Night, and the birds fell again, an avian rain.
Pin could hear the dead creatures smacking onto rooftops. No heavy drumming this time. After last night there could be few birds left. People had died, brained in the previous evening's downpour. The streets below were empty, the lamps untended. The Lamplighters’ Guild had suffered terribly.
One blessing at least, with the city so dark, the sky was brighter than usual as Pin-- his eye pressed hard against the cool ocular -- focussed his telescope on the craggy old moon then the greater constellations. For all he knew they would be the next things to fall out of the sky.
Someone chuckled behind him. "Thought I might find you here, Wizard. Head in the clouds as the birds drop out of them."
"Sendle, the answer lies up there. I am sure of it."
The king's Man-at-arms and executioner -- he called it chopping wood -- leant against the battlements and pointed down. "The people grow nervous. But they are always nervous. Portents are always grim. Still this isdisquieting. Even for a man like me.
"You know, there used to be a forest out there. My family cut it down. Every single last tree."
"Yes, you did a good job," Pin said, teeth clenched.
"If there is one thing I know it is how to chop wood. A kingdom is much like a forest, Pin. It must be cared for, part of it must be culled. Get rid of the dead wood, the vermin and rot, and the forest thrives."
"But not that forest, eh?" Pin stared down into the city.
Sendle jovially slapped him upon the back, jolting his spine, and Pin silently cursed his odd confidant.
"But there are other forests. There always are, and look at the wonder we built on the tomb of the old."
A bird fell at their feet, startling them both. Pin looked down at the broken-necked thing, his face twisted with disgust, then picked it up. Its lifeless bones shifted beneath his fingers. It's air chambers let out a last, meaningless chirp.
"The sky is a tomb now. And what can we build on that?"
Pin's room, despite its size, was cluttered. Live long enough and all you have is clutter, regrets and fears stacked teetering on high. And Pin had lived a long, long time.
He lit a half-dozen candles and, in their warm light, his machines and instruments glowed dully. In one corner, cups and plates piled up that would have been cleared away long ago if he ever let the servants into his chambers, cockroaches scurried from them and into the shadows.
He held the bird in one hand. It felt much lighter than it ought. As though with its life it had also lost a goodly portion of its weight. He dropped it on a work bench, brought out his scales and weighed the bird.
Far too light. Far too light. He gazed out a narrow slit of a window up at the stars. What was happening out there?
He left the bird where it was and walked to his library, more clutter for the most of it. A few of the older volumes, long unread, he pulled from the shelves.
Clutter. Clutter. Clutter.
No answer to be found here, surely. But amongst the dissertations on the corpuscularity of light and the shiftings of constellations, he found it, and was at once, violently and terribly sick.
King Catchincraw rubbed at his bleary eyes and stumbled up and down the chamber, looking for something to hit. "This cannot be. Entropy? The end of the world. I expected some sort of Avian disease, but this..."
Pin nodded, bones aching, his heart a pain in his chest, a dull but weakening ache.
"But it is. The aether contains a finite amount of force and we have consumed all but the last. Our days are run out."
Catchincraw scowled, and crashed a fist against the wall.
"This defies reason. It is Spring! The gardens bloom, the farmers are at harvest, and we are at peace."
Pin did not agree.
"And The Wilt we have been hearing of? You seem to have neglected that. Local farms may be ready for harvest, but the edges of the kingdom, their crops are dying. People lie sick in their beds, I thought it the plague, but now I know otherwise." He paused and held his king's scared gaze. "Every flower, every breath is a drain in what are limited reserves. Life's bounty has become a curse. A day or two, no more, and then all that binds and drives our world will be used up."
Pin had taught this king, had raised him, and even now he could not resist slipping into the role of lecturer, he paced the room, one finger in the air, an almost condescending expression washing across his angular face. "You see, the world will not end in fits and starts. But suddenly, like a wind-up toy when its dance is done."
"Well, can we not just wind it up again?"
Pin could not resist a wan smile. How quickly they slipped back into the old roles of pupil and student.
"Oh what Power we would need. More than was contained in our universe at its genesis. I do not have such magics at my disposal."
"So there is nothing we can do?" The King cleared the contents of a nearby shelf with an outflung hand. Glass and pottery shattered on the floor and with them were shattered Pin's illusions. "So we are dead? And so you tell me in such a calm voice. Well, perhaps dear Sendle should chop a little wood."
He reached to grab the wizard.
Pin ducked out of the way and, taking a deep breath, brought the glass staff out from under his robes. It gleamed in the candlelight, seemed to pull at it. The room was at once brighter and dimmer in its presence.
The King froze.
"What is that?"
Pin's hands shook.
"The one thing we can do."
“Are you sure this will work?”
