Test of Metal Matthew Stover

THE METAL ISLAND

TRUTH AND DARE

At the farthest reach of a world that is ocean, there is one small island, and this island is made of metal.

The metal has the appearance of age-tarnished silver, or perhaps of burnished pewter, though it can be made more resilient than tool steel and harder than diamond. This metal is not armor, nor paving, nor is it built into structures for shelter. This metal is instead the grass, and the trees, their leaves and their fruit. It is the moss that clings to boulders and the algae in the tide pools, as though some eccentric god had, on a whim, decreed that every material thing on this island be transformed to metal in a single instant. This metal shines in the sun, sings in the winds, and gleams on moonless nights as though gathering starlight against the dawn.

The only living thing on the Metal Island was one lone man, naked on the metal beach, resting on doubled knees, his head lowered as though in meditation or prayer.

The island's metal does not occur in nature, in any form on any world, from the highest heavens to the deepest hells. This metal is called etherium, and it is arguably the most valuable substance in the Multiverse. Etherium is magic.

Not magical. Many things are magical. In the jigsaw world of Alara, a horse can't piss without splashing something magical. Most magical things are powered by mana; nearly any kind of magical operation is simply a directed use of mana. Etherium is not magical. It is not a device powered by, or used to direct, mana.

Etherium is magic.

The energies bound into etherium transcend mana as lightning transcends a lightning bug. Etherium is an expression of reality itself. Its power is the power of existence. It can be worked with, transformed, shaped into useful structures, but its power cannot be exhausted, and its substance cannot be unmade.

All of the etherium in existence, on any plane or flavor of reality, had been created by one crazed being -- known even to his admirers as Crucius the Mad -- in an insane attempt to heal the wounds of broken worlds. One day Crucius had a moment of clarity, and in that moment of clarity he understood what he had done . . .

And he vanished. Forever.

The island is, all in one place, more etherium than can be found in the entire aggregate of elsewhere. It is wealth enough to buy a medium-size universe. This made it all the more remarkable that the man who kneeled naked on the Metal Island's shore seemed to have no interest in anything outside his head.

He simply kneeled, thinking.

He was not thinking about the unimaginable wealth that lay before him. He was not even thinking about the power of existence that can be wielded by the metal's master. He was contemplating a riddle.

This was not the riddle of the island, why one lone speck of dry land should appear in a world that was ocean. This was not the riddle of the island's etherium, of whence it had come and why it has been worked into all the shapes of life. No: it was an actual riddle. A classical riddle, posed in a classical manner by a classical riddler.

This riddle lies between the etherium talons of the Metal Sphinx.

The Metal Sphinx reclines upon the etherium sand shore, its face toward the rising sun, its shadow stretched for miles upon the sea. Its open-worked form is a structure of graceful curves and elegant arches that somehow suggest bone and blood and flesh in the different colors of light gathered and reflected by its endless array of polished surfaces. It is vast beyond even the considerable magnitude of actual sphinxes, those winged leviathans of the mountains of Esper. The Metal Sphinx is larger than a house, larger than a warship, larger than a castle; a whole conundrum of young sphinxes might play aerial tag through its curves and angles without any risk of soiling its slightest span by the brush of a wing tip.

The Metal Sphinx rests upon a plinth, also of etherium, that is as tall as a tree and as broad as a good-size farm. The eastern face of this plinth carries a legend, carved deeply into the metal in letters that form themselves into the alphabet most familiar to the reader, and into words that can be understood as though composed in any given reader's milk tongue. This legend reads:

I am the stone that comes not from the sea

I am the blood but the blood is not me

I am the key to the door with no locks

I am the mainspring that winds broken clocks

I am your tears on the chains of the rack

I am your gift and you can't give me back

The naked man had been kneeling there on the shore for a very, very long time -- so long that had he been an ordinary man, he would have starved to death, his flesh rotted and bones bleached by the sun long ago. This man was not ordinary. He was prepared to remain there in silent contemplation until the stars themselves burned out. He spent this time in a state of extraordinarily focused concentration, applying all his considerable resources of mind to this riddle. Sphinxes are uniquely dangerous creatures -- even metal ones -- and undertaking to unlock their riddles is notoriously perilous.

Guessing the answer wouldn't help, even if he guessed correctly. He had to know the answer, which is an altogether trickier proposition. His knowing had to be more than words; words without comprehension are as empty as the whistle of wind through dead trees. He had to understand the answer. He had to breathe it in and breathe it out; he had to eat it and drink it and make it as much a part of him as his hand, or his eyes, or his heart.

And when he had kneeled there on the sandy shore of the Metal Island long enough to do all these things, the answer was obvious. He lifted his head, squinting up at the blank etherium eyes of the Metal Sphinx. "Is that it?" he said. "It's that simple? Really?"

