The night was cold, but Togura Poulaan was hot, feverish, burning. Armed with a sword which had recently graced the hand of a Zenjingu fighter, he was attacking the odex, hacking and slashing at its soft, yielding surface. It bled colours and music. As he fought, he became lost in a cloud of jangling rainbows, in a delusion of humming auras, in sprays of pealing orange and rumbling red, in veils of hissing mist and belching steam.
Finally, he stopped. He was panting harshly. His legs were shaking. Blisters had puffed up hard and ripe on the palms of his hands where the hard labour of battle had taken its toll on his innocence; he had never used a sword before, except in the occasional desultory half-hearted sparring match. The odex reformed and repaired itself, effortlessly, making itself perfect once more. The last free-floating colour died with a chord of music.
Togura hawked, and spat, and swore.
As he swore, an ilps jacked itself out of the odex and hoisted itself to the sky, smacking its bulbous lips, which were seven in number.
"Who are you?" cried Brother Troop, who had been standing to one side watching Togura's performance.
The ilps wavered.
"Where do you come from? Who owns you?"
Half of the ilps collapsed with a brief stench like a twinge of silage; the rest escaped.
And Togura, having recovered his breath, began to attack the odex with his voice. Once started, he did not stop. Seeking the words which would recover Day Suet, he poured out the language of love, hate and obscenity, of eating and drinking, of battle and war, of farming and forestry; he cried out the names of birds, trees, mountains, rivers, seas, lakes, weapons, cities, people, pets, insects, stars and uncouth diseases; he called upon gods known and unknown, upon the powers of earth and sky, air and water, fire and stone.
Anything that served his purpose was pressed into use. He bawled out snatches of drinking songs and musical bawdry; he sung half-remembered phrases of love songs and madrigals, inventing his own words when memory failed him. And then, yielding to despair and fury, he poured out meaningless word-strings, shouting, demanding, pleading, screaming, commanding.
As he excited it, the odex threw forth random assemblages with multiple heads, voices, smells, legs, arms, teeth, tentacles, manes, pseudopods, carapaces, eyes, ears, tongues and tails. As each ilps escaped, it drifted away, giggling, chuckling, snoring, roaring, swelling, pulsating, gleaming and shining, until the night sky above the stronghold of the Wordsmiths was cluttered with a positive fantasia of shapes and forms.
Sometimes, as Togura's words accidentally hit upon some transient code of retrieval, the odex sent real things out from its storehouse. Once it spat fire. Once it ejected a tiny corn-coloured disk which swelled in a couple of breaths to a huge wheel of hay the height of a man and the girth of a bullock. Once a shower of coins blasted their way into the air, stinging and burning where they hit, for they were red-hot.
As the night wore on, an ever-changing audience watched Togura's frantic performance. Servitors, scribes, translators, wordmasters and even the governor himself joined the gathering crowd. Togura, scarcely aware of their presence, cursed, stormed, raged and pleaded, as if immune to all embarrassment.
Alerted by the plague of ilpses above the Wordsmiths' stronghold, the citizens of Keep began to wake; it would have been hard for them to sleep, as all the dogs were howling and barking, for an ilps had the peculiar property of being very disturbing to dogs. Muttering imprecations, many hauled themselves out of bed and went to investigate. Picking their way through the night, wary of mineshafts and made dogs, citizens began to gather outside the stronghold, a conclave of lanterns and speculations. Some infiltrated the stronghold to become astonished witnesses to an unprecedented scene.
They saw Togura, harsh and hoarse and sweating, berating the odex, threatening it and lashing it with the iron-edged fury of his tongue. As his non-stop attack continued, the odex no longer manifested one object or apparition for each of his assaults, but spat them out in twos or threes, and then a dozen at a time. More and more of its productions were real things rather than randomly-formed ilpses.
A little red snaked, folded like a concertina, jumped out of the odex and hopped around on the ground, rupturing itself with a string of explosions. Then Togura was drenched and almost swept away by an onslaught of water, foam and spray in which a horde of fresh and saltwater fish kicked, thrashed and jumbled - pike, snapper, bream, bluefin, dogfish, cod, carp, smelts, dabs, haddock, lampreys, flounder, trout, salmon, catfish, whitebait, gurnet, mullet, groper, flying fish, mau mau, rays, eels, gudgeon and perch, all mixed in a slurry with sea slugs, sea urchins, crayfish, lobsters, gaplax, whelks and seaweed. While he was still thrashing round in the water, screaming and yelching and screeching and yelping, he was hit by a blast of vegetable scrapings.
Then a child fell bawling at his feet.
A newborn child, swaddled in a kind of soft white sheet.
A woman darted out of Togura's audience, snatched up the child and carried it off. As if a spell had been broken, people started to scrabble for the valuables ejected by the odex, and soon the central courtyard was filled with a turmoil of bodies and voices pushing, shoving, complaining, shouting, scratching, wrestling, pinching, pulling. Fish were torn apart or trampled underfoot or eaten raw on the spot before they could be snatched away. The courtyard, lit by the unearthly phosphorescent glow of more than a thousand ilpses, became a seething, pullulating mass of mud, bodies, greed, avarice, jealousy and outright violence.
Oblivious to the anarchy all around, Togura, sword in hand, continued to fight the odex. Now, excited not just by his voice but by the raging, screaming, shrieking crowd, it spat, pumped and ejected, spraying the crowd with parts of dead animals and mangled bits of human bodies, with lumps of gold and chunks of silver, with mine tailings by the bucket-load, with peaches, leeks and baby hedgehogs, and then -
Lurching out of the odex it came, a fearsome beast with scales of jacinth and claws like knives, with three snake-like heads on long and weaving necks. Togura swung with his sword and chopped off one of its heads. Fleeing from his death-bright blade, it ran straight into the clutches of a rabble of housewives, who swamped it, strangled it, tore it apart and crammed its separate pieces into their bargain bags.
