black stones, and with his remaining good eye he studied Tash with a furious silent intensity.

‘Yes… yes,’ the old thalarka said to himself. ‘You will do.’

It was better to be told that he would do, than to be told he was perfectly and completely useless, Tash thought. He bowed his head and let his arms droop, but he let his arms droop less than he usually did when his elders spoke to him, and when he bowed his head he kept one eye peeking at what the old thalarka was doing.

‘You don’t appear to be witless,’ said the old thalarka, keeping his eye on Tash while picking up a complicated metal instrument from the table. The lamplight reflected prettily from it. ‘Can you talk?’

‘Yes, Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One,’ said Tash. ‘What does that thing do?’

The old thalarka raised the instrument to his eye and looked through it at Tash, making a clicking noise in his throat. He adjusted a knob on its side, took it down and adjusted another knob, then raised it to his eye again. Tash watched these proceedings with fascination. He had not really expected the old thalarka to answer his question, but after making a few more adjustments he said something that must have been an answer.

‘It uses certain little known properties of solar radiation to estimate the eckward component of the aetheric vibrations.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Tash. ‘Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One,’ he added hastily after a moment.

‘Of course you don’t,’ said the old thalarka. ‘If you did, you wouldn’t be chained up under the Procurator’s tower waiting to be sacrificed. You would be the apprentice of one of my rivals, and I would have brought you here to persuade you betray them. Or perhaps to torture you to death, as a warning to your master not to interfere with my plans.’

‘I see,’ said Tash. ‘Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One.’

‘Don’t look so alarmed,’ said the old thalarka, setting down the instrument and picking up another one – still keeping his one eye fixed on Tash. ‘I have no interest in torturing you to death. It is quite clear that you are an ignorant peasant.’ This new instrument seemed to contain some kind of liquid, which could be ejected in a very thin stream through a small tube when the old thalarka pressed a lever.  He did this once, spraying a little of the liquid into the air, and the many-legged creatures seemed to find it of great interest. They began to seethe more rapidly, and a few dropped from the walls to scuttle across the floor.

‘What is that?’ asked Tash, forgetting to add ‘Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One’.

‘Aetheric essence,’ said the old thalarka. Slowly and carefully, he traced a circle with the oil on the floor between himself and Tash about a body-length across. The things with too many legs dropped to the floor in numbers and began to cluster along the circle, climbing on top of each other in their eagerness to be close to it. Tash could hear the grinding sound of their teeth in his bones. It was a very unpleasant sound. It began to smell oddly, like the taste Tash got in his mouth sometimes when he had been clouted over the head.

‘What are they?’ asked Tash.

‘Gnawers,’ said the old thalarka.

‘I have never seen them before,’ said Tash.

‘They are forbidden,’ the old thalarka replied. For the first time, he took his eye of off Tash, to do something fiddly with one of the most complicated looking devices while he consulted one of the books on his table. ‘The penalty for keeping them is death by fire.’

‘Aren’t you afraid I’m going to tell on you? No, you’re not. Oh.’ For the first time Tash considered that there might possibly be worse things than being sacrificed to the glory of the Overlord. The odd smell was stronger now, and the sound of the gnawers gnawing, without becoming any louder, grated more and more insistently on Tash’s mind so that he found it hard to think of anything else. He glanced at the door, considering and then instantly dismissing dashing to it and running off in the dark.

‘What do they gnaw?’ asked Tash after a pause.

‘Everything.  Plants. Stones. Men. Even – if encouraged properly – the very tissue of space and time.’ The old thalarka carefully adjusted a knob on the device, glancing every now and again to the book. It was open to a picture, rather than rows of ideographs, Tash saw – some kind of tangle of circles within circles within circles that he wished he could look at more closely.

‘Is that what they’re doing?” asked Tash. ‘Much-knowing…’

‘Oh, you are too clever by half,’ said the old thalarka, amused. ‘Of course. Of course that is what they are doing.’ All the gnawers had clustered in a thick writhing mass around the circle of oil that the old thalarka had made, crawling over one another and sometimes biting through each other’s legs by mistake. The air above them was starting to waver, like the air above the smokeless fires that were kindled in the temples.

Tash asked the question then that had first popped into his mind when he had been brought into the room, but kept being pushed back when he thought of other questions. ‘What are you going to do to me?’

‘Don’t you worry about that,’ said the old thalarka. ‘It will be much more interesting than being sacrificed. Hold out your hands.’

‘Why?’ asked Tash. But he held out his hands, being accustomed to obeying orders. The old thalarka picked a length of silvery cord up from the table and tossed one end across to Tash.

‘You don’t want to let go of that. Just keep holding on, and everything will be fine.’   The old thalarka’s one eye glistened with excitement. He had kept hold of the other end of the cord, which now passed directly over the circle of gnawers.

Tash held the end of the cord tightly. It was comforting, despite everything that had been happened, to be told that everything would be fine if he just held on to it. ‘What does it do?’ he asked.

The old thalarka did not answer, but shifted from one foot to another in his enthusiasm, alternately gazing proudly at the seething gnawers and examining a dial on one of his devices. And a moment later Tash had forgotten that he had asked any such thing.

It was very like when the door had opened. There was a crack of bright light, but it was a crack in the air above the gnawers, rather than a crack in the wall. It swiftly got wider and brighter, and then everything inside it fell out of the world.  That was the only way Tash could ever explain it afterwards.  A little piece of the universe had been gnawed away at the edges, and it had fallen off into something else. The gnawers stopped gnawing; most of them scuttled backwards, while a few slipped over the edge of the void and were instantly whisked away.

Tash’s eyes refused to tell him what was going on in the space above the circle. It was black and piercingly white at the same time, and it seemed to be in ceaseless motion, but not in any direction that Tash had ever encountered before. The silver cord he held disappeared into one side of it, swaying gently, and reappeared on the other.  At the edge of the void the air was shimmering, and seemed to be rushing swiftly like water in a millrace; but the space itself he could not manage to get his thoughts around.

‘Magnificent,’ exclaimed the old thalarka. ‘Exceptional. Look at how smooth the interface is! How stable the aetheric flux! If only Zmaar could see me now. If Tzorch knew how much I have surpassed him. The old fool!‘

The whole thing was so fascinating that Tash forgot to be terrified, and stopped attending to what the old thalarka was saying. He tugged at the cord, ever so gently, to see what would happen. Nothing did. It was as if the void was an immovable object. He stared into the absence of universe, willing himself to make some sense of it. The old thalarka was quite right: whatever else this was, it was certainly more interesting than being sacrificed.

‘Is that clear?’ asked the old thalarka sharply.

‘Yes,’ said Tash without conviction, having no idea what the old thalarka had just said.

‘I am sure the powers – inscrutable as They are – will find you an equitable exchange,’ said the old thalarka, his eyes glistening with triumph. ‘Do not let go of the cord.’

‘Y-‘ Tash began. The old thalarka gave his cord the tiniest of tugs, and Tash’s cord was pulled into the void with inexorable force, as if it was attached to a cart that had fallen over the edge of a cliff. Inwards, upwards, and otherwards, Tash was instantly and irresistibly dragged into a place where nothing made sense.