Into the Wind
by Marie Brennan
The tenements presented a blank face to the border: an unbroken expanse of wall, windowless, gapless, resolutely blind to the place that used to be Oneua. Only at the edges of the tenements could one pass through, entering the quiet and sunlit strip of weeds that separated the buildings from the world their inhabitants had once called home.
Eyo stood in the weeds, an arm’s length from the border. The howling sands formed a wall in front of her, close enough to touch. They clouded the light of Oneua’s suns, until she could barely make out the nearest structure, the smooth lines of its walls eroded and broken by the incessant rasp of the sands. And yet where she stood, with her feet on the soil of Gevsilon, the air was quiet and still and damp. The line between the two was as sharp as if it had been sliced with a razor.
“I wouldn’t recommend it, kid.”
The voice was a stranger’s, speaking the local trade pidgin. Eyo knew he was addressing her, but kept her gaze fixed on the boundary before her, and the maelstrom of sand beyond. She didn’t care what some stranger thought.
People came here sometimes. Not the Oneui — not usually — but their neighbors in Gevsilon, or other residents of Driftwood looking for that rare thing, a quiet place to sit and be alone. The winds looked like their shrieking should drown out even thought, but their sound didn’t cross the border, any more than the sand did. As long as you didn’t look at the sandstorm, this place was peaceful.
But apparently the stranger didn’t want to be quiet and alone. In her peripheral vision she saw movement, someone coming to stand at her side, not too close. Someone as tall as an Oneui adult, and that was unusual in Driftwood.
“You wouldn’t be the first of your people to try,” he said. “You’re one of the Oneui, right? You must have heard the stories.”
Oh, she had. It started as a dry, stinging wind, after their world parched to dust. Then it built into a sandstorm, one that raged for days without pause, just as their prophecies had foretold. Eyo’s grandparents and the others of their town had refused to believe it was the end of the world; in their desperation, they gathered up their water and food and tied themselves together to prevent anyone from getting lost, and they went in search of a place safe from the sand.
They stumbled into Gevsilon. And that was how they found out their world had ended.
But not entirely. This remnant of it survived, caught up in the cluster of fragmented realities known as Driftwood: the place worlds went to die. Gevsilon, their inward neighbor, had gone through an apocalypse of its own: a plague that rendered all their people sterile. There weren’t many of the Nigevi left anymore, which meant there was enough room for the Oneui to resettle. Just a stone’s throw from the remnants of their own world, and everything they’d left behind.
Of course some of them tried to go back. The first few returned coughing and blind, defeated by the ever-worsening storm. The next few stumbled out bloody, their clothing shredded and their flesh torn raw.
The last few didn’t return at all.
“Why do you lot keep trying?” the stranger asked. “You know by now that it won’t end well. Is this just how your people have taken to committing suicide?”
Some worlds did that, Eyo knew. Their people couldn’t handle the realization that it was over, that Driftwood was their present and their future, until the last scraps of their world shrank and faded away. They killed themselves singly or en masse, making a ritual of it, a show of obedience to or protest against the implacable forces that sent them here.
She meant to go on ignoring the stranger. It wasn’t any of his business why she was here, staring at the lethal swirls of the sandstorm. But when she turned to go, she saw him properly: a tall man, slender and strong, his hair and eyes and fingernails pure black, but his skin tinged lightly with blue.
In Driftwood, people came in all sizes and colors and number of limbs and presence or lack of horns and tails. Eyo didn’t claim to know them all. But she’d heard of only one person fitting this man’s description.
“You’re Last,” she said. Sudden excitement made her tense.
His eyes tightened in apprehension, and he retreated a careful step. “I am.”
“You can help me,” Eyo said.
He retreated again, glancing over his shoulder, toward the faceless wall of the Oneui tenements, and the nearest opening past them. “I don’t think so, kid. Sorry. I —”
She stepped forward, matching him. She didn’t have her full growth yet, but she was quick and good at running; she would chase him if he fled. “You’re a guide, aren’t you? Someone who knows things, knows where to find things.”
