About 5,000 words long. Some death, as to be expected in an apocalypse; no violence or sexual content. Fantasy setting, not related to my other stories/RP verses.
Tangential xkcd link (not necessary to read for the story, but a little bit of an inspiration and still very funny).
In the annals that came later, no one gave Ikhelo full blame for vanishing the sun. Partial, to be sure, but not complete.
She had gone to the coasts, ostensibly in search of enormous fish, but in truth, mostly to watch the waters from high up the rocks. Her long spool of silver line drooped low to the sea, where it would be a long haul up should anything catch her bait. Perhaps, Ikhelo mused, it would be a better plan to make sure a fish was well secured on the line, then climb down the rocks herself before returning home with her catch.
So distracted was she, watching the tide lick and retreat off the coast, strategizing over how such a prize might be won, that she did not see the giant who accosted her from behind. He had a fishing pole taller than she was, and thought nothing of it to idly string his line around her.
“Lookit what came out of hiding!” chortled the giant.
Ikhelo had never seen a giant in the flesh before. This one was just like the books described: tall and fat, with a disgusting smell. He had wrinkles on his face, and wore spectacles of fine glass, and clothing of many bright and garish patches.
Drawing herself up to her full height, which felt a bit of a futile gesture when confronting a giant, she spoke, “You know the bargain, landwalker. Tell no stranger of what you saw here, and I will grant you a boon.”
“A boon, eh?” said the giant. “What boon could you grant me? My wife dreams with the harmonious saints, my children are grown to pleasant heights...” (Some heights they must be, Ikhelo thought, if there were more like him!) “Their children are joyful and fear nothing. Even my neighbor gives me fair fights in Silent Gallop. I don’t know what I might ask for.”
“Then you refuse our gift?”
“A moment,” he said. “I may lack nothing myself, but I am not so quick as to leave you without thinking what I might do for others. My grandchildren are full of hope and song, it is true, yet I fear theirs shall be an inheritance of ash and smoke. I would that the heat of sun vex this world no more. Can you work that?”
“I do not know the limits of my power,” Ikhelo said truthfully, “but give me a moment, and I will see what might be done.”
“Gladly,” said the giant.
Ikhelo stared up at the sun, turning in a small circle and trying not to flinch within the giant’s fishing line. Pester the world no more, harm not the giants who stride the land, in their cities of stone… Once around, then back the other way. Do not destroy them with your blazing heat, as you have spared us over who go hidden from your light… As the circle closed for the second time, she felt her foot return to its starting point. “It is done.”
“You are sure?”
“You doubt our power?”
The giant laughed, a low, rumbling roar. “It has been a long time since I heard tales of your kind. Many of us—grew uncertain. But I thank you. You have done a great service this day.”
“Now it is your turn to hold to the bargain. For the sake of your own people as well as ours.”
Slowly, he walked around her, untwining the fishing rod. “That is a vow, little one.”
Ikhelo pulled her line up out of the water; there would be no fish that day. They took separate paths down the rocks. The steps carved for giants’ feet were of no appeal to her, and she made her way through tiny crags that the giant could not find a foothold in. As they parted from view, nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Until they came to the ground, eight minutes later.
Droda was an amateur astronomer, a hobby he shared in common with several giants. When he wished to practice his pastime, however, he faced blessings and curses that the giants did not. He did not have the mighty spyglasses that let him glimpse the faint stars. And he did not wake and sleep with the rhythms of day and night. He rose when he pleased, he slept when he pleased, he labored when it was fair and was recompensed in turn. And in good time, he took his ease. On occasion, this saw him venture into the world of the giants, the world of open air and sky.
But when he saw that it was lit by the light of sun, he would retreat with all the haste he had. For he knew that when the sun shone, there would be no stargazing for many hours, and it would be all he could do to vanish before a giant discovered him and demanded a boon. Droda was not fleet of foot, he knew. When he was young he’d been captured by a child giant who demanded a steed grown to his proportions, and Droda had had to create one. Since then he’d been wary of daylight.
