All That Glitters

A fantasy short story by Will J Fawley

Hello there, traveler. Are you lost? You’re trying to reach The Beyond, eh? This is not the way. Your path lies another day’s journey down the road that twists through The Ranges.

Where are my manners? I am Sir Terren, Royal Knight to His Majesty, the king. Come back to Mytus with me, traveler, for it is far too dangerous to cross The Ranges in the dark. In the morning an escort will guide you through the mountain pass.

The city is up there on the mountaintop. You can see its two golden towers stretching up into the clouds. That shorter tower belongs to the king and is surpassed in height only by the Alchemists’ Tower. It’s the one that rises from the mountain’s peak. It channels the smoke that rises from the mountain, allowing the alchemists to condense it in the massive hourglass that hangs above the city. From there, a series of chutes carry the distilled liquid down the mountain, allowing it to cool and complete its transformation into gold.

At first glance, the city appears to be no more than a gold refinery. But when you look closer—please come inside the city walls; that’s it, don’t be afraid—you will see that in the shadow of the golden towers, it is a city full of people going about their lives, just like any other.

There is Mr. Braun, the Blacksmith. (Mr. Braun waves a thick wrist and nearly drops a red-hot rod he is forging.) Clumsy fellow. A wonder he hasn’t singed off that awful mustache.

And that over there is Old Miss Trench. She’s like a grandmother to everyone in the lower town. “Hello dearie.” The old woman scratches a large black cat that squirms in her arms. “Say hello to the nice traveler, Gus.” The cat hisses.

Let’s take this next turn and—a woman carrying a bouquet of blue funnel-shaped flowers nearly collides with us. “Hello, Terren. Lovely day, isn’t it?” the woman says, punctuating her cheer with a cough as she gestures toward the sun, which is just visible through the smog that hangs over the lower city. This is Elysia, of course. She hands me a flower. “And oh, here’s one for you, traveler.” Elysia waves goodbye and begins to hum, and then cough.

You’ll notice there’s a lot of coughing around here. Really, stop and listen. The hacking and choking of suffocating lungs echoes off the cobblestones and crumbling townhouses. The byproduct of alchemy is not nearly as pretty as gold. Some go as far as to say the thick black smoke actually caused the plague. Don’t look worried, traveler. You’re far likelier to be slaughtered for those fine shoes than you are to catch the plague these days. Here, breathe through this kerchief if it makes you feel better. Go on, take it, I have an extra.

Now here we are at the Village Square. The square is just as run down as the rest of the town, though a good deal more populated. You have to push your way through the crowds to get anywhere. Don’t worry, the coughing really isn’t contagious, and you’ll get used to the sulfur smell. Just pull that kerchief tighter.

That over there, you see that woman in the white robes on the platform? That’s my sister, Syrene. Now you best listen closely to what she has to say. Shhh…I promise you won’t get the plague. Now listen…

“The king’s wealth comes at a cost,” Syrene shouts into the crowd. “A great cost to all of us who reside on the mountain, for it is the mountain itself that suffers. You see, the king’s gold cannot be made from air. It is made instead from the mountain itself. The alchemy consumes it. Uses it up. Angers it.” Shouts of sorrow run through the square. “But there is hope,” Syrene says, and her reassurance causes a hush to fall over the crowd. “Fear not, for at our darkest hour, I shall play my part and stop the King’s greed once and for all.” Cheers erupt in the square.

But not everyone is pleased with Syrene’s proclamation. Four guards push through the crowd and make their way to the platform Syrene is standing on. Uh-oh, traveler, this could get ugly. Stay close.

“Your words are treason,” one of the guards says as he approaches Syrene.

“King’s made it clear we’re to make an example of anyone who questions his authority,” another adds.

“Come, you can share your views with the king,” the first guard says as he grabs Syrene’s arm.

I cannot stand by and watch my sister be wrongfully accused. I have to do something, so I rush in and push one of the guards off the platform. “Unhand her!”

One of the guards grabs me and I fight his grasp, but another closes in and holds my arms. They pull me alongside Syrene, toward the king’s tower.

Traveler, they’ve spotted you and they will arrest you too! Run!

But it is too late.

“Ah, a whole uprising, is it?” the first guard says as he and his fellow soldiers drag us through the narrow streets.

Though it’s a cloudless day, the sun cannot penetrate the smog. It’s always dark in the lower town. I’m sorry, traveler. I never meant to get you involved in this. Fear not, the law of the land entitles us to an audience before the king. And though His Majesty and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, he is a noble man who treats his knights with respect.