He stopped. “I — yes. I am.”
One of the best in Driftwood, or so people said. He knew the patchwork of realities that made up this area, because he’d been around for longer than any of them. The stories claimed he was called Last because he was the last of his own world — a world that had been gone longer than anyone could remember.
Clarity dawned. “Oh. You thought I was going to ask you to go into the sandstorm?”
He gave the howling storm a sideways glance. “You wouldn’t be the first.”
Because the stories also said he couldn’t die. Eyo scowled. “Someone asked you? Who? Tell me their name. I don’t care what the storm is like; the idea of sending an outsider in there, asking them to bring back the —”
She cut herself off, but not before Last’s eyebrows rose. “Bring back? You lost something in the storm?”
“It isn’t lost,” Eyo snapped. “We know exactly where it is.”
Now she saw clarity dawn for him. “That’s why your people keep going in,” he said thoughtfully, gaze drifting sideways again. “Look, whatever it is — it may not even be there anymore. This is Driftwood; things crumble and fade away, even without apocalyptic sandstorms to scour them into dust.”
Conviction stiffened Eyo’s crest, her scalp feathers rising in a proud line. “Not this. Everything else will fall apart and die, but not —” She swallowed and shook her head. “When we are gone, this will remain.”
His shrug said he didn’t agree, but he also didn’t care enough to argue anymore. “So if you don’t want to send me into that, what do you want me for?”
Eyo smoothed her crest with one hand, as flat to her skull as she could make it. If he knew her people, he would recognize that as a gesture of humility and supplication. “I want you to help me find a way to survive the sand.”
“I told you it wouldn’t work!”
In his fury, Last kicked the wall, which earned him a swift glare from Uaru. Eyo’s grandaime had helped build this tenement with their own hands after the Oneua fled the sands. If Last broke something, they would take it out of his hide.
He gestured in apology, and Uaru went back to bandaging Eyo’s fingers, their touches as gentle as possible. Eyo bit her lips until she was sure she could speak without hissing in pain. “You said it probably wouldn’t work. I had to make sure.”
“By sticking your hand across the border and letting it get torn apart? Use some common sense, In-Eyo! Get yourself a hunk of meat, wrap that up in the slidecloth, and see how it fares before you risk your own flesh!”
She hadn’t thought of that. Her hand throbbed under Uaru’s ministrations, as if in reproach. By the Oneui’s best guess at keeping their old calendar, Eyo was an adult now; she’d gone through her rite of passage two triple cycles of Gevsilon’s moons ago, with Uaru and Eyo’s other hanaime kin drumming and singing the traditional songs. But Last still called her In-Eyo, as if she were a child, and it was hard to tell him to stop when she’d just done something that proved him right.
“I’ll be more careful next time,” she said.
Last scowled. “If you had any sense of self-preservation, there wouldn’t be a next time. In-Eyo — Sa-Uaru — won’t one of you tell me what’s in there? What are you so desperate to retrieve?”
Uaru pressed their lips together and shook their head. They’d been furious when they found out the person who asked Last to go into the storm was another hanaime, Aune. But even Aune hadn’t told Last what they were looking for — not after he refused to go.
Eyo’s hand was fully bandaged. She cradled it gently after Uaru released her and began putting away their supplies. “It’s something important, Sa-Last. Something we need. Our people never would have left it there if they’d realized . . .”
Her throat closed, ending the sentence. If they’d realized they could never go back.
She’d grown up on stories of all the things her grandparents had left behind, everything from shell cameos of ancestors she’d never met to her grandfather’s favorite chair. The things they brought with them had the aura of holy relics — even the mundane ones, like the battered tin cup out of which Eyo’s grandaime drank their salt tea every morning. But one absence loomed larger than all the rest, not because people spoke of it so often, but because they didn’t.
Last turned away and braced his palms against the wall, head down. Eyo’s hand throbbed again as he watched him. Finally, breathing out a long sigh, he said, “I’ll keep looking. Slidecloth obviously isn’t enough to protect you. And you would have been walking blind anyway, with that over your eyes. You need something better.”