So when he saw that the sun was high in the sky he knew it would be setting no time soon, and quickly turned to the pathway into the deep rocks. But before he passed below, the sky went dark, not as it did at twilight, when the stars seemed to emerge one by one, but all of a sudden. And Droda beheld the stars, not the stars of springtime he had come seeking, but the stars of autumn, that the world should have held from view.
For a moment he stared up at them, transfixed, and supposing that he had no fear of being discovered in the darkness. Then he hurried below, down the narrow shafts, and into the roofed world.
“The sun has vanished,” he mentioned. It seemed like the kind of thing people ought to be aware of.
“The sun. Has gone out of the sky.”
“The wrong stars are shining,” he explained. It wasn’t much help. They weren’t astronomers.
Fidis had always been told that the trick to being a successful mage was to marry a partner who could help you out in any circumstance. That wasn’t why she’d married Kulben, of course. They’d wed for love. Still, his studies of abstruse fish fit the stereotype of a circler; it hardly seemed likely that there would ever be a task so urgent that he could not leave it to aid her should the need arise.
“You’ll be wanting to gather plants,” said Pella, who she’d been apprenticed to years before. “The flowers, they’re dying.”
“Dying?” Kulben blinked. “Whatever of?”
“You’ve heard about the sun-void?” Fidis reminded him. “The land plants cannot carry on without a sun to sustain them. But what is that to us?”
“When only the old vines are left to intertwine among themselves, generation to generation, frailness sets in,” Pella explained. “Always it is better to cut in new life, to make things fresh. We must salvage what we can now, if we will not have the chance to do so later.”
“But who had the strength to void the sun?” Kulben blurted. “Surely you did not do this, Fidda. Pella? Was it your new apprentice?”
“It was an untrained woman, who honored the Giants’ Bargain, as you’d know if you kept up with anyone,” Fidis scolded him.
“Fire and rocks! What’s the point of having mages if anyone can put out the sun!”
“For just such a moment,” said Pella. “We must direct our magic, let it surge with a purpose, to warm those who tread the world above and sustain us who work the world below. Are you ready to aid Fidis in her duty?”
“Excuse me,” said Fidis, “I have not signed up for any such task.”
“Oh, very well,” Pella said, “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
“Oughtn’t we start with the trees?” Kulben asked. “They seem a bit more useful, and all, seeing as how they make...fruits, and the like.”
“Oh,” said Fidis, “and where in the caverns are we going to just grow a tree?”
“Well, I’m not sure of the details, but I reckon they start from small seedlings. Or perhaps some great mage could start hollowing out more space, first?”
“That’s a wiser start,” said Pella, “were it not for one thing. The trees are living, still.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Fidis asked.
“Of course. They have powers of their own, trees do, and I’m sure we’ll need to harvest from them in time. But hollowing first, trees later. Plants now, assuming you have nothing better to do.”
“I understand,” Fidis sighed. “Kulben, what do you say?”
“I’ve always been ready to give it a try,” he said. “Just don’t want to foul it up.”
“We’ll be all right,” said Fidis, with more confidence than she felt.
They returned to their home chambers to find a lantern, a basket, and an overlong green belt: a gift from Pella on their wedding day. Fidis buckled it on, and Kulben held the trailing ends as they made their way up to the surface.
May I remain warm, free from the dangers of chill. And, free to go where he will, may Kulben remain warm, free from the noxious cold…
It was no easy task, to split one’s will among two separate targets; it was a task for a professional mage. Of course, anyone could be a circler, but to have someone walking close to you, guiding and empowering your magic, the better to have someone you trusted dearly.
“Under the branch, there.”
“That’s a weed, Kulbo, and it’s dead already.”
“How can you tell?”
“I’ve trained in herbal charms. Try the next patch.”
“Herbal charms my foot, you sound like a doctor.”
“Well, I am very wise. This, now, is a living flower.”
“Not for long it isn’t.”
“That’s all Pella needs to transplant it.”
“You sound like a doctor again—ow!”
“Is that your foot? Sorry, sorry.”
“It’s fine. Use the lantern next time, though.”