***

This is not the best introduction to the throne room, escorted by guards, spears in our backs. But it is grand isn’t it? The gilded floor, the elaborate candelabras? Hold still. The spear will poke into your back if you struggle against it.

“Terren,” the king says. “I am disappointed. I had thought you to be one of my most loyal knights.”

“I am, Sire.” The circular pool in the centre of the room is so still and bright it is impossible to tell if the liquid itself is gold, or merely a reflection of the room around it.

“You disappoint me, knight. I wish I could believe you.” A wreath of gold wraps around the king’s head, branching upward in a tangle of intricate shapes. “And you, traveler, what business have you here? If you were really trying to reach The Beyond as you say, you would have taken the direct route through The Ranges.” The king gets up from his throne, rising against the weight of the crown. “Guards!”

Just what we need, more guards. Two of the king’s men enter the room, Syrene walking in front of them.

The king raises an arm, gesturing toward Syrene. “Can you swear your innocence on the life of your sister?”

Syrene meets my gaze. Her eyes are empty, hopeless.

“I can not.”

“Then you stand by your sister’s slanderous words?”

“I believe in you and in the kingdom, Sire. But it is obvious that the kingdom is not as it once was.”

“Treason!” the king cries. The guards prod their spears into my back, pushing me forward until I fall onto my face. The king’s twisted reflection gleams in the polished floor. Then one of the guards pulls me up to my knees. “To the dungeons with them!”

“No!” Syrene shouts.

“I suppose you see a different fate for your brother then?” The king walks toward her and lifts her chin with his bejeweled fingers. “Tell me, Syrene, you have been my trusted Seer for many years, have you not? Without you, none of this would have been possible.” The king spreads his arms to indicate the grand room and the Alchemists’ Tower visible outside the window. “Your demonstration in the square this morning caused quite a fuss. Tell me, what future do you see for the kingdom?”

“I see a future that is right and just.”

“And what does that look like? Is it not the kingdom you see before you?”

Watch this, traveler. What you saw earlier in the square was only smoke and mirrors compared to the true power of my sister’s sight. Syrene stretches a hand out in front of herself, channeling the other realms. Her eyes glow with a blue electricity and the white robes ripple around her as if a wind is blowing through the chamber. The pool erupts in a geyser, sending a burst of gold water toward the ceiling, and then falls back down, splashing as it boils.

“I see,” she bellows in a hollow voice not her own, “a land in turmoil. A king mad with a greed that tears his kingdom apart. I see boiling rivers, sulfur in the wells. The mountain grows angry at what we have taken from it, what we have used it for.”

“Watch your tongue, Syrene, or you will end up with your brother in the dungeon.”

“It is not my tongue that you fear,” she says, “but your own blindness. What I see is not the future, but the present. Even now the villagers gather around a boiling well, water unfit to drink. Steam rises from the ground and burns the livestock’s feet. The fish in the rivers have all died, and the plants that grow along the banks have wilted. You are putting your kingdom in danger for a metal that is too soft to build with and has become so common it is no longer beautiful to look at. Does gold do the kingdom any good, Your Highness?”

“The metal itself may not appear useful,” the king says, “but the things it buys, oh the things it buys!” He descends the stairs that lead down from the throne to where we are standing, and gestures out the window to the view of the mountain city. “Once, we thought the alchemists would produce the elixir of life. What a waste that would be. For what is an eternal life without the comforts gold can buy?”

“My Lord, can you not hear yourself speak?” I ask.

The king ignores me and continues. “How can you question the very substance that has made this kingdom great? Look at us, we are made of gold.” He lifts the corner of his robe to remind me of his gilded limb, a trait we share. Yes, it’s true. This is not merely a gauntlet but a metal arm. The weight of my own gilded limb pulls against the muscles in my shoulder. “How can you stand against what we are at our very cores?”

“You are mad!” Syrene shouts. The guards seize her by the arms. She does not fight, but lets her defiance reign across her face. “This kingdom will fall under your rule.”

The king shakes his head and signals to the guards, who carry Syrene to the pool. Still, she does not struggle, but closes her eyes as they lower her into the water. A sharp scream escapes Syrene’s mouth, but it is cut short as her vocal chords turn to gold. Then the only sound is the rippling of the water as the guards lift a golden statue from the pool. It resembles my sister, her face twisted in pain.

I open my mouth to condemn the king, but my throat is dry and locked. I can only flail against the guards, the points of their spears piercing my chainmail.

“Such beauty should be preserved. Take her up to the Alchemists’ Tower,” the king orders the guards. “And remove these traitors from my sight.”

***

Wake up traveler. We’re in the dungeon. There’s no time to waste; we have to get out of here and find Syrene. Yes, ‘we.’ Look, I’m sorry I got you into this mess, but I’m going to stand a much better chance of getting my sister back if I have your help. You’re with me aren’t you? Glad to hear it.