The statue did not seem disposed to reply.

The man sighed. There was one way to know for sure. He brought his right hand up before his face, turned it this way and that, waggled his fingers, examining its every curve, crease, and follicle, until he had all of these details fixed firmly in his mind. He had learned, from long experience, that people who say, "I know 'something' like the back of my hand," are often correct only because they don't actually know the backs of their hands -- or their fronts, for that matter -- in any meaningful way.

"All right, then," he said at length, speaking aloud with the unselfconsciousness of a man who has become comfortable with solitude. Though he was accustomed to expressing himself (even to himself) in a way that emphasized his impressive vocabulary, in this case, what he expressed was as simple as what he was about to do was complex. "It will suck to be wrong."

With his left hand, he picked through the tangles of his graying hair until he located a tiny shard of sharp crystal, shaped like a needle the length of the last joint of his thumb. This crystal needle was warmer than could be explained by the man's body heat, or by the rays of the sun, and even in the brilliant noon, the needle displayed a faint rosy glow.

He made a fist of his right hand until the veins on its back stood out, then shoved the crystal needle lengthwise into one of those veins until it lay wholly under his skin. The blaze of sudden pain, far more intense than a mere pinprick, he had anticipated, and so he was not dismayed even when his hand burst into flame.

While his flesh blackened and charred, he gathered his concentration in a particular way, then extended his arm as though reaching with his burning hand for something invisible in the air before him. As if dipping through the surface boundary of reflective water, his fingers began to disappear, wiping themselves from existence, followed by his burning hand -- for there was indeed a surface there through which he reached, though it was not water. It was the surface of the universe.

The end of the wrist, from which his hand had now disappeared, did not display bone and vein and muscle; instead, it presented a mirrorlike surface of polished metal, which appeared to have roughly the luster of burnished pewter.

The man said, "So far so good," then closed his eyes to focus every scrap of his attention on what his hand was doing on the far side of reality. He could still feel it as though it were on the beach with him, because it wasn't actually in another universe, but between universes, in the æther soup of unrealized possibility that he, and those like him, named the Blind Eternities.

What his hand did there took considerable time, as such things were measured on the world that was ocean. When at last he decided his experiment was complete, he focused his mind again as he had on insertion, then pulled his hand back into the universe he shared with the Metal Island. His hand was grievously burned, f lesh blackened and peeling, and the skin on the back of his hand, where he had inserted the crystal needle, was gone altogether, exposing a charred mass of bone and tendon.

He nodded to himself; this was one of the possible outcomes he had anticipated. For this outcome, he had planned a further experiment.

He took another needle from his hair and drove it into his burned flesh where the first had been. He focused his attention very much as he had when his hand had been outside the universe . . . and charred muscle began to heal, and fresh pink skin crept back over it. The last place to close was the back of his hand, where the skin had been altogether missing. Here, just before pink skin covered it altogether, there could be seen -- just along one metacarpal and a fractional length of vein -- a tiny glint of metal, like burnished pewter . . . or, of course, etherium, for that was what it was.

He lifted his gaze once more to meet the blank etherium stare of the Metal Sphinx. "Thank you."

The Metal Sphinx did not reply.

He took a deep breath and settled back into a comfortable position. "And for the rest," he said to himself, "patience. When using unfamiliar bait, one can only cast it into the ocean and wait to see what bites."

No great amount of patience was needed; presently, his anticipation was rewarded with the sound of the universe screaming in pain.

This is a sound that ordinary ears cannot hear -- it's more akin to a ragged, rending silence deeper than that of airless space -- but the man knew this sound well, and he did not even lift his head as vast talons sliced into the world-ocean from the outside, ripping a hole in reality, pulling the shreds apart, slicing the universe in a gruesome parody of birth. Shortly, the rip in reality was torn wide enough that a scaled shoulder appeared, bringing with it a vast leathery wing, and finally a dragon the size of a house forced itself into the world.

The dragon held a human in its jaws, wedged in the corner of its mouth as a rich man might hold a fine cigar. All that could be seen of this unfortunate individual was the lower half of his naked body, which was how the man who kneeled on the shore could tell -- with the help of excellent vision -- that this man was in fact a man.

The dragon's eyes shone with a yellow flame that cast a pale dandelion glow on the white sand. Actual flames licked out from its eyeballs, sending greasy pale smoke twisting upward between its horns. Smoke of a different sort leaked from the dragon's nostrils. Someone familiar with dragons would have noted that this one seemed angry -- to say it burned with fury would be literally accurate.

This dragon pounced like an enormous cat. One taloned forelimb slammed the man on the shore onto his back, pinning him to the ground, then began, ever so slowly, to crush the life from him.

"Bolas." The man did not show the slightest discomfort.