The ilpses were now popping out from the odex in a never-ending stream. Togura, filthy, bloodstained, stinking, reeking, was shaken by a fit of riotous madness, and laughed. His laugh provoked an onslaught of birds which battered into the night sky. Some struck out for the darkness while others went looning around in the light of the ilpses, or fluttered here and there and everywhere, bewildered, shocked and disoriented.
The air was a daze of feathers, a cacophony of screams, cries, chirrups and distress calls. Togura was lost in the swirling maelstrom of sparrows, thrushes, fan tails, gulls, gannets, petrels, budgerigars, huias, yodel birds, cockatoos and laughing owls, moreporks and dancing fins, ravens, jackdaws, crows, keas, sparrow hawks, skypes, mynahs, skylarks, starlings, strutting breckons, hens, wood pidgeons, nymphet skarks, muttonbirds and dark lartles.
The feather-storm cleared.
An egg fell out of the odex, bounced, and rolled to one side; it was hard-boiled. A penguin, very hard from home, hobbled away as best it could. Togura cried in a hoarse, cracked voice:
"Give me Day Suet!"
A horde of ilpses stormed out of the odex. As he ducked and covered his head, the noise of the crowd of looters rose to a fresh peak. The odex responded with cheeses, showering one and all with a stream of weird, bizarre and alien concoctions - green mould and yellow stink, cheddar and kray, cantal, marolles, olivet, port-salut, livarot, limbourg, skwayjeg, soo, parmesan, brie, gournay, roquefort, troyes, romantours, brazlets and mont d'ors.
The air filled with screams of delight as the housewives packed into the cheese.
Togura, hit, thumped, battered, plastered and knocked almost senseless by cheese, fell to his knees and crawled away through the sour, dank, fetid reek of cheese. Soon the odex was buried in cheese, and Togura was adrift on a steadily-growing mound of cheese, which pulsed, twitched and billowed, forcing itself ever-upward.
Forced upward till he was level with the guttering, Togura hauled himself onto the roof and crawled upward to the roof-ridge. There, exhausted, he slumped down, collapsing under a sky now elbow to elbow with giggling ilpses. Eventually, he roused himself and looked downward.
The night was fading. It was growing light. The cheeses were no longer piling themselves up to the sky; the courtyard full of cheese began to empty rapidly thanks to a bucket brigade of citizens. It seemed that everyone in Keep who was not crippled or bed-ridden, and several who were, had gathered in the stronghold or on its roof or in the surrounding streets or on the surrounding roofs. As the cheese-level fell, survivors were hauled out of the wreckage, choking and gasping or shocked and silent.
Suddenly cries of rage, fear and horror rose to Togura's ears. He saw that a tide of red was rising fiercely, swamping cheeses and people. The hot reek of blood rose to his nostrils.
Soon torrents of blood were pouring out of the courtyard, which was a swirling red maelstrom. The blood swept out into the streets, drowning down into the mine shafts, flooding the cellars, racketing knee-deep through the alleyways, piling up at the squeezes and pinches, then shooting away into the gulf of air beyond the brink of Dead Man's Drop. The slow, the lame and the unwary were carried away down the streets, swept into mineshafts or, thrashing and screaming, tossed over Dead Man's Drop.
The blood-letting subsided, until finally the odex itself could be seen, standing in the courtyard. It was still pumping blood at a steady rate; a stream ankle-deep ran from the courtyard.
From the odex there then emerged a steady stream of clanking cantankerous machines and cute little stag fawns with ear tags of blue or green or gold. The stag fawns wandered out into the streets, picking their way through the blood and rubble and the litter of corpses with their delicate bloodstained feet. The machines, some taking to the air, others lumbering along the ground, began to fight each other.
As the machines fought, the air filled with the sullen cough of projectile weapons, the shubilant hiss of energy beams, the hollow, booming thud of contact explosions, the thud of collisions and the high-pitched intolerable scream of despairing steel.
A light wind got up, sending the ilpses drifting away. The battle between the machines continued. Many of them sought refuge underground. The others followed, and the continuation of a very ancient war proceeded underfoot. The ground shook with muffled explosions.
The flow of blood diminished to a trickle. The last few stag fawns jumped out of the odex. The last thing to come forth was a female human dressed in silk. She slithered out of the odex and landed on her backside in the mud and muck.
"Day!" screamed Togura, with the very last of his voice.
Heedless of the danger, he raced down the roof and leapt into the courtyard. He landed, fell, and went sprawling into the soft, reeking squilg of blood and mud and water and bird droppings. As he hauled himself out of the ooze, the human female regarded him with distaste. She was, he saw, most definitely not Day Suet; she was taller, older and wore diamonds. Despite her muck-stained backside, she carried herself with all the hauteur of an empress.
"Help me," said Togura, shambling through the mud toward her.
She took a tiny oddment from about her person and pointed it at him. The air sizzled. His limbs discoordinated and dropped him down in the filth. Slowly, cautiously, he raised his head, blinked, and peered at the woman. She asked him a question in a very foreign language.
"I don't understand," said Togura, in a voice made of dry straw, sand, wood shavings and iron filings.
The woman looked around, taking stock of the situation. She wrinkled her nose with distaste at the shambles around her. She had nothing but contempt for everything she saw. Picking up her skirts, she began to pick her way toward the nearest exit.
"Wait!" screeched Togura, wallowing through the filth on knees and elbows. "You have to help us. Don't go!"
The woman turned, sneered, aimed her weapon again and fired, this time giving him a blast which knocked him unconscious for a day and a night. Then she turned on her heel and left, and was never seen again in Keep.