For some reason this musty air smells sort of refreshing, doesn’t it? You’re right, there’s no gold here. No gilded floors or elaborate candelabras. Only my metal arm gleams in the candlelight cast from the guard post outside the cell.

We’re in luck, traveler! I know the guard on duty. His name is Sorrel. I’ve stood watch with him on this very dungeon shift many a night. But our duty to fellow knights means nothing compared to our loyalty to the king. That’s quite alright. Loyalty can be bought.

The candlelight reflects off of my golden arm, bending the light and making it dance around the cell. The king who has so much gold he makes his servants grind it up in his meals and insert flakes in his wine (the king who literally eats and shits gold) does not share it with his people. Don’t get me wrong, traveler. I would die for my king. Just not for his gold.

The king’s desire spreads through the kingdom, making the people fluent in the glittering language of gold. A spare piece can get you anything in this city.

I unstrap my gilded arm and offer it to the guard as a bribe to set us free. The gold can be melted down by a friend who has connections in the tower, and will make Sorrel’s family rich with a greater wealth: food, warmth, and medicine.

Sorrel gives me a spare suit of guards’ mail and a helmet.

“And a set of armour for my friend here?” I inquire. Thanks.

Put these on. Oh, I hope I don’t look as ridiculous as you. No, you’re fine, just follow me. And let me do the talking if it comes to that, got it? I’m glad you understand.

“If you succeed in climbing the tower, in finding your sister,” Sorrel asks, “what then?”

“I’ll figure that out when I get there.” I will, traveler. I promise.

***

The mountain is shaking because it’s angry at what the king has taken from it. We must hurry to the tower. The chutes that carry the liquid down from the top of the mountain are attached to bridges, connecting each building to another and creating a web of pathways throughout the city. The bridges will be the quickest route to the tower. Follow me closely.

It’s not too difficult to stay out of sight once the sun sets. What little light makes it down to the lower town is filtered by the smog. If you’re still worried about the pollution, pull that kerchief tight over your mouth. But like I said, the plague claims so few these days the bodies can all be buried—at least within the week.

Let’s cross this bridge to get a view of what we’re up against. Slow down, I may need to steady myself on you as we climb. The golden arm wasn’t very useful, but I feel a bit unbalanced without its weight.

Even as we cross the city bridges, keeping our distance from the guards that patrol them, the Alchemists’ Tower is visible above, tapering up to the moon. The ground rumbles again and the bridge shakes beneath our feet. Shouts echo up from the narrow streets. The tremors are growing more frequent.

You distract the guards and I’ll knock them out so we can get in. You won’t be in any danger, traveler. I’ll take them down before they can touch you. Just watch out for those nasty halberds. They’ll slice your arm right off if you’re not careful. Believe me.

I wait until the guards are distracted and take them down just as I was trained to eliminate any enemy of Mytus. See, I told you that would work. Grab one of those halberds, will you? Let’s go.

The halberd will be a good addition to our disguises. It’s meant to be a two-handed weapon, but my gold arm never held any strength anyway, so I’m used to compensating for the imbalance. Just carry it for me for now.

Once inside, the first thing we notice is that the tower is mostly hollow, serving as a duct to ventilate the mountain, and a black cloud of smoke continuously flows up the open shaft. Dozens of guards patrol a staircase that spirals along the outer wall.

The tower stretches endlessly upward—stairs, smoke, guards. Look, see that rope and pulley system along the walls? That could come in handy. I study the intricate knots that suspend the rope from a series of golden wheels. The ropes would probably be the fastest way up, but I don’t have time to figure out how they work.

Follow my pace and we should blend in with the pairs of guards as we ascend the stairs. That’s it, stay close so they can’t see my empty sleeve.

We mirror the movements of the guards, keeping as much distance from them as possible, moving slowly upward. Sooner or later we’ll have to pass them. Simply nod and avert your eyes as we do.

When the time comes, I can feel their gaze piercing through my armour, and there’s a phantom tingle in the limp sleeve of my chainmail where the golden arm once was.

We pass the first set of guards without a problem, despite the drumbeat of my racing heart. Sh…listen. You can hear the next pair of guards talking as we approach.

“…ordered to keep our eyes out for two escaped prisoners trying to climb the tower.”

The other guard laughs. “I’d like to see ‘em try. This is the most secure building in the kingdom. We see to that!”

“That may be so, but we must keep an eye out just the same. One of the men is missing an arm. The king said he would do whatever it takes to get up to the top.”