How Pin hated that voice. His eyes flicked towards Sendle. The man was an animal, but after today, how could Pin count himself as any better.
“As sure as I can be of anything," Pin said. "What I am about to do breaks no natural laws, just cheats a little.”
The King's axe-man laughed.
“Is that not the nature of magic? Tricks and cheats and smoke and mirrors. Perhaps, you will destroy us all. Have you given any thought to that?”
More than you could ever know.
Pin brought his horse to a halt, his mouth was dry and his hands shook slightly on the pommel of his saddle.
“Why are you here?”
“To see that you go through with it. To stop you. I don't know. I don't trust you, wizard.”
Nor I you, Pin thought; though he smiled a tight-lipped smile and kept quiet. Pin wasn't sure if he trusted himself either.
Early morning and spring was caught on winter’s chill memory. The city was not big, the road round its walls a good one, it would not take them long to circle it. He looked back at the city.
Not much to see in the near darkness; the suggestion of form; the odd geometries of rooftops; the thicker darkness of smoke. Lights burned in the grey bulk of the castle above. Night was still a great carcass that the worms of morning had scarce begun to nibble on.
Not a soul outside the keep was aware of what was about to happen. Pin was uncertain himself, and scared, very scared.
His horse shivered beneath him.
“Time to begin.”
He took a deep breath and pulled the glass staff from the saddlebag, it sucked at his fingertips and, for a moment, all he wanted to do was hurl it away. Hurl it away and run. Instead he looked askance at Sendle.
"Dreadful magics and determination alone can save us," Pin said.
Sendle grinned like a wolf.
"And fear, wizard. Don't forget fear."
Fear, yes, plenty of fear.
The horses' hooves clattered (and crunched) loudly on the stony bird-littered road, but not as loudly as the spell roaring in his mind. A deep whispering of magic that had become vast and crushing. The staff burned his fingers, but he gripped it as though all life depended on it. Well, a little life, part of which was his own.
Sendle rode with him, quiet as a shadow.
Then, as sunlight breached the eastern hills, they completed the circuit of the city. The spell was a quickening ocean in his mind: tides and waves crashing on the shore of his consciousness.
Time and motion stilled. A grim and hungry expectation that lasted, perhaps, a heartbeat but felt like an eternity.
Pin raised the staff above his head and let it do what it would.
The final words of his spell tumbled from him, drawn on by the engine of his magic, the vast inertial pull of this casting. Those last words, key words, binding words grew, just as they had grown in his mind, a whispering, then a shouting, then a booming; a raging storm that was word and magic and power.
And they consumed all.
The glass staff burned in his grip as though it would swallow him too.
Pin sensed movement, or, perhaps, some malevolent intent, behind him. He spun in his saddle and saw Sendle’s eyes widen, saw shock and hate flower there, saw the soldier reach for his sword, then the callused fingers fall away to swing up and cover his eyes. Pin followed his broken gaze.
Beyond Pin’s magical boundary the world collapsed. No that wasn’t right. It simply evaporated. Colour, form and movement; hazing; shrinking; fading, drawn into the staff.
The last days of a whole world used to feed a single city.
Kingdoms old as humanity itself fall today, he thought.
The glass staff roared at its intaking of power, and flared with a cold light as bright as the sun. Pin’s body was on fire, his skin prickled. A washed-out greyness rushed towards the horizon then beyond.
Pin looked down at his hands -- colour had bled from them -- then glanced at Sendle, colourless in nature now in truth.
“My eyes were brown,” Pin said. “I must not forget that.”
Sendle grunted and patted Pin's back companionably.
“We are alive, wizard.”
That damned scraping. Why oh, why? Knife against fork. Scrape. Scrape.
He hadn’t eaten in fifteen years.
Nor had anyone else in the city drowned in the sea of grey which he had created. And what was worse, fifteen years and he hadn't felt like eating.
There was no need.
The plates and cutlery were set in tradition's name alone. A few of the duller knights still thought it high wit to scrape their knives and forks across the vacant crockery.
He scowled at them; they ignored him. And because he found it hard to sustain passion or anger he let it pass, let it subside to a point where in perhaps another month or two it might drive him to momentary distraction.
“Fifteen years,” Sendle said, somehow echoing his thoughts.
“Age does not weary us.”
“Aye, it does not. Nothing changes.” Sendle raised an empty goblet in toast, thick grey fingers clutching the goblet’s gold stem -- now the colour of slate. Pin's eyes narrowed.
“This place suits you doesn’t it?”
“Wizard, I am alive.”
The king then motioned for silence and all around the hall the chatter -- and scrapings -- stopped.
"Bring it in," he said. "Bring it in."
Courtiers carried the kaleidoscope out on a pillow of silk and the hall hushed. Here alone was hunger. A page placed it by the king, who peered a while into the tube then passed it on.
