The two boys approached the cliff softly in a spirit of reverence and not of stealth. Their risk of detection was no less here than any other earth they tread. Their people had known these cliffs to be magical for years, but only the elder of the boys here truly knew anything of why, and he very little.
At the brink of the vertical stone face the boys paused.
"You must tell me when, Threader."
"I have only a little idea myself, Holder."
They stood looking below toward the floor of the abyss before them. At this time of morning fog lurked, and the bottom could not be seen. Neither of them knew if a river lay at the bottom or not. They had never fallen so far.
Then without warning Threader jerked over the edge calling, "Now!"
Holder barely had time to catch the leader's hand but was soon falling with him. To Holder's sight, this was a suicidal leap, but his faith in Threader and their master told him otherwise.
Threader could see the Gaps. Called "hihms," being the plural of a single "hihm," the Gaps appeared as rapidly fluctuating bubbles with neither shell nor center. They were not vacuums, as though air had lost its place, but voids, tears in the fabric, or otherise ripples in a river, made by the dropping of an immense stone upstream. Threader could never say what they looked like, but when pressed he said it was like having your eye in glass, an unending sea of clarity.
As Threader gained speed, the Gaps became more manageable. With any luck or happy providence he would find one of them before he found the ground, and his gift would save him, and any he pulled along.
Shortly before the mist would have enveloped the boys utterly Threader found his Gap. Racing as fast as gravity would draw him the Gap took shape just below his feet, and then for a moment neither he nor Holder knew anything. Then Holder would awake in a new place, as snapping to from an unplanned sleep. Threader's mind strained under the journey. He traveled through colors, as though they were brushing limbs of trees. He said it was like "falling outside," not in any particular direction, just out. Afterwards he would only have scattered impressions and lingering visions, recollections of meeting beings with too many faces or with too little other than faces, with the faint notion that he had, while away, met a god the sight of which defied words that asked him where he was going.
The landing was narrowly made. The tandem team alighted from that glassy dreamland on the sill from which they had last escaped.
"A dangerous choice, Threader."
"I asked," then he corrected himself without pause, "aimed for the scroll room itself. Sure beats sneaking here with the Guardian's ears on the ground."
"I heard you. You said 'asked,' again. There is a god."
"There is no reason to think there is a god. I speak where I wish to go and go there. Only because there are some gods do we imagine there must be another."
"They say you are in another place while you make your way here, dragging me along."
"They also say that you are to waste no time while we are within his bastions." Threader pointed to the jars and chests they had left.
Holder stepped lightly over to a drawer in a tall chest, withdrawing the slender scroll from which he had been reading when last he and Threader had ventured there.
Thurgod soon passed under the Wild Gate, made when he had learned from Bendu the image of wildness, and forged the watcher which ruled the portcullis. The image of the true wild glowered down at the smith-god, the tension of every beast waiting to spring inscribed in its folding metal. Without a word or a motion the will which Thurgod had forged into it lifted the portcullis, and the smith-god entered the first city.
The Wild Gate opened upon Bendu's Quarter, where the people answered to him. That tract was wide, and though it was called a city there were forests within its walls, or so in Bendu's Quarter.
Bendu's quarter offered little material to Thurgod, but always a trickle of inspiration. From vine was learned chain, and from from branch was learned beam. From wing was learned wing, and from from tooth, saw. But what Thurgod needed was not in Bendu's Quarter.
Deep into the city Bendu's Quarter came to an end, it's wide swath suddenly cut by a gigantic circular way, paved with stone perfectly smooth and without crack, maintained pristine by Endro himself, when business should call him there. Thurgod cut straight across the stone slab, stepping over the grate he had made to the ditch below, where rain would run into the sewer, which was of Itris' design.
It was the genius god whom he saught. Itris, whose mind was broader than that of any other god. She had made the sewer in her mind; Endro had delved it with his command. She had framed the tower in which she lived on paper, and the many lessor gods of clay-baking and wood-cutting had built it. It was the most austere of her designs, a block of brick framed in wooden beams, with dingy clay of brown color just paler than human skin, but it served her purpose.
