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The Dragons of Babel
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The Dragons of Babel

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Author: Michael Swanwick
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Series: The Iron Dragon's Daughter: Book 2

1. The Iron Dragon's Daughter
2. The Dragons of Babel

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Genres: Fantasy
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Synopsis

A war-dragon of Babel crashes in the idyllic fields of a post-industrialized Faerie and, dragging himself into the nearest village, declares himself king and makes young Will his lieutenant. Nightly, he crawls inside the young fey's brain to get a measure of what his subjects think. Forced out of his village, Will travels with female centaur soldiers, witnesses the violent clash of giants, and acquires a surrogate daughter, Esme, who has no knowledge of the past and may be immortal.

Evacuated to the Tower of Babel -- infinitely high, infinitely vulgar, very much like New York City -- Will meets the confidence trickster Nat Whilk. Inside the Dread Tower, Will becomes a hero to the homeless living in the tunnels under the city, rises as an underling to a haint politician, meets his one true love – a high-elven woman he dare not aspire to.

You've heard of hard SF: This is hard fantasy from a master of the form.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

The dragons came at dawn, flying low and in formation, their jets so thunderous they shook the ground like the great throbbing heartbeat of the world. The village elders ran outside, half unbuttoned, waving their staffs in circles and shouting words of power. Vanish, they cried to the land, and sleep to the skies, though had the dragons' half-elven pilots cared they could easily have seen through such flimsy spells of concealment. But the pilots' thoughts were turned toward the West, where Avalon's industrial strength was based, and where its armies were rumored to be massing.

Will's aunt made a blind grab for him, but he ducked under her arm and ran out into the dirt street. The gun emplacements to the south were speaking now, in booming shouts that filled the sky with bursts of pink smoke and flak.

Half the children in the village were out in the streets, hopping up and down in glee, the winged ones buzzing about in small, excited circles. Then the yage-witch came hobbling out from her barrel and, demonstrating a strength Will had never suspected her of having, swept her arms wide and then slammed together her hoary old hands with a boom! that drove the children, all against their will, back into their huts.

All save Will. He had been performing that act which rendered one immune from child-magic every night for three weeks now. Fleeing from the village, he felt the enchantment like a polite hand placed on his shoulder. One weak tug, and then it was gone.

He ran, swift as the wind, up Grannystone Hill. His great-great-great-grandmother lived there still, alone at its tip, as a gray standing stone. She never said anything. But sometimes, though one never saw her move, she went down to the river at night to drink. Coming back from a nighttime fishing trip in his wee coracle, Will would find her standing motionless there and greet her respectfully. If the catch were good, he would gut an eel or a small trout, and smear the blood over her feet. It was the sort of small courtesy elderly relatives appreciated.

"Will, you young fool, turn back!" a cobbley cried from the inside of a junk refrigerator in the garbage dump at the edge of the village. "It's not safe up there!"

But Will shook his head, blond hair flying behind him, and put every ounce of his strength into his running. There were dragons in the sky and, within him, a mirroring desire to get closer to the glory of their flight, to feel the laminar flow of their unimaginable power and magic as close to his skin as possible. It was a kind of mania. It was a kind of need.

The hill's bald and grassy summit was not far. Will ran with a wildness he could not understand, lungs pounding and the wind of his own speed whistling in his ears.

Then he was atop the hill, breathing hard, with one hand on his grandmother stone.

The dragons were still flying overhead in waves. The roar of their jets was astounding. Will lifted his face into the heat of their passage, and felt the wash of their malice and hatred as well. It was like a dark wine that sickened the stomach and made the head throb with pain and bewilderment and wonder. It repulsed him and made him want more.

The last flight of dragons scorched over, twisting his head and spinning his body around, skimming low over farms and fields and the Old Forest that stretched all the way to the horizon and beyond. A faint brimstone stench of burnt fuel lingered in the air after them. Will felt his heart grow so large it seemed impossible his chest could contain it, so large that it threatened to encompass the hill, farms, forest, dragons, and all the world beyond.

Something hideous and black leaped up from the distant forest and into the air, flashing toward the final dragon. Will's eyes were wrenched by a sudden painful wrongness, and then a stone hand came down over them.

"Don't look," said an old and calm and stony voice. "To look upon a basilisk is no way for a child of mine to die."

"Grandmother?" Will asked.

"Yes?"

"If I promise to keep my eyes closed, will you tell me what's happening?"