“Thank you,” Eyo said.
He straightened up, his air of determination returning. “Thank me by being less reckless with the next possibility.”
But the next possibility, when it came, couldn’t be tested with a piece of meat.
Last handed over the package with something less than confidence. “You know, normally when a Sut-kef-chid is trying to sell you something, they praise its qualities to the skies. When she heard what I wanted this for, though, she got a lot less enthusiastic.”
Eyo unwrapped the cloth, revealing a small ceramic flute. “This should calm the winds?”
“It does calm winds. And it works outside of Sut-ke; I tested it. But whether it’s strong enough to overcome the sandstorm . . . the only way to find that out is to test it.”
Which meant playing the flute. While standing in the storm.
Last’s hand twitched. He clearly regretted giving her the flute. Eyo said, “I’m not as foolish as I used to be. Can you get me more slidecloth?”
It wouldn’t protect her against the winds for long; she’d proved that three lunar years ago. But it could buy her some time. “I’ll see what I can do,” Last said.
Wrapped in slidecloth, with a rope harness tied around her body and the flute in her hand, Eyo faced the sandstorm again. Someone had built a bridge over what remained of the Eckuoz Sea at the beginning of the last solar year, widdershins of Oneua and Gevsilon; it turned the weed-filled gap between the windowless backs of the Oneui tenements and the sandstorm into a thoroughfare for people in that part of Driftwood. Garbed and harnessed as she was, Eyo garnered a lot of odd stares from passers-by. Last held the other end of the rope, ready to pull.
“Give me a hundred heartbeats,” she said.
Last snorted. “What am I, a fishmonger with a day-old catch? No bargaining. I’ll give you thirty, and I’ll pull you out sooner if I see the slidecloth start to shred. You’re already going to get your face flayed.” Unhappiness weighed down his words.
There was no arguing with him. Short of taking the rope harness off entirely, she couldn’t prevent him from yanking her back. Eyo’s younger self might have done it in a fit of bravado, but she was smart enough now to accept the precaution. “All right.”
She pulled the slidecloth mask down over her face, leaving only her mouth clear. Somehow, not being able to see the storm made it far more frightening. Her pulse pounded, counting off the beats faster than usual. Eyo’s breath shallowed, and when she brought the flute to her lips, it took her three tries to produce a sound, even though she’d practiced for this day.
Gevsilon never had much of a breeze, as if the forces that brought Driftwood together needed some cosmic counterbalance for the maelstrom of Oneua. What movement there was died as Eyo began to play, the air settling around her like a warm, damp blanket.
She wasn’t ready. But she made herself step forward anyway.
The list of things that didn’t work grew longer as the years went by.
Slidecloth didn’t last long enough. The flute might have worked, but the winds tore away Eyo’s breath before she could produce a note, and when she tried going back with a slidecloth-covered barrel over her head as shelter, the flute only affected the air inside the barrel. Then Uaru had to pick splinters out of her cheek after the barrel shattered. A potion whose seller swore it would make her invulnerable turned out to be nothing more than flavored wine. Someone else legitimately had the ability to turn Eyo insubstantial, but that would have made it impossible for her to do anything else — like carry an object. Burrowing underground kept her safe from the storm; unfortunately, she could spend the rest of her life digging tunnels and never find what she was looking for, not without some way to orient herself. Flying could lift her above the winds, but that didn’t change the fact that she would have to descend into them eventually. Remembering her grandparents’ stories of how the world dried out before the storm began, Eyo even looked into the possibility of channeling the remnants of the Eckuoz Sea across the border into Oneua, on the principle that it might lay the dust. But a broken dam in Ishlt left the aquatic Leshir in desperate search of a new home, and they took up residence in the waters of Eckuoz before Eyo could put that particular crack-brained idea to the test.
Last showed up intermittently, whenever he found some new prospect for Eyo to consider. Sometimes his absence stretched out to a solar year or more. But she never had any doubt that she would see him again; the possibility of him losing interest was as inconceivable as his death.
