Lord Tophet - By Gregory Frost

ONE

“Everything has its own vortex,” said a deep male voice.

Whoever spoke must have been right at her back. Leodora glanced behind herself but saw only a great expanding gyre, a white-scorched tunnel stretching all the way back to the span of Colemaigne—to the hexagonal Dragon Bowl on which she stood . . . still stood, surely. Diverus and Soter must be there even now, and all of this a dream. Someone else’s dream that had scooped her up and carried her off. “Wake up,” she said, but nothing changed, and she wondered if anyone could hear her.

She had no sense of motion; she hadn’t taken a single step, and yet the Dragon Bowl shrank until it was like a pinhole at the far end of the gyre, so she had to be moving, carried, transported . . . somewhere. She looked down at herself—at her legs stretched a thousand wyrths down the tunnel, as long as a full spiral’s length from one coiled end to the other, which was farther even than she had traveled with Soter from Bouyan to Colemaigne. She kicked her feet but they were so distant in this dream that she couldn’t see them, or her ankles. The view of her impossible legs fascinated her.

The disembodied voice spoke again, solemnly, beside her now. “The Traveler thro’ Eternity has passed that first Vortex. She enters another.”

She glanced up, facing the source, but once again no one was there.

As if cooling, the tunnel surface lost its white-hot glow, and the duller orange light left in its wake revealed the walls of the structure: intricately linked geometric shapes in a state of constant flux. She rushed along beside the bright geometries, diminutive satellites whirling in interlocked orbits. “I’m past the world,” she said.

“Thus is heaven a vortex passed already,” replied the voice.

“I must get back,” she told it.

“You haven’t been anywhere yet,” the voice answered her.

“And where is it I’m going?” She thought she sounded remarkably calm.

The voice didn’t reply. Behind her now the tunnel appeared to have no end point, unspooling forever. Her legs, however, had come unstuck from the distortion and had returned to their proper proportions. At least I am myself again, she thought.

Slowly, a vinegary stink stole upon her, a foulness as of a few unwashed bodies that grew until it was like the stench of a crowd, as if a mob coated in filth pressed in against the glowing tunnel. Her eyes watered, it was so noisome. She put out a hand as though to repel the odor, and her palm penetrated the spinning geometries and brushed something solid, moving. Alive. Another’s hand tried to grasp at her fingers, but she snatched them free of the greasy grip. This motion propelled her away from the stink and the unseen thing and through the tunnel wall of spinning stars and globes, triangles and trapezoids, which washed over her body without sensation, passed through her like ghosts—like the bizarre phantoms that had paraded with her across the span of Hyakiyako and toward the end of time, the end of everything.

It had never occurred to her before to wonder what the end of everything might look like, how different it might be from the infinite bridge spirals of Shadowbridge. Perhaps that was where she was now, and this wasn’t a dream. Had she, perhaps, died?

Outside the tunnel, separated from it, she stood on solid ground and watched it twist snake-like, as if alive, away from her. The glow of its spinning geometries dimmed like a cooling ember, until it was a golden thread of beaded sparks that finally flickered out, much like the red lamps on the black, silent ship that had passed hers on her way to Colemaigne and so terrified Soter. She must remember to ask him about it, when she returned. Or woke up. Or . . . where exactly was she?

A thick fog swirled out of the blackness to enclose her. Beneath her bare feet lay an unseen and uneven ground of hard rough stones. It was cold, and she wished that before she’d started walking through Colemaigne she’d put on her boots or the sandals Tastion had given her back on Bouyan.

The putrid stench still hovered, near but less intense, blended as it was with an odor of food, of something meaty frying with onions. And distantly, or else close but muffled by the fog, she heard a rhythmic knocking noise of something hard upon the stones, getting louder as she focused on

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