We’re too close now to turn around. Just keep walking. I become increasingly conscious of my limp sleeve and try to hide it from sight. It’s a close call, but we pass the guards and continue our ascent.

Look ahead, there’s a platform tied to the pulley system. A golden rope-car rests on the platform ahead, just out of reach. Six guards are aboard. If only we can make it to the car we can ride up with them.

“Hey,” one of the guards behind us shouts.

Walk faster.

“Hey!” the guard shouts again, and lays a hand on my shoulder. I am about to run when he asks, “did you hear the orders? There’s a prisoner on the loose.”

“Yes, I heard,” I say, my pulse stabilizing. “I’ll be on the lookout.”

Keep moving. As we reach the rope-car, one of the guards looks down at my empty sleeve and then up at my face. Halberd please.

I make quick work of all six guards in the car, using the momentum of the blade to compensate for not having a second hand to precisely control the weapon. It arcs through the air, chopping into skulls and torsos, sending blood spurting in all directions as the guards tumble from the rope-car and down the stairs.

Bells ring throughout the tower and guards rush toward us from above and below. I lean the halberd against the wall and fumble with the knots, but can’t manage to untie them with one hand. Grab hold of the rope! There is no time to lose, so I pick the halberd up again and chop the rope that supports the counter-weight.

The stairs swirl down around us as the rope-car launches up through the smoke.

***

Get out of the rope-car, we don’t have much time. The tower shakes again to emphasize my point.

At its highest level, the tower is divided into four large rooms that are all connected to a central chamber, allowing the smoke to filter through the roof. The first room is empty except for its gilded walls and tables. Let’s continue into the next room. Careful, there are bound to be more guards up here. This is where the magic happens.

The next room appears to be the laboratory. See those workbenches? The benches are cluttered with glass vials and tools I have never seen before and cannot begin to name. Four alchemists are at work, one in each corner of the room, capturing the smoke in bottles and then transferring it through a series of tubes into a smaller version of the large hourglass that hangs above the city. The smoke condenses against the glass walls and trickles down to the lower half of the container in the form of liquid gold.

One of the alchemists looks up at us in our guard uniforms and then goes back to his work.

Syrene has to be around here somewhere. We walk through another empty room and into the next, which is set up like the laboratory, but with more open space, and a great window overlooking the kingdom. From this height you can see straight across the valley to the mountain range that divides our kingdom from The Beyond. The shadow of the Alchemists’ Tower bends across the valley and disappears on the far horizon. This is no time to admire the view, traveler. Let’s move.

Look over there in the middle of the tower! A collection of statues is lined up against the central shaft where the black smoke rises. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that these are not statues, but people frozen in gold like my sister, twisted in pain, trapped in that moment of the king’s cruelty forever.

What did these people do to deserve this? Was their crime, like Syrene’s, to want what is best for the kingdom? I don’t have time to dwell on these thoughts as I look between the golden faces, because I soon find one I know better than my own, her nose so like our mother’s, her mouth wide and proud like our father’s, but stretched in agony.

Do you have any siblings, traveler? Syrene is my only family. Looking at her golden face, I remember that cruel winter when our parents were taken by the plague. Syrene held my hand as the snow fell around us and she told me to focus on the beauty of the flakes instead of my pain. That same horrible winter, Syrene’s ability was discovered when she saw the plague before it struck. She tried to warn the kingdom, and the king took her away. I was alone. All I could do that winter was watch the snow fall and wish I was more like Syrene—able to see the beauty in everything. But to me it was just cold.

What is it, traveler? I’m back in the present now, and the king stands in silhouette against the window that looks out over the mountain kingdom. An uneven smile slants across his face. “You are not my royal guard,” he says to me. “You were relieved of duty if I am not mistaken, Terren.”

I stumble backward toward the statues and fall against Syrene, my hand resting on her shoulder to balance myself.

“What?” the king asks. “Surprised to see me? I knew that you would come to rescue your sister. But it is hopeless.”

A rumble echoes up from the ground and the tower sways from side to side. The king stumbles on his golden leg, but manages to right himself by resting a hand on a gold man’s face.

“You were foolish to come here, Terren. And to involve this poor traveler. There is no hope for any of you, especially your sister. The only way to change her back is to melt the gold down, which would kill her.” He turns away from me and looks out the window at the city he built atop the mountain. “You must trust me when I say that this is what is best for the land. It is time I share my wealth with the kingdom. Soon Mytus shall be the most magnificent city in all the world!”

With that, dozens of alchemists begin flooding into the room from both doors.

“But my lord, the power will be too great,” one of them says. “Surely it will destroy us all.”

“Greatness never comes without risk. If that is the price we must pay, so be it.”