“I don’t want the giants to see us.”
“What happens if a giant captures a man who’s capturing a mage?”
“Let’s hope we never find out. Ooh, a fern...”
Teyda had never had much need of venturing up to the giants’ skies. A wordlorist by trade, he was content to translate old histories and make his best guess as to what the elders of the past meant when they copied their dialects onto the page. In time, he supposed, it would fall to some other men and women to do the same for the daily occurrences of his era: the wranglings when they’d had to call new judges, the great circlings when they’d had to grow new mushrooms, the pacts made with passing giants. He’d just never thought that he would want to be recording that history.
Yet no one had bothered to go track down the name or the welfare of the giant who had asked to put an end to the sun. Not even Ikhelo thought it worth chronicling; she had work of her own to do, and magic once done was no longer her concern. So Teyda took it upon himself to climb above and seek what had become of the giant of the fishing rocks.
“Only do wear one of these,” chided an elderly mage, nodding at a pile of similar woven masks. “We’ve enchanted them, that you might stay warm.”
When Teyda put it on, it felt much like an ordinary mask, obscuring his face and not warming the rest of his body. Once he made it to the surface, though, he realized that while he still felt very cold, he was able to tolerate the chill even though the rest of the world appeared bitterly frozen. There was no snow, like he might have expected for many of the winter months, only an unnatural chill seen by the occasional electric lights.
There was no telling who such a person might be, of course. Plenty of giants were old, and plenty more quiet. Teyda tried to keep out of the way as much as possible. But when he saw a man delivering a parcel of food—surely frozen, of course—to the door of a house, leave without knocking or speaking, then depart in one of the giants’ noxious chariots that took off too fast for him to follow, somehow he felt certain. If not the giant who had brought about all those events, it was still someone worth following. Supposing, of course, that Teyda could negotiate with another mage to perform a locating spell. (The payment involved required Teyda translating several chapters worth of recipes for hake skin and moth wings, which he felt was a more than fair trade.)
But eventually he was pointed to a house in a sinuous cul-de-sac, and his mask, or perhaps another one from the pile, retained its heat as he began the trek. If the giants died off entirely, perhaps the mages could enchant normal-size chariots to move around on the surface? It would be more convenient than walking, if perhaps hazardously dark.
The house was abandoned when he arrived, and Teyda half-feared it was too late, half-relaxed in that at least he could turn back, and good riddance to history. But a candle flickered behind the glass of the next house down the way, and he found himself pacing over to the window anyway, if not for posterity, just to watch giants in their mansions.
There were two of them inside, sitting at a firelit table, playing at Silent Gallop. It was a thing of giants, and Teyda had never understood it. Yes, the tiny figures were said to gallop around the table like armies marching at war. But why keep silent, when putting your adversary in danger? Was it a point of pride, to be able to notice and escape a threat without needing to have a friend-playing-at-enemy pointing it out?
It wasn’t like the giants truly did not speak when at play. They were permitted to speak, presumably about anything but the amassing clusters of imprisoned steeds.
“Einar! It does a man’s bones good to see you still with us.”
“Your bones need good help, Ari, that so-called milk Linda makes you drink will never do.”
“I heard that!” shouted a voice from out of sight.
So even giants fought about what drinks to drink? Or was that just their way of ignoring the darkness? Ari, the host, played by a quick intuition, switching from defense to attack with abandon. Einar, the guest, seemed to mull over his tactics for a long time, while finding an excuse to tease Ari about his pitiful fishing ability, his absence of giant hair, his pathetically weak coffee. Then he made moves offhand, unstudied, just dragging out the visit and their togetherness.
“My coffee is strong enough to keep the both of us awake and warm for four days,” Ari boasted, “even with Linda’s milk. Where is yours?”
“So strong I can walk all the way here on just one sip,” Einar scoffed, “and leave the rest for tomorrow.”
“Maybe if you had two sips you could play faster.”
“And miss out on all your excellent hospitality? I’m just getting started.”
“Excellent? I haven’t even offered you my coffee yet.”
“Wait for the rematch.”