He never offered to go into the storm for her. And she never asked.
She worked as a trader, primarily among the Brenak’i, where her scarred face and hand earned her respect. When Eyo was young, the prospect of being a hero to her people had consumed all her thoughts; as the years passed, it slipped further and further into the back of her mind, pushed aside by duties and opportunities more immediate.
But it never went away. And when her daughter was born, it came roaring back to life, as if it had never faded at all.
Ila wasn’t her first. Eyo had an older child-pair, a boy and a hanaime, sired by an Oneui lover. But even if her second birth hadn’t been single — a rarity among her people — the girl’s appearance would have told everyone her father was an outsider, her eyes too small, her face too round, her skin more Brenak’i gold than Oneui red. She had scalp feathers, but none along the backs of her arms.
“It happens with almost everyone, sooner or later,” Last said one night. All three of Gevsilon’s moons were in the sky, making what the Nigevi had called “false day;” people went about their business in the half-light, but the strip of packed dirt between the tenements and the border was much less busy than usual. “Some peoples manage to keep themselves completely separate until they’re gone, and a few seem to be fertile only with their own kind, but most wind up mixing with other races in Driftwood.”
About half the inhabitants of Gevsilon these days were Drifters, the descendants of such cross-world encounters. Products of a hundred worlds, they had no world but Driftwood itself. “It all goes away in the end,” Eyo said, her voice thick. “Ila’s great-grandchildren will be Drifters. They’ll know nothing of Oneua.” Then she pounded her fist against the ground. “I say that as if I know anything about it. All I know are my grandparents’ stories! I was born after they fled here. We try to live as they did before, but it isn’t the same. We eat the food of the Brenak’i, wear fabric the Thiwd make from worms. Without our suns we can’t count time correctly, so all our rituals are guesses. If we had —”
She swallowed the words before they could come out. Last nodded. “If you had whatever it is you left behind.”
He’d given up on asking her what it was. But he hadn’t given up on finding her a way.
Eyo let her head sag. “I know it won’t fix anything. Everything in Driftwood fades eventually; the Oneui will be no different. Generations from now, that storm will be gone, and some other dying world will have taken our place. But what happens before then — that still matters. At least to me.”
Last stroked her crest. There was no one else she allowed to make such an intimate gesture anymore, now that Uaru had passed away. Last wasn’t kin — she didn’t even know what world he’d come from — but somewhere during these years of effort, he had become family.
“I’ll keep searching,” he said. “For you.”
Driftwood took, and took, and took — but it also gave.
Ila was growing like a weed and Eyo’s eldest pair had passed their rites of adulthood when Last appeared with news from the Edge, the rim of Driftwood where new world fragments appeared. “You have something,” Eyo said, hope flaring in her heart.
He’d had something before, countless times. But usually he looked optimistic, or maybe skeptical. This time he looked grim. And that, against all logic, gave her hope.
“I do,” Last said, the words dragging with reluctance. “But it — hellfire. Eyo, it’s something they do to their criminals.”
In Driftwood, customs of punishment varied as much as anything else. For all Eyo knew, criminals in this newly-arrived world were made to wear outlandish costumes, or eat foul-smelling herbs. “I don’t care. Whatever it is, I’ll —”
Last put up his hand before she could finish her sentence. “Don’t. I almost didn’t even come tell you, except . . . I can’t do that to you. Can’t lie. I’ve always brought you everything, and so I have to bring this. But it’s permanent, Eyo. Assuming it even works here, you won’t be able to come back from it. And I can’t swear that it will help you. I don’t know what it is you need to retrieve from Oneua, but you might do this to yourself and then find you aren’t able to bring that thing out like you want.”
“Sa-Last.” The formal address brought him up short. Eyo laid her hands over his and said, “Tell me.”
He’d lived for a long time. More lifetimes than anyone could count, him included, Eyo thought. Somewhere in all those ages, he’d learned how to spit out bad news without choking on it.
“They turn their criminals into wind.”
