Strange the Dreamer EXTRACT

STRANGE THE DREAMER is the story of: The aftermath of a war between gods and men A mysterious city stripped of its name A mythic hero with blood on his hands A young librarian with a singular dream A girl every bit as perilous as she is imperilled Alchemy and blood candy, nightmares and godspawn, moths and monsters, friendship and treachery, love and carnage Welcome to Weep . . .

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1. The Old Mystery & the New

Names may be lost or forgotten. No one knew that better than Lazlo Strange. He’d had another name first, but it had died like a song with no one left to sing it. Maybe it had been an old family name, bur‑ nished by generations of use. Maybe it had been given to him by someone who loved him. He liked to think so, but he had no idea. All he had were Lazlo and  Strange —   Strange because that was the surname given to all foundlings in the Kingdom of Zosma, and Lazlo after a monk’s tongueless uncle.

“He had it cut out on a prison galley,” the monk told him when he was old enough to understand. “He was an eerie silent man, and you were an eerie silent babe, so it came to me: Lazlo. I had to name so many babies that year I went with whatever popped into my head.” He added, as an afterthought, “Didn’t think you’d live anyway.”

That was the year Zosma sank to its knees and bled great gouts of men into a war about nothing. The war, of course, did not content itself with soldiers. Fields were burned; villages, pillaged. Bands of displaced peasants roamed the razed countryside, fighting the crows for gleanings. So many died that the tumbrils used to cart thieves to the gallows were repurposed to carry orphans to the monasteries and convents. They arrived like shipments of lambs, to hear the monks tell it, and with no more knowledge of their provenance than lambs, either. Some were old enough to know their names at least, but Lazlo was just a baby, and an ill one, no less.

“Gray as rain, you were,” the monk said. “Thought sure you’d die, but you ate and you slept and your color came normal in time. Never cried, never once, and that was unnatural, but we liked you for it fine. None of us became monks to be nursemaids.”

To which the child Lazlo replied, with fire in his soul, “And none of us became children to be orphans.”

But an orphan he was, and a Strange, and though he was prone to fantasy, he never had any delusions about that. Even as a little boy, he understood that there would be no revelations, and no reunions. No one was coming for him, and he would never know his own true name.

Which is perhaps why the mystery of Weep captured him so completely.

There were two mysteries, actually: one old, one new. The old one opened his mind, but it was the new one that climbed inside, turned several circles, and settled in with a  grunt —   like a satisfied dragon in a cozy new lair. And there it would  remain —   the mystery, in his  mind —   exhaling enigma for years to come.

It had to do with a name, and the discovery that, in addition to being lost or forgotten, they could also be stolen.

He was five years old when it happened, a charity boy at Zemo‑nan Abbey, and he’d snuck away to the old orchard that was the haunt of nightwings and lacewings to play by himself. It was early winter. The trees were black and bare. His feet breached a crust of frost with every step, and the cloud of his breath accompanied him like a chummy ghost.

The Angelus rang, its bronze voice pouring through the sheep‑ fold and over the orchard walls in slow, rich waves. It was a call to prayer. If he didn’t go in, he would be missed, and if he was missed, he would be whipped.

He didn’t go in.

Lazlo was always finding ways to slip off on his own, and his legs were always striped from the hazel switch that hung from a hook with his name on it. It was worth it. To get away from the monks and the rules and the chores and the life that pinched like tight shoes.

To play.

“Turn back now if you know what’s good for you,” he warned imaginary enemies. He held a “sword” in each hand: black apple branches with the stout ends bound in twine to make hilts. He was a small, underfed waif with cuts on his head where the monks nicked it, shaving it against lice, but he held himself with exquisite dignity, and there could be no doubt that in his own mind, in that moment, he was a warrior. And not just any warrior, but a Tizerkane, fiercest that ever was. “No outsider,” he told his foes, “has ever set eyes on the forbidden city. And as long as I draw breath, none ever will.”

“We’re in luck, then,” the foes replied, and they were more real to him in the twilight than the monks, whose chanting drifted down‑ hill from the abbey. “Because you won’t be drawing breath for much longer.”

Lazlo’s gray eyes narrowed to slits. “You think you can defeat me?”

The black trees danced. His  breath ‑ ghost scudded away on a gust, only to be replaced by another. His shadow splayed out huge before him, and his mind gleamed with ancient wars and winged beings, a mountain of melted demon bones and the city on the far side of  it —   a city that had vanished in the mists of time.

This was the old mystery.

It had come to him from a senile monk, Brother Cyrus. He was an invalid, and it fell to the charity boys to bring him his meals.