At the king’s command, the alchemists crowd around the opening to the central chamber, smoke billowing up around them, making them appear insubstantial, like apparitions. They grab hold of a series of cranks positioned around the central wall, and begin to rotate them.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Soon the entire city will be gold,” the king says with pride. “And you along with it, brother and sister united again!”

The black smoke glimmers with flecks of light, and then becomes so bright I can’t look at it any longer. I cough and pull my kerchief tighter. Behind the king I can see the rooftops and towers across the mountainside slowly turning to gold, the sheen spreading like a sickness across the city.

A great heat bellows up from the bottom of the tower, and flames begin shooting upward. The tower shakes more violently now and I have to grab onto the wall for balance. Several alchemists lose purchase and fall down the central shaft, burned before they hit the ground.

This will not be the end of my city. Hand me the halberd, traveler. I charge at the king. But he is ready for me and draws his sword in time to block the thrust of my halberd. The force of his parry sends me stumbling backward.

Stay back traveler, this is not your battle! The halberd falls to the ground and I reach for it, but am too slow to grasp the weapon before I have to dive to dodge the king’s swinging sword.

When the attack misses, I take the opportunity to grab the halberd and swing it toward the king. He dodges, and another tremor sends us all tumbling toward the central chamber. Hot liquid ore is now shooting upward from the tower, and through the window, I can see that it rains across the kingdom.

With a surge of power, I swing the halberd again. The king grabs the handle and pulls me toward him. I try to kick at him, but he grabs my foot and I can see that his golden leg is beginning to lose its shape in the heat. He throws me backward and I collapse against the wall.

The tower is weakening, shaking constantly now, and the king struggles to steady himself on his metal leg. He rushes toward me with the halberd over his head, preparing a deathblow as I crawl sideways along the wall.

Just before the halberd slices off the only arm I have left, I lunge forward and kick the king’s golden leg. It has softened so much that it buckles under his weight, making him fall to the ground. The tower rocks even more violently, and I grab my sister’s arm to steady myself. It is soft in my grasp, almost like flesh. When I remove my hand, the imprint of my fingers remains in the metal.

The tower leans sharply to one side, causing the king to slide toward the central chamber. He claws desperately at the floor, but there are no grooves in the smooth gold leaves to grab hold of, so he slides until he hangs from the edge of the great opening at the tower’s centre, liquid ore cooking him slowly from below.

Planting my feet against the wall, I reach down to help him up, but he refuses my hand. “I will perish with my kingdom,” he says. And then he lets go of the ledge and falls down the endless hole to the bottom of the mountain.

A gleam catches the corner of my eye. Oh no, traveler, the statues are sliding into the opening as well! One by one the golden people follow the king, melting in the heat and dripping downward. I cling fast to the wall to keep myself from tumbling in as well, and I see Syrene as she melts. For an instant she is herself again, suspended in the air, flesh and blood, my sister. I reach out to her, but it is too late, she is already beyond my grasp.

I swear I can see a smile on her face in that last moment. And then she is gone, her melted body transformed into white flakes of ash which rise upward with the red bursts of flame and ore.

The hairs on the back of my hand are curled and smoking when I pull it back. The rocking tower throws me to my knees and I don’t care anymore if I fall to my death. I try to take solace in the fact that at least Syrene is herself once again, not that awful, worthless metal.

When they notice that the king is no more, the alchemists stop turning the cranks and begin working some other power on the mountain, attempting to reverse their actions. But the tower continues to shake and the lava to rise. The alchemists learned to harness the power of the mountain long ago, but they only used it. They never understood its power, and now they are at its mercy.

Just as it seems the tower is about to collapse into the mountain, a gust of cool wind blows up through the tower, carrying ash that glitters like snow. The wind stops as suddenly as it began. The shaking slows and then stops as well. The bursting ore falls down the central shaft and eventually fades back into smoke.

The tower is stable now, but still leaning at a perilous angle. I climb the incline of the floor toward the window and look out over the kingdom. The centre of the city has turned to gold and is covered in the black, crawling ore, which is bubbling and hardening. The alchemists are able to work their power now, and as they do, the gold retreats, the city’s towers and walls transforming back to stone.

But look how the black ore remains on the rooftops. Look how it fills the Village Square and the streets around it. Is there still a city under all the debris?

I’m sorry I got you into this mess, traveler. But it wouldn’t have ended as well as it did if you weren’t here. I thank you for that, as does the kingdom. Now it’s my turn to help you. We leave for The Beyond at once.

Looking out the window one last time, I smile. The smog has faded enough that the sunlight now reaches the lower town. And a white powder rains down on the mountain.

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