Her fingers went slack.
Like the never-ending storm in Oneua.
“Self-aware wind,” Last said. “You’ll still be yourself. You’ll know where you are, and be able to move as you wish. And if what you’re looking for is small enough, you might be able to pick it up and blow it to the border. But you’ll be like that forever, Eyo — until Oneua is gone.”
Her heart seemed to have gone silent in her chest. If what you’re looking for is small enough. It was — oh, it was.
Which meant that if this worked — if these newcomers to Driftwood could change her into wind — if she could find her way into the sanctuary — if she could control herself well enough —
Then she would die. Her mind would linger, but as far as her people were concerned, she would be gone. Lost forever in the storm that had consumed Oneua, until Driftwood finally ground the last of it out of existence.
Eyo said, “Ila is still a child.”
Someone else might have thought she was preparing to refuse. But Last knew the Oneui: once Ila passed her rites, Eyo’s obligations to her half Brenak’i daughter would be done.
And he knew Eyo.
If the air of Gevsilon hadn’t been so still, so quiet, she wouldn’t have heard his words. “How long?”
“Two lunar years,” Eyo said.
Last nodded. “I’ll be ready when the time comes. But if you change your mind —”
They both knew she wouldn’t.
No one had come to watch her previous attempts. People who thought they could go back into Oneua were eccentrics at best, lunatics at worst; the polite thing to do was to turn a blind eye.
But when the day came that Eyo faced the border for the final time, the tenements emptied, and the well-trammeled thoroughfare from the dwindling Eckuoz Lake was filled with the silent, watching ranks of Oneui.
Last stood a pace from the border with their visitor, a magistrate from the distant world called Tzuh. If this one was any example, the Tz were a short, stocky people, the least airy beings Eyo could imagine. Last referred to the magistrate as “they,” so Eyo thought of them as hanaime, though in truth they had no more gender than a rock. She hadn’t spoken much to them. Right now, all her thoughts were bent on her own people.
The eldest hanaime among them performed the rites: a funeral for one who would soon be dead. Stripped bare, her skin covered in an intricate lace of white paint, Eyo turned to face the border — and was caught halfway through her turn by Ila, flinging her arms around her mother’s waist in defiance of all custom.
“I love you,” Ila whispered into her shoulder, fierce through the tears. “And I will remember. Every bit of it. I’ll teach my children about Oneua, and they will teach theirs, from now until the end of Driftwood.”
Eyo laid her cheek atop her daughter’s head. The promise was as impossible as it was heartfelt. This was the truth of Driftwood: that in the end, everything went away and was forgotten, no matter how hard people tried to cling to the scraps.
But the effort still meant something.
“Wait for me at the border,” Eyo said back, stroking her daughter’s crest. “I will bring it to you — I swear.”
Then she pried Ila away, gently, and approached Last and the Tz magistrate.
Last met her gaze. He understood, she thought. He of all people would.
He murmured a phrase in a language she didn’t recognize. His own native tongue? It had the sound of a blessing. Then he stepped back and it was just the magistrate, who set their feet against the ground and began a series of clicking noises that seemed to slip between the pieces that made up Eyo, separating them, slicing the bonds between them until they all came apart —
An instant before she became entirely insubstantial, Last placed his hands against her back and shoved.
The storm was never-ending insanity.
Particles of sand tore through Eyo, robbed of their power to harm her. But she cartwheeled through the air without any sense of up or down, left or right; there was only forward, borne along on the ever-changing currents. Backward did not exist at all. In the face of such fury, even the thought was impossible.
She could not fight the wind, any more than she had been able to withstand it before. In order to survive, she had to join with it. And in order to win passage through, she had to ride the torrent.
Forward, forward, always forward, swirling and veering and tearing across a landscape she knew only from her grandparents’ stories. Everything was worn down by the constant friction of the sand, rounding into smooth shapes she could barely identify. Then it would all vanish, as she arced upward and away and lost track of where she was.
But gradually she learned.
And even more gradually, she began to work her way toward her goal.