He wasn’t kind. No grandfather figure, no mentor. He had a terrible grip, and was known to hold the boys by the wrist for hours, forcing them to repeat nonsense catechisms and confess to all manner of wickedness they could scarce understand, let alone have committed. They all had a ter‑ ror of him and his gnarled raptor hands, and the bigger boys, sooner than protect the smaller, sent them to his lair in their stead. Lazlo was as scared as the rest, yet he volunteered to bring all the meals.

Why?

Because Brother Cyrus told stories.

Stories were not smiled upon at the abbey. At best, they dis‑ tracted from spiritual contemplation. At worst, they honored false gods and festered into sin. But Brother Cyrus had gone beyond such strictures. His mind had slipped its moorings. He never seemed to understand where he was, and his confusion infuriated him. His face grew clenched and red. Spittle flew when he ranted. But he had his moments of calm: when he slipped through some cellar door in his memory, back to his boyhood and the stories his grandmother used to tell him. He couldn’t remember the other monks’ names, or even the prayers that had been his vocation for decades, but the stories poured from him like water from a spring.

Lazlo listened. He listened the way a cactus drinks  rain —   every word a precious drop in a world frugal with wonder.

In the south and east of the continent of  Namaa —   far, far from northerly  Zosma —   there was a vast desert called the Elmuthaleth, the crossing of which was an art perfected by few and fiercely guarded against all others. Somewhere across this emptiness lay a city that had never been seen. It was a rumor, a fable, but it was a rumor and fable from which marvels emerged, carried by camels across the des‑ ert to fire the imaginations of folk the world over.

The city had a name.

The men who drove the camels, who brought the marvels, they told the name and they told stories, and the name and the stories made their way, with the marvels, to distant lands, where they con‑ jured visions of glittering domes and tame white stags, women so beautiful they melted the mind, and men whose scimitars blinded with their shine.

For centuries this was so. Wings of palaces were devoted to the marvels, and shelves of libraries to the stories. Traders grew rich. Adventurers grew bold, and went to find the city for themselves. None returned. It was forbidden to  faranji —   outsiders —   who, if they survived the Elmuthaleth crossing, were executed as spies. Not that that stopped them from trying. Forbid a man something and he craves it like his soul’s salvation, all the more so when that some‑ thing is the source of incomparable riches.

Many tried.

None ever returned.

The desert horizon birthed sun after sun, and it seemed as if nothing would ever change. But two hundred years ago, the caravans stopped coming. In the western outposts of the  Elmuthaleth —   Alkonost and  others —   they watched for the  heat‑ distorted silhou‑ ettes of camel trains to emerge from the emptiness as they always had, but they did not.

And they did not.

And they did not.

There were no more camels, no more men, no more marvels, and no more stories. Ever. That was the last that was ever heard from the forbidden city, the unseen city, the lost city, and this was the mystery that had opened Lazlo’s mind like a door.

What had happened? Did the city still exist? He wanted to know everything. He learned to coax Brother Cyrus into that place of rev‑ erie, and he collected the stories like treasure. Lazlo owned nothing, not one single thing, but from the first, the stories felt like his own hoard of gold.

The domes of the city, Brother Cyrus said, were all connected by silk ribbons, and children balanced upon them like tightrope walk‑ ers, dashing from palace to palace in capes of colored feathers. No doors were ever closed to them, and even the birdcages were open for the birds to come and go as they pleased, and wondrous fruits grew everywhere, ripe for the plucking, and cakes were left out on window ledges, free for the taking.

Lazlo had never even seen cake, let alone tasted it, and he’d been whipped for eating windfall apples that were more worm than fruit. These visions of freedom and plenty amazed him. They bewitched him. Certainly, they distracted from spiritual contemplation, but in the same way that the sight of a shooting star distracts from the ache of an empty belly. They marked his first consideration that there might be other ways of living than the one he knew. Better, sweeter ways.

The streets of the city, Brother Cyrus said, were tiled with lapis lazuli and kept scrupulously clean so as not to soil the long, long hair the ladies wore loose and trailing behind them like bolts of blackest silk. Elegant white stags roamed the streets like citizens, and reptiles big as men drifted in the river. The first were spectrals, and the sub‑ stance of their  antlers —   spectralys, or  lys —   was more precious than gold. The second were svytagors, whose pink blood was an elixir of immortality. There were ravids,  too —   great cats with fangs like  scythes —   and birds that mimicked human voices, and scorpions whose sting imparted superhuman strength.

And there were the Tizerkane warriors.