Thurgod rang upon the door, clanking a knocker which he himself had made, after her design. At the first clang a shutter opened above the door, revealing a glass eye, which shut itself again in an instant. A moment later the door was opened inward, and Thurgod progressed onto a platform and said, "To the Lady."
The platform immediately rose into the air, with a graceful acceleration. Thurgod rushed past windows and balconies as he stood tensely maintaining his balance. With equal grace the ascent ceased, and Thurgod stepped onto a carpeted projection from a more distant balcony. Aesthetics and the use of empty space in pronouncing grandeur were not lost on the genius god when she could see a purpose in them. For the entrance to her private study, nothing else could suffice. Thurgod passed by a dozen golems of pure glass, difficult to spot in that pale blue light which glowed from hallowed crystals which Endro had given Itris as a gift. And then the door into her study opened.
Itris needed no throne room; a throne could not add to the perception of her deity, for any who made eye-contact with her felt their own minds grow small and dim in comparison, though when they walked away they knew they were in fact more capable than ever before. On a plush cushioned stool sat the genius herself, her mind pouring into a book, upon the pages of which were scrawled notes in a letters and organization more efficient than lines, but the pattern of which perhaps none but herself could discern. Her hands were idle on her knees, and not for her bright clothing her entire appearance might have been missed in that dim room.
"Master Smith? I do not recall summoning you. Have you come to learn of me again? Your thirst for knowledge is uncommon."
"Your assumption of knowledge is all too common, Scholar Queen," said Thurgod, smiling.
"Ah, there again I have assumed motive where no motive force was visible. You make me wiser."
The door shut behind Thurgod as he entered the room, carefully avoiding stepping on the tools and rubbish. It was hard to discern the difference when in her study, so many devices beyond comprehension of both mortal and divine littered her private chambers.
"I hope you can make me wiser. I have found a metal that bends neither to my command nor to my hammer."
Itris showed surprise, but said nothing, until Thurgod allowed a protracted silence. "Go on," she said.
"Meldus took me into a cave, and through a crack in the cave into a hall, wherein was a flat space, and then a raised dais."
"Is this the Hall to Bendu that Endro said he was making? It was to be a surprise, Thurgod."
"It is not that hall. While Meldus and I wondered at its common beauty, and its unexpected existence, I smelled Xerphii."
Itris involuntarily closed her book. "Go on."
"No Xerphii appeared, and no challenge was made to us. In worry Meldus broke his body and streamed into the sky, sending Endro to meet me. There we searched out the scent, and found behidn the dais, buried a few feet, a metal which would not break for him, nor be bent by me. Instead, when I had summoned up a hammer, the shaft was bent and head shattered."
"From what was it made, your hammer?"
"Endro summoned up the finest iron ore he knew, and gave it to me pure, unsmelted."
"There are harder things that can be made."
"And my shaft was of my own divine making, and it was bent."
Itris bit her lip. "Certainly something from out of the world, then."
"And it smelt of Xerphii."
"Then we should call it xerphyn, the metal of the Xerphii."
"What is more, Scholar, behold this," and Thurgod showed his right hand in a patch of light from a narrow ceiling window.
"The hand that struck the xerphyn is pierced, as though slashed by claw, in many places."
"You must visit Derad and have him heal you. He understands godflesh as well as mortal flesh or the flesh of beasts."
"It hurts no more than to have wrung hard metal. I will attend to that at my own time. The God of Growth need not be disturbed by the Smith-God's pains."
"A wound made by xerphii or xerphyn are both grave. He must learn from this, in case there is another war beyond heaven."
A crash awoke Holder from his reading. A stone spike had whizzed by him and smashed a clay jar behind him into pieces. The same sound woke Threader from his unplanned nap.
"I'm an idiot!" blurted Threader as Holder leapt to him, catching his arm.
"Obviously. Now out the window!" They leapt to the sill and bent to dive out. Holder kicked off the wall, but was brought back by Threader's grasp, as Threader tumbled back into the room. His waist had been grasped in the stone grip of the Guardian.