"Took your time, didn't you?"

"Oh, very funny. Took my time." The dragon's voice was compounded of thunder and landslide. Even spoken out of

the side of its mouth, each word might have been crushed from a granite mountain. "You have a refined sense of humor, for a dead man."

"I'm surprised you even realized it was a joke."

"This is what I think of comedy." In its free hand, the dragon took the man's legs, which kicked weakly at the corner of its jaw, and bit the man in half. His scream of agony was brief, and mostly muffled, being inside the dragon's mouth. The dragon broke off the corpse's lower half as though it were a celery stick as he chewed on the rest. A black tongue flicked up, around, and across the dragon's mouth, gathering the sprays of blood that had splattered its scales.

The dragon, whose name was Nicol Bolas, was not known for his sense of humor.

The man pinned under the dragon's other hand did not look impressed. "That wouldn't happen to have been Jace Beleren, would it?"

"B'l'rn?" The dragon made a face and spit the mangled remnant of torso into the sea. "Ychh. Raw free-range human. Tastes like goat balls." The dragon made another face and spit again. "No, sorry to disappoint, Tezzeret -- that wasn't Jace. He would taste like, oh, spring lamb, I imagine. That . . . inedible crap . . . was that clockworker of yours." "Renn?" The man, who was called Tezzeret, broadened his smile. "The last time I saw him, he was nothing more than a head and etherium. Even his heart. No lungs at all, nor any of the other bits. Getting himself a whole new body must have been a substantial undertaking, even for him."

"He didn't," the dragon said. "I did. The rebuild was his fee for telling me where you went."

"Ah." Tezzeret nodded. "The contract didn't specify how you'd rebuild him."

"Why would I waste all that etherium on someone who isn't me?"

"A question he should have considered before making the deal."

"He was a little agitated at the time. Emotional. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say he was foaming at the mouth with uncontrollable rage." The dragon cocked his head an inch or two. "You have that effect on people."

"Do I? Well, well. At any rate, thank you."

"What?"

Tezzeret gave as much of a shrug as would fit between the dragon's talons. "I said thankyou. It's an expression civil people sometimes use. It means I'm grateful for your help."

"I know what it -- " The dragon's jaw clamped shut, and the weight on Tezzeret's chest suddenly doubled. "Is this really the time to be mocking me?"

"I hadn't decided whether or not I should kill him; you have thoughtfully removed one horn of my potential moral dilemma. Not to mention that finding him at all might have been a challenge. I appreciate the favor. I'd say I owe you one, but under the circumwaurggh" -- his voice thinned as the weight on his chest suddenly doubled -- "it might be . . . guhh . . . redundant. . . ." His voice faded to a gurgle as the dragon leaned on his chest hard enough to spring a couple of his ribs.

"Banter," said Nicol Bolas, "gets on my nerves."

The drool that spooled down from his jaws toward Tezzeret's head was tinged strawberry with blood, smelled like offal, and had the consistency of half-melted gelatin. "Have you been here all along? Is this your hiding place?"

Tezzeret shook his head. "Wasn't . . . hiding," he wheezed. "Was waiting . . . for you."

"Flatterer." The dragon increased the weight on the man's chest. "You were given a task."

Tezzeret only rolled his head, nodding toward the Metal Sphinx.

"Please," Bolas rumbled. "You think you can buy me off with mere treasure?"

Tezzeret only blinked mutely up at the dragon, who presently realized the man's face was turning black.

"Oh, fine." He eased up on the pressure until Tezzeret could breathe.

"It's not . . . treasure . . ." Tezzeret coughed. "It's just how this place is. And how it will always be. More or less. Ever hear the expression 'You can't take it with you'?"

"Really?" Bolas lifted his head, frowning at the etherium gigafortune all around. If Tezzeret could have taken even an armload or two of etherium back across the Blind Eternities to Esper, Bolas would hardly have found him naked on this beach.

He probably wouldn't have found Tezzeret at all.

"So . . ." Bolas again bent his neck to bring his jaws within biting distance of Tezzeret's face. "You know where he is."

"I know everywhere he isn't."

"Close enough. Tell me."

"That's a long story, even for you."

"What, is he dead?"

Tezzeret cocked his head as though this question had only now occurred to him. "It would be most accurate to say that he's not yet alive."

"Oh, I love when you do that. I do. Really. Tell me another." Dragon drool began to puddle near Tezzeret's ears, and the dragon's voice went deep as a mine shaft and twice as dark. "I can take the secret from your mind."

"There is no secret."

"I can peel your brain like an onion."

"What do you know about onions, carnivore?"

"A fair point," Bolas conceded. "How about instead, I peel your brain like the skull of an obnoxious artificer who has about a minute to live?"

"Is this multiple choice? None of the above."