They wielded blades called hreshtek, sharp enough to slice a man off his shadow, and kept scorpions in brass cages hooked to their belts. Before battle, they would thrust a finger through a small open‑ ing to be stung, and under the influence of the venom, they were unstoppable.

“You think you can defeat me?” Lazlo defied his orchard foes.

“There are a hundred of us,” they replied, “and only one of you. What do you think?”

“I think you should believe every story you’ve ever heard about the Tizerkane, and turn around and go home!”

Their laughter sounded like the creaking of branches, and Lazlo had no choice but to fight. He poked his finger into the little lop‑ sided cage of twigs and twine that dangled from his rope belt. There was no scorpion in it, only a beetle stunned by the cold, but he grit‑ ted his teeth against an imagined sting and felt venom bloom power in his blood. And then he lifted his blades, arms raised in a V, and roared.

He roared the city’s name. Like thunder, like an avalanche, like the war cry of the seraphim who had come on wings of fire and cleansed the world of demons. His foes stumbled. They gaped. The venom sang in him, and he was something more than human. He was a whirlwind. He was a god. They tried to fight, but they were no match for him. His swords flashed lightning as, two by two, he dis‑ armed them all.

In the thick of play, his daydreams were so vivid that a glimpse of reality would have shocked him. If he could have stood apart and seen the little boy crashing through the  frost‑ stiff bracken, waving branches around, he would scarcely have recognized himself, so deeply did he inhabit the warrior in his mind’s eye, who had just dis‑ armed a hundred enemies and sent them staggering home. In tri‑ umph, he tipped back his head, and let out a cry of . . . . . .

a cry of . . .

Weep!”

He froze, confused. The word had broken from his mouth like a curse, leaving an aftertaste of tears. He had reached for the city’s name, as he had just a moment ago, but . . .  it was gone. He tried again, and again found Weep instead. It was like putting out his hand for a flower and coming back with a slug or sodden handkerchief. His mind recoiled from it. He couldn’t stop trying, though, and each time was worse that the one before. He groped for what he knew had been there, and all he fished up was the awful word Weep, slick with wrongness, damp as bad dreams, and tinged with its residue of salt. His mouth curled with its bitterness. A feeling of vertigo swept over him, and the mad certainty that it had been taken.

It had been taken from his mind.

He felt sick, robbed. Diminished. He raced back up the slope, scrabbling over low stone walls, and pelted through the sheepfold, past the garden and through the cloister, still gripping his apple branch swords. He saw no one, but was seen. There was a rule against running, and anyway, he ought to have been at vespers. He ran straight to Brother Cyrus’s cell and shook him awake. “The name,” he said, gasping for breath. “The name is missing. The city from the stories, tell me its name!”

He knew deep down that he hadn’t forgotten it, that this was something else, something dark and strange, but there was still the chance that maybe, maybe Brother Cyrus would remember, and all would be well.

But Brother Cyrus said, “What do you mean, you fool boy? It’s  Weep —” And Lazlo had just time to see his face buckle with confu‑ sion before a hand closed on his collar and yanked him out the door.

“Wait,” he implored. “Please.” To no avail. He was dragged all the way to the abbot’s office, and when they whipped him this time, it wasn’t with his hazel switch, which hung in a row with all the other boys’ switches, but one of his apple boughs. He was no Tizerkane now. Never mind a hundred enemies; he was disarmed by a single monk and beaten with his own sword. Some hero. He limped for weeks, and was forbidden from seeing Brother Cyrus, who’d grown so agitated by his visit that he’d had to be sedated.

There were no more stories after that, and no more  escapes —   at least, not into the orchard, or anywhere outside his own mind. The monks kept a sharp eye on him, determined to keep him free of  sin —   and of joy, which, if not explicitly a sin, at least scorched a clear path to it. He was kept busy. If he wasn’t working, he was  praying. If he wasn’t praying, he was working, always under “adequate supervision” to pre‑ vent his vanishing like a wild creature into the trees. At night he slept, exhausted as a gravedigger, too tired even to dream. It did seem as though the fire in him was smothered, the thunder and the avalanche, the war cry and the whirlwind, all stamped out.

As for the name of the vanished city, it was well and truly gone. Lazlo would always remember the feel of it in his mind, though. It had felt like calligraphy, if calligraphy were written in honey, and that was as close to it as  he —   or  anyone —   could come. It wasn’t just him and Brother Cyrus. Wherever the name had been  found —   printed on the spines of books that held its stories, in the old, yel‑ lowed ledgers of merchants who’d bought its goods, and woven into the memories of anyone who’d ever heard  it —   it was simply erased, and Weep was left in its place.

This was the new mystery.

This, he never doubted, was magic.

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