“Rematch?” Ari threatened. “I’m not finished beating you.”
“If you shifters draw yet again I’m putting the candles out myself, have you learned nothing after all these years?” came the ring of unseen laughter once again.
“Looks like that’s your cue to forfeit, old man,” Einar smirked.
Linda proved to be prescient. It wasn’t long until the giants had declared an uneasy truce and stowed away their frigid troops. “Shall I come over next?” Ari asked. “Have a break from the milk-pushing?”
“Ah...if it’s all the same I’ll do it,” Einar flinched. “Wouldn’t want you to risk the chill.”
“You already have. It isn’t fair.”
“Then I’ll camp out here and steal food from you, how’s that for fairness.”
“What are you hiding in your house, old man?” Ari echoed. “It cannot be worse than anything else I’ve seen this week.”
“You’ve trusted me for too many years to count, Ari. Trust me when I say there’s nothing to see. I’d just as soon leave and come back tomorrow.”
“Can I trust you’ll be back tomorrow?”
Einar looked down at the board. “I certainly hope so.”
He embraced Linda and Ari with the strong arms of a giant, arms that could crush small bones if they weren’t careful. Nothing in Teyda’s books suggested that giants had been quite so effusive before the candlelight.
Then he returned to the cul-de-sac, staring down and forcing his arms up his sleeves, as if expecting to trudge through snow and leave prints that would not arrive.
Teyda saw them again the next day, for a game that went much the same. And he kept watching, until the day he saw a light high up in Einar’s window. The giant was outstretched on his bed; it was unclear whether he’d died of hunger or the cold. For an instant Teyda wondered if he should break in to extinguish the candle, to leave more for any scavenger that might break in, unaware of Einar’s place in history. Or if he ought to set the whole house on fire, to provide a bit more heat to the giants’ world. He watched, uncertain, then turned away.
“You’ve been summoned?” Fidis echoed again. “For what, a trial?”
“Don’t be daft,” Kulben pouted. “They wanted an expert on fishlore, and here I am.”
“For what, burrowing through the ice? How is anyone supposed to fish in this chill, enchant a rope to carve through the ocean for you?”
“I don’t know, do I? They asked me to speak, and I’m going, unless you need me to go a-holding those beautiful hips of yours.”
Fidis blushed in spite of herself. “Reckon I can take a break to see whatever fool of a judge has nothing better to do with our time than interrogate you.”
That fool of a judge turned out to be Erza, who spread maps across her desk and held them down with books at the corners. “Thank you for coming.”
“You’re most welcome,” said Kulben. “How may I help you?”
“There’s been talk of hollowing out more space,” Erza said. “We’ll be needing more gardens to grow plants and rotate crops, if we can’t glean seeds from the giants’ fields. And the welders and mages will need to forge brightstars to heat them, of course.”
“That sounds wise indeed. Though I’m not sure how much aid I can be in such matters,” said Kulben, before Fidis could blurt out the same thing.
“We who live below Folded Rock can only travel so far, before we would be flooded by the sea. Or perhaps, these days, blockaded by a wall of ice,” Erza explained. “This is where I turn to your expertise. Meagnah claims that below the ice, the water still flows, and that the fish of the deep still swim and live, but I know little of such things. He even says that the merfolk are within the depths. Do you know how to communicate with them? Could they help our mages find other caverns?”
Fidis perked her ears up; here was something Kulben had not much discussed. Perhaps it would have made his work more accessible to her. But his answer was none too helpful. “Merfolk? I know little of such tales. If they need to breath air like us they would surely be perishing like the giants by now.”
“Tales?” Erza repeated. “Remember that many giants think us tales, and many of us have never seen giants. Perhaps our children never will. Are you so quick to call merfolk merely stories?”
“Maybe not,” Kulben admitted. “But all I know is fish, and mostly the kind that swim near the shores, not the sort that dwell deep beneath the ocean. Perhaps they are one and the same, but I have never dared plumb their depths enough to explore for myself, even with Fidis’ magic aiding me.”