Pin half made up his mind not to look, after all he had cast the thing and its sisters; tubes of spell negating silver and a spiralling interweave of glass and coloured beads.
But when it came to his turn he gazed at it as hungrily as the rest.
Only Sendle passed it on with not even a glance.
“The townsfolk will be getting their glimpse of colour tonight. Keeps them quiet, but what choice do they have?
“You have made a perfect system, dear wizard. Without colour, without taste, without hunger or age, what is there but control?”
Pin shook his head.
“I destroyed a world, Sendle.”
“No, you saved a world." He raised his goblet high. “Not just saved. You created an even better one.”
Pin grimaced and excused himself from the table.
The walk into town cleared his head, not much, but a little for everywhere was warm and still and grey. Evening had shadowed the streets, though it was barely perceptible. Even darkness was muted now. He could hear the town’s festivities in the distance when another sound caught his attention. The low murmuring of voices in a nearby alley.
He followed the susurration to its source, and gasped at what he saw.
A child lay on his back, children were crouching round, poking and prodding with thin wooden rods at a hole in his skull.
“What are you doing?” Pin demanded.
The children took fright and ran.
The wizard crouched down and touched the boy’s hand.
“Are you all right, child?”
The boy smiled.
“I am no more a child than you, Mr Pin. I am twenty-five years old, though my body is that of a ten year old. Stop treating us as children, stop giving us the kaleidoscope last. Do you know if you prod certain parts of the brain you can see colours?”
“Yes, but one wrong stab...”
The boy smiled.
“Wizard, I would welcome oblivion.” He shoved the rod even deeper into his head.
“Yellow.” He whispered as the seizures began, then bit off his tongue.
Pin carried the child to his parents.
“He will not die. But this is something worse, your child’s mental damage is beyond repair.”
The parents seemed more disturbed that they had missed their chance at the colour.
“The kaleidoscope will be brought out next month,” Pin said. “This is forever.”
“So are we,” the boy’s father said. “So are we. Can you not make more colour, Lord Pin? Can you not give us that?”
Pin stared at his slate hands.
“No, I cannot.”
Like the colour, and his hunger, his powers were gone. Seven kaleidoscopes he'd made and he had no strength for more.
“Then perhaps he is the lucky one. Perhaps where he lives inside his head is a place of colours.”
“I doubt it.”
“But you do not know.”
Pin turned from the man and ran. Of course, well before he reached the castle he had no real energy for it. He walked the last half mile slowly and by the time he reached the castle's gates he wept but only a little. It was all too much to cry.
Each night the dream was the same.
Death drew near, a dark and hungry creature. It trailed him down city streets where lights burned brightly until Pin ran past, his passage stilling flame and startling birds that would trace shaky parabolas as they rose into the air and plummeted moments later, dead. It whispered his name down alleyway and hall, until, in terror, Pin ran beyond the walls of the city, out into the fields or where there had once been fields.
And above, the stars shone bright and pure, though with every step they paled and by the time he'd run a few hundred yards they were gone. The grass beneath his feet withered and the forest he approached, the one that marked the field's end, faded to nothing before he'd even made it half way there.
He would run all night until he could run no more, exhausted and dripping with sweat. he'd drop to his knees.
And something would touch his shoulder, something would whisper into his ear.
And he would wake with a scream. And that was how he knew it was a dream, for on waking all fear drained from him. Replaced by the dullest edge of discomfort. Replaced by slate coloured walls and bed and flesh. Here he sometimes couldn't tell where he began and the world ended. Everything was the same.
At first Pin did not pay much attention. Then something smashed again then tinkled. A crisper, clearer sound than anything he had heard in an age. Pin tilted his head and frowned.
No, it couldn't be.
He dropped the book, which he had been reading for the fiftieth time, and ran to the storage rooms.
What he saw did not surprise him.
Sendle and his men were destroying the townsfolk's kaleidoscopes. The glass beads greyed as soon as they tumbled from their magical casing.
Pin tried to stop them, a soldier backhanded him.
"What is this?" He demanded as he picked himself up from the floor.
“Colour is addictive,” Sendle said. “It is disruptive, destroying the townsfolk’s morale. It will be banned.”
Pin stared at him in astonishment; the king’s man had grown in stature. He alone had thrived in Pin's ill-made world. Perhaps if he had spun a different spell…
“You can’t do that. Colour is their truest link to the past.”
Sendle gripped Pin's shoulders.
"This world you have made is perfection. Why should we desire the gaudy, the frail, when endlessness -- or near enough -- awaits us. It is time to turn away from these meaningless follies. It is time for discipline."
He stared out at the grey landscape, twisted his face into a grey smile.
“There is no need for colour, Pin. There is no need for past.”