It was slow progress. Sometimes she wound up further away than before, her own strength nothing against the power of the storm. But Eyo had learned patience, in her years of trying to enter Oneua. She simply rode the winds away, then came back for another pass. She found spaces between the crumbling buildings where the fury was quieter. She mapped out the vortices where everything became chaos, and found there was pattern within it after all.
And then, one night when both of Oneua’s suns had set, she slipped inside the hollow wreck of a building whose sand-scoured walls still bore the unmistakable tint of green jade.
The winds had broken open doors, windows, roofs. But not floors, not yet — and in here, where only a portion of the storm could reign, Eyo’s hard-won skill bore fruit. In a single instinctive movement she was across the entry chamber, into the inner room, at the entrance to a spiral staircase winding downward. The storm itself aided her now, dragging her down that spiral, but she almost missed the opening at the bottom, flinging her insubstantial form through it by the narrowest of margins.
Here the air was almost still. The place was as dark as Last’s hair; no flame had illuminated it since the Oneui fled. But a wind did not need eyes to see. Eyo spread herself out, floating along at a pace of her own choosing, farther and farther from the reach of the storm. Soon hers was the only movement, drifting past a double rank of statues whose lines were as crisp and unworn as the day they were first carved. They seemed to watch her go by, and Eyo offered up a silent prayer to them, that she would not have done all this in vain.
She had not.
It sat in a shallow bowl of gold, untouched by the distant wind. A single feather: the most holy relic of her people, taken from the crest of Ona, foremother of their race. Too precious and fragile to risk in the storm, the feather had remained behind when the Oneui fled, because they didn’t realize they would never be able to return for it.
Eyo could move a feather.
But could she keep it safe from the storm?
She gathered it up with the lightest touch, wafting it on a breath of air to the center of herself. She would have only one opportunity: once she re-entered the tempest, there would be no chance to retreat and try again. If she lost control of the feather, or let the sand rip through her and her precious burden . . .
Waiting would not make her any more ready. Eyo wrapped herself around the feather, prayed, and launched herself back into the wind.
A balcony lined the back wall of the Oneui settlement in Gevsilon, facing the border.
It had changed a great deal from the early years. Children now played there in their idle moments, and laundry often hung from its railing. Still, the place had a touch of the sacred to it, and from time to time anyone who came out there would pause in their work or play and gaze at the border with Oneua, the unabated fury of the storm just a short distance away. Moss and flowers grew in the space between, since the thoroughfare had been blocked up.
Ila sat in her accustomed spot just a pace away from that silent, sand-torn barrier. Waiting.
A bell rang, near the center of Gevsilon. She’d grown accustomed to the sound since the Wilsl moved in, taking the place of the now-extinct Nigevi. Soon one of the children would bring her food, and brush her hair, and talk with her for a little while before leaving her to her vigil.
She never troubled herself to wonder what would happen after she was gone. Her mother had promised to bring the feather to her. Ila’s faith was absolute.
Something swirled by in the sand and was gone.
Ila rose, so quickly her aging bones protested. Had she imagined it . . . ?
Then it came again. Without hesitation, she plunged her hand through the intangible barrier, from one world into the next, and took hold of what she’d seen.
She expected to feel sand tear the skin from her hand, the flesh from her bones. Instead she felt a brief, soft caress — and then, before the storm could take her, Ila pulled her hand back.
Slowly, not daring to breathe, she uncurled her fingers. Ona’s crest feather balanced in her palm, irridescent and gold.
Tears slipped down Ila’s cheeks. “Thank you,” she whispered to the storm, then turned to face the Oneui who had come to a halt on the balcony, raising the feather high above her head.
Eyo had kept her promise.
About the Author
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. Her collaborative novel Born to the Blade, written with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, was recently published by Serial Box. For more information, visit www.swantower.com or her worldbuilding Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/swan_tower.
About the Narrator
Karen Bovenmyer is the Assistant Editor of Psudopod. She is an academic, writer, and teacher at Iowa State University and Western Technical College.