Erza laughed. “What of the hot springs? Do you know of any fish that can bear those depths?”
“I do not, and even less do I think that we could. How came Meagnah by this knowledge, anyway? I had not taken him for a scholar, nor a mage.”
“That I do not know. He merely chimed in as we were discussing where we might safely expand.”
“Your wisdom, might I speak?” bowed Fidis.
Erza nodded. “Be brief.”
“I have heard Meagnah rave of merfolk for many years. Never has he spoken with much credence. I fear this is only the theorizing of a crackpot, not a sound discovery.”
Erza pursed her lips. “Whether we see it or not, the world is changing. We can no longer afford to write off the crackpots of yesteryear, but I will take both of your words under counsel.”
“Do let me know if I can be of any more assistance,” said Kulben. “I would be most happy to help you in matters of fish.”
“I’ll give you fishy matters,” scoffed Fidis.
With a sigh, Erza said, “Don’t expect me any time soon. I have all manner of summons to make these days. But I may call upon you yet.”
“Have you considered training as a mage?” Droda asked, not looking up from the pages of his star charts.
“No,” Ikhelo snapped, “I’m too old, they wouldn’t take me.”
“Pish-posh. They take people at any age. Particularly ones of great skill.”
“Is this just your idea of a backhanded proposal? You’d make a better circler than plotting sunups, now.”
Droda almost spilled his ink. “Fire and rocks, Ikhelo! Take a compliment for what it’s worth, can’t you? All I’m saying is, you wreak magic of great power.”
She relaxed a moment. “And not on your eyes?”
“No, not unless I alone am blind to the skies above land.”
“You jest as if you’ve never worked magic.”
“It would be the work of a lifetime, to take away the sun,” said Droda. “But that is only the first of your marvels!” He pulled a sheet from his notes. “You have erased the moon, the roving planets, perhaps even the green veil! Even in the winter night, when the sun would flee for many of the giants’ long days, the aurora would still shine. But your magic is more powerful than them all.”
“I did what the giant asked of me, nothing more.”
“Do not think me angry.” He quickly stowed the chart once more. “I—admire your power. It would be a shame not to put it to use, that is all.”
“I have put it to use already, and you see what happens. Or rather, you do not see,” said Ikhelo.
“Of course I see. Still I journey above the caverns, and still I observe the distant stars. Never need I turn back, and rarely do I see giants block my path. You have done us a great service.”
“Done your books a fair turn, you mean.”
“That, too. But the days may come, and soon, when we have need of vanishing the soil that bounds us. Do not lock yourself away.”
“I trust a starwatcher to know much of dirt.”
“Think on it,” Droda pleaded, as Ikhelo paced away.
The newest masks the mages were testing had little pipes built in. “If you need to smoke for warmth on the ice?” Ikhelo had asked, sarcastically, when she’d tried to fit one on.
“I recommend you don’t set these afire, I do not know what will happen out the other end,” Pella had explained. “You speak in, here, and your voice comes echoing out this grand pipe in the caverns.”
She’d had half a mind to fill it with snow, just to see if it would melt to drench some unfortunate mage who happened to be standing guard, but all she wanted by the time she donned one was to get away from Droda, away from the others who saw her as Ikhelo the vanisher. It was still frigid on the surface, and for a while it helped to pace with no destination in mind, to move for movement’s sake. She stubbornly refused to look up at the stars, unwilling to share a love of their distant light with the hobbyists. After a while, though her limbs had not adjusted to the chill, she had developed a stitch in her side, and she was content to pause, looking neither down nor up, squinting towards the horizon, wondering where the nearest shore might be, or whether there was anything that could be identified as the boundary of Folded Rock…
Ikhelo had grown numb, not in her extremities, but in her curiosity, when an interloper bumped into her and accidentally dropped her knapsack beyond Ikhelo’s reach. Before Ikhelo could react, the stranger knelt and picked it up, one arm stretching to Ikhelo’s left, another to her right, grasping for the meager sack. Ikhelo turned, and found herself encompassed within the woman’s grasp.
A giant’s grasp.