There was a brief silence. Then: "Very well. The dragon has turned. He is fleeing."

"Dragons don't flee," Will said scornfully. "Not from anything." He tried to pry the hand from his eyes, but of course it was useless, for his fingers were mere flesh.

"This one does. And he is wise to do so. His fate has come for him. Out from the halls of coral it has come, and down to the halls of granite will it take him. Even now his pilot is singing his death-song."

She fell silent again, while the distant roar of the dragon rose and fell in pitch. Will could tell that momentous things were happening, but the sound gave him not the least clue as to their nature. At last he said, "Grandmother? Now?"

"He is clever, this one. He fights very well. He is elusive. But he cannot escape a basilisk. Already the creature knows the first two syllables of his true name. At this very moment it is speaking to his heart, and telling it to stop beating."

The roar of the dragon grew louder again, and then louder still. Echoes bounced from every hillside, compounding and recomplicating it into a confusion of sound. Cutting through this was a noise that was like a cross between a scarecrow screaming and the sound of teeth scraping on slate.

"Now they are almost touching. The basilisk reaches for its prey. . . ."

All the world exploded. The inside of Will's skull turned white, and for an astonishing instant he was certain he was going to die. Then his grandmother threw her stone cloak over him and, clutching him to her warm breast, knelt down low to the sheltering earth.

When he awoke, it was dark and he lay alone on the cold hillside. Painfully, he stood. A somber orange-and-red sunset limned the western horizon, where the dragons had disappeared. Frogs sang from the river-marsh. In the dimming sky, ibises sought their evening roosts.

"Grandmother?" Will stumbled to the top of the hill, hindered by loose stones that turned underfoot and barked his ankles. He ached in every joint. There was a ringing in his ears, like factory bells tolling the end of a shift. "Grandmother!"

There was no answer.

The hilltop was empty.

But scattered down the hillside, from its top down to where he had awakened, was a stream of broken stones. He had hurried past them without looking on his way up. Now he saw that their exterior surfaces were the familiar and comfortable gray of his stone-mother, and that the freshly exposed interior surfaces were slick with blood.

One by one, Will carried the stones up to the top of the hill, back to the spot where his great-great-great-grandmother had preferred to stand and watch over the village. It took hours. He piled them one on top of another, and though he worked harder than he had ever done in his life, when he was finished, the cairn did not rise even so high as his waist. No more than that remained of she who had protected the village for so many generations.

By the time he was done, the stars were bright and cruel in a black, moonless sky. A night-wind ruffled his shirt and made him shiver. With sudden clarity Will marveled at last that he should be here alone. Where was his aunt? Where were the other villagers?

Will carried his rune-bag with him always, stuffed into a hip pocket. He yanked it out and spilled its contents into his hand. A crumpled blue jay's feather, a shard of mirror, two acorns, and a pebble with one side blank and the other marked with an X. He kept the mirror shard and poured the rest back into the bag. Then he invoked the secret name of the lux aeterna, inviting a tiny fraction of its radiance to enter the mundane world.

A gentle foxfire spread itself through the mirror. Holding it at arm's length so he could see his face reflected therein, he asked the oracle glass, "Why did my village not come for me?"

The mirror-boy's mouth moved in the silvery water of the glass. "They came." The lips were pale and tinged with blue, like a corpse's.

"Then why did they leave? Why didn't they bring me home?" Unconsciously, Will kicked at his stone-grandam's cairn, built with so great a labor and no help from anyone.

"They didn't find you."

The oracle-glass was maddeningly literal, capable only of answering the question one asked, rather than that which one wanted answered. But Will persisted. "Why didn't they find me?"

"You weren't here."

"Where was I? Where was my Granny?"

"You were nowhere."

"How could we be nowhere?"

Tonelessly, the mirror said, "The basilisk's explosion warped the world and the mesh of time in which it is caught. The sarsen-lady and you were thrown forward, halfway through the day."

It was as clear an explanation as Will was going to get. He muttered a word of unbinding, releasing the invigorating light back to whence it came. Then, fearful that the blood on his hands and clothes would draw night-gaunts, he hurried homeward.

When he got to the village, he discovered that a search party was still scouring the darkness, looking for him. Those who remained had hoisted a straw man upside down atop a tall pole at the center of the village square, and set it ablaze against the chance he was still alive, to draw him home.

As so it had.

Copyright © 2008 by Michael Swanwick


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