"And what does the king say of this?"
Sendle shrugged his shoulders.
"The King lies abed, staring at his own kaleidoscope. Occasionally one of his lackeys will shake it for him. He says there are whole worlds in there. The King rules another realm now."
Pin stared at the staff. It lay upon a silk pillow. Pulsing gently, releasing the minimum amount of energy required to keep their tiny universe going. His fingers brushed it, tips stinging.
When he touched it, his body ignited with sensation.
The staff was in his safekeeping. After all Pin had created it, no one but he understood its maintenance.
On an impulse he picked it up and walked to the window.
For a moment colour smudged the town. It was quiet. It was always so quiet these days. More townsfolk were found every day in their beds with rods in their skulls, blabbering fervidly of reds and yellows and blues.
Sendle had the rods removed and the culprits thrown in the dungeon. However, the devices were becoming more sophisticated, secretive: small glass rods, worn beneath hats, held in place by metal caps.
People wandered the streets silently, tapping their heads, making the world a secret kaleidoscope.
Night and the sky was grey. Or was it morning?
Pin could no longer tell. He stood atop the castle; his telescope had once sat up here. But he'd dismantled it to make one of the kaleidoscopes.
Pin gazed at the silent city below -- a few figures stumbled furtively down the streets -- then across at the void beyond the border. When he gripped the staff tightly, colour danced there and possibility.
"But, of course, it will mean my death. All of our deaths most probably."
He thought he heard someone whisper his name.
Pin raised the staff high then smashed it against the wall, and even as the staff shattered he felt a growing satisfaction. Fingers stinging, he dropped the broken shards of glass. The earth shuddered, once, violently. Pin fell hard on his rear and looked at the sharp and flaring scatterings of his madness, fear and loathing and joy filled him all at once. He got to his feet and gazed around.
Everywhere flowers bloomed. The streets below and the once cold, grey ashlar became a florist’s delight, as stone and wood gave birth to panicles, spikes and corymbs of petalled brilliance. Great trusses of blooms dipped heavy in reds and yellows and blues from the wizard's hair.
Pin laughed and waited. Though he did not have to wait too long.
There was a clattering of armour and hard-soled boots.
Sendle marched out onto the tower top, five guards behind him, all their clothes and weapons weighted with flowers.
“Pin, you have cursed our world with bounty. You have undone us all.” Sendle's red face was a mask of shock -- and what a surprise it was to see such an expression on such a rosy cheeked man.
The guards closed around the wizard. Pin stretched out his pale arms and let them be bound with black iron. The metal burnt his wrists -- iron is such cruelty to wizards.
“I am sorry, Sendle. Very sorry, but it had to end.” He winced, his flesh smoking but, even the smoke was colourful, a wonderful pale blue. “You must understand.”
From below echoed great cheers. In the distance verdigris-fringed bells rang out. A mile west a forest sprouted, grew tangled and dewy.
Sendle shook his head, his rubbery red lips pursed, his black locks gleaming.
“Wizard, you have doomed us all.”
“It is the end,” King Catchincraw said. “A mighty undoing.”
His grey beard kept sprouting flowers, in one hand he held the court’s kaleidoscope. He let the tube drop. It cracked open; beads skittered across the stone floor. A half-dozen courtiers rushed to pick them up. The King waved them away.
“You waste your time. Such colours are not precious." He plucked a bouquet from his beard, and hurled it at their faces. "See. See!”
He looked down and realised that his skin was fringed with grass.
The king laughed and picked at the green and tickling blades. There was not much else he could do.
A storm was coming.
The iron had softened into a wreath of wattle, supple and forgiving of the burns on his wrist. He bent his head over the chopping block, which sprouted like arms new branches, and waited.
"Let's get this over and done," King Catchincraw growled, and waved at his man-at-arms.
Sendle read out the charge -- all he had left to him now was his duty. Pin knew that and would not take it from him: a voice, less than a whisper, called his name, but he did not fear it.
“For releasing bounty upon the world, for unlocking fecundity, you are sentenced to death.”
The wizard met Sendle's eyes. "I was already dead –- worse than dead. Smell the air, executioner, and the rain. Smell the spring. Without these we have been but corpses for years.”
Sendle snarled. “Bounty will kill us, wizard." He brought the axe down hard. “As it has killed you.”
Pin's head, eyes blinking, fell to the ground. Butterflies burst from the tumbling blood, shaking out blood-droplet wings, and fluttered free. Sendle swung at them ineffectually with his dutiful axe, dropping it at last to stare up at the bruised sky.
“Bounty, damn it. Damn it all.”
The butterflies flew into the storm, their lives as swiftly beating as their red velvety wings.
And the rain began to fall.
This story originally appeared in Deep Outside 2001.