“Landwalker,” she mumbled, beginning to stamp on the frozen earth to shake herself out of her torpor, “however it is you yet live, I suppose you know the terms of old. Tell none of your fellow folk who yet live of what you have seen, or fail to see, here, and I will grant you a boon.”
But the giant only babbled in unintelligible syllables. Clearly, she was no simpleton; she had survived the dying blasts long enough to troop across the land when many were frozen. Yet how was it that Ikhelo could not make sense of her? The giants of Folded Rock had spoken much the same tongue for many generations. Unless…
“Hello?” she barked into her pipe. “This is Ikhelo, yes, I’m above ground. Send Teyda as soon as you can!” Would the mages know where to find her? Teyda had bragged about his locating spells, but was that just talk?
It was impossible to tell in the darkness, but Ikhelo could only assume the giant was terrified. Half-frozen and alone, wearing layers of gargantuan clothing, and talking gibberish with only Ikhelo in semi-sight. Would Teyda’s arrival possibly help matters, if he came? And if not, how could Ikhelo break the loop?
But then a smaller form came loping out of the shadows, speedwalking towards them. “Ikhelo?” he called. “You certainly have a knack for trouble.”
Ignoring the jibe, she said, “Teyda. Thank you. I think I may need a translator here.”
“A translator? For a giant?”
“Right. She doesn’t speak our language.”
“Huh,” said Teyda, walking around the circle. Then, carefully, he rapped on the giant’s back. Immediately, she burst out in another nervous outcry. “Okay, okay,” he said, before dashing around to face her. He squinted, then spoke slowly, pausing between words.
She gave a thin laugh, and then responded, in what seemed like a rush of words in a single breath. Teyda said something back, and she began talking more slowly. They spoke for a few moments, tentatively, and Teyda said, “She isn’t from Folded Rock.”
“I guessed that part,” said Ikhelo.
“The giants’ lands are not separate any longer, because of the frozen waters. She came across the ice to arrive here.” She spoke some more, and Teyda relayed, “Because of the hot springs and the burning rocks. She heard it would be the best place to endure.”
“Explain the bargain to her. I don’t think she knows of it.”
“I’ll try,” said Teyda, “this isn’t easy.” They went back and forth for a couple exchanges, and Teyda finally asked, “She wants to know why she oughtn’t speak to anyone of this.”
“Well, because—” Ikhelo spoke as if an answer would leap to her mouth, and was surprised to find none forthcoming. “Because.”
“Because it was the bargain,” said Teyda. “But our ancestors made that bargain first with the giants of Folded Rock, did they not?”
“To protect them,” said Ikhelo. “From strangers who might think them mad, or come in search of us.”
“There are no more Folded Rockfolk or strangers now,” said Teyda. “Not with the ice binding them together.”
Ikhelo nodded. “Tell her it is the way of magic. And that she can always refuse the bargain.”
Teyda did so, and shortly after, turned back. “She says she will take the boon. She has family who have come with her, resting a ways back. She wants for them and her to have a place to live, into the future, out of the cold. Perhaps where we do?”
“She wants to come to the caverns?”
“She does not know about them, specifically. That was only a guess.”
Ikhelo shook her head. “Giants in the caverns. And if this should backfire, you’ll all leave me the blame, I suppose?”
“If this should backfire, everyone will be mad at me, including the giants, because I’ll be the only one who can translate for them.”
“You’ll have no end of proteges to follow in your footsteps, I’m sure.”
“Perhaps the magic will work some other way?”
“Don’t start hoping,” she said, and began to turn in the circle. May her family find warm harbor, free from the chill of endless night. And back. May they live out their days in the shelter they have endured ice and agony to seek.
As she felt the circle close, the giant and her knapsack vanished, and she was left standing with Teyda below the stars.
“I should go,” Teyda said. “They might need me.”
“I’ll come too,” said Ikhelo. For once, she had faith that she was not going to be the most interesting thing below the land.
This is how the first giants came to dwell with the smallfolk of the caverns. But there was great magic yet to be wielded beneath Folded Rock, and they were far from the last.