"You haven't heard all the choices."

Tezzeret smiled. "With you, it's always none of the above."

"You think you can play sphinx with me, you filthy little scut?" Those yellow eyes darkened toward red.

"You don't have the power. You don't have a millionth of the power."

"Power's irrelevant," Tezzeret said apologetically. "And I'm not playing sphinx, nor any other game; why would I? You're too stupid to understand the rules."

"Stupid?" Bolas snatched Tezzeret into the air, shaking him like a doll. "Will I be stupid while I skin you and gut you and roast you alive? Will I still be stupid after the last of your bones digests in my third stomach?"

"Yes. You will. You," said Tezzeret, wheezing a bit from the shaking, "are not what you eat."

The dragon made a sound as if boulders might be grinding together in his crop. "I was master of the Blind Eternities when your pathetic species didn't yet know how to make fire. I have not survived twenty-five thousand years by being stupid."

"That's true," Tezzeret allowed. "You survived in spite of being stupid."

"What do you gain by insulting me?" The dragon seemed honestly puzzled. "Are you so tired of living?"

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Tezzeret said.

"Telling you that you're stupid is not an insult. It's an explanation."

He spoke very slowly, and very clearly, as though speaking to a dim-witted child. "It's not your fault, Bolas. You can't help it. You are probably the most powerful being in the Multiverse -- "

"Probably?" the dragon sneered. "Another insult."

"And that's why. That right there. Power makes you stupid, Bolas. Power makes everyone stupid. You don't have to be smart when you can be strong. When was the last time you had to, say, outwit someone? Why bother, when you can destroy them -- destroy anyone -- with a shrug?"

"Which you should keep in mind."

"That's the difference between us. I have to be smart; my intellect is my only useful weapon. That man you just killed -- Silas Renn? He had the power to squash me like a bug. He used to do exactly that, regularly, back when we both studied with the Seekers of Carmot. He was ten times the mage I'll ever be . . . yet what's left of his corpse is drifting with the tides in a universe he could never have imagined. And I . . . ?" Tezzeret smiled. "I am about to teach the most powerful being in the Multiverse a lesson in weakness."

"We'll see who teaches whom." He opened his claws to hold Tezzeret cupped in his palm. One wickedly hooked talon, as long as Tezzeret was tall and sharp as a stiletto, traced a complex design in the air around the human's form. Where the talon passed, lines of actinic white fire ignited, becoming a spherical lattice around Tezzeret, anchoring his wrists and ankles and stretching them to full extension -- and then a bit more.

Nicol Bolas hummed to himself as he wove the restraints. "Comfortable? No? Good."

Gap-spark blue energy crackled between the dragon's horns like lightning leaping from mountain to mountain.

"This, by the way, is going to hurt. A lot."

"Everything . . . hurts. . . ." His body locked outstretched within the globe of white, Tezzeret could only barely force the words past his clenched teeth. "Whenever you're . . . ready . . ."

"You can spare yourself this pain."

"No . . . I can't. . . ."

"Share your secrets willingly, and I'll leave your mind intact."

"The only secret . . . is that there isnosecret. . . ."

"Have it your way. You were warned."

The gap spark between Bolas's horns intensified, gathering itself until it became a seething blue-tinged sun, too bright to look at. This blue sun grew horns of its own, two writhing jets of energy, one from above and the other from below. These jets spidered out, paused for a heartbeat or two in the air between the dragon and the man, then lanced through the Web of Restraint and stabbed into Tezzeret's head.

Bolas grimaced, fanning the air with one wing as he peeled Tezzeret's mind. Burning hair was one odor he'd never enjoyed -- and burning bone wasn't much better. He sighed for a moment, thinking of Jace Beleren. If he'd still had a tether on that grubby little mind ripper, he could have farmed out this business. He decided that when this was over, he would take himself off to, oh, say, Esper's Glass Dunes for a good sand bath -- something nice and abrasive, to really scour this stink off his scales.

The dragon's memory siphon was very reliable and very thorough. As long as the spell was active, Bolas could replay Tezzeret's memories, as vivid as a nightmare. It was very much like being Tezzeret as he endured the original experiences.

"Really, the things I put myself through . . ." Nicol Bolas said with a melancholy sigh. On the other hand, it would give him one more reason to punish Tezzeret. Not that he needed another reason.

Or any reason at all.

"Let's see what's inside this head of yours, shall we?" he murmured to himself. "Right from the moment I woke you up . . ."

The memories began to flow, slowly at first, then with increasing speed and force: the sensation of being rudely awakened, naked and alone, in the crystal cavern . . . then Tezzeret's fuzzy, almost incoherent thoughts, before the artificer had even opened his eyes. . . .

*****

Excerpted from Test of Metal by Matthew Stover. © 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC




 

 



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